Last month’s decision by the US president to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel brought out the full range of responses, as usual. Such responses always dismay me as to how poorly both sides understand what the Bible says about Israel, land, and the Church today. Here are some notes for a discussion I led on the subject, specifically for Christians; the notes have been somewhat edited since the original version. (more…)
In my previous post I discussed Harley Talman’s argument that Christians ought to entertain the notion that Muhammad might have been a prophet (though not a very good one). Other critics have pointed out biblical and scriptural flaws with his argument. But since very few Christian bloggers have specific training in Islamic studies (the academic study of Islam), I thought it might be useful if I pointed out some criticisms of Talman’s argument from the perspective of Islamicists (experts in studying Islam). In addition to a few outright errors, Talman provides historically ignorant interpretations of the available sources. In particular, the crux of my disagreement is that Talman argues that the Qur’an is not in fact anti-Trinitarian, as accepted by almost all Islamicists (regardless of their religious views). Instead, he claims that the Qur’an only criticizes unorthodox Christian views which orthodox Christians ought also to reject. I think this assertion is untenable, and this flaw is fatal to his entire argument. (more…)
This is the second post in a series. Read the first post here.
Is the Trinity in the Bible? The Christian doctrine of the Trinity asserts that Jesus Christ is the second divine person, God the Son. So if the idea of the Trinity is anywhere, we should find it in the words and actions of Jesus. What did Jesus say about the whether or not he was God? (more…)
Recent events at Wheaton College have once again raised the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This is a question which I have faced with some regularity, given that I have a small amount of theological training and that I study the mixed society (including Muslims and Christians) of the medieval Middle East. With due regard to Biblical authority and the many learned people who have weighed in on the question, I find the issue to be rather more ambiguous than anyone likes to admit, and dependent upon certain non-obvious answers to tricky questions regarding the nature of worship and the relationship between sense and referent when speaking about spiritual beings, including God. In other words, contrary to what everyone would like to be the case, the answer is not obvious either way.
It is often stated that the Old Testament does not present any view of heaven and hell or life after death. This is often coupled with assertions that Hebrew authors did not distinguish between body and soul the way that we do. Now, I do accept the critique that popular American images of heaven as pasty-faced night-robe wearing people on sedatives half-heartedly strumming harps while reclining improbably on clouds owes more to Victorian English book plates than any part of the Bible. I also accept that most Christians today distinguish too sharply between soul and body (a quibble for another post). On the other hand, I think what we find in the Old Testament cannot be reconciled with the common assertion that people three millennia or more ago did not conceive of personal continuity after death (apart from the obvious extra-biblical counter-example in the Gilgamesh epic). Here I wish to focus only on a few verses from Genesis, and in particular on two revealing idioms about death.
A particular idiom is used in Genesis to describe the deaths of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob: each, when he died, was “gathered to his peoples” (Genesis 25:8; 25:17; 35:29; and 49:33). Most English versions prefer “to his people,” but the noun is curiously yet distinctively plural “peoples.” What does this mean? It cannot be a euphemism substituted for “died,” because in three of the four occurrences “died” shortly precedes this idiom. The verb “died” was clearly not taboo for the author. On the other hand, the idiom does not seem to be a description of burial, given that the act of burying the deceased is indicated separately in three of the four cases. Indeed, the burial of Jacob is narratively separated from his being “gathered to his peoples” by most of a chapter. So it’s not simply a colorful phrase to describe some aspect of the body. What it did mean is difficult to say precisely, except that by death each person joined other people he was associated with. How else might death result in a gathering, unless there is some sense of non-physical reunion after death and independently of the body?
The independence from the disposition of the body is seen in another phrase which was not as common as the preceding. When God foretold to Abraham his death, he said, “As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age” (Genesis 15:15). Jacob mentioned his own upcoming death similarly: “when I lie down with my fathers” (Genesis 47:30). Since Jacob is asking to be buried with Abraham and Isaac, one might think his use of the phrase simply reflects the practice of dynastic burial. But in fact, his grammar indicates that the act of “lying down with his fathers” occurs in Egypt, before the burial: “when I lie down with my fathers, you shall carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” Abraham was not buried with his ancestors, but in Canaan after having left his father’s house according to the Lord’s command (Genesis 12:1). Indeed, the phrase was also used of Moses (Deuteronomy 31:16), whose burial place was unknown (Deuteronomy 34:6). This phrase, like the preceding idiom, suggests a hazy concept of reunion with predecessors and other people, independently of the body, after death. The fact that these are idiomatic phrases further emphasizes that the presupposed views were not idiosyncratic to the author, but were widely held.
Am I saying that the author of Genesis and the people described therein held to the same views of the afterlife that we do? No, nor need I. Even Christians today hold all sorts of theories in practice. Am I saying that they fully understood the notion of spiritual reunion after death? No, and I suspect we do not fully understand it either. Views on what happens after we die have certainly changed over time. My goal in this discussion is simply to suggest that the widespread assertion that the Old Testament authors had no notion of personal continuation after death is demonstrably false. What notions they did have, and how those notions developed over time, is a more complex question. But notions of heaven and hell, of personal continuation after death, did not suddenly spring into Judaism during the exilic period from Zoroastrian influence, as one of my textbooks last semester baldly (and ignorantly) asserted.
Requiescat avia mea in pace cum Christo Salvatore suo.
Biblical scholars like something to argue about, because they are academics, and academics make their living by making arguments. (I know; I am one.) And since what is at stake in biblical scholars’ arguments is almost always the question whether the Bible can be trusted, for skeptics who wish not to believe as much as for believers who wish to do so, biblical scholars’ arguments often degenerate into battle lines. Often, I feel, a little more careful attention to the text may shed some useful light on the subject.
One debate which has intrigued me in the past is the question of the (non-)relation between the Hebrew word “Hebrew” (ʿibri) and the word “Habiru” and its variants in Akkadian and Egyptian. It seems that some conservatives have argued that Habiru = Hebrews = Israelites, and thus the Ancient Near Eastern texts which mention the Habiru corroborate the biblical accounts of the Israelites. Against this, some skeptics have argued that the term Habiru is used in contexts where the biblical Hebrews cannot possibly be intended, and sometimes carry non-Semitic names, which these scholars take to indicate that the Habiru were a mixture of Semitic and non-Semitic.
Now, I am not an expert in the Ancient Near East, nor do I read Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian hieroglyphics, or any of the other languages, so I can only approach this question from the Hebrew side. But it seems to me that what the Bible says about Hebrews is not what most people have presumed, and may open the door to a different solution to the relationship between the Hebrews and the Habiru. (more…)
This is, at long last, an answer to a question posted by a commentator (I’m sorry to say over a month ago): “[H]ow do you see Christ as having made provisions for guaranteeing the preservation of Truth through the ages (if you see Him as having done so at all)?” Subsequent discussion revealed that he did not mean merely since Christ’s ascension to heaven. So this post attempts to address the question in general, but first (as a humanities scholar is apt to do), I need to clarify the issue.
Clarifying the Problem
What does it mean to “guarantee the preservation of Truth”? In what ways is Truth not preserved? Truth is not an organic mass which begins to decompose in the summer heat, changing color and attracting flies. Nor is truth a substance that can be diluted or transmuted. Truth is a property of certain beliefs, and the “preservation of Truth” is the preservation of true beliefs in the minds of people. A true belief may fail to be preserved in the minds of people either by failing to pass it on to new people, so that the true belief may be said to end (in a sense) with the death of the last person who believes it, or by being rejected in favor of alternate (and false) beliefs. Since no sound argument can refute a true belief, if we were fully rational beings, no true belief would ever be rejected for a false belief. And if we were immortal and perfectly rational beings, truth would be in no danger. But in fact, we are both mortal, so beliefs need to be passed on, and sinful, so that we often prefer convenient falsehoods to inconvenient truths. And thus true beliefs need to be preserved. The transfer of true beliefs to other people is a variety of revelation, the means by which those other people come to believe this truth. The question of how sinful people are checked from simply chucking out whatever truth they don’t like is a question of redemption. In both processes, God’s message of salvation is at stake, and therefore this is an important question. (more…)