Wednesday 31 August 2011

Ghost writing Paul

Paul: The Lost Epistles, Robert M. Price, 2011.

There are only seven letters that are widely recognised as coming from the pen of Paul.

1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians?  Forget it.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Paul should have felt greatly flattered.

But what do we Christians do about the pseudo-Pauline stuff?  Maybe we could find a kinder term; deutero-Pauline maybe, and hope nobody in the pews catches on...

Or attribute them to a "Pauline school", of which, alas, no evidence exists other than wishful thinking.

Then again, to think outside the square, we could take them as a precedent, and cook up a few more.  In fact, it wouldn't be hard to improve on some parts of the original product.  Who, after all, has any idea what Paul is beating his gums on in Romans; sixteen chapters of theological quicksand where obscurity parades - in the minds of systematic theologians at least - as profundity unparalleled.

Enter Robert M. Price with some newly 'discovered' Pauline letters.  There's the Iconian correspondence, a letter to the Beroeans, another to the Milesians... you get the picture.  Fourteen documents in all including - wait for it - a Pauline apocalypse.

Now, to be clear, Bob isn't trying to pull the wool over the sheeple, he's making a point.  The result however is much more than a pastiche, it actually works really well!

The significant question is whether he's done anything different to the faceless imitators who gave us the canonical pretenders.  Well, yes, in one respect anyway; Bob's pseudonymous offerings are clearly fictive. Though he knows how to string us along in his introduction (which is worth the price of the book by itself),  we know better from the outset thanks to a nod and a wink.

It's an endearingly cheeky initiative.  But how would you describe the resulting material?  Fiction?  In which case, what about Colossians, Ephesians and 1 Timothy?

Thus far only available in a Kindle edition, this is a diverting read.  Both great fun and provocative.  And for around $5 for an instant download, unmissable.

Sunday 28 August 2011

Sunday Morning Comedy Hour

Channel surfing this morning I landed on Prime's paid religious programming, and lo, there was Richard Ames of the Living Church of God prattling on about "strategies to overcome stress." I made the error of taking my finger off the button for a moment to wallow in the deja vu.

It'll come as no surprise to readers who know about the LCG and its Tomorrow's World broadcast to hear that Tricky Dick had isolated exactly seven surefire strategies, seven being a biblical number and all.  No surprise either that he puttered through a few choice proof texts per strategy, to demonstrate just how relevant the Good Book is on personal health issues.

It was all pretty much par for the course - the usual recycled scripts that LCG and cognate groups have been using for decades.  To be honest, I was paying more attention to the tacky graphics than the "same old, same old" as Ames launched into strategy two (exercise regularly!) when the appropriate proof text flashed up on the screen.  He had just been mentioning the value of regular walking for older folk.  Now that's a fine bit of advice, but hardly something you could 'prove' from scripture. right?

Wrong.  The NKJV verse (1 John 2:6) flashed up and off before I quite realised what was happening.

Well, land sakes...  A quick check of the program on their website reveals that Ames did use the word metaphor just before, but even so this is sailing perilously close to the exegetical wind, even for the LCG.

But, how many viewers would care?  Immediately following on from Tomorrow's World was a homegrown muggerchurch megachurch ministry that made the unanimated Ames look like a fossil.  First and foremost these guys are salesmen, each with their own distinctive, well-practised patter. Sunday morning's comedy may come in multiple genres, but regardless, accuracy or integrity seem to be the last thing on anyone's mind.

Thursday 25 August 2011

Second Thoughts for First Things

Over at First Things there is a brief but pungent rant about, among other things, the choice taken to render as 'the human one' the time honored term 'son of man' in the new Common English Bible.

Reviewer Matthew Cantirino hits every panic button within reach; political correctness, dumbing down, ideological bias...
[T]he CEB in general maims well-known expressions and sayings and renders Biblical language pedestrian to such a degree that Scripture becomes indistinguishable from ordinary speech. Pathos is drained utterly out of the text. This willingness to cater to society’s informality is a more subtle concession than the adoption of studied academic non-offensiveness, and it cannot as hastily be dismissed as a transparent ideological machination.

King James English, and most subsequent translations, are well known to flatter the Greek, which lacks much in the way of sophisticated literary quality.  Cantirino is jousting with a mirage.
The fundamental problem is that the translators of the CEB seem to believe Christianity should submit to all stylistic demands of the culture it finds itself in, even if those demands leave it shorn of much of its complexity, elegance, and history, if not its core truths. In charity, this is a debate over means. Does effective conveyance of the Gospel—even to our highly democratic society—really require the kind of bland prose found in the CEB? Can such a stripped-down language hope to stand apart from a world of text messages and formulaic business-talk? The answer, I think, is no.
Again, rubbish.  Complexity, elegance... these come to the text largely after the fact.  Cantirino is arguing from an anachronism.  Bland  prose, stripped down language; these are closer to the original qualities of most of the New Testament writings.  And strangely enough it was these rather rough, "pedestrian" documents that - in "ordinary speech" - both fuelled and forged the new faith.

Son of Man, or son of man?  A christological title or a statement asserting the essential humanity of Jesus?  It's hard to be dogmatic given the later redactors' intentions, but one thing is pretty certain, none of the New Testament writers were Trinitarians.  That interpretation - whether rightly or wrongly - came much later.  Even an appeal to Daniel 7:13 is unconvincing.  The NRSV reads: "I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven."  The Revised English Bible uses the identical expression.  The point seems to be that this exalted figure is something quite apart from the standard apocalyptic menagerie, appearing in plain human form, not as a winged lion, or something from the special effects in a Harry Potter film.

The reviewer is also offended to find that in the CEB Adam is referred to as “the human” while Eve is still called “woman.”  But as David Nickol points out in a comment, 'adam' is a generic term embracing both sexes.  That's not called political correctness, it's called accuracy, a truckload of hallowed tradition not withstanding.  The reviewer has no grounds for pouting.

If there's an ideological bias to be outed, perhaps Mr. Cantirino might have benefited from examining his own first.

Friday 19 August 2011

The Uncommon English Bible

I keep being impressed by the credentials of the new Common English Bible (CEB) translation.  As well as a wide, representative range of mainstream Protestant scholars and writers, some pretty hefty Catholic talent has been incorporated into the project:
Raymond F. Collins, John J. Collins, Carol Dempsey, Daniel Harrington, Luke Timothy Johnson, Pheme Perkins...
To name six of the eleven Catholic contributors (the ones I've heard of, the full list is here), a pretty high-powered lineup.

Less impressive is the 'brand recognition' Down Under.  I wandered into Church Supplies in Ellerslie this afternoon, undoubtedly Auckland's best Christian resource centre. Nobody there had heard of it.  The helpful older gentleman on the counter, who initially thought I meant the vile, demon-spawned Contemporary English Version (CEV), rang the Bible Society to see if they had it in stock: but they also hadn't heard of it.  Then he rang the local distributor for most American Christian publishing houses.  Whataya know, they hadn't heard of it either.  That's a fail trifecta.

Just as easy, I guess, to instantly download a Kindle edition of the CEB with Apocrypha to the PC for under $5. At least until the booksellers get up to speed.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

One in the eye for creationism

Those of us who grew up 'fundy' well remember the 'proofs' offered by our respective churches that made the idea of evolution look illogical.  Near the top of the list was the complexity of the eye.  How could such a wonderful thing have gradually evolved?  Gadzooks, it must have been an act of special creation.

The jargon has changed - the talk these days is of 'irreducable complexity' - but the underlying argument is the same, and new generations of kids are convinced that scientists are just plain willfully stupid compared to their omniscient pastors with their strutting used-car-salesman rhetoric. 

So it's nice to see Scientific American demolish the apologetics by delivering 'one in the eye' in the July 2011 issue.  Even nicer that a PDF of the article by Trevor Lamb is online and ready to print out, or email, far and wide.

Let there be light!

Sunday 14 August 2011

Behemoth unveiled

There's nothing like a good science story, and that notable science journal, The Philadelphia Trumpet, seems to have a scoop in its latest issue.

Esteemed science writer Robert Morley has uncovered the identity of the Job 40 behemoth!

Forget whatever you might have heard about such candidates as dinosaurs, crocs, elephants and modern rhinos; the behemoth was a baluchitherium.

Masterful logic leads to this conclusion, and only Mr Morley's article could do full justice to the case he makes.  I know I feel much edified by this information, having been long tormented by the mystery. 

According to Robert Morley, baluchitherium was wandering around the post-Edenic world, and was thus contemporary with humankind.  Job 40:19 however "implies that it was too big for people living in Job's day to kill."

Wielding scientific methodology with razor-sharp acumen, Morley asks the question that dominates the minds of seasoned paleontologists everywhere - "But why would God have created such an impressive animal?"  You know, of course, that he will provide his own erudite response...
If you were alone next to an angry African elephant, surely you would feel quite small and helpless.  How much punier and more terrified would you feel, though,  if a behemoth were charging you?  Would you not be inclined to seek God for protection?  Would you not hurriedly repent of any wrongs?
The profundity is breathtaking!  Yes, of course.  Rather than running like the clappers, any normal person would certainly fall on their knees in front of the charging behemoth and beseech the Eternal for forgiveness and divine intervention (hopefully the list of repentable items wouldn't be too long given the circumstances!)

My only question would be exactly how Adam, Job and other Old Testament worthies could have encountered this beast given that, while it certainly lived on our side of the Cretaceous extinction (something that our meticulous prehistory scholar takes pains to point out) the last baluchitherium is still supposed to have passed over into extinction more than twenty million years ago.

But that's small potatoes given the huge credibility of The Philadelphia Trumpet (and clearly this article was thoroughly peer reviewed prior to publication), so we can only but wait for lesser journals, such as Scientific American and New Scientist, to catch up with Mr Morley's cutting-edge analysis. 

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Mythicism: now they're talkin'!

The regular bouts of pouting and finger stabbing haven't shed much, if any, light on the online debates between Jesus "historicists" and "mythicists."  You get the feeling that nobody is much listening to the case made from the opposite benches.

So the current discussion involving James McGrath and Tom Verenna is a welcome change.  It involves the oft heard assertion that the existence of Julius Caesar is as problematic as Jesus' (and who doubts Big Julie once strode across the paving stones of Rome?)

Verenna and McGrath have the capacity to engage on this issue without ill will, polemic and ad hominem spats.  That means we all might be able to actually consider the qualities of the arguments tendered.  It's good to see that Tom has already flushed the excesses of Archarya S., while James has taken on board Tom's doubts about the appropriateness of the Caesar comparison.

To follow the posts in order, thus far:
Verenna 1
McGrath 1
Verenna 2

Monday 8 August 2011

Presbyterians say hitting kids OK

If you thought Prebyterians were a "liberal" denomination, think again, especially if you're thinking Australian Prebyterians.

In the Lucky Country (though not so lucky that they can win the Bledisloe Cup!) the dour influence of Calvin and Knox seems to hang like a black cloud over a dwindling Presbyterian fold.

New South Wales has already come down against hitting kids, but the meddling Presbyterian mullahs seem to think they can speak from a higher authority, and have decided to raise Cain the cane over the debate in Victoria.

It says a lot about their theology...

What'll their next initiative be?  Reintroduce slavery?  Ban women from the workforce?  An 8 o'clock citizen curfew?

Thursday 4 August 2011

Luther, Antisemitism and Scripture

Martin Luther's attitude to Judaism is addressed in a recent Jerusalem Post blog by David Turner.  The Reformer's polemic is undeniably stomach-churning.  How could a man who began by taking an enlightened and appreciative approach toward Jews (in That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, 1523) end up writing crude material, railing against "the embittered, venomous, blind heart of the Jews," polemic that would be used to justify the 'final solution' four hundred years later?
[Luther] originally sought to attract the Jews toward conversion by presenting a more humane and accepting alternative to the Church’s anti-Judaism... Luther believed that the Jewish condition, their debased survival, was the result of persecution by the Church. He believed that freed of the burden of the Church they would welcome conversion to his “reformist” Christianity. His failure to attract converts produced an emotional reaction similar to that of Paul, fifteen centuries earlier. 
And what a reaction.  Disturbingly, he grounded his vitriol solidly in scripture.
But he also gives sources for his charges: Paul, for “Jews as blind” regarding Jesus; John, for identifying the Jews with Satan; and Matthew, for charging them, and justifying their punishment as deicides.
The question that few seem to want to address is whether the New Testament is inherently antisemitic.  Antipathy to Jews has been the church's constant companion since the parting of the ways; pogroms, crusades and inquisitions viciously targeted Jews long before the Reformation.  John's gospel has always been particularly problematic, and it isn't surprising to find that Luther drew more heavily on it than any other.
Therefore John's gospel is the one, fine, true, and chief gospel, and is far, far to be preferred to the other three and placed high above them. (NT Preface)
In fact, Louis Ruprecht maintains: "Luther argues against the Jews precisely as John's Jesus did.  They possessed the scriptures that anticipated Christ's coming, they saw him face to face, and they were given the chance to believe in him.  Their failure to do so invited their complete rejection and abandonment by God... Jews became, in Luther's later years, symbolic of everyone who had been given the chance to accept the evangel and then rejected it.  This is precisely how John saw the Jews..." (Ruprecht, This Tragic Gospel, 166-167.)

Isn't maintaining that the New Testament is "merely" anti-Judaic to strain at gnats; the distinction is barely relevant in light of the way it has been read down the centuries until some seventy years ago.  Is it acceptable to simply interpret the problem away with a little exegetical flourish?  Is it enough to plead that these passages are regrettable "wartime literature" from a time the church was trying to distance itself from the Jewish rebellion?  What comfort is there in maintaining that the New Testament writers were largely ethnic Jews themselves, and that the polemic was a misunderstood 'in-house' spat?

One of my more 'evangelical' lecturers a few years ago asked the question - and it was meant to be a rhetorical one eliciting a knee-jerk 'nay' - whether the Holy Spirit could possibly let the church be misled on a significant matter.  He was referring to doctrinal development.  It was an incredibly weak argument in that context, and seems even weaker if it's redirected at the portrayal of Jews and Judaism in the New Testament.  Is anti-Judaism part of a 'take it or leave it' package deal along with the 'love chapter' and the beatitudes?  Can we "twink it out" without doing irreparable damage to the whole?

Uncomfortable questions deserve honest answers too, not just apologetic waffle.

Or is it ethical to just ignore the issue, as most of us do, read our Bibles selectively, and hope that the problem will just fade away?