Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Apocrypha: Tobit

November 11, 2019

I’m staking my claim here and now: in the unlikely event I ever form a band, its name will be Tobit’s Dog.

The dog is one of the more fascinating elements of this apocryphal book, the more so because of the superfluousness of his presence.  He’s mentioned only twice in the book – as a journey is undertaken and then again as it is completed.  Some suggest the dog is an angel, an answer to a father’s prayer for angelic companionship and protection for his son and his fellow traveler (5:17).  If this is the intended meaning, it is not without irony that this angelic canine is all but ignored and invisible to everyone in the story but the reader/hearer.

Tobit is basically a story about a young man (Tobias) who undertakes a journey at his father’s (Tobit) request, to retrieve a sum of money Tobit entrusted to a friend earlier.  Tobias is accompanied on his journey by the angel Raphael, though Tobias and everyone else but the reader/hearer is unaware of this identity until towards the end of the story.   Along the way, Tobias acquires a wife, dispels a demon, and finally upon return provides a curative for Tobit’s blindness.

But frankly, the dog is the most curious part of the story.

This story is not well constructed or well told.  It lacks the tight narrative style of Ruth.  It is interspersed with moral exhortations clearly contradicted (in the temporal sense) by the actual story itself.  Tobit is a minor character with superhuman holiness – which is rewarded only by blindness, poverty, and suffering.  This despite repeated claims throughout the story that God rewards his faithful and preserves them from all harm.  And while this is shown to be true in the end, I doubt many people would consider eight years of blindness much of a divine reward.

Characters are perfunctory and one-dimensional.  Events are laid out in barebones fashion without any sense of real drama or uncertainty.  There is little to nothing in this story that links it to anything else in the Old Testament, and worse still, there are aspects to it that stand in contradiction to the rest of the Old Testament (such as Raphael’s ‘magical’ solution to driving a demon away).  As a moral tale, it is flat and uninteresting despite  the possibility of a great deal of good dramatic (or even darkly comedic) circumstances.

Frankly I don’t see the point in recommending this as reading to someone, let alone debating whether it should be a part of the Biblical canon.  While there’s the potential for  harm here (magical solutions, curious portrayals of angels and demons, etc.), it offers nothing not better conveyed by other books of the Old Testament.  It echoes Job and Ruth and other stories in Scripture but in a far reduced capacity and beauty.

This book was treated as canonical by Christians as early as the 4th century and confirmed in that status by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in the 16th century.  However the Jewish people do not acknowledge it as part of their Scriptures (the Old Testament).  It is presumed to have been written not much earlier than the 3rd century BC, and perhaps as late as the close of the 2nd century BC.

But that dog.  That dog is a curiosity!

 

The Apocrypha: The Wisdom of Solomon

November 5, 2019

This  is generally understood not to have been written by Solomon, despite sections in Chapters 7 & 8 which imply this.  Rather, it is likely written by a Jewish person, perhaps from Alexandria, familiar with the political upheavals in Egypt as a result of the conquest of Alexander the Great and the generals who divided his kingdom up after his death.  Some of these political upheavals had very negative effects for the people of Judea.  Jerome credited Philo of Alexandria, who was an older contemporary of Jesus, with producing this work but there is no objective evidence by which to ascertain this is true.  It was written originally in Greek, not Hebrew, and owes a great deal to Hellenistic literary techniques and forms.  Luther didn’t see it as canonical but viewed it as worthwhile reading.

I have no doubt saying this work does not belong in the Biblical canon.   Frankly, it reads to me a lot like the Qur’an does – a whole lot of time spent telling you why you have to listen carefully to what it says, but very little substance communicated.  Warnings and threats to those who don’t heed, but then no real directives.  Much of it has nothing to do with wisdom at all, and rather is an extensive retelling of the Exodus from Egypt under Moses.

There are some things of note in this book.  It clearly teaches the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body (3:1-9).  Chapter 5 has echoes of Ephesians 6 and the armor of God.  There are also sections that echo Isaiah 44 and ridicule of those who make idols from the same materials they fashion plates out of.  There is an interesting reference to a Babylonian rabbinic tradition which stated the manna in the desert tasted different to each of the Israelites, depending on their particular tastes, so thorough was the love and provision of God (16:21).

Overall, this book doesn’t add anything to Scripture, and it repeats at length quite a bit of it.  It’s not necessarily a bad book, but I certainly don’t see it on par with the book of Proverbs or other wisdom literature within the canonical Old Testament.  I’d much sooner recommend someone read those books than this one.

 

 

More Thoughts on American Christianity

November 4, 2019

Thanks to Bernie (not Sanders!) for forwarding me this opinion article last month.  The author seeks to revisit the common notion of American Christianity’s drastic decline in the past decade and nuance that broad brushstroke description with some points that might alter the overall picture.  He makes three main points:

Lukewarm Christians are falling away in high numbers, but not more committed Christians.  I think this is very true, and I’ve seen other surveys indicating of those who worship at least once weekly, there has been practically no dropoff in numbers or activity over the years.  Hardly surprising.  Those willing to commit on a weekly basis to public worship clearly prioritize their faith and are willing to do so in tangible ways, such as their time allocation.  As Christianity (especially conservative Christianity) continues to become less and less compatible with cultural trends, there will be less and less incentive for nominal Christians to maintain their ties to the Church.

The decline in American Christianity has more to do with Baby Boomers than Millenials.  Also true.  The issues in the Church today began with the Baby Boomers.  They were the ones to first walk away from the faith or at least regular public worship in appreciable numbers, and this only made it easier for subsequent generations to either walk away or never affiliate in the first place.  I’m not sure I would agree with the author’s generalization that church attendance fluctuates by time-of-life.  Statistics seem to indicate that increasingly, those who leave the faith or regular worship as they leave home are not returning later in life.

The decline of American Christianity may be more of a Catholic issue than a Protestant one.  An interesting idea, and one that makes sense in light of the long-running abuses perpetrated, covered-up, revealed, denied, and now being called to account for in the Roman Catholic Church.  But whether or not the decline in affiliation and participation is more Roman Catholic than Protestant is unclear to me.  Definitely non-denominational and Evangelical churches have grown at the expense of more traditional denominational ones,  I still think there’s an overall decline in Protestantism as a whole.

Interesting also are his observations that there is still a strong enough Christian presence in America to forestall for the time being increasingly antagonistic anti-religious or anti-Christian movements and legislation.  Not an entirely optimistic observation, but something to be grateful for while it lasts!

 

The Apocrypha: Judith

November 1, 2019

It’s been on my list for a while to read through the apocryphal books – writings in a sort of limbo, neither uniformly recognized or accepted by the Jewish people, and not uniformly recognized or accepted by Christians.  These books were written in the four centuries between the last of the Old Testament prophets, Malachi, and the time of Jesus and the Apostles.

I’m using this text –  The Apocrypha: The Lutheran Edition With Notes.  As noted in a recent exchange with Doug, a long-time reader, if this meant it was a translation of these books by exclusively Lutheran scholars, it would make me a tad nervous.  But the actual translation is the English Standard Version.  Rather than include these apocryphal books as part of the Lutheran Study Bible – also the ESV translation but with study notes from Lutheran scholars, theologians, and pastors – our publishing house (Concordia Publishing House) opted to publish them separately, in part because modern Lutherans are by and large unfamiliar with and skeptical of these books.

This particular edition includes those apocryphal writings included in the Latin Vulgate of the 4th century, plus three other books – 3 & 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151.  The Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament included  all of the books in this collection with the exception of 2 Esdras.  This collection of apocryphal writings also mirrors the books Luther included with his German translation of the Bible.  So, the apocryphal writings in this collection fall into some broad categories.

The CompositionsJudith, The Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach), Baruch, The Letter of Jeremiah

The Histories 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees

The AdditionsOld Greek Esther, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon

The Prayers and SongsThe Prayer of Azariah, The Song of the Three Holy Children, The Prayer of Manasseh

The Apocryphal Books in Other Christian Traditions1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, 3 Maccabees (Ptolemaika), 4 Maccabees, Psalm 151

This collection has some excellent preface sections which trace both the history of the apocryphal writings in relation to the Christian church, as well as the overall history of the Jewish people from the Persian period which started at the end of the 6th century BC and the Roman Empire which encompasses the New Testament period and beyond.  One thing I was surprised to learn was that the rejection of the apocrypha in Protestant circles is due in large part to the English translation societies of the 19th century.  Up until that point, it was not uncommon to have the apocryphal books published along with the Old and New Testaments.

Prior to this, the Church as a whole seemed to have difficulty deciding if these were inspired sacred texts or not.  The Jews translated them and included them with their Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) but did not count them as canonical – on equal footing with the other 39 books of the Old Testament as Christians know it.

But the apocryphal writings were widely known and even quoted and used by the early Church.  This was likely because the early Church – predominantly Jewish – used the Septuagint, which included the Apocrypha.  As such there are quotations from or allusions to apocryphal writings by many of the Early Church Fathers.  The Apocrypha is considered canonical by both the Eastern Orthodox Communion as well as the Roman Catholic church.  When Luther translated the Bible into German, he collected the Apocrypha into a single section between the Old and New Testaments, as did the King James Translation in 1611.

Confusion is just that, and so I’m skeptical as I begin reading these.  It’s very possible for a writing to be orthodox and helpful but still not the same thing as the inspired Word of God, something the Church has acknowledged since earliest times, but hasn’t always agreed on in application.

Judith is the first book in the collection.  It purports to be a historical account of the deliverance of the people of Judea thanks to the bravery of the woman Judith.  The problem is that it’s obvious from language and other issues that the work was composed (orally or otherwise) far later than this – after the conquests of Alexander the Great and the process of Hellenization which overtook much of the Middle East.  There are also challenges in the historical and other inaccuracies throughout the book (claiming Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Assyria rather than Babylon, claiming an army could travel over 300 miles in three days, etc.).  Also, it has the challenge of glorifying sexual seduction to accomplish the will of God.  Granted, the seduction is never consummated, but it is certainly aimed at as part of an overall deception.

I have a hard time accepting this as a divinely inspired work with these and other issues.  It seems more likely to be a well-intentioned fable, a morality play of sorts exhorting hearers/readers to trust in God rather than man.  As such, the moral of the story is good but don’t see how it is necessary.  It doesn’t add anything to Scripture, either the Old or New Testament.  The theme runs throughout many books in the Bible that are far more reliable in the details they provide. I don’t even find the style to be particularly impressive, and it borrows heavily on styles and motifs found elsewhere in Scripture.  Overall it strikes me as highly derivative.

I’ll review each of the included apocryphal works separately as I finish them.  While I don’t pretend my opinion is in any useful sense authoritative, I’m also not the first person to weigh in with my opinion and so I feel it’s fair game to do so without impugning the canonical books of the Bible, which I do wholeheartedly acknowledge as divinely inspired.

 

Picture Language

October 24, 2019

Here’s a fascinating image gallery of anti-Christian propaganda posters produced during the time of the Soviet Union.  Hopefully it isn’t lost that some of the same caricatures of religion as backwards compared to the progressive movement of the State are being utilized today.

In our own country.

 

Income Disparity!

October 14, 2019

When I was a kid, we couldn’t afford to purchase school lunches.  Every day I brought my lunch to school in a pretty cool lunch box.  My preferred sandwich was peanut butter and jelly.  I ate that pretty much every school day for lunch from as far back as I can remember to sometime probably in late high school when I started working and could afford to – from time to time – eat out.

I never really gave this much thought.  Some people could afford to buy school lunches, just like some people – once we hit junior high and high school age – could afford to buy shakes and french fries and other luxuries for lunch.  It was a reality of my life.  Yes, it meant I wasn’t part of the in crowd (although there were plenty of other, non-economic reasons why I would never be invited into that hallowed clique).  I learned to deal with that.  As generations of kids did before me and after me.

Yet politicians today are outraged that not everyone can afford to buy school lunches.  Or some people sign their kids up for them but then fall behind in their payments, racking up debts with the school.  This has apparently been handled up till now by those children getting a “cheaper, alternative” lunch.  And this stigmatizes them.  They stick out from their peers who can afford the pricier lunches, or can afford to have the luxury of choosing what they want to eat for lunch instead of just having something handed to them.

Note that everyone is getting a lunch.  But some get to choose what they have for lunch while others are denied a choice, or their choice is less desirable.

So our state has decided to eliminate the stigma for these children by assuring that all kids – whether their parents can afford to pay their lunch debts off or not – get the same lunch.  No mention is made in the article about how this decision will be paid for.  I presume it will be paid for with yet another sob-story appeal to the voters about how the school systems can’t make ends meet and need more money in taxes and bonds to ensure all children receive a quality education.

Seems as though education is in order, indeed.

Starting with the hard, cold reality – both present and historical – that some people make more than others.  Some people have more than others.  In my studies of history, this has always been the case.  Even including efforts at socialism and communism in the 20th century, a basic fact of life is that some people are always going to be a little better off than others.  Or a lot.  Whether they’re supposed to be or not.  That’s the way life works.

Yet news stories today present this as though it’s some sort of newly discovered corruption in our society.  Did you know that some people can afford to buy portable generators when faced with possible power outages?  Did you know this is evidence of income disparity?!  Wait – you mean some people live paycheck to paycheck?  How is it that reporters and politicians are so surprised by this?  For pretty much all of my life, myself and the vast majority of people I’ve known live more or less paycheck to paycheck.  We don’t have vast sums of money in the bank.  Sometimes we have a little more.  Sometimes a little less.

But we live in a country founded on the principle that if you worked hard, you could improve your situation.  You might start out with not much, but you could try to do better.  It wasn’t handed to you.  It wasn’t paid for by other people.  But you had the chance to try and improve your lot in life.  Generations of people have done just that.  Millions of people from around the world have undertaken great risk and expense to come to our country because of that principle.  And many, many, many of them have found that principle isn’t just a nice marketing gimmick.  It’s true.  They’re witnesses to it, and that reality is what continues to fuel the desire to come to our country.

That’s not good enough for our politicians, apparently.

Maybe more of them needed to bring their lunches to school.  Maybe more of them needed to deal with the fact that some people don’t eat fancy lunches every day at school.  Some people don’t wear the latest designer fashions to school every day.  Some people aren’t invited to the cool parties and hang out with the popular kids every day.  That income disparity is just one of the pervasive realities of life, and despite good (or bad) intentions to the contrary, is amazingly difficult (or impossible) to eliminate.

Now that lunches are free, I guess we can move on to mandating a fashion fund so kids with parents who can’t afford to shop at all the cool stores aren’t stigmatized by having to wear off-brand clothing.  Maybe another fund to help poor families buy nicer cars so they don’t stand out when they’re dropping off and picking up junior from school.  The list could go on and on.

Life is not fair.  Not in income and not in a stunning variety of other ways.  Kids can be very cruel, it’s true.  And if it isn’t school lunches, it will be something else where they demonstrate this truth generation after generation.

Because the real issue isn’t school lunches or portable generators or even income disparity as a whole.  The real problem, the real root of cruelty and social and economic stratification is sin.  Brokenness that can’t be legislated away.  Sin that can’t be taxed out of existence.  We have to be saved from it, but the government isn’t up to that task.  Never has been.  Isn’t now.  Never will be.  We can seek to make improvements, to be sure.  And I know that good intentions are at the basis of writing about income disparity and trying to give free lunches to everyone.  But what we really need is a God willing to enter into our world to save us from the sin we can’t always see and sometimes don’t want to get rid of, as well as the sin we’d be happy to do without.  Jesus has done this.  My state – or Federal – government can’t.  They can’t fix the level of brokenness that leads to hurt feelings and social stigmatization.  At best, they can try to give away more free lunches.

But that’s something I learned in school as well, along with the fact that some people have more money than others.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch in this world.  Somebody, somewhere, always pays.

Palimpsests

October 10, 2019

In the generally cool category, this article describes the discovery of some surprising things written on parchments, then erased so something else could be written on them instead.  And, we also get a new vocabulary word to describe these parchments – palimpsests!

The idea is that an isolated monastery in Egypt at one point was not able to easily procure fresh parchment, and turned to erasing some existing manuscripts to provide parchment for new copying.  A variety of previous texts have been discovered through the use of specialized cameras and lighting, and some of those texts were previously unknown or written in languages we have few extant examples of.

What a cool use of technology, proving that while we in the digital, Internet age know that nothing really disappears online, it might be true to a certain degree for people 1400 years ago as well.  Fortunately, it appears to all be textual and no compromising, hand-drawn selfies of monks.

Whew.

The article also provides a link to a site where photographs of the overlaid texts can be viewed, which is also very cool.  If my Greek was better, it might be tempting to try some translations of my own, but I’ll leave that to more competent folks!

Book Review: Protestants

August 26, 2019

Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution by Steven Ozment

I was loaned this book, and enjoyed it.  It’s popular currently (and perhaps always) to interpret the past in the light of present.  Perhaps it’s impossible to truly do otherwise to at least some extent, since historians are products of their time even when examining a very different time.

In our current Western culture that devalues and is highly skeptical of Christianity (ironic, given how many people claim to be spiritual), historians have taken to reinterpreting the Reformation not so much as a spiritual matter but a political, social, or economic one.  And while all of those certainly have roles to play, Ozment’s main intent is to demonstrate that it really was first and foremost a spiritual revolution.

To do this Ozment draws from primary source documents – woodblock prints that were popular at the time to quickly summarize and drive home key points, as well as excerpts from letters and other materials written by ordinary people rather than the political and religious movers and shakers.

At times the book can bog down in these references, but overall it moves well and is accessible to a broad range of readers and interests,  whether cultural, historical, or theological.  Ozment’s writing style is engaging throughout.

 

 

 

Acts 16:6-10 and Change

July 23, 2019

By all  accounts it was a successful trip so far.  Wonderful reunions with congregations Paul founded on his first mission trip.  Congregations in Derbe.  Lystra.  Iconium.  Psidian Antioch.  How the Holy Spirit was at work!  How much more might be accomplished!  Plans were made to build on these successes by further mission work in the area to the north.  But such plans came to nothing.

What does it mean to be forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia (v.6) ?  Was it clear to Paul and his associates that this was the case?  Did the Holy Spirit reveal the divine will in this matter?  It would seem not.  They attempted to go to Bithynia and were unable to.  Confusion.  Frustration.  They had the will and the ability, why couldn’t they make good on their plans?  Why did they reach nothing but dead ends despite all the good work accomplished thus far?

More time should probably be given to considering verses six and seven, to the simple statements that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus prevented Paul and his companions from sharing the Gospel in certain areas.  What a strange thought to us today, who are so certain that we control evangelism, we make our plans, we execute them!  Confident that the Holy Spirit desires all to hear and be saved, how can we make sense of the possibility that for the purposes of God, and without conflicting with the reality of a good God who desires that all would be saved, God the Holy Spirit might for his unrevealed reasons frustrate the plans of faithful Christians to share the Gospel with certain others?  I’d argue we can’t, and we don’t even try any more.  But that’s a secondary consideration for me right now.

In the midst of confusion and frustration comes a vision.  More than a dream, perhaps.  Something visible, and something with supernatural overtones.  Paul can see this man.  Perhaps he can hear him as well.  He understands him despite an accent perhaps.  He sees the different clothing.  Somehow Paul understands where this man is from, where this man represents.

Morning comes.  Paul reports his experience to his associates.  Silas.  Timothy.  And based on the sudden change of pronouns in v.10, many presume also Luke himself was there, the author  of the book of Acts.

What to make of it.  The message is clear – an appeal for help in Macedonia.  Moving from the Asian continent to the European continent.  An entirely different arena for sharing the Gospel.  The vision was clear, but what to do about it?

I imagine that the men were hesitant at first.  After all, they’d had such success in the area of what we call Turkey today.  Thriving congregations!  Certainly, they hadn’t been able to travel north as they intended, but surely that would resolve itself in short order and they could continue with their plans.  Surely there were other opportunities closer to hand.  They weren’t doing anything wrong, but what they were doing wasn’t working the way it had previously.  Was it clear to them this vision came from God?  I presume not necessarily, as we’re told in v.10 they concluded it was.  There was some level of analysis, consideration, prayer.  And the result of all those things was a determination that God was behind this and it was time to follow.

Change is hard.  It isn’t what is expected.  It isn’t what is familiar.  Yet small changes can yield incredible results.  A diversion from Asia to Europe – such a small matter in the moment and yet the history of the world is changed no doubt as part of that change.  Would the Holy Spirit still have worked through Paul and his associates if they came to the conclusion that while the vision was interesting, they really were better suited and preferred to stay in Asia?  Of course.  They might have been mistaken, but that certainly wouldn’t have made them bad or evil.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit would have sent a clearer indication of the proper path.  Perhaps He would have worked with them where they were.

It’s good to remember ultimately that the Church claims that God the Holy Spirit is behind everything we do.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t prone to error, it doesn’t mean we don’t interfere.  It doesn’t mean that things are always clear and simple and easy.  But we have to trust the Holy Spirit to work in and through and at times despite us.  And this should foster a level of humility, a willingness to acknowledge our limitations and brokenness and therefore the very real possibility that we might be mistaken.  And it should drive us to hear in others the possible voice of the Holy Spirit, even if we don’t like or agree with what they say.

Change is difficult.  So is staying the course.  Such forks in the road are an opportunity for faith to work itself out in surprising ways.  Not necessarily pleasant ones, but surprising ones, with the trust and confidence that the Holy Spirit is working things out to the glory of God regardless of what is motivating us and our decisions.

Humbling indeed.  But comforting as well.  Sola dei gloria.  Always and in all situations.

 

Book Review: The Best We Could Do

July 8, 2019

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir  by Thi Bui

I received my first graphic novel in late high school or early college, a gift from my best friend.  As a literature junky, I found it interesting, but difficult to consider it literature.  The artwork was good, the story was interesting, but it felt too compacted, too  sparse.

My interest in Vietnam and it’s history began years ago when I was tasked with taking over teaching a course on the Vietnam conflict from a fellow faculty  member.  I did a lot of reading and grew fascinated by the curious role of this country in the larger Cold War maneuverings of China, the United States, and the Soviet Union.  During seminary the field work congregation I served was in the process of attempting to merge with a Vietnamese Lutheran congregation, and I was able to spend time with the several Vietnamese families, second generation folks who came over when their parents fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.  Then in 2016 my wife and I were privileged to visit the country on business and pleasure purposes, and it deepened my appreciation of the beauty of the country and people as well as the complexity of their history, of which the US was only a very small part.

And Vietnamese cuisine is amazing – something that has been on my radar for  the last 20+ years!

So this book was a mixture of interests, memories, and impressions.  While I think it’s a great work, I still don’t know what to make of the graphic novel format.  If I don’t try to think of it as literature, but its own unique  thing, it’s much simpler.  Thi Bui tells a wonderful and at times overwhelming family story, and does so in a way that is compelling both visually and textually.  It is not an easy story, and she doesn’t attempt to reduce it to one, but rather to find a way to live with and in the complexity that is her family and her two countries.

If you’re interested in memoirs, family dynamics, Vietnam or history, this is a very worthwhile read.