Monday, May 18, 2015

The Great Von Harnack, Prophecy and Daniel

I was reading Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism by John Lennox this week, and a reference to the so-called “higher critics” and what they believed about the date Daniel was written sent me back 30 years to a classroom at Washington University in St. Louis.

In the 1980s, when I was in my masters degree program, I took a seminar called “History of the Early Christian Church.” It was taught by a partially retired professor (he had “emeritus” in his title) who had something of a reputation for unfeeling toughness. He seemed courteous enough, at least during the first few meetings for the 10 of us in the seminar.

The crunch came when we had to read and defend our first papers. One young woman was selected to go first, and her paper reflected the fact that she had hurriedly put something together the night before. The professor’s withering, relentless criticism reduced her to tears. She fled the classroom. Without missing a beat, he turned to the next student to present and defend, who happened to be me.

There was nothing else to do but to do it.

Adolf von Harnack
I even remember the subject of my paper – the origin of the office of “bishop” (episkopos in Greek). I had done a huge amount of research, surviving several sneezing attacks in the old Classics section of the university library. In my paper, I argued that while it had appeared early in the church, the office of bishop didn’t exist in apostolic times, or at least for the first 125 to 150 years of the church.

The professor believed otherwise. He peppered my reading with questions. I answered. More questions, and more answers. At one point, I thought my ship was clearly sinking, when he quoted the church historian and theologian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), one of the leading lights of the so-called German “higher criticism” of the Bible in the 19th and early 20th centuries. My professor invoked von Harnack on a regular basis; he always, always referred to him as “the great von Harnack.”

This went on for the rest of the two hours of the seminar meeting. In spite of several references to the great von Harnack, I kept punching back. My fellow students were clearly relieved that they had won a few days reprieve before they had to present; they were also somewhat aghast that I had dared to suggest, even indirectly, that the great von Harnack might not be entirely correct.

What was even more surprising was the professor’s overall reaction. He was clearly more than pleased with my paper. He stopped me after class and asked where I done my research, how long had I worked on it, and how had I come to be so interested in the subject of episkopos.

Two weeks later, when he returned all of our papers with his grades, he wrote on mine that he still believed von Harnack was correct. But he gave my paper an A+.

I’m not sure what von Harnack thought of the Book of Daniel; his focus was the New Testament and the early church period. But the higher critics in general rejected the traditional dating for the book, and maintained it had to have been written during the early period of Rome’s occupation of Palestine and not during the period of the Babylonian and Medo-Persian empires. Their reasoning was based on the assumption that Daniel recounted and interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream by predicting a succession of empires, and there was no way he could have been that accurate in his predictions. Clearly the book had to have been written after the fact.

The higher critics rejected supernatural intervention, miracles, and prophecy in general; von Harnack, for example, entirely rejected the miracles of Jesus. If it couldn’t be explained by natural, historical methods, then it simply couldn’t happen the way the Bible recorded it.

As John Lennox explains in Against the Flow, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls knocked a hole in the higher critics’ date for the writing of Daniel. The book was found among the scrolls, accepted and venerated as Holy Scripture. Had it been written only 50 years before the Qumran community existed, it would not have been accorded this recognition. Clearly, it had been around for a lot longer.

We’re still living within the context of Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (you can read the entire account of the dream and its interpretation in Daniel 2). And if you ever wondered where the expression “feet of clay” comes from, this is where you’ll find it.

I’ve been discussing Against the Flow for the past several weeks. Today’s based is taken from Chapter 9, “Dreams and Revelations,” and Chapter 10, “A Succession of Empires.”

Painting: Daniel Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream by Mattia Preti (undated; Preti lived from 1613 to 1699); private collection.

1 comment:

Martha Jane Orlando said...

That was one daunting professor, Glynn; I recall having a few like that. :) Glad you stood up to him. I'm definitely going to get and read this book once all my editing is done.