Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Older Is Deeper; Ellen G. Foster; Redactional Entity; Tomb Disturbers; Flood; Escapism; All-Day Devotion

1. Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution Is True, pages 17-18:

Since there are fossil remains of ancient life, we should be able to find some evidence for change in the fossil record. The deepest (and oldest) layers of rock would contain fossils of more primitive species, and some fossils should become more complex as the layers of rock become younger, with organisms resembling present-day species found in the most recent layers.

I have heard of creationist attempts to explain this. One proposal is that the more advanced animals could make it to higher ground during the Flood, and that’s why the more compex animals are in higher strata than the simpler ones! I wonder if this works, though. How would a proponent of this idea explains the bird-like creatures in the lower strata? Couldn’t they fly to the higher ground?

I vaguely remember reading in William Dankenbring’s Beyond Star Wars that fossils of animals from different periods were found together at one point, or something to that effect. Of course, I don’t want to swear my life on what Dankenbring says, especially considering his interpretations of Bible prophecy! But I wonder: is it always the case that simpler animals are lower in the strata than the more complex ones, or is that only generally so? Could a catastrophe, such as a volcanic explosion or a severe earthquake, result in fossils from different periods getting mixed together?

Remember, this is not my field!

2. Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land.

Heinlein talks about the fictional religion of the Fosterites. They claim to be true to primitive Christianity, which was corrupted during the Dark Ages, and proclaimed in its purity in recent times by Foster. Fosterism rants against the devil and has an “us vs. them” mindset towards outsiders—even as it tries to witness to the “lost”. You’d expect such a religion to be strict morally, but it’s not: it’s hedonistic. It says that drinking alcohol is fine because Jesus changed the water into wine, and that sexual prudishness in the name of religion is misguided for the reason that God made the flesh. So does this religion deem the prudes to be the Satanic ones?

The idea that true Christianity was lost in the Dark Ages, only to be proclaimed in its purity at a later date is familiar to Adventists, Armstrongites, maybe Jehovah’s Witnesses, and survivors of such. I’m aware that the Bible says that the world is deceived. But should we assume that a loving God—who wants to be known by human beings—was unable or unwilling to communicate himself in the so-called Dark Ages? Should we believe that the truth of God was absent until some Johnny-come-lately gave us the real scoop?

Of course, these religions are a little more complex than that. Adventists and Armstrongites maintain that there was a “true church” throughout history, even during the Dark Ages. It included the Waldensians, and others. The Adventists were a little more generous to Luther than the Armstrongites were, but they both believed that God had some witness throughout history.

One time, an Adventist pastor was telling me about the significance of Ellen White. He asked me if God would allow so much doctrinal confusion? He felt that God would not, since God wants us to know the truth. That’s why God sent a prophetess, Ellen White, to clarify the Scriptures for us.

And yet, aren’t we in the same boat that we were before? Ellen White comes along, and she forms one denomination, which exists among many others! There’s still doctrinal confusion! I guess God failed in his mission. (Well, of course God doesn’t fail, but I’m doing a “let’s pretend that the SDA pastor is right and see where that leads us” scenario.)

3. Alberdina Houtmann, Mishnah and Tosefta, pages 134-137:

Here, I want to try to understand Houtmann’s view on the relationship between the Mishnah and the Tosefta. For Mishnah Tractate Berakhot, Houtmann sees that the differences among the manuscripts are small and insignificant. Houtmann views this tractate as a “redactional entity”, and feels that we can speak of the Mishnah Tractate Berakhot.

For the Tosefta Berakhot, however, Houtmann sees more variety among the manuscripts, yet notices that “the compositional structure of the text” remains intact.

On page 137, Houtmann refers to Tosefta Tractate Berakhot as an “autonomous literary production.”

I’m not sure how all this fits together. Is Houtmann saying that the Tosefta is independent of the Mishnah, as opposed to being a commentary on it? Does the Tosefta having a final, standard form that indicates the hand of a redactor coincide with that view, in some manner?

4. Donald Redford, “Scribe and Speaker”, in Writings and Speech in Israelites and Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy, pages 152-153:

Redford refers to an Egyptian document saying that those who disturb a tomb will find no “place among the blessed dead in the necropolis”, and will not be remembered by the dead and the living. I’m not sure what the date of this document is, but I thought that the Egyptian belief was that all Egyptians went to the afterlife. Or, come to think of it, I vaguely recall reading that this concept (of going to an afterlife to be judged) applied to kings in Egyptian religion, yet it was democratized at a later point. But I guess there was an exception: those who disturbed tombs went nowhere!

5. Baruch Halpern, “The State of Israelite History”, in Reconsidering Israel and Judah, page 563.

If I’m reading Halpern correctly, he accuses minimalists of erring in the direction of treating the biblical history as fable just because it’s not completely inerrant. And he treats the Albrightian philologists as if they uphold an uncritical acceptance of the biblical history. But Halpern steers in the middle: he believes that the biblical history contains accurate information—although it’s not inerrant. And yet, the biblical historians are writing for their own times, with their own ideologies, so their aim is not merely to write a transcript of what happened in the past. They present a past that speaks to the Israelite community of their day. But, for Halpern, as far as the biblical historians were concerned, they were narrating what they believed to have happened in the history of Israel.

This reminds me of the debate about the Flood that occurred in the biblio-blogosphere last month. In his post, The Truth about Noah’s Ark (2), John Hobbins states the following:

Robert Cargill, Patrick McCullough, and James Getz criticize those who read Genesis 6-9 as if it recounted a series of events that happened once upon a time. They give the impression that to so read the text depends on dubious assumptions of the kind that only dumb evangelical American Christians would subscribe to. There is zero evidence for such an assertion. Genesis 6-9 is read the world over, since forever and not only by Jesus, as if it recounted a series of events that happened once upon a time. Furthermore, we need to read the text in that way if we are to read it as it was intended to be read. If we do not read the text as an account of events whose meaning is disclosed in the telling, the way we read all narrative, from so-called fiction to chronicle, the fulfillment of divine justice and benevolence the text describes will not leave the bittersweet taste in the mouth the text means to leave.

I haven’t read all of these gentlemen’s posts, but I did read Pat McCullough’s. My impression of the debate is as follows: You have the fundamentalists who are looking for Noah’s ark to buttress the authority of the Bible, and the atheists who dismiss the Flood story as historically improbable, concluding that we shouldn’t accept the Bible as an inerrant authority. Then you have Pat McCullough, who says that the Flood story wasn’t intended by its author(s) to be history, but rather to teach lessons about theology. Contra that point-of-view, John Hobbins argues that the author(s) of the Flood story and its interpreters for many ages believed that the story indeed was historical.

In my opinion, Hobbins’ argument is good when it comes to identifying the genre of the text, but how does that fit into our theology? If the author(s) of the Flood story and its interpreters (including Jesus) thought that the story contained what really happened, when it in actuality did not, where are we then? Are we basically back to some version of Pat McCullough’s position: we should focus on the text’s theology, rather than whether or not it happened in history?

Or maybe I should re-read John Hobbins’ posts.

6. Zev Garber says the following in his review of Jacob Neusner’s book, Comparative Midrash:

In Leviticus Rabbah, the dietary laws and the skin diseases serve as metaphors for (evil) nations, and the holy life of Israel is a way of exorcising the demonic powers in behalf of Israel and mankind extending through the millennia and across the world. In Neusner’s assessment, the struggle against such an adversary gives cosmic stature to those who engage in it, and lends some dignity to those who suffer from present crises, which, the Sages firmly believe, can only be temporary.

That’s an interesting interpretation of the food and skin-disease laws! Incidentally, another book review I read talked about how the Gnostics reacted to Rome: the Gnostics said that this world didn’t matter and hoped for a spiritual reunion with a distant God, as they made their way to their true home. The rabbinic view tried to interact with this world. The Gnostics, by contrast, looked to a spiritual plane, almost in an escapist sense.

7. I’m no longer a paying member of my Christian dating-site, but I still visit the Prayer Room to pray for people—although I can’t comment there because, well, I’m not a paying member right now! But the following request stood out to me:

I’m reaching out to my brothers and sisters here and confessing before all that i have held the truth in unrighteousness. In private I pray, read the Bible, read inspirational/educational books, and listen to and sing along with christian music…..but….when I’m in public I tell ‘God’ jokes, make disrespectful comments about Christians (Incl myself) and have even expressed dismay with the church I used to go to.

I can somewhat identify with this person. He tries to find some refuge in God, and yet, he has difficulty enacting his faith, or bringing it into his day-to-day life. I read other stories like this in prayer rooms. There are people who rely on God, yet they have porn addictions, or they drift into extra-marital affairs. Bill Clinton was supposedly the same way. I once read that he read religious literature during free periods that he had. And yet, we all know about his sexcapades!

How can one bring the comfort and the wisdom that one encounters in his or her devotionals into the harsh realities of day-to-day life? How can a devotional go from the minutes or hours that one spends with God each day, into the rest of that day?

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