Thursday, April 15, 2010

Flew's Last and Best Book

I forgot to recommend Flew's last book, in which he details his reversal of opinion:
"There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind," by Antony Flew and Roy Varghese (HarperOne: 2008).

I read it last year, and in my opinion, it's one of the great books of our generation, a must-read for those interested in Western intellectual history.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Antony Flew, Unatheist, Dies at 87

Antony Flew, world's most famous ex-atheist, has passed away at age 87.

Not everyone may remember Flew or his significance. I do, because Flew was the "Richard Dawkins" of my childhood. Actually, Flew was never "Richard Dawkins," because he was never as crass and philosophically illiterate as Dawkins; but when I was younger, Flew was the key voice for atheism in the English-speaking world, as Dawkins appears to be now.

When I was in fourth grade I read a book entitled "Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?", a debate between Flew and Christian apologist Gary Habermas. The general consensus was that Habermas won the debate; I certainly thought so, after reading the book. It was a key point in my own intellectual development, because it convinced me that one could make solid rational arguments for the veracity of Christian faith.

I was completely taken aback just two years ago when the news broke that Flew had changed his mind. After dialoguing with a Catholic proponent of intelligent design theory for years, Flew finally came to concede that the marvelously complex features of the universe--like the fine tuning of cosmological constants and the information content of DNA--were inexplicable without positing a Mind behind them. Therefore, Flew became a Deist. He never--so far as I know--became a Christian, although he counted Christians among his friends.

So long, Professor Flew. You were a model of the intellectually honest gentleman scholar. You always treated your opponents with respect, and tried to follow truth wherever it lead you, even when that was someplace you didn't want to go.

May you find that the God you knew as your Designer is also your Father. I pray you have discovered it to be so.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter Vigil as a Celebration of Covenant History

Brant, Michael and I belong to a school of thought that sees covenant as a central concept in biblical theology, particularly Catholic biblical theology. Such an approach has strong support in the text of Scripture and in the tradition and liturgy of the Church, and would seem to be a "no-brainer," yet there are those who oppose it and de-emphasize the significance of covenant for interpreting the Scriptures in the Church. For that reason, it's necessary periodically to justify this approach.

When I teach biblical theology, I focus on a series of covenants which are central to the economy of salvation: the (1) Creation (or Adamic; Genesis 1-3; Hosea 6:7), (2) Noahic (David Noel Freedman preferred "Noachian"; Genesis 9), (3) Abrahamic (Genesis 15, 17, 22); (4) Mosaic (Exodus 24), (5) Davidic (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89); and (6) New (Jeremiah 31:31; Luke 22:20). It has always struck me, and my students, how well this overview of the divine economy accords with the readings of the lectionary of the Mass, especially the readings of the Easter Vigil.

I'll proceed to point out how all these covenants appear in various forms in the seven Old Testament readings that form the backbone of the Liturgy of the Word for the Vigil.

The readings begin with the creation story from Genesis 1, a text concerning the Creation Covenant. That there was a covenant present at creation is controversial, but it has the backing of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as well as certain contemporary scholars and a stream of the Jewish tradition. Benedict XVI's argument for the presence of a creation covenant hinges on the culmination of the creation week with the Sabbath, which elsewhere in the OT is understood to be the sign of the covenant (Exod 31:16-17). Hosea 6:7 (in Hebrew: "Like Adam they transgressed the covenant") testifies to a very early interpretive tradition which understood a covenant to be present already at the beginning of human history.

The second OT reading is Genesis 22, one of the most central texts in all the Old Testament. I call it the "Calvary of the Old Testament," perhaps the most important type of Christ's sacrifice on the cross in the pages of the Scriptures of Israel. Genesis 22, of course, recounts the "Aqedah" or binding of Isaac, in which Abraham comes close to sacrificing his "one and only" or "only begotten" son on the wood of the altar on the top of Mt. Moriah. God's solemn oath of blessing on Abraham in vv. 15-18 is one of the central texts in all the Bible: arguably, this the culmination of the covenant with Abraham begun in Genesis 15 and continued in Genesis 17. Although the word "covenant" does not appear in Genesis 22, God's solemn oath in vv. 15-18 was understood as a covenant in subsequent Scripture (e.g. Deut 7:8-9; Luke 1:72-73). This solemn covenant-oath by God promises blessing to all nations through the seed of Abraham; Easter is a celebration of the fulfillment of that promise, as all nations have been blessed through Jesus the seed of Abraham (Matt 1:1) who pours out the Spirit on all nations through his self-sacrifice on the cross.

The third OT reading for the Vigil is Exodus 14, the account of the triumph of God in delivering the Israelites from the armies of Egypt at the Red Sea. This corresponds to the Mosaic Covenant (the covenant with Israel through Moses), as the people of Israel had already entered into a covenant relationship with God through the Passover (Exodus 12-13) and were headed out to Sinai where the covenant would be further solemnized (Exodus 24).

The fourth OT reading is a beautiful passage from Isaiah 54:5-14, which, surprisingly, makes reference to the Noahic Covenant (Isaiah 54:9), and compares the coming “covenant of peace” (Isaiah’s term for the reality described by Jeremiah as the “new covenant,” Jer 31:31) to the covenant made with Noah. This passage also employs touching marital imagery to describe God’s relationship with Israel. Marriage was a form of covenant in ancient Israel, so it was natural to describe God’s covenant relationship with Israel in terms of marriage.

The fifth OT reading (Isaiah 55:1-11) is one of my favorite, and one of the most amazing, texts from Isaiah. In this passage, God promises that at some point in the future, he will offer the covenant of David (“I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my covenant fidelity [Hebrew hesed] for David”; Isa 55:3) to every one who is hungry and thirsty. He will offer this covenant through eating and drinking (Isa 55:1)!

The sixth OT focuses on divine wisdom, but the seventh and last (Ezek 36:16-28) has important covenant themes. After recounting Israel’s unfaithfulness to the (Mosaic) covenant, Ezekiel prophesies a coming day when God will sprinkle his people with water and put a new spirit within them which will enable them to keep their covenant with God (“live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees”). Ezekiel 36 is found canonically in the middle of Ezekiel’s “Book of Consolation” (Ezek 34-37), a long section of Ezekiel in which the prophet offers hope for a new age for Israel, a hope that culminates in Ezek 37:25-28 with the establishment of a “covenant of peace”, an “everlasting covenant” (37:26), Ezekiel’s terms for Jeremiah’s “new covenant” (Jer 31:31).

Thus, all the major covenants of salvation history are referred to in some form in the seven OT readings for the Easter Vigil, and taken together the readings (not to mention the psalms that go with them!) make a beautiful synopsis of the general structure of the divine economy (salvation history). Since the Vigil, like every mass, culminates in the consecration of the bread and wine which become “the New and Everlasting Covenant” in Christ’s blood, it is appropriate that the OT readings recount the older and provisional covenants that anticipated the new one celebrated in the Liturgy. Understanding salvation history through the lens of the covenant is an authentically Catholic approach to biblical theology.

Blessed Easter to Everyone!

Christ is risen! A blessed Easter to all our readers! I've just finished the last week of Lent and the incredible experience of the Triduum, with nightly solemn masses on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil at our local parish, and I have to say, it rocks to be Catholic! The experience of Lent culminating in the Triduum is one of the most physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually cathartic and ecstatic experiences of my life. To be able to watch the Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter's Basilica (courtesy of EWTN) with the world's greatest living theologian, successor of Peter, celebrating the resurrection of Christ with over a billion people worldwide, in a language spoken in Christ's own day--it's just too much! This is my ninth Easter as a Catholic and the euphoria has not worn off! A happy Easter to everyone, and some comments on the Easter readings are soon to follow!

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Was Jesus Really Crucified with the Passover Lambs?

It's rather commonplace to hear these days, both in the pulpit and on the page, that Jesus was sentenced to death at the "very hour" the Passover lambs were being offered in the Temple. Above all, Raymond Brown made this idea popular in his commentary on the Gospel of John, when he argued that John's reference to Jesus' standing before Pilate on the Pavement (Gabbatha) at "about the sixth hour" (John 19:14) was a Johannine clue meant to signal to the reader that Jesus, the true Passover lamb, was being led to the cross to take away the sins of the world. (See Brown, The Gospel according to John, 2:556).
There's only one problem with Brown's theory; he's got no evidence to back it up. In fact, the little evidence we do have contradicts his assertion. For example, Josephus, who was a priest in the Temple in the first century A.D., makes very clear that the Passover lambs were sacrificed between 3 and 5 o'clock.:
Accordingly, on the occasion of the feast called Passover, at which they sacrifice from the ninth hour [=3p.m.] to the eleventh hour [=5 p.m.], and a little fraternity, as it were, gathers around each sacrifice, of not fewer than ten persons. (Josephus, War 6:423-24)
If this is correct--and the later Mishnah backs up Josephus, saying that at the earliest, the Passover lambs would not be sacrificed until 1:30p.m. (cf. Pesahim 5:1)--then John 19:14 cannot be a signal to the reader that Pilate is sentencing Jesus to death just as the Passover lambs are beginning to be killed in the Temple. Strangely, however, this false interpretation is so widespread that I regularly encounter people now who say that John "says" Jesus was crucified at the same time as the Passover lambs. But he says no such thing.
The Perpetual Sacrifice in the Temple: 9a.m. and 3 p.m.
So, is there any cultic significance to the hour of Jesus' passion and death? Did Jesus' death on Calvary correspond to any sacrifices in the Temple?
I would suggest there is, and that it is the Synoptic evangelists who have brought this out. For while the Synoptic Gospels make it explicit that the Passover lambs were slaughtered twenty-four hours before Jesus' death (cf. Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7), there was one other sacrifice that was going on in the Temple when Jesus was crucified on Good Friday: the perpetual sacrifice, known as the Tamid.
Strangely, this sacrifice, which is forgotten by almost everyone, was arguably the most memorable of all the Jewish sacrifices, since it happened every day, twice a day. According to the Torah itself, twice a day, in the morning and the evening, an unblemished male lamb was to be sacrificed in the sanctuary, and offered along with an unbloody sacrifice of flour and wine (see Num 28:1-8; Exod 29:38-42).
Now, although the Old Testament does not say exactly when the morning and evening sacrifice took place, according to ancient Jewish sources outside the Bible, the morning offering of the Tamid took place at 9 a.m., while the evening offering took place at 3 p.m. (See Mishnah, Tamid 3:7; Josephus, Antiquities 14.4.3; Philo, Special Laws, 1:169).
The New Tamid
With that information in mind, go back to the Synoptic accounts of Jesus' death on Good Friday. Remarkably, the Gospel of Mark makes very clear that Jesus' passion and death coincided with the offerings of the perpetual sacrifice:
And it was the third hour (9a.m.), when they crucified him (Mark 15:25).
And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour (3 p.m.). And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"... And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. (Mark 15:33-37)
Notice that Mark twice states that Jesus expired at the ninth hour, 3 o'clock. Why the emphasis? Apart from historical accuracy, what is Mark trying to communicate?
I would suggest that both chronological references are meant to tie Jesus' passion and death to the perpetual sacrifice being offered in the Temple: the bloody sacrifice of the unblemished lambs and the unbloody sacrifice of cakes and wine. In other words, Mark is showing us that Jesus is the true Tamid, the true perpetual sacrifice, who replaces the atoning power of the Temple cult. Perhaps this is why he stresses the effect of Jesus' death on the Temple:
"And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the veil of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom." (Mark 15:37-38)
In short, there is no reason to strain to connect the hour of Jesus' death with the Passover lambs that had been offered Thursday afternoon. For there was another sacrificial lamb, that was directly linked to atonement, which was being offered at the very hours of his crucifixion and death.
Now, I should probably stop here. But since it's Good Friday, I'll make one last point.
What Were the Jews in the Temple Praying for when Jesus Died?
According to ancient Jewish tradition, as found in the Mishnah and Talmuds, the daily Tamid was not just about sacrifice; it was also accompanied by prayers, which Jews everywhere would say while the sacrifices were being offered in the Temple. According to these traditions, a series of blessings, commonly known as the "Eighteen Benedictions," were being said by Jews everywhere in union with the Tamid (b. Ber. 26b; Gen. R. lxviii). Remarkably, the Rabbis claim that this was taking place even during the Second Temple Period (see Babylonian Talmud, Ber.33a, Meg. 17b.)--with the exception of the benediction against the "heretics," which the Rabbis say was added by Gamaliel II at Yabneh after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70A.D. (see b. Ber. 28b).
Now, before you balk at the idea of using Talmudic traditions to reconstruct Second Temple practices, recall that the New Testament itself tells us that Jesus own followers would go up to the Temple at the hours of the perpetual sacrifice to pray. This is explicit in the book of Acts:
Now Peter and John went up to the Temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour (=3p.m.) (Acts 3:1; cf. 2:15).
The question is: What prayers were Jews saying while the Tamid was being sacrificed in the first century? On the one hand, we could say, 'we don't have any idea'. On the other hand, ancient Jewish tradition, provides a rather concrete answer: it tells us that the Eighteen Benedictions were being prayed at that time.
What is striking about these prayers is this: If these ancient Jewish traditions are correct--and I realize that this is disputed--then what follows below are the kind of things the Jews in the Temple would have been praying for while the Tamid was being sacrificed and while Jesus was dying on the Cross:
1. According to Jewish tradition, at 9a.m. and 3p.m., the Jews in the Temple would have been praying for redemption:
"Look upon our affliction and plead our cause,and redeem us speedily for your name's sake, for you are a mighty redeemer. Blessed are you, O Lord, the redeemer of Israel." (7th Benediction)
2. According to Jewish tradition, at 9a.m. and 3p.m., the Jews in the Temple would have been praying for the forgiveness of sins:
"Forgive us, O our Father, for we have sinned; pardon us, O our King, for we have transgressed; for you pardon and forgive. Blessed are you, O Lord, who is merciful and always ready to forgive." (6th Benediction)
3. According to Jewish tradition, at 9a.m. and 3p.m., the Jews in the Temple would have praying for the coming of the Messiah:
"Speedily cause the offspring of your servant David to flourish, and let him be exalted by your saving power, for we wait all day long for your salvation. Blessed are you, O Lord, who causes salvation to flourish." (15th Benediction)
4. In fact, according to Jewish tradition, at 9a.m. and 3p.m., the Jews in the Temple would have been praying for the resurrection of the dead:
"You, O Lord, are mighty forever, you revive the dead, you have the power to save. You sustain the living with lovingkindness, you revive the dead with great mercy, you support the falling, heal the sick, set free the bound and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust... Who resembles you, a king who puts to death and restores to life, and causes salvation to flourish? And you are certain to revive the dead. Blessed are you, O Lord, who revives the dead." (2nd Benediction)
In short, if these traditional prayers do in fact go back to the Second Temple period, then something remarkable emerges. For we find a plausible explanation for why Mark emphasizes Jesus' crucifixion and death as corresponding to the hours of 9a.m. and 3p.m.. We find that ancient Jews were praying for the very things Christians believe were dispensed by Jesus on the Cross, at the very hour he was dispensing them.

Have a blessed Triduum and a holy Easter.