Who is “the Weaker Brother”?

In chapter 8 of his First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul begins a discussion that will go on for several chapters regarding food offered to idols.  The eating of this food was the means by which worshippers participated in the sacrifices offered to those pagan gods.  Through these chapters, St. Paul gives a variety of reasons why all of the members of the Christian community at Corinth must abide by the commandments against such participation as re-affirmed at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.  In the opening chapter of this discussion, chapter 8, St. Paul makes a distinction between stronger and weaker brethren.  This distinction understood rather casually, is employed all too frequently in both popular and pastoral…

Psalm 51 and Justification

Any discussion of salvation in general, and that described by St. Paul in particular, will necessarily include the concept of justification.  Exactly how justification works was the central argument of the Protestant Reformation in the West.  Despite a massive disagreement about its functionality between the Roman church and Protestant groups, they shared, for the most part, a common definition of the term.  To be justified was to be made, or declared, to be righteous.  Righteousness was something that was possessed and must be possessed in order to enter into eternal life.  It must be possessed in complete perfection.  Righteousness, therefore, formed a certain bar that needed to be cleared in order to receive eternal life from Christ.  In the Roman…

Why the Law was Given, and by Whom

At the beginning of the story of salvation, God made promises to Abraham.  These promises were really a reaffirmation of the purpose for which humanity had been created in the first place before the coming of rebellion, sin, and death.  The story of Abraham begins in Genesis 12, following on the three rebellions, the three “falls” of Genesis 1-11.  Once mortal life ending in death had achieved its purpose, Christ would defeat it and release humanity from its hold.  In the same event, his rising, he would also defeat the evil powers and principalities who had dominated the nations since Babel.  Death and the hostile powers stand as opposed to humanity’s destiny in Christ as spoken to Abraham.  Those promises,…

The Promises to Abraham

The promises made to Abraham form the basis for the entire Biblical understanding of salvation.  In addition to his name, Yahweh, God identifies himself throughout as the “God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.”  This is clear even to a very casual reader of the Scriptures.  Nonetheless, if asked what the promises to Abraham were, most even educated Christians would speak of the promise that Abraham would have a great many descendants and those descendants would live on a particular piece of land in Palestine.  The New Testament in general and St. Paul in particular, however, speak of the promises to Abraham as the beginning of the promise of salvation fulfilled in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The apostle…

Cain, the Sinner

As has been previously discussed on this blog, Genesis 1-11 narrates three “falls.”  There are three distinct times described when human persons joined with spiritual beings in rebellion against God.  The first of these, in Genesis 3, led to the devil being cast into the underworld and humanity’s expulsion from Paradise, the presence of God.  Through Adam’s sin, death laid claim to the human race.  The second rebellion is described in Genesis 4-6.  Cain and his descendants join with rebellious angelic powers to bring sin and corruption into the world, culminating in acts of demonic sexual immorality which produced clans of gigantic tyrants.  This resulted in the cleansing of the world by the waters of the flood.  Finally, humanity’s sin…

The Uprising

Many of the subtleties of St. Paul’s Greek, unfortunately, disappear in many English translations.  This is not necessarily the fault of translators.  For example, St. Paul refers to two different groups when he refers to “dead” without the article and “the dead” with the article.  Despite this, it is difficult to translate texts into English without translating both as “the dead.”  Liturgically singing that Christ is ‘risen from dead’ is awkward, at best, in English.  In other cases, English translations reflect accurately St. Paul’s wording, but two ideas are so closely related in English that St. Paul’s distinction is unclear.  So, for example, the apostle carefully distinguishes between “the Jews” and “Israel.”  This distinction is often lost, however, to English…

Christianity and Paganism

An area fraught with disagreement is the relationship of Christianity to what has been called paganism.  The latter term itself presents some difficulty as it is a later coinage used to describe earlier religious forms.  It is not a term used by the people whose practice it describes and it gathers together under one head a vast swathe of beliefs, practices, and ways of seeing and interacting with the world.  The very concept of ‘religions’ is a later, Western European Protestant one.  Ancient people did not think of themselves as members or practitioners of ‘a religion’ among others.  Nor did they distinguish between ‘religion’ and other areas of life like politics, philosophy, or some secular sphere. Nevertheless, paganism is used…

The Geography of the Underworld

When the Scriptures speak about the underworld, the realm of the dead, they use identical terms to those used by the surrounding culture.  This includes the names Sheol or Hades, as well as references to the realm under or beneath the earth.  This is not just the use of certain borrowed words or terms or even analogies.  In the ancient world, there was a well-developed sense of the underworld, of places in this world in which it became present, and of points of access in this world which led there.  Again, this sense did not consist of an ever-increasing series of metaphors and analogies or of cleverly-spun symbolic tales.  The ancients firmly held that their descriptions of the underworld in…

How is the Holy Spirit Like a Dove?

Christ’s baptism by St. John the Forerunner in the Jordan is narrated in all four Gospels.  One element of the telling of this event found in all four is the descent of the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32).  In each of these cases, the Spirit’s descent is compared to a dove.  Possibly because this comparison is conveyed in traditional Orthodox iconography through the depiction of a literal bird, it is often misunderstood.  The text is not meaning to convey that the Spirit turned into a bird or made some sort of bird manifestation.  In some less traditional iconography, the Spirit is even depicted as a bird in other generalized settings.  Two details, however, are here…

The New Year

This week, most of the contemporary world will celebrate the beginning of a new calendar year.  In the ancient world, a variety of calendars were used by different peoples to organize time in a manner held to be sacred.  This produced different beginning dates for the annual cycle in addition to years of different lengths and often, as with the modern leap year, periods of time inserted as corrections.  In ancient Israel through the Second Temple period, two overlapping calendars are in evidence and both are described in the Torah as well as in the practice of the people throughout the era.  Corresponding to these two calendars are two different beginnings for the annual cycle.  There were, in essence, for…