Friday, July 22, 2016

Is Satan in Is. 14 and Ezekiel 28?

For this week I've got an entry from my e-book answering Mark Fairley's FUEL Project.
I’ll have to be fair here. The idea that Satan’s “biography” is told in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 isn’t some sort of fringe position. Many serious scholars think it is correct, and I won’t take anything away from them on that account; however, many serious scholars also doubt the identification, and for good reasons. The first and most obvious problem is that this identification of the figures in Isaiah and Ezekiel was first made in the 3rd and 4th century AD, by early Christian writers and notably not by Jews of the Biblical era. Of course, this doesn’t automatically mean it is wrong, but it does place a greater burden of proof on those who say that Satan is in mind in those passages.

The passage in Ezekiel is more detailed, and is most often used to support the interpretation of the one in Isaiah, and as such dealing with Ezekiel will address the matter sufficiently. Let’s run through Ezekiel a bit at a time, and we’ll do it from the perspective of anyone who sees all of Ezekiel 28 as referring to Satan, as well as addressing any points unique to Fairley’s report.

Son of man, take up a lamentation upon the king of Tyrus, and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Thou sealest up the sum, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty.

This portion, by itself, is not determinative. Ancient kings were regarded as the repositories of wisdom, so that’s no reason to identify the person in this passage as anyone but the king of Tyre.  What about the beauty of this figure? The king of Tyre possessed significant honor as the leader of one of the wealthiest nations in the ancient world. So, you can be pretty sure he decked himself out appropriately. So, there is no reason to read Satan into this text.

Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold: the workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created. 
Here’s where some Satan identifiers get really cooking. Generally, they say that since the literal king of Tyre could not have been in the Garden of Eden, this must be alluding to someone who actually was there. But, that’s not at all the case. Eden for Ezekiel is a type of, or analogus to, the wealthy city of Tyre. The city was a sort of a virtual "paradise" for its residents and for the king of Tyre. In other words, the point is that the luxurious city of Tyre is like Eden in terms of being a comfortable paradise.

What about the stones? That could be either a representation of Tyre’s wealth, or else an allusion to the king of Tyre also being a priest, as part of his office. Like Israel’s priests, the pagan priests often wore jewels as part of their outfits.

Thou art the anointed cherub that covereth; and I have set thee so: thou wast upon the holy mountain of God; thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire. 

This passage makes the strongest case for an equation with Satan, since Satan was a cherub, or angel. But the reference to the ruler of Tyre as a "cherub" no more means an actual cherub is in view, than it means a real dragon is in view in the next chapter about Pharaoh (29:3). In reality, cherubs were a key symbol of Phoenician and Tyrian iconography, which means that the ruler of Tyre would also be properly described in terms of a cherub. It’s sort of like the way Americans in the early 20th century described Teddy Roosevelt as a bull moose. Cherubs were Tyre’s “mascots”.

What about the references to a holy mountain and stones of fire? Those represent a puzzle with any interpretation we offer. Those who suggest Satan is the subject are compelled to suggest a vivid anthropomorphism, because obviously, a spirit being is not walking on an actual mountain or among actual stones. On the other hand, if this is the literal king of Tyre, then this could be another allusion to an Edenic paradise, but only from a version of the story the residents of Tyre would be familiar with. The fiery stones, for example, would relate to a story in the pagan Gilgamesh Epic of a garden in which fruit and leaves took the form of jewels. That would be an appropriate image to use of Eden when addressing a pagan king. 

Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till iniquity was found in thee. By the multitude of thy merchandise they have filled the midst of thee with violence, and thou hast sinned: therefore I will cast thee as profane out of the mountain of God: and I will destroy thee, O covering cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire.

In terms of our report so far, this repeats images from above and suggests nothing new, although it is an area where Fairley tries a little too hard to strain Satan out of the account. 

If this passage does refer to trade or merchandise, then we have a perfect match for the king of Tyre, which was one of the leading trade cities in the ancient world. In Fairley's view, however, the word we translate here as “merchandise” or “trading” is mistranslated. Rather, he says it means to go up and down as an agitator, or to slander. 

That won’t work for a couple of reasons. First the Hebrew word for “merchandise” (rekullah) is used just four times in the Old Testament. All four uses are in Ezekiel, and two of those uses make it quite clear that the word has to do with commercial traffic (26:12, 28:5), not agitation or slander:

And they shall make a spoil of thy riches, and make a prey of thy merchandise: and they shall break down thy walls, and destroy thy pleasant houses: and they shall lay thy stones and thy timber and thy dust in the midst of the water. By thy great wisdom and by thy traffick hast thou increased thy riches, and thine heart is lifted up because of thy riches...

A related verb refers several times to what are obviously commercial merchants (1 Kings 10:15, Neh. 3:32, Ez. 27:3, 13, several times in Ez. 27) So, where does Fairley get this idea that it means “campaigning” or slandering?
Fairley doesn’t give his source for this, so I can’t say and will not guess. I did find the same claim repeated in an article by Richard Davidson, and nowhere else except another article by Davidson. That means it’s likely the original source for Fairley’s claim, even if not the direct source. [Richard M. Davidson, "Cosmic Metanarrative for the Coming Millennium," Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 11 (2000) 1-2:108]

In his articles, Davidson tells us that while studying, he came to a “startling and exciting discovery” that the verb related to the word in Ezekiel means, to go about, while the noun derivative means “slanderer” or “talebearer.” Now in fact, that is true. The related word is used in Ezekiel 22:9:

In thee are men that carry tales to shed blood: and in thee they eat upon the mountains: in the midst of thee they commit lewdness.

However, this does nothing to bring the same meaning to the other form of the word used in Ezekiel 28. It is clear that the original root of the word refers to “carrying” or “travelling around.” That’s why we get words from it that refer to both merchants and talebearers: Both are “carrying” something. That in turn means that the only reason to assume that what the figure in Ezekiel 28 “carries around” is slander is because we assume, in the first place, that it must be Satan that Ezekiel is talking about. Unfortunately, that won’t work, both because of the contrary meaning found in the two other clear uses of the same word by Ezekiel, as well as the frequent references to material trade in the prior chapter (Ezekiel 27).

The reality is that serious scholars don’t buy this reading of Ezekiel 28:16, and even those who do think Satan is to be found in Ezekiel 28 are compelled to suggest "a shift of focus back and forth" between the king of Tyre and Satan throughout the chapter.  

Fairley tries for a variation on this, seeking to make a distinction between the “prince” of Tyre (28:2) and the “king” of Tyre (28:12), whom he sees as different personages i.e., the first to be a human, the second being Satan. But that doesn’t work either. The word used in verse 2 is a broad one. Though often translated “prince,” it doesn’t carry our connotation of one who is the son of a king. It simply means a leader or ruler, in generic terms. In fact, there are places where it used to designate someone who is obviously a king (1 Sam. 13:12-13, 25:30; 2 Sam 5:2, 1 Kings 14:7). So, those two words will not serve to get two different personages out of Ezekiel 28.

Another point made by Fairley is that the same word used in Ezekiel 28:16 is also found in Leviticus 19:16, where it is translated “talebearer.” But, that’s not the same word at all. It’s what Davidson called the noun derivative, which is also found in Ezekiel 22:9.

Now let's pick up where we last left off with Ezekiel. 

Thine heart was lifted up because of thy beauty, thou hast corrupted thy wisdom by reason of thy brightness: I will cast thee to the ground, I will lay thee before kings, that they may behold thee. Thou hast defiled thy sanctuaries by the multitude of thine iniquities, by the iniquity of thy traffic; therefore will I bring forth a fire from the midst of thee, it shall devour thee, and I will bring thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee. All they that know thee among the people shall be astonished at thee: thou shalt be a terror, and never shalt thou be any more.

There's little new here. It may be noted that there is little chance that a spirit being will be brought to literal ashes, or will be seen by people. A king, of course, won't likely be made literally ashes either. Saying you’ll turn someone to “ashes” would reflect a kind of “trash talk" that was used by kings in the Ancient Near East when they went to war.

So, here’s the bottom line. Finding Satan in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 is an excellent exercise in midrashic typology, but in terms of actual justification from the intent of the text, there is little that can be found. So, while it may well be that Satan fell because of pride, Isaiah 14 isn’t a reason to think so; and while it may be that he used to be in charge of music in heaven, Ezekiel 28 isn’t evidence of that.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Hitler and "Positive Christianity"

For postings today I'm providing a copy of the first chapter of my e-book Hitler's Christianity, which is nearing its third birthday.
Chapter 1 -- Positive Christianity: Doctrines and Background
The fundamental core of our case is that Hitler and Nazi leaders adhered to a cult system called “Positive Christianity.” By defining Positive Christianity as a cult, we are arguing that its beliefs lie outside the mainstream of orthodox Christianity, to the extent that it would be incorrect to define Hitler as a Christian, or to place the blame for Nazi atrocities on the Christian faith as a religion and as a philosophy.
Cults and Heresies
The first step in this process is to ask: What is a cult? The word “cult” today holds sinister connotations of dark-robed figures slitting lizards’ throats in the moonlight, or of murderous, charismatic leaders brainwashing followers into self-immolation. “Cult” brings to mind pictures of the Branch Davidians resisting to the death the forces of the United States Government; or of the followers of the Hale-Bopp comet cult lying dead under purple sheets after ingesting poisoned rice pudding, or of the followers of Jim Jones consuming cyanide-laced punch in the jungles of Guyana. But, from a strictly theological perspective, “cult” can refer to any religious group that is a deviation, or offshoot, from some other major religious group, and which holds to a new or unusual belief or practice that either rejects, or openly contradicts, the beliefs of the parent group. To that extent, it is no longer truly part of the parent group, and becomes properly defined as a new group in its own right.
A related word in this context, which we will also apply to Positive Christianity, is heresy. Broadly speaking, a heresy is any doctrine that is at odds with what is accepted by the mainstream of a parent religious body. Thus, formally, “cult” refers to the group which deviates from the norm, while “heresy” defines the doctrines that cause that group to be deviants from the norm.
Arguably, then, the defining of a group as a cult, or of a belief as a heresy, is a matter of the degree of deviation from a mainstream view: The more radically a splinter group departs from the beliefs and practices of its parent group, the more appropriate it becomes to define the splinter group as a cult, or their beliefs as heresies.
With that, we may now ask: In what way did Positive Christianity deviate from the mainstream of doctrine and enter into heresy? What of its deviations make it sufficient to classify it as a cult?
There are three areas in which Positive Christianity differed significantly from orthodox Christian viewpoints.
Deviation #1: A Bowdlerized Bible
The Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, is widely recognized as the "handbook" of the Christian faith. There are, of course, a range of opinions about its exact role in the Christian life. Some regard it as the inerrant word of God, inspired by God Himself. Some regard it as a human record, but still authoritative in terms of being the key source for Christian doctrine. Some say that its canon is lacking and could stand to add a few books; a few others say there is a book or two that is not as qualified as the others, or could stand to be removed.
Despite these variations in opinion, however, it is generally recognized that there is a certain extent to which one can go that ends up outside the pale of what is historically and theologically called "Christian." A Buddhist who rejects the authority of the Bible, and sees in it nothing more than perhaps a mishmash of history, moral teachings, and the words of sometimes-mistaken men, is certainly not qualified to be called a Christian on those terms. Muslims who regard the Bible as authoritative but corrupted, and in need of the corrections and clarifications offered by the Quran, also cannot be regarded as Christians.
Moving closer to the center of the circle, definitions get harder to apply. Groups like the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, or David Koresh's Branch Davidians, are overwhelmingly denied the title of “Christian” in good measure because they declare that the Biblical record has been either corrupted or badly misunderstood, so that they believe it necessary for there to be supplemental revelation, provided either by another inspired book, or some prophetic revelation. These groups may also boldly declare that they are indeed Christians, and may become quite offended when told that this is not the case. Alternatively, a group may declare that it is they who are the true Christians, and it is others in the mainstream church who are not! [xy]
([xy] I am particularly familiar with this issue where it concerns Mormonism, and attempts by Mormon apologists to claim the title "Christian" for themselves. See on this point, for example, Daniel Peterson and Stephen Ricks, Offenders for a Word (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1998).
The irony in this is particularly strong, since Joseph Smith himself reported that during his “First Vision” of God and Jesus, he asked them which church he ought to join, and was told that he “must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof’ ”. (History of Joseph Smith, 1:19.) Even more strongly, third Mormon President John Taylor (1808-1887) said, “We talk about Christianity, but it is a perfect pack of nonsense...the devil could not invent a better engine to spread his work than the Christianity of the nineteenth century.” (Journal of Discourses 6:167). To that extent, the modern Mormon quest to be called "Christian" departs considerably from the original teachings of Mormonism's founders.
The diversion of Mormonism here noted is of some relevance, since, as we will see, adherents to Positive Christianity also declared themselves to be restoring a more original and authentic form of the Christian faith. Thus, one of the most important reasons they can be denied the title of “Christian” and deemed a cult, is that they denied that title to everyone else, thereby indicating that they were a separate group.)
It is beyond our present scope to discuss these other groups listed, but it is clear that with respect to the Bible and its utility, there is a line of demarcation beyond which one cannot pass and still be acceptably termed "Christian." All that said, where does “Positive Christianity" fit on this spectrum?
The Positive Christian “Canon”
The two divisions of the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, are regarded as closed collections, or canons, to which nothing can be justifiably added, or appropriately taken away. It is considered a standard hallmark of a Christian cult to in some way change or redefine the contours of these canons, either by claiming that some new revelation has been provided which further defines, or else updates, the prior canon, or else by subtracting from that canon.
Within this understanding, it is not necessary, as a critic might suppose, to debate whether or not the canon of the Bible was the result of divine intervention. Even if the canon had been assembled by completely natural means, it remains the defining “constitution” of the Christian faith. Thus, by definition, any group that performs surgery on the canon is defining itself as “outside” the Christian faith.
Positive Christianity defined itself in terms of a particularly radical form of canonical surgery, one that amounted to removing no less than three quarters of the Bible from the Christian canon, and as much as ninety percent of it, depending on individual variations. The minimum surgery consisted of the complete excision of the Old Testament from the Bible, as a document that was “too Jewish” for their tastes, and at a maximum, disposing of the letters of Paul, who was frequently named as a Jewish “corrupter” of the authentic Christian faith.
In this respect, Positive Christianity imitates a movement widely recognized as heretical by the Christian mainstream. The removal of the Old Testament, as well as select New Testament material, mirrors the actions of the second-century Marcionite heresy, which rejected Jewish influences on the Christian faith. Like the Positive Christians, Marcion rejected the entirety of the Old Testament from his canon. Unlike the Positive Christians, however, his trimming of the New Testament involved keeping Paul rather than rejecting him (all except for the Pastoral letters: 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus), and rejecting every Gospel except an abridged version of Luke.
At the same time, the New Testament itself rejects such forced distinctions between itself and the message of the Old Testament. Jesus and the authors of the New Testament clearly quoted and alluded to the Old Testament as historically authoritative, and with great appreciation. They also clearly saw in Jesus an imitation of Old Testament themes and prophecy.
There can therefore be little doubt that on this accounting alone, that of a radically bowdlerized canon, Positive Christianity must be counted as a pseudo-Christian cult.
Deviation #2: A De-Judaized Jesus
If the Bible is Christianity's handbook, then Jesus is Christianity's central figure. No one would say a Muslim qualified as a Christian, not only because of their rejection of the Christian canon as God’s complete revelation, but also in good measure because of their quite different take on who Jesus was, and what he did (or rather, did not do). Any person whose portrait of Jesus departs in some substantial way from the Christian view, also cannot be regarded as a Christian.
Since the Positive Christians rejected the Old Testament for being a Jewish document, and rejected Paul as a Jewish corrupter of Christianity, it will not be surprising to learn that they also made an effort to redefine Jesus. In mainstream Christianity, Jesus is a Jew – a member of a specific ethnic group, born into that group in accordance with promises related in the Old Testament covenant, concerning a coming Messiah. In order to make Jesus acceptable for their anti-Semitic viewpoints, the Positive Christians redefined the ethnicity of Jesus, turning him into an Aryan (a member of the Nazi “master race”) or a Nordic.
Other religions and groups have claimed Jesus and reinvented him into a person that all would presumably agree are not "Christian." One of my favorite examples of this is a book titled The Elvis-Jesus Mystery, by Cinda Godfrey. This amazing book declares that Elvis Presley was the "same soul" as Jesus (and as Adam, for good measure!). I cannot imagine even the most insensate critic arguing that this represents a genuinely "Christian" point of view.
The Jesus of Positive Christianity was perhaps not as radical as Godfrey's. It was, however, a logical extension of their views on the Bible. As Positive Christianity divorced Christianity from the Bible's Jewish elements, it also divorced Jesus from his Jewish heritage.
Physical Parameters
The question that may arise now is, "Is Positive Christianity's Jesus truly radical enough to disqualify it as a bona fide Christian sect?" For arguably, one can believe, for example, that Jesus had red or brown hair, or was 6 feet tall rather than 5 feet tall, and not endanger being classified as a Christian.
Hair color and height, however, are not essential to Jesus' identity as broker of the Christian covenant. On the other hand, Jesus' status as the divine Son of Man, and as incarnate hypostatic Wisdom (that is, as a member of the Trinity) have been widely recognized as being essential to his identity. Groups that deny such doctrines, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, have been discounted as not being within the Christian fold since the Nicaea Council condemned the heresies of the Arians (i.e., the Jehovah's Witnesses of that day).
Is Jesus' Jewishness no more important than his hair color? Given Jesus’ professions to be intrinsically linked to the messianic promises of the Old Testament, and similar sentiments by the authors of the other New Testament books, it is clear that to turn Jesus into an Aryan, and deny his Jewishness, is to deny a fundamental fact of Christianity. It is also contrary to clear New Testament professions giving Jesus Jewish or Davidic ancestry (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 2:11, 3:23-28; Romans 1:3; 2 Timothy 2:8; Hebrews 7:14; Rev. 5:5, 22:16). Jewishness was intrinsic to Jesus' self-identity, and denial of Jesus' Jewishness, as part of the package of "Positive Christianity," puts it outside the pale of historic and theological Christianity.
The nature of this deviance should be properly understood. Critics may charge that many depictions of Jesus in our churches make him out to be a white Anglo-Saxon, sometimes with perfectly “Nordic” blue eyes and blond hair. But this is not done in order to de-Judaize Jesus. Rather, it is because many modern Christians are not aware that Jews of the first century had dark complexions and dark hair. Pictures of Jesus as a typical “white guy” are designed based on the assumption that the Jews of the first century were also “white guys”, and not in order to deny that they were Jews.
Deviation #3: Indifference to Doctrine
The final deviation of Positive Christianity concerns a focus on orthopraxy (right practice) at the expense of orthodoxy (right doctrine or belief). To be a Christian (or a member of any religious group) requires correct adherence to a certain prescribed set of beliefs. Orthodoxy is used to describe one who holds the correct set of beliefs for their spiritual tradition.
In contrast, orthopraxy is used to refer to the rules of conduct that one must adhere to in order to live as a member of a group. Within Islam, for example, there are five pillars, or obligations, each faithful Muslim must perform to be considered faithful to Islam: belief (meaning, orthodoxy), worship, charitable giving, periodic fasting, and a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime. Any Muslim who deviates from this set of duties, without valid justification (e.g., not having the resources to make a trip to Mecca), are regarded as less than faithful to their beliefs.
Within Christianity, New Testament moral admonitions (particularly the Sermon on the Mount) are regarded as guidelines for Christian behavior. Those who deviate from these guidelines are regarded as either failing to represent orthodoxy (their beliefs), or may, in some cases, be regarded as displaying evidence of not holding right beliefs at all. Of course, this is reckoned as a matter of degree, not as a binary equation; a momentary lapse in orthopraxy is not immediately regarded as a sign of failure to be a member of the group. Positive Christianity strongly emphasized works and action. However, in terms of doctrine, it might be well to say that Positive Christianity not only failed to encourage the formulation of doctrine but it ignored doctrine to the point of annihilation. One searches in vain for any comment by leading Nazis on key doctrinal issues like the atonement, the Trinity, or original sin. Steigmann-Gall elaborates on this point, noting of Nazi commentators, [HR86] "[r]arely did they elaborate on doctrinal questions. Seldom did these party members discuss their thinking on original sin, the resurrection of Christ, or the communion of the saints." Though they believed they were following Christian ethics, and though they could accept Christian dogmas and gain inspiration from the Gospels and from Jesus, "In general...most of them were less concerned with the doctrine of Christianity than with its political ideology." He further states:
Positive Christianity was not an attempt to make a complete religious system with a dogma or ritual of its own: It was never formalized into a faith to which anyone could convert. Rather, this was primarily a social and political worldview meant to emphasize those qualities of Christianity that could end sectarianism. [HR84] Beyond this, Nazi commentators "said little or nothing about the Augsburg Confession or other signifiers of theological orthodoxy", and were "generally unconcerned with dogma." Stegmann-Gall goes on to say that in spite of this, they "adhered to basic precepts of Christian doctrine, most importantly the divinity of Christ as the son of God." [HR49-50] Nevertheless, this seeming “saving grace” is insufficient to detract from the lack of focus on orthodoxy in Positive Christian writings, especially given the reason for this lack of focus on doctrine.
Positive Christianity: In the Background

Just prior to the Nazi era, and even outside of Germany, the phrase “positive Christianity” was used to define a form of Christianity in which the believer was encouraged to act upon their beliefs, instead of merely being content to believe intellectually. A 1897 British journal, The Cambrian, in an article titled, “Prof. Richard T. Ely on Christianity”, says:
Positive Christianity having eyes and ears perceives wretched social conditions all about us. It knows what vile tenements signify and is aware of the enormous extent of the housing problem. Positive Christianity sees degraded childhood and lost opportunities on every side. Positive Christianity remembers that blindness is sin, that neglect is sin. “Inasmuch as ye did it not,” is the condemnation of negative Christianity.
Ely’s concern was that “professed Christianity” become “real Christianity” by action. Similar sentiments can be found in other sources of the same period, using the phrase, “positive Christianity.” [xp]
([xp] For example, Charles Abram Ellwood, The Reconstruction of Religion: A Sociological View (MacMillan: 1922) and Peter Taylor Forsyth, Positive Preaching and Modern Mind (A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1907). No doubt unaware of the Nazi connotations of the phrase “positive Christianity”, some modern writers have revived it to refer to the practice of Christianity with a “positive attitude.” For example, Zig Ziglar, Confessions of a Happy Christian (Pelican: 1978).)
There is certainly nothing innately wrong with encouraging orthopraxy. Calling believers to action is part of any healthy system of faith. However, the Positive Christians of the Nazi movement took this a step further, where Orthopraxy was emphasized to the point that orthodoxy was deemed irrelevant. Cults and heresies, under normal circumstances, are termed as such in part because of incorrect doctrine. How much more so should a group be classified as a cult for dispensing with doctrine altogether?
Why Ignore It?
Ely’s expression of “positive Christianity” had as its purpose a call to action on the part of those who professed Christian belief. Certainly, the Nazi adherents to their form of Positive Christianity would argue that such was their purpose as well. However, there was much more to it, and much that was designed to aid the Nazis in achieving a Germany unified under their banner. [HR51] "[O]ne of the very purposes of positive Christianity...was to bridge the religious divide by making no specific references to a particular confessional bias." Germany of this era was characterized by a significant population divide between Catholics (who were approximately one third of the population) and Protestants, who were themselves divided into over two dozen denominations. Positive Christianity, a Christianity of action that had no use for dogma, was intended to appeal to "the commonalities that joined Protestants and Catholics," stop sectarianism, and unify the nation under the Nazi banner.
For this reason, it is not surprising that little or no effort was made to lay out any detailed theology or dogma under Positive Christianity. [HR52] A "generalized and rather diffuse notion of simple Christianity" was best suited for achieving unity, by minimizing potential differences of opinion. Those who advocated Positive Christianity "were particularly unsuccessful in laying out any idea of what the new faith would actually look like; what its dogmas, creeds, or institutions might be, aside from a de facto appropriation of aspects of Protestantism." There was also no evidence that, "they made any particular effort to do so."
Pre-Nazi Positive Christianity
The roots of the German incarnation of Positive Christianity go back into history much farther than the Third Reich, and indeed, into the time even before Hitler’s birth. Part of the genesis of Positive Christianity was a hypertrophic German nationalism (a subject we will discuss further in Chapter 5), and its reaction to the practice of ultra-Montanism – a Catholic orientation which placed a strong emphasis on the powers of the Pope.
An early opponent of ultra-Montanism in Germany was Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890), a [CRN20-1] “famed Munich theologian” who viewed ultra-Montanism as “both anti-German and almost pathologically destructive.” Von Döllinger claimed that “God had given Germans in particular the world historical task of reinterpreting Catholic theology for the dawning modern age, and he called on German Catholics to shed the yoke of ultra-Montanism and to assume their predestined role as ‘teachers of all the nations.’ ” In this view, he took for granted the superiority of German “national spirit,” and his views typified a nationalist reaction to ultra-Montanism.
Von Döllinger was not a “positive Christian” in the Nazi sense. However, he was a reactionary against ultra-Montanism, and [CRN33] other Catholic opponents of ultra-Montanism in Munich found their solution in Positive Christianity. At the time, the phrase was “so commonplace in prewar Reform Catholic circles as to require little explication.” It is not difficult to find examples of its use twenty years and more before the Nazis used it in their platform. In these earlier contexts, it was associated with German nationalism, anti-Semitism, and a strong emphasis on moral purity.
There are also indications of the three distinctives we have listed, at this early stage. [CRN37] For example, the cover of the April 1902 issue of the journal Renaissance, featured a “blending of Nordic-Aryan imagery and explicitly Catholic visual references” (including the figure of a muscular titan) and also “visually reinforced the primacy of the New Testament, which is illuminated specifically by the torch of the titan, over the (Jewish) Old Testament, which is pushed far to the margins of the image.” A tablet of the Ten Commandments is also featured toppling off into the void.
Positive Christianity’s “John the Baptist”?
As we move into the time of the Nazi Party itself, there is a leading figure in the Positive Christian movement who can be found to have definitive ties to the Party. [CRN1] In 1918, a Bavarian Catholic, Franz Schrönghamer Heimdal, authored a book titled The Coming Reich, which laid out plans for “the ecumenical yet distinctly Catholic-oriented spiritual rebuilding of Germany.” The spirit of German hyper-nationalism infected Heimdal’s work (e.g., he was unashamedly anti-Semitic, contrasting the purity of Christ with the “materialist spirit” of the Jews). He also [CRN53] claimed that “Catholic revelation and Nordic legend were in perfect God-ordained harmony, and elsewhere, [CRN71] in a 1919 Christmas devotional written for the newspaper that would become the Nazi Party’s unofficial publication, declared that only in Christ could the Germanic spirit “find its fullest expression.” Heimdal’s radical ideas extended even into the physical realm, anticipating another aspect of the future Nazi program: He [CRN2] foresaw Christians bonded in a racial community that was to be maintained via eugenics.
The three distinctives of Positive Christianity are plainly evident in Heimdal’s work. The promise of a bowdlerized Bible is clear in that he saw the heroism of Jesus foreshadowed in the ancient Nordic saga Edda, which he supposed might even be divinely inspired, at least to extent that the [CRN54] “inferior” Old Testament was inspired. A de-Judaized Jesus is already present in his writings: He [CRN56] claimed that Jesus was a “Galilean Aryan from Nazareth whose racial identity stock stood in stark contrast to the racially inferior Jews of Jerusalem.” Finally, the emphasis on orthopraxy [CRN72] is made clear in that the central theme offered in his 1919 Christmas devotional was, “common good before individual interest” a sentiment reflected nearly word for word in Point 24 of the Nazi Party program.
The similarities between Heimdal’s views and Nazi “Positive Christianity” were so obvious that, fifteen years later, in 1933, Heimdal had the courage to openly claim that his book had played a role in the founding of the Nazi movement. In this [CRN74], Heimdal’s estimate of his influence is certainly “overblown,” since the same ideas he promulgated were already widespread in Munich at the time. His claim of direct influence, however, does have a “kernel of truth” to it, to the extent that he was to some degree involved in Nazi affairs, and had the attention of people in the Nazi Party. In 1920 [CRN3] he was the leading writer for the Völkischer Beobachter newspaper, when it was the “unofficial organ” of Nazi movement. He also had two other books that were widely discussed among the early Nazis (in 1918, and 1919), and The Coming Reich earned the praise of Deitrich Eckart, an influential “mover and shaker” in the early Nazi movement, who we will discuss further in Chapter 3. Perhaps, Heimdal’s influence is best summed up by Hastings: He [CRN80] offered the “first programmatic religious statement from a Nazi member following the articulation of Positive Christianity.”
The earliest history of Positive Christianity as a Nazi phenomenon closes with a peculiar note. After his failed 1923 beerhall putsch, Adolf Hitler was compelled to serve time in prison. Prior to his sentence, Positive Christianity among the Nazis was associated with persons who, like Hitler himself, maintained a spiritually tenuous connection to Roman Catholicism. After Hitler’s release from prison, in 1925, there was a re-founding of the Nazi movement, and from then on, as a reaction to growing anti-Catholic sentiment, the [CRN144] Catholic orientation of Positive Christianity was replaced with a Protestant orientation. So it was that after February 1925 [CRN157], aside from occasional references to Positive Christianity and the heroism of Christ, “Hitler was no longer portrayed either as a believing Catholic or as an energetic advocate of Christianity.” From then on, Positive Christianity would become more greatly associated with Protestantism, and the denominational gauntlet would be taken up by a group called the German Christians, whose story will be further told in Chapter 6. For now, we will turn to discussion of the individual religious beliefs of leading Nazi figures, which will first require a diversion to deflate an all too common myth – that of Hitler and other leading Nazis as practitioners of the occult.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Is Inerrancy a Heresy?

From the July 2013 E-Block.
A reader requested that we examine the book The Ultimate Heresy by Rodger Cragun, which we will do in two installments over the next two issues. The peculiar stance of this book is that the concept of Biblical inerrancy is a heresy. Cragun, not surprisingly, has more than a few problems with his approach and overall theory.
First, Cragun spends an inordinate amount of time -- about half of the book -- showing from the Bible itself that the Bible is never called "the Word of God, " and showing that the phrase, when used, refers to something else, like a single specific prophecy.
Really now.
For those who may have missed it, I discovered that without Cragun's help some time ago:

The Bible as "Word of God." KNM has insisted that Skeptics have "always" as their "underlining (sic) issue" whether the Bible is the Word of God. I have replied that this is not my own focus in argument; I concern myself rather with whether the Bible's contents are true, logical, or practical. If it is on all counts, then it being the "Word of God" is simply, as it were, a cherry on top, but contributes nothing new in utilitarian terms.
A relevant observation here is that designating the Bible to be the "Word of God" is itself a post-Biblical phenomenon. An apostle or prophet who heard that phrase would not have thought of a book, but rather, of the transcendant thoughts and words of YHWH. It could certainly have not meant the whole Bible prior to its completion and compilation, and when the phrase “word of God” is used in the Bible, it always means some specific prophetic utterance, or some message (like the Gospel).
This would of course include what is within the contents of the Bible; but as well, "Word of God" implies a universality of application that simply is not true of much of the text. In precise terms, for example, the book of Zephaniah could be said to report the words of God TO Zephaniah concerning judgment on specific nations. As I have noted many times, this is symptomatic of modern Sunday School lessons that strive mightily to make even books like Leviticus applicable to modern life -- which is a mistake.
In that respect, while we may not necessarily find it fruitful to abandon "Word of God" as a designation for the Bible as a whole, and I would not advocate doing so because of the confusion it would cause at this late date, it does represent an anachronism that should be clarified. In a proper technical sense, the collection we call the Bible represents two collections of covenant documents, and so "Old Testament" and "New Testament" are actually more precise and helpful than "Word of God".
And so, as I have told KNM, the concern should not be, "is the Bible the Word of God." More than that, it should not even be whether it is "from God," but rather, the more basic questions of whether it is true, logical, practical, and so on as applicable. The former way is a carryover, I suspect, of the work of well-meaning evangelists and teachers (like Billy Graham) who were accustomed to being able to invoke the Bible as "the Word of God" and get immediate respect and authority. It worked well for a time, but it no longer does. But if we show that the Bible is true, then one is able to open the door to the possibility that God’s messages have in some way been transmitted in the text as a medium.
To illustrate, one might say that this posting is the “word of JPH” or “from JPH.” But the truth of the post does not in any way depend on it being MY word, as opposed to that of, say, Tekton ministry associates like Nick Peters or “Punkish." If you decide my "word" here is true -- you can worry about whether it is from me later...or even not at all, if you choose.  

Not that any of this matters, since it is hard to see what point Cragun thinks he is proving in the first place. While some modern preachers may use the shorthand phrase, "the Word of God," to refer to the Bible, only an infantile Christian would fail to see that to use this as an argument that the Bible is the Word of God is circular reasoning. Thus, in essence, Cragun spends about half his book knocking down an exceptionally infantile argument.
A far better "argument" for inerrancy -- though more of a common sense notion than an actual argument -- would be a syllogism Cragun presents all too briefly:
  • God is perfect.
  • What God thinks is perfect.
  • From that which God thinks He reveals to people.
  • What He reveals to people must therefore be perfect.

  • Unfortunately, Cragun doesn't deal with this syllogism except to dismiss it as, "Aristotelian logic." The last I checked, though, logic did not function only in Aristotle's presence. Nor did the Hebrews have their own brand of logic proffered by someone else. Notions like cause and effect were not inoperable in ancient Israel. So, what Cragun thinks is the point in his citing of "Aristotelian logic" is hard to say.

  • In the end, Cragun's screed against inerrancy is a straw man. Even if the Bible was not inspired, it contains multiple truth claims that would remain to be evaluated and argued for or against. As we shall see next issue, however, arguing the virtues of individual passages is precisely one of the most difficult tasks for Cragun, and to that extent he is also using the shortcut of the designation of the Bible as the "Word of God" in much the same way as the fundamentalists he so decries.

    Another aspect of Cragun's case amounts to this, if I may dare to frame it in Aristotelian terms:

  • The Bible contains X horrible thing, and also some of these horrible things hurt my feelings or offend me.
  • Therefore the Bible is not inerrant.

  • Here again, however, robust failure is Cragun's chief methodology. The second half of the book contains many more examples than the first half, so we will save coverage of particulars for next issue. For now, let it only be said that in each case, Cragun ironically reads the Bible just like the very inerrantists he decries -- devoid of context and definition.
    We might also note an error from earlier in the book, one that exemplifies Cragun's ineptness as a researcher. In one place, Cragun makes the naive statement that, "Some of the bloodiest humanity's conflicts have been religious." [1] Really? In reality, religion has been behind very, very few wars. It was certainly not behind any of the major wars of the 20th century. Here, Cragun is like the ignorant stockbroker in Crichton's Timeline who has to be told that the Hundred Years' War wasn't religious, because everyone at the time was Catholic, and Protestants hadn't invented themselves yet.
    We should also mention another variation on Cragun's theme, which goes to the heart of why he thinks inerrancy is a heresy. Basically, he believes that inerrancy has caused people to enforce the Bible's horrible teachings, and indicates that if it were not for inerrancy, we wouldn't be doing intolerant things like opposing gay marriage. He also, rather foolishly, blames inerrancy for the creation of many divisions in the church. In this, Cragun has fallen for the naive approach of blaming the instrument for the acts of the person using the instrument. It does not occur to him that even a believer in an errant Bible can deem the Bible authoritative on select points. After all, even Cragun himself uses the Bible in an authoritative way to argue that it does not call itself "the Word of God." And so, Cragun's designation of inerrancy as a "heresy," even if correct, would be nothing more than a simple-minded band-aid solution that would shift, not erase, the problem that he alleges is occurring.
    A final point for this round is that Cragun tackles the sort of "inerrancy" that is also devoid of context, which we have previously condemned from authors as notable as Dr. Norman Geisler. How he would handle a more informed and contextualized rendition of inerrancy is difficult to say. The one thing we can say is that he is apparently too busy being offended to bother to look for alternatives.

    We will continue with Part 2 at another time in the very near future.

    Tuesday, June 28, 2016

    Alberto Rivera the Unreliable

    From the May 2-13 E-Block. I couldn't do earlier parts of this series here because it had too many pictures to post conveniently, but this part is all text.
    ****We had a series on Chick tracts a while back, but there was one subject left that I wanted to append to that series, but couldn’t, because the article I needed was no longer available. That article, by Brian Onken, was titled, “Alberto: The Truth About Alberto,” and it appeared in vol. 4, #2 of Forward magazine. If that name seems unfamiliar, it’s because that was the title of the Christian Research Journal in its first few years of publication, back when Walter Martin was at the helm of CRI. But now, thanks to Elliott Miller, the editor of the Journal, I was able to look at a copy of this article and make some notes (as an aside, it may well be the only copy left in the country!).
    Onken’s article was about two Chick comics, “Alberto” and “Double Cross,” that supposedly relate the history of Alberto Rivera, who is Jack Chick’s chief source for anti-Catholic material. In pursuing the claims of these comics, Onken at first tried to contact Rivera, without success. He then tried to contact Chick, but was told that "Jack Chick would make no reply whatsoever and that he was not answerable to any man, and that the comic books could stand on their own." I think that response stands on its own, though not the way Chick thinks it does. Onken then made phone contact with Rivera, who said "he would not waste time in what he termed 'personal carnal justification'." Rivera then said that CRI was in apostasy, that Walter Martin was an "undercover agent for the Vatican," and that if CRI wanted answers, they could get them "in a court of law." It’s rather interesting that anyone who seeks to question Chick ends up being a Vatican employee. Needless to say, this is merely the same sort of psychological ploy used by all conspiracy theorists – such as the Zeitgeist movie, or 9-11 truthers, who take informed dissent as further proof of a cover-up.
    Next, Onken did some checking with the Catholic Church, to see if Rivera had indeed been part of it. No record was found of Rivera as a bishop or as a Jesuit. More recent Chick comic editions provide a photo of Rivera allegedly at work as a Catholic priest, but why not play their own game and say that’s part of their cover-up? But it need not be – see below.
    The recent comics also provide alleged testimonies from two former Catholics. One, named Clark Butterfield, is reputedly an ex-priest. His alleged biography, Night Journey from Rome to the New Jerusalem, was published by Chick, who is alleged to have been called out of Catholicism in 1978 and died in 1981 – or, some say, murdered in 1981, though Chick itself doesn’t say this. Onken then offered a listing of errors in the two comics:

    False claims about Catholic teachings include that students studying for the priesthood cannot read the Bible, and that Mary is co-equal with the Father.

    There are some historical errors as well, such as that Jesuits were behind the Inquisition (which is not possible, since the Jesuits were not established until the 1540s, and the Inquisition started in 1198). It is also claimed that Constantine secretly worshipped the sun god until death.

    It is claimed that the acronym INRI stands for Iustum Necar Reges Impios, or, “it is just to exterminate the impious”, rather than Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudearoum. Of course this is mere paranoid fantasy.

    Any one, it seems, can be a secret agent for Rome. Kathryn Kuhlman was one. Jim Jones was secretly a Jesuit deacon (though the sources Rivera cites actually say Jones was a dupe for the CIA!). It is claimed that Jones’ "key people were Roman Catholics," but actually, only 3 of 11 were.

    Alberto claims that he attended seminary in Costa Rica, and refers to a scandal in the girls dorm, and a hunger strike he masterminded. He also says the seminary is ecumenical, and now "working with the Roman Catholic Church."

    Onken contacted the seminary and a former classmate of Rivera’s, who apparently did attend the school. To that extent, Rivera does seem to have told a partial truth; he may well have been a priest, but notably, the photos provided by Chick do nothing to prove he was a bishop or a Jesuit. The classmate, in any event, said that "Rivera's account of the events at the seminary was nothing more than a fraud." There was a hunger strike, but Rivera had nothing to do with it, and it had never made the papers as Rivera claimed and was also not related to any Jesuit conspiracy.
    The seminary, too, affirmed the hunger strike, but said it was and is still Reformed, not a part of the Roman Catholic Church.
    Onken also contacted the pastor of the Protestant church Rivera attended (apparently undercover) in Spain. Rivera claimed to have turned it in to authorities, but the church was not meeting clandestinely as claimed, and had a government permit.
    As a response to all of this, Onken further noted that on May 29, 1981, Rivera went on KBRT in Los Angeles, where he said that Walter Martin was "working for the Vatican." He later was met personally by Martin and Onken and when confronted by them, he said he no longer thought Martin was working for the Vatican. However, the same evening at a speaking engagement, he reiterated the earlier claim and added that Martin’s name “was on a secret Jesuit list." He then published a booklet, “A Call for Total Separation,” allegedly addressing points made by Onken, but all the booklet did was use reprinted material from the Alberto comics, plus provide a supposed Jesuit oath. As a final humorous note, Rivera repeatedly referred to CRI as the "Christian Research Center" in his statements.
    In an ironic twist, the article closes with a remark made by Rivera at First Baptist Winter Springs, Florida – a town not far from me – on September 13, 1981. Rivera said that Martin “is dealing with the same accusations, slander, spreading them all over. The president of the so-called, you can imagine the title of this organization, the Christian Research Center. Well, I don't see nothing of Christianity there, much less of research."

    I’d say that such a statement actually better fits Rivera more accurately than CRI.

    Tuesday, June 21, 2016

    Rooting for the Undergods

    From the April 2013 E-Block.
    At reader request, we are now checking out an article titled, “Israelite Religion to Judaism: the Evolution of the Religion of Israel” by David Steinberg. It is difficult to assess Steinberg as a whole because he professes to have studied seriously on these subjects, but he appears to be published only on the Internet. In any event, we will evaluate his points in the article, which includes a great deal that is non-controversial, and which is written not as a narrative, but as a collection of notes. We will seek out and focus on main points about which the inquiry was made; namely, claims having to do with the premise that Israelite religion "evolved from" Canaanite religion.
    Initialy, it seems obvious that Steinberg has no awareness of, or does not consider, scholarship defining the "monotheism" of the Old Testament (see link below). One of his initial queries illustrates the matter:
    The discovery of advanced polytheism poses a central theological issue: if polytheism can have such positive attributes, what is the purpose of monotheism? Did the Bible simply substitute another system, one that represented no advance towards a better understanding of the universe and a more equitable way of living? Indeed, were there some aspects of paganism lost in the transition that present, in fact, a more positive way of living in the world?
    If, however, the religion of Israel was better described as monolatry; and if it is kept in mind that elohim does not carry the semantic freight of our word god, especially with a capital “G”, then there really isn't another "system" at all. Rather, it was a simple matter of selecting one elohim for exclusive devotion , which conceptually doesn't require any hard thinking, any more than it did for Akhenaten. And thus as well, there is no need to ask what the "purpose" of monotheism is. The obvious answer is that it was considered advantageous to align one's self with the most powerful patron/suzerain -- one that not so incidentally had the ability to manage all aspects of creation, whereas with the pagan elohim each had their own domains (oddly enough, later on Steinberg does note this distinction, but does not apply it to his findings in other places).
    Eventually we get to the gist of the matter, which is to argue for some connection between the Elohim of the Bible (as we say, God the Father) and the Canaanite El. As usual, it is never considered that El is a distorted version of Elohim as it is instead assumed that Israel cleaned up El. But let us grant the former premise for the sake of argument. Steinberg quotes another as saying:
    The common identity shared by El and Yahweh is impressive…. In the various texts El and Yahweh were both portrayed as 1) father figures, 2) judges, 3) compassionate and merciful, 4) revealing themselves through dreams, 5) capable of healing those who are sick, 6) dwelling in a cosmic tent, 7) dwelling over the great cosmic waters or at the source of the primordial rivers, which is also on top of a mountain, 8) favorable to the widow, 9) kings in the heavenly realm exercising authority over the other gods, who may be called ‘sons of gods’, 10) warrior deities who led the other gods in battle, 11) creator deities, 12) aged and venerable in appearance, and most significantly, 13) capable of guiding the destinies of people in the social arena.
    To those who consider this "impressive," I can only say…they need to get out more. Nearly all of these would be commonplaces for any major deity in any world religion. The first from the above, for example, represents typical in-group collectivist language. #2 represents a natural duty for any deity -- has anyone heard of a major deity that declines to judge at all? At the same time, has anyone bothered to list out differences between El and Yahweh the same way, and determined their comparative weight and significance? And, if we're going to cite things like #12, why not site differences like the fact that El wears bull horns, but Yahweh does not? Shouldn't these comparisons be thorough in order to be both accurate and also honest?
    The next points of comparison concern parallel mythologies. Since Glenn Miller has already thoroughly addressed these issues (link below), we will engage them no further.
    In terms of the Biblical record, as is usual for such presentations, theory is used to interpret the facts. OT authors are accused of "projecting their religious values in idealized fashion back into the past" though Steinberg merely quotes conclusions to this effect rather than actually ever arguing the points.
    Our next area of concern has to do with the origins of Israelite religion. Said to "fit very well" with the evidence is this scenario:
    Israelite religion was originally a local variety of the pattern in Iron Age Phoenicia in which there was a triad of deities: a protective god of the city (often El), a goddess, often his wife or companion (in Ugarit and Israel Asherah) who symbolizes the fertile earth; and a young god (in Ugarit and Israel Baal usually her or their son), whose resurrection expresses the annual cycle of vegetation [57]. Through the processes of convergence and differentiation this developed into Biblical Monotheism. At an early stage a new god Yahweh was brought in from outside urban Canaan, identified with the Canaanite High God El [58], and accepted as the main object of worship by the emerging Israelite confederacy i.e. association of clans and tribes.
    One has to ask, how does this "fit well"? As yet we are not told. What we do see is a tendentious abuse of the word "resurrection" to describe a "dying and rising god" associated with vegetation, and so far, a mere assumption of development. Steinberg does, however, consider alternatives, but they mostly get the short shrift. For example, this alternative:
    It developed from early Semitic religion which was a “practical monotheism” in which only El was worshiped [59]. not one I'd argue, but Steinberg merely waves it off in one sentence, which wrongly assumes he is already correct:
    Unlikely since the biblical evidence is that Israelite religion was preceded by polytheism.
    Of the alternatives that follow, the one closest to my own view is:
    3.1.1 Traditional Jewish Divine Revelation [61] – God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai the written Pentateuch that we have today together with the Oral Law i.e. the tools for developing the laws of the Pentateuch to meet all future needs. This Oral Law was later embodied in the Talmuds and other Rabbinic literature;
    But actually, it's barely 50% in line with my views. I would not hold that the oral law was also given at this time. Nevertheless, Steinberg also dismisses this with a single sentence:
    The results of Higher Criticism of the Bible make this extremely unlikely.
    And that is all! One supposes, charitably, that Steinberg here meant to give only summaries of views, not arguments for them; and it is to that end that he also merely quotes conclusions that are amenable to his views. In that respect, Steinberg's material is like Evidence Demands a Verdict for the higher critic of the OT!
    Further on, others are quoted concerning the reputed "process" whereby polytheism evolved into monotheism, but such offerings are too vague and non-specific to be worth much more than a non-sequitur label, such as follows:
    The great gods of the Canaanite pantheon were cosmic deities. There is, indeed, a double movement clearly discernible in Syro-Palestinian religion. A great god such as 'El or 'Asherah appears in local manifestations in the cult places and gains special titles, attributes, hypostases [71]. In the process, one cult or title may split apart and a new god emerge to take his place beside 'El or 'Asherah in the pantheon. On the other hand, there is a basic syncretistic impulse in Near Eastern polytheism which tends to merge gods with similar traits and functions. A minor deity, worshipped by a small group of adherents, may become popular and merge with a great deity; major deities in a single culture's pantheon may fuse; or deities holding similar positions in separate pantheons may be identified.
    But why should we believe this happened with Israel's religion…and we are not told. This is no better an argument than pointing to the process of writing historical novels as evidence that historical information was actually fictional.
    Then again there are points like these:
    In order to meet the needs of farmers Yahwism also owes a debt to the myths of Ba'al. In the earliest poetic sources the language depicting Yahweh as divine warrior manifest is borrowed almost directly from Canaanite descriptions of the theophany of Ba'al as storm god.
    But, once again, this proves nothing of what Steinberg wishes to prove, for at least two reasons. The first is that "divine warrior" would be the accepted and expected role of any deity recognized as a suzerain over their people. The second is that even if it is correct that language was "borrowed" -- and Steinberg does not provide any record of meaningful parallels to show this -- it would be a matter of honor for one group (whether Israel or Canaan) to claim and take over the language of the other group, not because one "evolved" from the other, but in order to claim the honor of the language for their own suzerain/deity, and deny it to the other. Steinberg's reference here is not only non-sequitur; it also shows no awareness of a more likely conclusion based on the social context.
    Further claims are little more than, "this is how it must have happened" arguments, such as:  Perhaps spurred on by the establishment of Astarte-Ishtar-Queen of Heaven worship in the 8th- 7th centuries; the Deuteronomic movement of the late 7th century BCE demanded the rejection of the native Asherah as un-Israelite and disloyal to YHWH. By this time Asherah may just have been seen as a manifestation of the nurturing side of YHWH. As far as feasible, given YHWH’s male language, Ashera’s characteristics are appropriated by YHWH.
    Again, why believe this? We are given no reason to do so. And, the traditional view of revelation, is merely waved off in one sentence:
    There is nothing that can be said about it from a secular-critical point of view. Again, one hopes this is not meant to be an argument , which, quite obviously, it is not!
    At one point, we finally get to a linguistic argument for evolution:
    A … plausibility attaches to those interpretations of the name Yahweh which identify him as a storm god. Thus the name has been connected with the meaning 'to fall' (also attested in Syriac) …. Another suggestion is to link the name with the meaning 'to blow', said of the wind (cf. Syr hawwe, 'wind')….
    Storm god? Really? Apparently Steinberg thinks a storm is the only reason one might "blow." He has forgotten that God is reported in the OT as the source of the "Spirit of God" -- the literal word where "spirit" also means wind or breath. Steinberg also tendentiously takes the identification of the pagan Arameans of Yahweh as a "god of the mountains" as evidence for the "storm god" notion. Why the word of this pagan (whom God goes on to refute in battle) should be taken as anything more than battle propaganda, designed to inspire his troops, is not explained.
    Expected as well, Steinberg takes evidence of localized cults of Yahweh being evidence for "poly-Yahwism" as an original. This, of course, merely begs the question of which came first, and which was authoritative as well.
    Then we have this for consideration:
    That Solomon founded a polytheistic cult for Judah has been noted, since it is hard to miss the passage in I Kings 11:1-10….
    True, but since it is considered an act of disobedience, what is the point, unless we beg that same question of origin and authority? Later, Steinberg quotes to the effect that the mere mention of these other deities being worshipped "demonstrate that these deities were established in the official religion as it was practiced at the time and not some bizarre aberration easily discounted as irrelevant to the cult. " But again, how this conclusion is reached is not explained, and the explanation remains a non-sequitur.
    Next, Steinberg notes a connection between the angels of the OT and the lower deities of Ugarit. This we hardly need dispute; nor do we need to dispute the commonality of a tiered cosmos, though the presumption does remain that any and all ideas held by pagans must also have been held by e.g., the author of Psalms.
    A peculiar note is this one:
    The gods Resheph and Deber appear in Habakkuk 3:5 as part of the military retinue of Yahweh.
    Really? Before him went the pestilence, and burning coals went forth at his feet.
    Apparently the words "pestilence" and "burning coals" here are taken as names of gods, though both words are used elsewhere in the OT in ways that make it clear they are not used of gods. It is only tendentious reading that identifies these words with pagan deities in Habakkuk.
    Also worth noting is the appeal to inscriptions/depictions in which Yahweh is given a female consort, such as at Kuntillet Ajrud. Once again, it is enough to point out that it is merely a question begging to suppose that such depictions represent evidence of "evolution" as opposed to corruption. Certainly, we need not deny corruption, for not only does the Biblical record testify to it as being such, but it is evident in the actual process of religious "evolution" known from historical example. Even in modern times we see examples of various cults that are merely corruptions of a mainstream religious tradition.
    In a later section, records are offered of instances where Israel "borrowed" from other cultures i.e., such things like administrative/government functions, literary images and so on. It never quite gets to the point where an abrupt non-sequitur is committed, such that these are used to say Israel must also have borrowed their ideas about religion. That said, it should be noted that for things like God and Baal both controlling weather, this is manifestly not meaningful, as we'd hardly expect any powerful god to not be able to do such things. In other cases, borrowing of images and titles reflect stakes of honor: That is, Baal is called "Lord," but since Yahweh is our God, it is He who really deserves the title, not Baal, so we'll take it for Him.
    Thus ends our survey of Steinberg's notes.  
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  • Wednesday, June 15, 2016

    Did Jesus Commit Suicide?

    A reader requested that we look into this question, that on the surface, may seem absurd: Did Jesus commit suicide? Now, before answering, it is necessary to lay some groundwork.
    Initially, the question may be asked of a critic, with a certain defining context associated with modernity and the Western world. In our daily experience, "suicide" comes with specific associations: A person who is mentally unstable, depressed, or otherwise in some sort of mentally or spiritually undesirable state. Thus, a critic who argues that Jesus committed suicide may do so under the pretense that if the answer is "yes," it in some way implies that Jesus suffered from some sort of mental instability.
    The immediate problem with this, of course, is that this is a modern view. While there were undoubtedly mentally unstable people who killed themselves in the ancient world, suicide was more widely perceived as a noble way to die under certain specific circumstances. The samuari warrior, the Roman gladiator, and the Greek philosopher Socrates might all be viewed in these terms. Even today, the well-worn example of the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save others is, technically, definable as a suicide; but because of the aforementioned connotations of that word, people tend to avoid that term when describing a death associated with heroic or honorable measures.
    The point is, that in the end, even answering "Did Jesus commit suicide" with a "yes" does not serve any rhetorical purpose in establishing e.g., mental instability. As related in the New Testament, even a human Jesus would have perceived his cause as a noble one worth giving his life away for, and so would have fit the mold of the samurai, or of Socrates. With that in mind, let us now address claims and questions associated with this overall issue.
    Since Jesus knew he was going to die, and freely went to his death when the time came, he committed suicide.
    Under these circumstances, the appeal to divine foreknowledge seeks to clinch the case, but it is really beside the point. A person who steps in to defend someone from another person with a gun surely knows there is a high likelihood that they may die in the effort, but this does not place them any closer to "suicide" (as technically, rather than metaphorically, defined) than someone who performs the same act with a bulletproof vest.
    The point is, foreknowledge is not a defining criterion for a suicide. We can see this further in the next question:
    John 10:17-18 has Jesus saying he lays down his life. Isn't that suicide?
    Here is where we run into that rather fuzzy area, one might say…the difference between suicide and noble sacrifice. Let's bring that into a modern narrative setting. In the movie Armageddon, the character played by Bruce Willis was compelled to stay behind on an asteroid as the rest of his crew left, in order to be assured that it would be destroyed.
    Willis' character had sufficient foreknowledge to know he would be resigning himself to death, and, he also could be said to have laid down his life. Yet what modern person would call that a "suicide"? Given the pejorative connotations of the word today, none would -- not unless they wished to be perceived as boorish and insensitive.
    But suicide is always morally wrong. Jesus would never have done that!
    Anyway, based on what we have discussed, Jesus' death was not suicide. However, there is a due caution to be observed here, as the modern person does not always understand the difference between a suicide and a noble death. Certain critics are apt to argue that even the noble samurai's death is a moral wrong.
    In this regard, one might also consider that certain Biblical deaths, while technically able to be called suicide, are seen in a noble light because of the purpose they served. Samson stands out as a particularly good example of one who redeemed himself in a death that was essentially self-caused. In contrast, self-inflicted deaths by moral cowards like Judas are seen in a poorer light, precisely because they were not honorable.
    So, what are we left with? In the end, if we are to account for all the examples -- ranging from Jesus to Socrates to the samurai -- "suicide", as defined, seems to require that a person:
  • In some way effect their own deaths
  • Do so for self-concered reasons only
  • It is the second aspect that ultimately allows us to reject terming Jesus' death a suicide -- even in modern terms.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2016

    Not a Lot on Lots

    From the April 2013 E-Block.
    A reader has requested a look at the Biblical subject of the "casting of lots". As it happens, this is one of those topics were we have little information to work with, but here's what I have gathered from a series of OT and NT commentaries. As an interesting note of trivia, lots are most often mentioned in the Bible in the book of Joshua, which accounts for a third of all OT references.

    What were "lots"? The exact nature of these items is particularly uncertain. The best guess seems to be that they were small rocks with "dark" and "light" sides. Normally two were used, and results were gauged as follows:
  • Two dark face up -- no
  • Two light face up -- yes
  • One of each face up -- recast

  • What were lots used for? Lots were seen as an impartial and unbiased way to determine the will of God. I gather that no one had figured a way to "load" lots the way modern dice can be loaded. If they were rocks, then it would have required boring or drilling to load them, and that would be rather obvious to see.

    So, this wasn't just chance? No. Even among pagans, who used lots (Jonah 1:7), it was assumed that the gods controlled the outcome. Prov. 16:33 makes this belief clear: "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord."

    But isn't this like gambling? No. As I said in an article on this some years ago:

    Practically speaking, the Bible has nothing to say about gambling as we know it, and the only real, practical example of it is that of Roman soldiers gambling for Jesus' robe. But even then there would be a sea of difference between how we regard gambling and how the ancients would have regarded it.

    The modern gambler is a person who -- depending upon his poison -- works with a mix of what is generally thought to be random chance and personal gaming skill. Obviously, the level of each varies from effort to effort; the roulette wheel takes no skill at all, while poker is more of a mix of skill levels.

    The chance aspect, however, is generally worked out under the assumption that the result could come out any particular way, due to "luck" or "chance", as a nebulous non-force that does the bidding.

    Pious gamblers may go as far to claim that God influenced things to make them win (but of course, not to make them or the others lose). And such persons would actually be far closer to an ancient view than a modern one. As Pilch and Malina note in the Handbook of Biblical Social Values [79ff], the ancients as a whole believed in the fixed fate or fortune of each person.

    Gambling would then not be a matter of throwing things to chance, but of determining the will of the gods (and in Israel's case, God). This can be seen in that the drawing of lots was used to determine tribal land apportionments (Num. 26:55-56; Josh. 14-21).

    One may note at once, beyond the difference in view, that the Israelite practice of drawing lots for land was far from the intent found in modern gambling. It was not a game in which one person won out while everyone else went home with far less, or wearing a barrel. Each participant "won" something of equitable value (i.e., like going to Las Vegas and every slot machine returning a nickel for every nickel put in). The many places where lots are cast in the Bible were all done as a way of quickly and easily determining God's will. No one was risking money or livelihood for the gain of others. Actually, the ancients, as a whole, were too poor to take such risks, and of course currency was not a primary item of trade for most of them.

    Some would add that gambling is contrary to the Bible because it puts faith in chance and fate rather than in the providence of God. I would prefer to appeal to the general Biblical principle of responsible stewardship to argue against gambling, but for our purposes, we would only point out that Bible "gambling" was not the limited-sum and uncontrolled game that modern gambling generally is.

    I am reminded of a joke a large local church once played on the pastor while he was on vacation, and shortly after the lottery had started in Florida. The church staff had the local paper print a mock-up with a story saying that while the pastor had been gone, the church had used budget money to buy every possible lottery ticket number combination, in order to win a large prize that was then being given. The mock story said that they did not view it as gambling, because they knew they would win no matter what. The effect is funny, but it does suggest a relevant truth: Gambling is only gambling when someone loses while they are trying to "take advantage" of the non-force of chance.

    No doubt people used lots or similar devices for gambling as well --- or eventually did so. But that's not how the Bible sees their use.

    So, can we use lots now? That wouldn't be a good idea unless you live in a theocracy under God's covenant. Use of lots was primarily reserved for the Levitical priests and in the NT for the apostles.