Thursday, July 19, 2012

How did the Bible come about? Really?

Ok, ok, you'll probably say "God" and that's the end of it. I'm not here to challenge that. I'm here to tell you how it happened through history. It shouldn't be a problem, really, since one of the main tenets of Christianity is that God reveals himself to man through history. So there's nothing to fear from a little history. I'll dispense with citations for brevity-- if you don't believe me you can confirm everything on Wikipedia or, better yet, actual historical sources and the writings of the Early Church Fathers. If something ticks your curiosity or if you're lost in a term, just google it. 

The Christian Bible, unlike Islam's Koran or Taoism's Tao Te Ching, did not come along in a singular moment in history. Tradition states that the Koran was dictated to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, while the Tao Te Ching was written by the wise Laozi. Not so the Bible. The individual books of the Bible (which essentially means a collection of books) were written over the span of a few thousand years by scores of authors. These books, among other books with glowing pedigrees and spiritual value, were eventually selected to be part of the Bible. But how did that happen? It would be great if God just sent us a few stone tablets ala-10 Commandments (which aren't really Commandments if you ask the Jews, but that's another matter) saying, "The books of the Bible are etc. etc." But, no, it didn't happen that way.

As is often the case with Christianity, let's begin with the Jews. The Jewish Bible-- properly known as the Tanach-- is basically a collection of scriptures that can be read in synagogues. The Tanach is composed of the Torah or "teaching" (Genesis-Deuteronomy), Neviim or "prophets" (Joshua-Malachi), and the Ketuvim or "writings" (Psalms-Chronicles). The canon (i.e., list) of books in the Jewish Bible was determined during the Great Assembly (or Knesset; yes, the same name for the Israeli parliament) of scribes and sages some time during the 400s BC-- the Talmud (a collection of rabbinic literature) doesn't really give a precise date.

But the story of the Jewish Bible doesn't end there. At around the same time the Tanach was being finalised, Judaism was expanding and experiencing a split in language use. As Judaism spread from the Levant (today's Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria) to what is today's Greece, Turkey, and Northern Africa, its adherents adopted the lingua franca of the time, which was Greek (there are also the Ethiopian Jews who supposedly rescued the Ark of the Covenant when Solomon's Temple was razed, but that's another story). The Talmud records that Ptolemy II, Egypt's king during the 300s BC, had the Jewish scriptures translated into Greek to make them more accessible to Greek Jews. He gathered 72 elders and put them in 72 separate chambers to translate the scriptures independently-- this was done so their translations could be cross-checked to ensure accuracy, Lo and behold, all 72 elders translated the scriptures identically, proof, says tradition, that God himself guided the translations. And thus the Septuagint (from the Greek word for 70) became the Bible for the Greek Jews. However, the Septuagint also contained books not included in the original Tanach defined by the Great Assembly about 100 years before. Among other books, it also included books by Tobit and Judith, and on the exploits of the Maccabaeus brothers (thanks to whom Jews now celebrate Hanukkah).

Fast-forward a few hundred years when this small but growing sect of Jews in the Levant started believing that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Christ. This religion, Christianity, which was new and quite revolutionary at the time, got more traction among Greek Jews and non-Jews (i.e., Gentiles) than among the more traditional Hebrew Jews in the Levant. So Christianity spread quickly out of the Levant and into present day Greece, Italy, Turkey, North Africa, and even farther away into France, Spain, and India. However, despite being open to Gentiles, the early Christians retained their Jewish practices of reading scriptures and partaking in ritual meals, this time in churches rather than synagogues. Early Christians, less than 500 years away from Jesus himself, also wrote extensively about their religion and the teachings of Jesus Christ, and their writings eventually made their way to churches.

The problem was, there was no agreed list of books that will be read in church. For the Old Testament it was quite easy: since most of them, ex-Jews or Gentiles, spoke Greek they just used the Septuagint. But the Christian books were more dicey. At the time many books were floating around and read in church. There are the familiar four Gospels, as well as the Pauline epistles, the Acts of the Apostles, and the epistles of Peter and James, among others. But also in the church-reading playlist were less familiar books such as the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles (Didache), Gospel of Thomas, Paul's Epistle to the Laodiceans, Apocalypse of Paul, Shepherd of Hermas, the Passions of various martyrs, etc. And some books we know today-- such as Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews and the Apocalypse of John-- were not widely accepted in the early church. So in 397 AD, Christian bishops (from the Greek "episkopos" meaning leader) gathered in Carthage to discuss what books can be read in church; most readers would be familiar with one attendee, Augustine of Hippo. This is what they decided could be read in church:

"It was also determined that besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in the Church under the title of divine Scriptures. The Canonical Scriptures are these: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two books of Chronicles, Job, the Psalter, five books of Solomon [i.e., Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus], the books of the twelve prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel, Daniel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras [i.e., Ezra and Nehemiah], two books of the Maccabees. Of the New Testament: four books of the Gospels, one book of the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul, one epistle of the same to the Hebrews, two Epistles of the Apostle Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude, one book of the Apocalypse of John."

Although the canon of the New Testament has been discussed and thrown around previously, the Council of Carthage in 397 was when the Christian Bible, particularly the New Testament, was made official (more or less) and didn't change since (more or less). Note that the proceedings of the Council of Carthage-- the only surviving account of which is the one by Dionysius Exiguus written 100 years after the fact-- did not mention why some books were included, while others were excluded, from the canon of the New Testament. It just lists them as fit to read in church, and that's that. They might have had good reasons to include the kaleidoscopic Apocalypse of John while excluding the instructive Didache, but we'll never know them now.

After the Council of Carthage, a more official and formal pronouncement on the books in the Bible (with requisite seals and stamps) would not happen until more than 1,000 years later, when the Catholic Council of Trent (1545-1563) and the Orthodox Synod of Jerusalem (1672) defined their respective Bibles in response to the Reformation. Martin Luther famously wanted to get rid of seven New Testament books-- Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and the Apocalypse (i.e., Luther's antilegomena)-- and the additional books in the Septuagint not found in the Tanach because he disputed their authenticity. Eventually most Protestants would accept Luther's argument on keeping only the Tanach books-- they would call the additional books in the Septuagint the Apocrypha, while Catholics and Orthodox Christians would call them the Deuterocanonicals-- but rejected his dispute with the seven New Testament books, accepting the Council of Carthage's canon of 27 books.

And that's how the Christian Bible came about. Not so much a giant book coming down from heaven on a chariot of clouds, but more a series of decisions by committees composed of old men. Committees composed of old men inspired by God, perhaps.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Woman on Top: Marissa Ann Mayer

Marissa Ann Mayer
President and Chief Executive Officer
Yahoo! Inc.

  • Born in in 1975 in Wisconsin.
  • Obtained her BS in Symbolic Systems and MS in Computer Science from Stanford University; specialised in artificial intelligence.
  • Awarded the Centennial Teaching Award and Forsythe Award by Stanford for her contribution to undergraduate education.
  • Worked at the Union Bank of Switzerland research lab and the Stanford Research Institute prior to joining Google.
  • Was Google's 20th employee and first female engineer when she was hired in 1999.
  • Was one of the three-person team that developed the Ad Words, which is the cornerstone of Google's business model.
  • Was crucial in developing Google's search, email, news, and maps products.
  • Oversaw the efficient look-and-feel of the Google experience. 
  • Awarded an honorary doctorate degree by the Illinois Institute of Technology for her work in the development of search engines.
  • Among Fortune magazine's 50 Most Powerful Women in Business in 2008-2011.
  • Was Google's vice president for search before being moved to local and location services in 2010. 
  • Appointed President and CEO of Yahoo! on 16 July 2012.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Why is the Catholic Church so stubborn on RH? Really?

If you know me then you know where I stand on reproductive health issues. This post is not to defend the Catholic Church's stand on artificial contraception, but to explain why she takes such a strong stance against it. I also hope to clarify some misconceptions on the Church's stance. If you wish to engage the Church on this issue you need to first understand where she's coming from and what motivates her. Maybe it will also help you evaluate the (f)utility of debating with the Church on this issue in the first place. This post is written with a lay (even irreligious) audience in mind, so I will dispense with the Bible quotes and Magisterial references. 

It is no secret that the Catholic Church believes in the existence of God who created the universe. Duh. But corollary to this belief in a sentient and benevolent God is the assumption that everything He created has a purpose: nothing is random in God's creation therefore everything has to have been made for a purpose. So the Sun isn't just an amalgamation of cosmic particles brought together by gravity and heated by nuclear fusion; it was created to eventually sustain life on Earth. This belief system applies to all of creation, including the human body. Everything in the human body from the heart to the toenail you clip off has a purpose willed and designed by God. So far so good. No problem.

The problem begins when we start talking about the reproductive system. The Catholic Church believes that the reproductive system-- not just the womb and testes but also the pleasure-giving glans penis and clitoris-- have a dual purpose: to express mutual love and to procreate. The reproductive system was created to enable humans to express their mutual love for each other through sexual intercourse and to encourage procreation. Now take note of the "and". The Catholic Church's issue with contraception begins when that "and" becomes an "or". Artificial contraception, by removing any possibility of procreation, turns sexual intercourse into an exclusively love-making pleasurable affair. This, believe the Church, is contrary to God's will and purpose for creating the reproductive system.

But how about natural family planning? Or when one spouse is infertile due to natural causes or a needed medical operation (e.g., hysterectomy due to a tumour)? Won't sexual intercourse in those situations be divorced from the procreation purpose too, and therefore against God's will? Well, no. Natural family planning, by virtue of being natural, is part of God's plan: in God's wisdom He recognised the need for families to plan and space their offspring, but also recognised the need for spouses to make love, so He provided windows of opportunity to make love while vastly minimising the chance of conception. As for infertility due to natural causes or a needed medical operation, well, God had reasons for giving someone that affliction, and it definitely wasn't His intention to prevent spouses from expressing their love for each other. So in these cases any dichotomy between love-making and procreation was not man's will but God's, which is fine for the Church.

So the Church's real problem with artificial contraception is that man is divorcing love-making with procreation. In the case of artificial contraception, man wants the love-making part while eliminating the procreation part. Note that the same problem arises when man wants the procreation part while eliminating the love-making part, thus the Church's similar opposition to in-vitro fertilisation. Man cannot, should not, separate the expression of mutual love from the possibility of procreation. God can do it, but not man.

It is thus easy to see why no amount of medical, social, economic, democratic, etc. arguments or evidence will change the Church's position on artificial contraception-- they all pale in comparison to God's will and purpose for creating the reproductive system. Practical circumstances may mitigate the gravity of going against God's will through the use of artificial contraception (or in-vitro fertilisation, for that matter), but it is a sin nonetheless and bishops will be remiss in their duty if they tolerate it. So changing their stance on artificial contraception will require a change in their understanding of God's purpose for creating the reproductive system. It hasn't changed in 2,000 years, so it is quite unlikely that it will change any time soon.