Monday, April 10, 2017

Adam, Pt. 4, Sin

Man is a recent arrival. That is what the Bible declares and what anthropology indicates. Now, I suppose some consider that a bold if not erroneous statement. Hasn't man been around for - what? - at least 150,000 years if not close to a million years? Isn't that what anthropologist have been telling us?

   Yes. That is what we find in our text books and on the pages of National Geographic. But anthropologist define man differently than the Bible. If we use the Bible's definition, most anthropologists, I think, would agree that the evidence for modern man, that is man who is fully Homo sapiens sapiens and God-aware, points to a time between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago when such men show up in the archaeological record.

   The earliest evidence for such God-aware men is the astounding recent find of Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey.  (Incidentally Gobekli Tepe is within a very few miles from the place the biblical origin-of-man story of Adam and Eve was located.) Gobekli Tepe is a temple, and though we cannot decipher all the clues to what God or gods were worshiped there, it seems clear that it was designed for spiritual purposes.

   The complex, which is about 20 acres in extent was built by Neolithic men thousands of years before agriculture was developed or animals domesticated - which also incidentally occurred in the same region - and before pottery was made or metal tools created. Gobekli Tepe is the first footprint of modern God-aware men in history. With the massive effort that was required to construct this site and the cooperation required among it builders, it marks the beginning of civilization. The surprise? It was, contrary to what all the text books and experts have said up to the find of Gobekli Tepe, religion that sparked the beginning of civilization not agriculture. Smithsonian

   Man as defined by his DNA, of course, has been around a bit longer. The current theory based on DNA and archaeological finds is that man originated in Africa and began migrating from there 60,000 years ago.The map here displays the migration routes according to National Geographic.

   Several different Homo species have been identified as scientists probed those migrations including Homo neanderthalensis who was identified as living in Europe between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago, and Homo floresiensis in Indonesia. By approximately 30,000 years ago, only early modern man remained.

   What evidence do we have of our early ancestors? One astounding discovery in recent years has been the art  produced by those ancestors in France and Spain. In one region alone, the Lascaux Cave, 2000 painting were discovered. Art experts were amazed by the vividness, realism and liveliness of the images. But the paintings were almost entirely of animals. Where were the humans?

   There were no human figures, yet there were depictions of humans. They were the hand stencils seen here. These stencils have been dated to about 32,000 years ago.

   Since these were discovered, hand stencils have been discovered in  Indonesia, along with images of animals as in France and Spain. These have been recently dated to about 35,000 years ago. As the author, Jo Marchant, writes, "They smash our most common ideas about the origins of art and force us to embrace a far richer picture of how and where our species first awoke."
  Smithsonian Were the hands stencils evidence that man was becoming conscious?

   Notable by their absence, however, in any of the many location where paleolithic cave art has been found are any clear indications of a sense of the spiritual or of religion - until Gobekli Tepe. 

   These vignettes of the lives of our ancestors on the walls of the caves and on the monuments of Gobekli Tepe provide a picture of the development of art and of self-awareness but also provide bookends for the period of time in which modern man as a God-aware man appeared. The period of time between the cave art and Gobekli Tepe is, of course, immense. But these finds in the caves of France and the hills of Turkey provides a range.

   The scientists studying Gobekli Tepe give us a little more help. They guess that the technologies required to build Gobekli Tepe might have taken several thousand years to develop. (Remember, the builders were nomadic Stone Age hunter-gatherers.) With that estimate, we can push back the time of man's appearance to the end of the last ice age in about 14,000 B.C. There and at that time something happened that changed everything for man. There man became fully man as we know him today. He was self-aware and God-aware, body, soul, and spirit.

   That date is very close to the date most Bible scholars would give for creation of Adam. At this point in time and at that location, biblical history and anthropology converge.

   But the cave art and the rock art found in distant places like Africa tell us that something else happened to man. The cave art tells us that man was at home in his world in the paleolithic. The images are almost all of animals, and the images are light and fresh and full of life. Even the animals that might be threatening, such as bulls and bears, are not drawn that way. The horses that dominate the images of the French caves run wild and free. Even the hand stencils give the impression of hands in celebration. They are pictures of Eden.

   That is not the impression we get from the images at Gobekli Tepe. Put the cave art and the sculptures of Gobekli Tepe side by side and the contrast is stark. Nature and the men who made these images are in disharmony. The images of Gobekli Tepe are threatening, even demonic.

   What happened? In the years between the cave art of France and Gobeklit Tepe, what happened? It is here where can turn to the Bible's story of the origin of man. What happened was sin.

   The story in the Bible is as vivid as the art. Man originated in Eden. There nature was in harmony with man and man with nature. There were plants for food and an environment that was pleasing.
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. (Genesis 2:8,9)
   A page later, man is cast out of the garden and nature is unfriendly and uncooperative.
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)
   It is what happened in between that tells the story: Adam and Eve made a choice.
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.(Genesis 3:6,7)
   Man chose not to avail himself of the life that was offered in the Tree of Life but rather to turn away from God's offer. He chose to make it on his own. The result was Gobekli Tepe. That is our story.

    As fascinating as Gobekli Tepe is and as impressive as it is from the point of view of technology (that technology is described in the Bible in Genesis 4) it is an ugly and oppressive place. Perhaps that is why it was intentionally buried several thousands of years after it was first erected. 

   Gobekli Tepe is our story. It is the history of man and is seen in the religion of Gobekli Tepe, in the civilizations that followed and the religions that they created, and in the world today.

   It is Adam's story. Adam did not fall from perfection or from grace. Grace was what God offered, yes. But Adam did not take what was offered. He made a choice. Like the two roads Jesus spoke of many millennia later, Adam chose what seemed like the best way. He chose to find knowledge and what was good and evil apart from God. But it led to destruction, not only for Adam, for us all. 

   How so? Even if there was a literal, historical Adam, he was but one man.  There were Homo sapiens running all over the place not only in the upper fringes of the Fertile Crescent but everywhere, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia. How can we even think that there was a first man or that his choice became ours?

(If there was not an Adam and if this story is purely made up, it qualifies as the most probing and perceptive story ever told by man. But it is very hard for anyone familiar with the literature of the ancient world to believe it fiction, allegory, yes, fiction, no.) 

    The answer is found in Romans chapter five.
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned" (Romans 5:12)
   It is a simple statement with no explanation. None is needed. The truth is self-evident: we all miss the mark. We sin. And because of sin, death reigned or continued to reign - for eternal life was a promise but not a possession of man.  If he was to enjoy life, Adam would have had to have eaten from the Tree of Life, and he had not. (Romans 5:14)

(We can understand that the trees are allegorical. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil represents the choice to do life on our own without God, in fact, in contrast to the Tree of Life which represents dependence on God, it represents the rejection of God.)  

  This moment in  Eden was the moment when man, a specific man Adam, had the opportunity to decide. But Adam was still only one man. What of all the others?

   Romans tells us that "the many died by the trespass of the one man" (Romans 5:15). That means that every man who had come to God-awareness and was fully man was included in the one literal Adam's sin. Neither sin nor the guilt for sin are passed on via DNA; it was not by bloodline. It was assumed by every man in the same way that every citizen assumes the debt of his nation, even if they did not personally incur the debt.

   That is the same way that grace is passed on to us through Jesus Christ. We did not earn that grace; he did by taking our place and dying for us. But we benefit from that grace when we are joined to him by faith:

For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!  Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.  For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous." (Romans 5:17-19)
   The result of Adam's sin was condemnation for all, BUT THE RESULT OF OBEDIENCE OF THE ONE MAN JESUS benefits all people everywhere through all time. The condition was that each man avail himself of the gift of grace by assuming the gift of righteousness by identifying himself as a member of Jesus' kingdom by making him  king and by trusting in him in faith.

   The sin of Adam affected mankind deeply but not hopelessly. Adam had a second chance. We see that in God's clothing Adam and Eve in skins of animals symbolic of forgiveness. All men everywhere and throughout all time have a second chance. Each one of us may turn to God in dependence upon his grace.


Friday, April 7, 2017

Adam, Pt. 3, Genesis

One of the most significant developments in human history was agriculture. It was so significant that it is called the Neolithic Revolution. sensagent   But there is a puzzle that remains unsolved by archaeologists and anthropologists: how is it that agriculture appears across the globe in widely separated and isolated people groups at approximately the same time.

   Wikipedia lists eleven separate regions where agriculture appears in the archaeological  record. Those include both the most well-known, Mesopotamia, as well as the Americas. And the  domestication of plants and animals appears at approximately the same period of time: 12,000 to 10,000 B.C.  Agriculture and National Geographic

   Is the answer to the puzzle the mutation of switching genes allowing for the expression of the genetic traits of modern  man? If so how did the same mutation occur in populations that were long separated by 12,000 B.C.? The current model of human migration from Africa puts those migrations as early as 60,000 years ago using DNA as the means of determining the dates. National Geographic That is almost 40,000 years before agriculture appeared in any of those populations, including the original population in Africa. Yet it did appear in those populations, with the exception of the Australian Aborigines. 

   The other marker of the presence of modern man is religion. It is one of the universals of the human experience and is evident in every culture from as early as man has been man.  Like agriculture, religion appears almost suddenly in widely separated populations from the Middle East to the Americas. It might be detected in the burial practices of early modern man, but it is clearly visible in buildings dedicated to worship, such as those at Gobekli Tepe.
Vulture stone from Gobekli tepe

   The mysteries of Gobekli tepe are yet to be deciphered, but several things seem obvious. 1) Gobekli tepe will turn much of our knowledge about man at the margin between the Stone Age and the period in which civilizations developed on its head. 2) The temple (?) complex is large, 22 acres, and very old, perhaps as old as 12,000 years. 3) It required a technology that no scientist imagined possible that long ago. 4) It reveals a well developed symbolic language and a level of art unexpected by archaeologists among what had been assumed to be nomadic Stone Age people. 5) And it is certainly a marker that man had arrived.

   Both of these markers converge on a particular region, Eden or the Fertile Crescent. This land is described in Genesis 2 as:

the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.  The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters.  The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

 The geographical detail is specific and remarkably accurate. The story in which it is found is even more so.

   The story of man begins in Genesis 2:5 with the time, before agriculture when no plants were being cultivated:

Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground,
   It is at that time God created man. But consider what the text says:
"Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being" (verse 7).

   The word man is the word in Hebrew adam, and it means here, as it means in most places, mankind. The word shares its root with the word for ground or earth. Mankind is of the earth, first of all. But here in addition to the dust of the earth mankind, according to the narrative, is composed of the spirit (neshamah), and a soul (nephesh) which is translated here in the NIV as "living being." Of those three, animals share at least two. All animals according to the narrative are composed of the dust of the earth, the basic elements coming from the earth. And some animals also have a soul (nephesh).

   Man and all living things originated just as evolution describes; he is an animal. But a body alone is not yet man. A man is a person not merely a body. Here in this origin-of man-narrative, personhood is described as nephesh. The characteristics pf personhood are shared to some degree with some of the higher animals, but in man  Dr.  David L. Anderson of the Mind Project at Illinois State University, describes personhood as  intelligence, free will, self-determination, the ability to make moral judgements, creativity, self-awareness, and consciousness. Illinois State Nepshesh is the thinking, emoting and relational part of man that makes him a person. That is what we can see in the earliest Homo sapiens. It is what defines man as man in most peoples' minds. Man is more than DNA.

   But that is not all. It is only as God gave the homind Homo sapiens  neshamah that he becomes fully man.  What that combination of body, soul, and spirit is able to do that chimps cannot is revealed in the narrative.

   The first thing we see is that man is able to transform his world. "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it" (verse 15). He is capable of growing crops. That implies the intelligence to see the connections between the land and water and the plants.  He understands seeds and cultivation and irrigation. He can plan. And he can make decisions for himself and others about what is good and productive and what is not. No chimp can do that.

   Secondly, man is a God-aware creature. No chimp could make sense out of a command from God. No chimp worships or builds temples or creates religious artifacts. But man does - everywhere. 

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (verses 16,17)
   Third, man is a moral creature. He knows about right and wrong.   

   The capacity to make moral judgment requires the ability to distinguish between right and wrong and the ability to choose. Here in this narrative, Adam and Eve are given a command that implies a choice between a right and a wrong and implies the ability to choose.  Chimps may distinguish between choices that are good or bad for them. But a moral choice is more than that. It is a choice between two things that are abstract concepts. Moral choices go beyond what is immediately and practically good or bad for the individual. They are choices about things that are always right or wrong and right or wrong for everyone. They are about choices that may not be immediately and practically good for he individual.

   The passage suggests two more thing; man is existentially aware of his own mortality. Do chimps know?  And man is aware of his uniqueness. He knows he is not an animal.
Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found.(verses 19,20)
   So far the Adam and Eve narrative is quite perceptive and accurate about what distinguishes man as man. The passage that follows about woman being made from the rib of Adam and the snake should be read allegorically, as should the two trees. The first is symbolic of the fact that male and female humans are both human. The second identifies the source of temptation as spiritual. The trees are symbolic of the choices before man.

   The point of the narrative so far is that man is a three part being: body, soul and spirit. Body is directly the product of our DNA. Soul, personality, personhood is indirectly an expression of our DNA. But spirit is derived directly from God. It was not inherited nor did it develop gradually.

   Only as all three come together is man truly man.

   And when did that happen? The evidence, both biblical and archaeological, points to a rather recent event.

   But was there in fact, then, a first man? If true human beings are found throughout the world and those populations separated as much as 60,000 years ago, could there be a first true man?   The answer awaits Part 4. 




Thursday, April 6, 2017

Adam, Pt. 2, What Makes Man Man?

What makes man man? That seems like it would be an easy question. Each one of us can identify a human being when we see one and easily differentiate between a human and our nearest biological relative the chimp. The easy answer to what seems like an easy question - and the most frequent answer - would be the answer a recent contributor to posted: "I accept the biological definition for Homo Sapiens." By that I suppose he meant it is in the DNA.
   However, biologically there is only about a 1% difference between chimps and humans. That does not seem sufficient to account for what we all see as rather extreme differences, differences that allow humans to build space ships while chimps use only very simple tools, differences that allow humans to write poetry and operas and create temples dedicated to what they conceive of as God while chimps are still chattering about food sources and who's the alpha male of the group.

   That has led researchers to look for additional processes that determine the expression of characteristics that may have lain hidden in the genome of our common ancestor. Ursula Goodenough, Ph.D. and professor of biology at Washington University, where she teaches cell biology and molecular evolution, believes that the secret of extreme differences between humans and chimps is found in the genetic switches.
If the chimp and human protein-encoding genes are virtually all the same, then are there any interesting differences in their switch regions? Given the bottom-up nature of development, mutant switches could have large-scale consequences. NPR

   In other words, a mutation in a gene that operates as a switch could change the development of the organism and a species in a big way. It could switch on and cause the expression of genes that had evolved over time but had lain latent and unexpressed in the genome. Is that what made man man? Hard-core biologist types would say yes. But there are other voices.

  David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D.,  associate professor of philosophy at the University of New England and director of The Human Nature Project, says, "Answering this question is not as straightforward as it might appear."
Can’t we turn to science for an answer? Not really. Some paleoanthropologists identify the category of the human with the species Homo sapiens, others equate it with the whole genus Homo, some restrict it to the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens, and a few take it to encompass the entire hominin lineage. These differences of opinion are not due to a scarcity of evidence. They are due to the complete absence of evidence − or, to put the point with greater clarity, the absence of any conception of what sort of evidence can settle the question of which group or groups of primates should be counted as human. Biologists aren’t equipped to tell us whether an organism is a human organism because “human” is a folk-category rather a scientific one. ...  In deciding that all and only Homo sapiens are humans, one is expressing a preference about where the boundary separating humans from non-humans should be drawn, rather than discovering where such a boundary lays.    Psychology Today
   After a lot more words, Smith's comments boil down to this: we don't really know what makes man man. But it isn't as simple as DNA.

   Maybe common sense is the way to go. Common sense says we are different from other animals in our ability to create and appreciate art, our ability to think abstractly, our ability to think about ourselves (consciousness), our ability to imagine, and our sense of right and wrong. There are other traits that might be added, but these are basic. Those traits can be seen in all humans and through history back to the time when we can detect humanness in our distant ancestors. They are, in fact, how we detect humanness. They are seen in the artifacts humans have created and in the occupations of the human mind as humans have told stories and pondered philosophical questions.

   What chimp asks the existential questions of "who am I; what am I here for; where is it all going?" But every human does at one level or another. Or creates art for the sake of art.  No chimp engages in philosophy or art ... or religion.

   It is something of an amusing irony that if human beings are totally the product of their DNA, as some who are resistant to religion and fully committed to a naturalistic universe claim, religion is coded into the human DNA. We may as well try to eliminate the writing of novels as eliminate religion; religion like story telling is hardwired. If humans are totally the product of our DNA.

   But it is difficult to see how those things might have evolved naturally, even given Goodenough's switches. There is something else. What is it?

   It is at this point that religion, specifically the Bible, might be consulted. The Bible in a very old and very intriguing story tells about the origin of man. And for those who listen to the story carefully, it is remarkable, especially when we consider how long ago the story began to be told. The story is the narrative of Adam and Eve.

   The narrative, as many have noted, has elements of allegory, the talking snake, for example, and perhaps the two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Anyone acquainted with literature can recognize that. But it is also tied to a specific, identifiable place, Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It has the feel of real history, despite the allegorical elements. And it makes the claim that this is where man began.

   Pure science types will, of course, object. In their narrative, man began very long ago in Africa as our pre-human Hominid ancestors climbed down out of the trees and began to roam the savanna. And that is that. But listen to the Bible's story.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Adam, Pt.1

"Ken Ham agrees with the Atheists on Literal Adam and Eve?" Christian Post That headline in the Christian Post caught my eye. I had been researching the topic of Adam and Eve and found it intriguing that Ham and atheists would agree on anything much less that Adam and Eve were literal historical people. But it should not have been surprising. Both see a literal, historical Adam as crucial to their arguments.

   Ken Ham argues that the pre-history narratives of Creation through the Tower of Babel - which include the Adam and Eve story - are entirely literal. Atheists argue that the Bible requires that those stories be understood literally. Thus the agreement.

   Many Christian scholars do not agree, however. Some see Adam and Eve as an allegory in which the details of the story refer to realities in the real world or theological truths. Others read the story as a parable meant to explain a truth about the human condition. Neither think the story should be read literally.

  In the allegorical interpretation, each detail is significant and symbolic. In the parable, the importance is in the meaning of the lesson taught. Neither of these options require a literal, historical Adam. In  fact, these options are proposed because a literal Adam seems to be scientifically indefensible. In the modern world the idea that man slowly evolved from pre-human species and that there was no actual "first man" is almost universally assumed. The evidence is just too great.

   Well respected Christian scholars have, therefore, considered what science is telling about man and what the Adam and Eve story tells us and have concluded there is no necessary conflict. These scholars include names such as Francis Collins, the former atheist-turned-Christian who is the scientist known for his ground-breaking work in mapping the human genome and an evolutionist. They also includes Old Testament scholar  Bruce Waltke formerly of Dallas Theological Seminary now at Knox Theological Seminary. Christianity Today

   On the other hand, there is Ken Ham. He - along with atheists - and other theologically conservative biblical scholars see the entire theological premise of the Bible collapsing if Adam was not a literal, historical person and the first man, thus the head of the human race. They see the doctrine of original sin, the need for the cross and atonement, as well as the doctrine of man created in the image of God, as a house of cards in a hurricane if Adam is not literal. And they are right. Not only so but the dispute among Christians has the potential of seriously dividing Christians and perhaps even bringing Christianity down.

   That is, of course, why atheists are making such a big deal of the debate.

   I don't see this debate as fracturing Christianity, however, not only because God has invested his plan for humanity in the church and Christianity but because there is another alternative in the literal Adam vs. allegorical Adam debate. What? I will come to that in Part 2. First, I want to review the data and the ideas that are brought to the debate.

   The following list is not in any particular order, and it does not represent facts or ideas that are agreed to by all. It is simply what I observe.

   1) The moral and spiritual brokenness of human beings is both obvious and universal to all humans. This brokenness is pictured and explained in the Adam and Eve narrative.

   2) Man is a three-part being of spirit, soul (psyche), and body. That is also obvious and universal to all humans.

   3) Physically man is like the animals, and man probably evolved, as all living things, gradually to his present physical state. The last common ancestor of modern humans is sometimes traced to Mitochondrial Eve about 150,000 years ago.

   4) Man is also soul (psyche) and shares the the ability with some animals to relate, emote, and make decisions. That is obvious and a universal characteristic of all human beings.

   5) Unlike the animals man is also conscious of himself and his thoughts, conscious of his mortality, moral right and wrong and of God. Man is able to think abstractly, to appreciate beauty, and create art. That is spirit, and it is obvious and universal to all human beings.

   6) Science can describe the physical man and the psyche but cannot describe or explain the spirit.

   7) The Adam and Eve narrative is both similar to other Ancient Near East (ANE) attempts to explain man's origin and unique among them.

   8) By genre it has allegorical elements and has a similarity to parable. That is, it is highly symbolic and didactic. It is brilliant from a literary point of view with plot, well drawn characters, conflict, resolution, and denouement.

   9) By literary style it is sparse and unembellished compared to ANE myths. Every detail is important to the message. Myths are elaborately embellished with unnecessary detail and have no message or thesis.

   10) The A & E narrative is set in the the literal Middle East with specific geographical details describing the rivers and the lands beyond the plain of the Euphrates valley. It is more realistic than any of the ANE myths.

   11) The word adam often refers to mankind rather than the specific name of an individual. In this story when viewed as an allegory, that is how it would be read.

12) The word Adam is also a specific name, and it is used that way in the narrative as well as later in the New Testament.

13) When the New Testament uses Adam, we should understand it as reference to the specific person.

   Given what we observe both from the Bible and from science the third alternative is that both are right. Adam was the first true man and was anatomically the product of a long evolutionary development from pre-human hominids to modern Homo sapiens sapiens. How can both be true? It turns on what makes man man.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Jesus Is the Proof

No one in the ancient world had to prove that God existed. Virtually everyone believed in the gods. The few people we know of who were skeptical were the philosophers of Greece. The average Joe simply assumed not only the existence of the gods but the involvement of the gods in the lives of men. But solid evidence? That was another thing.

   Well, not for the Jews. They not only believed in God but their whole history seemed to them to be proof for the particular God whose name was Yahweh. Solid evidence was everywhere from the stars to the miracles God had done for them to their very existence.

   But empirical evidence? Had they personally seen God or touched him? Had they ever talked with God as a man talks with a man? Well, no. Maybe some special men in the distant past. But they themselves? No. But they didn't expect to. That sort of thing was unimaginable. No. God is in heaven.

   Until Jesus appeared along the shores of Galilee.

   Writing from a distance of sixty years John the Apostle writes about Jesus:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. (1 John 1:1,2)
   Yes. In Jesus God became visible and touchable. And John saw him and touched him. And had the incredible experience of having a three year conversation with him.

   What made John so sure Jesus was God in the flesh?

   John was a Jew. All of the disciples were Jews. They were believers in God. But they were absolute skeptics when it came to God showing up as a man. It was an idea that could not and would not be entertained. It was perhaps the greatest sin. No.

   Yet after three years with Jesus, John and all of his disciple companions were convinced that God had come down to them in the person of this man. Here's what happened.

   They heard Jesus speak. And Jesus spoke with wisdom and perception that no man they knew could have or could possibly have. He knew Andrew had been sitting under a fig tree before Phillip found him and told him about Jesus, and he knew Andrew's heart (John 1:44-49). And Jesus kept doing that.

   In John 4, Jesus knew that the Samaritan woman has had five husbands and was living with a man who was not her husband (4:16-26).  It was a shock to her that this stranger could know her life. Who does that?It was enough to convince her that Jesus was the Messiah.

   Time and again Jesus knew the secret thoughts of the hearts of those he met. And he spoke directly to that issue, even when it had not been spoken (Luke 7:36-50). He knew what was really in the heart of the rich young ruler who had come to him to ask about eternal life. He even knew where the fish were when lifelong fishermen did not. Who can do that? It was enough to convince Peter (Luke 5:1-11).

   And Jesus spoke with authority. When he spoke, people were healed. When he spoke, the storm was quieted. When he spoke, demons fled. When he spoke of God, people knew that he spoke truth because he spoke to them more deeply that anyone ever had. He spoke with more than wisdom; others had done that. He spoke to the heart of men.

   Not only were his words and wisdom convincing, his power was beyond anything ever seen or heard. He healed diseases. He made the blind see and the lame walk.  He multiplied the bread. He walked on the water. He quieted the storm. He raised the dead. And all he did was in line with what the disciples understood of God. These were not tricks meant to draw attention and wow people. He had no coin hidden up his sleeve. He was not a magician. He was not a sorcerer who conjured up ghosts. He did not tell fortunes. This was not spectacle. Everything he did fit the picture the prophets had painted of the Messiah.

   This is what Jesus said to John the Baptist when he sent his disciples to ask if Jesus were actually the Messiah:

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:  The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.  Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me” (Matthew 11:4-6).

   These were the things Isaiah had spoken of:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

   And then there was the affirmation of God. The disciples had heard the voice from heaven - and were afraid, we might add. This they were convinced was God speaking and affirming that Jesus was his Son. They had seen Jesus transformed into a figure more glorious and incredible than they could imagine.This does not happen in "real" life. Unless God does it.

   But. They also saw Jesus die. And it was ugly - and as final as any death is. What then?

   That was the final punctuation mark on Jesus' life. It was not an exclamation mark; it was a period. How could the Messiah die? How could God die? It is not possible. The only conclusion they could come to was that they were mistaken. The two men whom Jesus joined on their walk home to Emmaus after Jesus' death said as much: "The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel."

   The other disciples would have said the same, but they were hiding, afraid they would be next. Even the women who went to the grave expected to find a dead body.

   That was that.

   Had Jesus remained in the grave. That would have been the end of the story. Jesus might have been remembered for a while as a prophet and a good man. But the reality is that he left no written words by which to be remembered in history. The only thing we know that he wrote, he wrote in the dust, and the wind eventually blew it away.

   And what would his disciples have written, even if they could? "We had hoped." That is all.

   Better to go fishing.

   But God didn't let it rest at that. He raised Jesus from the grave, alive with a resurrection body, immortal, never to die again.

   Now, if you have trouble believing that, you have company. The disciples did not believe it either. They thought him a ghost. After all, he could appear in a locked room. He could disappear while they talked with him. Yet he had substance. He lit a fire. He ate with them. They touched him. They had conversations with him. He had flesh and bones, as he said.

   What were they to make of this? What do we make of this? It was stranger than anything they had seen yet. But hadn't Jesus told them to expect his return to them alive? Yes. A lot of times. But who believes that?

    Well, the disciples now did. They might as well deny the noses on their faces as to deny that Jesus stood before than as much a physical man as he had ever been. But more.

   Then it dawned on them. What Jesus had told them before his death made perfect sense. Philip had asked, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us," and Jesus answered, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father."

   Yes. They had seen God. And now they were sure without a shadow of a doubt. God had affirmed in the most dramatic way possible that Jesus was his Son. That absolute certainty carried them to the end of their lives.

   And for us? The fact of Jesus is sufficient to not only prove to us that God IS but that God came down to us in Jesus. He was seen and touched. His words were heard. His words were the words of God. His touch was the touch of God. He did everything necessary to demonstrate for us in real time and space that he is God the Son. If you want empirical proof, there is is.

   The only question is what will you do with him.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Prove To Me There Is a God

The most often repeated challenges to faith is this: prove to me there is a God. Almost always it is a challenge thrown in the faces of believers because the skeptic doesn't think it is answerable. But that is wrong. It is easily answered. 

   The first, the universe is finely tuned so that it permits life like ourselves to exist AND that our particular place in the universe is especially finely tuned for life like ourselves - that is large bodied and intelligent. Various scientists have pointed to as many as 200 conditions that are/were required for life to develop on this planet. Fine Tuning and God

   Are those measurable?

   Yes. Can they be falsified or can the conclusion drawn from that evidence be falsified? Yes. Simply show me a place with large bodied intelligent life that doesn't meet those conditions and the premise that it requires such fine-tuning is falsified. Or show me a place that meets those conditions that does not have large bodied intelligent life and the premise is falsified.  

   BTW If that premise were not falsifiable, then all the efforts to falsify it seem pointless.  

   The inference is that the conjunction of those conditions is improbable naturally. That can also be falsified by showing that there are many such places in the universe.  

   The inference is that highly improbable conditions suggest the need for those conditions to be purposeful, thus an intelligence behind them.  

   Second, there is the evidence of the book. The Bible is made up of 66 pieces written by dozens of different authors over a period of 1000 years or more. There was no collusion among them. None understood they were writing a single story. Yet it is a single story. And it is a story that meets all the criteria of a narrative with beginning middle and end (a single plot) and the usual plot development that we have come to see as common in literature throughout the millennia in which people have written or told stories.  The Book

   The inference is that a single story with those characteristics is highly improbable unless there is a divine author.

   Is that falsifiable? Yes. shown that this kind of story structure is unique in literature. Show that the was collusion among the authors. Show that there are other stories with the same parameters.  

   Third, there is the evidence of the nation Israel. The book mentioned above is in large part the story of Israel. In that story The divine author makes numerous promises to Israel, promises that stretch out over 1000 years and more. One of those is that Israel will never disappear from history until God brings history to a close. There may be times of discipline when the nation is exiled from the land. But the Hebrew people will not be absorbed into the other nations and lose their identity, and every exile will end with the people back in the land assigned to them by God.  A Chosen People

   The inference is that because this is unique in human history and very improbable that if if were to happen some divine entity must be involved. Is that falsifiable? Yes. Over the 4000 years during which Israel has existed, all of the predictions and promises have proven accurate. BUT if they had not, that would falsify the premise that there is divine purpose evidenced in the history of Israel.

    BTW If that premise is not falsifiable, then all the efforts to show that it is false seem pointless.  

   Fourth, there is the evidence of the foreshadowing (prophecies) made in the book. Not all the prophecies are easily tested, but some are. I've recommended the prophecy in Daniel 9:20-27 as one of those. The Date of Jesus' Death Foretold

   The inference is that it is highly improbable that anyone could predict the future in detail and with measurable specifics. Only God can do that.

   Is that premise falsifiiable? Yes. Show that the prophecies fail. Or show that anyone can make such prophecies. Obviously, that premise is tested by skeptics.

   But if this was not a valid test for the existence of God, such challenges would make no sense.  

    Fifth, there is the evidence of Jesus. Jesus and those writing about him in the book make the claim that he was/is God.  Jesus Is Proof

   The inference is that Jesus did things that would be highly improbable for a person to do who was not God. Is that falsifiable? Yes. Show that Jesus did not do those things. Show that those things can be done by anyone. Show that the claims were not made by Jesus.  

   The strong attempts to refute those claims or the facts presented demonstrate that many here think that the claims are falsifiable.  

   Bottom line. When multiple lines of evidence converge on one conclusion and survive the attempts to falsify them, the inference is strong that there is a God.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Matthew's Magnificent Gospel, Pt. 2

Who has not heard of the Lord's prayer? Almost no one. It has been at the heart of church gatherings since the first century. In fact it is quoted in full from chapter 5 of Matthew's Gospel in the Didache, an early 2nd century manual for church and Christian practice. I quote the Didache  chapter 8 here:

And do not pray as the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, pray thus: "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, as in Heaven so also upon earth; give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into trial, but deliver us from the Evil One, for thine is the power and the glory for ever."

   It is not the Lord's prayer alone, however, that is quoted from Matthew and memorable for
Christians for 20 centuries. Think of the Beatitudes - "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" -  and the instructions regarding fasting and giving and the warning about attachment to things. All these are found in a dearly loved section of Matthew called the Sermon on the Mount.

Pithy and Personal
   What makes the sermon, I think, so well loved and so memorable and quotable is the sound of Jesus' voice in the words and his heart in the message. His words are pithy and personal. It sounds like he is talking directly to us. Over and over again he uses you: "You are the salt of the earth. You have heard it said. When you give. When you pray. You cannot serve both God and money."

   But there is something more about Jesus' words; they are penetrating. Who does not find himself guilty of judging others when Jesus says, "“Do not judge, or you too will be judged." Or "love your enemies." Or when we are struck, "turn to them the other cheek also." Or "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth."

   In fact, Jesus' words are so penetrating that we cannot rush over them and move on. We are compelled to return again and again. It is like coming in from a walk on a blustery March day and catching sight of ourselves in  a mirror with our hair blown and our clothes all disheveled by the wind; we are aghast, and we cannot put what we see out of our mind. We find ourselves humbled before the Lord, and his words "be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" prick our hearts. But do they make a difference?

   A blogger recently remarked in a conversation with me about Matthew's Gospel and in particular this sermon, what difference does it make if these are Jesus' words quoted accurately by Matthew when Christians disregard much of what Jesus says. And he was right . . . and wrong at the same time.

   Christians are pricked by Jesus' words. We fall short of the standard of perfection we see in the Father. My blogger friend was right. But we do not disregard Jesus' words, for there is this hope: forgiveness.

   Here I return to the prayer: "forgive us our debt ." Those words and the promise implied in them allow us to stand on our feet again and look forward to what we can be and will be by God's grace. It was this in Jesus' words that drew crowds. And continues to draw crowds. Hope and grace.

   An old slave trader some years ago who turned to Christ for forgiveness said, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.” (John Newton) Jesus words do not condemn us; they challenge us to step into the grace of God that enables us to move higher.

   That is why Christians return again and again to these words of Jesus preserved for us by Matthew; they speak hope. They point us upward with the anticipation that if they are not perfectly lived today they will be more truly tomorrow and perfectly in the kingdom of heaven to come. They are powerful words. They do not condemn. They change us.


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Matthew's Magnificent Gospel.

The Gospel of Matthew was the centerpiece of the early church. It was the first Gospel written according to several early post-Apostolic writers and the most often quoted during the first 200 years of the church. And rightly so, for it is not only magnificently written but it is the bridge between the Old Testament and the New.

     William Barclay writes, “When we turn to Matthew, we turn to the book which may well be called the most important single document of the Christian faith, for in it we have the fullest and the most systematic account of the life and the teachings of Jesus”

     But it is not above its modern critics.

     Among the most often heard critiques is that it was not written by the Apostle Matthew but rather by an unknown author some time in the late 1st century. That would remove it from the likelihood that it was an eyewitness  account. At best it would be legend, at worst fiction.

John Loftus' critique of the Gospel of Matthew summarizes the complaints against the Gospel then engages the critique at the point of sources the author used:

he [Matthew] employs secondary sources (Mark & Q), themselves patchworks of well-worn fragments.

Loftus, John W.. Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (Revised & Expanded) (p. 312). Prometheus Books. Kindle Edition.
     And I as well as almost every Bible scholar would agree. Yes. Matthew used quotes from other sources. He could not have been there when the events of the first few chapters took place. But everyone recognizes that. He also uses quotes from some other source for all the sayings and deeds of Jesus. But let's consider that.

     The quotes in Matthew have every mark of being rather literal translations from a Hebrew original. They retain the Hebrew word order, and they are filled with Hebrew idioms while nowhere else in the book are Hebrew idioms found.  The quotes are also used heavily by Mark and Luke.  There are also some quotes that are Hebrew translations shared with Luke and not Mark. Scholars identify those by Q, which stands for Source. But there are many places in Matthew where the  quotes are unique to Matthew. Chapter 23, for example, has no counterpart in any of the other Gospels. Much of the famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is found in no other Gospel.

     That is ample evidence there was an earlier source. But it is not likely Mark. Much of Mark, of course, is shared with Matthew. And Mark also is quoting an earlier source just as is Matthew because his quotes are also heavy with Hebrew idioms. But the early Christian writers are clear that Matthew was first and that Mark wrote later relying on Peter's memories. They did not copy from one another.  The best solution to the puzzle is that Matthew and Mark were quoting a common oral source. We could call that Q if we like.

     If it was an oral source, it was a well known oral source since it is quoted in all three synoptics (the first three Gospels) and it had a form, a chronology,  that is retained in those Gospels. These were not random quotes. The source of those oral sayings and deeds of Jesus is most likely the Apostles themselves. Who else would put together an orderly record of the sayings of Jesus?

     In Acts 2 we are told that the Apostles almost immediately began to teach the new converts about Jesus. And who could possibly know the story and the words of Jesus better than they themselves? It is reasonable that this teaching was organized and memorized so that it could be spoken to others faithfully as the church expanded beyond Jerusalem.

     Now, Peter was one of the Apostles, and Peter was with Jesus almost the entire time of his teaching ministry. He was among the Apostles in Jerusalem as they taught the new converts. He would have known the story of Jesus well. It is his memories that Mark is said by early second century writer Papias to have recorded in an orderly fashion in his Gospel. But Peter's recollections of Jesus would have been much like those of the other Apostles.

     Matthew, we know, was also a disciple. He is mentioned in all three Gospels. Would his recollections not have been very similar?

     But they were not exactly the same. There are variations - which argue for oral transmission rather than written transmission. In one place Matthew's account is significantly different. He inserts the name Matthew where Mark and Luke use Levi.  Why would he change the name?  It may be because Matthew wrote the Gospel and was, therefore, writing about himself.  Matthew also makes a point of confessing that he was the tax collector giving the party in the passage that follows his calling. He also refers to himself as the tax collector in the list of the twelve disciples. Mark and Luke do not make that reference. Matthew's reference seems like a personal disclosure, and one another writer might not make writing about a respected Apostle since tax collector was a disreputable profession. 

     There is another reason for Matthew not using the name Levi. The name Levi carried some weight. It indicated that Levi (Matthew) belonged to the tribe of Levi, the priesthood tribe. If so that would imply that he was likely well educated in the Hebrew Scriptures, and that is certainly the case with the author of Matthew. No other writer makes as many references to the Hebrew Scriptures as Matthew. It is also evident that the author of Matthew was well versed in Rabbinical interpretation of the scriptures. He uses an interpretive style common among the rabbis, including a teaching method called a remez.[1] But if Matthew was a Levite with the education and religious heritage of a Levite, what is he doing collecting taxes? That is about as low as you could go in Judean society. And it was rarely a profession at which an educated man would be found.

     The answer may be that Matthew was a disaffected Levite. Having seen the religion up close and personal, he was as disgusted with it as Jesus. (It is also why Matthew includes chapter 23. He is letting Jesus say what he thought about the religious leaders of his day.)  But rather than confront it as Jesus did, he ran away from it. And why not? The religious scene was a sham. Collecting taxes was at least lucrative. And it provided fellowship with people just as much on the margins of society as Matthew felt himself to be.

     But there was still a spark of faith in him. It would not be a surprise then when Jesus came along preaching the restoration of the Hebrew faith that Matthew would be attracted.When Jesus called, he followed.

     If the author is Matthew the Apostle he would have known the story of Jesus as well as Peter and the other Apostles.  He was one of them. It was his story. And that is why what seem like third person accounts could also have been his own eyewitness memories. But there is another reason as well for the author using the third person instead of the first person.

     The whole point of all three of the Gospels is Jesus. None of the writers identify themselves, even Luke. Mark doesn't even credit the record of Jesus to Peter, though there are hints in Mark that it is told from Peter's memories. All the Gospel writers choose to focus upon Jesus rather than themselves. It is not surprising  then that Matthew didn't include first person memories.

     All these features point to Matthew as the author and accord well with what the early church understood. 

     However, there is another feature that Lotfus does not mention. That is the quality of the Greek. Some scholars argue that a tax collector in a podunk back water region like Galilee would not have known Greek and certainly could not have written in the excellent and educated Greek evident in the Gospel.

     But Matthew was not the typical tax collector. And Galilee was not as backward as some scholars think. It was a multi-enthnic area. It was a crossroads of cultures.  People spoke Greek and Aramaic and likely other languages. Far from being a surprise that a tax collector in Galilee would know Greek, it would seem almost a prerequisite.

     But excellent Greek? Well, just look at Paul. He was a Jew and spoke Hebrew/Aramaic among his people. He was educated as a Pharisee and knew the Hebrew Scriptures well.  But he knew Greek just as well, and spoke and wrote it as a native speaker. Could that not have been the case with Matthew?

     Then there was the case of the author of Hebrews. His Greek was if anything better, equal to Luke's who was an educated native Greek speaker. And he was also a Jew well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. And there were others. Philo was a Jew from Alexandria who wrote excellent Greek. Josephus knew Hebrew/Aramaic and yet wrote Greek very well.

     Being bi-lingual when both languages are learned from birth results in the ability to be fluent in both languages as if they were - as they are in that case - the native language. At the most, we can derive from Matthew's language that he was a educated native speaker of Greek and also a well versed student of the Hebrew Scriptures. We need not conclude that he could not be a tax collector or one of the disciples.

     Certainly the Apostle Matthew meets every qualification to be the writer of the Gospel. But there are two more things. Papias early in the second century identifies Matthew the Apostle as the author of the first Gospel, and he mentions Matthew wrote first in Hebrew. That fits the Gospel of Matthew very well. No other Gospel was directed as specifically toward the Jews as Matthew's. The text we have is in Greek, it is true. But Matthew among all the Apostles was uniquely able to write his Gospel also in Greek, not as a translation but as a native speaker. And so he did.

     Finally, there is the place the Gospel was accorded in the early church. It is not only listed first but is the most often quoted, and most notably in the Didache, a book of instruction for worship in the early church, a book of instructions from the Apostles.

     That seals the deal for me. Matthew is the author; he is the only author the early church knew for the Gospel. And the Gospel is an eyewitness account. Today that makes it most valuable to the church as the confessing church meets the challenges of the New Biblical Scholars and skeptics.


Friday, March 3, 2017

Who Wrote the Bible, Pt. 2 The Torah

Loftus in his book Why I Became an Atheist brings us finally to the denouement of the story of the Torah. He proposes, along with many of the New Biblical Scholars, that the Torah and other books having to do with Israel's early history were written as some say much later in the history of Israel, around the time of the Babylonian Exile, either shortly before or shortly after. In doing so these scholars must write a new history, a metanarrative, to explain the features they have identified as problems for the traditional understanding of the writing of the Old Testament.

     But any history narrative, the biblical narrative or the new metanarrative,  stands or falls not merely on a scenario or the analysis of the text - texts can be added to or edited over the years as we've seen with Genesis -  but on the brute facts of primary sources and artifacts. And for this new story there are none.
Tel Arad. Credit Abraham Wikimedia Commons

     But new facts surface regularly. For example, recent finds of ostracons in the area of Arad in southern Israel provide evidence that literacy was high in the period before the Babylonian Exile.
We found indirect evidence of the existence of an educational infrastructure, which could have enabled the composition of biblical texts," said Piasetzky. "Literacy existed at all levels of the administrative, military and priestly systems of Judah. Reading and writing were not limited to a tiny elite.     Arad
Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein adds
Following the fall of Judah, there was a large gap in production of Hebrew inscriptions until the second century BCE, the next period with evidence for widespread literacy. This reduces the odds for a compilation of substantial Biblical literature in Jerusalem between ca. 586 and 200 BCE.         Finkelstein
     It is at that point the metanarrative of the New Biblical Scholars falls apart. There simply are no brute facts to support the new metanarrative of the creation of early biblical texts after the Exile. None. In fact, the brute facts imply the metanarrative is unlikely. So what about just before the Exile?

     Let's take just one example that Loftus puts forward to demonstrate that the Torah, meaning specifically Exodus and Leviticus, were perhaps written in the time of Josiah King of Judah, perhaps by Jeremiah, circa 620 B.C. He quotes from Jeremiah, a contemporary of Josiah:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you. (Jeremiah 7:22-23)
     Loftus claims that Jeremiah is admitting that the law that having to do with sacrifices and ritual was not what God commanded when God brought Israel out of Egypt. Never mind that Loftus and the New Biblical Scholars do not believe that Israel came out of Egypt in an exodus. Never mind that they do not really believe in an actual Moses. It would be ironic enough to propose a solution built entirely on what they consider a fictitious narrative. What I find particularly ironic in this piece of the metanarrative is that Jeremiah is standing in the one place where brute facts are undeniable, within eye shot of the temple.

     Now, the temple stood only - and I emphasize ONLY - because there was an Exodus and a Leviticus. It is in those books that the tabernacle, the forerunner of the temple, is described and constructed. It is in those books where all the implements of the tabernacle and temple are described and created. It is in those books where the sacrifices are commanded. It is in those books where the priesthood is commissioned. Suffice to say, without Exodus and Leviticus there is no temple. That is a pretty brutal fact that the metanarrative does not and cannot explain without claiming that virtually everything - ironically including Josiah himself - is a fiction. Everything.

     At that point the new biblical scholars should either go home or transfer to the literature department because they can only be creating a fictional story and not history. Given the massive numbers of brute facts for the Israelites in Canaan and for elements of the biblical narrative - not the least of which is the site of Arad which Finkelstein was digging - it is simply foolish to prefer a metanarrative over the biblical narrative. It is worse than foolish. It is a denial of the standards of doing history.

     Now, I am not saying that the New Biblical Scholars' work is without value. The observations they have made about the text should not be dismissed out of hand. I like Finkelstein. He writes lucidly and is open to new facts and ideas. I am simply saying that the conclusions they come to are without support. And I am saying that none of this should shake the faith of knowledgeable Christians. If anything the brute facts of which we are reminded should strengthen our confidence in the biblical narrative.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Who Wrote the Bible, Pt. 1 Genesis

John Loftus begins a final section in his book Why I Became an Atheist with this coup de grĂ¢ce: Jesus attested  that Moses was the author of the first five books, but  subsequent analysis proves Moses could not have written the first book and did not. Jesus was wrong.

     That should seal the deal. Not only is the traditional understanding about the authorship of the
Torah wrong, but Jesus was wrong. Jesus was dead wrong.

     I encountered something like this charge while in college 45 years ago. It was a shock to my faith. And it seems to have been a shock to the faith of many who now consider themselves atheists, perhaps John Loftus is included. If the Bible cannot be trusted, if Jesus cannot be trusted, what is left?

     I recovered. I thought it through. I did the research. And I was satisfied then that the Bible could be trusted. Jesus could be trusted. My faith was strengthened. But in the intervening years the attacks on the historicity of the Bible and upon Jesus have gotten more sophisticated. More scholars from the mainstream academic world have joined the ranks, names like Bart Ehrman and Hector Avalos and John Crossan. They hold professorships in well known universities. And they are trusted to speak for mainstream Christianity on national news programs. Their critiques have gotten louder and more public. So I thought it through again. My conclusion is that their argument that the Bible could not be trusted to be accurate historically - and therefore, could not be God inspired - has gotten more complex, but it has not gotten stronger. So let's look at the case against the Torah.

     Loftus has done us the favor of summarizing most of the key points of the New Biblical Scholars' arguments. I'll examine them point by point in what follows.

     I begin with the charge that Jesus affirmed that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy were written by Moses. Is that true? A closer examination of the verses quoted by Loftus to demonstrate that Jesus referred to the five books of the Torah as written by Moses reveals that Jesus actually only referred to Exodus and Leviticus. Check them out: Matt. 8: 4; 19: 6– 8; 22: 24; Mark 1: 44; 7: 10; 10: 3– 4; 12: 19; 26; Luke 2: 22; 5: 14; 16:29-31; and 24:44. But the tradition, even in Jesus' day, was that the Torah was given by Moses. Did Jesus mean all the books by reference to Moses as the author of several of them? Clearly the Jews did hold to the tradition that Moses wrote the all five books. But does it matter?

     The Torah is about Moses. From Exodus through Deuteronomy the Torah is the story of his life. Genesis provides the background necessary to understand that story. They are the books of Moses in at least the sense that they are the story of Moses' life.

     But they are more than that, and certainly the Jews regarded them so. They are the message of God through Moses' that established the nation of Israel. They speak God's words to his people. But if  parts of the books were written by others, if a later editor or translator or compiler added explanatory information would that be an argument against the authority of the books? The answer is no. The integrity of the books is not damaged by explanatory or editorial comments. So what follows here from Loftus and the New Biblical Scholars he quotes may argue against the tradition. But it is not an indictment of the Bible.

     For some Christians, however, even the idea that the books of Moses may not all have been written 100% by the hand Moses or that Genesis, in particular, was not dictated by God to Moses is troubling. That is our tradition: They were written by Moses, and that's that. It is what we have been taught from Sunday school on. But the reality is that some parts were obviously not written by Moses. Even the untrained reader can identify some of those places. Simply read Deuteronomy  where Moses' death is recorded. That part could not logically have been written by Moses. A later editor must have inserted at least that part. Genesis 36 could not have been written by Moses for the same reason; it records events that happened after his death.

     What if a later editor added those explanatory comments? Would that destroy the value or the inspiration of the books? What is important is not the authorship. What is important is the authority of the books. That I will defend.

     That defense might seem easy if a few editorial comments are all there are. But the situation is more complicated than simply an editor wrapping up the story - as Loftus points out. So let me take each of the observations Loftus makes, particularly those relative to Genesis, and the conclusions he draws one by one.

     Anachronisms. An anachronism is something that is out of place in time. A reference to something that happened long after the events recorded in the story would be an anachronism. Loftus points out a number of places where people and places are mentioned in the books of Genesis (and Deuteronomy) that could only be known long after the time of Moses.  And he is right. One example is in Genesis 36 where a list the descendants of Esau includes kings who lived long after Moses. Moses could not have written this chapter.

     But almost all biblical scholars notice that anachronism. My Hebrew professor called our attention to it in seminary. Clearly chapter 36 is an insertion by a later editor to make sense out of the family of Esau. Chapter 36 answers the question about what happened to Esau and his family after he and Jacob buried their father Isaac (Genesis 35:29)  Since many of these men in Esau's line show up later in the biblical narrative, seeing their connection to Esau seemed important to the editor who also lived later. (BTW this insertion also can be used to identify the approximate time when the insertion was added. It was added during the time of the kings of Israel.) The interruption of chapter 36 in the narrative of Genesis does not undermine the authority of the book. 

     But the problems with anachronisms do not end there. As Israel Finkelstein writes: "the biblical text was filled with literary asides, explaining the ancient names of certain places." The Bible Unearthed. 
The land/city of Dan, for example,  is mentioned in Genesis 14:14. Yet Dan, a son of Jacob, had not even been born yet and the land of Dan would not become known as Dan until the Danites settled there in the time of the judges many hundreds of years after their mention in the narrative of Abraham. Does the reference to Dan demand that the whole book of Genesis be written after the time of the judges? No. It is simply an editorial insertion for the sake of the readers who in the editor's time did not know that place in northern Israel as Laish.

     All of this assumes, almost requires, that we understand the book of Genesis to have been redacted (texts from several sources combined in one document)  by an editor at a date later than Moses. That may disturb some Christians who haven't thought about it before. But it should not disturb those who understand that the books of the Bible have a history. They have been copied and edited  and even redacted. But the integrity and  authority of the book is not undermined by that reality.They have not been distorted by editing.

     I go on. The problem of the name Yahweh in Genesis prior to the moment in Exodus 6 where God identifies himself to Moses as Yahweh is for John Loftus  a serious contradiction. God specifically says to Moses that he had not revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as Yahweh. Could the same author have written both Genesis and Exodus? Could Exodus possibly be accurate and inspired when God is caught in the contradiction? I smile.

     There is an old joke based on the same twist of words Loftus uses. It goes this way. A man to his friend: "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" Both a yes or a no implies that the premise of the joke is true; I have been beating my wife. But everyone sees through that and laughs. 

    In this case Loftus implies the premise that there is a contradiction. But there is not. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not know God by the name of Yahweh. So how is it that the name Yahweh shows up so prominently in Genesis?  It was added in place of an older name. It seems to me that editing in the name Yahweh by a later editor is by far the simplest explanation and the one to be preferred in lieu of other evidence.

     In what is an early story in Genesis 14 when Melchizedek came to Abraham to bless him, he and Abraham both refer to God as El Elyon, the Creator of heaven and earth. Since by every other measure chapter 14 is a very old story and accurate to the place and time of about 2000 B.C. we might assume that the name for God, El Elyon, is also accurate to the place and time. El Elyon is the name by which both Abraham and Melchizedek knew God.

     There is, however, one reference to Yahweh in the pericopae. It is in verse 22. Here God Abraham names God "Yahweh, El Elyon, the Creator of heaven and earth." Why not simply El Elyon? The most probable explanation is that later readers who knew the God of Israel as Yahweh and not El Elyon would better understand that the God Abraham knew was the same as Yahweh.

     That same conclusion may be drawn from the book of Job. The central poem of the book is perhaps the oldest piece of biblical literature. The geography and customs and archaic words used in the poem reveal, in a close examination of the poem, a place it at about the same time Abraham lived and not too far from the land where Abraham came from, Ur in Mesopotamia. In Job the name for God is consistently Shadday (Almighty) and Eloah (God). (The only use of Yahweh comes in the sections at the beginning and end, sections that were added to the poem later, and in 12:9.)

     It is clear in  the poem that Job is referring as Melchizedek did to the Creator of heaven and earth, yet he did not know the Creator by the name Yahweh. He knew him as El Ekoah and El Shadday (which is how Moses knew God in Exodus 6 prior to God revealing his personal name). So it appears in the oldest texts the name Yahweh was not known. But how then is it that we find Yahweh so consistently used in Genesis? The answer again is that a later editor inserted the name for the sake of the readers in his day who knew God as Yahweh. That is not so hard.

     However, we need not conclude that the later editor is other than Moses himself. The events in Genesis happened before Moses' time. And it seems clear that many of the stories were stories passed down from the past and worked by the final writer (redacted) into the coherent narrative of Genesis. If so, why is it so difficult to see Moses inserting the name Yahweh into the stories in those places where a more ancient name had been used? Moses might have done that to avoid implying that there was more than one God. But there is really a more important reason.

     Yahweh is the personal name for God. It is the name by which he expresses his personal relationship to people. The other more general name for God is Elohim. It is by that name and by the similar names of El, El Elyon, El Shaddy, Eloah that God is spoken of more impersonally as Creator or judge. It was by that name that the Canaanites knew God. That pattern is quite consistent throughout the Old Testament though not absolutely so.

     Camels are another anachronism often identified in Genesis.  In all there are twenty passages in which camels are mentioned. The earliest is in Genesis 12 where the text says Abraham had camels, among the many other livestock. That would have been about 2000 B.C. Critics have long contested the possibility that camels had been domesticated that early. Recent research by two archaeologist " Dr Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the moment when domesticated camels arrived in the southern Levant. They found camels came in the 9th century B.C. Camels in the Levant

     But their conclusions ignored a mass of evidence that camels were in use in the Middle East including the Levant as early as the third millennium and earlier than any reference in Genesis. Biblical Archaeology Review  And there are pictures to prove it. So no anachronism here.

     Doublets. Finally, John points to the doublets. Doublets are stories found in Genesis that appear to be told twice, but from two sources. One perhaps from the memory of the northern kingdom of Israel the other from the memory of the southern kingdom Judah, or so Loftus argues. But Loftus is simply alluding what the New Biblical Scholars have been saying for many years. Again Finkelstein summarizes the case:
Thus one set of stories consistently used the tetragrammaton — the four-letter name YHWH (assumed by most scholars to have been pronounced Yahweh) — in the course of its historical narration and seemed to be most interested in the tribe and territory of Judah in its various accounts. The other set of stories used the names Elohim or El for God and seemed particularly concerned with the tribes and territories in the north of the country — mainly Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. In time, it became clear that the doublets derived from two distinct sources, written in different times and different places. Scholars gave the name "J" to the Yahwist source (spelled Jahvist in German) and "E" to the Elohist source.

The distinctive uses of geographical terminology and religious symbols and the roles played by the various tribes in the two sources convinced scholars that the J text was written in Jerusalem and represented the perspective of the united monarchy or the kingdom of Judah, presumably at or soon after the time of King Solomon (C. 970-930 BCE). Likewise, the E text seemed to have been written in the north and represented the perspective of the kingdom of Israel, and would have been composed during the independent life of that kingdom (C. 930-720 BCE).

     One such story is the story of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt and the story of Abraham and Sarah in Gerar. In both Abraham presents Sarah as his sister in order to avoid being killed.

     But the stories are too dissimilar to be considered one story told from two sources.  They sound more like two different experiences. And I think that is the best solution to the puzzle. Of course, both explanations could be true; the stories each might have been collected from a different sources by the redactor of Genesis, though from the traditions of later Israel and Judah seems more of a stretch than necessary. But there is the additional feature, which Finkelstein points out.  Abraham in Gerar, refers to God as Elohim  and in the other of Abraham in Egypt as Yahweh. If that feature is put forth as evidence for a later story tradition, it assumes that the northern kingdom had abandoned using the name Yahweh. But there is no evidence for that. And Finkelstein provides none in his short summary of his book.

     If we look to the biblical history in Kings, in all the places where the northern kingdom is described in 1st and 2nd Kings - and there is virtually no textual history of the northern kingdom outside the Bible - there is no evidence that the name Elohim had replaced Yahweh. There had been syncretism with other religions, notably with Baal worship, but there seems to have also been a retention of Yahweh as God. Of course, this history is told from the point of view of the southern kingdom. But it remains that to presume that the name Elohim was used rather than Yahweh is one bridge too far. So some other explanation is needed. This one falls flat.

     A better explanation is that in Gerar the king knew God by the name Elohim, he was after all a Canaanite and that was the common name for God among the Canaanites.  The compiler Moses simply retained that name, perhaps to show that the king of Gerar was actually a believer in the one true God. And that seems clear in the story itself since Abimelech the king of Gerar has great respect for Elohim.

     In Egypt the Pharaoh did not know God at all and makes no reference to any god. In that case the compiler  Moses used the name Yahweh in the one occurrence in the pericopae because that reference is to the God of Abraham. 

     A second and rather popular example of a doublet proposed by the New Biblical Scholars is the two creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2. A close reading of those chapters reveals, however, that they are not two creations stories at all. They are one story in two parts. Chapter one speaks about the creation of the heavens and the earth. It is concluded by a toldoth in Genesis 2:4. A toldoth is a stylistic device marking the end of a story and the beginning of another. It is translated "the generations of."  The "second story" does not reiterate the creation narrative of Genesis 1. It is a sequel. It goes on to speak of Adam and his line. They are two stories connected by the creation of man.

     Simply recognizing that there are two different stories and not doublets may not be a solution to every case where doublets are identified by the New Biblical Scholars. But this solution highlights the probability that there are more complex solutions than Loftus or Finkelstein allows.

     What these issues do not do is shake the conviction that Moses was the writer or compiler of the Genesis narrative. He clearly obtained the stories that make up the book by ordinary means rather than by divine dictation. There are too many examples of archaic origin and hints at a reworking of an older story to assume that. The Genesis narrative was also edited by a later editor some time after Moses, perhaps in the period of the kings. But the idea that the book was wholly written by a later compiler is not borne out in the text.

     What is also not shaken is the conviction that the book is authoritative. But what does that mean? At this point I defer to N.T. Wright.  "God’s authority vested in scripture is designed, as all God’s authority is designed, to liberate human beings an to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human." N.T.Wright  

     In my simpler words, "authority" is  the power of the written word of God to connect us to God TRULY. The written word is not merely good advice. It is not merely inspirational. It is not simply a collection of doctrines or even truths. It is not a record of history. It has power. It is true. It touches the reader who will receive it on a level that brings conviction of sin and the confident hope that God pushes through my sin to speak and touch me and call me to him - just as he did with Adam. And Genesis does that powerfully.

     Genesis is, of course, part of a bigger narrative and therefore does not do everything. It does not, for example develop in detail how God reconnects us to himself. That is left for the New Testament to complete, though the foreshadowing of that completion is there in Genesis. Genesis gives us a foretaste of that good news, what we call the gospel, in chapter three and illustrates the gospel again and again and again in the stories of people like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Indeed, the book of Genesis, if we had it alone, would be enough to do all that the Bible is intended by God to do. It is a magnificent testament to God. And it is difficult to imagine how any man could write such a book. Far from being flawed as the New Biblical Scholars imply, it is a treasure of incredible beauty. It is a jewel which, if we gaze into its depths, reflects back intimations of eternity.