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Jesus’ brothers and sisters

The Gospel According to John, chapter 7:2-10 reads:

2 Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand. 3 So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. 4 For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For not even his brothers believed in him. 6 Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. 7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. 8 You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” 9 After saying this, he remained in Galilee. 10 But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private.

Three times the text mentions “Jesus’ brothers”, or as the footnote states, it can be translated, “Jesus’ brothers and sisters”. Who are these brothers and sisters?

1. Literally speaking, someone’s brother or sister is a person with the same parents. Since Jesus is uniquely the Son of God (John 3:18), he cannot have any brother or sister in the literal sense. Therefore, these verses cannot be read literally.

2. Someone’s half-brother or half-sister has one parent in common. Is it possible that Joseph and Mary had natural children after Mary gave birth to Jesus? John 19:26-27 reads:

26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

This action of Jesus as he was dying makes no sense if either Joseph were still alive or Mary had other children who would take care of her. So Jesus did not have a half-brother or a half-sister.

3. Someone’s step-brother or step-sister is a child of a parent from a previous marriage. Is it possible that Joseph was widowed and had children before marrying the Virgin Mary? The John 19 passage above shows this would make no sense because if either Joseph were still alive or Mary had other children, they would take care of her. So Jesus did not have a step-brother or a step-sister.

4. In some cultures such as first-century Jewish culture another relative such as a cousin may be called a brother or sister. This is the remaining possibility and must be the meaning of the passage. These brothers and sisters were likely cousins of Jesus.

The conclusion is that Jesus of Nazareth was an only child.

False Gospels

The false gospel of sensitivity: Christians should always to be sensitive to other people, and never offend them in any way.

It is false because Jesus offended many people.

Matthew 15:12:  Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?”

The true gospel itself is offensive. For example:

1 Peter 2:7-8: So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

On the other hand, Christians should not needlessly offend others.

1 Corinthians 10:32: Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God

Oversensitivity and lack of sensitivity are extremes to be avoided.

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General and special knowledge

General knowledge is based on common experience and is available to everyone. No special training or vocabulary are necessary for general knowledge. It is also called ‘general revelation’ and ‘common knowledge’. This is the knowledge that realist philosophy builds on.

General sciences are the areas of general knowledge. In philosophy these are ontology, epistemology, and ethics. Since the existence of God and creation may be demonstrated from general knowledge, there is a general science of theology. General creation is general knowledge of creation.

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Special knowledge is based on uncommon experience that is available only to those who make a special study of them and learn their special vocabulary. The special sciences such as chemistry and physics are forms of special knowledge. They begin with general knowledge but then add special studies of particular aspects of general knowledge. This is the knowledge that anti-realist philosophy builds on.

Special revelation is another form of special knowledge; it requires knowledge of revelatory texts and faith in their message. Special creation is special revelation or knowledge about creation such as the special status of humanity.

Special knowledge in the light of special revelation is different from special revelation in the light of special knowledge. Here is a diagram of their relationship:

General knowledge/revelation ⇒ special knowledge1 ⇒ special revelation2 vs.

General revelation/knowledge ⇒ special revelation1 ⇒ special knowledge2

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Examples of general revelation in the Bible:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1:1

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Psalm 19:1

Examples of special revelation in the Bible:

Genesis 1:2 – 3:24; Romans 16:25; I Corinthians 14; II Corinthians 5:19; Ephesians 3:3; Revelation 1:1

Biblical theism vs. classical theism

Biblical theism and classical theism have much in common, particularly the position that God is different in kind from all of creation. But there is an implicit principle of classical theism that I would put this way: “God only does what only God can do.” For example, because only God is transcendent, it is consistent with this principle that God creates from nothing.

“An architect of the universe would have to be a very clever being, but he would not have to be God…” Maurice Holloway, S. J., An Introduction to Natural Theology, pp. 146-47 (quoted here). However, there’s more than the existence of God at issue; there’s also the existence of mankind as a created kind, rather than a taxon only different in degree from other taxa.

Classical theists assert that there is only one causal act in God by which he causes ex nihilo whatever exists apart from himself. That is, God does not take something already existing and make it into something else. Why not? Because that would be doing something that a creature could possibly do.

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Essentials of Christian Thought, part 2

This post continues from part 1, here.

One characteristic of the book is that the “essentials” or “metaphysics” that Roger E. Olson elucidates are somewhat buried among the text dealing with the competing alternatives. What follows are excerpts that focus on the essentials of Christian/biblical thought itself.

A basic presupposition of this book is that the Bible does contain an implicit metaphysical vision of ultimate reality—the reality that is most important, final, highest, and behind everyday appearances. p.12

Ultimate reality is relational. p.13

Ultimate reality is personal, not impersonal, and humans reflect that ultimate reality in their created constitution—what they are. Here we will call that “Christian humanism.” p.17

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Textual realism and anti-realism

Anti-realists always begin with reality – and reject it. Because, they argue, it is obscure, misleading, and subject to different interpretations. So anti-realists begin again, this time with an idea of theirs. Even materialists begin with an idea, the idea of materiality. Thus anti-realists substitute their ideas for reality.

In contrast, realists begin with reality and accept it. Because, we argue, it is reality whether we like it or not; it is sufficiently perspicuous; careful observation and reflection can overcome misleading appearances; and interpretations should be based on reality.

All of this applies to writings as well. Anti-realists turn away from the inherent meaning of the text in favor of their interpretations of the text. Realists accept the inherent meaning of the text, yet are also free to discuss its significance and application.

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Creation of ubiquitous light

The first chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis 1, has attracted many commentators over the centuries. Recent scholarly work attempts to place it in the context of ancient Near East writings. (Near East is the European moniker for what Americans call the Middle East.) That however undervalues the unique, nuanced text of Genesis.

Creation ex nihilo is analogous in some ways to the creation of an axiomatic system such as Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. Before the first postulate (“A straight line segment can be drawn joining any two points.”) one should not assume that any such straight lines exist. “Let there be a line such that …” is the act of creating a line.

Similarly, in reading Genesis 1 we should not assume that before something was created, it existed or it existed in the way that we know it. Things we take for granted today, such as light, had to be created. This requires a close reading of Genesis 1 as a step by step process in which as little as possible is assumed to exist before there is some indication that it does exist.

Genesis 1 begins with some of the most famous words ever written:

1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

In regards to light, the second verse says there was darkness but no light, at least in the earthly world (we’re not told about the heavens of verse 1). Light is created in verse 3: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

Where was the light shining from that was created in verse 3? And what time was the light shining? The text answers the second question first, in verses 4 and 5: “And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

The light of verse 3 was separated from darkness to produce daylight, that is, a time of light. Before that separation, light and darkness were commingled in time. That is, at first light was ubiquitous in time. After the separation, light was concentrated in time, which is what constituted Day, that is, daylight.

Several verses later the text reads about the fourth day (Gen. 1:14-18):

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

For centuries people have found this passage perplexing. How could there be light on earth without the sun? Why was the sun needed if there was already light on earth? To start with, there was light on earth before the sun; that’s what the text says about day one. There was also evening and morning, nighttime and daytime without the sun.

Again, where was the light shining from that was created in verse 3? The answer is given in verse 18, which says why the sun, moon, and stars were created: to separate the light from the darkness. Prior to this light and darkness were commingled in space. That is, at first light was ubiquitous in space.

The image is that of the creation of ubiquitous light, which is then separated from darkness in time, and later separated from darkness in space. The separation of light and darkness on the fourth day produced stars, including the sun. The stars were not created from nothing at that time but were made by concentrating the light in space. Stars are a concentration of light that was already there.

This answers another perplexing question, which is asked since the speed of light is known to be finite, and some stars are many light-years away: How did the light get from the stars to the earth so quickly? The answer is that the light was already on the earth because light was ubiquitous in space before the stars were made. Concentrated darkness was lacking, too, before the light and darkness were separated.

In order to explain how starlight got to earth in a short time, it is sometimes asserted that God created light in transit. That is a different view than the one presented here, and one that lacks support in the text of Genesis 1. There are those who say Genesis 1 is just poetry and so can be interpreted any way you want. I have no patience for such a low view of poetry or anyone who plays fast and loose with the text. The close reading above shows that the text of Genesis 1 makes sense on its own terms.

3D time in ancient culture

I’m returning to a topic I wrote about here: time in ancient culture and thought.

Look at Genesis 1, verse 3:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.

Now a modern person is thinking spatially and expecting God to separate the place of light from the place of darkness. So the next verse would be expected to say something like, “God called the light Sunnyland, and the darkness he called Shadyland.” But instead Genesis is written in a temporal way, and it says “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” Later, space arises within time, contrary to the modern way of imagining that space came first and time was added.

Modern people describe how far away a place is by referring a length but it seems this way of speaking wasn’t common until the Roman road system. Before that (and even during the Roman era) distances were given in terms of how many day’s journey it was, that is, the travel time of a typical traveler. Also, maps were rare and crude so spatial representations were lacking. People’s mental maps must have been in units of time (duration), not space (length).

Moderns look at the (night) sky as outer space, a vast spatial expanse. But for ancient people the sky was first of all a calendar and a clock: the positions of the heavenly bodies told them the time of the year, the time of the month, and the time of day. The sky was also an aid to navigation so maps were not necessary. The sky, the calendar, and navigation were united in the zodiac.

Ancients used a geostationary (geocentric) frame of reference, which is characterized by a zero speed, that is, all speeds were relative to the frame, as though it were absolute. This is the complement to Galilean relativity: space is a scalar but time is multidimensional. Space is a river, and time is the sky.

In that case the characteristic (modal) speed c is zero, or equivalently, the characteristic pace is infinite, and the gamma factor is one. To make this fully relativistic requires recognizing the finite pace (1/c) of light in 1D space and 3D time (see here). Tachyons galore!

What difference does this make? Moderns think of the universe primarily in spatial terms, and wonder how the vast expanse could be created in a short time. But ancients thought of the universe primarily in temporal terms, and were amazed by the order of the heavens and the God of that order.

Time in the Bible

Time in the Bible is duration, not what is called thermodynamic time or the arrow of time. There is no inevitability about time in the Bible, unlike the increasing entropy of thermodynamic time. In the Bible time has a beginning and an ending. Time is an era, an age, a period of time. It is what takes time, that is, duration.

In ancient times the motions of the sun, moon, and stars formed a cosmic clock, not outer space. Before the rise of the Roman Empire, people expressed “how far” in terms of “how much time”. The distance between places was given as how many days’ journey by a typical traveler. Genesis 30:36; Genesis 31:23; Exodus 3:18; Exodus 5:3; Exodus 8:27; Numbers 10:33; Numbers 33:8; Deuteronomy 1:2; and the Sabbath day’s journey, Acts 1:12. The distance covered by an average man in a day’s walk was 10 parsa’ot in Hebrew.

Greeks such as Herodotus also referred to a day’s journey, for example: “These Husbandmen extend eastward a distance of three days’ journey to a river bearing the name of Panticapes, while northward the country is theirs for eleven days’ sail up the course of the Borysthenes.” He also mentions: “a journey of five days across for an active walker”, indicating the kind of travel he has in mind.

The Greeks and especially the Romans with their road system brought longer lengths into common usage. There is the stadion or stadium, 600 Greek ft. or just under a furlong, and of course the Roman mile: Matthew 5:41; Luke 24:13; John 6:19; John 11:18; Revelation 14:20; Revelation 21:16.

Over the centuries space has supplanted time as the dominant way of viewing the universe. Since the discovery of artistic perspective and Newton’s notions of space and time as a container, the modern world has been oriented toward space. Even geometry changed from a realist view of the relation of objects to an anti-realist view of objects in an abstract space with Descartes’ analytic geometry.

That began to change with relativity and quantum mechanics, though the full implications are yet to be worked out, as Carlo Rovelli has noted (e.g., Are space, time, and all other physical quantities only relational? or his article in The Ontology of Spacetime). Scientifically, I think Poincaré’s point is correct: space and time are conventions, not arbitrary but convenient for understanding the universe (see his Science and Hypothesis).

For understanding the Bible and especially Genesis one should start with an ancient mindset that is realist and temporal. For example, when Genesis 1:3-5 says God created light and separated it into day and night, do not ask where the light was located because the separation concerns time, not space, and describes how the day was born.

Temporal and spatial references

I have written several times about differences between ancient and modern ways of thinking, for example, this post on Biblical geocentrism. Another way to look at this is whether time or space are primary. What does this mean?

We are most familiar with the primacy of space. Things exist within space as mere objects, and time is something added-on to take account of the motion of objects. But what if time came first? For example, what if a cycle of light and dark did not have any spatial reference? That sounds like Genesis 1:5, after God created light but no sun:

 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.

In that case, space would be added-on to time. One difference is that what is primary is three-dimensional, but what is secondary is only one-dimensional. That is the difference between measuring movement relative to space or time, or abstractly as derivatives relative to space or time.

The difference is whether zero represents rest (no movement) or instantaneous movement, and so which is the reference point for all movement. If instantaneous movement is the reference, then movement is understood as slowing down, and rest is associated with an extreme of either lethargy or peace. If rest is the reference, then movement is understood as speeding up, and instantaneous movement as an extreme of either frenzy or joy.

If time is primary, then what is local is more significant than what is global because a local frame of reference covers more time, is diachronic over a long span of time. If space is primary, then what is global is more significant than what is local because a global frame of reference covers more space, is synchronic over a wider region of space.

As we move toward a balance of space and time, we will find both of these perspectives limited but with some utility. It is best to consider movement as a ratio rather than a division so that space and time are on equal terms.