The New Testament (Clarity of the Bible VI)

Japan at first just used Chinese characters for all their own writing, which worked – barely. But both monks and nobles wanted something that worked well. Monks devised the katakana alphabet, so that Buddhist Scriptures could be read aloud easily in chants. Even more important was the alphabet of noblewomen, hiragana, which they used to write novels (arguably the world’s earliest) starting in the 10th century. Both alphabets have become standard elements of Japanese writing.

The New Testament also drove changes in the world of reading and writing. Simply put, the New Testament expanded this world as never before. Building on the tradition of synagogues, early churches encouraged broad study of the Scriptures. Oral teaching was huge, but it did not satisfy the demand; vast numbers of Christians were now motivated to read. It drove the shift from scrolls to codices, the earliest form of books.

Like the Old Testament, the New Testament engaged a huge audience on many topics. The genres indicate this. There are letters to churches. From early on, these were not even limited to one church: ‘Have [this letter] also read in the church of the Laodiceans,’ Paul tells the Colossians. As for the gospels, they might be called biography or ancient biography, but this does not mean writing about Jesus’ life as a private hobby. ‘These [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ,’ says John, and Luke writes in order ‘that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.’ says Luke. (Though Luke addresses an individual, Theophilus, he also says he is following in the footsteps of others – probably including Mark – who have written for many.) The exception is that some of the letters are written to individuals. Anyway, these letters also ended up shared around the early church, as quotes in other books show.

In fact, there are many signs of interaction with audiences. Luke, as I mentioned above, gives one example: he says he is joining in an established practice by writing a gospel. Paul’s wish that the Colossians share his letter is another example. The seven churches addressed in the Revelation to John are all meant to read it. Peter, in his second letter, says that a bunch Paul’s writings are shared around, and calls them Scripture. Speaking of second letters, they are very valuable. Reading two letters to the same church gives us a rich picture of its relationship with Paul. Paul can correct misunderstandings and refine his points in detail.

Again, there are a huge range of topics. Christ’s teaching and miracles revisit many Old Testament themes from kingship to holiness – and prophecy: he looks forward to the future as well. So do the letters and, of course, the Revelation to John. Christ’s use of stories, metaphors and debate combine with the more essay-like letters to spell out the same big, detailed picture of a reconciliation with God. The history in the Book of Acts and the instructions in the letters tell us about the effect of truths and teachings on the lives of all sorts of people, individually and together.

As with the Old Testament, this huge array of audiences and topics makes the New Testament amazingly clear. Having an audience, especially a big audience, pressures an author to be clear. A range of topics and genres means each point is made in several ways. Our misunderstandings from one passage are cleared up in others.

Yet (as I also said about the Old Testament) it is good to balance variety with common ground. Common ground makes it easier to see the authors’ relevance to each other. They can actually make useful comments about each other. For the New Testament authors, the common ground was being in the first-century church and being an apostle or having apostolic sources.

The next post will introduce the initial audiences of the New Testament from books outside the Bible and translations of the Bible.

The Josiah Conspiracy? (Clarity of the Bible V)

WYSIWYG is a technical term (in computer programming) with a simple meaning: what you see is what you get. Many liberal theologians believe that the Old Testament is not exactly WYSIWYG. They believe that it is in fact (to coin a new term) WYSITJC – what you see is the Josiah conspiracy.

The Josiah conspiracy theory looms so large for so many people that it deserves some attention before we move on to the clarity of the New Testament.

First, should we think that the Josiah conspiracy theory is a big deal? On one hand, much of the message of the Old Testament remains intact even if the conspiracy was real. Either way, most of the points made in my posts so far still stand. Either way, the voices of the authors and audiences still reach us today. These voices are varied enough to make a real conversation, connected enough for them to understand each other, and thorough enough to leave us clues to understand them. On the other hand, the King Josiah conspiracy is, well, a conspiracy. It makes the Old Testament a murky, underhanded business.

Conspiracy is my term. Christians who believe in it tend to refer to it with prettier terms, like documentary hypothesis, but I think Josiah conspiracy theory is simpler and more honest.

The theory is that, in the 7th century B.C., the court of King Josiah of Judah, needing to strengthen its authority, gave the clerics a mission: to dig up religious writings and legends from several Jewish and Israelite traditions and stitch them together. The court wanted everyone to believe that worship should be centred in their capital city. The clerics obeyed, producing the core of the Old Testament as we know it.

One of the biggest holes in the Josiah conspiracy theory is something I talked about in Part II: genre. Today, this hole in the theory is bigger than ever. Historians have found ancient covenant documents and compared them to the Books of Moses. Passages like Exodus 20 and most of the Book of Deuteronomy are clear examples of such treaties, in a style that belongs to centuries before Josiah. This discovery about Deuteronomy is an especial embarrassment to the conspiracy theorists, who had claimed it was an original forgery in Josiah’s time! Besides treaty format, there is a technique called chiastic structure. One of the biggest examples is the Flood narrative in Genesis (6:1-9:19). It is now clear that it is an elegant whole with several sections that make a pattern. Yet the conspiracy theorists had ventured to write elaborate descriptions of how Josiah’s clerics had messily stitched it together from competing sources!1 In the light of genre studies, their methods have suffered a huge loss of credibility.

So how did the flawed Josiah conspiracy theory come about? What biases were involved?

Just to be clear: simply being biased is not a sin, and everyone, including me, is biased. Pointing out the biases behind an idea does not prove that it is wrong, or that the people who hold that idea are bad. However, since there are serious flaws in the Josiah conspiracy theory, it is interesting to think of what biases were behind it.

The Josiah conspiracy theory has been (and still is) promoted by theologians and scholars of the liberal kind. They are biased towards believing that the books of the Bible were written later rather than earlier.

However, they have to accept that the Books of Moses, in pretty much their current form, are at least as old as King Josiah. This is because the Exile (shortly after King Josiah) has left us a lot of literature about the Books of Moses, both inside the Bible and outside it (see the previous post).

The Exile period was rich in Jewish literature (a) for religious reasons and (b) because it made the Jews a more international people, creating a need for the Greek translation, Aramaic commentary, etc.

So we have a period rich in literature which makes the existence of the Books of Moses undeniable, and then we have liberal scholars who would like the Books of Moses to be as late as possible. And we have a liberal-scholarship theory saying that the Books of Moses were concocted by conspiracy straight before that literature-rich period.

If the literature-rich period had come 500 years earlier or later, maybe modern scholars would have put forward different conspiracy theories! We can only speculate.

But, rather than holding to a conspiracy theory of exhumed texts stitched together in the dark for a king, it is reasonable to follow clues inside the Old Testament that point to very early audiences of complete books.

1Holding, J. P. (2005). Debunking the documentary hypothesis [Review]. Journal of Creation 19(3), 37-40.

OT Audiences: Beyond the Bible (Clarity of the Bible IV)

Are there any books by the audiences of the Old Testament? Yes. As we have seen earlier on in the series, the Bible is a whole library of books, and many of the authors were each other’s audiences. Also, voices of audiences outside Scripture have also come down to us as well: translators, commentators, and authors of other books.

These voices slightly overlap with the latest Old Testament authors, but with all the authors, they shared the unique, strong Jewish heritage and the ancient pre-Christian environment. So what they say about the meaning of the Old Testament is a huge help to us.

In Greek

Starting in the third century B.C., Jews translated their Scriptures (our Old Testament) into Greek. Their translation is known as the Septuagint.

‘Wait,’ someone might say, ‘I thought this was a list of voices outside the Old Testament.’ True, translations (if they are good) say the same thing as the original. But they say it in entirely different words, chosen (in this case) by entirely different people.

Here’s why this is great. Language naturally has fuzzy bits, but different languages have different fuzzy bits. If I say to you and your friend, ‘How are you?’ I might be asking about you alone or about both of you. The English you is fuzzy in this way. However, Chinese does not have this particular fuzz. Ni means you (one person) and nimen means you (two or more). Is Chinese the more specific language? Only in some ways. It has its own fuzzy bits that are not in English! So if you have the same message in two languages, each one of them clears up things that the other leaves fuzzy.

This is what happens with the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament. Because the Greek version comes from ancient Jews, who had special insight into the original Hebrew, it is the same message in a different language. Lots of fuzzy verses in the Hebrew Old Testament are clear in the Septuagint, because Greek has different fuzzy bits. Examples are pointed out in the footnotes of many English Bibles. (Often they refer to the Septuagint by the abbreviation LXX.)

In Aramaic

After the Exile (6th century B.C.), Jews more and more wanted translation and commentary in the Aramaic language on their Scriptures. The first were oral. This is probably what the Book of Nehemiah refers to in 8:8: ‘They gave an oral translation of God’s Law and explained it so that the people could understand it.’1 Written editions survive from the first few centuries after Christ, but the oral material is linked with the growth of synagogues long before Christ.2

This Aramaic material includes the Talmud, which comments on how to apply the Books of Moses. In the Talmud, ‘a whole people has deposited its feelings, its beliefs, its soul’,3 and these feelings, beliefs, and soul centre around Scripture.

The other major part of the Aramaic material is the Targums: translations/paraphrases of not only the Books of Moses but almost the whole Old Testament. Both as translations and sort-of commentaries, the Targums are ‘an important witness to the text of the Old Testament, comparable in value with the Septuagint’4 (italics mine). Like in a courtroom, the more witnesses to what was said, the better.

Hebrew grammarian Heinrich Prinz drew on the Old Testament and Targums together to study the teaching of the Trinity. Contrary to the common Muslim claim (since the 7th century A.D.) that the prophets had always been anti-Trinitarian like them, Prinz showed that many pre-Christian Jews (including the writers of Scripture) recognised the Word/Angel/Son of God and Spirit of God, laying the groundwork for the clear teaching of the Trinity.5

Other Books

In the centuries leading up to Christ, Jewish literature produced several books outside the Old Testament set. (There are traditions of publishing them along with the Bible under headings like Apocrypha.) We will look at two examples: Ecclesiasticus, a set of proverbs similar to the Biblical Book of Proverbs, and Tobit, a fanciful tale of the fortunes of Tobit the righteous Jew. Both books show respect for the Old Testament set.

Some in atheist/sceptical circles claim to see little or no real morals in the Old Testament, only selfish Israelite patriotism and priestly elitism. (This criticism perhaps says more about our own age, which is cynical about both patriotism and priesthood.) The wisdom in Ecclesiasticus and the righteousness in Tobit certainly affirm patriotism and accept priesthood, while also putting them together with some of the values that people do like nowadays, like compassion. The Old Testament itself does this, but Ecclesiasticus and Tobit help by further confirming that early audiences took it that way. They do this as independent voices, not just copying the statements of Scripture.

So…

Septuagint, Talmud, Targums, Apocrypha: It’s not just a list of words for a spelling bee; it’s a diverse set of witnesses that show us how the books of the Old Testament came across to early audiences.

References

1F. F. Bruce. (1950). The Books and the Parchments (3rd ed., p. 53). London: Pickering and Inglis.

2Payne. D. F. (1996). Targums. In I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

3Darmesteter, A. (1897). The Talmud. Jewish Publication Society of America.

4Payne. D. F. (1996). Targums. In I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

5Prinz, H. (1863). The great mystery: How can three be one? London: William Macintosh.

Reflections on Relativism

When discussing topics of moral significance, it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase “that’s right for you, but not for me”. Implicit in these kinds of statements is the idea that moral values and duties are subjective; that it’s up to me to decide what’s right and wrong for me, and it’s up to you to decide the same for yourself.  At face value, this view—call it “moral relativism”—may appear to be a tolerant position. However, upon reflection, it’s obvious that it faces a number of hurdles that it simply cannot overcome. One such hurdle is that it grates against the fact that, deep down, we all know that some things really are wrong.

Here’s an example. I recently finished reading Laurence Rees’ book “The Holocaust”. The book sets out to answer two questions: how and why the Nazi holocaust came to pass. Throughout the book Rees shares harrowing accounts of the horrors that Jews, gypsies, Soviets, and numerous other people groups experienced at the hands of the Nazi regime. These accounts are, frankly, very grim, disturbing, and unpleasant to read. Rees acknowledges this, writing: “Although the contents of the book… are disturbing, I believe it is still important to understand how and why this happened. For this history tells us, perhaps more than any other, just what our species can do” [i].

When Rees refers to “what our species can do”, he’s obviously implying that mankind is capable of horrendous evil. Now it doesn’t take a genius to deduce that the holocaust qualifies as horrendous evil—palpable, real, and true evil. However, if moral relativism is true, rather than saying “the holocaust was wrong”, wouldn’t it make more sense to say “genocide is right for you, but not for me”, or “murdering disabled and elderly people was right for the Nazis, but it makes me a bit uncomfortable”? Obviously to take such a view is absurd, indicating that relativism is an inadequate account of morality.

Rather than showing that moral values and duties are relative to the whims of individuals or societies, the fact that we perceive some things (such as the Holocaust) as truly evil indicates that good and evil are objective. By objective good and evil, I mean that some things are good or evil regardless of whether people perceive them to be that way. An oft-cited example goes something like this: even if the Nazis had won World War II and managed to exterminate all who opposed them, brainwashing the rest of us so that no one thought the Holocaust was evil, it would still be evil. That is what it means to be objectively evil.

Furthermore, though relativism may be given lip-service, I believe that our innate sense of objective moral values is betrayed in many of the films we enjoy. As Jonathan Merritt points out, film, art, literature, and music can act as a barometer for what the prevailing views are in a society[ii]. And what do we see in many of the popular movies of our time? The actions of innumerable villains portrayed as objectively—not just subjectively—wrong. When Voldemort kills Harry Potter’s parents, when the Joker sends Batman’s love interest up in a ball of flames, and when Anakin Skywalker murders young Jedi in cold blood, we judge their actions as objectively wrong.

In summary, it seems that moral relativism is bankrupt, and we should instead affirm the existence of objective good and bad, right and wrong. Although some people consciously or subconsciously subscribe to relativism, an examination of their judgements of horrors like the holocaust suggests that they actually do believe in objective moral values. James Rachels encapsulates the argument against relativism when he writes, “it does make sense… to condemn some practices, such as slavery and anti-Semitism, wherever they occur… relativism implies these judgements make no sense… [and therefore] it cannot be right”[iii].


 

Citations:

[i] Rees, L. (2017). The Holocaust, p. 429. Penguin Random House, UK.

[ii] Merritt, J. (2016). The death of moral relativism. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/the-death-of-moral-relativism/475221/

[iii] Rachels, J. (2003). The elements of moral philosophy (4th Ed.), p. 23. McGraw-Hill: New York, NY.