Monthly Archives: May 2009

Jesus versus the National Day of Prayer

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  –Matthew 6:5-6

Sometimes I really am just confused.  How do we go from this to prayer tents at city hall?

(No, I’m not commenting on this too late.  I’m really early for next year’s event.)

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Why Does This Matter?

I’ll get back to a specific discussion of Genesis and Jonah before long, but let me zoom out for a minute and look at the big picture.  What’s the point of discussing the minutiae of details about historicity in Biblical texts?  Here’s why I think it’s important:

1)      Biblical inerrancy/literalism is an unnecessary barrier to faith. I started down this line of thought by noting that Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation, an atheist polemic, wants to limit his readers’ option to atheism or fundamentalism.  At that point, all he has to do to lead them out of faith is create sufficient doubt about Biblical inerrancy—which, in my opinion, is devastatingly easy to do.  I don’t think it’s either gracious or smart to tell people who have noticed tensions in the Biblical text that they can’t be real Christians unless they cling to the doctrine of inerrancy.  That strategy is creating more new atheists than new evangelicals.  Same thing goes for literalism (a closely related proposition).  Tell a young person who is gifted at science that he or she must be a creationist (or worse, a young-Earth-creationist) in order to be a Christian, and chances are that person is walking away from faith forever.  Because we made something other than submission to the Lordship of Jesus a requirement for entrance.

2)      These texts are read better when assigned to the correct genre. Take the creation accounts for example.  A lot of ink is spilled trying to defend the proposition that Genesis is an accurate telling of the origins of the world, and I still see people claiming that what Genesis teaches is in harmony with modern scientific understandings.  That doesn’t hold up, to put it mildly.  I don’t think you are going to find a reputable astronomer who seriously believes that the very first thing to appear in the entire universe was the planet Earth.  But that’s the picture in Genesis.  No stars until day four, just Earth, floating alone in the void of space.  Scratch that—the Biblical picture is that Earth is immovably built atop the foundations that God laid (Job 38:4, Psalm 18:15, 82:5, 103:25, 105:5, and other texts).  I have yet to have a young-earth creationist give me a satisfying answer as to why Genesis 1 is literal history, but the many references to God laying the foundations of the immovable earth are not.

So, back to the point: one thing I hope we all can agree on, regardless of our view of the scriptures, is that there was no such thing as a secular evolutionist when Genesis 1 was written.  And yet a lot of the same people who teach the basic interpretive principle that “the text means what it meant to the original readers” completely throw that out the window when it comes to Genesis, and turn it into an anti-evolutionist polemic—one of the things it couldn’t possibly have intended to be.  Some very devout Christians have been reading this text for decades without ever asking the basic questions, “but what did this mean way back then?  What did the first audience think was important about Genesis 1?  How did it challenge existing ideologies?”  We have a hard time getting to those questions because the theory of Biblical inerrancy overwhelms our study with the agenda to defend the literality of these texts, which, ironically, makes it less likely that we’ll ever get to real theology at work in Genesis.  This unnecessary agenda diverts us to questions like “Did humans and dinosaurs co-exist?” “Has the speed of light changed?”  “Did the Flood change the global climate?” and all manner of diversions from letting the text spiritually form us.  But that’s where you inevitably wind up if you take a mythic poem and insist on defending it as a scientifically accurate text.  It stops being scripture and becomes the starting point for endless argument.

It’s really incredible the change that happens in Christian formation when you say, “Let’s set aside our modern scientific questions and try to hear what the text said to readers in the ancient world.”

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The New Testament and the Testament of Job

Now, am I 100% certain that James isn’t alluding to canonical Job when he talks about the “perseverance of Job”?  Well, no.  But I am pretty certain that something more than just canonical Job is in view.  I am no expert in Jewish culture of the 1st century, but we do know that New Testament writers can be aware of and allude to the broader scope of Jewish literature available to them.  There are some Biblical figures (Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Job for starters) who inspired additional literature outside of the Biblical books that we are familiar with, and these books clearly held some currency in the time of the New Testament.  We also need to remember that this is a period with a low literacy rate, so when James says “you have heard of the perseverance of Job,” that’s precisely what he means–you guys have heard stories about Job’s patience.  He may not be referring to a specific text as much as an oral tradition that strongly linked “patience” to Job as his most noted quality.  But it’s hard to imagine that The Testament of Job hasn’t either originated or strongly reinforced that link, and if James has one specific written text in mind, I’m putting my money on Testament rather than canonical Job.  The former make a huge point out of Job’s calm acceptance and perseverance; the latter simply doesn’t.

This analogy isn’t perfect, but readers of the New Testament need to remember that first century Judaism was a lot more like Catholicism than evangelical Protestantism.  You have mystic groups, ascetics, extra-Biblical traditions and alternative texts all living alongside or in tension with the approved religious hierarchy.  When a Catholic talks about Mary, they are tapping into a whole stream of images, references, doctrine and devotional literature that ultimately originates with the presentation of Mary in the gospels, but with so many accretions that most Protestants feel that they don’t recognize that Mary at all.  Everyone understands that when a Southern Baptist sings “Mary Did You Know?” and a Roman Catholic sings “Ave Maria” there’s a sense in which they are addressing the same person, but in many ways they really aren’t.

And when James says “you’ve heard of the perseverance of Job,” he probably isn’t excluding canonical Job from that reference (again, you can find support for the patience tradition in the prose framework) but he’s almost certainly including much more as well.

You can see the same thing in 2 Peter 2:4-9:

4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment; 5 if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; 6 if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men 8 (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— 9 if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.

Scholars have noted many similarities between 2 Peter and Jude, not least of which is that they both allude to 1 Enoch–that’s where this weird bit about angels in gloomy dungeons comes from.  Similarly, there is nothing in Genesis about Noah preaching, but it was well-known in Jewish tradition, especially in the Sibylline Oracles, which record one of Noah’s sermons in 1:148-198.  And when I read Genesis, canonical Lot doesn’t come across as particularly righteous (getting drunk and impregnating his own daughters falls somewhat short of praise-worthiness),  but the Lot of Jewish tradition was one of the good guys:

Jewish tradition interpreted Abraham’s plea on behalf of the righteous in Sodom (Gen 18:23–32) as referring to Lot (Pirqe R. El. 25; Gen. Rab. 49:13), and so could speak of him as a righteous man (Wis 10:6; 19:17: δίκαιος; cf. 1 Clem 11:1: Philo, Mos. 2.58). His exemplary deliverance from the fate that overtook his wicked fellow-citizens is mentioned in Wis 10:6; Philo, Mos. 2.58; and 1 Clem 11:1, which seem to belong to the same paraenetic tradition as 2 Pet 2:4–9.

-Richard J. Bauckham, vol. 50, Word Biblical Commentary : 2 Peter, Jude, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 252.

It is beyond reasonable dispute that the New Testament epistles include non-canonical information about Moses, Noah, Lot, and angels.  Does it seem like a stretch to think the same thing is at play with Job?  Not to me.

So it’s a bit simplistic to say “James mentions Job, therefore Job must be historical.”  First of all, even if there were no extrabiblical Job traditions, a New Testament reference is no proof of historicity.  Suppose James had written “you have heard of the compassion of the Good Samaritan”?  That’s completely intelligible and serves as the basis for moral exhortation, but without requiring that the Samaritan was a historical person.  All that is required is that there is a known religious tradition that includes a Samaritan story, and that the tradition was accepted as relevant for moral instruction.  James isn’t citing Job because he necessarily thinks Job is historical.  He may not have even thought about it one way or the other.  The “patience of Job” tradition is a shared cultural inheritance he and his audience both know, and it is relevant for the instruction he is giving.  That’s about all that citation proves: shared knowledge and relevance.  If someone really wants to posit that a New Testament allusion necessarily implies historicity, then I guess you get your trump card for claiming strict historicity for canonical Job and Jonah, but you are also going to get, at bare minimum, 1 Enoch, the Assumption of Moses, and the Sybilline Oracles in the process.  If citation proves historicity, things get really interesting in a hurry.

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“You Have Heard of the Perseverance of Job”

So says the epistle of James, chapter five, verse eleven: “You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” (NIV) The Greek word here translated perseverance is hypomone, and appears in such passages as Lk 8:15; 21:19; Ro 2:7; 5:3; 8:25; 15:4; 2Co 6:4; 1Ti 6:11; 2Ti 3:10; Heb 12:1; Jas 1:3-4; 2Pe 1:6; Rev 2:2, 19; Gal 5:23, where it is variously translated as “patience,” “perseverance” and “endurance.” Notice that it appears earlier in the book of James, two occurances near each other at the opening of the book.  Those occurrences are our best clues as to what James means when he uses the term later.  James writes (NIV):

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

To James, hypomone is more than just surviving tragedy, more than just pushing through.  It’s a certain kind of faith-filled acceptance that leads to spiritual maturation, an unshakable inner peace that means the disciple has no need for anything else–his great faith has brought him contentment even in trial.

“You’ve heard,” says James, “that Job had this quality.”

Huh?  Does that strike anyone else as a bit odd?  Maybe more than a bit?  For all his wonderful qualities, Job doesn’t demonstrate the kind of faithful acceptance that James seems to be encouraging here.  In fact, if Job did that, there wouldn’t really be much of a book there.  I mean, sure, he comes across this way in the opening prose framework (1:21, 2:9) but then you have 39 chapters of Job demanding answers, complaining, railing against the injustice of his plight.  He starts by cursing the day of his birth:

“Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
Why were there knees to receive me,
or breasts for me to suck? (Job 3:11-12)

It doesn’t seem right that James would point to the person who said these words as an example of the kind of attitude that faithful people should have under adversity.  And it’s not like he’s shining with contentment and the peace that passes understanding by the end of his monologues.  Not even close:

My inward parts are in turmoil, and are never still;
days of affliction come to meet me.
I go about in sunless gloom;
I stand up in the assembly and cry for help.
I am a brother of jackals,
and a companion of ostriches.
My skin turns black and falls from me,
and my bones burn with heat.
My lyre is turned to mourning,
and my pipe to the voice of those who weep. (Job 30:27-31)

This seems doubly odd when you do have some genuinely impressive examples of faithful perseverance in hardship, like Joseph or Daniel.  Why not point to one of them rather than Job, the classic existential struggler of the Hebrew Bible.  Have you ever wondered what James is up to here?  It’s almost like he’s not thinking of the Job we know at all, as though there were some other Job on his mind, one who was known for, above all things, patient accept of trial.  A Job like this one:

1 And when Satan saw that he could not put me to despair, he went and asked my body of the Lord in order to inflict plague on me, for the Evil one could not bear my patience. 2 Then the Lord delivered me into his hands to use my body as he wanted, but he gave him no power over my soul. 3. And he came to me as I was sitting on my throne still mourning over my children. 4 And he resembled a great hurricane and turned over my throne and threw me upon the ground. 5 And I continued lying on the floor for three hours. and he smote me with a hard plague from the top of my head to the toes of my feet. 6 And I left the city in great terror and woe and sat down upon a dunghill my body being worm-eaten. 7 And I wet the earth with the moistness of my sore body, for matter flowed off my body, and many worms covered it. 8 And when a single worm crept off my body, I put it back saying: “Remain on the spot where thou hast been placed until He who hath sent thee will order thee elsewhere.” 9 Thus I endured for seven years, sitting on a dung-hill outside of the city while being plague-stricken.

What’s that?  It’s the opening of chapter five of The Testament of Job, a Jewish work that dates somewhere around 1BC-1AD, and tells a story roughly similar to canonical Job, if you subtract all of Job’s complaining and add in a ridiculously exaggerated level of patience and acceptance over a long amount of time.  If you are reading about extreme patience from someone named Job with whom a late first century Jewish audience would be familiar, chances are it’s from the Testament of Job, not bitter, flailing canonical Job.

But wait, for that to be possible the New Testament would have to be willing to allude to non-canonical Jewish literature.  And that can’t happen, can it?

But when the archangel Michael contended with the devil and disputed about the body of Moses, he did not dare to bring a condemnation of slander against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jude 9, referencing 1 Enoch)

Oh.  Right.

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More On the American Patriot’s Bible

Greg Boyd rants so I don’t have to.

And I mean rant in a good way.

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Side Note: Regarding Adam, Job and Jonah

The three sections of the Old Testament that are most widely considered to be generally parabolic or mythopoetic rather than largely historical are Genesis 1-11, the book of Job and the book of Jonah.

Let’s take Genesis 1-11 first:

Lucas Cranach's <i>Adam and Eve</i>

Lucas Cranach's Adam and Eve

There’s a pretty clear break between Genesis 11 and 12 as we move out of primordial epic into the lives of the patriarchs.  We’re done with talking snakes, magic trees and flaming swords, and into something that isn’t straight history but definitely seems to be based on historical persons.  There is a groundedness to Abraham that isn’t present earlier.  The rest of the Old Testament seems to acknowledge this break as well:  there are forty-two references to Abraham after the book of Genesis, but only one definite reference to Adam (1 Chron 1:1).  Noah fares little better, with a total of three references (1 Chron 1:3-4; Isa 54:9; Ezek 14:14-20).  The stories of the patriarchs shaped the religious life of Israel far more than the primordial history did.  Even more striking, there are 121 Old Testament references to Moses that come after the Pentateuch.  While the patriarchs continue to be referenced, it is the exodus event that serves as the foundational narrative for Israelite society.

I mention this in part to point out that that the internal evidence in the Bible suggests that the earliest stories weren’t given nearly the “weight” in Israelite tradition that modern conservatives assign to them.  If you grew up in a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical context, you probably heard countless proclamations that the creation narrative is the foundation of our faith, and that everything stands or falls with the way that we interpret the creation week, Adam and Eve, and the flood.  Yet the scriptures treat Exodus as the primary story, with the patriarchal accounts as prequel, and 1-11 as prequel to that.  It’s not that they are disregarded–not at all–but it’s Moses who is the big deal in Jewish thought, not Adam.  They simply didn’t have as much riding on whether Adam was historical as we seem to.

When it comes to Job, I think it’s pretty clear why many people, even quite conservative scholars, treat it as ahistorical.  With the exception of the prose framework (chapters 1 and 2, and 41:7-17), the whole book is written in long dramatic monologues with a highly stylized a poetic sensibility.  No one really talks that way–sitting around taking turns doing spontaneous soliloquies.  It could be that it is a drama based on a historical event (like Shakespeare’s histories) but there’s certainly no compelling reason to assume so.  Within the larger canonical context, it strikes me as a story that was intentionally designed to counter a legalistic reading of Deuteronomy that insists that tragedy is always the result of sin.  Job is set up as the perfect foil: “So there was the man who was super righteous!  Really, really righteous!  God himself said he was the most righteous man on the whole earth!  And then tragedy happened!  Really, really awful tragedy!  The worst tragedy you’ve ever heard of!  And he had these three friends who tried to interpret it within their theological framework.  But they were all wrong!  Here’s what they said….” When you have a text with dramatic/poetic form and an extreme situation that is perfectly designed to raise theological questions, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that this is intended to be historical.

And then there’s Jonah.  A lot of folks consider Jonah a fable because of the part where he is swallowed by a great fish.  I see their point, but that’s not the issue for me.  I’m not really interested in spending a lot of time in a debate about miracles.  The more salient point, I think, is that Jonah, similar to Job, seems to be another story designed expressly to challenge bad theology.  Jonah is an extremely unsympathetic character.  He whines, he rebels, he gets upset when the Ninevites repent:

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:1-3)

The kicker is when God withers a shade bush, exposing Jonah to the sun, and Jonah again gets angry.

Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

This is another story that intends to undermine self-serving religion.  A Hebrew prophet is acting like a whiny infant because God is being gracious and loving! He wants God to be harsh and vindictive with his enemies, but continually gracious to him and his friends.  He even quotes the great faith confession of Exodus 32:4 disapprovingly.  Again, this strikes me as a parable to raise pertinent theological questions–and to expose a self-serving theology as base and infantile.  Read Jonah against the backdrop of the other minor prophets, and it’s an obvious outlier.  I think the parabolic nature of the story is obvious in the greater context.

My friends who insist on the historicity of these three texts have a quick rejoinder, one that to them seems insurmountable.  Adam, Noah, Job and Jonah are all mentioned in the New Testament.  Because the New Testament writers (and Jesus himself!) reference them, they must therefore be taken to be historical accounts.  I’ll address that in a future post.

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Same Planet, Different Worlds

Over at Scotteriology, agathos tries to explain “why Biblical scholars and conservative theologians will always disagree.”

In a nutshell, one side of the discussion, conservative inerrantists, prefers a deductive synchronic approach to the text and the other, biblical scholarship, prefers an inductive diachronic approach to the text. These interpretive assumptions and methods are so different as to leave the opposing camps with essentially different Bibles, hence, the arguments.

Once someone has set up a deductive synchronic shield around a text any argument with them is almost pointless, especially, if the shield becomes more important than the text–they are in the Matrix and do not have a context for what you are trying to explain. On the other hand for those that have taken the red pill the methods of biblical scholarship are self evident and any attempt like the character Cypher in the movie to re-enter the Matrix blissfully unaware is impossible. As James notes that would be akin to criminologists stopping the use of fingerprinting.

In the comments he gives some definitions:

diachronic = seen through time, to develop over history
inductive = see what the text actually says and then develop your theory about what it is

synchronic= seen from only one point in time, to always have a fixed meaning
deductive = come to the text with a theory already in place and then use the text to support that theory

I think this is pretty accurate.  I’m reminded of a discussion several years ago on an email list that wound up being essentially between me and a pastor who was very dedicated to verbal plenary inspiration.  In a nutshell, it went like this:

Him:

A perfect being can only produce perfect things.  God is perfect. God produced the Bible.  Therefore, the Bible is perfect.

Me:

That sounds great in theory, but the problem is I’ve actually seen a Bible.

Him:

A perfect being can only produce perfect things.  God is perfect….

There’s your inductive/deductive distinction right there.  And I think it makes a huge difference.  None of us are going to approach the text free from bias, but the strict inerrantist assumptions don’t just color your conclusions, they keep certain possibilities from even being considered.

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My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 2: Its Priorities May Differ From Mine

This is related to the conversation about genre, and also to Ben Witherington’s comments I quoted below.  Next in the list of assumptions:

2) Some things that seem important to me don’t matter to the Biblical writers

Actually, that Witherington post covered a lot of what I intended to say.  The point is this: even in the New Testament period, when there is an established discipline of history, the ancient standards are still very, very different from our modern ones.  Compare the temptation accounts in Luke and Matthew, and you’ll see pretty quickly that the chronology differs.  In Matthew it’s stones to bread, jump from the temple, bow down to Satan to receive the kingdoms of the world.  In Luke it’s bread, kingdoms, jump.  At least one of these is presented in an order that doesn’t represent the actual historical chronology.  It’s easy for a skeptic to point to this as an example of the Bible being “wrong,” but that’s a pretty silly critique.  More likely each writer has chosen to present the temptations in the order that best presents the themes of their book.  Matthew’s Jesus is the rightful king, who already is heir to all power and authority.  Notice that Matthew surrounds the temptation accounts with the exact same line, said once by John the Baptist, once by Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (3:2, 4:17).  Luke, on the other hand, is well-known for his strong sense of geographical movement.  In Luke’s presentation, the Temple (and, by extension, Jerusalem) has enormous symbolic significance.  Jesus is dedicated there as an infant, and at age 12, when his family was leaving Jerusalem after Passover, Jesus stayed behind in the Temple.  When an anxious Mary and Joseph found him, he said “Didn’t you know I had to be in my father’s house?” (2:49).  After that, Luke doesn’t show Jesus in Jerusalem again until he enters it for his crucifixion, a journey that he makes gradually but inexorably (see 9:51, 13:33, 17:11, 18:31, 19:11).  Because Jerusalem is the climax of Luke’s story, he makes it the climax of the temptations.  There are always people who want to say that either Matthew or Luke must have erred in their temptation account, but in reality, both did it the right way for their own purposes, and in keeping with the literary conventions of their own time.  As they say in marriage counseling, neither is wrong, they are just different.

So, if you think inspired history has to be meet modern standards of objective reportage to counter as scripture, the Bible is going to disappoint you over and over again.  Ditto if you feel the need to know what exact words were said on a given occasion.  Or even to whom they were said.  You just aren’t going to get that certainty in the Bible.  Different gospels are going to have somewhat different wording.  Sometimes two or three gospels will cover the same event with very different emphases.  Look at the healing of the centurion’s servant, for example.  To make this a bit easier, I’ll underline some parts that are unique in each account.

Matt 8:5-12

Luke 7:1-10

5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.”

7 Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.”

8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

10 When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour.

When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6 So Jesus went with them.

He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

The first time I encountered these texts in my ministry training, my instructor went out of his way to point out that there wasn’t necessarily an historical discrepancy here, because there is a sense in which statements communicated through intermediaries could be honestly recorded as statements between the two principal parties.  His example (this was back in 1991) was that President Bush could send Secretary of State James Baker to deliver a message to Prime Minister John Major, and the newspaper headlines could honestly say “Bush Tells Major “We’re On Your Side!” although the two men hadn’t even been in the same continent, and those exact words weren’t said.

If you find that convincing, I won’t try to talk you out of it (well, not right now, anyway), but that didn’t work for me.  At the time, I thought it was pretty deeply troubling that the people who only had Matthew’s account would have a completely wrong mental image of what happened, and it seemed to me that if the Spirit was going to give fuller details to Luke’s reader, he certainly could have done that for Matthew’s.  Making things worse, the lines from Jesus in Matthew 8:11-12 don’t appear at all in Luke, nor does the information that the servant was healed “at that very hour,” which means that Luke’s account is also flawed!  Neither was meeting my standards for what I thought the Bible should be.

Only some years later did I try to read those texts in terms of what the original audiences needed, rather than what I thought I wanted.  Of course, we’ll never know for sure what was going on in Matthew and Luke’s heads when they wrote their gospels, but each of them were writing at a time when tensions between Jews and Gentiles were high.  Luke, a Gentile writing to Gentiles, probably thinks it is important to reinforce the point that God had chosen the Jewish people first, and the Gentiles were being brought into a grace relationship that already existed.  What better way to do that than to write about an incident where Jewish elders intercede with Jesus on behalf of a Roman soldier–one who “loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”  The soldier serves as a model of Gentile discipleship that is openly supportive of the Jewish people and their religious environment–exactly the kind of example that Luke wants his Gentile audience to follow.  And he wants them to see Jewish religious leaders who are quick to do what they can to bring blessing to a Roman.  That picture only helps them cultivate a healthier attitude toward Israel.

Matthew, on the other hand, is a Jew writing mainly to Jews.  And he could be concerned that if he writes this up the way Luke does, his Jewish readers are going to use this as evidence that Gentiles can’t approach God on their own–they have to either become Jews or use Jewish friends as intermediaries.  They might get the idea that the only Gentiles God will respond to are ones who are building synagogues and actively befriending Jewish elders.  That’s could easily spin into an ongoing sense of entitlement and superiority that Matthew doesn’t want to reinforce.  And so in his version, the centurion comes to Jesus on his own.  And Matthew is sure to include the parts where Jesus makes it clear that some faithful Gentiles will be dining with the patriarchs in the kingdom, and some of the Jewish people won’t.  It’s a matter of faithful response to God, not DNA.

Notice that “I have not found such great faith in Israel!” becomes a rebuke of Israel in Matthew’s story.  (“You Israelites ought to have this kind of faith, but none of you do!”  In Luke, though, it seems like Israel has set a very high standard for faith, but the centurion exceeded it.  “Wow!  Even in Israel no one has quite this much faith!”  It doesn’t seem like a rebuke of Israel at all.  In fact, it seems like Jesus implicitly compliments their faith by using it as the baseline for comparison.

Both authors are interested in history.  I don’t think either of them is making this story up.  But they don’t have accurate historical detail as the highest priority.  And in a situation where giving their audience the most complete possible historical truth could lead them into theological error and ungracious attitudes, it’s obvious to the gospel writers which is the better path.  Ultimately, they aren’t writing history so much as narrative theology with deep pastoral concern.  I might want straight history from them, but they want to form churches in the character and spirit of Jesus.  It could be that those seldom conflict, but when they do exacting historicity takes a back seat to kingdom concerns.

After a while it occurred to me that Matthew and Luke have a better idea what good scripture is than I do.  Part of my submission to the Bible is letting it be what it is, not insisting that it’s flawed if it isn’t what I wanted.

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Some Days I Feel This Way About Christianity

From an email to Andrew Sullivan.

I used to respond to critiques of Buddhism by trying to patiently explain the misunderstandings of this complex religion. I thought that sharing my own journey with some of the same issues would be helpful. However, I don’t do that anymore. In fact, I’m happy when I hear Westerners becoming disillusioned with Buddhism. Westerners are destroying Buddhism by turning it into an eclectic philosophy that supports the opinions they already believe.

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Richard Land Takes a Strong Stand Against Torture

I am surprised and delighted to see this.  He’s in a good position to push on this issue, and while I wish we’d heard this a bit earlier, I’m still glad to see it today.  It doesn’t surprise anyone when the Methodist bishops come out against torture, but a message from the SBC could attract some attention.

There is no room for torture as part of the United States’ intelligence-gathering process, Richard Land said today. He also said he believes the practice known as “waterboarding” is torture and, as such, is unethical.

Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said there is no circumstance in which torture should be permissible in interrogations by U.S. officials, even if the authorities believe a prisoner has information that might involve national security….

“I don’t agree with the belief that we should use any means necessary to extract information,” said Land. “I believe there are absolutes. There are things we must never do under any circumstances….”It violates everything we believe in as a country,” Land said, reflecting on the words in the Declaration of Independence: that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

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An Aside: Ben Witherington on Ancient Historiography

In response to Bart Ehrman’s latest book (which I haven’t read yet):

Bart reminds us early on that the method of studying the Bible taught in most mainline seminaries is “the historical critical method”. It is also, in fact perhaps the main method of teaching the Bible in evangelical seminaries today as well. And two of the major things one is taught, quite correctly in the study of this method are: 1) ancient historical texts must be studied in their original historical contexts to be properly understood; and 2) modern post-Enlightenment historiography is at odds with the historiography of most ancients, particularly when it comes to the issue of God’s involvement in human history.

There is a further corollary—in order to understand the Gospels or Acts, or Paul’s letters, or Revelation, one needs to understand the features and characteristics of such ancient literature—in short their respective genres. The Gospels are written like ancient biographies, not modern ones, or in the case of Luke-Acts like an ancient work of Hellenistic (and Septuagintal) historiography. Unless one knows the conventions and limitations that apply to such literature, one is in no position at all to evaluate whether there are “inconsistencies” “errors” or other problematic features of such literature. Error can only be assessed on the basis of what an author is attempting to do and what literary conventions he is following. Let us take an example Bart uses from p. 7 of his book—the fact that in John the cleansing of the temple comes early in the Gospel account, whereas in the Synoptics it is found in the Passion narrative. He is right of course that some modern conservative Christians have attempted to reconcile these differences by suggesting Jesus did the deed twice— once at the beginning and once at the end of the ministry. The problem is, that this conclusion is just as anachronistic (and genre ignoring) as the conclusion that the Gospels contradict each other on this point. What do I mean?

If you actually bother to read ancient biographies (see e.g. Tacitus’s Life of Agricola, or Plutarch’s famous parallel lives) you will discover that the ancients were not pedants when it comes to the issue of strict chronology as we are today. The ancient biographical or historiographical work operated with the freedom to arrange there material in several different ways, including topically, geographically, chronologically, to mention but three. Yes they had a secondary interest in chronology in broad strokes, but only a secondary interest in that.
If one studies the Fourth Gospel in detail and closely in the Greek, comparing it to other ancient biographies what one learns is that it is a highly schematized and edited product, and the sign narratives are arranged theologically not primarily chronologically. And whilst this might cause a modern person some consternation, it is not a reason to say that John contradicts the Synoptics on this Temple cleansing matter. The Fourth Gospel begins by showing that Jesus replaces the institutions of Judaism with himself—a theological message (he is the Passover lamb, he is the Temple where God’s presence dwells etc.). The Synoptic writers are likely presenting a more chronologically apt picture of when this event actually happened. But strict chronology was not the major purpose of the Fourth Evangelist, we should not fault him for not giving us information we might want to have, or for focusing on the theological import of the event, rather than its timing. Such was the freedom, within limits, of ancient biographies and histories. I must disagree with the conclusion then when Bart says “Historically speaking, then, the accounts are not reconcilable.” (p. 7). False. This is only so if one insists on a flat modern anachronistic reading of the text which pays no attention to what the authors are attempting.

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My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 1: Genre Matters

Picking up where we left off before–

Sam Harris wants to tie his interlocutors to a specific dichotomy about the Bible.  It’s either the inerrant word of God or a purely mortal product.  Because he knows his fundamentalist target audience already believes that, he doesn’t bother to make the case for accepting that dichotomy, nor does he bother to tell us why we should reject other views of the Bible between the extremes.  But there certainly are viable views in between the extremes that still allow for the scriptures to be authoritative for our faith without the need for an over-rigid theory of inspiration.

For what it’s worth, here’s where I am when it comes to issues of Biblical inspiration and authority:

1) No one wrote a history before someone wrote a history.  Okay, that’s tautological, I know.  But the point is that genre is important, especially regarding the Old Testament.  It is generally acknowledged that the first person who set out to write a history in anything close to the modern sense was Herodotus in 5th century B.C. Greece.  That was the beginning of a new discipline that sought to record events in a way that faithfully represented the accounts of those who were there.  Before Herodotus, there weren’t distinct histories, just epic stories that combined parts of what we would now label history, legend and myth.  If a superior intelligence wanted to communicate in written form to the tribal peoples of the ancient near East, he would be unlikely to choose to do so through history, a genre that was completely unfamiliar to them.  (It is so familiar to us that this is hard to imagine–we just have to do our best to get into the mindset of a 13th century Hebrew slave.)  If you compare the early sections of Genesis to other ANE creation accounts like Atrahasis or the epic of Gilgamesh, you’ll see some pretty marked similarities.  Skeptics consider that evidence against the Bible, but it’s only reasonable that God would communicate in a cultural form that was already familiar to the Hebrew people.  Giving them a history would have been a huge misservice when they only knew how to interpret cultural myth.  And here I mean myth as a literary form, not implying falsity, but noting that exacting historicity was not the point.

Is it possible to communicate theological truth through ahistorical stories?  Would God do such a thing?  Well, sure he would, and if you’re a Christian, you think so too.  Because we believe that Jesus was God and Jesus communicated through parables–one of the most culturally relevant genres of first century Palestine.  If Jesus chose stories about vineyard workers and banquets to communicate genuine truth about God and the kingdom, why couldn’t the Father have chosen ANE style epic form to communicate essential truths about himself and the world he created?

The Bible communicates through a tremendous variety of genres: songs, proverbs, letters, parables, apocalypses, law codes, gospels, prophecies, dramatic monologues, genealogies, and, yes, histories.  But there is no compelling reason to assign the label “history” to many early sections of the Bible, and I suspect that we only do so because of the weight of tradition and our own cultural familiarity with the genre.  When Genesis is laid alongside other contemporaneous literature, it’s clear that epic myth is a much better fit for genre.

And that doesn’t make Genesis less inspired or less authoritative, any more that understanding that there wasn’t a historical good Samaritan or prodigal son make those stories less authoritative.  (You do think that those are preachable, right?  And they tell us something about God, right?)  But it does mean that arguing about whether the days of creation were 24-hour days or eons, or whether the flood was world-wide or local, ultimately is about like arguing over what color the good Samaritan’s donkey was.  It’s not the point of the story.

I think it’s important to say that I didn’t come to this view of Genesis because I wanted to disregard it in any sense–and I don’t.  I came to this view because my evangelical Bible teachers taught me that to interpret a passage well, I had to understand its genre.  To me, the most conservative approach I can take is to assume that the Bible was written in the genres appropriate to its era(s), and not impose on the scriptures the forms and preferences of my own era.  To force the early Biblical passages into the genres I know and like regardless of the original cultural context is not a conservative move–far from it.  God communicated clearly within the constraints of the literary forms that were available to his readers.  He could not have done otherwise and expected them to understand.

Next up, assumption #2: Some Things That Seem Important to Me Don’t Matter to the Biblical Writers

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Atheists Think the Only Real Christians Are Fundamentalists

Author Sam Harris.  This picture, like his worldview, is black and white.

Author Sam Harris. This picture, like his worldview, is black and white.

I wrote before that “there’s a pretty thin line between Fundamentalism and Atheism,” and “It is the Fundamentalist position that there are only two coherent worldviews: Fundamentalism or Atheism.”  What I should have mentioned is that most atheists I interact with think that the only legitimate form of Christianity is Fundamentalism, and they continually read the Bible just like fundamentalists, do, only without faith.  Granted, that’s a big difference, but it’s important to note that the reading strategies are identical.  Atheists and fundies agree that the presence of contradictions or historical inaccuracies in the text would disqualify the Bible from functioning as divine scripture, which is why one side tirelessly compiles lists of Biblical errors and the other side tirelessly seeks to reconcile them all.  The reason that game goes on and on, unendingly, is that they are working from the same Enlightenment rules.  And it’s a pretty dumb game for Christians to play, since the rules stipulate that the other side only has to score one point to win the game.   If we don’t plausibly explain away every single alleged contradiction, we lose.  And you already know that I don’t think we can do that.

Or take the opening paragraph of Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation:

You believe that the Bible is the word of God, and that Jesus is the Son of God, and that only those who place their faith in Jesus will find salvation after death. As a Christian, you believe these propositions not because they make you feel good, but because you think they are true. Before I point out some of the problems with these beliefs, I would like to acknowledge that there are many points on which you and I agree. We agree, for instance, that if one of us is right, the other is wrong.  The Bible is either the word of God, or it isn’t.  Either Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation (John 14:6), or he does not.  We agree that to be a true Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so….

As a work of propaganda this is marvelous, and surely effective.  All Harris is doing is pointing out that he and the fundamentalists he is addressing share an identical black and white worldview.  He doesn’t have to persuade them to play by his rules–they are already on board.  All he has to do is play the game better than they do.  Actually, he doesn’t even have to do that, since they’ve implicitly agreed to the “if I score one point against you, you automatically lose” rule.

The really clever thing he does comes soon after, on page 5.

Here, we need only observe that the issue is both simpler and more urgent than liberals and moderates generally admit.  Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn’t.  Either Christ was divine, or he was not….At least half the American population understands this.

This follows up on something he writes on page ix, in the introductory “Note to the Reader”:

In Letter to a Christian Nation, I have set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms. Consequently, liberal and moderate Christians will not always recognize themselves in the “Christian” I address. (emphasis mine)

Brilliant!  He not-very-subtly flatters his intended audience by declaring that fundamentalist/conservative evangelical Christianity is the most committed form of the faith.  He knows that if he can convince his readers that all the really serious Christians are inerrantists, his work is almost done.  He’s narrowed the field down to two options, one of which he’s pretty sure he can obliterate, even while he’s smiling and speaking softly the whole time.

Needless to say, Pope Benedict XVI might not be so quick to agree that the most committed Christians are fundies.  Or the Metropolitan Christodoulos of the Greek Orthodox Church.  Or the Episcopal priests I know who are doing poverty assistance in struggling urban neighborhoods.  Or the pastor at the Disciples of Christ church down the road who is active in homeless assistance.  Harris wants to measure commitment not by “perseverance in following the example of Jesus” (which seems like a reasonable definition to me), but by “adherence to a literalist reading of the scriptures.”  There’s no necessary link between the two, and if you were to tell most of the early church fathers that the only really dedicated Christians were strict literalists you’d have to wait for them to stop laughing before they could give you a cogent response.  In fact, the whole historical-grammatical interpretive paradigm only develops in the most recent four or five hundred years of Christian history, and really became prominent in the last three hundred.  That might seem like a long time, but for most of Christian history, the brand of Christian identity that Harris considers “the most committed form” didn’t even exist.

Lunch break is over…I’ll continue this line of thinking later.

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At The Intersection of Militarism, Eschatology, and Multilingual Punning

resurgam-subResurgam (Latin: ‘I shall rise again’) is the name given to two early Victorian submarines designed and built by Reverend George Garrett as a weapon to penetrate the chain netting placed around ship to defend against attack by torpedo vessels.”

Oh, the delightful things you learn from a Google search.

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The Restoration of All Things

resurgam1“Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? 13The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. 14You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. 15You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.16By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.

 17“Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. 19Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. 21He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets….

The Apostle Peter, in Acts 3:12-21

For a long time now I’ve been dissatisfied with the traditional evangelical treatment of heaven and the afterlife.   I couldn’t figure out what was so exciting about being a disembodied spirit roving through the clouds, and I didn’t know how to get people excited about it, when everything that I really like about my life right now is dependent on my corporeal existence.  And I think a lot of Christians feel that way if they are honest.  Heaven gets good press not because it’s so wonderful in and of itself, but because it beats the alternatives: hell or non-existence (and in my understanding of the scriptures, those are eventually the same thing.)

I thought that there had to be something more that we just weren’t seeing.  Some of the pieces of the puzzle were starting to fall into place, but it was N.T. Wright, in his Resurrection of the Son of God and Surpised By Hope who really helped me see the big picture–something that I could genuinely be excited about.  The ultimate hope isn’t heaven, it never was.  It is bodily resurrection and everlasting life on a renewed and restored earth.  Once I glommed on to that, passages like Romans 8:18-25, 2 Peter 3:13, and Revelation 21 start to make a whole lot more sense, and I kicked myself for not having seen it before.  And then, once I had our future hope of resurrection, restoration and renewal clearly in mind, I started noticing that it was present in all kinds of scriptures.  Like Acts 3.  The apostolic message is clear.  Jesus isn’t coming back to wisk us away or to end his misguided experiment with time and matter.  He is coming back to restore all things.  Everything broken will be fixed.  Everything thing tarnished will be cleansed.  Everything dead will be brought back to life.  That, and nothing less than that, is what we are anticipating.  The complete prophetic vision will be made reality, and the glory of the Lord will cover the earth.

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