My wife and I had the joy of joining River Oaks Church (PCA)* today, and I have the double joy of teaching a 8-part series on OT and NT canon in adult Sunday school.
Christ Church Cambridge is hosting a variety of seminars (see full listing) this autumn, covering a range of biblical and church-related topics. I am leading a 4-week series covering how and why we consider the biblical books authoritative for faith and practice. Specifically, we will be covering the following questions, among others:
- What exactly is canon, and why does it matter?
- Who “picked” the books (if anyone), and on what grounds?
- Who decided we needed a canon in the first place, and who “closed” it?
- Why are some books considered part of the biblical canon and not others?
- Why do the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches have different canons?
- What are we to make of all the other works that are roughly contemporaneous with the OT/NT but which were not received as canonical?
- How can we know we have accurate copies of the right books?
The seminar audios and handouts for each class will be posted below as they become available. If you would like the full set of teaching notes, feel free to email me.
I realized on Friday of last week that I was late to the dance, but I believed it was important to dance at least one number on the issue of the sanctity of life. The annual American time of observing Sanctity of Life Sunday among Christian churches was celebrated last Sunday, but as it is not a British thing, I missed out entirely until I saw a few news items halfway through the week.
At present it seems that most Christians are still, for now at least, largely in agreement that the murder of unborn children in the name of the so-called reproductive freedom of enlightened (mostly) Western women who want out of an “unplanned pregnancy” (because, let’s face it, that’s the bulk of what is going on and the core line of reasoning of the pro-abortionist faction; the difficult exception cases pertaining to the endangerment of the mother, incest, or rape are exactly that: difficult exception cases) is nothing less than moral insanity on all levels. Entirely cogent arguments against elective abortion have been offered time and time again from both the perspective of the Bible (Protestants being strong here) as well as from the perspective of natural law (Roman Catholics being strong here). For many many Christians, the whole logic behind the “pro-choice” movement in favor of murdering 50 million persons (1973-2008; add another 10 mil. or more since then) who happen to be in utero is completely and utterly incomprehensible.
Among the mob that is so strongly arguing for abortion there often arises a peculiar attempt at undermining the Christian case against it: namely, that the Bible does not contain a clear command against abortion. In a lot of ways, it’s an absurd claim: the Bible condemns murder (implied: of innocent persons) in the 6th commandment (Exod 20:13); numerous passages discuss the personhood of infants in the womb (Job 10:8ff; Ps 139:13ff; others); and Exod 21:22–25, the great lex talionis provision containing the “eye for an eye” passage, is focused specifically on what should happen when someone injures or kills the unborn baby of a pregnant woman.
Based on straightforward biblical reasoning, the case is completely closed. However, not everyone reasons biblically, and the question still remains – just Google “Does the Bible prohibit abortion” and you’ll get ~329,000 results (literally). The main reason, of course, is that the Bible doesn’t have the explicit language “Do not commit abortion.” Thus, bizarrely, some people conclude that the Bible has nothing to say about abortion.
The Christian reply often runs as follows:
“The Bible does not explicitly condemn abortion because the writers did not see the need to do so. NO ONE at that time who held to the ethics of the Israelite religion or, later, Christianity even entertained abortion as a legitimate possibility (though many people groups around them did regularly practice abortion), so there was no need for the prohibition.”
This line of argumentation, while in my opinion entirely correct, is apparently not entirely persuasive to everyone, since it seems to be making an argument from silence.
Or is it?
Too Big to Fail.
Thus is titled a best-selling book (and HBO movie) about the bailout of several major US banks during the economic collapse of the late 2000s. [Side trail: how many people even remember that whole sequence? I was working in the financial sector then, afraid of losing my own job, and even now I have trouble remember all the details: who bought whom, who collapsed, who merged, etc. We need a new syndrome to replace Attention Deficit Disorder: “How Mass and Social Media Keep Us Entertained and Ruin Our Memory by Shuffling Major Story after Major Story Until They All Run Together and We Cannot Remember Anything that Happened 3 Hours Ago, Let Alone 3 Years Ago.” But HMSMKUEROMSMSAMSUTARTWCRAH3HALA3YA is a horrible acronym, and probably hard to remember. Wait, what was I talking about. Let me check Twitter again…]
Anyhow, the whole premise of the book, the movie, and, frankly, the historical reality upon which they were based is simple: some banks were so big and so important that they deserved to be rescued – in fact, they had to be rescued – at whatever cost, even if it meant losing a lot of other things along the way (taxpayer dollars, other banks, other industries, international reputation, etc.). In other words, only the biggest things – because they are the biggest – are worth striving to save and rescue when the going gets tough.
Sometimes it feels like that with the Lord. Fortunately God does not operate on that principle.
There should be a support group for teenagers who grew up in the nineties before the Internet and Dish Network came along to provide a wider array of wholesome entertainment outlets during the long summer afternoons when you had nothing else to do but turn on the television and watch the major networks’ star-studded 3pm-5pm lineup of pre-Dr. Phil talk shows: Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, Geraldo Riviera (before it became just Geraldo), Ricki Lake, and whatever that lady’s name was who looked like she was on the Golden Girls.
Of the many psychologically damaging things one could observe on those shows – which, I suppose, in an odd way anticipated the bizarreness of most “reality” shows today in how they exposed the worse of the human condition on live-ish TV – the most prevalent was the paradigm for how a baby-daddy should respond when the paternity test comes back implicating him. (Note: I believe that is the only time in recorded history that “paradigm” has been used with reference to Jerry Springer). The formula involves (a) denial, (b) yelling, (c) name-calling, (d) more denial, (e) attempted punch by the baby-mommy who is restrained somewhat too late by the security professionals, (f) swearing, (g) scurrilous accusations by the baby-mommy’s friend or sister or cousin, who is also on stage, (h) booing from the audience, (i) cut to commercial break, (j) some ridiculously forced reconciliation by the show host and / or someone storming off set, whichever comes first.
The emotional scarring of my mid-90s adolescence aside, this all makes me think of how Joseph must have reacted when he found out that “before they came together Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:18).
[Yes, believe it or not, with that high-class introduction, this is a Christmas-themed post after all.]
This evening, I gathered our children around for our Advent devotionals, and I began sharing some of the great stories of Jesus as a small boy in Nazareth. Pulling down one of the Jesus storybooks we have on the shelf, I began reading:
“When Jesus was six, he was playing with his cousin John and his half-brother James, who sort of resented him, and they began making mud pies in the back alley behind Joseph’s carpenter shop. Some poor peasants came walking by, and Jesus, taking pity upon them, spoke to the pies and transformed them into real beef pot pies. He then gave them to the peasants, who went away rejoicing and telling all their neighbors about the great things that had happened.”
“A few years later, Jesus was playing a game with his friends on the playground, and one of them stumbled over a rock on the edge of the field, fell into a crevasse, and was instantly bitten by a viper. The teachers could not figure out how to help him, as he was quickly dying, and Jesus calmly approached. ‘Oh you teachers of little faith. How long must I endure this school?’ And he spoke to the boy, and he was instantly healed. The classmates were amazed, but some of the jocks said, ‘He has a demon.'”
“When Mary heard all these things, she treasured them up in her heart.”
Then we sang a few Christmas carols and called it a night.
Wait … WHAT?
In general, you can learn a lot about people based on what is on their bookshelf, whether they even have a bookshelf, and how many bookshelves they actually have. The literature that one reads – from nothing at all to vampire fiction to romance novels to classical literature to anything by dead Russians – reveals a lot about one’s interests, passions, hobbies, and so on. Or, viewed from the other direction, that which we read plays a large role in shaping and molding us: expanding our experience base, informing us about myriad subjects, and, ultimately, influencing our worldview. One might even say that the things we read the most are the best indicators of the factors and values that make us who we are.
This presents an odd little conundrum for the Christian reader. Unless you have shelves full of well-marked copies of the Bible, or unless you can honestly say that you spend more time reading Scripture than anything else (newspapers, instruction manuals, work-related documents, and cookbooks included!), then you have this peculiar little mismatch between what you actually read and the single book which, in theory, is the most formative influence on your life. For instance, even if you spent an hour a day studying the Bible vigorously this past week, chances are you spent at least twice as much time reading other writings, both religious and non-religious. Does that mean you undervalue the Bible? That it is not the most important of all? Can you measure the importance of your literary influences based on number of copies, or number of minutes spent reading them in a given time frame?
It is pretty obvious that, in general, the answer is “no.” While we all would admit that we should spend more time studying God’s Word than we typically do, it is pretty reasonable to conclude that we do not have to spend numerically the most time reading it than anything else in order to prove that we value it more highly than anything else we read. Put differently, God’s Word can be the definitive, rock-solid authority in our lives without negating the possibility that we can benefit and learn from other texts.
Strangely, this seemingly simple truth seems lost on many biblical scholars who draw puzzling conclusions about the nature of early Christianity by taking a look at what I’m calling the “early church bookshelf.”
In the introduction, I provided a somewhat tongue-in-cheek retelling of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls through a Major League Baseball card analogy. In that fake scenario, a collection of old baseball cards was found buried inside tree trunks in the woods, and a media frenzy broke out over the findings. In my analogy, three basic types of baseball cards were present in this collection: (a) rare, mint condition rookie cards of famous baseball players of the past (e.g., the Great Isaiah Scroll); (b) some worn out baseball cards of recognizable players, but not on the same level as a Honus Wagner or Mickey Mantle card (e.g., fragments of various religious writings like 1 Enoch or Tobit, which were already well-known before the DSS discovery); and, most shockingly, (c) baseball cards representing players, teams, statistics, and playing positions that no one had ever seen before or heard of in all the history of baseball.
In an era of Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, Bradley (Chelsea?) Manning, and Twitter, we can imagine just how quickly such a finding would spawn all sorts of conspiracy theories. Is Major League Baseball hiding some secret past? Why have they never shared this information before? Is there an underground league of aliens or mysterious people groups playing baseball that Bud Selig does not want you to find out about? We must get it out in the light and expose the lies and secrets!
Well, that’s basically what happened in the aftermath of the Scrolls. Only before Twitter.
Continue reading Qumran Pt 2: Why do the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter?
It All Started with Throwing Rocks in the Hills of Qumran
No, really, that is how it all started. After almost seventy years of “Whodunnit,” we still really do not know the full story of how the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and initially handled. The reigning theory – based on who said what and when and who paid whom off and so forth – runs as follows. In the winter of 1947 or spring of 1948, a group of (Muslim) Bedouins were tending their flocks on the northwest hillsides of the Dead Sea, near the ruins of an ancient community of some sort named Qumran. One of the Bedouins had a habit of throwing rocks into caves to pass the time, and one day he heard something shatter when his rock entered. Days later, his friend Muhammad edh-Dhib returned to scout out the cave to see what it contained. They uncovered some pottery containing what appeared to be ancient scrolls – 3 at first, and then 4 more were discovered later. At this point, the eyewitness accounts get murky about what they did with those first scrolls, who they talked to, who bought them first, how those initial seven were divided up, and so forth. Antiquities dealers, Roman Catholic priests, American scholars in Jerusalem, and many more players got involved. Press releases announcing these scrolls were published prematurely, scholarly bragging rights as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars were at risk, and the whole thing initially got a little out of hand.
Imagine yourself walking around with some buddies and your dogs out in the woods. To pass the time, you start throwing rocks at trees to see if you can get one to land in a hole or split the imaginary uprights of the tree branches or whatever.
Now imagine that one of the rocks makes it inside a tree hole and causes a loud crashing noise. You ignore it, and a few days later one of your buddies goes back out in the woods to that tree to investigate what caused that noise. And lo and behold, he makes one of the greatest discoveries of rare baseball cards of all time.
Hidden in the tree is a metal case containing several Mickey Mantle rookie cards, a handful of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, and – the jackpot – multiple Honus Wagner T206 cards. Some are in mint condition, some are not, but either way, this collection of rare cards is priceless. Your buddy hides some of the cards and sheepishly tells you something vague about “finding something out in the woods,” and then he hits the road. Suspicious, you start looking around the other trees in the vicinity, and you find more card collections. Some are grubby and hard to read, others are less pristine versions of what was already found (though at this point you don’t actually know what your buddy, who has now found his way to a back-alley card dealer with serious cashflow, has in his possession from the first tree), and a few are cards of players you’ve never heard of. Curious, you make your way into town toting these boxes of miscellaneous cards, wondering what exactly you have found.