Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Wall to wall Greg

Once upon a time there was a magazine. It was called The Plain Truth. This free magazine had many faults, not least some very questionable content. The people whose names topped the editorial masthead were, with few exceptions, not particularly nice. Nor, one suspects in hindsight, particularly sincere. However the magazine was, for its time, lavishly produced. Countless children cut it up to illustrate school projects. Some adults, under the spell of its glossy pages and simplistic messages, took it seriously enough to become enmeshed in its sponsoring church. They then discovered that 'free' could be a relative term.

Then along came Greg. Greg Albrecht. Exactly how the ownership of The Plain Truth passed to Greg is not entirely clear to me. Why it was offered up in a church 'fire sale' of assets is also unclear. But it was. Greg quickly drove down circulation, which probably wasn't his intention. Greg also relaunched himself, no longer a senior minister in an abusive sect but, believe it or not, an advocate of niceness-saturated, religion-free Christianity.

Even unto this very day, the Albrecht Plain Truth endures. Not so glossy. Eight pages long. Published six times a year, circulation undisclosed. Fair to say, I suspect, that it's widely ignored and a mere shadow of its former self.

What is striking about the January/February PT is just how much of the entire issue is written by Editor-in-Chief Greg. Ruth Tucker has a one page column, and the back cover is the usual pot pouri of fluff, leaving six pages. How many of these are written by Greg Albrecht?

All of them.

Even in the days of Herbert Armstrong it would be hard to find this level of journalistic narcissism.

Available in flipping format (to keep Douglas happy) and - for the rest of us - PDF.

As for whether the Albrecht-sodden PT has equally questionable content as its predecessor, I'll let you be the judge.

Eric on The Friendly Atheist

Egad, the sky is falling.

Eric, a Chicago based writer, is the latest guest on the Friendly Atheist podcast. Eric was raised in some kinda weird sect called... hang on, let me check, um... the Worldwide Church of God.

Hemant Mehta writes: "We'd love to hear your thoughts on the podcast."

There's a link on the Twitter feed above or go to the web page direct. The show is just over 45 minutes long. I'm not sure Eric actually knows a lot about the background to his subject (he seems to think it's possible Herb had a military background), but the value isn't in bald, objective information, but in how the whole Herbal experience seems to someone who spent their childhood in the cactus patch.

To be honest, for me the interview is just a little too loose and informal to appeal overmuch - but then I'm an antiquated old codger and not given to chatty podcasts in the mold of commercial breakfast radio - and be advised, there are occasional lapses into expletives. It should however really speak to a younger demographic (Eric was born in 1986). If you can put up with the banter, perhaps there's actually some real insight to be gleaned.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Beyond the Good News

For the record, the lads at UCG have launched out into an exciting new era of magazine publishing.


In fact, The Good News has simply been re-branded as Beyond Today.

Think of it as putting lipstick on a pig.

If this seems rather harsh, consider what the theme of the first BT magazine is.


You'd think the lads would learn. Prophecy isn't exactly a subject they have a successful record in. Same old, same old, regurgitated endlessly. And in this first issue, predictably (no pun intended) they've got absolutely nothing new to say.

Gary Petty asks: "The Bible's Prophetic Puzzle - Can You Put It Together?" The artwork shows a jigsaw. Well, one thing I'm sure of, Gary can't put it together. Problem one, it isn't a jigsaw. But the lads have this thing about jigsaws, because on the next page there' s a picture of Nebuchadnezzar's famous image - superimposed on a jigsaw.

In UCG the Bible is one big jigsaw made up of proof texts that have to be slotted in 'just-so' to achieve 'understanding'. Earth to UCG, that's not how biblical exegesis works. Think hermeneutics instead of Herman Hoeh.

And lo, there's a silly little feature entitled "Why we watch world events - and why you should too." Nice. UCG (and before it WCG) have always made a big thing about watching world events (largely sourced from right-wing pundits), and with an astonishing record of consistency they've always misunderstood them. Just check back on one of those 1930's issues of The Plain Truth, or think about the hogwash Garner Ted Armstrong spouted on The World Tomorrow during the Nixon presidency. You'd think they'd have wised up decades ago. If that sounds like ancient history, consider the age of the lads who sit in their padded chairs at Milford Head Office.

Maybe it would be more tolerable if they tried, just a little bit, to give some balanced analysis instead of the usual myopic baloney. If that's your hope, probably best not to hold your breath.

One final observation. Until now the magazine has had the subtitle "a magazine of understanding" ('borrowed' from the old Plain Truth). Now it's "Help for Today, Hope for Tomorrow".

The irony is that it delivers neither.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Mythmaker: Paul, who art thou?

Chapter 10 of Mythmaker raises the question of just who Paul thought he was. Clearly, as he dusted himself off after his Damascus Road experience, he wasn't just any old convert.
A convert is a person who humbly approaches the authorities of the religion which he wishes to join and submits himself for instruction. Paul denies such a description of his entry altogether... instead he goes off 'to Arabia'.
There's more than one resonance in the official story with Old Testament precedents.
Just as Moses, on receiving the tablets of the law, stayed in the Arabian wilderness for forty days and forty nights (Exodus 34:28), so Paul retired to the desert to assimilate and meditate on the new revelation before returning to impart it to mankind.
Once he has cogitated the situation thoroughly, Paul comes out with some astonishing claims, for example speaking of  "my gospel".
Paul is claiming a much higher authority than that of the Jerusalem apostles, Peter, James and John; for their claim derived from acquaintance with the earthly Jesus, while Paul's claim derived from acquaintance with the heavenly Jesus...
Then there's Galatians 1:16.
... what the Greek actually says is '... to reveal his Son in me', as the Revised Version says. Paul is saying, quite straightforwardly, that he is himself the incarnation of the Son of God. He is thus claiming to have even higher status in his new religion than was claimed for Moses in Judaism.
But wait, there's more. Paul gets plugged in to the magic revelation machine again, being caught up to the third heaven and hearing secret stuff that simply cannot be repeated to mere mortals (2 Cor. 12:2-3).

But wait, there's even more. Galatians 6:17 is all about the holy stigmata. Protestants tend to react by seeing this reference as mere metaphor, but perhaps not.
The stigmata of Paul, whether self-inflicted or psychosomatically produced, made him, in his own eyes and those of his followers, the supreme embodiment of the power of the mystery of god, the Lord Jesus Christ.
It all makes Joseph Smith's claims seem utterly credible. Can't you just see N. T. Wright choking on his communion wine? Paul isn't just adding a few more spices to the stew, according to Maccoby, he's cooking up a whole new dish.

(This is the latest part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

Flag it!

I'm a Kiwi. New Zealanders differ from their American cousins in a number of ways, not the least in how we regard our flag.

From a Kiwi perspective, Americans are weird about their flag. Hands on hearts, kids reciting pledges, salutes, displayed in all kinds of unlikely places - sometimes including churches; completely "out there".

Not so in Godzone. Patriotism is an understated thing in Aotearoa. I was in high school before I consciously noticed the difference between our flag and the Aussie knock-off (yep, those Ockers rarely have an original idea). My parent's generation still regarded "God Save the Queen" as the national anthem and referred to the rain-sodden fields of Old Blighty as "the old country", despite both being born half a world away.

For people of my generation the nuclear-free legislation was a first taste of national self-assertion, beginning years earlier with opposition to nuclear testing. New Zealand sent a frigate to monitor French nuclear tests in the Pacific, bringing down the ire of France. Later France, in an illegal act of state-sponsored terrorism, sank the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour. How soon we forget.

The tea towel
Then there was the decision to bar nuclear armed ships from our harbours. Margaret Thatcher sent a high ranking women apparatchik, a toffee-nosed baroness, to tear strips off our then Prime Minister, David Lange, apparently under the illusion that the colonies must still conform to Downing Street. In a press conference following the meeting, fronted by the PM with the lady diplomat nowhere in evidence, Lange remarked that the British rep had probably left by broomstick.

Ah, the good old days.

Then, while our best buds, the craven Canberra crowd, huffed and puffed about our responsibility to do as we were told by the US, we were kicked out of the ANZUS defense pact. The result? Never had Kiwi patriotism been as prominent in peace time. Even today the conservative National coalition government cannot bring itself to repeal that legislation.

The bombed out hull of the Rainbow Warrior
But flag waving was never part of that. That was something other people did.

On the weekend, driving around the local area with some old friends, we saw flags flying in what, by Kiwi standards, can only be described as profusion. Today I counted three flags flying within a just block of home.

The reason? We're gearing up for a flag referendum. The choice is between the current flag and a tea-towel design.

What fascinates me is that every flag I've seen flying in recent days is the one we have now.

I don't know what this augurs for the final referendum. Public opinion is always a fickle thing, and I fear time will favour the tea towel (and in the upper-income LOMBARD* suburbs of Remuera and the North Shore I suspect the tea towel is indeed in evidence). But, as I pondered those flags proudly fluttering from nearby houses, I had to wonder whether the combination of Southern Cross and Union Jack meant something more than a backwards nod to our colonial heritage. Perhaps it's also the flag we associate with the progressive policies that have set us apart as New Zealanders over many years.

I don't have a flagpole. But if I did, I know which one I'd be flying.

(* LOMBARD: alternative to Yuppie; "Lots Of Money But A Real Dick".)

Friday, 18 December 2015

Are You an Evangelical?

'Evangelical' means many things, and in the best of worlds it would reflect the Reformation definition which basically means, to quote the words Bob Brinsmead used to devastating effect in his critique of Seventh-day Adventism, "judged by the Gospel".

But the buffoons at America's National Association of Evangelicals couldn't have that. In partnership with something called LifeWay Research they've cooked up their very own four-point formula.
1. The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe. 
2. It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
3. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin. 
4. Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
All of these statements are problematic. Worse, they run contrary to anything that might be described as genuine Christian theology; Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox. For these folk the Bible is their "paper pope", hallelujah, and their lives are circumscribed by sin and guilt passed down from imaginary forebears in a mythical garden. Worse, they turn faith into an act of assent that merits "eternal life"... like a bad TV offer, "free", but subject to conditions.

The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that this perversion of Christian faith is as big a "heresy" as any of the usual suspects. Indeed, maybe more-so.

It's not so much who's included in this definition, but who's excluded. But then 'evangelicals' have always been keen to reassure themselves that they're in the community of the saved by building walls to keep the riff-raff out; especially those who ask irritating questions.

More than a century ago a group of goofballs got together to publish "The Fundamentals", a series of papers published in twelve volumes and funded by a couple of oil company executives, thereby giving us the term fundamentalism. A hundred years later it seems nothing much has been learned by their spiritual descendants.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

ISSUU: Lapland, Europa's Oceans, the Celts

For anyone who hasn't yet been seduced by its allure, issuu is a fantastic way to enjoy publications, mainly magazines but also a range of books (some full, others samplers), both well known and obscure. This week, in the first of what might become a semi-regular series, here are a few of my recent discoveries.

BBC History: Vikings vs Anglo Saxons, Who were the Celts?, The Royal Navy's American Disaster. What's not to like in the full 100 page November issue? There might even be a few BI devotees who could profit from that Celts article.

Australian Geographic: Now that Rupert Murdoch has set about gutting National Geographic, it might be time to explore alternatives. The November-December issue of Australian Geographic has a distinct Aussie focus, but also some intriguing features for those beyond the Lucky Country, including Alien Oceans - love the artwork!

Blue Wings: The magazine of Finnair, helpfully published in English. The complete September issue has been uploaded featuring the violin makers of Cremona; the beaches of Brittany; Hoi An in Vietnam and the joys of pedaling through 21st century London. On a more Finnish note, trekking tours through Lapland. Airline magazines aren't to everyone's taste, but hey, how many people do you know who've thumbed through a copy of this one?

issuu takes a bit of getting used to, the search function is - shall we say - idiosyncratic, and the "suggestions based on everything you read" can often be eye-brow lifting, but it's nonetheless a great way to stay up to date with more magazines than you'll find in all the dentist's waiting rooms within a 100k radius. The iPad app is just brilliant.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Mythmaker: Of the Tribe of Benjamin

Chapter 9 begins the second section of Mythmaker, now focusing on Paul beyond the Damascus horizon. The story is familiar. En route to Damascus Paul (Saul) is struck down, blinded and converted to the faith he has heretofore persecuted.
"It was through this event that Jesus' movement changed from being a variety of Judaism into a new religion with a theology and myth distinct from those of Judaism."
But there are problems with the story. Unlike Judea, Damascus was not under Roman occupation or rule at the time, having been ceded by Caligula in CE 37. So what kind of mission could he have been on?

Here is where Maccoby gets, in my view, either overly creative or overly literal, depending on your point of view. He suggests that Paul did indeed strike out for Damascus, but his mission was not legal or officially sanctioned.
"Saul must have been on a clandestine mission to kidnap certain leading Nazarenes and bring them back to Judaea for imprisonment or for handing over to the Roman authorities."
The words "must have been" are injudicious. Such things indeed happen even today where client states turn a blind eye to the activities of foreign powers wishing to apprehend persons of interest on their territory. But is this what Paul was on about? This assumes a historicity that may not be much more than an ancient 007 tale.

Maccoby isn't finished. He turns to a fascinating verse in Galatians (3:14) which reads "in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." Creative commentators have wondered at Paul's identification here with Gentiles, almost as if he considered himself one. Maybe he's just one big cuddly ball of empathy? Not likely given his frequent rants.
"A better explanation... is that Paul here, in the heat of his emotion, has forgotten his persona as Pharisee, and has lapsed into his real identity and motivation."
That statement requires some backing up, but Maccoby has some further strings to this bow. One is the problem with Paul's claim to be a Benjaminite.
"As it happens, it was impossible for any Jew at this time to describe himself truthfully as of the tribe of Benjamin."
The reference here is to Romans 11:1 and Philippians 3:5.
"While it is true that part of the tribe of Benjamin survived in Palestine after the deportation of the Ten Tribes by Shalmaneser of Assyria, the Benjaminites later intermarried with the tribe of Judah to such an extent that they lost their separate identity and all became Judahites or Jews. Only the Levites, the priestly tribe, and that section of the Levites called the kohanim or priests (the descendants of Aaron) retained their identity because they needed to do so for cultic reasons."
So, what do we make of the claim? Sheer bluff.
"... when Paul described himself as 'of the tribe of Benjamin', this was sheer bluff, although the recipients of his letters, being Gentile converts to Christianity, were in no position to know this."
Again, Maccoby cites the Ebionites.
"According to the Ebionites, Saul's parents were Gentiles who had not been converted to Judaism [although he concedes they may have been 'God-fearers']; Saul himself, then, was the first of his family to be converted."
Again, perhaps Maccoby is stretching the evidence a little too far, but if he hasn't offended his Christian readers to the point of red-eared rejection, he certainly will have caught many off balance.

(This is the tenth part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

From Radio Dunedin to Radio Gaga

It seems hard to credit, given the current situation with radio in New Zealand, but once this country led the world in broadcasting innovation. In 1922 4XD (albeit under an earlier call sign) became our first radio station, the oldest in what was then called the British Commonwealth and the fifth oldest in the world (beating out the BBC by more than a month). In later years it was to become the sole privately owned station in the country, maintaining its independence through the tumultuous years of pirate station Radio Hauraki.

Some time ago the station, now an impressive 93 years old, was effectively hobbled by the US vulture fund-owned MediaWorks conglomerate, losing its main frequency to another MediaWorks franchise. More recently it seems to have regained some mojo, continuing to broadcast in Dunedin on AM and a low power FM frequency and enjoying a lot of home town support.

Arguably radio in New Zealand has been going downhill for the last several decades. Today local radio has been almost totally subsumed by demographically determined formulaic networks owned by MediaWorks and NZME. It gets worse: New Zealand was not only incredibly slow to introduce FM frequencies, years behind Australia, but digital radio of the calibre now available in Australia (DAB+) is still limited to what are euphemistically called "pilot transmissions" unavailable to most listeners. Moreover the current government continues to starve the public broadcaster, Radio New Zealand, of funding. That's without even mentioning the parlous state of television.

Of course, people with a bit of nous (and a reasonably healthy discretionary income definitely helps) can take advantage of new technologies to gain access to a broad range of quality broadcasters via the internet. But hearing Australian, British and Irish programming, for example, while refreshing, is hardly a substitute for quality local content. Australians justifiably complain about deep cuts to the ABC, but are still much better served than those of us on the other side of the ditch.

Meanwhile RNZ National struggles on doggedly, despite having its hands tied behind its back, while more and more Kiwis are driven to the advertising-soaked tosser network ghettos, "newstalk" formats with their gratuitously overpaid shock jocks and narcissistic harangues.

Yeah, I know, Grumpy Old Man stuff. But, alas, not far off the mark.

Meantime I'll be spending some time on Radio Dunedin's stream... while it's still there.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Luther 500 - Die Bibel and Ockers in Thuringia

The year of our lord 2017 is approaching, and the One True Protestant Communion - Lutheran obviously - is making preparations. It's almost 500 years since Brother Martin posted (in a pre-blogging sense) his 95 theses and thereby kick-started the Reformation on the last day of October 1517. Travel agents haven't been slow to cash in, intent on making a buck (or perhaps more to the point, a euro) out of visitors heading for the heritage sites in Germany. In my view a bunch of Australian Lutherans of Prussian descent in bush hats roaming free in Thuringia is a much scarier prospect than any Syrian refugees huddling on the border.

Anyway, as any good ex-Lutheran blogger would, even a ratbag like me, Otagosh will be providing an intermittent series on the events, starting with a link to this article on Luther's Bible. The impact of this translation is much under-appreciated in the English-speaking world, but arguably was (heck, there's no argument to it) a far greater accomplishment than the later King James Bible.

For the curious, you can find the Luther Bible online, in the original sacred German, complete from 1 Mose to Offenbarung.

But fear not, there'll be no hagiographies appearing here. Luther's lack of conventional saintliness is legendary. But he certainly was an interesting fellow (which isn't necessarily true of his imitators then or now).

The Journal - 178th issue

The November 30 issue of The Journal has been released, and can be downloaded in PDF form.

In this issue, news of an Ambassador College reunion scheduled for 2017 in Las Vegas. The organizer is Bob Gerringer (who in a past life was one of the founders of Ambassador Report. I guess advancing age really does ramp up the nostalgia). Alumni from Pasadena and Bricket Wood can visit a dedicated website for more information, while there's another with details for former Big Sandy students.

The first part of a personal account relating to his involvement in the church by the late David John Hill, a former WCG evangelist, gets a repeat outing in this issue.

Lest one gets the impression that this issue is the rose-colored spectacles edition, Brian Harris, an outspoken advocate of British Israel bullgeschichte, has contributed an article entitled "Why Did God Allow 9/11 and the Paris attack?" How myopically predictable is the content of that one! And yes, it completely lives up to the reputation for racist, jingoistic pabulum that characterizes BI.

Perhaps somebody should submit it to The Onion.

This issue runs to 16 pages, including the ad section, and includes a couple of reports from 2015 Feast sites including the Ian Boyne-led Jamaican CGI (not to be confused with GCI). Exactly what relationship the Boyne CGI has to the Texas mother church is unclear to me, but they certainly seem to operate out of their own rule book. Unusually for an Armstrong group, the Jamaican brethren were treated to a debate.
Our usual speaking competition had addressed the controversial matter of divorce and remarriage. This year was unusual as it became a real debate with one of the participants who disagrees with the church’s position given the opportunity to make a full presentation to show why the church is wrong. However, her arguments could not match those of Stephen Scale, the 2014 champion of the competition, who regained his title in a sensational presentation in which he debunked the view that there were no grounds for remarriage. Mr. Scale looked at the best arguments for the no-remarriage view, drawing on scholarly sources, and refuted all of them.
Well, let's give them credit. A "real debate". Can't see that being adopted by other splinter sects. Let's see, how about the CGI in Texas inviting Lonnie Hendrix to make a presentation at their feast site? Nope, can't imagine that. Mind you, lest we get carried away with just how enlightened this all is, Boyne's reporting seems just a tad gleeful don't you think? And did you notice that Scale gets acknowledged by name, but not his debate partner?

I wonder how long Ian spoke after Scale's rebuttal to ensure that everyone fully understood that the forces of righteousness had indeed triumphed?

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Pope Lenny in Waiting?

According to a posting on Gary Leonard's blog, the Living Church of God (LCG) has a new heir apparent, and it's no longer Rod Meredith's brother-in-law Richard Ames.

In what seems to be a scoop that beats LCG's ponderous PR machine to the punch, Gary reveals the new anointed one as Gerald Weston.

Ames, it seems, is suffering health problems and Meredith, himself weighed down with the infirmities of age, has felt the need to designate a new successor. If you were expecting the elevation of Jim Meredith or one of the second-stringers on the Tomorrow's World telecast you'd be disappointed. The Weston decision was rubber stamped at a recent meeting of LCG's Council of Elders and the dauphin is reportedly now in the process of relocating to the sect HQ in Charlotte, NC.

A shudder should be running up the collective LCG spine. Weston is, according to Gary, well known as a conservative hardliner in a church that is already somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun.

If Weston ascends to the Throne of Roderick what can we expect?

First, every new broom sweeps clean. While heavily emphasizing continuity, you can be sure that Gerry the Unready will want to make his mark swiftly. Already the soon to be announced dauphin will have his little list conveniently tucked into a jacket pocket. Those who are offside with the boss-in-waiting should be afraid, very afraid.

Second, LCG has a surfeit - a veritable glut - of ministers with an abundant sense of self entitlement, many of whom will consider themselves far more suitable for the task. Weston will not ascend to the pontificate without cost. Initially things may seem fine on the surface, but the currents of ambition run deep in hierarchical organizations as we've seen demonstrated again and again. Expect a blood-letting without months, perhaps weeks of the transition (and you couldn't entirely rule out days and hours).

There are even suggestions that Weston may be enthroned before Meredith shucks off this mortal coil, leaving the fomer Presiding Evangelist in an emeritus role. In Rome they locked away Benedict so he couldn't interfere in his successor's pontificate. Somehow, given Meredith's personality and history, this doesn't seem even remotely likely.

Finally, how will we cope with two COG prima donna leaders named Gerald? Gerry Weston or Gerry Flurry? What is clearly needed is a respectful and affectionate pet name for the new dauphin. In the comments section of Gary's blog there are a couple of possibilities. I admit that I had to google "Snidely Whiplash" to appreciate the reference - thanks for that image Douglas. Perhaps more telling is this recollection from Byker Bob.
During the years that I was at AC, Gerald Weston worked as a student custodian. He had a diminutive sidekick, and they had the type of friendship where they joked back and forth and had their own special sayings as they went through their work hours doing their jobs. 
Years later, when LaVerne and Shirley became a popular TV program, the first time I saw Lenny and Squiggy, I immediately thought of Gerald. Lenny looked very much like him. Of course, the similarity in appearance, and the jovial nature were where the comparison ended. Gerald seemed to be fairly intelligent, and was serious about his studies. The stuff that has happened over the decades within the Armstrong movement has been so surreal, that there is no way any of us back then could have mentally fast-forwarded the tape and anticipated the current state of affairs.
Lenny? Whataya think?

Mind you, there's many a slip between the announcement of an heir and the actual placement of the crown on their sacred bonce. But isn't it nice to know that the soap opera, with a longevity greater than The Simpsons, still hasn't completely played itself out? Fun times ahead!

(In 2013 I posted on the problems of Meredith's departure in a piece called The Irreplaceable Mr Meredith. Whether those comments need revision remains to be seen.)

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Guerrilla Bible?

Tim Bulkeley has a brief but intriguing teaser up on his excellent Sansblogue blog.
The battle for the Bible was over before war was even declared. Modernity won the battle, and people today (both Christians and Atheists) read Scripture using modern categories and methods. It is a history book, a manual, a book of poetry, full of myths and legends… all categories modernity imposed on Bible readers. 
But there is another way, guerilla reading. Reading the Bible as it was meant to be read. The Bible is God’s love letter to humanity. Along the way it tells the story of his dealings with a chosen people, his entry into human life in the child born at Christmas, his death on the cross and triumphant rising to new life as the Spirit of God filled the church…
I enjoy Tim's postings, even those that raise my eyebrows, as did this one. I really doubt that the Good Book can be described as "God's love letter to humanity", or that an escape into fictive and triumphalist heilsgeschichte is anything other than compounding the problems and then multiplying them by 10. Ye olde Grand Narrative seems to me to be an even more artificial construct than anything using modern categories and methods; more Magilla Gorilla than guerrilla.

But it seems Tim might have something deeper in mind. He continues.
This series will teach you to read the Bible as it was meant to be read, to discover God through the ancient words of Scripture and to apply that knowledge today. 
If you have read this far how does this sound as the sales pitch for a simple how-to series on reading the Bible? Does it claim too much? Is it too warlike? Or just fun?
So there's a series on the way (or is that a series on the Che?) Again, once bitten twice shy, my first thought was an image of the thrice-cursed Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course which, as I recollect, promised much the same thing. Can there even be such a thing as "a simple how-to series on reading the Bible"? So yup, the alarm bells went off immediately. Hardly fair, as Tim is a good guy and an informed, progressive and thoughtful bloke not given to proof-texting.

My answers to Tim's questions are therefore 'yes' (not a good thing), 'yes', 'no' (though I'm not sure what he means by 'warlike') and 'you must be kidding'.

But, as they say, watch this space.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Mythmaker: The Stephen Story

Stephen is the first Christian martyr. But is the account in Acts 7 reliable? Hyam Maccoby thinks not. The problem lies with the attribution of this execution to the Sanhedrin.
"The Sanhedrin was a dignified body that had rules of procedure, and did not act like a lynch mob. It would not suddenly switch the charges against a defendant, or drag him out for execution without even pronouncing sentence or formulating what he had been found guilty of."
The charge brought against Stephen - the same one that was brought against Jesus - was speaking against the temple. In fact Maccoby asserts that the Stephen account "is simply a double or repetition" of the earlier account. Both in Stephen's trial and in Jesus' this charge "is forgotten when the defendant bursts out during the trial with what is regarded as a blasphemous statement."
"Formal procedures are then thrown to the winds and the defendant is found guilty of an alleged crime committed during the trial itself, and different from the crime for which he was brought to trial in the first instance. This travesty of legal procedure in a body like the Sanhedrin... is clearly fictional."
What about the division scholars find between the Hellenistic faction, represented by Stephen, and the Jewish faction led by James and Peter? Maccoby is having none of it. This is simply a case of which language was spoken. The Hellenists were Greek speakers. The real division was between the 'activist' Nazarenes - the anti-Roman faction - and the quietist Nazarenes - those content to wait and hope for their lord's return without upsetting apple-carts in the here and now.

So what really happened? Maccoby is of the opinion that the story is not in fact created out of the whole cloth, and attempts to reconstruct the actual event. Paul was indeed involved in the execution of the radicalized Stephen, but was acting as an extra-juridical enforcer for the High Priest, a Roman collaborator. In this reading Stephen was seen as "a dangerous anti-Roman agitator." This seems to me a step too far into speculation, but does not undercut the critique that has already been offered. The Sanhedrin/Pharisee connection does indeed seem highly problematic.

(This is the ninth part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Jesus - Refugee Messiah

There's a lot of truth to this billboard graphic, posted outside St. Luke's Presbyterian Church in Auckland (report here). It's being described as 'controversial', though it's hard to see what could possibly be controversial in a Christian community drawing the public's attention to an issue related to the core values that Christians are supposed to uphold.

Jesus' family were, lest we forget, once refugees themselves, according to a literal reading of the gospel narratives. Fleeing from Herod, they moved to Egypt for sanctuary. I briefly commented on this in a letter submitted to the upcoming issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God, where such an act of compassion is apparently anathema to a large number of readers (see an earlier post here).

Bitter irony too in the Australian government's use of a distant locale known as "Christmas Island" as a detention centre for refugees.

(A nod of the noodle to the person, who I believe wishes to remain anonymous, who drew the billboard to my attention.)

Friday, 4 December 2015

Mythmaker: Paul's un-Pharisaic writings

(This is the eighth part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

Chapter seven sets out to deal to the portrayal of Paul's writings as bearing the influence of pharisaism. Maccoby begins by reiterating the problem of Christology.
[The] idea of 'being in Christ', which occurs frequently in Paul's letters, is entirely without parallel in Jewish literature ... this concept involves a relationship to the Divine that is alien to Judaism... The idea of 'being in Christ', however, can be paralleled without difficulty in the mystery cults.
To apply the name kurios or Lord in its divine sense to a human being who had recently lived and died on Earth would have seemed... sheer blasphemy. However, to the recipients of Paul's letters, the use of the term 'Lord' for Jesus would not have seemed shocking at all, for this was the regular term for deities in the mystery cults...
So on what basis is the claim made that Paul thinks and writes as a trained Pharisee? For Maccoby the answer is clear, the claim is specious.
Though many authors confidently assert that Paul's Epistles are full of Pharisaic expressions and arguments, few authors have made a serious attempt to substantiate this... it may safely be said that if people had not already been convinced that Paul was a Pharisee... no one would have thought of calling him a Pharisee or a person of 'rabbinic' cast of mind simply from a study of the Epistles.
Two pieces of evidence are often offered in support of Paul's Pharisee background. These are his qal-va-homer (a fortiori) arguments, and his use of midrash. Maccoby refutes both, referring to passages in Romans 5 and 11.
Paul, in his Epistles, is quite fond of using the a fortiori argument, and this has been regarded as incontrovertible proof of his Pharisee training... [however] Paul had no idea of the validity of this type of argument [in Jewish discourse]... Hellenistic writers, on the other hand, often used a fortiori reasoning, but only in a loose, rhetorical way... This is just the way that Paul uses such arguments.
Midrash is equally problematic, and Maccoby focuses on Galatians 3:13 and Romans 7:1-6 to illustrate the point.
The idea [in Galatians 3:13] that anyone hanged on a gibbet is under a curse was entirely alien to Pharisee thought, and the Pharisee teachers did not interpret the verse in Deuteronomy [21:23] in this way. Many highly respected members of the Pharisee movement were crucified by the Romans... [and] they were regarded as martyrs.
In Pharisee thought "the curse was placed not on the executed person, but on the people responsible for subjecting the corpse to indignity."

Referring to the verses in Romans 7, Maccoby is scathing.
... Paul is here trying to sound like a trained Pharisee. He announces in a somewhat portentous way that what he is going to say will be understood only by those who have 'some knowledge of law', and he is clearly intending to display legal expertise... In the event, he has produced a ludicrous travesty of Pharisee thinking. In the whole of Pharisee literature, there is nothing to parallel such an exhibition of lame reasoning.
Maccoby rounds of the chapter by noting that Paul, unlike any known Pharisee, is dependent on the Greek Bible, the Septuagint.
The indications from Paul's writings are that he knew very little Hebrew. His quotations from the Bible (which number about 160) are from the Greek translation... wherever the text of the Hebrew Bible differs from that of the Greek, Paul always quotes the text found in the Greek.
Which is an especially strange thing for someone with a Pharisee background to have done, as the Hebrew text was the only one regarded as authoritative. Maccoby concludes: "the allegedly profound Pharisaic style and atmosphere of Paul's writings is itself a legend."

Thursday, 3 December 2015

San Bernardino live

With today's chaos (still unresolved) in San Bernardino it seems incredible to someone of my generation, living half a world away, just how connected we all can be to unfolding events - especially those in other developed nations. With an appropriate app some random guy (yours truly) in a small town south of Auckland can follow rolling LA news coverage direct on ABC7 in real time on their home TV screen.

Even for those of us who are 'news junkies' there seems a fine line between taking the pulse of a live event and simple voyeurism. On November 13 the world was likewise able to follow the terrible events in Paris on France 24, unfiltered by the parochialism of national news sources.

The world is in so many ways a smaller place than it has ever been before. Take your pick of international news channels that are free-to-air to anyone with some fairly minimal technology. It blows my mind to think that youngsters growing up today will take all of this for granted.

We can only hope that the current situation will be brought to the best possible conclusion as soon as possible.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Mythmaker: Paul & Gamaliel

(This is the seventh part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

"Saint" Gamaliel
Significant to Maccoby's argument is the figure of Gamaliel, the leading Pharisee of his day.
"[There is a] failure of the narrative in Acts to make clear just how important a Pharisee Gamaliel was. It calls him 'a Pharisee called Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in high regard by all the people', but it does not make clear that he was the Pharisee leader of his generation, a vital link in the chain of Jewish tradition, one of the veritable Fathers of Judaism. To say that he was a secret Christian, in the sense meant, is like saying that Saint Thomas Aquinas was a secret Hindu."
The account referred to is in Acts 5. There are problems with the text, particularly the reference to Theudas who is anachronistic - his rebellion is too late (circa 45 CE) to be part of any speech of this sort. Allowing for this, Gamaliel's portrayal still seems a tolerant one toward Peter, reflecting a historical reality.
"... Gamaliel does not in any way condemn the apostles as heretics or rebels against the Jewish religion. He regards them instead as members of a Messianic movement directed against Rome." (Author's emphasis)
Gamaliel is an inconvenient character in the gospel narratives demonstrating, as Maccoby argues it, that the relations between the Nazarenes and their Pharisee brethren were benign. (The Catholic church later canonized Gamaliel. If you believe the legends, both he and his son were later baptized by Peter and John and his body, which miraculously came to light in the fifth century, is now resting in Pisa, Italy!) However for Maccoby it isn't 'Saint' Gamaliel who is the odd man out, it is Paul. This mutual tolerance between Pharisees and Nazarenes will all change as Paul steers Christianity in new directions.
"Paul's new scenario, in which the Jews no longer had a great role to play, and had indeed sunk to the role of the enemies of God, would have filled Jesus with horror and dismay." 
"According to the Ebionites, Saul was not a Pharisee and not even a Jew by birth. His parents in Tarsus were Gentiles, and he himself had become a convert and had thereupon journeyed to the Holy Land, where he found employment in the service of the High Priest."
Maccoby will flesh all this out later in the book. He rejects any attempts to see tell-tale indicators of a rabbinical approach in Paul's writings.
"The style of argument and thought in the Epistles of Paul, we have been repeatedly told, is rabbinical; Paul, though putting forward views and arguments which 'go far beyond' rabbinical thinking, uses rabbinical logic and methods of biblical exegesis in such a way that his education as a Pharisee is manifest. Beloved as this view is of scholars, it is entirely wrong, being based on ignorance or misunderstanding of rabbinical exegesis and logic."
It is to this point that Maccoby returns in chapter seven.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Mythmaker: A Political Execution

(This is the sixth part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

One of the key questions Maccoby poses is whether Jesus was crucified for his religious teachings (blasphemy) or as a political troublemaker and liability to the Roman administration and their Sadducee bedfellows. Chapter five briefly addresses this issue, and as usual Maccoby is taking no prisoners.
... the desperate attempts of the Gospels to show that Jesus was in some way a rebel against Jewish religion are utterly implausible...
So if Jesus was a Pharisee, what kind of Pharisee was he? Surely one with a progressive perspective?
... it does not even appear that Jesus did belong to the Hillelite, or more liberal wing of the Pharisees, for his strict view on divorce seems much more in accordance with the views of the House of Shammai... Jesus may well have belonged to the Hasidim, who, indeed, of all the Pharisees show the strongest similarity in type to Jesus...
In which case the trial accounts have been edited to cast blame at a safe distance from the Roman authorities.
The reason for Jesus' crucifixion, then, was simply that he was a rebel against Rome. He was not framed on a political charge by the Jews; rather it was the Jews who were framed by the Gospels, whose concern was to shift the blame for the crucifixion from the Romans (and their Jewish henchmen, the High Priest and his entourage) to the Jews and their religion.
It goes without saying that, for Maccoby, the Jesus of history was a very different character to the Jesus of the Gospel writers.

Theology fades

"Theology has reached the point of being a circular, nonsensical exercise in missing the point."

The quote comes from Ryan Bell, the high profile Adventist pastor (now ex-Adventist) who lived a "year without God", in his review of James Lindsay's new book Everybody Is Wrong About God. It's a book for those of us who are uncomfortable with the rigidity of both 'atheist' and 'theist' positions as they are usually presented. If you're somewhere in the borderlands between the two camps and looking for a third option, post-theism - "moving on to a post-theistic conversation about life itself", may resonate.

Lindsay "claims that atheism and theism exist in a kind of symbiosis, one enabling the existence of the other. Atheism is a not-thing; a negation. It exists as a counterpoint to theism and can only continue to be a distinct idea if the notion of theism is still a credible set of ideas. Escaping from this vortex is essential if we are to move to the important issues facing humanity and the planet. We do this, Lindsay argues, by calling the question on theism, pronouncing it dead, and then moving on to a post-theistic conversation about life itself—the actual psychological and social issues that are the very real issues keeping the idea of “God” alive."

Friday, 27 November 2015

Mythmaker: The Pharisee Messiah

(This is the fifth part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)
... Jesus did not in historical fact criticize the Pharisees in the way represented in the Gospels; he was indeed himself a Pharisee. The whole picture of Jesus at loggerheads with the Pharisees is the creation of a period some time after Jesus' death, when the Christian Church was in conflict with the Pharisees because of its claim to have superseded Judaism.
In chapter four Maccoby sets out to bolster his claim to turn the accepted narrative on its head. Not only was Paul, the ex-Pharisee, no such thing but Jesus, the nemesis of the Pharisees, was one of their number. Maccoby draws on the Sabbath sayings and stories in the gospels as evidence. "Jesus' celebrated saying, 'The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath,'... is found almost word for word in a Pharisee source." Jesus' clashes over sabbath teaching were not, according to Maccoby, with the Pharisees (as the gospels plainly state) but with the Sadducees. Why?
In fact, at the time that the Gospels were edited, the Sadducees had lost any small religious importance that they had once had... it was of the utmost importance to the Gospel editors to represent Jesus as having been a rebel against Jewish religion, not against the Roman occupation.
For Maccoby Luke 13:22 (where the Pharisees warn Jesus about a Herodian plot to have him killed) is a clear indicator that Jesus and the Pharisees were by no means at odds.
Why should the Pharisees, who, in previous stories, have been represented as longing for Jesus' death because of his sabbath healings, come forward to give him a warning intended to save his life?
And, for that matter, why did the Pharisees not bring any charges about sabbath breaking against Jesus in the accounts of his trial?

A Messiah claim was not sufficient to alienate Jesus from the Pharisees either, remembering that the title carried no claims to divinity. Other contemporary figures made the same claim, and none were accused of blasphemy. Another claim, to destroy then rebuild the temple, was likewise a non-issue.
... the Temple built by Herod was not expected by the Pharisees to last into the Messianic age. Jesus very probably did declare his intention of destroying the Temple and rebuilding it, for this is just what anyone seriously claiming to be the Messiah would do.
There is also an interesting discussion of the account of the disciples plucking corn on the sabbath (Mark 2) which brings a very different perspective to the story.

Does any of this 'prove' that Jesus was a Pharisee? That would be a high bar to clear. But it does indicate that Jesus and the Pharisees were by not so far apart as we might imagine.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Mythmaker: Pharisees

(This is the fourth part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

'Pharisee' is a byword for bad religion: judgmental, legalistic, conniving, self-righteous, hypocritical, unyielding. That's because Pharisees are portrayed that way in the gospels. They are Jesus' nemeses. Funny head-wear, scowls, beards...

But is this an accurate representation? Hyam Maccoby leaps to their defense in chapter three. Forget everything you thought you knew about the Pharisees; "this Gospel picture of the Pharisees is propaganda, not fact."

Forget, for example, the idea that they were always bickering among themselves about the fine points of doctrine and the Law: "decisions were made by a majority vote. Once a majority decision had been reached, the dissenting rabbis were required to toe the line and accept the result of the vote, not because they were regarded as refuted, but because of the principle of the rule of law, which was conceived in exactly the same terms as in parliamentary democracies today..."

But they "did not invest these decisions with divine authority." Opposing views were recorded for future use and reference. Difference of opinion "was itself an essential ingredient of their concept of the religious life, rather than a danger to it."

"A wide variety of views was tolerated by the sages and their successors, the rabbis, without any accusations of heresy."

Forget the idea of a mindless devotion to the Temple; that's the Sadducees. "The Sadducees turned for leadership to the priests and especially the High Priest." The Pharisees saw these offices as of lesser significance.
Even the High Priest was regarded as a mere functionary, and had no authority to pronounce on matters of religion. It was a Pharisee saying that 'a learned bastard takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest', and most High Priests were in fact regarded by the Pharisees as ignorant.
Christian churches tend to combine ceremonial roles (the Archbishop of Canterbury for example) with teaching roles. "[In] Judaism these two roles have always been distinct..."

Think back to the clash between the established priesthood and the anti-establishment prophets in the Old Testament. The rabbis saw themselves as heirs of the prophets, and left the priestly role to the politically compromised Sadducees.

There's little doubt that Maccoby has the side of the angels in arguing this. The evidence points away from the stereotypes we find in the gospels. Whether it reaches as far as portraying the Pharisees in such a positive light that they seem so thoroughly tolerant and enlightened is perhaps moot, but a bit of overstating (and Maccoby seems prone to overstating) is understandable when confronted with an edifice of misrepresentation that he's up against.

How all of this relates to Maccoby's contention that Paul was never a Pharisee, while Jesus was, will become apparent as he progresses in setting out his position.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Mythmaker: 6 propositions

(This is the third part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

In chapter two Maccoby briefly sets out to provide an overview of where he's going.

1. "Paul was never a Pharisee rabbi, but was an adventurer of undistinguished background... He deliberately misrepresented his own biography in order to increase the effectiveness of his missionary activities."

That's not mincing words. Taking away the inflammatory rhetoric, the basic proposition is that Paul was never a Pharisee.

2. "Jesus and his immediate followers were Pharisees."

Now there's a thought to conjure with, running very much against the grain. Obviously he'll need to build a strong case in order to convince most readers.

3. "The first followers of Jesus... were called the Nazarenes... indistinguishable from the Pharisees, except that they believed in the resurrection of Jesus, and that Jesus was still the promised Messiah."

That seems to be a fairly uncontroversial point, though big news to most lay Christians.

4. "Paul, not Jesus, was the founder of Christianity as a new religion which developed away from both normative Judaism and the Nazarene variety of Judaism."

Again, nothing really new here, at least to students of early church history, though the consensus position would be that the Gentile church followed the lead of the Holy Spirit while the Jewish church was incapable of such change. Paul, in the standard narrative, was the one who was forging ahead while the Jerusalem-led church stagnated. That of course moves beyond the facts to a winners' narrative. Maccoby wants us to pull off the apologetic glasses and take a new look.

5. The testimony of the Ebionites (as recorded by Epiphanius) provides solid historical information about the real Paul who "had no Pharisaic background or training; he was the son of Gentiles, converted to Judaism, in Tarsus, came to Jerusalem when an adult, and attached himself to the High Priest as a henchman."

6. "The Ebionites were not heretics, as the church asserted, nor 're-Judaizers', as modern scholars call them, but the authentic successors of the immediate disciples and followers of Jesus..."

Maccoby is not using nuanced language here, and building his conclusions and judgments into his argument from the start. Many of us would much prefer to see the case laid out before we reach our own conclusions. But there's no denying that the reader is in for an invigorating journey, with more than one bucket of icy water thrown in their face along the way. I'm happy with that. Bring it on!

Next time we'll delve into the third chapter, The Pharisees, as Maccoby seeks to put flesh on his argument.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Doctor Who - Face The Raven

Clara - no sign of Harry Potter
A bit out of character for me, but a couple of quick observations on this morning's (tonight's in the UK... I watched on a BBC1 stream) episode of that most unpredictable and inconsistent of British sci-fi series, Doctor Who.

Derivative? Remember Diagon Alley from the Harry Potter franchise? Imitation, so they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. Down into a hidden street of London goes the Doctor, Clara and... well, let's not trespass too far into a "spoiler alert". I'll only say that I'll be counting my steps next time I'm in Auckland's Queen Street.

James McGrath regularly finds faith-based themes in Doctor Who. With this episode, yet to air in New Zealand and the US (though it won't be far off), he should really knock himself out. Substitutionary atonement anyone? Maybe even a reprise of the old Protestant dichotomy (not very soundly based) between the supposedly rigid demands of Old Testament-style law and compassion.

But don't expect a satisfying resolution. Maybe next week, or the week after. This is 3-part story.

Interviewed yesterday on Graham Norton's BBC chat show, Peter Capaldi was giving nothing much away, except to say that the show would be "sad" and confirming that this would be Clara's swan song as the Doctor's companion.

And yes, this episode pulled out all the stops to take the viewers on an emotional ride from something akin to an extreme sports rush (Clara hanging out of the Tardis above London on an adrenaline high) to the final denouement.

Who's the Doctor's new sidekick? Capaldi wouldn't tell Norton, and even after seeing the show we still don't know. Next week?

I'm looking forward to James' analysis.

(If you're outside the UK and have yet to catch Face the Raven, there's a "spoiler alert" article at Digital Spy.)

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Herman's Pyramid Hooey

What's the connection between Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson and late evangelist Herman Hoeh of the Worldwide Church of God?

Pyramid speculation anyone?

From an article by David Krueger on Religion Dispatches.

The writings of one Joseph-built-the-pyramids enthusiast reveals some clues about what might be at stake in Carson’s firm embrace of his beliefs.

In 1964, the evangelist Dr. Herman Hoeh wrote an article titled “Who Built the Great Pyramid” in a Worldwide Church of God magazine called The Plain Truth. Hoeh begins his article emphasizing the impressive size of the pyramid and the mathematical precision with which it was constructed. He notes that the Great Pyramid is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and that a pyramid, minus a capstone, is imprinted on U.S. currency. Additionally, he claims that the citizens of the U.S. are the descendants of Joseph’s son Manasseh. Very quickly, we get a glimpse of Hoeh’s interests in writing about the pyramid:

"We found the external appearance of the Great Pyramid ruined by the Arabs. For centuries they have carted away and used the polished white casing stones which once made the Pyramid gleam in the sun and moonlight."

He also cites another example of Arab mismanagement of the pyramid stating that after the “Moslem Arabs” invaded Egypt, they further vandalized the “architectural wonder” when they “blindly cut into the pyramid hoping to find buried treasure in it.”

Hoeh goes on challenge the scholarly consensus about the identity of the known builder of the pyramid, the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu (or as he’s known in the Greek, Cheops). First, Hoeh exploits some of the uncertainty about Khufu’s family line by asserting that he was not Egyptian, but instead came from a foreign sheep-herding people who were of a “different race.”

Hoeh then asserts that Cheops was not an “idolater” like other Egyptian pharaohs. To the contrary, he says, Cheops worshipped God under the name “Amen,” which he notes is later used to refer to Jesus Christ in the Book of Revelation 3:14. Furthermore, although scholars have dated the rule of Cheops to the 26th century B.C.E., Hoeh claims that he built the Great Pyramid almost one thousand years later during the time of the seven-year famine, spoken of in the Book of Genesis, when Joseph took up residency in Egypt and assisted the pharaoh in leading during a time of crisis. And what is the true identity of Cheops? In Hoeh’s mind, it is none other than Job, another character from the Hebrew Bible.

Hoeh’s historical claims are clearly flawed and easily debunked, but he succeeds in crafting a narrative that inserts revered figures of the Biblical tradition into the starring roles of Egypt’s history. Hoeh’s assertion that Egypt’s most revered structure was built by the Israelites Job and Joseph is followed by a territorial claim. The Great Pyramid, says Hoeh, was constructed by the Biblical Job with the help of Joseph “to commemorate what Joseph did for Egypt and to mark the border of the territory given to Joseph’s family in the land of Egypt by Pharaoh.” The land granted to the patriarchs of Israel “extends westward from Palestine to the Nile River” and includes the Suez Canal even though “Egypt has [wrongly] seized control of it.”

Hoeh concludes with his hope that one day the Great Pyramid will be recognized by modern Egyptians as a monument to the true God, Amen, a.k.a. Jesus Christ, the capstone depicted on U.S. currency. Given his earlier association of Joseph as a forefather of Americans, it’s not hard to imagine that Hoeh hopes for a Middle East more greatly influenced by Christianity and U.S. foreign policy. (End of excerpt. The 1964 Hoeh article is still available online.)

Few 21st century adherents of Armstrongism are aware that Herbert Armstrong once toyed with "pyramidology" - the idea that the Great Pyramid was "prophecy written in stone" complete with measurements in "pyramid inches" - after reading British Israel texts such as Great Pyramid Proof of God (George Riffert, Destiny Publishers, 1932). After actually visiting the pyramids himself on a tithe-funded junket in the 1960s Armstrong emerged disillusioned and dropped the pyramid nonsense - as presumably did Hoeh and his tour-buddy Meredith.

Which may well prove that Herb was a smarter cookie than the Seventh-day Adventist brain surgeon.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Mythmaker: An Unlikely Pharisee

(This is the second part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

Paul, the converted Pharisee? How likely is that? Not very if you follow Hyam Maccoby's argument. In the second part of chapter one he introduces preliminary evidence to the contrary.

The "pre-conversion" Paul is said to be following the orders of the High Priest in Jerusalem, yet the High Priest was a Sadducee.
How is it that Saul, allegedly an enthusiastic Pharisee ('a Pharisee of the Pharisees'), is acting hand in glove with the High Priest?
It's a bit like asking a devout Shia Muslim to follow the directives of a Sunni Grand Mufti. (Maccoby will delve into the relationship between Pharisees and Sadducees at greater depth later in the book).

But there are further problems.
... Paul is represented as saying that he 'cast his vote' against the followers of Jesus, thus helping to condemn them to death. This can only refer to the voting of the Sanhedrin or Council of Elders, which was convened to try capital cases; so what Luke is claiming here for his hero Paul is that he was at one time a member of the Sanhedrin. This is highly unlikely, for Paul would surely have made this claim in his letters, when writing about his credentials as a Pharisee, if it had been true.
Paul is never one to shy away from self promotion, even when he's boasting of his humility. Given this degree of braggadocio it's hard to imagine he wouldn't have played this very impressive trump card.

Maccoby doesn't buy the commonly accepted Christian narrative that Paul was only claiming to be an ex-Pharisee who saw the light and then dumped on his former Pharisaic faith. Paul's motivation was to use his assumed credentials as a Pharisee to exalt his status and to add legitimacy to the transition from Judaism to a largely Hellenistic faith.

As chapter one concludes Maccoby takes a parting shot at one of the most influential Christian scholars in this field.
In modern times, scholars have laboured to argue that Paul's doctrines about the Messiah and divine suffering are continuous with Judaism as it appears in the Bible, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and in rabbinical writings (the best-known effort of this nature is Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, by W.D. Davies).
Clearly Maccoby is of a different opinion. Why is this important?
So Paul's claim to expert Pharisee learning is relevant to a very important and central issue - whether Christianity, in the form given to it by Paul, is really continuous with Judaism or whether it is a new doctrine, having no roots in Judaism, but deriving, in so far as it has a historical background, from pagan myths of dying and resurrected gods and Gnostic myths of heaven-descended redeemers.
You can almost hear the sharp intake of breath from the world of privileged Christian scholarship.

And we're only up to page 14!

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Mythmaker: Preface and Chapter One

This is the first part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.

Maccoby sets out his intentions in the Preface.
I have used the rabbinical evidence to establish... that Paul, whom the New Testament wishes to portray as having been a trained Pharisee, never was one.
In this undertaking there would be few more qualified than Maccoby, a Fellow of Leo Baeck College, London and a specialist in the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

And later.
I have returned to one of the earliest accounts of Paul in existence, that given by the Ebionites, as reported by Epiphanius.
This then is a unique brief, but clearly not one that should be regarded as beyond the pale.

With the first chapter, The Problem of Paul, we get an interesting angle on the apostle. Maccoby is neither a Christian nor a Christian apologist, and he isn't even faintly interested in politely genuflecting in that direction.
Paul claimed that his interpretations were not just his own invention, but had come to him by personal inspiration; he claimed that he had personal acquaintance with the resurrected Jesus, even though he had never met him during his lifetime. Such acquaintance, he claimed, gained through visions and transports, was actually superior to acquaintance with Jesus during his lifetime...
Anybody want to argue that one?

The erasure of James and his brothers from prominence in the gospels indicates for Maccoby that the ground had shifted. These people, who actually knew the Jesus of history, regarded Paul as an upstart and his gospel as a misrepresentation.

Paul is said to have hailed from Tarsus, but this is something he is reticent about revealing in his own writings.
The impression he wished to give, of coming from an unimpeachable Pharisaic background, would have been much impaired by the admission that he in fact came from Tarsus, where there were few, if any, Pharisee teachers and a Pharisee training would have been hard to come by.
Maccoby is asking, basically, if Paul cooked his CV.
The fact that this question is hardly ever asked shows how strong the influence of traditional religious attitudes still is in Pauline studies. Scholars feel that, however objective their enquiry is supposed to be, they must always preserve an attitude of deep reverence for Paul, and never say anything to suggest that he may have bent the truth at times, though the evidence is strong enough in various parts of his life-story that he was not above deception when he felt it warranted by circumstances.
Them is fighting words, but it's a relief to see somebody putting it out there in plain language. Those who have paddled in the academic puddles of theology know that this is a pretty fair summation of the situation - and degree programmes at secular universities (and yes, I'm remembering classes at Otago) are far from exceptions.

Only in six pages and my appetite was well whetted.

More from the first chapter next time.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Selling off Ted - COGabilia auction

Out in East Texas y'all can pick up some Garner Ted memorabilia tomorrow. Down at the Cherokee County Showbarn estate items are being auctioned off, "rain or shine". Portraits of Ted and Loma, a tiger skin rug (complete with tiger head - presumably bagged by the great white hunter himself), antique rifles, zulu shield, a really ugly clock, a really ugly rooster (I'm exercising some painful self restraint in choosing that particular noun), gym equipment, more rifles, a rifle cabinet... gives a whole new meaning to "bang for your buck".

But before y'all get too excited, the auction is on a Saturday. This Saturday... the Sabbath. Guess that means nobody from the alphabet soup sects will be able to turn up on pain of losing their salvation, and it'll be pagan Sunday-keepers and NRA members who'll walk off with the holy objets d'art.

What would Garner Ted Armstrong himself have made of it all?

However, you can give the goodies a once-over online anyway.

Thanks to Reg for the link.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Spanky through the decades

Few figures have been as influential in the ongoing soap opera of Armstrongism as Roderick Meredith. Gary Leonard draws attention to a chronology of Meredith's life and ministry from a critical and completely unauthorized source. Let's face it, if it was authorised it would be useless given the apologetic imperative, so this was a necessary decision. It could well be a valuable resource for those intending to write an obituary for the great man, a task probably not too far distant.

Accepting that this is not a friendly assessment of the man some refer to as "Spanky", a moniker I modestly claim credit for, the author ("Redfox") has taken pains to get accurate information and provide links to much of the reference material that's available online, some from church literature, some not. It's a project that should be appreciated by many whose lives have been impacted by Meredith - which is basically anyone who has had connections with the former Worldwide Church of God, let alone one of Meredith's splinter sects (the Global Church of God and the Living Church of God). I picked up a few items of information that were new to me, and was intrigued to find my name cited a couple of times along with links to my retired blog Ambassador Watch.

To offer a little positive criticism, there's a bit of editing and proof reading still needed. While it's clearly titled Roderick Meredith - A Biographical Sketch on the inside pages, the all important title page features a howler of a typo: Roderick Meredith - A Biological Sketch. (Now there's a disturbing image.) That needs fixing quick smart. It would be great to get someone to run through the complete text with an editor's eye; there's not a writer on the planet - including the professionals - who should pass on this stage.

And - an old bugbear of mine - a lot of credibility gets flushed away if a researcher uses an obvious pseudonym. Better to simply keep it anonymous, but best to provide a real name. This is a valuable enough project to be cited, and a cut-down email moniker will dissuade serious writers from doing that.

But those are minor quibbles. My compliments to "Redfox" - well done. I'd love to see it in PDF format too. You can access the ebook either through the link on Gary's blog above, or directly here.

Addendum: the text, according to a comment by the writer posted on Gary's blog, dates back to 2009. The ebook production, just released, is the work of Douglas Becker.


It's taken me thirty years to get around to it, but I've finally settled in to read Hyam Maccoby's The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (1986). It's fair to say that this was not a popular work in Christian circles, despite Maccoby's strong qualifications in the field of Jewish and Christian history. The reason, one suspects, had little to do with his theses, but a lot to do with his direct and blunt approach to the subject; what one reviewer called his pugilistic tone. In an age when Jewish and Christian scholars are studiously gracious toward each other in public discourse, Maccoby lobbed in a hand grenade. Critics included John Gager, Oskar Skarsaune and James Dunn. I haven't yet had the opportunity to read Gager's critique, but Skarsaune is a conservative apologist with ties to Messianic Judaism and whose work I am both familiar with and thoroughly unimpressed by. Dunn was, it seems, more appalled by what he saw as "a regrettable return to older polemics" than the quality of Maccoby's reconstruction.

I confess that, in matters of both history and theology, I prefer plain language, and if there's a valid point to make then "hard-hitting" is no bad thing. Mythmaker is a passionate account of the origins of Christianity as it was reinvented (so Maccoby argues) by Paul. Plain language doesn't guarantee either credibility or accuracy of course, but it lets the reader make a decent assessment minus the complication of the standard weasel words. On this count Maccoby (who died in 2004) is at the very least refreshing.

Mythmaker has been out of print for a very long time - which goes some way to explaining my thirty year delay! His more recent book Jesus the Pharisee (2003) went over some of the same territory but without the pyrotechnics, and is less likely to raise anyone's blood pressure. Over the next several days I hope to share some thoughts and observations on Mythmaker a chapter at a time.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Journal - 177th issue

The latest edition of The Journal: News of the Churches of God is out.

Most of us would find it hard to imagine how a sermon promoting compassion for refugees would be something controversial, but apparently that's not the case down in Texas. A Feast message by Daniel Botha has provoked a reaction as "he swam against the current of the majority opinion in the Churches of God, at least those in this country [the US]". Botha asserted many wicked things that clearly irked his hearers, reminding them that the US is a country of immigrants, the "trail of tears" of Native Americans and past bias against Americans of Jewish, Polish, Japanese and Chinese ancestry. The nerve of the man!

"... we should practice what Jesus said we should be doing: We should take care of the stranger, feed the hungry, give something to drink to the thirsty, bind up the wounded and encourage the brokenhearted."

Goes without saying I'd have thought. This reaction though from Mac Overton.

"As it applies to the start of the Millennium, the principles are fine. But, and I may be selfish, I don’t plan to be at the Rio Grande welcoming Obama’s tattoo-covered thugs into my country, and definitely not my household. If Mr. Botha wants to invite them into his home, that’s his right and privilege. And it should be the obligation of all politicians who support Obama’s alleged immigration policy."

Guess he won't be voting Democrat. (Elsewhere in this issue, it's only fair to note, Mac has a nice review of the NPR interview with Glynn Washington.)

Bob Thiel has written his own press release with the grandiose title "Church leaders meet at CG7 HQ in Denver." Church leaders? Well, Bob sashayed up to former CoG7 president Robert Coulter for a handshake and photo op. Who was the other leader? Uh, guess it was Bob. Not a formal discussion or even an arranged discussion as far as one can tell. Bob just bowls up and blathers about how he's confused about what are and are not CoG7 churches in parts of Africa; as we say in this part of the world, "cheeky bugger!" Next time Bob is sighted I suggest the lads in Denver go into immediate lock-down mode.

And yes, there are Feast reports. Wouldn't you know it, Thiel's micro-me sect leads the listings. Guess he was keen to be in first and trump everyone else... what a busy little bee. New Zealand's Thiel site features prominently with a massive turnout of thirteen. Thirteen!

Somewhat surprising to see an article by Wade Fransson, a former WCG minister who has hopped more ecclesiastical fences than you'll find in a Kiwi back paddock - and was, last time I checked, involved in the Baha'i Faith. Wade encourages us to think of the kingdom of God and the covenants as fractals.

I think he missed a golden opportunity for word-play with fracking and fractious. Well, at least in a COG context fractal theology (yup, there is such a thing, just ask Mr Google) is a new thought.

The Journal notes the passing of Bob Fahey, once a prominent figure in the WCG. Sadly Bob died during the Feast this year. Also passing on in tragic circumstances, also at the Feast, was ICG elder Frank Scherich. The Journal notes that he "served as a pilot for Garner Ted Armstrong in the 1970s in California and Texas." Both men have substantial obituaries in this issue.

As always you can download the complete issue in PDF format.