Friday, November 16, 2012

Sacrifices in the Old Testament

I recently began another excursion through the Bible, with an eye toward a deeper look at the soteriological topics that piqued my interest beginning in Winter '01 (I think), and upon reaching Leviticus I spent a good deal of effort trying to work the various sacrifices into a single, cohesive structure; a goal I had sought off-and-on for quite some time. This was very important to me because it was my hope that a genuine, self-consistent understanding of these sacrifices would shed light on Christ's work. Too often the reverse occurs, someone has a certain view on Christ's work and goes back to find some isolated bits that match it when taken out of context.

I was unable to get the various sacrifices and their meanings to fit together. The fact that the ritual conducted after someone was found to be healed of skin disease included a "sin" and "guilt" sacrifice was particularly hard to fit into frameworks that otherwise looked to make some sense. This ritual may be quite important to fully understand because it is the only one that abstractly matches the key "Day of Atonement" ritual. (Two birds, one dies, the other flies free.)

I decided to break off reading and investigate what others had written on the topic. Two books I found particularly helpful were Milgrom's commentary on Leviticus (Continental Commentary Series) and Purification Offerings in the Priestly Literature: Its meaning and function by Kiuchi. Interestingly, Milgrom also could not make any sense of the bird rite and chalked it up to a Pagan holdover that the priests felt compelled to keep. That's "higher criticism" for you.

Anyways, I certainly did not go into this study seeking information about animal cruelty, but the books made some key observations that had flown under my radar. I'm relaying them here in case they have also alluded y'all.

A. The sacrificial system was intimately woven into a larger cultic law (more on this in "C" below), and should be considered in context.Abstractly, the set of large land animals the tribes of Jacob could eat was determined by two questions: Does it chew the cud? Is it's hoof split? However, for all practical purposes, the requirements meant that the tribes could only ranch 3 types of animals. Everything but goat, sheet, and ox was more or less off limits. (There were a very restricted set of wild animals, like the gazelle, that were also allowed.) Thus, the food laws (and the general value of these animals) greatly limited ranching. Also, the relative value of these animals meant that the typical person ate almost no ranched quadrupeds, eating red meat only a few times a year. [They did have domesticated birds and fish.]

B. It must be recognized that the "sacrifices" of these animals do not match what we might think of sacrifice. In fact, "sacrifice" is perhaps not even the best word to capture what is going on here. It focuses on the notion of "loss" or "payment." Contrary to what many might make of these texts, that is not where the value of these animals lay. The focus of these sacrifices (to the extent that we can speak in general terms) was in the cleansing power of the blood.  The connotation of "sacrifice" might lead us to believe that the animals were simply destroyed or wasted without any practical value being gained (much as some might consider recreational hunting today). However, this is not the case. For the vast majority of sacrifices, only the fat was burned up. The rest of the meat was eaten, either by the priests or the person who brought the sacrifice.

[I reiterate here a point I have made before: outside the Day of Atonement (and perhaps the bird-rite) scape-goat, there is no transfer of sin going on in these sacrifices. If the animals received the sin of those who brought them, they would have defiled the temple and altar on which they were sacrificed. The scape-goat, of course, was not brought into the temple, nor killed as part of the rite. Jewish theologians note a key difference in the "laying of hands" ceremony done by the priest for the scape-goat offering as compared to others. One theory claims that the two-hand version done on the scape-goat represents transfer of sin/guilt/iniquity but that the one-hand version done in other sacrifices (including those that have nothing to do with sin) are a marking of sorts, so that the good done by the animal, or the favor it found in God's eyes, was credited to the one who marked it by the laying of a hand. So Ibn Ezra.]

C. The idea in point B actually works in reverse as well. Not only were (most) sacrifices eaten, but all of these ranched animals had to be "sacrificed" before they could be legally eaten! This is a key and amazing point that is easy to miss. It might be better to term these sacrifices as "consecrations," because they represented the only way any of the animals could be eaten. If an Israelite killed a sheep for food, but did not bring the sheep to the temple to be "sacrificed," then he was liable for murder. [See Leviticus 17:3 ff].

This redoubled the effect mentioned in A. It reduced the actual amount of ranching and killing that occurred by adding to the expense involved in raising animals for food. In some sense you could consider the temple sacrifice as a type of tax on eating meat, because anytime someone slaughtered an animal for food, they had to give some of it to the priests.

D. Finally, once again in the vein of thinking of these rites as not being "sacrifices" in the typical use of the term, one should consider the Israelite mind when contemplating the meaning of these rites. As mentioned above, much of the point of the sacrifices lie in the cleansing effect of the blood on the sanctuary (and, perhaps, on the people who brought the sacrifice). The life of the animal was "in the blood" and by bringing the animal to the tabernacle, sacrificing it, and spilling its blood on the altar, the owner and priest were bringing the animal into communion with God. Recall that the Israelites did not have our understanding of the afterlife. At this point in time, there were two competing frameworks for thinking about the "soul." In the older of these frameworks, which may have been predominant at the time, there was no such thing as an individualized "soul." Living men were animated by the "breath of life" received from God (c.f., Adam becoming a living being when God breathed into him). Upon death, that life went back to join God.

For animals, the "life was in the blood," which is why the Israelites were not allowed to eat any blood, and the "sacrifice" rite can be viewed as returning the essence of the animal being killed to join in communion with God when its blood was dashed upon the altar to cleanse it. Thus, attempting to put these things into a modern context, one could conceive of the cultic law as essentially demanding that every rancher perform an individual funeral of sorts for every animal they killed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Interesting translation of Genesis 45:7

Update: My wife Nancy is, to put it charitably, unconvinced that the wording here suggests that Joseph thought that Jacob's descendants would rule the world.

I ran across something odd in Genesis 45:7 today.

For my general reading, I prefer the NAB. I'm not a Catholic, but I think that on balance the NAB is the most accurate translation in general, but it does not have a reverse interlinear available [at least not in Logos, an electronic system for bible study], so I have chosen to use the NRSV as my chief reading translation as I go through the Bible again.

I noticed something strange in Genesis 45:7.  The NAB, NASB, and the NET have similar translations here:
"God sent me ahead of you to preserve you on the earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance."

But both the NRSV and the ESV, both rock-solid literal translations when not trying to bend the text to suit their politics/theology, have something different:

God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.

Instead of merely "preserve you" the more literal translations have "preserve for you a remnant." I could be wrong, but this seems to speak to the notion that Jacob's progeny would rule the a remnant of all people were saved for them.

[Truth in Translation, a fantastic book by Jason BeDuhn has good things to say in general about the NAB, though his book focused on just one arena where theological presumptions can influence translations.]

Thursday, September 6, 2012

What is the point of the Garden of Eden story?

What is the point of the Garden of Eden story?
Many Christians believe the point of the story is to explain how humanity fell into sin. While there may something to that, it must be always kept in mind that NONE of the New Testament evangelism even mentions the fall of Adam. If the Garden of Eden is a key part to the story of Christina salvation, you would never know it from reading the Gospels and the many evangelistic sermons in the book of Acts.

In fact, I claim the text makes clear in flashing neon lights what the story is about, and we only fail to see it because we have been taught to read Protestant theology into the story.

It is true that the Garden of Eden story is linked to man's mortality (which is different from his damnation), but not in the way people often are taught. Even after sinning, humanity could have had immortality had Adam eaten from the tree of the fruit of life. [Genesis 3:22] and the principal reason God kicks Adam out of the Garden is that (for whatever reason) God did not want Adam to both know the difference between good and evil and be immortal.

But the story answers other questions as well. For example, it explains why snakes have no legs [Genesis 3:14], more importantly it explains where our conscience, our ability to determine right and wrong, comes from [Genesis 3:5-7, and Genesis 3:22 again].

Most importantly, it acts as a key lead-in to Noah's story!!

Yes, I believe it is not an over-estimation to say that the single most important theme of the Garden of Eden is that it acts as a prequel to Noah's work. It does not appear that way to us because we focus on the least important aspect of Noah and miss a key point to the Garden of Eden story.

When you think of Noah, you think of the flood. And when you think of the flood story, the conclusion everyone remembers is the rainbow as a proof that God will not destroy the Earth by flood. To us Americans living in the land of plenty, where true poverty and hunger are extremely rare, the dramatic story of the flood and the destruction it wrought on the Earth is the key point. But to the Israelites/Hebrews reading the story of Noah, the flood is not the real point.

When we look at the passage where God makes a covenant with Noah [8:21-22] we note two blessings given to Noah. The one everyone knows (the rainbow, etc.), and another one "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the intention of his heart is evil from his youth."

Recall that in Genesis 3:17-19 the ground is cursed because of Adam's sin. Prior to this curse Adam was still expected to work in the garden and tend it [Genesis 2:15]. The curse made the work much harder. Indeed, Noah gets his name because he was appointed to reverse this curse: Genesis 5:29 reads “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.” [The Hebrew word Noah sounds like the word for "bring us relief" and there are several puns made on this in the ensuing story of the flood.]

This reference to agriculture is also found in Noah being the first person to plant a vineyard.

 In fact, Noah more than reverses the curse because not only does God remove the curse on the ground, but for the first time God allows humanity to eat animals rather than only plants. [Genesis 9:3] This is another reason why the curse on the ground was so onerous: humanity depended completely on agriculture rather than ranching.

So I think the most significant part of the Garden of Eden, at least for the original readers, was its role in the general drama of sustenance. Before the garden, no plants were cultivated because it had not rained and there was no one to tend them. Adam is made and put in the garden to tend the plants there. Adam's sin causes the ground to be cursed, making life hard. Noah gets his namesake from the hope that he will break the curse, and sure enough that is what happens. He more than breaks the curse because the ground is no longer cursed and humanity can now eat animals as well.

How very different we read the story.

Reading it again for the first time

After May I took a month or two "off" from writing and research. Then I began reading a bunch of theology texts dealing with Judaism around the time of Christ. Then I took another short break because the next thing on my agenda was starting again at Genesis 1:1.

I had postponed this for a couple reasons. First, it is obviously a big undertaking. Second, when I was doing my theology reading, I could do it anywhere I had my tablet computer. All I had to do was mark certain passages of interest. However, going through the Bible again requires more note-taking, so I use my desk-top computer in my office, so it cuts into my schedule in a different way from bedtime reading of theology texts.

But I've begun, and immediately things jumped out at me about the Garden of Eden. I try as much as I can to read the Bible with "open eyes," not making presumptions about what I'm going to read. This type of reading lets passages jump out at you that might otherwise have been overlooked because they don't fit the narrative you expect.

One thing that struck me about the Garden of Eden story is that there is no indication at all that the serpent who deceived Eve was actually Satan. In fact, a little research shows that "Satan" as a personification of evil [or at least an adversary of humanity] simply did not appear to exist in Jewish thought until many centuries later. Assuming that the Books of Moses existed [in some form] to be used for the teaching of the Israelites and their immediate progeny, we can clearly draw the conclusion that those early readers had no notion of the serpent as Satan. [Whether or not the serpent WAS Satan, a claim that gets some strong support from Rev 12:9 (and weak support from other passages), is another question entirely.]

Friday, August 31, 2012

A short proof that sinlessness is not required for heaven

A key part to Christian theology is that all of us have sinned in some way and that God, being perfect and good, must apply a standard of perfection in judgment. And that is why we need some alternate route into heaven.

A similar (and for our purposes equivalent) claim is that God cannot stand the presence of sin, and therefore the only people who can be welcome in heaven are those who are free of any sin. In other words, those who have "fallen short of the glory of God" are not welcome in the presence of God.

Here is a short proof that this belief contradicts scripture.

Jesus says that only God is good. (Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19)
If only God is good, then the angels must also fall short of "God's glory" (c.f., Romans 3:23). According to the modern Protestant understanding of sin, this makes the angels sinners. [This understanding of sin is flawed, but that is another story. Catholics have a different translation of Romans 3:23 that shines a very different light on the topic.]
If only the perfect can be in God's presence, then the angels must also be forbidden in heaven. In fact, their plight is worse than humanity's because they do not participate in the mercy shown to humankind owing to Christ's work [Hebrews 2:16]
Obviously, angels are allowed in God's presence, so we reach a contradiction. QED.

One interesting point about the above is that the most obvious way to "fix" it is to try to better understand what makes the angel's ungoodness/imperfection/sin/falling-short-of-God's-Glory different from the same thing in humanity. At first it doesn't seem hard to claim that somehow humans sin in a qualitatively different way than angels do... and that is certainly true! But then one has to drill down on the subject of what is "sin" and what sin "counts" with respect to the topic of God's judgment and/or heaven [a question up for debate according to Romans 5:13]...and the more one tries to clarify and make distinctions there, the harder the rest of the Evangelical case becomes.... which is a subject for a different day.

Commentary on the Garden of Eden

This belief, that God judges using a standard of perfection and that God can only countenance those who are perfect, has no basis in scripture. Many people point to the story of the Garden of Eden as proof that a single failing casts you out of God's presence. However, there are 3 very powerful rebuttals to this, any one of them would be sufficient on its own to dismiss that claim:
  1. Not once in any gospel or any of the evangelism shown in Acts is the Garden of Eden mentioned. If a core principle of Christian salvation relates to the sin of Adam and Eve in a singular way, you would expect the gospels and the book of Acts to talk about the Garden as much as modern Evangelicals do, but in reality NONE of the gospel writers even reference it and it shows up nowhere in Acts, which is the principal showcase of Apostolic Evangelism.
  2. Contrary to what most people are taught, the explicit reason why Adam and Eve were kicked from the Garden is not because of their status of sinners. The reason God removed them from the Garden, as described explicitly in Genesis 3:22, is that God did not want them to become like the heavenly host: who are both immortal and know the difference between good and evil. Note that God says "they will be like us" if they eat the fruit from the tree of life. Thus, even the proclamation of eviction was based on humanity's coming one step closer to being like the heavenly host, not the opposite.
  3. While it is true that the "fall of Adam" did lead to a spiritual death for humanity, one cannot claim that this spiritual death sufficed to prevent communion with God or entry into God's realm. The prophets were able to commune with God even though they were Adam's descendants, and Enoch and Elijah are taken up to God without ever dying (and before the death of Christ). We are told explicitly that "Enoch walked with God" and did not die. What could this possibly mean if it does not refer to his early entry into God's eternal presence? Similarly, Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Avoiding "Semetary" (and reasons to believe)

Over the past few months, I've read several theology books, many of them very technical. My focus has been on the intertestamental literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Mishnah, and anything else I can find that gives more context to the Judaism prevalent during Christ's time on Earth.

Several years ago I visited a church in Charlottesville where the pastor made the remark that he referred to "Seminary" as "Semetary" because of its affect on your faith. After my recent reading, I can more fully understand his reference.

Of course, I had read scholarly theology books before in preparing the manuscript for The Gospel You've Never Heard, but they were mostly written by those on the "Sacred" side of the Theology/Sacred Theology divide. What I have read recently is more on the other side of the fence, where there is no assumption (and even a presumption against) of faith.

For example, one author I read simply dismissed point-blank that Daniel could have been written in the 5th century BC because it tells of events transpiring afterward. Now, there may or may not be solid evidence that parts of Daniel were written later, but to take as one of your reasons that true prophecy cannot occur certainly reveals your hand as someone who doesn't put much stock in the God of Abraham.

Anyway, the prevailing idea in these books is that the entire Old Testament was either written or (at least) edited and assembled around the 6th or 7th centuries BC (while Judah was in exile). That would deal a bit of a blow to a well-read Christian's faith because a much of the credibility of the Bible comes from it being a record of prophecy and prophecy realized. If all the books of the OT were written (or revised/edited/assembled) that late, then one can no longer point to the prophecies in Deuteronomy or the prophets regarding Israel's downfall as proof that there is some supernatural component to Israel's history.

So I began thinking recently of reasons to believe in the historical authenticity of Jesus Christ, which inherently means confirming the authenticity of Judaism, even if it were true that the entire Old Testament was (re)written/edited/compiled at a late date. Here are reasons I thought of:

Jesus' Prooftext for the Resurrection

Jesus' proof of the resurrection of the dead based on the Torah (Matthew 22:31-32) is remarkable. The Pharisees and their progeny would later try to find clear proof of the resurrection of the dead within the Torah for centuries. It would become the foundation for Judaism. I've read other efforts by later Rabbi's to show that the "Books of Moses" prove that God will raise the dead, and they are so wispy that one has a hard time even seeing a connection at all. Jesus' response is not only remarkably powerful but also original. It is far beyond the best minds of contemporaneous Judaism. This strongly suggests Jesus was an actual, gifted Rabbi rather than an imposter that the evangelists later made into something He wasn't.

The Peculiarity of the Old Testament Prophets

If the Old Testament books were edited and assembled in 6th or 7th-century BC, then they had to be assembled by someone. Someone, or a group, had to decide which books should be considered Scripture studied as holy. Some Hebrews never accepted anything beyond Moses' Law, but some large population found the prophets worth diligently recording and studying through the ages. The thing that makes this odd [if you don't have any faith in God] is that the actual text of the prophetic books is not at all what you would expect to be chosen unless there was a VERY good reason for it.

For example, some parts of some prophets appear to contradict some parts of others. Some prophets actually speak of God BREAKING God's covenant with Israel and Judah. In other places, Jeremiah in particular, we hear of the old covenant as being forsaken and a new covenant being given. Given the sacrosanct nature of the Mosaic covenant, it seems unimaginable that Jeremiah would have been included unless Jeremiah was already known to have been a great prophet who was both powerful in his own time and accurate in his prophecies.

Another examples is that the prophets regularly blame the problems of Judah and Israel on their own kings and priests. It is odd enough that a country blames itself for its problems, but it is very strange indeed that the powers that be would allow the veneration of a set of writings that put all the blame for their errors on those in the ruling classes.

I could give more examples, but the basic point is the same: the Old Testament is simply not at all what one would expect to be chosen retrospectively by the Hebrews living in the holy land at that time unless the reliability of their authors (the prophets) was established.

Jeremiah and Daniel

Not to harp on Jeremiah some more, but there is a specific issue with Jeremiah and Daniel. The book of Jeremiah claims that Judah will be saved from the Babylonians after 70 years. [Jeremiah 25:11-12]

It is quite strange to believe that the Jews would come up with this prophecy while in exile because it didn't come true! In Daniel we find that the reason the Jews were not rescued was that they had not repented and cried out to God. One could point to this and say "First, someone wrote Jeremiah to give the Jews hope of freedom, and then when the prophecy failed, they invented Daniel to explain it."

But that is also hard to believe. You would have to believe that Jeremiah was written  AFTER the exile (otherwise he correctly prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem) and had already (within 70 years) gone from an unknown work to an accepted piece of scripture before the 70 years were up...and then you'd have to believe that Daniel was then fabricated to cover up this problem. The problem, then, is Daniel is being written near the same time that the real Daniel supposedly existed. It's hard to see how a fake Daniel gets written within the lifetime of the supposed real Daniel without people realizing it is a fake (either because Daniel never existed or because people knew that the real Daniel never wrote such a thing).  And then you'd have to say that only PART of Daniel was written during this time to avoid all the parts that correctly prophesy later events.

But if that is true, and part of Daniel was written during this time to cover up the problems in Jeremiah, then everyone would have to know Daniel very well. Indeed, it would have to be as important or moreso than Jeremiah because without Daniel, Jeremiah looks like a big lie. But if that happened, then how does all the correct prophesies of Daniel get added in later without people realizing "Hey, this isn't your dad's Daniel?"

I'm not saying that parts were not added to Daniel later on. I'm saying that if one believes that these scriptures were fabricated after the exile, the only way the 70-year prophecy in Jeremiah could be accepted is if Daniel was accepted to, and the early acceptance of Daniel makes it harder to believe that it was massively changed and added on later. [Of course, if Jeremiah was actually a true prophet who had given Judah true prophesies, then his words would be venerated regardless of the need for a "patch." Note that the Hebrews esteemed Jeremiah above Daniel, giving the former the position of a "Prophet" but putting the later into the "Writings" with the psalms, proverbs, etc.]

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Wisdom of Sirach and the afterlife

The book goes by many names:
Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira
The Wisdom of Sirach
Proverbs of Sirach
Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes, which was originally called Qoheleth.)

This last name, Ecclesiasticus, comes from the Latin word for "Church" and came about because the book was so often read in the early church. Thus, it is a misnomer for Protestants because they do not accept it as authoritative.

I finished reading it recently, and there are two major points to be drawn from it.

First, Sirach gives some window into the Jewish conceptualization of "Wisdom," which took on a meaning far more intricate than what we generally mean by the term. The Jews often anthropomorphized Wisdom. It is described as God's "first creation," begotten before all worlds. Note that these references are not just the Apocrypha, check out Proverbs 8 (and Proverbs 8:22 and Proverbs 8:30 in particular).

Sirach 24 begins

     1 Wisdom sings her own praises,
     before her own people she proclaims her glory;
     2 In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
     in the presence of his hosts she declares her worth:
     3 “From the mouth of the Most High I came forth,
     and mistlike covered the earth.
     4 In the highest heavens did I dwell,
     my throne on a pillar of cloud.
     5 The vault of heaven I compassed alone,
     through the deep abyss I wandered.
     6 Over waves of the sea, over all the land,
     over every people and nation I held sway.
     7 Among all these I sought a resting place;
     in whose inheritance should I abide?
     8 “Then the Creator of all gave me his command,
     and he who formed me chose the spot for my tent,
     Saying, ‘In Jacob make your dwelling,
     in Israel your inheritance.’
     9 Before all ages, in the beginning, he created me,
     and through all ages I shall not cease to be.
     10 In the holy tent I ministered before him,
     and in Zion I fixed my abode.
     11 Thus in the chosen city he has given me rest,
     in Jerusalem is my domain.

There was a deep connection that equated (or intrinsically linked) Torah with Wisdom running through much of Jewish thought. I think there is much to be understood by studying these connections because they appear to match the incarnation of Jesus as Living Torah  that provides Wisdom (the Holy Spirit). In Chapter 9 of TGYNH I wrote about the relevance of Jesus as living Torah for the Jew/Gentile issues in the early church.

The second important point to draw from Sirach is that it paints an empty picture of the afterlife. There is no post-death reward, no resurrection, no Judgment, etc. Sirach presents the interesting notion that God's justice is seen in how we die and how we are remembered. The wise and righteous do not have a painful death, are remembered by many after they are dead, and generally have lots of prosperous offspring. The ungodly may suffer greatly at the end of their days, perhaps just in the last day, and will not have a positive posterity.

This is quite an interesting way to grapple with the crises of faith the Jews of Sirach's day encountered. They had been dominated by ungodly nations and many righteous Jews (among a generally unrighteous nation) had suffered early death. Furthermore, those who oppressed the poor seemed to live a good life. Where is God's justice then?  For Sirach, the key was that one could never know what pain someone might endure in their final hours, so one could never claim that someone profited from evil.

More important than Sirach's view of God's justice is the simple fact that Sirach lived relatively late, only a couple hundred years before Christ, yet even then the notion of an active afterlife appears not to have been the norm.

For me this is important because people are often taught the great fiction that all Hebrews who came before Jesus were looking forward to a savior who would save them from hell, when in reality the Hebrews did not even believe in an active afterlife until a couple centuries prior to Jesus, let alone the notion that we are all in need of deliverance from a wrathful God who judges everyone based on a strict law demanding absolute perfection.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Finished Sanders' Book

It took a while, but I finally finished E.P. Sanders "Palestinian Judaism and Paul" text. The first portion of it was fantastic, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Christianity. The second half was not nearly as good. Perhaps I was not an ideal audience for the 3rd quarter (on Qumran) because I had already been reading a bunch on the dead sea scrolls, so I didn't see much new in Sander's book. The last portion, on Paul, was mostly frustrating because the author ended up just repeating himself over and over again in ways that did not further substantiate his argument.

One point that the author made very early was that Paul's letters could not possibly be seen as refuting the Jewish understanding of salvation because he never discusses repentance. It was one of those "why didn't I see that earlier" moments. Repentance is the most important aspect of practical salvation in the Jewish ethos, so a discussion that so clearly omits any mention of it cannot be primarily meant as a critique against Jewish salvation-theory. It would be like a Soviet political theorist criticizing the entire American system of government without ever mentioning democracy or separation of powers.

Another thing I took from Sanders was a nice way to articulate an idea that I have had for a long time but could not put eloquently. It is related to the point made in the last paragraph. Christians often present the Law as a false path to salvation...that is to say a path that:
  • Someone might believe to lead to salvation
  • Does not in fact do so. 
The problem with this is the first statement, the presumption that the Jews actually suggested that the law was a path to salvation. In reality, the Jews saw salvation as something that was already promised to them. The intention to keep the Law functioned as a marker of who was within the scope of that promise, but not because it made someone righteous. Rather the intention to keep the law indicated that the person accepted Israel's God as the rightful King of creation. If someone disavowed the Law, he could lose the inheritance promised to Israel not because he became unrighteous but because he failed to recognize God as the genuine article and thus was no longer part of the covenant.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Can we trust Christians to accurately describe Judaism?

I've been reading E.P. Sanders book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which I heartily recommend to any Christian.

At the beginning of the book, Sanders lays out the history of Christian explanations of Judaism in the time of Christ. It is a quite harsh critique, which I am not in any position to judge, describing how Weber (late 19th century) wrote about Judaism in Jesus day based mostly on books that Judaism never considered authoritative and ignored completely the writings of early Rabbinical Judaism.

Then, later writers simply built on Weber's work, ignoring Jewish scholars (who had far better understanding of the relevant material) who challenged their views. Sander's view is that Christian Writers engaged in virtually felonious acts of ignoring primary source texts and the work of dissenting academics. As I mentioned, I'm not really in a position to judge the specifics, but it is a fascinating critique.

The basic point Sanders makes it that, contrary to what Christians regularly claim, writing during the early Rabbinic period does not indicate a legalistic religion where Jews try to "earn" their salvation through good works, nor does it point to a religion where the highly codified law led to only external, surface fealty rather than an internal desire to please God.

One point in which Sander's views match my own is the idea that Christians have so misconstrued questions regarding salvation that they simply cannot understand Judaism on its own terms. For example, Christians assume that "The Law" describes what one has to do perfectly to find favor with God. Thus, since no one can keep the Law perfectly, no one can find favor with God (on his own).

But for the Jews the Law does not answer the question "what must one do to find favor with God?"  Thus, the whole line of reasoning is wrong-headed on its face, and the question "do you think you can earn your salvation on your own?" is ill-posed.

Sanders claims that the Law was simply understood as what God, as King, ordered, and the keeping of the law was done for two reasons:

1. Confirming the Law is tantamount to affirming God as King (i.e., the one whose right it is to give the Law).
2. The doing of the Law is the natural response of Israel given that the Spirit of God resides in their midst.

The first point is strikingly close to Christ's question "Why do you call me Lord and not do as I say?" or "I tell you the truth, not everyone who says 'Lord, Lord' shall be saved."

To modern, "what's-in-it-for-me" humans, the second point is easy to misconstrue. I'm not even referring to gratitude here but rather the notion that God is holy, and so it is only natural to desire that the land where God's Spirit resides be clean, and the Law explains how to bring that about. Think of it as an appeal to one's cosmic sense of appropriateness.

It is unsurprising that Christians in general have a hard time understanding this because of our fixation on "how do I get to heaven?" But Judaism's roots came before there was any belief in an afterlife, and the Jews, in any event, didn't have Augustine (or Martin Luther) to try to tell them that they start out life deserving only everlasting torment.

Monday, May 14, 2012

I guess this proves beer is of the devil :)

When I was at Grinnell, one of the first things I was told by the Residential Assistance was that when someone advertised a party and referred to "Beast," it meant "Milwaukee's Best." This was the beer of choice for parties because it was so cheap.

I guess in Hungary, it is "Golden Aces" (Arany Aszok) that should be called "Beast."

Saturday, May 12, 2012

We could learn something from the Germans

This statistic is hard to believe.

The entire German police force shot 85 bullets last year.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Omniscience, Omnipotence, Justice, Love, and Election

I recently read much of "Perspectives on Election," one of those books where four or five different theologians/pastors each defend a view on a controversial topic and then respond to each other.

There are several biblical passages that appear to clearly support this or that view on election, but arguments over election also become arguments over God's attributes. Those arguing for pre-destination might say, "If God is omnipotent, God can bring about any end God wishes, so anyone who is not 'saved' must (at least in some regard) be that way by God's choice (either omissive or comissive)." Of course, true Calvinists argue something much stronger than that.

Conversely, Thomas B. Talbott points to "God is Love" (1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:16), meaning not merely that God "happens to love," but rather that love is an essential aspect of God. Talbott uses this to defend Universalism because God must be loving in all God's acts, precluding eternal damnation.

One thing that irks me about this type of debate is the careless logic involved when we begin using terms like "omnipotent" or "all-loving."

If we say "God can do anything" we must be leery about what we mean by "anything." For example, a careless interpretation of that would say it means God is able to sin. But saying that God has the "power" to sin is illogical on its face, for it unravels any reasonable definition of "sin." Nor does it mean "God has the power to create a rock that God cannot lift."

Saying "God is omnipresent (everywhere)" does not mean "God exists in the homeland of Adam's Grandfather." Nor would it mean "God is in hell," assuming one takes the absence of God as one essential aspect of hell. Similarly, saying "God is omniscient" should not suggest that "God knows the name of the integer between 1 and 2," as no such integer exists.

These observations do not violate a belief in God's "omni-" attributes. Saying "X is everywhere" means "X is every where," so a place has to qualify as a "where" before X can be said to be there. Certain "places" are not "where"s at all because they don't exist. Similarly for things like "God can do any thing." There are certain feats that don't qualify as "things" because they involve a logical inconsistency and hence do not exist. Sometimes these are logical inconsistencies relating specifically to the item under discussion (Adam's Grandfather's homeland does not exist), and in other cases they are logical inconsistencies because of some other attribute of God (like the notion of God sinning).

This naturally extends to such things as God's love. To determine whether an act is loving or not, one has to consider the logical boundaries provided by God's other attributes, such as God's righteousness and justice. One also has to consider that an act may seem unloving toward one person while being loving toward another.

None of the above is meant to push for one or another view on election, but I will say I'm intrigued by a view I read where "election" is cast in terms of how God saves rather than who God saves. In other words, this view suggests that certain people are elected to be God's ministers to others, bringing God's word and love to the world so all may praise God. As interesting as this sounds, I don't see how it gets around Acts 13:48, which clearly describes some as being "appointed" to a portion in the World to Come.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Interesting read on 2 Cor 2:14

I've been doing a bunch of reading on Messianism in early Jewish sources, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. I've mostly been looking for oblique information about the Jewish concept of "The world to come" around the time of Christ, but unfortunately haven't found much on that topic through these readings.

I did find an odd factoid in my reading yesterday I thought I'd pass along. According to James M. Scott, the Greek word meaning "lead in triumphal procession" in 2 Cor 2:14 can only refer to celebratory "victory lap" of sorts a conquering war general or leader makes after taking a city, in which the person being led (the object of the verb) is always the enemy prisoners of war, who are then executed at the end of the celebration.

If this is what is intended, which I am not necessarily advocating, it is an interesting method for Paul to both present himself as humbled (a former enemy of God) and special enough to deserve such treatment...and of course foreshadows his later martyrdom.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Eternal Life in John 5:39

Those who have read TGYNH will know that I'm quite interested in the αἰώνιον ζωὴν, the Greek phrase that is translated "Eternal Life" in most bibles. I put forward the claim that this term was mostly intended not primarily as a reference to immortality in heaven but rather referred to the new covenant life believers enjoy through the holy spirit. In other words, αἰώνιον ζωὴν was "code" in some sense for "life in the Messianic Kingdom" or " the world to come," a concept with which Jesus' Jewish audience was well acquainted.

(This is not to claim there is no such thing as the afterlife or the abolishment of death, Jesus addresses this in other words within Luke 20:35-36, which actually bears on this discussion later.)

The most direct indication that αἰώνιον ζωὴν does not mean "eternal life" in the way we normally think about it comes in John 17:3, where John uses a very specific grammatical construct to DEFINE αἰώνιον ζωὴν as "that they may know you, the one true God, and Christ whom you have sent."

Today I found another interesting testimony to this idea that when Jesus speaks to his Jewish audience of "αἰώνιον ζωὴν," He is not emphasizing or even referencing immortality but is rather referring to the question of who will be chosen to join in the blessings of the Messianic age. Check out John 5:39, shown in context below.
John 5:39–41 (NAB)
39 You search the scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf.
40 But you do not want to come to me to have life.

The "eternal life" here is the same phrase, αἰώνιον ζωὴν, mentioned above. There is something very strange about John 5:39. Jesus claims that the Jews He addresses are searching Scripture, the Jewish Torah, because they have "αἰώνιον ζωὴν" through them. But this would make no sense if αἰώνιον ζωὴν meant "eternal life." The Jews did not believe in eternal life. Many of them believed in a resurrection, where those who suffered in the past could have an opportunity to enjoy life in the Messianic Kingdom. But that resurrection did not have immortality attached to it. Those selected for the World to Come could look forward to a long life where they could safely worship God, but this life would still involve normal human frailty and death. [For example, consider Zech 8:4]

This somewhat explains the question posed for Jesus in Luke 20:35-36 (see also Matthew's version in Matthew 22:23-31).  The Jews assumed life in the coming age was similar to life in this one, which meant death, which meant the need to procreate, and hence meant that marriage was a necessary feature. But Jesus says that there is no death, and so there is no need for marriage, and hence their question is ill-posed.

So, the Jews do not believe in eternal life, yet Jesus accuses them of searching Torah because they they will find αἰώνιον ζωὴν there. This makes no sense if αἰώνιον ζωὴν is a reference to "eternal life." However, it makes complete sense if it is a general way of referring to the "life in the world to come." The Jews most definitely did believe in the World to Come, and they also believed that studying and applying Torah was the prime way to get there!

One statement from the Mishnah shows this in a backhanded manner: (Abot 3:11):

‎  R. Eleazar the Modite says, “(1) He who treats Holy Things as secular, and (2) he who defiles the appointed times, (3) he who humiliates his fellow in public, (4) he who removes the signs of the covenant of Abraham, our father, (may he rest in peace), and (5) he who exposes aspects of the Torah not in accord with the law, “even though he has in hand learning in Torah and good deeds, will have no share in the world to come.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Interesting points from the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew

I finished my second read of the Hebrew gospel of Matthew and the translator, George Howard, offers some interesting justification for why a Hebrew version of Matthew's Gospel is more likely to be the original one than the canonical Greek version that practically all normal Bibles used.

I pointed out in TGYNH how the end of Matthew presents an odd problem. Jesus supposedly tells the apostles in Matthew 28:19-20 that they are to go and make disciples of all nations, but reading the history shown in Acts makes this hard to believe. The apostles do not go out to make disciples of the Gentiles and the Jews at the Jerusalem council are quite shocked to hear that Peter had baptized any gentiles nearly 20 years after Jesus' resurrection.

In the Hebrew version of Matthew Gospel, the gospel ends with Jesus simply saying  "To me has been given all power in heaven and earth. Go and teach them to carry out all the things which I have commanded you forever."

There is no trinitarian baptismal formula and no discussion of other nations. George Howard points out other examples where the Hebrew version differs in ways suggesting that the original text did not foresee the evangelism of the Gentiles. One example is that the Greek text of Matthew 9:13 has Jesus saying "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." The Hebrew text has "I did not come to restore the righteous, but sinners."

In the Greek version of Matthew 13:38, the field is pictured as "the world" in terms of its physical geography...that is "the entire world." But in the Hebrew version it has instead the emphasis of time "This world" versus "the world to come."

George Howard points out another difficult reading in the Greek versions, one that I had not noticed earlier. In the story of the Canaanite women in Matthew 15:21-28, the canonical versions have the disciples telling Jesus to send the woman away, and Jesus "answers" them by saying he did not come but for Israel. The odd thing about this is that this is not really an "answer" at all. It does not rebuke the disciples nor explain why he is not sending the woman away. It is a strangely middle-ground statement [Jesus ignores the woman but does not send her away, but does not justify why he is not sending her away.]

In the Hebrew version, though, the disciples do not tell Jesus to send her away. Instead, they ask Jesus why he is ignoring her. Against that backdrop, Jesus response makes much more sense because it actually answers the disciples' question.

I recommend this book to all Christians.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Four Ways to Consider the Bible

While there are many, many perspectives on the Bible, I think most people hold one of three views:
  • The atheist/agnostic literature perspective
  • The conservative/traditional static-flat perspective
  • The liberal fluid perspective
The first of these is not very interesting from a theological standpoint. If one believes God does not exist or is unknowable, than the Bible has little value as Holy Writ.

The second perspective is the typical evangelical/classical protestant view. Above all else it stresses the Bible as God's Word for human-kind. Part of this perspective demands that the Bible is meant for all people more-or-less equally, which requires whatever truth the Bible had for 3rd century readers to be just as valid as whatever truths it has for us today.

Since truth lies outside time, it is not hard to see how this basic assumption leads to a "static" Bible. If the Bible could be re-interpreted by each generation in that generation's context, one cannot help come across a genuine truth of one era contravening a genuine truth of another. If the Bible is God's timeless word to humankind, it's principles cannot change from century to century (though the applications of those principles certainly can).

While it is easy to to see why the conservative/traditional view leads to a static Bible, it is less appreciated that it also leads to a "flat" one. For traditionalists, the Bible is a cohesive unit intended as a whole work. It is God writing through different quills, but all a single piece. This means all its parts fit together without any conflicts, sharp points or rough edges. This goes beyond mere internal consistency. For the traditionalist, the whole work aims to answer the same key questions, and its various parts actively agree with one another toward this goal.

This "flatness" extends to the audience as well. The reader is to assume everyone on Earth form a single audience for which the entirety of the Bible was intended. This, of course, connects back to the notion of the Bible being God's word for all humans.

Contrast this with the liberal, fluid perspective, which may or may not consider modern readers as a primary intended audience for the Bible and tends to divide its teachings into those that are relevant today and those that are inapplicable, which they generally ignore.

Not that liberals are the only ones who marginalize parts of the Bible they find troubling. Their treatment of topics considered unpalatable today (Hell, God's wrath, and the many politically unsavory aspects of God's Law) is perhaps slightly better than how a typical conservative/traditionalist handles passages difficult to their theology or politics. Liberals tend to ignore or dismiss passages they don't like while conservatives neuter them.

Press an evangelical on how John 5:29 and Acts 21:24-26 intersects with their theology or how Luke 12:16-21 and Acts 2:45 intersect with their politics and practice, or how
Matthew 25:34-46 Luke 10:25-37 intersect with both, and you are almost certain to be told that those passages don't really say what they appear to say. Jesus did not really mean that the judgment will be based on an individual's actions, nor did he really mean we shouldn't store up money for retirement, and he certainly didn't suggest we pick up and help random (possibly dangerous!) people on the roadside.

A fourth perspective could be called the "Archipelago" view, which attempts to respect the individual components of the Bible as missives written for various purposes and to various audiences, but each intended for a specific historical audience long, long ago. This does not mean they are unimportant for us, after all they were written by people who have a far better understanding of God and Christ and spiritual cosmology than anyone alive today. However, when interfacing with these texts we must humbly accept that we are silent guests, generally coming in late on a conversation between people who are more acquainted with each other than we are with either one.

One of the most important points of this Archipelago perspective is not just that biblical writers wrote to address different needs and answer different questions, but by and large the questions they intended to address are not the ones considered important by the church today. Hence, one must be careful lest we take from Paul or John the right answer to the wrong question.

Evangelicals typically focus on three questions:
  • What is the relationship between Jesus Christ and God?
  • How does one go to heaven?
  • How did Christ's death address the problem of our individual guilt before God?
Yet these are not the questions deemed important by the writers of the Bible. The Jews of Jesus day already had a perfectly reasonable answer to the second question, which Jesus modifies only a bit, indicating that HE will judge rather than the Father. According to their understanding of the Judgment, the third question is ill-posed.

The various texts of the new testament seek to answer many questions, none of them being the ones posed above:
  • What is the relationship between Jesus Christ and mankind?
  • How does Jesus' resurrection address the problem of man's physical mortality?
  • How does Jesus' death relate to HIS status before God?
  • How has the Kingdom of God been opened to the Gentiles?
  • If Gentiles can now fully follow the Jewish Messiah, should they also keep the Jewish ordinances?
  • What is the content of the new covenant?
  • How should followers of Christ live on Earth while expectantly waiting Christ's return?
  • What does it mean to have faith in God?
 One of the reasons the thoughts above came into my mind today is that Easter is all about Christ's resurrection, which is generally under-appreciated (compared to Christ's death) by modern Christians. A fair reading of Acts should convince anyone that the "good news" spread by the apostles to those they were evangelizing is "Jesus of Nazareth is the risen King of Creation." Interestingly, the chief relevance of the crucifixion in the evangelism there is as proof of prophecy fulfilled rather than offering made.

It was important to show that the OT indicated that the Messiah would be killed not to convince everyone that Jesus paid for their sins but to explain to the Jewish people the unfathomable idea that God's Champion would overthrow death by dying. Otherwise, how could they believe that Jesus was God's Christ? The conventional wisdom of the time suggested that Jesus' death proved that he was not, in fact, the Son of David, because how could the Messiah save Israel from the grave?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

He is Risen!

In my time zone, dawn has come.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Two passages that caught my eye today

Two passages in Matthew grabbed today during my reading.

Matthew 16:23-25 is one of the places where Christ describes how those who wish to "follow Him" should take up their cross and deny themselves. I had mentally always made two assumptions in this reading:

First, that the "follow me" was a reference to "be a genuine member of my following" or "be someone who has taken my precepts to heart and follows my spiritual philosophy, etc."

Second, that the "deny themselves" is a reference to humble living and sacrifice of comfort.

But when I read it today, a different meaning came out, perhaps one that is more aligned with the context, which discusses Christ's coming death and resurrection (before the passage) and the Judgment (after the passage).

I'm now considering that the "follow me" may reference a more literal notion of "follow," but still taken in an abstract way. In particular, the idea of "Follow me through the boundary of life and death...and then the boundary between death and life."

This interpretation is more in line with what I think are core points of early Christian thought, namely that Christ has proven the temporary nature of death and God's righteousness in vindicating the righteous over death [c.f. 1 Peter 2:23]. This notion has a key connection with an under-valued prophesy that I cannot find at the moment regarding Israel's leader blasting a hole through death for the nation to follow through. This prophecy is purported to have been important to Hebrew Rabbis of the time, but I don't know that I still have the reference where I saw its discussion.

Another passage that drew my attention was Matthew 19:9, one of the passages dealing with divorce. Jesus says that everyone who divorces his wife, except from adultery, commits adultery. I wonder whether this is meant to have some reference to God's coming temporary divorce from the Jewish people, or even God's earlier divorce from Israel (as opposed to Judah). In both cases the people were adulterous before the divorce.

Monday, April 2, 2012

I'm back I know I said a while back that I was hoping to start posting regularly...but this time I mean it!

I began reading the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew and the book "Terms for Eternity" recently and hope to have time for more blogging in general now that I'm in the wrapping-up stages of a chess book.