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In this column, Ben Witherington answers questions about the Bible and:

Feminine pronouns for God
The pyramids
Peter as head of the church

The word "God" is used without regard for meaning. In most formal religions the texts that talk about "God" use the male, singular term and follow it with pronouns "He, His, Him". Why?

Words only have meaning in contexts, not in the abstract. All of the major world religions came to us in the context of patriarchal cultures, and the texts themselves were all--or almost all--written by men.

In the biblical tradition, the Jewish and Christian writers wanted to avoid any suggestion that they were referring to some sort of fertility religion, and so they did not refer to God as a female, by and large. In the Christian tradition, God is called "Father" because it believed that God was indeed the father of Jesus, and Jesus taught his followers to address God as he had done, in the famous Lord's Prayer (see Matthew 6.9-13).

Since so much of the Bible takes place in Egypt, why is there no mention of the pyramids? To this day we don't know for sure how they were constructed, so why no mention of them?

Some of the pyramids surely existed during the time of Moses (around 1300 or so B.C.), but most of the time Israel that spent in Egypt was not spent near the Giza plateau, where the great pyramids are. The Israelites seem to have lived in Egypt's northern grain storage cities, so Moses would have visited the palace in Memphis, which is not at the Giza plateau.

We also need to remember that the Israelites (including Moses) were nomads, not great building constructors, until well into their history. Such structures may not have impressed them very much. Remember the negative judgment passed on such human constructions in the early tradition about Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).

You may want to see the related Beliefnet article on recent archeological discoveries about the pyramids.

What is the best speculation as to what language was spoken in Eden? --sydarthur2000

It has been the time-honored tradition in Judaism that the language spoken in the garden was Hebrew, which was also the language of God. If the rivers mentioned in Genesis 1-2 are any clue, it would definitely have been some sort of Semitic or ancient Near Eastern language.

Is it wrong for a born-again, spirit filled Christian to be cremated?

While it is probably not unethical for a Christian to be cremated, some Christians have strong reservations about it because it involves a living person choosing to have their own body immolated or destroyed, rather than simply allowed to decay in the earth. To some, this suggests a denial of God's right to determine the end of our life and our life processes. Still others object because of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body or in the body, which is promised in scripture (see 1 Corinthians 15).

How are Protestants able to discard the belief in the Petrine Doctrine and a 1500-year history so quickly? Do they not believe that Christ left behind a Church with a teaching authority, or what we Catholics call the Magisterium?

The notion of Petrine supremacy seems to overlook the biblical account that James, not Peter, was the head of the earliest church in Jerusalem (see Acts 15). Peter, James, and John were all considered co-leaders, according to Paul (see Galatians 1-2).

While Protestants certainly believe that God left behind teaching authorities such as the apostles and prophets, the final authority rests with the canon of scripture and not with church tradition about Peter or anyone else, especially if that tradition is not well grounded in scripture. Protestants usually understand Matthew 16:18-20 (Jesus' statement "On this rock I will build my church") to refer to Peter's faith as the basis of the church, not necessarily some Petrine personal authority.

But even if it is the latter, the word "rock" here should be translated "shelf of rocks," and refers to Peter as a person of faith, and those like him having such authority. Peter was certainly not the first great church leader in Rome, historically speaking.

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