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Detecting Plagiarism in a Fantasy Universe

In the good old days when I had time to do fantasy role-playing games, stodgy traditionalists would object that it wasn’t real. Why spend your time on something that isn’t real? This was often said by people who would spend hours watching and discussing football games with approximately the same effect on reality. But I see one great advantage to those fantasy games (and to fantasy literature, for that matter). They don’t pretend to be real.

And thus I turn to the fantasy world of modern politics, in which speeches are written by teams of people who test out turns of phrase and issues on samples of target groups, then place the text on teleprompters to be read by otherwise often incoherent people. The issues emphasized in the politicians’ campaigns are not those the politician things are important. Rather, they are what researchers have determined seem important to the public. The solutions proposed are not those that the politician believes will really work. Instead, they are those that will sound good to a particular constituency.

The controversy about Melania Trump’s speech, with its plagiarized section, bundled the problems of our modern political discourse into one small package. A speaker uses plagiarized lines put there (accidentally) by a speechwriter, and never even recognized by the person presenting the speech. I’m not an apologist for Donald Trump or his campaign, but I can easily understand how this happens. The speech writers doubtless studied speeches by first ladies and potential first ladies for material. You get scraps of this stuff all over the computer, and eventually you drop the wrong one into place. Friends forgive you. Enemies won’t, but they wouldn’t in any case, so it doesn’t matter that much. The media spends huge amounts of time discussing it. Then bloggers like me discuss the whole thing all over again.

I don’t have any idea how close this was because I didn’t listen to or read the speech. I’m not an apologist for Donald Trump; in fact, I can think of huge numbers of things that I dislike about him. This doesn’t make the list.

Why? Because it’s part of that fantasy land that political marketing has created for us, the media propagates for us, and we go ahead and consume, no matter how much we may say we don’t believe the media. Yes, it’s our problem. Even those who most claim that the media is biased frequently let themselves be influenced by it. What they really mean when they say they don’t believe the media, is that they don’t believe it when it contradicts their prejudices. When it supports those prejudices it’s just fine. The people who put in the dollars know how it works. There’s a whole industry (at least one) built on hating the mainstream media.

When I speak, I do so either without notes or with the minimum of notes. I have occasionally used a prepared text, but I didn’t follow it, even though I did write it. Sometimes I have notes to tell me what topics to avoid due to limited time. If a politician wants me to listen to a speech, he or she will have to work in just that way. If your text is prepared, let it be your words. In all cases, let it be your ideas expressed your way. Then I’ll listen. I’m sorry, but in my preferred fantasy universe, speech writers would be out of a job.

I know that no politician can know everything necessary to handling the issues that the president must address. Fine! Let the candidate produce the team members who would talk about those issues, and have them talk about them. “Look,” says the candidate, “I’m not an expert on the middle east, but here’s the person whose judgment I trust most.” It could be sort of like the British shadow ministers, except that it lasts just for the campaign.

In the meantime, folks, politics is a great deal like a marketing campaign for widgets, except that there is no FTC to take the politicians to court for false advertising. In that atmosphere, a couple of plagiarized paragraphs might manage to be as important as one H2O molecule in the ocean.

From Inspiration to Understanding eBook Editions

from inspiration when peopleOne of the joys of being a publisher, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned a couple (hundred) times before, is the authors I get to work with. I have long considered our understanding of biblical inspiration and authority to be critical to discussions of Christian theology, polity, and ultimately our day to day life. Often we can at least get our bearings in serious debates by at least identifying the differences in how we are using the sources.

Because of my interest in this I wrote the book When People Speak for God, which is generally at a popular level. After I wrote that book, I encountered Dr. Vick through one of my other authors and received his manuscript for From Inspiration to Understanding. If his book had been written before, rather than after mine, it would have contained numerous footnotes referencing Dr. Vick’s work.

When we laid out From Inspiration to Understanding at Energion, we were using Scribus, which is actually an excellent page layout product, but is not quite the thing for an extended, thoroughly referenced book. The footnotes had to be laid out by hand, and were done as chapter end notes. This doesn’t convert well to electronic format, so there has been a considerable delay in getting the ebook editions out. But now they are complete.

You can get more complete information on the Energion.com News blog. This is a book I strongly recommend, and the pricing of ebook editions makes it much more accessible.

My Mom Traveling at 98 years old!

 

Thoughts on Moving from Numbers to Deuteronomy

Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (CBC)I’ve completed the second chapter of Deuteronomy in the CBC commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and it may surprise some that I’ve felt a bit of a letdown as I moved from the variety of liturgy and laws, though interspersed with narrative, that is Numbers. It might surprise you less if you realize that my personal theology (and I think we all have one), is built on Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus, though not necessarily in that order. That’s the order in which I started studying the books seriously, however.

For most Christian readers of Hebrew scripture, I think that getting into Deuteronomy is a bit of a relief. Reading Genesis through the first half of Exodus goes pretty smoothly, but then one bogs down on all those details of building the sanctuary, and you get them twice: instructions and implementation. Then when you’ve worked your way through that you get to Leviticus, which contains so much liturgy, along with obscure laws on issues we generally don’t face. Numbers is a little less dismal, and then Deuteronomy starts to give us propositional theology that we can get our teeth into.

I was there before I spent serious time in Leviticus. I don’t claim expertise; that takes incredible amounts of study. But I’ve spent a great deal of time on the text. There’s a great deal that one can learn from that liturgy, including the simple fact that liturgy matters. Those of us who are not “high church” tend to think that the way in which worship is conducted isn’t very important. It’s mostly a time to accomplish our goals, often divided between “worship” (when that’s defined as musical), and “sharing the Word,” and of course those who believe one or the other is critical can have some great debates.

But we can learn a great deal from the ancient liturgy, and I think we can either increase or diminish our impact on the world around us through constructive liturgy. This is not an argument for high church liturgy. I am also not arguing that worship only takes place in worship services, much less that worship can be equated to music. All our activities should be done in worship to our creator.

But there is a time for us to act out for ourselves and for others the nature of the church as a community, and coming together at a common place and at a common time to share in activities as a community is, I think a critical part of this. Unfortunately, we have a variety of ways to avoid this. We may reject gathering together entirely. It may be a time when an ordained pastor occupies most of the time explaining to us what he believes we should believe. It may be a time to experience an emotional high as part of musical or artistic endeavors. It may be a scripted program that is ancient and could be meaningful, but is carried out by rote.

But it doesn’t have to be any of those things. It can be, instead, a time when we gather together and join in activities that encourage one another and prepare us to face the world around us as effective witnesses for Jesus. I don’t think there’s a particular set of activities that make this happen. I do think it’s possible because I have seen and experienced it.

God doesn’t just communicate in one way. Hebrews 1:1-4 makes it clear, and presents Jesus as the ultimate communication from our creator (amongst other things that reinforce that idea). The Torah (or Pentateuch) presents these different ways. We have liturgy helping to teach the people and to shape them into God’s people. We have story, showing us people experiencing God’s activity in the world, and we have theological propositions. I kind of prefer the liturgy, but that’s just me. Here we have all three demonstrated.

I think that neglecting one or the other leaves us with potentially skewed views of God. We need both the God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8), and the God who is sorry that He created humanity (Genesis 6:6). The same God also forgives a poor Israelite who can’t even afford a bird as a sin offering (Leviticus 5:11).

So I guess I won’t be let down and instead enjoy the change!

(For studying the Bible as story, try Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure by Dr. Bruce Epperly.)

Exhortation Does Not Interrupt Exposition

On page 238 of his NTL commentary on Hebrews Luke Timothy Johnson uses the word “interrupt” to describe the transition between exposition and exhortation starting in Hebrews 5:11. In a way I’m nitpicking here, and because I am, I must also note that overall I find Johnson’s commentary nearly the most useful I’ve read, and if I were just talking about theological reflection, I would call it the best.

I have a couple of objections to use of the word “interrupt,” however. First, it seems to me that calling the transition an interruption divides the text without consideration for the author’s purpose in writing. There is no exposition here which stands alone, and which can then optionally be applied to the hearers via an exhortation. Rather, the intention is exhortation and the exposition underlies the exhortation and is illustrated and illuminated by the nature of that exhortation.

Second, the exhortations also help raise questions for the further exposition that follows. In the case in question (Hebrews 5:11-6:12), the question of the faithfulness and reliability of God is raised, which will be answered in Hebrews 6:13ff. This is also the critical question of the entire book. God has provided the final High Priest (logically and temporally), who will offer the final sacrifice, and will provide the way back to the presence of God. Since this is all final, human beings are presented with this final choice, in the view of our author. If you reject this, what means can God provide for you?

Without exhortation, the exposition would be dry, pointless, and incomplete. The exhortation is an integral part of developing the topic.

I emphasize this because of some of my experience in studying Pauline epistles in college and graduate school. We would make it through the theological exposition in the beginning of the book, but when we got to the practical admonitions, those were treated as something of an afterthought by Paul. “Here’s your theology of salvation, and oh, by the way, there are a few things it would be a good idea to do …”

But for Paul those admonitions grow out of the theology he has presented. The practical elements are not appendices to letters that are otherwise theological treatises. It would be better to call the theological exposition introductory matter to the practical sections. Perhaps this explains why Galatians and Romans seem to get so much more treatment from a theological viewpoint than 1 & 2 Corinthians.

Sometimes I think the worst thing about biblical scholarship is that it is carried out by biblical scholars. Their interest is in extracting theological propositions and historical data. The writers, especially Paul, are writing pastorally. The two don’t always work well together.

At least that is the view from someone who took Romans (through chapter 8!) and Galatians (through chapter 4!) in school. As far as I could tell, the professors were happy with that.

Hebrews 4:12 – ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ

What a mess my office is!

What a mess my office is!

I want to make a short comment on this, and the use of λόγος again in 4:13. I’m not going to go through all the arguments. I’ve just re-read David L. Allen (New American Commentary), Luke Timothy Johnson (NTL), James Moffatt (ICC), and Craig R. Koester (Anchor Bible), and the combined number of references and arguments is really quite astonishing and excellent.

They differ on the referent of ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ. There are good arguments for using this as the “personified word,” and for not reading it as a reference to Jesus, but again, as I have time and again over the years, I end up disagreeing. I think this forms an excellent tie back to the prologue, which clearly outlines a high Christology. Now we have definitely been reading arguments taken from the written word, and references to spoken word (Hebrews 2:1-4). But the prologue points us to Jesus as God’s ultimate communication with humanity.

This, in turn, points us to Hebrew 4:14-16, which summarizes one side of the coin of the high priesthood of Jesus. Here we are told, based on the arguments of chapters 2 & 3, that we have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weakness. He is our brother (2:11). This will be brought together with the other side of the coin in Hebrews 7:26-28, which tells us that his brotherhood with us does not diminish his status in all ways with God. But right here it’s the one who is our brother, who can sympathize with our weaknesses, who is the one to whom we must give account.

And there you can see how I think λόγος should be rendered at the end of verse 13. I think we do have a play on words, but we should also look beyond a gloss or even a simple dictionary definition, and note that Jesus is giving an account to us of God, while we give an account of ourselves to God. Except not so much. Because we have such a high priest who is able to take us all the way in to the throne of grace.

This doesn’t take the written word of God, nor the word of God spoken by the prophets or apostles out of the equation. Wherever God’s word is, it is “alive and active,” but its ultimate representation is in the person of Jesus. To the question, “Is this the written word of the prophets or is it Jesus?” I’m saying “yes.” But mostly Jesus, because that’s where our author is pointing us everywhere.

Jesus does not replace the written word. Rather he completes it. The New Testament doesn’t supersede the Old. It builds on it. If you’ve read Hebrews thus far, getting to the end of Chapter 4, you’ve experienced the work of someone whose respect for the Hebrew Scriptures is very great and shows clearly through. One should remember this when one gets to passages that talk about something old vanishing, such as Hebrews 8:13. The very foundation of his argument is not vanishing.

He’s going to make the case that Jesus is the perfect High Priest (and we see functions of that priest in 12-13, God->Us, Us->God), that Jesus is the perfect sacrifice, and subtly, by the texts used in making those cases, he will let us know that Jesus is the perfect King.

Yep! I read Hebrews 4:12-13 Christologically.



 

Deuteronomy and Introductions Redux

Study Bibles and CBCA second law and a second note on introductions to biblical books. Goes together, no?

I completed my reading of Numbers along with the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary yesterday and today read the introduction from the section on Deuteronomy. In it the author, Eugene H. Merrill (professor at Dallas Theological Seminary) argues forcefully for Mosaic authorship and for an early (1446 BC) date for the exodus. In school I learned 1445, but the majority position is that the exodus occurred in the mid to late 13th century, and critical scholars in general would reject at least direct Mosaic authorship in favor of a date of writing in the 7th century BC.

In the course of presenting these positions and his basis for them he makes the statement (p. 449) that “there is absolutely no objective evidence that compels a late provenance for the book.” I would first point out that it is useful to realize that evidence rarely compels, especially in historical situations such as this. Secondly, there is evidence that would point to the composite nature of the book and some that would suggest a later historical setting. Certain Merrill, along with many others, has provided explanations for this apparent evidence, but having provided an alternate explanation, however convincing it may be to the one providing it, does not make the evidence go away.

I like to look at introductions in various study Bibles. I’m not sure why, as the usual result is simply to raise my blood pressure a bit. In this case I have at hand The Oxford Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, and the NLT Study Bible. Out of these, only the NLT Study Bible would tend to agree with Merrill. That count is not important, however, because it doesn’t constitute a good survey of quality scholarship on the issue.

The problem with the lot of these is that they each assert their position with confidence and provide a couple of notes on things that favor that position, but give very few reasons why anyone might disagree. If you read the conservative introductions, you might well conclude that the critical scholars who disagree are just perverse, while if you read the more critical introductions, you might not be aware that there are modern conservative scholars who would hold to such views as a 1446 BC date for the exodus or Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy around 1406 BCE.

You may think I’m being unfair, as each introduction must be short, especially in the study Bibles. Merrill’s can be somewhat longer as he is writing for a substantial commentary on just three books of the Bible. But my point is not to chastise the scholars for their positions or for espousing them in their introductions. I do find their language a bit intemperate, and I would also point out that it doesn’t take many words to indicate that other scholars disagree with at least some indication of why that might be.

My interest is in what you do about it. I’d suggest strongly that you don’t surround yourself with books that agree with you and that come from scholars that are in your own religious/denominational tradition. I am generally convinced, though I wouldn’t use “compelling” for any evidence, that the Pentateuch, including Deuteronomy, is a composite text containing some ancient traditions, but built up with case law and later additions and adaptations. Yet I will carefully read Merrill’s commentary as I also read through the Hebrew text. What’s more, I can predict right now that I will learn a great deal from Merrill’s work.

The reason I can do that is that I’ve read this introduction, and while I disagree with the dating and authorship section, it is followed by a discussion of structure and themes that is extremely helpful. I frequently encounter the idea that a certain writer is just a liberal, or too conservative for me, so why should I read his material. We could go for “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17). But I think perhaps Provebers 27:21 is better:

The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold,
    so a person is tested by being praised. (NRSV)

Or as I translated it for a Tweet (I like literal in this type of poetry):

I really need to read someone saying that there is “no compelling evidence” for the position I hold. If I only read The Oxford Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, and The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, I would never be pushed to look more closely at the evidence.

I think it is particularly important in using study Bibles, because people seem to get the idea that whatever is in the notes is what “scholars” believe regarding the passage. They often also decide that if “scholars” believe it, then they must too. But scholars as a group rarely agree on anything. It’s one of their best features, because they all want to refine things and find some new, good ideas. The results are sometimes crazy, but nothing like as bad as the results of not doing so.

Introductions are hard to write and often don’t prove that useful. But using a range of them can be quite enlightening!

Note on the End of Numbers

Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (CBC)I’m about to move from the section on Numbers in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary and from there go on to reading Deuteronomy. I’m reading this in parallel with a reading of the Hebrew text.

I’ll first note that I find this commentary very helpful, and I believe it would be helpful to a person preparing lessons or sermons on these books (Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), which are not that easy to work with. The authors of all three sections provide good theological reflections on the passages, which I find helpful despite the fact that they are somewhat more conservative than my own theology.

One of the keys for Christians reading the Pentateuch is being open to the questions and looking for the answers. It is much less important to have a set of “good” answers at hand when you finish. It’s OK to admit that the culture reflected is very different from modern culture, and is hard for us to apply. As I have noted before, and recently read in Luke Timothy Johnson’s NTL commentary on Hebrews, modern Christians don’t really understand the idea of sacrifice, amongst other things, and so see the entire tabernacle/sanctuary service/cult as a foreign land.

Numbers 35 illustrates some difficulties. Here we have the concept of the avenger who will kill the person who has killed (even accidentally) a relative. So the cities of refuge are provided. There the killer can find refuge provided the killing was inadvertent. (Just how “inadvertence” is defined is up for some discussion.) In this passage we find the rule requiring at least two witnesses for a capital charge.

So we have a mitigation of vengeance killing, yet even if the person is found innocent of capital murder, he will be restricted to the city of refuge. Having been found not guilty, he still suffers exile. But modern readers may miss what many commentators see as the reason he remains until the death of the high priest. The death of the high priest is seen as atoning. I find the argument for this latter point less compelling than some, but nonetheless a serious possibility, and one which might well impact our understanding of Jesus as both high priest and sacrifice in Hebrews.

Which leads backward, in a sense, to the idea that the land itself is polluted by murder and that atonement must be made in order to remove this pollution. The atonement for intentional, premeditated murder can only be made by the death of the murder, and no ransom can be accepted. There is no indication in the text of what happens in case of doubt, when two witnesses cannot be produced. There would be no atonement. Clearly, people are not expected to atone for a sin they cannot determine existed.

We have here a tension between what we would see as Christian principles and a society based on vengeance. There is mitigation, and yet there is considerable accommodation as well. I think it is a good example of how God works with people. It’s easy for us to say that God should make things absolutely right (as we see it) in an instant. But it is not that easy to change a culture and a society.

Yet if you look at Judaism today, you see an amazing edifice built on just this kind of material, and Christianity grew out of this same soil with some interesting outside influence!

A Note on Translations and Commentaries

CBC based on the NLT

Are we veiling the commentary with the translation used?

As I’ve been reading a commentary based on the New Living Translation (NLT), it has been interesting to note how the commentators differ from the readings of the translation on which the commentary is ostensibly based.

For example, as I finished reading the section on Numbers today (pp. 217-443), written by Dale A. Brueggemann, I noted two important translation notes.

  1. 35:12, in which the NLT refers to “relatives” rather than to the singular “goel” or avenger/redeemer, a translation that the commentator says “… may be misleading” (p. 426n). Certainly potentially misleading and may cause one to miss connecting thoughts built on this concept.
  2. 35:20, in which two points are noted. First, the NLT adds “a dangerous object” which is not in the Hebrew source, and also omits “while lying in wait,” which is in the Hebrew. The latter omission the commentator calls “this telling qualification” (p. 427n).

It’s not surprising that a commentator will work for the source text, of course, but it’s interesting to note. You’ll find this sort of disagreement in almost any commentary where the author is required to use a particular translation. Sometimes one could almost say “with the ___ version included” rather than saying it’s a commentary on that version.

With a dynamic equivalence translation, however, the odds are greater that there will be a certain tension between commentator and English text. This is not really surprising. Is it problematic? For many, this disagreement is an argument in favor of more formal equivalence translations.

It seems to me, however, that a formal equivalence translation, besides allowing for misunderstanding, such as when it verbally translates some idioms, also simply leaves greater room for one to imagine the translation agrees with one’s own approach, even when it’s simply a bit ambiguous.

It’s valuable for lay persons who read scripture to become aware of the fact that there are differences in the way translations are done. That’s why I frequently recommend reading from more than one translation. For example, a good counterpoint to the NLT might be the New Revised Standard Version (which also provides from more theological diversity in the translation committee) or the English Standard Version (with an evangelical team similar to that of the NLT).

Numbers 33 and Matthew 1:1-17

Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (CBC)Regarding Numbers 33 and the 42 stations on the route to the promised land, footnote #1 on page 420, (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Numbers), notes that “[p]atristic commentators compared these 42 stations to the 42 (3 x 14) generations in Jesus’ genealogy, but that doesn’t shed any light on ch 33 …”

It is quite true that this comparison sheds no light on chapter 33, but I doubt that there was any intention by the author of Matthew to shed light on Numbers. More likely, if he was making a connection, he was intending to have Numbers 33 shed light on his genealogy. Clearly he went out of his way to get 42 generations and divide them into three groups of 14. It’s very easy to make too much of numerology.

Despite that, I am more and more convinced that New Testament authors quite frequently intended to draw more of the Old Testament narrative into their writing than just what was quoted. One reason for this is that I have noted how the lack of knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament in modern audiences makes discussing certain passages more difficult. The corollary to this is that a greater knowledge would make discussion easier. New Testament writers could count on greater knowledge among their readers than we can today.

What might Matthew be drawing into the text here? I have argued that Matthew 2:15, when it quotes from Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” is drawing the broader story there into his narrative. At first glance, one might accuse Matthew of taking something that is clearly not Messianic and making a prophecy out of it. Hosea 11 continues with telling us that the more YHWH called his people, the more they went away. My initial reaction to this, and the reaction of many, is that Matthew is grabbing a single clause out of context, and making a prediction of something that isn’t actually a prediction. But I’d suggest instead that Matthew is presenting Jesus as Israel doing it right. When God called Israel at various times, they went away, as Hosea is saying. Jesus, on the other hand, when called out of Egypt or when called to the cross, continues to come.

My suspicion is that the use of 42, besides being the numerologically comfortable grouping of three pairs of sevens (and there are so many ways a set of numbers can be presented!), is intended to point us back to the travels of the Israelites in coming to the promised land. I am in no way suggesting that these 42 stops were in some way predictive, nor am I suggesting that Matthew 1:1-17 gives some sort of new or special meaning to Numbers 33. Rather, I’m suggesting that Matthew uses 42 generations as an allusion to Numbers 33 and to Israel coming out of Egypt and to the promised land.