Monday, February 8, 2016

Amish Sweethearts

Leslie Gould.  Amish Sweethearts.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Amish Sweethearts is Book Two of the Neighbors of Lancaster County series.  I was able to follow and appreciate the second book without reading the first, even though there were a lot of characters whom I did not really know.

The Lehmans are Amish, whereas their neighbors, the Becks, are not.  Lila Lehman and Zane Beck were good friends during their childhood and adolescence.  Both enjoyed learning and talking about topics.  They became more alienated from each other with time, however.  Zane joined the military and went to Afghanistan.  Lila was courting the bishop’s son, Reuben.  While Reuben is a kind, loving man, he is a quiet sort, and he prefers to make things rather than reading and talking about topics, which Lila liked to do with Zane.  Zane and Lila both have romantic feelings towards each other, as much as they would like to suppress them.  But there are complications standing in the way of their relationship.  Would Zane be willing to become Amish to marry Lila?  Would Lila be willing to leave the church to marry Zane?

The book had a lot of characters, and, at first, it was difficult to keep track of all of them.  Leslie Gould should have included some sort of family tree at the beginning or end of the book, as is done in some of the other Amish books I have read.  While the book did have a lot of characters, they were likable.  There was Lila’s brother Simon, a happy-go-lucky, independent person, who goes against Amish beliefs by joining the military.  There is Lila’s stepfather Tim, who is stern, yet still has humanity underneath his stern exterior.  There is Beth, the local Amish schoolteacher.  Beth is Tim’s love interest (since Tim is widowed), and she has an intuition about how people are truly feeling.  She can tell that Lila has feelings for Zane, even when Lila is courting Reuben.  There is Charlie, who is non-Amish and has married into Lila’s family (which is in the previous book).  Charlie is a mentor to Zane.  There is also Casey, a woman soldier who serves along with Zane in Afghanistan.  Casey would like for her relationship with Zane to be more than friendship.  While she is slightly bewildered about Zane’s feelings for Lila, Casey still fits in well when she is around the Amish.

The book had interesting passages about Zane’s attempts to explain to his non-Amish friends his relationship with the Amish.  There is a scene in which Zane and his military friends see a picture of Lila on Zane’s phone and talk about the Amish.  Another poignant scene is when Zane is explaining the Amish to an Afghan friend.  The Afghani is surprised that such people (i.e., people who live simply, without the convenience of modern technology) exist in America, for he stereotyped Americans as rich and technologically-advanced.

Of particular interest to me was the book’s interaction with pacifism, or non-resistance.  Zane wrestles with the possibility that he as a soldier may have to kill someone, and he feels horrible after actually killing an Afghan.  He wrestles with whether he supports the war in Afghanistan, and with whether he is a pacifist.  What was surprising to me was that there were Amish people who themselves wrestled with pacifism or non-resistance, even if they accepted it as an identity-marker.  The bishop and Lila told Zane that he should not feel bad about killing the Afghan, since Zane, in doing so, was protecting his unit, and other people.  Lila’s step-father, Tim, was expressing strong reservations about non-resistance, saying that he does not really feel that he should do nothing were his family to be threatened.

The book was thoughtful, and it had likable characters.  I may read more books by Leslie Gould in the future.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


At church this morning, there were two things that stood out to me.  Both related to inclusion.

A.  The church service was about the church’s youth camp.  A member of the church spoke to us about it.  She read us comments from people about their experiences at youth camp.

One story was about a person who did not want to go to youth camp because she was reluctant to leave her room.  But she went, and, after she shared her favorite Jolley Ranchers flavor with a group, someone from the staff brought her that flavor of Jolley Ranchers.  She was happy to be noticed.  She, in turn, tried to notice others there who might have been alone, or had a hard time fitting in, so that she could include them.  She said it was interesting to see the quiet people open up!

This was not exactly a formal sermon, but it was a sermon for me, in a way.  It was about taking the opportunity to notice people and to do something thoughtful towards them.  It was about paying forward to others the love that one has received.  It was also about allowing others to share and to speak.  I myself am rather quiet, but, once I am given the opportunity to share, I tend to monopolize the group.  I should remember to let others share, as well!

That said, I have liked how my church’s Life Group allows everyone to take a turn sharing what went on in their week.  I don’t always have much to say, since my life is not that exciting.  But I do like how my church’s Life Group gives everyone a chance to talk.

B.  We had communion today.  The pastor was saying that communion is open to all.  He said that, if someone were to go out and commit a heinous crime, and everyone at church knew about it, the pastor would still serve that person communion.  I remember the pastor saying the last time we had communion that, if Jesus allowed Judas Iscariot, who was about to betray him, to eat the last supper with the other disciples, who was he (the pastor) to exclude anyone from communion?

I thought about an episode of Michael Brown’s radio program that I listened to a while back.  The question was whether there should be any restrictions on who can receive communion, and Michael Brown seemed (at least to me) to think so.  He asked if a person who had just committed a murder should be able to walk into church and receive communion.

I tend to lean in the “Why not?” direction.  The point of communion is to remind us of God’s love and grace, of Jesus giving his life for us so that we can have a relationship with God.  A person who has just committed a heinous crime needs to be reminded of his need for God, so that he can repent.  What better way is there to show him that he, too, can turn to God, than to allow him to partake of communion?

The problem, however, is when we are dealing with people who seem to be unaffected by God’s grace, who continue to sin.  I think of mafia bosses who are devout Catholics.  You would think that, at some point in their attending church, the inconsistency between their faith and practice would cross their minds.  I think also of people who are committing adultery on their spouse, and they take their new boyfriend or girlfriend with them to church and expect to take communion with everyone else.  Of course, they need grace.  But Matthew 18 and I Corinthians 5 have things about church discipline, which is designed to lead people to repentance.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Book Write-Up: God of Promise, by Michael Horton

Michael Horton.  God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.

I decided to check this book out of the library after reading a book about dispensationalism.  Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology are rival ways of conceptualizing God’s purposes in the Bible.
I decided to read this book to find answers to questions: Were the Israelites saved by grace through faith in the Old Testament under the Mosaic covenant and, if so, how?  And what was the relationship between the Mosaic covenant, which conditioned Israel’s habitation of the Promised Land on her obedience to God’s laws, and the Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 15, which was unconditional, meaning that God would fulfill it, whatever Israel did or did not do?  Also in Genesis 15, God counts Abraham’s faith as righteousness.  Paul would make a big deal about this in articulating and defending his belief that people are declared righteous on account of their faith, not on account of their good works or obedience to the law (Romans 4; Galatians 3).

The Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants seem to be going in opposite directions: one is about God’s activity, grace, and faith, whereas the other is about Israel obeying the law.  How could the two covenants co-exist?  Covenant theologians have accused dispensationalists of believing that the Israelites under the Old Covenant were saved by works, and many dispensationalists have denied this.  Both sides seem to agree that Israelites under the Old Covenant were not saved (i.e., accepted by God) by works or obeying the law, but rather by grace through faith.  In what sense, then, were the Israelites under the Mosaic covenant saved by grace through faith?  They were put to death for certain sins.  Works seem to have been a significant factor in being accepted by God and staying alive, under the Mosaic covenant!

Incidentally, I had these same questions when I read O. Palmer Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants (see my post here).  That was over two years ago.

Did Michael Horton address my questions, in some manner?  He did raise a variety of considerations.  Of course, he argued that the Abrahamic covenant was unconditional.  On the basis of the Abrahamic covenant, God did not destroy Israel after the Israelites built the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:13-14), but rather God spared them and continued to guide them towards the Promised Land.  At the same time, Horton acknowledged that God conditioned Israel’s habitation of the Promised Land on her obedience to the law.  One reason that God did this, for Horton, was to show people that they could not successfully be saved, or accepted by God, through obedience of the law, for no one could keep the law perfectly.  That is why people need the grace that Jesus Christ brings.  Another reason for the Mosaic law, according to Horton, was so that the Israelites could model God’s kingdom of righteousness.  Israel was to be a righteous nation, obeying righteous laws.

On the one hand, Horton in places distinguishes between the Mosaic and the Abrahamic covenants.  Horton appears to argue more than once that the Abrahamic covenant concerned personal salvation—-being forgiven and entering a good afterlife.  This is by grace and not by works.  On what basis does Horton say that the Abrahamic covenant was about this?  For one, Galatians 3 interprets the Abrahamic covenant as Abraham’s seed, Jesus Christ, blessing all nations, which would occur by grace through faith.  Paul ties the Abrahamic covenant with the Gospel, which concerns salvation and entering the good afterlife.  Secondly, Hebrews 11:16 states that Abraham (among others) desired a heavenly city.  The Mosaic covenant, by contrast, was not related to personal salvation but was Israel’s national constitution, and it pertained to the rules Israel had to keep to dwell in the land.

I question whether this distinction holds any water, for two reasons.  For one, God’s promise to Abraham pertained, at least in in part, to Israel dwelling in the Promised Land.  One cannot treat the Abrahamic covenant as pertaining to personal salvation and the Mosaic covenant as pertaining to the Promised Land, for both relate to the Promised Land, as Horton probably knows.  Second, Horton makes the point that grace cannot really exist without law.  Grace only makes sense if there is law.  Grace is God forgiving and accepting people even though they have sinned, so grace implies that there is a standard to sin against, namely, the law.  Can Horton divorce the grace of the Abrahamic covenant from the law of the Mosaic covenant, when both complement each other, in some manner?

What is more, how does the Mosaic law relate to Gentile Christians?  If the Mosaic law were merely Israel’s national constitution, does it apply to anyone outside national Israel?  If not, how are Gentile Christians saved by grace?  Do they not need a law, for grace to make sense?  Of course, Paul addresses this question in Romans 2:15: for Gentiles, the conscience functions as a sort of law.  Horton himself believes that the Mosaic Torah contains three kinds of laws: the moral ones apply to everybody, the ceremonial ones applied only to Israel and were temporary, and the civil ones were part of Israel’s national constitution, not something Christians have to do.

Another question that I have about Horton’s treatment of the Abrahamic covenant is this: How unconditional is unconditional?  For Horton, God’s covenant with national Israel no longer exists.  Israel (as a nation) blew it through her sins and rejection of the Messiah, so now God works with the church.  That does not sound very unconditional to me.  On the other hand, Horton does believe that God has not forsaken the Jewish people, for Romans 11 indicates that God still has a benevolent plan for them.

This book was rather scattered, maybe even inconsistent (and I apologize if I have mischaracterized Horton’s arguments).  Yet, there were a lot of interesting and thoughtful discussions in the book.  I think of Horton’s discussion of circumcision and baptism: how both, in some sense, relate to death for failing to observe the covenant.  Because the Israelites experienced that death through circumcision, and Christians (and, in a sense, people in the Old Testament) undergo it through baptism, they do not have to experience God’s wrath in the future.  They have already experienced that death and have come out on the other side.

Horton also has an interesting discussion about the relationship between common grace and whether religion should influence the government.  Common grace is God preserving and blessing creation, even those who do not have a saving faith in Jesus Christ.  Can the government be a part of this, by conforming society to godly values?  Although Augustine wanted the secular authorities to suppress the Donatist Christians, he tended to separate church and state: society, for Augustine, is not the same as the church, and the church should not try to force society to become Christian.  Yet, for Augustine, God’s providence extends even to heathen governments.  (At least that was my understanding of Horton’s quotations of Augustine.)  Luther followed Augustine’s approach and subordinated the church to the state.  The Anabaptists either tried to take over the state so it could be Christian, or to set up their own separate societies away from the state.  Calvinists were mixed: they were in favor of a godly society, yet, on some level, held that the state could be good without being distinctly Christian.

Horton also made an edifying point about how repentance, under the New Covenant, is not exactly a good work that we do to get God’s forgiveness, but is itself a gift from God.

Another point that I liked was when Horton said that, if God required perfection to fulfill his covenant, the covenant could not get off the ground.  Yet, Horton maintained that the law did require perfect obedience.  Perhaps that is where grace came in, even in Old Testament times.

Overall, the book was not a clear explanation of Covenant Theology.  It was more of an exploration of topics, and different facets of those topics.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Do Atheists Really Believe in God?

I’ve been blogging about my church’s Life Group that I attend.  In this post, I’d like to mention and comment on a discussion that the group had last Thursday morning.  I will refer to people by letter.

The group was talking about family members or acquaintances who are atheists.  S said that two of her children are atheists, yet they are the first to help out people who need help.  I one time heard S say in another setting that parents can teach their children the truth (Christianity), but that it is up to the kids what to do with it.

D was saying that her daughter is disconnected from church, for this daughter does not care for the hypocrisy of Christians.  But D says that she tries to tell her daughter that Christians are not perfect, that they have flaws, just like everyone else.  I remember D saying in the first Life Group that I attended that her daughter is into “liberal stuff,” but her daughter is still under God’s care.  God still knows her daughter’s name.

Another person, M, had an atheist husband years back, but this husband ran off to be with another woman.

The group was getting into the question of whether God reveals himself in some manner to these atheists, and if the problem is that the atheists are rejecting God, which is different from not believing there is a God.  That overlaps with another question: Are these people accountable to God, in any way?  Does God hold them responsible for not accepting and following him?  In short, is their problem that they cannot believe, or that they choose not to believe, even though deep down they know the truth?

Those who spoke in the group seemed to be leaning in the “yes” direction on the first two questions, and in the “they choose not to believe” direction on the third question.  Regarding S’s atheist kids who do good works, people were saying that the fact that they do good works indicates that they know God’s truth, deep down.  They are yielding to the revelation of God, albeit not as much as they should.

M and others were saying that atheists are still responsible before God for how they believe.

I did not say anything.  The discussion went by pretty fast.  Plus, I did not want to come across as a jerk.  But this is a question with which I struggle.

The relevant Bible passage, of course, is Romans 1:18-21:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;
19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.
20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:
21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
(Rom 1:18-21 KJV)

What this passage seems to be saying is that everyone knows there is a God, but they suppress that knowledge.

This is a question with which I struggle.  There are intellectual reasons not to believe in God, I think.  Many testify that they became reluctant atheists: that they wanted Christianity to be true, but that, ultimately, their doubts and their research led them away from the faith.  But there are atheists who will candidly admit that they do not want for there to be a God.  And, to be honest, I cannot blame them.  If God is anything like the portrayals that I have seen within Christianity, then I wouldn’t want that God to exist, either!

Ironically, I was thinking that night before about this question.  What does God think about atheists who simply do not believe that God is real?  What does God think about atheists who do not want God to be real?  An answer came in my head rather fast: “God loves them.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Book Write-Up: From the Pen of Pastor Paul

Daniel R. Hyde.  1-2 Thessalonians: From the Pen of Pastor Paul.  Grand Rapids: EP books, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

From the Pen of Pastor Paul is a collection of Daniel Hyde’s sermons about passages in 1-2 Thessalonians.  Hyde attempts to provide some historical context for 1-2 Thessalonians by relaying the story in Acts 17, which concerns Paul’s visit to Thessalonica.  Hyde sometimes wrestles with scholarly debates about the text itself, as when he discusses the debate over whether Paul in II Thessalonians 2:13 is saying that God chose the Thessalonian Christians from the beginning, or as firstfruits.  Hyde also refers to themes in the text itself: the Thessalonian Christians’ fear that Christ had already come back and the problems that was breeding, Paul’s commendation of the Thessalonian Christians for their good works, etc.

Overall, this book is not a scholarly, verse-by-verse commentary of I-II Thessalonians, one that wrestles with the text in light of its literary and historical contexts.  It is a homiletical book, and it uses verses and themes in I-II Thessalonians as a launchpad to teach Christians how to live, particularly in relation to their local church.  In the sermons, Hyde quotes passages of Scripture outside of I-II Thessalonians, particularly Paul’s writings.  Hyde shares anecdotes, often about Christian figures such as Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon.  Hyde also draws from Christian thinkers such as John Chrysostom, John Calvin, and John Owen, and Hyde quotes from the Westminster and Heidelberg Confessions.

Hyde’s perspective is Reformed Christianity: he defends predestination, attended a Reformed seminary, teaches at Reformed seminaries, and pastors a Reformed church.  He may have a Pentecostal background, for he is somewhat critical of Pentecostalism and compares his understanding of Pentecostalism with Reformed Christianity.  While Hyde is a Reformed Christian, he does not obsess over predestination in this book, but he does believe that God’s unilateral transformation of a person is a vital aspect of the Christian life.  Hyde’s approach seems to be that God needs to spiritually resurrect a person for that person to have faith.  After that person is born again, she participates in becoming more and more like Christ, meaning that she plays some role in the sanctification process.  And yet, she depends on Christ throughout this process.

I found the book to be edifying.  Hyde sympathizes and empathizes with those who struggle with sin and the feelings of alienation from God that sin can produce.  Hyde talks about how sin can encourage a person to long for righteousness, and he longs for the day when believers will see Christ face-to-face, without feelings of alienation.  I appreciated Hyde’s point about how prayer can be a sign that a person is truly seeking God: as Hyde notes, Ananias was apprehensive about approaching Saul, who had persecuted the church, but God told Ananias that Saul was praying (Acts 9:11).  Hyde also talked about the importance of doing good works rather than being reluctant to do so out of a fear of displeasing God; Hyde quotes Martin Luther’s statement that God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.

There were times when I thought that Hyde manifested a rather authoritarian attitude towards the church, even if that was unintentional on his part.  For example, he said that believers should treat their pastor’s sermon as the word of God to them.  On some level, I can appreciate his point.  It is good to go to church with an attitude of expecting a word from God that can impart strength, as opposed to going to church with a nitpicky attitude.  Hyde also admits that preachers (and their sermons) are fallible, and he does not support authoritarian pastors but pastors setting an example of love and service.  Yet, certain attitudes can be abused by authoritarian pastors, and Hyde should have addressed that more.  In my opinion, Hyde also should have talked about the extent to which believers are autonomous, and the rights that they have as church attenders.

I would have preferred for Hyde to have gone into more detail about the Antichrist.  He seems to flirt, somewhat, with the classic Protestant view that the Roman Catholic church is the Antichrist.  Yet, he does not seem overly dogmatic about that.  He does believe that the man of sin sitting in the Temple of God (II Thessalonians 2:3) indicates that the Antichrist will come from the church, which Paul likens to a Temple (I Corinthians 3:16), but Hyde did not offer a clear picture of what he envisioned taking place.  Perhaps Hyde felt that he did not know enough about that topic to be dogmatic.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews, in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Book Write-Up: On the Historicity of Jesus, by Richard Carrier

Richard Carrier.  On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt.  Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

(UPDATE: See the comments under Vridar’s post.  There may be areas in which Carrier already addressed in his book some of the concerns that I have, or Carrier’s argument may be different from how I was conceptualizing it.)

Richard Carrier is a Christ mythicist, one who does not believe that Jesus existed in history.  He has a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University.  Most biblical scholars reject his view.

For Carrier, the earliest Christian belief was that Jesus came from heaven to outer space and was crucified by malevolent spirit entities, then he was resurrected and returned to the highest heaven.  Carrier maintains that such a scenario is in the Ascension of Isaiah, which Carrier dates to the first-second centuries C.E.  For Carrier, such a scenario is consistent with, and makes better sense of, details that are in the earliest New Testament writings: Paul’s writings, Deutero-Paul’s writings, Hebrews, James, and elements of Acts.  These writings do not explicitly say that Jesus was crucified by flesh-and-blood human beings, and many of them rely on personal revelation and interpretation of Scripture, not historical events, in presenting their picture of Jesus.  Relying on personal revelation can be chaotic, however, as different people can appeal to their own personal revelations from the divine.  Consequently, according to Carrier, there were Christians who historicized Jesus, placing Jesus in a historical context.  They relied on alleged testimony from and connection to historical apostles who supposedly knew Jesus, not personal revelation, to buttress their authority.  (UPDATE: Neil Godfrey disagrees with this particular characterization of Carrier’s argument in his comment here.)  For Carrier, the Gospels and Acts reflect a belief in Jesus as a historical person.

I would like to wrestle with some of Carrier’s arguments.  This post will not be comprehensive, but it will wrestle with key points that Carrier makes in his book.

A.  Carrier does ask good questions.  Why do so many first century extrabiblical sources fail to mention Jesus or Christianity, if Jesus existed in the first century?  Why does Paul so often fail to mention aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching?  Why did Epiphanius (Panarion 29.3) and rabbinic sources (Carrier cites BT Sanhedrin 107b; Sotah 47a; JT Hagigah 2.2; Sanhedrin 23c) mention a view that Jesus lived during the time of Alexander Jannaeus, which was a century before the historical Jesus supposedly lived?  For Carrier, this is an indication that early Christians differed on where to put Jesus in history, which would be odd, had Jesus been historical.  Why does Origen, when he is discussing extrabiblical sources for Jesus, fail to refer to Antiquities 18:63-64, which is where Josephus supposedly talks about Jesus’ miracles and crucifixion, and the early Christian belief in his resurrection (Origen, Against Celsus 1.42, 47)?  For Carrier, that is one indication that this passage was not authentically by Josephus but was a later Christian interpolation.

B.  On why first century extra-biblical sources fail to mention Jesus, many would respond that they would not mention a backwater Galilean peasant.  Why not, though, if Jesus was as famous as the Gospels say he was (Matthew 4:24; 9:26, 31; 14:1; Mark 1:28, Luke 4:14, 37; 5:15)?

C.  Yet, the failure of so many extrabiblical sources to mention Christianity raises questions in my mind rather than convincing me of mythicism.  Even Richard Carrier appears to believe (or to grant for the sake of argument) that Christianity existed in the first century C.E., even if he does not believe there was a historical Jesus.  Yet, Carrier notes that so many extrabiblical sources fail to mention Christianity.  Augustine himself seemed to struggle with the question of why Seneca the Younger failed to mention Christianity in his first century work about sects in Rome (Augustine, City of God 6.10-11).  Why did so many first century sources fail to mention Christianity?  Was it because Christianity was obscure, or not well-established yet, or kept to itself?

D.  There are sources that Carrier mentions that, in my opinion, are open to interpretation.  Did Ascension of Isaiah, in its earliest form, really say that Jesus was crucified by malevolent spirits in outer space?  Or could it have believed that the malevolent spirits (or a malevolent spirit) killed a historical Jesus through human agents on earth, which is what is suggested in the Gospels, and in the so-called “pocket Gospel” in Ascension of Isaiah 11 (which Carrier believes was a later addition, and which is absent from some manuscripts)?  I can see how Carrier is arriving at his interpretation, but there seem to be things in the story that pull in the opposite direction (i.e., Christ is in the corruptible world).  On the story that Ignatius mentions about celestial activity during the time of Jesus, is that story implying that Jesus only existed in the heavens and never came to earth, or does that story suggest that Jesus came as a human (Ignatius, To the Ephesians 19; Carrier offers two interpretations of that part about Jesus appearing in human form)?

E.  Carrier argues that there were Christ mythicists during the time of the church fathers.  His implication may be that, had Jesus been historical, there would have been more consensus among Christians about that.  I do not see strong evidence for there being Christian Christ mythicists during the time of the church fathers.  Ignatius may have been arguing against Docetists, who believed that Christ was on earth but only appeared to be human (yet, Carrier questions whether we know this about the Docetists for sure).  Irenaeus in Against All Heresies 1.30 is talking about Gnostics, who believed that Jesus was on earth.  Both are consistent with seeing Jesus as a historical figure.  At the same time, Carrier also refers to a dispute between the non-Christian Jew Trypho and Justin Martyr about whether Jesus was made-up (Dialogue with Trypho 8-9).  Trypho there is a non-Christian questioning Christian claims about Jesus, not a Christian Christ mythicist (not that Carrier is suggesting otherwise).

F.  Carrier offers his own interpretation of passages that have been cited to argue that Paul believed in a historical Jesus.  Some of what Carrier said was plausible, or, at least, I cannot say that the interpretations are impossible (i.e., the Jews and Greeks of I Corinthians 1 are offended by the cross because it is based on personal revelation and not anything substantive).  Some of what Carrier said took me aback.  For example, Carrier interprets Romans 10:14 (“How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” KJV) to mean that Paul did not think that Christ historically came to the Jewish people, for the Jewish people had not heard of Christ.  That, of course, would differ from what the Gospels present.  Is that what Paul is saying, though?  Romans 10 does not deny that Christ came to the Jewish people, even if it may be implying that there were still Jewish people who needed to hear about Christ.  I also wonder about certain passages, doubting that they fit with Carrier’s scenario.  Galatians 4:4 says that Christ was born of a woman and made under the law.  Carrier says that Christ could have been born of a celestial woman, but can a celestial being be under the law of Moses?  Wouldn’t only a Jew be under the law?  (On Christ being from the seed of David in Romans 1, Carrier says that David’s seed could have been fashioned into a celestial being.  On Christ being a second Adam in Romans 5, Carrier may interpret that in light of the ancient Jewish belief in a heavenly man, which Philo talks about.  On James being the Lord’s brother in Galatians 1, Carrier says that means James was a Christian, and Paul is calling him the Lord’s brother to differentiate James from the apostles.)

G.  Carrier says that there are parallels between Christ and mystery cults, and also between Christ and Romulus (for which Carrier cites Plutarch, Romulus 27-28).  One can perhaps quibble on details: there is debate about how or whether Romulus even died, and thus it may be hasty to say that he was resurrected.  At the same time, there are parallels: Romulus does ascend to heaven, appear to people thereafter, and talk about a kingdom.  On the mystery cults, there may be similarities between mystery cults and Christianity (i.e., a suffering god, a meal, perhaps some esotericism), but there is at least one difference: Christians in the New Testament do not keep the Gospel a secret but spread it throughout the world.  Also, since even Carrier believes that the early Christians were Jews, I wonder if Jews were in mystery cults.  That would be relevant to the question of whether mystery religions influenced Christianity.  Of course, Judaism was influenced by Hellenism, so I am not overly sympathetic with Christian apologists who imply that Judaism was in a pure container sealed off from paganism, or that pagan views would not enter Judaism.  But Bruce Metzger argued that one reason Christianity was not influenced by mystery religions was that mystery religions were not really a phenomenon in Palestine. (UPDATE: Godfrey says that Carrier already discussed Jews in mystery cults in the book.  See also Bee’s comment about Hellenistic influence on and Greek presence in Palestine.)

H.  Is Jesus’ name too good to be true?  What do I mean by this?  The name “Jesus” relates to salvation, and, lo and behold, Jesus in Christianity is a savior!  I can somewhat understand Carrier’s argument that this makes Jesus look made-up: do things work out that neatly in real life?  It’s not impossible, I guess, but likely?

I.  On a related note, there is the high priest Joshua in the Book of Zechariah.  Joshua is a priest, maybe even a king.  He is associated with the removal of sin in one day.  Satan afflicts him.  Carrier says that Joshua in the Book of Zechariah was a celestial priest, and that Philo associated Joshua with the divine logos.  Carrier may believe that these things set the stage for Christianity (or at least relate to Christianity), for the name Joshua is the same as the name Jesus, and things are being said about Joshua that were later said about Jesus.  Carrier may be hasty in saying that the high priest Joshua was a celestial priest, or that Philo believed in a divine logos named “Jesus.”  Still, is it a coincidence that things were said about Joshua in the Book of Zechariah that were later claimed about another Joshua, namely, Jesus?

J.  A final item.  Some Christian apologists argue that Christianity was true because Christians would not make up a doctrine about a crucified savior, since crucifixion was stigmatized in the ancient world.  As Carrier notes, however, people were offended by the castration of Attis (Augustine, City of God 6.10-11), but that does not mean that Attis was actually castrated.  People can believe offensive doctrines; that does not mean the doctrines are true.  Some Christian apologists make a big deal about Matthew 28:17’s acknowledgment that some people saw the risen Jesus and still doubted, heralding the apparent honesty of the Gospel writer, and thus his authenticity.  But, as Carrier says, Plutarch said that people had doubts about Romulus’ ascension.  And yet, in the latter case, what was Plutarch’s agenda?  Plutarch often sifts through different sources and makes judgments.  The Gospel writers, however, are faith documents, and perhaps they were more dogmatic than Plutarch was; consequently, their admission of doubt may have a different significance than what is in Plutarch’s book on Romulus.

Carrier covers other topics: Tacitus, Pliny, Papias.  But I will stop here.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Jesus Visits His Hometown, and They're Not on the Same Page

The sermon at church this morning was about Luke 4:16-30.  Jesus is at the synagogue in Nazareth, the town in which he was raised.  Jesus reads to the synagogue from Isaiah 61:1-2: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (KJV).  Jesus then sits down and says to the people at the synagogue that this Scripture is fulfilled that day in their ears.

The people speak well of him and ask if he is Joseph’s son.  Jesus then says that no prophet is accepted in his own country.  Jesus is not doing the miracles in his hometown that he performed in Capernaum.  As parallels to this situation, Jesus refers to Old Testament stories about God reaching out to outsiders rather than the people of Israel: Elijah visited a Sidonian widow during the drought even though there were widows in Israel, and Naaman healed the Syrian leper Naaman when there were lepers in Israel.  The people at the synagogue are then angry with Jesus and almost throw him off the cliff.

The pastor was speculating that the synagogue may have been angry with Jesus on account of his message about preaching good news to the poor and deliverance to the captives.  At the very least, the pastor noted, the people of Nazareth were not on the same page as Jesus, which was why Jesus was not performing miracles there.  The pastor also referred to a lady whom he mentioned in a previous sermon.  This lady was raising five kids in a van, and she called the church for gas money.  The pastor asked what good news for the poor means, and he said that the lady probably worries about more than gas money.  I was wondering how she fed her kids.

Today, at the church service, there was a focus on giving to the church.  A member of the church was telling us how the church uses the money.  It uses some for the poor, some for African-American colleges, some for the pastor’s salary, and some for other causes.  A portion of it goes to the national denomination, which uses money for world mission and advocacy at Washington, D.C.

I’ll stop here.

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