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“Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible” exhibit in Milwaukee

Posted in Ancient, Bible, Judaism, Museums by Alex L. on January 21, 2010

The caves of Qumran (Wikipedia)Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel has reviewed a new exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum called “Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible”. The reviewer applauds the installation, which features objects from Qumran but also many general artifacts from biblical times.

Looking through the photo slide-show attached to the review, I perceive that the exhibit is laid out according to a new style of exhibit display. When I visited the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL a few years ago, I noticed that the museum had chosen a fresh approach to museum design. Instead of overwhelming the viewer with a plethora of artifacts and informational plaques, the museum recreated historical environments in each of its varying rooms. One room was Lincoln’s childhood cabin. Another was his funeral visitation room. Each display was artfully lit, engaging, and informative without being overwhelming.

From what I can tell, this style has caught on and the “Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible” exhibit appears to be equally refreshing. Perhaps it’s time for me to visit Wisconsin again.

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Tension between Philosophical Law and Hebrew Law

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Greek, Judaism by Alex L. on May 28, 2009

One of the greatest challenges for Judaism and Christianity has been to reconcile the law of Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures with the moral law described by Greek philosophers. Writers of every generation from the Hellenistic Age to our own have sought to understand their Jewish tradition in light of philosophical reason, because they had come to believe that both are true. This task has always been a difficult one, because, fundamentally, I think the Philosophical Law and the Hebrew Law work in different ways.

The philosophical law, is more familiar to modern people. Through reason, as described by Plato and Aristotle, man can deduce the best way to live his life. Living the best life is the highest happiness, therefore the promise of the philosophical law is human happiness. The philosophical law seeks universal application – how to order one’s actions, emotions, conversations, work, and beliefs by reason to achieve the best possible life for ourselves and others. The philosophical law has often been called the Moral Law. The Hebrew law, though, functions in a different way.

The Hebrew law, as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, is the law of an ancient community, the Jews. Its regulations are very contextual to that age – rules regarding livestock, slaves, barbaric punishment, and the like. Moreover, the law is delivered by God as a tyrant (in a classical sense of the word, as someone whose actions and decrees are a law to themselves and obey no higher standard). The Mosaic law is not subject to reason like the philosophical law. The promise of the Hebrew law is not happiness, but solely faithfulness to the one who designed it, God. The function of the Hebrew law, in the context of Christianity (this is the only context I can knowledgeably speak for), is to teach people how to be merciful. The Mosaic law is designed to trip us up – we are meant to never live up to it (unlike, again, the philosophical law, which is always practical). Proof of this is that Christ himself was cursed by the Mosaic law by doing a profane thing when he was hung on a tree (the cross). The purpose of the Mosaic law, then, is this: if everyone, even Jesus Christ, is guilty under this law, and if God has mercy on all people anyway, then every individual must forgive others their trespasses of the law as he himself is forgiven of his. The Hebrew law teaches us about repentance and mercy.

The difference between the philosophical (moral) law and the Hebrew law can be summarized as this: the best life according to the former is happiness by way of reason, while the best life according to the latter is godliness by way of obedience. But what if godly obedience does not seem reasonable? In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass away from the law” and that anyone who teaches others to disobey any commandment at all will be condemned. But, in our Christian communities, we have let many letters of the Mosaic law pass away as society has progressed. Reason, it seems, has trumped obedience to God.

I’m not by any means advocating a return to following the Mosaic law. Perhaps this conflict between the moral law and the Hebrew law is much adieu about nothing. Perhaps there is no problem with being both a philosopher and Christian, though the Bible itself makes bold claims about the standard of lawful obedience. In any case, understanding the purpose and function of the philosophical law as opposed to the Biblical law can clarify one’s goals and beliefs to help one lead a better life.

Daily Bible readings: Paul as the gatekeeper for the Good Shepherd

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Judaism by Alex L. on May 21, 2009

I often follow the daily readings of the Orthodox Church in America and think about how the passages selected each day relate to each other. Sometimes the connection is clear and sometimes a common lesson is hard to discern or seems to not even exist.

The daily readings for today are from the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John. The first reading describes Paul’s mission to some of the Gentile cities (Acts 14:20-27), the second one presents Jesus Christ claiming to be the Good Shepherd and the gate to God’s kingdom (John 9:39-10:9), and the third reading shows Paul defending himself before King Agrippa and describing his credentials in Judaism and conversion to Christianity (Acts 26:1-5, 12-20). What is the connection between the readings? I think the compilers of the lectionary are drawing attention to the relationship between the Apostle Paul and the teaching of Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, ” ‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.’ ” If in this allegory Jesus is the Good Shepherd who enters through the gate to the human community, then the Book of Acts suggests that Paul is the gatekeeper. After describing Paul’s mission in Gentile lands, the author of Acts states that “[Paul] had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles”.

Though he is the gatekeeper, Acts also describes Paul’s credentials in Judaism, how he “belonged to the strictest sect of [Judaism] and lived as a Pharisee”. Thus the daily readings establish both the Apostle Paul and Jesus Christ as trustworthy teachers who approach the human community through the front gate of old Judaism. While Jesus is the Good Shepherd of God’s people, Paul is the gatekeeper that opens the door for the Gentiles to receive this teaching.

Last Jew in Afghanistan

Posted in Asian, Judaism by Alex L. on April 7, 2009

Yesterday, there was an interesting video op-ed on nytimes.com titled, “Last Jew in Afghanistan”. The man interviewed, Zablon Simantov, is perhaps the last member of a 13-century-old community. While watching the documentary, I wondered about the man who sent his family away to Israel while continuing to live alone in his homeland. Was it stubborn pride that stayed his flight? He criticized the other Jews who lacked his courage to stay in Afghanistan. Yet, living behind the abandoned synagogue and caring for the flowers that grow in its courtyard, he seems like a humble man. Zablon appears sincere yet still enigmatic. He harshly criticizes the Taliban and admits that Afghanistan is still in shoddy shape even after their downfall. So what keeps this man there, alone? Maybe Zablon simply loves, like Rhett Butler in the movie Gone With the Wind and any man who has a heart for something on earth, “lost causes once they’re really lost”.

Desirability of wisdom in the Old Testament

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Judaism by Alex L. on March 26, 2009

During Great Lent, the Eastern Orthodox Church reads the books of Isaiah, Genesis and Proverbs. Why those books? I think the daily readings on March 4 and 5 suggest an answer (Isa 2:3-11; Gen 1:24-2:3; Prov 2:1-22; Isa 3:1-15; Gen 2:20-3:20; Prov 3:19-34). The three books are trying to illustrate God’s relationship to His people from three different perspectives. Genesis narrates the creation of God’s people. Conversely, Isaiah describes the destruction of God’s city because of her disobedience. Proverbs serves as a commentary on both the creation and destruction stories by arguing that seeking after wisdom is the saving grace of God’s people, that wisdom preserves God’s city. While Jerusalem has grown rich with silver, gold, and other material treasures (Isa 2:7), it has neglected the true silver and spiritual treasures of wisdom (Prov 2:4-5).

So if wisdom is to be desired above all else (according to Proverbs) and lack of wisdom caused Jerusalem’s downfall (according to Isaiah), then wisdom looks like a pretty good thing according to the Bible. Why, then, does the account of the Fall of Adam and Eve describe the desire for wisdom as evil? “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” (Gen 3:6; emphasis added). Why is desiring wisdom considered evil before the Fall but the highest good after it?

“Defiance” movie intermixes many stories

Posted in Film, Judaism, Russian, Storytelling by Alex L. on March 18, 2009

Defiance movie poster

A few days ago, I watched the movie “Defiance” with my parents. The plot was engaging, the acting was decent, and there were tasteful doses of action, romance, and philosophy throughout. What most captured my imagination about the movie, though, was a theme I mentioned a few days ago: storytelling. Defiance manages to tell, in one film, a Belarusian, Jewish, and American story. Those three happen to be my personal backgrounds (although I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian by faith, I am also ethnically Jewish) so I found myself drawn to all aspects of the film.

I think the overarching story is a retelling of the Exodus narrative: the Belarusian (technically, what is now western Belarus was eastern Poland at that time) Jews are in the wilderness, escaping from their pursuant enemies – the Germans rather than the Egyptians. Tuvia Bielski is a Moses figure and the film even has a modern rendition of the parting-of-the-Red-Sea tale. In addition to the Jewish theme, Defiance glorifies the heroes of the Great Patriotic War, a common Russian motif. Finally, these familiar narratives are packaged into a Hollywood product. I enjoyed this American take on a Russian story (although my friend Mike, also a Russian, loathed the movie for its American clichés). Russian movies are often tragic and lack the redemptive, life-affirming conclusions of American films. Defiance fits the latter mold and follows the Hollywood forumla in other ways too (such as the obligatory love story). All in all, the movie Defiance is an interesting study in how narratives from different cultures can be synthesized to tell a refreshing, if familiar, story.