Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Carthaginian origin for basic Christian theology

Christian history (origins and evolution) is a very contentious and controversial area of interest. Many of the major "facts" and beliefs of Christianity have vague, unverified (and unverifiable) backgrounds and the various explanations for them often leave much to be desired. Therefore much is questioned by serious scholars and rightly so. However, an additional curve-ball might be introduced into the mix: the time scale surrounding Christian origins might need to be extended even further into the past then was ever thought necessary before: perhaps to 300 or 400 BC, in ancient Carthage!

A crucial clue may exist regarding the earliest origins of Christian symbolism and theology in a very unexpected place: Justin's epitome of the Philippic history of Pompeius Trogus. The bulk of what survives of the original work by Pompeius Trogus are only these summaries by Justin. In these we find
a story (Book 18, Chapt 7; here: Latin version of text) from ancient Carthage that supposedly took place long before the Punic wars and involved a Carthaginian general* named Malchus.

The story says Malchus had successfully waged war against the Greeks in Sicily as well as against the surrounding north African peoples and had secured substantial gains of territory for the city. But soon afterwards he suffered a disastrous defeat in battle, and as per the demands of Carthaginian custom it seems, the people of the city sent him and the remnants of his army away in humiliating exile.

Malchus had a son, the story tells us, who was not exiled along with Malchus and his army. Before Malchus' disastrous defeat the son had been sent as his father's representative on a journey to the distant city of Tyre to deliver a tenth of the spoils, won by Malchus in the victorious campaigns in Sicily, as a sacrifice to the god Hercules.

Upon his return from this voyage the son faced the tragically altered circumstances of his father and their city. His now-exiled father and his army were arrayed against Carthage. Malchus had demanded that the city pardon him and his men and allow them to return, but the people of Carthage refused so Malchus and his army then surrounded and besieged them. The returning son found the people of Carthage inside the city starving and reduced to despair.

Malchus called for his returning son to come and wait on him, but the son refused, saying that he must complete his religious duties to the public before he can attend to his private obligations to his father. Although this response infuriated Malchus, he feared hindering the religious duties of his son and allowed him to pass through his besieging army and enter the city.

After a few days the son exits the city to visit his father's army camp dressed in all the finery of his religious office -- which included celebratory displays of the military victories of his father. Malchus severely reprimands the son for not only insulting him by being a disobedient and disrespectful son, but for showing disrespect to the memory of the victorious but now exiled general (Malchus, himself) by wearing his clothes and honors in his place; and also, to top it all off, for insulting the starving, mourning, besieged people of Carthage as well as the exiled soldiers by the flaunting of the celebratory finery in the midst of the tragic civil conflict.

As punishment the furious Malchus orders him to be crucified, and so his son is nailed to a cross dressed "in all his finery" (as a victorious general or a priest? Or perhaps as both?) on a hill in order to ensure the people of Carthage could also directly witness the punishment. The siege ends a few days later (three perhaps?) when the city surrenders to Malchus. He enters and takes command and complains of what the people did to him. But he pardons them for the unjust exile. He does, however, send ten senators to their deaths.

The Link between Carthage and Christianity

So what is so interesting in all this, and how might the story coincide with what we call Christian belief of centuries later? It is very curious that many of the essential characteristics in the story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ can be found in the story of Malchus and his son:

  • A powerful father and a punished son.
  • A strong presence of religion throughout upon which the story hinges upon.
  • The son dressed in finery, presented to the people.
  • The specific nailing to a cross of the son on a hill within sight of a city.
  • A punishment/crucifixion of a son which assists in the pardoning or forgiving of the people: the son's crucifixion could be seen as a substitution for their collective punishment that the victorious general Malchus (the father) could have instead meted out to them in retribution for their exiling of him and his army.
  • An issue of kingship, (the name Malchus actually has the meaning 'king', and there is a later mention in the text that Malchus either made himself king or attempted to.)

Let us assume that this story arises from a real, significant event which transpired outside Carthage involving a powerful father (a general and perhaps the king?) and his son and the crucifixion of this son by order of the father. We can assume that down through the ages the story became inevitably distorted to some degree with some details erased, some added, and a few original details almost unrecognizable, but still there**. It seems likely that such a powerful and intriguing story would have spurred much curiosity about the son and the last days of his life, which would then in turn have inevitably spawned much imaginative elaboration and storytelling/myth-making to satiate the curiosity. Could this be the origin of the many 'gospels' of later times?

Could the people of Carthage who lived at the time of this major event (and those who lived during the subsequent centuries before extensive distortions had a chance to occur), have interpreted this event in a way that is strongly analogous with basic Christian myth and doctrine? Is it possible they practiced a religious festival or in some way celebrated this noteworthy and memorable event in order to renew strong religious feelings about it? Quite obviously there are reasons to think they would easily have interpreted and understood this crucified son as a savior--that his crucifixion saved their lives, saved them as a people and as a nation. They easily would have remembered (at least partly) the connection between his crucifixion and his honoring of his public/religious duty to carry-out a religious rite above his private/family duty to his father; and how that very choice to do so caused his father to vent his anger upon him rather than upon the people, and how thusly this son became literally their savior.

A strange detail perhaps supportive of the thesis that this ancient story is linked to what would later become Christianity can be found in the Christian Gospels themselves! During the struggle when Jesus is being arrested, Peter is armed and defends Jesus, and while doing so injures a servant of the high priest by slicing or cutting off one of his ears. The Gospel of John actually names him:

From KJV, John 18:10-11:

Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest's servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant's name was Malchus. Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the scabbard: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?

Jesus then performs his last miracle by healing Malchus's ear before being led away, eventually to be nailed to a cross.

It is intriguing to wonder if the gospel of Peter might contain a detail from an older tradition that ultimately stems from the Carthaginian story. It is easily imagined that there likely was a quickly-resolved struggle in the besieging army's camp when the father decided to seize the son and punish him with crucifixion. If such a short struggle did happen, Malchus himself could have been injured by someone attempting to protect the son. It would even be in keeping with the character of this son to stop the struggle and decide to accept his father's punishment as his duty. In any case, the coincidental presence of the name of Malchus at such a key and dramatic point in one of the gospel narratives is certainly noteworthy.

If this historical event is the seed from which would later grow the final fruit of Christianity's own crucifixion story, how could this have happened? We would need to prove the possibility of a continuity or link between ancient Carthage and the later people who called themselves Christians, and perhaps a continuity extending even later into the Middle Ages, when the theology of modern-day Christianity might have been formulated. Or, perhaps, when it's followers eradicated all other forms of "heretical" theological interpretations...

So, could it be that the city in question, the city of the original 'gospel' was not actually Jerusalem in Palestine, but Carthage in North Africa? The idea of an unbearably dutiful, earthly man who was a savior of his people, who had returned from a journey and who had been put to excruciating death by his own father, and thereby died in the place of a whole population, paying for their punishment through his own blood and death -- had origins far before the supposed time of "Jesus Christ"...

* Although Malchus in this story was a general, it is noteworthy that the word 'malchus' has the meaning of 'king'. Could it be this 'general' Malchus was a king of Carthage? Was he the first king, or at the very least a king of special significance? We cannot easily discount the possibility. On the other hand, it might be a mistake and the name of this general was not even Malchus; perhaps Pompieus Trogus mistranslated the original Punic, or it was already incorrect when he found the story in the Greek sources. Or perhaps the mistake lies with Justin, who certainly condensed much of the original text of Pompieus Trogus, omitting many details and more than likely introducing a few errors at the same time. We cannot ignore the fact, too, that the surviving fragments of Justin's work are copies of copies passed down through the European middle ages and much detail may have been lost or confused during that process. So was the title of king confused and reduced to become the name? We do not know, but the possibility is there.

Indeed, there is evidence that even Justin's late work as been tampered-with: there is a phrase auctoribus miserorum civium which doesn't seem to make sense.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Were Israelite Prophets analogous to Greek Orators?

This is from a post of Christopher Heard on his blog.
He blogs on the Western Commission for the Study of Religion (WECSOR) meeting at Claremont Graduate University.
In one of the sessions, Brad Kelle proposes "that the Greek political orators of the fourth century BCE—Brad drew most of his examples from Demosthenes—function in ways analogous to the socio-rhetorical functions of the "classical" Israelite prophets."

Brad did not convince Chris, but the comparison and possible analogy is certainly interesting.

Buddhist scrolls found dated to 1st and 5th centuries AD

Thanks to a post by Jim Davila on his PaleoJudaica blog.

These scrolls are rare manuscripts written on birch bark and were found in Afghanistan during the Taliban days. They were written in a language derived from Sanskrit. Mark Allon, a University of Sydney research fellow is in charge of translating the texts. According to Allon, "the Senior collection had been particularly important in correcting some chronological errors in Indian history."
(original news article is here)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Behind the Muslim Cartoon Protests

For about a month now, the US media has been following an international story about angry Muslim reactions in many countries to the publishing of some cartoons in Denmark that occurred months ago. There have been comments made by bloggers in the 'biblioblog sphere' too.

I disagree with the mainstream opinion on this. I am cynical and suspicious of the media coverage, which seems have the fingerprints of the Bush administration all over it. It's like a big overblown circus provoked and egged-on by western interests.
Why do I think this? For several reasons.

1) Everything we in the West see of current events must be passed through the filters of Western media conglomerates. Our knowledge and opinions are thereby controlled through a process of careful selection and manipulation. They decide what is newsworthy, what details will be provided (true or not), and how the stories are presented emotionally — as in the subtle interpretive 'spin' placed on the chosen events. [For example: If there are ten trouble-making hoodlums on a single street burning tires and waving burning American flags while the rest of the street (and even city), is filled with peaceful Muslims going about their usual business, the TV cameras will ONLY record the troublemakers, not the others on the same street who watch them disapprovingly. Likewise, the report will focus on the crackpot concerns of the troublemakers with little or no balancing weight given to the opinions of the hundreds, thousands or even millions of other Muslims who chose not to participate or disagree with the hoodlums. ]

2) The Western media conglomerates have proved themselves to be conciliatory, often unquestioning, and even sycophantic towards the Bush administration and its policies. All big US conglomerates are guilty of this, and even the majority of the British. A good proportion of mainstream Europeans, so I gather, disagrees with the Bush policies, but the European media is still, on the whole, surprisingly uncritical of the Bush government.

3) The Bush administration promotes the political paradigm of a 'War on Terror' which is simplified into an 'Us-vs-them' worldview, and it is further simplified and understood as being 'Christendom vs Islam'. The main target to be infected with this paradigm is the American public because they are the people who must accept the vast expenditure of their wealth on the war in Iraq, in Afghanistan, on Israeli 'security', and on ever more expensive and proliferating military and 'security-related' activities.

4) The more the Muslim world can be portrayed to the American taxpayer as 'dangerous', 'crazy', 'non-sensical', or just 'anti-American', the more support the Bush administration can expect to get for its policies. The more negative light that can be cast upon these 'enemies' and the more 'evil' the Muslim world looks to the people of America, then the more justified and necessary Bush's policies will appear.

We just need to "follow the money". Who would want to divide the world into "friendlies and bad-guys" and who benefits the most as it grows ever more violent and dangerous? Who would want to foment anger, and who would want to broadcast images of the most radical elements of an "enemy" society as they 'take-the-bait' in order to cast that entire society in a bad light?

Well, it sure seems a good possibility that the answer is: The guys who make the weapons, and their paid-for politician-goons who promote the use of them. They are who benefit from endless, escalating tensions, deepening divisions, and outright war.

The Globe and Mail has an interesting take on things.

The circulation of other images, not the 12 published in Denmark, was "the beginning of the whole catastrophe. The booklet of cartoons that the Danish imams took to Syria, Lebanon and Egypt contained images of the Prophet as a pig, a dog, a woman and a sodomizer — none of which had ever been published in a Danish paper (or any paper anywhere). Mr. Akkari, the leader of the delegation, showed these to me and told me that he'd included them because they'd been included in hate mail that he and his colleagues had been sent by right-wing extremists. He told me that he'd made it clear that the two sets of images were separate. But that was lost on the people who received the images, and on the larger population who heard fast-growing urban myths about them. Mr. Akkari told me that he had no idea of the reaction this would cause. I suspect he was partly naïve, but also somewhat disingenuous — obviously, the package was intended as a provocation of some sort, even if they couldn't have anticipated exactly what it would provoke."

I wonder who "Mr. Akkari" really is... ?

Friday, February 10, 2006

Historicity of Julius Caesar

In a recent exchange of emails on the biblical-studies mailing list (webpage here) Philip Davies says:

But is there primary evidence for Caesar. A bust or two (but I'm not
sure if they are contemporary). I read a book of the Gallic Wars when
at school. But they could be pseudonymous; someone else might have
conquered Gaul, I suppose. Anyway, I have yet to read anything that
Jesus wrote.

He was responding to another posting that attempted to equate the doubtful historicity of Jesus Christ with a supposed doubtful historicity of Julius Caesar. To compare the two is indeed an interesting exercise in discerning apples from oranges.
I cannot devote as much time to this as I'd like, (perhaps in another post). But the quick point I want to make right now is: A world of difference exists between the evidence for a historical Julius Caesar and that for "Jesus Christ".

The evidence (primary? we can't speak of much "primary evidence" for anything in the range of 2 thousand years old. Even the manuscripts are not the manuscripts but copies...), of a historical Julius Caesar consists of several extensive mentions by the historian Sallust, (86-34BC); a biography by another historian, Suetonius (c75-120AD) as well as one by Plutarch (46-127AD). Chapter after chapter by the historian Appian (c95-165AD) relate complex chains of events in which Julius Caesar was intimately involved. There are the many other critically important mentions too, for example in the works of Cicero, Dio Cassius, Livy, Lucan, Valerius Maximus, Vitruvius, Catullus...
What is the epic story of Pompey the Great without Julius Caesar? What gaping holes would there be in the stories of Cleopatra or Mark Antony without Julius Caesar? Or for that matter of Octavian, Cicero and Cato? So much of Roman history depends upon this one man he is like the centerpiece of its history...
In addition, we can find numerous inscriptions and monuments, statues and coins. There is not enough material to satisfy my appetite, (I am still hoping for textual material to be rescued from Herculaneum) but there is, undeniably, quite a bit of historical evidence that a man named Julius Caesar did indeed exist.

On the other hand, with the case of this Jesus fellow, we have a few obviously mythicized accounts that are, frankly, an astonishing mess. These gospels, if taken as a body of work to be used as a 'historical source', are full of factual errors and embarrassing contradictions, with some awed descriptions of petty street charlatan tricks thrown in, worshipful remembrances of "miracles" that smack of already extant and ancient mythical accounts of other gods, and so many intricate and twisted allusions to Jewish legend and prophecy that one begins to think that it is a bit overdone.

However, are there any accounts by men who might be considered historians? None are contemporary except one: Josephus. All except Josephus do not talk directly of Jesus but of "Chrestians" or followers of Chrestos, or just Christians, and the descriptions of these people are vague and undistinguished.
We are left with only Josephus, the turncoat Jewish general. There are two mentions in his works that read more as if they were written by medieval Christian monks than by a Jew living in the Roman empire of the first century. I am not impressed in the least by the Testimonium Flavianum. I cannot help but strongly suspect it is a wonderful example of an interpolation, and if it is the best historical evidence for this "Jesus Christ" that can be found, then there simply isn't any at all.
Sure: we've got tons of accumulated and venerated flotsam and jetsam piled neck-deep for us to wade through, but nearly all of it dates to centuries after the fact.

So I find it disappointing that any serious historical scholar or educated person interested in history would think for a moment that the historical existence of Julius Caesar is as questionable as is the historical existence of Jesus Christ. There really is no comparison in these two cases. On the one hand we have a living apple tree. On the other hand we have a thousand old, faded, grainy photographs of paintings and drawings (never the actual paintings or drawings, mind you) of a sliced orange.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Christian Gang in Guatemala

As reported in Canada. I wonder if they often asked themselves: 'What Would Jesus Do?'...?

"Their work started with delivering notes containing biblical quotations and threats."

see CBC News report here.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Phoenician link to the Jews

A recent post by Jim Davila on his award-winning blog PaleoJudaica is about a news article regarding an old inscription found on a New Mexico rock, (article here) ....

While the article has absolutely nothing to do with it directly, one of my pet theories is based on speculations regarding the Phoenicians and the Jews. The indirect link between the article and the 'pet theory' is where the article states that "The surface is carved with 216 characters that resemble Phoenician or old Hebrew."

From what I understand from reading in other places: Hebrew has its direct origins in the language of the Phoenicians — to the point that 'old Hebrew' and 'Phoenician' inscriptions are actually indistinguishable from each other.

Could anyone with more knowledge of the nuances of Hebrew language history tell me if this is true?


Thursday, January 26, 2006

Daniel C. Dennett's 'Common-Sense Religion'

You can find his article here. It is well worth the read, and has many interesting points and thoughts to ponder over.
A quote:

".... those who have an unquestioning faith in the correctness of the moral teachings of their religion are a problem: If they haven't conscientiously considered, on their own, whether their pastors or priests or rabbis or imams are worthy of such delegated authority over their lives, then they are taking a personally immoral stand.

That is perhaps the most shocking implication of my inquiry into the role religion plays in our lives, and I do not shrink from it, even though it may offend many who think of themselves as deeply moral. It is commonly supposed that it is entirely exemplary to adopt the moral teachings of one's own religion without question because — to put it simply — it is the word of God (as interpreted, always, by the specialists to whom one has delegated authority). I am urging, on the contrary, that anybody who professes that a particular point of moral conviction is not discussable, not debatable, not negotiable, simply because it is the word of God, or because the Bible says so, or because "that is what all Muslims (Hindus, Sikhs...) believe, and I am a Muslim (Hindu, Sikh...)" should be seen to be making it impossible for the rest of us to take their views seriously, excusing themselves from the moral conversation, inadvertently acknowledging that their own views are not conscientiously maintained and deserve no further hearing."
(from The Chronicle of Higher Education )

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

'Clergy Letter Project' reaches 10,000 signatures

The Project has reached the goal of gathering 10,000 clergy signatures. The next step is outlined here.

Michael Zimmerman writes: "For too long, the misperception that science and religion are inevitably in conflict has created unnecessary division and confusion, especially concerning the teaching of evolution. I wanted to let the public know that numerous clergy from most denominations have tremendous respect for evolutionary theory and have embraced it as a core component of human knowledge, fully harmonious with religious faith."
The Clergy Letter Project


Saturday, January 21, 2006

Difficult times lately

For the last several years my family has watched my father-in-law's health gradually deteriorate. He is 91 years old now. Up until about the age of 85, he was a very active man, attending baseball games with his many friends at least twice a week; driving his car all over creation; endlessly tinkering with his old, beat-up car every afternoon.

But he entered dialysis treatment the year he turned 85, and although he still drove and was active, being hooked-up to a machine for several hours, three times a week took its toll. And plus: he was old.
What really took him down however, was a fall which broke his hip in 2003. He recovered successfully to the point where he could walk and drive his car, again. This was terrific news. But if we were concerned about him driving at that age before, the concerns had only increased. Anyone who has been in a similar situation probably can tell you, it is not an easy thing to convince a determined American male that he should no longer drive his car!

One year later, he broke his other hip. This was bad enough on its own, but the day after this (now second) hip replacement operation, while still in the hospital, he fell out of bed and they needed to re-do the operation. Three hip operations in one year. This of course extended his hospital stay and led directly to the development of bed sores on his heels, which only led to an even longer stay. He was there about two months, I think.

Amazingly, he bounced back even from this fiasco. At least he no longer made overtures that he wanted to drive again. So we got rid of his old car. I began driving him and my mother-in-law to his dialysis treatments. She always goes with him now, and while he is in the center receiving his treatment she can 'talk story' with all her friends whose husbands are dialysis patients, too. They all look forward to seeing each other and for all intents and purposes, they form their own impromptu support group. If it were not for these people sharing their similar concerns with each other I wonder if my mother-in-law might have had a mental or emotional break-down.

In the last year he has had a bout with pneumonia, broke his arm(!) once, and fell (or rather slid off his wheelchair) and as his wife struggle to get him back up, he bruised his knee. Each separate incident initiating another hospital visit, if not a hospital stay.

He can hardly walk, now. Since my in-laws live on the second floor of an apartment building and there is no elevator, he therefore needs assistance to go anywhere, which I end-up providing. Circumstances have led me to being rather well-experienced at manipulating a wheelchair up-and-down stairs, through doorways and across rough uneven pavements, curbs and sidewalks. (The world seems remarkably easy to manuver in until you are in a chair that has very small wheels in front!)

But, of all things, it is the pulling- up and the easing-down on those stairs that demands the most acute attention from the wheel-chair, uh, 'driver'. It is not as physically demanding as it surely appears to anyone watching, because he is not very heavy anymore. (And btw, I don't mind the exertion since I need the exercise!) So it is more of a delicate balancing act than a feat of strength. One break in my concentration, and we both could easily go tumbling down end-over-end (and take anyone 'downstream' with us). Not a pleasant thought. I can walk and chew gum at the same time (yes, I tried it to make sure), but if I try to talk while easing a wheelchair with a 100lb man in it down a flight of stairs, step-by step, I have had my share of 'scares'. I might be an extreme 'minimalist' but at the moment before a stair-encounter, I say a little prayer to the powers-that-be!

My mother-in-law now devotes her life to caring for him, and the task is considerable. She is not young herself, and trying to keep track of his numerous medications, her own, and the thrice weekly morning preparations for the trips to the dialysis treatments all take their toll on her. He wakes up at all hours of the night and wants to talk about nonsense. Last night it was about 'saltwater' and 'fixing the pipes' for the neighbors dowstairs... From 2am until 4am. Lack of sleep adds to her stress.

A couple of weeks ago, the option of hospice care was broached by his doctor. In his condition as a dialysis patient, he can be expected to last about a week without dialysis treatments, so the decision cannot be taken lightly. In his age and condition, it would probably be shorter than a week. So, to put it bluntly: hospice is a death sentence. But my mother-in-law is at her wit's end. She's tired. We have to be very concerned about her health. A nursing home is, for various reasons, out of the picture. And, my father-in-law is very, very tired. He has in the past expressed such sentiments as, "What a life! I am useless. Good for nothing!" etc. That was years ago.

The other day when I asked him about what he thought of hospice (after describing what it was and what would happen to him — and believe me: it is a difficult thing to look someone in the eye and basically tell them "This course of action that we are discussing will lead to you dying..."; it is probably one of the most difficult things in life to do), he actually took my hand and his wife's hand and said "I have been here long enough."

In the end, the decision is for his wife to make. So I don't worry over it. I watch and do what I can to help. I love these people very much. But I can't help but think to myself (I can't speak for him, but he probably would agree with the thought): I would not want to die while hooked-up to a blood-cleaning machine in some cold dialysis room... None of us really has the power to choose how or when or where we die, and perhaps none of that really matters nearly as much as how we conducted ourselves in our daily lives.

...This doesn't have much to do with historical biblical studies — or ancient espionage, for that matter, (something I still have not blogged about, come to think of it) — but I wanted to post something and this is what has been on my mind for quite some time...

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Happy Birthday!

Is Jim West's Blog the only one I read on a regular basis? It isn't true, (I do read other blogs and assorted things on the internet, some quite regularly) but one might easily think it is because of all the references I make to his blog!

Anyway. According to Jim West, today, January 7, is Thomas Thompson's birthday.

Happy Birthday to you, Professor!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Prove Jesus Christ Exists!

Jim West recently blogged on a rather amusing development in the legal realm. (Or would it be in the historical realm? Or in the theological realm?)

A Catholic priest has been ordered by an Italian court to prove that Christ exists.

A longer news article on this development
is here.


Monday, January 02, 2006

Brainpoo has been flushed

Gone. Nada. No more. Wiped.
And yet... Cleansed, it lives on, resurrected in a new and better form. (And all Brainpoo posts are saved and still available, too.)

The alert was sounded on Jim West's blog that Chris Tilling's blog has a new name and URL:

I liked the name "Brainpoo" actually. But Chris intends (and I look forward to seeing him succeed, as I am sure he will) to blog interviews with noted scholars in his area: the city of Tübingen, a city justly famous in the field of biblical scholarship. Perhaps he felt the degree of cooperation or serious consideration he can expect to receive might possibly be hampered somewhat if the blog-name of "Brainpoo" chanced to arise in discussion.



Sunday, January 01, 2006

Forgiveness vs Justice

Metta Spencer has written a thoughtful post, in response to a recent ongoing (?) discussion on Jim West's Biblical Studies mailing list. The discussion was about Forgiveness vs. Justice.

My thoughts: The power of forgiveness to heal and rejuvenate, and perhaps even to create anew what did not exist before, is probably always underestimated. And, it is well worth thinking about forgiveness, and perhaps how seldom it is that we or the world around us forgives when the opportunity or need arises.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Secondhand Lions

I just watched a movie called "Secondhand Lions". (2003, info, Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Haley Joel Osment) I highly recommend it; the movie is very warm, funny and well executed. Not perfect, but still a good movie. There are some great lines that made me immediately think of the primary religious questions I personally wrestle with: 'What are my religious beliefs?' and 'Why do I have them?'

"Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love... true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn't matter if it's true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in."

These are so very similar to the ideas I consider to be the heart and soul of Christianity. Honor, courage and virtue are all-important, (self-sacrifice needs all three, in my opinion.) Money and power are not. Good triumphs over evil. And love is the center — the reason — for everything.

But, what about the other things, such as 'The virgin birth?'... Well, it's interesting, but not really too important. It is not relevant to the concerns of my everyday life, anyway.
'Is there a hell, or is everyone going to heaven?' ... Pah! I know a few people I like to imagine burning in eternal damnation. (Politicians, mostly.) But in the grand scheme of things, I (try to) concern myself mainly with my own personal business and how I live each moment of my day.
How about other things, such as 'Original Sin?', or the 'Transcendance of God?' etc? We could go on and on...
Well, yes, these are all fascinating questions. And they are important no doubt, each in their own way. I do think about them and wonder about them and I read and study specifically to learn more about what others have said about these things.
But aren't they tangential to the heart and soul of what makes Christianity so meaningful, and so powerful and so valuable?

Shouldn't we always go back to the more basic, core 'things a man needs to believe in the most' — those far more simple and eternal truths — because they are: the things worth believing in?

Anyway, some wonderful moments and lines are in "Secondhand Lions".
It's worth renting and watching.

Interesting paper on Universalism

Thanks to Rob Bradshaw, who links to a very informative paper by Richard Bauckham on the history of Universalism, which is located online here.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Gettin' Funky with those Statistics?

Interesting use of statistics and spin (I found mention of this article at Michael Pahl's blog; my thoughts are what follows) here: in an article on the "Christianpost.com" website entitled "Ivy League Schools See Rise in Evangelical Students".

From the article:
"More Evangelicals are attending Ivy League universities where spiritual interest is growing more than ever..."

That sounds interesting.

"....there are more Evangelicals going to places like Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, than there were in the past."

Okay. But (Devil's advocate, me...!) if there is only one more "Evangelical" at Harvard today than there was in 1990, we indeed have a true statement. When reading between the lines like this, I don't find much that is awe-inspiring. We haven't much impressive data to chew on so far.

"The number of students involved with Campus Crusade for Christ rose 163 percent over the past 20 years at Brown University."

Wow. 163 percent! Very impressive. But, hey... Wait a second. So, we are talking about an increase, which occurred 'over the past 20 years'? A twenty-year time-span is an awfully long time. If we had an increase like this over let's say, the last 5 years, we would be talking about something different. But over 20 years?

"At Harvard, participation has grown more than 500 percent and 700 percent at Yale."

Again, things sound impressive, at first glance. And yet, it appears we are talking about another 20-year-span again. Even if Yale had 1
"Evangelical" in 1990, and now they have 5 (or 6?), we could say there was a "500 percent" increase. Ho-hum. Not much to see here. Moving along.

Finally, there is a paragraph that includes comparisons between
member campuses of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), and all public four-year campuses, all independent four-year campuses, and all independent religious four-year campuses.
But here again, we have a fourteen-year-time span. In 14 years many other cultural, socialogical, economic, or what have you, issues can come into play and explain these changes. I can't help but feel some suspicion.

Where's more of the raw data? (Where are some actual numbers?) Where is a graph that displays for us what happened throughout this impressive and sunny twenty-year-period? (Or the rosey fourteen-year-period?) The complete lack of such data indicates to me the distinct possibility that during more recent years there might have been a decrease, because if the numbers had been increasing, this information would have been — almost undoubtedly — shown to us; probably trumpeted, even!

The fact that the author(/s) need to reach back twenty or fourteen years, and then all data for the intervening years is omitted too, raises other questions.
I begin to wonder: Why? Why is there a need to write about this in this way? Could it be that the recent trend is actually negative? ...perhaps so negative that someone feels the need to take advantage of the last opportunity to put a positive spin on the data before the most up-to-date numbers fall below where the numbers from twenty years ago?

Honestly, I don't want to be so cynical. But after these last 5 years I can't help it.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas!

With all my heart, I would like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas, and for those who do not celebrate Christmas, then I wish you a Happy Holiday Season!

Perhaps my posts and the somewhat(!) 'minimal' position of my views might mislead the reader to assume that I am not Christian, or perhaps have a 'chip on my shoulder' in regards to Judaism or Christianity or even religion itself. I, in fact, have a deep respect for religion and its place in human life.

To me, both Judaism and Christianity are worthy traditions that give great value to humanity each and every day. Religions of such age and resiliency exist because people benefit from them. They can give meaning and a strength exactly at those times in life when it is the hardest to find; they are able to provide that 'something' (and I don't really know exactly what it is...) that so many human beings greatly need. Of course, these religions and the 'wealth' they provide can also be turned in negative directions, and be used for nefarious purposes, too. But that is another story, for another post...

I believe that human beings are capable of wondrous and truly good and beautiful things, but they are not so by default. And I also think the religions and ideas therein that our ancestors have passed down to us were passed down for good reason: they found a special value in them. The ideas and traditions and stories that they passed down to us helped them to be better — helped them to rise above 'the default'. I also can feel very cynical at times, and regard religions as places of stagnating power structures that serve to sustain negative and ultimately selfish thought paradigms. But I strongly feel that 'the baby should not be thrown-out with the bathwater.'

In Christianity, I think the special values/beliefs (the 'baby') our ancestors found consisted of: forgiveness; love; a caring for the poor; self-sacrifice; a universal inclusiveness; an optimism that good triumphs over evil; a conviction that mankind is special in the eyes of the universe — each and every human individual; and that the universe is ultimately kind and loving and forgiving.
These values are not always followed, of course: at times even Christians are too ready to throw out the baby and keep the bathwater. But the lasting, precious values that our ancestors cherished so much are still there to be found. We should educate ourselves in order to be able to find and keep the baby, and get rid of the bathwater. That is what I hope to do in my studying, and why I seek to understand as clearly as I can the Bible and discover its true history.

Btw, Joe Cathey, and Jim West, I wish the best to both of you and the same to everyone all across the dreaded Minimalist-Maximalist spectrum. I hope we all can be willing to find the 'baby' (whether it be cooing sweetly or in a raving temper-tantrum, it's still a baby that might grow up and save your b*tt, right?) in each other, and also be willing to recognize the 'bathwater' in ourselves. (I know, that is hopelessly corny, but hopefully you know what I am trying to say...)

Happy Holidays to all,


Thursday, December 22, 2005

'criterion of dissimilarity'

On his blog, Jim West (here) pointed to a email roundtable discussion found on the Slate website - here.

The first email in this discussion was by Alan Segal and he raised a point that I have an issue with: this 'criterion of dissimilarity' and its usage here.

"One criterion is that the story has to have a context in Judaism, as Jesus was born and died a Jew. Another criterion is that multiple sources in the early New Testament must attest to the story. But the most important arrow in the scholarly quiver has been and remains "the criterion of dissimilarity." The criterion sets a high standard: For scholars to arrive at an undoubted fact about the life of Jesus, they must eliminate as possibly biased everything that is in the interest of the early church to tell us. Conversely, for a fact about Jesus to be deemed historical, it must not be in the interest of the church to report it. It must be, in effect, an embarrassment for the early church. Thus, the criterion of dissimilarity is sometimes called the criterion of embarrassment."
.... and ....
"For all the rigor of the standard it sets, the criterion demonstrates that Jesus existed."

Well. Hmmm... I can't help but disagree with this conclusion.
The "criterion of dissimilarity", it seems to me, can only demonstrate that the story of Jesus, as passed down to us, includes details that were probably embarrassing to the early Church. It really does nothing more than this, because it is not able to do anything more. Is it not limited to stating that we indeed, have a story with some embarrassing details?

(If I am missing something crucial here, please let me know, because of course, it is very possible...) But it seems to me that making assumptions about the gospel story in general, based on the 'criterion of dissimilarity', such as making the statement that "the criterion demonstrates that Jesus existed" seems quite a stretch.
First of all, we have to take into account: just because a detail must have been embarrassing, does not make the detail true. When faced with the existence of such a detail, all we can safely say is that the Church was unable to successfully combat it, eradicate it, or expunge it — but whether it is 'true' or an accurate 'fact', we still cannot say for certain.
Any one of these 'embarrassing' details has survived to this day almost certainly because of other, quite straightforward reasons. One possibility is that the traditions surrounding each of these enduring embarrassments were too strong; the Church had met too much resistence whenever it tried to eradicate them. Another possibility, (perhaps more likely than the first), is that the structure of extant religious tradition was too dependent upon these particular details. The removal of even one of these offending story-features would too drastically effect the overall structure and require far too much re-working and re-interpretation, so the embarrassing details have been reluctantly tolerated.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Obedience and a historical reason for why.

One of the major themes of the Old Testament is the demand for the followers of Yahweh to be obedient to him, above all else. They were told, in no uncertain terms, to be obedient to Yahweh and all his demands, no matter how horrifyingly destructive or cruel, no matter how non-sensical or counterintuitive they might be. Throughout the texts, unquestioning obedience is demanded.

One then must ask: how would one know if one is being obedient to Yahweh? In the stories of David vs Saul, we find Saul doing what he thinks is right, as far as he can discern. He is listening to his heart and doing the things that it tells him are right. And yet, it is this very point that displeases Yahweh. What is 'right' is not what matters. Yahweh demands obedience to him, Yahweh, and 'right' or 'good' does not enter the picture. Saul is not to trust his own mind, nor his own heart. His personal understanding or concepts of 'right' have no importance. So, from where is Saul supposed to hear the voice of Yahweh so that he can be obedient to it? ...Samuel.

But Samuel no longer is alive. How are we, the readers, and how was the originally intended audience for these texts to find their Samuel — the voice of Yahweh? For, like Saul, we are not to listen to our own mind or heart. Yahweh would be displeased with that. We must find our Samuel. But, who exactly is our Samuel? How do we know which Samuel to follow, for there will be many opportunistic con-artists jumping out of the woodwork eager to lead those of us seeking Yahweh's voice — seeking our Samuel. These false-prophets will not refuse to make all our decisions for us and manage our lives and our pocketbooks for their own benefit. How are we to discern such 'false-Samuels' from the one true voice of Yahweh?

The original audience of these texts had an answer. The text would not have been written as it was unless there was a clear answer. Obviously, whoever was writing the text claimed to be that voice of Yahweh. The texts, with this theme of total obedience to Yahweh, was a political power-grab by those who could make a claim to be 'Samuel' for their generation. What are the Old Testament texts as we know them but a clear body of evidence that an emerging political force was staking their claim to power, and laying the foundations for a nation under their control.

From The Mythic Past, p.294:
"The Hebrew Bible that we know underwent a considerable revision some time after the rededication of the Jerusalem temple in 164 BCE. .... This theology has its first secure context in the intellectually charged movement of nationalism that followed the Maccabean revolt, and that centred itself on the traditions around the temple at some time after this rededication."

It is interesting that Thompson also says (same page, but in an earlier paragraph):
"It implies that the author of II Maccabees knows of no stable collection of written tradition that survived the Maccabean wars intact. In this chapter of II Maccabees, [II Maccabees 4] dedicated to a recounting of the survival of tradition past, neither the traditions of Ezra's law-giving nor that of Nehemiah's library are any longer accessible. Only Judas Maccabee's efforts preserved what is now seen as a fragmented past. In itself, this text offers us a serious argument against understanding the final formation of the Bible much earlier than the end of the second century BCE. This is the appropriate date for the original text that II Maccabees claims to epitomize. Perhaps, our Bible should not be dated before some time in the first century BCE, when II Maccabees itself seems to have been written. Its writer, at least knows no such Bible."

The OT text was compiled for a specific group of people, and it very much appears that this act occurred far more recently than we have been led to believe. It was done with a specific political intent; making the demand for unquestioning obedience is an explicity political act, whether couched in 'religious' terminology or not. What we hear in these texts is the voice of those who were claiming absolute power over a targeted group of people. Someone or some group was making their claim to being the voice of God, to being Samuel, in order to seize power or consolidate their claim to it.