Does Isaiah’s prophecy about a remnant returning predict the formation of the state of Israel?

I’m reading through the Bible and have gotten as far as Isaiah, where I’ve just read, “The Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.  In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people” from nations all over the world.  Is this a prophecy of the formation of the state of Israel in 1948?

My study guide to the book of Isaiah in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series takes readers through the entire book, situating each passage in its historical context and explaining how Isaiah’s words apply both to his own day and to future events.  The guide explores the Messianic significance of this specific prophecy about the Root of Jesse.  Let me tell you a bit of what it says here.

With biblical prophecy, it’s important always to determine first what the original message was for the original audience.  Only then can you understand any further Messianic or end-times implications.

The “shoot from the stump of Jesse” in this passage is originally a new king in the line of David, Hezekiah, who will be faithful to Yahweh and reverse the policy of his father Ahaz.  Ahaz appeased Assyria and even put up altars modeled after Assyrian ones.  But Hezekiah will trust Yahweh, refuse to serve Assyria as a vassal, and see Yahweh’s deliverance.  Then there will be peace, and just as God reached out his hand to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he will reach out “a second time” to bring home the “remnant,” Israelites who were carried off into Assyria as exiles or who fled to other countries to escape the Assyrians.  That’s the message for the original audience.

But Hezekiah is also a type of Christ, and what is said about him has Messianic overtones.  When Jesus comes to reign, there will be a similar gathering of the “remnant.”  But who will they be?  My understanding is that they are gathered from all the nations because they’re people from all the nations. This gathering brings together the “great multitude” described in Revelation, which comes “from every nation, tribe, people and language.”  In other words, under the New Covenant the “chosen people” become a multinational community.  As Paul writes in Galatians, “If you are in Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.”  (See the study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, session 19.)

The implications of this are that the 1948 formation of the state of Israel is most likely not what is envisioned and predicted in Isaiah’s oracle about the “Root of Jesse.”  So modern Israel does not enjoy any special privileges in the world. Rather, it is a nation-state that is responsible before God for conducting itself with justice and prudence like any other nation.

I’m glad you’re reading through the whole Bible!  That’s the best way to come to understand each individual part: by seeing where it fits within the whole.  Keep on reading!

Is the story of the woman caught in adultery a later addition, and if so, what are we supposed to do with it?

Q. In your John study guide, you have a note at the end of Session 8 that says the story of the woman who was caught in adultery “was most likely not an original part of the gospel of John.”  Sure enough, in my Bible the passage is in italics and there’s a note that says, “The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.”  If that’s true, then who added stuff like this that wan’t there in the first place?  And what are we supposed to do when we get to these parts? Ignore them?

The gospels were all written about a generation after Jesus lived.  They’re based on a stream of oral tradition coming down from his day about what he said and did.  Not everything in this tradition was put to use by the gospel writers.  But in the case of the story of the woman who was caught in adultery, it seems that something more from this oral tradition found its way into the gospels after they were written.

This story appears at John 7:53-8:11 in some later manuscripts; it’s also found in different places in other manuscripts:  after Luke 21:38, after Luke 24:53, after John 7:36, and after John 21:25.  With so much attestation, it’s likely that this story is part of the genuine tradition coming down from Jesus.

Rembrandt, Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery

None of the gospel writers included it, perhaps because it could be misunderstood to condone adultery.  But it’s such a powerful episode when rightly understood (“let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”) that people who knew about it added it to the gospels later.  This may originally have been as a “gloss” or marginal note, which later got added to the text itself.  In several manuscripts it’s marked as an addition by asterisks or other symbols.

Bruce Metzger, who was of the leading textual critics of our day, writes in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament that while “the case against … Johannine authorship appears to be conclusive” (that is, it’s pretty clear that John didn’t include this story in his gospel originally), the account “has all the earmarks of historical veracity.  It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places.”

So even if we can make a good judgment that something probably wasn’t in the original manuscripts, we still need to ask whether it might be part of the tradition coming down from Jesus.  In this case, the story probably is. That’s why I do encourage groups to discuss the story, just not as part of their regular meeting.  In the study guide I say that the story “probably preserves a genuine episode from the life of Jesus” and I suggest that groups discuss it over dinner before doing the next session.  (Even if a group didn’t usually have a meal together first, this would provide a good occasion to do that at least once.)

How did the Bible come to contain the books it does?

Q. A student I know is exploring the different religions right now.  He recently asked me how the Bible came to contain the books it now has in it.  Why were these put in, and others left out?  And why does the Catholic Bible have more books than the Protestant Bible?  What would you recommend I tell him?

The formation of the biblical canon (the collection of the books in the Bible) is easier to see first in the case of the New Testament, because that process was witnessed by history.  No one person or group sat down and decided what books would be in the New Testament (despite what you or your friend may have heard people like Dan Brown claim about the Council of Nicea, which never actually discussed the canon).  Instead, books that stood the test of time through continuous use in diverse Christian centers were eventually accepted by almost all believers. Books that were judged inconsistent with the other approved books came to be recognized as edifying, but not scriptural. This process was basically complete by the time Athanasius of Alexandria wrote his festal letter for AD 367, which contains the first listing of the New Testament books as we know them today.  A few remaining differences among centers were ironed out in the years that followed.  We can infer that a similar process of community acceptance and use over time had earlier created the Old Testament canon.

This is the historical perspective.  But from a theological standpoint, as one of my seminary professors once put it, “The Holy Spirit bore witness to the church corporately about what books should be included.”  In other words, the contents of the Bible were ultimately determined not by human authority, not even by the authority of the worldwide community of Jesus’ followers, but by divine authority.  No sooner did the church recognize these books than it submitted itself to them.  The church does not say, “The Bible is our book, and we can do with it whatever we want” (including dropping or disregarding teachings or whole books that are no longer in favor).  Rather, the Bible is God’s book, and the church is responsible to understand and obey its message.

An icon of St. Athanasius, who did not determine the biblical canon, but who was the first to list the New Testament books as we know them today.

The Catholic Bible has some extra books because it includes several that were written within the Jewish community in Greek before the time of Jesus.  (The Old Testament books were written instead in Hebrew and Aramaic.)  Catholics describe these books, which Protestants call the Apocrypha, as deuterocanonical, meaning that they were first disputed before they were accepted.  Eastern Orthodox Christians use this same term to mean that these books are of secondary authority.  For fuller details about these extra books, see this post.

This is a short answer to a very involved question, but I hope this information is helpful.

If the “mark of the beast” meant Domitian’s coins, how can there also be a future fulfillment?

Q. In your Daniel-Revelation guide, you say that taking the “mark of the beast” in Revelation could have originally meant using or wearing Roman coins that gave the emperor Domitian the titles “lord and god.”  But you also say that this historical background is “only a starting point for understanding the symbol,” and that it “shouldn’t limit its meaning” (p. 107). Doesn’t this leave the door open for the speculation and foolish debate that often arise over this topic?

I agree that it’s unfortunate when a lot of time, energy, and emotion are spent trying to figure out what one thing the “mark of the beast” must correspond to. We don’t need to do this.

The symbol did mean something specific and definite at the time when the book of Revelation was written. I’ve suggested one likely possibility in the study guide, Domitian’s coins, which “would be held in the right hand for transactions” and which “were sometimes also worn in a band on the forehead.”  This would explain John’s statement that everyone was forced “to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark.”

The Jews were already sensitive enough to the blasphemous and idolatrous depictions of emperors on Roman coins that these coins were not allowed in the Jerusalem temple.  That’s why there were money-changers there.  (Unfortunately they cheated the people who needed to convert their Roman currency; that’s why Jesus overturned their tables, for making his Father’s house a “den of thieves.”)  And so it’s quite reasonable that John in Revelation would express a similar sensitivity to the way emperor worship was being advanced insidiously through the necessities of economic life. This is a respected interpretation among New Testament scholars.

But I also say in the guide that in the books of Daniel and Revelation, events in the near future and the far distant future may be simultaneously envisioned, “as a definitive crisis in the life of God’s people evokes the ultimate crisis at the end of this age” (p. 122).  So there may well be something in the final conflict between good and evil at the end of history that closely approximates the “mark of the beast” as it was experienced in John’s time—some form of coercion to participate in a godless system, upon threat of being excluded from buying and selling.

But the best way to be prepared for such a challenge, if we ever have to face it, is to recognize even now that fallen cultures will always try to get their people’s allegiance at the expense of their allegiance to God.  Followers of Jesus need to be perpetually aware of this danger and resist it.

Ultimately, what represents a present-day manifestation of the “mark of the beast” (coercion to join a godless system) will vary in different places and times. And so rather than engaging in speculation and debate about a unique meaning for the symbol, believers need to be spiritually alert and uncompromising in every situation.

Did you know that Ezra has two beginnings in The Books of the Bible?

You probably already knew this, but in case you didn’t, in The Books of the Bible (the edition you recommend using with your study guides), the book of Ezra has two beginnings, with the first beginning truncated in the middle of Cyrus’s decree (pages 1401-1402).

This apparent “double beginning” is actually caused by the repetition of the Edict of Cyrus at the end of Chronicles and the beginning of Ezra. This is how ancient scribes showed that the parts of a book that was too long to be contained on a single scroll belonged together: They would copy some of the material from the start of the second scroll onto the end of the first scroll, to “stitch” them together.

In our English Bibles we see this only where Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah, originally one long work, has been broken up between Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah.  But in various manuscripts of the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation of the Bible), there is similar “stitching” between 1 and 2 Samuel, 2 Samuel and 1 Kings, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles.

Because Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah is presented as one continuous work in The Books of the Bible, and because it’s formatted according to its natural literary divisions, the Edict of Cyrus, in abbreviated and then full form, appears twice at the start of a major division that coincides with the place where scribes originally divided this long work into Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah.

This repetition of material created a very interesting question for us on our project team as we were developing The Books of the Bible.  It’s virtually certain that Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah, as originally written, didn’t contain the abbreviated  material at the end of Chronicles.  This was added by scribes who put the book on scrolls.  So should this duplicated material be eliminated?  Or should we now consider it to be divinely inspired Scripture, something that God wants to be part of the Bible?  As you can see, we left it in.  Our hope was that the duplication (more striking in The Books of the Bible format) would lead people to ask about what was going on, as you just have.

Incidentally, in the latest update to the NIV, the word order has been changed to make the abbreviation at the end of Chronicles less abrupt.  In the 1978 and 1984 editions of the NIV, and in the 2005 TNIV, the translation followed the Hebrew word order. The TNIV, for example, said, “Any of his people among you — may the Lord their God be with them, and let them go up.”  (Go up where? To do what? Read on . . .) But the latest update to the NIV says, “Any of his people among you may go up, and may the Lord their God be with them.”  A better sense of closure, but less obviously abbreviated material that signals a “stitch” between scrolls.

Why do Catholics believe that Christ is really present in the bread and wine of communion?

Q. I want to know the reasons why Catholics believe in the true presence in regards to communion, and why Protestants believe that communion is symbolic. I’m thinking it might be because Catholics take statements like “I am the bread” more literally, but I’m wondering what the theological reasons are as well.

The meaning of communion (or the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist) is so important for groups of believers to discuss and understand that several of the study guides in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series provide opportunities for groups to engage this issue together.  In the John study guide, for example, at the place where Jesus feeds five thousand people by the Sea of Galilee and then talks about “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood,” group members are invited to share how their community of Jesus’ followers (if they belong to one) observes the Lord’s Supper: What is believed about the elements? How are they served? Who may participate? And so forth. People are also invited to talk about the most meaningful experiences they’ve had sharing in the Lord’s Supper.  (The question comes at this point in the study guide because John doesn’t actually depict Jesus instituting communion at the Last Supper.) A similar opportunity is given in the guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, in the session that discusses Paul’s teaching about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians.  In the Psalms guide, to give another example, communion is discussed in the context of psalms of thanksgiving, which were sung at community meals celebrating God’s deliverance.  These meals were the historical forerunners of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the covenant people.

But to answer your question specifically, the theological term for the Catholic belief about communion is transubstantiation.  This refers to the classical belief that objects have an inward part, an “essence” or “substance” (meaning that which “stands under”: sub-stantia), in which their deepest being consists.  They also have surface characteristics, or “accidents.”  Thus, in this frame of reference, a person’s “substance” or “essence” would be their humanity, while things like blue eyes, blond hair, height, etc. would be incidental or “accidental” characteristics.

The Catholic belief is that the communion elements (the bread and the wine) “become” the body and blood of Christ as their substance is transformed into those things (thus trans-substan-tiation).  The bread and wine retain their accidental characteristics, however, and thus still look and taste like bread and wine.  This belief is based not only a a literal interpretation of statements such as “this is my body, this is my blood” but on this whole philosophical framework that makes it possible to believe that the bread and wine really are the body and the blood, even if they don’t look like it.  Christ is understood to be really present in his body and blood, which now constitute the essence of the elements, thus the reference to the “Real Presence” of Christ at the communion table.

During and after the Reformation, some Protestants continued to believe in transubstantiation, or something similar to it.  Anglicans (Episcopalians) believe in transubstantiation and Lutherans believe in consubstantiation, in which the body and blood become mingled with the essence of the bread and wine.  But other Protestants, particularly those coming in the historic stream leading from the Geneva reformers (such as Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists), moved to a symbolic view, in which the bread and wine represent the body and blood.

In a famous debate with Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli championed the “memorial” or symbolic view by appealing to the Scripture that says, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  Zwingli was especially concerned with combating what had become a superstition in which the “body and blood of Christ” were some kind of super food that protected people from spiritual harm.  From this point of view, even though Christ is not “really present” in the elements, they point to him, and sharing at the table is still obedience to his command to “remember me.”  The believers who gathered to share the supper together are understood to be the “body of Christ” themselves.

The disagreement between Luther and Zwingli presaged the later move within modernity and the Enlightenment to the “phenomenal” (seen) and away from the “noumenal” (unseen).  If all you could see and taste were bread and wine, then maybe that’s all there was on the table.  In other words, the modern reliance on the senses alone might have been starting to come through in Zwingli’s position.  This modern world view makes it more difficult for many people to appreciate and understand the Catholic understanding, which is based on a more classic view of matter and being.  But ultimately what we believe about the bread and wine of communion is a matter of faith, and followers of Jesus should respect and honor one another’s beliefs.

Cultural practices and Christian identity—some further thoughts

Q. In the study guide on Galatians, you ask whether our personal experiences of the Holy Spirit have been “sufficient to convince [us] that no particular cultural practices have to be added to what [we’ve] believed about Jesus” (Paul’s Journey Letters, p. 93). Are you using the term “cultural” in a particular, narrow sense? It seems as if everything that we do as humans is in some sense “cultural”—even if it’s simply avoiding “acts of the flesh” such as selfish ambition and drunkenness, or practicing “fruit of the Spirit” such as forbearance and self-control, which Paul mentions at the end of his letter.

I answered this question in my last post, but it has suggested some further questions to me that I think would make for interesting reflection and conversation:

– If we’re members of a community of Jesus’ followers in a particular place and time, chances are it has some “insignia” of its own.  But we often take these for granted and don’t recognize them for what they are. Can you identify the insignia of your own community?  Is it legitimate for a community to expect its members to follow some specific cultural practices (in the narrower sense of the word culture), not to be accepted by God, but to further the community’s mission in its place and time?  What happens to someone in your community who doesn’t adopt these practices?

– Can a person who’s coming from the background of another religion continue to maintain some of their previous insignia as cultural practices (in the broader sense), without this constituting any disloyalty to Jesus or the community of his followers?  For example, if Jewish followers of Jesus can legitimately continue to practice circumcision, observe the sabbath, and keep kosher (as the New Testament says they can), can a person from a Muslim background who becomes a follower of Jesus continue to fast during the day in the month of Ramadan and eat only halal food?

–  Are some insignia, such as baptism and communion, expected of all followers of Jesus, based on Jesus’ own commands?  (“Do this in remembrance of me” and “Go and make disciples, baptizing them”)

Corrado Giaquinto, The Holy Spirit, 1750

–  Will followers of Jesus in different cultures live out in different practical ways the mandate to forsake the acts of the flesh and cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, even if their internal values and attitudes are basically the same?

– The study guide question is originally about the Holy Spirit:  Has our experience of the Spirit been such that we recognize that insignia are not needed to make us more acceptable to God?  What kind of experience have you had of the Holy Spirit’s presence and transforming power?

As a rule this blog presents my answers to questions I’ve been asked, but in this case I wanted to ask a few questions of my own!