Three is the magi number

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

In many translations there are three measures of meal in the leaven parable (see previous post), these are thought by many to represent the human race amongst which the Gospel is working. The number three is mentioned over 500 times in the bible: There are three Magi, Noah had three sons, Lot had three daugters and then, of course, there is the father, son and holy spirit where God is represented in three forms.  The three measures of meal in the leaven parable are thought by some to represent faith, hope and love:

Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love. 
[I Cor. 13,13]

They have also been thought to represent the three elements of human-life; body, soul and spirit as  the meal has been compared to the human race. When Jesus specified three measures, he was trying to portray a figurative meaning that could be interpreted by the people in that space of time. Therefore it’s difficult to know exactly what he was referring too as those influences no longer exist.

Adoration of the Magi. Rubens 1619

In  Laws about Sacrifices, in the Old Testament,  three measures of meal should be used as part of a sacrifice when a Bull is being offered:

When a bull is offered to the Lords as a burnt offering or as a sacrifice in fulfilment of how or as the fellowship offering, a great offspring of three measures of flour mixed with two measures of olive oil is to be presented, together with two measures of wine. The smell of the sacrifice is pleasing to the Lord.
[Num. 15.8-10]

There maybe an association between the measures of meal and the ceremony of sacrifice. The meal may represent something that is normally sacred and without leaven. The woman may have hidden the leaven into the meal because the teachings of Jesus were in direct conflict to those of the Torah. The Bible always states that no leaven should be offered as a sacrifice to the Lord.

None of the grain offerings which you present to the Lord shall be made with leaven.
[Lev. 2,11]

When the woman hid the leaven in the meal she was doing something that was prohibited by God. Therefore this parable could be deduced to mean the doctrines of Christ are the Bread of Life and must remain pure and uncorrupted. Some propose that the Parable of the Leaven represents degeneracy in power, a breaking in upon divinely ordered fellowship, the corrupting influences of apostasy. The other interpretation is that leaven is in fact being used on occasion as a positive element that permeates through the meal as teachings would permeate through society.

When Jesus compares his leaven with that of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, although there leaven symbolises corruption his leaven is symbolic of truth.


…heavenly bread making

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Leaven when used figuratively in the bible is most often used to denote something that is corrupt. The initial conception of it in the leaven parable (see previous post) is of a favourable component in the dough, this implies that Jesus is contradicting its symbolic use in the Bible.

The Leaven Parable. Illustration by Jan Luyken from the Bowyer Bible.

This parable could be interpreted in many ways. The leaven is taken by the woman and hidden in the meal or flour. The leaven may represent the subtle way that evil can permeate through the dough. In this manner leaven still represents something that corrupts, disintegrates and breaks up. The woman is impregnating the pure symbol of heaven symbolised by the meal with evil symbolised by the leaven. The first indication that leaven was associated with corruption in the Bible was when Lot baked unleavened bread for the angels:

But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without leaven, and they ate.
[Gen. 19.3].

Lot did not give leavened bread to the angels because he did not want to offer them anything containing impurities. The next reference to leaven is in the book of Exodus when the Hebrews left Egypt. They received a command from the Lord, through Moses, not to eat leavened bread for seven days. Similar sentiments occur in later sections of the Bible when the Lord demands that leaven should not be offered in sacrifices to him.

Do not offer bread made with leaven when you sacrifice an animal to me. Do not keep until morning any part of an animal killed at the Passover festival.
[Ex. 34.25].

Leaven was excluded from any sacrifice because it was thought of as a contaminant that did not reflect sinlessness. Leaven  during the Biblical era would have contained many undesirable elements in addition to microbes that fermented bread dough. It’s unlikely that the primitive baking processes used at that time would have destroyed all pathogenic microbes and therefore there was the potential for leaven in bread to transmit diseases. This is perhaps why it earned such a bad reputation and why people tended not to offer it to guests during festivals or at other times. Perhaps one person’s leaven was another person’s poison. Interestingly, animal sacrifices were disposed of before they started to decompose or they could become contaminated also. Perhaps there was the additional fear that Egyptians would look unfavourably upon this practice and there would be consequences for  the Hebrews if they were caught with animal remains:

If we use these animals and offend the Egyptians by sacrificing them where they can see us, we will be stoned  to death. We must travel three days into the desert to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, just as he commanded us.
[Ex. 8.26-27]

The words leaven and unleavened occur over sixty times in the Old Testament and nearly twenty times in the New Testament. In every instance, except for in the leaven parable, it is used to denote something corrupt or sinful. Mostly, Jesus  uses leaven  figuratively in the same way as it is used in the Old Testament to denote corruption. For instance, Jesus compares the doctrines of the Pharisees with leaven:

Be on guard against the leaven of the Pharisees, I mean their hypocrisy.
[Lk. 12.1]

In Mark’s gospel  “and the leaven of Herod” is added to the above quote [Mk 8.14-15].  According to Lockyer the leaven of the Pharisees can be interpreted to represent the hypocritical formality and ritual of their beliefs. The leaven of the Sadducees was rationalism and the denial of supernatural events. The leaven of Herod was the consequence of these two doctrines, a departure from God and his teachings to a devotion of secularism and indulgence.

Throughout history the nature of leaven has led it to be seen with similar connotations. A rabbi reportedly said “Trust not a proselyte till twenty-four generations, for he holds his leaven.” Here leaven is used as a symbol of hostile infidelity. It was also used by the Talmund to signify “Evil affections and the naughtiness of the heart.” The ancient interpretation of leaven by the Greek historian, Plutarch, presented a figurative meaning that had similar connotations:

Leaven is both generated by corruption, and also corrupts the mass with which it is mingled.

Paul‘s also uses leaven to illustrate corruption[1 Cor. 5.6].  Paul encouraged the purging of a sinful man because if his sins remained unpunished they would spread amongst the group. This statement by Paul cements the traditional meaning associated with leaven of being  a corruptive persuasive and a permeating influence.

Of the leaven parable Martin Luther states that:

Our Lord wishes to comfort us with this similitude, and gives us to understand that, when the Gospel, as a piece of new leaven, has once mixed itself with the human race, which is the dough, it will never cease till the end of the world, but will make its way through the whole mass of those who are to be saved, despite of all the gates of Hell. Just as it is impossible for the sourness, which it has once mingled itself with the dough, ever again to be separated from it, because it has changed the nature of the dough, so it is also impossible for Christians to be ever torn from Christ. For Christ, as a piece of leaven, is so incorporated with them that they form with Him one body, one mass… leaven is also the Word which renews men.

Martin Luther assumes that leaven is used merely for its permeating quality and not in relation to corruption. He has interpreted leaven in this parable as depicting faith rather than corruption. Christ is the piece of leaven that is incorporated into the dough, which is portrayed as the human race. Once the leaven has mingled into the dough it can never be separated.

The Leaven Parable

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Then the disciples came to Jesus and asked him, “Why do you use parables when you talk to the people?” Jesus answered, “The knowledge about the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven have been given to you, but not to them. For the person who has something will be given more, so that he will have more than enough; but the person who has nothing will have taken away from him even the little he has. The reason I use parables in talking to them is that they look, but do not see, and they listen, but do not hear or understand. So the prophecy of Isaiah applies to them:

‘This people will listen and listen, but not understand; they will look and look, but not see, because their minds are dull, and they have stopped up their ears and have closed their eyes. Otherwise, their eyes would see, their ears would hear, their minds would understand, and they would turn to me, says God, and I would heal them.’

As for you, how fortunate you are! Your eyes see and your ears hear. I assure you that many prophets and many of God’s people wanted very much to see what you see, but they could not, and to hear what you hear, but they did not [Mk 4.10-12; Lk 8.9-10; Matt 13.10-16].”

Jesus’ teachings and philosophies are predominately analogical; he tried to encourage new insights by allowing people to draw comparisons with familiar situations. Perhaps this is why simple foodstuffs and domestic chores feature so many times in the Bible. It is fairly evident that his preferred audience are not the wealthy or powerful so many of the terms he uses are familiar to them. By using parables he is encouraging freedom of thought in an imaginative style that would appeal to this audience. Parables encourage self-assessment, are memorable and others could pass the stories through the community. Moreover, they would permeate through society in a leaven-like manner.

Return of the prodigal son. Rembrandt, 1665.

The parables also tend to be grouped together by subject manner. For instance the parable of the Lost Sheep is grouped with the parable of the Lost Coin and the parable of the Lost Son [Lk.15]. These parables all deal with the issue of finding belief when it has been lost. In the Lost Sheep Jesus describes how joyous a shepherd is when one of his sheep strays and is found even though he has several that are not lost. Similarly, in the parable of the Lost Coin a woman loses one of her few coins searches frantically for it and rejoices when it is rediscovered. In the final parable a father celebrates when a sinful son repents, he was lost and then was found. Some of the parables are told within the context of life at that particular time in history, perhaps referring to a current or political situation. Therefore, the parables are sometimes difficult to interpret accurately.

The Leaven parable, mentioned by Mathew and Luke, is grouped with several parables describing the Kingdom of Heaven, such as the parable of Weeds [Matt. 13.24-47] and the parable of the Mustard Seed [Mk. 4.30-32, Matt. 13.31-32; Lk. 13.18-19]. In each of these parables the coming of heaven could be interpreted as the end product resulting from the growth of all these items; the leavened loaf of bread, the weed-free harvest and the fully-grown tree from a mustard seed. The parable of Weeds describes how the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a field sown only with good seed. Any weeds that grow represent evil and are separated from the crop to be destroyed by the harvesters. In the context of the era leaven may have had a different connotation. The parable of the Leaven consists of just two sentences:

“The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A woman takes some leaven and hid it in three measures of meal until the whole batch of dough rises”
[Matt. 13.33; Lk. 13.20]

To many this parable is thought to illustrate how the Gospel will slowly permeate through society until all is converted to Christianity. This is in contradiction to how leaven is usually interpreted in the bible, to symbolically represent corruption. The leaven parable can be divided into three component parts: the leaven, the woman and the meal or flour. Each of these component parts plays a different role in the message being conveyed within the parable and are discussed separately in following posts.

…Biblical prophylaxis

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Unlike scientific theories, that can be endorsed by experiments or visualised by microscopy, religious theories are not physically tangible. They are a form of spiritual experimentation that cannot be vindicated by quantitative evidence but are imposed by the democratic consensus of a responsive sector of society. Once recorded, religious ideas can be interpreted in several ways that can be influenced by current events or social responsibility. There are many different religions, all of which focus on predetermined beliefs and rituals usually assembled for perpetuity in a sacred book.

Contributors to the Bible used many techniques to make philosophical ideas accessible to the general reader. In the New Testament many teachings take the form of parables, a mental tool used to illustrate complex psychological theory in an accessible format. This enabled philosophy to become universally read in a way that had a profound effect on cultures and people. In fact, the impact of Biblical writings can influence the direction that science takes in society. There is a universal conviction that the Bible was written under the direction of God and that for a passage to be included, it must have some spiritual significance.

When these passages are interpreted in the 21st century, Bible teachings can often appear barbaric. For instance, in the Old Testament, animals and newborns are sacrificed to appease God [Ex. 22.29].

Give me your first-born sons. Give me the first-born of your cattle and your sheep. Let the first-born male stay with its mother for seven days, and on the eigth day offer it to me.

It seemed the Old Testament attempted to manage social behaviour by fear and power. In order to ensure that the rules and regulations of the Old Testament were followed, leaders in the form of a priests, were appointed by Moses through the will of God. The priests had the power to inspect and regulate the Hebrew community, exiling those that imposed a threat and punishing individuals, often by death, who opposed the ceremonial practices that had been sanctified by the highest authority.

Teachings from the Bible have been interpreted in different ways by the numerous religious fractions that have evolved from them, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Methodists, Protestants and Roman Catholics. Differences in socio-politics are observed because there is a lack of consistency in how religions interpret these teachings. They have their own sets of doctrines requiring certain beliefs, which in some cases results in hostility and disagreement. For instance, ‌in 1945, Jehovah’s Witnesses introduced a blood ban. They refused blood transfusions as they believe the Bible prohibits the ingestion of blood. In the Bible, blood was considered to contain the life-force of all living beings [Lev. 17.14].

The life of every living thing is in the blood, and that is why the Lord has told the people of Israel that they should not eat any meat with blood still in it and that anyone who does so will not be considered one of his people.

In many ways they were correct to assume that blood is necessary to retain life because it transports the gases necessary for cellular respiration around the body. If an animal loses too much blood through injury it is starved of the oxygen necessary to produce energy and dies. In addition to oxygen, blood provides the means of transporting other substances around the body including inorganic electrolytes, nutrients, metabolic waste products, hormones, proteins and antibodies. It is therefore a bountiful source of life-enriching substances that can attract disease-causing agents, such as blood-borne viruses, parasites and bacteria. These organisms have managed to find various ways to evade the body’s hostile immune system to exploit these resources. For instance, trypanosomes, worm-like microbes that cause sleeping sickness, frequently change the molecular composition of their coats to remain undetected by the immune system. It was perhaps therefore not beneficial to eat anything that still contained blood especially if the animal had died naturally. In fact in the Old Testament an individual was labelled unclean if they had eaten an animal that had died through natural means.

One of the most common blood-borne diseases of the Biblical era was schistosomiasis, a condition caused by the blood fluke a parasite endemic to Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. After maturing in snails, the adult form of the blood fluke invades an animal host, it travels through the circulatory system until it reaches the blood vessels of the intestines were it lays eggs that are transferred back into the environment through faeces. The disease would have been transmitted through contaminated waters used to irrigate crops and therefore was probably quite prevalent. Today, even withincreased awareness, over 200 million people suffer from the effects of this disease. It was equally common in the Biblical era. Recently discovered ancient papyri dating back to about 3000 BC offer various methods to alleviate the symptoms, which were anaemia, digestive problems and reduced disease resistance. The creators of these papyri were, of course, oblivious to the fact that many diseases could be attributed to the parasitic actions of microbes that were sourcing their energy supply from humans. It’s understandable that Hebrews could have thought consuming blood from animals that had died from natural causes could lead to humans acquiring the same characteristics. Consuming blood contaminated by flukes or bacteria would inevitably lead to the animal or person acquiring the same symptoms through illness. Through ritually avoiding blood, they were unwittingly contributing to a form of disease prevention.

By refusing blood transfusions Jehovah’s Witnessses have inadvertently protected themselves from infectious blood-borne diseases. The blood ban has led to legal conflict whereby intervention is deemed necessary to protect the interests of a child that may require a life-saving blood transfusion. In some ways, this is also a conflict between science and religion as blood transfusions were developed through advances in science. This is another instance where science and religion are in opposing Universes even though their aims are both to enhance the quality of life.