Friday, February 27, 2015

The Myth of the Gullible Ancients

One belief that is ubiquitous among those who write off Christianity is the suspicion that the persons who lived in biblical times were highly gullible. When I was an atheist teenager I looked down on the Biblical authors because I thought they didn’t understand the physical world and thought that it was inhabited by fairies and trolls at every turn. I found comfort in writing them off in this way. Richard Carrier in a recent episode of ‘The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ said that "The average person on the street would be like, 'Oh you saw God and he spoke to you? That must be for real!' That was the order of things.” It is common to hear the Israelite ancients referred to contemptuously as superstitious and gullible individuals. To anyone who knows the Bible this is, of course, a laughable generalization.

As I read the Bible each night with my kids one of the things I try to instill in them is that these are not stupid superstitious people, and this is easy to prove. It takes no manipulation of the text or reading in information that isn’t there; it rests on the surface and can be scooped up without any digging at all. Almost every time a miracle happens in the text I try to point out to them the amazement people have. Tonight in 2 Kings 4 we read about Elisha and the Shunnemite woman. We got to the part where he tells her she will get pregnant in spite of her husband’s advanced age and the woman says, "O man of God, do not lie to your servant." I asked them why she said this and my oldest daughter was very quick: "Because she knew that getting pregnant would have been a miracle, just like with Abraham's wife.”

My daughter was referring, of course, to Sarah’s unbelief (Gen. 18:12) — and Abraham’s unbelief (Gen. 17:17) — at God’s promise to give Abraham a child in his old age. He and his wife laughed at the thought that she would ever have a child. Why? Because old ladies don’t have babies, and Sarah knew this fact just like we do today. These were people who believed in the regularity and stability of the natural order. The sort of people who laughed when a miracle was promised. They didn’t believe that God’s existence meant that the universe was a place of pixies, fairies, confusion and flux.

Skepticism is a frequent response to the miraculous in Scripture. Think of Moses, who expects skepticism when he comes to the Israelites claiming to speak for God (Exodus 4:1). Or think of when Jesus healed the blind man and the text says “The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight” (John 9:18). Or think of Thomas who famously said “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25). Dead men don’t come back! These ancient, unsophisticated people which no knowledge of Newtonian physics or string theory react to the miraculous with the sort of healthy skepticism that we normally associate with Sherlock Holmes or Gregory House. Skepticism. From such gullible people! Perhaps they weren’t as gullible as modern folks cartoonishly imagine them. Perhaps people need to be educated on what gullibility really looks like.

Being sophisticated enough to know that miracles are weird and rare and out of the ordinary shouldn't preclude miracles.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why Would Jesus Curse an Out-Of-Season Fig Tree?

What follows is an e-mail I sent in answer to a question from someone at a church I preached at this past week. I'm posting it for the benefit of anyone else who may have similar questions.

Thanks for asking me the question you did today about Mark 11:13, and especially your question about why Jesus would curse a fig tree that wasn’t producing figs if it wasn’t even the season for figs. As soon as I got home I looked into your question (a very good question) and I want to give you some information that I was able to find.

Specifically I am going to share with you a some insights from R.T. France's commentary on Mark, which I found very helpful. France points out that according to some horticultural expert, although it wasn’t the season for figs, Jesus would have still found little tiny green figs called paggim. “It may be then that these were what Jesus was hoping for, especially if the tree had…a particularly well-developed show of leaves” (France, 440). However, France says he is unable to evaluate these claims since he isn’t a plant expert. In reality France actually believes that Jesus’ demand of the fig tree is unreasonable, but like with other parables the reasonableness of every detail of the act isn’t what’s important but rather, the symbolic meaning of the act. Here’s what France says:
Mark has significantly focused the problem by the comment, "for it was not the season for figs.” …Without this clause, if Jesus might reasonably have expected to find ripe figs and was disappointed, his actions, even if still unusual, might seem more justified…For Mark, Jesus’ frustration was horticulturally unreasonable. He tells the story not because it offers a model for reasonable [plant care] but because of its symbolic value. A tree in full leaf at Passover season is making a promise it cannot fulfill; so, too, is Israel. And just as Micah, speaking for God, described his disappointed search (equally unreasonably at the other end of the growing season) for the ‘first-ripe fig for which I hunger’ (Mi. 7:1), so Jesus on his initial visit to the temple has found all leaves, but no fruit. His summary verdict on the ‘braggart’ fig tree is a verdict on the failure of God’s people and is of a piece with his developing polemic against the ‘barren’ temple.
France pointed to Micah 7:1, and it appears that in that passage God is also seeking figs at a time when they aren’t in season. Here’s the passage:
Woe is me! For I have become
as when the summer fruit has been gathered,
as when the grapes have been gleaned:
there is no cluster to eat,
no first-ripe fig that my soul desires. 
It seems like Mark has mentioned that the figs are out of season perhaps even specifically to parallel God’s condemnation of Israel in Micah 7:1 with what Jesus is doing. In the Micah passage God can scarcely find any righteous men in the land; this clearly is true in Jesus’ own time as well. I actually think that drawing a connection between Jesus and Micah 7:1 makes Jesus' actions make more sense. He acts in a way that draws a parallel between his own judgment in the Temple and God’s judgment on Jerusalem. The point becomes less about the expectations we have for our plants and more about the fact that Jesus is judging Israel (remember that the fig tree episodes of 11:12-14; 11:20-26 bookend Jesus’ visit to the unfruitful temple in 11:15-19) as God judged Israel in the time of Micah.

So there are a couple of possible approaches.

1) Jesus may be making a reasonable request of the plant,
2) or he may not.

Both are textually and horticulturally plausible, depending on which fig expert you ask about it. I’m actually fine with both. With the unreasonable request, it would seem to reflect more clearly that Jesus intends to copy God’s judgment in Micah 7:1, where God can’t find a “first-ripe fig," but I’m sympathetic with those who say that Jesus would still have expected to find something on the vine indicating fruitfulness.

I’m curious whether this satisfies some of your own curiosity. If not, feel free to let me know. I can keep digging!

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Not-So-Modern Yearning for Male Friendship

“Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women.
How the mighty have fallen,
and the weapons of war perished!” (2 Sam. 1:26-27).
It isn’t unusual in our own day and age to see people lamenting the loss of the masculine friendship. In a lot of ways it isn’t hard to see why: not only does our society seem to be exchanging real-world, face-to-face relationships for the online, impersonal, Facebook-style relationship, but increasingly there is pressure on men especially to become distant and independent from their peers. In more recent trends, biographers of famous figures search the journals of their subjects combing them over for homoerotic overtones or hints of impropriety in their masculine relationships. Modern men increasingly fear having their sexuality challenged in this way or being misunderstood by others. Increasingly, the path that many men (even godly upstanding men) choose is the path of least resistance: isolation, solitude, independence, and loneliness.

Yet whenever I talk with other men about this problem, I sense that they do yearn for close friendships - that they don’t want to live in isolation. I have spoken with numerous men who, upon reading David’s lament for Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1, resonate deeply with David’s loss. David has not only lost King Saul, whom he loved and respected in spite of his horrendous failings, but he has also lost his best friend in all the world. As someone who moved several states to attend Seminary I have discovered that even in a place where so many around me have much in common, true friendships are hard to come by, and don’t just grow on trees. To lose a true friend is no small thing.

As many of us read of David’s loss we may feel an even deeper sorrow. We have experienced a loss of our own, in our day and age: in a sense we have lost the ability to know David’s loss. What David is speaking of may be so foreign to us that we are only able to experience David’s friendship and sorrow vicariously. We perhaps think, “I may never have such a friend, and I may never know such a loss, and yet it brings me comfort to think upon David himself baring his soul for those around him to hear.” We should be encouraged by David’s example that we should not choose the easy path of isolation in our personal relationships, but to do the hard work of spending time with other men and opening ourselves to the kind of godly, masculine relationship we see modeled for us here by David and Jonathan. Those who do know what it is to have a godly and intimate friendship with another man should thank God that he experiences such a gift. Whatever our experience might be, there is a comfort in knowing that such an intimacy and closeness is possible between men who are friends and fellow sojourners in this difficult journey called life.