Web site answers quirky Bible questions

Saturday, May 17, 2003

Have you ever seen a Jew with a tattoo? Perhaps not, since the tradition against that practice is as strong, though not as well-known, as the one against eating pork. The basis is biblical:

"You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord." (Leviticus 19:28)

Opinion on tattoos varies in the Talmud. Some rabbinic authorities said the Bible forbade only tattoos using letters, and others that the command referred only to body inscriptions naming a pagan god. But the rabbinic consensus came to forbid all tattooing.

Fascinating matters like this commonly pop up in the Bible Q&A column on the interfaith Internet site www.beliefnet. com, which recently emerged from bankruptcy with a new lease on life. The column's writer is Ben Witherington III, an Evangelical Protestant author and New Testament professor at Kentucky's Asbury Theological Seminary.

On tattoos, Witherington sides with rabbis who said Leviticus condemned marking of the flesh only as part of such pagan rituals as the body-gashing by the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:28.

Witherington concludes that Leviticus verse "is probably not a general prohibition against tattooing, since that act in antiquity always had specific religious associations." But he says any tattoo should "avoid an inscription that is inappropriate for a believer to display."

Readers come up with other surprising questions. A sampling:

Question: Does the Bible teach that illegitimate children and their descendants will go to hell?

Witherington's answer: "Absolutely no Bible verse anywhere" says that.

Q: A reader wonders why it is said that Jesus Christ was poor since he had a rich uncle, Joseph of Arimathea.

Answer: Joseph provided Jesus' tomb, but nothing in the New Testament suggests they were related. And Jesus was definitely poor. He had nowhere to lay his head, and even needed to borrow a coin to illustrate his saying on taxes ("render unto Caesar").

A reader asserts that Jesus was black.

The Bible gives no physical description, but Jesus was a Middle Easterner and neither black nor white, though he might have had woolly or lightly curled hair.

Where does the Bible say God opposes racial intermarriage?

Old Testament prohibitions on intermarriage were not racial, but religious, protecting "a tiny minority religion" from the surrounding polytheism and immorality. The New Testament says nothing against racially mixed marriages.

Do Christians believe in ghosts and can they harm us?

Spirits of the dead do exist, as we learn when King Saul visited a medium at Endor. But "nothing in the Bible" suggests it's possible for them to haunt us or inhabit material space.

Do Christians believe in reincarnation?

No, the Bible teaches the unique existence of every human and instead of a series of lives, the believer spends "eternal life as the same person." Thus, "every person has one shot -- in one lifetime -- to sort out their relationship with God."

When the Book of Revelation mentions 144,000 people in heaven, is that the exact number, as some say?

Revelation is apocalyptic literature and the number is "clearly symbolic." It is a multiple of 12 (as in the tribes of Israel and the apostles of Jesus) that "symbolizes the whole people of God."

Why don't the Bible passages about Egypt mention the pyramids?

A: Israelites in Egypt lived in the northern grain-storage cities, not the Giza plateau where the great pyramids were built. And if the Israelites heard about the pyramids they wouldn't have been impressed because they were nomads, not great builders.

Does the Bible consider singing in a choir or as a soloist sinful, as one group believes?

Nothing in the Bible says that. In fact the Psalms regularly makes reference to the choir and choir director in the Temple.

Why don't Christians follow all the Old Testament laws?

Jesus was Jewish but took a "radical approach," and "Christians are obligated to obey the commandments of the new covenant, not the old covenant." Sometimes the two overlap, and sometimes not.

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