Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Repentance, Forgiveness, and the State Clemency Board

I was flipping through channels last night before going to bed, and I came across some hearings that were being conducted by the state Board of Pardons and Clemency.  This channel is sort of like a local C-Span—-it probably is not affiliated with C-Span, but it is similar to C-Span, only it’s for state and local events.  It televised a Lincoln Dinner for my county’s Republican Party.  It shows city council meetings.  And, last night, it was showing some hearings conducted by the state’s Board of Pardons and Clemency.

I only watched one of the cases, for it was getting late, and I had to go to bed.  The case concerned a man who, over a decade ago, killed someone while being high on drugs.  A variety of people testified on this man’s behalf, asking for clemency.  One was a former state legislator and state Supreme Court justice, who represented the man pro-bono.  The man’s teacher from prison testified on the man’s behalf.  A prison supervisor testified on his behalf.  A pastor testified on his behalf.  Of course, the man’s mom testified and asked for clemency, while stressing that she and the others are asking for the man to be part of a conditional program as part of his release.  And the man by telephone testified and answered questions from the board.  These people who were testifying in favor of the man said that this man had changed, and some said that he had received Christ.  This man had become a mentor to people inside the prison and was eager to reach out to young people in his rough neighborhood so that they would not make the same mistakes that he did.

Then, the family of the victim testified.  One was the victim’s sister, and the other was his brother.  They were both emotionally distressed, yet coherent in their points.  The sister said that she was glad that the man who killed her brother had an opportunity to grow in prison, but that she hopes that he stays in prison.  She said that she could not sleep the night before, and that she did not care for how people were referring to the man’s crime as “the incident.”  She then shared what that incident was: the man shot her brother, then killed him while her brother was in pain.  The victim’s brother then shared how his brother was a good person—-one who helped people find a place to live when they were down on their luck, one who was well-liked by his fellow employees.  The brother shared how he and his family have continually blamed themselves, in some sense, for the victim’s death: if only he had had dinner with his brother on the night of the murder, as they planned, the brother would still be alive.

The board decided against recommending clemency, and each member had his or her own reason.  One man did not care for how the criminal, years before, had plea-bargained for a lesser sentence and the dismissal of some charges, only soon thereafter to challenge his attorney’s competence in order to be released from prison.  A lady on the board, a public defender, focused on the question of when exactly the criminal began to take responsibility for his actions, and she noted that he had asked for clemency before; she also noted that he had grown up in a loving home (yet the man’s defenders were telling her that he still lived in a rough neighborhood).  The next board member was noting all of the minor infractions (i.e, loitering, not showing up for a medical exam, horseplay) that the man committed in prison, as late as 2012.  This board member was wondering:  If this man cannot keep rules in a highly-regulated environment, will be keep them once he is released?  And the last board member said that he did not doubt the sincerity of the man’s conversion and attempts to change, but that he feared that clemency would send the wrong message to the very young people the man wanted to help: that one could kill a person, and be released from prison.

What especially intrigued me in watching all this were the ideas about repentance and forgiveness that were expressed.  The man said that he does not hope to be forgiven, but that he can still do good in the world.  He also said that he does not believe that any good that he might do would atone for his taking of somebody else’s life: he said that he was trying to be good because that was how he should have been all along.

Questions were in my mind about forgiveness.  A lot of times, evangelicals assume that a person has to be forgiven by God in order to have a relationship with God, as if God wants to see a clean record before God can give a person the time of day.  They can back up their case with Scripture, but I wonder if that is necessarily true.  Can a person be unforgiven and yet loved by God?  Even if a person is unforgiven, can he still try to do good and please God in the process, even if that good will never atone for the wrong that he did?  Should he ever assume that the wrong that he did is forgiven and forgotten, especially when it leaves a palpable effect?  And is God or Jesus wrong to command the family of the man’s victim to forgive the man?  The hurt is there.

I realize that I am looking at this as a detached observer.  The man, his family and friends, and the family and friends of his victims understandably have strong feelings about this case, and I hope that, were they to stumble upon my blog, they would not take offense at me reflecting on larger questions on the basis of their case.

On a related note, I would like to link on this post about forgiveness.  I do not want to get into a debate about forgiveness, but I did appreciate the post because it wrestled with what forgiveness is, and when it should be extended.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Write-Up: Maimonides, by Joel Kraemer

Joel L. Kraemer.  Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds.  Doubleday, 2008.  See here to buy the book.

Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides, was a twelfth century Jewish philosopher, leader, and physician.  I decided to read more about him after I recalled a conversation that I had with a student at Jewish Theological Seminary years ago.  The student, as I recall, was saying that Maimonides was against saying that God had attributes, for that undermined the notion that God was one and indivisible.  This intrigued me, and I figured that I should learn more about Maimonides.  As a result, I checked out this 600-plus page book from the library.

In reading this book, I did not learn about Maimonides’ stance on the divine attributes.  Actually, I am still not entirely clear about what exactly Maimonides thought about God.  On the one hand, Maimonides believed that God was unlike anyone or anything and could not be likened to anyone or anything, so we could legitimately say what God is not as opposed to what God is.  On the other hand, Maimonides also held that humans and God overlap in their use of reason, and that God, on some level, made himself known through his actions, particularly his creation of an orderly cosmos.

Other tensions in Maimonides’ thought would appear in this book: Did Maimonides agree with Aristotle that the cosmos was eternal, or did he regard it as created?  (One thinker, Averroes, tried to have it both ways, positing that God was eternally creating the cosmos!)  Maimonides opposed the use of music in worship, not just because the Temple was destroyed and he thought that Jews should be saddened by that (which was why many traditional Jews opposed it), but also because he considered music to be worldly; yet, Maimonides recommended that people listen to music if they were struggling with depression.  Maimonides believed that God commanded sacrifices as a concession—-because people were used to sacrifices; yet, Maimonides regarded sacrifices as something that would be reinstituted once the Temple was rebuilt.

The most interesting parts of this book, for me, were the insights that it provided me into Jewish thought and custom before and during the time of Maimonides.  Did medieval Jewish men practice polygamy?  In Islamic societies, they did, but not in Europe.  Did Jews still engage in levirate marriage, the biblical practice in which a man would marry his brother’s widowed wife to produce offspring for his deceased brother?  Sometimes, but there was a loophole by which a marriage could be annulled, freeing the widow and her brother-in-law from that obligation.  What were Jewish stances towards abortion and birth control?  Maimonides allowed women to use a birth control device because they were not the ones commanded to be fruitful and multiply in Genesis 1 (according to him).  Regarding abortion, it was discouraged within Judaism except in extreme cases, but, according to Kraemer, this was not because Judaism regarded the fetus as a human being.  (Yet Kraemer acknowledges the Jewish tradition that Genesis 9’s ban on murder prohibits the Gentiles from abortion.)  Did Jews believe that a man who emitted semen had to wash before praying or studying the Torah?  Different regions had different answers on this.

Another area of interest to me was eschatology.  Maimonides did not care for people coming forward and claiming to be the Messiah, and yet Maimonides appreciated that the Jewish people needed hope.  At the same time, Maimonides himself engaged in date-setting and thought that the Messiah would come soon.  Maimonides believed that he himself fulfilled a significant role for the last days: to prepare the people of Israel for the soon coming of the Messiah by helping them to keep the Torah.  Maimonides interpreted Islam and Christianity in light of the Book of Daniel—-Islam, for him, was the lawless one in Daniel, and Christians were the lawless ones of Daniel 11:14 who failed to establish Daniel’s vision, yet Maimonides said that the Christians ended up spreading their lawless undermining of the Torah; while these were negative views of Islam and Christianity on Maimonides’ part, however, Maimonides did believe that Islam and Christianity would sensitize people to monotheism and the biblical tradition and thus prepare them for the Messianic age.  There was also the question of what the Messianic age or the reward of the righteous would be like, and if there would be a resurrection.  A number of Muslims believed that the reward of the righteous had a physical dimension and would include sex, and they did not particularly care for the Jewish idea that the reward of the righteous would be basking in the glory of God’s presence.  Yet, Jews themselves had an idea that sex would be a part of the Messianic era, and Maimonides agreed with them on this, even though Maimonides also thought that the Messianic era would be followed by a disembodied existence in which the soul would engage in spiritual delights, free from physicality.  Maimonides tended to interpret the wolf peacefully dwelling with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6) metaphorically, but there were people who interpreted it literally: they said that animals would be at peace with each other because they would no longer need to compete for food, with all the abundance in the world.

I learned some about Maimonides’ view on divine providence in a class that I took about the Book of Job years ago.  I was happy that this book refreshed my memory on this, even though there are some areas in which I am unclear.  Aristotle did not believe that divine providence was focused on the individual, but rather on the whole.  Maimonides, however, believed that individuals, by connecting with God and God’s reason, could somehow avoid chance and be able to navigate themselves successfully through life.  Kraemer mentioned the analogy of animals’ instinct—-they can pick up when something bad is about to happen and prepare themselves accordingly.  That made me wonder if Maimonides had any room for God blessing people, or if, in his scenario, we were the ones blessing ourselves because we had the wisdom to navigate our way through life (perhaps with God’s help).  Maimonides also thought that even disaster in the cosmos was part of some wise order, even if we do not see how that is the case.  Maimonides himself was no stranger to suffering, for he lost a brother at sea, and that would disturb him for a very long time.  At the same time, Maimonides tried to be Stoic in terms of his emotions, avoiding anger and sorrow.  He believed that prophecy did not come to people who were overly sad, and he regarded Israel’s exile as an unproductive time (though many biblical scholars see it as very productive—-as the time when a lot of biblical literature was produced!).

Kraemer navigates his way through scholarly debates.  Some scholars believe that we do not know anything about Maimonides’ mother because she died in childbirth, but Kraemer disagrees, saying that we do not know anything about her because people did not write that much about women in that time.  Kraemer believes that, overall, Islam was not as tolerant in those days as some scholars may think.  He acknowledges that some branches of Islam were more tolerant of others—-the Fatimids, for example, believed that different religions had a common core—-and yet Kraemer says that Maimonides at one point may have faked conversion to Islam in order to get by.  Kraemer disputes the scholarly view that Maimonides allowed wife-beating; according to Kraemer, Maimonides supported civic corporal punishment of men and women, but that was different from spousal abuse.  Overall, Kraemer depicts Maimonides as one whose rulings elevated the status of women, even though Kraemer also points out examples that (in my mind) reflect Maimonides’ misogyny: Maimonides did not allow women to go to synagogues alone, for example, for he feared that they would be too much of a temptation for men.

I should also note that, according to Kraemer, Maimonides sometimes felt free to disregard the Torah or Jewish tradition in his rulings.  Maimonides rejected as superstitious, for example, the Talmud’s rule that women who lost two husbands were cursed.  In another case, Maimonides advised a man to free his slave and then marry her, even though that was legally forbidden within Judaism.  (According to Kraemer, Islam allowed men to have sexual relations with their slaves, while Jewish and Christian law forbade that, while also forbidding a man to marry one of his freed slaves.)  Maimonides’ reason was that, in his eyes, the man was at least taking a step in the right direction by marrying the woman.  Maimonides interpreted Psalm 119:126—-“It is a time to act for the Lord, for they have violated your teaching” (in whatever translation Kraemer is using)—-to mean that one could honor God sometimes by disregarding God’s law.

Maimonides’ views on socializing stood out to me, as one with Asperger’s.  Maimonides did not believe in frivolous small talk, but be believed that it should be a part of sexual relations: a man should try to woo his wife with banter, according to Maimonides.  Maimonides himself, according to Kraemer, preferred being alone so he could study, and yet he accepted that he had a social role to perform.  Maimonides regarded study and philosophy as ways to ameliorate depression, yet he also acknowledged, on some level, that fun should be a part of life.

There were things in this book that did not particularly interest me, though they may interest historians and others.  Yet, there was so much in this book that I found fascinating, even if my question about Maimonides’ views on the divine attributes was not addressed in my reading of this book.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Did the Three Stooges Write the Story of Jairus' Daughter?

At church this morning, someone from the congregation gave the sermon.  She was preaching about the story in Mark 9:22-43 about Jesus’ healing of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the issue of blood.

When Jesus arrives at Jairus’ home, there are people who are weeping for Jairus’ daughter.  Jesus tells them that she is not dead, but is asleep, and the weepers laugh him to scorn.  Jesus has them put out of the house, so that it is only Jesus, three of his disciples (Peter, James, and John), the girl’s parents, and the girl inside the room.  Jesus tells the girl to rise, and she rises.  Jesus charges them not to tell anyone about this, and he commands that the girl be given some food.

This passage has been on my mind since I read atheist biblical scholar Robert Price’s The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man.  Price did not deem this passage to be historically plausible, and one reason was that he believed that the story had a bit of an incongruity.  Jesus charges the parents not to tell anyone about his healing of the girl, but Price wonders how exactly they could keep that a secret.  After all, a bunch of people were just in the house, weeping over the little girl because they thought she was dead.  Certainly they would think something strange was going on when they later see her alive, after she had been with Jesus.

The lady preaching this morning addressed these features of the story.  She wasn’t responding to Price’s argument, but she was offering an explanation for these details, perhaps because they puzzled her, too.  She said that perhaps the people, after seeing that the girl was alive, simply concluded that Jesus had been right: that the girl was not dead but really had been asleep.  She also provided a reason that Jesus charged the parents to keep the healing a secret: because Jesus realized that people were not ready to hear that he could raise the dead back to life.

Do I think that these explanations are plausible?  On the first one—-that the people after the girl rose concluded that she must have been asleep, not dead—-that depends.  How did people back then determine that people were dead?  Would the weepers have known for sure that the girl was dead, and thus they would have concluded that Jesus must have raised her when they later saw her alive?  Or would they have found room to doubt their original diagnosis?

On the second point—-that Jesus realized people were not ready to hear that he was raising the dead and thus decided to keep it a secret—-she may have a point.  On the one hand, in John 11-12, people in the religious establishment want to put Jesus to death after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and gains a larger following as a result.  Maybe Jesus in Mark 9 didn’t want something like that to happen before the right time.  On the other hand, Jesus in Luke 7:12-16 raises a widow woman’s son from the dead, leading observers to marvel that a great prophet was among them and that God had visited his people.  In Matthew 11:5-6, the disciples of John the Baptist are aware that Jesus has raised the dead.  Trying to explain the Messianic Secret—-Jesus’ practice in the synoptic Gospels of wanting to keep his Messianic identity a secret—-is difficult because there appear to be tensions within the text: Jesus wants to keep who he is a secret, yet he is performing miracles in public and proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God.  The lady who preached to us this morning acknowledged that there were times when Jesus performed miracles in public, and times when he wanted to keep his miracles a secret.

Overall, I liked the lady’s explanations because they were pretty common-sense.  A lot of times, I read liberal biblical scholars’ treatment of the biblical text, and it’s almost like they think that the Three Stooges wrote the Bible—-that the biblical authors were bumbling the story they were trying to tell and were looking foolish in the process.  I do not go to the opposite extreme and assume that the Bible is pristine perfect and has no incongruities at all, but I sometimes wonder when I read liberal scholars: Even if I were merely to see the Bible as a human document, shouldn’t I assume that the human authors at least would be reasonable, that they would have some common sense?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Theory of Everything: God in Mystery

I watched the 2014 movie, The Theory of Everything, last night.  The movie is about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his relationship with his wife (later ex-wife, but still friend), Jane.  It starts from the time when he was a college student and met Jane at a party.

A subject that recurs in the film is religion.  Stephen Hawking was an atheist, whereas Jane was a believer in God who attended the Church of England.  The film goes into the intersections between Hawking’s theories (if I am using that term correctly, for I am not a scientist) and the question of whether God exists.

According to the movie, Hawking was seeking an equation that would explain everything, thereby supplanting the role that God fills in many people’s minds.  At first, Hawking proposed that the universe had a beginning and came out of a black hole.  Some believed that this was consistent with theism (a belief in God), for many theists posit that the universe had a beginning and thus needed a creator.  Later, Hawking would shift to saying that the universe had no boundaries and no beginning.  In an interesting scene, Hawking and Jane are explaining Hawking’s work to their theistic friend Jonathan (whom Jane would later marry).  Jane is using a vegetable analogy and is saying that, if everything is carrots, then one can logically conclude that the universe had a beginning, but, when you incorporate peas into the equation, that bet is off!  Hawking says that God throws dice and does not let us know where the dice are!  Later in the movie, Hawking writes about knowing the mind of God, and Jane then has some hope that Hawking has become open to theism.

At the end of the movie, Hawking is asked before an auditorium if there is a philosophy of life that helps him, considering that he is an atheist.  Hawking replies that, whatever our limitations, we can still find something to succeed at, and that, when there is life, there is hope.

I suppose that, as a theist (albeit not the most philosophically sophisticated theist), I could say that I believe in God, regardless of what Stephen Hawking has said.  After all, there are plenty of intelligent scientists and philosophers who believe in God, plus Hawking’s own scenarios have changed over time, it appears to me.  The Hawking character in the movie last night was saying that the universe had a beginning, but remember that quote of Hawking in the God’s Not Dead movie in which Hawking said that the universe created itself?  I could ask why anything Hawking says should challenge my faith, when he appears to change his mind.  I could ask that, and yet I should do so with humility.  Hawking is talking about concepts that are way over my head, and that I only can understand on an elementary level, if even that!  Plus, even when Hawking was wrong, he still had justifications for his positions.  In the movie, Hawking tells Jonathan that physics is not about “belief.”  That does not imply infallibility, but it does imply having justifications for his position.  Even if Hawking was wrong, he was a lot better in his wrong stance than many of us are when we are right.

I was thinking of the question of why I am a theist.  I thought of a passage that was in Ahiqar, which may date to the seventh-sixth centuries B.C.E.  Ahiqar 160/69 states (in J.M. Lindenberger’s translation): “[If] a man is [not] under the care of the gods, then how can he guard himself against his inner wickedness?”  Personally-speaking, I depend on God to keep my inner wickedness in check.  Now, being a theist does not mean that one will be perfect.  In the movie, Jane was a theist, yet she was attracted to Jonathan, while she was married to Stephen; that is understandable and human.  And, conversely, a person can be moral without believing in God.  For me, though, I like the idea of having a God to turn to for love and support when I am struggling against my own wickedness, and I find that placing myself within a cosmic context of God’s love for me and God’s plan to redeem me and the world can give me the strength to have appropriate or healthy attitudes.  Having some philosophy to help one through life can be helpful: even Hawking in the movie had one.

While I was watching the movie, I was reading Joel Kraemer’s biography of the twelfth century Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides.  Maimonides was asking how we can arrive at the point where we love God.  Different people would give different answers to this: an evangelical Christian, for example, might say that we love God when we realize that God loved us, enough to send his Son to die for us.  Maimonides, however, said that we come to love God as we contemplate creation, and see God’s wisdom therein.

I am not a science person.  I remember an atheist-turned-Christian who was criticizing an atheist article that I posted, an article that said that string theory shows that we do not need God to explain how the universe came to be.  This commenter was questioning that idea, based on what we know and do not know about string theory, but he also said that he wishes that atheists and Christians would step back and appreciate the universe, rather than fighting about it and using it to buttress their agendas.  Part of me identified with what he was saying, but part of me did not.  Why should I care about what the universe is like, I wondered, if it is not part of a story about God’s love and how I can arrive at a state of spiritual health and fulfillment?  There are black holes out there in the universe—-so what?  That probably sounds a bit narcissistic on my part, and maybe it is.

As I think some more, I wonder if learning about the universe can somehow enhance my wonder and appreciation of the universe, and even God.  I am not talking about looking to the universe for proof or evidence that God exists—-resting my faith on the universe having a beginning, or being fine-tuned for life on earth.  I am talking more about appreciating the universe for what it is, and allowing that enhance my sense of wonder, and maybe even teach me about God.  There are a lot of mysterious things out there in the universe, and scientists are continually adjusting things that they think they know as they learn that there is more to the story.  Hawking in the movie said that God throws dice, and we do not know where the dice are.  A number of theists may think that theistic belief is buttressed more by a Newtonian model—-one in which the universe is fairly orderly and predictable.  “Where does that order come from?  It must come from God,” they say, and they believe that the order of the universe attests to the orderly wisdom that God has.  They may have a point, and yet could not the unpredictability and disorder in the universe teach us something about God?  Those things could teach us about God’s mystery, God’s depth, and the importance of humility.

I recently watched a speech by Rob Bell, a pastor.  It was part of his “Everything Is Spiritual” Tour.  Bell was talking about science.  He referred to quarks disappearing and reappearing unpredictably and without any explanation, and how there are scientists who say that the universe has eleven dimensions.  I thought that Bell was jumping to conclusions, in important areas.  He was trying to argue that the quarks’ disappearance and reappearance show that there is a personality behind the universe, and, while I am intrigued by his claim that there are scientists who believe that the universe has a personality, I do not think that is a necessary conclusion.  I was especially turned off when, near the end of the message, Bell was saying that atheists do not disbelieve in God for intellectual reasons, but for spiritual reasons: that they are rejecting God, when God’s existence should be obvious to them.  I hate hearing this from conservative pastors, and I hate hearing it from Rob Bell.  (And, yes, Paul’s statement to that effect in Romans 1 turns me off, too.)  Such an approach does not seek to understand where atheists come from or acknowledge that they may have valid reasons for their conclusions, but it puts them down and judges them.  Still, I did appreciate a number of things that Rob Bell was saying: the universe is more mysterious and larger than many of us might assume, and that insight perhaps can influence how we approach God, or Christianity.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Affordable Care Act: Did the Author Goof?

I was thinking about the recent King v. Burwell U.S. Supreme Court case yesterday.  Right before I went to bed, I was listening to some of the oral arguments and the questioning by Supreme Court justices on C-Span.

King v. Burwell is about the Affordable Care Act.  Under the Affordable Care Act, states are supposed to set up their own health insurance exchanges.  If they do not do so, then the federal government comes in and establishes a health insurance exchange for them.  The question that was before the court was this: Can people in states that have the federally-established exchanges legally receive government subsidies/tax credits to purchase health insurance off the exchange?  The reason that this was an issue was that the Affordable Care Act says that people can receive subsidies to buy insurance from the exchanges established by the state: it does not explicitly say anything about the federally-established exchanges there.

Let me say at the outset that, practically-speaking, I am happy that the Supreme Court decided as it did.  In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people in states that have the federally-established exchanges can still receive subsidies to pay for health insurance.  That means that a lot of people can keep their health insurance and be able to pay for it.

But, to be honest, there was a part of me that could sympathize with Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent.  The law says exchanges established by the states.  Now, do I believe that those who voted for the law expected for those with the federally-established exchanges to receive subsidies, too.  I do agree with Justice John Roberts’ statement that the purpose of the Affordable Care Act was to expand access to health insurance, and so allowing those with the federally-established exchanges to receive subsidies accords with the spirit and goal of the law.  I could find myself nodding my head in agreement with some of what the U.S. Solicitor General, Donald Verrilli, said in his oral arguments, which I was listening to last night: parts of the Affordable Care Act would not make sense if subsidies could not go to people who live in states that have the federally-established exchanges.  Still, the law referred to exchanges established by the states.

Personally, I think that whoever wrote the Affordable Care Act goofed.  The author made a careless oversight.  The author should have referred to exchanges established by the states or the federal government, but the author did not do so.  The author probably meant that, but that is not what the author put into the law.  The question then becomes: Should we go with the intent of the law, or with the text of the law?  That is probably a complex legal question, in a number of cases.  The intent behind the law certainly enters legal discussions.  Yet, so do the technicalities of the text itself, which is why lawyers are able to find loopholes.  

What somewhat intrigued me last night was that the lawyer who was arguing that the subsidies only applied to the state exchanges seemed to be saying that his view actually accorded with the intent of the Affordable Care Act: that whoever wrote the Affordable Care Act actually intended for people with the state exchanges to receive subsidies, while those with the federal exchanges do not.  At least that was my impression of what he was saying, and I have to admit that he was harder for me to follow than the U.S. Solicitor General was.  This lawyer did not seem to me to be saying that the author of the Affordable Care Act goofed, but rather than the author wrote that part about the state exchanges by design.  Justice Scalia, as far as I could tell, was the only one who was saying that the Affordable Care Act is not exactly an elegantly-written law: Scalia could have been leaning in the direction of saying that its author goofed.

I’ll leave the comments on.  Feel free to share your opinion.  Please do so tactfully, and remember that I am not a lawyer!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ramblings on the Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit in Luke 12

I recently read Gerald Borchert’s Jesus of Nazareth: Background, Witnesses, and Significance, and I said in my post here that the book led me to take a second look at the concept of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in Luke 12.

A lot of times, Christians try to explain the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in light of its context in Matthew 12:22-32.  There, Jesus casts a demon out of a man, and the Pharisees attribute Jesus’ successful exorcism to Beelzebub.  Jesus warns that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.  Many Christians say that the Pharisees were close to doing that when they were attributing what was obviously the power of God to the devil.

But the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit occurs in a different context in Luke 12.  Or at least that seems to me to be the case.  In Luke 12:8-12, we read (in the KJV):

8 Also I say unto you, Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God:
9 But he that denieth me before men shall be denied before the angels of God.
10 And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven.
11 And when they bring you unto the synagogues, and unto magistrates, and powers, take ye no thought how or what thing ye shall answer, or what ye shall say:
12 For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say.

In Luke 12, the concept of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit occurs within the context of a discussion about Christians appearing before authorities.  They are to affirm Jesus before these authorities, not deny him.  In preceding verses, Jesus seeks to reassure the disciples that God cares about them, and he warns them to fear the one who can destroy body and soul in hell, not those who can kill them here on earth.

I am reluctant to say that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with the Pharisees in Luke 12.  Jesus in Luke 12:1-3 warns his disciples to beware of the hypocritical leaven of the Pharisees.  And, in the chapter right before, in Luke 11:14-26, we read the story of the Pharisees accusing Jesus of casting out devils through the power of Beelzebub, the chief of the devils.  Unlike Matthew 12:22-32, Luke 11 does not end that story with Jesus commenting on the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  But could that story in Luke 11:14-26 still be relevant to the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in Luke 12?  Could blasphemy of the Holy Spirit be part of the hypocritical leaven of the Pharisees against which Jesus warns his disciples in Luke 12?

I can envision the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit functioning in one of two ways in Luke 12.  One possibility is that Jesus is warning his disciples not to commit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  Yes, they will be put in situations in which they will be on trial for their faith, and they will feel pressured to deny Jesus in public.  God can forgive them for denying Jesus in public, but God will not forgive them if they blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.  They should take heed, amidst the pressure, not to turn away from God completely, not to deny or walk away from what they know to be true.

Another possibility is that the blasphemers against the Holy Spirit are the people persecuting the disciples.  In this scenario, Jesus’ warning about the hypocritical leaven of the Pharisees in Luke 12:1-3 could be telling the disciples that hypocrites will be out to persecute them, and reassuring them that, even if the hypocrites put on a pretense of godliness, there will come a time when the hypocrites will be exposed for who they really are.  When Jesus in Luke 12:10 says that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, he could be saying that the persecutors of the Christians, who deny what is obviously a work of God, will not receive forgiveness.  Matthew Henry appears to go this route.

This would probably be a good place to end the post, but I want to ramble a little more.  I was watching an excellent sermon yesterday by Rob Bell on the Book of Revelation, and Bell was talking about the brutality of Emperor Domitian of Rome, who supposedly demanded worship, but whom the Christians refused to worship.  According to Bell, Christians took this stance at great cost to themselves, since they could not engage in commerce without worshiping Domitian.  Bell was saying that John was encouraging these Christians that God was on the throne in heaven.  Bell also said that John was speaking against the view some Christians held that one could go through the motions of emperor worship to get along and go along and that God would not care, for God looked at the heart, anyway.

I was also reading Joel Kraemer’s biography of Maimonides, the renowned twelfth century Jewish thinker.  During the time of Maimonides, people were pressured to convert, sometimes with the threat of execution.  Muslims and Jews were pressured to convert to Christianity in Christian countries.  Jews were pressured to convert to Islam in certain Islamic areas.  Muslims and Jews (in the latter case, at least Maimonides), according to Kraemer, often permitted their adherents to convert to other religions if they were threatened with death, or at least to pretend that they were converting to the other religions.  But these Muslims and Jews still encouraged their adherents to continue their own piety in private, and even to leave the area so that they could practice their own religion.  That reminds me of that first possible interpretation I mentioned of Luke 12:8-12: you can be forgiven for denying Jesus, but make sure you don’t leave Christ behind completely.

I can understand both approaches.  On the one hand, many of us go along and get along with less than perfect systems because we feel that we have to do so in order to survive.  On the other hand, I can sympathize with how Rob Bell was characterizing John the Revelator’s approach: Domitian does not deserve the worship that God alone deserves.  Domitian is a thug, whereas God is a beneficent, loving being who is worthy of worship.  Therefore, we will not worship Domitian, and we are willing to die for this stance.

I’ll leave the comments open, but please comment only to explain the significance of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in Luke 12.  Don’t ask me if you’ve committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, or regurgitate the usual Christian spiel of looking at Matthew 12:22-32.  Focus on Luke 12, please.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Write-Up: Exploring Christian Theology, Volume Two

Nathan D. Holsteen and Michael J. Svigel, ed.  Exploring Christian Theology, Volume Two: Creation, Fall, and Salvation.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

In this second volume of Exploring Christian Theology, Nathan Holsteen, Michael Svigel, Glenn R. Kreider, and others explore the topics of creation, the Fall, and salvation in Christian theology.  They provide an exposition of the doctrines, chronicle views on the topics throughout church history, list different perspectives on the topics, and provide practical guidance on how Christians should interact with the topics.  The book also has a list of recommended books for those who wanted to go deeper, as well as a helpful glossary in the back.

The book interacts with certain questions.  What does it mean for humanity to be created in God’s image?  How do human beings receive their soul—-do they inherit it from their parents, does God create it for them at birth, or did it pre-exist their human existence?  Did the Fall only weaken the human capacity to choose good, or did it obliterate it?  This volume explores these questions, and more.

The greatest asset to this volume is that it surveys different Christian views on these topics, past and present.  It does not assume that Christians throughout history have had the exact same views on these topics, but rather it acknowledges development and diversity.  The lists of recommended books are also good because they include books that have different perspectives.  You will find atheist Richard Dawkins in one of the lists, and Calvinists and Arminians, inclusivists and exclusivists, in another.  To be honest, I was bored with the parts of the book that explained the doctrines, but the parts about the interaction with the topics throughout church history made the book well worth the read, and those who teach such material may find those parts helpful.

In terms of the book’s weaknesses, I did not always care for the book’s organization.  I realize and respect that these topics intersect with each other.  The view that God created each person’s soul, for example, intersects with the question of whether humans are inherently good or bad, and beliefs about the extent of human corruption affect how Christian theologians conceptualize God’s role in salvation.  Still, I do think that the editors should have worked a little harder at separating these topics into chapters.  The first part of the book was looking at so much—-the image of God, the soul, and original sin.  When I was reading a part of the book that quoted Christian thinkers throughout history and was hoping to see clearly the various views on human sinfulness, I was encountering views about what the image of God was.  The second part of the book, which was about salvation, was repeating things about human sinfulness from the first half.  The editors may have thought that this was the best way to organize the book, after considering various options.  It was a bit distracting, though, for me as a reader.  They should have had a part of the book about creation, a part about the Fall, and a part about salvation—-three parts of the book, rather than two.

Also, there were a few cases in which the book had charts about various Christian beliefs on certain topics (i.e., the nature of the atonement, and the spectrum from exclusivism to pluralism), but (as far as I could see or recall) it did not talk about these topics in the text itself.  I think that charts should serve as a visual aid for things discussed in the text, not a substitute for them.

Overall, however, I did like this book and found it to be informative.

Bethany House Publishers sent me a complimentary review copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Did Moses Goof Early On?

Derek Leman is a Messianic Jewish rabbi, and I subscribe to his free Daily D’Var, in which he comments on passages in the Torah and the Gospels from a religious and a scholarly perspective.  I would like to share here his comments today on Numbers 20:7-13, in which Moses gets in trouble with God after striking a rock.

Numbers 20:7-13 (KJV):

7 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
8 Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink.
9 And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him.
10 And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?
11 And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also.
12 And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.
13 This is the water of Meribah; because the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and he was sanctified in them.

Derek Leman’s Comments:  In a lengthy exploration, Milgrom considers eleven theories about the sin of Moses and Aaron, bringing to bear ancient issues in magic and polytheism as well as rabbinic theories. In the end, he concludes that the sin of Moses was in saying “shall we bring forth water?” instead of “shall he?” That is, Moses included himself and Aaron with God among those who would bring forth the water miraculously. This theory is also that of the medieval commentator, the Bekhor Shor. The Torah’s aim to overthrow pagan magical thinking has colored all miracles in Torah. They have all been performed in ways designed to show they were clearly divine and the human actors merely vessels. Milgrom also discusses the theory of Bekhor Shor that three stories in Numbers are repeats of stories already told in Exodus (water from the rock, the manna complaint, and the quail complaint) and not new incidents. If this water-from-the-rock incident is the same as that in Exodus 17, we are seeing new details about what has already been reported. This would mean Moses from very early on knew he would not enter the land. It might also explain why Moses would do something immature, believing that he is more than just a vessel. He seems to assume he is the necessary vessel, as if God’s work can only come through him. If so, he learns better and comes to understand God’s power more deeply. Even matters of divine salvation can cause quarreling and our human urges for recognition and self-importance get in the way of something far more beautiful found only in the pure goodness that is God’s alone.

Book Write-Up: Jesus of Nazareth, by Gerald L. Borchert

Gerald L. Borchert.  Jesus of Nazareth: Background, Witnesses, and Significance.  Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2011.  See here to buy the book.

Gerald L. Borchert has a Ph.D. in New Testament from Princeton and was a lawyer in Canada.  The back cover of the book says that “Jesus of Nazareth is a comprehensive introduction to Jesus and the gospels for college and seminary students.” Borchert provides historical and geographical background on the time of Jesus, then he goes through each Gospel, telling us what is in them.  After that, he goes through some of the non-canonical Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Gospels.  Then, he discusses scholarly methods of criticism for the New Testament, such as text criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism.  He then discusses a variety of issues: the virgin birth, the question of whether Jesus was able to sin, etc.  Overall, I would say that Borchert is rather conservative.  He is a believer in the virgin birth and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  He is not a rigid fundamentalist, however, for he is against artificially harmonizing the Gospels and believes in letting each Gospel speak with its own voice.

Here are my thoughts about the book:

1.  The part about the historical background was strong.  One can probably read such information in Josephus, but Borchert presents it in a lucid manner.  I was hoping, though, that he would talk more about what client states were like.  Some have argued that the census in Luke 2 was historically inaccurate because the Romans would not impose a census on client states, but rather on states over which they had direct control.  I wish that Borchert had addressed that issue.  Still, his section about the historical events surrounding the New Testament was my favorite part of the book.

Overall, his tour through each of the Gospels was not particularly earthshaking to me, since he was often repeating what was going on in each Gospel.  But there were occasions when he did say something that I found to be interesting.  He addresses why the story of Jairus in Mark 5 is interrupted by the story of the woman who is healed by touching Jesus’ garment: faith is being contrasted with lack of faith.  Whereas a number of Christians say that God the Father abandoned Jesus on the cross as part of the penalty that Jesus bore for our sins, and that the ripping of the temple veil concerned the new access that people have to God as a result of Jesus’ death, Borchert backs away from these views, saying that the rending of the temple veil in Mark’s Gospel indicated God’s displeasure at what was going on.  Borchert has a compelling paragraph about the Gospel of John’s unique depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion: Borchert says that there is no temple veil ripping in the Gospel of John, for Jesus, as the temple, is the veil ripping.  Borchert also has a compelling paragraph about the struggles that many people faced in the time of Jesus.

Borchert’s summary of the Gospels often focused on Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees and his moral teachings.  Whereas the intro to New Testament class that I took years ago said that the four Gospels have different Christologies, with Mark having a low Christology, and the Gospel of John having a high Christology of depicting Jesus as God, Borchert did not seem to that route: he believes that some of the synoptics depict Jesus as God.  Something that disappointed me, somewhat, was that there was not a lot of discussion about the significance of apocalypticism in Jesus’ ministry and the Gospels.  Borchert should have engaged the scholarly view that Jesus expected for the end to come soon, as well as sought to define what the Kingdom of God meant for Jesus.

The part about the various methods of criticism was all right.  They were clear, at least.  Borchert shared how he as a believer has interacted with critical scholarship, and that was interesting.  I did enjoy the personal dimension to the book (e.g., Borchert’s story about how he was in an isolation hospital as a child, and he spent that time memorizing the Gospel of John; Borchert’s reference to his brother’s scholarship).

2.  I was unclear about Borchert’s stance on oral tradition.  Usually, he seems to believe that the witnesses to Jesus were the ones who carried around that oral tradition.  A few times, however, Borchert may have been suggesting that others told stories about Jesus, too.

3.  Borchert portrayed the Pharisees as a minority of religious elitists, who looked down on the common people.  Borchert may be correct that most people in first century Palestine did not have time to study the Torah, and that the Pharisees did have a luxury that few people had.  Still, the Pharisees were not entirely divorced from the common people, for some of them had other jobs, such as tentmaking and masons (see here).

4.  There was more than one occasion when Borchert would mention an idea or an observation that appeared interesting, but he would not develop it and it fell flat.  For example, Borchert mentions the debate between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the first century B.C.E. about the water ceremony during the Feast of Tabernacles.  The Pharisees supported it, the Sadducees opposed it, and lives were lost on account of this controversy.  Borchert notes that, in John 7:37-38, Jesus on the last day of the Feast exhorts people to come to him to drink.  I was hoping that Borchert would elaborate on whether Jesus was commenting somehow on the controversy between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  While Borchert said that he asks his students to consider if Jesus “knew how to preach relevantly to the Jewish people” (page 21), he does not show there how Jesus was speaking relevantly to them, as far as I could see.

5.  Would this book make a good introduction to Jesus and the New Testament for college and seminary students?  It has its assets.  I am glad, though, that the Introduction to New Testament class that I took over a decade ago used David Barr’s New Testament Story.  We read the New Testament itself, but Barr’s book provided us information about what many New Testament scholars were saying.  Bart Ehrman’s textbook may be good, too.

6.  Borchert’s book did lead me to take a second look at a biblical passage: the significance of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in Luke 12.  I may write about that later this week.

The book is all right.  I have a hard time pinpointing why exactly I am less than satisfied with it.  Perhaps it has to do with its organization—-a lot of times, his discussion of scholarly debates appeared to be asides.  I am not being entirely fair there, though, because he did have sections about things (i.e., the criticisms).

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Ripple Effects

At the United Methodist church that I attended this morning, the pastor preached about faith, in light of the recent Charleston tragedy.  Our Scripture text was Mark 4:35-41, in which the disciples are fretting and panicking on a boat on account of a storm, and they wake Jesus up because they want him to care.  Jesus then rebukes the storm, and it goes away.  Jesus asks his disciples why they were afraid—-do they still have no faith?

The pastor was talking about how things were miserable for a lot of people in those days, and many resigned themselves to that misery.  Jesus, however, was proclaiming a different reality, the Kingdom of God, as he was healing people and helping the poor.  The disciples should have been recognizing that God was at work all around them, but they had a hard time letting go of their resignation to misery.  Faith, according to the pastor, entailed recognizing God’s work, but also realizing that God has empowered them to change the world.  The pastor said that our little interactions can have ripple effects that can change the world.  Regarding the recent Charleston tragedy, the pastor said that many people have come to the point where they just accept that this world is a violent place, and that shootings will occur, but she was challenging that resignation.  She also said that faith entails accepting some loss of freedom for the sake of the public safety, and she was probably referring to gun control there.

I can probably comment on this sermon, as I do with sermons that I hear.  But I will just let my summary of her sermon stand.  As I write this, I am watching ABC This Week, which I taped while I was away at church.  Even pundits and newscasters who would probably be stereotyped as secular people are amazed and moved by the display of faith, forgiveness, and yet honesty on the part of the church in Charleston that was victimized last week.  Is that an example of what my pastor talked about this morning: People living their faith with the power of God, and that sending ripple effects throughout the world?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Hell in Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles

I finished Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles last night.  According to John Collins, who translated and commented on the Sibylline Oracles in the Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha, Book 2 probably dates to the second or the third century C.E.  The Sibyls were female prophets who predicted the future, and Jews released editions of their prophecies that were consistent with Judaism.  At some points, Christians edited the works.

In this post, I will talk about the topic of hell as it appears in Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles.

1.  Within Christianity today, there are different views about hell.  There is the view that the wicked will be consciously tormented in hell forever and ever.  Then there is annihilationism, the view that I was taught growing up, and it states that the wicked will be destroyed in the Lake of Fire. I remember annihilationism being a rather marginal view within Christianity when I was growing up.  Nowadays, however, there are prominent evangelicals who embrace it.

Believers in Conscious Eternal Torment refer to biblical passages about eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46) and the devil, the Beast, and the false prophet being tormented day and night forever and ever (Revelation 20:10).  Annihilationists refer to Jesus’ statement that people should fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28), the reference in I Thessalonians 1:9 to everlasting destruction of the wicked, and Isaiah 66:24’s reference to carcasses of sinners, as the passage uses language that Jesus in Mark 9 would later use for Gehenna (Mark 9:44, 46, 48).  Believers in Conscious Eternal Torment will then come back and question whether destruction in the New Testament necessarily means ceasing to exist.  Ephesians 2:1 says that the Gentiles prior to becoming Christians were dead in trespasses or sins, after all, but they were physically alive.  Maybe the people in hell are spiritually dead, even if they are conscious, I have heard believers in Conscious Eternal Torment argue.  John Ankerberg suggested, drawing on a Greek reference work, that the Greek word translated as “destroy” in Matthew 10:28 could mean a loss of well-being, not necessarily a loss of being (see my post here).

The concept of Conscious Eternal Torment disturbs me, horrifies me, and even disgusts me.  But, as I have read my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha, the thought has occurred to me that believers in Conscious Eternal Torment may have a point in their argument that destruction in the Bible (or I would extend that to the ancient world) is not necessarily inconsistent with Conscious Eternal Torment.  When I was reading I Enoch, it seemed to me that the punishment of the wicked was described in a variety of ways: as destruction, as conscious torment, etc.  (I would have to reread I Enoch to provide specifics.)  And I saw this as I was going through Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles last night.  In vv 252-255, we read that everyone will pass through the unquenchable flame, and “the impious will then be destroyed for all ages” (Collins’ translation).  In vv 307-308, however, we see the wicked longing for death so that they can rest from their torment, but “No longer will death or night give them rest” (Collins).

Maybe Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles did not see any contradiction between destruction of the wicked and their conscious eternal torment.  One can ask about sources: Could vv 252-255 and vv 307-308 be from different sources, with different views on hell?  Reading Collins’ introduction, it is difficult for me to tell.  Collins states that it is not always easy to determine what in Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles is from the Jewish edition, and what is from the Christian edition, particularly on the issue of eschatological rewards and punishments.  Sometimes, the distinction is pretty obvious: when the passage refers to Christ or exalts virginity or the virgin, then it is Christian; when the passage mentions the supremacy of the conquering Hebrews in the eschaton, it is probably Jewish.  But the distinction is not always that obvious, for both Jews and Christians believed that the wicked would be punished in the afterlife.

Collins appears to vacillate between attributing vv 285-310 to the Jewish edition and the Christian edition, but he seems to settle on saying that the concept of hell as “an eternal place of punishment” is “a Jewish development,” and Collins refers to I Enoch 9:23f.  According to Collins, “Eternal fiery punishment of the wicked is a standard feature of the end-time of intertestamental Judaism” (page 334 of volume 1 of the Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha).  That would be worth looking into, for it could shed light on how Jesus saw hell, or Gehenna.  Granted, Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles came after the historical time of Jesus, but intertestamental Judaism came before that time.  I wonder how exactly intertestamental Judaism depicted the eternal fiery punishment of the wicked.

Annihilationists and universalists can say that the Greek term translated as “eternal” does not necessarily mean forever and ever, but could refer to a very long time that eventually comes to an end.  They may have a point (see here), but the statement in Sibylline Oracles 2.307-308 that the wicked will not see death in the underworld does seem to me to imply Conscious Eternal Torment.  Do we see statements like that in intertestamental Jewish literature?  And, going back to my original question, does intertestamental Jewish literature ever, in the same work, refer to the post-mortem punishment of the wicked both as destruction and as eternal torment?  Maybe I should read I Enoch again, along with other sources.

2.  There are parts of Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles that appear to be open to the possibility that the wicked after their physical death can still be saved.  In vv 311-312, we read that “he gave seven days of ages to erring men for repentance through the intercession of the holy virgin” (Collins).  The note at the bottom of the page states:

“In 4Ezra 7:101 the souls of the dead have seven days of freedom after they separate from their bodies to see the eschatological secrets.  Then they shall go to their destined abodes.  4Ezra goes on to say that there will be no intercession at the judgment.  SibOr 2 apparently knew this tradition and so assigned the seven days to the intercession of the Virgin.”

What I interpret this to mean is that, according to Sibylline Oracles 2.311-312, the wicked between the time of their death and the time of their resurrection and judgment have seven days to repent, and the Virgin Mary intercedes for them.  This is obviously Christian.  The concept of post-mortem repentance in the interim between death and the resurrection appears also in the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, which could date to the first centuries B.C.E.-the first century C.E. and could be from Second Temple Judaism or Christianity.  According to Richard Bauckham, such a view is unusual in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity (see here).

Another passage in Sibylline Oracles 2 about post-mortem salvation for the wicked occurs in vv 333-338.  There, after the renewal of the earth and the rewards of the righteous, the righteous can ask God to save people who are suffering in hell, and God will grant their request, placing the rescued souls in a blessed place.  According to Collins, there is a gloss in psi manuscripts that express disagreement with this concept, affirming that “the fire which tortures the condemned will never cease” (Collins’ translation), even if the glossist desires it to cease.  The gloss goes on to say, “let babbling Origen be ashamed of saying that there is a limit to punishment” (Collins).

3. Book 2 closes with the Sibyl’s repentance.  She confesses that she has cared not for marriage and that, when she was living with a rich man, she did not care for the poor.  She also says that she “committed lawless deeds knowingly” (Collins).  In light of what comes before that confession in the book, she is probably praying for forgiveness so that she can escape punishment in the afterlife.  This interests me because it seems to differ from a view some Christians have that one need only believe in Jesus to be saved.  I do not know if this prayer is Jewish or Christian, but it does appear to imply that works are significant in terms of the eschatological judgment, and parts of Sibylline Oracles 2 that Collins identifies as (probably) Christian have that kind of message, too.  That concept does not give me great comfort.  Like Paul (as I understand him), I see the law as a path to condemnation because of my inability to keep it (II Corinthians 3), and that is why I feel that I need Christ for salvation.  Still, we see in Matthew 25 that Christ judges the nations over how they treated certain vulnerable people.

Friday, June 19, 2015

This Aspie's Response to The Imitation Game

A few months ago, a commenter told me about the 2014 movie, The Imitation Game, and asked me to evaluate its depiction of Asperger’s Syndrome.  I saw the movie a few nights ago, and I am ready to chime in.

The movie is about Alan Turing, who decoded Nazi war codes during World War II, thereby shortening the war and saving many lives.  Turing also helped set the stage for modern-day computers.  The commenter referred me to an article that criticized the film’s depiction of Turing as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome.  The article not only said that such a depiction of Turing was inaccurate, in light of what Turing’s friends have said about him, but also that such a depiction of Turing is rather demeaning to those on the autism spectrum.  It implies that their value is based on them being good with numbers, which is not always true of people on the autism spectrum, and which devalues them as human beings.

As a person with Asperger’s, what did I think about the film?  Here are some rambling thoughts:

1.  In terms of its depiction of Asperger’s, I would say that the movie was accurate, overall.  In the movie, Turing sometimes avoided eye contact with people.  He separated his peas from his carrots.  He took things literally.  He tended to be stiff and quiet in social situations.  He had a bit of a monotone.  He preferred to work alone so that he did not have to explain himself to people.  I can identify with some of that.  As a child, my mom has told me, I would line up my toys, and I thought about that when I saw young Turing separating his peas from his carrots. I am also a bit of a loner, and I am stiff and quiet in social situations.  And, yes, I do not particularly like to explain myself to others.

Of course, none of this stuff can be absolutized, really.  Granted, in a number of books about Asperger’s, I read that taking things literally is a characteristic of people with the Syndrome.  But neither I, nor many of the people whom I have encountered in Asperger’s support groups, take things literally to the extent that Turing did in the movie.  I am able to recognize idioms, metaphors, and some social nuances (i.e., what people really mean when they say certain things).  Maybe we have had difficulty with these things in the past, and we no longer do as much because we have learned and have been socialized.  I can vaguely recall that, as a kid, I would take certain idioms literally or picture them literally in my mind, the way that Temple Grandin did in the Temple Grandin movie.  But I do not do that as an adult, as much (if at all).

I also am not as cold as the Turing character.  I would not have fired those two mediocre decoders on the spot but would have thought about their livelihoods and their families.  There are people with Asperger’s who may prize efficiency above people, but there are also many who do not, especially considering that so many of us have been in vulnerable situations and have needed compassion and understanding from others.

2.  I agree with the article that there are many people on the autism spectrum who are not good at math.  Still, I do believe that people on the spectrum should be encouraged that they can contribute to the stream of life and can find a niche for themselves, with help from others.  What we should NOT be told is something like this: “What’s your problem?  Why can’t you get your shit together?  Thomas Jefferson, John Nash in a Beautiful Mind, Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, Temple Grandin, and Jerry Seinfeld were on the autism spectrum, and they went on to be successful.  What’s your problem?  Stop whining, and start looking for a way to contribute!”  (NOTE: We are not sure that all of the people in that list were on the spectrum, but you can probably get the point of what this hypothetical interlocutor is saying.)  The thing is, some of us may need help to find and to develop our niche, and telling us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, when we have fewer bootstraps than a lot of people, is not particularly helpful.  But we can still contribute, and I am inspired by movies that highlight that.  They encourage me to keep on keeping on, for something good can happen to me down the road.  I think of what the Tom Hanks character said in the movie Castaway: keep on surviving, for you do not know what the shore may bring.

3.  Of course, reality is not always as glamorous as what we see in the movies.  The wikipedia article about The Imitation Game highlighted that.  In the movie, Alan Turing is a man who sticks by his machine against incredible odds and apparent lack of success, until he finally succeeds.  In reality, he was working with a bunch of people.  But which version makes a more compelling story?  In the movie, his fiancee and colleague Joan Clark is pretty (yet pretty in a down-to-earth way)—-the actress who plays her has been on FHM’s 100 Sexiest Women in the World List more than once—-and yet Joan Clark in real life was rather plain.  And, to come back to the topic of this post, Alan Turing in the movie has Asperger’s (or manifests characteristics of Asperger’s), whereas, in real life, he could have been more socially adept.  But underdog stories about people overcoming significant odds are compelling, endearing stories.

I wouldn’t suggest that people throw away their dreams.  A person with Asperger’s may feel let down after watching an inspiring movie about a person with Asperger’s succeeding, only to learn that the person depicted in the movie did not actually have Asperger’s (or may not have had Asperger’s) in real life.  But, in real life, there are people with Asperger’s who find a niche in life, who have employment, and who have a spouse or a significant other.  It’s not impossible, so don’t lose heart.  My advice—-to myself and others—-is to have dreams and to let them inspire you to keep working and trying.  Just remember that real life is not as glamorous as the stories we see in movies and on television, and even read in books.  Temper your dreams with some realism.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Book Write-Up: A History of the End of the World, by Jonathan Kirsch

Jonathan Kirsch.  A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization.  HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.  See here to buy the book.

Jonathan Kirsch is a writer and an attorney.  A History of the End of the World is about the Book of Revelation, both the book itself and also its impact throughout history.  Kirsch goes from prophecy and apocalyptic in the Hebrew Bible through the twentieth century.

I decided to read this book when I was reading Kevin Timothy O’Kane’s Instigators of the Apocalypse: How Those with False Interpretations of the Book of Revelation Influenced Wars and Revolutions in the History of Western Civilization (see here for my review, and here for O’Kane’s response to my review).  O’Kane argues that certain interpretations of the Book of Revelation have produced disastrous results.  These interpretations hold that human beings play some role as agents in the apocalypse: that they are to set up a millennial golden age before Christ returns, that they are to fight the Antichrist themselves, that they are to purify the church prior to Christ’s second coming, or that they are to convert the outer reaches of the world.  According to O’Kane, such approaches have led to wars, persecution, and oppression, and O’Kane contrasts such approaches with what he believes is the view of the Book of Revelation, and the correct approach to eschatology: to wait for Christ to come back and set up the millennial golden age.

O’Kane critiques Kirsch in his book.  First, according to O’Kane (as I understand him), Kirsch regards the Book of Revelation as part of the problem, since it manifests an us vs. them mentality.  O’Kane, by contrast, does not believe that the Book of Revelation is the problem, but rather that the problem is certain interpretations of the Book of Revelation, which are not faithful to the book itself.  Second, according to O’Kane, Kirsch prefers the allegorical or symbolic interpretations of the Book of Revelation and views them as a step up from the Book of Revelation itself.  Kirsch, by contrast, supports a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation and believes that the allegorical interpretation marked a step in the wrong direction.

As I was reading O’Kane, I thought that O’Kane’s historical case was pretty open and shut: O’Kane effectively demonstrated that postmillennial and amillennial views on eschatology played a significant role throughout history and had negative results.  I wanted to read Kirsch to see if he interpreted history differently from O’Kane.

It turned out that, in terms of O’Kane’s larger thesis, O’Kane and Kirsch overlap on a lot of the data.  Like O’Kane, Kirsch acknowledges that the Book of Revelation has a passive eschatology of waiting for Christ to return and set up the millennium.  Kirsch on page 139 makes the point that Augustine interpreted the millennium as “The Church Militant and Triumphant.”  Kirsch also refers to the medieval idea of a king who would preside over a golden age prior to the second coming of Christ, and how various kings in history were trying to fulfill that role.

There were still clear differences between O’Kane and Kirsch, in terms of their narratives and their arguments.  Whereas Kirsch disputes that the apostle John wrote the Book of Revelation and discusses the reluctant acceptance of the book within early Christianity (the West embraced it, but the East did not so much, according to Kirsch), O’Kane argues for Johannine authorship of Revelation and raises other considerations about the book’s acceptance.  Unlike O’Kane, Kirsch does believe that Revelation is part of the problem, for Kirsch portrays its author as a fanatical, anti-sex, anti-money, misogynist absolutist who demonized others and felt persecuted (even though, according to Kirsch, he probably wasn’t).  Kirsch can understand the appeal of apocalypticism to the vulnerable, for it gives them hope, but he seems to believe that Christianity should concentrate on helping the poor (which, according to him, is lacking in the Book of Revelation) rather than anxiously waiting for the end of the world.

And, overall, Kirsch does seem to prefer an allegorical or a symbolic approach to the Book of Revelation, one that interprets Revelation in light of spiritual truths (e.g., the battle between good and evil inside of us) rather than, say, seeking to identify the Antichrist.  In a couple of places, Kirsch appears to suggest that a symbolic approach is consistent with John’s own intention, since Revelation has symbols (and yet, overall, Kirsch regards John as one who expected God’s judgment on the world to come soon, in a literal sense, whereas O’Kane does not seem to believe that the New Testament really manifests an imminent eschatology).  Kirsch also appears to believe that a lot of the fanaticism and abuse surrounding the Book of Revelation have been a departure from Augustine’s “call for a sober reading” (page 152).  (Kirsch talks about Augustine’s symbolic approach to Revelation, while acknowledging places in which Augustine appears to interpret Revelation literally.)  That raises questions in my mind about what is a literal and what is a symbolic or allegorical approach, and how that fits into O’Kane’s thesis.  While O’Kane does have problems with the allegorical approach to Revelation and does well to argue that it contributed to the idea of a church triumphant (with the persecutions that would accompany that), not all of the eschatological views that O’Kane critiques are necessarily allegorical, for they believe in a literal Antichrist.  They may not be entirely literal, either, for they do not appear to take what Revelation says about the millennium at face value, at least not entirely.  In any case, I can see merit in what both O’Kane and Kirsch argue, and I think that both allegorical and also literal interpretations of Revelation can have strengths and drawbacks, in terms of their effects.

My post thus far has been looking at Kirsch’s book in light of O’Kane’s book.  What do I think about Kirsch’s book by itself, though?  I appreciated how Kirsch interacted with critical scholarship about the distinction between eschatology and apocalypticism, and also the Book of Revelation itself.  John Collins, Adela Yarbro Collins, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, and J. Massyngberde Ford are scholars with whom Kirsch interacts.  A point in Kirsch’s book that especially stood out to me was about how John was exiled to Patmos, and how some scholars have said that this was unusual in those times and have wondered why John was not executed instead; one view that Kirsch mentions is that John may have been from the aristocracy, but that John left that behind to embrace a life of voluntary poverty and to condemn the establishment from the margins.

I found Kirsch’s discussion of the ancient reception of the Book of Revelation to be informative and useful.  Overall, Kirsch’s book was fascinating to me, as one who has been interested in eschatology, for it goes into how Revelation has been interpreted throughout history, and why people have found it so intriguing.

In terms of negatives, I do not think that Kirsch was entirely clear about John’s activity as author of the book.  Kirsch seems to think that John received visions, while also portraying John as one who consciously drew from the Hebrew Bible, and even pagan myth, in composing his book.  Which was it?  Was Revelation the product of visions or more of a scribal exercise, or could it have been both?  Kirsch also seemed a bit repetitive at times: I lost count of how many times Kirsch quoted Martin Luther’s statement that he did not see Christ in the Book of Revelation (though, according to Kirsch, Luther would later change his tune about Revelation and call the pope the Antichrist!).  Finally, I did not think that Kirsch was particularly fair to the Left Behind series, depicting the series as anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish.  The anti-Catholic label may fit somewhat, since the Catholic church in the books does appear to be allied with the Antichrist; at the same time, the pope is raptured in the book, as are a number of Catholics.  The anti-Jewish label, however, does not fit the books, in my opinion.  Contrary to what Kirsch says, the Antichrist in the books, Nicolae Carpathia, is not a Jew (as far as I know), but is a Romanian with Roman descent.  There are also a number of Jewish heroes in the series.

I found Kirsch’s book to be worth the read, and I plan to read other books by him in the future, particularly his biographies of Moses and David.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Unintentional Sin in the New Testament and Books 1-2 of the Sibylline Oracles

Growing up as a Christian, I was taught that the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament foreshadowed Jesus Christ’s death on the cross to pay the penalty for people’s sins.  I assumed that those sins were intentional sins—-sins that people intended to do.  If I mouthed off to my mother, for example, that was something that I intended to do.  I knew that I was violating God’s commandment to honor my parents, yet I committed the sin anyway.  And yet, as a Christian, I believed that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for that sin.  My assumption was that the situation in Old Testament times was similar, only the Hebrews would offer an animal to die in their place after they sinned.

I was surprised, therefore, and maybe a bit disturbed, when I read Leviticus 4 and learned that the sin offering was for unintentional sins, or sins committed in ignorance.  I later would read Numbers 15:27-31, which prescribes a sin offering for unintentional sins, but the death penalty for defiant, high-handed sins.  I wondered what exactly unintentional sins were.  Were they sins that one committed because one did not know what the law actually said?  Were they accidental sins?  What are accidental sins?  Since that time that I read Leviticus 4, I have heard a variety of definitions for unintentional sins.  I have heard that they are sins that one can commit as a result of not knowing the law or the legal or ritual status of an object—-one may inadvertently eat something that he is not allowed to eat because it belongs to the priests, or touch someone or something unclean while being unaware that he or it is unclean (see Leviticus 5:2, 15).  They can include accidental sins: in Numbers 35, for instance, a contrast is made between a person who kills someone accidentally and one who commits premeditated murder.  But I have also heard that they can be sins committed in weakness.  Then there was the rabbinic dictum that repentance could convert an intentional sin into an unintentional sin (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 86b; see here for other references).  That fit more with my understanding of how things worked!

A study of how the concept of unintentional and intentional sins fits into the New Testament and Christianity would probably be interesting.  Hebrews 9:7 acknowledges that the high priest on the Day of Atonement offered a sacrifice for the sins that he and the people committed in ignorance.  Hebrews 10:26 affirms: “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins” (KJV).  That sounds pretty rough, but a lot of Christians would say that Christians who feel bad about their sins can still find forgiveness, or that Hebrews is specifically criticizing apostasy from the Christian faith (cp. Hebrews 6:4-8), not simply committing a sin.  Moreover, Hebrews does appear to regard sins committed out of weakness to be unintentional sins, the types that can be forgiven (Hebrews 4:15-16; 5:2).

The concept of sins from ignorance occurs a handful of other times in the New Testament.  Those who contributed to the death of Jesus were said to have committed their sin in ignorance (Acts 3:17; I Corinthians 2:7-8).  Gentile lust and idolatry are said to flow from ignorance (Acts 17:30; Ephesians 4:18; I Peter 1:14).  One can probably bring into the discussion biblical texts that appear to suggest the opposite—-that seem to say that these sinners knew full well what they were doing.  Regarding those who conspired to put Jesus to death, I think of Jesus warning the Pharisees about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, of attributing Jesus’ activity to Satan when it is obviously the work of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:21-32).  Regarding the Gentile idolaters, I think of Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18ff. that the Gentiles knew God, for God made himself known to them through creation, but they chose idolatry instead.  Maybe these are examples of Bible contradictions.  Or perhaps these concepts all coexist, on some level: there could be such a thing as willful ignorance.

Going past the New Testament into Christianity, there is the Catholic concept of mortal and venial sins, and I wonder if that could be related, in some manner, to the concept of intentional and unintentional sins in the Bible.  One perhaps can even go outside of the Bible, Judaism, and Christianity and look to Plato and Aristotle for insight.  Plato believed that knowing the good was loving the good, that true knowledge of the good would lead to love of the good.  That could imply that, in a sense, all sins flow from ignorance: if a person sinned, according to this view, the person obviously must not know the good, for the person would love the good if he or she truly knew it.  Aristotle, however, was more open to acknowledging weakness of the will: that a person can know what is right, and maybe even desire to do what is right, and yet still do wrong out of weakness.  How, or whether, both insights influenced Judaism and Christianity would probably make an interesting study.

All of that said, I want to turn now to the concept of unintentional sin in Books 1-2 of the Sibylline Oracles.  Books 1-2 contain a Jewish edition of prophecies that were attributed to the Sibyls, who were female prophets.  These books may date to the second-third centuries C.E.  Here are two places where I have found the concept of unintentional sin in these books:

1.  Sibylline Oracles 1.43-45 is talking about the sin of Adam and Eve in eating the forbidden fruit.  We read there (in John Collins’ translation): “She gave, and persuaded him to sin in his ignorance.  He was persuaded by the woman’s words, forgot about his immortal creator, and neglected clear commands.”

The sin of Adam would not initially strike me as a sin committed out of ignorance.  God explicitly prohibited Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, so Adam was aware of the rule, yet Adam ate the fruit anyway.  But this passage in the Sibylline Oracles says that Adam sinned in ignorance because he temporarily forgot about God and neglected God’s commands.  As an aside, this may shed some light on what the Epistle to the Hebrews means by unintentional sins.  I think of Hebrews 2:3, which warns about neglecting God’s great salvation.  Neglecting is not necessarily the same as rejecting, but it can still be disastrous in that it can lead to drifting away from the faith.  At the same time, Hebrews there does seem to suggest that neglect can bring a stern punishment.  Maybe Hebrews believes that neglect is a venial sin that can lead to a mortal sin if one is not careful, or something like that!

2.  Sibylline Oracles 2.68 is part of an extract from Pseudo-Phoclydes, and it says (again, in Collins’ translation): “Do not commit perjury either in ignorance or willingly.”

I wondered how one could commit perjury in ignorance.  Perjury is lying, right?  Lying is knowing the truth and choosing to say what is untrue, right?  Perjury sounds to me like it would be an intentional, willful sin.

But not so fast!  I think of Leviticus 5.  Vv 17-18 may suggest that the sins listed in Leviticus 5 are unintentional sins.  In any case, they require a trespass offering, not the death penalty.  One sin that Leviticus 5 mentions is hearing a voice of swearing and not telling anyone about it, which probably means withholding important testimony.  Leviticus 5 does not explicitly say why the person hearing the swearing does not tell anyone about it, but perhaps the person forgot that he heard it, or failed to come forward due to weakness (i.e., shyness, not wanting to get involved, fear).  Another sin in Leviticus 5 is swearing to do good or evil and not following through.  Maybe the swearer was careless and forgot his oath, for v 4 says that, when he finds out about it, he is to offer a trespass offering.  In these cases, the category of unintentional sin seems to be applied to testimony in court, or oaths; weakness of will or ignorance can come into play in these situations.

So what could perjury committed in ignorance be?  My guess is that it could be saying that something is true, when one does not fully know.  One may believe that something is true or conclude that something is true, but one is filling in some of the gaps in one’s own mind with conjecture.  In condemning perjury committed in ignorance, Sibylline Oracles 2.68 may be saying that, if one wants to testify, one should make sure that he knows what he is talking about.  He should be clear, to himself and to others, about what he knows, and what he does not know.

I’ll leave the comments on in case one wants to add additional information or insight.

UPDATE: Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles closes with the Sibyl repenting and asking for forgiveness because she "committed lawless deeds knowingly" (Collins).  This occurs after an extensive discussion of eschatological punishments and rewards. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Genesis 3:3: Neither Shall Ye Touch the Fruit

I am reading the Sibylline Oracles in my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha.  The Sibylline Oracles were female prophetesses at various points in history, and Jews and Christians produced editions of their prophecies.  I am currently reading Book 1 of the Sibylline Oracles, and, according to John Collins’ discussion of its date, scholars have dated the Jewish stage of this book to the second-third centuries C.E. (while debating which century works better: the second or the third).

What stood out to me in my reading a couple of days ago was this book’s treatment of Genesis 3:3.  In Genesis 3:3, Eve encounters the serpent, who will tempt her to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, in violation of God’s command.  In telling the serpent her understanding of what God’s command is, Eve states: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die” (KJV).  More than one reader has noted that what Eve says about God’s command does not match up identically with what God actually commanded Adam.  God’s command to Adam appears in Genesis 2:16-17, and God says: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (KJV).  God told Adam that he was not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Eve, however, understood the command to be, not just that she could not eat the fruit from that tree, but also that she could not touch it.

I have heard various things about this point.  My high school Bible literature teacher said that this was an example of a fence around the law.  Jews, she said, did not want to get to the point where they were close to disobeying God’s commands, and so they set up a fence that would keep them a few steps removed from a tempting situation.  Eve, in this case, could not eat from the tree, but she also felt that she could not touch it, and the prohibition on her touching the forbidden fruit would supposedly keep her from eating it.

Some people have had a negative reaction to Eve’s statement of “neither shall ye touch it.” These were evangelical Christians, and they accused Eve of adding to God’s command, with disastrous results.  Her addition of “neither shall ye touch it” meant that she saw God and God’s command as overly strict.  Moreover, by adding to God’s command, Eve was setting herself up to sin.  She said that she would die if she touched the forbidden fruit?  But she did touch it, and she did not die.  She could then easily conclude that eating the fruit would not be fatal, since touching it apparently was not!

In Sibylline Oracles, Book 1, lines 38-39, we read: “To these [Adam and Eve] did God then address commands and instruct them not to touch the tree” (John Collins’ translation).  According to this passage, Eve was not adding to God’s command when she said “neither shall ye touch it,” but rather was being faithful to God’s command, for God himself told Adam and Eve not to touch the forbidden fruit.

I decided to do a quick study of how various ancient interpreters have understood Genesis 3:3, specifically what they have thought about Eve’s statement of “neither shall ye touch it.”  I looked at my Judaic Classics Library, and I also did a search on the Scripture index of Phillip Schaff’s compilation of the works of the Ante-Nicene and Post-Nicene church fathers.  There are a lot more sources out there—-there are patristic sermons about Genesis that I cannot find online!  But I worked with what I had.  And, even then, there is more out there!

I looked at how Midrash Rabbah handled Genesis 3:3, and, essentially, it said the same thing that evangelical critics of Eve would say centuries later.  In the Soncino English translation of Genesis Rabbah 19:3, we read: “SHALL NOT EAT OF IT, NEITHER SHALL YE TOUCH IT, LEST YE DIE (III, 3). Thus it is written, Add not unto His words, lest He reprove thee, and thou be found a liar (Prov. XXX, 6). R. Hiyya taught: That means that you must not make the fence more than the principal thing, lest it fall and destroy the plants. Thus, the Holy One, blessed be He, had said, For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die (Gen. II,17); whereas she did not say thus, but, GOD HATH SAID: YE SHALL NOT EAT OF IT, NEITHER SHALL YE TOUCH IT; when he [the serpent] saw her thus lying, he took and thrust her against it. ‘ Have you then died?’ he said to her; ‘just as you were not stricken through touching it, so will you not die when you eat it, but For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof,’ etc. (ib. 5).”

According to this rabbinic passage, Eve was wrong to add to God’s command.  The passage quotes Proverbs 30:6, which warns people against adding to God’s command, for then they may be found to be liars.  In the case of Eve, Eve thought that she would die by touching the forbidden fruit, and so the serpent made her touch it and showed her that she was still alive.  That made her more open to disobeying God’s actual prohibition on eating the fruit.

At the same time, Judaism does have a concept of establishing a fence around the law, which is stated in Mishnah Avot 1:1.  That could mean protecting people from getting to the point where they are in danger of transgressing God’s commands, by adding additional rules.  That may be the understanding of it in Genesis Rabbah 19:3, for the passage quotes R. Hiyya as saying that one should not make “the fence more than the principal thing, lest it fall and destroy the plants.”  The passage accepts making a fence around the law, but it believes that there should be limits on that practice.  There is an alternative understanding of making a fence around the law in rabbinic Judaism, however, and I talk about that in my post here.  According to Louis Finkelstein, Avoth de-Rabbi Nathan believes that making a fence around the Torah is not adding regulations, but rather protecting the Torah itself from additional, non-Scriptural prohibitions.  Finkelstein states that the Avoth de-Rabbi Nathan appeals to the story in Genesis 3 about Eve and the serpent to show the dangers of adding additional prohibitions to what God has already commanded.

So we have a Jewish version of the Sibylline Oracles that says that God actually forbade Adam and Eve to touch the forbidden fruit.  And we have rabbinic passages that say that Eve (or Adam in telling Eve the command) was adding to God’s command, with disastrous results.  Where do the patristic sources that I searched land on this issue?

I found only two places that address the issue explicitly.  The first is Irenaeus’ Against Heresies 5.23, and the second is the section on Procilla in Methodius’ Banquet of the Ten Virgins.  Irenaeus, who dates to the third century C.E., simply says that Eve was relaying God’s command to the serpent.  There is no hint there that Irenaeus thought that Eve was adding to God’s command.  Methodius, who dates to the third-fourth centuries C.E., says that Adam received the command not to touch the Tree of Knowledge.  Irenaeus and Methodius, like that passage from the Sibylline Oracles, hold that the prohibition on touching the tree actually came from God, and, according to this interpretation, that would mean that Eve was not adding to God’s word.

I decided to search one more source.  Over a decade ago, I read Gary Anderson’s The Genesis of Perfection.  I had taken a couple of Gary Anderson’s classes at Harvard Divinity School and thought that I would enjoy this book, and I did enjoy it.  I vaguely recall Anderson saying that, in some version of the Adam and Eve story, God gave the command both to Adam and to Eve at the same time, meaning that both heard God’s command from God himself: it was not like what we see in our Bibles, where God gives the command to Adam and then makes Eve, and then somehow Eve becomes aware of the prohibition (maybe from Adam).

I could not find that discussion on googlebooks, but I did find something else.  Anderson refers to the view of the fourth century Christian Ephrem of Syria that Eden was a holy place, and so Adam and Eve needed to keep their distance, on some level.  Anderson states:

“…Ephrem conceived of Eden as a mountain sanctuary.  His interpretation was grounded in the second half of the command given to Adam and Eve: Don’t draw too close to the tree of knowledge.  This warning, Ephrem reasoned, was modeled on the warnings given to priests.”  (Anderson quotes Hymns on Paradise 3:16.  Anderson’s discussion occurs on page 56 of his book.  See here to read it.)

For Ephrem, apparently, God was the source of the prohibition on touching the tree, for God wanted Adam and Eve to keep their distance from the holy.

It is interesting to me that the rabbinic sources that I read were critical of Eve for adding to God’s commandment, whereas the ancient Christian sources that I read tended to say that Eve got God’s commandment right.  A lot of the rabbis were for adding a fence around the law, yet rabbinic literature largely appears to disapprove of what Eve said to the serpent about God’s command.  And evangelical critics of Eve, when they criticize Eve, are probably also taking a swipe at the Pharisees and rabbinic Judaism (at least by implication), making a point of “You see what happens when people add commands to God’s word and make God seem stricter than he truly is?”  Yet, the rabbis were closer to their views on Eve than were some of the ancient Christians!

I’ll leave the comments open in case someone wants to add any information or insight.  Please limit your comment to adding information or insight, though.  Don’t criticize me for writing about this topic.  Thank you.

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