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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Advent Meditation, 2016

I don’t normally make much of a to-do about Advent, Christmas, or other holidays in the so-called “Christian Year”.  My Reformed tradition (commonly called “Calvinistic”) seeks to limit its observances to what can be found or deduced by “good and necessary consequence” therefrom.  However, I’ll nod away from the Puritan branch of the family towards the Swiss, and note with the Second Helvetic Confession (1564), that those holidays focused on the events of Christ’s life, are in themselves indifferent, if not made binding on the consciences of believers. 

The Advent tradition calls on Christians to focus on prophecy, both that related to his first coming as Messiah of Israel, and his second, in which he will judge the living and the dead.  Hence, after an adult Sunday School class that went through Samuel and Kings, the Advent text on which I am now meditating  is  Matthew One, with all of its begats and Old Testament names (after the Greek Septuagint, for those who don’t recognize King James’ Ezekias and Hezekiah as the same man). 

Jesus came and freely owned himself kinsman to Abraham and Isaac, who prevaricated with the Egyptian Pharaoh and the Philistine Abimelech out of cowardice; with Jacob who defrauded his brother Esau; with Judah who committed incest with his daughter-in-law Tamar while thinking he was just finding a prostitute; with the fallen woman Rahab and proselyte Ruth; with adulterous King David; with backsliding Solomon, who despite all his God-given wisdom, allowed his foreign wives to lead him into coldness towards his own God; and all those unworthy descendants of David who ignored or persecuted the prophets, and thus got their people conquered and exiled to Babylon.

Yet, the letter to the Hebrews tells us, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brethren—despite all their issues, failures, and baggage.  It is for them, and us, that he became man, worked righteousness, suffered death on the cross, and rose from the dead on the Third Day.  So, if the sinless Son of God is not ashamed to call the likes of Judah, Rahab, Manasseh, and Amon kinsmen, there may be hope for issues-ridden people like you and me.

Have a joyful Advent and Christmas season!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Are the Chinese Children of Heth? 华人是否赫族的后裔?

    For better or worse, every Christian people likes to read its own name into the Bible.  Sometimes this theological pastime is harmless; sometimes, as in certain forms of Anglo-Israelism, dangerous. Having both studied theology from a very conservative standpoint and lived among the heirs of the great Hua-Xia culture,I have encountered some intriguing variations on this theme. From such encounters, I would urge Christian writers and thinkers to be very cautious in finding associations between their own peoples and times and those of the Bible.  While I accept that the Bible is basically historical, its very historicity should warn us against reading some of our own perceptions and predilections back into it.
    With the remarkable spread of the Gospel in Sinitic Asia, well-meaning Christians both Western and Chinese have taken up the game of finding their roots in the Bible. In Taiwan, in a town inhabited mostly by Hakka-speaking people, a good friend who was a minister of the Gospel held that perhaps his people were anciently Hebrew, for they were a migratory folk who had long ago moved into southern China from the North China Plain, while the red strips of calligraphy framing the doors of their homes recalled the blood of the passover lamb marking the doors of the Israelites in Egypt.Others insisted that their people were no closer to the Jews other than being descendants of Shem, since "Shem is the ancestor of all the Asians, just as Japheth was father of the Europeans and Ham the father of the Africans."
    Later, after leaving an international student ministry in the Midwest, my successor passed around a handout identifying how various parts of the world related to the Table of Nations in Genesis 10.  I noted that this paper linked the Chinese to Heth, the son of Canaan.This shocked me, since it is commonly known to most students of Scripture that the Canaanites were a cursed people.  There is a tradition in American folk Protestantism that this curse devolved on the African, and explains his servitude down to 1865; while in a much older and more respectable tradition of exegesis, it is understood that this curse on Canaan in Genesis 9:25 met its fulfillment first in Joshua's subjection of the Gileadites who had  tricked Israel into making a covenant with them (Joshua 9) and later in Rome's conquest of the last independent Canaanite people in Carthage.
    As far as I can tell, this linkage of the Chinese to Heth goes back to The Doorway Papers by Arthur Custance (1910-1985), a British-born Canadian Christian scholar with wide-ranging interests who sought to develop a comprehensive anthropological doctrine from the Table of Nations in Genesis 10.  In a nutshell, Custance notes an apparent etymological correspondence between the name Heth (in which the initial letter is pronounced something like the German "ch" in "Ach!") and the native name of the Khitan people (Qidan 契丹) who bequeathed the names "Cathay" or "Cathaya", by which China was known to Westerners between the times of Marco Polo to the 19th century.  To be fair to Custance, his attempt to trace all the "colored peoples" to Ham was not racist; for he interpreted the "servant of servants" not as indicating a lowly status for Canaan, the Son of Ham, but that many of the fundamental technological innovations of mankind were originally found among the non-white peoples of the world--hence this prophecy of Genesis 9:25 speaks of important services rendered to mankind as a whole rather than subjection. Yet it is also noteworthy that this connection of the Chinese to Heth has taken root among Chinese-speaking believers themselves.
    This posting is an objection and a refutation.  While Custance and exegetes like him meant and mean well in connecting the Chinese to Heth, their method ignores China's own millennia-long recorded history, which itself reveals how peoples migrated and dynasties rose and fell, no less than the histories of the various Western and Middle Eastern peoples.  Further, the China-Heth connection ignores the wider growth of Scripture and the expansion of the Hebrews' geographic and historical horizons in the centuries between the tales that came to be part of Genesis and the time of the Davidic kingdom.
    To start, I do not doubt that the Chinese descend from Noah via his three sons.  But exactly how and through which migrations and intermixings, I do not pretend to know, and doubt that this can be known after so many millennia.
    First of all, it is not difficult to locate the children of Heth, or Hittites, who are mentioned in the Old Testament.  From roughly 1400-1000 B.C., an Indo-European people who called themselves Nes established an empire over central Anatolia, ruling an earlier, non-Indo-European people called the Hatti, from whom the Indo-European conqueror adopted a number of cultural features, including a logographic or hieroglyphic written language and a name for their country. The Hittites of the Old Testament, form the Ephron who sold Abraham a burial plot for his family to the ill-fated Uriah, whose wife Bathsheba tempted King David, were most likely a diaspora people who had settled in various parts of the Middle East, including Canaan, which lying along an important trade route linking the richer lands of Mesopotamia and Egypt, might be expected to attract a dispersed people.
   A second issue is that China was not known as Cathay or Cathaya from time immemorial. Throughout their long history, the Chinese have often referred to themselves by the dynasties that ruled them.  The most ancient of these were the Xia (夏), which lasted from 2070-1600 B.C; the Shang (商), which lasted from 1600-1040 B.C.; and the Zhou (周), which lasted from 1046-771 B.C.  As the last degenerated into a collection of contending states, which was China's condition in the times of such sages as Confucius, Lao Zi,and Zhuang Zi, there arose the coneption of Tian Xia (天下), or "Under Heaven", denoting the area of a common Chinese civilization, as opposed to outsiders who were denoted by terms usually translated as "barbarian". While some see the Xia as legendary, by Shang times a clearly identifiable Chinese culture had arisen, including not only cultural features that would last to modern times, but also a writing system and language that is identifiable as the ancestor of the modern Sinitic languages just as Latin is identifiable as the ancestor of modern French, Spanish, and Italian.
   Most noteworthy, the Shang Empire was partly synchronous with the Hittite Empire of Anatolia and the Hittite presence elsewhere in the Middle East.  Yet there is no evidence at all that the ancient ancestors of today's Chinese referred to themselves by any name at all cognate to the Hatti of the non-Indo-European common people of the ancient Anatolian empire or the Nes of their Indo-European overlords.
   As a cultural and ethnic unit, the Chinese often refer to themselves as the Hua-Xia (华夏) culture or the Han (汉) people, the last referring also to the Han dynasty that ruled roughly from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. None of these are cognate to the name of Heth or Hatti.
     Indeed, the Khitan, who gave us the name Cathay, first appeared in Chinese history in the early 10th century A.D., following the collapse of the Tang Empire (618-904 A.D.). They saw themselves as heirs of an earlier tribe of northern invaders, the Xianbei (鲜卑), who were known as early as the third century B.C.  Scholars see the Xianbei and their Khitan descendants as forerunners of the Mongols.  Despite the long association of China and Mongolia, the Mongol and Chinese languages derive from very different roots; the linguistic relatives of China lying to the south while those of Mongol lie to the north and west. The Khitan left behind two distinct scripts imitative of but not identical to the Chinese logographic script, which can be deciphered just enough to identify their language as akin to Mongol.
  The Khitan established a dynasty in northern China and Mongolia that is called Liao (辽), which lasted from 907-1125 A.D.  It was conquered by another non-Han people called the Jurchen, a people from what would later be called Manchuria, who established the Jin (金) dynasty, which lasted from 1115-1234 A.D., when it was conquered by the Mongols under Genghis Khan. Both of these dynasties were in conflict with the Song (宋), a series of native Chinese dynasties ruling central and southern China.  It is said that the last speaker of the Khitan language was an official by the name of Yelu Chucai (耶律楚材) who served the last of the Jin emperors and went on to serve Genghis Khan, organizing a civilian administration for the northern Chinese regions conquered by the Mongols.It appears that most of the Khitan and Jurchen people who settled in the lands south of the Great Wall were absorbed by the Han, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the peasant and urban populations.
    Therefore, very great temporal, geographic, linguistic, and cultural differences separate the Khitan in the northern China of the 12th century A.D. and the Hittites of central Anatolia in the 12th century B.C. No historic, linguistic or other cultural data support a connection between the Hua-Xia or Han peoples who form the overwhelming majority of the Chinese nation and the Hittites.A chance, superficial relationship between the name of an ancient Anatolian tribe and that of a much later northeast Asian tribe is too little on which to base a historical connection between Heth and Khitan. To do so is analogous to fanciful derivations of "British" from the Hebrew word b'rit, or "covenant", or "Saxon" from "Isaac's Sons".
   The most that can be said about connecting the Chinese with the Table of Nations is that the Chinese, like the rest of us, descend from Noah via Shem, Ham, and Japheth.  
    This might, however, lead us to some considerations about how to read the Table of Nations itself, a subject for a different post.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Science and Moral Responsibility

Scientific American ( just ran a blog item about the discovery of Homo Nalendi and its opening of Apartheid-era wounds.  Apparently, a number of black South African churchmen, aware of how evolution was used to justify colonialism and white supremacy, have expressed resentment against being characterized as the descendants of "baboons".  Hence, Scientific American brings out the usual sighs about "fundamentalism" and charges the scientific racism of the 19th century with being "pseudo-science". Unhappily, this is a prime example of both the anti-historical thinking and moral irresponsibility of the modern world-view.

There is also a now aging book by John Haller entitled Outcasts of Evolution, describing how 19th century scientists used evolution to buttress white supremacy.  Unhappily, from Haller's exposure of the available methods used, the cognition required, care in selecting samples, meticulousness in measurement (down to the exact numbers of grains of wheat needed to fill various cranial cavities), and the eminently respectable persons and institutions nurturing it, this racist evolutionism was in fact some of the best science of its time rather than the "pseudo-science" its heirs charge it with being.

Scientific racism died an unnatural death in the ashes of World War II.  The horrors of the holocaust wrought by German National Socialist racial doctrine caused an understandable and thorough justified reaction against the direction that evolutionary anthropology had often taken.  However, this reaction came not from scientific self-correction via better information or method, but was prompted by the political, emotional, and moral climate off the times. After horrors amply documented by the capture of the German government's archives, the witness of countless military and civilian personnel, and the witness of the survivors themselves, it was simply impossible to maintain that ideas about the progression of "races", eugenics, and other products of the racist stage of evolutionary science could be even morally neutral.

Before the holocaust, scientific Americans and others were not only glibly and supinely racist about their neighbors of color, but also took great interest in such movements as eugenics.  The eminent jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. justified the sterilization of mental defectives, no less than many others decried the importation of such inferior breeds as Italians, Slavs, and Jews via immigration in the name of that movement, which turned out to have had a seminal influence on the mind of the young Adolf Hitler.

Then there is the unhappy case of a Congolese Mbuti named Ota Benga and the eminent Henry Fairfield Osborn, a benign-looking statue in the American Museum of Natural History,that shrine of my much younger self.  Ota Benga, taken from his family in the then-Belgian ruled Congo, was kept in the Bronx Zoo as an example of a less-evolved human being.  This was loudly protested by African-American preachers in New York, even then becoming stock figures of fun in the American press and infant motion picture industry.  The same injustice was defended by Osborn, who was among other things, an eminent geologist, paleontologist, and popularizer of evolution.

There can be no argument that the Roman Catholic Church owns the Spanish Inquisitions.  Protestants and Catholics alike own the French Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years' War.  Muslims undoubtedly own the cleansing of religious minorities in the Fertile Crescent, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.  Theravada Buddhists own the oppression of Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka and the suppression of Kachin and Karen aspirations in Myanmar. Germany owns the holocaust. The USA owns a long history of racism justified by various ideologies. Marxistm owns Stalin, Mao, Mielke, and Saloth Sar.   By the same token, Evolutionary Materialism as a system of thought owns the scientific racism of the 19th century and the political horrors unleashed in the 20th century by parties claiming to be applying the "best insights of science" to social problems.

Hence, Scientific American's attempt to brush off its forbears as "pseudoscientific" while patronizing Zulu or Xhosa churchmen with painful and recent memories of how evolutionary doctrine was used against their people a case of both heaping scorn on the discipline of historical thinking and moral irresponsibility of the worst kind. Can we today fault Columbus for risking the lives of his crew by not using a steam- or nuclear-powered ship in crossing the Atlantic?  Similarly, we cannot fault 19th century researchers who wondered why the North Atlantic nations were seemingly more "advanced" than other, and used the measurements of crania and limbs, rates of mortality and disease susceptibility to explain the differences when they knew nothing of Mitochondrial Eve.  We may indeed criticize their callousness towards their neighbors, but such a critique is rational only on the basis of pre-scientific religious or philosophic doctrines towards which the enlightenment had taught everyone to be skeptical.

This should by no means be read as a defense of the indefensible racism of the past, or as an attack on scientific inquiry.  However, it is a plea to stop pretending that all aspects of the scientific endeavor are morally neutral.  Perhaps, to wax fundamentalistic, it may be time for the materialist community--instead of condemning the forbears who nurtured it as "pseudoscientifc"--to do something about the logs in its own eyes before it removes the specks in the eyes of those for whom ways of seeing other than the empirical retain their validity.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Supreme Court Fails Again

In striking down the anti-same sex marriage provisions of fourteen states, the Supreme Court has covered the United States with shame. It has proven that a determined and noisy minority may, with sufficient support from the media, impose its will on the country.  But worst of all, there is a good chance that for the sake of "rights" discovered by justices in the "penumbrae" of the Constitution, certain rights spelled out in the black and white of the text may well be sacrificed.

First of all, the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses will come under attack.  Already, same sexual orientation provisions in state law have been used to ruin Christian business people in the hospitality and wedding catering industries who refuse to be drawn into the celebration of something they see as sin--and this by state attorney generals and judges who would never dream of upholding a suit against a halal caterer who might refuse to barbecue a hog for someone's event.It is likely that this present decision will be used to exclude conscientious Christians from public employment, education, academia, and other fields.  As a protected client group of the Democratic Party, criticism of sexual deviants--even in defense of children who may find themselves unwillingly thrust into families consisting of themselves, their fathers, and the creepy guys who edged their mothers out of the picture or via adoption or surrogate parenthood fertilization into a homosexual household--will probably be denigrated as "hate speech".  The time will also come when social workers, teachers, and others tasked with monitoring and reporting possible cases of abuse will forfeit their livelihoods if those they report on turn out to be a same-sex couple.

The conservative movement must not acquiesce in this socially damaging decision and appeal to stare decisis.  the country, for the sake of written liberty and its future generations needs conservative leadership that will be willing to roll back the "inevitable march of history" (an idol of would-be tyrants), and even to investigate and impeach dangerous federal judges.  Perhaps, on the state level, a campaign of civil disobedience should also be launched.

We have seen the great damage that the abolition of fatherhood via the welfare system has wrought on large sections of our population.  Now, the Supreme Court has decided to put traditional believers, children, and those suspicious of sexual libertinism at risk.  While the United States will, via this route, probably kill itself with a whimper rather than a bang, it has put itself in danger nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Question About the Gnostic Gospels

If the Gnostic Gospels, such as the Coptic Gospel of [pseudo-]Thomas, are supposedly as valuable for understanding the life of Jesus as the canonical New Testament, how come Tatian made no use of them?

During the middle of the 2d century, an Assyrian by the name of Tatian, or Addai, became a Christian.  He was under the tutelage of Justin Martyr, but when Justin died, Tatian became a follower of the Gnostic Valentinus.  He was then excommunicated from the Christian church in Rome, and moved eastwards first to Macedonia, then later to his native Mesopotamia. Scholars agree that he died around 185 A.D.

Tatian's main claim to fame was the production of the Diatessaron ("through the four"), which synthezied the four Gospels into a single, continuous narrative.  This apparently remained "the' Gospel for Syriac-speaking Christians until roughly a century later, when it was supplanted by the Pehsitto's separated Gospels.

Despite adhering to a system of doctrine closer to that of Valentinus than to that of the orthodox, Tatian made no use of the Gnostic Gospels in his Diatessaron.  This would be strange given both his own Gnostic predilections had the Gnostic material enjoyed wide currency and status as a legitimate "alternative" Christianity in Tatian's time. Given that there would be no state-sanctioned persecution of Christian heresy until roughly a century and a half after Tatian's death, such an omission may require an explanation.

Quite simply, the Gnostic gospels did not exist in Tatian's day,during the second third of the second century.  He was probably instructed in Gnostic teachings through treatises or word of mouth. Perhaps the Gnostic gospels were composed as Gnostic adherents recognized that the Jesus of the four canonical Gospels was not "one of us".  Perhaps Tatian's Diatessaron served not only the purposes of orthodox believer, but inadvertently drove home to Tatian's fellow Gnostics the wide gulf between their beliefs and those of the historical Jesus.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Witness of an Early Graffiti Artist

The above is a reconstruction of a Graffiti discovered on the Palatine Hill in Rome in 1857.  The structure was originally part of Caligula's palace, and used as a boarding school for imperial page boys after his death in 41 A.D. Called the Alexamneos Graffito from the Greek writing in it, it has been dated variously from the mid first century to the early third century; the latter date being when the building ceased to be used and was sealed off to accommodate the expansion of other buildings around it.

Translated, the Greek inscroption reads, "Alexamenos worships his god"; Alexamenos apparently being the figure on the left who raises his hand in salute to a crucified figure with the head of a donkey or a horse. Beneath it, in a different hand, is the Latin inscription "Alexamenos fidelis", or, Alexamenos the Faithful. Many have taken it to be one of the earliest extra-biblical references to Jesus Christ and the Christian religion.  While others have argued it may reference some Gnostic cult and that the crucified figure is horse-headed rather than donkey-headed, there is much to commend the common conclusion that it is anti-Christian graffiti--and that it may well date from the earlier end of the proposed spectrum of possible dates. Certainly interpreting Alexamenos as a Christian makes the most sense,; for very little else, if even that, would be known about some other cult that worshiped a horse-headed deity; and the figure being worshiped definitely seems to be crucified, and what is known about Gnosticism suggests that Gnostics were very uncomfortable about Jesus' connection with material life and death, especially something as shocking as crucifixion.

Most readers probably know the New Testament testimony that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. However, other sources close to the time note this as well. The Roman writers Tacitus and Pliny the younger, both writing in the early 2d century, unsympathetically note the crucifixion of Jesus, and mock the Christians for their honoring a crucified man.  Tacitus further upbraids the Jews for worshiping an ass's head; a calumny earlier answered by Flavius Josephus in his Reply to Apion, written shortly after 70 A.D. Debate rages over the authenticity of a passage in Josephus concerning Jesus, which also notes that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, with a wide consensus that Josephus' testimony probably contains a core from Josephus himself which was later interpolated by Christian scribes.

If Alexamenos was in fact a Christian mocked by an unsympathetic contemporary,several things stand out from the graffito.

(1) The crucifixion is central to the early Christian faith.

(2) Jesus is associated with the Jewish God.

(3) Early Christians saw Jesus as an appropriate object of worship.

(4) The Christian faith first spread in Rome among persons more familiar with Greek than Latin, and hence of likely eastern Mediterranean provenance.

Clearly, someone unsympathetic to Jesus and his followers is impressed by a Christian's worship of a crucified figure that points as well to a common Graeco-Roman calumny against the Jews.  Hence, we have in this crude graffito not only an early record of Christianity, but perhaps as well testimony to faith in the divinity of Jesus as far antedating the Council of Nicaea.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Could the Narrative be Changing?

This refers to an article posted on Patheos, which sounds an alarm that Texas may approve a history textbook which sees Moses as an influence on the American Founder.  Uncle Cephas sees this as alarmist at best, obscurantist at worst.

One of the dynamics at work here involves consensuses among the academic historians who inform the writing of textbooks and the currricula we use. For the past few decades, there has been a questioning of the secularist paradigm, with which I am sympathetic.

For several decades in the early 20th century, the "progressive" historians dominated. One name associated with this was Charles Beard, who held that economic rather than philosophic motives dominated the thought of the Founders. This, of course, was an early attempt to apply Marxist insights into American historiography. Events battered this school of thought first in 1939, when many intellectuals or intellectual wannabes (including tertiary and secondary history teachers) were shocked that Stalin, hitherto the "great progressive", made a pact with Hitler over the corpses of Poland and the Baltics. A further blow to the "progressive" school of historiography hit between 1947 and the early 1960's, during the Cold War. In the USA, there was a swing back towards the idea of liberty. However, with the great disillusionment with the Cold War that arose from the late 1960's through the 1970's, the star of Beard's "progressive historiography" rose again.

From the mid-'60's through the '70's, there was a strong alliance between "progressive" thinking (again, informed partly by Beard and his disciples) and a militant opposition to traditional theism. It was helped enormously by the "separationist" interpretation of the First Amendment held by the Supreme Court during the period--even to the point where any sympathetic treatment of traditional Christianity became highly suspect.

I believe that an important change, ironically enough, occurred with the Iranian Revolution, in which the smart, educated money lost when the Mullah Khomeini did an end-run around the odd-son favorites in the Iranian Tudeh (Communists) at roughly the same time American Evangelicals were abandoning the Democratic Party of their grandfathers over pro-life and private schooling issues. Immediately, we had the specter of "fundamentalism" haunting the globe, as if the thought and histories of an older American "Democratic Evangelicalism" (cf. Sydney Ahlstrom) traveled the same routes as Twelver Shi'ite Islam from the Safavids until now. In the early 1980's, American media people and policymankers (I spent 1989-1995 in the US State Department) were unbelievably shocked and sometimes hysterical about the phenomenon--and, thanks to being educated in paradigms that wrongly perceived theistic traditions as unchanging, as well as being mere epihenomena in the body of "real" (money and power) history, utterly clueless when attempting to understand and address the sudden "retreat of secularism" (after Peter Berger).

So, take a good look at the Patheos blog article. Someone clearly senses that the "progressive" narrative is under questioning and attack, and is quite unhappy about it. Hence the shrill, exaggerated tone and the silly suggestion that "stupid Texans" think that Moses was an 18th century American.

Frankly, if the Texas books in question are what I suspect them to be (re-appropriation of the Bible as a source for the limited government ideal), I think that both students and teachers win in getting a wider and more varied perspective on history.