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Everybody needs to calm down about the Blood Moon (especially Christians)

I didn’t really believe it at first, but there it was, right on my Facebook feed. Someone talking about how the lunar eclipse that happened on Tuesday. Or, in their terms, the “blood moon.” I don’t really blame them, there are people who like to stir up hysteria and they make very convincing arguments with nice rhetoric. But they are mistaken about it, and usually don’t really care how often they are wrong (and if you look at the track record of the sorts of people who cause these hysterias they are almost always wrong). Nor was simply talking about the moon a problem. I mean everybody was talking about it. This was one of the clearest and fullest lunar eclipse of our lifetimes, and so it is a rare opportunity to view the moon looking almost entirely red. No, the problem was that the talk focused entirely upon a discussion of how the end of the world is about to happen at any minute. Now it may be the case that the end of world really is about to happen at minute, but it has nothing to do with the “blood moon” and here are three reasons why:

Someone get that moon a bandage. It's bleeding everywhere.

1. This is not the first lunar eclipse and it won’t be the last

This point is really pretty obvious. It is true that most ancients and medievalists thought the red moon or “blood moon” was a bad omen, but they thought that because it occurred periodically. However, when bad things followed such an event, it was really just a case of confirmation bias. That’s a phenomenon where you only pay attention to observations that confirm your already held suspicion. It’s not proof, it’s selective observation. “But this one’s different” I’ve heard and seen people say. Well…

2. This lunar eclipse is not really that different

It’s different in the sense that it looks a lot clearer and more obvious than most lunar eclipses we will likely witness in our lifetime. But it’s not different in the sense of paying attention to specific dates and times, etc. Do you know who set about creating calendars and such? People did. They are a social convention. Now, it is true that they’ve conformed generally to some external phenomenon, like the revolution of the earth around the sun, or the lunar cycle (note: the current Jewish Calendar is somewhere between the two). Still, it is ultimately a human invention. The Holy Days enacted in Scripture are an example of God accommodating his revelation to us. At least that seems to be the opinion of Paul in the 2nd chapter of Colossians (NIV):

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

In fact, the obsession with timing specific days and alignment with the planets as somehow an omen is not routed in Christianity. Instead, you would expect to find that sort of thing in Astrology and Paganism (both ancient and modern or neo-paganism).

“But” someone will object “what about those bible verses?”

3. Those Bible verses don’t necessarily mean what you think they do

There are, by my count, exactly three verses of the bible that refer to a red moon. And one of those is a New Testament passage explicitly quoting an Old Testament passage. So let’s look at that one first.

In Joel 2, it reads:

28 “And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
30 I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. (NIV)

Now that doesn’t sound so bleak. I mean, it does call it a “dreadful day of the Lord,” but the Hebrew text uses words in different ways than we do. I mean what’s with the prominence  of “Fear of the Lord” in Proverbs. Does that mean we should be scared and hiding from God, or does fear mean something else? Does “dreadful” mean something else? This becomes particularly clear in the context of the chapter. Immediately prior to this section, the prophet Joel describes the restoration of the land and provision from God, and immediately after Joel notes that all who call upon God will be saved. That’s not very bleak at all. In fact, if we look to the New Testament, we see how they understood its fulfillment.

At the beginning of Acts, immediately after the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, Peter gets up and starts shouting that this very passage has just been fulfilled. After all, the Spirit is being poured out on all of the church, not just an individual (as had been the case in the Old Testament). What’s more, he quotes the bit about the sun being black and the moon being blood during what, by all accounts, seems to be a pleasant day (people are outside celebrating this festival and no one is terrified). There’s no black sun and no red moon. What gives? It could be that the black sun and red moon mean something else entirely.

One more passage before I come back to that. In Revelation 6 we have the following appear:

12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (NIV)

It’s always interesting to me how different people treat the book of Revelation. (Sidenote: pet peeve of most biblical scholars: putting an “s” on the end of Revelation. If you know one, try it out and watch them squirm a little before apologizing). Everyone talks about taking it “literally” but what they mean by that varies.

-Revelation mentions that there will be two prophets against the city of Babylon? Well then, we better look for exactly two men who are prophesying against a pagan city, bonus points if that city is actually named Babylon.

-Revelation talks about a beast rising up out of the sea, a third of the stars falling from heaven? Well, I mean it’s not a “beast” but a person. And those stars are demons. Clearly a metaphor.

-Revelation mentions Jesus standing at the door and knocking? Well that is not bound to a specific time period in any way shape or form. Come on, give us some credit.

Here’s the problem with the above. How literal one takes Revelation depends upon how literal the one doing the reading decides to take it. And it usually is a personal choice, with little to no respect (or even awareness) of the genre in which the book was written. It’s read like a modern book, and one that the reader knows based upon a gut feeling (that gut feeling is not the Spirit, by the way. The Spirit is expressed in the full body of believers known as the Church). So we read it “literally” when it is convenient, and dispense with literality any time it is convenient or interesting to do so. That’s a problem. Revelation is a hard book to understand. I don’t claim to fully comprehend it, but while I’m willing to admit that, I do understand it on some level.

So what’s going on here?

Well John, the author of Revelation, is very adept at blending into Revelation and referencing a wide variety of Old Testament symbols. He doesn’t do so explicitly (partly because that would violate the genre in which he’s writing), but it is permeating by the Hebrew Bible. Given that the only reference to a red moon found in the Old Testament is in Joel, we should probably see if there is any overlap. For Joel, the use of the images of a black sun and red moon were indications of the end of the world. Not because Joel thought there natural occurrences would actually foretell the end of the world, but because this was an already established motif. Other cultures sure seemed to think that, but Joel didn’t (or, at the very least, Peter quoting Joel didn’t believe that). They are merely a more poetic way of talking about the end of history.

That fits pretty well with Revelation, but it doesn’t explain why Peter references it in Acts.

It helps if we understand that Peter was a Jew, not a Gentile Christian. As such, he had certain expectations about how the world would end. During the first century, this included a belief in the “resurrection of the dead.” Peter, and all the early church, wholeheartedly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. For the early church, then, that meant the end of history wasn’t only eminent, but already present. The end of the world had come. Indeed, one question that 1-2 Thessalonians and Revelation are all trying to deal with is how the end of the world could have so clearly arrived, and yet the world not be over yet. It is then that the church began to make sense of Jesus’ statements that “A time is coming and is now here.” This is two Kingdoms theology. The end of the world has come, it has come in the Kingdom of God, which is the Church as it should be. It is at war with the kingdom of the world. Yet, in light of the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost, the kingdom of this world has already lost to the Kingdom of God. The end of the world has already happened. It’s coming, yes, but it’s already here. Maranatha!

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French Doctor responds to Dutch Optometrist (Church History Minute)

This Church History minute is about Jean Astruc

Who was he? A French doctor, specifically specializing in the field of dermatology, which was still in its infancy, in the early and mid 1700s. He read quite widely and was familiar with most biological breakthroughs of the time. His family, although likely originally Jewish, had been Protestants, but he converted to Catholicism, likely due to the intense persecution and counter-reformation activities in France. Aside from medicine, Astruc took issue with the suggestion by Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza that, due to certain supposed inconsistencies, Moses did not actually write the Torah (the first five books of the bible). Thus he published an anonymous work, eventually traced back to him, entitled Conjectures sur les mémoires originauz don’t il paroit que Moyse s’est servi pour composer le livre de la Génèse. Avec des remarques qui appuient ou qui éclaircissent ces conjectures (“Conjectures on the original documents that Moses appears to have used in composing the Book of Genesis. With remarks that support or throw light upon these conjectures”). In it he suggested that there were, in fact, four different voices in the Torah that had different styles and vocabularies, but that Moses had actually written each of them. His argument was that Moses had written the four accounts in parallel form, which matched the four Gospels, and that a later editor had smashed them together, though he allowed for the possibility that the later editor was Moses himself.

Why was he important? Well, somewhat unwittingly, Astruc made “higher criticism” of the bible, and specifically source criticism a thing. This would continue, in a decidedly more liberal direction, until it reached its climax with the Wellhausen or Wellhausen-Graf Documentary hypothesis, before beginning to decline, though certainly not fade away. In short, he set the tone for critical biblical study that had been started by Erasmus, brought in liberal directions by Spinoza, and would continue on well after him.

Fun Fact: Astruc thought of himself as a defender of orthodoxy, even though his theories set the groundwork for a move away from that same orthodox position.

Where might I have heard of him? Only if you’ve taken a course or read books on the history of biblical interpretation. His actual work, while interesting in its methodology, does not really have staying power. Alternatively, if you have an interest in the history of medicine, his name may have come up as something of a footnote.

Jay-Z aint got nothing on me: Revelation’s use of language

Two weeks ago, I said that Revelation was written in an already dominate style of Jewish apocalyptic, which we see in Daniel, and last week I briefly highlighted those distinguishing characteristics. I didn’t mention nationalism, which is true of Daniel, because it’s not true for Revelation, which is concerned with a nation not [‘ek tos’] out of this world. However, despite taking up most of the other aspects of Jewish apocalyptic, Christian apocalyptic literature also adds its own flair: they use language differently; and I’m not talking about Greek versus Hebrew.

Throwing off oppression

If you don’t recall, one of the key elements of apocalyptic literature is that it is from the perspective of the oppressed. In many ways it seeks to throw off oppression. The ones who seem defeated are actually triumphant. Those who are weak now will be lifted up. Those being persecuted will overcome and endure, if they remain faithful. All oppression will be overthrown (and is, in a very real sense, already overthrown). One of the most interesting examples of this is how the book of Revelation uses its language.

It is no secret that the Greek of Revelation is some of the most difficult in the New Testament. What is surprising to many, though, is that many of the words in Revelation don’t show up anywhere else in the bible, many of them don’t even show up in the written record we have other than here or there (and often times only in other Christian apocalyptic literature). This kind of thing happened in the apocalyptic sections of Joel (we are guessing on the different types of locusts), but there, most scholars are pretty sure Joel is drawing on seldom used words. In Revelation, it seems like some of the words are just made up. In the early copies of the book, many of the words are misspelled. It’s not that the copyists and scribes were lazy or careless. They are intentionally misspelled. Not only is the language used symbolically, it is used to quite literally throw off oppression. The dominate language of the Roman Empire, the Empire that, with Nero, had begun to oppress Christians was being “flung off” through its intentional misuse. Even when they use standard language, though, these writers (including John) change what the words mean. Words of derision or things to be despised become badges of honor, or names they use in their community.

It’s like old school rap

A professor in college made this analogy once (Bobby Kelley), I was a bit incredulous, until he made me aware of the music of a group like public enemy (if you want to avoid offensive lyrics, stop the video at 1:30 because it starts the song “fight the power” which does contain some “course” language):

Now if we look at that we see a few things. Sirens blaring, a voice saying “this time the revolution will not be televised.” What revolution? People coming out in military uniforms. In 2008 it may be nostalgia for their older album, in the 70s, 80s and early 90s, (and in some places even today), this was an oppressed group (the African American population) taking back power. Even the next song is politically charged from a group who saw themselves as part of a struggle against those who would beat a man for being black (Rodney King). That’s why they “fight the power.”

In the same way, the members of Public Enemy (despite the behavior of Flavor Flav), are incredibly intelligent. They don’t use language in its nontraditional sense because they don’t know any better, but specifically because they refuse to talk like their white oppressors (this coming from a WASP). It is a power move. Giving power to the powerless. While later groups would take a more explicitly violent turn (the so-called “gangsta rap”) the early pioneers were more about gaining power now through rhetoric and political mobilization. Even the use of different words, like the N-word, a terrible insult in its initial intent, suddenly is adopted by some rappers and becomes “their word.” I can’t use it anymore (not that I ever did) because they’ve taken control of it. Let’s bring this more up to date.

Jay-Z

While a lot of modern rappers don’t fit this same mode of giving power to the powerless, I think Jay-Z perhaps does so best (at least some times). Let’s take a few examples.

In his song “Brush your shoulders off,” Jay-Z takes the word “pimp” a derisive term referring to criminal activity and often used tovia Wikimedia Commons via Flickr by ThaCreator [mm.art] from Chicago and NYC, USA demean the style of clothes some African Americans wore, and redefines it (or builds on earlier redefinitions):

If you’re feelin’ like a pimp,

Go on brush your shoulders off.

Ladies is pimps too.

Go on brush your shoulders off.

This is crazy baby, don’t forget that Jay told ya

Get/ that/ dirt off your shoulders.

In the song, he is telling people to stand tall. To let the insults and problems of the world roll off because they are a “pimp” which has suddenly (or rather, over the years) become a positive term. One more example, but I won’t quote the lyrics.

In “99 problems,” Jay-Z relays a variety of problems he is having, mostly related to being poor, young, or black. The tag line, which is catchy, is in effect that despite these problems he feels bad for those whose “girl problems” are so bad they feel they need to insult and demean the women in their life.

His point is not to say that he has his woman in line (like a dog), or has no girlfriend, but to say that he doesn’t view his relationship as a problem. It’s a wake-up call to say, in effect, “quit complaining about minor things, or insulting each other, we have real genuine problems that need addressing,” though delivered in a much more catchy way than that.

The Point

This is how Revelation should be read. As though you are a young black man in the early 80s listening to a rap record for the first time. Revelation was written to and for an oppressed people group (Christians) to show them that they weren’t really oppressed, they needed to stay together, and that they were winning the fight (which is not against flesh and blood). The analogy doesn’t carry all the way, but it does at key points.

Disclaimer: If you look up the lyrics to these songs, be warned they are very crass and use a lot of foul language. I am not saying they are “Christian” musicians, per se, but trying to give a more contemporary example of how a medium was used in order to help give a better picture of what John’s intent was with the book of Revelation.

Basil is not a spice (Church History Minute)

This is the first of three Church history Minutes on the Cappadocian Fathers, this week “Basil the Great” (aka Basil of Caesarea)

Russian Icon of Basil of unknown date.

Who was he? An early Christian bishop who, together with Gregory of Nyssa (his little brother) and Gregory Nazianzus, made up the Cappadocian fathers, a set of early defenders of Nicene Christianity. Nicene Christianity predominantly defended the full deity of Christ (as God, not just a creation of God) against the Arians. Eventually it would also come to represent Trinitarian Faith. While it remained in part due to Athanasius, it developed and lasted, largely, due to the efforts of the Cappadocian fathers. Since they existed prior to the East/West split, almost all Christians can consider them as part of their heritage.

Why was he important? The Trinitarian faith you have now was systematized by the Cappadocians. This is not to say that it is not biblical, but the arguments for it from the bible (and elsewhere) were first made by these men. Basil was known more for his political savvy, but he did write an important defense of the Holy Spirit as the third member of the Trinity (that is equally God). Many of the debates directly with Arians were done by Basil.

Fun Fact: When a rival defender of Arianism was sent to Basil to debate the issue by the, then Arian, emperor, Basil was so firmly against Arianism that the emissary from the emporer remarked on how he had never been spoken to in such a manner. Basil replied “then you must not have spoken to a Bishop before.” The emissary was enraged and suggested war, but the emperor declined.

Where might I have heard of him? Outside of being a Cappadocian Father, he is also one of the key figures in establishing communal monasticism (as opposed to the then dominate dessert monasticism that was done in isolation).

What do I mean by “apocalyptic”? Revelation (Difficult Passages)

Quick Review

Last week, I stated that the book of Revelation (like other Christian Apocalyptic literature, which is not in the biblical canon) is actually an attempt, in many ways, to imitate the earlier Jewish form of apocalyptic. The reason I am taking the time to talk about the genre of Revelation is that it can too easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted if we don’t take that into account. To be sure there are other examples of Jewish Apocalyptic, also non-canonical, that help us to see the characteristics of the genre. Next week I’ll talk about the uniquely Christian contribution to the genre, but this week I want to focus on the characteristics of Jewish apocalyptic, most of which we find in Daniel and Revelation. (Well, not the first one)

The Characteristics

  1. Pseudonymous: This one really doesn’t apply to either Revelation or Daniel in my opinion (I explain in a sec). Most Apocalyptic literature is written under an assumed name (such as “The book of Enoch” for Jewish literature, or “The Apocalypse of Peter” for Christian Literature). Usually the idea was that it had been written long ago and was only just now being discovered. Because it deals with events at the end of the world, this gives it an additional sense of urgency because the end could be closer at hand. The fact that the authorship was false (and usually known to be false) is likely why other examples were excluded from the canon. However, usually there is a phrase where the writer is supposedly told to “seal these things up” until the time is much closer. No such phrase appears in either Daniel or Revelation. In fact, John is specifically told not to seal them up because they will soon take place.
  2. It is something hidden now revealed: This is accomplished by some of the rejected apocalyptic literature by claiming the message was sealed until now (while in Revelation it’s very heavily against “sealing” things, often breaking seals). The point is that the message is so beyond the speaker/author it could only come by supernatural means. One could not look around and see that this was the case (while other prophets often condemn the people for not already knowing the content of their message from what God had previously told them).
  3. Future orientation: Isn’t this just prophecy? Well yes and no. Prophecy technically refers to someone with a message for a people right then and there, and the prophet is just the person who relays the message from God. Sometimes this includes a future element, but usually there isn’t one at all. (For instance, in Jonah where is the future element?). Even when there is a future element, though, it is usually very vague and can easily be applied to the present situation of the author/prophet as well. The one exception is Isaiah who, after chapter 40 delivers a message to Israel in exile (though it applied to his audience then), and eventually gives a specific message relaying the identity of the historical redeemer (Cyrus/Darius). However, his reason for doing so is not to give a message about the future. Rather, he is demonstrating how the God of Israel (Yahweh) is the only genuine god and that other gods and idols are silly. Thus the specific future is offered as evidence (because only the true God could do that). Contrast that with Daniel and Revelation, though, who talk about future events, for the sake of talking about future events. They want to relay what will happen.
  4. The future is set: While the intervening history may be a little more open, in both Jewish and Christian apocalyptic there is a sense that certain key events, particularly those at the end of the world, are set in stone. They are going to happen. God, Yahweh, is going to come back and establish his throne. It is inescapable.
  5. The message is mediated: In contrast to the prophets who receive their message direct from Yahweh, the writer of Apocalyptic literature receives his message indirectly. While this may come in the form of a vision, it also occurs via an Angel, something not previously seen as a bearer of a lengthy message. While Ezekiel, in particular, utilizes the concept of vision, in the book it is clear that the vision is direct from God (and other times, Yahweh speaks directly to Ezekiel). On the other hand Daniel either receives his vision from an Angel or just says he had a vision, without relaying the source.
  6. Use of fantastical imagery: There is imagery that seems to clearly not belong to this world. Animals of a kind never seen before. Statues too massive to be real. This is common place in apocalyptic literature. Again Ezekiel shares some of this (which has led some to argue sections of Ezekiel should be apocalyptic not prophetic), but on the whole it doesn’t fit the genre.
  7. Contrasting “Present” with “The End”: There is a sense of a huge disparity between now and then (the end of the world). What is happening now will be destroyed (often violently) and give way to what happens at the end, usually God acting as King in a more explicit visual than is seen throughout the rest of the bible.
  8. Intentional obscuring of the message: The use of symbolism is not meant to convey multiple connotations necessarily (though it may do that), as in other biblical literature, but is intentionally done to obscure the meaning. There are a few reasons for this: 1) To intentionally give a sense of uncertainty to the reader so they don’t rely exclusively on that writing, but look to other literature (Gospels and Torah). 2) To add to the otherworldly sense of the writing. 3) To ensure it could only be completely understood by those who were part of the “in crowd.” That is, only the community to which it was intended would have the necessary information to understand what was being written. This was important because…
  9. It is written from the perspective of the oppressed: The writers are generally writing from a position of powerlessness, and speaking to a time when God will reign in power. There is coming a great upheaval. This perspective of oppression is likely the most important feature. Think about Daniel, which was written from those in the exile. Revelation was written either in the reign of Nero (early date) or Domitian (later date) both of whom began a massive campaign against Christians. This will also play into the unique features of Christian Apocalyptic I’ll get into next week.

Wait Lenscrafters is Heretical? (Church History Minute)

Today I’m talking about Baruch (sometimes Benedict) Spinoza, not the glasses-in-under-an-hour chain.

Engraving labeling Spinoza (correctly) a Jew and (incorrectly, sort of) an atheist

Who was he?

Spinoza was a 17th century Jewish person raised in the Portuguese Jewish community living in Amsterdam (having been expelled from the Iberian peninsula). At the age of 23 he was expelled from the Jewish community through cherim (similar to excommunication) and lived out his days as a  lens and optic maker, turning down offers to work as a scholar or other honors. The majority of his writings were not known until after his death. At which time they were swiftly put on the Roman Catholic Church’s banned books list. It’s unclear whether he was a pantheist (God and nature are just two terms for the same thing) or a classical panentheist (all of nature is an expression of God, but God is more than nature), but this is the primary (though not only) reason for his cherem and having his books blacklisted.

Why was he important?

Spinoza was an incredibly important predecessor to 18th century Enlightenment, particularly in Germany. He also inaugurated, in a way, modern biblical criticism (and challenges conservatives must answer) by questioning the legitimacy of books in the Hebrew TaNaKh (Old Testament). In particular he questioned whether Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. Further he presented the first major modern challenge to Cartesian dualism, while nevertheless retaining an idea of God as fundamentally impersonal. Also he denied, to an extent, the notion of libertarian free will (also known as the only valuable notion of free will). He is important because he set the tone for so much that followed him in biblical studies, theology, and philosophy. Eventually he would be challenged by theologians in the form of Schleiermacher, hardly a “conservative,” and then later other challenges would be offered against him up until present day.

Interesting Fact

His work crafting lenses likely contributed to his (relatively) early death as the glass dust may have scarred his lungs. Hegel said of him, during his time, “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher” (but I don’t like Hegel).

Where might I have heard of him

He has been mentioned or alluded to in a variety of settings and famously influenced Einstein’s spirituality. Also, if you ever go to the Netherlands, there is a lot of admiration for him (he was on the 1000-Guilder note until the Euro came along, some would call that the best reason for the Euro). He is generally either loved or loathed, very little middle ground.

Introduction to James (Lent day 1)

I’ll attempt to give a brief introduction on the book of James, going through the standard questions asked of a biblical book, today before diving into the text tomorrow. As such, this one may be a bit longer. It’s not really essential for understanding the reading either. So if you’re still trying to get your footing with a regular schedule you can skip it (or at least skip the Author section which gets a little technical).

Authorship

The first question usually asked is one of authorship, in part because this helps to identify roughly the time period during which the letter was written. The traditional assumption is that this was written by 1) James who was raised the brother of Jesus. During the Gospel period it is clear that James did not follow Jesus, yet it seems, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians, that James converted after witnessing the resurrected Lord. There are lots of arguments for this, but for me, I don’t find any of them convincing. Perhaps if I lay out the other options, the reason for this will become clear.

People like to identify James with the one of the other three James mentioned in the bible: 2) James the Son of Zebedee (and brother to John), 3) James the Son of Alphaeus (sometimes James the younger), or 4) James who is the father of the apostle Judas who was not Iscariot (sometimes identified as Thaddeus). However, if we keep our options open, as there is no real reason to limit there, we have a few more options.

5) Some other James not otherwise mentioned in the bible, is another option.

6) Someone writing it pseudonymously (that is writing under the name of James in the hopes it gets accepted more quickly) is another

7) And someone who intentionally wrote it generally and kept his real name out of it.

I’ve numbered them to keep them straight. Let me explain the difference between 6 and 7 briefly. If one is going to be very strict in interpreting the name of the author, we should probably call it Jacob, not James. The Greek is much more clearly the Hebrew name Jacob transliterated (that means trying to take the sounds from one language and write them out phonetically into another) into Greek (Ἰάκωβος). It was translated “James” because of the sponsor of the most famous English translation of all time: King James. So, number 7 could be read figuratively of a “Jacob” writing to his twelve Sons (see James 1:1).

Now let me rule out some these options fairly quickly:

6) is unlikely because it would need to be fairly late by which time James would already have authority. And if you are going to try to get authority that is not yours, you would likely go with Paul or John, who had well accepted letters already, and not James. So I’m ruling that one out.

4) (The father of an apostle) is also not likely as there is no good reason to assume he would have ever been seen as having authority (the early church didn’t do nepotism).

2) (James brother of John, Son of Zebedee, part of Jesus’ inner circle) is also not very likely because he was killed fairly early in the book of Acts (chapter 12).

It is also not likely to be just some other James we simply never heard of before (option 5) because whoever is writing the letter has some authority already, and it seems to have been written fairly early. (Definitely before 70 AD, no mention of the temple being destroyed in a fairly Jewish book, and possibly as early as 40 AD).

So that leaves us with 1) James the brother of Jesus 3) James the son of Alphaeus (lesser known apostle) and 7) A letter written from a figurative authorship. Option 7) would be similar, then to the absence of an author in the book of Hebrews. However, aside from the first verse, there is not much that would make it fit that kind of model. It’s clearly written to the Church, not just Jewish people in the church.

The primary argument for it being James the brother of Jesus is that he is important in Acts 12 and Acts 15. However, the problem with that is that there is no attribution of which James is being mentioned in Acts 12 and 15 (in fact the one in Acts 12 may be the recently deceased James, showing either Peter’s ignorance of what had occurred, or his belief that James was already with God). Considering how the early church worked, it would be considerably more likely that this James (who is almost certainly the author of the letter from James) is more likely to have been an apostle, not a later convert (as would be the brother of Jesus). In actual fact, the attribution of authorship to this letter, as well as the James mentioned in Acts 12 and 15 to the brother (or rather the one considered the brother) of Jesus rests entirely on later church tradition. Simply put, there is no good reason to believe that the letter was written by the brother of Jesus rather than the James, the apostle, who spent time with Jesus during his ministry, particularly during the sermon on the mount, which shares some parallels with this letter.

Also, consider the source of authority for biblical texts. For those who are not Roman Catholic nor some form of Eastern Orthodoxy, the biblical texts are authoritative because they were written by those who witnessed the ministry of Jesus first hand, or were written by someone taking those firsthand accounts and organizing them (as in Luke and Mark). For the most part, and with all the other letters (except, possibly, Hebrews), this means they were written by an apostle. Thus I tend to go with James the son of Alphaeus, whom I believe took a larger role in the early church following its persecution of it.

Considering that the other son of Alphaeus was Matthew/Levi, who was a tax collector, it is altogether likely that these were thoroughly Hellenized Jews (which would explain why Matthew could work for the Roman government, yet also desire to keep his name Levi). This aspect explains why this is a fairly “Jewish” New Testament letter, yet also exhibits some of the best, most highly polished, and most formal Greek of the New Testament.

But how much does any of this matter?

Well, I suppose that if you accept that James is biblical regardless, then not much. If, however, you are making an argument for why it is authoritative, then quite a bit. Still, for interpretation or devotional reading, it makes little difference.

Time period

There are two lines of thought with this one. As I mentioned, given the sometimes Jewish nature of the letter, it is unlikely that it would have been written after the destruction of the temple and not have mentioned that rather historic event (for both Judaism and Christianity). So it would likely have been prior to 70AD. The question is whether it was written prior to the Gentiles entering into the Church in large numbers (sometime between 40-45 AD) or whether it was written significantly afterward, when Paul’s emphasis on grace might have been used as an excuse to act however one wanted (something Paul warned about, but which likely would have come back again), placing it in the mid-late 60s. The mention of wealthy people dragging members of the church to court, though, makes it more likely to have been in the persecution of the emperor Nero, when that sort of thing would have been encouraged, and I would tend to place it in the later period. This was written in a time of persecution, to be sure, and it’s not a far stretch to imagine it as being very pronounced.

Occasion

All of Paul’s letter were written for a specific occasion, that is to address some problem or issue. So there is a tendency to assume that all New Testament letters were this way. I think that is a mistake. It seems likely that this was meant to be a “circular” letter, meaning it would be circulated among different churches and was not written to any one church in particular (the addressees are “scattered”). Hebrews, likely, was written in the same way.

Purpose and Theme

Often, the book of James is seen as a purely practical book. To be sure it is practical, but to say it is practical while other New Testament books are theological is to set up something of a false dichotomy. Indeed, one of the main points of James is that the intellectual component is inseparable from the active component.

Instead, it may be best to think of the purpose of the book of James as an exposition on his primary theme: Faith. James is seeking to give a picture of what faith is and what it looks like. What is it about faith that distinguishes it from simple belief in something. Thus I think it best to keep that in mind (an exploration of what faith actually is and means, and how it benefits us) than anything else.

Question:

What are you looking forward to out of this study?

Dust and Transformation: Ash Wednesday and Lent Reading Plan

Ashes and Death

Well this has, in some ways, been a rough year (in many others it has been fantastic, but that’s not the point of this post). I’ve been to too many funerals (by the way, one is too many), and had friends and acquaintances nearly be killed instantly by cars, or be diagnosed with aggressive forms of cancer, and with it the looming specter of death. When I really thought about it, rarely are we ready or prepared for people to die. Even when we say we are ready, we always wish for one more conversation, to tell them about this one thing they missed, to say I love you one last time. Yet we cannot.

Life is fragile. As I drove in my car the other day I thought, any second I could be hit by another car and that would be it. Done. I don’t think of myself as ready to go, and I’m fairly certain it would be a heavy blow to my family. I know I’m not the only one. The same scenario would hold true for many people, and every day, at least one person in the world dies suddenly, unexpectedly, leaving a gap behind them. Not ready to go. It wasn’t her time. He was so full of life. A shock. Here as though there are years left, and gone in an instant. As J.R.R. Tolkien put it “It’s a dangerous business…, going out your front door.” And yet we do it every day. We think of ourselves as strong, as impervious. We make plans for upcoming years, yet actually have very little control over whether we will be around in those years to come. We are all of us ashes. Embers that burn quickly and then are no more.

Dust and Creation

As the bible puts it, we are dust. We are ephemeral, and cannot be gripped too tightly. We blow away in the wind. Here today, gone tomorrow. Yet the metaphor for dust, as I noted last year at Ash Wednesday, is not just for the fragility of life, but to remind us of our origin. God formed humanity from the dust of the ground and breathed life into him.

Dust you are and to dust you will return.

Rather than a statement of outright sorrow, though there is that, this is also a reminder of the new creation just around the corner. God makes something out of dust and breathes life into it. Lent is not a buildup to Good Friday, and the death of the Son of God. Lent is an anticipation of His Resurrection and the life that comes out of death. And by pointing to the Resurrection of the Son of God, it points to ours as well. In the midst of sorrow, joy. In the midst of death, life. As things are given up, new creation takes root.

Fundamentally, lent is also about something new, something creative, something constructive.

A Constructive Lent

This year, then, I’m not giving up something for Lent. I’m a Baptist and I have that option (we’re not really liturgical, just some of us pretend from time to time). Instead, though, I’m going to do something constructive. If you are going to celebrate Lent, and you haven’t decided what you will give up, let me encourage to you to instead do something constructive. Participate in God’s already present kingdom here on earth, and in so doing catch a glimpse of his return and the new earth he will refine out of this one. Don’t be legalistic about it, be constructive, building a picture of God’s Kingdom. Part of doing something constructive is something I did last year, a reading of a book of the bible for Lent. This year, we’re going to go through James (to look at last year’s where we went through Galatians, see the link at the top of the page). Below is the reading plan. If you just can’t come up with anything else to do for Lent, then perhaps you could join me in the reading plan (or if you want to add to what you have done).

James is a little bit shorter than Galatians, so the readings will be shorter. Also, I will try better this year to keep my own reflections relatively short as well. Most days it is 3 verses, sometimes 4, occasionally 2, and one day is only 1 verse. I think that should be manageable. I’ll be posting them shortly after midnight on the day marked, so if you do your bible reading in the morning it will be ready when you are. The other posts for this blog will come up later in the day, but if you only want to follow the lent readings you can either click the “Lent Series” Category marker, the tab at the top of the main page that will link to this year’s Lent reading calendar (also click here).

It’s like history “Inception”: Martin Kähler

Today’s Church history minute is about Martin Kähler, someone who was wildly influential, yet who is not very well known outside of Academia. I say it’s like history inception, because Kähler talked about history, in terms of history and this is a “Church history minute” so…wait I’m confused.

Who was he?

Kähler was a 19th century (and very early 20th century) German theologian. His primary claim to fame was the publication of his book The So-Called Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ. In essence, as can be surmised from the title, the work was a critique of the Quest for the Historical Jesus, specifically the first one (I talked about the Quest for the Historical Jesus last week). Although it’s not translatable in the title, he actually uses two different (German) words for “history.” The first, related to the Quest for the Historical Jesus, was a cognate of the German Historie. The second, in the Historic, Biblical Christ, is a cognate of the German Geschichte. [To the readers out there with a basis of New Testament Greek, it may be similar to the distinction between (transliterated) Kairos and Chronos, though the two are not similar enough to call them parallel]. Kähler’s point was that the “Quest” had become so focused on the historical study of the figure of Jesus that they had neglected the genuine historical impact of Jesus, which is Jesus in the bible and Jesus as he is preached. For Kähler, the historical facts about Jesus’ life outside the bible were secondary (if even that). Famously he noted that the genuine Christ was the “Christ preached.” This, while initially positive, led to some, what I would consider, negative consequences that we’ll have to get to in a later piece.

Why was he important?

He influenced a variety of theologians and philosophers, though mostly German ones. He may also be credited with starting something called “kerygmatic theology.” One of those he influence, Rudolf Bultmann, became the poster-child for “kerygmatic theology” which emphasized the kerygma or message about Jesus over the actual historical figure Jesus. Other people he influenced include Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as (possibly) Wilhelm Dilthey (a German Philosopher).

Fun Fact

Martin Heidegger (20th century German Existentialist Philosopher), is often credited with the distinction between two types of history, even though he notes that his distinction is based in Wilhelm Dilthey. However, as has been recently been noted by people who study this thing, Kähler published the work with this distinction before Dilthey. As such, he is the first to talk about history in different senses in the modern world, something that, in a way, may have been a precursor to Einstein’s discussion of relative time.

Where might I have heard of him?

You probably haven’t unless you are a serious academic or just really interested in 19th century German theology (in which case, kudos to you), but he was really influential. Trust me.

Philosophy of Science: A Bridge for fruitful dialogue

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been showing how I don’t find Ian Barbour’s scheme entirely helpful, and why I’ve abandoned NOMA as in any way adequate. Yet, I’d like to suggest something that sounds like I am endorsing a form of NOMA (that is, the view that science and religion don’t interact).

I’d like to suggest that the best source for a fruitful dialogue between religion and science is likely to be found by turning to the often maligned, much misunderstood discipline of philosophy of science.

On the surface it might seem like this is giving into NOMA, and saying that really religion only engages with philosophy of science and never with what scientists are actually doing. Instead, I’d like to suggest that any time a scientist moves beyond a description of the methodology and occurrences of an experiment, and moves to interpretation, she or he is, aware or not, engaging in the philosophy of science. The philosophy of science, then, rather than something external to the work of science is something integral to it. For a long time people engaged in it without really acknowledging it, but in for long time people engaged in metaphysics (which is related), without calling it that either.

Karl Popper

Some of the early pioneers in the philosophy of science as a discipline distinct from science and metaphysics were, among others, Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper, who included significant discussions of epistemology (how we know anything) into their dialogues. Thomas Kuhn is perhaps best known for popularizing the term “paradigm shift,” while Karl Popper has been, perhaps, a bit more influential in actual scientific investigation (many disciplines now accept Popper’s suggested “null hypothesis” and falsification as their method). Despite this, the philosophy of science has been largely ridiculed.

Perhaps the most famous derision of the Philosophy of Science comes from Richard Feynman who said “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” While Feynman was certainly brilliant, his lack of self-awareness in this quote is striking. First let’s take the statement as true.

Richard Feynman

The fact is that ornithology is actually incredibly useful to birds, the birds just aren’t generally aware of it. Ornithology can help others know how to protect or regrow habitats. The study of migration patterns of one species can help others to problem solve population control issues in another species. Ornithology is actually quite helpful to birds, the birds just aren’t aware of it (so maybe Feynman was more right than he realized).

Here’s the other problem. Any time scientific investigation moves from what is to what was or what will be (i.e. anytime it tries to say something useful), the one making the claims is engaging in philosophy of science because, as has been demonstrated by numerous people at numerous times, such claims are non-empirical. They rely on some interpretive power beyond sensory observation. They are making existential claims about the universe that go beyond the realm of science. This is not to say they shouldn’t make such claims, but only to say that when they make those claims they are engaging in non-empirical philosophy (even if it is informed by empiricism).

Likewise, religions (and particularly Christianity) make existential claims about the universe, including what has happened and what will happen. This, it seems, means they have a common overlap with the philosophy of science.

It is my contention that a fruitful dialogue may occur via the philosophy of science. In other words, the interpretation of scientific claims and the claims of, in my case, Christianity (which is really just an interpretation of historical events), are talking about the same subject matter, and therefore are de facto in dialogue. Thus Ian Barbour’s scheme may be descriptive for how people think science and religion interact, but in actual fact, the two are in a dialogue which they cannot escape. Science and Religion are in dialogue because, by the very nature of both of them, they cannot not be in dialogue.

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