Covenants and Mathematical Monotheism

More from the Winter 2023 SOTS conference.

(It was January 2023, so not entirely sure whether the date above is a typo or for when it was originally scheduled.)

As promised, I will tell you about the two papers which I enjoyed the most at the SOTS conference. They both helped to shape my understanding of who God is—and are far removed from the way God is presented at Sunday School. As before, please note that I am describing the lectures as per my own understanding, with apologies if I am not accurately describing what the papers said.

Peter Hatton: ברית as treaty

The Hebrew word ‘beret’ (ברית) is frequently used in the Old Testament, and is usually translated as ‘covenant.’ Therefore, God made a ‘covenant’ with Noah, that he would not flood the world again, and he made a ‘covenant’ with Abram that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars, and so on. However, Peter Hatton suggested that our understanding of ‘covenant’ is misleading, and ‘treaty’ would be a better word. He said, “You don’t make covenants with friends, but with enemies.” There is an element of threat when a covenant is made—and we tend to forget this today. A ‘covenant’ or treaty is very different to a contract, which is an agreement between two equal sides, with no underlying threat, and with a right to appeal if things change.

He then discussed the treaty made with Noah, which was symbolised by a bow in the sky. A bow was a sign of power, a threat of attack. Peter showed several examples of pictures of bows from the ancient world, and each time they were signifying threat and power. The bow shown to Noah is a bow (not a rainbow) and it is immediately after God has murdered/executed all the people and animals in the world (so definitely something of a threat would be understood). [This is not something my Sunday School teachers emphasized, with our songs about ‘When you see a rainbow, remember God is love…’]

The treaty with Abram included a sign too. Abram had slaughtered animals, and cut them in half, and fire had gone between the halves. In the ancient world, people sometimes walked between divided carcasses, to symbolise the idea that if they went back on the agreement, they would be like the dead animals. [A little like in a Court of Law, we swear to tell the whole truth ‘so help me God’ in other words, only God will be able to save me if I lie.] In the example of Abram, God was saying that he would be like a divided carcass if the covenant was broken. [I am unclear here as to who the he might be. According to my notes, Peter Hatton said that Abram would be like the dead animals, but when I later read a commentary, they said that it was God himself who was saying he (God) would be like the animals if he didn’t fulfil the covenant. I think the Hebrew can mean either, so you can decide for yourself. Either way, the covenant/treaty held an element of threat.]

Peter’s paper then considered why this element of threat might be important. When people are in situations of conflict, pretence tends to disappear, and people are very real/honest. Peter said that when he has counselled couples with marriage problems, they are in conflict, and they tend to be honest about the hurt and difficulty. He remarked that in this situation, when people are genuine about the pain, they can start to rebuild. He also said that marriage is a covenant/treaty between people who are different (because individuals are different). [He lost me a little here, perhaps I was tired, but I don’t entirely see the same link with a marriage covenant and conflict/threat. But maybe you can work that out for yourself.]

Philip Jenson: Mathematical Monotheism

For me, this was the most helpful paper of all, because I have been struggling with the idea that the Old Testament is very clear that there is ‘One God’ and yet Christians are very strong on the Trinity (which to my mind, is basically three Gods working as one).

Philip Jenson pointed out that ‘monotheism’ is a term that first arose in the 17th century, which is when understanding of mathematics and science was developing rapidly. The idea (rather than the word) of monotheism first arose during the exile. Before then, people held a belief in monolatry (that only one God should be worshipped, above all other gods).

The Hebrew word for ‘one’ is אחד and it means more than the mathematical idea of quantity. אחד is about quality, about being incomparable, being in a position above all others. ‘God’ is not countable. Numbers are unhelpful here. God is known by power. אחד might be better translated as ‘unique’ rather than ‘one.’

[I think some of these comments about inappropriate translations maybe arise because language is not static, and our understanding of words changes over time. Therefore, when Hebrew is being translated today, words like ‘one’ or ‘covenant’ have slightly different nuances than they did during the reign of King James and the Authorised Version.]

Another problem with this is our understanding of the word ‘god.’ What is a god? Modern people don’t like to think that there could be lots of different gods floating around. However, the Bible speaks of ‘Heavenly Beings’ and some are named (Eg. Seraphim). These might be who were understood to be ‘gods.’ Or perhaps the ‘gods’ were man-made, anything that was worshipped and revered, anything that people treated like a god. Anything that rivalled people’s loyalty to God. Therefore, they did exist, but not in a way that was separate from human perception. A carved animal was a god, because it was worshipped as a god but if placed on a shelf as a mere ornament, it was not a god.

The paper then considered texts that possibly contradicted this idea, such as Isaiah 44: 6, “…beside me there is no god.” This seems to exclude the possibility of other gods. But this ‘exclusion formula’ might refer to power rather than the existence of other gods, so is inconclusive.

The conclusion was that God, YWH, is incomparable, and his multiple titles add to the hierarchy (because a lack of names implied a lack of status in the ancient world). The implication in the Bible is that other gods were created by God, and were potentially mortal (ie. not eternal).

I found it all extremely interesting, with lots of ideas to mull on. I also find it helpful when thinking about the Trinity, because I don’t need to try and explain an apparent contradiction between ‘one God,’ and that I believe Jesus was God, and yet he prayed to his Father, who was God. I can stop worrying about how many I can count, and focus on the unique, incomparable being who is God. I am very happy to admit that this God is beyond my understanding, and leave it there.

Hope you have a great week. Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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The Papers Presented at the Society for Old Testament Study

As promised, here is a brief overview of some papers presented at the SOTS conference that I attended last week. It is all new to me, so please be aware that I may have misunderstood some of the points being made, but these are the main highlights from my point of view. [I will add my own thoughts in square brackets.]

Moritz Adam: Ecclesiates

Moritz thought that Ecclesiates was well-introduced by the book of Proverbs. Solomon is sometimes linked to Christ, in an attempt to understand the books (though obviously this adds a whole layer of later history). Solomon is alluded to, but not named, possibly to widen the book’s appeal to later generations. However, the authorship is firmly linked to Solomon, ‘even if Solomon was not an historical figure’. [The scholars presenting papers often added this caveat—I don’t know whether they themselves doubted that Old Testament figures actually existed in history, or if they were ensuring their paper would be accepted whatever the reader’s view.]

There was a lot of discussion about how Ecclesiates potentially had Greek influence, such as the Hellenistic style of linking people with deeds: Moses—Exodus, Solomon—Proverbs. He suggested that the idiosyncrasies in Ecclesiates reflect a Greek style, as Hebrew doesn’t ‘do abstract’ very well. [I took notes, but found all this difficult to grasp as my own knowledge of Greek history is very limited.]

Moritz suggested that themes within the book reflect Greek thought, with no context for the ideas that are presented. He also quoted an Egyptian saying: ‘That which is crooked cannot be made straight.’ [I think this implies some of the thoughts may have come from Egypt, but to be honest, I didn’t really catch that bit!]

One idea that I enjoyed, is that ‘paradise’ is linked to the gardens of Persian courts.

Megan Daffern: Psalms

Megan was considering how the Psalms use self-reflection. [‘Talking to yourself’ in other words.] She said that sometimes this allowed the author to distance himself from the Psalm, and examine what was being presented. Sometimes it is used as a device to reassure oneself, to remind oneself that God offers security.

It was suggested that psychology today uses self-distancing to aid motivation [like when we talk to ourselves, saying we can achieve something].

David Firth: Psalm 40 and Psalm 70

Psalm 70 is basically the same as Psalm 40: 14-18. [I have never noticed this, have you?] David remarked that the Masorites [the scribes who added vowels and punctuation to the Hebrew texts] added a title to Psalm 70. Apparently, if a psalm has no title, it was possibly linked to the psalm before. [I didn’t know that, either!]

The paper then considered whether these two psalms were a copy of each other, or if both are original. It’s possible that both are included in the collection of psalms because they are very similar. Or, one may have been altered to be like the other.

The Hebrew word: ישב is a common verb in psalms 69, 70 and 71, which is some evidence that psalm 70 stands alone, and is not just an extract from psalm 40.

[Personally, I suspect that someone was feeling a bit desperate, read the extract in psalm 40 and wrote it out as it fitted his mood. He tweaked it a bit, and this then became part of the collection of psalms, because people liked it. But obviously I have no evidence for this.]

Kirsi Cobb: ‘Using Fiction to Fill the Gaps’

I hoped that this paper would be about how fiction writers can aid understanding by writing stories based on Bible narratives. But it wasn’t. The paper was basically a slating of a fictional book, stating that the concepts are badly presented. The whole paper made me furious, especially as at times it seemed to be a personal ridiculing of the author of the book being reviewed. There is a lot I can say, but I will leave it there.

[After the seminar, I remarked on the apparent personal attack, and I was told that this is normal. Scholars consider each other fair game for insults, and they don’t consider politeness to be a virtue when reviewing each other’s work. I hope I am never like this. Whilst I admire their brains, I did not always admire their manners.]

Paul Joyce: Inappropriate Optimism

This paper considered the unrealistic optimism that was presented by the false prophets, such as in Jeremiah. It discussed optimism as a cognitive illusion, and suggested that people tend to ignore evidence and lean towards optimism. [I feel I should introduce him to some of my family, as this seems very much a generalisation to me.]

He did note that biblical criticism and psychology share similar concepts, which I found interesting.

There are two other papers that I really want to tell you about. One was about covenants (you will never look at a rainbow in the same way again) and one was about whether the Hebrew Bible presents monotheism (there is only one single God). I will write about them in other blogs.

As you can see, most of the papers were full of information and ideas, and even though I am not as scholarly as most of the audience, it was extremely interesting. Thanks for sharing it with me.

Have a good rest of the week, and take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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I was invited to attend the Society for Old Testament Study conference. It sounded interesting, and not something I have experienced before, so I was keen to attend. I sent off my application form and fee, booked a train to Sheffield and put the date in my diary. That was the easy part. (I also explained to my family that ‘SOTS’ did not mean what they thought it meant! They had images of drunken old men sharing sticky bottles of whiskey.)

British Rail announced strikes, and my train to Sheffield was cancelled. I decided that the conference was still worth attending, so booked a train for the day before, and a room in a Premier Inn. Worried that the cost/hassle was now increasing. A few other people from college were going, some by coach on the day of the conference, and one via the same train and Premier Inn as me. We would all travel home together after the conference. This is important. I have very annoying issues with anxiety, but usually if I force myself to do things, especially with other people to distract me, then it’s fine and no one notices. I strive to be normal.

However, the train drivers then announced a strike for the 5th, which is when we were travelling home. I agreed with my friends that we would catch a coach from Sheffield to Victoria. Which sounded easy until I thought about it. The coach picked up from a motorway junction. This might be tricky to reach with all our bags. The coach only went as far as Victoria, and there were no trains to bring me nearer home. It also looked like I would be travelling alone the day before the conference, and staying in the Premier Inn on my own, as the others opted for different travel plans. It was the final straw, and I was about to cancel. Husband then kindly said he would drive me, book an Airbnb where he could work, and drive me home afterwards. Phew! I was saved. (This is why I love the man. That and his wickedly funny sense of humour.)

The first day of the conference arrived and I desperately hoped it would be cancelled. It wasn’t. It was held at Sheffield University, which I found very confusing when arriving on a dark January afternoon. Managed to find the registration place, and checked into the ‘hotel’ (which was basically a student room. But a much nicer one than when I was a student.) I told my son, who knows the university, that the seminars were being held in ‘The Edge.’ He told me this is the student bar, and I should watch out for the jello-shots. (Not sure the family fully believed my explanation of SOTS.)

The itinerary was full, with lectures interspersed with drinks or meals. I soon got into the swing of it, my brain switched into conference mode: chatting to strangers over drinks, checking the timetable, listening to people present papers, learning almost as much from the questions that followed.
Most of the papers were very interesting, despite being read. I have realised that this is a thing in academic circles. Someone writes a paper (Eg. ‘The false prophets were overly optimistic, which is a human trait.’) They are then given 45 minutes to read it, followed by 15 minutes of questions.

Often the questions were not really questions at all. Sometimes they seemed a veiled criticism, suggesting someone else had already written about the subject extensively. Sometimes they were adding information from their own studies in the past. Sometimes they were an opportunity to cite their own paper/book. And occasionally they actually were questions, usually asking for clarity or how the paper tackled a certain problem raised elsewhere. It felt combative, and whilst enjoying the intellectual to-and-fro, I was glad that I wasn’t presenting anything.

There were about 80 scholars attending each session.

I was aware that everyone was more learned than me (most seemed to be lecturers at universities). Most were probably more intelligent. I listened, and learned.

I also drank a lot of coffee.

There is not room here to talk about the papers that were presented. Some of them were brilliant, so I will write a few brief blogs to tell you about the ideas being discussed. I arrived home feeling drunk — nothing to do with alcohol, more complete saturation-point of my brain. I am so glad that I went.

Thanks for reading. I hope your brain has a work-out this week too.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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Who Influenced the New Testament World?

It has been fascinating during my studies, to hear about different influences that have changed the way people see themselves and their world. Today, we accept things like a ‘sub-conscious’ or an ‘inner spirit’ without really thinking about where those ideas came from. They are part of our cultural thinking, and we refer to them effortlessly during conversations. Yet, they have not always been known concepts. They were introduced at a particular time by a particular philosopher.

The same has been true for centuries, and one aspect of studying the New Testament, is knowing which philosophers influenced the thinking at the time. This isn’t disputing any inspiration from God, but it’s recognising that the books were physically written by humans, and those people lived in a culture, and there were certain philosophies that we see reflected in what they wrote. They couldn’t have written about ‘outer space’ or ‘gravity,’ and especially not ‘cyber’ or ‘virtual’ because those things were not yet thought about. Here is a brief summary of the philosophies that were well-known the New Testament world. You can decide whether some of the thinking is incorporated into what was written. (I am only including the snippets of their teachings that I found interesting—you can do your own research if you want to know more!)

Socrates (470 -399 BC)

Socrates said: “The only wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” He was killed by being forced to drink a cup of hemlock. He didn’t write anything, so we mainly know of his teaching via his pupils.

Plato (428 – 348 BC) Plato was heavily influenced by Socrates. He wrote a story, with Socrates teaching about cave dwellers:

‘A group of people lived deep in a dark cave. They sat behind a fire, and a puppeteer moved puppets, casting their shadow on the cave wall, telling the story of the world. This is how the cave people understood the world. But one day, a man left the group, and walked past the fire and out into the sunshine. At first he was blinded by the light, but gradually his eyes adjusted, and he saw that the plants and animals in the real world were better in every way to the shadow images he had seen previously. He went back into the cave and tried to tell his friends, but they refused to listen because his eyes could no longer see in the dark cave, and they decided he was blind.’ Plato wanted to teach people to ‘see’ the real world.

Plato said that the material world is transitory, and humans are capable of reaching an ideal state, which is eternal. He thought the intellect was the most important part of a person, and he differentiated between the intellect/spirit and the material/physical. Two separate parts of humans.

He also had an interesting idea for how society should operate: Plato divided people into those who were ‘rational’ (had wisdom) and said they should govern. The ‘spirited’ people were brave, so they should be soldiers and teachers. ‘Sensuous’ people should be providers, part of commerce, because they were temperate (knew moderation). This, he said, would bring social order and justice. [Looking for politicians who are wise might be difficult today, when being fast-talkers and good presenters seems more likely to get them elected than being wise. I guess Plato lived in a different time.]

Aristotle (384 – 323) Aristotle was Plato’s pupil. He thought that thinking (which he called ‘contemplation’) was superior to doing things. He thought the point of life was to contemplate God, and to serve him, and to pursue happiness. (I confess to be slightly confused by this, as he also said that contemplation is how humans can imitate gods, so not sure he was referring to God.) He taught that good action leads to good habits which leads to good disposition. All things should be tempered by moderation.

Sometime around Plato and Aristotle we had the Stoics. Stoicism taught that God was omnipresent, and everything was subject to his will. People should therefore not worry about what they cannot change (apatheia). Whatever happens, should be accepted. They said everyone should be treated well, because everyone shares the same spirit. Virtue is to know God’s will, and to follow it.

Plotinus (204 – 270 CE) He was a Neo-Platonic philosopher, and he tried to build on Plato’s work. He not only separated the body and soul, but also decided that ‘matter’ or the physical body was evil, and only ‘reason’ or spirit, are good. Therefore, the soul is more important than the body.

They all said lots more, obviously, but a lot of it was boring or confusing or both, so I have given you a brief overview. Interesting, huh?

I will tell you more about my studies in another blog. Thank you for reading.

Hope you have a philosophical day. Take care.
Love, Anne x

Something completely different: Have you read a copy of Out by Ten yet?

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Out by Ten is a thoughtful novel for those who enjoy reading. Available from Amazon. Treat yourself, buy a copy today.

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Notes on Matthew’s Gospel

Notes on Matthew.

I am reading The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard B. Hays, and below is a summary of his chapter on Matthew. It’s a very interesting book (and if you decide to buy a copy, it’s cheapest as a Kindle book from Amazon, but if you want a physical copy, then Amazon seem to be the most expensive. I ordered a copy from Abe Books for half the price).

The Gospel of Matthew was written about 50 A.D. so after the Gospel of Mark, and the letters of Paul. The temple had been destroyed, and the Jewish Rabbis were striving to keep the Jewish people separate by concentrating on the laws of the Torah. In contrast, the early church was reaching out to Gentiles (non-Jews). All the early issues about Jewish law (like eating only clean animals) had probably already been sorted out during the time of Paul’s ministry, so Matthew doesn’t address them at all.

Matthew is writing an apologue (a moral story). He writes about an ordered world, where Jesus has all authority. The disciples are now forming a community, with an emphasis on teaching and obedience.

The book has a clear beginning (the genealogy of Jesus) and a clear ending (the commissioning of the disciples). It establishes Jesus’ authority as the Messiah. The birth story is interesting, as it has the same typology as Moses’ birth story (‘typology’ just means ‘classification’). Moses was a deliverer and a law giver, and Matthew parallels this with the story of Jesus. He uses phrases like: ‘When Jesus had said these words…’ which is the same as the phrase often used in Hebrew, in the story about Moses.

The book is written as narrative, describing the activities of Jesus, and this provides a framework for big chunks of teaching. Matthew shows that: Jesus taught with authority, wise people obey his teaching, Jesus fulfils the law and the Old Testament prophecies. Jesus did not supersede the law, but rather he showed what the core meaning was, and called people to obey the essence of the law rather than thoughtlessly follow the letter of the law.

Matthew is basically all about living righteously, and showing mercy. Both aspects matter. He writes that an ‘unrepentant brother’ should be treated like a ‘tax collector’ or a ‘Gentile.’ I always understood this to mean the person should be rejected, cast out of the church. But Hays points out that Matthew has already shown that Jesus sought out tax collectors, and the disciples were told to preach to the Gentiles. Therefore, the unrepentant brother should be treated the same, shown mercy, and be a focus for their teaching. Whilst he would no longer be part of the church, the church should continue to try and reach him.

Matthew’s teaching about Jesus’ returning is still strong, but it’s less immediate. I guess he had already waited for 50 odd years, so unlike Mark and Paul, he was no longer expecting it to happen tomorrow. His emphasis is that God is with us now (a point he makes right at the beginning, when Jesus’ birth is foretold). When the church meets, Jesus is present.

Hays comments that Matthew is rewriting many of the stories in Mark, but adding his own explanations. He uses the stories to show his theology. For example, in the story of Jesus walking on the water, Hays thinks that Matthew is using the narrative to make a point, showing that the church (represented by Peter in the story) is being battered by persecution (represented by waves and wind in the story) and they will survive only if they keep their focus on Jesus and have faith that he is with them. Matthew adds the declaration of the disciples: ‘You are the Son of God’ at the end of the story, because this is something that the church of his time understood. (In Mark’s Gospel, the story ends with a rather gloomy comment about the disciples being amazed and not understanding because they were in a muddle over an earlier miracle.) The story adds to Matthew’s overall message, that God is with us now, however things seem, which is good news for everyone.

Matthew writes about Jesus coming unexpectedly, and that people should be ready. They must prepare by good living (because God will reward or punish people accordingly). He also calls people to have mercy and be compassionate towards the needy, because this is the essence of ‘good living.’


Thanks for reading, I will continue this tomorrow.

Have a great day, and take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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Do You Want the Good News or the Bad News?

Good News or Bad News?

Is the message of the Bible good news or bad news? Often the physical book even describes itself as a ‘Good News’ Bible, and Christians often refer to the good news of the gospel message. But is it good?

Sometimes this feels a little ironic to me. When churches then go on to explain how to ‘become a Christian’ a person must meet certain criteria, I think it all starts to sound more like bad news! I was taught that to ‘be a Christian’ I must understand that Jesus and the Holy Spirit and God are all one, I must repent of my sin and ask for forgiveness, I must acknowledge that Jesus died for my sin, and ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit. This was all achieved by praying ‘the prayer’ which somehow encompassed all the above. Going forward, I should attend church, read my Bible every day, praying frequently—confessing my new sins and striving to live how God wanted me to live. Most difficult of all (in my view) I should constantly be looking for ways to tell other people how to be a Christian, encouraging them to undergo the same process. Anyone who did not meet the above criteria was trapped in their sin and doomed to hell and eternal torment. Very bad news indeed. Most of the people who I love do not fit into the rather narrow category above.

Yet, when I read the Bible (point seven above!) things seem a little different. Jesus said he came to show people who God is, and he accepted people before they had done any of the above. Sometimes he told a person they needed to change their life, or give away their money, or repent of something they were doing wrong—but this was always after they had come to him. There wasn’t a form to complete, or a waiting list; the disciples didn’t regulate who could approach (and when they tried to, Jesus told them off!) People simply came. People were simply accepted.

I also read that after they came, after they had been accepted, they generally changed, they often wanted to be different, better, people. But the changing, the wanting to be changed, was afterwards. It was not an entry criteria. And they tended to differ in what they actually believed, they had different views of theology (which is shown in the later books in the Bible, where we see them having arguments about things).

Several of the books in the Bible were written by Paul, and I’m still not sure what authority they should have (as I have discussed in previous blogs) but I do think his views are helpful today. One of his letters describes Jesus’s mission as reconciling people to God, and that a Christian’s mission is to continue this—to be an ambassador, helping people to be reconciled with God. I do not, personally, feel I should be telling people what they are doing wrong, or insisting that they believe certain things (like in the Trinity) or changing their behaviour. But I would like to tell them that God wants to accept them (right now, just as they are, warts and all!) I would like to remind them that God wants them to be reconciled with him, and that everything that’s wrong in their lives does not count any more. All the rest of it—how they personally live out that truth—is between them and God.

Perhaps this is good news. Perhaps this is what our message should be. What do you think? Good news or bad news?

Thank you for reading. My next blog will be more about our holiday in Italy at the beginning of August. Enjoy your day.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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Which One Is You?

Part of my course has involved looking at the different ways people view the Bible. I found it quite challenging, as looking at various definitions makes me notice things about my religion in a whole new way. The way that people use the Bible says a lot about their beliefs. I’m going to give you three brief definitions—though there are lots of variations in-between. Which one do you think best suits you?

  1. “The Bible is the infallible Word of God”

This is often said, but it can mean several different things so you need to decide: Firstly, what is ‘the Bible’? In Scripture itself, there was no word for ‘Bible’ or ‘Scripture,’ they only referred to ‘writings’ which is slightly vague. It can either mean the selection of books that you have, gathered together into a single book, called the ‘Holy Bible.’ Or it can refer to the original texts, written in ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek on individual parchments, long-since lost. We now only have copies of copies of copies, and the Hebrew has been ‘translated’ into biblical Hebrew (it was probably a much earlier form of the language—like Chaucer’s English compared to today’s).

The books we now call ‘Scripture’ themselves refer to other books, which are not included in our Bible—so are they also infallible, or only the bits that are actually quoted? (Eg. Jude 1:6.) And do you mean the whole selection of books we currently have, which means their position within the Bible are important, or the individual books? Does infallibility extend to the actual book (which is probably English) that you read today? Even though versions and translations are different?

Next to decide is what you mean by ‘infallible.’ Do you mean that the authors were like automatons, so none of their own views were included? Though their bad grammar was, and so were some mistakes when they quoted other parts of the Bible. (Check out Matt 27:9-10, when he says he’s quoting Jeremiah, but actually he quotes Zechariah 11:12-13. An easy mistake, we’ve all done it, and it doesn’t affect his point at all. But would you say a mistake was ‘infallible’?) Plus, some of the ‘facts’ are a bit questionable—like the sun going round the world, and the order of some events in the gospels are different. And if you believe the Bible is infallible, does that mean it all has equal status, so you give as much emphasis to some of the Old Testament laws as you do to the teachings of Christ?

Now, an interesting question if you hold this view—do you go to great lengths to justify it? Are you comfortable saying, ‘That bit doesn’t seem to make sense.’? Or do you produce reasons to explain why it does make sense, even if it isn’t obvious at first look? Is the emphasis of your worship teaching, or reading the Bible?

In my experience, the sermon (which is the speaker’s interpretation) is usually longer than the reading of Scripture. Which might imply we don’t think God can speak to individuals through the Bible—which is not what we state. If someone disagrees, do you spend time explaining your view, and are you unhappy unless everyone believes much the same thing?

The explaining/justifying is even reflected in some Bible translations: Isaiah 7:14 uses a Hebrew word, עלמה , which in that context probably means ‘young woman’ but the NIV translates it as ‘virgin.’ It’s quoted in Matt 1:23, and the Greek uses the word ‘virgin.’ However, I don’t think Matthew is using the quote to describe Mary, he is using it to describe the son, Jesus, the Messiah. Therefore, by changing the Isaiah meaning, the NIV has added its own view to Scripture (rather than allowing Scripture to speak as it will).

2.God Speaks Through the Bible (But the Bible is not equal with God)

This view means you believe God uses the Bible to guide people, to reveal himself and to provide a standard of right-and-wrong. But the writings are not ‘infallible.’ It is a theological book, the words have meaning and it’s the meaning that’s important, not the actual words. So for example, the parable of the ‘Prodigal Son’ explains something about God’s love. But the words are not necessarily a direct quotation of what Jesus said, and the situation surrounding the parable may have been changed, to help the reader understand the point. The writers were inspired by God, they were listening to his Spirit as they wrote, but they were still human, they may have made mistakes about timing or science—things that don’t affect the theology.

People who believe this are usually comfortable admitting that some bits of the Bible are difficult to understand, or don’t seem to make sense, or were part of the culture of the ancient world and therefore the theology still applies but not the literal words. However, you need to decide which bits should be taken literally, and which parts are less important. If God allowed mistakes in the Bible, how do you know which are the right texts, and which should be ignored? If God speaks to individuals through the Bible, then how do you stop people finding support for their own views, and misunderstanding passages? Is it okay if everyone in a church believes something different and there is no uniformity?

Churches who hold this view usually ensure that both Old and New Testaments are read at each service, and the emphasis is on the Bible, not the teaching/interpretation, so the sermons are less important.

3. Logic and Reason are Most Important, the Bible Contains Some Useful Teaching

If this is your view, then you acknowledge that there is some good teaching in the Bible, and that God can use it to speak to people, but unless the narration is logical, you doubt if it’s true. You like everything to be ‘proved.’ This means the miracles in the Bible were either misunderstood ‘tricks’ or made-up by the authors to explain a theological point. You believe the Bible is pure theology, and not at all historically reliable. Reading it can point to good behaviours and an understanding of God, but it shouldn’t be taken literally, and the events described might, or might not, be true.

People who believe this tend to focus on discussion, listening to a range of views and beliefs. They are open to being persuaded, and give more emphasis to what other people say and write than to the Bible itself.

As I said, there are a whole range of views between these, but they give a basic framework. Which one is you? The thing I find interesting, having spoken to various people, is that whatever view they hold, they all say that God speaks to them through the Bible. I believe them, which is rather marvellous don’t you think?

Thanks for reading.

My next blog is about our trip to Iceland. I kept hearing that it is a beautiful place, but I wasn’t so sure. Is lava beautiful? We booked a trip and went to see. I will tell you about it next week.

Take care.

Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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How Do We Read the Bible?

Learning How to Read the Bible

Reading the Bible

As my college lectures continue, I am beginning to meet some new ideas. One of my subjects this semester is ‘Reading the Bible’ which happily is more complex than it sounds. It’s an issue I’ve been struggling with ever since I learnt that we don’t actually have an original copy of the Bible even though we do have other writings that predate some of the Biblical books. So why did God not preserve an original manuscript of the books in the Bible? Could it be that perhaps we are giving it too much emphasis? Or the wrong sort of emphasis? Are we meant to be completely sure that we have all the answers?

Part of my lecture preparation this week is to read an article by N.T. Wright. Not sure if you’ve come across him? He writes lots of Christian stuff. I tend to think that he writes about interesting issues, but I find his books very difficult to read. Some writers produce work that flows easily into my head, and others are more of an effort. I’m not sure why, maybe it has something to do with speech patterns. If you want to read the whole article by Mr. Wright, the link is here:

Mr Wright begins by questioning what people mean when they talk about ‘the authority of the Bible.’ This intrigues me too—what exactly do they mean? People often tell me: “The Bible is God’s word,” but I’m never quite sure whether they mean the original books (which we don’t have any more) or their own translation, or the essence of the books but not absolutely every word/sentence/paragraph. It does seem that sometimes people treat the Bible as if it is God. I was interested to read that Mr Wright also struggles with this (well, to be fair, he didn’t say that he struggled, so he might be completely sorted on this point). He notes that the Bible itself only gives authority to God. He says that the Bible is one way that God reveals himself.

He then describes (not especially kindly) people who look at the Bible for ‘a daily blessing’ or ‘the answer to a question’ or ‘divine inspiration.’ He thinks this is a misuse of the Bible. Whilst I sort of agree with him (in the same way as I think people often use prayer as if God was a genie in a lamp, waiting to grant their requests) I didn’t much like his tone. In the Bible, people came to God for all sorts of wrong reasons, like they were scared of dying, or they had just watched a miracle and thought following Jesus would be the ancient equivalent of knowing the lottery numbers each week. Mostly, people came for selfish reasons, but God took them anyway, Jesus let them follow, and they learnt the truth along the way. People probably rarely come to God—or read the Bible—for the right reason. Not initially, anyway. However, the next thing Mr Wright wrote was, I thought, rather clever.

An ancient book

He described a pretend situation where a new play by Shakespeare had been discovered, but the last act was missing. Rather than produce the play while incomplete, or ask a modern playwright to write the ending, a group of Shakespearean actors decided to produce the play themselves. They thoroughly learnt the first few acts, so they were familiar with the characters, they knew how they would respond, they knew the situation they were in, and then—following the essence of the original—they finished the play. They didn’t simply regurgitate an earlier scene, nor did they ignore the essence of what was already written; they kept to the ‘authority’ of the first part whilst creating something that finished the drama completely in-keeping with what had gone before. This, says Mr. Wright, is how we should view the Bible. We are ‘making up’ the final act of the play, but it needs to be consistent with what has gone before.

It’s an interesting viewpoint, and I think I probably agree with it. We do need to be immersed in the Bible, so we know the message that it presents, but rather than it being a static, historical work, we can make it something alive, something relevant for today. Which means that the selecting of certain passages to ‘make rules’ is a dangerous game, not really what our purpose is meant to be. They might not apply in ‘the final act.’

I will mull on the idea, and try to think about the wider issues—but so far it looks like a useful analogy. What do you think? Of course, you do need to actually read the Bible. Do you?

Thanks for reading. I’ll give you more updates on what I discover at college as I go. It’s mainly been very interesting so far (one bit isn’t, but I’d better not talk too much about that!) Have a good day. Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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All ten ducklings healthy and happy.

The Gilgamesh Epic

Here is the quick summary of the Gilgamesh epic that I promised you last week. As you read it, think about how it compares to the garden of Eden story told in Genesis. To remind you: Genesis was written during the Iron Age, though was told (orally) much earlier. If you choose to believe it was first told/written by Moses, then the date of the Exodus was about 1446 (according to my own calculations).

(The link to my long ramble about when Moses should be dated is here:

The Story of Gilgamesh is actually an epic poem, written in Akkadian, about 2000 BCE (so before Moses). It was written in cuneiform script, which simply means it was written in wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets. A chap called George Smith was working at the British Museum in 1872, deciphering things that were stolen/bought/being kept safe (depending on your viewpoint) and he managed to translate a fragment of tablet found in the site that was once Nineveh. (You might recognise Nineveh? Story of Jonah and the whale.) Anyhow, this fragment seemed to have the story of the Genesis flood, and everyone got very excited and sent George back to try and dig up more. I think that this is when Gilgamesh was discovered.

The Story of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh is the name of a king. He was pretty nasty, so the god Anu decided to create a counterpart, called Enkidu. He is created from clay (similar to Adam in Genesis story) and is made in the image of a god. Enkidu sets off to meet Gilgamesh, but is waylaid by the temptress Shamhat, and they spend a week making love. He is somehow transformed by this, and realises he needs to wear clothes. This frightens the animals (who previously had been his friends) and they run away. He goes off to meet Gilgamesh, they fight and then become friends.

They travel to a forest, which is guarded by Huwawa. They chop down trees, there is a fight, Huwawa is decapitated. The gods are angry and send a bull to punish them, but they kill that too. The gods are more angry, and decide one of the pair should die, so Enkidu is made ill, and then dies, going to ‘the house of dust.’. (There is stuff here about how the gods let him be like a god, but in the end withheld immortality from him, which also mirrors one of the themes in the Genesis story.)

Gilgamesh mourns his friend, and sets off to try and achieve immortality. The poem then has side stories of scorpion people, and lands of darkness, a beautiful garden and a ferryman. He is looking for Utnapishtim, who survived the great flood, as he holds the secret to immortality. As an aside (this story has a lot of asides) Utnapishtim survived a great flood by building a boat, and taking two of every animal inside. They floated until the boat came to rest on a mountain top.

Gilgamesh manages to find Utnapshtim, and asks how he can gain eternal life. At first, Gilgamesh is told not to sleep. He then sleeps for 7 days (not a great start!) He’s then told that he needs to acquire the plant of life (which mirrors the tree of life). He manages to get the plant, but then leaves it by a pool while he swims (as you do) and it is stolen by a snake. The poem then becomes very confusing, but I think that eventually Gilgamesh becomes both wise and immortal. Though in some versions he simply becomes content to be mortal. My Akkadian is non-existent so I can’t confirm either.

(There’s an entertaining video on Youtube if you fancy watching another quick summary of the story: )

Mesopotamian art has lots of images of Gilgamesh.

So, what are your thoughts? Remember, this epic was written before the Old Testament was written. Though if the events in the Bible are factual, they would of course have happened before Gilgamesh, so you could argue that the Bible events influenced the writer of the epic, which then potentially influenced the writers of the Old Testament. I guess there’s no way of knowing, but it’s worth thinking about, because whatever you believe, you should be able to defend the logic of it.

Next week I’ll tell you about the arguments of James Barr and Joseph Fitzpatrick, who are very convincing. They also don’t think the garden story was about ‘original sin’. Thanks for reading. Take care, and try to avoid talking snakes.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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Words in Despair

What did Jesus say on the cross?

I learnt something interesting recently. I think I am slightly behind the curve, and maybe you knew this already—when Jesus was dying on the cross, he was probably reciting Psalm 22.

I knew that the psalm links to the crucifixion, as it seems to describe exactly how Jesus would be feeling, and some of the actions listed (like gambling to see who would win his clothes) actually happened at the time. I have always thought it was a poem, written about 600 years earlier, to describe how Jesus felt (because God can write things before they happen). But it had never occurred to me that Jesus, in his darkest time, would have recited it.

I learnt about it in a Greek lesson, because the words of Jesus on the cross were recorded by the gospel writers. But here’s the thing: the gospels were written in Greek, and each writer added their own slant. So in the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke) they want to show how Jesus suffered on the cross and so they recite (but in Greek):

“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (See Matthew 27 vs 46)

However, when John wrote his book, he wanted to show how everything about Jesus’ life was planned by God, and the crucifixion was part of that plan, and so he quotes the end of Jesus’ words:

“It is finished.” (See John 19 vs 30)

As I said, John was writing in Greek, and in Greek they are able to write in tense that shows something has happened in the past—but the consequences have not finished, it is on-going. In English we can do this with certain words, so if we say: “I became a vegetarian a year ago” it can be assumed we are still a vegetarian now (but not necessarily, because English doesn’t have the same clever tenses that Greek does).

John used this tense when he wrote the final words of Jesus. It was finished, in the past, but the consequences will continue.

Of course, Jesus wouldn’t have recited the Psalm in Greek, he spoke Hebrew/Aramaic. I don’t know enough Hebrew yet to tell you whether they have the same clever tenses that Koine Greek does, so I only know that he probably recited Psalm 22 when he was on the cross.

Does this knowledge make a difference?

Well, the stuff about the gospel writers using Greek to give an angle on what was said is interesting, but probably doesn’t affect me overly. But the idea that Jesus quoted scripture at his most difficult time makes me think that perhaps this is something I should aspire to do. If Jesus came to give us an example of how to live, maybe when life is hard for me, I should also recite scripture—perhaps it would comfort me and help me to focus on better things than the horrible situation I am coping with. I will probably never suffer anything on the same scale as being crucified, but everyone has dark times, don’t they? We all feel overwhelmed sometimes.

Of course, I can only recite scripture if I have previously learnt it. Which is not something that’s very fashionable these days. Perhaps it should be. I think I will try.

Psalm 22 is very long, so I won’t start with that one. I think it might be a good one to learn next year—perhaps as a discipline for Lent. Do you want to join me? We could learn a few lines every day, and by Easter we will know the whole Psalm. I will divide the Psalm into segments and post them on my blog (I can predate things now, so next year they will arrive in emails to my followers). It will be good for our brains if nothing else!

For now, I will try to learn Psalm 1 (because it’s short). It would be good for me to learn it in Hebrew, as that’s my current challenge—I will let you know how I get on.

Thanks for reading. I hope you find some interesting challenges this week.

Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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