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.