Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Prosperity

For my research assistant job over the summer, I've been doing a lot of digging into all things related to "prosperity" (i.e. prosperity gospel). It's been very fascinating to dialogue with my professor over a topic that I really don't know much about. Before this summer, the only reason I was vaguely even aware of this brand of Christianity was because of these two buildings:


If you're from Orange County (CA), you're probably very familiar with these buildings (even if you didn't know what they were) because both buildings can be seen from two major freeways that run through Orange County. The first one on the left is the Trinity Broadcasting Network, found by Paul (and Jan) Crouch, and a couple other former associates. The second is the Crystal Cathedral, found by Robert Schuller. I think both institutions are intertwined with what's understood as the prosperity movement, which is often highly disparaged by mainstream evangelicalism. Leaving aside the polarizing debate about their theology for the moment, I started thinking about the brand of evangelicalism that I myself have known and experienced.
The churches I know from home are situated in a very affluent, upper middle-class area (a TV show and a movie was named after the general area I'm from, after all), I began to wonder if there is anything practically (I'm not talking about the theological foundations or lack thereof that might undergird each of the two groups) different from prosperity churches and mainstream evangelical churches that I have seen. Most upper-middle class evangelicals seem just fine accumulating vast amounts of wealth (e.g., houses, cars, bank accounts, toys, vacations, clothing, etc.), and from their ivory tower of enjoying every level of creature comfort that man could think of, they quickly turn around and "abominate" any hints of the prosperity gospel (to use John Piper's words, though this present post is not talking about him or his lifestyle: I just think his word fits the vehemence with which we tend to critique the "other side", viz., the prosperity gospel).
To me, it all seems a bit intellectually and theologically dishonest to sing "You are my all in all" on a Sunday morning, while driving away from church in a BMW, checking one's Cartier watch to make sure they're not late for brunch at the new French-American joint that opened up, and simultaneously using Twitter and texts on his or her iPhone4. I apologize for being overdramatic, but the affluent middle-class evangelical appears to me, mutatis mutandis, as a practical prosperity-believer. I don't think possessing wealth itself is the distinguishing marker between being a mainline evangelical or a prosperity-believer, but I do think the manner in which that wealth is viewed and handled makes the difference. One can deny that they dislike (or even "abominate") the prosperity gospel, but I think their lifestyle might tell another story.
Now, don't misunderstand me as one who has successfully negotiated the theological tension that exists between middle-class wealth and Christian discipleship in a world filled with immense poverty. But, as I'm seeing more and more of my Christian colleagues and friends enter into the professional world, earning salaries that will more than provide for all sorts of luxuries, it does worry me somewhat whether we have carefully thought about what role money should play in our individual lives, our families, and the rearing of our children.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Handmade

In our modern culture of industrialized goods, often there is a big premium placed on "handmade" goods. Handmade things are special in the sense that they are unique (if they are handmade, it's more than likely that no two are alike) and more often than not, personal (I think of friends who knit things for friends — handmade).

In the LXX and NT, the same word can be found: χειροποίητος. It's interesting that the word means, literally, "handmade." However, in the Scriptures, handmade things are seen in quite the opposite light; they are symbols of idolatry and if I'm not mistaken, the majority (if not all) of the occurrences of the word is used negatively. To make this point clear, translators of OT will make this case by rendering the Greek word as an "idol" or "image" (E.g., Lev 26:1; Isa 2:18).

In the OT, the critique appears to be against the handcrafted item of a god as opposed the unimageable YHWH (See the two examples above). And in the NT, the invective is against "handmade" circumcision as opposed to the spiritual/heart circumcision and the "handmade" temple as opposed to the spiritual temple (E.g., Mk 14:58; Acts 7:48, 17:24; Heb 9:11). While this might have been a prominent theme that flowed through Jewish thought, I didn't think that Greco-Roman culture gave all that much thought to this until I came across Seneca's letters today (albeit his very different angle). In it he writes:

"You are doing the finest possible thing and acting in your best interests if, as you say in your letter, you are persevering in your efforts to acquire a sound understanding. This is something it is foolish to pray for when you can win it from your own self. There is no need to raise our hands to heaven; there is no need to implore the temple warden to allow us close to the ear of some graven image (simulacri), as though this increased the chances of our being heard. God is near you, is with you, is inside you (prope est a te deus, tecum est, intus est). Yes, Lucilius, there resides within us a divine spirit, which guards us and watches us in the evil and the good we do. As we treat him, so will he treat us. No man, indeed is good without God — is any one capable of rising above fortune unless he has help from God? He it is that prompts us to noble and exalted endeavors. In each and every good man: A god (what god we are uncertain) dwells" [this last sentence is seen as a quote from Virgil's Aeneid].
--Seneca, Epistle 40.1-2

Though I'll probably have to study more about the kind of theology (if any) Stoic philosophers subscribed to, this paragraph from Seneca is an interesting parallel.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

2 Baruch 72

These days, I've been reading 2 Baruch in Syriac to keep up with the ancient language (using this text here), and so far, it's been a very interesting book to read. I've really enjoyed taking Syriac for the past year now (great professor [Dr. Lucas Van Rompay] as well as a bunch of interesting texts [Ephrem's commentary, Aphrahat's Demonstrations, NT/OT Peshitta, Odes of Solomon to name just a few]). This morning I was reading 2 Baruch 71-73, and if I'm not mistaken, this critical text contains a translation error (his transl.):

72.1 "Hear, now, also concerning the bright waters which are to come at the end, after these black (waters): this is the word. 72.2 After the signs have come, of which I have spoken to you before, when the nations become confused and the time of my Messiah comes, he will call all the nations; and some of them he will spare, and some of them he will kill. 72.3 These things, therefore, will come upon the nations which are not spared by him. 72.4 Every nation which does not know Israel and has trodden down the seed of Jacob, will live. And this because some from all the nations will be subjected to your people. But all those who have ruled over you or have known you will be given over to the sword."


My question concerns 72.3, which the critical text reads (I'm using a font called Estrangelo Edessa, so if you don't have Syriac fonts installed, it might not show correctly):

ܗܠܝܢ ܗܟܝܠ ܐܬܝܢ ܥܠ ܥܡܡܐ ܐܝܠܝܢ ܕܥܬܝܕܝܢ ܕܢܚܘܢ ܡܢܗ

Gurtner translates this as, "These things, therefore, will come upon the nations which are not spared by him". But the difficulty for me concerns the second to last word in the sentence which is from the root ḥy’, which is of course in this form means to give life, save, or spare. If my reading is right, it should be read: "These things, therefore, will come upon the nations which are spared/saved by him."

Friday, June 17, 2011

Quote of the Day: Seneca

As I wrote in a previous post, I've been reading a little bit of Seneca's Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, and today, I wanted to quote him on one function that letters seemed to play during his time.

"Thank you for writing so often. By doing so you give me a glimpse of yourself in the only way you can. I never get a letter from you without instantly feeling we're together. If pictures of absent friends are a source of pleasure to us, refreshing the memory and relieving the sense of void with a solace however insubstantial and unreal, how much more so are letters, which carry marks and signs of the absent friend that are real. For the handwriting of a friend affords us what is so delightful about seeing him again, the sense of recognition (agnoscere)."
- Seneca, Letter 40.1

In our modern age of easy travel, texting, phone calls, and even video chatting (FaceTime, Skype, etc!?), it might be difficult for us at times to imagine how letters might have been perceived and accepted by their recipients. Consequently, when we come across letters in the NT, we are prone to search out possible universal apothegms that we would like to apply in our current situations. However, a quote like above shows the tender and personal (also in some ways private?) nature of letters that insists on our more careful attention to particular situations, expressions of friendship (or enmity?), etc., that exist in the NT epistles.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Testimonium Flavianum

I've been just trying to understand a bit more about what Josephus offers in NT studies, and today's post is just one small intersection between Josephus and the NT. The title of the blog post is about a passage (which scholars call testimonium flavianum) from Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews, which contains the following (at least as the text we have today):

About this time comes Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it is proper to call him a man. For he was a worker of incredible deeds, a teacher of those who accept the truth with pleasure, and attracted many Jews as well as many of the Greek. This man was the Christ (ὁ χριστὸς οὗτος ἦν). And when, in view of [his] denunciation by the leading men among us, Pilate had sentenced him to a cross, those who had loved at the beginning did not cease [to do so]. He appeared to them on the third day alive again, for the divine prophets had announced these and countless other marvels concerning him. And even now the tribe of the "Christians"—named after him—has not yet disappeared.
Ant. 18:63-64

What's striking is the sentence in the Greek shown above, a succinct and unqualified assertion that Jesus was the Christ. In all of the Josephus corpus, he only uses the term "Christ" twice (here and in Ant. 20:200). I think most (if not all) scholars would be agreed that Josephus was not a Christian by any means, and therefore, this statement is somewhat at odds with how Josephus normally thought and wrote in the rest of his literature. This then engenders a few questions:

(1) Is this testimonium original to Josephus?
(2) Is this a later whole cloth creation by later Christian scribes?
(3) Did Josephus mention Jesus in some other way that provided the foundation from which later editors were able to create this assertion?
(4) Was Josephus a Christian? (if we were allowed to entertain this as a viable option)

I can understand why most scholars view this as a later redaction (or insertion) by Christian scribes, but I suppose if that was true, why only here and why in such a brief note? I would think that if they wanted to make Jesus available within Josephus' writings, they might as well scatter a few more pieces of information elsewhere (and possibly in larger chunks)...

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

UCLA and manuscripts

Just found out today that my alma mater, UCLA, now holds the largest repository of Ethiopic manuscripts in North America. Some excerpts of this article:

he UCLA Library has acquired the largest private collection of Ethiopic manuscripts and scrolls in the U.S., given by Gerald and Barbara Weiner. Together with the library's existing collections, this gift makes the UCLA Library the leading repository for Ethiopic manuscripts in North America. A classical Semitic language, Ethiopic is used as the liturgical language of the Christian church in Ethiopia. Dating from the 18th to the 21st centuries, the collection of 137 bound manuscripts and 102 scrolls is particularly rich in elaborately illustrated liturgical texts. Highlights include a late 19th/early 20th-century version of the Gospels containing 78 miniatures; a 19th-century "lives of the saints" with 40 miniatures; a 20th-century compilation of a table blessing and miracles performed by Jesus with 37 miniatures; and a 20th-century collection of prayers with an image of John the Evangelist and 26 miniatures.

"Words cannot express our deep thanks to Jerry and Barbara — first, for building this gorgeous collection, then for giving it to us," said UCLA University Librarian Gary E. Strong. "These extraordinary items, noteworthy both for their research value and their beauty, will be of great interest to students and scholars, as well as to the extensive Ethiopian community in Southern California." ...


To see more, go to the UCLA newsroom here.

HT: PaleoJudaica.com

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Quote of the Day

This past semester, we talked at length about Paul's letter to the Romans, and despite spending an entire semester looking hard at the text, it's evident to me that there is much more to be wrestled with and learned before I can confidently say I know something about Romans. The more we seemed to dig into the text, the more I became convinced that much of my own understanding of the letter was built on assumptions that may not necessarily be right. Granted, my teacher had a specific angle to the text that colored our own discussions, but nevertheless, it was very helpful to think critically about this important letter in the NT. One issue that we began to unpack a little bit is the fact that Romans is, in the end, a letter. This means that we should be careful about viewing the book wholesale as a systematic theology book, where we might be prone to believe that everything we wanted to know about anything in Christianity is found in Romans. I'm currently reading Richard Longenecker's Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul's Most Famous Letter, and in it, he makes the same point. I would like to quote some words from a wise Pauline scholar:

"Throughout the first eighteen centuries of the Christian church, Romans was most often understood as a theological treatise or tractate that sets out a relatively complete statement of Christian belief — or, at least, that clearly enunciates the basic features of Paul's teaching ...
Romans, however, is a real letter, not a contrived literary epistle. It contains personal allusions, definite travel plans, and rather specific instructions for a particular people. There are in it, as in Paul's other letters, digressions, parentheses, and unfinished sentences. More importantly, while the longest of the apostle's extant writings, Romans lacks a number of subjects that seem from his other letters to be absolutely essential to Paul's thought and proclamation — most obviously, (1) the omission of any discussion of the resurrection of believers, which was such an important topic in his earlier letters (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4-5, 2 Thessalonians 2, and 1 Corinthians 15), and (2) the lack of any reference to the Lord's Supper, which was a matter of great concern when writing to converts at Corinth (cf. 1 Cor 11:17-34). As a theological treatise, therefore, Romans is somewhat truncated and a bit disappointing in its coverage of important doctrinal themes."


This is something that I think we need to wrestle with a bit further, but at this point, it is significant to note that Romans was not written at the end of one's life. Actually, as Longenecker points out (following the quote above), "Paul writes as a man in mid-career," having completed much of his work in the east, and setting out toward missionary work in the west.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Know your Bible

This CNN article lists various "phantom passages" that are often mistaken as being found in the Bible. Some interesting ones are:

"This, too, shall pass"
"God helps those who help themselves"
"Spare the rod, spoil the child"
"God works in mysterious ways"

I think I've actually heard some of these phrases used as if one was quoting from Scripture. Have you heard of any others?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Quote of the Day

I've just started to read Seneca's Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, probably as a small way to make up missing out on a class on Greco-Roman philosophy this past semester (I wasn't able to take it due to schedule conflicts). Plus some quotes I've read from a friend got me curious about this famous Stoic philosopher, and so far, it's been a fun read. I will leave you today with a short quote from him:

"Similarly, people who never relax and people who are invariably in a relaxed state merit your disapproval — the former as much as the latter. For a delight in bustling about is not industry — it is only the restless energy of a hunted mind. And the state of mind that looks on all activity as tiresome is not true repose, but a spineless inertia. This prompts me to memorize something which I came across in Pomponius. 'Some men have shrunk so far into dark corers that objects in bright daylight seem quite blurred to them.' A balanced combination of the two attitudes is what we want; the active man should be able to take things easily, while the man who is inclined toward repose should be capable of action. Ask nature: she will tell you that she made both day and night."
- Seneca, Epistle III

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Angry?

NT Wright mentions briefly what gets to him at times:



How about you?