Have a scriptural question? Write to Ben Witherington III at columnists@staff.Beliefnet.com.

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

Jesus' economic status
The role of the prophetess
The Word alone
Differing creation stories
Jesus' race

Ever since I read in St. James that women should not braid their hair, I haven't done it. Is it OK or not? And why?

There is actually nothing in the epistle of James about hair at all, but when in the New Testament there are instructions to women about hair, the function of those instructions is to make certain that only God's glory is reflected in worship (see 1 Corinthians 11). Since in Paul's culture a highly adorned hairdo was considered a woman's glory, Paul said it ought to be covered in worship. Perhaps you have 1 Timothy 2:9 in mind, but the point of that text is not so much to forbid braiding of the hair but to encourage wearing your hair in a way that does not distract from worship by drawing attention to yourself.

Does the Bible directly oppose witchcraft? Does it make any difference if it is white or black?

The Bible is unequivocal about prohibiting witchcraft in any and all forms. For example, Leviticus 19:26-28 makes evident that witchcraft was prohibited for God's people even in Old Testament times. Furthermore, in 1 Samuel 28 we have the story of how King Saul expelled all mediums and wizards from the Holy Land and then himself consulted a medium, which the narrator of the story makes clear is a very grave sin. In the New Testament, Paul lists sorcery as one of the sins that can keep a person out of the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:20).

Why is it thought that Christ was poor? In fact, Jesus was rich, His uncle being Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph had his wealth in shipping. That is how Christ was able to have transportation whenever he required it.

There is nothing in the NT to suggest that Joseph of Arimathea was related to Jesus at all. Jesus himself, of course, says at one juncture that he has nowhere to lay his head, and when asked his judgment on paying taxes to Caesar, he does not even have a coin to examine so he can discuss the matter. The evidence we have certainly suggests that Jesus was poor by any culture's standards.

What is the role of a prophetess specifically? How do you claim this calling upon your life?

The role of the prophetess, like the role of the prophet in the Bible, was to be God's mouthpiece. Sometimes this involved simply proclaiming a revelation you had received from God (see 1 Corinthians 11 and 14). Sometimes it involved offering up an exhortation to God's people or making a wise judgment, based on some revelation from God. See Judges 4-5 about Deborah.

In regard to claiming such a calling in your life, you must first have been called by God to do this and accordingly granted the gift of prophecy, as recognized and attested in the faith community. It's not a matter of simply going out and claiming to be a prophetess. There must be fruit and evidence in your life that you has been gifted in this way.

The doctrine of sola scriptura (or "the Bible alone") is the sole and only authority in Protestantism. Where is this foundation of all of the Protestant beliefs given to us by a revelation from God? How do we infallibly know that this doctrine is true? If it is true, where in the Bible is it taught, and where was it taught by the apostles?

This is an excellent question. Second Timothy 3:16 focuses on the fact that all the Old Testament scriptures are inspired by God and thus are truthful. There was, of course, not yet a New Testament canon during the NT era itself; the books were still being written. But the principles of holding a very high view of scripture, and basing your life on God's word as the final authority, are clearly present in texts like Psalms 119. It is because of such texts, and also because of the ecumenical church counsels in the fourth century A.D.--which said these 27 books are our NT canon--that the Protestant churches have held up the notion of sola scriptura: of scripture alone being the final arbiter of truth.


Why are there two stories of creation?

The creation story in Genesis 1 gives the general overview of all God's creative work. The story in Genesis 2 is not an alternate version of the story but rather a close-up focusing particularly on the creation of man and woman in the image of God.

What race was Jesus? Some believe that He was African American or white. The Bible talks about him having hair like wool, and I believe that He was African American.

Jesus was a first-century Jew, and so neither black nor white, but rather a Middle Eastern person. His mother Mary was a Jew from Nazareth in Galilee, not an African. The fact that Jesus' family fled into exile in Africa briefly to escape the wrath of King Herod tells us nothing about his genetic heritage or appearance.

You are perhaps thinking of the "white as wool" passage in Revelation 1:14, which is most likely an allusion to Jesus. However, it is based on the description of God in Daniel 7:9, and certainly the author of Daniel was not thinking of an African genetic trait. In any event, in antiquity both Semitic and African peoples were known for their 'wooly' or tightly curled hair.

During the first century A.D., Mithraism is the dominant faith in the places Paul travels to. Is it not probable that early Christianity was mirrored after this pagan faith in order to gain new converts?

Mithraism was indeed a rather popular religion in the first century A.D., but there is no evidence that it influenced early Christian practice or doctrine at all. Early Christianity was a development out of early Judaism. It is indebted to the various forms of early Judaism, not to pagan religions.

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