Friday, November 30, 2012

Mark Noll's Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind

Those who enjoyed Mark Noll's insightful book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, will probably be interested in his new book, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. It is a very different kind of book for some obvious reasons.The former book is a discussion of what Noll saw as the sorry state of Evangelical intellectual life in America. It was a critique. In the latter book Noll lays out a program for reinvigorating Evangelical intellectual life. It is much easier to write a critique than lay out a program for improvement. Noll is to be congratulated for taking on the harder challenge. I think, however, that Noll's program is doomed to failure because he focuses on the wrong things.

Noll takes as his starting point the creeds. This assumes that the fourth and fifth centuries are the high-water mark for Christian scholarship and thinking, and that the creeds are the high point of Christian thought. This is hardly the case, as anyone who has read Ramsay MacMullen's Voting About God In Early Church Councils knows only too well.

I think that Noll should have started with the words of Jesus himself.
Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. (Matthew 22:35-38).
Clearly serving God with our minds is a commandment and failure to use the minds that God gave us is a sin. That seems the proper starting point.

There is much in Noll's focus on centering our learning on Jesus Christ that has merit. But I would rather focus on the Jesus of the scriptures rather than the Jesus depicted in man-made uninspired creeds. In his book Noll makes his strongest case from the Bible rather than the creeds.

Readers of Noll's book should be warned that much of the case that Noll is making rests upon philosophical categories that he does not explain very well (and which do not appear in the subject index). Nevertheless, he has some important insights and it might be worth wading through the philosophical mire to find them.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Do My Homework for Me!

On occasion I get requests from students at other institutions who want me to do their homework for them. I try to explain to them that they need to do their own homework. They do not want to read anything, they just want me to give them the answer over the phone or in a four sentence email. Please, they beg, just give me your opinion on this subject. At that point I usually need to explain the difference between facts and opinions: Asking a dozen Egyptologists how they think King Tutankhamun died provides one with a dozen opinions but no facts.

I received a phone call this afternoon from an anti-Mormon in Idaho who is trying to develop a new program for his sect to witness to Mormons (more here), but he was trying to hide his identity and his purpose. He wanted me to discuss a complex subject in just seven minutes, and furthermore he refused to read anything. I told him that he needed to do his homework first, and like many young students he insisted that getting an expert to tell him what to think was doing his homework. After all, he had already consulted with an atheist expert to tell him what to think about Mormons. (Would he listen to this same atheist if he were to tell him what to think about Evangelical Christians? I happen to have heard what this particular atheist thinks about that subject.)

I am hardly the first to notice this phenomenon, although I have some other comments on it buried in here. One of the best books on the subject is Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation. Wait a minute, someone interested might actually have to read something. Perhaps they can get someone else to read it for them and just tell them what to think.

Michael Barone on Higher Education

The noted political analyst, Michael Barone looks at two recent books on higher education. He makes a quotable observation about university administrators:
The willingness to lie systematically seems to be a requirement for such jobs.
That is probably painting with too broad a brush. I do not run in administrative circles so I do not know, but I am sure there must be some honest administrators still in the system somewhere.

C. S. Lewis on Hell

This is a favorite C. S. Lewis quote (one of many) that came up in conversation with a friend today:
My symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern. (From the preface to The Screwtape Letters.)
She can relate. She immediately named the one she was currently dealing with. I wish her the best and am sorry I am unable to help her.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Richard G, Wilkins (1952-2012)

I was saddened to hear that Richard G. Wilkins has passed away. He was a remarkably courageous person and a great legal advocate of the family in world law. He was responsible for extending an invitation for me to speak which resulted in one of my publications.

Go here for a speech he gave at BYU.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Reading the Gospel of Judas X: Theology

In the Gospel of Judas, when Jesus approaches the twelve disciples, they are “sitting together studying theology” (Gospel of Judas 33.24-26). Judas was depicted as one of those doing so, but so were all the other apostles.

The term used for theology in this passage is a calque of the Greek term. The term was literally translated into Coptic rather than borrowed as it was in English.

The term theology is first used by Plato, in his dialogue, The Republic. Plato means by it lies told about gods to children and child-like adults to manipulate them for political purposes.[1] In that passage Plato reasons that as long as one says nice things about the gods, no harm can come from them. It does not matter whether or not they are true. For Plato, theology is a useful tool to silence prophets or other people who are inspired.

The early Christian church did not have a positive view of theology. The word itself does not occur in the New Testament. The earliest Christian to use the word, Clement of Alexandria, refers to the “theology of idols” had among the pagans.[2]

On the other hand, Gnostics (the term is simply the Greek word for “intellectual”) liked philosophy and theology.
In the Gospel of Judas, when Jesus sees his disciples engaged in theology, he laughs at them (Gospel of Judas 34.2-3). Clearly, doing theology was not a good thing, not even from the perspective of the author of the Gospel of Judas.

[1] Plato, Republic 2.378-379.
[2] Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus 7.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Coup and Counter-coup

In ancient Israel the Davidic dynasty lasted about four hundred years from the reign of David to the reign of Zedekiah with only one interruption. That interruption occurred about halfway through the dynasty and proves somewhat instructive.

Jehu, putting an end to Jehoram in the north, encountered an extra guest, Jehoram's nephew Ahaziah the king of Judah, and killed him as well (2 Chronicles 22:7-9). When Athaliah, Ahaziah's mother, found out about this, she killed all the other heirs to the throne and seized it for herself (2 Chronicles 22:10). Given that Athaliah's mother was the famous Jezebel, these actions do not come as much of a surprise. Athaliah actually missed one of the heirs, a mere toddler (2 Chronicles 22:11-12).

Athaliah's coup began a six year interregnum (2 Chronicles 22:12), and one of the only times that a woman reigned over the kingdom of Judah.

Then the high priest, Jehoiada, does a very brave thing. He organized his people and guarding the temple, anointed the heir Joash to be king in the courtyard of the temple (2 Chronicles 23:1-12). With this public announcement of an heir, the public came flocking to the temple to acclaim the new king (2 Chronicles 12:12). One suspects that they were not altogether happy with Athaliah's rule. Athaliah heard something afoot and came to see what is the commotion. Upon entering the temple and seeing what was happening, she shrieked: "Treason! Treason!" (2 Chronicles 23:13), which, of course, it was as were her actions six years previously.

Jehoiada orders her to be dragged out of the temple and then put to death (2 Chronicles 23:14-15). From the standpoint of the Davidic line, justice was served. In this life, justice usually does not come so cleanly or neatly even when the counter-coup sets things more or less right. Sometimes it takes a counter-coup or the intervention of ecclesiastical authorities to set things right. Often, however, we forget about the innocents massacred at the hands of usurpers, or the innocents who must toil in servitude to corrupt regimes.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Apostasy in Chronicles

Some people have a tendency to minimize apostasy. This can be seen, for example, in the King James translators' choice of words in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 where Greek ἀποστασία is translated as "a falling away." While it is certainly possible to dwindle in unbelief and go slowly, surely, incrementally, and inevitably to hell, one can also do so dramatically, drastically, and definitively.

A good gauge for what the term would have mean to Paul and his converts from Judaism can be found in the Septuagint version of 2 Chronicles 21. The Septuagint was the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. For most Mediterranean Jews of Jesus's day, the Septuagint was the holy scriptures. In Chronicles it reads that "In these days Edom apostatized (ἀπέστη) from Judah" (2 Chronicles 21:8). Here it is clear that Edom did not just "fall away;" Edom revolted or rebelled and declared its independence. The Hebrew verb used here, pāšaꜥ, simply means to rebel. Thus "Edom apostatized from/rebelled against Judah until that day" (2 Chronicles 21:10).

Apostasy is thus an open rebellion, a revolt, a mutiny. While we use the English term in a religious context, the Greek term originally had a military or political context.

Edom doubtlessly depicted their actions as merely a reorganization and reorientation that would align their territory among the nations in a way that would better serve its goals, as a new beginning and new direction for Edom, but the Chronicler was more blunt: Edom was in apostasy.

No Room for an Inn

An entire folk tradition has sprung up based on the translation of Luke 2:7 which explains that Jesus was laid in a manger “because there was no room for them in the inn” (KJV). The King James translators did not invent the phrase. Tyndale rendered the passage as “because there was no roume for them within, in the hostrey.” Both translations match the Vulgate, which says “non erat locus in diversorio” and a diversorium is an inn. Thus nativity plays will often include an innkeeper and his wife and other parts derived from this particular phrase in the scripture. Sometimes in flights of artistic fantasy Joseph wanders from inn to inn seeking lodging only to find them all full. Bethlehem was a small town when Jesus was born. How many inns did they have? In the scriptural accounts, it is in the singular; Bethlehem could not have had more than one. One suspects it did not have that many.

But there is something wrong here. Joseph and Mary came to Bethlehem because of the need to register for the census which was made for taxation purposes (Luke 2:1). If it was simply a matter of registering for the poll tax, the tax that Rome levied on its subjects simply for drawing breath, then they could register wherever they were. They could certainly register in Nazareth without having to travel to Bethlehem. The reason that they would have to register in Bethlehem is if they owned property there.[1] But if they owned property in Bethlehem, why were they staying in an inn?

The Greek word translated as “inn” is καταλύματι, the dative form of καταλύμα. What is a καταλύμα? It “designates the residence of the king or the general when he is staying outside” his normal residence.[2] It can also refer to an assigned lodging for a soldier or functionary.[3] It can also refer to an inn.[4] Thus a καταλύμα is “a lodging where one goes, where one stays for a time. The temporary character is constant.”[5]

Thus the word designates wherever Joseph and Mary were staying temporarily. Since Joseph either wholly or partly owned property, he would have either been staying with the relatives who occupied the property (in the case of part ownership) or with the tenants who were renting (in the case of whole ownership). As houses tended to be on the small side, the couple perhaps might have felt that there was more privacy with the animals. By the time the wise men visited, they were back in the house (Matthew 2:11).

A careful reading of the nativity story indicates that there is no room for an inn.

[1] Sherman L. Wallace, Taxation in Egypt from Augustus to Diocletian (New York: Greenwood Press, 1937), 98-104.
[2] Geneviève Husson, OIKIA: le vocabulaire de la maison privée en Égypte d’après les papyrus grecs (Paris: La Sorbonne, 1983), 133.
[3] Husson, OIKIA, 134.
[4] Husson, OIKIA, 134-35.
[5] Husson, OIKIA, 135.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Academic Acceptance

One of the more sobering pronouncements of Nephi, at least for those in academia, is in his account of his vision that explains his father’s dream: “Behold the world and the wisdom thereof,” says the angel, pointing to the great and spacious building” (1 Nephi 11:35-36). What makes this sobering is not only that the building falls (1 Nephi 11:36), but that “as many as heeded [the multitude that did enter into that strange building], had fallen away” (1 Nephi 8:34). A careful reading of the Book of Mormon indicates that in general, the secular academy will not accept those who hold fast to the rod of iron (1 Nephi 8:30), meaning “the word of God” (1 Nephi 11:25), most will, in fact, “point the finger of scorn at” those who do (1 Nephi 8:33).

Another description of the great and spacious building also is enlightening: “it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth” (1 Nephi 8:26). This suggests that the structure lacks any foundation.

Two now somewhat dated events bring Lehi’s and Nephi’s descriptions to mind. They involve disciplinary actions against academics for misconduct. On the one hand the Chronicle of Higher Education  fired a blogger for doing what she was ostensibly hired to do. On the other hand, a professor at Arizona State University was exonerated for misconduct even though everyone agrees that passages from his published work were lifted straight from Wikipedia without attribution.  Not too long ago, plagiarism and academic fraud were the only things that the academy would censure. That is no longer the case. Together these, and similar incidents suggest that academia has no real standards and that their acceptance and rejection rests largely on whether what is being asserted fits in with whatever fad they currently accept. It reminds me of an argument I once had with one of my professors in graduate school. I pointed out that a certain book was heavily dependent on forged documents, to which my professor replied: “It does not matter, because I like it.”

For those of us who take the scriptures of the Latter-day Saints seriously as the word of God, it is highly likely that the academy will, by and large, point the finger of scorn at what we do. From that quarter, we expect no respect. To think otherwise is not to take the Book of Mormon seriously. As Elder Maxwell said: “The LDS scholar has his citizenship in the kingdom, but carries his passport into the professional world—not the other way around.”[1] In the end, though, the opinion of academia does not matter, all that does matter is whether, when all is said and done, we hear the words: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

[1] Neal. A. Maxwell, “Some Thoughts on the Gospel and the Behavioral Sciences,” Ensign 6/7 (July 1976).

Friday, November 23, 2012

Reading the Gospel of Judas IX: Why a Gospel of Judas?

When Judas tried to repent of his heinous crime, he discovered that it was too late to undo the damage that he had done. Can anyone imagine what it would have been like among the twelve apostles if Judas had stayed around? They all knew what he did. They were there. So Judas did the honorable thing from the Roman point of view, he committed suicide (Matthew 27:3-5). The gospel writer puts Judas’s death at near the same time as Jesus’s death. So Judas cannot have written the gospel attributed to him.

Judas did not write the gospel attributed to him; someone else did. Given his horrible reputation, why would anyone write a Gospel of Judas? What Christian would take it seriously?

One possible explanation is that it was not meant to be taken seriously. It was a satire. If that is the case, it is written to make fun of the positions of certain Christian factions.

The other possibility is that it was meant to be taken seriously with the following logic: In order to redeem humans, Jesus had to die. Anyone who helped Jesus to die must have been doing the will of God. Judas, by betraying Jesus, was doing the will of God. Therefore, Judas must have been the best of Jesus’s disciples. This logic is implicit in the Gospel of Judas and several points of it are made explicitly.

When reading the Gospel of Judas, one must bear in mind whether it was ever meant to be taken seriously. It might be sick satire and it might be sick logic. The intellectual position on issues that the Gospel of Judas need to be carefully examined.