Sunday, November 30, 2008

A scroll of remembrance

I struggle with "family issues" around holiday time; I think most of our family does, though we don't mention it. In our family there are a lot of old hatreds and wrongs that have never been addressed, though at the holidays we all get in the same room and try to be polite. All the unspoken clutter in the air can be uncomfortable. It has the feel of a bomb with a fuse, and every conversation is playing with matches.

Last time I wrote about these struggles in any depth, my to-do list for one relative included "Seek out chances to break the ice" and "Rehearse stories of every good thing they've ever done, back as far as I can remember, and in front of other people". I'd made some progress under ice-breaking. I'd even told a good story or two on this relative to my children. But I knew there was more to it than that. This particular relative of mine is very charming and incredibly helpful -- to everyone but family, I would find myself thinking in my worse moments.

In some corner of my mind I was aware that, whenever some important good was done in Biblical days, somehow or other the names and deeds of the people found their way into the permanent record. At one point it even mentions that a "scroll of remembrance" was written before God of all those who feared God and revered his name (Malachi 3:16). The solution was staring me in the face, but it took me awhile to reconcile myself to it: I needed to make a written record of all the good this person had ever done me. It took longer still before I could bring myself to put a pen to paper and actually write it.

Once I started writing, I was really surprised how quickly the list grew with all the helps and kindnesses the person had shown me over the years. The record was soon to two pages, with new memories tumbling over themselves to get onto the pages which were filled into the margins and packed tight to fit in all the things that were now coming to mind.

A few weeks came and went, and the "scroll of remembrance" faded from my mind. Once again I saw this person spending far more time on others and ignoring family. I spent Thanksgiving morning cleaning the house finding resentful thoughts creeping up around me. I was going to be in a terrible frame of mind to host Thanksgiving. Looking for a way to get my attitude under control, I re-read the "scroll of remembrance." (When I started, the nasty part of my mind said I should have a "scroll of remembrance" for all the horrible things this person had done, too. But I'm counting on God taking my own "horrible things" list and casting it in the sea and remembering it no more, so I figure I'd best not start a list like that for anyone else.)

The resentment melted away, and with the freshly defrosted heart, there was a suitable "neutral territory" in my home to host the sometimes-tense family gathering. There were still a few tense moments, glances exchanged at various things said ... but at the end the person whose "scroll" I'd read did something that I do not believe had ever done before: reached out and gave me a hug. (We'd been trading hugs ever since it got on my to-do list to find ways to break the ice. But this was the first time the other person had been the one to reach out.)

I don't know how anyone else's family is. I just know there's a lot of sin and brokenness in the world, and I take it we're not exactly the only family to struggle with all the togetherness during the holidays. For what it's worth, it did help in our case to write a scroll of remembrance of the good things the other person had done -- and to have it handy to re-read when it was badly needed. ;)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

In honor of the holiday, I'm taking a blog break. I plan to be back this weekend. Wishing everyone the best.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thanksgiving: How to fix poverty on American Indian reservations

The issue of justice for Native Americans is near and dear to my heart. I think the goal for which we should strive is for the American Indians to be at least as prosperous as the rest of us in this country, and consider that the smallest return on their welcome that we could, in good conscience, accept. I have long pondered how we could realistically reach that goal.

I would like to float an idea as a possible solution: what if the American Indian nations were given permanent seats in the U.S. Congress? Benefits of congressional seats:
  • Representation: a voice in policy;
  • Representation: a voice when lobbying for federal projects;
  • Electoral votes: every presidential candidate in a close race would be obligated to visit the reservations, a thing which is almost unheard of presently.
  • Presence: it would go a long way towards alleviating the "out of sight, out of mind" forgotten status of the American Indians
.I'm sure there would be a thousand details to work out. But I expect the end result would be well worth it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Resurrection in the Talmud: The seed as analogy for death and resurrection

When considering whether Judaism views resurrection as a physical event, we may ask whether the Talmud ever uses the analogy of a seed for resurrection, as is used in the writings of Paul in the New Testament. Here we see an exchange recorded in the Talmud in which a seed is used as an analogy for resurrection:
Queen Cleopatra asked R. Meir, ‘I know that the dead will revive, for it is written, And they [sc. the righteous] shall [in the distant future] blossom forth out of the city [Jerusalem] like the grass of the earth. (Psalm 72:16) But when they arise, shall they arise nude or in their garments?’ — He replied, ‘Thou mayest deduce by an a fortiori argument [the answer] from a wheat grain: if a grain of wheat, which is buried naked, sprouteth forth in many robes, how much more so the righteous, who are buried in their raiment!’ (Sanhedrin 90b)
The study notes to the Soncino Talmud advise that this is not the "Cleopatra" of "Anthony and Cleopatra", but rather a ruler of Samaria. R. Meir's life was slightly later than that of Paul. He was one of the principle authors of the Mishnah portions of the Talmud, so that any anonymous portions of the Mishnah were by default considered to have been written by him (Sanhedrin 86a). He was ordained during the persecutions following the Bar Kochba rebellion (Sanhedrin 14a), helping us date the start of his rabbinic career to the first half of the 100's A.D. Dating the origins of sayings in the Gemara in the Talmud is trickier, but regardless of the dating, we find that the analogy of a seed for resurrection had at some point become part of the tradition of Pharisaic Judaism.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Resurrection in the Talmud: The Banquet of the Righteous

When considering whether Judaism views resurrection as a physical event, the first passage I would like to review is the Talmud's discussion of the feast or banquet of the righteous:
The Holy One, blessed be He, will make a great banquet for the righteous on the day He manifests His love to the seed of Isaac. After they have eaten and drunk, the cup of Grace will be offered to our father Abraham, that he should recite Grace, but he will answer them, 'I cannot say Grace, because Ishmael issued from me.' Then Isaac will be asked, 'Take it and say Grace.' 'I cannot say Grace,' he will reply, 'because Esau issued from me.' Then Jacob will be asked: 'Take it and say Grace.' 'I cannot say Grace,' he will reply. 'because I married two sisters during [both] their lifetimes, whereas the Torah was destined to forbid them to me.' Then Moses will be asked, 'Take it and say Grace.' 'I cannot say Grace, because I was not privileged to enter Eretz Yisrael either in life or in death.' Then Joshua will be asked: 'Take it and say Grace.' 'I cannot say Grace,' he will reply, 'because I was not privileged to have a son,' for it is written, Joshua the son of Nun; Nun his son, Joshua his son. Then David will be asked: 'Take it and say Grace.' 'I will say Grace, and it is fitting for me to say Grace,' he will reply, as it is said, I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. (Pesachim 119b)
Here we see a Jewish view of resurrection in vividly physical terms: a banquet in which the resurrected both eat and drink, and a cup is offered to a series of the great patriarchs in turn, each in turn declining the honor until finally David accepts the cup. The Banquet of Salvation is envisioned as including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, and David, who lived at different times separated from each other in some cases by centuries. The banquet is anticipated as occurring in the future, and this was anticipated at a time when all of these great heroic figures of early Judaism had already died. These particular patriarchs could only sit together at a table for a future banquet -- eating, drinking, and passing a cup -- in the case of a physical resurrection from the dead.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bodily resurrection in Second Temple Judaism, the Talmud, and Early Christianity: Part 1


Various scholars have raised questions about what resurrection meant in the early Christian community. Some have contended that resurrection might not have been a physical resurrection as has been so long believed, but that it might refer to something more like survival or revival of the spirit without the body. While the New Testament documents as a whole are repeatedly explicit that the resurrection being referred to is bodily, those making the case often dismiss all but the earliest-written of the New Testament documents, namely the Gospel of Mark and the earliest letters of Paul. This removes most of the records we have of Jesus’ life and removes most of the New Testament textual material which is explicit about the physical nature of the resurrection. On this basis, some claim that therefore we cannot be certain what the earliest church understood in the concept of resurrection, and that it may well not have meant a bodily resurrection to the earliest Christians.

However, an a priori disqualification of all but the earliest few texts in the Christian canon does not leave us without information about what someone raised as a Jew of that era understood when discussing resurrection. All of the earliest Christians were born and raised in Jewish families and in the Jewish culture of the era, and all of the earliest Christian writings under consideration were written by those born and raised in Jewish families and Jewish culture. We have already seen that, along with many other of the early Christian writings, the Gospel of Mark is deeply saturated with Jewish concepts and culture. The point of this article is to show how resurrection was understood in the Judaism of that era and the specifically bodily nature of resurrection in the Judaism of that day. Establishing what resurrection meant in that culture in that era, and establishing that the early Christians understood resurrection in terms of the ongoing Jewish discussion of resurrection, thereby establishes what the earliest Christians meant when they referred to resurrection.

Jesus and the Sadducees: the Jewish resurrection controversy in the New Testament

First we must ask: Can we establish that the earliest New Testament documents discussed resurrection in terms of the pre-existing Jewish concept of resurrection? We will review a conversation recorded in what many scholars believe to be the earliest of the canonical gospels, the Gospel of Mark:
Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. "Teacher," they said, "Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?"
Jesus replied, "Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!" (Mark 12:18-26)

Here we see the earliest Christians viewing Jesus’ teaching on resurrection against the background of the Jewish conversation on resurrection. We see Jesus addressing this pre-existing controversy, coming out on the side of resurrection. The Jewish view of resurrection, particularly as held by those who believed in a resurrection, then becomes the relevant background and context for understanding what the earliest Christians, who were without exception Jewish, understood when they thought of resurrection and meant to communicate when they discussed resurrection.

To be continued ...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The triumph of God over chaos

There was evening,
   and there was morning ...
Have you ever gotten your days and nights switched so that you were sleeping and waking out of your habit and pattern? At times like that I often feel tired, and even when fully awake and energetic, I tend to be unhappy that I am fully awake at such an odd hour, knowing that it will only perpetuate another day out of rhythm.
There was evening,
   and there was morning ...
The creation account in Genesis 1 has several refrains, and one is the ordering of time. As God begins to bring order to the chaos, besides creating things he also gives order to time. He establishes a pulse in the world, a rhythm by which all life marks time.

I have a conjecture that people deprived of contact with nature are more likely to be atheists, while those in more contact with the natural world are more likely to perceive the hand of the creator. I wonder whether the same might happen with people whose lives have been wrenched out of any natural daily rhythm -- those on rotating shifts or rotating days off, or even with over-full schedules where days all run together in an endless chaotic blur.
There was evening,
   and there was morning ...
In the process of creating, the ultimate triumph of God over chaos is the Sabbath. A day of rest, a day of peace, a day of quiet, a day of blessing: a day in which the rhythm of time has been so thoroughly kneaded into the world that there is a day, a blessed day, free of chaos.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Verse That Launched a Thousand Apologetic Enterprises

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. -- from 1 Peter 3:15

I’d bet this verse has launched more study programs in defending the Christian faith than any other. "Be prepared" – it evokes pictures of diligent boyscouts, of tireless and extensive preparations. We remember the myriad of trick questions that hostile anti-Christians can throw at us. We may ask ourselves whether we are prepared to answer every trick question in the book. And when we think that way, we’re very wrong about the big picture – mostly because we miss the fact that Peter gave us the answer along with the instruction to be prepared to give that answer. Also because he asks us to prepare for a much simpler task than we have just imagined. We end up thinking the goal that Peter named was beyond the reach of the average Christian; we have missed what Peter said his point was.

A simpler task than we imagine

Look closely at what Peter said; what people are we supposed to be prepared to answer? Peter did not call all people to be ready to give an answer to every heckler who stays up nights twisting words and skewing facts to invent trick questions. Again look closely at what Peter said; what content are we supposed to be prepared to answer? He did not call us to be prepared to defend complicated theories. He told us to be prepared to answer the people who ask us, "Why do you have hope?"

By the time Peter tells us to be prepared to answer the people who ask us, "Why do you have hope?" he has already explained to his readers why we should have hope. He has also explained how we should get people to notice that hope so that they might ask us about it.

Why we should have hope

Peter begins his letter, right after his first greetings, reminding us of one of the main points of his letter: the reason for our hope.

he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. - from 1 Peter 1:3

Because Christ is risen, there is hope. If we have said that much, we have done well. If we have answered a hundred questions but have not managed to work in that much, we have not done well. If we've convinced an atheist that the New Testament is 98% as originally written down, but they are still scared to die because they think it means their own annihilation; if they are still scared to approach God because they still imagine him to be a cosmic bully, then we have not done well. If Christ had not risen, what hope would we have? Would we be sure there will be a resurrection? Would we be sure that God is merciful? Would we be sure that God loves mankind and wants to save us? Peter, who wrote these words, had himself seen Jesus risen from the dead. He knew what he was talking about. Jesus’ resurrection changes everything.

Peter talks further about the hope that we have because of the resurrection:

an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you. – 1 Peter 1:4

You were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers. – 1 Peter 1:18

The one who trusts in him will never be put to shame. -- 1 Peter 2:6

set your hope fully on the grace being given you as Jesus Christ is revealed. -- 1 Peter 1:13

These are the hope we have: an inheritance that will not fade; a way of life that is not empty; escape from being justly put to shame; God's favor given in Christ. That is our hope.

I'm not criticizing the approach to apologetics that seeks to answer the legitimate questions from honest skeptics. I'm not even criticizing the niche in apologetics that seeks to answer the trick questions from hecklers and harrassers; I do those kinds of things myself as time permits. But it does bear mentioning that that's not directly what Peter was talking about, and we cannot afford to neglect the real heart of our hope: Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

As regards apologetics and the resurrection itself, there's still room for misunderstanding. There is a time and a place to answer questions about the resurrection, whether from honest questioners or from hecklers; but neither of these are what Peter is addressing. Peter is talking about describing how the resurrection is a legitimate cause for hope. Despite nearly two thousand years of assorted opposition, Jesus' resurrection is still supported by 100% of the available first-century records on the subject, so we're genuinely justified in basing our position on its reality when we discuss why we have hope. We need not always start on the defensive as if we have to persuade people of the possibility of miracles or the identity of Jesus or why they should consider Christianity before we can mention why the resurrection matters; in fact many of the preceding are answered better by Jesus' resurrection than by anything else. Some atheists (for example, the philosopher Michael Martin) have mentioned not seeing why the resurrection should matter as a reason for rejecting it. If we spend all our time discussing the mere fact that there is plenty of evidence, and none of our time discussing the good that God has done for mankind through the resurrection, then we have not given the reason for our hope as Peter instructs.

How we should get people to notice

Peter knew what it was like to witness to a hostile world. He knew what it was like to have enemies, to be attacked, to be outcast, to have even the leaders against him. He knew what it was to suffer, to be lied about. So he had some very practical advice on how to get people to notice, whether they were enemies, mockers, or just plain indifferent.

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. -- 1 Peter 2: 12

If we’re not living such good lives that even the pagans have to notice, we’re dropping the ball. We’re not dropping the ball when we don’t know the answer to the latest trick question. We’re dropping the ball when we’re leading impure lives, when we're not living proof of God’s compassion, when we’re not a very present help in time of trouble. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty – Christ is our forgiveness. But having forgiveness can shade over to laziness and complacency. We are called to live such good lives among the pagans that they notice.

For one of the toughest situations, a wife trying to witness to an unbelieving husband, Peter has this advice which can help in other tough situations as well:

If any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by [your] behavior when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” – from 1 Peter 3:1-2

Peter also said,

It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. -- 1 Peter 2:15.

Are we trying to silence "the ignorant talk of foolish men" by arguing with them? Since when has an argument ever silenced someone who is foolish? How many are actually encouraged by arguments, since that is what they were really looking for? And is it God’s will that we should silence the ignorant talk by more talk? It would be over-hasty to say never; there is a time and a place and a way to answer. But in general, we are to answer useless words with useful actions.

And, finally, when people do ask – even if they are still heckling – when words finally come into the picture, when we give the reason for the hope we have, how do we behave?

But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. -- from 1 Peter 3:15-16

If we haven't answered with gentleness and respect, if we have stooped to heckling or demeaning, it is probable that we haven't kept a clear conscience; God knows our hearts. At any rate, if we are not gentle and respectful, those who speak maliciously against us will feel (reasonably enough) that their slander is justified.

Peter also hints that we’re going to be slandered one way or another: if we do evil, we will be slandered for doing evil. If we do good, we will be slandered for doing good. The temptation to cave in to evil or fit in with the world in order to avoid slander is nothing but wishful thinking. Even if we go along with the world we will still be slandered – and it will be justified.

A reason for the hope

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. – 1 Peter 1:3

That is the reason for our hope.

This was originally published at CADRE Comments, 06/26/2005, and has been slightly updated for clarity.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Patristics Carnival XVII

Welcome to the November 2008 Patristics Carnival.

The Patristics Carnival is a monthly collection of patristics-related posts initiated and organized by Phil Snider.

Book Reviews

Introductions to the Fathers


Commentaries, Research, and Assessments of the Fathers

Lives of the Fathers: Ignatius of Antioch

This month saw a number of tributes to and commemorations of Ignatius of Antioch in honor of his feast day:

Lives of the Fathers: Other than Ignatius


Possibly Polemical Patristics

This section has the caveat lector entries, where the posts are in some ways incendiary, polemical, or otherwise calculated to provoke, but may still contain material of interest for carnival readers.

Apocryphal Corner


And that's all for the November 2008 patristics carnival. Keep an eye on Phil's blog for details about the next edition of the Carnival.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election 2008: Cheers and Congratulations to ...

... whoever becomes our new President. Here's to new beginnings.

Take care & God bless.