Sunday, August 31, 2008

Scripture in context

I was reading a message board post post a few days ago about marital rape. I think the poster was trolling the board and he certainly got a reaction. The original poster claimed that a man could not rape his wife because God requires a wife to submit to her husband. Surprisingly, a significant portion of the board agreed with this sentiment. Someone far down the thread pointed out that the Talmud requires a man to have sex with his wife essentially whenever she wants (subject to exceptions for manual laborers) and places no such requirements on women. If a man failed to meet these requirement, his wife could divorce him without his consent. The poster argued that all statements about marriage should be read in the context of these rules because they would have been well known at the time the new testament was written.

That sort of conception of marriage is quite foreign to Americans. Although people claim that wives should be submissive because the bible requires it, I wonder if people didn't form the belief first and then find scriptures to justify it.

I don't think it necessarily takes 2000 years for the history to fade from people's minds. Today, everyone knows that in the early years of the United States our leaders were good Christians even though the seven presidents after Washington all had Unitarian or deist beliefs. The Christian right wants to be part of a Christian nation so badly that they don't want to think about the fact that the country went through a period of religious doubt in the early years. The Book of Mormon was published in this period as 'another testament of Jesus Christ.'

That never made any sense to me. I rarely met anyone who joined the LDS church who didn't have some vague belief or familiarity with the bible already. Apparently the lds church did attract lots of doubters in the early days. At the time of Joseph Smith, many people thought that the indians disproved the creation story in genesis because the indians could not have been created separately in the new world because they would have been wiped out by the flood. They couldn't have been descended from Adam either because there was no way for any descendants of Adam to get to the new world.
This inconsistency between the bible story and the fact that indians lived in the americas before europeans came apparently caused a significant bit of doubt about the accuracy of the bible. Scholars were heatedly debating how to resolve the inconsistency, but the problem seemed unresolvable. The book of mormon was released as this debate was occurring and provided a reasonable story that explained why the indians existed and how they descended from Adam.

Since that time, Americans have stopped worrying as much about how the indians were created. Maybe that is because they're vanishing. Or maybe less attention is payed to the origin of the indians because evolution threatens the creation story more directly.

While the historical context of scripture is critical to understanding it, context is hard to find because the easiest source of context for scripture is other scripture. The scriptures often combine information about the beliefs of the jewish people with an indication of which beliefs were correct. For example, the new testament often comments on the beliefs of the different schools of thought. This commentary is the most accessible information about the beliefs of each school. While the commentary is accurate, it doesn't give much context about how similar each school is to the traditional beliefs of the jewish people. This is especially true of important topics like the nature of the afterlife and the attributes of the messiah. Some day I would like to read a book on traditional jewish interpretation of Messianic prophecy.

1 comment:

CrouchingOwl said...

On the fading of history... scriptural criticism wasn't really even that acceptable till the French Enlightenment came along. And just because it became more possible to do without dying doesn't mean that it was something a religion would listen to. Didn't leave much wiggle room for acknowledging that certain non revealed assumptions might just be that, assumptions. At the time of the founding as well the 30 years war, probably the biggest religious war in all history aside the crusades, was still living if fading memory about like World War II is for us now.

Americans finally made their peace with all this by making a firm decision that to avoid inflicting doubt in the inspiration of any given church preachers would both stay out of political office and wouldn't comment on public policy. That sort of suggestion is quite abhorrent to modern conservative Christians because they like how biblically influenced early speeches are. But Tocqueville makes it very clear, early American's were proud of their religious leaders habit to stay away from politics because they knew if preacher preached too much public policy he might get proved wrong and damage the people's faith. Joseph Smith may have run for President, but he was an oddball for doing it. Oh and then there's the treaty Jefferson signed with the pirates talking about how the US isn't a Christian nation therefore we can't be considered to be at war with the pirates because of their muslim faith. America was kind of wierd then and still is now. Proud of its religiosity and its secular aspects at the same time.

Interesting point on reading Jewish perspectives on Messianic prophesy. There's so much to learn by studying from people with different perspectivess than ones own.