Wednesday 31 December 2008

Dead Sea Scrolls from the Fringe

The Dead Sea Scrolls are "an assault against the very authority of the holy Bible."

Welcome to the fringe world of fundamentalism; in this case the outer limb of what was once known as "Armstrongism." The DSS are "spurious fragments" that "modern scholars turn to in order to find reason to doubt the power of God to preserve His written Word for us."

Profound, huh? And the conclusion of that matter?

"It’s time we return to common sense and quit following every scholarly whim and flight of fancy. Let’s not be drawn into the whirlpool of academic speculations about the Bible. Holy Scripture is what it always has been — the inspired and revealed Word of the Living God."

So there!

From a nameless devotee of the Edmond, Oklahoma Philadelphia Church of God (led by a latter-day "Teacher of Righteousness") to the more measured tones of an apparatchik in the David Hulme sect (a related group, but with better quality pretensions) - The Legacy of the Scrolls. Author Peter Nathan once ran the Auckland office of the Worldwide Church of God.

But back to the PCG offering. Scary fact: the cult's unaccredited college sends its students to help dig at an archaeological site in Jerusalem under Eilat Mazar!

Good help is obviously hard to find...

Sunday 7 December 2008

The Word of God?

The Word of God is synonymous with the Bible for most Christians today, but that isn’t how it began. As William Schniedewind demonstrates in How the Bible Became a Book, in the biblical literature prior to Chronicles “the word of Yahweh” has little or nothing to do with written documents. Neither is the expression “the word of the Lord” used to refer to the Ten Commandments or the Law of Moses. The term instead applies to the oral proclamation of the prophets.

An intriguing illustration of this can be found in Jeremiah 8:7-9. The text speaks of those who have rejected the word of the Lord (v.9) in the same breath as “the lying pen of the scribes” (v.8). Jeremiah was bemoaning the fruits of literacy: authority was shifting from oral tradition to the written word. Where should authority lie, with the text or teacher? Schniedewind observes: "Once authority resides in the text, the teacher can be dismissed..." It is only in the late book of Chronicles that torah is understood as the written word rather than the oral word spoken through the prophets.

Even the word “prophecy” (nevu’ah) is a late innovation. It hadn’t been needed until the textualization process was well advanced, but once the word of Yahweh was understood as corresponding to the Pentateuch, a new term was needed for the proclamation of the prophets.

The growing authority of the text, which advanced along with the growth of literacy, put paid to the ability of opinionated individuals to rise up and speak as God’s mouthpiece: the prophets disappear from Israel. Their niche is filled in part by apocalyptic speculation with a focus on the future rather than the needs of the moment. Amos’ cry for justice in the here-and-now is drowned out by Daniel’s lurid fantasies of the future.

The word of the Lord is still spoken by troublesome individuals who speak fearlessly, but rarely by religious professionals: priest and prophet rarely complement each other. Interestingly, Jesus was remembered “as one having authority”, not like the scribes of his day (Matthew 7:28). In fact, it’s remarkable how little exegesis Jesus seemed to bother with. Needless to say, he wasn’t popular with the clergy of his day either. In Matthew's "great commission" (28:18-20) Jesus passes his authority on to his disciples, he does not infuse it into a text. Even Paul, that prolific letter writer, stresses that he was called to preach: he makes no claims for his writings.

To tie oneself up in knots over the interpretation of obscure passages has nothing in common with the genius of Israel’s faith in its formative period, or of Jesus for that matter. That’s not to say that scholars shouldn’t dig deep to understand them, or that Christians shouldn’t respect them as markers on the road taken and a source for reflection and inspiration. But to regard them with idolatrous “bible-believing” superstition - in effect a paper pope - is likely to miss the whole point. If we’re busy attempting to distill precise doctrine from ancient text, chances are we’ll miss hearing the authentic word of the Lord that engages us in everyday life.

This post can also be found on WordPress while I decide whether to migrate across or stay here on Blogspot.

Saturday 4 October 2008

Bring Back The Eternal

Catholics are taking a step back from the use of the tetragrammaton, YHWH, or variants of it - Yahweh, and presumably Jehovah. The reason is apparently a new sensitivity to Jewish tradition which avoids naming God directly.

The irony is that until now it has been the Catholic church which has been a leader in advocating the usage. Exactly what the about face now means for future revisions of the New Jerusalem Bible, Christian Community Bible, the rogue Inclusive Bible and other Catholic translations is uncertain, but presumably they'll go back to the the dull but time honored practice of referring to the Deity as "the Lord."

But there's a problem there too. Lord has connotations of gender and servility that fit poorly with a contemporary understanding of God. It seems nobody is going to be pleased.

The French, bless 'em, have long rendered the tetragrammaton as "the Eternal," a practice introduced into English by James Moffatt in his 1930s translation. Because it was innovative in a culture that venerated the crusty old KJV, the novelty brought down shrieks of outrage from traditionalists... arguably the highest recommendation possible for its adoption. The Eternal not only has a certain ring to it, but carries no ideological baggage.

Moffatt's is the translation that time forgot, though you can still pick up a copy on Amazon. While it's definitely showing its age, it is still an impressive rendition by a fine scholar. Rather than going back to the anemic and slightly sanctimonious Lord, maybe twenty-first century translators might want to reconsider the Moffatt option.

Thursday 29 May 2008

Don't scratch those emerods!

The Eternal smote the Philistines with emerods when they knicked off with the Ark of the Covenant. What are emerods? Whatever they were, the Philistines made golden images of them. Some translations suggest hemorrhoids... nasty!

But the latest BAR suggests something different. Aren Maeir argues that the menfolk had a bad case of ED.

ED? Oh, ED... to spell it out, that's erectile dysfunction.

You can follow the logic here. Sadly (or mercifully, depending on your perspective) the photographs in the print edition are missing from the online version.

Saturday 17 May 2008

The sound of canon fire

Years ago I came across a book called Are Mormons Christians? The author, a Mormon himself, naturally argued that they were. Like any work of apologetics it was weak in places, and avoided the really tough questions. But I was really fascinated by the appeal that was made to the question of the canon.

The canon is the list of authoritative books Christians use, and which we usually take for granted. But how did they get to be authoritative in the first place? Muslims, as I understand it, believe that the Qur'an/Koran was delivered intact to the Prophet, inerrant in Arabic. Mormons believe their prophet, Joseph Smith, translated the Book of Mormon with a pair of magic spectacles or "seer stones". But those are not claims Jews or Christians make about their scriptures.

Leaving aside the thorny issue of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint and Yavneh/Jamnia, why is 2 Peter in the New Testament and not 3 Corinthians, Titus and not the Shepherd of Hermas? Who decided?

The upshot was an article I eventually put together, and still exists on my original ISP server. Someone at Trinity College at the University of Toronto decided to link to it, which is flattering, but a more recent (and hopefully better) version exists here. If I get some time later this year I want to revise it again in light of a terrific little book called The New Testament Canon.

The author, Harry Gamble (University of Virginia), is one of the leading names in the field, and he is mercifully readable for the non-specialist. In less than 100 pages the reader is treated to a thorough survey sure to raise the eyebrows of anyone who has blissfully ignored the implications of questions like those above. Definitely something to add a little curry to any evangelical's diet!

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Paul and the Pastorals

As promised/threatened I've uploaded an article on the authorship of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus, the letters in the New Testament known as the Pastorals. The original version - written as a university assignment - has been modified to make it a bit more readable.