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].
...is 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.