How did being buried for 36 hours become three days?

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Something that puzzled me about the resur­rec­tion was how a period of thirty-six hours or so became three days. There are other things too, but the period from death to Easter morn­ing isn’t even forty-eight hours. Where does three days come from? Couldn’t ancient people count?

It turns out they could, but they coun­ted differently.

Possibly praying that he doesn't have to sort out the numerical problems.

Possibly pray­ing that he doesn’t have to sort out the numer­ical problems.

In ancient Greece and Rome they used inclus­ive count­ing. This is where you count the first and last things in a series. For example, how often are the Olympics held? We would say every four years. The Greeks would have said every five years, and they called it a pen­teric fest­ival. Here’s how you get five years for the Olympics.

Year one: Hold the Olympics.
Year two: The Isthmian and Nemean Games.
Year three: The Delphic Games.
Year four: The Isthmian and Nemean Games (again).
Year five: The Olympic Games.

The Romans also used this sys­tem of inclus­ive num­ber­ing for their cal­en­dar. Jerusalem at the time was in the Roman Empire.

Counting of the days where you start and fin­ish is what gives three days. Jesus has to die before sun­set on the Friday. The reason for this is at sun­set a new day starts in the Jewish cal­en­dar. This second day car­ries on to sun­set on what we could call Saturday. At sun­set the third day starts. Now Jesus can rise any time he likes and he’ll have risen on the third day.

With care­ful tim­ing he could have kept it down to just over twenty-four hours.

Whether or not it happened is another dis­cus­sion, but inclus­ive count­ing shows why the ancients were happy to say ‘on the third day’, even though they knew it was well under two full days.

Edit: Bill Thayer has more fest­ivals with inclus­ive count­ing.

Can only a secular society appreciate the Words of God?

The Bible
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The Bible

The Bible. Photo by Patrick Feller.

There’s a ker­fuffle over a new trans­la­tion of the Bible into Jamaican Patois that has helped throw what both­ers me about the British Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, embrace of Christian val­ues into sharp relief.

David Cameron has recently given a speech cel­eb­rat­ing the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Some of this I like. For example:

…[T]he King James Bible has bequeathed a body of lan­guage that per­meates every aspect of our cul­ture and her­it­age from every­day phrases to our greatest works of lit­er­at­ure, music and art. We live and breathe the lan­guage of the King James Bible, some­times without even real­ising it.

It depends on how pedantic you want to be about this to say how true it is. There’s evid­ence that some com­mon phrases attrib­uted to the KJV are much older in some vari­ants. Likewise I was going to give The spirit is will­ing, but the flesh is weak Matthew 26:41 and Mark 14:38 as an example of some­thing very bib­lical that often appears in sec­u­lar speech, but if you fol­low those links you’ll see I’ve mod­ern­ised it a bit. For example in Mark the phrase is actu­ally: The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.. Now you’d have to be an utter cur­mudgeon to deny that the King James Bible pop­ular­ised the phrase, but equally trans­la­tions move on because lan­guages move on.

David Cameron picks another evoc­at­ive phrase:

One of my favour­ites is the line “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” It is a bril­liant sum­ma­tion of the pro­found sense that there is more to life, that we are imper­fect, that we get things wrong, that we should strive to see bey­ond our own per­spect­ive. The key word is darkly – pro­foundly loaded, with many shades of mean­ing. I feel the power is lost in some more lit­eral translations.

The New International Version says: “Now we see but a poor reflec­tion as in a mirror”

The Good News Bible: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror”

They feel not just a bit less spe­cial but dry and cold, and don’t quite have the same magic and meaning.

The cri­ti­cism of the Jamaican Bible is per­haps the oppos­ite. Bishop Alvin Bailey, at the Portmore Holiness Church of God near Kingston, says: “I don’t think the Patois words can effect­ively com­mu­nic­ate what the English words have com­mu­nic­ated. Even those (Patois) words that we would want to use to fully explain what was in the ori­ginal, are words that are vulgar.”

I’m not sure this is a fair cri­ti­cism. Here’s the same verse in three trans­la­tions See if you can guess which one is the KJV verse.

  1. My lover tried to unlatch the door, and my heart thrilled within me.
  2. My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my heart was moved for him.
  3. My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.

The pas­sage is from the Song of Solomon 5:4.* One trans­la­tion is — I’ll grant you — pro­foundly loaded, per­haps impart­ing a mean­ing that isn’t imme­di­ately obvi­ous from the two other ‘lit­eral’ trans­la­tions. But I also think in mod­ern terms it might be con­sidered vul­gar. When you look at what is in the Bible, I’m stuck won­der­ing what vul­gar­ity Patois inflicts that isn’t already there. I think some­thing over­looked is the power of a translation.

I thought the first full trans­la­tion of the Bible in the British Isles was William Morgan’s Welsh Bible, used to turn the Welsh away from Catholicism. I was wrong. A quick skim through Wikipedia shows me the Bishops’ Bible beat it by twenty years, and while the Geneva Bible wasn’t actu­ally trans­lated into English in the British Isles, it’s still an immensely import­ant trans­la­tion in the his­tory of England. In these cases trans­la­tion is a polit­ical and often rebel­li­ous act. The Geneva Bible was a Protestant trans­la­tion and gave them a Bible with which to fight the Latin of Catholicism. The Bishops’ Bible was offi­cially sanc­tioned so it’s hard to call it rebel­li­ous, but even so it was a Protestant Bible at a time when England was an enemy of strong Catholic power in Europe.

Translating a Bible into Jamaican Patois is a subtle, but strong, state­ment that cur­rent Christian author­ity has failed, at least to some degree. So what does a sup­port­ing an estab­lished trans­la­tion against new ver­sions mean? In the UK the gov­ern­ment is send­ing an offi­cial Bible with a fore­word by polit­ical heavy­weight+ Michael Gove. The media con­cen­trated on the pre­dict­able com­plaint by the National Secular Society and athe­ists, but even Christians are aware that offi­cial reli­gions can take dis­sent badly. The pre­tence is that eth­ics are derived from the Bible, but as Conservapedia is show­ing, people make Bibles to suit their eth­ics.

While I can see there are aes­thetic mer­its to vari­ous trans­la­tions, in this case elev­at­ing one trans­la­tion and dis­par­aging oth­ers car­ries a big polit­ical pay­load, even if the judge­ment is aes­thetic. It might be pos­sible to turn the book of Habakkuk into a thrill­ing page turner, but it would prob­ably involve some extremely loose trans­la­tion. But is any church leader likely to say: “My favour­ite book is Jeffrey Archer’s trans­la­tion of Habakkuk. It’s hugely inac­cur­ate, but it’s grip­ping from start to end!”? It seems unlikely you can divorce aes­thet­ics from truth unless you live in what Kelvin Holdsworth called a theo­lo­gic­ally neut­ral soci­ety.

Photo: Joshua 18, Abandoned Bible by Patrick Feller. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.


* It’s well worth read­ing the bib­lical com­ment­ary for clas­sic lines like: By the “door” is meant the door of her heart, which was in a great meas­ure shut against Christ, through the pre­val­ence of cor­rup­tion; and the “hole” in it shows that it was not entirely shut up…

+ Or paper­weight if you prefer.

On Gods and Ghosts

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A sad ghost
A sad ghost. Photo (cc) Deathwaves.

Following on from the pre­vi­ous ramble I think I may have finally dis­covered the dif­fer­ence between a God and a Ghost.

It’s con­text.

Any defin­i­tion of a ghost you come up with based on its form could be applied to a minor god. However my god­less defin­i­tion of a reli­gion may provide a key. At the moment I have three strands to a reli­gion: cos­mo­visión, mor­al­ity and power. No god is neces­sary in this defin­i­tion. However a ghost asso­ci­ated with a reli­gion becomes a god. Ghosts can serve a moral pur­pose, but it’s not usual to build a power struc­ture around them, nor to invoke them in mak­ing the world work. It’s only the reli­gious func­tion of a god which makes it dis­tin­guish­able from a ghost. Throw in con­cepts like Lares, Roman house­hold spir­its / gods and the fuzzi­ness of the bar­rier becomes explic­able. The dif­fer­ence is functional.

This will annoy some Christians because my defin­i­tion of a ghost, when I get round to it will be a super­nat­ural being cap­able of inter­act­ing with the world — which would encom­pass saints. However the reli­gious func­tion of saints in turn makes them minor gods. For instance Saint Adrian of Nicomedia, pat­ron saint of arms deal­ers is, for all prac­tical pur­poses the god of Arms Dealers. The Greeks didn’t spe­cific­ally have a god of arms deal­ers to the best of my know­ledge, but the actions to pro­pi­ti­ate Hephaistos or Ares are, from a view out­side of the reli­gions, equi­val­ent to the actions of a Christian ask­ing Adrian to cre­ate a help­ful slaughter.

Interestingly the idea of pray­ing to spe­cific saints appears very early in Christianity. I’m won­der­ing if its suc­cess is that it man­aged to take an ori­ental cult and present in an access­ible Roman poly­the­istic way.

Isn’t the Gospel of Saint Mark Wonderful?

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The Good Book
The Good Book. Photo by Xerones.

Carnival of the Godless ButtonAs a fire and brim­stone athe­ist I sup­pose I should berate the Gospels as pil­lars of an out­moded super­sti­tion. Yet while I don’t find the reli­gious mes­sage in them com­pel­ling, there is some good writ­ing and some good tales. I don’t see any more con­vin­cing evid­ence for the exist­ence of gods in the Gospel of Saint Mark than I do in Herodotus but, like Herodotus, Mark can tell a tale well.
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