Simon Joseph on the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in L.A.

Simon Joseph provides an interesting review of the recent Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in Los Angeles. About ten years ago a Scrolls exhibit passed through Grand Rapids, Michigan, incorporating as part of its narrative Gabriele Boccaccini’s perspective on the Enochic/Essene nature of the documents and the yachad community. It looks like the naysayers are having their turn. About the same time the exhibit was held in Grand Rapids, Lawrence Schiffman was our guest speaker for the Judaism and Christianity in the Greco-Roman World series sponsored by the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and the Michigan Center for Early Christian Studies. Over lunch Larry argued that the inhabitants of Qumran were Sadducees. I simply pointed out that the eschatology of the Qumran scribes alone would rule out any possibility of a Sadducean character of the yachad. Larry’s argument was based in part on Mishnaic descriptions of Sadducean halakhah compared to halakhah in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The problem with that kind of comparison is that various Jewish groups from this period shared halakhic practices, and it was only the very small, minute details of halakhic observance that actually defined sectarian difference — a case of losing the forest for the trees. At any rate, Simon provides a nice review and, I think, an accurate criticism.


From Nico Lang on why we hate the economically insecure

Lang quoting Barbara Ehrenreich from Nickel and Dimed: “When someone works for less pay than she can live on—when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently—then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The “working poor,” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.”

Is the religious freedom trope just another wedge issue?

I wonder. No not really. I’m pretty confident that it is; you know, that whole religious freedom argument. Conservatives have been roiling about this for the last several months. It’s a curious phenomenon. And I’m being generous by calling it “curious.” Oh let’s just call it what it is. It’s the latest wedge issue. As the legalization of marriage equality spreads from state to state I am aware of zero (that’s nil) churches who have experienced any restriction of their religious freedom when it comes to the LGBTQ community demanding to be married in conservative congregations that don’t believe in it. None. So we have to come up with “preemptive” legislation to prevent it from happening. Kind of like a previous president’s doctrine of preemptive strike against a nation that is perceived to be a threat to our national interests (which was based on a false, contrived narrative). There is a new presidential election season that is just beginning after all. So the wedges are in the process of being sharpened. If you think the LGBTQ community should not have the right to marry because of your religious convictions, you have every right to oppose it within your religious community. You even have the right to speak out against it in public, to make your position known. That’s the freedom we all have. First amendment stuff. The problem with using our religious freedom as a wedge issue is that the government is not forcing anyone to act against their religious conscience. It is not happening. The arguments of “preemptive legislation” are not proof of religious persecution. They are conservative expressions of fear of possible religious persecution. As citizens of our country, the LGBTQ community have all the civil rights and equal protection under the law afforded by the constitution and the Bill of Rights. And there’s the rub. While some have religious convictions against the LGBTQ community and some do not, we must all recognize that we all live together in a society defined by laws based on a constitution that is not a religious document. It is a foundational legal document, providing legal and social boundaries for those who hold to the narratives of the Bible as well as for those who do not. The religiously convicted have no right to impose their religious convictions on those who don’t have the same convictions. That’s why we are a nation of laws, to protect religious communities from a government that would require them to act against their beliefs, but also to protect those who do not hold the beliefs of a religious community from having that religious community’s beliefs imposed on them through the pretense of a legal system that fails to provide equal protection under law. So, while we’re all being distracted by this “black and white” religious freedom wedgie thing, Wall Street bankers and conservatives are stealing the nation blind. Funny how that works.

Ellen Brown on our shift from democracy to oligarchy

Watching this happen for the last thirty + years has been very, very painful, especially as it gradually has become clear what’s happened.

Free Market Karma

Sometimes I get the impression that free-market economists think of the idea of the “Free Market” as if it were an objective reality or an inescapable cosmic force, in much the same way that Hinduism or Buddhism thinks of karma. In Hinduism as in Buddhism, karma is an impersonal force, a cosmic reality, a universal law, like gravity. The karmic wheel turns as an unalterable, unstoppable grinding reality. It just is. There is no escaping the consequences of one’s actions because … karma. From a historian’s perspective, the karmic system developed in the East where there were and still are densely populated areas and a very strident competition for material resources. So the development of a system that regulated human moral behavior (how we treat each other when the population is dense and competition for resources is pronounced) became a necessity. For those who live in the East, historically, karma was the answer to this very difficult human problem. Note the moral component. Now, to press the analogy a bit, the Free Market has within it cosmic power to reward and punish certain choices or behaviors. If you act in such a way that compromises or fails to implement the Free-Market ideal in its purity, the Free Market will punish you … or at least, so the ideology goes. It is not a moral or immoral system; so the argument goes. It just is. There is no escaping it. And if we remove all artificially contrived restraints on the Free Market, then its truly benevolent nature will emerge to reward everyone … everyone, that is, who makes the right choices. The Free Market is an impersonal force. So the argument goes, and its rewards and punishments ultimately are those of one’s own making. A lot like karma. … The failure of this ideology is in its misunderstanding of human nature. How do you convince the greedy to stop being greedy? How do you stop the murderer from having murderous thoughts? How do you turn the tyrant from using violence to seize power? … So the idea of the free market is just that, an idea. It requires regulation to prevent human beings from exploiting other human beings of lesser status and power, because having had success in the market they want to use the results of their success to use people instead of providing opportunities for others to have the same success. And once those regulations are implemented by a society that has ordered its government for the protection and the prosperity of its people, then it is no longer a free market. It’s called living and working together.

The Jubilee Year and Matthew 18.22

A friend once asked me about forgiveness and the “sevens” of Matthew 18.22. Here’s a portion of my friend’s email:

. . . I have a question. I always learned Matthew 18:22 (how many times should I forgive my brother?) as, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Now – in my new NIV Bible, it doesn’t say “seventy times seven” but “seventy-seven times.”

I understand both numbers just play on the “seven” number, but what are your thoughts there?

This is my response:

Translating numbers in Greek (and Hebrew) sometimes can be a bit tricky. Especially when the Greek text we have is based on an Aramaic saying of Jesus. So what we end up with is something that looks kind of funny in Greek, and translators often don’t know what to do with it. What Jesus did in Matthew 18.22 was remind Peter of forgiveness based on the concept of the Jubilee Year in the Hebrew Bible. In the Torah (Leviticus 25) the Jubilee year came around every 49 years. The forty-ninth year was the sabbatical year when fields were to be left fallow. The fiftieth year was the Jubilee year. During this year any Israelite who had incurred a debt from a fellow Israelite was released from his obligation to repay the debt. No questions asked. It was unconditional. This included endentured servitude and land transactions. Family lands were restored to the original family. The intent was to keep the original gift of the land allocated to the original twelve tribes as God first gave it. According to Leviticus 25, this was to remind the Israelites of the one who gave them the land; in other words, it was to stress the fact that the land belongs to God. (Human realities quickly changed this!) The point in Matthew 18 is that Peter was trying to put conditions on the forgiveness he was willing to show his fellow human being. Jesus, on the other hand, in Matthew 18.22 reminded Peter of the Jubilee Year concept and the unconditional release of all debt/obligation. But why does the text of Matthew 18.22 use both the Greek word for the number “seventy” and the Greek word for the number “seven”? There appears to be a combined allusion to Leviticus 25, which stresses the forgiveness of debt (where the Jubilee is calculated as “seven weeks of years” or seven times seven = 49 years) and Daniel 9 where there is a reference to the “seventy weeks” (which is calculated, but not in a millenialistic sense, as seventy times seven = 490 years). Daniel 9 highlights that the “seventy weeks are decreed . . . to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting rightousness” (Dan 9.24). By conflating allusions to Leviticus 25 and Daniel 9, Jesus is able to drive home with Peter his point about forgiveness. For Jesus, it wasn’t just an economic issue, it was also a matter of the righteousness that comes with the eschatological appearance of the messiah. Note the reference to “an anointed one” in the immediate context at Daniel 9.25. It was also a moral/ethical issue for Jesus, having to do with the way we treat each other and the sins we commit against each other in our daily lives. According to Jesus in Matthew 18.22, forgiving someone who sins against you is an unqualified act. You can’t place conditions on it. Otherwise it’s not forgiveness.

Paul and Jewish Identity

Adam&EveI am teaching Introduction to the New Testament this summer and I find myself appreciating that many of my students are engaged and interested in the subject. This is especially gratifying since most of them are upper class students seeking a (any) humanities credit in order to graduate. Regardless, the discussions (and questions) have ranged from non-existent to average to very good to excellent.

I like to incorporate my current research when I teach. As we studied the undisputed letters of Paul, we focused about an hour of our time on Paul’s Adam material (1 Corinthians 15, Romans 5, and Philippians 2). Of course anyone who has read Paul knows that Paul presents Christ as the “second Adam” and virtually relegates Adam to a role of infecting humankind with the terminal disease of sin. (It’s interesting that this is not a medieval metaphor, but Jewish literature from roughly the time of Paul also discusses sickness and death as consequences of Adam’s sin.)

Jewish identity from this period was heavily invested in terms of the individual’s relationship with God. Jewish identity was invested in many ways (Sabbath, circumcision, Torah, etc.) and it was a very complicated issue to negotiate in the first century C.E. But the individual’s relationship with God seems to encompass all of these.

One particular Jewish perspective on the individual’s relationship with God (in view of being affected by Adam’s sin) entailed identifying Adam as the prototypical human being who received God’s mercy and was given access to paradise. How did Adam achieve this? According to the Greek Life of Adam and Eve (GLAE), a midrash on Genesis 3, Adam attained God’s mercy and gained access to paradise on the basis of two things: 1) he was the image of God, and 2) he had a repentant disposition toward God.

Comparing these concepts in GLAE with the Adam texts in Paul suggests that Paul was engaged in an internal Jewish soteriological debate in the first century. Paul claimed that the approach presented in GLAE was not enough. (Whether Paul actually knew the text of GLAE is beside the point; he apparently was aware of the traditions imbedded in GLAE.) In contrast to GLAE, Paul argued that Adam’s only contribution was a negative one. “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5.12).

For Paul it was not Torah observance that made one a Jew (Romans 2.28-29; 3.21). Neither was it enough to be the image of God by virtue of being a child of Adam. Neither was it enough to have a repentant disposition toward God. It was one’s orientation in relation to the Messiah; it was necessary to be “in Christ.” In this way Paul was contesting Jewish identity in the first century C.E. He was redefining in his own way what it means to be a Jew, just as he was redefining Israel in his own way (Romans 9.6).