Monthly Archives: December 2016

What a bizarre profession

Romans 13 has been getting a lot of mention lately. Romans 13:1 was the one biblical text that the Communist authorities in Romania consistently knew. “Submit to the authorities” – the Bible says so! — Religion Prof, Nov 14 2016

The Religion Prof tagged those words with this image:

Meanwhile, another “religion prof” has singled out his research into this same passage for special attention with a title that on the basis of a confusing document from an ancient civilization strangely advises modern readers on their contemporary civic responsibilities:

When to Disobey Government – Quick Look at Romans 13

This post is a recycling of appreciation from a “religion master”, again providing instruction for readers today on how they should relate to political authorities:

How Should Christians Relate to Governing Authorities? Michael Bird Clarifies

How strange. Would anyone today turn to the recordings of the Sibyl Oracle for messages of guidance? Or to Hammurabi’s Code for how to treat a purveyors of faulty goods? Or to Plato or the wisdom of Imhotep? Or to the heavenly influences on human affairs according to Porphyry?

I am all for studying ancient documents. I have always loved studying ancient history. But the point has always been to understand how the ancients thought and lived, not how I can learn from them as guiding lights for my own life.

But notice how religion profs and masters take an ancient writing and strain and pull to make it somehow “relevant” as an instruction to readers today:

Consider Stanley Porter’s condition: qualitative superiority. “According to Porter, Paul only expects Christians to obey authorities who are qualitatively superior, that is, authorities who know and practice justice.” (449) The Greek for “governing authorities” (exousiais hyperechousais) seems to suggest this, given that hyperecho carries with it a “qualitative sense of superiority in quality.” (449) Therefore, the only governing powers to which Christians should submit are those that reflect the qualitatively divine justice they’ve been entrusted to bear, enact, and steward.

Woah there! Where to begin?

A raft of scholars have found reason to doubt that the passage in question was even original to the writing addressed to Romans: Pallis (1920); Loisy (1922: 104, 128; 1935: 30-31; 1936: 287); Windisch (1931); cf. Barnikol (1931b); Eggenberger (1945); Barnes (1947: 302, possibly); Kallas (1964-65); Munro (1983: 56f., 65-67); Sahlin (1953); Bultmann (1947). And who was this Paul, anyway? What independent evidence do we have to establish anything for certain? And how does one get from “a qualitative sense of superiority in quality” to modern readers’ concepts of “God” and “divine justice” (whatever “divine” justice is)? What was the original context and provenance of the document — we can only surmise — and what in the name of Mary’s little lamb does it have to do with anything in today’s world?

It would be naïve to suggest this passage is the last word on church/state relations, given that our conception of “state” is conditioned by post-Enlightenment views and the original context for Paul’s instructions came during a time of relatively benevolent and well-behaved authorities.

Amen. But why oh why does it deserve to be introduced into today’s discussion at all? Why not bring in Plato as well?

Bird reasons there are occasions resistance to governing authorities is both required and demanded by Christian discipleship. “Just as we have to submit to governing authorities on the basis of conscience, sometimes we have to rebel against governments because of the same conscience.” (450) When governments misuse their power, sometimes Christians must say, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29)

Bird likes John Stott’s summary of this discussion: “Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s Law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty.”

Deep. Just what everyone instinctively knows and follows. We all acknowledge the need for some form or organization and cooperation. We are social mammals, after all. And we all live this way for the sake of peace and getting along. But of course those of us who have crises of conscience will very often find themselves resisting or evading those causing them such grief. It’s the stuff of thousands of movies and novels and pages of history books. “Christian discipleship” is no exception to the common experience of humanity and living in organized societies. Just dressing up the same conflict in the verbiage of one’s particular ideology makes no difference. My god, Sophocles’ Antigone has remained a timeless classic because of the way it epitomizes the theme of the individual standing up for right against the state.

This human universal owes precious little to a few words written from a vaguely understood context and provenance in a civilization far removed from ours.

And religion careers and publishing businesses are built on the determination to wrestle with problematic Roman era discourses in the belief that they offer something exceptional for initiates into the arcane mysteries.

 

Israel’s Best Friends to Her Rescue

Before authorizing the UK’s vote in the United Nations condemning Israel’s new settlement program British Prime Minister Theresa May made history by announcing that Britain would formally adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. The IHRA’s definition is controversial insofar as it draws a very thin line between criticism of the state of Israel and antisemitism today, so May demonstrated courage in so unconditionally embracing it. Theresa May then did a Donald and tweeted:

The altright Breitbart could not avoid her praise of Israel:

Just two weeks ago, in a speech to the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) group, Mrs. May described the Jewish state as a “remarkable country,” a “beacon of tolerance,” and a “crucial” ally for Britain. Breitbart, 27 December 2016

So UK’s Prime Minister is speaking to Israel as a firm friend. About 9 and a half minutes in May also said:

“We must be honest with our friends like Israel because that is what true friendship is about. That’s why we have been clear about building new illegal settlements. It is wrong, it is not conducive to peace and it will stop.”

It is soon after that announcement, about 13 and a half minutes in, when Theresa May further declared that her government will adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism.

If the UK’s stance can be taken as an indication, then the words of an opposition member of the Israeli Knesset, Tzipi Livni, may not be very far astray:

“The entire world is not against the state of Israel, but rather against the settlement policy of the Israeli government. In times of war against enemies, we will stand by the government’s side, but we will not stand beside a government that turns our friends into enemies through its policies.” — as reported in The Algemeiner, 28 December 2016

The American Conservative similarly sends a well-meaning warning to turn Israel from future disaster:

There is a broad international consensus that settlement-building in the occupied territories is both illegal and a barrier to a negotiated resolution of the conflict. No one who is genuinely interested in securing a negotiated resolution of the conflict thinks that continued settlement construction makes a peace agreement more likely. One of the main reasons for continued construction is to establish de facto control over most of the territory that has been occupied while leaving less and less land for the Palestinians so that it becomes impossible for them to have their own state. If that continues, it sets Israel up to rule over a stateless, subject people in perpetuity, and that will be a disaster for all involved. If making an attempt to oppose that dreadful outcome constitutes “betrayal,” I shudder to think what loyalty is supposed to look like.

Calling out Israel for its ongoing illegal behavior becomes unavoidable when there is no progress in resolving the conflict, and the current Israeli government has made it very clear that there won’t be any progress. Criticizing Israel for behavior that has contributed to its increasing isolation in the world is not an unfriendly or treacherous act, and it ought to serve as a wake-up call to warn Israel away from a ruinous path.The American Conservative, 28 December 2016

The same conservative source published a like-minded article by Patrick Buchanan:

Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history, has warned his countrymen, “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel, it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic.”

“If the bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote” added Barak, “this will be an apartheid state.” Of John Kerry’s speech, Barak said, “Powerful, lucid … World & majority in Israel think the same.”

Note that General James Mattis is Trump’s appointed Defense Secretary. Trump has also appointed Thomas Friedman as ambassador to Israel, and Friedman has compared Jews who criticize Israel with Jewish Nazi collaborators. But notice that that the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism appears to define such comparisons as worse than illegitimate.

Defense Secretary-designate Gen. James Mattis warned in 2013 that Israeli settlements were leading to an “apartheid” state. The American Conservative, 30 December 2016

No-one wants to see another apartheid state. These are the warnings of friends of Israel, not her enemies.

I have cited mostly pro-Israel conservative sources till now. Indulge me if I quote from a more liberal news service, but one that is nonetheless Jewish:

Kerry’s address was a superbly Zionist and pro-Israel speech. Anyone who truly supports the two-state solution and a Jewish and democratic Israel should welcome his remarks and support them. It’s a binary incidence, with no middle ground. It’s no surprise that those who hastened to condemn Kerry even before he spoke and even more so afterward were Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett and the heads of the settler lobby. Kerry noted in his speech that it is this minority that is leading the Israeli government and the indifferent majority toward a one-state solution.Haaretz, 29 December 2016

A solid majority of the countries that voted for the UN Security Council resolution are not anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic. The message of their vote was simple: It’s the settlements, stupid.Haaretz, 26 December 2016

Israel is in a terrible fix. The Netanyahu government is hostage to the most extreme right wing elements of all, especially the land lobby. To annex the West Bank outright is political suicide. Israelis do not want to add millions of Palestinians to their Jewish state. To do so would mean that Israel could no longer exist as a Jewish state if it were to remain a democracy. (Assuming a democracy based on ethnic qualifications for citizenship is not an oxymoron.)

Let Prime Minister Netanyahu be heard through Breitbart:

“I don’t seek applause, I seek the security and peace and prosperity and the future of the Jewish state,” he continued. “The Jewish people have sought their place under the sun for 3,000 years and we are not about to be dissuaded by mistaken policies that have caused great damage. Israelis do not need to be lectured of the importance of peace by foreign leaders. Israel’s hand has been extended to its neighbors since day one, from its very first day. We pray for peace. We worked for it everyday since then. Thousands of Israel families have made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our country and advance peace. My family has been one of them. There are many, many others. No one wants peace more than the people of Israel. Israel remains committed to resolving the outstanding differences between us and the Palestinians through direct negotiations. This is how we made peace with Egypt. This is how we made peace with Jordan. It is the only way we’ll make peace with the Palestinians. That’s always been Israel’s policy.”Breitbart, 28 December 2016

This is how we made peace with Egypt. Indeed. By withdrawing all occupation forces and illegal Israeli settlements from land captured in the 1967 war. But the Bible never really gave the Sinai to Israel, did it? Not that the UK and US are suggesting that Israel withdraw all settlements from the West Bank today. There is some irony, however, in the fact that the Egypt-Israel peace treaty signed on 26 March 1979 followed hard on the heals of the United Nations Security Council resolution 446, also condemning Israel’s illegal new settlement activity in the West Bank, adopted 22 March 1979 — again with the United States abstaining.

The point is that it is Israel’s friends, nations opposed to antisemitism and pro-Israel in other respects, who are trying to save Israel as a Jewish state and a democracy, who are among those speaking out through the United Nations Security Council resolution 2334. If antisemitism is on the rise once again, and there are indications that it is, then it is encouraging to see that Israel does have such friends today who will speak out against the acts of an Israeli government under the influence of a radical right wing settlement lobby, and who will seek to bring Israel back from isolation into a community of nations made up of many good and strong friends.

 

How Israel Uses (not “Misuses”) The Bible

Professor of Moral Theology, Daniel Maguire, published How Israel Misuses the Bible few days ago in Consortiumnews.com. I agree with the political point of the article but not the attempt to rescue the Bible as if it has a halo that must be guarded from any blemish. People use holy books to justify almost any agenda they want.

How Israel Misuses the Bible — Some excerpts

Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, let the theological cat out of the bag.   When the Security Council rebuked Israel for their land thefts (euphemized as “settlements,”) Mr. Danon replied with pious indignation: “Would you ban the French from building in Paris?”

There, in all of it effrontery, is the imperial theology that birthed Zionism. David Ben Gurion said of Palestine “God promised it to us.” Yitzhak Baer wrote in 1947: “God gave to every nation its place, and to the Jews he gave Palestine.”

So in this hallucinatory theology, just as God gave Paris to France the Zionist deity gave Palestine to Jews including the right to build whatever they want wherever they want it. If the Zionist god posted a “Jews only” sign on Palestine, the presence of non-Jews is a sacrilege and their land claims are specious. If nothing is intelligible outside its history, as the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin put it, Ambassador Danon’s French allusion can only be understood against this theological backdrop.

. . . . .

Zionist ersatz theology imagines a capricious god who is into real estate distribution, a god who hands out eternal deeds to people of his choosing. It is the will of the Creator that all others be cleansed and their property rights be negated.

Misunderstanding the Bible

Zionist theology depends on a fallacious exegesis of the Hebrew Bible. The two key words for properly understanding the Bible are descriptive and prescriptive. Many of the texts of the Bible describe the horrors of a barbaric time. They are not normative or in any sense admirable. The Bible is revered for its prescriptive texts which imagined with classical excellence a whole new social order where “there shall be no poor among you,” (Deut 15::4) and where swords will gradually be melted down into plowshares as violent power is subdued. In the prescriptive texts we see the beauty of Judaism which Zionism violates.

The Zionists don’t know the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive. They take ugly biblical descriptive texts and use them to make imperial policy. Texts such as this from Deuteronomy: “When Yahweh your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you – the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canannites, the Perizzites, the Hivites … and when Yahweh your God gives them over to you … you must utterly destroy them. … Show them no mercy.” (7:1-11, 91-5, 11:8-9)

Following the “logic” of such texts, the Palestinians are now the new Hittites, Girgashites and Canaanites to whom no mercy is to be shown or property rights to be honored. Zionist theology dishonors Judaism.

The worst of mad men, said the poet Alexander Pope, is a saint gone mad. Ironically Jews should know the horrors that religiously motivated people can wreak. Nothing so animates the will for good or for ill like the tincture of the sacred. Christian animus against Jews unleashed slaughters, pogroms, segregation and influenced the anti-Jewish venom that Nazism mechanized with genocidal force.

The survival of Israel living in accord with international law, alongside a Palestinian state, is the goal that has no need of obstructive faux theology. Mr. Netanyahu like the High Priest is rending his garments in outrage, threatening to smite all nations that would challenge Israel’s manifest destiny to build in Palestine like the French can build in Paris. A bit of curative theology is needed to correct this brutal and ignorant madness. The Security Council gave the cure a jump start.

Daniel C. Maguire is a Professor of Moral Theology at Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit institution in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is author of A Moral Creed for All Christians and The Horrors We Bless: Rethinking the Just-War Legacy [Fortress Press]).He can be reached at daniel.maguire@marquette.edu  — Consortiumnews.com December 27, 2016

I have omitted some rather controversial historical details from the original article because I want the focus to be on the political and popular manipulations of sacred texts. I want to follow up with a very positive post about the future of Israel, and the last sentence quoted above is an excellent segue into that — notice the word “cure”!

 

 

 

 

From the “War against Christmas” to “Christmas as a war against. . . . “

It is not really until the second century and the rise of Christian gnostics who asserted that Jesus had not been present in an actual physical form — that he had been spiritual only — that Christian thinkers realized that they’d have to start emphasizing Christ’s bodily origins. And so they have to talk about the registration at Bethlehem, they have to talk about the cradle, and even the swadling clothes become an article of faith. So it’s after about a hundred years that Christians decide to start thinking seriously about the nativity, and so the next question for them is when to mark it.

Bowler, Gerry. 2016. The Persistence of Christmas: A Conversation with Historian Gerry Bowler. Accessed December 25. http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/12/19/christmas-gerry-bowler/

If you are thinking, “But but … weren’t the nativity stories written in the first century?” then have a look at Marcion and Luke-Acts.

Jesus Lives and therefore Lived — If You Believe

What a hoot! Bart Ehrman is listed alongside Richard Carrier as an authority citing reasons to doubt the historical existence of Jesus! (For those not in the know, Ehrman has expressed deep loathing of Carrier and has written a book arguing that anyone who thinks Jesus did not exist is bonkers.)

http://bigthink.com/philip-perry/a-growing-number-of-scholars-are-questioning-the-existence-of-jesus

That’s in the Big Think article by Philip Perry, A Growing Number of Scholars Are Questioning the Historic Existence of Jesus, the same article Breitbart’s Thomas D. Williams views as an attempt by Jesus mythicists to undermine that foundation of Western values, Christmas.

A review of Philip Perry’s articles indicates that he has a gift for framing eye-catching topics. In his article under the heading “growing number of scholars questioning the historic existence of Jesus” he addresses the views of

  • Reza Aslan (who argues Jesus was a revolutionary leader; several mainstream biblical scholars have scoffed at Aslan’s work partly on the grounds that it did not consider more recent scholarship on the historical Jesus)
  • Richard Carrier
  • Bart Ehrman
  • Joseph Atwill (who argues the gospel Jesus was a conspiratorial creation of the Roman political and military leaders; Perry adds a video link to Atwill’s views)

And David Fitzgerald even gets a mention with his book, Nailed.

How could Ehrman be listed here under the title indicating he is one of the “mythicists”?

Ehrman focuses on the lack of witnesses. “What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing.”

And some online critics of Ehrman have pointed out that he fails to follow through on the logic of some of his own arguments.

But Perry does have a point when he writes in conclusion: read more »

Breitbart’s War on Jesus “Mythicism”

America’s alt-right news site, Breitbart, has lumped anyone questioning the existence of Jesus in with those seeking to destroy Western civilization by finding excuses to eradicate the celebration of Christmas from our cultural landscape.

Thomas D. Walker

The author is Catholic theologian Thomas D. Walker PhD (follow the link to his homepage).

Walker begins as follows:

Anti-Christmas grinches have upped the ante in the annual war on Christmas, moving beyond opposition to Nativity scenes and Wise Men to denying the very existence of Jesus.

A new article in Big Think claims that more and more, “historians and bloggers alike are questioning whether the actual man called Jesus existed.”

Trendy atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens also dabbled in the denial of the historical Jesus, with Dawkins asserting that it is possible “to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all, and Hitchens averring that Jesus’ existence is “highly questionable.”

Walker’s main counter arguments seems to be . . .

Perry fails to note the very obvious fact that we actually have very little evidence for anyone in the ancient world, especially if the person wasn’t an emperor, general or aristocrat.

As one more sensible atheist has written, we possess “about as much evidence for Jesus as we have for other, analogous preachers and prophets of his time. In fact, we have slightly more for him than most.”

And who is that “sensible atheist” upon whom Walker relies? Why, none other than Tim O’Neill:

Atheist scholar Tim O’Neill notes that almost all non-Christian scholars fully accept evidence from Tacitus and Josephus, “as being evidence that Jesus was, in fact, a historical figure.”

“The mentions of him by those writers are exactly what would we expect if someone like Jesus existed,” he observes.

Anyone not aware of Tim O’Neill in this context can observe his level and style of argument in responses to an article by Valerie Tarico questioning the historicity of Jesus and published on several websites. I have also had several encounters with Tim on this blog and elsewhere and have invited him to a serious discussion of the question in any forum on one condition: that he refrain from abusive language and insult. He has evidently found the condition too onerous to take up.

Tim is not a historian, by the way, any more than I am. We are both amateurs and I think I have more training in historical methods and certainly more knowledge of the methods and philosophies of historical inquiry and writing than he. His degree was in medieval literature, I believe.

And an examination of Thomas Walker’s website indicates he has no background studies in history at all.

I have not yet read Perry’s article, but will do so as soon as the chance arises. No doubt I’ll post more soon on both Perry’s and Walker’s articles.

 

 

They Love Trump Because You Hate Him

The French smoke because Americans don’t. Or at least that’s what they used to tell us, only partly joking. But nobody would injure himself just to spite someone else, would he? Seems unlikely.

But if you skim the web looking for reasons why people smoke, beyond the typical reason (they enjoy it), you’ll find a surprising number say that they do it because they know it’s bad. If it annoys others, then so much the better. In a world where people have precious little control over their own lives, smoking can become an act of individuality and rebellion.

In the first episode of True Detective, Rustin “Rust” Cohle asks for “a sixer o’ Old Milwaukee or Lone Star, nothin’ snooty.”

 

When I heard him say that, I immediately thought, “I know this guy.” I grew up when mainstream beers in the U.S. were pretty tolerable. Did they become more watered-down and more bitter over the past few decades? I would argue that they did. Some of the low-calorie beers that people drink by the gallon every weekend barely taste like beer to me.

Just the fact I admitted publicly that I hate cheap American beer shows that I’m outside of Rust’s circle. Only a fool would pay more than he needs to to get drunk. Only a snob would ask the bartender, “What’s on draft?” Authentic people see value in bad beer, bad coffee, and gummy white bread.

That’s one of the keys to unlocking the mystery behind Donald Trump’s winning the presidency. If you didn’t vote for him, you can probably rattle off a hundred reasons why you think he’ll be a disaster. You may even be in the middle of “explaining it” to somebody on Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit right now. Or maybe you’re laying out your case in an strongly worded email email to an uncle who doesn’t have the good sense to keep his racist comments to himself. read more »

Miscellany

Some of my recent reading . . . .

On an alternative historical Jesus

— Once more from Lena Einhorn, an interview with Mythicist Milwaukee: Who Was Jesus? w/ Lena Einhorn

.

On a tiresome Christian (or any religious) trope

— From Valerie Tarico: Why It’s Time to Call Bullshit on Prayer Requests

.

More to discover in Qumran

— From Haarez: New Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments Found in Judean Desert

.

Identifying those time-wasting tricks

— From Jeremy Sherman @ Alternet: People Who Will Say Anything to Win an Argument: The art of deciding when you’re talking to a brick wall (See how many academics, not just lay folk, you find deploying these tactics)

.

And something important

— From Will McCants: Donald Trump’s sharp contrast from Obama and Bush on Islam has serious implication (Sam Harris tweeted that he found this piece “obscurantist”. He appears to have forgotten some of the moves towards understanding the issues in his book co-authored with Maajid Nawaz.)

 

Updated: I forgot to include this one earlier. . . .

Mehdi Hasan in The Guardian: We accept that Russian bombs can provoke a terror backlash. Ours can too

 

Rise of Religion Worldwide and Belief in God in Australia, Europe

God belief in Australia

The 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes conducted by the Australian National University found that 67 percent of Australian adults believed either in God (47 percent) or in something they preferred to call a ‘higher power’ (a further 20 percent). A less nuanced Nielsen/Fairfax poll in the same year reported simply that 68 percent believed in God. (To put his in a historical context: in a 1949 Gallup poll, 95 percent of Australians declared their belief in God.) The figures for Australia almost exactly match those for New Zealand and the European Union. (Hugh Mackay 2016, Beyond Belief, Kindle loc 2280)

Unfortunately in the Introduction to the same book we read:

According to John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge in God is Back (2009), ‘the proportion of people attached to the world’s four biggest religions — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism — rose from 67 percent in 1900 to 73 percent in 2003 and may reach 80 percent by 2050’. (Kindle loc 66)

We’ve had predictions of the demise of religious belief before: around the turn of the last century, I think, and then in the 1960/70s, yes?

 

The Relevance of the Historical Jesus for Christian Faith and Theology

Nils Alstrup Dahl

It is easy to think that scholarly interest in the historical Jesus stands independently from the Christ of faith and theological preferences. Don’t theologians “doing history” on the “historical Jesus” come up with a figure who does not align with the Jesus of their faith? Don’t theologian-historians deserve to be credited with hard-nosed intellectual integrity for “discovering” such a real-world Jesus?

My views [that the historical Jesus’ disciples believed he was the Christ before his death] are based on the scholarship of one of the great New Testament of the twentieth century, whom most of my readers here (possibly all of them!) have never heard of, Nils Dahl, a Norwegian scholar who taught for many years at Yale University.  Dahl was an amazingly insightful scholar who preferred writing essays to writing books.  When I was in graduate school I and all of my colleagues were heavily influenced by Dahl’s insights (e.g., in his book The Crucified Messiah). . . . (Bart Ehrman, Jesus the Messiah Before the Resurrection)

Bart Ehrman and Larry Hurtado have reminded us of the influence of the Norwegian theologian and Yale professor Nils Alstrup Dahl so I have been following up their notices to learn more about the sorts of things he taught. One of Dahl’s chapters in The Crucified Messiah is “The Problem of the Historical Jesus”. What he says about the importance of the study of the historical Jesus for theology and faith is interesting.

David Strauss had written a book undermining the historical plausibility of many of the accounts of Jesus in the gospels. Dahl addresses the significance of Strauss:

The crisis called forth by Strauss led to an even more intensive preoccupation with the historical Jesus. Thereafter the Life-of-Jesus research not only stood under the aegis of the struggle for freedom from dogma, but also under that of the apologetic defense against Strauss. In the period of empiricism there was also the desire to erect a secure historical basis for Christian faith.  It was assumed that the necessary basis in the sources had been found by means of the Marcan hypothesis and the two source theory. (p. 51)

What lay behind the critical investigations into the historical value of the gospels is also of interest.

The Life-of-Jesus research, in its classic period of the nineteenth century, was in the main a gigantic attempt to get free from the [Chalcedonian] christological dogma of the church, but at the same time to maintain the uniquely religious significance of Jesus. (p. 50)

Hence,

All the liberal biographies of Jesus shared the conviction of having in the historical Jesus an ally in their efforts toward a modern theology and a broad-minded Christianity. Accordingly, the historical Jesus was modernized. (p. 53)

Albert Schweitzer saw right through this dogmatic agenda of historical Jesus studies when he wrote:

He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in an historical garb. (p. 56)

That particular historical Jesus had to some extent been influenced of the “history of religions school” with its close attention to other dying and rising gods in the Greco-Roman world. More conservative scholars reacted as follows:

The conservative theologians showed a preference for the Jewish background in order to find a support for the historical credibility of the gospel tradition. (p. 57)

But there was a looming threat. Radical criticism could take Jesus right out of the church altogether and comparisons with other ancient religions led to the very questioning of the historicity of Jesus himself:

At first it appeared that the radical Gospel criticism and the history-of-religions school would lead to the assumption of an unbridgeable gulf between Jesus and the church; in this situation it is quite understandable why outsiders proceeded to deny the historical existence of Jesus. (p. 82)

So it was imperative that the study of the historical Jesus be kept in “godly hands”:

The curiosity which underlies all science will certainly lead to a continually new treatment of the problem. If we theologians ignore this task, others will undertake it. Even if the question should be theologically irrelevant (more of this later), we cannot call it illegitimate. The scientific ethos requires that we do not avoid it, but rather work at it in all sincerity, for God’s law lies behind the scientific ethos. The historical critical concern with the problem of the historical Jesus is at least an honorable task which is subject to the distress and promise of every honorable profession, and certainly to the Pauline hos me (“as if not”) as well. (pp. 62-3)

Although god-fearing scholars should be the main body of researchers it was also necessary to include a non-Christians (even Jews!) as well for the following reason:

Scholars with different starting points co-operate and are able mutually to correct each other. For that reason also, it is not desirable that non-Christian scholars remain aloof from this work. In certain respects even antipathy can be illuminating; Jewish scholars, e.g., can have a clear eye for what is characteristic of Jesus. (pp. 63-4)

But is there not a risk that some historical Jesus findings will stand at odds with the Jesus of religious beliefs?

Dahl is not perturbed. Most believers would scarcely be aware of the scholarly studies or if aware of them they could safely ignore them:

It is obvious that the Christian faith and the church would have only a very limited interest in such a presentation of what actually occurred, even if it could be given with a very high degree of historical probability. . . . The believing community could therefore tranquilly disregard the historical description of Jesus’ death and his previous life for the sake of holding to the Gospels and to the rest of the New Testament writings. Once more it would be clear to the church that only the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the witness of the Holy Spirit through the apostles disclose the meaning and the significance of Jesus’ death and his previous life. It will therefore firmly maintain that in the New Testament and nowhere else is it revealed who Jesus really was — without being required to contest the results of historical science. (pp. 75-6)

But what of the theologians themselves? They could scarcely ignore the research. Besides, a communications revolution has happened since Dahl wrote and the academic research has no longer been well hidden from lay believers. The benefits of historical Jesus studies for the faith of theologians (and since Dahl, for the better informed lay Christians) are most remarkable indeed . . . . read more »

Atheism, Vridar and Blogging Research in Religion, History, Politics, Science. . . .

With Vridar’s addition to the Top 30 Atheist Blogs it is apropos to discuss my position on atheism and religion.

The Feedspot site Top 30 Atheist Blogs And Websites Every Atheist Must Follow updates atheist blogs regularly. From the site:

The Best Atheist blogs from thousands of top Atheist blogs in our index using search and social metrics. Data will be refreshed once a week.These blogs are ranked based on following criteria

  • Google reputation and Google search ranking
  • Influence and popularity on Facebook, twitter and other social media sites
  • Quality and consistency of posts.
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The name Vridar originated as a pseudonym for the American writer Vardis Fisher who explored his personal journey from Mormonism to atheism in the two part novel Orphans of Gethsemane. From Wikipedia:

This is a book about what has led us to be the way we are, and makes sense of our male-dominated, Judeo-Christian western society, its families, its values, and its wars. The book is semi-autobiographical. The work is divided into two parts – For Passion, For Heaven and The Great Confession. The first novel deals with the Western, pioneer influences and especially the sexual evolution (and psychological implications) for ‘Vridar’ (Vardis). His actual life was tragic with divorce and suicide. The second book describes an intellectual journey, in particular the research, reading and discussions undertaken before writing the Testament.

Since I identified with so many aspects of the life portrayed in the first part of that novel and then again with his intellectual journey in the second, I chose the author’s fictional name, Vridar, for a blog where I discuss my own intellectual journeys, including lessons drawn from a religious background. (Thanks to Earl Doherty for introducing me to Vardis Fisher’s work, especially his Testament of Man series.)

Like Vardis Fisher what interests me is an exploration into what the scholarly research seeks to uncover about the nature of religion itself and why people embrace religious ideas. Simply attacking religion in today’s world “because it is irrational and bad” does not strike me as a carefully thought-through plan. Rather than react viscerally to religion I am inclined to believe that a more productive exercise is to find out what we can “know of our enemy”. That means serious engagement with the specialist research. That’s why I find myself so often at odds with Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and others: they demonstrate over and over that they have not done their homework and instead of contributing towards public enlightenment they are doing more to fan public ignorance and bigotry. But don’t get me wrong. There’s certainly a place for exposing the dangers of particular religious groups and arguing for a more enlightened world, but let’s do it with some genuine understanding of what we are talking about and the psychology involved.

For a brief while after leaving religion and still raw with the pain I had both experienced and observed I was feverishly hostile to the very idea of any religious faith. My bias was obvious to others and I could scarcely ignore it myself. A more productive path, I soon enough decided, was to try to understand why people embrace all kinds of religious ideas. It was not enough to simply say faith and beliefs in unseen powers are irrational and therefore stupid and dangerous. If religion is the opiate of the masses as Marx wrote then it is difficult to accept that every religious person is partaking of the same doses. Some are best described as being on mild aspirin, others on heavy narcotics. There is a range. Does a single explanation really cover it all?

As for the posts on the Bible, ditto. There’s nothing “anti-Christian” or hostile about any of those studies. Again, what does the research tell us about the origins of our Judea-Christian heritage? That’s what interests me.

Then we have politics, history, science — all from the same perspective of wanting to understand what’s going on. I have learned enough about history and the media to know that news reports very rarely provide an understanding of the issues. News reports tend to act more like buttons that switch on public prejudices. National identities are often grounded in myths, the exposure of which can have the potential to foster more civil societies. To understand what’s going on and how we got to where we are is the main preoccupation of this blog.

I’m looking forward to a personal change in circumstances soon that will enable me to devote more time to reading and blogging ideas that should not be confined to the limited readership of academia.

 

Lena Einhorn discusses her Shift in Time hypothesis

For earlier discussions on this blog of Lena’s argument see:

 

The Tribes of Israel modeled on the Athenian and Ideal Greek Tribes?

The Bible’s narratives evidently share much of the cultural heritage of ancient Syria and Mesopotamia but zoom in for a more detailed study and one arguably sees many signs of a distinctively Greek influence. That’s the argument of Russell Gmirkin in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. Previous posts in this series that include explanations of how Greek sources could have influenced the biblical authors are:

  1. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
  2. The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look
  3. David, an Ideal Greek Hero — and other Military Matters in Ancient Israel
  4. Some preliminaries before resuming Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

Nothing is more essentially “Biblical Israel” than its Twelve Tribes. Genesis is for most part the story of the origins of these twelve tribes. The history of Israel is a history primarily of the tribes of Israel, mostly twelve at first, but then divided into two kingdoms of ten and two. One of the tribes was assigned for the priesthood and therefore not given a territorial allotment, but two of Joseph’s sons were each given land areas to maintain the all-important twelve inheritors of the land while the sons of Levi became a thirteenth tribe. Always twelve, though sometimes ten and sometimes thirteen.

So very “biblical”, yet so very Greek as known about Athens and various Greek colonies from the writings of Plato and Aristotle housed in the Great Library of Alexandria.

It’s a fascinating observation. Gmirkin’s argument is as follows.

Tribal groupings in the Ancient Near East generally consisted of literal kinship groupings. When we read about the tribal organization of Israel in the Hexateuch (the Pentateuch plus Joshua), however, we find something different. Most distinctive are the clear geographic boundaries that marked the set locations of each tribe. Furthermore, each tribe’s geographic area was determined by lot. Take the case of the tribe of Zebulun in Joshua 19:

10 The third lot came up for Zebulun according to its clans:

The boundary of their inheritance went as far as Sarid. 11 Going west it ran to Maralah, touched Dabbesheth, and extended to the ravine near Jokneam. 12 It turned east from Sarid toward the sunrise to the territory of Kisloth Tabor and went on to Daberath and up to Japhia. 13 Then it continued eastward to Gath Hepher and Eth Kazin; it came out at Rimmon and turned toward Neah. 14 There the boundary went around on the north to Hannathon and ended at the Valley of Iphtah El. 15 Included were Kattath, Nahalal, Shimron, Idalah and Bethlehem. There were twelve towns and their villages.

16 These towns and their villages were the inheritance of Zebulun, according to its clans.

See also Deuteronomy 4.5, 14; 5.31; 6.1; 12.1; cf. 11.2 and Joshua 13, 15-19, 21.

Such a system is unknown in the Ancient Near East

But people move. Families need to find better opportunities elsewhere when conflicts increase and resources decrease. A tribe defined by a geographical region is likely to be a fictive kinship group.

What we see here are two concepts of tribes. In one instance a tribe is identified by a geographical area; other times a tribe is understood to be kinship group descended from a common ancestor.

Gmirkin’s study is a more methodical and in-depth exploration of some of the close similarities between Plato’s Laws and the Pentateuch that I happened to post about earlier, a study initially inspired by Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert.

  1. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637  (2015-06-22)
  2. Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws  (2015-06-23)
  3. Plato’s Laws, Book 2, and Biblical Values (2015-07-13)
  4. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization (2015-08-13)
  5. Bible’s Presentation of Law as a Model of Plato’s Ideal (2015-08-24)
  6. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal States (2015-09-21)
  7. Plato’s Thought World and the Bible (2016-01-30)

Both concepts sit side-by-side in the Biblical account.

Such a system is unknown in the Ancient Near East, where tribal designations reflected either real kinship groups or in some cases perhaps social classes, but did not typically correspond to bounded geographical areas or form the formal basis for provincial organization. (Gmirkin 2016, p.21f)

Unknown in the Near East, perhaps, but well known in the Greek world.

Just as Joshua is said to have done, Greeks who set out to colonize new regions were depicted as first conquering a new territory and then dividing it up equally (compensating for areas of different quality). Scribes were appointed to mark out the different allotments that became the basis of tribal units. As in Israel, a primary concern of many comparable Greek colonies was to guarantee the inalienable right of land ownership and avoid an impoverished landless class or debt slavery. So much for the ideal, and it was an ideal that was espoused both by Plato in his Laws (3.684e and 5.736c) and Aristotle in his Politics (2.1266b and 6.1319a). The reality was that attempts to so redistribute land led to conflict. New colonizing expeditions sometimes set out with the same ideal in mind to be the foundation of their new society.

As in the Greek world we see in the Bible the same ideals, methods and functions of the tribal systems (a combination of fictive tribes based on geographical area that in fact cut across kinship groups and real tribes): land was to be divided equally according to different needs and quality; scribes were appointed to mark out the land allotments and divide them among the people; the allotted land was to be inalienable; the tribes became the basis of various administrative functions including military enrollment. As in both Athens (after late sixth century reforms) and biblical Israel citizens were identified by both their tribe and home district (village in Israel; the district or deme in Athens).

Each tribe in the Greek world was assigned its eponymous god while in Israel, as we know, we have the twelve eponymous patriarchs.

Interestingly Greek tribal divisions, both in Athens and various colonies, were by tens or twelve. Variations of both were found in Athens.

Did the Greek ideals then become the basis of the biblical political-economy? Gmirkin thinks so and I suspect he’s right.

The arguments goes beyond the kinds of points in common that I have mentioned above. What I find especially significant is Gmirkin’s point that quite unlike anything found in the literature of the Near East is the common interest in the Bible and Greek philosophical literature (Plato’s Republic, Laws and Aristotle’s Politics) with the establishment of an ideal state. When this common interest that extends to discussions of ideal geographical boundaries and specific administrative divisions and then when we go on to find the particular ideal solutions to these questions overlapping, I believe Gmirkin presents a strong case.

Continuing. . . .

 

 

 

Some preliminaries before resuming Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

I originally wrote the following as an introduction to my next post on Russell E. Gmirkin’s new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. On reflection, it was too long to be part of a post addressing the book so here it is a separate introductory post instead.

Our historically conditioned deafness to oblique [and not so oblique] allusions in the Bible can sometimes lead us to doubt their very existence. — The New Moses (1993) p. 18

That was written by Dale C. Allison when he was arguing that the evangelist who composed what we know as the Gospel of Matthew was inspired by the story of Moses when he composed his particular Jesus figure. If it is difficult for many readers to accept that the figure of Moses was woven into the lineaments of Matthew’s Jesus, how much more difficult might it be to accept that much of the Pentateuch and other works in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament were modeled on the literary, philosophical, political and cultural worlds of the Greeks?

If that sounds like too much to take in at first consider the following:

The Religious Tolerance website lists the following evidence for Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch:

There are about two dozen verses in the Hebrew Scriptures and one dozen in the Christian Scriptures which state or strongly imply that Moses was the author. Consider the following passages from the New Living Translation (NLT):

  • Passages in the Pentateuch itself:
    • Exodus 17:14Then the Lord instructed Moses, ‘Write this down as a permanent record…‘”
    • Exodus 24:4Then Moses carefully wrote down all the Lord’s instructions.”
    • Exodus 34:27And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write down all these instructions, for they represents the terms of my covenant with you and with Israel.‘”
    • Leviticus 1:1The Lord called to Moses from the Tabernacle and said to him, ‘Give the following instructions to the Israelites…‘”
    • Leviticus 6:8Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Give Aaron and his sons the following instructions…‘”
    • Deuteronomy 31:9So Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests.”
    • Deuteronomy 31:24-26When Moses had finished writing down this entire body of law in a book…
  • Passages elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures:
    • Joshua 1:7-8…Obey all the laws Moses gave you.
    • Joshua 8:31-34He followed the instructions that Moses the Lord’s servant had written in the Book of the Law…
    • Joshua 22:5…obey all the commands and the laws that Moses gave to you.
    • 2 Chronicles 34:14…Hilkiah the high priest…found the book of the Law of the Lord as it had been given through Moses.
  • Passages in the Gospels which show that Jesus and John the Baptizer believed Moses to be the author:
    • Matthew 19:7-8…why did Moses say a man could merely write an official letter of divorce and send her away?”, they asked. Jesus replied, Moses permitted divorce…‘”
    • Matthew 22:24Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children…‘”
    • Mark 7:10For instance, Moses gave you this law from God…
    • Mark 12:24…haven’t you ever read about this in the writings of Moses, in the story of the burning bush…
    • Luke 24:44…I told you that everything written about me by Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must all come true.
    • John 1:17For the law was given through Moses…
    • John 5:46But if you had believed Moses, you would have believed me because he wrote about me. And since you don’t believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?
    • John 7:23…do it, so as not to break the law of Moses…
  • Passages elsewhere in the Christian Scriptures:
    • Acts 26:22…I teach nothing except what the prophets and Moses said would happen…
    • Romans 10:5For Moses wrote…

The earliest books of the Bible themselves tell us that they were written by Moses. See the side box for details. But we are not children so we do not blindly believe everything we read, although even children sometimes want to know how we know certain claims are true. The Book of Enoch testifies that it was written by the “seventh from Adam”/the great-grandfather of Noah and it was quoted faithfully in the New Testament (Jude 1:14 and elsewhere) as the true words of Enoch by the same kinds of people who believed Moses wrote the Pentateuch. The self-witness alone of any document or literature requires some form of independent testimony before we know how to interpret its historical value:

. . . . only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

Those words are from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher. If you want something more recent, try Philip R. Davies in his ground-breaking 1992 work, In Search of Ancient Israel. I have outlined his essence of his argument at The Bible – History or Story? Or if you don’t want to skip to another page then read on. Davies, himself a biblical historical critic, goes for the jugular of traditional biblical historical criticism when he writes of the circularity of its methods:

This circular process [that is, assuming a self witness of a document is true and then arguing the document is true on the basis of its self-witness] places the composition of the literature within the period of which the literature itself speaks. This is precisely how the period to which the biblical literature refers becomes also the time of composition, the ‘biblical period’, and the biblical literature, taken as a whole, becomes a contemporary witness to its own construct, reinforcing the initial assumption of a real historical matrix and giving impetus to an entire pseudo-scholarly exercise in fining the literature into a sequence of contexts which it has itself furnished! If either the historicity of the biblical construct or the actual date of composition of its literature were verified independently of each other, the circle could be broken. But since the methodological need for this procedure is overlooked, the circularity has continued to characterize an entire discipline—and render it invalid.

The panoply of historical-critical tools and methods used by biblical scholars relies for the most part on this basic circularity. (Davies, 1992, p. 37)

Anyone can write a story pretending its narrator really lived in a time long ago. This can be done for any number of reasons . . . Testing the claims of our sources is not hyper-scepticism: it is the most fundamental rule of historical inquiry.

In other words, anyone can write a story pretending its author really lived in a time long, long ago. This can be done for any number of reasons ranging from entertainment to philosophical or religious instruction. Every witness in a court of law is required to establish its credibility, first at the outset by pointing to verifiable independent external witness and/or then under cross-examination. That’s not “hyper-scepticism”. Testing our source documents is common sense and the most fundamental rule both of any form of detective work and historical inquiry. It is also fundamental to basic literary analysis and criticism.

Or even more recently, move forward to 2001 and Niels Peter Lemche’s chapter, “The Bible – A Hellenistic Book”, in Did Moses Speak Attic: Jewish Historiography and Scripture in the Hellenistic Era:

It seems obvious to most scholars that our estimate of the age of a certain book of the Old Testament must be founded on information contained in the book itself and not on other information, and the estimate should certainly not be based on the existence of a historical background that may never have existed. Although seemingly self-evident, this method is not without fault, and it may easily become an invitation to ‘tail-chasing’, to quote Philip R. Davies. By this we intend to say that the scholar may soon become entangled in a web of logically circular argumentation which is conveniently called the ‘hermeneutical circle’ . . . .  Another point is that it is also supposed that the reading of a certain piece of literature will automatically persuade it to disclose its secrets — as if no other qualifications are needed.

The first point to discuss will be the circular argumentation that is based on a too close ‘reading’ of the biblical text. Here the first example will be the books of Samuel [containing the stories of Kings Saul and David]. Some assume that these books must be old simply because they say that they are old. The exegete who claims that the books of Samuel must perforce be old will . . . have to accept the claim of the books themselves by either rather naively assuming that Samuel could be the author (as the later Jewish tradition did proclaim) or by more sophisticated argumentation, for example, of the kind formerly often used to prove narratives like the ‘Succession Story’ to be old because only an eye-witness would have been acquainted with the particulars of the family of David.

How to escape this circularity?

In order to escape from the trap created by this circular method of argumentation and the rather naive understanding of the biblical text that lies at the bottom of such claims, it will be necessary to go further and find arguments not necessarily part of the biblical text itself but coming from other sources. Such information alone will be able to disclose to the reader that the books of Samuel were composed, not at the moment when Israel got its first king, but at a much later date. (pp. 292-94, my emphasis)

Scientific procedure or its reverse?

Although it has become a standing procedure in the study of the Old Testament [Gospels] to begin where we know the least and to end at the point where we have safe information in order to explain what is certain by reasons uncertain and from an unknown past, it is obvious to almost everybody else that this procedure has no claim to be called scientific. We should rather and as a matter of course start where we are best informed. Only from this vantage should we try to penetrate into the unknown past. (p. 294, my emphasis)

The Book of Daniel likewise claims to set in the time of the Babylonian empire but few critical scholars, I believe, would accept this narrative claim at face value. No doubt that’s mostly because this book gives the game away too easily by making prophecies that can be followed in our history books right up to the third century BCE. (There are historical anomalies that also betray the fiction, but alone I suspect that those anomalies would be “less persuasive” for many.)

So after the above preliminaries hopefully those for whom the idea that even the Pentateuch and other books in the Old Testament could possibly be late Hellenistic works appears to be outlandishly novel are a little more amenable at least to its possibility. I have presented aspects of the opening chapters of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible in previous posts; one more will follow soon.