December 20, 2013

Tertullian in the Archives

Category: Bible - NT - Luke :: Permalink

While wrestling with the mysterious reference to the census under Quirinius in Luke 2, Jakob van Bruggen points out something that Tertullian says that suggests that he may have done some research in the Imperial Archives in Rome:

In 202, he visited Rome himself, and from his writings it appears that as a jurist he was familiar with the districts of the city where the Aerarium and the Tabelarium are found, in which the archives were kept….  In the fourth volume of his book against Marcion, written after this visit to Rome, he says in passing that “the Roman archives preserve the census of Augustus as a very reliable testimony to the birth of the Lord” (Adv. Marcionem IV.7.7).  It is very striking that later on in his book he returns to this point and provides more details: “But it is also certain that under Augustus censuses were held in Judea by Sentius Saturninus: in these censuses one could verify his humanity” (IV.19.10).  Even if one … is of the opinion that the plural censuses here makes us think of a number of censuses in which one could verify not so much the year of His birth as the true humanity of the (registered) Jesus, it is still remarkable with how much confidence Tertillian speaks about the presence of reports about censuses (Lukas, 72-73; my translation).

Note, too, that Tertullian talks about censuses “held in Judea by Sentius Saturninus” (who may have been the legate in charge of the censuses, so that Tertillian’s use of his name doesn’t conflict with Luke’s reference to Quirinius).  Where did he come up with that name?  Is it possible that he found it, digging in the Roman census archives, where he found not just Augustus’s census but also others — and maybe even some with Jesus bar Joseph from Nazareth registered?  No, we can’t be sure.  But it makes one wonder….


Posted by John Barach @ 1:52 pm | Discuss (3)
December 18, 2013

Keeping Ranks

Category: Miscellaneous,OT - Chronicles,Theology - Pastoral :: Permalink

F. W. Boreham, commenting on 1 Chron 12:38 (“All these men of war, who could keep ranks, came to Hebron with a loyal heart to make David king over all Israel”), tells the story of the Scottish lad who joined the army.  On parade day, his mother and sister were proud to see him marching but were surprised by something: “Look, mother!” his sister says. ” They’re all out of step but our Jock!”  Boreham comments:

It is not for me to decide whether Jock is right or whether the others are.  But since the others are all in step with each other, I am afraid the presumptive evidence is rather heavily against Jock.  And Jock is well known to all of us.  Nobody likes him, and nobody knows why they don’t like him.  In many respects he is a paragon of goodness.  He loves his church, or he would not have stuck to it year in and year out as he has done.  He is not self-assertive; he is quite willing to efface his own personality and be invisible.  He is generous to a fault.  Nobody is more eager to do anything for the general good.  And yet nobody likes him.  The only thing against him is that he has never disciplined himself to get on with other people.  He has never tried to accommodate himself to their stride.  He can’t keep rank….

Why should Jock destroy his own personality in order to render himself an exact replica of every other man in the regiment?  Is individuality an evil thing that must be wiped out and obliterated?  The answer to this objection is that Jock is not asked to sacrifice his personality; he is asked to sacrifice his angularity.  The ideal of British discipline is, not to turn men into machines, but to preserve individuality and initiative; and yet, at the same time, to make each man of as great value to his comrades as is by any means possible (“Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!” in Mushrooms on the Moor, 182-183).

Boreham elaborates:

Jock … may be firmly convinced that the stride of the regiment is too short or too long.  But if, on that ground, he adopts a different one, nobody but his gentle and admiring little sister will believe that he is right and they are wrong.  Jock’s isolated attitude invariably reflects upon himself.  “The whole regiment is out of step!” he declares, drawing attention to his different stride.

That is too often the trouble with Jock.  “The members of our Church do not read the Bible!” he says.  It may be sadly true; but it sounds, put in that way, like a claim that he is the one conscientious and regular Bible-reader among them.  “The members of our Church do not pray!” he exclaims sadly.  It may be that a call to prayer is urgently needed; but poor Jock puts the thing in such a light that it appears to be a claim on his part that he alone knows the way to the Throne of Grace.  “Among the faithless faithful only he!” “The members of our Church are not spiritually-minded!” he bemoans; but somehow, said as he says it, it sounds suspiciously like an echo of little Jack Horner’s “What a good boy am I!” (185).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:48 pm | Discuss (0)
December 17, 2013

Enjoying God’s (Sometimes Gluten-Free) Bounty

Category: Farm and Garden,Feasting :: Permalink

In a recent blog post entitled “Free Range, Gluten-Free Yoga vs. Jesus,” my friend Toby Sumpter raised some concerns — one could even say: leveled some charges — with regard to the widespread interest in things organic, gluten-free, and so on, touching along the way on yoga, cross fit, and essential oils.  His primary charges are that all of this interest and discussion is evidence of an idolatry problem, including the worship of Health and of Peers, and that it is a waste of time compared with what is really important (fleeing fornication, loving your family, etc.).

Consider this a friendly push-back.

While I certainly agree that Health is one of the major American gods today and that what Toby says is more important than discussions of organic food really is more important — that is, it’s more important, for instance, to love your wife than to eat free range chicken — I don’t find the essay helpful.

First, I wonder about the charge of idolatry.  It certainly seems to be the case that there is a lot of talk about organic, gluten-free, non-GMO food today.  But does that necessarily imply that there is idolatry going on?  I can imagine a church community where the people talk a lot about hospitality and feasting and good food and drink and living the good life and experiencing joy around the dinner table.  They’re starting gift stores to promote celebration, coffee shops and pubs and restaurants to share good food and joy with people.  They’re having people over, sharing articles about food on Facebook, crafting cookbooks.  They’re really into this stuff.  Would that necessarily imply that there was Bacchus-worship going on here?  There might be, but surely the answer is: Not necessarily.

Besides, in such a community, even if someone in that church community was involved in a sort of Bacchus-worship connected with the love of good food and fellowship around the table — and even if you could say that the existence of so much discussion about this stuff was evidence of some sort of idolatry (!) — that still would not mean that Mrs. Smith who posts a new recipe on Facebook and Mr. Thompson who talks about what a great time he had at a new restaurant in town are somehow involved in idolatry.  So, too, even if there is some Health-worship going on in the world, it doesn’t mean that when a particular person posts something on Facebook about gluten-free flour, she’s participating somehow in that idolatry.

Second, Toby spends some time on “science” or, more precisely, on “science says….”  I certainly agree with him that people have justified lots of strange things in the past by saying “science says.”  But it seems to me that while, on the one hand, Toby goes after this easy appeal to what “science says…,” on the other hand, he criticizes homeopathic medicine or the interest in organic food because it isn’t backed up by science, real science, he says, with “proof” — as if that kind of science isn’t precisely the sort of thing that is manipulated all the time (e.g,. the tobacco company that funds research that proves that tobacco, additives and all, isn’t bad for you; the cancer society that funds research that proves that tobacco is bad for you).

Meanwhile, what’s wrong with sticking a piece of garlic in your child’s ear to heal an ear infection because you heard a couple friends say it worked for them?  Do you need to wait for guys in white lab coats to tell you that that’s okay?  Do you have to trust those labcoat guys when they say not to use garlic but to use their antibiotics instead, the sale of which is paying their wages so that they have a strong motive to promote their product?  Or is it the case that we’re free, as Christians, to use the antibiotics or not, to use the garlic or not — and to post about it on Facebook if we feel like it, and to love each other regardless?

Third, it’s certainly true that it’s more important to flee fornication than to flee GMOs and that it’s more important to love our spouses than to love free-range chicken.  But can’t one do both?  Can one not believe that fornication is sin and believe that cramming a thousand chickens into a space smaller than my office and feeding them junk isn’t likely to produce eggs you’d want to eat (and isn’t kind to the chickens either)?

Sure, some people who discover that when they eat bread they bloat up and feel terribly uncomfortable and when they drop gluten they feel better may talk about gluten-free stuff a lot.  Does that mean they have warped priorities?  Does a Christian guy who loves Tolkien and wants to talk your ear off about The Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson’s abominable take on The Hobbit have warped priorities?  Does he not know that it’s worse to commit fornication than to mess with Tolkien’s story?  Doesn’t he know that it’s better to love your wife than to love reading?

Well, maybe he doesn’t.  But you have no reason to think so, just because of what he loves to talk about.  In fact, it would be a little condescending — a little unfriendly — to bring these things up unless you had good reason to do so.  If you knew that he was committing adultery but when you got together with him, he wanted to talk about Christian symbolism in The Hobbit, you might well ask how he can enjoy that symbolism while rejecting Christ and His commandments.  But if you knew nothing of the sort but just thought his frequent talk about Tolkien was evidence of some sort of a moral problem, that wouldn’t come across well.

Which brings me to my fourth area of concern, which is the tone of the whole essay.  It often comes across (at least to me) as condescending, sarcastic, and just plain unfriendly.  In the opening paragraph, we already have the word “weirder,” which suggests that Toby thinks all the things he’s just been mentioning — “gluten-free” foods among them — are weird.  Which suggests that if you’re interested in these things, you’re weird.  But if you are gluten-intolerant, there’s nothing weird about it, anymore than it’s weird to want nut-free food if you’re allergic to peanuts.

Midway through the article, he talks about “magic beads” for teething children.  At least one school of thought thinks the beads aren’t magic but that the amber somehow helps with teething pains.  But suppose that’s not the case. Even if the beads are “magic,” aren’t they magia bona, something Reformed ethicists have given their approval to in the past (see here).  Why should it be a problem if someone wants to try them because he’s heard they might work?

Then we get that bit about kissing icons of Darwin and Freud.  Please.  And people who are into organic food don’t have laughter in their eyes and joy in their hearts?  Gimmeabreak.  Sure, I grant that some don’t.  And some who are opposed to organic food don’t either. But some in both camps do.

By the end, the implication seems to be that if organic food does give you joy and make your heart sing, then you have a false gospel, because you’re trusting in something other than Christ.  (Ditto, I suppose, for Guinness, Tolkien, baseball, duck hunting, or anything else you might enjoy.)  Again, is someone out there idolizing organic food?  Maybe so.  Stop it.  Do some people push organic food as if it was sin to eat anything that isn’t organic?  That’s sin, too.  Stop it.

But does Mrs. Johnson love to find gluten-free recipes that don’t result in breads that are like dense sawdust and to share those recipes on Facebook?  Does Mr. Jones love to be able to get freshly-picked organic apples delivered to his town or to be able to go to a farmer’s market and get to know some of the farmers and buy some of their fresh produce that hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals he’d rather not ingest?  Does that make his heart happy?  Then let them enjoy God’s bounty in this way.  There’s no need to think it’s idolatry or a false gospel or even a warped priority.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:06 pm | Discuss (6)