Friday, September 27, 2013

Did the Snake Lie?

Well, I guess it depends on how you define a lie. Genesis 3 tells us that the snake was crafty, and he was obviously attempting to trick the woman into doing something they both knew she wasn't supposed to do. I also recognize that Jesus says that Satan is 'the father of lies' (John 8:44), and some will want to connect that to this passage. I'll just say that there are some problems with interpreting Jesus in that way, but even if he did have Genesis 3 in mind, he may well have thought about the craftiness of the snake as a type of deception.

What is clear from the text of Genesis is that the snake didn't actually say anything that was untrue. I have just read an example of a scholar--not a biblical scholar, but an evangelical patristics scholar--who seems not to recognize this, so I thought I'd point it out, though I know it's been done many times before.

As I read Gen. 3:4-5, the snake says to the woman that four things will result from her eating the forbidden fruit: she will not die, her eyes will be opened, she will be like God, and she will know good and evil. (Probably those last three things are more-or-less identical to each other, but they come up at different points in the subsequent account, so I'll separate them.) This all happens just as the snake says.

  1. The narrator of the story tells us that, indeed, as soon as Eve ate the fruit and gave some to her man, "the eyes of both of them were opened" (3:8). Score one for the snake. 
  2. At the end of the story, the narrator records God's words that the man [and woman, presumably] "has become like one of us" (3:22). The snake is right again. 
  3. God also says in the same verse that the man [and woman] now know good and evil (3:22). That's three for the snake. 
  4. Last, the snake promised that they would not die. Now, the text does not explicitly say that this did not happen, but all we have to do is read the whole story to realize that the punishment described in Gen. 2:17 (quoted by Eve in 3:3) was not carried out. The man and woman ate the fruit and did not die "in the day that [they ate] from it." The snake gets a perfect score.
I recognize that it's that last point that can be a little difficult to take. The snake directly contradicts God, and God is the source of all truth, so the snake must be lying. Some try to preserve the truthfulness of God by explaining his threat in 2:17 as either referring to spiritual death or to the onset of mortality which would result in death. Of course, neither of these exactly fit the wording of 2:17 or could have been anything that the man and woman could have understood God to be talking about. Rather, I think we must come to grips with the reality that 2:17 was not fulfilled--the snake was right. I say this because (1) the snake was right about every other point and (2) I've read the story.

I certainly have no interest in impinging on the truthfulness of God. Nor do I think the author of Genesis 3 would really want God to come out as the less truthful one in relation to the snake. But I think we must recognize that his words of 2:17 did not come to pass. I say this because I trust scripture (see previous post). My inclination is to hold together the truthfulness of God and the non-fulfillment of 2:17 by the assumption that God changed his mind--not an uncommon thing for God to do (see Jonah 3), though I do admit that there are some problems to this approach. But whatever we do with Genesis 3, let's at least affirm what is explicitly there in the text--the snake was right, nobody died, their eyes were opened, they became like God, and they knew good and evil.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Assuming the Truth of Scripture

To some degree, trying to convince others that the Bible is reliable represents an effort to get people to trust us, to believe that we have sufficient arguments in our arsenal to prove that they should take the Bible seriously. By contrast, using the Bible, with no prefatory remarks about whether it is worthy of such respect, is to assign it an even higher place. To state this point differently, much modern theology argues that we should trust the Bible because we can demonstrate that it is reliable. In contrast, the Fathers assumed that the Bible is trustworthy because it came from God, and they assumed this so implicitly and wholeheartedly that they rarely even mentioned the Bible's uniqueness directly. They simply acted on the uniqueness of Scripture by memorizing it, studying it, citing it, using it. Because of this the Fathers have relatively little to offer to our articulation of the doctrine of Scripture, but in their practice they have a great deal to tell us about what submission to the authority of Scripture looks like.
--Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (IVP, 2009), 2.

I really like this approach, for two reasons: assuming the truth of scripture rather than trying to prove it would (1) save a lot of time and (2) make superfluous all the terrible arguments used to prove the truth of scripture.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Assassination and de Wette's Dismissal from Berlin

This is sort of strange.

In a very helpful article (full-text), the classics scholar Paul B. Harvey, Jr., and the Hebrew Bible scholar Baruch Halpern offer an English translation of and an introduction to the doctoral dissertation of Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette. (The translation is on pp. 73-85.) The original Latin of the dissertation--which is only about 20 pages long with 5 total footnotes!--was later reprinted in de Wette's Opuscula Theologica (Berlin, 1830), available full-text here, pp. 149-68.

The dissertation, written at Jena in 1804 and defended the following year, is famous as establishing--so it is often thought--that Deuteronomy was composed around the time of King Josiah. In fact, de Wette barely even suggests the possibility that Deuteronomy may have been the law book found by Josiah. This suggestion is found in about half of a sentence near the end of the long footnote 5 of the dissertation (= pp. 81-82 n. 59 of Harvey & Halpern). The suggestion itself is hardly original with de Wette, as Harvey & Halpern show (p. 48 n. 4). The full argument would appear the following year in the first volume of de Wette's Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Alte Testament (Halle, 1806), 175-79 (translated by Harvey & Halpern on pp. 63-65 of their article).

The part that I find strange is when Harvey & Halpern offer an explanation as to why de Wette was forced to leave his professorship at Berlin in 1819. They write:
Unfortunately, an assassination there motivated by conservative reaction to critical Biblical study drove de Wette into temporary retirement, until he found refuge in the more liberal theological environment of the University of Basel. (p. 59, no footnote)
This raised my interest quite a bit. I knew that tempers could run high when conservative Christians encounter critical biblical scholarship, and we have certainly seen plenty of dismissals from academic posts in recent years due to this, but this is the first account of a murder that I remember hearing about in relation to these issues.

But I can't find any corroboration for this statement. Oh, there was an assassination, to be sure, but the motivation does not seem to have been anything regarding critical biblical scholarship.

This from the Wikipedia article on de Wette:
He was, however, dismissed from Berlin in 1819 on account of his having written a letter of consolation to the mother of Karl Ludwig Sand, the murderer of Kotzebue.
You can follow the links to find out who those guys are. I'll give you the short version. Sand was a 25-year-old student who supported German nationalism and he perceived the playwright Kotzebue to be producing works that would hinder German unification (I think that's what was going on). Nothing in the Wikipedia articles mentions biblical scholarship.

Okay, you don't trust Wikipedia? How about John Rogerson's intellecutal biography of de Wette? He talks about this assassination on pp. 150ff. He introduces his account with this sentence:
On 23 March 1819, Sand assassinated the popular playwright Kotzebue in Mannheim. Kotzebue was regarded by the student unions as a Russian agent and traitor, and his murder was seen as an expression of loyalty to the fatherland
Rogerson never hints that this assassination had any relation with critical biblical scholarship. It was about nationalism. As for Wikipedia's assertion that the dismissal concerned a letter written by de Wette, this letter is discussed by Rogerson (pp. 153-56), but there was certainly a good deal more going on than just this letter. See Rogerson's entire discussion, pp. 145-59.

So, the bottom line is that critical biblical scholars can rest easy. Your work did not motivate an assassin in Berlin 194 years ago. But where do Harvey and Halpern get the idea that it did? Strange.

Monday, September 9, 2013

'Disciple' as a Self-Designation in the New Testament

Some time ago, I posted on the word 'disciple' (μαθητής) in the Bible, noting that it does not appear in the LXX, and in the NT it shows up only in the Gospels and Acts. I wanted to know whether the Gospels and Acts think of Christians in general as disciples, or whether they reserve this term for the apostles. But at the time I had not done all the research necessary, so the post was very rough and preliminary.

I'm thankful that Paul Trebilco has done the research for me in his book Self-designations and Group Identity in the New Testament (Cambridge, 2012). Trebilco here includes chapters on ἀδελφοί, the believers, οἱ ἅγιοι, ἡ ἐκκλησία, μαθηταί, ἡ ὁδός, and Χριστιανός. So far I have read only the chapter on the μαθηταί, which is excellent. Here I'll give a few notes and excerpts.

Trebilco concludes that Jesus did use the term 'disciples' (the Aramaic talmidayya) for his own followers, but he defined this in a very narrow way: to be a disciple of Jesus meant to literally follow him around, leaving homes and facing persecution. But one did not necessarily have to be a 'disciple' of Jesus (in this narrow sense) to be an adherent of Jesus' teaching. Some people in the Gospels are represented as staying in their homes and still supporting Jesus, though the word 'disciple' would not apply to them.
These [‘sedentary supporters’] are people who did not leave their homes but rather offered Jesus hospitality when he visited their town--people like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), Lazarus (John 12:1-2), Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42; John 11:1-45; 12:1-8), and the anonymous host of the Last Supper (Mark 14:13-15). Decisively, these people are not called ‘disciples’ in our Gospels; they ‘lack the conditions … necessary for being considered disciples’ [citing Meier, p. 80]--a call from Jesus, abandonment of home and family, the risk of danger and hostility. Everyone who was in some way a ‘committed adherent’ is not thereby necessarily called a disciple. (p. 219)
Trebilco believes that it is because Jesus used the term 'disciple' in such a narrow sense that it did not become popular in earliest Christianity to designate believers generally. Paul, for instance, apparently felt it inappropriate to use the term 'disciples' for Christians in Ephesus, or Galatia, or Rome, since they were not literally following Jesus and had not actually left their households and livelihoods. Trebilco goes on to suggest that the term ‘disciple’ was too weak for Paul to express what he meant by being committed to Jesus. Rather, Christ lives in me. Moreover, ‘disciples’ might live separately, but Paul needed to emphasize community, and so family language and ἐκκλησία worked better. Finally, as Jesus was no longer thought of as a διδάσκολος (never used of him outside the Gospels), so his adherents were not thought of as disciples.

The usage in Acts is owing to Luke's theological program to show continuity between the earliest church and the time period of Jesus. Trebilco also sees various indications in the Gospels--at least, Matthew, Luke, and John--that the Evangelists wished for Christians in their own day (a generation or more after the time of Jesus) to think of themselves and call themselves 'disciples'. This is most clear with the broadening of the term 'disciple' in Luke 6:17; 19:37, the use of the verbal form in Matt 28:19 (cf. 13:52; 27:57), and the very different way of defining 'discipleship' in John.
So, although μαθηταί in John 1:35-51 are called by Jesus to ‘follow me’, and they do this literally (e.g., John 1:37; 2:12; 3:22), in some passages in the Gospel being ‘disciples’ is defined more broadly so that it involves other things that are not tied to itinerancy (such as ‘continuing in my word’, loving one another and being loved by Jesus) or in fact to being present with the historical Jesus and so can apply to a larger group. (p. 241)
Mark is the only Gospel for which it is not clear that he wants his readers/hearers to think of themselves as ‘disciples’, though Mark 13:37 implies that Mark wanted his audience to put themselves in the place of Jesus' disciples and recognize that (some of) the teachings delivered to the original disciples also applied to the later church. 

Trebilco then goes one step further, into the Apostolic Fathers to see if anyone at that time had started using the term 'disciples' for Christians generally. The terms μαθητής and μαθητεύω are absent from the Apostolic Fathers except for Ignatius (noun 9x, verb 4x) and The Martyrdom of Polycarp (noun 2x). Ignatius is especially interesting because several times he links discipleship to martyrdom (his own), thus reflecting the ‘cross-bearing’ sayings in the Gospels and perhaps Luke 14:27. But Ignatius can also use the noun for all Christians. The same is true, later, for Justin (p. 245 n. 213). So Ignatius re-introduces the term as a general one for Christians perhaps having picked up on this theme in the Gospels. But he is the only one at this early time.