Friday, January 20, 2017

Scripture and Cosmology II

Greenwood, Kyle. Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science. DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 

See part I here

In chapter 2, Greenwood starts to layout the historical, cultural, geographical, and literary context in which the biblical texts should placed.  He begins by defining the term "Ancient Near East," (ANE) a term used by modern scholars to describe a geographical area (roughly what is thought of as the middle east today) and a time period ending with the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E.

Greenwood then goes on to discuss the numerous monumental historical discoveries over the past two centuries that have opened up the ANE to scholarly inquiry.  Among these discoveries were the Rosetta Stone (allowing scholars to decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphics), the discovery of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia and the subsequent efforts to decipher the ancient form of writing, These discoveries opened the floodgates for long lost ancient literature from Israel's ancient neighbors.  It was quickly noted that these ancient texts bore striking similarities to long known biblical literature.

Greenwood cautions against two extreme responses to this new treasure trove of material.  On the one hand, he wants to steer clear what what he calls "parallelomania," a overestimation of the literary connection between biblical literature and other texts from the ANE.  On the other hand, he warns against ignoring this material altogether. Instead, he advocates for a position that sees the literature of the ANE informing a cultural "milieu" which the ancient Israelites shared with their neighbors. Therefore, it is not that the biblical flood narrative was "copied" from the Babylonian Epic of Atrahasis (a Babylonian flood narrative with many similarities to the Noah epic in Genesis 6-10), but rather, that both cultures, ancient Israel and Babylon, shared the same cultural context and had similar worldviews. Therefore, this newfound material becomes invaluable for reconstructing the historical, geographical, cultural, and literary context against which one can read the biblical narrative.

The rest of chapter 2 gives the non-biblical evidence for the three tiered universe introduced in chapter one.  Greenwood uses a number of primary texts and artifacts that depict this three tiered universe from Babylon, Mesopotamia, Babylon, and Canaan.  He takes up the tiers in the order: earth, heavens, and seas.

For the inhabitants of the ancient near east, the earth is a flat disc surrounded by water all around, both above and below. There is also the underworld, which is the ultimate destination of all humans after death. There is not return from the underworld. The earth either floats on the cosmic ocean, or are supported by solid pillars.

The heavens refer to everything above the earth including the sun, moon, stars, and birds.  The heavens are also best described as a physical dome that acts as a roof to the earth and holds back the cosmic ocean that resides above the heavens.  There are upper and lower heavens.  The lower heavens are the visible heavens, the sun, moon, stars, and the firmament or dome.  The upper heavens are the abode of the gods.

Finally, the seas can be divided into freshwater and salt water.  All of the seas are connected to the oceans of the deep, and are often feared. Waters represent chaos and are often depicted as sea serpents. Waters also reside above the heavenly firmament, and the firmament contains gates or windows that are periodically opened by the gods, producing rain, snow, and hail.

In all, Greenwood makes an impressive case from ancient texts and artifacts, that the inhabitants of the ancient near east viewed the universe as a three tiered cosmos made up of the earth, the heavens, and the seas.  This, then is the context in which the ancient biblical texts should be placed in order to engage in responsible biblical interpretation.  It is also a context that is vastly different than our modern conception of the universe.  This can cause problems for modern interpreters who think that the bible describes the world "as it is."

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Scripture and Cosmology I

In chapter 1, "Scripture in Context," Kyle Greenwood attempts to frame the discussion of biblical cosmology as one that can only be treated properly when placed in context.  In fact, this whole chapter is an argument designed to point out what is so blatantly obvious to biblical scholars and literature scholars alike: context matters.  Greenwood points out that while context is important to understanding any communication, it is all the more so for literature that is over 2000 years old, the context of which is so distant from the present.

Greenwood lists four areas of context that are necessary for understanding a text: 1) Cultural Context, 2) Historical Context, 3) Geographical Context, and 4) Literary Context (under which he discusses the topic of genre).  Together, these contexts contribute to what Greenwood calls a "worldview" coming from Immanuel Kant's Weltanshauung. Greenwood notes, "In the classical sense, worldview entails the implicit and explicit presuppositions with which one processes information." Worldview is the basic assumptions we make about the world and how me make sense of the world in which we live.

Greenwood concludes the chapter by giving a brief overview of the ancient Israelites' worldview of the universe, or cosmological worldview.  In that worldview, the cosmos has three levels or tiers, the top tier, heavens (above the earth), the middle tier, the flat earth, and the bottom tier, the seas.

In each section, Greenwood gives numerous examples from the biblical text that illustrate his point. the main goal of the chapter is to argue that the worldview, the context, of the ancient biblical writings with regard to the cosmos are spectacularly distant from our own worldview of the cosmos. The quote he uses from John Walton's book The Lost World of Genesis One, nicely illustrates this point and is the main takeaway from the chapter:

The Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their "scientific" understanding of the cosmos.  They did not know that stars were suns; they did not know that the earth was spherical and moving through space; they did not know that the sun was much further away than the moon, or even further than the birds flying in the air. They believed the sky was material (not vaporous), solid enough to support the residence of the deity as well as to hold back waters.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Religion and Science

This spring, for the first time, I will be team-teaching a Religion and Science course with Dr. Corina Wack.  Dr. Wack teaches Biology here at Chowan and I am excited to learn from her as well as to have critical discussions about the relationship of these two fields.

Upcoming on this blog, I will be giving serial reviews of the two textbooks that we have chosen for the class.  I will be doing this in small chapter reviews to go along with the assigned readings for the course.

The first textbook is Scripture and Cosmology by Kyle Greenwood.  Greenwood teaches Old Testament at Colorado Christian University.

The second textbook that I will be reviewing is Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth Miller.  Miller is Professor of Biology at Brown University.

Stay tuned for the serial reviews.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Did Paul Just Go All Plato on Me?

In a recent series on this blog (Part I, Part II, Part III), I discussed the fact that Paul's teaching on the resurrection in I Corinthians 15 (See also I Thess. 4 and Rom. 8) does not conform to a platonic worldview with its corresponding dualism of reality (material vs. non-material), and its human dualism (body/flesh vs. soul/spirit).

When, however, one turns to other passages in Paul, it may seem like he does embrace this sort of platonic dualism.  For example, here is what Paul writes in II Corinthians 3:18:
"18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit." (NRSV). 
Here, Paul may be opening the door to a human dualism.  In I Cor. 15, transformation is instantaneous at the resurrection.  Here the transformation is gradual and is taking place now.  Is this a "spiritual" or non-material transformation?  Shortly after this verse, II Cor. 4:16 reads:
"16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day." (NRSV).  
This verse seems to be even more clearly embracing a platonic dualism, expressed here by the terms "outer nature" and "inner nature." Paul goes on to write in II Cor. 4:18:
 "18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal." (NRSV).
And here we might have an embrace of  platonic dualism of the material vs. non-material.  As I continue to read E. P. Sanders' latest work on Paul, I found his comments on these verses informative.  Here is what he has to say about II Cor. 4:18:
"This sentence constitutes what I call 'Paul's most platonic moment': Platonic theory held that the eternal 'forms' are real, while their 'shadows' or 'imitations,' which are perceived by the human senses, are not real.  What can destroyed is not real, what is real cannot be destroyed. Again, this suggests body/soul dualism." (emphasis original)(E. P. Sanders, Paul: The Apostle's Life, Letters, and Thought, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 411). 
Add to these verses in II Corinthians Paul's words from Phillipians 1:21-23 which read:
"21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better;" (NRSV). 
Here, what is it that departs to be with Christ?  Is it Paul's immortal (platonic) soul?  And what is it departing? The body?  It appears, if you read these verses that between the writing of I Corinthians, which clearly battled against a platonic worldview, and the writing of II Corinthians and Philippians, that Paul has changed his mind and embraced a platonic worldview.  I (and Sanders) will have more to say on this in future posts, but for now, what do you think?

Friday, March 4, 2016

Resurrection and Plato Part III

In Part I and Part II of this series, I have been discussing Paul's worldview as expressed in I Corinthians 15 in relation to the very common "Platonic" worldview.  In a nutshell, I argued that Paul does not hold to a Platonic dualistic worldview which splits reality in two: material (earth) and non-material (world of forms) reality, and the corresponding dualistic view of the human with a material body/flesh and a non-material soul/spirit.

At the end of the last post, I posed the following question: "if Paul was not talking in I Corinthians 15 about a move from material (physical) to non-material (spiritual) existence, then what distinction is he making?"

The specific verses that I have been dealing with are I Corinthians 15:44-46, which in the NRSV read as follows:
44 It is sown a physical [psychikon] body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical [psychikon] body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being[psychen]”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical[psychikon], and then the spiritual.
As I pointed out, the NRSV, and virtually all modern English translations are misleading here as they translate the Greek word psychikos as "physical" (NRSV, CEB) or "natural" (NIV, KJV, NKJV, NASB, HCSB, ESV).  Both of these words, physical and natural, play into a Platonic worldview bias and render what Paul says as essentially mirroring the dualistic reality of Plato.  This makes it almost impossible to see the distinction that Paul is making here, and it is not a distinction between material and non-material reality, but rather the distinction is between corruptibility and incorruptibility, between mortality and immortality.

This distinction between mortality and immortality can be clearly seen if one doesn't let vv. 44-46 and their misleading translations drive the issue.  Rather, vv. 42-26 list four contrasts between life before and after the resurrection.  The controlling metaphor here is that of sowing a seed (i.e., before resurrection) and what grows from the seed (i.e., after the resurrection).  This metaphor was introduced in v. 37.  So, what is sown in death is transformed through the resurrection.  But once again, this is not a move from material to non-material.  Look at the four examples:
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a "soulish" body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a "soulish" body, there is also a spiritual body. 
So, what are the four pairs?  They are:

  1. perishable vs. imperishable
  2. dishonor vs. glory
  3. weakness vs. power
  4. "soulish" vs. spiritual
We can follow this with one last pair: First Adam vs. Last Adam (Christ).  Adam died (and stayed dead), Christ died, but was raised to life.

Once again, the distinction here is not between material and non-material but between mortality and immortality.

One can see this same thought, the contrast between mortality/decay/death and immortality and life in Romans 8:18-23 where it is not only humans that will partake in this new form of existence, but the entire material creation will undergo a transformation.  The verses are as follows:
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (NRSV)
So, Paul thinks that all of creation will take part in this transformation and will not longer be in "bondage to decay."  It is not material vs. non-material for Paul, but perishable vs. imperishable.  If there is a dualism in Paul on this matter at all, it is a dualism of time: this present age vs. the age to come, before the resurrection vs. after the resurrection.  What do you think?

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Resurrection and Plato Part II

In Part I of this series I discussed the difficulty of squaring Paul's teaching on the resurrection found in I Corinthians chapter 15 with Plato's dualistic worldview. Specifically I pointed out that Plato clearly divides between a material body(soma)/flesh(sarx) and a non-material soul(psyche)/spirit(pneuma). Thus, in a Platonic view, earthly/material life is lived in a body made of flesh, and after the death of the body, the non-material soul/spirit lives on in a non-material reality (heaven/world of forms).  The problem is that Paul does not split reality this way.  Instead of material/non-material, Paul seems to have a dualism of time: before and after the resurrection.  Moreover, before the resurrection life is lived in a "soulish" (psychikos) body, and after the resurrection it is a spiritual (pneumatikos) body.  This does not square with Platonic reality in two ways. 1) It characterizes life on earth with the psyche and 2) it has a body in both realities.

I am currently reading through Sanders' recent volume on Paul (E. P. Sanders, Paul: The Apostle's Life, Letters, and Thought, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).) and he notes this very same thing.  He even happens upon the same awkward word "soulish" to translate psychikos.  Sanders notes, as I have also in the past, that Paul's use of psychikos to describe life before the resurrection is almost certainly dictated by his proof text which is Genesis 2:7, which reads:
"then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man [adam] became a living being. (NRSV).
Paul uses this verse to bolster his argument, and quotes it as follows in 15:45:
 “The first man, Adam, became a living being”
In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, which is most likely what Paul was familiar with as his Bible),  "living being" is the translation of the Greek "psychen zosan" or "living soul).  So, Adam was a living psyche, who of course would die, so the second Adam (Christ) was a "life giving spirit" (pneuma).

It is this verse, Paul's proof text from Genesis 2:7, that has controlled Paul's terminology and dictated his contrast between the "soulish" (psychikos) body and the spiritual (pneumatikos) body.  It is clear that Paul is not using the Greek terminology in the Platonic sense, because his terms do not line up with Plato's division of reality into material and non-material realms.  But, if he is not operating from a Platonic worldview, then what worldview was controlling his thought?

I would argue that Paul's controlling worldview, his controlling view of reality is a predominately Jewish worldview as displayed in the Old Testament.  That Jewish worldview rejects most Greek dualisms.  The Old Testament worldview does not split reality into material and non-material.  Rather, Creation, both the heavens (read sky) and earth are part of material creation.  Nor does the Old Testament split humans into material and non-material parts.  Rather, the human is a whole, a living being (see Gen 2:7) who is given life by the breath (spirit) of God.  In Genesis 2:7, a living being is a living nephesh, which is a Hebrew word meaning self, person, life, etc.  The word is often translated into Greek as psyche, as is the case in Gen 2:7, and thus is sometimes translated into English as soul.  But we are not talking about Plato's non-material soul that lives on after the body dies.  In Hebrew thought, the nephesh encompassed the whole person.

Here are E.P. Sanders words on the non-dualistic nature of Judaism, because I think they are instructive here:
"In general, Judaism is fundamentally against dualism, though some forms of Judaism accepted some forms of dualism.  But at the root of Judaism is the belief that there is only one true God, who is good, and who created the world, declaring it to be good too (e.g., Gen. 1:31). Christianity inherited this view, and the Jewish view of creation helped it fight off some of the worst aspects of dualism (especially the denigration of bodily pleasure), though it also accepted some.  The battle between dualism and monotheism went on for centuries, and resulted in a stalemate; to this day there is no final solution of the problem. (Sanders, Paul, 407). 
I would say, with Sanders, that what Paul writes in I Cor. 15 represents his predominately Jewish worldview and rejection of both dualistic reality and dualistic humanity. But, as a comment on my last post stated:
I can't guess what Paul meant by that distinction [psychikos vs. pneumatikos, before and after resurrection], if it wasn't the distinction between spiritual and physical.
Or, to rephrase, if Paul was not talking in I Corinthians 15 about a move from material (physical) to non-material (spiritual) existence, then what distinction is he making?  That will be the topic of my next post.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Resurrection and Plato

I have written on this blog numerous times (here, here, and here) about the Greek view of reality as expressed in Plato.  There is a strong dualism in Plato's thought that splits reality in two: the material reality and the non-material reality.  Corresponding to this dualism of reality, humanity is also split in two: the material body(soma)/flesh(sarx) and the non-material soul(psyche)/spirit(pneuma).  In this view of the world, there is little if any interaction between these two levels of reality.  Any influence seems to be in one direction, from the non-material reality (what Plato called the world of forms(idea)) to the material reality.  That influence was actually minimal, as the material reality is said to be merely a shadow of the world of forms.

Many Christians take Plato's dualistic worldview and subscribe to it as an accurate, truthful, and even "biblical" view of reality.  They then take Christian/biblical terminology and map it on to the Platonic worldview.  For example, for many Christians, the created order (earth) is Plato's material reality and Heaven is the non-material reality.  Thus, while on earth humans have bodies (soma) made of flesh (sarx), but these bodies are inhabited by the non-material soul (psyche) and spirit(pneuma).   After the death of the body, the non-material self (psyche/pneuma) go to the non material reality, heaven.  Well, this works well enough if one does not look too closely at the biblical material.  Yet, when one looks closely at the language of the Bible, it does not map neatly onto the Platonic worldview.  The following is just one example.

First Corinthians chapter 15 contains Paul's most complete teaching on the resurrection.  The chapter is 58 verses long and contains numerous interesting passages, all related in some way to the concept of resurrection.  At one point in Paul's argument, he poses the question to himself as follows:
35 "But someone will ask, 'How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?'" (NRSV)
So, Paul is wondering what sort of existence will there be after the resurrection.  Well, to line up with Platonic thought, Paul would have to posit a material/physical existence on this side of death, followed by a non-material/spiritual existence after the resurrection.   Enter 15:44-46, where Paul says:
44 "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, 'The first man, Adam, became a living being'; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual." (NRSV)
So, there you have it.  Paul agrees with Plato, right?  Before death it is a "physical body" and after death it is a "spiritual body."  Here is how the NIV translates the same verses:
44 "it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”[a]; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.
There again, Plato.  Before death, "natural," after the resurrection, "spiritual."  But, and here is the big but, Paul doesn't actually say what the NIV or NRSV translations say he says.

Interestingly, the word translated as spiritual here is, as we would expect, spiritual (pneumatikos, for which you can see the resemblance to the Greek for spirit, pneuma).  No problems there.  But, the word that is translated as physical (NRSV) and natural (NIV), is not the Greek word that means physical or natural (physikos), but instead, the word used there is, for lack of a better word, "soulish" (psychikos).  Here it is the soul (psyche) which characterizes existence on this side of death and the spirit (pneuma) which characterizes existence post-resurrection.  Now, it looks like Paul might not line up so nicely with Plato after all.  Plato firmly placed soul (psyche) and spirit (pneuma) in non-material reality, but here, Paul says that soul (psyche) is on this side of death, and that spirit (pneuma) is post-resurrection.  This is not even to mention the fact that body (soma) which for Plato is on the material side of reality, exists in both of Paul's realities.  There is a "soulish" body (soma) before death and a spiritual body (soma) after the resurrection.

I will have some further thoughts on this matter in a follow up post.  But, for now, what do you think?