Archive for the ‘Bible Studies’ Category

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Living On The Edge: challenges to faith

September 1, 2013

Today Christians in the Western world are typically living in a post-Christian society. Christian beliefs are met with skepticism, and people see little reason to believe. Christians are confronted with daily challenges to their faith, and often struggle to understand the relevance of Christianity to modern life.

The book ‘Living On The Edge: challenges to faith‘ (due to be printed in November 2013), addresses those concerns. For an overview of the book, click here.

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Errors at Religious Tolerance: Christianity and the environment

January 27, 2011

The website ‘Religious Tolerance‘ makes the following claims.

No matter how you describe yourself, you should find your beliefs and practices accurately represented in this website. Almost all other religious websites explain only the beliefs of the webmaster or sponsoring faith group. We are different: we try to explain accurately the full diversity of religious beliefs, worldviews, and systems of morality, ethics, and values. We hope that you will find our essays helpful and of interest.

They explain that ‘None of us has any formal education in theology‘, and ‘We know only a tiny bit about a wide range of religions and religious topics‘. Accordingly, they provide this disclaimer.

We will attempt to overcome our biases on each topic that we describe, by explaining each point of view carefully, respectfully and objectively. To this end, we have many of our essays reviewed by persons familiar with the issues who represent all sides of each topic. We encourage readers to Email us about any errors that they find. We do not regard any essay as fixed or complete.

The following email was sent to ‘Religious Tolerance’ on 22 September, 2010, in response to their articles on Christianity and the environment, which start here. To date no reply has been received and the articles have not been corrected.

Familiar with your site as I am, I was not surprised to read the articles on religion and the environment confined almost exclusively to the late twentieth century, omitting around 3,000 years of discussion of environmental ethics among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sources. Passing references to White and Passmore (where is the reference to the twenty years of comprehensive criticism of White in the relevant literature?), and repeated quotes from a very slender selection of sources (three main works?), constituted virtually the entire discussion of the impact of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition on the environment and the formation of environmental ethics.

In your bibliography I found none of the standard current works on environmental ethics and praxis in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This article instead opens with a completely unsubstantiated claim dismissing the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures, without a single original source quotation and without a single scholarly reference. This is unfortunate, given that the oldest stratum of the Pentateuch (the ‘Yahwist’, c. 950 BCE), is recognized as containing an explicit environmental ethic restricting anthropological interference with the ecology,[1] and later developments of the ethic in the Primary History, Wisdom Literature, and the Major and Minor Prophets sought to balance anthropocentric and ecocentric concerns.[2] The article demonstrates no knowledge of the relevant primary or secondary literature.

Not only are these passages recognized in the relevant scholarly literature as having explicit ecological motivation,[3] but they were already recognized as such in Jewish commentary of the Second Temple Era. The later Tannaic commentary in the Mishnah (compiled during the third century CE), as well as the rabbinical commentary in Talmud Jerusalem and Talmud Babylon (complied between the third and fifth centuries CE), not only contain detailed ecological exegesis of the environmental ethic in the Torah, but also proscribe additional laws aimed at environmental protection, and articulate the tension between anthropocentric and ecocentric concerns.[4]

The Early Church Fathers are not to be dismissed either, containing some clearly ecocentric Biblical exposition, though occasionally combined with classical Hellenistic views less favourable to nature.[5] Extensive medieval rabbinical commentary on environmental ethics (which is treated very sparsely in the article to which I linked), is found in Rashi (1040-1105),[6] Maimonides (1135-1204),[7] Ibn Ezra (1089-1164),[8] Nachmanides (1194-1270),[9] and Abravanel (1437-1508),[10] among others. Again we find a balance of anthropocentric and ecocentric views, with an emphasis on balancing the two principles for the optimal benefit of both humans and their environment.

Within the later Christian tradition we find such historical examples as Francis of Assisi, the historic Peace Churches advocating harmonious partnership with the environment,[11] and ecological concern models expressed through various monastic orders and individuals,[12] such as Jonathan Swift, James Eliot, William Bartram, John Ruskin, and George Perkins Marsh (whose ‘Man and nature: or, Physical geography as modified by human action’ makes specific reference to deforestation as ‘war upon the garden of God’, 1865:279). The treatment of twentieth century Christian responses to environmental concerns is of course desperately inadequate, suffering from a lack of familiarity with the relevant scholarly literature and from crude quote mining of a tiny selection of works. Entire paragraphs appear without any substantiating references to the relevant scholarly literature at all, and the article is written in a tone, style, and depth of argumentation which does not even reach undergraduate level.

Whilst I appreciate your articles were very likely limited in scope and detail by the limitations on your personal resources, I believe they would benefit from a more balanced historical perspective if they used some of the sources I have referred to here.
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[1] ‘the Yahwist subordinates human behavior to the larger ecosystem upon which human survival depends.’, Hibert (2000:150-151), cited by Conradie, ‘Christianity and Ecological Theology’, 2006:78.

[2] Fields to be left unfarmed one year of every seven (Exodus 23:10-11, Leviticus 25:3-7), young birds may be taken from their mother, but their mother must be left alone (Deuteronomy 22:6-7), an ox or sheep not to be slaughtered on the same day as their young (Leviticus 22:8), food bearing trees not to be harmed in war time, even if their destruction would be useful to the war effort (Deuteronomy 20:19), animals used commercially are not to be overburdened or exploited (Exodus 23:5, Deuteronomy 25:4), a righteous man takes care of his animals (Proverbs 12:10), et al.

[3] Sarna, ‘Exodus’, 1991:143; Tigay, ‘Deuteronomy’, 1996:201; Isaacs, ‘Exploring Jewish Ethics and Values’, 1999; Yaff, ‘Judaism and environmental ethics: a reader’, 2001; Hutterman, ‘Ecology in Ancient Judaism’, in Neusner, ‘Encyclopedia of Judaism’, 2000; Katz, ‘Judaism and Deep Ecology’, in Deep ecology and world religions: new essays on sacred grounds’, 2001; et al.

[4] Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13; Mishna Bava Bathra 2:9, 24b; Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 12:12; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17b, et al.

[5] Santmire, ‘The travail of nature: the ambiguous ecological promise of Christian theology’, 1985; Boersema, ‘The Torah and the stoics on humankind and nature:’, 2001:222-227.

[6] Vogel, ‘How Green Is Judaism?’, in O’Brien & Paeth, ‘Religious Perspectives on Business Ethics: An Anthology’, 2006:261.

[7] Katz, ‘Judaism and Deep Ecology’, in Deep ecology and world religions: new essays on sacred grounds’, 2001; Rayner, ‘Judaism and Animal Welfare: Overview and Some Questions’, in Jacob & Zemer, ‘The environment in Jewish law: essays and responsa’, 2003:62-63l Bentley, ‘Urban Planning in Jewish Environmentalism’, in ibid., 45-55.

[8] Rayner, ‘Judaism and Animal Welfare: Overview and Some Questions’, in Jacob & Zemer, ‘The environment in Jewish law: essays and responsa’, 2003:60, 62; Vogel, ‘How Green Is Judaism?’, in O’Brien & Paeth, ‘Religious Perspectives on Business Ethics: An Anthology’, 2006:261.

[9] Vogel, ‘How Green Is Judaism?’, in O’Brien & Paeth, ‘Religious Perspectives on Business Ethics: An Anthology’, 2006:263-4.

[10] Vogel, ‘How Green Is Judaism?’, in O’Brien & Paeth, ‘Religious Perspectives on Business Ethics: An Anthology’, 2006:263.

[11] ‘For Mennonites (one of the historic peace churches) the theme of “peace with the creation” had powerful resonance (see Redekop 2000).’, Haluza-DeLay, ‘Churches Engaging the Environment: An Autoethnography of Obstacles and Opportunities’, Human Ecology Review (15.1.75), 2008.

[12] ‘Many authors (including Lynn White) have pointed to St. Francis of Assisi as an example for ecologically sensitive practice. Dubos (1974) and others have highlighted the Benedictine monks, characterizing them as conservationists to the Franciscan preservationists (stewardship compared to partnership in Rasmussen’s (1991) terms). There are numerous additional exemplars (Attfield 1983; Oelschlaeger 1994).’, ibid., 78.

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Errors at Religious Tolerance: Gnosticism

January 25, 2011

The website ‘Religious Tolerance‘ makes the following claims.

No matter how you describe yourself, you should find your beliefs and practices accurately represented in this website. Almost all other religious websites explain only the beliefs of the webmaster or sponsoring faith group. We are different: we try to explain accurately the full diversity of religious beliefs, worldviews, and systems of morality, ethics, and values. We hope that you will find our essays helpful and of interest.

They explain that ‘None of us has any formal education in theology‘, and ‘We know only a tiny bit about a wide range of religions and religious topics‘. Accordingly, they provide this disclaimer.

We will attempt to overcome our biases on each topic that we describe, by explaining each point of view carefully, respectfully and objectively. To this end, we have many of our essays reviewed by persons familiar with the issues who represent all sides of each topic. We encourage readers to Email us about any errors that they find. We do not regard any essay as fixed or complete.

This article examines a number of their claims concerning Gnosticism.

“Gnosticism consisted of many syncretistic belief systems which combined elements taken from Asian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Syrian pagan religions, from astrology, and from Judaism and Christianity. They constituted one of the three main branches of early Christianity:” (source)

False. Gnosticism was not ‘one of the three main branches of early Christianity’.[1] It certainly did not pre-date Christianity.[2] [3] [4] It did even not exist as a religious movement in the 1st century.[5]

Simon Magus: He was one of the earliest Gnostics He was skilled in the arts of magic. He interpreted the Garden of Eden, exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea as allegories.” (source)

False. There is no evidence at all that Simon ‘was one of the earliest Gnostics’. The earliest texts associating Simon with Gnosticism do not appear until the mid-2nd century, and are considered unreliable for the purpose of establishing what Simon really believed.[6] [7] There is certainly no evidence as to how Simon interpreted the garden of Eden, the Exodus, or the crossing of the Red Sea.[8]

“Some Gnostic beliefs and leaders may have infiltrated Pauline Christianity and influenced the authors of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament)” (source)

False. Christianity in the 1st century was neither influenced nor infiltrated by Gnostic beliefs and leaders.[9] [10] [11] [12]

This article was emailed to ‘Religious Tolerance’ on 5 June, 2010. Expressing thanks for the information, they advised that technical difficulties prevented them from editing the pages promptly. To date the pages have not been corrected.


[1] ‘Egypt has yielded early written evidence of Jewish, Christian, and pagan religion. It has preserved works of Manichaean and other Gnostic sects, but these are all considerably later than the rise of Christianity.’, Unger, ‘The Role of Archaeology  in the Study Of the New Testament’, Bibliotheca Sacra (116.462.153), (1996)

[2] ‘Even if it could be proven that any of the previously discussed works or, for that matter, any of the NH tractates are non-Christian Gnostic documents, that would not in itself be evidence for pre-Christian Gnosticism.’, Combs, ‘Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism and New Testament Interpretation’, Grace Theological Journal (8.2.207-208)

[3] ‘And even if we are on solid ground in some cases in arguing the original works represented in the library are much older than extant copies, we are still unable to postulate plausibly any pre-Christian dates.’, McRae, ‘Nag Hammadi and the New Testament’, pp. 146–47, in Combs, ‘Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism and New Testament Interpretation’, Grace Theological Journal (8.2.208)

[4]‘But it is now widely agreed that the quest for a pre-Christian Gnosticism, properly so called, has proved to be a wild goose chase.’, Dunn, ‘The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul’, p. 9 (2003)

[5] ‘If in all likelihood, with the possible exception of the Simonians, there was no such thing as a rival Gnostic movement within or competing with Pauline Christianity, the question arises whether there ever was a specific Gnostic myth as an entity of its own.’, Lüdeman, ‘Primitive Christianity: A Survey of Recent Studies and Some New Proposals’, p. 151 (2003)

[6]From the 2nd–4th cent A.D. Simon came to be regarded as the father of GNOSTICISM (IrenaeusAdvhaer i.23.2, 27.1; Epiphanius Haer. xxi.7.2; xxvii.2.1). It is a matter of scholarly debate, however, whether the historical Simon was actually a Gnostic.’, Bromiley, ‘The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia’, volume 4, p. 516 (rev. ed. 2002)

[7]There is much dispute about Simon Magus’ relationship to Gnosticism and, in particular, to the 2nd-cent. sect of Simonians, to whom, rather than to Simon himself, the Apophasis is prob. to be ascribed.’, Cross & Livingstone, ‘The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church’, p. 1513 (3rd rev. ed. 2005)

[8] ‘Questions concerning the religious-historical evaluation of Simon Magus (the father of Gnosticism?) can hardly be answered with any certainty now.’, Balz & Schneider, ‘Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament’, volume 3, p. 245 (1990)

[9] ‘It is precarious, as Edwin Yamauchi and others have shown, to assume gnostic backgrounds for New Testament books. Although the phrase, “falsely called knowledge,” in 1 Timothy 6:20 contains the Greek word gnosis, this was the common word for knowledge.’, Liefeld, ‘1 Timothy 2:12 – A Classicist’s View’, in Mickelsen, ‘Women, Authority & The Bible’, p. 246 (1986)

[10] ‘The full-fledged Gnosticism of later church history did not exist in the first century A.D.21 An incipient form of Gnosticism was present, but Schmithals makes the error of reading later Gnosticism into the first century documents.’, Schreiner, ‘Interpreting the Pauline Epistles’, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (3.3.10), (Fall 1999)

[11] ‘Some modern researchers suggest that several NT and related texts evidence contact with “Gnosticism” in various stages of its development. Texts that especially stand out are Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, Colossians, Ephesians, the Pastoral Epistles, Jude, 2 Peter, and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. 115) and Polycarp of Smyrna (d. ca. 165) among others. But even here the issues discussed are diverse, demonstrating a complex assortment of competing new religious movements, but no evidence of “Gnosticism.”’, Freedman (ed.), ‘Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible’, p. 509 (2000)

[12]Scholarship must in all likelihood abandon the hypothesis that a cohesive Gnostic movement204 is reflected in Paul’s letters.’, Lüdeman, ‘Primitive Christianity: A Survey of Recent Studies and Some New Proposals’, p. 150 (2003)