Monday, May 3, 2010

Cold Turkey; Reversing Curses; Speech Communities; Indebted Proselyte; Argument from Silence

1. Samuel C. Hyde, Jr., Pistols and Politics: The Dilemma of Democracy in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes, 1810-1899, pages 12-13:

This mistrust of a meddling or energetic government remained central to the piney-woods existence. The Livingston Parish Police Jury solved the perennial problem of forcing rural farmers to honor their obligations to maintain public roads by appointing them overseers with independent control over designated sections of the roads. Each specific section would theoretically belong to a farmer and typically would be named for him. Such a system relied on peer pressure rather than legal coercion to ensure road maintenance.

This reminds me of the 1971 Norman Lear film, Cold Turkey, which is about a tobacco company that offers $25 million to the town that can stop smoking for thirty days. Dick Van Dyke plays a minister who tries to organize his town to take up the company’s offer, but he has difficulty persuading the conservative, anti-Communist Christopher Mott Society (based on the John Birch Society) to sign up. “We already have too much big government telling people what to do”, its leader says. And so the minister reaches a deal with the CMS: if its members take the no-smoking pledge, then they can police the traffic coming into the town and keep out the cigarrettes. They like the prospect of having power, so it’s a deal!

2. Erhard Gerstenberger, Psalms, Part I with an Introduction to Cultic Poetry, page 82:

Mowinckel, in his early analysis of Psalm 12, sketches the original situation. Slanderous talk as well as outright cursing was considered dangerous in the highest degree. It needed to be counteracted by official, i.e., cultic, means.

I’ve often heard that people in Old Testament times believed in the power of words. When Isaac blessed Jacob instead of Esau, for example, he couldn’t retract that blessing, for his words already went forth from his mouth and now have a life of their own (Genesis 27). But, according to Gerstenberger, curses were also powerful. But, fortunately, they could be counteracted by cultic means.

3. Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, pages 32-33:

The Church Fathers considered Gnosticism as essentially a Christian heresy and confined their reports and refutations to systems which either had sprouted already from the soil of Christianity (e.g., the Valentinian system), or had somehow added and adapted the figure of Christ to their otherwise heterogeneous teaching (e.g., that of the Phrygian Naassenes), or else through a common Jewish background were close enough to be felt as competing with and distorting the Christian message (e.g., that of Simon Magus).

I used to get the newsletter for Redeemer Presbyterian Church, pastored by Tim Keller. In one edition, Tim Keller was critiquing the view that the existence of Christian Gnosticism in antiquity attests to the diversity of early Christianity. He said that, when he was in seminary, it was obvious to him and his fellow students that the Gnostics had coopted elements of Christianity and attached them to their belief system. In short, for Keller, Gnosticism was not the earliest form of Christianity.

I tend to agree with him on this. But I was somewhat skeptical when he said that such a notion was “obvious” to him and his fellow students. I don’t mean “skeptical” in the sense that I doubt that’s what happened, for I’m sure such a notion was obvious to them. Rather, I mean it in the sense that I wouldn’t accept such a viewpoint just because a group of conservative Christians saw it as “obvious”. Of course they think it’s obvious that Gnosticism was not the earliest brand of Christianity: would they even be remotely open to adopting the view that it was such? That would undermine their religion!

At Hebrew Union College, a professor talked to my class about “speech communities”: groups that share certain assumptions and conceptions of the world. I got to observe that first-hand when I was talking to some conservative Christian students about Judas. A New Testament professor had written that the character of Judas was modeled after Judah in the Book of Genesis, in which Judah sells his brother, Joseph, for money. That resembles Judas Iscariot, who sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. And, in the Greek, Judah reads as Judas.

I thought that sounded pretty reasonable. I’m not sure if I adopt it wholeheartedly, but I can understand why one might arrive at such a conclusion. But my conservative Christian colleagues’ response was, “That’s quite a stretch.” I didn’t think so. I mean, both Judah and Judas sell a person for money, and their names are the same in Greek. But my colleagues thought such an argument was off-the-wall, probably on the order of saying that aliens built the pyramids!

In my opinion, they saw such a view as absurd because it went against the propositions of their speech community. And we see this sort of thing in all sorts of speech communities, not just the conservative Christian one.

4. Richard Sarason, A History of the Mishnaic Law of Agriculture: A Study of Tractate Demai, page 80:

Tosefta Demai 2:4: A proselyte…who took upon himself all…the obligations of the Torah and is suspected with regard to one item—even with regard to all [the obligations of] the Torah—behold, he is [deemed to be] like an apostate Israelite.

That reminds me of Galatians 5:3, which states that a person who’s circumcised in indebted to observe the whole law.

5. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, pages 9-10:

D permits nonsacrificial slaughter (Deut 12:15, 21), as does P…Thus D overturns the Priestly law (H) that all meat for the table must first be offered up on the altar (17:3-7). The same radical alteration can be deduced from the animals suet. Whereas D continues to prohibit the consumption of the animal’s blood (Deut 12:16, 23-25), it is silent concerning its suet, implying that it may be eaten and thereby overturning the Priestly law (H) that prohibits the consumption of both the blood and the suet of sacrificial animals (Lev 3:16b; 7:23).

Deuteronomy 32:38 says that gods ate the fat of sacrifices, so doesn’t that presume that Israelites were not to eat the fat, which belonged to the gods (or God)? Of course, some scholars may argue that Deuteronomy 32 isn’t really D, but rather an earlier poem.

Is the argument from silence a valid argument? If H says that Israelites can’t eat fat, whereas D doesn’t have such a command, can we conclude that D is overturning H’s law?

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