About Me

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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Friday, 27 August 2010

Ye Olde Joke

One day a group of atheists got together and decided that humans had come a long way and no longer needed God. So they picked a spokesman to go and tell God that he was no longer needed.
The spokesman walked up to God and said, “God, we’ve decided that you’re no longer needed. We’re to the point that we can synthesis new elements, we can create the building blocks of life in a test tube, we can clone sheep and soon we will be able to clone people. There’s no end to the miraculous things we can do. You’ve become irrelevant.”
God listened patiently. After the spokesman finished talking, God said, “Very well! How about this? Let’s have a person-making contest.” To which the spokesman replied, “OK, great!”
But God added, “Now we’re going to do this the old fashion way, just as I did it originally.”
The spokesman said, “Sure, no problem” and bent down and grabbed a handful of dirt.
God smiled and said, “No, no, no . . . You get your own dirt!”

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Wisdom from Augustine

“One does not read in the Gospel that the Lord said: 'I will send to you the Paraclete who will teach you about the course of the sun and moon.' For He willed to make them Christians, not mathematicians”

St. Augustine, De actis cum Felice Manichaeo, I, 10, (PL XLII, 525).

John Webster on Divine Freedom and Creation

"The act of creation is an act of God's freedom . . . for God . . . does not create in response to inner need or outer constraint, and . . . could without loss of perfection refrain from creating . . . [T]alk of indeterminacy may prove hazardous, for pressed in certain directions it can engender a notion of the divine will as merely arbitrary, merely devoid of restriction — a pattern of thought which, paradoxically, threatens to make God finite by detaching his freedom from his nature . . . [R]ather . . . God's freedom, including his freedom exercised in the making of all things, is his freedom to enact his counsel or loving purpose. In creating, God acts according to his nature and will."

John B. Webster, "'Out of His Will and Goodness New Things Have Stood Forth': Creatio ex Nihilo." (Tyndale Lecture, 2009)

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The Life of a Galilean Shaman, by Pieter F. Craffert

I recently read Pieter F. Craffert's book, The Life of a Galilean Shaman: Jesus of Nazareth in Anthropological-Historical Perspective (Eugene: Cascade, 2008). It is the most interesting thing I have read on the historical Jesus in a few years.

Essentially, Craffert argues that historical Jesus scholarship — both on the Wredebahn (which tends to be more sceptical of the Gospel accounts) and the Schweizerstrasse (which takes the Gospels as more reliable historical sources) — is methodologically problematic. He maintains that a historical method that takes the insight of cultural anthropology is what is needed.

So he offers a new road for historical Jesus research which he calls "cultural bundubashing." This approach does not merely offer different answers to the traditional question but reframes the entire project and poses some different questions. Instead of digging in the sources for "authentic nuggets" of historical data it considers both the social personage (Jesus) and the literary texts (the Gospels) as cultural artifacts produced in specific cultural processes within a particular cultural system.

Craffert uses the model of "the shaman" as a cross-cultural social personage to try to account for as much of the data about Jesus that we have. Jesus, in the Gospels, performed miracles, cast out demons, was a teacher and prophet, was credited with a special birth, etc. Often historical Jesus researchers dismiss this picture because they "know" that Jesus could not really have been like that. But cultural anthropology reveals that, in fact, a historical figure really could have looked like this and that these perceptions of Jesus make perfect sense as originating during the time of his ministry rather than years later as mythical expansions of the real history.

Shamans were religious entrepreneurs who enter controlled altered states of consciousness (such as S/spirit or divine possession, ascents to heaven) on behalf of their communities and perform certain functions, such as healing, divination, and control of spirits. Whilst the term "shaman" does not apply to Jesus context, the model designated by the term does. And it accounts for more data about the personage of Jesus than labeling him as a "healer" or an "exorcist" or a "prophet."

In a series of chapters Craffert considers Jesus' baptism and Spirit-possession experiences, his activity of healing, exorcism, and control of spirits; his teaching, preaching, and prophetic activity; the stories of his miraculous birth; the resurrection accounts.

There are some absolutely fascinating insights and perspectives in these chapters (for instance, the discussion on sickness and healing in cross-cultural perspective really opened my eyes to how I read the Gospel accounts through certain cultural assumptions that may not be adequate to make sense of the Gospels).

Now I am not endorsing everything in this book. I think that his shaman model did not work (despite his best attempts) on the resurrection (though there were some helpful insights along the way). The approach is inadequate for a Christian reader of the Gospels or for a theological reader (and at times must simply be resisted). I also believe that he throws out too much in the methodologies of more traditional historical Jesus research.

BUT in a debate that seems to rehearse the same kinds of arguments over and over again this is a real breath of fresh air. It does not drive down the same roads across the landscape but takes some radical new routes that dissect that landscape in unexpected and interesting ways. The journey will prove gripping and eye-opening for any who care to take a ride even if, in the end, they don't choose to go all the way with Craffert or to completely abandon the more traditional roads.

And, whilst this approach is not enough for a Christian reader, I do think that it could play a very helpful role in a more culturally-aware and nuanced Christian approach to the Gospel material.

For anyone interested in historical Jesus research this really is a "must read" (and I don't say that about many books). I came away seeing the Gospels through new eyes and that can't be a bad thing.

Friday, 13 August 2010

"When did angels become demons?"

Just read an interesting paper from Dale Martin entitled "When Did Angels Become Demons?" It was a paper I heard him give at the British New Testament Conference in 2008. In brief, Martin argues that most ancient Jews (including the earliest Jesus-believers) did not think of demons as fallen angels but saw angels and demons as distinct 'species' of being.

He starts by looking at which Hebrew words the translators of the LXX thought ought to be rendered as daimon or daimonion. Five or six Hebrew words from the Scriptures were translated in this way. What is interesting is that:

(1) the Hebrew words covered various different kinds of being (goat-man gods; disease-causing gods; abstract qualities that were also seen as gods such as Fate or Fortune). But they all had in common that they were seen as pagan gods that are falsely worshiped. They were all translated as Daimons in the LXX (because the Greek pagan uses of the words daimon and daimonion make it a fitting translation).

(2) the most obvious candidate from the Jewish Scriptures for translation as daimon was the Hebrew malak (messenger) because the jobs that the messengers performed were the kinds of things that, in a Greek context, would have done by a daimon. But the LXX translators never translated malak as daimon/daimones/daimonia. Instead they use angelos (which we render as angel).

So the LXX developed what became two almost technical terms for Greek-speaking Jews and they did not blur the two categories of heavenly being.

Second Temple Jewish Literature
Martin then looks at developments in various Second Temple texts—1 Enoch, Jubilees, Qumran documents, Tobit, The Life of Adam and Eve, the Apocalypse of Abraham, and the Testament of Solomon. Here the picture becomes a tad messier and we do find
(a) a merging of the categories of "evil spirit" and "demon," and
(b) a belief in fallen angels. However, these fallen angels are not thought to be demons. Demons, in 1 Enoch, are the souls of the deceased angel-human hybrids mentioned in Gen 6.

Philo and Josephus
Philo does equate "angel" and "daimon" but he sees both as mainly benign (so they were not demons as we think of them but more akin to what Greek philosophers would have thought).

Josephus never connects angels with daimons and he thinks of daimons in ways akin to popular Greek thinking (daimons as the souls of the dead, etc.).

New Testament
Similarly the NT never equates demons with angels (fallen or otherwise). No explanation of the origin of demons is given. But there is a clear shift in the Synoptic Gospels to a clear and unequivocal identification of demons with evil spirits.

We also find reference to "the devil and his angels" (Matt 25:41) and the idea that Satan is the ruler of the demons (Mark 3:22; Matt 12:24; Luke 11:15). But the dots are not joined.

Paul sees angels as generally good but sometimes as bad or ambiguous. His only reference to demons (1 Cor 10:19–22) links them to idolatry and pagan sacrifice (similar to LXX usage to refer to pagan deities). But nowehere in the NT are demons seen as fallen angels.

Post-Canonical Christian Authors
Justin Martyr and Athenagoras more or less follow and develop the view of 1 Enoch (demons are evil spirits but they are the souls of the dead human-angel hybrids of Genesis 6 and they are in a different category from the fallen angels, though the latter are also evil).

But with Tatian in the second half of the second century we find the first identification of demons with fallen angels and with Tertullian we find the traditional Christian view set out fully for the first time. It was not a view that gain immediate, universal acceptance by Christians (Lactantius, for instance, follows 1 Enoch rather than the demons=fallen angels view) but it soon became the mainstream Christian view.

That, in brief, is the story Martin tells. The development of the traditional Christian view is a natural and understandable development that builds on elements found within the NT texts and joins them together in a certain way. It also has a certain theological rationalle, not explored by Martin, in terms of trying to account for how evil arose in creation.

But what Martin helps focus the mind on is that the full-blown Christian idea of demons as fallen angels was a development of biblical ideas and not an idea set out directly in the Bible itself. In fact, as far as the evidence that we have can demonstrate, it was not an idea that the biblical authors believed. Not that they rejected it, but it had simply not occurred to them.

Does this mean that the idea is unbiblical or should be rejected by Christians? Not necessarily. It might be a legitimate synthesis and development of biblical ideas. It might have a theo-logic that commends it. There is a case to say that it is "biblical" in that extended sense. But it is not a view that can claim immunity from biblical critique and it cannot take its 'biblical' status for granted. Christian systematic theologians should not feel bound to explore angelology and demonology within the confines of the traditional Christian view and might find fruitful ideas worth exploring in earlier biblical thinking in which angels and demons were two different kinds of creature rather than good and bad versions of the same kind.