Sunday, November 30, 2008

Glorifying Death?

Source: John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 145-146.

"What [Nicolas Malabranche (1638-1715)] found most objectionable in Seneca's Stoicism was the arrogance of the claim that it is possible to be happy in this life. For Malabranche the Christian, human life here on Earth is inherently miserable, for we are all sinners, and so we must wait for the next life before we can be truly happy. Stoicism's claim that one can indeed be happy here and now is, he argues, simply the product of human pride and arrogance."

The issues that this quote touches on have cropped up in my readings and daily quiet times.

I'm reading the letters of Ignatius in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden. Ignatius was a second century church leader. Basically, he had a death wish: he wanted to be a martyr. He saw this as a path to purification, and he eagerly anticipated being with Jesus Christ forever and ever.

At first sight, that looks rather selfish. After all, he can only serve people on earth when he's alive, right? Paul wanted to die and be with Christ, too, but he realized that God may have other plans: "I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you" (Philippians 1:23-24). There were people who needed Paul, which was why he left his time of death up to God.

But Ignatius didn't exactly view himself as selfish, for he thought that his death as a martyr could be an expiation for the Christian community. Ignatius was not the first to maintain that martyrdom is meritorious. In II Maccabees and IV Maccabees, God stops punishing Israel after Jewish martyrs give their lives for the laws of God's Torah. Their deaths bring expiation and divine benefit to the community of God's people.

I have problems with a religion that celebrates death. When I was at Jewish Theological Seminary, Mary Boys of Union Theological Seminary was giving presentations against Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. She said that Jesus did not come to earth to die; rather, he died because of how he lived. I think she meant that Jesus preached God's love for all people--including the marginalized--and this incited Jewish religious leaders to plot against him. But I could be wrong, since she tried to pin a lot of the blame for Jesus' death on Pontius Pilate, not so much the Jewish leaders. In any case, she tried to shift the focus of Christianity from death to life.

I admire her attempt, but I'm not sure if it's biblical. Ignatius talks about experiencing Christ's passion. Where'd he get such an idea? Presumably from passages such as Philippians 3:10: "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death[.]" Paul wanted to be intimate with Christ, even in terms of knowing Christ's passion.

When I was at Harvard, a friend told me about Opus Dei, an ultra-conservative Catholic group that had people wear nails in their shoes to experience the pains of the Lord. That sort of outlook may explain why the Opus Dei character in Da Vinci Code whipped himself over and over. "Isn't the point of Christianity that Jesus suffered in our place, meaning we don't have to suffer?," my friend asked? Apparently not in the eyes of certain Christians, who try to identify with Jesus in his sufferings.

I'm reminded of something a friend of mine at JTS said. America was about to go to war with Iraq, and my friend was a West Point graduate. He said that the army glorified death, since there were many monuments to people who gave their lives for their country. My professor asked him if all that death was actually necessary. Similarly, Christianity seems to glorify martyrs, as if they were athletes--people who took their faith commitment to the ultimate level.

I can understand that Christians may find themselves in a position where they'd have to die. If the world threatens to kill them because of their faith in Christ, then what are they supposed to do? What I don't get is Christianity's glorification of suffering and death. I like the Old Testament and Ben Sira's focus on blessings in this life, in terms of enjoying this life to the fullest, and helping others to do so as well.

There are other things that I can say about this quote, but I'll stop here for the time being.

Son of Man in I Enoch

Source: Michael E. Stone, "Apocalyptic Literature," Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 399.

"One might add that an ancient date is implied by the use of 'Son of Man', an old Jewish title, although strangely, for Milik this is a sign of dependance on the New Testament. Moreover, it is difficult to conceive of a late, Christian work largely devoted to the prediction of a super-human Son of Man, existent in the thought of God before creation, which does not make the slightest hint as his (from Enoch's view-point) future incarnation, earthly life and preaching, or crucifixion and their cosmic implications. Further, in chapter 71, admittedly an appendix to The Similitudes, the Son of Man is specifically identified as Enoch. In view of these considerations, then, there seems no reason to exclude The Similitudes from the discussion of Jewish Enoch literature."

Michael Stone is talking about the Similitudes in I Enoch. For him, the existence of a super-human Son of Man in the Similitudes does not indicate that this section of I Enoch is Christian, even though Christians also believed in a messianic "Son of Man."

N.T. Wright makes a similar argument in Jesus and the Victory of God. I don't have the book with me, so I'm commenting on it from memory, and I read Wright's book eight years ago. In my vague recollection, Wright argues that Jesus was crucified in part because he claimed to be a supernatural figure, which struck many Jewish leaders as blasphemy. In Mark 14:62-64, after all, the high priest rends his garments and calls Jesus a blasphemer, just because Jesus told him he'd see the Son of Man coming at the right hand of power. Wright quoted apocalyptic texts in which the "Son of Man" appears to be a semi-divine figure.

Was Jesus nourished at the well of apocalyptic texts, such as I Enoch? We know that Jude 1:14-15 quotes I Enoch as a source. Could such a regard for the book go back to Jesus? Was the Similitude's view on the Son of Man widely accepted within first century Judaism? Not according to Mark, since the high priest considered it to be blasphemy. Maybe some Jews expected the Messiah to be a Davidic figure rather than an enigmatic Son of Man, and Jesus disputed such a notion when he said that the Messiah is David's lord, not his son (Mark 12:35-37). And "Son of Man" was more than Jesus' term for a human being: it referred to a person with divine authority (Mark 2:10, 28).

Was Jesus acting in the flow of a Jewish tradition about a super-human Son of Man? If Jesus was not original in all of his conception of the Messiah, does that mean he was wrong, religiously speaking? Maybe God in his providence arranged for some Jews to anticipate a Messiah who was super-human, even semi-divine.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Deep God?

Source: Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, Being Catholic: How We Believe, Practice, and Think (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2006) 185.

"There are many ways to see God in creation. Everything that is is somehow created to reflect God. We can see the power of God in the thunderstorm and the immensity of God in the sky and the sea. A cat helping her kittens shows us something about God's tenderness. The seemingly endless variety of plants is an indication of the generosity of God who was not content to create just a few species, but thousands and thousands for our use and enjoyment. When we enter the realm of the human, the images of God are even more varied. Tall people and short people, creative people and plodding people, people with gifts of affectivity and people with gifts of logic and mental discipline, people who talk and laugh a lot and people who are quiet and reserved--all of them reflect something about God."

I like this quote because it says that God displays his attributes through all of creation. And it also states that all sorts of people--even the socially awkward--play a role in communicating who God is.

I'm not in the mood to answer a bunch of counter-arguments. "What about hurricanes, which take away people's lives and homes? Do they communicate a loving God?" Good questions, but I don't want to deal with them right now. I just want to relax and appreciate how nature communicates God.

God is deep? There are plenty of passages that suggest that God's thoughts are deep. There have been times when I have felt this way, and times when I have not.

Let's start with the times when I've not. I already know a lot about Christian doctrine, and, to be honest, I don't find it all that deep, compelling, and profound. Christ paid the penalty for our sins, and those who continue in sin and don't accept his sacrifice are going to hell. Also, God is three persons in one being, a "mystery" known as the trinity. Maybe I'd appreciate Christ's sacrifice more if it were not so abstract to me, but, as an idea, I have a hard time perceiving its depth. And people act like the trinity is some big-time mystery, but I don't understand why. A family has many members, and yet it is one family. There are all sorts of collective unities, so why can't God be such?

What makes matters worse is when fundamentalists and evangelicals proclaim these ideas as if they're the sum-total of the universe. Okay, so I've learned the substitutionary atonement. I know the right way to live. Is there anything else to learn?

And so there's a part of me that looks at the depth and the variety of nature, and feels that Christianity doesn't match them at all.

Yet, I've also had times when I'm reading the Bible, and layer upon layer of meaning emerges. I realize that I have many unanswered questions--about the text, about how God relates to real life, etc., etc. It's weird how I can read the Bible again and again, and something new always jumps out at me (or at least usually does). And I've had quiet times in which I've felt that I could go on for another hour, as if it would take a long time to exhaust the dimensions of the text. In those cases, God does appear deep.

On some level, my God is definable--almost to the level of a caricature. Yet, there's so much that I don't understand about him--when I look at the Bible, or nature, or life. My God is too small, yet he's somehow big.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thoughts About Star Trek: The Motion Picture

I watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture a few nights ago because Stephen Collins was on it, and I wanted to see if he was anything like Eric Camden on 7th Heaven. Catherine Hicks was on Star Trek IV, and she definitely acted like Annie Camden, in the sense that she was rather feisty and strong in her convictions.

Stephen Collins wasn't like Eric Camden on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but he was more like the role he played on one episode of the Waltons: stiff, rather formal, not much voice inflection or ability to connect with people. On the audio commentary and the documentary, however, he was much more like Eric Camden: real, thoughtful, likable, ability to connect with people, open, somewhat mesmerizing, etc.

I wish that he commented more on the religious dimensions of the plot, but many of his comments were about the technical aspects of the film. I appreciated one thing he said about the role of actors. For one scene, he said, he was told to look at the screen ahead and act like he was seeing the most beautiful thing that one could behold. In reality, howevr, he was looking at a big fat "X." Collins then remarked that actors are paid to exercise their imaginations.

Regarding the religious dimensions, he made a statement near the end of the movie about his character's assimilation with the V'Ger space vessel. In the movie, Collins' character, Decker, merges with a NASA space probe that had attained knowledge and consciousness. It was pure logic, so it had a lot of loneliness and inner emptiness. But Collins gave it a human dimension, and it became an omniscient, omnipresent being after their merging.

Collins said that he would have liked to do what Decker did: to leave everything behind and become part of something larger than himself. Nowadays, he said, he'd be less willing to do that, since he has a family that he doesn't want to leave behind. But he said he would have been more willing to undertake such an endeavor in his younger years. Collins also said that, around the time of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, he started to practice meditation, which was a way for him to transcend himself and nature. That corresponded with something I read in wikipedia: that he's a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, a New Age technique.

While I was listening to the audio commentary, I was reading Book II of the Christ Clones trilogy, which touched a lot on New Age religion. In the book, the Antichrist and his associates maintain that the world is entering a new era, in which people are advancing in their human capabilities. They are on the verge of being able to read one another's thoughts and feelings, which could lead to mutual understanding. And the Antichrist said that religion must go out the door, since it has led to a lot of division and bloodshed. For him, people must learn to appreciate the "god within."

The part about mutual understanding somewhat appealed to me, probably because I find that I am often misunderstood. But I doubt that people would necessarily like me or sympathize with me if they could read my thoughts and feelings, even if they were to discover that I'm not really that different from them. I know people who love to critique and psychologically analyze others. They claim to understand people's insecurities, yet they don't necessarily sympathize with or like those people.

When Psalm 139 says that God knows us intimately, does that mean that he sympathizes with us? Or does he know us as a distant judge, one who knows our number, even as he critiques us?

There are aspects of the Christ Clones model that resonate with me, but I can't imagine myself ditching God in favor of a nebulous "god within." Even if we understand each other and solve the world's problems, there will still be an emptiness or feeling of disconnection that only God can fill (in my opinion). So many religions try to deal with human alienation. Buddhism attributes it to human attachment. Gnosticism stated that we are actually divine sparks trapped in an alien world. The ones who deny human alienation seem to be atheists, who believe that this world actually can meet people's needs. Maybe that's because they see this world as all there is, so they think it has to meet our inner desires.

I didn't entirely identify with Stephen Collins' religion. I can identify with going beyond myself, but not really with transcending nature and becoming an omnipresent, omniscient being. Does that mean that I want to be a servant of a higher power for all eternity? I'm not sure. I don't know what I want.

That brings me to a key message in Star Trek: The Motion Picture: V'Ger was looking for his creator, who could explain to it the purpose for its existence. And V'Ger wanted physical contact with the one who had made him. That's one reason many of us search for God: we want to know our purpose. And if my purpose is to serve a higher power, then that's fine with me. I'd be acting according to who I am, as God made me.

My problem is that Christianity often requires me to be something I naturally am not--a happy, happy social extrovert. I wonder what my purpose is in light of how God made me: an insecure introvert who struggles socially.

Anyway, these are my ramblings for the day.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving 2008

It's Thanksgiving today, and we just had our big meal. Now, we're preparing ourselves for the best part of the holiday--leftovers for the weekend after Thanksgiving!

Most of my family and friends at the dinner didn't think the football games were that much count. I did get to see Elisabeth Hasselbeck's husband, who plays for the Dallas Cowboys. He had his helmet on, though.

UPDATE: Actually, he plays for the team that was opposing the Dallas Cowboys. I forget what they're called.

In terms of the meaning of Thanksgiving, I read a lot of editorials saying that we should be thankful despite our hard times. That's a lesson I should follow, whatever my hard times may be. As Paul said, be thankful in every circumstance (which doesn't mean be thankful for every circumstance).

My brother finally mastered one side of the rubic's cube. He's the one with the engineering degree! I asked him which would come first: the Republicans coming back into power, or him mastering the entire Rubic's cube. He said he could master the cube with the help of the Internet, but he's not too sure about the Republicans getting power back anytime soon.

Tomorrow, I'm going to blog some on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which I watched last night. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An Open CGI

I'm home in Indiana right now, and one of my traditions when I'm here is to peruse old issues of the Journal. The Journal is a newspaper that has articles by various people in the Armstrongite movement, though I believe that others have contributed to it as well. I vaguely recall reading an article by James Tabor in it.

One article in the June 30 edition concerned the Church of God (International) in Jamaica, which is headed by Ian Boyne. Although the Armstrongite movement is dying throughout the world, the CGI is growing exponentially in Jamaica. Its praise and worship is lively, meaning that it doesn't just focus on standing up and singing the same old Dwight Armstrong hymns over and over. And the preaching is dynamic, leading Garner Ted Armstrong to comment in 1987 that it was among the best preaching he had ever heard. As someone who once attended an Adventist church that is predominantly Caribbean, I am not surprised.

What did surprise me, however, was how open the CGI in Jamaica is to hearing different ideas. A seminary student who believed Christians didn't have to keep the Sabbath was given an hour to present his position to the church. Mondays are set aside for people who want to criticize something they disagreed with in the weekly sermon. And those who express disagreement are not disfellowshipped.

I already knew that Ian Boyne wasn't one to shy away from the outside world. I read a long time ago that he visited seminaries and universities and explained to their students the Armstrongite positions on various religious questions. But I had no idea that he allowed people with different beliefs to come to CGI to present their ideas.

I somewhat admire the security that such an approach projects. CGI Caribbean is not afraid to be challenged. It doesn't have the attitude of "don't read this" or "don't listen to him" that has afflicted many Armstrongite churches.

It reminds me of some of my own experiences. I've attended Sabbatarian churches that love to discuss stuff--with anyone who wants to discuss it. And they'll go around the clock if necessary! When someone from the cultish International Churches of Christ was trying to recruit me at DePauw, my dad recommended that we invite him to our church. And a church my family attended met in someone's home for a Bible study one Saturday, when some Jehovah's Witnesses knocked at the door. Our host let them in, took them downstairs, and--SURPRISE--there was a Bible study group going on! The Jehovah's Witnesses started to feel uncomfortable, and they soon left.

One reservation I have about Boynes' approach is that there needs to be caution. Some of these cultists will take over the show, if you let them! There was a reason that Paul and Ignatius told churches to obey the church authorities and not to tolerate heresy. Personally, I think Ignatius can get pretty authoritarian, but I can appreciate that he saw some need to create and enforce boundaries.

But, to his credit, Ian Boyne probably does things in an orderly manner. From what I read, he has a Sabbath service once every week, and he hashes out the controversial issues outside of the main service. The service is a place for the church to celebrate its common beliefs in a state of unity, but time outside of the service is set aside for the controversial stuff. That probably keeps things from becoming a free-for-all.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Another Nullified Law

Source: H. Graetz, History of the Jews, volume II (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1893) 487.

"How great a reverence was felt for Judah may be seen from the fact that, on his death, no less honors were paid to his body than had been shown by his grandfather, Judah I. In direct opposition to the Law, a descendant of Aaron was compelled to take charge of his corpse; it being alleged that it was permissible in this instance to lay aside the holy character of his priesthood."

I chose to write on this quote rather than one on Origen's Hexapla because I don't have a lot of time. I have to leave at 7:15.

What has intrigued me about Graetz is that he points out examples in which rabbis and Jewish leaders simply disregarded the Torah. At least that's how Graetz portrays it. He hardly ever cites his sources, so I don't know if the Jewish leaders said a law could be disobeyed, or instead looked for exegetical ways to circumvent the law.

Graetz said that Jochanan nullified a certain law about adultery in the first century C.E., when adultery was rampant (see An Adulterous Generation--Even According to the Mishnah). That checks, sort of. Mishnah Sotah indeed says that Jochanan nullified that law, yet it cites Hosea 4:14 as a proof-text. But Jochanan still nullified the law. At the same time, Hillel introduced the prosbul to circumvent the land Sabbath. For some reason, he felt that he couldn't simply declare the law null-and-void. He saw a need to bypass it legally.

Why Mess with It?

Source: John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 126.

"But of course every finite being will come up against external causes that will limit its freedom. Ideally one will want to reduce the number of those freedom-limiting encounters and to reduce the impact that they have when they occur. One way of achieving this is to reduce one's reliance on external goods. If one's happiness depends solely on one's virtue, as Stoicism argues that it should, then one will become immune to a whole range of external causes that would otherwise create adverse affects, such as the thief who takes your wallet, for instance."

I read this quote as if it offers an explanation for Stoic asceticism. Maybe I'm reading too much into it--I don't know. I interpreted it to mean that, if one doesn't have too many external goods to worry about, then one won't become overly attached to them, and there won't be any disappointments when they end up being unreliable.

That could be, but it sounds rather escapist. Shouldn't a strong Stoic be able to enjoy the world's goods, without going berserk if they end up disappointing him? Paul said in Philippians 4:11-13 that he learned to be content with much and with little, since Christ is the source of his strength in both situations. Paul didn't have to possess much or little to be content.

Paul here says that it's possible for a Christian to have much, but there are other places in the New Testament and early Christian literature that are more anti-wealth. Jesus often warns against trusting the riches of this world, encouraging his disciples to look for treasures in heaven instead (e.g., Matthew 6:19-21). He also exhorts them to sell their possessions and give alms (Luke 12:33).

Similarly, in Barnabas and Clement, there is a sense that believers should give away their riches. The Shepherd of Hermas, however, doesn't seem to oppose wealth, but it recognizes that preoccupation with riches can divert one's attention from spiritual pursuits. Under this rationale, a rich Christian can keep on being rich, as long as he spends time with God and gives some of his wealth to the needy.

Somehow, we need to find a way to appreciate the good things that we have, without becoming overly attached to them, selfish, and less focused on more important things. Some Stoics seem to have assumed that it's best to bypass that whole dilemma. And maybe that's all right. Different people have different vulnerabilities to temptation.


Source: J.J. Collins, "The Sibylline Oracles," Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 374.

"The assumption of Geffcken and Rzach that the conquest of Mesopotamia could only be prophesied after the fact is not justified. The Parthians were a menance to Roman power in the East in the first century B.C.E. and their subjection might well be prophesied by any one sympathetic to Rome."

This quote interested me because it talks about prophecy-after-the-fact--"prophecy" that "predicts" events that already occurred. Liberal scholars believe that chapters of Daniel fit into this category: events that were occurring in the second century B.C.E. were said to be prophesied centuries before by an earlier figure, Daniel.

According to Collins here, the prediction of the Sibylline Oracles that Mesopotamia (Parthia) would fall was not prophecy after the fact. It could have been wishful thinking, like the false prophets telling Ahab that he would win the battle, or those who told Judah that Babylon wouldn't conquer her, notwithstanding her sins.

It could have been a realistic forecast of what would happen, based on the situation at the time. Some have asserted that there are biblical prophecies that fall into this category. I read a liberal Christian article a while back, and it tried to explain away the prophecies that did not come to pass. For instance, Ezekiel predicted that Tyre and Egypt would be destroyed by Babylon, but that didn't exactly happen. The author of the article states that the prophet was interpreting the events of his time in light of his knowledge of God's will--how he believed God would act. He was like a religious pundit, commenting on world events.

I have a hard time seeing all of the biblical prophecies as statements of what was likely to happen, for there are some of them that are out-of-the-ordinary. When Isaiah said that Syria and Israel would fall rather than conquer Judah, that looked pretty unlikely! Isaiah even had to give Ahaz a sign--his prophecy looked that unbelievable! But prophecy isn't always a prediction based on where the trends seem to be going, for God can work in unexpected ways.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Legalistic Christians?

Source: H. Graetz, History of the Jews, volume II (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1893) 473.

"[According to the Mishna, t]he discharge of certain duties secures the enjoyment of reward on earth and in the world to come; such are the veneration of parents, charity, timely attendance at the school, hospitality, and endowment of (indigent) brides, the accompanying of corpses to the grave, devout prayer, peace-making, and especially the pursuit of religious studies (Talmud Torah)...The most heinous and atrocious sins are expiated by death, and lesser ones by repentance and the Day of Atonement, while pardon was obtained for sins of negligence by sacrifice."

What must one do to be saved--to be forgiven of sins, to receive acceptance from God, and to enter the good afterlife? Many Christians believe that this is the crucial issue that separates Christianity from Judaism and Islam. For them, Christians hold fast to justification by faith through grace alone, whereas other religions embrace some form of salvation by works. At a Jewish institution, a colleague of mine wrote a paper that contrasted the Mishnah with Tertullian, and he argued that Christians are grace-centered, whereas Jews focus more on the nuts-and-bolts of halakah.

To my surprise, the student's professor responded that Tertullian was actually quite legalistic. This somewhat undermined my colleagues stereotype of Christianity, but I can actually see the professor's point as I read through Christian literature. Look at all the good deeds in Graetz's quote that the Mishnah treats as a path to eternal life. A Christian wouldn't agree with that sort of "salvation by works" mindset, would he?

Not so fast! Barnabas 14:20 says, "Thou shalt also labour with thy hands to give to the poor, that thy sins may be forgiven thee."

(This is according to the translation in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden. The version on BibleWorks does not have that. It numbers the chapters and the verses differently, and it has, "Thou shalt remember the day of judgment, night and day. Thou shalt seek out every day the faces of the saints, either by word examining them, and going to exhort them, and meditating how to save a soul by the word, or by thy hands thou shalt labor for the redemption of thy sins." So I don't know if there are different manuscripts at work, or what.)

II Clement 16:4 (in the BibleWorks version) says that almsgiving lessens the burden of sin. These Christian writings are consistent with the deutero-canonical documents, which state that giving alms performs an atoning function (Sirach 3:30; Tobit 12:9). And, to the Protestants who will say, "That's one reason we don't like the apocrypha--it promotes salvation by works," take a look at what Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4:27: "atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged" (NRSV). I do believe that Daniel is part of the Protestant canon.

Something else to note is that Origen, like the Mishnah, believed that a person's death could atone for his sins (or at least certain ones). I remember reading this in Origen's Homilies on Leviticus.

Don't get me wrong. The early Christians and the church fathers firmly believed that Christ atoned for people's sins, and they held fast to the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. In terms of atonement, they wouldn't view almsgiving as an alternative to Jesus Christ.

But they saw atonement differently from a lot of contemporary evangelicals. For the ancient Christians, people needed forgiveness even after they embraced Jesus Christ at baptism.


Source: John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 114-122.

In this post, I'm not going to comment on a specific quote, but I'll touch on the gist of what I read today. For the Stoics, we shouldn't base our emotions on things or events, since they're not good or evil in themselves. What gets us into trouble is our reaction to them. And the higher our expectations, the greater our disappointments, as far as the Stoics are concerned.

But there were Stoics who still believed that there is some place for joy, as long as it's all about virtue, the only true good. For Stoics, people should be happy that they are virtuous people, not that things are going their way in terms of externals.

Here are some reactions:

1. How's this compare with the Bible? I think there are plenty of places in the Bible about being content in any circumstance, and of placing our hope in something other than the things of this world. What interests me is that the Bible does not really harp on the dangers of resting our identity on something other than God. It may talk about that indirectly. For example, if the Psalmist is continually hunted, he's going to trust in God rather than people. But the Bible doesn't really read like an evangelical tract, which says that we should root our self-esteem in God's love for us rather than externals. And the same goes for early Christian literature. Their focus is more on God, personal morality, and reward and punishment.

I would conclude from this that the ancients didn't think like American evangelicals, until I encounter Stoicism and Buddhism, beliefs which preceded and existed at the same time as early Christianity. These mindsets emphasize the necessity of not becoming too attached to people, events, and things, since they can easily let us down. They remind me of a typical evangelical sermon that says "people will let you down," only they lack the hope that "God will never let you down." It's still interesting that non-Christian belief systems sound more like contemporary American evangelicalism than does early Christianity.

2. Should I get my hopes up? Joel Osteen says "yes," since that's what faith is all about. Others say "no," since having high expectations is a path to disappointment. Can I walk in hope without setting myself up for a let-down?

3. Focusing on virtue for our happiness is an idea that I've heard from a couple of sources. First, when I was at DePauw, I read Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for a class, and he stressed the importance of being "principle-centered" rather than basing our emotions on things around us. I agree with being centered on something that transcends the ups and downs of everyday life. And, indeed, I tried being "principle-centered" for about a week, until I found that people got to me, often negatively.

Second, I know a lady at AA who continually says, "If you want self-esteem, do esteemable things." I can see her point. Maybe I would feel better about myself if I spent time serving others, rather than expecting others to make me happy. I think back to my experience at DePauw, when I had a scholarship that required me to do community service. I was in the dumps in those days, as I often am now. But it wasn't as bad.

At the same time, Christianity teaches us not to be proud of our good works. But maybe that doesn't mean we shouldn't feel good about them. Rather, they can be opportunities to express faith in Christ.

Sibylline Oracles, Apocalypse, Flood

Source: J.J. Collins, "The Sibylline Oracles," Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 363.

"This passage refers to a conflagration, followed by a resurrection of the dead and a judgment. Even if this passage was part of the original oracle, that oracle was not necessarily Jewish. The ideas of conflagration and resurrection could be derived from Persian religion...Even the reference to the Flood in vs. 53 is not necessarily Jewish, since both the Greeks and Macedonians had traditions of a great Deluge. The description of the four empires itself contains nothing which is specifically Jewish. The oracle evidently looks forward to the fall of Macedonia, but is not motivated by any specifically Jewish grievance."

Collins is talking about Sibylline Oracle 4. The Sibylline Oracles have a lot of layers, as you can see: pagan, Jewish, and Christian. Sometimes, it's hard to tell what's what. Collins states in a footnote that some believe the phrase "Son of God" in the Oracles is a Jewish reference to the Temple rather than a Christian reference to Jesus. That strikes me as somewhat of a stretch, but it gives you a taste of the different ideas about this book.

People other than Jews and Christians had hope that a deity would end the present era of oppression and wickedness and inaugurate a new age of righteousness and peace. There are scholars who argue that the Jews borrowed such an idea from the Zoroastrians. Maybe. I don't know. Who says an idea has to be original to be right? Hope may very well be a part of the human condition, meaning it's not just a Jewish and Christian thing.

Collins' statement about the Flood is intriguing. I once had a professor who said that all these legends about the Flood were about a bunch of local floods, not a giant, cataclysmic inundation. I have a hard time believing that, since the legends often describe only a few survivors. We're dealing with more than the Nile flooding Egypt, since lots of people survived that!

Interestingly, two Columbia professors argue that there was a huge flood in the eastern hemisphere 7,600 years ago (see here). According to them, survivors managed to escape it and carried with them a memory of the great deluge, which made its way into their myths, legends, and religious traditions. The date doesn't exactly match Archbishop Usher's biblical chronology, but it acknowledges that something had to be behind all those flood stories.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The JFK Assassination

Today is the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Some of my readers were alive when it happened.

I'm not exactly sure what to say about Kennedy. There are books that claim he was corrupt, yet there are many who herald him as one of America's greatest Presidents. In terms of accomplishments, I'm not sure why he deserves that honor, since he was only in office for about three years. But he did have certain charisma, in the sense that he projected the image of a likable guy, with the ability to inspire us. As Nixon's butler said in Oliver Stone's Nixon, he "taught me to look to the stars." And Kennedy may have been the inspiration for later Presidents who appealed to people's hopes--Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and now President-elect Barack Obama.

Was Kennedy a firm anti-Communist, or was he soft on Communism? He was a supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and yet there were right-wingers who celebrated his death, believing his Presidency was a threat to America's security. This issue looms large in the debate about Kennedy's assassination: was he shot by a lone Communist gunman, or by a government conspiracy, angered by his desire to pull out of Vietnam? And then there are those who say he had no intention of pulling out of Nam, since he sent more troops. So there are differences of opinion about what kind of character he was in the drama of American history.

One thing I really like about Kennedy was that he wanted to debate Barry Goldwater in the 1964 race for President. John McCain referred to this a lot in his own campaign, and Goldwater recounts it in his book, With No Apologies. We could have had a constructive debate about ideas had Kennedy stayed alive. Unfortunately, we got LBJ's slimeball campaign.

Judah's Lecture Notes

Source: H. Graetz, History of the Jews, volume II (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1893) 460-461.

"The style of Judah's Mishna is concise, well-rounded, and intelligent, and is thereby well adapted to impress itself firmly on the memory. He in no way intended his Mishna, however, to be regarded as the sole standard, having in fact only composed it, like his predecessors and contemporaries, for his own use, in order to possess a text-book for his lectures. But by reason of his great authority with his disciples and contemporaries his compilation gradually obtained exclusive authority, and finally superseded all previous collections, which for that reason have fallen into oblivion...His disciples disseminated it through distant lands, and as a religious and judicial code."

At some point in the future, I want to redo some reading on the Mishnah. In my class a while back, I learned that there are different ideas about what the Mishnah actually was. Was it a text-book? Or a judicial code? I never heard that it was Rabbi Judah's lecture notes, but who knows? It may have been that, at least partially. I vaguely recall reading that parts of the Mishnah came after Rabbi Judah, but I don't remember what the rationale was for that claim.

II Clement, Gentiles, and Idolatry

II Clement 1:7 states, "We were defective in our understandings; worshipping stones and wood; gold, and silver, and brass, the work of men's hands..." (Translation from The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden.)

In my academic experience, I've often read and heard that the Hebrew Bible and Christianity grossly misunderstood idolatry. "Pagans never worshipped word, stone, and metal," scholars say. "Rather, they believed that the idols were a symbol or a temple of the deity."

Maybe. But I wonder if Jewish and Christian understandings of idolatry should be blown off so easily. II Clement, after all, was written for Gentiles. Clement was the bishop of Rome. (I'm assuming that he wrote II Clement, but this is disputed). Should we assume that neither he nor his audience understood the paganism from which they converted?

Maybe the early Christians believed pagans worshipped the "work of men's hands" because their (the pagans') gods did not actually exist. If the pagan gods aren't real, then what are the pagans really worshipping? Stones, woods, and metals.

Clement, Dispensationalism, and Salvation

For my daily quiet time, I've been reading early Christian writings, such as Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, and I-II Clement. Their Christianity seems to differ from dispensationalism, particularly the brand I encounter when I read Bullinger and Scofield.

According to the dispensational writings and churches that I've encountered, we're now in the age of grace. Jesus preached to people who were still under a covenant of works, so when he said that God wouldn't forgive them if they didn't forgive others (Matthew 6:14-15), he wasn't establishing a principle that applies to Christians today. For certain dispensationalists, Christians don't forgive others in order to be forgiven by God. Rather, they forgive others because they've already been forgiven by God (see Colossians 3:13). As far as they're concerned, this is the age of grace, which began under the apostle Paul.

Dispensationalists also tend to go with once-saved-always-saved. They point to passages that talk about believers having been sealed with the Holy Spirit unto the day of redemption (Ephesians 1:13; 4:30). For them, a seal is an absolute guarantee that one will enter the good afterlife--no "if"s, "and"s, or "but"s.

But this isn't exactly the view that I encounter in early Christian literature. I'll focus here on I-II Clement, epistles written in the first-second centuries C.E. I'll be quoting the version that appears in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden.

Regarding forgiveness, let's take a look at I Clement 7:4: "Be ye merciful and ye shall obtain mercy; forgive, and ye shall be forgiven: as ye do, so shall it be done unto you: as ye give, so shall it be given unto you: as ye judge, so shall ye be judged; as ye are kind to others, so shall God be kind to you: with what measure ye mete, with the same shall it be measured to you again."

As far as Clement was concerned, Jesus' principle of forgiving others in order to be forgiven by God still applied, long after Paul had supposedly inaugurated an age of free grace (in the view of dispensationalists). And, unlike certain dispensationalists, Clement deems the Sermon on the Mount to be authoritative for Christians, since he cites it as an authority.

On the seal, let's consider II Clement 3:13, 18: "Thus speaks the prophet concerning those who keep not their seal; Their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched; and they shall be for a spectacle unto all flesh...This, therefore, is what he saith; keep your bodies pure, and your seal without spot, that ye may receive eternal life."

According to the author of II Clement, the seal of the Christian can indeed be broken, leading to his eternal punishment in hell. That's why he needs to repent. His eternal life is at stake. It's similar to the Catholic belief of "you need to repent of mortal sin before you die."

I don't care for this doctrine, but I don't think I can blithely blow it off, either. People can respond, "Well, Clement isn't the New Testament, and the New Testament is what we follow as Scripture." But if Paul had inaugurated a special dispensation of free grace and eternal security, as dispensationalists maintain, isn't it odd that Christian writers in the second century didn't seem to know about it?


In the comments section of my post, "Asperger's and Religion", "Grandma Jay" asked for my advice on an issue she's encountered, and I requested her permission to write a special post on it. This is something I need your help on! Here's the post.

Grandma Jay has a 9-year-old grandson with Asperger's Syndrome. She is concerned about his religious upbringing, since his parents are ultra-conservative fundamentalists. She said that her grandson sees the rapture as a real event, and she is concerned about how that will affect him down the road. When I responded that believing in the rapture is not a bad thing and can actually provide comfort, she replied:

"I believe it is taught as a belief in something fearful, as in 'if you're not good enough, you won't be 'raptured'.' I also believe it's nonsense. Christ clearly taught that you would not know the time and place. Why speculate? Concentration on the 'end times' robs us of living Christ-like in the present."

You can click on the "Asperger's and Religion" link to see the full discussion. What I need from my diverse readers is advice for Grandma Jay as to how she should go about this situation.

My readers are various. Many of them are recovering from an apocalyptic religion, be it Armstrongism or fundamentalist Christianity. I also have readers who believe in the rapture and end-times prophecy, but they've found a way to hold on to those beliefs while leading a mature life, at peace with God, others, and themselves. And some are atheists or non-Christians, who may have insight into how to interact with people who have radically different beliefs from their own.

We'll see where this goes! Thanks in advance for your comments.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Stoic Martyrs

Source: John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 108-109.

"If I am doing my best to be a rational being who is free and independent of others, then I will sometimes have to make choices that may appear not to further my own self-preservation. For instance, if a tyrant threatens to kill me if I do not do certain things that I find objectionable or think to be wrong, then--if I am to preserve myself as a rational being--I should stand up to the tyrant even if this may mean the loss of my life (see e.g. Epictetus, Diss. 1.2). But why? How could getting myself killed possibly contribute to my self-preservation? Well, it may not contribute to my self-preservation in so far as I am merely a living animal, but giving in to the tyrant will equally destroy me as an independent rational being. I may remain biologically alive if I give in to the tyrant, but I will have lost something far more important, having reduced myself to a slave. Thus the Stoic doctrine of self-preservation will, in cases of rational beings--that is, philosophers working towards the ideal of the sage--sometimes lead to choices that may actually threaten an individual's physical existence. But then as Socrates famously put it, it is not merely living, but living well that matters (Plato, Crito 48b)."

When I read the books of Maccabees, a question that entered my mind every now and then was, "Why does any of this matter?" What do I mean by that? Well, basically, the books are about the Jews being willing to fight and die for their religion. They fought to preserve the Sabbath and circumcision. When Antiochus threatened them with death if they refused to eat pork, many of them held fast to God's food laws. I guess my question was, "Why? What's the big deal?" What's it matter if a Jew leaves his foreskin on rather than taking it off? Or if a he works on a Saturday rather than resting on it? Or if he has a taste of nice, juicy pig-meat?

I wonder how Catholics would answer my question. They see I-II Maccabees as canonical, yet they believe that Jesus abolished the Sabbath, circumcision, and biblical food laws. Were Jews dying for things that Jesus would soon abolish, anyway? What was the point of that?

I've wondered at times if I would be willing to die for the Christian faith. To be honest, Christianity often looks to me like one religion among others. Why should I die for this particular belief system? Does it really matter?

I guess this quote on Stoicism made certain things clear to me. One should be willing to die for something because otherwise he's a slave. He's a slave to someone who tries to force others to see things his way, while eliminating belief systems that contain a lot of good.

I'm approaching this from a perspective of modern-day tolerance, and the ancients may not have done that. Jews and Christians believed that their deaths demonstrated their commitment to the sovereignty of God, not some petty dictator. And I'm not sure why the Stoics died. Maybe they wanted to show that nothing shook them, not even death.

Greco-Roman Monotheism, Biblical Intolerance

Source: George W.E. Nickelsburg, "Stories of Biblical and Early Post-Biblical Times," Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 77-79.

"There is little that is particularly Jewish in these answers. For the most part, their content and themes--including the references to God and the imitation of God--are paralleled in pagan Hellenistic treatises on kingship...Even his criticism of idolatry (134-138) does not erect a barrier between Jews and Greeks. As Aristeas points out to the king, 'the same God who has given them [the Jews] their law guides your kingdom also...God, the overseer and creator of all things, whom they worship, is He whom all men worship, and we too...though we address him differently as Zeus and Dis' (15-16)."

Nickelsburg is discussing the Letter of Aristeas, which he dates to the second century B.C.E.

Often, when I read Greco-Roman or Hellenistic literature, I see references to "God." Aristotle and Plato had conceptions of "God," as did the Stoics. Nickelsburg says that the Jews' speeches in Aristeas on imitating "God" had Hellenistic parallels.

That sounds pretty monotheistic. Didn't non-Jews worship many gods? Then why all these references to "God" in Greco-Roman literature? I'm sure that there was polytheism in Greco-Roman cultures, since we know of their many deities--Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Poseidon, Aphrodite, etc., etc. But there were other elements of those cultures that were more sophisticated (from a certain point of view), as they searched for the one God who orders the cosmos. Similarly, although Hinduism has millions of deities, I've heard it claims that one single reality underlies all of them.

But Aristeas also has the "we all worship the same god, but we call him different names" spiel. This reminds me of three things. For one, it brings to mind a conversation I had with an evangelical on Facebook--on whether or not Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews. I claimed that they do, since all three of the religions believe there's one all-powerful God, who embodies and enforces a righteous standard. But she thought the Muslims' different conception of God meant that they were worshipping another deity altogether--distinct from the one in Judaism and Christianity.

But, when it comes down to it, wouldn't we all be worshipping a different God under that logic? No two people picture God in exactly the same way. Some see God as merciful, while others view him as strict. Most of us think he's a mixture of the two. Our conceptions overlap, yet they have clear differences. Does that mean we're all worshipping different gods?

Second, the quote makes me think about the Joan of Arcadia episode, "A Book of Secrets." Grace is having her bat mitzvah, and God wants Joan to help her out with it. Joan asks God why he created so many religions, and God responds that there are different people, so they all need different ways to relate to him. On some level, I like this statement, but I also deem it problematic. God is the source of all the world's religions? What if they contradict one another in their description of reality? Does that make God a liar? Moreover, while Grace lauded the Torah at her bat mitzvah service, the fact is that the Torah is not exactly the most tolerant book in the world. It said don't worship other gods. There's no "different names for one god" spiel in there.

On that note, I also think about the final episode of the second season, the one in which the villain burns down churches and synagogues. Will Gerardi of the Arcadia Police Department is not all that religious--actually, he's quite hostile to religion. But he's still upset that somebody destroyed something that others hold to be sacred. Barbara Hall said she was trying to get that point across in the episode.

But, again, the Bible is not all that tolerant. God told the Israelites to destroy the Canaanite altars. He instructed Gideon to tear down the altar of Baal. The good kings in the eyes of the Deuteronomist were those who got rid of certain sanctuaries. It didn't matter that people may have considered them sacred, as far as the biblical authors were concerned.

So there's a part of me that would love to be a religious pluralist, one who believes that so many people are grasping after the same being, who eludes all of us (as one professor told me). But the Bible doesn't always lend itself to that sort of mindset.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Graetz and Tobit

Source: H. Graetz, History of the Jews, volume II (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1893) 430.

"Hadrian and Rufus's cruel measures were directed not against the survivors alone, but also against the dead. The heaps of dead [Jewish] bodies were not permitted to be interred, but the horrible sight was intended as a warning to the survivors that they should no longer dream of deliverance from the Roman yoke...It appears that a pious man desired to impress upon the survivors who had made peace with the Romans, and who lived in seclusion, the necessity of interring the corpses in the darkness of the night, even at the cost of their own happiness and peace. To this end he composed a book--the Book of Tobit--in which great weight is laid on the duty of secretly interring the bodies of those whom the tyrants doomed to disgrace; and at the same time it was hinted that the danger attending his duty would bring a rich reward. In evidence of this the case was cited of the pious Tobit, who after suffering many misfortunes as the result of his labor of love, was in the end rewarded with rich blessings. The contents of the Book of Tobit undeniably indicate that it was composed in the reign of Hadrian."

Most scholars these days do not date Tobit to the time of Hadrian, who ruled in the second century C.E. This is for a variety of reasons, one of which is that an Aramaic version of Tobit was found at Qumran, and Qumran was destroyed before the time of Hadrian. So obviously the book existed before then!

But Graetz was doing what he could with what he had at the time, in this case, the nineteenth century. And he noticed a parallel between something that happened in the time of Hadrian and the plot-line of Tobit. Many scholars today use the same sort of approach to date books--if a book has themes like a tyrannical madman and the Jews' desire to preserve their religion, then it probably originated in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, who was a tyrannical madman trying to destroy the Jewish religion. Now that I see how Graetz fowled up while being so sure, I wonder how certain such an approach actually is.

On a related note, it amazes me how late some books of the apocrypha/deutero-canon may be. Many scholars date the Wisdom of Solomon to the first century C.E., since it reflects knowledge of Rome. Isn't that a little late to be part of the Old Testament?

The Stoic God

Source: John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 91-104.

Ordinarily, I give specific quotes when I write these kinds of posts, but there is so much good stuff in my reading today that I can't do that. So I'll touch on some points that leaped out to me.

The Stoics believed that God permeated the universe, which means they were pantheists. Did they believe that this God was conscious? The answer appears to be "yes." As Sellars states in summarizing their position, "an unconscious cosmos cannot give rise to conscious beings, so if there are any conscious beings in the cosmos then consciousness must also be an attribute of the cosmos itself" (94).

This reminds me of an experience I had at Harvard. A friend and I were both writing papers on Paul Tillich, and I had problems with Tillich's notion that God is "being" or the "ground of being," rather than a being. My friend responded that Tillich may very well believe that God has consciousness and a personality, since his God encompasses and surpasses all sorts of binaries. Why wouldn't that include consciousness? My friend pointed out some passage in Tillich's Systematic Theology to support his point, but I don't remember what it was. So Sellars' Stoicism quote took me back in time to that discussion over a nice dinner.

So what is the God of Stoicism doing? He's ordering the world and events in it according to his wisdom. For Stoics, this world has the best possible arrangement, since it accords with God's will. And, if one wants to point to the existence of evil, Stoics will basically say what a lot of Christians like to parrot: we don't see the big picture. For Stoics, in terms of individual details, evil and hurt exist. But the big picture is actually quite beautiful and orderly.

Stoics were fatalists because they believed that things happened like they were supposed to, but they didn't think that fate absolved people of individual responsibility. For example, they said that everyone is fated to die, but we can exercise some control over when our time of death will be. That's why we shouldn't be reckless! So maybe Stoicism was not completely fatalistic.

Satan: Prosecutor or Embodiment of Evil?

Source: George W.E. Nickelsburg, "Stories of Biblical and Early Post-Biblical Times," Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 53.

"As Isaiah is being tortured, Bechir-ra, acting as the mouthpiece of Satan, attempts to get the prophet to recant. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, Isaiah refuses, curses Bechir-ra and the demonic powers he represents, and dies."

Nickelsburg is discussing the Martyrdom of Isaiah, which he dates to the second century B.C.E. Nickelsburg sometimes assumes that literature is talking about Satan when it doesn't specifically do so, for he states that Jubilees refers to birds as agents of Satan, when actually Mastema is the one who sends them. In the case of the Martyrdom of Isaiah, however, Satan is explicitly mentioned, for 2:2-3 say that the evil King Manasseh served Satan and his angels.

I have a colleague who says that the concept of Satan as the embodiment of evil first appeared in New Testament times. Many scholars have argued that, in the Hebrew Bible, Satan was like a prosecuting attorney, who continually pointed out to God the faults of his people, even going so far as to place them in a position to display their sins (as in the case of Job). I heard one professor assert that the word "Satan" was a technical term for prosecutor in a particular ancient Near Eastern country, but the Anchor Bible Dictionary says that the word is unattested in the ancient Near East, so I'm not sure who's right.

In the intertestamental period, my colleague contends, God doesn't have one major adversary in Jewish literature, but rather there are many demons. For my colleague, Satan as the embodiment of evil first emerges in the New Testament, since Jesus knew about the spiritual realm and could inform us about it. (My colleague wrote the paper at a Christian school.)

But apparently Satan is the embodiment of evil in the Martyrdom of Isaiah. Indeed, he tries to trip Isaiah up, but that could be part of his prosecutorial role of showing a person's not worthy of God's favor. But he seems to be more than a prosecutor: he's the one evil King Manasseh is worshipping when he serves idols. He is the source of evil.

I think he may be something like that in the Hebrew Bible as well. I don't want to dismiss him being a prosecutor, but I find it interesting that the Hebrew Bible often uses the word "Satan" to refer to enemies. Here's a quote from Victor Hamilton's article on "Satan" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary:

"The first human called a śātān in the OT is David. Philistines rulers, observing the presence of David and his supporters in their camp as they prepared for war with Israel, complained that David would in fact become their “adversary” (1 Sam 29:4), and thus win the favor of his own king, Saul.

"The second instance involves Shimei, a Benjaminite who had earlier cursed and humiliated David as the king fled Jerusalem (2 Sam 16:5–14). Subsequently a repentant Shimei sought David’s forgiveness (2 Sam 19:19b–21—Eng 19:18b–20). Abishai, a member of David’s court, pushed for Shimei’s execution for blaspheming the king. David, however, opted for leniency, and branded Abishai (and his brothers) as an 'adversary' for even suggesting such a thing (2 Sam 19:23—Eng 19:22). Killing Shimei, while legally permissible, would seriously diminish David’s chance of effectively ingratiating himself with the Saulide Benjaminites. David will decide who, if anybody, shall die for any crime.

"The third instance involves Solomon. He wrote to Hiram, king of Tyre and friend of his late father, stating that David had been unable to build a temple because he was so preoccupied with war in expanding and defending his empire. Now, however, Solomon is free to pursue that project, for his era is one of relative peace, one in which Solomon is without any kind of an “adversary” (1 Kgs 5:18—Eng 5:4). Clearly śātān here designates military enemies, those who threaten the well-being of others.

"Perhaps Solomon, in speaking of the absence of satans on his borders, spoke prematurely. Some years later Yahweh raised up two satans against Solomon, whose relationship with Yahweh was in disarray. The first was Hadad from Edom (1 Kgs 11:14), and the second was Rezon from Syria (1 Kgs 11:23, 25). Here again, the meaning of śātān is military rival who lives outside one’s empire."

"Satan" means "adversary," or "enemy." It's not a proper name, as so many Christians treat it, but it's what someone is. It can even refer to humans. That's why the devil is called ha-Satan--the Satan--rather than just Satan: it's a role he plays, not his proper name. And maybe he is called that, not so much because he's a prosecutor, but because he's the enemy of God and all humanity, especially God's people.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sneaking Stuff In

Source: H. Graetz, History of the Jews, volume II (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1893) 385-386.

"Akylas became celebrated through his new Greek translation of the Holy Scriptures. The license with which the Christians treated the old Greek version appears to have awakened him to the necessity of a simple but fixed form of translation. As the Christians read the Holy Scriptures at their service, and employed the Alexandrian translation of the so-called Seventy (Septuaginta), they were anxious to deduce from this text numerous references to Christ. They changed various sentences and added others, in order to obtain the desired prophecies about Christ in the Greek text, which they held sacred...The Jews, on the other hand, startled at the alterations made in order to confirm the Christian point of view, did not hesitate to introduce changes of their own in order to remove all apparent allusions to Christ."

Aquila was a second century C.E. figure who translated what became the Masoretic Version of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. According to Graetz, he did so to rid the text of Christian additions.

Were there Christian additions? I've read Jewish apologists who say "yes." Rabbi Toviah Singer, for example, has claimed that the word "parthenos" (virgin) in the LXX of Isaiah 7:14 was written by a Christian, for the purpose of supporting the virgin birth. The Hebrew is actually almah, which means a young woman (the same way that alam means young man).

And there are Christians who claim that Jews expunged the Hebrew Bible of stuff that sounds Christian, stuff that supposedly predicted Jesus. I saw a book that argued this when I was at Harvard Divinity School. I didn't read all of it, and it was popular rather than scholarly. But, again, we see the claim that people have tampered with the Hebrew Bible.

I recently read the Epistle of Barnabas for my daily quiet time, and I often found myself scratching my head and saying, "Barnabas claims he's citing Scripture, but I've never encountered a verse like that before!" For example, Barnabas 12:8-10 states:

"What again saith Moses unto Jesus (Joshua) the son of Nun, when he giveth him this name, as being a prophet, that all the people might give ear to him alone, because the Father revealeth all things concerning His Son Jesus? Moses therefore saith to Jesus the son of Nun, giving him this name, when he sent him as a spy on the land; Take a book in thy hands, and write what the Lord saith, how the Son of God shall cut up by the roots all the house of Amalek in the last days. Behold again it is Jesus, not a son of man, but the Son of God, and He was revealed in the flesh in a figure." (Lightfoot's Apostolic Fathers in English)

What's Barnabas referring to? It appears to be something like Exodus 17:4, which says (in the LXX), "And the Lord said to Moses, Write this for a memorial in a book, and speak this in the ears of Joshua; for I will utterly blot out the memorial of Amalec from under heaven" (Brenton translation). There's nothing about the son of God or the last days, from what I can see.

I'm not sure if the Christians were adding stuff to that verse, since they could have made it more overtly Christian had they so desired. What's in the above verse looks like something a Jew could conceivably write: Jews called the Davidic king the Son of God (Psalm 2; II Samuel 7:14), and there would be a need for him to kill the Amalekites in the last days, since they seem to keep cropping up. Haman was an Agagite, after all (Esther 3:1)!

I guess my point is that there seemed to be flexibility in the biblical text. How much of that was a means of interpretation? I'm not sure. We know that the Jews sort of mixed interpretation and translation, since that's what they did in their targumim (Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible).

Tabula Rasa

Source: John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 76-77.

"In the immediately preceding text Epictetus acknowledges that we do not have innate ideas of triangles or other things that we learn via experience, but here he seemingly goes on to imply that we have innate ideas concerning moral notions...[W]e also have other evidence to suggest that the Stoics thought that individuals would naturally tend towards a virtuous life and that our all too common deviations from virtue are the product either of external influences leading us astray or of faulty reasoning."

Tabula rasa! Stoicism is consistent with Paul in the sense that it says humans are born with an innate moral code. And Paul says in Romans 2:15, "They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them" (NRSV).

But Paul diverges from the Stoics in his view on human nature. According to the quote from Sellars, the Stoics maintained that humans were born good but became bad through environmental factors or faulty reasoning. I'm curious about where they believe evil came from, if everyone was born good, but that's a problem Christians have too: how did Adam and Eve sin, when God created them good? But, back to our topic, Paul differs from the Stoics in that he continually treats "the flesh" as sinful (Romans 6-8).

Augustine said that humans are actually born corrupt, which we can see by the selfishness of babies.

If humans are born with an innate moral code, why do we need to be taught virtue? Is it for reinforcement, or discipline for our straying natures?

Bad Birds!

Source: George W.E. Nickelsburg, "Stories of Biblical and Early Post-Biblical Times," Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 42.

"Sarah's suffering [in Tobit] is caused by the demon Asmodaeus, Tobit's blindness is caused by sparrows. For birds as instruments of Satan, cf. Jub. 11:19-24."

The Satan part of the Jubilees passage actually occurs in v 10: "And the prince Mastêmâ sent ravens and birds to devour the seed which was sown in the land, in order to destroy the land, and rob the children of men of their labours."

I wonder about the role of birds in various movies I've seen. First, there's Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Were they Satanic? No, but they were mean and destructive. I think they were mad at that one woman for bringing songbirds in a cage, so they launched a mass protest against the captivity of their own kind. But Alfred Hitchcock is playing to something within us that doesn't like birds.

Second, there's Stephen King's The Dark Half, in which birds take away the evil side of an author. There, the birds do good in that they defeat the bad guy.

Third, there's the bird on the Passion of the Christ, who takes out the eye of one of the malefactors on the cross. A former nun at Jewish Theological Seminary once said that this is a common medieval Christian motif, though I don't remember her precise words on this topic.

Can God use Satan to accomplish good? That would explain how the birds in the Dark Half and the Passion happen to do God's will, assuming that Stephen King and Mel Gibson are familiar with the motif of birds as Satan's emissaries. The answer is "yes." In Revelation 9, God uses the scorpions of Apollyon to execute his judgment. Apollyon is the lord of the bottomless pit, which is the abode of demons and the source of the Beast (Luke 8:31; Revelation 11:7).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Deuteronomy 23, the Bible, and the Rabbis

Source: H. Graetz, History of the Jews, volume II (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1893) 343.

"The day of the assembly of witnesses was also of general importance, on account of...questions that were discussed. [One] question arose thus. A heathen of Ammonite descent came before the meeting, asking whether he could be legally accepted as a proselyte. Gamaliel had turned him away with the sentence of the written law, 'Moabites and Ammonites may not be received into the congregation of God, even in the tenth generation.' The disputants treated this question with warmth, and Gamaliel endeavored to have his view carried. Joshua, however, carried his view that the sentence of the Law no longer applied to those times, as, through the aggressions of their conquerors, all nations had become mixed together and confused beyond recognition."

Where do I begin? I have so much to say!

As a graduate student, I'm supposed to come up with topics that interest me. This will be one of them, for I've encountered it throughout my academic career. Deuteronomy 23 excludes certain people from the assembly of the Lord. That sounds pretty racist and non-inclusive, but it's in the Bible.

Within the biblical writings, there's disagreement about this issue. Isaiah 56 says God will welcome eunuchs and make his house a place of prayer for all people. That seems to go against Deuteronomy 23, which bans eunuchs, Ammonites, Moabites, and others deemed sub-defective (a Joan of Arcadia term).

The book of Ruth is about a Moabitess who joins the community of Israel. That appears to violate Deuteronomy 23, though, as we shall see, there were rabbis who disagreed and saw consonance between the two.

So did God change his mind and become more inclusive after the exile, which is when many scholars date Isaiah 56? Not necessarily, for Nehemiah 13:1 asserts that Deuteronomy 23 still stands. So there were different ideas on what exactly God wanted in terms of certain Gentiles and eunuchs.

Now, to the rabbis. I'm surprised that there were rabbis who felt that they could simply eliminate a law from the Torah. We've seen this before, as one rabbi asserted that a biblical law on adultery didn't apply in his generation because there were too many adulterers for it to be practical (see here). But there were also rabbis who went out of their way to uphold the eternity of the Torah. For example, Ezekiel and the Torah have contradictory laws, and some rabbis try their best to reconcile them. As far as they're concerned, the Torah is God's perfect law, whose precepts will last forever. They wouldn't eliminate a law just because it doesn't look practical!

The same goes with Deuteronomy 23. Deuteronomy 23 bars Moabites from God's assembly, yet Ruth the Moabitess joined the Israelites. Is this a contradiction? Not according to some rabbis, who like to point out that Ruth was a Moabitess, not a Moabite. So I guess they believe in Deuteronomy 23.

Also, the rationale of the rabbi who tries to get rid of Deuteronomy 23 is humorous. It reminds me of something someone told me about W.E.B. Du Bois, or maybe it was Frederick Douglass. Whites in old times liked to appeal to the curse of Ham in Genesis 9 to justify slavery. The problem is this: how do we know who's descended from Ham? We're all mixed in terms of our race. So if society decides to enslave all Hamites, they'll have a hard time sorting them out, since most people are probably descended from a Hamite in some way, shape, or form. Who would be the slave, and who would be the master?

And this applies to other issues as well. Armstrongites like to make a big deal about how the United States and Britain are descended from Israel, as if they know this for a fact. But how can we make that claim? There's no pure line of descent, as if there are pure Brits who are descended from Israel in a linear fashion. Genealogy is more complicated than that.

The problem with that one rabbi's argument, however, is that he seems to undercut the special status of the Jewish people. If racial or national groups no longer matter because we're all mutts anyhow, then what's that do to the status of the Jewish people as a nation chosen by God? Is there a distinct group of Jewish people?

In the Sea-Storm

Source: John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 66.

"According to Gellius' account, the passage from Epictetus said the following. It argued that the impressions we receive that present external objects to us are not within our control. We do not have the power to choose them; instead they force themselves on us. However, we do have the power to choose whether to assent to these impressions or not. But in a situation such as the storm at sea, the mind of even the Stoic sage will be disturbed by the sudden impressions it receives against its will. In an interesting discussion of Gellius' account, Augustine glosses this point by saying that it is as if the resulting emotion is just too quick for the mind (De Civitate Dei 9.4.2). However, although the Stoic philosopher might be briefly overcome by the force of the sudden impression, he will not give his assent to the impression. Instead he will stand firm, reject the impression that something terrible is happening, and affirm that in fact nothing bad has occurred. In contrast, the other passengers in the storm will unthinkingly assent to the impression that something terrible is indeed happening."

If a storm at sea strikes, even a Stoic will be afraid, at least for a little while. That's human nature. Sure, because life is so hard, there have been times when I've thought that I wouldn't care that much if my life were endangered. But I shake when I think about being at a high point and possibly falling. The thought of drowning scares me. So I can understand why someone would be afraid of a storm at sea. The vulnerability of a person at that moment, as a storm threatens to tear up his very ground amidst a vast body of water! I shudder to think about it.

This quote on the Stoic at sea reminds me of things I've seen in Christianity. One evangelical told me that a true Christian should have a resolute faith in God, even if he were hanging over Niagra Falls. I'm sure she'd recognize that even a strong Christian would be afraid in that sort of situation, but she'd probably go on to say that he would overcome such fear as he clung to his faith.

Acts 27 is the story of Paul in the midst of the sea-storm. An angel tells him that everything will be all right, Paul then eats before the other passengers with utter peace, and the passengers begin to take comfort. I kind of like this. The quote on Stoicism reminds me of what I see in evangelicalism: "Look at me! I'm at peace in this difficult situation. Those heathens are not. Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah." But Acts 27 actually shows Paul giving encouragement and comfort to those very "heathens." He's at peace, but not only for his own sake.

But even Paul had to deal with fear, as II Corinthians 7:5 states: "For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted in every way--disputes without and fears within" (NRSV). And he had every reason to be afraid, with all the people trying to kill him and the storms at sea he continually encountered. But he found a way to be courageous through all of his fears. What gave him strength was his realization that nothing in creation could separate him from the love of God in Jesus Christ his Lord (Romans 8:35-39). As he said to his shipmates in the midst of the storm, he belonged to God (Acts 27:23).

Nova on the Bible

I just watched the Nova program on the Bible's Buried Secrets. It had on a few scholars whom I saw or met in Israel.

In terms of its perspective, it pretty much followed William Dever's ideology: minimalist on the Exodus and the Conquest, maximalist on the existence of David and Solomon. I've learned a lot of what was on it in the course of my education, but I had forgotten much of it, since I'm not a walking encyclopedia.

You know, I hate to say this, but my reaction right now is, "Who cares?" Or, rather, "Why should I care?" Look, even if the maximalists are right, what have they established that is helpful to the faith? That Solomon built a six-chambered gate? Whoopee! That doesn't have anything to do with the Hebrew Bible's religious interpretations of history. But, for whatever reason, there are conservative Christians who use maximalism to defend their religion.

There are many aspects of biblical scholarship that don't inspire me that much. I've had professors who could touch on the scholarly angle while maintaining a sensitivity to the religious dimensions of the text. But there's a lot of academia that doesn't do this. And this Nova program didn't do it either. At least Mysteries of the Bible tried. Plus, it had a better soundtrack. But, overall, I get more inspiration from watching my television shows (e.g., Waltons, Joan of Arcadia, Eli Stone, etc.) than I do from certain elements of biblical scholarship.

I think the Nova program was trying to be inspiring when it described the shift of the Jewish religion to a universalistic direction. When the exile came, it argued, the Jews found ways to relate to God outside of the Temple, such as prayer and the Sabbath. Plus they began to see their God as the creator of heaven and earth.

I'm sure they hung onto those things rather fiercely during the exile, but I'm not convinced that those things didn't exist before. Why would the Israelites have to be in exile to believe their God was the creator? The Egyptians believed an Egyptian god was the creator. The Babylonians believed that about one of their gods, Marduk. It was an ancient Near Eastern idea: my god is the one who made everything we see around us. Why couldn't the Israelites have had it before the exile?

I thought the show was a good refresher course on the Bible and archaeology. I just find that much of what it was saying doesn't matter to me anymore.

Moses, Peter, and Get Out of Jail Free

Source: Harold W. Attridge, "Historiography," Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 167.

"Moses, after the burning bush encounter, returns to Egypt where he is imprisoned. He miraculously escapes when, during the night, the doors of the prison miraculously open. (It was the parallel between this account and the report of the escape of Peter in Acts 12:3-17 which caught the attention of Clement of Alexandria.)"

Attridge is referring to the Jewish historian Artapanus (second century B.C.E.), who is cited by Clement of Alexandria in the Stromata (second-third centuries C.E.).

I'm not sure what Attridge has in mind here. I checked Clement's Stromata 1:23, which is where Clement refers to the story of Moses' release from prison. Clement doesn't mention Acts 12, but he does compare Moses to Peter in the sense that both killed people with the words of their mouths (Acts 5). Here's what Clement says:

"And the mystics say that he slew the Egyptian by a word only; as, certainly, Peter in the Acts is related to have slain by speech those who appropriated part of the price of the field, and lied (Acts v. 1). And so Artapanus, in his work On the Jews, relates 'that Moses, being shut up in custody by Chenephres, king of the Egyptians, on account of the people demanding to be let go from Egypt, the prison being opened by night, by the interposition of God, went forth, and reaching the palace, stood before the king as he slept, and aroused him; and that the latter, struck with what had taken place, bade Moses tell him the name of the God who had sent him; and that he, bending forward, told him in his ear; and that the king on hearing it fell speechless, but being supported by Moses, revived again.'"

Maybe Clement is saying something like "Moses and Peter are alike in such-and-such a way, but here's another example of their similarity." I don't know. I'm a little disappointed, however, because I was wondering how Clement accounted for the similarity between the two stories. I can picture modern scholars asserting that Acts copied the story of Moses' release from prison and applied it to Peter, but Clement of Alexandria wouldn't do that, even though he often accuses the pagans of plagiarizing off the Hebrews. He may just think that two similar events happened in history.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Mercy to Nations Sin

Source: H. Graetz, History of the Jews, volume II (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1893) 331.

"Jochanan ben Zakkai, the head not of the State but of the community, appears to have acted as a shield from a political point of view. His kindly and gentle disposition, in which he resembled Hillel, he displayed even to the heathens. It is related of him that he always greeted them in a friendly manner. Such friendliness offers a striking contrast to the hatred felt by the Zealots towards the heathens, both before and after the revolution, which increased after the destruction of the Temple. The verse (Proverbs xiv. 34), 'the kindness of the nations is sin,' was taken literally by the people of that time, and was especially applied to the heathen world. 'The heathens may do ever so much good, yet it is accounted to them as sin, for they do it only to mock us.' Jochanan alone explained this verse in a sense expressive of true humanity: 'As the burnt-offering atones for Israel, so mercy and kindness atone for the heathen nations.'"

The NRSV translates Proverbs 14:34 to say, "Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people." You see that verse on the inside covers of Gideon's Bibles. The phrase in question is the one translated, "but sin is a reproach to any people." Literally, it reads "mercy to nations sin." The word translated as "sin" is "chatat," which can refer to a sin or a sin-offering. So one group is taking the passage to mean that God accounts the Gentiles' mercy as sinful, whereas another interprets it to say that the Gentiles' kindness is a sin-offering, which makes atonement before God.

I wonder what the verse means in its original context. Is it saying that nations should be righteous rather than showing mercy to the nations--kind of a justification for the Conquest? I don't know.

Knowing Good, Doing Good?

Source: John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 53.

"When one of his students interrupts and says that studying logic is a waste of time because it will not help him improve his character, Epictetus replies by saying how can any of us hope to do that unless we are able to define what it is that we hope to improve and are able to distinguish between truth and falsehood."

This quote is from a chapter that discusses the Platonic idea that to know the good is to love and do the good. The Stoics somewhat agreed with Plato on that, yet they maintained that truly "knowing" the good often entailed a lot of time, practice, and discipline. It's not just a matter of hearing information and becoming instantaneously transformed, as far as the Stoics were concerned!

The quote seems to talk about a light going on in a darkened mind. A person realizes that he's supposed to live a certain way, and logic inexorably points him in that direction. He can now work on building character, since he know what good character is, and why it actually is good.

In my I Clement quiet time, I read 17:17 (in the Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden), which states that Christ enlightened the darkened mind. I'm not entirely sure what's going on in Clement's head, but it reminds me of what I got from Tim Keller in my time in New York: when we truly receive the Gospel of God's free grace through Christ, our perspective is changed in so many ways. We are touched by God's love, and that influences how we view and treat ourselves, our neighbors, and society.

That's kind of a Platonic way of seeing things: know something to be true and right, and you automatically do it. But is this always the perspective of the Bible? Not necessarily, for James says that faith without works is dead, and that the demons believe God is one and tremble. One apparently can have correct knowledge without it changing his life for the better.

A relevant topic is the villain on the last episode of Joan of Arcadia. On some level, he knows God, since God spoke to him. Still, he hates God. At the same time, what he believes about God is not necessarily so, for he thinks that God forsakes people and is a love-starved, narcissistic deity. If he truly knew God's love, would he believe that way and act accordingly? I'm not sure. It's possible. Lucifer knew God, yet he pursued power rather than receiving God's love.

King Moses

Source: George W.E. Nickelsburg, "The Bible Rewritten and Expanded," Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 126-127.

"In his dream Moses is conveyed to Sinai's peak, where he sees a gigantic throne and upon it, God himself in human semblence. God bids him approach the throne, gives him the sceptre, seats him on the throne and crowns him. From the throne, Moses beholds the whole universe. According to the interpretation, Moses 'will cause a great throne to arise,' (line 95), and he himself will rule over mortals. His vision of the universe is interpreted not cosmologically, but historically; he will see all things present, past, and future...Moses' enthronement draws on the idea that the prophet was also king, an idea attested in Philo of Alexandria and the Rabbis and based on Deuteronomy 33:5[--'There arose a king in Jeshurun, when the leaders of the people assembled-- the united tribes of Israel.' NRSV]. His being seated upon God's throne may reflect Exodus 7:1 ('See I make you as God to Pharaoh')."

Nicklesburg is talking about a composition of Ezekiel the Tragedian, who could have written anytime between the third-first centuries B.C.E. (Nobody knows.) The above quote reminds me of things I've heard in the course of my education:

1. In my evangelical Bible study group at DePauw, the leader loved to poke fun at the biblical heroes' foibles, since they clearly demonstrated that God saves people by grace, not on account of their personal merit. "And so you're not supposed to worship the Bible heroes, as the Jews do," he said.

He's partially right about Judaism. No, it didn't "worship" the biblical heroes, but it did tend to hold them in high regard. In The Bible As It Was, James Kugel points out that Jewish exegesis attempted to explain away the faults of the biblical heroes, since it expected godly people to behave in a righteous manner. In the Prayer of Manasseh, Manasseh boldly affirms that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not need repentance. Try to say that at an evangelical Bible study group! "Of course they need repentance, for all have sinned," a bunch of evangelicals would say at once.

At the same time, Judaism can also be pretty hard on biblical heroes. The Aggadah is not that nice to Deborah and Jephthah, for example.

But Moses was a high-ranking biblical hero, so I'm not surprised that Ezekiel the Tragedian elevates him to such a high rank. As far as the Bible goes, we can't deny that it makes a big deal about Moses' faults, to the point that Moses doesn't even get to enter the Promised Land. At the moment, though, I'm not sure how Jewish exegesis handles Moses' errors.

2. If memory serves me correctly, Stephen Geller at Jewish Theological Seminary said something to the effect that Moses was a king-like figure. And that makes sense, considering that kings in the ancient Near East were often the source of law. Case in point: Hammurabi. So why does the Torah have Moses giving the law rather than a real king? A professor of mine here at Hebrew Union College says it's because the Torah is exilic and post-exilic--times when the monarchy was irrelevant.

Another professor at JTS, Stephen Garfinkel, has done research on Moses as a divine figure. The Bible can be interpreted to imply something like that, since Moses had horns when he came down from Sinai, and horns are a sign of divinity. I never had Dr. Garfinkel, so I don't know what his argument is. But Ezekiel the Tragedian does lean in the direction of treating Moses as a divine figure.

Search This Blog