Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 on My Blog and Other Blogs

Some bloggers I know have been listing their top posts for 2011, or their favorite posts from other blogs. I’ll be doing something like that in this post.

My Blog

On my blog, my focus this year was largely on my reading for my comprehensive examinations in rabbinics and Hebrew Bible. I like a lot of the posts that I wrote for that, especially the ones about John Van Seters’ work. Van Seters, in my opinion, is not always the easiest author to read, but there was a sense of satisfaction that came to me when I took a look at some of his arguments and broke them down so I could understand them, and my process for doing that was blogging. I am also glad that I got to write some posts that can be a source of information for anyone interested. For instance, I had long heard that the camel was not a domestic animal in the time of Abraham and that Genesis is thus inaccurate on this issue, and I also knew about scholars who disagreed with that claim. But I did not know what the evidence was, pro or con. As a result, I did some research and I wrote a post about it: The Domestic Camel.

Also in 2011, I have done a weekly blog post on the Book of Psalms. Before I got into this project, I was afraid that blogging through the Psalms would be rather boring, since many of the Psalms say the same sorts of things. Well, so far, I have blogged about Psalms 1-57, and I’m not bored yet! Each Psalm, in my opinion, has its own eccentricities. There are hard verses, and interpreters have different views about what those verses mean. The whole experience of researching the Psalms and their interpreters has been satisfying, and it’s gotten better with time.

Other posts have been a pleasure for me to write. I have enjoyed reading about Second Temple and rabbinic views about the Torah, and whether or not Gentiles had to observe it. I was glad to finally read Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois for Black History Month, since I heard about them on one of my favorite miniseries, Roots: The Next Generation, but I did not know precisely where they differed. Women’s History Month was also good, for I learned about feminist and womanist Christology, as well as feminist constructions of history. In the process, I have taken a look at my own theology and approach to the Scriptures—-Do I pick and choose what I will believe in the Bible, and, if so, what is my criteria?

Starting in 2011, I began to attend a Presbyterian Church (USA), which is walking distance from where I live. I have appreciated the hospitality of the people there. I think that blogging through my church’s Bible study on Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God helped me to get more out of it. My favorite post from that experience was The Am Ha-Aretz, Sinners, and the Prodigal Son.

My blog has gained new readers and commenters this year, and I have appreciated their insights, as well as the insights of long-time readers. I’d like to highlight one interaction that I had that taught me a valuable lesson. In my post, Childs on the Covenant Code and Exodus 24, I said that Exodus 21:21 says that if a master beats his slave and the slave gets up after a day or two, then the master will not be punished. I had long assumed that the law was saying that the master would not be punished if the slave survived the beating, but he would be punished if the slave died. Paul D., however, brought to my attention translations that said that the law is saying something different: that the master is not punished if the slave lives for a few days and then dies. I checked out the Hebrew, translations, the Septuagint, and Jewish and Christian commentaries and learned that there was a strong tradition that interprets the verse as Paul does, but there were a few that read it my way. I guess my lesson there was that what I assume the text means is not necessarily what the text means, or the only way that the text can be interpreted.

I did not blog as much about entertainment as I have in previous years, but there were a few posts that were meaningful to me: my post on my favorite 15 Smallville episodes (which I posted on the day of the final episode), and my post on the Temple Grandin movie. I also enjoyed writing about Terra Nova (see here).

Other Blogs

I read a lot of blog posts, but I did not always pay attention to who was writing them. One controversy this year was over Rob Bell’s Love Wins, which has been accused of promoting universalism (the view that all will be saved in the end). I really appreciated one post that I read (whose author I forget) that argued that there are different ways to interpret the Bible on this issue, which contradicts the claim of my conservative Christian friends that Rob Bell and his supporters were neglecting the plain words of Jesus and were preferring their own wishes instead. I think that there are different ways to interpret passages in the Bible. Universalists choose to take Paul’s statements about Christ saving all or reconciling all literally, and they harmonize what the Bible says about eternal punishment with that concept—-by noting that eternal punishment can be a temporary period of correction, since eternity in the Bible is not always forever and a Greek word for punishment can mean correction. Other Christians, by contrast, believe that eternal punishment is literally eternal punishment, and so they harmonize the passages about God saving or reconciling all with that particular concept—-by saying that God is offering to reconcile all but that people still need to believe, that all does not necessarily mean every single person but rather people from every group, or that salvation does not always mean eternal salvation. In my opinion, none of these groups is being unfaithful to the Bible. They’re just prioritizing different things, and harmonizing other elements of Scripture with what they choose to prioritize.

I’ve learned of new blogs this year, which I really enjoy:, Fallen From Grace, Think and Wonder. Wonder and Think…, Respectful Atheist, and The Screaming Kettle. Some of these are from atheists, and some are from unconventional Christians. I have appreciated their honesty and also their tactfulness, which sometimes coexists with their edginess.

I’d now like to highlight some of my favorite posts or series for this year:

Rachel Held Evans had some excellent posts in her “Ask A…” series. Ask a Gay Christian, by Justin Lee, was my favorite, for Justin struck me as a person who recognized and respected that people (including himself) are in different places on their spiritual journeys, and so he did not look down on gay Christians who chose celibacy. Justin Taylor’s post, Ask a Calvinist, was also good. I did not expect to like it because I hate Calvinism and find a lot of Calvinists to be self-righteous and annoying. But Taylor was quite judicious and tactful in his presentation.

From Rachel’s blog (see here), I learned about David Nilsen’s blog, and I really appreciated his series on teaching children about the Bible and his family’s reasons for leaving one church to search for another.

Finally, I have enjoyed some of Rodney Thomas’ posts. His critique of William P. Young’s The Shack was excellent. I liked it because I consider The Shack to be an overrated book, and it was interesting to see how the book actually reinforces stereotypes. Rodney’s thanksgiving post was also good because it sought to transcend the usual patriotic and politically-correct narratives about that holiday.

I’ve enjoyed 2011, and I wish you all a Happy New Year!

Psalm 57

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 57 and its interpreters. I'll post the entire Psalm in the King James Version (which is in the public domain) and comment on select verses.

To the chief Musician, Altaschith, Michtam of David, when he fled from Saul in the cave.

"Al-Tashchith" means "Do not destroy". This could simply be a tune to which the Psalm is to be played, or it may serve to highlight that David (to whom the superscription relates the Psalm) is asking God not to kill him, but rather to deliver him from his oppressors.

1Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me: for my soul trusteth in thee: yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast.

Jewish interpreters have sought to explain why the Psalmist says "Be merciful unto me" twice, since there was a view among many Jews that the Psalms were divinely-inspired, and they did not believe that God would be redundant and repeat himself without good reason. Rashi says that the first "Be merciful to me" is the Psalmist's hope that God would help him not to kill someone else in his affliction, whereas the second "Be merciful to me" is the Psalmist asking God to protect him (the Psalmist) from being killed. The Midrash on the Psalms offers a couple of more interpretations. According to one view, the first "Be merciful to me" is the Psalmist asking God to keep him from stumbling into transgression, whereas the second "Be merciful to me" was the Psalmist's request that, if he did transgress, he might return to God in penitence until the calamities that expiate his sins have passed. According to another view, the first "Be merciful to me" is asking for God to protect Israel and the Temple, whereas the second "Be merciful to me" expresses hope that God will protect Israel in exile from the hostile kingdoms. I like Rashi's interpretation the best because it not only asks for God to protect us from harm, but also requests that we might not harm others.

2I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me.

The Hebrew root that the KJV translates as "performeth" is g-m-r, which means "complete" or "bring to an end". What is the significance of this word in v 2? In the orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, the opinion of Metzudos is cited, and it states that v 2 is saying that God will fulfill his promise that David will succeed Saul, for "complete" and "fulfill" are rather synonymous. Mitchell Dahood argues that g-m-r means to "avenge", perhaps because God is perfecting or completing the rhythm of life when he punishes a wrongdoer or gets rid of oppression. The Septuagint understands v 2 to be saying that God deals bountifully with the Psalmist. The Septuagint may be translating a manuscript that has g-m-l rather than g-m-r. G-m-l means to reward, and the word is used with the preposition al elsewhere in the Book of Psalms (i.e., 13:6; 103:10; 116:7; 118:17).

3He shall send from heaven, and save me from the reproach of him that would swallow me up. Selah. God shall send forth his mercy and his truth.

A literal translation of the Hebrew is "He will send from heaven and he will save me he reproached the ones panting after me Selah." The KJV translates chereph, "he reproached", as a construct noun, "the reproach of". But it's a verb. The KJV may have a reason for its translation, for Rashi understand the verse similarly. But others have sought to treat chereph as a perfect verb, which is what it is in the Masoretic. Some contend that the verse is saying: "He shall send from heaven and save me. He that pants after me reproached. Selah. God shall send forth his mercy and truth". Others, however, say that God in the verse is the one reproaching, which means that the verse says: "He shall send from heaven and save me. He reproached one panting after me. God shall send forth his mercy and truth". Keil-Delitzsch go with the view that the oppressor is the one reproaching, for God in the Hebrew Bible is often the recipient rather than the giver of reproach. But the Septuagint and the Targum understand God to be the one who is reproaching----God reproaches the oppressor.

4My soul is among lions: and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.

This verse may simply be comparing the Psalmist's enemies to lions, but I liked what Keil-Delitzsch had to say. For Keil-Delitzsch, David is saying that he is close to lions while he hides from Saul in the cave, and David feels safer around them than he does around human beings! You can at least reason with human beings, but they also take their aggression to more devious levels than animals do. In my opinion, humans are harder to deal with than animals.

But the verse may just be calling the Psalmist's enemies "sons of men" to highlight that (however dangerous they may seem) they are mere mortals and thus are powerless against God, as Psalm 56 emphasizes. This is the view of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Erhard Gerstenberger.

5Be thou exalted, O God, above the heavens; let thy glory be above all the earth.

6They have prepared a net for my steps; my soul is bowed down: they have digged a pit before me, into the midst whereof they are fallen themselves. Selah.

7My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed: I will sing and give praise.

8Awake up, my glory; awake, psaltery and harp: I myself will awake early.

"I will awake early" literally says "I will stir dawn", as if the Psalmist himself is bringing about the dawn. There are different views as to what this mean. E.W. Bullinger essentially goes with the King James Version, and he treats the phrase as figurative for the Psalmist getting up early, as if the Psalmist is waking up the dawn by getting up before the dawn comes. Rashi takes this a step further by saying that David playing his instruments in praise of God will wake up the dawn. Another view is that the Psalmist is bringing about the dawn by praying for it, and "dawn" is understood here as God delivering the Psalmist from his afflictions (Psalm 46:6; 90:14; 143:8). Orthodox Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch states that the verse means that people can use their spiritual resources to turn the night of affliction into the dawn of a new day. Hirsch may be saying that we can feel better amidst harsh circumstances by using our spiritual resources, or that we can actually change those harsh circumstances for the better through our spiritual resources. The latter sounds rather Word-of-Faith-ish, but I would not be surprised if there are biblical voices that accord with that sort of view.

9I will praise thee, O Lord, among the people: I will sing unto thee among the nations.

10For thy mercy is great unto the heavens, and thy truth unto the clouds.

11Be thou exalted, O God, above the heavens: let thy glory be above all the earth.

Friday, December 30, 2011

N.T. Wright on the Virgin Birth

Claude Mariottini on his blog has a link to an article by N.T. Wright on the virgin birth of Jesus. Wright’s article is entitled Suspending Scepticism: History and the Virgin Birth. In my post here, I’ll interact with a few of Wright’s defenses of the historicity of the virgin birth. I’ll only be scratching the surface of what Wright’s article is about, however, and so I’ve linked to it here so that you can read it for yourself.

1. Here are some quotes from Wright, which make essentially the same point:

“…there is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the messiah would be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7:14 this way before Matthew did. Even assuming that Matthew or Luke regularly invented material to fit Jesus into earlier templates, why would they have invented something like this? The only conceivable parallels are pagan ones, and these fiercely Jewish stories have certainly not been modelled on them. Luke at least must have known that telling this story ran the risk of making Jesus out to be a pagan demigod. Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk – unless they at least believed the stories to be literally true?”

“Smoke without fire does, of course, happen quite often in the real world. But this smoke, in that world, without fire? This theory asks us to believe in intellectual parthenogenesis: the birth of an idea without visible parentage. Difficult – unless, of course, you believe in miracles, which most people who disbelieve the virginal conception don’t.”

This appears to be similar to Wright’s argument in defense of Jesus’ resurrection. In that case, Wright argued that first century Judaism did not expect the Messiah to rise from the dead before the eschaton, and that Messianic movements generally folded after the death of their leader. For Wright, the fact that the Jesus movement continued after Jesus’ death and claimed that their founder was risen had to be due to some reason, and Wright believes that reason was the actual resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Similarly, in the area of the virgin birth, Wright’s argument seems to be that the notion of the virgin birth of Jesus had to come from somewhere, and, for Wright, the most plausible explanation is that it came from the fact that Jesus was born of a virgin. Wright does not believe that Matthew or Luke got the idea from pagan stories, which first century Jews anathematized, plus Luke was already putting himself at the risk of making Jesus out to be a demigod, in the eyes of his Jewish audience. For Wright, as I understand him, Matthew and Luke believed in the virgin birth of Jesus, and they got that idea from its occurrence.

I’ll list three problems that I have with this argument. First, why couldn’t the virgin birth have simply been an original idea that Matthew and Luke came across and included in their works? The fact that an idea is original does not mean that the idea has any grounding in reality. There are all sorts of original ideas out there! Second, why couldn’t a first century Jew absorb ideas from pagan cultures, while still opposing paganism? We see that sort of thing a lot in the Hebrew Bible: things are said about the God of Israel that other nations say about their gods, such as Baal. By drawing on these motifs, the writers of the Hebrew Bible may be saying that the God of Israel is the one who truly does the deeds that pagan nations attribute to their own gods. Why couldn’t something similar be going on with the virgin birth story? Third, and this contradicts the first problem that I listed, I think that the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin could have come from something other than its actual occurrence—-that the concept, in a sense, has a Hebrew precedent. In the Hebrew Bible, there are stories about figures who are born when their parents are really old, and such births can be described as miraculous. Why couldn’t a Christian come along and suggest that Jesus’ birth was miraculous—-and even more astounding than the births of the Old Testament figures—-for Jesus was born, not of a woman whose womb had dried up, but of a woman who had never even known a man?

2. “Of course, legends surround the birth and childhood of many figures who afterwards become important. As historians we have no reason to say that this did not happen in the case of Jesus, and some reasons to say that it did. But by comparison with other legends about other figures, Matthew and Luke look, after all, quite restrained. Except, of course, in the matter where the real interest centres. Matthew and Luke declare unambiguously that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. What are we to make of this?”

My impression is that Wright here is making the sort of argument that many evangelical apologists (such as David Marshall) have made: that the Gospels’ stories about miracles are more reliable historically than non-Christian miracle stories because the Gospels are more restrained and low-key than the non-Christian miracle stories. I wonder what this proves, though. Perhaps the main thing we can conclude is that the Gospel writers were simply imitating the style of the Hebrew Bible, which was low-key in its description of miracles.

3. Wright makes the following statements:

“Further, anyone can say that Matthew made it all up to fulfil Isaiah 7:14 (‘the virgin shall conceive’). Since Luke doesn’t quote the same passage, though, the argument looks thin. Is Bethlehem mentioned only, perhaps, because of Micah 5:2-4?”

“What then about his central claim, the virginal conception itself, dropped almost casually into the narrative, with no flourish of trumpets? Some have argued, of course, that there is instead a flourish of strumpets: Matthew has taken care to draw our attention to the peculiarities (to put it no stronger) of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Batlisheba, presumably in order to warn us that something even stranger is coming; or perhaps to enable us, when the news is announced, to connect it with God’s strange way of operating in the past. He is hardly likely on this occasion, however, to have made up the story of Mary’s being with child by the Holy Spirit in order to ‘fulfil’ this theme.”

I can see Wright’s point that Matthew did not make up the virgin birth story, for the concept of Jesus’ virgin birth also appears in Luke, and their stories are so different that they appear to be independent. Both could have gotten the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin from a common source. I also agree with Wright that Matthew 1 is trying to show that the strange circumstances around Jesus’ birth do not detract from Jesus being the Messiah, for God in the past was involved in peculiar situations, such as births from Gentile women, some of whom engaged in trickery or sexual immortality. Matthew is responding to something. But what? Could it have been a prominent belief that Jesus was a mamzer? Matthew does not believe that Jesus was a mamzer, for he has the tradition of the virgin birth, which could have been developed by someone else in response to the charge that Jesus was a mamzer. I guess my point here is that the fact that Matthew did not invent the virgin birth and was seeking to defend Jesus from a charge does not show that the virgin birth happened.

Image, Soul, Body

I finished Christianity in Jewish Terms, and I have three items:

1. Tikva Frymer-Kensky has an interesting essay on "Religious Anthropology in Judaism and Christianity", which concerns human beings being made in God's image. Frymer-Kensky argues that the rabbis thought that meant that human beings look like God, and this overlaps with the Hebrew Bible, which said that humans were in the image of God in a world where there were statues and likenesses of various deities. Many Christian thinkers, and later Maimonides, tended to view the image as intellect or as our resemblance to God in a moral or spiritual sense (which was defaced by the Fall). According to Frymer-Kensky, the view that the image of God was intellect came from "Greek philosophers, notably Plato and Aristotle, whose idea of God was intellect and who believed that the human intellect was the divine element in humans" (page 329). It's intriguing that the rabbis believed that humans physically looked like God, when they were insistent that God should not be represented with a graven image or likeness. Christianity, however, maintained that God became a human being and showed people a likeness, and yet it tended to prefer a spiritual interpretation of the image of God.

I liked what Frymer-Kensky said about John Calvin on page 332: "Even Calvin, who emphasized the depraved and deformed nature of the fallen human being, nevertheless admonished people to look at the image of God in all humans, to look beyond their worthlessness and to see the image of God." I think this is good advice, even if I don't go as far as Calvin in my beliefs regarding human sinfulness. There are people I do not like. But I should look beyond what I don't like about them to see the image of God within them----their intellect, whatever morality they have, etc.

2. William Schweiker on page 353 says that the Bible does not have a belief in an immortal soul. Genesis 2:7 says that the human being "becomes a living soul...when a divine source of life is breathed into dust" (Schweiker's words). Schweiker considers the Hebrew Bible's teaching to be that the soul comes from God and dies at death, and he believes that Jesus also rejected Greek ideas about an eternal soul. "For Jesus", Schweiker states, "the 'soul' is not immortal; it is not, as it was for Plato and others, trapped in the prison of the body." Paul, too, did not have a picture of the soul escaping the shackles of the body, according to Schweiker, for Paul contrasted the whole person (flesh and spirit) with alienation from God. For Paul, one could be reconciled with God as a full human being, without one's soul leaving the body.

Some of this overlaps with my Armstrongite and Seventh-Day Adventist background, but not all of it. Those denominations regarded the soul to be the full human being, both body and spirit. Schweiker, however, seems to regard the soul as what animates the body. Schweiker just does not think that the biblical authors regarded the soul exactly the same way that Greek philosophers did, however: as an immortal substance that lives on after death.

What the "truth" is on this, I do not entirely know. I can see the Armstrongites' and Seventh-Day Adventists' point that we are souls rather than having souls, for man was said to become a living soul. Plus, the soul is said to hunger, which is arguably bodily (i.e., Proverbs 10:3), unless the Hebrews had a different understanding of how hunger worked. At the same time, the soul does appear to be something that leaves the body after death (Genesis 35:18). Moreover, if the Hebrew Bible teaches that the soul dies with the body, then why are the dead kings conscious in Sheol in Isaiah 14?

On Jesus, the passage that comes to my mind is when Jesus says we should fear God, who can cast body and soul into hell (Matthew 10:28). In my mind, that calls into question the Armstrongite and Adventist view that the soul is a combination of spirit and body, for why would Jesus say that God can destroy body and spirit+body in hell? That sounds rather redundant. Still, Jesus in this passage does not regard the soul as inherently immortal.

Regarding Paul, Paul desires at times to be free from his body of death (Romans 7), and he talks about being absent from the body and present with the Lord after he dies (II Corinthians 5:6-8). At the same time, Schweiker is right that Paul did not view his bodily state as utter alienation from God. But there is debate about how Paul conceived of resurrection, as spiritual (I Corinthians 15) or as physical (Romans 8:23). Perhaps Paul, like elements of first century Judaism (according to Josephus), believed both in the survival of the soul after death and also the resurrection. Armstrongites and Seventh-Day Adventists often treat these ideas as in competition with one another, as if you can't believe in both, but some people in the first century did believe in both. Yet, even if Jews thought that the soul survives death, they did not go as far as Plato and other philosophers in denigrating the body altogether.

3. On page 390, I read the contrast between Augustine and the Manicheans, by John Cavadini. Augustine was a Manichean before he became a Christian. Manicheans "taught that human beings have an intrinsically evil nature as part of their makeup", and that the "body and all that is associated with it is evil, and the urges that come from it are the source of sin." Augustine's conception of original sin was different, however, for it held that our corruption was the result of free will (perhaps Adam's, or our own choice to do evil----Cavadini does not say) rather than an evil nature inside of us, plus it maintained that human nature was weak yet good, that human nature was something that God created good and yet fell.

On the one hand, this looks like a debate in semantics. We have good and evil within us. The Manicheans attribute the evil to some evil nature apart from our makeup. Augustine thought that the evil was actually a corruption of the good. On the other hand, perhaps where the difference matters is that Augustine would believe in the redemption of the physical, whereas the Manicheans would simply dismiss the body as evil and perhaps beyond help.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

David Marshall: "Is Jesus a 'Foreign Religion'?"

A few days ago, I started David Marshall’s True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, which was Marshall’s very first book. In terms of readability, there are things that I like so far, there are things that I don’t like so far, and there are many things that I like and dislike simultaneously! True Son of Heaven is definitely more pleasant and easier to read than the last David Marshall book that I went through, Jesus and the Religions of Man, a good book, but one that is quite heavy! At times, though, I feel that True Son of Heaven reads like a tourist manual, and that bores me somewhat. But I have been enjoying the anecdotes, as well as gaining some education in Chinese religion, history, and culture (though I do plan to “fact-check” some stuff, if you will).

I have three items from Chapter 1, “Is Jesus a ‘Foreign Religion’?”:

1. On page 3, Marshall says: “Many Westerners…feel troubled or embarrassed at Christian missions. ‘Does everyone need to believe the same?’ They ask. ‘Why require people to give up their own prophets and wise men to accept a western Savior?’ Some western intellectuals feel the absurdity of preaching European doctrines to China with special intensity. After all, this is the land of Confucius and Lao Zi, the origin of paper, modern kilns, and gun powder, whose grand public projects and remarkable art work defined civilization while great European cities were still rude market towns. What does she need our religion for?”

Of course, Marshall’s aim in this book is to refute that claim by demonstrating that Christianity is consistent with (and even, in a sense, foreshadowed by) Chinese culture. But I appreciated that passage on page 3 because I often feel that Christianity is arrogant to believe that everybody should believe exactly alike.

At the same time, as I have read other books by Marshall (The Truth Behind the New Atheism and Jesus and the Religions of Man), I have come to appreciate how Christianity has promoted morality in other cultures, challenging practices that are repulsive and yet that many in other cultures may have found perfectly acceptable. I think of the practice in India of widows immolating themselves. A friend of mine has done graduate work in multicultural studies, and she has gotten flack because she does not believe that the West should tell Islamic societies to stop female genital mutilation. Granted, she agrees that female genital mutilation is a horrible practice, but she maintains that change must come from within those societies, not imposed from without, which she considers to be a pretty futile enterprise at the outset. I can see her point. But I still admire Christians who go into other cultures and stand up for what’s right, who do not let cultural relativism hold them back from championing the oppressed and the marginalized. But there is some place for cultural relativism, in my opinion. For example, why should we assume that Western capitalism is the right system for every country on the face of the earth?

2. On page 5, Marshall relates to us a message that came from a Voice. The message said: “I didn’t just come with the missionaries. I have been there all along. I made China.”

I appreciated that because I’d like to think that every person on the face of the earth is on God’s radar—-and that God actually loves them rather than desiring to send them to hell. For Marshall, Jesus Christ has been in China all along, preparing the way for that nation to hear and to receive the Gospel. But can the Chinese be saved by embracing the elements of their own culture that overlap with Christianity, without believing in the Gospel that they hear from Christian missionaries?

3. Something that I plan to do as I read this book is to compare what Marshall says about Chinese religion with what I read elsewhere (primarily on the Internet). I will probably use wikipedia quite a bit, primarily to get an alternative perspective. I realize that wikipedia has its limits, but I don’t claim to be writing the final word on the subject of Chinese religion. I’m just exploring. On page 5, Marshall states the following:

“Here, I learned, like the high priest in Jerusalem, one man came once a year to ask pardon for a nation. Whom did he appeal to? ‘Tian:’ a Supreme God identified with Heaven who could not be represented by idols. As in Jerusalem, here, too, the sacrifice of animals would bring Heaven’s mercy. The emperor even brought many of the same creatures to the altar.”

A lot of that checks out with what I read in wikipedia’s article on Shangdi (the Supreme God) and the Temple of Heaven. The article on Shangdi states the following:

“From the earliest eras of Chinese history, Shangdi was officially worshipped through sacrificial rituals. It is the first and foremost important ritual of the state. Shangdi is believed to rule over natural and ancestral spirits, who act as His ministers. Shangdi is thought to be the Supreme Guide of both the natural order and the human order. The ruler of China in every Chinese dynasty would perform annual sacrificial rituals to Shangdi at the great Temple of Heaven in the imperial capital. During the ritual a completely healthy bull would be slaughtered and presented as an animal sacrifice to Shangdi. It is important to note that Shangdi is never represented with either images or idols. Instead, in the center building of the Temple of Heaven, in a structure called the ‘Imperial Vault of Heaven’, a ‘spirit tablet’…inscribed with the name of Shangdi is stored on the throne, Huangtian Shangdi…During an annual sacrifice, the emperor would carry these tablets to the north part of the Temple of Heaven, a place called the ‘Prayer Hall For Good Harvests’, and place them on that throne.”

Some creationist sites refer to primary sources, such as the prayer that the emperor used at the annual sacrifice, or Chinese creation stories (see here and here). I read here that the Ming Dynasty completed the Temple of Heaven in 1420 A.D., not B.C. Could Christianity have influenced China, in some fashion? Marco Polo, a European who traveled to China, lived in the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries, which was prior to 1420. And yet, the wikipedia article mentions references to Shangdi from before the time of Christ, sometimes way before. But when did the aniconism enter the picture?

I found different things about Shangdi on the wikipedia article. Yes, the emperor sacrificed to him in the Temple of Heaven, but there’s also the statement that the Chinese did not sacrifice to Shangdi directly, at least during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.E.), but rather to other spirits and deities. There was a sentiment that Shangdi was transcendent and not very approachable. And, even at the Temple of Heaven, there is an acknowledgement that other gods exist. But, according to the wikipedia article on the Chinese view of monotheism, there were some pre-Christian Chinese schools of thought that were closer to monotheism. This article (by an unnamed someone), however, actually says that “From the earliest times of Chinese history, and especially before the Zhou Dynasty…Shangdi was worshiped as the Supreme Deity of the ancient monotheistic religion of China.”

I’ve also come across the view that Shangdi was an ancestor in a couple of places (see here and here).

I wish I could find better sources online, say, by people with doctorates in Asian studies, or people who refer profusely to primary sources, which I could find online or in a library, or Asians themselves. But I have to start somewhere! Overall, I would not be surprised if China had rituals similar to those of the ancient Hebrews, since many peoples have desired a good harvest, and have sought to atone for misdeeds that they believe could hinder that. As far as Shangdi goes, in general, he appears to be the Supreme Being, but conceptualization of him has been slightly in flux, as far as I can see.

Suffering, Preparation

I'm still reading Christianity in Jewish Terms. I have two items:

1. I read about suffering in this book. Something that Leora Batnitzky said on page 208 stood out to me: "R. Akiba, R. Eleazar b. Jacob, and R. Meir suggest...that the Jewish people suffer not only because God loves them most but also because they are, and have the capacity to be, better than others are." That intrigued me because I'm interested in the topic of Jews and Gentiles, according to Judaism.

But I also read about the issue of suffering being redemptive. Suffering makes us compassionate towards others. But does that mean suffering is good rather than evil, since it has a positive end? Should we go about hurting others, since we're technically helping them in doing so by making them better people? According to the thinkers whom I read in this book, the answer is no. Suffering has no inherent value, for it is evil, but God can use suffering to make us better. Perhaps one could add to this that God does not cause suffering in an attempt to build our characters. If we lose our legs in an accident, for instance, that's not God trying to teach us a lesson. But God can still teach us through that experience.

2. For this item, I'll draw from Menachem Kellner's essay, "How Ought a Jew View Christian Beliefs About Redemption?" Over the past few days, I have blogged about Maimonides' view on Christians, and that will be the topic of this item, as well.

On page 273, Kellner quotes Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, specifically "Law of Kings" XI.4. According to Maimonides, Christianity and Islam prepare the way for the Messiah, in that they make certain topics familiar to the Gentiles, such as the Messianic hope, the Torah, and the commandments. Although Christianity holds that the laws have lost their validity or are no longer binding, Maimonides says, it is still making Gentiles aware of the commandments, and they will acknowledge that they are mistaken about the law being invalid when the true Messiah comes.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

More on Christ in the Rig Veda (with a Question Mark)

This will be a post about David Marshall, but it will not concern his book that I am currently reading: True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture. Rather, it will revisit his argument in Jesus and the Religions of Man that the Indian Rig Veda talks about someone who is like Jesus Christ. See here for my last post on this topic.

My problem with Marshall and the source that he used for this claim, Indian Christian Mr. Mandapaka, is that they did not cite primary sources in a manner that was accessible to me, and so I was not able to check them out to see if Marshall and Mr. Mandapaka were interpreting them correctly (as far as I could make such a determination, of course, with my limited knowledge of Hinduism). Their citation of primary sources was not specific enough, or I did not know enough about Indian Scripture to be able to track down the references that they were mentioning. But I found a blog post that actually cited the Rig Veda chapter-and-verse. The blogger calls himself Jl, and my impression is that he is an Indian Catholic. Jl links to the testimony of Aravindaksha Menon, a former Brahmin priest who converted to Roman Catholicism after studying the Vedas and concluding that they predicted Jesus Christ. (See also here for more references.)

What I’ll do here is two things. First, I will do a search on the one whom Jl considers to be the Jesus figure in the Rig Veda, Prajapathy, and see what I find. Second, I will post Jl’s reference to the Rig Veda (in whatever translation he is using), then I will search for the reference or a summary of it online and write what I found and concluded. I’ll link to what I find so that you can have access to the sources and make your own determination.

First of all, who is Prajapathy, which Jl says means “man savior”? I hate to use wikipedia as my source here, but just remember that I’m not writing this post to be the final word on the subject. Wikipedia states the following (see here): “In Hinduism, Prajapati…’lord of creatures’ is a Hindu deity presiding over procreation, and protector of life. He appears as a creator deity or supreme God Viswakarma Vedic deities in RV 10 and in Brahmana literature. Vedic commentators also identify him with the creator referred to in the Nasadiya Sukta…In later times, he is identified with Vishnu, Shiva, with the personifications of Time, Fire, the Sun, etc. Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 8.8.16 cites Viśvákarma is one of the prajāpatis, the sons of Lord Brahmā who generate progeny. He is also identified with various mythical progenitors, especially (Manu Smrti 1.34) the ten lords of created beings first created by Brahmā…” The article then goes on to list ten Prajapatis. Later, the article states: “The name of /PRA-JĀ[N]-pati/ (‘progeny-potentate’) is etymologically equivalent to that of the oracular god at Kolophōn (according to Makrobios), namely /PRŌto-GONos/.”

I’m not sure what to say here! I suppose that there’s some overlap between Prajapathy and Jesus, in that both are creators, yet (in some sense) come from somebody else. I don’t see anything about the sacrifice of Prajapathy in that article, but perhaps wikipedia does not say everything that can be said about him. I notice that there can be more than one Prajapathy in some Hindu traditions, and that seems to differ from Christian claims about Jesus (though, at the same time, Christianity does teach that all believers are sons of God). There also appears to be a difference of opinion as to how to translate the term “Prajapathy”. Jl says it means “man savior”, but wikipedia translates it as “lord of creatures” and says later on that the term is equivalent to “progeny”, which makes some sense, since Prajapathy presides over procreation. Whether Jesus can be considered a god of procreation and a protector of life, well, I don’t know. Somewhat, I guess.

Second, the references to the Rig Veda. After giving you the translation that Jl uses, I’ll be drawing from Ralph T.H. Griffith’s translation of the Rig Veda (see here), and, when appropriate, wikipedia’s summary.

Rig Veda 10:90:7: “At the time of sacrifice, the son of God will be tightly tied to a wooden sacrificial post using iron nails by hands and legs, he will bleed to death and on the third day he will regain his life in a resurrection.”

Griffith’s translation says: “They balmed as victim on the grass Puruṣa born in earliest time. With him the Deities and all Sādhyas and Ṛṣis sacrificed” (see here). The context appears to be the sacrifice of Purusha and the use of his parts to fashion elements of the cosmos and also the Indian caste system. You can read wikipedia’s article on Purusha here. As with Prajapathy, I have a hard time understanding or clearly conceptualizing what Purusha is: his name means “man”; he is the self that pervades the cosmos; deities called the devas dismembered him and used him to make the moon, the sun, and the wind; he was a primeval giant whom the gods sacrificed; he is the personification of absolute truth; and he is pure consciousness.

Rig Veda 10:121:1: “In the beginning, God and his supreme spirit alone existed. From the supreme Spirit of the God proceeded Hiranya Garbha, alias Prajapathy, the first born of the God in the form of light. As soon as he was born, he became the saviour of all the worlds.”

Griffith has: ” IN the beginning rose Hiranyagarbha, born Only Lord of all created beings. He fixed and holdeth up this earth and heaven. What God shall we adore with our oblation?” (see here). I don’t see anything about Prajapathy being the savior of all the worlds, though, apparently, Hiranya Garbha does sustain the cosmos. The only explicit reference that I see to Prajapathy (by the name “Prajapathy”, that is) in this chapter is in v 10: “Prajāpati! thou only comprehendest all these created things, and none beside thee. Grant us our hearts’ desire when we invoke thee: may we have store of riches in possession.” As far as I can see, this chapter is exhorting people to praise this god as the creator and sustainer (although other gods are acknowledged to exist).

Rig Veda 10:90:2: “This man, the first-born of God is all that was, all that is and all that will be. And he comes to this world to give recompense to everybody as per his deeds.”

Griffith has: “This Puruṣa is all that yet hath been and all that is to be; The Lord of Immortality which waxes greater still by food.”

Purusha does mean “man”, so I can understand where Jl is getting “This man”. I don’t see anything about an impending judgment, though.

Rig Veda 10:90:16: “This (sacrifice) is the only way of redemption and liberation of mankind. Those who meditate and attain this man, believe in heart and chant with the lips, get liberated in this world itself and there is no other way of salvation.”

Griffith has: “Gods, sacrificing, sacrificed the victim these were the earliest holy ordinances. The Mighty Ones attained the height of heaven, there where the Sādhyas, Gods of old, are dwelling.” What I get from this (which could be wrong) is that the gods went to heaven after sacrificing Purusha and making the cosmos out of him.

I don’t know why Griffith’s translation and the one that Jl is using are so different. Jl does not claim to be presenting a targum—-a mixture of translation and interpretation—-but rather a translation, period. (At least that is what I gather from his format.)

David Novak on the Noachides

I have two items for my write-up today on Christianity in Jewish Terms, and they draw from conservative Jew David Novak's essay, "Mitsvah":

1. Yesterday, I talked about the Noachide commandments that rabbinic Judaism believed were incumbent upon Gentiles. One of them is a prohibition on idolatry. I asked about Judaism's stance on Christians----whether Judaism believes that Christians are idolaters and thus in violation of the Noachide commandment. I referred to David Ellenson's essay in this volume, which says that the rabbis did not care for Christian conceptions of God (such as the Trinity and the incarnation), but that Jews after the twelfth century began to see Christianity as monotheistic and thus in accord with the Noachide rule. Ellenson said and documented, though, that Maimonides regarded the Christians to be idolaters under Talmudic law.

Novak's essay, however, presents a slightly different picture, or at least it adds another consideration. Maimonides addresses the issue of the righteous Gentiles who will have a place with the Jews in the World to Come. While Maimonides believed that certain moral laws were "rationally discernable" and that "Gentiles can thus live a moral life that is consistent with what Jews regard to be minimal non-Jewish morality" without reference to the Bible (page 118), he thought that the righteous Gentiles were those who followed the Noachide laws specifically because they were laid out in the Torah (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: Melachim 8:11). According to Novak, Christians fit this description because they saw their morality as "fundamentally biblical in origin" (page 118).

2. At Hebrew Union College, a professor of mine once said that Judaism holds that Gentiles of other religions (other than Judaism, that is) are righteous before God if they follow the Noachide commandments. That did not seem correct to me because one of the Noachide commandments is against idolatry, and wouldn't that invalidate the righteous state of several people of other religions, many of whom worship gods other than the God of Israel? Novak actually addresses this issue (on some level) on page 119: " that when the rabbis saw Gentile respect for the other Noahide laws, especially the respect for human life involved in the prohibition of bloodshed, they had a tendency to regard any cultural vestiges of idolatry in such societies quite leniently." I wonder what "cultural vestiges" means, though: How idolatrous did one have to be to move from the status of "righteous Gentile" to "unrighteous Gentile"?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Links and Devotional

I started David Marshall’s True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, and, while there certainly were some provocative or interesting passages in there that I want to highlight, I’m going to take a break today from blogging about Marshall’s work and instead share some items that I found in my reading, both on the Internet and also in print:

1. David Nilsen of the blog, The Screaming Kettle, was listing the guest posts on his blog for this year, as well as quoting a passage from each one of them. There were two posts there that stood out to me. One was by David’s sister, Shan, and it was entitled A Spectator Along God’s Highway. The other was by Dan McMonagle, and it was entitled Church Transition or Weird Dream.

a. Apparently, I’ve read and recommended Shan’s work before. Some time back, Rachel Held Evans recommended Shan’s excellent post, Why can’t church be more like the smoking section?, and I recommended that to others. The post that David recommended in his list of guest posts was Shan’s very first guest post on his blog, “A Spectator Along God’s Highway”. That post really spoke to me. The passage that I most appreciated was the following:

“I had believed earnestly during times of prayer and meditation and bible reading that many things were the ‘still small voice of the spirit’ leading me to believe or feel or do things only to later understand those either could not have been god or god was not kind. Either way, that left me in serious trouble. Either I can not hear/discern/know the spirit’s voice (and couldn’t, even in times of the truest obedience and faith I’ve had) or what god says is cold hearted and critical with no view to truly help me grow. I don’t want to believe the fault is god’s (or the word ‘god’ doesn’t really mean what I think it means), so that just leaves me to blame; basically I’m screwed. I’m just a broken down gypsy with no ride home — I want to get there from here, but I can’t walk fast enough and I have no wheels.”

That passage resonated with me because I have long struggled with how to identify the voice of God. Some Christians or spiritual people tell me that God’s voice is comforting and reassuring; others tell me that God’s voice is corrective and convicting. It gets complicated when conservative Christians say that the comforting and reassuring voice is really Satan speaking sweet nothings into our ear, and when the “corrective and convicting” voice is a mere put-down that makes me feel inadequate and does not help me to grow. I also identify with Shan’s metaphor of being a broken down gypsy with no ride home, for, in a number of areas (spirituality, career, blogging, relationships), there is a place where I would like to go, and I do not know how to get there. I don’t know how to get to the place where I am finally good enough and can feel at peace. I feel like I’m wandering in the wilderness, and I have no idea how to get to the Promised Land!

I liked what one of the commenters under Shan’s post, Robin, had to say:

“After 9 years of enforced proximity in the bus, I was tired of buses and freeways and the hustle and bustle and abuse of the ‘Christian’ life. I made a beeline for the forest. And there, for perhaps the first time in my life – I feel like I truly encountered God. I’d spent a life-time hearing about Him, but the noise of all the people trying to tell me who He was and what He wanted from me, often completely hindered my ability to hear from HIM! I’ve spent the last 6 years in the woods, and it has been wonderful. Hard, painful and incredibly demanding at times, but blessed and amazing at the same time. And, like Elijah and the Israelites, God was faithful in providing for my every need. I was happy in the forest and had no interest in returning to the highway ever again. Occasionally I would visit friends who invited me for a ride on their bus, but one ride was always enough to re-damage my soul, and left me with no desire to return.”

I identified with Robin’s comment because, for me, it does get tiring trying to appease other people’s beliefs as to how I should live the “Christian” life. I like solitude. Maybe I can hear from God in that solitary and quiet place. At the same time, unfortunately, I am also the sort of person who would like to be told what to do and to believe. Then, I could pat myself on the back when I do those things. Otherwise, I don’t know if I’m doing well or badly. So, in my opinion, there are advantages and disadvantages to spiritual freedom and spiritual slavery.

b. Dan McMonagle says the following in his post:

“In our church hunt, there were two churches we considered – a church plant from the same denomination about 10 miles away, and an older, more conservative church with about 120 members just a few blocks from home. We would have preferred the laidback, casual atmosphere of the denomination we were used to, but Valerie was also leading a small youth group of mostly un-churched girls, and she didn’t want to drop them. The older church had a youth group that we could merge with, so we visited them first. We also tried to visit the more casual church, but God had other plans. The Sunday we drove there, I didn’t bring a map and we couldn’t find the junior high where the church met (pre-GPS). After we stopped three different people and none of them knew where the school was, we figured we weren’t supposed to be there. So, we headed back to the conservative church a block from our home. And naturally, the pastor’s sermon was on point for where we were, and so we gave in: ‘Ok, Lord, if this is where You want us, we’re in.’”

I’ve heard stories about experiences that were similar to this. Looking back, I can think of times when I have yearned for some message that could uplift me, and I walk into a random church hoping to find that message, only to walk out of the church at the end of the service feeling disappointed. But there have also been times when the opposite has occurred: I actually do feel uplifted when I walk into a random church and hear a message.

What I liked about that passage from Dan’s post, though, was that it reinforced to me how I could spiritually grow in all sorts of houses of worship: mainline Protestant, evangelical Christian, Catholic, Unitarian-Universalist, Reform Jewish, Conservative Jewish, etc. (Not that Dan is saying that people should venture outside of Christianity, but that is the lesson that I’m getting from his post, even if that was not his original intent.) I tend to assume nowadays that a conservative evangelical church could offer nothing that I’d want, but that’s not necessarily true. Obviously, there are some places that I’d prefer to avoid: churches that emphasize getting doctrine exactly right, churches that obsess over Calvinism, churches that emphasize “accountability”, etc. But I think that there are a variety of settings in which I can learn about living a good, spiritual life with a healthy mindset.

2. I appreciated something that I read in Our Daily Bread last night: “Don’t worship God to gain his benefits—-you already have them”.

When I lived in New York City, I’d listen to Dennis Kiszonas’ radio program, Grace for Today. It was very dispensationalist in its orientation, and its message was that today is a time in which we are saved solely by grace through faith, which is looking to God to justify us. I remember its Thanksgiving program one year, and Kiszonas was saying that we can be thankful because we are saved by grace, and God has already given us spiritual blessings: we are assured of a place in the good afterlife, we have God’s love and favor, etc. Consequently, Kiszonas said, when someone cuts us off in traffic, we don’t have to get all upset about it, for we are saved by grace.

That was an outlook that I yearned for—-an attitude of hope, one that believed that God was for me rather than against me. My experience in the Christian religion and my reading of the Bible often taught me the opposite: that God approved of me if I obeyed, that I was a mistake because I was introverted and God wanted me to be an extrovert who reached out to people and witnessed, that I could only be saved if my faith produced good works, etc. I wanted to feel God’s love and grace.

Nowadays, I’m not sure of what I believe. Will I enter the good afterlife? I hope so. I no longer fret about going to hell, but, come to think of it, I’m not persuaded that Christianity has a corner on knowing the truth about what the afterlife will be like. Do I enjoy God’s approval? I hope. I just assume that I have it. But I’m not persuaded of that with every fiber of my being.

Ellenson on Christians as Idolaters (Or Not)

I started Christianity in Jewish Terms, which has essays by Jews and Christians. The essay that I really enjoyed last night was by David Ellenson, who is the President of Hebrew Union College, which is where I go to school. Within rabbinic Judaism, there is a prominent belief that Jews have to observe the Torah, whereas Gentiles to be righteous only have to obey seven Noachide commandments. One of these commandments is against idolatry.

There's a good chance that I'll be talking about the Noachide commandments tomorrow. Today, I'll focus on a question that Rabbi Ellenson addresses: Did Jews believe that Christians were in violation of the Noachide commandment against idolatry? I have heard from Jews that to worship a man as God (as Christians do to Jesus) is idolatry. So are they saying that Christians are idolaters? And, as a professor I once had at Jewish Theological Seminary asked, what are the implications of Christians being idolaters on the presence of churches in Israel? Do Jews believe that Christian idolatry is polluting the holy land?

I don't have the answer to all of these questions, but I do think that Rabbi Ellenson shed a significant amount of light in his contribution to this book. According to Ellenson, writings in the rabbinic period (i.e., the Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 9:1; Exodus Rabbah 29:5) lambast Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity and the incarnation, and a negative attitude toward Christianity "and its visions of God had hardened in many Jewish precincts" by the Middle Ages. In addition, Maimonides considered Christians to be worshipers of idols, in his comments on Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:3 and the Mishneh Torah (Hiclhot Avodat Zarah 1:3). But, starting with the twelfth century in Christian Europe, there was a tendency to view Christianity as a form of monotheism and the worship of the one true God, the God of the Bible, who created the heavens and the earth. Jews were forbidden to associate another personality (such as Jesus) with God, a practice that is called shituf. But Gentiles could do so, according to normative Jewish law, without violating the prohibition on idolatry, perhaps because, in their minds, they were worshiping the one true God.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Completing Marshall's Jesus and the Religions of Man

I finished David Marshall’s Jesus and the Religions of Man. I read the Appendix, which tackled the Crusades, Inquisitions, pogroms, and witch-hunts. I won’t go into great detail about Marshall’s arguments in this section. I wrote this post in response to similar arguments that he made in The Truth Behind the New Atheism. There were some things in the Appendix to Jesus and the Religions of Man which were different, and they certainly deserve consideration: that the Salem witch hysteria was starting by girls who were flirting with black magic, that the trials did not follow biblical procedure, that an imperial mindset played a role in the Crusades, etc.

On the whole imperial mindset issue, I wish that Marshall had applied that to the topic of anti-Semitism, or (more accurately, perhaps) anti-Judaism. Unlike Marshall, I’m very hesitant to say that the New Testament had nothing to do with anti-Judaism within Christianity, for, in my opinion, the division between Christianity and most of Judaism played a role in the church’s stigmatization of Jews. This may very well have started out as a debate between Jews, as Marshall and other have argued. After all, even the Old Testament continually criticizes the children of Israel. But criticism of Israel became more of a stigmatization of the “other” as more and more Gentiles entered the church, and the portrayal of the Jews as hard-hearted and as corrupt in both the Old and also the New Testament played a significant role in how Gentile Christians conceptualized the Jews. I don’t believe that was the only factor. The New Testament certainly does not command Christians to humiliate or slaughter the Jews, for it tells people to love their enemies, to be humble, etc. While I maintain that the Bible played a role in how Gentile Christians viewed the Jews, I think that the notion that Jews should be subjugated and treated as a defeated people comes from other things, such as triumphalism, an attitude that is consistent with an imperialist mindset, but not with New Testament principles.

I have two other thoughts, which take some of Marshall’s arguments as their starting-point, even though they do not entirely relate to Marshall.

First, on page 309, Marshall refers to a critic who told him: “You’ll say they’re not real Christians. But you have to take the bad with the good. Christianity has changed many lives for the better, but it has also done a lot of harm.” Does Marshall argue that those who were responsible for the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the pogroms, and the witch hunts were not real Christians? At one point, Marshall refers to those responsible for one of those atrocities as alleged Christians. But he also acknowledges in this Appendix that there were true Christians who participated in those examples of gross wrong-doing.

I’ve always hated the evangelical argument that those who were involved in atrocities were not real Christians. I was once talking with a Christian conservative fanatic who was continually bashing President Obama and Muslims. When she was expressing outrage that American Muslims are allowed to practice their religion in the U.S. military and referred to Muslim atrocities throughout history and in the present, I told her about atrocities that Christians have done. She responded that those who do not love other people are not true Christians. I thought what she said was ridiculous. I mean, what right did she have to be so smug and judgmental? Is she showing love when she stigmatizes an entire group of people? Is she saying that true Christians cannot make mistakes? What makes her think that she’s so perfect? I admire Christians who are willing to admit that they and others can err in judgment, not Christians who act like they’re the “true Christians” while those who fall short (sometimes dramatically) are merely “professing Christians”.

Second, Marshall talks a lot in this book about the good that Christians have done. Before reading Marshall, I thought that was a rather trite argument. I mean, I used it often against atheists and non-believers back in the days when I was a conservative evangelical! But what I have concluded after reading Marshall is this: it can easily become a trite argument because I and others have used it as such—-as a mere debating point. It’s one thing to use a predictable conservative Christian debating point in an attempt to score, to make myself look good, and to make my opponent look bad. It’s quite another thing altogether to step back and to admire those who put their necks on the line so that the oppressed, the marginalized, and the disadvantaged can have a chance, and (even more) to realize that I may have an obligation to help, too. I’m not criticizing Marshall here, for he has done humanitarian work, such as combating the sex trade. When reading his polemics, I often wish he would show more humility, but I know that I am not always humble in the battlefield of online and print debates.

The next book that I will read will be Marshall’s very first book: True Son of Man: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture.

Do You See It?

I finished Justification and Variegated Nomism, Volume 2: The Paradoxes of Paul. This will be a rambling post.

D.A. Carson wrestles with a tension in Paul, who presents Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures (as if the Scriptures predicted him), yet also says that the Gospel was hidden in the past but came to be revealed with the coming of Christ. Carson asks on pages 397-398: "How can the very things that are said, on the one hand, to be predicted in the past and now fulfilled, be said, on the other, to be hidden in the past and only now, in the fullness of time, revealed?" I've heard this issue addressed by dispensationalist Christians. There are dispensationalists who do not believe that the Hebrew Bible predicted pieces of God's plan, since Paul calls these pieces mysteries that were unknown before the coming of Christ. These mysteries include the presence of both Jews and Gentiles in one body (the church), and some have even suggested that the idea that Christ would die for humanity is not in the Old Testament. If my memory is correct, I read one dispensationalist interpreter a while back who said that Isaiah 53 only says that Christ will die for the Jews, and so it does not predict Christ dying for the Gentiles as well. Christ dying for the Gentiles was a mystery that became revealed after Christ's death and resurrection.

Carson's conclusion is that, for Paul, the Scriptures themselves contain the mysteries (and this is probably the view of many non-dispensationalist Christians). On page 433, Carson states:

"[Paul] is never saying to his Jewish peers, 'You silly twits! Can't you see that my exegesis is correct? I used to read the Bible as you still do, but I understand things better now. Can't you see I'm right?' Rather, while insisting that his exegesis of the old covenant scriptures is true and plain and textually grounded, he marvels at God's wisdom in hiding so much in it, to bring about the unthinkable: a crucified Messiah, whose coming and mission shatters all human arrogance, including his own."

That quote brings a lot of things to my mind: the arrogance of some conservative Christians who are so baffled that Jews do not see Christ in the Hebrew Bible; the view that I got growing up that God needed to "open our minds" to see certain truths in the Bible (namely, Armstrongite doctrine), since so many people in the world did not see those truths. I used to attend a Seventh-Day Adventist church, and a person there who married into Adventism was coming to believe that Christians had to observe the seventh-day Sabbath. He asked why so many people were so stupid that they did not see that! When I told someone else about this, he replied that this guy should be humbler, for he himself was stupid at some point and did not believe in the Sabbath.

Personally, I don't think that people who do not see Armstrongite or Adventist doctrines in the Bible are "stupid". They simply have another interpretation of the Bible. They highlight things that Sabbatarians explain away (i.e., Gentile-Christians in Acts 15 not having to observe the law), whereas Sabbatarians highlight issues that Sunday-keepers may have a hard time dealing with (i.e., the law and the Ten Commandments are praised in the New Testament, yet they claim that we don't have to observe parts of it).

Henri Blocher in this volume says that Paul's doctrine was counter-Scriptural, in a sense. On page 490, he states: "[There] is the staggering audacity of Paul's combination of words: God who justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5)!...God is doing what he expressly forbids (Deut 25:1; Isa 5:23; Prov 17:15), God is doing what he said he would not do (Exod 23:7)!" But perhaps one could come back and say that God doesn't justify the ungodly when they are unrepentant, but God does when they are repentant.

I thought that Blocher's summary of the New Perspective's stance on solution-to-plight was the clearest that I have read so far. According to Blocher, New Perspective interpreters say that Paul before he became a Christian thought that sin was not a terrible problem, for the law had means of atonement. But Paul learned that Christ came to redeem people from their sins, and so he concluded from that "solution" that the plight of humanity was much worse than he had previously believed: that the law was not sufficient to atone for sin. But Blocher critiques the New Perspective on this point because it makes the Gospel rather than the Law the way the Paul came to the realization that we're all sinners, whereas Paul in Romans says that the knowledge of sin comes through the law.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas 2011

Last night, I went with my Mom and her husband to Christmas eve mass at a Catholic church. This morning, I went to my Presbyterian Church (USA).

As those of you who have read my reviews of David Marshall’s works can probably tell, I can easily become skeptical when it comes to the Bible and religion. I had some of that skepticism last night, as I wondered how exactly I should feel during the service, when I was not even certain that we were celebrating a real event in history! But some things in that service, and in this morning’s service, and in my reading of Marshall made me more of a believer in Christianity. I thought about the stories about Jesus doing good for people, as well as what David Marshall says about Jesus’ humility (even though Jesus also made quite exalted claims about himself in the Gospels, as Marshall points out), and how that has inspired many followers of Jesus to love the sick, the oppressed, and the marginalized, and to do so with humility. The priest last night talked about the light of God and virtue, and prayed that these things might subsume the vice that is within us. I thought about John Calvin’s assertion that all people bear the image of God, which may mean that we all are like God in possessing the capacity to love, morality, a degree of intellect, etc., even though Calvin would say that the image has been defaced by sin. Then, there was this morning, when the pastor talked about the restoration of God’s full image in us through Jesus Christ.

I didn’t think much about the atonement or who is going to hell or heaven. I thought more about Jesus manifesting a divine sort of benevolence, and the hope that Christianity offers that we can become good, too. I think that everyone has a degree of light when it comes to God, for all people realize that there is some standard of goodness (whether or not it is “absolute”). This is true for those who believe in Jesus, and also for many who do not. I prefer to think about how Jesus fits into that light, rather than focusing on how those who don’t believe in Christianity will go to hell.

One more thought: I grew up in an Armstrongite denomination that did not keep Christmas, and I used to talk with Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also did not observe it. Both decried how Christmas reduces Christ to the status of a baby every year, when Christ is a king. I have to admit that I was puzzled by some statements that I heard in both church services: when we prayed to the infant Jesus last night, and when the pastor this morning asked in his sermon what our gift will be to the newborn Christ. I mean, Jesus is not a baby anymore! But I also found a great emphasis on Jesus’ kingship in Christmas—-in the services, with the songs that we sung and the Scriptures that we read. Contra Armstrongites and Jehovah’s Witnesses, we were celebrating Christ as king in our telling of the nativity story.

I’m glad to be with my Mom, her husband, and our kitty cats this Christmas. It’s much better than the years I was alone during the holidays! I hope that, whether you are alone or with people, you will have happy holidays this year.

David Marshall: "Jesus and the Religions of Man"

Today, I’ll blog about Chapter 13 of David Marshall’s Jesus and the Religions of Man, which is entitled (like the book itself) “Jesus and the Religions of Man”. I have four items:

1. On pages 295-296, Marshall attempts to refute the argument that the Gospels were written long after the time about which they’re writing and thus are unreliable. Marshall states that the Gospels date only decades, not centuries, after Jesus’ death. Based on my reading and experience in academia, I attest that even the vast majority of liberal scholars would agree with that. That means that many eyewitnesses to Jesus were alive when the Gospels were written. Marshall says on page 296 that “the Gospels enjoyed a considerable advantage in this respect over all other ancient literature” (page 296), which may mean that the Gospels are closer in date to the events that they narrate than is other ancient literature to the events that they narrate.

I interacted some with this argument of Marshall in my post here. A question that I have is this: Does the existence of eyewitnesses to Jesus while the Gospels were being written mean that the Gospels are infallible or historically-reliable? Paul in Galatians and II Corinthians refers to people in his day who were proclaiming another Jesus, or another Gospel, and they were getting followers. Apparently, people could get things wrong about Jesus and successfully propagate their claims even when there were eyewitnesses to Jesus who were still alive, and those eyewitnesses were not able to stop those alternative Gospels. So why should we assume that the canonical Gospels are reliable on the basis of eyewitnesses to Jesus being around when they were written?

I remember Marshall asking in The Truth Behind the New Atheism why new atheists are so dogmatic about the Gospel authors never having met Jesus, for they were most likely alive when Jesus was. Who knows? Marshall may be right. This issue has been debated. But if eternal hell is the penalty for not accepting the Gospel authors’ message, then you’d hope that God would give us more than a “maybe” to support the Gospels’ status as eyewitness testimony.

On whether Marshall is correct on how the Gospels compare with ancient literature, my guess would be “yes” and “no”. There are histories that were written long after the events that they narrate, but there are also some histories that are quite close to the events. I think of Josephus’ account of first century Judaism. Josephus is not accepted carte blanche by historians just because he wrote close to the time of the events that he narrates, however, for Josephus had a bias and an agenda in writing his history (i.e., to convince the Romans that not all Jews were rebels and that the Pharisees should rule). Josephus has to be sifted for what we can safely say is historical, as do the Gospels.

I realize that Marshall tackles these issues in more depth in this and other books, which I will read. But I’m just raising some informal questions.

2. On page 306, Marshall addresses the issue of contradictions within the Gospels. He says that there were contradictory accounts about the 1999 shooting at Littleton, Colorado, for, while eyewitnesses agreed that a young lady was shot for saying that she believed in God, there were differences about where, and some did not even hear her say that. Marshall quotes Jefferson County investigator Gary Muse, who said, “Any time you have a traumatic situation, even if only one person is killed, every testimony is different.” Marshall also quotes scholar Paul Maier, who affirms that differences in the resurrection accounts tend to demonstrate their authenticity, for that shows that there is more than one account to the event, and that the early church was “too honest to iron the story out” (Marshall’s words).

How much contradiction can we tolerate before we conclude that the Gospels are not eyewitness testimony? This is a huge question. I agree with Marshall that differences among the Gospels by themselves do not disprove that the Gospels are eyewitness accounts, or perhaps contain eyewitness accounts. But some things should be taken into consideration, such as the ideologies of the authors. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John present different images of Jesus. The Jesus of Matthew and Luke is more Torah observant than the Jesus of Mark. And the Jesus of John is quite different from the Jesus of the synoptics, for John’s Jesus is quite open about who he is, whereas the synoptic Jesus is more secretive. Whether or not the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony, that testimony comes to us through ideologies and subjectivity. And the question that many have asked is: Can all of these different pictures of Jesus be simultaneously true? Historical Jesus scholars seek to get behind the ideologies of the Gospels to determine what might be historical.

Does the existence of ideologies within the early church show that it was dishonest or uncommitted to truth? No. I don’t think that our only options are (A.) to believe that the Gospels are practically transcripts of what really happened (or at least generally true, which is probably what Marshall thinks), and (B.) to see a conspiracy in the early church to suppress the truth and to promote its own agenda. The early church was honest to preserve the Gospels, with all of their contradictions. Perhaps they couldn’t do otherwise, since the Gospels were so popular among Christians! But the early church had an ideology and an agenda, as did the rabbis, who also tolerated (even encouraged) a degree of variety and contradiction. That should be taken into consideration when determining what may be historical, and what we cannot necessarily trust as historical.

3. On page 307, Marshall offers his own view on the star of Bethlehem, which appears to be based on Paul Maier’s work. For Marshall, the phenomenon was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces. Jupiter represented the highest god, Saturn was seen as the defender of Palestine, and Pisces was associated with Syria and Palestine. In The Truth Behind the New Atheism, Marshall dates this to 6 B.C. This interested me because Rick Larson dates the star to 3-2 B.C.E. and says that it was Jupiter gliding past Regulus (which means king) within the constellation of Leo, a lion, the animal that is a symbol for Judah. (UPDATE: That's not entirely accurate, for Larson actually thinks that the star occurred later and was Venus coming into conjunction with Jupiter. But he believes that the events of 3-2 B.C.E. caught the magis' attention and alerted them to the birth of a king of Israel. See my post here.) My impression from this (unless you want to say that the Star of Bethlehem appeared in both 6 B.C.E. and some years later) is that people can make a good story out of all sorts of phenomena, depending on where and when they choose to look.

4. On page 301, Marshall says that people he knows (or knows of) who make the sorts of claims Jesus made usually have serious issues (i.e., womanizing, being troubled, etc.), whereas people like Jesus generally do not make grandiose claims about themselves. Marshall mentions Gandhi. Marshall’s point here may be a variation of C.S. Lewis’ Lord-Liar-Lunatic argument: that Jesus obviously is sane and of good character, and so we can trust his claim to be God.

I could then respond that Jesus did not claim to be God but that Gospel authors (particularly John) are putting their Christological beliefs into Jesus’ mouth. But then I’d have a question: Why did Paul and John believe that Jesus was divine? What influenced a few Jews to adopt this sort of belief, when their culture was staunchly monotheistic? Marshall states in The Truth Behind the New Atheism that C.S. Lewis asked this sort of question in response to the argument that Jesus’ claims are mere legend: Were the Gospel authors crazy to portray Jesus as divine? Do their writings display craziness? If not, then maybe they are true. Or so the argument (as I understand it) goes.

Did the early Christians get their belief in Jesus’ divinity from Jesus himself? Granted, not all sects in early Christianity believed that Jesus was divine. There were Jewish-Christian sects that did not, and, while they date to the second century, they claimed to have originated earlier than that. But Paul appears to portray Jesus as a divine sort of figure. So does John. Where did they get this belief? What led some early Christians with Jewish backgrounds to conclude that Jesus was more than just a good, pious man with a special connection to God, but was in some sense divine himself? People have tackled this question, appealing to possible analogies in Judaism (i.e., wisdom, Philo’s belief in the logos, how lesser beings could carry the name of YHWH) and Gentile culture (i.e., god-men, saviors). Different perspectives on this issue deserve study, in my opinion. The claims that Jesus makes for himself in the Gospels had to come from somewhere (either himself, or those who wrote the Gospels), and for some reason.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

David Marshall: Christ in the Rig Veda?

In Chapter 12 of Jesus and the Religions of Man, “The Bonfire”, one of David Marshall’s arguments is that the Indian Rig Veda predicts the coming of Christ, in that it yearns for a god who will sacrifice himself for people’s sins, as well as has sacrificial rituals that can easily remind one of Jesus: a goat without blemish, putting a bush around the goat’s head, binding the animal to a post, driving nails into the animal’s four legs, the four priests dividing the cloth covering the goat among themselves, the rule that the goat’s bones must not be broken, giving the goat soma juice, a belief that the slain animal is to be restored to life, and the eating of the animal’s flesh. Marshall in his article here refers to these things, as well as states that the Rig Veda affirms that the god became half mortal and half immortal.

Marshall does not cite the place in the Rig Veda where these elements occur, but he relies upon Indian Christian Mr. Mandapaka’s book, Sacrifice, as well as lists what Mr. Mandapaka cites as his original sources. I read here, however, that these elements are found in the Purusha Hymn. When I checked the Purusha Hymn (see here) and the summary of it on wikipedia (see here), however, I did not see anything about commands for goat sacrifice, and yet there was something about a god sacrificing himself. But the death of that god is related to creation, since the cosmos is made out of his body parts. That’s different from predicting a god who will some day come and sacrifice himself for the sins of humanity. That concept may be in the Rig Veda (I don't know), but I could not find it in the Purusha Hymn.

There are some who have offered arguments against Christian applications of the Rig Veda to Christ, maintaining that Christian apologists are misunderstanding those passages. I cannot vouch for Dr. Johnson C. Philip and Dr. Saneesh Chertan, who wrote Nine Signs of Christ in the Rigveda?? (see here), for I do not know who they are. But I think that their points should at least be considered when studying this issue, for they go into the alleged details of the goat sacrifice that Marshall mentions (though they don’t respond to Marshall, but others who have made those points), as well as present alternative interpretations of the Rig Veda.

This may be something for me to study in the future, since perhaps Mr. Mandapaka goes into detail about where he found the elements of the goat sacrifice that he discusses. I wouldn’t be overly surprised if there are elements of Indian sacrifice that are similar to the ancient Israelite sacrificial system. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if there are alternative interpretations of the passages in the Rig Veda that Christian apologists apply to Jesus, as is the case with the Hebrew Bible.

UPDATE: Here is an article by Mr. Mandapaka. It's a place to start, perhaps.

UPDATE 2: I found this post, which argued that Jesus is in the Vedas, but it actually provided specific references.

Psalm 56

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 56 and some of its interpreters. I will copy and paste the Psalm in the King James Version (which is in the public domain), then I will comment on select verses.

1To the chief Musician upon Jonathelemrechokim, Michtam of David, when the Philistines took him in Gath. Be merciful unto me, O God: for man would swallow me up; he fighting daily oppresseth me.

"Jonath-em-rechokim" has to do with a silent dove of distances, which may imply that the silent dove is distant. It may be a simple melody, or it could relate to the rest of the superscription: David in Gath while he was fleeing from Saul. Many have noted that the superscription differs from the story in I Samuel 21-22 because the superscription says that the Philistines took David, whereas I Samuel 21-22 narrates that David went to Gath during his flight from Saul (implying that David voluntarily went there rather than being taken). But some suggest that the two overlap, for the fact that David had to feign madness before Achish to make himself repulsive to the Philistine king indicates that David felt trapped and was seeking some way to escape from the Philistines. Regarding the silent dove who is distant, the Jewish commentator Rashi says that David was like a silent dove during that incident. Rashi may be trying to highlight David's vulnerability on that occasion, and also his silence while he was pretending to be crazy.

The Targum applies the silent dove who is distant to the Jews in exile, and the Septuagint similarly says that the term concerns people who were away from the sanctuary. The Targum treats David's experience in Gath as analogous to Israel's exile. David, I will note, felt somewhat alienated from God during his flight from Saul, for he was cut off from God's sanctuary (I Samuel 26:19).

2Mine enemies would daily swallow me up: for they be many that fight against me, O thou most High.

The Hebrew word that the KJV renders as "O Most High" is "marom", which relates to height. The second clause literally states that "they fight to me height." There are debates about what exactly this means. Some understand the clause as the King James Version does, that God is the one who is in a high location, for God dwells on high. Others claim that the clause means that the Psalmist's enemies are fighting him proudly, for "marom" conveys arrogance in Psalm 73:8. Keil-Delitzsch say that the clause affirms a point that occurs throughout this Psalm : that the Psalmist's enemies are mere men. For Keil-Delitzsch, the point of the clause within the Psalm is that the Psalmist's enemies have no right to be arrogant, for they are powerless before God. And then there is another interpretation of the clause: that its means that beings from on high are fighting for the Psalmist, indicating that angels are fighting on the Psalmist's behalf.

3What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.

It's human to be afraid, but the Psalmist addresses his fear by trusting in God.

4In God I will praise his word, in God I have put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me.

What is God's word that the Psalmist will praise? It may mean that the Psalmist will praise God's promise to deliver him, for God's word is his promise of deliverance in Psalm 130:5. In Psalm 56:10, the Psalmist says that he will praise "word" (the "his" is not in the Hebrew, for that verse), and interpreters have had other ideas about what that means. Erhard Gerstenberger says that the Psalmist is saying that he will sing his tale of how God delivered him. And Christian John Gill applies it to praising God the Word, Jesus Christ. In any case, the Psalmist, both in v 4 and v 11, affirms that he will praise a word "in God", which may be saying that the Psalmist can only get to the point where he praises the word through divine aid or guidance (according to Marvin Tate).

I found the Septuagint's translation interesting. It said for v 4 that "in God I will praise my words". This stands out to me because the very next verse says that the Psalmist's enemies are twisting his (the Psalmist's) words. Could the Psalmist in vv 4-5 be saying that he will praise his own words, even when people twist them around and pervert them against their meaning? Is the Psalmist affirming his good intentions, against those who accuse him of being sinister? I think of Jesus, who told his disciples in John's Gospel to destroy the Temple, and in three days he will raise it up (John 2:19). Jesus was speaking of his bodily resurrection, but his accusers twisted his words to mean that Jesus was planning to destroy the Temple himself and to raise it up in three days (Matthew 26:61; Mark 14:58). Reading the Septuagint intertextually with Jesus, perhaps we can say that Jesus affirms and rejoices in the truth of his own words (i.e., that he will rise again), even when people misunderstand or distort them.

5Every day they wrest my words: all their thoughts are against me for evil.

6They gather themselves together, they hide themselves, they mark my steps, when they wait for my soul.

7Shall they escape by iniquity? in thine anger cast down the people, O God.

"Shall they escape by iniquity?" is just one way to translate that clause. Another way is how the Septuagint understands it: that the wicked will on no account escape, or be rescued. Literally, the clause means "on-aven escape/deliverance to them", and "aven" can mean wickedness or "nothing". "Al-aven" can mean "by iniquity" or "on no account".

8Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?

In the Hebrew Bible (i.e., Daniel 7:10; Malachi 3:16) and the ancient Near East, there was a notion that a deity records people's deeds in a book. ("He's making a list...") I like that, when it means that God cares about me and takes note of the good things that I do. I have issues, however, with how some preachers apply God's record-keeping: that God will some day play people's weaknesses on a big movie screen so that everyone will see them. But, come to think of it, if I saw a person's misdeeds on a big movie screen, why should I judge that person harshly? We're all human. We all make mistakes.

9When I cry unto thee, then shall mine enemies turn back: this I know; for God is for me.

10In God will I praise his word: in the LORD will I praise his word.

In the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, I read the view of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch that the Psalmist here is saying that he will praise God's decree, whether that entails justice or mercy for the Psalmist. Whether God chastises the Psalmist or delivers him, the argument runs, the Psalmist will rejoice because God knows best. Rabbi Hirsch's interpretation is based on the rabbinic notion that the name "Elohim" for God connotes his justice, whereas the name "YHWH" pertains to God's mercy. This does not consistently work, for there are places in Scripture where the tetragrammaton is associated with God's judgment (i.e., Deuteronomy 31:2). So why would v 10 repeat the same point with different names for God? Keil-Delitzsch states that this sort of repetition is just something that the Elohistic Psalmist does, as in Psalm 58:6: "Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: break out the great teeth of the young lions, O LORD."

11In God have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me.

12Thy vows are upon me, O God: I will render praises unto thee.

13For thou hast delivered my soul from death: wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living?

Search This Blog