Category Archives: Bibliology

PODCAST: Jesus-Centric vs. Flat Bible: a Conversation with Keith Giles

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Keith Giles, author of Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics to Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb, was my guest to discuss two approaches that he sees commonly applied to reading scripture–a Jesus-Centric approach (where the words of Jesus are the standard) and a Flat Bible approach (where all scripture is equally authoritative and applicable for Christians). We had a great conversation with lots of friendly disagreement.

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20170707-JesusCentricwKeithGiles.mp3

Music:
“The Itis” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

PODCAST: Finding Jesus in the Jewish Feasts

Discussion of the biblical feasts, (Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Tabernacles) their spiritual lessons, and how they point forward to Christ.

Audio:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20170420-FindingJesusintheJewishFeasts.mp3

Music:
“The Itis” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

 

PODCAST: Cantus Firmus At the Movies Ep. 2 – Noah (w/ Mike Schellman)

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In this episode we looked at Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) and talked about its themes of judgment and mercy, misguided piety, and stewardship/environmentalism. We also examined its portrayal of the Watchers and the film’s extrabiblical source material in 1 Enoch and the Zohar.

Mike Schellman was my special guest and can be found at http://mschellman.blogspot.com/

Audio:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20170401-CFATM-Ep2-Noah(wMikeSchellman).mp3

Music:
“Octagon Pt 2” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

PODCAST: Daniel Was a Man – the Historicity of the Prophet Daniel

A brief look at the Old Testament book of Daniel, its late date by critical scholars, and arguments for the early date which it claims of itself.

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20161223-DanielWasaMan.mp3

Music:
“The Itis” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

PODCAST: For Three Redactions, Even for Four — Amos and the Documentary Hypothesis

As an addendum to the previous podcast discussing the Documentary Hypothesis and the Pentateuch,  I recorded this brief excursus on the book of Amos to see how the Documentary Hypothesis shapes how critical scholars read it and imagine how it might have evolved over time through various redactions. Included is some discussion on the circularity of such proposals.

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20161123-DocumentaryHypothesisandAmos.mp3

Music:
“The Itis” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

PODCAST: A Priest and a Deuteronomist Walk Into a Bar – the Documentary Hypothesis

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We examine the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch–the idea that the first five books of the Bible did not originate with Moses but were originally at least four distinct written sources edited together by a later redactor. We also highlight the problems with this view. My co-host was Jackson Ferrell who can be found (among other places) at https://chocolatebook.wordpress.com/ and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCApG0JBkT6PzJEWLMZ0IZOw

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20161017-DocumentaryHypothesis.mp3

Music:
“The Itis” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

PODCAST: The Transcendence Argument – The Self-Disclosure of the God of Israel

Piggybacking on the ideas of Yehezkel Kaufmann and John Oswalt, this argument builds on the uniqueness of the ancient Israelite claims about the divine to show that such a perspective could only have come about through divine revelation. My co-host was Jackson Ferrell who can be found (among other places) at https://chocolatebook.wordpress.com/ and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCApG0JBkT6PzJEWLMZ0IZOw

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20160919-TranscendenceArgument.mp3

Resources mentioned:
Yehezkel Kaufmann’s The Religion of Israel:
https://www.amazon.com/Religion-Israel-Beginnings-Babylonian-Exile/dp/0805203648/

John Oswalt’s The Bible Among the Myths:
https://www.amazon.com/Bible-among-Myths-Revelation-Literature/dp/0310285097/

John D. Currid’s Against the Gods:
https://www.amazon.com/Against-Gods-Polemical-Theology-Testament/dp/1433531836/

Tom Gilson’s counter-argument to the Jesus legend theory:
https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2014/05/the-story-of-jesus-is-unimaginably-great-therefore-its-true/

I looked, and behold! a spray tan horse (or, how the loss of literacy could spell the end for western civilization)

When Kim Kardashian tweeted, “Today marks the 100 year anniversary of Armenian Genocide!” as if she were giving a birth announcement, it predictably elicited some snickers. But not from John McWhorter. In his Daily Beast article appropriately titled “Why Kim Kardashian Can’t Write Good,” McWhorter argues that America is shifting from book-patterned thinking to more informal, verbal-based communication, and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just an example of “times changing in ways that hurt no one.”

On the surface, he seems to agree with media theorist Neil Postman’s premise that the primary communication medium a society uses will necessarily shape how it communicates, and that each medium has its own structure and emphases. What he doesn’t claim (and what Postman does) is that not all mediums are appropriate for all messages, and that when a new medium becomes the predominant one in a culture, it can fundamentally change the public discourse. Writing, for instance, is linear and builds upon previous information. Television, in contrast, must be formatted to be consumed in bite size chunks where no previous knowledge can be assumed. This is why Postman argued that education, as traditionally defined, is better accomplished through writing than through television.

Although this concept of mediums shaping messages was given popular expression by media theorists like Postman and Marshall McLuhan, it has much older, deeper roots in Judeo-Christian thought. In the Old Testament, we find two mediums of communication privileged when it comes to facilitating theological education and worship: writing and speech. Writing seems to be the highest form of discourse given the place of primacy that the Ten Commandments, and indeed the whole Torah, had in the Jewish mind (see Deuteronomy 31:10-12). However, oral discourse also had a distinct religious importance since it was the primary mode of daily communication; thus the command to talk regularly about the law of God with one’s children (Deuteronomy 6:7).

In contrast, pictorial representations for the purpose of teaching and inspiring worship were not completely without merit (Exodus 25:22), but could not be used to facilitate worship proper, as the Hebrews learned all too well during the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32). God could be represented in words, particularly those written words that He inspired, but not in images. The implication of this is that the medium in which a message is transmitted is not irrelevant to the content of the message. Pictorial representations of the God of Israel were not seen as capable of conveying the things about Himself which He wanted to disclose, but would instead lead the recipients of His self-disclosure astray.

The relationship of medium to message is implicitly disclosed in the New Testament as well. Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant preacher, relied primarily on verbal modes of communication, and can therefore be contrasted with Paul, the writer. Jesus told memorable parables and stories which could be easily remembered and reinterpreted for different contexts. Paul wrote long letters that relied upon sustained linear argumentation. He communicated his points by building his case progressively and carefully arranging his data. He wasn’t interested in quickly grabbing the attention of a passerby and sharing a convicting aphorism for him to remember, but in demonstrating his thesis to someone who was willing to follow his train of thought from beginning to end. The result is that Jesus’ theology has to be constructed by the reader while Paul’s already is constructed. The listener trying to make sense of Jesus’ philosophy will miss quite a lot if he isn’t capable of laying it out systematically, as Paul did. That’s what makes Kim Kardashian’s tweet, symptomatic as it is of a larger trend, so terrifying. It represents a fundamental failure to think beyond 140 characters.

The danger we find ourselves in today, of casting aside the more literate Pauline approach, is that in doing so we will have lost the ability for sustained, developed, complex thought and be left instead with a worldview resembling a Twitter feed—a random arrangement of slogans and metaphors. Once we have given up literacy because it’s too difficult, we cannot be like those oral cultures which were shaped by Homer, the Mishnah, or Beowulf. We’ll be lucky if we can aspire to Lady Gaga.

Is Kim Kardashian the harbinger of the West’s doom, and proof that careful, structured thought is on its way out? Perhaps. But that is exactly why westerners should remain, as the Qur’an referred to Jews and Christians in an era of increasing illiteracy, a people of the book.

The Biblical God is Both Personal and Transcendent

     There is a strong tendency in man to think of personhood as emerging from non-personality. For pagans and atheists, for example, matter is primary. For many monotheists, God is thought of as too transcendent to really be personal. Even Aristotle, who provided us with an example of what highly trained reason can discern about God apart from revelation, fell very short when he postulated an unmoved mover whose existence precedes all actions but who can be acted upon by none. Such a god may think, but He is not relational. He is personal in only the most anemic sense imaginable. Western Christianity has unfortunately been so influenced by Aristotle that our view of God is at times not much better. We have tended to think of God as apathetic and passionless. As Roger Olson has suggested, this cuts right through to our christology, so that we have often been de facto Nestorians.1

     Contrast this with the biblical view of God, however, and you will find a Being who exists beyond everything else (“everything else” being equivalent to the category of things which He created) and yet who condescends to interact with His creation and is personally invested in it.

     We see this dichotomy throughout scripture, but perhaps most strongly in the first chapters of Genesis. Genesis 1 gives an account of a nameless God who uses His great power to create the heavens, the earth, and everything that is in them. The primary quality emphasized here is of His transcendence. This God is the one who alone made the heavens and the earth (Nehemiah 9:6) and because of this lives forever, unlike the pagan gods who did not create them and will therefore perish from them (Jeremiah 10:11).

     And yet, when we turn to Genesis chapter 2, we find a God who doesn’t just create and dictate, but one who “forms” man by “breath[ing] into his nostrils,” suggesting closeness. This God is given a name to emphasize His personal, intimate interaction with the ones He made in His image. Genesis 2 answers the question of how anything can be known of the God we read about in chapter 1, who is far too transcendent to be understood from human experience and reason alone. To bridge this gap, self-disclosure and condescension is required. God is not simply reasoned to from creation, but must reveal Himself.

     The Old Testament, therefore, is about a God who is above creation but who makes Himself known. This God is intensely personal and this quality is demonstrated throughout the Old Testament, not least of all in those places where He talks about His passionate feelings toward His covenant people. For instance, the Hebrew scriptures tell us that God has compassion on Jacob (Isaiah 14:1) and is deeply troubled over humanity’s sin to the point of feeling regret for creating them (Genesis 6:6). Ezekiel chapter 16 provides an account of God’s love for His covenant people in the most emotionally moving language imaginable: God looked upon the lowly and abandoned Israel with compassion and love and felt great affection for her. He married her (representing the covenant He made with her), but she committed adultery. And if that weren’t enough, she sacrificed the children He gave her to foreign gods. One cannot read this chapter without feeling the tenderest empathy for the sadness that God must feel in this scenario.

     The transcendent God of the Bible, therefore, is not the transcendent God of Aristotle. He is intimately involved in His creation and draws His people to Him in covenant love. Per Moltmann:
If God were incapable of suffering in every respect, then he would also be incapable of love… But if he is capable of loving something else, then he lays himself open to the suffering which love for another brings him; and yet, by virtue of his love, he remains master of the pain that love causes him to suffer. God does not suffer out of deficiency of being, like created beings. To this extent he is `apathetic’. But he suffers from the love which is the superabundance and overflowing of his being. In so far he is `pathetic’.”2

     If the God of the Hebrews is so different from the god of Aristotle, how much more is He different from the gods of the pagans!3 The primary concept undergirding paganism is that of continuity; everything that exists is of the same kind and is related to everything else. Polytheistic gods are not comparable to the God of the Bible for the same reason human beings aren’t—they are not transcendent over creation but are merely a part of it. For the same reason, personhood is not a quality that defines the gods in the way that westerners, benefiting from 2,000 years of Christian tradition, think about personhood. For the pagan, a person (in Latin “persona”) is merely a mask that a bit of existence wears which appears to distinguish him/her from everything else but is only superficial.4

     This leads us to a question, framed by John Oswalt, which must be given a plausible answer:
The unique combination of transcendent personhood that now provides the sole foundation of biblical thought never emerged anywhere else in the mind of a scribe or a philosopher. Why did it emerge in a thoroughly pagan Israel?”5

     Why indeed, to quote Brueggemann, in the Old Testament narrative is YHWH described as “underived and capable of direct intrusion into the narrative life of Israel without preparation or antecedent”?6 The answer which the Old Testament itself gives is the most plausible:

Because God revealed Himself to Israel.

Notes:

1 Notes Olson, “For Luther it is no scandal to say ‘God was born’ and ‘God suffered and died’ and ‘God was crucified’ and really mean it as more than mere figures of speech. Luther carried the communicatio idiomatum to its logical conclusion—something apparently neither Leo nor Cyril nor their orthodox and catholic interpreters did. They were still prisoners of the old Greek notion of the divine impassibility. This kept them from fully fleshing out the great mystery of the incarnation and caused the Chalcedonian doctrine of Christ to be interpreted more and more in a Nestorian sense after the council adjourned” (Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Kindle edition).

2 Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, Kindle edition.

3 Note how Kaufmann distinguishes the biblical theology from nearly every other: “The mark of monotheism is not the concept of a god who is creator, eternal, benign, or even all-powerful; these notions are found everywhere in the pagan world. It is, rather, the idea of a god who is the source of all being, not subject to a cosmic order, and not emergent from a pre-existent realm; a god free of the limitations of magic and mythology. The high gods of primitive tribes do not embody this idea” (Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel, New York: Schocken Books, 1960).

4 See John D. Zizioulas’ discussion of the development of personhood as an ontological category in his book Being As Communion.

5 John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, Kindle edition.

6 Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology: An Introduction, Kindle edition.

Are the Old Testament Accounts Historical?

     In 1 Corinthians 15:14, the apostle Paul wrote, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (ESV). His claim was that if the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and fulfillment of Old Testament scripture didn’t refer to real events within history, then there was no gospel at all. The Christian message, after all, was not about God taking our souls into heaven while His physical creation went to hell, but about the redemption of all creation, including our bodies, from death and corruption. As a result, Paul provides a clear witness against any form of Christianity which would seek to allegorize Jesus’ resurrection from the dead—such a view is emphatically not Christian. But what of the Old Testament revelation of God’s intervening acts in history? If, for instance, God did not deliver the Israelites from Egypt, is our faith in the God of both Testaments likewise in vain? Is the historicity of Old Testament events really all that important to their meaning?

     To begin, we must wipe away the idea that in order to be a people who are reasonable we cannot seriously consider supernatural claims. In their discussion of the criteria that can be used to come to conclusions about the historical Jesus, Boyd and Eddy diagnosed the critical consensus against the miraculous as a metaphysical and not an empirical one. The critic begins where David Hume did—with a definition of the miraculous as that which violates a law of nature. According to Hume, “There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise it would not merit this appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the experience of any miracle.”1 In other words, since a miracle is a one-time event, the number of times when a miracle did not happen in a given circumstance is drastically higher, making the possibility that a miracle happened incredibly low. But this is not a meaningful standard. If a paleontologist comes across a cave with illustrations painted on the wall, he does not consider how many caves do not have illustrations and conclude that this one must not either. He notes the evidence for intervention on behalf of free agents and concludes to where this evidence leads.

     The critic might respond, however, that a human causal agent is still a natural cause. A supernatural cause is outside of the unbroken continuum of natural cause and effect, which he presumes exists in unbroken perpetuity. Boyd and Eddy note that for “modern critical historians, the assumption that all things are governed by natural law is what makes a critical and scientific approach to history possible. This assumption… does not have to be proven: it is presupposed.”2 In opposition to this presupposition, Boyd and Eddy argue:
“the claim that nature tends to operate, and thus history tends to unfold, according to natural patterns of cause and effect is an empirical observation. The claim that the natural world and its history constitute a ‘closed continuum’ of natural causes and effects is a metaphysical claim. We experience the regularity of the world. We do not experience a closed continuum…’ The empirical claim does not rule out exceptions. The metaphysical claim does. The empirical claim is a factual report. The metaphysical claim is a statement of faith.”3

     Clear examples of critical bias based on metaphysical assumptions abound, even when this bias leads to unwarranted conclusions. Stephen Miller in his commentary on Daniel noted obvious double standards on behalf of critical scholars when dating the book of Daniel in such a way to avoid having to acknowledge its prophetic, and therefore supernatural, qualities. So, for instance, when various Psalms that had been proposed to have dated from the Maccabean period (160s B.C.) were found in manuscripts at Qum’ran dating to the late second century B.C.:
“W. H. Brownlee remarks that ‘it would seem that we should abandon the idea of any of the canonical psalms being of Maccabean date, for each song had to win its way in the esteem of the people before it could be included in the sacred compilation of the Psalter. Immediate entrée for any of them is highly improbable.’ Yet concerning Daniel, Brownlee states, ‘None of the Dead Sea Scroll copies of Daniel are so early as to dispute the usual critical view concerning the book’s authorship, although one Daniel manuscript from Cave Four is to be dated not more than fifty years later than its composition.’ If the discovery of the Psalter in the second century B.C. is sufficient evidence to push the date of that document back before 332 B.C., should not the same evidence indicate that Daniel was written before the second century?”4

     Such fuzzy reasoning and double standards on the part of critical scholars led Old Testament scholar Brevard S. Childs to remark:
“The often used cliche of ‘freedom from dogma’ seems now largely rhetorical. Nor can the categories of historical versus dogmatic be seen as intractable rivals. Rather, the issue turns on the quality of the dogmatic construal. It is undoubtedly true that in the history of the discipline traditional dogmatic rubrics have often stifled the close hearing of the biblical text, but it is equally true that exegesis done in conscious opposition to dogmatics can be equally stifling and superficial.”5

     Boyd and Eddy’s proposed alternative method is what they call the “open historical-critical method,” which is to say a method that treats natural causes as, generally speaking, the simplest, most likely, and therefore best explanation, but not to the extent that they are unwilling to give an open-minded hearing to supernatural explanations when they are indeed the best explanations. If we have adequately cleared away the brush by pointing out the circularity of the naturalism often appealed to in the historical-critical method, the question of whether the Old Testament is seeking to make historical claims, and how those claims relate to the normativity of its theology, still must be addressed.

     John Oswalt, in comparing the Old Testament accounts to the myths of the Ancient Near East, helps us by distinguishing the God of the Bible from the pagan gods. Whereas these gods were viewed as, “a part of this world [that could] be manipulated through this world,”6 YHWH was transcendent and outside of the natural order. It was therefore not possible for the Hebrews to reason about God analogically, or based on analogy to the natural order. This God would have to break into history if He wanted to be known and understood. As a result, truth for the Jew was fundamentally one of a historical nature. As John D. Zizioulas noted:
It is usually felt that the principal characteristic of Hebrew thinking as opposed to that of the Greeks resides in the Jews’ interest in history. The ‘signs’ which the Jews seek, says St Paul, are precisely the manifestations of God’s presence and his activity in history… The Greek mind, for its part, seeks truth in a way which transcends history.”7

     If truth for the Jew was historically situated, then this history is the ground of his/her theology. The Ten Commandments, often thought of as the centerpiece of Old Testament ethics, begin with a historical claim: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2, ESV). Likewise the centerpiece of the holiness code, which also serves as a claim to God’s nature as holy and compassionate, is a verse which grounds these ideas on God’s breaking into history: “For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:34, ESV). This historical reminder appears throughout the law (for instance, in Leviticus 22:33, 26:13, and Deuteronomy 5:6). That the nature of God and His commands was grounded upon His self-revelation in time and space placed the Jewish writer of scripture in a position that would have made them feel obligated to carefully record what God had done and communicated to them, since without God’s mighty acts in history, there would be no salvation. Oswalt writes:
“If God is not history and yet is revealed through history as divinely interpreted, it was of the greatest importance to record accurately what happened and to report as precisely as possible what God said about the meaning of what happened. To falsify the record or the interpretation was to be left with nothing that was of any value for knowing God or for making sense out of one’s life.”8

     We can therefore conclude that when the Old Testament writers are claiming to record history, it is foremost in their mind that what they are recording be an accurate reflection of that history. Since we have no good reason to hold to the metaphysical biases of modern critics we are free to read the Old Testament with an open mind to perceiving what it is the author sought to convey. When the message is a historical one, we would be wise to give the authors the benefit of the doubt instead of treating them with suspicion and seeking to recontextualize them in a way which satisfies our own cultural value assumptions. It is only by doing this that we might receive a theology which is revealed by God and not merely constructed by man.

 

Notes:
1
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in Gregory A. Boyd and Paul Rhodes Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007) Kindle edition.

2Boyd and Eddy, The Jesus Legend, Kindle Edition.

3Ibid.

4Stephen B. Miller, The New American Commentary Vol. 18 – Daniel, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1994), Kindle edition.

5Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection of the Christian Bible, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1992), Kindle edition.

6John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), Kindle edition.

7John D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), p. 68.

8Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, Kindle edition.