How do you see the world? The ancient Hebrews had no single word for the material space we occupy, such as "world" or "cosmos." The parts of our material space they described simply as heaven and earth (Genesis 1:1); heaven, earth, and sea (Exodus 20:11); heaven, earth, and water under the earth (Exodus 20:4); heaven, earth, sea, and the deep (Psalm 135:6). The earth was like a saucer surrounded by water and resting upon water (Genesis 1:1, 6-8) or foundational pillars (Proverbs 8:27-29). In short, there was a bit of firmament sheltering a flat earth from a surrounding watery chaos.
The Creator saw everything that had been made "and behold it was very good" (Genesis 1:31).
You know what happened next. Adam breaks the Creator's one rule (Genesis 2:17), and as a result he and Eve were banished from the good life in the Garden of Eden. Life outside the Garden was difficult, threatening, and ended in death (Genesis 3:16-19).
The Apostle Paul uses the banishment of Adam and Eve to explain why human beings die. They die because of Adam's sin (Romans 5:12-14, 17). And perhaps even the physical creation was also affected by his sin, for Paul describes the creation as being in bondage to decay waiting for redemption (Romans 8:18-21).
Today even the most ardent Bible believer knows that this ancient story is mythical because they have seen photographs taken from the moon of our blue and white, more-or-less spherical, planet surrounded by limitless space in a cosmos of billions of galaxies and planetary systems—with not a drop of water around it.
The world into which Adam and Eve, the progenitors of humanity, were forced has a bizarre landscape. Things are not what they seem on the surface. Horrid demons lurked about (satyrs, Leviticus 17:7; the night demon Lilith, Isaiah 34:14; the noonday devil, Psalm 91:6). For the one sharing the Bible view of world there is a plethora of such demonic entities and evil forces that must be negotiated. For example, the Prince of the Power of the Air (Eph 2:2; John 14:30, 16:11) leads a consortium of demons and evil spirits that threaten harm to human beings.
We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12).
Evil and unclean spirits fall upon humans unawares, possess them, and cause them to behave insanely (Mark 5:1-10); they infect them with deafness, muteness (Mark 9:25), infirmity (Luke 13:11), and epilepsy (Matthew 17:15-18); they empower in them the black art of divination (Acts 16:16) and the performance of signs (Revelation 16:13-14), and even cause prophets to lie (1 Kings 22:21-23)—and who knows how much more. Satan can even transform himself into an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), so that a person never knows if s/he deals with a good or evil force. There is also a cadre of good spirits and angels at work in the world; a Great Spirit assigns angels to watch over "little ones" (Matthew18:10).
Fortunately certain human beings, empowered by benevolent spirits can combat these evil forces. For example, Jesus gave his disciples authority to cast out unclean spirits (Matthew 10:1) and in addition commissioned them "to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers" (Matthew 10:7). In other words the world is a place of constant struggle between the spiritual forces of good and evil, and the contested territory is precisely the mind, health, and behavior of human beings—at least that is what the Biblical writers want us to believe.
Strange things happen in the Biblical world: axe heads float (2 Kings 6:4-7), donkeys talk (Numbers 22:21-30), the dead won't stay dead (Matthew27:51-54), people defy gravity and walk on water (Mark 6:45-52), on command the earth stops rotating (Joshua 10:12-14), snakes carry on conversations (Genesis 3:1-5). There are magic cloths that heal diseases and drive out evil spirits (Acts 19:12; Mark 5:24-30).
I don't find the world I live in to be as described in the Bible. I have never personally encountered the spiritual forces. True, the world I live in is dangerous, but pretty bland when compared to the world seen through the eyes of the Biblical writers. My life and welfare are always at risk from natural forces and even nature itself, but I have never been threatened with harm by evil spirits or demons. I have never met an angel. In the world as I experience it people who die stay dead, and day passes into night with amazing regularity.
Did a world, such as described in the Bible, ever actually exist, do you suppose? Or did it only exist in the imaginations of the ancient writers and in the minds of those who choose to believe them?
What kind of world do you live in?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
See "Wry Thoughts about Religion" Blog: March 13, 2013.
Thanks for such an interesting detailed commentary and presentation. Makes one feel like we're really dealing with something substantive, as we are!
I wonder if 2000 years from now someone will look back on the year 2016 and say, "Did a world, such as described in 2016, ever actually exist, do you suppose? Or did it only exist in the imaginations of the ancient writers and in the minds of those who choose to believe them?
I'm sure each age must feel real to the experiencing self. I wonder if there is a common thread to all three eras and what it might be? How about the war between good and evil?
From my perspective, the authors of the various books of the Bible certainly thought that the world they described existed. Obviously, they were wrong in some instances, as were many in the ancient world to what we know today.
To look at it another way, even in what could be called "modern times," there were people in the various European countries, who believed in the existence of vampires. We might call their belief a "superstition," but to them the existence of vampires was as real as the rising and setting of the Sun.
I couldn't help but comment on this. Do you really think that Ezra when writing the Pentateuch thought that pardes was shaped like a Persian garden? I guess I am wondering whether the ancient Hebrews were really as naive as we imagine them to be. Was the Pentateuch a literal account of the day to day happenings since the world was created or were they wily enough (like Jacob) to construct a 'pretend account' about how the world was in order to disguise something else - something that might have made the Persians, their rulers at the time very unhappy about their subjects.
I just tend to think that we underestimate the sophistication of Ezra.
Charlie, I'm glad you pointed out that it was Paul who used the banishment of Adam and Eve to "explain" why human beings die (and suffer as well.) Orthodox Jews do not believe in the concept of Original Sin. To them, sin is a conscious choice. The idea of self-responsibility and self-empowerment repulsed most humans such Paul, who had to have an excuse for his shortcomings... "It's not my fault, I was born with the propensity to sin... So sin isn't really a choice, it's a habit." Paul and his followers had to blame negative circumstances on something other than their own choice and their own belief-system, which stated that evil can somehow assert itself into your experience completely uninvited... It can just happen out of the blue.
The concept that "Life doesn't happen to you- it responds to you" was totally foreign. (When you have a negative focus, you can attract a negative situation.) Boogey-men and "sinful flesh" (i.e. sarx) and had to be the cause of their undeseverd suffering. Many fear-based religious belief systems resulted from this mindset... Unbeknownst to Paul, fear in and of itself is what attracts the negative circumstances and suffering. Elizabeth
PS: Bonus question for Gene and Charlie- what is the difference (if any) between Paul being "inspired" by the Holy Spirit in his writings- and Paul receiving divine revelation (via intuition) in his writings. Is there any difference between "inspired" and "intuition?" I've heard people say Paul's letters are inspired by the Holy Spirit and wondered what they meant.
After learning the scientific view of the world in religious studies classes, life became joyful because there were no demons nor any other form of life that was out to get me. No more looking under beds at night or going through my closets. I became so powerful knowing I was in charge. I could read the real history of a culture realizing all the peoples here on this ball called earth had many belief systems that were just as valid as mine. The world is a better place now that I see reality. My heaven exists here with me twenty-four hours a day. If there is another planet for us after our bodies disintegrate, I have another adventure to look forward to. Meanwhile I enjoy my life more now than when I was young..
Hi Elizabeth, you ask if there is any difference in Paul's writings between inspiration by the Holy Spirit and receiving divine revelation.
I would suggest that we must look to what is grounded in Paul's psychological transformation, wherein the struggle with the commands of the law vs. faith/trust in Christ was resolved in favor of the latter. Paul, himself disagrees with me on the psychological transformation theory, calling his experience a revelation, i.e., "God...was pleased to reveal his Son to me." (Galatians 1:16).
Trust in Christ produces the gift of the Holy Spirit and produces behavior for which we have no command: e.g., love, patience, etc. So inspiration by the Holy Spirit looks as if it is a direct result of Paul's psychological breakthrough (Or if you prefer Paul's view, the revelation).
Otherwise, in Galatians 2:1 Paul went up to Jerusalem by revelation, i.e., a personal conviction inspired by an outside source.
And then in 2 Corinthians 12:7 (1-10) we have something different. Paul speaks of the elation associated with an overwhelming number of revelations, apparently visionary mystical experiences of unclear content; he says that he was brought back to the reality of weakness in Christ by a thorn which the Lord refused to remove.
So my view is that inspiration seems to be a product of Paul's psychological transformation, and revelation seems to be a personal decision coming from an outside source, i.e., God, or mystical experiences of limited value, and from an ambiguous source.
Good Morning Gene,
My own view is that people basically decide for themselves what the world is like. And the world they believe exists actually does exist--for them! And we must always remember what one person may consider to be superstition turns out to be in the view of another person a spiritual reality. So today at one and the same time there are many views of world. Fortunately, most of these views of world are mental constructs, so we can ignore all of them we choose with impunity, except for those elements that have clear physical consequences, such as gravity for example.
Good afternoon Elizabeth,
You asked me about the difference between intuition and revelation. The bottom line answer is: in the long run there is probably no difference for people of faith. But in the short term here is how the difference between the two words seems to me: intuition I understand to be a human reaching out to something unknown; inspiration I see as a supposed divine reaching out to a human subject. But since everything that happens in this process (if it is a process) occurs only in the mind of the human subject, I see no way of sorting out a clearly uninfluenced human thought from a supposed divine infusion of thought--if Gods there be. Here are two examples of a divine reaching out: Revelation 1:1-2; Matthew 2:12. Here are two examples of human intuition at work: 1 Samuel 3:7-8; 2 Samuel 12:18-19.
I favor a relational approach. Each person does decide for themselves what the world is like, but isn't our only hope that world views change in response to interacting with one another?
Good Morning Stephan,
Good of you to join the discussion. I want to clarify your beginning example a bit for readers who might not be familiar. Late Biblical Hebrew uses an old Persian word Pardes (meaning enclosure, park, garden). The English word Paradise appears to be derived from it. Pardes is translated in different ways by translators in the texts in which it appears in the Jewish Scriptures (Nehemiah 2:8; Song of Songs 4:13, Ecclesiastes 2:5). See Charlesworth, Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5:154.
Alas, I am not able to answer your question, not being a mind reader of even those people closest to me--much less the minds of paper characters whose names appear in ancient texts.
Yes I think you are correct, although I might say it a little differently. The purpose of education (which is the opposite of indoctrination) enables students to clear out underbrush a bit and make up their own minds about things. Growing up we inherit the positives but also the negatives--such as (for example) the prejudices of parents, the biases of religious instruction, and the mores of the communities that nurture us. Critical thinking such as it occurs in public education in the West can help us sort out our own views from that we inherited. I call your attention to Sandy's comment above.
Gene, thank you for pointing out a third vehicle of Paul's communication from God- the out of body astral projection into the third heavens in 2 Corinthians. He received his insights from God in a variety of ways. I also agree with that it was a "psychological breakthrough/transformation" process for him. These mystical experiences did indeed have a profound effect upon his psyche. I wonder what you think of Richard Holloway's analysis?
"Christianity also has its spiritual disciplines, but it also believes that its doctrines are themselves saving and life-changing. Much of this goes back to the originating genius of Christian theology, Saul of Tarsus who became Paul. The paradox is that what for Paul was a liberating psychological experience was later to be hardened into a formula that radically contradicted his original insight and the experience that prompted it. It is hazardous to guess at the psychological disposition of long-dead people who are only known to us through their writing, but Paul did provide us with a lot of material for our speculations; he disclosed much of himself in a series of letters that are a valuable tool for our exercise in detection... We do not know if he ever met or heard Jesus, and he certainly does not quote him nor show explicit acquaintance with his teaching. What he does is to develop a mystical response to the crucifixion of Jesus..." Richard Holloway
Charlie, I don't see any difference between the two either because how can one ever know where one's thoughts come from? Within or without? I myself don't have an answer for that. Now an audible voice- that's obvious. I do remember that some heard an audible voice such as the example in Samuel. But there are few examples of that in the New Testament.
Thank you both! Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth,
I have serious questions about people who claim to hear audible voices coming to them from empty space with instructions. Our society does as well and medical professionals usually lock such people away for obvious reasons, or treat them with appropriate medications. Are we wrong to do so, do you suppose? In any case how is an unverified audible voice different from unverified voices in the head?
Good morning Charlie!
I have to answer your question in two parts because it sounds like you are referring to people today who claim to hear voices outside themselves. But to go back to the original question about Paul being guided by the Holy Spirit via "inspiration" or "intuition," in those times people seemed much more open to contact with "spirits" in general. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but it appears to have been more socially acceptable. So when you ask someone in today's modern world "Well how do you know the Bible is God's Word?" The response I usually get is "The writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit." And there's no repudiation of hearing "voices" since it took place so long ago.
So I like to ask, ok how exactly did that work? In the Old Testament, my understanding is that it came from an audible voice of God. (They didn't have the Holy Spirit in the OT) So that's one way God communicated to humans to give them His Word. In the NT, we are introduced to the very convenient Holy Spirit who can communicate in a variety of ways- including inside people's head through their thoughts. That's when it gets complicated in my opinion. You gave several good examples of the ways the writers received their "revelations" from God, and I guess the bottom line is that there's no one single way to categorize the various types of communication from a Higher Being back then. Nevertheless, we are taught that the whole Bible is literally God's Word.
Part Two of my response brings us back to today and how people hear voices today- and how we respond to such people in today's world. I have been a part of Charismatic churches, and yes, there are people who claim to hear God's voice. They are not considered mentally unstable either. I've listened to many sermons about hearing "the still small voice of God." The people who taught those lesson believed that they contain the same gifts and abilities of Paul to hear from God in a variety of ways- voices, dreams, visions, revelations... And they are not carted off to the psyche ward. They hold jobs and provide for families.
I don't think our society locks such people up anymore if they are functional and stable in all other aspects. 1) Have you ever known any of these individuals who claim to hear God's voice? 2) Since any such voice, whether internal or external, is unverified- why do you think so many Christians trust the content of what these voices told Paul and take them so literally? Elizabeth
You asked what I thought of Holloway's analysis!
(1) On the matter that Paul "does not show explicit knowledge of Jesus' teachings," I'm not sure I agree. What is meant by "explicit?" (a) Paul preserves a memory of loving one's enemy (Rom 12:14-21), and of love being the essence of the Jewish law (Gal 5:14) (b) He preserves a memory of a consequential meal with his closest followers (1 Cor 11:17-34). c) He preserves a memory of anyone being welcome at meals (Gal 2:11-14). (d) He preserves a memory of death by crucifixion (e.g., Gal 2:19). (e) He preserves a memory that there were challenges to the commands of the law (e.g., Gal 5:22-23). (f) He preserved a memory that Jesus did not favor divorce (1 Cor 7:10-11), and so forth.
Regarding "a liberating psychological experience was later hardened into a formula that radically contradicted his original insight." If Holloway here is talking of "faith replacing law." I agree that came to be used as a wedge between Judaism and Christianity under cultural pressures. Some how the teachings of love got lost and Christianity forgot that it was Judaism's child.
Concerning, "what he does is develop a mystical response to the crucifixion of Jesus," I would say further that Paul's mysticism was not free-floating; he gave all of his important experiences and ideas s grounding in his own scriptures. "Christ became a curse for us...for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree,' 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."
Thanks for making me think.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
You are correct about many claiming to hear God's voice are not locked away. We are not only talking about people claiming such experiences in the church, however, but mentally ill people also claim to hear God's voice, and are not locked away. In the sixties up into the eighties there was a practice of deinstitutionalizing mental health patients, i.e., removing them from state run mental health facilities. When Ronald Regan became president in 1980 he discarded the Mental Health systems Act that had been signed under his predecessor Jimmy Carter and sent the money to the states effectively taking the federal government out of the mental health institutions business.
With respect to your two questions: 1. I have never personally known anyone who claimed to hear God's voice (it was not part of my Baptist upbringing), but I have seen many individuals on television who have made such claims and been in religious services when individuals claimed to be speaking in "unknown tongues" bringing a special message from God, which someone would then interpret. 2. I cannot answer this second question definitively. I would imagine that these people have such absolute confidence in the Bible as God's literal Word that it never occurs to them to ask critical questions. It is kind of a "brain washing" effect: if you think the Bible is the literal word of God then what the Bible says has to be true.
Just because people claim to hear God's voice does not make it true and that would include people in the Bible who made such a claim.
Good afternoon Gene and Charlie,
Gene, I agree with you about Holloway's statement regarding Paul's not showing explicit knowledge of Jesus's teachings. I don't know what he meant either... The examples you gave do seem explicit to me, at least in my opinion. As far as Christ becoming a curse for us, I don't know where Paul got that idea. I don't see it anywhere in the Hebrew scriptures- but perhaps I missed it. I also don't recall Jesus saying anything along those lines either... Personally, I'm glad Paul made that assumption because if he hadn't, I don't know if we gentiles would be very acquainted with the God of Abraham. Of course, that is pure speculation.
Wow, Charlie, I did not know that about the Mental Health systems Act. I would like to learn more about it, especially about deinstitutionalizing mental health patients.
I completely agree with your assessment of people who have such absolute confidence in the Bible as God's literal word that it never occurs to them to ask critical questions. As I've said before, I wish I had started asking such questions at a much earlier age. Better late than never, as they say. At least I can rest assured that my son won't be brainwashed in the same manner I was.
Thank you, as always, Gene and Charlie for the stimulating conversation! Elizabeth
The combination of "curse" and "hanging" on a tree" is found at Deuteronomy 21:22-23. One can see how Paul takes this obscure verse and makes it support his theory of the crucifixion. This is just one example of how a large group (most, all?)of the early Christians thought that their Jewish scriptures (every word?)were actually about redemption by Christ Jesus, with the emphasis on Christ.
I guess this would be a subject for another blog- but I wonder how much access Paul or any other apostle had to the Jewish scriptures. 1) Did Paul read scriptures in Greek or Hebrew? 2) When Paul wrote his letters, surely he didn't have his own personal copy of Hebrew scripture in his possession? So did he quote from memory? 3) How widely available was the Torah and the Tanach for people to read? 4) Some scholars hypothesize that certain Old Testament scriptures were later added to the Gospels and to Paul's letters by Marcion, Origen, and Tertullian, etc.
I know you can't answer all that here, and maybe Charlie can suggest some reference material that contains those answers... I am glad you referred me to Deut. 21:22-23 because I missed that, plus it opened up a whole set of additional questions about Paul's access to the scriptures containing that passage. Thank you, Elizabeth
Elizabeth, thank you for continuing to prompt us with such substantive areas of inquiry. You mention Paul, Marcion, and Tertullian as a group. The following resource may be of interest to you:
BeDuhn, Jason D. The First New Testament: Marcion's Scriptural Cannon. Polebridge Press (Salem, Oregon), 2013. This book reconstructs Paul's Letters and Luke from the analyses of Marcion's work found in the writings of the church fathers.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
Question #1: The General consensus is that Paul used the Septuagent, which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew. The text of the Septuagint must be reconstructed using various manuscripts similar to what must be done with the New Testament. Paul's "quotes" do not always agree with what scholars reconstruct as the Septuagintal text. It is possible that he may be using compiled testimony lists instead of a Collection of texts that we might think of as a Bible. You should be aware that most of Hebrew Manuscripts of what Christians call the Old Testament are from the 8th century of the Common Era.
Question #2: I cannot answer this question. But likely he did not always have a Collection of Scrolls at his ready disposal, since that would be at least 39 scrolls (the codex is not developed till later) he would have to carry around with him.
Question #3:I cannot answer this question. But you might check William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy.
Question #4: One of the standard ideas about Marcion is that he rejected the Old Testament and the God of the Old Testament.
In general the Septuagint included the Books of the Apocrypha, so early Christians would have used them as well. They are still part of the Roman Catholic Scripture collection. On these questions see the entry "Canon (OT and NT)," and "Septuagint" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary.
I read this while watching the PBS special of Scott Kelly's year in space. Now that experience would surely give one a unique view of the world! But there are still those who believe the moon landing is a hoax. Interestingly enough, these are often the same people who believe in alien abduction. Clearly, the ancients weren't the last to have some pretty strange views of the world. I suppose part of the attraction of religion is the sense of certainty and purpose it offers, the promise that someone or something is in control.
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