Sunday 30 December 2012

Lord Percy and a Strange Tale with a WCG Twist

Thanks to John Morgan who pointed out an article in the Sydney Morning Herald that will interest some readers.  A snippet:
Andrew Martin
Religious fundamentalism and isolated, self-sufficient communities often go hand-in-hand, and Martin increasingly saw Middle Percy as a lifeboat in a world "drowning in sin". But how did an educated, carefree adventurer come to embrace such grim notions? Jon Hickling - who, with his wife, Liz, and their two young sons, lived on Middle Percy for 12 years - solves that abiding mystery with two words: egg cartons.
"The story Andy told us," he explains, "was that sometime in the late '60s, the Whites [former leaseholders] sent him over some egg cartons he needed on the stores boat. They were wrapped in a magazine from the Worldwide Church of God, led by someone called [Garner Ted] Armstrong. Andy wasn't religious up to that point, although he grew up in the Church of England, but when he unwrapped that magazine, and read it from cover to cover, he just went, 'Wow!' He felt like he'd been hit on the head by a thunderbolt and had seen the light."
Martin subscribed to the magazine, and became a convert to the church's theory, known as British Israelism, which holds that white races (especially the British) are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and are God's "chosen people". Before falling from favour for his philandering, Armstrong - described by one US writer as preaching to a "subculture of lonely, frightened, disoriented Americans" - also had a worldwide radio audience of millions, including Andy Martin.
A subculture of lonely, frightened, disoriented Americans.  I'm not sure who the writer was but, by the Lord Harry, it's quotable!

But wait, there's more!

An idyllic island off the coast of Oz, Princess Diana arising from her grave on the Feast of Trumpets in 2000... 

You've got to wonder whether Andrew Martin would have come to such a sad end if those egg cartons had been wrapped in a back issue of Mad magazine, and not The Plain Truth.

But... whatever.  Maybe Bob Thiel could establish the world headquarters of his new splinter sect out there on Middle Percy?

Watching World News

A few days ago I mentioned a few good dictionary apps for your Android tablet or smart phone.  Today the category is television news apps - all tried and true and ready to download from Google Play.

For a global perspective the France 24 app is pretty good.  Who'd have thought the French could run a very decent English-language streaming news channel.  While the app doesn't give you a live stream (but see below) it does stream the latest news, business, sports and weather bulletins.

If you need to watch the live feed from France24, the BBC, CNN, DW, NHK or Sky News, try doing a search for World News Live24.  There are other channel options there too, but some are not always available or reliable.

But don't look past Al Jazeera English.  Live TV coverage is included in their app.  The journos who front the channel are in the BBC mold - in fact many are past BBC staff.  If you've avoided Al Jazeera because you're afraid of some kind of radical bias... relax; you're obviously getting them confused with Fox News

I went into serious mourning when Aussie channel SBS1 pulled its Tasmanian satellite coverage which until mid-2012 also beamed down over much of New Zealand.  In fact I'm still in mourning because I can no longer get my regular fix of Letters and Numbers.  But SBS's World News Australia is still accessible by app.  TVNZ's motley crew could learn so much from these guys...

And finally there's New Zealand's own 3 News app.  Well worth downloading for the Kiwi perspective.  Mostly news clips from the most recent bulletin, hopefully this app will develop much further.

Continuing COG Cannibalism

Dr Bob Thiel, noted naturopath, blogger and author of several self-published books, has now joined such self-anointed luminaries as Gerald Flurry, Ronald Weinland and Dave Pack who preside over the various feuding fragments remaining from Herbert W. Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God.

Dr. Thiel, who has an earned PhD and claims a further ThD from a dubious source in India, has operated the site for many years.  Until a few days ago he was still technically a member of Roderick C. Meredith's splinter group, the Living Church of God.

In a post dated December 28 Thiel announced that he had incorporated as the Continuing Church of God, choosing the all-important acronym CCOG.

Dr. Thiel has had strained relations with Meredith's LCG since he published material on the Mayan calendar and President Obama which contained controversial, some might say ludicrous, statements.  In September LCG moved to distance itself from any fallout.

Dr. Thiel has been one of the most widely read sources of online information about developments in the Armstrong diaspora, but has never been ordained as a minister.  How he can now operate in this capacity, claiming authority to collect tithes from any followers who leave with him, is not yet clear.

I've corresponded with Bob several times over content on my former blog Ambassador Watch.  I can't say I wish him well in his new venture; in fact I fervently pray it will crash and burn without delay.  But I do wish him well, and his family.  Family members are invariably caught up in this kind of madness through no real choice of their own.

The Continuing Church of God may indeed continue for a while, but it's doubtful this particular sprat will pose any significant challenge to the sharks it desires to compete with. 

Saturday 29 December 2012

A Spot of Minimal Mything

Just to clear things up right at the start, I'm not a Jesus Mythicist.  It's a term that defies an elegant definition anyway, covering a very diverse bunch of individuals indeed.

And no, I've never read anything by "Acharya S." and, as long as I retain even a tenuous grip on sanity, never will.

But if you're asking about "Jesus Minimalism", the conviction that we actually know next to nothing with certainty about the historical person(s) on which the literary Jesus has been largely fabricated... well, I'll put my hand up on that charge and plead guilty.  Bring out the thumb screws if you must!

Now to confess specifics.  I have two such mythicist minimalist books on order.  Books I hear you ask, haven't you long since gone over to the Dark Side with Kindle e-readers and apps?  Yes, but neither of these tomes has yet made it into e-format, and as hell will probably have frozen over long before either reaches my nearest Paper Plus, I've been forced once again into the arms of Amazon and The Book Depository.

Thomas Brodie and Bob Price have, one suspects, not a lot in common.
Thomas L. Brodie is Director, Dominican Biblical Centre, Limerick, Ireland. After studies in Dublin, Rome, and Jerusalem, he spent thirty years teaching and researching at diverse seminaries and universities in the West Indies, the United States, and South Africa. He is the author of The Quest for the Origin of John's Gospel: A Source-Oriented Approach (OUP, 1992), The Gospel according to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary (OUP, 1993), and, as a forerunner to the present work, The Crucial Bridge: The Elijah–Elisha Narrative as an Interpretive Synthesis of Genesis–Kings and a Literary Model for the Gospels (Liturgical Press, 2000).
And Bob, a.k.a. the Bible Geek, is... Bob.  A prolific author and speaker, he has a PhD in Systematic Theology, and a second in New Testament, both from Drew University.

Both have new books out, the very ones referred to above.  Brodie's is entitled Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery.  Price's is The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul.

I'm not sure how Holy Mother Church will feel about the first one.
In the past forty years, while historical-critical studies were seeking with renewed intensity to reconstruct events behind the biblical texts, not least the life of Jesus, two branches of literary studies were finally reaching maturity. First, researchers were recognizing that many biblical texts are rewritings or transformations of older texts that still exist, thus giving a clearer sense of where the biblical texts came from; and second, studies in the ancient art of composition clarified the biblical texts' unity and purpose, that is to say, where biblical texts were headed. The primary literary model behind the gospels, Brodie argues, is the biblical account of Elijah and Elisha, as R.E. Brown already saw in 1971. In this fascinating memoir of his life journey, Tom Brodie, Irishman, Dominican priest, and biblical scholar, recounts the steps he has taken, in an eventful life in many countries, to his conclusion that the New Testament account of Jesus is essentially a rewriting of the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible, or, in some cases, of earlier New Testament texts. Jesus' challenge to would-be disciples (Luke 9.57-62), for example, is a transformation of the challenge to Elijah at Horeb (1 Kings 19), while his journey from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and beyond (John 2.23-4.54) is deeply indebted to the account of the journey of God's Word in Acts 1-8. The work of tracing literary indebtedness and art is far from finished but it is already possible and necessary to draw a conclusion: it is that, bluntly, Jesus did not exist as a historical individual. This is not as negative as may at first appear. In a deeply personal coda, Brodie begins to develop a new vision of Jesus as an icon of God's presence in the world and in human history.
When I mentioned Brodie's book in an earlier posting it provoked dismissive snorts from certain quarters, but I for one am eager to see how a priest can embrace such a non-historicist position.

As for Amazing Colossal Apostle, this is the one many of us have been waiting for.  Price has reached some radical (and largely unpalatable) conclusions on the Pauline literature, but has never yet - to my knowledge - drawn it all together in one place.  You can almost hear the wailing and gibbering from saintly scholars as they gather their wagons around the sacred consensus.  Price has fronted at last, but has he carried it off?

Time will tell.

Friday 28 December 2012

The Reductionist's Paul

James Tabor makes some interesting comments in his latest book about "four Pauls."  To wit:
  1. The authentic or early Paul who wrote the 'undisputed' epistles.
  2. The disputed (or deutero-Pauline) Paul who wrote Ephesians and Colossians.
  3. Pseudo-Paul who wrote the Pastoral letters.
  4. Legendary Paul who appears in Petrine drag in the book of Acts.
 I'm glad James spells it out as clearly and unequivocally as he does.  Despite everything you might have assumed from a thousand sermons, there is a lot about the Apostle that we only think we know. 

James goes on: there is almost universal agreement that a proper historical study of Paul should begin with the seven genuine letters, restricting one's analysis to what is most certainly coming from Paul's own hand.

And of those other sources: In modern parlance we call such writings forgeries, but a more polite academic term is pseudonymous, meaning "falsely named."

James' old mentor, Rod Meredith, would surely have a hernia reading this, so it's just as well he restricts his reading to in-house pabulum.

The book goes on to list those things we most assuredly know about Paul drawing on autobiographical details gleaned in those 'undisputed' writings.  It's certainly a safer procedure than most flap-jawed preachers use - with more eagerness than erudition.  But I wonder even then if we're getting anything like an accurate picture of the man behind the mask.

Imagine if you tried to gain an impression of some modern figure just based on the material they themselves provided.  Pope Benedict perhaps, or Mitt Romney; Margaret Thatcher or Fidel Castro; Benny Hinn or Muammar Gaddafi. 

There's another more recent Apostle-type figure that both James and I know something about, him much more so than me; a man who wrote a great deal about himself both incidentally and deliberately, including a weighty autobiography.  Imagine, if you will, that the only information we had about Herbert W. Armstrong was what he himself supplied.  On the basis of that we'd all be holding hands with Bob Thiel and singing Dwight Armstrong hymns unto this very day.

So when Paul said that he advanced in Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries, being extremely zealous for his ancestral traditions, or that he had visionary experiences where he saw Jesus and was commissioned by him, I can't help but think of Herb bragging about his time at the Eugene public library acquiring the equivalent of a top-level degree, or getting his own unique end-time commission.  Just because someone makes an over-the-top claim doesn't mean its worth the paper it's written on.

You won't learn much about someone just by trawling through their press releases.

And the one thing we do know about Paul - it seeps out from all his writings - is that he had a towering ego, and a tendency to slap down anyone who got in his way, even when he was trying to demonstrate just what a reasonable, tolerant and thoroughly humble bloke he was!  Poor old Barnabas, John Mark, Apollos, James et al.  Paul, whatever else he might or might not be, is a passionate, no holds barred master rhetorician, so anyone wanting to make some sense of what he writes has got to factor in the deliberate exaggeration, self delusion and embellishment that go with that art. 

I recommend Paul and Jesus, despite some mainly minor quibbles.  Whatever Dr. Tabor's agenda might be - and we all have one of those - he brings an considerable degree of scholarly nous to a popular audience. 

Tuesday 25 December 2012

Just when you think you've got it sussed

Biblical Studies has reached more than a few assuredly doubtful assured conclusions, enough to keep everyone justifiably humble.

For example, that old chestnut that Jesus could never have been regarded as part of the godhead in the days of the 'early church'.  Why not?  Well, Jews were strict monotheists... and such flights of fancy were necessarily imported from Greek thought... right?

You hear this all the time.  The idea is that Jesus got gradually promoted over the years from a "low christology" to a stratospherically "high christology."  If we were to pare away, in Jesus Seminar fashion, all those dubious accretions we'd simply find a human prophet figure, or perhaps a cynic sage, who made no outrageous personal claims.

But wouldn't you know it, there's always someone ready to stir the pot, and Margaret Barker is more than happy to take up the ladle.  Barker is a former president of the Society for Old Testament Study, has taught theology at Cambridge, and written sixteen books (at last count).  In other words, this is no dilettante or kook.

Barker isn't taken in by the accepted narrative of Moses and monotheism;  Early Israelite religion was anything but.  Yahweh shared the first temple with his lady wife, Asherah, the Great Lady, until the heretics came along and doctored the national epic, declaring Yahweh to be a solitary deity.  The Deuteronomists, in other words, cooked the books.

So what?  Well, the old religion didn't die.  Cast out of the temple, it continued on the "old paths", a reality expressed by the exiles in Jeremiah 44:15-19.
[W]e will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out our libations to her, just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials, used to do in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem... Indeed we will go on making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her.
Again, so what?  Well, Judaism ultimately went the way of the Deuteronomic reformers, complete with fictive epics centred around Moses, but (according to the reconstruction) Christianity drew an inheritance from the older Abrahamic faith.  Here's where you can start to connect the dots with "Enochic Judaism" (Boccaccini) and Alan Segal's "Two Powers" binitarian monotheism.

So is Barker right?  Quite possibly.  If nothing else it makes a fascinating detective story that reaches back through the millennia to connect the first Jerusalem temple to Mrs O'Malley's rosary beads.  Fascinating stuff!

Barker has set out the terms for this discussion a number of times, most recently in The Mother of the Lord, the first volume in a series entitled "The Lady of the Temple." The hardback edition is, like most books of this kind, horrendously expensive.  Luckily the Kindle edition is more realistically priced.  

Tidings of glogg with a sprig of white clover

If you own an Android smart phone or tablet, and you're of a sensible age, you're going to need a good dictionary app sooner or later.  After all, nothing quite proclaims your doofus status as loudly as frequent misspellings or malapropisms in those emails, tweets or blog entries.

Thankfully there are some great free options ready and eager to be downloaded from Google Play.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary.  Virtually unknown here in Her Majesty's Dominions, but a heavyweight contender in the US, Merriam-Webster has some cool features, such as providing a date for the entry of words into the language.  Today's Word of the Day: glogg - and very appropriate for the season it is too!  I was cynical about just how useful this 'unbranded' app could be, but was pleasantly surprised.  Today's Word of the Day:  tidings  (a fairly predictable choice really.)

Advanced English Dictionary & Thesaurus.  Based on the WordNet database developed at Princeton University.  Quite different in some ways from the other offerings, but once you get used to it, very useful.  Today's Word of the Day - I kid you not:  melilotus alba, white melilot, white sweet clover.  Not quite so predictable I'd think.

Friday 21 December 2012

The Christmas Story

The malls are buzzing, and in terms of shopping, the earlier in the day you get out and about the more likely you are to get a parking spot.  Yup, must be Xmas.

But putting aside the crass commercialism, what about the biblical and other traditional stories surrounding Jesus' birth, you know, the true meaning of Christmas?   Is it grounded in real history - or something else?  Bart Ehrman is up to the bat at Newsweek with an incisive piece (What Do We Really Know About Jesus?) that treats the issues both sensitively and honestly, and is well worth taking the time to read. 

Thursday 20 December 2012

The Five Books of Moses

The first books of scripture to be written almost certainly weren't the "big five" of the Pentateuch.  Nevertheless they reign supreme in Judaism, the weightiest element in the Tanakh, and take pride of place in the Christian Old Testament.  Are they unparalleled works of literature or simply more trouble than they're worth?  Whatever you think, there's no denying that they're among the most influential compositions in human history.

Christians are arrogant sods, and I apply that as much to myself as anyone else.  When we cite Genesis, or quote the Ten Commandmants from Exodus, we invariably lean on our own pet translations and interpretations.  If you're an 'Evangelical', chances are that you'll trot out the NIV.  If you're Catholic it could well be the NABRE or New Jerusalem Bible.  Or if, like me, you're a wickedly depraved liberal, you'll be reaching for the NRSV or even, if you're up with the play, the new Common English Bible.

But Jewish scholars have been making up for lost time.  After all, the Torah is their scripture first and foremost, with a long history of commentary quite distinct from that of the church fathers.  How telling is it that, when the average Christian wants a Jewish insight into the Hebrew Bible they opt for a bastardized Messianic text such as David Stern's Complete Jewish Bible.

Putting aside the excellent JPS translation of the complete Tanakh (available as a fully featured Study Bible from Oxford), there are three contemporary versions of the five books of Moses from Jewish scholars which are well worth considering.

The Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox, 1995.
Commentary on the Torah, Richard Elliot Friedman, 2001.
The Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter, 2004.

All include a fresh English translation and a wealth of notes, and both Friedman and Alter are available on Kindle.  Friedman also includes the Hebrew text, and the book design follows the "back to front" Hebrew convention (though I'm not sure how this appears in the ebook format.)  Friedman renders the tetragrammaton as YHWH, and the usual English naming conventions are largely followed (e.g. Abraham and Moses.)

Fox's version is the most 'Hebraicized' and literal, though it is set out in the standard format.  Here the name of God is also rendered as YHWH, but names are adjusted (e.g. Avraham and Moshe.)

Alter has a truly distinctive style; Genesis 1:2a reads, for example, "and the earth then was welter and waste..."  (and yes, I rushed to the dictionary for welter). Names appear as they do in most translations (Abraham, Moses etc.), and Yahweh reverts to the LORD.

But it's the supporting features of all three that put the curry into the stew.  There's definitely nothing like this available in your NIV Study Bible!  If we're going to regard the Hebrew text of the Old Testament as normative (rather than follow the earliest church's practice of using the Greek LXX) then, like it or not, these are shared scriptures, and the myopic practice of reading the Torah backward from Revelation according to a fictive and highly problematic 'metanarrative' does no justice to that reality. That's where Fox, Alter and Friedman shine.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Tabor's latest book

Browsing through a North Shore branch of Whitcoulls today I was amazed to find James Tabor's new opus, Paul and Jesus, staring back at me from a bottom shelf. It's not that I didn't know that it had been published - in fact I'd downloaded a copy from Amazon soon after it was released. But I had no idea it would reach these distant shores so quickly in hard copy form.

To be honest, my previous impressions of Dr. Tabor's work have been a bit jaundiced. He has seemed to me to be a scholar often driven by his own agendas, especially on the Jewish nature of Christian faith.  But this latest book is, in my opinion, a cut above his previous efforts - at least that's the impression so far, having not yet quite reached the final page.  Indeed, I feel a warm recommendation coming on, and perhaps some more disciplined remarks to follow than these.

In any case James, if you see this, as a peace offering for the rather unappreciative (some might say churlish) review I gave to Restoring Abrahamic Faith, I hauled the two hardback copies off the bottom shelf and placed them prominently, covers facing out, onto the top shelf. At nearly NZ$50 a copy I figured any small boost would help.  May they sell swiftly.

Saturday 8 December 2012

The Remarkable Margaret Barker

A very recent interview from the nice people at Nottingham University, Why Study the Old Testament alongside the New.  Lots of provocative nuggets here.