Monthly Archives: July 2010

“According to the flesh” — Doherty’s mythicist argument

Jesus Christ
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But it’s not that Earl advocates lunacy in a manner devoid of learning. He advocates a position that is well argued based on the evidence and even shows substantial knowledge of Greek. But it cannot be true, you say. Why not? Because it simply can’t be and we shouldn’t listen to what can’t be true. No. Not so quick.

[From Crosstalk message 5438 by Professor of Religious Studies, Stevan Davies of Misericordia University, author of Jesus the Healer and The Gospel of Thomas Annotated and Explained (see homepage) ]

It is easy to come across strong, even hostile, responses to some of Earl Doherty’s arguments for Jesus mythicism, though it seems few have actually read them. One of Doherty’s arguments in particular that has met with considerable scorn is his claim that the NT phrase translated “according to the flesh” does not necessarily mean that Jesus was thought have lived a human life on earth.

I add nothing new in this post, or nothing particularly new. This post is only intended to provide another platform for an opportunity to some facts about Doherty’s arguments to be made known. As I have discussed elsewhere, there are some areas where I find myself at odds with Doherty, and my views on the origins of Christianity are always tentative. But that does not prevent me from acknowledging that Doherty often has much stronger arguments than some of his critics (who often have not even read him) would have others believe.

The passage most often cited in connection with Jesus being “according to the flesh” is Romans 1:1-4 read more »

The mystical (not historical) “Christ in the flesh”

Between Earth and Heaven
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Those who argue that Christ was certainly a historical figure on the basis that the NT epistles speak of him as having been “in the flesh” are often overlooking the contexts and real meaning of that descriptor.

Curiously, while we read in the epistles of Christ being “flesh” at some point, we never read of him living and dying on earth. His flesh form is sometimes set in juxtaposition, even if implicitly, to his spirit form. (This point I owe to Doherty in his most recent book, as I do some other points in this post.) God himself throughout the OT is well known to have taken many different forms. In these cases, we see “flesh” used as an expression of a doctrinal and mystical meaning, not primarily as a reference to some fleshly life-cycle.

That is not to say that there are other reasons for arguing that Jesus was historical, but it can be misguided to bring the “flesh” descriptor into the fray.

Firstly, note the difference between “flesh” and “body” in relation to Christ — or to any spirit being in the ancient Mediterranean world. A “corporeal body” can be attributed to Jew and gentile alike to spirit beings. The evidence for this is laid out (largely through Riley’s work, Resurrection Reconsidered) in earlier posts:

Bodily ambiguities

Response 5 to Wright

So leaving bodies behind, we focus on the mystical flesh alone. read more »

Did a Davidic Messiah have to be a descendant of David?

Rabbi Akiba (illustration from the 1568 Mantua...
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No. At least not in the time of Bar Kochba‘s revolt against Rome, 132-136 ce.

That’s if we can trust the later rabbinic evidence that attributed certain beliefs to famous Rabbi Akiba who supported Bar Kochba’s claim to be the messiah.

(The relevance of this discussion to Christian origins lies in the context of arguments that Jesus being said, at various places, to have been of the seed of David or of Davidic descent. For starters, given modern scholarly (archaeological) understanding of the reality of “King David”, and even the “Davidic dynasty”, there was evidently no such thing as a “family of David” existing in Palestine at the time of Jesus, before and later, anyway.)

Bar Kochba’s original name was Simeon ben Kosiba. It was subsequently changed to Bar Kochba, which was Aramaic for “Son of a Star”, an allusion to the prophecy of Numbers 24:17. (This sort of name change based on a pun on the original name in order to fit a biblical prophecy is worth keeping in mind when one compares other apparent puns in names found within the gospels.)

The rabbinic passage is discussing this bible’s reference to the plural “thrones” in heaven, one for the Ancient of Days, and another, presumably, for the Son of Man (Daniel 7:9, 13-14). The passage follows on from references to a biblical contradiction where God is described as an old man (with white hair) in Daniel 7, but as a young black-headed man according to their interpretation of Song of Solomon 5:11.

One passage says: His throne was fiery flames; and another Passage says: Till thrones were placed, and One that was ancient of days did sit!

— There is no contradiction: one [throne] for Him, and one for David; this is the view of R. Akiba.

Said R. Jose the Galilean to him: Akiba, how long wilt thou treat the Divine Presence as profane! Rather, [it must mean], one for justice and one for grace.

Did he accept [this explanation from him, or did he not accept it?

— Come and hear: One for justice and one for grace; this is the view of R. Akiba. (Hagigah, 14a) read more »

Philo’s Spiritual Messiah: allegorical and personal?

Philo does not mention the term “christos” (“messiah”). But he does use a lot of messianic terminology to describe how the Logos converts people, through an inner personal war against the flesh, into the divine image. The message reminds me of Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s more detailed discussion of Paul’s concept of the Stoic-Logos-like function of the heavenly Christ in converting his followers to a “life in Christ”. (I return to this point at the end of this post.)

This post is another that attempts to “wikileak” what scholars themselves publish about the diverse nature of the ideas surrounding the origins of Christianity.

Philo allegorizes the narratives in the Jewish Scriptures: the wanderings of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the Temple. Professor of Religious Studies at UCSB, Richard D. Hecht, asks:

Why should he take the eschatological future any more “realistically” and thereby less spiritually than other elements in this thought? (Philo and Messiah, in Judaisms and their Messiahs at the turn of the Christian Era, p.148)

Hecht points to two different interpretations of messianic tropes in Philo:

  1. Messianic terms are used as symbols for the Logos, or for how virtue is stimulated in the human soul;
  2. Philo draws on Stoic ideas to describes an end-time Golden Age, but this is again a “spiritualization” of history, not an attempt to place a messiah in a real historical context. This description also concludes with a return to his primary interest (in 1 above) by comparing this Messianic Era to a “little seed” that generates “the most honorable and beautiful qualities among men.” (On Rewards and Punishments, 172)

It is the first of these that I focus most on in this post. Hecht argues that the Messiah in Philo is, for the spiritually discerning, the Logos working in “man” to save him spiritually by transforming him into the divine character image.

In On the Confusion of Tongues Philo attributes a messianic name to the Logos itself. read more »

How Philo might have understood Christ in the NT epistles

Philo was a Jewish philosopher in Egypt who died around 50 ce. Much of his literary work was an attempt to explain Jewish beliefs in the language of Greek (or Hellenistic) philosophers.

Curiously (for us at least) he spoke of “a second God” who was a manifestation of “the High God”. This second God was the Logos.

Why is it that he speaks as if of some other god, saying that he made man after the image of God, and not that he made him after his own image? (Genesis 9:6). Very appropriately and without any falsehood was this oracular sentence uttered by God, for no mortal thing could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme Father of the universe, but only after the pattern of the second deity, who is the Word [Logos] of the supreme Being (Questions on Genesis II.62)

On the face of it, this suggests that at least a significant number of Jews at the time Christianity was apparently emerging believed in “a second deity” — and if so, this would throw interesting light on the origins of Christianity with its belief in God the Father and his Son, also a deity, Jesus Christ.

The Christian belief, ever since rabbinic Judaism (after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce), has stood in stark contrast to a supposedly monolithic monotheism of Jewish belief that permits no other God being apart from the One God. Jewish beliefs before 70 ce, on the contrary, are not so clear cut. Some scholars have gone to great pains to define what precisely was meant by “monotheism” when ancient Jews appeared to simultaneously recognize companion deities or at least very high angelic powers of some sort.

One scholar, Alan F. Segal, in a famous work, Two Powers in Heaven, attempts to explain Philo’s passage by suggesting he his following the Greek philosophers who found it inconceivable that a highest and purest deity could directly interact with the mundane creatures of this world, and so required some sort of mediating manifestation of himself to do this “dirty work”.

Another scholar, Margaret Barker (The Great Angel) is not persuaded by Segal’s explanation. She believes it is far more likely that Philo took the ideas of a mediating divinity from existing Jewish beliefs and adapted or described them in terms of Greek philosophy. That is, he did not attempt to play with the facts of Jewish beliefs to make them sound palatable to Greek philosophers. He merely used philosophical language to describe Jewish beliefs.

Barker cites H. Wolfson’s 1948 two volume study on Philo as one of her supports: read more »

Afghan files in a spreadsheet

90,000 files for those with an inclination for the open society and an informed public – not easily digested by slower readers at a single sitting.

Some busy people at the Guardian have organized the main points into an XLS spreadsheet for download  – but helpful to read the guide on the download page first:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/datablog/2010/jul/25/wikileaks-afghanistan-data

What is wrong with Peter Singer’s ethical views?

Peter Singer lecturing at Washington Universit...

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I can understand people being shocked by some of Peter Singer‘s conclusions, but I am a little surprised that certain academics (professional thinkers) have reacted so strongly against his views. Many critics strike me as falling into the logical fallacy of arguing from adverse consequences. (The argument is false because I don’t like it’s conclusion.)

Singer does not argue, from what I recall of my reading of any of his books, that abortion, euthenasia or infanticide “the morally right” or “the morally justifiable” thing for people “to practise”. It strikes me as a gross misunderstanding of his arguments to claim that he argues that a cockroach is of more value than some human lives. I don’t have my Singer books with me now, but none of those ideas are what I took away from reading any of them. Did I miss something?

Where I understand his analysis takes us is to realizing that the value of another person’s life is multidimensional. There is the innate value of a person’s own life-quality and potential. But there is also the value and meaning that each person has for others, especially family. The love a parent bears for a child, the supreme value a parent places in a child, makes infanticide unthinkable for most, for example.

And we are above all by nature social animals. Everyone loves and values the cuteness of infants. So even in those tragic circumstances where parents do not want their children, a child is not unwanted or unloved.

The value of Peter Singer’s work is, to my thinking, in helping us see ourselves for what we are — one of many species inhabiting this planet, and that there is a lot more in common among a range of social animals than we have often cared to admit. Other scientists of consciousness have likewise shown that consciousness is not something that is an either-or phenomenon, but something we see in varying degrees throughout different species.

I think some of the more extreme criticisms of Peter Singer’s conclusions actually demonstrate the strength of our social nature. Humans as societies, not just as parents, do care for infants.

At the same time, advances in biology must necessarily challenge our understanding of ourselves, and not only the values we impute into each other, but the value we place on ourselves within the context of all sentient species.

My reading of Singer’s discussions on ethics is not so black-and-white, nor even contrary to normal human compassions, than some critics seem to suggest.

Animallib

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Lessons from Wikileaks for Historical Jesus “historians”

Logo used by Wikileaks

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How do professionals go about assessing the veracity (let’s say historicity) of very detailed reports that claim to be classified official documents?

With thanks to the person who emailed me notice of this, here is an excerpt from an interview with Guardian reporter Declan Walsh:

Walsh: “There are reports that an insurgent commander had created a poison powder that could be added to the food of coalition soldiers, and he called that ‘Osamacapa’”.

NPR: “That particular report, the detail of the person who was distributing this powder not only has his name and height, the appearance of his eyes, the address of his store, which he locks whenever the police are around, remarkable detail about the person who was allegedly distributing ‘Osamacapa’”.

Walsh: “That’s right, experts who have looked over these reports for us have told us, paradoxically, that sometimes the more detail you see in a report the less likely it is to be true because the people who are giving this information are painting very elaborate stories in order to affect an air of plausibility, whereas, in actual fact it may have not been true at all”.

The audio file of the interview can be accessed on NPR’s site here. It is less than 5 minutes long (mp3 file) and worth listening to in its entirety.

I first encountered this recognition of “abundance of detail” in the book “Propaganda” by Jacques Ellul some years ago now. Ellul studies cases where propagandists dull the critical senses of their audiences by overloading them with details. When more detail than any one person can thoroughly digest at a time is barraged at them, the target audience tends to find it easiest to assume that where there is smoke there must be fire. This does not necessarily, or even usually, mean enormously lengthy reports or stories, but more usually comes in the form of many shorter news clips, each with its own details, to impress targets with impressions of “something true there somewhere”. So on that principle the propagandist has succeeded in his task. (I am speaking here of psychological principles at work. No-one can compare the details of modern information gluts with the gospel narratives. The point is the psychological effect of hearing details. They are there for both plausibility and to hold interest.)

Hence the importance of independent verification and sourcing of all details at all times. Without this, there is no basis from which to decide if what we are reading is “smoke from fire” or nothing but staged “smoke and mirrors”.

And this is what we hear at work in the interview with Declan Walsh.

There are really two points here worth noting. One is the presence of “eyewitness detail”. The other is the analysis of sources and verification of these.

So primary evidence, even primary evidence claiming to be from eyewitnesses, that comes from classified official sources, must be independently assessed for its factualness or “historicity”.

If this sort of rigour is required for contemporary primary sources, how much more cautious must anyone claiming to be a researcher of Christian origins be with respect to his or her sources?

Reliable independent verification of narratives contained in our sources is the prerequisite for justifying confidence in the historical core of the narratives — according to historians from Schweitzer to Hobsbawm.

Using criteria as a substitute to manufacture evidence just doesn’t cut it! By contrast with “real life” and the sort of historical research applied by scholars of nonbiblical topics (including ancient ones), many “historical Jesus historians” seem to be playing in a world of make-believe, pulling out this or that detail from gospels or rabbinical sources at it fits their whims in order to publish some will-o’-the-wisp variation of an iconic, and therefore unquestionable, orthodox tale.

(Aside: NPR’s approach to Wikileaks and the Afghan papers is not what I am addressing here. I have other views on that as everyone does. The point here is to bring to the fore a detail of method and approach to “historicity” of events from a source someone kindly forwarded me recently.)

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Jewish scriptures as inspiration for a Slain Messiah

Was it possible for Second Temple Jews to have imagined a Messiah who is unjustly killed solely by reading their Scriptures.

The Apostles in Acts are said to have preached Christ out of the Scriptures. Paul, and even other epistle writers, claim that their gospel was revealed to them through the scriptures and/or through the spirit of God — not oral tradition or personal encounters.

Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him . . . (Romans 16:25-26)

the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. (Colossians 1:26)

My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ (Colossians 2:2)

the mystery of Christ, 5which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. (Ephesians 3:5)

and at his appointed season he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior, (Titus 1:3)

Although one often hears it said that no first century Jews were expecting a humiliated and crucified Messiah, the evidence one can read in the Jewish Scriptures surely suggests otherwise. Given the diversity of religious ideas we are led to understand blanketed the Second Temple era, and given the nature of the few scriptural passages that specifically and literally refer to “anointing” or “anointed” (=messiah), we would be very courageous to bet that no sects had such an idea.

Look at Psalm 2.2 for starters

The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the LORD and against His Anointed [=Messiah]

Now the rest of the Psalm goes on to recount God laughing at those plotting rulers and assuring his Messianic Son (whom he has begotten that day) that he will give him victory over his enemies.

Nonetheless, we do have passage that presents a clear threat to the Messiah, and one from kings and rulers.

It is surely not too much of a leap for any reader familiar with these scriptures, and the Psalms in particular, to let their mind wander to other psalms where David or God’s son is promised deliverance and exaltation over his enemies, but only after first being brought face to face with death itself. One finds similar motifs within Isaiah, where the servant of God (Israel – Isa.49.3, who is also God’s son – Exod.4.22 and Hos 11.1) is humiliated, despised, struck down, only to rise again in victory over his foes – Isa. 49 ff.

In Isaiah 11 we even read that such a son is, at least figuratively, a son of David. And in Isaiah 53 we find the same word to describe the “delivering up” of the Servant to humiliation as we find in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 11:23 statement that Christ was “delivered up” on the night of the Last Supper (Doherty, p. 86).

But it wasn’t all suffering and exaltation for the Messiah. Isaiah 61.1 informs readers that the one anointed (a messiah) is to preach good news.

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me,
Because the LORD has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound

And this Isaiah passage cannot help but lead readers of this book to companion passages where one reads of the lame being healed, the blind being restored to sight, such as Isaiah 35

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.
Then the lame shall leap like a deer,

And the tongue of the dumb sing.

And so the messiah will perform such miracles?

If we look at the career of kings who are said to have been “anointed” (messiahs) we find a similar mixed pattern.

Hazael (anointed 1 Ki 19.15) and Jehu (anointed 2 Ki 9.1-6) brought conquest and judgment upon those whom God sought to punish.

Saul (anointed 1 Sa. 9.10) also delivered Israel from her enemies for a time, but then was himself slain for his sin.

Joash of Judah (anointed 2 Ki. 1.32-45) likewise was chosen by God to save the Davidic line, but was also murdered for his subsequent sin against God’s prophet, Zechariah.

And we know the stories of David (anointed 1 Sa. 16.1, 13) and Solomon (anointed 1 Ki. 1.32-45) well enough. Both chosen by God, but both failed their God and suffered in different ways. David, in particular, had to flee from his kingdom, climbing the Mount of Olives in his own desperate straits and trusting in God for deliverance.

But these are all past human kings. If I were looking for a Messiah in the Scriptures who would be the Messiah of all Messiahs and bring in the age of God, would I not be guided by each of these, but also be open to something even greater than all that had preceded? If past messiahs broke physical kingdoms and ruled geographical areas for limited times, would not we want the final messiah to go one better and smash the powers that ruled all those kingdoms, and to take charge of them? I know, I’m jumping way ahead of the story, here.

This is only a  mind game, and we might think it’s too easy in retrospect to imagine how anyone might interpret the passages back then. But that’s why I am taking as my starting point only those passages that specifically mention the word for Messiah — the exact word that might trigger the imagination of an ancient Jew.

But how might at least some Jews have interpreted the following from Daniel? Are any at all likely to have played with its ambiguity? read more »

The right side of politics Down Under: Muslims good; atheists bad

Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth taking leave of their lovers who are going to Botany BayNo sooner do we read of one Liberal Party’s candidate being dumped by his party leader for suggesting that there is no place for Muslims in the Australian parliament, than we read of another Liberal Party candidate attacking the “ungodly” Labor leader and PM for being an atheist — and getting away with it! (The Liberal Party in Australia, to oversimplify somewhat, correlates with the Conservatives in the UK and the Republicans in the US.)

So what’s the lesson here? It’s politically correct at election time to be seen as tolerant towards Muslims; but as for being an atheist. . . ? Who cares?

Actually I don’t mind this approach to criticism of atheists. Let it all hang out. Let everyone see where everyone stands. It’s no big deal. It’s kind of funny to have politicians get up and rave about Australia being built on Christian values and how they always expect a “godly” leader. Australia? Founded on convicts, lashings, prostitution, petty tyrants among the good ‘uns, rum rebellion, — oh, and an Anglican pastor to keep it all in check? What’s the ratio of church goers to non-practicing Christians and “others” in Australia?

I suspect the Liberal Party leader’s decision to ignore the atheist jibe was quite healthy and a “true blue” Aussie response. I’d hate to see political correctness go mad and send to the guillotine anyone who raves about not believing in god and decrying how a godless prime minister simply cannot be a “godly ruler” etc. All a bit of a laugh for most in the audience.

It is the season, however, to be prudent with respect to Muslims. Hate crimes and bigotry and all that are all too real — it goes without saying. (Whoever planted a bomb outside an atheist’s convention in Australia?)

It is still real enough for a Liberal candidate to be quoted as saying that just one Muslim in Parliament must be seen as a march towards the day when Parliament will be all-Muslim! But of course, the mere fact that the sight of one of them in the “wrong place” leaves him down the slippery slope into nightmares of a taliban takeover of Australia, does not mean he has anything against Muslims personally.

Which leaves me in a delicate position at times. When I was once arranging for a leading State Muslim to conduct a public presentation to a general audience, I found myself being offered a copy of the Koran. As a gesture of good-will I accepted it, but later I had the misfortune to read it. It left the taste in my mouth of being just as mind-controlling and fear and authority obsessed as the Jewish and Christian books, only more blunt and obvious about it. So there I was, finding myself in a situation where I was seeking to foster community tolerance among two religious groups, Christians and Muslims, yet ironically having no personal sympathy or time for either of them!

As far as their beliefs were concerned, I saw (still do see) both as potentially harmful psychologically to individuals who took them too seriously. When I see some humanist scholars advocate a humanism that embraces the religiously minded as well, I do feel some revulsion. What has the anti-intellectualism at the heart of Christianity and Islam (and Judaism) to do with humanistic values? Why on earth does “spirituality” or the sense of the poetic and mystery and awe of life have to be tied exclusively to religion of any kind? But I also find myself recoiling from a few of the anti-Muslim statements of some such as Harris and Hitchens. Sure I have no time for the Muslim religion either, but these authors do seem to be unable to tease out the geo-political issues from the more universal religious concepts.

So I decided to focus entirely on the project I had got myself mixed up with as an entirely “social enterprise”. Strictly a civil service.

We’ll probably be stuck with religion as long as we will be stuck with astrology, witchcraft and the occult. If one can’t beat them, the least one can do, I guess, is to support any endeavour that promotes mutual understanding and respect.

Australia Day - Muslim Style

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Redemption or Conquest: Zionist Yishuv plans for transfer of Palestinian Arabs in the British Mandate period

British Mandate of Palestine, 1920s. Created b...
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Yishuv refers to the Jewish community in Palestine. The British Mandate period was from 1922 to 1948.

This post continues from the same reference (Nur Masalha’s Expulsion of the Palestinians) as in my previous post, and looks at a Palestinian historian’s discussion of the fate of the Palestinian people as planned by the Zionist movement from “the beginning”. Some readers may accuse me of stirring up hatred against the Jews by posting this sort of research. I deny any such charge. The ill-feeling and tensions that have resulted from the events and attitudes described in this and in the previous post don’t have to be “stirred up”. But many people in the West certainly do need to be “waked up” to the other side of the story. Obscenely, one is often accused of “anti-semitism” for even daring to raise the Palestinian voice, or even any voice mildly critical of Zionist or Israeli state policies.

The world, and Palestinians and Israelis in particular, are living today with the legacy of the past. Justice, the precondition for peace, can only emerge after all the facts — from both parties — are laid out for all to see. Hiding one side’s story under the rocks of the desert will never extinguish injustice and hatred.  We have lauded Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and National Apologies in cases of other ethnic horror stories. They could never have happened unless both sides — especially that of the defeated — were fully aired.

The General Approach toward the Palestinians in the Mandatory Period

I had not realized until I read this section of Masalha’s account that the current practice of the Israeli government relying on third parties such as the US today (formerly Britain), and other Arab leaders, to facilitate discussions with (or without) Palestinian Arabs, originated in this period. Masalha’s explanation for this is:

At the root of this notion — that Palestinians did not have to be dealt with directly — was the denial of a distinct Palestinian identity or any semblance of Palestinian nationalism. This was unquestionably grounded in the dismissive attitude that had always attended anything relating to Palestinians or Palestinian culture. (p.17)

Population shifts and Arab protests

Jewish population in Palestine, 1917-1940:

  • 1917 = 10% of population; own 2% of the land.
  • 1931 = 17% of population
  • 1940 = 33% of population
  • (1948 Jews owned only 6% of the land — via purchase)

Growing Arab awareness of Zionist aims in Palestine, reinforced by Zionist calls for unrestricted Jewish immigration and unhindered transfer of Arab lands to exclusive Jewish control, triggered escalating protests and resistance that were eventually to culminate in the peasant-based great Arab Rebellion of 1936-39.

So two forces were beginning to collide:

  1. On the one hand it was increasingly clear that a Jewish state was an eventual likelihood (Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate offered real hope for this);
  2. but on the other hand it was becoming increasingly clear that the Palestinian Arab population were intent on keeping their land.

Predictable result: early 1920s saw the first indigenous demonstrations against Jewish immigration.

Problem

The Balfour Declaration had not only promised a national home for the Jews; it had also promised that the Palestinian Arabs would not lose any of their rights as a result. read more »

All those Arab “God” phrases (May Allah protect you) – What they really mean

There’s an interesting and amusing Guardian article on how easy it is to make gaffes and to make Arabs look like religious geeks — even if they are atheistic communists — by Marie Dhumières.

It’s titled Bad Translation Makes Fundamentalists Of Us All. It begins:

Religious phrases are scattered liberally throughout Arabic languages. The secret to translating is not to take them literally.

Examples:

“Praise be to God” (Alhamdulilah), which can mean “I am fine”, “Cool, the electricity is back” or “Ah, you finally managed to pronounce this word”, and so many other things.

In Lebanon, they even use “May God dress you” when seeing a hot girl wearing a skirt or a top, meaning I guess, “Please God, quickly cover this great body before I jump on it.”

The same goes with insults: May God destroy your house, May God burn your religion, May God infect you with disease… It all sounds very scary, but be reassured, they don’t really mean it. And I am pretty sure that if God were actually to destroy your house at the moment they say it, they would feel kind of bad.

It’s all an enjoyable and informative read. And the comments at the Infoclearinghouse.info site are worth reading, too, for maybe a bit of balance to the article itself.

Check it out http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article25973

Biblical historical methods and the Book of Nehemiah (3)

Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem
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Continuing from the post previous to this one,

Could Nehemiah have had reasonable access to their intentions?

This is the passage being discussed. Sanballat and others repeatedly send messages to Nehemiah to meet them at Ono, but each time Nehemiah, believing that they intend to do him “harm”, declines their invitations with the same reply.

1 Now it happened when Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies heard that I had rebuilt the wall, and that there were no breaks left in it (though at that time I had not hung the doors in the gates), 2 that Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come, let us meet together among the villages in the plain of Ono.” But they thought to do me harm.

3 So I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?

4 But they sent me this message four times, and I answered them in the same manner. 5 Then Sanballat sent his servant to me as before, the fifth time, with an open letter in his hand. 6 In it was written:

It is reported among the nations, and Geshem says, that you and the Jews plan to rebel; therefore, according to these rumors, you are rebuilding the wall, that you may be their king. 7 And you have also appointed prophets to proclaim concerning you at Jerusalem, saying, “There is a king in Judah!” Now these matters will be reported to the king. So come, therefore, and let us consult together.

8 Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say are being done, but you invent them in your own heart.” 
9 For they all were trying to make us afraid, thinking, “Their hands will be weakened in the work, and it will not be done.”
 Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands. (6:1-9)

The obvious question to ask (although Clines whole point – writing around 1994 — is that no biblical historian has asked them, save only one, Fensham, who did at least express some awareness of some issues) is how Nehemiah knew about Sanballat’s intentions.

Did a spy for Nehemiah see and overhear Sanballat say “Let’s do some ‘harm’ (in general) to Nehemiah!”? This is scarcely a convincing explanation.

Is it not in fact rather difficult to plot to do harm in general?

If Nehemiah was really informed about Sanballat’s intentions, then we have to explain why he appears not to have known this. He does, after all, repeatedly send the same invitation as if he has no knowledge of the reasons for Nehemiah’s declining it.

Do the subsequent actions of Sanballat and his allies bear out Nehemiah’s suspicions of them?

Well, nothing actually happens from Sanballat’s side to threaten Nehemiah in person or to sabotage the wall building.

Look at the contents of Sanballat’s letter again. All it says is that: read more »

When Bible authors can read their characters’ minds (Nehemiah case study 2)

The Jews who lived near the enemies told Nehemiah 10 times that they would attack us from every direction.

The Jews who lived near the enemies told Nehemiah 10 times that they would attack us from every direction.

This post continues my earlier notes from David Clines’ discussion of traps biblical historians have often fallen into when reading a biblical text that sounds like an eyewitness, biographical record of historical events — with Nehemiah selected as the case study.

Literary criticism must precede historical presumptions

The lesson for historians to learn, argues Clines, is that literary criticism must precede using the text as a source document for historical information. Only by first ascertaining the nature of the source through literary criticism will we know if and how to read it for other types of information.

When the author is an omniscient narrator

In section 2 of his chapter titled Nehemiah: The Perils of Autobiography, Clines begins

It is a sign of omniscient narrators that they have access to the thoughts and feelings of their characters. The narrators of novels do not need to explain to us how they come to know what people are thinking or what they say to one another in private. Nor do the authors of fictions of any kind. But when authors write as the first-person narrators of their work, we are bound to ask how they come to know what they claim to know. (pp.136-135)

In the Book of Nehemiah there are many times the author writes like an omniscient narrator. He also writes as a first person narrator, and the effect is to persuade readers that what he says about his character’s feelings and thoughts is true.

Only readers on their guard will be alert to distinguishing between what the author could possibly have known, and what he claims to know. And Clines’ observation is that most biblical commentators and historians have been fooled (“taken in”) by the author’s rhetorical technique and accordingly believe whatever Nehemiah says about Sanballat’s intentions, etc.

Sanballat’s reaction to Nehemiah’s arrival

When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about it, it was very displeasing to them that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel. (2.10)

The author does not describe here any observable fact, such as an outwardly hostile reception. Whether or not Sanballat was pleased or not is only something Sanballat could tell us.

But the problem gets murkier.

The author then proceeds to give us the motivation for this particular feeling of Sanballat and Tobiah. This can only be at best speculative.

  • Can we imagine Sanballat using these words, or anything like them?
  • Can Sanballat have been such a racist, or so blind to his own interests as a governor of a Persian province, that the ‘welfare’ of the citizens of a neighbouring province would have been so displeasing to him?
  • Would Sanballat have been thinking that Nehemiah’s work (building the walls of Jerusalem) was “seeking the welfare of the Israelites”?  — or is not this rather the language and thought of Nehemiah?
  • Would not Sanballat have thought of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judea as “Judeans” rather than “Israelites”?

The account is clearly entirely the point of view of Nehemiah about his enemy. It is scarcely “a historical report”.

Now Ezra 4:8-16 does make a claim for some evidence of Samarian hostility against Jerusalem. But the letter is not evidence for Sanballat’s motivations.

Clines asks, even if we grant that Nehemiah is correct in his claim that Sanballat was displeased, what conclusions we are entitled to draw about his motives. He answers: none. There may be many possibilities:

  • he might think he has reason to suspect Jewish loyalty to Persia
  • he might resent having a royal appointee with direct access to the king as his neighbour
  • he might be mistaken about Jewish intentions

As Clines concludes:

Narrators may read minds; but real-life persons, and authors, have to make do with guesswork. Nehemiah as narrator is hardly likely to be a reliable witness to the motives of people he regards as his enemies. But modern historians of the period are so good-natured that they prefer to take Nehemiah’s guesses for truth unless there is evidence to the contrary. Is this a historical method?, I ask. (p.138)

Sanballat’s taunting of the Jews read more »