Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sin, Welcome, and Exclusivism

I went to the Methodist church this morning.  A member of the congregation spoke to us.  The pastor has been teaching a preaching class, in which people can join and preach a sample sermon, and the others in the group critique it.  (I’m intimidated just thinking about that!)  The lady who preached to us this morning talked about the story of Hannah in I Samuel 1.

In I Samuel 1, Hannah goes to the sanctuary with her husband Elkanah and others in Elkanah’s family.  The lady who preached to us was talking briefly about the sacrifices.  She said that Israelites would offer a sacrifice that would reconcile them to God and cleanse them of their sins, giving them a fresh start for the year.  She also said that the worshipers would partake of the sacrifice, as if they were eating at God’s table.  She may have been conflating the sin offering with the peace offering of Leviticus, but who knows?  Maybe those delineations among the sacrifices did not exist throughout the history of Israelite religion, but only emerged at a certain point.  But I digress.

The reason that this point in the sermon stood out to me is that, before coming to church, I was reading and thinking about a document in my Charlesworth Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.  This document is called the “History of the Rechabites,” and it dates to the first to fourth centuries C.E., which may mean that part of it was written, and people added on to it over time.  The document has Jewish and Christian sections.

I have not read the entirety of the document, but, in what I have read so far, there is a hermit named Zosimus, who has been dwelling in the desert for forty years and who has refrained from eating bread, drinking wine, and social contact.  Zosimus is curious about something: where are the Rechabite sons of Jonadab who were translated in the time of Jeremiah?  Where did God take them and cause them to dwell?  On account of his self-humiliation in the desert, God has sent an angel to show him.

A little background information is in order.  The Rechabites appear in Jeremiah 35.  They are people who have covenanted to dwell in tents and to drink no wine, on account of a command from their ancestor Jonadab.  God contrasts the Rechabites, who are faithful to their ancestor’s commands, with the Judahites, who are unfaithful to God and God’s ways.  God promises that Jonadab will always have a descendant before God to serve God.  In the History of the Rechabites, however, the Rechabites are translated to heaven, or to some place like heaven.  There is another difference between Jeremiah 35 and the History of the Rechabites.  In Jeremiah 35, the Rechabites seem to be partaking of a tradition; in the History of the Rechabites, though, they are fasting and praying specifically for the sinful people of Israel, in hope that God will turn from God’s wrath.

In the History of the Rechabites, Zosimus is taken to heaven (or some place like that), and an apparently naked man believes that Zosimus must be a man of God to be there; some wonder why Zosimus is there at all, since their expectation is that people are translated into heaven at the end times, not before, generally-speaking.  While Zosimus probably is a righteous man, he is not perfect.  An angel warns him not to think too highly of himself on account of his ascetism.  The naked man tells Zosimus that Zosimus comes from the world of vanity, and that his garment is corrupted, whereas those where Zosimus currently is possess uncorrupted garments.  Zosimus encounters the Rechabites about whom he was curious, and they wonder why exactly he is there.  Zosimus gets tired of their questions day and night and wants to rest, so he asks an attendant to tell them that he (Zosimus) is not there.  The attendant is shocked that Zosimus would ask him to lie and bring lies into that holy place, and elders and youths are about to expel Zosimus, but Zosimus entreats them “earnestly and abundantly”, and “with difficulty” they forgive him (J.H. Charlesworth’s translation).

What does this have to do with the sermon that I heard this morning?  Well, I was thinking about the exclusivism that the History of the Rechabites seems to manifest, at least in my reading of it so far.  God is willing to satisfy Zosimus’ curiosity and to make him privy to what God has done, but that is because Zosimus is a man of God; that may make him privileged in a way that is not the case with many others.  “Heaven” appears to be a place that is pure, one that the beings there want to protect from sin and contamination, even though, at the same time, Zosimus is acknowledged to be a man with faults, from a world with faults.

One would think that heaven would be more welcoming than that, the way that many churches see themselves as welcoming, or even try to be so.  But there are many evangelicals or conservative Christians who would say that heaven cannot be contaminated by sin.  Why?  If we are taught as Christians to bear with people’s faults here and now and to love people unconditionally, why would it be so horrible for people to be that way in heaven?  And yet, such a view does have some rhyme or reason that makes sense to me.  In a sense, love does run more smoothly when it is reciprocal, when everyone is loving and serving, and there is no one who is taking advantage of other people’s love to exploit or to dominate others.  Having a selfish person in heaven could spoil the atmosphere.

But back to the sermon.  God, according to the lady preaching, forgave sin through the animal sacrifice.  And yet, God was not entirely exclusive, for God wanted for the Israelites to eat at his table, to partake of the sacrifice.  In a sense, God was accessible to all.  The problem of sin still needed to be addressed, though.  I am somewhat landing at the evangelical message that God cannot tolerate sin, and thus needed Jesus to reconcile us to him by dealing with sin on the cross.

Anyway, I’m kind of writing myself into a pit, so I’ll stop here.

(UPDATE: The place to which God takes the Rechabites is a faraway island.)

Saturday, May 30, 2015

II Chronicles 35

II Chronicles 35 is about the Passover celebration under King Josiah of Judah, as well as Josiah’s death.

I have five items.

1.  II Chronicles 35:3 states: “And [Josiah] said unto the Levites that taught all Israel, which were holy unto the LORD, Put the holy ark in the house which Solomon the son of David king of Israel did build; it shall not be a burden upon your shoulders: serve now the LORD your God, and his people Israel” (KJV).

Drawing from the MacArthur Study Bible, the Nelson Study Bible, and Rashi, the picture I got was that King Manasseh had displaced the Ark of the Covenant with the idol (probably an Asherah) that is mentioned in II Chronicles 33:7, 15, leaving the Ark with no place to rest.  King Josiah tells the Levites to return the Ark to the Temple, and then he says that the Ark will no longer be upon their shoulders.  According to Rashi, Josiah tells them that part about the Ark not being a burden on their shoulders to communicate to them that they should get going on their new responsibilities: they can now leave behind carrying the Ark for good, and they should now help out with the Passover celebration.

According to the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, however, some ancient interpreters then had a question: Why did it take Josiah so long to return the Ark to the Temple?  Didn’t he start his reform long before his Passover?  Referring to Babylonian Talmud Yoma 52b, the Artscroll mentions the idea that the Levites were not taking the Ark to the Temple or the Holy of Holies, but rather were hiding it in a safe place, in light of the destruction that the prophetess Huldah predicted for the Temple in II Chronicles 34:24.  But does not II Chronicles 35:3 say that the Levites are to take the Ark to the house of the LORD?  The Artscroll explains that, according to this interpretation, the safe place for the Ark is the House of the LORD—-it is one of the few holy places around, after Kings Manasseh and Amon had defiled the Temple.  And why does Josiah tells the priests that they no longer have to carry the Ark, according to this interpretation?  Because they would have to grow accustomed to the Ark not being present with them, since they would be in Babylon.

2.  King Josiah donates animals for the Passover offerings.  The priests, Levites, and people offer Passover offerings for themselves.  Because the priests are also busy with the burnt offerings, the Levites prepare their own and the priests’ Passover offering.  The Levites ensure that things run smoothly.  According to v 12, the Levites give the burnt offerings to the families of the Israelite people, perhaps so the families can then present the burnt offerings themselves.  Is that much of a sacrifice on the people’s part, since they are presenting as a burnt offering an animal that was given to them, rather than their own animal?  I do not know.  I do see here, however, the lesson of worship being given to us as a gift, and yet we are still participants.  As a Christian, I think of Jesus dying on the cross to grant me the right to worship God, and to make possible any service that I offer to God.  Yet, I still participate by offering myself in worship and service.

3.  Rashi in his interpretation of II Chronicles 35:18 says that Jeremiah had returned the ten tribes of Israel to Israel by the time of Josiah.  So, according to this view, I assume, the ten tribes of Israel are not lost, for they were returned.

4.  In II Chronicles 35, King Necho of Egypt is going north to fight Carchemish by the Euphrates River, and Josiah tries to stop him.  According to many scholars, Necho was trying to assist the Assyrians, and Josiah wanted to stop Necho from doing this so that the Assyrians could be defeated and Josiah would no longer be under their thumb, allowing Josiah to regain glory for Judah.  Necho tells Josiah that this is not Josiah’s fight and that God was the one who commanded Necho to go north. Josiah disregards this message and dies.

Interpreters have debated what Necho meant when he said that God told him to go north.  The commentator on Chronicles in the Jewish Study Bible says that we see here an example of spontaneous prophecy: the Chronicler depicts God having spoken to this Gentile king.  I Esdras 1:28 states that Jeremiah the prophet warned Josiah.  Two Jewish views, which the Artscroll mentions, are that Necho had in mind Isaiah 19:2’s statement that God will set Egyptian against Egyptian (how that relates to Necho going north to help Assyria, I have no idea), and that Necho was told by an Egyptian god (elohim can be a term for a god) to go north.

In my post here, I refer to an article by Stanley Frost that notes that, in II Kings 18:25, the Assyrians besieging Jerusalem during the reign of Hezekiah claim that God told them to attack, and yet God delivered Jerusalem.  The Assyrians’ “Thus saith the LORD” seems to have carried no water; why, then, would one expect Josiah to listen to another Gentile king’s “Thus saith the LORD”?  I would say that one could ask a similar question about the other interpretations of Necho’s words: Why should Josiah care what an Egyptian god told an Egyptian king?  Or so what if Necho is following Isaiah?  The King of Assyria during Hezekiah’s reign could arguably claim to follow Isaiah, too, for God in Isaiah 10:5 calls the Assyrian the rod of his anger, and yet God still delivered Jerusalem from the Assyrians.  I Esdras went the route of saying that Jeremiah was delivering the prophecy, and that makes a degree of sense, for Jeremiah was a prophet whom Josiah may have known and trusted.  According to the commentator on Chronicles in the Jewish Study Bible, the Aramaic Targum says that “Josiah died because he did not seek instruction from the LORD.”

5.  II Chronicles 35:25 states: ” And Jeremiah lamented for Josiah: and all the singing men and the singing women spake of Josiah in their lamentations to this day, and made them an ordinance in Israel: and, behold, they are written in the lamentations” (KJV).

It is remarkable that, even up to the time of the Chronicler, people were weeping the death of Josiah, a righteous king who had a tragic death.  Josiah’s death had a lasting effect on the Jews’ consciousness.

II Chronicles 35:25 says that Jeremiah lamented for Josiah, and there is a rabbinic view in Tosefta Ta’anit 2:10 that part of Lamentations is about Josiah’s death (and, according to the Artscroll, the sages say that Lamentations 4 concerns Josiah). Ibn-Ezra disagreed, however, saying that Lamentations is about events after the time of Josiah, which is probably what most biblical scholars say.

Raymond Dillard in the Word Biblical Commentary says that, in Jeremiah 22:10, Jeremiah tries to discourage Judahites from continuing to weep for Josiah.  The verse states: “Weep ye not for the dead, neither bemoan him: but weep sore for him that goeth away: for he shall return no more, nor see his native country” (KJV).  Jeremiah is probably saying this to tell the Judahites about the disaster that they will face if they do not repent.  They should not weep for Josiah, but for themselves, Jeremiah appears to be saying.  Moreover, in v 16, Jeremiah seems to appeal to how Josiah had shown that he knew God by judging the cause of the poor and needy, whereas Judahites now (when Jeremiah is making this prophecy) oppress others.  Jeremiah may be saying: Look, if you want to honor Josiah’s memory, don’t make lamentations; do what Josiah did.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Ramblings on Historical Connection

I would like to follow up on my review of the book Theology as Retrieval, by W. David Buschart and Kent D. Eilers (see here).  This will be a rambling post.  If there is a central theme of this post, it is the extent to which I, or my religious background, has established or felt a connection with Christian thought and practices throughout history.  Buschart and Eilers say that a number of evangelicals today have adopted traditional or liturgical practices because that gives them a deeper historical connection.  How have I approached that kind of issue?

As Buschart and Eilers argue, there are different ways that Christians have approached historical Christianity.  Some believe that the early church was a golden age that had the truth, but that things got corrupted, and yet the truth was later recovered with the Protestant Reformation.  There are Roman Catholics who would say, by contrast, that the Holy Spirit was active prior to the Protestant Reformation, and who would even go so far as to teach that the traditions of the church are, in some sense, authoritative.

As I have said before on this blog, I was raised in an offshoot of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God.  How did Armstrongism address these sorts of issues?  Well, it held that the first century church had the truth, and that things got corrupted early on.  I have heard that Herbert Armstrong believed that he was the one who recovered the truth, which, on the surface at least, would express a pretty low opinion of Christianity between the first and the twentieth centuries.  At the same time, the Worldwide Church of God did produce a pamphlet that contended that God’s true church has existed throughout history—-that there have long been groups of Christians that have kept the seventh-day Sabbath.  They said that the Waldensians fell into this category, but that has been disputed.  Moreover, my understanding is that Armstrongites did draw from church fathers and historic Christian thinkers whenever doing so suited them.  I recall an Ambassador College Correspondence Course making the point that Martin Luther disagreed with the immortality of the soul (which Armstrongism rejected).  Within Armstrongite circles, people read Seventh-Day Adventist scholar Samuele Bacchiocchi’s From Sabbath to Sunday, and this book said that Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, supported the observance of the Passover, which resonated with Armstrongites, who believed in the observance of the Old Testament holy days.

I suppose that a related question is, “What is a Christian?”  My understanding is that Armstrongism held that true Christians obey God’s commandments, and that would include the seventh-day Sabbath.  The Christianity of the world was not of God, according to this view, and Catholics and Protestants were presenting another Jesus, not the true one.  Again, this view would not encourage people to draw from the resources of historic Christianity.  This view was not necessarily held with iron-clad consistency, though.  I remember hearing a sermon that referred favorably to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Bunyan was not a seventh-day Sabbathkeeper—-actually, Bunyan wrote against the view that Christians had to observe the seventh-day Sabbath.  But the person preaching that message may have felt that there are so many resources from the past that can encourage and edify people as they try to live the Christian life, so why ignore them?

Where have I fallen on these issues?  Well, reading different things in high school certainly made me open to the thoughts of Christians who observed Sunday.  I came to identify with Martin Luther and his thirst for grace.  For a while, although I liked Augustine, I tended to recoil from the writings of the church fathers, for they struck me as legalistic.  I have come to enjoy their writings and sermons even more, though, for there is a side of them that embraces God’s love and grace, and the ones who champion solitude definitely speak to me, as one with Asperger’s.  In terms of my religious practice, I am currently not the sort of person who thirsts for some sense of historical connection.  I really don’t care if my church recites the Nicene Creed—-if it does, that’s fine, but whether it does so or not is not particularly important to me.  I do not practice Ignatian spirituality.  Maybe I will at some point, but I am hesitant to dive into that unfamiliar territory right now.  As I said in my last post, though, I respect Christians of the past as people seeking intimacy with God and a virtuous life.  I overlap with them in that sense, even if I do not agree with everything that they said and did.

I would like to say something about that whole scenario of the early church being some sort of golden age, and of the church being corrupted.  On the one hand, that does not resonate with me.  In the New Testament, there are warnings about wolves entering the church, but I think that it is a stretch to go from that and to say that the wolves will become the church, which is kind of what I got from Armstrongism!  On the other hand, I cannot deny that there have been abuses throughout church history, and that ritualism can lead to a spirituality that is not particularly vibrant.  Still, who is to say that the Spirit was not active even then, drawing people into a deeper relationship with God?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Book Write-Up: Theology as Retrieval

W. David Buschart and Kent D. Eilers.  Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

“Retrieval” occurs when Christians draw from the thoughts and practices of Christians from the past.  It includes reading church fathers’ interpretations of the Bible, reciting the Nicene Creed in church services, evangelicals forming monastic communities and drawing on the wisdom of past (non-evangelical) monastic communities in so doing, and other phenomena.  According to W. David Buschart and Kent D. Eilers, a growing number of evangelicals are drawing from the past in search of a deeper historical connection, and also because they do not consider what the present offers to be adequate for their spiritual growth and needs.

There are challenges when today’s Christians attempt to retrieve aspects of the past and to employ them in the present.  People in the past were different.  The Christians whose thoughts are being retrieved lived in a different historical context from the context of those retrieving their thoughts today, and, in a number of cases, their version of Christianity was different.  This is especially the case when evangelicals draw from Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism.  Would today’s evangelicals truly honor and respect those Christians of the past were the evangelicals to cherry-pick what they like from church history and use it for their own ends?

On some level, Buschart and Eilers navigate this issue the way that one would expect sophisticated Christian academics to do so.  They endorse a humble approach to the past.  They suggest that Christians remember the difference in context between themselves and those whose thoughts and practices they are retrieving.  They do not think that Christians should blindly accept the past but should evaluate what thoughts and practices fell by the wayside in history and why, and yet they maintain that Christians today should be challenged by the past.  Essentially, they are for dialogue with the past, and they are for retrieval, as long as those retrieving reflect on what they are doing and why.  Not too many surprises there.  What Buschart and Eilers say about retrieval is similar to how a number of liberal Christians approach inter-religious dialogue: remember the different contexts, allow the other to challenge oneself and to highlight the peculiarities of one’s own beliefs, etc.  What basis do Buschart and Eilers offer for retrieval?  Why should I retrieve, say, what the church fathers had to say, or what the Puritans had to say?  For Buschart and Eilers, God has been at work in history, and the past can be a source of wisdom about how people have interacted with God.  We do not have all the answers, so why close ourselves off from the past?

Not many surprises, and it largely makes sense to me.  I suppose that one could come back and ask what the boundaries should be in retrieval.  Should I accept, for example, the church fathers’ allegorical interpretation of the Bible, even though that interpretation violates what the biblical texts originally meant?  Does such an approach open the door to eisegesis?  Should I adopt the mysticism of Christians of the past, even if that appears to be foreign to the Bible?  And is the past authoritative?  People can probably draw different conclusions about whether Buschart and Eilers tackle these questions head on and sufficiently.  I will admit that they did try, but I did not finish the book entirely satisfied.  I will say, though, that the book does teach me to respect the spiritual walks of Christians in the past, as they sought to have a deeper relationship with God and to live a virtuous life, whether or not I always agree with what those Christians said and did.  In addition, the book did inspire some thoughts.  Personally, I thought that its chapter on Scripture was wishful thinking—-that it was trying to see the Bible as a Christian document, even though the historical-critical method raises the possibility that the Bible has diverse theologies (many of them pre-Christian).  Still, Buschart and Eilers do say that God has been at work in the past, and perhaps that insight can lead me to appreciate that those diverse theologies reflect, in some way, God’s interactions with people throughout history, even if I am hesitant to put them through a Christian grid.

The book is an excellent catalog of how Christian thinkers and authors have addressed the topic of retrieval.  That would make it useful for scholars and laypeople who are interested in this topic.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Pagan Miracles and Pseudo-Philo

Pseudo-Philo is a first century C.E. Jewish work that interprets and expands upon stories in the Hebrew Bible.  In Pseudo-Philo 25, we learn about luminescent Amorite stones in the Amorite sanctuaries that had the power to heal disease.  V 12 states that “even if one of the Amorites was blind, he would go and put his eyes on it and recover sight” (D.J. Harrington’s translation).  The Israelite judge Kenaz, eager to destroy the remains of Amorite religion in the land of Canaan so that they do not become (or remain) a temptation to Israel, finds a way to dispose of the stones.

We see pagan miracles elsewhere in Pseudo-Philo.  In Pseudo-Philo 34, there is a magician named Aod from the Midianite sanctuaries, and he is able to make the sun appear at night.  Aod has been sacrificing to the angels who are in charge of magic, and the angels, in the past, had transgressed by revealing magic to human beings.  I got a similar sort of message when I read I Enoch: that the transgressing angels, in revealing astrology to human beings, were not revealing something that was a total lie; rather, they were revealing something that, on some level, was true, but that God did not want people to know.  Perhaps God did not think that humans were mature enough to handle that knowledge, or he wanted for people to focus on him and thought that knowledge of astrology could detract from that.  It would be similar to the story in Genesis 3 about God not wanting Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Yes, the tree had real effects—-it enabled Adam and Eve to know good and evil, like God.  But God did not want for them to eat from that tree.  He may have thought that they were not yet ready to know good and evil, or that they should not seek the knowledge of good and evil apart from a relationship with God.  Less charitable interpretations say that God was being greedy, or that God saw the knowledge of good and evil as his sole prerogative.

But back to pagan miracles!  The reason that pagan miracles interest me is that they can potentially cast doubt on miracles being a sign that God is at work.  In the New Testament, Jesus’ miracles are a sign that God is at work.  People are supposed to be able to recognize that God is at work on account of miracles.  There are apologists today who hold that miracles attest to the truth of the Bible.  But what if the bad side can do miracles, too?  The Bible, as far as I know, does acknowledge that to be a possibility.  Pharaoh’s magicians could do some of the same miracles that Moses did.  Jesus in Mark 13 (and parallels) talks about false Christs and false Messiahs performing signs and wonders.  In the Book of Revelation, people marvel because the Beast died and came back to life.

But one could come back and nitpick those miracles that the bad side does.  The magicians were able to do some of the same signs that Moses was?  What does that prove?  If they wanted to demonstrate that they or their gods were more powerful than Moses and his god, then they should have tried to reverse the disastrous effects of Moses’ miracles—-to purify the water that had been turned to blood, to make the frogs and the locusts go away, etc.  Jesus in Mark 13 does not explicitly say what miracles the false Messiahs and false prophets will perform.  And some may take the Beast’s resurrection in Revelation as symbolic rather than as a literal miracle, saying that it could symbolize the resurrection of the Roman empire.

Jesus in Matthew 12:22-32 casts a devil out of a man who was blind and mute, and that results in the man’s healing.  When Jesus’ enemies say that Jesus cast out demons through the power of the prince of demons, Jesus finds their accusation to be absurd, for why would Satan undermine his own power by enabling an exorcism?  For Jesus, the Kingdom of God was on the move, people were being healed, and Satan was not supporting this, but was on the other side, and it was actually in Satan’s interest to be on the other side.  Does this imply that, for Jesus, the bad side cannot perform exorcisms or heal, that those are things that only God can do?  And yet, in Pseudo-Philo, we seem to get another perspective: that pagan Amorite stones had healing properties.

I realize that Christians have tackled this issue, or at least have tried to do so.  Some distinguish between magic and miracle, seeing the latter as part of a larger redemptive purpose rather than as a mere fluke.  Some say that Christians do more miracles than non-Christians do.  Some say that Christianity is one of the few religions that has miracles, whereas other religions (i.e., Buddhism) only talked about miracles at a later stage.  Some will call the pagan miracles magic rather than miracles.  Some say that the pagan miracles are not true miracles—-that they only appear to be miraculous, but that they have a natural explanation.

I don’t know.  I have a slight bit of sympathy for the claim that Christian miracles are part of a grand story of redemption.  So the Amorite stones could heal.  What does that prove?  I suppose that it could prove the power of an Amorite god, or at least of the stones, but where is the grand story of redemption?  Plus, even if the Amorite stones can heal, the Amorite religion could be pretty cruel, at least if you accept what the Hebrew Bible says (and there are people who do not, seeing that as a caricature, or as demonizing the other).  But people can come back with other points: Christianity could be cruel, too; and, are the Amorite stones that different from ancient Israelite religion, or the religion that writers in the Hebrew Bible promoted?  Both may have seen miracles as a sign of their own god’s power.

I have been talking as if the Amorite stones were historical, and that is far from certain.  I wonder how the story came to be.  The note in my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha about Pseudo-Philo 44 states that Pseudo-Philo’s depiction of Micah’s cult (as in the Micah from Judges 17) may be based on the Mithras sanctuary.  Could something similar be going on with the Amorite stones in Pseudo-Philo—-that they were based on something within the pagan religion of Pseudo-Philo’s day?

I’ll stop here.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Book Write-Up: C.S. Lewis, by Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath.  Eccentric Genius.  Reluctant Prophet.  C.S. Lewis: A Life.  Carol Steam, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

C.S. Lewis was a teacher at Oxford and Cambridge, a scholar of English literature, a Christian apologist, and the author of fantasy, the most famous of his fantasy works being The Chronicles of Narnia.  There is so much in Alister McGrath’s biography about Lewis, that this blog post would become a book were I to mention everything that I got out of it.  Here are some items, though.

1.  Although Lewis could be a bit pretentious, McGrath’s narration of Lewis’ struggles in life certainly made him sympathetic to me.  Lewis struggled with the death of his mother, difficulty in getting along with his father, an alcoholic brother whom he still loved, horrible boarding schools, employment prospects, alienation from some of his colleagues, and feelings of inadequacy as a Christian apologist, especially since he could not convince the people closest to him to embrace Christianity.  Plus, the challenge to one of his arguments by a student expert on Wittgenstein made him feel intellectually inadequate to continue argumentative apologetics, though, as McGrath notes, Lewis did not abandon apologetics completely, for it is in the Chronicles of Narnia, on some level.  (Lewis would later say that he preferred enjoying Christianity to defending it.)  Even when Lewis was at the height of his fame, he could not really become pompous about it, on account of the struggles that he continually experienced.  Why do I say that he could be a bit pretentious?  Well, he did prefer students whom he considered interesting, and he did not always care for teaching on account of what he considered amateurish questions from his students.  I suppose that this is understandable for a well-read scholar such as Lewis, but it does sound somewhat elitist.

2.  I gained more insight into Lewis’ atheism from this biography.  I knew from Surprised by Joy that one factor behind his atheism was the death of his mother.  But, according to McGrath, Lewis also had intellectual reasons.  Lewis read old myths and wondered what made Christianity and its claims any different from them.  I am a bit vague, however, about the precise reason that he became a Christian.  Lewis was searching for joy, and he became convinced that Christianity contained the true, historical myth to which other myths were pointing, on some level.  In addition, other prominent authors were becoming Christians around that time, and Lewis felt that added a depth to their writing that was absent from certain secular works.  Lewis was coming to believe that Christianity offered a compelling way to look at life.  McGrath denies that Lewis became a Christian out of wishful thinking or primarily for emotional reasons, however, for he characterizes Lewis’ theism as rational.  Lewis himself said that it was almost as if philosophical arguments were becoming embodied before him as he thought about them, and those arguments pointed to theism.  Lewis also felt as if God were pursuing him: he mocked the platitude about man’s search for God by saying that, in his case, that would be like saying that the mouse is searching for the cat!  Did Lewis ever come up with philosophical arguments that proved the existence of God?  Not that I could tell.  I long thought that, in Mere Christianity, Lewis was trying to prove the existence of God by saying that there is a moral law, and thus a moral lawgiver, but McGrath contends that Lewis in that case was not trying to prove God’s existence.  Rather, according to McGrath, Lewis was saying that the existence of a moral law is consistent with what Christianity and theism have to say.  I respect Lewis’ spiritual journey, but I am somewhat reluctant to exclude wishful thinking as a factor behind it.  Maybe spirituality does not need hard-core proof in order to be valid, though.

3.  Many books have been written about Lewis, but what sets Alister McGrath’s book apart is his redating of Lewis’ conversion to theism and to Christianity.  McGrath questions Lewis’ own dating of those things, as well as the dating that many biographers accept.  McGrath makes his arguments by looking at Lewis’ letters.  If Lewis was becoming a theist and attending chapel in 1929, for example, why did he not mention those things then, especially after noteworthy events, such as the death of his father, occurred in that year?  But Lewis does mention those things in 1930.  While McGrath does present instances in which Lewis could fudge the truth, he does not think that Lewis does so when it comes to the dates of his conversions.  Rather, McGrath argues that Lewis simply was not good at dates, and that this problem was accentuated after he became less faithful in keeping his journal.  (Eventually, Lewis stopped keeping a journal altogether because he thought it was self-absorbed.)

4.  There were parts of the book that made me laugh at loud!  Lewis wrote a lady and told her that the trenches of World War I were better than his experiences in boarding school.  That expert on Wittgeinstein who challenged Lewis?  According to McGrath, A.N. Wilson suggested that Lewis based the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on her.  McGrath does not buy that, though!  And, in his later years, Lewis wore a device due to his health problems.  McGrath says on page 350: “The frequent malfunctions of this improvised device caused inconvenience and occasionally chaos to Lewis’ social life, as at an otherwise dull Cambridge sherry party which was enlivened with a shower of his urine.”

5.  The scenes that especially touched me in the book were ones in which people whom Lewis did not particularly like, or who did not care that much for Lewis, ended up helping him.  Lewis did not care for the taciturn husband of Maureen, the daughter of Mrs. Moore (who may have been his lover in his young, pre-Christian days), but he helped Lewis out when Lewis was in need.  Lewis was alienated from some of the Oxford faculty on account of his Christianity and his popular works, but one scholar (whom I vaguely recall was rather critical of Lewis) turned down a position at Cambridge so that it could go to Lewis.  Lewis did not care for the poetry of T.S. Eliot, but Eliot helped Lewis to make his Grief Observed (which is about Lewis’ grief after the death of his wife) more anonymous, which is what Lewis wanted.  (Interestingly, people recommended A Grief Observed to Lewis, unaware that he wrote it.)

6.  Lewis took meticulous notes in the books that he read.  McGrath refers to someone who contrasts that with the ease with which scholars today can do a search and find what they are looking for in a book.  Something is missing in today’s approach, that person was saying.  Back then, a person could be surprised by something in a book that he did not notice before, or that made an impression on him that it did not previously make, whereas such surprises are less likely to occur today.

7.  McGrath offers thoughts about Lewis’ relationship with various religions.  He discusses his reception within Catholicism and evangelicalism.  McGrath also tells about how Lewis encouraged the desire of one of his step-sons to convert to Judaism.  I was hoping that McGrath would explore further the aspects of Lewis’ thought that disturb some conservative evangelicals, such as Lewis’ views on the Bible and the atonement.  But McGrath did make an interesting point in discussing Lewis’ approach to the atonement.  McGrath suggests that perhaps some scholars are barking up the wrong tree when they try to place Lewis in a certain theological school, or to ascribe a particular view of the atonement to Lewis.  McGrath doubts that Lewis was deeply conversant with theological nuances about this, for Lewis’ field was English literature.  McGrath believes that medieval plays about Christ’s death, ransom of people from the power of the devil, and harrowing of hell are more helpful for understanding how Lewis depicts the atonement in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  That is an interesting thought, and there may be something to it.  I do believe, however, that Lewis was conversant with theology and theological nuances, on some level, for he did write an introduction to the church father Athanasius’ work on the incarnation (which I do not recall McGrath even mentioning).

Excellent book!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Genesis 2 and Pentecost

I attended the Methodist church again this morning.  I particularly enjoyed the sermon because the pastor referred to the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, and also looked at the Hebrew of Genesis 2.

The pastor was saying that she doubts that the ancient Babylonians or the ancient Hebrews interpreted their creation myths as literal, factual, historical accounts.  She then went on, however, to talk like they did: she said that they believed that their stories were etiologies to account for how things came to be as they are—-to explain why people till the soil, why women suffer painful childbirths, why people get married, etc.  But her conclusion about the significance of Genesis 2-3 may be more consistent with not seeing Genesis 2-3 as necessarily historical or factual: she said that the creation story was about humans’ place in the world, in light of how ancients understood it (i.e., tilling the soil), and that the Bible is about whether there is more to this life than working the soil and trying to get through the day.  See here and here for some links on whether the ancient Hebrews understood their creation stories as literal and historical.  And see here for the Stephen Curtis Chapman song, “More to This Life”!

Today is Pentecost for a number of churches, and Pentecost relates to the story in Acts 2 about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a group of the early Christians.  The pastor was tying Genesis 2 with Acts 2.  She was noting that, in Genesis 2, God breathes his breath into the earthling, and it becomes alive.  She said that the lesson from this is that God is as close to us as our breath.  I was unclear if she was suggesting that everyone has the Holy Spirit.  I can understand a person arriving at that sort of conclusion, even if Paul seems to believe that Christians are the ones who have the Spirit of God inside of them, and the reason is that, in the Hebrew Bible, ruach can mean spirit or breath.  In a sense, God’s own breath is inside of us, according to Genesis 2.  Is that different from God’s spirit being inside of believers?  Is there diversity within the Bible on this topic?  In any case, the pastor’s conclusion on this seemed to be that God’s spirit has been around and active for a long time in history.

The pastor made a point about marriage in Genesis 2, and that made me think.  She said that, in Genesis 2, ha-adam is split apart when God makes the woman; through marriage, however, human beings unite again, for the man and the woman become one.  That raises some questions in my mind.  First of all, does that suggest that full humanity comes in marriage?  What about singles?  I know that Paul in I Corinthians sees the single life as acceptable, and even preferable for him in terms of his mission.  But is there a sense in which marriage makes people more fully human?  I vaguely recall a rabbinic saying that implied precisely that.  Second, does this insight (about men and women coming together in marriage) imply that men and women are certain ways and complement each other?  Third, does it indicate that marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman, who bring their own ways of doing and seeing things into the union?  My impression is that this church is rather liberal—-it is sensitive to historical-critical insights about the text, it reads Marcus Borg, etc.—-and thus would be more on the pro-marriage equality side than the anti.  Would the pastor say that same sex couples, too, reflect the union of humanity that heterosexual couples do?  I would ask her, but I did not want to barrage her with difficult questions about controversial issues after the service!

The pastor made another point that I kind of liked.  She shared with us a prayer of St. Augustine.  She said that Augustine was big on original sin, so he is not the type of person whom she ordinarily reads, but that he has great prayers!  I could identify with this approach.  I am probably more sympathetic towards Augustine on original sin, even though I do not care for his belief in infant damnation (and yet I respect that he struggled with that).  But, as with the pastor, there are things that resonate with me, and there are things that do not resonate with me so much, and yet I am open to whatever encourages me to live a healthy spiritual life.

The service this morning was calm and laid-back, and I liked that.  There was a peaceful quality to it, a calm in the atmosphere, if that makes sense.  The pastor’s sermon did inspire some questions inside of me, but I do appreciate any sermon that is thoughtful and scholarly, and hers certainly was.  I am eager to hear her thoughts about other biblical texts in future sermons, and maybe even in Sunday School, once I start to attend that (which may be a while—-it will be sometime after I get my own key to our apartment).  Last week, I inadvertently sat in someone else’s seat in the back row, and I noticed today that she sat in another seat before I arrived; she may not have been intentionally giving me her seat, for she probably just became accustomed to her new seat, but I was glad to sit in that seat in the back row.  Something else that I like about going to this church is the thirty minute walk to the church, and the thirty minute walk back.  There are churches that are closer to me, but I really enjoy the walk to this particular church.  It is a good time for praying, and the scenery is beautiful.  I talked with someone this morning who walks an hour to church!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

II Chronicles 34 (Rambling)

II Chronicles 34 is about the reign of King Josiah of Judah.  The Chronicler considers Josiah to be a righteous king, as does II Kings 22.  II Chronicles 34 and II Kings 22-23 tell Josiah’s story differently, however.

In II Chronicles 34, Josiah seeks the LORD at an early age, and that leads him to eradicate idolatry and false worship in Judah and Northern Israel.  (According to Raymond Dillard in the Word Biblical Commentary, Josiah could exercise control over Northern Israel because the Assyrian empire was on the decline.)  Josiah decides to repair the neglected Temple, and, in the process of this repair, the Torah is found there.  The Torah condemns Israel for disobedience and idolatry, and Josiah tears his clothes in dismay.  The prophetess Huldah says that God will bring evil against “this place” but will delay the punishment because Josiah humbled himself.  Josiah then leads Judah and Jerusalem to make a covenant of obedience to God, and forces Northern Israel to serve the LORD.  II Chronicles 35 is about Josiah’s Passover celebration.

In II Chronicles 34, Josiah is conducting a religious reform before the Torah is discovered.  II Kings 22-23, however, seems to depict Josiah’s anti-idolatry reform as occurring after the discovery of the Torah.  That is followed by Josiah’s Passover celebration.

Here are some thoughts:

1.  Why did the Chronicler depict an order of events that differed from the order in II Kings?  Dillard refers to M. Cogan’s view that the Chronicler wants to present Josiah’s piety as early and “self-motivated” (Dillard’s word), and Cogan mentions an Assyrian inscription about King Esarhaddon of Assyria’s piety as a youth.  That could be, and yet the commentator in the Jewish Study Bible raises a question: What exactly changed after Josiah discovered the Torah?  Josiah was already doing what the Torah commanded before the Torah was discovered.  The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary mentions the view that the outcome of the discovery of the Torah in II Chronicles was the Passover celebration.  There may be some truth to that, as far as the Chronicler’s presentation is concerned, and yet what disturbs Josiah in II Chronicles 34 after the discovery of the Torah is the Torah’s statement that God will punish Israel for idolatry.

One can ask another question.  How would Josiah know what pleases God before the Torah is even discovered?  Perhaps Josiah was tutored by the people of the land, those who killed the assassins of his father and elevated Josiah to the throne (II Chronicles 33:25).  According to the Artscroll, Halevi maintained that Josiah started his reform at age 16 rather than prior to that age because he was under the influence of the people of the land, whom Halevi says supported the wicked policies of Kings Manasseh and Amon.  But perhaps the people of the land were righteous, according to the standards of the Chronicler, and they taught Josiah to uphold exclusive Yahwism and to oppose idolatry.  Or maybe Josiah was familiar with the policies of his grandfather Manasseh after Manasseh had repented—-Manasseh’s policies of trying to overturn idolatry—-as well as the anti-idolatry policies of his great-grandfather, Hezekiah.  Or could Josiah, in seeking the LORD, have learned directly from the LORD what is pleasing to him?

In II Chronicles 34, after the Torah is discovered, Josiah fears for his nation, even though Josiah had already eradicated (or begun to eradicate) the idolatry that the Torah condemned.  Why?  Is this plausible?  Maybe Josiah questioned whether God truly forgave past sins.  I remember a Jewish theology professor saying that, in the Torah, the idea is that Israel has to pay her penalty for sin, then she can receive a new beginning (see Deuteronomy 30:1-10).  There may be something to that, as far as the Torah goes.  There is atonement for sin in the Torah, yet God takes a tough stance against high-handed sins (Numbers 15:22-21).  Even in II Chronicles 34, we see the idea that Judah must still be punished, and yet God postpones Judah’s punishment on account of Josiah’s humility.  Maybe Josiah did not feel entirely clean, his reforms notwithstanding, or he thought that he and the people needed to get serious and make a deeper commitment to God and God’s law, which he would lead.  Josiah had a relationship with God, but he still felt a need to be under the authority of the Torah after its discovery.  Even if Josiah was already on the right path in II Chronicles 34, the Torah still shook him.

2.  Josiah led Judah and Jerusalem to make a covenant with God, but he actually sought to force the Northern Israelites to serve the LORD.  Keil-Delitzsch say that this repentance was not heart-felt and did not last.  Was Josiah right to try to force Northern Israelites to serve God?  Serving God is right, so was not Josiah right to compel the Northern Israelites at least to go through the outward motions of desisting from idolatry and performing rituals of worship for God?  Josiah’s great-grandfather Hezekiah, in II Chronicles 30-31, likewise took forceful action against idolatry and commanded people of Jerusalem to give the priests and Levites what the Torah said was their due.  Yet, Hezekiah did not try to compel the Northern Israelites to attend the Passover but resorted to persuasion and appeal, saying that God will restore the Northern Israelites’ exiled relatives if the Northern Israelites turned to God (II Chronicles 30:9).  Some Northern Israelites mocked, but some humbled themselves and accepted Hezekiah’s invitation.  Maybe Hezekiah would have been more heavy-handed, like Josiah, if Hezekiah had more power.  Interestingly, according to II Chronicles 30:12, God gave the people of Judah the heart to cooperate with Hezekiah’s religious reform.  The fact that so many Judahites were on board was an indication to the narrator that God was behind Hezekiah’s endeavor; yet, strangely, God did not move every Northern Israelite to cooperate.

I cannot judge whether or not Josiah was right or wrong in his context to enforce the worship of God.  I do not believe that such a policy should exist in the United States, for I respect religious freedom—-the right of people to follow their conscience (albeit not when it hurts someone else).  There is something authentic about following one’s conscience—-about doing what is right because one loves what is right, not because one is forced to do what one does not believe.  That, which may be inspired by God in certain seasons (or always), is more likely to effect lasting change than compelled outward obedience—-and we see in the story of Josiah that compelled outward obedience did not result in lasting righteousness.  While I believe in religious freedom, though, I, as a Christian, have to admit that when Jesus Christ comes to rule the earth, everyone will worship God.  Many will want to do so; some may not.  Some believe that those who choose not to do so will be in hell; some universalists, however, think that God even then will try to persuade them and woo them to follow him, as Hezekiah did with the Northern Israelites.  Hard-core Calvinists can simply say that some people are not chosen and that is why they do not follow God, as the Northern Israelites who mocked Hezekiah’s invitation were not given that heart for obedience that God gave to the Judahites.  Maybe the time of Hezekiah was just not the right time, though, for the Northern Israelites to repent; they were not ready yet, and they did not have the heritage of godliness that Judah had.

3.  II Chronicles 34:12 states that the musician Levites were supervising the repair of the Temple.  Why does the Chronicler mention the detail that they were musicians?  Dillard says that the “use of music during a construction project is well attested from the ancient Near East”, but he seems to prefer the idea that the Levites’ musical ability is mentioned to highlight that the Levites were the ones supervising: music was a mark of a number of Levites.  Matthew Henry says that the Levites’ musical ability meant that they had aptitude in mathematics, and that qualified them to supervise the repair of the Temple.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Between Me and God

I have been reading the first century Jewish work, Pseudo-Philo.

In the biblical Book of I Samuel, Hannah is barren, and she mumbles before God at the sanctuary, asking God for a son.  Pseudo-Philo elaborates on this.  According to Pseudo-Philo, Hannah did not pray aloud because she did not want to give her enemies or the enemies of God occasion to blaspheme.  She realized that what was important to God was not offspring, but rather doing God’s will, so she was open to the possibility that God may say “no” to her request.  But she did not want to be public in asking God for a son, for then, if God answered “no,” enemies would taunt her, and maybe even mock God in the process.  Consequently, Hannah sought to keep her request between her and God.

There are a lot of things that I keep between myself and God.  There is a place for testifying to God’s goodness—-for telling people about prayers that we feel God has answered.  We see that sort of thing in the Book of Psalms.  People can be encouraged to have faith in God when they hear about answered prayer.  When we were moving to the west coast and were looking for a place to live, people at my church were praying for us.  Of course, I told them when we finally found a place to live!  That was an occasion to testify, and also to acknowledge their concern for us.

But I am hesitant to testify to everyone about things.  Unless the event is earth-shakingly dramatic, a number of atheists can dismiss one’s testimony as a recounting of coincidence, or luck, or something that did not require divine intervention and could have happened anyway, or with enough effort.  There are people who may mock one’s faith when things appear to go wrong, as Hannah feared.  And some people who suffer, or whose loved ones suffer, may not want to read or hear someone trumpeting one’s good fortune.  If one person’s father recovers from a disease, for example, whereas another person’s father dies, would the latter want to hear the former praising God for healing her father?

Something I should note is that, while Hannah wanted to keep her request for a son between her and God, ultimately, the matter did not remain between her and God.  In Pseudo-Philo, the point is made that Samuel would be a light to his people, Israel, a leader.  Psalm 99:6, where Asaph mentions Samuel, is taken by Hannah to be a prophecy about Samuel’s birth—-and I do not entirely understand this, since my understanding was that the Asaph of the Book of Psalms lived later, during the time of King David, according to I Chronicles.  Maybe Pseudo-Philo thinks that Asaph lived for a long time!

I am not sure what to do homiletically with that thought that Hannah’s request ultimately did not remain between her and God.  One reason that Christians may encourage testimonies is that they want us to think beyond ourselves and things turning out well for us—-to consider larger issues, such as more people coming to faith in God.  I could identify, though, with why Hannah wanted her request to be private.  Christians are often exhorted to testify, but maybe we do not have to testify about everything we believe God has done for us.  Maybe it is sometimes all right to keep things between us and God.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Book Write-Up: How Jesus Became God, by Bart Ehrman

Bart D. Ehrman.  How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.  New York: HarperOne, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

How did Jesus, a Jew from a monotheistic culture, come to be seen by his followers as God?  Bart Ehrman, a biblical scholar who was once a conservative Christian and became an agnostic, tackles this question in How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.  

Ehrman argues that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who may have believed that he would soon become the Messianic king of Israel.  Jesus envisioned a heavenly figure known as the “Son of Man” (who appears in I Enoch) coming to earth soon, overthrowing evil and establishing Paradise, and setting up Jesus as the king of Israel.  After Jesus was put to death by the Romans, thereby shattering his disciples’ hopes that he would be the Messiah in any conventional sense of the term, some of Jesus’ disciples saw visions that convinced them was Jesus was still alive.  As that belief gained steam, early followers of Jesus concluded that God had exalted Jesus to a divine status after Jesus’ death, meaning that Jesus was still the Messiah, but that he was enthroned in heaven and would return to earth.  According to Ehrman, there was also an early view that Jesus had pre-existed his time on earth, that he was an angel who became a human being, then was exalted to a divine status.  For Ehrman, these ideas about Jesus are understandable in light of Greco-Roman, and also Jewish, ideas about divinity.  Both Gentile and Jewish culture contained the idea that a man could become divine, and that a god or an angel could assume a human form (which Ehrman acknowledges is different from an incarnation).  Within Hellenistic Jewish literature, there is the notion that an aspect of God could be personal, or that God had a divine intermediary (a logos, or wisdom), and Ehrman contends that these themes could be relevant to how Jesus came to be conceptualized.  Ehrman also explores Christology after the time of the New Testament, as he goes through Justin Martyr, Novatian, Tertullian, and others.  In Ehrman’s picture, views once considered acceptable (i.e., the idea that Jesus was exalted to a divine status after his death, and the view that the pre-existent Jesus had a beginning and was subordinate to God the Father) came to be considered heresy within Christianity.

This book has been critiqued and analyzed numerous times in the blogosphere and in print, and my write-up here will not be a thorough critique, though I will say that I find Ehrman’s scenario to be plausible and sensible.  While I have read a number of reviews of the book, I am glad that I finally read the book itself.  Ehrman is a gifted writer, who is able to make scholarly debates accessible to a popular audience.  I myself have academic training, but, as a reader, I appreciate when someone is able to summarize issues and phrase them in an accessible, friendly, lucid, conversational, and enjoyable (yet not corny) manner, while still providing documentation from primary sources.  Ehrman’s personal stories certainly enhanced the enjoyability of the book for me as a reader, for they showed how Ehrman’s research fit into his journey, particularly his journey in relation to religion.  The book also provided me with useful information about conceptions of divinity in the Greco-Roman world.  I have read about this topic in non-popular scholarly works, but Ehrman summarized the issues very lucidly, while giving examples of what he was discussing.

The book is not just related to Jesus’ divinity and monotheism, for Ehrman also participates in debates about whether Jesus’ resurrection is historically authentic.  In my opinion, Ehrman’s best argument with regard to this issue is his argument that all sorts of people—-even groups—-have seen visions, and that some Christian apologists are overreaching when they claim that early Christian visions of the risen Jesus demonstrate the truth of Christianity.  Regarding Ehrman’s argument that Jesus after his crucifixion probably was not buried, I refer readers to Greg Monette’s post about this subject, which critiques Ehrman’s argument through appeal to primary sources.  When Ehrman addresses the question of whether historians can say that Jesus rose from the dead, his discussion is a mixed bag.  Ehrman does well to make the point that saying that Jesus’ resurrection is not subject to historical investigation is not the same as saying that it did not happen; on the other hand, he seems to believe that historians should prefer naturalistic explanations as more likely than supernatural ones.  Personally, I would say that the farthest even believing scholars can go, from a historical standpoint, is to argue that Jesus’ tomb was empty, that the disciples saw visions that convinced them that Jesus rose from the dead, and that certain naturalistic ways to account for this fall short; I agree with Ehrman that going further and saying that Jesus rose from the dead is faith, not history.  In terms of what historians can say about this issue, I think that they would do well to say that it is a mystery.

Ehrman also makes points that are relevant to the question of whether the Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony.  Ehrman believes that there are some things in the synoptic Gospels that probably go back to the historical Jesus, and he endorses the conventional scholarly criteria of authenticity as ways to discern this.  At the same time, Ehrman also thinks that, after people saw visions of the risen Jesus, they started telling stories, and stories got invented and exaggerated, resulting in the oral tradition that is behind the Gospels, which (according to Ehrman) were written decades after the time of Jesus by anonymous people, not the people to whom they are ascribed.  (As Ehrman asks, would Aramaic-speaking Galileans produce the refined Greek works that the Gospels are?)  On eyewitness testimony, Erhman refers to non-Christian claims to eyewitness testimony: viewings of Romulus ascending to heaven; the claim that Apollonius’ miracles were attested by an eyewitness; and sightings of UFOs.

Moreover, while scholar Richard Bauckham argues in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that the Gospels telling certain people’s names is an act of referring to them as eyewitnesses, Ehrman refers to an article by Bruce Metzger (whom conservative scholars love to quote or appeal to on other issues), “Names for the Nameless,” which was in Kyriakon: Festschrift Johannes Quasten, volume 1, pages 79-99.  Ehrman summarizes the article as follows: “Here he showed all the traditions of people who were unnamed in the New Testament receiving names later; for example, the wise men are named in later traditions, as are priests serving in the Sanhedrin when they condemned Jesus and the two robbers who were crucified with him” (page 155).  (See my post here about how Bauckham addresses this sort of issue.)  Ehrman here is not directly responding to Bauckham, but rather Ehrman is seeking to account for the development of the tradition that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus, especially since an arguably earlier tradition said that the Jewish leaders as a group buried him (Acts 13:28-29); for Ehrman, we may be seeing the literary practice of naming a character.  While Ehrman in this book does not explicitly interact with Bauckham, Ehrman’s points may be relevant to Bauckham’s argument, and I am looking forward to Ehrman’s coming book that more explicitly tackles the question of whether the Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony.

I’ll stop here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Pseudo-Philo, Hell, and Soul Sleep

I have been reading the Book of Pseudo-Philo for my daily quiet time.  My Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha dates Pseudo-Philo to the first century C.E.  Pseudo-Philo is a Jewish work, and it contains interpretations and elaborations of biblical stories that may have been used in synagogues.

The topic of the afterlife has been on my mind as I have been reading Pseudo-Philo.  Here are three items:

1.  In Pseudo-Philo 33, the judge Deborah is exhorting the Israelites to direct their hearts towards God while they are still alive, for they will not have a chance to repent after they die.  I follow her so far.  One will hear a similar message at a lot of Southern Baptist or other conservative Christian churches: repent and get right with God now, for you will not have a chance to do so after you die, and you will go to hell if you have not done so in this life.  That was a prominent message within Second Temple Judaism, yet there was at least one source that held that the dead could repent in hell prior to the day of the final judgment (see here), and one can find within rabbinic Judaism the view that those with intermediate righteousness will be punished in Gehenna before they enter Paradise (see here).

2.  What especially got my attention, though, was what Deborah says soon after, about the state of the people in hell.  “For even if you seek to do evil in hell after your death, you cannot, because the desire for sinning will cease and the evil impulse will lose its power” (D.J. Harrington’s translation).  People cannot sin in hell, nor are they influenced by their evil impulse, according to Deborah in Pseudo-Philo.

This passage reminded me of a debate that I heard a while back on Justin Brierley’s radio program, Unbelievable.  You can find the debate here.  In this debate, James White was defending the view that the wicked dead are consciously tormented in hell for all eternity, whereas a British couple, Roger and Faith Forster, were arguing that the wicked dead are annihilated.  The Forsters, as I recall, were saying that the wicked dead may suffer in hell for a while, but they are eventually annihilated, and how long their suffering lasts is based on the intensity of their sins.  James White, however, raised an interesting point.  White said that the wicked are continuing to sin in hell, and thus they are still earning God’s wrath.  If that is the case, can the wicked dead in hell ever pay their sentence then pass quietly into annihilation?  Even in hell, they are continuing to do things that earn God’s wrath, that earn more years of suffering.  It’s an unending process, a vicious cycle!

Well, Pseudo-Philo offers a different view, even though I have my doubts that Pseudo-Philo was an annihilationist (but I have not finished the book).  For Pseudo-Philo, those in hell do not sin or even want to sin.  They are still being punished for their sins that they committed in this life, however.  (UPDATE: I was looking through passages in Pseudo-Philo again, and, in Pseudo-Philo 16, God talks about the destruction of the wicked.  Pseudo-Philo may have believed in the ultimate destruction of the wicked, or perhaps he had a loose understanding of death and destruction, one that would be consistent with eternal torment.)

According to the note at the bottom in my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha, “The idea that the evil impulse ceases after death is unique to Ps-Philo.”  Off and on, I have been reading a nineteenth century book called The Ancient City, which is by Numa Denis Fustel De Coulanges.  The book is about the religion, families, and cities of early Greece and Rome.  The author says that people were believed to have the same flaws after their death that they had in life.  The author is not discussing this in the context of hell, but rather in the context of the ancient obligation to provide food and sustenance to one’s ancestors, lest they become unhappy ghosts.  Still, his discussion stood out to me, in light of what I read in Pseudo-Philo about whether the dead in hell have any moral agency.

3.  A topic that I visit and revisit on this blog is soul sleep.  Soul sleep is the view that the dead are unconscious until they are resurrected from the dead at or after Christ’s return.  It contrasts with the doctrine of the immortal soul, which holds that the soul of the dead leaves the body immediately at death and is conscious some place, whether in heaven, hell, the underworld, or someplace else.  My religious upbringing embraced soul sleep.  I grew up in an offshoot of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God, and the Seventh-Day Adventist churches that I would later attend embraced soul sleep.

Believers in soul sleep often point out that there are numerous references in the Bible in which death is called a sleep.  Does that mean that the dead are unconscious?  I said in my post here: “I think that believers in soul sleep do well to point out that death in the New Testament is presented as a sleep.  My question would be: Was it possible in ancient literature to call death a sleep, while also believing that the dead could be conscious?  I would not be surprised if such were the case.”

I would say that Pseudo-Philo may be a case in which death is called a sleep, and yet the dead are still believed to be conscious.  In Pseudo-Philo 35, the dead are called those who have “fallen asleep” (Harrington’s translation).  And yet, the dead in Pseudo-Philo clearly are conscious.  There is a place in Pseudo-Philo, for example, in which God informs the dead Israelites who failed to enter the Promised Land that their descendants made it into the Promised Land.  (I hope that God was telling them this to encourage them rather than to rub it in their face, but that is another issue.)  In the ancient world, does calling death a sleep imply a belief that the dead are unconscious?  Not necessarily.  It could just be an expression, for dead bodies do appear to sleep (i.e., their eyes are closed, they are lying down, etc.).

On the other hand, as I talk about in this post from a while back, is this an either/or?  In parts of the Hebrew Bible, the dead do seem to be asleep ordinarily, but they can be disturbed and woken up.  We see this with Samuel in I Samuel 28, and with the kings in Sheol in Isaiah 14.  To what extent, if any, this corresponds with Pseudo-Philo’s views, I do not know.

Another relevant issue would be the authorship of Pseudo-Philo: could it contain different views?  Could it be saying that the dead are conscious in some places, while maintaining that they are asleep in others?  I would have to read more to know the answer to that.  My understanding right now is that Pseudo-Philo probably draws from different traditions, but it also has common themes throughout.  And post-mortem reward and punishment is one of those common themes, indicating (to me) that whoever put Pseudo-Philo together had a robust belief in a conscious afterlife.  My hunch is that, if he calls death a sleep, that may indicate that he did not deem calling death a sleep to be inconsistent with a conscious afterlife.  There is always the possibility of him including something that went against the overall beliefs of the book, however, either on account of carelessness, or other factors.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

About That Post I Wrote on Baptism...

A post that I wrote a few weeks ago, Sermon at a New Church: The Significance of Baptism, has been getting an unusual number of views lately.  I don’t mean that it is going viral, by any means.  Actually, it only got four views today.  But this is unusual.

Allow me to explain what I mean.  For the past five or six years, I have written about the Sunday morning church services that I attend.  When I lived in Cincinnati and was attending Catholic churches, I blogged about those services.  When I moved to upstate New York and attended a Presbyterian church for over four years, I blogged about the weekly service.  Now, I am in the state of Washington and am looking for a church (though my plan is to attend a United Methodist church for a while, or maybe alternate between the Methodist one and the Lutheran one, I don’t know), and I am blogging about the services that I attend.

Why do I do this?  Well, when I was living in Cincinnati and attending Latin mass, I found that I had difficulty paying attention to the service and even remembering what I heard in it.  I decided at a certain point to blog about the service, particularly the homily.  I occasionally did that before, but it was irregular, so I committed to making it a regular practice.  In my posts, I would say where I agreed and disagreed with the sermon.  That may surprise those Christians who think that the sermon is God’s word to the congregation and should not be questioned, but I was raised to question things.  Usually, in expressing where I agreed and disagreed with the sermon, I ended up getting more out of it, especially on a spiritual, practical level.

Ordinarily, the way things work is that I write a post, it gets some views on the day that I write it or the day after, and that’s it.  That post that I wrote a couple of weeks ago about baptism, by contrast, is showing up under my “Top Posts and Pages” right now as I write, even though I wrote it a little over a few weeks ago.

I recently moved from upstate New York to Washington, and my own computer has not yet been set up in my room.  Because of that, I do not have regular Internet service, at least not enough of the time to check comments regularly, approve them, and interact with them.  Plus, I have been a bit misanthropic lately.  For these reasons, I decided to close my comments on my WordPress and blogger blogs, at least until my computer is set up in my room.  But I did not know how to close the comments on the “About me” page on my WordPress blog, so I simply left a note there saying that I will not be reading or approving comments for a while.

Someone decided, though, to leave a nasty, abusive, trollish comment under the “About me” page about my post on baptism.  He said that, since I apparently have all the answers, I should start a church and try to come up with a sermon to preach each week, only to have somebody nitpick it, like I did with that sermon on baptism.  He further said that I should spend more time encouraging people in the body of Christ.  Then he sarcastically said, “But what do I know?  I’m only a clergyman!”

There were so many things that went through my mind when I read that comment.  I felt pity for this guy’s congregation.  I marveled at the gross hypocrisy of someone telling me to encourage people in the body of Christ, when he was brutally tearing me down—-are not kindness and gentleness part of the fruit of the Spirit?  I decided not to publish or interact with the comment because, in my experience, trolls are usually not interested in connecting with bloggers on a personal level.  Often, they just shit on a person’s page, then leave.  (Well, there are trolls who will continue the conversation, but that results in one bitter experience.)  I could write a comment explaining to this commenter how he has me all wrong, hoping for some friendly comment in return, or at least some sense of closure.  But I would probably be wasting my time.

As I see that my baptism post has gotten more views, though, I feel somewhat compelled to say something, maybe because I do not want other readers to get the wrong impression about me, too.  Here are some thoughts:

1.  I never, ever claimed to have all the answers.  I have my opinions and my justifications for them, like most people do, and I believe that I have a right to evaluate what people say on the basis of those things.

2.  Yes, pastoring a church is hard work.  Coming up with a sermon each week is difficult.  So are writing a book and making a movie, but people still feel that they have a right to critique those things based on their preferences.  What makes sermons any different?

3.  I said positive things about that sermon on baptism.  I almost always say something positive about the sermons that I hear.  My goal is not to nitpick things to death—-it’s not even to offer constructive criticism.  Nor is my goal to stand up against heresy or false doctrine—-that is not a preoccupation of mine.  Rather, my goal is to interact intellectually with the sermons that I hear, for that is how I have found that I get something out of them, that I am edified by them.  Does it really compliment a sermon to listen to it, then not to think about it at all?  No!  I am showing respect to a sermon when I listen to it and think about it.

4.  Some Christians may say that I am thinking about sermons in the wrong manner.  I should think about the sermons by asking how they can critique my own life, rather than myself being the critic.  For one, I do not see sermons in such an authoritarian manner.  Second, in the course of thinking about sermons, my thought process does interact with the question of how I should live my life.

5.  The commenter’s suggestion that I focus my energy on building people up in the body of Christ did get to me, and not just because it made me think about his hypocrisy.  I should build people up in the body of Christ.  I try to do so when I am friendly to people at church, but it is something that I should continually try to do, especially as one who struggles with socializing.  I tend to distance myself a bit from the phony, plastic expressions of “encouragement” that I so often see in Christianity (or such is my impression), but that should only lead me to try to learn about what authentic encouragement is, and how I should practice it.

Anyway, I hope that makes sense.  People who hate me will probably interpret what I say in the worst possible light, and I really cannot help that.  I hope that more people, though, will have a better understanding of why I write posts about the sermons that I hear in churches.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Scripture Way of Salvation

Kenneth J. Collins.  The Scripture Way of Salvation: The Heart of John Wesley’s Theology.  Nashville: Abington Press, 1997.  See here to buy the book.

Kenneth J. Collins teaches Church History at Asbury Theological Seminary.  I found this book at the Goodwill for $2.99, and that was too good of a deal for me to pass up.  I can use all the scholarly books that I can get, especially when they come at an affordable price!

The book, as the title suggests, is about John Wesley’s view on salvation, and the book looks at Wesley’s sermons and letters.  John Wesley was an eighteenth century Christian who was involved in the founding of Methodism.  What I will do in this write-up is to summarize what I learned from the book about Wesley’s view on salvation, at least in terms of how Collins presents it.

Wesley had a strong view of original sin, the idea that the Fall of Adam and Eve led to human corruption, moral and spiritual.  Wesley (to my surprise) did not believe that humans inherited the guilt of Adam and Eve’s sin, for he maintained that Christ’s death cancelled that.  But Wesley did hold that humans inherited a moral corruption from that sin.  And yet, Wesley also thought that God’s prevenient grace kept humans from being as bad as they could be.  Humans could cooperate with that prevenient grace, or they could choose not to do so; in a sense, prevenient grace gives them the ability to choose.

For Wesley, even human beings who have not experienced justification—-who have not been saved—-should still repent of their sins and try to live a moral life.  That can serve as a prerequisite for salvation, even though those good works are not enough to earn God’s forgiveness.  Wesley considered this to be a servant relationship to God, one that served God out of fear.  Wesley pointed to Cornelius (Acts 10) as an example of this sort of relationship with God: Cornelius was devout and did good works, even before he believed in Jesus and was saved.  Wesley did not believe that people should rest on this kind of piety but should desire God’s special, saving, and transforming grace on their hearts, for only the justified would go to heaven; still, if they had not yet experienced that, Wesley encouraged them to keep on doing good, seeking and serving God.

Justification, for Wesley, was God’s forgiveness of past sins.  According to Collins, Wesley shied away from saying that justification was God clothing the sinful believer with Christ’s perfect righteousness, the sort of view that is often attributed to Calvin and Luther, for Wesley thought that such a position could lead to antinomianism: if believers are clothed with Christ’s perfect righteousness, after all, couldn’t they conclude that they do not need to be righteous themselves, through obedience to God’s commandments?  For Wesley, believers after their justification need continually to ask God for forgiveness of any sins that they commit, and they should take heed lest they lose their salvation; at the last judgment, they will be judged according to their works and what they did with the grace that God gave them.  Although such a position might make a number of believers afraid and meticulous about staying on the straight and narrow to keep God happy, Wesley actually thought that assurance is a characteristic of the justified.  Whereas those under a servant relationship with God serve God out of fear, the justified have the assurance that they are God’s children, for God assures their hearts that this is the case.

For Wesley, believers are (or should be) on a path to perfection.  Perfection does not mean never making mistakes, for Wesley acknowledges that people will always make mistakes, based on such factors as their limited knowledge.  But it means not sinning voluntarily.  Here, Wesley seems to me to be somewhat ambiguous, especially when he tries to define what exactly constitutes sinning voluntarily.  Although he maintains that saving grace transforms the dispositions, as well as holds that special grace entails freedom from such inward character flaws as envy, Wesley does appear to deny in one place that being angry yet not acting on that anger constitutes a voluntary sin.  Wesley believed that the path to perfection could be a process, but he also said that there are (or may be) times when God transforms a person instantaneously.  This can happen at any time after justification, and yet Wesley held that, for most believers, it happens right before their deaths, and this is because that is when they are especially conscious of their vulnerability, the limitations of this life, and their dependence on God.  For Wesley, even those at the height of spiritual maturity depend on Christ to be where they are; plus, even the spiritually mature can advance further in loving God and neighbor.

I was wondering in reading this book if Wesley was someone I would particularly like.  Whenever a Christian talks about how a transformed life is a sign of grace, and how love and less frequent sinning demonstrate that a person is truly saved, I want to ask that person: “Oh, so you think you’re perfect?”  Wesley sometimes seemed to believe that he had arrived at some measure of Christian maturity.  There were points in his life when he was much humbler, however.  When he read a book about the Christian life by one of his mentors, William Law, Wesley wondered if it was even possible for him to be half of a Christian!  While one may conclude from this that Law was somewhat legalistic, he actually  had some rather liberal ideas: Law denied, for example, that God had wrath, and Wesley disagreed with him on that.  (While Wesley denied that God was passionately angry, he still believed that God was angry in a just sense.)

I have my doubts that I would qualify as saved under Wesley’s soteriology.  Actually, Wesley had his doubts that many people he knew who were baptized were truly saved!  Still, I do allow some of Wesley’s insights to inform my own spirituality.  For example, I believe that, in some way, shape, or form, I should be guided by God’s law, and that salvation is not just about me being forgiven, but me being more like God in my character.

And, while I am on the topic of the image of God, I was interested to learn that, for Wesley, even animals are in God’s image, on some level, insofar as they have will and liberty; humans reflect God’s image more fully, Wesley held, but animals reflect it, too, in some way.

It was interesting for me to read this book after reading a book by atheist Victor Stenger.  Stenger’s book, of course, heightened my questioning of whether or not there is a God; Collins’ book, by contrast, made me wonder if there are Christians who have authentic experiences of God, whereas I do not.  Of course, Stenger argues that spiritual experiences have a natural explanation, that they are related to a part of the brain.  That could be.  Personally, I believe that there are people who are especially in touch with that, but I doubt that God condemns everyone who is not.  I believe that God honors when people realize their need for forgiveness, try to do better, and rely on God for that, even if they lack powerful spiritual experiences.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ramblings on Finding a Church, and the Authority of Scripture

I visited a United Methodist Church this morning.  I think that this will be the church that I will attend regularly.  I have been shopping for churches over the past three weeks, and there are enough churches within walking distance from me that I can probably shop some more, if I wanted to do so, maybe for another month or two.  But I want to establish my roots somewhere.  I want to know where I will be going each Sunday morning, as opposed to reinventing the wheel every week (i.e., figuring out where a church is and how to get there, going through the process of deciding if I want to keep going, etc.).

There were many things that I liked about the church that I attended this morning.  The pastor stands at the door and greets people at the end of the service.  The church was relatively small, yet active.  It was small enough that I could learn some of the people’s names, and they could learn mine.  But it is not a dying church, for a group of teenagers and young adults were confirmed this morning, so that should put to rest the whole evangelical myth that mainline Protestantism is dying off.  The church focused a lot on God’s love.  The worship style was contemporary.  On the one hand, I like traditional hymns because they have more theological meatiness for me to chew on (and blog about).  On the other hand, I find contemporary praise songs to be pretty and more conducive to my adoration of the Lord.  I do wish that more people this morning lifted up their hands while singing, but that’s probably something I’d find more in holy roller evangelical churches, and their dogmatism turns me off.  I may lift my hands in worship next week, and hope nobody says anything, or thinks that I’m showing off or trying to draw attention to myself.  There are just some praise songs that make me want to lift up my hands!

My favorite part of the service was when one of the teenagers listed the questions that he still had about God.  This communicated to me that it was all right, in this church, to commit to faith and to serving God, while still having doubts and questions.  His questions included whether every word of the Bible is true, the problem of evil and whether the free will defense actually solves it, and what God thinks about other religions.  I’d like to focus on what he said about the Bible.  He asked if he had to accept every word of the Bible, or if he could pick and choose, based on what he identified with.  He said that he tended to go with the latter because there are a lot of weird things in the Bible.  The congregation chuckled at that.

Earlier in the service, the pastor was talking about how she asked the teens to pick the Scriptures to be read that morning, and she wanted them to find something about God’s unconditional love, since that was the topic that they chose for the Sunday service.  They found Scriptures about God transforming people, but she asked them to find something about God loving people where they are, warts and all.  The Scriptures that they found were Isaiah 56, which is about the eunuchs being accepted by God, and the story in Acts about Phillip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch.  I was impressed that these teens knew the Bible well enough to be aware of those passages!

The authority of the Bible has been on my mind occasionally, as of late.  I have been reading Pseudo-Philo, which, as far as I know, no Christian considers to be inspired Scripture.  Yet, I have found it to be edifying.  This morning, I was thinking about its telling of the Jephthah story, and how Jephthah’s brothers are trying to convince Jephthah to forgive them for throwing him out due to their envy and to help deliver Israel from her oppressors.  Jephthah replies that it is difficult for him to forgive—-that he is not God, who can forgive so easily.  I thought about how I admired Jephthah’s honesty and humility in this case, and yet about how human frailty should not be totally appeased because it can lead to disaster (envy leading to rejection of others).  I also thought about the tension between God’s mercy and God’s justice in Pseudo-Philo.  Do I feel compelled to accept Pseudo-Philo as authoritative?  No.  I disagree with it, even as I try to learn from it.  But am I religiously edified and instructed by it?  Yes.

Anyway, I can probably write my way into a pit, and I do not want to do that right now.  I guess that, overall, I rest in God’s love for me, and, contrary to what some might think after reading my comments above, I do not have a religion in which I am the boss and I can just do what I want.  I believe that God wants me to love others, that there is a standard.  There is a sense in which people will follow the parts of the Bible that resonate with them—-that is unavoidable—-and yet I also think that people should somehow be challenged by Scripture to live better.

I’ll stop here.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

II Chronicles 33

II Chronicles 33 is about King Manasseh of Judah.  In both II Chronicles 33 and II Kings 21, Manasseh is considered to be an especially wicked king.  In II Chronicles 33, however, Manasseh repents after the Assyrians capture him and take him to Babylon.  Here are some items:

1.  More than one commentary that I read said that, according to Assyrian sources, Manasseh was a loyal and reliable vassal of Assyria.  Raymond Dillard, in the Word Biblical Commentary, identifies the Assyrian sources as ANET 291 and 292.  According to Assyrian sources, Manasseh helped out with the construction of the Assyrian city of Nineveh and was part of a military campaign against Egypt.

Why did the Assyrians capture Manasseh, if he was such a loyal vassal?  One proposal that Dillard mentions is that Manasseh may have joined Babylon in an unsuccessful attempt to rebel against the Assyrians.  That would explain why Manasseh was taken captive to Babylon rather than an Assyrian city, a detail of II Chronicles 33 that has puzzled more than one commentator.  (Some see that detail as a foreshadowing of the Jews’ exile in Babylon.)

I should also add that, according to the Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary, there is evidence that the Assyrians allowed kings who “repented” by submitting to them to return to their thrones.  For the Chronicler, the building projects that Manasseh undertook after resuming the throne were probably an indication of God’s blessing on him now that he had become righteous.  Dillard, however, mentions the view that the building projects under Manasseh were actually an attempt to strengthen the southern border of the Assyrian empire against Egypt.

2.  In the Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, conservative biblical scholar Gleason Archer addresses the question of how Manasseh’s repentance can be historical if II Kings does not mention it.  II Kings 23:26 actually says that, notwithstanding the righteous reforms of Manasseh’s grandson Josiah, God did not turn God’s wrath from Judah on account of the deeds of Manasseh, which provoked God to anger.  Does Manasseh sound forgiven there?  In II Kings, God stayed mad at Manasseh for a long time, even after Manasseh’s death.

According to Archer, II Kings is focusing on the effects of Manasseh’s wicked policies, whereas II Chronicles is looking at King Manasseh as an individual.  Even though Manasseh repented and tried to overturn his idolatrous policies, Archer contends, his wickedness still had an effect on the people.  More than one scholar has said that the Chronicler focuses on individual divine retribution: God punishes and rewards individual kings, usually immediately, which is different from punishing succeeding generations for the sins of their fathers.

I would say, though, that the Chronicler, too, has some notion of succeeding generations being punished for the sins of their forefathers, even if the Chronicler does stress divine reward and punishment of individuals in an immediate sense.  In II Kings 32:26, God delays God’s punishment of Judah and Jerusalem for the pride of Hezekiah after Hezekiah repents.  In II Chronicles 34:28, God promises righteous king Josiah that Josiah will not see the evil that God brings to Jerusalem, indicating that Josiah’s repentance postpones God’s punishment but does not eliminate it.

I would agree with Archer, however, that there was some failure in Manasseh’s repentance, that it was not entirely successful in rooting out corruption.  II Chronicles 33:22, after all, states that Manasseh’s wicked son, Amon, sacrificed to and served the carved images that Manasseh made.  Manasseh did not totally destroy the idols, so they were around for Amon to worship.  But Amon’s righteous successor Josiah would smash idols to dust (II Chronicles 34:1-7).

3.  According to II Kings 21:16, King Manasseh killed many innocents.  The commentator on Chronicles in the Jewish Study Bible observes that the Chronicler says nothing about this, focusing instead on Manasseh’s idolatry.  The commentator suggests that the Chronicler perhaps could not picture God forgiving the murder of innocents.  That is an interesting picture: God forgives sins against God, but is reluctant to forgive the murder of innocent human beings.  Of course, there are other biblical books that seem to have a different perspective: God forgives David for killing Uriah in order to take Bathsheba as a wife (II Samuel 11-12).  Of course, the Chronicler does not have that story about David, perhaps because he wants to depict David as, overall, a righteous king, the type who does not shed innocent blood (even though the Chronicler did have a slight problem with David’s wars; see I Chronicles 22:8; 28:3).

4.  According to II Chronicles 33:20, Manasseh was buried in his own house; it does not say that he was buried with other kings in their royal sepulchers.  I cannot make a blanket statement that all wicked kings get bad burials in Chronicles whereas all good kings get honorable burials, in royal sepulchers.  It does seem, though, that the Chronicler goes out of his way to note when wicked kings got bad burials (see here).  By contrast, II Chronicles 32:33 says that Hezekiah, a righteous king notwithstanding his flaws, was buried in the “chiefest of the sepulchres of the sons of David” (KJV).  Maybe Manasseh, despite his repentance, was given a sub-standard burial on account of the severity and effect of his wickedness, which his repentance could not totally undo.  Still, I would suggest that God in the eyes of the Chronicler still honored Manasseh’s repentance: Manasseh was restored to the throne, reigned longer than most kings of Judah, and undertook building projects.

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