2016-06-30
Have a scriptural question? Write to our columnist at witheringtonb@staff.beliefnet.com.

In this column, Ben Witherington answers Beliefnet members' questions about:

  • Jesus preaching in Hades
  • Jesus and Moses
  • Praying for pets
  • Genesis and the age of the Earth
  • John, son of Zebedee
  • The thorn in Paul's flesh
  • Aramaic vs. Greek
  • The Second Coming
  • The Sabbath: Saturday or Sunday?
  • The Book of Mormon

    Did Jesus really go down to Hades--Hell--and preach to the saints before his Ascension? --G. Victor W.

    The idea that Jesus went down to Hades and preached to the dead is based on a misunderstanding of 1 Peter 3.19. This text is actually about Jesus proclaiming his triumph to disobedient angels who are incarcerated. The angels in question are those referred to in Genesis 6; they came down to earth and sinned, precipitating the Flood (compare 2 Peter 2.4-5; Jude verse 6).

    In Deuteronomy 18.14-19, who is the prophet that Moses is talking about? And if it's Jesus, how is he related to Moses, and how is he like Moses? --IdrissR

    Many people have certainly interpreted the prophecy you are referring to--one about the rise of a prophet like Moses--in a Messianic way. Of course in the broad sense Jesus was a Jew, and so was of the same lineage as Moses. But it is important to bear in mind that the prophecy in Deuteronomy is not specific; it is more of a character description. The prophet the author has in mind will have certain attributes that Moses also had. Certainly, Jesus had some of these attributes. For example, the feeding of the 5,000 is viewed in the Gospels as an event like the miracle of manna in the wilderness during Moses' day. Or again, many would see the presentation of Jesus' teaching during the Sermon on the Mount as similar to Moses giving the law on Mount Sinai.

    Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus pray for animals. Is it scriptural to pray for our pets--dogs, cats etc? --Karen L

    We have very few of the prayers of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament, and so silence on this matter does not necessarily mean Jesus would not approve. Much depends on what one would pray about in regard to animals. There surely can be nothing wrong with thanking God for the blessing of animals, or praying for their well-being. What we must keep in mind is that animals, like lower life forms, are not created in the image of God. They do not have the same capacity for relationship with God as humans or angels do.

    Nevertheless, some Jewish writers of the Old Testament envisioned that when the Messianic kingdom comes on earth at the end of history, animals would have a place in that realm, with the "lion lying down with the lamb".

    I was told earth is around several million years old. Do you have any idea as to how many years old earth is? --Debbie T.

    I am not a geologist or any other kind of scientist, but I do have a problem with arguments that fossils and other such evidence only make it appear as if the earth is millions of years old. I have a problem with the notion that God would deceive us about the age of things by "planting" fossils and other evidence to fool us about the age of Creation. More importantly, the Bible does not try to tell us how old the Earth is. One cannot derive an age for the earth by adding up years in the genealogies in Genesis, for the very good reason that those genealogies are partial and piecemeal. They are not exhaustive or complete. We must always keep in mind that the Bible is not intended to be a scientific textbook. It was written for people who lived long before the rise of modern science.

    I'd like to know more about the life of John, one of the Apostles. How did he die and where?

    I take it that by John the Apostle you mean John the son of Zebedee. We are not at all sure where and how John died. The Bible does not say. There is one tradition that he moved to Ephesus, lived a long life and died there. The problem with this tradition is that it is not at all clear that the beloved disciple mentioned in John 13-21 is the same person as John the son of Zebedee, and it also appears unlikely that John the visionary mentioned in Revelation is the same person as John the son of Zebedee.

    What was the thorn in St. Paul's flesh?

    The literal translation of 2 Corinthians 12.7 is "a stake in the flesh, a messenger of Satan." It seems clear from the context of that verse that this is a reference to some sort of physical malady that plagued Paul from time to time. It is possible that Paul had some sort of eye disease, as Galatians 4.13-15 may suggest.

    How does the fact that nothing was recorded in Jesus' native language and the language of the people to whom he was speaking affect the canonical gospels? --Hillbros

    This is an excellent question. Jesus' native tongue was Aramaic, and while certainly we have documents from antiquity written in Aramaic (including part of the book of Daniel), we do not have Jesus' teachings in this language. Rather, the New Testament is written in Greek. It is well to remember, however, that many early Jews were bilingual, including, no doubt, some of Jesus' original followers. The accounts in Acts of Peter preaching to all sorts of people, including Gentiles, suggests that he knew some Greek. This is also suggested by his probable authorship of 1 Peter. This being the case, probably not much is lost in translation if at an early juncture one of Jesus' first followers translated his words from Aramaic into Greek.

    I would like more information on the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. What are the signs? How will it take place?

    There are various prophecies about the Second Coming in the New Testament. I would encourage you to read Mark 13 (read it) in particular. What Mark 13.32 tells us is that not even Jesus himself knew the timing of this event, but he was certain that it would transpire. 1 Thessalonians 4-5 suggests that we will never be able to predict the timing of the Second Coming, for it will arrive without warning, like a thief in the night. Thus the message of the New Testament about this matter is that we must always be prepared, whether it comes sooner or later.

    I believe the true Sabbath day to be Saturday and that many years ago the Romans changed this to Sunday to serve their purposes. --wardedkat

    You are correct in thinking that the Jewish Sabbath is from sundown Friday until sundown on Saturday. However, it was not the Romans who changed the day of worship. Early Christians began to worship on Sunday even during New Testament times (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 16.2; Revelation 1.10 gives us the first reference to worship on the Lord's Day). Early Christians worshipped on the first day of the week because it was the day Jesus rose from the dead. This practice is even mentioned in a letter from the Roman governor of Asia Minor--Pliny--to the emperor Trajan in the early second century A.D.

    Recently I decided after much thought and consideration to convert from the Roman Catholic Faith into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Since my conversion I have found my faith with Jesus Christ to become even greater. I am curious of your thoughts on the Mormon church. Mormons believe, among other things, that Christ appeared in the Americas and that the Book of Mormon is a second companion to the Bible. -- Jim M.

    Christians in general, and Christian scholars in particular, do not accept the Book of Mormon as a supplement to the Bible. they do not believe it contains historical information, or further revelations from the God of the

    Bible. Mormonism is a religion which arose in North America in the nineteenth century long after the Bible was written. Christianity had long since been a well-established religion, without a need for a Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon was probably written by Joseph Smith himself; it has some remarkable similarities to nineteenth-century American novels, which Smith seems to have read. Smith seems to have been concerned that the Bible didn't seem to address the plight of Native Americans and, in general, of the peoples of North America. He was concerned there be a revelation specifically for such peoples. While this is a laudable concern, the Bible is quite specific that the revelation given 2,000 years ago is for all peoples in all lands in all times, and needs no supplement.

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