Category Archives: Book Reviews & Notes

Those Hellenistic and Hellenizing Maccabees and Pharisees

We think of Hellenism as the enemy against which the Maccabees fought to the death. But consider the following . . . .

To celebrate the recapturing and re-dedication of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE the Maccabees instituted the festival of Hannukah [=Dedication]:

Judah and his brethren and the whole congregation of Israel ordained, that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their seasons year by year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev, with gladness and joy.

There is a deep irony here that Elias Bickerman identifies in his 1947 essay on the Maccabees when he writes

By instituting this festival Judah and his people declared themselves the true Israel. Their act was one of far-reaching significance, for all previous festivals were prescribed in Scripture. Never had a festival been instituted in Israel by human hand. Even the restoration of the Temple after the Babylonian Exile had not been solemnized by the establishment of a day of commemoration. Judah’s measure was therefore an innovation without precedent. On the other hand, it was in complete accord with the usage of the Gentiles. Among the Greeks it was usual for a generation, when it regarded an event in its own history as important, to believe it should be commemorated for all time. Thus Judah imitated the practice of his enemies, but at the same time incorporated it into Judaism. This was the first step along the path which was to constitute the historic mission of the Hasmoneans — the introduction of Hellenic usages into Judaism without making a sacrifice of Judaism. No one any longer celebrates the Greek festivals that served as Judah’s example. But the eight-branched candelabrum, a symbol, again, that imitates a pagan usage, is lighted on Kislev 25 the world over, in countries Judah never knew about, in Sidney as in New York, in Berlin as in Capetown. “And He saved them from the hand of him that hated them, and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy.” (The Maccabees, pp. 43f, my bolding in all quotations)

Celebrating the victory over Hellenism by following a Hellenistic practice!

More followed. In 161 BCE

Judah besieged Jerusalem and the Sanctuary a second time, and again had the day of his victory (Adar 13) entered in the calendar of festivals. This amounted to a demonstration that Judah and his followers represented the true Israel. For the first time in the history of Jacob a day in a war between brothers was declared a joyous festival. This example was later followed by the Pharisees, who upon occasion abused the function of festivals by instituting anti-Sadducee memorial days. All of these festivals, including the Day of Nicanor, have been forgotten. But the historian must point out that by instituting festivals of this nature Judah no less than the Pharisees was consciously or unconsciously imitating the example of the Greeks. (p. 54)

The ways of the world were further followed in defiance of the sacred writings when political and military alliances were made with pagan powers:

Christian theologians have often wondered at the fact that Judah, who was so zealous in the service of the Lord, made a treaty with and sought security through a pagan power, despite all the admonitions of the prophets. It must be said that there is ground for such wonder. The Maccabees had again taken a step that brought them nearer to the pagan world; they had again accommodated devout Judaism to the ways of the nations. (p. 56)

Israel quickly forgot Judah. In the Talmud he is nowhere mentioned. In Megillat Antiochus, a post-talmudic (and quite spiritless) account that was read at the Hanukkah festival in the Middle Ages, Mattathias and his grandson, John Hyrcanus — but not Judah — are the principal figures. It was only during the Middle Ages, thanks to the Hebrew compilation called Josippon, composed on the basis of the writings of Josephus, that Judah again became a hero for the Jews. (p. 57)

Judah Maccabee eventually passed away and was soon forgotten by Israel. Eight years later (152 BCE) his brother Jonathan became the High Priest even though he was not part of the priestly Zaddokite family:

For the priest to obtain his position from the secular power was a Greek custom. Once again those who fought for the Torah accommodated the law to Gentile practices, while the legitimate High Priest (by right of descent) performed the service in a rump temple in Egypt. (p. 64)

We are reminded of the Greek methods of appointing rulers (and of Russell Gmirkin’s related discussion) when we read the following section in Bickerman’s essay:

On Elul 18 (about September) of the preceding year (140 b.c.e.) “in a great congregation of priests and people and princes of the nation, and of the elders of the country,” it was determined that Simon should be “their leader and High Priest for ever.” Heretofore the legal basis for the power of the Maccabean princes had been royal appointment. Now the rule of Simon and of his successors rested upon the decision of the people itself; hence Simon assumed the new title, “Prince of the People” (Ethnarch). (p. 68)

Greek justification of conquest

read more »

The Declaration of Independence Disconnect

It’s a rainy day here where I am in Thailand and I’ve had the house to myself so with no other distractions it’s a time to return to blogging. My rss feed informs me that a number of biblical scholars have chosen today to write about (or simply quote) the Declaration of Independence as if it were a sacred document. I hate being left behind so I’ve been catching up on some American history myself and one piece of research that seems to make a lot of sense to me is Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity (2010). So here are two extracts.

The first reminds me of my undergraduate studies of interest-groups behind Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and that have continued to hold power up to today:

For more than two hundred years, citizens of the United States have followed Timothy Dwight in proclaiming their nation “the favorite land of Heaven,” a place of “peace, purity and felicity.” The rolling cadences of the Declaration of Independence, we insist, proclaim us a land of liberty and equality, our Constitution, a government of law and justice. But, shadowing the image the founders sought to project as wise and disinterested statesmen, observers caught sight of the hidden figures of speculators, price gougers, embezzlers, deceivers, and rogues.

The economically and politically discontented — Daniel Shays’s hardscrabble farmers, the Whiskey rebels of western Pennsylvania, Antifederalist critics — were not the only ones to see the new nation’s mercantile and political elite in this light. Many European Americans across the economic and regional spectrum continued to hold dear the civic ideals of classic republicanism: its fears of credit and speculation, its commitment to disinterested heroism and Spartan discipline. Others espoused the commercial republican celebration of industry and frugality.

Both groups watched with mounting ill ease as the national elite grew increasingly at home with the new ways of fiscal capitalism, their embrace of spectacles and the spectacular, of risk and, yes, deception. (p. 414, my bolding and formatting)

The second extract from the conclusion to the book hits a nerve — social divisions, rhetorical and literal violence — that is far more exposed today than it was when the book was first published:  read more »

Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz in Discordant Dialogue

harris-nawazTowards the end of the discussion between Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz in Islam and the Future of Tolerance Nawaz says to Harris:

I appreciate your recognition that your wording has often contributed to this “clash of civilizations” narrative. . . . [W]e are duty bound to try and minimize it [i.e. the tendency of many people to hear only what they expect to hear from a given speaker] through careful wording, so thank you. (pp. 115-116, my own bolding in all quotations)

It appears that Maajid Nawaz has just heard Sam Harris admit that he has carelessly fanned the popular myth of the “clash of civilizations” scenario, the popular view that Islam and the West are incompatible and conflict is inevitable when they meet. Unfortunately it seems to me on reading this dialogue that Nawaz himself has at times tended to hear “only what he expected to hear” from Harris in his sincere efforts to establish a constructive dialogue.

But first, note that Harris truly did admit that sometimes he had contributed to that unhelpful “clash of civilizations” narrative:

Another thing I think we should discuss is the tension between honestly confronting the problems of conservative Islam, Islamism, and jihadism and feeding the narrative that “the West is at war with Islam.” I admit that I have often contributed to this narrative myself, and rather explicitly. (p 113)

Perhaps Harris is recollecting what he wrote in The End of Faith on pages 109

quote_begin

We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so. It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been “hijacked” by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran. . .

quote_end

.

and 130:

quote_begin

Samuel Huntington has famously described the conflict between Islam and the West as a “clash of civilizations.” Huntington observed that wherever Muslims and non-Muslims share a border, armed conflict tends to arise. Finding a felicitous phrase for an infelicitous fact, he declared that “Islam has bloody borders.” . . . .

One need only read the Koran to know, with something approaching mathematical certainty, that all truly devout Muslims will be “convinced of the superiority of their culture, and obsessed with the inferiority of their power,” just as Huntington alleges. And this is all that his thesis requires.

quote_end

That is an unambiguous assertion that (1) we are at war with effectively the entire Muslim world and (2) bloodshed is (with near mathematical certainty) the inevitable consequence when our Western culture meets a Muslim culture.

But no, that’s not what Sam Harris says he meant when he is talking with Maajid Nawaz — and that raises the question of whether Maajid, with the very best of intentions, was too eager to stop hearing after he heard what he wanted to hear. Here is how Harris followed his remarks in Islam and the Future of Tolerance: read more »

What Biblical Scholars Say About Historical Jesus Studies

Dale C. Allison (November 25, 1955-) is an American New Testament scholar, historian of Early Christianity, and Christian theologian who for years served as Errett M. Grable Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He is currently the Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. — Wikipedia (2nd Oct 2015)

historicalchristI like reading Dale Allison. He is open and forthright about his methods. When some biblical scholars indignantly insist that their field is faith-neutral (after all it includes atheists and agnostics and Jews!) and that they are as on the level as any other historians could possibly be, I wonder if they have ostracized Dale Allison from their community.

Allison acknowledges the circularity at the heart of historical Jesus arguments and that the Gospel narratives are largely midrashic parables. But he is a serious historian nonetheless (according to the lights of historical studies within theological circles) and does the best he can to know “the historical Jesus” despite the challenges thrown up by the nature of the sources:

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned. (See Dale Allison on Memory and Historical Approaches to the Gospels)

In The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus Allison clarifies what he means by the above:

What matters is not whether we can establish the authenticity of any of the relevant traditions or what the criteria of authenticity may say about them, but rather the pattern that they, in concert, create. It is like running into students who enjoy telling tales about their absent-minded professor. A number of those tales may be too tall to earn our belief; but if there are several of them, they are good evidence that the professor is indeed absent-minded.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 839-841). Kindle Edition.

(Think that “historical method” through for a few moments.)

With thanks to Anthony Le Donne for alerting me to Dale Allison’s The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus here are a few more of Allison’s insights worthy of note:

I have never been without theological motives or interests. Until a few years ago, however, I had not attempted to pursue those interests with much diligence or to examine my motives with much care. Recent circumstances have pushed me out of my historical-critical pose. After accepting a teaching post at a Protestant theological seminary, I soon discovered that future pastors are not interested in undertaking historical labor without the prospect of theological reward. In order, then, to keep my audience, I was compelled to complement my critical inquiries with theological deliberations.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 20-23). Kindle Edition.

Don’t misunderstand. Dale Allison firmly believes he is professional enough to recognize (at least in hindsight) when his historical reconstructions of Jesus have been guided by theological interests as the following quotations will demonstrate. Before making those acknowledgments, however, he draws on his experiences in the wider field to recognize what his peers are also doing.

In recent years we have seen works by Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham arguing for the earliest “Christians” attributing to Jesus a very high divine Christology from the very beginning of their faith. If you have wondered if these professors might be influenced by their own conservative faith, Allison encourages your suspicions. He tells us we can also predict the personal beliefs of scholars who flatly reject any form of high christology:  read more »

Suffering Messiah Is a Very Jewish Idea

Daniel Boyarin
Daniel Boyarin

Daniel Boyarin is a Jewish scholar of some repute. His work is worth consideration alongside what often amounts to little more than Christian apologetics thinly disguised as disinterested scholarship. In The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ Boyarin argues that the Christian belief in a suffering messiah who atones for our sins was far from some bizarre offence to Jews but in fact was itself an established pre-Christian Jewish interpretation of the books of Isaiah and Daniel.

Morton Smith’s argument is that the offence of the cross was Paul’s claim that it meant the end of the law, not that the messiah had been crucified.

“But what about Paul writing to the Corinthians about the cross of Christ being an offence to the Jews?” you ask. And in response I will step aside and allow a professor of ancient history at Columbia University, Morton Smith, to explain that most Christians have badly misunderstood that passage: see Was Paul Really Persecuted for Preaching a Crucified Christ?

So this post will look at Daniel Boyarin’s argument for the very Jewish (pre-Christian) understanding of the suffering messiah.

The idea of the Suffering Messiah has been “part and parcel of Jewish tradition from antiquity to modernity,” writes Boyarin, and therefore the common understanding that such a belief marked a distinct break between Christianity and Judaism is quite mistaken.

The evidence for this assertion? This post looks at the evidence of Isaiah 53. (Earlier posts have glanced at Boyarin’s discussion of Daniel in this connection.) Christians have on the whole looked at Isaiah 53 as a prophecy of the suffering Messiah. Fundamentalists have viewed the chapter as proof-text that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah). Jews, it has been said, reject the Christian interpretation and believe the passage is speaking metaphorically about the people of Israel collectively. Before continuing, here is the passage itself from the American Standard Version:  read more »

Hector Avalos Responds to Robert Myles’ Review of The Bad Jesus

The following response by Dr Hector Avalos to Dr Robert Myles‘ review of The Bad Jesus was originally posted on Debunking Christianity and is reposted here with permission.

Dr Robert Myles and The Bad Jesus:  An Androcentric Defense of Family/Household Abandonment?

By Dr. Hector Avalos

Dr. Robert Myles of the University of Auckland (New Zealand) has reviewed The Bad Jesus in two parts available here and here.

He is the first biblical scholar to perform such a review of The Bad Jesus on the blogosphere. I was especially interested in his comments because he specializes in New Testament and Christian origins, as well as in Marxism and critical theory.

cov266Myles is also the author of The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014), which treats a few of the subjects I do.

That book offers many provocative observations, and I recommend it to anyone interested in issues of poverty and homelessness in the Bible. His book came to my attention too far into the editing process of my book, and I did not include it in my discussions. I did read it by the time I wrote this post.

Although Myles’ review raises some interesting questions, it ultimately does not represent my arguments very accurately or address them very effectively.  I will demonstrate that his review actually is, in part, an androcentric defense of the abandonment of families by Jesus’ disciples. I will address the objections he raises against my methodology and my discussion of Jesus’ view of abandoning families, especially in the case of the men he called to be his disciples in Mark 1:16-20 because that is one main example Myles chose from my book.

MYLES AND METHODOLOGY

41zpIKZfb-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_To understand how Myles misrepresents or misunderstands the purpose and method of my book, it may be useful to begin with the introductory summary of  the book that I provided on pages 8-9 of The Bad Jesus:

  1. Biblical scholarship is still primarily a religionist apologetic enterprise despite claims to be engaging in historico-critical and descriptive scholarship.
  1. A more specific Christian orientation is clearly revealed in the manner in which the ethics of Jesus are predominantly viewed as benign and paradigmatic, even among supposedly secular academic scholars.
  1. However, many of the fundamental ethical principles announced or practiced by Jesus actually would be antithetical to those we otherwise describe as ‘acceptable’ or ‘good’ by some of the most widely accepted standards of ethics today.
  1. Accordingly, such a predominantly benign view of Jesus’ ethics signals a continuing acceptance of Jesus as divine or as morally supra-human, and not as the flawed human being who should be the real subject of historico-critical study.

Myles diverts his attention from my stated purposes to a critique of neoconservative or capitalists ideologies. Such critiques of neoconservatism or modern capitalism may be sound, but they are not the most relevant to my argument about how Jesus is treated in New Testament ethics. According to Myles:

Methodologically, Avalos’ book is weak, which is unfortunate as I think the broader argument has a lot of merit. Avalos self-identifies as a a [sic] New Atheist. This perspective holds that theism is generally destructive and unethical. It is embodied for example in the writings of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. What Avalos doesn’t explore is how this movement has also tended to form strong associations with a neoconservative political ideology, perhaps expressed most triumphantly by the late Christopher Hitchens. In and of itself this might not appear overly relevant, but its importance will become obvious shortly.

There are two problems with this criticism. First, Myles left out that I identified myself with a “Second Wave” of New Atheism on p. 15 of The Bad Jesus:

So, perhaps, one can view atheist biblical scholars as ‘Second Wave New Atheists’ to contrast with the non-biblical scholars that dominated the first wave. Readers should view the present work as the first systematic New Atheist challenge to New Testament ethics by a biblical scholar.

Indeed, I explicitly named Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris as being part of that First Wave from which I was differentiating myself.

Any ideological critiques he launches against Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens may not apply to the Second Wave, and don’t apply to me.

My agreement with the New Atheism was qualified as follows: “Insofar as I believe that theism is itself unethical and has the potential to destroy our planet, I identify myself with what is called ‘the New Atheism” (p. 13). Myles’ review erroneously assumes that I identify with the New Atheism insofar as every other ideological or capitalist feature he identifies.

read more »

What Did Love Mean to Jesus? Pt 2, or How Can Love Be COMMANDED? (Avalos and The Bad Jesus)

Assyrian king's treaty commanding love from his vassal.
Assyrian king’s treaty commanding love from his vassal.

I am overviewing only one chapter in The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics. There is much more to Hector Avalos’s critique. Some of the points I touch on here are elaborated more fully in subsequent chapters. (I am looking forward to catching up with those subsequent chapters though I probably won’t be able to post on them individually. See my earlier post for a list of the topics covered. Note that Avalos’s chapter 3 concerning Jesus’ command to hate has been raised in part in earlier publications and touched on in my 2010 post The Dark Side of Jesus: His call to hate one’s family to be his disciple: note also the more extensive depth in which this theme is tackled in the contents of The Bad Jesus.)

The most striking point for me about Avalos’s analysis of the concept of love as found in the Bible is his explanation of how it pertains more to an antiquated master-slave/lord-vassal relationship (or to use Thomas L. Thompson’s metaphor, a Mafia Godfather family relationship).

Far from being mutual or self-less, agape [=love]may describe behavior that entails violence, not to mention other hierarchical behaviors. Part of the reason for the change [towards the realization of this lord-vassal context of love] is that previous scholars had been too eager to divorce the New Testament use of agape from corresponding words and concepts in the Hebrew Bible. After all, Christianity was often thought to be bringing something radically new.

The word ‘love’ often designates the attitude and set of behaviors that a Lord expects from his vassal in the ancient Near East. (p. 39, my bolding in all quotations)

Avalos gives us a glimpse of an ancient Assyrian “treaty” (seventh century BCE) with a subject king:

(You swear) that you will love Ashurbanipal, the crown prince, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, your lord as (you do) yourselves. (See Wiseman, “The Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon”)

The full treaties are of interest beyond the snippets quoted by Avalos. Notice below how the obligations they contain sound so very much like both the directives of the Bible’s “loving God” as well as “ideal love” in our sense of the word — if only they were not part of the master-slave “contract”:

You will not seek any other king or any other lord . . .

(You swear) that you . . . will die (for your lord). You will seek to do for him that which is good. That you will not do to him (anything which) is not good. . . .

(You swear) that you will love Ashurbanipal, the crown prince, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, your lord as (you do) yourselves. That . . . you will not slander his brothers, his mother’s sons. That you will not speak anything that is not good about them . . .

Avalos asks readers to compare these sorts of sentiments with others we find attributed to Jesus. Disciples are to love God more than themselves, to die for Him, to have no other loyalties apart from their devotion to their Lord — to the extent of hating all prior loyalties such as parents — and, of course, to speak no evil. And curses are pronounced upon those who disobey just as they were threatened against the Assyrian vassals.

A very influential 1963 article by William Moran, “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy” (CBQ 25.1 1963 pp. 77-87) is important for Avalos’s argument. I quote sections from that article directly:

Love in Deuteronomy is a love that can be commanded. It is also a love intimately related to fear and reverence. Above all, it is a love which must be expressed in loyalty, in service, and in unqualified obedience to the demands of the Law. For to love God is, in answer to a unique claim (6:4), to be loyal to him (11:1, 22; 30:20), to walk in his ways (10:12.; 11:22; 19:9; 30:16), to keep his commandments (10:12; 11:1,22; 19:9), to do them (11:22; 19:9), to heed them or his voice (11:13; 30:16), to serve him (10:12.; 11:1,13). It is, in brief, a love defined by and pledged in the covenant — a covenantal love.

Moran pointed towards implications this has for the teachings of Jesus in the gospels:

If . . . the old sovereign-vassal terminology of love is as relevant as we think it is, then what a history lies behind the Christian test of true agape — “If you love me, keep my commandments”!

read more »

What Did Love Mean to Jesus? Pt 1 (Hector Avalos’s The Bad Jesus)

“What is love?” asked the older Sunday school student.

The professor replied, “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more.

Alas, the student did not get the joke. The professor tried to turn the tables with another song lyric: “I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.

This [divinatory] use of the scriptures fed into rabbinic halakhic hermeneutics . . . . [I]t was established by the rabbis (a) that scripture was a self-explaining system, and (b) that its statement of the law was incomplete. Hence by means of a system of deductive and inferential rules, the implicit meaning of the scriptural system could be made explicit, and the entire will of God be made known. In an analogous way, the diviners of Babylon had for centuries compiled copious lists of signs and their meanings, based, apparently, on experience. If rabbinic exegesis, then, was in a sense mantic, it shared with the ancient omen-lists of Babylon a quasi-scientific character, though one based not on collections of recorded cases but a set of exegetical rules. (From P.R. Davies’ On the Origins of Judaism, p.52, cited by D. Boyarim in his RBL review. See also P.R. Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, p.146f)

Being the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature the professor ceased playing with rock song lyrics and required the answer to come from 1 Corinthians 13. This segued into what was sometimes a mantic or divinatory reading of the passage. Thus to render this ancient passage relevant to modern and personal interests there were times when they interpreted it the way ancient priests read meaning from the entrails of a sacrificed sheep or the way astrologers have always interpreted the heavenly lights. Apply the rule that scripture is a self-explaining system and see what meanings emerge when the word “love” is treated as a cipher for God, or for oneself. (The semantic game itself is flawed, however, because 1 Corinthians does not “define” the word for “love” per se; rather, it offers a series of things love “does” or how it is expressed.)

A more reliable way to understand what the Bible means by “love” is to take Professor Hector Avalos‘s approach in the opening chapter of The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics and examine the way the word is used in the biblical literature as well as in the literature of the wider cultural context (Near Eastern, Greco-Roman) of those scriptural texts.

Though Avalos’s focus is on the figure of Jesus his discussion embraces the wider context of the cultural and literary heritage as it comes together in the words attributed to Christianity’s beloved Son of God. Avalos expresses some dismay that so many biblical scholars (and not only Christian ones) routinely attribute to Jesus an ethic of love that was astonishingly advanced for his day. If these scholars were as well informed about the wider world of ideas from which the Bible emerged as they are about the Bible itself they could scarcely make such claims, Avalos argues.

Take Jesus’ teaching to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Many of us know that this is not really original but is really a citation of Leviticus 19:18. Jesus was quoting the Old Testament. Avalos reminds readers that “your neighbour” in the Leviticus passage

is actually best understood as ‘your fellow Israelite’.

For the details he refers to Harry Orlinsky’s essay, “Nationalism-Universalism and Internationalism in Ancient Israel” in Translating and Understanding the Old Testament; Essays in Honor of Herbert Gordon May (1970), and to John Meier’s fourth volume in his Marginal Jew series, Law and Love (2009).

Indeed, Lev. 19:18 does not obligate universal love, but, in fact, is premised on privileging love for fellow Israelites over love for non-Israelites. (p. 33)

Attempts to reinterpret the passage to make it conform to ideals of universal brotherhood are without “sound linguistic parallels” and “supporting documentation” — and are entirely speculative.

Epictetus
Epictetus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not that the ancient world was bereft of the concept of “unconditional universal humanity”. The moral teaching of early Christianity was “conditioned by adherence to a particular religion.” To find “modern” ideas of the universality of human kinship one must turn to the predominant philosophy in the Roman world, Stoicism. (The link is to Wikipedia’s notes on the social philosophy of Stoicism.) Avalos cites various scholars including the following (although I have quoted my own selections from them):

In short, Stoic theory is decidedly universalistic in its scope and makes no ethical differentiation between particular groups of people. (Runar M. Thorsteinsson, Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality, p. 192)

Thorsteinsson certainly grants that various moral teachings in the New Testament epistles enjoin a peaceful disposition towards society at large,

However, a closer examination of the texts shows . . . there is a fundamental division between those within and those outside the Christ-believing community. (p. 205. The reference here is specifically to 1 Peter and the epistle of Romans.)

Love for enemies — it’s so BC

read more »

For Whom Were the Gospels Written?

the-gospels-for-all-christiansBefore Richard Bauckham wrote Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006) he had challenged another common assumption among his peers with The Gospels for All Christians (1998). Since the 1960s it had been the common assumption that each of the canonical gospels had been written for a local religious community. Each gospel had been written for a small “group of churches . . . homogeneous in composition and circumstances.”

Each gospel was generally thought to have addressed the particular situation facing its community. Accordingly the gospels could be read as allegories that told us more about those communities than they did about the events in the life of Jesus.

  • James Louis Martyn led the way in 1968 with History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel. He argued that the Gospel’s account of the excommunication from the synagogue of the man healed of blindness was about “the formal separation of the church and synagogue” occasioned by the decision of the rabbis at Jamnia to reformulate a standard curse against heretics to include Christians in the late first century.
  • Theodore Weeden followed in 1971 with Mark: Traditions in Conflict which persuaded many that when the Gospel of Mark characterized the disciples as completely failing to understand Christ it was in order to criticize Christians in the author’s own day who taught that Christ called them to perform signs and miracles to demonstrate the truth of the gospel. The author represented those in his community who believed Jesus called his followers to suffer and die with him.
  • Philip Esler, 1987, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts, finds in the image of the “flock” in both Luke and in Acts (the church at Ephesus) a symbol of  a small church that is beset by dangers both within and without. The implication (as described by Bauckham) is that the author is addressing that one small troubled community and not the entire church.
  • Andrew Overman, 1990, Matthew’s Gospel and Formative Judaism, explained the gospel as an expression of the struggle of a Galilean Jewish community in conflict with another Jewish sect moving towards what was to become rabbinic Judaism.

What grounds does Richard Bauckham offer for us to think that the gospels were not written for local churches but rather for “all Christians” in all churches everywhere? Or at least a very generalized Christian audience wherever its churches were to be found. read more »

The God and Dying Messiah Debate Preceded Christianity

In my last post I finished off with some reservations about Boyarin’s interpretation of the two heavenly figures in Daniel 7 as two deities. This post lets Boyarin explain a little more what he thinks is going on here.

We have on the one hand the two figures, one like a son of man and the other an Ancient of Days, in heaven. Thrones are set for both. The Ancient of Days is clearly God; yet the one like a son of man enters upon the clouds — an evident sign that he is also a divinity.

Against this view stands the continuation of the story in Daniel 7. The one like the son of man appears in the train of four symbolic beasts that represent gentile kingdoms. The vision ends — after the appearance of the one like the son of man — with the downfall of those kingdoms and the rise of a kingdom of the holy people. From this perspective it seems clear that the one like the son of man must be symbolic after all.

Daniel 7:15-28 (NIV)

15 “I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. 16 I approached one of those standing there and asked him the meaning of all this.

“So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: 17 ‘The four great beasts are four kings that will rise from the earth. 18 But the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever.’

19 “Then I wanted to know the meaning of the fourth beast, which was different from all the others and most terrifying, with its iron teeth and bronze claws—the beast that crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. 20 I also wanted to know about the ten horns on its head and about the other horn that came up, before which three of them fell—the horn that looked more imposing than the others and that had eyes and a mouth that spoke boastfully. 21 As I watched, this horn was waging war against the holy people and defeating them, 22 until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the holy people of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom.

23 “He gave me this explanation: ‘The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will appear on earth. It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it. 24 The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom. After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings. 25 He will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws. The holy people will be delivered into his hands for a time, times and half a time.

26 “‘But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. 27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’

28 “This is the end of the matter. I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.”

Boyarin continues with the imaginary argument between Aphrahat (see previous post) and his Jewish opponents:

Those Jews who were Apharat’s opponents could clearly have retorted, then: “Is a heavenly being or junior God subject to oppression by a Seleucid king who forces him to abandon his Holy Days and his Law for three and a half years? Absurd! The Son of Man must be a symbol for the children of Israel! (p. 43, my bolding, as always)

So we have a quandary. Boyarin arbitrates:

read more »

Room for Two Gods in the Book of Daniel

jewishgospelsHere is an argument for interpreting Daniel 7’s scenario of “one like a son of man/Son of Man” coming on clouds to the Ancient of Days as a reference to two divinities. It’s from Daniel Boyarin’s small book, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (2012). But be warned. I suspect many New Testament scholars would not agree with Boyarin. So who is this Boyarin? Jack Miles introduces him in the Foreword. (We met Jack Miles in an earlier post on gospel genre and narrative here in Vridar.)

“Daniel Boyarin,” a prominent conservative rabbi confided to me not long ago, “is one of the two or three greatest rabbinic scholars in the world,” and — dropping his voice a notch — “possibly even the greatest.” The observation was given in confidence because, quite clearly, it troubled the rabbi to think that someone with Boyarin’s views might have truly learned Talmudic grounds for them. As a Christian, let me confide that his views can be equally troubling for Christians who appreciate the equally grounded originality of his reading of our New Testament. . . . .

His achievement is . . . a bold rereading of the rabbis and the evangelists alike, the results of which are so startling that once you — you, Jew, or you, Christian — get what he is up to, you suddenly read even the most familiar passages of your home scripture in a new light. (p. ix)

Let’s begin with the passage in question, Daniel 7:9-14 (NIV)

9 “As I looked,

“thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze.

10 A river of fire was flowing,
coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
and the books were opened.

. . . . . 

13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man [a human being] coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

So we have two figures here: an old one and another with the appearance of a young human being.

read more »

The Pre-Christian Jewish Logos

Probably most people with more than a casual knowledge of Christianity recognise the following words as quintessentially Christian yet are completely unaware that when first penned these words were Jewish to the core:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

Daniel Boyarin explains in Border Lines how these words came to be formulated through a Jewish literary process he calls “midrash” and how they are embedded in a first and second century CE Jewish religious culture that had room in which perhaps most Jews assumed a belief in what we might loosely call a second God or a Logos theology. This second God was variously known as Logos (Greek for “Word”), Memra (Aramaic for “Word”), Sophia (“Wisdom”), Metatron or Yahoel. Not that all these names are equivalent. They aren’t. They are a mix of genders for a start. But Daniel Boyarin conflates them all for purposes of his argument because he believes they are “genetically, as well as typologically, related.” (p. 275, and see also the previous post on the wave theory model of religious ideas.)

I’ll try to explain in a future post the actual midrashic process by which the author of the Gospel of John appears to have woven together passages from Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8 (and why he did this) to produce the above opening verses.

Where did the Logos come from?

Erwin Goodenough gave a definitive answer to that question in his 1968 book The Theology of Justin Martyr: An Investigation into the Conceptions of Early Christian Literature and Its Hellenistic and Judaistic Influences:

The Logos then in all circles but the Stoic . . . was a link of some kind which connected a transcendent Absolute with the world and humanity. The Logos came into general popularity because of the wide-spread desire to conceive of God as transcendent and yet immanent at the same time. The term Logos in philosophy was not usually used as a title or a unique attributed of God, but rather as the most important single name among many applicable to the effulgent Power of God which reasonably had shaped and now governs the world. (pp. 140-1)

Boyarin goes a step further and stresses

how thoroughly first-century Judaism had absorbed (and even co-produced) these central “Middle Platonic” theological notions. . . . The idea that the Logos or Sophia (Wisdom, and other variants as well) is the site of God’s presence in the world — indeed, the notion of God’s Word or Wisdom as a mediator figure — was a very widespread one in the world of first- and even second- century Judaic thought. (p. 112, my bolding)

Here is where Boyarin (and a good many other scholars of early Jewish thought) parts company with many scholars of the New Testament. (It seems to me that the latter have a tendency to find ways to dismiss the relevance of Jewish ideas if and where they rob early Christianity of its distinctiveness.) Yet the evidence for first century Jews being familiar with

  • the notion of a great being alongside God himself and acting as God’s vice-regent,
  • or with the idea that such a figure was actually a hypostasis or alternative manifestation of God,
  • or with earthly notables like Adam, Israel, Enoch, Moses and others having pre-existing spiritual forms with especially exalted status in heaven and to which their earthly counterparts returned at death,

is very strong. These sorts of ideas were apparently common in first century Judaism.

read more »

A Lesson from Scholars of Judaism, Linguistics and Physics

ripplesIt’s been a long break from blogging for me. I can scarcely recall even writing some of the posts I have returned to see here under my name. But here I am living in a new unit and with a clean bill of health from a doctor so time to resume.

Here’s something I found interesting in the early pages of Daniel Boyarin‘s Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (one of the works I was catching up with while absent). Boyarin is discussing a framework through which we can compare various religious groups. It was of interest to me because it led me to think of alternative ways of comparing other ideas, beliefs and literature, especially when exploring the questions related to Christian origins.

Think of the squabbles over whether or not the death and resurrection of Jesus owes anything to myths of Osiris, Heracles, Romulus and others. Or over whether miracles of Jesus are derived ultimately from tales in Jewish Scripture and if so does that mean there is no room for their derivation from oral tradition? Or whether aspects of Hellenistic and Latin literature inspired any of the gospel narratives? When we think about comparisons in these fields it is easy to default to family tree models. Each tree can only produce variations of its own kind (whatever that happens to be) and that’s that.

Boyarin is surveying the panorama the Judaeo-Christian landscape as it was in the second and third centuries with Marcionism and its utter rejection of anything Jewish (Scriptures included) in its Christianity at one far end of the horizon and many Jews who had not the slightest interest in anything to do with Jesus at the opposing end, with every permutation and graduation of belief systems imaginable in between. Instead of the family tree model he proposes a linguistic metaphor — wave theory.

Wave theory posits that linguistic similarity is not necessarily the product of a common origin but may be the product of convergence of different dialects spoken in contiguous areas, dialects that are, moreover, not strictly bounded and differentiated from each other but instead shade one into the other. Innovations at any one point spread like waves created when a stone is thrown into a pond, intersecting with other such waves produced in other places leading to the currently observed patterns of differentiation and similarity. 

So how does this differ from the family tree model?

read more »

The Confessional Epilogue: Christians and Acharya

Scholarship motivated by confessional interests

Most of us are familiar with the confessional reflections that so many biblical scholars drop in at the close of their scholarly works on Jesus. Sometimes this confessional is found in the prologue or preface as well. It is like a little prayer uttered by the devout believer thanking and praising the Lord for the academic study he has produced. It is particularly obnoxious when found in the dedication of a formal higher degree thesis. “Obnoxious” because it betrays an interest and motivation that is not entirely scholarly: it is scholarship motivated by confessional interests.

Examples (my bold emphasis throughout):

  • “Indeed, for Christians, the unending conversation about Jesus is the most important conversation there is. He is for us the decisive revelation of God. . . .” (last paragraph of Borg’s Jesus)
  • “And yet, despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only one worth dreaming. . . .” (Allison, last paragraph of Jesus of Nazareth)
  • “Jesus will always be for me the way to God. . . .” (Spong, last paragraph of Liberating the Gospels)
  • “For a believing Christian both the life of the Word of God and the text of the Word of God are alike a graded process of historical reconstruction. . . . If you cannot believe in something produced by reconstruction, you may have nothing left to believe in.” (Crossan, final words in The Historical Jesus)

ChristInEgyptAnd so on.

Confessional statements and astrotheology

So it occurred to me that if I am correct in coming to realize that D.M. Murdock (Acharya S) is just as devoted to a religious view of Christian origins and writes with a view to sharing her belief system in the same way, then in her more neutral and “academically” minded books I should find the same confessional statements, most probably in the epilogue.

I have read sections of Christ in Egypt before but this time I turned to conclusion and here is what I found:

read more »