New Testament Basics: Jesus on Materialism

MaterialismFirstFollowers5 6 14“He who dies with the most toys wins.” So said billionaire Malcolm Forbes, a man famous for acquiring a wide array of material goods. Yet like everyone else, he died unable to take it with him. Most of us regard this reality as a truism, but we nevertheless find it very difficult to strike a balance between grasping and letting go. The fact is, the pursuit of possessions is not just a potential snare for the rich; it can damage anyone’s outlook and peace of mind.

The conflict between the get and give ways of life is an ancient dilemma. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24; English Standard Version throughout). He also made it clear that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). 

If Jesus taught that the pursuit of material possessions is a diversion from life’s spiritual quest, how should we think about such everyday needs as food, clothing and shelter?

Jesus didn’t imply that we shouldn’t work. However, He assured His followers that God knows what we need, and that worrying about such things is futile: “Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28–30).

What He wants us to achieve is balance in how we approach work and in our various wants and needs. The apostle Paul wrote that if someone isn’t willing to work, then he should not expect to eat the fruit of someone else’s labor (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The author of Proverbs instructed us to look to the ant for an example of how we should work to feed our families and ourselves (Proverbs 6:6–11). The focus is on contributing to the welfare of those in our care, not on amassing wealth or collecting “toys.”

Jesus was teaching His followers the most important priority in life. His discussion of materialism ended with a remarkable promise regarding our material needs. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” He said, “and all these things will be added to you”(verse 33).



Tags: Jesus, first christians, greed, Early Church, 12 disciples, materialism, give versus get

Monotheism or Monolatry

Conference held to locate origin of a "Jewish" idea
Beit Alpha

"How is it that Israel, a small nation living in polytheistic environment, brought Monotheism to the world?" With that challenge, Frederick L. Simmons opened the symposium he had sponsored with the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, January 10, 2010. Simmons charged the participants that he was not prepared to accept an answer of “God willed it.” Rather he demanded a rational explanation for the origin.

Ziony Zevit, Professor of Biblical Literature and Semitic Languages at AJU-LA, had assembled a panel under the rubric of “A Day of Archaeological Insight: What Do We Mean When We Say Monotheism?” To address the subject, Zevit had brought together several notable archaeologists and biblical studies experts from the East Coast. Drs. Barry Gittlen from Towson University and Steven Fine of Yeshiva University, New York, discussed the archaeological evidence while Mark Smith from New York University and Jeffrey Tigay from the University of Pennsylvania discussed the biblical aspects. Some three hundred people assembled to hear their deliberations as part of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education program and AJU.

Professor Zevit made it abundantly clear from the outset that we were dealing with a difficult term and that the audience should expect some surprises. Tracing the usage of the term Monotheism as presented in the Oxford English Dictionary (the second most quoted source of the day after the Tanakh), he suggested that “atheists like the idea of Monotheism as it gives only one target to shoot at.”  But in a way, that almost provided a summary of the day. He continued by asking where one should go to find about polytheism, countering his own suggestion of the Hindu culture in India by showing that Hindu scholars see all the different emanations of Hinduism as simply different manifestations of the one Hindu deity. As a result they claim that Hinduism is also monotheistic.

Jewish Kabbalistic lore likewise has emanations of God not dissimilar to those of Hinduism. Thus, he concluded his introduction by suggesting that the terms we use are so problematic that they are almost meaningless.

Professor Gittlen provided an “Archaeological Introduction to Biblical Cult Places and Images,” graphically illustrated from his own field work in Israel and other sources. He appropriately described the prize of archaeology as coming to understand how and why people did things—understanding the context of their actions. Yet so much of the archaeological evidence is of practices that appear contrary to the instruction of Scripture. 

Professor Mark Smith was the only person to attempt to respond to Frederick Simmons's challenge. Accepting the limitation of the ideas of monotheism that Ziony Zevit had established at the beginning of the presentation, he still felt that monotheism had a place in Israel. After presenting a diachronic overview of worship in Israel, he posited that the idea of monotheism was developed as a response to the imperial powers of Assyria and Babylon that came to dominate Israel and Judah. However his own reasoning left holes in his argument. Noting that polemics are wars fought with words, and that polemics rightly help us appreciate the argument being combated, he failed to recognize that the rabbis some 1,000 years later were still involved in polemics against those who were seen as against their monotheistic ideas.  If the idea of monotheism had been developed in the 6th or 7th century BCE, why were the Rabbis still fighting to have it established as the ideal of Judaism a millennia later? This question was never considered in Smith's argument.

Professor Jeffrey H. Tigay's background in Deuteronomy equipped him to address the subject of “Monotheism in the Hebrew Bible.” He noted in opening that YHWH was a personal name and that the issue of monotheism is not that of "one god," but of "the only god." He opined that monotheism as commonly understood had no real part in Scripture. He showed that the Shema, contained in Deuteronomy 6:4 is not a monotheistic statement. Its claim to be a monotheistic statement was post-biblical. The scriptures normally used to support monotheism in the Hebrew Bible are not philosophical statements, but rather statements of historical reality to the authors and audience. To Professor Tigay, any solution to the quest of Fred Simmons lay outside the realm of Scripture.

Steve Fine moved the time scale forward to the archaeological evidences from the first centuries of the current era. With presentations providing visits to synagogues in Dura-Europos, and in the Galilee, Steve Fine raised questions about the Jewish rejection of representative art, either from the biblical record or the pagan world. Why was the synagogue in Dura-Europos decorated with art depicting biblical stories and accounts? The art was clearly presented to show that biblical and not pagan ideas were being presented. And why should synagogues in the Galilee from the same period have zodiacs so prominently displayed? They clearly were not for the purpose of a calendar as they mixed the signs of the zodiac and seasons from the normal order. What we accept as being normal has not always been the case. Such is true with our current ideas of monotheism.

Overall, the event presented a portrait to the audience that all was not as we would like to think it was. It created a challenge to the normally accepted and unquestioned views that underpin both Judaism and Christianity.

Upon reflection, the conclusion of the matter at the end of the day was that the original challenge of Frederick Simmons was not worded correctly. Rather than asking why Israel gave rise to Monotheism, he should have asked why Israel gave rise to Monolatry. Only Israel worshipped a single God. Monotheism as we use it today was a construct of the Greek philosophers—most likely Antithenes, a pupil of Socrates—and then of subsequent Christian church fathers as well as the Rabbis of the current era.

John J. Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament at Yale, summed up the situation described in the Dead Sea Scrolls at the start of the Christian era. This is a fitting description of the early followers of Jesus Christ as well.

[M]onotheism hardly seems the right word to describe the religion of the Dead Sea Scrolls. To be sure, the supremacy of the Most High is never in doubt. But this is not a God who dwells alone. He is surrounded by ’elim and ’elohim, holy ones and angels. Some of these angels (Michael, Melchizedek, and the Prince of Light) are exalted above their fellows (Religion in the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2000, 27).

Given that conclusion, the ideas of the timing of the rise of monotheism within Judaism by Professor Mark Smith seem patently misplaced.

Tags: Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Church, Monotheism, Deuteronomy, Monolatry, Shema, Tigay

The First Epistle of Peter

Papers at Society of Biblical Literature challenge current understanding

The First Epistle of Peter was the focus of a session at the Society of Biblical Literature currently being held in New Orleans.  One of the presenters, Kelly Liebengood of University of St. Andrews, Scotland,  highlighted the current consensus the Peter was written to a gentile audience.  But listening to the other speakers created a dilemma.  If written to a gentile audience, then it demanded of them an intensive education of the Old Testament, or as they were known then, the Holy Scriptures. The epistle is laden with references, quotes, and illusions from those Scriptures. 
Such a possibility is not unreasonable. Paul expected his audience in Corinth who were largely gentile to know the examples and accounts from the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 10:1-11).  The scriptures were, he stated written for our edification.  He had spent some 18 months in Corinth on one occasion prior to this letter and that would have been a useful period in which to give the Corinthians an understanding of the Scriptures.  James in his conclusion to the Jerusalem Conference recorded in Acts 15, makes a statement that is hardly ever treated with due respect.  He spoke about how Moses is taught in the Synagogues every Sabbath (Acts 15:21).  This was more a throw away comment based on the reality of widespread distribution of synagogues in the Roman world, but rather an instruction to the gentiles as to where to begin the education process required of them if they were to be part of the household of faith.

On the other hand, if the audience was Jewish, as our speaker wanted to suggest, it creates a challenge for Christians today (See here also).  To understand the whole purposes of Christ’s life and death and the way of life the followers of Christ are called to live, demanded an in depth appreciation of the existing scriptures. What Peter records is not strictly something fresh that he has created himself, but something that is based upon a considerable appreciation of the Scriptures.  We lose sight today that at the time this epistle was written that the New Testament did not exist.  The early church drew its inspiration and sense of identity simply from the Holy Scriptures as taught by the Apostles.

Today we have largely forgotten that fact. The Holy Scriptures have been given a second class status by most Christian groups. However, we at First Followers believe that such an appreciation is the only proper way in which to understand the New Testament and the behavior of the early church. 


Tags: Old Testament, Early Church, Holy Scriptures, Peter, SBL

Passover Considerations

Rabbinic changes to the Passover to distance it from the early Church

In a short work on the Passover, Rabbi George Wolf examines some of the changes that he considers the early Rabbis introduced to the Passover in response to the observance by the early church. Scholars have long studied the New Testament without a serious consideration of other literature that impinges on its understanding. Fortunately that has begun to change in the last half century. 

The action of Jesus Christ with his disciples the night of his betrayal has most often been seen as a point of disjuncture with the established practices of Judaism of that day. This reaches its apex with the apostle Paul who speaks of the “Lord’s Supper,” which most exegetes wish to see as the proto-eucharist and the start of a Christian festival cycle independent of the Jewish Holy Days. 

Wolf, like some Jewish scholars sees it differently. He sees both Jesus and Paul keeping the Passover in such a manner that it prompted the Rabbis of the second and third centuries to bring changes to the Jewish practice to distance the Jews from the emerging church. 

As an example, Wolf examines the use of haroset in the Seder meal, which he sees as being a red accompaniment to the meal possibly originally derived from pomegranates. Haroset is nowhere mentioned in the Biblical record but its place in the Seder dates back to the time of the destruction of the second temple in C.E. 70 when it was introduced to represent the blood of passover lamb that could no longer be killed at the temple.  

Initial references to this are recorded by R. Eleazar Ben Zadok, a pupil of Gamaliel II (80-115 C.E.). By the time the Mishnah was codified over a century later, Ben Zadok’s opinion on haroset had become simply a footnote to the then-accepted use of haroset to represent the clay of Egypt used by the ancient Israelites in brick-making. Wolf sees this change in understanding—from blood, which was part of the Biblical command, to clay, which was a Rabbinic command not included in Scripture—as being an attempt by the Rabbis to distance the Jewish event from that outlined in the New Testament where blood was represented by wine.  

Paul's references to Jesus Christ as “our Passover” (1 Corinthians 5:7) and the cup of blessing representing the blood of the covenant (1 Corinthians 10:16, 11:25) are instructive to Wolf in his considerations. The end result is that the Jewish Passover meal has no references to the blood of the lamb or the blood daubed on the lintels and threshold of a home. 

Wolf’s book is entitled: Lexical and Historical Contributions on the Biblical and Rabbinic Passover, (New York: G. Wolf, 1991).


Tags: Early Church, Passover, blood, haroset, Passover lamb, Rabbis

To Whom was First Peter written?

Was the audience Jewish or gentile?

An interesting debate is appearing amongst bloggers about the original audience for whom the First Epistle of Peter was written.  Were they Jews or were they gentiles before coming part of the Church? The author of the epistle doesn’t address the identity of his audience directly, but rather leaves us with some way markers. 

The problem for commentators is that Peter in writing his epistle expected his audience to know the Hebrew Scriptures.  Hence some say that the audience must be Jewish.  Not so say others, pointing to 1 Peter 1:18 and 1 Peter 2:10. Understandably, these verses are hard to contextualize if the audience came from a Jewish background.

But perhaps the problem and solution lies elsewhere.  Commentators today insist on seeing two distinct groups in the early church—converted Jews and converted pagans—who followed different sets of requirements.  The Jews would have had to maintain their commitment to the Torah, while gentiles only kept the seven Noachide commandments.  Thus the church had two standards of behavior required of its members. But what if there was only one standard for the early church and the followers of Jesus rather than the double standard that we have adopted today to justify Christianity’s own position—a position aided and abetted by Judaism to maintain a degree of separation between the two groups?

Consider that the early gentile followers of Jesus started as being God-fearers in the Synagogues.  As such, they already were exposed to the teachings of the scriptures, having heard them expounded to some degree in the Synagogue on a weekly basis.  As a God-fearer, did they eat bacon for breakfast before heading off to the Synagogue for Sabbath prayers?  The term God-fearers indicates a high level of commitment to the way of life set out by the God of Israel.  Such people wanted to follow that ideal.  Following Jesus of Nazareth was not contradictory to that goal just as it was not contradictory for a devout Jew of the same day.  It may have had political consequences within the Jewish community, but it was not contradictory behavior. Imagine other gentiles coming into this group as a result of the teaching of Peter or another apostle or evangelist. Already, gentile God-fearers were being law observant together with those who had been devout Jews.  It would be natural for new gentiles to follow the example of those who went before.  Like the God-fearers they would have immersed themselves in the study of the Scriptures. In writing to the church inCorinth, it is apparent that Paul had spent considerable time and effort in teaching the Scriptures to the new converts (1 Corinthians 10:1-11).

Consider then that Peter wrote his letter to a group of people, whose nationality remains unknown, but whose commitment to the God of Israel was central to their behavior.  They could have been Jew or gentile. Both groups would then have known the Scriptures and would have been motivated by them in terms of their behavior and standards.  Hence the problem of the audience identity as seen by commentators may be one of our own making, borne out of the insistence that there were different life styles for both Jew and gentile within the church.

H/T to Torrey Seland at Research Notes on 1 Peter and Doug Chaplin at Metacatholic



The Apostles, Part 13: Feed My Sheep


Tags: Early Church, 1 Peter, gentiles, God-fearers, Jewish followers

Monotheism Is the Subject of the Month!

More discussion on the blogs
During October a couple of postings have been made on the subject of Monotheism, to which I have since referred. Now, Chris Tilling of Chrisendom, a graduate student at Tubingen, has also written on this subject and posted some references (about which I have also posted a comment). Of even greater interest is another response to Chris in which Nick Norelli points us to his blog where he has listed a number of articles on the subject. Well done Nick! His is good research, that may even cause some to view monotheism differently. The great difficulty for Christianity is to read Scripture in context and not through a metaphysic of ontology!

Tags: Early Church, Paul, Monothesism, Scripture

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