New Covenant Scribes

Last week I read something Jesus said that puzzled me, it is in Matthew 13.51-52 where he finishes a string of parables and told the disciples:

Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

Typically when Jesus is talking about scribes, it is not in a positive light. But here, he is taking about scribes trained for the kingdom. What did he mean? I asked around and Jeff Meyers said:

I think it’s important to remember that the apostolic calling was fundamentally about scribal work. They were called to write out the Scriptures for the new world, especially what we call the four Gospels. They understood this, if we read Acts 6:2, 4 correctly. This is not about them “preaching.” It’s them “attending to the Word.” The word “preaching” is not in the text. It’s about the “service of the Word.” They collaborated as “scribes” to insure that the words and acts of the Messiah were quickly recorded as founding documents for his new kingdom. Acts 6 is not about “preachers” and “deacons,” even if it might be applied to modern ecclesiastical issues like that by abstracting from the passage the wisdom of a “division of labor.”

Of course, the “service of the Word” also includes speaking the Word, as they do in the book of Acts.  But Acts 6 and Luke 1:2 point to more than proclamation.

I was thrilled to hear this! It makes perfect sense to me and it accords with what Jesus said. Further, Jesus later says:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.

One of the categories of people who Jesus sends to doomed Israel is scribes! It stands to reason, as Jeff wrote, that the process of writing the Scriptures happened early, contra what many recent scholars might think. Also, the early Deacons saying they should not wait tables to attend to scribal work accords will with the role of a scribe as described in Jesus ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 38.24:

A scholar’s wisdom comes of ample leisure;

if a man is to be wise he must be relieved of other tasks.

If the work that these New Covenant scribes performed was anything like the Old Covenant scribes, then we have some idea of what it consisted of.  Michael Fishbane writes extensively about the subject in his book, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. He says (with Hebrew terms excluded by me):

The technical title ___, meaning ‘scribe’, first appears in connection with the royal council established by King David at the outset of the United Monarchy (2 Sam. 8: 16-18~20: 23-25), and appears in similar listings preserved for the dynasties of King Solomon (1 Kg. 4: 1-6), King Joash (2 Chron. 24: 11-12), and King Hezekiah (2 Kg. 18: 18, 37). The the [scribe] appears as a stable component of the high royal bureaucracy for at least 300 years, from the beginning of the tenth to the seventh century BCE. However, the relative position of this court officer in these listings varies, and his relationship to the ___, ‘recorder’ or ‘secretary’, is unclear. As the priests, war commanders, major-domos, and tax officials noted in these lists were the heads of specialized sub-bureaucracies serving the royal administration, we may surmise that the ___ of these texts was the overseer of a diversified scribal network.
Regrettably, no biblical sources describe the training of ancient Israelite scribes. It may be assumed, however, that the skills taught in their various guild centres and schools (cf. 1 Chron. 2:55) enabled those scribes to serve a variety of administrative and state functions. Some served the military and aided in conscription (2 Kgs. 25: 19~Jer. 52:25); others, Levites by lineage, served as overseers of the priestly rotations (1 Chron. 24: 6), or provided administrative services to the Temple and its upkeep (2 Chron. 34: 13; cf. Neh. 13: 13); and still other scribes served in the royal court, providing the king with diplomatic skill and sage wisdom. Trained in the forms and rhetoric of international diplomatic correspondence, and thus kept abreast of internal and external affairs, many of these court scribes–as individuals and as family guilds–were directly caught up in religious and political affairs affecting the nation as a whole. Particularly exemplary of such involvements are the activities of the Shaphan scribal family during the final decades of the Judaean state. In other cases, the professional court scribe was primarily a sage counsellor–a repository of traditional wisdom. Just such a personage was Jonathan, an uncle of King David, who was ‘an adviser __, a man of understanding __ and a scribe ___’. There is no reason to doubt that this combination of traits reflects an authentic pre-exilic tradition, despite its unique articulation in the relatively late Book of Chronicles. What is certain, at any rate, is that this formulation draws from an international courtier vocabulary. […] The technical and official nature of this description is confirmed by the fact that Ezra the priest, the great teacher of the post-exilic restoration, is also called a __ ___ (Ezra 7:6). The fact that Ezra’s title already occurs in Ps. 45:2 as a frozen idiom suggests that this designation was known in the pre-exilic period as well, and was not simply a contemporary title conferred upon him by later historians.
In addition to their service in regional, national, and international capacities, ancient Israelite scribes were tradents of texts. Indeed, this activity was a constitutive characteristic of the ancient Israelite scribal class. Thus, in addition to copying texts, Israelite scribes were also responsible for maintaining, transmitting, and collating literary record. […]
Details related to the scribal activities of collating, entitling, and indexing literary records can be deduced from a variety of biblical data. A general indicator of such activity is the recurrent references in the Books of Kings and Chronicles to the archives or records of the Northern and Southern kingdoms from which the ‘historical’ report is excerpted or derived (e.g. 1 Kings 11:41, 14:19, 29, 15:7, 23; cf. 1 Chr. 9:1; 2 Chr. 9:29, 12:15, 13:22, 20:34, 24:27, 27:7, 32:32). Such historical archives were maintained by court archivists or other guardians of the historical traditions. Some scribal practices may be deduced from the annotations to the priestly regulations found in the Books of Leviticus and Numbers. These records have both superscriptive titles (e.g. Lev. 6:2, 7, 7:1, 11) and summary colophons (e.g. 7:37-38, 11:46-7, 12: 8, 15:32-3, Num. 5:29-31, 6:21), which are well evidenced in other ancient Near Eastern documents. Moreover, like the latter, these biblical regulation were often collated into short series or collections, for example the laws of sacrifice in Lev. 1-7 or the various laws on purity and impurity in Lev. 11-15. Such annotations and collections, found in legal and prophetic literature, only make sense as formal conventions of an established scribal tradition.

Fishbane, Michael A. 1988. Biblical interpretation in ancient Israel. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Clarendon Press. Pages 25-27.

So it seems that the scribal profession was continued, purified and renewed, in the New Covenant.

Russian Orthodox Fragility

An article by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church [link] points out that the Revolution of 1917 did not spring out of thin air and impose atheism on Russia, rather, the society and even the Church itself was becoming atheist and hollow already:

It has been said that Russia was baptised but not enlightened. Indeed, as far as the 19th century is concerned, it is clear that enlightenment was very often in conflict with religion: the masses of illiterate peasants kept their traditional beliefs, but more and more educated people, even from a purely religious background, rejected faith and became atheists. Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov are classic examples: both came from clerical families, both became atheists after studying in theological seminaries. For people like Dostoyevsky religion was something that had to be rediscovered, after having been lost as a result of his education. Tolstoy, on the other hand, came to a certain type of faith in God but remained alien to the Orthodox Church. It is clear, when one looks at the pre-revolutionary period, that there was a huge gap between the Church and the world of educated people, the so-called intelligentsia, and this gap was constantly growing.

The Archbishop goes on to cite some specific examples from that time of creeping atheism:

I remember reading a book by Father Georgy Shavelsky, the Protopresbyter of the Russian Army and Navy under Nicholas II. Himself one of the senior members of the Holy Synod, he testified that the Synod was in fact very far from the life of people, that it did very little (if anything) to prevent atheist propaganda from spreading among ordinary people. To show how little remained of the people’s traditional devotion to God, Shavelsky cites the following example: when attendance at the Liturgy became, by a special imperial decree, no longer obligatory for Russian soldiers, only ten per cent of them continued to go to church.

Another testimony of the same kind is that of Metropolitan Veniamin (Fedchenkov), who became the Bishop of the White Army after the revolution. He writes that none of the students of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, where he had studied, ever went to see Father John of Kronstadt, and that some of the students were atheists. He describes the atmosphere of spiritual coolness inside the Orthodox Church, the lack of prophetic spirit. He claims that it was not by mere chance that there arose people like Rasputin:
against the common background of indifference towards religion he appeared as a charismatic figure and was at first accepted as such by the ecclesiastical authorities, who then directed his steps to the imperial palace.

The third testimony which I would like to draw on here is of a more personal kind: it is that of Father Sergei Bulgakov. Himself the son of an Orthodox priest, after studying at a theological seminary, he became an atheist, following the steps of Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov. In his autobiographical notes he asks himself how this happened, and answers: “It happened, somehow, almost at once and in an imperceptible manner, as something taken for granted, when the poetry of my childhood was replaced by the prose of the theological seminary… When I began to doubt, my critical thoughts were not satisfied with traditional apologetics, but rather found them scandalous… My revolt was strengthened by the compulsory devotion: these long services with akathists (and ritual devotion in general) did not give me satisfaction.” Fr Bulgakov gave up his religion easily, without a fight, and neither his clerical origins nor his theological education helped him to resist the temptation, of atheism and nihilism.

He then points out that many people joining the Church today in Russia still don’t believe in God, but are following a fad:

It seems to me that, though the numbers of believers has immensely increased during the last years, Russia is still far from being a Christian country. To be baptised, to be Orthodox has become a fashion. I would not be surprised if the majority of people, when asked whether they are Orthodox, would now give a positive answer. This does not mean, though, that they all go to church. It only means that most of them have assumed a new outward identity to keep up with the ongoing ‘religious revival’. I remember asking one teenager who came, together with her mother, to be baptised: ‘Do you believe in God?’ ‘No,’ was her answer. ‘Why then do you want to be baptised?’ I asked. ‘Well, everybody gets baptised nowadays,’ she said. This case, one of many, illustrates that many people take religion in a very superficial manner, sometimes without even believing in God. Remaining inwardly atheists, they become outwardly Orthodox.

He warns against a type of reactionary Orthodoxy that I see all too much of in the news:

The second danger is that. of militant Orthodoxy, which would be a post-atheist counterpart of militant atheism. I mean an Orthodoxy that fights against Jews, against masons, against democracy, against Western culture, against enlightenment. This type of Orthodoxy is being preached even by some key members of the hierarchy, and it has many supporters within the Church.

This leads me to think that Russia suffered greatly in missing out on the Reformation. The Bible was never put squarely into the life of the people and the Church missed out on a great opportunity to be soaked in the Scripture. In the same way I believe that the modern Russian Orthodox Church misses exposition of the Scripture and reevaluation in the light of the Word. Of course I could be wrong. Perhaps there are movements within Russia that are moving ad fontes back to the Scriptures, but what I see is a reactionary movement that glories in the past and believe in a crystalized version of unchanging doctrine. I believe all this is greatly to the disadvantage of the Russian Church and nation. May God grant them more light and the ability to change where they need to.

Needy Churches

Father Dan Claire has a good post up at RenewDC on how healthy churches should be needy churches. He says in part:

A healthy church grieves the departure of members not because of the loss of revenue, but because of the loss of gifts. Departures drive the remaining members to their knees to pray for new body parts, so that the body might be complete, and the church might fulfill her vocation as a kingdom outpost. Likewise, when God sends new people to a healthy church, there are legitimate holes to be filled and everyone rejoices in the Lord’s provision.

Anglican Church Planting Done Right

There are a lot of bad church plants and established churches out there in the Anglican world. Theology is thin, sometimes Arminian, sometimes idolatrous. Discipline is lacking, discipleship does not exist. Some churches don’t want to be terribly liturgical despite a 2,000 year liturgical tradition. A focus on digging into the Bible isn’t there, mission mindedness towards the local community is lacking, and the list goes on. At the top level, the AMiA looks corporate and atheological. There are simply a lot of problems.

And yet, there is hope. Here on the East Coast there at least six parishes pastored by men with strong Augustinian convictions, a commitment to the Bible, a desire to see healthy Christian living and a focus on mission. A new article outlines the history and status of the three RenewDC parishes, one of which I attend:

Through AMiA, Claire became a Rwandan missionary to Washington, D.C., and started the Church of the Resurrection on Capitol Hill.

Now Resurrection is about to celebrate its seventh year in the same rented historic church building near the Library of Congress. Two new churches have already been planted out of Resurrection, and a fourth and fifth in the D.C. region are in the works. The three current churches meet inside the Capital Beltway on Sunday evenings, renting historic church buildings in keeping with a mission-minded, streamlined budget where church planting is a priority.

Together, these congregations compose a church-planting movement known as RenewDC.

Consistent with the theology of Anglicanism’s founding documents, Claire is Reformed and paedobaptist. But joining RenewDC churches requires subscribing only to Christian essentials, which are “hopefully the same among all the gospel-centered churches in the city,” Claire says. The churches focus on gospel essentials (worship, discipleship, and community) leading to mission. As a result, the RenewDC churches resemble missionary outposts and could perhaps be compared to military chapels outside the United States.

The diversity of backgrounds among congregants is striking, if not surprising given the urban environment. In the midst of such diversity, one perhaps counter-intuitive strategy for bridging the gap between people is simple, liturgical worship. “It provides a common framework,” Claire says, “a common language for people.” These Anglican worship services follow the same basic outline as most Christian churches since the earliest days of the church: worship, prayers, Scripture reading, sermon, affirmation of belief (creeds), and the Eucharist. They practice these ancient rites using contemporary music and language.

It can be done right, it should be done right, it will be done right! To read more about it, click here.

California in Ruins

My brother sent me this intriguing look at modern California. It points to something that I think is happening all over the place: the country has turned into wealthy enclaves with pristine communities and large swaths of crumbling and dilapidated homes and infrastructure (Flint and Detroit Michigan come to mind). I don’t think the answer to this is purely fiscal, I think it is largely character-based as well. Picking up after yourself, cleaning up your lawn and so forth are values that are not universal. The fiscal problems are also real. Because our entitlement and defense spending is so enormous, spending on roads and bridges cannot compete with the massive amounts of money we spend on other things. I think if any of us drove 20 or 30 minutes outside of our locale, we could find the broken down areas next to us that we choose not to see. Here is an excerpt of the article:

Here are some general observations about what I saw (other than that the rural roads of California are fast turning into rubble, poorly maintained and reverting to what I remember seeing long ago in the rural South). First, remember that these areas are the ground zero, so to speak, of 20 years of illegal immigration. There has been a general depression in farming — to such an extent that the 20- to-100-acre tree and vine farmer, the erstwhile backbone of the old rural California, for all practical purposes has ceased to exist.

On the western side of the Central Valley, the effects of arbitrary cutoffs in federal irrigation water have idled tens of thousands of acres of prime agricultural land, leaving thousands unemployed. Manufacturing plants in the towns in these areas — which used to make harvesters, hydraulic lifts, trailers, food-processing equipment — have largely shut down; their production has been shipped off overseas or south of the border. Agriculture itself — from almonds to raisins — has increasingly become corporatized and mechanized, cutting by half the number of farm workers needed. So unemployment runs somewhere between 15 and 20 percent.

Many of the rural trailer-house compounds I saw appear to the naked eye no different from what I have seen in the Third World. There is a Caribbean look to the junked cars, electric wires crisscrossing between various outbuildings, plastic tarps substituting for replacement shingles, lean-tos cobbled together as auxiliary housing, pit bulls unleashed, and geese, goats, and chickens roaming around the yards. The public hears about all sorts of tough California regulations that stymie business — rigid zoning laws, strict building codes, constant inspections — but apparently none of that applies out here.

It reminds me of nothing so much as the late Empire in Rome, when taxes could not be collected and outlying provinces fell into ruins. More confirmation that we are entering a new dark age in the West. The paradox is that we also have sections of the country with more information and more wealth than almost ever before.

RSV Rebound

I just received the second of two of my Mom’s Bibles that I had rebound. It is a Revised Standard Version published by Thomas Nelson. My Dad gave it to her for Christmas of 1969. It had a white cover that of some type of leather. I believe she used to keep it inside a zip cover that she had and used throughout the time I was growing up. It had completely deteriorated externally in the past 41 years. Mom has marked up the interior every which way, but it is in decent shape.

I had the folks at Mechling rebind it again, and I chose a black goatskin. They don’t have white and I didn’t want it anyway. I also asked them to remove some paintings that were in various places and which I thought made it seem a bit tacky. I think the finished product is very nice and has restored it to usability for decades to come. My pictures of it really aren’t the greatest, but I am trying to show the before and after.

The Sermon on the Mount

I was struck this morning while reading the Sermon on the Mount, how Jesus’ first teaching as recorded by St. Matthew is an ethics-laden sermon. Jesus called Israel to repent, and then went up on the mountain and issued all kinds of teaching on care for the poor, sexual ethics, the way marriage should work, conflict resolution and so on. He did not simply say, “Believe in me and everything else is covered by grace, Amen.”

He was not speaking about “how to earn salvation” either. The message is to his disciples and assumes a covenant status – these are people who are inside the community by faith. But he does not boil down his message to an altar call. He instead issues all kinds of commands as to what the life of a faithful believer should look like and it’s something that many today would probably call legalism. “How can you demand that I do x or y? I’m saved by grace, the letter kills and the Spirit gives life” I can hear some modern Christian say if a pastor was to teach this way.

Entry into the kingdom is by faith, staying the course and persevering to the end is by faith. But we do not know how to live or to judge rightly how to please God without consistent meditation on his Word. The entirety of the Bible is there to show us how a life in conformity to what He wants is to look like.

Proving the Bible to Unbelievers

We have loads of apologetics books, websites and speakers out there, many of whom try to prove that the Bible is the Word of God. Calvin says this is essentially a waste of time:

But it is foolish to attempt to prove to infidels that the Scripture is the Word of God. This it cannot be known to be, except by faith.