Wednesday, November 30, 2011

David Marshall: "Have Christians Lost Their Minds?"

I read the Introduction and Chapter 1 of David Marshall’s The Truth Behind the New Atheism. Chapter 1 is entitled “Have Christians Lost Their Minds?”, and Marshall in that chapter is responding to the new atheist charge that Christians believe in something without proof or evidence. Marshall takes on this charge in at least two ways. First, he argues that Christianity does not believe in accepting claims without any evidence at all. Marshall appeals to a variety of things, such as the proofs that the risen Jesus showed to his disciples that he was alive, Origen’s reference to evidence for Christian claims in his response to Celsus, and Blaise Pascal’s use of reason to support Christianity (which dismantles the view that Pascal’s Wager was a call for blind faith). Second, Marshall contends that even scientists (and the new atheists) accept certain things without proof, such as the reliability of their senses and their brains, as well as the scientific findings of their peers.

Regarding Marshall’s first argument, I think that Marshall does well to highlight that there are many Christians—-both academic and lay—-who have justifications for their beliefs, meaning that they do not glorify believing without proof. But I do not agree with Marshall that the new atheists are attacking a strawman, for I have heard plenty of Christians who do glorify believing without proof, and these Christians range from conservative to liberal. An evangelical colleague of mine said on a few occasions that God does not make his existence more obvious because God wants for us to have faith, and part of faith is believing without proof. A Catholic I know told me that the Intelligent Design movement is flawed because it assumes that the existence of God can be proven, and, if it can be proven, then there is no room for faith. I’ve heard and read these sorts of statements from Christians enough times that I doubt that they represent the fringes of Christianity. And, although Marshall is correct that the risen Jesus in the Gospel of John shows his disciples proofs that he is alive and that John 20:31 appeals to Jesus’ signs as evidence that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus in John 20:24-28 does bless those who believe without seeing.

What kind of evidence does Marshall believe that there is for the claims of Christianity? I can only speak about what I have read so far, and I realize that Marshall tackles this question more in this book and his other works. Consequently, my critiques may be flawed, but please bear with me: I’m just interacting with what I’m reading, and I’m not claiming that what I’m saying is the end-all-be-all. Marshall acknowledges that some of the evidence is “a broader and more social evidence than the scientific method in the strict sense allows” (page 18). It can include experience, or insight that people gain once they commit to the Christian faith (and, contra Richard Dawkins, Marshall states that this does not just mean believing in a creed, but it includes a way of life). Marshall states on page 31, in reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, that “If religion is about any more than shadows in our minds, difficulty and mystery are inevitable”, which could imply that the complexity of Christianity indicates its supernatural origin (though, on the other hand, Marshall may not be discussing the evidential foundation for Christianity in that statement, but rather is just pointing out Richard Dawkins’ inconsistency in saying that Christianity is too simplistic to be from God, and yet is too obscure to be true). There are the miracles that Jesus does in the Gospels, which even secular historians acknowledge. Against those who say that we can’t trust the testimony in the Bible, Marshall contends that “most of our knowledge is based on ‘implied faith’ in other people”, and “Almost everything we know—-not just about first-century Palestine, but about dwarf stars, neutrinos, state capitals, vitamins, and sports scores—-we believe because we find the person telling us the information is credible” (page 18).

The logical next question, though, should be why we should consider the Bible to be credible. I doubt that Marshall accepts everything that he reads and hears from people. He criticizes relying solely on the Internet for information a couple of times in this chapter! Moreover, even if Jesus was reported to do miracles, so were a bunch of other people in the ancient world, both Christians and non-Christians. The same occurs today. So why should we assume that miracles attest to the truth of Christianity, when there are claims (even eyewitness ones) that non-Christians have done them, too? Regarding the complexity of Christianity, I seriously doubt that Christianity is the only religion or belief system with paradox or mystery. Plus, how do we differentiate between a mystery and simple inconsistency and irrationality? I wonder how Marshall addresses these sorts of questions.

Regarding Marshall’s second argument—-that scientists believe some things without proof—-that depends on where Marshall is taking that claim. If his point is that science is merely a speculative enterprise that has no evidence backing it up, then I would disagree with him. But I doubt that he believes that, whatever his argument is, for he states that he switched to a belief in an old earth from young-earth creationism, and I’m sure that he did that on the basis of some evidence. Marshall does do well, in my opinion, to ask what the epistemological basis for science is. On what basis can we trust our senses, our rationality, or our peers? People for centuries have wrestled with these issues, as Marshall (a well-read man) knows, for there have been many skeptical movements throughout history.

Regarding our senses and our rationality, I cannot absolutely prove that they are trustworthy, but they do seem to work a lot of the time. When I recognize the validity of certain scientific laws that scientists have observed and conceptualized, things go well for me: I don’t jump off of a high cliff, for example, for I am aware of a rule called gravity, which I have seen over and over again. I think that scientists have the same sort of attitude towards their senses and their rationality: sure, maybe they can’t provide a solid epistemological foundation that legitimizes them, but their senses and rationality happen to work on a fairly consistent basis, so why not go with them? Regarding peers, my impression is that there is more going on than scientists just accepting what other scientists say. Peer review sifts out the wheat from the chaff according to criteria of what is plausible and implausible. Granted, scientists may not have the time to verify everything another scientist tells them, and so they accept it, but hopefully there is enough evidence for what that other scientist is telling them that they could verify it if they wanted to do so.

I’ll close with something that Marshall says on page 11. In response to new atheists’ question of “Who designed the designer?”, Marshall states that “Better philosophers than Dawkins or I, including Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, have answered these questions.” I prefer to say that they addressed these questions, rather than answered them. “Answer” implies that they have closed the book on the subject, when actually their “answer” may not be satisfying to everybody. But, then again, I have my biases, for, when it comes to evolution vs. creationism, I have often said that evolutionists have “answered” the objections of creationists!

Sabbatai the Antinomian, Two or More, Eternal Torah, Structured Anger

I finished W.D. Davies' Jewish and Pauline Studies, and I have four items:

1. Davies has an interest in Sabbatai Zevi, a seventeenth century Sephardic Jew who claimed to be the Messiah. I will not touch on every issue that Davies addressed on Sabbatai Zevi (though I will say that his article on Sabbatai Zevi is worth the read), but I'll look a little bit at Sabbatai Zevi's stance towards the Torah. On page 376, Davies states: "After 1655 Sabbatai Svi regarded himself as no longer under the authority of the Law that he had studied in his youth, nor under rabbinic authority; he was subject to a higher law." Davies says on page 275 that Sabbatai's "Messianic freedom...led to antinomian nihilism", and that such could have easily happened in early Christianity had Jesus and his example of love not been deemed to be an authoritative example to Christians. On page 377, however, Davies talks about Sabbatai's altruism with respect to the poor, yet Davies does not say which acts of altruism occurred before 1655 (the year that Sabbatai forsook the Torah), and which came after. But, in my opinion (and I have much to learn about Sabbatai Zevi), Sabbatai's rejection of the Torah may not have entailed abandoning a concern for the poor, but rather such acts as pronouncing the sacred name of God and eating non-kosher food (see here).

On page 385, Davies states that Sabbatai's right-hand man, Nathan of Gaza, believed that he himself had to observe the law and "remained a pious, observant Jew", notwithstanding Sabbatai's approach to the law. Davies also notes that there were two factions in Sabbatianism: the pious and the nihilistic antinomians, the latter of which sought to follow Sabbatai's example.

2. On page 308, Davies says: "In all legal activity God himself was deemed to be present. Compare Ps 82:1 and b. Sanh. 6b; the judge is God's partner (b. Sabb. 10a)." That reminds me of Jesus' statement in Matthew 18:20 that, where two or more are gathered in his name, he is in the midst of them. The topic of that section is the church's judgment and discipline of sinning Christians. In v 18, Jesus says that whatever the church binds or looses on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven, which probably implies that God supports the decisions of the church.

That has long disturbed me, perhaps because my religious background includes a church that excommunicated people unfairly, and I refuse to believe that God was behind the church doing that----that God somehow disliked those excommunicated members just because the church disapproved of them. In my opinion, human beings are flawed, whether they are Christians or not, and so God would be unfair to stand behind all of the decisions that church leaders officially make. And yet, I wonder: Perhaps people who believed that God was present in human judgment (whether that be within Israel or the church) took that into account. The Torah and the prophets, after all, acknowledge that there could be judges who took bribes and rendered unjust decisions. Was God behind those decisions? I doubt that even those who believed that God was present in legal activity would make that sort of claim. Maybe they believed that God was present when people sincerely tried to do what was just and right.

3. On page 309, Davies refers to Michael Stone's view that an emphasis on the "eternal immutability of the law" within Judaism probably emerged in response to division and political necessity. I do not know what specifically Michael Stone has in mind, but I have read that the Book of Jubilees presents Abraham keeping the law because it was responding to the Jewish Hellenizers who sought to encourage abandonment of the Torah by saying that Israel should return to the piety of Abraham, who was righteous before God gave to Israel the rituals of the Torah. Or maybe the rabbinic belief in the "eternal immutability of the law" was a response to Christians who held that the Torah was temporary----that it came to exist at Sinai and ended with Christ. Could this have been why rabbis maintained that the Torah existed even before creation?

4. On pages 361-362, Davies responds to Dale Allison's puzzlement that Paul could have written Galatians in such a fit of anger, and yet H.D. Betz presents Galatians as an epistle with structure. Davies says that "channeled, controlled, deliberate, cold anger is more effective than uncontrolled." One can pour out one's anger in a disorganized manner and appear like a lunatic, or one can express one's anger in an organized manner. For Davies, the latter has often packed more of a punch.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Brief Break from Stephen King, To Read David Marshall

I'm going to take a little break from Stephen King to read some books that my aunt got me a few Thanksgivings ago. They're by evangelical author David Marshall, and you can read more here about him and his Kuai Mai Institute for Christianity and World Cultures. The first one that I will read is The Truth Behind the New Atheism. His other two books that I have are Jesus and the Religions of Man and Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus and Grandma Marshall Could. If I am not overly sick and tired after reading The Truth Behind the New Atheism, then I will go on to the other books. Or perhaps I'll get a hunger to read something else and I'll save them for later. We'll see.

At the outset, the titles are somewhat of a turn-off on account of their arrogant tone. The Truth Behind the New Atheism, as a title, reminds me of Armstrongites with their titles of "The Plain Truth about" such-and-such, as if the "truth" is actually plain for all to see. Jesus and the Religions of Man----well, I'm afraid at first sight that this will be a book that gives Christianity a free pass while nitpicking other religions. I mean, how exactly can we even determine what is a religion from God, and what is a religion of man? Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus and Grandma Marshall Could----look, I'm sure Grandma Marshall was a good person, probably better than me, but that's not a reason to blow off the scholarship of the Jesus Seminar, especially when even liberal scholars have presented scholarly criticisms of it.

So why am I reading the books? For one, they're attractive to look at. Second, the author has thought a lot about Asian religions, and so I'm interested in seeing what he has to say about that. And, third, I read in an Amazon review that Marshall looks at the strengths and weaknesses of different points of view, including his own, and I tend to admire humility more than bombast. When an author is humble, I feel more as if I am on a journey with him or her, as is the case when I read (say) Philip Yancey.

I peeked inside the book on atheism. A lot of it got on my nerves. When I read a review of the book, its arguments looked like a lot of the same conservative Christian arguments I have heard or read elsewhere, which turn me off. And there's a good chance that, in reading these books and blogging about them, I will respond to Marshall's arguments with the same spiel that I have used in the past against conservative Christian apologetics. And yet, in peeking inside of the atheism book, I saw Marshall question the Discovery Institute, a power-house of the Intelligent Design movement. So perhaps I'll enjoy this book after all!

Overall, I think that I'll learn something from these books, whether or not I find them frustrating. Stay tuned for my blog-posts about them!

Sweet to Hear

I finished Stephen King’s Needful Things. I’ll use as my starting point a passage on page 641: “Alan found himself remembering something else—-something his grandmother used to tell him when he was small: The devil’s voice is sweet to hear.”

That fits Leland Gaunt, the antagonist of the book. He comes across as a warm, urbane, compassionate man, at least when he’s not pushing people to pay up! Nettie ordinarily did not come out of her shell for people, but she really took to Leland Gaunt. And, at least on the surface, Gaunt appears to be doing some good for people. He sells Polly Chalmers an amulet that significantly lessens the pain of her arthritis. He sells Miss Ratcliffe a piece of Noah’s ark (or so it appears), which brings her inner peace and religious joy whenever she touches it.

In some cases, even the good that Gaunt does is tainted. Polly’s amulet makes her arthritic pain subside because it contains a spider that is feeding on her toxins and growing as a result. Miss Ratcliffe feels better whenever she touches the relic from Noah’s ark, but she does not want to share the relic with her boyfriend, whom she thinks is not spiritually mature enough to appreciate it. And so she’s both selfish and also spiritually snobbish.

What really makes Gaunt evil, however, is the deeds that he requires people to do to get their needful thing from his store. These deeds turn people in the community against each other. Often, Gaunt pretends to commiserate with people who have been hurt (usually, unknown to them, as a result to events that he himself set into motion), but this is only so he can encourage them to take revenge. He sells them special guns, or he encourages Danforth Keeton to get dynamite in order to blow up the town.

In many cases, people who have been hurt are so focused on their anger and getting revenge that they neglect other things. When Gaunt persuades Alan that Ace Merrill was the one who killed Alan’s wife and son, Alan (the sheriff) forgets that his town is in chaos, and he forgets the people whom he loves and who love him (such as Polly). He is wearing blinders, and his entire focus is on his anger. Sometimes, in cases such as this, there are voices that try to dissuade people from believing Gaunt’s lies, and they take the shape of people who have died. They may be from ghosts, or perhaps people are simply thinking thoughts while using the voices of certain dead folks. In Polly’s head is the voice of her late aunt, who was a source of practical wisdom to her, and this voice leads Polly to ask if the Alan she knows is really capable of doing what Gaunt has portrayed him as doing (namely, Gaunt manufactured a letter from a child welfare office saying that Alan was snooping around in Polly’s past). In Alan’s head is the voice of Brian, Gaunt’s first customer in Castle Rock who committed suicide in sorrow over the part he played in setting disastrous events into motion, at Gaunt’s instigation. The voice of Brian essentially tells Alan not to believe Gaunt’s lies.

Gaunt can be a fairly decent liar, but his lies are sometimes flawed. Lies in general are flawed because they’re untrue, but what I’m saying is this: A good liar can make a lie at least look real—-as something that has a degree of logic, inner consistency, and accordance with facts. Gaunt is able to manufacture things that, on the surface, look real. He’s able to manufacture a letter from a child welfare office saying that Alan is snooping around in Polly’s past. He can manufacture photographs—-as he does when he makes a fake photo of Miss Ratcliffe’s boyfriend, Lester, cheating on her in a bar. He can simulate events on a video, as when he shows Alan a video of Alan’s wife and son dying in a car accident due to Ace Merrill.

Gaunt has this talent, and he knows enough about people to realize what lies he can tell them that will really push their buttons. But there are indications that Gaunt doesn’t always think things through. For example, in the video that Alan saw, Alan’s wife is wearing her seatbelt, even though it was established after the accident that she was not wearing her seatbelt when the accident occurred. When Gaunt has Hugh Priest kill Nettie’s dog and leave a note making it look like Wilma did the dastardly deed, Gaunt apparently does not consider that the authorities will be able to compare the handwriting on the note with Wilma’s handwriting and see that they differ, or that they’ll notice that Hugh’s bloody fingerprints on Nettie’s door do not match Wilma’s, or that they’ll take into consideration the timing of events. Why didn’t Gaunt use his manufacturing talent in these cases? He could have produced notes in Wilma’s handwriting, for example! Gaunt either didn’t think things completely through, or certain things simply did not occur to him. (I initially thought that Gaunt may be playing games with Alan and the other authorities, as if Gaunt wants for Alan to figure out that Gaunt is behind the events; but I don’t think that’s true, for Gaunt just wants Alan to get off his case.)

To return to what Alan’s grandmother said about the devil’s voice being pleasing, I don’t think that this has to mean that every pleasing voice is from the devil. Some Christians seem to think that we should dismiss as Satanic any voice that differs from their depiction of God as an ogre, or that encourages us to feel good about ourselves. I disagree with that approach. But I think that it’s necessary to dismiss voices that encourage us to hate, or to seek revenge. And it’s good to hear another perspective from people—-to shed light on issues we may not have considered, to encourage us to see even those whom we hate as human beings, or to focus our attention away from our hate and onto our role in facilitating the general well-being of humanity.

Torah or Moral Freedom?; Davies on I Corinthians 9

I have two items for my write-up today on W.D. Davies Jewish and Pauline Studies:

1. On page 216, Davies states: "The battles of Paul over the observance of the Law in Galatians and Romans especially have made it easy to think of him as the apostle of liberation from all restraint."

Paul certainly did try to dispel any notion that his stance on the law entailed liberation from all moral restraint. In Romans 6:14-15, Paul emphatically denies that his view that we are under grace and not the law entails that we are free to sin. In Romans 3:8, Paul says that people slander him when they accuse him of teaching that we should do evil so that good may come.

A question that I have been asking as I have read books on Paul and the law (or books on Jews and Gentiles) concerns the relationship of Gentiles to the Torah: Was there a belief that Gentiles were obligated to obey the Torah that God gave to Israel? I learned from Terence Donaldson's Paul and the Gentiles that, yes, there was this sort of belief within Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism, but it was not the only approach that Jews had to this issue. Many believed that Gentiles could be righteous simply by observing the seven Noachide commandments, for example. When Paul enters the picture, the debate that emerges is which Jewish view Paul was assuming. Did Paul believe that Gentiles were guilty before God because they failed to observe the Torah, or the seven Noachide commandments, or something else?

Paul's attempt to refute the charge that he preaches moral liberation makes me take another look at the issue of Paul and the law, and whether or not Paul considered the Torah to be universally binding. Why would Paul's perceived attack on the law come across as an assault on moral restraint itself, if Jews (at least the Jews Paul knew) acknowledged that one could be righteous outside of the parameters of the Torah that God gave to Israel? Doesn't the choice between Torah and freedom from moral restraint imply that, in the eyes of Paul's critics, Torah is necessary for morality and thus is binding on all people, Jew and Gentile?

2. Some of you know that I grew up in the Armstrongite tradition, which maintained that God required all people (Jew and Gentile) to observe the Torah. Christian arguments that people liked to throw at Armstrongism is that God only gave the Torah to Israel, not to the Gentiles, and so Gentiles were not required to observe it, and that the law of Moses is not authoritative for Christians, for it has been replaced by the law of Christ. There were many retorts that Armstrongites made in response to those arguments, but one of them was by Ron Dart, who pointed to I Corinthians 9:9, in which Paul appeals to the law of Moses as an authority to convince his Corinthian audience that churches should support their leaders. As Dart noted, Paul is writing to an audience that includes many Gentiles, and so that challenges the argument that the Torah is not authoritative for Gentiles. Plus, Paul is treating the Torah as authoritative for the church, which nullifies the view that the law has been "done away".

On page 238, Davies comments on I Corinthians 9: "It became clear to Paul early in his ministry that obedience to the law of Christ sometimes demanded obedience to the old law (1 Cor 9:19-20). In giving rules to churches Paul even drew upon the law (1 Cor 9:8, 13). Nevertheless, he did so parenthetically, and he finally appeals to a commandment of the Lord (1 Cor 9:14). Here, as elsewhere, the law is understood in the light of Christ."

Davies' overall view is that Paul regarded Christ as a new Torah that we are to follow, for Paul does appeal to the example and (sometimes) the words of Christ in his moral exhortations. Davies still believes that Paul regarded the Mosaic Torah as relevant to Christians, for it was (after all) from God, but Paul's appeal to the Mosaic Torah was parenthetical, and what finally settled issues (for Paul) was the commandment of Christ himself.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Questions at My Pastor's Recommissioning

Yesterday afternoon, I went to a special church service in which my pastor was recommissioned by some Presbyterian Church (USA) officials. The Constitutional Questions intrigued me. Here are a couple of them, along with my comments:

1. "Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God's word to you?"

What I first noticed was that there's no reference to the Bible being inerrant or infallible in its original autographs, but there were other things about the question that puzzled me. So do the Old and the New Testaments become witnesses to Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit----meaning that the Holy Spirit enables the readers to read the Scriptures in light of Christ? That sounds rather neo-orthodox to me, if my understanding of neo-orthodoxy is correct. And what does "God's word to you" mean? Why couldn't the question have just said "God's word", period? Is there a belief in subjectivity here----that God takes the Bible and makes it God's word for the individual by enabling it to come alive to him or her?

That's a way that the question can be taken in a neo-orthodox sense. But I can also see how the question can be taken to be conservative or ultra-conservative. The phrase "by the Holy Spirit" may simply mean that the Old and New Testaments are inspired. The phrase "unique and authoritative witness" may be saying that the Bible is an authority (making it infallible?) and has something that other religions lack. "God's word to you" may just be saying that the pastor is resolving to recognize the authority of the Bible in his own life.

To tell you the truth, this isn't really a deal-breaker for me, whichever way the question is going. As long as I'm not abused from the pulpit with guilt-trips and manipulation, and as long as I'm told that I am loved by God and am encouraged to value other human beings, I don't particularly care if my pastor is conservative or liberal in his view of the Scriptures.

If you want to read the view of the Scripture held by the person who asked the questions, see here. My impression is that my pastor is a little more conservative than this, but he's conservative in a reasonable manner.

2. "Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?"

When I read "Reformed faith", what I think about is Calvinism----that God chooses to save a few people while leaving the rest to eternal damnation. I doubt that every single Presbyterian has this understanding, though. The pastor who asked the question simply refers to the sovereignty of God in his writings, which may just mean that God is in control, not that God consigns un-chosen people to eternal damnation. I once worked at a PC(USA) church, and the pastor told me that he's a universalist. As far as my current church is concerned, I never hear predestination preached from the pulpit, even when the sermon has such Calvinist buzz-words as "sovereign" and "covenant". My pastor does not strike me as a universalist, though, for he does seem to believe that faith in Jesus is necessary for one to receive forgiveness.

The Seventh-Day Adventists

For my write-up today on Stephen King’s Needful Things, I’ll use as my starting-point a statement on page 608:

“Babs and her husband were, after all, Seventh-Day Adventists, and as far as she was concerned, the Catholics and the Baptists deserved just what they got…”

The context of this passage is the feud between the Catholics and the Baptists over a Casino Night that the Catholic church is hosting, and yet I must note that the Baptist minister has other issues with Catholicism as well, such as Mariology (which many Catholics would say that he misunderstands). Babs is doing a prank that will exasperate that conflict because that is part of her payment to Leland Gaunt for a “needful thing” that he is selling her. And she does not care that she is exasperating the conflict, for she, as a Seventh-Day Adventist, does not like Baptists or Catholics.

I must emphasize that this is the character Babs’ particular Seventh-Day Adventist view, and it does not reflect how all or even most Seventh-Day Adventists see the world. In my own experience of Seventh-Day Adventism, the general belief is that the Roman Catholic Church is the Antichrist, that Sunday-observance is the mark of the Beast, and that the evil second beast in Revelation 13 represents the United States imposing a National Sunday Law. The upside to this view is that Seventh-Day Adventism opposes legal attempts to shove religion down people’s throats, plus it firmly supports freedom of religion. The downside to the view is that it influences some Seventh-Day Adventists to look down on Catholics and Sunday-observing Protestants, as if they are some sort of threat. I remember when I told a Catholic priest that I attend a Seventh-Day Adventist church, and he replied, “Oh, well, I’m surprised you’re even shaking my hand!”

Even here, however, I can’t speak in absolutes. There are many Adventists who believe that they as Christians should love everybody, regardless of what they believe. Ellen White acknowledged that there could be true Christians even in the Catholic church (which is rather condescending, but it’s a step up from saying no Catholic is saved). And I’m not sure if every single Adventist takes Adventist eschatology seriously. I went to places where that eschatology was taken seriously, but I wonder if that is the case with every Adventist church.

Davies on Gentiles, Jews, and the Torah

I have two items for my write-up today on W.D. Davies' Jewish and Pauline Studies:

1. In Romans 11:17-18 (in the KJV), we read: "And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee."

A point that Davies makes on at least three occasions in this book is that there is significance in Paul's comparison of the Gentile Christians with a wild olive tree. Paul's purpose for the comparison, according to Davies, is to illustrate that the Gentiles contribute nothing to the olive tree, for wild olive trees never produce useful oil (even though Davies does note that wild olive trees are not thoroughly useless, for they were utilized in Olympic wreaths and in the construction of buildings). For Davies, Paul is saying that the Gentiles came into the Christian community when they were uncultivated, and the "cultivating element in culture is not the Greco-Roman but the Jewish" (page 144). Davies quotes Cyril of Alexandria's affirmation that Christ sent the apostles to cultivate the uncultivated. For Davies' Paul, whatever cultivation the Gentile Christians are receiving is from the Jewish contribution to the people of God.

This view differs from another notion in ancient Christianity (and I do not know where Cyril of Alexandria stood in relationship with it): that God used pagan culture to prepare the Gentiles for Christ, almost as if pagan culture was for the Gentiles what Sinai was for Israel. According to Davies' characterization of Paul's thought, however, Gentile culture did not have anything that was useful or cultivating. Davies may think that Paul saw Gentile culture as full of idolatry and fornication (though Paul found something enlightening in Gentile culture in Acts 17).

2. An issue that I've been visiting and revisiting on this blog is the relationship of Gentiles to the Torah. Davies comments on this. I'm not sure if what he says is dramatically different from thoughts (by other authors) that I have discussed on this blog, but I'll post them for my records.

On page 186, Davies takes H.D. Betz to task: "And his treatment of the role of Gentiles in Judaism provokes uneasiness. Is it true that for Judaism 'outside the Torah covenant there is no salvation'...? H.D.B. ignores the doctrine of the Noachian commandments. The interpretation of 4:5 suffers from this lack[;] we prefer to follow Burton (1921). The Gentiles are under the laws of the covenant of Noah."

Paul says in Galatians 4:4-5: "But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons."

For Davies, this passage means that Christ redeemed the Gentiles from the seven Noachide commandments. God gave most of these commands to humanity at creation, and God added a few immediately after the Flood. A prominent view within rabbinic Judaism was that Gentiles were bound to observe the seven Noachide commandments, but not the entire Torah, and they could be counted as righteous and enter the World to Come simply by keeping those seven commands. But Davies' perspective may be that, for Paul, the Gentiles had transgressed these laws that they were under, and thus they needed a savior.

On page 196, Davies states that Paul believed that all people, Jews and Gentiles, have "an innate knowledge of God's laws". Davies elaborates on what exactly "God's laws" mean:

"This does not mean that every person possesses the itemized knowledge prescribed by the Jewish Law, but rather what might be called the sum total of the Law, which can be summarized in the so-called Noachian commandments. As a created being by nature, every person possesses certain universally valid norms which, in Paul's view, are part of God's revelation in creation."

Does this imply that, whenever Paul uses the phrase "under the law", he means that all people are under the Noachide commandments----that "law" means "Noachide commandments"? I think that there is some merit to this view, for Paul in Romans 2 does appear to argue that Gentiles obey the law whenever they walk according to the dictates of their consciences. But where the view falls short, in my opinion, is that Paul in Romans and Galatians strongly identifies the law with the revelation at Sinai (Romans 5; Galatians 3-4), which occurred after creation and the time of Noah.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Company When Watching Stuff; the Cleansed Zealot

I have two items from yesterday’s reading of Stephen King’s Needful Things:

1. Eleven-year-old Brian Rusk committed suicide because he felt guilty about setting into motion a chain of events that took two people’s lives, all to get a baseball card from Leland Gaunt. Sheriff Alan Pangborn is questioning Brian’s little brother, Sean, at the hospital. Sean tells Alan that he and Brian saw the movie Young Guns on the VCR, and they both enjoyed it. Sean says they were both looking forward to seeing Young Guns II once it came out on video, but now Brian won’t be able to see it because he’s dead. Sean says that he’ll now have to watch the movie by himself, and that won’t be any fun because he won’t be able to hear Brian’s “stupid jokes” (page 586).

Do I like to watch TV or movies by myself, or with other people? It depends. I have had rewarding experiences watching things with other people. I like making stupid jokes with my brother while watching stuff. It’s also a rewarding experience when I share something that I enjoy with my Mom and her husband, and they also end up enjoying it—-such as The West Wing, Dexter, and The Dead Zone.

But there are other times when I prefer to watch things alone because then I feel free to have my own reactions, rather than trying to fit in and becoming resentful when people don’t find funny or moving what I find funny or moving. But when I’m in a place where I feel accepted, I don’t care as much if others have the same reactions that I do. For example, I can laugh at certain scenes of Family Guy while others don’t, or others can laugh at things that I don’t. It’s good when I’m in a group where I can be myself and have my own reactions, rather than worrying about whether or not I’m fitting in.

2. In Needful Things, there is a feud between the local Baptist preacher, William Rose, and the Catholic priest, John Brigham. One of their points of contention is a Casino Night that the Catholic church is holding, which Rose thinks is gambling. I’ll share two passages about that.

Lester Pratt goes to Rose’s church, but he’s having a hard time thinking about Rose’s campaign against Casino Night because he has his own problems: he thinks that his girlfriend is cheating on him. On page 473, we read that Lester initially was “more than ready to ring a few sets of Catholic chimes, but now the entire affair seemed distant and rather childish”, for “Who really cared if the Catholics gambled for play money and gave away a few new tires and kitchen appliances?”

On page 601, however, we read aspects of William Rose’s life-story that explain why he is so passionate in opposing Casino Night: “[Father Brigham] had known his Baptist counterpart would not like the idea of Casino Nite, but he did not understand how deeply the concept of church-supported gaming enraged and offended the Baptist preacher. He did not know that Steamboat Willie’s father had been a compulsive gambler who had abandoned the family on many occasions when the gambling fever took him, or that the man had finally shot himself in the back room of a dance-hall after a losing night at craps. And the unlovely truth about Father Brigham was this: it probably would not have made any difference to him even if he had known.”

The passage about Rose reminded me of several things. I thought about the punctilious Inspector Javert in Les Meserables, who became a firm absolutist on law-and-order because of his own hard upbringing when he was a child. I think of the passage in C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms, in which Lewis says that becoming a Christian can be a double-edged sword, for it can lead a person to become loving, compassionate, and understanding, but it can also lead one to become a person who takes good and evil seriously and thus becomes an inquisitor! I thought of a true story I heard about a woman who is in a hyper-fundamentalist cult-group, and she even frowns on little white lies (i.e., she doesn’t want people to tell others she’s not at home when she is). But her life was morally loose before she entered the group, and now she has gone the other extreme of being morally punctilious in every detail, and of judging those who are not as conscientious as she.

Jesus says in Matthew 23:15 (in the King James Version): “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.” Religion can make people rather judgmental and unbearable. I used to pray for non-Christians I know, that they might become saved. Nowadays, while I do hope that they come to know that God loves them, I’m not sure if I’d be comfortable around them if they were evangelical Christians—-with a narrow, judgmental, cut-and-dry attitude on the world and how God works.

I can understand coming from a life where one feels dirty, and desiring to be clean. But I have problems when that desire becomes judgmental towards others, or hyper-zealous, or in-your-face fanatical—-at least when I have to be around it. I think it’s refreshing when people can become Christians and remain regular folks—-like Lester was when he saw how childish the crusade against Casino Night was. There’s something to be said for recognizing and abhorring sin and its damaging effects, but there’s also something to be said for a live-and-let-live attitude.

Disappointed, Yet Delivered

At church this morning, one of the prayers stood out to me. It said:

“Today we light the Candle of Hope. The people of Israel hoped in God’s promises and were disappointed. Again and again God delivered Israel from its enemies. We too have the same experience of salvation. That is why we believe in God’s promise to send Jesus forever upon the earth.”

If God delivered Israel from her enemies on a continual basis, why was she disappointed? Is the point of this prayer that the Kingdom of God is already and not yet? Israel experienced deliverance, but she still lived in an insecure world, and the prophets therefore predicted a time of lasting peace, prosperity, and spiritual transformation under a Davidic king, or (arguably in the case of Second-Third Isaiah) apart from the institution of the Davidic monarchy and the Zadokite priesthood. Similarly, according to Christianity, those who believe in Christ are forgiven, experience redemption and transformation, and enter the Kingdom of God, yet the world is still a broken place, plagued with sin and disease.

Or is the point of the prayer that God continually showed his love and faithfulness to Israel when he delivered her from her enemies, but God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham’s seed was thwarted by Israel’s habitual sin—-and yet the promise was fulfilled when God sent Jesus Christ, Abraham’s seed? But sin and death still remain, and, while Christianity has arguably blessed people from many nations, the world is still a broken place. And so, even though people have been delivered by Christ’s first Advent, Christians hope for the full redemption that will come in the second Advent.

I suppose I could ask somebody what the prayer means, but my hunch is that this prayer was taken from a book. Plus, it’s fun to speculate on the basis of the ambiguity of language!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Epistemology and Funerals

I read a lot of Stephen King’s Needful Things yesterday. I have two items:

1. There were a couple of passages on pages 405-406 that stood out to me, a wannabe academic. Sheriff Alan Pangborn and Henry Payton of the Maine state police are comparing notes on the case of Nettie Cobb and Wilma Jerzyck. On the surface, the case looks rather cut-and-dry: Wilma killed Nettie’s dog, Nettie then retaliated by trashing Wilma’s house with rocks, and the two then met in the street and killed each other. We the readers know that this is not true, however, for we realize that Leland Gaunt, the owner of the new shop in town, had others do these dirty deeds in exchange for something that they wanted from Gaunt’s store. Brian Rusk wanted a Sandy Koufax baseball card that Gaunt was selling, and part of Brian’s payment to Gaunt was trashing Wilma’s house. Hugh Priest desired a fox-tail, and his payment to Gaunt was killing Nettie’s dog. But Gaunt wants for Nettie and Wilma to blame each other, for he likes to instigate conflict and exasperate feuds for his own personal amusement.

At times, Alan and Henry seem to accept the standard narrative—-that Wilma killed Nettie’s dog and that Nettie trashed Wilma’s house—-but there is a small suspicion within them that something about the standard narrative is not quite right. Things don’t add up—-such as the timing of events. I won’t go into detail on that in this post, but I will say that it was interesting to read, even if I did not understand every detail of their reasoning. What I want to highlight are a couple of passages that occur within the context of Alan and Henry hashing out ideas and scenarios.

On page 405, we read: “[Alan] was thinking of the Agatha Christie novels which [his late wife] Annie had read by the dozen. In those, it seemed there was always some doddering village doctor who was more than willing to set the time of death between 4:30 p.m. and quarter past five. After almost twenty years as a law-enforcement officer, Alan knew a more realistic response to the time-of-death question was ‘Sometime last week. Maybe.’”

On page 406, Henry tells Alan that the bloody fingerprints in Nettie’s house of the one who killed her dog do not match Wilma’s fingerprints or correspond with Wilma’s small hands. But Henry cannot use that information in court because the fingerprints in Nettie’s house are only partial. Henry eloquently says: “…if I testified in court on something like that, the defense would chew me a new asshole. But since we’re sitting at the bullshit table, so to speak—-they’re nothing alike.”

I liked these passages because they illustrate how hard it is to know things exactly, and yet it may be productive to throw out some ideas for consideration. Even if those ideas do not exactly follow a high standard of logic and evidence, maybe they can lead somewhere, or generate new questions, or point out new angles, or highlight important issues. As a wannabe academic in the humanities, there are plenty of things that I am reluctant to say that I know for certain. But it’s good to read and hear different ideas. Does that mean that I’m saying that everything is speculation and so people can pick whatever narrative they prefer? Not really, for evidence is still important. Even when Henry and Alan were speculating, they were appealing to some evidence, or they were raising questions about the standard narrative on the basis of facts. But there are cases in which, even with evidence to work with, we cannot arrive at definitive answers, and so the best we can do is propose different scenarios or ideas. I think of the scholarly attempts to define and to account for Paul’s view on the Torah. I wouldn’t lay down my life on any of these scholarly constructions being true. But they are interesting and plausible ways to emplot and account for the evidence (or, actually, some ways are more plausible than others), and so perhaps they can help me to have a conception of my own when it comes to Paul’s approach to the Torah.

2. Wilma and Nettie had separate funerals. Wilma’s funeral was at her Catholic church, and many cars were lining up outside of the church for that event, as people came for Wilma’s husband, Peter, “if not for his dead wife” (page 435). But only five people attended Nettie’s funeral: her friend and employer Polly, Sheriff Alan Pangborn, Deputy Norris Ridgewick, Rosalie Drake, and old Lenny Partidge. Lenny went to all funerals except for Catholic ones, but Polly and Alan went because they cared for Nettie. The preacher at Nettie’s funeral was Tom Killingworth, a Methodist, and he knew Nettie when she was at Juniper Hill (an insane asylum), for he conducted services there. On page 434, the narrator sums up the nature of Tom’s homily: “The homily was brief and warm, full of reference to the Nettie Cobb this man had known, a woman who had been slowly and bravely coming out of the shadows of insanity, a woman who had taken the courageous decision to try to treat once more with the world that had hurt her so badly.”

This funeral somewhat reminded me of the funeral for Paul in the second season of Dexter. Paul was a heroine addict who abused his wife, and yet he was nice to his children, and they motivated him to try to change. At his funeral, only four people showed up: Dexter, Paul’s ex-wife Rita, and Paul’s two children Cody and Astor. But the pastor gave a beautiful homily about how Paul may have had his struggles with darkness, and yet his children brought out the good in him. In my opinion, that’s how funerals should be: highlighting the good that people have done. And it doesn’t matter if many people show up to the funeral or only a few. Each life is valuable, whether or not anyone attends a person’s funeral. And yet it’s good when people at least have one person who cares for them enough to show up.

Psalm 52

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 52 and its interpreters. I have two items:

1. The superscription states (in the King James Version): "A Psalm of David, when Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul, and said unto him, David is come to the house of Ahimelech." In much of what I read in preparation for this post, interpreters addressed the question of whether or not Psalm 52 pertains to the events of I Samuel 21-22----Abimelech and the priests of Nob help David while he is fleeing from Saul (only they do not know that he is fleeing from Saul), Doeg tattles on them to Saul, and Saul slaughters the priests. Modern interpreters largely answered in the negative, for a variety of reasons: the Psalmist does not mention Saul's slaughter of the priests of Nob; the Psalmist refers to a gibbor who lied, whereas Doeg did not lie but rather told Saul the truth (that Abimelech and the priests of Nob were feeding David and his men, inquiring of God on David's behalf, and giving to David the sword of Goliath); and that Psalm 52:8 mentions the house of God, which did not exist until the time of Solomon, David's son. Many modern commentators think that the superscription was later added to Psalm 52 for a reason: the Psalmist criticizes a gibbor in Psalm 52, and Doeg was one of Saul's gibborim (I Samuel 14:52); but, for them, Psalm 52 does not fit well with the events of I Samuel 21-22.

But many Jewish interpreters (such as rabbis, Rashi, Radak, and others) and some Christians have interpreted Psalm 52 in light of the events of I Samuel 21-22, as well as their elaborations of that story. Many of them hold that Doeg indeed did lie and slander the priests of Nob before Saul, for Doeg conveyed that the priests were conspiring against the king by assisting David, when actually the priests had no idea that Saul was pursuing David with hostility; actually, they believed that they were showing loyalty to Saul by helping David, Saul's trusted servant. Regarding the "house of God" in v 8, Rashi interprets "But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God" to mean that David would be in the Temple through his son, Solomon. (One could also point out that the Tabernacle is called the "house of the LORD" in I Samuel 1:24.) An application of Psalm 52 to the events of I Samuel 21-22 holds that Psalm 52 is an affirmation after Saul's slaughter of the priests of Nob that God would protect David and punish Doeg in the sight of the righteous, who would fear God and laugh at Doeg's calamity.

But there is more. According to ancient rabbis and other Jewish commentators, Doeg was a prosperous scholar of the Torah. In Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 106b, there is the view that Doeg is called a gibbor in Psalm 52 because he was mighty in the study of the Torah. A corresponding idea in the Talmudic passage is that Doeg was the person of Psalm 50:16 who declared God's statutes, yet turned right around and sinned grossly. According to the medieval Midrash on the Psalms, Doeg was not even committing his acts of evil for personal gain, for he already had wealth and influence; rather, Doeg's problem is explained in Psalm 52:3: Doeg loved evil more than good, and lying more than speaking righteousness. (Some Christian commentators maintain, however, that Saul rewarded Doeg for his act of evil, and that this is why Psalm 52 reproaches trusting in riches rather than God.) The orthodox rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch gives his own impression of Doeg, in light of Jewish interpretations, when he says that Doeg could have used his erudition and position in the service of good, but instead he misused his attainments for evil. (For Hirsch, I draw from the language in the Artscroll commentary.)

Not all ancient interpreters applied Psalm 52 to the events of I Samuel 21-22, however. The fourth century Christian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia contends, for example, that Psalm 52 is about Rabshakeh, who taunted Israel on behalf of the invading Assyrian king, Sennacherib. According to Theodore, some Israelites converted to the Assyrian religion when the Assyrians were invading Northern Israel, and Rabshakeh was one of those Israelites, looking out for his own safety and desiring a reward from the Assyrians. In this view, Psalm 52 reproaches Rabshakeh for trusting in wealth rather than God and for betraying his own people.

I'll close this item by quoting Marvin Tate, who (in my opinion) captures the essence of Psalm 52: "The 'hero' (gibbor) of v 3 has become a mere geber, an ordinary man (v 9), who exemplifies the person who refuses to make God a personal stronghold and trusts rather in wealth and in the ability to plan and promote harmful schemes." Such a summary would also fit interpretations of Psalm 52, the ones that apply the Psalm to Doeg, and the ones that do not.

2. A lady at a church that I attended once asked me about the part of the Lord's prayer that says "Lead us not into temptation". She wondered if that implies that God would lead us into temptation, if we did not ask him to refrain from doing so. A piece of the Midrash on the Psalms actually touched on a similar issue. On the basis of Proverbs 26:26 and Ezekiel 18:24, it said that God opens a door of iniquity before hypocrites so that they will sin in plain sight, thereby allowing God to demonstrate the justice of his punishment before onlookers: people will see the hypocrites' open sin and conclude that God is just to punish them. In this scenario, God does lead people into temptation, but only if they are already deliberate sinners. And, according to the Midrash on the Psalms, that's what happened to Doeg. Such a view overlaps with Psalm 52, which presents the righteous fearing and laughing at the punishment of the wicked one.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Friendship, Mr. Gaunt's Way, Christian Sub-Cultures, Fine Days

Yesterday, I got a lot of reading done of Stephen King's Needful Things. Here are four passages that stood out to me, along with my comments:

1. On page 302, we read the following about Alan:

"He reached the corner of Main and Laurel, signalled a left turn, then halted in the middle of the intersection and turned right instead. To hell with going home. That was a cold and empty place...There were too many closed doors and too many memories lurking behind them in that house. On the other side of town there was a live woman who might need someone quite badly just now. Almost as badly, perhaps, as this live man needed her."

Alan is going to Polly's place so that he can comfort her after the death of her friend, Nettie, and also because he doesn't want to go back to his empty house, which has a lot of memories lurking there from his late wife and son. That reminded me of a couple of things. First of all, I remember when I was in college, and I wasn't really in the mood to be pouring over every last detail of my homework. I decided to go hang out with my friends, for that was fun. In time, the opposite came to be true, for I preferred the solitude of reading and of academic accomplishments over being with people, some of whom ridiculed or insulted me. But there was a time when I could prefer the company of others over being alone, which felt dark and joyless. Second, I thought of Romans 1:11-12, where Paul states (according to the KJV): "For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established; That is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me." Paul wanted to go to Rome to help the Roman Christians, but then he realized that such a visit would comfort and support him, as well."

2. On pages 393-394, Leland Gaunt says to drug-dealer Ace Merrill, whom he has hired (and who is also a villain in Stand by Me): "You'll find that things go more smoothly for you, Ace, if you look at working for me the way you would look at serving in the Army. There are three ways of doing things for you now----the right way, the wrong way, and Mr. Gaunt's way. If you always opt for the third choice, trouble will never find you."

That's true in many cases throughout this book. Nettie Cobb is posting citations in Danforth Keeton's home, and Gaunt gives her telepathic instructions on how she can safely escape right before Danforth returns to his house. Basically, she needs to leave the house calmly, in a manner that does not draw attention. Brian Rusk threw stones at Wilma Jerzyck's house, and he is afraid that the police will find out that he did that. But Gaunt reassures him and offers him valid reasons that this will not happen. Gaunt wants Ace to transport illegal guns from Boston to Castle Rock, and he assures Ace that the police will not stop him. Sure enough, the trip goes smoothly for Ace, for the police do not even see the car that Ace is riding when it passes them. Gaunt takes care of people and assuages their fears, but only so long as he needs them. He has no moral compunctions about sacrificing people for his own amusement. Nettie and Wilma kill each other, for instance, because Nettie thinks that Wilma killed Nettie's dog, and Wilma thinks that Nettie trashed Wilma's house, when actually somebody else did those things, under the instigation of Gaunt, who is looking for amusement.

But the passage stood out to me because I feel good when my worries are assuaged, especially since I am someone who can get stressed out by every conceivable loose-end that enters my mind. I also like the promise that following a certain path will make my life less complicated, even though, of course, everybody has problems, including those who live right.

3. Page 398: "Lester went along [with his friends to tent revivals] mostly to be friendly, and because he always liked to listen to some good preaching and do some singing after an exhilerating afternoon of head-knocking and body-blocking. It was the best way of cooling down he knew."

I never really fit into the "jock Christian" sub-culture. But, come to think of it, I never fit into the intellectual Christian sub-culture, either. In terms of which one I fit into more, I'm not sure. The former tended to simplify issues, but at least (on some level) it respected me when I made objections. The latter saw more nuance in issues but trivialized or pompously ridiculed my objections. But I cannot absolutize or generalize, here.

4. Page 399: "Every day was a fine day when you'd given your heart to Jesus, but some days were finer than others."

Lester Pratt thinks this in the book. I like the idea of believing in Jesus leading to joy, and, even when it does not totally, the worse days now being better than our best days before we became Christians (or entered recovery, or embraced some sort of golden path). It would be nice if each day were fine, and some days were even finer.

Is I Thessalonians 2:13-16 Pauline?

On page 125 of Jewish and Pauline Studies, W.D. Davies says that I Thessalonians 2:13-16 was authentically Pauline, whereas many scholars have maintained that the passage was added later than Paul. A. Andrew Das, in Paul and the Jews (which I recently read and blogged through), also maintains that Paul wrote I Thessalonians 2:13-16, and he offers thorough arguments for his case. In this post, I will talk about some of those arguments. I will focus primarily on Das, since he is more thorough than Davies in his discussion of this issue.

I Thessalonians 2:13-16 states the following (in the King James Version): "For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe. For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews:Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men:Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost."

In the nineteenth century, Das notes, the main arguments against the Pauline authenticity of this passage was, first, that it referred to the events of 70 C.E. ("the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost"), which occurred after the time of Paul, and second, that it presumed a clear distinction between the Jews and the Christians, which happened after 70. According to Das, some nineteenth century scholars still defended the passage's Pauline authenticity, asserting that the wrath that the passage mentions could have been a pre-70 incident of calamity experienced by Jews (i.e., the famine of 46-47, persecution under a harsh Judean governor, the killing of thousands of Jews in 49, or the suppression of Theudas' revolt in 49), or that Paul was speaking of a future wrath, as Paul speaks of God's coming judgment as if it had already occurred. Das' solution is that the wrath of I Thessalonians 2:16 is an eschatological wrath, which Paul believed could have present dimensions (Romans 1:18; 9:3, 22).

In the twentieth century, Das narrates, there emerged new arguments against I Thessalonians 2:13-16's authenticity. Das mentions these arguments, then he responds to them. The first argument is that Paul in I Thessalonians 2:14 exhorts the Thessalonians to imitate the churches in Judea, which is uncharacteristic for Paul, who often tells his readers to imitate Christ or himself. Das retorts that Paul often does "support his exhortations with the example of other churches (see 1 Cor 11:16; 14:33; 16:1-2; 2 Cor 8:1-7; cf. Rom 15:26-27)" (though Das does not think that I Thessalonians 2:14 is technically an exhortation, since Paul tells the Thessalonians that they are already living like the Judean Christians, not exhorting them to do so), and that v 14 expands upon Paul's statement in I Thessalonians 1:6-9 about imitating the suffering of Paul and his co-workers. The second argument is that II Thessalonians 2:14-16 uses linguistic constructions (i.e., joining two main clauses by kai, separating "Lord" and "Jesus" by a participle) and vocabulary that are not typical of Paul. Das responds that the linguistic constructions in question are found in Paul's writings, and he attributes the non-Pauline vocabulary to Paul drawing from earlier Jewish and Christian language. (For example, according to Das, Paul uses apokteino because he draws from a long tradition about Israel killing the prophets.)

The third argument is that removing I Thessalonians 2:13-16 provides for a smoother transition between v 12 and v 17, for Paul already thanked God in 1:2-3, so why does he need to do so again in I Thessalonians 2:13-16? Das replies that Paul often uses and ABA pattern of saying something, switching to another topic or tangent, and then resuming discussion about his previous topic. Das thinks that is going on in I Thessalonians 2, for he says that Paul emphasizes "we" ("But we, brethren") in v 17 precisely because he is resuming his discussion before vv 13-16. Das also notes that "thanksgiving is a motif that runs throughout the letter (see also 3:19)" (page 134).

The fourth argument is the "lack of historical evidence for Jewish persecution of Christians in Judea" in Paul's time, at least to the extent that I Thessalonians 2:13-16 is describing. Das thinks that this is a relatively strong argument, for Josephus narrates in Antiquities 20:200 that the Pharisees were angered by the death of James, plus Paul in Galatians 5:11 admits that he wouldn't have suffered as much had he insisted on circumcising the Gentiles, and Das states that the "conflicts of Galatians 2 and Acts 15 revealed a preference by many Jerusalem Jews for Gentile circumcision in order to join the church (cf. Acts 16:3, 21)" (page 135). For Das, these items are evidence that "relations between the Jerusalem church and the Jewish community may not have been that tense."

But Das ultimately rejects this argument. He states on page 135 that "The NT documents do suggest a pattern of at least occasional persecution of the early Christians at the hands of non-Christian Jews not only in Judea (e.g., Acts 6-9 [esp. 8:1]; 22:4; 26:9-11) but also elsewhere (e.g., Thessalonica in Acts 17:5)", and that Paul himself refers to Jewish persecution of Christians in II Corinthians 11:24 (where he speaks about his own suffering) and Galatians 1:13 (where he says that he persecuted the Christian church before he believed in Christ). Das says on page 137 that "the Judean persecutions described by Luke in Acts must have been intense but only sporadic and perhaps limited to the early years of the church prior to the death of Herod Agrippa in 44 C.E.", for Acts 9:31 presents the Christians in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoying peace after the turbulence of Acts 6-9. Das' argument is that Paul in I Thessalonians 2:13-16 is referring back to these past events. But Das also offers another argument: that Paul is using hyperbole in I Thessalonians 2:13-16, as Jewish writers did when characterizing their opponents "within eschatological contexts." Das notes the apocalyptic elements of I Thessalonians----the "us" vs. "them" mindset, Paul's discussion of the opposition he experienced to his work, etc.----and concludes that I Thessalonians 2:13-16 fits well within I Thessalonians.

Davies' arguments are not as thorough as those of Das, but they cover some of the same ground. Davies argues against the claim that I Thessalonians 2:13-16 is late because the passage is severe in its criticism of the Jews. Davies contends that "Jews have often been their own most severe critics" (page 125). But Davies does not believe that Paul was being anti-Jewish, but rather that Paul was specifically criticizing the Jews who were hindering his own work, plus Davies states that Paul was not closing the door of hope to Israel after the flesh. A feature of the case of both Das and Davies is that Paul was engaging in an inter-Jewish dispute, not criticizing the Jews as an outsider.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Danforth, Myrtle, and Empathy

For my write-up today on Stephen King's Needful Things, I'll write some about Myrtle Keeton.

In my post here, I wrote about Danforth Keeton and how he is ordinarily verbally abusive to his wife, Myrtle, but he is nice to her when things are going his way----since he now has a device that helps him to predict the outcome of horse races. But things change for Danforth, for, when he comes home after a pleasant day with his wife, he sees posted around his house a bunch of obnoxious citations, which he believes were put there by a deputy. Danforth's mood changes. He wants to be alone in his study. When his wife tries to check on him, he replies, "Leave me alone! Can't you leave me alone, you stupid bitch?" The "rage and unbridled hate in his voice" hurt Myrtle's feelings. Often, she talks to her dolls to feel better after her husband berates her, since she doesn't really have a human being she can talk to. But now her misery is filling her throat and blocking her breathing. She sobs for herself, but she is also worried about her husband and his sudden change in mood, especially after such a pleasant day.

I can identify with Danforth and Myrtle. Often, when I feel bad, I just want to be left alone. I don't want to be quizzed about how I am feeling. I don't want to be pressured to socialize. I just want solitude. But, like Myrtle, I also want for people to be pleasant around me. I don't like to be lashed out at, especially when I am trying to help. And I try to cope, as Myrtle does, not so much by talking to a doll, but through prayer. But Myrtle wants a human being to whom she could communicate her problems----someone who would make her feel valued and less alone, especially after her husband is dissatisfied with her efforts to help and berates her as stupid. I think that the lesson for me here is to try to see things from the other person's perspective: When I feel like a Danforth, I should remember what it's like to be a Myrtle, and I should communicate my desire to be alone in a tactful manner. When I feel like a Myrtle, I should remember what it's like to be a Danforth and give that person some space.

The Torah in the Eschatological Era

I started W.D. Davies' Jewish and Pauline Studies. On page 26, Davies talks about the Torah in the Messianic future and the age beyond the Messianic future. This post will feature and comment on two of the passages that Davies cites, and they will be taken from my Judaic Classics Library:

Leviticus Rabbah 9:7: "R. Phinehas and R. Levi and R. Johanan said in the name of R. Menahem of Gallia: In the Time to Come all sacrifices will be annulled, but that of thanksgiving will not be annulled, and all prayers will be annulled, but [that of] Thanksgiving will not be annulled. This is [indicated by] what is written, The voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voice of them that say: Give thanks to the Lord of hosts (Jer. XXXIII, II)-this refers to Thanksgiving; That bring offerings of thanksgiving into the house of the Lord refers to the sacrifice of thanksgiving. So too did David say: Thy vows are upon me, O God; I will render thanksgivings unto Thee (Ps. LVI, 13). It is written here not a thanksgiving' but thanksgivings, meaning Thanksgiving [in prayer] and the sacrifice of thanksgiving."

According to this passage, certain sacrifices and prayers will be nullified in the Time to Come.

Leviticus Rabbah 13:3: "Another interpretation: THESE ARE THE LIVING THINGS WHICH YE MAY EAT AMONG ALL THE BEASTS THAT ARE ON THE EARTH (XI, 2). This is [alluded to in] what is written, Every word of God is pure (Prov. XXX, 5). Rab said: This means the precepts were given for the express purpose of purifying mankind. Why [must one assume] so much? Because it is said, He is a shield to them that seek refuge in Him (ib.). R. Judan b. R. Simeon said: Behemoth and the Leviathan are to engage in a wild-beast contest before the righteous in the Time to Come, and whoever has not been a spectator at the wild-beast contests of the heathen nations in this world will be accorded the boon of seeing one in the World to Come. How will they be slaughtered? Behemoth will, with its horns, pull Leviathan down and rend it, and Leviathan will, with its fins, pull Behemoth down and pierce it through. The Sages said: And is this a valid method of slaughter? Have we not learnt the following in a Mishnah: All may slaughter, and one may slaughter at all times [of the day], and with any instrument except with a scythe, or with a saw, or with teeth [in a jaw cut out of a dead animal], because they cause pain as if by choking, or with a nail [of a living body]? R. Abin b. Kahana said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Instruction [Torah] shall go forth from Me (Isa. LI, 4), i.e. an exceptional temporary ruling will go forth from Me. R. Berekiah said in the name of R. Isaac: In the Time to Come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will make a banquet for his righteous servants, and whoever has not eaten nebelah in this world will have the privilege of enjoying it in the World to Come. This is indicated by what is written, And the fat of that which dieth of itself (nebelah) and the fat of that which is torn of beasts (terefah), may be used for any other service, but eat it [ye shall] not, in order that you may eat it in the Time to Come. For this reason did Moses admonish Israel, saying to them: THIS IS THE ANIMAL WHICH YE SHALL EAT."

Rab's statement that the law was given to purify mankind is of interest to me, since I have been talking on this blog about Jewish beliefs regarding the relationship between Gentiles and the Torah. But Rab may not mean here that Gentiles need to observe the Torah for purification, for he may hold that Israel is representative of humanity as a whole, or agree with the proposition that all of the world was offered the Torah, but only Israel accepted it and thus possesses this jewel.

On the topic of the Torah in the eschatological future, there does appear to be a change of the Torah. The righteous will be allowed to eat Behemoth and Leviathan, even though these animals will not die through appropriate slaughter, but rather by killing each other off. According to the passage, there will be an "exceptional temporary ruling" from God that will allow the righteous to violate the Mishnah's requirements on slaughter for food. Those who, in this age, refused to eat animals that died apart from appropriate slaughter (nebelah) will be allowed to eat those sorts of animals in the World to Come. Is this saying that the Torah, or a part of it, will be abrogated in the World to Come? Not really, as far as I can see, for the allowance for the righteous to eat those sorts of animals (ordinarily forbidden by the Torah) is an "exceptional temporary ruling." Does that imply that the law's requirements will be the normal rule, even in the World to Come?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Cumulative Benefits, and Then Some Musings

On pages 282-283 of Stephen King’s Needful Things, Leland Gaunt tells Polly Chalmers the following about an azka on a necklace that he is selling to her in order to treat her arthritis:

“You shouldn’t take it off, not even in the shower…There’s no need to. The ball is real silver, and won’t rust. [T]he beneficial effect of the azka is cumulative. The wearer is a little better today, a little better tomorrow, and so on…If the azka is removed, however, the wearer reverts to his or her former painful state not slowly but at once, and then has to wait for days or perhaps weeks to regain the lost ground once the azka is put back on.”

Leland Gaunt is evil, and his goal is most likely to get Polly addicted to the azka so that she will do whatever he wants in order to keep it. But his presentation of the azka‘s healing effects as cumulative intrigues me because it makes me think about other issues. For example, suppose there is an alcoholic who has been in recovery for years and he relapses. Does that invalidate his learning and his growth prior to the relapse? Many would say that the alcoholic may find himself picking up right where he left off, in terms of the quantity of his drinking. That resembles what Leland Gaunt says happens when the azka comes off: a person goes right back to where he was before. At the same time, many would also say that recovery has become such a part of the alcoholic, that he may not be able to escape its positive effects even when he relapses. The things that he has learned in recovery will ruin his high, many have stated. In this scenario, the alcoholic may not have applied the principles of recovery thoroughly or correctly, but the wisdom and growth that he accumulated in recovery are not lost to him once he resumes drinking: they’re still a part of him. But, in order to continue to learn and to grow on the recovery path, he needs to get back into recovery.

Janet Oberholtzer talks about something similar in her post on Rachel Held Evans’ blog: Janet Oberholtzer: Pushing Through a Bad Run. Janet is comparing running to her spiritual life. Her running when she did not feel like running (because it was painful and tiring, and the weather was bad) prepared her for a later run that was good—-when she felt stronger and the day was beautiful. But what would have happened had she quit when the going got tough? Would she have had that later good run? The benefits of physical exercise are cumulative: you need to keep exercising in order to experience its benefits and to progress, and the benefits do not last if you stop exercising. Then, you have to regain lost ground, as Leland Gaunt said about the azka. And there are other fields in which “Use it or lose it” is a principle.

In terms of Janet’s spiritual life, Janet says that she’s currently in a state in which she does not like to read her Bible, listen to sermons, or go to seminars. She thinks that she’s in a bad spiritual run. She says: “I realize that to give up on faith during this funk would not be wise. Though I still have bad running days, my running has been on a gradual incline over the past few years, which came about through practice and by educating myself through running books, blogs and seminars. Shouldn’t I give my spirit the same treatment? Maybe I need to practice different spiritual techniques to find one that works best for me. Maybe finding new ways to use my slacking spiritual muscles would help me. Is there some type of beep that could signal between times to challenge and times to energize my spirit?”

In my case, I concluded that sticking with certain things was unhealthy for me, and, by “certain things”, I mean listening to abusive sermons and accepting whatever they say as if they’re “Thus saith the Lord”s. I still listen to sermons and read my Bible, but I don’t feel compelled to accept them if I find that they are unhealthy for me—-if they make me feel like garbage about myself, or if they mandate that I do something that I feel unable or ill-equipped to do at this stage of my life. I could have said to myself that I should stick with these things and then I would progress and life would get easier, and those things would come to help me—-as if the years of Bible study and listening to sermons would finally pay off. But, in my opinion, there came a point where I had to ask: Where’s the evidence that these things are even helping me to progress in the first place? Maybe they’re unhealthy, or the way that I’m interpreting or applying them is unhealthy.

But I’m reluctant to give up completely on sermons, Bible reading, etc., for there’s always the possibility that I will hear something that will encourage me and help me to make sense of things. And perhaps God can even use some of the things that I’ve heard in the past, for I do not like to think that my past has been a waste. But I am hopefully pursuing a road that is more healthy, rather than hoping that an unhealthy road will show itself to be healthy.

David Nilsen's Tips on Coping with the Holidays

In this post, I'll use as my starting point David Nilsen's Tips for surviving your next family holiday gathering. I have four items:

1. David says: "The perfect eggnog is the key to familial harmony. If you’re a teetotaler and you still attend family holidays, you have my respect. For the rest of you, pay attention because these next steps need to be followed very closely: 1. Mix 4 parts egg nog with 1 part bourbon in a vaguely snobbish glass. 2. Stir well and sprinkle with nutmeg. 3. Clink glasses with family member sitting closest to you. 4. Repeat until you like them more."

I'm a teetotaler these days, but I can identify with alcohol being something that can promote comaraderie. I used to enjoy my cousin's home-made wine, which he brought to Thanksgiving. The peach brandy also put me into a pretty good mood, and I missed it on the Thanksgivings when it was not there! But there were years in which alcohol actually hindered my enjoyment of the Thanksgiving holiday rather than enhanced it, since I came to Thanksgiving with a hang-over from my drinking the night before. Nowadays, as a teetotaler, I have to find other ways to enhance my comaraderie with others. Fortunately, I'm not the only one in my family who doesn't drink. In many cases, during my drinking days, I was the main guy drinking on Thanksgiving!

2. David's second tip is to select the movie that everyone will watch. Movies can definitely enhance one's enjoyment of Thanksgiving. I fondly remember one Thanksgiving in which we watched True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis. That was fun, even though American Movie Classics was editing some stuff out! Another Thanksgiving, I brought a movie, but nobody wanted to watch it. It was the movie that was based on Frank Peretti's The Visitation, and I brought it because some people in my family had read and enjoyed that book. But, come to think of it, perhaps my family was right not to want to watch it, for the movie isn't very good (unlike the book, which is fantastic).

3. David says: "Topics that must be avoided at all cost or you deserve to get a fruitcake thrown at your head: 1. Next year’s election 2. Last year’s election 3. Unconditional election 4. Anything else related to politics or tulips"

Politics can be a touchy subject, since my family is predominantly Republican, but there are a few Democrats. I like to discuss politics, for (to be honest) I have a hard time talking about much else. Politics is for me what sports are for a lot of males. But often, for the sake of family harmony, it's better not to bring politics up.

4. David then talks about the prayer at Thanksgiving. He lists four types of prayers. The first three are the pompous one, the preachy one, and the flattering one. But I could identify with the fourth type of person who gives the prayer: "The one who has spent the last several years questioning and reconstructing their faith and no longer feels comfortable praying in public, and will at this point be trying to hide behind the microwave stand and dissolve into the wallpaper so the host won’t see them. There will be me."

That happens to be me, too. I'm often asked to give the opening blessing at family gatherings, since I'm the student in religious studies. But I often don't feel like giving the opening prayer. For one, I don't know what to say. And, second, I'm one who is questioning and reconstructing my faith. But, come to think of it, I'd probably be resentful if I were not asked to give the opening prayer!

Completing Das' Paul and the Jews

I finished A. Andrew Das' Paul and the Jews. I have four items:

1. On page 151, Das states: "After the Damascus Road experience, [Paul] simply realized he had been wrong about the Law as an approach to salvation and that it did not possess the gracious elements that he had assumed as a Jew. All of these benefits are located in Christ." But how did Paul, as a Christian, deal with the gracious provisions of the law, such as sacrifices for atonement, or repentance? Do not these elements of the law demonstrate that the law has gracious provisions and thus can give life? I wish that Das had wrestled with these questions a bit more. But there's a good chance that all one can really do is speculate on this issue, unless one can interpret Paul to be addressing it. Perhaps the answer to these questions is that, for Paul, the law does not adequately remedy the problem of sin, even with the atonement sacrifices and repentance, for people still have a carnal nature that is contrary to the law, which is why Christ is so necessary.

2. More than once, Das distinguishes between obeying the law and fulfilling it. Das notes that Paul talks about Christians fulfilling the law, not obeying every single detail of it. What does fulfilling the law mean, according to Das? On page 156, Das states that, "by charting an independent course from the Law, the path of the Spirit, the Christian will ultimately arrive at the destination toward which the Law had been pointing all along." The destination, presumably, is love. Das also points out that parts of the law give way to Christ, meaning they are nullified: circumcision, and other laws separating Jews from Gentiles. Das' characterization of Paul's stance towards the law makes sense to me, and yet it doesn't. Does Paul believe that the law has been completely nullified and has been replaced with the path of the Spirit, which overlaps with the law in areas? Or does Paul think that the Mosaic law is normative, except for the parts that have been superseded by Christ? Perhaps there's a degree of truth in both options----that Paul believes that life in the Spirit overlaps with the law, which has good principles, since it is from God, and yet parts of the law are not normative.

3. On page 173, Das says something that's rather puzzling for him, in his interpretation of Philippians 3: "Even as Christ did not take advantage of his equality with God (2:6), Paul did not take advantage of his privileges as a 'blameless' Law-observant Jew." My question is, "What privileges?" Das states on page 188 that, for Paul, "A Jewish way of life, including especially circumcision, Sabbath, the food laws, and Law observance, no longer marked the elect and chosen people guaranteed a place in the world to come." Das narrates that Paul came to believe that "Judaism apart from God's Messiah did not----could not----proffer God's grace and a place in the world to come." Lloyd Gaston believes that Paul gave up the privileges of Judaism to become an apostate, but Gaston actually thinks that Paul did not deem Judaism (with or without Christ) to be an utter dead end. Das' characterization of Paul, however, does hold that Judaism is a dead end (though Das strongly argues that Paul believed there was hope for Israel after the flesh), plus Das shreds Gaston's arguments to pieces. So what privileges was Paul giving up? Or does Das mean that Paul gave up what he once considered to be privileges, but which actually were not such?

4. On page 195, Das favorably quotes Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin, who states: "Christians may hold any theology they wish, including supersessionism. (Why not? After all, biblical theology is supersessionist with respect to polytheists!) They just have to learn to let Jews live."

My sentiments are similar. I don't think that we should dramatically re-interpret Paul in the aftermath of Christian anti-Judaism or the Holocaust, for we should let Paul be Paul. I don't even think that demanding that all Christians avoid supersessionism makes much sense, for, the way that is often presented, it entails Christians saying that there is no advantage to being a Christian, and why would people choose to be Christians if such were the case? But I believe that Christianity, even when it is supersessionist, has a principle of love for others, and that principle condemns hostility towards Jews.

Overall, Das' approaches in this book are the same as mine (or, rather, my approaches are the same as his): He acknowledges points in the New Perspective, but he also believes that the Old Perspective has some strengths; he thinks that Paul believed Jews had to have faith in Christ; etc. But that's why Das' book did not intrigue me as much as, say, Lloyd Gaston's: Gaston said things that I had never read or heard before. But Das' book is still important, in my opinion, for it contains a history of scholarship on Paul and Judaism, and it also thoroughly evaluates the arguments of scholars. I also appreciated the book's personal touch, such as Das' reference to a Jewish classmate who got him thinking about the issue of different religions.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Longing for Home

For my write-up today on Stephen King’s Needful Things, I will talk about a passage on page 263:

“Home, that was the thing to think about. Home and her beautiful carnival glass lampshade. Home and the Sunday Super Movie. Home and [her dog] Raider. When she was at home with the door locked, the shades pulled, the TV on, and Raider sleeping at her feet, all of this would seem like a horrible dream…”

The context of this passage is that Nettie Cobb is at Danforth Keeton’s house while he is away, and she is putting up citations throughout his house to make it look as if a deputy is harassing him. She is doing this because that is part of her payment to Leland Gaunt for a lampshade that she bought from him, and Gaunt’s goal is to divide the community. But Danforth is about to return to his home, and Nettie does not want for him to see her there!

I identified somewhat with what Nettie was thinking about home—-as a place of refuge and escape. Granted, I do not trespass into other people’s houses, but there have been situations that have made me long to go home—-to my comfort zone, where I can watch TV, or read, or pet pets. Such situations have included social events, or school. Looking forward to going home can make those situations more bearable. But, sometimes, the situations can go so badly that they pollute my rest and peace at home. In those cases, I need to pray after I get home, until my mind returns to a point of stability.

John Shore on Coping with the Holidays

This will be a two-parter on experiencing the Thanksgiving holiday, and I will be using other bloggers’ posts as a launch-pad. Today, I’ll direct you to John Shore’s The Beatitude Attitude: 9 Tips for Avoiding Family Stress Over the Holidays.

Thanksgiving can be a stressful time. You have a bunch of people in one place who are clamoring to be heard (and that includes me). You have some family members who love to speak their minds, even when doing so is not exactly tactful (I’m sure people could say that I fit the bill here, too!). You have personality conflicts. You have hurt feelings—-both from what happened before Thanksgiving, and also things that occur during the holiday.

But John Shore offers tips on how to cope with the holidays, and he draws from the Beatitudes for guidance. One thing to do is to go into the holiday gathering with the Holy Spirit. For me personally, this means that I need my higher power in order to have the strength to cope with life, especially social situations, plus it helps for me to realize that I am not alone. Second, be a servant and give others the chance to talk. This is a challenge for me, for I tend to fade into the background because I am quiet, and so I almost feel as if I have to talk to let people know that I exist—-and I consider that to be me working on my social skills. But what I can take out of this point is that it’s better for me to give than to receive. I don’t have to be hyper-sensitive or self-conscious at these gatherings, but I can let others talk. Third, look for the good in what is around you—-such as the people who are serving (I think of my Grandma here). I’d add here the good food.

John Shore offers other tips, so his post is a worthwhile read.

Das Discusses Blamelessness

In my reading of A. Andrew Das' Paul and the Jews, I appreciated Das' discussion on pages 142-148 about the concept of blamelessness in Second Temple Judaism. To be honest, I could not tell whether Das was agreeing or disagreeing with E.P. Sanders, but he still presented important data.

E.P. Sanders' argument is that Paul was not trying to refute a Jewish notion that one needed to keep the law perfectly to be saved, for Judaism did not have such a concept. Rather, for Sanders, Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism thought that only the deliberately rebellious among the Jews would be excluded from salvation, as well as recognized provisions of atonement for Jews who sinned. But advocates of the New Perspective (which Sanders holds) also lean heavily on Paul's claim in Philippians 3:6 that, prior to his conversion to Christ, he was blameless with respect to the requirements of the law. New Perspectivists appeal to that verse to refute the idea that Paul before his conversion to Christ was burdened by his inability to keep the law.

Regarding whether or not Second Temple Judaism required perfect obedience of the law, Das argues that prominent strands of it did. Jubilees and Philo advocate perfect obedience towards the law as well as elevate biblical heroes as people who achieved this (though Philo qualifies Noah's perfection by saying Noah was only perfect compared to the people of his time). The Dead Sea Scrolls also exhort members to follow the law perfectly. At the same time, the Dead Sea Scrolls acknowledge that everyone sins. On page 147, Das quotes a beautiful statement by Sanders about the Qumran documents: "from the point of view of the halakah [legal strictures], one is required to walk perfectly. From the point of view of the individual in prayer or devotional moments, he is unable to walk perfectly and must be given perfection by way of God's grace."

Das also appears to question whether blamelessness means absolute perfection. On page 147, he states: "Biblical figures were often characterized as 'blameless' even when the biblical text admitted their sins (2 Chr 15:17 [cf. 2 Chr 16's catalog of sins]; Luke 1:6, 18-20). Paul could admonish his own audience, while it struggled against sin, to be blameless (Phil 2:15; see also 1 Thess 3:13; 5:23; and 1 Cor 1:8). So blamelessness with respect to the Law ought to be distinguished from perfect obedience...Although Paul describes his prior status as blameless, he nowhere says that he was without sin as a Pharisee."

Another interesting point that Das makes on page 147 is that Paul was accused by some of his peers of nullifying God's grace in holding that the Mosaic law was not a path to salvation, for the Jews "associated the Law with God's grace." That, for Das, is why Paul denies in Galatians 2:21 that he nullifies the grace of God.

I do not know how much of what I wrote represents Das' position, and how much is his summary of Sanders. But Das does talk about complex issues: What is perfection?; Was Paul aware that the law had gracious provisions?; etc.

Monday, November 21, 2011

In Good Times, and Bad Times

In my reading last night of Stephen King’s Needful Things, Danforth Keeton is nice to his wife, for a change. Ordinarily, he is verbally abusive towards her, as he harshly berates her whenever things don’t go his way. But he’s happy right now because he got from Leland Gaunt a device that helps him to predict winners in horse-races.

It can be a challenge to be nice to people (especially family) when one is in a bad mood, or when things are not going one’s way. But there are many people who manage to do it. What is their secret?

Das and Nanos on Romans 14

In this post on A. Andrew Das' Paul and the Jews, I will focus on Das' interaction with Romans 14.

Das believes that Paul's audience in Romans is "almost exclusively Gentile" (page 66), for there are places in his letter where Paul addresses his audience as if it's Gentile (e.g., 1:13). Moreover, while Paul says "you Gentiles" in Romans 11:13, he never says "you Jews", and Das interprets Romans 2:17-29 to be a rhetorical address conforming to ancient diatribe, not an actual address to Jewish Christians in Paul's audience. When Paul refers to Abraham as our forefather according to the flesh in Romans 4:1, Das holds that this means Gentile Christians' status as Abraham's seed, and that it does not point to Jewish Christians in Rome who were physically descended from Abraham. Das does think, however, that Paul's Gentile audience has been influenced by Judaism in Rome, for Paul is obviously able to talk with it about such issues as the law, circumcision, and Israel, and Paul also acknowledges that it knows the law in Romans 7:1 and 15:4. But the audience, for Das, is still "almost exclusively Gentile", and the people in Romans 14 who want to observe certain days and dietary practices are Gentile God-fearers who believe in Christ and have adopted Jewish customs, not Jewish Christians. Das argues that these Gentile God-fearers were in a position unlike that of most Jews, who were able to obtain kosher items from within the Jewish community. According to Das, as Judaism and the Christ movement distanced themselves from each other, Gentile Christians who practiced Jewish customs had "difficulty obtaining the necessary kosher food items" (page 69), and so they abstained from meat and wine altogether, rather than consuming meat and wine that had been sacrificed to a pagan deity. For Das, these are the weak in faith of Romans 14.

But Das discusses another view on Romans, that of Mark Nanos. According to Das, Nanos believes that the weak in faith in Romans 14 is the broader Jewish community, and that Paul is writing to Christians who are part of the synagogue. When Paul in Romans 11 says that he hopes to make the Jews jealous by converting Gentiles, Nanos (in Das' telling) thinks that means that the Jews in the synagogue will be jealous of Paul as he brings more and more Gentiles into the synagogue. And Nanos interprets Romans 13 to concern Christian obedience to the synagogal authorities. Das notes that Nanos' book won the 1996 National Jewish Book Award in the field of Jewish-Christian relations, but Das is not convinced by Nanos' arguments. Das does not think that Paul would call non-Christian Jews weak in faith, for Paul's point in Romans 11 is that non-Christian Jews are in a state of non-belief, not weak faith. Moreover, Das asks where Paul's letter would have been read, if not a church. Against Nanos' argument that there were no churches in Rome because of an official ban on unapproved religious associations, meaning that Christians had to be part of synagogues, which were approved, Das expresses doubt that the Romans rigorously enforced that ban, plus he notes that there were places where Christians assembled apart from synagogues, such as Thessalonica, so that could have been the case in Rome, as well. Nanos sounds like Lloyd Gaston: I may not be convinced by everything he says, but I would like to read him, because I enjoy alternative interpretations of the Bible.

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