The Shema for the Mishnah

On August 20, 2015, on Facebook, I saw this announcement from the Archives Bookshop in Pasadena:

“A professor once told me, ‘If you want to read the Gospels, sell your shirt and buy a Mishnah.’
Well, we’re running a SPECIAL on Danby’s classic translation of the Mishnah in Hendrickson Publishers paperback for a blowout price of $25! At $79.99 retail, that’s the best price on the market. If you recite the Shema at the register, we’ll give you an extra 10% off. And if you can say it in Hebrew, we’ll give you 20% off! If you’re a student of the Bible, you cannot afford to miss this deal.”

As a student of the Bible who likes to read the Gospels, I could hardly pass up such an offer. So I drove to Pasadena with my wife and went to the Archives Bookshop (which is across the street from the main campus of Fuller Theological Seminary from which I graduated long, long ago.) I walked up to the counter and told the sales associate that I wanted to purchase the Mishnah which was on sale. I asked if he were ready to hear my recitation of the Shema and he nodded, “Okay.” So I said, “Shema, Israel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai achad.” That was enough to earn me the 20% discount off the $25 price. So I bought the Mishnah for $20 plus $1.80 tax. (For some reason the sales tax in Pasadena is nine percent rather than eight percent where I live.)

In case you don’t know what the Mishnah is, let me share with you two explanatory paragraphs from the back cover of this edition:

“The Mishnah, understood to be the written form of the Jewish Oral Law, was preserved by the rabbis following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE [Common Era], and was completed in approximately 200 CE. More than four centuries of Jewish religious thought and activity are found within this text, and it is as important to the development of Judaism as the New Testament is to the development of Christianity.

Students of the New Testament will find it especially interesting because its contents reflect the Jewish religious tradition during the time of Jesus and the early Christian church. The Mishnah’s historical value in understanding the first two centuries of the common era is comparable in its importance to the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and secular works of that time such as the writings of Josephus.”

Now that I had invested in the Mishnah, I felt compelled to read it. Unlike Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics which extends to fourteen volumes containing upwards of 9,000 pages, the Mishnah is a mere 789 pages. I calculated that if I read ten pages a day, I could knock it off in less than three months. However right now there are other demands on my time. I am taking Arabic 2 at Saddleback College which meets twice a week for two hours each meeting and which demands at least two hours of study for each hour in the classroom; so that’s an additional 12 hours a week to work on Arabic.

After a summer of travel to Russia for a month and hosting a family of four from Russia in our home for another month, I’ve resumed my cello lessons and need to prepare to participate with the Orange County Cello Choir which will give a concert on September 19. For that I should practice about one hour every day.

Taking all this into consideration, I decided on a more modest goal of reading just five pages a day of my $20 Mishnah. As of today I’ve read 30 pages and I can report that it is rather tedious stuff so far consisting mainly of the different opinions of rabbis and sages regarding how to interpret the minutia of the Law (the Torah which is better translated Instruction than Law).

Now I’m beginning to wonder who that professor was who said, “If you want to read the Gospels, sell your shirt and buy a Mishnah.” What were the credentials of this professor? Where did he profess? Why did he make such a claim? Or was this just a sales gimmick to get rid of some unwanted inventory at the bookstore? And I’m beginning to think that I might be better off with a new $20 shirt than a new Mishnah.

But now I’ve got the Mishnah rather than a shirt, and if I can keep up my current pace, I will have read it in less than six months. So all readers of this blog will be delighted to know that I plan to give periodic reports of anything I learn from the Mishnah in addition to my occasional insights from reading Barth. In the meantime I’m hoping that the Archives Bookshop will not run a big sale on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

How Can We Know God?

I had a breakthrough this week in my reading of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Much of what I have read so far has been sufficiently opaque that I could not comprehend it well enough to be able to write about it with any sense of confidence. But in the past few days of my ten-pages-a-day reading project, I started to understand something clearly.

I’m reading Volume II.1 – The Doctrine of God. In the first part of this 667 page tome, the good Swiss theologian discusses The Knowledge of God.
Barth writes, “For it is by the grace of God and only by the grace of God that it comes about that God is knowable to us” (p. 69). A few pages later he gives this lavish definition of grace:
“Grace is the majesty, the freedom, the undeservedness, the unexpectedness, the newness, arbitrariness, in which the relationship to God and therefore the possibility of knowing Him is opened up to man by God Himself. Grace is really the orientation in which God sets up an order which did not previously exist, to the power and benefit of which man has no claim, which he has no power to set up, which he has no competence even subsequently to justify, which in its singularity—-which corresponds exactly to the singularity of the nature and being of God—-he can only recognize and acknowledge as it is actually set up, as it is powerful and effective as a benefit that comes to him. Grace is God’s good pleasure” (p. 74).

Then Barth identifies the opponent of his teaching as the basic theology of the Roman Catholic Church. “Our identification of the truth by which the truth is revealed to us with the good-pleasure of God is in flat contradiction to what is said in the Constitutio dogmatica de fide catholica of the Vatican Council, cap. 2 De revelatione (April 24th, 1870, Denz. No. 1785): Eadem sancta mater Ecclesia tenet et docet, Deum, rerum omnium principium et finem, naturali humanae rationis lumine e rebus creatis certo cognosci posse. And we have done what is condemned in a canon of the same Council (De rev. I. Den. No. 1806): Si quis dixerit, Deum unum et verum, creatorem et Dominum nostrum, per ea quae facta sunt, naturali rationis humanae lumine certo cognosci non pose, anathema sit.”

For those of you, like me, who don’t know Latin, here is the translation of those two sentences:
“The same holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, can with certainty be known from created things by the natural light of human reason.”
“If anyone says that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, cannot with certainty be known through that which is created, by the natural light of human reason, let him be anathema/accursed.”

Here is the difference, as I understand it, between the teaching of the Vatican and the teaching of Barth. The Vatican teaches (or at least taught) that we can know God by using our human reason while Barth insists that we can only know God by his grace which comes to us by revelation. In even sharper focus we could put this difference as a question: Do we know God by reason or by revelation? Barth would answer this question most emphatically that we know God only by revelation.

And Barth goes to great lengths to show that there are no analogies by which the nature and being of God are accessible to us.

It seems to me that not only formal Catholic teaching, but also the doctrines of most religions and much popular theology teaches that we can reason our way to God, that we can look inward to discover the spark of divinity within each of us. To all this Barth says, “Nein.” Only by God’s grace in His revelation can we know God. God has revealed himself in history and supremely in Jesus the Christ. This history is recorded in the Bible and preached in the Church.

Based on what I know from the Bible, I agree with Barth. When God first revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, Mary, and Peter, it was not because they reasoned their way to a knowledge of God. They were all surprised by God’s gracious revelation. This means that if anyone wants to know God, they should not try to discover God by human reasoning, but expose themselves to the revelation of God in the Bible and the preaching of the Church.

A Progress Report

Today I finished reading Volume I.2 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics – The Doctrine of the Word of God.  On May 7, 2015, I had finished Volume I.1. Eager to see what the next volume held, I read the first paragraph of the Editors’ Preface to Volume II.1, The Doctrine of God, and read this: “With this volume Barth passes from the introduction to dogmatics to its content…”

Since I began this project on April 8, 2015, I have managed to read at least ten pages of Church Dogmatics every day with the exception of one day when I made a mistake and read only eight pages. There were 489 pages in Volume I.1 and 884 in Volume I.2.  So I’ve read 1,373 pages so far in which the Swiss theologian covered a wide range of theological topics and broad, detailed references to the history of the Church.

Now I discover that I’ve only read the introduction to Barth’s massive work! So I’ve changed my mind about the character of Barth’s magnum opus. Reading it is not like running a marathon, but like competing in an “Ironman Triathlon.” A marathon is a mere 26.2 miles. An Ironman Triathlon is a multiple-stage competition which includes a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, followed by a 26.2 mile run.

In 1981 I finished my one and only marathon which was held in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, near where I lived at the time. That same year saw the birth of my son, Peter, who is a better athlete than his father and has completed several Ironman Triathlons.

One trick in successfully completing a marathon or Ironman Triathlon is setting a manageable pace in order to avoid early exhaustion or injury. I think my ten pages a day pace is about right for me to keep reading Church Dogmatics and not drop out due to exhaustion or injury. In fact I now look forward to my daily reading which I nearly always do early in the morning after reading some selections from the Bible.

Now that I have finished the introduction, I look forward to plunging into the content of Church Dogmatics. I hope that I will not be so out of breath that I will not be able to stop and share with you some comments along the way.