Friday, February 13, 2015

Ancient Sexualty

So far in this 5 part series series we have discussed:
Jesus, Torah, and Ethics
-Was Jesus a Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene, or other?
-A Little Chat about Hell
-Atonement

In this final post of the series we will discuss one of the most polarizing topics in our culture. Hell of course is a very polarizing topic, just ask Rob Bell. But outside of your beliefs on hell nothing will get you put into hot water and pegged as a narrow minded bigot or a liberal universalist with no morals than the topic of sexuality. So on this day before valentines, let's have that awkward conversation you should have had with your parents in junior high. 
The issue of sexuality was as complex and nuanced in the ancient world as it is today. What is clear is that the practice of homosexuality in its various forms existed and its acceptance or ridicule varied from time to time and place to place.
How one understands where humanity comes from and their role seem to have large impact on how one viewed sexuality as a whole and homosexuality specifically in the ancient world. For the ancient Greek, Plato tells a story of Aristophanes in his Symposium that humans once existed in three forms: male with two male genitalia, female with two female genitalia, and mixed with one of each. Zeus in a fit of rage split them down the middle and people are now in search of their other half, creating homosexual and heterosexual pursuits. This was more satire than actual creation mythology but it does speak to trying to explain sexual passions. In the ancient Greek culture teachers sometimes participated in pederasty (male with young male) until the youth became an adult. In the Roman culture this was less common but not unheard of. In both cultures raucous parties involved various forms of sex. Men with female prostitutes, men with boys, men with other men in both active and passive roles. In Greece a youth could enter into higher levels of society by being the youthful patron of an older male for a period of time. In Roman culture it was considered shameful for a male citizen to be a passive, therefore it became outlawed. However, male citizens often engage with slaves of non-citizenry as well as prostitutes while remaining married to one woman. This was in contrast with the Hebrew culture of multiple wives but forbidden sex outside of those multiple marriages.
For the Jew God created humanity male and female and called it very good. By the time of the New Testament many had combined Genesis 1 and 2 into a single understanding of creation. Genesis 1 tells that people were made and Genesis 2 tells how they were made. The overarching conclusion was that God made people good and sex was part of that goodness. However, there were boundaries to be set for sexuality. In the Jewish understanding of God there is great order, God set the order in place and it is the goal of humanity to live into that order. Order is connected with holiness and cleanliness. To be out of order is to be unclean or sinful. Sex was part of the established order and there are ways to participate in the activity that live into the order. Therefore, there are many codes regarding when one should participate and when one should abstain. There are rules regarding incest, intercourse during menstruation, times of war, times of entering the Temple, and others. The goal of these prohibitions was to remain in right order and holiness with God. Any intentional sexual activity outside these boundaries is considered a deviation.
There is little or no room in the Jewish mind, the Old Testament or the New Testament for homosexual activity. God created humanity male and female. They are to be united together for procreation and pleasure. Homosexuality is part of longer lists in both New and Old Testaments regarding sexual deviance. The various reasons argued against homosexuality in the first century include: the feminization of men, the perversion of the act, and producing sperm that is not fulfilling its purpose for procreation. Jesus and Paul connect ideas of sexuality to Genesis 1 and 2 in that sex brings together people into a complete union. To have any form of sex outside of marriage is to create a new union and destroy the former.
Jesus alludes to pederasty when he condemns those who would lead children astray. Paul, Josephus, and Philo speak against pederasty and homosexuality on the grounds of unnaturalness, divine law, and a giving into the passions of sex rather than self-control. Paul is also a product of his culture and place since many of his comments on gender roles, sexuality, and homosexuality would have been a mixture of Greco-Roman culture and his Jewish worldview. His comments on homosexuality would not have been controversial in Roman culture who were moving against homosexuality as a whole in this period. Homosexuality becomes a common image for when things go wrong and for going against the divine order God created.
Paul’s understanding of gender roles and sexuality/homosexuality is rooted in his reading the LXX. Loader makes a case that since his theology is rooted in the LXX it shaped his understanding of gender roles being hierarchical. It would also shape his understanding of homosexual relationships and the concept that to be male was the ideal of God’s created order. His understanding of eschatology and belief in it immanent reality allowed him to encourage optional celibacy as a way of staying focused on the kingdom. He would include homosexuality alongside drunkenness, idolatry, lack of self-control (giving into the passions), and lying as things that keep one outside the Kingdom of God.
1 Peter takes similar views to Paul when it comes to roles and societal interaction. The goal here is to share that there are cultural norms that fit into the Christian lifestyle that should not be challenged. Therefore, modesty among women is of importance as an adopted cultural value that finds its way into scripture. 

     The issue of homosexuality in particular and sexuality in general is more complex than this space allows. The general conclusion of the New Testament would be that sex, when understood as part of divine order and goodness, is a good thing. This would specifically mean within marriage, for procreation and pleasure. People were to remain faithful to that relationship. All other forms of sexuality would be deemed deviance, not only homosexuality but intercourse with prostitutes, unconverted gentiles, slaves, times of uncleanliness, or times of intentional abstinence. Cultural values of gender roles, femininity and masculinity, sexual passions, and societal niceties find their way in the NT teachings. The place for conversation on NT understandings of sexuality and homosexuality come in the separation of cultural values from their and our eras and from a more lasting divine order. There are many who could draw similar conclusions based on the research of history and biblical writings but would counter argue that times have changed and as such we should do away with these old values much like we have done with many of Pauls gender role values.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Atonement

So far in this 5 part series series we have discussed:
- Jesus, Torah, and Ethics
-Was Jesus a Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene, or other?
-A Little Chat about Hell

Today I would like to talk about atonement. The idea of atonement is rooted in the concept that one’s sinful actions make one unclean and outside proper relationship with YHWH God. For the Levites and the Temple cult there was a specific process for going about atoning for both known/acknowledged sin and for unknown/unacknowledged sin. The practice of sacrificing an animal was seen as a way of bringing about cleanliness. This need for using a sacrificial animal begins with the Passover story in Exodus, where Israel sacrifices unblemished lambs, pours the blood on their doorways, and consumes the animal by eating and burning what is not eaten. When the Spirit of God descended upon Egypt, those inside the homes marked with the lamb’s blood were spared the wrath of God, those who did not experienced the death of the first born. This judgment was total in that it included both people and animals, so essentially a judgment upon all creation.  Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus demonstrate how this central event was to be remembered and celebrated in perpetuity. However, the process of reenacting the Passover also became a time of reestablishing proper relationship with God. One would bring their best animal or grain to be offered as an atoning sacrifice for sin to the Temple, lay hands upon the animal or grain confess sin, and allow the Levitical priests to go about the process of ritualistically sacrificing it on the alter. One would also eat a portion of the sacrifice. By confessing the sin(s) while laying ones hands upon the animal it was a way of placing those sins upon the animal. When the animal was destroyed through sacrifice, so was the sin itself, putting one back in a proper relationship with God. Other small infractions could be “atoned” for by washing, tithing, and the passage of time.  This process was individualistic for the most. However, the priesthood could offer atoning sacrifice on behalf of the entire nation such as in the Day of Atonement and the daily morning/evening sacrifices.
Later, such as in the case of Isaiah 53-54 and 4 Maccabees there is a clear understanding that Israel has sinned as a whole and somehow an individual human will go about the process of absorbing that sin on their behalf. In Isaiah there is a “Suffering Servant” who as a righteous one will be crushed (atone) for iniquities and infirmities and by doing so will bring healing to the people, allowing them to be restored into right relationship with YHWH and thus end their literal exile.  For the image of the Maccabees the seven sons suffer on behalf of the people (atone) for their idolatry by being faithful (non idolatrous) toward God and dying for that purpose. In doing so the people will be made right and have God join their cause to overthrow their literal oppressors, at least for a season. These atonement ideas seemed limited in scope and effect.
So the question becomes, did Jesus see his death as atoning. Scot McKnight first asked this question in Jesus and His Death where he took on this question from the historical Jesus point of view where his basic conclusion is that based on purely historical models it is hard to determine if Jesus saw his death as atoning. However, in the conclusion he does say Jesus' death and resurrection was atoning. He sets out to better explain his understandings in A Community Called Atonement, where he makes a comparison to the various forms of atonement to using the proper club for a golf course. Each one is good and right in their proper setting but no one club is appropriate for all needs of atonement.
What separated Jesus from previous prophets would be that his death would usher in the “Final Ordeal,” and that his death would be vindicated by God. This vindication would begin the process establishing the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, which was imminent. His death would also be representative death for others to follow. By reinterpreting the Pesah-like meal in light of his own calling from God, he becomes the Passover lamb, making Jesus’s death the decisive act of redemption for salvation.  Those who partake in his body and blood are protected from the in a literal sense from the Temple destruction and secondly from the wrath of God in the eschatological sense. This is much like the how the Israelites were protected in their homes by the blood of their lambs in the first Passover.

Ultimately, atonement is about moving people from one state to another. A state of sin and captivity to a state of freedom and holiness. The death of Christ might not in itself alone been the atoning moment. The whole life, death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost however do speak to atonement. The death of Jesus protects his followers from Gods condemnation for sin and ushers them into right relationship with God in the Kingdom of God.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A little chat about hell

Part 3 of 5 Blog post on the Dmin topics of this semester.
I have never been one to dwell upon the deeper concepts of heaven or hell.  I remember as a college student looking at the Pauline letters and how he mentioned, “keeping your mind on heavenly things” and feeling like I was not a good Christian because I found this unhelpful.  The basic idea of knowing that through Christ I can experience resurrection was promise enough for many years. I have wanted to focus on the present reality and the hope that Christ brings into that. For the past handful of years I broadened my study to include concepts of the importance of resurrection, what exactly the New Heaven and New Earth mean for those who are in Christ and for those who are not.



For our class we read Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes and it revealed some new ideas.  Fudge believes in "annihlationism" This basic belief is that that there is no "eternal conscious torment" of hell. Rather at some point victims of hell are consumed into nothingness and cease to exist. Fudge sets up his argument in the Old Testament stating that the death of the wicked will ultimately lead to destruction.  He points to images such as the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, Nineveh and others as the foundation for such a view.  In these stories the wicked were destroyed, they ceased to exist, while the righteous were rescued. Whenever the image of fire, worms, ash, etc. is used he argues that a consuming fire is not one that is of eternal conscious torment but instead images that devour completely and are irresistible.  The purpose is to remove the wicked completely from the earth so that the righteous may inherit it.  If the wicked are not punished in this life they will be in the next.  So there is an assumption of an afterlife of some sort.

When he comes to the New Testament he makes a good case for understanding that there are two deaths.  The physical death that sends all people into “gravedom” commonly called Sheol in the Old Testament.  NT Wrights, Surprised by Hope he makes a similar claim with a waiting room metaphor.  A second death awaits those who did not place their hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, while those who did place their hope in the saving work of Christ will experience eternal everlasting life. They will experience resurrection but not an eternal one only enough to be experience final judgment then be ultimately destroyed. Therefore, eternal life is reserved only for those who are in Christ not for all people.  This is a free will choice for each person to make. The result is that the righteous resurrected ones will experience the New Heaven and New Earth with Christ. 

Jesus’ use of fire and the place Gehenna in the New Testament was explained by Fudge as total destruction.  Gehenna serves as a physical place of representation from the time of the Second Temple.  Just as fire completely consumes what is present in this place, so too will the fire of the future that will consume the wicked until they are completely removed.  In Matthew 5 and 18 Jesus encourages people to avoid hell anyway possible because there is no escape, the second death is final.  It is better to be lame in this life than to lose your life completely with no hope.  Jesus’ use of metaphors, for Fudge, also lean into this concept of complete destruction.  Matthew 3 is about cutting off and burning trees that do not produce fruit.  Images of pruning grapevines, burning left over chaff after harvest, and separating weeds from wheat speak to this idea.  Once a thing is burned, it is gone, not eternally tormented.  For Jesus the options are eternal life or complete destruction (Matt 7, 10, and John 3)
For the sake of historicity, the Jewish world hoped for a new world where the righteous dwell with God and the wicked are punished. Christians adopted this view and hell became the place of punishment. Our eternal conscious torment ideas are based on the platonic notion that each of us are by our very nature "immortal" since we have an "immortal soul." therefore if we have an immortal soul it will either dwell in heavenly bliss or hells fury. However, annihilationists would argue that our humanity is by its very nature not immortal but mortal since Genesis three people no longer had access to the tree of life, their former source for eternal life. Now eternal life is only possible through the resurrected Jesus. Those without that hope do not have an immortal eternal existence and as such will experience a judgment but not suffer eternally but instead suffer like a piece of wood in a fire at at some point cease to be.