Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dionysius of Alexandria on the authorship of Revelation: historical methods

Update 09/09/2014: For those of you coming here from a link in the article "Ten Theories About Who Really Wrote the Bible", after looking at the material below on Revelation, you may be interested in my comments on the "Ten Theories ..." here. Some of the "Ten Theories" are better grounded than others. 

In the mid-200's A.D., one of the notable figures of church leadership -- and one of the foremost Christian scholars -- was Dionysius of Alexandria. He was bishop of Alexandria, one of the leading centers of early Christianity. He had also been head of the catechetical school of Alexandria, a leading center of Christian scholarship in his day. As the head of an influential Christian school in the world of his day, and as a leader in Christian scholarship, what kind of scholar was he? What was the state of scholarship about early Christian sources in the 200's A.D.?

Eusebius preserves an example of Dionysius' scholarship in his analysis of whether the Book of Revelation was written by the same person as the Gospel of John. While Dionysius concludes that the books were written by different authors, his method is what calls for our attention here. How did Dionysius reach his conclusions? As someone at or close to the high mark of Christian scholarship in the world of his day, what example did he set for his catechetical school and for the tone of Christian scholarship in general?

Dionysius builds his argument that Revelation had a distinct author from the Gospel of John from differences in the text and information in other early sources that were observable and available to any objective reviewer.
On the character of each, on the linguistic style, and on the general tone, as it is called, of Revelation, I base my opinion that the author was not the same. (Eusebius' History 7.25)
He continues with a detailed scholarly analysis of the differences which lead to that conclusion. He examines the use of the name "John" in Revelation and its comparative absence from other writings attributed to the apostle John. He reviews earlier Christian writings and shows that there were other men and named "John" who might have been the author. He compares the Gospel of John to the Epistle of John (1 John) and shows the many similarities found; then performs the same type of analysis on the Gospel of John compared to Revelation. He reviews ideas and word usage, common phrases and themes repeated between the Gospel of John and the epistle of John, and the prevalence of the same imagery. He catalogs a number images, ideas, and commands shared between the Gospel of John and the Epistle of John which are absent from Revelation. He goes on to summarize his three-way analysis comparing the Gospel of John to the first Epistle of John and to Revelation by noting,
To sum up, anyone who examines their characteristics throughout will inevitably see that Gospel and Epistle have one and the same color. But there is no resemblance or similarity whatever between them and the Revelation; it has no connection, no relationship with them; it has hardly a syllable in common with them. (Eusebius' History 7.25)
He continues with several other arguments, including the good linguistic style of the Greek in which the Gospel and Epistle are written, contrasted with the poor style of Revelation. On the Gospel and Epistle of John, he observes of their style:
By phraseology also we can measure the difference between the Gospel and Epistle and the Revelation. The first two are written not only without any blunders in the use of Greek, but with remarkable skill as regards diction, logical thought, and orderly expression. It is impossible to find in them one barbarous word or solecism, or any kind of vulgarism. (Eusebius' History 7.25)
On Revelation, he comments:
I observed that his language and style are not really Greek: he uses barbarous idioms, and is sometimes guilty of solecisms. There is no need to pick these out now; for I have not said these things in order to pour scorn on him -- do not imagine it -- but simply to prove the dissimilarity between these books. (Eusebius' History 7.25)
Here we see an early scholarly argument about the authorship of a book in the ancient church. The question had arisen: was the "John" who wrote this book the same as John the apostle? We see that the possible attribution to an apostle did not automatically gain acceptance for the attribution, nor exempt the book from criticism and scholarly review. We see the early church with critical faculties engaged, with careful, objective, logical, and verifiable arguments advanced about authorship. We see that the early church was capable of distinguishing the question of a book's usefulness from that of a book's authorship.

Though it is common enough to hear the early church disparaged as uncritical, here we see an early church scholar using methods still used by modern scholars, and reaching basically the same conclusions. Of the different lines of scholarly argument that Revelation and the Gospel of John were written by different authors, many of these appear already well-developed and well articulated, with examples, in the works of Dionysius of Alexandria in the 200's A.D. Scholarship such as this was part of the process by which the early church evaluated books. Dionysius, as head of the catechetical school of Alexandria first, and later as Bishop of Alexandria, set the pace for scholarship in his day. He anticipated what we consider our "modern" critical methods by not only centuries, but by well over a millenium.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Re-thinking the shape of the Trinity: Part 1

Nick Norelli is hosting the 2009 Trinity Blogging Summit. This post covers the introductory section of my submission to this year's summit. So as not to scoop the summit, the remaining sections will be posted here after the summit has been posted. The intended publication date for TBS 2009 is 3/1/2009.

Picture the Trinity. One of the images that comes to mind is likely the one shown here: the three interlocking circles of one of the most enduring symbols of the Trinity. Here I will set aside the technical term of Borromean Rings and refer to it as the TriCircle symbol, in hopes that this name is more readily understandable.

While we think of this Trinitarian symbol in holy or even near-mystical ways, it bears a noticeable resemblance to a Venn diagram, one of the simple types of graphs showing areas of similarity and difference. It would be tempting to think that the similarity to a Venn diagram is just a coincidence. But when we review the Athanasian creed in its descriptions of the Trinity, a large section of that creed reads very much as if someone is describing a Venn diagram as it catalogs what is shared and what is distinct.

When iconoclasts insist that we should make no image of God, the issue is whether an image could mislead us to worship some other God than the God we know, to substitute our thoughts about God for the reality of God. In modern Trinitarian theology, this one question has persisted: have we done that with the Trinity?

I have no basic objection to images of God, but every image does raise some questions. How well does the symbol reflect our thoughts? How well do our thoughts reflect the reality of God? My goal in this year's submission is to reconsider some of our thoughts about the Trinity by considering the images we use to reflect our thoughts.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A different angle on The Four Loves

I suspected when I wrote "The practical realities of love" that I would be interacting with C.S. Lewis before I was done with the topic. His book The Four Loves is one of the best-known Christian classics on the subject of love. I think the way he organizes the material is helpful but still lends itself to some specific misunderstandings. When we consider romantic love, friendship, or affection, each of these types of love applies to certain people and not others. There is nothing wrong with being a friend to one person but merely an acquaintance to another. When it comes to romantic love, it is positively good to have that kind of love uniquely for one other person and to leave out anyone else from that type of love. These types of love are defined mainly by the type of relationship to which they apply.

The previous post was partly written to move that conversation forward. I wanted to discuss love not so much in terms of the different types of relationships in our lives, but in terms of what the best love involves: what it does and what it attempts to do, its general approach toward the beloved. The core of the previous post was the three lines defining love not in terms of the depth or special qualities of any type of relationship, but in terms of what you might call love's agenda (though "agenda" is such a businesslike term that I preferred "practical realities"):

Love is determined to be a blessing to the beloved.
Love delights in the good found in the beloved.
Love desires fellowship with the beloved.

One of my most basic points is that this type of love applies to everyone we meet. It applies to everyone we know, everyone we speak with, to a romantic interest as well as to the clerk at the sandwich shop. There is no person we can meet to whom this agenda does not apply; God calls us to love all people in this way. This kind of love defines a Christian's interactions with the world.

The conclusion towards which I want to press this is that any of the other types of love named by Lewis – regardless of the category in which we classify that relationship – must contain those elements. Any type of human interaction in our life, whether it seems as a “relationship” to us or whether it does not, becomes less than it was intended to be if it does not contain those things. Rather than seeing different types of love with the core type of "love" changing for each type of relationship, instead we see the unchanging core of God's love applying the same love differently under varying circumstances. So while the type of relationship may vary from the most intimate lifelong treasure all the way to a one time conversation with the shopkeeper we may never meet again, a loving agenda remains fixed and constant in all our interactions with the world. A lesser love in any relationship is a distortion and a failure to love which robs both the people we meet and ourselves of the good we might have had in knowing each other even if for just a moment.

I also consider it axiomatic that we cannot dehumanize someone else without also dehumanizing ourselves. This divine love to which we are called humanizes the people we love in our eyes, and humanizes ourselves in the process of loving

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The practical realities of love

Although there is much talk about "love", I am not sure that we have a clear idea of what love involves. We "love" a candy bar, a movie, an idea, a job, or a person. But when a Christian considers love, we consider the very nature of God. We consider the actions by which God defines himself, and the actions and attitudes he calls us to have. What defines love in this sense of holy and creative love?

Love is determined to be a blessing to the beloved.
Love delights in the good found in the beloved.
Love desires fellowship with the beloved.

If we consider love this way, it becomes more obvious that some of the things we call "love" do not meet this definition. The trivial example of a candy bar falls at the very first point: we have no goal of being a blessing to the candy bar. Instead, we will use it for our own enjoyment and will devour the candy bar. Even though the example of the candy bar is silly, it illustrates an important point: in human love such as romantic love, sometimes one person loves another in very much the same way. One person may enjoy the other, but without any wish or plan to be any help to the other person at all.

I am afraid that much Christian charity does not meet the full definition of love either. If Christian charity does not delight in the good found in the other, if it avoids fellowship, it is not fully love. There is a sense in which this kind of charity can be dehumanizing, a patronizing insult which denies any value to the object of charity. Love, by definition, seeks involvement. Any action which seeks only minimal involvement has only minimal claim to be considered as love.

Human nature being what it is, we may find ourselves tempted to stop this kind of minimally-loving charity because it only meets one of these three practical realities of love. However, one of three is better than none. The better goal would be to directly touch the lives in a human way rather than through impersonal means of a cash donation. That would involve our time and our presence -- the kinds of things which are much more likely to change lives than money which comes and goes without leaving behind even a memory of a face.

Love within our families is much the same way. Someone who does the chores but resents the people who benefit from them, or helps another person from duty but does not delight in them, or enjoys the other person but never helps them -- these are not the love to which we are called. The love to which we are called seeks out ways in which to be a blessing. It is glad for the other person, and wants to be with them.

These actions and desires that define love are the way in which God loves us.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Two degrees of separation

In my interest to know how closely various people knew Jesus, I have also made a list of those in the New Testament recorded as having directly known someone who knew Jesus. Again, we have many unnamed people who met Jesus' disciples or the beneficiaries of his healings, but are not included here because they are not named.

Below is a list of people named in the New Testament who had known someone with one degree of separation from Jesus. Again, if someone shows up briefly (e.g. during a trial or hearing) but shows no interest in the Christian message, they are not included.

IDPersonConnection to JesusReferenceHometown or region
2-01AeneasHealed by PeterActs 9:32-35Lydda
2-02AristarchusMet James when visiting Jerusalem with Paul.

Other points of interest: also met Philip the evangelist and deacon (Acts 21:8).
Acts 20:4, Acts 21:17-18Thessalonica
2-03Barnabas aka JosephMet Peter, James, and John in Jerusalem; met Peter again when Peter came to Antioch

Other points of interest: also related to Mark.
Acts 4:36, Galatians 2:1, 2:9, 2:13. Colossians 4:10.Originally from Cyprus
2-04CorneliusHad Peter to his home and learned of Jesus from PeterActs 10Caesarea
2-05Dorcas aka TabithaRaised from the dead by Peter.Acts 9:36-42Joppa
2-06Judas BarsabbasKnew at least Peter and James. By his own reputation as being mentioned in Jerusalem as among the leaders of the church, he probably knew them before the meeting recorded in Acts 15. If the meeting in Acts 15 is the same as described in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, then Judas Barsabbas would also have known John.Acts 15:22Possibly Jerusalem
2-07LukeMet at least James when traveling to Jerusalem.

Other points of interest: also knew Mark first-hand. See Philemon vv. 23-24, Colossians 4:10, 14. Another meeting besides these is also suggested in 2 Timothy 4:11-13.
Beginning at Acts 16:10, Luke is at times traveling with Paul and recording the action first-hand. Records in first person where he went to Jerusalem and met at least James (Acts 21:17-18). Possibly Troas
2-08Mark aka John MarkCompanion of Peter. Peter singles him out to call him his “son”. Considered by the church of Alexandria to have been the first bishop of the church at Alexandria.

Other points of interest: knew Luke and Paul first-hand; was related to Barnabas.
1 Peter 5:13Possibly Jerusalem originally; his mother’s home was there.
2-09Mary, mother of MarkKnew Peter first-hand and had him in her home at least once. Acts 12:12Jerusalem
2-10NicanorAppointed as a deacon by “the Twelve”Acts 6:2-6Jerusalem
2-11Nicholas of AntiochAppointed as a deacon by “the Twelve”Acts 6:2-6By how he is named, probably originally from Antioch, though seems to have been living in Jerusalem
2-12ParmenasAppointed as a deacon by “the Twelve”Acts 6:2-6Jerusalem
2-13Paul aka SaulStayed for 15 days with Peter. Met with Peter, James, and John in Jerusalem. Met Peter again in Antioch. Acts 15, Galatians 1:18, Galatians 2:1-19, 11-14. Originally from Tarsus, probably studied in Jerusalem, traveled extensively.
2-14PhilipAppointed as a deacon by “the Twelve”Acts 6:2-6Jerusalem
2-15ProcorusAppointed as a deacon by “the Twelve”Acts 6:2-6Jerusalem
2-16RhodaFamiliar enough with Peter to recognize his voice through the door. Servant girl in the house of Mary, mother of Mark. Acts 12:13-14Jerusalem
2-17SecundusMet James when visiting Jerusalem with Paul.

Other points of interest: also met Philip the evangelist and deacon (Acts 21:8).
Acts 20:4, Acts 21:17-18Thessalonica
2-18SilasKnew at least Peter and James. By his own reputation as being mentioned in Jerusalem as among the leaders of the church, he probably knew them before the meeting recorded in Acts 15. If the meeting in Acts 15 is the same as described in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, then Judas Barsabbas would also have known John.

Helped Peter write 1 Peter.

Other points of interest: based on 1 Peter, would also have known Mark.
Acts 15:22;
1 Peter 5:12
Possibly originally from Jerusalem
2-19Simon the TannerHost to Peter during his stay in JoppaActs 9:43 and followingJoppa
2-20Sopater son of PyrrhusMet James when visiting Jerusalem with Paul.

Other points of interest: also met Philip the evangelist and deacon (Acts 21:8).
Acts 20:4, Acts 21:17-18Berea
2-21StephenAppointed as a deacon by “the Twelve”Acts 6:2-6Jerusalem
2-22TimonAppointed as a deacon by “the Twelve”Acts 6:2-6Jerusalem
2-23TitusAccompanied Paul on a visit to Jerusalem when Paul was meeting with Peter, James, and John.

Other points of interest: Received a personal letter from Paul; also knew Tychicius.
Galatians 2:1 and 2:9; Letter to Titus 
2-24TrophimusMet James when visiting Jerusalem with Paul.

Other points of interest: also met Philip the evangelist and deacon (Acts 21:8).
Acts 20:4, Acts 21:17-18Province of Asia
2-25TychicusMet James when visiting Jerusalem with Paul.

Other points of interest: also met Philip the evangelist and deacon (Acts 21:8). Seen with Paul during his imprisonment and is listed in the same greetings chain as Onesimus, Aristarchus, Mark, Jesus Justus, Luke, and Demas.
Acts 20:4, Acts 21:17-18 among others. Province of Asia

Sunday, February 15, 2009

One degree of separation

I have been curious how many people are recorded in the New Testament as having known Jesus directly. Many of the people who are mentioned meeting him are not named. Even a number of the people healed by him are not named.

Below is a list of people named in the New Testament who had known Jesus directly either as friends, family, or disciples who had direct knowledge of his life or teachings; who were healed by Jesus or had family healed by Jesus and so had direct knowledge of his power; or who had him in their home at some point and so had direct knowledge of him. Not included are people who met him but had no significant interaction as far as we can tell (e.g. Simon the Cyrene), or those who met him only at his trial and did not hear him teach or see him perform miracles (e.g. Pontius Pilate).

The much-disputed letters (Hebrews, 2 & 3 John, 2 Peter) are not included. They also, possibly not coincidentally, have little information to add.

IDPersonRelationship to JesusReferenceHometown or region

Other points of interest: had formerly been a disciple of John the Baptist
Matthew 4:13, 18
John 1:40, 1:44
(Many references in the texts; the ones listed help locate his home)
On the sea of Galilee, from Bethsaida near Capernaum
1-02Bar TimaeusHealed by JesusMark 10:46 and parallelsJericho
1-03BartholomewDiscipleMatthew 10:3 among others 
1-04CleopasFollower; probably also friend of disciples in that he knew where to find them when they were in hiding. Saw Jesus and spoke with him after his resurrection at least twice, once on the road to Emmaus and again later the same evening back in Jerusalem. Luke 24:13-33 
1-05JairusFather of a girl that Jesus raised from the dead

Other point of interest: synagogue ruler
Mark 5:22 and parallels 
1-06James, son of AlphaeusDiscipleMatthew 10:3 among others 
1-07James, brother of JesusJesus’ brotherMark 6:3-4 and othersNazareth
1-08James, son of ZebedeeDiscipleMatthew 4:13, 21Originally from Capernaum or its vicinity.
1-09JoannaFollower and financial supporterLuke 8:1-3Wife of Chuza who was Herod’s steward, so may have been in Herod's household
1-10John, son of ZebedeeDiscipleMatthew 4:13, 21 among many othersOriginally from Capernaum or its vicinity.
1-11John the BaptistCousin / forerunnerSee Luke 1:39-40, John 1:28Hill country of Judah, later on banks of the river Jordan.
1-12Joseph (aka Barsabbas and Justus)DiscipleActs 1:21-23 
1-13JosephJesus’ father / step-fatherMatthew and Luke birth narrativesNazareth
1-14Joseph, son of JosephJesus’ brother (or step-brother / half-brother)Mark 6:3-4 and othersNazareth
1-15Joseph of ArimatheaDiscipleMatthew 27:57Arimathea
1-16Judas, son of JamesDiscipleLuke 6:16 and Acts 1:13 
1-17Judas, son of JosephJesus’ brotherMark 6:3-4 and othersNazareth
1-18Judas IscariotDiscipleMatthew 10:3 among others 
1-19LazarusRaised from the dead by Jesus; referred to by Jesus as a friend; known to the disciples. John 11:1-44 and John 12:1-10.Bethany
1-20MalchusHealed by Jesus.

Other point of interest: Servant of the high priest, wounded during Jesus' arrest.
John 18:10-11 
1-21Martha of BethanyHosted Jesus; was also sister to Lazarus who was raised from the dead. Luke 10; John 11-12Bethany
1-22MaryJesus’ motherNumerousNazareth, at least for a time.
1-23Mary MagdaleneFollower
Beneficiary of a healing and financial supporter.
Mark 15:40-41
Luke 8:1-3
Probably originally from Magdala
1-24Mary of BethanyHosted Jesus; was also sister to Lazarus who was raised from the dead.Luke 10; John 11-12Bethany
1-25Mary the mother of James and JosesFollowerMark 15:40-41 
1-26Matthew / LeviDiscipleMatthew 9:9 among othersVicinity of Capernaum
1-27MatthiasDiscipleActs 1:21-23 
1-28NathanaelDiscipleJohn 1:45-51, John 21:2Cana
1-29NicodemusMet with Jesus.

Other point of interest: member of Sanhedrin.
John 3:1-21May have lived in Jerusalem
1-30Peter (also known as Simon and Cephas)DiscipleMatthew 4:13, 18John 1:40, 1:44On the sea of Galilee, from Bethsaida near Capernaum
1-31PhilipDiscipleJohn 1:43-44Bethsaida in Galilee
1-32SalomeFollowerMark 15:40-41 
1-33Simon, son of JosephJesus’ brotherMark 6:3-4 and othersNazareth
1-34Simon the LeperHosted Jesus at dinner in his homeMatthew 26:6 and parallelsBethany
1-35Simon the ZealotDiscipleMatthew 10:4, Acts 1:13 
1-36SusannaFollower and financial supporter. Luke 8:1-3 
1-37ThaddaeusDiscipleMatthew 10:3, Mark 3:18 
1-38ThomasDiscipleMatthew 10:3 among others 
1-39Zacchaeus the tax collectorHosted Jesus in his homeLuke 19:1-9Jericho

There are times when I leave the location blank even though an inference seems fairly obvious. I would generally prefer that my ideas of what is 'obvious' should be double-checked by someone with more historical background in that era and culture. A 'location' listed in this table has some direct evidence behind it.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The economy: All in favor of accountability ... ?

I have to admit being mystified by some of the approaches taken to shore up the economy. If we don't know who is going to get the money and how it is going to be used, then how do we know it will have the effect we intend? If we don't know those things, then how do we know how much we need? Do we know whether the real job will take half that amount, or twice that amount? If we don't know any of the above, then how can we measure whether the intervention was a success?

Have you heard the principle that the amount of work will expand to fill the time allotted to complete it? I expect the need for money will expand to fill the amount available. But do we know when to stop?

Accountability is the main thing I ask of this bailout. Simple accountability.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

What is the shelf life of oral tradition?

In the earliest church, information about Jesus was first passed down by word of mouth. What was the time-span between the events and when they were written? The first written information we have about the life of Jesus -- probably the information in the letters of Paul -- was written 20, 30, or even 35 years after Jesus was gone. The earliest gospel that we have may have been written 35 to 45 years after the fact, and the latest Gospel that the church generally accepts was written 60 - 70 years after the fact. Later, in the 100's A.D., we still find information being passed down by word of mouth about the events of Jesus' life. What is the shelf life of this information? For how long is it reliable?

I would like to begin with the first time of which I'm sure that information passed along about Jesus as "oral tradition" is plainly incorrect. In Irenaeus' writing Against Heresies we have a tradition passed along that Jesus' ministry lasted over 10 years -- closer to 20 -- and that he died close to the age 50 (Against Heresies II:22). This is given on the basis of oral tradition. Irenaeus wrote about 150 years after the events in question. At this distance in time, the oral traditions available to Irenaeus about the events of Jesus' life are no longer reliable.

We should be careful to note that the passage of time alone is not the problem, nor is Irenaeus as an author. He also examines information from written sources with much sounder results. In the same section in which Irenaeus takes oral tradition for the untenable idea that Jesus' ministry lasted nearly 20 years until the age 50, he also reviews the written record from the Gospel of John and shows that Jesus' ministry did in fact last more than one year. From the text, he is able to show that Jesus' ministry probably spanned three or four years based on how many separate occasions Passover is recorded. However, Irenaeus is not yet to the point of acknowledging that the written material in his hand has now become more reliable than oral tradition of the events of 150 years in the past.

Shelf life or half-life?

Some of the material that I have reviewed suggests that the key question is not only how many years have passed, but also how many degrees of separation are involved. For example, I can reliably pass along information of things that happened 30 years ago; my mother can reliably pass along information of things that happened 50 or more years ago. My grandparents, who died just a few years ago, could still pass along reliable information of things that happened 70 years ago based on their own personal experience. The key then is not how many years have passed, at least not directly. The key is whether we're dealing with firsthand knowledge, second hand knowledge, third hand knowledge, or knowledge even further removed from the original memories.

From what I have seen and what I have read, I expect the pattern of reliability is comparable to half-life. "Half-life" describes the pattern of decay of radiation: over a certain amount of time, half the strength or potency of the material is gone, and when that length of time passes again, half again of what is left will be gone, and so on. This is a rough comparison that there is not a steady rate of decrease, but that the largest decrease in the quality of word-of-mouth information happens within the first few generations. During the first generation, word of mouth -- that is, hearing personally from someone with direct knowledge -- is the best available form of knowledge. As the generations pass, that kind of direct knowledge is simply no longer available by word of mouth. The more generations the word-of-mouth information is passed along, the less reliable it becomes unless there is some sort of safeguard for preserving it. Like a broadcast signal, the further removed we are from the source, the lower the quality of the signal. Each passing generation sees the loss of certain parts of the memory; unless recorded in permanent form, still more pieces of the memory will be lost with time.

When it comes to the reliability of the oral traditions about the life of Jesus, I am willing to trust first generation and second-generation information, but not information further removed from the source than that. In the case of Irenaeus' mistaken oral traditions, we see that at the time he wrote, the generation of those with firsthand and second-hand information had died decades previously.

I decided from two separate lines of argument -- both from my own family history and from a review of the quality of information passed along by oral tradition about Jesus' ministry during the second century -- that firsthand information was of course the best, but the retelling by someone who heard that firsthand account still contained much useful and reliable information. Anything beyond that -- anything three or more steps removed from the original event -- had too much fading to be useful or reliable at any practical level. Oral tradition may last longer in oral cultures, but to the best of my knowledge the majority of Church writers of the late 100's A.D. were not from oral cultures.

Interestingly, Eusebius records something similar in the History:
But when the sacred band of the apostles had in various ways reached the end of their life, and the generation of those privileged to listen with their own ears to the divine wisdom had passed on, then godless error began to take shape ... (History III.32)
The apostles had the confidence and certainty of direct knowledge; their hearers in turn had direct knowledge of what the apostles had said. But when knowledge becomes more indirect than that, the quality of information degrades. We have then also Eusebius' observation that knowledge at two degrees of separation is still reasonably reliable, but that three degrees of separation is past the useful shelf life of oral tradition.

Some would note that there are cultures which have better methods of preserving oral traditions. This is likely enough, but not directly related to my current point since the Christian writers of the mid to late 100's A.D. do not seem to have been from such a culture. The point remains that in this case, the expiration date on oral tradition about Jesus comes with the dying out of the second generation of Christians, those who had themselves known people who had known Jesus. It would be interesting to see if living among a community of people who shared the same memories would help preserve the quality of those memories from fading. In the first generation, the best information is arguably the word of mouth information from those who knew directly. But as we turn from the second generation to the third generation after an event, the best information is preserved not by word-of-mouth, but in writing.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Is Pacifist Absolutism Immoral?

Unconditional belligerence is plainly immoral, among the most destructive forces at work in the world. The world has too much war. I can easily understand the desire for all war to cease. In a very understandable reaction against a too-belligerent world, a growing number of people hold the position that its opposite -- unconditional pacifism -- must therefore be the moral alternative. In fact, some of the New Pacifists would say that absolute pacifism is the only moral alternative.

My contention here is that absolute or unconditional pacifism is itself an immoral position. Is that overstated? I don't think so; consider what happens when anything -- pacifism included -- is elevated to an absolute, and claims the spot as the single highest moral good in existence, bar none. Make no mistake: whenever something becomes unconditional, that means it is claiming sole title to the highest possible spot. If it were not claiming the highest spot for itself, it would be conditional on whatever was more important, rather than unconditional. The fact that many New Pacifists brook no arguments and will not interact with other viewpoints (other than to display disdain) is evidence of unwillingness to consider the blind spots that come with such absolute allegiance to any position.

The most noticeable blind spot of pacifist absolutism is this: What is the morally right choice when two moral principles are in conflict? What happens when one good motive is in direct conflict with another? Jesus spoke of this kind of situation. He used an example common to his hearers, the custom of circumcising a child even on the Sabbath day. Two positive principles from that culture are in conflict: the Sabbath and the covenant of circumcision. The greater one wins, and a child is circumcised even on the Sabbath. Whoever breaks a lesser rule to keep a greater one is innocent of any wrongdoing and is considered without fault in breaking the lesser rule. In using this common example for his hearers, he established the general principle that the greater principle should be followed in the case of a conflict.

The ultimate test of absolutist pacifism occurs when there is a choice between defending the innocents who would be killed or offering no effective resistance. This situation arises time and again in human history: someone intent on attacking and killing will not be stopped by anything less than force. Here there is a direct conflict of life against life. Here unconditional pacifism ends up sacrificing the lives of the innocent in order to preserve their own personal theoretical innocence and the lives of the attackers. But such an innocence is a very tainted innocence. If the choice has come to the point where pacifism means deliberately consigning the innocent to death and refusing to act meaningfully in their defense, then at that point pacifism has become immoral. If the choice is between protecting the aggressor and protecting the victim, then protecting the aggressor is the lesser duty, but protecting the innocent is the greater duty. Make no mistake: as Christians we still see a duty to protect even the guilty. But the duty to protect the guilty does not trump the duty to protect the innocent.

Pacifism often makes the mistake of considering inaction to be morally neutral, or considering talk to be substantially different from inaction even when the other person is clearly not listening. It is not. Whoever sacrifices an unwilling innocent to save the guilty has blood on their hands, even if they never took up arms; doubly so if they did it for selfish reasons of maintaining their own personal purity and claim to personal innocence while turning their backs on those in life-threatening danger. Under those circumstances, it is the defenders of the innocent whose actions are pure even if they took human life, and the deserters of the innocent who have blood on their hands even if they assume their hands are clean -- a mistaken assumption under the circumstances.

To be sure, war and violence are often used wrongly. They are probably used wrongly more often than they are used justly. I would not want anyone to suppose that those speaking against any given war are immoral. The voice calling for peace is a valuable voice that speaks of what all innocent people wish could happen. Peace is always the goal and should be the first choice of method. There are even times when the person being attacked is willing to die; in this special case, pacifism may be morally permissible even to the point of the innocent's death. But when the innocent victim is unwilling to die, and when the aggressor will not stop until the victim is dead, then inaction is no longer ethical or acceptable, and indecisive action is no better than inaction. It is not always honest to tag any use of force with the pejorative labels "violence" or "belligerence".

In some ways, pacifism has become the new purity code: some New Pacifists have no trouble at all saying not only that they are right, but making clear that anyone who disagrees with them is, on their view, morally unclean. In this, I believe they are badly mistaken.

The hazards of writing about the dangers of pacifism are that the dangers of belligerence are, in the majority of cases, greater. Why would I speak out against pacifism? Because the New Pacifists are, often enough, absolutists. Because the time will come again when innocent lives are at stake, when the desire to protect the guilty conflicts with the desire to protect the innocent. I would not see the innocent sacrificed to someone's noble but misguided decision to prioritize the lives of the guilty over the innocent, or the misguided decision to live out the desire to keep ourselves from bloodshed in such a way that we are to blame for the bloodshed we refuse to stop.

This has been in the back of my mind for awhile, but actually putting my thoughts into a post was spurred by this post and its comments at Ancient Hebrew Poetry. The earnest pacifist in the comment thread there is not at all the direct cause or addressee of these comments, as they had been in my mind for some time. She simply reminded me that I was overdue to post my thoughts on the subject.

Who wrote the ending of Mark?

Towards the end of the Gospel of Mark, in Chapter 16, most Bibles contain a note just before 16:9 that the earliest manuscripts of Mark do not have the final verses, 16:9-20, the "long ending". What are we to make of those final verses? How early are they? Is there any sense in which they're authentic or reliable? When were they written and who wrote them?

The verses, if not original, are known to be early because already in the 100's A.D. there are quotations of Mark's long ending. Irenaeus quoted the long ending around the year 180 in his book Against Heresies (III:10). Tatian seems to have incorporated the long ending of Mark into the Diatessaron (LV), which was probably written by around 160 A.D.

As it turns out, we do have one note passed down to us from earlier ages about who wrote the long ending to Mark.
An Armenian manuscript of the Gospels, dated 986, discovered by F. C. Conybeare in 1891, attributes Mark xvi:9-20 (the 'long ending') to the 'elder Aristion'. This may refer to Papias' Aristion, and may be correct. ("Who's Who in Eusebius" appendix, from entry on Aristion, Penguin Classics Edition of Eusebius' History of the Church, 1965, new editorial material © Andrew Louth, 1989).
By its mention in this footnote, I have to assume that this information has been known to professional scholars of church history for some time, though it has not yet crossed over into common knowledge.

Even amateur students of church history will have met Aristion before, though possibly without recognizing or taking special note of his name. The early church leader Papias made some comments about where he received his information, and he lists some names. Among a series of names that are very familiar to us, we see the one unfamiliar name, Aristion:
And whenever anyone came who had been a follower of the presbyters, I inquired into the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other disciple of the Lord, and what Aristion and the presbyter John, disciples of the Lord, were still saying. For I did not imagine that things out of books would help me as much as the utterances of a living and abiding voice. (Quote of Papias preserved by Eusebius in History III:39, introduced by Eusebius as originally occurring in Papias' preface to his work The Sayings of the Lord Explained.)
Papias lived and wrote in the first half of the second century; that is to say, this quote mentioning Aristion is probably not later than 150 A.D. In this quote, Aristion is identified as someone who had himself known Christ. Is it possible that he wrote the ending to the Gospel of Mark?

The timing is right: Aristion lived early enough to have made this addition to the Gospel of Mark in time to be quoted in the 100's A.D. He seems to have outlived many of Jesus' other disciples; Papias refers to what various other disciples used to say but to what Aristion was still saying, implying his survival at a later date. The circle of personal connections is right: Aristion had known Jesus and, judging by the honorable company in which he is listed by Papias, he was well respected in early church. And then there is the matter of the ancient manuscript which names him as the author: there is no apparent reason to have attributed that text to Aristion except for the obvious reason: whoever originally inserted that comment into the text had reason to believe that it came from Aristion.

Speaking for myself, one comment in one manuscript that is centuries removed from the original information is not enough to achieve complete certainty. But the information does fit, and unless further information comes to light I would accept Aristion as the probable author of Mark's long ending.

I've tracked down some more information, for those interested. The discovery by Conybeare had a writeup in the October 1893 (yes, 1893) issue of the Expositor, according to the references I can find. There were some subsequent discussions in the Expositor as to whether the person referenced was Aristion (from Papias) or Ariston of Pella, also of about the right time period. The name in the text is 'Ariston', though 'Ariston' was a common misspelling of 'Aristion' they say, and nobody was willing to put a huge amount of weight on the spelling of the name rather than just probabilities as to which one would more likely do that kind of work. The arguments that I read seemed to be leaning somewhat towards Papias' Aristion, though possibly with someone else doing the actual penmanship. I think the scholars studying the material got as much as they possibly could (or even more) from the one-liner in the manuscript about the origin of that section. I did see some images of the manuscript on-line (though not of the page of interest here). The manuscript seems to be called the "Etschmiadzin manuscript". So I'd probably give it 60/40 of being Aristion at this point, just based on the arguments I've heard, with the other 40 going to Ariston of Pella.