Tag Archives: Jewish

The Dead Sea Scrolls, Jesus, and Paul

Capturing the spirit of first-century Judaism through the window of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament writings.

The Dead Sea Scrolls give an important look into first-century Jewish life from a mainly Jewish-Hebrew perspective; a genre lacking until their advent. Most of our extra-biblical knowledge of Israel during the first-century was previously drawn from Jewish Greek and Aramaic writers.

Continue reading The Dead Sea Scrolls, Jesus, and Paul

Tongues of Corinth Infographic

A history of speaking, interpreting, and reading from 500 B.C. to 400 A.D. in Judaism and early Christianity.

An interactive infographic to help you navigate Paul’s world and how these offices later evolved in the Christian Church. Clicking on the image will bring you to the full interactive site.

Paul’s mention of speaking in tongues in I Corinthians is deeply wrapped in the Jewish identity. The same goes for his understanding of speaking, reading, and interpreting of tongues. These rites have a rich history that goes well over 800 years. The initial origins are deeply connected to the times of Ezra.

Infographic explaining speaking, interpreting, and reading at the Corinthian assembly

Here is the link to the Corinthian Tongues Infographic if clicking the image does not work.

The reference to speaking and interpreting in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is entirely distinct from the miracle of Pentecost—for information about Pentecost see A History of Tongues in the Catholic Church and related articles found at the Gift of Tongues Project.

The customs of speaking, interpreting, and public reading are deeply embedded in Jewish tradition and inherited by the early church. Paul, if he was alive today, would be surprised at how the modern interpretations are so different than his intentions.

The role of Hebrew in the Jewish-Aramaic World

The influence of Aramaic and Hebrew on Jewish life around the first-century.

The goal of any information gleaned from this inquiry is to find a possible connection with Hebrew being a part of the first-century Corinthian liturgy. A subsequent purpose is to confirm or deny an assertion by the fourth-century Bishop of Salamis, Epiphanius, that the mystery tongues of Corinth had its roots in the Hebrew language.

We cannot assume any synagogue outside of Israel, let alone Corinth, used the Hebrew language as part of their religious service. So, it requires digging deeper into the relationship between Hebrew and Aramaic to find answers.

Continue reading The role of Hebrew in the Jewish-Aramaic World

A Jewish-Greek Perspective on the Tongues of Corinth

The following is a journey into identifying speaking in tongues through Hebrew and Greek Jewish traditions.

This is an introduction to a series of articles devoted to this subject.

Researching Jewish traditions about speakers and interpreters has uncovered two very important customs that are so close to Paul’s narrative that it would be hard to call them accidental parallels. The first solution relates to the reading out loud of Scripture in Hebrew with an immediate translation in the local vernacular. The second one is the custom of instructing in Hebrew and providing a translation into the local language.

There is also a third alternative: the use of Aramaic as the principal language of conflict in Corinth. This could be a solution if more information comes forward. For the time being it will be relegated a distant third option and only small snippets of this subject will be addressed. The majority of this series will be devoted to the first two concepts.

These first two options have existed all along but few have paid attention to them in the Christian community. This Jewish-centric approach has been minimized for two reasons: antisemitism and ignorance of Jewish literature in both Catholic and Protestant communities, and the hyper-emphasis on the Greek and Latin cultures to exclusivity by rationalist scholars in the 1800s.

The option of instructing in Hebrew with a translation into the local language best fits the Corinthian narrative. However, the rite of public reading in Hebrew with an immediate translation into the local language does have some strengths that cannot be discounted. The solution could even be a mixture of the two.

Continue reading A Jewish-Greek Perspective on the Tongues of Corinth

The Public Reader in the Church

The role of the public reader in the earliest diasporan Church, how the language changed over time, and the new problems it created.

The practice of public reading (lector) is found occasionally in the New Testament writings,1 while the Catholic Encyclopedia states that it continued after this period: During the first centuries all the lessons in the liturgy, including the Epistle and Gospel, were read by the lector.”2

The importance of the Public Reader

Literacy throughout the ancient Mediterranean world was small; it is estimated that only 10-15% of the population was literate.3 This means that public reading was a necessity.

The Public Reader in Earlier Christian literature

Justin Martyr

The first reference outside of Biblical literature was in the second century AD where Justin Martyr makes a scant reference to the continued existence of the public reader in his writing, Apology:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen;4

The text relates to a public reading being done and it very much parallels that of the Jewish rite where one reads and a leader instructs on the contents. Yet this was performed here without the use of a special liturgical language unfamiliar to the laypeople as was practiced in the earliest Corinthian Church.

The Apostolic Constitutions

The Apostolic Constitutions — a writing dated to the fourth or fifth century, but some parts could be much earlier, perhaps late second or third, attests that the Apostle Matthew instituted the office of public reader in the Church based upon the practice first established in the synagogue by Ezra:

Concerning readers, I Matthew, also known as Levi, previously a tax collector; the person who lays the hand on him that is elected a reader, and prays to God, let him say, “O God, the everlasting, the mighty in mercy and compassions, the one who has made manifest the structure of the world by the effects being actively carried out and by preserving the number of your elect. Who also now look down upon your servant, the person who is commended to read Your Holy Scriptures to your people, and give him the Holy Spirit, the prophetic Spirit. The one who instructed Ezra your servant for the purpose of being able to read Your laws to Your people, and now [the reader] beseeches on our behalf, make wise your servant and grant him the activity be accomplished without blame the work entrusted to to him, that he be shown worthy of a greater degree through Christ with whom the glory is Yours, and the reverence, and the Holy Spirit for the ages to come, AMEN.” 5

The Apostolic Constitutions outlined the duties and structures within the offices of the Church. The text names an apostle and designates a certain duty or function as its benefactor. For example Bartholomew instructs about deaconesses, while Thomas informs about sub-deacons. These, along with Matthew being the founder of the Christian custom of public reading, should not be taken literally. It is simply a well structured literary device. However, the meaning here is not lost. It clearly demonstrated that the rite of reading in the Church was inherited from its Jewish parent and was still being practiced in some type of modified form.

The Office of the Reader

Harry Gamble, author of Books and Readers in the Early Church believed that the Reader was assigned as an office of the minor orders of the clergy.6 This was considered the entry level position into a clerical life.

This is corroborated by Cyprian of Carthage. He demonstrated in the middle third century that it had become a position that had at least entry status into the priesthood. The following quotation is from when Cyprian proclaimed the ordination of a certain person name Celerinus, on which he lavished praise:

To the Clergy and People, About the Ordination of Celerinus as Reader. . .

There is nothing in which a confessor can do more good to the brethren than that, while the reading of the Gospel is heard from his lips, every one who hears should imitate the faith of the reader. He should have been associated with Aurelius in reading; with whom, moreover, he was associated in the alliance of divine honour; with whom, in all the insignia of virtue and praise, he had been united. Equal both, and each like to the other, in proportion as they were sublime in glory, in that proportion they were humble in modesty. As they were lifted up by divine condescension, so they were lowly in their own peacefulness and tranquillity, and equally affording examples to every one of virtues and character, and fitted both for conflict and for peace; praiseworthy in the former for strength, in the latter for modesty.7

It can be understood from here that the public reader had an prominent role that affected the mood and spiritual faith of the whole community and the person selected was under critical scrutiny.

The Catholic Encyclopedia states that the office of the public reader, known in Catholic circles as the Lector, had diminished after the first few centuries and transformed into a rite performed by a deacon.8 Nevertheless, the public reader in the church liturgy still existed.

It is at this point the reader is asked to make a logical jump here through time — partially due to lack of easy-to-find source materials and the effort required to find the more difficult ones. Generalities will have to suffice until more material is uncovered and examined. Hebrew quickly vanished within the first generation of the Corinthian Church as the non-Jewish Greek adherents began to greatly outnumber the Jewish ones. A second century anonymous text covering II Corinthians claims that the Greek adherents had formally overtaken the Jewish ones by this time.9 A number of other factors could have been involved in the change. The first one being the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome. It sent shock waves to the Jewish communities throughout the empire and “Jews in the Hellenistic Middle East found themselves in a truly precarious position.”10 They may have had to shed, or de-emphasize Jewish practices, including the public use of the holy tongue, in order to avoid punitive sanctions. The late first century was also the time Rabban Gamaliel at Yavneh “took a fateful step, one that was to have far-reaching historical consequences. They declared in unequivocal terms that the Jewish Christians could no longer be considered part of the Jewish Community nor of the Jewish people.”11 This alienation could have accelerated the loss of Jewish identity in the fledgling messianic communities as well.

This may have fast-tracked the public reading in Greek, and perhaps Latin in some instances. Later on, Latin overcame Greek in the Western portion of the Church while Greek remained in the Eastern. Latin became the sole authority in the religious life which extended to civic and social affairs as well. It is not known exactly when Latin became the dominant language of religion in the West but it clearly occurred.

Thomas Aquinas on the Public Reader

This general foray above takes this study back to certitude in the thirteenth century where Thomas Aquinas described the public reader and the use of Latin in the Church. He linked the gift of tongues with the public reader and noted that the transition was an understood evolution in the Church:

“In the mouth of two or three, etc..” (Deuteronomy 17:6) but it must be noted that this habit for the most part is being served in the Church for we have the [public] readings and the epistles and also the gospels in the place of tongues, and for that reason it follows in Mass two are being delivered, because only two are being said whose antecedent is to the gift of tongues, specifically the epistle and the gospel. Accordingly in Matins many are done, in fact you say three readings in one. For in the former times they used to read a nocturn the next three night watches separately. Now however they are being spoken at the same time but on the other hand the procedure is not only to be preserved in regard to the number of those who are speaking but as well in regards to the way [it is done]. And this is what he says, “and through sharing,” that is in order that those who are speaking are to follow in turns with one another, a fact that one is to speak after another, or “through sharing,” that is interrupted, specifically that one is to speak on part of a vision or of instruction and is to explain it, and afterwards another and explains the very thing being shared and so follows one after another. Preachers have become accustomed to preserve that way when they are to preach to men of an unknown tongue by means of an interpretation. And for that reason it says, “Let one interpret.” as he result he says, “if there will not be available, etc.,” he shows when it is not to be practiced with tongues, saying that the one who is about to speak is through sharing and the one ought to interpret but, “if there will not be available,” anyone [who is an], “interpreter,” that is who understands, [then] those who have the gift of tongues, “are to keep silent in the Church,” that is he is not to speak because he himself understands and this silence is to be manifested in prayer or in meditation.

In other portions of his works he strongly positioned Latin as the language of religious polity:

But why do they [the priests] not give the blessing in the common [tongue], that they may be understood by the people and adhere themselves more to them? It has been said that this had been done in the early church, but afterwards, the faithful ones were taught and knew what they heard in the common office, the benedictions take place in Latin.12

And again elsewhere:

A contrary argument. It is the same to speak in tongues and to speak clearly enunciating [the Latin words] to such a degree for the uneducated. Since then everyone is to speak clearly enunciating in the Church, that all is being said in Latin. It appears that it is madness in the same way. One ought to say to this: Madness existed in the early Church on that account because they were unacquainted in the custom of the Church, consequently they were ignorant of what they should do here unless it was to be explained to them. But certainly in the present all have been educated. Although from this point everything is being spoken in Latin, they still know what is taking place in the Church.13

Thomas Aquinas’ opinion and the role of the Church reader represents an era in Church polity that would come to to forefront three centuries later. The Reformation was in part a protest against Latin being the sole language of religious instruction throughout a diverse ethnic and linguistic community — which gave rise to the revolutionary and later misunderstood words unknown tongues. More on this can be found at The Unknown Tongues in the English Bible.■

The Journey out of Christian Zionism

Why I am no longer pro-Israel, nor pro-Arab, but pro-human.

Hopefully the Evangelical Church will soon take this position too. It would be a factor in bringing resolution to the Arab–Israeli conflict.

My own change of mind began with a scholarship to attend the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1984. The stay in Israel was after three years of Bible College training. It was exciting to live and study in the actual place where most of the Biblical writings took place.

Like many other Bible believing Christians, my mind stopped at 33 AD; full of antiquated stereotypes and assumptions about modern Israel. Before the trip began, I didn’t know what Israel geographically looked like, nor was personally familiar with anyone of Jewish heritage, and absolutely ignorant of contemporary Middle East affairs. I was ideologically a Christian Zionist — a person who supported the State of Israel because of the numerous historical and apocalyptic references to this nation found in the Bible. The Arab community hardly figured into this initial picture.

My departure from Christian Zionism and the movement to a more balanced perspective began after a conversation with a man who called himself Brother David. He was living on the Mount of Olives as part of a controversial group that was waiting, praying and encouraging the end of the world to come. They called themselves the House of Prayer. While waiting for a Jerusalem Christian Assembly Church1 service to begin, I asked Brother David “Did you hear about the Arab riot?” This was in regards to a violent riot in Bethlehem that had ended with military intervention the day before. He replied with a sudden look of happiness and emphatically stated, “soon they won’t be with us anymore”. His words alluded to an assumption many evangelical circles hold that any opposition to the modern State of Israel are enemies to God. These enemies are pre-ordained to be destroyed.

I was of the same opinion at the time, but when he verbalized these beliefs, It shocked and deeply troubled me by what those words really meant. In Canada, these thoughts were a combination of my active imagination, a heavy dose of apocalyptic literature, and over-simplification. Israel is thousands of miles away. The black and white belief of a righteous Israel with unrighteous enemies poised to destroy the chosen people never seemed to hurt anyone, but now it was apparent these ideas did serious harm. To imagine saying to an Arab that his opposition to Israeli policies is a foretold doom and thus already write him off, or to not care when their homes were demolished by an Israeli edict of some form, or to see a Palestinian child sleep alone under a desolate tree, or catch a glimpse of an Arab family living in poverty and not care because “soon they are going to be gone anyways” was not right. On the contrary, my beliefs were fostering injustice, hatred and prejudice.

Looking out the window of the transit bus on my daily excursions and seeing both Israelis and Arabs going about the regular busyness of their days, my apocalyptic anticipations became quieter. Perhaps the end is coming and the formation of the State of Israel and the opposition against them are definite signs, but the fulfillment of prophecy is God’s job, not mine or anyone else’s. To do it ourselves invites many to freely perform criminal acts, to engage in hate and ignorant of real consequences. There are misplaced priorities where the cost of human life and the related quality of life, especially one of an Arab or Palestinian, is almost viewed as a necessary sacrifice, or ignored, in light of this fervor.

Having been surrounded by an Arab populace, my preconceptions were challenged. These were real people. It forced me to change, and I wondered about myself and evangelicals as a whole. How have we gotten this so wrong?

This was a hard topic to work through and likely one of the biggest lessons I learned while hitchhiking and busing in Israel; discovering that one of the greatest sins is the person or society being convinced they are doing and propagating a good, such as those trying to manufacture events to encourage fulfillment of perceived end-time prophecies, but instead are bearers of ignorance, hatred, and injustice.

The Alliance between Israel and Evangelicals

The financial, political, social and religious connections between the nation of Israel and Evangelical groups abroad.

The growing relationship between Israel and Evangelicals is largely due to domestic problems inside Israel and the greater Jewish community. The Jewish liberal monetary support has been declining, partly in protest to the encroaching rhetoric of Jewish fundamentalism into mainstream Israeli politics, such as the transfer of power to a Likud based party, the redefinition of the Jewish identity by a stricter set of rules,1 and the religious fervour of Westbank community settlements.

The Evangelical alliance also gives the Israeli Government political insurance if there is potential fallout of goodwill within many of its western democratic government allies.

The initial passion for the restoration of Israel can be found in the Evangelical movement over 100 years ago and was so pervasive that Dr. Stephen Sizer, an Anglican Minister and one of the foremost authorities on Christian Zionism, believes that this was a key force in allowing the reformation of the physical entity of Israel in 1948.2

This zeal has heavily influenced political decision making. For example, in the 1980s the then President Ronald Reagan along with the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Senator Jesse Helms, were openly known to hold evangelical end-time aspirations in dealings with Israel. George Bush Jr. is also noted to hold this faith position, more so than his father.3

Josh Pollack noted in the Jewish World Review that a significant chunk of donations to the United Jewish Appeal are from Christians4. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, director of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a Chicago-based organization, consisting mainly of Evangelical Christians donors, have contributed over $5 million dollars to the United Jewish appeal in 1997 and in 2006 the yearly donations skyrocketed to $39 million dollars.5 The Jerusalem Post wrote that he claimed his organization to be the largest single donor to the United Jewish Appeal.6 Rabbi Yechiel’s statement may be hyperbole but it demonstrates how important Christian financial contributions are becoming in Israeli fund-raising activities.

There are other examples as well which demonstrate how widespread financial support from Christian communities have become:

  • The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, reported that television evangelists raised over $20 million dollars to help Jewish immigration to Israel in 1997.7

  • Ann Lolordo of the Baltimore Sun found that financial help for Jewish settlements could be found in the Christian Zionist community, and ironically not found from western Jewish ones. She detailed a number of Christian Churches and organizations funding endeavors such as the $5,000 dollars raised by Judy Campbell and the New Life Church in Colorado, or Ted Beckett, a Colorado developer, who started the Adopt-a-settlement program and contributed over $50,000 dollars over a two-year period. The Fellowship Church of Castleberry, Florida, donated over $100,000 dollars for a dormitory and conference center at a West-Bank settlement called Kiryat-Arba.8

  • Vicki Hearst, daughter of the late wealthy businessman, Randolph Hearst, has given an undisclosed significant amount of money for facilities on the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel.9

  • Pastor John Hagee’s Cornerstone Christian Church in Texas donated over $1.5 million dollars to the United Jewish Communities for “Israel-related causes”.10 And in 2006 it is alleged he raised over $7 million for Jewish groups.11 He also founded on February 7, 2006, Christians United For Israel an Evangelical equivalent of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) to lobby the American congress to support Israel.12 In that same year, Hagee was the recipient of the Humanitarian of the Year Award by B’nai B’rith.13

  • The amount of money from many of these groups may seem insignificant, but there are Churches and organizations all over the world doing the same thing, cumulatively adding to Israel’s economy.

  • There are so many pro-Israel Christian groups that if one does a Google search, it will bring up over 250 organizations. It is difficult to assess the yearly economic contributions to Israel, but four of the larger well known ones, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem, Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, and Chosen People Ministries, collectively receive donations over $33 million US every year.14

This Christian zeal enters directly into modern-day Israeli politics. I was at the International Christian Embassy Feast of Tabernacles celebration held in Jerusalem in 1986, where the then Prime Minister Yitzhaq Shamir was given a standing ovation by a thousand or more Christians as a sign of prophetic allegiance. The annual rite that occurred in 2007 consisted of an estimated 7,000 Christian pilgrims from 90 nations.15

Benyamin Netanyahu, a former Israeli UN representative and current Prime Minister, has frequently spoken in Churches.16 He is a cherished idol in the Evangelical community, as reflected by this blogger on Netanyahu when he announced participation in a previous Likud leadership race, “I believe that Benjamin Netanyahu is the chosen man of God to help lead Israel through this very difficult time.”17

The Knesset has formed the Christian Allies Caucus because of the decades of warm political, economic and social relationships between the Evangelical Christian Community and Israel.18

The European Coalition for Israel: the brainchild of a number of major Christian Zionist groups was founded to promote the welfare of Israel before the European Parliament.19

The Israeli political ethos has warmed to these Christian communities since the times of Menachem Begin, who oversaw the transition of a liberal based Israeli government to that of a Likud based one — a party influenced by orthodox Judaism — the Christian equivalent of a fundamentalist group.

The Biblical imagery and geographical rhetoric that the Likud party espouses is easily understood by the Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians makes the attraction between the Likud and these Christians a natural one.

The Israeli Government feels comfortable with this arrangement because money donated comes with what appears few strings attached. An Op-Ed by Abraham H. Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League detailed this in Time Magazine, “The support comes voluntarily, and we welcome it, as long as it comes without a quid pro quo.”20

The Christian organizations that offer material support believe the country and its politicians are mandated by God, and their assistance is to accelerate modern Israel’s self-determined course to Armaggedon. They feel direct intervention on how and where the money should be used would be counter-productive to the unfolding of the events leading to the end of the world.

Much of the closeness between Evangelicals and the Israeli Government can be traced to the late American Evangelist, Jerry Falwell, and his close relationship with Israeli leader Menachem Begin. It has been asserted the relationship was so close, that Falwell was loaned a Lear jet by the Israeli government. A deeper look reveals this to be false, according to the Israeli-American writer, Zev Chafets.21

Falwell once stated that the Israeli government can be confident that he could mobilize over 70 million Christians in support of Israel.22

Little is said or written about what the average Israeli perceives the Christian Zionist in a one-to-one conversation. Zev Chafets appreciates such enthusiasm to support the Israeli cause. He turns a blind eye to their religious fervour and is simply in favour of anybody who defends Israel from being taken off the map.23

Chafets explores the modern Israeli relationship with Christian Zionism in his book, A Matchmade in Heaven. He described this association through an experience touring with a Christian Zionist couple in Israel. While they were in a store, he was talking with an Israeli clerk about his touring friends. In English, they are appreciated, but in a short Hebrew dialogue between Chafets and the clerk, they find them weird24. When he worked in the Israeli government, he found “…that Christian Zionists were politically useful, even if their hypersincerity was a bit off-putting.”25

This relationship is a gamble that the religious observant Jew or modern liberal Israeli has made with much trepidation. Ira Rifkin wrote in Jewish Week that he is concerned about the long-term consequences of using the Christian Zionists for the Israeli national agenda. A variety of issues could rise that deeply split the Christian from the Jewish communities and cause a new wave of anti-Semitism.26 Gershom Gorenberg echoed this same sentiment in an on-line New Republic article, stating that Reverend Jerry Falwell believed the anti-Christ was alive today and was male and Jewish. This type of religious vernacular indicated to Mr. Gorenberg that Christian fanaticism could quickly turn against the Jews.27

John Hagee and his organization, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), has especially brought the relationship of Christian Zionism with mainstream American Judaism to a head. Hagee’s invitation to have a forum at a convention held by the powerful lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and CUFI’s ‘Nights to Honor Israel’, at local Churches has especially increased discussion.28 Rabbi Moline, an ultra-conservative Rabbi who fiercely crusades against intermarriage and the religious right, is a known sponsor of Hagee’s fundraisers even though he doesn’t like his theology or politics, “…we live in a time when friends of Israel are few and far between. We have to recognize that we are receiving support from the Evangelical community that we are not receiving from our traditional friends.”29

The problem has been addressed by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. They called on Jews to shun the annual International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem’s 2007 Feast of Tabernacles celebration held in Jerusalem. The Rabbinate cannot comprehend the modern Evangelical end-fervor and could only logically conclude that this was a plot to convert Jews to Christianity.30

What would happen if the Evangelical community discovered that they have been used by the Israeli Government and Jewish allies for their own political means? This scenario would likely never happen as the Pentecostal/Evangelical mindset on end-times is so deeply set, that it could not reach this state of consciousness.

Could the Evangelical support switch into a deep form of anti-Semitism? Contrary to the fears of many Rabbis and Jewish religious pundits, this is not going to happen. If anything, the new problem is that of Philo-Semitism, and the expectations that come with it.

What could be the potential turning point? A worst-case scenario is the election of a majority Labor government, who in turn would legislate and destroy illegal settlements, outlaw expansionism, and begin to introduce more liberal laws into Israel such as universal abortion on demand, recognition of same-sex marriages, and a significantly re-drawn two-state solution with Palestinians. The Christian Zionist organizations then would react two-fold: first, Christian Zionist money and political leverage would substantially shift from the Israeli Government to the territories and radical religious Jewish groups. Secondly, the Christian Zionist movement would become politically silent on military offences or defences for or against Israel, believing it to be a punishment on a government that has lost its God given mandate and in need of spiritual correction.■

For more information:


This article was originally published on the ScribD website in 2007. It is republished here with some changes.

Death, Religion and the Modern Man

A look at death from contemporary, religious, philosophical, and personal perspectives.

Death is the one question that modern science still has yet to answer in the most preliminary way. Religion answers questions about death, but this is largely ignored. Philosophy touches on the subject, but this falls short.

In modern western society, our thoughts on the subject are so thoroughly deficient, that we are not only unprepared, we emotionally flee.

It also produces many outcomes in the modern mind which are mainly on the subconscious level.

The fear of death highly influences our emotions and decision-making. Ernest Becker, contributor to the publication, Death: Current Perspectives, would prefer to use the word terror instead. Terror demonstrates how tightly gripped the subject of death is in all our decision making, and is not restricted by ethnic or socio-economic boundaries.1

The fear of death is followed by the avoidance of death. David Gordon, author of Overcoming the Fear of Death, believes that avoidance permeates our lives.

“Our lives are poisoned by a fear of death, and much of our culture represents a response, however inadequate, to this fear. Most of us are afraid to contemplate our own ending, and when anything reminds us that we too shall die, we flee and turn our thoughts to happier matters.”2

This dreadfulness is directly responsible for many mental illnesses. Noted Psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg remarks:

“No one is free of the fear of death… the anxiety, neuroses, the various phobic states, even a considerably number of depressive suicidal states and many schizophrenias amply demonstrate that ever present fear of death.”3

It has built some of the greatest monuments, produced incredible works of art, powerful works of literature, and marvels of engineering. The late controversial philosopher, writer, and political activist Arthur Koestler observed: “If the word death were absent from our vocabulary, our great works of literature would have remained unwritten, pyramids and cathedrals would not exist”.4

Our anxiety is so great that even the words death,, or died is avoided. A study of any newspaper on any given day demonstrates this. For example, my local newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press’s November 25th, 2007, Obituary section lists seventeen notices with only four that included the words ‘died’, or ‘death’. The dominant words were ‘passing’, or ‘passing away’. This weakened version of death takes away the significance of the event.

One of our greatest apprehensions about death is being buried alive. Edgar Allan Poe, the revered horror writer of the middle 1800s, was consumed by the this. In his popular short story, The Premature Burial, he worked on this fear and that the idea “should be forced to slumber”, otherwise “they will devour us”.5 Although his works are fictional, they may be representative of his life and his unfortunate early demise.

This theme was also in his Cask of Amontillado, where one of the central characters was tricked and sealed in an ancient cave, forced to resign to the reality of death while still conscious — a powerful and scary metaphor that has been a classic horror story over the centuries.

Countless western philosophers have attempted to address the meaning and purpose of death, such as Martin Heidegger, who concluded in the mid-1900s, “It is only in full… awareness of our own mortality that life can take on any purposive meaning.”6 This becomes more clearly defined in the teachings of Albert Camus, who had a major influence on the hippie generation. Camus taught that life is absurd and meaningless; any attempt to understand it is futile. He urged readers to revolt against the meaninglessness of death. His idea of revolt is to be aware of the crushing fate that awaits us, “but without the resignation that accompanies it”.7 It is a pessimistic outlook on life that basically teaches that life is unfair and sad, but we must make the best of what we have, even if one has to pretend.

Another popular contemporary writer during Camus’s time, Aldous Huxley promoted that one should, “Ignore death up to the last moment; then, when it can’t be ignored any longer, have yourself squirted full of morphia and shuffle off in a coma.”8 Which he followed, writing to his attendants for LSD at the last moments of his life.9 Death was an important part of his psyche, culminating in his final piece of literature entitled, Death and Shakespeare.

Jim Morrison, lead singer for the Doors, who named his band from the inspiration of Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception, was influenced by Huxley and also author William Blake, who wrote that the “road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”10 Morrison mysteriously died at the age of 27 due to heart failure — arguably his pursuit of happiness led to an over-indulgence in stimulants that cost him his life.

This representation of the 1960s promotes the idea that since death is inevitable, simply ignore this reality and live life to the utmost pleasure with few restrictions as possible because this is your one shot at life. This insatiable pursuit of happiness by Morrison and many contemporaries has been existent for at least 2,800 years. One of the first records of this wave of thought can found in writings as early as 800 BC. It was written in the Biblical book called Isaiah, “Let us eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die,”11 which stressed the senselessness of life and any attempt to understand it was meaningless.

Ernest Hemingway, considered the heir apparent of Mark Twain as a literary American giant, based one of his foremost books, “The Sun also Rises”, from a reading of the 2,800 year old or so Book of Ecclesiastes. This book is found in the Bible. The unknown writer of Ecclesiastes parodied that all life lacked any meaning. Some book reviewers clearly correlate the analogy of Ecclesiastes with Hemingway’s philosophy on life:12

“What evolves, then, over the course of Hemingway’s forty-year career as a writer is a comprehensive code for living which acknowledges death as the end point in life.  The characters to whom Hemingway is most sympathetic are those who exhibit grace under the pressure of an acute awareness of death. These characters usually live life in the present and live it to its fullest extent, enjoying the sensual pleasures that life has to offer; characters who are eating, drinking, and being merry with the knowledge that tomorrow they may die.”13

Hemingway celebrated life in the same way, and when he was unable to enjoy life any longer due to physical limitations in his early sixties, committed suicide.

Specialists in the realm of death and dying believe that the anxiety of death is only one of several features concerning death. Death Attitudes Among Mid-Life Women as found in the Journal of Death and Dying, has it broken into seven categories, death as:

  • a concern
  • anticipation
  • depression
  • loss
  • a physical reality
  • denial
  • and dimension of time.14

It correctly suggests that death is a complex subject. However, with the exception of the seventh category, they all relate to a form of anxiety and loss. It doesn’t go into the meaning or purpose of death itself.

Gregory Campbell III, has researched extensively on the subject and has observed some common trends:

“When analyzing the “over 50 death fear,” the students thought it was related to the fact they are so close to death the fear increases. The truth of the matter is the group of 30 to 50 year olds are the ones with the greatest fear of death. They have contributed their share of toil on the planet and now it is time for their reward (retirement, relaxation, etc.). To suddenly be confronted with death is a real tragedy. That is the responsible agent for the heightened fear. Also, as so aptly brought out in class, the individuals at this age oftentimes try for that one last fling in order to try to beat out the suddenly-realized approach of the end of their life. Men around the age of 40 may resort to affairs (to prove their vitality), major changes in lifestyle, daredevil acts, and other abrupt changes in behavior.”15

“…wherever or however death comes, Americans try to handle it with cool, efficient dispatch. Death in America is no longer a metaphysical mystery or a summons from the divine. Rather, it is an engineering problem for death’s managers—the physicians, morticians and statisticians in charge of supervising nature’s planned obsolescence. To the nation that devised the disposable diaper, the dead are only a bit more troublesome than other forms of human waste.”16

“…People are now relying less upon religion and must now rely upon themselves for death explanations. If one takes the Heaven and Hell concept away people will concentrate on this life rather than the afterlife. The focus will become the avoidance of death which leads to the problem Americans have with it.”17

These thoughts by Campbell reflect the important role of religion on the discussion of death. Most contemporary minds are unfamiliar with the fact that the traditional dominant western religions were formed and have evolved to resolve the tension of death and the afterlife. The next section deals with this aspect.

The Jewish writers, especially the Talmudic one provide the most detailed answers. Death is the strongest thing made by God and cannot be overcome.

“Ten strong things have been created in the world; a mountain is strong but iron can break it; iron is strong but fire can melt it; fire is strong but water can extinguish it; water is strong but clouds can bear it; clouds are strong but the wind can scatter them; wind is strong but the body can carry it (as breath); the body is strong but terror can break it; terror is strong but wine can drive it out; wine is strong but sleep can counteract it; death, however, is stronger than them all.”18

The Jewish Sages speculated on death and gave important details on life and the hereafter. Questions such as, “is death the opposite of life?”, “how shall the body be re-formed?” “Will the body be clothed or naked when it first rises?” “What old corpus material is required to allow for resurrection?” “Will the corporal defects in this world be transferred to the next world?” “Who will be resurrected?” These were discussed in-depth.

In reference to the existence of the afterlife, the ancient Jews believed that death was not considered the opposite or end of life. Ephraim E. Urbach, a reputable scholar on Jewish thought, claims that the Jewish sages thought death to be the narcotinization of the power of life.19 In other words death attempts to subjugate life to the lowest levels of existence but it does not have the ability to destroy it. A created life is a permanent entity.

The Talmud generally considered death to be an extreme enfeeblement of life, robbing life from most of its power. This is why the dead are sometimes called in Hebrew repha’im, that is, the weak.20

Repha’im is a Hebrew word used primarily for those who have a disease or ill and in need of healing, and sometimes utilized, especially in the 8th century BC, to describe death.

Going back to the first century and into the time of Christ’s time on earth, one finds that the word death is oddly replaced by the word sleep.

Christ described the state of a dead girl as “sleeping”21—which evoked laughter from the audience that surrounded Him. Whether the use of sleep as a reference to death was not used often, or the general public was not familiar with it, or the people understood the term but believed its application to be for the imagination, such as Mary, the brother of Lazarus, who asserted that she knew that her brother would be raised on the last day—a time and place outside her lifetime and senses. Mary did not have any comprehension that Christ could and would raise Lazarus immediately.

The Apostle Paul also used the word ‘sleep’ instead of dead. He tried to posture this against those who believe death to be the terminal end of existence, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.”22

It is difficult to know why both Paul and Christ used the word sleep on numerous occasions instead of dead. This term confused even Christ’s followers when He discussed with them to go see Lazarus because he had “fallen asleep”. Christ had to further clarify His terminology and use the word “dead” in order for His disciples to understand.23 As previously stated, this phrase was newly coined to separate the thought of death as a terminal end than continued life in a weakened form. Perhaps the use of sleep was a Pharisaic distinctive that both Christ and Paul continued, or Paul had acquired directly from Christ’s teachings.

The Latin translators carefully captured this in their rendering of the controversial passage in Matthew 27:52 “and many of the bodies of the saints, who had fallen asleep”24 referring to the death of others—sleep here is from dormio, which has the semantic range to not only mean sleep but also to be dormant, or inactive.

Any attempt to correlate sleep with death from a Talmudic perspective is difficult. The Talmud is quiet about the correlation of sleep and death in any significant way, only suggesting that sleep is a 1/60th experience of death.25

Jewish thought refrained from defining death using the Greek dualistic model, that man is mortal concerning his body and immortal in reference to the mind.26 Rather they preferred to believe that the soul, known in Hebrew as nepesh, is everything that a person is made of—the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. It is the complete product. Man has to await the resurrection on the last day to be restored to completeness.

One of the most difficult questions each one has to ask is, what happens when the body ceases to function? The best systematic literature at least from the Scripture can be found from Paul the Apostle, who outlined two stages of death and the hereafter. First, after one dies, there is a stasis: an incorporal static state awaiting the end of the world.

The second state is the resurrection from an inactive condition into a corporal being.

The time waiting between an incorporeal, unconscious state from death to resurrection, whether one day or a thousand years, may just feel momentary, as the dead are not governed by time.

This waiting state is a point of controversy within some theological circles, many theologians believe that when you die, there is no waiting time and you automatically begin the next life.

The Jewish writers, including those of the Bible, emphasize the resurrection of the dead over immortality of the soul. When we die, we temporarily remain in an inactive condition. We do not live in semi-form such as a ghost, or wander the earth as liberated spirit or go to another dimension.

The Jewish sages also discussed what dead bodily material should be available so that they will rise in the day of resurrection and believed it to be part of the spinal column named Luz.27 It is unclear what part this exactly was but they thought it to be indestructible.

It is clear from the Sages that material from the original body is required for the resurrection.

One can speculate, similarly to the ancient Jewish sages, on how God will physically perform the resurrection. One could argue that the resurrection of the dead is the stimulation of a personal cell to reproduce and restore to its previous physical state. God, the ultimate scientist, only needs one cell to transform a person being from an inactive, weak state into a complete one again. Perhaps all our information about our physical selves and our thoughts are stored within the memory of each cell.

In the Bible, in an old writing called the Book of Ezekiel, Ezekiel had a dream about this very concept.28 He saw himself in the midst of a valley of human bones. God asked him in the dream if these bones can live and then the bones proceeded to reconnect, and build layer upon layer back into human form. He saw an army of people that came back to life. The description here sounds like cloning or something above this technology.

But this seems to be an oversimplification of a very difficult and vexing question from a scientific perspective.

Part of the problem of death, and the lack of definition thereof, reflects our finiteness. If we could define it, then we have some sort of mastery over it. But the lack demonstrates that we have no control, nor any comprehension of this power. Even as an overt Christian with hope of the resurrection, the lack of definition and control over our final destination is scary. It is hard to imagine how those with no concept with the hereafter deal with this.

As King David wrote over 2,900 years ago “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me”29 This passage exudes some confidence but fear as well. The “valley of the shadow of death” is not a nice place. It demonstrates that pain, suffering and insecurity are not removed from the religious vernacular when referenced to dying, but a confidence that this is only temporary and we will pass through to a better place. Even Christ, moments before being led away and the events unfolded for His crucifixion, was in angst, and wanted to refuse such an outcome.30

Another factor about death is its timing and nature. None of us know when and how we are going to die. Insurance companies have given proven statistics that detail the odds of when the typical person should live and die but it is too general to be a guideline on every individual’s specific demise. Some will die very early in life, while others very long and some in-between. Death is entirely not consistent, predictable or fair in its arrival.

Death is often described as a special function carried out by an angel. It is called the Angel of Death. Many movies have been created that demonstrate a connection with the Angel of Death such as “Final Destination”—a movie which suggests some people’s responses could passively evade it. The actual words “Angel of Death” only appears similarly once in the Bible,31 the other few times, it is a loose translation of the Greek word for destroyer, or slayer with no reference to angel.32 The concept of the angel of death was probably evoked from a mystical-medieval-Christian legend.

Resurrection and oblivion has been in dispute for millenniums and societies have vacillated between these concepts throughout history. Israel during the time of Christ was deeply divided on the subject. On at least one occasion Jesus went out of his way intellectually to address it, “but regarding the fact that the dead rise again,” and then went on to say, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living…”33 These quotes offer two observations. First of all that the community Jesus spoke to were not convinced about the hereafter, and secondly, death is a transitory state.

The Apostle Paul used the controversial concept of eternal life to his political advantage while appearing before a hostile judicial court, “I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!’34 He knew that the Jewish assembly judging him was deeply divided on the subject and distracted them from his case. He succeeded and avoided prosecution. He also discussed the matter with the Roman Governor Festus, “Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead?”35 The Governor replied about this statement, combined with a number of other comments Paul had made, that he had gone mad.

Obviously the whole Christian religious movement is based on Jesus rising and having mastery over all elements of death.36 The Apostle Paul not only passionately tried to reinforce the point that Christ rose from the dead but to assert this, he had to convince a contemporary and skeptical mindset that a hereafter even exists, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless.”37

The reality is we all have to die. It is not a nice experience for anyone, whether religious or not. But what we do here on earth determines one’s future state. It is the biggest question we all have to answer and it cannot be avoided. Those who do not, risk missing out on something much better. ■