Saturday, March 27, 2010

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: The Bible Among the Myths, John Oswalt

In a brief book, Oswalt has done a good service for college and seminary students (and ministers) faced with the common assertion that the Bible is simply one other among the dozens of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) mythologies, whose only real difference is that it originated in Israel, and not in Babylon, Assyria, or Egypt.

In the first half of the book, “The Bible and Myth,” Oswalt first addresses the issue of definition. If we’re going to call something a myth, we have to know what a myth is. So Oswalt investigates the numerous competing definitions that have been offered, concluding that, when properly defined, the Bible is not myth. This is so because myth presupposes a particular view of the world and how it operates that the Bible does not share. He follows the chapter on definition with two chapters, one describing the worldview of myth, characterized by Oswalt as “continuity. The next chapter then describes the worldview of the Bible, which Oswalt characterizes as “transcendence.” These two chapters alone are worth the price of the book. The first half of the book concludes with a comparison of the Bible and ANE myths, focusing on the similarities between the two literatures, and the significance of those similarities for the overall discussion.

In the second half of the book, “The Bible and History,” Oswalt again deals with the initial problem as one of definition. As in the first part, Oswalt carefully examines various proposed definitions of history. At the risk of oversimplification, he concludes that the Bible is history, simply not modern secular history. He then considers the significance of the historicity of the Bible for the Christian faith, defending it against the existential treatment of the Bible put forth by Bultmann, and against the more modern treatment by process theology. The concluding chapters then deal with explaining the origin of the Bible as unique in world literature. He concludes that any explanation other than the one offered by the Bible itself (God revealed it) is inadequate to the task.

I heartily recommend the book, but I wish he had done two additional things. First, I wish he had made the simple point that, with all the attention being paid to ANE mythologies these days, it seems to have escaped the notice of most that these texts were buried in the dust of the Near East for better than two millennia and had no effect on the lives of people beyond, perhaps, their initial immediate audience. The Bible, in the same time span, has produced the most populous religious community in the world. If the Bible is really just another myth, that large fact needs to be explained.

The other thing I wish Oswalt had done is to have presented in an appendix the text of the Enuma Elish in parallel with the text of Genesis 1-11. The reason the Enuma Elish is so often referred to is that it is the only ANE “creation” myth that has reached us virtually intact. A simple presentation of the two texts in parallel would do almost as much as Oswalt’s discussion to make it clear that what similarities the Bible may share with ANE myth, they are incomparably different forms of literature.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Various Questions Related to Ancient Israel

Question 1: Was the tabernacle (then later the Temple) the ONLY place under all circumstances that sacrifices could be made? According to the sacrificial laws in Leviticus, the limitation of sacrifices seems to be to the tabernacle/temple. For example, Lev 1:3 says in part, “He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting.” A similar statement is made with regard to most of the other sacrifices specified in Leviticus. Likewise, Deuteronomy 12:4-14 limits the place of the sacrifices in a similar fashion. It does appear, however, that at certain times and on special occasions, sacrifice would be carried out elsewhere. So Elijah offers a sacrifice in 1 Kings 18, rebuilding an altar of the Lord that had been torn down. Likewise, David built an altar and had sacrifices offered on it at a place away from the tabernacle (2 Sam 24). But the regular sacrifices seem to have been limited to the tabernacle/temple.

Subsidiary question A. What about when a person is cured of a skin disease, or a woman is cleansed from an unusual flow of blood? Yes, that person would have to undertake the onerous task of visiting the sanctuary and offering sacrifice. The requirement for the woman to offer two turtledoves or two pigeons (Lev 15:29) does not refer to her regular menstrual uncleanness, but to an unusual flow, like the woman in Matt 9:18-26, and parallels.

Subsidiary Question B. How were the Levites supported, if they did not receive portions of the sacrifices? They had fields and livestock in their cities. See Num 35:1-5. In addition, Deuteronomy consistently refers to the need to support the Levite, as well as the fatherless and the widow. The Levites were responsible to teach the law among the people of God, and the people (implicitly) were to pay them for that work.

Question 2: How was it possible for the Israelites to attend the three annual festivals? Deut 16:16 specifies that it was the males who were to present themselves three times a year. We know from Luke 2 that by the first century, many entire families went. First, God promised to keep the land safe during the annual festivals (Ex 34:24). It is true that there would be massive amounts of sacrifice offered at those times. But remember that even by the time of the building of the temple, the priesthood was a sizable caste in Israel. It also seems likely that additional altars would be set up to deal with the crowds. It is also unlikely that everyone brought sacrifice three times a year. An interesting consideration of the offerings spelled out in Leviticus 1-5 is that there is no requirement given as to how often these sacrifices were to be made. They were at the discretion of the offerer.

Subsidiary Question A. Did Israel actually keep the feasts? Some did. My reading of 1 Sam 1:3 is that Elkanah and his family went up three times a year. I realize most translations say something like “from year to year,” but it is literally “from days to days.” This I understand to refer to the appointed pilgrimage festivals. There are six separate accounts of keeping of Passover in the Old Testament, and the language used implies that the festival was celebrated more often than that, but that these were very special for one reason or another.

Subsidiary Question B. How did Jerusalem (or Shiloh, at an earlier period) handle such a massive influx of people? I would say the same way that they handled it in the first century (Luke 2 and Acts 2 both refer to masses of people being in the city for the festival). For a week or so, people lived in crowded, busy conditions. For those who have had the experience, it might be likened to the attendance at a NASCAR race. Surrounding the racetrack are hundreds upon hundreds of RVs and campers, parked nose to tail. Depending on which race track is in view, the attendance at a NASCAR race can range from sixty to two hundred thousand people, and those are all housed within a fairly limited radius. Granted, it is a larger radius than the crowds in ancient Israel would have occupied, but we Americans like our space, even when we attend huge events. On the other hand, there were perhaps half a million at Woodstock (yes, I’m dating myself) all within a very small radius. In short, I don’t think it was that difficult for Jerusalem to handle the crowds that showed for the festivals

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mark 7:4 and Baptized Dining Couches

Thanks to Dr. Pipa and his lecture at the GPTS Spring Theology Conference for this little discussion on text criticism.

The end of Mark 7:4
in the ESV reads: "such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches." The NASB reads: "such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots."

So what happened to the dining couches? The two words kai klinon (and dining couches) are found in the Greek text of the New Testament. A consultation of The Nestle-Aland GNT has the words in the text as does the UBS GNT. The latter gives a C rating. The words are probably retained in the text largely because of the strong support for it, including but not limited to the majority text. The C rating is due to the fact that there are also strong witnesses against retaining the words. Yet most modern versions do not include these words in the translation. A partial listing of modern versions dropping the words from the text are as follows. Both the NASB and the NASB-Update, the NIV, the New Jerusalem Bible, NLT, and the NRSV. Most of these do indicate the additional words in the margin, so the reading is not totally lost.

It seems easy to explain why a translation would omit the words. First, the word for washing is baptismous (baptisms). While "baptizing" cups, pitchers, and copper pots is easy to understand, the idea of "baptizing" a dining couch is less comprehensible. It may be that some translators have been influenced by a baptistic theology, which understands "baptize" always and everywhere to mean "immerse," into removing a possible difficulty. Maybe not. Maybe the translators consider a C rating simply to be insufficient support for retaining the reading.

However, looking at the text on the basis of standard text-critical principles, it appears that not only should the words be retained in the text, but the reading should have a higher rating. It seems easy to explain how the words might have dropped out in some text, even some very good texts. They occur in a long list of "and X" phrases, and it would be easy to skip one of those phrases. It is much more difficult to explain how the words might have accidentally been added to a text where they did not originally appear. The "dining couch" not only has no similarity to the other items in the list, the Greek word is not easily confused with any word in the context. Further, as a point of theology, the inclusion of "dining couches" should serve to draw attention to the fact that a Jewish "baptism" of such items was a purification rite observed by sprinkling (not by immersing) the item to be purified.

Vos and Republication

This post thanks to a post from my friend Nick Batzig at:

No, republication does not mean the act of creating a republic. Rather, it has to do with the idea that in the Mosaic Covenant, the covenant of works was republished. As an example of this idea, consider the quote from Geerhardus Vos: (We can also explain why the older theologians did not always clearly distinguish between the covenant of works and the Sinaitic covenant. At Sinai it was not the ‘bare’ law that was given, but a reflection of the covenant of works revived, as it were, in the interests of the covenant of grace continued at Sinai.)

In my comments on that statement, it may be simply that I'm really dense (always a possibility). It may be that I'm dealing with the quote out of context (and it's true that I don't have the full essay before me).

But consider carefully what Vos says. "It was not the 'bare' law that was given." What kind of law was it then, dressed? Some explanation here would have been very helpful. Second, notice that Vos does not say that the covenant of works was restated, or republished, at Sinai. Instead, he says something much more subtle. What was given at Sinai was a reflection revived. The covenant of works itself was not revived at Sinai, it was a reflection of the covenant of works (whatever that means). Furthermore, this revival of a reflection was not done in the interest of the covenant works, but in the interest of the covenant of grace. And not only in the interest of the covenant of grace in general, but in the interest of the covenant of grace as it (the covenant of grace) was continued at Sinai. So there is no affirmation here of Sinai being a republication of the covenant of works. At most, Vos appears to be affirming some sort of "covenant of works" overtone to the Sinai covenant.

Or maybe he's just being obtuse.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Elijah's Fear

Travis asks: (Is it safe to say that Elijah may well have been afraid, even if the Hebrew text does not explicitely (sic) state that? v. 3 notes that Elijah "ran for his life"; most often, those running for their life are also experiencing fear.)

This is a good question. Verse 3 says (painfully literally), "And he saw, and he arose, and he went to his life." Now most modern English versions read something like this, "And he was afraid and arose and ran for his life" (NASB-Update). The rendering of the first verb clearly follows the Septuagint and early versions, as indicated in my previous post. However, I think the rendering of the first verb unduly influences the rendering of the last clause. Our understanding of that last clause is also affected by our own English idiom of running for one's life. The problem is that the last clause is susceptible of more than one interpretation. In Hebrew it reads vayyelek el naphsho. And he went to/for his life/soul/self. Generally speaking, Hebrew does not use the verb halak (seen here in vayyelek) in the sense of "flee." There's a different word that does that duty. Further, while nephesh (naphsho--his life) may mean life, it may also mean soul (the most common rendering in traditional translations) or self. The preposition el may also mean to, toward, or for.

My own reading of the entire passage is that vayyelek el naphsho probably ought to be rendered "and he went for himself." The whole episode lays out Elijah's preoccupation with himself. In what follows verse 3, there is no sense of fear. Rather, we see frustration, anger, pride, disappointment, etc., but no fear.

I think also this allows for a more consistent rendering of naphsho in verse 4, where the Hebrew says, "and he asked his soul/life/self to die." "He asked himself to die" makes better sense than "he asked his life to die."

Interestingly, the comment of the Geneva Bible on "and he went for his life" is, "Or, whither his mind led him."

As for the influence of the modern English idiom "to run for one's life," we ought to remember that an apparent similarity between what appears to be a Hebrew idiom and a known modern idiom may be a false rather than a true similarity.