Monthly Archives: February 2011

Who is qualified as a witness? pigeon-flyers are right out!

I’ve been doing a little bit of reading for my class on NT backgrounds. I’ve started reading the Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin; i.e. the laws and sayings concerning the court and legal cases. (The Mishnah was compiled around AD 200, but likely reflects long standing tradition)

This law is in the context of deciding who would be a fit witness in a civil case concerning property. Those involved in the case can refuse to admit the other’s witness on the grounds that they are kinsfolk or ineligible. This section outlines what would be deemed an ineligible witness.

3. And these are they which are not qualified [to be witnesses or
judges]: a dice-player, a usurer, pigeon-flyers, or traffickers in Seventh Year produce.1 2 R. Simeon said: Beforetime they used to call them ‘gatherers3 of Seventh Year produce’, but after oppressors4 grew many they changed this and called them5 ‘traffickers in Seventh Year produce.’ R. Judah said: This applies only if they have none other trade, but if they have some other trade than that they are not disqualified.

1 All footnotes are from Danby’s 1933 Edition, p. 385

2 When all crops were deemed ownerless property and free to all. Lev. 25:1ff.

3 i.e. who did not let their fields lie fallow.

4 Tax-gatherers, who exacted dues even in the Seventh Year

5 This category of ineligible witnesses and judges.

This little bit illumines some of the possible interpretive pitfalls the gospels may have been trying to avoid, (or possibly confront); this may be why we have no gospel written by James, Jesus’ brother, and yet it also makes one wonder about Matthew. Was he trustworthy? He may have made a case for his legitimacy as a witness in outlining his abandoning his work as a tax-collector.

Overall, this is interesting to me because I am curious what sort of criteria of testimony our gospel writers might be conforming to. I am particularly interested in why John has in mind about his own gospel, especially give his heavy handed use of “testimony,” “witness,” and “truth” themes.

At the end of the day, I’m just glad my pigeon-flying days are behind me



Contentment vs. Asceticism

I have been thinking about contentment quite a bit lately. Here are some various thoughts. Please feel free to comment, I am still in flux on many of these topics.

I have begun to think of contentment in this way: knowing of something better (either in quality or quantity), and even being able to get said object, but choosing to continue without it (presumably using the thing you already possess). An example of this: I know of many bikes with better frames, nicer components which I could buy if we were to contort our budget. I won’t because my current bike works just fine. Another example: We want a wagon with a third row of seats, but right now our little Civic is sufficient for all our needs.

I have, up until now, consistently thought of contentment in terms of quantity only: you are content (and not greedy) if you have just enough for yourself. But I am beginning to think of my obsession with quality as an obsession of a privileged American, certainly not an obsession reflecting a hearty contentment with the Father’s care for me.

Asceticsm (I suppose), would be to say that you ought not to have any object unless it specifically pertains to your physical sustenance: food, shelter, clothing. But even this is close to Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy 6.

1 Timothy 6:6-10
Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, 7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8 But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. 9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

What would asceticism be, then? To refuse a quality of living in respect to the essential areas. Thus the ascetic would limit his intake to certain types of food which would be seen as basic, or barely sufficient. To avoid luxury, or any enjoyment of luxury seems like a better definition of asceticism.

Paul has a different idea of contentment than most of us: he is able to enjoy plenty (we might read luxury here) and scarcity. His enjoyment and luxury and desire is in Christ; thus he is not troubled by scarcity (though he would say it is a bad thing), and not wooed by luxury nor scared of it. The ascetic is afraid of enjoying luxury in order to preserve the pristine self-righteousness they have constructed. Luxury can be a gift; but as with all gifts only the bratty and entitled demand them.

Phillipians 4:11-13
11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

The posture toward possessions seems central: the sense of entitlement is the evil of greed. Only in Christ can we avoid being brats (even though the objects we desire are very mature and grown-up).


January Work

Since I didn’t take a class during the three week term in January, Beth graciously agreed for me to have a few hours everyday for research. Toward the end of the month this time was used for reading ahead for the Spring term. However, for the first week or so I was able to let some thoughts percolate that otherwise had been stifled by the many assignments hanging over my head.


Epistemology and John:

Testimony is a dominant theme throughout the book, in fact John says at the very end of the book “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24). We are to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Christ (20:31), because of his testimony. And yet Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet who have believed” (20:29). So our belief in John’s testimony is epistemically as justified as empirical beliefs which we would call verifiable (and even veridical); Thomas puts his hand in the risen Jesus’ side. However, though testimony is no less epistemologically justified its justification is derivative to the empirical fact. Another way this relationship could be construed is in terms of authority: John and Thomas’ eyewitness testimony is much more authoritative than mine would be.

The odd and great thing about this testimony is that there is still much wiggle room for the person hearing it; i.e. you can still reject it and have your reason intact. Testimony is not the same as logical proof (though I often wish it was when I am in the midst of conversations!) Even after the most convincing statement from a trustworthy source you are still left to decide whether you believe them. It is different from empirical ‘data’ insofar as the source of the putative belief is still in question, however none of us question our senses (ceteres paribus).

Yet, my sense is that John goes through much trouble to demonstrate that his testimony to the reader (not to mention Jesus’ testimony to Israel and the Pharisees), is credible in every regard. All of the criteria which we might bring to evaluate whether his claims are trustworthy are met with flying colors. So although his testimony is credible and sufficient (again, not exhaustive), it has not been accepted (as seen in the case of the Pharisees (cf. esp. John 5). It seems then that some corrolaries can be traced out which might help to further eludcidate our understanding of the biblical account/doctrine of the noetic effects of sin/the fall.

  • There is a natural ability to listen to the testimony and even understand it. It seems like Jesus assumes that Nicodemus ought to understand regeneration by the Spirit though he is clearly not regenerate. This runs up against what seemed to me basic to our reformed apologetic: in order to believe, your fundamental assumptions/allegiance has to be altered, and your person has to be the subject of the Spirit’s regenerating work. So, by God’s common and sustaining grace, fallen humanity is able to understand the testimony though not accept it.
  • The question then is, “is this rejection not evidence of a further more fundamental level of deception as a result of the noetic effects of sin?” What is the exact locus, or effect of sin on the mind? I am convinced that there is both an element in which the mind cannot understand revelation and stubbornly will not humbly receive revelation apart from the regenerating work of the Spirit. Thus Romans 8:7, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot.” Again, John 3:19, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”
  • Wherever the locus of the fall on the mind and the will is, there is nonetheless an Ethics of Knowing which comes into play. The will is displayed in your beliefs more than anything else. You are no neutral observer, but a willful agent in the whole matter, choosing to believe one set of claims over against another for various reasons (none of which are epistemological checkmates).
  • The big question is how does all of this relate to Natural Law?
  • After all, revelation takes place with cultural/intellectual categories
  • Yet some element is either rejected or unable to be accepted
  • The end game seems to be that a fundamental shift of loyalty is needed with the mind and will. The illuminating work of the Spirit is needed.

If some of this is slightly confusing; I apologize. I tried to provide a bit of context for some of my comments as well as some dialectical conversational dynamic. But this is only fragments of the whole; it is not all said and done.


PS: Just to demonstrate the importance of epistemology…. I’ve been thinking about one of the sticking points between Catholics and Protestants lately; Tradition vs. Scripture. This is essentially an epistemological question.