Friday, March 23, 2007

In the Heart of the Earth


As hard as it is to believe, it has been twelve years since Church of the Great God published
"After Three Days," a booklet I wrote explaining the timing of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I am still asked regularly to defend my assertions and dogmatisms in the face of the overwhelming belief in the Good Friday–Easter Sunday of mainstream Christians. Frankly, many of those who challenge the booklet's argument react spasmodically rather than reasonably, having never considered that the Bible may present a scenario contrary to traditional preaching. Perhaps these people are subconsciously aware that if "After Three Days" is correct, a large chunk of mainstream Christian theology—Sunday-worship in particular—crumbles to dust.

Since the annual memorial of Christ's death has arrived once again, perhaps an addendum to the booklet's subject is in order. Obviously, as a booklet, "After Three Days" could not include an exhaustive study of every pertinent word and phrase, yet most of the rebuttals to it hinge on the meaning of such small elements in the Gospels' texts. Probably the most common argument holds that "three days and three nights" (Matthew 12:40) does not mean exactly that but "parts of" three days, allowing the one day and two nights between Friday sunset and Sunday at dawn to fulfill Jesus’ prophecy.

Another frequent protest centers on John 20:1 and the phrase, "Now on the first day of the week. . . ." Supporters of this argument claim that this time-marker points to when Jesus was resurrected, but the text itself refers only to Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb at that time. The stone must have been rolled away at some earlier time. Besides, the verse even says that she came to the tomb "while it was still dark," and Jesus was already gone! Yet, every burgh in Christendom features a sunrise service on Easter morning.

Perhaps the most difficult textual problem to explain is the disciples' assertion, as they walked with Jesus to Emmaus on that same first day of the week, that "today is the third day since these things happened" (Luke 24:21). To most, counting as we do, this would place the crucifixion on the previous Thursday, not Wednesday as the modern church of God has taught for about eighty years. However, this simple mathematical explanation is a bit superficial. Those who look at the counting of days from an inclusive point of view say that the disciples' phrasing points to the previous Friday, since the Jews would have counted the current day, Sunday, along with Saturday and Friday to arrive at their three days. This would seem to support the traditional Good Friday–Easter Sunday scenario.

Yet, Jesus said, "The Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). Everywhere else, the Gospels support a 72-hour burial from Wednesday at sunset to the weekly Sabbath at sunset. Can this verse in Luke 24 be a contradiction? There are two ways of resolving this apparent inconsistency. The first considers that the disciples are not referring just to the three days of Jesus' burial. Then what are they talking about? They actually say, "Today is the third day since these things happened." To assume that they refer only to the crucifixion is to ignore the context of the passage. In verse 18, Cleopas exclaims, "Are You the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have You not known the things which happened there in these days?" From the summary of what they told Him, we can conclude that the disciples recounted the whole string of events that occurred in what we now call Crucifixion Week—and those events did not end with Jesus' death and burial.

Matthew 27:62-66 informs us that on the day after Christ's crucifixion—Thursday, as we understand it—the Jews went to Pilate to ask that a guard be set on the tomb, and he told them to do it themselves. They may have done it immediately, but they may have waited until sunset, since the day was a High Day, a holy day Sabbath, the first day of Unleavened Bread. So, on either Thursday or early Friday, a guard was set, making it the last activity surrounding the "big news" that the disciples told the resurrected Jesus about. They could then say that it had been three days since the last of "these things" had occurred.

The second, and perhaps best way, to understand this comment, is to take it in its most natural sense. The immediately preceding thought is that the disciples "were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel." The sign that Jesus had given to them was of being "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40). The sense of the ensuing comment, however, is that their hopes were dashed because the three days and nights of the sign had already passed! The idiomatic phrase reads literally, "One is passing this day as the third," implying "the third day has passed." In essence, they were not saying that it was the third day of Jesus' sign but, unfortunately, that the third day was already up!

Finally, some try to say that the phrase "in the heart of the earth" in Matthew 12:40 does not mean buried in a grave or tomb. Those who support this theory say that heart implies "middle of" or "midst of," and earth should really be translated as "country" or "world." Thus, the argument runs, Jesus is actually saying that He would be three days and nights in Jerusalem, since it was the center of the nations according to Ezekiel 5:5: "This is Jerusalem; I have set her in the midst of the nations and the countries all around her." Supporters do not say how Jesus' being in Jerusalem for this amount of time can act as a sign of His Messiahship.

However, this argument holds no water. First, the Greek is literally translated here, as it is from a Hebrew idiom found in Jonah 2:2-3, the place to which Jesus referred in giving His sign. In that place, "heart of the seas" parallels "into the deep," which Jonah in the previous verse calls "the belly of Sheol," the pit where the dead are laid or the grave. So, heart of the earth means "underground," just as heart of the seas means "underwater." "In the heart of the earth," then, was a Hebrew metaphor signifying being dead and buried.

Second, the similar sign Jesus gave in John 2:19, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up," is explained plainly in verse 21: "But He was speaking of the temple of His body." Though they use different metaphors, the two signs are the same: Being in the heart of the earth is the result of having the temple of His body destroyed. Ergo, Jesus was not talking of His travel plans in Jerusalem but of His death, burial, and resurrection.

Indeed, the Scripture cannot be broken, as much as men try to cram their traditional beliefs into it. Would that they read the Bible for what it says rather than what they want it to say!

Friday, March 9, 2007

James Cameron's Lost Integrity

This past Sunday, March 4, the Discovery Channel aired Titanic-producer/director James Cameron's controversial documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus. The documentary—gleefully rechristened as a "crockumentary" by its detractors—purports to reveal scientific evidence that archeologists had found the actual tomb of Jesus' family in Jerusalem. Within this particular tomb, which had been discovered and excavated in 1980 by Israeli archaeologist Amos Kloner, ten ossuaries—small limestone caskets for storing bones—were found, and on five of them were hastily inscribed names in Aramaic: Jesus, Matthew, Joseph, and two forms of Mary.

For Cameron, no stranger to blockbusters, this was heady stuff, and his production company, Associated Producers, along with award-winning investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici, University of North Carolina at Charlotte religious studies chair James Tabor, and British-born archeologist Gibson Shimon, set out to bring this spectacular discovery to the attention of the world. Once the Discovery Channel signed on to the project, it became a major television event. It would present their allegedly scientific findings step by step to an amazed viewing public.

The problem is that, though long on the sensational and hypothetical, they were quite short on scientific facts. The Jerusalem tomb that they claim to be that of the family of Jesus of Nazareth is not—and certainly cannot be proven to be—His sepulcher. In fact, had the family of Jesus owned such a tomb, it would not have been anywhere in Jerusalem but in Nazareth, their hometown.

First, the biblical evidence is squarely contrary to the documentary's claims. After Jesus' crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea begged Pilate for the Savior's body, burying it in his own newly dug tomb (Matthew 27:57-60; Mark 15:42-46; Luke 23:50-53; John 19:38-42). Notice that each of the four Gospels mentions this fact. Jesus, then, was never buried in His family's tomb, but in another family's crypt. Besides, Jesus rose from that grave after three days and three nights, and the Gospels are equally clear that no bones were left behind (Matthew 28:6-7, Mark 16:6; Luke 24:3, 6, 12, 22-24; John 20:5-7).

To swallow the story of The Lost Tomb of Jesus, one must believe that Jesus did not rise from the dead, that His disciples stole the body from under the noses of the guards (a lie spread by the Jewish leadership of the day; see Matthew 28:11-15), and that His body was reburied later in His family's tomb. This last assumption is especially ludicrous, considering that His body's presence in such an obvious place could have—and would have—been used by enemies of early Christianity to disprove the apostles' claims of Jesus' resurrection. However, for nearly two millennia, the world has had literary evidence of Jesus' bodily resurrection, supported by more than five hundred eyewitnesses, in I Corinthians 15:3-8. There are no bones to make a case about!

Second, the names found in the tomb may seem to be prima facie evidence that we are dealing with biblical figures, especially since the one ossuary reads, "Jesus son of Joseph." What could be more conclusive? However, such reasoning is just plain shallow. Jesus was not the son of Joseph, and His family, most of whom soon became Christians, would not have recorded this falsehood. In such a situation, they would have instead proclaimed that He was the Son of God, as He Himself declared (John 3:18; 9:35-37; 10:36; etc.). In addition, other than the disciple, who was not related to Jesus, there is no known Matthew among Joseph and Mary's clan. Such a brother, grandfather, son, uncle, or cousin must be assumed.

Also, that a "Mary," even in the form of Mariemene e Mara ("of Mariemene, known as the Master," as the TV show disciphered it), should not be surprising, as nearly a third of the known names of Judean women of the time were also forms of "Mary." It is probable that most, if not all, of the tombs from that time held bones of some Mary. That this one contained the bones of a specific Mary, Mary Magdalene, is statistically implausible, especially since there is no record anywhere that the biblical Mary Magdalene ever held this title. One must bestow credence on the Gnostic
gospels—and only specific ones of those—to come anywhere close to such a title. Further, there is simply no evidence that after Jesus' death Mary Magdalene lived in close proximity to Jesus' family or that she died in Jerusalem.

The documentary claimed that their statistician, the University of Toronto's Andrey Feuerverger, calculated the odds of the tomb being that of Jesus' family at 600:1. However, what he told them was actually that there was a one in 600 chance that another family tomb would have the same specific names. In other words, the producers misrepresented their own scholar's findings. Tal Ilan, compiler of the Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, which was used as the basis for statistical research regarding these names on The Lost Tomb of Jesus, contends, "[These names] are in every tomb in Jerusalem. . . . But my research proves exactly the opposite [of the documentary's claims]—these are the most common names that you could expect to find anywhere." Yeshua, for instance, was the name of about one in twenty Jewish men of the day. In essence, then, that these names appear together in one tomb proves nothing.

Third, the DNA findings that were supposedly the most significant of the documentary team's findings have absolutely no meaning. According to the program, a scientist took swabs from the "Jesus" box and the "Mariemene" box, tested them for mitochondrial DNA (which would show maternal genetic similarity or dissimilarity), and the results conclusively showed that this Jesus and this Mary were not related. Their conclusion: These two must have been married! Talk about a leap of faith!

The test means nothing of the sort. All it shows is that the two DNA samples were from people who were not related. It does not show that the unknown donors of the samples were even of different sexes, far less that they were married! Moreover, over the course of a few centuries, several individual's bones could have been stored in the ossuaries; there is no way to match any DNA sample to the names scratched on the boxes. And there is certainly no baseline DNA from the real Jesus or Mary to compare the samples to. The test is meaningless, except to inform us that whoever belonged to the DNA did not have the same matrilineal descent.

With this documentary, James Cameron and his team of researchers have revealed only that they have no integrity, ethical or scientific, and thus that they have no credibility. Jesus warned us that at the time of the end charlatans would be claiming, "Here is the Christ!" or "There [He is]!" (Matthew 24:23). Take Jesus' own advice: "Do not believe it."

Friday, March 2, 2007

What Does It Say?

Listen (RealAudio)

  • What does it say about a nation that makes an icon of a woman whose only claims to fame are to have posed nude for a magazine, married a nearly nonagenarian billionaire, had a drug problem, and had a string of affairs?
  • What does it say about a nation that legally murders over a million unborn children each year?
  • What does it say about a nation that, during a time of war, essentially ignores multiple millions of illegal aliens—statistically shown to increase crime, lower wages, and burden government budgets—yet hounds smokers, drinkers, and eaters of trans-fats?
  • What does it say about a nation that spends upwards of $85 billion on gambling each year, more than its citizens spend on the combined sales for amusement parks, spectator sports, movie theater admissions, and video games?
  • What does it say about a nation that indulges in pornography to the point that the industry's known revenues, over $12 billion, roughly double those of all three major U.S. television networks?
  • What does it say about a nation that goes out of its way to offend and hassle its own citizens rather than profile its enemies?
  • What does it say about a nation that evicts God from public schools, public spaces, and essentially all public life yet allows blasphemies to be uttered dozens of times each hour on its public airwaves?
  • What does it say about a nation that uses its deployed volunteer army, composed of a broad spectrum of dedicated, patriotic soldiers, as pawns to gain political power?

In aggregate, what these statements of the current situation in the United States reveal is a profoundly sick, confused, and hypocritical society. They expose America as a nation adrift, unmoored to any firm system of beliefs or even of ethics, rocked and buffeted by every new wave of trouble, and at the mercy of cultural winds and currents out of any quarter. In short, it reveals a nation in crisis—in every sense of the term. Yet, too few of us seem to have noticed.

Our fourth estate, whose job it is to inform the nation about what is going on, has succumbed to one of two—or both—failings: 1) The media have changed the emphasis of their reporting from information to entertainment, and/or 2) they have deliberately or unknowingly incorporated partisan biases into their products, becoming organs of political rather than national interests. While it can be argued that from its earliest days, the American media have been partisan, so nothing has changed, today's news outlets have far greater reach and persuasive abilities than did their nineteenth-century counterparts. Whatever the argument, the result is that the typical citizen is unaware of the depth of America's crisis. The news—even the hyped, slick, up-to-the-second product aired 24/7 on multiple stations—has to compete for attention with situation comedies, dramas, movies, video games, and the Internet, and it loses miserably.

America's political representatives fare little better, if better they are. A statesman or -woman who really had the nation's best interests at heart would not be afraid to take a principled stand against its troubles and to inspire patriots to overcome them. But there are no statesmen or -women, just politicians, desirous of reelection and the accumulation of personal power. We see no truly American leadership from the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, or really anywhere, for that matter. In Washington, grandstanding on the Sunday morning news programs or engaging in bitter partisan fights over silly line items or amendments to a bill is what passes for "leadership" these days. And politicians wonder why so few Americans vote?

Christian ministers from coast to coast have virtually rolled over and played dead. Rather than let their voices ring from their pulpits, decrying the rise of so many blatantly anti-Christian cultural trends, they have weakly submitted to their fears of losing their weekly take at the offering basket, and busied themselves in the terribly important work of overseeing the installation of big screens and the latest sound equipment for the Christian rock band that plays during the contemporary service. Worse, most of the mainline churches have backpedaled on biblical morality to the point that they are difficult to label as even nominally "Christian." They may proclaim Christ as Lord, but they proclaim little that He believed and preached.

Finally, and tragically, the most important leaders in America have also abrogated their responsibilities: parents. American dads and moms have spoiled the few kids that they have, buying them whatever they want, instilling in them little sense of responsibility or self-discipline, and letting them make too many critical decisions on their own. Instead of being parents, they have desired to be best friends with their children, who have, frankly, walked all over them, aided and abetted by big business and the entertainment industry. Thus, the culture caters to the youth, attempting to fulfill all their fantasies without truly considering whether or not they are beneficial for them or their country. With a bit of backbone, parents could have slowed or even stopped the cultural decline, but it is far too late now.

What does it say about a nation that lacks both the heart and the leadership to stop itself from committing suicide? God says of such a situation in Isaiah 3:11-12: "Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him, for the reward of his hands shall be given him. As for My people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O My people! Those who lead you cause you to err, and destroy the way of your paths." In short, He says we are headed for a fall.