Monday, February 25, 2013

Quote of the Day: Nietzsche On Complex, Historied Ideas

"With regard to the other element in punishment, its fluid element, its meaning, the idea of punishment in a very late stage of civilisation (for instance, contemporary Europe) is not content with manifesting merely one meaning, but manifests a whole synthesis "of meanings." The past general history of punishment, the history of its employment for the most diverse ends, crystallises eventually into a kind of unity, which is difficult to analyse into its parts, and which, it is necessary to emphasise, absolutely defies definition. (It is nowadays impossible to say definitely the precise reason for punishment: all ideas, in which a whole process is promiscuously comprehended, elude definition; it is only that which has no history, which can be defined.)"

— From The Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, Section 13.

(Hat tip to John Budd for bringing this quote to my attention.)

Friday, February 15, 2013

My Contribution to Self-Help Literature

Don't commit to "an hour a day" and don't wait for the mood to strike. Commit to starting once a day, and allow yourself to quit at any time.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Isaiah's Suffering Servant

As a companion to my recent post on Daniel's "Seventy Weeks" prophecy, this post will cover the other major passage from Jewish scriptures that Christians claim as an amazing prediction of Jesus: the "Suffering Servant" prophecy of Isaiah 53.

Not So Crackpot

The interpretation of Daniel 9 that I covered last time is popular among evangelicals--especially American evangelicals--but does not enjoy nearly the breadth of acceptance of the Isaiah 53 interpretation that I will be covering here. For example, I won't be able to set Catholics and evangelicals against each other, since they are teamed up on this issue. Nor will I be able to poke fun of the kind of numeric shuffling carried out by Left Behind and Scofield Bible fans.

I don't think Christians who accept the traditional view of Isaiah 53 are making a ridiculous mistake. Given their religious beliefs, it may well be the most reasonable conclusion for them to make.

Instead, what I hope to show is that there is another reasonable interpretation, at least for those of us who aren't convinced Isaiah is the work of a God. It might even be an interpretation open to less fundamentalist Jews and Christians.

Isaiah 53 in Early Christianity

I don't consider the Gospels or Acts to be reliable histories, but they do preserve early Christian beliefs. Let's look at some of those beliefs. In Matthew, Jesus is shown healing disease and casting out demons, followed by:
"This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: 'He Himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases.'" Matt 8:17 (NASB) in reference to Is 53:4
Acts 8 tells of an Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah 53:7-8 on his chariot when Philip came along and explained that this passage and others were written about Jesus. The eunuch became a Christian on the spot. No wonder Christians have long considered Isaiah 53 to be a powerful evangelical tool!

Other explicit or likely references to Isaiah 53 are found throughout the New Testament writings.

Explaining a Crucified Messiah

Why was this passage in Isaiah so important to early Christians? First century Jews were hoping for a messiah: a king to free them from foreign rule and re-establish the glory days of King David and Solomon. Jesus established a following, but was executed by foreign rulers. How could he possibly be the hoped-for messiah? Christianity's answer was that Jesus will do all of that in the future, but first he came to suffer and die as a much more potent version of traditional, Jewish sin sacrifices. Isaiah 53 describes a figure who suffers because of the wrongdoing of others, and whose suffering brings healing to the guilty:
"But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed." Is 53:5, NASB
Even without the bias from this being a Christian translation, you can see why the general ideas here would be appealing to early followers trying to explain the crucifixion.

What Matches What?

If we start from Christian theology, Isaiah 53 looks like a pretty good match. That is why I said the traditional Christian view might be the most reasonable one for a Christian to take. But put on your outsider hat for a minute and think: what if Christian theology was invented to match up with Isaiah 53? It might have gone like this:
  1. Jesus' followers believe he is going to lead a successful uprising against Rome and become the new king of Israel.
  2. Instead, Jesus is executed by Romans.
  3. Rather than accept this as a disconfirmation, some followers "search the scriptures" for anything that might relate to a slain-but-triumphant figure.
  4. They find Isaiah 53, decide this is what must be going on, and take the passage as a guideline for crafting theology.
I'm pointing this out to deflate some of the feeling that "it's just obvious Isaiah was talking about Jesus." It's not obvious to me, and it hasn't been obvious to the many generations of Jews since the first century.

If Not Jesus, Then Who?

According to Jewish apologist (or counter-apologist) Tovia Singer, the suffering servant represents all faithful Jews who have suffered at the hands of outsiders. When the true messiah comes and everyone sees that the Jews were right all along, these outsiders will also recognize their own guilt for mistreating Jews. Still, this shocking revelation to the nations will be a positive thing for them; they will be "healed" through their contrition. From then on, the whole world will look to Jerusalem for guidance:
So many peoples and mighty nations will come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, 'In those days ten men from all the nations will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying, "Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you."' - Zech. 8:22-23, NASB
The view that the servant represents the Jews (or the whole nation of Israel) is well established. It's even accepted by Christians in some other passages nearby that talk about God's servant.
"But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, descendant of Abraham My friend, you whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called from its remotest parts and said to you, 'You are My servant, I have chosen you and not rejected you.'" Is 41:8-9, NASB
Similar explicit identifications of Israel as God's servant can be found in chapters 44, 45, 48, and 49. Why not chapter 53 as well? It's at least the best first conjecture about the suffering servant's identity.

Now That We're Talking About Context...

Just as a Jesus-based view of Isaiah 53 might make the most sense for Christians, a coming-vindication view might make the most sense for today's Jews. After all, there has been no shortage of Jewish suffering in medieval and modern history. But there is another, non-religious view I want to outline. It's possibly the one that gives the most respect to contents of the source text, even as it gives the least respect to traditions about the source text.

Isaiah 40-55 is often called Deutero-Isaiah (i.e. second Isaiah) because many scholars today believe it was written later than Isaiah 1-39 and by someone other than Isaiah himself. When was it written? Likely around the end of the Babylonian exile, since Cyrus is mentioned by name as the conqueror anointed by God to free the Jews from Babylon. It's not clear that the author knew what would happen after the return from exile. If we found a document attributed to Thomas Jefferson that included details up through the Civil War, but nothing so definite afterwards—and no antebellum copies—it would be reasonable to suspect Jefferson was not the author.

Let's keep going with the Deutero-Jefferson analogy. Suppose most of this document is concerned with the civil war and its immediate aftermath. It correctly predicts that the North will win, but it also talks about the United States annexing Canada and Mexico. It's 2013 and we still don't have any senators from Ontario in Congress. Does this mean the document was written about far future events? Nope! It could just mean the author hoped (or feared) that Washington would follow up the re-absorption of the southern states with a more-or-less immediate expansion into Canada and Mexico. We wouldn't reinterpret the document to mean something else just to rescue it from being wrong.

Likewise, the "messianic age" passages in Deutero-Isaiah may be reasonably understood as nothing more than high hopes for Israel's future immediately following the end of their exile in Babylon.

In short, I believe that all of Deutero-Isaiah was written during and about the end of the Babylonian exile. This makes great sense of the text as a whole. I encourage you to take an hour or two and read through Isaiah 40-55 in one sitting. Here are a couple of modern, recommended translations:
New American Standard Bible (Christian)
New JPS Tanakh (Jewish)
Through this exercise, you might also come to see these chapters as a unity rather than a temporal patchwork.

The Suffering Servant At Exile's End

I don't think it's controversial to say that the chapter break for Isaiah 53 was badly placed by medieval Christians. It should have started with Isaiah 52:13. So I'll start there with the JPS translation and give commentary.

First, however, take a quick look at what comes just before 52:13: an announcement about returning from captivity as compared to the return from Egypt, only this time "you will not depart in haste." The Jews wouldn't have to run away without even time to let their bread rise, as is celebrated with matzo during Passover. (This time they would have official, willing permission from Cyrus.) Unless there is strong reason to think otherwise, why not take the "servant song" that follows as a continuation of the same topic?
“Indeed, My servant shall prosper, be exalted and raised to great heights. Just as the many were appalled at him—so marred was his appearance, unlike that of man, his form, beyond human semblance—just so he shall startle many nations. Kings shall be silenced because of him, for they shall see what has not been told them, shall behold what they never have heard.
Who can believe what we have heard? Upon whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he has grown, by His favor, like a tree crown, like a tree trunk out of arid ground. He had no form or beauty, that we should look at him: no charm, that we should find him pleasing. He was despised, shunned by men, a man of suffering, familiar with disease. As one who hid his face from us, he was despised, we held him of no account.
Here, I take the standard Jewish view that God's servant is Israel. Considering Israel's defeat and captivity, the metaphor of an undesirable man is apt. (Think leper or dirty beggar that everyone tries not to notice.) It would also be astonishing for this undesirable to suddenly be "exalted."

Notice the switch from third person to first person plural where the chapter changes. On Singer's view, the "we" are the kings just mentioned. So far, that would make sense. But I'm going to diverge from that a little and suggest—for reasons I'll get to shortly—that the "we" might be unfaithful Jews at the end of the exile commenting on the Jews who remained faithful despite apparent abandonment by their God. The only justification I can give for suspecting this change in viewpoint so far is that the kings were described as seeing what they had not heard, and the "we" are described as disbelieving in what they had heard.
Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing, our suffering that he endured. We accounted him plagued, smitten and afflicted by God; but he was wounded because of our sins, crushed because of our iniquities. He bore the chastisement that made us whole, and by his bruises we were healed. We all went astray like sheep, each going his own way; and the Lord visited upon him the guilt of all of us.” 
This is the strong justification for thinking "we" refers to the unfaithful Jews. The entire reason given for the exile was that Israel had become unfaithful to God. A generation later, some Jews would still be worshiping this God who (apparently) failed to protect his people. Other Jews would have moved on, taking Jerusalem's defeat as further evidence of their old God's irrelevancy. What would Jews in this second category think of the crazy hold-outs? Perhaps as people to be shunned, ignored, and forgotten. It would seem stupid to worship a God who treats his own worshipers so poorly. But...as this passage points out, the faithful Jews were only suffering so badly because of the sins of the unfaithful Jews. The faithful didn't deserve this and yet accepted their fate without cursing God.
"He was maltreated, yet he was submissive, he did not open his mouth; Like a sheep being led to slaughter, like a ewe, dumb before those who shear her, he did not open his mouth.
By oppressive judgment he was taken away, who could describe his abode? For he was cut off from the land of the living through the sin of my people, who deserved the punishment. And his grave was set among the wicked, and with the rich, in his death—though he had done no injustice and had spoken no falsehood." 
It's this quiet suffering on account of the sins of the guilty that creates a temporary injustice. If God had just left all of Israel to rot in Babylon, it would have been an overall injustice on God's part. But Israel's God is a just God, so (obviously!) this has all been part of a larger, entirely just plan:
But the Lord chose to crush him by disease, that, if he made himself an offering for guilt, he might see offspring and have long life, and that through him the Lord’s purpose might prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see it; He shall enjoy it to the full through his devotion.
“My righteous servant makes the many righteous, it is their punishment that he bears; Assuredly, I will give him the many as his portion, he shall receive the multitude as his spoil. For he exposed himself to death and was numbered among the sinners, whereas he bore the guilt of the many and made intercession for sinners.” 
Merely allowing the righteous Jews to return to rebuild Jerusalem would not be just because the exile had never been a punishment for their sins. Instead, the suffering and selfless prayers of God's servant—his faithful remnant—would set the sinners free as well. Israel as a whole would be restored because of this heroism, and the whole next chapter describes how Israel's children would greatly multiply and foreign nations would not control them. "In slight anger, for a moment, I hid My face from you; but with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love." History tells a different story, but I can see how it was a good dream to have at the time.

Great Literature, But Mere Literature

Religious people treat their own scriptures as something special, not to be compared with other writings. And they should. But what they shouldn't expect is for everyone else to approach these texts in a reverential way. Nor should they expect outsiders to reject interpretations that conflict with insider doctrines. As far as I'm concerned, Isaiah is a human text or an amalgamation of human texts. It's not hard to explain why such a text would contain accurate prophecies when all remaining copies post-date the clear historical fulfillments, such as Cyrus conquering Babylon. Neither is it hard to explain why religious believers would interpret vague, poetic passages like Isaiah 53 in different ways that fit their group's needs. For Christians, this means Jesus. For Jews, this means a future vindication against Christians.

Meanwhile, I chalk the whole thing up to a point in time centuries or millennia before any of that. Why not? It works just as well.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

How to Remove Copy-Paste Formatting

Have you ever copied part of a web page or document, pasted it into a new document, and cursed at all of the unneeded unwanted formatting that came along for the ride?

Silly Workarounds
  • Paste the text into a web browser's URL bar, then copy it again to strip formatting.
  • Paste the text into a plain text editor like Notepad, then copy it again to strip formatting.
  • Look for a program-specific paste command that ignores formatting.
OS X Key Combo

Instead of Cmd-V, use Shift-Option-Cmd-V.

(Not the most convenient key combo, but I had grown used to this until I switched from a Macbook to a Win8 notebook and couldn't even twist my fingers to get this done.)

Windows Tweak

AutoHotkey is a program that lets you run scripts in the background that change things like keyboard behavior. We're going to set up a script that automatically strips formatting from Ctrl-V.

First, download and install AutoHotkey_L. Why the "L"? It's an actively developed version of the original AutoHotkey. I tried using the old, original version but it kept crashing.

Next, create a plain text file in your Documents folder (or anywhere, really). Give it an .ahk rather than a .txt extension so you can just open this script file to make it run. Put this content in the file:
;Causes Ctrl-V to paste _unformatted_ text
$^v::
ClipboardFormatted := ClipboardAll
Clipboard = %Clipboard% 
Send   ^v
Clipboard := ClipboardFormatted 
ClipFormatted = 
Return

;Use Shift-Ctrl-V to paste formatted text
$^+v::   Send  ^v
This works because "ClipboardAll" represents your clipboard's content with formatting, while just "Clipboard" represents it without formatting. Here's the procedure in English:
When the user presses Ctrl-V...
Store the clipboard contents with formatting in a temporary variable.
Replace the clipboard contents with an unformatted version of itself.
Invoke the usual Ctrl-V command.
Put the original (formatted) clipboard contents back into the clipboard.
Clear the temporary variable.
The last bit of the script it optional. If you want to be able to override the new plain text pasting behavior, it lets you press Shift-Ctrl-V to do the normal (annoying) thing.

Run this script file and--if things work out right--a little green 'H' icon should appear in the notification area by your clock, volume control, etc. A good next step would be to add it to the list of programs that run on login.

Extra: Swapping Keys with AutoHotkey

Thanks to OS X, I have become very accustomed to using the key immediately to the left of my spacebar to copy, paste, and select all. My AutoHotkey script file also includes these lines:
;Swap Left-Ctrl and Left-Alt keys
LCtrl::Alt
LAlt::Ctrl
See the AutoHotkey documentation for other keys to remap and other functionality entirely.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Daniel's Seventy Weeks

Here we go again. Left Behind is being remade. I have no doubt the new film will be better than the old film because there's no room for it to be worse. For those of you not raised in evangelical Christian culture, this film from 2000 is based on a very popular series of near-future novels which are in turn based on a minority apocalyptic view within Christianity, basically:

* All "true" Christians will suddenly and simultaneously vanish from the Earth one day.
* ...which is such a convincing sign that it will lead some to become new believers.
* ...who will then be persecuted by the Antichrist.
* ...until Christ comes back and somehow survives the Christ-Antichrist explosion.
* ...ushering in a world without gays, atheists, and maybe Catholics forever and ever.

All of this relies heavily on the so-called Seventy Weeks Prophecy in Daniel 9. So what I'm going to do in this post is explain why no one should take this apocalyptic scenario seriously.

TLDR: The prophecy was written during and about events that happened long ago, in the second century BCE.

Crash Course Jewish History

Secular history doesn't match up with early Biblical history. The parts of Genesis before Abraham are mythical unless we toss out science. Everything from Abraham to Moses to King Saul are, at best, not backed up by secular history. There has been some archeological evidence for King David, but the Biblical portrait might be as legendary as our tales of King Arthur. The important thing is that David's rule and the rule of his son Solomon (who is said to have built the first temple) is considered the high point of Jewish (technically Israelite) power and autonomy.

After Solomon, the story is that the kingdom split up, with the north eventually being permanently erased by the Assyrian Empire. Not long after that, the southern kingdom (which was called Judah, hence "Jews") was conquered by the Babylonian Empire. The first temple was destroyed and many Jews were taken back to Babylon in the 590s-580s BCE, starting the Babylonian exile.

About fifty years later, the Persian Empire rolled in, took over, and let the Jews return to rebuild the temple. About two hundred years after that, Alexander the Great took his turn at "world" conquest. Alexander's empire split up after his death in a complicated series of events. By the 170-160s BCE, Jerusalem was being ruled by a Seleucid king who decided to desecrate the temple and force Jews to commit sacrilege or be executed. Rebel fighters managed to take Jerusalem back for a while, so they took the opportunity to clean up the temple and invent Hanukkah to celebrate the event. Later, the Roman Empire took over and ruled until 70 CE when they decided they'd had enough of the Jews and sacked Jerusalem, destroying the second temple. Surviving Jews scattered until certain twentieth-century events. Today, the Islamic Dome of the Rock is blocking reconstruction of a third temple on the traditional site.

The Messiah Factor

As you might suspect by now, Jews have long desired a return the glory days of David and Solomon:
  • A powerful and pious king like David.
  • Freedom from foreign rule.
  • A working temple.
  • Continued for a long time.
In the Jewish scriptures, the term "messiah" means "anointed one" and refers to any king or high priest of Israel. There was a literal oil-anointing ceremony in the old days, but it doubled as a metaphor for being chosen for office by God. When Jews talk about the messiah, they mean the king who will restore David's dynasty and return Israel to its proper place as an independent kingdom with an operational temple.

The big difference between Judaism and Christianity is that Christians believe Jesus was this messiah, despite being killed before he could accomplish any of the above. ("Christ" is just the Greek version of "messiah.")

Jews Can't Read, Obviously

Christians believe that the Jewish scriptures (what they call the "Old Testament") foretold all sorts of details about Jesus, proving he really was the messiah. These amazing predictions also prove the Bible's supernatural authorship. Jews and other unbelievers are obviously just unfamiliar with these so-called messianic prophecies.

Perhaps the most amazing and most convincing prophecy is the Seventy Weeks prophecy in Daniel 9; it not only proves that Jesus was the messiah, but it reveals the timeline for the coming end of the world! ...or does it? *arched eyebrow and dramatic music*

A Prayer and an Answer

Daniel 9 is set during the Babylonian exile. It begins with Daniel reading an earlier prophecy from Jeremiah about the exile:
"'This whole land will be a desolation and a horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,’ declares the Lord, ‘for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation.’" Jer 25:11-12, NASB
The Jews had been bad, so God was going to punish them by having Babylon take over for seventy years, at which time God would punish Babylon even more harshly. Daniel then prays about how wicked his people had been and how God should remember to rescue them or God's reputation would be damaged. While Daniel was still praying, God sends the angel Gabriel with a response. Instead of seventy years, the new timeline concerns seventy weeks (literally "seventy sevens"). Everyone interprets this as being about 70x7 or 490 years, and I won't dispute that.

Why the much longer time period? When does this time period start and end? What are the events mentioned along the way? How do the 70x7 years relate to the original 70 years Daniel was reading about in Jeremiah? These points are where the interpretations do vary a heck of a lot!

I will be contrasting two Christian views of Daniel 9. I'll call these the Left Behind view and the Catholic view, respectively. The Left Behind view goes back at least to Cyrus Scofield's 1909 commentary. Also, it's inaccurate to imply that all Catholic scholars subscribe to the latter view, but it is at least a major Catholic view spelled out in official publications. I'm going for convenience labels here, folks!

Note: An unfortunate complication is that translations can really slant a text toward one interpretation or another. Advocates of the Left Behind view tend to be partial to the King James Version (KJV), so I'll cover that first, then use the New American Bible (NAB) when discussing the Catholic view.

The "Left Behind" View

The Seventy Weeks prophecy, King James style:
    "Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy.
    Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.
    And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.
    And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate." Dan 9:24-27, KJV
According to the Left Behind view, the seventy weeks (or 70x7 years) starts from the third of a series of Persian decrees concerned with rebuilding Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. The first 7x7 years is the rebuilding of the temple. The 62x7 years leads up to the coming of "Messiah the Prince." This is Jesus, as is obvious from the capitalization.

Stop! Stop the timeline!

The last seven years (1x7 years) is in our future, not our past. It will begin when the Antichrist makes a "covenant with many." Two and a half years later, he will desecrate the (not yet built) temple in Jerusalem. Things will generally get really bad until the end of these last seven years, known as the Tribulation. On the bright side, those who are faithful Christians at the beginning of the seven years will be raptured (i.e. vanish off to heaven) and so avoid the Tribulation. The Left Behind series is about people who become true believers after the Rapture, so they get to deal with the hard times. At the end of the seven years, God will show up and put an end to all evil forever. (But the royalties should keep rolling in for a long time after that.)

The timeline goes:

444 BCE - Third decree to rebuild Jerusalem.
+ 7x7 years
395 BCE - Jerusalem rebuilt
+ 62x7 years
38 CE - Coming of Jesus

Wait, what? Wasn't Jesus born around 4 BCE and didn't he die around 33 CE? How embarrassing for this view! Fortunately, its advocates have a response: these are prophetic years. Prophetic years have exactly 360 days in them, not 365.242 days! Shorter years move the end of the first 69x7 years back to some point in Jesus' life.

So after some fiddling with the start point and some fiddling with the definition of a year, we end up with a 69x7 year time span that ends during Jesus' life. Amazing! Then by introducing the notion of a giant pause button on this whole affair, we end up with a series of bestselling novels about the seven year Tribulation to come. Terrifying!

The Catholic View

The Seventy Weeks prophecy, New American Bible style:
    “Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and for your holy city: Then transgression will stop and sin will end, guilt will be expiated, everlasting justice will be introduced, vision and prophecy ratified, and a holy of holies will be anointed.
   Know and understand: From the utterance of the word that Jerusalem was to be rebuilt until there is an anointed ruler, there shall be seven weeks. In the course of sixty-two weeks it shall be rebuilt, with squares and trenches, in time of affliction.
   After the sixty-two weeks an anointed one shall be cut down with no one to help him. And the people of a leader who will come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. His end shall come in a flood; until the end of the war, which is decreed, there will be desolation.
   For one week he shall make a firm covenant with the many; half the week he shall abolish sacrifice and offering; in their place shall be the desolating abomination until the ruin that is decreed is poured out upon the desolator.” Dan 9:24-27, NAB
Some very significant differences here!

In place of the "commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem" which the Left Behind view interpreted as a specific human decree, we have "the word that Jerusalem was to be rebuilt." The footnote in this Catholic translation interprets it as "the time of Jeremiah's prophecy." Remember how Daniel 9 starts with Daniel reading Jeremiah's 70 year prophecy, praying about the 70 year prophecy, then receiving an answer while he was still praying? This interpretation makes sense of the context: the 70 year prophecy is being extended into a 70x7 year prophecy. It's not obvious from either English translation, but the Hebrew words line up on this decree/word/commandment. There's nothing in the text that demands it be understood as a human decree at all!

In place of "Messiah the Prince," we have "an anointed ruler." The syntax also makes it clear that this anointed ruler will come after the first 7x7 years, not the entire 69x7 years. Who is this ruler? Cyrus the Great. This is the Persian fellow who took down Babylon and let the Jews go home. He may not have been the messiah, but he was a messiah, a title he was explicitly given in Isaiah 45:1.

Because of the time gap that follows, the "anointed ruler" (Cyrus) and "an anointed one" must be different people. The footnote in this translation says this second anointed one (or second messiah) is Onias III. Who?! Remember that Seleucid king I mentioned above who tried to force Jews to either commit sacrilege or die? The king was Antiochus IV Epiphanes and he kicked off this PR campaign by murdering a high priest: Onias III.

The Real Deal

In fact, there's a very popular understanding of the entire book of Daniel as being written during Antiochus' reign of terror. As the editors of the New American Bible say in Daniel's introduction:
"This work was composed during the bitter persecution carried on by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (167–164 B.C.) and was written to strengthen and comfort the Jewish people in their ordeal." (source, which is worth reading in full)
Why such a radically different understanding of what Daniel is about? One reason is that Protestants are, by and large, ignorant about what happened in the four centuries of Jewish history between the return from exile (the end of their Old Testaments) and the time of Jesus. Meanwhile, Catholic Old Testaments have more books! One of these books, 1 Maccabees, is specifically about Antiochus IV and the rebellion against him. Its first chapter tells how Antiochus made a "covenant" with foreign nations and started promoting foreign customs and foreign laws. It tells how Antiochus plundered the temple, later burned Jerusalem, and then defiled the temple:
"On the fifteenth day of the month Kislev, in the year one hundred and forty-five, the king erected the desolating abomination upon the altar of burnt offerings, and in the surrounding cities of Judah they built pagan altars." 1 Macc 1:54, NAB
Sound familiar? To a Catholic (or Jew) familiar with these stories, the figure that Left Behind fans call "Antichrist" is instantly recognizable as Antiochus IV. Remember, it's the defeat of his forces and the renewal of the temple afterward that is celebrated yearly during Hanukkah.

So it's not just that Left Behind fans are a little off; they're overlooking a reasonable explanation involving events from over two millennia ago. If they spent a little less time fantasizing about "end times," and a little more time studying the Bible outside of their echo chambers, they might even realize it themselves.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Monthly Picks

On the first day of each month, I will be posting about papers I've found interesting in Philosophy or Library & Information Science. I'll try to make sure at least one is accessible to everyone.


Ok, not this month. Nothing really caught my fancy after my usual process of skimming hundreds of titles, reading a bunch of abstracts, downloading about a dozen, then looking at the full papers. I'm probably just distracted by all the reading on cataloging, metadata, web development, and cryptographic infrastructure I've been doing.

Instead, have a music video: