Category Archives: Scholarship

When I say “myth”

Myth…

This came up recently… When I say myth, I do not mean fiction. Rather, I mean taking our words and talking about things we do not understand. We do this via stories or analogies or whatsoever poetic form this may take. The book to the left has helped convince me of the use of myth in explaining a lot of things.

Most peoples of the ancient world, including Canaanites (and the Romans of New Testament time), viewed the world from the perspective of myth. Contrary to what I have often heard from the pulpit, the term “myth” as used here does not mean “false” or “fiction.” Even in my old and yellowed Webster’s, “fiction” is the third meaning of the word. In its primary and more technical meaning “myth” refers to a story or group of stories that serve to explain how a particular society views their world. The stories of myth often deal with phenomena of the physical world for which the culture does not have an adequate explanation. Or they may deal with human actions and emotions that are potentially valuable or destructive for the community. Myth is a means by which a society can express its collective experience of the world, with the fear, frustration, anxiety, and promise that it holds.- Dennis Bratcher

Speaking the Language of Canaan: The OT and the Israelite Perception of the Physical World.

Prometheus, by Gustave Moreau, tortured on Mou...
Prometheus, by Gustave Moreau, tortured on Mount Caucasus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This guy? Mythic, but maybe not mythic like other things but then again, maybe so. Thoughts?

Suicide in Jewish and Roman Thought (brief working draft)

English: Chart showing he circumstances for su...
English: Chart showing he circumstances for suicide in 16 states in the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am working through some academic things, dissertation and the what not, and for the next few weeks, I am working on all things voluntary death. This includes suicide. Before you go off and suggest suicide is a moral crime and start citing bible verses, see here. What follows is a brief draft that I will amend, emend, and expand during the coming weeks. 

The concept of suicide (strictly defined as taking one’s life seemingly without external cause) is found in various Jewish texts, although, save in one case, it is usually condemned. Perhaps most notably is the suicide of Judas (Matthew 27.5, although the accounts of success differ between the Matthew, Luke, and Papias); however, there are suicides in the Hebrew canon including Abimelech (Judges 9.53–5), Achitophel (2 Sam 17.23), Zimri (1 Kings 16.15–20) and Saul (1 Chronicles 10.3–13).[1] In other Second Temple literature, suicide is passively addressed as in the case of Tobit 3.10. The only heroic suicide is found in 2 Maccabees 14.37–46, in which Razis, a loyal Jew who was soon to be arrested, killed himself because, “εὐγενῶς θέλων ἀποθανεῖν, ἤπερ τοῖς ἀλιτηρίοις ὑποχείριος γενέσθαι, καὶ τῆς ἰδίας εὐγενείας ἀναξίως ὑβρισθῆναι.” Compare this to the death of Antiochus Eupator who ended his life in 2 Maccabees 10.13, where the author states, “μήτʼ εὐγενῆ τὴν ἐξουσίαν ἔχων, ὑπʼ ἀθυμίας φαρμακεύσας ἑαυτὸν ἐξέλιπε τὸν βίον.Suicide was common enough, at least in the time of Josephus, to have ritualistic responses.[2] Because the mentions of self-homicide were not accompanied with mentions of either condemnation or penalty, David Daube has suggested suicide is best seen as either natural or perhaps even heroic.[3]

Rabbinic Judaism, however, quickly forbade suicide. Rabbi Eleazar interpreted Genesis 9.5 to stand as an opposition to the taking of one’s life.[4] Suicide became the same as murder and as such, later rabbis turned to deal with the intentionality and culpability. According to Sidney Goldstein, not all suicide was considered suicide. Indeed, if the motivation was repentance, then the crime is overlooked by the intention.[5] Suicide was also allowed to avoid suffering, such as in the case of Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion.[6]

The Romans had a long tradition of suicide. As E.R. Dodds states, “in these centuries a good many persons were consciously or unconsciously in love with death.”[7] Roman suicide, like most things Roman, found its genesis among the Greeks. Plato’s work, Phaedo, contributed greatly the Stoic view, among other schools as well, of suicide as the final mastery of fate. Plato borrows Socrates’ words to suggest that death, because of the promise of a reward on the other side, is preferred and urged his students to follow him quickly.[8] Granted, he refused to offer a chance for his disciples to take their own life, as this was strictly forbidden. After arguing over his moral clause, Socrates proposes a solution. Rather than taking one’s life freely and simply to join ranks with the living who have died, he demands a necessity. If a necessity to take one’s life is found, then it is no longer immoral.[9] Perhaps this is why so many Stoics would find themselves with such a great necessity, even to the point of interpreting the breaking of a finger or the stubbing of a toe as the call of a god to die.[10]

More important to our present study is Seneca’s Epistle 70. Here, he writes to laud suicide if it entails political freedom. He ends the epistle with the solemn, almost horrific announcement, “Eadem illa ratio monet, ut, si licet, moriaris quemadmodum placet; si minus, quemadmodum potes, et quicquid obvenerit ad vim adferendam tibi invadas. Iniuriosum est rapto vivere, at contra pulcherrimum mori rapto. Vale.”[11] Seneca would go on to commit suicide after the failure of a conspiracy to kill Nero.

Suicide was such a commonplace sight in Rome it gave rise to a concept, Romana mors, complete with images of dramatic suicides serving as the evening’s entertainment. The act of taking one’s own life became almost a standard norm but it was not associated with depression. Rather that the stark contrast offered by depression or a joy to die, the reality was more often an overreaction to events. Romans took their own life due to certain “signs,” losses in war, even criminal charges. Added to this is the developed ritual and even stylistic etiquette Romans used. At one point, suicides become a public event, a transformation prompting parodies at Nero’s court.[12]

It must be stressed that a canyon of cultural context separates the connection between the Roman suicide and Jewish suicide. Yet, it suffices us to simply point out that in both cultures relevant to the authors of the New Testament, suicide was allowed at least for particular instances, especially to avoid loss and to prevent humiliation. Neither of these instances sufficiently describes the death of Jesus, for reasons I will detail later in this study.

 

[1] Note that in the cases of Abimelech and Saul, both were mortally wounded and only after acknowledging such a state either asked for a quick dispatch (Abimelech) or fell on their own sword (Saul).

[2] See BJ 3.372–77 where Josephus notes that the bodies of suicide victims were left out in the sun and simply buried because of the great crime they had committed against God. Their souls were sent to divine punishment.

[3] David Daube, “Death as a Release in the Bible.” Novum Testamentum, 1962, vol. 5, 82–104.

[4] See b,Baba Kamma 91b

[5] Sidney Goldstein, Suicide in Rabbinic Literature (KTAV, 1989), 26–29.

[6] For a fuller discussion on suicide and the development of moral restrictions in both Christian and Judaism, see F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, “Suicide”, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press, 2005) and A. J. Droge, “Suicide,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992).

[7] E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, (Cambridge, 1965), 135.

[8] Plato, Phaedo, 61bc, 64.

[9] Plato, Phaedo, 62c.

[10] Thus is the story of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism. See Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, 7.28.

[11] Seneca, Ep 70.28, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, Vol 2. trans. by Richard M. Gummere, (Loeb Classical Library, 1920), 73.

[12] For more on the suicide cult at Rome, see Timothy Hill, Ambitiosa Mors: Suicide and the Self in Roman Thought and Literature (Routledge, 2004).

Marius Victorinus on Christ as Liberator

Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pan...
Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pantocrator; Istanbul, Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is from the first Latin commentary on Paul’s works, specifically at Galatians 2.20–21:

But as I now live in the flesh, I live in the faith of God and Christ. This is truly to live spiritually: that although one lives in the flesh, one does not live on account of the flesh or based on the flesh. Rather, one lives to God and to Christ by faith in them. This is what it means to live spiritually: to meditate on Christ, to speak of him, to believe him, to direct one’s desires toward him; to flee the world, to expel from one’s mind all things which are in the world. This is what it means to live by faith: to hope for no other good than what is from Christ and from God. This is what it means to live in the faith of God and Christ, who loved me and handed himself over for my sake. Let us keep this worthy act in mind, so that we live in him through faith—in him, who to hand over so great a gift to us would give himself to death and the cross for our sake, and in so doing liberate us from our sins.

Next he adds in this manner:

I am not ungrateful to God’s grace (2: 21), so that, God having redeemed me through Christ and Christ having handed himself over for my sake, I would return to the hope of the Law—all the hope I have in Christ being disregarded—and would believe myself to be justified based on the works of the Law. That would be ungrateful to the one who did so much for me, who for my sake would put himself in the line of fire in order to liberate me from my sins by taking their penalties upon himself.

That last line is a killer.

Some writers on Galatians 3.13 and the curse

Justin the Philosopher
Justin the Philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am doing some work on Galatians 3.13 in early Christian writers. I’ve included Philo and the Epistle of Barnabas in here as well for various reasons. They, like Paul, are interpreting Deuteronomy 21.22. The others are interpreting Paul.

St. Ambrose:

As, then, He was made sin and a curse not on His own account but on ours, so He became subject in us not for His own sake but for ours, being not in subjection in His eternal Nature, nor accursed in His eternal Nature. “For cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” Cursed He was, for He bore our curses; in subjection, also, for He took upon Him our subjection, but in the assumption of the form of a servant, not in the glory of God; so that whilst he makes Himself a partaker of our weakness in the flesh, He makes us partakers of the divine Nature in His power. But neither in one nor the other have we any natural fellowship with the heavenly Generation of Christ, nor is there any subjection of the Godhead in Christ. But as the Apostle has said that on Him through that flesh which is the pledge of our salvation, we sit in heavenly places,9 though certainly not sitting ourselves, so also He is said to be subject in us through the assumption of our nature.1

St. Athanasius:

And thus much in reply to those without who pile up arguments for themselves. But if any of our own people also inquire, not from love of debate, but from love of learning, why He suffered death in none other way save on the Cross, let him also be told that no other way than this was good for us, and that it was well that the Lord suffered this for our sakes. 2. For if He came Himself to bear the curse laid upon us, how else could He have “become a curse,” unless He received the death set for a curse? and that is the Cross. For this is exactly what is written: “Cursed is he that hangeth on a tree.” 3. Again, if the Lord’s death is the ransom of all, and by His death “the middle wall of partition” is broken down, and the calling of the nations is brought about, how would He have called us to Him, had He not been crucified?2

St. John Damascene:

CHAPTER XXV

Concerning the Appropriation.

It is to be observed that there are two appropriations: one that is natural and essential, and one that is personal and relative. The natural and essential one is that by which our Lord in His love for man took on Himself our nature and all our natural attributes, becoming in nature and truth man, and making trial of that which is natural: but the personal and relative appropriation is when any one assumes the person of another relatively, for instance, out of pity or love, and in his place utters words concerning him that have no connection with himself. And it was in this way that our Lord appropriated both our curse and our desertion, and such other things as are not natural: not that He Himself was or became such, but that He took upon Himself our personality and ranked Himself as one of us. Such is the meaning in which this phrase is to be taken: Being made a curse for our sakes.3

The Epistle of Barnabas:

7.7-10: But the other one—what must they do with it? Accursed, saith He, is the one. Give heed how the type of Jesus is revealed. And do ye all spit upon it and goad it, and place scarlet wool about its head, and so let it be cast into the wilderness. And when it is so done, he that taketh the goat into the wilderness leadeth it, and taketh off the wool, and putteth it upon the branch which is called Rachia, the same whereof we are wont to eat the shoots when we find them in the country. Of this briar alone is the fruit thus sweet. What then meaneth this? Give heed. The one for the altar, and the other accursed. And moreover the accursed one crowned. For they shall see Him in that day wearing the long scarlet robe about His flesh, and shall say, Is not this He, Whom once we crucified and set at nought and spat upon; verily this was He, Who then said that He was the Son of God. 10For how is He like the goat?4

I find this interesting, since Barnabas is applying the Day of Atonement sacrifice to Christ, rather than the Passover lamb. Thus, he seems to interpret “curse” in this light, so that Jesus is bearing our sins.

St. Justin Martyr:

‘As God ordered the sign to be made by the brazen serpent,’ I went on, ‘and yet is not guilty [of the crime of making graven images], so in the Law a curse is placed upon men who are crucified, but not upon the Christ of God, by whom are saved all who have committed deeds deserving a curse.’5

Philo:

On Posterity of Cain and his Exile, VIII. (24) On this account it is written in the curses contained in scripture, “Thou shalt never rest; nor shall there be any rest for the sole of thy foot.” And, a little afterwards, we read that, “Thy life shall hang in doubt before them.”8 For it is the nature of the foolish man, who is always being tossed about in a manner contrary to right reason, to be hostile to tranquillity and rest, and not to stand firmly or with a sure foundation on any doctrine whatever. (25) Accordingly he is full of different opinions at different times, and sometimes, even in the same circumstances, without any new occurrence having arisen to affect them, he will be perfectly contrary to himself,—now great, now little, now hostile, now friendly; and, in short, he will, so to say, be everything that is most inconsistent in a moment of time. And, as the law-giver says, “All his life shall hang in doubt before him;” having no firm footing, but being constantly tossed about by opposing circumstances, which drag it different ways. (26) On which account Moses says, in another place, “Cursed of God is he that hangeth on a tree;” because what he ought to hang upon is God.

But such a man has, of his own accord, bound himself to the body, which is a wooden burden upon us, exchanging hope for desire and a perfect hope for the greatest of evils; for hope, being the expectation of good things, causes the mind to depend upon the bounteous God; but appetite, creating only unreasonable desires, depends on the body, which nature has made to be a sort of receptacle and abode for the soul.6

Martyrdom of Polycarp:

2.3 And giving heed unto the grace of Christ they despised the tortures of this world, purchasing at the cost of one hour a release from eternal punishment. And they found the fire of their inhuman torturers cold: for they set before their eyes the escape from the eternal fire which is never quenched; while with the eyes of their heart they gazed upon the good things which are reserved for those that endure patiently, things which neither ear hath heard nor eye hath seen, neither have they entered into the heart of man, but were shown by the Lord to them, for they were no longer men but angels already.

  1. Ambrose of Milan, “Exposition of the Christian Faith,” in St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters (ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth; vol. 10; A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series; New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896), 10306.
  2. Athanasius of Alexandria, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters (ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; trans. Archibald T. Robertson; vol. 4; A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series; New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 449
  3. John Damascene, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” in St. Hilary of Poitiers, John of Damascus (ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; trans. S. D. F. Salmond; vol. 9b; A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series; New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), 9b71.
  4. Joseph Barber Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, The Apostolic Fathers (London: Macmillan and Co., 1891), 275–276.
  5. Thomas B. Falls with Justin Martyr, The First Apology, The Second Apology, Dialogue with Trypho, Exhortation to the Greeks, Discourse to the Greeks, The Monarchy or The Rule of God (vol. 6; The Fathers of the Church; Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1948), 298.
  6. Charles Duke Yonge with Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 134.

CTP: Noah, the First Messiah (Genesis 6–9)

This week’s reading will be Genesis 6–9, but I’m pretty sure this will take us a few weeks to get through so don’t make any giant reading efforts…because there is a flood of theology here. Sorry if the puns are so wooden, but I guess that ship has sailed.

The First Mourning
The First Mourning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Out of the ground which the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.” Genesis 5.29

There is little wonder why Noah is such an enigmatic person, figuring heavily into later Jewish literature, including the New Testament. He, alone of all the human race, found favor in the eyes of God. He and his immediate family survived the great worldwide flood. Was it chance? Did he earn it?

It does not appear Noah was merited grace, but was divinely appointed to have grace, or favor in God’s eyes. If you look at what Lamech says, Noah was always meant to do what Noah did. I do not think we can look at it any other way except to say Noah was… shivers… preordained…. shivers…to do what he did.

In looking at this further, Cain’s line did not care nor really experience the curse. After all, they had time to build the industry of civilization as well as enjoy its luxury. They created poetry, music, and the cities of the antediluvian world. Seth and his descendents, however, seemed to dwell only on the land, worshiping God as evidenced by Enoch’s story.

But, then comes Lamech (son of Seth) who sees in the birth of his son the end of God’s cursing of Adam. Noah, whose name means “Rest,” flips the notion of the flood as giving rest to the gods. In Gilgamesh, the gods are tired of humans who cause all sorts of disturbances to the gods, thus they curse the humans by sending a flood. In Genesis, Noah is the Rest that undoes the curse given by God to the humans as well as the wickedness that has arisen to the ear of God.

The Mesopotamian gods sent the flood because the disturbances of the human world were preventing them from getting rest. So in that case, the flood provided rest for the gods. Here Noah is rather associated with bringing rest for people from the curse of the gods.1

We can look at the birth of Noah in several different ways. If we stick strictly to the Genesis account, we see something that doesn’t quite make it into our Western theology. The curse of Adam was upon the soil. Noah relieves that curse. (By the way, the soil is the same place from which Abel’s blood cries out.) He gives it rest (Sabbath, and if so, think of the implications of this consider the notion of Rest throughout Scripture).

You can find more about Noah here.

Genesis 6:

If you look at Genesis 4 and 5, you will see a summarized, straight down the line, genealogy and history from Adam to Noah. But, beginning in Genesis 6, the story starts over with the history of the human race spreading over the earth. Then daughters are born. That’s when things start to mess up. The angels (sons of God) see them, fall in love, and do what angels and humans are apt to do, I guess. Before you get too far ahead, look at Numbers 13.33. The offspring of angel and humans were herculean heroes.

In the middle of this, God declares something missed in many translations.

In Genesis 6.3, the KJV and some others make it seem like God is saying He (or His Spirit) will not always be with the human race. Yet, other translations drive the point home better. (See here for different translations compared.)

In the ESV, Genesis 6.3 reads: Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.”

The REB says it pretty much the same way: “My spirit will not remain in a human being for ever…” which is why the lifespan of the human is now to 120.

I think this fits well with the overall notion of God breathing into Adam and giving him a living soul. God’s breath, the divine spark, is placed into humans but cannot remain there long (thus, death).

Look again at the introduction to the story of the Flood. Genesis 6 doesn’t tell you much about when all of this is taking place. God gives humans 120 years, yet the genealogies are still extensively long. Shem lived 502 years! Genesis 6.4 says “in those days as well as later” meaning, possibly, the prologue here is not meant to be placed on a calendar, but to serve some grander purpose.

For some reason, the giants are placed in the prologue but not given as the cause of the Flood. What is the cause?

I think that once we really talk about Noah — what it means that he was to lift God’s curse of Adam’s sin, what he means that he “found favor” with God (Genesis 6.8), and how the prologue looks a whole lot different when one actually reads it, we are going to be done with our hour-ish!

There are some suggestions the Noahic flood is copied/modified/uses/borrows Babylonian flood stories. There are equal suggestions that Noah’s flood is a real event (even though some suggest while it was real it was real only for Noah’s world, i.e., an isolate geographical location).

Excurses:

If you examine the lineage of Cain and Seth, you will names that are either the same or phonetically similar:

sethnoah

For fun and I wouldn’t base a lot of theology on this, you can see this post here. It includes the name similarities and even some supposed hidden meanings in the names themselves.

Also, as we discussed last week, there are several possible reasons why God rejected Cain’s sacrifice but accepted Abel’s. One of them may have to do with Abel as the second son, a common theme in Scripture. Or, it could have something to do with the animal is always the sacrifice. But, I think we should look at the similarities in the Adam/Evan and Cain/Abel story. Both sin. Both are exiled. Of course, Cain is moved further away from Eden than Adam and Eve where. But, look at the similarities between the first clothing Adam chose — the fig leaf. God then took animal skins. Cain offered fruits and vegetables (figs?) but Abel offered after the pattern of God.

  1. Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (electronic ed.; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Ge 5:32.