Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 1)


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Rembrandt, “Moses With the Ten Commandments.” Did Moses write out the whole body of law known as the Pentateuch?

Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

While your question has to do with the Genesis creation account specifically, it raises an issue that applies to the entire Pentateuch.  Did Moses really write the so-called “books of Moses,” or were they instead put together over later centuries from different works by various authors?

This is an involved and complicated topic that has generated a vast body of literature, both scholarly and popular, over the centuries, and it will be difficult to do justice to it in the context of a blog.  But I will devote my next few posts to this question and try to explain things as I understand them as best I can.

Let me begin in this post with the observation that the “books of Moses” (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as we know them today could not have been written entirely by Moses.  He obviously did not write the account of his own death at the end of Deuteronomy, for example.  But there are other things in the Pentateuch that seem very unlikely to have been written by Moses as well.

For example, when Abram first arrives in the land of Canaan, the narrative in Genesis observes, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.”  Abram (later known as Abraham) and his descendants will have various dealings with the Canaanites, and the narrative is preparing the reader for this.  But why would this have to be explained to an original audience living in the time of Moses, when the Canaanites were still in the land?  It only makes sense that this this notation was added for a later audience, living at a time when the Canaanites were no longer there.

Similarly, when Moses is describing at the beginning of Deuteronomy the conquests he has just led on the east side of the Jordan, as he explains how half the tribe of Manasseh occupied the former territory of Og the king of Bashan, he specifies that “Jair, a descendant of Manasseh, took the whole region of Argob.”  The text then notes that this region “was named after him, so that to this day Bashan is called Havvoth Jair.”  There would be no reason for Moses to tell his contemporaries that a name a region had just been given was still in use.  Rather, this explanation, too, must have been added for the benefit of a later audience.

Places like these help us recognize that as the material in the Pentateuch was transmitted by the Israelites down through the generations, it was edited and supplemented for the benefit of later readers.  And so, whatever way we understand the nature of biblical inspiration, we need to accept that not every word of the Pentateuch was written by Moses.  Somehow the Bible can be the inspired word of God even if it includes later editorial emendations to the works originally created by the prophets and apostles.

This opens the door for us to consider objectively, without our confidence in the Bible as the word of God being at stake, the possibility that the Pentateuch may actually have been assembled from layers of tradition that go back ultimately to Moses, but which also include the contributions of later editors and custodians.  I’ll summarize the arguments to this effect represented by Hyers’ article, which follows a prevailing view in Old Testament studies, in my next post.

Why is it important to study the book of Genesis?


Q. Why is it important to study the book of Genesis?

This is an excellent and timely question, given the controversy and confusion that can Genesissurround the book of Genesis in our day.  That’s why I answer this question right inside the front cover of my Genesis study guide, even before the title page!  Here’s what I have to say under the heading “Why Read and Study Genesis?”

Sex. Greed. Violence. Deception. Betrayal. Annihilation. And in the midst of it all, God at work to restore a broken world and bring people back into relationship with Himself.

In Genesis, its first book, the Bible hits the ground running and shows us the kind of people we could see today on the news, or meet on the street, wrestling with God to find happiness, success and love in a world gone wrong. They struggle. They suffer. They do right, and they do wrong. With God’s help, sometimes they fight their way through to a happy ending. And God builds on the struggles, the suffering and the good and bad choices to start making a way for anyone in the world to find their way back to Him.

Maybe you’ve never read the book of Genesis. Or maybe you’ve tried, but never got past the opening because of arguments you’ve heard about Adam and Eve and evolution. You owe it to yourself to take another look. From a perspective deeply immersed in real human life, Genesis gives us the big picture of what kind of world God wants this to be, how it became something else instead, and what God has been doing ever since, by meeting people just where they are, to make things right again.

The main purpose of the book of Genesis is to explain how one family and its descendants came to have a special role in God’s plans for all of humanity. The book first shows God creating a world of order and harmony. This order and harmony are shattered when people turn away from God. The world is filled with violence and injustice that God has to take extreme measures to restrain. But then God begins to restore the beautiful world He’d designed by entering into a relationship with one person who trusts and believes in Him in a special way: Abraham. God extends this relationship down through the generations of Abraham’s descendants. Eventually they grow into a tribe that could become the beginning of a restored human community—if they could just live up to God’s friendship and favor.

This study guide will take you through Genesis story by story and character by character. You won’t see Noah in a bathrobe collecting cuddly animals for the ark. You won’t be asked to debate the age of the earth. But you will meet people just like you being disappointed and betrayed and rescued and blessed as the world God sets in motion goes careening off into the future without any brakes. Fasten your seat belt.

I hope this helps answer your question, and that it whets your appetite to dive into this challenging, engaging, and fascinating book!

Are people “filled with the Holy Spirit” once or multiple times?

Q. Why are the apostles “filled with the Holy Spirit” when they pray for boldness after Peter and John are released from prison, when they have just recently received the Spirit on Pentecost? Isn’t the receiving of the Holy Spirit a one-time thing as opposed to how it was in the Old Testament times? If there are deeper levels / experiences, what do they consist of?

El Greco, “Pentecost” (detail). If the apostles were already filled with the Holy Spirit on this occasion, why did they need to be filled again?

As I understand it, on the day of Pentecost, it is the community of Jesus’ followers that is filled with the Holy Spirit, as the “new temple” of the new covenant.

Under the old covenant, when the tabernacle was first set up in the wilderness, “the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle,” to such an extent thatMoses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”  Later, when Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem and brought the ark of the covenant there, similarly “the cloud filled the temple of the Lord, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.”

Unfortunately the Israelites broke this covenant and they were conquered and exiled, and the first temple was destroyed.  Shortly before this, as Ezekiel saw in one of his visions, “the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim [i.e. upon the ark], where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple.”  As Ezekiel looked on, “the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple” and it was escorted away out of the city by angelic beings.  (I’m always horrified when I read about this departure of God’s glory and Spirit!)

There is no record in the Bible of God’s glory filling the second temple, which was rebuilt in various stages after the return from exile.  I believe this is because, under the promised new covenant, the community of believers was to constitute the new temple.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, addressing the community corporately, not the members individually, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”  Paul wrote similarly to the Ephesians:

“You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

So this is what I think was happening on the day of Pentecost.  As I put it in the title of a sermon I preached one Pentecost Sunday when I was a pastor, it is the “filling of the new temple.”  This is something different from the filling of an individual believer by the Holy Spirit.  I believe that such an individual filling takes place in one sense on a one-time basis, but that in another sense it can happen on a repeated basis.

Everyone who becomes a committed follower of Jesus receives the Holy Spirit as a gift, to equip and empower them to serve and to live a holy life.  So this one-time filling is not a matter of us getting more of the Holy Spirit.  Rather, it’s a matter of the Holy Spirit getting more of us.  Christians throughout the ages have reported an experience that sometimes goes by the name of “complete surrender,” in which they realize that Jesus must have unchallenged lordship in their lives.  They therefore surrender their wills to do only God’s will.  And many report that concurrently something happens that they call the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.”  (“Baptism” is simply the Greek word for “to fill by immersing,” so this is just another way of saying “the filling of the Holy Spirit.”)  The point is that the Holy Spirit, who has now been given free access to the whole being, fills all those areas in our lives that had once been closed off.

This experience is known by other names as well, such as the “Second Blessing,” but it does not have to come a long time after a person’s first commitment to Christ.  Churches in the Pentecostal tradition associate it with receiving the “gift of languages” (which I discuss in this post), but the experience was well attested in church history long before the Pentecostal movement began in 1906.  Basically it is a one-time “filling” with the Holy Spirit that occurs when we open our entire life for the Spirit to fill.

This is different from the kind of “filling” we might need and experience on a recurring basis when the Spirit makes use of us in a special way as an instrument of God’s work on earth.  This recurring kind of filling is, as you say, described in the Old Testament, as well as in New Testament passages like the one in which the apostles pray for boldness.  These are those situations in which, as I explain in this post, it is said that “the Spirit of Yahweh clothed herself with” a certain person, in effect “putting that person on” like a garment so that they could become God’s instrument.

Even when this particular language is not present, and we hear simply about the person being “filled with the Spirit,” the idea is the same.  A special measure of God’s presence and empowerment is needed for a particular task, and so it is granted for that occasion.

I hope these distinctions are helpful in answering your question.

Does praying in tongues keep the devil from eavesdropping?

Q. I’m reading a book on prayer and one thing it says is that speaking in tongues is a purer form of worship because it excludes our carnal thoughts. It says that another benefit is that Satan will not understand the language. Wouldn’t Satan be well versed in all languages?

When it comes to questions like this, I think it’s important to follow the principle, “Do not go beyond what is written,” as Paul advised the Corinthians. He meant not to select or reject teachers based on issues that the Scriptures do not identify as essential. But I think his advice captures equally well the importance of making the case for or against spiritual practices based on what the Bible actually says about them, not on anything the Bible doesn’t say.

The question here has to do with “speaking in tongues,” that is, speaking in a language that one has acquired directly as a gift from God, rather than through upbringing, immersion, or formal study.  This really is the “gift of languages,” and that is what I will call it in the rest of this post, since the Greek word for “tongue” and “language” is the same and the sense of the word in this context is clearly “language,” as in, “my mother tongue is English.”  I personally believe that this gift is attested not just in the Scriptures, but also throughout church history, and that it remains available to believers today.

Maronite Pentecost icon

As I understand it from Scripture, the gift of languages is given for at least threepurposes.  One is to allow the good news about Jesus to be proclaimed in a language that the hearers will understand, even if the messengers don’t know that language.  This happened most famously on the day of Pentecost, when “Jews from every nation under heaven” gathered in Jerusalem and “each one heard their own language being spoken” as the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to speak those languages. But I’ve also heard present-day missionaries describe how, when they went to a region whose language or dialect they didn’t speak, their words supernaturally came out in the form their listeners could understand.

Another purpose for the gift of languages, according to the Bible, is to bring an authoritative word to a gathering of Jesus’ followers.  When a message is spoken in a language that is given as a supernatural gift, and it is then interpreted by someone who has that ability equally as a gift, this attests to the divine source of the message.  Even so, Paul tells the Corinthians, “The others should weigh carefully what is said,” testing it against the wisdom and teaching of the Scriptures before accepting it as a word from God.  I believe we are given an example of this process in the Old Testament when Daniel interprets the handwriting on the wall.

The third purpose for the gift of languages that I find explained in the Bible is for prayer.  I believe the rationale for this application of the gift is the same one that Paul gives in Romans in the case of prayer that takes the form of wordless yearning: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us.”  In this case God gives not just the language, but the words themselves, as a spiritual gift that helps a person pray more effectively when they otherwise wouldn’t know what to pray for.

But notice what the Bible doesn’t say about this.  It doesn’t say anywhere that praying in a divinely granted language is some form of “secret code” between us and God that the devil can’t understand.  So I don’t think we should claim this as a benefit of the practice.  “Not going beyond what is written” in this case saves us from having to speculate about how many languages the devil understands and this frees our energies for reflection on what the Bible actually does say.

As for whether praying in a divinely granted language “excludes our carnal thoughts,” it makes sense that this would be the case, but we should not see this as an unmixed blessing.  Paul notes that “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.”  In other words, because he does not understand the language he is speaking, he is not learning from the Holy Spirit’s example how to pray more genuinely and effectively in situations like the one he’s facing. 

Paul explains in his second letter to the Corinthians how important it is to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” While it might be advantageous in the short term, particularly in a dire situation that we don’t even know how to pray about, to bypass our carnal thoughts and immature tendencies, in the long term we are called to develop a spiritual mind and mature character.  In other words, if gifting us with a prayer language is one of the ways in which the “Spirit helps us in our weakness,” that should not be something that keeps us from ever addressing that weaknesses.  We need to take our carnal thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ, not continually bypass them.  But I think we’ll find that the more mature and obedient we become, the more we will follow Christ into situations where we desperately need His help–so there will be a positive self-reinforcing cycle here.

All things considered, I wouldn’t say from the Bible that praying in a divinely granted language is “purer” or “better” than other forms of prayer. But it is one genuine expression of a gift that God wants to be exercised by those to whom it is given to build up the whole body of Christ.

I hope this is helpful!

A visual introduction to the Bible’s career as a book

Q.  Thank you for your wonderful blog. I keep coming back to it, as it inspires me in my writing and research. I know it’s a tough job to keep a blog going and I truly appreciate it.  I wanted to touch base with you because I recently helped create what I think is an interesting research graphic called “The Most Popular Book of All Time,” which I think would be of value to your readers. (I say that because as one of your readers, it’s a topic that interests me.)  If you agree, I would be excited to see you post it to your site and share with your other regular visitors. Thanks and regards.

Thank you very much for your kind words about my blog.  They’re very encouraging and I appreciate them.

I’m happy to refer my readers to your research graphic, which can be viewed by clicking on the link above.  Let me post a detail from it here to give them some idea of what it includes.  This is the first section, which compares the number of copies of the Bible distributed so far with the numbers of other widely circulated books:

How It Stacks UpIt is interesting and helpful to have this kind of visual presentation of information relating to the Bible.  Other sections compare the size of the Bible with other long works (it’s almost 50% longer than Atlas Shrugged, for example); list the longest and shortest books, chapters, and verses in the Bible; chart the progress of Bible translation into the world’s languages; place leading modern translations on a continuum from word-for-word to thought-for-thought to paraphrase; and trace the progress of the Bible’s translation into vernacular languages along a historical timeline.

One fact I would like to clarify is that the chapters we know today are those that were developed by Stephen Langton in Paris around AD 1200, not the different scheme that was introduced by Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro in 1238.

You are clearly gifted at researching information and presenting it clearly in visual form, so let me offer you a challenge.  I’d like to encourage you to develop an additional research graphic about the Bible.  “The Most Popular Book of All Time” provides invaluable information about the Bible’s history as a book, but this is still the view from “outside the covers,” as it were.  There’s such a pressing need for biblical literacy in our day that I hope you will follow up with the view from “inside the covers.” How about introducing people to the characters and events of the Bible in a visual way that will allow them to become familiar with them and recognize their place in the overall biblical story?

In Brian McLaren’s novel The Story We Find Ourselves In, the character named Kerry admits, “I heard all kinds of Bible stories as a kid, but I have no idea how they fit together–which comes first, that sort of thing.  To me, they’re just isolated episodes in a larger story I never really understood.”  Many people today could make the same admission.  Someone needs to put together a really good research graphic that would help people see how it all fits together.

I think maybe you’re the person to do that.  And if you do, I’ll be glad to feature that graphic here as well.  But thanks already, very much, for this one!

Does God choose who will go to heaven?

Q. Does God know who are to go to heaven (those with His seal)? Or it is an individual who makes a choice between light and darkness?

You’re asking a question that thoughtful people of faith have wrestled with throughout the centuries: What ultimately determines whether a person is saved, God’s sovereign choice of them, or their response to God?

I believe that this is one of those mysteries of our faith that we must respond to by embracing both sides of a paradox.  If we let go of either side, we lose something essential.

We need to hold onto the idea that our salvation is entirely the work of God, because none of us human beings can save ourselves.  This principle would extend even to the act of choice:  we are not even capable of choosing to be saved because of the deeply imprinted effects of sin on all areas of our being, including the will.  So God must choose us.

However, we must also hold onto the idea that we are morally responsible in some way to respond to the overtures that God makes towards us, that is, to the gracious influences that God brings into our lives to lead us to salvation.  Our inability to save ourselves does not absolve us of the responsibility to seek salvation and to accept it when it is offered.

I believe that the Bible teaches both divine sovereignty and human moral responsibility—sometimes in the same breath!  For example, Peter told the crowds in his Pentecost sermon, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God [divine sovereignty], you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men [human moral responsibility].”

So we need to embrace both sides of the paradox to have a full understanding of where our salvation comes from.

It’s been said that as you walk towards the gates of heaven, you see written above them, “Whosoever will to the Lord may come.”  But after you walk through the gates, you look back and see written above them, “Chosen from the foundation of the world.”  I think that about sums it up.

Can God tempt someone?

Q. Can God tempt someone?

God certainly doesn’t tempt people the way that evil forces do, trying to get them to commit sin.  The New Testament book of James explains this quite clearly: “Remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, ‘God is tempting me.’ God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away.”

However, the Bible does describe places where God “tests” people; some translations actually use the word “tempt” in these contexts.  For example, we read in Genesis that God “tested” Abraham (this is the reading of the NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB, etc.) by telling him to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice.  (I discuss that episode more fully in this post.)  The KJV and a few other translations say that God “tempted” Abraham, while others say that God “proved” him (ASV, ERV, Jubliee Bible).

Whatever the translation, this was testing with the expectation of success, not testing designed to expose a person’s weaknesses and inadequacies and “flunk them out.”  Abraham not only proved his absolute loyalty and obedience (“Now I know that you fear God,” the Lord told him), God was able to use the occasion to offer a polemic against human sacrifice (which was supposed to be the takeaway from the episode for the later Israelites who would be tempted to adopt this pagan practice).

So while God may sometimes “test” people so that the virtues they are developing can be vindicated and displayed, God never “tempts” people to do wrong.  Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer to pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” that is, we should ask God to keep us away from temptation.  Paul writes in several of his letters that we should “flee” from things that would lead us to do wrong.  Since God does not want us even to get close to things that might lead us to sin, but to move actively away from them, God would not actively tempt us to sin.

How, then, do we explain the statement in Matthew’s gospel that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil”?  (Luke says similarly that Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”)

Rembrandt, “The Temptation of Christ.” Did God want Jesus to be tempted?

Once again we should recognize that from God’s perspective, this was intended as a “test.” It was meant to show that Jesus, who had just been identified at his baptism as the “Son of God” (that is, the Messiah), would choose to be the right kind of Messiah when the devil—trying instead to “tempt” him to make the wrong choice—tried to get him to present himself as some kind of magician, or a world ruler, or someone who would primarily meet material needs.  By continually answering the devil’s temptations from the Scriptures (“it is written,” Jesus said over and over again), Jesus demonstrated his godly learning, character and priorities.

This “test,” from God’s perspective, showed that He was right to say confidently, at Jesus’ baptism just earlier, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  But the “temptation,” from the devil’s perspective, failed—Jesus was not sidetracked into becoming the wrong kind of Messiah.  (This dual significance is present in the Greek verb that is used; as the NIV translators’ note explains, “The Greek for tempted can also mean tested.”)

We see that in a typical situation, God has one plan, while evil forces have another plan. In his first epistle, Peter explains God’s purpose in trials or tests:  “These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”  In the gospel of John, Jesus explains the devil’s plan and how it contrasts with his own mission: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

So it is important to recognize that any situation can be a temptation that we might fail, if evil plans succeed, or a test that validates and strengthens our Christian character, if God’s plan succeeds.  The important thing is to recognize God’s plan in the situation and follow it.  As Paul explains, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”

So if you ever feel as if God might be tempting you, recognize instead that you are actually in a situation where your devotion and loyalty to God can be proven afresh, if you seek to discern God’s plans and purposes for the situation and join in with them.


Why doesn’t God intervene to relieve suffering?

Q. If God is all-loving, why does God not intervene in times of great physical suffering when people are asking for his intervention? There is evidence that God can intervene and has done so in the past.

You’re right, the Bible tells us about many times when God has intervened to relieve suffering—for example, on those occasions when Jesus healed every single sick person who came to him for help.  Today when we pray for the sick and suffering, sometimes relief is granted, but not always, and we don’t really know why.

We do know that God is always pleased when we pray for the sick and suffering because, as Jesus showed us, God has great compassion for them.  (Jesus had such great compassion for Lazarus, for example, that he wept over his death, even though he was about to raise him from the dead!)  So the problem isn’t that God isn’t loving.

I think it’s helpful to recognize instead that God might answer us in different ways and still be glorified when we ask for His intervention (for example, when we pray for someone’s healing).  Prayer is really all about seeking God’s glory and reputation, that these might be known and upheld throughout the world, even in the face of the mystery of suffering.

God can be glorified when someone is healed or delivered.  But God can also be glorified when someone shows great courage because of their faith, even though they continue to be sick or to suffer, and when the community of faith cares for them with loving compassion.  Finally, God can also be glorified even if a person dies, if that person’s faith in God enables them to face death with strength and the hope of being with God forever.

Recognizing all the different ways God can answer prayers (that is, requests that He intervene in situations of suffering) can take us some small way towards understanding the great mystery you’re asking about, which thoughtful people of faith have wondered about in all ages.  But in the end I think this mystery is simply something that invites us to trust God, even though we don’t fully understand, as we seek to be His agents of compassion in this world, knowing that we are carrying out His loving and compassionate intentions as we do this.

I have shared some thoughts on a similar question in my post entitled, “Should we try to heal people today the way the apostles did?

El Greco, “Christ Healing the Blind Man”

Did Jesus not declare all foods clean?


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Q.  I’m in a group that’s discussing the gospel of Mark, and when we got to the place where Mark says that Jesus “declared all foods clean,” the question arose as to whether Jesus actually did away with all the Levitical dietary restrictions.  The suggestion was made that Jesus was declaring only that all of the foods that Jews considered to be foods were clean — thus, “all foods” declared to be clean would exclude things such as pork, shellfish, etc.  I’m familiar with the arguments of Daniel Boyarin about this, but I’m unpersuaded, especially by his insistence that if Jesus had undone the kosher food laws, he would have been a false prophet, per Deuteronomy 13.  What do you think?

I haven’t yet studied Boyarin’s arguments myself, so I can’t comment on them, but let me share some general thoughts in response to your question.

All Jesus actually said was, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”  This was the principle that Jesus taught.  Different early communities of his followers then sought to apply that principle to themselves, in the context of the particular milieu of life into which God had called them to live out their faith.

For Matthew, writing as an observant Jew to other observant Jews, the takeaway is simply, “Eating with unwashed hands does not defile” a person.  This was the direct issue at stake:  The Pharisees had asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?  They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

But for Mark, writing for an essentially Gentile audience, probably in a Roman context (Mark has to explain the whole issue of washing, which Matthew’s audience already understands), draws a broader application for life in the context of their calling:  “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.”

And so one could well argue, on the authority of the gospels, that Jesus did not actually declare all foods clean for observant Jews (and being one of those is still a valid way of being a follower of Jesus today).  He only set aside a human tradition requiring ceremonial washing (something not in the law of Moses) in favor of the pursuit of true inner virtue.  But he did declare all foods clean for those who are called to live out their faith in many other contexts (but not all contexts, for example, not for Jesus-followers who continue to be cultural Muslims).

Paul, in his letters, declares not a radical freedom to eat all foods, but a radical freedom from trying to be righteous by works that allows one to eat, or not to eat, in whatever way best serves another person in love: “If what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat”—now that’s radical freedom!

(The Jews of Jesus’ time weren’t keeping kosher in order to earn a righteous status by works.  For them, this was a sign or boundary marker of the covenant to which they already belonged.  Rather, Paul was writing to Gentiles who were being encouraged to keep kosher as a way of being righteous before God—as a kind of “sanctification by works”:  saved by grace, but then maintained in righteousness by things like observing special days and keeping kosher.  Thus Paul had to write to the Colossians, for example, “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

In short, as has well been said, there is no such thing as a disembodied “gospel.”  We can only engage the gospel of Jesus when we experience it contextualized for us in our own milieu of life.  When it comes to this particular saying of Jesus, the Bible actually models for us a couple of different ways in which his earliest followers contextualized it for themselves.  Trying to pick one or the other of these (“anything goes” vs. Levitical dietary restrictions for everybody today) does not do justice to the rightfully demanding process of understanding how Jesus’ words apply to us today, a process all of his followers are called to pursue faithfully and diligently–as you are doing by asking questions like this one.

The illustration from Daniel Boyarin’s Tikkun article “Jesus Kept Kosher: The Jewish Christ of the Gospel of Mark”

Is God inside or outside of time?

Q. Do you believe that God is the creator of time and hence outside of it, or that he is in time like the rest of us? If you believe God is outside time, and is its creator, why wouldn’t it be possible for God to simply view all of history, past and future, like a canvas or movie, without infringing on human free will?

I don’t think that “inside” and “outside” are quite the right terms to use when thinking about God’s relationship with time.  Let me explain what I mean by analogy to God’s relationship with space (the physical creation), the other part of the space-time continuum.

God is immanent in creation, that is, God is present in every single part of it.  But that doesn’t mean that God is “inside” creation, in the sense of being contained within it.  That would be pantheism.

Because we know that God is not contained within creation, we also confess that God is transcendent beyond creation.  But that does not mean God is separated or excluded from creation.  That would be gnosticism, with its radical spirit-matter distinction.

To avoid both of these errors, Christians have historically confessed that God is both immanent in creation and transcendent beyond creation, and I think we should understand God’s relationship to time in the same way.  God is immanent in time in the sense of being present at every single moment of time, but God is also transcendent beyond time (as its creator, as you say), not bound or limited by it the way we are.

So does this mean that God can simultaneously view all moments in time and know what is going to happen in the future without infringing on human free will?

Let me answer that question with another question, based again on an analogy to space:  Can God be present in a place that doesn’t exist?  No, that’s not what we understand God’s immanence to mean.  It means that God is present in all places that really do exist within the creation that God made.

Similarly, God cannot be present in a time that does not exist.  And the future does not exist yet.  The existence of the creation that God made unfolds in “real time” (so to speak)—that’s simply its character—so there’s nowhere to be (actually, “nowhen” to be) until time moves forward.

It is possible to view all of a canvas (painting) at the same time.  But it’s not possible to view every single moment in a movie all at the same time.  If a movie has been recorded and we have the capacity to rewind or fast forward, we can view any particular moment in it that we wish.  In that sense we have the same relationship to the characters and events in the movie that God, being transcendent, has in relationship to time.

But we can’t do this with a movie that hasn’t been made yet.  And so it is no limitation on God’s transcendence in relationship to time (one aspect of God’s omnipresence) that God can’t do this with the future that does not yet exist, either.  This is really the same point that I’ve made in several previous posts when discussing God’s omniscience:  it is no defect in omniscience not to know what cannot be known (the “last digit” of pi, for example).

God knows His own plans for the future, how He wants to bring human history to its culmination, and that’s what’s described for us in the Bible in places like the book of Revelation.  But God will actually fulfill His own plans in creative response to the millions and billions of free choices that people will make between now and then.  God can’t jump ahead into a future that does not yet exist in order to know in advance how everything will turn out.  But God can know, and tell us, how everything will turn out in the end because He will shape the destiny of history by His own sovereign power and authority.


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