Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Completing Segal's Paul the Convert

I finished Alan Segal's Paul the Convert. Here are some items that interested me:

1. Segal maintains that Paul was an apostate because he did not feel bound by the ritual laws of the Torah, and perhaps also because he was affirming that Gentiles could enter God's community without observing those laws. On account of Paul's apostate status, he was endangered by the capital punishment that Judea could have had for apostates (but Segal does not know to what extent this was practiced), or, at the very least, by flogging.

2. Segal says that Paul's Pharisaism was stricter in observance than was Diaspora Judaism, and also the Judaizers whom Paul criticizes in such books as Galatians. According to Segal, when Paul became a Christian who did not consistently observe the ritual laws of Judaism, he looked down on Judaizers for not keeping those laws "right"----for not being as rigorous as he was when he was a Pharisee. That's how Segal interprets Galatians 6:13, where Paul denies that the Judaizers even keep the law.

3. Segal says that Paul converted from Pharisaism to a Gentile-Christian community. I remember Terence Donaldson speculating that Hellenistic Christians had an outreach to the Gentiles, and that Paul was persecuting them on account of this, until he became a Christian and had his own mission. Would this be where the Gentile-Christian community that Paul joined came from: it was a congregation founded as a result of Hellenistic Christian missionary activity?

4. On page 274, Segal makes an interesting point about the locations of rabbinism and Christianity, and likely reasons for them: "Rabbinism...became most powerful in the smaller cities of the Galilee where Jesus preached, and Christianity spread most quickly in the large Hellenistic cities, where more anomalous and uprooted people were to be found. The social structure of the small cities and towns favored rabbinism."

There is much to unpack from this, so I'll hazard my guesses as to what some of the implications are. In Galilee, you had small cities, and that was a good place for rabbinism----for the rabbis could govern there, people already recognized their authority, etc. It was like a small town and perhaps a rather homogenous comminity. Outsiders were tolerated, but not overly welcome. In the large cities, however, there were lonely, uprooted, and anomalous people who thirsted for community and a belief-system that could give them security and meaning, and a marginal movement like Christianity could provide them with that.

5. On page 331, Segal discusses the prominence of Mithraism in the Roman empire, especially among the Roman army. This stood out to me because, on page 136, Segal discusses the question of whether Paul was influenced by mystery cults, with their themes of symbolic death and rebirth, immortality, union with the divine, etc. Segal notes that the church fathers likened Christianity to a mystery cult, but he himself does not deem it necessary to posit a connection between Paul and such a cult, for union with the divine and death and rebirth were themes in the Hellenistic world and could have influenced the Hellenistic church that Paul joined. Segal refers to Ovid (first century B.C.E.-first century C.E.) and also later mystery cults, where initiates went through symbolic death and rebirth. Christian apologists argue that saying that Paul ripped off ideas from mystery cults is problematic, for the mystery cults came later, and there were differences between the mystery cults and Christianity. But why should we just assume that Christianity came up with concepts such as death and rebirth on its own? The ideas could have existed elsewhere when it was a young movement, and it could have drawn from its cultural surroundings----even if the evidence we have for the existence of mystery cults post-dates Christianity, or Christianity departs from mystery religion in areas.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Links for Monday, January 30, 2012

I have some good links to share:

1. This article by John Richardson on Newt Gingrich in Esquire is probably the best that I have read so far. It goes into his human side and also his record as Speaker and thereafter----both the positives and the negatives. It is lengthy but it is well worth the read, from beginning to end.

2. Ezra Klein on the Washington Post's blog talks about the economies under the Administrations of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Both had recessions and implemented policies that sought to bring us out of that. But the recessions were due to different factors, and what worked for Reagan may not work today due to our different contexts. For example, tax cuts may not be the answer, for our taxes are already lower under Obama than they were under Reagan, plus people have a lot of debt to pay off before they can even think of freely spending money that they receive from a tax cut.

3. Izgad is blogging, with some excellent posts critiquing Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's Kosher Jesus. See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Advantage of Being an Israelite; Romans 7 and the Temptation of Law

I'm continuing my way through Alan Segal's Paul the Convert. A few things stood out to me.

First, I have long wondered: If many Jews believed that Gentiles could become righteous and enter the World to Come without becoming Israelites and keeping the entire Torah----and, if my impression is correct, Segal does appear to believe that there were many Jews who believed this way, on the basis of references to God-fearers on inscriptions and in literature----then why was Paul so revolutionary and provoking towards Jews when he said that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised in order to be saved? And why did many Jews believe that being part of Israel was such an honor, if they did not even think that one had to be an Israelite in order to be saved?

On pages 194-195, Segal tackles this question. Segal says that, according to Pharisaism, being a part of Israel was a special honor, like the priesthood. One did not have to be a priest to be righteous, but being a priest was an honor. And with the honor of being a part of Israel (and being a priest, for that matter) came purity rules. According to Segal, purity rules separated Jews from Gentiles and hindered social interaction between them (particularly sharing a meal). But Paul was coming along and saying that Jews and Gentiles could join together into a holy community and could interact with each other----even going so far as to share meals together. That, for Pharisaic Judaism, was quite radical.

Second, Segal offers a unique (as far as I can see) perspective on Romans 7, in which Paul appears to struggle with his sinful nature. According to Segal, Paul is actually struggling against something else in this chapter: his desire to keep the Torah. For Segal, Paul believes that Gentiles do not have to be circumcised and keep the ritual laws of the Torah in order to be a part of God's people, and Paul probably doesn't think that Jews have to do those things, either, for he, as a Jew, does not feel bound by them. But Paul did make accommodations for the sake of church unity or to be tactful, as when he had Timothy circumcised because Timothy had a Jewish mother. (Against those who note that Judaism at this time believed in patrilineal rather than matrilineal descent, Segal says that Acts may be getting things wrong, and also that Judaism may be more diverse on this issue than we think.) For Segal, Paul in Romans 7 is planning to tolerate the observance of Jewish dietary laws among Christians, and even perhaps to keep them himself when he feels that the situation calls for that, but he is afraid that this will make him one who relies on the flesh rather than the Spirit. He notes that he has a desire to keep God's law, and so he fears that observing some Jewish rituals will draw him back into the Jewish religion, or a Jewish-Christianity that he believes promotes confidence in fleshly observances rather than the Spirit. In the end, for Segal, Paul resolves to tolerate Jewish-Christian practice when necessary, while remembering that faith is what is important.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Narrative and Principles

This morning at church, the Pastor Emeritus spoke to us, since our regular pastor and his wife will be in Israel for a couple of weeks. I enjoyed the pastor’s sermon because it reminded me of a post by Leslie Keeney on valuing the Bible as a narrative, rather than prioritizing principles and discarding the narrative once one arrives at the moral lessons that the stories supposedly teach.

This morning, the pastor derived principles from the stories. From the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth in the Gospel of Luke, the pastor derived the principle of praying and expecting God to answer our prayers according to his timetable, not ours. From the story of Saul of Tarsus’ conversion and the thorn in the flesh, the pastor derived the lesson of God keeping us humble. From the story of Esther, the pastor taught us about relying on God (which Esther may have done when she fasted, even though God is not mentioned in the Masoretic Text of the book) and of taking action, as well as God’s preservation of the Jewish people as a nation that glorifies him.

The thing is, I did not feel that the pastor was deriving principles in a manner that discarded the narratives. Rather, the pastor dived deeply into the stories themselves. When looking at Saul of Tarsus, he remarked that Saul was sure of himself before Christ appeared to him, but then he was rendered dependent on somebody else on account of his blindness. The pastor also remarked on how amazing it was that Saul was persecuting Christians one minute, and then the next minute he was proclaiming the very Gospel that he had once persecuted. I agree that deriving principles from the Bible can be done inappropriately, but I think that it’s good when one can do so while taking the narrative seriously—-by looking at characters, plot, etc. That way, we feel as if we are living a story with other human beings.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Josh's Balanced Post on the Mark Driscoll Controversy

Here is a relatively balanced post on Mark Driscoll at Joel Watts’ blog, Unsettled Christianity. It’s by Josh, a doctoral student in sociology. I am definitely a part of the anti-Driscoll crowd that Josh discusses (even though I have occasionally written positive things about Mark Driscoll). Some of that is based on things that I have seen or read Mark Driscoll say, which comes across to me as pompous, narrow-minded, dogmatic, and controlling. Some of that comes from my own negative experiences with evangelicalism, which have nothing to do with Mark Driscoll specifically, but which come to my mind whenever I see Mark Driscoll perpetuate his macho brand of Christianity, or tell people to believe such-and-such, or promote accountability within small groups.

I agree with Josh that Mars Hill church, broadly speaking, is probably not a cult. It’s most likely like a lot of evangelical megachurches. If I were to go to Seattle and to visit the services, I seriously doubt that I would be pressured to do anything—-or that people there would notice me at all. Consequently, I should not judge people who go to Mars Hill—-and I won’t, as long as they don’t get in my face telling me what I should do.

Moreover, perhaps not every small group at Mars Hill is bad. People can probably have rewarding experiences at Mars Hill’s small groups. And yet, even though Josh is correct that we have only read Andrew’s side of the story (for background, see the links here), and that there’s a likelihood that a miscommunication was going on (and I’d say what tips me off to that is that Andrew feels that he repented, whereas the church officials get the impression that he has not), the controlling tone of the repentance contract and the notice to the church’s social community that Andrew is being disciplined turn me off from wanting to be a part of a church like Mars Hill, or any evangelical church that stresses small groups and accountability. Sure, I do not have to judge the entire movement. But I can decide for myself where I want to go when it comes to church.

Josh had good advice, both for those who are anti-Driscoll, and also for those who are pro-Driscoll (perhaps because they go to his church). The post is worth the read.

Leslie Keeney on Mark Driscoll's Definition of Successful Ministry

I’ve been enjoying Leslie Keeney’s posts on Joel Watts’ blog (see here), and so I was pleased to learn that she has her own blog, the ruthless monk. Leslie is a graduate student at Liberty University, where she is pursuing a Masters of Philosophical Studies.

In a recent post, Why Our Definition of “Successful Ministry” Is Problematic, Leslie takes aim at some remarks that Mark Driscoll made in an interview with Justin Brierley. Here are some excerpts from her post:

“At one point in the interview with Bierley, Driscoll berates the UK church for being cowards. As proof of this cowardice, Driscoll demands that the Brierley ‘name one, good Bible teacher that is know across Britain. You don’t have one, that is the problem.’ Then, later in the interview when Brierley revealed that his wife pastors a church, Driscoll responds by asking about the size of the church ‘You look at your results,’ he says ‘and you look at my results and look at the variable that is the most obvious.’

“Now, several bloggers that I read (and probably many more that I don’t) recognized the obvious cultural biases in these statements. To Driscoll—and thousands like him—the ‘success’ of any church or ministry is measured by the number of people saved and the number of celebrity preachers created. I would go one step further and say that not only do most U.S. churches see growth and celebrity as proof of success, but that many of these same people assume that our standard of success must, necessarily, be the measure of success used by the rest of the world. In his hubris, Driscoll reveals the American church’s self-centered belief that our model of church should be the model for the church universal…

“We can all name any number of ‘successful’ celebrity pastors who espouse bad theology. We can also all name any number of charismatic non-Christians throughout history with huge followings and evil intentions. History demonstrates over and over again that being famous and influential is not evidence that a person is speaking the truth…

“In response to the Driscoll dust-up, Andrew Jones posted a wonderful piece about the differences between American and UK churches. In addition to being a world traveler with first-person experience in a wide variety of Christian communities around the world, Andrew lived in both the US and the UK for several years. In his post ‘The English Church that went up a Mountain, but came down a Hill,’ Andrew lists several significant differences between the two countries, including a suspicion of religious celebrities. According to Andrew, the Fresh Expressions movement in the UK has established 3000 Christian communities in the last few years, they just haven’t produced a ‘big-name’ teacher. By American standards, is this a ‘successful’ ministry?”

Well said, Leslie.

The Benefit of a Doubt

I’d like to revisit my post yesterday, Was Romney Sincere?

I quoted conservative columnist Ann Coulter, who was talking about Romney’s 1994 run against Ted Kennedy for the U.S. Senate, when Romney was attempting to convince Massachusetts voters that he was pro-choice. Coulter said the following:

“Nearly two decades ago, when Romney was trying to defeat champion desecrator of life Sen. Teddy Kennedy, he sought to remove abortion as a campaign issue by declaring that he, too, supported Roe v. Wade. (Nonetheless, Kennedy ran a campaign commercial against him featuring a Mormon woman complaining that Romney, as a Mormon elder, had pressured her not to have an abortion, but to give the child up for adoption. Are you getting the idea that Massachusetts is different from the rest of America, readers?)”

When I first read this, I was puzzled. Would Ted Kennedy and the liberals in Massachusetts really criticize Mitt Romney for encouraging a woman to have her baby and to give the child up for adoption rather than having an abortion? I suppose that there are some liberals who would be appalled by a woman not choosing abortion. They may see the fetus as a mere blob of tissue and think that the woman is holding herself back and giving in to religious extremists by having the child, and so they’d encourage her to have the abortion. But my impression (based upon the liberals I know and have read or seen on TV) is that many liberals would not be rooting for the woman to have the abortion. They’d want for her to make her own choice, based on what she thinks. And, while they most likely would not want for Mitt Romney or the government to pressure the woman to have the baby, I doubt that they’d see Romney as evil for doing so as a private citizen. But that’s my impression, and I could be wrong.

It turns out that there may be more to the issue, though. This article by Charles Johnson on Romney and abortion is worth reading. Johnson says: “In 2007, Judy Dushku recalled a published anonymous article in her feminist Mormon magazine, Exponents II, by a Mormon woman who wanted to have an abortion in 1990 when Mitt Romney was a stake president. (The article did not mention Mitt Romney by name, but Dushku later identified him.) The woman, Carrel Hilton Sheldon, has since come forward. Sheldon claims that Romney worked very hard to prevent her from having an abortion, even though her doctor (also a Mormon and past stake president) said her pregnancy might take her life. The woman ultimately had the abortion.”

The article to which Johnson links says the following, quoting from a New York Times article:

“In 1990, Exponent II, a Mormon feminist magazine that Ms. Dushku, the Suffolk University professor, helped found, published an article by a married mother of four who recounted her own experience after doctors advised her to terminate her pregnancy when she was being treated for a potentially dangerous blood clot. Her bishop got wind of the situation, she wrote, and showed up unannounced at the hospital, warning her sternly not to go forward. The article did not identify Mr. Romney as the bishop, but Ms. Dushku later did. Now the woman has come forward, identifying herself in Mr. Scott’s book as Carrel Hilton Sheldon. (Through Ms. Dushku, she declined to be interviewed.) ‘Mitt has many, many winning qualities,” she is quoted as saying, “but at the time he was blind to me as a human being.’”

See here and here.

I do not know if that was the case that Kennedy was talking about (for Romney encouraged women not to abort more than once), but it would make sense to me if it was. I doubt that Massachusetts liberals would see Romney as evil for thinking that abortion was wrong and for gently seeking to persuade a woman to have her baby and to put the child up for adoption rather than choosing abortion. But they would have serious problems with Romney doing so in an arrogant manner that callously disregarded the life and health of the woman, especially when giving birth could cost her life. (And I say this while remembering that the Mormon church allows abortion to save the life of the mother, and that Romney’s current pro-life position contains a “life of the mother” exception. Perhaps Romney the elder did not feel that the woman’s life was at risk.)

But I not only give Massachusetts liberals the benefit of a doubt (as opposed to seeing them as monstrous fanatics rooting for women to have abortions). I do the same for Republicans, too. For example, I read an article yesterday on a liberal site, New Hampshire GOP Introduce Bills To Roll Back Domestic Violence Laws. These bills may very well undermine domestic violence laws (and there is discussion in the comments section about whether they will do so). But I seriously doubt that the Republicans introducing these bills actually support domestic violence. Why? Because I don’t think that people are thoroughly evil. Proud? Yes. Selfish? Yes. Greedy? Yes. But actively rooting for people to be hurt? I don’t think so.

Psalm 61

For my weekly quiet time, I will comment on select verses of Psalm 61 in the King James Version, which is in the public domain.

To the chief Musician upon Neginah, [A Psalm] of David.

1Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer.

2From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.

According to Marvin Tate, the end of the earth refers to a distant place (Psalm 19:5; 46:10; 135:7; Deuteronomy 13:7; 28:49, 64; Isaiah 5:26; etc.). What is the setting for the Psalmist crying out to God from a distant place? One view is that Psalm 61 is about David's flight from Absalom: David (as king) is away from his home and from God's sanctuary in Jerusalem because he is fleeing from Absalom, and so David cries out to God from where he is----a distant place----with the hope that God will lead him back to Mount Zion, the rock that is higher than David. A second view is that Psalm 61 is about a king who is at war, away from his home. The king either is sacrificing at Jerusalem in anticipation of his time away from home, or he is crying to God at the battle site. Tate notes that the Egyptian king Rameses II prayed to a god while he was on a distant campaign in Kadesh, and Sigmund Mowinckel appeals to I Samuel 14:33ff.----in which Saul builds an altar during a battle----to demonstrate that a king could call out to God in a cultic fashion even when he was far away from the official sanctuary. A third view is that Psalm 61 is by Jewish exiles, who are distant from their homeland and who want for God to restore them to the land of Israel as well as re-establish the Davidic monarchy. A fourth view is that the "end of the earth" is metaphorical for distance from God: the Psalmist cries out to God even when he feels far away from God. And a fifth view is that the "end of the earth" relates to the netherworld, and that the Psalmist is crying out to God while he is on the brink of death. Mitchell Dahood holds to the netherworld interpretation.

What is the "rock that is higher than I"? One view is that the Psalmist is asking for God to help him to overcome obstacles that are impossible for him to surmount by himself, which means that the higher rock is an obstacle. Another view is that the higher rock refers to God, who is called a rock throughout the Psalms (Psalm 18; 28:1; 42:9; etc.), and that the Psalmist here is expressing his faith that God is higher and stronger than he is, which is why the Psalmist is depending on God. A third view is that the Psalmist is saying that he is drowning and that he needs a rock that is higher than he is----since a higher rock is where he can be safe from the waters. The Septuagint has something different: in the rock you did lift me up. According to Tate, the Septuagint's understanding of that verse lacks mimmenni ("than I").

3For thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy.

4I will abide in thy tabernacle for ever: I will trust in the covert of thy wings. Selah.

5For thou, O God, hast heard my vows: thou hast given me the heritage of those that fear thy name.

6Thou wilt prolong the king's life: and his years as many generations.

The Hebrew that the KJV translates as "as many generations" is kemo dor va-dor, which literally means "as generation and generation". As Tate notes, dor va-dor often means "a succession of generations with no defined end" (Psalm 10:6; 45:18; Joel 2:2; 4:20). So is the Psalmist asking God that the king might live forever? But the Davidic king was a mere mortal, so how could he live forever? Different explanations have been proposed. One explanation is that the ancient Near East used larger-than-life language about kings. Kings were told to live forever (I Kings 1:31; Nehemiah 2:3; etc.), for example. Marc Brettler in the Jewish Study Bible states that the description of the king's life as perpetual may reflect the notion that the king was close to being divine (Psalm 45:7). A second explanation is that the king is hoping that his dynasty might last forever, meaning that v 6 is about the king's dynasty rather than the king himself. The fourth century Christian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia goes with this solution, and he relates this verse to the hope of the Jewish exiles that God will re-establish the Davidic dynasty such that it is perpetual, so that they would no longer have to fear or experience captivity. A third explanation is that David is conflating himself with his descendant, Jesus Christ, who lives eternally. A fourth explanation is that David is asking that his example might be known for many generations, even after he dies. And a fifth explanation is that v 6 concerns David's hope for an afterlife.

The Targum for Psalm 61 maintains that v 6 is asking God to give a king a life that lasts for many generations. Because it does not believe that God is redundant in repeating the word "generation" in the phrase "as generation and generation", it maintains that the two generations are referring to different things. According to the Targum, the Psalmist is saying that the Messiah's years will be like the generations of this age and the generations of the age to come, meaning (it seems) that the Messiah will live for a very long time. The Jewish exegete Rashi, however, goes a different route, for Rashi says that David is hoping that his years will be as long as a generation, seventy years, meaning that Rashi believes that David is asking here, not for an unrealistically long life, but rather for God to rescue him from pre-mature death so that he can live a full life----a life that is as long as a generation. At the same time, in his interpretation of v 4 ("I will abide in thy tabernacle for ever"), Rashi says that David is hoping to praise God in this world and in the World to Come, meaning that Rashi is bringing the afterlife into his discussion of v 4.

I'll discuss briefly a relevant point: Did Judaism believe that the Messiah would live forever? The Targum appears to say so, and, in John 12:34, some Jews tell Christ that the law says that the Christ abides forever, which is why they are baffled by Jesus' statement that he will be lifted up. The Book of Jeremiah, however, does not seem to envision a single Davidic monarch who will live forever, but rather it envisions the restoration of the dynasty itself, which will have more than one king (Jeremiah 33:26). At some point, a belief in a restored and perpetual Davidic dynasty was replaced by a belief in a restored and perpetual Davidic individual. (Or things may have been more complex than that, since perhaps different people had different ideas.)

Because the king is referred to in the third person in Psalm 61:6, interpreters have wondered if the king is saying this Psalm about himself, or if other Israelites are speaking about the king. Tate says that the king could speak about himself in the third person, for we see that in Jeremiah 38:5 and in fifth century B.C.E. Phoenician inscriptions. But Tate is open to the possibility that other Judahites are asking God to prolong the king's life. A possible setting for that would be the events right before the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., when people of Judah asked God to protect their king----Zedekiah, and Jehoiachin, the king in exile.

7He shall abide before God for ever: O prepare mercy and truth, which may preserve him.

The Septuagint has something different for the second clause, namely, "Who will seek out his mercy and truth?" (Brenton's translation). According to Tate, the Septuagint is taking the word translated in the KJV as "prepare" (man, from m-n-h) as the Aramaic particle man, which can mean "who?" or "what?". My guess is that the Septuagint may be understanding the word that the KJV translates as "may preserve him" (which is from the root n-ts-r) to refer to seeking out because n-ts-r can mean watching, or observing. According to Theodore of Mopsuestia, the Psalmist is asking who will seek out God's mercy and truth that the Israelites might be restored to their land. The MT, however, may be saying that mercy and truth uphold the king's throne, either because God's mercy and solidity keep the king reigning, or because the king's reign is rooted in upholding goodness and truth, or perhaps both.

8So will I sing praise unto thy name for ever, that I may daily perform my vows.

In Charles Spurgeon's Treasury of David, William Gurnall says that prayers without vows are blank, for we should praise God for his mercy that he shows us, or serve God (in some manner) with what he grants us. I personally do not make vows before God, for I hope that he will help me out of his love and pity for me, not because I make promises. Moreover, I would not tell God to (say) give me an academic position in religion and offer in return to defend God's truth of conservative Christianity because I don't believe that conservative Christianity is the full truth----or, more accurately, I prefer for scholarship to be open rather than forced into a conservative Christian mold. But I can see Gurnall's point that we should somehow honor God in our prayers----that we should do more than ask God for stuff.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Was Romney Sincere?

Ann Coulter recently wrote that Mitt Romney is a true conservative. In his 1994 Senate race against Ted Kennedy, Romney affirmed his support for Roe vs. Wade. Now, however, he claims to be pro-life. Ann Coulter states the following about this:

“Romney’s one great ‘flip-flop’ is on abortion. (I thought the reason we argued with people about abortion was to try to get them to ‘flip-flop’ on this issue. Sometimes it works!) Nearly two decades ago, when Romney was trying to defeat champion desecrator of life Sen. Teddy Kennedy, he sought to remove abortion as a campaign issue by declaring that he, too, supported Roe v. Wade. (Nonetheless, Kennedy ran a campaign commercial against him featuring a Mormon woman complaining that Romney, as a Mormon elder, had pressured her not to have an abortion, but to give the child up for adoption. Are you getting the idea that Massachusetts is different from the rest of America, readers?) Romney changed his mind on abortion — not when it was politically advantageous, but when it mattered. As governor of liberal, pro-choice Massachusetts, he vetoed an embryonic stem cell bill and ‘worked closely’ with Massachusetts Citizens for Life. The president of MCL recently issued a statement saying that, ‘since being elected governor, Mitt Romney has had a consistent commitment to the culture of life.’”

Coulter appears to be saying two things, which may be contradictory. On the one hand, she is saying that Romney went from being pro-choice to being pro-life when he was Governor of Massachusetts, which is basically Romney’s story. On the other hand, she seems to be implying that Romney only pretended to be pro-choice when he was running against Ted Kennedy because Romney sought to “remove abortion as a campaign issue” in a state that was rabidly liberal.

If the latter is the case, then I have serious issues with Mitt Romney. Here’s why: According to an article in Salon by Justin Elliott, a close relative of Romney died in an illegal abortion in 1963, which was prior to Roe vs. Wade. This lady was the sister of Romney’s brother-in-law. When Ted Kennedy in 1994 was attacking Romney for being “multiple-choice” on abortion, since Romney opposed abortion yet said that he wanted it to be legal, Romney sought to buttress his pro-choice credentials by talking about how the death of his relative shaped his views on abortion. Romney fired back to Kennedy:

“On the idea of ‘multiple-choice,’ I have to respond. I have my own beliefs, and those beliefs are very dear to me. One of them is that I do not impose my beliefs on other people. Many, many years ago, I had a dear, close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion. It is since that time that my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that.”

I hope that Romney was sincere when he was speaking those words, and wasn’t just using his relative’s death to score political points. I would be disgusted at an insincere use of such a tragedy for political gain. But I would understand Romney appealing to that tragedy to explain how he became pro-choice.

Segal on Paul, Judaism, and Conversion

I'm continuing my way through Alan Segal's Paul the Convert. I have two items:

1. For this first item, my understanding may be flawed, but, for the purpose of interaction with this book (however imperfect that interaction may be), I'll still say how I am understanding Segal's argument. Segal says at one point that instantaneous conversions were looked down upon in the ancient world, since many people preferred for conversions to occur after a period of education. Paul's conversion was instantaneous, even though it was followed by a degree of education within the Christian community, for Paul does quote Christian teaching that was handed down to him. At the same time, although Paul's instantaneous conversion was unusual compared to how conversions back then often took place, there are (according to Segal) a few places in ancient Judaism in which conversion is accompanied by some sort of ecstatic experience, which is what Paul undergoes.

This item is about conversion, so I will highlight another point that Segal makes about that topic. Segal does not believe that Paul was simply a Jew who was embracing and proclaiming the one whom he believed was the Jewish Messiah. Segal acknowledges that there were Jewish-Christians who fit this description, which means that they were technically not converts, for they were remaining within Judaism, on some level. (My understanding here may be flawed, however, for Segal does argue that joining a new religious community with its own set of values is an element of conversion, and it is the case that Jews who became Jewish-Christians joined the Christian community, even though they also remained part of the larger body of Israel, by worshiping at the temple, etc.) Paul, however, was a convert from one system of thought to another. He went from being a Pharisaic Jew to being one who viewed the Torah as temporary and did not think that Gentiles (or, presumably, he himself) had to observe its ritual requirements to be part of Israel (but, according to Segal, Paul did regard the moral requirements of the Torah, the Noachide Commandments, to be binding on Gentiles). Paul was a convert, not a Jewish-Christian. (Paul was a Jew and also a Christian, but not a Jewish-Christian, the way that Jewish-Christians were.)

2. I turn now to the Noachide Commandments, the laws that many rabbis believed were binding on Gentiles, whom they did not think had to observe the entire Torah. Segal argues that this belief emerged because conversion to Judaism was stigmatized in the first century C.E. Josephus' story about Izates (see here) shows that Gentiles did not like for their Gentile rulers to become circumcised, and so there were Jews who held that Gentiles could please God and honor the Torah without circumcision. And, in the late first century, in the aftermath of Jewish revolts, there were Roman imperial attacks on proselytism. On page 112, Segal says that some Jews thought Gentiles should obey the entire Torah, whereas others held that Gentiles could observe the Noachide Commandments to please God, since conversion would result in a blacklash from Gentiles----against the converts and also against the Jews.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Andrew's Brother, Stephen, on Rigid Doctrines and Real-life People

I wrote yesterday about Andrew’s experience with church “discipline” at Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, which has been a prominent topic of discussion throughout the Internet over the past few days. On Matthew Paul Turner’s site, there is an excellent piece by Andrew’s brother Stephen. Stephen makes a point that, in my opinion, is important and poignant:

“One reason I count Lars von Trier’s 2003 film Dogville, starring Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany, as one of my favorite films, one I’m constantly recommending, is because I see a part of myself in the character played by Bettany, someone more interested in hypothetical situations and ideas than in how they affect the real flesh-and-blood people surrounding him, with the tragic consequences playing out on the stage over the three hours von Trier takes to tell the story. It is one of my biggest regrets today, when I look back at the years I was a fundamentalist, that when my mother was struggling with the idea of divorce from my father – an action she had been counseled to take by multiple sources for legal purposes, partly so that his inevitable future financial troubles would not destroy the new life she was trying to piece together – that I was for a long time strongly opposed to it, because, I was sure, ‘the Bible is clear.’ It didn’t matter that this course of action was only considered after God, my father said, had told him to kill her and us kids, or that a judge had already issued a permanent restraining order. The Bible was still clear. Sin was still sin. Divorce was wrong. I was, it should be noted, being faithful to the ideas I had learned growing up in church, convinced that principles are always more important than people, that everything is always black and white, ambiguity be damned.”

Conversion, Exalted One

I started Alan Segal's Paul the Convert. There were two interesting items in my reading so far. First, Segal attempts to demonstrate that Paul indeed was a convert, against thinkers such as Krister Stendahl who maintain that Paul merely saw himself as one who was called to be a missionary to the Gentiles, not as a convert from one religion to another. According to Segal, Paul contrasts his life then and his life now as well as talks about his transformation, and that fits our understanding of conversion. While Segal acknowledges that Paul did not say that he repented----when repentance, according to Judaism and Christianity, was a key ingredient of conversion----Segal says that Paul was a convert according to definitions today, not necessarily according to how conversion was conceptualized in Paul's day. (UPDATE: I may be misunderstanding Segal here, for he later appears to argue that Paul was a convert according to ancient standards.) Segal says that Paul leaves out repentance, in part, on the basis of Paul's statement in Philippians 3 that he was blameless in his observance of the law before he came to Christ. But, in my opinion, repentance and transformation are similar, and Paul did believe that where he was as a Christian was better than where he was as a Pharisee.

Second, Segal talks about the belief in Second Temple and subsequent Judaism (albeit not rabbinic Judaism) that God has exalted certain human beings (i.e., Enoch, Moses) to a status of heavenly ruler, and sometimes has even given them his own name. I've asked before why the early Christians believed that Jesus had a divine sort of status. Did Jesus claim that for himself? Maybe Jesus did not, but his followers believed that he was a special and a righteous man and applied to him what others applied to Enoch and others: they said that God exalted Jesus to become a heavenly ruler. I don't know.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mark Driscoll's Church "Discipline"

I’d like to share some links on Mark Driscoll’s program of church discipline at Mars Hill Church. These links are about a young man named Andrew, who was recently subjected to that discipline.

Matthew Paul Turner, Mark Driscoll’s Church Discipline Contract: Looking For True Repentance at Mars Hill Church? Sign on the Dotted Line.

Matthew Paul Turner, Mark Driscoll’s ‘Gospel Shame’: The Truth About Discipline, Excommunication, and Cult-like Control at Mars Hill.

Dr. Robert Cargill, how much more evidence do you need? mark driscoll’s mars hill church is a cult.

Sarah Moon, Mark Driscoll, spiritual abuse, and fluffy bunnies…

This is why I am very reluctant to get involved in conservative Christianity. This church has a right to run itself as it sees fit, but I don’t have to be a part of it. And I do not believe for a moment that I will go to hell on account of that! I’ll stick with mainline Protestantism, or attending Catholic churches. As a Catholic told me in response to all of this, the Catholic church dealt with the issue of sin and repentance years ago by setting up the confessional. You sin, you confess to a priest, and you go out of the booth and try to live the right way. There doesn’t have to be meeting after meeting with church officials, who are eager to exercise their “authority” and to show how spiritually superior they think they are. There doesn’t have to be a threat hanging over the person’s head (even if it is merely implied) that those officials will go public with what the person did wrong if the person doesn’t play ball. (UPDATE: Mars Hill has said that only a few people were informed about the situation with Andrew.)  Heck, even the so-called evil “world” knows better how to restore people than Mark Driscoll’s church! If I wanted healing and restoration, I’d pay for a therapist rather than listen to Mark Driscoll make an ass out of himself every week or experience “discipline” at the hands of his cultish church.

Some will tell me that I’ve only read one side of the issue. In a sense, that is true. But Turner in his posts above links to Mars Hill’s discipline contract as well as the church’s letter to church members about Andrew. I can tell from the self-righteous, controlling tone of those documents that this is not a church with which I’d like to associate.

“But Mark Driscoll is being biblical”, some will tell me. Many actually care about this. Personally, I would not subject myself to spiritual abuse, even if it technically were “biblical”. But, for those who care about whether something is “biblical”, I wonder if there is a reasonable way to apply Matthew 18. I mean, not all evangelical churches are this cultish. Mark Driscoll’s church is applying Matthew 18 and other passages about church discipline in a specific manner, but are there other legitimate ways to apply those passages?

My advice for people reading this: If you attend a conservative Christian church that practices this kind of discipline, don’t limit your social circle to that church. That way, it won’t hurt as much if you are kicked out or disciplined, for you will have other friends.

My hope is that people will call Mark Driscoll out on this. I like it when people stand up to bullies, especially bullies who pompously think that they have some divine mandate. Rachel Held Evans called out Mark Driscoll a couple of times, and that got his attention (whether or not he knew he was responding to her specifically)—-as he responded with a degree of humility one time, and with defensiveness another time. As Dr. Cargill says in one of the comments, it would be nice if this could get on the national news!

Ben Witherington's Critical Methodology and Apologetics

I finished Ben Witherington III's Jesus the Sage. I have two items:

1. Are the Gospels fiction, or are they historical? Witherington says on page 154:

"I have argued elsewhere that the ancient popular biography provides us with our closest analogies for the genre of the Gospels...There are certainly many other options besides pure fiction and photographic recall. For instance, it is possible the Gospel writers have used material of some historical substance and a broad historical outline of the life of Jesus, coupled with their selection, editing, and arrangement of various pericopes according to their various theological purposes."

On the TV program, Faith Under Fire, Witherington said that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony, and that the testimony is reliable (even though the Gospels were written about forty years after the events that they clam to narrate) because the Mishnah states that disciples were able to remember vast amounts of material that their teacher taught them. Witherington notes that Luke claims to draw from the testimony of eyewitnesses, and that both Matthew and Luke carefully use the sources that they have, such as Mark, showing that they were responsible historians. For Witherington, there is a good chance that Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark and that Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke, even though these Gospels are formally anonymous, for the second century church would not attribute Gospels to non-eyewitnesses or to non-apostles unless those figures actually wrote them (and Mark and Luke were not apostles). Regarding Matthew, Witherington does not claim that Matthew the apostle was responsible for the Gospel of Matthew's final form, but he does suggest that the Gospel contains traditions going back to Matthew the apostle. And, if my impression is correct, Witherington appears to believe that John wrote the Gospel of John, and he notes that the end of the Gospel says that it represents eyewitness testimony. You can watch or listen to Witherington making his points here and here.

Is this consistent with what Witherington argues in Jesus the Sage? I'd say yes and no. In both, Witherington maintains that the Gospel authors used sources, and he is confident that these sources, on some level, reflect the historical Jesus. At the same time, I think that Witherington in Jesus the Sage is more sensitive to the fact the the Gospel authors had ideological and theological agendas and were not simply recalling what actually happened. He criticizes scholars for unjustifiably (at times) preferring Luke's forms of sayings over how other Gospels' present them, and he attributes that to the scholars' attraction to Luke being less Jewish and apocalyptic in his presentation of the sayings (page 215). Witherington also proposes to uncover what is authentically Q by peeling back the layers that obviously reflect Matthew and Luke (and one can see the characteristics of Matthean and Lukan interaction with sources by looking at their use of Mark). Witherington affirms that Matthew softens Mark's portrayal of the disciples as dense in their failure to understand Jesus, and he also discusses differences between the synoptic Gospels and James. For example, Witherington notes that James does not really talk about the inbreaking Kingdom of God through Christ.

Regarding John, Witherington does not believe in Jesus the Sage that the Gospel of John goes back to John the Galilean son of Zebedee, for there is not much in that Gospel about Jesus' Galilean ministry or the sons of Zebedee. But Witherington does acknowledge that the Beloved Disciple could have been a Judean eyewitness to Jesus as well as the source of traditions that made their way into the Gospel of John (whose present form came from someone other than the Beloved Disciple, according to Witherington). This is similar to what Witherington said about Matthew on Faith Under Fire. Another point: In Jesus the Sage, Witherington says that Peter in the Gospel of Matthew is given a scribal authority to bind and to loose. Does this imply that there were written sources going back to the original disciples of Jesus, according to Witherington?

I think that the passage with which I opened this item, the one from page 154, is a reasonable way to see the Gospels: they are not a photographic recall of events, but rather they are the result of a process of using sources and composing a work that accords with the ideologies of the Gospels' writers. Some, or even many, of these sources may go back to eyewitness testimony. But a significant part of uncovering the historical Jesus is sifting what is ideological in the Gospels from what is historical----though it is possible that the ideological can overlap with the historical, as Witherington seems to believe when he regards the Gospels of Matthew and John to be accurately depicting Jesus as one who claimed to be wisdom itself.

2. On page 353, Witherington says: "Kings were often said to have miraculous births in antiquity, and Jesus is no different." In my opinion, this differs from Witherington's defense of the historicity of the virgin birth in his blog post, The Virginal Conception----Miracle on Nazareth Street, where he argues that the virgin birth is historical because (1.) Matthew and Luke had to get the idea from somewhere, and there were no true parallels in the ancient world, and (2.) the story was embarrassing within that honor and shame culture, so it was most likely not made-up. Based on what Witherington says on page 353 of Jesus the Sage, I can argue that early Christians could have attributed to Jesus a miraculous birth to show that he was like other kings (even if other kings were not said to be the products of a virginal conception).

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Santorum and Romney on People Who Lost Their Homes

I’m watching the NBC Republican Presidential debate that was on last night. Something that stood out to me was that both Rick Santorum and also Mitt Romney expressed compassion for people who have lost their homes to foreclosure. Rick Santorum says that he supports allowing people to deduct off of their taxes money that they lost in a bad home deal. And Mitt Romney is criticizing the Dodd-Frank law because it hinders people from being able to renegotiate their mortgage.

In my opinion, this is a step up from where Republicans have been. I remember Bill and Hillary Clinton in 2008 proposing that people be allowed to renegotiate their mortgages so that they could keep their homes, and (although John McCain adopted that idea in his own campaign) right-wingers considered that to be unconscionable! They called it a bail-out. They said that people should be held responsible for their mistakes, and that people should recognize that not everybody can live in a house. Their approach was “They made their bed, let them sleep in it”. So it’s refreshing to see Republicans—-a right-winger like Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney (whatever he is)—-proposing policies of compassion for people who have lost their homes. But it would also be saddening if Dodd-Frank were actually inhibiting people from being able to renegotiate their mortgages. That makes me wonder which party I should vote for. I think that, overall, the Democratic Party is more compassionate towards the middle class and low-income people than are the Republicans. And yet, some Democratic policies may do more harm than good.

UPDATE: According to this article, Romney has stated that foreclosures should be allowed to run their course.

James Carville and School Choice

I applaud Democratic strategist James Carville for speaking at National School Choice Week in New Orleans (see the video here). School choice has its positives and its negatives, and I will not debate it in this post. But I admire people who think outside of the box of their own ideologies—-whether those people are on the Right or the Left. Should the money that is spent on school choice be used instead to make public schools better? I can see legitimacy in that point of view. But a lot of the African-American people in the video are probably not right-wing Republicans, and yet they are happy to be given a choice regarding their kids’ education.

Witherington on Jesus as Wisdom

On page 204 of Jesus the Sage, Ben Witherington III states:

"What is especially daring about the idea of Jesus taking the personification of Wisdom and suggesting that he is the living embodiment of it, is that while a prophet might be seen as a mashal or prophetic sign, no one, so far as one can tell, up to that point in early Judaism had dared to [suggest] that he was a human embodiment of an attribute of God----God's Wisdom. Indeed, as M. Hengel has remarked to me, no known person in early Judaism other than Jesus between the time of Alexander and Bar Kokhba was identified with the personification of Wisdom. Some explanation for this remarkable and anomalous development must be given, and the best, though by no means the only, explanation of this fact is that Jesus presented himself as both sage and the message of the sage----God's Wisdom."

According to Witherington, there are parts of the Q source in which Jesus identifies himself with wisdom, as when Jesus affirms that he is greater than Solomon, to whom a lot of wisdom literature was attributed. Witherington believes that the association of Jesus with wisdom (which is different from simply saying that Jesus said wise things) could very well go back to Jesus himself, for others in early Judaism did not identify themselves with wisdom, and Q had to get from somewhere the idea that Jesus was that particular attribute of God. I wonder why one couldn't just say that Q decided to associate Jesus with wisdom. The question would then be why it chose to do so. What was it about Jesus that led some people to conclude that he was more than a mere holy man, but was actually wisdom itself, or even a divine sort of being? And, if Jesus claimed that he himself was wisdom, what are the implications of that? Are we placed in a variant of C.S. Lewis' trilemma: that Jesus is who he says he is, or he is insane, or devilish? Not many sane people, period, make the grandiose claim that they are the actual embodiment of wisdom, and such a claim would probably have been even more revolutionary or extraordinary in first century Judaism.

In his chapter on the hymns about Christ that are in certain New Testament books and epistles, Witherington says that wisdom helped people who were seeking a way to conceptualize Jesus without violating monotheism. In wisdom literature, wisdom was a hypostasis or attribute of God, and hymns about Christ try to conceptualize Jesus' pre-existent state in terms of that. At the same time, Witherington argues that the hymns do not necessarily adopt the whole ideology of wisdom literature, for wisdom literature tended to regard wisdom as created, whereas Witherington appears to believe that the pre-existent Son was begotten, not made. Consequently, Witherington interprets the statement in Colossians 1:15 that the Son is the firstborn of creation to mean, not that the Son was the first to be created, but rather that the Son is pre-eminent over creation. Similarly, when God in Psalm 89:27 promises to make the king his firstborn, he's referring to the king's pre-eminence, not his origin before all things.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Not Stupid, but Learning

I don’t like it when people call me or other people “stupid” for not knowing something. I mean, unless people calling others “stupid” had all knowledge inside of the womb or from birth, then there was a point in time when they learned what they currently know. So why am I stupid, just because I’m not omniscient? I have to learn things, too.

Cynic Jesus? Aramaic Original? Sabbath for the (Jewish) Man? Penalty for Helping?

I have four items for my write-up today on Ben Witherington III's Jesus the Sage:

1. A question that Witherington addresses is whether or not Jesus was influenced by the Cynics. There are issues that are relevant to this, such as the influence of Greek culture on first century Palestine; the existence of Cynics in Gadara, an area that is close to Galilee, along with their dates; similarities and differences between Jesus and the Cynics; and the question of the direction of influence----if Jesus influenced the Cynics, or vice versa. Witherington tackles these questions, some of which are debated. There are differences of opinion about the extent of Hellenism in first century Palestine. While there were Cynics in Gadara, Witherington states that they date after Jesus, and yet they overlap in time with sources about Jesus (i.e., Q). There are similarities in the sayings of Jesus and those of the Cynics, but nothing about Jesus' lifestyle was distinctly Cynic, for he was not crass, he did not abhor all institutions, and he did not promote a back-to-nature worldview. And Witherington acknowledges the possibility that Jesus could have influenced the Cynics. Although Witherington is open to the chance that Cynics influenced Jesus, on some level, my impression is that, overall, he sees no necessary connection between the two. Witherington says that the Cynics and Jesus could have had similar sayings because both independently made similar common-sense observations about life.

2. On page 101, Witherington argues against a scholar who claims that there was an Aramaic original for the Wisdom of Solomon on account of its occasional clumsy Greek and Semiticisms. Witherington says that this could be due to the author's knowledge of Scripture, and that people don't say that there were Aramaic originals to Paul's letters, even though Paul uses "Greek malapropisms and Semiticisms"!

3. Mark 2:27 says that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Sabbatarians have appealed to this verse to argue that the Sabbath is a creation-ordinance and is for all people, not just the Jews. On page 168, Witherington appears to go that route, at first, for he notes that the Sabbath was made after man. But then he says that the Sabbath was made for the "(Jewish) man".

Something that I found interesting was Witherington's reference to Jubilees 2:18ff., which says that the Sabbath was kept in heaven, but God created Israel so that there would be a people keeping the Sabbath on earth. For Witherington, Mark 2:27 is the opposite of Jubilees, which is essentially saying that the Jewish people were made for the Sabbath!

4. On page 194, Witherington talks about why the priest and the levite did not help the wounded man in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Essentially, if the man died while they were helping him, they would become defiled, and thus they would be unable to handle the tithe and to feed themselves and their families. Witherington also refers to Mishnah Berakhot 7:7 (which I cannot find), which states that "he that suffers uncleanness because of the dead is unqualified until he pledges himself to suffer uncleanness no more for the dead." Witherington asks if the priest or Levite, if they helped the man and he died, would jeopardize any opportunity for themselves to attend to their own family members who'd die. Witherington inquires if the priest and the Levite considered the man to be dead, perhaps to make them look guilty. But, overall, Witherington argues that Jesus was elevating the moral above the ritual.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Light Is Quiet

At church this morning, the pastor’s sermon was about light. The pastor was going into the characteristics of light, and he was drawing spiritual parallels. For example, the pastor said that light makes no noise, and that, similarly, believers should not brag about their good deeds or seek self-advancement.

Many people love humility. I happen to admire it, myself. A while back, I read one of Lou Cannon’s biographies about Ronald Reagan, and Cannon noted that Reagan when he was an actor did not seek to exalt himself in scenes. Rather, Reagan offered suggestions on how scenes could be better, even if that detracted from his own prominence in them. Humility can project a genuine self-confidence.

At the same time, we’re often told in life to toot our own horns in order to survive in this world. That’s the way the world works. I remember being in a Bible study group, and we were studying the story of Joseph, and someone observed that Joseph was not pointing at himself when he recommended that Pharaoh appoint someone to oversee the kingdom during the famine. Joseph did not seek his own advancement, but rather God was the one who enabled him to rise.

That may happen, at times. But there are also times when people do not try to advance themselves, and the result is that they toil unhappily in obscurity. Dating, getting a job, etc., is partially about self-promotion—-selling oneself, in short, bragging. And yet, there does need to be humility even in that. As Dale Carnegie says, the way to win friends and to influence people is to be others-oriented—-to be concerned about them, to show how you can help them.

On some level, I appreciated what the pastor said about light being quiet, for I myself am a quiet person. As a result, many Christians may conclude that I am not others-oriented, since my quietness hinders my social interaction. But can one be quiet (as opposed to being a social butterfly) and yet serve God? I hope so.

Complacency and Newt

I fear that liberals and Democrats are becoming complacent about the 2012 Presidential election. A number of times, I have heard or read liberals and Democrats express hope that Newt Gingrich will get the Republican nomination because he will be easy for Barack Obama to beat. I wonder why. Because of his marital history? Please. In my opinion, the lesson of Newt’s victory in South Carolina last night is that even many Christian conservatives are willing to disregard that, for they think that Newt has a greater chance of defeating Barack Obama. If the decision is between Barack Obama and Newt in the general election, Christian conservatives will vote for Newt, regardless of his sordid past.

How about the moderate or the swing-voters? I doubt that they’ll care much about Newt’s marital history. To them, Newt can easily come across as an intelligent man with a grasp on the issues of the day—-even if they might find him pedantic. President Obama, in my mind, does not have much of a record to run on. Saying that Obama captured Osama Bin-Laden will only go so far, in my view, for my impression is that this has become old-news. Although there are some jobs that are being created and Obama perhaps did prevent the United States from plummeting further into an economic abyss, people are still feeling the pinch of a bad economy. They could easily turn to Newt—-not so much because they love him, per se, but for the same reason that incumbents often get the boot: because people want a change, whatever it is.

Liberals and Democrats should not be so complacent, therefore. Even if Newt wins the nomination, it’s not smooth-sailing for Obama. Far from it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


I’m watching the Sound of Music right now. What stands out to me is how Maria was not considered to be an asset to the abbey, and yet she could find another place where she was useful: as a governess for the Van Trapp children, and then as their mother and the wife of Baron Von Trapp. In the past, I have felt that I am useless if I cannot be useful in every single situation in which I find myself. “I wasn’t good at this here, and so why should I assume that I’ll be good at that there?”, I have thought to myself. “And where was God in those bad experiences?” I am definitely in favor of me evaluating why I wasn’t good at “this here”, and what I could have done better (if anything)—-as long as that doesn’t degenerate into me beating myself up and dwelling on the past. I should not allow past mistakes or bad experiences to discourage me, for there may come up situations that are better—-that are my niche, in short. Should I be continually on the search for my niche? Sure, as long as I recognize that I should be fulfilling my responsibilities right now, even if not all of them fit into my niche. Not every situation is pleasant all of the time, even when I am more in my niche (as occurs even now). But some situations are a better fit for me than others.

Psalm 60

For my write-up today on Psalm 60 and its interpreters, I will post the Psalm in the King James Version (which is in the public domain), then I will comment on select verses.

To the chief Musician upon Shushaneduth, Michtam of David, to teach; when he strove with Aramnaharaim and with Aramzobah, when Joab returned, and smote of Edom in the valley of salt twelve thousand.

"Shushaneduth" may simply refer to a musical tune, but some have asserted that the meaning of the term is significant in regards to the Psalm. "Shushan-eduth" means "lily of testimony". For Sigmund Mowinckel, the term concerns looking to the lilies for divine testimony about what is going to happen, the same way that the budding of Aaron's rod revealed God's will in Numbers 17:21-25. E.W. Bullinger relates this superscription to Psalm 59, but I think that some of the issues in Psalm 59 are also in Psalm 60, and so I'll share his interpretation of the superscription when I discuss Psalm 60. For Bullinger, the lily of the testimony concerns Israelites keeping the Passover in the second month after they have missed the Passover in the first month, due to uncleanness or being on a journey (Numbers 9:10-11). For Bullinger, the lily is associated with the spring, which is when the Passover takes place, and the testimony concerns the law in Numbers 9:10-11. According to Bullinger, Israel has missed the Passover because she has been overrun with enemies and thus has been preoccupied, and so she has to keep the Passover in the second month.

The Targum, the Midrash on the Psalms, and Rashi maintain that a topic in the superscription is the covenant that Jacob made with Laban not to transgress Laban's boundary of Aram, or Syria (Genesis 31). According to the Midrash and Rashi, the lily is the Sanhedrin, and the testimony relates to the agreement that Laban and Jacob made. The question is this: Did David break Jacob's agreement with Laban when David took over Syria? The Midrash and Rashi answer in the negative, for Syria broke the agreement first. Balaam was from Syria (Numbers 23:7), and he came to Israel to curse Israel on behalf of Moab. And Judges 3:8 indicates that Syria ruled Israel at some point. Because the lily, the Sanhedrin, pointed this out to David, David did not feel that he was violating Jacob's agreement with Laban in taking over Syria.

The Septuagint translates the term to mean the ones who shall be changed. According to Marvin Tate, it is understanding the phrase as "al-sh-shanim od", which means "concerning one who yet changes", and he refers to a view that this superscription signals that Psalm 60 is about experiencing a change for the worse.

1O God, thou hast cast us off, thou hast scattered us, thou hast been displeased; O turn thyself to us again.

What puzzles interpreters who relate the Psalm to the superscription is this: The superscription states that this Psalm concerns David's defeat of Syria and Edom. If David is the winner, then why is he complaining in Psalm 60 that God has scattered Israel? Different explanations have been proposed. Augustine avers that Psalm 60:1 reflects the sentiments of David's defeated enemies, not David himself. Many contend that the issue in Psalm 60 is that David's army is fighting Syria in the north, but that Edom has attacked Israel from the south, and so Israel is in dire straits. Another view is that David's battle against Syria is taking a while and is having disastrous consequences for Israel. Some believe that David is reflecting back on Israel's predicaments up to the point that the superscription mentions----the dire experiences of David and Israel throughout history. And then many maintain that the Psalm actually has nothing to do with the events of the superscription, but that Psalm 60 concerns pre-exilic Judah after the time of David, or Judah's fall in 587 B.C.E., or the time of the Maccabees.

2Thou hast made the earth to tremble; thou hast broken it: heal the breaches thereof; for it shaketh.

According to Marvin Tate, this verse indicates that Judah's straits are really dire, and he does not seem to believe that Edom attacking Israel from the south while David is fighting Syria is dire enough to be described in terms of an earthquake. For Tate, the earthquake is figurative for the fall of Judah to Babylon in 587 B.C.E., for that indeed did entail the collapse of the nation (though some scholars would observe that many Jews stayed behind in Judah during the time of the exile). Interestingly, the Midrash on the Psalms contains the view that the earthquake was literal: that the earthquake was disrupting Joab's battle against Israel's enemies, and so David asked God to heal the breaches of the earth.

3Thou hast shewed thy people hard things: thou hast made us to drink the wine of astonishment.

God is being blamed for Israel's predicament.

4Thou hast given a banner to them that fear thee, that it may be displayed because of the truth. Selah.

The Hebrew word translated as "truth" in the KJV is "qeshet", with the final letter being a tet. There are two understandings of this word. One view is that the word means "truth" or "certainty", on the basis of such passages as Proverbs 22:21, Daniel 2:47, and Daniel 4:37. The idea here may be that God is rallying Israel to victory against her enemies so that she can fulfill her mission as the people of God (which accords with truth), or that God is helping Israel to succeed out of his faithfulness (which pertains to truth, or certainty). Another view is that the word means the same thing as the "qeshet" that ends with the letter tav, and that particular word means "bow". In that case, the verse could mean that God is rallying Israelites to battle under a banner so that they might escape the bow of their enemies, or that a banner on the walls of Jerusalem is summoning the Judahites into the safe city so that they can be safe from the enemy bows.

5That thy beloved may be delivered; save with thy right hand, and hear me.

6God hath spoken in his holiness; I will rejoice, I will divide Shechem, and mete out the valley of Succoth.

7Gilead is mine, and Manasseh is mine; Ephraim also is the strength of mine head; Judah is my lawgiver;

With the exception of Judah, these are areas that belonged to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Some contend that David is anticipating ruling these areas, or is thinking back to the time when he did not possess them and God gave them to him. Advocates of this view note that, in II Samuel 2, many of these areas followed Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul, rather than David----until David possessed them. Or vv 5-6 could reflect Judah's hope that she will one day possess the North, which is overrun by foreigners after 722 B.C.E., or exiled Jews' desire that God will defeat her captors and give her back the entire land of Israel. Some have related these verses to the time of the Maccabees, when post-exilic Jews had an army and made incursions into the north.

8Moab is my washpot; over Edom will I cast out my shoe: Philistia, triumph thou because of me.

The idea here is that Israel or God will possess Moab and Edom. According to the Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary, Moab may be Israel's washpot in the sense that she will wash Israel's feet as a servant. The "shoe" could refer to walking the land as an indication of possessing it (Genesis 13:17), Israel's feet being on the neck of their defeated enemies (Joshua 10:24), or the transfer of possession of Edom from Edomites to Israel, for, in Ruth 4:7, the transfer of a shoe meant the transfer of a kinsman's right to Ruth and pieces of property from one of Naomi's kinsmen to Boaz.

Why is Philistia told to triumph, or to rejoice? One view is that Philistia is told that it will be treated well under David's rule, and that this foreshadows the benefits that the Gentiles will experience under Christ. Another view is that Philistia is being told sarcastically to triumph: Are you rejoicing, oh proud Philistia? And Tate refers to possible ways to emend the text. There is significant overlap between Psalm 60 and Psalm 108, and the equivalent to Psalm 60:8, Psalm 108:9, says "over Philistia I will rejoice". And the Septuagint for Psalm 60:8 says that the Philistines were subjected to the speaker (as if "hitroai" is from resh-ayin-ayin, which relates to subjection).

9Who will bring me into the strong city? who will lead me into Edom?

This could refer to a wish by David or a pre-exilic Israelite king to subjugate Edom. Or it could concern a desire by Jews in 587 to flee to Edom for refuge when the Babylonians were destroying Judah and Jerusalem. But, as many post-exilic biblical writings indicate, Edom was no friend to Judah during this time. Obadiah, for instance, lambasts Edom for plundering Judah and for hindering Judahites attempts to escape. People who argue that v 9 is about an attempt to escape to Edom think that v 11 is talking about this issue when it despairs in the help of man, for the Judahites sought refuge in Edom, but Edom let them down, and so the Judahites felt that God was the only one they could trust.

10Wilt not thou, O God, which hadst cast us off? and thou, O God, which didst not go out with our armies?

11Give us help from trouble: for vain is the help of man.

12Through God we shall do valiantly: for he it is that shall tread down our enemies.

Friday, January 20, 2012

My Impressions of Newt Gingrich: From My Conservative Days to Now

A friend of mine (who is a liberal) asked what is the appeal of Newt Gingrich, considering that so many people know about the morally deplorable things that he has done in his life. Granted, after reading about what Newt’s ex-wife, Marianne, said about him in her interview with ABC last night, I doubt that I would want for Newt to be my best friend. But I would like to share here how I have found Newt to be an appealing figure, both when I was a conservative, and afterwards.

I first heard of Newt when George H.W. Bush was President. Bush was trying to hammer out a budget deal with the Democratic Congress, a deal that would include tax increases. And Newt as the minority whip in the House was boldly standing up against Bush and the Democrats. Although I had not yet seen Newt speak (I knew about Newt from Insight magazine), I admired him as a principled conservative, in a time when the Republican President appeared to be abandoning Republican values.

In 1994, when the Republicans took control of the Congress, I finally got to watch Newt on TV. I was watching him on Meet the Press, and there were many things that I was admiring about him at that time: his boldness, his mouthiness, his conservatism, his ability to answer questions in an articulate manner. I felt that the liberals (i.e., the media, the Clintons) were a powerful elite, which believed that it was beyond criticism, and so I enjoyed watching Newt abrasively challenge them. When the interviewer on Meet the Press told Newt that Hillary Clinton disapproved of Newt’s idea to put disadvantaged children in orphanages, Newt replied that Hillary was an elitist who did not realize that babies were being thrown into dumpsters. When the interviewer asked Newt about school prayer, Newt referred to a child who got in trouble at school for saying grace. Newt criticized Clinton’s Surgeon General, Jocelyn Elders, for her extreme views—-and, surprisingly, Elders left the office not long thereafter.

Then there was the whole Connie Chung controversy, where Newt’s Mom told Connie that Newt called Hillary a “bitch”. Connie promised Newt’s Mom that this would be their little secret, then she featured it on television. When Bryant Gumbel was interviewing Newt and was about to ask him about this, Newt stopped Bryant right there. Newt said that his Mom made Connie Chung brownies (perhaps implying that his Mom was naive when dealing with the media), and that this entire issue was being blown out of proportion. I loved Newt then, especially as I saw Bryant Gumbel’s arrogant, befuddled, “How dare you” expression on his face. And I loved the bumpersticker that said, “Newt’s Mom Was Right—-Connie’s One, Too”.

Over time, as Newt served as Speaker, my impression was that he was getting less confrontational, which disappointed me somewhat. I guess I was hoping that he’d be telling the Clintons and the media off throughout his tenure! But I found something that I admired about Newt even then: When he was found to be wrong (i.e., in terms of ethics), my recollection was that he usually came clean about it. Some of you may have different memories about that, but I’m just saying what I remember.

When I moved more to the Left, I admired Newt for other reasons. I thought that he was intelligent, and I also appreciated that he sought conservative solutions for problems that often disturbed liberals, such as the rising cost of higher education and health care, environmental problems, etc. I think that it’s a good thing when somebody points out why the status quo does not work, and what can be done instead. Something else that I have admired about Newt is that he is willing to debate anyone, anytime, and anywhere. Jon Huntsman was a minor player in the race for the Republican nomination for President, but Newt was willing to sit down and have a one-on-one debate (or, actually, it was a constructive conversation) with him.

And I liked it when Newt appeared before an African-American church in South Carolina and faced tough questions. Newt did not have to appear before that church, for many African-Americans do not vote Republican. But he did so, and that (in my mind) demonstrates character on his part. I remember an episode of The West Wing, in which a white cop shot an African-American kid. An African-American church was holding a memorial service, and Democratic candidate for President, Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits), attended and spoke there, whereas Republican candidate Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda) did not even show up. I was a Republican at the time, and I was disappointed that Vinick did not show up to that. That’s why I was so impressed that, in the realm of real-life, Newt Gingrich spoke to an African-American church and listened to people’s concerns while he was there.

There are many things that turn me off about Newt: his opposition to the Ground Zero Mosque (the Cordoba Center), his mischaracterization of the history of Cordoba in opposing that Mosque, his hypocrisy, his belief that tax-cuts for the rich are a way to revive our economy, the way that he comes up with good ideas but does not follow through on them, etc. And then there are some things about him that I simultaneously like and dislike: his arrogance, for example. His pomposity can turn me off at times, but I doubt I would admire him as much if he did not have the chutzpah that he does! I may not vote for Newt Gingrich, but I can definitely see his appeal.

Wisdom Literature: Elite, Popular, or Both?

I started Ben Witherington III's Jesus the Sage.

On page 6, Witherington says that mass literacy is a modern phenomenon, for writing in the ancient world took money and leisure----both in terms of the cumbersome and expensive writing materials, and also in terms of the writing itself. Witherington states that "Surveys of as literate a culture as ancient Egypt suggest only a 1-10% degree of literacy." (Yet, see Witherington's blog posts on Jewish literacy in the time of Jesus: here, here, here, and here.) For Witherington, a significant amount of wisdom literature was produced within the royal court, for there are indications that the authors were advisers to the king, plus their agricultural references indicate an upper-class milieu. At the same time, Witherington maintains that wisdom literature could be preserving oral material from a variety of sources: "rich and poor, family, clan and court" (page 6). Witherington says that there is a lack of evidence for the existence of royal schools during Israel's monarchical period, which is when he dates Proverbs, since he does not see any exilic or post-exilic themes within it (but he dates Ecclesiastes to the Hellenistic Period, on the basis of its late Hebrew and its themes). For Witherington, when Proverbs refers to instruction from the father and the mother, it is talking about the family, not the school.

An interesting point that Witherington makes is that biblical wisdom literature such as Proverbs was seeking to provide an alternative to fertility religions. It warns about sexual immorality and it makes wisdom at most "a personification of an attribute of God or perhaps of God's creation" (as opposed to being a goddess, perhaps; page 10). (Witherington seems to presume, at least here, that sexual acts were a part of ancient fertility cults, when that is disputed by scholars, at least when it comes to Ugaritic and other ancient Near Eastern religions.) He also states that wisdom literature sought to make Yahwism applicable to Israelites' day-to-day lives, since Yahwism tended to focus largely on major events of Israel's history rather than daily life, which was more the focus of fertility cults. Although Witherington ascribes an elite milieu to wisdom literature, he also appears to believe that it was relevant to many other Israelites.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Upside and the Downside to Christian Conservatives' Opposition to Newt

A lot of my Christian conservative friends are supporting Rick Santorum over Newt Gingrich in the race for the Republican nomination for President. They dislike Newt's history of adultery, while Santorum strikes them as a principled, morally-upstanding conservative. According to this story, influential Christian conservative leader, Dr. James Dobson, "made a strong pitch for Rick Santorum's wife — and noted that Callista Gingrich was her husband's 'mistress for eight years,' questioning whether that's what people want in a first lady, three sources told POLITICO."

Part of me likes this, and part of me dislikes it. The reason that part of me likes it is that I am glad that Christian conservatives are acknowledging that the Democrats do not have a monopoly on sin----that Republicans, even conservative heroes, have done wrong in their lives. Often, I feel that this insight is missed in partisan debates!

The reason that part of me dislikes it is that I can somewhat appreciate Newt's desire to start anew with his life. Whether he's sincere or not, I don't know. But we've all made mistakes and should be able to start afresh. I just wish two things: (1.) that Newt would apologize to his ex-wife, for with repentance should come at least an attempt towards restitution or reconciliation, whether it's successful or not, and (2.) that conservatives who realize that nobody's perfect would cut other people some slack----such as the poor, people who are victims of the American health care system, etc.----as opposed to judging them.

Individuality, Community, and Alienation

I finished Texts and Responses. I'll use as my starting-point something that Paul Flohr says on page 222:

"[He is unable] 'to accept the natural aloneness of the ego.' He thus seeks union with the world, but it is 'refused him, because it is not the Thou (das Du) but the I of the entity that he encounters, and...I-ness rejects union.' 'The real locus of duality,' Buber observes, lies in one's ability to accept the separateness of his ego and to view the world as 'other than I.'"

I'm not going to pretend that I understand what all of this means. So are we alienated from the world because we see the world as other than ourselves, or because we do not accept that it is other?

I think that it's important to acknowledge commonalities with the rest of the world, and also to remember that taking care of the "we" can take care of the "me". Many of us have a stake in the community benefiting. At the same time, it's good when we can love others even when they are different from us, when we can appreciate individuality. Can refusing to accept our own uniqueness and individuality alienate us from the rest of the world, rather than bringing us closer to it? When we cannot accept what is special about ourselves, can we truly appreciate what is special about others?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Patriarchal Torah, Jeremiah and Josiah, Rabbis on Proselytes, Censored, Disinterested Love

I started Texts and Responses: Studies Presented to Nahum M. Glatzer on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday by His Students. This book dates to 1973. I have five items:

1. Joseph P. Schultz has an excellent article entitled "Two Views of the Patriarchs: Noahides and Pre-Sinai Israelites". Did the patriarchs observe the laws of the Torah? According to the Book of Jubilees, the answer is that they did, to a certain extent, but the revelation that they received of those laws was incomplete and would be completed for Israel at Sinai. Philo presents Abraham as observing the natural laws that were obligatory for the Greeks, meaning that, for Schultz, he did not hold that the patriarchs kept the entire Torah. At the same time, Schultz states on page 59 that "there is a rabbinic concept found in Philo, but most likely pre-dating both Philo and the rabbis, that the patriarchs came to the observance of the law through their own powers and reasoning though aided by God." Josephus in Antiquities focuses specifically on the commands that Scripture explicitly states the patriarchs kept (i.e., circumcision), without commenting as to whether or not they observed other laws that were later given at Sinai. In Against Apion, however, Josephus refers to certain Noahide laws, which rabbinic Judaism later held were binding on Gentiles (who did not have to observe the entire Torah). Within Talmudic literature, however, we come across the view that the patriarchs knew and observed the oral and the written Torahs.

Schultz discusses variations of the Noachide commandments, such as some lists that contain honor for parents (which is absent from other lists). A question scholars have asked is why some Jewish thinkers portray the patriarchs as Noachides, whereas others affirm that they kept the entire Torah. For Schultz, the rabbis who said that the patriarchs kept the law were not trying to refute Paul's dramatic separation of God's promise to Abraham from the Torah, but rather they were seeking to connect the patriarchs with a central event of Israel's history, Sinai. Regarding the view that the patriarchs were Noahides, Schultz says that this view encouraged potential converts or coverts. He may mean that the Noahide laws were viewed as training wheels for Gentiles on the path to conversion.

2. Arnold Wider wrote "Josiah and Jeremiah: Their Relationship According to Aggadic Sources". The Babylonian Talmud asks why King Josiah consulted Huldah rather than Jeremiah after Josiah heard the Torah, with its threats of destruction for the sins of Israel. The Talmud does not maintain that Josiah failed to consult Jeremiah due to Jeremiah's youth or inexperience (as do some biblical scholars), and so it offers other proposals: that Josiah wanted a milder response, since women and more inclined towards mercy than men; and that Jeremiah was helping the ten tribes that had returned, so he was not available for Josiah to consult.

3. Jochanan H.A. Wijnhoven wrote "The Zohar and the Proselyte". Wijnhoven goes into rabbinic attitudes regarding proselytes. There was a positive attitude that affirmed that proselytes to Judaism were especially beloved by God because they received God's Torah without beholding the terrible fanfare at Sinai. But there were also negative attitudes: that proselytes were not as conversant with Torah as were the Jews, that proselytes converted out of fear rather than love, that they took too long to convert, that they delayed the Messiah's coming, and that they technically were not children of Abraham. Wijnhoven also discusses some ideas within the Zohar, and I will not describe that in detail but will only mention two things that stood out to me. First, there was a view that Sinai was cleansing for Jews, and that Gentiles are still unclean because they did not experience the events of Sinai. Second, there was an idea that the third generation from a proselyte became a genuine Israelite. A proof for this was that God called Jacob Israel, and Jacob was the third generation from Abraham, a proselyte.

4. Sidney Steiman wrote "High Holidays Liturgical Variations Among Ashkenazim and Sephardim". On page 101, Steiman refers to a part of the Aleynu prayer that drew criticism from church censors during the Inquisition. It said, "For they worship and bow before idols and vanity and pray to a God that saves not." Christian censors thought this was attacking the Christian godhead, but rabbis then responded that the Christian god was not in view here, for that prayer was written by Rav in Persia during the third century C.E., and Rav was attacking Persian religion rather than Christianity. Still, according to Steiman, that part of the prayer disappeared from prayerbooks "by the end of the sixteenth century".

5. Arthur Green wrote "Rabbi Nahman Bratzlaver's Conflict Regarding Leadership". On page 154, Green quotes Rabbi Nahman's discussion of a dream: "I then recalled the story of a Besht who, when he heard he was to have no place in the World to Come, said: 'I love God without the World to Come!'"

It's good when a person can admire God, even when he is not the beneficiary of God's goodness. Or I guess it's good. Maybe it's not good. Why would I love God, if he is not good to me? I think that people who say that they're willing to be damned for the glory of God, or that they love God even if they will not receive a reward in the afterlife, are simply blowing smoke. They're trying to show off how spiritual they are.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Two Extremes

There was an insightful comment by Stephen under Rachel Held Evans’ post, The problem of biblicism. Stephen states the following:

“If one has to attend 3-4+ years of seminary and do a PhD, all the while being informally mentored by other evangelical academics, in order to put “biblicism” into practice, then it’s a failure. The continued protestations of inerrantist gatekeeping intellectuals only serves to show their elite intellectualist and doctrinal model of what Christianity most basically is: the production and consumption of complex and sanctioned evangelical theological discourse. This practically makes their version of Christianity unavailable to 97% of people since the requisite material, social, and economic conditions for participation in their model of Christianity are only available to a minority of people.”

I wonder: Why would God reveal his will for us using a book that contains the writings of historical periods, cultures, and languages that are different from our own? Should it take a Ph.D. to understand the will of God—-especially when Ph.D.s and seminarians themselves disagree about what the Bible means?

I don’t want to go to the other extreme, though, the extreme that says “God revealed his will to common people, not to intellectuals, and so therefore I have the authority to beat you over the head with my interpretation of the Bible, even if there’s no scholarship backing it up, and you have to accept that as a ‘Thus saith the Lord’.” Okay, I paraphrase! I characterized some of that view accurately, and, near the end, I was giving my opinion as to where that position has led. In any case, I’m uncomfortable with both extremes.


There may be an Internet black-out tomorrow (among certain sites) in protest of two controversial pieces of federal legislation: SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act, or HR3261) in the House of Representatives, and PIPA (S968) in the Senate. There is fear that these pieces of legislation, if enacted, could threaten freedom of speech on the Internet. To learn about the case against SOPA and PIPA, see Craigslist’s article, and also the article and short video by WordPress.

Liberals and conservatives are on both sides of this issue. As you can see here, Democrats Chuck Schumer and Diane Feinstein are on the same side (the “pro” side) as Republicans Lamar Alexander, Tom Coburn, and Ben Quayle. On the side that is against these bills, you have Nancy Pelosi, Michele Bachmann, and Rand and Ron Paul.

Fortunately, the bills may be revised (see here), and President Obama has pledged to oppose any bill that will threaten free speech. I may very well call my Senators and representative tomorrow, though, since there are powerful and wealthy interests that are supporting these bills.

This site lists the U.S. Senators with their office phone numbers. And this site provides information on members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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