Friday, July 3, 2015

Book Write-Up: Christ in the Sabbath, by Rich Robinson

Rich Robinson.  Christ in the Sabbath.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

Rich Robinson is a Jew who believes in Jesus and a researcher for Jews for Jesus.  He has an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a Ph.D. in biblical studies from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Going through the notes at the back of the book, I noticed that Robinson wrote his dissertation about the Sabbath.  That would explain how he knows so much about the subject, which certainly shows in his book, Christ in the Sabbath!

Robinson explores the Sabbath in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism, and Christianity (patristic, and even Puritan).  Robinson does not believe that Christians are required by God to observe the Sabbath, either on Saturday or on Sunday, but he does maintain that the Sabbath teaches important principles, such as setting aside time for rest and worship.

The book’s advantages are many.  Whereas many Christian authors are negative in their depiction of Judaism, Robinson tells readers what Jewish leaders’ rationale was in coming up with certain rules regarding the Sabbath, and he does so with empathy.  Robinson also notes parallels between Jesus’ humanitarian stance towards the Sabbath and certain Jewish teachings.  Robinson is academic and thoughtful in his presentation, but he also incorporates stories about his Jewish background and his experience of Sabbath rest.  There were details in the book that I found particularly interesting: Robinson’s discussion of a rabbinic reference (b. Yeb. 90b) that states that a true prophet can nullify a biblical law, and Robinson’s discussion of post-biblical attempts to obey the biblical law of letting the land lie fallow every seventh year (and Robinson in an endnote attempts to account theologically for why such attempts have not resulted in the abundance that the Torah promises).  I appreciated some of Robinson’s insights: that outward observance of God’s commands is good but not sufficient (in contrast to Christians who imply that we should not bother with outward observance if our heart is not in it, or if our intention is wrong), and that all of the laws of the Torah have a moral component (in response to Christians who rigidly divide the Torah’s laws into ceremonial, civil, and moral categories).

I did not always agree with Robinson.  Robinson argues that the seventh day in Genesis 1 was not an actual day, since it does not end with evening and morning, but rather was an Edenic experience of God, which the Fall disrupted.  Robinson argues that the Sabbath is about recapturing Eden and foreshadows an eschatological Eden, and Robinson refers to rabbinic references to support his position.  Many Christian interpreters have noted that the seventh day in Genesis 1 (unlike the other days) does not end with evening and morning, but I was never clear about where exactly they were going with that observation.  At least Robinson took that observation somewhere, to his credit.  But I was not entirely persuaded by his argument.  I believe that the view of the documentary hypothesis that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 are by different authors should be taken seriously.  I also have my doubts that eschatology was part of the worldview of the priestly author of Genesis 1, even though I do acknowledge, like Robinson, that there are parallels between the Tabernacle and creation (in the Genesis 1 story).  Moreover, while Robinson, in denying that the Sabbath was a creation ordinance, argues that the Sabbath was not a literal day in Genesis 1, I think that Exodus 20:9-11 indicates the opposite: I agree with Desmond Ford that Exodus 20:11 is saying that the seventh day became the Sabbath when God blessed and hallowed it after creation.  That does not necessarily mean that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance for all humanity, however, for God, within the Hebrew Bible, could have rested on the Sabbath after creation while only requiring Israel to observe it later on, as Jubilees affirms.

Robinson argues against the view of the late Seventh-Day Adventist scholar Samuele Bacchiocchi that Sunday observance emerged in response to Roman anti-Semitism.  For Bacchiocchi, many Christians kept Sunday instead of the Sabbath to distance themselves from the Jews, whom Romans regarded as troublemakers.  For Robinson, by contrast, Christians (even Jewish Christians) as early as New Testament times were meeting on the first day of the week, and many Jewish Christians observed the Sabbath while also meeting with believers on Sunday.  Robinson questions whether the early church fathers saw Sunday as a substitution for the Sabbath, contending that there were not “Sunday vs. Saturday” arguments at this time.  Robinson may be correct in his larger argument, for he does refer to evidence about early Christians observing both the Sabbath and Sunday.  But I do think that there were “Sabbath vs. Sunday” arguments even in early patristic writings.  Barnabas 15:8-9 and Ignatius’ Epistle to the Magnesians 8-10 (at least one version of it) do seem to contrast the Sabbath with Sunday.  Robinson may account for such passages when he later argues that certain church fathers were concerned about Gentile Christians adopting Jewish customs, but I still found his argument that there were no “Sabbath vs. Sunday” arguments in early patristic writings to be a bit shortsighted.

While I did not always agree with Robinson, I did find even the arguments that did not convince me to be judicious, balanced, and informative.

In terms of the book’s negatives, there were times when Robinson was rather elliptical, particularly when he was trying to explain the significance of the shewbread in the Tabernacle and the law against lighting a fire on the Sabbath.  Robinson tried to help readers in pronouncing certain terms by coming up with cute rhymes, and that could be annoying, even if it may have been necessary.  While Robinson did helpfully document a lot of what he was saying, he did not always.  Robinson also depicted the Sabbath as a time for service, even within Judaism, and I wondered how that was the case, with the restrictions that Orthodox Judaism puts on Jews on the Sabbath, particularly on travel and carrying things.  (Perhaps Robinson was not referring to Orthodox Judaism, but he could have said more about Judaism’s view of service on the Sabbath, and how that practically plays out.)

I still give this book five stars, for I enjoyed it more than I enjoy many books that I have awarded with five stars.  I found it to be informative and profound.

Moody Press sent me a complimentary review copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Nullified Laws and the Rabbis: The Death Penalty and the Prophet

In this post, I would like to post a couple of items on the belief within rabbinic Judaism that certain commands in the Torah could be nullified, or simply not applied.  A commenter asked me about this topic yesterday (see here), and I found a few items, one of them when I was looking for information, and one of them when I was not.

1.  In a footnote on page 126 of Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (William B. Eerdmans, 2002), David Instone-Brewer says the following about the death penalty in ancient Judaism, including the death penalty for adultery:

“According to the Talmud, the death penalty was abolished soon after 30 C.E. (‘forty years before the destruction of the Temple,’ b. [Sh]abb. 15a; b. Sanh. 41a; b. ‘Abod. Zar. 8a).  Capital punishment was still administered outside the legal system, by the mob (e.g., John 8) or by zealous individuals (e.g., m. Sanh. 9.6).  Sometimes the death penalty may have been carried out with semi-official authority, such as the beating to death of a priest who brought uncleanness into the Temple (m. Sanh. 9.6).  Most of this is undatable, and the reference to ’40 years before the destruction of the Temple’ may be figurative because several other events are dated to this time (b. Yoma 39a; cf. b. Ro[sh]. Ha[sh]. 31b).  However, it is significant that there is no record of official death penalties, and rabbinic literature argues strongly against the use of the death penalty (b. Nid. 44b-45a; m. Yebam. 1.13),  presumably to cover up the inability to carry it out.  Some rabbinic rulings would make no sense if the death penalty were carried out for adultery: e.g., the rule that the unfaithful wife cannot marry her lover (M. Sota 5.1) and that if such a marriage took place, they had to divorce (m. Yebam. 2.8).  There is one recorded death penalty for adultery (m. Sanh. 7.2, an old saying passed on by Eliezer b. Zadok, ca. 80-120 C.E.), but the woman was burned (instead of strangled as the law demanded), and thus this was probably a mob killing.  Josephus’s casual assertion that the penalty for adultery was death is probably an antiquarian note rather than a record of experience (Ag. Ap. 2.25).  See the discussions in Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism, pp. 201-2, 210-11; Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, p. 73.”

See here for further discussion of whether first century Jews in Palestine were allowed to execute people.  I particularly found a couple of things in this discussion (the one I just linked to) to be interesting.  First, there was a quotation of page 153 of Paton J. Gloag’s A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1870—-see here to get the book on archive.org): “In one important matter, however, the authority of the Sanhedrim was abridged: the Romans deprived it of the power of life and death. They might pronounce sentence of death, but the sanction of the Roman governor had to be obtained before that sentence could be carried into execution. According to the Talmud, the Sanhedrim was deprived of the power of inflicting capital punishment forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem; whereas formerly it alone of all the Jewish courts possessed this power (Joseph. Ant. xiv. 9. 3). Hence the remark of the Jewish rulers to Pilate: ‘It is not lawful for us to put any man to death’ (John 18:31). The stoning of Stephen is not an exception to this; for that happened during a popular tumult, and when, in all probability, there was a vacancy in the Roman procuratorship, after Pilate had been sent to Rome. A similar instance occurred after afterwards, when James the Just was put to death by the high priest Ananus during the absence of the Roman governor: for Josephus expressly informs us that this was an illegal assumption of power, and for which Ananus was deposed from the high-priesthood (Ant. xx. 9. 1).”

Second, another commenter in that discussion said that Herod had the authority to execute.  We see that in Acts 12.  Herod Antipas also had John the Baptist killed (Mark 6; Matthew 14).  The commenter also refers to Luke 23, in which Pilate sends Jesus to Herod because Jesus was a Galilean and thus was part of Herod Antipas’ jurisdiction.  The commenter may be implying that Herod Antipas had the authority to execute Jesus but found nothing wrong with Jesus, and thus sent Jesus back to Pilate.  As I talk about here, Herod Antipas may have had authority to execute, whereas the Jews in Judea did not, because Herod Antipas was over a client state, where the Roman authority was more indirect.  Judea, by contrast, was under the direct authority of Rome.

I should note an additional consideration.  In my post here, I review a book by David Klinghoffer, and Klinghoffer refers to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel’s statement in b. Makkot 7a that, without the death penalty, bloodshed would be rampant in society.  That should be taken into consideration when we evaluate rabbinic stances towards the Torah, particularly the death penalty in the Torah.  At the same time, I did find Instone-Brewer’s statement about the Mishnah and adultery to be important and interesting: there are places in which the Mishnah presumes that the death penalty against adultery, which the Torah mandates, is not to be carried out.  Perhaps that reflects the political situation at the time of the Mishnah; at the same time, the Mishnah did not hesitate to talk as if certain non-existent institutions were still authoritative—-the Temple rituals, at a time when the Temple was destroyed—-perhaps because it loved the Torah, or envisioned the rebuilding of the Temple.  Why couldn’t it have had the same approach to the death penalty for adultery—-talking about it like it’s still authoritative, even if it could not be carried out?  (Note: I am not saying that it should have had that stance, morally-speaking, but I am asking why it did not, from a historical standpoint.)

While I am on this topic of the death penalty for adultery in the Torah, here, here, and here are some other posts that I have written about this topic.

I am rambling here, so on to the next item.

2.  I am reading Christ in the Sabbath (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), which is by Rich Robinson, an academic and a researcher for Jews for Jesus.   On pages 97-98, Robinson talks about the question of whether, according to rabbinic Judaism, the biblical Torah could be legitimately contradicted, in areas.

Robinson states that some rabbis believed that they had the authority to “enact laws contrary to the Torah when, to their mind, circumstances required it.”  Robinson then goes on to say that some thought that a true prophet could do this, as well.  Robinson refers to page 307 of The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, volume 2 (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), by W.D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, which cites b. Yeb. 90b.  According to this rabbinic passage, if the prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15 tells Jews to transgress a commandment of the Torah, they are to obey.  In I Kings 18, the passage notes, the prophet Elijah sacrificed on an altar on Mount Carmel, which was against the Torah because the Torah banned sacrifice outside of the central sanctuary (which, then, was in Jerusalem).  But Elijah violated that law “in accordance with the needs of the hour” (translation in Soncino), and God was okay with that.

One can perhaps question the extent to which some rabbis believed that a prophet could nullify a law in the Torah.  Elijah did so “in accordance with the needs of the hour,” which may imply that this was an emergency.  Another relevant passage is Deuteronomy 13:1-5, which states that, even if a prophet’s sign comes to pass, if the prophet encourages the Israelites to worship other gods, that prophet is to be put to death.

Robinson goes on to discuss Hillel’s prosbul—-Hillel’s way of circumventing the cancellation of debts every seventh year, mandated by Deuteronomy 15—-and Robinson states that there were Jews who disagreed with Hillel on this.  Robinson goes on to say that the view that rabbis could contradict Scripture did not become mainstream, and that Orthodox Judaism today maintains that rabbinic laws are less authoritative than Scripture.

I would not say that Hillel believed that he was contradicting Scripture.  Hillel was actually doing the opposite—-interpreting the Scripture overly literally in order to find a loophole.  As Robinson states when discussing the prosbul, Hillel thought that Deuteronomy 15 meant that loans that an individual made to another individual had to be cancelled every seventh year.  Hillel, however, tried to circumvent that by having a court collect the loan, and the individual would be reimbursed.  For Hillel, the written Torah said that individuals could not collect on loans in the seventh year, but it said nothing about a court.  Robinson on page 63 states that Jewish commentators have debated whether the prosbul “violates the spirit as well as the letter of the commandment…”  Still, Hillel, as far as I can see, was not simply declaring the commandment null-and-void, but was trying to circumvent it through a literal interpretation.  That assumes the commandment’s authority.

I’ll stop here.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Book Write-Up: Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys, by Richard Twiss

Richard Twiss.  Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way.  Ed. Ray Martell and Sue Martell.  Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Richard Twiss, who passed on in 2013, was a Native American, an evangelical Christian, and an academic.  In Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys, Twiss argues for contextualization: Native American Christians worshiping Jesus through their own cultural expressions, such as drums, pow-wows, and sweat lodges.  According to Twiss, such an approach has been controversial within evangelicalism, as many white evangelicals and even some Native American evangelicals fear that it promotes paganism or can open people up to evil spirits.  Twiss believes, however, that Native American evangelicals should feel free to be who they are rather than leaving behind their heritage.  At times in the book, Twiss offers a biblical rationale for his position: Jesus came to a particular cultural setting (Palestine), the early Christians drew from Greek and Roman concepts (i.e., the logos, Stoicism) in appealing to Gentiles, and Paul in Romans 1 says that Gentiles are aware of a creator.

The book has a lot of strengths.  Although there are parts of the book that are rather abstract and academic, there are also parts in which Twiss is passionate about his beliefs.  Twiss details the negative effects of colonialism on Native Americans, and he also has some good one-liners.  For example, Twiss responds to the neo-Calvinist line of “If you have a problem with what I’ve said, take your issue to God because I am just telling you what the Word of God says” by saying “that is, pure God=pure reductionist baloney”.   Twiss jokes that many act as if II Corinthians 5:17 means that old things have passed away, and all things have become white.

The stories that Twiss includes in his book, about his own background and the experiences of other Native American evangelicals, added to the book a human dimension that fleshed out to me what his concerns were.  Twiss also has a chapter about the work that has been done in contextualization, and, while that read to me as an infomercial, it is important because it highlights what progress has been made, and what remains to be done.  I also appreciated Twiss’ discussion about future scholarly projects that he was thinking of pursuing.  He raised the possibility, for example, that there may be more Native American Christians than scholars have thought, and he said that he was thinking of investigating the criterion for “Christian” that scholars have used.

In terms of the book’s negatives, I did not care for the book’s organization, for I would have preferred for the book to have an early chapter about how God can speak in different cultures and religions, and how Christianity relates to that.  A chapter or a section that clearly lays out the differences between white and Native American assumptions about spirituality also would have been helpful; while Twiss occasionally mentions differences in his book, clearly laying them out and explaining them in a chapter would have helped me, as a reader.  Something else that would have been helpful is a chapter or section explaining the significance of Native American rituals within the Native American context, followed by an explanation of how exactly Native American Christians are appropriating them, and the extent to which their appropriation is faithful to the rituals’ original meaning.  Twiss says that Native American evangelicals can use their traditional rituals but should take care not to fall into paganism, but he should have fleshed out how he envisioned that taking place.

I cannot fault Twiss for the book’s organization, for my understanding is that this book was put together from some of his writings after his death.  I do not even fault his editors, for they were working with what they had.  I will say, though, that readers interested in this topic may want to supplement their reading of this book with other works.  The book has a bibliography in the back, and Twiss wrote a previous book, One Church, Many Tribes, that may have more of what I was looking for.

Intervarsity Press sent me a complimentary review copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Repentance, Forgiveness, and the State Clemency Board

I was flipping through channels last night before going to bed, and I came across some hearings that were being conducted by the state Board of Pardons and Clemency.  This channel is sort of like a local C-Span—-it probably is not affiliated with C-Span, but it is similar to C-Span, only it’s for state and local events.  It televised a Lincoln Dinner for my county’s Republican Party.  It shows city council meetings.  And, last night, it was showing some hearings conducted by the state’s Board of Pardons and Clemency.

I only watched one of the cases, for it was getting late, and I had to go to bed.  The case concerned a man who, over a decade ago, killed someone while being high on drugs.  A variety of people testified on this man’s behalf, asking for clemency.  One was a former state legislator and state Supreme Court justice, who represented the man pro-bono.  The man’s teacher from prison testified on the man’s behalf.  A prison supervisor testified on his behalf.  A pastor testified on his behalf.  Of course, the man’s mom testified and asked for clemency, while stressing that she and the others are asking for the man to be part of a conditional program as part of his release.  And the man by telephone testified and answered questions from the board.  These people who were testifying in favor of the man said that this man had changed, and some said that he had received Christ.  This man had become a mentor to people inside the prison and was eager to reach out to young people in his rough neighborhood so that they would not make the same mistakes that he did.

Then, the family of the victim testified.  One was the victim’s sister, and the other was his brother.  They were both emotionally distressed, yet coherent in their points.  The sister said that she was glad that the man who killed her brother had an opportunity to grow in prison, but that she hopes that he stays in prison.  She said that she could not sleep the night before, and that she did not care for how people were referring to the man’s crime as “the incident.”  She then shared what that incident was: the man shot her brother, then killed him while her brother was in pain.  The victim’s brother then shared how his brother was a good person—-one who helped people find a place to live when they were down on their luck, one who was well-liked by his fellow employees.  The brother shared how he and his family have continually blamed themselves, in some sense, for the victim’s death: if only he had had dinner with his brother on the night of the murder, as they planned, the brother would still be alive.

The board decided against recommending clemency, and each member had his or her own reason.  One man did not care for how the criminal, years before, had plea-bargained for a lesser sentence and the dismissal of some charges, only soon thereafter to challenge his attorney’s competence in order to be released from prison.  A lady on the board, a public defender, focused on the question of when exactly the criminal began to take responsibility for his actions, and she noted that he had asked for clemency before; she also noted that he had grown up in a loving home (yet the man’s defenders were telling her that he still lived in a rough neighborhood).  The next board member was noting all of the minor infractions (i.e, loitering, not showing up for a medical exam, horseplay) that the man committed in prison, as late as 2012.  This board member was wondering:  If this man cannot keep rules in a highly-regulated environment, will be keep them once he is released?  And the last board member said that he did not doubt the sincerity of the man’s conversion and attempts to change, but that he feared that clemency would send the wrong message to the very young people the man wanted to help: that one could kill a person, and be released from prison.

What especially intrigued me in watching all this were the ideas about repentance and forgiveness that were expressed.  The man said that he does not hope to be forgiven, but that he can still do good in the world.  He also said that he does not believe that any good that he might do would atone for his taking of somebody else’s life: he said that he was trying to be good because that was how he should have been all along.

Questions were in my mind about forgiveness.  A lot of times, evangelicals assume that a person has to be forgiven by God in order to have a relationship with God, as if God wants to see a clean record before God can give a person the time of day.  They can back up their case with Scripture, but I wonder if that is necessarily true.  Can a person be unforgiven and yet loved by God?  Even if a person is unforgiven, can he still try to do good and please God in the process, even if that good will never atone for the wrong that he did?  Should he ever assume that the wrong that he did is forgiven and forgotten, especially when it leaves a palpable effect?  And is God or Jesus wrong to command the family of the man’s victim to forgive the man?  The hurt is there.

I realize that I am looking at this as a detached observer.  The man, his family and friends, and the family and friends of his victims understandably have strong feelings about this case, and I hope that, were they to stumble upon my blog, they would not take offense at me reflecting on larger questions on the basis of their case.

On a related note, I would like to link on this post about forgiveness.  I do not want to get into a debate about forgiveness, but I did appreciate the post because it wrestled with what forgiveness is, and when it should be extended.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Write-Up: Maimonides, by Joel Kraemer

Joel L. Kraemer.  Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds.  Doubleday, 2008.  See here to buy the book.

Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides, was a twelfth century Jewish philosopher, leader, and physician.  I decided to read more about him after I recalled a conversation that I had with a student at Jewish Theological Seminary years ago.  The student, as I recall, was saying that Maimonides was against saying that God had attributes, for that undermined the notion that God was one and indivisible.  This intrigued me, and I figured that I should learn more about Maimonides.  As a result, I checked out this 600-plus page book from the library.

In reading this book, I did not learn about Maimonides’ stance on the divine attributes.  Actually, I am still not entirely clear about what exactly Maimonides thought about God.  On the one hand, Maimonides believed that God was unlike anyone or anything and could not be likened to anyone or anything, so we could legitimately say what God is not as opposed to what God is.  On the other hand, Maimonides also held that humans and God overlap in their use of reason, and that God, on some level, made himself known through his actions, particularly his creation of an orderly cosmos.

Other tensions in Maimonides’ thought would appear in this book: Did Maimonides agree with Aristotle that the cosmos was eternal, or did he regard it as created?  (One thinker, Averroes, tried to have it both ways, positing that God was eternally creating the cosmos!)  Maimonides opposed the use of music in worship, not just because the Temple was destroyed and he thought that Jews should be saddened by that (which was why many traditional Jews opposed it), but also because he considered music to be worldly; yet, Maimonides recommended that people listen to music if they were struggling with depression.  Maimonides believed that God commanded sacrifices as a concession—-because people were used to sacrifices; yet, Maimonides regarded sacrifices as something that would be reinstituted once the Temple was rebuilt.

The most interesting parts of this book, for me, were the insights that it provided me into Jewish thought and custom before and during the time of Maimonides.  Did medieval Jewish men practice polygamy?  In Islamic societies, they did, but not in Europe.  Did Jews still engage in levirate marriage, the biblical practice in which a man would marry his brother’s widowed wife to produce offspring for his deceased brother?  Sometimes, but there was a loophole by which a marriage could be annulled, freeing the widow and her brother-in-law from that obligation.  What were Jewish stances towards abortion and birth control?  Maimonides allowed women to use a birth control device because they were not the ones commanded to be fruitful and multiply in Genesis 1 (according to him).  Regarding abortion, it was discouraged within Judaism except in extreme cases, but, according to Kraemer, this was not because Judaism regarded the fetus as a human being.  (Yet Kraemer acknowledges the Jewish tradition that Genesis 9’s ban on murder prohibits the Gentiles from abortion.)  Did Jews believe that a man who emitted semen had to wash before praying or studying the Torah?  Different regions had different answers on this.

Another area of interest to me was eschatology.  Maimonides did not care for people coming forward and claiming to be the Messiah, and yet Maimonides appreciated that the Jewish people needed hope.  At the same time, Maimonides himself engaged in date-setting and thought that the Messiah would come soon.  Maimonides believed that he himself fulfilled a significant role for the last days: to prepare the people of Israel for the soon coming of the Messiah by helping them to keep the Torah.  Maimonides interpreted Islam and Christianity in light of the Book of Daniel—-Islam, for him, was the lawless one in Daniel, and Christians were the lawless ones of Daniel 11:14 who failed to establish Daniel’s vision, yet Maimonides said that the Christians ended up spreading their lawless undermining of the Torah; while these were negative views of Islam and Christianity on Maimonides’ part, however, Maimonides did believe that Islam and Christianity would sensitize people to monotheism and the biblical tradition and thus prepare them for the Messianic age.  There was also the question of what the Messianic age or the reward of the righteous would be like, and if there would be a resurrection.  A number of Muslims believed that the reward of the righteous had a physical dimension and would include sex, and they did not particularly care for the Jewish idea that the reward of the righteous would be basking in the glory of God’s presence.  Yet, Jews themselves had an idea that sex would be a part of the Messianic era, and Maimonides agreed with them on this, even though Maimonides also thought that the Messianic era would be followed by a disembodied existence in which the soul would engage in spiritual delights, free from physicality.  Maimonides tended to interpret the wolf peacefully dwelling with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6) metaphorically, but there were people who interpreted it literally: they said that animals would be at peace with each other because they would no longer need to compete for food, with all the abundance in the world.

I learned some about Maimonides’ view on divine providence in a class that I took about the Book of Job years ago.  I was happy that this book refreshed my memory on this, even though there are some areas in which I am unclear.  Aristotle did not believe that divine providence was focused on the individual, but rather on the whole.  Maimonides, however, believed that individuals, by connecting with God and God’s reason, could somehow avoid chance and be able to navigate themselves successfully through life.  Kraemer mentioned the analogy of animals’ instinct—-they can pick up when something bad is about to happen and prepare themselves accordingly.  That made me wonder if Maimonides had any room for God blessing people, or if, in his scenario, we were the ones blessing ourselves because we had the wisdom to navigate our way through life (perhaps with God’s help).  Maimonides also thought that even disaster in the cosmos was part of some wise order, even if we do not see how that is the case.  Maimonides himself was no stranger to suffering, for he lost a brother at sea, and that would disturb him for a very long time.  At the same time, Maimonides tried to be Stoic in terms of his emotions, avoiding anger and sorrow.  He believed that prophecy did not come to people who were overly sad, and he regarded Israel’s exile as an unproductive time (though many biblical scholars see it as very productive—-as the time when a lot of biblical literature was produced!).

Kraemer navigates his way through scholarly debates.  Some scholars believe that we do not know anything about Maimonides’ mother because she died in childbirth, but Kraemer disagrees, saying that we do not know anything about her because people did not write that much about women in that time.  Kraemer believes that, overall, Islam was not as tolerant in those days as some scholars may think.  He acknowledges that some branches of Islam were more tolerant of others—-the Fatimids, for example, believed that different religions had a common core—-and yet Kraemer says that Maimonides at one point may have faked conversion to Islam in order to get by.  Kraemer disputes the scholarly view that Maimonides allowed wife-beating; according to Kraemer, Maimonides supported civic corporal punishment of men and women, but that was different from spousal abuse.  Overall, Kraemer depicts Maimonides as one whose rulings elevated the status of women, even though Kraemer also points out examples that (in my mind) reflect Maimonides’ misogyny: Maimonides did not allow women to go to synagogues alone, for example, for he feared that they would be too much of a temptation for men.

I should also note that, according to Kraemer, Maimonides sometimes felt free to disregard the Torah or Jewish tradition in his rulings.  Maimonides rejected as superstitious, for example, the Talmud’s rule that women who lost two husbands were cursed.  In another case, Maimonides advised a man to free his slave and then marry her, even though that was legally forbidden within Judaism.  (According to Kraemer, Islam allowed men to have sexual relations with their slaves, while Jewish and Christian law forbade that, while also forbidding a man to marry one of his freed slaves.)  Maimonides’ reason was that, in his eyes, the man was at least taking a step in the right direction by marrying the woman.  Maimonides interpreted Psalm 119:126—-“It is a time to act for the Lord, for they have violated your teaching” (in whatever translation Kraemer is using)—-to mean that one could honor God sometimes by disregarding God’s law.

Maimonides’ views on socializing stood out to me, as one with Asperger’s.  Maimonides did not believe in frivolous small talk, but be believed that it should be a part of sexual relations: a man should try to woo his wife with banter, according to Maimonides.  Maimonides himself, according to Kraemer, preferred being alone so he could study, and yet he accepted that he had a social role to perform.  Maimonides regarded study and philosophy as ways to ameliorate depression, yet he also acknowledged, on some level, that fun should be a part of life.

There were things in this book that did not particularly interest me, though they may interest historians and others.  Yet, there was so much in this book that I found fascinating, even if my question about Maimonides’ views on the divine attributes was not addressed in my reading of this book.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Did the Three Stooges Write the Story of Jairus' Daughter?

At church this morning, someone from the congregation gave the sermon.  She was preaching about the story in Mark 9:22-43 about Jesus’ healing of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the issue of blood.

When Jesus arrives at Jairus’ home, there are people who are weeping for Jairus’ daughter.  Jesus tells them that she is not dead, but is asleep, and the weepers laugh him to scorn.  Jesus has them put out of the house, so that it is only Jesus, three of his disciples (Peter, James, and John), the girl’s parents, and the girl inside the room.  Jesus tells the girl to rise, and she rises.  Jesus charges them not to tell anyone about this, and he commands that the girl be given some food.

This passage has been on my mind since I read atheist biblical scholar Robert Price’s The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man.  Price did not deem this passage to be historically plausible, and one reason was that he believed that the story had a bit of an incongruity.  Jesus charges the parents not to tell anyone about his healing of the girl, but Price wonders how exactly they could keep that a secret.  After all, a bunch of people were just in the house, weeping over the little girl because they thought she was dead.  Certainly they would think something strange was going on when they later see her alive, after she had been with Jesus.

The lady preaching this morning addressed these features of the story.  She wasn’t responding to Price’s argument, but she was offering an explanation for these details, perhaps because they puzzled her, too.  She said that perhaps the people, after seeing that the girl was alive, simply concluded that Jesus had been right: that the girl was not dead but really had been asleep.  She also provided a reason that Jesus charged the parents to keep the healing a secret: because Jesus realized that people were not ready to hear that he could raise the dead back to life.

Do I think that these explanations are plausible?  On the first one—-that the people after the girl rose concluded that she must have been asleep, not dead—-that depends.  How did people back then determine that people were dead?  Would the weepers have known for sure that the girl was dead, and thus they would have concluded that Jesus must have raised her when they later saw her alive?  Or would they have found room to doubt their original diagnosis?

On the second point—-that Jesus realized people were not ready to hear that he was raising the dead and thus decided to keep it a secret—-she may have a point.  On the one hand, in John 11-12, people in the religious establishment want to put Jesus to death after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and gains a larger following as a result.  Maybe Jesus in Mark 9 didn’t want something like that to happen before the right time.  On the other hand, Jesus in Luke 7:12-16 raises a widow woman’s son from the dead, leading observers to marvel that a great prophet was among them and that God had visited his people.  In Matthew 11:5-6, the disciples of John the Baptist are aware that Jesus has raised the dead.  Trying to explain the Messianic Secret—-Jesus’ practice in the synoptic Gospels of wanting to keep his Messianic identity a secret—-is difficult because there appear to be tensions within the text: Jesus wants to keep who he is a secret, yet he is performing miracles in public and proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God.  The lady who preached to us this morning acknowledged that there were times when Jesus performed miracles in public, and times when he wanted to keep his miracles a secret.

Overall, I liked the lady’s explanations because they were pretty common-sense.  A lot of times, I read liberal biblical scholars’ treatment of the biblical text, and it’s almost like they think that the Three Stooges wrote the Bible—-that the biblical authors were bumbling the story they were trying to tell and were looking foolish in the process.  I do not go to the opposite extreme and assume that the Bible is pristine perfect and has no incongruities at all, but I sometimes wonder when I read liberal scholars: Even if I were merely to see the Bible as a human document, shouldn’t I assume that the human authors at least would be reasonable, that they would have some common sense?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Theory of Everything: God in Mystery

I watched the 2014 movie, The Theory of Everything, last night.  The movie is about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his relationship with his wife (later ex-wife, but still friend), Jane.  It starts from the time when he was a college student and met Jane at a party.

A subject that recurs in the film is religion.  Stephen Hawking was an atheist, whereas Jane was a believer in God who attended the Church of England.  The film goes into the intersections between Hawking’s theories (if I am using that term correctly, for I am not a scientist) and the question of whether God exists.

According to the movie, Hawking was seeking an equation that would explain everything, thereby supplanting the role that God fills in many people’s minds.  At first, Hawking proposed that the universe had a beginning and came out of a black hole.  Some believed that this was consistent with theism (a belief in God), for many theists posit that the universe had a beginning and thus needed a creator.  Later, Hawking would shift to saying that the universe had no boundaries and no beginning.  In an interesting scene, Hawking and Jane are explaining Hawking’s work to their theistic friend Jonathan (whom Jane would later marry).  Jane is using a vegetable analogy and is saying that, if everything is carrots, then one can logically conclude that the universe had a beginning, but, when you incorporate peas into the equation, that bet is off!  Hawking says that God throws dice and does not let us know where the dice are!  Later in the movie, Hawking writes about knowing the mind of God, and Jane then has some hope that Hawking has become open to theism.

At the end of the movie, Hawking is asked before an auditorium if there is a philosophy of life that helps him, considering that he is an atheist.  Hawking replies that, whatever our limitations, we can still find something to succeed at, and that, when there is life, there is hope.

I suppose that, as a theist (albeit not the most philosophically sophisticated theist), I could say that I believe in God, regardless of what Stephen Hawking has said.  After all, there are plenty of intelligent scientists and philosophers who believe in God, plus Hawking’s own scenarios have changed over time, it appears to me.  The Hawking character in the movie last night was saying that the universe had a beginning, but remember that quote of Hawking in the God’s Not Dead movie in which Hawking said that the universe created itself?  I could ask why anything Hawking says should challenge my faith, when he appears to change his mind.  I could ask that, and yet I should do so with humility.  Hawking is talking about concepts that are way over my head, and that I only can understand on an elementary level, if even that!  Plus, even when Hawking was wrong, he still had justifications for his positions.  In the movie, Hawking tells Jonathan that physics is not about “belief.”  That does not imply infallibility, but it does imply having justifications for his position.  Even if Hawking was wrong, he was a lot better in his wrong stance than many of us are when we are right.

I was thinking of the question of why I am a theist.  I thought of a passage that was in Ahiqar, which may date to the seventh-sixth centuries B.C.E.  Ahiqar 160/69 states (in J.M. Lindenberger’s translation): “[If] a man is [not] under the care of the gods, then how can he guard himself against his inner wickedness?”  Personally-speaking, I depend on God to keep my inner wickedness in check.  Now, being a theist does not mean that one will be perfect.  In the movie, Jane was a theist, yet she was attracted to Jonathan, while she was married to Stephen; that is understandable and human.  And, conversely, a person can be moral without believing in God.  For me, though, I like the idea of having a God to turn to for love and support when I am struggling against my own wickedness, and I find that placing myself within a cosmic context of God’s love for me and God’s plan to redeem me and the world can give me the strength to have appropriate or healthy attitudes.  Having some philosophy to help one through life can be helpful: even Hawking in the movie had one.

While I was watching the movie, I was reading Joel Kraemer’s biography of the twelfth century Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides.  Maimonides was asking how we can arrive at the point where we love God.  Different people would give different answers to this: an evangelical Christian, for example, might say that we love God when we realize that God loved us, enough to send his Son to die for us.  Maimonides, however, said that we come to love God as we contemplate creation, and see God’s wisdom therein.

I am not a science person.  I remember an atheist-turned-Christian who was criticizing an atheist article that I posted, an article that said that string theory shows that we do not need God to explain how the universe came to be.  This commenter was questioning that idea, based on what we know and do not know about string theory, but he also said that he wishes that atheists and Christians would step back and appreciate the universe, rather than fighting about it and using it to buttress their agendas.  Part of me identified with what he was saying, but part of me did not.  Why should I care about what the universe is like, I wondered, if it is not part of a story about God’s love and how I can arrive at a state of spiritual health and fulfillment?  There are black holes out there in the universe—-so what?  That probably sounds a bit narcissistic on my part, and maybe it is.

As I think some more, I wonder if learning about the universe can somehow enhance my wonder and appreciation of the universe, and even God.  I am not talking about looking to the universe for proof or evidence that God exists—-resting my faith on the universe having a beginning, or being fine-tuned for life on earth.  I am talking more about appreciating the universe for what it is, and allowing that enhance my sense of wonder, and maybe even teach me about God.  There are a lot of mysterious things out there in the universe, and scientists are continually adjusting things that they think they know as they learn that there is more to the story.  Hawking in the movie said that God throws dice, and we do not know where the dice are.  A number of theists may think that theistic belief is buttressed more by a Newtonian model—-one in which the universe is fairly orderly and predictable.  “Where does that order come from?  It must come from God,” they say, and they believe that the order of the universe attests to the orderly wisdom that God has.  They may have a point, and yet could not the unpredictability and disorder in the universe teach us something about God?  Those things could teach us about God’s mystery, God’s depth, and the importance of humility.

I recently watched a speech by Rob Bell, a pastor.  It was part of his “Everything Is Spiritual” Tour.  Bell was talking about science.  He referred to quarks disappearing and reappearing unpredictably and without any explanation, and how there are scientists who say that the universe has eleven dimensions.  I thought that Bell was jumping to conclusions, in important areas.  He was trying to argue that the quarks’ disappearance and reappearance show that there is a personality behind the universe, and, while I am intrigued by his claim that there are scientists who believe that the universe has a personality, I do not think that is a necessary conclusion.  I was especially turned off when, near the end of the message, Bell was saying that atheists do not disbelieve in God for intellectual reasons, but for spiritual reasons: that they are rejecting God, when God’s existence should be obvious to them.  I hate hearing this from conservative pastors, and I hate hearing it from Rob Bell.  (And, yes, Paul’s statement to that effect in Romans 1 turns me off, too.)  Such an approach does not seek to understand where atheists come from or acknowledge that they may have valid reasons for their conclusions, but it puts them down and judges them.  Still, I did appreciate a number of things that Rob Bell was saying: the universe is more mysterious and larger than many of us might assume, and that insight perhaps can influence how we approach God, or Christianity.

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