Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Jonah chapter 4, God toying with us?

      6The LORD God appointed a little plant and caused it to grow up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to rescue him from his misery. Now Jonah was very delighted about the little plant. 7So God sent a worm at dawn the next day, and it attacked the little plant so that it dried up. 8When the sun began to shine, God sent a hot east wind. So the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he grew faint. So he despaired of life, and said, “I would rather die than live!” 9God said to Jonah, “Are you really so very angry about the little plant?” And he said, “I am as angry as I could possibly be!” 10The LORD said, “You were upset about this little plant, something for which you have not worked nor did you do anything to make it grow. It grew up overnight and died the next day. 11Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong, as well as many animals!”

I believe that this book of Jonah, like that of parts of Daniel, has been under a lot of scrutiny among scholars in recent times. I shouldn't feel this way (I remember religiously scribbling "amen" next to one modern trinitarian writer cited by Holmes who stated the need for solid historical foundation in our theology), but something in me does not care too much. Jesus spoke of Jonah (although see a future post I am planning on interpretation), and perhaps most significantly, this little worm story is something that really connects to my own experience. I am the sulky Jonah. So often I have found myself in this story; I am surprised it has not captured inspirational and exhortation Christian writers' imagination more to be honest. Anyway, I feel confused. I have studied this and Job many times, and I get the many spiritual insights available here, and even try to come up with my own.

This sub-story in Jonah is actually a little peculiar. If you first read verse 5, you realise that Jonah already seems to have some sort of manmade shelter from the sun. But the point is that God enhances this physical experience for him, before sending the worm. Was the LORD toying with Jonah here? In any case, we see for the second time an anger problem flare up here for Jonah.

My connection with Jonah is through a physical issue (actually I have two physical issues, but for the sake of this post I am focusing on one of them). For me it is my left ankle, as it happens. I am passionate about running, but only since my late twenties (now in my mid-thirties). It seemed to me, a few years ago, that I had a choice about the running. This activity itself seemed to come from nowhere; it was healthy, it connected me with other people in a fantastic way, provided me with many God-encounters in his beautiful creation, and I am sure connected with a competitive side. Races, and training for races, were also deeply emotional experiences for me as it seemed like I had to apply every aspect of my being into a goal to achieve it, and this in such a way I felt the apostle Paul understood in his letters. So what was this choice? Clearly the running, left unchecked, could be dangerous for my heart and devotion to God. I therefore decided to do it for Him. My previous blog before this one was called "running with certainty". I began to pray before races and reach out with more deliberation to other runners. I resolved to "run for God", even while I realised that this was a slightly abstract idea, that was my choice. And then came the ankle injury, and it feels a lot like the worm in Jonah's story - except that I strangely have never experienced the anger (and I do experience anger and frustration in my character). I would say it is more like sadness, incomprehension, disappointment. Recently, and amazingly, for the first time in over 18 months, I had started to be able to run again without discomfort or pain. Then on Christmas Eve, it seemed like we returned to square 1 again. The pain is a lot more than physical though (e.g. this story and the main story).

There is also a connection (there always is, right?!) with my faith in God and doctrines. As I tentatively allowed my hopes to rise once again, I realised I cared more about resuming the running journey than the theological journey. As a father of a young family and other commitments, time is limited. Endurance running is time-hungry. I instinctively knew that I would be more than happy to refocus away from theology. I would of course continue to remain skeptical about any legalistic approach about Nicene wording, and would continue to enjoy meeting up with friends to reflect in safety. But I would be content to turn a page on this digging, and also perhaps enjoy some inner relief that I would not get myself into too much trouble.

"You are not getting off so easily". "Who, how and what I am is worth it".
I am not saying that God says this - but it is my interpretation.

Maybe that is why the injury came back. Who knows. Despite being in no position to question His wisdom, I question anyway this kind of strategy. I have a lot of questions as you know!

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Quick Christianity jabs

I am so grateful and glad that Daniel Wallace is alive, kicking and writing.

In his latest post on his blog, published yesterday here, Wallace easily deals with the hasty attack on Christianity by Kurt Eichenwald, who, writing for Newsweek, exaggerates the so-called unreliability of the New Testament transmission methods, even overstating Bart Ehrman's case. Just to give you an example of some of the unsubstantiated things Eichenwald says, and Wallace should have mentioned this I think, and this of the 381 Council of Constantinople: "a new agreement was reached—Jesus wasn’t two, he was now three—Father, Son and Holy Ghost." Oh really?!

One of Wallace's key points, however, is to state that we are not talking of a near-perpetual linear series of translations of translations, one of Eichenwald's points. All serious translations of today are working off manuscripts, some of which "go as far back as" the 2nd century.

I am currently reading through Wallace's book at the moment on Revisiting the Corruption of the New Tesetament: Manuscript, Patristic and Apocryphal Evidence. 

My intention, by the way, for anyone who is interested and for my own reference, is to publish chapter summaries. Each subject is distinct and actually written by a different scholar, with the whole lot edited by (and the first chapter written by) Daniel B. Wallace. In this book, one of the key challenges of Ehrman's interpretations is that he does not acknowledge his own biases, in particular the criteria of orthodox corruption. While that is not entirely true, from what I can see, we have another clear case here that works in the opposite direction. So when we see "as far back as the second century" from Wallace, Ehrman would maintain that the second century is still a fair old way off from the first and very fragmentary in what we do have, and even these are probably at least copies of copies of a copy (or of copies). He also would remind us that from the evidence we hold, in manuscript copying errors intensify the further you go back and that we simply "cannot know" what the originals said. 

While I agree with Wallace that Ehrman overstates his case, it is easier for me to see now when presumptions are "smuggled onto the table" (Stephen Holmes' expression), and here "as far back as" implies that this is an incredibly long way back. Challenged, the Wallace crew would be quick to compare to other ancient Greek texts that are much less well attested in terms of manuscript evidence. Ehrman is not in the business of comparing, however, and has no more faith in the copies of manuscripts that we have of Homer, for example, as representative of what was originally penned to parchment. 

But the key issue I think here in Wallace's otherwise solid defence against this weak attack by Eichenwald, is an often-forgotten translation stage. It seems to have been too obvious to mention by everyone, but it is not insignificant: the quotations in the gospels are already translations. We should be aware of that and reminded of that in these sorts of conversations. So in that sense, perhaps unwittingly, Eichenwald had a point he did not realise he was scoring!

Friday, 26 December 2014

Interpretations challenged

Hi - in today's post I am copying you in on an email (slightly edited for this post) that I recently sent to an experienced teacher specialised in inter-faith dialogue. Further context is provided in the email itself. Happy reading!

At one point, you described a passage in 1 Chronicles 22 as a “criticism” of God on David. I later raised my hand, tentatively I must say, to ask you publicly if you were absolutely sure of this interpretation. This subsequently opened up quite a few questions, but while you stuck to your position, I was impressed that you also invited me to respond. So it is with no little gratitude that I have a go here, especially as this gives me the opportunity to have a better look at these issues that are attached to this interpretation.

The passage in question is in 1 Chronicles 22 from verse 6, with some emphases from me:

Then he called for Solomon his son and charged him to build a house for the LORD, the God of Israel. David said to Solomon, “My son, I had it in my heart to build a house to the name of the LORD my God. But the word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘You have shed much blood and have waged great wars. You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood before me on the earth. Behold, a son shall be born to you who shall be a man of rest. I will give him rest from all his surrounding enemies. For his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days. 

You were very clear, that this has to be a criticism from God of David. I was initially unsure your interpretation was sound.  Now I am convinced it is not completely so, and will here attempt to respectfully demonstrate this, even if I am lead to confess by the end of this brief examination that the tone is somewhat more sombre than the joyous account provided by the author of Samuel. I will also show a commentary excerpt from Stephen McKenzie, which will also develop the Chronicler’s unique interpretation in this passage.

  1. Interpretation

First of all, we have to agree on your position being an interpretation and not some form of “literal” or “plain” reading of the text. Obviously I can have absolutely no issue with interpretation per se, as like everyone else, I also interpret this passage according to certain assumptions, we all do! The key assumption to getting from “so much blood” to “criticism”, is to assume that shedding blood is always bad/disobedient/sinful etc, is that correct? It may well be a defensible interpretation, but we have to agree that the bridge we cross here comes from us or elsewhere in the Bible, and not from the pericope.

If you have agreed that you were bringing an interpretation to the text, about God being critical of David in the shedding of blood, then I would invite you to read what I have to say about my interpretation, that is to say that God, and the Chronicler, is not directly criticising David about the blood shedding.

2. Criticism as given by the Chronicler

When I read the stories recounted by the Chronicler, I believe he makes it very plain when he understands God to be displeased with Israel, and Judah, and their respective monarchs. When God is “critical”, he knows how to make it explicitly clear. But what is it that arouses God’s displeasure and “criticism”? The fundamental and underlying principle that I can see is disobedience. Would you agree? To come back to the question of interpretation and what is explicit, I feel sure you would agree that God is explicitly unhappy and critical of kings who do not kill as he has commanded. These constitute some of the harder passages for us as Christians to “own”, but I remember you challenging us to be careful about shrugging off too quickly the Old Testament, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. Here are some passages that illustrate this with my underlining:

1 Chronicles 22:9

I will give him rest from all his surrounding enemies. For his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days. 

My interpretation here is that the Chronicler wants to chronicle the source of peace or war for the Israelites is YHWH. The bloody work of conquest is now done.

The impression I get reading the Old Testament is that God is more angry about disobedience than blood-shedding where blood-shedding is part of his plan and command.

2 Chronicles 25:2-4

[Amaziah] did what was right in the eyes of the LORD , but not wholeheartedly. After the kingdom was firmly in his control, he executed the officials who had murdered his father the king. Yet he did not put their children to death, but acted in accordance with what is written in the Law, in the Book of Moses, where the LORD commanded: ‘Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor children be put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.’

If we work off the assumption that blood, or "too much blood" is a personal criticism rather than a simple statement of fact in 1 Chronicles 22, then we might be tempted to think here we see the same principle, connecting "not wholeheartedly" with the executions.

I am again definitely arguing for a different interpretation here, which seems much more connected to YHWH's disapproval:

Neutral / did what was right:

  • Putting the kingdom under his control
  • Execution of officials

Did what was right in eyes of the LORD:

  • Not executing the families and children of the executed officials, according to God's law
  • Sending the Israelite troops home despite prepayment
  • Fighting with just the Judah forces, killing "10000 men of seir" in the battle before sending another 10000 over the cliff edge!

"Not wholeheartedly"

  • Bringing back the idols of the Seir people, worshipping them
  • The anger of the LORD burned against Amaziah. (V 15)
  • Ignored advice to not take on Jehoash king of Israel in battle.

I really liked the way, Charlie, you encouraged us to not disown the Old Testament, and some of its gruesome details, nor to minimise some of the problems we face there (presumably the Jews also are faced with some difficulties here). That is exactly why I am taking this position.

Where I acknowledge I am interpreting (I hope carefully) is to consider that different rules apply to war and non-war scenarios (not to execute officials families commended, but 20000 killed without further comment).

Let us move on to a recent commentary to see if I am off-track here.

3. Commentary support

Steven L. McKenzie, I & II Chronicles (Abingdon Old Testament Commentary, 2004). I have seen this scholar’s name mentioned in other works too, and believe he is a reliable source.

 I have also included in the attachments the three whole pages concerned by his analysis of this section of the Chronicles, that is p 179-181. [readers of this blog can consult these pages here]

I have attempted to remain faithful to the passage in question, and not digress to the “Deuteronomistic History”, by which I presume McKenzie is implying 2 Samuel 7, which is a different take entirely on why David is not to go about building it. It seems that by preventing David from doing so, God is bestowing an even greater blessing on David, for the blessing is on his family line and not just him alone. David’s response, from this same chapter of 2 Samuel 7:

“Lord God, who am I? What is my family? Why did you bring me to this point? 19 But even this is not enough for you, Lord God. You have also made promises about my future family. This is extraordinary, Lord God.

20 “What more can I say to you, Lord God, since you know me, your servant, so well! 21 You have done this great thing because you said you would and because you wanted to, and you have let me know about it. 22 This is why you are great, Lord God! There is no one like you. There is no God except you. We have heard all this ourselves!”

Over to you - I look forward to hearing your response! There are of course so many issues and related questions that would have been helpful to explore, so I would appreciate your helping me to do so properly. For example, would one way of maintaining your “critical” position, could we assume that the Chronicler shows God criticising in different degrees and intensities, ranging from the implicit and slight, to the explicit and severe?

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Am I open?

As I listen to this inspiring episode by the Liturgists on Safe Church, I feel a new sense of challenge, as "Science Mike" and his pastor, Betsy Ouellette, gently and openly challenge me.

What connected with me especially? The encouragement to first try out your questions with folk you know, that I know I am safe with. My close friends and my wife know that I am uncomfortable with thoughtlessly applying 4th-8th century doctrines as biblical truth. I find them unsatisfying, an extra, often unidentified but supremely authoritative filter to the texts, and interpretative. However, this podcast prods me to ask a different kind of question, what-if questions.

What if: the mainstream (catholic) Christian view in the world today was more closely clustered around a combination of
- the Apostolic creed, and
- various expressions of biblical unitarian churches throughout the world celebrating the all powerful creator God and the coming of and salvation through his anticipated, glorified and empowered human son Jesus.

What if: I were pastor of such a church and a regular member of many years, a close and faithful follower who always adhered to the mainstream confession began asking questions as he read more into the patristic era and church history, in which homoians had won the key doctrinal battles. He asks: "What if our global regular view of God is not enough? Why am I not satisfied with this homoian interpretation of Scripture? The depth and community of the Godhead, the triune oneness, Father Son and Holy Spirit, three persons, one essence, the clear two natures and wills of Christ, the veneration of icons, the motherhood of God of Mary, etc, throughout the world only a tiny minority believe this, but it seems so true! Or at least truer to scripture!"

What if I heard all this from this guy, and it appears radically different from what I believe - even declared historically as heretical or worthy of condemnation! How do I respond to him. Am I open and willing to accompany him on his journey?
How do I balance that with keeping the rest of the flock "safe"? What is safe?

Am I open? I strongly suspect that the answer to the question of this blog post is: no, not yet. I still fear rather than embrace disagreement. My relationships are weaker than my confessions. And that needs addressing...

I also want to address something else I have done which stinks of control. "I would really encourage you to..." " I would challenge you to", "please pray about you doing X". These sentences seem positive and strong. But do they embrace openness? What extra messages could be packed into those exhortations? If we see the challenge laid down in this podcast we can see that it has truly challenged me, in a simultaneously light and deep way.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

John 8:58, Dale Tuggy takes on my questions (ii)

Previously, I explained the second part of my question to Dale Tuggy, concerning the effect of taking out the disputable section of John (7:53-8:11).

It was, however, the first question that has really grabbed Dale's attention, and I feel a lot of gratitude toward him, for as you will see he has done a lot of research into it already, although mainly along one specific line. I will explain what I mean in a second - first here is the question again:

So can you please help us understand more particularly when you consider [John 8:58] became a key text for Trinitarian theology, and the context?

So here is Dale's response from the following episode, episode 65, with my emphases:

Dale: What I found was interesting. In the Apostolic Fathers there is no obvious reference to anything in John 8:12-59. This includes authors like Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Didace, Barnabus and the Shepherd of Hermas. Now, you might think that there is one exception, but that's in the longer and obviously corrupted and later version of Ignatius' letter to the Magnesians Chapter 9. Scholars now believe that this comes from the fourth century and not at all from the second century. John 8:58 is referred to there but seemingly the point is just that Jesus was predicted and foreknown. You also see no reference at all to John 8:58 in the extant works of Justin Martyr. That's interesting. Nor are there any references in the works of other early logos theologians like Tatian, Theophilus, Athanagrus (?) and Clement of Alexandria. Things finally pick up when we get to Irenaeus. He refers to this text for instance in Against Heresies 4, 5, to prove that Jesus pre-existed his human life and was the one through whom God spoke to Moses, Abraham and the other OT fathers. And this then becomes a common pattern. You see both Tertullian and Origen appeal to this text to show that Jesus was active in Old Testament times, or just that Jesus existed before Abraham. They don't use it though to show that Jesus is God himself or to prove that Jesus is divine in the way that the Father is divine. Really at this stage the only point seems to be pre-existence and also activity in those Old Testament times, because they've now taken the view that the Father is too transcendent to have been active then, and so any so-called god that was seen and experienced must have been a different being.

Interestingly, nowhere in any of these authors have I found somebody who is connecting John 8:58 to the statements in Isaiah where Yahweh says "I am he", or to God's statement in Exodus as discussed in previous episodes.

I think we can draw a conclusion here that it is by no means obvious that the author of John means the reader to refer to either Isaiah or Exodus. And apparently this is obvious to some of us because we have been repeating it to one another for some time now. And I think this gives some support to the interpretation argued for in those two earlier podcast episodes, that Jesus' meaning in that passage is best captured by something like: Even before Abraham existed, I was pre-destined to be the Messiah.

There is a lot of work in there, that I could not possibly have done, and there is a whole lot more to come in the following episode where we will discover a much more recent trace of an application of an Exodus connection and Jesus' "ego eimi". As I listen to Dale's careful research and limited findings of early use of John 8:58, I now realise that there are not one but two claims underlying the current Trinitarian use of John 8:58. As you listen to Dale, it is clear that he also is looking for both uses, although he may not have articulated quite so precisely. So here are the TWO claims:

1. Jesus was around before Abraham, he therefore pre-existed. This is an early connection, probably going back to before Nicea, but not necessarily to make any supreme divine statement.

2. When Jesus says "I AM" (often capitalised), he is claiming to be YHWH himself, connecting with the self-description that Yahweh gave to Moses.

Would you agree with this dual-claim?

Dale keeps searching also for a theoretically more plausible Old Testament connection to a passage from Isaiah, where I believe the Greek does literally say ego eimi (unlike Exodus), but I have not yet been exposed to that, perhaps he has, or perhaps he is just trying to ensure that we are checking all avenues, I am not sure.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Articles (I)

Articles are complex. Even in English we are not always sure why and when we use them. Even as I write this I can see: WARNING: STAND CLEAR OF HAZARD AREAS WHILE ENGINE IS RUNNING

We do not understand from this anarthrous sentence that people are warned against standing too close to SOME hazard areas, or just AN engine of the aeroplane. We all understand that we are to steer clear of all the hazard areas relative to the engine! In professional translation work, I have previously been required to use these anarthrous constructions. That brings us in to the next example:

J'habite en France
Vive la France!

In French, if we do not have a preposition like "en" (in), we often need the definite article: "he comes from France" is most accurately stated "il vient de la France", and "France is going to win!" is most assuredly "c'est la France qui va gagner! "But in English we are, perhaps more like the Greeks, somewhat happier to part ways with our definite articles.

I live in England
Long live England! England is going to win!

This introduction can serve us as a word of caution as we tiptoe with trepidation toward John 1:1.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

"I can't sign that!"

I am in the process of typing up my scribbles on Holmes' Quest for the Trinity book - almost there (I will share the link hopefully tomorrow). There are some wonderful quotes in there - as well as reflections that require some serious consideration.

First something I believe many would relate to, perhaps in the wake of what I sense to be a fresh hardening in this area of doctrinal adherence in some Christian organisations and churches, from p173-4:

"It is not a surprise that an appetite grew up amongst those not controversially inclined for a disciplined refusal to go beyond biblical language; at the Salters' Hall Synod of 1719, called in response to the challenge of several recent and powerful anti-Trinitarian texts, notably William Whiston's Primitive Christianity (1711) and Samuel Clarke's Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity (1712), many ministers, including a majority of the Presbyterians and almost all the General Baptists, declined to sign a proposed statement of faith on the grounds that its language was not found in the Bible. They were not closet anti-Trinitarians; they had merely reached the point of believing that definitions couched in technical language generated argument more often than understanding."

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

John 8:58, Dale Tuggy takes on my questions (i)

My apologies for the break. I have been doing some travelling and, perhaps most significantly, my foot, which has been injured for a long time, has now started to show some signs of improvement, meaning I am doing some running and have even less time for theologising!

For anybody who has been listening to the Trinities podcast for the last couple of weeks, you will probably have noticed that my question to Professor Dale Tuggy was read in episode 64 of the Trinities podcast founder, has kinda grabbed his attention. The question went like this:

Dear Dale,

Thanks for your great podcast, we continue to enjoy it over here in Marseille, France!

I have gone through in some detail the book authored by your previous interviewee, Stephen Holmes, and as I have been listening to the recent shows on pre-existence, it started dawning on me that I do not have a clue when John 8:58 became significant. This evening I went to the back of Dr Holmes book where there is the biblical reference section, and the verse does not seem even to be mentioned in the entire book.

So can you please help us understand more particularly when you consider this became a key text for Trinitarian theology, and the context?

Final question: what is the significance in your view if we remove 7:53-8:11, and just read through from 7:52 to 8:12?

Blessings and thanks

In the first week, Dale tackled the second question first. Removing the questioned passage of 7:53-8:11 from the field of view strengthens the interpretation that the "I am he" (ἐγὼ εἰμί) repetitions are references to Jesus' messiahship. (Of course, I am not saying by this that a case cannot or should not be made for the Messiah's divinity also, I always want to reassure anyone reading this of that, but I do want believers to keep their brains switched on and aware about the interpretive tools we use to read scriptures.) 

What Dale should have added, I think, was to state what I think textual scholars do say about 7:53-8:11. If we left things as he left it, then we might question the passage's entitlement to simply exist in the canon at all. My understanding - but I would need to check - is that while scholars agree that this chunk was very unlikely to be located where it has come to sit now (and admittedly for a very long time), it could very well be an authentic writing or story from the apostolic era, even by the same author as the gospel of John. But this verse of John 7:53 therefore becomes a key deterrent and distraction to us trying to understand what Jesus and John meant in John 8:58, and it seems so lowly and inconspicuous:


Then you get the [amazing] and possibly-non-original story of the woman caught in adultery.

Then you get Jesus picking up the same conversation he left off in 7:52. Let us assume what the NIV text notes say is true, also to convince you I am not making this up!

The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53 – 8:11. A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53.

So for the sake of argument I think we can be very, very sure that the original gospel did not have everyone simply "going home" at this point in John's gospel. I am also very struck by how naturally the passage flows when we omit this section - try skipping it and see what you think. 

So I agree with Tuggy's interpretation here, except that I am not yet as ready as he is to simply say that in the wider context of what John wants to stress about Jesus is "only" or "simply" that Jesus is the promised Messiah, even if I do feel that John 20:30-31 makes a pretty explicite and clear case for John's general purposes.

Just another parting shot: do you think it is legitimate to consider that the authorities considered stoning a suitable punishment for a wide range of serious sin, or insult to the establishment?

I will blog about the other part of my question to Dale in a separate post.