Some More Random Stuff

I guess a suitably random place to start is here:

♦  Programming for kids.

♦  Speaking of children and languages, here's an article about St. Tolkein's history of inventing languages, found on a website devoted to describing all of the languages of Middle Earth.

♦  On the topic of Inklings, St. Lewis wrote a propaganda essay, “The Norse Spirit in English Literature”, with the goal of reconciling Iceland to having been invaded by the British during WWII.  Although, probably the essay reflected his real beliefs, since he was a huge affectionado of Norse literature, as discussed in his autobiography Surpised by Joy, as well as the essay "First and Second Things" (which can be found in God in the Dock, or better yet in the more complete collection C.S. Lewis, Essay Collection and Stories, if you find a cheap enough copy.)

♦  Speaking of which, if you ever time travel back to the WWII era, and need to know who is likely to be a Nazi sympathizer (assuming you can't easily hop back to the future to check their wikipedia articles), here is your definitive guide.  Somewhat revealing concerning its assumptions about social class stratifications which no longer exist in the same form in contemporary America... yet I feel there is still something universal to be learned about totalitarian impulses, which can be extracted from this bundle of prejudices.

♦  Speaking of propagandists, a professional metaphor maker talks about tools of the trade.

♦  And a warning about the use of metaphors to explain science.  Of course, people often think they are getting rid of metaphors and talking literally, when really they are merely changing which metaphor they are using...

♦  A chemist blogs humorous descriptions of substances which no sane chemist should ever work with.  Some samples:

Sand Won't Save You This Time (about Chlorine Trifloride; here's a video.)
Dioxygen Difluoride


And if you liked being terrified by those, here are some more...

♦  If you prefer metaphorical explosions, here's a form of therapy where you insult and challenge the other person, so that they argue against you and thus become more positive and self-confident?  Pretty sure this is not for everyone, but sometimes reverse psychology can do wonders.  Not too surprisingly, it doesn't work properly unless you do it with love and humor.

♦  Sometimes a sense of conventional responsibility (avoiding risks) can make a person do terrible things (such as killing their own offspring through the sin of abortion).

In a similar vein, I'm reminded of a certain woman I knew in college, who was taught by her mother that it was "irresponsible" to marry someone and have kids, before you are in your 30s and have built up a successful career.  (Never mind that biology makes it easier to start a family when you're younger!)  Of course, she still fell in love with people and dated them in the meantime, breaking the heart of one of my friends along the way.

Perhaps we modern people could use to refocus our sense of duty a bit, away from guilt about lack of our own self-advancement, and more towards an old-fashioned sense of "doing the right thing" by other people?

♦  Another of my friends from college has a new blog about the intersection of ecology and theology.

♦  Speaking of theologians, did you know that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a short book entirely on the question of whether the world could have been eternal?

♦  Speaking of ecology, an interview with Hayao Miyazaki.  (If you haven't seen any of his movies, you should drop whatever it is you are doing now, and watch one.)

♦  Speaking of St. John's College, I was recently besmazzled when I learned that a fellow alumnus (St. Ben Sasse) has managed to get himself elected to the U.S. Senate!  (He has also studied at some lesser institutions such as Harvard, Oxford, and Yale.)

In accordance with tradition, he remained silent for a year after his election, observing the institution.  Then he got up and delivered an insightful, nonpartisan speech describing some of the issues with the Senate as an institution.  (I was able to figure out his partisan affiliation from reading the speech, but it was reasonably subtle.)

I first encountered the speech as it was linked from Sun and Shield, and then when he started talking about Socrates, I said to myself "Could it possibly be???  A Johnnie in the Senate?  But we're so tiny and insignificant in the world's eyes!"  And then I checked his wikipedia page and sure enough, he had an M.A. from St. John's in Annapolis.  (The Masters is basically a condensed version of the undergraduate program).

♦  Arrow's Theorem says that there are no perfect voting systems involving at least 2 voters and at least 3 choices.  They always sometimes lead to paradoxical results.  An example of such a voting paradox arose recently in the 3rd circuit court of appeals.  Be sure to read this comment.  Be sure to scroll down to the comment by "L Pseudonymous" about hypothetical future judges Alpha, Beta, and Gamma...

Regarding the resolution of the paradox, I think for a court of appeals, issue voting makes a lot more sense than outcome voting.  In a legal system based on precedent, we want judges to be focussed on making the rules that make the most sense, not focussed on which parties should win in any given case.  It also makes it easier to determine what precedent is set in future cases.

It especially makes sense to separate votes on standing (i.e. whether the party is sufficiently affected by the situation to be allowed to sue) from the merits of the case (i.e. who is right about the law).  If there's no standing, the Judges have no jurisdiction and are required to dismiss the suit without considering the merits.  (That's because Article III of the US constitution only empowers Judges to decide "Cases" and "Controversies" between actual affected parties, not to issue advisory opinions on abstract questions of law.)

But what if a majority thinks there is standing, and a minority doesn't?  It doesn't seem reasonable that the minority shouldn't be allowed to have an opinion about the merits of the case, once the court has definitively (and precendentially) decided by majority vote that standing exists.  (The other rule would lead to perverse incentives: Judges would be tempted to find standing so that their opinion about the merits could be considered.)

One potential problem with issue voting in general, is that the power to decide which way the "issues" are listed, may determine the outcome of the case.  In fact I seem to recall it's a theorem, that any time there's a voting paradox, the person who decides which order the yes/no  questions are presented in (assuming people vote honestly) can always control the final outcome.   But the distinction between standing and the merits is so fundamental to US judicial proceedings (and the order to consider them in is also clear), that at least these two stages can be separated, without such ambiguity.

♦  An article about the eccentricities of J.H. Conway, one of the greatest living mathematicians.  Most famous among outsiders for his cellular automaton "Life", but he also made important contributions to Group Theory, invented Surreal Numbers (useful for the theory of games), and a bunch of other things.

♦  And on the topic of games, here's a free game you can download, invented by a group of radical Bayesians, to see if your probability estimates are properly calibrated.  It's like a trivia game, but you have to decide how sure you are that your guess is right, and the scoring system is designed so that honest play is the best strategy (but you don't need to understand why, in order to enjoy the game).

Posted in Links | 9 Comments


Dear Aron,

I hope and pray you are doing fine.

I will try to keep my comments short (perhaps more will come later, for what they are worth).

In 2 Chronicles 4:5 of the KJV (King James Version), one will see "received and held three thousand baths."

Can you comment on it - such as if you find anything significant in it?

Thank you.


Dear i7sharp,
This verse refers to the basin in Solomon's temple (sometimes called the "Sea"), which the priests were to use for ceremonial washing, before beginning their work on the daily sacrifices and offerings, as commanded in the Torah.

A "bath" was an ancient Hebrew measure of liquids. Unfortunately, we don't know exactly how big it was, but the early biblical commenters put it at around four or eight gallons.  So what I find most significant here is that this is a LOT of water; around ten thousand gallons!  It would have been a very impressive sight.

(Some of the measurements in the Temple may have numerological significance, but I don't see any particularly obvious meaning associated to the the number 3,000.  Also, the parallel passage in 1 Kings 7:26 has 2,000 baths instead; one of those minor discrepencies which maybe indicates that the Hebrew historians weren't quite as concerned with precision of detail as a modern historian might be.)

Spiritually speaking, the items in the Temple all prefigure the work of Christ. Water is used to wash away filth, so the giant basin of water represents the vast mercy of God, big enough to wash away the worst sins.  The fact that the priests had to wash before beginning their duties, shows the necessity of repentance before we can draw near to God.

In the New Covenant, we are reminded of the same symbolic truth by the ritual of Baptism.  However, unlike the priests (who had to wash many times), Christians are baptized only once, in order to show that Christ's sacrifice is more effective than animal sacrifice.  It is capable of causing a permanent cleansing of the human heart, even though of course we do need to continually seek forgiveness regarding day-to-day issues.  As Jesus said, "A person who has bathed all over does not need to wash, except for the feet, to be entirely clean" (John 13:10).  In the same way, Christians need to repent of the sins that arise from time to time, but we should do so in a way which does not deny the work which God has already done in us.

In the Book of Revelation, items from the Temple reappear in the visions to show that the true temple of God is in Heaven.  In particular, there is a Glassy Sea before the throne (4:6), which is associated with the victory of God's saints (15:2).

So that's what I see in this passage. Y ou can find more commentaries on BibleHub.

Posted in Theology | 1 Comment

Bible Reading Plans

Dear Aron,

Can I ask, how do you know so much about the Bible? I've seen your comments before and I get the impression that you know a lot about theological history too. I've always been telling myself I should learn more but I don't where to start?

Best regards,

I'll save the Church history stuff for another post, and focus on advice on how to read the Bible here.

As for why I know so much about the Bible, well, I've been interested in theology since my childhood, so that helps.  My Mom was a Sunday school teacher, who talks about the bible all the time, and I also did bible quizzing as a teenager.  I'm a fast reader.  And ah like to think ah'm purty smart two!

But there are many saints who had none of these advantages, and still know the Bible like the back of their own hand.  God promises wisdom to all those who ask him for it, without doubting.  So don't give up!

In order to learn about the Bible, I think the most important thing is to read it frequently.  And, of course, ask the Holy Spirit to teach you how to apply it to your life.  Despite what all the pastors say, I've never been able to force myself to read the Bible every day (except for a few years in high school, doing the lectionary plan (#4 below) with my mother).  Instead I read it in large chunks, and then think about it at other times when I'm walking about or doing other things.  If you don't mind gross metaphors, I guess you could call it "chewing on the cud" like a cow does.  I read it first, and ruminate on meaningful verses later. But that doesn't mean I don't think about it while I'm reading as well; I'm just looking more at the big picture.

Reading theological commentaries on the Bible is also helpful, but it is not as important as actually reading the Bible yourself.  If you want to become very knowledgeable about the Scriptures, the first priority is to actually read the entire Bible.  Then do it again.  That'll put you in a better position to judge whether the theologians are bullshitting you or not.

Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies.
I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts.
I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word.
I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path.
(Psalm 119 מ (mem))

When you're reading, first make sure you understand the basic meaning of the text.  A Bible with footnotes or study notes may be helpful here, as long as you don't let it disrupt your flow when you don't need it.  (And as long as the person writing the notes doesn't have a theological agenda of their own.  The NIV Study Bible notes are evangelical but otherwise pretty neutral.  Avoid the Scofield Reference Bible, which has a complicated "end times" agenda)  Study bibles also tend to have maps, charts, and introductions to the individual books, which may (or may not) be helpful.  If you get stuck, you can also start looking at alternate translations or commentaries.

If you get confused, feel free to slow down a bit and process more carefully.  You don't necessarily need to understand everything, but if you're reading St. Paul's letter to the Romans, or something else complicated, you might need to work through the ideas verse by verse just to make sure you understand the basic ideas being expressed.  If you do feel you understand the basic literal meaning, then start asking yourself why questions instead.  Or ask yourself how it fits into the big context of the whole story of the Bible.  In a good Bible study or Sunday school class, people do this together as a group, with an experienced guide.

I never did all that much verse memorization, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't!

But if I partly remember a passage that seems relevant for what I'm thinking about, I always try to look it up immediately (if I don't remember where it is, using cross-references, Google search, or a concordance).  Same thing if I'm reading part of the Bible and it reminds me of another part.  Some bibles have "cross-references" to specifically tell you which verses are related to which other verses.  Here's a visualization of a collection of 63,779 cross references, by Sts. Chris Harrison and Christoph Römhild:

You can see from this that the Bible functions more like a neural network than like an ordinary book.  When you know it well enough, it becomes like the third hemisphere of your brain, a bundle of connected ideas which you can use to think, not only about itself, but about other things.  It's your job to figure out what are the cross-references with the things in your own life.

Start by picking a translation which you're comfortable with.  This is a matter of taste, since some translations are more literal, and some are easier to read, and you need to pick the compromise which is right for you.  Before you settle on one, check to make sure you like both the way it translates prose (ordinary narration) and poetry (the Psalms and most of the Old Testament prophets).

No translation is perfect, but here are some I can personally vouch for, at a given level of the accuracy/readability tradeoff.  In order from most to least literal:

more literal
Shocken Bible (Jewish, preserves a lot of Hebraic style, currently Genesis–Kings only)
New King James Version (or the original KJV if you're okay with archaic language)

Holman Christian Standard Version
New International Version (I grew up with this; I prefer 1984 to 2011)
(New) Jerusalem Bible (a Catholic version, I've only read the old version)

paraphrase (very readable but not as accurate for serious study)
JB Philips (New Testament only)
New Living Version (this or the Philips are particularly good for Paul's letters)
Contemporary English Version (very easy to read, particularly good for OT history)

(But I don't recommend St. Eugene Peterson's "The Message" unless you are incapable of reading anything not "written up" in bestseller cliches, or have read the bible a million times before and need an electrical shock.  This is in a category of its own, way more nonliteral than any of the other paraphrases.  His introductions to the books are pretty decent though.)

I've already discussed some of the issues that come up with translation choices before, in my post on why "word-for-word" translations are impossible.  If you don't know ancient Greek or Hebrew, the next best way to "check" a translation you aren't sure about, is to consult what the same verse says in other translations.  If there's a difference, you know people don't all agree.

Below are some possible methods for reading through the Bible.  I'm basing some of these recommendations off of these suggestions of St. Tim Isbell, the pastor of the church I grew up in.

1) Straight Through

You could just read through all the books in the order they appear in the Table of Contents.  But I don't actually recommend it.  First of all, within each Testament, the books are sorted by genre, not always chronologically.   There's nothing theologically special about that order, in fact the Old Testament books appear in a different order in Jewish bibles.  In the usual Christian order, the Old Testament is sorted into Torah, History, Wisdom, and Prophecy, while the New Testament has a similar order: Gospels, Acts, Letters, and Revelation.

There's nothing wrong with reading cover-to-cover if you want to, but there are several disadvantages:

  • One is that you won't get to the New Testament until you're 3/4 of the way throughwhich means if you give up early, you won't get to it at all!
  • Another potential problem is that it tends to group similar books together, so you may get bogged down, and it won't be as interesting as if you mix things up from different parts of the Bible.  It's kind of like eating only meat on Monday, vegetables on Tuesday, fruit on Wednesday, carbs on Thursday, and desert on Friday.  It's better to mix things up a bit.
  • Also, some books of the bible have identical or nearly identical passages.  For example, the book of Chronicles includes a bunch of summaries of earlier books of the bible, and has chapters which are identical to chapters in Samuel and Kings.  Similarly, the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are all based on a common outline of Jesus' life.  Unless you are specifically interested in comparing-and-contrasting the similar passages, it makes more sense to space these books out, rather than reading them right next to each other.
  • Although Genesis and Exodus are mostly pretty interesting, a lot of people get bogged down in Leviticus because of all the weird laws about sacrifices and what to do about leprosy.  Personally I find that stuff fascinating, but you might think it's tedious.  This leads to a general rule: if you get bored with anything, go ahead and skim it on your first pass.  You can always come back to it again later.  Yes, reading the whole Bible is good, but if you aren't looking forward to reading the next chapter, you might end up putting it off 1 Chronicles 1-9 (nine chapters of genealogy) for months.  If you can't do it, better to keep engaged and moving forward.

2) Arbitrary Order

As an alternative to reading cover to cover, you may wish to simply read the books in a random order, according to your whim and/or the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Once you've finished a book, simply mark it with a bullet point in the Table of Contents, so you know which ones are left to read.  Then you can try to use up each category of book at about the same time.  And you'll still get the same feeling of accomplishment when you've read it all!

3) Storyline Plan

For a first pass through the Bible, you may wish to just focus on the Storyline, the books which contain the main narrative of the Bible.

St. Tim writes that:

If you've never read the whole Bible story, or if your grasp of Bible stories is all jumbled, then start with this plan. It is valuable to grasp an overview of the whole Bible – and you can do this reading only the most action-packed 30% of the Bible. The other 70% contains alternative views of the same history, side commentaries written by prophets, and poetry. Reading this 30% of the Bible takes about 30 hours. If you read it like you’d read a novel, in 20 minutes a day you’ll grasp the whole Bible story in just 3 months!

For this you just need to read the following list of books in order:

New Testament:
Any of Matthew, Mark or Luke (your choice).

Old Testament:
Leviticus chapter 10
Numbers 9-27
Deuteronomy 27-34
1-2 Samuel
1-2 Kings
Daniel 1-6

When you've finished, put a bullet point by each of the books you've completed.  Congratulations, you're now about 1/3 of the way done with the Bible!  When you start reading the other books, you can start by looking at a timeline to remind yourself when they were written, to put them into context.

4) Augmented Lectionary Plan

In this section I will describe my mother's plan for reading through the entire Bible while simultaneously following the "lectionary readings" associated with each Sunday.

First let me explain what the lectionary is.  It's a rule for deciding which Scriptures to read on a given Sunday.  A bunch of liturgical churches in North America, including the Episcopalians, Lutherans, United Methodists, Catholics, etc. have all agreed to use the same cycle of readings, the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), in their public scripture readings every Sunday.

The readings follow the six seasons of the traditional Christian calender, each of which reflects on a particular part of Christ's life:

Advent—anticipating the coming of Christ (including the second coming)
Christmas—the Incarnation
Epiphany—Christ revealed publicly
Lent—his life of discipline and self-sacrifice
(culminating in Holy Week, his last week of life)
Easter—his resurrection and appearances to the disciples
Pentecost (or Ordinary Time)his reign in heaven, and continued work through the Church

So if you think it would be cool to have your Scripture readings match what the time of year, and what a bunch of other Christians are reading, this plan may be for you,

In order to cover as much of the Bible as possible, the Lectionary cycles through 3 years, one focussing on each of the 3 synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, or Luke).  (The Gospel of John is distributed through all 3 years.)  So the cycle approximately repeats every three years, although not exactly due to things like the date of Easter.

Each Sunday has a Gospel and Epistle reading, and usually 2 choices of Old Testament readings, one which goes through the history consecutively, and the other chosen to match thematically with the New Testament reading.  When I use this plan, I like reading them both, and also reading any verses they skipped over.

Unfortunately, even in 3 years the RCL doesn't actually cover the whole Bible, since they tend to focus only on parts suitable for public reading.  Worse still, there seems to be a theological agenda to shield congregations from difficult, violent, or upsetting parts of scripture.  For example, they often excerpt psalms (unless one is reading Psalm 119, where I understand why people might lose patience, the proper unit of a Psalm is the whole Psalm!) and when they do, it is almost always the violent or cursing parts which they remove.   (The most ironic example I know is the reading for Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, which deliberately skips the verse threatening people with Hell.  So of course, they also had to skip the verse saying that if anyone removes anything from the book, they'll be punished with all the plagues in the book.  Who knew that liturgists had the same kind of God-defying kahunas that the Pharaoh of the Exodus had?)

On the other hand, churches that read the Lectionary are still exposed to a significantly more diverse set of Scriptures than the average church that doesn't follow the lectionary.  Unless a church takes special effort to include the whole Bible in their worship, they will normally tend to focus on only a very small subset of the Bible; mostly the nicer parts of the New Testament plus a few very selected and stereotypical pieces of the Old Testament.  (And your pastor is definitely not going to impress me with his extensive knowledge of the minor prophets by preaching on Haggai 1 when he thinks the congregation isn't tithing enough.  I've already heard that sermon several times already.  If you have to preach, try picking a passage you've seldom or never heard preached before.  In some ways it's actually easier to extract the obvious message from a new passage, than to try to say something about the Woman at the Well or the Good Samaritan that nobody's ever said before.)

Sometimes people say, but doesn't having a specific scripture for each Sunday stifle the guidance of the Holy Spirit?  (In that case, why have a private Bible reading plan either?)  My answer: if the Holy Spirit leads you to a particular text, you should definitely listen to that and not do what you were planning to do.  But we need a plan to cover the more normal situation, where there isn't an obvious revelation from God.

Anyway, for those who want to read the entire Bible AND follow the Lectionary, my Mom has created a plan for augmenting the lectionary readings so that you end up read the whole Bible every 3 years.  She does it by mixing in readings during the week which go through various books of the Bible.  Make sure to read the FAQ as well.  The rate is slow enough that if you get off track, you can catch up.  This plan is good for people who are already familiar with the main storyline of the Bible, and want to think about the connections between different parts of the Bible.

The next church year starts, not on Jan 1, but THIS UPCOMING SUNDAY (Nov 29, 2015).  So if you want to start on this plan, that would be an excellent time to start!  But you could jump on board at any time.

5) Chronological Order

You can buy Bibles which purport to put the Scriptures in chronological order.  I've never read through one of these, but it sounds fun.

It raises an interesting question: do you put the books in the order they were written in, or the order the events described in them happened?  (Sometimes these very different, e.g. the Epistles were probably written before the Gospels, but the Gospels describe the life of Jesus which was before when the Epistles were written.  Also, sometimes nobody really knows when a text was written, and people are just guessing.  So caveat emptor.

6) Anything else

Anything else you want to do?  Great!  Whichever plan actually gets you reading more of the Bible, that's the best plan for you!  People are welcome to share their own ideas in the comments.

Another idea: if you're going through the Bible a second time, one way to mix things up is to pick a different translation from your usual choice.  Or, you could try to be on the lookout for a particular broad theme (e.g. Messianic prophecies and other foreshadowings of the New Covenant).  If your chosen theme is narrower (e.g. biblical feasts and fasts) you might focus on the particular parts of the Bible which are relevant for that theme.

Appendix: A Brief Synopsis of the Bible
A while back I wrote this synopsis of the Bible for a Muslim friend, which I reproduce in a revised form here:

The Old Testament books are sorted by genre (The Jews have the same books but sort them into a different order). The first 5 books are called the Torah, the Pentateuch, or the Law of Moses, and are traditionally attributed to Moses. They are a mixture of narrative and laws:

GENESIS — narrative of Creation, the Fall of Adam & Eve, the flood, God choosing the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Jacob's 12 sons who become the 12 tribes of Israel. One of the 12 is Joseph; his brothers sell him into slavery, but Joseph ends up in charge of all Egypt, and rescues Egypt and his family from famine.
EXODUS — The Israelites are oppressed and enslaved, God chooses Moses (and his brother Aaron) to lead them out of slavery, with many dramatic miracles. Introduces the Jewish Passover, the 10 commandments and other laws, construction of the "tabernacle" or tent in which God met them. The Israelites make an idol of the golden calf; God tells Moses he will kill all of them and start over with him, but Moses intercedes by praying to God, and God forgives them.
LEVITICUS laws concerning priests, sacrifices, clean and unclean animals, and other rituals
NUMBERS The Israelites wander around in the desert, sinning many times. God tells them to invade the Promised Land (Canaan), but they don't believe they can do it, and try to stone Moses. Again Moses has to intercede. God makes the Israelites wander around in the desert for 40 years, so that only the children under 20 can enter the land. The people complain of thirst: God tells Moses to speak to a rock and cause water to come out. Moses is so angry with them, he strikes the rock with his staff instead. For this sin, Moses is not allowed to enter the Promised Land.
DEUTERONOMY Moses delivers more laws as the people are about to enter the Promised Land. Most importantly, to "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One", not to make idols, and to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength". The death of Moses.

The next set of books are the Historical Books which deal with the history of Israel after the death of Moses.  They seem to be partly based on the writings of prophets like Samuel, Nathan, Gad, Ahijah, Iddo, Shemaiah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, as well as the official court records and other sources.  Within this section, the books are in rough chronological order.

JOSHUA Moses's assistant Joshua leads the conquest of the Promised Land.
JUDGES a period of time before there were any kings. The Israelites repeatedly became idoloters, were invaded by foreigners who oppressed them as a punishment, and then were rescued by heroes (called "judges") chosen by God.
RUTH a romance story between a Moabite woman named Ruth and an Israelite man Boaz, who marry and become ancestors of David.
1 SAMUEL the life of Samuel, a prophet who was the last judge of Israel. The people demand a king "like the other nations". Samuel says that the king will oppress them, and is displeased because God is supposed to be their King. God says to do it anyway, and Samuel anoints Saul as king. However Saul disobeys God & is replaced by David, the shepherd and musician. David serves in Saul's court, and becomes close friends with Saul's son Jonathan, but eventually Saul tries to kill David, who runs away and refuses to harm Saul. Saul sins by consulting a medium, and is rebuked by the ghost of Samuel. Saul is then killed in battle alongside Jonathan, and David becomes King.
2 SAMUEL the reign of David. David serves God with all his heart, and is blessed by God. David decides to build a permanent building for God. The prophet Nathan tells him that instead God will build David's house, that he will never take away his love from David, that David will have a descendent who will reign forever, and that his son will build a Temple for him. Later, David sins by committing adultery with Bathsheba and killing her husband. Nathan rebukes him, David repents, and God forgives him so that he will not die, but as a punishment tells him that "the sword will never depart from your house".
1&2 KINGS The reign of Solomon, a son of David by Bathsheba. God tells Solomon he can ask for anything he wants, and Solomon asks for wisdom. He becomes the wisest person who had ever lived, and builds God's Temple. He becomes rich and famous and has hundreds of wives. However, in his old age, his wives lead him into idolatry and worshiping other gods, and as a result God divides his kingdom so that his descendents have 2 tribes (called "Judah") while the other 10 tribes become a different country (called "Israel"). The book goes on to describe the kings in Judah (some of which followed God) and the kings in Israel (who nearly all didn't). The prophets Elijah and Elisha protest against the wicked king Ahab in Israel. After several more generations, Assyria conquers Israel. Later Babylon captures Judah, and leads the Jews into captivity for 70 years, as prophesied by Jeremiah.
1&2 CHRONICLES another perspective on the same history.
EZRA & NEHEMIAH After the Persians conquered the Babylonians, they allowed the Jews to come back and rebuilt their Temple and city wall. Under the influence of the righteous priest Ezra, the Jews commit to follow only God and to obey the Law of Moses.
ESTHER The Persian King Xerxes takes a Jewish girl as his Queen. She courageously intercedes to prevent a genocide of the Jews plotted by Xerxes wicked advisor Haman.

The next set of books are called "Wisdom Literature" because they include practical perspectives on what life is like:

JOB — a dialogue about a righteous man Job, who is very rich and powerful. God allows Satan to take away everything he owns, to kill his children, and to afflict him with a horrible disease, to see if he will still serve God. Job's 3 friends come and tell him he should repent because he must have sinned. Job argues with them, saying he was righteous and complains bitterly against God, and asks God to vindicate him. At the end, God comes down and, instead of explaining himself, asks Job questions about Nature which he can't answer, and Job cannot reply. Finally, God says that he is angry with Job's friends "because they did not speak rightly about me, as my servant Job has", and requires that Job offer sacrifices for them so that they can be forgiven. God restores Job's wealth to twice what it was before.
PSALMS a book of 150 hymns (songs) for the Temple worship, about half by King David and the rest by other people. Mostly prayers of human beings to or about God.
PROVERBS advice about living a good life, mostly short sayings by Solomon and others.
ECCLESIASTES philosophy attributed to Solomon about how earthly life is meaningless, so you should find contentment wherever you can, while still obeying God.
SONG OF SONGS erotic poetry celebrating love, also attributed to Solomon.

The final set of Old Testament books are called the Prophets (even though obviously prophets were involved in the other books too, these books are usually involve the message of God given to a single, specific prophet):

The "major prophets" (called that only because their books are longer than the others, not because they are necessarily more important) are ISAIAH, JEREMIAH, EZEKIEL, and DANIEL. Of the 12 "minor prophets", the first 9 are HOSEA, JOEL, AMOS, OBADIAH, JONAH, MICAH, NAHUM, HABAKKUK,   These prophesied before or during the Babylonian exile, warning the Israelites that they would be punished for their idolatry. The nations would then be punished for their sins, and finally God would restore Israel under the reign of the Messiah, David's descendent, who will cause all nations to worship the one true God, and will reign forever.  The last 3 minor prophets, HAGGAI, ZECHARIAH, and MALACHI, were sent to encourage the people after they returned from exile, in the Ezra-Nehemiah period. Malachi was the last prophet of the Old Testament, after than there was a silence of no prophets for 400 years, before the New Testament.

[Catholics accept a few additional books in the Old Testament beyond those listed here.  These were written in the Intertestamental Period: after the death of Malachi, but before the birth of John the Baptist.  They are not included in most Protestant or Jewish Bibles.  Among them, the books I've found most interesting are 1-2 Maccabees which provide some useful historical context for this period, and Wisdom and Sirach (a.k.a. Ecclesiasticus) which are additional books of wisdom/proverbs.  The others are Tobit and Judith (fictional historical romances with obvious anachronisms), Baruch (supposedly written by Jeremiah's secretary) and various Additions to the books of Esther and Daniel.  The Orthodox accept a few more.  But I wouldn't worry about any of these until you've read the books that all Christians accept!]

The New Testament:

This begins with the 4 Gospels of MATTHEW, MARK, LUKE, and JOHN which are biographies of Jesus, the descendent of King David. Beginning with the ministry of John the Baptist, and Jesus' Baptism, they go on to describe Jesus' teachings and miracles. Then comes the Passion, in which Jesus entered Jerusalem, was betrayed to the Jewish and Roman leaders, condemned for our sins and crucified. Then he came back to life again, and appeared to his disciples after the Resurrection, commissioning them to preach the gospel to all nations.

St. Luke also wrote a book called ACTS which describes the early Church after Jesus' ascension into heaven, and how the Holy Spirit came to live inside of every person who believes in Jesus as the Messiah. It also tells about the ministries of the apostles St. Peter (Jesus' disciple) and St. Paul (who persecuted Christians until he had a vision of the resurrected Jesus appearing to him). It describes a vision in which Peter saw a sheet come down from heaven, and to kill and eat unclean animals. Peter protested, but the vision was repeated 3 times. The point of the vision was to explain how God was now going to accept non-Jewish people into the church. It is also why Christians do not have dietary restrictions about clean and unclean animals, like Jews and Muslims do.

Then there the letters (called "Epistles") which give practical instructions for living the Christian life, as part of the Church, in light of the salvation that has come to us through Jesus.  There are 13 letters by Paul to different churches or individual Christians (ROMANS, 1-2 CORINTHIANS, GALATIANS, EPHESIANS, PHILIPPIANS, COLOSSIANS, 1-2 THESSALONIANS, 1-2 TIMOTHY, TITUS, PHILEMON), plus HEBREWS, an anonymous letter to Jewish Christians which was traditionally attributed to Paul but most scholars think it was probably written by someone else in his circle.  There's also 1 letter by JAMES (Jesus' brother), 2 by PETER, 3 by JOHN, 1 by JUDE (another brother of Jesus). These letters describe the theology and practice of the apostles, and we regard them as inspired because Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the apostles.

Finally, there is a book called REVELATION which involves prophecies about the end of the world (among other things), attributed to St. John in his old age.

Posted in Education, Theology | 12 Comments


I'm not feeling particularly depressed at the moment, but it's something my personality tends towards in general, and I was just talking to someone about it by email.  I thought I'd collect some thoughts here.

A lot of people are deceived by what I call the "emotional prosperity gospel", that Christians should expect be happy all the time.  Many of these people would never be deceived for a minute by the financial version of the prosperity gospel—that Christians will become rich.  But both are based on a superficial reading of the Bible which totally ignores the fact that Christ was "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief".  The prophet Isaiah, speaking of the one who was to come, writes this dialogue between God and our Messiah:

He said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”  (Isaiah 49:3-4)

This is not, of course, the end of the passage.  God's plans do end with joy.  But depression is often found in the middle of things, in the difficulty and orneriness of life.

The emotional prosperity "gospel"—which is really no gospel at all—ignores that the Prophets and Apostles often had emotional poverty as well as financial poverty.  2 Corinthians makes it clear enough that St. Paul was not always happy, even though he found joy in his sorrows.

We live in a fallen world, and our bodies and minds are broken in various ways.  Emotions are physiological, not just spiritual; our bodies affect our minds and vice versa.  So depression is partly a medical issue.  If the chemical balance in our brain is off, it can cause us to feel sad, or withdrawn, or lazy without being able to help it.  This web comic is famous for its accurate depiction of what severe depression can be like:

Because depression is partly a physiological issue, there are physical changes which can be helpful.  Many people find that getting better sleep, exercising more, and/or making dietary changes can help.  I get seasonal depression in the wintertime, and in the evenings, and I have a lightbox which produces bright light, which I occasionally use to feel better.

For severe depression, it can be appropriate to seek medical help, such as drugs or psychotherapy.  (For talk therapy, I would recommend that Christians normally try to find a psychologist who is also a Christian, if reasonably possible.  If you just want someone to prescribe drugs, this might be less relevant.)

This link says more about what to expect if you go to a doctor:

Many people are resistant to doing this because they think if they get help it means they are "crazy".  If there's one thing I've learned in life it's that we're all a little bit crazy; people should realize that mental issues are normal and common, and not look down on themselves for being born a human being.

If someone can't walk because they have a broken leg, we wouldn't just tell them to trust God and snap out of it—we might pray for a miracle, but we should also go to the doctor.  It ought to be the same when the organ that's broken is our brain.  Also, we wouldn't say that a crippled person was "irresponsible" and "immature" for using a physical crutch, if it helps them to function better in their everyday life.  So we shouldn't say this about psychological crutches either.

To be sure, the fruits of the Spirit include joy and peace.  I would question the faith of a supposed Christian who never found any emotional consolation at all in Christ's resurrection.  Despair, a belief that God can't make your life better, that is a sin.  And we need to spend time in the Scriptures learning about God's promises about salvation, prayer, and the redemption of the world.  But there are many moods in Scripture: it contains Lamentations, Eccelesiastes, and the questioning Psalms, alongside the exhortations to rejoice and be glad.  If the Bible had only authorized some kinds of feelings, it would be superficial, unadapted to the world, uninspired.  Fortunately, God gave us something better than this.  Christ was fully human, not just divine.

Emotions come and go.  Depression often dampens all emotions, making it seem difficult to feel anything at all.  It is commonplace that "love", the primary fruit of the Spirit, has to be regarded primarily as an act of the will instead of an emotion.  I would suggest that "joy" and "peace" are the same way, and that it is possible to be sad or depressed and still have an attitude of rejoicing.  And one can't forget that it's the "peace that passes understanding", not the peace that comes from a well-calibrated cocktail of genes and circumstances.

Some Christians have both kinds of peace and are naturally happy and bouncy all the time; that's okay too as long as neither kind of Christian looks down on the other kind for being different from them.  Our emotional "set point" is largely the luck of the draw, it's what we do with it that matters.  Depression can, at times, be a legitimate response to the fallenness of the world.  We are pilgrims on a journey, not yet settlers in our final home.  Sometimes we have no choice but to feel sad.  But we can try to direct our negative emotions towards the things that actually matter in the world.

God can and does rescue many people from depression in this life.  But our faith is not primarily about this life, it is primarily about looking forward to the next, which will last forever.  Remember, St. Paul opined that Christianity just isn't worth it, if it only helps us in this life (1 Cor 15:19).  This is an increasingly unpopular thing to say in an increasingly worldly age.

But paradoxically, looking forward to Heaven makes us better able to deal with Earth.  Earthly sorrows are not as big of a deal, if we know that they are going to come to an end.  If we suffer with Christ, we will also reign with him.

Posted in Ethics, Theology | 10 Comments

God and Time VI: Eternity in Holy Writ

Previously in this series, we looked at what Philosophy, Special Relativity, and General Relativity have to say about the nature of Time.   I argued that a) the idea that only one time exists "at once" is just a perception of creatures like us who live in Time, and in reality all of Time must exist, and b) God must experience Time as it really is, and therefore c) God must be eternal, i.e. outside of time.

Then we began to see what God has revealed in the Bible about the relationship between God and Time.  We discussed whether God can change (I argued no, but this requires considering some scriptures which talk as if God could change as "anthropomorphisms") and whether God knows the future (here I think the overall message of the Bible is really quite clear that he does).

Continuing on, I will ask if there are any Scriptures which directly speak of the relationship between God and Time.  If we want to know about the relationship between God and Time, it seems like a more reliable method to find places where the Bible treats this issue explicitly, rather than trying to deduce in passing from texts which are really about other things.  But are there any such Scriptures?

5. Eternal and Everlasting

It's easy enough to find passages which speak of God being everlasting (existing at every moment of time, having no beginning or end) but this is common ground in this discussion.  For example, the Book of Revelation uses as a title for God the triadic description:

Who is, and who was, and who is to come (Rev 1:4, 1:8, 4:8)

indicating that he exists in the present, the past, and the future.  But someone who thinks that God exists in time could easily interpret this as just meaning that God endures with time.  The question is whether he is also eternal (existing in an timeless present), i.e. whether he transcends our concepts of time altogether.

One could draw an analogy here with God and Space (as suggested by Relativity).  Theologically, we can say that God is "outside" of space, that is, he is not the kind of thing that is located in space at all.  This is a suave, philosophical way of saying things, which is not always the best.  It is more common to say that God is located everywhere in space, i.e. he is omnipresent; and this is equally true so long as we don't fall into the trap of thinking that he fills space in the same way that water fills a glass.  Unlike the glass of water, God does not have distinct "parts" residing in different locations.  Nor can he be said to be "contained" by this universe.  For as Solomon pointed out, even the biggest multiverse cannot contain him.  Rather, he is present at each location of space, in this sense: that every place is related to him by being an object in the divine mind, subject to his power and will.  The creation cannot be considered in isolation from its Creator; every point of spacetime is in his mind.

In the same way, if we speak of God as living "outside of time" in an eternal present, this should not be taken to deny that he is also present at each moment of time.  So if God is eternal, it is also true that he is everlasting.  (This is important to my argument, because otherwise passages like Rev 1:4 might be taken as evidence against God's eternity, and we'd just have a battle of the proof-texts.)

Furthermore, God may be specially present in places that are particularly conducive to the operation of his power and will.  This numinous haunting of particular places and people may seem embarrassing to more rationalistic theologians, as if it limited his omnipresence, but the Bible sees no contradiction between God's general presence everywhere, and his special presence in certain particular places such as the Temple.  Consider this key passage from St. Isaiah:

For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.  (Isaiah 57:15, KJV)

This strange phrase "inhabits eternity" might reasonably be taken to suggest that God is outside of time, that he is eternal and not just that he persists with time.  Now, I'm not a Hebrew scholar, but it sure looks to me like Isaiah took a noun that normally means something like "forever", metaphorically turned it into a location, and then said that God lives there.

Once you've turned "forever" into an abstract place where things can be, I think "eternity" is a good translation.  While it may seem surprising that such a fine philosophical distinction would be present in the (normally more earthy) Hebrew scriptures, this passage seems to have found a poetic way to communicate that God is eternal in the strict sense.   Some of the less literal translations like the NIV dynamically translate the phrase as just "lives forever", but the majority of translations seem to agree with the KJV here.

In any case, Isaiah sees no contradiction with telling us that God is also present elsewhere.  He does not just in the heavenly realms which serve as his tabernacle, but (paradoxically) he specially dwells with human beings who are humble and lowly, and who for that very reason are the ideal throne for his grace and love.  In the Hebrew mindset, this is perfectly compatible with the other statements.

Another set of passages which suggests God transcends time is this one:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day,  (2 Peter 3:8)

where the last part of the statement is a quotation from a Psalm by St. Moses:

A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.  (Psalm 90:4)

This indicates that God's eternity takes the long view, that to God even a long delay of millennia is not slow (2 Peter 3:9); but behold he comes soon (Rev 22:7 + parallel passages).  Billions of years ago was like yesterday.  Even this unmanageably long blog series goes by as if it were a mere tweet!

In conformity with the New Testament's frequent shift of focus to the small and little things, St. Peter adds the reverse truth, that to God, a short interval of time, even a single picosecond, is itself a whole universe of interest and bustle.  To him it does not slip away, it is not evanescent, rather it continues to endure before his face.  God is not "too big" to appreciate the little things, any more than he is "too little" to comprehend the big things.  (As St. Pascal said, he embraces both Infinities, the infinitely big and the infinitely small.)

Taken together, St. Peter's statement indicates that to God, time does not actually "flow" at any particular rate.  He is not carried away by the timestream as we are, but he sees it all from his eternal perspective.

This brings us to another pair of striking attributes indicating God's eternity.  The Book of Revelation (following Isaiah 44:6) attributes to both the Father and the Son titles like:

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,
the Beginning and the End.  (Rev 22:13 + cross references)

What does this mean?  First note that Alpha (Α) is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, while Omega (Ω) is the last letter.  (I looked at the Greek text to see whether the letters were spelled out as words like Αλφα and Ωμέγα.  Somewhat to my surprise, I found that Αλφα is, but Ω isn't!)  So this is as if he said he was "the A and the Z".

Clearly, Α means the same thing as First and Beginning, while Ω means the same thing as Last and End.  Taken together, the titles are highly numinous and encourage us to think of Divinity as the limiting point of all our temporal and causal concepts.  Specifically:

  • When we say that Christ is the Ω, this indicates that he is the Final Cause, that he is the purpose of all things (Col 1:16, Rom 11:36), that he will continue to exist forever in order to bring the whole world into submission to the Father (1 Cor 15:8).  In order to have the last word on creation, he must also outlast everything else.

In this way Jesus is the "the Beginner [ἀρχηγὸν] and Ender [τελειωτὴν] of the faith" (Heb 12:2).  Here end is in the sense of fulfillment, not in the sense of destruction.

But someone might ask, how can he outlast us, given that we human beings are going to live forever in the New Heavens and Earth?  But one might just as well ask how he could be eternal to the past, if there was no Time previous to the Big Bang!  In that case there isn't an infinite duration in the past for him to have existed in.  If we say that existed "before time", isn't it strictly speaking a contradiction to say that there was a moment of time before time began?

If we think God is merely everlasting (existing at every time) then these antinomies are hard to answer.  But if God is eternal, these objections miss the point.  Whether time is finite or infinite (either to the past or to the future), God is both before it begins, and also after it ends.  Now in mathematics, there is no logical contradiction in saying that you have an infinite series (like the natural numbers 0, 1, 2, 3...) and then another element of the series, ω, which is after all of them!  This gives a hint or a metaphorical way to think about God's Ω-ness.

But note that the text says "I am the Alpha and Omega", not "I was the Alpha and will be the Omega.  If God is simultaneously before time and after time, then he must be outside of the time series altogether.  In other words, he is eternal, "I am".

6. An Eternal Sacrifice?

In a previous discussion, St. Dennis Jensen brought up the question (which he attributed to St. Lewis, but I can't recall it anywhere in his corpus, though I do recall this):

Are we to believe that Jesus has and will for the endless ages be enduring the agonies of the Passion?

Speaking from the perspective of Jesus' human nature, which is temporal, the answer is clearly No.  For the Bible says that Christ "suffered once for sins" (1 Peter 3:18 + cross references).  St. Paul says that "since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him" (Romans 6:9).

Similarly, the letter to the Hebrews denies that Christ would need to suffer repeatedly in history, saying that:

He did not do this to offer Himself many times, as the high priest enters the sanctuary yearly with the blood of another. Otherwise, He would have had to suffer many times since the foundation of the world. But now He has appeared one time, at the end of the ages, for the removal of sin by the sacrifice of Himself.  And just as it is appointed for people to die once—and after this, judgment— so also the Messiah, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.  (Heb. 9:25-28)

So we see that Christ's death happened only once, without repetition.  And yet, this striking phrase "from/since the foundation of the world" (ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου) appears elsewhere in the New Testament, in a way which suggests that Christ's sacrifice has an eternal aspect.  We read in the Book of Revelation:

And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him [the beast], whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.  (KJV, Rev. 13:8)

The translators disagree over whether the modifier "from the foundation of the world" attaches to the slaughter of the Lamb, or whether it attaches to the names being written in the Book of Life.   The first reading more naturally corresponds to the order of words in the Greek (although Greek is normally much more flexible about word order than English is.)  The second reading is more parallel to Rev. 17:8 (which incidentally is a potential Calvinist proof text, raising severe difficulties for Open Theism, less so for classic Arminian views which allow God to have foreknowledge of the future.)  In that case, the text would simply be another verse talking about being predestined in Christ, like 2 Tim 1:9-10 (some other examples were in the post on foreknowledge).

Even if "from the foundation of the world" modifies the names being written in the book of life, one could still ask why there are names in this book.  The answer presumably still has to do with the death of Jesus.  If God foresees the Cross and takes it into consideration in advance, then this would also suggest that the Lamb's sacrifice is, in a way, an eternal reality.

Supposing the temporally mind-bending translation to be correct, this would seem to indicate that Christ's death was not only a temporal event (from the perspective of his humanity) but also an eternal event (from the perspective of his divinity).  Christ's death was in some way taken up into, or appropriated by, the divine nature.  For this reason, it makes a difference even to those who lived before 30 AD, indeed it was relevant before the time the world was created.  But this interpretation makes sense only if Christ is eternal, so that he transcends our ordinary notions of time.

Quite apart from how we translate this particular verse, on any Christian view, Christ's sacrifice was eternal in the sense that he died for the sins of those who lived before he was born, as well as those who lived during and after his human life.  But what this implies about God and Time, and how the Atonement works, is a deep question.

To me, it seems like the most natural thing to say is that Christ's sacrifice is retroactive; not limited by time in any way.  This implies that it is an eternal reality.  But, one could also imagine the Atonement more along the analogy of owing money to someone, where it can be acceptable for a debt to remain outstanding for a period of time, so long as it eventually gets paid (cf. Romans 3:25).  So on this point, I think the Scriptures are inconclusive.

7. Eternal self-existence

I admit that many of these passages so far have involved some contestable translations and interpretations.  But I have saved the best for last...

There is a key passage in Scripture which I don't really think can be taken to imply anything but that God is eternal in a sense that transcends our usual notions of temporality.  And it is not a matter of excavating some obscure implication; it comes straight from one of the central verses of the New Testament.  Here it is:

Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly I say to you:
Before Abraham was, I am.  (John 8:58)

The words "I am" are the usual Greek first person pronoun "I" (ἐγὼ) followed by the usual first person existence verb for "am" (εἰμί).  Contrary to certain modern day followers of Arius, the translation "I am" is correctly translated as a present tense in this verse.  However, the use of these words is highly unusual.

One minor point is that Greek verbs already indicate the person and number of the subject of the sentence.  Thus, the verb "εἰμί", by itself, already implies that the speaker is referring to himself.  In fact, it is common in Greek to omit the "ἐγὼ" entirely in most cases; it's optional because the hearer can already deduce from the verb who the subject of the sentence is.  For this reason, the pronoun ἐγὼ is included only when the speaker wishes to emphasize that word in the sentence.  (Likely Jesus' original words were in Aramaic, but I am presuming that St. John is correctly translating the thrust of the original saying.)

Of course, the whole saying is emphasized still further by phrasing it as a double oath or promise: Truly truly, a phrase used many times in the Gospel of John.  This suggests that whatever follows is a matter of the most solemn importance.

The second thing to note is that there is no predicate, express or implied, by the verb "am".  Thus, in this verse, Jesus is not claiming to be any particular thing, e.g. I am the Light of the World, or the Living Bread, or the Good Shepherd.  Instead he is just claiming to exist, to be there.  (There is also no predicate attached to "I am" in the earlier verses 8:24 or 8:28, as well as the later verses 13:19, 18:5-8, but there is is less obvious that no predicate is implied.)

But the really odd thing is that this claim to exist, despite being in the present tense, is also referred to a past moment of time, namely "before Abraham was".  This is not a usual grammatical construction in Greek.  In fact, the grammar doesn't even make sense unless Jesus' divine nature is outside of time!  It is deeply weird to say that something exists in the present, while simultaneously saying that it exists before something in the past.  The present tense must therefore, in this case, indicate that Jesus exists timelessly.

(One could draw a parallel with the odd pronoun usage in Gen 3:22, Psalm 45:7 or Zech 12:10, which also don't make much grammatical sense apart from the doctrine of the Trinity.)

So far, this strongly suggests that Jesus was staking out a claim to divinity.  But there is more.  The fact that "I am" is emphasized so strongly would also make any pious Jewish reader immediately call to mind the fact that "I am" is also an allusion to the Name of God given to Moses at the burning bush.

After God reveals himself by saying "I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob", Moses still wishes to have more personal information about which god this really is.  It is written:

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’  Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.  This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ”

God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘YHWH [which sounds like the Hebrew for "I am"] the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.  This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.”  (Exodus 3:13-15)

This is not some obscure passage from the Old Testament, rather it is a central passage of the Torah, the beginning of his revelation to Moses and Israel!

I am given to understand that in the Hebrew, the phrase "I am who I am" is ambiguous, and it could also be understood as a future tense: "I will be who I will be", giving a somewhat more dynamic impression of divine existence.  But the Septuagint translated this as as ἐγὼ εἰμί, and in the Gospel of St. John, Jesus seems to have endorsed the present-tense translation.  (The phrase ἐγὼ εἰμί also appears in  several other Septuagint passages in which God speaks, especially in the long discourse in Isaiah 41-48 in which God speaks of his eternity, and his ability to predict the future.)

Thus we find God claiming to be, not merely the historical deity who revealed himself to Abraham and his descendents, but also the God of the Philosophers, the one who has the property of "self-existence" (i.e. having absolute necessary existence, rather than existence derived from some other source), the one who is the most fundamental being, which underlies all other existence, which does not exist for some other reason outside of itself, but just IS.  But this fundamental existence is also personal—the love which existed before time began—and therefore speaks in the first person: I AM.

In response to some theologians (called "theistic personalists") who claim that Classical Theism is incompatible with the the biblical accounts of a changing, personal God, St. Ed Feser points out that the Bible itself has passages which suggest that God should be conceived of in a more metaphysical way:

For instance, Malachi 3:6 describes God as unchanging.  Exodus 3:14 tells us that God refers to himself as “I AM,” which has sounded to a  lot of interpreters over the centuries like he is indicating that he is Being Itself.  John 14: 6 tells us that Christ is the truth, and John 4:6 tells us that God is love -- as opposed to merely instantiating or having love.  (Why don’t theistic personalists ever say: “How can a person be love?  That’s Greek philosophy speaking, not the great self of the Bible!”  Why don’t they complain: “How can God be truth?  Are we supposed to believe that he is a conjunction of propositions?”

[One could also add to this Deut 6:4, the Shema, which has traditionally been understood by Jews and Christians to imply that God is simple, i.e. not divisible into parts.]

From the metaphysical picture of God as Being Itself found in Exodus 3, one could then argue directly that he must be outside of Time, and therefore Eternal.  Although this would (in my opinion) provide a good argument for God's timelessness, there is no need for somebody who accepts the New Testament to take this round-about philosophical route.  For Jesus made his own view of the matter clear:

Before Abraham was, I am.

In light of this astonishing claim, it is not surprising that the Jews recognized that Jesus was claiming to be YHWH, and immediately "picked up stones to stone him" (John 8:59).   What may pass unnoticed at first, is that this is the clearest expression of God's relationship to Time anywhere in the Bible.  (As St. E. Stanley Jones pointed out somewhere, one way we know it is not idolatrous to worship Jesus, is that whenever we apply our concepts of Jesus to the concept of God, we only find that it makes our idea of God bigger and nobler, not smaller and more constricted.)

And, of course, once we know that Jesus used this phrase ἐγὼ εἰμί as a claim of divinity, it is probably fair to read this meaning back into the other "I am" sayings in John's gospel too.  In fact, there are even "I am" sayings in the Synoptic Gospels, such as when he walks on water (Matt 14:27/Mark 6:5/John 6:20) like God did in Psalm 77:19, and when he confesses his identity at his trial (Mark 14:62/Luke 22:70), which the High Priest at any rate interpreted as blasphemy.   Some less likely (but still possible) candidates for this usage are when he refers to the claims made by false Messiahs (Mark 13:6/Luke 21:8), and when he says ἐγώ εἰμι αὐτός ("I am myself") to indicate that he is not a ghost in Luke 24:39, after the Resurrection.  But I should emphasize that, considered in itself, ἐγὼ εἰμί is a perfectly ordinary Greek phrase that anyone might say; it is only the context which can make it into something more.

To summarize, any responsible interpretation of John 8:58 must deal with both 1) the literal present tense meaning of ἐγὼ εἰμί (which implies timelessness and pre-existence) and 2) the obvious allusion to Exodus 3 (which implies divinity and self-existence).

If Jesus had merely wanted to claim that he pre-existed before Abraham was born, he should have said, "Before Abraham was, I was".  On the other hand, if he wished to claim to be divine, but without endorsing the view that divinity is timeless, he could have dropped the phrase "I am" into a present tense construction (in some way that indicated the reference to Exodus 3).  The tense twisting was unnecessary, except as a claim to exist timelessly.

So all in the space of a couple breaths, he manages to suggest that he is an Eternal Being, that he is YHWH of the burning bush, and that he inspired both the Patriarchs and the Philosophers!  Such staggering blasphemy, if it is not the truth...

Putting all this together, I think the simplest and best way to process this evidence, is to conclude that God is eternal.  In addition to being the traditional view, held by most Christian theologians historically, it is also the one that fits best with modern physics, and also with the overall message of God's Word.

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