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Why was Jesus baptized?

Introduction

Since the early Church and ancient Israel, baptism symbolized repentance. But repentance entails a sinner. Since Jesus was sinless, the question naturally comes up – why was he baptized?

In Matthew 3:15 Jesus answers, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (ESV). Aside from this very confusing response which can be interpreted in a million ways, the usual criticism is that the Gospels are trying to cover up that Jesus never pretended to be a sinless Messiah (at least not at first), and that he was originally a disciple of John the Baptist.

Thus goes the argument from non-conservatives: the Gospels and their Christian traditions mythologized Jesus to the point where he was a miracle-worker Savior of the world. But they couldn’t/wouldn’t hide the fact that he was baptized by John (all four mention it), and only one of them bothers to explain why with literally one cryptic sentence. Clearly no one was embarrassed by this and everyone understood why. This also shows the early Christian tradition was reliable and could not be made up; at least not on the large scale non-conservative scholars maintain it was.

Significance of the Sacrament and Jesus’ Baptism

Oscar Cullmann, who is no biblical conservative, wrote a very interesting examination of baptism and its role in New Testament theology. In Studies in Biblical Theology, No.1 (1950), he explains how Jesus’ baptism had a very deep significance both for his purpose and in connection to the Old Testament:

“At the moment of his Baptism he receives the commission to undertake the role of the suffering Servant of God, who takes on himself the sins of his people. Other Jews came to Jordan to be baptised by John for their own sins. Jesus, on the contrary, at the very moment when he is baptised like other people hears a voice which fundamentally declares: Thou art baptised not for thine own sins but for those of the whole people. For thou art he of whom Isaiah prophesied, that he must suffer representatively for the sins of the people. This means that Jesus is baptised in view of his death, which effects forgiveness of sins for all men. For this reason Jesus must unite himself in solidarity with his whole people, and go down himself to Jordan, that ‘all righteousness might be fulfilled.’

In this way, Jesus’ answer to the Baptist…acquires a precise meaning. The Baptism of Jesus is related to dikaiosune [righteousness], not only his own but also that of the whole people. The word pasan [all] is probably to be underlined here. Jesus’ reply, which exegetes have always found difficult to explain, acquires a concrete meaning: Jesus will effect a general forgiveness. Luke (like Mark) does not use this word, but he emphasizes in his own way the same fact at 3. 21: ‘Now when all the people were baptised…, Jesus also was baptised.'” [ibid., p.18]

What Cullmann basically says is that Jesus’ baptism inaugurated his mission, one as the [suffering] Servant of God – and the Bible agrees: Luke 3:23 immediately after the baptism episode says “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age…”; Mark and John simply open with this episode without even an introduction like Luke or Matthew.

The symbol of the servant who is an example to others was a powerful exhortation for upright life in the early Church (Hebrews 2:14-18; Philippians 2:5-8). The baptism in that light, as Cullmann says, makes not only perfect sense, but is basically what one would expect (Rom. 8:29). Imagine a teacher who tells his elementary school students not to eat in class because he knows they’d make a mess, but is then seen eating in the classroom by them – it’d be a bad example for kids who wouldn’t understand.

This view, supported by John’s Gospel as Cullmann points, is connected to Jesus’ use of the word “baptism” in connection with his death and resurrection (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50). To this the meaning of the Christian’s baptism is intimately connected with being born again (John 3:3) as a new person in Jesus’ death (Rom. 6:3-4).

There are many more points and deeper connections and levels of significance as the author writes, but this best summarizes his idea:

“It is clear in view of the voice from heaven why Jesus must conduct himself like other people. He is distinguished from the mass of other baptised people, who are baptised for their own sins, as the One called to the office of the Servant of God who suffers for all others.” [ibid., pp.18-19]

Summary

Jesus’ baptism accomplished the following:

  • Inaugurated his mission as the Servant of God: both as a symbol and in front of others (John 1:29-34)
  • Symbolized his taking of mankind’s sins as the voice echoes Isaiah 42:1 (cf. Isaiah 53)
  • Set an example for his followers via a meaningful connection to his purpose and temporal destination (death and resurrection)

It is for this reason that Matthew 3:15 rightfully says that this was to fulfill all righteousness.


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Baptism is the new birth

Paul consistently taught that those receiving baptism are dead, meaning not saved prior to baptism. There is only one explicit instance under the New Testament that arguably people were baptized after they were already saved in Acts 10, and this was done in order to demonstrated that Gentiles can also receive the Holy Spirit. Dead people get baptism according to Paul. He did not teach born again believers get baptized, he taught believers get baptized to become born again! According to St Paul we are buried in baptism–this alludes to being dunked in the water–this metaphor loses much meaning if the baptism is dry and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Paul teaching baptism is death and resurrection, that is the burial of the old man and a resurrection with Christ through faith:

in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been BURIED WITH HIM in BAPTISM, in which you were also RAISED UP with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the UNCIRCUMCISION of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions–Colossians 2:11-13

Paul is saying people getting baptized are:
1) Dead and being buried with Jesus
2) Uncircumcised
3) Without forgiveness of sins
4) Are then made alive and resurrected with Christ through faith
5) Become ‘circumcised’
6) Have the forgiveness of transgressions
Colossians 2 on baptism and Ephesians 2 (saved by grace through faith) are parallel passages
On top of this, Colossians 2 is a parallel passage of Ephesians 2 which teaches salvation by faith because of grace. Many of the terms are the same used, both chapter speak of “being dead in transgressions,” “raised up” with Christ, being “circumcised.” Then goes on like Colossians 2 about not being required to keep Mosaic dietary and ceremonial laws.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were DEAD in our TRANSGRESSIONS, made us ALIVE together WITH CHRIST (by grace you have been saved), 6 and RAISED UP with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through FAITH; and [h]that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. 11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “CIRCUMCISION,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands–Ephesians 2:4-11

So, the conclusion is Ephesians 2:8-9 passage teaching salvation by faith because of grace is about baptism itself, since its in the exact same place Paul puts in in Colossians 2!
Paul teaching Baptism is being clothed with Christ and links to being a son of God through faith

 

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.–Galatians 3:26-27

Paul teaches baptism–“washing of regeneration” saves, not deeds

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit –Titus 3:5

 

Paul teaching remission of sins by the mercy of God thru the “washing of regeneration” (baptism) and renewing by the Holy Spirit. This is the same teaching as Ephesians 2:8-9, Colossians 2:10-13, Acts 2:38

If Paul wanted to teach baptism was purely symbolic he sure failed by consistently mentioning baptism when talking about regeneration, being a son of God, being clothed with Christ, being raised alive with Christ.


Romans 6: Paul teaches Baptism is burial with Christ and resurrection, those getting baptized are considered dead and come up alive
 

Romans 6, Paul again teaches baptism=buried with Christ, going from dead in sins to new life:

How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.–Romans 6:2-4


Then, Paul goes on to say that we were crucified with Christ! So. a person being baptized is crucified->buried->resurrected.


Paul was saved at baptism

 

Paul’s conversion, when was Paul saved? He believed on the road to Damascus and when he appeared to Ananias, but was he saved? No.

Luke tells us what Paul died to wash away his sins–call on the Name and be baptized:

Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.’–Acts 22:16

 

John 3 Jesus preaches on being born again then starts baptizing
 
John 3 Jesus preaches on the need to be born again, and mentions its by WATER AND SPIRIT. The rabbinical literature we have confirms baptism=new birth, yet Nicodemus did not understand this, which explains why Jesus is astonished he doesn’t know what born again means. Immediately after Jesus preaches on new birth and that He is the Savior–that VERY first thing he does is baptize people:

 

After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing. –John 3:22


Old Testament Prophet Ezekiel says God cleanse iniquity with water and gives a new heart and His Spirit
 
Ezekiel teaching watered is used to cleans from “all uncleanness,” “idols” then goes on to say He will give a new heart, and THEN place the Spirit with in you–same thing the NT, Paul, Jesus say about baptism–afterwards you are give the baptism of the Spirit, while the first baptism was Christ’s.

 

And I will sprinkle CLEAN WATER upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes, and ye shall keep Mine ordinances, and do them.–Ezekiel 36:25

 
Does the New Testament teach the Holy Spirit Baptism saves and not water Baptism?
 
The “baptism of the Holy Spirit” in Acts caused the “speaking of the tongues” and was called the “gift of the Holy Spirit” which every time except in Acts 9 happened AFTER water baptism by laying on of hands.

the GIFT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT should have been poured out on the Gentiles also, they could hear them speaking in TONGUES and glorifying God.–Acts 10:45-46

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them as it had upon us at the beginning, and I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’–Acts 11:15-16

Therefore, ‘gift of the Holy Spirit’=’speaking in tongues’=’baptism of the Holy Spirit, and elsewhere =”laid hands” (Acts 19:3)

Gentiles were give the Holy Spirit prior to water baptism to show Jews they were accepted by God, every other instance in the NT water baptism comes first then Holy Spirit baptism

 
Was the “good thief” baptized?
 

The Bible does not tell us for certain, but we are told is that 1) Jesus baptized more than John, 2) John baptized all of Jerusalem and Judea, 3) many people apostatized because Jesus’ teaching of “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood.” So if Jesus baptized more than John and John baptized the people of Judah and Jerusalem, its possible that the thief/insurrectionist may have been included, but apostacised as some of Jesus’ disciples did when not believing Jesus’ doctrine.

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John–John 4:2

And ALL THE COUNTRY of JUDEA was going out to him, and ALL THE PEOPLE OF JERUSALEM, and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.–Mark 1:5

As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. –John 6:66

In conclusion, it IS possible the thief died baptized as a repentant apostate. Regardless, if he was or not, the NT does not say baptism is the SOLE means of becoming born again–ordinarily calling on the Name is part of baptism–but when not available–all those “who call upon the Name of the Lord will be saved.”


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Do the Ends Justify the Means?

“Would you steal bread to feed your family?” The theft is wrong, but the preventable starvation of your family isn’t a great outcome either.

Morally and Ethically the Ends do not and cannot justify the Means

Interestingly, the education reformer, John Dewey, who was also a philosopher, logician, and an atheist has a clever little proof that the ends never justify the means. He points out that, in fact, the two are morally indistinguishable, and that the means ARE the ends: they are only separated by time and space, which have no bearing on ethics or morality: only intent does. In such a situation, risk vs. reward does not have a place because one is comparing apples to oranges. That would apply if one is calculating the risk of being caught + the sentence versus the outcome if he didn’t at least try.

An Objection from Knowledge

If we agree that none of us are omniscient, how can one know what the true “end” of something is? This is the basic critique that the Soviet spy and defector, Walter Krivitsky has of communism. When he saw hungry, local peasant children being purposefully denied food, he met with this reasoning:

“We are on the hard road to socialism. Many must fall by the wayside. We must be well fed and must recuperate from our labors, enjoying, for a few weeks each year, comforts still denied to others, because we are the builders of a Joyous Life in the future. We are the builders of socialism. We must keep in shape to continue on the hard road. Any unfortunates who cross our path will be taken care of in due time. In the meanwhile, out of our way! Don’t pester us with your suffering! If we stop to drop you a crumb, the goal itself may never be reached.” [Krivitsky. In Stalin’s Secret Service (Enigma: 2000), p.xviii]

He accurately comments:

“So it runs. And it is obvious that people protecting their peace of mind in that way are not going to be too squeamish about the turns in the road, or inquire too critically whether it is really leading to the Joyous Life or not.” [ibid.]

The Answer from Relative Morality

Yet, a person could easily say that feeding one’s family with stolen bread easily achieves a clear, immediate goal – saving lives. After all, you could use the above logic to say that no one should really try to do anything, including good, because you just don’t know where you’ll end up. This is a valid point, and it’s completely accurate with respect to wisdom. This is the point of economist Alfred E. Kahn’s “tyranny of small decisions” – small, immediate, seemingly positive actions can ultimately add up to a large negative one.

But in ethics, a certain physical outcome is not relevant if it’s not a moral problem. For example, if I help a friend in need with $300, the fact that I might not be able to go with another friend on vacation is irrelevant, even if it’s an unexpected outcome. In a sense, knowledge is presumed to govern ethics here – if I didn’t know my family is starving, I wouldn’t have stolen the bread. Moreover, the theistic moral model presumes that God knows the result and that the action of the human is what’s relevant, not the outcome – because it’s His plan.

Why Relative Morality is No Morality

So, can either answer to the question be justified? It’s important to note the distinctions in this topic. If we assume that physical well-being is more important (at certain times?) than moral well-being, then that’s the premise we’re working with if we say, “Yes.” Perhaps it’s not wrong to take from someone who has a lot in circumstances like these. But we have already, unconsciously or not, replaced morality with physical health in such circumstances.

I want to point out the following: would you steal poisoned bread to feed your family? Of course not, it defeats the whole point. What if there was a 50% chance of it being poisoned? Still, probably no – one would just go steal it from someone else. What about a 5% chance? What if this was the only bread within miles and it was now or never? (cf. Rom. 14:23).

The point I’m making is that we’ve already lost sight of the moral question in favor of survival. The above scenarios would be answered the same way by someone willing to steal the bread, whether the bread was stolen or being offered for free; and this is the point that John Dewey makes in saying that the “means” are in fact the “ends.”

An important point that John L. Mothershead makes in his Ethics: Modern Conceptions of Right (1955; 2nd ed. 1967), is that right and wrong aren’t true or false questions. What he means by this is not relative morality, but that one person can’t judge the moral expression and understanding of another (Rom. 14:5). If the Greeks considered burial a proper way to honor deceased relatives and friends, they can’t accuse the Persians of disrespect for leaving theirs above ground.

Conclusion

The way this relates to our question is to point out that, if a person is willing to steal bread, then he can claim that he’s still ethical. But nor moral. Because with respect to principles, he has placed a utilitarian value on his actions, rather than a moral one. To prove this and point out the inconsistency, we can easily ask a question in the vein of “Sophie’s Choice”: would such a person steal bread from one of his family members (who would then starve) to feed another?

This is very similar to the “Trolley Problem,” although that’s different because the action of changing the course of the trolley is debatably right or wrong (or the whole action/outcome is, which makes it an excellent example). Here, we’ve presumed that theft, which is defined as wrongful taking, is an immoral action, at least when unnecessary.

In conclusion, it’s usually difficult to speak in universals, which is why it’s wise to rarely resort to them as it can often confuse and produce inflexibility.


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Meaning of Jesus

Upon the release of his, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, the scholar Reza Aslan gave a talk to a local group of people. One of the points he made was that if Jesus was God, then all of his suffering was far less meaningful. He literally says, “If Jesus is God and he dies/suffers, you say: ‘So what? He’s God.'”

I suppose with this logic, a man who is a king can be subjected to more pain than a peasant simply because one would feel less sorry for the king? This type of partiality is exactly what justice seeks to avoid: the status of a man or being does not reduce or increase his punishment.

Aslan reasonably misunderstands (or simply doesn’t know) that Jesus as a man had emptied his powers (Philippians 2:7-8) – something completely possible for the infinite (God) to relate to the finite (man), if one understands the applications of Set Theory. Not that it matters whether Jesus was human or not – an offense is just as repugnant regardless of the recipient’s treshhold for pain. God is hardly to be disrespected more simply because “He’s God” and “knows how to deal with it.” This and the self-centeredness of (the immoral) man makes it hardly surprising that God describes Himself as “a jealous god” in the Bible.

But I think that out of the ashes of Aslan’s misdirected objection (to Jesus’ deity), a much more subtle question and point can arise. Proper sacrifice naturally produces meaning. If I give up my free time to help a friend with something, I’m accomplishing something which no amount of leisure can do for me. Of course, this isn’t the only way for something to have significance. Discoveries and inventions are another good example, which don’t necessarily involve sacrifice.

But since Jesus is God in Christian theology, is his example as powerful as had he been merely a limited (ultimately), “lowly” human being? After all, the former is a prestigious, bound-to-win scenario, and the latter would be a “true” achievement.

I think this ignores a very important perspective. Jesus gave up a lot to humiliate himself in many ways (not having his power; being put to a shameful death; being rejected as Messiah). I don’t think an ordinary person would be putting as much on the line, or be as caring as that (especially if we take his fallen nature into account!). True, it’s not like he can (he can’t choose to be God and then “unchoose” or give it up). But given the fact that we’re all sinners whose sins had no logical justification (by definition), I don’t think such a person could exist.

Even if we assume such a person could exist for the sake of argument, then both this “regular” human and Jesus are giving up just as much as they had or would have had. What I mean by this is that the man who only makes $10 a day and donates $1 has donated just as much as the one who gives $100 and makes $1000 (arguably more, but that’s beside the point – one can adjust the variables). This is Jesus’ point in Luke 21:1-4, which can be seen in wisdom across all cultures and times (a parallel exists in a 1600’s Chinese wisdom book to a young woman). And Jesus already paid the “$100.” So even if the “regular” human would do the same, this doesn’t cast any shadows upon Jesus’ example at all! The fallacy with Aslan’s reasoning is ultimately that he unconsciously or not, presumes out of bias that Jesus wouldn’t have done the same had he not been God. And that only attempts to play on our emotions: “He’s God and hasn’t made a “bigger” sacrifice by being a non-divine human who does this – as if that even has any significance either” – something which I think he proved he would by the fact that he was a powerless human who emptied himself and did this nonetheless.


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The Problem of Evil

No other theological question is more popular and has been more persistent throughout history than the question of, “Why would God allow this bad thing to happen?”

And it’s a good question. After all, if God is all-powerful and good, some evil is really baffling.

The typical answers usually go something along the lines of:

  1. “Evil does not negate the existence of God.”
  2. “For all the bad, there’s even more good out there”
  3. “No one is innocent.” – citing verses like Romans 3:23
  4. “Evil doesn’t actually ‘exist.'”
  5. “Ultimately all bad things have a purpose.”

These answers always bothered me as incomplete or incorrect:

  1. Evil negates the Christian God’s existence as portrayed in the Bible, particularly the New Testament.
  2. It’s highly questionable that good outweighs evil, especially for some people, who neither asked nor deserved their misfortunate fate.
  3. No one is innocent with respect to God. This doesn’t give someone the excuse to do anything to others, because the offenses are not with respect to him. However, one can’t really apply this to children by simply stating this.
  4. This answer, which finds its origin with St. Augustine and is popular with many modern theologians (e.g. Alvin Plantinga) is for me unconvincing. If evil doesn’t exist as a technical entity (e.g. a chair, table, spoon), then neither does good, and this answer misses the point. Information doesn’t technically exist either with these definitions and so the answer doesn’t respond in any meaningful way.
  5. Ultimately bad might serve good in some instances, but we can’t prove in all. The assumption can be made for the sake of argument, but then one has to wonder why this has to be God’s tool at all. For example, a good example would be the exertion a caterpillar needs to make in order to transform itself into a beautiful butterfly. The work is difficult, and as a saying goes, “Work beautifies a person.” Nothing wrong with honest, productive, innocent labor. But the issue becomes especially sharpened, especially if/when the work exceeds the person’s reasonable limitations, when we ask the question, “Why does there have to be work at all?” This doesn’t originate with laziness – after all, what’s the use of technology if not to ease our burdens; to make the unimaginable possible, the unthinkable within reach?

But the Bible is replete with responses on this issue from prophets, Jesus, and even God Himself.

We have to remember why bad things exist. It’s not that God has no control or is indifferent. Quite the opposite – God even orchestrates these events and explicitly states so (the Flood, the subjugation of Canaan by Moses and Joshua, the fall of Israel, Judea, and Jerusalem).

Sin is the reason why bad things happen – everyone in antiquity knew this. But people misunderstood the connection between sin and the degrees of suffering. So any time someone seemed to suffer more than the majority, the question was “what sin did he or his parents commit?” This was the case with the man blind from birth (John 9:2) as well as 18 workers who had a structure collapse on them (Luke 13:1-5).

This is why the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the day ignored all the unfortunate in utter contempt – if they are suffering, it’s because they sinned and brought it upon themselves, just like the forefathers of the Israelites when Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BC. If someone was poor, it was his transgression of the Law that did this. After all, doesn’t Proverbs 22:4 say that, “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life”?

Of course, the various laments in Proverbs and Psalms regarding the occasional mistreatment of the righteous and triumph of the wicked is ignored in favor of a universal, hyper-literal “he that is rich and well is righteous” interpretation. That riches are not always physical is not taken into account. But that’s not a problem for the immoral mind as this thought never crossed his mind in the first place.

The resulting attitude logically becomes indignant contempt and self-serving pride. This easily morphs into legalism, which the Torah’s countless injunctions can easily be seen as corroborating evidence. The man who’s standing logically hasn’t done anything wrong. The resulting legalism then allows for the reinterpretation of the whole spirit of the Torah into whatever teaching suited the interpreters. This is what Jesus criticizes in Mark 7:9-13. Under such circumstances, hypocrisy can proliferate without objection, and as a near-unconscious by the man whose values lie elsewhere (Matt. 6:1ff).

BUT, we have to understand the true connection between sin and temporal punishment. Yes, although God loves both the wicked and the upright and sends rain and sunshine upon both (Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:17), one can still cross the line. Moses struck the rock twice, and for this righteous man’s record, it was too far – he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land he so eagerly awaited to be in, but was mercifully allowed to witness it from the mountain. Agrippa I, on the other hand, in his infinite sacrilegious pride allowed the crowd to flatter him “like a god” as Josephus and Acts tell us – God strikes him dead within 5 days.

How then can we understand and reconcile all this with Jesus’ statement, “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Lk 13:4-5)?

Simply, as sinners, we are all enjoying unlimited mercy insofar as we’re able to lead the lives we’re accustomed to. More on this can be found here, but the basic conclusion is that our sins are immeasurable offenses against God and for Him to delay (or even abstain from!) carrying out their punishment is an undeserved gift, even for the righteous man (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:20). The only way someone can maintain that his circumstances are unfair, brutal, or evil is if his purview is so self-centered, that his crimes are irrelevant. And, of course, now we can say that such and such calamity had a purpose – Judah was destroyed so that out of the ashes would emerge an Israelite stronger and more faithful than ever, exactly what we see under the guidance of leaders like Nehemiah and Ezra. This is why God “couldn’t” forgive the bloodshed committed under the king Uzziah, who ruled for 50 years prior to the destruction. Despite the fact that Josiah more than made up as a devout king who reinstituted all the Mosaic laws as active. And yet this seemingly juvenile lack of forgiving does not contradict where God says that He’d change His mind upon destroying a nation (Jeremiah 18) if they repent (like Nineveh in Jonah). And that His anger is quick to stop and that He’s forgiving.

This, then, explains why Jesus answers his followers regarding recent calamities on “innocent” victims by saying, “Don’t sin so that something worse (hellfire) doesn’t happen to you.” It’s not an indifferent, “Bad things happen, deal with it, stay religious,” which would otherwise seem to be the case with our (unwitting and natural, usually within reason) self-centered point of view.

The suffering of children of course falls under this topic. But before we join Job in bringing God to trial, we have to remember with respect to whom we’re discussing fairness. No one can justify intentionally harming a child out of his own rationale. But the fate God ordains isn’t for the same reasons as ours, as Isaiah 55:8-9 says:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

We were all children once. As adults, we’re no longer innocent. But if we predicate fairness and justice based upon time and space, we’ve lost the basic tenet of any ethical system: intent. A child can be innocent with respect to mankind, but his (future) sins are easily visible to God. What a person would have done, but is prevented from doing so for one reason or another, is no less subject to judgment than if he actually goes ahead with it.

This is what Jesus tells us sinning in one’s heart is (Matt. 5:27-28), and is an easily provable concept if we remember that the only difference between actual sin and “would have done it” (definition of desire in one’s heart) is inability due to time and space – the limitation occurs in physical ability, not intent. Therefore, since intent is the only thing one uses to establish ethical right or wrong (hence why God only looks at the intent), one cannot be considered innocent merely because of circumstances – because one wasn’t capable of carrying out his intentions, even if these intentions would be present in the future (God knows all things), or under different, but equally reasonable circumstances (1 Cor. 10:13).

So a baby Hitler would be ethically no less repulsive than the full grown maniac. And all of us were once children, which child bodies are now long gone, replaced by our adult sinful ones – exposing the subconscious bias that can guide us here. Jesus was the only truly innocent human being. His willing suffering was equally unfathomable to the disciples, and most of all for Mary, for whom, like all mothers, a son is never much older than a baby. In this sense, God always has a plan for any suffering. But since no one is truly innocent, to attempt and justify it with respect to justice from the human point of view is going down the wrong way, and is a non-sequitur that is ultimately bound to fail because one is unwittingly comparing apples to oranges.


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The Luke 2:1 Census

Anyone who has studied New Testament history long enough knows the controversial Luke 2:1 census. The relevant verses (Luke 2:1-5) say:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

The problem is that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6 AD, far too late for the events described in the nativities of Luke and Matthew to be reconciled with the above. Moreover, there was no such universal census that would’ve counted Joseph, who was not a Roman citizen, and Joseph would not have had to go to Bethlehem just because he was a descendant of David, who was born there: this is impractical, does not reflect Roman custom, and all of the Roman empire would’ve had to relocate itself if so.

Quirinius

But this does not reflect Luke’s often confusing expressions and narrative style. The verse that mentions Quirinius could easily be interpreted as “this was the census before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Luke 2:2). The census that Quirinius took in 6 AD was famous because it produced a massive revolt in Judea, and was a dating and reference point for many historians such as Josephus. Therefore Luke would have wanted to differentiate this one from it so that his readers are not confused, achieving quite the opposite.

Joseph Fitzmyer objects to this by (rightfully) pointing out that the grammar does not permit this interpretation (Anchor Bible Commentary, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, p.401). However, this grammatical rule wasn’t followed half the time, least of all by Luke, who has numerous omissions, vague dating, and a mish-mash of a chronology and descriptive style. This alleviates the need to debate whether Quirinius could’ve been a governor of Syria twice, especially since there is no time for him to have been one around the birth of Jesus (c.5 BC).

The Universal Census under Augustus

The universal census was held by Augustus to count all citizens of Rome in 28 BC, 8 BC, and 14 AD. Of these, only 8 BC could qualify to coincide with Jesus’ birth, taking a few years to fully implement in a backward province like Syria (Palestine/Israel was a part of it at the time). We know from Josephus that whenever the Romans taxed Israel, even just the Roman citizens, Herod took it upon himself to tax everyone, which he loved doing for whatever excuse (this happened, for example, when a Roman commander arrived once, for example). So Joseph could’ve easily been “counted”.

The Need for Joseph to Return to Bethlehem

The question of why he has to return to Bethlehem has an equally simple answer: he had some kind of property there. But for whatever reason, possibly family disputes, he wasn’t practically in possession of it so relocated, or preferred to work/live in Nazareth. Nazareth was not the backwater village modern writers make it out to be (its location is actually unknown because the modern Nazareth has no “brow of a hill” that Luke 4:29 says it was built upon). Yet it must’ve been a relatively big enough city since Josephus tells us that the land in Galilee was fertile and therefore no settlement had fewer than 15,000 people. There are in fact more archaeological sites than we have names for in Palestine, so we cannot say there is a mistake here. In any case, Joseph had property in Bethlehem, and this is supported by Matthew 2:11. Joseph and Mary can’t find a place for Jesus into the “stable” according to Luke (the first floor of houses were where the animals lived), because of the issue of not living there. Under such circumstances, we know that Roman censuses actually demanded the return of the person to this location (for example, see here).

Finally, Luke 2:4 seems to suggest that Joseph went to “his” town because he was of the lineage of David. However, here is an example, just like in Matthew 27’s midrash on the death of Judas (plus the general conflation of prophets – e.g. Mark 1:2), of Luke giving a theological reason guiding a historical one which had different origins with respect to Augustus. What I mean by this is that Joseph returned to Bethlehem because he was of the lineage of David not with respect to the census, but with respect to God – God caused the census to happen which technically required Joseph to go to his property in Bethlehem, but ultimately because he was of the lineage of David so that the Messiah would be born there (Micah 5:2).

Additional Comments

There is at least one author (I can’t recall his name or the book) who considered the passing reference to Quirinius’ 6 AD census in Acts 5:37 (Luke and Acts were written by the same person) to show that the Evangelist knew of the famous census everyone accuses him of mistaking and didn’t confuse it with the one in Luke 2:1. “Judas of the time of the census,” is easily a stock expression he took over from his sources or traditions, and he is in no way obliged to know it was in 6 AD.

However, since he was a careful historian (calls Pilate a “prefect” and not “procurator,” unlike his contemporaries such as Tacitus, himself a good historian, etc), and no ancient historian, Roman or not (e.g. Josephus), got such a major chronological marker wrong, it’s presumable that Luke did in fact know that this census occurred about 10 years after Herod’s death. The argument that Luke thought Jesus was born around this time (and that Herod died around 6 AD), is untenable because Herod was notable enough for Luke to have known when he would have died, and more importantly, he dates Jesus’ 30th year roughly to the 15th year of Tiberius (28/29 AD – probably the origin of the erroneous by ~5 years calculations for our modern AD/CE system), which means he could’ve in no way thought Jesus was born in 5/6 AD. If we subtract 30 from 28/29 AD we get 3/2 BC (no year 0, thus 1 year prior to 1 AD is 1 BC), which is much closer to 5/4 BC than it is to 5/6 AD. If he knew of Augustus’ 8 BC decree, he knew the census was in 6 AD and not earlier, and wasn’t talking about it.


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Anthropomorphic Features of God in the Old Testament

The title intends to explain why God seems to be more fallibly human in the beginning of Scripture than later on. For example, in the New Testament, God is and acts exactly how we perceive Him to be: omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. He doesn’t need anything, such as the Old Testament sacrifices, which in the Ancient Near East (ANE) were thought to feed the gods who would die without it (!), and blood was for their thirst.

If we start from the very beginning, we see God conversing with Adam and Eve like a neighbor (which He was at that point). Then He is more and more distant. After the Flood one needs prophets. It isn’t until Jesus comes (which indirectly may signify his deity) that this indirect relationship is briefly truncated (cf. “Ask for things while I’m with you” [John 14ff.] – whereas surely God can do anything whether He’s in the flesh or not, right? But that’s the point of our essay, the Problem of Evil [cf. Matthew 17:17]; John 11:21 – Jesus proves, like the Centurion’s son, that he doesn’t need to be present the way folkloristic magic, what the people believed (and what he entertained, important for later!) at the time).

God’s omnipotence, omnipresence, and especially omniscience can easily be challenged in the beginning of the Bible. This is not because those were more “primitive” times – The Old Testament was written from 1500-~300 BC, and if you’re not a conservative on this issue, the argument is even more in the conservative favor, because you’d place that composition at ~800-150 BC, and theology didn’t really change much on this basic issue (sacrifices existed into New Testament times, etc).

So, God asks Adam and Eve in the beginning, “Where are you?” “Who told you that you are naked?” etc. This is a rhetorical question, because there’s no one in the world (literally) that could tell them they were naked, except I suppose the snake, which again wouldn’t need a question. The same is true of God’s (metaphor physically expressed) sending the two angels to Sodom and Gomorrha to “find out” if there were even 5 righteous people there (they only find Lot and his wife and two daughters – 4; a questionable number indeed since his wife disobeys the divine messengers and turns around in full obstinance (like sin) to what people back then never did when told, and the two daughters as we know begin the Moabite and Amonite races in ways that are beyond the scope of this essay..). BUT, the angels do not check Gomorrha which is destroyed at the same time. This is therefore an illustration to Abraham that: 1) God is not indifferent to our queries, and 2) He knows better. “But couldn’t He have made Abraham to know that He knows?” Sure. Does He need to? Not really. Then we’d ask why Abraham had to have physical characteristics of such and such nature, which is irrelevant because it’s arbitrary and doesn’t need to be otherwise. If anything, the message and symbol are more effective this way, not to mention that we learn better through stories than lectures (which could again be remedied, but is again unnecessary and worse in view of the lost opportunity for the symbol, whose substance, our natural laws, essence, etc, is also arbitrary and not necessary to be otherwise (actually impossible – see Euthyphro Dilemma)).

Moving on, the Old Testament (OT) sacrifices reflected this same “acquiescence” that Jesus did in his day for the people – why re-establish a whole mentality? That didn’t change frequently at all in those days – the Mesopotamian writing style didn’t change for thousands of years, for example. God could work with a system rather than reinvent the wheel. True, He could replace everyone’s “mentality,” but again, there’s no point. This may also reflect the fact that He wants to remain hidden for good reasons as well as have several types of symbols and purposes – see The Great Deception [2 Thessalonians 2:10-12] – in their day and perhaps in ours.

This is why God is referred to as “El,” which was the main ancient Canaanite deity (but not as popular as the storm god Baal and the other baalim). In the New Testament (NT), in several places it’s acknowledged that God doesn’t need anything: neither a temple built by human hands (a late OT “admission” as well), nor sacrifices or anything of the like since He created the world and couldn’t logically need what needed Him in the first place (Genesis 1). Scholars like Ernst Haenchen maintain that this is a late influence from Greek philosophy (Stoicism), but while Paul certainly knew of Greek philosophy, this concept was known to the OT quite well – Psalm 50:12-15 (also Matthew 6:8). Haenchen inexplicably rejects this as not being universal, which is quite obviously the case. No ancient mythology had a deity creating the world Ex Nihilo, hence could not logically be independent of the “chaos” that reigned in the beginning.

The most peculiar of the anthropomorphic features of God is the fact that any Israelite who saw Him (or even His angels in later times – cf. Judges 13), would die on the spot. This was clearly some ancient pagan belief, but God, as we’ve said, entertained it, perhaps even sarcastically. In Exodus 19:19-25 God seems to “forget” He told Moses that anyone who came up to the mountain would die; yet Moses’ memory is untarnished on this point. When God appears to Moses in Deuteronomy 33-34, He has to show only his backside and Moses has a leftover glow. Paul interprets this metaphorically in 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 (while clearly believing in the event as literal and historical). In typical midrash, which is often misunderstood, Paul uses the lesson in this. In Galatians, Paul “erroneously” uses an argument his Greek audience would understand for convenience’s sake (like how mathematicians use 0!=1 for convenience), similar to how God decides to deal with things. Paul’s argument, like God’s actions, hinges not on the technicality of it, but the meaning, so trying to refute midrash whose intent doesn’t utilize details like this at its base, is starting off in the wrong direction (the word for seed in Galatians 3:16 has a plural in Greek but not in Hebrew; although the LXX translates it in the singular in Greek, clearly the intent is plural. But Paul is hinting at another, deeper significance). After all, Jesus was flesh and blood, which is fallible, but his essence and significance were far deeper than these superficial traits. Similar reasons are probably behind the seemingly malicious reasons God has for the confusion of languages (Genesis 11:8). And this is why also Hebrews 9:4 refers to a golden pot of manna whereas this is unstated in Scripture. But we know from Philo of Alexandria that it was common Jewish tradition. And it makes sense: if the rest of the items were golden as Scripture says, it only stands to reason that the pot wouldn’t be a rusty broken item from your grandmother’s closet.

The later prophets seem more developed for these reasons. Jeremiah says that God never asked for sacrifices in the desert exactly for these two points we are making: 1. It was never the original intent that God needed anything and was self-centered, rather than “us”-centered, so long as we were obedient to what was right. 2. The midrash of the rabbis, when used correctly, is not an error of an imaginative tradition (which was actually quite pedantically literal if one reads the Talmud) – it might actually reflect something older than the 2nd century BC in some ways. Often the earlier works reflect later concepts which non-conservative scholars immediately chalk off to “later editors.” For example, Amos, a northern prophet who presumably would’ve had no interest in Judea’s affairs especially with the looming sword of Damocles that was the Assyrian empire, writes in Amos 9:11-15 about how Judah will be re-established. This is treated as a later addition by a post-Exilic author who for some reason decided to give a northern prophet the honor of this ex vaticinu prophecy. Not to mention that this type of textual criticism is unknown and unknowable actually in Old Testament texts due to their antiquity and as a result lack of manuscript verification. The complex methods of analysis for Amos specifically actually prevent these types of arbitrary excisions, and ultimately are a result of the accuracy and shock of these daring prophecies. If one wants to see genuine development (frequently in the wrong direction) of theology, one only has to examine the history of Christian theology and the numerous heresies. The Bible’s uncompromising uniformity and rejection of what was popular but sinful does not compare at all!

Some direct proof of this is the fact that God tells Abraham to go along with Sarah’s unjust and inhumane request, while clearly disagreeing with her (Genesis 21:12-13). This was not only contrary to God, but the general law at the time forbade the exile of a slavewoman and her children even if the man’s main wife conceived. God does something similar at Samuel’s anointment of David by telling Samuel how to trick Saul. But when push came to shove, always with a dual purpose (that of showing the Israelites who their, and everyone’s God is), God doesn’t hesitate to act just like with the Exodus. Another way of God showing His power for more than one reason and in more than one way (also for the Egyptians and this was not just gloating), while knowing that same generation would consistently aggravate Him. In the end, the reason why God had/has all those anthropomorphic features is because He wanted to show that He was with us. As Jesus says in John 14:15-18:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper,to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him…I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

This is why God the Father was with the Israelites from Abraham and on, Jesus during his ministry, and the Holy Spirit with all Christians now: God was with all mankind from the beginning, not just His technical reappearance to Abraham c.1750 BC (see our upcoming Chronology); He appeared to Balaam, Melchizedek, as well as Enoch, Noah, and many other pre-Abrahamic believers. Jesus’ technical existence was in Israel and with the same types of metaphors we consistently see throughout the Bible, for “Israel” only, yet he was meant for all mankind. And the Holy Spirit reflects this reality.

This might all sound like a “cop-out” trying to hide the influence of man upon religion, in this case Judeo-Christianity. But tact is different from compromise (in the negative sense). Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship when necessary, appealed to his Jewishness when amongst Jews, and quoted Greek writers when speaking to Greeks as both Acts and his letters show. As he says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23,

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

This is the general theme that pervades the entire Bible consistently. This is not hypocrisy on Paul’s part, and this is not evidence of human development in the Bible. If the presentation changes, but not the intent, there is no syncretism – something opponents of the Bible and religion in general frequently fail to realize. For example, many churches were built on top of previous pagan shrines. Many religious customs were originally pagan, but were given a Christian meaning. Muhammad did the same with customs that the Medinans had by saying, “You can keep the same customs, as long as they’re directed at Allah.” Imagine you are a pagan and you have a certain way of praying: kneeling, hands opened and lifted, looking up at the sky like the ancient way – the way Moses (and the ancient Semites) prayed. If you started praying that way to a different deity, are you now a syncretist? Of course not. If the purpose remains the same, and the outward ritual reflects this and isn’t just a cover, then it is not a corruption of the philosophy. For example, a Greco-Roman philosopher once debated the Roman emperor Trajan. Trajan came up with an erroneous argument which the philosopher could’ve easily refuted but refrained from doing so. When asked why, he stated, “one does not debate a man who is master of 120 legions (approximately 600,000 soldiers, which is about twice what the Romans ever had at their peak).” Weak-willed? Yes, if important, given his reasons. Did he change his mind? No. In Romans 14 (as well as 1 Corinthians 8), Paul develops an ingenious argument to alleviate the Roman Christians’ concern over pagan sacrificed meat. Basically in those days, any meat sold on the market had a chance of having been used as a pagan sacrifice by Roman priests who then sold the leftovers to the market. This naturally bothered Christians. However Paul explains that since the Roman gods don’t actually exist, their sacrifice has no actual blasphemy or idolatry – it’s all just made up rituals over a real substance (the meat), and so they shouldn’t worry. Was this occasioned and “developed” because of a man-made need? Yes! Is the argument therefore incorrect? Not at all, those gods don’t exist one way or another. In Genesis 30:37-43, Jacob, in a Mendelian-like pseudo-scientific effort makes his flocks stronger and striped. The sticks he places in the troughs are typical magic of the time, yet this wasn’t why the animals speciated with stripes and spots – it was because God saw Laban’s injustice as Gen. 31:10-13 makes clear. Yet Jacob clearly wasn’t chastised by saying, “Stop doing this,” since he believed this was from God (due to the dream) and not from magic, yet didn’t know how else to bring about speciation in an age more than 3000 years before genetics were known. Another obvious example is the fact that any non-Levite Israelite was immediately struck dead when he touched or even saw the insides of the Ark of the Covenant. Yet the Philistines were able to carry it away with “only” bubonic plague as a result (the rats with swells they left in the inside represented the disease as was their medicine back then). Clearly God never intended for legalism to reign over the metaphor that his strict laws represented (an issue that Jesus brought up as proof against the Pharisees’ hyper-literalism in Matt 15//Mark 7 when he pointed out David ate of the holy bread and how the priests can circumcise on the Sabbath). The various seemingly brutal killings of Israelites who out of curiosity looked at the Ark’s insides, or when someone touched it, even to straighten it out from falling from the bulls (who are unharmed, unlike when Joshua took various Canaanite cities), is explainable by the fact that in those days people were extremely conformed mentally and it took a lot of bold and unashamed audacity to do something like this; it wasn’t like our day where everyone has their own opinion by nature and it’s ok. For example, Mesopotamian writing style didn’t change for thousands of years.

When obvious syncretism and moral errors came from the Israelites, the Bible vehemently resisted them. This starts from Moses’ day with his Israelites, who like the unbelievers in Jesus’ day had witnessed miracles but were indifferent to the reality they knew they represented. And continues to the numerous godless kings of Judah and Israel, all the way down to Herod Agrippa I, who was struck by God for accepting blasphemous praise as both Acts and Josephus tell us. He persecuted the Apostles for this same crime, quite obviously as the Bible tells us because he liked the favor of the Jews (and contrary to Josephus’ usual filtered presentation of the king as a “tolerant and great one”). Like Trajan’s opponent, he remained silent, but his conscience was wounded as Romans 14 describes. He obviously accepted the praise, like he did from the Jews when persecuting Christians or whatever was popular, which amounts to confirmation, whether silent or not. Even without approving, silence can be damning as 1 Corinthians 8 tells us regarding the “weak” brother. But with respect to intent, one’s silence cannot be interpreted as either admission or denial, as we know from Jesus’ trial.

At any rate, there are numerous times when the Bible and individual prophets of God went against what was popular at their own (physical only!) peril. Despite maintaining that Judaism was just an offshoot of Canaanite religion, E. A. Elmer unwittingly or not contradicts this in his “The Old Testament in Light of its Canaanite Background” (1936) by telling us how the popular religious traits of the Middle East in Old Testament times had two major characteristics from Mesopotamia to Palestine to Egypt that the Bible never shared: 1. Reverence for the baalim, 2. Various hedonistic pleasures that accompanied all of ancient Near Eastern religion. The Bible incessantly fights the former and never even deigns to entertain the latter. Rudolph Bultmann maintains that the persons consecrated to God and Judaism were Temple prostitutes. This is an untenable opinion based on the aspects of ancient Near Eastern religion, but there is no evidence from the Bible. Samuel is one such person and there is no such hint. In fact mere fornication (from men, not just women as in Deuteronomy 22) seems to be forbidden when David tells the priest Ahimelech that his men have kept from women in general, let alone on a holy mission (1 Samuel 21:5). When Eli’s sons did this, which was tolerated only because it was so commonplace in the rest of the known world, the whole family line was cursed for all eternity! Even if there were supposedly competing traditions that made their way into Scripture, if one group could hold their ground so firmly for what would be virtually no reason, clearly we have something more than merely natural religion here. At any rate, there would have been evidence of the Baalim had there been such competing traditions at play.