Patterns of Evidence: Review

patterns-of-evidence

Did the Exodus really happen? The new documentary, Patterns of Evidence, presents findings that contradicts the prevailing scholarly opinion that the Exodus never occurred.

Well, I saw the documentary and I recommend it unreservedly. Indeed, when it’s available, I intend to purchase the DVD and host a viewing and discussion with friends and other interested people.  However, I still remain unconvinced of the historicity of the Exodus. This should in no way argue that you should not see the film. Quite the opposite, in fact. What I found really useful – and why you need to see this film – is that the documentary does a really excellent job of presenting an alternative theory with enough solid evidence to raise doubts about the current consensus that the Exodus never occurred. But, raising doubts is not sufficient to convince.

The thesis of the documentary rests on the uncertainty of ancient Egyptian history, i.e., what scholars call “the Egyptian Chronology”. The film acknowledges the main objection to the historicity of the Exodus, i.e., the Exodus does not line up with the known archeological findings. Instead, claims the film, the events of the Exodus line up almost perfectly with the Egyptian Chronology if the date of the Exodus is pushed back to the end of the Egyptian middle kingdom. The evidence the film advances in support of this claim is fascinating and surely deserves scholarly attention.

However, this is where the film falls short. You wouldn’t know it from the film but the majority of scholars in this field do, in fact, recognize the problems with Egyptian chronology. This is not a “new” issue and has, in fact, been the subject of intense scrutiny for years. In fact, during the one scene in which scholars on both sides were debating the chronology, we heard nothing from the those who opposed the view that the Exodus occurred earlier than previously supposed. An interview or two with opposing researchers who could have spoke directly to the evidence marshaled by the film would have proved invaluable to me.

Finally (and this is really important), the film did not address the lack of evidence for a mass migration of people (some 2 million by some account) across and in the Sinai for forty years. Not a single campfire from a population that would have stretched 150 miles long if they marched 10-abreast.

I am from the Rabbi David Wolpe school on this question. In brief, Wolpe argues (convincingly to me, at least) that the story is likely of a literary genre designed to teach a fundamental truth about the nature of freedom and its dependence on God (i.e., the idea that true liberty cannot come from mankind, but instead requires a higher, transcendent authority). To this end, the Exodus serves as a metaphor of sorts — not unlike the 480 years between the beginning of the Exodus and the establishment of the Temple of Solomon[1]. But, argue scholars familiar with the literary devices of the Bible, this number should not be taken literally. They point out that this number (480) corresponds to the 12 tribes of Israel wandering in the desert for 40 years (among other symbology). Numerology is a common (and powerful) literary device in the literature of the ANE and this particular instance is just one illustration of a common practice.

One final note to my friends who think that the truth of historicity matters. The panelists who were interviewed following the film agreed that if not historically true then the pillars of Judaism and Christianity would fall. Poppycock! Great truths, whether from God or human, do not have to be rooted in historical fact, as many of the panelists claimed. For example, to reject the truths of Orwell’s “Animal Farm” because pigs don’t talk is just plain silly.

Go see the film. Please. It’s a superb documentary in both style and substance and though it fails to rise high enough to convince the experts but certainly high enough to trigger additional research.

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  1. [1] See 1 Kings 6:1. The time frame referenced in this verse is used to support the film’s thesis that the Exodus happened toward the end of the Egyptian middle kingdom
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Does the Church Value Intellectual Inquiry

Yes according to Dan Wilkinson. Here is one of his posts from a couple of years ago [rightly] going after Mark Driscoll. The paragraph that stood out for me was this one:

The anti-intellectualism that Driscoll encour­ages is destroy­ing the church. Ask­ing Chris­tians to abro­gate the life of the mind in favor of blind “sub­mis­sion” to a par­tic­u­lar doc­trine — espe­cially when that doc­trine is itself divi­sive and destruc­tive — is tan­ta­mount to form­ing a cult: don’t think for your­self, don’t inves­ti­gate what I’m about to say, just accept what I’m going to tell you because it’s in the Bible and the Bible is God’s Word. Is that the mes­sage of Chris­tian­ity? Is that what Christ asks us to do in order to fol­low him?

Wilkinson is more optimistic than me. I fear that effects of a Christianity of the Driscoll kind is far more prevalent and influential than we would like to admit. But, read the whole post and make up your own mind.

And, as an afterthought, spend some times with the comments. The discussion on anger is particularly illuminating.

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A Reflection on “The Rise of the Dones”

the-donesThis post is in response to Thom Schultz’s post over at his blog, “The Rise of the Dones“. In an earlier book[1] Mr. Schultz offered a solution to the more general problem of declining congregational populations built around a church re-instantiated as a “Lifetree Cafe“. “The Rise Of The Done“, then, is a specific example within the larger challenge of how to deal with declining church membership.

First, let’s understand the Lifetree Cafe because the assumptions upon which it is based is axiomatic of the problems of the larger Church. The idea behind the Lifetree Cafe is to instantiate a community environment characterized by:

1) Radical Hospitality
2) Fearless Conversation
3) Genuine Humility
4) Divine Anticipation

Unfortunately, the Lifetree-style strategy does not (in my opinion) address the problem of retaining Dones specifically or members generally because it does not address what I believe to be the root problem causing declining church memberships. In fact, the problem, as I see it, seems stunningly obvious in what Mr. Schultz omits in his list of cafe pleasantries – an understanding (or at least an acknowledgement) that Christianity (and Judaism) are, and have historically been, an intellectual pursuit and, therefore, attractive to men and women whose lives incorporated intellectual stimulus to a greater or lesser extent. If then (and to the extent that this is true) congregations are to revivify their membership, the inclusion of the intellectual habit as a preeminent value in congregational life must be reconstituted.

Let me backup a bit and provide some context for this thesis. When scholars compare a contemporary Christian’s congregational life with those of the early churches and synagogues two striking differences emerge:

First, for Jews and Christian Jews, especially during the time of St. Paul, a belief in a divine power was a given. Everyone believed in some sort of higher power. The concept of atheism did not exist. The reason why the Gospel was good news was rooted in the claim that the Jewish God offered a way to salvation (through a messiah) heretofore unavailable to the Greeks with their pagan gods. Moreover, the Christian Jews did not require circumcision[2]. Circumcision notwithstanding, to convert the Greek pagan required the exercise of evangelical intellect in the form of Pentateuchal exegesis at which St. Paul was an acknowledged master.

Today’s impediment to evangelical outreach (and by implication, church membership retention) is the over-emphasis on salvation. In contrast to biblical times, in our well-to-do Western culture, salvation is not high on the list of people’s priorities. Many live a comfortable, if not prosperous life and the idea of a better afterlife raises the question – how can it be better than this? Or, if I die it will be as when I had not been born — of no consequence to me in this mortal life.

Second, early Christianity, like Judaism, was rooted in the study of the Oral Torah[3], which in those days consisted of public debates, synagogue teachings[4], and lectures in the public square between wandering Pharisees. Given this early emphasis on teaching and learning, it should not surprise us that it was the Christian Church that invented AND first established the great universities.

This evolution of Christian life away from a critical engagement with the doctrines of the faith has been profoundly destructive to the traditions of the Judeo-Christian faith, the sanctity of Holy Scripture, and the ability of Christians to appeal to the unchurched. Consider this: people today acquire knowledge in an environment that rightly demands critical thinking and well-developed analytical skills. Similarly, high achieving adults move in a milieu of peers who do not necessarily take for granted the truth of the opinions of others – superiors or otherwise – without evidence one way or another. In the absence of deep and sustained argument, simply announcing that “Jesus saves” is inconsequential at best.

Any intelligent person today, no matter what age, who studies history, science, literature, or mathematics during the week and then attends Sunday school, confirmation class, or a youth/adult Bible study, cannot but note the contrast in the way religious content is presented.  Specifically, the secular disciplines are taught in ways that demand the exercise of intellect and reason. By contrast, the teachings of the biblical texts are not subjected to critical examination in the same way as, for example, English Literature.  When the secular, largely unchurched community compares the two approaches, how can they not conclude that religious faith, a faith that largely rejects critical thought at the congregational level, cannot stand against reason.

But, the situation is much worse. Those who question the validity of doctrine, students or otherwise, are often discouraged from doing so by their peers and clergy. From children’s Sunday School, many adult Bible-oriented classes, and congregational meetings, contemporary religious education often elevate piety and sincerity above a reasoned analysis of the assumptions behind the doctrines that define their faith.

So, what does this have to do with the Dones?

Quite simply, much of Christian life today centers around a mushy, “let’s all love each other”, “Jesus is my BFF” kind of environment. Doctrine is seldom taught and never critically examined. Moral clarity has been diminished by the idea that grace is cheap and forgiveness is free. Pastors and priests shy away from controversy for fear of offending (and losing) congregants[5]. Committees, chartered by Bishops and Popes, generate morally obtuse essays that ignore the clear biblical witness and instead ground their conclusions in secular, philosophical precepts that serve to confuse, rather than clarify. In short, the intellectual life of the Church at large has become sclerotic and stultifying.

This is not an environment conducive to the pre-Done, i.e., a highly educated, high achieving, actively involved church member who would live a life ordered to God’s values of which one of the most important is the gaining of wisdom.  For the most part, many churches seldom teach what constitutes those values beyond their simple enumeration. Rather, such congregations are often encouraged to live a Christian life based on the pursuit of salvation by faith alone without an understanding of whether one’s faith needs to be rightly ordered, i.e., possessed of the wisdom necessary to fear the LORD?  Doctrine matters yet is largely ignored. When was the last time your pastor even discussed what it meant to be of a certain tradition?

When doctrine (in its larger sense) is de-emphasized, ambiguity reigns. The pre-Done, by virtue of his/her habits, avoids ambiguity. S/he seeks clarity and when clarity is not forthcoming or worse, not valued, the natural inclination of such people is to go elsewhere. And if there is no elsewhere, the Done simply and finally stays away.

Here, then are my answers to Mr. Schultz’s questions in his post.

Why are you a part of this church?

(1) The leadership allows me to teach. (2) My congregation is of the Lutheran tradition. (3) It’s close by. (4) I love jello casseroles.

What keeps you here?

See (1) above

(1) Have you ever contemplated stepping away from church? Why or why not?

Yes, often. Because I get frustrated with the broader church’s deemphasis on the critical engagement of the Holy Scriptures — especially at the congregational level.

(2) How would you describe your relationship with God right now?

That’s a subject that is not easily answered. Suffice it to say that it depends on what one means by relationship. To me, God is not a human. He is wholly alien and transcendent. The idea of having a human-like relationship with an entity not of this world is inconceivable to me. God is the creator of the reality in which I live. As such, He is the final authority on how best to live in that reality. Therefore, I spend an inordinate amount of time with Holy Scripture and commentary seeking a better, deeper, more reasoned understanding of God.

(3) How has your relationship with God changed over the past few years?

I’ve become reasonably fluent in biblical Hebrew and have also learned a little Koine Greek. This has opened up a whole new world of biblical study and an understanding of God many Christians would probably find, uh, upsetting.

(4) What effect, if any, has your church had on your relationship with God?

Apart from my pastors who have yet to come to their senses and so continue to allow me to teach, not that much. My relationship with God is identical to my relationship to Holy Scripture (the Word of God is far more real to me that the actual entity). To this end, the discovery of the character of God has become a never-ending, almost all-consuming, and enormously satisfying activity.

(5) What would need to change here to help you grow more toward Jesus’ call to love God and love others?

It’s not about Jesus. Jesus has fulfilled God’s role in history. The idea of a “call to love God” is a good example of the problem with your understanding of the Done! In biblical times, a love of God was expressed by what one did and how one lived one’s life. More specifically, to obey God’s commandments was the highest expression of love for God. In today’s church, we do not teach that obedience to God is an expression of love. Protestants, especially, are repulsed by the idea that obedience to God’s commandments is obligatory[6].

 

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  1. [1] Why Nobody Wants To Go To Church Anymore
  2. [2] It is a profound mistake to diminish the appeal of this argument — see this overview, but more specifically, Chilton and Neusner’s “Judaism in the New Testament: Practices and Beliefs, pp 58-97.
  3. [3] The written Torah was important, but largely remained within the province of temple priests and scribes. The Oral Torah, by contrast, was available to anyone who wished to take instruction from a Pharisee like Jesus
  4. [4] In the very early Christian/Jewish congregations a sage (teacher) would be invited to give a reading and a Torah lesson from the “Seat of Moses“).
  5. [5] I do not mean to be overly critical here. The problem is that because congregants have no clear understanding of the deep doctrines upon which their faith is based, it’s easy to find an inoffensive church. Hence, the danger inherent in religious controversy is very real and in the short-term there is little the church can do about it.
  6. [6] This may be changing. The New Perspective on Paul advances the notion that obedience is required as part of our covenant with God and that salvation is available to members of the covenant who have faith that God is the one, true God
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Forgiveness Requires Repentance

repentance-3If this isn’t obvious to you, then you need to read this post. It it is obvious to you, you should marvel at the number of clergy (mostly Protestants because the Catholic magisterium is crystal clear on this point) who believe that repentance is not required for forgiveness.

Let’s jump in!

To forgive an unrepentant sinner is devoid of grace. The whole meaning of biblical forgiveness rests on making the sinner whole again. It is manifestly not about making the forgiver feel good about himself.

Scripture has a whole lot to say on this subject.

I would begin by citing what Jesus understood to be His mission as the Messiah (Luke 24:45-47), namely, to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins to all the nations of the world.

In Mark 4:12 Jesus explains why He teaches in parables. He uses parables, He tells His disciples, because otherwise the audience would not understand the requirement for repentance and would therefore “not turn back and be forgiven”. In this verse, Mark teaches that Jesus viewed repentance as mandatory.

Then we have the Lukan model of forgiveness (Luke 13:3,5) told in the context of some workmen who were accidentally killed in a construction accident. Their death wasn’t a “punishment” as virtually all pagan religions of that day taught. Rather, death only comes to those who do not repent. In 17:3-4 Luke writes that we incur an obligation to forgive an offense when the offender repents. Forgiveness and repentance are two sides of the same coin – you cannot have one without the other.

What about God? What does the Bible teach about God’s forgiveness? Simply that we are to forgive as God forgives (Eph 4:32, Col 3:13) and since God requires repentance (Mark 1:15, Acts 3:19) who are we to change the rules. If God requires repentance so should we.

Finally, there’s Jesus’ example: while on the cross He was in the company of two thieves, of which one was penitent. The repentant thief went with Jesus. Not so the other. Why, if forgiveness is free and repentance not required, did Jesus withhold His company in paradise from the unrepentant thief?

In today’s world, the word forgiveness has come to mean some vague, inner state – either psychological or emotional. In biblical Greek, the language of the New Testament, the English word “forgiveness” is concrete and specific. Translated from Greek word “aphesis” it means expatiation of sin, “sending sin away“, “freedom from sin” or “release or remission from sin[1]. This is what the NT writers (esp. Paul) had in mind when referring to being a captive of (or slave to) sin (See especially the Greek of Matt 26:28), i.e., the pouring out of Christ’s blood sends away (aphesis) the sin. With this in mind, how can Bob forgive his best friend Jim for committing adultery? Said another way, how does Bob, in forgiving Jim, send away, redeem, or cancel Jim’s sin?

In the Bible, sin and forgiveness are often modeled as debt and redemption. When someone sins against another, a debt is incurred [by the sinner] that must be repaid to, or cancelled by, the one sinned against.  Keeping Bob and Jim in mind, free forgiveness means that if Jim borrows $10.00 from Steve, Bob forgive the debt owed by Jim to Steve.

Now, go and study

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  1. [1] It is also used for the release of captives and slaves, of the cancellation of debt, and divorce
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The Enuma Elish – The Predecessor For Genesis Creation

In the biblical creation classes beginning this Sunday, we’ll learn that the Genesis text arose as a polemic against the older and well known creation epic, the Enuma Elish. Even if you will not be attending, you may find this short summary illuminating if not fascinating. Listen for the parallels between the Enuma and Genesis 1.

 

 

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Genesis and the Illusion of Time

Genesis 1 (“In the Beginning”) and modern cosmology are in perfect agreement and to understand why will require that you take two actions:

  1. Watch the video above. If you don’t have an hour to invest, watch the segment beginning at 20:00 (Twenty minutes) and lasting through 55:42 – a little under 6 minutes.
  2. Attend the 2nd biblical creation class on 25 January.

Now, just a bit of background:

The idea of “space-time” is often thought of as having been described and developed  in the early twentieth century, most famously by Albert Einstein[1].  However, among ancient cultures, the Incas and their Andean brethren viewed space and time as a single, interwoven continuum which they named the “pacha“. Much later, in 1813, Arthur Schopenhauer similarly described space and time as a unified continuum[2].  But, going back even further (some 3000 years), the author of Genesis 1 (“In the Beginning“) describes God as creating the universe as a space-time continuum – a continuum in which there is no distinction in time between the past, present, and the future.

In the second class of our upcoming class on biblical creation[3], we will learn that the Hebrew text, unlike its English translations, describes a space-time continuum as elegantly as any physicist might today. In so doing, we will lay to rest the debate over the age of the universe.

Now, go and study

 

 

 

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  1. [1] In his General Theory of Relativity for which he won the Nobel prize.
  2. [2] See, “On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason”
  3. [3] On 25 January, 2015
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Biblical Creation Class Begins – Class Resources

reference-library

The first class of the Bible Creation Course will be this Sunday, 11 January immediately following the first and second services. The Power Point slides I will be using are now available here. This first class is an overview of what you can expect in the following sessions.

Links to Course Resources:

  • Genesis 1:1-4:3, the first and second creation stories in one document – (PDF).
  • Bible differences: a side-by-side comparison of my translation of the first creation story and that of the NRSV – (PDF)

An online translation and line-by-line commentary for the first creation story in book form can be viewed and/or downloaded from here .  The online translation and line-by-line commentary for the second creation story can be accessed here.

Supplemental (N.T. Wright) Videos

These videos explore the them Wright’s understanding of what it means to read the Bible “literally” and are particularly relevant to this class.

And finally, have you ever wondered how translators decide what words go into a particular Bible. This video will show you the translation committee for the ESV Bible – a group of well-known and rightly respected scholars – discussing the translation of single Hebrew word, the word commonly translated as “slave”.

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