Saturday, August 14, 2010

Was There a Historical Adam?

Ever since Darwin and the Scopes trial, there has been a lot of debate about whether or not the world was created by God or an evolutionary process. While Evangelicals have traditionally held to some form of creationism, many are beginning to speak more frankly about their conclusion that evolution, at some level, plays a part.

One of the big issues for many is that the acceptance of an evolutionary process removes the possibility of a historical Adam. The biggest challenge in the minds of some is that Paul refers to Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 as if he was a historical figure. They conclude that if Paul thought that Adam was a real person so should we.

Jame McGrath has posted today a link to a short video and essay by Tremper Longman, Professor of Old Testament at Claremont College. Longman states that:

The description of how Adam was created is certainly figurative. The question is open as to whether there was an actual person named Adam who was the first human being or not. Perhaps there was a first man, Adam, and a first woman, Eve, designated as such by God at the right time in his development of human beings. Or perhaps Adam, whose name after all means “Human,” is himself figurative of humanity in general. I have not resolved this issue in my own mind except to say that there is nothing that insists on a literal understanding of Adam in a passage so filled with obvious figurative description. The New Testament’s use of Adam (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) does not resolve the issue as some suggest because it is possible, even natural, to make an analogy between a literary figure and a historical one.

Longman is a well-respected Evangelical scholar, so his speaking out like this is significant. I will admit that I am not committed to the belief in a literal Adam. I think there is something more significant theologically going on in Genesis than an attempt to give us a blow-by-blow account of how the world was created. I also don't know enough about evolution to dismiss it. But, like much in life, I am not sure we need to have an either/or attitude. The Bible was not written as a science and history book. Science is not interested in theology.

What do you think? Does it matter if there was a historical Adam and Eve?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Tweeting the Bible - One Chapter at a Time

It was bound to happen sooner or later. Someone has decided to put the entire Bible on Twitter. Chris Juby is reducing the 1,189 chapters of the Bible into 1,189 tweets. But since he is limited to 140 characters per entry, he has to come up with some creative ways of condensing. His first entry will go live on Sunday and Genesis 1 will read as follows:

“God created the heavens, the earth and everything that lives. He made humankind in his image, and gave them charge over the earth”

Juby says: 'It is my normal habit to read a chapter of the Bible each morning and I always read through from Genesis to Revelation. 'As I was coming to the end last time, I thought I needed a way of focusing my mind a little bit more on what I was reading. 'I thought a summary would be a good way of doing this. I already use Twitter, so I thought I'd share my summaries.'

I am not on Twitter so I won’t be following Juby’s summaries. But I am not sure what to make of it all. The interview makes his efforts sound sincere, if not a bit eccentric. I am not sure what value this will bring to readers of the Bible. How do you summarize an entire chapter into 140 characters and capture the essence of what the author was trying to say? I am curious how you would condense Psalm 119? How about the genealogical list in 1 Chronicles 1 or the much debated Romans 7? And let’s not forget the book of Revelation. Any chapter in that book will be a challenge.

While I think this Juby’s project will attract attention to the Bible, I am not sure it will be helpful, much less inspirational. I am even more curious to see if he can actually finish it. Maybe I will join Twitter . . .

Gerald F. Hawthorne (1925-2010): author, Wheaton College professor

I was sorry to read about the death of Professor Hawthorne

The Following is from the Chicago Tribune

Gerald F. Hawthorne authored three books, co-edited three more and published more than three dozen articles and reviews on biblical Greek studies.

Yet his heart was in the classroom, where the Wheaton College professor of 42 years taught thousands of students that Greek was certainly hard, often fun, but at its core essential to the study of the New Testament.

Dr. Hawthorne, 84, who when he retired from Wheaton College in 1995 as professor emeritus of New Testament Greek studies received a long, thunderous standing ovation from the student body, died Wednesday, Aug. 4, in his home, after a battle with skin cancer.

Was first-century Judaism a missionary religion?

That is the topic of Michael Bird’s latest book. Passages like Isaiah 2:2-4 and 60:1-3 suggest that Gentiles will begin to worship the true God and that Israel will be God’s servant for bringing the nations to the truth. But like much in biblical history, the simple proclamation of something does not mean necessarily that it happened. In his book, Crossing Over Sea and Land: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period, Bird examines the evidence to determine if there ever was a Jewish missionary movement. Readers of the New Testament will sometimes assume that this the case based on Matthew 23:15 where Jesus says

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.

But as Bird demonstrates, this verse can be taken at least four different ways.

(1) It could refer to the proselytizing of Gentiles by Pharisees (p. 67)

(2) It could refer to Pharisees trying to convert other Jews to Pharisaism (p. 68)

(3) It could refer to Pharisees trying to turn God-fearers into full Jews (p. 68)

(4) It could refer to Pharisees trying to recruit God-fearers to the cause of Jewish resistance against Rome.

Whatever interpretation of Matthew 23:15 one chooses, the above reveals that answers about Jewish missionary efforts are not easily forthcoming.

Bird’s book is broken into four major chapters with an introduction and conclusion.

In chapter two he tackles the problem of defining “mission” and “conversion” in the ancient world. Twenty-first century Christians will often project their modern perceptions and experiences back onto the first-century. One is either a Christian or not. We rarely think about an in-between stage. But Bird demonstrates that those who converted to Judaism in antiquity cannot be easily categorized. It is not a matter of saying one is “in” or “out.” There were degrees of conversion and it seems that it could, and very often did, take a lifetime of experiences. Conversion could even be generational. A father may convert to Judaism, but it was his children who really began to secure their identity in the new religion. One thing that was certainly a part of conversion to Judaism was the act of circumcision. While Jews were not the only people group who practiced it, male circumcision was one of the distinguishing marks of being a Jew.

Chapter three examines the evidence for Jewish missionary activity in Palestine. After considering the Dead Sea Scrolls, Matthew 23:15, inscriptions, and Rabbinic Literature, Bird concludes that there is little to support wide-spread proselytizing efforts in the land of Palestine (p. 76). Much of the evidence for conversion to Judaism within the Land reflects forced conversions that took place as the Hasmoneans sought to consolidate their religious and political power. Among the Idumaeans who were forced to convert was one Antipater who became an important advisor to John Hyrcanus I and was also the father of Herod the Great (p.57). The irony here is that the Jews were eventually ruled by one of those whom they converted by force.

Chapter four examines evidence for Gentile conversion to Judaism in the Diaspora. It is this setting in which Gentiles were more likely to observe and come in context with Jews and their particular religious way of life. Bird provides sufficient evidence that Gentiles were sometimes attracted to Judaism. In addition to Philo and Josephus, Roman historians refer to the attraction that some felt towards Jewish practices. While the references in Roman literature are mostly negative, they demonstrate that there were, at some level, conversions taking place. Added to this is the expulsion of Jews from Rome in 139 BCE and 19 CE, both of which are usually associated with Jewish proselytizing activity. Nonetheless, there is little evidence to suggest that ever was an organized movement to proselytize Gentiles in the same way that we sometimes think about “missions.”

Chapter five examines the evidence from the New Testament. For much of the chapter Bird examines the kind of efforts we read about in Acts and to those groups we often refer to as Paul’s “opponents.” This means that there was an organized mission movement, but it was Jewish Christians seeking Gentile converts. And these groups did not always agree about how to go about the mission. Paul did not require circumcision for his Gentile converts, while others demanded it. One place where evidence for Jewish missionary practice in the New Testament might be found is in the letter to the Colossians. Bird argues that much of the so-called “Colossian Philosophy” reflects Jewish sensibilities that have been heavily influenced by Hellenistic thought. It is possible that Gentiles Christians who had been God-fearers were being targeted by Jews who wanted to make them full-fledged Jews.

In the end Bird concludes that the evidence for an organized Jewish mission to Gentiles is uneven. Gentiles certainly did convert to Judaism, but not as part of a “missions’ movement” by Jews to increase their ranks. On the other hand, Christian pursuit of Gentile converts does represent a transformation of Jewish perceptions about Gentile inclusion in God’s salvation (p.156). And it is this point which I think makes Bird’s book helpful. Christian mission efforts in the first-century should be set within a Jewish context. The appeal of Judaism to some laid the groundwork for their later inclusion within Christianity. The rejection of circumcision and the Jewish Law for Gentiles by Paul and his followers meant that those who stood on the edge of Judaism could become assimilated more easily. This may also explain why by the end of the first-century the church became predominantly Gentile in complexion.

Bird is to be commended for his judicious examination of the evidence. The book is an easy read and not overly technical. I don’t imagine it will be on many textbooks lists, but those who want to be brought up to speed on the topic will find that it does the job more than sufficiently.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Uncovered: Heaviest Gold Coin Ever Found in Israel

As the 2010 archaeology season comes to an end, news of significant finds are beginning to trickle out. Just this week the discovery of a gold coin in Israel dating from about 200 BCE was found. It looks like this may be the heaviest coin ever discovered in Israel and may help to shed some light on the Ptolemaic rulers who controlled Syro-Palaistine during that period.

Coins are an important find for archaeologist. As with our own money, we can learn much about a people and their culture. The imagery and inscriptions on money indicates what a nation thinks about itself and its leaders.

The recently discovered coin features the image of a woman on the front believed to be Queen Arsinoe II Philadelphus. On the back are two overlapping cornucopiae. This combination of the Queen and cornucopiae might suggest that this woman's rule was recognized for providing economic abundance. The archaeologist suggests that the coin was not intended for general circulation, but was used as part of a festival honoring the queen. Queen Arsinoe was deified in her lifetime, so a special coin in her honor would make sense.

This discovery is interesting in light of the spots we have be doing on women in the life of the apostle Paul. The deification and honoring of a woman, including the minting of a coin, demonstrates that there were powerful and respected women in antiquity. Granted, they were the minority, but we can add this to the numerous other examples of successful women in antiquity whose memory has been passed on to us by the ancients.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Women in the Life of the Apostle Paul

As promised on Monday, I plan to do a three part series on women in the life of the Apostle Paul. The first woman I want to look at is Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2. There is much we can learn about and from her even though she is only given two verses worth of press in the entire New Testament.

In Romans 16:1 Paul commends Phoebe to the church in Rome. He calls her a “sister” which locates her as a member of the church. This may sound like a trivial thing to point out, but actually it is quite important. Normally in the New Testament we read more about “brothers.” The Greek term for "brother" appears 343 times in the New Testament while "sister" only appears 26 times. Paul never addresses a congregation anywhere as “brothers and sisters,” but simply as brothers. He does this, of course, because such an address includes all persons regardless of gender. It is a generic catchall in much the same way that “mankind” used to be for English. Some modern English translations, however, have added “brothers and sisters” in place of the generic “brothers.” This is because we are more aware of the equality and value of both genders, but particularly of women. But this is not a generic address. Paul has written a specific exhortation about a person who is performing an important task for the life of the church. And she is a woman. Since Paul calls out so few women in his letters, this should get our attention.

With a little bit of investigation we discover that this woman is not only one of the named women in the New Testament, she is also the first recorded deacon in the history of the church. Often we have been conditioned to look to Acts 6:1-6 where Stephen and the seven are chosen to help relieve the apostles of their administrative weight. Traditionally we recognize these men as the first deacons of the church. But the term for deacon (dia/konoj) does not appear there. And apart from some statements about the qualifications for a deacon (1 Tim 3:8, 14; 4:6), there is no one else who receives the title of deacon in the New Testament. Even if Acts 6:1-6 does help establish a paradigm for deacons, the fact is, the only named deacon in the New Testament is a woman called Phoebe.

Phoebe is from Cenchreae which is a port city just east of Corinth. Paul was in Corinth when he wrote the letter to the Romans. He adds the comment that she was a benefactor of him and others. This means she probably was wealthy and held a significant social status that she had used to help both Paul and the church. It also seems that Phoebe is the one who carried the letter to Rome for Paul. Thus one of Paul’s most important letters was delivered by a female deacon who was a prominent member of the church in Cenchreae and was apparently well trusted by the Apostle Paul.

In these verses Paul commends her to the church. The terminology used here conveys the idea of standing together with someone. Thus Paul is telling the churches in Rome that he stands with Phoebe and supports her and, apparently, her call to ministry as a deacon.

Paul asks two things of the people in Rome. First, that they would welcome her in the Lord. Second, he wants them to assist her in any way that they can for anything that she may need. The sense of the terminology here of “assisting” literally means “to stand beside.” Paul has not merely called the church in Rome to aid Phoebe, but to stand beside her, that is help her and affirm her in her ministry, whatever that may be.

It is clear that this woman played an important role in the early church. She used her wealth and position to help Paul and the church which led Paul to believe that he could entrust her to deliver a letter to Rome. We know nothing else about this woman. We never hear from her again. We don’t know if she was single, married, widowed, a mother or divorced. Somehow none of those labels were needed to identify her. Paul only mentions her office as deacon and her reputation for caring for the church as the reasons why the church in Rome should help her. It seems as if her gender is not as important here as the task that was given to her. The modern church can learn much from these two verses. Just as Paul and the early church benefited from Phoebe s ministry, we too can benefit from the ministry and leadership of women.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Does God really call women to Ministry?

There are many contentious issues about which Christians debate and argue with one another. Should Christians drink? Can the divorced be remarried? What about sexuality?

One issue that has been a constant source of tension is the role of women in ministry. Does God call women to minister? Rarely, if ever, will you hear of a group that does not allow women to minister in some aspect. I have yet to visit a church where women were not the majority of Sunday school teachers. But that is the problem. The debate is not over whether women can minister, but in what capacity. It seems that it is ok for women to minister in a setting with children, but not with adults. And the justifications for this are based on the Bible and tradition.

There are numerous passages we could turn to which would help us determine how we should understand the role of women in the church. Two of the most well-known are 1 Cor 14:33-36 and 1Tim 2:11-15. Both of these passages command that women be silent in church and that they not be allowed to teach or have authority over men. These are often used to support the excluding of women from the pastorate since they cannot preach to a congregation of men nor tell a man what to do as pastor. Some read these passages as allowing for “women’s ministry,” meaning a lady could preach to other women, but not to men. As an aside, I always wondered what that means for young boys in Sunday school. At what point can a woman no longer teach a boy and tell him what to do? You should see some of the hermeneutical contortions used to make sure the church education program will keep running when men don’t want to be teaching 8 year old boys.

There has been a lot of ink spilled over these two passages. There are those who take them literally and want to apply them today with stringency. On the other side I have witnessed some equally interesting gymnastics by those who want to interpret these passages in a way that makes them say something other than what they do. Or, they argue for such a unique historical setting that the passage could only apply to a first century Ephesian setting.

I will tip my hand here. First, I think that if Paul’s statements in 1 Cor 14 are original (and I think this is a big “if”) than I read them as him repeating a Corinthian slogan rather than setting down a command. If Paul did write these words, than he is quoting them back to them with a rhetorical slap that says “Did the word of God originate with you”?

Second, I really do think that 1 Tim 2 seeks to restrict women from teaching and positions of authority. I am not sure we can get around that conclusion in a responsible way. I know others will disagree with me here, but this seems to be the most natural, plain meaning of the passage. Yet, I support the role of women in ministry. Two of the best sermons I have ever heard were delivered by a Lady Vicar at an Anglican church in Cambridge England. But I do think the author of 1Timothy was setting down commands that reflected his culture and he was using the Bible to do it. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

I think the issue here is hermeneutical. I acknowledge that in the first century women were restricted in their roles. It was the world in which they lived. But I am not sure that those attitudes, although encased in the Bible, should transfer to a 21st century setting. Just because it was that way, yes even commanded at times, does not mean it should be that way today.

The problem we face as biblical interpreters is how to apply texts from an ancient culture to a modern one. This is a tricky question. How do we decide what is culturally time bound and what is valuable for all ages? I am not sure that there is a foolproof formula. I think every generation will have to address and struggle with these questions anew.

I think one example of this type of problem is slavery. I have written quite a bit about slavery in the Bible and conclude that there is nothing in the Bible that condemns slavery. In fact, it accepts it, supports it and at times strengthens the chains on those who are bound. But modern society has realized the inhumane nature of slavery and rejected it. This is a problem, though, since the Bible does not condemn it and many of the metaphors of salvation use slavery language. But we have begun to read the Bible in new ways to help us understand the plight of the oppressed and use passages about slavery to free the oppressed rather than keep them bound. Similarly, many modern scholars examine passages on women in the Bible and use them to help free women and promote their place within the church and society.

The Bible should not be viewed as anti-women. There are many examples of great women doing things as important, if not more than, men. If all we do is read the commands about women, we fail to take into account the wider witness of the Bible. Lurking under the pages of scripture is strong evidence that women can and should have an equal role in ministry and society.

With that in mind I would like to highlight two things.

First, The Table, a quarterly publication of Ashland Theological Seminary, has just published an issue on women in ministry. It contains several articles that address the subject of women in ministry.

Second, starting Wednesday, I will begin a three part series on Women in the Life of the Apostle Paul. I will look at Romans 16 to see what we can learn about women in the life of the early church. I will post a new installment each Wednesday until we are through. I think looking at a passage like Romans 16 will open us up to new ways of thinking about this topic.