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Posts Tagged ‘Biblical Theology’

After these first two weeks at Duke, it has become apparent that it will be impossible for me to keep folks abreast of all that I am picking up here.  Every lecture, every reading, every seminar brims with information and thought provoking analyses, such that I couldn’t possibly catalogue them all here and keep up with my studies!  Thus, I will try weekly to share one or two things that I’ve picked up.

Daniel Boyarin, Professor of Talmudic , Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric, at University of California, Berkeley

Daniel Boyarin, Professor of Talmudic Cultures, Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric, at University of California, Berkeley

For our first seminar on the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament with Richard Hays we read and discussed an extremely stimulating article by the Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin of UC Berkeley, “The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John” (Harvard Theological Review, 94:3 [2001] 242-84).  Boyarin argues against the common assumption that the lo,goj theology of Fourth Gospel’s prologue represents an adoption of strictly Greek categories of thought and a consequent break with Jewish monotheism.  On the contrary, the  lo,goj theology found in the John 1 was actually very much at home in first century Jewish thought about God.

To support his thesis, Boyarin adduces numerous passages from Jewish writings parallel to John’s line of thought.  Take for instance the follwing passage from the Jewish philosopher Philo:

To His Word, His chief messenger, highest in age and honour, the Father of all has given the special prerogative, to stand on the border and separate the creature from the Creator.  This same Word both pleads with the immortal as suppliant for afflicted mortality and acts as ambassador of the ruler to the subject.  He glories in this prerogative and proudly describes it in these words “and I stood between the Lord and you” (Deut. v. 5), that is neither uncreated by God, nor created as you, but midway between the two extremes, a surety to both sides. (Quis rerum divinarum heres sit 205-206)

Boyarin comments on this and other passages from Philo,

Philo oscillates on the point of the ambiguity between separate existence of the Logos, God’s Son, and its total incorporation within the godhead.  If Philo is not on the road to Damascus here, he is surely on a way that leads to Nicaea and the controversies over the second person of the Trinity. (p. 251)

He moves from discussing Philo’s lo,goj theology to limning rabbinic and para-rabbinic notions of “The Memra” or “The Word” of God.  Much ancient Jewish literature ascribes actions, thoughts, intentions and relations to the Memra along with divine status while nevertheless speaking of the Memra as in some way distinct from God.  Boyarin argues that this ancient language about the Memra cannot be read as mere personifications of impersonal divine attributes.  Rather “the strongest reading of the Memra is that it is not a mere name, but an actual divine entity, or mediator.” (p. 255)  

He further argues that the Jewish Memra should be seen as at least analogous or cognate, if not as identical with, Jewish and Christian notions about the lo,goj and/or Wisdom.  In the Targumim the Memra performs many of the same functions as the lo,goj:

  • Creating: Gen 1:3: “And the Memra of H’ (Hashem, i.e., YHWH or “the Lord”) said Let there be light and there was Light by his Memra.”  In all of the follwing verses the Memra  performs the creative actions.
  • Speaking to Humans: Gen 3:8 ff: “And they heard the voice of the Memra of H’….And the Memra of H’ called out to the Man.”
  • Revealing himself: Gen 18:1: “And was revealed to him the Memra of H’.”
  • Punishing the wicked: Gen 19:24 “And the Memra of H’ rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah.”
  • Saving: Exod 17:21: “And the Memra of H’ was leading them during the day in a pillar of cloud.”
  • Redeeming: Deut 32:39: “When the Memra of H’ shall be revealed to redeem his people” (pp. 256-7)

In light of this evidence, it would seem that Johannine prologue’s references to the lo,goj are well within the bounds of what could count as first century Jewish monotheism and not the divisive Christian innovation that they are often alleged to be.

To my mind, Boyarin cements his argument when he simultaneously re-reads the prologue of John’s Gospel as a midrash on Genesis 1 and juxtaposes the strophes of the prologue with parallels from Jewish lo,goj/Wisdom/Memra theology.  For example, Wisdom, like John’s lo,goj is present with God and participates in the Creation:

 John 1:1-3 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 

 

Genesis 1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…

Wisdom 9:9With thee (i.e., God) is Wisdom…”

Prov 8:3 …then (i.e., at the Creation) I (i.e., Wisdom) was beside Him…

Similarly, when John writes “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.  He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him,” (1:10-11) he is not yet describing the Incarnation and ministry of Jesus but is rather rehearsing a common piece of Jewish lore about Wisdom.  Thus we read in 1 Enoch 42:1-2,

Wisdom could not find a place in which she could dwell; but a place was found (for her) in the heavens.  Then Wisdom went out to dwell with the children of the people, but she found no dwelling place.  So Wisdom returned to her place and she settled permanently among the angels.

 In light of these parallels, Boyarin argues, it is simply false to think that the first chapter of John’s Gospel would have offended first century Jews by positing a second person within the godhead.  Such a notion was already the common stock and trade of Jewish Wisdom theology.

Is there, then, anything distinctively Christian about John 1?  Of course, says Boyarin, but it does not come until verse 14: “And the Word (lo,goj) became flesh and dwelt among us….”

 

The Isenheim Crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald (1515)

The Isenheim Crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald (1515)

Overall, I find Boyarin’s arguments to be quite helpful in understanding the emergence of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  This traditional Christian doctrine is not at all a sharp, alien, Greco-Roman departure from the Israelite and Jewish religion(s) from which Christianity initially emerged.  Rather, Trinitarian thought is quite at home within ancient Jewish conceptions of the divine.  It is, rather, precisely when Greek notions about the divine nature become normative that Trinitarian thought becomes a difficult doctrine.  This point has also been made recently by the Christian scholar Richard Bauckham in his book God Crucified (2008).

Viewed from a first century Jewish perspective, the challenging thing about Christianity is not that the lo,goj is both God and with God, is a second divine person within the godhead.  It is not that Christian ideas about the lo,goj threaten Jewish monotheism.  They don’t.  It is rather that according to John and all those who believe that his testimony is true the lo,goj became flesh and dwelt and died among us….

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paulIt is not uncommonly claimed that Paul’s thought developed over time.  The classic example of development in Paul’s theological thought is his dimming expectation of Christ’s imminent return.  As I have argued elsewhere, early on Paul believed that Christ would return within Paul’s lifetime and he advised Christians accordingly.  But by the time of his imprisonment in Rome, not too long before his execution, Paul’s expectation that he would live to see Christ’s return was flagging.  He no longer spoke confidently of himself and his correligionists as “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord,” (1 Thess 4:15, 17, written ca. 41-43 CE) but rather began coming to terms with his imminent demise (Phil 1:21ff, written ca. 61-63 CE).  He still believed that the Lord would return soon, mind you, but no longer did he think he would live to see it (Phil 4:5).

Now, one may suspect that explaining the phenomena of Paul’s writings by recourse to his theological development is a distinctly modern approach to understanding the Apostle to the Gentiles, but, in fact, it is not.  In my last post I highlighted Paul’s scrap with Peter over Peter’s parting company with Gentiles at meals (Gal 2).  The late 2nd century apologist Tertullian (ca.160 – ca.220 CE)explained Paul’s actions as being the result of his relative immaturity as a Christian.  He writes:

Now [the Marcionites] adduce the case of Peter himself, and the others, who were pillars of the apostolate, as having been blamed by Paul for not walking uprightly, according to the truth of the gospel–that very Paul indeed, who, being yet in the mere rudiments of grace, and trembling, in short, lest he should have run or were still running in vain, then for the first time held intercourse with those who were apostles before himself. [3] Therefore because, in the eagerness of his zeal against Judaism as a neophyte, he thought that there was something to be blamed in their conduct–even the promiscuousness of their conversation–but afterwards was himself to become in his practice all things to all men, that he might gain all,–to the Jews, as a Jew, and to them that were under the law, as under the law,–you would have his censure, which was merely directed against conduct destined to become acceptable even to their accuser, suspected of prevarication against God on a point of public doctrine.[4] Touching their public doctrine, however, they had, as we have already said, joined hands in perfect concord, and had agreed also in the division of their labour in their fellowship of the gospel, as they had indeed in all other respects: “Whether it were I or they, so we preach.” (Against Marcion, Book I, Chap XX)

According to Tertullian, Paul outgrew this hot-headedness and later adopted the policy of becoming all things to all men that he might win the many, which, apparently, Tertullian took to be the policy that Peter endorsed all along.  As he writes in Book IV, Chap III of the same work, “And yet as Paul himself ‘became all things to all men,’ that he might gain all, it was possible that Peter also might have betaken himself to the same plan of practising somewhat different from what he taught.”

Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt, "The Apostle Paul in Prison", 1627, oil on panel

Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt, "The Apostle Paul in Prison", 1627, oil on panel

To my mind, this sort of explanation is helpful not only for making sense of Paul’s letters but also for reminding us that Paul was not the two-dimensional, ready-made Sunday-school felt-board character we often imagine him to have been but rather a flesh-and-blood human being, living and thinking in the complicated, rough-and-tumble world of the first century.  Paul was a man attempting rethink everything he had learned at his mother’s knee and at the feet of his tutor, Gamaliel, in light of the recent resurrection of a crucified man who, by Pharisaic standards, had played fast-and-loose with the Torah, and in light of the still unfolding activity of the Spirit amongst Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and freemen.  It is difficult to imagine how his thought could not undergo some change over the course of the nearly three decades in which he worked.

I, personally, am encouraged by the fact that the New Testament gives evidence of Paul’s humanity.  It is a reminder that these things actually happened and are not a bunch of made-up fairy tales, too pristine and tidy to fit in the real world.  Howeverso problematic these observations may be for our attempts at solving our contemporary theological conundrums, I prefer them to an unproblematic (and correspondingly unrealistic) picture of emergent Christianity because they indicate, to me at least, that maybe, just maybe the gospel is true.

But, of course, these observations make facile proof-texting appropriations of Paul’s letters (or of any New Testament text, for that matter) for contemporary theological purposes dubious indeed.  We must, rather, attempt by means of historical imagination to enter the world of the New Testament and sit at the feet of the Apostles as they were, listen into their debates amongst one-another and hope and pray to hear the voice of our common Master.  Then, hopefully having heard His voice, we must leave their very different world and attempt to live faithfully by what we have heard in our own.

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One of the most striking passages in Paul’s letters comes in the second chapter of Galatians.  Paul has been demonstrating his solidarity in the gospel with the Jerusalem based Apostles, Jesus’ orignal disciples and His brother, James.  While always being sure to maintain that his message and ministry is independent of theirs, Paul has been keen to underline their fundamental agreement.  But then, as there always does, there comes a “but.”

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. (Galatians 2:11-13)

Paul goes on to give Peter a stern dressing down because, he says, Peter “stood condemned.”  One wonders if Peter saw it that way.  I suspect not.  Had Peter knuckled under to Paul’s tirade, we would expect Paul to say so.  He has been

Peter and Paul at Antioch

Peter and Paul at Antioch

adamant about their fundamental agreement up until this point in the passage, but here he is content to give us only one side of the story and himself the final word and to leave it at that.  Apparently these two Apostles did not come to a meeting of minds.

We do not know exactly why Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles.  Perhaps Peter thought such a practice would be expedient in his mission to the Jews; his way of being as one under the Torah to those under the Torah.  Perhaps James’ men brought news of Jewish persecution of the churches in Jerusalem, and Peter thought it best not to push the issue until things quieted down (cp. Acts 6:11-14).  At any rate, we ought not to assume that he had no good reason at all.  We should not even facilely assume that he was clearly wrong and Paul was clearly right.

And there’s the rub.  Apparently, as they sought to make sense of their world in light of Jesus’ resurrection and the urgings of the Spirit, the Apostles could and did come down on different sides of an issue.  Galatians 2 narrates one instance, but we find these early Christian differences enshrined in the very pages of Scripture as well.

For instance, John the Seer voices his clear disapproval of those in the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira eating food sacrificed to idols: 

 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and to fornicate. (Revelation 2:14)

But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to fornicate and to eat food sacrificed to idols. (Revelation 2:20)

The fornication in view here is probably a metaphor for idolatry (cf. Rev 17; Hos; Ezek 23, etc.) to which John understands eating of food sacrificed to idols to be tantamount.

The Apostle Paul had a more nuanced and liberal view of the matter.

 

 

 

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that an idol has no real existence, and that there is no God but one. 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth- as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”- 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)

Paul sees nothing intrinsically wrong or idolatrous in eating food sacrificed to idols per se.  However, he says, not everyone sees it that way and we need to respect their tender consciences.  John the Seer comes to mind.  On Paul’s definition, the author of the Book of Revelation would qualify as a “weaker brother,” a designation that we may suppose John would have been less than pleased with.

 

 

The Four Apostles by Albrecht Dürer, 1526.  From left to right, John, Peter, Mark and Paul.

The Four Apostles by Albrecht Dürer, 1526. From left to right, John, Peter, Mark and Paul.

Similarly, whereas the Gospel of Mark (10:1-12) does not permit divorce under any circumstance, Matthew apparently sees this policy as being too strict and permits divorce on grounds of adultery (19:1-9).  Paul seems to side with Mark on the matter: Christians are not to seek divorce, even from unbelieving spouses who were likely cavorting with temple prostitutes (1 Cor 7:10-16).  Most of us sympathize more with Matthew, however.

We find that Jesus and Paul believed the end of the world and the final Judgment would arrive within a generation (e.g., Matt 24:34; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27; Rom 13:11-12; Phil 4:5; 1 Thess 4:15, 17, etc.).  The author of 2 Peter seems less hopeful (3:8-9).  All of us, with the aid of hindsight, agree with 2 Peter over against Jesus, Paul and the Synopticists.

There’s no two ways about it.  Sometimes to side with one Biblical author one must side against another.  Things are not as simple as just “believing the Bible.”  The diversity of opinions between the Apostles and within the pages of Scripture itself forces us to pick-and-choose, to take sides, to disagree with one Biblical author or another.

It is the Bible itself, not hubris nor merely our modern sensibilities, that forces us to do so.  At the end of the day, as when God challenged Jacob at Peniel, the Bible gives us no choice but to wrestle with the Bible if we would procure its blessings.  We cannot simply assent to whatever it says.  That way does not lie open to us.  We have to try, with the aid of the Spirit, to wrest Jesus, who is the true source of our life, from the pages of Scripture; to discern the voice of the resurrected Christ amidst the diverse and at turns discordant voices of the Biblical writers.  It is for this reason that I will, at times, feel fully at liberty to prayerfully and gladly disagree with an Apostle.

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"And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door..." (Judges 19:27)

"And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door..." (Judges 19:27)

Several months ago I was asked to teach a Sunday school on the last three chapters of the Book of Judges.  The Sunday school series for the most part had been standard evangelical, moralistic fare, looking to Gideon as an example for doubters and Samson as some sort of hero.  But Judges 19-21 is, to say the least, not particularly amenable to such moralistic readings.  Not many of us struggle with turning out our concubines to be gang-raped to death by angry mobs, or with dismembering their corpses and then FedExing their limbs to our relatives (chap 19).  At least we don’t on a regular basis.  And I may be wrong, but I doubt that many of us would endorse the “ambush, kidnap and force into marriage” approach to courtship (chap 21).  In short, it is probably unwise to treat Judges as a trove of tales about virtue and role models.

How, then, should we read Judges?  I would suggest that the Book of Judges should be read Messianically.  That is to say, the Book of Judges, as we now have it, points forward to the Messiah as the hope of Israel.

The Book of Judges is comprised of a bunch of stories that probably circulated orally and independently in Israelite society for quite some time before being put to writing and combined into a single narrative.  While the Book itself probably underwent many editions over the years, two editions of the Book of Judges are both easily identified and very important for understanding the book.

The first clue as to the existence and date of an earlier edition of the Book is provided by the phrase, “so the Jebusites have dwelt with the Benjaminites in Jerusalem to this day (hZ<)h; ~AYðh; d[;Þ)” (1:21b).  David routed the Jebusites from Jerusalem in 1003 BCE (see 2 Sam 5:6-9) and so, naturally, Judges 1:21b must have been written before that event.

This first edition is clearly a piece of Davidic propaganda that dates to the period when David was King only of the South and Ish-Bosheth, the son of Saul, ruled over the northern tribes in Ephraim (1010-1003 BCE) and when both kings had ambitions of controlling all of Israel.  Judges repeatedly evinces a pro-Judah (David’s tribe), anti-Benjamin (Saul and Ish-Bosheth’s tribe) polemic that ony makes sense within a context wherein both of these two houses were vying for control of Israel.  Some highlights of the Book’s pro-Judah/David and anti-Benjamin/Saul/Ish-Bosheth bias are as follows:

  • 1:1-2, The Lord specifically chooses Judah to lead the Israelite conquest of the land.
  • 1:1-34, Of the Twelve tribes, Judah alone succeeds in routing the people of the land (with the exception of the plain, for which the Book of Judges gives them an excuse!).
  • 1:21, The tribe of Benjamin’s failure to drive out the land’s inhabitants, namely the Jebusites (whom David would succeed in conquering.  Benjamin fails to take Jerusalem, a city which Judah had already (!?) captured, struck with the sword and put to the torch (1:8).
  • 3:7-11, The first judge treated in the Book is Othniel, a man from the tribe of Judah, and the report concerning him is completely benign.  His story is immediately followed by one of Ehud, 3:12-30, a left-handed Benjaminite. “Benjamin” means “son of the right hand.”  In the Ancient Near East being left-handed was highly stigmatized.  Benjamin assassinates the morbidly-obese king Eglon of Moab (whose name means “calf” or “heifer”) in the bathroom, spilling his excrement everywhere, and then apparently makes his getaway via the toilet.
  • 19:22-30, The Book of Judges narrates the decline of Israel the climax of which is the crime of the Benjaminite city of Gibeah (Saul’s hometown, 1 Sam 10:26).  The implication of the grotesque narrative is that the Gibeanites have turned out to be worse than foreigners (see 19:12).  In fact, Gibeah is portrayed as a new Sodom (compare with Gen 19).
  • 20:18, When the other eleven Israelite tribes go to war against errant Benjamin the Lord specifically chooses Judah to lead them just as He chose Judah to lead the conquest of the land in 1:1-2.
  • 20:48; 21:10-12, The force used against the Benjaminites resembles that which was normally reserved for the peoples that Israel was disinheriting (see Deut 7:1-2; Josh 6:15-21; 10:40, etc.).

The weight of this evidence makes it almost certain that the earliest edition of the Book of Judges was a piece of Davidic propaganda from the time when the Saul’s Benjaminite dynasty still constituted a threat.  That leaves us with a date somewhere between 1010-1003 BCE.

KingDavidWithin the context of this first edition, the Book’s four-fold refrain, “In those days there was no king in Israel,” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) should be understood as initially pointing to a specifically Judahite king,  namely David, as the solution to Israel’s plight.  The Book of Judges is structured by a cyclical narrative pattern: Israel apostasizes -> Israel is punished by YHWH with a military defeat and subjugation -> Israel is distressed -> YHWH raises up a judge who rescues Israel -> The judge dies -> Israel apostasizes again….  With each cycle the judges become less respectable and the narrative becomes increasingly grotesque, such that we should read the Book as depicting Israel as being in a downward spiral that hits rock bottom in deplorable behavior of the Benjaminites relayed in chapters 19-21.  Within this schema, Israel’s problem is that “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25).  The unsubtle implication of the Book is that Benjamin is very much a part of that problem and that a Judahite king, David is the answer.

The existence of a second (or, at any rate, later) edition of the Book of Judges becomes apparent in chapter 18, verse 30 which reads, “The Danites set up the sculptured image for themselves; and Jonathan son of Gershom son of Manasseh, and his descendants, served as priests to the Danite tribe until the land went into exile.”  This text refers to the capture of the land and expulsion of the people of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, nearly three centuries after the time of David (see 2 Kings 17:6).  The second edition of the Book of Judges must have been written after that event and in all probability post-dates the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the beginning of the Babylonian exile.

In the Exile the unthinkable had happened: the Davidic dynasty was more or less dethroned.  It seemed as though YHWH’s promises to David had failed (2 Sam 7).  During this period the Book of Judges was incorporated into a larger narrative stretching from Deuteronomy through 2Kings that scholars call, naturally enough, the Deuteronomistic History.  In this larger narrative the downward spiral of Israel resumes with the sin of Solomon, David’s heir, leading to the splitting of the Kingdom into two, the general apostasy of Israel’s kings (with some notable exceptions, such as Hezekiah and Josiah) and finally to the manifestation of YHWH’s wrath towards His people in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles.

pantokrator3Despite the abysmal failure of the dynasty, exiled Israel, or, more specifically, the Judeans, still looked to members of the Davidic line as providing glimmers of hope for a brighter future (see 2Kings 25:27-30; Isa 9:1-7; Zech 4, etc.).  It is, I suggest, in this context of messianic hope that the second edition of the Book of Judges, now incorporated into the grand narrative of the Deuteronomistic History, should be read.  In this context the phrase “In those days there was no king in Israel” takes on deep and profound notes of messianic hope, pointing still to David but pointing also through  and beyond David to his long-awaited heir who would one day rescue captive Israel.

Thus, Christians need not try to find a moral in the disturbing stories of Judges 19-21.  Rather, with the aid of eschatological hindsight, Christians can find there something far better: their Savior.

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