Saturday, October 16, 2010


Jason Engwer has been responding to a commenter who goes by the avatar of “Richard.” However, “Richard” is not a real person.

The commenter in question is actually a fat, 10-year-old boy by the name of Barney who lives in Missoula Montana with his mom and stepdad.

Barney is often bullied at school because he speaks with a lisp and can’t hit a baseball. As a defense-mechanism, Barney has concocted the folkloric superhero of “Richard,” giving our subaltern boy the mythographic aretology of a polyglot historian and literary scholar. The socio-politically embellished metanarrative lends an air of palpability and honorific gravitas to his rhetorical performance–thereby fostering the illusion that he’s a formidable conversation partner.

We may safely assume that the nomen of “Richard” is just a literary vehicle or sociorhetorical construct, parroting banner language from, as well as conventional protocols in Marvel comic books and the Disney Channel–far removed from the fat, lisping, henpecked, latrine-using 10-year-old in Missoula.

Modern mimesis and paideia in pulp fiction and Hollywood movies decidedly move in continuity and imitatio with regard to literary or cinematic modality and genre. “Richard’s” refusal to provide confirmable evidence retarding his academic identity, along with his recourse to the stock authority-figure of the expert witness, constitute modal signals pointing an astute reader to the mythographic genre of his emblematic narratology.

Not yet

"Ms. Avery," I said, glancing down at the chart in my hands, and then back up to the woman lying before me on the ER stretcher. "I'm Dr. Lesslie. What can we do for you tonight?"

Mary Avery was 82 years old and had come to the emergency department because of increasing shortness of breath. She told me she had "a touch of asthma" but no other medical problems. Tonight was something different, and not her usual asthma.

"Do you have any history of diabetes?" I asked. "Or any heart trouble?"

"No sir," she answered calmly, between labored breaths. "Not yet."

This last comment took me by surprise, and I looked intently into her eyes. She smiled at me, nodding her head.

She was struggling to breathe, and yet there was a profound peace surrounding this woman. Not yet. I thought I knew what she meant.

A few days earlier, our minister had based his sermon on Paul's letter to the Philippians, chapter 1, verse 21. His message centered on how we ought to live, and where our focus should be. More importantly, he stressed the assurance we should have about where each of us is headed. Our eternal destination, I suppose.

I remembered thinking a good bit about the issue of preventive medicine. Now don't get me wrong. I've long been a proponent of our taking care of ourselves and doing the necessary things to prevent serious medical problems from developing. We should be keeping track of our lipids and our blood pressure, exercising regularly, watching our diet and our weight, not smoking, and generally not abusing our bodies. But I began to think about this term "preventive". Was that really accurate? What are we really preventing? Are we going to live forever if our cholesterol is perfect? Or our BMI is ideal? Or our colonoscopy is completely clear? We all know the answer to that. Yet, there may exist a false sense of security when all of these things are fine. And there's a not-so-subtle danger here. We can easily become distracted by the good health we are enjoying, and quickly lose track of the ultimate realities of this thing called life. But make no mistake - there's always something else looming just around the corner.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps postponing medicine might be a better term. After all, even in the best of circumstances, we are only postponing the inevitable, aren't we? We are all headed to the same final destination.

Yet, I remain convinced that we need to take care of ourselves, of our bodies, so that we can more effectively live. But what does that mean? Our minister also addressed this. He painted the picture of an elderly person who was in excellent health and who had spent his life focused on paying his bills and staying out of trouble. And where did that put him? What was the meaning of his walk on this earth?

Paul understands this, and makes it clear to us today in his letter. He knows where our focus needs to be, where we need to find our purpose and meaning, and where we need to place our hope. Mary Avery understood this as well, and had lived it. That's what she had meant by "not yet".

"Dr. Lesslie," Mary whispered, still quietly panting. "Please do what you can for me. But whatever happens, it will be all right. You know we're all like the flowers of the field. We flourish, and then..." Her voice trailed off.

She was still smiling, still peaceful. And she was still looking intently into my eyes.

Then she said, "There's only one thing that endures."

That night, Mary endured. She was suffering from a worsening of her asthma, and had to be admitted to the hospital. A few days later, she was able to go home.

Over the next two years, we saw her occasionally in the ER with flare-ups of her asthma. She was always smiling, always positive, always at peace. And she never developed diabetes or heart disease.

Then one day we learned she had reached her final destination.



Robert Lesslie is a Christian (Associate Reformed Presbyterian) emergency medicine doctor based in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

The Historical Nature Of Early Christianity

In another thread here, I've been having a discussion with a person who goes by the screen name Richard. Some of you may be interested in reading the exchange. Richard claims to be a scholar with credentials relevant to early Christianity, yet he refuses to further identify himself. He claims that when sources like Ignatius refer to how Jesus was born of a virgin, resurrected, etc., they aren't making historical claims. Rather, they're making claims about what happened within a fictional story. Thus, for example, the docetists and their Christian opponents were arguing about whether Jesus physically existed within a fictional story, not whether He physically existed in history. Richard makes many claims about the genre of the gospels, what men like Ignatius and Justin Martyr believed, etc. It's a somewhat lengthy discussion, but I think it could be beneficial for those interested in reading it.

Here are some examples of his claims:

One finds a developmental trajectory from the earliest strata of Q, to the rhetorically potent, mythological embellishments of Mark, to their fusion and further embellishment in the compilations Matthew and Luke, concluding with a third creative work, i.e. John. We really do not have any surviving historiography or biography from earliest Christian prose (from the first 3 centuries of the common era). They are all mythographies....

To apply another analogy, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Davy Crocket all existed in real North American history. Yet when most people mention or think of these emblems of American folktale, the refer not to the actual mundane persons, but to those images produced within the culture, Hollywood renditions and rentions in art, comic books, and literature. The actual historical persons are all but irrelevant to most everyone, as evidenced by the very loose depictions produced by these individuals. They have become owned by a cultures and, as such, are no longer tightly tethered to their original, mundane personae. Given the prolific, characteristically whimsical depictions of Jesus, the Apostles, and Saints in early Christian narrative, not to mention Ignatius's own apparent lack of interest in recovering or preserving historically faithful data regarding Jesus et al, the philologist can safely assume that the nomen "Jesus" for ignatius and his treatments of him are far removed from the actual latrine using, skinny Palestinian peasant of a century prior. He shows not interest in knowing Jesus in such a way....

I do not post my name here because I frankly do not want it associated with this blog. No offense. It is just a fragile world and I typically select my dialogue partners with great care. This, rather, is my effort to give back to the community, though at some personal hazard....

I believe in mutually beneficial discourse where everyone is intelligent, has something to offer, and has something to learn. Whereas the apologist often only wants a spectacle, a dogfight aimed at demonstrating the viability of the signature claims of his socio-religious group. That is why I have chosen to exclude Evangelicals from my academic dialogues. Such loaded intentions typically skew the discussion so pathetically that they end up resulting in hostility, social abuse, and obfuscation of the central issues. I hope, Jason, that you can surprise me by conducting yourself as a gentlemen, thus disturbing my stereotype, should you find it offense or unfair.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Scholarly Opinion On The Gospels' Genre

In his recent commentary on Matthew, Grant Osborne writes the following about scholarly opinion on the genre of the gospels:

"The current consensus is that the closest parallel is Greco-Roman biography, but that should probably be widened to include Jewish as well as Hellenistic biographies." (Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2010], p. 30)

Here are the comments of some other New Testament scholars:

"Lemcio's work coheres strongly with the general, though quite recent, acceptance in Gospels scholarship that, generically, the Gospels are biography - or, more precisely, they are biographies (bioi) in the sense of ancient Greco-Roman biography." (Richard Bauckham, Jesus And The Eyewitnesses [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006], p. 276)

"Readers throughout most of history understood the Gospels as biographies (Stanton 1989a: 15-17), but after 1915 scholars tried to find some other classification for them, mainly because these scholars compared ancient and modern biography and noticed that the Gospels differed from the latter (Talbert 1977: 2-3; cf. Mack 1988: 16n.6). The current trend, however, is again to recognize the Gospels as ancient biographies. The most complete statement of the question to date comes from a Cambridge monograph by Richard A. Burridge." (Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], p. 17)

In an email earlier this year, Michael Licona told me that Richard Burridge recently mentioned to him that the scholarly trend is toward seeing the gospels as biographies rather than "literary inventions" or "myth".

Grant Osborne's Commentary On Matthew

Some readers may be interested in knowing that Grant Osborne's commentary on Matthew in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series, which went through a lot of delays, just came out. My copy arrived yesterday from It's more than a thousand pages long, but the print and spacing are somewhat large, so the page length is misleading. I haven't had time to read much of it yet. My initial impression is that it goes into moderate depth. It doesn't seem as good as, say, Craig Keener's or R.T. France's for my purposes. The intention of the Zondervan series is to produce what I would call a moderate level commentary, one in which interaction with "critical scholarship" "does not dominate" (back cover). Regardless of whether it "dominates", I'd prefer to see more of it than this commentary provides. It's a good commentary written from a conservative Evangelical perspective, but don't let the length of it mislead you.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Was Augustine Roman Catholic? (Part 2)

(For the background to this post, see here.)

In my series on Augustine that Scott Windsor responded to, I gave some examples of Augustine's contradictions of Catholic belief. One example I cited was Augustine's view of infant salvation. Scott responded:

Now while clearly Mr. Engwer is trying to dig up inconsistencies (which he has yet to do), one has to question his support of St. Augustine - since, as I understand it, his denomination does not believe in infant baptism at all.

Was my series about whether Augustine was a member of my denomination? No, it wasn't. Have I ever suggested he was a member of my denomination? No. Was I citing Augustine on the issue of infant baptism? No.

As for "digging up inconsistencies", let me quote something the conservative priest and Roman Catholic apologist Peter Stravinskas wrote about Augustine in a conservative Catholic magazine (since Scott doesn't think Robert Eno is conservative enough):

"Despite Augustine's tremendous influence, several of his opinions never gained acceptability in the Church. Among them, we can list the following theories: that God would condemn unbaptized infants to hell, simply because of the inheritance of original sin; that God would justly condemn adults who had never had the chance to be presented with the Gospel, again, due solely to original sin's hold on them; that some people would suffer eternal damnation for no other reason than God's lack of interest in saving them! As we reflect on these Augustinian positions, we must recall the fact that just because someone is a saint or even a doctor of the Church does not make his entire body of teaching acceptable; only the Church's Magisterium can decide what is and is not consonant with Her understanding of the truth of Christ." (Envoy, September/October 1998)

You don't have to do much "digging" to find contradictions between Augustine and Roman Catholicism. I cited an example related to infant salvation, and the issue of infant salvation is the first example Stravinskas cites.

And here's Scott's irrelevant response on that particular issue:

Let us first state that even today a faithful Catholic could argue as St. Augustine did for infant baptism, CCC 1261 merely states that we can only entrust their souls to the mercy of God. It’s still God’s choice, salvation, damnation or the speculative “Limbo.”

Notice that Scott ignores what I cited from Augustine and what I cited from the Catechism Of The Catholic Church. Augustine tells us that the necessity of baptism for infant salvation is part of the Christian faith (On The Soul And Its Origin, 2:17). In contrast, Catholicism encourages people to "entrust them [unbaptized children] to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them" and "hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism" (Catechism Of The Catholic Church, 1261). Augustine didn't teach the "hope" that Catholicism is teaching. Scott hasn't reconciled the two positions. Instead, he just asserts that there's no contradiction without demonstrating that assertion.

I also cited Augustine's rejection of the immaculate conception of Mary. Scott responded by quoting only a portion of the passage I cited, then he wrote:

Note, the definition [of the immaculate conception by Pope Pius IX] does not say the Blessed Virgin was wholly freed from Original Sin, but was preserved from the STAIN of Original Sin. Jesus indeed was the only one who was born of a woman who was completely preserved from all sin.

Scott doesn't explain the alleged significance of a distinction between "freed from Original Sin" and "preserved from the STAIN of Original Sin". The same papal document Scott is citing refers to "the original innocence of the august Virgin", without any reference to a "stain". The Pope also wrote that Mary was "preserved from original sin by the grace of the Holy Spirit". Again, the "stain" qualifier that Scott is emphasizing isn't there. How could somebody have original sin without being stained? The Pope goes on to discuss how the Council of Trent refers to all men as having original sin, but doesn't include Mary. Thus, Mary is being exempted from the original sin that others have.

Yet, Augustine approvingly cites Ambrose's view that Jesus was the only human conceived without original sin:

"It is therefore an observed and settled fact, that no man born of a man and a woman, that is, by means of their bodily union, is seen to be free from sin. Whosoever, indeed, is free from sin, is free also from a conception and birth of this kind....For the Lord Jesus alone of those who are born of woman is holy, inasmuch as He experienced not the contact of earthly corruption, by reason of the novelty of His immaculate birth; nay, He repelled it by His heavenly majesty." (On The Grace Of Christ, And On Original Sin, 2:47)

Anybody born of sexual union is sinful. Jesus is "alone" in the "novelty" of His sinlessness. Is that view consistent with Roman Catholicism? No. As the Roman Catholic Marian scholar Michael O'Carroll put it, "[Augustine's] theology of original sin, which explained the transmission through concupiscence, inherent in conjugal relations, blocked his thinking." (Theotokos [Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1988], p. 63)

Augustine also contradicted the Roman Catholic view elsewhere. The patristic scholar J.N.D. Kelly explains:

"he [Augustine] did not hold (as has sometimes been alleged) that she [Mary] was born exempt from all taint of original sin (the later doctrine of the immaculate conception). Julian of Eclanum maintained this as a clinching argument in his onslaught on the whole idea of original sin, but Augustine's rejoinder was that Mary had indeed been born subject to original sin like all other human beings, but had been delivered from its effects 'by the grace of rebirth'." (Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco, California: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978], p. 497)

Speaking of Kelly, Scott made the following remarkable comments after I documented that Kelly refers to Augustine's view of Roman primacy as non-papal:

So, what Mr. Engwer and Armstrong have pointed out is J.N.D. Kelly is inconsistent in his assessment of St. Augustine. You know, I’m OK with that!

Scott makes no attempt to demonstrate that Kelly was inconsistent. He just asserts it. What's more likely is that Kelly realized that primacy can be defined in more than one way, so his reference to Augustine's belief in a Roman primacy wasn't meant to be a reference to a belief in a papacy. But Scott ignores such distinctions, equates primacy with a papacy, and claims without any supporting argument that Kelly was inconsistent.

I had cited a passage in which Augustine approvingly quotes the following anti-papal comments of Cyprian:

"For no one of us sets himself up as a bishop of bishops, or, by tyrannical terror, forces his colleagues to a necessity of obeying, inasmuch as every bishop, in the free use of his liberty and power, has the right of forming his own judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he can himself judge another. But we must all await the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ, who alone has the power both of setting us in the government of His Church, and of judging of our acts therein." (On Baptism, Against The Donatists, 2:2)

Cyprian denies that there's any bishop with universal jurisdiction. Not only is that the most natural reading of Cyprian's words, but it's also the most natural reading of his context. He made his comments above in the context of opposing the Roman bishop Stephen during a dispute over baptismal doctrine. Stephen was the first Roman bishop in our extant records to claim something like papal authority. Cyprian was opposing Stephen's claim. Even Roman Catholic scholars have acknowledged that Cyprian held a non-papal view of church government. See here. And Augustine was expressing agreement with Cyprian's view.

Here's how Scott responded:

So St. Augustine, through his quote from Cyprian, demonstrates that while St. Peter’s see is definitely one of primacy - the one in that seat may not always walk uprightly and may need someone else, like a St. Paul, or even a Church council, to step in and make a correction. So, even the bishop with primacy is not above correction - THAT is the point of this part of St. Augustine’s On Baptism, Against the Donatists

Does Cyprian, who's quoted by Augustine, say that he's addressing whether a bishop has "walked uprightly" and can be corrected by somebody of lower authority? No. Rather, Cyprian says that he's addressing whether there's any bishop of bishops, one bishop who has jurisdiction over the others. He denies that there is such a bishop. Roman Catholicism claims that there is one. That's a contradiction.

In my series on Augustine, I pointed out that Augustine defined ecumenical councils differently than Catholicism does. Augustine didn't agree with Catholicism about which councils are and aren't ecumenical. Scott evades the issue by commenting:

I’m not going to get into the middle of this dispute about how St. Augustine counted councils, vs. Dave or Jason.

There isn't much that Scott does "get into the middle of". He ignores most of what I address in my series on Augustine.

Here's Scott explaining that he's going to ignore even more of what I wrote:

There’s a bit of a battle about the interpretation of a word (“correct”) with several references to St. Augustine’s On Baptism, Against the Donatists, and then some more non-primary source commentary from Eno. Rather than a line-by-line, rehashing of this previous argument, let me skip to Engwer’s concluding/summary statements

Yet, a little later he comments:

I must have missed something here - where did St. Augustine state that ecumenical councils are fallible?

Scott "missed" it because he just "skipped" it.

That's an accurate summary of most of his response to my series.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Was Augustine Roman Catholic? (Part 1)

Scott Windsor has posted three responses to a series of articles I wrote about Augustine and Roman Catholicism. My series is linked here, and Scott's replies are here, here, and here.

He writes:

As noted in my previous response, Robert Eno is not a conservative “scholar” - but even so, all Mr. Engwer has presented above is Eno’s commentary on what St. Augustine has allegedly said or “viewed.” The problem here is we have NOTHING from St. Augustine to substantiate the claims! An unsubstantiated commentary is not a valid argument, and we must begin this series, as we did the last, in rejecting the premise based on a lack of substance....

This piece is more of a review of Eno’s book than a serious commentary on St. Augustine.

I cited an article by Eno, not a book. And the article is documented with more than a hundred notes, including many citations of Augustine and Augustinian scholarship. The article was published in a journal that specializes in the study of Augustine. Eno was (he's dead) a Roman Catholic clergyman and patristic scholar who taught church history at the Catholic University of America and was widely published, including on Augustinian issues. He wasn't conservative on some points, but the same can be said of recent Popes. Scott puts the term scholar in quotation marks, perhaps suggesting that Eno shouldn't be considered a scholar, but he doesn't explain why.

If Scott doesn't want to read the article by Eno that I cited, and he doesn't want to address the documentation Eno provided, that's his choice. But the documentation is there. And even without that documentation, I often quoted Eno's descriptions of events in Augustine's life and references to Augustine's historical context. Either those descriptions and references are correct or they aren't. If Scott thinks they're incorrect, then he needs to explain why. If he doesn't think they're incorrect, then why doesn't he address them? If he's saying that he needs documentation every time Eno refers to anything that occurred in Augustine's life or his surrounding context, then I would, again, ask why. Does Scott expect such documentation from sources that are more in agreement with his position? If a Catholic Answers article tells us that Augustine was bishop of Hippo during a particular year, does Scott expect documentation? Does he expect documentation every time a claim is made about Augustine? I doubt it. It's not as though Robert Eno was a high school student working as a cashier at McDonald's, writing blog posts about Augustine in his off hours. He was a patristic scholar writing an article for an Augustinian journal. We can safely expect him to know a lot about Augustine and to be at least largely accurate in what he tells us. For Scott to ignore so much of what I cited from Eno, and to do so with comments like what I've quoted above, leaves a lot to be desired.

But I did go on to cite and discuss some passages from Augustine. I didn't just quote Eno. As we'll see, Scott didn't have much to say in response to what I cited from Augustine. And he often made claims about Augustine and his historical context without offering any documentation, despite his objections to a lack of documentation from Eno.

In my series on Augustine, I sometimes linked to my own past articles on relevant subjects. Despite his claim that he wants more documentation, Scott ignored the past articles I linked. For example, he comments:

Let us ask, quickly though, how did we arrive at the Canon of Scripture, if not through Church councils over the first 400 years determining which books would be accepted as canonical, and which would be rejected from the canon?

I've answered that question in a series on the canon here. See here especially, where I document that disagreements over the canon continued long after the councils of the fourth century. Contrast my documentation to the lack of documentation in Scott's comments above.

Here's an example of the sort of shallow treatment of Augustine we get from Scott:

And STILL no quotes or substance, but how about I provide one for Mr. Engwer here to support what Mr. Eno said...

"I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church."
(St. Augustine, Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental, 5,6)

Let the objective reader consider where St. Augustine’s priority is here.

He makes no attempt to explain the alleged significance of that one sentence he's quoted. He just quotes it and lets the reader "consider" it. Eno addresses the passage in the article I cited, and other scholars who disagree with Scott's view of Augustine have addressed it many times. He gives us no reason to prefer his own reading over theirs.

At one point, Scott refers to how something in Augustine that was discussed by Eno seems "more of an argument for Catholicism than against it". If Augustine appealed to tradition, church councils, or other concepts vaguely similar to what Roman Catholics believe, Scott acts as if such vague similarity is sufficient. But my series wasn't about whether Augustine was "more for Roman Catholicism than against it". Rather, it was about whether he was Roman Catholic. A non-Catholic can agree with Catholicism more than he disagrees with it. Eastern Orthodox, Copts, Evangelicals, Anglicans, and other groups agree with Catholicism more than they disagree with it, but we don't therefore consider them Catholic.

Borrowed Cosmology

Ed Babinski wrote:

The Hebrews did not give us a spherical earth, the Greeks did....

Lastly, Augustine and Basil [who refer to a diversity of cosmological views in their day] are 4th century CE.

In The Infidel Delusion, I mentioned that the later critics date Biblical books, the more they have to take into account advances in knowledge over time when evaluating those books. If belief in a spherical earth became more popular in later centuries, then a Biblical author's belief in a spherical earth becomes more plausible the later a Biblical book is dated. But critics of Christianity often want to assign late dates to the Biblical documents. Their desire to date a book late in one context works against their argumentation in another context. Giving Genesis, Isaiah, or Daniel a late date helps the critic in one context, but hinders him in another. All of our belief systems involve such tradeoffs, but it's important to be aware of those tradeoffs and their implications.

In a post yesterday, I noted some recent comments Ed Babinski made about how distant men like Basil of Caesarea and Augustine were from the Biblical documents. Since those men refer to a diversity of cosmological views in their day, and Ed doesn't want us to think there was such diversity in Biblical times, he uses exaggerated language when referring to the distance of time between those men and the writing of the Biblical books.

I've been over that ground before, and it's not the main point of this post. What I want to emphasize here is a related issue. Skeptics often suggest that the Bible borrows much of its material from pagan sources, that some New Testament documents were written by unknown Gentile authors rather than the Jewish authors the books were commonly attributed to, that we know about such Gentile authorship because of common Gentile concepts and terminology within the documents, etc. Yet, in an area like cosmology, such Gentile influence would be favorable to the traditional Christian position rather than unfavorable. So, it's in the interest of somebody like Ed to distinguish between "the Hebrews" and "the Greeks", and to assume less of a Gentile influence on the Biblical authors and patristic Christians, as he does above.

Isn't that observation reversible, though? Don't Christians have an interest in putting more emphasis on Gentile influence in this context than they do in others? Not to the same extent. A knowledgeable Christian wouldn't deny that believers who lived during the Biblical and patristic eras were open to influence from other cultures on matters like language and cosmology. If a Greek or Roman argument for a spherical earth, for example, was convincing, what would prevent Jews or Christians from accepting it? They wouldn't accept another culture's cosmology just because that cosmology was popular in that culture or was part of that culture's religion, for example. But if there was good evidence for the cosmology, they could accept it, much as they could accept good clothing, technology, natural resources, and other products produced by other cultures. What Jews and Christians wouldn't be so likely to accept would be something inconsistent with the heart of their own culture, like the gods of other religions and their moral standards. Why would a critic of Christianity who thinks Jews and Christians were so willing to borrow from paganism on such significant issues, like the ones I just mentioned, suggest that they would have been so resistant to pagan influence on a matter like the spherical shape of the earth?

I'm not saying that any correct cosmological views the ancient Jews and Christians had would have been borrowed from other cultures. Steve and I have given many examples of how they could have arrived at correct cosmological conclusions (or have been agnostic on the issues) without borrowing. But the influence of other cultures is one factor to be taken into consideration among others. Most likely, ancient Jews and Christians combined their own observations with information they attained from other cultures. There wouldn't have been just one cosmological system, which they received entirely from other cultures or attained entirely on their own.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Instant obituaries

Joan Sutherland died on Sunday. I read a couple of fairly detailed, overnight obituaries. And this is typical. When a celebrity dies, we are treated to instant obituaries which detail the childhood, career, and retirement years of the celebrity (unless they died young). Cradle to grave, along with the intervening high points and low points.

How do we account for such rapid turnaround time between the death of a celebrity and the publication of a detailed obituary?

Well, I don’t write for a newspaper, so I can’t say for sure, but I think the explanation is fairly obvious: these obituaries were written years before the celebrity died. They may have been updated from time to time, but they’ve been sitting on ice until the celebrity dies. At that point the only thing to add are the immediate circumstances surrounding the death of the celebrity.

And I say that to say this: liberals and outright unbelievers usually dismiss the reliability of the gospels on the grounds that these were allegedly written decades after the fact. Now, even if that were true, that wouldn’t make them unreliable. Lots of us remember many things perfectly well that happened when we were young.

But I want to make a different point: when a biography was published doesn’t really tell you much about when it was written.

Back to my illustration. A music critic may be assigned to write an obituary for a diva. He’s given that task because he’s been writing about her for years. He’s written reviews of her performances. Written about her childhood. Her rise to fame. Maybe he’s interviewed her. He’s also kept tabs on her retirement.

In writing her obituary, he doesn’t start from scratch. Rather, he draws on many preexisting sources of information, including his own research.

And I expect he writes an obituary years before the diva dies. He keeps his draft obituary on file so that he can send it in as soon as she dies, at his editor’s request. He may update it now and then. And when she dies, he will update one more time, by adding a little something about the circumstances of her death. That new material will be tacked on to older, preexisting material. Just a little ad-on to bring it up to the present. He doesn’t revise the whole thing.

So even though the final edition of the obituary was written years after many of the events it relays, much of it was written long before she died. Or else it incorporates sources which were written long before she died.

And that’s something to consider when we consider gospel criticism.

The Laborers are Few . . .

Note: The following is an e-mail from my missionary friend, Trevor Johnson who, along with his family, is currently serving the Lord in Indonesia. Notice carefully that he's saying that the fields are white unto harvest, but the laborers are few . . .

Pray that Lord of the harvest will raise up laborers for the harvest!

Please use me as a missionary resource. I know of many open doors and
opportunities that I cannot exploit because there is simply not the workers to run through the open doors.

I am right now at a meeting with World Team Asia focused on mobilization and training new workers for the field. The situation in America came up. Many Americans my age are in delayed adolesence, have a sense of entitlement, lack perseverance, lack biblical literacy, and are eyeball deep in debt, i.e., unfit for missionary service.

Many youth in our grace churches are solidly biblically fed and are just good solid youth.

My desire is that we intentionally engage and mobilize these young men and women!

This is not only my open invitation but also my plea for you pastors to approach these most promising youth and challenge them to consider missions. Please take the initiative and ask some to pray and seriously consider missions.

If you want practical info on logistics or training for the field, please give them my email: oct31st1517@.... I am willing to correspond with anyone who is interested.

It is my pleasure to reflect that God not only saved me, not only called me into missions, but also allows me to bless others who may also be called into missions. Please bless me by connecting me and linking me up with those desiring info on missionary work.

Use me as a resource person.


We need pastors, bible teachers, school teachers, literacy workers, nurses,
development workers, english teachers. Single women are also useful in engaging tribal and muslim women, two groups often closed off to men. There are enough potential scenerios that we can find a fit for God-called servants.

Thank you for your time.

Trevor Johnson
I pray God will give people a burden to go help this brother!

A Contributor To The Christian Delusion Dates Daniel Prior To The Second Century B.C.

Ed Babinski writes:

"Lastly, Augustine and Basil are 4th century CE. At least 800 years or more after the OT was composed and formalized. Even several hundred years after the NT was composed."

We're making progress.

I have to admit, though, that placing the New Testament "several hundred years" before Basil is even earlier than the most conservative scholarship I've seen. Maybe Ed thinks the New Testament was written in prophetic anticipation. So, Romans was written before Paul's birth, but as if from Paul's perspective. That's a fascinating position to take on the origin of the New Testament, and it's one I hadn't considered before. I still have some doubts, but I have to give Ed credit for at least thinking outside the usual skeptical box.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Evangelicalism is the shape of the future

[Quote] Berger: Yes and look I mean I would say where we were wrong, we thought modernity leads to secularity. That was a mistake it may, like in Europe, but it doesn’t have to. What modernity I think necessarily leads to is plurality. People live surrounded by other people who live differently believe differently and that’s a big challenge to religious tradition. But it’s a different challenge from what we thought was the challenge of secularity. And that means for the individual since he has all these things around him, different views, different worldviews, he must choose and religious affiliation increasingly ceases to be taken for granted and is dependent on an individual’s decision, his choices. Now I think evangelicals should have very little difficulty with this because I’ve written recently an article where I’m not evangelical, I’m a Christian, I’m a Lutheran, but I have some problems with evangelicals. But what I wrote recently is the most modern religion around because at the very center of the evangelical understanding of the Christian faith is an act of personal decision. You can’t be born a Christian, you have to be born again as a Christian and that’s a matter of decision. That’s very very modern and so I think evangelicals should have very little difficulty with that kind of analysis.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Brains-optional infidelity


“Steve, You wrote, "The ancients had the means to know that a flat-earth/triple-decker cosmography was infeasible." But can you prove that they actually DID consider it infeasible, prior to 600 BCE?”

To make 600 BC the cut-off is arbitrary even on your own grounds. For just a few sentences later, in this very comment, you go on to say: “The ancients did not have your knowledge of modern physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, biology, etc.”

But, of course, that objection applies with equal force to 1C AD Jews or 5C AD pagans. Yet as I documented in my excerpts from Basil and Augustine, even though pagan critics didn’t have our knowledge of modern physics, astronomy, geology, &c. they could still ask common sense questions about physical models of the world.

“Can you also prove that the Book of Enoch, composed centuries later (during the inter-testamental period), also considered a flat earth infeasible?”

I already addressed that objection in my 5/31/10 post on “Enochian cosmography.” Try again, Edski.

“Can you prove that any NT author found a flat earth infeasible?”

I already dealt with your NT spooftexts in my review of your chapter. Try something new for a change.

"Your points of hypothetical "feasibility" do not take precedence over the ancient's own words and drawings that we possess."

You’re just too dense to ever get the point. Merely quoting their words or pointing to drawings doesn’t tell us what that meant to them. All you’re proving is what it means to you.

Do you think that all ancient drawings were meant to be representational? Do you assume that Mayan iconography was meant to be a photorealistic depiction of the world? What about Salvador Dali? Or Dr. Seuss? Or Byzantine icons?

A picture doesn’t tell you what significance that had for the artist or his target audience. You wouldn’t know, just by gazing at Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” what, if anything, that represents. It takes a lot of background knowledge, which you must bring to the painting, to figure that out. And even then, art historians offer competing interpretations.

“They had their own ideas and related concerns and fears concerning the cosmos' structure and shape. I pointed such things out in my chapter. They left behind words and imagery outlining their beliefs about cosmic geography.”

I see. So the words and imagery of Alice in Wonderland outline Lewis Carroll’s beliefs about cosmic geography. Gotcha!

"Read them for yourself. Read the book, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography. Or I can email you sections. Othmar Keel's writings feature Egyptian and Babylonian images and iconography of the cosmos as they imagined it."

I already commented on your selective and deceptive citations of Horowitz and Keel in my 5/29/10 post entitled “Flat earth or flat head?” Try again, Edski.

“Therefore I doubt that they would be prone to imagining "implications" in the same fashion you might be prone to imagine they did.”

I gave you examples to the contrary.

"As I've said, the ancients didn't have everything about their world worked out, but Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Hebrews shared enough in common for us to understand what kinds of "pictures of the cosmos" they entertained."

To the extent that OT writers engage ANE conceptions of the world, there is also a polemical thrust to their engagement.

“You think they only thought in terms of metaphor…”

I never said anything of the kind. I simply make allowance for what they were in a position to know.

“…and their minds wouldn't do what minds usually do, which is to try and piece together what little they could see and know about the world to form some idea of the whole, including ideas about cosmic geography?”

Of course, filling the gaps would require them to consider the implications of one data-point in relation to another. Interpolation is an inferential process, Edski.

"Your discussion/debate, is not with "Babinski" it's with archeologists, translators, historians, and theologians who have uncovered the words and ideas of ancient civilizations."

You’re quite selective about what writers you cite, and even then you’re very selective about what you cite in their writings.

“When you read a few more different experts on ancient Near Eastern cosmologies, as outlined in my endnote number 2 let me know.”

Completely forgetting the fact that I already covered that ground in my critique of your precious chapter. Why can’t you remember anything, Edski? Did you fry your brains sniffing glue?

Newton's bucket


"That's not addressing the point I made in my chapter. The point was that the Bible tells us that objects in the sky were moving, stars, constellations, the sun, and some verses even state that God was directing such movements. But the movements that the ancients saw were only apparent. The stars coursing? That's because the earth rotates. The constellations rising and falling on the horizon throughout the year? That's because the earth circles the sun annually. But "God" is praised for directing, moving such objects. But they aren't moving, not at all. It's like praising God for making the trees go by when you're driving down the street."

There’s nothing wrong with attributing relative motion to divine agency. And one frame of reference is mathematically equivalent to another. Consider the alternative scenarios of Newton and Mach on the rotating bucket.

At the purely descriptive level, it’s isn’t even meaningful to say that one moves around the other–rather than vice versa. Absolute motion is a useful fiction–nothing more. For the sun is also moving in relation to other reference frames. The reason we say the earth moves around the sun is because we assign a causal priority to the sun, viz. gravity–like Bas van Fraassen’s example of the flagpole’s shadow. There’s a causal asymmetry between the two, despite a kinematic symmetry.

Or do you think we should revert to Newtonian physics, with its stipulative categories of absolute time, space, and motion?

“That means they perceived the earth as stationary, exactly as other verses state, God "has established the earth, it shall not be moved."”

Which has reference to seismic activity, not celestial motion. You continue to retroject Ptolemaic astronomy back onto texts that are innocent of any such theoretical concerns.

“So they believed God's power was demonstrated in both cases, in the case of daily and seasonal movements of celestial objects in the sky above the earth, and in the case of keeping the earth still, unmoved.”

Why should there be seasonal variations in their perceived position if the earth were flat? Wouldn’t that involve a static relation? Seasonal variations in their perceived position assume a spherical earth (i.e. axial tilt) revolving around the sun.

“That's my argument from the chapter, and it demonstrates that the ancients did not perceive the earth as moving, but believed all of the objects in the sky were moving.”

No. What it demonstrates is that Ed Babinski is projecting his wooden interpretation onto the text. It doesn’t begin to show that this is what the text mean to the ancients.

One of your chronic problems is how you act as though you can construe a literary description in isolation to the outside world which the author and reader daily observe beyond the words on the page. But the ancients were quite able to compare a literary description with their real world experience.

For instance, they traveled widely. On ships or by land (e.g. trade routes). They knew perfectly well that the real world extended beyond the horizon-line of a mountaintop view.

Likewise, explorers could observe changes in the position of the constellations at different latitudes. Cf. Charles Hapgood, Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings; Christina Roseman, Pytheas of Massalia: On the Ocean.

That’s not consistent with a flat-earth cosmography.

“About your view that to shake a flat earth means to shove things off its edges, all I can say is that neither Egypt nor Babylon nor Israel believed that they lived at the edge of the earth.”

i) That’s another example of your incorrigible naiveté. Even if (ad arguendo) royal propaganda located the kingdom at the center of the universe, royal historians knew enough about the actual geography of a far-flung empire not to take that literally.

ii) Moreover, if you place a marble in the center of a table, and shake the table (sideways or up and down), the marble will roll off the table.

“They each perceived their nation as lying at the center of the earth. I point this out in an endnote in my chapter.”

Which is a good example of your shoddy scholarship. You cite White’s off-discredited Warfare opus as your source of information (TCD 138n34). In the meantime, you ignore real scholarship dealing with your prooftext. But your interpretation is dubious. Cf. Daniel Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 25-48, 447-48.

“Neither does the Bible say God shakes the earth at a 90% angle. Neither do you have to interpret the line in Job (about God picking up the earth by its edges to shake the wicked out of it) in a fundamentalist fashion. I do not interpret it that way in my chapter. I cited that verse as a metaphor that coincides with the ancient flat earth perception of the cosmos as found in other verses in Job and the Bible.”

If you now admit we should avoid construing this type of imagery in “fundamentalist fashion,” but instead make allowance for figures of speech, then that sinks your entire argument.

It's life all the way down

Communion in the tomb

"For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes" (1 Cor 11:26).

"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3-4).

"But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thes 4:13).

Historically, what Scripture teaches us about the Lord’s Supper has been co-opted by raging debates over the real presence. Whatever it actually signifies in Scripture has shifted to the extraneous significance which Lutherans or Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox (among others) impute to the rite.

But if we consider the intertextual parallels, the significance of the Lord’s Supper is analogous to the significance of Christian burial.

In 1 Cor 11:26, communion has a twofold significance: it commemorates a past event while it also anticipating a future event. And it does so in light of a present absence. A contrast between what was, what is, and what will be.

Communion commemorates his death and burial, but does so with a view to the second coming of the Risen Lord. An emblem of memory and hope. Reverence for the past, and faith in the future. Commemoration and celebration.

In that respect, the Eucharist has a function similar to a cemetery. For Christian survivors, who bury Christian loved ones, the grave is a present emblem of a present absence (the departed), which, in turn, commemorates the life of the departed while it also anticipates the future reunion.

This is why survivors often remain in the area, and frequent the cemetery. The grave is both a backward-looking and forward-looking symbol. It reminds them of the life they shared with their loved one. And it prefigures the restoration to come.

A cemetery is a waiting place. A place where survivors come to pray, to reminisce, to give thanks for the years together. To grieve for the years apart. But as well, a place that foreshadows the renewed presence of the present absence.

Of course, the grave is only significant to the survivors. A friend. A sibling. A spouse. A son or daughter–or grandson or granddaughter. A hidden significance.

It is special to them because the departed are special to them. For them, the marked grave is nothing more or less than a tangible token or outward pledge of what once was, no longer is, but shall be again.

That stands in contrast to those who have no hope. For them, the grave is only backward-looking, not forward-looking. An ending, rather than the promise of a new beginning.