Pope_Francis_3_on_papal_flight_from_Africa_to_Italy_Nov_30_2015_Credit_Martha_Calderon_CNA_11_30_15

This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 7 November 2017 to 22 November 2017.

Angelus

General Audiences

Homilies

Messages

Papal Tweets

  • “We need to encounter the poor and learn how to share so that it becomes a way of life.” @Pontifex 17 November 2017
  • “Without the support of the prayers of the faithful, the Successor of Peter cannot fulfill his mission in the world. I am counting on you to” @Pontifex 18 November 2017
  • “On this day, I invite the entire Church to keep its gaze fixed on those who hold out their hands asking for our solidarity.” @Pontifex 19 November 2017
  • “Let us work together to ensure that children continue to smile: their faces serene, filled with joy and hope. #WorldChildrensDay” @Pontifex 20 November 2017
  • “May Mary’s pure and simple smile be a source of joy for each one of us as we face life’s difficulties.” @Pontifex 21 November 2017
  • “When we encounter others, do we bring them the warmth of charity or do we stay closed up and warm only ourselves before our fireplace?” @Pontifex 22 November 2017

Papal Instagram

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divine electionCalvinist theology places a great deal of emphasis on the concept of God’s elect.

The term “elect” is taken from the Greek word eklektos, which means “chosen.”

In Calvinist thought, the elect are those that have been chosen by God to be saved on the last day. The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “God hath appointed the elect unto glory” (3:6).

This sense of the term is not unique to Calvinism. It is also the way the term has traditionally been used in Catholic theology, from which Calvinism inherited it.

However, it is important to be careful about the way terms have come to be used in theology, because language changes over time, and sometimes the meaning a term has in later texts does not correspond to the one it has in earlier ones.

A classic example of this is “heresy.” Originally, the Greek term hairesis just meant “opinion” or “sect” (i.e., the group of people who hold a particular opinion), but today it means something very different.

What about “elect”? Can we count on early texts using it in the sense later theologies have?

 

Multiple Senses of “Elect”

It’s easy to show from the Bible that the term isn’t always used in the later, theological sense. When Jesus is described in John 1:34 as the “Chosen One” (eklektos) of God, it does not mean that God has chosen Jesus to be saved on the final day.

Similarly, there are various passages in the Old Testament where God’s people Israel is described as his “chosen” (Heb., bakhir; LXX, eklektos; e.g., 1 Chr. 16:13, Ps. 105:6, Is. 65:9).

However, if we set these aside and look at early Christian texts that speak of a group of people in God’s new dispensation as “the elect,” what do we find?

A striking example of where the term is not used in the later theological sense is found in 1 Clement, and it is worth looking at the way this document uses it.

 

Introducing 1 Clement

1 Clement is a letter written from Rome to Corinth in the first century. It is often dated to around A.D. 96, but it is more plausibly dated to the first half of A.D. 70.

Although written in a corporate manner (1 Clem. 65:2 describes it as “The letter of the Romans to the Corinthians”), its eloquence reveals that it is the product of a single author (not a committee), as was virtually universal for letters at this time.

The extensive knowledge of the Old Testament that its author clearly possesses suggests that he was of Jewish extraction.

Various early Christian sources identify the author as Clement, a bishop of Rome, and there is no good reason to doubt this identification.

It is significant for our purposes is that this Clement was a disciple of both Peter and Paul.

He may be the same Clement mentioned in Philippians 4:3, and 1 Clement describes Peter and Paul as men of “our generation” (5:1-7). Both Peter and Paul are known to have spent significant amounts of time at Rome, and both were martyred there—likely just a handful of years before the letter was written.

Although 1 Clement is not part of the New Testament, the fact it was written so early and by a disciple of Peter and Paul make its discussion of the elect significant, and it may shed light on the way this term is used in New Testament texts.

So how is the concept is handled in 1 Clement?

 

Election in 1 Clement

The first mention of the elect in 1 Clement occurs in its opening passage. Responding to a crisis that has occurred in the church of Corinth—whereby the leaders of that church had been unjustly expelled from office—the author notes that this “unholy rebellion” is “both foreign and strange to the elect of God” (1:1).

From this we may infer that God’s elect are to be characterized by holiness and due order in church affairs.

Clement next comments on how the Corinthians have made great efforts to seek the salvation of others. He writes:

It was your struggle,  both day and night, on behalf of the whole fellowship of believers,  to save the total number of his elect with mercy and conscientiousness (2:4).

This passage uses the term “elect” in a way distinctly different from its later theological use.

Here “the total number of his [God’s] elect” is identified with “the whole fellowship of believers”—a usage reminiscent of the Old Testament passages that speak of the people of Israel collectively as God’s chosen.

We thus need to be alert to the idea that Clement simply envisions the Christian community in the same way: Christians as a whole are God’s new elect or chosen people.

This understanding is strengthened by the fact he here says that the Corinthians have struggled to ensure that “the total number of his elect” be saved, for it suggests that the total number of the elect might not be saved.

This makes better sense if the elect are conceived of as Christians in general rather than those who will be saved on the last day. The former (people who have professed faith in Jesus Christ and been baptized) are not guaranteed salvation, but those who will be saved on the last day—by definition—are.

The natural sense of the passage is thus that the Corinthians have made great efforts to ensure the salvation of all believers, though this salvation is not guaranteed. (Indeed, Clement later warns those who fomented the Corinthian rebellion that they need to repent or they will be “driven out from his [Christ’s] hope,” literal translation; 57:2).

As we will see, this corporate understanding of the elect is consistent with all of the other references Clement makes to the elect.

Clement notes that, to Peter and Paul “a great multitude of the elect was gathered” (6:1).

He also refers to us approaching the Father, “who made us his own chosen [eklogēs] portion” (29:1)—an idea strongly reminiscent of and undoubtedly based on Israel as God’s portion, which he chose (cf. Deut. 7:6, 14:2, 32:9).

It is important to note that here Clement conceives of Roman and Corinthian Christians as a whole—not just certain individuals among them—as being God’s chosen.

Later he quotes from Psalm 118:25-26, writing:

“With the innocent one you [God] will be innocent and with the elect you will be elect and with the perverse you will deal perversely.” 

Therefore let us cling to the innocent and the righteous, as these are the elect of God (46:3-4).

Here he identifies the elect as “the innocent and the righteous”—terms that can characterize Christians in general.

In the same chapter, he writes:

Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, for it says, “Woe to that person, it would be better for him if he had not been born than to cause one of my elect to sin. It would have been better for him to be tied to a millstone and to sink into the sea than to turn away one of my elect” (Matt. 26:24 with Luke 17:1-2). Your schism has turned many away . . . ! (46:7-9).

Here Clement envisions it being possible for the elect to sin and to “turn away”—something he says the Corinthian schism has accomplished.

Clement later writes that “All of the elect of God were made perfect in love. Apart from love, nothing is pleasing to God” (49:5), indicating that the elect are to be characterized by love.

Quoting Psalm 32:1-2 (or perhaps Rom. 4:7-9), he writes:

“Blessed are those whose trespasses are forgiven and whose sins are covered up; blessed is the one the sin of whom the Lord does not take into account, and in his mouth there is no deceit.” 

This blessing was given to those who have been chosen [eklelegmenous] by God through Jesus Christ our Lord (50:6-7).

Thus the elect have been given the blessing of forgiveness.

Clement identifies the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as “both the faith and the hope of the elect” (58:2)—meaning they believe and hope in the Persons of the Trinity.

He says that the Roman church will make “earnest prayer and supplication, that the number of those who are counted among his elect throughout the whole world, the Creator of everything may guard unharmed through his beloved child Jesus Christ” (59:2). The elect thus need to be guarded from harm.

In the same chapter, Clement addresses God directly, noting that he “multiplies the nations upon earth and chose [ekleksamenon] from all of them those who love you through Jesus Christ your beloved child” (59:3).

Here the elect are again identified with “those who love you [God] through Jesus Christ”—i.e., the worldwide Christian community.

The above are the only places where 1 Clement refers to “the elect” or uses the corresponding terms for choosing to refer to a group of people in the Christian age.

He also uses these terms to refer to specific chosen individuals, such as Aaron (43:4-5), David (52:2), and Jesus (64:1), as do various passages in the Old Testament. However, these do not pertain to the subject we are examining.

What, then, can be said about 1 Clement’s understanding of the elect?

 

Synthesis

It appears that 1 Clement’s understanding of “the elect” is based on Old Testament passages (e.g., Deut. 7:6, 14:2, 32:9, 1 Chr. 16:13, Ps. 105:6, Is. 65:9) that conceive of Israel as God’s elect or chosen people.

Clement thus refers to members of the Roman and Corinthian churches as a whole (not just certain individuals) as the subject of God’s election, saying that he “made us his own chosen portion” (29:1).

Today, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “the faith and the hope of the elect” (58:2), and from among the nations, God “chose . . . those who love you through Jesus Christ your beloved child” (59:3). The elect are thus identified with the worldwide Christian community.

Therefore, “the total number of his elect” is identified with “the whole fellowship of believers” (2:4).

In Rome in particular, “a great multitude of the elect was gathered” around Peter and Paul (6:1).

The elect have been given the blessing of forgiveness. (50:6-7), and thus can be described as “the innocent and the righteous” (46:3-4), for “all of the elect of God were made perfect in love” (49:5). Consequently, they are to be characterized by holiness and due order in church affairs (1:1).

However, it is possible for members of the elect to sin and to “turn away”—something the Corinthian schism has caused to happen (46:7-9).

It is not guaranteed that “the total number of his elect” will be saved, and the Corinthians themselves have struggled to ensure their salvation (2:4). The Roman church likewise prays that God “may guard [them] unharmed through his beloved child Jesus Christ” (59:2).

 

Conclusion

We thus see that Clement—a disciple of Peter and Paul—conceives of “the elect” simply as the Christian people as a whole, not specifically as that group which will be saved on the last day.

His use of the term thus differs from the use it has in later Catholic and Calvinist theologies.

Given the fact his understanding of election closely corresponds to the Old Testament’s treatment of Israel as God’s elect people—not to mention his early date and the fact he was a disciple of Peter and Paul—this may well shed light on the way the term is used in the New Testament.

However, that is a subject for another time.

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This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 14 September 2017 to 16 November 2017.

Angelus

General Audiences

Homilies

Prayers

Speeches

Papal Tweets

  • “May a culture of encounter always be promoted that is able to bring down the walls which still divide the world.” @Pontifex 9 November 2017
  • “Science expresses its full dignity when it serves the integral development of the person and the human family.” @Pontifex 10 November 2017
  • “Let us remember in our prayers all those who, with dedication and spirit of sacrifice, care for those who are ill.” @Pontifex 11 November 2017
  • “We cannot change the world alone, but together we can spread the joy of the Gospel by staying close to those most in need.” @Pontifex 12 November 2017
  • “A Christian can never be a pessimist!” @Pontifex 13 November 2017
  • “Nothing and nobody can block the light that Christ puts in our hearts and on the face of His friends.” @Pontifex 14 November 2017
  • “Faith is a great life companion, allowing us to feel the presence of a Father who never leaves His creatures alone.” @Pontifex 15 November 2017
  • “Poverty is not an accident. It has causes that must be recognized and removed for the good of so many of our brothers and sisters.” @Pontifex 16 November 2017

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Luther as Professor, 1529 (oil on panel) by Cranach, Lucas, the Elder (1472-1553); Schlossmuseum, Weimar, Germany; (add.info.: Luther als Professor; Martin Luther (1483-1546);); German, out of copyright

In 1517, Martin Luther drafted a document known as The 95 Theses, and its publication is used to date the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

The recent 500th anniversary of that event focused a good bit of attention on the 95 Theses.

Here are 8 things to know and share . . .

 

1) What are The 95 Theses?

The 95 Theses are a set of propositions that Martin Luther proposed for academic debate. As the name indicates, there are 95 of them.

Despite the fact they played a key role in starting the Protestant Reformation, they do not deal with either of the main Protestant distinctives. They do not mention either justification by faith alone or doing theology by Scripture alone.

Instead, they deal principally with indulgences, purgatory, and the pope’s role with respect to the two.

 

2) Did Luther nail them to a church door?

Despite constant statements to the contrary, the answer appears to be no, he didn’t.

 

3) Are they all bad?

No, they’re not. It can come as a surprise to both Protestants and Catholics, but some of them agree with Catholic teaching.

Here are the first three of Luther’s theses, along with parallel statements from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Thesis 1: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

    • CCC 1431: Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed.

Thesis 2: This word [i.e., Christ’s call to repent in Mark 4:17] cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

    • CCC 1427: Jesus calls to conversion. This call is an essential part of the proclamation of the kingdom: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” [Mark 4:17]. In the Church’s preaching this call is addressed first to those who do not yet know Christ and his Gospel. Also, Baptism is the principal place for the first and) fundamental conversion.

Thesis 3: Yet it [i.e., the call to repent in Mark 4:17] does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.

    • CCC 1430: Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures, and works of penance.

 

4) How did the Church respond to The 95 Theses?

In 1520, Pope Leo X published a bull known as Exsurge Domine (Latin, “Arise, Lord”) in which he rejected 41 propositions taken from the writings of Martin Luther up to that time.

However, only a few of the rejected propositions came from The 95 Theses. Most were based on things Luther said in other writings.

 

5) Which of The 95 Theses did Exsurge Domine reject?

The rejected propositions in Exsurge Domine are formulated from things Luther said, but they are not verbatim quotations.

Three of the rejected propositions—numbers 4, 17, and 38—are drawn from The 95 Theses. In each case, the rejected proposition is based on two of Luther’s original theses.

Here are the rejected propositions along with the corresponding theses:

Proposition 4. To one on the point of death, imperfect charity necessarily brings with it great fear, which in itself alone is enough to produce the punishment of purgatory and impedes entrance into the kingdom.

Thesis 14. Imperfect piety or love on the part of the dying person necessarily brings with it great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater the fear.

Thesis 15. This fear or horror is sufficient in itself, to say nothing of other things, to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near the horror of despair.

Proposition 17. The treasures of the Church from which the pope gives indulgences are not the merits of Christ and of the saints.

Thesis 56. The treasures of the church, out of which the pope distributes indulgences, are not sufficiently discussed or known among the people of Christ.

Thesis 58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the saints, for, even without the pope, the latter always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outer man.

Proposition 38. The souls in purgatory are not sure of their salvation, at least (not) all; nor is it proved by any arguments or by the Scriptures that they are beyond the state of meriting or of increasing in charity.

Thesis 19. Nor does it seem proved that souls in purgatory, at least not all of them, are certain and assured of their own salvation, even if we ourselves may be entirely certain of it.

Thesis 18. Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love.

Note that Proposition 17 only deals with the substance of Thesis 58. The part of Thesis 56 that it picks up (“The treasures of the Church from which the pope gives indulgences”) is just to supply the antecedent for the pronoun “they” in Thesis 58. The remainder of Thesis 56 is not commented upon.

Therefore, Exsurge Domine rejected things it saw expressed in theses 14, 15, 18, 19, and 58.

 

6) What did Exsurge Domine say about the rejected propositions?

The bull closes with the following censure:

All and each of the above-mentioned articles or errors [i.e., all 41 of them], as set before you, we condemn, disapprove, and entirely reject as respectively heretical or (aut) scandalous or (aut) false or (aut) offensive to pious ears or (vel) seductive of simple minds and (et) in opposition to Catholic truth.

This kind of condemnation is sometimes referred to as an condemnation in globo (Latin, “as a whole”). They are rejected as a batch, but without indicating which censure applies to which proposition.

The condemnation has to be read with care because in Latin, aut indicates an exclusive “or” (i.e., this or that, but not both) while vel indicates an inclusive “or” (i.e., this or that, but possibly both).

Thus Exsurge Domine indicates that some of the 41 rejected propositions are heretical, some are scandalous, some are false, some are offensive to pious ears—but they are not all four.

The use of aut between these censures tells you that a given proposition may fall into one of these four categories.

The only time an inclusive “or” is used is before the fifth and sixth categories: Some propositions may be “seductive of simple minds and (et) in opposition to Catholic truth.” Here vel is used because things that are heretical (etc.) can also be seductive of simple minds (the fifth category) and obviously would be opposed to Catholic truth (the sixth category).

 

7) What does that mean for The 95 Theses?

It means that Exsurge Domine rejected things expressed in Theses 14, 15, 18, 19, and 58, and it thus warned Catholics away from these theses. However, it does not tell us what the problem was in particular cases. It could have been any of the following:

  • The thesis is heretical
  • The thesis is scandalous
  • The thesis is false
  • The thesis is offensive to pious ears
  • The thesis is seductive of simple minds
  • The thesis is opposed to Catholic truth

The difference between these is significant:

  1. If something is heretical then it is both false and contrary to a divinely revealed dogma
  2. If it is scandalous then it can lead people into sin
  3. If it is false then it is not true, though it may not be opposed to a dogma
  4. If it is offensive to pious ears then it is badly and offensively phrased
  5. If it is seductive of simple minds then it can mislead ordinary people
  6. If it is opposed to Catholic truth then it could be opposed in one of the five ways named above.

It is important to note that if the problem is (1) or (3) then the Thesis is necessarily false.

However, if the problem is (2), (4), or (5) then the Thesis is not necessarily false—it could be technically true but phrased offensively, phrased in a misleading way, or phrased in a way that could lead people to sin.

Because Exsurge Domine doesn’t assign particular censures to particular propositions, it doesn’t tell us what the status of the theses in question are. It warns us away from them but leaves it up to theologians to classify the particular problem with a thesis.

 

8) Does the fact that Exsurge Domine only rejects things said in five of the theses mean that the other 90 are okay?

No. This does not give the rest of The 95 Theses a clean bill of health. They can also be problematic, they just weren’t among those dealt with in Exsurge Domine.

It would be interesting to go through The 95 Theses and analyze of the degree to which each of them fits or doesn’t fit with Catholic thought, but that would be a lengthy effort that would go far beyond what can be accomplished in a blog post.

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This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 28 October 2017 to 8 November 2017.

Homilies

Speeches

Papal Tweets

  • “We are all small and defenceless before the mystery of death, but what a grace if at that moment we keep in our heart the flame of f” @Pontifex 2 November 2017
  • “When we pray, we need to have the courage of faith. Have trust that the Lord hears us!” @Pontifex 3 November 2017
  • “The Church needs faithful people who proclaim the Gospel with enthusiasm and wisdom, instilling hope and faith.” @Pontifex 4 November 2017
  • “Christ was victorious over death. He is our resurrection and our life. Be witnesses to this message of hope.” @Pontifex 5 November 2017
  • “War always causes serious damage to the environment. We must not mistreat our common home, but take care of it for future generations.” @Pontifex 6 November 2017
  • “Jesus of Nazareth walks at our side and introduces us, by his words and the signs he performs, to the great mystery of the Father’s love.” @Pontifex 7 November 2017
  • “Only faith can transform the end of our earthly life into the beginning of eternal life.” @Pontifex 8 November 2017

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This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 8 October 2017 to 1 November 2017.

Angelus

General Audiences

Speeches

Papal Tweets

  • “The culture of encounter means recognizing that we are all children of God, despite our differences.” @Pontifex 26 October 2017
  • “God loves us with a love so rich in mercy that He constantly welcomes us, protects and forgives us.” @Pontifex 27 October 2017
  • “Remember the sufferings of every person in your heart. Then bring them all to God in your prayers.” @Pontifex 28 October 2017
  • “I invite you to keep your eyes fixed on Jesus Christ in order to learn from Him how to love with all your heart.” @Pontifex 29 October 2017
  • “Learn from wonder; nurture astonishment. Live, love, believe. And, with the grace of God, never despair.” @Pontifex 30 October 2017
  • “May the Virgin Mary help us to take the first step each day in order to build peace in love, justice and truth.” @Pontifex 31 October 2017
  • “Dear friends, the world needs saints and we are all called to holiness without exception. Don’t be afraid!” @Pontifex 1 November 2017

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This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 12 October 2017 to 25 October 2017.

Angelus

General Audiences

Letters

Messages

Speeches

Papal Tweets

  • “Let yourself be guided by the tenderness of God so that you may transform the world with your faith.” @Pontifex 19 October 2017
  • “Let us bring the flame of Christ’s love to humanity which needs true happiness and peace so much.” @Pontifex 20 October 2017
  • “The Church is truly alive if it is maternal and missionary and goes out to meet others.” @Pontifex 21 October 2017
  • “On this day, let us remember that the Church is missionary by nature: mission is at the heart of Christian faith. #Missio” @Pontifex 22 October 2017
  • “oday, as we remember Saint John Paul II, let us also recall his words: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!”” @Pontifex 22 October 2017
  • “Jesus gave us the light which shines in the darkness. Defend and protect this light: it is the greatest treasure entrusted to you.” @Pontifex 23 October 2017
  • “Let us all work together to promote peace among peoples and guarantee respect for human rights.” @Pontifex 24 October 2017
  • “Be courageous witnesses to Christ in the places where you live and work.” @Pontifex 25 October 2017

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Pope Francis waves to crowds as he arrives to his inauguration mass on 19 March 2013.

This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 21 September 2017 to 18 October 2017.

Angelus

General Audiences

Letters

Messages

Speeches

Papal Tweets

  • “The statue of Our Lady of Aparecida was found by poor workers. May Mary bless all of us, but especially those seeking employment.” @Pontifex 13 October 2017
  • “In this centenary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima, we thank God for the countless blessings we have received under her protection.” @Pontifex 13 October 2017
  • “We are called to defend and safeguard human life, especially in the mother’s womb, in infancy, old age and physical or mental disability.” @Pontifex 14 October 2017
  • “Along with the Saints, let the joy and beauty of living the Gospel shine through the witness of our lives.” @Pontifex 15 October 2017
  • “Ensuring everyone’s right to food and nourishment is an imperative we cannot ignore. It is a right to which there are no exceptions!” @Pontifex 16 October 2017
  • “Sharing requires conversion, and this is a challenge. #ZeroHunger” @Pontifex 16 October 2017
  • “It is the duty of the human family to help free every single person from poverty and hunger.” @Pontifex 17 October 2017
  • “May artists spread the beauty of the faith and proclaim the grandeur of God’s creation and His boundless love for all.” @Pontifex 18 October 2017

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This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 5 October 2017 to 11 October 2017.

Letters

Speeches

Papal Tweets

  • “The mission of schools and teachers is to develop an understanding of all that is true, good and beautiful.” @Pontifex 5 October 2017
  • “Let us ensure that the Internet is a safe and richly human place for children: a network that does not entrap them but helps them to grow.” @Pontifex 6 October 2017
  • “The Rosary is a synthesis of the mysteries of Christ: we contemplate them with Mary, who allows us to see with her eyes of faith and love.” @Pontifex 7 October 2017
  • “When you experience bitterness, put your faith in all those who still work for good: in their humility lies the seed of a new world.” @Pontifex 8 October 2017
  • “The search for peace is an open-ended task, a responsibility that never ends and that demands the commitment of everyone.” @Pontifex 9 October 2017
  • “God does not disappoint! He has placed hope in our hearts so that it can blossom and bear fruit.” @Pontifex 10 October 2017
  • “Like Saint John XXIII, whom we remember today, let us witness to God’s goodness and mercy before the Church and the world.” @Pontifex 11 October 2017

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EXODUSAccording to multiple books in the Old Testament, the Israelites came into possession of the land of Canaan after they left slavery in Egypt—an event known as the Exodus.

Yet, according to some skeptical scholars today, the Exodus never happened.

Instead, the Israelites simply were a group of Canaanites, and they eventually took over the territory in which they already lived—either as part of a peasant revolt or through some other process.

Despite these claims, there are reasons to hold the Exodus occurred.

Let’s talk about that.

 

Origin Stories

Every people has an account of its origins, or what could be called its origin story.

  • In the case of the United States, our origin story involves the original thirteen rebellious colonies that seceded from England in the American War of Independence, starting in 1776.
  • In the case of the United Kingdom, the origin story involves the uniting of the Kingdom of England with the Kingdom of Scotland in 1701.
  • In the case of Rome, the story involves the founding of the city by the hero Romulus.

But everybody’s got an origin story.

History doesn’t know any people who, if asked about their origins, would say, “Well, we don’t really know who we are or where we came from.”

The Israelites were no exception: Their national origin story involved the Exodus.

So why wouldn’t one take them at their word?

 

Sketchy Stories

It’s certainly true that you can’t take everybody’s origin story at face value.

For example, certain long-settled peoples have no memory of their true origins, and they have provided an account based on folklore and mythology.

When this happens, they may say that their people was created by the gods—or otherwise entered the world—in the same territory they now occupy.

This is the case with the Hopi and Zuni tribes of North America, whose origin stories hold that human beings—including themselves—first emerged into this world out of a hole in a rocky mound known as the Sipapuni, which is located on the Colorado River outside Grand Canyon National Park.

However, if modern scientific accounts are remotely accurate, their ancestors originated in the Old World and migrated over the Bering Land Bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska.

Sketchy origin stories are found in the Old World as well. The Egyptians, similarly, had no memory of their ancestors ever having lived anywhere else, and they set their creation stories in the Nile Valley. Curiously, their stories also feature a primeval mound, which they called the Benben.

 

Distance in Time

One thing the Hopi, Zuni, and Egyptian origin stories have in common is that they describe events occurring long before recorded history.

In the absence of historical memory, folklore has filled in the gaps.

This is markedly different from the origin stories of the U.S. and the U.K., which deal with events only a few hundred years ago.

If you read a modern account of the American Revolution or the British Acts of Union, the distance in time between the account and the events it describes is only 250-300 years.

How does Israel’s origin story fare by comparison?

 

References to the Exodus

For much of Church history, the book of Exodus was regarded as having been authored by Moses and thus as having been a record produced within the same generation as the events it describes.

More recently, biblical scholars have drifted away from this view, and by the 20th century it became common to hold that the Pentateuch—of which Exodus is a part—is a composite of four sources known by the initials J, E, D, and P.

The parts of the book of Exodus that deal with the Exodus event itself were held to be derived from the J (“Yahwist”) and E (“Elohist”) sources, which are named after the terms they use for God (“Yahweh,” and “Elohim,” respectively).

Scholars debated precisely when these sources were to be dated, but it was common to date J to some time between 950 and 850 B.C.

It was also common to date E sometime between 850 and 750 B.C.

More recently, the JEDP theory has begun to fall out of favor—at least in its classical form—though there is no current consensus about what should replace it.

However, if—for purposes of argument—we were to accept the dates proposed above, we would have references to the Exodus event in Israel’s literature between around 950 and 750 B.C.

Even if one were to take a more skeptical view and think the Pentateuch is composed of later sources, the date of our earliest Exodus references would not change much, because there are multiple references to the event in the prophets.

Thus in Micah 6:4, God declares, “I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage.”

And in Hosea 11:1, he says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”

  • Micah prophesied between the times of King Jotham and King Hezekiah (Mic. 1:1), which puts his ministry between 750 and 687 B.C.
  • Hosea prophesied between the times of King Uzziah and King Hezekiah (Hos. 1:1), which puts his ministry between 783 and 687 B.C.

We therefore would still have references to the Exodus event in Israelite literature by the 700s.

The fact we have multiple such references (and there are others) means the tradition was widespread and thus has to be dated earlier to allow time for it to become popular and be mentioned multiple times in the surviving literature.

We thus would conclude that the story had to be circulating by around 850 B.C.—a century before the prophets just mentioned.

 

Dating the Exodus

That leads us to the question of when the Exodus occurred.

The traditional date for the event is in the 1400s B.C. However, more recently a date in the 1200s B.C. has been proposed.

The latter seems more likely, and it corresponds to the earliest extra-biblical reference we have to Israel.

This is found on an Egyptian monument known as the Merneptah Stele, which celebrates a military victory over the Israelites by the Egyptian pharaoh, Merneptah, who reigned between 1213 and 1203 B.C.

The inscription on the stele is significant not just because it refers to Israel but because of the way it refers to it.

Egyptian writing uses a set of symbols—known as determinatives—to help the reader identify the kind of thing being described. For example, when a man’s name is given, a symbol representing a seated man is often placed after it. When a woman’s name is given, a symbol representing a seated woman is used.

On the Merneptah Stele, when Israel’s name is given, a determinative indicating a foreign people is used.

This determinative is usually used for nomadic peoples that do not have a settled location, suggesting the inscription was made during the period of wandering before Israel was settled in the land.

That would suggest that the Exodus occurred in the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II (1279-1213 B.C.).

 

The Role of Writing

If accounts of the Exodus were circulating in Israel by 850 B.C. and if the event itself would have taken place around 1250 B.C., that’s only a gap of 400 years.

Four centuries is not a long time when it comes to national origin stories.

Even in purely oral (illiterate) societies that depend entirely on tradition for knowledge of the past, collective memory can preserve the core facts regarding where a people came from for that length of time.

But Israel was not a purely oral society at this time.

We have artifacts with Hebrew writing that date from the time of King David’s reign, in the 10th century B.C.

Given the fragmentary nature of the historical record in this period, writing had to have been in use in Israelite society even earlier. Very conservatively, we could push it back by a century, into the 11th century B.C.

That would reduce the time between the proposed date of the Exodus (13th century) and the Israelite use of writing (11th century) to only two hundred years.

That’s not long at all for oral tradition to preserve memories of something as important as how a nation was founded, and there’s no reason it need be that long. The Israelites could have been using writing even earlier.

In fact, according to the Exodus account, they came from Egypt, which had been a literate culture for 2,000 years by that point.

Even if they hadn’t yet begun writing their own language in the Phoenician-based script that they later used, the Israelite’s origin story attests that they had been exposed to a literate culture, and they could have been using writing even before the Exodus.

But there’s another reason we should give credence to the Exodus.

 

You Wouldn’t Make This Up

Nobody wants to look down on their ancestors, and national pride pushes people to glorify their ancestors and the founding of their nation.

Even if your nation was founded as, say, a penal colony, you’ll want to find admirable things about your ancestors and talk about their heroic struggle in a new and difficult land.

But you wouldn’t invent the idea that your nation was founded by convicts if it wasn’t true.

Long before 1984, inconvenient facts like that would be conveniently sent “down the memory hole” if at all possible.

We see this all the time in the ancient world. If you read the military records left by Egyptian pharaohs, guess what! They never lost a battle! (Though we do sometimes read about them “winning” battles progressively closer and closer to home as their armies were forced to retreat.)

If the Israelites had been in Canaan since time immemorial, they would have done what other ancient peoples did, such as saying they were created there.

They might have even depicted the Canaanites they displaced as invaders whose yoke they threw off.

Or they might have said their ancestors came from a powerful, nearby civilization which they admired (the way the Romans said Romulus was a descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas).

But they would not have invented a shameful past that depicted their ancestors as slaves in a neighboring country that they hated and that periodically conquered them in their own land—which Egypt did.

Slavery was not a desirable condition in the ancient world, and Jewish people were as sensitive to that as anybody.

Thus the Gospel of John reports that, on one occasion, Jesus’ opponents declared, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one” (John 8:33).

This hasty statement ignores not only the bondage in Egypt but the subsequent conquest by the Babylonians and even their present subjection by the Romans—but it testifies to the common feeling of national pride that leads people to minimize or ignore uncomfortable facts about their past.

“We were slaves in Egypt” is one such uncomfortable fact, and it is not something that the Israelites would have made up.

We thus have good reason to hold that the Exodus occurred.

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