Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Seven Common Misconceptions Corrected

Read it first. Granted, the author teaches Old Testament at Brandeis, so he’s not just a journalist working with material he doesn't really know. But it appears to me that some of his misconceptions are views that no one holds anyway. Hence his “corrections” are either irrelevant or represent a liberal/critical scholarly consensus that does not hold outside of those circles.

Misconception 1: The Ten Commandments are the most important part of the Bible. Since I don’t know anyone who actually holds this view, and I have never seen this view expressed in print, it appears to me unlikely that this is a “common” misconception. The rest of his comment draws attention to the fact that the 10 Commandments (or 10 Words) are differently enumerated by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. (Maybe the topic for another post.)

Misconception 2: We know what the original text of the Bible is. This he denies. But, within certain parameters, I think he is wrong. Texts in the Old Testament period tended to be copied and preserved with a fair amount of care. He vastly overstates his case here, and the Dead Sea Scrolls undercut his case severely. Though there is some variation between the Dead Sea Scrolls texts of Old Testament books, and the modern Hebrew texts that we have, the differences are actually fairly minor, as any standard textbook on Old testament text criticism makes clear.

Misconception 3: The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament are different names for the same books. Granted, as he observes, the Old Testament of the Roman Catholic Church contains a number of books that are not contained in Protestant Old Testaments. Once we get past that, however, the common conception is correct. I will agree, to some extent, that order matters, but the fact remains that Protestant Old Testaments contain exactly the same books as Hebrew Bibles contain. It may be a bit of an oversimplification to say that Old Testament and Hebrew Bible are different names for the same books, but it is not wrong, hence not really a misconception.

Misconception 4: We know the order of the biblical books. If he means by this that we know the original order of the biblical books, then of course it is a misconception. The Hebrew Bible does not have a set order (different printed editions have different orders of books in the Writings section). But in a certain sense, so what? He doesn't really indicate why this might be a bad misconception.

Misconception 5: Everything in a prophetic book is by that prophet. That view is not held in the liberal academy. So in Brettler’s mind, it is a misconception. However, the view that the books of the prophets hold the writings of those prophets was the common view of both Judaism and Christianity until less than two hundred years ago. The fact that we don’t have the original books written by the prophets is beside the point. To Brettler, there is evidence that indicates the some (if not large) portions of the Old Testament prophetic books are by authors other than the named prophets. I have never found that evidence compelling.

Misconception 6: The Bible is history. Well, again, Brettler has something of a point, but it is also overstated. The Bible is not history as history is written today, since history as written today does not allow for explanation of events being orchestrated by God. But the Old Testament does tell us about historical events. Archaeology neither proves nor disproves biblical events. Archaeological discoveries can either lend support to the biblical account, or raise questions about the biblical account, but whether the biblical account stands or falls is generally determined by the author’s views about the Old Testament itself. For example, there is currently debate in scholarly circles about whether the kingdom of David actually existed as it is described in the Old Testament. Archaeological discoveries to date cannot tell us that. But those who hold that it didn't, hold that view, not on the basis of archaeology, but on the basis of their views about the Old Testament.

Misconception 7: All the Psalms are by King David. Again, I don’t think anyone actually holds that view, so Brettler’s objection is irrelevant. The real question is whether David wrote those Psalms that are referred as “of David” in the psalm titles. I see no good reason to deny those to David. Saying that “scholars do not attribute any of Psalms to King David!” is simply not true, unless you automatically define as “no scholar” anyone who holds that David wrote some of the psalms. Again, Brettler has overstated his case, and has done so based primarily on the basis of his presuppositions about what the Old Testament is.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Little Fun for Christmas, Suggested by Andy Webb

After the immaculate conception[1] of Jesus, Joseph was instructed by an Angel to take his pregnant wife Mary[2] to his hometown of Bethlehem[3] where he was told Jesus would be born. Mary and Joseph, and their little donkey[4] all set off for Bethlehem led by a star[5]. When they reached their destination they hoped[6] to stay at the inn in Bethlehem but they was no room so they stayed in a wooden stable[7] surrounded by all sorts of animals[8]. Then on the still and snowy evening[9] of December 25th[10], Mary gave birth to Jesus and laid him on straw[11] in a manger. Mary immediately noticed that something was very special about this baby because he didn't cry when he was awakened by the noises made by cattle in the stable[12]. Later that evening[13], 3[14] kings[15] from the east who had followed the same star all the way to where it had stopped over that stable in Bethlehem[16] arrived by camel[17] to give Jesus presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Shepherds also came to play music for him[18]. A poor little boy also arrived to worship Jesus and because he had no present fit for a king to give, Mary said it would be fine if he played his drum for him.[19]

[1] The immaculate conception, a doctrine not taught in the Bible, refers to the conception of Mary, not that of Jesus.

[2] Joseph was instructed by the angel not to put away Mary. She was at the time not his wife, but his betrothed.

[3] Joseph went to Bethlehem because of the census, not because he was told by the angel.

[4] There’s no mention of a donkey.

[5] The star only occurs in reference to the magi.

[6] This hope may be implied, but it is not explicit, so it is ruled out of order.

[7] No mention of what the stable was made of.

[8] No mention of animals in the stable. There may have been some there, or they may have been moved out.

[9] There is no mention of either “still” or “snowy.” We are also not told what time of day it was when Mary gave birth.

[10] The date is a later invention. No date is given, or even clearly implied, in the text.

[11] No mention of straw in the text.

[12] This whole sentence is confabulation, so it’s hard to tell how many errors are in it.

[13] The kings arrived some time later, though we do not know how much later.

[14] The number of persons is not mentioned.

[15] They were not kings, but magi.

[16] Well, sort of. The magi had seen the star, and on that basis headed to Jerusalem. After being sent out by Herod, they followed the star, which “stood over where the child was” (NASB). We presume that the family was still in Behtlehem.

[17] Their mode of travel is not mentioned.

[18] Shepherds came, but to worship, not to sing.

[19] This whole sentence is confabulation, so again, the number of errors is difficult to determine.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Some Thoughts on Reading the Bible in 2015

This is not another post on Bible reading plans. There are about a thousand different reading plans out there, and I have no intention of adding to the list. What I will say first is that if you really want to read through the Bible in 2015, use a plan that takes you straight through from the beginning to the end. The Bible is one great big fantastic story, and if you’re reading a little here and a little there every day, you lose the plot.

Second, get yourself a Bible for reading. What I mean is that most Bible publishers do everything they can to make it hard to read the Bible. They print it in two columns. They put cross references in there. They put notes at the bottom of the page. They print in different colors, and add pictures and drawings. All of this can be helpful if you’re studying the Bible. But if you’re reading the Bible, it all distracts. When was the last time you picked up a novel that was printed in double columns, or had footnotes, or was printed in different colors, or had cross references? Of course you wouldn't expect cross references or footnotes in a novel. But the point is that those things distract from the task of reading. The ESV and the NIV are both now available in what is called a reader’s edition. While I don’t much care for the NIV as a translation, if you do, look into it. What both of these editions do is eliminate the verse numbers, the cross references, and the footnotes. And they put the chapter numbers in a place where they don’t intrude on the reading.  If you don’t want to buy one of those, at least get a plain text Bible (no cross references or footnotes). You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to simply read when you don’t have all those distractions on the page.

Third, read the whole thing. By that, I mean don’t skip over the annoying parts, such as the rules for sacrifices in Leviticus, or the censuses in Numbers, of the long lists of names in 1 Chronicles. Don’t puzzle over them trying to find some secret meaning in them, but don’t ignore them either. However obscure they may be, they are part of the story. Having those things in the Bible is a little like having accounts of dish-washing and vacuuming in someone’s biography. Maybe they don’t seem important, but they constitute a regular part of daily life. So these seemingly unimportant things in the Bible have a place.

Fourth, if you miss a day or two, or even a week or two, don’t beat yourself up. Just pick up where you left off. If you don’t quite finish in a year, that’s okay.

Here’s to getting the big picture, reading the whole story in 2015.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Persuasive Preaching. R. Larry Overstreet.

When I read a book such as this one, I am reminded of the real diversity that exists in American evangelicalism at both the theological and at the practical level. Dr. Overstreet writes to an evangelical context in which the invitation, which used to be the standard close to the worship service, is disappearing. Overstreet laments this loss, attributing it to the loss of the view of preaching as intended to persuade. According to him, that view has been replaced by the view that preaching is merely to inform. If there is no persuasion, there is no need for commitment.

Overstreet aims to correct this “informing” view of preaching by demonstrating that the biblical view is that preaching lies between manipulating and informing in the region of persuading. Overstreet devotes the bulk of the book (Part 2) to demonstrating this. His approach is what I would call “word study exegesis”—that is, the point is proved by studying every word that is relevant to the issue in its every occurrence. The result is, perhaps, convincing, but it is also repetitious and tedious. It strikes me that he would have been better advised to select two or three key passages and deal carefully with them, rather than to heap up verses.

He devotes Part 3 of the book to presenting different ways of structuring a persuasive  message. Again, it seems to me that these suggestions are particularly aimed at a distinct evangelical subculture, with its own distinct view of preaching. Certainly the material is helpful, but it is available in almost any introductory book on preaching.

Before reaching his conclusion, Overstreet does have a helpful chapter on the Holy Spirit in preaching. The conclusion brings us back to the invitation. Apparently Overstreet thinks that persuasive reaching will be ineffective without a concluding invitation to seal the deal. Here, I fundamentally disagree.

This is not a bad book. Nor is it a good book. It aims in part to restore a practice that the church is better off without. The more helpful material in the book has been said innumerable times elsewhere, so it’s not clear to me why the book was necessary. But maybe that’s just because I don’t share Overstreet’s evangelical subculture.