Was the Apostle Bartholomew even Martyred?

 

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There is a well known apologetic that is given as evidence regarding the resurrection of Christ. Preachers, teachers, theologians and laypeople point to the deaths of the Apostles as circumstantial evidence concerning that event. They say things like “People will die for a cause if they believe it to be true, but they won’t die for a lie. The 12 Apostles suffered horrendous deaths as martyrs for the cause- now why would they endure such profound suffering if they believed it a lie?

It seems to be a given that almost all the Apostles were martyred and that their gruesome, grotesque end is known. They say things like “Church tradition has it that……” or ” Church history tells us that….” and that seems to be the end of it, as if such matters are settled and secure. They have an assumed confidence in the historicity of these accounts, supposing we have sufficient certainty to know what actually happened, and in turn recount this to others  without impunity.

There are several problems with this though, the least of which is that even a cursory examination of the accounts of the deaths of the apostles show gaps, contradictions, conflicting testimony, unreliable witnesses, suspect testimonies and incredible uncertainty. The whole thing really is a complete mess, and it seems that if someone told me “Church tradition has it that they all died a martyr’s death” and I would ask them “What traditions? What church fathers” No one would even have a clue. Its a good line, but it harder to back up once you go deeper than surface-level sound clips.

To offer an example, the one I want to focus on is the supposed martyrdom of Bartholomew the Apostle. Finding primary sources for the Martyrdom of Bartholomew has been  a nightmare. What we typically see is “Some local traditions have him going to India. Other traditions record him as serving as a missionary in Ethiopia.  Mesopotamia, Parthia, and Lycaonia”. In the NewAdvent entry on Bartholomew by John Fenlon, we read without sources or citations “Other traditions represent St. Bartholomew as preaching in Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Armenia, Lycaonia, Phrygia, and on the shores of the Black Sea. One legend, it is interesting to note, identifies him with Nathanael. The manner of his death, said to have occurred at Albanopolis in Armenia, is equally uncertain; according to some, he was beheaded, according to others, flayed alive and crucified, head downward, by order of Astyages, for having converted his brother, Polymius, King of Armenia.” I find that incredibly unhelpful and have not been able to track down most of those so-called traditions. To that end after some careful research I’ve managed to dig up the most relevant and recent sources for the evidence of the Martyrdom of just one of the Apostles.

1. The Biblical Evidence. There is no biblical extant evidence of the fate of Bartholomew. The Scriptures are wholly silent on the matter.

2. Hippolytus of Rome [170-235] . Though in his own day he was considered to be a prolific writer, the details of his life and his writings were quickly forgotten and little is known about him.  He wrote that “Bartholomew, again, preached to the Indians, to whom he also gave the Gospel according to Matthew, and was crucified with his head downward, and was buried in Allanum, a town of the great Armenia. [Hippolytus. "On the Twelve Apostles of Christ." Ante-Nicean Fathers, Vol. 5.] Hippolytus does not give us sources for this account, and likewise his authorship of said source is highly disputed. That is to say- we don’t even know if he actually wrote it. But if he did, it is also interesting to note that Hippolytus reports natural deaths for four of the twelve disciples [John, Matthew, Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot, which would contradict Eusebius and others regarding other apostolic deaths.

3. Eusebius of Caesarea, [AD 263 – 339] Recounts only that Bartholomew went off to India.  ” Pantænus was one of these, and is said to have gone to India. It is reported that among persons there who knew of Christ, He found the Gospel, according to Matthew, which had anticipated his own arrival. For Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them, and left with them the writing of Matthew in the Hebrew language, which they had preserved till that time.” [Eusebius.  Church History. Book V. Chapter 10.]

4. Jerome. [ 347 – 420] In his commentary on Matthew he mentions a number of no-longer-extant apocryphal gospels, including a document entitled The Gospel of Bartholomew [Sometimes called the Questions of Bartholomew]  This document is strongly Nestorian [The Nestorian heresy taught that Jesus existed simultaneously as two distinct entities: the human Jesus, mortal and finite; and the divine Logos or "Word of God," which had existed with God the Father throughout all time] and was condemned as heretical by the Gelasian decree.  The Questions of Bartholomew describes several conversations between Jesus and the Apostles, after the Crucifixion, Christ’s Harrowing of Hell, and the Resurrection. Jesus explicitly grants Bartholomew power and authority over the denizens of Hell, which gives him the ability to question Satan about his battle with Heaven. Written possibly as early as the 6th century, it does not cast light on his death

5. There is a non-Biblical document called the “Martyrdom of Bartholomew” written as early as the 5th century, which claims that Bartholomew was martyred by King Astyages in Armenia:   “Then the King rent the purple in which he was clothed, and ordered the holy apostle Bartholomew to be beaten with rods; and after having been thus scourged, to be beheaded.” Interestingly enough, in this book the demons are speaking amongst themselves about how to recognize him, and they are given this description “And the demon answered and said: He has black hair, a shaggy head, a fair skin, large eyes, beautiful nostrils, his ears hidden by the hair of his head, with a yellow beard, a few grey hairs, of middle height, and neither tall nor stunted, but middling…His voice is like the sonnet of a strong trumpet; there go along with him angels of God, who allow him neither to be weary, nor to hunger, nor to thirst; his face, and his soul, and his heart are always glad and rejoicing; he foresees everything, he knows and speaks every tongue of every nation.”

6. Moses of Chorena, a writer who lived either in the late 5th century or sometime in the 7th century, wrote “There came then into Armenia the Apostle Bartholomew, who suffered martyrdom among us in the town of Arepan. As to Simon, who was sent unto Persia I cannot relate with certainty what he did, nor where he suffered martyrdom. It is said that one Simon, an apostle, was martyred at Veriospore. Is this true or why did the saint come to this place? I do not know I have only mentioned this circumstance that you may know I spare no pains to tell you all that is necessary.” [ History of Armenia .  Section IX]

7. The Acts of Phillip. A bizarre, mystical, Gnostic apocryphal late 4th century book. In a later addition to it we read “And the Saviour said: O Philip, since you have forsaken this commandment of mine, not to render evil for evil,  for this reason you shall be debarred in the next world for forty years from being in the place of my promise: besides, this is the end of your departure from the body in this place; and Bartholomew has his lot in Lycaonia, and shall be crucified there; and Mariamne shall lay down her body in the river Jordan. [Addition to the Acts of Phillip. Paragraph 52]

8. Allegedly there is an old Roman Breviary which states “In Great Armenia Bartholomew led the king, Poplymius, and his wife, in addition to twelve cities, to the Christian belief. These conversions very much enkindled the jealousy of the clergy there. The priests succeeded in stirring up the brother of King Polymius, Astyages, to such an anger that he gave the gruesome order to have Bartholomew skinned alive and then beheaded. In this martyrdom he gave his soul back to God.” I have not been able to locate any source for  it.

So here’s where we are; concerning the apostolic work of St. Bartholomew we have only unreliable and contradictory statements. The earliest accounts have been lost. The first that have been preserved originated between 450 and 550 in the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire with traces of Nestoriansim. His manner of deaths range from being beaten, beheaded, flayed, crucified, and a host of others ends. He is said to have died in dozens of different places and countries, and most of the information that supposedly sheds light on his death was written hundreds of years after his actual death, in unreliable, unbelievable, fantastical sources. I would suggest that during the first several centuries after Christ, stories about Him, the apostles, and their lives — not to mention writings on the meaning of Christ’s life, the duties of a Christian, and predictions about the end of the world — exploded into existence and the adventures of Bartholomew consists entirely of that- stories, traditions, myths and legends.

To that end, the title of this post is a bit misleading but it makes its point well. While we have stronger and more solid evidence for the martyrdom of other Apostles, the point I want to make stands; we don’t even know that Bartholomew was martyred. We don’t know how, why or where or even IF. We don’t with any certainty know a single detail about his death, other than that he indeed did die. Appeals to Church history and Church tradition are useless and confusing, and so because we want to speak the truth, we need to be precise. I think it’s fair to say something like “While we have a mess to sort our regarding which apostles died where how and why, its reasonable to conclude that many of them if not most of them probably were martyred for their faith” It doesn’t have the impact that “They were all martyred for their faith and suffered this specific gruesome fate..”, but the purpose is not maximum impact, but maximum truth so that God may be glorified.

The Myth of the Burning Garbage Dump of Gehenna

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I’ve listened to many sermons and conference talks over the years which have included in them a curious factoid, namely that Gehenna was not only a reference to the Valley of Hinnon, but that it was also a perpetually burning trash dump. The idea is that the Valley of Hinnon laid just south of Jerusalem, immediately outside its walls, and that all the refuse and waste from Jerusalem was burned there. Some people use this historical tidbit to make a point either to paint a picture how foul, vivid and terrible hell would be, or alternately to suggest that there is no eternal hell, and the references Jesus makes to the fires of hell and torment was simply a reference to this burning trash pile. There is a emergent/universalist writer named Sharon Baker who has a book called Razing Hell. She offers the following highly imaginative description of this burning refuse heap, which serves as a nice, detailed amalgamation of all the descriptions I’ve heard of it over the years.

“Well before the time of Jesus, the valley was also used as a refuse heap. The people in the surrounding areas dumped their trash in Gehenna, where it burned day and night. The fire never went out. It smoldered there beneath the surface, incinerating the rotting, smelly garbage. New garbage was piled on top of the old decaying garbage: rotting fish, slimy vegetation, decaying human refuse of every imaginable sort. And as you know from experience, a dump without flies is a dump without garbage. The flies laid eggs on the surface of the dump. So just imagine the hundreds of thousands of squirmy, wormy maggots living there, eating the rotting refuse. All the while, under the surface, the fire still burned, devouring the putrid garbage days and weeks past.

 

It was a fire that burned forever, where the worm did not die and where people went to throw their trash, grimacing from the stench, gritting their teeth in revulsion, never venturing too close for fear of falling into the abhorrent abyss. In times of war, decaying human flesh mingled with the rotting garbage—imagine the vile vision. When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, his hearers would think of the valley of rotting, worm-infested garbage, where the fire always burned, smoke always lingered, and if the wind blew just right, a smell that sickened the sense wafted in the air.” (pp. 129-30)

There’s only one problem. There is no biblical support for this, neither is there any literary sources or archaeological data from the intertestamental or rabbinic periods to suggest this. Put simply, there is no evidence that the valley was, in fact, a perpetually burning garbage dump. In fact, near as anyone can tell, the earliest mention we have of this theory comes a Rabbi named David Kimhi who wrote a commentary on Psalm 27 in the 13th Century. He remarked

“Gehenna is a repugnant place, into which filth and cadavers are thrown, and in which fires perpetually burn in order to consume the filth and bones; on which account, by analogy, the judgement of the wicked is called ‘Gehenna.’

That’s it. That’s the earliest reference we have to it- a Rabbi writing in the middle ages from Europe, not Israel, some 1100 years after Jesus was born. He does not tell us where he got that information from and that is all we hear of it. There’s nothing before that. There is no mention in the tons upon tons of writings we have from Church Fathers, Christian and Jewish writers, or even secular writers for that matter. Its a blank slate until this commentary pops up. And as far as Rabbi Kimhi goes, note that even he stated the alleged dump of Gehenna became an analogy for the judgment of the wicked, which demonstrates that even the first writer to make this connection saw it to be an analogy for the place that the wicked will be judged.

Todd Bolen, from his bibleplaces blog, rounds up some scholarly sources. He quotes:

Edward Robinson, preeminent explorer of the Holy Land beginning in 1838. He wrote: “In these gardens, lying partly within the mouth of Hinnom and partly in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, and irrigated by the waters of Siloam, Jerome assigns the place of Tophet; where the Jews practised the horrid rites of Baal and Moloch, and ‘burned their sons and their daughters in the fire.’ It was probably in allusion to this detested and abominable fire, that the later Jews applied the name of this valley (Gehenna), to denote the place of future punishment or the fires of hell. At least there is no evidence of any other fires having been kept up in the valley; as has sometimes been supposed” (Biblical Researches, vol. 1 [1841], 404-5).

 

James A. Montgomery observes this medieval commentator’s logic, but does not accept it. “With the common sense which often characterizes Jewish commentators, Kimhi says that the place was the dump of the city, where fires were always kept burning to destroy the refuse; ‘therefore the judgment of the wicked is parabolically called Gehenna.’ But from the Biblical references the place appears to have nothing physically objectionable about it; in contrast to its contemporary condition Jeremiah prophesied that it would one day be called ‘Valley of Slaughter’” (“The Holy City and Gehenna,” JBL 27/1 [1908], 34).

 

About the same time, G. R. Beasley-Murray made a similar observation: “The notion, still referred to by some commentators, that the city’s rubbish was burned in this valley, has no further basis than a statement by the Jewish scholar Kimhi made about A.D. 1200; it is not attested in any ancient source. The valley was the scene of human sacrifices, burned in the worship of Moloch (2 Kings 16:3 and 21:6), which accounts for the prophecy of Jeremiah that it would be called the Valley of Slaughter under judgment of God (Jer. 7:32-33). This combination of abominable fires and divine judgment led to the association of the valley with a place of perpetual judgment (see Isa. 66:24) and later with a place of judgment by fire without any special connection to Jerusalem (see, for example, 1 Enoch 27:1ff., 54:1ff., 63:3-4, and 90:26ff)” (Jesus and the Kingdom of God, 376-77).

 

W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, in their excellent commentary on Matthew, note the lack of ancient evidence but do not entirely reject the notion of a garbage dump. “Why the place of torment came to have this name, the name of the valley south of Jerusalem, gê-hinnōm (Josh 18.16 LXX: Γαιεννα), now Wādier-rabābi, is uncertain. The standard view, namely, that the valley was where the city’s garbage was incinerated and that the constantly rising smoke and smell of corruption conjured up the fiery torments of the damned, is without ancient support, although it could be correct. Perhaps the abode of the wicked dead gained its name because children had there been sacrificed in fire to the god Molech (2 Chr 28.3; 33.6), or because Jeremiah, recalling its defilement by Josiah (2 Kgs 23.10; cr. 21.6), thundered against the place (Jer 7.31-2; 19.2-9; 32.35), or because it was believed that in the valley was the entrance to the underworld home of the pagan chthonian deities (cf. b. ‘Erub. 19a) (Matthew 1-7, 514-15).

I would consider this myth, much like the myth of the shepherd breaking the sheeps legsthe myth of the camel and and the eye of the needle gate, and the myth of the rope around the high priest’s ankle, to be thoroughly debunked.

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The Myth of the Widows Mite

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The Myth of the Widow’s Mite

[Repost from a few years ago. Edited for clarity and brevity. Also note that much of this was cribbed directly from John MacArthur sermons, at points verbatim. I don't give him credit in the article itself, but I am here. I took his sermon and dissected it and took some stuff out and added other stuff in and then posted my end result here. If something sounds awesome, assume it's him. If it sounds awful, assume it's me]

I’ve read endless commentaries on this story and have heard many pastors preach on it. Usually it has to do with some form of the merits of sacrificial giving, and I can’t get behind that at all. That understanding doesn’t make sense to me, even though that seems to be the universal application for this text. This story is seemingly always used to tell us that we ought to give the way this widow gave, or some variation thereof, and I cannot see any basis in the text for reaching that conclusion. All these pastors are wrong. All the commentaries are wrong. And I’ll show you why.

“And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury.  And He saw a certain poor widow putting in two small copper coins.  And he said, ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them, for they all out of their surplus put into the offering, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.’” Luke 21:1-4.

To set the stage, this is all going down on Wednesday of Passion Week, which is the final week of Jesus’ life. On Monday He entered the city, on Tuesday He cleansed the temple, and all day Wednesday He has been teaching the multitudes in the temple area and has been confronted by the false religious leaders of Judaism. By this point his ministry had winded down and was effectively over. There are no more gospel invitations or any more clarifications to the crowds and to the leaders. All these leaders have rejected him. There is a finality to it, and all that’s left is Jesus preaching an extended message of destruction and judgment upon them, which will come to pass in 70AD. In fact, the last words of chapter 20 are clearly words of judgment, “And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, 

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Luke 20:45-47.

Luke is pretty gracious though, because Mark gives us the fuller account of the dangers of these false religious leaders, some 39 verses after this incident. He pronounced judgment on the leaders and therefore judgment on the nation for following those leaders and rejecting Him. And so what we see is that sandwiched between the condemnation of the false leaders and the pronunciation of judgment is a little story of a widow dropping two copper pennies into an offering receptacle in the temple. It is somewhat of an odd place to find such a story, and so we need to ask why it’s there and what it has to do with anything. How does something like this fit?  Why does Jesus inject this moment of reflection on a widow giving an offering in the temple into this section between a diatribe against false leaders and all the people that follow them, and a pronunciation of judgment on the temple, on the city and on the nation?

Universally commentators will tell us that Jesus  is giving us a little glimpse of true worship in the middle of the false worship that dominates the temple.  They tell us that it’s a beautiful little story in the midst of ugliness.  A little light in the midst of darkness, an illustration of giving till it hurts, contrasted with the selfishness of the spiritual leaders.

That’s not what’s happening here.  In spite of the popularity of these views, none of these explanations makes any sense. Here’s why;  Jesus never makes any of those points that peopel try to make about the widow and her offering. Jesus never said anything about what’s left behind, what percentage, what attitude, or  that we should do likewise and give everything. He does not say the rich gave relatively too little and that they had too much left over.  He doesn’t say the rich gave too low a percent.  He doesn’t say the widow gave the right amount.  He doesn’t say the rich had a bad attitude and the widow had a good attitude, or good spirit.

In fact, He doesn’t say anything about their giving except that she gave more than everybody.  He doesn’t say why or with what attitude, or whether she should have, or shouldn’t have, or they should have, or shouldn’t have.  Her outward action is all that you see.  Nothing indicates that it is more/ or less good, bad, indifferent, humble, proud, selfish, unselfish than anybody else’s act.  There is no judgment made on her act as to its true character.  There is nothing said about her attitude or her spirit.  She could be acting out of devotion.  She could be acting out of love.  She could be acting out of guilt.  She could be acting out of fear.  She could be acting out of pride. We don’t know because Jesus doesn’t say anything.  He doesn’t say anything about the rich, doesn’t say anything about the widow, doesn’t draw any conclusions, doesn’t develop any principles, doesn’t command anything, doesn’t define anything. Why? Because none of that matters.

There’s only one comment that Jesus makes, and that is that she gave with her two copper coins relatively a great deal more than all the others because all the others gave out of their surplus, which means they had some left.  She gave out of her poverty all she had to live on.  That’s all there is.  No comment that the Lord appreciated her.  No comment that the Lord loved her or commended her.  No comment that she was now in the Kingdom of God.  No invitation to the disciples to reach in to their little money bags and go up there and throw in everything they had because it was good enough for the widow, it should be good enough for the disciples of Jesus.

Who among us would argue that it’s normative for God to expect you to give 100 percent of what you have so that you have absolutely nothing left and you are utterly and completely destitute? Anyone?  Because that’s the only obvious principle here if you’re going to draw a principle.  Besides, why would you inject the principle in giving in a context like this?  This is no place to interject, “Oh by the way, a few words on giving.” What in the world does that have to do with anything?  Jesus makes no comment about giving except that she gave more than everybody else relative to what she had.  .  No one’s attitude or spirit in the giving is discussed.  And no principle regarding giving is drawn by our Lord.  The narrative is not intended to deal with any of those matters.  The reason the Lord doesn’t say anything about it is that’s not what it’s about.  And if you look at the context before and after, this is all about the condemnation of wicked spiritual leaders and a corrupt religious system that is about to be destroyed.  In fact, in verse 5, the passage immediately after this, some were talking about the temple, that it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive gifts, and He said, “As for these things which you’re looking at, the days will come in which there will be not one stone upon another which will not be torn down.”

So I think it’s pretty clear what this text is not about. This passage has nothing to do with Jesus commending a widow for giving much, and exhorting us to do likewise. That is nowhere in the text at all. That’s just made up. It doesn’t even have to do with giving at all, and I’ll make the case that this is not a obscure of difficult passage to understand. It’s not even a particularly deep or insightful observation, but rather is simple.  In the midst of his pronouncements of judgment and woe Jesus saw a widow give more than everybody else.  In other words, her involvement in religion cost her more than it cost anybody else because it cost her everything.  That’s all it is. It’s just an observation which the disciplines weren’t confused about, as they didn’t even ask any questions about it.

Another thing to think about is that it seems the assumption in interpreting this as a model for Christian giving is that Jesus was pleased with what she did. But we don’t see that anywhere. It doesn’t say that at all. It doesn’t say that Jesus was pleased with her gift. It doesn’t say Jesus was pleased with her attitude or with the heart and mind that she gave this.  It doesn’t say anything about His attitude at all, though I would make the case that if anything what this widow did in giving her two copper coins displeased Jesus immensely. I think it angered him and her giving this made his blood boil. When I consider my own life, as a Christian man who loves his God and cares for other people and cares about their needs, I have no tolerance for a morally bankrupt religious system that compels a poor, destitute widow who only had two coins left to buy her food for her next meal to give those two coins to said religious system.

The very idea outrages me.  Something has gone terribly wrong in a system that encourages and even demands that. How else am I supposed to feel when I see an impoverished woman give to her religion her last hope for life to go home and perhaps die? I feel sick and repulsed just thinking about it. Listen- any religion that is built on the back of the poor is a false religion.  What a sad, misguided, woeful, poor victimized lady.  It’s tragic and painful, and I think that’s exactly how Jesus saw it. He saw that corrupt system taking the last two pennies out of a widow’s pocket who in her desperation hoped that maybe in that legalistic system her two coins would buy some blessing. The rabbis had said that with alms you purchase your salvation and so here she is,  trying to buy her way into heaven, trying to buy relief from her desperation and her destitution. [Contemporary “evangelists” call this ‘seed faith’- “Give me your money and God will multiply it back to you.”]  God doesn’t want a widow to give up her last two cents and you can’t find that concept anywhere in the Bible at all. In fact, that’s the last thing God would want a widow to do.

The system that had developed in Judaism abused poor people on an economic level and a spiritual level. God’s law was never given to impoverish people, but to help them, and that’s why it’s so wretched to see that this woman was part of a system that took the last two cents out of her hand on the pretense that this was necessary to please God; to purchase her salvation and to bring her blessing.  She was manipulated by a religious system that was corrupt.  This is not an illustration of heartfelt, sacrificial giving that pleases the Lord and this is not a model for all of us to follow.  And so something very different is going on here.  This is not about Jesus honoring giving, this is about a victim of a corrupt system who is literally made absolutely destitute trying to live up to that system and earn heaven.

Verse 1, “And He looked up,” I think this is important. If you read around this chapter, you see that Jesus just spent a chunk of time leveling blistering attacks against the false teachers, compounded with feeling physical drained and we get the image that he’s tired and exhausted and sad and resigned. So you get the image of Him sitting there in a moment of thought before He turns to pronounce the judgment for all his disciples to hear.   And when He looked up, Mark 12:41 says, “He saw opposite, the treasury observing how people were putting money into the treasury.” Jesus had said in Matthew 6 that you were to do your giving in secret but the religious system had developed a very public prominent way to do it and Pharisees came along and had trumpets blown announcing their arrival to give, according to Matthew 6.  And so Jesus looks up and there He sees the people coming, the treasury and how people were putting money into the treasury.

Then there is the woman herself; a poor widow. That should sound very familiar to us because a few verses back we see Jesus saying   “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes and love respectful greetings in the market places and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses” These are people who are building their  success monetarily on the backs of widows. And so what happens? Jesus indicts them for their severe abuse of widows, along with the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the scribes who operated the system that abused the poor and the defenseless for whom they had only disdain. We know that these people view any poor widow as being under the judgment of God, -as that’s why she was a poor widow.  Furthermore, widows were women and women were second-class, and Pharisees every day prayed, “Lord, make me not a Gentile or a woman.”  And because they were widows, they were defenseless and easy prey.

So what does this scene in particular show us? You have Jesus talking about poor widows being devoured and then nearly in the same breath he sees an example of this abuse. To reiterate again; That was all. Nothing is said about her attitude, nothing is said about her spirit, nothing said about whether she did it in desperation or devotion, whether she did it in legalism or love, it doesn’t say anything about that.  The Lord doesn’t commend her, doesn’t make her an example, doesn’t validate what she did, doesn’t say it was a worthy spiritual act that greatly pleased Him.  All He said was, this religious system is preying on widows, this cost her more than everyone else. She put in relatively, comparatively more than anyone.  The religious leaders were devouring widows and the more desperate these poor widows became the more they thought they needed to buy God’s blessing. Belittled by the establishment because they were thought to be in that state because of divine punishment, second-class women, they were defenseless, easily exploited and the system exploited them to the max.  And so they took the last two cents of the poor woman and it was all, the end of verse 4 says, she had to live on, it was literally her life.  She would probably go home and die.

Jesus isn’t commending her; she’s a victim. He’s not proud of her.  He’s not making her an example of sacrificial giving.  This is an absurdity.  He is observing the corruption of the system that is going to be destroyed under the leadership of these corrupt condemned leaders.  They’re exploiting the most defenseless, the most impoverished.  Jesus certainly is not saying she gave her last cent and that’s what you should do, of course not.  He doesn’t want you to give up everything you’ve got and go home and die. He’s observing the false religion that preys on the weak and the desperate and the defenseless and holds out hope to the hopeless if they just give their money.  I don’t think Jesus was happy.  I think Jesus was angry.  And that’s why He says in verse 6, “As for the things which you’re looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down.” And the disciples say, “When’s it going to happen?”  And He says, “It’s going to happen,” and He describes it in the remainder of the chapter.

I don’t know why pastors insist on reading into this text and eisegeting into it these ideas of the joys of giving all we have. There’s no denying that those ideas are imported. If you saw a widow give her last two cents to some religious organization in the hope that she could purchase salvation or purchase blessing, or buy healing, or buy prosperity, you wouldn’t commend her, you’d want to stop her and you’d want to shut down that religious system that preys on the desperate.  This act did not please our Lord.  She’s simply been taught falsely and she bought in to a system that destroyed her.  No praise is given of her act or her attitude.  She’s caught in the corruption of the system at the hands of those wretched leaders.  She has given her last coins to a false religion.  Jesus is angry.  And that’s why He’ll destroy this den of robbers, which goes down in AD 70.

This has to do with a woman giving all she had to a corrupt system, Jesus observing that she had indeed given her all, and reinforcing the idea that what this woman was doing was not right and that she was being preyed on by widow-devourers who were engaged in an ongodly spiritual scam which Jesus condemned and rejected. That’s it.That’s all there is to it. It’s simple and it’s easy to understand and it doesn’t need to be tinkered with or bred with assumed external interpolations in order to be made clear. This passage is not for us. We are not to emulate this woman who is being taken advantage of. If anything it’s a warning to us that we do not do the same, and put not our trust in broken systems that enslave us to works righteousness and the law, but rather put our trust in the loving mercies of Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins and for salvation.

Gandhi didn’t like our Christ

 

There is a famous quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. It is, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I say attributed because there are no primary sources for him actually saying or writing this, but rather it has been attributed to him by secondary sources. But assuming he did say it, this quote has been tossed around with reckless abandon as a way to point out the hypocrisy that we believers struggle against as we wrestle with our desire to live as Christ did, and our seemingly inability to. We’re told by Gandhi that our failure to be consistent in our outward moral actions and inward spiritual intent is one of the primary reasons why he himself and so many people don’t take us seriously, and that a failure to practice what we preach is what is driving the masses away.

We need to stop using this quote and we need to be far more discerning when we voluntary subject ourselves to this man’s criticism of our faith and spiritual walk.

Why? Because Gandhi did not like our Christ. When he said that he likes our Christ, he was not referring to the deep affections he had for the Biblical, historical Jesus as revealed in his entirety in both the Old and New Testament. He was not referring to the whole and sum of the blessed hypostatic union- our God who came in the flesh to seek and save the lost by bringing salvation and reconciliation to his people.  He was not referring to the Christ of scriptures who made radically exclusive about how through him alone was the only way to the Father and to everlasting peace and life. He was not referring to the immaculately conceived son of God who died for the sins of the world and then rose again after three days for our justification, sanctification and glorification.

No. Gandhi did not like that Christ. Instead what Gandhi did is something that people have been doing since the beginning of time- he changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things… Gandhi spent his life fabricating a Jesus of his own invention-one who acted and behaved like he wanted him to. He sliced through the scriptures with his metaphorical scalpel and created a cut-and-paste collage of theological agglomeration- a homage to idolatry and absurdity. In this Gandhi picked out and lauded all the teachings that he liked and which agreed with his Hinduism, particularly his belief in Jesus’ non-violence and teachings on turning the other cheek. For Gandhi these were the highest and best manifestations of who Jesus was- a moral teacher who served as our highest example of principled ethics and exemplary friend to all mankind.

At the same time he categorically rejected any of Jesus’ claims to divinity and salvific exclusivity. He did not like our Christ; he liked his own caricatured version of Christ.  Jesus was a good man. A good teacher. A good moralist. But he was not God, and his goodness only went so far as his inclusive claims extended. His Jesus was kind and tolerant of all religions and spiritual persuasions, having understood that there was truth in all religions and that they all led to the same place. If he had been asked by Jesus “who do you say that I am?” he would never have responded “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” There was no place in his concept of Jesus as one who came not to bring peace, but rather a sword, who came to divide and set a son against his father, and a daughter against her mother. There is no place in his worldview of Jesus as one who  “is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” or “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment on all, to convict all who are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.”

To offer just three quotes from Gandhi

I regard Jesus as a great teacher of humanity, but I do not regard him as the only begotten son of God. That epithet in its material interpretation is quite unacceptable. Metaphorically we are all sons of God, but for each of us there may be different sons of God in a special sense. Thus for me Chaitanya may be the only begotten son of God … God cannot be the exclusive Father and I cannot ascribe exclusive divinity to Jesus.” [Harijan: June 3, 1937]

It was more than I could believe that Jesus was the only incarnate son of God, and that only he who believed in Him, would have everlasting life. If God could have sons, all of us were His sons. If Jesus was like God, or God Himself, then all men were like God and could be God Himself. My reason was not ready to believe literally that Jesus by his death and by his blood redeemed the sins of the world. Metaphorically there might be some truth in it. Again, according to Christianity only human beings had souls, and not other living beings, for whom death meant complete extinction; while I held a contrary belief. I could accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born. His death on the Cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it my heart could not accept. [His Own Story. Page 141.]

For, he [Jesus] was certainly the highest example of one who wished to give everything, asking nothing in return, and not caring what creed might happen to be professed by the recipient. I am sure that if he were living here now among men, he would bless the lives of many who perhaps have never even heard his name, if only their lives embodied the virtues of which he was a living example on earth; the virtues of loving one’s neighbor as oneself and of doing good and charitable works among one’s fellowmen. [The Modern Review, October 1941]

Did Gandhi like our Christ? No, he didn’t. Did he like his fabricated version of Christ? Very much so, apparently. For that reason we don’t need to quote this man as if he were in any way any kind of authority over us or as if he had any idea what he was talking about. He was no profound commentator on Christianity. He was hardly an authority on Jesus, had  fundamental misunderstandings of himself and the rest of humanity, and he denied the very essence of what made Jesus our Lord. Why should we care if we do not attain to this falsified version of Jesus?

I do believe we need to be more like Christ, but I want to become like the real Christ, not this fabricated version of Gandhi’s imagination. So next time someone uses this quote on you, don’t accept the premise. It’s important that we hear the message that we ought to be more Christ-like, but I’d rather take an exhortation from John or Paul or  anybody who knows who the real Jesus is, than Mahatma Gandhi. That is where I want my rebuke and chastisement and encouragement to come from- from the scriptures, and not a morally reprehensible, Christ-hating man who denied our great God and Savior and thereby showed himself to have the spirit of the antichrist.

The myth of carrying a dead man on your back- “the body of death”

A local Church Pastor/Pastrix recently preached a sermon which incorporated part of Romans 7 into it. Usually, merely saying “Romans 7” is usually sufficient in Christian circles to bring to mind the struggle with sin. As Paul describes the thoughts and impulses that war within him, he comes to verse 24 and says,

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

This individual did use that exact text, and they told a familiar story. Like many preachers who have come before them, they recounted the story of  how in ancient Rome there was a form of capital punishment which was gruesome and terrifying. The idea was that if you murdered someone, your victim’s corpse was then chained to your back. As the sun beat down on you and as days and weeks passed, rancid odours would nauseate you as the body rotted and decayed. Infection quickly set in as it seeped into your own body and killed you. Its a familiar story.  Some pastors, desiring to go a step further, would add that it was only possible to be freed from the horrors of this punishment if someone else chose to carry the body in the place of the murderer, carrying it to his death.  We are told that this is what the term “body of death” meant, and that Paul used this terminology and phraseology to bring to the mind precisely this well-known form of punishment- that it was a brilliant illustration on Paul’s part and a powerful allusion for us today on how to understand our sin and the effects it has on us.

The only problem is that this is extremely suspect if not outright false. The only mention of this practice  comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, a Latin epic poem that recounts the deeds and mythology of Aeneas. Originally published some 80 years before the Epistle or Roman , its possible that Paul and his readers would have heard of it, there is no indication that he actually did. To recount the pertinent part in Book VII;

Not far from here is the site of Argylla’s city,
built of ancient stone, where the Lydian race,
famous in war, once settled the Etruscan heights.
For many years it flourished, until King Mezentius
ruled it with arrogant power, and savage weaponry.
Why recount the tyrant’s wicked murders and vicious acts?
May the gods reserve such for his life and race!
He even tied corpses to living bodies, as a means
of torture, placing hand on hand and face against face,
so killing by a lingering death, in that wretched
embrace, that ooze of disease and decomposition.
But the weary citizens at last armed themselves
surrounded the atrocious madman in his palace,
mowed down his supporters, and fired the roof.

Does this prove anything? Not at all. Though the story may be based on true events, the poem itself is Greco-Roman mythology.  It is largely fictional and describes what took place prior to the founding of Rome. If Virgil was alluding to a common practice of his day, there is nothing to show it. From the context before and after the bold section, it appears this kind of punishment was not acceptable  [at least to Virgil], since he uses it as an example of King Mezentius’ “wicked murders and vicious acts” for which the people rose up against him.

There is no indication that this practice of tying murderers to dead men,  if it even happened, was called “the body of death”.  It also cannot be said that this was a Roman custom/ law as all we have is one isolated reference to one king’s unacceptable barbaric practice that pre-dated the Romans. There are certainly no primary Roman sources where this punishment has been codified into law or even mentioned as a legitimate form of execution. In terms of what the punishment was for, there is no specific crime listed in the Aeneid.  The victims of this punishment were not identified as murderers and the corpses were not identified as murder victims. On that note,  who would consent to having their murdered loved one chained to the murderer and left to rot instead of receiving a decent burial? In terms of the dead men being carried on the murderers back, in the story the victim was bound “hand on hand, face against face.” This description does not suggest any mobility afforded to the victim. Lastly there is no such reprieve mentioned. This part was made up to strengthen the allusion to Christ who bore our punishment for us.  There is absolutely nothing about someone taking their place, though at least the concept of getting sick and dying from the presence of putrefying flesh was accurate.

In terms of where drawing that parallel  first originated, the earliest records I could find of it all come  from the late 17th century works and 18th century commentaries. Attempting to find something earlier,  I’ve read commentaries and homilies from such early Church fathers, theologians and preachers as  Augustine, Origen, Chrystosom, Clement of Alexandria, Cyril, Erasmus, Aquinas, Hillary, Ambrose, even Pelagius, and none of them mention it in their sermons and writing concerning Romans 7. To say that this is what Paul had in mind when he spoke of the body of death is pure mythos, even as the salient details are wrong.

In short, in our present day many pastors and lay persons have not only changed an extra-biblical illustration into an embedded allusion , but some would suggest that the story of Mezentius is an interpretive key to understanding the passage in Romans 7. Its not. This particular pastor, while sincere in their efforts, was wrong to preach this story as central and specific to the exegesis.

Classic Repost. The Myth of the Eye of the Needle

And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Mark 10:23-28 [also found in Luke 18:25 and Matthew 19:24]

Most people are familiar with this story, as it’s often preached in relation to issues of money and wealth. What I wanted to focus on though is one detail that I hear time and time again that I desire to dissuade people of. When pastors preach this story, many of them invariably mention the illustration of a camel going through the eye of the needle. In order to make sense of this, pastors and teachers tell a story of a gate in the Jerusalem wall called the “eye of the needle” gate, and that travelers would come to the gate and would have to remove all the supplies from their camel. That in order for the camel to pass through, because the gate was so small and low, the camel would have to bend down and shuffle through unencumbered and crawling on its knees. This is some great sermon material, with the parallel often being drawn that like the camel, we must  of come to God on our knees without all our baggage and so forth.

There’s only one problem. No such gate exists. There has never been any evidence for such a gate called the “eye of the needle” existing, much less a gate of this nature at all in the Jerusalem wall. The entire thing is a complete fabrication which sounds good,  and which has been passed down so many times that it has found itself to be a truism, but the whole story and illustration is a misguided riff on a mythic architectural structure. It doesn’t exist.

That’s only one take on it though. Other people suggest alternate explanations, with one solution coming from the possibility of a gGeek misprint. The suggestion is that the Greek word kamilos “camel” should really be kamêlos, meaning ‘cable, rope’, as some late New Testament manuscripts have. But even then this doesn’t solve the issue at all. I suppose a rope is smaller than a camel, but you’re still not going to get a rope through the eye of a needle. It doesn’t solve the problem.

And that’s the point. That it is impossible for it to occur. I hadn’t intended to write an explanation of this, but rather just deal with the eye of the needle myth, but when you look at the story in context you see that the camel was regarded as the largest land animal in Palestine, with the eye of a needle probably being the smallest opening found in the home. In this, Jesus paints a picture of something impossible in order to illustrate that even the seemingly impossible is possible with God. As stated earlier; there is no evidence for the popular interpretation that there was a gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” which camels had to stoop to their knees to enter. Such an interpretation completely misses the point: it is not merely difficult for the wealthy to be saved; without God’s grace it is impossible. Anyone who trusts in riches as an idolatrous replacement for God cannot enter the kingdom of God; his life disposition is diametrically opposed to submitting to God’s will. The hyperbole of a large camel having to fit through the small eye of a needle stresses that such a thing is humanly impossible, and that it’s only by God’s grace that such a thing may ever be achieved.