Saturday, August 30, 2008

God's Law: what to make of condemnation

The Law of God has a power that we naturally dread: the power to condemn sin -- that is, our own sin. The law sets itself at enmity with evil and condemns it to destruction; it sets itself against impurity and decrees that it must be made clean again; it wages war on injustice. Our impure hearts have a very natural reaction to this: to pretend we are clean already, then pick up the law to use as a weapon to attack and destroy our own personal enemies. We have what it takes to hate sin in others, but rarely in ourselves. The natural temptation is to an immoral use of morality. The follower of Christ is called to a far more challenging use of the law.

The follower of Christ is called to take up the Law against the evil in his own heart. In our times it has been common for "condemnation", because of its abuse, to be considered always too harsh; after all, doesn't Christ pardon our sins? But the pardon of our sins is found in the cross, which is not the message of those who would take sin lightly. The message of the cross does not excuse sin, but condemns it. At the cross we find forgiveness, but only at the price of condemnation rather than excuses. Part of taking up our own cross must be a willingness to condemn that evil within us which belongs on a cross. Part of joining with Christ's death must be condemning the evil within us to die on the cross with Christ. "For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin." (Romans 6:6)

The condemnation of the law calls for our destruction. At the cross of Christ, we take up that call against ourselves, condemning our own sinfulness not in despair or in self-hatred -- for that would be still holding onto the sin as if it were still our own. Instead, we dare to hate our own sin and disown it, as Christ takes away the filth and shame. We dare to nail our sins to the cross and condemn them to die; we dare turn to Christ and in his death find ourselves set free. For we have in our better times hated the corruption within our own souls, and we have been given a weapon against that evil: the condemnation of the law against it. This condemnation, directed at ourselves now rather than our enemies, and recognizing the true enemy as sin, drives us to the cross of Christ. The law empowers us to stand firm against evil on the most treacherous ground of all, our own souls. The cross gives us the courage to condemn the evil inside us to death. It fulfills the promise spoken long ago in the Psalm, "the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."

Only God's profound faithfulness in forgiving sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness gives us the freedom to be truthful about our own sins. For our souls will come only when we see that God is trustworthy. At the cross we have the freedom to recognize that we have been slaves to sin -- because there we find freedom in Christ.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

God's Word as creative power: the 10 commandments

I appreciate the patience of those who waited through various analytical posts. My next few are in a more edifying vein. The next several posts consider different aspects of God's Law. Each post in this series contains a partial picture and therefore an incomplete picture. It still seems best to me to consider these aspects separately. If you read this post and think, "That's only part of the story" -- you're right.

In the beginning God's creative power worked through his word, and ten times in the first chapter of Genesis we see "God said" followed by a decree that created reality and blessed the world. In the next book, Exodus, once again we see ten decrees coming from the mouth God. While much has been said about the ten commandments, I want to look first at how they are words of creation and blessing.

Often the ten commandments are heard as good ideas -- and as threats. "Thou shalt" has a certain coerciveness about it. But consider the reality that could be created by the commandments if people lived them. In this sense, the commandments are not so different from God creating a people of his own by saying:

Let there be love of God.
Let there be true knowledge of God.
Let there be freedom from the slavery of false religion.
Let there be respect and honor for the Lord.
Let there be good measures of work, rest and peace.
Let there be peace among brothers and love of life.
Let there be homes blessed with faithful, kind companionship.
Let there be respect and honor for our neighbors.
Let there be honesty, and let there be justice.
Let there be hearts that are glad to see a neighbor's prosperity.

The commandments of God are creative: they call and create a people of his own, binding him to them and them to him. They call us to be co-creators with God of the reality around us, a reality that could, as in the beginning, be called good. The commandments carry the blessing of God in that keeping them makes us channels of God's blessing in the world, blessings such as peace and rest and homes where we are welcome. A people that takes these to heart would be blessed intrinsically by the very fact of having these commandments in their hearts and the actions that would necessarily follow.

I think something like that inspired two of my favorite psalms, Psalm 19 and Psalm 119, both praising the law of God for its beauty, its goodness, and its ability to bless.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Gnostic Gospels and Canonical Gospels: An Assessment of Jewish Context

As I mentioned when reviewing the canonical gospels for Jewish background, an obvious thing runs the risk of being overlooked or undervalued. The canonical gospels, on a basic level, are Jewish documents: they assume Jewish background, religious concepts, and culture. The Gnostic gospels, on that basic level, are far less Jewish.

Again, as mentioned with the canonical gospels, the basic "wordcount" method gives a useful snapshot but does miss a few things when assessing Jewish background. In some of the Gnostic gospels -- even some with higher Jewish context scores -- much of that Jewish context score comes from a handful of key words being repeated frequently. For example, the repetition of "holy", "sacrifice", and "Adam" account for the majority of the Jewish context score in the Gospel of Philip. A handful of mentions of the three words "holy", "law", and "Sabbath" account for almost the entire Jewish context score of the Gospel of Truth. The surviving text of these four Gnostic gospels contains no mention of Moses or David, no mention of a synagogue, no mention of the Feast of Passover or any of the Jewish feasts, only one mention of Abraham among the four of them, and no mention of Isaac or Jacob. For comparison, in the canonical gospels there are over thirty mentions of Abraham, over twenty mentions of either Isaac or Jacob, nearly forty mentions each of Moses and David, over forty mentions of a synagogue, and over thirty mentions of specific Jewish feasts such as the Feast of Passover. The relative absence of Jewish context in the Gnostic gospels is striking.

Another thing seen less clearly from the composite scores is the actual count of words. The Gospel of Mary -- second highest-scoring among these four Gnostic gospels -- contains only eight total words including repeat occurrences of the same words. The four occurrences of the word "sin" account for fully half the Jewish context score of the Gospel of Mary. The entire combined count of Jewish context flag words in the Gospels of Thomas, Mary, and Truth is in the low thirties; nearly half of these are either "sin" or "holy". To take another thumbnail sketch of Jewish context: the combined length of the four Gnostic gospels is slightly longer than the Gospel of John, yet the combined count of Jewish context words among them is roughly half that of the Gospel of John. This is more remarkable given that the Gospel of John is the least saturated with Jewish context among the four canonical gospels. Among this combined set of Gnostic gospels, the majority of Jewish context words comes from the Gospel of Philip, in which the three individual words "holy", "sacrifice" and "Adam" account for the majority of its Jewish context score. The average Jewish context score of the other three Gnostic gospels is roughly 1/4 of that of the lowest-scoring canonical gospel.

Individual Gnostic gospels have interesting emphases; for example the Gospel of Philip mentions Adam more often than all the canonical gospels combined, though it is it unclear whether the author of the Gospel of Philip was fully familiar with the account of Adam from the book of Genesis or whether there is some other explanation for the noticeable variances from the Genesis account. Likewise the concept of the holy (including Holy Spirit) is emphasized more in some of the Gnostic gospels than in the canonicals, where in some of the Gnostic gospels the use of the word "holy" is the single most prominent carryover from the Jewish worldview. The word "holy" figures so prominently as the key Jewish concept in the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Philip that the word "holy" by itself accounts for roughly 40% of the Jewish context score in each of those two gospels.

At times, the Gnostic gospels bring up a Jewish concept only to disagree with it as already seen in the review of the Gospel of Mary. The Gospel of Philip discusses Jewish Temple sacrifices in a way that makes it highly unlikely that the author(s) had ever personally been to the Temple in Jerusalem while it was still standing. The specific handling of Jewish concept-words in the Gnostic gospels does not always reflect familiarity with and acceptance of a Jewish context, but at times instead reflects unfamiliarity with or disagreement with those same Jewish concepts. The Gospel of Philip has some interesting features in its appropriation of Jewish words and concepts which will be discussed in a separate post.

The Gnostic gospels seem to reflect a stage in Christianity in which there was some hesitation from the Gentiles about Jesus' Jewishness; one of the most distinctive features of these four Gnostic gospels is the relative de-emphasis of Jesus' Jewish context compared with the four canonical gospels. Christian readers may well be familiar with the fact that the early Jewish Christian church struggled with the influx of Gentiles; it appears that, on the opposite side of the same coin, the early Gentiles struggled with Jesus' Jewishness in a day and age when worship was closely bound up with national identity. Most of the Gnostic gospels show Jesus -- and Christianity -- systematically stripped of Jewish context. The Gnostic gospels are a fascinating remnant from an earlier stage of Christianity with an early competition over the identity of Jesus. In the Gnostic gospels, the Gentile Christians pose a question to the early Jewish Christian church: does Jesus require a Jewish context?

A note on which gospels were included here as Gnostic gospels: I am aware there is some discussion about which gospels qualify as Gnostic, and again some discussion about whether "Gnostic" is an entirely useful category. I have included the Gospel of Thomas in this discussion about Gnostics even though there is still some question whether it truly belongs with the Gnostics, still there is enough possibility that it belongs here that I will include it here. I have not included the Gospel of Judas even though I am sure it belongs, but the ongoing controversies about the correct translation have made me prefer to delay this type of review until the vital translation controversies are better settled.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Gospel of Truth (Gnostic): Word Cloud

created at

Text used: The Gnostic Society Library

Gospel of Thomas (Gnostic?): Word Cloud

created at

Text: The Gnostic Society Library, Lambdin translation

Gospel of Mary (Gnostic): Word Cloud

created at

Text: The Gnostic Society Library

Gospel of Philip (Gnostic): Word Cloud

created at

Text: The Gnostic Society Library

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Canonical Gospels: Jewish Context

When a thing is obvious, it risks being overlooked or undervalued. One of the most obvious things about the New Testament documents is that they are set against a Jewish background. Jesus is seen in a Jewish context. He uses the specifically Jewish law of Moses as a springboard for speaking of universal concerns such as the love of enemies. He also speaks of specifically Jewish concerns like the Passover. There is a backdrop of history behind his actions: each of the four canonical gospels speaks of Abraham, of Jacob, of Moses, of David, of the prophets. Each mentions Isaiah by name, and mentions the Feast of Passover. They all mention the Pharisees, the Temple, priests and the high priest. They all mention Israel and Judea and specifically Jerusalem. They all mention the Sabbath, the synagogue, and the law. Other concepts with a strong Jewish history often find their way into the conversation as well, such as commandments, sin, being unclean, sacrifice, blood, and offerings. The accompanying chart shows, for each of the canonical gospels of the life of Christ, how often such Jewish context words occur for each 10,000 words of text. Admittedly this is a crude measure; a more thorough measure would take into account not only items such as word frequency, but entire sections reflecting Jewish concerns -- such as the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. Still, the word frequency scores are useful as a quick snapshot of the Jewish background assumed by the texts.

It is probably no surprise that the Gospel of Matthew has the highest score for Jewish context and concepts, nor the Gospel of John the lowest. The Gospel of Matthew was written for a Jewish audience, and by early accounts was originally written not in Greek but in the Hebrew language (which in that era may have meant Aramaic). The gospels of Mark and Luke score so closely together for Jewish context that the difference between them is probably not statistically meaningful. The Gospel of John was written, by early accounts, slightly later in the early days of the church. The Jewish context scores for John, while still significant, are noticeably lower than the others, and it has long been noted that this last of the four canonical gospels sometimes stops to explain Jewish concepts to an audience that may not understand them. This reflects a shift in the history of the Christian movement from a primarily Jewish group in its early days to an increasingly Gentile group as time progressed. For this latest of the canonical gospels, there is still a strong Jewish context, but at a lower level of saturation than the earlier canonical gospels.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Genesis: Word Cloud

created at

Text used: NIV

Exodus: Word Cloud

created at

Text used: NIV

Leviticus: Word Cloud

created at

Text used: NIV

Numbers: Word Cloud

created at

Text used: NIV