The Strange Islamic View That Jesus Was Not Crucified….

[This piece arose from a very frustrating conversation with a Muslim sort-of-evangelist at Manchester’s Christmas market; I’m sorry it’s well into tldr (“too long didn’t read”) territory, but one of the annoying things with this issue is that it tends to be dealt with superficially and ‘soundbitey’ and not in the depth it needs. And to be honest, the discussion here is still too short….]

The Islamic view of the crucifixion is based on the following text from the Quran

That they (the Jews) said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah“;- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:-
Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise;-

— Qur’an, sura 4 (An-Nisaayat 157–158[7]

And to be blunt, what on earth does this mean? Wikipedia tells me of many conflicting ways in which Islamic scholars interpret the text.

A DIGRESSION….

Before discussing this text further I’d like to say a bit about how I regard Muhammad. Now clearly, as I haven’t chosen to become a Muslim, I don’t believe him to be a prophet of God, nor do I believe the Quran to be the ‘Word of God’. However, very importantly, I don’t believe Muhammad to be a deliberate fraud.

In the case of the Mormon religion, I’m afraid I’m somewhere round about 99.99% certain that founder Joseph Smith did not find a collection of gold plates inscribed with the ‘Book of Mormon’, nor did he translate them, nor were they mysteriously taken away by God after Smith translated them. On the contrary, I believe Smith simply wrote the book himself and essentially – and very deliberately – created a fraudulent religion. I guess he didn’t imagine that this would end with his death by being effectively lynched (albeit shot rather than hanged); this left the Mormon movement being run by people who unlike Smith himself really did believe in it. I have often wondered whether, if Smith had lived to die a natural death he might eventually have owned up….

I don’t think Muhammad was like Joseph Smith – I think he genuinely believed in his revelation from God. But I also don’t think it is a revelation from God; I think it comes, albeit kind of subconsciously, from Muhammad himself, and from his thinking, and also with his limitations.

THE ISLAMIC POSITION

In a version of the Quran given me by a Muslim friend there is commentary and on this passage it says

It is not profitable to discuss the many doubts and conjectures among the early Christian sects and among Muslim theologians.

The Orthodox Christian Churches (and the commentator appears here to include Roman Catholics and Protestants as well as the various ‘Eastern Orthodox’ groups) make it a cardinal point of their doctrines that his (Jesus’) life was taken on the Cross, that he died and was buried, that on the third day he rose in the body with his wounds intact, and walked about and conversed, and ate with his disciples, and was afterwards taken up bodily to heaven. This is necessary for the theological doctrine of blood sacrifice and vicarious atonement for sins, which is rejected by Islam.

And that is, I fear, one of Muhammad’s limitations. He simply didn’t understand the doctrine of the Atonement. To be fair, his local Christians weren’t, it seems, the most orthodox in the world, and were not themselves giving a very coherent explanation, and arguably the local Jews didn’t give him the best understanding of their faith either. But the big problem, I suspect, was that Muhammad didn’t understand the ideas of the Trinity and of the Incarnation of God in Christ.

In reaction against the ‘multi-god’ paganism of his fellow Arabs, he vehemently believed in a God of absolute one-ness – and so couldn’t believe in a God who is complex, a God who is in human terms a relationship rather than just a single personality. And so for Muhammad, Jesus is separate from Muhammad’s ‘unitarian’ God. And basically, unitarians always have trouble with the concept of the Atonement.

If Jesus is just a man, how can he possibly bear all the sins of humanity? And worse, even if Jesus is thought of as more than just human – say an archangel as the Jehovah’s Witnesses apparently believe – why does God need someone else, a ‘third party’ to pay the price in order to forgive us? Why does He not either inflict on us what we justly deserve, or alternatively, just forgive us at his own expense? A God who would apparently happily inflict justice upon us but for the intervention of a third party doesn’t seem very loving; and a God who wants to ‘lovingly forgive’ but, in order to do so, needs to inflict punishment on an innocent third party – well that doesn’t even seem very just or moral. Trinitarianism doesn’t have this problem because in that view Jesus isn’t a ‘third party’ – he is quite exactly God forgiving at his own expense; but unitarian views can’t believe that and so can’t have a self-sacrificing atoning Jesus.

Muhammad, as I see it, was kind of subconsciously feeling towards a way to have a place for Jesus in his teaching, but without that kind of problem for his unitarian beliefs. And unfortunately he had very incomplete views of both Judaism and Christianity as he took them into his ideas – effectively hijacked them, indeed. Was he, for example, aware of the Old Testament idea of the ‘suffering servant’ in Isaiah? Was he aware of the occasions when the gospels record Jesus foretelling his death and resurrection? Basically Muhammad couldn’t accept Jesus as any kind of ‘saviour’ – so he had to reinterpret him.

To Muhammad Jesus could only be a prophet like Muhammad himself (though presumably he saw him as lesser in many ways). And it seems that in Muhammad’s thinking, Jesus could not possibly die as the gospels portrayed, as the victim of a shameful form of execution; God couldn’t possibly let a true prophet suffer such a fate. Yet he couldn’t totally avoid the gospel witness that there was a crucifixion. And this passage of the Quran is an attempt to avoid the idea of Jesus being crucified while sort of explaining how and why there is a crucifixion in the Apostles’ accounts.

BUT – if Jesus was only what Muhammad says, and he wasn’t actually crucified anyway, why does the New Testament so emphatically say he was crucified, dead, buried, rose again, etc.? I mean in Muhammad’s view that can’t have come from Jesus. Yet each of the gospels gives a very large proportion of its space to Jesus’ last days and the crucifixion, with John being an eyewitness supporting Jesus’ mother Mary. And each gospel contains accounts of Jesus’ “Resurrection appearances” to the disciples in which Jesus rather makes a point of having been crucified and having risen from the dead.

And on the day of Pentecost Peter very publicly preaches in these terms, recorded in Acts 2; 23ff

Men of Israel, listen to these words; Jesus the Nazarene, a Man divinely accredited to you through mighty works and wonders and signs, which God wrought through him in your midst, as you personally know, who under the determined will and foreknowledge of God was betrayed by lawless hands and whom you killed by nailing Him to the cross – Him God raised up by unfastening the cords of death; for He could not be held in its grip….”

Peter could hardly more emphatically contradict Muhammad…. And soon after, addressing a crowd after a miracle of healing, he is speaking again in similar terms….

“The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His Servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and disowned before Pilate, when he had decided to set Him free. But you disclaimed the Holy and Righteous One and requested a murderer for your reward. You killed the Prince of Life, whom God raised from the dead – of this we are witnesses.

Even during Jesus’ life He repeatedly foretold His own death, that he would be crucified at the instigation of his Jewish opponents. Some of the passages could be seen as ambiguous in terms of the Quran’s words – but many of them are really clear. I want to pick for now on one particular case, involving Peter again and recorded in Mark 8; 27ff

Jesus and his disciples left for the villages around Caesarea Philippi, and on the way He asked his disciples, “Who do the people assert me to be?”

They told him “John the Baptist; but others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets”.

He asked them, “But you, who do you say I am?”

Peter answered him, “Thou art the Christ”. And he charged them to tell this to no one about him.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer much, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be executed, and after three days rise again. He told them this without reservation.

Then Peter, drawing him forward, began to remonstrate with him; but turning round and looking at his disciples he rebuked Peter, saying “Get behind me Satan, for you are not considering God’s ways, but those of men”.

Matthew gives us the content of Peter’s remonstration, though it’s pretty obvious from the context anyway. “Mercy on you, Lord! This must never happen to you!” Or in simple terms, it looks like Peter is thinking exactly the same kind of thing as Muhammad – except he, of course, is thinking it in advance, “This must never happen!” whereas Muhammad is coming centuries later and saying – for essentially the same reason – “This can’t have happened because it doesn’t fit my ideas of Jesus”.

One of the questions I’m inevitably asking here is who is better to trust – Peter and indeed the other apostles who knew Jesus, who were around at the time, who could say “ of this we are witnesses” … or Muhammad nearly six centuries later, and hundreds of miles away, contradicting those witnesses simply on a claim that “God told me….”??

And the other question is, what would Jesus say? And I honestly think that he would say the same to Muhammad as to Peter – “ you are not considering God’s ways, but those of men”. What Jesus considered “God’s ways” are threaded through the gospels – in the texts where he foretells his death, but also when he speaks of “giving his life a ransom for many”, or “No one has greater love than this; to lay down his life for his friends”. Or in the Last Supper when he talks of broken bread as his body, and how his blood is ‘poured out for many’. Over and over, Jesus shows a very different view to that of the Quran and Muhammad. And it’s both elaborate and coherent; while Muhammad’s/the Quran’s answer is frankly neither, just a glib ‘soundbite’ from centuries later and far away, answering a ‘problem’ which is basically in Muhammad’s own mind.

And there’s another problem. As it stands the Quran passage is ‘aimed’ at the Jews and pictures them triumphing at having killed Jesus when, according to the Quran, they haven’t, just “ but so it was made to appear to them”. And this is kind of understandable, as misleading Jesus’ enemies. But how about Jesus’ friends? Do they, after faithfully following Jesus in his life, get to learn the Quranic truth of Jesus not being crucified at all but raised up safely unto Allah?

No, they get to meet ‘someone’ who for forty days – six weeks – claims to be Jesus and far from letting them in on the Quran’s truth of Jesus’ non-crucifixion, goes out of his way to insist that he is the Jesus who died on the cross; he shows them his scars, shows the wound in his side, and so on, and only after forty days is taken up into heaven. Remember that commentary in my copy of the Quran – stating as the orthodox Christian view that “he died and was buried, that on the third day he rose in the body with his wounds intact, and walked about and conversed, and ate with his disciples, and was afterwards taken up bodily to heaven”, and saying this is necessary to the view of Jesus atoning for sin, but is not the Muslim view. The Jesus who appears to the disciples on the third day and for another forty days almost goes pretty much out of his way to behave in contradiction of this Muslim view!

I can see no reason to reject the gospel account of the resurrection appearances; yet it is precisely because of those appearances, and the explanations Jesus gave the disciples during that time about the why and wherefore of his death and resurrection, that the disciples went about preaching the doctrine of Jesus’ vicarious atonement for sins….

On the Muslim view, was this being who came to the disciples even Jesus? And if not, did God/Allah really allow Jesus’ followers, after the trauma of seeing him apparently killed, to be deceived by a false ‘risen Jesus’ teaching a false view of the whole affair? I struggle to believe in a God who would do that to faithful disciples, who would not protect them from such – according to the Quran – falsehood. Yet that’s what the Quran seems to be telling us….

And I’ve not even started on some of the other incoherences – according to the Quran, did anybody die on the cross or was the whole thing an illusion…? One of the problems is that the Quran simply doesn’t tell us, nor as I understand it does Muhammad elaborate further in the teachings known as the Hadith, but there are some strange ideas around like that Judas died in Jesus’ place. Really??? The Quran simply doesn’t give enough information to be useful….

And I’m having to ask why the need of an illusion that Jesus was crucified anyway? It doesn’t really make any theological sense to have Jesus only appear to be crucified – what real purpose does that serve? On at least one occasion when Jesus was threatened we see him just walking through his accusers and away – surely he could have done that kind of thing again, with no need for any elaborate charade of an unreal crucifixion. Indeed Jesus himself said that had he been unwilling to be crucified he could have had ‘twelve legions of angels’ to defend him (Matt 26; 53)

. I’m inclined to the view that the trouble for Muhammad was simply that there was too much evidence for the crucifixion – he couldn’t just ignore it. But he couldn’t accept the standard Christian interpretation which is ‘Trinitarian’ where Muhammad was very much ‘Unitarian’.

The point I’m kinda getting at here is that for whatever reason, Islam is claimed to be deeply connected with Christianity and Judaism – yet also claims clear differences as on this particular issue. And the issue is whether at this point Islam makes a credible case for how it connects with its predecessors, or whether in practice it shows such a disconnection as to discredit its claims. Does this really look like a revelation from God about Jesus? Can we really take this one paragraph of the Quran as adequate contradiction of the massive evidence of the Gospels and the rest of the NT? Can that work out?

It won’t surprise you that my answer is NO.

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More on Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Christian relations to the State

As promised I’m listening to Lloyd-Jones’ sermons on Romans 13, although it’s taking a while – finding time to concentrate on sermons nearly an hour long can be tricky. From the latest one I picked up a few points where I again somewhat disagree with Lloyd-Jones (and I would remind you again that me disagreeing with Lloyd-Jones is rare).

First was a passage in which he spoke rather as if Paul’s Romans 13 was almost the only full expression of these ideas. But in Paul it’s just one chapter in a longer exposition of many basic Christian ideas.  So for me, though Romans 13 is certainly a key passage, Peter in his first epistle actually says much more, gives more detail, than Paul in Romans, and I think it’s a good idea to see the two passages together.

Apart from simply using as much of the biblical teaching as possible, getting the widest biblical view of the topic, Peter’s letter has a further key element for an issue that arose later; supposedly the Roman Catholic Church claims special authority as the ‘successor of Peter’. Yet ironically, if you follow Peter’s actual words, much of it contradicts the way the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox Church before the split between RC and Orthodox) dealt with the state through history. Which of course raises some questions on how much the Catholics can truly claim succession to Peter….

Secondly, though, Lloyd-Jones takes up the idea of ‘subjection to’ the state that Paul expresses, and he says rightly that this can’t mean we must always obey the state, the ‘powers that be’. And quite rightly Lloyd-Jones quotes Peter’s words from Acts 5, about how Christians must ‘obey God rather than man’. But he then I think makes a significant slip; he speaks in terms of being ‘subject to the state’ EXCEPT when we must ‘obey God rather than man’.

And I want to say no; we must actually as the text says ‘be subject’ full stop. NO EXCEPTIONS!! And I think the slip here is common, made by many; it is the slip of equating ‘be subject to’ with simply ‘obey’. As I see it, we are to be subject but in different ways – when we can, we obey; but when we find it impossible to obey, we still remain ‘subject’, we still don’t ‘resist’ in a sense of military rebellion or the like. We disobey, and if the state chooses to punish us for it, we accept the punishment – as Peter, Paul, and indeed Jesus himself did; Jesus in his unjust death, Peter and Paul later in their martyrdom for the faith….

The trouble with trying to make an ‘exception’ to subjection to the state is that although it sounds very reasonable, it’s hard to keep it as a minor exception. Ian Paisley and others in Ulster advocated a similar ‘exception’ and effectively it ‘ate up’ the rule it was supposed to be an exception to. It pretty much ended up as being subject to the state only if the state did what you wanted. Where Paul was ‘subject’ to the state of an emperor like Nero and willing to accept eventual martyrdom at the hands of Nero’s Rome, the Ulstermen ended up basically rebelling against a democratic state that simply wanted them to respect the rights of others who disagreed with them – and indeed compared that democratic state to Nero or Hitler…. And Ulster Catholics, also on the ‘Constantinian’ side of the argument, took similar views, making a bloody clash inevitable.

One common way to justify the exception at least in the days of kings and emperors was to try to distinguish between the ‘office’ of king which you had to respect, and the individual holding the office, who, in effect, didn’t have to be respected and obeyed if he wasn’t doing the job properly. That kind of reasoning leads to very hair-splitting legalism which basically comes to attempting to justify rebellion. The idea I’m advocating, of distinguishing between ‘subjection’ and ‘obedience’, allows the different option of being always subject and never rebelling, while still, when required, obeying God rather than man and so risking martyrdom. That avoids all the dubious legalism and also the essentially selfish and fractious attitudes which accompany such reasoning.

In the same sermon Lloyd-Jones dealt with questions about capital punishment – the death penalty. I’m going to have to go into that one sometime in future – for now I’ll shove it on the back burner and think it over.

More on the Packer/Lloyd-Jones controversy

I’ve noticed that my posts on that have attracted a lot of attention, especially from America. For some reason the Lloyd-Jones post seems to get more views – I’d like to stress that they are a pair and should ideally be read together.

In view of this interest I’ve decided to revisit the topic and say more. I repeat a point I made in both posts – I may be criticising both men on one issue, but they are still for me major heroes of the faith and I’ve really appreciated their writings in my own Christian growth.

I’ve really nothing new to say on Packer – I’m still just a bit gobsmacked by what Packer wrote about the establishment/state church issue back in the 1970s (and I’ve been unable to find any later revision on his part – if you know he has changed his opinion significantly, please let us know). I’ll reproduce the passage again here….

.one finds that the main theological issues that have divided Protestants who hold to sola Scriptura have been these; (1-3 omitted)….(4) how the churches should be related to the state – the issue in debates about establishment throughout the world since the seventeenth century; (5) whether churchmen’s children may properly be baptised in infancy or not – the issue between Baptist and all other Protestant churches; …..[i]

What are we to say to these … matters of debate?  First, that whatever divisions they may have occasioned in the past it is very arguable that, being in reality secondary questions, they need not and ideally would not have this (divisive) effect.  Second, that it is also very arguable that in each of these cases unexamined assumptions brought to the task of exegesis, rather than any obscurities arising from it, were really at the root of the cleavage.  The trouble was that presuppositions were read into Scripture rather than read out of it, as follows; ….(4,5) The fourth and fifth debates reflected the presupposition that Scripture must legislate on the issues in questioneven though no biblical author addresses himself to either. ….  (My underlining – SL)

It is a confusion to blame the principle of sola Scriptura for conflicts which sprang from insufficient circumspection in exegesis”.

I’ve again left out the issues not directly relevant to establishment – baptism remains in both because it’s quite important to the establishment question and because Packer’s linking of them made it difficult to leave it out.

As I said previously, I understand why back in the 1960s and 1970s the state church/Christian country issue didn’t seem a major priority and didn’t get the full attention even of giants of the faith like Lloyd-Jones and Packer – even my other hero, CS Lewis, was an Anglican till his death despite having written, in The Four Loves a really swingeing attack on the misconduct of ‘Christendom’. Though I feel that had he lived to see the renewed ‘Troubles’ in his native Ulster less than a decade after his death, he would have made a similar analysis to my own (which was indeed in many ways a ‘Lewisian’ analysis!). But now with religion and state issues constantly headlined because of the problems with extremist Islam, we were clearly too complacent and we should have thought a lot more about the matter.

I repeat my puzzlement that Packer just didn’t seem to see that the state/church link would inevitably be a source of not only conflict within the church, but lethal wars in the world in general. And my puzzlement that so normally acute a scholar could possibly think the Scriptures don’t address the issue – on which I’ve found more than a little to expound in this blog.

My view of Packer remains pretty much as it was; that he was mostly right in the general idea of not splitting the church over doctrinal purity unless the church formally changed its standards, he was wrong because he failed to realise that the Anglican Church by its establishment was already ‘impure’ in a really crucial way, not to mention totally improperly entangled in the surrounding world in a way that seriously compromises the gospel of being ‘born again’. Indeed establishment involves a major and unscriptural redefining of the Church and of who constitutes the Church.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones still has me a bit unclear on his exact views – so I’m currently taking advantage of the availability of Lloyd-Jones’ sermons on line and I’m hearing his views on the key text of Romans 13. And hopefully in a few weeks I’ll be reporting back on what I’ve heard….

I have to say, though, that so far it is sounding as if he comes from the same basic interpretational tradition as Ian Paisley – though much softened and mitigated by being brought up in the relative peace of mainland UK rather than in the conflicted hothouse of Ulster. Nevertheless, the basic ideas seem to be much the same.

Christmas commercialism gone bananas….

I’ve now seen in several shops something really absurd – and actually potentially dangerous and/or money-wasting.

Namely, food items in ‘Christmas’ packaging and very prominently labelled as for the said festival – but with a sell-by/use-by date as early as mid-November! Bit pointless, surely??

And yeah, some slight danger. OK on the whole these are items which are likely to be OK to eat someway past the sell-by/use-by date, but I can see a serious possibility that because the stuff is so prominently labelled as ‘Christmas’, people may simply not check the small-print and often not very prominent dating info and on Christmas Day may be eating stuff six weeks or so out of date! Is that a good idea?

Or of course if they do eventually but belatedly check the date, they may find themselves feeling they have to throw out stuff which, because of its ‘Christmas’ packaging has actually cost more than the same thing at other times of the year…. And for that matter, what’s the point of paying probably extra for Christmas stuff if you’re going to have to eat it weeks before Christmas?

 

Apart from anything else, like how is this really the ‘spirit of Christmas’, I can see this as possibly an issue for Trading Standards….

Easter in Whitby

To many nowadays Whitby is possibly better known as the place Dracula fictionally landed in England than for its very real part in the Christian past. Yet in 664CE it was the centre of a major controversy which was decided at a conference which has come to be known as the “Synod of Whitby”.

It’s fairly simple to state the basics – by 664, the Church based in Rome was following one way to calculate the date of Easter, and the “Celtic Church”, derived from the missionary efforts of Irish monks and in turn back to the efforts of Romano-British missionaries like Patrick (who was originally from what we now call Wales), was using a different system….

In Britain, where some of the Saxon kingdoms had been converted to Christianity by the Roman mission led by Augustine in Kent, and others by Celtic missions, things reached a head in Northumbria. There a royal marriage saw a king and queen from different traditions, King Oswiu following the Ionan or Celtic tradition, Queen Eanfled following the Roman. The Easter date could vary by about a month, from late March to late April; so awkwardly one half of the court might be celebrating Easter Sunday and the Resurrection of Jesus, and approaching Pentecost/Whitsunday, while the other half was still engaged in the ritual mourning of the pre-Easter fast of Lent. There were also by the way a few other minor Roman v Ionan differences including the form of monkish/priestly tonsures.

Seemingly for some time a Northumbrian counsellor, Aidan, kept things running reasonably smoothly despite the awkwardness, but after his death hotter heads forced the issues and the public disputation of the Synod became inevitable.

I’ve seen the issues of the Synod dealt with in many different ways – but one of the clear points is that both sides saw it as – well, an issue of heresy, as Janina Ramirez explained recently in her BBC series “Saints and Sinners”. In effect, Easter was so important, and thus how you did it so important, that if you were celebrating on different dates the Church was not united – and in that case, one side must be orthodox, and the other heretical….

At this point people often go into argument about which side were the heretics, and of course Protestants will often want to side with the Celts against the Romans and their ‘Catholicism’. I really don’t find that interesting or helpful. Yes, the Synod came down on the side of Rome – but I kind of want to say “So what?” Yes, the Western Churches now celebrate the date by the Roman definition – again, “So what?” Modern thought also tends to say that in a sense it’s “So what?” – so long as we agree over a broad enough area. The question nobody seems to ask is “Does the date matter at all?”

As far as I can discover before the early 300s, insofar as Christians celebrated Easter at all, they didn’t have a specifically Christian date. They celebrated it, apparently, on the date of the Jewish Passover, or to celebrate the ‘first day’ Resurrection, on the Sunday afterwards. And actually I suspect that they didn’t celebrate quite that formally anyway – just that the annual Jewish event would cause the Christians to specially remember the Passover aspect of Jesus’ sacrifice, a sacrifice and subsequent resurrection which they commemorated frequently in the ‘Communion’ service anyway.

The date and the calculation process was decided by the Council of Nicaea in 325, related to the Spring equinox. This was because the Imperial Church needed regular ‘nationally agreed’ holydays/festivals in a way that the early church didn’t because it wasn’t a state religion. I understand the calculations also included a way to actually avoid the Jewish Passover date. Which looks to me a bit perverse….

By the time of Whitby, the break-up of the Roman Empire into East and West under pressure of barbarian invasions, and the spread of Christianity outside the empire, particularly the Celtic areas, and just generally the lack of communication and so on compared to today, meant that only three centuries down the line there was already a variation in the dating. Whence the Whitby problem….

BUT….

As I said, before 325 the Church wasn’t too bothered about the exact date of Easter. And there’s a reason for that, found in Paul’s letter to the Church at Colossae.

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

Col 2:16-17 (NIV)

Paul is dealing with people in the early church who were insisting on precise observance of the Jewish Law. And they would ‘judge/condemn’ those who weren’t fussy about the observances. And Paul simply says “That kind of thing isn’t important. All the Old Testament rules, ‘kosher’ dietary rules, rules for festivals and so on, were there to prepare in various ways for Jesus’ coming, not intended to carry on after he came. The new ‘kingdom’ of Messiah Jesus would be worldwide, not limited to one ethnic group; and the kingdom is not to be hindered by perpetuating the old rules and imposing them on the new believers in Jesus. Those rules ‘foreshadowed’ Jesus, helped people when he came to understand what he had done; but they were now no more needed as everyday rules than the scaffolding in needed when a building is completed.

Not even the Sabbath, please note. I’ll likely come back to that in another blog soon, in relation to ‘Sunday Observance’. But fussy Easter observance, no. The connection to the Jewish Passover suffices to help give context for Jesus’ sacrificial death as a ‘Passover Lamb’; some new calculation of the date that divorces Easter from Passover was just not needed. On top of which, far from being a major heresy, clearly the disagreement about Easter was a disagreement about something very much man-made centuries after Jesus. And much of the inconvenience that caused the Whitby synod was even more man-made rather than divinely prescribed stuff, like the fasting for the forty days of Lent. Christianity doesn’t need such artificial ritual celebrations – our fasts should be more purposeful as part of special prayer or personal discipline.

And the need for that man-made festival was, if anything, itself part of the bigger heresy of having a ‘Christian’ state in the first place – for more details on that, see the rest of this blog and future posts where I hope to fill some of the gaps in what I’ve already written….

But quick summary – in Jesus’ “kingdom not of this world” things like days and dates are unimportant. Easter needn’t be celebrated annually at all, and so it doesn’t matter if there’s disagreement about the anniversary. Indeed remembering it as Passover connected with the Jewish festival is probably more real than having a special Christian date. One reality here is that effectively we celebrate Easter at every ‘Communion’ meal when we use bread and wine to remember Jesus’ broken body and shed blood.

And don’t get me started on Christmas…!

Footnote – the full text from Colossians 2, to show how vehement Paul was about it….

16 Let no one, then, judge you in eating or in drinking, or in respect of a feast, or of a new moon, or of sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of the coming things, and the body is of the Christ; 18 let no one beguile you of your prize, delighting in humble-mindedness and in worship of the messengers (‘angels’ SL), intruding into the things he hath not seen, being vainly puffed up by the mind of his flesh, 19 and not holding the head, from which all the body–through the joints and bands gathering supply, and being knit together–may increase with the increase of God. 20 If, then, ye did die with the Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances? 21 –thou mayest not touch, nor taste, nor handle– 22 which are all for destruction with the using, after the commands and teachings of men, 23 which are, indeed, having a matter of wisdom in will-worship, and humble-mindedness, and neglecting of body–not in any honour, unto a satisfying of the flesh.

Col 2:16-23 (YLT)

Democracy and Referenda

In our recent referendum I was basically on the side of ‘Remain’ partly because on the economic side I had realised that compared to when we were last ‘out of Europe’ we had the Commonwealth, the remnants of the former British Empire, still rather geared for trade with us, and we don’t have that any more, and partly because I’m quite worried by some of the narrow nationalism and even sheer racism of many on the ‘Leave’ side. Lots of attitudes there I’m not comfortable with….

But this was a case where there wasn’t really an obvious ‘Christian’ answer on the issue, especially for an Anabaptist with no desire to be bossing the state around. This item is more on the topic of democracy itself.

It is well known that the Greeks invented democracy. And like lots of ‘well known’ things, that’s only a part truth. For starters, it was basically the Athenians, not all the Greeks, Greece back then was rather like Germany before Napoleon, or Dark Age Britain – a collection of small independent states, usually based on a city. And even Athenian democracy wasn’t much like ours. To start with, only Athenian citizens could vote. Adults only, like us; but NOT women, and NOT slaves – so only quite a small minority to begin with. I’m not even sure it was all the men – ancient societies often only recognised a man as adult when his father died or he married and had his own household…. And although Athens ruled quite a wide area and even had an overseas empire, most of the people of the empire couldn’t vote, and even most of those in the mainland Greek bit of the empire wouldn’t be entitled. On top of which, voting only took place in assemblies physically meeting in Athens – so even citizens could only vote when they were around to attend the assemblies, and in an age without phones and internet etc., many decisions would be taken before some citizens even heard about the issue….

And Greeks didn’t, in fact, regard democracy all that highly. Plato, an Athenian himself, really despised it and preferred something we’d regard as pretty much ‘Fascism’. He probably did realise that his hypothetical alternative of ‘philosopher kings’ was idealism a bit outside real world probability….

Why was democracy thought bad? Well basically, because it wasn’t like our system, electing representatives to turn things; rather, it was like having an endless series of referenda, mass public votes in an assembly of thousands gathered together. And the problem was that it could all too easily turn into a nasty kind of ‘mob rule’ with decisions being taken thoughtlessly, irrationally, very heat of the moment and carried away by not always desirable emotions; and often by only the day after they’d have changed their minds and realised the problems of the decision – but it might be too late to correct it. One story has them deciding a brutal punishment for a rebellious place in their empire, and the next day having to send a fast galley to catch the messengers of the first decision and prevent the punishment…. Yes, the people got their say – but at the expense of a lack of stability, and sometimes the unleashing of the nastiest aspects of human feeling.

I’m not suggesting that our system is perfect – it very much ain’t! But our ‘representative’ system is a quite good compromise that avoids much of the faults of Athens’ democracy, and gives some of the good points of other systems but moderating their bad points. We get many of the potential advantages of kingship or aristocratic rule – but with ‘kings’ who are accountable to the wider citizenship through the electoral process, not just selfish ‘autocrats’.

But a referendum sets that aside….

One of the problems is that in the UK we don’t have the kind of formal written constitution that many countries like the USA have, carefully written down to provide all kinds of ‘checks and balances’, including for example the provision for a ‘Supreme Court’ to review our parliament’s decisions to check whether they’re constitutional or not. Our arrangements have evolved in a more ad hoc kind of way and much of it is a matter of ‘convention’ which doesn’t really have any legal binding force and could in theory be overturned by Parliament tomorrow.

Written Constitutions tend to recognise that some rights, for example, should be stable and long-term and not able to be easily changed perhaps on a day when many MPs are absent or some such – or indeed generally changed by a short-term majority. Changing the actual Constitution and the long term rights it enshrines will generally require much more than a simple majority vote. Typically the change will require both that a larger than usual quorum of MPs must be present, AND that even then a larger majority than ‘50%+1’ must vote for the change; and something like a referendum may be required as well, and again with a significant majority required, not just a few. A typical phrasing might be that change requires “Two thirds of those present and voting”. In other words there’s a serious effort to ensure that the change requires pretty much a true majority in the country positively voting for it, as opposed to just the votes of a party that may have been elected by the votes of only a quarter of the country….

And that, I think is arguably the problem of our recent referendum; such a change should have required a greater majority endorsing it, to be a truly clear victory rather than a ‘close call’ that might have been different for essentially accidental reasons. (I’m not sure of the truth of this but I heard the other day that before the referendum Nigel Farage himself had said that a vote as close as 52/48 would be unsatisfactory!) As it is, it is likely to leave things unsettled for quite a while to come, and that’s bad in itself.

So one of the things I’m saying is that it may be time to have a firmer written constitution for the UK, with the necessary provisions to protect the constitution itself and the relevant rights, and provide a firm basis for referenda. Essentially – that constitutional change requires a truly decisive majority.

I’m generally in favour of democracy – other systems may be more efficient at times, but the flexibility and pluralism of democracy generally wins out. Yes, a dictator is more efficient – but what if the guy with that power is evil?

On the other hand, I don’t worship democracy, and I’ve a feeling that too many people in the West do effectively worship it. And democracy has its limits; there are many aspects of reality which simply can’t be changed no matter how often you vote for them to be changed. You can’t change 2 + 2 = 4 by voting for a different answer; the most you can achieve is to change the names of the numbers, which will nevertheless continue themselves to behave as they have always done. And the Earth will basically orbit the Sun like Copernicus said and that can’t be changed by a vote. (And BTW, yes I do know that technically the two bodies actually orbit their common centre of gravity – in this case the practical difference is minimal… and you still can’t make the old Ptolemaic system true just by voting on it!!)

Anyway, the above is thoughts inspired by the referendum. I think I’ll do a separate post on some other aspects, like how you get democracy to work if you also believe in a decidedly monarchical God….

A Matter of Debate – “Who Would Jesus Shoot?”

First off, sorry for a recent bout of inactivity on this blog.  Hopefully there’ll now be quite a few new posts in the next few weeks.   For now, just to draw your attention to an interesting debate that took place last year, related to many of my regular themes….

A Matter of Debate – “Who Would Jesus Shoot?”

Alarmingly, if you Google up that phrase “Who would Jesus shoot?” you’ll find a lot of people – mostly American – who seem to think Jesus would be happy with shooting people. Particularly, of course, in the context of warfare. That’s why the phrase was chosen as the title of a debate in the autumn of 2014 between Canadian Mennonite theologian Tom Yoder-Neufeld and the Oxford Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology Nigel Biggar. Tom is of course a pacifist; Biggar has written books defending ‘Just War’ theory and regularly lectures on it.

To hear the debate – sorry there doesn’t seem to be video available – go to this link;

https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/who-would-jesus-shoot

Tom and Nigel approach the issue in quite different ways. That in itself says something. In conventional understanding I’m not sure there was a winner; but I understand that Nigel was admitting he’d need to rethink some of his positions. Anyway, have a listen and let me know what you think….

While Tom was in the UK for several weeks he spoke all over the country including one session for the Cheshire/Greater Manchester Anabaptist Group, where he did a session based on Ephesians, on which he has written a rather good commentary.