Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The annotated Rawlinson

Years ago I published this short post on "evidential ammunition" for Christian apologetics. In the course of it I had a long quotation from 19th century historian George Rawlinson, The Historical Evidences of the Truth of the Scripture Records: Stated Anew (1860), pp. 185-88.

I have noticed recently that I threw in some ellipses in the Rawlinson quotation at some points where I wish I hadn't. So here is the same passage from Rawlinson with the elided portions included. I will follow up on this with an annotated version thereof:

The political condition of Palestine at the time to which the New Testament narrative properly belongs, was one curiously complicated and anomalous; it underwent frequent changes, but retained through all of them certain peculiarities, which made the position of the country unique among the dependencies of Rome. Not having been conquered in the ordinary way, but having passed under the Roman dominion with the consent and by the assistance of a large party among the inhabitants, it was allowed to maintain for a while a species of semi-independence, not unlike that of various native states in India which are really British dependencies. A mixture, and to some extent an alternation, of Roman with native power resulted from this arrangement, and a consequent complication in the political status, which must have made it very difficult to be thoroughly understood by any one who was not a native and a contemporary. The chief representative of the Roman power in the East—the President of Syria, the local governor, whether a Herod or a Roman Procurator, and the High Priest, had each and all certain rights and a certain authority in the country. A double system of taxation, a double administration of justice, and even in some degree a double military command, were the natural consequence; while Jewish and Roman customs, Jewish and Roman words, were simultaneously in use, and a condition of things existed full of harsh contrasts, strange mixtures, and abrupt transitions. Within the space of fifty years Palestine was a single united kingdom under a native ruler, a set of principalities under native ethnarchs and tetrarchs, a country in part containing such principalities, in part reduced to the condition of a Roman province, a kingdom reunited once more under a native sovereign, and a country reduced wholly under Rome and governed by procurators dependent on the president of Syria, but still subject in certain respects to the Jewish monarch of a neighboring territory. These facts we know from Josephus and other writers, who, though less accurate, on the whole confirm his statements; they render the civil history of Judaea during the period one very difficult to master and remember; the frequent changes, supervening upon the original complication, are a fertile source of confusion, and seem to have bewildered even the sagacious and painstaking Tacitus. The New Testament narrative, however, falls into no error in treating of the period; it marks, incidentally and without effort or pretension, the various changes in the civil government—the sole kingdom of Herod the Great,—the partition of his dominions among his sons,—the reduction of Judaea to the condition of a Roman province, while Galilee, Ituraea, and Trachonitis continued under native princes,—the restoration of the old kingdom of Palestine in the person of Agrippa the First, and the final reduction of the whole under Roman rule, and reestablishment of Procurators as the civil heads, while a species of ecclesiastical superintendence was exercised by Agrippa the Second. Again, the New Testament narrative exhibits in the most remarkable way the mixture in the government—the occasional power of the president of Syria, as shown in Cyrenius’s “taxing”; the ordinary division of authority between the High Priest and the Procurator; the existence of two separate taxation—the civil and the ecclesiastical, the “census” and the “didrachm;” of two tribunals, two modes of capital punishment, two military forces, two methods of marking time; at every turn it shows, even in such little measures as verbal expressions, the coexistence of Jewish with Roman ideas and practices in the country—a coexistence which (it must be remembered) came to an end within forty years of our Lord’s crucifixion.
Now, here is an annotated version of Rawlinson's allusions to the deft and accurate movement of the New Testament narrative. (Hat tip to Esteemed Husband for much of the leg-work on the annotations. The annotation on two methods of marking time was taken from Jerome Dean Davis, Handbook of Christian Evidences.)

[T]he sole kingdom of Herod the Great [Matthew 2:1 – "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king,"],—the partition of his dominions among his sons [Matthew 2:22 – "But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod,…he turned aside into the parts of Galilee," Galilee being ruled by Herod Antipas, not by Archelaus], -- the reduction of Judaea to the condition of a Roman province, while Galilee, Ituraea, and Trachonitis continued under native princes [Luke 3:1 – "Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, …"],—the restoration of the old kingdom of Palestine in the person of Agrippa the First [Acts 12:1 – "About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church"], and the final reduction of the whole under Roman rule, and reestablishment of Procurators as the civil heads [Acts 23:24 (Antonius Felix); Acts 24:27 (Porcius Festus)], while a species of ecclesiastical superintendence was exercised by Agrippa the Second [Acts 25:13ff (Agrippa the Second invited by Porcius Festus to listen to Paul, apparently as a mere courtesy)]. Again, the New Testament narrative exhibits in the most remarkable way the mixture in the government—the occasional power of the president of Syria, as shown in Cyrenius’s “taxing” [Luke 2:1-2]; the ordinary division of authority between the High Priest and the Procurator [Luke 3:2 -- "in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas....", John 18:31 "Pilate therefore said to them, 'Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.' The Jews said to him, 'We are not permitted to put anyone to death.'"]; the existence of two separate taxation—the civil [Matt. 22:17--"Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar?"] and the ecclesiastical , the “census” and the “didrachm;” [Matthew 17:24--"Does not your teacher pay the two-drachma tax?"] of two tribunals [John 18-19], two modes of capital punishment [stoning, e.g., Acts 7 vs. crucifixion, as in the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves], two military forces [Acts 4:1 the temple guard, in contrast to the Roman forces, mentioned in multiple places in the NT], two methods of marking time [Luke 3:1-2 " the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas..."];
When we speak of historical confirmations of the accuracy of the gospels and Acts, this is the type of thing we have in mind. These incidental confirmations, as Tim points out in this lecture, are even stronger (not to mention more numerous) than direct allusions to major events in the New Testament by non-Christian authors. It is in these incidental confirmations that we see that the gospels and Acts were written by people of the time who were familiar with these facts as part of their lives. (Remember, no Google!) As Rawlinson points out, this complex sociopolitical dance between the Jews and Rome was wiped out by the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Remember this next time someone asks you why we should think that the gospels are historically reliable.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

On petitionary prayer

We had some friends over the other evening, and the issue of petitionary prayer came up. Here was one set of questions on the table (in my paraphrase): As Christians we don't believe that Christianity is falsified if you pray for something, even something "reasonable" that seems like it would advance the kingdom of God and that is not selfish, and you don't get it. But in that case, we don't really expect to receive our petitions. So why bother to engage in petitionary prayer? What's the point? Moreover, if you are praying for spiritual strength (e.g., to resist some temptation), and you know that you will have to put in the effort yourself to resist the temptation anyway, why bother praying about it? Why not just do your best to resist the temptation?

Now, it would be simple enough to answer these questions by saying that God tells us to pray for our needs, including our spiritual needs. So do it because it's commanded, end of discussion. Scripture is unequivocal in telling us to engage in petitionary prayer: "In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God." (Phil. 4:6) "Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;" (Eph. 6:18) "Give us this day our daily bread...and deliver us from evil." (The Lord's Prayer) "You have not because you ask not..." (James 4:2) "If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God" (James 1:5). "Pray for us...I beseech you to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner." (Hebrews 13:19) "Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation" (Matt. 26:41)

I think, though, that these and other verses give us more information than just a bare commandment. The most important part of this information, mysterious as it must seem, is that in some way we cannot fully understand God has elected to use our prayers as part of the causal chain for bringing about his will in our lives and in the world.

That seems incredibly inefficient. Why should I have to pray for my daily bread? God knows what I need. He could just send it! God knew the good that Paul could do if released from prison. (Assuming that Paul was the author, or one of the authors, of Hebrews.) If it was God's will to release him from prison, why did people need to pray for it? Why should God accomplish his will in any way whatsoever by means of our prayers?

But that question could be asked of anything. God could have spelled out his message by special revelation to each individual on earth, but it pleases him (at least most of the time) by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. (I Cor. 1:21; cf Romans 10:14ff) God owns the cattle on a thousand hills and could provide all the cups of water necessary for every thirsty person, yet instead he promises a blessing to those who give a cup of water in his name. (Mark 9:41)

In other words, one thing that Scripture teaches again and again and again is that God likes to do things "inefficiently." God chooses, of his own free creativity, to make us mysteriously a part of the vast web of causal processes in this world by which to bring about his purposes. And sometimes we can mess up and not do our part. So with prayer. It is just as true of prayer as it is of telling others about Christ, speaking up instead of being silent, or doing your daily work: God has a job for you to do, and if you don't do it, the ball might get dropped. Something might not happen that would otherwise have happened. Oh, to be sure, as with all our sins both of commission and of omission, God can nonetheless bring good out of evil. He is never taken by surprise. But the point is that praying is a form of working for God's kingdom. It is part of what we can and should be doing. It is causal. We don't have to understand precisely how this is so to know that it is so and that this is why God tells us to pray.

Notice that this is true even of praying for our own needs. It is true of praying for a job, for example. Presumably if one is looking for a job one is working to that end. If you believe that God is glorified by your applying for jobs, that it is a worthwhile endeavor (a reasonable enough proposition!), then you can see that God is also glorified by your praying both for a job and for wisdom in the entire process of application and decision-making.

With that point made about the real causal role of prayer, I know that there is no danger that what follows will be interpreted as saying, "The only point of prayer is that it changes you." That isn't the only point of prayer. But it is one point of prayer, including petitionary prayer. There is no spiritual exercise that is the equivalent of prayer. Nothing else can be substituted for it. An important aspect of that spiritual exercise is genuinely, sincerely asking for something from God, thinking of God as a great King who loves you, who can grant your request, and asking for it with no irony or reservation, while at the same time submitting yourself to his will if he should choose not to grant it. That is hard. It is one of the hardest things for us Christians to do. (We have Jesus' own example of it in the Garden.) In doing this we speak to the Father as to a Person. (If that offends the classical theists in my audience, so be it.) We understand that prayer is not just a rote exercise to go through. It is not just a series of motions. It is a real transaction in a real world that we cannot see. We are speaking to Someone and asking Him for something. But at the same time, we are not treating the concrete thing we request as a right. We are not saying, "I deserve this." We are submitting to Him completely, realizing that we may not get what we ask, or at least not in any visible or sensible form.

I suggest that if one tries this for a few months, repeatedly, it will make a difference to one's spiritual character.

What this also means is that petitionary prayer shouldn't be separated off into a little box from adoration, thanksgiving, and confession of sins. That's presumably part of why the Apostle Paul uses the expression "prayer and supplication with thanksgiving." Psychologically, this makes sense. If you are asking for something from God in a concentrated and sincere way, recognizing that you are speaking to a real Personal Being, but at the same time recognizing how far above you God is, then petition will be constantly passing in and out of adoration and thanksgiving. As for confession, that will be there as well, because it will be extremely difficult to come to God in that humbleness and openness of mind without recognizing that one has things one must confess.

Note, too, that confessing sins is not an option. Christians are required to do it, to be repeatedly confessing, repenting, and seeking forgiveness, to be getting their hearts right with God. So we must pray for that reason if no other, and in the process of confessing sins, asking forgiveness, and thanking and praising God, it would be quite artificial to exclude more ordinary petitionary requests.

All of this may sound rather too obvious, or thin, or preachy. But it's what I've got to offer on this urgent, practical issue.

Prayer for the Christian is like water--an absolute need. In fact, it is so whether you feel that way or not. If you make a habit of prayer, setting aside time for it and doing it with all your might, opening your heart to God, I predict that you will come to feel it to be a need as well as knowing it to be. That can only be a good thing.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Generation Gap

We were driving home from church today and passed a greenhouse with a Christian Easter message on its board: "Because He lives, I can face tomorrow." I drew the family's attention to it. Youngest Daughter exclaimed solemnly, "Wow, that's really good, that he's being so bold."

I was struck.

I cannot imagine making a similar remark to my own Christian family in childhood. I'm not saying we never heard anything about Christians being mocked for their faith in America--usually in public schools, which I did not attend. But the idea that a businessman would have been "bold" in the 1970's to put up a quotation from a Christian Easter song would never have crossed our minds. In those days businessmen still occasionally pretended Christianity to make themselves look good!

I'm not going to say that Youngest Daughter's ideas about the Christian's need for boldness in 2015 have been formed entirely independently. Without giving her the lurid details, I have definitely conveyed the fact that Christian businessmen are sometimes targets of those who hate our faith and who attempt to "get them in trouble."

It's true, isn't it? The culture has changed, and boldness is needed. Our community is probably one of the better ones, but it is still entirely possible that someone would target a business in our area for "discrimination" against certain "identities." In fact, shortly after our region passed a "gender identity" ordinance, the story came back of a Christian girl working at a local clothing store who had to deal with two cross-dressing men, one of whom demanded to try on clothes in the women's dressing room and then flabbergasted the young lady by asking, "How do I look?" after putting on a skirt. I would like to think that she put on her driest face and tone and said, "I don't think it's your color," but I'm sure she didn't have that much savoir faire.

So we can't say, "It would never happen here." A greenhouse, unlike a florist, does not celebrate events, so that helps, but any business that employs people can be the target of an employment discrimination "sting" by the shrieking harpies of tolerance.

There is a generation gap. The temptation is great to keep a low profile, and when it comes to young people with a place to find still in the world, maybe that's good advice. But I'm glad that Youngest Daughter's first thought was to admire the greenhouse owner who is displaying the words to "Because He Lives."

The new generation needs people to admire, and a bold Christian greenhouse owner is a good one to start with.

Monday, April 06, 2015

The short-sighted use of copyright power

I recently learned that Bill Luse at Apologia has been asked to take down his excerpts from Whittaker Chambers Witness. Chambers's grandson owns the copyright and has gone to a relatively low-traffic blog asking that excerpts cum appreciative commentary be disappeared from the Internet. Legally he probably has the power to do this, though, given that there was commentary, the excerpting posts might fall under fair use, depending on the percentage of the work they amounted to. However, the blogger has agreed, rightly, to the demand of the copyright holder.

Speaking for myself, I am more than a tad annoyed at the short-sightedness of Chambers's grandson in making this demand. I was motivated to go back and read Witness all the way through by reading those excerpts. It was a book that I had long intended to read but had never gotten around to, and I might have never gotten around to it were it not for the excerpts on Apologia. Since then I have passed on my love of the book to others.

I am not making an anarchic argument for the abolition of intellectual property rights, but I am going to say that holders of intellectual property should ask themselves: Do they want the property they hold to be entombed, or do they want it to be read? It is blinkered thinking to run all over the Internet trying to suppress excerpts of a book to which you hold the copyright. Even from a crassly material point of view (and I doubt that this is what motivates the grandson, though in honesty I don't know what motivates him), reading such excerpts is likely to make people go out and buy the book! I happened to own a copy already, but not everybody does. From a more important point of view, if what is in the book is important, you should want people to be interested in it and to read it. A respectful appreciation accompanied by even fairly extended excerpts isn't taking bread out of anybody's mouth, but it may put ideas into their minds.

I think Whittaker Chambers himself would be more interested in getting his words out to more people than in taking them down. He was, after all, a witness.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

He Is Risen!

It is Easter Sunday. Our world is growing ever worse. In the Middle East, the most merciless of enemies kills our fellow Christians in unspeakable ways. Here in the United States, our merciless political enemies are driving Christians out of business in an anti-Christian pogrom unimaginable even twenty years ago. (I almost wrote "a legal pogrom" or "a non-violent pogrom," but the recent death threats that have closed a pizzeria whose owner gave the politically incorrect answer to an inquisitorial reporter make even those phrases inaccurate.)

Meanwhile, three hundred Republican pundits have joined to send an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to lie again about the Constitution and to spread this sort of slavery and oppression of conscience, and the approval of perversion, all across the country. Traitors and Judases, every one of them.

In case readers have wondered why I have not said more about these events, it is quite frankly because I do not know what to say. I am appalled and stunned by the speed with which evil is taking over our land and the world.

But is it not in this context that Easter needs to come? As a blogger, I have nothing to offer you today. Nothing but Eeyorish predictions about all the badness in the world. Nothing but head-shaking.

It is Jesus Christ who has everything to offer. It is true that what he offers us, in the first instance, is the opportunity to die for him. May we recognize the moment for sacrifice when it comes and not be like Peter who denied. But he also offers us eternal life. He says, "I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."

This world will come to an end. What will matter for each of us as it does is how we, as Christians, lived, and how we, as Christians, died. Of course we should continue fighting the culture wars. But we should remember at all times that our help is in the name of the Lord who has made heaven and earth and that it is he who gives the victory. We don't know what is going to happen. Good. That's probably just about where God wants us to be. Then we will acknowledge our utter dependence on him. Then we will acknowledge that he is the Lord of history and the Lord of the future, as much when we are losing the war as when we are winning, as much when we cannot predict tomorrow as when we can. And as much when we have a clever spin to put on today's bad news as when we bloggers on the right side, we mini-pundits, do not know what to say.

The resurrection says that God has the last word. So be of good cheer!

He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

What was writing like in the 1st century

I have recently been reading two books, both of which I highly recommend. The two are Colin Hemer's The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, about which I hope to have more to say later. This post is about just one bit in John Wenham's Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem.

Says Wenham (pp. 204-205),

How are we to suppose that Mark went to work? It is anachronistic to think of him working like a modern author with well-referenced sources, convenient writing materials and plenty of space. A quotation from A. Dain, the eminent French authority on manuscripts, will illustrate the point:
With very rare exceptions, one always sees the copyist in a quite characteristic attitude: he does not execute his copy on a desk or reading-stand--nor a fortiori on a table--but he writes on his knees, usually but not always, with a board serving as a writing-surface for him...It is astonishing that the professional copyists should not have used a table for their work. The truth is that Antiquity did not know what we call a writing-table. The table virtually serves only for eating, and it is always very low. It is only in the second part of the Middle Ages that one finds representations showing copyists writing on a desk, or even on a table...There is then a classical copyist position...[my omission from Dain here]. The person is seated, his left leg bent; his right leg is vertical and his knee supports the little writing board on which [he] writes. With the right hand he traces the parchment marks, while with the left he holds the sheet of parchment.
Think about what Wenham is quoting Dain as saying here: They didn't write on tables! They didn't write on desks! They wrote in this incredibly uncomfortable position sitting on the ground with a little lap-board on their knees, holding the parchment with one hand and writing with the other. Could any writing position be less useful for purposes of complex editing and redacting of a literary source? Wenham continues (pp. 205-206):

This is borne out by B. M. Metzger's subsequent study 'When did Scribes Begin to Use Writing Desks?' in which he shows that desks, tables and stands are traceable only to the ninth century. He adds useful information about note-taking:
...when a scribe was making relatively brief notes on a wax tablet or on a sheet of papyrus or parchment, he would usually stand and write while holding the material in his left hand. When a scribe had a more extensive task, such as the copying of a rather lengthy manuscript, he would sit, occasionally on the ground but more often on a stool or bench, supporting the scroll or codex on his knees (123).
He discounts the idea that the 'table' in the scriptorium at Qumran, which was solid and only seventeen and a half inches high, could have served as a writing-desk (136). Nothing could give a more vivid idea of the awkwardness of redactional work than a study of Plates III-XIX in Metzger's book, which shows how cramped scribes were even when they began to have desks to work at. In the first century tables and chairs such as we know them did not exist. Diners reclined, propped up on an elbow, at the low tables. To consult more than one scroll an author would presumably have had to spread them out on such a table or on the floor and either crawl around on hands and knees or else repeatedly crouch down and stand up again, looking at first one and then another. He could either make notes or commit what he read to memory before writing the matter up on a sheet of papyrus or vellum, or, possibly, sitting down and transferring it direct to his new scroll. Finding the place, unless he was prepared seriously to deface his scrolls, would be difficult. Handling a reed pen dipped in ink (or moistened to get ink from a dry ink-cake) to write on a surface made of strips of papyrus pith was a skilled operation--which Paul seems usually to have left to an amanuensis. In a community where most had small, dark, crowded homes, finding a room suitable for the task, and reasonably free from distractions, would not be easy.
In ideal conditions, it was not particularly difficult for a trained scribe simply to copy a scroll, though (as Dain points out) it required great concentration. Copying with some adaptation was also common in the ancient world, but it was the work of highly educated scholars. For one who was not a professional to take a lengthy manuscript with no chapter, verse or even word divisions and select, rearrange and revise it was a formidable task. It is highly unlikely that one gospel was produced as the result of an author working directly on the scroll of another; even less that he worked on two or three at once.
No tables or chairs! This information about the physical conditions of writing in the ancient world has enormous importance for any redactional theory of the origins of any ancient book, including the gospels. Indeed, these difficulties make it an interesting question as to how we come to have even the verbal similarities that do exist among the synoptic gospels. Knowledge of these difficulties in copying, much less in using multiple sources at once, should rule out altogether hypotheses according to which any of the synoptic authors were literally editing and grafting together earlier sources in anything like a complex literary manner.

Wenham gives his own ideas of how an author like Luke might have worked: Making an outline based on Mark, doing the actual writing partly from memory based on his previous reading of Mark and Matthew, fitting in as he writes additional information he had available (such as the annunciation and birth narratives), and then reading back through either Matthew or Mark (or both, but not both at once) and his own draft and making some changes to his draft in the light of this re-reading. This is conjectural and would have been cumbersome enough, in all truth, but it at least avoids the more absurd picture of Luke (or anyone else) crawling around on a large area of floor covered with un-indexed scrolls in an attempt to do a true copying-with-detailed-redaction.

This fascinating information should be much more widely known. Wenham quotes the dry comment of F.G. Downing, "[T]he long debate on the sources of the Synoptic Gospels seems to have been conducted without paying much or any attention to this issue of whether any indications of 'sensible' compositional procedures in the first century C.E. are available." (Wenham, p. 206)