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Abraham Enacts the Drama of the Ages, and Bart Messes it all Up

That God should ask Abraham to sacrifice his own son makes no sense at all and is even offensive—even barbaric. ‪It only makes sense when seen as forerunner for God sacrificing his own son in order to redeem others. It is all the more pointed when Abraham offers up the supplied ram In place of his son, calling to mind how God offers up a son in place of another.

Now after this the true God put Abraham to the test, and he said to him: “Abraham!” to which he replied: “Here I am!” Then he said: “Take, please, your son, your only son whom you so love, Isaac, and travel to the land of Moriah and offer him up there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will designate to you.”....  (Genesis 22:1-2)

Then Isaac said to his father Abraham: “My father!” He replied: “Yes, my son!” So he continued: “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” To this Abraham said: “God himself will provide the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” (vs 7-8)

But Jehovah’s angel called to him from the heavens and said: “Abraham, Abraham!” to which he answered: “Here I am!” Then he said: “Do not harm the boy, and do not do anything at all to him, for now I do know that you are God-fearing because you have not withheld your son, your only one, from me.” At that Abraham looked up, and there just beyond him was a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.  (vs 11-13)

Bart Ehrman (my new villain) is doing his best to aggravate me, with some success. He says that after Jesus’ death, his disciples (and the more learned others, as though the original were dummies—“peasants” he calls them, with the implicit understanding that peasants are too stupid to derive “theology”) who had not a clue that Jesus would be put to death, tried to afterward rework it into a “victory” by “reinterpreting” passages of Hebrew scripture written for who knows what reason and applying them to Jesus. Doubtless, this passage is an example of that.

In fact, that is pretty much what happened. Bart gets this part right, but it is the air he emits of them pulling the scam of the ages that rankles. It is the air of examining intently all the pieces but never thinking to put them together, and being thoroughly obtuse when someone else does—of being unimpressed, possibly because of not wanting them to come together that way—and so it all goes over his head as he obsesses with the individual pieces. 

Going through this fellow’s Great Courses lectures, the feeling grows on me that, having ascended to the ranks of “scholar” himself, he is kind to scholars everywhere—both now and of those in early Christian times. When he gushes on about how some scholars think this, but other scholars think that, I am reminded exactly of why the lowly people were astounded at Jesus means of teaching—he didn’t teach as the scribes, constantly quoting each other, but taught as though one with authority. 

When Jesus finished these sayings, the effect was that the crowds were astounded at his way of teaching, for he was teaching them as a person having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:28-29)

He oohs and ahhh over “scholars” of the first century, too, and the feeling grows with me that it accounts for his treating Pharisees and Saducees with such respect. He doesn’t at all share Jesus’ ‘narrowmindedness’ in being so hard on them. Saducess are ‘the ruling class,’ so you know that is going to impress Bart, who now “rules” himself at the university, being deferred to. And the Pharisees? Just a religiously devout group of Jews who were serious about keeping the Law—what in the world is wrong with that? Why criticize people for their “theology?” he appears to believe.

Did the Jewish leaders scheme for Jesus’ execution? Well—yes, he concedes, but he passes it off as though it is just a few bad apples in an otherwise sincere bunch, much like a renegade politician storming as though a bull in a china shop. Maybe not even that. Jesus antagonized them, after all, by leaving the hills of Galilee, where his carrying on could be ignored, and coming right into Jerusalem, right into the temple and disrupting the established respectable religion, as though Bart would maintain he had no right to do this—he should have recognized their turf and conducted himself with proper decorum.

Besides, those Jewish leaders didn’t kill Jesus—Pilate did, and since Pilate comes from an authoritarian faction that no longer exists and can thus be disrespected without offending anyone important, Bart does just that. Pilate had no concern whatsoever for justice, Bart maintains. His job was to get rid of rabble-rousers, like Jesus, before they disturbed the peace and upset the status quo. He did it all the time and had no qualms about killing people. Life and death was in his hand—he was a tyrant who afforded Jesus a “trial” that lasted maybe two minutes before ridding himself and the empire of him.

In fact, one who reads the accounts of Jesus trial can’t help but be struck with how hard Pilate works to release Jesus. He knows that the preacher popular with the crowds is being framed. He also knows that the framers are trying to bully he himself, and he resents it. He only yields to those Jewish religious thugs when they force him to choose between Jesus and himself. “For this reason Pilate kept trying to find a way to release him, but the Jews shouted: “If you release this man, you are not a friend of Caesar. Everyone who makes himself a king speaks against Caesar,” they point out darkly at John 19:12. That took the wind out of him. He doesn’t need those community leaders reporting him as a traitor to Caesar. He doesn’t need to be painted as though a party to insurrection. Better to grant the scoundrels what they want. So he does—but he is furious about it. He posts a sign above the stake that Jesus is impaled upon: “The king of the Jews.”

However, the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate: “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that he said, ‘I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered: “What I have written, I have written.” (vs 21-22) He was so fed up with them. Granted, he didn’t exactly trade away everything he had like the merchant finding the fine pearl, did he? But neither is he portrayed as callously indifferent to the sufferings of an innocent man or an eager participant of injustice.

Possibly Bart offloads all the blame on Pilate because he, as a leader of society, feels an obligation to facilitate other leaders getting along. He downplays the Jewish connection maybe because that might feed into current anti-semitism (not an invalid concern). Revise history if need be to pin in all on the evil Romans, who are all dead and gone. I’m not blind to the concern, but when Mel Gibson, director of ‘The Passion,’ was asked directly whether Jesus had been killed by the Jews, he replied: “Well, it wasn’t the Scandinavians.”

Probably—I do not know this for sure—but probably Bart will sweep all these ‘softening’ factors with regard to Pilate aside. I am on to his tricks, as he employs ‘critical analysis’ to define history the humanistic way that he wants it defined. He will, if I am correct, dismiss all these humanizing touches of Pilate for having failed the “criterion of contextual credibility.” Yes, the gospel accounts may say what they do about Pilate, ‘but it is not credible because we have determined—my fellow scholars and I—that the Romans were nothing but brutes. Some early Christian writer just made that up’—if there is one thing that defines Bart’s perception, it is that everyone spun the story of Jesus their own way for their own personal advantage to validate whatever they had settled upon doing.

Everything goes over Bart’s head! He is so exasperating! Everything is a power play with this guy—a struggle for dominance by the ones who have reached the top of their game—just as he has himself as a professor with dozens of books authored and GreatCourses itself bestowing greatness upon him, immortalizing him as the great instuctor in all matters of Judeo-Christian religion. He treats the ascension of Christianity to worldwide prominence as though a team reaching the Super Bowl, celebrating the victory of being best in the world, oblivious to trade-offs of players along the way. It’s okay for football teams to do this, but in the case of a faith it amounts to selling its soul. He doesn’t even notice it though, and if you point it out to him he will not think it particularly important. The point is that they reached the Super Bowl; with the acceptance of Constantine, Christianity became the most important religion in the whole wide world! Score!!!!

Now, I readily concede that this is a subjective piece—my take on Bart. But there is barely anything anywhere that is not. Everyone looks at things though their own subjective lens. It is completely a myth that we are primarily rational beings. It is enough to say that we are capable of reason, but to say that it dominates is just too much. We are creatures of emotion, and that emotion is molded by our experience and background. One is quickly struck by how often Bart maintains that “we can assume” this or “we can assume” that. In fact, we cannot assume any of it just because he does. He raises possibilities, but no more, and upon consideration of the big picture, not very likely possibilities. A person with different experience or different motivation will, if we are going to “assume” things, assume entirely different things. The ones most blind are often the ones who revel in their ‘critical thinking’ because they are ever apt to “assume” that they have a lock on the stuff. The heart reaches for what it wants and then charges the head with devising a convincing rationale for it. This lends the impression that the head is calling the shots, but it is the heart all along.

I focus on Bart so as to put a human face on things. I shouldn’t, and in other posts about Bart, I don’t. It is not Bart himself, but what he represents. It took me the longest time to recognize why the Watchtower seldom names villains. It is the play we are watching, not the actors in the play. You don’t have to know the names of the actors to follow the play—it can even be a distraction if you do. Besides, name a villain and you automatically create the impression that removing that villain will improve things. Instead, another actor instantly steps into the role—he has the part memorized—and the play continues with barely a hiccup.

“Yeah, well Tom, you’re just grousing because Bart sells tons more books than you, and he sells it with a machinery that you cannot match. He has editors and professional enablers and you can’t even manage to get all your typos out of all your scribblings! He gets a perch at the university and you have to fight off even many of your own people who think that whatever you are trying to do you are doing it wrong and should stop.”

Okay, okay, so there is something to that. It is the oldest story in the world. There is stuff that is readily lapped up because it aligns itself with mainstream goals and urges, and there is stuff that doesn’t. It was even true following that great trial in Jerusalem. Both Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders resumed their dignified strutting, their privileged walk only briefly jostled—and not very seriously. The lowly ones who put their trust in Jesus scratch their heads and wonder what just it was that happened. Only later do they think to revisit that drama of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son.

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