Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Maimonides (1135-1204):  Show us a sign!

"It is forbidden to engage in a debate with one who prophesies in the name of idolatry, and he should not be asked for signs and wonders." - Mishneh Torah: Idolatry and Heathenism

This provides a bit of context to some of the accusations and mocking against Jesus.  This should provide a little more context to the following:

"The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied,  " ...  A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah." - Matthew 16:1-4

If the Pharisees and Sadducees believed Jesus was a prophet, then they certainly shouldn't have tested him.  Because they didn't believe Jesus was a prophet, however, they instead tested him contrary to their law.  

Monday, August 27, 2012

Maimonides (1135-1204):  Clarifying Mark 2:23-27; Usury (ouch!)

Mark 2:23-27 is the story of Jesus and his disciples eating some grain with their hands during the Sabbath day.  The Pharisees immediately criticize that this is a violation of the law.  This ruling of the Pharisees has always puzzled me, since it didn't quite seem to fit.  The original command regarding eating grain is thus:

"When you enter your neighbor's standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor's standing grain." - Deuteronomy 23:25

Maimonides provides this explanation on the verse:

"Traditionally interpreted, this verse refers only to a hired worker.  If he was not hired, who permitted him to enter the vineyard or the grainfield of his neighbor without the latter's consent?  Hence, Scripture means to say: if you enter the owner's domain for work, you may eat." - Mishneh Torah: Civil Laws.

From this Pharisaical perspective, Jesus and his disciples could only have been in the grain field to work, but they were doing it on the Sabbath when work was forbidden.  Of course the original instruction includes: "you shall not wield a sickle", which would seem to imply that either this instruction was not given to workmen or else workmen were prohibited from using sickles.

There was an interesting note regarding the Hebrew word for interest or usury, נֶ֫שֶׁך (neshek). Maimonides makes a claim that is confirmed by my Hebrew lexicon that the word neshek also means "to bite off".  Thus, to charge someone usury is literally to take a bite out of them.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mishneh Torah: On Elders.

One of the most common errors in the modern Christian church is the belief that the concept of Elder originated with a few New Testament writings written by the Apostle Paul. In fact, Elders were mentioned on many occasions throughout the Old Testament, yet modern Christian discussions of Eldership are invariably divorced from the Old Testament context.  Other comments about Elders exists in classical literature so that the practice was undoubtedly universal.  Moving into our era, it is common to pretend that the concept of Elder was just discovered in our own generation and proceed with the few New Testament snippets on the subject as if that was all that we could ever learn from the past regarding the subject.  Perhaps there is a defense of this methodology, but I have not come across it yet.

Maimonides gives a long discourse on this subject showing that the concept was derived from earlier works and provides some sense of the fact that the office of Elder was undoubtedly well established with the Jewish diaspora, thus, Paul's writings would not have been understood according to many of our modernist sensibilities.  Noting that Maimonides refers to elders as leader, scholar, rabbi or judge in different contexts, we have  a number of things that should be familiar to Christians who have studied the topic:

"A judge must not behave toward the community in a domineering and arrogant manner, but with humility and reverence." - Mishneh Torah: Judges

There are many of these statements regarding the expected good character.  A key part of their concept was that of honor and respect for elders, yet Jesus turned this upside down by washing the feet of his disciples.  For contrast:

"As soon as a person is appointed leader of the community, he must not do menial work in the presence of three men, so that he does not degrade himself in front of them."

But then there are a few remarks that indicate a realist mentality towards Elders:

"Two scholars who dislike each other must not act as judges together, since this might result in perverted justice.  Owing to the hostility between them, each will be inclined to refute the other."

Now what kind of elders would do that?!  There are notes regarding the size of a community that is needed to have a minimum set of elders sufficient for the necessary checks and balances.  A king cannot be an elder, because it is forbidden to contradict the king, thus, destroying the workings of the elders.  The most peculiar regulation is this one:

"Just as the members of a court of law must be cleared with respect to uprightness, so must they be clear of any physical defect.  Every effort should be exerted in an intensive search for sufficiently mature candidates, who are tall and handsome, easily articulate and conversant with most of the spoken tongues so that the Sanhedrin may dispense with an interpreter."

Yes, he must be a good looking polyglot.  A final point of interest is the general educational level expected:

"Only wise and intelligent men, who are eminent in Torah scholarship and possess extensive knowledge, should be appointed members of either the Great or the Small Sanhedrin.  They should be somewhat aware of such branches as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, forecasting constellations, astrology, methods of soothsayers, augurs and wizards as well as idolatrous superstitions, and the like, in order to be competent in dealing with them."

Wow!  This does go a long way towards explaining why the Jewish community finds studying honorable, and not just the Torah itself.

Many things are in Maimonides list that aren't in the Bible, but there is only one thing that I see in the Biblical account that doesn't appear in this (caution: abridged) Mishneh Torah:

"An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient." - Titus 1:6

Thus, he (yes he, a male) must be a parent with a well ordered family.  This I don't find mentioned by Maimonides, but there are many sections to Maimonides' discussion on elders that aren't included here.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


Maimonides:  Regarding teaching duties

"It is, however, the father's duty to teach his young son Torah, as it is written: "You shall teach them to your children, speaking of them" (Deuteronomy 11:19).  A woman is under no obligation to teach her son, since the duty of teaching applies only to one whose duty it is to learn.

Just as it is a man's duty to teach his son, so it is his duty to teach his grandson, as it is written: "Make them known to your children and your children's children" (4:9).  This obligation does not refer only to one's son and grandson, but it is a duty resting upon every Jewish scholar to teach all those who seek to be his students, even though they are not his own children, for it is written ..."

This subject has been on my mind recently.  In modern evangelical churches, the parents entrust the teaching to someone else, and frequently this someone else is a 20ish year old.  Certainly I am glad to see the young enthusiastic to teach - nor would I want to discourage them - but it doesn't seem too sensible that the bulk of the teaching and spiritual leadership to the next generation is done by those under 30.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Aquinas (1225-1274) and Aristotle.

This will be a very incomplete babbling regarding the assertion that Aquinas subordinated Christian theology to the pre-Christian, pagan philosopher Aristotle's teachings.  I have read a smattering of the writings of Aquinas and a good deal of Aristotle, and other philosophers that Aquinas would have studied, but am not a doctoral student on these issues.  What I really would prefer to do is to touch on some of the areas that would need to be thoroughly understood in order to make such a judgment.  Before going on I will highlight the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which has an article on this subject as well as Cambridge Collections Online. The Stanford link makes the complexities clearer.

The problem in analyzing whether the theology and philosophy of Aquinas derive from Aristotle is that we must first make a list of subjects touched upon by both, and we also need to know what was distinctly Aristotle and/or Aquinas, and what is belonging to someone else.  This in itself would probably be a lifetime undertaking.  At the same time, we must begin by acknowledging that both authors can be extremely difficult to read, so that even an intelligent philosopher might delude herself into thinking she had a clear understanding.

As I look at Aristotle, I see a vast ocean of opinions on every conceivable subject, but the first thing that stands out is how he analyzes a subject:  He usually begins by citing various prevalent opinions, makes some remarks on their pros and cons, and then then proceeds to provide a logical analysis.  Anyone who bothers to read someone like Anselm (1033-1109) will see that logical analysis was going along quite fine before Aquinas learned how to read Aristotle, so what really stands out as distinctively Aristotelian is the enumeration of opinions on the subject. This pattern proceeded for a few centuries and wasn't really discarded until the modern era.  The usual explanation is that the multiplication of published information and opinions simply made it impractical to cite all the previous sources, so some filter was required.  Note that this is purely a pragmatic reason based on resources:  We would include the information if the time needed to compile, print and read such material had not become prohibitive, but for the most part, Aristotle's intention lived on.  There was a time during the Inquisition when certain opinions would be censored for fear of the potential political disruption, however, this was a temporary intermission.  Modern political correctness is what really brought the end to this part of Aristotle's philosophy.  Since the 19th century, prevailing but conflicting opinions are routinely censored not simply to save time, but because modernists cannot bear to even hear the notions uttered.  Even worse, the compete misrepresentation of opinions has become the norm in much of academia.  In any case, all responsible scholars are Aristotelians if we set doing a competent literature review before addressing a topic as a key point of distinction.

Getting into the details, there is the claim that the cosmology of Aquinas derives from Aristotle.  The important thing here is to enumerate both the similarities AND the differences.  So let me pick a text from Aquinas commenting on Aristotle's notion of a first cause and matter:

"Therefore whatever is the cause of things considered as beings, must be the cause of things, not only according as they are "such" by accidental forms, nor according as they are "these" by substantial forms, but also according to all that belongs to their being at all in any way. And thus it is necessary to say that also primary matter is created by the universal cause of things." - Summa Tholigica, The procession of Creatures from God, and of the First Cause of all Things.

In the earlier part of this passage, Aquinas has invoked Aristotle's notion of forms, while Aristotle asserts that there is a "first cause" which is God.  This latter claim I didn't need to learn from Aristotle since it occurs in the Bible.  Anyway, the key difference between Aquinas and Aristotle is that Aquinas asserts that matter can be created out of notion.  As I read Aristotle's works (On The Heavens, Physics and Metaphysics), it seems that Aristotle believes that matter is eternal, but there was a "first cause", i.e. God, which set the matter into motion.  On this topic, Aquinas also quotes Plato, Augustine and Dionysius.  The discussion is clearly influenced by Aristotle, and Aquinas agrees on one major point (that God is the first cause) and disagrees on another major point (whether or not matter is eternal).

What jumps out is that Aquinas is following the methods of Aristotle, but it seems to me that when it comes to reaching a conclusion, Aquinas is his own man.

A tangent dispute is whether or not Aquinas knew Greek which has various implications, but I will not jump into that at the moment until I learn more.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Mentoring, as described in the Holy Scriptures.

"Then Telemachus went all alone by the sea side, washed his hands in the grey waves, and prayed to Minerva. 

"Hear me," he cried, "you god who visited me yesterday, and bade me sail the seas in search of my father who has so long been missing. I would obey you, but the Achaeans, and more particularly the wicked suitors, are hindering me that I cannot do so." 

As he thus prayed, Minerva came close up to him in the likeness and with the voice of Mentor. "Telemachus," said she, "if you are made of the same stuff as your father you will be neither fool nor coward henceforward, for Ulysses never broke his word nor left his work half done." - Homer, The Odyssey, Book II

I have not been too happy with the concept of Mentor/Mentoring/Mentee that has become all pervasive in Christian circles.  Mentor was in fact a pagan goddess who guided the son of Ulysses, Telemachus, on his voyages.  Does Christianity provide no concept of its own that we should need to use pagan concepts?  In fact, I think it is a symptom of a disease that effects much of evangelical Christianity, where the youth train the youth and the elders are off on some remote island in the ocean doing who knows what.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mishneh Torah, by Moses ben Maimonides (1135AD-1204).

Dr. Wiki has an article on Maimonides.  The Mishneh Torah was a long running (many volumes) Jewish commentary on the Torah and the Hebrew Bible in general written by Moses ben Maimonides. I came across this at the Fremont Library and was curious about the parallel Hebrew and English text.  Since my fall semester Hebrew class just started yesterday, this book has considerable interest, especially given that the Hebrew type is large and includes the vowel markings.  According to the introduction, the Mishneh Torah was first written in Arabic and translated into Hebrew.  The volume in the library is a greatly abbreviated text that gives some glimpses into Maimonides views.  One of my Hebrew profs tells me that Jewish theological views are literally viewS.  That is, there are many so we cannot speak of a single system of Biblical interpretation that is Jewish.  Maimonides' contribution was to filter a vast literature on Biblical interpretation down to one view on each topic, but this situation apparently did not stay that way.

The usual work of Maimonides that serious students of Philosophy study is The Guide of the Perplexed.  This is included in a list of the "top 100" philosophical works that a doctor of philosophy should be familiar with.  I have my doubts about simply reading works in isolation, given that this may yank the work out of its historical and personal context.  Quoting an unread work is even more problematic.  At the same time, I am not quite sure I want to invest a lot of time in Maimonides studies, since this would require learning much about a context(s) that I know nothing of, excepting for the atheist propaganda that is taught in the US government schools.

Monday, August 06, 2012

On the primacy of Hebrew:  Dabar (דָּבָר) vs. Logos (λόγος)

My Hebrew professors are adamant:  Hebrew is the official language of heaven.  Purgatory is for those reprobates who refused to learn Hebrew during this life or did try to learn Hebrew but can't properly roll their tongue when pronouncing a resh.  Having not been to heaven myself, I will primarily serve as a neutral reporter on this opinion and the resulting disputes.  One of the Hebrew professors asserted that he has argued extensively with the leader of the opposing camp, pastor John MacArthur.  The MacArthurite position is that for thousands of years, Christian theology developed using Greek derived theological vocabulary.  In fact, God had arranged for the Greeks to develop much of the philosophical framework in the Greek language in order to provide the necessary language precision for the Gospel to be presented.  Furthermore, as anyone who bothers to search the origin of the New Testament can see, Jesus himself spoke to us in Greek, except that he included some Aramaic words now and then.

The Hebrew professors immediately retort that the Greeks learned their letters from the Phoenicians, who were closely related to the Hebrews.  In the process of gaining literacy, the Greeks had seen over and over the phrase, "The Word (dabar) of the Lord".  This they took back with them back to Greece and translated it, but deleted "the Lord" and ended up with the defective term 'logos' after they had translated what they learned into Greek.  "Heresy!", the Greekoids answer back.  Don't you know that Hebrew is the language of the Old Covenant, but Greek is the language of the New Covenant?  Now Hebrew is the language that God used on Mount Sinai, which is in Arabia.  It is the language of slavery and slaves are not the heirs.  Greek is the language that was used in Jerusalem, which is the language of freedom and of the legitimate heirs.

And so it continues.  The charismatics would certainly have a thing or two to say about this based on the "tongues of ... angels" - 1 Corinthians 1:13.  The reason to take seminary classes is so that we can insert ourselves into these discussions without being laughed at.  Thus, I will add my two cents from the Apostle John's vision of heaven:

"After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.  They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands." - Revelation 7:9

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The Internet Saga.

I am listening to the Iliad after having finished Josephus.  This gives me a greater appreciation for how the gods were plotting among themselves and against each other to cause strife with my ISP(s), but eventually the strife sorts itself out and the casualty count was considerably less than that of Troy or Jerusalem.  Thus things are up and running again, but with a more sustainable monthly bill.

Saturday, August 04, 2012