Sunday, January 20, 2008

How Does One Come to Believe in Moses?

In the essay below, I explained what I see as a three-step process by which those outside the Church come to believe in the inerrant/infallible authority of the Scriptures. In it, I focused on the Gospels, which from the point of view of inerrancy are truly the oddest part of the Bible, in which we have four documents, each testifying to Christ yet showing numerous unreconciled small discrepancies that Christians have labored over for centuries to smooth away. Some such efforts may be fruitful (such as the different Roman and Jewish hour systems used in John and the Synoptics), while others have been fruitless. But the Christian church has not held any specific solution of these puzzles to be authoritative, nor has the ability to produce reliable solutions to these discrepancies on demand been seen as a condition for adhering to inerrancy and Biblical authority.

Does this have any relevance to the Old Testament? In point of practice, for Christians, rather little. For us, as non-Jews, the Old Testament remains to some degree a letter written to someone else, one which we can only approaching by identifying with one particular Jew, Jesus. To put it differently, we believe in the Old Testament, seek wisdom from it, and model our lives on it, because He obviously did and as Christians we wish to do as He did.

But certainly the Old Testament can be teated, and by past generations of Christians (let alone the Jews, of course), has been treated as testament with its own authority. If this is the case, we may ask how exactly this authority could come to be established in the eyes of someone who has not imbibed it with his mother‘s milk? I would argue in exactly the same three stages as outsiders to the Church go through in accepting the authority of the Gospels.

First, they see that the Law of Moses and the history of the Judges and kings of Israel and Judah are plausible historical records, able to be read with the same general presumption of veracity as Snorri Sturluson on the Norwegian kings or Sima Qian on the Chinese dynasties.

Second one realizes that these plausible records testify to an extraordinary people, a people that has despite innumerable hardships, has survived and still exists today. Such a people, who have maintained their Law, when Egyptians and Assyrians, and Mayans, and Chinese have all forgotten theirs is something special, a miracle and a proof of God.

It is pregnant with meaning that the first and the second non-Biblical references to the name "Israel" occur in boasts that the nation has been destroyed. The first is found in the Hymn of Victory for the Pharoah Merneptah, dated to the fifth year of his reign:

. . .

The princes are prostrate, saying “Mercy!”

No one raises his head among the Nine Bows

Desolation is for Tehenu; Khatti [the Hittite empire] is pacified;

Plundered is Canaan with every evil;

Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer [the Philistine cities];

Yanoam [a city in northern Palestine] is made as that which does not exist;

Israel is laid waste, his seed is not

Hurru [the Horites] is become a widow for Egypt!

All lands together, they are pacified;

Everyone who was restless, he has been bound by the King of Upper and Lower Egypt: Ba-en-Re Meri-Amon; the Son of Re; Mer-ne-ptah Hotep-hir-Maat, given life like Re every day.

(Ancient Near East, p. 231).

But today, this Pharoah is known first and foremost for having once mentioned Israel.

And the second is the famous inscription of Mesha, king of Moab, dated to around 830 B.C.:

I am Mesha, son of Chemosh-[. . .], king of Moab, the Dibonite -- my father had reigned over Moab thirty years, and I reigned after my father -- who made this high place for Chemosh in Qarhoh [. . .] because he saved me from all the kings and caused me to triumph over all my adversaries. As for Omri, king of Israel, he humbled Moab many days, for Chemosh was angry at his land. And his son followed him and he also said, “I will humble Moab.” In my time he spoke thus, but I have triumphed over him and over his house while Israel hath perished for ever! (Ancient Near East, p. 211).

He goes in that vein about how he has destroyed Israel, slaughtered Gad, annihilated Nebo, so that Chemosh triumphed over YHWH. But he who laughs last, laughs best, and as with Pharoah and Assyria, and Babylon, and . . . , we all know who getting the last laugh.

Down through the centuries, one thing has been certain: great empires will boast of having wiped Israel out for ever, laying him waste so his seed is not -- and it will be Israel who will write the history of this new Haman that the next generation will read. People feel differently about this miracle of survival, but it is a fact of history worth pondering.

Thirdly one realizes that what this plausible record says, is that it is the record itself, the Law of Moses and its commentary, which has created and ensured the continuity of this extraordinary people. If the Law and the Prophets are the means by which the miracle of Jewish survival has been effected, then the Law itself must be something divine. Something capable of defeating the ravages of time, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, and Hitler must be extraordinarily perfect to achieve its aim and such perfection is not compatible with error.

Now, the Jews themselves will stop there with a divine Torah, Prophets and Writings, making up the Hebrew Bible. Pascal followed a well-worn Christian apologetic when he then argued that for such a divinely-commissioned people to have a mission to make God known and then to have never done it is absurd. Therefore, the Jewish Law must have been made known to the world in some form, and one need only further decide on whether it was so done through Jesus or Muhammad.

But whether or not one makes that step, the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible thus can be reasoned as divinely inspired, entirely apart from the Christian New Testament. But, this is only the case as long as the initial plausibility of the story of Abraham, slavery in Egypt, Moses, Joshua, Judges, and monarchy can be accepted. This is, however, exactly the point at contention in recent research on early Israel (more here, here, and here). The conclusion of recent scholarship has been overwhelmingly that, no, the Torah does not possess the minimal plausibility to be taken as a more or less correct of the origin of the Jews. It's not quite in Book of Mormon territory in that respect, but it is getting there, if the minimalist account prevails.

In this situation, if my analysis is correct, the primary arguments needed to get people to open themselves to the truth claims of the Mosaic revelation are not arguments why it is inerrant, but rather arguments why it is plausible -- a very, very different issue. Nitpicking arguments of detail and harmonization to prove the first agenda are actually counter-productive for the second agenda.

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How Does One Come to Believe the Gospels?

How does one come to believe in the authority of the Bible? A comments thread here offers some remarkably helpful (for a comments thread, which is an undemanding measure) thoughts that match my own experience. We say Scripture attests to Jesus and Jesus attests to Scripture, which sounds circular. But it’s not, because the attestation works differently in the different steps of the argument. Three steps may be distinguished.

First one decides that the Biblical account is plausible; that is, that it is more or less reliable, the same way that Thucydides is more or less reliable on the Pelopennesian war or Teddy White on the election of 1960*. In this stage, one puts the source into the witness box, so to speak, and is not shy of cross-examining it for contradictions. On the other hand, as is pointed out by Clare** and Cooky642*** in the comments thread, multiple witnesses of a single event can actually be more convincing if they have slight discrepancies. Given the well-documented vagaries of eye-witness testimony (more here and here), two witnesses will probably produce exactly the same account only if they have gotten together to “get their story straight” before hand. In this stage then, small discrepancies can actually add to the reliability of the points the witnesses do agree on, particularly if these discrepancies stem from some obvious difference in background, temperament, or position of the witnesses. Human qualities in the witness are appreciated, not deprecated. Insisting on inerrancy in this stage is not only unnecessary, but actually hampers belief, because an inerrant witness is too unusual to be believed in, and would need a separate witness himself, and so on in infinite regress. Moreover the marks of inerrancy are too similar to the marks of a coached and cooked up witness’s story not to be suspicious.

The second stage comes when one realizes that these ordinary, prosaic, all-too-human witnesses are describing something truly beyond ordinary human experience. Four ordinary men are testifying to a man who was/is God. The stories of the four witnesses vary according to their to their backgrounds, temperaments, and points of view, but what they agree on is that He did miracles while alive, that the tomb was empty, and that He rose from the dead. A finite witness is encompassing an infinite reality. And this infinite reality asks for belief from you.

The third stage comes when one realizes that the witnesses themselves are playing a part in this divine reality’s plan to come to you. At this point one wants to know as much as possible about the Man to whom they are testifying. The clearer their testimony the clearer one comes to know Him to Whom they testify. And one of the things that the witnesses consistently testify to (in their different ways) is that they have been chosen by Him to bear witness to Him, and that their testimony will be trustworthy. Suddenly, we have a plausible witness making a plausible statement that they heard the divine Man designate these witnesses as men of unquestionable authority. And if that’s the case, then they are more than just human witnesses, rather they are divinely commissioned Apostles. The Apostles as witnesses gave plausible testimony to Jesus as Son of God, and now the Son of God gives irrefragable testimony to the Apostles as inerrant teachers. The authority of the New Testament is thus established.

This is how it happened for me. From my first acquaintance in my teenage years, the four Gospels seemed to be a fairly plausible account of what happened in the life of Jesus, far more plausible than the Dan Brown-style accounts vying with it, all of which reeked of ex post facto hagiography, special pleading, and cooked-up testimony. But I never believed them as the Word of God, until I came to grips at age thirty with the Man that they bear witness to. From then on, the Gospels were not just plausible, but the guide to life, the inerrant witness to the Man we all must know as well as ever we can.

The problem though is, what to do with those small discrepancies that had previously been helpful in establishing the untampered-with authenticity of the four witnesses? If the witnesses are indeed divinely commissioned, they shouldn’t make any errors, right? And couldn’t one bring people to believe in Jesus more rapidly if you could start from the beginning by asserting divine authority for these four witnesses?

That is of course the way many in the church have taken. It is the origin of the idea of harmonizing the four Gospels. In the churches of the Roman Empire, the four Gospels were always read separately, but in the Church of the East in the Persian Empire, from AD 170 to later than 350, the standard Bible was the Syriac translation made by Tatian called the Diatessaron, and arranged not as four Gospels, but as a read straight-through harmony. Even in the Greco-Roman churches, centuries of harmonization have made it very difficult for us to read, for example, Luke’s account of the angels announcing the nativity to the shepherds apart from Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi.

At the same time the Church has resisted canonizing any one harmonizing scheme. The Church of the East eventually gave up the Diatessaron in favor of the four separate Gospels. So the cleansing of the Temple in the beginning of Jesus’s public preaching career according to John and the cleansing at the end of it in the Synoptics have been just left side by side, for Christians who confess the inerrancy of Scripture to solve as they will. Luther preached on John 2:13-16 thus (in part):

In John’s Gospel the cleansing of the Temple appears to come directly after the baptism of Christ, whereas in Matthew’s Gospel it comes after the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It is not important to settle this question. It may be that John has jumped over the entire interval from the beginning of Jesus’s ministry to the last Passover because less interested in the deeds than in the words of Christ. Be that as it may. If you cannot contrive a reconciliation of John and Matthew, let it go, You won’t be damned on that account. (See Roland H. Bainton, Luther’s Meditations on the Gospels, p. 93).

It seems to me there is wisdom in thus keeping the Word both open to those outside and to those inside. To those outside, the Gospels must remain plausible historical documents. The outsider cannot believe (yet) in inerrant witnesses, because he has never met any. But he can believe in reliable witnesses because he has come across such in his living experience. Let the Gospels be that for him then. Do not try to harmonize them, do not try to “get our story straight” and then stubbornly tell the world, “that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.“ But do insist that the Gospels are a reliable guide to the life of Jesus of Nazareth and that Acts tells the story of the Church at least as well as Herodotus tells the story of Thermopylae.

But to those inside, the Church must confess the Word as the norm, as the guide of spiritual life, and also as the accurate exposition of the knowledge of the life of Jesus and how the Spirit founded the Church. And if it is wrong, then it would be a blind guide. So to us inside, we have to confess the Scriptures are the infallible words of divinely commissioned Apostles teaching us of Jesus. If you prove to me the Gospels say this or that, then I have to believe this or that or be a disobedient son. And when will we prove to the outsiders that the Bible is indeed inerrant and that the solution to the problem of the different dates of the cleansing of the Temple -- the solution Luther didn’t have and I don’t think anyone else has either -- was obvious all along? When the world is the Church and the Church is the world.

(To be continued)

*Randy Gritter in the comments thread referred to above puts it this way (with a Catholic spin):
Catholics make 2 passes at scripture when they try and provide the rational basis for their faith. The first pass just requires scripture to be generally historically accurate. Then you can conclude that Jesus lived. That he taught certain things. He did miracles. He died. He rose again. He established His church.

Then once you have all those historical events established you can look at the church as the body of Christ and conclude that it must be right when it defined the cannon of scripture. So Mark is right. At this point in the argument you don't need to show scripture is inerrant. You just need to show it provides solid reasons for believing the events described.

**Speaking as a lawyer, a story can actually be more believable when the witnesses don't totally agree on every single tiny detail. If you get a bunch of eyewitnesses to an event that corroborate each other 100%, it's suspicious, since it looks like they've all been coached. When you get a group of honest human beings together, and ask them to recall something that happened, their answers are naturally bound to vary a little bit. But it's only when they vary on the most basic points--"yes, it happened," vs. "no, it didn't"--that the event is called into question.

***Has anyone ever had the experience of witnessing a disaster or even just a traffic accident? If so, you'll know that the police who respond question everybody who witnessed the event. Why? I asked, once. The answer was that everybody who saw what happened saw it from a different angle, and with differing levels of attention. The job of the policeman is to take down all the stories and then evaluate them to see where they agree. Then that's what probably actually happened. Among the divergent memories may be clues to solve the mystery of why it happened.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Only New Testament Reference to Genesis 3:15

There's a debate going on at the Boar's Head Tavern about who is it who is being referred to in Genesis 3:15:

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

Who will bruise the serpent's head? Jesus or Mary? (You can find posts debating this question here, here, here, etc.)

The funny thing is (along the lines of this post), is that according to the New Testament, it is neither Jesus nor Mary who bruises the serpent's head, but the congregation of the saints (through whom God the Father works). As Paul wrote to the Roman congregation:

For your obedience is come abroad unto all men. I am glad therefore on your behalf: but yet I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil. And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.

Has this passage ever received theologization?

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Some interesting reads, and a comment about crime and ideology

Here are some interesting reads:

An article about his Hindu family and Hindus in India react to the rise of Bobby Jindal, the Catholic convert from Hinduism who is now the Republican Governor of Louisiana. (HT: the Corner.) The accent is on Hindu tolerance, but there's traces of an almost submerged story as well. His parents did not attend his baptism, but they did attend the baptism of his wife (another convert from Hinduism). That to me sounds like Bobby Jindal's parents took longer to accept their son's conversion than the article implies.

And another theme that pops up in quotations Hindus only to disappear is the idea that conversion to Christianity is OK for Bobby because Christianity is the American national religion, and so a Christian church is where one would expect to "find God" in a Christian nation:

"She doesn't mind if Bobby adopts the culture of that country, because he is living there," a translator quoted [Jindal's aunt, still living in Punjab] Bansal as saying. "He should and he must adopt the culture of that country. She is delighted that he is more loyal to that country, that land where he lives."

Interesting that she simply assumes the link of Christianity and American culture, which so many American Christians regard as an obvious and elementary category error.

And finally of course, there's the simple fact of fame -- it's so much easier to forgive the faults of your relatives and co-ethnics, when they're famous.

Anyway, although I am "supposed" to criticize this tolerance from the point of view of there being only one truth, law of non-contradiction, etc., I was happy to see the positive feelings these Hindus have for a Christian convert. There are much worse ways to respond to that.

Second, here's a highly amusing survey of campaign non-biographies from the '08 campaign. (HT to a Power Line reading of McCain's campaign book here and here).

Thirdly, a nice review of the Eric Clapton autobiography.

OK, what's that point about crime and ideology? It's this: that ignoring a crime wave is a classic sign of ideological politics. To normal people, that deterring and punishing murder, armed robbery, rape, and so on is an essential role of the state. If the state does this badly, it is doing a bad job. But sometimes you get people saying: well, even if a particular regime is helpless in the face of crime, it is still indefeasibly legitimate, because it is based on correct philosophical principles. In two cases I've seen in my life, crime waves (of varying magnitudes) have been dismissed as unimportant and anyone complaining about them denounced as simply partisans of an philosophically unjust system. Controlling crime was (from this point of view) simply an illegitimate measure of the state's effectiveness. In each case, the voters eventually disagreed, ignored the philosophers, and put in power new leaders who reversed some of the change that had led to supposedly uncontrollable crime.

The two examples are the judicial philosophy espoused by the American New Left in the 1960s and the transition to democracy in the break up of the Soviet Union. Both liberalized to some degree a previously more controlled system, and each one led to a crime wave that was serious in the case of the US (murders more than doubled, from 4.6 per in 100,000 in 1963 to 10.2 in 1980), and grotesque in the Soviet Union (from 9.6 in 1988 to 30.6 in 1993). (Invaluable Wikipedia graphs here.) And in each case, noticing this fact was considered to be the height of bad faith. And in the two cases, the crime wave played a major role in discrediting the party or leader thought responsible for the liberalization: Democrats in the US and Boris Yeltsin in the Soviet Union, and in both cases voters responded by making the other side very popular: Ronald Reagan and Vladimir Putin.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

An Epiphany Midrash

By chance it happens that this Sunday falls on the date of real Epiphany, January 6. While Epiphany was originally the date assigned to Christmas in the Greco-Syriac parts of the Christian world, it has now come to be associated with the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.

In honor of this occasion, I would like to reproduce a story from Marco Polo (in Ronald Latham's translation), a travel writer who gets far less than his deserved respect. Make of it what you will:

Now let us leave Tabriz and turn to Persia, a very great province and at one time a very splendid and powerful one, but now ravaged and devastated by the Tartars [i.e. the Mongols, who conquered Iran in the thirteenth century].

In Persia is the city called Saveh, from which the three Magi set out when they came to worship Jesus Christ. Here, too, they lie buried in three sepluchres of great size and beauty. Above each sepulchre is a square building with a domed roof of very fine workmanship. The one is just beside the other. Their bodies are still whole, and they have hair and beards. [Post-mortem incorruption is a vital sign of sanctity in all medieval religions.] One was named Beltasar, the second Gaspar, and the third Melchior. Messer Marco asked several of the inhabitants who these Magi were; but no one could tell him anything except that they were three kings who were buried there in days gone by. But at last he learnt what I will now tell you.

Three days farther on, he found a town called Kalah Atashparastan, that is to say Town of the Fire-Worshippers. [That is, town of the adherents of the Zoroastrian religion, the pre-Islamic religion of Iran. Magus is in fact the name for Zoroastrian priests.] And that is no more than the truth; for the men of this town do worship fire. And I will tell you why they worship it. The inhabitants declare that in days gone by three kings of this country went to worship a new-born prophet and took with them three offerings -- gold, frankincense, and myrrh -- so as to discover whether this prophet was a god, or an earthly king or a healer. For they said: 'If he takes gold, he is an earthly king; if frankincense, a god; if myrrh, a healer.' When they had come to the place where the prophet was born, the youngest of the three kings went in all alone to see the child. He found that he was like himself, for he seemed to be of his own age and appearance. And he came out, full of wonder. Then in went the second, who was a man of middle age. And to him also the child seemed, as it had seemed to the other, to be of his own age and appearance. And he came out quite dumbfounded. Then in went the third, who was of riper years; and to him also it happened as it had to the other two. And he came out deep in thought. When the three kings were all together, each told the other what he had seen. And they were much amazed and resolved that they would all go in together. So in they went, all three together, and came before the child and saw him in his real likeness and of his real age; for he was only thirteen days old. Then they worshipped him and offered him the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh. The child took all three offerings and then gave them a closed casket. And the three kings set out to return to their own country.

After they had ridden for some days, they resolved to see what the child had given them. They opened the casket and found inside it a stone. They wondered greatly what this could be. The child had given it to them to signify that they should be firm as stone in the faith that they had adopted. For, when the three kings saw that the child had taken all three offerings, they concluded that he was at once a god, and an earthly king, and a healer. And since the child knew that the three kings believed this, he gave them the stone to signify that they should be firm and constant in their belief. The three kings, not knowing why the stone had been given to them, took it and threw it into a well. No sooner had it fallen in than there descended from heaven a burning fire, which came straight to the well into which it had been thrown. When the three kings saw this miracle, they were taken aback and repented of their throwing away the stone; for they saw clearly that its significance was great and good. They immediately took some of this fire and carried it to their country and put it in one of their churches, a very fine and splendid building. They keep it perpetually burning and worship it as a god. And every sacrifice and burnt offering which they make is roasted with this fire. If it ever happens that the fire goes out, they go round to others who hold the same faith and worship fire also and are given some of the fire that burns in their church. This they bring back to rekindle their own fire. They never rekindle it except with the fire of which I have spoken. To procure this fire, they often make a journey of ten days.

That is how it comes about that the people of this country are fire-worshippers. And I assure you that they are very numerous. All this was related to Messer Marco Polo by the inhabitants of this town; and it is all perfectly true. Let me tell you finally that one of the three Magi came from Saveh, one from Hawah, and the third from Kashan.

Now that I have told you of this matter at full length, I will go on to tell you the facts about many other cities in Persia and the custom of the inhabitants . . .

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