Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why it (Sort of) Takes a PhD to Understand the Bible: The Holy Spirit and Interpretation

[8/19/2013: Due to scads of people misunderstanding this post I have made several modifications and added definitions throughout for clarity.]

Does the Holy Spirit give believers an understanding of what a Biblical author is saying or are we at the groveling mercy of elite academicians to understand God’s word? Do I really need access to the original languages, ancient history, textual-criticism and all that other stuff to understand my Bible?

You’d think the answer would be obvious, right?

In the first hermeneutics course I took in seminary, Daniel P. Fuller’s article “The Holy Spirit’s Role in Biblical Interpretation” was required reading.  Fuller, exegeting 1 Corinthians 2:14, demonstrates beyond doubt a Biblical conclusion which offends most of us.  The implication of his article: Unless you are going to interpret the Bible like the church father Origen, rejecting a historical-grammatical hermeneutic and throwing all caution to the wind, it does take a PhD to understand your Bible.  You are at the mercy of academicians.  The Bible does not claim the Spirit aids the interpreter in the meaning (defined as, “that pattern of meaning the author willed to convey by the words [shareable symbols] he used”).[1] Rather it teaches the Holy Spirit aids us in the significance (defined as “how a reader responds to the meaning of a text”) of the text.[2]  That last sentence was a directly taken from my old class notes so I’m not left field on this one.

When I say it takes a PhD to understand the Bible, I’m not implying you yourself must have one.  I don't have one, nor am I a scholar. I am saying that you must at least have access to individuals that do have a PhD and can explain the text to you before you go running around looking for apache helicopters and brachiosauruses in your King James. What this means is that linguists, historians and textual-critics serve critical roles in the body of Christ, and we are hopelessly dependent on their PhDs to understand Scripture. God has chosen to entrust the ground-level understanding and explanatory dissemination of His scripture to a bunch of ivory-tower nerds. (Having an introverted, or introspective personality doesn't automatically disqualify you from serving in the body of Christ! Crazy, right?)

The reality of all this isn't as controversial as you might think, as James McGrath has retorted to Ken Ham (no, that doesn't mean I endorse everything McGrath has ever written), our utter dependence on scholars to understand the Bible is demonstrated anytime we pick up an English translation. If you really believe all you need is the aid of the Holy Spirit to understand your Bible then you better be able to pick up a Koine Greek text and manipulate God's Spirit like a Mormon seer stone without the aid of scholars. In fact, the meaning of many Bible passages cannot be understood (even when translated) without a surprisingly esoteric knowledge of subjects like Ugaritic, Egyptian, the Dead Sea Scrolls or textual-criticism.

For example, in a text like Ezekiel 1 (and especially in apocalyptic material) knowledge of Babylonian iconography and other symbolism is critical to understanding the passage.  Frankly, some texts in the Bible read like a description of an LSD trip at an ancient Babylonian X-files convention. You need more than your personal penchants to anchor you as you exegete texts like Revelation and Ezekiel.

I once attended a church study group in which we all sat around a room and asked each other with open Bibles what we thought Ezekiel 1 meant.  None of us had commentaries or any other resources, just our Bibles and groping, sanctified opinions.  The Bible study leader had rosy intentions, but frankly, no one learned squat about the meaning of the text that night. We were all radically wrong in our proposed understandings of Ezekiel—and we would have never come to a correct understanding of that text if we had sat and pontificated in that room for a hundred years together with the most holy affections.  We never could have imagined on our own that eyes in ancient iconography and other parts of the Hebrew of Ezekiel were used to refer to stars.  We would never had imagined the carnal points of the Babylonian zodiac are synonymous with the four faces of Ezekiel’s’ cherubim or that the throne depictions are common ANE allusions implying a polemic against Israel’s pagan captors.  Without the aid of scholars with PhDs we were unable to access an understanding of the text that would have been evident to any ancient Israelite in Ezekiel’s Babylonian exiled audience. In fact, any Christian without access to that information will not understand the symbols and other elements of the text as Ezekiel’s original audience would have.  That means every Christian in church history before archaeology in the Middle East became a mature discipline has been doomed to a failure to grasp the fullness of that passage's meaning and its symbols in the same sense as Ezekiel’s original audience did.

That said, we all got glimpses of the significance of the text that night.  We understood the text was at least about God’s glory and kingship, and as Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 2, it is in that realm that the Holy Spirit does His work and we didn't need degrees to understand.  We were able to embrace, love and submit to the significance of the text because we had Him to aid us.  In that sense we knew the text in a way an unbelieving Semitic expert never could understand apart from God—even though that unbelieving Semitic expert could have outclassed any of us in understanding and explaining the details of what Ezekiel meant.

Our privileged modern access to sources like the Ugaritic texts and Dead Sea Scrolls ensures us that we will come to deeper and in many cases different understandings of certain passages than the Reformers or most anyone else in church history who didn’t have access to those resources.  It’s not John Calvin’s fault or a deficiency of his fidelity to the Holy Spirit that he failed to grasp the meaning of Psalm 74.  He had little way of knowing the Psalm is a parallel with the chaoskampf of Israel’s pagan neighbors, that Genesis was written in a context of cosmic mountain theology, or the full theological gravity of Jesus' claim to one day 'come with the clouds.' We are better able to read the text through the eyes of an ancient Israelite than Augustine, Luther, Calvin or the council of Trent.

Our ability to deeper understand the word of God will either offend or delight us.  When we let Bible study with academic resources take back seat to hermeneutical mysticism and homiletical Lifeway literature, we are setting ourselves over the text, and not honoring God’s decision to reveal his word to a particular people in a particular culture at a particular point in history.  The sad result is that much of the beauty and intensity of scripture is lost due to our historical imperialism and modernistic narcissism.  To be sure, homiletics and mysticism are vital, but they are the result of, and not the source, by which we understand the Bible.

That task, God has primarily entrusted to a bunch of nerds in the body of Christ with PhDs.   

[1] Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994], 38.
[2] Ibid., 43.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ray Hagins Refuted: Arius and the Council of Nicaea

In my first post on Ray Hagins I covered how the assertions he makes about gods like Horus, Mithras and Krishna have no basis in reality.  In fact, a number of people offered Hagins cash rewards for any primary texts supporting many of his claims, and he refused to supply any such source.  The truth is Hagins is powerless to supply those sources because they do not exist.  The texts explicitly contradict his claims.

For example, he asserts those three gods were all virgin born: Horus was not born of a virgin.  Plutarch relates the necessity for Isis to fashion Osiris a phallus before she descends on his body and receives 'the seed of Osiris in her womb.'[1] (Who needs Fifty Shades of Grey or pre-teen vampire franchises when you could just read all that saucy Egyptian stuff.) As Yamauchi, Clauss and others show, Mithras is depicted explicitly emerging fully grown from a rock in ancient Roman depictions (curiously reminiscent of 60’s British rock album artwork), and we even have a Latin inscription which spells out the rock birth for us.[2]  As for Krishna, before he was born his parents were imprisoned by his evil uncle Kamsa in an attempt by Kamsa to circumvent a prophecy about Krishna being born and killing him. As a tyrant of decorum, instead of killing his sister Devaki, he murders her first seven children in front of her and her husband as they are born in the prison.  Krishna only survives his birth due to divine assistance.  He was her eighth child as the prophecy itself stated.[3] You can examine a refutation of the rest of Ray’s claims about these gods here.

Perhaps Hagin’s most famous claim is that a letter correspondence attributed to Emperor Hadrian links the early Christians with Egyptian Serapis worship. In  my second post on Hagins, I pointed out the “Serapis letter” is a late forgery. The forged nature of the document is taken as axiomatic among scholars of the Historia Augusta from which it derives.

In this third post we will be examining Hagins’ wacko claims about Arius at the council of Nicaea, and I will propose a challenge to Hagins.  He’s billed himself as an authority to the public so I will address him publicly and email this page to him.

Take a deep breath dear Remythologized reader. Cover your baby's ears; for I am about to present you the holy grail of Nicaea myths.  All the hundreds before that made you laugh and cry were but mere omens of this crowning achievement of historical negligence.  Blood will shoot out of your eyeballs.  Catatonic visions of Dan Brown rotating his head 360 degrees will seize you. You will wake up in the fetal position in a puddle of drool with your fingernails embedded in a J. N. D. Kelly textbook.  Brace yourself:

Hagins claims Arius’ contention at Nicaea was over Jesus’ historical existence.  That’s right.  He says Jesus was unknown prior to the centuries leading up to Nicaea.

At 30:28 into this “lecture” Hagins says, “Nobody, Origen…none of the historians of the first, second or third century said anything about somebody called Jesus.”

Yes, I’m actually about to type a paragraph refuting this.  I’ll do it for those who follow Hagins and have no footing in Christian history:

Origen wrote extant commentaries on the gospels of John and Matthew and the letter to the Romans; he wrote an apologetic work entitled Against Celsus which cleared up Roman slanders against the historical Jesus; he wrote two books on the resurrection of Jesus. All one needs to do is pull up a text database of his writings like this one and search “Jesus.”  The man “Jesus” appears near 400 times in Origen’s Against Celsus alone.  Heracleon, in 170 wrote a commentary on the Gospel of John.  You can read it here.  That’s to say nothing of all the pre-Nicaean writings like Hermas, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, or the Didache, all of which refer to Jesus by name as a historical individual and none of which hint at a Serapis connection.  Besides that, Romans like Pliny the Younger, Celsus, Lucian, the Jewish historian Josephus and Tacitus mention Jesus, all within 150 years of his life.[4]  The Chester Beatty Papyri and Bodmer papyri contain most of the New Testament dating long before Nicaea.  I’ll stop there.  Claims this inane don’t warrant extended rebuttal.

To top this off Hagins teaches the Christians of the first three centuries were actually worshiping Serapis—that Serapis was made into Jesus at Nicaea and Arius was privy to the reality that Jesus didn’t exist historically. This is obviously based on Hagins’ flub with assuming the Historia Augusta is genuine, as previously covered. Beyond that, If you’re still incredulous of Hagin’s thesis, you clearly don’t posses the erudition to consider the irrefutable iconographic juxtaposition of Serapis and Jim Caviezel. Let’s pretend to forget Hagins actually makes the equivalent of that argument and proceed to ask some fun questions like good Aristotelians:

Why does Arius in his own writings and arguments at Nicaea appeal to Hebrews and other New Testament texts as authoritative standards if he didn’t believe their claims about the historical Jesus?  You can read all of Arius’ extant writings here. Ray, why did Arius write to Constantine affirming the existence of the historical Jesus?
 We believe in one God the Father Almighty, and in the Lord Jesus Christ his Son, who was begotten of him before all ages, God the Word through whom all things were made, both things in heaven and on earth; who descended, and became human, and suffered, and rose again, ascended into heaven, and will again come to judge the living and the dead.
At 34:25 Hagins says, “There was one God.  ‘He ain’t got no son’: That was Arius’ argument.”

Virtually every letter we have from Arius affirms God “begat a son.” For example, five years before Nicaea in a letter to the bishop of Alexandria he wrote:
We acknowledge One God, alone unbegotten…who begat an only-begotten Son before time and the ages, through whom he made both the ages [Heb 1:2] and all that was made.
Pointing to texts in which Arius claims Jesus did not exist as a member of the Trinity in eternity past (the Arian heresy) won’t do, Ray. Why does Arius never once bring up Serapis in any of his writings?

I’m sure all that stuff was covered up by the international Catholic conspiracy, right?

****A public challenge to Ray Hagins*****

Name and cite a single living scholar on earth holding an academic position at any university in the fields of New Testament or Church History who believes the council of Nicaea involved suppressing a contention by Arius that Jesus was in anyway associated with Serapis.

Name a single one.

Suggested lay-level reading for Rays’ followers interested in what really happened with Arius at Nicaea:  Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1999).

[1] You can see this with the text reference on page 47 using this online translation of Plutarch’s Moralia.  

In regards to Horus being the “seed of Osiris” see R. O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts (Chippenham: Aris & Phillips, 2004), 125.  Spell 148 reads: “How do you know? He is the god, lord and heir of the Ennead, who made you within the egg. I am Isis, one more spirit-like and august than the gods; the god is within this womb of mine and he is the seed of Osiris.”

[2] This material is provided by Edwin Yamauchi.  See my post on Kersey Graves here.

[3] The birth story of Krishna is related in the Srimad Bhagavatam, canto 10.  You can read it online here.

v. 66-7 of chapter 1 reads, “He [Kamsa] thus in fear of his own death arrested Vasudeva and Devakî, confined them at home in shackles and killed one after the other each of their newborn sons not knowing whether it would be the 'Never-born' Lord or not.” Chapter 2 relates the god’s prayers for Krishna in the womb then 3 describes his birth and escape from the prison guards.

[4] For those interested, the Roman sources are pursued by Habermas in The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the life of Christ (Joplin: College Press, 1996).  There's also R. T. France's The Evidence for Jesus (London: Regent College,1986) and an excellent book explaining why New Testament scholars are universally convinced of Jesus' historical existence is Bart D. Ehrmans' Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, (USA: HarperCollins, 2012).

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Great Podcast Resource for Studying Ancient Mediterranean Religion

Philip Harland from York University has a blog of extensive podcasts on Ancient Mediterranean religion. (Disclaimer: I don't take many of his presuppositions.)  Readers of this blog will find many of his lectures and audio studies a useful resource.

Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean blog

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The gods of Deut. 32:8: An Israelite Pantheon?

An artistic iconographic harmonization of my own.
The divine beings of Israel's religion share many
of the titles, iconography and functions employed
by their surrounding neighbors
At the end of my last post (which should be read before this one), I complained that the majority of critical scholarship since the late 19th century has seen in the scriptures a chronological evolution of Israel’s religion from polytheism to monotheism.  Critics attempt to demonstrate this evolution by pointing to early Biblical texts which speak of the existence of multiple gods.[1] These “polytheistic” texts are then contrasted with the standard monotheistic declarations in later post–exilic texts those sweet old ladies in hats had you recite since Sunday school. There you have it. Israelite monotheism must have evolved under Hezekiah.

For example, a “polytheistic” text like Psalm 138:1 might be contrasted with a “contradictory” later-developed “monotheistic” text like Deut 4:39:
“I will praise you with my whole heart: before the gods will I sing praise to you.” 
“…Yahweh, he is the God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other
Traditionally evangelicals counter the reconstruction described above by doing their best to demythologize the texts in the Bible which affirm the existence of multiple gods.  They assure us:  “Those aren’t gods. Those are human rulers that the OT calls gods!”

Evangelicals are losing the debate and we deserve to. Exegetically, the evangelical response has been as elegant as a shaved gorilla.  In short, I believe it’s driven by 17th century terminology which is detached from the ANE material. At the same time, critical scholarship is wrong because it misinterprets post-exilic texts to contrive a strict post-exilic monotheism. Since both the critical scylla and evangelical charybdis are deficient, a third way between them has been entertained by several fed-up scholars.  As I stated in my last post, I don’t believe that third way implies contradiction in the Bible or in anyway effaces our fidelity to monotheism. More importantly, it was the worldview of the Biblical authors and Jesus.  Understanding this is a healthy invitation for Christians to re-embrace the highly supernatural worldview of scripture.

Deuteronomy 32:8-9 is one of the key texts in the discussion. The text reads:
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.  9But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. (ESV)
Martin Shields over at his Shields Up blog is representative of the conservative sentiment.  My interaction with his post is motivated out of lighthearted comradery more than polemics since I enjoy much of his other work.  I also agree with Shields that the “elyon” in this passage refers to Yahweh. All I care about in this post is the identification of the “sons of God” of that passage.

As an aside on the textual variant in this passage, Shields recognizes with most scholars the Masoretic textual variant of verse 8 which reads “according to the number of the sons of Israel” is inferior to the DSS/LXX reading “sons of God” preserved in the ESV translation quoted above.  There are plenty of long, boring reasons the DSS/LXX reading is superior. Long story short, the Masoretic reading implies a gross anachronism since Deuteronomy 32:8-9 describes the tower of Babble episode.  It would be impossible for God to divide the nations according to the sons of Israel at Babble because Israel didn’t exist yet; Jacob had yet to be born.

Deut. 32:8 then does indeed claim that God divided the nations, “according to the number of the sons of God.

So, why do I believe these “sons of God” [Hebrew: bny ha-elohim] are gods and not men as Shields argues?  First, it is significant that if one counts the number of divisions of the table of nations at Babble the number totals to 70—the exact number of the cognate sons of God in the Ugaritic texts.[2]  The Ancient Near Eastern context therefore demands these 70 sons of God in the Bible ought to be defined with relation to the non-human 70 bny ilm at Ugarit.  This identification is unmistakable because other cognate titles in the Ugaritic for these beings (titles like “the assembly of El,” “assembly of the stars” or “holy ones”) are shared with the Bible.

Second, the parallel of this event in Deuteronomy 4 shows us these beings are gods and not human:
19And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you will be drawn away and bow down and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. 20But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day. (ESV)  
8When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.  9But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. (ESV)
The other text Shields quotes to supply the doctrine that the sons of God are mere humans is Psalm 82:
 1God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.5…all the foundations of the earth are shaken. 6 I said, “you are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; 7nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” 8Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations! (ESV)
Again, the plural elohim of this passage demands a supernatural translation.  There is simply no way to get away with making these gods human as Heiser's doctoral dissertation demonstrated.  In Psalm 89 these same beings are said to be "in the clouds."

So, did Israel have a pantheon?  Were they polytheists?  As I lamented in my last post, these are oily, shock-factor terms which lead to confusion more than clarification since they imply things which were not the case for the ancient Israelite.  It's best to simply describe the role and functions of these beings.  The psalms have them being created by God.  God, in this text, is seen exercising authority over them, distributing them among the nations to rule and later judging them--stripping them of their immortality at the eschaton in Psalm 82.  Although these beings are in a category distinct from what we usually envision when we use the term "angel." The sons of God are similar to angels in the sense that they are the mere created beings of Yahweh, and they are not presented as beings worthy of worship.

Michael S. Heiser, “Should the Plural אלהים of Psalm 82 Be understood as Men or Divine Beings?” (delivered at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society).

[1] Karen Armstrong’s popular History of God used in many college level religion courses is representative. A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 40-78.
[2] E.g. KTU 1.4:VI.46.