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27 Apr 18:42

Musings from the mind of a mouse

by PZ Myers
Casey Luskin is such a great gift to the scientific community. The public spokesman for the Discovery Institute has a law degree and a Masters degree (in Science! Earth Science, that is) and thinks he is qualified to analyze papers in genetics and molecular biology, fields in which he hasn’t the slightest smattering of background, and he keeps falling flat on his face. It’s hilarious! The Discovery Institute is so hard up for competent talent, though, that they keep letting him make a spectacle of his ignorance. I really, really hope Luskin lives a long time and keeps his job as a frontman for Intelligent Design creationism. He just makes me so happy. His latest tirade is inspired by the New York Times, which ran an article on highlights from the coelacanth genome. Luskin doesn’t think very deeply, so he keeps making these arguments that he thinks are terribly damaging to evolution because he doesn’t comprehend the significance of what he’s saying. For instance, he sneers at the fact that we keep finding conserved elements in the genome, because as we all know, there are lots of conserved elements. Hox genes are known to be widely conserved among vertebrates, so the fact that homology was found between Hox-gene-associated DNA across these organisms isn’t very surprising. Stop, Casey, and think. Here’s this fascinating observation, that we keep finding conserved genes and conserved regulatory regions between mice and fish, which ought to tell you something, and your argument against a specific example is that it isn’t rare? It really tells you something when your critics’ rebuttal to a piece of evidence is that you’ve got so much evidence for your position that they’re tuning out whenever you talk about the detais. This is Luskin’s approach to every example given in the NY Times article: ‘Yeah? So? There are homologous genes all over the place!’ I think Luskin might...
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27 Apr 18:40

Christian Student Responds to Criticism of Her Open Letter to the Anti-Gay Church

by Hemant Mehta

A few weeks ago, college student Dannika Nash wrote an “open letter to the church from my generation” that has since gone viral (the post has nearly 3,000 comments). The gist of it was that the Christian church is pushing young people away due to the way the institution treats gay people. She wrote:

I’m saying this: we cannot keep pitting the church against humanity, or progress… my generation, the generation that can smell bullshit, especially holy bullshit, from a mile away, will not stick around to see the church fight gay marriage against our better judgment. It’s my generation who is overwhelmingly supporting marriage equality, and Church, as a young person and as a theologian, it is not in your best interest to give them that ultimatum.

Powerful stuff. So powerful, in fact, that the Christian summer camp she was scheduled to work at fired her, presumably for letting the world know how the church was disappointing her.

Dannika Nash (Jay Pickthorn – Argus Leader)

Yesterday, Michael Brown, a Christian author and radio show host, responded to Dannika in an open letter of his own, published at Charisma. The whole thing was just dripping with condescension (“Dear College Kid”) and phrases that were very holier-than-thou (“You can call this ‘BS’ or even ‘holy BS,’ but I call it beautiful truth…”):

I’m glad America is becoming a safer place for kids who identify as gay. No one should be bullied for being different. Period. But that doesn’t mean we make marriage genderless or celebrate homosexuality. That doesn’t mean we suddenly discover new ways to change the meaning of the Bible. And when Macklemore says, “It’s human rights for everybody,” just remember that gays are not the only ones who want to redefine marriage. Do you really stand for marriage equality for all?

To be totally candid with you, I always listen to young people and ask for their insights, and I’m sure that your generation cares a lot about fairness and justice and equality. But could it be that my generation is not totally ignorant about these things? Could there be a reason that one of the Ten Commandments says, “Honor your father and your mother” — or is that outmoded now too? Is there no wisdom we can impart to you about marriage and family and gender?

Yes, my generation has made a mess of marriage with all our no-fault divorces and all the scandals with our famous preachers and all the pornography in the church, but we messed things up because we didn’t hold on to God’s Word and to the foundations of marriage ourselves. Now you want to change those foundations? You will live to regret it, I’m sure.

I was so angry when I read Brown’s letter. What arrogance on his part to think that, because he was older, he was automatically wiser. What gall to write about a little girl who testified before a state legislature in opposition of gay rights by saying, in part, “Which parent do I not need, my mom or my dad?” (Apparently, no one thought to ask the little girl which dad or mom in a same-sex couple ought to be discarded.)

I was ready to respond to the entire letter myself when I realized there was someone who could do a much better job: Dannika.

I asked her what she would say to Brown and her response, much like her original posting, was much more kind and generous than anything I would have written. While I was ready to tear him down, her inclination was anything but that.

With Dannika’s permission, her response is posted below.

Keep in mind that she’s Christian, and she doesn’t shy away from using language and suggesting ideas that might be questionable to a lot of us. But I wouldn’t read it in that context. It’s a letter from one Christian (who’s on the right side of this issue) to another (who just doesn’t get it).

I would like to address what I think is a misunderstanding of what I am trying to say with my Open Letter. I first want to state that I appreciate Dr. Brown’s contribution to the respectful dialogue that is beginning to finally surround this issue.

Dr. Brown responded to my letter by first pointing out that I, in fact, do not speak for my entire generation. This is most definitely true — I absolutely do not, and I would never claim to. I am more than aware of the huge portion of my generation that is quite conservative on most things. I am speaking from my own part, those who want to see the country give equal rights to homosexuals. He said:

And the young people I know actually have a very different perspective than yours: They love Jesus, they love their churches, they love their gay friends, and they don’t feel any conflict over it. In fact, they believe that by loving Jesus and by being part of a loving church, they can be the best possible friends to other LGBT young people.

That is actually a beautiful few sentences to my aching heart. I wish more than anything to be one that does not feel exposed to this tension. I commend those young people who have looked past the hatred that I have seen and learned to love in earnest those whom the church has not always known how to include. He says:

And these young people don’t believe they need to reinterpret or rewrite the Bible in order to love other gay kids. Do you think that could be a possibility?

Yes, Dr. Brown, I do, and again I am happy to hear that there is not a conflict in the minds of young people between loving gay individuals and reading the Bible. I feel exactly the same way.

Are they entitled to have a different point of view? Will you be tolerant toward them when they don’t agree with your perspective, or is conformity to the new perspective the only thing that’s acceptable? And if some of them whom I know personally have found something better than being gay, will you reject them or mock them or cast them out?

If you will allow me to be personal for a moment, this one hurt a lot. I live in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. My entire family and almost all of my friends are completely conservative on this issue and mostly disagree with me. If I “reject them,” “mock them,” and “cast them out,” I will be left with very little community. Since you do not know me personally, I will fill you in on my own personal mission (and give you the benefit of the doubt that it is yours as well, for I do not know you personally, either). I am absolutely campaigning for love. Love for gay people, love for Chick-fil-A people, love for liberals, and love for conservatives. REAL, understanding, I-want-to-hug-you-and-buy-you-good-Christmas-gifts love. Go-camping-together-and-canoe love. I am absolutely not making an attempt to overhaul the church so that everyone must believe what I believe. I simply want a little space at the table for my end of the spectrum, the end that has been pushed to the fringes and viewed as wild-eyed liberals that “reinterpret” and “rewrite” the Bible. I want dialogue and conversation that is open and questioning and biblical. You are contributing to this conversation with your blog post, and I am thankful for that.

By the way, I’d love a little clarification on what it means to “reinterpret” the Bible? To interpret it in a different way than our fathers and mothers? Which fathers and mothers? Luther? Calvin? Augustine? The Pope? Mark Driscoll? John Piper? Rob Bell? Respectfully, Dr. Brown, to read the Bible is to interpret it. And again, I am more than overjoyed that the young people in your life are interpreting in a way that includes homosexuals. This is exactly my goal.

Respectfully, I am not using Macklemore as the “new gospel.” They are simply entertainment that I think sometimes reflects the love of Christ. All truth is God’s truth, right? I am using what I understand with my most honest and earnest theological and biblical efforts to be the actual gospel — a gospel of love, inclusion, and the big picture. I suspect that we read the Bible differently, and I think that’s absolutely okay. I think there should be room at the Church’s communion table for your interpretations and for mine. Please welcome my friends that feel that they are gay and cannot change, as we welcome yours who are gay and have changed. I am honestly pledging to do my best to see things from your perspective, to understand your biblical interpretations honestly, and to love in spite of our differences.

Maybe you’ve just bought into the latest social fad without thinking through the implications for the young people who will come after you?

Again, no. I can promise you that this is an honest theological process. Like I stated in my blog, I do not think the church should jump on the culture bandwagon for just anything that catches our eye. Let’s process this together as a church.

So Dr. Brown, as far as your deal to follow Jesus, I will absolutely agree to it. I think we may need to have a conversation about some Scriptural problems that are not black and white, but let’s decide together, and if we do not agree at the end, let’s sit back down at the communion table next to each other and let’s eat.

Michael Brown, the ball is back in your court.

27 Apr 18:38

A Very Old Worm

by eyeonicr

The Great 2013 Catch-upIn Ancient Fossil Looks Like Today’s Acorn Worms (8 April 2013) Brian Thomas makes a living fossil claim – sort of. “Acorn worms” are more formally known as “enteropneusts,” which is a taxonomical class containing four families and around 90 living species. The rediscovery of a collection of old finds from the Burgess Shale apparently pushes the age of the earliest acorn worms back 200 million years to around 500 million years ago, i.e. the Cambrian explosion.

Thomas says:

Christopher Cameron currently studies at the Université de Montréal and co-authored the Nature report. He told National Geographic, “One of the things that blew my mind about this thing is that most animals in the Burgess Shale look nothing like modern-day animals, but this is so clearly an acorn worm. Except for losing the tube, the animal is virtually unchanged in 505 million years.” [link]

Acorn wormGiven that we’re talking about a fossilised worm here (how many points of comparison have you got?) and the wide target that falling into a known taxonomical class presents I can’t say I’m hugely surprised. There is a difference, however: these ancient worms have “tubes,” as do the close modern relatives of acorn worms, the pterobranchs, but living acorn worms lack them.

This presents a new aspect – as Thomas says:

Enteropneusts look similar to modern animals called “pterobranchs,” which inhabit tiny tubes, while enteropneusts do not. The study authors entertain the idea that the Cambrian enteropneusts with tubes might have been evolving from enteropneusts into pterobranchs. The National Geographic coverage sensationalized this idea by proclaiming the tubed acorn worms as bona fide “Missing Links.”

This sounds like a great time to link to Oliver Knevitt’s list of the “Top 5 Most Irritating Terms In Evolution Reporting,” though you should really have already seen it by now. Both “Missing Link” and “Living Fossil” feature prominently, with good reason. If nothing else, calling this fossil a missing link vastly oversimplifies the situation. Thomas claims:

But the Nature report was much more cautious—so cautious that the “Link” could just as well have been no link at all. The study authors wrote, “Whether S. tenuis represents a stem-group harrimaniid [an enteropneust worm family], a stem-group pterobranch, or a stem-group of pterobranch plus harrimaniid, or even a stem group hemichordate, is not certain.” In other words, nobody quite knows what acorn worms may have evolved from or into.

The study authors may be unsure of exactly how the fossil relates to the two groups, but just prior to Thomas’ quote they do assert that their study “provides direct evidence for a link between harrimaniids and pterobranchs.” Despite this, Thomas goes from claiming that the link “could just as well have been no link at all” to, in the very next paragraph, saying that there is “no discernible evolutionary link whatsoever.”

[...] In fact, the most straightforward explanation is that they went extinct, while their non-tube-forming relatives simply survived.

The assertion that this is “the most straightforward explanation” is worth a little examination. If you knew nothing about the evidence for evolution and were presented with this this single example (or any one other) in isolation then such a dismissal would indeed be the simplest explanation. But once you start piling the examples on, adding more and more, then in that context a dismissal as no longer the option that satisfies Occam’s razor.

Back to the living fossil angle: there are numerous reasons why the designation of “living fossil” is silly, especially when what we’re talking about is a worm. The explanation favoured by the researchers seems to be that the fossil is an acorn worm, but one that is ancestral to the pterobranchs. Let’s take a very different interpretation as an example, however: suppose that the tubed acorn worms evolved into modern tube-less acorn worms.

The creationists would likely be quick to claim that this would be devolution, not evolution, but there’s more to it than that. The tube isn’t part of the worm’s body, and any overt morphological differences related to it’s existence (glands for its secretion, for example) don’t seem to have survived. The tube, however, represents much more than just something that the worm creates: it would have to be an important factor in its behaviour as well. Losing the tube would involve more than just the loss of this feature and associated behaviour – it would require the creation of replacement behaviour as well. This evolution would not be preserved in the fossil record, and would not be evident in comparing the fossils with the modern creature. But it would still have had to happen.

The tube-loss scenario doesn’t seem to be the correct explanation, but the idea that there will be features that can evolve – behaviour, metabolism, genetics etc – that will not be examinable through looking at fossils remains. A fossil like this one may look very similar to its living counterparts, but there’s plenty of potential for change under the hood. Thomas says:

Can evolution try to explain fossils of creatures that went “virtually unchanged” for hundreds of millions of supposed years? Yes it can, but not without imaginative stories to address the question of why mutations and natural selection were somehow absent over the vast time scales the stories require.

But as we can only look at morphology we have no reason to say that “mutations and natural selection” must have been absent, because we don’t know that there hasn’t been changes of the variety we can’t detect.

Thomas concludes:

Can biblical creation explain these fossils? Yes it can, and without the added stories. Erasing the millions of years dogma also erases the unchanged body form problem. Noah’s Flood buried ancient sea-floor creatures early in its destructive year, and although most of those delicate animals died forever, a few acorn worms survived the Flood and live today.

Such a warm, fuzzy story… oh, wait, that’s just terrible.

Filed under: Daily (pseudo)Science Updates, Great 2013 catch-up Tagged: Acorn worms, Brian Thomas, Creationism, Evolution, ICR, Living Fossils, Missing Link, pterobranchs, Science, Skeptic, Skepticism, Worms
27 Apr 14:43

Series: God and Creation

by David Opderbeck

This series is drawn from David’s podcasts, which are available on his website.

If we want to talk about God, creation, and science, where should we start? It’s easy to begin with conflict. We can claim that the rise of modern science is the root of cultural decline. We can dive right into some of the contentious questions about how the Bible and science relate to each other. We can adopt a posture of defensiveness about what Christians believe and the ways in which some people think science threatens our beliefs.

But this is not a good place to start. The place to start is the place where all good Christian theology must start: with God.

“In the beginning, God….” These are the first words of the Bible. “I believe in God….” These are the first words of the Apostle’s Creed. If we want to develop wisdom and understanding about the relation between God and creation, then we need to start with the source of everything: God.

But how do we know anything about God? And how can we say anything about God? As we go about our daily lives, we can’t converse with God in exactly the same way that we might talk with our families, friends or neighbors. We can’t touch or smell God like a patch of green grass or taste Him like an apple. We can’t see him like an image on our TV screens. In theological terms, there is a sense in which God is “hidden” to our human senses. Many great Christian thinkers, such as Martin Luther, spent a good part of their lives reflecting on the “hiddenness” of God.

It may surprise you to hear God described as “hidden.” Those of us who have been in the Church for a while often are much more familiar with talk of how God has revealed Himself to us. We seem to gravitate towards detailed and systematic explanations of what we think we can know about God. God has, of course, revealed Himself to us – or else there would be very little point in trying to speak about Him. In scripture, in the proclamation of the Church, in the created world, and most importantly, in Jesus Christ, God has made Himself known. So why start with how God is “hidden?”

The very fact that God cannot be directly perceived by our ordinary human senses tells us something important about God and creation. God is “hidden” because He is “other.” God is not a patch of grass, and a patch of grass is not God. God is not an apple, and an apple is not God. God is not a television image or painting or statute, and a television image, painting or statute is not God. God is not a human being, and human beings are not God. God is not matter, the stuff of the created world, and matter is not God.

In theological terms, God is transcendent. “God” and “creation” are not the same thing. This is a basic idea that distinguishes Christian understandings of God from many other philosophies and religions. In fact, this emphasis on God’s transcendence is one important difference between the Hebrew and Christian theologies of creation and the prevailing ideas in the ancient near eastern world of the Biblical writers. It also distinguishes Christian thinking about God and creation from some of the important ideas that are common today.

In many ancient near eastern creation myths, the material creation was derived from the body of a god. In the Babylonian Enuma Elish, for example, the female god Tiamat is killed by another god, Marduk, and the two halves of Tiamat’s corpse become the earth and the skies. In Egyptian mythology, many of the gods were related to material entities. Ra, for example, was the god of the Sun, Nut was god of the sky, and Geb was god of the earth. These stories reflect an ontology in which there is no sharp distinction between the gods and the material world. The Biblical literature, in contrast, separates the nature and being of the creator-God from the nature and being of His creation.

In contemporary popular Western culture, two of the most common ideas about God and creation really are very old notions dressed up in new clothes.

One is a thought you might hearon TV talk shows, in self-help books, or in popular music or movies: that “everything is one” or that “God is in everything and everyone.” This usually sounds like “pantheism” — the notion that God and the world around us really are essentially the same thing. In American popular culture, this often boils down to God becoming the same thing as our own individual selves. How often have you heard a line like this in a song or TV show or movie: “what you’ve been looking for has been right inside yourself all along” or “the most important thing is to find out who you are?

The truth of God’s transcendence means that the real basis for a meaningful and good life lies outside of our selves. We are part of creation, and therefore we are not God. We must look outside ourselves to find the source of life. Before we become too critical here, we need to preview for a moment another important theme in Christian theology: that God is also immanent. It is true that creation is an interconnected system and that God is always present throughout all of creation. It is also true that in our created humanity we are made for an intimate connection with God. It is right to look into ourselves as we seek God. As Augustine described in his Confessions, an honest search of the self should reveal a nature that is not self-sufficient, that is not meant to be alone, that longs for relationship with a beauty and harmony and love that the individual self cannot sustain. Augustine called this a “God-shaped void” at the heart of every person.

Yet we also need to be clear that, while the search may begin within our selves, it must not stop there. God is “other,” so we must continue beyond ourselves, in fact beyond everything we think we see, in order to find Him. And the paradox here is that we can only find the true meaning and purpose of our own selves by going beyond ourselves and finding the God who is other than us and who made us.

The other idea often expressed in our popular culture is that “matter is all there is.” Unfortunately, for some people this idea has become the standard for supposedly “scientific” thinking about the world. But this is not a “scientific” idea at all – it is a metaphysical statement (“metaphysical” just means “beyond the physical”) with roots going back to the ancient Greek Stoics. For many educated people in Western culture, if something cannot be verified with the human senses, it is not “real,” or at least it is not worthy of consideration as a matter of “fact” or “reason.”

There are many reasons why this way of thinking about what counts as truth or knowledge has become so influential. Our modern intellectual, political and social systems were shaped by the period from the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries known as the “Enlightenment.” Even modern Christianity has been tinged in significant ways by Enlightenment thought.

The Enlightenment, of course, was not all bad. It gave us some great gifts, including the contemporary scientific method and the political frameworks, such as the U.S. Constitution, that support the freedoms we now take for granted.

But like many exciting moments in history, the Enlightenment produced some unbalanced perspectives. The ways in which human beings can know things in addition to observation of the tangible world around us were lost. The sorts of intuitions and experiences that human beings throughout history had understood to reach beyond reason were discredited. The thought that a transcendent God might have broken into history to reveal anything about Himself was mostly set aside.

Christian theology has always asserted that because God is transcendent, human observation and human reason are neither the starting point nor the ending point for true knowledge, wisdom and understanding. If matter is not all there is, then our search for truth cannot be limited to the material world alone. In fact, the beginning of knowledge and wisdom is the realization that God is beyond and other than the created world. Again, a word of balance is in order. Human observation and reason do matter, precisely because God created us as part of a world that is in important ways orderly and knowable. The great Christian thinker Anselm said that knowledge is the act of “faith seeking understanding.” “Understanding” – the sometimes difficult process of bringing all our resources, including reason, to bear on the search for truth – depends on and follows “faith.”

God’s transcendence means that the physical world does not represent the limits of what is true and real. Indeed, the physical world is not the beginning or end of what is true and real. The “beginning and end,” the “alpha and omega,” is the God who is beyond all our thoughts and imaginings.

27 Apr 14:43

Constantine R. Campbell Paul and Union with Christ. An Exegetical and Theological Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012) 478 Pages

by Paul Barnett

This is probably the most important biblical thematic study by an Australian since Leon Morris’s Apostolic Preaching of the Cross published in 1955.  Dr Campbell has already established an international reputation for his work on the Greek of the New Testament.  To this distinction he has now added the major thematic and theological work, Paul and Union with Christ that promises to be the benchmark on this key subject for years to come.

Paul and Union with Christ falls into three main parts.  In the first, Campbell surveys major contributors from Deissmann (1892) to Gorman (2009).  Although the analyses are necessarily brief they represent a massive achievement and in themselves make the book worth owning.

He proceeds, second, to the major core of the monograph, a two hundred page exegetically detailed study of every Pauline union-with-Christ text, related to the key prepositions en, eis, syn, and dia.  Campbell examines each text in turn providing his own translation of the Greek, all with attractive simplicity.  This section will prove to be invaluable for those who teach from or write on these critical Pauline texts.  The author concludes this part with a discussion on Pauline metaphors like ‘body’, ‘temple’ and ‘marriage’ that elucidate the union-with-Christ texts.

The final ‘theological’ section, occupying the latter 40 percent of the book, rests squarely on the foundational exegesis of Paul’s union-with-Christ texts in the second part.  Here he discusses the work of Christ, the Trinity, Christian living, and justification.

Dr Campbell is acutely aware of past as well as present attempts to understand Paul’s union-with-Christ texts in relationship with the apostle’s overall theology. The ‘occasional’ character of his epistles makes the task quite complicated, if not impossible.  Paul’s focus and emphasis from letter to letter depends on the issues he is addressing.  Romans is the closest to a systematic statement of his beliefs, yet even here Paul is addressing a series of specific pastoral issues amongst those in his mission in that city.

So do the ‘union’ texts represent the ‘centre’ of Paul’s thought, or perhaps their ‘key’?

Campbell is fully aware of these issues and that many (most?) of the union texts have layered and interconnected meanings and without a single, dominant, controlling idea.  So he settles on the notion of ‘webbing’: ‘…union with Christ is the “webbing” that holds it all [Paul’s thought] together…Every Pauline theme and pastoral concern ultimately coheres with the whole through their common bond – union with Christ’ (p. 441).

Inevitably such a massive work prompts some questions.  One is that he notes the fact but not the content of Dr John Lee’s trenchant criticism of the BDAG Greek lexicon (p. 27 n. 8).  Lee, an Australian, is an international expert on lexicons so it would have been helpful to know his concerns, especially since Campbell follows the structures BDAG to the degree he does (though not uncritically).  Another, is the question how historically Paul became ‘a man in Christ’ (2 Cor. 12:2) and how historically his addressees became ‘those who belong to Christ’ (1 Cor. 15:23)?  What was the role of Paul’s Damascus conversion for him and the role of his gospel preaching for those who became his churches?  Connected, third, is how important to Paul was his failed attempt to relate to God through law in contrast to his life-changing epiphany as from Damascus that he now knew his ‘Abba’, Father in the Crucified One, in the power of the Christ who loved him in him (Gal. 2:19-21).

Dr Campbell has put us deeply in his debt by his dedicated labours in producing this epochal book.  Despite its immense erudition and imposing research it is written humbly and simply and with due respect to those with whom he differs.

Paul Barnett

(A review published in Southern Cross, Sydney, April 2014)


27 Apr 14:43

Jesus as Lord in Mark

by Andrew

Ed Dingess, who appears to be a Reformed apologist, has taken the trouble to add some polite and thoughtful comments to my post “Kenton Sparks: historical criticism and the virgin birth”. He makes some good points and raises some good questions about the narrative-historical approach to reading the New Testament, recognizing that it cuts across the grain of more traditional theological readings. He takes issue, however, with my suggestion that it is “difficult to maintain the view that the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels claimed to be God”:

The theme of the divinity of Christ is obvious, not only in the initial launch of Mark’s project which points us up to the coming of Israel’s God in the person of Jesus Christ, but also in the fact that it is carried on throughout the entire project itself.

I will address some of the broader issues relating to method and traditional theological readings in another post—I don’t want my approach to be understood as anti-trinitarian; I don’t think it is, fundamentally, anti-trinitarian. Here I want to consider the claim that the Old Testament quotations in Mark 1:2-4 introduce the theme of the divinity of Jesus. The theoretical discussion should not be pursued apart from a careful and unprejudiced reading of the texts.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:2–4)

The quotations from Isaiah and Malachi make it clear that Jesus is expected to fulfil the role of the “Lord” who will both judge the corrupt temple system (Mal. 3:1-4) and restore Israel following punishment (Is. 40:1-5). In the Old Testament this role is performed by YHWH. John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins because Israel faces divine judgment.

But as I’ve pointed out on many occasions, the synoptic writers—and the writers of the New Testament generally—do not construe the lordship of Jesus as an expression of his identification with God, as a matter of ontological equivalence. Rather they maintain that Jesus has been chosen and authorized exceptionally by God to judge and restore.

So yes, Old Testament kyrios texts are applied to Jesus, but not because Jesus is thought to be YHWH: rather the role or function or agency that is indicated by kyrios has been transferred by YHWH to Jesus for the sake of the eschatological renewal of his people. So the Jews who will be saved from the destruction of the end of the age are those who call not on the name of YHWH but on the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13; cf. Joel 2:32). Why? Because by the resurrection “God has made (epoiēsen) him both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

This is clearly and repeatedly stated, and it needs to be respected. There is no point in defending a high view of Christ at the cost of a low view of scripture.

Mark’s Gospel slips comfortably into this narrative. The messenger who prepares the way for the Lord says that Jesus will be greater in that he will baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mk. 1:8). At Jesus’ baptism the Spirit descends upon him, and a voice is heard identifying Jesus not with God but with the chosen servant of God, in whom God delights, upon whom God has set his Spirit so that he will “bring forth justice to the nations”, the king to whom God will give the nations as his heritage (Mk. 1:10-11):

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Is. 42:1)

I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” (Ps. 2:7–8)

That is, John prepares the way for the Lord who will come to judge and restore Israel, but the one who directly appears is the chosen, Spirit-filled, servant of God, authorized to carry out, on behalf of God, the tasks implied in Mark 1:2-3. He will be able to pour out the Spirit on his followers not because he is God but because he “received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:33).

This is also what we are to understand by the proclamation with which Jesus then begins his ministry:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel. (Mk. 1:15)

The coming of the kingdom of God will climax in the vindication of Jesus as the Son of Man, who will receive kingdom and glory from God, and of those who are not ashamed of him at his coming (Mk. 8:38).

At the end, Jesus tells Caiaphas that he will “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62). The allusion to Daniel 7 and Psalm 110 makes it abundantly clear that Jesus sees himself as the one who will, as a consequence of his suffering, be authorized by God to judge and rule at least Israel and possibly also the nations.

So this is how the expectation generated by the quotation of Isaiah and Malachi right at the start of the Gospel is realized. First, the story of Jesus’s baptism identifies him as the chosen servant who will baptize Israel with the Holy Spirit, who will judge the corrupt temple system, who will rule at the right hand of YHWH. Secondly, Jesus himself tells a story about the coming kingdom of God that will climax in his exaltation to the right hand of the Father in the heaven, from where he will rule as God’s proxy until the last enemy has been destroyed (cf. Mk. 12:36).

Only God can forgive sins?

Ed also puts forward the familiar argument that only God could forgive sins, therefore Jesus was God:

Statements about His Lordship over the Sabbath, His ability to forgive sins…, etc., show that the authors believed Jesus to be divine and they show Jesus to be self-consciously aware of His own divinity.

The problem is that the texts simply do not bear that out. Jesus explains to the shocked scribes why he presumes to forgive the paralytic’s sins: it is not because he is God but because “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”. Normally God would forgive sins from heaven, but exceptionally—and outrageously—he has given the authority to forgive Israel’s sins to Jesus on earth, because he is the Son of Man (Mk. 2:10). In Matthew 9:8 the crowds “glorified God, who had given such authority to men”. There is no suggestion that they had jumped to the wrong conclusion. In fact, they appear to have understood Jesus perfectly.

The simple fact is this. At every point in the New Testament “lordship” is something that is given to Jesus by his Father, especially as a consequence of his obedient suffering. Philippians 2:9-11 could hardly be clearer: Jesus was obedient to death, therefore God bestowed on him the name which is above every name. The lordship of Jesus is the wrong place to look for a New Testament statement of divine identity.

Classical trinitarianism is powerless to tell this story. Classical trinitarianism can only render it down to a metaphysical drama about incarnation and redemption. What we lose is not only the sense that at the heart of this is Israel’s story, but also the crucial significance of Jesus’ role as an obedient son or servant who is the forerunner of the eschatological communities—the firstborn of many brothers—which will have to make the arduous historical journey from the mess of first century Israel to the victory of YHWH over the nations.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

The same argument applies in the case of another passage that Ed highlights:

Having read a few of your responses to those texts that most orthodox scholars accept as pointing to the divinity of Christ, I could not help but notice that when given the chance to admit that a particular passage (Matt. 28:19) is likely revealing Christ’s divinity, you preferred the interpretation with a lower christology, even when that interpretation has less to commend it.

All the way through Matthew the sonship of Jesus entails an identification with obedient Israel (“out of Egypt I have called my son”), with the servant of YHWH, and the thought that the obedient servant will be vindicated and given authority to rule at the right hand of the Father (Matt. 16:27; 26:64). The “Son of God” is the faithful Jew who has made the Lord his dwelling place, who will be safeguarded by God’s angels (Matt. 4:6; cf. Ps. 91:9-11). The “beloved Son” is YHWH’s servant, Israel’s king (cf. Matt. 17:5). This identification with obedient Israel is carried through to the extent that Jesus promises his disciples that they will reign with him (Matt. 19:28).

So when we come to the baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19, we must surely suppose that baptism in the name of the Son means baptism in the name of the one who was obedient, suffered, died, was raised to the right hand of the Father, and who would sooner rather than later come to judge and rule over his people. The candidate for baptism identifies himself or herself with this story. It might provide the basis for a narrative or apocalyptic trinitarianism of some sort—that remains to be seen. But it is too much to claim that either Jesus or Matthew was referring in non-apocalyptic terms to the three persons of the triune God.

I’ll come back to the issue of a “lower christology” bias another day.

27 Apr 14:34

Honest to God, fifty years on

by Mark Vernon

I've a longish piece in the Church Times, asking what now after 50 years of Honest to God. Linda Woodhead captures the predicament for the C of E, I think:

Honest to God was right in so far as it told its readers that they could explore theologically, too. You need not be a don or a cleric. "It caught the wave of a popular kind of spirituality that empowers the individual, and has grown massively over the last 50 years," Professor Woodhead says. "The movement is fragmented, but can be characterised as ritually experimental and personal, in the sense of wondering how to live life more fully. More people do now believe in God as a spirit or life force than in what Robinson called a personal God 'out there'." But what the Church of England, in particular, has found it hard to do is to integrate new symbols and ritual practices that ground this understanding. "As a consequence, many who follow this new spiritual pathway have left the church in order to do so," Professor Woodhead says.

John Milbank suggests one striking way forward:

The tragedy is that people today clearly sense that the material world has been drained of the spiritual. You see it in the popularity of pilgrimages, New Age festivals, and the appreciation of nature. "It is striking that a kind of remythologisation has been going on while church attendance has been declining," Professor Milbank says. "Instead of Christian minimalism, which doubts everything from angels to the creeds, I'd argue for a Christian maximalism that proposes nothing less than cosmic transformation." This might connect with people's sense of the miraculousness of existence, he says. "Rather than offering a thinned-down moralism, it suggests a way back to the full richness of what the Christian tradition offers."

27 Apr 13:49

Francis Watson’s Forthcoming Book: Rethinking Gospel Origins

by Andrew Byers

The release date is still about 6 weeks away, but it will be worth keeping an eye on the discussion generated by Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective.

Prof. Watson is my supervisor at Durham, so I am somewhat familiar with the material and arguments of the book (almost 700 pages). Here is the synopsis provided by Eerdmans on the book’s webpage:

That there are four canonical versions of the one gospel story is often seen as a problem for Christian faith: where gospels multiply, so to do apparent contradictions that may seem to undermine their truth claims. In Gospel Writing Francis Watson argues that differences and tensions between canonical gospels represent opportunities for theological reflection, not problems for apologetics.

Watson presents the formation of the fourfold gospel as the defining moment in the reception of early gospel literature — and also of Jesus himself as the subject matter of that literature. As the canonical division sets four gospel texts alongside one another, the canon also creates a new, complex, textual entity more than the sum of its parts. A canonical gospel can no longer be regarded as a definitive, self-sufficient account of its subject matter. It must play its part within an intricate fourfold polyphony, and its meaning and significance are thereby transformed.

In elaborating these claims, Watson proposes nothing less than a new paradigm for gospel studies — one that engages fully with the available noncanonical material so as to illuminate the historical and theological significance of the canonical.


And here are a few endorsements from major figures in biblical and patristic scholarship:


Simon Gathercole (University of Cambridge)

“A wonderfully wide-ranging book, full of learning and insight. One of the most significant books on the gospels in the last hundred years, this work will undoubtedly shake up the current study of the gospels.

Lewis Ayres (University of Durham)

“Francis Watson offers here a striking and powerful argument for the importance of reading Scripture as a canon. The argument is constantly historical as well as theological, exploring the character of the early church’s decision to accept a fourfold symphonic gospel. . . . All should celebrate the manner in which Watson sets a new agenda for those who ask why we continue to read the gospel in this form.”

Dale C. Allison Jr. (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary)

“The scope of this major contribution is breathtaking. Watson expertly moves from Augustine to Lessing to Q to Thomas to the synoptic problem to the sources of John’s Gospel to the Gospel of Peter to the emergence of the fourfold gospel canon to Origen to early Christian art and liturgy. The upshot is a slew of new observations and intriguing proposals that open up fresh lines of inquiry. Required reading for all students of the gospel tradition.”

Those of us studying the Gospels, theological interpretation of Scripture, and early Christian exegesis have so much material to read and keep up with. This book is going to be one of those essential, landmark studies that will occupy a central spot on the wide bookshelf.
27 Apr 13:48

The Embarrassing Existence of Muhammad and Jesus

by Loren Rosson III
I wasn't aware that the classic criteria were used outside of historical-Jesus studies, but in a debate between Robert Spencer and David Wood, Did Muhammad Exist?, they are not only used but spoken of as if a common language among historians. Neither is a professional scholar of Islam, but their debate is a good one and well informed. Spencer denies that Muhammad was a real person, per his book Did Muhammad Exist? published last year (which argues that the prophet was a fiction created in the 690s). Wood defends the mainstream view that Muhammad existed, and by relying solely on the criterion of embarrassment to make his case. That's what grabbed my attention.

Both Spencer and Wood agree that we don't have any early sources, let alone multiple or independent ones, to make a case for Muhammad's existence. There's no mention of Muhammad or the Qur'an by the Arabs who were supposed to have been energized by them in the first six decades. Only by the eighth century, and particularly the 9th, do we get stories of Muhammad in sudden immense detail. In the early expansion following the 630s, the prophet and holy book are unheard of, not only in surviving Arab communications, but in the writings of those they conquered. These Arabs are said to have come and laid waste, but they are not called Muslims, just Hagarenes, Ishmaelites, and Saracens.

Recognizing this wide gap, Wood turns to the criterion of embarrassment to make a case for Muhammad's existence, and note the way he introduces it. He gives the impression that the criterion is a tool used by historians at large:
"Historians have developed principles for gathering kernels of truth, even from defective and biased writings. One is the criterion of embarrassment. When someone admits something that makes their hero look bad, it's probably true, because he wouldn't invent something that's embarrassing to him. When people invent things, they invent things that make themselves and their beliefs look good. Muslims won't invent things that make Muhammad look stupid or immoral or evil."
Wood is a Christian apologist, and it may be that he is simply familiar with the methodologies of New Testament studies of the historical Jesus, and assuming they are a common historian's language; I'm not sure.

Wood commendably (and again in agreement with Spencer) advises caution with the criterion, emphasizing that what is embarrassing to modern Muslims wasn't necessarily embarrassing to Muslims 14 centuries ago. For instance, according to Muslim sources, Muhammad had sex with his nine-year old child-bride Aisha; he had sex with his slave girls; he told his followers to rape their female captives and have sex with prostitutes; he approved of men beating their wives into submission; he ordered the assassination of his critics and execution of apostates, and the violent subjugation of Christians and Jews; he supported his religion by robbing people, and had a man tortured for money. While all of this material is highly embarrassing to many modern Muslims (and indeed why these traditions are often denied, in whole or part), none of it would have been embarrassing to early Muslims. These practices were perfectly acceptable by 7th-century Arabian standards, and there's no reason why they couldn't have been invented.

Wood, however, lights on seven accounts in early Muslim sources that do seem genuinely embarrassing. I'll outline them here, followed by Spencer's rebuttals, and then Wood's counter-rebuttals.

(1) Muhammad thinks he's demon-possessed. When he began receiving revelations, his first reflection was that he was demon possessed. When he fled from the cave, he was convinced that part of the Qur'an was put into his head by a poetry demon. His wife and her cousin finally convinced him that he wasn't possessed but rather a prophet of Allah.

Spencer's rebuttal: The reason to invent this is to lay aside fears that Muhammad's revelations were demonically inspired in the first place.

Wood's counter: But you can come up with all sorts of ways to show or justify that someone isn't demon-possessed without making him look a fool (i.e. so that he can't tell the difference between holy revelations and demonic ones). You can simply have Allah pronounce him free of demons, or have him work miracles, etc.

(2) Muhammad's attempted suicide. After Muhammad's experience in the cave, he became suicidal and tried to hurl himself off a cliff. If you're manufacturing a prophet to unite the Arab people, you wouldn't describe him as history's first suicidal prophet.

Spencer's rebuttal: The reason to invent this is to lay aside fears that dark forces were influencing Muhammad. He ultimately resisted suicide and went on to fulfill his mission.

Wood's counter: As above, with demon possession. There are more attractive ways to dispel fears like this than showing your prophet to be shamefully weak.

(3) The Satanic verses. According to our earliest Muslim sources, Muhammad delivered revelations from the devil. In addition to Allah, there are three goddesses you can pray to. He and his followers bowed down before them. Then Muhammad came back and said these verses really weren't from God, they were from Satan, and he replaced them with the words we find in the Koran today. If you invent a prophet, you certainly don't invent one who is duped and tricked by Satan, and who can't tell the difference between the holy and the damned.

Spencer's rebuttal: If this religion is in a period of flux and being developed, it's going to go through stages, which will contradict earlier stages. And so there has to be some explanation as to why some things were taught but then were not taught.

Wood's counter: This is actually the strongest case of embarrassment, where the authentic momentum keeps it steamrolling through generations, despite being increasingly watered down. In the earliest verses, Muhammad was duped by Satan into delivering the revelations; in later verses, he didn't actually deliver them -- he was impersonated by Satan; in still later verses, all of this is cut out and all that's left are the pagans bowing down in honor of the revelation. (In the original story, they were bowing down because Muhammad was honoring their gods.) The historical core has been all but completely lost by the time of the Hadith collections. [As I will point out below, this trajectory is similar to what we see in the baptism of Jesus across Mark-->Matthew-->Luke-->John.] The only way such an uncomfortable story would have had the momentum to stay alive, despite the increased damage control, is if people knew it really happened.

Spencer's second rebuttal: The embarrassment is admittedly obvious, but that doesn't mean the original account couldn't have been invented. It's like telling a lie, and then you find you have to quickly tell another lie to cover it up.

(4) Muhammad falls under the power of black magic. Multiple references indicate that Muhammad was the victim of black magic, which made him delusional and gave him false beliefs. One of his enemies stole his hairbrush and cast a spell on him.

Spencer's rebuttal: The reason to invent this is to show Muhammad victorious over black magic. The story is designed to reinforce that black magic holds no sway over him.

Wood's counter: There are easier and more palatable ways to show that Muhammad isn't under the power of black magic, without portraying him as actually succumbing to black magic in order to break free of it.

(5) Muhammad's many wives. Muhammad's revelation decrees that Muslims are allowed to marry up to four women. Yet the Muslim sources say that Muhammad had many more. The defense is that he received a special revelation from Allah giving him special privilege, but this still violates his own revelation.

Spencer's rebuttal: Allah can do as he pleases, as he does all the time. Furthermore, Muhammad is portrayed as a super-virile hero -- having the sexual potency of 40 men -- not exactly an ordinary guy.

Wood's counter: Muhammad could have had loads of sex with his four wives to prove his super-potency, and then loads of sex with, say, 100 slave girls. This would have allowed him to stay consistent with his revelation.

(6) Muhammad marries the divorced wife (Zaynab) of his own adopted son (Zayd). And this, after he was the one to break up the marriage. The justification for this is so over the top that it screams embarrassment.

Spencer's rebuttal: It's true that this one (like (3) the Satanic verses) is embarrassing. The story ends with the statement, "Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, he is the father of the prophets." The sources had to emphasize that Muhammad was the final prophet, the seal of the prophets, which meant that if all the prophets were of one bloodline, then Muhammad could have no son -- natural or adopted. So this story was invented to show that Muhammad had no son, and that he had an adopted son, but that Allah ruled out the necessity for adoption, ruled out the legitimacy of adoption, and emphasized this by giving Muhammad in marriage his adopted son's ex-wife. Thus this was no violation of the laws of consanguinity, because Muhammad was not this man's father -- or indeed any man's father. It's also an indirect dig at Christianity, which has a whole theology of adopted sonship: if adoption is illegitimate, than Christianity is too.

Wood's counter: You can deny that Muhammad had sons a lot more easily than this, without leaping through tortured and self-defeating explanations.

(7) Muhammad poisoned by a Jewish woman. Muhammad is portrayed as poisoned by a Jewish woman whose family had been slaughtered by Muslims. The poisons ate away at his organs for two years before he died in shameful agony. If your prophet's greatest desire was to die gloriously in battle, you don't invent a shameful end like this for him.

Spencer's rebuttal: This account serves the political purpose of demonizing the Jews, a thread that runs through the Hadith as well as the Qur'an itself. It's a particular preoccupation of the Qur'an leaders at the time the Qur'an and Hadith were put together, to demonize the Jews whom they saw as formidable opponents.

Wood's counter: Then why not have Muhammad dying in battle fighting the Jews?

Summary: As Wood points out, Spencer adopts a "means-to-end approach" in accounting for these embarrassments. But the early Muslims could have had Spencer's ends without these embarrassing means. They could have justified doctrines or ideas without either making a fool out of Muhammad or making him look apostate. Spencer counters that we don't know enough details behind these traditions to "make sense" of how they would have been crafted or argued, and he insists that most of these accounts don't show signs of embarrassment in any case -- aside from (3) and (6). The other five examples, according to Spencer, seem to have been no more embarrassing to the early Muslims than the account of Muhammad having sex with the nine-year old Aisha.

What's fascinating to me about this debate -- besides the use of criteria which I thought to be the exclusive domain of New Testament studies, and a liability for precisely this reason -- is that it mirrors some contemporary debating about the existence of Jesus. See, for instance, Richard Carrier and Mark Goodacre, Did Jesus Exist?, which follows on the heels of Carrier's recent book, Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Carrier doubts that Jesus existed, and he's analogous to Spencer in finding the criterion of embarrassment to be especially useless. In each debate, I find myself on an odd middle ground, believing in the existence of both Muhammad and Jesus despite the limited value, as I see it, of the criterion of embarrassment.

For sake of analogy, I will list seven (as Wood does in the Muhammad debate) examples where the criterion of embarrassment has been used by New Testament scholars to argue for the authenticity of Jesus material. Let's see how these really hold up.

(1) Jesus' baptism by John. Why invent your sinless savior undergoing a rite that washed away sins?

(2) Jesus' feasting with sinners and tax collectors. Why fabricate mocking caricatures of your Lord as a bon vivant who ate and drank with low-lives?

(3) Jesus' use of spit to heal blindness and deafness. Why associate your Lord with pagan magic?

(4) Jesus' mistaken prophecy of the end. Why make your Lord incompetent?

(5) Jesus' betrayal by Judas. Why invent one of the twelve disciples turning evil?

(6) Jesus' denial by Peter. As above.

(7) Jesus' despairing cry on the cross. Why show your Lord pitifully weak at his moment of triumph?

(*) Jesus' crucifixion. Special case.

(1) is the only one on this list that I would call embarrassing in the hard-core sense. In the accounts of Jesus' baptism by John, the apologetic process from Mark-->Matthew-->Luke-->John is so obvious you'd have to be a fool not to see it. Each evangelist controls the embarrassment better than the one before. It's the closest gospel analogy to the Satanic verses example which Wood adduces for Muhammad. Just as in the final version of the Muslim sources, Muhammad is no longer offering devilish revelations at all (whether he himself or the devil's impersonations of him) -- all that's left are those bowing down in honor of his revelation -- so too by the time of the fourth gospel, John is no longer baptizing Jesus; all that's left is the epiphany. Mark admitted the baptism, Matthew defended it with protests and platitudes ("The only reason you need to be baptized," John assures his superior, "is to 'fulfill all righteousness'"), Luke censored it by putting the Baptist in jail when Jesus was baptized, and John censored the actual baptism. It's unclear as to when a baptism would have become embarrassing in the evolving Christian movement, but I subscribe to the view that there was high Christology at a very early date. I think it likely that Jesus' baptism by John can be regarded as historical on the basis of embarrassment. The tradition was kept alive all these decades, steamrolling through every single gospel ("with momentum", to use Wood's phrase) because it really happened, and had to be acknowledged in some way, despite its difficulties. That's not a certainty, by any means, but by far the most plausible explanation.

(4) seems significantly embarrassing to the three synoptic writers (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). Jesus' prediction that the end would come in his lifetime ("I say to you that there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in power") makes him wrong, and the synoptic writers (following Mark's lead) make lemonade out of this embarrassment with the transfiguration. For Mark, those who died before seeing the kingdom come in power are the disciples who missed the transfiguration (and also, per Stephen Carlson, those who fled the crucifixion unlike the women). But the gospels show embarrassment only because they were written after the death of all first-generation followers. The saying wouldn't have been embarrassing, say, in the mid-50s, during the first-generation church. In fact, it could well have been invented during this time to serve as an assurance for those who were getting impatient for Jesus' return, as some disciples were dying off. The message would have been, "Don't worry, Jesus is indeed coming again, and some of you will still be alive when it happens." Only at the point when everyone died off would the saying become scandalous. So this one's a draw: Jesus could have made the foolish prediction, or it could have been invented in early pre-gospel years.

(3) is embarrassing to Matthew and Luke. They censor the spit from their accounts in copying Mark. But I'm unclear as to how blasphemous this practice really was, or if Judaism was syncretic enough to accommodate it in some circles.

(7) is embarrassing to Luke and John. But neither Mark nor Matthew seem uncomfortable with Jesus' agonizing cry on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?". (Luke replaced it with a calm eulogy of Jesus' spirit, and John used the triumphant, "It is accomplished!") That's because Mark's agenda was to console and vindicate Christian believers who suffered as Jesus did (per Mark Goodacre). So this could have been invented to serve Mark's interests.

(5) and (6) aren't embarrassing, as far as I can tell. In the post-70 age of the gospels, Judas actually serves as a helpful device to show how the old ("evil") religion of Judah and its temple cult is replaced by the Christian sect. Per Donald Akenson, Judas functions as one who opposes Jesus-the-Christ in the same way Satan opposed the Almighty in late Second Temple mythology. As for Peter, his behavior squares with Mark's agenda in showing the consequences of denying Christ in times of suffering; it also functions as wonderful (anti-Peter) propaganda amidst factional battles for control of the church.

(2) isn't embarrassing at all. Regarding sinners, the Christian movement was all about the last being first, exalting the lowly, Jesus dying expressly for sinners and the ungodly rather than the righteous. This is what the Christians reveled in. Jesus' table-fellowship with low-lives could have been invented to justify their theology -- despite the fact that so many historians (conservative and liberal alike) love holding this up as a sure case of sure history. Don't misunderstand me, Jesus may well have feasted with outcasts; but the criterion of embarrassment is no help here.

(*) I include the crucifixion as a special case. I believe it to be the least embarrassing and most scandalous part of the entire Jesus traditions. Early Christians like Paul weren't remotely embarrassed by the shame and scandal of the cross. They made it their badge of honor, and to hell with difficulties in converting others to their cause. (That's a common enough phenomenon in the history of religious movements.) However: there would have obviously been huge embarrassment in the immediate aftermath of the event, until the disciples could stop and reflect and decide to embrace the worst thing conceivable as their salvation. So in an off-kilter way, I believe that embarrassment does point to the historical authenticity of the crucifixion.

Conclusion: What I hope these "lists of seven" demonstrate is that the criterion of embarrassment is a limited tool that while sometimes pointing us in directions of greater plausibility, is abused when not applied thoughtfully. I say Muhammad existed, but I appreciate Robert Spencer's cautions that what seem embarrassing in the Muslim sources may really not have been so. The Qur'an is outside my comfort zone, but in my own sampling of the best New Testament examples, I find that most show little if any embarrassment over the Jesus traditions. It's obvious, however, that Spencer gets too desperate in accounting for extreme cases like the Satanic verses and Muhammad's marriage to Zaynab. Yes, it's possible to "tell a lie and then tell other lies" to cover for your blunders, but that's not usually the most plausible explanation for an exceedingly embarrassing account.

If anyone knows of studies outside the New Testament and the Qur'an which use the classic criteria, especially that of embarrassment, I'd like to know. I was under the impression they were used for the historical Jesus only, but the debate between Spencer and Wood indicates otherwise.

See also: My review of Robert Spencer's Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades, to which he responded.
27 Apr 13:46

@BibleStdntsSay is pure gold

by brgulker

2013-04-26 12_21_16-Twitter _ BibleStdntsSay_ _If you are not a Christian ...





27 Apr 13:28

NRA: Bible-prophecy and phlebotinum

by Fred Clark

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 141-143

We’re still in the middle of a long re-hash and review of Buck Williams’ relationship with the Israeli botanist Chaim Rosenzweig.

I’m happy to give the authors a pass on Rosenzweig’s miracle formula. They never really bother to describe it, and the explanations of its purpose and its effect are only ever presented in the sketchiest terms, but we can generously allow that bit to fall under the generally accepted rules for applied phlebotinum.

That’s the generic term for “the versatile substance that may be rubbed on almost anything to cause an effect needed by a plot.” Tim LaHaye’s “prophecies” and Jerry Jenkins “plot” require a miraculous formula that will make the desert bloom. Storytellers are entitled to be allowed such plot devices without being required to actually invent a working prototype. That’s part of the deal.

I’m not sure that deal applies to LaHaye as well as to Jenkins, though. It’s one thing to say, “I’m telling a story, and in this story there are wizards, or warp drives, or Kryptonian supermen, so please just accept those as part of the terms required for enjoying this story.” But it’s quite another thing to say, “The Word of God, as interpreted by me, declares that certain actual events are about to happen, here in reality, very soon, and these will in fact involve miraculous fertility formulas.” The willing suspension of disbelief is something we readers should grant to storytellers, but if the “Bible prophecies” of a “Bible prophet” require the suspension of disbelief, we should not be quite so willing.

It also would have been helpful if Jenkins had bothered to do a better job selling the phlebotinum of Rosenzweig’s miracle formula. Readers don’t ask for much in that regard — the judicious application of scientific-sounding terms like “ionized” or “molecular bonding” or some such would have been enough. (The “science” of phlebotinum doesn’t have to make perfect sense, it just has to sound sufficiently authoritative.)

Unfortunately for the authors, though, the rules of applied phlebotinum don’t apply to fundamental human nature. A storyteller can bend the laws of physics to allow humans to travel faster than light if the plot requires it, or she can invent whole new rules to allow humans to wield magic if that’s what the story needs. But those humans flying at warp-speed or practicing their wand-craft at Hogwarts still need to be recognizably human.

And that’s the problem with the Rosenzweig subplot. It doesn’t matter to readers that there’s not really any such thing as a magic formula to make the desert bloom. But it does matter, a great deal, that there has never been any such thing as humans who would respond to the existence of such a formula the way the alleged humans in these books do.

It had been Chaim Rosenzweig who had first mentioned the name Nicolae Carpathia to Buck. Buck had asked the old man if any of those who had been sent to court him about the formula had impressed him. Only one, Rosenzweig had told him; a young midlevel politician from the little country of Romania. Chaim had been taken with Carpathia’s pacifist views, his selfless demeanor, and his insistence that the formula had the potential to change the world and save lives.

So leaders from all over the world came to talk to Rosenzweig about the potential use of his miraculous agricultural formula, yet only one mentioned that it might be used to help feed the hungry.

No. That’s not possible. That’s less believable than warp-drives or wormholes or wizardry.

It also suggests so many missed opportunities. Nicolae could have persuaded Rosenzweig with a speech about turning stones into loaves of bread — echoing the words of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness and exploring a nice contrast between Christ and Antichrist. Or Nicolae could have made the case that employing Rosenzweig’s formula all over the world instead of just in the tiny state of Israel would be an effective way to recapture carbon in the atmosphere — thus saving the world from the worst potential effects of climate change. (The authors don’t believe in climate change, of course, but that’s all the more a reason to make fighting it a part of the Antichrist’s agenda.)

Buck could hardly remember when he had not been aware of Nicolae Carpathia, though his first exposure even to the name had been in that interview with Rosenzweig. Within days after the vanishings, the man who had seemingly overnight become president of Romania was a guest speaker at the United Nations. His brief address was so powerful, so magnetic, so impressive, that he had drawn a standing ovation even from the press — even from Buck. Of course, the world was in shock, terrified by the disappearances, and the time had been perfect for someone to step to the fore and offer a new international agenda for peace, harmony, and brotherhood.

Carpathia was thrust, ostensibly against his will, into power. He displaced the former secretary-general of the United Nations …

Again, there are impossibilities and implausibilities here that no amount of applied phlebotinum can fix. We read Carpathia’s speech at the U.N. and it was awful — an alphabetical listing of the nations of the world, in nine languages. Even that is fixable, I suppose, with an appeal to another bit of phlebotinum in these stories — Nicolae’s supernatural powers of spellbinding charisma and mind-control. But even if we grant that, there’s still the problem of the authors’ complete misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what the United Nations is and how it works.

In these books, the U.N. is not an international forum for diplomacy, but a federation of nations. The secretary-general of the U.N. is thus not a toothless diplomat impotently pleading for co-operation, but the most powerful person in the entire world. He is king over kings, president over presidents, prime minister over prime ministers. The U.N. secretary-general rules over and can over-rule any national leader, by fiat apparently. His word is law.

That’s so far removed from anything like reality that this plot development simply cannot be salvaged. And since this plot development is central to the plot of the series, it’s a fatal, un-fixable flaw that sinks the entire story.

If he were simply given free-rein as a storyteller, Jenkins might have been able to fix this. He could have explained that in the alternate universe in which this story is set, the United Nations isn’t like the U.N. we have, but that it instead works like the planetary hierarchy described here. Readers could have gone along with that.

But the rules of this series don’t allow for that. This story is, and must be, set in our world — in this world and in no other, with the same nations, institutions, economics, politics, physics, chemistry and human race we see all around us and read about in the newspaper. Jenkins can make minor cosmetic changes — turning Newsweek into Global Weekly, or turning United into Pan-Continental airlines — but he cannot change anything substantive, transforming the world of his story into a different place unrecognizable to residents of the real world and irreconcilable with the real world we know.

That’s non-negotiable, again, because these books are supposed to be a depiction of the fulfillment of LaHaye’s “Bible prophecies,” and those prophecies, if they are to mean anything, have to unfold in this world and not in some alternate universe with an alternate U.N.

What it really means, then, when we read that “Carpathia was thrust … into power [as] secretary-general of the United Nations” is that Jenkins story can be allowed to stagger along, but LaHaye’s prophecies are henceforth proved to be nonsense. They cannot be fulfilled in this world, only in the alternate universe of Jenkins’ story. And since we do not live in that alternate universe, we do not live in a world in which Tim LaHaye’s interpretation of the Bible is possible.

It’s also not obvious to me that a world “in shock,” from the instantaneous disintegration of every single child would be ripe “for someone to step to the fore and offer a new international agenda for peace, harmony, and brotherhood” as much as it would be ripe for an authoritarian tyrant who promised to avenge their loss and protect them from future harm. Nicolae’s kumbaya message might have persuaded some to trust him, but I think just after the vanishings he could have gained more popular support by standing up and saying, “Christ took your children. I am the Antichrist. I will make him pay. Who’s with me?”

Carpathia was thrust, ostensibly against his will, into power. He displaced the former secretary-general of the United Nations, reorganized it to include ten international mega-territories, renamed it the Global Community, moved it to Babylon (which was rebuilt and renamed New Babylon), and then set about disarming the entire globe.

There are seven verbs in that last sentence. Some of them are merely absurdities while the others are impossibilities. Several are both absurd and impossible.

And none of that can be fixed with an appeal to our willing suspension of disbelief. Poor Jenkins has been given an arbitrary list of “prophecies” that must be fulfilled, whether or not they make any sense. Why would Nicolae want or need to do any of that? Why would anyone else watch him do it without assuming he’d lost his mind? Jenkins’ only answer is the answer LaHaye supplies him: It’s what has been prophesied. And there’s no way to make any of that seem acceptable by reversing the polarity or reconfabulating the tachyon pulse or reassembling all the pieces of the lost amulet of power.

Jenkins half-heartedly tries to wave Rosenzweig’s formula like a magic wand that can transform all this nonsense into sense, but he winds up digging a deeper hole:

It had taken more than Carpathia’s charismatic personality to effect all this. He had a trump card. He had gotten to Rosenzweig. He had convinced the old man and his government that the key to the new world was Carpathia’s and the Global Community’s ability to broker Rosenzweig’s formula in exchange for compliance with international rules for disarmament. In exchange for a Carpathia-signed guarantee of at least seven years of protection from her enemies,* Israel licensed to him the formula that allowed him to extract any promise he needed from any country in the world. With the formula, Russia could grow grain in the frozen tundra of Siberia. Destitute African nations became hothouses of domestic food sources and agricultural exports.

And there, at the end of that paragraph, we get a tiny hint of the one way I can imagine that we could still salvage Jerry Jenkins’ plot.

The formula, Jenkins says, made it possible for every nation on earth to grow rich through “agricultural exports.” Now, we could just take that as further confirmation that Jenkins doesn’t have the first clue about real-world economics. “Export to who?” we could ask, and then laugh at the absurdity of the authors’ ignorance and incuriosity.

Or we could assume that the authors have thought this through and really mean what they’re suggesting. If every nation on Earth is now exporting agricultural products, that can only mean one thing: Extra-terrestrial markets for Earth produce.

And what would we Earthlings get in exchange for the “flowers and grains” that Rosenzweig’s miracle formula would allow us to sell to our new interplanetary trading partners? Unobtainium. Huge, vast amounts of unobtainium — more than any desperately plot-patching storyteller could ever dream of.

With that inexhaustible supply of pure unobtainium, the people of Earth would be able to fuel a planetary phlebotinumizer — a machine so powerful and so incomprehensible that it might even be used to make Tim LaHaye’s “Bible prophecies” slightly less absurd.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* It’s not clear why a “guarantee of at least seven years of protection from her enemies” would mean anything to the state of Israel described in these books.

We were told — way back on page 8 of the first book — that:

The prosperity brought about by the miracle formula changed the course of history for Israel. Flush with cash and resources, Israel made peace with her neighbors.

So what’s the incentive to sign a treaty promising short-term protection from “enemies” that we’ve already been told don’t exist?

The only remaining “enemies” Israel had were Russia and Ethiopia, and those nations have already taken their best shot — exhausting their entire national arsenals and sacrificing their entire militaries in an all-out assault on Israel that failed to produce a single injury due to the explicit, miraculous intervention by the hand of God.

So here comes Nicolae Carpathia, asking Israel to trade him the miracle formula in exchange for a “guarantee of at least seven years of protection from her enemies.” But Israel has no remaining enemies. And the last enemy they did have was destroyed by the very hand of the Almighty. With God personally intervening to swat down any attack against them, what’s the appeal of a short-term non-aggression pledge from the president of Romania?

27 Apr 13:25

Answers in Genesis: God Is Making People Gay Because of Abortion

by Libby Anne

I just read an Answers in Genesis article whose argument is so simple and elegant I can’t believe I hadn’t heard it before. Namely, the article explains why it suddenly seems like there are gay people all over, when this wasn’t the case in the past—and it does so by bringing together the perfect conservative bogeyman of gay marriage, abortion, and the removal of school prayer. I have to admit it—I was impressed by the ingenuity.

Will God just turn a blind eye to this ongoing genocide? Has God been turning a blind eye to the fact that the Bible, creation, and prayer have been all but eliminated from public schools?

Furthermore, has God been turning a blind eye to the fact that Christian reminders like crosses, nativity scenes, and Ten Commandment displays have been thrown out of public places?

I don’t believe so. Why?

Well, after listening to the 2nd inaugural address by the head of this nation, President Obama, it’s obvious this nation is already under judgment!

During his speech, President Obama stated:

Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law [applause] for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. [Applause.]

The hot-button issues of homosexual behavior and “gay” marriage continue to make news across the nation. But now, America’s president has declared his total support for “gay” marriage. He’s made it a priority of his leadership to promote it, according to his inaugural speech.

With the president’s strong support, we will now see an escalation of legislation around America to legalize “gay” marriage. Furthermore, there are indications that people who speak out against what the Bible clearly calls sin and an abomination will be treated as criminals.

With such a flagrant defiance of God’s clear Word, I maintain that these anti-God movements show that America is under judgment. I think of the passage:

Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. (Romans 1:24–26)

The fact that men and women are abandoning the roles God created for them is a sign that God is judging. As Romans 1 above declares, He “gave them up.”

In other words, this article argues that God is making people gay as a judgement on America for abortion and the removal of prayer from schools. This argument is so simple and yet appears so internally consistent—I’ve been familiar with that Romans passage since childhood and I can’t believe I didn’t see this explanation coming.

On a more serious note, if this is God’s judgement, I’d say bring it. While televangelists declare every environmental disaster or major storm as God’s judgement on America, this particular judgement doesn’t appear to have so many bad side effects. Or any, really. My gay and lesbian friends—and my trans and bi friends—are normal people just like me, and the lives they lead aren’t any more lawless or unhappy than mine is. Seriously, if this is God’s judgement on America, I’d say God sucks at judgments.

Also, it seems that Answers in Genesis is unaware that there have always been individuals with same-sex attractions, though of course people have understood and constructed sexuality differently over time. I remember thinking, as a child, that the gay rights movement marked the origin of the existence of gay people, but then I grew up and read a book. (Wow, I’m feeling really snarky today!) Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that the increased visibility of LGBTQ individuals over the past isn’t a result of more people suddenly being gay, it’s a result of a movement that has helped increase public acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, which has naturally resulted in more people being willing to be out rather than hiding who they are.

And besides all of that, there have been many societies over the years where abortion has been accepted and visible and where no one has prayed to the God of the Bible, whether in schools or outside of them. Should we suspect rates of homosexuality to correlate with these things? I mean, isn’t that what you would expect if the gay is God’s punishment for abortion and lack of school prayer? I suppose some might claim that the two do correlate—that Ancient Rome had high levels of both abortion and homosexuality—but I’m guessing that an actual systematic study would find that this isn’t the case. (And even if it was the case, correlation does not prove causation.)

But all of that is a bit complicated, and for many people the narrative Answers in Genesis constructs here will be extremely appealing. I know I would have bought it immediately had I read it while still a conservative Christian. So you might want to be prepared to see it come up in the future so that you can respond with more than a dropped jaw. You’ve been warned!

Note #1: As a reader pointed out, this article conflicts with the belief held by many conservative Christians that people aren’t born gay but rather consciously choose that “lifestyle.” In the past at least, Answers in Genesis itself has subscribed to this position: see this article for instance.

Note #2: Another commenter has pointed out that abortion has always existed, and in every time and society. I think Answers in Genesis would respond by saying that today is different because the United States enforced it with a Supreme Court decision.

27 Apr 13:09

Evidence of impact: Alexander the GreatThis coin from India... << He has a wife you know

Evidence of impact: Alexander the Great

This coin from India dates to the 2nd c. BCE and pictures Buddah with his name spelled phonetically in the Greek alphabet (beta omicron delta delta omicron or ΒΟΔΔΟ). 

Just let that sink in.

27 Apr 13:06

Some Randomly Not Necessarily Connected Thoughts

by Allan Bevere
It is unfortunately the case that in Jerusalem archaeology is often mixed in with politics. A column from the era of King David has been discovered, but it has yet to be excavated for seemingly political reasons. The good news is there are those hoping to excavate the find. Whether it will happen, however, remains to be seen.
Reverend Noah Smith never plans to retire. He said he tried it when he turned 90, but it didn't work out well. That was fifteen years ago and at 105 he is still going strong. This is a reminder to me that even when we retire from our professions, Christians never retire from being in ministry. How we serve the cause of Christ in this world may change as we get older, but we must serve until we take that last breath.

So, press on.
How's your basic scientific knowledge? I am pleased to say I got a hundred percent! Check it out here.

There has been a healthy soul-searching that has been going on in evangelical Christianity for a while now in reference to theology, politics, and science. Evangelicals like Scot McKnight, Rachel Held Evans, and Peter Enns have pushed the envelope on various issues from evolution to women in ministry. Visiting such issues has been much needed in evangelicalism.

One of the things I have said for a while now is that I wish Mainline Protestants would engage in the same soul-searching on various issues as well. For the most part, we Mainliners do not display much self-awareness when it comes to critiquing ourselves, though we are very good at criticizing everyone else-- Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Republicans. It would be nice in the process of pointing our fingers at others, we would take a healthy look at the cracks in our own foundations.

Enter two Mainline Protestant pastors who consider themselves to be progressive Christians, who are annoyed with progressive Christianity. The first post is here (I cannot find the name of the pastor on his blog), and then Dennis Sanders picks up on the first post and offers his comments. You may not agree with everything they say, but we Mainliners need more of this kind of critique. The best and most effective critiques of any group come from within.
By the way, speaking of progressive, I do not like the term for two reasons. First, the word liberal is the true opposite of conservative. All of us fall somewhere on the liberal/conservative spectrum on various issues. Second, the term progressive assumes that in general the views promoted by liberals should be considered as progress. While some liberal ideas are to my mind progressive, other liberal views are from my perspective rather out-dated, backward, and regressive. I'm actually glad we have liberals and conservatives and people who fall somewhere in between the extremes. I don't think a society could function if everyone was liberal or conservative.And don't forget that there are people who are more conservative liberals, and others who are more liberal conservatives. Are you confused yet?
Speaking of labels, we cannot avoid using them, nor should we try. They assist us in our many and various conversations, but labels should never be used in stereotypical fashion. Stereotypes are easy ways to dismiss someone and her or his views. "O, she's just a liberal." Well, he's a conservative." "What do you expect from a Republican." "That's a Democrat for you." These are all statements that turn labels into stereotypes and allow us to be intellectually lazy in dismissing the views of others, instead of doing the hard work of intellectual engagement. Shame on us when we do this.
All of us have heard for years that at some point, the earth's supply of oil will be gone. The logic certainly makes sense. But there is now a new technology that may make our oil supply infinite. Of course, others have been saying for some time that even without this new technology, Economics 101 tells us even though the oil supply is finite, we will never run out of it anyway. Whether any of this is good news or not, I have no idea.
Quotes of the Week (Possibly, but Not Necessarily Said This Week):

"Some people are surprised I can even read."--George W. Bush responding to a surprised individual who did not know he had taken up the new hobby of painting.

"Not all blind spots are created equal."--Mike Myatt

"They said 'ricin' and I thought they said "rice." I don't eat rice."--Paul Kevin Curtis, an Elvis impersonator who was arrested on suspicion of sending ricin-laced letters to President Obama, a Republican Senator from Mississippi, and a judge. He was later released.

"It is right, therefore, that we not just be called Christians, but that we actually be Christians."--Ignatius of Antioch, (Letter to the Magnesians, 4.1)
Interesting and Somewhat Useless Trivia:

In Monopoly, the character that's behind bars is named Jake the Jailbird.
This Week in History:

Lincoln assassin, John Wilkes Booth, dies in Virginia-- April 26, 1865
27 Apr 13:04

In Defense of a ‘Radical’ Christology

by bultmanniac


This is a response to Christian Piatt’s Patheos blog from Thursday, part of an ongoing dialogue about Subverting the Norm 2.

I wrote a blog about Diversity in STN2 but never posted it.  I’m still struggling with that issue.  Let me share two thoughts however.

1) Diversity is a product of capitalism, a way to promote community ideologies in order to comfort the privileged and to hide the material disparities that continue to exist. For me, ending material disparities is the goal, not mingling races and cultures.  (I’m in an interracial marriage, so I realize that’s a little easier for me to say).

2) Subsequently, I don’t believe in “having” diversity.  If encountering the other is truly important to you, go where you are the minority.  Be the diversity.  Suspend your own space in other spaces.

That being said, I have no problem with the Radical Theology movement being primarily white male movement; although I think there is growing heterogeneity with females and LGBTQ in this realm.  It provides an important space for self-critique, and structural critique for the church.  On the other hand, I, like Piatt, have been asking around about possible Liberation/Radical hybrids, to borrow a phrase from @postmodernegro : “a hyrbridity of critical postures.”

Personally, I would love to sit with a handful of thinkers and practitioners in the field of liberation theology and talk about how – if at all – these radical theology concepts dovetail with what they’re doing on a daily basis.

Is there any liberation theology without metaphysics or onto-theology. Like a Gustavo Caputo love-child? #biblescholarproblems
Adam(Bultmanniac) (@bultmanniac) April 18, 2013

I’m a little confused, however with Piatt, whether or not he sees a connection between the Latino Reformation and Liberation Theology.  I’m sure there must be some places of overlap, but politically, I can only imagine that they go in opposite directions.   Still, I believe his basic assertion is a fair statement of the problem.  Let me frame it in my perspective:

Radical tradition doesn’t “do” anything (to embody Christ, necessarily).  And Liberation theology (and those from the non-white traditions) fail to adequately deal with its metaphysics (see this article from the Other Journal), which in my opinion replicate and perpetuate oppressive powers within their racial and ethnic spaces (i.e. strong patriarchy).

In the future, I’m not sure if there’ll ever be a theological friendship between Liberation and Radical, the way that was found between Process and Radical at Subverting the Norm 2.  Perhaps (intended), there can be one formed over Christology, a direction I believe and hope the Radical tradition is heading.

It is probably closer to the truth to say that I do a form of radical Christology rather than theology—
Peter Rollins (@PeterRollins) April 21, 2013

Founded upon early forms of historical materialism, a foundational Materialist Christology, similar to Fernando Belo’s commentary on Mark and Ted Jennings Insurrection of the Crucified, can form the basis for a Radical Liberationist Christology, one that could challenge all colors of the church into challenging the problems of capitalism and institutionalized power, perhaps even through alternative forms of labor within the church.

I couldn’t bring myself to title this post, “In Defense of Radical Theology,” in part because, I believe the metaphysical divide with Liberation theology is too large.  Also, I am not a fan of the theological endeavor.  And yet, like @JesKastKeat from this podcast, I think ‘Radical’ is a also a bad name.  Perhaps Radical Theology is in need of rebranding, but certainly, as a white movement, it is doing its job challenging white privilege by challenging its metaphysics, and pointing our gaze, not at our navels, but at our material practices (albeit, they are still just gazes).  Material Christology, anyone?

27 Apr 00:59

Augustine, evolution, and exegesis

by David Withun
Following his two principles for the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, Augustine, in my judgment, succeeded in demythologizing Genesis 1 in the fourth century A.D. The literal, fundamentalist reading of that text and the acceptance of that literal reading as containing the factual truth about God's creation of the cosmos makes an utter mockery of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim belief in the doctrine of creation ex nihilo by God.

According to Augustine's understanding of God as a purely spiritual being having eternal (i.e., nontemporal and immutable) existence, Genesis 1 cannot be interpreted as a succession of creative acts performed by God in six temporal days. In Augustine's view, the creation of all things was instantaneously complete. God created all things at once in their causes. The actualization of the potentialities invested in those original causes is a natural development in the whole span of time.

If Augustine were writing in the twentieth century, he would have called it an evolutionary development. The order of "six days" is not a temporal order but an order of the graduations of being, from lower to higher. In thus interpreting Genesis 1 in the light of twentieth-century knowledge of evolutionary development, Augustine would be following his own two rules for (1) holding on to the truth of Sacred Scripture without wavering, but also (2) holding on to an interpretation of it only if that accords with everything else now known.

Demythologizing Genesis 2 and 3 is more difficult. What Augustine did with Genesis 1, someone must do with Genesis 2 and 3. If they are Christians, they must interpret the story so that it preserves basic Christians beliefs: about the moral state of the human race, a state that requires a redeemer and a savior for the salvation of the soul and the resurrection of the body. The narrative in Genesis 2 and 3 must be read so that its exegesis supports the Christian belief that God, in creating man in his own image, endowed him with free will and, thereby, with the choice between obeying or disobeying God's commandments.

The story of the Garden of Eden, of Adam and Eve and of the serpent and Lillith, may be a myth rather than true history, but this does not alter the religious significance that must be found in it when it is properly interpreted in nonnarrative terms. That is the task of the biblical exegete when he attempts to preserve the religious doctrine while removing the mythology. Demythologizing Sacred Scripture calls for profoundly daring biblical exegesis, that dares to be true to the two precepts that Augustine himself followed in demythologizing Genesis 1.

Mortimer J. Adler, Truth in Religion, pp. 65-66

26 Apr 20:53

Science, Faith, and Academic Freedom: notes from a conference

by peteenns
I was in Ohio (pronounced o-HI-o) earlier this week. I hadn’t been there since 2005 when my son and I drove out to visit Kenyon College. After the second trip we decided 8 hours was too far, and that he should go to school in Vermont, a mere 6 1/2 hours away. Anyway, Ohio is [...]
26 Apr 20:52

Science and Genesis FAIL!

by agathos

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares Ken Ham, “plans to make you stupid and ignorant, and to intellectually harm you.” ~ AIG 29:11

Kids Learn the Darndest Things



26 Apr 20:50

A weekend in Romania

by PZ Myers

The IHEU General Assembly is taking place in Bucharest the weekend of 26th May, and I’ll be going. I have to think about what I’m going to talk about…

Hmmm…here’s some inspiration.

In Romania the theory of evolution was taken out from the biology classes for several years, and it was reintroduced only as a result of strong pressure from the civil society and the international organizations. But the situation is not much better in the present. The creationism is taught at school from the very beginning of school, in each year, through the religion class; in the same time, the evolution of species is first mentioned in the biology class only in the eighth grade. As a result, 74% of the Romanian pupils consider that creationism is right and only 14% have this opinion about evolution.

Given that the theme is “Education, Science and Human Rights”, I might be able to come up with something to say.

26 Apr 20:46

Secret Places: Studium Biblicum Franciscanum Museum << BiblePlaces Blog

by (Chris McKinny)
(Post by Chris McKinny) 

For an introduction to this series see here.

Studium Biblicum Franciscanum Museum at the Church of the Flagellation - Old City Jerusalem, Muslim Quarter 
View Secret Places: BiblePlaces in a larger map

Use the above map to find the Church of the Flagellation (it is near Hadrian's Arch on the Via Dolorosa). Some nearby sites are Lion's Gate (Rampart's walk), the Western Wall Tunnels and the Pools of Bethesda. If you would like to visit the museum in conjunction with a tour of the Old City you might consider stopping at the museum after visiting the Temple Mount (use the northeastern exit near Lion's Gate) or the Western Wall Tunnels (after exiting the tunnels walk directly across the street to the Church of Flagellation). The SBF museum is just inside the courtyard near the walkway to the bathrooms.

Operating Hours and Admission
The official website for the museum is here.
Open Tuesday-Saturday 9:00-1:00; 2:00-4:00
Entrance Fee - 5 NIS

Museum Information and Touring Suggestions
Biblewalks has a nice overview of the Church of the Condemnation/Monastery of the Flagellation's history. Since our goal is to discuss the museum only we will leave the Church and its (historically problematic) tradition to others.

The SBF museum is by no means a "new" museum as it was originally founded in 1931 (it seems no coincidence that this followed the laying of the foundation of the Rockefeller Museum in 1930). Since then the museum has added to its collection through excavations sponsored by the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. Some of these excavations include: Bab edh-Drah, Mt. of Olives (including Dominus Flevit), Nazareth, Bethlehem, Herodium, Machaerus, and Capernaum. Recently, the SBF museum has undergone a facelift and its exhibits are a bit more accessible. Their website describes the layout of the museum as follows:
Three rooms were dedicated to the excavations at Nazareth, Capharnaum and Dominus Flevit, respectively. This prominence was due in view of the importance these sites had in commencing a new era of Christian archaeology in the Holy Land, in unraveling the problem of Christian origins, especially the history of the Judaeo-Christian communities of Palestine. In order of importance the other rooms are subdivided among other excavations made on the Mount of Olives, in the sanctuaries of Jerusalem and its vicinity, in the desert of Judea, in Transjordan, and in two Herodian fortresses Machaerus and Herodion. The purpose is to characterize the SBF collection in such a way as to be correctly perceived as Jerusalem's archaeological Museum of Christian origins, at the service of scholars and pilgrims who, in ever greater numbers, visit the Holy Land.

In addition to these important collections, the SBF museum has a great collection/display of pottery from the Chalcolithic to Byzantine periods showing the different forms of vessels (e.g. jug) and their development through time. Of special note is their collection of lamps from the Early Bronze Age-Byzantine period—I know of no better location to witness the major shifts in the development of the lamp form. This is a great location to point out the difference between an Iron Age II "lamp unto my feet" (Psalm 119:105) and the kind of Roman lamp that the "ten virgins meet the bridegroom" (Matt. 25:1).

Reconstruction of 1st cent. CE/AD house from Capernaum (i.e. Peter's house)

As you might expect from a Catholic School/Monastery in Jerusalem the main thrust of the museum is directed towards Christian Archaeology (first century CE–Byzantine era), but that does not mean that there is not important material from earlier periods. There are some fantastic local Canaanite and imported Cypriot vessels from the Early Bronze-Late Bronze Age that come from the excavations in and around the ancient city of Jebus (cf. 2 Sam. 5). There are also some very nice Egyptian and Hyksos seals in the scriptorium room. For those interested in the early Canaanite period, do check out the back room where there is an exhibit on Bab edh-Dhra (Early Bronze–Intermediate Bronze, ca. 3300–2000 BCE).

For all of its strong points, the SBF museum's artifacts do lack sufficient labeling for most of its materials. However, this seems to also be changing as they continue their facelift with plans of even adding a multimedia room in the near future.

In conclusion, the SBF museum should not be on your "must see" list whenever you visit Israel, however, if you have an extra half-hour to spend in the Old City it is well worth a visit even for first-time visitors. It is a decent stand-in for the Israel Museum if you don't have enough time for a visit (although I would recommend the nearby Rockefeller Museum before the SBF). For returnees to the country I would strongly recommend checking out this small museum, as it will both inform visitors on the archaeology on some of Christianity's most heralded sites, as well as help understand the development of Christian Archaeology in the Holy Land over the last century-and-a-half.
26 Apr 20:35

PZ's Wonderful Exam Question

by (Laurence A. Moran)
PZ Myers has just given his students a take-home exam. Here's one of the questions [It’s another exam day! ] ...
Question 1: One of Sarah Palin’s notorious gaffes was her dismissal of “fruit fly research” — she thought it was absurd that the government actually funded science on flies. How would you explain to a congressman that basic research is important? I’m going to put two constraints on your answer: 1) It has to be comprehensible to Michele Bachmann, and 2) don’t take the shortcut of promising that which you may not deliver. That is, no “maybe it will cure cancer!” claims, but focus instead on why we should appreciate deeper knowledge of biology.
That first restriction is going to make answering the question a real challenge 'cause you have to take into account the mentality of someone who is not just scientifically illiterate but scientifically anti-literate.

Nevertheless, this is exactly the sort of thing you want your science graduates to know.

26 Apr 20:33

Paul the Zealot?

by Brian LePort
Icon of Paul's 'Damascus Road' conversion.

Icon of Paul’s ‘Damascus Road’ conversion.

Josephus divided the Judaism of his day into four main philosophies: Pharisees, Zealots, Sadducees, and Essenes. In Ant. 18:23 he writes regarding the Zealots,

“But of the fourth sect of Jewish philosophy, Judas the Galilean was the author. These men agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty; and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord. They also do not value dying any kind of death, nor indeed do they heed the deaths of their relations and friends, nor can any such fear make them call any man Lord…”[1]

The Zealots were Pharisees who advocated violent resistance against anyone who would claim to be a Ruler or Lord who was not Israel’s God. Josephus is not fond of the Zealots. He blames them for many of the terrible things that came upon the Jews as resistance to Rome increased. He says in 18:4b-5 that Judas and those with him that they, “…became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty: as if they could procure them happiness and security for what they possessed, and an assured enjoyment of a still greater good, which was that of the honor and glory they would thereby acquire for magnanimity.”[2] In other words, according to Judas, there motives were not pure, but they desired to be made famous by their actions. In 18:6-10 the Zealots are depicted as a riotous bunch whose, “…sedition at last increased so high, that the very temple of God was burnt down by their enemy’s fire.”[3]

Joan E. Taylor makes an intriguing observation in The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism about Paul. She writes,

“Interestingly, when the apostle Paul refers to his ‘former life in Judaism’ (Gal. 1:13-14), he professes to have been extremely zealous (ζηλωτὴς) for the traditions of his ancestors. In Phil. 3:5-6 he describes himself in terms of the Law as a Pharisee and in terms of zeal (ζῆλος) as a persecutor of the Church. In other words, his zeal manifested itself in action, in his case the action of persecuting those who claimed that the Messiah had already come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.”[4]

If the Zealots were Pharisees who advocated active, violent resistance to Rome, and if Paul was a Pharisee known for his violence against early disciples of Jesus, then it may follow that Paul was a Zealot. This provides for an interesting contrast with some of Paul’s fellow Pharisees. In Acts 5:34-39 we find Gamaliel, a Pharisee who was influential over his contemporaries as well as later generations (who is said to have been Paul’s teacher in Acts 22:3), addressing a Sanhedrin, warning against attacking the apostles. He is presented as saying,

“Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men.

“For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing.

“After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered.

“So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.” [5]

Now, it is not impossible to validate the historicity of this speech, nor can we separate Gamliel’s words from his Lukan depiction, but we do see that he is remembered as a moderate, cautious Pharisee. This places him in contrast with Paul, a violent Pharisee. Whether Paul was of the “fourth philosophy” before his “Damascus Road” conversion, as it is called, I do not know, but he seems to fit the description.

[1] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).

[2] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).

[3] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).

[4] Joan E. Taylor, The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 237.

[5] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update, Ac 5:35–39 (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).

Filed under: Antiquities, Book of Acts, Epistle of Galatians, Epistle of Philippians, Joan E. Taylor, Josephus, Judaism, Pauline Studies, Pharisees/ Sadducees/ Essenes, Zealots Tagged: Josephus, Paul, Pharisees, Zealots
26 Apr 20:32

Urban Legend? Hopefully, But Probably Not.

by Jimpithecus
A friend of mine sent this to me from  It is, purportedly, a quiz given in a fourth grade science class at a school in South Carolina.

As Snopes points out:
The title of the quiz is the same as that of a DVD produced by the group Answers in Genesis and hews closely to the material presented therein, including the admonition that "if someone tells you the earth is millions of years old, what should be your reply? Were you there?" and the reference to the Bible as the History Book of the Universe.
Snopes does not come down either way on the authenticity of the quiz, but suggests that the source of the information is credible. They list it as "probably true." I think it probably is also, and is not far from what quite of a few of these private schools likely teach. I have no empirical evidence for that, however. If this is true, once again, this is what will kill the voucher program. All that the opponents of vouchers have to do is point out this kind of use and it is lights out. That is a shame.
26 Apr 20:30

Internet Monk: "The Disney-ization of Christianity Continues Apace"

by Jimpithecus
In his "Updates on the Creation Wars," Chaplain Mike airs his thoughts on the new Noah's Ark theme center at Cornerstone Church, in San Antonio, Texas.  He writes:
Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, famous for Pastor John Hagee and his over-the-top dioramic teaching on prophecy and the End Times, is about to treat us with a 28,400 square foot building portraying Noah’s Ark, complete with “true-to-size animatronics animals…to underscore the Bible’s authenticity.”...I guess if your goal is to sell a product, Disney is the way to go; after all, they’re pros at it.

If your goal is to follow Jesus, I’m not so sure.
Agreed.  Don't miss his definition of "Disney-ization."  This is the direction modern evangelical Christianity is headed. 
26 Apr 19:49

A New Era for WIT!

by Women of WIT

Finally, dear readers, the time has come: the women of WIT are pleased to announce the addition of five new members, whom we are excited to introduce below.

We’d like to say first that when we put out a call for new bloggers back in February, we actually weren’t sure that we would get any applications, so it felt like a risk. But we were pleasantly surprised to receive upwards of twenty-five applications from smart, interesting women dedicated to the task of doing Christian theology well and with women’s voices at the forefront.

We wish that we could take everybody right now, but we do hope that WIT will expand over the years, and we would love to have those women reapply at those expansion points. In any case, we ourselves have now seen proof of the need for women in theology to have spaces online to dialogue critically and creatively, with and for each other.

So without further ado, we’d like to announce that we are adding the following women:

Amaryah Shaye, Brandy Daniels, Janice Rees, Maria McDowell, and Elissa Cutter. As you’ll see below, each of these women brings her own particular area of expertise and interest, which we believe will really enhance WIT’s Christian feminist mission.

We’re staggering the inclusion process a bit since expanding well takes time, energy, and prudence, so Amaryah, Brandy, and Janice will start blogging in May, and Maria and Elissa will start in November.

Here are their bios!

Amaryah Shaye graduated from Candler School of Theology with a Masters of Theological Studies and a love of interdisciplinary scholarship. From systematic theology to critical race theory, urban planning to French philosophy, and queer theory to anarchism she enjoys creating new thoughts from a wide array of intellectual companions. Currently, she is reading various theological and non-theological writings on place and thinking about how Christian articulations and practices of desire cultivate affective capacities for intimacy with places. She is curious about how, in modernity, these Christian articulations and practices of desire collide with and lend themselves to White supremacist aims–particularly through racialized arrangements of space (think segregation, gentrification and displacement, incarceration)–especially in how cities get planned and rearranged, how rural and semi-rural land gets claimed and reclaimed, and how suburban “placelessness” gets constructed… all depending on their desirability to whiteness. For Amaryah, these topics raise questions of how the spatial ramifications of Christianity’s collision and complicity with White supremacy take on a particularly erotic and gendered nature by virtue of the racialized desire White supremacist (re)arrangements of space depend on for their success. In addition to reading, writing, and thinking, she  is also a burgeoning techie, long time gamer, songwriter, typesetter and ebook developer, liminal Catholic, and black quasi-anarchist queer.

Brandy Daniels is a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University, where she is also in the fellowship program in Theology and Practice. She has just finished her second year in the program which means she has finished coursework (finally!) and has begun the process of studying for her comprehensive exams. She has an M.Div. (with a certificate in Gender, Theology, and Ministry) and an A.M (Comparative Literature, African American Studies) from Duke University. Her research interests center around questions of theological anthropology at the intersections of systematic theology, critical theory, ethics, and identity. More specifically, she is interested in exploring ways in which theological discourse has operated as a site of knowledge production towards problematic constructions of gender, sexuality, and race and how, in light of such constructions, theological discourse can be liberative. Some of the other/related theological interests and questions she is passionate about are the state of feminism in the theological academy;  kinships structures in contemporary Western culture, in Christian ecclesial contexts, and in marginalized communities; and in the works of Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. She is also under-care for ordination with the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church). Oh, and when she’s not studying, she likes to run and ride her bike (she’s currently training for an Ironman), hang out with friends, and drink good beer, especially good IPA’s.

Janice Rees is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Charles Sturt University (Sydney) and is due to complete her dissertation in July 2013 (phew!).  Her research is focused on the relationship between systematic theology and feminist theology / gender theory. She is interested in exploring the ways historical Christian faith provides resources for responding to the complex contemporary questions of gender and difference. In particular, she seeks to highlight the significance of classical doctrine –such as the doctrine of creation, sin, and the Trinity – in responding to contemporary philosophical challenges. She is very much interested in the theology of Sarah Coakley, Kathryn Tanner and Rowan Williams. However, Janice is not simply interested in defending ‘systematic theology’ against the many charges levelled against the discipline (which she believes are more often than not, accurate) and she spends many hours lamenting the indifference she encounters to the questions she believes are at the centre of whatever ‘systematic’ might mean. As an ordained minister in the Salvation Army, Janice pastored two churches over the past six years and in July will take up a position as lecturer in systematic theology at a regional college in Fiji (where she now lives). She loves to run, swim, dance, and make up whimsical tales with her two vivacious children (aged 6 and 2).

Maria Gwyn McDowell holds a doctorate in Theological Ethics from Boston College. She is feminist, a student of liberation theology, and a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is her life-long participation in Orthodoxy that motivates her to advocate for the ministry of Orthodox women, in particular, their ordination. Orthodoxy is her home, her joy, her love, and her abiding frustration, which is why she remains Orthodox and chooses to speak from within. Along with her commitment to more abstract theological discourse regarding gender, sexuality and women in the church (and various other topics that tickle her fancy), she is highly committed to ensuring that her god-daughter knows that she too is fully made in the image of God. In addition to all the requisite spiritual and theological education, this entails impressing upon this youthful spirit a deep and fanatical love for the Rose City Thorns, offering ongoing instruction in appropriate heckling and side-line coaching at all available home games. When not attending soccer matches (the Timbers are an acceptable second to the Thorns), reading, writing or engaged in gainful employment she may be hiking the Columbia Gorge, drinking snooty micro-brewed beer at her favorite watering holes, or spending time with her lovely family.

Elissa Cutter is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Saint Louis University who focuses primarily on seventeenth-century French Catholicism. In particular, she first became interested in the movement known as “Jansenism” after reading the Pensées of Blaise Pascal in a French literature class while studying abroad in Strasbourg, France. Presently, her research looks at the writings of Angélique Arnauld, the abbess of the Jansenist convent of Port-Royal, and argues that her sacramental and ecclesiological contributions qualify her to be considered a theologian just as much as the more well known male figures of the movement (e.g., Cornelius Jansen, Blaise Pascal, Antoine Arnauld, etc.). While initially resistant to being pegged as another woman theologian studying female figures, in her dissertation work she’s fully embraced the efforts of feminist theology to recover female theologians of the past. Of course, in examining Mother Angélique as theologian, her work also touches on the metaquestions of “what is theology?” and “what makes someone a theologian?” Although trained historically, Elissa is interested in wider questions related to ecclesiology, authority, sacramentology, and religion in France (in this case, especially in church-state relations, both historically—in the early modern period through the French revolution—and today). In her teaching, Elissa tries to emphasize the relevance of understanding theology for popular culture, through literature, movies, and music (drawing on everyone from Madonna to Joan Osborne to Lady Gaga). In her free time, Elissa frequently goes hiking and rock climbing with her husband. She also loves to cook. While working on her M.A. her grandmother suggested she purchase a slow cooker and since then she’s found slow cooking to be especially suitable for the graduate student lifestyle.

Please give these women a warm welcome and wish us well in this new phase of collaboration!

Filed under: Uncategorized
26 Apr 13:05

"He Intended to Pass Them By": A Meditation on Mark

by Jared Calaway

When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land.  When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea.  He intended to pass them by.  But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified.  But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”  Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.  And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:47-52)

The more I read the Gospel of Mark, the weirder the Gospel seems.  It is not necessarily weird in and of itself, but the relationship between my expectation of what the Gospel says and what it actually says is often discordant.  I am perhaps too influenced by Matthew’s and Luke’s glosses, emendations, and so forth.  So that whenever I return to Mark, I find some passages to be quite startling.  And this is one of them.  And it is what the other Gospels drop from this passage that stopped me in my tracks while reading it.

On the surface, it is a rather familiar passage:  Jesus walking on water.  But most likely, whenever most people think of Jesus walking on water they think of the version in Matthew and think of Mark more often when Jesus calms the sea (Mark 4:35-41).  Matthew’s version is much longer, and alters the text quite a bit.  After a rewriting of the introduction, a shift occurs:

And early In the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.  But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!”  And they cried out in fear.  But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  He said, “Come.”  So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.  But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matt 14:25-33)

As Matthew does elsewhere (such as in Peter’s confession), he promotes Peter as the preeminent disciple, though a brash one, and uses this episode to illustrate this evolving view of Peter’s significance that is not found so much in Mark. 

In appending the story, Matthew has completely changed the point of the story as it is found in Mark.  In Matthew, it promotes Peter’s faith as great, but ultimately insufficient.  It is a story of faith and doubt—something that seems fitting for the Gospel of John (and, n.b., this is one of those few synoptic episodes that has a counterpart in John—see John 6:15-21).  And it is a further illustration of Jesus’ identity as “the Son of God.”  For Mark, on the other hand, there is little discussion here of faith and doubt.  It is rather yet another illustration of the disciples’ lack of understanding—something that is highlighted in Mark, but consistently muted in Matthew and Luke (see their discussions of the “Mystery of the Kingdom”).  Luke, interestingly, drops this entire episode.

John also drops quite a bit without making Matthew’s additions—in fact, John’s version is the shortest of all of them:

When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum.  It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.  The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.  When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified.  But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”  Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

Firstly, in each case, the episode is attached to Jesus’ multiplication of loaves and fishes.  But for Matthew, this seems to be a weak attachment; it is one of narrative sequencing.  Whereas for Mark there is a more inherent connection.  In John, too, Jesus walking on water is not only set up by the multiplication of loaves, but subsequently sets up the whole “I am the bread from heaven” speech, and is able to integrate the episode more fully. 

But both Matthew and John do not have a few interesting phrases.  Both have dropped quite a bit.  Other than John dropping the whole “ghost” thing, both Matthew and John drop the following parts:

            He intended to pass them by. 

And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

Why would these phrases be dropped?  Or why would Mark have them at all?  The first is rather ambiguous.  For Matthew, the entire episode is a set-up, a lesson on faith and doubt and to demonstrate Jesus’ greatness as “the son of God.”  This is not present in Mark’s text.  In fact, Jesus simply “intended to pass them by.”  Perhaps Jesus is hoping not to be seen, and if that is his intention, from Jesus’ perspective it is not setting up a scene of faith and doubt—the scene, or the revelation of the scene, is completely accidental (though, of course, not from the narrative perspective).  Is this part of the whole “messianic secret trope”?  If so, it seems a slight inversion of it.  That is, elsewhere the disciples are supposed to be witnesses of things as the receiver of secrets and mysteries that are concealed to the public, while here it was supposed to be concealed from them.

Perhaps it makes the reader suspect that there may have been many times Jesus has just passed by and the miraculous has gone completely unnoticed.  Or is it that Jesus knew they wouldn’t comprehend, and therefore did not intend for them to see.  It also has the (perhaps unintended) connotation that things do not always go as Jesus planned.  One can see why John would have dropped this phrase, since there Jesus is always in control of his actions and knows what will happen—what others responses will be.  Here, Jesus intended one thing, but his will and his actions do not fully coincide. 

The second is quite startling.  It firstly directly relates the disciples’ astonishment with their failure to understand the loaves.  Why?   One should recall that there are two loaves and fishes episodes in Mark (6:30-44; 8:1-9).  It is one of the many doublets that characterize the document.  Other than the numbers being different between the two episodes is a strange similarity:  the disciples’ response is equally incredulous.  There is no development between the two.  It is a tribute to their denseness.  And this denseness is now expressed in their astonishment on the sea.

Next, it says, “their hearts were hardened.”  Not only are the disciples’ hard-headed, but hard-hearted.  This language has a clear echo throughout the Bible.  One immediately thinks of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened.  It is something that typically occurs with God’s enemies (Exod. 7:3, 14).  No wonder this was dropped in the other gospels.  But, nonetheless, why does Mark portray the disciples similarly to God’s enemies, like Pharaoh, in the Bible?
26 Apr 13:02

Liberty Counsel redefining ‘Christian’ just as Falwell did

by Fred Clark

“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” — 1 John 4:20

Matt Barber of Liberty Counsel/Liberty University explains how the religious right’s opposition to marriage equality is a return to the roots of the religious right and an effort to recapture the spark that first got white evangelicals politically engaged back in the 1970s:

It’s like the Bob Jones decision that said – which was a ultimately good decision – that said Bob Jones University could not have a ban on interracial dating. Well, they are going to apply that same type of logic to this. Basically, all bets are off; it will be the criminalization of Christianity.

It’s the government against Christians if gay marriage becomes the law of the land and that’s not hyperbole.

Barber is confused on several points here.

First he says that legalizing same-sex marriage would be an attack on Christianity “like the Bob Jones decision” was. But then he remembers that in 2013, it’s no longer acceptable to rail against the Bob Jones decision as an example of the persecution of Christians the way that Liberty’s founder, Jerry Falwell, did back when he was founding the Moral Majority. So Barber quickly corrects himself to say it was “ultimately a good decision” — thereby ruining his own analogy.

Barber also mischaracterizes what the Bob Jones decision actually said. It did not say “Bob Jones University could not have a ban on interracial dating,” only that BJU could not have both such a ban and keep its tax-exempt status.

BJU fought in court to preserve both for nearly a decade before the Supreme Court settled the matter in 1983, at which point the school had to choose one or the other, and BJU opted to keep its racist policy. That policy remained in place until 2000.

The beginning of that court battle back in 1976 was the spark that set the religious right ablaze. Falwell denounced the revocation of BJU’s tax-exempt status as government interference in Christian schools in the same terms Barber is using today: “the criminalization of Christianity” and “the government against Christians.”

Falwell made that argument in 1976 in defense of Bob Jones’ racial discrimination. Matt Barber is making that argument in 2013 in defense of discrimination against LGBT people.

Now, as then, the word “Christianity” is being used as a synonym for unvarnished bigotry.

That is what Liberty Counsel means when it says it is a “Christian” organization. That is what Liberty University means when it says it is a “Christian” college.

The author of 1 John would have been very confused by this use of the word “Christian.”

26 Apr 13:01

English Lessons by “Dr.” David Tee

by agathos

“Dr.” David Tee–or as prd has suggested, we should address him by his full academic title, David Tee–claims to be an English teacher. He has even published a book on teaching. But as the blurb on the back of the book demonstrates, he shouldn’t be teaching English to anyone, anywhere, ever.

How about that run-on sentence? Ever heard of a comma or a coordinating conjunction?

Anyways I saw this ad and figured he must be getting back into teaching English:

Teaching English Is Easy

I’m guessing with the complete lack of honesty he has demonstrated in his time online that the picture is fake, but the writing? Yeah, that’s all him!

26 Apr 13:00

An Economic Jubilee — Reading The Politics of Jesus

by Kendall Beachey

John Howard Yoder The Politics of Jesus

Essay Posts

Foreclosures, mounting debts, rich taking advantage of the poor, trapping people in cycles of poverty through loopholes, a lack of opportunities, education, or sufficient startup capital to raise them out of the clutches of low wage employment, and routine late fees and debt. Unfortunately this scene is all too familiar. While we would like to imagine we live in a society which has by and large corrected these systemic problems, one need not even look to the squaller of slums and ghettos in major metropolitan centers to know that this is not the case, most of us need only consider the friend or relative who faced foreclosure, the parent laid off do to the exportation of blue collar jobs, or the acquaintance shackled with mounting medical bills following a serious diagnosis.

If we are familiar, even in a superficial way, with these hardships in our present day, then it should not surprise us to fine strikingly similar economic situations when looking into the time during which Jesus lived in Palestine, and to find Jesus, throughout his ministry, addressing them. Following Yoder’s overview of the ministry of Jesus in his previous chapter he now turns to examining in closer detail some of the particularities found within that summary. As a starting point, in his chapter Implications of the Jubilee, Yoder focuses on the famous Luke 4:18 quotation of Isaiah 61 ending with the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Within the prevous chapter Yoder had considered this quotation to be a declaration of the year of Jubilee: the year within Israel’s history, coming every 50 years, when debts are forgive, land returned to their families, slaves release — leveling the economic playing field, the rich sacrificing their wealth and the poor being restored to solvency. Here Yoder turns to address the specifics of Jesus’ minstry as a declaration of Jubilee. He identifies four distinguishing marks of what constituted Jubilee, using them to address the extent to which this Jubliee year was being implemented previous to Jesus and how this Jubliee declaration might be found within the traching and ministry of Jesus. The four distinguishing marks of the Jubilee — a) a year of leaving the soil fallow, b) the remission of debts, c) the liberation of slaves, and d) the return to each individual of his family’s property — form the structure of the chaper and will be laid out in more detail below.

The Fallow Year

The fallow year was the most ubiquitously adopted of the Jubilee measures, though not without its share of corner cutting and insincerity. The principle of leaving their fields fallow every seventh years was regularly practiced within Israel, a command as much tied to the faith of Israel to rely on the Lord for provision as it was to sound agricultural practices. Because of this it is not surprising to find that Jesus said little in regards to this element of the Jubilee, though  his Sermon on the Plain exhortation to not worry about what to eat or wear because “your Father knows that you need them” carries with it some connotations of the sort of Jubilee faith Jesus may have been seeking. Rather than seen as a exhortation of confident laziness, within this context Yoder sees the passage better read as:

“If you work six days (or years) with all your heart, you can count on God to take care of you and yours. So without fear leave your field untilled. As he does for the birds of heaven which do not sow or harvest or collect into granaries, God will take care of your needs. The Gentiles who pay no attention to the sabbath are not richer than you.”

Remission of Debts and Liberation of Slaves

Yoder spends significantly more time on the latter three Jubilee identifiers, especially as it relates to the forgiveness of debts and the liberations of slaves, a topic which sits central to Jesus’ teaching. In the Lord’s prayer, Yoder sees the use of the word aphiemi (remit, send away, liberate, forgive a debt) for the  verb  “remit us our debts,” a word used often in connection with the Jubilee, as establishing  the “Our Father” as “genuinely a jubilee prayer.” It is here Jesus, so often seen as a liberal in many aspects,  establishes what could be seen as his most legalistic equation: “the aphesis of God toward you becomes vain if you do not practice aphesis toward each other.”

Both the parable of the unmerciful servant and the unfaithful steward further expound on Jesus’ understanding on this point. Yoder argues our readings of these parables lose their meaning when read without an understanding of the socio-economic atmosphere of the first century. The servant of the first parable was in fact a real person, whose plight was not unlike many living in Galilee at the time, who had once been land owners but who had been reduced to practical slavery through debt — the mounting unpaid debts growing to a point when the creditor orders the sharecropper sold with his wife, children, and possessions to cover the debt. But in keeping with the Jubilee year the king aphiem the servants debts.

Yet Jesus does not end his parable here, with the encouraging promise of the overwhelming economic hardship being wiped away, but rather his point is found in the second half, where the servant refuses to extend the same jubilee forgiveness to a fellow servant who owes a much more modest sum, insisting he “Pay me what you owe me.” When the unmerciful servant comes before the king, the extension of Jubilee is no longer applicable, he will be sold with his wife and children. There is not divine jubilee for for those who refuse to apply it on earth.

Since the jubilee remission of debts froze credit, even the orthodox rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, sought solutions to the problems of strictly applying the troubling aspects of this  jubilee requirement. The solution was called a prosboul, — the very existence of which at the time of Jesus  indicates there was a strong current favoring strict application of the jubilee provisions. The prosboul allowed for a creditor to transfer to the court the right to recover in his name a debt which the sabbatical year would have canceled. With these provisions, the collecting of interest and the continuation of debt past the sabbatical year became possible and Jesus’ indictment of the Pharisees who “devoured the houses of widows” (Mark 12:40) comes into focus.

While in other issues Jesus appeared to be a liberal when it came to Sabbath law, when it came to economic justice he goes further than the Pharisees. His insistence that “God made the sabbath for humankind” mean that sabbatical year, like the day of sabbath, must be practiced in such a way as to “liberate people and not enslave them.” Rather than fearing lose, the rich are, per the Sermon on the Plain, to be generous without the fear of not being repaid since God will take care of them. And those who are in debt should hurry to repay their debts. If their creditor wants to the take away your tunic (as a security for a debt) to give your coat as well. In addition, Jesus instructs his listeners to hasten to make peace with their creditors on the road before they are handed over to the court, from which they will not be released until the last penny is paid.

The second parable is that of the unfaithful servant. Once again, the meaning of this parable comes into focus when understood in light of common practice of the time. Since only the rich kept record of debts owed, the inflating of debts was not an uncommon practice. Since most rural property owners had lost their land, they were at the the mercy of often absentee owners to which they were enslaved by debt. The accountants often presented to these owners fraudulent books, the true debts owed drastically increased, which allowed them to accumulate in a few years what Jesus called “unrighteous wealth.”

Within the parable the owner discovers his steward has been dishonest, not only inflating the debts of the sharecroppers, but stealing from this employer. This steward, realizing his time in his present position is short and he will never be able to repay the embezzled funds, goes to the sharecroppers, marking down their debt from the inflated amount to the correct amount owed — 100 becoming 50, 100 becoming 80. While this behavior would certainly further drive the steward into poverty, he would in the process acquire what Jesus calls true wealth — the friendship and gratitude of his former victims. Jesus declares his listeners should “make friends with unrighteous wealth,” by practicing jubilee, forgiving the debts owed you, in order to “liberate yourself from the bonds which keep you from being ready for the kingdom of God.”

The Redistribution of Capital

The fourth indicator of Jubilee finds itself in one of Jesus’ most radical calls on his disciples — that of voluntary poverty. While the church has traditionally accepted the, far easier,  interpretation of Jesus’ call to “sell all you have and give it to the poor” as a ‘counsel of perfection’ rather than one for all Christians at all times. While this interpretation could be acceptable, much of Jesus’ further teaching criticized those who found the base charity of the tithe adequate, insisting his listeners go further to fulfill the “more important points of the law: righteousness, goodness, good faith.” Yoder interprets this “righteousness, goodness, good faith” as meaning to give away ones own capital to the benefit of the poor. As seen in the story of he widow giving in the temple, the point becomes clear, it is not how much you give as long as it is from the surplus of ones income, but rather what is important is giving out of ones capital.

Yet it is not Yoder’s belief that Jesus commanded Christian communism. He sees Jesus’s call was not a “counsel of perfection” or a constitutional commandment for a utopian Israel state, rather is was a once time call in a moment of history for his disciples to put into practice the jubilee ordinance as a “refreshment” prefiguring the “reestablishment of all things.” It was Jesus in 26 A.D. proclaiming his ministry as a jubilee moment which was preparing for the coming kingdom.

The issue of economic facing human society has not sat dormant in the millenniums since Jesus preached throughout Galilee and Judea. Yoder presents a radical interpertation of Jesus’ teachings in the context of the economics of his day. His parables take on a fierce urgency against the backdrop of the greed, oppression, and unjust debts which where prevalent in the lives of his hearers. While the matter of Jesus calling a Jubilee  warrants further investigation, Jesus’ message of a radical return to economic justice is beyond dispute. While often Jesus’ parables on debt have been primarily seen as speaking only to “spiritual things” such as the forgiveness of sins, Yoder’s insistence that Jesus be understood in a political light forces us to understand his parables against the economic backdrop of his day and to see how those same parables may find significance in the present landscape of financial misdealings and economic injustice and unrighteous wealth devouring the houses of the poor, minorities, working class, and widows.

26 Apr 11:40

Jesus and Me: One Jew’s Encounter with the Christian “Other” (Part II) – guest post by Larry Behrendt

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Part I was published yesterday and can be found here.
Like most Jews, I grew up knowing next to nothing about Christianity. So what caused me to take the New Testament off the shelf? Two events of little intellectual consequence: the publication of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”, and the release of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” The Brown book came first. I thought the book was a silly page-turner, but I wondered if there might be something to the story it told of Christian origins. Could it be that the real Jesus was just an ordinary human being, with a wife and kids, and that the history of Christian-Jewish enmity was based on a misunderstanding? Answer: hardly. But I’ll give Brown credit for planting an idea in my mind, that the real Jesus might have been different than the man-God portrayed by the church.
Oddly enough, Gibson’s “Passion” movie taught me a similar lesson:  that the Jesus story might be told in different ways, with different potential impacts on Jewish-Christian relations. I felt that it was important that more Jews master the nuances of the Jesus story. Yes, there’s plenty of anti-Jewish content in the New Testament, and it’s possible to tell the Jesus story like Gibson did, with Jesus on one side, and the Jews on the other. But if the New Testament is portrayed with an anti-Jewish slant, then the portrayal is anti-Jesus as well. The New Testament tells us that Jesus was a Jew, and also that his parents were Jewish, his teachers were Jewish, his friends were Jewish, he ate Jewish food, his scriptures were the Torah, Prophets and Writings, he lived in a Jewish village, he was taxed like a Jew, he began his ministry in association with the Jewish John the Baptist, he gathered Jews as his disciples, he preached “only to the lost sheep of Israel,” and he died having been accused of claiming to be the “King of the Jews”. 
We have a tendency to talk about Jesus’ Jewishness in a way that’s different from how we would talk about the Jewishness of Jesus’ Jewish opponents, or Rabbi Hillel, or Golda Meir. We tend to think of Jesus’ Jewishness as something that he was merely born into and then emerged from, even escaped from … that Jesus was a Jew like my father (born in Berlin in 1927) was a German. Or we imagine that Jesus was Jewish plus, a Table-Fellowship Jew, a Feminist Jew, a Universalist Jew, a New Covenant Jew or a Jewish Christian. 
But as for me -- I think Jesus was a Jewish Jew.  
To show that Jesus differed from Judaism, some folks point to Jesus’ arguments with other Jews about Jewish law. But Jews have been arguing about the law with other Jews since day one.  Sometimes Jesus took a lenient position (picking grain on Shabbat, see Mark 2:23-28), and sometimes he took a strict position (divorce, see Matthew 19:9). It all looks perfectly Jewish to me. There are Jews who have taken a much more radical stance towards Jewish law: there are the Karaites, who deny the Oral Law altogether, and there are Reform Jews (like me) who deny the binding nature of the law. Compared to Jews like me, Jesus’ views concerning the law were positively mainstream. 
There’s another area where Jews butted heads with Jesus: the New Testament records frequent Jewish complaints that Jesus spent too much time eating with sinners (see for example Luke 15:2). But all Jews want sinners to repent; the question is how to bring this about. Evidently, some Jews felt that the best way to deal with recalcitrant sinners was to shun them, to exclude them from polite society until they showed a willingness to repent … and evidently Jesus felt that if you welcomed sinners into the heart of the community, then repentance would follow. It’s a question of tactics, and I think Jesus was the better tactician, even if the New Testament does not document vast numbers of sinners who repented at Jesus’ dinner table. But the question of tactics persists to this day, evidenced by the lack of pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, gun runners, terrorists, extortionists and other undesirables present at the average church social (not to mention the average Passover Seder). 
Anthony has asked here what kind of a Jew Jesus was. I think this is an important question, but it’s also a question we can overthink. I think the best answer to Anthony’s question is this: Jesus was a first-century kind of Jew. Sure, Jesus’ point of view differed from other first-century Jews, but there were considerable differences of opinion among first-century Jews. The famous historian Josephus identified 4 principal Jewish sects, and the Talmud later counted 24 sects, so there must have been room for Jews to disagree and still be counted as Jewish. With all of the Jewish criticism of Jesus recorded in the New Testament, I see nothing to indicate that Jesus intended to take his movement outside of Judaism, or that his movement was regarded as something other than Jewish by other Jews. Moreover, the Romans regarded Jesus as Jewish – the Romans may have intended to mock Jesus by executing him as “king of the Jews”, but the final identification of Jesus as “of the Jews” seems to have been accepted without question by all concerned. 
I conclude that if someone had followed Jesus out of a restaurant and asked him who he was, he would have answered that he was a Jew. If pressed, he might say that he was a Jewish Jew, and if pressed further, he would say that he was Mr. Jewish Jewy McJew Jew. This is not to say that Judaism is Christianity, or vice versa, and as for Jewish Christianity (or Messianic Judaism), I wish those folks the best of luck, but I think that the opportunity for being simultaneously Christian and Jewish passed from the world scene at least 1500 years ago. 
But I do think that Jews and Christians can (and should) do their Jewish shtick and their Christian thing in closer proximity. Christians worship the Jewish Jew Jesus as the second person of a triune God, but Christians have historically mangled their notion of what is Jewish. E.P. Sanders wrote in 1977 that the then-prevailing Christian view of first century Judaism was a “massive perversion and misunderstanding”. Working with Jews, Christians should be able to improve on this.  
As for Jews, we’re crazy if we turn our back on the most talked-about Jewish Jew in world history. It’s high time we claimed Jesus as our own, as a master teacher and story-teller, as the Jew who inspired more people to read our holy scriptures than any other. But here’s where we need Christian help, because we’ve too long associated the Jewish Jew Jesus with disputations, inquisitions and pogroms, and as a result we can’t make heads or tails of him. As I make Christian friends and learn how to speak the language of interfaith dialog, I increasingly come to associate Jesus with awe, reverence and an encounter with the divine that is experienced by billions of people. 
Christians and Jews need each other. This is why I write a blog.

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