Tag Archives: God and Other Deities

Scholars of Christianity are Not Alone

It’s a human thing. Not limited to one religious heritage. I’m talking about the foibles of scholarship as it delves into its own heritage.

So we have the language of apologetics being used where it does not belong. Recall a post that detoured into a discussion of confessional language in scholarship. Recall some of the examples of this evangelical rhetoric:

Alas, the idea that a messiah killed by crucifixion . . . . would be shocking to first-century Jews is still alive and well.

. . . .

At the very least, however; Paul’s primary emphasis in relation to Christ represents something utterly remarkable. For Paul had found the early Christian proclamation of the crucified messiah completely abhorrent . . . .

. . . .

. . . . an unprecedented and momentous innovation in traditional Jewish liturgical practice.

And so forth. But Christianity is not alone. The following is found in a Buddhist publication:

It took an astonishing energy and dedication to create and sustain this literature. It must have been produced by an extraordinary historical event. And what could this event be, if not the appearance of a revolutionary spiritual genius? The Buddha’s presence as a living figure in the [early Buddhist texts] is overwhelming and unmistakable.

Then there is this claim attempting to put a study arguing for the authenticity of very early Buddhist texts reliably scientific:

Science works from indirect and inferred evidence and the preponderance of such indirect evidence points to the authenticity of the [early Buddhist texts]

Is that true about the grounds for scientific conclusions? I’m not so sure.

Then we read of the conditions that are laid down for any opposing argument:

Anyone wishing to establish the thesis that the [early Buddhist texts] are inauthentic needs to propose an explanation that accounts for the entire range of evidence in a manner that is at least as simple, natural, and reasonable as the thesis of authenticity. To our knowledge, this has never even been attempted. Rather, sceptics content themselves with picking holes in individual pieces of evidence, which merely distracts from the overall picture, and discourages further inquiry. Their methods have much in common with denialist rhetoric (see section 7.4).

That sounds awfully like an apologist saying that any proposal for Christian origins has to be as simple as the thesis that the disciples of Jesus believed he was the messiah and that he had been resurrected and persuaded others to believe the same. There is a difference between simple and simplistic. read more »

The Jesus Story Mirrors Anthropologist’s Observations of Shamanism?

I.M. (Ioan Myrddin) Lewis

Is it possible to read the following passage from a study of shamanism and spirit possession without recalling a central theme of the gospel narratives about Jesus?

We shall find that those who, as masters of spirits, diagnose and treat illness in others, are themselves in danger of being accused as witches. For if their power over the spirits is such that they can heal the sick, why should they not also sometimes cause what they cure? Reasoning in this fashion, the manipulated establishment which reluctantly tolerates bouts of uncontrolled possession illness among its dependants, rounds on the leaders of these rebellious cults and firmly denounces them as witches. Thus, I argue, the most ambitious and pushing members of these insurgent cults are kept in check, hoist, as it were, with their own petard.

Lewis, I. M. 2003. Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession. 3rd edition. London ; New York: Routledge p. 28

One cannot help but be reminded of historical Jesus studies such as the one by Stevan Davies, Spirit Possession and the Origin of Christianity.

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?

 

So God is Only Human?

For God so loved the world that he did what many other people would have done — only to undo all his good with a much worse act later.

trolley-switchOne mind-game that keeps recurring in my recent and current readings in the nature and origins of our moral sense is the trolley experiment.

You see a trolley is running out of control along railway tracks and is about to kill five people hedged in by high banks on the track ahead. You have the option of pulling a lever to re-route the trolley to a side-track but there is another person similarly trapped there and who will die of you do.

Is it permissible to pull the lever so the trolley kills the one but saves the five? Most people say it is.

Then it occurred to me that isn’t this a bit like what the Christian gospel is about? God sees many people doomed to die, so he flicks a switch so that only one dies instead. (Okay, there are more theological trappings to this: those five have to repent or believe or they’ll find themselves in the same situation again and then God will decide not to pull the lever and they’ll all die anyway!)

So far, apart from the theological monstrosities, does not God’s great act of salvation appear to be little more than a perfectly natural human act in accordance with perfectly natural human ethics?

The mind-game gets more interesting if we introduce some variations. What about tossing a very heavy bulk of a man onto the track to stop the trolley if there is no lever to save the five; or what about pulling a lever that will drop the heavy bulk of a man on to the track so you don’t actually push him, and so forth.

Then there are other types of variation to introduce. One of these is having the solitary person on the side track being a close friend or relative of yours, perhaps your child? What if the five people are all staunch supporters of [fill in your most hated politician/party here]?

Then try the variants of scale. What if not just five people were doomed but an entire city by something accordingly matching the trolley?

If you saw the entire population on earth was doomed and the only way to save them was to allow your child to die, what would you do? It would be horribly painful but I suspect some, even many, people would even sacrifice their child.

Would God, then, have been any better than many mere mortals?

(Come to think of it, how many mere mortals, lacking awe and mystery, would then doom that entire population in a re-run if they failed to believe God had not lost his child after all but had magically brought him back to life?)

Jewish Foundations: The Divine Name & Heavenly Beings Become Human

Continuing from Jewish Foundations of Christianity — Significance of God’s Name  . . . . .

We have seen how pre-Christian ideas within something we might loosely call “Judaism” could conceive of a clear connection between a “Son of God” (who is a Saviour figure) and an “image of God” and how both of these entities could receive the exalted name of God himself.

The Name Above All Names

This brings us to the famous hymn cited by Paul in Philippians 2 and its declaration that the Son of God was, at his exaltation, honoured with the name exalted above all names. What is this name? Here is one train of thought:

The second prominent angelomorphic tradition in this pericope is the teaching of the Divine Name and its investiture: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the Name [το ονομα] which is above every name“. The referent of “the Name” is not the name ‘Jesus”, but the Divine Name. This is clear from his inclusion of κυριος [=Lord], which the LXX [=Septuagint or Greek Old Testament] uses to translate the Tetragrammaton [=YHWH], in the confession of 2.11: κύριος Ἰησοῦς χριστός [= Lord Jesus Christ]. The significance of this ascription cannot be overestimated. It is indisputable evidence that lays bare the ancient roots of this Christology in angelomorphic traditions that grew from the Divine Name Angel of Exod 23.20-21. The unparalleled status and enthronement of the one who possesses the Divine Name is also emphasized in Eph 1.12-23:

[. . .] the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints [. . .] which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.

That is from Charles A. Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents & Early Evidence (p. 339 – my own bolding as always).

Here’s another take, this time from Darrell D. Hannah, Michael and Christ: Michael Traditions and Angel Christologies in Early Christianity (pp. 143-144)

On Fitzmyer’s opposing view that pre-Christian copies of the LXX did not use κύριος for יהוה  Hannah says “Fitzmyer is too cautious. he does not take into account the evidence of Philo, whose text of the LXX clearly renders יהוה with κύριος. Nor can Fitzmyer account for the overwhelming substitution of κύριος  for the tetragrammaton in Christian MSS if it were not the traditional rendering.

The earliest text which implies Jesus possessed the divine Name is Phil. 2.6-11. After recalling Jesus’ death on the cross followed by his exaltation, the hymn continues, God καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα, ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ . . . [=has given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . ]  Many commentators agree that “the name above every name” can only be κύριος, which in the LXX renders יהוה, and which is explicitly attributed to Jesus in vs. 11. The phrase ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ must then be translated “at the name of Jesus”, i.e., the name which belongs to Jesus, rather than “at the name Jesus”. In other words, the Lordship of God, and His Name which guarantees that Lordship, now belong to Christ.

Significantly, the hymn culminates in transferring to Christ an OT text (Isa. 45.21-23) which declares the universal worship of the one God, but does it in a way which does not set up Christ as a rival to that one God (vs. 11).

In many ways this text parallels 1 Cor. 8.6, where Paul seemingly modifies the Shema to include a confession of Christ as κύριος. The deutero-Pauline Eph. 1.20-21 and the author of Hebrews 1.4) provide later but important parallels to Phil. 2.6-11. The three texts taken together imply a conjunction between Christ’s exaltation and his possession of a new name. 

This bestowal of the divine Name upon Christ at his exaltation and in consequence of his obedience, it must be admitted, differs significantly from the Exodus angel who possesses God’s Name so that he can take God’s place in leading the Israelites (Ex. 23.20-21, 32.31-33.6), and from Michael’s being given knowledge of the Name as the secret oath by which the world was created (1En. 69. 13-25), and even from Yahoel’s (ApAb.) possession of the Name as the key to his status as the principal angel. However, there is a significant similarity with Metatron’s reception of the Name on the occasion of his exaltation to heaven and his elevation over the heavenly hosts in 3 Enoch 4-12 (= §§5-15). Two other NT passages, Rev. 19.11-16 and John 17.11-12, offer parallels to the Exodus angel’s, Michael’s and Yahoel’s possession of the Name. 

(I’m not quite sure I understand why Hannah says “it must be admitted” that the bestowal of the divine Name upon Jesus “differs significantly” from the other instances.)

Moshe Idel, in Ben: Sonship and Jewish Mysticism, notes the possibility that the name Jesus itself is related to its “Hebrew theophoric form Yehoshu’a” (יהושוע) which contains (significantly according to many readers in ancient times) the letters of the divine Name — y-h-w. Page 24:

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Jewish Foundations of Christianity — Significance of God’s Name

tetraThere is something unusual about the way the name of God is treated in the Old Testament books. The name itself sometimes appears to have an existence of its own apart from God himself. It’s natural for us to take this kind of usage as a literary personification. But is it? This post is one more update of some of the new things I have been learning as I try to catch up with scholarly studies into ancient Judaism.

God does things with his name as if it were an entity “out there”. He places his name in the temple. We read that his name saves his people and is worthy of praise.

The first text to examine in order to understand what’s going on here is Exodus 23:20-34 (NIV). We find it is foundational in several ancient works — Philo, the Apocalypse of Abraham, and various other early Christian and Jewish texts — that treat the name of God in unusual ways —

20 “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. 

21 Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.

22 If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you.

23 My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.

24 Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. 

The angel, like most angels in the Bible, is anonymous. But he does have God’s divine name in him. So God can call him “my angel”. The command is to listen to what he says and obey him. So he appears to have a voice of his own yet at the same time his voice is that of God. Moshe Idel explains it this way:

Although God is the speaker, it is the angels voice that is heard. Thus it seems the angel serves as a form of loudspeaker for the divine act of speech. (p. 17)

Similarly, as we see in verse 23, this angel is said to lead the Israelites while at the same time God explains he is the one who is acting.

But the phrase that has attracted most attention in Jewish studies is “my name is in him”.

Compare Exodus 33:14

The Lord replied [to Moses], “My Presence/Face will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Is this the same angel as we met ten chapters earlier? If so, the same angel has the name of God in him and also has the outward appearance of God. He is both a loudspeaker of God and a face-mask for God.

We find this same angel again in Isaiah 63:9 and once again he is helping or rescuing his people from trouble:

In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence [=Face] saved them.

What is most significant in this discussion is that this angel appears to be a container for the name of God. He is an ambassador or messenger for God and his presence announces the presence of God himself — by virtue of God’s name being in him.

This angel is one to be feared and obeyed. He will not forgive those who rebel against him.

Now the angel is not the only receptacle for God’s name. In Deuteronomy we learn that God is present in the Temple when his name dwells there. Indeed, as we read of the wanderings of Israel being led by this angel we eventually come to the time when they settle and have a stable place of worship. The wandering angel who contains God’s name is followed by the eventual resting place of that name (and angel?) in the Temple.

This same angel was understood by the Jewish philosopher Philo to be God’s “firstborn Son”.

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Fantasy and Religion: One Fundamental Difference (Or, Why God’s Word Will Never Fail)

Fantasy&ScienceFiction_cover_Oct1978Some theologians like to study what they call the intersects between science fiction (which is a sub-genre of fantasy) and religion. That might be a cute way to spark interest in the gospel message, but in reality there is no intersection between the two at all, at least not cognitively. Scot Atran explains:

One clear and important distinction between fantasy and religion is the knowledge of its source. People generally attribute their personal fantasies and dreams to themselves and to events they’ve experienced. They also know or assume that public fictions (novels, movies, cartoons, etc.) were created by specific people who had particular intentions for doing so.

A religious text is another story. Followers believe it to be the work and word of deities themselves. Believers assume that sacred doctrine was first heard or transcribed in some long-forgotten time by chosen prophets or sages who were faithfully repeating or imagining what the deities had directly said or shown to them. (In Gods We Trust, p. 91)

As I have been showing in my posts on Dennis Nineham’s lectures collated in The Use and Abuse of the Bible, theologians of the modern-day have salvaged the Bible from the ravages of standard literary and historical criticism by declaring that its authors were imbued with remarkable spiritual insights into the meaning of the events they witnessed and modern readers who have faith will recognize this gift of theirs in the Scriptures. This is, in effect, a more sophisticated version of the “divine inspiration” of the Bible. It’s a neat device for justifying the Bible as the fundamental source of their faith, filled with divine insights (a more intellectually respectable way of expressing the concept of “divine inspiration”), even though there are human errors evident in the text and even though some texts reveal a humanly flawed author.

The need by some Christians to affirm the apostolic authority of the Gospels is worth commenting on in this context. It appears that affirming the traditional authorship — two apostles (Matthew and John) and two associates of apostles (Mark and Luke) — is necessary in order to further elaborate the faith narrative that holds these works are indeed products of divinely chosen eyewitnesses. Normal evidentiary means of confirming authorship are dismissed as “overly sceptical” in the need to affirm the faith that a religion grounded in historical events is indeed “historically true”.

But what does it mean to accept a text on faith as authoritative?

Why God’s Word Cannot Be Disconfirmed

Accepting a text on authority and faith implies that the listener or reader suspend the universal constraints on ordinary communication . . .

In ordinary communication, the listener or reader “automatically” attempts to fill the gap in understanding between what is merely said or written and what the communicator intends the listener or reader to think or do as a result.

Atran illustrates. Normal communication works like this: read more »

The Gnostic Gospel of John (1)

Recently I began a series on the pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism but have recently read a book that I think may throw more direct light on that question — The Secret Book of John: The Gnostic Gospel – Annotated and Explained by Stevan Davies. Several things about this Gnostic gospel particularly attracted my attention:

  1. The Apocryphon of John did not originate as a Christian Gnostic document; apart from a few annotations scattered in the main body itself the main Christian elements (those bits that present the work as a revelation by Jesus to his disciple John) were tagged on to the opening and closing of a much older text.
  2. A clarification explaining that there are two types of religious metaphors: those that compare the divine to social and political models on earth (God as king or father, etc) and those that compare the divine to mental or psychological processes (e.g. Buddhism, Gnosticism).
  3. A partial coherence with Walter Schmithals’ claim that Jewish Gnosticism is not strictly dualist — the material world is not a reality opposed to the higher world but in fact is not a reality at all.
  4. More complete coherence with Walter Schmithals’ that among the saving powers are Christ, Son of Man and Daveithi, a word that “possibly means ‘of David'”
  5. Coherence with Walter Schmithals with respect to the absence of an individual descending redeemer figure. Thus though there are descents they are not on the part of figures truly distinct from the one being saved.
  6. Adam was created in a “heavenly realm” before appearing in a physical and worldly Eden.
  7. Repeated emphasis that in mythology the modern mind should not expect consistent logical coherence.

Though I suspect Stevan Davies would recoil at the suggestion there is much here that overlaps with Earl Doherty’s arguments for the Christian Christ originating as a heavenly mythical figure. Schmithals himself argues that the false apostles and gospels Paul opposed were probably teaching something like this Gnostic Gospel. Nonetheless this text does help us understand another facet of the thought-world through which Christianity as we know it eventually emerged.

Oh, one more thing. I was not really aware before reading this book that the Apocryphon of John “is the most significant and influential text of the ancient Gnostic religion”. (But then I’m way behind many others in my knowledge of Gnosticism.) So for that reason alone it is worth close attention. read more »

The deception of the creationist’s God; the cruelty of the God who guided evolution

It’s a silly question but it’s raining cats and poodles outside so here’s my filler till I can get off to work.

One learned scholar has chastised creationists or ID Christians for implying that their God is a deceiver:

Why is it that some Christians consider it more important to argue that God did not create by means of evolution than to maintain that God is loving and truthful? To engage in denial of mainstream science sooner or later leads one to accuse God of deception or at least ambiguity . . .

But the many liberal Christians who so chastise their “weaker brethren” must necessarily believe that at some level God has guided evolution to produce a being “like him” in some sense. I would have thought that their God is far more reprehensible than a trickster or master of ambiguity. I kind of like watching clever illusionists. But my stomach turns whenever I read of, or worse still witness, cruelty. And the vile cruelties of “nature” (what an anaesthetizing word “nature” is!) that are happening every day and have been for the millions of years of sentient life-forms are simply too unspeakable to dwell upon — or to associate in any way with a God worthy of respect.

Creationists may embarrass their more learned liberal believers. But it is the other God most nonbelievers find repulsive.

(At least the Creationist’s god was loving enough to create all life forms in a nonviolent paradise.)

 

Atheist Christmas

Incarnation of Vishnu/Krishna
Image by ellenm1 via Flickr

I was going to keep this a Christmas-free zone but the quiet here today is screaming at me to say something. I can understand atheists in Western countries who feel uncomfortable with Christmas. There it is closely tied up with religious associations.

The strength of these religious trappings varies, I am sure, with each cultural locale. There are many who can and do love Christmas without giving a thought to its religious origins.

While living in Asia I could not resist asking some Chinese whom I knew were either Buddhists or Taoists, if anything, why they were wearing Santa hats and wishing all and sundry Merry Christmas. Their answer: “It’s Christmas. Everyone loves Christmas.”

I even saw a Moslem girl happily wearing a Santa cap over her head-scarf.

But seeing Christmas being celebrated alongside the Chinese New Year alongside Deepavali alongside Hari Raya and a half dozen others it drove home to me that it just one of many social rituals that would have to be invented if it did not exist from time immemorial. Humans are social creatures and rituals are important to us as social creatures and that’s that. There’s always room for the odd individual to bow out for a time, shorter or longer.

The fact that it has religious associations probably has more to do with the centrality of religion in the lives of people than with the festival itself, if that makes sense.

Here are a couple of other views: read more »

God: Liar? Compromiser? Poet? Incompetent?

The will to believe is overpowering. And the idea of a single “God” as a real being who  epitomizes all Goodness lies at the heart of religions that can trace their historic influences back to ancient Persian Zoroastrianism, or maybe only as recently as late Mediterranean paganism when the lesser deities of the Olympian pantheon were being subsumed as mere manifestations or angelic agents of the Supreme Deity.

The efforts of modern believers to rationalize the God of their Book with pure Goodness are certainly quaint. A few of these were recently encapsulated in a theologian’s blog thus:

Many will say that the heart of the matter is whether God lied to humanity in the Bible. But that’s not the case at all. It is much easier to suggest that God accommodated the message in the Bible to what people could understand when it was written, or spoke in poetic rather than literal terms, or didn’t override the minds and understanding of the Bible’s authors when God inspired them, or perhaps didn’t even inspire the Bible at all, than to suggest that God lied and continues to lie to us through the evidence the universe itself provides. read more »

Jesus Christ in Little India

Last night I strolled along Serangoon Road in Little India, Singapore, to see what was happening in the build-up to the Hindu Deepavali festival. Some of the photos here are from Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, others are from market displays. The last one listed here stood out as strangely “in place” as part of it all. (Clicking the images will enlarge them.)

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Demonology: the basics of Middle Platonic beliefs as a background to early Christianity

Apuleius
Image via Wikipedia

This post completes a series on beliefs about demons that were widespread in philosophical thought at the time of the rise and early growth of Christianity. The previous two posts:

It seems strange to think of “demons” being a topic of “philosophy”, but one of the defining characteristics of “Middle Platonism” was its interest in religion. (See my earlier post, Middle Platonism: a few basics.) Other beliefs (e.g. Jewish sectarian) were extant, too, but here I am only addressing those of Middle Platonist philosophers.

John M. Dillon (The Middle Platonists) discusses the demonology of Apuleius in his De Deo Socratis (=The God of Socrates) at length because

There we find all the basic Middle Platonic doctrine on daemons set out . . . We have here, then, in the De Deo Socratis, the most complete connected version of Middle Platonic demonology extant . . . . (pp. 317, 320)

So though Apuleius was not born till about 123 CE, his writings are consistent with the thought that spanned the Middle Platonic era from the first century BCE to the second century CE, the same period relevant for the development of Christianity. read more »

Demons 101 – Early Christianity’s Middle Platonic Background

In my previous post I cited a “Distinguished Scholar”‘s textbook summary of Middle Platonic ideas that formed part of the background to early Christianity. I continue this post with a discussion of the philosopher who introduced ‘demonology’ into Platonic philosophical views during the century preceding that of Paul and the earliest Christians.

In an earlier post I quoted translated passages from two Middle Platonist authors given prominence by Everett Ferguson, Philo and Plutarch, that depicted their particular views of cosmology and the place of demons in the universe. That post upset some readers who appeared to take exception to the posting of evidence from primary sources that lent support to the discussion of Earl Doherty in his publications arguing that the Jesus originated as a mythical construct. A significant part of Doherty’s discussion focuses on the way certain Middle Platonic views informed the intellectual background to the New Testament epistles.

Since that post I’ve had more time to look a little more closely at one of Earl Doherty’s sources, The Middle Platonists, by John M. Dillon. read more »