Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Some thoughts about names of time and the sections of the Bible

One of the current struggles in Academia and in the Church is naming things and times in ways that don't upset anyone.  In some circles people use BC (before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini that is year of our Lord) to talk about the time before the coming of Jesus and the time after the coming of Jesus.  This may make sense in Church circles.  After all in the Church we see Jesus as the center of the Biblical story and also as the center of history. 
Our big struggle is not in the Church but in society and particularly in academic conversation.  Scholars have come to recognize that insisting that everyone divide history according to the Christian calendar denies religious or other narratives of humans. 
We can't really expect Jews, Muslims, etc to divide history according to the Christian narrative.  In fact both Jews and Muslims when within their own communities measure history by other methods; Jews since the creation of the universe and Muslims from the time of Mohammed. 
So in the scholarly world and in some other circles time is measured by the abbreviations BCE (before the Common Era) and CE (the Common Era).  All seem  to accept that BCE and BC still refer to the Christian measure of time but have agreed to ignore that and use terms that do not directly refer to Christian measurement of time.  There are curmudgeons that insist we retain BC and AD but BCE and CE are accepted in the majority of the scholarly community.  And I think outside the Church we should use the newer terms.  We can't expect the whole world to name time according to our beliefs.
Of more controversy is what to name the first and the second parts of the Bible.  Christian tradition has used a couple of curious titles: Old Testament and New Testament.  These titles are rejected by more and more scholars and curiously by more and more pastors and other Christian leaders.  The most popular replacements at this point seem to be "Hebrew Scriptures" and "Christian Scriptures."  As I have thought about this recently I have come to the conclusion that neither the old method nor the new method is acceptable.
I find the old names to be unacceptable mainly from a Calvinist perspective.  The following definitions of "testament" come from the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
a archaic: a covenant between God and the human race
b capitalized: either of two main divisions of the Bible
a: a tangible proof or tribute
b: an expression of conviction: creed
a: an act by which a person determines the disposition of his or her property after death.[1]
I think we can eliminate 2 and 3 for the purpose of this essay.  We are left with 1 a and b.  B simply describes the names.  A, I think, is the proper definition and is the core of the problem.  Calvinists have believed since there were Calvinists that there is one covenant between God and humanity.  Some will say that there are two covenants, the one between God and Adam and Eve (a covenant of works) and the covenant that follows the sin of Adam and Eve (a covenant of grace).  Putting that theological disagreement aside I think Calvinists can agree that at least since the sin of Adam and Eve there is only one covenant. 
There is of course the not so small problem of the series of covenants in the Old Testament (hold on, we haven't gotten to my suggestion for a better way to name the two parts of the Bible).  There are covenants between God and Noah, Abraham, the Israelites at Mount Sinai and David.  We also see references to a new covenant between God and Israel in Jeremiah 31.  There is also the clear statement in the New Testament that Jesus brings and makes a new covenant between God and the people of Israel but also all who put their faith in God through Jesus.  There are references to the new covenant not only in the passages about the Lord's Supper but also in other places (particularly in Hebrews) that make a distinction between the old covenant and the new covenant suggesting that the new covenant is better than the old covenant.  The question at hand is does the new covenant replace the old covenant?
Calvinists have said throughout history that all the covenants from Noah down through Jesus are part of God's covenant of grace.  Thus the new covenant in Jesus is an extension – and a very important extension – of the covenant of grace that is the story of God's loving pursuit of sinful humanity.  To speak of a new covenant smacks of supersessionism, that God's covenant with Christians through Jesus replaces God's covenant with Israel. 
There is a further problem with the titles Old Testament (or covenant) and New Testament (or covenant).  The very titles suggest a radical division between the Scripture from Genesis to Malachi and Matthew to Revelation.   If there is a new covenant does that covenant replace the old covenant?  If there is a new covenant does that make the Scripture of the old covenant no longer relevant?  NO!  The Scripture of what is called the New Testament builds on that of the New Testament.  There can be no real separation between the Scripture in this sense.  We do not reject the earlier Scripture because of the coming of Jesus.
The most common new way of naming the two parts of the Bible has this same problem and others.  The new names are Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures.  One is picky but then I am a picky person.  Parts of Scripture in the section from Genesis to Malachi are not in Hebrew.  They are in Aramaic.  So while it is mostly Hebrew calling it Hebrew Scripture is not exactly accurate. 
Further if the term "Hebrew Scripture is meant to refer to the Scripture of the Hebrew people as over against the Scripture of Christians we have the same problem we have with Old Testament and New Testament.  The section of Scripture from Matthew to Revelation is not the full content of Christian Scripture.  Christians believe that the section from Genesis to Malachi is also Scripture and fought for centuries against those who would exclude that section of Scripture for a variety of reasons. 
The main group that rejected the first section of Scripture was the Gnostics, or at least some of them.  "Gnostics" is a complicated term that refers to a lot of different groups.  Most of them rejected the first section of Scripture insisting that the God of that first section of Scripture is a different God than that of the second section of Scripture – or at least those parts of that second section they accepted along with other documents.  They considered the God of the first section of Scripture to be evil and the God of the parts of the second section and the other documents they accepted as Scripture to be the greater and good God. 
So we cannot make a division between the first and second second sections of Scripture.  To do so is to commit not only an error but a form of heresy.  While we can say there is a distinction between them there can be no separation between the two sections of Scripture.
Nevertheless for the sake of our Jewish brothers and sisters (and for Christian reasons as well) we need to make a distinction between the first section of Scripture that they accept as Scripture and the second section of Scripture that Christians accept along with the first section.  I therefore suggest different terms altogether.  Jews call what they would call the three parts of their Scripture, (Torah or Law, Nevi’im or Prophets and Kethuvim or Writings), the Tanach which translated actually means Bible.  Thus we can call the first section the Tanach – the Hebrew word for Bible and the second section Additional Christian Scriptures.  This would allow us to recognize that Jews believe only the first section of what Christians claim is Scripture as Scripture and that Christians recognize both the first section (from a Christian perspective) as Christian Scripture and the Additional Christian Scriptures as also a part of Scripture.
Of course there is also the text of the Moslem Scripture – the Quran. Muslims believe that the Tanach and the Additional Christian Scriptures are corrupted.  And there are also the various Scriptures (although I am not certain that Scripture is the correct word) of various other religions like the various types of Hinduism and Buddhism but since Christians have used "Old Testament" and "New Testament" and scholars and some Christians have changed that to Hebrew and Christian Scriptures I think we can limit the new titles I have given to refer to the Tanach and the Additional Christian Scripture.
Of course I recognize that neither those who use the old terms nor those who use the new terms are going to listen to me.  This is merely a suggestion that from both Jewish and Christian perspectives there is better way to name the two sections of what Christians would accept as Scripture.
Have at me all who like or dislike my suggested titles!

[1] http://mw1.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/testament

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


I've watched the yearly culture wars about what to say to people during the month of December, and particularly about what store clerks ought to say to customers.  I have recently come to the conclusion that Christians seeking to celebrate the birth of Jesus have no horse in this race. 
What caused me to come to this conclusion was the refusal of a senator from Oklahoma to participate in a Christmas parade because the Mayor had changed the name of the parade to something like "Holiday Parade."  I got to thinking about Christmas parades and what and who are usually in the parades.  Maybe there is a small chance that some church put a manger scene in the parade.  I suspect most of the floats, bands and people are unspecific advertisements for shopping, fat men in red suits and strange references to winter. 
So what does all this say about the birth of Jesus?  Nothing.  Why should I care what a sales clerk says to me when I buy something at Wal-Mart during the month of December?  "Have a nice day" is sufficient for the rest of the year.  Happy Holidays is nice as it makes a reference to three different celebrations but what about all the other religious groups that don't celebrate anything in December or non religious folk?  Besides I think the real message in the store is "It's time to buy presents so come back and spend some more money."  Which, unfortunately, has come to be the real meaning of Christmas. 
Yet there is this massive yearly battle over whether sales clerks should say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays."  Now if I happen to know the sales clerk and know that s/he actually believes in Jesus a Merry Christmas would be nice, although I'm not quite sure what "Merry" has to do with the birth of the Savior of the world.  Most of the time, given where I live I have never met the sales clerk before and have no idea why s/he would say "Merry Christmas" to me.  So why should Christians care what a sales clerk says to them during December?
I think the real issues are power and tradition.  Some seem to think if one does not say "Merry Christmas" the myth of Christian America is being threatened by secular humanists.  They think they are losing power.  Worse, those people from other religious traditions are getting uppity and want some validation for their faith.  So refusing to say Merry Christmas ultimately will destroy America and the people who are for free sex, drug use and allowing immigrants into the country will turn America into some kind of land of Satan (which is what the Iranians have been saying for years!).
Those of us in the Reformed tradition who remember our history know that for centuries Presbyterians didn't celebrate Christmas.  We also didn't celebrate Easter, have crosses or stained glass windows in our places of worship, use musical instruments during worship or sing anything but psalms during worship but that is the subject of another blog.  Presbyterians didn't celebrate Christmas partly because it was "Romanish" (meaning the Catholics did it so we shouldn't) but mainly because the celebration of Christmas in England had become a time to get drunk, dance, and generally carry on.  Presbyterians didn't believe in carrying on.  It wasn't that Presbyterians didn't have fun it was rather that they wanted to have holy fun.  Wearing sexy clothes, puking after drinking too much and dancing into the wee hours of the morning just didn't seem very Christian to them.  So they didn't celebrate Christmas.
Then the Queen of England, Victoria, got married to this Elector or something from Germany and brought the German tradition of Christmas trees to England.  Songs about Yule logs came back into fashion as did St. Nicholas (now renamed Santa Claus because of a rather poor poem) who no longer left food and gifts for poor Children.  He left big presents for all good children.  But Yule logs came from Norse celebrations and evergreen trees from pre Christian German religions (probably some form of Druidic belief). 
The modern version of Christmas (at least the shopping version) began sometime in the last 50 or 60 years.  Before that kids in most families got new socks, maybe some new clothes if they had outgrown the old clothes, an orange and one toy.  Rich folk went for the big spending.  Santa Claus became omniscient and kept a list like the Book of Life from Revelation.  In America more people had more money and the middle class started buying more and more toys for the children.  And good old scientific research enabled toy companies to move from talking dolls to Wiis.
To top all this off some now believe it necessary to get the most popular toy for their child (or for themselves) so people sit outside of stores starting at 2:00 AM on the day after Thanksgiving in order to they can buy that particular toy.  Early in the morning on Black Friday the doors to the stores open, the crowds rush in, (injuring or killing the poor underpaid employee who had the bad luck to be assigned the task of opening the door) and fight with other customers for that particular toy (thus the last part of my title).  Christmas has become a celebration of that most important of American dreams, the increase of the Gross Domestic Product.
What does all this have to do with Jesus?  Nothing, as far as I can tell.  Finding some way to celebrate the birth of the second person of the Trinity as a human being (and the not so subtle message that God physically stands with the poor) I think is necessary.  But somewhere in all of this we need to make a separation between the traditions borrowed from other religions and cultures, the secular celebration of economic growth and the primary idolatry in America that having more makes one better.
I suggest that we go back to giving presents that meet real human needs along with one toy.  That does mean that the yearly tie or sweater has to go.  I suspect most Americans have many more articles of clothing than they actually need.  No, one toy and a gift the Heifer Project or some equally worthy cause is the way to go. 
And outside of that?  Worship and service to others on Christmas day.  If God served us by sending his Son shouldn't we follow the model and serve others?
In any case I think the argument about what to say to people in December has to end.  Except about cursing out the person who go the last toy that you wanted on Black Friday.  I suggest we don't shop on Black Friday at all and that those who feel they must learn to be polite and kind.  That would be a big and pleasant change in the language of December.