Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

Friday, 28 June 2013

The Road From Unbelief

In the British TV show Blackadder Goes Forth, Baldrick asks:

"The way I see it, these days there is a war on, and ages ago there wasn't a war on, right? So, there must have been a moment where there not being a war on went away, right? And there being a war on came along. So what I want to know is, how did we get from one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?"

 That is a very long way of asking how the war started, but in some ways, it's making a more accurate question: because "how did we change states of affairs?" sounds like a process. And a question about the process is exactly the right question for how WWI began.

Similarly, I cannot conceive of my becoming a Christian as anything other than a process. "When and how did you become a Christian?" is a misleading question, since no precise time or methodology can be named, whereas "what process led to your conversion?" is much more answerable.

I was raised atheist in England and Spain, mainly, in a lower middle class household to a Chilean dad and English-Australian mother. The only times religious things that were brought up in my family were a couple of comments made by my dad about some Jehovah Witnesses
[1] that he coached tennis for, some other comments made by him around Christmas time about how Christmas should not be about presents, bringing up how Jesus was humble and not materialistic (which led to going to a midnight church service a couple of times, but I do not remember anything from there), a storybook of David and Goliath[2], and probably a few other times that have slipped my memory. The point is, it was not a religious, or anti-religious, upbringing. It was a caring, secular environment.

Having never been taught or told anything religious, I nonetheless developed into quite the atheist. Particularly in Spain, my friends were all atheists with two exceptions (perhaps three, but the third was an atheist in terms of daily life and attitudes), even though many of them had been through confirmation and first communion, and all except for one had been baptized. I knew there were religious people around, I just didn't have any contact with them. I thought religion was a childish thing that humankind had inherited from its history. In my diary from when I was fifteen I wrote (this is dated 13-XI-2009 (Friday) at 8:52 AM in my Lengua or Language and Literature class):

"God. The idea of god is as old as mankind. Since the beginning, God or Gods have been used to explain things without explanation.

For example, the Ancient Greek and Roman Gods. Zeus was the god of lightening and thunder. Storms of this kind were chalked up to divine intervention.

Monotheism is far newer. Most religions practiced in modern times have only one God, although by different names:
In Islam, it's Allah.

In Christianity, it's just "God."
In Judaism, it's God, or Yahweh, the Hebrew word.

All these religions have a lot more in common than commonly thought.

The Holy book of the Jews, the Torah, and other scriptures (they have 5 books) makes up the old Testament of the Bible, which is the Christian Holy Book. What does that mean? It means that Jews abide by the same rules as Christians do.

In fact, Christianity proceeds from Judaism. It was formed by a break-away from Jewish beleifs, and Christ himself, prophet of Christianity, was a Jew.

So how did Christianity develop to almost "rival" Judaism, when All The Bible comes from the Jews.

Well, I think it's for the same reason the Church of England, and the Protestant ways, broke from the Roman-Catholic Church.

It brings power and individuality to a religion. If you follow a certain idea, you are bound by it. However, if you create your own ideals, based on another, you are free to develop it, and that means power.


I went on in that entry in my diary to articulate some of the differences in ideology between Christianity and Islam, and how it reflects in the judicial practice of the culture. There are factual errors (the Torah has 5 books, but the Old Testament has more), theologically dubious claims (that Jews and Christians have the same rules) and errors in spelling, but this was my understanding of religion: that God was originally an explanation for phenomena and the newer monotheism was more sophisticated (though still nonsense) where people believed some particular book was holy. I also thought it was weird that people fought so much when they mostly believed the same thing. In general, by the time I turned sixteen, I was decidedly anti-religion.

So how I became a theist, and then a Christian, seems like a very important question to me. What led to my conversion?

The reasons why I suddenly became more critical of my beliefs - which I assumed to be the rational ones, as so many still believe unquestioningly (see here for more on that) - and think about reality, as well as my place in it, is unclear. The usual story I tell has to do with how I enjoyed physics so much that I couldn't explain it, and found my love for it unreasonable, leading me to question whether there was any value in studying physics, but I think that's just an illustration of various things that were bubbling under the surface. The reality is, I'm not quite sure why I decided to think more. But I did.

To avoid being accused of falling into the cultural religion, I explored Islam first. Though some of the ideas seemed reasonable, I did not find the system of belief compelling, the manner in which it arose to be endearing or the treatment of aspects of reality as illuminating, that is, that it seemed more like man-made theological philosophy with a holy book than the divine revelation to man. At some point during this time, however, I began to find it reasonably tenable that God should exist. A prime-mover God, but God nonetheless. I still find the first-cause argument compelling, and the ontological (modal) argument to be a very interesting one for agnostics, though I am unsure whether I should believe in modality or not, and the first premise has the potential for a fallacy of equivocation between two ideas of possibility (known sometimes as epistemic possibility and broadly logical possibility).

It may never cease to amuse me how I got on to the Christian faith. I was told that to completely disprove the biggest religion in the world, and be able to ridicule all the adherents I had ever known and would meet, I just had to look into history and show that the resurrection never happened. Christianity hinges on this one fact, so my first thought was "brilliant, that will be quick, people do not come back from the dead." Which is mostly true, but as I trawled scholarship and the evidence, I became convinced that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead.

Now, may I point out something important: it is not proven historically that Jesus rose from the dead. Ancient historical studies do not work in terms of proof - only mathematics and logic do that. Newly found belief in God meant that I did not think such an occurrence was impossible, though indeed, to assume it is impossible for someone to be raised from the dead would be to beg the question on the matter of the historicity of the resurrection. I find the resurrection to be the most rationally compelling explanation for the facts, and I have not got philosophical barriers to considering it an option.

To end, there are notable but rare examples of people who believe in the resurrection but are not Christians, but for the most part, to believe in the resurrection is to be Christian of some sort. Essentially, this was the beginning of my being Christian: believing in the resurrection from the dead, heeding therefore what I thought Jesus would have said (which meant applying historical criticism to the gospel accounts), and finally ending up believing that the Scriptures were a reasonably solid thing, at least the New Testament, which I had then read. It can be said that I at least believed the first part of the Apostle's creed (the part in bold):

"I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell and on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty. He shall come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting."

The second part of this four part series can be found here.

[1] Perhaps because of this, my dad does not quite believe me when I say that virtually all Christians believe Jesus is fully God.
[2] In my memory of this book, it was a completely secular story about how underdogs can win - but since we still own it, I checked and it does in fact reflect the faith of David coming against the Philistine Goliath.

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.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Historical Argument Against the Bible

Before I commence this post, I think it prudent to make clear two crucial things. First, I am a follower of Christ Jesus because I looked into history to try and show that he did not rise from the dead, and found that I was wrong. Secondly, I want to affirm the role that Biblical documents have played in history - from discovering monuments in Siloam, the pool of Bethesda or any other number of matters in history, many of these documents have helped historians better understand the ancient world.

So, having said that, I now want to try and formulate a historical argument against it. There are, I think, at least two ways of doing this: first, pointing out that historically, two things that are described in the Bible could not both have happened, and secondly, that what the Bible says disagrees with what happened in reality.

Both of these are possible, but the latter is more difficult to do in a blog post, and I would say that it is far less convincing, since it is difficult to know things with certainty when they happened so long ago. Without further ado, I want to mention two bits of evidence of the former sort:

  • The differing accounts of the conversation with Pilate.
  • The differing accounts of the apostle Paul's journeys after conversion.
The first one I believe is quite simple, because in three of the four canonical gospels, the synoptic gospels, there is not very much talking, yet in bet. See Mark 15:1-6, for instance, where the only words Jesus says are "You say so." Matthew 27:11-14 records a similar encounter.  Luke 23:1-7 seems to suggest that there is a bit more conversation, since the previous two said quite clearly that Jesus gave no more replies, but when Pilate asks Jesus if he was a Galilean, it appears Jesus may have responded. Perhaps - the text does not say Jesus speaks, but only that Pilate "learned that he was under Herod's jurisdiction."

John's gospel has a bit more of a to-and-fro between Pilate and Jesus, captured in John 18:28-38. Here, Jesus is much more talkative, saying such memorable lines as "my kingdom is not from here," and here he admits more clearly who he is: "You say that I am king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." to which Pilate responds, equally memorably: "What is truth?".

So which one is it? Now, what is interesting is that these are actually two independent sources (because the synoptic gospels are related in some way, but John is distinct) that there really was a sort of sentencing by Pilate, and indeed, there exists at least one extra-biblical document that corroborates this. Historically speaking, this means that this encounter probably occurred in some form - but which? This is not a question with an easy answer, at least not from a historian's point of view.

Next, and for me more crucially, is the missionary movements of Paul and the discrepancies between Acts of the Apostles and Galatians. Here, I struggle to find some story that could magically tie them together, and even if I could, it would probably have to be more complicated than accepting one account or the other. I shall let you, the reader, attempt to figure this out. The relevant passages are Galatians 1:15-22 and Acts 9 (and onwards, but the point can be made just from Acts 9) - check for yourself.

Very simple, the modus ponens into which I have been putting the arguments is this:

1.If the Bible contradicts itself (or contradicts with reality), then it is errant.
2. The Bible does contradict itself.
3. Therefore, it is errant.

I feel pretty unorthodox writing that, but I think the premises are true and the argument is valid, so I cannot do otherwise.

Finally, then I have come to an argument which I think is quite solid. If the Bible contradicts itself, by the way, it follows that at most one of the events could have occurred, so it is also in dis-accord with reality. What can I say to that? One thing to do could be say that one ought not to believe a word of it. Another thing one might do is limit the scope of the Bible to some smaller range of topics, such as "matters relevant to salvation". However, I would want to say something else, improving on the latter option:

The Sacred Scriptures are not quite the same as a history book, or a scientific manual, and it is crucial to the study of the Bible to realize that. So when one author makes a point in one way and another makes a similar point that seems to contradict (such as "where did Paul really go?, "what did Jesus really say?" or any number of other ones). What difference does it make where Paul went, really? The divine truths are equally accessible to us either way, and if Acts gets some of the journey details chronologically out of order, then so be it! [It could be the case that Galatians gets it wrong, but since that is a Pauline epistle, one would then have to infer Paul had gone senile, or was lying.]

To end, I quote the relevant bit of Dei Verbum:

"the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation."

Friday, 25 January 2013

Why assume the Bible?

In the last entry, I just took the Christian tradition of thinking that the Bible is authoritative for granted. Most people raised Christian probably have a fairly easy time assuming Biblical authority, but I do not. So how do I understand the Bible?

Starting with the Old Testament, we see the ancient Israelites struggling to understand God. From Genesis, where ancient near Eastern myths were altered in light of the theological truths to be explored (monotheistic theology, a perfectly moral God, with omnipotence) it is clear that the Jews (not yet with this name) were having a very hard time coming to grips with how a perfect God could do any of the things that appear so readily, so abundant, but also quite decidedly bad. The beginning (well, Genesis 2-3, since Genesis 1 is about there being only one God, one Creator and all other things being simply created) shifts the blame from divine shoulders to human ones, and at the end, in Genesis 50, Joseph explains how the evils of being almost killed, then sold in to slavery, ultimately resulted in God's plan being fulfilled - "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."

On and on we see Israel gaining understanding of the divine. Yes, God does seem to play a large role in this, and a lot of the Old Testament, though not a majority, contains alleged quotations. Mixed in with all the divine revelation, however, is a very human tone, and very human passages. God's word? In part, but not the whole.

"Well, you can say that, but it just means you are becoming judge over Holy Scripture, keeping what you want and disregarding what you do not!", I hear some people exclaiming. This is a mostly baseless claim. If I were a Jew, then it would surely be a very pointed comment, but the Bible is about revealing God, and Christians understand the God was ultimately and with finality revealed in person, in the flesh. We now have the complete revelation without the noise of human revisionism.

The other side of the spectrum might then exclaim "Ah, but who knows whether Jesus actually said these things?", and the answer is simple. We do. Not because of some pragmatic "God would not leave us alone in the dark" argument, but because of the study of history, and how that shows beyond reasonable doubt that the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are quite reliable as historical documents at the very least. We can have great assurance that, for the most part, Jesus of Nazareth did say the things that are collected there, and if you are a Christian, then most likely you can join me in also believing that many of the miracles (though perhaps not all) were, indeed, done by Jesus, God the Son, whilst he walked the Earth.

 I may, at some time, address some popular arguments for Biblical inerrancy, but this at least is clear: as critical historians, we can figure out a lot of what Jesus said. And from there, if one is (or decides to become) a Christian, we can live our lives in light of that.