Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Four-Segment Review of Salvation History

(1) The Meaning and Significance of Salvation History

"Salvation history" is the remembered past of how God has intervened, and still intervenes in the earthly lives of human beings. Salvation history thus differs from secular, academic history in the following respect: Secular, academic history is based on the exploration of a dead past in which historians discover or unearth a remembered past that is over and done with. Secular historians justify their worthwhile vocation believing secular history is suitable for study -- in the main -- so as to prevent the tragic result underlying the famous saying, "Those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it." Secular historians hope their discernment and teaching of the remembered past will stimulate a time-bound, earthly future, that will have evolved closer to human perfection through the application of what historians see as historical truth.

Salvation history on the other hand is not bound by time because its remembered past is drawn forward by a saving God to the future consummation of all that exists and has existed, leading to a realm beyond an earthly future for all those whom God, through his Son, Jesus Christ, has saved through his death, resurrection and ascension. Salvation history considers that the "remembered past" is meant first of all to be a learned understanding of history per se (the actual, believable past). This understanding is then inspired by the the Church's teaching that history exists in a single continuum of past and present, each of which is inspired by the Holy Spirit as having one meaning and purpose, namely, the future salvation of humanity beyond a time-bound earthly evolution. This inspired history is eternally present and sees its purpose related in the Scriptures and in the Church's maintaining and passing on of its sacred Tradition for all those who come after the writing of the "remembered past."

However, like most modern, academic historians, those who study and teach salvation history see the past as a lengthy and involved pursuit of wisdom cultivated over several thousand years. While salvation history encompasses past, present and future, our telling about it here must first soundly develop the historical past. The remembrance of this past cannot be finished in one essay, and must be broken down into four segments: (1) sacred history in the Old Testament; (2) the historical Christ; (3) the early Church to the sixteenth century, culminating in the Protestant revolt against Catholicism; and (4) the modern Church from the seventeenth century to the present day.

One article could not possibly present these four segments intelligibly. Therefore, the four segments will be broken down into four separate articles based on these four segments. The present article constitutes the first segment, and the next three segments will follow in roughly every ten days to two weeks after the preceding segment.

(2) Salvation History and the Incarnation

Christianity is an incarnational religion. The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the eternal Son of God took human flesh from His human mother, and that this historical Christ is both fully God and fully man. This doctrine asserts an abiding union of Godhood and Manhood in the person of Christ, without the integrity or permanence of either aspect of this union being impaired. It also assigns the beginnings of this union to a definite date in human history. Salvation history is divinely inspired and passed down to humanity through Scripture and Church Tradition, in a sacred form of communication which best preserves the influence of the historical Incarnation.

This is true in a threefold way: (1) in the Old Testament's teaching of an historical theology leading up to the coming of the God-man, (2) in the New Testament's accounts of the Word made flesh, and (3) through the Church's preservation, study and imparting (through evangelization) of the combined historical Old and New Testaments' sacred historical revelation. Thus, salvation history, as preserved in Scripture and Tradition and as correctly understood, is an incarnational force. This force is powered by accurate knowledge of "the remembered past."

In salvation history, this past is recognized through the leading of the Holy Spirit from the history of creation, all the way to the Messiah, and forward to the early and modern Church and beyond, to the end of time. Further, salvation history is built upon the Church's incarnation of a remembered past in sacraments. The incarnational advantage of the sacramental moment flows ahead into the never-ending continuation of the Incarnation, in a way that surpasses academic, modern history.

The Eucharist, for example, is an element of incarnational history, for as Jesus says at the Last Supper, "This is my body, which will be given up for you; do this in memory of me." (Luke 22:19b). What could be more incarnational than eating the Body of Christ (His sacramental Incarnation) in the Eucharist? What could be more a part of the remembered past than celebrating this eating "in memory of" Jesus? And what could be more future-oriented about the historical Passover moment than Jesus' saying, "[I] tell you that from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes. (Luke 22:18).

(3) Is Biblical History Believable?

Now we must investigate the accuracy of salvation history, as based on the study of the Bible's purported historical narratives by modern, academic historians. This investigation does not suggest a contradiction of what we said above in Section (1) on the significance of salvation history. Rather, it buttresses what we said in Section (2) concerning the incarnational value of salvation history. Look back into Jesus' incarnate genealogy, and you will find certain unsavory characters, such as "the harlot whose name was Rahab" (Mt. 1:5; Josh. 2:1; Jas. 2:25). The fact that Jesus, in his human flesh had a prostitute in his past, does not diminish his Incarnation. Instead his genealogy, represented by whatever type of ancestors he had in his family history, reinforces his Incarnation.

The Incarnation is a human fact, and there can be no Incarnation without leaving all forms of human flesh as they are, instead of thinking we can tamper with the Incarnation and improve it somehow. Thus, if we point out the weaknesses of Old Testament history by showing its inaccuracies through the opinions of academic experts, we boost the believability of Old Testament history and make it more valid, as shown through the study of that history by modern experts, some of whom may not even believe in God. However, let's not overlook the fact that many modern, academic historians are Christians who are invested in verifying and validating authentic history where they find it in the Bible, and also correcting inaccuracies in Old Testament writers' attempts at writing history.

Biblical history starts in a period and a civilization in which history in the moden, academic sense of the word was entirely unknown. None of the concepts of history accepted by modern historians can be read back into the ancient Semitic world -- whether it be the Semitic world in which the books of the Old Testament were written, or the Semitic world into which Jesus was born and in which the Gospels were written. Likewise what passes for accurate history found in the books of the Old Testament often (but not always) cannot be legitimately read into modern history. True, Bible scholars have designated some of the Old Testament books as "the historical books." These purported Old Testament historical books are 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, and 1&2 Maccabees.

The story of Israel's past presented in the Old Testament was what was heard by the Hebrew people and told by the authors, and this audible hearing and oral telling of the past was not ordinarily a record of what actually happened. Or if it was a record of what happened, it was not an accurate record of what happened. Therefore, what was heard and told is not academic history, but a literature that has a different purpose (discussed further below) than being academically persuasive. Thus most academically oriented Bible scholars in varying degrees believe that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) definitely attempts to teach the reader something other than the actual facts of history.

Further, modern historians believe that even the Old Testament's "historical books" (listed in the second-to-the-next-paragraph above), while making great strides from the Pentateuch toward recounting believable history in the modern sense, still do not reach a presentation of history that is accurate by modern historical standards. In short, as we will develop below, what becomes believable history in the Old Testament becomes believable only because of the support of modern, academic historians, who are the only people qualified to verify, validate and confirm that something of a quasi-historical nature written in the Old Testament is accurate. And if something in the Old Testament is inaccurate by modern historical standards, modern, academic historians are the only ones who are qualified to correct it. For that reason, in the following discussion, we will focus on traditional modern, academic history to bolster the Old Testament record of the past.

Before continuing, we should realize that the Hebrews were not the first people to prepare a written record of a ruling deity reigning over the historical activity in the people's daily lives. The first actual civilizations showing a belief in something like a god or gods reigning over them and then recording a written record of this reign are as follows: first, the Hindus in India, who left us the Vedas, a form of history that focused on the Hindu belief in the circularity of time, or reincarnation, and also in a multitude of gods, since they were pantheists, or worshippers of a god in everything. The second civilization, Mesopotamian Sumeria, the first civilization to rule the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in today's Iraq, prepared the way for future historical-religious writings principally by inventing an alphabet used throughout the Middle East and engaging in writing accounts of the activities of their gods with humans.

But Sumeria disappeared as soon as, first, Assyria, and then, Babylon, appeared on the scene. Sumeria, Assyria and Babylon all wrote about their pasts before the Hebrews did, and they all inserted gods into their narratives that were later to tempt the followers of Yahweh into following these gods. The history of the Old Testament is essentially about Yahweh winning the Hebrews to follow him alone, and building up their faith in Yahweh, the one, true God. "One, true God" is an important qualifying statement about Yahweh, because whereas the three early societies above all had a variety of gods, Yahweh was the only God of the Hebrews. This established monotheism in ancient history, and marked the Hebrews out as a special people, and also, in the eyes of pagans who had a multitude of gods a bothersome people.

We cannot ignore Egypt's relationship with Israel, but Egypt has left us no historical written summary of its past similar to the Pentateuch. However, archaeologists exploring ancient Egypt have unearthed a multitude of scattered writings, and pictographs on the walls of the Pharaohs' tombs and in other official structures that are a form of history. Archaeologists' discovery of pottery, weapons, chariots and other tangible remnants of ancient Egypt occurred before the history of Yahweh God's reigning in love over His people was recorded in the Pentateuch. And it should be remembered that Egypt, before the Hebrew settlement in Canaan, had occupied Canaan as a territory that was considered by the Egyptians as a province of their central capital along the Nile.

(4) Homer and the Old Testament Authors

In what was heard and what was told, the teachers of the Pentateuch were merely following the custom of the time in trying to convey something persuasive, intelligible and even exciting to a crowd of people sitting around a campfire. We can think here of the Greek prophet and poet, Homer (born, roughly 1200 B.C.) who tramped all over Greece reciting by heart his Odyssey and Iliad. He would simply show up some night in a Greek village, where, after announcing to a bored and sleepy clientele that he wanted to regale them with a marvelous epic. Somewhat like the characters of the Pentateuch, Homer spoke of warrior-heroes and of the most beautiful woman on earth, Helen of Troy, for whom many a warrior made a fool of himself by risking death to win fair Helen's hand.

We don't know the name of Homer's equivalent in Canaan, although the assumed dates of Homer's life, poetry-writing career and wandering life of recitation, must have been matched by a scribe of the Pentateuch. Homer's method of trying to push Hellenic, cultured literature off on suspicious illiterates, strikes us as the same type of circuit-riding evangelization of the Hebrew people engaged in as during Homer's day in Greece. Perhaps a scribe of the Pentateuch who had been working on a little novella he was thinking about naming Genesis, engaged in the "what-was-told" component of the "hearing and telling" oral transmission of the first books of the Old Testament. Trying to interest a group of (usually wine-besotted ) fellow Hebrews in stories about heroes named Abraham, Issac and Jacob, villains like the jealous Cain, and fair-haired lovelies like Sarah and Rebekah, the story teller (as is known similarly about Homer) had to really work up some enthusiasm to stand for nearly twelve hours to get through his entire recitation. It would have been the height of rudeness to demand a chair in order to sit, even in front of yawners and snorers, because, after all, he was in their village.

The Old Testament authors of the so-called "historical books," listed above, wrote much later (600 to 200 B.C.) than the Pentateuch's ancient authors had written the first five books of the Bible, which was a process that had begun as early as 1100 B.C. or even later by some accounts, but probably about 60 years or so after Homer's career. These later writers of the Bible's historical books, in one certain particular, nonetheless imitated their earlier brother-authors of the Pentateuch. Like the writers of fictional, tell-all stories found in the Pentateuch, the authors of the historical books, too, told the reader a polemical story by means of a zealous, promotional evangelization, and hopefully, conversion of the reader to the Yahweh faith.

(5) J, E, P, D, and the Names and Purposes of God

In the Pentateuch, the writers used the word "Yahweh" to translate what they meant by "the Lord." But they had a different name for "God," which in the shorter version, was "El," or in the longer version, "Elohim, both of which effectively meant both Yahweh God, and "gods" of the pagans." As a bit of digression, this would be the best place to discuss the names of the Almighty in ancient Canaan, and how these names got all clumped together. These two different words for the same eternal God, evidently bothered impatient Bible scholars (probably Americans, who wanted everything done "right now"). When these later Bible scholars evidently grew weary writing out the whole names of "Yahweh" and "El" they attached one-letter abbreviations to the original sources (or the authors) of the Pentateuch who wrote about God.

What this amounted to was Bible scholars tagging the ancient authors of Pentateuch (also called "sources") with one-letter nicknames after the word that the sources used for God. So centuries later, in an article the scholars were writing in a scholarly journal, let's say in the 19th Century A.D., the Bible scholars gave the "authors" or "the sources" of the Pentateuch nicknames. Now something interesting happens in all of Exodus Chapter 3. First of all, in Exodus 3:2, Moses is said by the source to be going to the holy mountain, Horeb. Now the name for Mt. Horeb is more formally "mountain of God." So, since "God" is being associated in the text with Horeb, the word for God, or "El" is used by the original source to translate "God" into Hebrew in the phrase "mountain of God" in Ex. 3:2. But then the 19th Century scholar scholar writing his scholarly article says to himself, "Oh I can't bother to use "El" as the name for "God" in Ex 3:2, as it's too long to write TWO WHOLE LETTERS, "E" and "l ." I'll just give the source who wrote "El" in Ex.3:2 the one-letter nickname "E."

Now let's move on to what the scholars did to "Yahweh," as "the Lord." Yahweh as "the Lord" is first translated into Hebrew in Exodus 3:14, where he is answering Moses' probing question: "If I go back to the Israelites, and they ask me what the name of this God of our fathers is that I met at Mount Horeb, what do I tell them?" (Ex. 3:13)?" Yahweh said, "My name is Yahweh," which translates from the Hebrew to the phrase, "I am who am." In Hebrew, Yahweh ("I am who am") is written yhwh, which is derived from the Hebrew word for "to be," which is hayah." So, if Bible scholars gave the one-letter nickname "E" to the use of "El" (for "God") by a source of the Pentateuch, what nickname did Bible scholars give to yhwh, or "I am who am" for "the Lord."? They gave Yahweh the nickname "J," as we explain below.

The words Yahweh and Elohim were studied by German biblical scholars, who got to first-base first, before other scholars, and in Scriptural studies the German spelling of Yahweh became "Jehovah." As a result, when Scripture scholars were writing and teaching about the writing of the title Yahweh for "I am who am," the letter "J" (for the German Jehovah) was used to abbreviate the source's one-word nickname for using Yahweh as "I am who am," or "the Lord." So 19th Century Bible scholars referring to the ancient Pentateuch source who had written the word "God" in the Pentateuch, translated "God" as "Elohim" (or simply "El"), and then they went further and abbreviated the source using "El" as simply the nickname, "E." And when they were translating "the Lord," using "Yahweh," or "I am who am," they used "yhwh" for "I am who am." And just like 19th Century scholars abbreviated "El" ( Hebrew for "God") as "E," so too, when abbreviating the Hebrew for "the Lord,"the scholars used "J," because in German, "Yahweh" is spelled "Jehovah." So "J" and "E" became the abbreviated names for the first use by the ancient and original "sources" in the Pentateuch to speak of God.

There are two other source words used in the Pentateuch: The first, the "Priestly" source, wrote and edited much of the Pentateuch. The nickname for this source was "P." Early priests in Israel were ordained as followers of Moses' brother, Aaron. Further, the tribe of Levi was said to be the "priestly tribe." The two groups of priests haggled over which group should be the "principal (true) priests." Aaron's priests won that contest, and the Levites, while still remaining officially priests were mostly used more like deacons (1 Chr. 9;2), taking care of the later temple built by King Solomon (1 Kgs. 6). However, the Levites also took primary care of synagogue worship throughout Israel. When, after the Israelites invaded Canaan, eleven of the twelve tribes were given land as assigned to them by Joshua (Jos. 13-19). However, the Levites did not get a transfer of land. Instead, they were set up as priestly ministers for all of the eleven other tribes. Although they got no land, the Levites were greatly respected throughout Hebrew history.

The last of the four sources is the "D" source. When the writer of the Book of Deuteronomy wrote his work -- the last of the five books of the Pentateuch -- he was given the name "Deuteronomist," abbreviated by "D." The "Deuteronomist" recorded a great deal of history, all of it more reliable than the attempts at history by J, E and P. Yet, "P," the nickname for the priestly editors, was very important to the writing of the Pentateuch, because P straightened out all the repetitions of verses, and added new versions of what J and E had originally written, greatly updating the "first drafts" written by J and E. So in the Pentateuch their are four different sources, or schools of writers, namely J, E, P and D. Each of these four original sources in the Pentateuch used their own way to express the action of God. J is the most common usage not only in the Pentateuch, but also throughout the rest of Scripture. There is an amazing recurrence of the word Yahweh in the Old Testament -- appearing 6,823 times, and abbreviated by scholars as "J" when they are writing about the Scriptural author who was the source of the word's appearance.

Now that we have looked at the names of God -- El ("God," or "E") & Yahweh ("the Lord" or "J") -- we need to compare briefly what the purpose of J versus E was said to be in the Pentateuch. The Israelites affirmed that Yahweh alone creates, that Yahweh alone reveals Himself, that Yahweh alone imposes His will upon man and upon history, that Yahweh alone saves and judges, that to Yahweh alone belongs the kingdom of earth, which is as wide as creation. Against him, the other "Elohim" (gods) were ineffectual competitors who did not deserve worship. The personal reality of Yahweh is clearly distinguished from any reality alleged for other Elohim (gods). Yahweh's character became more clearly known by the encounter between the faith of Israel versus the beliefs of other religions. The Old Testament shows that Israel was under steady pressure to assimilate Yahweh to the fertility deities represented by the Canaanite "Baal" -- the generic name in Canaan for other gods. The Old Testament likewise shows that the faith of Israel survived this temptation to assimilate Yahweh to the vague world of pagan gods, who were conceived of as superhuman powers, particularly evident in the forces of nature.

(6) The Tentative History of the "Historical Books"

While the Old Testament "historical books" (1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, and 1&2 Maccabees) are un-historical in the modern sense, there is nonetheless found in them a tentative origin, written in prudence, of the Hebrew world's believable remembered past. The Old Testament historical books, while hinting at a slice of truly believable history, lose a portion of historical credibility by their furthering of an "evangelizing" and "catechetical" promotion of Yahweh-ism as the underlying principle of all history. However, the historical books, if only by their very name, grasp at the sinews of a much later developed, modern history. The reason why modern scholars claim that the "historical books" display a feel for authentic history is this: In the Old Testament historical books, the writers compare certain aspects of their underlying religious purpose to what modern historians know for sure is the true history of other civilizations.

However, it might be helpful initially to see how the historical books differ from the story told in the very unhistorical Book of Exodus about the Hebrews' life in ancient Egypt. In this account in Exodus there exist none of the earmarks of actual historical reporting. No exact dates or names of the Pharaohs' kingdoms are found. Nor is there an exact, unchanging calculation of the Hebrew population in Egypt. From the text in Exodus, the reader could just as well find that only about three hundred Hebrews had gone down to Egypt and become slaves, while concluding elsewhere that the Hebrew population, judged by its size while escaping from Egypt and wandering in the desert, for an historically unbelievable "forty years," must have been about -- another historically unbelievable -- 45,000 people. Today's historians, concentrating just on Egyptian sources instead of the Old Testament, have found rational and scholarly proof of the names and chronology of ancient Egypt's Pharaohs, together with direct evidence of their policies of government, which the Old Testament's "historical books" never found or used.

Yet, if we don't disparage Exodus for being almost completely unhistorical in comparison to the much later-written historical books named two paragraphs above in the first sentence, we do find more than a glimmer of history in these historical books as we will discuss. At first we must explain that there was initially one, undivided kingdom in Palestine called "Israel," which was the second name given by Yahweh to Jacob after the latter wrestled with an angel. But then rival combatants from the northern and southern halves of this once undivided kingdom called "Israel" fought for the kingship with such ferocity and loss of life that the former one kingdom called Israel got split into two kingdoms, north and south. The northern kingdom kept the prestigious name Israel. The southern kingdom took the name Judah, after the patriarch of one of the twelve tribes.

We learn that the Hebrew people in Canaan -- meaning both the northern Israelites and the southern Judeans -- were all deported, in two separate deportations by two different "kidnapping empires," at two different times separated by 134 years. First in 721 B.C. the Assyrians, who were rulers of what much later would be parts of Armenia and Iraq, deported the entire population from the northern kingdom, Israel. This is an undisputed scientific-historical reality, proven both by the Hebrew record of the deportation, and especially by the confirmation of this deportation in Assyrian history. In other words in the Old Testament "historical books" there appears here and there verification and validation of otherwise shaky Hebrew story-telling by modern, scientific history from other places and sources.

And we know that when the Israelites came back from Assyria they returned into the land formerly named Israel, that is, into the same northern territory from which they had been deported, but that in the meantime, this territory had become named "Samaria." The Israelite (Northern) deportees had lost their religious faith in Yahweh while living in pagan Assyria, and when they returned to live in Samaria (formerly the Northern kingdom of Israel) they never regained their faith and lost their awareness of and acquaintance with the Old Testament.

Turning to other evidence in the Old Testament historical books of actual and believable history, we find that in the southern kingdom of Judah, a new empire had come on the scene -- Babylon -- which had defeated and replaced the Assyrians in war. Babylon took over primary control of the eastern Mesopotamian world. Just as Assyria almost a century and-a-half before had deported the Israelites, Babylon, another "kidnapping empire" (located in all of today's Iraq and part of Iran), in the year 587 B.C., deported to Babylon all the Judeans in the southern kingdom. The historical account in the Old Testament of Babylon's deportation of the southern Israelites, namely, the Judeans, is again verified and validated by modern historical confirmation, based on the expert modern history of Babylon. And then, we know from the Bible's "historical books," (for the names of these books, see the first paragraph under section 6 above) that when the Judeans returned from Babylon they started calling themselves, no longer principally Hebrews, but Jews.

So the first people named Jews came into existence as they returned to their former homeland, still called Judah, in two waves of return from exile in Babylon, the first in 537 B.C., and the second in 458 B.C. Further, unlike the deportees taken to Assyria from the northern kingdom, that is, the "Israelites," who became irreligious "Samaritans," the Jews who returned to Judah, were still ardent believers in and followers of Yahweh-God and the Yahwistic religion. The history as reported in the Old Testament "historical books" of these two sets of deportations and the completely opposite effect on the religious faith of the two returning set of deportees to, first of all Samaria, and second of all to Judah, is an absolutely credible bit of modern scientific history. This is so because what the Old Testament historical books reveal about the deportations is accepted as factual by every single historian in modern times, but not necessarily because an account of these deportations is also in the Bible. Modern historians have relied on the direct evidence of the events of the deportations through the findings of top-notch, reputable historians and archaeolgists, disinterested in using religious ideology as a back-drop for their history, as is the case in the Old Testament's historical books.

(7) Summation: Historicity of the Bible

In the Old Testament in particular, the remembered past was told either in oral tradition or in written records. The material, whether oral or written, in which the ancient world remembered its past is the source from which we construct a history of this past in our modern sense, knowing that as we do so we are dealing with a narrative of the past that is imperfect and incomplete. In discussing the historicity of the Old Testament we should probably distinguish between "history" in the modern sense and "proto-" (or "preliminary") history in the ancient sense. We considered above other ancient histories and how they, too, have been subjected to an intense review by modern histories. The first thing to note is that other quasi historical documents similar to the Pentateuch -- namely the vibrant accounts in Sumeria, Assyria and Babylon of a people's first patriarchs -- preceded the Old Testament.

While we have underscored the lack of the Old Testament's attempt at history, we should not come away from this article thinking that ancient Israel's historical memory was mere brute memory. Nor should we deride and belittle the attempts by ancient sources to portray the Old Testament's history. The past became meaningful only to a group -- namely the Hebrew people -- which had a sense of unity and continuity, a true political society. Such a society is civilized. A civilized society is aware of its past as that on which its unity and identity rest, and the principal function of Hebrew proto-history (which the Jews merely called "history") is to affirm the unity and identity of their society in the present.
--Tony Gilles

This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida: stpaulcatholic.net