Saturday, April 30, 2016

A UMC Church, and God Qualifying the Called

I moved to Oregon recently, and I am checking out the local churches.  In contrast to my last move, which was to Washington, I am not particularly eager this time around to plant my roots at one church.  Right now, I want to explore.

Last Sunday, I visited a United Methodist Church.  This particular UMC is much smaller than the UMC that I attended in Washington for about a year.  Most of the people at this UMC in Oregon are elderly, whereas the one that I attended in Washington had more young people: children, teens, and young couples.  (Still, most of the attendees at the Washington one were elderly.)

I cannot fairly judge the zeal or level of activity at this Oregon UMC, since I only attended one service.  I will say, from my limited perspective, that the UMC that I attended in Washington seemed to me to have more electricity in the atmosphere---more zeal, enthusiasm, and activity, among both young and old, so much so that it was difficult for me to keep up!  The UMC that I attended in Washington was not exactly growing numerically, but it was active, almost a force of nature.

Whether I will attend this UMC church in Oregon in the future, I do not know.  The person handing out the bulletin said that the church needs more young people.  I'm not sure how to take that!

Anyway, the pastor last Sunday said something in her sermon that I want to explore briefly in this post.  She said that the world judges people as qualified for a task on the basis of their training, their ability, and what society thinks about them.  God, by contrast, uses people with weaknesses who are willing to serve.

Many people in Christianity have heard this sort of spiel.  "God does not call the qualified but qualifies the called," the saying goes.  The example of Gideon in the Book of Judges is cited as an illustration.  God used weak, lowly Gideon and his army of three hundred men so that God could get the glory.

Do I believe this spiel?  Over the years, I have gone from "Yes, and I hope God uses weak little me," to "No, the attractive, talented people are the ones who make more of an impact for God," to "Yes, in areas."

God can and does use ordinary people, including people with flaws and weaknesses.  In many cases, people's flaws can make them more effective in ministry, since people identify with them more.  But those who are trained, attractive, and talented still get a lot of positive attention.  Plus, we should not dismiss the value of training.    A head of a services program one time told a group of us that we should not just be good volunteers, but smart volunteers.  That is a good point.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Brace Yourself...

Many of you are probably familiar with the Boromir meme.  You know, Boromir, from the Lord of the Rings.  Boromir is geared up for battle, and the top of the meme says “Brace yourself…”  Then the bottom of the meme can say a variety of things: “The calls for Bernie to drop out of the race are coming.”  Or “The ‘keep Christ in Christmas’ posts are coming.”

Well, this post here is a “Brace yourself” post.  Brace yourself: an avalanche of book reviews is coming on this blog! All at once!

I have been in the process of moving.  It has been a more grueling move than usual.  My computer and TV have not been set up yet.  In addition to helping with the move, I have done a lot of reading.  I have read four books, and the number is growing.  I have been writing my reviews in my notebook.  When my computer is set up, I will transcribe them to my blog.

What this means is that there will be a day in which four or five of my book reviews will appear on your blog feed…on a single day.  That will scare or annoy some of you.  But please do not stop following me on account of this!  I won’t be posting five posts every day!  I have no desire to clutter your blog feed or reader with my stuff on a regular basis!

I also am exploring churches in the area.  I visited a United Methodist church last Sunday.  I will want to write a post about that…maybe after my avalanche of book reviews!

I have felt a bit lonely not having TV or internet for over a week.  But there has been at least one positive.  Yesterday, I learned that Bernie lost some states.  I am glad that I have been cut off from the news for over a week.  In watching the news, I see Bernie doing well, and that gets my hopes up.  I dread him losing to Hillary.  I follow the drama, rooting for the underdog to win.  But, being cut off from the news, I do not think as much about the Presidential race, so, when I finally see the results, I am not as disappointed.  I am still disappointed, but it is not a crushing disappointment.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Ezekiel 28:16: Satan? Adam? Who?

I read four Bible verses each day in Hebrew and Greek.  Right now, I am in the Book of Ezekiel.  I have been reading the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint for that book.  I read it on my BibleWorks, which is less time-consuming because I do not have to plow through lexicons.

I came across something interesting today.  In Ezekiel 28:12-17, the King of Tyre is being addressed, but he is being likened to someone in Eden, the Garden of God.  This figure in Eden was beautiful, until iniquity was found in him.

The view that I got growing up and in churches is that this figure in Eden was Satan.  According to this view, Satan was once an angel named Lucifer, but he rebelled against God and became Satan.

The view that I heard in biblical scholarship was that the figure in Eden in Exodus 28:12-17 was Adam.

In terms of this difference of opinion, a lot hinges on the meaning of Ezekiel 28:16.  The King James Version and the New Revised Standard Version translate this verse differently.

The KJV has:

"By the multitude of thy merchandise they have filled the midst of thee with violence, and thou hast sinned: therefore I will cast thee as profane out of the mountain of God: and I will destroy thee, O covering cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire."

Here, the figure in Eden is called a "covering cherub."  That is more consistent with the "Satan" interpretation.

The NRSV, by contrast, has:

"In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and the guardian cherub drove you out from among the stones of fire."

Here, the figure in Eden is not the cherub.  Rather, the figure is cast out by a cherub.  This is more consistent with the "Adam" interpretation.  It may be an allusion to Genesis 3:24, in which cherubim guard the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life.

Which translation is correct?  Well, each seems to follow a specific version.

The KJV appears to follow the Masoretic Text.  The MT has "and I will destroy you, cherub, the one covering, from the midst of stones of fire" (my translation).

The NRSV, however, follows the Septuagint, which has "and the cherub led you from the midst of fiery stones" (my translation).

A reason that many scholars may shy away from the "Satan" interpretation is that they do not want to read later ideas about the fall of Lucifer into the Hebrew Bible.  Perhaps, though, a case can be made for some version of the "Satan" interpretation, from a historical-critical standpoint.  Maybe the figure in Eden in Ezekiel 28:16 is the serpent in the Garden of Eden, not Adam.  A serpent in the ancient world could have been considered a cherub.  J.J.M. Roberts, in his comments on Isaiah 6:2 in the HarperCollins Study Bible, states that the seraphim in that verse are "winged cobras (14.29; 30:6) often represented in Egyptian art, in association with Syro-Phoenician thrones, and on Israelite seals with wings outstretched to protect the deity."

The author of Ezekiel 28 could have regarded the serpent in Genesis 3 as that: a beautiful serpent cherub who decided to oppose the will of God by tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden.  The author of Ezekiel 28 may be comparing the prideful King of Tyre with the serpent.

That does not mean that one should read too much about Satan into Ezekiel 28.  The author of Ezekiel 28 did not necessarily regard the serpent as a long-standing archenemy of God throughout history.  That kind of picture hardly ever appears in the Hebrew Bible, and it may have entered Judaism in Israel's exilic or post-exilic period, under the influence of Zoroastrian dualism.  Plus, the Satan in the Hebrew Bible is considered by many biblical scholars to be a prosecuting attorney rather than God's arch-enemy.  Still, Ezekiel 28 may be referring to a renegade cherub who strayed from the will of God.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Book Write-Up: Forgiving My Daughter's Killer

Kate Grosmaire, with Nancy French.  Forgiving My Daughter's Killer: A True Story of Loss, Faith, and Unexpected Grace.  Nashville: Nelson Books, 2016.  See here to buy the book. 

Andy and Kate Grosmaire had a daughter named Ann.  Ann had a boyfriend, Conor, who was practically part of the Grosmaire family.  But Conor shot Ann in the head.  The Grosmaires were not saints. They would admit that.  Andy and Kate got into an argument at a grocery store, and one of their therapists told them that they really shouldn't be together!  Yet, the Grosmaires managed to forgive their daughter's killer.  They pursued a path of restorative justice rather than strictly punitive justice: Conor would spend time in jail for a period of time, learning and growing rather than rotting away there.  And Conor would perform acts of restitution.  These acts would include speaking to teens about teen violence and serving the causes that Ann cared about, particularly animal rescue.

I decided to read this book to learn how to forgive better.  If I could see how someone could forgive a person in an extreme case----the murder of a loved one----then perhaps that could help me forgive people for far lesser things.  Kate did talk about various motivations behind her forgiveness: her realization that she has made mistakes herself; her recognition of what she was capable of doing (i.e., she almost ran someone over in her younger years when she was angry); her refusal to limit her daughter's life to being a victim of murder; God's command that she forgive; and her desire for inner peace.  She acknowledges that forgiveness has been a struggle.  This was particularly the case after Conor told her the story of Ann's murder.  At times, Kate did not even want to see Conor.  Yet, she went through the motions and walked the path of forgiveness.

Even after reading Kate's motivations behind her forgiveness, I find that it is difficult to make myself believe and internalize the insights that can make me a more forgiving person.  That is why I especially appreciated the book's insight that we can start where we are, and become more forgiving as we learn.

For example, one of the people in the book, Sujatha, was a restorative justice advocate, and Sujatha was telling her story about how she became involved in that line of work.  Sujatha was abused as a child, and she went to law school to become a prosecutor who would put child abusers behind bars.  She was very angry, and she was becoming concerned about this.  She got an audience with the Dalai Lama, who suggested that she meditate and open her heart to her enemies.  Sujatha replied that she would never open her heart to her enemies.  "Okay, okay, then you just meditate," the Dalai Lama responded.  Sujatha forgave her father as she meditated.  She became a defense attorney to defend abused women who shot their husbands, but she found herself defending abusers, as well.  She heard their stories and found that many of them were people like her, with similar experiences, and they wanted to apologize and make restitution for what they did.  She found that the legal system, as it was, was not very conducive to restitution or apologies: one side wanted punishment for the person who did wrong, and the other side would deny wrongdoing to escape punishment.  That was how Sujatha became involved in restorative justice.

The book was especially effective in describing how restorative justice could clash with the judicial system as it is currently set up.  I did have some difficulty, as a reader, experiencing Kate's forgiveness of Conor with her.  I identified more with Kate's stories about trying to get along with her husband, and Sujatha's story also resonated with me (though I was not abused as a child).  But I respect Kate's insights because they helped her on the journey of forgiveness.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Atonement, by Beverly Lewis

Beverly Lewis.  The Atonement.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Lucy Flaud, an Amish woman in her twenties, is doing a lot of community service work to atone for something she did in the past.  She is trying to appease God and her father as well as forget her grief.  Her father Christian, meanwhile, has been attending a grief counseling group at a nearby church, and he thinks that the group could help Lucy.  At the group, Christian meets a non-Amish man named Dale.  Dale later meets Lucy and offers her spiritual advice, while also assisting Lucy as she attempts to help a struggling single mother get on her feet.  Christian wonders what Dale's intentions are towards Lucy, and Christian is perplexed that Lucy has been attracted to men from outside of the community rather than Amish men.  There is also Tobe, an Amish man who has not yet settled down.  People think this is because Tobe is too picky.  Actually, it is because Tobe is carrying a torch for Lucy.  But Tobe and his family are about to move.

It was when I got to the final third of the book that it came alive to me.  In the first third, I was trying to figure out what was going on and getting used to the characters and the setting.  Reading the second third was a similar experience to reading the first third, but there were some good parts, particularly concerning the single woman trying to get on her feet.  In one scene, after Lucy and Dale help the woman, Lucy asks what God thinks about that.  Dale responds that God was not just observing their act, but was actually behind it!  In the final third of the book, mysteries explicitly get resolved: What is Lucy trying to atone for?  Why has Christian been attending a grief support group?  Lucy receives a fresh picture of God's love, as she hears a story from an elderly couple about a Christian man's unconditional love.  Lucy also reconciles with her father and learns about his own feet of clay.

The final third of the book was probably the clearest, whereas the first two thirds struck me as rather scattered.  There were distractions in the book, as we experience the lives of other characters.  Perhaps Beverly Lewis should have done a better job focusing, and yet the scattered nature of the book did offer some realism: lots of things go on in life.  Plus, there was an endearing tangential scene between Lucy and one of her sisters, Lettie, as Lettie was upset that Lucy did not pay much attention to her.  That aspect of the book was rather underdeveloped, yet it was an endearing scene. 

My reaction to the story about the Christian man's unconditional love towards the lady who became his wife was mixed.  The man was like a savior figure, whereas she was someone who was losing her way.  I saw that as rather one-sided.  Lewis seemed to attempt to compensate for this imbalance, somewhat, by presenting the husband as saying that he benefited from the relationship, too, since he was lonely.  Still, the story perhaps could have been better had it not had as much of a damsel-in-distress theme.  Maybe the woman could have contributed to the story and offered her own wisdom to Lucy.

A question in my mind as I read this book is how much of the religion in the book reflects Amish religion, and how much reflects evangelical Christianity.  Is God's unconditional love something that the Amish stress, or is that more of an evangelical concept?  I suspect the latter, but I am open to correction.  The book did depict other aspects of Amish religion: Lucy confessing her sins to the bishop and the bishop evaluating the authenticity of her repentance; and an aversion to Amish people marrying people from non-Amish churches.

In my opinion, the book could have done more in addressing why people should do good works.  Lucy was running herself ragged doing good works to atone for some sin and to appease a God she saw as harsh, and that was obviously wrong.  But did she continue to do good works after her spiritual healing, and, if so, why?  The book did not really explore that.  It did address the topic of having a proper motivation for good works, on some level: Lucy sees the good that she is accomplishing for others, and Dale's insight teaches her to see her service as working with God rather than trying to appease God.  Still, the book's failure to present her as doing good works after her spiritual healing does make the book incomplete. 

I give this book 3.5 stars.  I was going through the motions of reading it until the final third of the book.  Yet, the book had good scenes and made good points. 

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

"Cannons", Grace, and Grief

I visited another church this morning.  I have called it "The Sarah Palin church" because it is related to a church that Sarah Palin attended in Wasilla, Alaska. 

This church's service had four or five praise and worship songs before we got to the sermon.  I kind of liked that: it's more than some churches I have attended, but sometimes I need more songs to get into a worshipful mood. 

One of the songs that we sang was "Cannons."  This is actually a song that the United Methodist church that I have usually attended likes to sing.  But there is one line that is different.  The song that the UMC church sings has the line: "I'm lost and lonely, but still you love me."  By contrast, the song that I sang at the Sarah Palin church this morning has: "I'm so unworthy, but still you love me."  I was listening to the Contemporary Christian Music channel not long ago, and it, too had "I'm so unworthy."  Maybe the previous pastor at the UMC church that I attended changed the line, since she had somewhat of a problem with the doctrine of original sin.

The sermon this morning was part of a series entitled "God Didn't Say That."  This morning, the preacher was critiquing the line of "God won't give you more than you can handle."  The preacher was saying that, in life, we will experience more than we can handle, but that is an opportunity for God to work in us and through us.  He shared about the death of his brother in an automobile accident, and how God helped him through that and enabled him to comfort others.  He told an atheist who was amazed by this that this had to be God: left to his own devices, he would be in the bar drinking.  But God was helping him through.

The preacher talked about the biblical story of Gideon.  Gideon wondered if God was even with Israel, since Israel was being bullied and robbed by the Midianites.  But this was on account of Israel's sin.  The preacher was saying that, when we do something stupid, God goes with us.  The preacher was disagreeing with the idea that God cannot stand to be around sin.  He even said that this idea should be added as part of the "God Didn't Say That" series!

What are my reactions?  I did like the concept of grace: God goes with us when we do something stupid.  I thought of I Corinthians 6:15: "Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid" (KJV).  Does God going with us mean that God bails us out?  Sometimes he may, but not necessarily.  Why else would the Bible have those warnings in Proverbs about the consequences of stupid or wicked actions?  We should not tempt God.  Still, I'd like to believe that God's love is constant even when I do stupid things.

On grief, I think that people should feel free to grieve.  They should not be told that they, as Christians, should not have grief, since God is sustaining them, and thus they should be a comfort to others.  Some people need to be comforted by other people, and there is no shame in that.  I am not saying that the preacher this morning would disagree with what I just said.  But some could take his insights in the direction of saying: "You're weak?  You need to depend on God, and then you will be happy and can comfort others."  Of course, when it comes to grief, it is a path that, ultimately, people walk alone.  Even if they have comforters or people who reach out to them, they still have to deal with the pain themselves.  Faith can help them on that path.  And maybe, like the preacher this morning, they will find that God is carrying them.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Book Write-Up: Evolution and Holiness

Matthew Nelson Hill.  Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to buy the book. 

Matthew Nelson Hill is an elder in the Free Methodist Church, and he teaches philosophy at Spring Arbor University.  In Evolution and Holiness, Hill explores possible connections between evolutionary views on human morality and John Wesley's views on how Christians can become holy.  Essentially, Hill argues that, even if humans have a selfish gene that drags them down morally, they can still overcome this selfishness through God's grace, a personal and conscious pursuit of holiness, and an environment that challenges and encourages them to be altruistic.  An example of such an environment would be John Wesley's small groups.

Here are some of my thoughts about this book:

A.  A struggle that I had in reading this book was identifying where Hill believes that supernatural grace fits into the Christian's growth towards holiness.  To his credit, Hill does try to address this question: he says that God works through nature and our efforts.  But Hill seems to present a picture of God trying to bring the best out of who we naturally are, since we are a mixture of selfishness and altruism.  That sounds different from God giving people the Holy Spirit, which enables them to desire and to do good.  Where, for Hill, does the natural end and the supernatural begin, in the area of Christians' growth towards holiness?  And how would Hill distinguish his view from Pelagianism?  Hill mentions Wesley's belief in prevenient grace, but is not prevenient grace supernatural, or apart from nature?  How can that be reconciled with Hill's scenario of the Christian life, which stresses nature (and environment, which can influence nature)?

B.  As Hill narrates, John Wesley was controversial in his time because he believed that a Christian could become perfect in this life.  For Wesley, perfection meant being like Christ in one's love for God and neighbor.  Other Christians, such as Lutherans and Calvinists, denied that such perfection was a possibility in this life.  My understanding is that they tended to portray the Christian life as a continuous uphill battle with sin until one's dying day.  What puzzles me is that, according to Hill, Wesley may have held to a combination of these two views.  Wesley acknowledged that temptation would always be present in the life of the believer, even after the believer arrives at a state of perfection.  Wesley also said that a believer needed to continue actively in the spiritual disciplines to stay on the straight and narrow, and that a Christian could even fall from a state of perfection.  That is more in line with the second view, and also with Hill's presentation of the Christian life as a continual, perhaps lifelong, attempt to rise above one's selfish gene.  Hill does not believe that God overthrows how we naturally are. 

But how does a continual struggle with selfishness co-exist with being perfect?  Does not the existence of the weight of selfishness in a person imply imperfection?  One could perhaps retort that Wesley thought that perfection meant having the right intent, even if one made mistakes.  That could be.  It just seems to me that being weighed down by sin and being perfect are contrary notions, and identifying how Hill and Wesley hold them together is difficult.

C.  Can the Fall be reconciled with evolution, according to Hill?  Hill did not answer this question explicitly, but he did raise issues that are relevant to this issue.  Hill discusses the influence of Eastern Orthodoxy on John Wesley's thought, as well as the differences between Wesley and Eastern Orthodoxy.  According to Hill, Eastern Orthodoxy tends to hold that Adam and Eve were incomplete at creation (prior to the Fall) and were on a path of becoming more and more like God.  Within Western Christianity, by contrast, there is more of a view that God made Adam and Eve perfect, the Fall disrupted that, and God wants to return creation to pre-Fall perfection.  According to Hill, Wesley leaned more towards the Western idea, even though Wesley's belief that Christians could become perfect in this life was influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy.  The Eastern Orthodox view that God created Adam and Eve incomplete, however, may be one way a Christian can reconcile evolution with the Fall.

D.  Hill extensively discusses scientific questions of whether there is a biological or evolutionary basis for selfishness, altruism, and free will.  As far as I remember, Hill did not address an argument that atheist physicist Victor Stenger made in his 2012 book, God and the Folly of Faith: that free will may be an illusion because our brains act in a certain way before we consciously make a decision.  Hill should not necessarily have responded to Stenger, per se, since Stenger was a physicist, not a biologist.  But Stenger is basing his argument on other sources, and Hill would have done well to have engaged them.  Hill does say that, from our perspective, we do have the ability to make choices.  There is something to that, but, considering John Wesley's aversion to Calvinism, perhaps Hill should have been more rigorous in addressing the case some have made for biological determinism.  (Hill does address determinism, but I do not recall him addressing Stenger's argument.  I apologize if Hill did address it, and I fail to remember it.)

E.  In reading Hill's book, I wondered if I would want to be in one of Wesley's band societies.  From Hill's description, they came across to me to be nosy, pushy, controlling, and legalistic.  (Hill may have a positive stance towards them, but I am talking about my reactions.)  I could identify with the many Christians who chose to be in Methodist classes, but not Methodist band societies!   At the same time, Hill did say things about Wesley's approach that I found intriguing and appealing.  First of all, Wesley started accountability groups because he himself struggled to be consistent in performing spiritual disciplines.  As Hill says, Wesley did not ask people to do anything that he was unwilling to do himself!  Second, Wesley's groups allowed converts to continue on the Christian path.  By contrast, George Whitefield's approach of preaching to people and failing to do any follow-up resulted in less substantial fruit, as even Whitefield admitted.  Third, Wesley consciously pursued people who were not particularly altruistic, in an attempt to move them towards altruism.  Wesley looked for lost sheep, in short!  Fourth, the donations that people in Wesley's groups regularly made really did help the poor: orphans, widows, the unemployed, etc.  I may recoil from being in a group like Wesley's band societies, but I can understand the importance of accountability in encouraging me to do good, and in providing me with opportunities to do so.

F.  Hill's discussion of altruism was appealing to me, since I tend to recoil from Christian statements that we should put others ahead of ourselves.  Hill explores whether taking self-interest completely out of the equation is even possible, from the standpoint of how we biologically are, and what has served us in the past.  At the same time, Hill questioned whether our beneficent, outwardly-focused actions are purely a matter of quid-pro-quo: you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.  Hill's insights on these issues were especially helpful to me.

Although I still have questions and areas of confusion after reading this book, I still give it four stars.  Hill did wrestle with questions, and he did so judiciously.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.   

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Two More Ideas on the Identity of Zechariah in Matthew 23:35

In Matthew 23:35, Jesus is lambasting the scribes and Pharisees, and he says:

“That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar” (KJV).

A number of biblical scholars say this is an error.  They think that Jesus really meant Zechariah the son of Jehoiada, who was murdered in the Temple court in II Chronicles 24.  Conservative Christian scholars and apologists have responded that Zechariah the son of Berechiah, the post-exilic prophet to whom the Book of Zechariah is attributed, could have been killed between the Temple and the altar.  That would mean that Jesus in Matthew 23:35 is not in error.

I have expressed my problems with this conservative Christian view (see here and here).  But I was interested to find that there are at least two other ideas about the identity of Zechariah the son of Berechiah in Matthew 23:35 in the history of biblical interpretation.  One view is that the Zechariah Jesus is mentioning is Zechariah the father of John the Baptist (Luke 1).  This Zechariah was a priest.  The other view is that it is Zechariah the son of Baruch, who was later killed by the Zealots and Idumeans in the Jewish war (c. 70 C.E.), according to Josephus in Jewish Wars 4:334-343.

A.  Let's start with the view that the Zechariah of Matthew 23:35 is Zechariah the father of John the Baptist.  I recently came across this view when I was reading the Protevangelion of James, a second century C.E. Christian document.  In chapter 16, Herod is going on his rampage of killing babies, and he is looking for John, who is hidden.  Zechariah refuses to tell Herod where John is, so Herod has him killed between the entrance of the Temple and the altar.

The martyrdom of Zechariah the father of John the Baptist appears in other sources as well, albeit the motivation behind the martyrdom is different.  Origen (third century C.E.), in Sermon 25 of his Commentary on Matthew, relays a tradition that he received about how Zechariah came to be martyred.  There was a certain place in the Temple that virgins could enter to worship God, but this place was prohibited to women who were not virgins.  Mary had just given birth to Jesus, and she was going to this place in the Temple to worship.  People were hindering her from doing so because they thought she was not a virgin: she had given birth to a baby, after all!  But Zechariah the priest allows her to worship in that place with the other virgins, and he attempts to reassure the people that Mary is still a virgin.  Thinking that Zechariah is transgressing the law by allowing Mary into the place of the virgins, the men of that generation kill Zechariah between the Temple and the Altar.

Jerome (fourth century C.E.), in his Commentary on Matthew 23:35, refers to the view that Zechariah was killed because he predicted the advent of the Savior.  Jerome dismisses this view, however, for Jerome believes that the Zechariah of Matthew 23:35 was Zechariah the son of Jehoida, the Zechariah of II Chronicles 24.  How does Jerome get around the fact that the Zechariah in II Chronicles 24 was the son of Jehoida, whereas the one Jesus mentioned was the son of Berechiah?  Essentially, Jerome focuses on the meanings of the names in Hebrew: Berechiah means "blessed of the LORD," and Jehoida means "righteousness" (according to Jerome; actually, the name relates more to the LORD knowing).  According to Edmon L. Gallagher, Jerome's point is that Berechiah and Jehoida are synonymous.

Gallagher's article is worth checking out.  It is entitled "The Blood from Abel to Zechariah in the History of Interpretation," and it appeared in New Testament Studies 60 (2014): 121-138.  I learned about the views of Origen and Jerome on Zechariah from this article.  Gallagher also mentions other patristic sources that interpret the Zechariah of Matthew 23:35 as Zechariah the father of John the Baptist: Basil of Caesarea (Hom. in Sanctem Christi generationem 5, PG 31.1468c-1469a); Gregory of Nyssa (In diem natalem Salvadoris (ed. F. Mann, Gregorii Nysseni opera 10.2; Leiden: Brill, 1996) 248-250; and Cyril of Alexandria (Comm. in Lucam 11:47, PG 72.720b-721a).  Gallagher argues that Greek fathers preferred the Zechariah father of John the Baptist interpretation, whereas Latin fathers preferred the Zechariah son of Jehoida interpretation.  A significant factor in the difference, according to Gallagher, is that the Old Greek translation of II Chronicles 24 said that Azarias, not Zechariah, was the person who was killed in II Chronicles 24.

B.  Josephus talks about the murder of Zechariah the son of Baruch in Jewish War 4:334-343:  Vv 334-335 state:

"And now these Zealots and Idumeans were quite weary of barely killing men, so they had the impudence of setting up fictitious tribunals and judicatures for that purpose; and as they intended to have Zacharias, the son of Baruch, one of the most eminent of the citizens, slain,--so what provoked them against him was, that hatred of wickedness and love of liberty which were so eminent in him: he was also a rich man, so that by killing him, they did not only hope to seize his effects, but also to get rid of a man that had great power to kill them" (Whiston's translation).

In this story, Zechariah son of Baruch was a righteous man, and the Zealots and Idumeans wanted his wealth and feared his power.  Thus, they trumped up charges against him.  According to v 343, this Zechariah was killed in the middle of the Temple.

I learned about this passage from Gallagher's article, and also Meyer's NT Commentary.  If this is the Zechariah Jesus meant in Matthew 23:35, then Jesus is either speaking prophetically, or is being depicted as speaking prophetically, for the event Josephus describes occurred decades after Jesus lived on earth. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Book Write-Up: Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context

John H. Walton.  Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context: A Survey of Parallels Between Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Texts.  Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library (Zondervan Publishing House), 1989.  See here to buy the book. 

In Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context, evangelical biblical scholar John H. Walton compares and contrasts the writings in the Hebrew Bible with writings from the ancient Near East, particularly Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Walton argues that there are differences between the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near Eastern documents.  Some examples:

----The Hebrew Bible promotes the worship of one god, who is believed to be supreme.  Mesopotamian documents presume the existence of many gods, who may act contrary to one another.  The ancient Egyptian documents regard the Pharaoh as a deity. 

For Walton, these differences in belief had a practical impact.  Why does the Psalmist complain before God about life's injustices, whereas ancient Near Eastern Psalms do not, so much?  According to Walton, it is because the Psalmist believed in one supreme, just God, so he expected for there to be justice.  Regarding the Egyptians, why did they not have law codes, as the Mesopotamians did?  According to Walton, it was because they thought that the Pharaoh was a god: why have a law code, when a god is sitting right there on the throne, making rulings and dispensing justice?  Why is prophecy not as salient of a phenomenon in ancient Egypt?  Again, according to Walton, it is because of the ancient Egyptian belief that the Pharaoh was a god: why have prophets telling the king a god's will, when the king himself is a god?  Still, according to Walton, the Pharaoh offered sacrifices to gods in an attempt to uphold maat, or order. 

----According to Walton, the historical writings in the Hebrew Bible organize information in reference to Israel's covenant with God, which differs from stories, epics, and histories in the ancient Near East (even if they share some elements).  Israel is judged over her faithfulness or lack thereof to her God.  Walton argues that the Hebrew Bible could have gotten the idea of a covenant from second millennium B.C.E. Hittite treaties, in which people entered into a treaty with a suzerain.  The idea of a national covenant with a god, or at least the emphasis on that concept, is unique to Israel, as far as Walton is concerned.  (Walton at the end of the book says: "There may be other peoples who would have said that their god singled them out for special blessing, saying, 'I will be your God and you will be my people,' but in no other culture does that mean so much and serve as a theological premise for so long."  Walton refers to D.I. Block's 1988 book, The Gods of the Nations.)  Israel gives her history a central theme, the covenant, and her God responds to Israel in reference to specific requirements for Israel's behavior.  With ancient Near Eastern gods, by contrast, it was not always clear which god was acting or why a god was acting as he or she was.

----Ancient Near Eastern prophecies tended to be short-term, and they focused on the nation.  Prophecies in the Hebrew Bible, by contrast, could have a longer-term focus and include God's plan for the other nations of the world.  So says Walton.  Walton acknowledges, though, that there is apocalyptic-like literature in the ancient Near East.  A document may predict a coming king who will set things right, establish order, and assist the cult, but this document is actually promoting the reigning king: it is political propaganda for the status quo, put in the mouth of someone in the past.  Biblical apocalyptic literature, by contrast, does not endorse the status quo but hopes for God's intervention to bring justice.

----According to Walton, the ancient Near East had a concept of justice, including for the poor.  That was a part of the beneficial order of the world.  The gods were not obligated to be just, however; it was simply a gift that they bestowed on human beings.  Mesopotamian kings were to demonstrate to a god that they were ruling the realm justly, which was the purpose of law codes.  But Walton distinguishes ancient Near Eastern justice from the biblical God's morality and enforcement thereof.  Ancient Near Eastern justice appears to be pragmatic, for Walton: it was about maintaining a beneficial order.  Egyptian Pharaohs enforced maat, or order.  The Egyptian concept, according to Walton, was probably closer to the biblical concept of a righteous god upholding morality.  At the same time, while there was an Egyptian view that people would be judged in the afterlife according to their moral conduct, people could buy off a god to get a good afterlife.   Walton also says that the biblical sort of criticism of cult without ethics is not apparent in ancient Near Eastern literature.  According to Walton, ancient Near Eastern literature emphasized ritual over ethics when it came to the gods' expectations on people, since ritual appeased and sustained the gods; there is an occasional reference to gods having ethical expectations, however. 

Some areas of critique, or questions:

----Walton should have attempted to explain how justice for the poor practically contributed to the order of the world, in the minds of ancient Near Easterners.  Was it because it would discourage the poor or the slaves from revolting?

----Some of the ancient Near Eastern documents Walton mentions refer to the wicked.  Does that not imply some ethical conception?  Yet, Walton never says that the ancient Near East lacked a conception of ethics.  Rather, he said that the gods did not consistently conform to moral standards.

----If the Hebrew Bible is distinct within the ancient Near East, in the ways that Walton says it is, what does that imply?  That God inspired the Hebrew Bible, since the Hebrew Bible is more advanced than the ancient Near East?  Does new imply divine inspiration?  And is there a naturalistic historical explanation for the Hebrew Bible's distinct ideas?  John Van Seters, for example, argued that the concept of God's covenant with Israel so that Israel could bless the nations emerged in exile, as Israel applied to herself ideas that were believed to be the function of a king.  For Van Seters, Israel was seeking purpose in exile.

----There are scholars who have argued that the ancient Near East had a concept of universalism----of a god being interested in other nations, or a king ruling other nations.  See my posts here, here, here, and here.  Are the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible depicting some grand vision of creation becoming reconciled with God, as if this is the goal of history?  Or are they simply envisioning the exaltation of Israel over the nations, which other ancient Near Eastern nations probably envisioned for themselves?  If the latter is the case, then the Hebrew Bible's prophecies are not as historically distinct as many religious adherents might think!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Book Write-Up: In the Field of Grace, by Tessa Afshar

Tessa Afshar.  In the Field of Grace.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

In the Field of Grace is a novel that is based on the biblical Book of Ruth.  Here are some of my thoughts about the novel.

A.  In the novel, Ruth is not particularly valued by her Moabite family.  She finds more of a home in the family of Naomi, an Israelite.  This feature of the story had positive and negative repercussions, in my opinion.  The positive side was that, because Ruth was marginalized within her own Moabite family, she later reached out to and mentored her grandson David, who himself was the youngest and was marginalized within his family.  The negative side was that it somewhat dampened the power of Ruth leaving behind her family and homeland to go to Israel.  After all, in Tessa Afshar's telling, Ruth was not leaving  behind that much: she was leaving behind a family that did not love her.

B.  Boaz's first wife in the novel, Judith, had a loyal pet dog named Melekh.  There is a positive and a negative to this, and yet Tessa Afshar does deserve credit for attempting to deal with the negative.  The positive is that the presence of the dog makes for moving scenes, especially for animal lovers like myself.  The negative, of course, is that dogs were not highly regarded in ancient Israel.  Search under "dog" or "dogs" on Blue Letter Bible or Bibleworks, and you will see that to be the case.  Job 30:1 indicates that dogs could be used to watch the sheep, and yet, often in the Hebrew Bible, dogs are scavengers, or people are compared to dogs in a derogatory fashion.  Afshar does put research into her books, so she is probably aware of this.  As I look at the scenes about Melekh the dog a second time around (particularly on page 9), I notice that Afshar acknowledges that dogs were not really seen as pets in ancient Israel.  This, in the story, was what made the bond between Judith and Melekh so unusual!

C.  When Naomi and Ruth were still in Moab, Naomi was telling Ruth the story of Deborah the Israelite judge, and Ruth had never heard the story before.  On the one hand, this scene was good because Ruth's sick and neglected grandfather was listening to the story and asking questions about it, and that made for an endearing scene!  On the other hand, the scene looked a bit unrealistic.  Moab is right next to Israel.  Would the Moabites have been completely unaware of the events that took place in Israel during the time of Deborah, events involving threatening powers?  It's possible, I suppose, but I have difficulty imagining that.  That said, Afshar's portrayal of the Moabites' vague knowledge of Israelite Yahwism was a positive feature of the novel.

D.  Ruth and Boaz are described as not being particularly good looking.  This is typical of the books by Afshar that I have read thus far: readers can identify with the protagonists because they are somewhat marginalized, or they deal with low self-esteem, or they are vulnerable.  At the same time, Boaz does find Ruth physically attractive, and Boaz is an eligible bachelor.  Is this inconsistent with the portrayal of them as plain, or as awkward-looking?  A little, perhaps.  At the same time, Boaz was a wealthy man, and that could have made him an eligible bachelor.  I should also note that, while romance is a salient factor in this novel, Afshar also discusses the significance of Levirate marriage, so the marriage between Ruth and Boaz is about much more than romance in this novel.

E.  The novel did address the marginalization that Ruth would have experienced as a Moabite in ancient Israel.  I think that the novel could have dwelt more on that, and that the Israelites' acceptance of Ruth was a bit rushed in the novel.  Stories about people gradually overcoming their prejudices can be powerful.  At the same time, the direction that Afshar went did allow for moving aspects of the story: Ruth making friends among the Israelites and getting to the point where she truly saw them as her people.  Afshar also did well to note the significance of Deuteronomy 23:3 to the story of Ruth.  Deuteronomy 23:3 prohibits a Moabite from entering the congregation of the LORD.  Yet, Ruth was a Moabite, and she not only intermarried into Israel but also was the ancestress of King David.  David and Solomon wrestle with that question in the book's epilogue.

F.  The novel was encouraging in that it talked about God being with people in times of despair.  The novel also had good passages about seeing value in the marginalized, and experiencing God's powerful (yet loving) presence.  The novel does more than fill in details about Ruth and Boaz, for there are characters in the story who are not in the biblical story (i.e., Dinah), plus scenes that are not in the biblical story.  That made the novel interesting.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Visiting a Southern Baptist Church

I visited another church this morning.  I was awake at 8:30 a.m., and I figured I might as well visit the 9:15 a.m. service of a nearby church, which is Southern Baptist.  I just wanted to do something new this morning.  I also wanted to get out and walk on this beautiful morning.

The sermon was about the Holy Spirit.  According to the pastor, the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament did not dwell in people permanently but only came upon people temporarily and inspired and empowered them for a task.  The same was true before Jesus died, which is why Jesus' disciples, including Peter, continually wanted to do the right thing but often failed: the Holy Spirit was not indwelling them.  Soon after Jesus' resurrection, the disciples did not entirely understand the nature of Jesus' Kingdom: their question in Acts 1:6 indicates that they still regarded God's Kingdom as national and political rather than spiritual.

In Acts 2, the pastor went on, they received the Holy Spirit.  They understood the nature of Jesus' Kingdom.  Peter, who had denied Jesus three times at Jesus' trial, was boldly proclaiming Christ to people who had put Christ to death. 

The pastor said that, in this day and age, believers have the Holy Spirit inside of them, and the Holy Spirit will never leave them.  And yet, the pastor admitted that he identifies with Peter before Peter got the Holy Spirit: wanting to do the right thing, but often falling short or bungling things up.  How can this be, if he has the Holy Spirit living inside of him?

The pastor's response was that the Holy Spirit may be living inside of us, but we need to use the Holy Spirit and be filled with the Holy Spirit for him to be powerful in our lives.  The pastor referred to Ephesians 5:18, in which Paul encouraged his Christian readers to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  Even after receiving the Holy Spirit, we need to continually be filled with the Holy Spirit. 

The pastor pointed to a glass of water.  When we sin, it is like the glass leaking.  To be filled with the Holy Spirit, we need to confess our sins to God, surrender to God, and become connected to the Holy Spirit, which is like a power source.  When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we share the Gospel with people.  We sin less, and we gain victory over sin and temptation more often.  We produce spiritual fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, self-control, generosity, etc.

The pastor had two glasses of water.  He put an unopened package of Alka-Seltzer into the glass, and it did nothing.  Then he opened a pack and put a pill of Alka-Seltzer into the glass, and the water fizzed.  The lesson here is that believers have the Holy Spirit, but we need to unpack the Holy Spirit for the Spirit to make a difference in our lives.

Do I agree with this?  I agree with much of it.  I do not support being legalistic about confessing my sins, but I do believe in being honest before God, resolving to be kinder and more loving, and relying on God to do so.  Do I feel motivated to preach the Gospel?  Well, I am rather live-and-let-live when it comes to people's religious and philosophical beliefs, and I do not want to artificially try to sell people a message or to start talking about the substitutionary atonement to them.  My faith and my hope do shape who I am, however, and that does manifest itself in my life, as flawed as I am.  That's where I am on this.  Some may conclude from this that I do not really have the Holy Spirit.  But it's where I am, and they are entitled to their opinion.

This church did not have a passing of the peace or greeting time.  I kind of liked that, since I was feeling especially shy and introverted this morning.  At the same time, I somewhat missed the greater sense of connection that I get at the United Methodist Church that I usually attend, and that I have attended for about a year.  At the UMC church, I especially appreciate the time when people share their and others' joys and concerns.  That gives me an opportunity to care and to root for people, and it also shows that faith intersects with the real world, where people have joys and problems.  We did not have that at the Southern Baptist service that I attended this morning, but the attenders there probably get this in their small groups.

I will be moving this month, and thus I will be looking for another church.  I somewhat wanted to visit other churches in my present location, since there is not pressure: I will be leaving soon, so I am not asking myself if I fit in at the churches that I visit.  I am just seeing what they are like.  We'll see what I do next Sunday.  I will want to go to my UMC church one last time before I move.  

Friday, April 1, 2016

Book Write-Up: 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus

C. Marvin Pate.  40 Questions About the Historical Jesus.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Evangelical scholar C. Marvin Pate is the author of 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus.  In this book, Pate addresses questions about the historical Jesus, the biblical Gospels, and  extracanonical Gospels.

Here are some of my thoughts about this book:

A.  When I first saw the title, I was hesitant to request the book.  I thought that it would be rather simplistic and would repeat things that I had already read about the historical Jesus and New Testament studies.  The book is far from superficial, however.  It is almost 400 pages in length, and there are a lot of words on each page.  Pate is very detailed as he interacts with and critiques scholars.  His knowledge of classic, Second Temple, and rabbinic sources makes this book a virtual encyclopedia.  His ability to draw from that knowledge, and his knowledge of scholarship, to address questions and arguments is amazing.  Pate also interprets the Gospels in reference to Old Testament themes, in a manner that is creative and profound.  Pate has judicious discussions about such issues as Jesus' socio-economic status and the languages that Jesus knew and spoke.  This book is far from being a glorified "Frequently Asked Questions" pamphlet.

B.  That said, Pate does go on rabbit trails and get bogged down on details.  He sometimes does make an effort, though, to tie themes together near the end.  Personally, I learned a lot from these rabbit trails, so I appreciated them.  At the same time, if you are looking for a book that concisely summarizes what New Testament scholarship identifies as the distinct themes in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, this may not be the book for you.  Pate had interesting things to say about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but discussion about some of their key themes was notably absent.

C.  Overall, Pate has a maximalist stance towards the New Testament Gospels: he regards them as reliable portrayals of the historical Jesus.  He argues for the virgin birth and the historicity of the census in Luke 2.  At the same time, he appreciates the Gospels in their diversity.  He argues that Jesus' cleansing of the Temple has a different or a distinct significance in each Gospel.  He quotes a statement by Craig Blomberg about how the Gospels vary what they say in reference to the situation of their audiences: some passages reflect a Palestinian setting, whereas others adapt Jesus' words to speak more to a Greco-Roman setting.

D.  There are times when Pate references scholarship from the 1970's yet talks as if he is presenting recent trends in scholarship.  This was particularly the case in his discussion about oral tradition.  His discussion was interesting: it challenges prominent scholarly arguments about oral tradition that I read in preparing for one of my comprehensive exams!  But Pate also would have done well to have consulted recent studies, particularly about memory.  Moreover, while I acknowledge the possibility that lengthy chunks of oral tradition can be historically authentic and passed down reliably (as does Pate and the scholars he references), there also seem to me to be cases in which we see something different in the Gospels: cases in which Gospel authors contextualize short sayings differently from each other, or contextualize sayings in reference to their distinct ideology and themes.

E.  Related to C-D, there were many times when I thought that Pate could have done a better job in tying things together into a coherent picture.  He acknowledges the diversity of the Gospels yet accepts, overall, their historical reliability.  How does he tie these things together?  Can the creativity, distinct ideology, and agency of the Gospel-authors co-exist with the Gospels being reliable historically, and, if so, how? 

Pate had thoughts about the purpose of Jesus' Kingdom of God, but questions remained in my mind.  What exactly did Jesus' Kingdom accomplish in terms of the restoration of Israel, which Pate believes was a significant aspect of Jesus' mission?  Was Jesus aiming for Israel's spiritual restoration, not necessarily its national restoration?  Was the restoration postponed because many Jews rejected Jesus' message?  What was Jesus' aim in casting out demons: if it was to challenge Satan, why did Satan remain powerful after that?  Pate made his share of thoughtful points that touched on these issues, but there were times when he sounded like a classical dispensationalist, a progressive dispensationalist, and maybe even a covenant theologian, schools of thought that contradict each other, in key areas.

Pate interacted with the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament and the charge that the New Testament authors are not entirely faithful to the Old Testament passages' original meaning.  On Isaiah 7:14, he seemed to argue that it related to the time of Isaiah and Ahaz, yet also had Messianic significance.  He did not exactly offer a coherent picture as to how this could be the case.

F.  Pate rarely addressed the scholarly view that Jesus expected the end of the world to come soon.  Pate did talk about the differences between Schweitzer's view that Jesus had a thoroughgoing futuristic imminent eschatology, and the view that Jesus' Kingdom was already but not yet.  But Pate did not address many of the New Testament passages that appear to imply an imminent eschatology.  He did address Jesus' statement in the Olivet Discourse that "this generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled," and, overall, he did so judiciously, without artificial apologetics.  Essentially, Pate argued that Mark envisioned Jesus coming back soon after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, but that Matthew and Luke, who wrote after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., had different ideas from that of Mark.  Unfortunately, Pate did not wrestle with the theological implications of this insight: Was Mark wrong?  Did Mark simply not see the future clearly?  Pate just said that we should be ready for Jesus to return at any time, then moved on.

G.  Pate did not always strike me as consistent, particularly on using later sources or concepts to understand the first century C.E.  Sometimes, he seemed to recognize the problems in doing so.  At other times, he did so.  Sometimes, he justified doing so, and other times he did not.  I appreciate his rabbinic references, for the book would not be the same without them.  Pate could have done better in terms of methodological consistency, however.  He also could have done better on consistency when it came to other issues: for example, did he believe that the Son of Man in the Book of Daniel was Israel, a heavenly being allied with Israel, or what?  Was the concept of a Shaliach around during the time of Jesus, or not?

H.  Pate had questions at the end of each chapter.  The questions are good in that they can encourage people to review Pate's arguments.  At the same time, they did not particularly encourage thoughtfulness or exploration.  Overall, they were not open-ended, and they  assumed that Pate was correct.

I still give this book four stars because it is informative, and it is also a good book for reference.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.  Also, while I share the same last name with C. Marvin Pate, I have no idea if we are related! 

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