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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Beat it, Ms. Fanon Mendes-France

Mme. Mireille Fanon Mendes-France, the daughter of the radical intellectual icon Franz Fanon, has apparently found a cushy job at the UN, and has cited the USA for a crime against humanity when it comes to the treatment of African-Americans.  She suggests that we pay reparations to this population.

You will not hear Uncle Cephas defending the "peculiar institution" or Jim Crow.  These are indeed blots on our history.  By it irks me no end to hear my country cited this way, and absolutely no-one else. But he has some things he would like to tell this UN "expert".

Ms. Mireille Fanon Mendes-France, you have no right to speak to us Americans. Had I the money, there are some men I'd like to dig up and ship home from your land of resentful ingrates, who have never forgiven us for making it impossible for you to labor under the benign eye of your beloved Stalin and enjoy the atoning, purgative effects of the Gulag.

Why haven't you and other UN experts also cited every African state from Morocco working down the Atlantic coast to Angola? The peoples there descend from the victors in the tribal wars that sent the defeated captives into slavery in the New World. The Muslim peoples from the Arabs to the Mandingo were notorious as slave hunters. The Muslim peoples of Africa gave up slaving only under the Maxim guns and bayonets of your forces and those of the British.  Why not cite all of our neighbor nations to the south, since the Latin countries also had and prospered from African slaves. And, of course, why not cite Britain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, and Portugal? Or, has voting SD and nurturing cleptocratic and aid-junkie elites in former colonies somehow absolved the descendants of those slaving nations?

Has your country paid reparations to the people of Haiti?  Come to think of it, there are African-Americans whom France sold up our way, as witnessed by the French Creole dialects which not too long ago were spoken by both black and white people in Louisiana.  Perhaps the double negative used in our Southern American English dialects may also be a legacy of your Latinate tongue.

It seems to me that the USA made an official apology for slavery in the post-Civil War Amendments, which have always been used by the advocates for African-Americans in all cases on their behalf brought to the courts of the USA--and since 1954, believe you me, our courts have heard the descendants of the slaves. Nor should you neglect that to end slavery, we Americans ended up with 300,000 Yankees dead in Southern dust; to say nothing of the thousands who returned home maimed for life. As for the South, its economy remained ruined for a century. The actual slaveholders were hit worst of all, since their economic slide was the greatest. As Pres. Lincoln said, every drop of blood drawn by the lash was repaid by much more drawn by the sword (and minie ball; and cannons named after your own Napoleon).  Indeed, our Civil War cost us more casualties than all of our other wars following it combined, until those of the Viet Nam War, added to all the others, got the total of the other wars just a bit higher than that for our Civil War.

Why not also ask Benin, the heir to the vicious state of Dahomeen, to chip in?  Every so often, the Dahomeen kings decided they themselves needed rum, calico, firearms, and Western tools more than their dead ancestors and gods needed human blood--and sold lots of war captives.  And I suppose you will also exempt the free immigrants we have accepted from West Africa in recent years simply on the grounds of skin color?  Remember, some of them may well be descended from slave hunters and sellers.  Africa itself was not "historyless" before our enlightened Western civilization came on the scene.

Mireille Fanon Mendes-France, as your father's daughter, you have no right to pontificate to anyone about the criminalities of governments.  Your father's intellectual legacy is a series of bankrupt, violent, dependent revolutionary states, especially his beloved Algeria, which descended into government by coup until, when left high and dry by the Soviet collapse, its young revolted for the simple right to buy and sell, and then descended into Islamicist civil war. Consider as well how Euro-Marxists such as your despicable, parasitical self taught Marxism to the likes of Pol Pot and his henchmen.

And, what will you say when your own countrymen re-read your late father and decide that what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and rise up to purge their land of those migrants who have made your banlieux sinkholes of crime and violence, and now plague your continent with terrorism and rape? Something about the indigenous French (and immigrants who assimilate to them) wanting to "reclaim their manhood", perhaps?  Oops.  Forgive me.  Maybe I have mistaken the illustrious Mr. Sartre's comment on your father's work for your father's own words.

By the way, I have taught students who are "dark French", children of immigrants from your former colonies, who have utterly shocked me. How? Not by anything bad that they did, I assure you; but by their astuteness and willingness to make their own observations.  After a lifetime (I am a grandfather) of hearing from French intellectuals berate me on how atrociously racist my country is, your dark children made my jaw drop to the floor by telling me how "relaxed" racial relations are in my country---in parts of it that were once the happy hunting ground of the Ku Klux Klan; namely southeastern Maryland, which was once dependent on slavery in its tobacco fields, and southern Illinois, ever a free state, where abolition too often meant the total abolition of the African-American from our national life.

We have no use, Mireille, for the toxic legacy of Votre Chere Papa.  His time is gone, and those who would address current injustices by resurrecting it offer dead-end paths leading to petty, destructive, zero-sum identity politics that give birth to at least five new injustices for every one they end.  History teaches all who have eyes to see and ears to hear.  We have seen and heard what people like you offer, and bid you a not-too-fond Adieu.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Confessions of a Mad History Teacher

As a world history teacher who wants to keep his job, and hence follows the curriculum, I often feel as if I am really a professional swindler of the young rather than a teacher.  So, to clear both the record and my conscience, I will let a few cats out of a few bags, and reveal some of the lies and misperceptions I was taught in high school, and--from what I can tell from the textbooks and conversations with others--continue to be perpetuated in secondary education.

1.  The period of time from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the late 1300's were the "Dark Ages".  It's usually assumed that the end of the historical Roman Empire (as opposed to its survival in Byzantium and its ghost carried on as the Holy Roman Empire between 800-1803 A.D.) marked the beginning of a long hibernation for scientific and intellectual life.  In fact, the period called "Dark Ages" contained the development of three-field crop rotation, the invention of carts with springs (which meant the possibility of their use for transporting humans rather than mere freight), horse collars, the development of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and the rediscovery of Aristotle by the philosophers of what are sometimes called the High Middle Ages.  Let's not forget that Irish monasticism created the epithet "island of saints and scholars", influenced the historiography of the Venerable Bede, and fueled the Carolingian Renaissance.

While we're at it, lets not forget that many institutions of personal liberty and rule of law were also worked out during the so-called "Dark Ages", including English Common Law and Magna Carta.

2.  Islam saved science and Greek learning. Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Greek learning never died in the East Roman Empire, and a trafficking of Greek learning from east to west continued in larger and smaller flows, becoming a flood chiefly due to Venice's extensive contacts and trade with the eastern Mediterranean.  Further, one of the neglected steps in the transmission of the classical tradition in the lands of Islam was the translation of Greek texts into Syriac, the liturgical (and, until fairly recent times, the vernacular) language of Christian communities across the Fertile Crescent.  Indeed, much of the preservation of the ancient world's literature and thought was an enterprise of the Dhimmi peoples (Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sabians, and Hindus) under Muslim rule, not of the Muslims themselves. 

3.  Islam treated minorities with dignity and tolerance.  This is one huge lie.  Examine the legal codes of any pre-19th century Islamic polity and you will find that non-Muslim peoples living under Islamic rule were subject to a number of disabilities, not least of all were extra taxes (jizya), the undervaluing of their testimony in disputes with Muslims, the surrender of some of their sons to be raised as Muslims and put in the military service of their rulers, and acquiescence in the abduction of some of their daughters.  Often, Dhimmi had to step aside to let Muslims pass, were required to grant hospitality to Muslim travelers, were required to wear distinctive garb, could not allow their houses to be built higher than those of Muslims, and could not ride animals larger than donkeys (qhich had to be dismounted when meeting Muslims).  Indeed, the petty humiliations imposed on the Dhimmi by Islamic law got passed by their erstwhile victims--the Spanish and Portuguese Christians--to the Indians and Africans and on to the "Black Codes" of America's southern states.

While we're at it, one reason why Maimonides' Moreh Nebokim (The Guide for the Perplexed) is because he had to scrupulously avoid anything that might offend an orthodox Muslim censor.

4. John Calvin invented the doctrine of predestination.  In fact, questions about free will and predestination long predated Calvin.  His own doctrine is heavily informed by at least the Psalms, the biblical history books, Isaiah, and the New Testament works of John, Peter, and Paul. According to Josephus, the Pharisees also believed that all things fall out according to divine providence; and at least some schools of Islam also have a predestinarian doctrine.  Indeed, any theistic religion or philosophy will probably ponder this question.  Even those who pretend to be freed of traditional theism have their own versions of the doctrine:

Moderns, with great consternation,
Hate Calvin's predestination.
Economics, we know, 
Or our genes run the show

Of our lives! It's lliberation!
Hmmph.

5. Newtonian Science informs the Enlightenment understanding of "natural law".  This is a major misperception fed to students.  the "natural law" discussed by 18th century political thinkers had virtually nothing to do with what Newton discovered about physics and optics, but continued a long dialogue in Western thinking about what moral principles may be innate (natural) to man, and hence might be discovered by unaided reason.  I have a sneaky suspicion that this misperception about 17th and 18th century thought may be informed by the scientistic (rather than scientific) pretensions of Marxism.

6. The ideals of limited, constitutional, and consensual government depend on the enlightment doctrine of basic human goodness.  If this is so, where did the Massachusetts Pilgrims, with their belief in the total depravity of fallen man (all of us descended from Adam by ordinary generation--hence all of us except for Jesus Christ) come up with their Mayflower Compact?
The fact is that the American founders had a number of republican ventures to examine in post-Classical Western history, including Italian city-states, Swiss cantons and federations, the Netherlands at times, and the English Commonwealth.  They were also heir to a long and often bitter argument against the idea of royal absolutism; which itself was a novel idea of the 16th and 17th century made possible by the decay of feudalism and the Reformation's dissent against the Pope's universal jurisdiction.  A host of Reformed divines and laymen penned polemics against the claims of Hapsburg, Valois, and Stewart monarchs.  Much of John Locke's Two Treatises of Government is anticipated in the writings of such Reformed thinkers as John Ponet, Christopher Goodman, Francois Hotman, Theodore Beza, Junius Brutus, Johannes Althusius, John Knox, George Buchanan, and Samuel Rutherford.  Both the defense and criticism of royal absolutism was essentially an extended debate on the proper interpretation of the mishpat hammelek (manner of a king) passage in First Samuel 8.

The crux of the Reformed polemic against royal absolutism was that unchecked power in one who is able to sin is an accursed power, and too great a burden for mortal shoulders (nod to Samuel Rutherford).  Hence, all power in states, church, and family was a ministerial rather than masterly power. The Commonwealth men sought to realize this through safety in numbers (Parliamentary Supremacy), while their American heirs took it a step further with separated powers.

7.  Eastern religious and philosophical traditions are tolerant.   Again, a parade of ignorance.  Read the Tang dynasty memorialist Han Yu, who remonstrated against the emperor's veneration of a bone of the Buddha, noting that Sakyamuni Gautama was born a barbarian (someone outside the pale of Sinitic civilization).  Zhuang Zi is full of sly digs at Confucius and his disciples; the Legalist schol's disciple Qin Shi Huang had Confucian scholars buried alive; and the Buddhist novel Journey to the West never misses an opportunity to poke fun at Daoists.  Our own era has seen Hindus massacring Muslims and persecuting Christians in India, while Buddhists and Hindus have been at each others' throats in Sri Lanka.

Maybe it would just be wiser to recognize that any truth claim is bound to exclude what it considders to be error.

8. The Modern and Post-Modern Eras are rapidly erasing the violence and intolerance of the past.  Count the silver, kids.  Dr. Rudolph Rummel of the University of Hawaii published a very sobering book entitled Death by Government, in which he documented how 20th century governments killed over 160,000,000 people to achieve the aims of social justice, national dignity, equality, and progress.  Of course National Socialism and Marxism-Leninism are the major culprits, but the scientificos of the Mexican Revolution and the Chinese Nationalists also played their part as well.  Before his death, Dr. Rummel revised his figures upwards.

The Jewish historian Ben-zion Netanyahu estimated that in Spain alone, the Inquisition was responsible for roughly 4,000 deaths between its inception in the 1480's and its abolition by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804.  Yet the sum total of political murders, purges, and internal feuds of the Spanish Left during the 1930's is far higher; and if Nationalist and neutral victims of Spain's political horrors are countered, the toll is higher (and let's not forget the victims of Nationalist white terror, either).

So much for now.  Much of what passes for the "unbiased" study of history is in fact propaganda for the current political programs of various parties.    This is not to echo Ford's view that history is bunk, or Napoleon's cynical view that history is a pack of lies on which everyone agrees.  Rather, it is a plea for all students who wish to learn from the past to go beyond the assignments, examine the less-explored areas, practice honesty, and above all, question.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year!

Just had back surgery and am laid up, but I will continue to post here from time to time!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Were Jesus' Disciples "Illiterate Peasants"?

Image result for the gospels symbols




Many argue that the Gospels could not have been composed by Jesus' disciples on the grounds that those disciples were illiterate, Aramaic-sspeaking, low-class Jewish peasants from Galilee, while the Gospels are written in good enough Greek.
Bart Ehrman gives a telling presentation of this viewpoint:


"These authors [the Gospel writers] were not lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasants from Galilee.  but isn't it possible that, say, John wrote the Gospel as an old man? That as a young man he was an illiterate, Aramaic-speaking day laborer--a fisherman from the time he was old enough to help haul in a net--but that as an old man he wrote a Gospel?...I suppose it is possible.  It would mean that after Jesus' resurrection John decided to go to school and become literate..." [Ehrman, Bart.2009. Jesus Interrupted. Harper One, pp. 106-107]

In short, men like Peter and John couldn't have written anything--especially in Greek--because Aramaic-speaking Jewish peasants from Galilee couldn't have been literate; nor could Matthew or Mark, because they were associated with Peter and John, and hence low-class, monolingual illiterates, too. In fairness, Ehrman notes from Jesus' reading of the Torah in the synagogue that Jesus himself must have been literate (disagreeing with Dominic Crossan, another media star in Gospel research). However, the general assumption is that pre-modern, non-urban, non-elite folk "had to be" illiterate and monolingual.

What a monoculturalist, time-bound assumption this is!  In fact, there are a number of historical, cultural, religious, and sociological reasons that tell against this reconstruction of Jesus and his disciples.

First of all, monolingualism is a condition of peoples who live in very large, geographically extensive, and politically powerful linguistic communities and who belong to highly immobile or insular cultures. A peasant from Henan can be monolingual in Northern Chinese; an American farmer in western Pennsylvania can be monolingual in English.  Speakers of Russian, Arabic, Hindi, Panjabi, Malay, or Turkish might also be able to afford monoglossia.  However, much of humanity, regardless of formal education, must learn second--or even third or fourth languages--due to minority status, residence in a linguistically diverse region, or a position in a border area.  It is worth noting that the Galilean Jews of the first century A.D. fit all of these criteria. As such, they were in a position not too different from many Central Europeans from medieval times to the interwar era, or Hill Tribes in northern Southeast Asia today--who were often polyglot regardless of formal education.

'First century 'Eretz Yisroel seems to have been ideally situated as a home for a people for whom polyglossy would be desirable and monolingualism a handicap. To begin with, while we can safely assume that most inhabitants of first century 'Eretz Yisroel probably spoke forms of Western Aramaic on a day-to-day basis, it is known that the Greek-speaking and Gentile cities of Sepphoris and Tiberia were planted squarely in the midst of Galilee.  Caesarea, the port-city, was a primarily Hellenophone enclave; while to the east there must have been contacts with the Decapolis, a federation of ten Greek-speaking cities dating back to some time after Alexander's conquest of the area .  The Jews themselves were not uniformly Semitic-speakers.  The existence of a large, Greek-speaking diaspora that sometimes resettled in 'Eretz Yisroel is amply attested to in the Book of Acts, in which conflict between linguistic communities appears early (Ac. 7), and from the archaeological record.  For much of Western Diaspora Jewry, Greek rather than Hebrew was even the language of the Bible and religion. Hence, the opportunity to learn and use Greek was not rare and certainly far from implausible.Some Hellenophone Jews moved back to 'Eretz Yisroel itself, forming their own synagogues and existing as a distinct subculture.  The New Testament itself witnesses to a linguistic divide in the primitive Jerusalem church (Acts 6:1), while ossuaries and other epigraphic remains provide archaeological testimony to the use of Greek as well as the Semitic languages.

It is doubtful that Jesus' first followers were invariably poor and socially marginal.  The Gospels mention that when John and James joined Jesus, they left their father Zebedee with the hired men (Mark 1:20).  While fishing may not be a prestige profession, it did not, apparently, condemn its practitioners to mere subsistence. We read also of wealthy women supporting Jesus and his disciples, plus such sympathizers as Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus who were members of the Sanhedrin.  In this, Jesus may well have been part of patterns attested to later in Talmudic Jewish history of a rabbi and his disciples supported by family and wealthy friends; and of men from ordinary walks of life who were nonetheless literate, and hence able to move into the ranks of the learned.

Perhaps it might be useful to see Peter and Andrew, James and John, and even Jesus himself not just as primary producers or workingmen, but as businessmen as well.  Fish can be salted and dried, then transported to places distant from the waters in which it was caught.  A skilled craftsman such as a carpenter might well work an itinerary that might take him away from his home village.  In both situations, the need to keep accounts would provide an incentive towards literacy.


When first encountered, Jesus' first disciples are not only fishermen,, but also spiritual seekers.  Andrew and Simon Peter were apparently initially drawn to John the Baptist (John 1:35-42)who also preached the approach of the Messianic age.  This suggests that the sons of Jonah had some familiarity with biblical prophecy and the leisure to ponder its possible implications. These spiritual aspirations in a culture that eschewed images as foci of worship (although first century 'Eretz Yisroel apparently had few objections to art for the purposes of decoration or illustration) would have been yet another incentive for literacy. 


Jesus himself may well have known Greek from an early age.  The Gospel of Matthew notes that the Holy Family spent some time in Egypt fleeing Herod's attempts to kill the infant Jesus.  We know that they returned to 'Eretz Yisroel some time after Herod's death--quite possibly after the lapse of some years. In Egypt, the Holy Family probably would have gravitated towards Alexandria, that vast, polyglot,albeit mostly Hellenophone, which was the center of the Mediterranean world's Jewish diaspora and the place where the Bible itself was first put into Greek two centuries before Jesus' birth. It was home as well to a vibrant Hellenophone Jewish culture attested to by the works of the Jewish philosopher Philo and the writings of Gentile historians and critics.In intertestamental times, the Apocryphal book of Jesus son of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), while evidently first composed in Hebrew, was early translated into Greek and preserved in that language.  The additions to Daniel (Susannah and Bel and the Dragon) also seem to have originally been Greek compositions rather than Hebrew or Aramaic. Even a later son of 'Eretz Yisroel, Josephus, writes an elegant Greek, and defends the Jews against the calumnies of the Egyptian priest Manetho in an interchange that clearly was conducted in Greek. So pervasive is the Greek influence among the Jews that even in 'Eretz Yisroel itself, one of the sages in the times shortly before Jesus' own, Antigonos of Socho, bears a Greek name, as do some of the Jewish protagonists of the First Book of Maccabees.

It is also important to note that while Matthew Two is often taken as a birth narrative (and used as such every Christmas), it is more accurately a narrative of Jesus' childhood, a synopsis of Jesus' earliest years whose chief purpose is to show how the life of the Messiah recapitulates the life of the Israelite nation, the star echoing the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers; the adoration of the Magi reflecting the status of Israel under David and Solomon; the flight into and return from Egypt reflecting the origins of the nation.  Thus, the likelihood is that the Magi from the East found a toddler rather than a newborn; that toddler going on to find his early speech shaped not only by the presumed Aramaic of his earthly parents, but also by the Greek of his likely Egyptian home.


By the time of Jesus, Jewish culture had already become an "exegetical culture".  Its cult had no images, and stressed a sacred text that long had been known and used, even to the point of being translated for the Greek-speaking diaspora community.  While the climate and soils of most of 'Eretz Yisroel are not conducive to the preservation of ordinary scraps of inscribed papyrus and leather (save in the very dry regions close to the Dead Sea and the Negev), it is known from Hellenistic Roman Egypt that large numbers of common people often wrote letters, accounting documents, contracts, and the like (thanks to Egypt's uniquely dry climate, these were preserved); while ostraca probably inscribed by ordinary Jews in 'Eretz Yisroel have also been found.

The image of Jesus and his disciples as illiterate, monolingual peasants must thus be discarded.  Some, doubtlessly, were from very ordinary or even poor backgrounds.  But even in such instances,their Galilaean homeland was well-situated to foster multilingualism, including knowledge of Greek; and the already dispersed condition of their Jewish people would have given them opportunity to encounter and interact with Greek-speakers, even if they may have had few contacts with Gentiles.  Their Jewish culture was literate, possessed a strong historical sense, and even possessed writing for purposes far removed from the religious ones best represented in ancient Jewish Hebrew,Aramaic, and Greek texts.

While a fairly wide literacy among Jewish common people must be conceded to be a possibility (albeit a strong one) rather than a demonstrated certainty, it would be by no means unique among pre-modern peoples.  In Korea during the 15th century A.D., King Sejong promoted the development of the Hangul alphabet in order to foster literacy among Korean commoners, for whom the traditional Classical Chinese traditionally used was inaccessible (and hard enough to learn by young males whose families could afford to educate them, for Korean and Chinese are not linguistically close).  This was a fairly successful project.  Further, Hangul itself seems to have been inspired bythe Phagpa script commissioned by Khubilai Khan to provide a common alphabet for Chinese, Mongolian, and Tibetan. A few monuments in this writing exist, including, interestingly enough, a Christian grave monument from Fujian memorializing an individual with a clearly Han Chinese name.  While the Phagpa script did not take except among users of Tibetan, its imperial sponsorship is yet another example of a ruler seeking to foster literacy among the common people he ruled.

A further consideration is that speakers of Hebrew and Aramaic used alphabets designed for the phonemes of those languages.  The Greeks, while adopting the Semitic alphabet, heavily modified it to suit their own phonemes.  In this, users of all three languages were in a position somewhat different from that of an English speaker, who must find ways to twist an alphabet designed for a language with only five vowels (Latin) to serve his own vowel-rich spoken language.  Perhaps, then, the storm and stress accompanying an Anglophone child's introduction to spelling and decoding may not have been as severe for a child of first-century 'Eretz Yisroel or Alexandira being put to the task of learning to read.

Finally, as recognized leaders in the primitive Christian community, the apostles would have had access to bilingual secretaries and amanuenses.John Mark, identified in Acts as close to the wealthy Cypriot Jew Barnabas, was probably one who was skilled both in the native Semitic of 'Eretz Yisroel and Greek. While it is clear that Paul was a literate and bilingual former student of Gamaliel the Elder, the presence of Apollos of Alexandria in the pages of the New Testament suggests he was not the only lettered and cultured convert gained by the primitive church.  Papias' account that he worked as Peter's interpreter and that his Gospel represents the memories of Peter is thus entirely credible.  His being mentioned at the end of First Peter along with Silvanus makes it highly possible that he and Sylvanus took dictation from Peter, putting his less-fluent Greek into the relatively polished form found in the Epistle as they worked.  Eusebius also identifies Papias of Heliopolis as John's assistant; so it may be that the elegant if simple Greek of the Fourth Gospel hints both at Johanine authorship, as evidenced by the accurate knowledge of pre-70 A.D. 'Eretz Yisroel, and Papaias' editorial help; while the rugged, near-Pidgin of the Book of Revelation may offer John's own, unaided Greek.

Nor should too much weight be placed on the observation of that Peter and John were "unlettered men"  (Acts 4:13).  This merely indicates that they, like their master, were not trained in the Scribal and Pharisaic Academies.  While history is full of academies or systems that gained much prestige in the cultures that nurtured them, education has never been successfully monopolized; even by philosophic schools, churches, and states that actively sought to do so. A Bible-reading, theologically-minded 17th century England could produce an uncommon author in John Bunyan,the tinker of Bedford; a first century 'Eretz Yisroel with its Jewish exegetical culture teeming with Messianic speculation and aspiration could also have produced similar "uncommon common men".

Thus, questions of literacy and skills in second- or third languages should not be seen as insurmountable obstacles for Jesus' first disciples. True, they were not born into the linguistically dominant ctulure; but if the experience of other peripheral peoples offers any guidance, this would provide an incentive to learn Greek as a second language.The environment in which the apostles lived, the needs of their livelihoods, and their religious background all provided incentives to both literacy and second language acquisition (if that second language was Greek). The status they  gained in the early church also gave them access to a number of human resources, if not further educational ones.  Hence,Ehrman's dismissal of the possibility that John may have been a writer ignores much.  Even if the apostles had help from their friends (and Peter's mention of Mark and Silvanus, along with Luke's admitted dependence on earlier witnesses, suggests that these were by no means unrecognized), their position as authors as well as witnesses is no longer so far-fetched.


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 cultic observances to what can be found or deduced by “good and necessary consequence” from Scripture.  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, books which the Jewish tradition sees as the Former Prophets, the Advent text on which I am now meditating  is  Matthew One, with all of its begats and Old Testament names (given according to the Greek Septuagint, for those who don’t recognize King James’ Ezekias and Hezekiah as the same man).  It’s a reminder that all of God’s actions in human history, including how he became man, worked redemption, and conquered death itself, were for the sake of flesh-and-blood, living and breathing, ordinary human beings.

First, individuals matter.  The genealogies tell us that humanity is not some abstraction called “society”, or “mankind”, or, in this anti-sexist world, “humankind”.  Names point to individuals, each of whom has his own little story and needs.  Maybe this is confusing to an age, overwhelmed by the vastness of space, wonders how God can worry about little specks such as us.  If that describes you and me, we’re in good company:  the Psalmist David himself wondered along similar lines when he wrote:

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him?  And the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Ps. 8:3-4)

Second, history matters.  Part of everyone’s humanity—including that of Jesus, whom I confess to be God the Word incarnate as man—belongs to a community and has a history.  We didn’t choose to be born Americans in the 20th and 21st centuries; Abraham didn’t choose to be born in Ur of the Chaldees four thousand years before our time.  Even if, as biblical prophecy teaches us, we look forward to a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells (II Pet. 3:13), we cannot forget where we’ve been, and biblical religion tells us that if we do, we’ll lose sight of where we ought to be going.  We’re called not only to hope, but also to remember.

Third, damaged and derailed as individuals and their histories may be, Jesus came to save sinners.  “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as wool.” How, Brother Isaiah?  Matthew One tells us.

Jesus came and freely owned himself kinsman to Abraham and Isaac, who prevaricated with the Egyptian Pharaoh and the Philistine Abimelech out of cowardice and thus compromised their wives; 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, scheming King David who abused his power to put an innocent man to death; 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, provoked God to righteous wrath, and thus got their people conquered and exiled to Babylon.  No, I cannot find the model of a holy and upright kingship or living image of the Messiah or an earthly picture of the divine throne in heaven as I read the Bible; only a dreary list of men who “waked in the way of Jeroboam the Son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin.”

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.

I was oh-so-subtly raised to justify myself against the accusations leveled by biblical prophecy.  If I would’ve called myself a Christian, I was at best an American Moralistic Deist.  Had I known more than bowdlerized versions of the Biblical stories way back when, I’d have thought, surely, had someone like me been around, Jeremiah wouldn’t have been dragged off unwillingly to Egypt by the rebellious people, and Zechariah the priest would not have been murdered before the altar by King Jehoash.  Of course, we’re more advanced than “those people” were (Bronze Age savages, after all—even if, for the sake of covering myself with my fellow pedants, the use of iron seems to have found its way into Israel around the time of Saul).  And, yes, had I known the story then, I’d have reacted like Clovis of the Franks, who said Jesus would never have been crucified had he and his men been around.   Oh, of course: I’d never have been a Caiaphas, a member of the mob that cried, “crucify him!”, and certainly not a Pontius Pilate, cynically asking “what is truth?” when the Truth itself was literally under his very nose.   Fat chance.

That incarnation, death on the cross, and resurrection happened for our sinful sakes precisely because we’re not our idealized, truth-loving, [self-] righteous selves.  We are indeed Judah and Tamar, Rahab with her scarlet past and fear of the invading Israelites, backsliding Solomon, and Amon and Manasseh.  We’re Caiphas and Pilate, too (think of that the next time you use the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed).   This season, let us not justify ourselves when challenged by what we read; but recognize ourselves for what we are in humble repentance and accept the gift of redemption which God offers in the Messiah.

Have a joyful Advent and Christmas season!


Seen your Bathsheba today, brothers?

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, someone 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, including the development of 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 (or, more properly, northern 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 of 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 since then 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. Indeed, it places a burden on the Table of Nations which that section of Scripture was not intended to bear.
    To start, I do not doubt that the Chinese descend from Noah via his three sons. All of us do.   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 the name for the land they inhabited. The Hittites of the Old Testament 'Eretz Yisroel, from 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. In this, they were not unlike their latter-day linguistic relatives the Armenians, who prior to the horrors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were an important dispersed and trading people of the Middle East.
   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 Hua-Xia --what we Westerners would call "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.Significantly, the name Han as an ethnonym for the majority people of the Huang He basin and North China Plain long predated the arrival of the Khitan.
     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 proto-Mongol; perhaps closer to the Dahur of China's Northeast than to the Halh of Mongolia or the Buryat of Siberia; but certainly not kin to either Hatti or Nes-Hittite. .
  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 Han 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 ethnonyms 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".
   Of course a common humanity links the various peoples of eastern Asia, those of the Middle East, and all of the rest of us.  As a Bible-believer, I have no doubt that offspring of Noah and his three sons moved eastward to populate Asia, Australia, the Pacific, and the Americas. As a student of both biblical and secular history, I have no doubt at all that there were ancient contacts between the Middle East and Far East.  But I find it very doubtful that the Sinitic peoples have any other connection to the Hittites of the Bible. 
    This might, however, lead us to some considerations about how to read the Table of Nations itself, a subject for a different post.