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Ash Wednesday Against the Backdrop of the Bible and Jewish Tradition

For western rite Roman Catholics and some Protestants (e.g. many Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians), today is Ash Wednesday, a day on which they recommit themselves to their faith, while looking forward to Easter (Pascha). The most recognizable aspect of the day is the ash crosses which the faithful receive upon their foreheads.

Every year, around this time, there are voices which wonder aloud (some sincerely, others polemically), where is Ash Wednesday in the Bible? The simple answer is that it has no explicit mention in Scripture.[1] However, this article will briefly look at some interesting parallels which arise when the day is considered against the backdrop of the Bible and Jewish tradition. While many who discuss this subject will invoke Jesus fasting for forty days as the inspiration (as the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter is forty days if the Sundays within that span are excluded from the count), there is more that can be brought up.

Reaffirmation A Month Before Passover

One interesting place to begin such an exploration is Talmūd Bavlī, tractate Shabat 88A, which reads as follows:

“And they stationed themselves at the bottom of the mountain” [Exodus 19:17]

Rabbi Ābdīmī bar Hamā bar Hasā said: it is taught that the Holy One, blessed be He, upturned the mountain over them,[2] like a tub, and He said to them, “if you receive the Torah, good, but if not, then this here will be your burial.”

Rabbi ĀHā bar Ya`qob said [in reply]: from this there is a great objection to the Torah!

Rabā said [in reply]: even so, the generation in the days of ĀHashweros received it, as it is written [in Esther 9:27]: “the Jews confirmed[3] and received” — they confirmed what they received.

What’s significant about that passage is that it invokes a verse from Esther which is actually discussing the establishment of Pūrīm. Th passage records an ancient Jewish tradition which held that the believers essentially recommitted themselves to their faith around the time of Pūrīm, which just so happens to fall a lunar month before Passover.

Marking Foreheads A Month+ Before Yom Kīpūr

Keeping the above in mind, but switching gears, another text worth considering is the Biblical verse at Ezekiel 8:1. That verse provides the date for a vision which would encompass events described in the rest of the chapter and the chapter which follows (which is to say, chapter 9). The date is the fifth day of the sixth month, which is slightly over a month before Yom Kīpūr (the day of atonement).

Also significant is Ezekiel 9:4-6, where an order is given to place a mark on the heads of certain people. Those who lack the mark will be executed, while those who have the relevant mark on their forehead will be spared. A fun question to ask at this point is, what would the proposed mark look like?

Interestingly, the Hebrew text refers to it as a taw (תו), which is the name of the last letter of the Hebrew Bible, which just so happened to be a cruciform (either x or +) in the older, Phoenician script which Hebrew was once written in.[4] The entry for taw in Gesenius’ Lexicon[5] notes this:

The Messiah’s Feast

Before tying these various, disparate threads together, one more (perhaps lighthearted) example may be worth considering, that being the entry for the 22nd of Nīsan (i.e. the date one week after the start of Passover), on page 47 of the Orthodox Jewish work, Ha-Yom Yom[6]:

In this work, it is noted that the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement within Orthodox Judaism, established 22 Nīsan as “the Messiah’s feast”. Note that 22 Nīsan is almost forty days after Pūrīm, the date in which ancient Jewish tradition holds believers recommitted themselves to the word of God.

Tying It All Together

At this point, the text above might strike a reader as little more than a collection of seemingly interesting yet nonetheless unrelated trivia. However, it is now that one can begin to paint an intriguing picture. Note the following:

  1. The New Testament treats the Old Testament feasts as foreshadowings of Christ (cf. Colossians 2:16-17).
  2. The New Testament reinterprets the Passover in light of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7).[7]
  3. Ancient Jewish tradition records a religious day established by believers, and falling a month before Passover, as also being a day on which believers reconfirmed their faith.
  4. Ancient Christian tradition treated Yom Kīpūr as foreshadowing the sacrifice of Christ.[8]
  5. An Old Testament text can be understood as having cruciforms placed on the foreheads of faithful believers a little over a month before Yom Kīpūr.
  6. Later Jewish mystics, in their contemplation of their own traditions, established a feast dedicated to the Messiah, which falls slightly after the start of Passover, and falls nearly forty days after the above-mentioned day on which the believers recommitted themselves to the faith.

With all that laid out, note that Ash Wednesday is a time when believers have a cruciform marked on their forehead, and recommit themselves to the faith. It falls slightly over forty days before Good Friday (which one scholar referred to as “the great eschatological Day of Atonement”[9]) and slightly over forty days before the veritable Messiah’s feast (Pascha/Easter) which falls slightly after the start of the old, traditional Passover. While the concepts are not identical, Ash Wednesday, when understood in such a way, seems to fit rather comfortably among the Biblical texts and Jewish traditions discussed above.

________

NOTES:

(1) As has come up in previous blog entries (e.g. the entry on Halloween), the Bible and Jewish literature take it for granted that the believers can establish new feasts and other sorts of religious days, with Pūrīm (in the book of Esther) and Hanūkkah (in the books of Maccabees and Rabbinic tradition) being easy examples of such. Moreover, the New Testament states that Christ bestowed upon the Episcopacy the authority to ‘bind and loose’ (cf. Matthew 16:19, Matthew 18:18), which parallels a similar authority found in Isaiah 22:20-22. In light of the already existing Old Testament precedent of believers establishing new feasts, this authority to ‘bind and loose’ plausibly includes the the continued ability to establish new religious days. Therefore, Ash Wednesday not being found in the Bible can nonetheless be explained in that light, but this entry seeks to go deeper, still.

(2) It may be worth noting that this seems to be describing the same event which is referred to in the Qur’ān, in sūrat al-Baqarah 2:63, sūrat al-Baqarah 2:93, and sūrat an-Nisā’ 4:154 (though the accounts are not identical). [Disclaimer for more polemically minded readers: mentioning that a story is recounted in both the Talmūd and the Qur’ān is not intended here as a charge of “borrowing,” nor is such intended to cast aspersions on the historicity of either version of the story.]

(3) The verb qīmū generally means they raised or established, but the translation chosen here is meant to reflect the interpretation of the relevant Talmūdic sage.

(4) While there are many resources on the subject of the Hebrew script, one easily accessible source, available in a great many libraries and book stores, is the chart in Ben Yehuda’s Pocket Hebrew-English Dictionary, which puts the ancient Phoenician (or “Paleo-Hebrew”) script side-by-side the currently used Āshūrī (or standard Hebrew) script, as well as its later developed cursive form.

(5) William Gesenius, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Boston, MA: Crocker and Brewster, 1850), p. 1097.

(6) The book is attributed to the sixth and seventh Lubavitcher Rebbes (i.e. rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn and rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, respectively), and can be read online, here: http://beta.hebrewbooks.org/43302

(7) A straight reading of the Synoptic Gospels gives the strong impression that the Last Supper was a Passover seder (one can get a different impression from John, which is an interesting subject unto itself). If the Last Supper was a Passover seder, that would imply Passover had already started before the Crucifixion, which would mean Christ (regognized by Christians as their Passover lamb) was sacrificed after the start of the old, traditional, quartodeciman Passover. This in itself would provide Biblical support for holding the Christian Pascha (the Passover reinterpreted in light of Christ, called “Easter” in Teutonic languages) on a date slightly after the start of the quartodeciman date.

(8) This comes up, among other places, in the fortieth chapter of Justin Martyr’a Dialogue With Trypho, as well as in the seventh chapter of the Epistle of Barnabas.

(9) Jürgen Roloff, “ιλασμος,” in Horst Balz & Gerhard Schneider (eds.), Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), vol. 2, p. 186.

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On the Nuances of “Halloween”

It is very popular, these days, to simply wave the Vigil of All Saints Day (or “Halloween”) off as “pagan” in general, or a recasting of Samhain in particular. While it is true that, as far as popular celebration among the public is concerned, it is often the case that “Halloween is quite shamelessly secular, without any explicit Christian referent,”[1] the subject is nonetheless more nuanced than many realize.

What About Samhain?

James George Frazer’s wildly successful late 19th century work, The Golden Bough, popularized the alleged connection between Halloween and Samhain. Since then, a great many have come to take the explanation for granted. One can easily find the claim repeated on numerous websites and television shows, thus it seems to be common knowledge. However, when one is pressed on the evidence for such a conclusion, it seems extant evidence is lacking.

Perhaps it is worth pointing out, as a Professor of Religious and Cultural Education at Glasgow University has, that “the only intact pre-Christian Celtic calendar to have so far been discovered —the second century Coligny Calendar from Gaul— makes no mention of Samhain”.[2] The earliest text to mention Samhain is apparently the Tochmarc Emire (which calls it Samuin), a text which may date to the eleventh century,[3] though some feel it contains language bearing signs of portions therein going back to the eighth century.[4] The text apparently does not say when, precisely Samuin is,[5] much less how it was understood (or, if it is celebrated, how it is celebrated). It is not even clear if Samuin night was determined according to a lunar or solar calendar.[6]

Meanwhile, regarding Halloween (the eve of All Saints Day), note the following:
«By 800 churches in England and Germany, which were in touch with each other, were celebrating a festival dedicated to all saints upon 1 November, instead. The oldest text of Bede’s Martyrology, from the eighth century, does not include it, but the recensions at the end of the century do. Charlemagne’s favourite churchman Alcuin was keeping it by then, as were also his friend Arno, bishop of Salzburg, and a church in Bavaria. Pope Gregory, therefore, was endorsing and adopting a practice which had begun in northern Europe. It had not, however, started in Ireland, where the Felire of Oengus and the Martyrology of Tallaght prove that the early medieval churches celebrated the feast of All Saints upon 20 April. This makes nonsense of Frazer’s notion that the November date was chosen because of ‘Celtic’ influence; rather, both ‘Celtic’ Europe and Rome followed a Germanic idea.»[7]
In short, it is far from clear that the date of Halloween has anything to do with Samhain, and it is not even clear that Samhain fell on the relevant date before Halloween did.

A Brief Segue on “Pagan” Dates

The above aside, for the sake of argument, what if a Christian feast day did fall on the same day as an older “pagan” celebration? It’s certainly a question which can come up for other feasts (e.g. the Feast of the Nativity). For some insight on this question, consider the books of Maccabees (considered Scripture by Catholics and Orthodox, appearing as an appendix to the Old Testament in some Protestant Bibles, and considered to have historical value by the early Reformers).

The opening chapter of the first book of Maccabees covers the forces who sided with Antiochus desecrating the Temple in Jerusalem, and trying to force the believing Jews to embrace a “pagan” system of religious practice. In the midst of that discussion, one comes across the following verses:
[1 Maccabees 1:54,59 (NRSV)]
«Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah […] On the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar that was on top of the altar of burnt offering.»
So, according to that text, on the 25th of Kislev, “pagans” were performing a sacrifice inside the Temple. That just happens to be the date of the start of Hanukkah! This is something acknowledged by the relevant work itself. Note the following, which is referring to the Jewish believers, after they had reclaimed and rededicated the Temple, a few years later:
[1 Maccabees 4:52-54,56,59 (NRSV)]
«Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. At the very season and _on the very day_ that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. […] So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering. […] Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.»
This is mentioned again in the second book of Maccabees:
[2 Maccabees 10:5 (NRSV)]
«It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev.»
Ergo, for those who recognize the books of Maccabees as part of the Bible, it could be said that, from a Biblical perspective, it is permissible to establish a new feast on the same day that a “pagan” celebration had previously occurred. For those who do not consider such texts to be Scripture, it can at least be said that ancient forms of Judaism recognized this permissibility. The books of Maccabees aside, Josephus acknowledges the same, writing the following in his Antiquity of the Jews:
«And on the twenty-fifth of the month Chasleu, which the Macedonians call Apellaios, they kindled the lights on the lampstand and burned incense on the altar and set out the loaves on the table and offered whole burnt-offerings upon the new altar. These things, as it chanced, took place on the same day on which, three years before, their holy service had been transformed into an impure and profane form of worship. For the temple, after being made desolate by Antiochus, had remained so for three years; it was in the hundred and forty-fifth year that these things befell the temple, on the twenty-fifth of the month Apellaios, in the hundred and fifty-third Olympiad. And the temple was renovated on the same day, the twenty-fifth of the month Apellaios, in the hundred and forty-eighth year, in the hundred and fifty-fourth Olympiad. […] So much pleasure did they find in the renewal of their customs and in unexpectedly obtaining the right to have their own service after so long a time, that they made a law that their descendants should celebrate the restoration of the temple service for eight days. And from that time to the present we observe this festival, which we call the Festival of Lights»[8]
King James and Halloween

While criticism of Halloween (in particular the accusation of redressed “paganism”) comes from non-Christians, it also comes from quite a few people who identify as Christian, as well. Interestingly, a good portion of them are fans of the King James Bible (some are even KJV-Onlyists), so it seems worthwhile to explore the attitude of King James and his translators towards Halloween.

Many do not know that the 1611 King James Bible had a calendar listing feasts and fasts of the Anglican Church. The following image is made up of portions of scans from that calendar (if it is initially unclear, links to scans of the full pages for each month will be provided in subsequent discussion, immediately below).

What is being highlighted, here, is that, for the translators of the King James Bible, there were fasts which preceded major feast days. So notice that for February, on the 2nd the Feast of the Purification of Mary is noted, and the day before that (1 February) is a fast. Likewise, in March, the 25th is the feast of the Annunciation, and the day before that (24 March) is a fast. So too in December, the 25th is Christmas, and the day before that is also a fast.

With that in mind, note that in November, the 1st lists the Feast of All Saints, and the day before that, the 31st of October, is a fast. This would mean that, just as the KJV translators assigned some significance to Christmas eve, so too they did for the eve of the Feast of All Saints, or what was also called in English, “All Hallows Eve” (colloquially, Hallows Even, or Hallowe’en).

Distinguishing a Festival from Popular Celebrations

Now, it would be fair to argue that just because King James and his translators observed the vigil of the feast of All Saints, that doesn’t mean they were dressing up as ghosts, monsters, demons and witches. Moreover, being that it was a fast, one can say with certainty that they were not stuffing their faces with sweets (though sweets might have come out at midnight, or whenever they believed the feast of All Saints day began). The material presented in the previous section only shows that they didn’t have a hostility to Halloween, simpliciter.

Such a point, however, raises a question relevant to a more nuanced approach to the subject: should one simply object to Halloween as a whole, or more specifically to certain behaviors which some engage in on Halloween? For an analogy, consider the example of Purim, a holiday mentioned in the book of Esther. Today, the relevant holiday is celebrated with costume parties, though there is no indication such was the case in Biblical times. Beyond that, some less observant Jews will celebrate Purim by dressing up as devils, a practice one can be sure orthodox Jews object to. For example, see this video, in which Tel Aviv based make-up artist Sivan Ganzi provides visual tips on how to dress up as Satan for Purim (the title literally refers to Satan), and there are other videos like that.

If a person is able to distinguish between Purim itself and a person who dresses up as Satan on Purim, it would seem one should likewise be able to distinguish between “Halloween” itself and some person who dresses up as a devil or a witch for Halloween. The Vigil of Omnium Sanctorum has been observed for centuries, and it is far too simplistic to reduce it to how secular folk celebrate it, today.

A Northern European Approach to Vigilia Omnium Sanctorum
Dressing up as demons aside, one might wonder what, for example, pumpkins have to do with the relevant vigil. The answer is that such is a likely an accretion from a distinctly northern European handling of the vigil in Autumn.
As one former professor at the University of Hamburg noted, “in der Kirche ist ein Erntedankfest seit dem dritten Jahrhundert belegt,”[9] which translates, “in the Church, an erntedankfest has been held since the third century”. But what does “erntedankfest” mean? Ernte means harvest, dank means thanks, and fest means feast or festival. In other words, Teutonic Christians have held harvest-time thanksgiving feasts since ancient times, and both Halloween and the North American celebrations of Thanksgiving find their origins in variations of an erntedankfest. Similar themes can be seen in Праздник Урожая (Prazdnik Urozhaya), the Slavic Harvest Festival.
As the late Notre Dame professor George Minamiki once put it, “Christianity was not meant to totally supplant another culture, but rather to be implanted into the matrix of that culture.”[10] Ergo, certain cultures will approach an observance with some of their own unique cultural expressions, and it just so happens that some of those expressions will become popular among others. The appropriateness of each expression or accretion can be examined on a case by case basis.[11]
————————–
Notes:
(1) Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 164.
(2) Robert A. Davis, “Escaping Through Flames: Halloween as a Christian Festival,” in Malcolm Foley & Hugh O’Donnell (eds.), Trick or Treat: Halloween in a Globalising World, (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), pp. 29-30.
(3) See Kuno Meyer’s translation of the text in vol. I (1888) of The Archaeological Review. On page 68 the relevant text is dated to 1050 A.D. The references to Samuin appear on pages 232 and 303.
(4) See the discussion in Gregory Toner, “The Transmission of ‘Tochmarc Emire’,” in Ériu, vol. 49 (1998), pp. 71-88. It is unclear, at this time, if the relevant portions include the two passing references to Samuin.
(5) On page 303, foot note 4, of the above-mentioned volume of The Archeological Review, Meyer asserts that Samuin night corresponds to the eve of the first of November, but the text of the Tochmarc Emire itself does not state such (thus it seems Meyer was retroactively speculating based on later practice?).
(6) Note that the oldest known Celtic calendar was lunar (more properly lunisolar, like the Rabbinic calendar), with each month being determined by the moon. However, also note that “the idea of a precise and all-pervasive Celtic calendar must be treated with considerable caution” [cf. Clive Ruggles, Ancient Astronomy: An Encyclopedia of Cosmologies and Myth, (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005), p. 76].
(7) Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, (Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 364.
(8) Josephus, “Antiquity of the Jews,” book XII, chapter vii, no. 6, as found in Ralph Marcus, Josephus, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), vol. VII, pp. 165-169.
(9) Hans-Christoph Goßmann, Offener Himmel – Weiter Raum: Inhalte Christlichen Glaubens, (Steinmann Verlag, 2013), p. 224.
(10) George Minamiki, The Chinese Rites Controversy, (Loyola University Press, 1985), p. 22.
(11) Exempli gratia, in John Milton, L’allegro, Il Penseroso, Comus, and Lycidas, (New York: American Book Co., 1894), p. 15, n. 3, it is noted that the “Jack-o-lantern” may have also been called the “Friar’s lantern,” and symbolized the souls who were in purgatory, et cetera.

 

Christ’s Sacrifice and God’s Justice

“It could well be that God has morally sufficient reasons to allow the finite suffering in the world […] God may have morally sufficient reasons to allow the evil and sufferings in the world, because of a greater good. […] And we are in no position to argue against that. How could we make that judgment? Just because we do not see the ultimate good in evil in the world, it doesn’t mean it does not exist.”

Adam Deen[1]

“It’s an impugning and compromising of our tawHeed to suggest that what’s happening in today’s world is not the direct will of Allah”.

Abdal Hakim Murad (A.K.A. Timothy Winter)[2]

I have some experience with Christian-Muslim dialogue, and thus I am well aware that a charge, that the doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice is contrary to God’s justice, often comes up. I am also a former atheist, and spent some time considering the subject of theodicy in years past. As a result, my familiarity with the latter subject always leaves me unmoved by the charge just mentioned.

That is to say, it seems to me incongruent to argue, on the one hand, that God is sovereign, and the Definer of justice, and yet, at other times, pretend as though there is a moral law above God which God must be subject to. An injustice, a crime, would be something illicit, but it seems an axiom of all classical theistic views would be that any action of God is de facto licit (no action or plan of God could ever be illicit).[3]

Brief Note on Human Analogies

There are critics of Christianity (including, but not limited to, Muslims; rather also including atheists and others) who seek to show the absurdity (or at least injustice) of the doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of others, by way of human analogies. For example, one might propose a scenario in which a criminal comes before a human judge. The judge informs the criminal that he will be set free if he sincerely apologizes, at which point the criminal promptly does so. At that moment, the judge notes that the apology is not by itself sufficient for such a release, so he will have another person –someone innocent– punished for the crime, instead. The suffering of that innocent person, in conjunction with the apology of the criminal, provides the sufficient ground for letting the criminal go free. After proposing analogies along these lines, the critic rhetorically asks, “would you consider such a judge just or unjust?”

The problem with such an analogy is that, at least for theists, God is not held to the same standards as human beings. For example, if advanced science provided a mere human the ability to create massive storms or tsunamis, and that human deliberately created a weather condition that killed thousands (including women and children), that man would be considered guilty of mass murder. However, most theists would presumably hold that God, on the other hand, can consciously create weather conditions which kill thousands (including women and children), without impugning God’s justice. This takes us back to a point made earlier, above: any act of God is licit rather than illicit (which is not the case with mere human beings).

To illustrate this, let us consider another human analogy. Suppose a woman consumed alcohol or drugs, in a society where such was prohibited. She is brought before a human judge. That judge has at his disposal the ability to choose between (a) the woman’s child being unaffected by its mother’s actions, or (b) her child being made to suffer as a direct consequence of its mother’s actions. The judge chooses the latter, decreeing that because the woman consumed the relevant prohibited intoxicants, her child shall be struck with physical deformities, brain damage, and an earlier death. The mother apologizes sincerely and profusely. The judge accepts her apology, forgives her crime, but holds that her child will still suffer (though he is careful to note that the child is not considered guilty). Who would consider such a judge just?

With that analogy in mind, now consider the very real phenomenon of some babies suffering brain damage, physical deformities, or even death, when their mothers consume drugs or alcohol while said babies are in the womb. From that, one can infer that it is possible for God to establish a system where one (presumably innocent?) person suffers as a result of another person’s actions. Under the standard assumptions of a classical theistic framework, God could have created a different system, e.g. where babies never suffered, irrespective of what their mothers consumed while they were in their wombs. Yet the omniscient God knew precisely what such a design would entail, and set such a design in place anyway. It cannot be considered accidental; rather it is part of God’s decree. And yet, unlike humans, God is sovereign in such matters, and thus the decision does not in any way diminish God’s justice.

Pondering the Food Chain

Similar to the section above, I would like to continue on the subject of pondering what can be inferred from creation.[4] So we transition from the subject of deformed babies to the subject of the food chain. Watch a nature video which captures a predator catching, ripping apart and devouring its prey, or just watch a video about what happens in slaughter houses, and you might come away with the feeling that the current world can, at times, be a profoundly (and perhaps unnecessarily?) brutal place.[5]

A theist who ponders such is left with the question of why God would create the world in this way in the first place. Presumably God could have created a world where living organisms did not preserve their own existence at the expense of the lives of other living organisms, so it begs the question of why God would create a world with so much suffering and death, if such was (apparently) not necessary.[6]

It is here that one might see somewhat of a parallel between the food chain and the Christian conception of Christ’s sacrifice. While some non-Christian theists might balk at the idea that a just God would create a system in which the suffering and death of an innocent person could play a role in the atonement of sins committed by unrighteous humans, a theist can infer from creation that God does work roughly along those lines. From a theistic perspective, God clearly has created a world where one organism can preserve its own life at the expense of the life of another, often innocent, organism. If that is the system God has created for the biological realm, it begs the question of what would be implausible about God creating a roughly parallel system for a sort of spiritual realm, where humans preserve themselves from the destructive aspects of sin at the expense of the life of one innocent Person?[7]

Couldn’t God Simply Forgive Sinners?

Critics of the belief in Christ’s sacrifice sometimes seek to show such is unnecessary, as God could simply forgive sinners (especially repentant sinners). Interestingly, here too, the food chain analogy can be helpful. Consider that Christianity asserts that…

(a) God has created a system where the death of one person can play a role in the atonement of another person’s sins.

…and critics of this belief object that…

(b) God can create a system in which a person’s sins can be atoned for without the death of another playing a role.

Bringing in the food chain analogy, note that most theists would agree that, in reality…

(c) God has created a system where one organism can preserve its own life at the expense of the life of another organism.

…and we can also agree that…

(d) It is possible for God to create a system where organisms preserve their own lives without the loss of another organism’s life being required.

Just as the truth of (d) does not render (c) false or impossible, it would seem that, likewise, the truth of (b) does not render (a) false or impossible. Pointing out that God can offer an alternative system does not justify the conclusion that the system currently under discussion is therefore not actual, or worse, impossible. Ergo, noting the possibility of God forgiving sins without the death of another playing a role does not lead to the conclusion that God therefore has not willed (or never will ordain) that the death of one person can play a role in the forgiveness of another person’s sins.

In short, God is not required to actualize a system simply because we can imagine it and find it more palatable.

Very Brief Note on the Faith of Abraham

The book of Genesis might be thought of as the earliest extant text to mention Abraham. In that text, it is noted that Abraham was led to believe that God wanted him to sacrifice his son (he was willing to do so, but God intervened before he carried out the act). It’s interesting that a human serving as a sacrifice was not outside the realm of possibility for Abraham. We might sum up this point thusly: according to the earliest known text to mention Abraham, the faith of Abraham included belief in the possibility that the sovereign God could decree that a descendant of Abraham might serve as a sacrifice (such a decree, if God so chose to make it, would not be contrary to God’s justice).[8]

NOTES

(1) This quote is from the 14:20 mark of Adam Deen’s 2012 lecture Is God Evil? Why does God allow pain and suffering? I would boil down his statement to this helpful rule of thumb: just because you are unable to discern a sufficient reason for God to bring about an event does not mean God therefore lacked sufficient reason for such.

(2) This line is from the 1:05 mark of the video Islamic Theology vs. the Problem of Evil – Abdal Hakim Murad. Contrast that with Stephen Frye expressing his inability to reconcile the idea of an all-knowing, all-benificent God who would create a world which includes bone cancer in children, or insects which blind children by burrowing into their eyes and then eating their way back out. Or contemplate the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed roughly a quarter million people, including tens of thousands of children, and note Sadat bin Anwar’s statement, in his piece Killing babies for who? Allah or Yah___/Jesus?, that “God is the Sovereign Creator, the Giver of Life. He can take that life away, either directly or through the use of His agents (the wind, water, angels, etc).”

(3) At this point one may wonder: so, then, what is considered to be the murder of Jesus was actually licit rather than illicit? Were the human perpetrators engaging in licit activity? The more nuanced answer is that God’s plan can be licit while incorporating actions by humans which God decrees to be illicit. It is perhaps worth noting that even in Islam, one can imagine scenarios where the omniscient God brought about good from out of an evil act. In such a scenario, God knew the evil act would be committed, and did not stop it (which could be seen as meaning the act itself happened, in a sense, according to God’s will, and played a role in God’s plan). Even so, God can still decree that the human role in the act itself was evil (i.e. God bringing good out of an evil act need not necessarily strip said act of evil, nor need the evil of the act be transmitted to God’s plan for incorporating it).

(4) And thus I’d like to think of this as being the second entry in a series on the subject of the plausibility of Christian doctrine in light of “natural revelation,” the first entry being Can God Sleep? A Brief Dyophysite Exploration of Christology, Neurobiology and Somnology.

(5) A human troubled by that might find a bit of consolation in meditating on the fact that the human species has been blessed with the ability to consciously make an (admittedly always imperfect) effort to rise above, or separate itself from, the more overtly brutal aspects of the food chain (e.g. just as many humans can clothe themselves with alternatives to animal skins and furs, so too many humans can sustain themselves with foods other than animal flesh). Beyond that, a believer in the Bible might turn to Isaiah 65:25. While a great many exegetes treat that verse as highly metaphorical, one might nonetheless find a semblance of solace in reading it quite literally, and thus believing that God intends to bring about a future in which living creatures do not have to preserve their own lives by destroying and consuming other living creatures (note that reading Genesis 1:29 and Genesis 9:3 can give the impression that humans generally did not consume animal flesh before the flood). Despite all that, however, the ability of such thoughts to assuage one’s discomfort is tempered a bit, by the knowledge that a great many humans see no point to trying to abstain from such destruction at this time, not to mention the fact those who do try to do so always fall short (i.e. even if one successfully removes oneself from relying on animal products, they are still sustained by what amounts of a certain level of destruction of other living things). From a Christian perspective, the very consumption of animal flesh, even if troubling for some, is nonetheless permissible (i.e. it is not a sin, though one might wonder if this is an example of something being permitted for a time, due to the hardness of human hearts [analogous to the idea conveyed in Mark 10:5]).

(6) If one claims God had to create the food chain, as otherwise there’d be too many living things, two objections come to mind. First, God could create a system where each living thing disappears painlessly (i.e. living things can be removed from an ecosystem without requiring them to tear each other apart). Second, no matter how many organisms exist, that number will always be finite, and thus at any given time only a finite amount of space and resources would be required to sustain them (and surely God could create a finite amount of space and resources).

(7) On an interesting side note, the belief in Christ’s sacrifice is partially rooted in the Old Testament system of animal sacrifices as well as the first Passover. In both cases, some humans were consuming the flesh of some of the animals which were slaughtered (perhaps providing a slightly strengthened parallel with the food chain?). This becomes more interesting when one holds to those interpretations of Christianity (e.g. Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and certain Protestant sects) which posit that it is possible for the believer to literally consume the flesh and blood of Christ. Perhaps the lesson to be gleaned is that although the Creator has cast humans into this brutal world, where they too can be part of the food chain, in a show of love for the human species, their Creator entered Himself into a transcendent, supracosmic parallel to the food chain, for their benefit?

(8) While I, personally, feel it is of questionable relevance, I suspect someone will want to discuss Ezekiel 18 (at least insofar that it might be interpreted as setting a Biblical limit on God’s justice?), so I will comment briefly, here. The text in Ezekiel can be read as employing a prediction for the future (hence the future [or imperfect] tense constructions). If this is not clear enough, readers are invited to read it together with the 31st chapter of Jeremiah. Here are two relevant excerpts:

Ezekiel 18:2-4
What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

Jeremiah 31:29-31
In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

Notice that both texts are addressing the same saying, yet the text in Jeremiah seems more clear about this being in the future (as the text can be read as linking it with the [at that time still forthcoming] New Covenant). So the text need not be understood as saying that it is at all times impossible for one person to suffer for another person’s sins. Rather, the text can be read as meaning that, in the future, there will be instances where one will not suffer for the sin of a parent or child. Such does not preclude Christ’s sacrifice.

Brief Note on Dogs and Those At The Table, in Matthew and the Zohar

«The ‘peculiar benevolence’ the woman finally receives from Jesus in the
story certainly qualifies her as a προσηλυτος.»[1]

The story of Jesus’ exchange with a gentile woman, in Matthew 15:22-28, has fascinated (and scandalized) many. Some feel the text has Jesus insulting her merely for her ethnicity (thus some polemicists even accuse the passage of depicting Jesus as racist). Others, on the other hand, assert that the text is misunderstood, because the Greek word for dog in the text is actually in the diminutive, and thus could be referring to a puppy or pet.[2] This short blog entry, however, will propose a different approach to the text, treating it instead as a subtle allusion to how membership in Israel is determined more by faith than lineage.

Note that, in the text of Matthew, a gentile woman asks for a miracle healing/exorcism, and the disciples ask Jesus that she be sent away. Interestingly, although the disciples asked Jesus to send her away, Jesus does not do so; rather, He responds that He is only sent to the lost sheep of Israel. That immediately begs a question: how does such a statement relate to His refusal to meet their request? In verse 26 He implies that it would not be proper to give something that is meant for the children (i.e. of Israel) to dogs. When the woman shows great humility and faith, she then gets precisely that which Jesus had just insinuated was for Israel.

While many readers are taken aback by her being called a dog, on the question whether such was in reference to her lineage, it is worth noting that descendants of Jacob, too, can get receive the designation of dog (cf. Isaiah 56:11, Proverbs 26:11, 2 Peter 2:22), among other choice words (like worm, cf. Isaiah 41:14).[3] Nonetheless, the implication remains that she is not one of the children, but rather a dog, and what she was asking for was for the children, not for dogs.

Here it may be worth noting how Matthew 3:9 lines up with Galatians 3:29, as the verses show that a person who does not descend from Abraham biologically could still be Abraham’s son, via correct faith. Such can be tied in with how John 8:44 and Romans 9:6 line up with Revelation 2:9, showing that there can be descendants of Jacob who are excluded from Israel, and then one can see what makes a true Jew in Romans 2:28-29 and Colossians 2:11.[4] On a deeper level, if the tree in Romans 11 is understood to be Israel and the woman in Revelation 12 is understood to be Israel, such would mean the true Israel is comprised of believers (i.e. membership in Israel is not based strictly on lineage, which is even an OT concept, as per Ruth 1:16, Esther 8:17 and Judith 14:10).[5]

Once all that is grasped, one may get a different sense of the deep exchange in Matthew 15, where Jesus refuses to send away a gentile woman even though He says He’s only sent to lost sheep of Israel, and where He then gives that woman precisely what He had insinuated only was for Israel. In short, the text can be read as subtly hinting that the woman’s faith brought her into the true Israel (it converted her from being one of the dogs to being one of the children; perhaps it could be said she was one of the lost sheep).

Interestingly, there seems to be somewhat of an analogous concept in the Zohar.[6] The relevant text reads as follows:

כל זמנא דישראל עבדי רעותא דמאריהון הא על פתורא דמלכא אינון אכלי וכל סעודתא אתתקן להון ואינון ממהוא חדוה דלהון יהבי גרמי דאיהו תמצית לעע”ז וכל זמנא דישראל לא עבדי רעותא דמאריהון הא סעודתא לכלבי ואסתלק לון תמצית ככה יאכלו בני ישראל את לחמם טמא בגוים דהא תמצית דגעוליהון אכלי ווי לברא דמלכא דיתיב ומצפה לפתורא דעבדא מה דאשתאר מגו פתורא איהו אכיל דוד מלכא אמר תערך לפני שלחן נגד צררי דשנת בשמן ראשי כוסי רויה תערך לפני שלחן דא סעודתא דמלכא נגד צררי אינון כלבי דיתבי קמי פתורא מצפאן לחולק גרמייהו ואיהו יתיב עם מלכא בענוגא דסעודתא בפתורא

Translation: every time Israel does the will of their Lord, upon the table of the King they will eat, and the whole meal is prepared for them, and from their joy[ous feast], they give bones which have been sucked clean to the workers of foreign worship [or idolaters]. And [likewise] every time Israel does not do the will of their Lord, the meal goes to dogs, and they are given the sucked [bones]. [Hence it is written in Ezekiel 4:13] “thus the children of Israel will eat their bread, defiled among the nations.” That [refers to] the sucked [bones] of their own defilement, which they eat. Woe unto the son of the king who sits and waits at the table of the servant and eats what is left from that table. David, the King, said [in Psalm 23] “You prepare before me a table in the presence of my enemies, You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” [Regarding] “you prepare a table before me,” this is the meal of the King. [Regarding] “in the presence of my enemies,” they are the dogs that sit before the table, waiting for the portion of its bones, and he who sits with the king [does so] with the joy of the meal on the table.

While they are not identical, similar to the approach to Matthew 15 explored above, this Zoharic text posits that the difference between a seat at the table and being treated like (or worse than) a dog is not one of lineage, but rather behavior and practice (within the context of the faith).

***

NOTES:

(1) Glenna S. Jackson, ‘Have Mercy on Me’: The Story of the Canaanite
Woman in Matthew 15.21-28, (New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), p. 106.

(2) Cf. the entry for κυναριον in Liddell-Scott’s Lexicon. However, it may be worth noting that the Peshīttā simply uses kalb, an ordinary word for dog.

(3) Also relevant may be Sirach 26:25, though it has questionable manuscript support. The text contrasts a woman who is shameless (αδιατρεπτος) with a woman who possesses shame (εχουσα αισχυνην), and says while the latter will fear the Lord, the former is likened to a dog (with the seemingly obvious implication being that women who do not fear the Lord are likened to dogs).

(4) Also of interest is Galatians 4:24-25, which seems to subtly insinuate that disbelieving Jews are something akin to spiritual Ishamelites.

(5) See also Ephesians 2:12-19, which says that, without Christ, the gentile believers were separate from the citizenship (πολιτεια) of Israel [v. 12], however after accepting Christ they cease to be foreigners, and become instead fellow-citizens (συμπολιται) [v.19].

(6) Vol. II, 152B, or parshat Terūmah, paras. 488-489, in the Sūlam.

How Obvious is Development in the Gospels? A Few Brief Thoughts on Methodology

The idea that the Gospels comprise layers of development is widely accepted. Such is taken for granted in scholarly literature, is taught at most seminaries (perhaps all highly regarded seminaries), and is certainly taught in all courses on the New Testament at secular universities. As a result, the concept is often put forth in polemics against the Christian faith, though sometimes such is done in a rather uncareful fashion. This blog entry will seek to briefly bring a bit more nuance to at least certain kinds of charges of doctrinal development in the Gospels.[1]

***

A Non-Christian Thought Experiment

The problems with some of these ideas dawned on me more than a decade and a half ago, before I became a Christian —- back when I was still an atheist, in fact. When I was an undergrad, among my friends were two close friends whom I’d like to focus on, here, in particular. One was a philosophy major and the other was a communications major. The philosophy major was a great writer, very eloquent and verbose, and a bit of a mystical pantheist. Meanwhile the communications major was a great guy, but honestly didn’t seem to express a lot of deep thoughts, and his papers seemed to reveal he struggled to put together even a consistent paragraph.

Now, when I was an undergrad, I though it was plainly obvious that the Christology of John was a later development than the Christology in Mark. However, in a bit of a thought experiment, one day, I had imagined what it would be like if we (i.e. myself and the two friends just mentioned) concocted a new religion, and each of those friends wrote texts arguing for that religion. I very quickly concluded that the more eloquent, verbose, mystical, philosophically inclined friend would almost certainly produce something more cerebral and complex than the friend who wasn’t a particularly deep thinker, and this would be the case even if they wrote at the same time. Within that scenario, it would be a mistake to think the simpler text was older and the more complex text a much later development.

Now, as a disclaimer, I’m not saying that thought experiment reflects the fact of the matter with the Gospels (i.e. I’m not claiming, for example, that Mark was some sort of a dullard while John was a deep philosopher). I’m simply sharing how I realized nearly two decades ago that an apparent difference in depth or concepts between two texts does not entail a development over time from one to the other. As for what actually might be the explanation for the differences between the Gospels, I will get into that, later, below.

***

Can A High Christology Be An Old Christology?

For an example of how a conclusion of Christological development can be reached, consider a few widely accepted propositions:

(A) A fairly straight forward reading of the Gospel of John has Jesus depicted as a divine Person who took part in creation and who took on a human likeness.[2]

(B) Such is not found in Mark.

(C) John is later than Mark.[3]

In propositions (A) through (C), we have a later text apparently putting forth a much higher Christology than an earlier text, and many take this as a sign of Christological development over time. However, note two more propositions:

(D) Scholars are mostly agreed that Philippians and 1 Corinthians predate the Synoptics, and, while scholars are more divided on Colossians, there are still a number of scholars who treat that text too as authentically Pauline, and thus (perhaps tacitly) predating the Synoptics.[4]

(E) Philippians 2:5-7 can be understood as referring to Christ as a divine Person who took on a human likeness.[5] So too, 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Colossians 1:16 can be understood as referring to Christ as having a role in creation.

Taking into account propositions (D) and (E), it seems entirely plausible that some of the more “developed” Christological positions in John actually predate the Synoptics.[6]

***

How Might Differences Between The Gospels Be Explained?

If one were to propose that a high Christology existed for the entire period in which the four Gospels were composed, that would raise a question: how then does one explain the obvious difference between the Gospels in general, and between John and the Synoptics in particular? Why isn’t such a high Christology explicit in the Synoptics? Why does John have material found nowehere in the Synoptics?

One possible explanation is that each Gospel pulls small portions from a much larger spectrum of true tradition about Jesus[7], and the initial catechetical or pedagogical intentions for each Gospel determined what content was employed (as they could have initially been intended for audiences at different stages of development). The Greek Orthodox priest John Romanides stated such a position as follows:

[T]he Gospel of John has the mysteries as its basis and as its purpose the correlation of the historic life of Christ with the present mysterial life in Christ and experience of the community. When we take into account that the Christians carefully and systematically avoided all discussions of the deeper meaning of the mysteries, not only with the hostile outside world but even with the catechumens, then we are able to understand the use of the Gospels in the first Church, and many of the problems raised by biblical criticism are solved. Since the baptized Christians did not discuss the mysteries even with the catechumens, it is sufficiently clear that the fourth Gospel was used in the ancient Church for completing and finishing the catechism of the recently illumined, that is newly baptized. It was particularly suited to this purpose and distinguished from the other Gospels mainly because of its clear dogmatic, mysterial, and apologetical tone. We do not find in John the systematic preparation of catechumens for that is found in Matthew and Mark. This is why John does not begin with the baptism of Christ but with “In the beginning was the Logos…and the Logos was made flesh.[8]

Somewhat similarly, Joachim Jeremias argued[9] at length that there is evidence within the New Testament itself that different authors deliberately abstained from including deeper traditions in certain texts, out of concerm that such was not appropriate for the uninitiated. Jeremias also argues that such carefulness was common among both Jews and non-Jews in the ancient near east.[10]

Such a practice lasted for centuries among Christians, as, even in the fourth century, bishops in Alexandria expressed alarm at the fact that the deeper mysteries of the faith were being exposed to catechumens and non-believers, when they wrote:

They are not ashamed to parade the sacred mysteries before Catechumens, and worse than that, even before heathens: whereas, they ought to attend to what is written, ‘It is good to keep close the secret of a king;’ and as the Lord has charged us, ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast your pearls before swine.’ We ought not then to parade the holy mysteries before the uninitiated, lest the heathen in their ignorance deride them, and the Catechumens being over-curious be offended.[11]

Therefore, it should not be any surprise that the aforementioned Father Romanides summed up the issue thusly:

The differences between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John, therefore, are not disagreements as many maintain. On the contrary, they clearly pertain to a difference in depth and fulfillment of the Synoptics by the fourth Gospel in accordance with the catechetical needs of the Church.[12]

***

Methodological Rules of Thumb

In closing (or summation), the reader is invited to keep in mind certain points when attempting to explore the subject of alleged development in the Gospels.

  • First, the relative dates of texts cannot be determined via their level of complexity or explicitly stated theology (i.e. it does not follow that a text which seems more “full throated” in its Christology has to be later than a text which apparently has less to say on the subject).
  • Second, a high Christology may very well predate the Synoptics.
  • Third, the authors of the Synoptics may have been of the mindset that deeper truths should be revealed in stages.
  • Fourth, and finally, attempts to discuss the alleged motivations of the Gospel writers regarding what content they included needs to also include discussion on their intentions and their understandings of their intended audiences.

By no means do I think this blog entry ends all debate; on the contrary, I think there remains considerable room for further discussion. But I suspect that if such points are taken into account, a more careful and nuanced approach to the subject can be taken.

***

NOTES:

(1) To be clear, this is not in reference to Christ’s disciples having an evolving understanding within their lives (e.g. believing one thing during Christ’s ministry, but having a different understanding after the first Pentecost after the Crucifixion, and perhaps continuing to grow after that). Rather, the focus will be on the idea of, for example, one New Testament text (e.g. the Gospel of Mark) having a primitive, low Christology, and another text (e.g. the Gospel of John) having a later developed, higher Christology.

(2) I realize there are some who seek to interpret the text differently, and that can be discussed, but for now I will move forward with this understanding.

(3) Or, put another way, Mark is the earliest of the four canonical Gospels while John is the latest of that set. This is not a position I am actually affirming; rather I think attempts to date the texts of the New Testament are invariably mired in speculation, so I am willing to take a position of agnosticism on such questions.

(4) Interestingly, even Dunn tentatively puts himself among those who are willing to treat Colossians as authentically Pauline; cf. James D.G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 39-41.

(5) Similar to the case with John, I realize some try to interpret the text of Philippians differently. Nonetheless, I will move forward under the popular understanding. As Hurtado states, “[m]ost scholars take these verses to reflect a belief in the personal preexistence and incarnation of Christ.” [cf. Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003), p. 121].

(6) On an interesting side note, while this might be unpopular among Christians who adhere to a 66-book canon, it may be worth noting that some posit a connection between Matthew 27:39-41 and Wisdom 2:12-21 [the current Dean of the Lousiville Seminary even argued for a relationship between Mark and Wisdom; cf. Susan R. Garrett, The Temptations of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 68-69]. This has relevance, because if the Synoptic writers were familiar with that text, they plausibly were already familiar with a belief in a divine, personified Logos (as the all-powerful [παντοδυναμος] Logos of God leaps from the throne and stands on earth as a man, in Wisdom 18:15-16).

(7) This would be the implication of John 21:25. Separate from that text, note that there are apparently slightly over 18,300 words in the Greek text of Matthew, approximately 11,300 words in Mark, slightly under 19,500 words in Luke (putting the total for the Synoptics at just under 50,000 words), and slightly over 15,600 words in the John. Only a portion of those words are quoting Jesus, and even without such numbers, those familiar with the text know that one could read all the words attributed to Jesus in the Synoptics or John in a matter of hours. Therefore, in the spirit of John 21:25, these corpora of quotations must only reflect a small fraction of what would have been said over the course of a multiple-years long ministry. With such in mind, the argument of E.P. Sanders (in The Historical Figure of Jesus, (London: 1993), p. 70), against the idea that the Synoptics and John were each conveying “50 per cent” of Christ’s teaching, constitutes an attack on a straw man.

(8) John S. Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, (Glen Rock, NJ: Zephyr, 2002), pp. 72-73.

(9) Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, (Oxford, 1955), pp. 73-86.

(10) Separate from Jeremias’ argument, I would propose that allusions to this sort of concern can be seen at various points in Mark. For example, in Mark 1:40-45, we are shown that one point of keeping aspects of Jesus’ deeds (and what they reveal about Him) secret is such has a direct effect on the trajectory (or unfolding?) of His ministry. In Mark 4:11-12, we see that there was a deliberate plan for many people to have an only partial sense of the truth. In Mark 9:9, we see that the embargoing of details was temporary, which is to say certain secrets would be revealed at a later time. In Mark 11:27-33, we see religious authorities trying to get Jesus to elaborate on His position, and Jesus subsequently using their own uncertainty as grounds for not being entirely explicit and forthcoming on the subject. Then the text immediately transitions from there to Jesus teaching those same authorities the parable of the vineyard, in Mark 12:1-9. In that parable, Jesus subtly depicts the Messiah as being above every prophet, and as God’s son in a unique sense. He could have just said that was His position, but instead He presented it to them in a parable (à la the aforementioned Mark 4:11-12). In the trial scene, in Mark 14:61-64, we see that once Jesus does speak openly about His own self-identity, those same authorities are nearly floored, and have apoplectic reactions. Ergo, it would seem His prior unwillingness to give them everything was not without good reason. The overall picture from Mark conveys to the reader the idea that the truth is slowly revealed, in pieces, at their appropriate times (à la Ecclesiastes 3:7), with deeper ideas being revealed at a later stage.

(11) The Encyclical Letter of the Council of Egypt, in Athanasius, Defence Against the Arians, part I, chapter 11, in Philip Schaff & Henry Wace (eds.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, (New York: Cosimo, 2007), vol. IV, p. 106.

(12) Romanides, opere citato, p. 73, n. 18.

The Biblical Adam and the Genus Homo

Ecclesiae Magisterium non prohibet quominus « evolutionismi » doctrina, quatenus nempe de humani corporis origine inquirit ex iam exsistente ac vivente materia oriundi — animas enim a Deo immediate creari catholica fides nos retinere iubet
-Pope Pius XII[1]

For more than six decades, the Catholic Church has allowed the faithful to explore the theory of evolution as a possible explanation of human origins.[2] However, immediately after stating the above, the very same Pope prohibits the faithful from embracing any polygenistic conjecture, or affirming that there were “true humans” (veros homines) who did not descend from Adam, or trying to argue that Adam merely signified a sort of multitude of proto-parents (significare multitudinem quamdam protoparentum). The Pope requires of the faithful that any theory of evolution they adopt must be consistent with Romans 5:12-19 and the first four canons of the fifth session of the Council of Trent.

This seems to create a bit of a conundrum for one who wishes to affirm both a theory of evolution[3] for human origins and classical Western Christian belief about Adam. And it is not only Pope Pius XII who places such a restriction on the believer; rather it seems even the Bible points to a sort of monogenism so strict as to posit that, at the time of Christ, all humans descended from Adam (and Eve). But many very serious proponents of theories of evolution posit that groups evolve, not single individuals, thereby practically ruling out such a strict monogenism. This blog entry will constitute a lay person’s attempt at offering a solution to reconciling such concepts.

Without disputing the existence of a literal Adam, one can begin by exploring how such beliefs about Adam fit with what we know about human classification, today. Perhaps a helpful starting question could be: is Adam the progenitor only of Homo sapiens or a broader collection of those within the genus Homo? Or, to ask another variation of roughly the same question, did Neanderthals descend from Adam? How one answers such questions can shape their approach.

Neanderthals provide a particularly helpful thought experiment, as it seems genetic evidence reveals that a large number of modern humans possess Neanderthal DNA[4], apparently implying that modern humans did not merely wipe out Neanderthals; rather they interbred with them, and absorbed them!

So there apparently was once a period where modern humans and a more archaic species of human lived at the same time, with the two interbreeding and one eventually totally supplanting the other (i.e. the descendants of the first Homo sapiens have come to take over the entire human species).

With that in mind, think of the text in Genesis 4:16-24, referring to Cain going elsewhere and having offspring of his own. Many grappling with that curious text have offered up speculation along the lines of “maybe his wife was from other children of Adam and Eve not explicitly mentioned in the Bible” — but maybe there is an alternative: humans who do not descend from Adam and Eve (more archaic humans, perhaps).

Such a line of thought calls to mind the interesting line in Genesis 1:27, which reads “male and female he created them”. We can easily speculate that that is just a telescoping of the account given in more detail in Genesis chapter 2, however another possibility is that Genesis 1 does refer to a group, and Genesis 2 refers to a specific individual taken from that group.

Now, this need not contradict a literal, monogenistic reading of Romans 5, because just as Homo sapiens interbred with Neanderthals and also took over the entire human species, so too the descendants of Adam could have interbred with those archaic humans who existed outside the garden, and eventually took over the species to the point where eventually, by the time of Christ, every living human descended from Adam.

So one model which might be plausible could be summed up thusly:

(A) Archaic humans formed (Genesis 1:27).

(B) One from among them is imbued with something profound, called neshamat Hayim[5] (Genesis 2:7) and is placed in a “garden” [a sort of paradise?] (Genesis 2:8).[6]

(C) A female is derived from a chamber within him (Genesis 2:21-22).

(D) The two are eventually expelled from that “garden” and begin remixing with the archaic humans outside it (hence Genesis 4:16-24).

(E) Somehow, like Homo sapiens absorbing and supplanting Neanderthal, the descendants of that expelled couple bearing the neshamat Hayim come to dominate the entire species (hence Genesis 3:20, Romans 5:12-19).

Even the terminology employed in scientific literature should be interesting to Christians. Homo sapiens means “wise human” (and modern humans are the apparently more wise Homo sapiens sapiens), as if to distinguish one kind of human from a more archaic form that lacked a certain degree of “wisdom”.

Ecce Adam factus est quasi unus ex nobis sciens bonum et malum!”

NOTES:

(1) The text is from Pope Pius XII’s 12 August, 1950, Papal Encyclical, Humani Generis. The translation is: “the Church’s Magisterium does not prohibit the doctrine of «evolution», insofar that it inquires whether the origin of the human body descends from a previously existing living source — [the belief] that souls are created directly by God is what the Catholic faith requires us to keep.”

(2) For those who might be curious about my own position on the subject, I would sum up my personal history of thought on the subject as follows: I was raised in a home which took the theory for granted, so, as a child, I accepted it without question. When I reached my mid teens, I was surprised to discover that some of my peers (in school, in my neighborhood) flatly rejected the theory as nonsense, and, as a reaction to that, I adopted a position of (perhaps somewhat apathetic?) agnosticism on the subject. When I took biology as an undergrad, and actually studied a bit of the subject, I accepted it as true (I would state my position thusly: the process of biological evolution —and by this I mean hereditary change over time— is an undeniable fact; where the theoretical comes into play is when we use that process as the best natural explanation for our planet’s current state of biodiversity, which I do). When I became a Christian, I simply brought my acceptance of the doctrine with me, but, as will come up in this blog entry, attempting to do such comes with a catch.

(3) For those who might be tempted to crudely ask, “but where’s evolution in the Bible?,” I would respond that modern science can help us understand the Bible (rather than there be a requirement that every scientific position we hold must have explicit support in the Biblical text). Nonetheless, another approach might be to appeal to the latter portion of Isaiah 42:5. More than a decade ago, I wrote an article noting how Isaiah 42:5 mentions God’s creation of the heavens, and then refers to God as noTeyhem (נוטיהם) which can be interpreted literally as meaning “He is expanding them” (i.e. the verb is rendered in the active participle, which can mean present tense, continuous action). But that approach begs the question of how we might interpret רקע in the same verse, which, at least according to the pointing in the Masoretic Text, is also rendered in the active participle. Is God currently “spreading” the earth? One might be tempted to appeal to plate tectonics, but another view is possible. The verb can mean to stretch, to spread, or to beat out (e.g. stomp on, beat flat with a hammer, et cetera). One can imagine a metal worker beating some flat overleaf into place, or a blacksmith beating a sword into shape, but I would offer the analogy of someone working with dough, stretching it and going over it with a rolling pin. Therefore, we might think of the verb as referring, in a loose sense, to a sort of development. Just as God continues to expand the heavens, so too God continues to develop the earth and that which it has produced (both plants and animals). The idea of the continued development of living things easily loans itself to being interpreted in light of the process of hereditary change over time which we observe.

(4) Terence A. Brown, Gene Cloning and DNA Analysis: An Introduction, (Wiley/Blackwell, 2016), 7th edition, p. 323.

(5) We might translate that the “spirit of life,” or, noting Proverbs 20:27, understand the neshama of man as special semblance of mind.

(6) Regarding man being formed from dust, that could be treated as a telescoping of a much longer and more complex process of development from “dust,” through various stages, unto the current form. It is worthy of note that other Biblical verses (e.g. Ecclesiastes 12:7, Psalm 104:29) treat the descendants of Adam as coming from dust (and, to this day, when Catholics have the cruciform mark placed upon their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, the priest applies Genesis 3:19 to them, saying “thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”). Just as Adam’s descendants do not come from “dust” in a single leap, so too we might say the same of the man placed in the “garden” in Genesis 2.

Can God Sleep? A Brief Dyophysite Exploration of Christology, Neurobiology and Somnology

[Nota Bene: I hope (time permitting and God willing) to do a series of entries for this blog on the subject of the plausibility of Christian doctrine in light of “natural revelation” (i.e. what can be inferred from observing creation). This would be the first installment of that series.]

Three points worthy of note:

(A) Christians believe that Jesus is “God” (John 1:1, John 20:28, 2 Peter 1:1).

(B) The Bible states that Jesus slept while on earth (Mark 4:38, Matthew 8:24).

(C) The Bible gives the impression that God does not sleep (Psalm 121:3-4), and this would be the assumption of most theists.

Immediately, the above three propositions seem to constitute a contradiction. It is not the intention of this blog entry to deny any of those three points, which thus begs the question: can they be reconciled? The reader is invited to consider some subsequent points:

(D) The Christian understanding of the Bible is that Christ acquired a human form (Daniel 7:13, John 1:14, Philippians 2:7-8, 1 Timothy 3:16).

(E) A statement attributed to Christ by the Bible can be understood as alluding to how, when taking on a human body, secondary ranges of consciousness can come with that.

Elucidation: Pope Agatho, in a letter submitted at the Third Council of Constantinople, argued that Matthew 26:41 contained an allusion to Dyotheletism (the doctrine that Christ possessed two wills).[1] At the very least, one can say that, in Scripture itself, one finds Christ alluding to how, with the possession of human flesh, can come the possession of a secondary semblance of will. One could propose, further, that a will is intimately tied in with a range of consciousness, or a mental state. Therefore, if Christ proposed a model where one semblance of will was anchored to an embodied person’s immaterial aspect and another semblance of will was anchored to that person’s material aspect, He was indirectly alluding to multiple ranges of consciousness (or tiers where mental states occur).

(F) Scientific literature on neurobiology notes the possibility of an individual having multiple ranges of consciousness (or tiers where mental states occur).

Elucidation: one need only to turn to the copious amounts of writing on the subject of people who have undergone commissurotomies, in which their corpus callosum has been severed. A number of studies have demonstrated that such persons experience a sort of “split brain” phenomenon, where each hemisphere functions as a distinct tier for thought and mentation. Consider a couple excerpts to show that such is also possible in animals:

“[T]hese ‘split-brain’ studies, conducted mainly with cats and monkeys, showed that the neocortical commissures are necessary for the interhemispheric transfer of learning and memory and also for the interhemispheric integration of many sensory and motor functions that involved the left and right hands or paws, and the left and right halves of the visual field.”[2]

“R. E. Myers and R. W. Sperry introduced a technique for dealing with the two hemispheres separately. They sectioned the optic chiasma of cats, so that each eye sent direct information (information about the opposite half of the visual field) only to one side of the brain. It was then possible to train the cats in simple tasks using one eye, and to see what happened when one made them use the other eye instead. In cats whose callosum was intact, there was very good transfer of learning. But in some cats, they severed the corpus callosum as well as the optic chiasma; and in these cases nothing was transmitted from one side to the other. In fact the two severed sides could be taught conflicting discriminations simultaneously, by giving the two eyes opposite stimuli during a single course of reinforcement. Nevertheless this capacity for independent function did not result in serious deficits of behavior. Unless inputs to the two hemispheres were artificially segregated, the animal seemed normal; (though if a split-brain monkey gets hold of a peanut with both hands, the result is sometimes a tug of war.)”[3]

(G) Scientific literature on somnology has noted the possibility of organisms with multiple ranges of consciousness to have such aspects in asymmetrical sleep arrangements, where one such aspect experiences sleep while the other remains awake.

Elucidation: consider the following:

“The two main families of pinnipeds, Otariidae (sea lions and fur seals) and Phocidae (true seals), have evolved different solutions to the problem of sleeping and breathing in an aquatic environment. As in cetaceans, Otariidae seals utilize interhemispheric asymmetries in SWS and, to a lesser extent, USWS to maintain surfacing to breathing during sleep. For example, fur seals sleep floating on their side while the flipper connected to the awake (or more desynchronized) hemisphere paddles to keep the nostrils above the surface. In addition to facilitating breathing, the interhemispheric asymmetry in SWS also may allow fur seals to visually monitor their surroundings since, as in cetaceans, the eye contralateral to the awake hemisphere remains open.”[4]

“Another surprise is that one half of the dolphin brain may be asleep while the other half is awake! While both sides of dolphin brains may simultaneously show stage 2-like sleep (with the animal surfacing to breathe without awakening), such a situation has never been obserbed in SWS. That is, if one side of the brain is in SWS the other side is awake by EEG criteria. Such unihemispheric sleep can last for over 2 hours at a time. The hemispheres alternate sleeping in this way, with one hemisphere sleeping for about an hour, followed by wakefulness in both hemispheres, then the other hemisphere sleeping for an hour.”[5]

“Unihemispheric sleep (only one side of the brain asleep at a time) appears to be widespread in birds. One hemisphere can be unilaterally deprived of sleep by placing a patch over 1 eye and maintaining 24 hours of light to the other.”
[6]

Conclusion: there is nothing implausible about a model where Christ is a divine person who took on a secondary range of consciousness when He acquired a human form, and that secondary range of human consciousness experiencing sleep while the primary divine range remains fully alert. If, in God’s creation, we find individuals with multiple ranges of consciousness, and instances where one such aspect can experience sleep while another remains awake, it should therefore be considered likewise possible for a divine Person to acquire a secondary range of consciousness (tied in with a human form), and for a similar sort of asymmetrical sleep arrangement to be established between the two ranges.[7] Ergo, there need not be any contradiction between points (A), (B) and (C), listed at the start of this blog entry.

NOTES:

(1) Robert F. Lay, Readings in Historical Theology: Primary Sources of the Christian Faith, (Kregel, 2009), p. 148.

(2) R.W. Sperry, M.S. Gazzaniga, and J.E. Bogen, “Interhemispheric Relationships: The Neocortical Commissures; Syndromes of Hemisphere Disconnection,” in P.J. Vinken and G.W. Bruyn (eds.), Handbook of Clinical Neurology, (North-Holland, 1969), vol. 4, p. 273.

(3) Thomas Nagel, “Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness,” Synthese, vol. 22 (1971), p. 399; this text can also be found reproduced in Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions, (Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 150-151.

(4) Teofilo L. Lee-Chiong, Michael Sateia, and Mary A. Carskadon (eds.), Sleep Medicine, (Hanley & Belfus, 2002), p. 10.

(5) William H. Moorcrof, Sleep, Dreaming & Sleep Disorders: An Introduction, (University PRess of America, 1993), pp. 160-161.

(6) Moorcroft, opere citato, p. 163.

(7) That is not to say this is necessarily the case with Christ. The point of this blog entry is not to claim insight into the precise mechanics of the Incarnation; rather the point is only to point to an analogy in creation to see one way in which such can be possible.