Religion Today

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Science of the Apocalypse

At first glance, "science" and "apocalypse" do not seem to fit together. The term "apocalypse" comes from ancient Judaism and usually invokes religious prophecies of dire events and perhaps even the end of our world caused by divine wrath. Science, considered as calm and rational, has little to do with God or prophetic invocations of heavenly anger. But in recent decades, "science" became involved in apocalyptic predictions and even has begun to make them itself.

While end-times predictions have been around a long time, indeed, they are older than Christianity, modern apocalypticism got its start in the 1830s with John Darby. He was an Anglo-Irish preacher who developed a new twist on the dispensationalist theologies of his time.

Darby devised the interpretation that prior to the onslaught of the millennium, the true believers would be raptured. That is, they would be taken up to heaven to escape all the horrible events and persecutions of human society's last convulsions. His system, known as "pre-millennial dispensationalism," has been the dominant end-times theology among evangelicals since that time. And why not? The bad guys get punished and the good guys rise to heaven to avoid the punishment.

Apocalyptic predictions began to draw heavily on science following World War II, usually in the form of technology. In the 1950s, these ideas even made it onto the popular music scene, with songs like "Jesus hits like an Atom Bomb" and "[Are you ready for] The Great Atomic Power."

By 1970, Hal Lindsey put together the various ideas of technological pre-millennialism in his "The Late Great Planet Earth," which sold more than 10 million copies. In it, Lindsey argues that the biblical "fiery destruction" refers to the explosions of nuclear weapons and its "plagues of locusts" actually foreshadows swarms of military helicopters delivering hoards of soldiers and weapons.

Technology quickly became the driving force of non-religious predictions of major cataclysms that would end life as we know it. In addition to a nuclear holocaust brought about by unbridled nuclear war, there was also the pseudo-scientific warnings about global cooling in the 1970s caused by too much burning of fossil fuels. The more agitated of these included warnings of a coming ice-age.

And don't forget the Y2K forecasts. Based on the worry that old computer software was programmed with too few digits, there were predictions of planes falling from the sky, computer-controlled electricity grids shutting down, and billing software requesting large (incorrect) payments. In America, this almost became a bigger news story than the millennium itself.

During this same period, the second half of the 20th century, it became increasingly fashionable among scientists and others to call attention their work and conclusions by predicting a catastrophic apocalypse if "something is not done" to fix it. Biologist Paul Ehrlich, in his 1968 book, "The Population Bomb," predicted world-wide famines if population growth was not significantly slowed. He encouraged mass sterilization as a solution.

Interestingly, those who promote a religious apocalypse have either ignored these non-religious scenarios or incorporated them as additional evidence of the immanence of their own theology. But there is one scientific prediction of coming doom that has dispensationalists rising up in arms. This is the scientific prediction of global climate change caused by the build-up of human-made, greenhouse gases. Most believers in religious apocalypse have scoffed loudly at the data indicating climate change over the last few years. When the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that the evidence left no room for doubt that climate was occurring, these evangelicals simply shifted their argument from "no climate change" to "no human-made climate change."

Why have dispensationalists so fervently denied climate change doomsday scenarios rather than incorporating them as evidence of their own theology? I'm not sure. Is it possible believers sense competition in them, competition because the scientific data actually supports the climate change conclusions? To them, this might suggest it is science rather than religion that points to a believable coming catastrophe. Or perhaps all end-times scenarios are over-hyped ways of attracting attention to issues that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Lord, Lord

In my last column, I discussed how English Bible translations use the word "servant" when translating the Hebrew and Greek words for "slave." The slavery terminology is used not only in situations with actual slaves, but also metaphorically with one's social superiors, such as a king or even God.

Thus when the King James translation has "Moses, the servant of God," the original Hebrew actually reads, "Moses, the slave of God." The same happens when translating the New Testament; Peter refers to himself as the "slave" of God. Using "servant" in these passages moderates the jarring character of this reference for modern ears, suggesting someone more like an English butler or gardener.

If Scripture is full of references to slaves, then it is not surprising that it contains references to masters as well. Indeed, the term "master" often appears in tandem with slavery terminology. The owner of a slave is an Adon in Hebrew and a Kurios in Greek.

Both Adon and Kurios are used to identify those who own slaves and as words of submission before individuals who are socially superior. When Exodus 21 speaks of people selling themselves into slavery, it refers to the purchaser as the Adon. When Moses humbles himself before God at the burning bush, he acknowledges God's infinite superiority by calling him, "my Adon." Similarly, when King David is addressed by his subordinates, they refer to him as "my Adon," or in the early Greek translation called the Septuagint as, "my Kurios." When the Gospel of Matthew in 7:21 says, "No man can serve two masters," referring to God and money, the term for master is Kurios.

In English translations, Adon and Kurios are usually translated as either "master" or "lord." When the latter refers to God, it is capitalized. "Master" is usually used when talking about actual slaves, and "lord" is the translation in situations where the term is used metaphorically to indicate social inferiority. Furthermore, when a person uses it in relationship to God, it often indicates not only inferiority, but also devotion and commitment.

Sometimes it is not clear whether actual or metaphorical slavery is meant. A story in the apocryphal book, the Acts of Thomas, illustrates this. After Jesus ascended into heaven, so the story goes, the 12 disciples were deciding which territories each should evangelize. They prayed to God and God told each of them where to go. Jesus through prayer instructed Thomas, who initially doubted Jesus' resurrection, to go to India. Frightened of the challenge and afraid to travel so far, he refused. Despite clear instructions in prayer, he continued to refuse.

So Jesus appears in physical form in Jerusalem to an Indian merchant who was in Israel to purchase a carpenter. Jesus pointed to Thomas, who was standing across the square, and said, "That man is my slave. He is a carpenter and I will sell him to you." After the transaction was completed, Jesus took the Indian over to Thomas. The Indian asked Thomas, "Is this your Kurios?" He meant, "is this your owner?" Thomas answered, "This is my Kurios." Thomas used the term metaphorically, of course, to indicate his devotion to the Lord Jesus. Nevertheless, the Indian took possession of Thomas as a slave and brought him to India.

This story's ability to play on the confusion between the two uses of the term indicates the extent to which slavery terminology was used and recognized in the early church and in ancient Judaism. The model of the devoted Christian, in this fictional tale, is one who is a slave to the master Christ. Much of this brash character has been lost through the substitution of "servant" for "slave" in the translations.

Another reason for the moderation of slavery terminology in Scripture is the change in the meaning of "Lord." In ancient Judaism, God's name was not supposed to be uttered. To ensure this did not happen, the Greek translation always translated God's name as "Kurios," a habit that English translations continued by rendering the name as "Lord." Since "Lord" has come to function as God's name, appearing in nearly every chapter of the Bible, the word's association with slavery has been largely forgotten.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

God's Slaves

"Religion Today" is contributed by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and to promote discussion of religious issues.

By Paul V.M. Flesher

Since the publication of the King James version in 1611, or earlier, readers of English Bibles have read about God's "servants." Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David are all called God's "servants" in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Paul, John, Peter and Phoebe are designated as "servants" of God. Sometimes they even call themselves that.

The problem is that the words translated as "servant" do not mean that, they mean "slave." Neither ancient Jewish society nor the ancient Greek and Roman cultures within which Christianity took shape had a social class of people similar to our modern idea of servants as household employees, such as butlers, maids, cooks or even hired hands.

The Hebrew word "eved" used in the Old Testament and the Greek word "doulos" used in the New Testament indicates a human being who is owned by another individual; a person who is property. It does not refer to someone employed and paid wages to work in a household. In fact, long_term employment as a concept did not exist in the ancient Mediterranean world. Household workers were either slaves or freed slaves, who were still beholden to their former masters. People could be paid for short_term labor, often on a daily basis, but that was not a permanent job.

The difference between slave and servant of course sounds quite jarring to our modern sensibilities. Consider the opening line of the New Testament book of James: "James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, greetings to the 12 tribe in the diaspora." Or, in the Old Testament, God transfers the leadership of the Israelites to Joshua after Moses' death by saying, "Moses my slave is dead. Therefore rise, Joshua, and you and this people shall cross this Jordan" (Joshua 1:1). Or God speaks of King David as "my slave David" (e.g., 1 Kings 11:13).

Ancient slavery was quite complex, with many levels of status, trust, and loyalty. Some slaves worked in the fields or tended the sheep -- and were often treated little better than the animals they supervised. Other slaves were faithful household assistants who interacted with their masters every day. A few slaves rose to positions of power within their master's household. For instance, Abraham sent his most trusted slave, an overseer, many hundreds of miles to choose a wife for his son Isaac (Genesis 24).

Slavery could also be a temporary status, as described in Exodus 21. If a person became poor, they might sell themselves or their family members into slavery for a few years. During that time, they would serve their owner as he (or she) desired, but the master would feed and clothe them. Exodus recognized that young girls were often sold in this manner and considered this a path to wifehood.

Slavery also provided metaphors for social relationships. In the ancient world, people were not considered free citizens of a nation, but as subjects to the ruler. To be a "subject" is to be under a king's power and authority with little legal protection from personal injury, theft or even death at the king's order. When speaking to a king in public, therefore, a person referred to himself or herself as the king's slave. Even King David's wife, Bathsheba, refers to herself as a "slave woman" when speaking to David (1 Kings 1:13).

As we saw above, this figurative language of slavery is used when relating a faithful follower to God. This is true whether the one praying is a commoner, a prophet or a king themself. When Solomon prays to God at the dedication of the newly completed Jerusalem Temple (2 Chronicles 6), he calls himself a slave before God, his father King David a slave before God, and even refers to all the Israelites as slaves to God.

Our modern society is so far removed from slavery that to translate these terms in their actual meaning of "slave" is too jarring and carries no meaning except that of extreme social degradation. So English translators of the Bible have for centuries altered the slavery language to that of "servant" so that people who read Scripture today can perceive the social relationships in familiar terms rather than ones that are now incomprehensible.