Showing posts with label Old Testament. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Old Testament. Show all posts

Monday, 17 June 2013

Commentary and Exegesis of the Bible: Comments on Methodology

Applying one's own method of interpretation ("hermeneutic") to the biblical texts will allow the interpreter to make the Bible say anything. Did the Bible predict the Chernobyl disaster and subsequent poisoning of rivers, seas and oceans? Some make Revelation 8:11 to be such a prediction when it reads:

A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter. (Revelation 8:11)
[Note: Wormwood in Russian and Ukrainian is Chernobyl.]

 Others use numerology to make the number 666 to be about the Pope, ironically using a title that has not been used by him. Still others read into the text any number of anachronisms - my point is, very often people read the Bible with a hermeneutic that suits them.

I have already begun the rather long task of writing my thoughts on the Bible, but it seems an important practical preliminary has been missed: what exactly am I going to write about? And the even more fundamental problem: how am I meant to read it?

The reading plan I have endeavoured to follow has a roughly linear approach, and so I shall try and write down the storyline, so to speak, of revelation in my Old Testament readings, at the same time reading the New Testament starting from the most Jewish text (gospel according to St Matthew) through the epistles of St Paul and going on to a later text with more marked gentile readers (gospel according to St John, although to some extent also St Luke's account), culminating, after reading the other epistles and gospels, with Revelation, for which I will need a solid grounding in Old Testament themes, imagery and metaphor. But I also want to rediscover Scripture, so it will not do to read the text as a Christian from the start: I want to understand the text as it sought to be understood. So historical and cultural considerations become very important.

"Understand the text as it sought to be understood", I wrote. Other ways of expressing this ideology of interpretation include "reading according to genre" and "historical-grammatical method." Trying to understand the text by asking what the author intended to convey is a very important starting point, but I think it falls short of the completeness of what the Bible says, and may even lead into serious errors. When Moses powerfully asserted the shema, "Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4), did he deny the trinity? Absolutely not. Did he mean to convey that God is unity and not trinity, or any other number? That is a reasonable reading of the text by the historical-grammatical method. The problem, then, is that this method seems to assume that the author has absolutely no misconceptions about what they are writing down - we say that all our theologies are probably wrong to some degree, but for the biblical authors we assert hidden inerrancy of belief, even.

It is possible that the New Testament authors have such inerrancy of belief, at least in the area they write on. After all, they have received the fullness of revelation, the Word made flesh. The Old Testament authors seem to harbour subtly erroneous theology, even if it only comes through in "how the text feels."

Note: additional to the previous comment, I would point out the odd way in which the Old Testament is used in the New - seemingly not by historical-grammatical methods. See "Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away."

Reading of documents such as Dei Verbum and Divino Afflante Spiritu would be very helpful, but I have to carry on for a little longer without reading them. In the mean time, here are some useful guidelines I have given myself:

 - Reading with eyes of faith: without faith, any reading of the Scripture has the danger of becoming too cerebral, too academic or too intellectual.
 - Reading within the community of believers: without that community, one falls into the problem of "spiritual but not religious" as outlined by James Martin SJ here, my point concerning particularly: "Religion, said (Isaac) Hecker, helps you to ‘connect and correct.’ You are invited into a community to connect with one another and with a tradition. At the same time, you are corrected when you need to be."
 - Reading within the tradition: closely linked to both the previous two, but this goes beyond them. Tradition has two meanings, which I think are useful to distinguish, within the church: one is "sacred tradition" and it refers to the revelation made manifest in Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate, but not expressed in Sacred Scripture. Essentially, this is the collection of oral traditions and words preached to them by Jesus' disciples - of which we have ample references in the Bible. The other tradition that I have distinguished, although it is not really separate, is what I call "living tradition" - it is the build-up of insights and knowledge gained over centuries of Spirit-filled Christians, many of whom are now saints in the Church Triumphant.
 - Reading within the cultural and historical context of the time: that is, reading the text trying to avoid reading into the text anachronisms.
 - Reading within the age after the fullness of revelation in the Word made flesh: this point is why the previous one is not the only principle in interpreting the Bible. What I mean is, reading the text with a christological key, understanding the Scriptures as revealing Christ.

With this foundation I have sketched, I am now comfortable going on to further write up reflections.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Preliminaries to the Study of the Pentateuch

There are about a thousand different issues that need to be thought through in the texts of the first five books of the Bible, and they start popping up from the very first verse. Christians in particular can have a really difficult time going through the Old Testament because we are exceedingly unaccustomed to the kind of literature it has - narrative, not didactic material.We try to get the text to answer the question "how does this apply to me?" and can get into some knots, jumping over flaming hoops backwards to try and get an "application." That's not to say there is no application question to be asked - it is simply going to be found in a manner quite different to how one would find "what St Paul is telling us," were we to read a Pauline epistle.

The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible are traditionally ascribed to Moses, although scholars mostly agree now that this idea of authorship is somewhat outdated [1], and other theories have taken its place. The most prominent of these is a four-source theory, that says that the Pentateuch is made up of four sources labelled J, E, P, and D. I do not speak ancient Hebrew (in any of its forms), I am not a Hebrew Bible scholar, and so I cannot truly comment on the merits of this theory. Nonetheless, I wish to point out that the final editors of these texts (according to one version of the theory, the writers of the priestly source were the ultimate redactors) had a theological point to make, and that these texts do not read as a poorly made collage of different sources. Instead of trying to pick apart which source is which, it is of far more benefit to Christians to understand the richly textured world of the final product - all the while understanding that there is not one author. This point is readily understood, since we are accustomed to saying things like "John and Paul use that word differently" or "James means something different by 'justified'" - we know that words can be built up to have different meanings in materials from different authors, and it is this point I wish to emphasize from the JEPD theory. We will understand the text differently -ultimately, more fully - if we grasp that passages where the Hebrew word "YHWH" denotes God, and others where it is "Elohim" that is used for him, really do have a subtly different focus. Yet although we distinguish between Paul and John, Matthew and Luke, and all the rest of them, we Christians ought not fall into the trap of saying "I am a Pauline Christian", or others "I am a Johannine Christian", or even "I am a Jesus Christian" (meaning they adhere strongly to one or more of the gospel accounts, or epistles). To do so would be to have picked apart the Bible too much for any spiritual use. Such a fragmented Bible may be of interest to the scholars, but to the Christian, it profits little.

So those two vital points must be made before considering the Old Testament, but the Pentateuch in particular - that it is of a genre largely unused in the New Testament, and that, for the Pentateuch, one person's pen did not write the whole. One last point which seems at times forgotten is that these books are written in a historical and cultural context which is entirely different to ours. Some of the ideas which to them appeared self-evident will be exceedingly difficult for us to grasp, their questions will be totally distinct to those we might ask. So the last point is this: we must ask the text what information it wishes to convey, and not demand it tell us what it does not contain. To do so, we ought to consider the audience, the culture, the time and the place of its writing. Armed with these preliminaries, we may now go on to Genesis.

[1] Not to say all old things are wrong, which seems to be the implication of this expression. I mean simply that uniquely Mosaic authorship is the traditionally held dogma which is now viewed with as having a certain naïveté these days, now that we know significantly more. This still does not rule out Mosaic authorship, particularly as it is sometimes seen as heroic to doubt religious things which rest on much stronger evidence than more secular beliefs.

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Immoral Argument against the Old Testament

The core question of ethics, "what ought one do?" is one of the foundational questions of philosophy. Christianity seems to get ethics from the Bible, but is it really a good source? If one looks at the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, then it may seem very plausible. Yet the earliest gentile Christians realized that it was not quite so simple - they were going to have to contend with the seemingly abhorrent actions committed by Israel, codified into Mosaic Law and commanded by God. Can an argument from the immorality of the Hebrew Bible suffice to reject the Bible as authoritative on matters of morality?

Allow me first to bring up some of this "evidence". From things Israel committed, see Numbers 31
where Moses commands the Israelites (it can be reasonably argued from verse 7 that God was the one who really commanded, but it is possible that the brutality was not God's - in this instance) to destroy the Midianites, and then Moses complains further when the Israelites have not killed every woman. These Midianite women and the men (referred to as boys in the passage) are to be put to death. The virgins, however, are kept as plunder "for themselves".

If the ownership of women seems unlawful to you, then this only complicates matters, as the law of Moses clearly speaks of women as property[1], for instance, in Exodus 22:16-17. Christians can speak of Jesus abolishing this law all they like, but the gospel according to St Matthew is insistent on the fact that Jesus' role was fulfilment, not abolishment - and if the sinless man fulfils it, then the Mosaic law must be the standard of morality to judge sin by. Furthermore, if Christians are adamant that Jesus actions mean we can ignore the law of Moses, why does St Paul refer to it as good and holy? (see: Romans 7:12)

One final piece of evidence: God's own explicit commands. Where better than the genocide of Joshua, commanded in Deuteronomy 7? I take this last instance to be common enough knowledge, and if not, then Deuteronomy is clear enough.

Now comes the logic part. It seems to be the case that these have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, about compassion on loving on another - but they do, for Jesus claims to be the son of the God of Israel and no other. The modus ponens argument I suggest is as follows:

1. To commit or command the actions listed above is immoral. (P implies Q - commanding these actions implies that the commander is immoral)
2. God commands the actions listed above. (P: God does indeed command these actions)
3. Therefore, God is immoral. (Q: therefore, by modus ponens, God is immoral)

The logic of this statement is valid, but one may also attack the truth of the premises. Some Christians reject the first premise, saying that it is not in all times, cultures and places immoral to kill others or enslave them. Some say that it may be for most, but not for God, because God can do whatever he likes. Phrased in a more sophisticated manner, God has no moral obligations, as nothing is above God to impose them.

Very well, but that neither seems biblical nor does it seem to bode well in philosophy, either. If God does not, by his very own righteous nature, impose standards on his own actions, then how does he impose standards on ours? Where does this standard come from in the Christian view, if not from God's own essence? Either we propose an authority above God from which morality emanates, thereby constraining God, or we reject this and propose that the standard is, in fact, from within God and then he must have moral obligations; to himself.

But the second premise can also be challenged. Is biblical infallibility a terribly out-dated doctrine that ought to be left aside? It would certainly be helpful to reject it at times like these! Or at least, do we really need to take things so literally, word-for-word true, leaving aside the human element inherent in it?

In fact, I would opt for something along the lines of the latter. There are however, problems with this view, and there exist tensions which I am not wise enough to solve. Succinctly, the most crucial is that the New Testament writers all valued the Old Testament very highly, if not as inerrant. For some more discussion on this topic, see Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away.

[1] It has come to my attention that the Roman Catholic Church actually (quite prudently in my opinion) has the decalogue (10 Commandments) arranged in a different way. These commandments are numbered 10, but there are in fact 13 "you shall not"s, and so it falls upon the translators to combine them to make 10. Catholics combine the "first two" and separate wives from property, avoiding this problem.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Does the Old Testament provide an argument against Christian belief?

Let me take a moment to explain the title - most people do not speak Latin, and even fewer (although I admit, I have not checked the statistics) have taken a class in formal logic. The modus ponens is a form of logical argument which is so good (or old) that it was given a Latin name. It has a brother, the modus tollens, which is basically the reverse.

Modus ponens means "way that affirms by affirming" and it has a formal statement in terms of P and Q (which you can find on the wikipedia page), but it basically says that if some proposition definitely entails another proposition, but that second proposition is false, then the original one is false also. For example:

If I always have a cold during winter, and I do not have a cold, it follows that it is not winter, by modus tollens.

How does this apply to Christianity? A few days ago I wrote a post entitled "Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away", and although I tried to simultaneously point out why it cannot be ignored and why it cannot be taken at face value...some things just seem obvious. I can imagine that with some form of Old Testament authority in mind, one can construct at least three types of modus ponens or modus tollens arguments: 

1) Moral
2) Scientific
3) Historical

Now, all three will need to be examined individually by each Christian (when actually formulated, of course). Anyone who is going to consider the Bible as a source of information about God will have to wonder about the arguments against it at some point if they are to be rational beings. I shan't formulate them now because I want you to think for yourself whether there is anything in the Bible that could disprove its validity. I can think of at least a few contenders.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away

Two days ago I wrote some "fairly unorthodox" (among Christians) views on the Bible - I used it as it can undeniably be taken; a historical document. Unfortunately, although some early Christians (sometimes called Marcionites, after Marcion, who had this goal) tried to get rid of the Old Testament as distinctly human, if we are to grant Jesus authority, then we must grapple with how he uses the Old Testament. It cannot be ignored easily.

The most common argument however, is not from Jesus' use, but from St Paul's letter to Timothy. In it is the famous verse (2 Timothy 3:16-17): "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." It would perhaps be nice to say this includes the New Testament, but given the context of the preceding verses, it is clear Paul speaks of the Old Testament (the only sacred texts he would have been able to study in his childhood). We see that Paul and Jesus, as well as many others, have a high regard for the Hebrew Bible - but what use do they make of it? This is the crux of the matter. How should Christians today understand and apply these Jewish texts?

Although Jesus' regard for Scripture is often cited as evidence by literalists and inerrantists, Jesus does not seem to take the Hebrew Bible literally in the sense that it is used today. The people that are meant to be inspired by God to write the Biblical documents use it in an odd way. I shall cite some uses from the gospel according to St Matthew, because it is the most Jewish. They are not exhaustive, and I recognize that often the Old Testament is used as we would expect it to be.
  • Matthew 1:23. This is a quotation from Isaiah 7:14, and unless one looks up the source, it may seem convincing. But upon opening the book of Isaiah at chapter 7, we see that this does not appear, in context, to be about the coming of the Messiah. The Messianic prophecy does not come until later in that book. The writer of this gospel has taken clear poetic license to quote this verse.
  • Matthew 2:15. This is from Hosea 11:1, but in context, this again is a reference to something different. In Hosea, God personifies Ephraim (Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel) as his son. It does not seem to be the case that Hosea spoke of Jesus. The author has taken a liberty here.
  • Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here Jesus takes it upon himself to deepen the severity of the Law, and in one section (5:38-48), he even overrides and changes it! The first case is with the so-called law of talion: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" - Jesus then says no! Do not resist an evil person (which is the same as saying, do not take his eye for yours, or his tooth for yours). If he strikes you on the cheek, do not strike back, but instead, offer the other! This change of the law may seem to be more moral or noble, but there is (almost) no denying it is a change.

    However, the next bit of law he changes is even more startling, because it appears far more clearly to be a contradiction: "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Now, the spirit of the idea of staying well away and uninvolved with enemies is clear from the surrounding passages of Leviticus 19, but "hate your enemy" is not stated verbatim there, whereas "love your neighbour" is.
  • Matthew 19. This passage on divorce uses Genesis, where the supposed "first couple" appear. It is used at times to prove Jesus took Genesis 1 as a literal account of history and science, as well as to verify the historicity of the figure of Adam. But Jesus does not, in fact, do any such thing. Jesus gives as the reason for not divorcing that "in the beginning they were made male and female" (which is a fact, as far as anyone can tell, since Homo Sapiens have always been divided by sex) and then continues "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh" (which is the quotation). Here note that this cannot be about Adam and Eve as a literalistic reading of the passage would give us. Adam and Eve had no parents, and they were one flesh quite literally, in that one was made from the other - they cannot, therefore, "become" one flesh. They already are.
I hope it is clear now that very often the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is used in ways we do not expect. Yes, Jesus has the authority to add his own - but see how this is understood best as the finality of revelation in Jesus. The authors of the New Testament use the Old in ways that are unexpected - so above all, we must take humility in how we interpret it.