Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Why I Blog (5 Years in)

This blog reached the age of five on April 12, 2015.  The occasion went unnoticed by me or anyone else because at that time, this blog had gone dark for over a year.  In fact, the blog has been dark for most of the past 4 years since I have been gainfully employed.  Yet, this semester I picked up again writing on the blog on a semi-regular basis (about three times a week).

I thought this would be a good time to revisit the question of why I blog (see my post from November 2010 discussing the same question).

I have wrestled a bit over this past semester with this question.  Am I looking for self promotion in my field (as I was five years ago while on the job market)?  Am I looking for recognition?  Am I looking to gain followers?  But, the consistent answer to all of these questions have been a resounding no. In fact, I am not even sure if I could envision an ideal audience for this blog.  I am not writing for fellow scholars.  Not all of my posts are relevant to a broad range of people. In the end I have come to the conclusion that  I do not blog for anyone other than myself.  That may sound selfish, or narcissistic, but in the end, this blog is a tool for my writing.

I picked up the blog at the beginning of this semester because I have not written much in the past 4 1/2 years since I have been a full time professor.  But, on the few occasions that I have had to write things, I have found that it is like pulling teeth.  I am out of practice.  I cannot get my thoughts down on paper (or on the screen) the way I would like.  So, merely as a tool for practicing my writing, I decided to start blogging again.

Now, in theory I could practice writing in any number of ways.  I could simply create a personal journal in Microsoft Word.  But for some reason, that does not hold the same allure. There is something about putting my thoughts out there in public that is more appealing than just keeping a private writing library. I don't have any expectations for readership.  I don't feel pressure to gain readers or followers.  I have just been looking to practice my writing and thinking.  I have loved blogging this semester and trying to get my thoughts down in a sustained manner.

Now, blogging does come with some nice extra benefits.  I have been able to interact with others on my topics.  I have reconnected with some other bloggers. I have met some new bloggers thanks to the Bloggers dinner at the SBL conference.  But, none of those benefits are why I blog.  I blog just for me.  These other benefits are simply the icing on the cake.  If you are reading this, I hope you enjoy. If what I write is interesting or stimulating.  I would love your thoughts and comments.  If on the other hand you are bored.  So be it.  This blog is for me.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Loving Your Enemies...

Never involves killing them!

In a speech to Liberty University, Jerry Fallwell Jr., the university's president, addressed the school last week in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings and said the following:
"I always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill,"
Now, if we interpret the Christian faith using the internal logic of evangelical Christianity, of which Falwell is a foremost representative, then there is no way to avoid the conclusion that Falwell is calling for DIRECT and UNFLINCHING DISOBEDIENCE to one of the most visible commands of Jesus.  He is calling on Christians to kill Muslims.

This obviously goes against a command of Jesus that occurs not once but twice in the New Testament:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (Matt 5:43-44)."
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  (Luke 6:27-28). 
Commands of Jesus don't get much more clear than that.  But Falwell is calling for DIRECT DISOBEDIENCE to this clear command of Jesus.  In fact, what he is preaching is "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  He is saying that to love one's neighbor (i.e., good Christian Americans like him), you have to kill your enemy (i.e., muslims).

Now, this love your enemy command can get tricky.  How does one define love?  For example, is it loving to let someone persist in bad actions that harm both others and themselves? Of course not.  So, one can make an argument (whether one agrees or not) that a seemingly unloving action, such as incarcerating someone agains their will, is actually a loving action, even though one might have to do things that seem unloving to accomplish this (like forcefully putting on handcuffs, etc.).  Or, one debate that never ends in our society is about the disciplining of children.  Is a seemingly unloving action of spanking a child actually a loving action of discipline.  Some say yes, some say no.  But this kind of reasoning with regard to killing does not work according to evangelical Christianity's own internal logic.  Let me explain.

For evangelical Christians, when a Muslim dies, he or she by definition is not saved, has not accepted Jesus as his or her personal Lord and Savior, and therefore goes to hell.  Therefore, to kill a Muslim, according to evangelical Christianity, is to sentence that person to eternal torture in hell.  Nothing could be less loving.  Therefore, for Falwell to call for the killing of Muslims is to call for DIRECT UNFLINCHING DISOBEDIENCE to the clear command of Jesus to love one's enemies.

What do you think?

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I am firmly convinced that the biggest factor in determining our actions is the story that we tell ourselves.  If one is a Christian, how we read the story of the Bible determines our actions. 

It is not the specific commandments of the Bible that are determinative, but the story.  Stories shape our self understanding at such a deep level that this is what informs our attitudes, outlooks, and behaviors. 

I think that much of what goes on in the name of Christianity comes from a fundamental flaw in our reading the Christian story.  It has to do specifically with a misreading of the character of God as revealed in Jesus.  This misunderstanding comes at the climax of the biblical narrative, the death of Jesus on the cross.  You see, if one reads the death of Jesus on the cross as simply a placeholder until Jesus returns to bring judgment and wrath on God's enemies, then one can justify killing in the name of God.  If Jesus' death on the cross was only the temporary solution to sin until he could come back in power, wrath, and judgment, smiting all of God's enemies, then Christians can claim to be agents of that judgment in the here and now.  

But, if you read Jesus' death on the cross not as some placeholder, not as some temporary dealing with individual sins, but rather as God's answer to a wicked world, God's message that power comes through weakness and surrender, then the whole justification for carrying out God's wrath falls apart. If Christians are truly to live out WWJD, the answer always comes back, love your enemies and take up your cross. 

This misunderstanding I think gets put on full display in many readings of the parable of the pounds in Luke 19:11-27.  In that parable, a nobleman goes away to receive royal power and leaves his possessions in the hands of his slaves to do business with.  His citizens oppose his rule, and send a delegation after him argue against his becoming king.  The nobleman receives his kingdom, returns and calls his slaves to account.  He rewards those who made money and takes away everything from the slave who made nothing.  Finally, he slaughters those citizens who opposed him.  The misunderstanding in many readings of this parable is to think that the nobleman is Jesus.  But, if one reads this parable in the light of its historical background, it is impossible to think that this nobleman is Jesus.  Instead, Jesus is describing the story of Archelaus, son of Herod the Great, an especially hated king.  Archelaus had to travel to Rome to have his kingship ratified by the emperor.  His citizens opposed him and sent a delegation after him to oppose his kingship to the emperor. He did receive part of his fathers kingdom and ruled for ten years.  On multiple occasions he slaughtered citizens who opposed him.  Jesus, in the parable of the pounds is describing Archelaus, not himself. He is describing earthly kings with their lust for money and power.  He is not describing himself or the Kingdom of God.  Yet, largely because of Matthew's similar parable of the talents, many read Luke's parable of the pounds as the story of Jesus as King.  If that happens, then Jesus is a king who is going away for a time, but will one day return to smite his enemies.  If that is the case, then Christians, who are of course on Jesus' side, can happily go along identifying Jesus' enemies and smiting them as they have the opportunity, all in Jesus' name. 

I have come to read the story differently.  Jesus' death on the cross was God's answer to the violence of the world.  The answer to violence, hatred, and wrath is not to fight it with more violence, hatred and wrath, but rather to submit in love and service. Here is how Jesus put it in Mark 10:42-45: 
42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
What do you think?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Plato in the Bible

I have been discussing the notion of heaven in the Bible recently.  In my recent posts (here, here, here, and here),  I have come to the conclusion that in the Bible the word heaven means 1) the sky, 2) the dwelling place of God, and 3) sometimes the word is a stand-in for God (e.g., kingdom of heaven = kingdom of God).  What I do not find in the Bible is anything approaching the modern conception of heaven as a non-physical reality where souls go when they die, provided they have the password (i.e., Christianity).  That non-physical reality, I have argued, is an idea that comes from Plato, and not the Bible.

But, I hinted in my last post on heaven that, while a Platonic worldview (the notion of a separate, non-physical reality) was largely foreign to the Bible, it does creep in around the edges.  So, where, you may ask, does Plato's view of reality show its face in the Bible?  The answer is in the often neglected book of Hebrews.  Hebrews, in general, is an outlier in the New Testament.  It is the only book of the Bible that has, as a central theme, the idea that Jesus was a priest (a problem, since Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, not the tribe of Levi).  The author goes to great lengths to defend the idea of Jesus as a priest, drawing on the mysterious OT figure Melchizedek (but that is a topic for another day).

But, one of the main ways that Hebrews lies outside the norm for the New Testament, is, I would argue, that the worldview of Hebrews is almost entirely Platonic.  That is, the author of Hebrews holds a worldview that sees reality as dualistic.  For Hebrews, reality is split in two.  This physical reality is a mere shadow of God's ultimate, perfect reality (i.e., heaven).  It is like the author of Hebrews is writing his book while all the while thinking of Plato's allegory of the cave. This worldview is on full display especially in chapters 8-10.  Take for example the following verses:

"They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: 'See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.'" (Heb 8:5 NIV).
Notice the use of the word shadow here.  It is hard to believe that the author here is not deliberately drawing on Plato.  In this verse the sanctuary referred to is that constructed by Moses for the offering of sacrifices.  Heaven, as used in this verse corresponds nicely to Plato's other, superior, non-physical reality.  Here is a second passage that illustrates this Platonic worldview:
"11 But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption." (Heb 9:11-12 NIV). 
Here Jesus is the great high priest that enters the true tabernacle (read, the tabernacle in the other, more perfect reality, i.e., heaven) to offer his superior sacrifice.  The author of Hebrews goes on in this vein:
 "23 It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence." (Heb 9:23-24 NIV).
Here again, the earthly sanctuary (read tabernacle, or later, the temple) is inferior and a mere copy (shadow) of the heavenly (read Platonic, non-physical reality) sanctuary where Christ offers his superior sacrifice.  One last example from Hebrews:
"The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship." (Heb 10:1 NIV). 
In this verse, it is the Law that is the shadow of the true heavenly reality.

So there it is. Plato makes his appearance in the Bible in full force in the book of Hebrews.  The dualistic Platonic worldview comes through clearly in Hebrews as Jesus and Christianity represents the fullness of heavenly reality while historical Judaism with its sanctuary/temple, its priests, its sacrifices, and its law, are only copies or shadows.

This discussion raises many fascinating questions.  If most of the Bible has one worldview (i.e., non-Platonic, non-dualistic), and one book holds another worldview (Platonic, dualistic), can these worldviews be reconciled?  Should they be reconciled?  Is one view closer to the truth than the other? But these are questions for another day.  What do you think?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Modern vs. Ancient Cosmology

I have been posting here recently on the concept of heaven in the Bible (see posts here, here, and here).  In that discussion, I have noted that in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, there is a spectrum of meanings: 1) the regions above the earth (sky), and 2) the dwelling place of God.  I have suggested that the second meaning of heaven as the dwelling place of God may be figurative or metaphorical, meaning that when the writers of the Bible used that word to depict God's abode, they were not thinking anymore of the literal sky, but rather were using the word figuratively.  James McGrath, in his own blog post has pushed back on my suggestion of a figurative use for heaven in the Bible, suggesting instead that there may be a 100% overlap between the literal use of heaven (sky) and the use of heaven as God's home.  The question is this: when the biblical writers used the word heaven to mean God's abode, did they have a 100% overlap with their notion of sky.  That is, did God literally dwell in the sky?

I am not sure that I can fully answer that question in a blog post, and I am not sure how substantive my disagreement with James may actually be.  I would agree with Dr. McGrath that certainly in places the two uses of the word do overlap completely in the Bible. Of course there are places where the ancients literally thought God dwelt in the sky.  What I was suggesting was that there may be a spectrum of meaning of the word in the Bible, where the writers are moving away from a 100% overlap toward a more figurative usage.  Certainly today the modern Christian conception of heaven as a non-physical reality where God dwells and where Christians will dwell in eternity is at one extreme of that spectrum where there is a 0% overlap with the other extreme where heaven literally means sky.  My question is, in the Bible, is there any movement along that spectrum toward a figurative usage?

And here is where worldviews come in.  I am thoroughly modern in my worldview.  When I think of earth and sky, I cannot help but incorporate my modern, scientific worldview.  That is, the sky, for me, is the earth's atmosphere that surrounds a spherical planet, that is one of 8(9) planets that revolve around a sun, that is a mid-sized star in a large galaxy, that is one of millions of galaxies.
Everything in the the universe except for the earth itself appears to me in the sky.  To say that God literally dwells in the sky is, for me with my modern worldview, a nonsensical statement.  Heaven as God's abode, for me, has to be figurative and cannot simply mean sky.  But, what about the ancients for whom the sky was something very different?  When the ancients looked up, they saw the heavens or sky as a dome resting above a flat earth.  Above that dome was an ocean.  The Sun, Moon, and Stars moved around in this sky.  The sky was completely inaccessible to humans, so naturally it was the abode of God in a literal sense (as McGrath holds).  My question remains though: did the biblical writers develop at all in their sense of God and heaven, and was there any movement along the spectrum toward a figurative usage of heaven as the abode of God yet without 100% overlap with a literal meaning of sky?  I think there may have been such movement, but perhaps, that is just my modern worldview talking and I am importing that view into the ancient writers' conceptions.  What do you think?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Heaven: A Spectrum of Meanings? III

In Part I of this series I discussed the meaning of the word heaven in the Old Testament, noting that there was a spectrum of meaning ranging from the physical regions above the earth (sky) to the dwelling place of God, either literal or metaphorical.  In Part II, I covered the word heaven in the New Testament and found basically the same spectrum of meanings.  Nowhere on that spectrum was there a sense of a place of reward in the afterlife.  So, where did this notion come from?  I would propose that many popular notions of heaven come not from the Bible, but rather, from a Greek philosopher named Plato, who predates Jesus and the birth of Christianity by nearly 400 years.

Let's start with Plato's "allegory of the cave." In this allegory, from Plato's Republic (7.514a-520a), there are a group of people held prisoner in a cave.  They are chained and facing away from the entrance of the cave.  Some way behind them in a cave is a fire, and a walkway.  And on the walkway all sorts of puppets and the like are passed between the fire and the prisoners.  All that the prisoners can see are the shadows of these puppets: animals, humans, trees, etc.  Therefore, they take this shadow dance on the cave wall to be reality. By chance, one prisoner escapes and makes his way up in the cave and sees the puppets and the fire for what they really are.  He continues to make his way up and out of the cave and sees that not only were the shadows on the wall not reality, but neither were the puppets, they were only a shadow of the reality of the world outside the cave.  In this allegory, when the prisoner returns to try and tell the other prisoners of reality, they do not believe him.  In fact, they become hostile and kill the escaped prisoner.

Plato likens humans on this earth to the prisoners in the cave.  Through this physical world we can only see shadows.  Only as the soul turns away from this physical reality to seek the true higher light, can the soul ultimately be freed from this world and find its true home.  Moreover, like the prisoners in the cave, humans do not like to be told that what they see and experience are not reality.  Hence, this present physical reality is a barrier to seeing the truth.

Thus, Plato holds a worldview of the duality of reality.  This world, the created order, was at best morally neutral, and at worst, evil.  The physical reality was a prison for our souls, preventing the soul, the core and true form of the person, from achieving true reality.  Our bodies and their appetites were roadblocks to achieving enlightenment. The spiritual reality was the only true reality.  Thus there is a duality: physical vs. spiritual, body vs. soul.

I remember reading Plato for the first time in college, and having an epiphany.  I wondered how Plato, who lived nearly 400 years before Christ, had somehow stumbled upon the absolute Christian truth of heaven, this other reality where our souls truly belong. Surely God must have enlightened Plato somehow, however, God did not give him the full truth or knowledge of God.  How naive was my thinking back then?

Is it not far more logical that Christianity, which was born out of a Jewish background and worldview, but quickly spread to Greek and Roman culture, would come to mix Jewish ideas about the Messiah with a predominately Greek worldview?  Here is my proposition: Christianity began with a largely Jewish view of the world, where heaven primarily represented the sky, and by extension, the abode of God. The Jewish worldview was essentially non-dualistic with regard to reality.  That is, the world, both heaven (sky) and earth, was and essential unity and part of God's creation.  But, as Christianity spread to Gentiles (Greeks and Romans), the predominate dualistic worldview of the Greeks (where physical reality is a mere shadow of a much greater non-physical reality), remained in place for believers.  Therefore, Christianity embraced a dualistic worldview, and adapted that worldview to the message of Christ.  It is in this dualistic worldview, I contend, that the word heaven takes on its more popular meaning.  Heaven, in a Christian/Platonic mix becomes the true, spiritual reality, where souls go after death and dwell with God in bliss, provided they have accepted Christ, of course.

Thus, we get our third meaning of heaven on the spectrum.  Heaven now no longer means sky, nor simply the idea that the abode of God is in the sky, but now, heaven is a non-physical reality, a place where spiritual beings like God, and human souls, exist apart from physical reality.  Yet, I do not find this third meaning in the New Testament, at least not when used in conjunction with the word heaven (οὐρανός).  I think that this dualistic worldview is largely foreign to the New Testament.  I say largely foreign because I do think that the Platonic worldview does creep in around the edges of some New Testament books, but that is a discussion for another post.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Kirk Herbstreit's Nonsense

I want to take a quick break from more weighty matters to discuss college football.  I don't write much about football on this blog, but as a two-time Baylor grad, I love what is happening with Baylor football, especially considering how pitiful the Bears were during most of my time there.

Full disclosure:
1) I am a Baylor fan and Baylor homer.
2) I think the College Football Playoff committee did a fine job last year, and, while I wish Baylor had made the initial playoff, I think the CFP got it right putting Baylor at 5 last year.
3) I think the CFP will probably get it right again this year.  I don't really care about any CFP ranking except the final one.

With that out of the way, it irks me when someone like Kirk Herbstreit says something like he said this morning on Mike and Mike. He said that if undefeated team from the big 12 at the end of the year (read, if that team is Baylor), then the CFP would be justified in leaving them out of the playoff in favor of teams currently ranked ahead of them (read 1 loss Notre Dame and 1 loss Alabama).  The reason, Herbstreit says, is that it would send a message to Baylor not to schedule non-conference cupcakes (read Lamar, Rice, and SMU).  I grant that Baylor's non-conference schedule is dismal.  It has been for years, and looks to keep going that way in the future.  But, what irks me is that when people talk about non-conference cupcake scheduling, they point the finger disproportionately at Baylor.

For comparison purposes, I want to briefly look at the non-conference schedules of the current CFP top 10 and the number of games that could be labeled cupcake.  Instead of trying to rank cupcakes, I will make the simple distinction of Power Five teams vs. non-Power Five teams (Power five being the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, and ACC) Though Notre Dame is an Independent, I will count them as Power Five because of their consistent quality.

1. Clemson (ACC) Conference: 8 Power Five games vs. ACC opponents. Non Conference: Wofford, Appalachian State, Notre Dame, South Carolina (SEC).  Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 10/2.

2. Alabama (SEC) Conference: 8 Power Five games vs. SEC opponents.  Non Conference: Wisconsin (Big 10), Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Monroe, Charleston Southern.  Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 9/3.

3. Ohio State (Big 10) Conference 8 Power Five games vs. Big 10 opponents. Non-Conference: Virginia Tech (ACC), Hawaii, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan.  Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 9/3.

4. Notre Dame (Independent).  Notre Dame only plays 2 Non-Power Five opponents this year: Temple and Massachusetts.  Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 10/2.

5. Iowa (Big 10) Conference 8 Power Five games vs. Big 10 opponents. Non-Conference: Illinois State, Iowa State (Big 12), Pittsburgh (ACC), North Texas.  Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 10/2.

6. Baylor (Big 12) Conference 9 Power Five games vs. Big 12 opponents. Non-Conference: SMU, Lamar, Rice. Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 9/3.

7. Stanford (Pac 12) Conference 9 Power Five games vs. Pac 12 opponents. Non-Conference: Northwestern (Big 10), Central Florida, Notre Dame (Independent). Summary, counting Notre Dame as Power Five, Power Five/Non-Power Five 11/1.

8. Oklahoma State (Big 12) Conference 9 Power Five games vs. Big 12 opponents. Non-Conference: Central Michigan, Central Arkansas, Texas San Antonio. Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 9/3.

9. LSU (SEC)  Conference: 8 Power Five games vs. SEC opponents.  Non-Conference: McNeese State, Syracuse (ACC), Eastern Michigan, Western Kentucky. Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 9/3.

10. Utah (Pac 12) Conference 9 Power Five games vs. Pac 12 opponents. Non Conference: Michigan (Big 10), Utah State, Fresno State. Summary Power Five/Non-Power Five 10/2.

Overall Summary: There are five teams in the top 10 with a Power Five/Non-Power Five schedule of 9/3.  They are Alabama, Ohio State, Baylor, Oklahoma State, and LSU.  I don't see Herbstreit ripping on Alabama for scheduling Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Monroe, and Charleston Southern. Or on LSU for scheduling McNeese State, Eastern Michigan, and Western Kentucky.  Why do they get a pass while Baylor gets ripped.  1. Alabama and LSU both play one non-conference Power Five team (because they have 4 non-conference games).  But they still schedule 3 cupcakes. 2. All of Baylor's non-conference games are against Non-Power Five opponents, but they play 1 more power five opponent in conference. 2.  Baylor schedules their con-conference opponents as their first three games and then so thoroughly destroys them that it draws attention to the inferior competition, while Alabama and LSU spread these non-conference cupcakes throughout their season.

So Kirk, if you are going to point the finger at Baylor's non-conference cupcakes, could you at least be fair and point the finger equally at Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, and Oklahoma State.  Baylor is not alone playing three teams of inferior quality, but seems to be the only one whom you actually call out for it. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Heaven: A Spectrum of Meanings? II

In part I, I discussed the use of the term heaven (Hebrew שָׁמַיִם (shamayim)) in the Old Testament.  I noted that there is a spectrum of meaning from simply meaning the visible creation above the earth (sky) to a more metaphorical meaning of heaven as the dwelling place of God.  James McGrath pressed me on my use of "metaphorical" for this second usage of heaven in the comments, and I responded to him also in the comments.  The substance of my response was that while I granted that using heaven as the abode of God could certainly be literal, as in the physical place above the earth where God actually dwells, I am not sure that the literal "sky" is what was consistently meant by Hebrew writers, as if God actually dwells in the sky.  One instance where I think heaven is used metaphorically is in Isaiah 66:1 where it says,
"Thus says the LORD:
Heaven is my throne
and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
and what is my resting place?" (NRSV)
In this case, I think just about the entire verse is figurative in its usage.

But today, I want to look at the New Testament term corresponding to the Hebrew שָׁמַיִם, and that would be the Greek οὐρανός (ouranos).  This term occurs 273 times in the New Testament and is usually translated as heaven.  The question is, when that word is used in the New Testament, what does the author have in mind?  I would venture that the notion of heaven as a place of reward in the afterlife is not on the author's mind in most, if not all instances, of the word οὐρανός.  There are several reasons for this statement, but in the following I will give one.  It comes from the definition of the word.  If you look at Greek lexicons that analyze literature from the time of the New Testament and before, the Classical and Koine Greek worlds, one does not find the definition of οὐρανός as a place of reward in the afterlife.  In fact, the Greek lexicons provide basically the same spectrum of meaning for οὐρανός as the Hebrew Lexicons give for שָׁמַיִם in the Old Testament.  That is, in Greek, οὐρανός can be simply the region above the earth (i.e., sky), or the abode of God/gods.  Take for example Louw & Nida's entry 1.5
"οὐρανός, οῦ m (either singular or plural without distinction in meaning): space above the earth, including the vault arching high over the earth from one horizon to another, as well as the sun, moon, and stars — ‘sky."
That is one meaning.  A second meaning for this word is given as entry 1.11,
"οὐρανός, οῦ m (singular or plural; there seems to be no semantic distinction in NT literature between the singular and plural forms): the supernatural dwelling place of God and other heavenly beings (οὐρανός also contains a component denoting that which is ‘above’ or ‘in the sky,’ but the element of abode’ is evidently more significant than location above the earth) — ‘heaven.’"
Interestingly, in their comments on this second meaning, Louw & Nida mention that the notion of "abode" is more significant than the location above the earth.  Are they saying that this usage is more metaphorical than literal?  Do they answer McGrath's question?  I am not sure.

Louw & Nida give one final definition of the word in entry 12.16 as follows:
οὐρανός, οῦ m: (a figurative extension of meaning of οὐρανός ‘heaven,’ 1.11) a reference to God based on the Jewish tendency to avoid using a name or direct term for God — ‘God.’ ἥμαρτον εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ ἐνώπιόν σου ‘I have sinned against God and against you’ Lk 15:18, 21.
This third usage is certainly figurative in meaning where Heaven is a stand-in for God.

But, even though there is this range of meaning for the Greek term οὐρανός, none of these approach the modern conception of heaven as a place of reward after death.  So, if the spectrum of meaning of heaven in the NT ranges from the physical sky above the earth to the dwelling place of God and as a stand-in for God, then where does the modern conception of heaven as a place of reward after death come from?  Well, that is a question for another day.  Stay tuned.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Heaven: A spectrum of Meanings?

Heaven is a fascinating term.  Ask anyone on the street the meaning of the word heaven, and I would bet you would get a wide variety of answers.  Heaven has become an amorphous word that can be conformed to just about anyone's definition.  Interestingly, heaven, for much of modern Christianity, has become the ultimate goal.  It is the one point of hope for Christians, the place where the righteous (read, people like "us") will go after we die.  For those interested in a challenge to this view, N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, is a great place to start. All this said, heaven is a biblical word, used both in the Old and New testaments, and so perhaps looking into the word in the Bible would be a good place to start in trying to define a range of meaning for the word.

One does not have to venture very far into the Bible to find the word heaven.  In fact, it is in the very first verse Genesis 1:1 which reads,
"In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,"
The word for heaven here is the Hebrew שָׁמַיִם (shamayim) which only occurs in the plural in the Old Testament, thus the translation "heavens." Interestingly, to import our modern conception of "heaven," a place of reward in the afterlife, into this context of Genesis 1:1 would be a grave error. For, in the entire Old Testament the word never carries that meaning.  In Genesis 1:1 and many other places in the Old Testament, the word refers to a physical object above the earth, what we would most likely call the sky (see my post from several years ago on ancient science here).  In the Brown Driver Briggs (BDB) Hebrew Lexicon the first definition of the word is,
"visible heavens, sky, where stars, etc., are."
So, on a spectrum of meanings for this word, at one end would be the definition of the visible, physical reality that exists above the earth.  When a modern Christian encounters the word "heaven" or "heavens" in the Bible, I think that it is a gut reaction to import the idea of a spiritual afterlife reality into the context.  This idea of the word "heaven" meaning a physical reality is almost totally off their radar screen.  But, in much of the Old Testament the word simply means "sky."

But, there is a second definition of the word given by the BDB as follows:
"as abode of God (’י), where he sits enthroned." 
The visible heaven or sky then can take on a metaphorical meaning as the dwelling place of God. Where is God?  Look up, he is in the heavens.  Once again, while moving away from the first meaning a little bit, the conception of the sky as the dwelling place of God is not entirely removed from that first meaning.  We are still nowhere near the definition of heaven most Christians would give as a spiritual reality where Christians go after they die.

As far as the Old Testament is concerned, this is basically the entire spectrum on which the meaning of this word lies.  No afterlife.  There is simply a concrete meaning as that which is visible above the earth (sky), and then a more metaphorical and figurative meaning as the dwelling place of God. Look up any occurrence of the word heaven in the Old Testament and I bet either one of these two meanings will be a better fit for the context than would a modern Christian definition of a place of reward in the afterlife.  Well that is it for the Old Testament.  What about the New Testament?  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Scholarship vs. Apologetics

In my three part series on the Census of Quirinius (I, II, III), one concept has been lurking just below the surface, and that is the concept of apologetics.  Now, there is no one definition of apologetics, but let the following quote from the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) website serve as a starting point:
"Apologetics is the branch of Christianity that deals with the defense and establishment of the Christian faith."
CARM follows up this definition with a quote from I Peter 3:15 as follows:
"But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence,"
At the heart of any definition of apologetics is the idea of defense. Apologetics is the defending of a position. Apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia which simply means defense. Think of Plato's dialogue Apology, or simply Apologia in Greek, which is the dialogue which presents Socrates' trial and his defense in that trial. Also within the word apologia, there is the embedded concept of logos, the Greek word which carries many senses, but one of them is logic or reason. There is the expectation that an apologia will be logical and well reasoned.

Christian apologetics therefore is a reasoned defense of the faith.  To that end, Christian apologetics engages in research, evidence seeking, logical argumentation, etc. in the pursuit of defending certain doctrines, dogmas, or claims of the Christian faith.  Fair enough.  It makes perfect sense to attempt to reason out one's faith.  Apologetics can be seen as the logical outflow of Anselm's famous phrase, fides quaerens intellectum translated "faith seeking understanding." Begin with faith, then seek logical reasons that support that faith. Because of all of this language of logic, research, fact seeking, etc., it can seem as if apologetics and scholarship are the same thing.  Yet, they are fundamentally different and the method of apologetics is fundamentally flawed in my mind. The problem with the apologetic method is its starting point.  Apologetics starts with the conclusion.  The conclusion is firmly fixed before any research begins. Therefore, for the apologist, the conclusion is the starting point which must then be "defended" through research.

The method of scholarship follows a completely different, and in my mind more valid, order.
Scholarship begins with observations and questions, does research and collects data and evidence, and only after a careful analysis of the evidence, do scholars form conclusions.  I have compared biblical scholarship to a modified scientific method in another post here.  I think that this is the most valid way to pursue truth.  Your starting point is essential.  You must start with observations and questions, then seek your facts and evidence, and only then form conclusions. To begin with your conclusions and only then seek your facts leads to all sorts of problems. Any position can be defended by facts, and that is what apologetics seeks to do.  But, just because I can find some evidence to defend a conclusion, does not mean that that conclusion is valid.  It merely means that I could find some facts that seem to support the conclusion.  It in no way means that I have treated all of the data fairly or completely.

An illustration of this sort of seeking facts to support a conclusion came up very clearly in my posts about the census of Quirinius. I submit again the following quote from Raymond Brown:
"There is no serious reason to believe that there was a Roman census of Palestine under Quirinius during the reign of Herod the Great. (Indeed, as regards the non-biblical 'evidence,' it is doubtful that anyone would have even thought about an earlier census if he [sic] were not trying to defend Lucan accuracy.)"*
Sure one can seek evidence of a Roman census of Judea during the reign of Herod the Great, but as Brown states, that pursuit would not ever enter anyone's mind based on the evidence.  The only possible reason to seek for a Roman census during the reign of Herod the great is to defend an already fixed conclusion.

For an apologist dealing with the Lukan birth narrative, their conclusion is their starting point. Namely, their conclusion is that Luke presents historically accurate information. This is the one thing that must be defended.  It is the only conclusion that is allowed.  So, an apologist reasons, if Luke presents historically accurate information (which is not a conclusion based on an analysis of the facts, but is rather an unassailable presupposition) then there must be data to support and defend such a conclusion.  The apologist then seeks for any data that might possibly defend their position. Which has led to the claim that their was a Roman census of Judea during the reign of Herod the Great.  Yet, as Brown notes, "Indeed, as regards the non-biblical 'evidence,' it is doubtful that anyone would have even thought about an earlier census if he [sic] were not trying to defend Lucan accuracy." An unbiased analysis of the data does not suggest such a census, but is only suggested as a possibility due to the need to defend one's presupposed unassailable conclusion.

In my mind apologetics is fundamentally flawed and does not provide a valid method for the pursuit of truth.  You cannot begin with your conclusions. You must, as rigorous scholarship demands, begin with your observations and questions, then look at the data and evidence, and, only after careful analysis of the data, form your conclusions. What do you think?

* Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979), 554.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Census of Quirinius III: An Earlier Census?

As stated in the first two posts on this topic (I, II),the information Luke provides in Luke 2 about the census of Quirinius lines up perfectly with other historical sources regarding the census of Quirinius the governor of Syria (except, of course, the necessity of Mary and Joseph traveling from Nazareth to Judea).  That is, this census took place after Archelaus was deposed as tetrarch over Judea in 6 C.E., some 10 years after Herod the Great had died in 4 B.C.E.  Nevertheless, since Luke tells us in Luke 1 that Mary is pregnant with Jesus during the reign of Herod the Great, his chronology doesn't work. This apparent discrepancy in Luke's timeline has led many Christian scholars and commentators to search for solutions to this problem.  One of the most common solutions is to propose an earlier census of Judea during the reign of Herod the Great.  Luke opens the door for this line of reasoning with his ambiguous phrase in Luke 2:2 as follows:
"This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria."
I think that this is a good translation (NIV) of the Greek, but the ambiguity comes from the Greek word prote meaning "first." Luke's use of "first" opens the door to the possibility that Quirinius had conducted a "first" census prior to the one in 6 C.E., thus reconciling Luke's timeline.  While it might be desirable to reconcile Luke's chronology, I do not think that an earlier census makes sense of the data.  Sure, Roman censuses had taken place before 6 C.E., and there is positive evidence of these censuses, none of them refer to a census of Judea during the reign of Herod the Great.  The most common appeal that I have seen is to a census in 8 B.C.E. Yet, this was a census in Egypt, not in Judea. The main line of reasoning that precludes a census in Judea during the reign of Herod the Great is the fact that a census for the purpose of taxation would not have been needed in Judea as long as Herod, who was a good administrator if nothing else, was collecting and submitting taxes to Rome. And there is no positive evidence that he was not.  In fact, if Herod were not doing his job, he would have been deposed, as was his son Archelaus 10 years after Herod's death.  So, it is historically implausible that Rome conducted a census in Judea during the reign of Herod the Great. I concur with the statement of the late Raymond Brown where he states:
"There is no serious reason to believe that there was a Roman census of Palestine under Quirinius during the reign of Herod the Great. (Indeed, as regards the non-biblical 'evidence,' it is doubtful that anyone would have even thought about an earlier census if he [sic] were not trying to defend Lucan accuracy.)"*
All of this reasoning leads to the conclusion that for whatever reason (and there could be many), Luke has not provided accurate historical information regarding the birth of Jesus.  Either Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (before 4 B.C.E), or during the census of Quirinius (6 C.E.), but it could not be during both.

* Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979), 554.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Second Amendment Obsolete?

Full Disclosure: I am about to muse on a subject about which I AM NOT AN EXPERT in any sense of the word.  I am not a constitutional scholar.  I am not a lawyer.  I am not a historian of the Revolutionary era.  Thus, my thoughts bear no special weight in this discussion.

Nevertheless, I am an expert in ancient texts, specifically the texts of the New Testament.  Now, while the U.S. Constitution is by no means nearly as ancient as the texts of the NT, it is now quite old and the world has changed considerably.  Yet, with all texts, as they age, some parts lose the power they once held.  They can become obsolete in many ways.  We see this all the time with biblical texts. Take just the following example.

In Acts 15:19-20, James, the Brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem, makes the following proclamation concerning Gentile believers.  He says,
"Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood."
This is the famous Jerusalem council that was supposed to address the issues that had arisen between Jewish and Gentile Christians regarding how Gentiles might be accepted into the faith.  The big questions were about circumcision and food laws and led to open fights between Paul and Peter (see Galatians 2).  What I find interesting is that three of the four requirements for Gentile Christians, those about things (probably food) polluted by idols, things (food) strangled, and blood (probably food again), are not even afterthoughts among Christians today.  There is no section in my grocery store for food that is blood free, not strangled, and not sacrificed to idols.  Many Christians today eat bloody food and have no idea whether or not it was strangled.  More importantly, they don't care. And the issue of idols, talk about obsolete.  The only bit of Acts 15:19-20 that Christians still bother to pay attention to is the prohibition of fornication (however that may be defined).  Three of the four prohibitions, which were clearly hot button issues of the day, are no longer on our collective radar screens.

And now we get to the second amendment.  Is it possible that this portion of the constitution has become obsolete, meaning that it cannot really speak to our present situation with any real relevance? Here is the full text of the second amendment:
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
Many people cut off the first half of the amendment which speaks about militias, and skip right to the good part about the government not infringing the rights of the people to bear arms.  They then take this as an absolute right never to be infringed.  If the people want guns, they have the right to have guns.  But the key to this amendment, the context if you will, is found in the first part about militias. The purpose of bearing arms is for the formation of militias to make for a secure state.  Now, the question becomes, how does a militia make the state secure, and secure from whom?  Are the people supposed to use these guns to form militias for protection from foreign powers?  Perhaps, but think about when this amendment was written: right after the revolutionary war in which the colonies were fighting against their own government, the British.  Moreover, who was trying to take their guns and prevent them from revolting? Once again, their own government, the British.  So, what was the purpose of this amendment?  To protect the rights of the people against one's own government.  Fair enough, and a good and necessary amendment in that context.  The people need recourse against any government that grows too oppressive.

But, herein lies the problem. While a militia equipped with muskets might have been sufficient to repel the British in the late 1700s, a thousand militias today equipped with legal guns of all sorts would stand no chance against the United States' military (or any other developed countries' militaries) today.  The guns, which the second amendment seems to guaranty the peoples' right to, are "obsolete" in modern warfare.  Sure, the military still uses guns, and highly advanced ones at that, but they also use attack helicopters, tanks, stealth jets, drones, aircraft carriers, and, God forbid, nuclear weapons.  I see no one seriously arguing that the second amendment protects the right of private citizens to own any of these previously mentioned weapons.  Although, to fulfill the purpose of the second amendment, the right of citizens to protect themselves from either a foreign power or their own oppressive government would require private citizens to own such weapons.   The second amendment cannot function properly in our modern society of highly advanced weaponry.  Think of the destruction possible if some of the recent gun rampages had been performed by people with the right to own tanks, or attack helicopters, or the like.  Perhaps, just perhaps, this portion of the constitution has become obsolete and we need to rethink the original purpose of the second amendment and the best way forward in seeking the "security of a free state"?  I am not sure, given the ongoing gun violence in our country that the second amendment is still the best way to provide for the security of a free state.  What do you think?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Census of Quirinius II: Questions

In my previous post, I discussed the census of Quirinius referred to in Luke 2.  I drew the conclusion that this census occurred in 6 C.E. and really only makes sense at that time and not earlier.

That date, 6 C.E., as well as the way that Luke tells the story, raises some interesting questions. Scholarship always begins with questions. We must be willing to ask questions and follow the data to whatever answers we can find. In this case, the questions may not be easy and the answers may not be either.

Question 1: does Luke's story fit chronologically?  Here is the problem.  In 1:5 we are told that Herod was "King" of Judea when Zechariah was given the announcement of his son's birth.  His son, of course is John the Baptist. In 1:26 we are told that Elizabeth (the mother of John) was in her sixth month of pregnancy when the announcement of Jesus' birth is given to Mary.  In 1:39, Mary visits Elizabeth and John leaps in her womb in response to the presence of Jesus.  This firmly dates Mary's pregancy during or shortly after King Herod's reign.  Now the term King is important here, for only Herod the great could be called "King."  His sons, who also went by Herod, were also rulers, but they were not called "King."  Instead, Herod's sons (Antipas, Phillip, and Archelaus) were called "tetrarchs," rulers of a fourth of Herod's kingdom.  So, the Herod from 1:5 must be Herod the Great and not Antipas as some have argued.  The date of Herod the Great's death is firmly set in 4 B.C.E. So, Mary is pregnant during the reign of Herod the Great, but does not give birth until the census of Quirinius in 6 C.E.  See the problem?  Either Mary carried Jesus in the womb for 10 years before giving birth, or something in Luke's chronology is off.  Either Jesus was born in the waning moments of Herod the Great's reign in about 4 B.C.E.  (as in Luke 1 and also in Matthew 2), or he was born at the time of the census of Quirinius in 6 C.E.  It cannot be both.

Question 2: Does a trip from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea for a census make historical sense?  In Luke the reason Jesus is born in Bethlehem is because of this census.  But, does such a move even make sense?  Here is what I mean.  Last time I mentioned that Roman censuses were primarily for the purposes of taxation.  You would want to know how many people were living in an area from which you hoped to collect taxes.  But, Mary and Joseph don't live in Bethlehem, or even in Judea. They live in Galilee, which which would not even be covered in this census since Galilee at the time was under the rule of Herod Antipas who would be responsible for collecting and submitting taxes to Rome.  So, it makes no sense to send Mary and Joseph to Joseph's ancestral home (Bethlehem, the city of David, the ancestor of Joseph) to be counted for a census, the purpose of which is taxation, since Mary and Joseph will not be living there to be taxed.  And as expected, after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph return to Galilee.  We have no other example of a Roman practice of sending people to ancestral homes to be counted.  It would make no administrative sense.  The closest we have is that temporary dwellers would be sent back to their permanent residences during a census, not the other way around.*

So, in answer to these questions I would say 1), Luke's chronology is off and does not fit. And 2) Luke's story of Mary and Joseph does not make historical sense with regard to Roman practice.

These answers raise two other important questions which I hope to tackle at another time: 1) Was Luke's mistaken chronology a mistake? Or, did he knowingly include irreconcilable dates?  And 2) Was Luke aware of the implausibility of his narrative of moving Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus?  What do you think?

* See Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 549.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Census of Quirinius

The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are fascinating and I have written concerning them previously (here, here, and here).  Today I want to take a look at the census of Quirinius* referred to in Luke 2:1-3 as follows:
"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
This census is foundational for Luke's narrative.  The census is the driving force that moves Mary and Joseph from their home in Nazareth of Galilee (in the northern part of Palestine) to Bethlehem in Judea (in the southern part of Palestine).  It is the reason why Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem, in a stable at the time of Jesus' birth.  Without the census, Jesus would have presumably been born at the home of Mary and Joseph in Nazareth.  No stable, no manger, no farm animals or shepherds (much like the birth of Jesus in Matthew 2). 

With the census being so central to the Luke's story, what can we know about it?  Josephus, a first century Jewish historian also mentions the census, and it is important to his narrative as well. In fact, the census of Quirinius sets off a mini-rebellion by Judas the Galilean, and is an important precursor to the Jewish war which is the primary focus of Josephus' Jewish War, and Antiquities. Luke also mentions Judas the Galilean in connection with the "census" in Acts 5, so he is well aware of the connection of the census with Judas. According to Josephus, this census takes place during the governorship of Quirinius, legate of Syria, in 6-7 C.E.

The timing of the Roman census in 6-7 C.E. makes perfect sense, as, before 6 C.E. and dating back well into the first century B.C.E., the region of Judea had been under the administration of Herod the Great and his sons.  Herod, and his sons after him had administrative control of most of Palestine and were responsible for the collection of taxes and general rule.  Before 6 C.E., there would be no reason for Rome to conduct a census.  Censuses existed in Rome primarily for the purposes of taxation.  As long as the Herods were collecting and submitting taxes to Rome, Rome would have no need for a census.  But, something changed in 6 C.E.  In 4 B.C.E., Herod the Ethnarch (King, Ruler of a people), who had ruled most of Palestine since 37 B.C.E. died.  He left his kingdom to his son Archelaeus.  Archelaus and Herod's other sons all traveled to Rome to argue for their father's kingdom before Emperor Augustus. In the end, Rome divided Herod's kingdom among his three sons.  Judea and Samaria went to Archelaus; Galilee and Perea went to Herod Antipas, and Batanea went to Phillip.

Archelaus the Tetrarch (ruler of a fourth), ruler over Judea and Samaria, was a vicious ruler hated by his people.  He slaughtered many of his own citizens on multiple occasions. When he went to Rome to have his kingdom ratified by the Roman Emperor, his own citizens sent a delegation after him to oppose his rule.  In the end, his administration was a disaster and Rome removed him from power in 6 C.E. and replaced his rule by bringing Judea and Samaria under their own governor in Syria.  At the time, 6 C.E., that governor was Quirinius.  And now that Judea was under Roman rule, they needed to know how many people lived there, thus, the census of Quirinius of 6 C.E.  A Roman census prior to this time makes no sense.

This is the basic historical background for the census of Quirinius.  Stay tuned for future posts on the census.

*For more info on the census, see Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979), 547-556.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Argument for Traditional Gospel Authorship

In one of the comments to my Gospel Authorship series (Part I, II, III, IV, VVI, VII), in which laid out why scholars usually claim that the gospels are anonymous and that the titles were added later, a reader asked what the arguments for traditional authorship are.  So, I want to post one more time on gospel authorship and give what I see as the main argument for traditional authorship.

In short, the argument for traditional authorship are quite simple: 1) Our earliest traditions (i.e., Papias, Irenaeus) claim that the gospels were written by Matthew (a disciple of Jesus), Mark (an interpreter of Peter), Luke (a companion of Paul), and John (the beloved disciple of Jesus). 2) There is no evidence that definitively and conclusively contradicts this early tradition. 3) Therefore, the tradition is mostly likely correct.

Consider the following quotes from Donald Guthrie's New Testament Introduction.
"To sum up, it may be said that there is no conclusive reason for rejecting the strong external testimony regarding the authorship of Matthew, although some difficulties arise from source hypotheses."*
"So strong is the early Christian testimony that Mark was the author of this gospel that we need do little more than mention this attestation."** 
 "The Apostle John. This, as has been seen, is the traditional view, which has much support for it in the internal evidence.  Indeed, it may be said that there is no evidence which conclusively disproves it, in spite of much opposition to it."***
These three statements nicely illustrate the late Dr. Guthrie's argument for traditional authorship.  His position is that, without definitive and conclusive proof that early Christian testimony (read Papias, Irenaeus, et. al.) is incorrect, the traditional authors should hold.

A clarification is needed here.  Dr. Guthrie introduces the concepts of internal and external evidence.  Internal evidence refers to what we can determine from the text of the gospels themselves, and external evidence refers to what others (early Christians) have said about the text.  For Guthrie, external evidence is the trump card that squashes all opposition.  For Guthrie, external evidence is primary, and internal evidence is secondary.  Consider this quote from his discussion of the authorship of Luke:
"It is against the background of the strong external evidence that the witness of the books themselves [i.e. internal evidence] must be considered."****
This line of reasoning in my mind is faulty.  Now, if Papias and Irenaeus were first century authors and their statements about the gospels were clear and unambiguous, that would be another matter.  As it stands, Papias was writing 50-75 years after the gospels were written (not to mention the fact that the Papias quote is only preserved from Eusebius in the fourth century) and Irenaeus nearly 100 years after the writing of the gospels, I would actually reverse Guthrie's argument and claim that the internal evidence is primary, and the external evidence is only secondary. 

Now, I want to be fair to the late Dr. Guthrie.  He does deal at length with all of the evidence, and does so in a nuanced and fair manner.  But, at the end of the day for Guthrie, no internal evidence could trump the external witness of second century Christians unless it were absolutely conclusive. So there it is. Guthrie provides one of the best scholarly attempts to argue for traditional gospel authorship.  What do you think?


*Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, (Downer's Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1990), 53.
**Ibid, 81.
*** Ibid, 275.
**** Ibid, 115.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Do Not Defraud: Mark 10:19

In Mark 10:19, Jesus gives a list of commandments to the man who has approached him seeking eternal life:

"You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 
It is a list that is probably very familiar, and comes from Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy five, the famous "10 Commandments."  Now, as is often the case with lists, especially lists that we have heard often, we tend not to listen to the details because we think that we know the contents.  But, Mark has done something interesting here that I had never noticed until we discussed the passage at depth in a Sunday School class this past week.  Mark lists six commands.  From the 10 commandments, he has omitted numbers 1-4 (No other gods, no idols, name of the Lord in vain, and Sabbath), and number 10 (do not covet).  So, he has omitted five, but he has given six.  So, which one of those do not appear in the famous "10"?  That would be "You shall not defraud." So, why is it here in this list?  A quick perusal of the commentaries on my shelf yielded no "aha" moments.

Matthew and Luke have parallel stories, but neither include the command not to defraud.

The word for defraud is a rare word in the New Testament, only being used five other times in the new testament.  In three of those five usages it refers to financial transactions.  In James it is used to refer to an employer who withholds his workers wages (James 5:4).  In I Corinthians 6, the word is used in conjunction with lawsuits that believers are bringing against one another and defrauding one another (I Cor. 6:7-8).

One quick thought I had was that Mark has put this command there on purpose because it deals directly with the specific problem of this man.  Perhaps he is particularly prone to defraud others as a means of accumulating his wealth.  Perhaps he is using his wealth to defraud others.  Therefore Mark has placed this command not to defraud right alongside the more famous commands from the "10." Just a thought.  What do you think?  I would love any other thoughts about Mark's inclusion of this command.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Gospel Authorship VII: A Narrative Reconstruction

I could probably write on this topic for quite some time because I find it endlessly fascinating, but my wife has informed me that I have gone a bit off the rails at this point, so let me bring this series on gospel authorship (Parts I, II, III, IV, V, VI) to a close with one final post in which I set forth a more or less mainstream scholarly narrative reconstruction of gospel authorship as I see it.

Jesus was crucified by the Romans around the year 30 C.E.  If any narrative of Jesus' life was written in the 30 or so years after his death, those writings have not survived.  Yet, the message about Jesus was passed orally from person to person, from group to group for many years.  Our earliest Christian writings are Paul's undisputed letters which were written mostly in the 50s C.E.  Yet these writings tell us little about Jesus' life.  Only with the writing of what we know as the Gospel of Mark do we have our first surviving writing of a narrative of the life of Jesus.  Most scholars will date Mark to the late 60s or early 70s C.E.  As noted before, the gospel attributed to Mark is formally anonymous. There is no place in the text of the gospel where the author provides a self-identification.  Presumably the first audience of the gospel knew who the author was and accepted his authority.

Skip several years into the future and our second gospel was written, the gospel attributed to Matthew, usually dated to the mid to late 70s C.E.  There is strong evidence that the gospel known as Matthew was copied in large part from the gospel attributed to Mark.  This gospel too is also formally anonymous with no author identification within the gospel itself.  Once again, the authority of the author was probably known by the original audience of the gospel.

Yet a few more years later comes a third gospel, that attributed to Luke and usually dated in the late 70s to the 80s CE.  Once again, Luke's gospel copied large portions of Mark, and also either copied other portions of Matthew, or Matthew and Luke had a common source that has not survived (called Q, or Quelle for "source").  Interestingly, there is some author self-identification in Luke, though no name is given.  In the gospel preface, the author claims to know of other accounts (gospels?), to have relied on eyewitnesses (though he himself is not one), and to have carefully investigated the matter. Though this gospel does not claim to be written by a disciple, it is claiming authority based upon the author's careful research. This might be seen as the first step toward needing to argue for the authority of a gospel, presumably because the amount of time that has transpired between the events described and the time of the writing.

Finally, the fourth gospel, that attributed to John, is written, probably in the 90s CE, and stands apart from the other three in its style and narrative.  John also has some self identification of the author in chapter 21, where the authors are a "we" who are dependent upon the testimony of one of Jesus' disciples, the "beloved disciple." Interestingly, the "beloved disciple" from this gospel is never identified by name.  Here again, we see a further step in claiming authority for a gospel, this time tracing the contents to the gospel to a disciple, but an unnamed one at that.

As we get into the second century, a couple of things happen.  First, new gospels are written, but these mostly come with claims of apostolic authorship like the Gospel of Thomas or the Protoevangelium of James (see post here).  In these gospels, the author self identifies as one of the apostles.  Yet, their second century date clearly precludes the possibility of apostolic authorship.  You could say that as time passes and we get into the second century, 100 years or more after Jesus' death, the claims for authority need to be stronger and stronger.  Coincidentally (or perhaps not) it is at this time that we have our first mention of gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Many scholars conclude at this point that, amidst competition among gospels for authority, it was necessary to attach authoritative names to the four gospels that would later be included in the canon.  Thus, the titles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were attempts by Christians in the second century to preserve the authority of those four gospels but do not represent the original authors.  This then explains scholars claims that 1) the gospel titles were added later than the composition of the gospels, and 2) the four canonical gospels are anonymous.

These four gospel titles were settled sometime in the second century, and by the third century our manuscripts demonstrate a consistent naming of the four canonical gospels as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Now, there is one serious objection to the above reasoning, and I think it is a valid one.  If second century Christians needed to attach authoritative names to the four anonymous gospels that would later be canonized, why did they choose the names they did?  Now, this objection does not confront the gospels of Matthew and John, since those men were disciples and eyewitnesses.  Yet, why choose Mark and Luke?  Neither of them were disciples nor eyewitnesses.  The best connection that can be made is that Mark was connected with Peter and Luke was connected with Paul.  Yet, if one were free to choose names, wouldn't one of the disciples be a better option?  For this reason, I think that there may be some validity to the traditions of the titles Mark and Luke, that is, that these gospels may have indeed been composed by men named "Mark" and "Luke.".  Yet, even saying that, there is no firm evidence that Mark = John Mark of Acts, or that Luke = Luke the Physician from Paul's letters.  Those identifications appear to me to be attempts to connect the common names Mark and Luke with anyone in the New Testament by those names who might preserve some "apostolic authority" for these gospels.

Here ends my discussion of gospel authorship for now.  We can continue in the comments section.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Gospel Authorship Part VI: Questioning the Traditional Titles

In Parts I, II, III, IV, and V of this series on gospel authorship, I have been addressing the claims of scholars that 1) the traditional titles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were added later than the writing of the canonical gospels, and 2) the canonical gospels are all anonymous.

In this post, I would like to look more at the traditional authors of these texts and some questions those traditional authors pose for scholars.

First, lets look at the four traditional authors:

Matthew was a tax collector (called Matthew only in Matthew's gospel, elsewhere in the call of the tax collector story, he is called Levi, although a Matthew makes the list of 12 disciples in all three synoptics).

Mark, was neither a disciple nor an eyewitness according to Papias' statement, but was an interpreter of Peter and his gospel is supposedly a record of the preaching of Peter.  This Mark is often equated with John Mark from the book of Acts whose mother owned a home in Jerusalem where the early church stayed.

Luke was neither a disciple nor an eyewitness according to Irenaeus' statement, but instead was a companion of Paul (who himself was not an eyewitness to Jesus' ministry).  This Luke is often equated with Luke the doctor (physician, healer) whom Paul mentions in three of his letters (Colossians 4:14, Philemon 1:24, 2 Tim 4:11).  Yet, Irenaeus does not make this explicit connection.

John was a disciple of Jesus, the son of Zebedee and brother of James.  Irenaeus makes the connection between John the son of Zebedee and the beloved disciple of the fourth gospel, though he does not spell out his reasoning for doing so.  John the son of Zebedee was a fisherman.

So those are the four traditional authors of the gospels.  We have two disciples (Matthew and John), two non-eyewitnesses (Mark and Luke).  We have a physician (Luke), a fisherman (John), a tax collector (Matthew), and a man of unknown profession (Mark).

Now, these traditional authors raise some interesting questions.  We know from the gospels that are written that the four authors of the canonical gospels were all competent Greek writers of varying levels of proficiency.  Now, this raises important questions for at least two of our traditional authors. Literacy rates in the first century were abysmal compared to today.  Estimates of literacy in the Roman Empire top out at about 10%-15% in urban cities (with probably much lower rates in rural areas).  In short, literacy was a luxury reserved for the rich, those who had leisure time.  Two of our traditional authors do not meet that standard.  John, a fisherman from rural Galilee would not typically be able to write in Greek (which would not be his native language at that).  Matthew, a tax collector would probably have limited literacy, but probably very limited and only enough to complete financial transactions. Neither the first nor fourth gospels in their evidence of fluid Greek prose seem to fit the pictures of the traditional authors.  For the second gospel (Mark), which has the least accomplished Greek composition skills, we do not know the profession of the attributed author John Mark, so we cannot make claims as to his literacy.  Finally, for the third gospel (Luke), which has the most complex and accomplished Greek prose of the four gospels, we know little for sure regarding its traditional author.  A physician may or may not be literate to a high level, but it certainly was not requisite for physicians to be literate at all.  So, the literacy of the traditional authors are all in some level of doubt.

A second question arises and that has to do with the scholarly consensus (see post on scholarly consensus here) regarding the synoptic problem.  In short, there is a consensus among scholars that the second gospel (Mark) was written first and was then copied by the first gospel author (Matthew), and the third gospel author (Luke).  If that scholarly consensus is correct (and I count myself among the scholarly majority in this matter), then we have a very strange situation.  If John Mark, a non-eyewitness of Jesus wrote his gospel first, why then did Matthew, an eyewitness and disciple of Jesus, copy large portions of his gospel, including the overall narrative structure, from John Mark, a non-eyewitness and non-disciple of Jesus?  Would not Matthew, an eyewitness and disciple of Jesus consider himself a greater authority on the life of Jesus and not bother to copy a large portion of his gospel from a non-eyewitness?

I will let these questions linger for a while.  Come back next time when I will hopefully wrap up this series with some tentative conclusions.