Sunday, 9 December 2007

Traditional Christmas

A British charity, the Amos Trust, has produced a traditional nativity scene with a political twist. Made by Palestinian carpenters with olive wood from Bethlehem, they have a dividing wall symbolising Israel's controversial security barrier.

Established around the work of Garth Hewitt in 1985, the Amos Trust helps underprivileged people around the world. However, I wonder if, with this project, they have gone beyond Biblical truth?

It is understandable to use an event that brought the message, ‘Peace to all men’, to highlight a wall dividing two communities. But I wonder if it needs to question whether a country is allowed to defend itself from suicide bombers? Injustices between the two communities will not be solved by taking this wall away; only by removal of the dividing wall of enmity mentioned in Ephesians 2, that Christ started to deal with in His birth and completed in His death and resurrection.

However, what struck me most was the comment that this nativity is one where "the wise men won't get to the stable." When will Christians learn to sift tradition and truth? The wise men never went to the stable and so the picture painted above is Biblically incorrect.
We know the world celebrates at this time of year, even when the birth of Christ did not happen in December. As Christians, we can choose to give Christ an ‘official birthday’ and share with the world the truth about the tremendous birth of Christ; but to do this we need to be Biblically. We should ponder whether the traditions we hold to about Christmas are true? Here are a couple of thoughts to get you started:

First the Bible never mentions a stable and a wooden manager. The Greek word, kataluma translated, ‘inn’ by many versions (Luke 2:7) is used regarding one other event (see Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14); it was the place where Jesus observed the Last Supper, which according to Luke (22:12) was a furnished large upper storey room within a private Jerusalem house. Could the kataluma of Jesus' first night be a similar room in Bethlehem? Joseph's ancestral home full of other family members, Joseph and Mary stayed downstairs in the domestic stable, still within the ancestral home. The Biblical account does mention a manger (Luke 2:7, 16), an animal feeding trough, and there is archaeological evidence that such mangers were found within the house where animals were regularly kept at night.

Second the Magi (not 3 wise men on camels but a whole train of people) came to the house (Matthew 2:11) but when and indeed where? They had travelled far after seeing, not following, His star in the east (Matthew 2:2).

They arrive in Jerusalem, the place they expected the King to be born. Herod, with his conferred title ‘King of the Jews’, probably obtained by bribery and corruption, desperately wanted to know where the new King was born. Bethlehem, his scribes told him, finding the Micah prophecy, and so Herod sent them to Bethlehem (v8). Then, we read in v.9 that the star reappears and leads them but to Bethlehem? Would they need the star at this point when they knew where they were going? Did the star appear because what Herod had said was man’s wisdom and not God’s? Born in Bethlehem, yes, but living there now?

Here, we need to look at Luke’s account. First please note that Mary and Joseph were moving freely in and out of Jerusalem right under Herod’s nose. If the Magi had already tricked Herod, he would be out to destroy Jesus already. That it was later is also shown by the fact that Herod went back 2 years to kill the baby boys.

Luke 2: 39 is the interesting verse because it says that Mary and Joseph returned home after they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord. Leviticus 12:2 shows this would be after a total of 40 days from the birth; then, Luke tells us, they went to Nazareth. And the returning to Nazareth is clearly linked with the completing of the necessary ceremonies in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Every commentary I have read says that, yes they did go to Nazareth but via Bethlehem and Egypt (see Matthew 2:13). Yet there is nothing in Matthew to say where they were when they were told to flee to Egypt and so that could have equally have been from Nazareth.

We should allow the Scriptures to challenge our traditions so that we do not build on what man says but on what God says.

The above is just a thought for you to ponder and indeed as, at this time of the year, many have holidays, let us search the Scriptures, on this and other issues, and see what they say about Jesus.

Monday, 3 December 2007

A Word Can Change Your World

Language is a powerful weapon. The ancients knew this and some societies put such great store by it that they wouldn’t even commit it to writing. Enormous feats of memory were developed to pass on the stories of the community from one generation to another and in such communities writing was regarded with great suspicion, as placing your story at the disposal of your enemies. If it could be written it could be owned by others and altered.

In those societies where writing developed and oral traditions were committed to writing the people guarded their written texts as their greatest treasures, copying them with meticulous attention to detail. The ancient texts of the Bible were copied with careful and detailed checking and correction and modern archaeological discoveries confirm the incredible accuracy of modern translations when compared with recent discoveries of ancient texts. It is little wonder since a word can change your world or worldview. One word change can reverse entirely the meaning of a text. Take the familiar John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish” (NASB)

One word change can turn a message of hope into one of despair:

“For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should perish”

Or consider that well-loved text from Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome:

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Ro.8:1)

One word change can bring us up short and cause us to question the message of the Bible:

“There is therefore now much condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”

Or consider a secular text. The New Lion Handbook to The Bible makes the following statement about the work of copyists:

“Though minor errors were committed by copyists which have passed into the printed text, the process of copying included careful checking and correction.”

One minor change can turn minor errors into a major problem:

“Though minor errors were committed by copyists which have passed into the printed text, the process of copying included careless checking and correction.”

In light of the above, one would have expected Mormons to take more seriously the recent change in the Introduction to the Book of Mormon. Where once the Introduction reflected the traditional Mormon view that, "After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians." The new version, seen first in Doubleday's revised edition, reads, "After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians."

Inevitably, and sadly it seems to me, much has been made in informal discussion about the fact that the introduction was written in 1981 by Bruce R McConkie who is increasingly seen as someone who got a lot of things wrong. That doesn’t, of course, stop the church citing him as an authority in their manuals and magazines when it suits them. When he wrote the Introduction, of course, he was singularly orthodox, reflecting the firmly held view at the time and that had been taught by Mormon leaders since Joseph Smith. A Mormon on the Reachout Trust forum wrote:

I think there's good thought in this comment:"I have always felt free to disavow the language of the [Book of Mormon's] introduction, footnotes and dictionary, which are not part of the canonical scripture," said Barney, on the board of FAIR, a Mormon apologist group. "These things can change as the scholarship progresses and our understanding enlarges. This suggests to me that someone on the church's scripture committee is paying attention to the discussion."

It is true that the introduction to the Book of Mormon was only introduced in 1981 and is not "Holy Writ" as defined by Mormons [or is it? see below]. It is not true that it has no more significance than a casual commentary that can be adopted and dismissed as it pleases Mormons and I will explain why.

When the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon was published it was done under the name of the church. The copyright of the book is attributed to the first presidency of the church. They officially put their name to something that had been true since the earliest days of the church but, according to the latest orthodoxy, is no longer true. They affirmed what is ultimately and by their own admission false and they have misled their followers, their missionaries and those they presume to teach the truth regarding the "true history" of the Book of Mormon and its peoples.

What Missionaries Teach

Concerning what missionaries have taught, and indeed still teach, I have a copy of the missionary discussions, 1986 edition, and on the second page missionaries are instructed to use the then relatively new Introduction in teaching their investigators about the Book of Mormon. Again on page fourteen missionaries were instructed:

Show the investigators a copy of the Book of Mormon. You might show them some of the features (such as the title page, the introduction and testimonies, the table of contents, the chapter headings, the index). You might also share with them one or two passages that are most meaningful to you.

This shows the legitimacy the Mormon Church then gave, not only to the Introduction but to all the other features now dismissed as a gloss on the text, giving them the same authority as the testimonies of the three and eight witnesses. On page 15 missionaries were instructed to tell their contacts:

To help you begin reading the Book of Mormon, we suggest that you read a few selected passages by our next visit. We suggest the Introduction (including the testimonies and the brief explanations of the plates), Moroni 10:3-5, and 3 Nephi 11.

Here the Introduction is given the same significance as Moroni's promise.

More significantly, in the most recent missionary guide, Preach my Gospel, copyright 2004, missionaries are directed on page 39 to "briefly review the contents" of the Book of Mormon:

Scripture Study

Title page of the Book of Mormon

Introduction to the Book of Mormon Paragraphs 1-7 [ NB which include the claim in question about the Lamanites being the "principal" ancestors of the American Indians]

D&C 1:17-23; 20:5-12 Joseph Smith-History 1:27-64

Now the Introduction is introduced within a list of "Scripture Study" texts and on a par with the title page and the Doctrine and Covenants! The Introduction is regularly used as an aid to teaching people "the truth" about Mormonism and the ancient inhabitants of America. Now that "truth" is rejected and those who challenged it are mocked for being so foolish as to take the claims of the Mormon Church so seriously. I think we get the message. The question is, do the Mormons?

The Mormon View of "Scripture"

But all this shouldn’t surprise us I suppose when we consider the Mormon attitude to Scripture. Joseph Smith described the Book of Mormon as “the most correct book of any book on earth”. The title page of the book states, “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men". How do you think "most correct" and, "if there are faults they are the mistakes of men", compare with 2 Timothy 3:16:

"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work"

A Christian sees in the Bible God's all-sufficient provision for equipping thoroughly every Christian for kingdom living.

Mormons, on the other hand, seem to be full of excuses for their not-altogether-reliable modern revelation, ready to admit faults and declare their Scriptures correct only by comparison, i.e. "most correct" rather than thoroughly reliable because "God-breathed". One I spoke to even insisted that the title page of the Book of Mormon is, like the introduction, nothing more than a gloss on the text. This, however, is plainly not true as shown in Joseph Smith’s own words:

“I wish also to mention here, that the title page of the Book of Mormon is a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf, on the left side of the collection or book of plates, which contained the record which has been translated; the language of the whole running the same as all Hebrew writing in general; and that, said title page is not by any means a modern composition either of mine or of any other man’s who has lived or does live in this generation.” (Joseph Smith Jr., Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 24, p. 943)

If this statement was appended to the Book of Mormon, on a page just left from the Title Page, that says , “Written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the House of Israel…” It would clear the issue if someone should have any questions about how Joseph Smith viewed the Lamanites/American Indians.

The World of Mormonism Changes - Again

Every LDS president from Joseph Smith to Gordon B. Hinckley has made written statements that American Indians are Hebrews/Israelites.

The Title page, which we are told was part of the original on gold plates, says that Lamanites (not just a few or some of them), without exception, are Israelites.

DNA testing has proven that they are NOT Israelites.

There has not been even one single American Indian found that is connected to Abraham and his descendents!

I press my point again, i.e. that the doctrine that the Lamanites are the principle ancestors of the American Indians, was routinely taught throughout the history of the church, and even in the 2004 Missionary Guide this thought is pressed into service in convincing people that the Book of Mormon is true.

As has been said by their leaders, if the Book of Mormon is not true then the church is not true.

One final point worth noting is that the Introduction also declares that the Book of Mormon, "contains, as does the Bible, the fulness (sic) of the everlasting gospel". Christian apologists with an interest in reaching Mormons have been pointing out for years that, if the Bible contains the everlasting gospel as does the Book of Mormon (you see it works this way around as well), then what need have we for the Book of Mormon.

A good friend of Reachout in Germany has pointed out that the new German edition of the Book of Mormon omits the words "as does the Bible". Clearly, the Bible has contained the fullness from 1981 until 2006 but has mysteriously become less reliable, at least for Germans. But it seems to still be true for the rest of us! A word can change your world and the world of Mormonism has changed again.