2011-06-02

The story of Jesus: History or Theology?

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by Neil Godfrey

One of the most interesting and easiest-to-read studies of the Gospel of Mark I have ever read is Werner H. Kelber’s Mark’s Story of Jesus. In this book he shows readers that the apparent random crossings back and forth across the “Sea of Galilee” by Jesus are not so random after all, but are really ciphers for a very cogent theological message.

Sea voyages 1 and 2

Jesus begins his ministry in Capernaum in Galilee, and his first crossing of the “Sea of Galilee” is from that Jewish territory (after having taught his many parables to his Jewish audience in Mark 4, and which he said they would not understand anyway) across to the other side where Gentiles lived, “the region of Garasenes/Gadarenes/Gergesenes” — Mark 5:1.

With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. . . . [Storm on the sea follows; Jesus commands the storm to be still.] . . .

They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. (Mark 4:33 – 5:2)

Here Jesus cast out a “legion” of demons — “about 2000” of them — from a man possessed. Jesus ordered them all to enter instead a herd of swine and leap to their deaths like lemmings into the sea. Many commentators have remarked upon the associations of the details of this narrative with pigs and the tenth (Roman) legion, gentile occupation and possession, etc. Everything about the narrative is soaked in gentile symbolism.

Then Jesus returns across the same “Sea of Galilee” back to his Jewish territory, and there meets a ruler of a synagogue, Jairus, and raises his daughter from the dead. On his way to perform this miracle he cured another woman of her (Jewish) ritual “uncleanness”, a perpetual flow of blood.

When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.”  (Mark 5:21-23)

Kelber’s observation is, I think, striking (my emphasis):

We saw Jesus proceeding from what turned out to be the Jewish side of the lake. On his arrival at the Gentile side he performed the most massive exorcism ever — as if to cleanse the Gentile land altogether. Then we observed him returning to the Jewish side and performing his greatest miracle ever — the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter. There is a logic to these crossings and to the events before and after them. It is not the logic of a break with the Jewish side and an unswerving pull toward the Gentiles. Rather it is a logic which embraces both sides of the lake. The Jewish and the Gentile land are sanctioned, as if both belonged to the Kingdom of God. (p. 33)

Sea voyage 3

The next (third) time Jesus gets into the boat is after his disciples had just returned from their first missionary expedition of healing, exorcising and preaching. But this time, instead of crossing to the other side, he attempts to take his disciples to a quiet place to rest just further along the coast. Multitudes of Jews, however, could see what he was doing and simply took themselves along the shore by foot to meet him when he beached at last.

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. (Mark 6:32-33)

It was here that Jesus performed the first of his famous mass-feeding miracles. He fed 5000 with just few loaves and fishes, and being eco-minded, had his disciples pick up 12 baskets of left-over scraps afterwards.

Sea voyage 4

Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.

Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake.  .  .  .  .  .

When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. (Mark 6:45-55)

So after feeding the 5000 Jews Jesus began walking across the “Sea of Galilee”, was picked up half way across by the disciples in their boat, and landed on the Gentile shore-side again.

And what did he do once on that side of the Sea? The same miracle over again. He performed several miracles, a healing and exorcism are narrated in detail but there were also many other miracles (as we read in the above passage) — just as he had performed many miracles earlier on the Jewish side of the lake. Whilst in this gentile region some Pharisees came up from Jerusalem and challenged him over the observance (or non-observance) of Jewish ceremonial laws such as hand-washing before meals. Mark 7 is clear that this is a distinctive Jewish custom, with the clear implication that such laws are no longer binding, thus breaking down rules that separate Jews and gentiles:

(By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.) (Mark 7:19)

Attempts to interpret this historically is equivalent to disciple’s failure to understand any of the teachings of Jesus: they are not about flesh and blood and this world, but about spirit and the kingdom of God.

Further, this time he met another crowd, again a very large one (4000), and again fed them miraculously with just a few loaves and fishes, and again picked up several baskets of food-scraps after it all.

Sea voyage 5

This fifth boat trip is, like the third, not a crossing but a coastal trip to move further along on the same side, but this time on the same side in Gentile territory.

And those who had eaten were about four thousand. And He sent them away.

And straightway He entered into a boat with His disciples and came into the region of Dalmanutha.

And the Pharisees came forth and began to question with Him, seeking from Him a sign from Heaven, testing Him. (Mark 8:9-11)

Having performed the miracle of mass feeding among the Gentiles some Pharisees come to Jesus to ask for a miraculous sign, apparently to confirm his right to seek to convert the Gentiles into his spiritual community.

Sea voyage 6

Finally Jesus gets into the boat again, but this time to return to the Jewish side of the “Sea of Galilee”.

And He left them and, entering into the boat again, departed to the other side.

Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, neither had they in the boat with them more than one loaf. (Mark 8:13-14)

The symbolism of returning with but one loaf of bread is not hard to grasp. Jews and Gentiles are one body. Jesus has visited both sides and worked miracles for each ethnic group alike.

Again Kelber’s commentary is cogently persuasive:

Mark narrates in 4:35 – 8:21 the elementary story of the communal dimension of the Kingdom, divided into two ethnic halves yet in the end united as one. To accomplish this unification, Mark uses the symbols of the lake, which serves as a barrier between the two sides, the two storm scenes, which dramatize the difficulty concerning the Gentile conclusion; the territories on either side, which signify Jewish and Gentile identities, the loaf and the loaves, which indicate unity and the disciples’ failure to understand it; the boat, which functions as a vehicle of unification; and six boat trips, which impose a comprehensive logic upon the whole section.

Unlike Kelber I referred above several times to the “Sea of Galilee”. Kelber more correctly speaks of it as a lake. But Mark does use the word for “sea”. Dennis MacDonald thinks this is a deliberate echo of the Sea Odysseus sails upon in his classical Homeric adventures. Another study by Roy Kotansky sees a Galilean sea voyage by Jesus being borrowed from the ancient concept of sailing to the “world’s end”, as did Heracles, at Gibraltar (see Jesus and Heracles). In Acts it is very clear that the greater Mediterranean sea is Paul’s gateway to the Gentiles. But back to Kelber:

The boat trips, alternating between the two sides, and giving each side due blessing and respect, dramatize a unitive moment. What happens as a result of these voyages is that the lake loses its force as a barrier and is transformed into a symbol of unity, bridging the gulf between Jew and Gentile. There is only one loaf, not two and not many. . . . This is the fundamental religious significance of the boat trip section. . . . (p. 41-2)

There is much else in the Gospel of Mark that is clearly symbolic. In Matthew’s gospel we read that the very setting of Galilee nicely fits the prophecy in Isaiah 9:1-2 that this area is the place destined for the light of Israel’s gospel to be given to the gentiles.

It appears to be an unquestioned given among biblical scholars that Jesus really did wander Galilee and preached both sides of the Galilean waters. Is this wise? If the original point of this setting, and these sea-crossings, was to dramatize a theological message about the spiritual unity of Jews and Gentiles, then what room is left for these narratives to be seen as having any interest in biographical or historical record?

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18 Comments

  • 2011-06-07 22:40:09 GMT+0000 - 22:40 | Permalink

    As a native of Bethsaida, Peter belonged to the Greek-culture province called Gaulanitis on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee. The major road through Bethsaida went south from Caesarea Philippi, through Bethsaida, and then along the east side of the Sea of Galilee.

    Since the original name of Peter’s new religion was “The Way”, I speculate that the religion involved a pilgrimage that began along the Jordan River, perhaps with a baptism, and then proceeded north through Bethsaida and Caesarea Philippi and finally onto Mount Hermon.

    Later, as the religion developed, its members began to tell so-called “gospels”, which were brief, happy-ending stories in which Jesus descended from the Firmament onto Earth. For example, Jesus came down to Bethsaida and encountered a blind man and healed his blindness. As another example, Jesus enountered a man who was possessed by demons, and so Jesus cast the demons from the man into a herd of pigs.

    Several of these stories, such as the two examples above, took place along that road that passed through Bethsaida and along the east side of the Sea of Galilee. I speculate that the inflicted people in the stories were people who had failed in attempts to complete the pilgrimage that ended on the summit of Mount Hermon, where the pilgrims experienced a mystical vision of Jesus Christ being crucified in the Firmament.

    The theme of these particular gospels was that Jesus Christ showed mercy to those people who had attempted but failed to complete the pilgrimage. Jesus Christ healed their blindness or their demon-possession, and so those healed people might be able to again try to join the religion.

  • M. W. Nordbakke
    2011-06-12 07:13:54 GMT+0000 - 07:13 | Permalink

    Kelber: “It is not the logic of a break with the Jewish side and an unswerving pull toward the Gentiles.”

    Everything is harmony? This statement reminds me of the often-heard argument that Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is “incorrectly” viewed by non-expert readers as a break with Judaism. Because the subject troubles us, we choose to reject the possibility that ethnic conflicts may have played a role in the rise of early Christianity.

    Given that, at a symbolic level, the territories on either side of the Sea of Galilee “signify Jewish and Gentile identities,” how should the polarity between Galilee and Jerusalem be interpreted? Here, too, geography is part of a symbolic framework. Every reference to Jerusalem in Mark is negative. Every reference to Galilee is positive. Jerusalem is the place of death. Galilee is the place of new life. Is ethnicity a relevant factor when analyzing this symbolism?

    Isaiah 9:1-2 may well be the whole explanation for why Galilee in Mark is presented as the blessed land where, after Jesus’ death, the community would be reconstituted. But I still feel that the negative view of Jerusalem requires an extra explanation. Mark would have known that the inhabitants of Galilee had only recently been converted (by force) to Judaism. The number of Jews in Galilee was small during the Maccabean struggle; cf. 1 Macc. 5:21-23. In Mark’s days the population had become predominantly Jewish, but this does not exclude that Galilean Jews were treated in a step-motherly manner by Jews originating from Judea. In later rabbinical literature, converts to Judaism were thought of as suspect until the 24th generation! In the surreal world of Mark’s gospel, I believe Galilee is perceived “less Jewish” than Jerusalem. This is important because, among gentile authors, there had already been a long history of criticism of Jewish separatism. In Mark, Pharisees are enforcing scrupulous observance of ritual, much of which has separatist effects. This indicates that Mark, too, has an issue with Jewish separatism. All is not harmony.

    Interestingly, the period following the Bar Kokhba uprising has been described as a “closing of the ranks” and the imposition of new barriers against the non-Jewish world (S. W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2nd edn, Vol. 2, 1952, p. 151). For example, on Sabbaths, Jews were now expected to mingle solely with other Jews. This situation could have been the very one the Markan author was reacting to in his literary caricature of the Pharisees.

    • 2011-06-12 08:45:40 GMT+0000 - 08:45 | Permalink

      Kelber’s view is that Jerusalem stands for the original Jewish parent church that was largely destroyed in the war. Mark’s gospel explains its destruction. It had rejected or failed to understand the “true” message of Jesus as taught by Paul — that is, the breaking down of barriers between Jews and Gentiles. The twelve disciples, who failed to follow Jesus to Galilee after the resurrection, represent the Jewish parent church.

      Others who have seen Galilee as symbolic of the Kingdom of God have taken Jerusalem as a metaphor for the world. Galilee represents life and the kingdom, Jerusalem death and the world where demons rule.

      • M. W. Nordbakke
        2011-06-12 12:16:05 GMT+0000 - 12:16 | Permalink

        Thanks for this summary of Kelber’s interpretation. If Mark placed such a heavy emphasis on the breaking down of barriers between Jews and Gentiles, I think it is a legitimate question to ask why he did so. Should his position be regarded as a matter of pure idealism, that is, of “universalism,” or are there other and more materialistic motives lurking in the background? As Mark is probably the earliest of all the Christian gospels, I feel the answer to this question could be of importance to our understanding of why Christianity arose in the first place.

        This is where, in my case, the various scholarly views of Christian origins become difficult to follow. There is a wide variety of titles of the type: “The Reluctant Parting of the Ways.” Early Christianity is described as a Jewish sect that developed into a Gentile religion. However, Mark’s universalism is in my eyes too radical to fit into Jewish norms; and the same is true for the views expressed in Galatians and Romans. Neither “Paul” nor “Mark” intended Jews to remain Jewish. Both authors redefined Jewishness in such a way that everyone could be Jewish! I am aware that Second-Temple Judaism was by no means a monolithic entity. Nevertheless, the elephant in the room is the idea that Jewish particularism needs to be abolished. From my limited perspective, this idea runs contrary to any notion of Judaism, ancient or modern. Indeed, early Christians made frequent use of the LXX and other Jewish writings, but this does not prove they were Jewish.

        It is true that in Late Antiquity there were Jews who identified as Christians, but if one is concerned with the very birth of Christianity proper, I feel one is probably best served by assuming that Christianity started as a Gentile reaction to Jewish separatism. It is noteworthy that Mark has more interaction between Jesus and Gentiles than any other gospel. (These are just a couple of loose ends I wished to add.)

        • 2011-06-12 12:42:46 GMT+0000 - 12:42 | Permalink

          “Nevertheless, the elephant in the room is the idea that Jewish particularism needs to be abolished. From my limited perspective, this idea runs contrary to any notion of Judaism, ancient or modern.”

          I’m not clear on what you mean by this exactly. Care to unpack it a little?

          • M. W. Nordbakke
            2011-06-12 16:18:25 GMT+0000 - 16:18 | Permalink

            Thanks for your question. One of the main emphases of Galatians is that Jewish particularism counts for nothing: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” This message is unparalleled in the Second-Temple literature. It is therefore natural to ask if this message is compatible with the notion that Paul is speaking on behalf of a first-century Jewish sect.

            Conversion to Judaism and circumcision go hand-in-hand. If early Christianity is viewed as a Jewish sect, this sect would be the only existing example of a Jewish community to include uncircumcised Gentiles. Often-repeated allegations to the contrary are simply wrong. In search of background material on this issue, I have been reading scholars such as John J. Collins, Peter Schäfer, Shaye J. D. Cohen, Daniel Boyarin, and Martin Goodman.

            Galatians is so radical that the only way to describe it is as the product of a new religion. I believe that Hyam Maccoby, even if historically naive, was basically correct in arguing that Paul is best understood as someone strongly influenced by Greek religious ideas. Niko Huttunen’s book, Paul and Epictetus on Law (2009), attests to a growing interest in comparing the NT and popular philosophy. (In one of your earlier posts you reviewed a study by Troels Engberg-Pedersen.) Note that while Paul does state he is a Hebrew, an Israelite, and a Benjaminite, he avoids calling himself a Jew.

            Some five years ago, Leonard V. Rutgers (Utrecht University) made a discovery in the underground of Rome: “Jews were buried only with Jews, and Christians only with Christians.” The Jewish Villa Torlonia catacomb was begun in the first century, and is the oldest known of the Roman catacombs. The two Jewish catacombs of Rome are distinguishable by the decorative artwork found inside. There is not a single allusion to Christianity inside these catacombs. I can think of only two possible explanations. The first one is that, if there was a major group of early Christians who identified as Jews, they did not express the particularities of their faith in terms of art or symbols. The second and, in my judgment, most persuasive explanation is that early Christians were mostly Gentiles; and Gentiles waited until the third century to bury their dead in catacombs.

  • 2011-06-12 23:33:27 GMT+0000 - 23:33 | Permalink

    I don’t understand why Gentiles would be bothered to react against Jewish particularism. Why would they bother? Did not some Jewish sects reject the Temple system and sacrifices? Circumcision seems only one more step beyond this, and Paul does say he was persecuted or suffered strong opposition for taking this step. Is not one of the strongest indicators that Christianity arose from a Jewish base their reliance on the Jewish scriptures, and also their claims to be the allegorical or spiritual fulfilments of all that was in those scriptures?

    • M. W. Nordbakke
      2011-06-13 13:01:47 GMT+0000 - 13:01 | Permalink

      Thanks for valuable feedback. It is difficult to give a short answer without being misleading.

      (1) “Is not one of the strongest indicators that Christianity arose from a Jewish base their reliance on the Jewish scriptures, and also their claims to be the allegorical or spiritual fulfilments of all that was in those scriptures?”

      Your reviews of the works of Michael Goulder, John Shelby Spong, Dale C. Allison, Jr., and many other scholars are a priceless guide in all matters concerning the Jewish context and meaning of the gospels. But I do not believe that Mark’s Jewishness has been established beyond all reasonable doubt. The possibility remains that Mark was a non-Jewish writer who had studied the Septuagint and made himself familiar with Jewish exegetical techniques. Jewish texts of all kinds were available in Greek.

      Daniel Boyarin briefly remarks that, in the gospels, the appointment of the Twelve (as a replacement of the twelve tribes of Israel) smacks of replacement theology, that is, of “supersessionism,” a key word in this discussion. My mental picture here is a group of Gentiles living in, say, Antioch, where Jews and Gentiles interacted with each other on a daily basis. Jewish traders of the Diaspora were often successful, which may have contributed to the assertion that Jews in general were successful. Gentile interest in Jewish religion may have been spurned by materialistic motives. This is the point where particularism intervenes.

      The procedures of conversion were highly unpleasant and humiliating; and full Jewish status was attained only after a number of subsequent generations. Within the Jewish community, a convert ranked even below the offspring of illegitimate relationships. Hence, marriage into Jewish families would never occur. It comes as no surprise that, according to Scot McKnight, the lists of proselytes suggest that converts were so few in number that individuals were remembered (A Light among the Gentiles, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991).

      You wrote: “I don’t understand why Gentiles would be bothered to react against Jewish particularism. Why would they bother?”

      Apparently, Gentiles did bother. According to McKnight, criticisms by Greco-Roman writers focused on Jewish separatism, xenophobia, and misanthropy. (From my point of view, Mark, too, belongs to this group of writers.) It is not far-fetched to assume that negative judgments of this kind may have been triggered by envy and down-to-earth concerns about life, career, etc. Admiration of Jewish accomplishments may have paved the way for hate and “Judeophobia.” Gavin I. Langmuir (1924-2005) distinguishes among three kinds of hostile assertions:

      (a) Realistic hostility. “Since groups (including Jews) do have different values and do compete for scarce goods,” realistic assertions about an out-group “may provide the basis for hostile attitudes and actions.”

      (b) Xenophobia. Xenophobic assertions attribute a socially menacing conduct to each and every member of an out-group, “but are empirically based on the conduct of a historical minority of the members.”

      (c) Chimeria. Characteristics that have never been empirically observed are attributed to an out-group and all its members.

      I am suggesting that (a) and (b) are relevant in relation to early Christian supersessionism. Early Christians may have been fascinated with the lifestyle of Diaspora Jews. As the option of conversion was not available to them, they formed their own communities, redefining Jewishness in such a way that everyone could be Jewish. (Space does not allow me to elaborate further.)

      You wrote: “Did not some Jewish sects reject the Temple system and sacrifices? Circumcision seems only one more step beyond this…” I have a different view on this. The Qumran community rejected the Jerusalem Temple, but regarded all Gentiles as inherently impure. Obviously, particularism was a much bigger issue than the temple cult.

  • 2011-06-13 14:46:16 GMT+0000 - 14:46 | Permalink

    There is no doubt about a certain hostility against Jews for the self-exclusion from mainstream society that many followed. But we need to look at places and periods, too and ask if the evidence exists for it at the time we are addressing.

    I don’t know what the evidence is that Jews in, say, Antioch, were more successful than other groups. But even if they were, and even if there was anti-Jewish hostility, I don’t understand why this would lead to gentiles wanting to religion that broke down barriers. Is it not more natural to ignore those we dislike, or actively reject them, and continue with one’s own religion? If conversion to Judaism was so demeaning, then why would any gentile want to ever consider it or feel excluded in the first place? I still don’t see any reason why gentiles would want to create a religion in response to Jewish customs.

    • M. W. Nordbakke
      2011-06-14 05:21:52 GMT+0000 - 05:21 | Permalink

      It has been argued that, by adopting ethical standards and principles characteristic of Judaism, Christian communities gained strategic advantages in the competition for survival against other groups, including Jews.

      I note without endorsing every detail of Rodney Stark’s classic (The Rise of Christianity) that by caring for the sick, which in Judaism is regarded as a mitzvah, early Christian communities may have become attractive to other Gentiles. When epidemics struck, even basic nursing care (like providing water and food) would have increased the chances of survival; see also William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples. Pagans who survived because of Christian charity may have become part of a network including Christians and thus potential recruits. Likewise, it has been hypothesized that Christian networks served a protective function against economic domination by other groups.

      Before saying anything more, I should state that I do not mean to argue for the “inferiority” of particularism, or for the “superiority” of universalism. In any case, early Christian communities, by demanding high levels of stigma and sacrifice, erected new types of barriers. Barriers are necessary for maintaining solidarity and eliminating free-rider problems, “the Achilles heel of collective activities” (Rodney Stark).

      The interface between ethnic groups may often act as effective nucleation sites for new religions. As an example of this, consider the rise of new religions in the Hindu traditions. Such religions find a substantial following amongst educated westerners. These movements emphasize teachings (“transcendental philosophy” in the case of the “Hare Krishna” movement), and have shed the village elements that are less palatable to westerners. One feature that is typically missing is the concept of caste and its associated concepts of purity and pollution. This sounds familiar!

      “The starting point probably lies in the ideas rather than the practice, and therefore the version of Hinduism that the westerner has is probably an intellectualized one” (George D. Chryssides, Exploring New Religions, New York: Continuum, 1999). In my view, this is one reason for seeing western Hare Krishna devotees as a modern parallel to early Christians. Hinduism, like Judaism, is a religion that in practice does not welcome proselytes. “Hindu” means “Indian.” It is therefore questionable whether western Hare Krishna devotees may be referred to as representatives of a Hindu sect. In the same way we should be cautious about applying the term “Jewish” to early Christians. (I do realize that the analogy is not complete, as the element of hostility and supersessionism is missing.)

      • 2011-06-14 10:22:30 GMT+0000 - 10:22 | Permalink

        First thoughts in response, for what they are worth:

        Are not the Christian ethics of Paul and the Jesus in the Gospels more closely aligned with Stoic or other non-Jewish philosophical values than with Judaism?

        It has been my understanding that the “caring for the poor and sick” image of Christianity that arguably won a lot of respect was something that took hold in times of the major plagues, as you imply, but that this is after Christiantiy had gained some “critical mass”. Its early origins and appeal are still unaddressed. (There were non-Christian societies, guilds, and other pagan religious institutions that took care of the poor and sick, too.)

        No doubt the tactic of doing good works worked as well then, as it does today, to attract some who happen to be in the right place at the right time. We can always see established religions and cults attracting new members, and losing members, too. Is this relevant to the creation of new religions, though?

        • M. W. Nordbakke
          2011-06-15 09:16:11 GMT+0000 - 09:16 | Permalink

          Thanks for constructive comments. I think you are right that taking care of the poor and sick, along with other group strategies, belong to periods considerably later than the formative years. My thoughts on the subject are premature and may not amount to much. Still, I would like to try and describe one more time what I first had in mind.

          According to J. J. Collins (Between Athens and Jerusalem, p. 270), the evidence shows that Judaism in the Roman Diaspora attracted sympathizers who stopped short of circumcision. “Much of the Roman evidence suggests a rather superstitious curiosity.” Josephus claims that the Jews of Antioch “were constantly attracting to their religious ceremonies multitudes of Greeks” (Jewish War 7.3.3 §45). Such sympathizers, who were not full converts, would have adopted Jewish ways and observances to some extent, but sooner or later they would have realized in an unequivocal way that salvation was out of the question. “No Hellenistic Jew actively discouraged circumcision” (J. J. Collins, Seers, Sibyls, and Sages, p. 233). Collins mentions a story about a Roman senator who gave his life to protect the Jews (Midrash Debarim Rabbah 2.24). The story implies that he would not have been saved if he had not been circumcised.

          Is it unthinkable that, without the prospect of salvation, some of these sympathizers may have felt they had been rejected, perhaps even betrayed? Bonds created between angry sympathizers may have become stronger than the attraction these “pious Gentiles” felt for Judaism. As I see it, this would have been the moment when “Christianity” started. (Part of what may contribute to this view is that, from Antoninus Pius onwards, Roman law criminalized the circumcision of non-Jews. Circumcision was simply no longer an option.)

          As evident from Paul’s letters, a new soteriological principle was called for. Collins actually writes that the position of Paul “cannot be equated with that of even the most liberal Hellenistic Jews… These statements [i.e., Gal. 5:2; Phil. 3:2; Gal. 5:12] are made in polemical heat, to be sure, but they are worthier of a Roman satirist than of a Hebrew born of Hebrews” (p. 234). Why not simply conclude that the statements were made by an angry Gentile?

          Is there something universal about this pattern? I know it may seem far-fetched, but Catholic and Orthodox Christians living in countries where Protestantism dominates may be aware of a phenomenon similar to the one I just described. Among those who attend mass on a regular basis, there is typically a number of Protestants, who are fascinated with the Catholic liturgy, the incense, etc., and feel at home among Catholics. They may be scared off, however, when they learn that conversion is a long process, or that their marriage is not “valid” by the standards of Canon Law. I personally know Protestants who, after frequenting Catholic churches, have finally decided to join “progressive” Catholic communities, that is, tiny sects with names such as the Nordic Catholic Church. The members regard themselves as representing “true” Catholicism. (These sects should not be confused with the so-called Old Catholic Churches or with Sedevacantism.)

          Thank you once again for helpful responses. I suppose we have to agree to disagree on this.

  • C.J. O'Brien
    2011-06-16 03:30:01 GMT+0000 - 03:30 | Permalink

    As regards Paul’s vehemence against circumcision in the Galatians and Phillippians passages, it is my understanding that what Paul opposes is the idea that one can change one’s physical state in order to aid a spiritual transformation. The body and material existence are lowly and debased, mere shadows of the spiritual perfection to be found in Christ. So it’s a polemic against adult Gentiles accepting circumcision as part of a conversion process: witness Galatians 5:3 where he continues “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” This would seem to indicate that, to Paul, if a gentile accepts circumcision, he becomes a proselyte Jew, and is then in a sense “lost” to his message and to the resurrection in Christ. Changes in state are the issue, as with slaves (don’t try to be free) and with marriage (if you’re not already, don’t do it). Perhaps this is more about an overall orientation toward the spiritual and away from the material, where circumcision acts in some way as an anchor to the material world of Jewish cult practice that actually prevents spiritual ascent.

    “Dogs and mutilators of the flesh” is pretty harsh, though. I’m just not sure I can go along with “cannot be equated with that of even the most liberal Hellenistic Jews” because I don’t think he’s saying anything about circumcision for ethnically Jewish infants, just about adult gentiles. And also it appears there’s competition for these converts, so his opponents are other Jews.

    Interesting discussion. Don’t agree to disagree just yet!

    • M. W. Nordbakke
      2011-06-16 10:32:58 GMT+0000 - 10:32 | Permalink

      “Perhaps this is more about an overall orientation toward the spiritual and away from the material, where circumcision acts in some way as an anchor to the material world of Jewish cult practice that actually prevents spiritual ascent.”

      This perspective is very useful. “The spiritualization of existing religious symbols is the medium for importing new teachings” (Stephen Finlan, Background and Content of Paul’s Atonement Metaphors, p. 60). Paul Ciholas writes, “The concept of the whole creation yearning for redemption is unique for Paul for whom man’s salvation was contingent on a total spiritualization of reality… In a totally spiritualized world the distinction between the phenomenal and the spiritual ceases” (“Knowledge and Faith,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 3, 1976, pp. 188-201).

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