Birth of Lewis Carroll

27 01 2012

Today is the birthday of Charles Dodgson (Jan. 27, 1832) better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll.  He authored several books, many on mathematical topics as a Fellow at Christ Church, Oxford.  He is best known, however, for Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Dodgson has two connections of interest for theological studies.  First, as is evident from the photograph of his grave (which I snapped in 1985), he was Reverend Charles Dodgson.  Rarely do people note the fact he was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church.  He declined, however, to be ordained a priest.  Second, the story of Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland is often connected to a young girl by the name of Alice Liddell.  She and her family were good friends of Dodgson.   Her father was Henry Liddell, Dean at Christ Church.  He is best known for his work with Robert Scott on the Greek-English Lexicon.  While the focus of this lexicon is related to classical Greek, it is extremely helpful for the non-biblical background of NT words.  One can access a later edition (1940 unabridged edition)  via the Persus Project:  Liddell and Scott.

A Tonic for Biblical Scurvy

15 01 2012

Since I teach in Kansas, I pay attentions to issues that pop up in Kansas.  Here is an example of the abuse of the Bible and what I call the disease of biblical scurvy.  The Kansas House Speaker, Mike O’Neal, forwarded an email to his Republican colleagues related to a “Prayer for Obama” based on Psalm 109:8, “May his days be few; may another seize his position” (NRSV).  O’Neal added to the email, “At last — I can honestly voice a Biblical prayer for our president! Look it up — it is word for word! Let us all bow our heads and pray. Brothers and Sisters, can I get an AMEN? AMEN!!!!!!”  See a fuller description here:  Prayer for Obama.

The biblical scurvy of the Speaker is that he passed along one isolated verse out of context.  The next verse, 109:9, (this is Hebrew parallelism where the next verse helps clarify and explain the previous statement) says, “May his children be orphans, and his wife be a widow” (NRSV).  The entire section (vv. 6-20) is the longest and most severe curse in all the Hebrew Scripture.  The curse ends with these words, “May he be clothed in a curse like a garment; may it enter his body like water, his bones like oil.  Let it be like the cloak he wraps around him, like the belt he always wears” (Tanakh Translation, 109:18-19).  Politicians use the Bible politically and not theologically.

I do not know who Speaker O’Neal’s pastor is, but I would encourage him or her to make an effort to visit with him and provide some enlightenment about the use and abuse of the Bible.  If anyone is the caretaker, preserver, and teacher of the Bible, it should be the pastor. He or she has the moral authority, and sacred responsibility, to let the Speaker know this is misusing Bible.  Of course, some will say that is easy for me to write these words because I do not have the Speaker in my congregation.  However, I understand the situation of proof texting and picking and choosing verses all too well. Under another distant administration, I was asked to read in a very important public venue a section of Scripture that represented a similar situation of cutting and pasting a passage together so that its original point was totally lost.  I asked not to read the passage in its current eclectic form but to read the passage’s whole context.  I was told to forget about reading, and they would get someone else to read it.  Later I was called into a private meeting with the powers that be and upbraided for not being a “team player” and for being “an elitist.”  I said I would not model in public what I teach my students not to do in their own ministry.

Ministers with politicians in their congregations should think about how to hold them accountable when they begin to display symptoms of biblical scurvy.  Provide them some tonic, or as Paul the Apostle suggested to the Galatians, “My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.”  Paul thoughtfully adds in the same verse, “Take care that you yourselves are not tempted” (Gal 6:1).

Magi, Messiahs, Mithradates

14 01 2012

The lectionary reading last week (Matthew 2:1-12) contained the reference to the μαγοι απο ανατολων, “the magi from the rising [East].”  The word μαγοι is most frequently translated as “wise men” (NET, NJB, NLT, NRSV, RSV, ASV, ESV, CEV, and KJV).  The KJV has probably influenced this continued usage.  A few translations transliterate μαγοι simply as “magi” (NIV, NAS, and CEB).  The last one, the Common English Bible, is a little ironic since the term magi is not common English as far as I know.  For a more colloquial translation, I might suggest “star gazers from the East” or perhaps “astrologer-priests from the East.” The latter captures better the essence of the μαγοι and their role.  Goodspeed’s translation is one of the few that uses “astrologers.”  As an aside, a good article on magi is “Note XIV. Paul and the Magus,” by Arthur Darby Nock (pp. 164-82) in The Beginnings of Christianity, Part I:  The Acts of the Apostles, Volume 5, ed. F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake (New York:  Macmillian, 1933).  This volume can be found at the Internet Archive which is an outstanding online resource.  One can find this book, plus others, in PDF, Epub, or various other formats.  One can even listen to this book being read aloud.  It is quite humorous to hear the computer-generated voice attempting to pronounce the frequently cited Greek words and phrases.  Nock was writing in a day and age when knowing Greek was just an expectation for an educated person so he peppers this essay with Greek.

While the μαγοι brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, what is sometimes missed is also the cultural and historical baggage they brought into the city of Jerusalem.  A powerful kingly image from the East that they must have carried in their tradition was Mithradates VI.  Rarely is the background of Mithradates noted when considering the magi.  A good recent book on Mithradates is by Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King:  The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2010).  Mithradates was from the East; his center of rule was near Pontus and the Black Sea.  He was born around 135 BC and died in 63 BC.  While his death was sixty years before Jesus’ birth, he made a significant impact on Rome, Greece, Asia, and vast parts of the Mediterranean world; his influence was still felt even into the first century.  Mithradates own birth, according to legend, was heralded by a comet, he assumed the title “King of Kings,” and was the one ruler in the Mediterranean world that offered the most violent resistance to Rome and its growing power.

This coin illustrates on the obverse the portrait of Mithradates with a diadem. On the reverse is the winged-horse Pegasus grazing and a star-in-crescent.  It was minted in Pergamon around 89 BC.

Exploring the life of Mithradates could be helpful in examining Matthew 2.  Perhaps the author of Matthew is setting King Jesus in contrast not to Herod (who was only a puppet of Rome) but to Mithradates, King of Kings, whose legend continued to permeate and percolate through the East.  Here were two kings born under starry consequences who both opposed Rome, but in startling different ways.

Hook, Line and Sinker

2 01 2012


As noted in my last post, religion and politics are intimately connected.         An excellent (and sad) illustration of this point is the Theology faculty at the University of Jena in Germany in the 1930s.  Bernard M. Levinson in, “Reading the Bible in Nazi Germany: Gerhard von Rad’s Attempt to Reclaim the Old Testament for the Church.” Interpretation 62, no. 3 (2008): 238-254, illustrates how the Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad (1901-1971) stood up against his theology faculty colleagues who swallowed Nazi propaganda hook, line and sinker.  The Jena faculty, with the lone exception of von Rad, was more than willing to support and undergird the Nazi movement and anti-Semitic policies.  As Levinson notes, the theology faculty “. . . took a leadership role in transforming the discipline into an organ for National Socialist and German Christian ideology” (p. 240). They were fanatical to such an extent that they canceled the teaching of the Hebrew language, and they editing Hebrew words and Hebrew Bible citations out of the hymnals, the NT, and catechisms (p. 245).  It did not help that they added to the theology faculty a radio preacher (Wolfgang Meyer) whose only qualification was unqualified support of Hitler and his policies. Von Rad was a lone voice in a very dangerous wilderness resisting this Nazification of the theology faculty at Jena.

How could a divinity school, religion department, seminary faculty or thinking church folks identify so closely with a political party that was clearly the antithesis of biblical texts about compassion and love?  Of course this question is the same one we need to ask when we observe religious folks who swallow hook, line and sinker the policies and rhetoric of American political parties.

Where Is the Religious Context?

2 01 2012

I have finished reading Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts:  Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (New York:  Crown, 2011).  Its focus was mainly upon the years 1933 and 1934 as seen through the eyes of the newly installed American ambassador, William Dodd, and his daughter Martha.  Larson’s book provides a different angle by which to see the rise of the Nazi state in Germany.   One of the areas, however, that struck me the most was his almost total lack of religious context for understanding these years.  I understand, of course, that an author cannot cover all issues; however, he did include some very trivial social matters in providing the milieu of the time.  Wouldn’t religion have helped set the environment and context of the era?  For example, did the Dodd family not attend church or make any reference to religious topics in their letters or diaries?  In 1934 the Barmen Declaration was penned by the Confessing Church which opposed the Nazi –supported German Christian movement.  This omission in the book seems odd.  Or did this declaration mean nothing in the political circles of power 1934? One of the individuals frequently mentioned in the book is Arvid Harnack and his wife Mildred.  It seems relatively easily to have included a note that he was the nephew of the well-known religious scholar Adolf von Harnack.  The author notes on the “Night of the Long Knives” (June 30, 1934): “A prominent leader in the Catholic Church had been murdered in his office ” (p. 311). But he never gives the reader (even in an endnote) his name.  (I believe the individual was Fritz Gerlich). The author has a form of docetic writing that divorces the religious spirit from the body politic.  One of my favorite teachers of history back in college in the late 1970s, Dr. Bill Fleming, would say, “In politics you are never far from religion and in religion you are never far from politics.”  This point is certainly evident as we enter the election cycle of 2012.