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.