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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mark Smith: From Scriptures to Bible

We are now reaching the end of Mark S. Smith's The Memoirs of God, but Smith adds a “postscript” - Biblical Memory between Religion, Theology and History - in which he attempts to address some of the issues that he has inevitably raised in the course of the book but has not yet discussed. Smith's concerns center around the nature of revelation.

Biblical Narrative and Systematic Theology

Smith begins by noting that, in the Bible, Israel generated a “master narrative” of God's relations with man, running from Genesis through the books of Kings. As this narrative came to be recognized as “scripture,” became “the Bible,” it was also transformed from Israel's traditions into what Smith has termed the “memoirs of God.” But this new development could not hide the past, nor the highly complex way in which the individual narratives came into being and were later incorporated into a master narrative:
This master narrative was modified as it went on, with older modifications overwritten by later ones. The modified biblical narrative often left vestiges of older versions of the past, issuing in a text with a dialectic between the master narrative and other earlier, or even contemporary, conflicting versions. Israel's representation of its past in the Bible also incorporates competition and compromise over the meaning of that past. What becomes recognized as revelation is more than a single revelation about the past. (161)
Obviously, to enshrine such narratives as the “word of God” presents theoretical problems, not least of which is: what could God have intended by this procedure, and how are humans to decide among the conflicting versions and representations of God's relationship with man?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mark Smith: Memory and Amnesia in the Israelite Scriptures

Chapter Four of Mark Smith's The Memoirs of God, “The Formation of Israel's Concepts of God: Collective Memory and Amnesia in the Bible,” is dense and difficult. Smith is attempting to deal with the issue of historicity in the Israelite scriptures:
What are we biblical scholars dealing with in the Bible, what or who are we as we deal with it, and what means can we deploy to plumb the difficulties in these questions and to assess these issues? In this chapter, I focus on the last of these questions. In particular, I wish to advance the claim that the academic study of collective memory offers important intellectual help for understanding the biblical representations of Israel's past. (125)
This is a complicated topic, and at times Smith stumbles in selecting his terminology, but I believe he is very much on the right track.

1. Collective Memory and Amnesia

Smith begins by setting out two fundamental points about the Bible's treatment of the past.
First, the Bible is not a record of “events”... “What we have are various witnesses to an event.” (quoting Brevard Childs) ... Second, the Bible is teaching (Torah in Hebrew), much of it religious in character. Ancient Israelites ... as well as modern Biblical scholars, largely recognize the Bible's pedagogical purpose, and this teaching function extends to the Bible's narratives of the past. (126)
Smith refers to “the Bible's treatment of the past” and “the Bible's narratives of the past.” There are several problems with this choice of words, most of which problems Smith later recognizes to varying degrees. While the “Bible” is for us a book, its constituent parts were mostly not written to be part of a book—they were themselves books that were self contained units. The authors and redactors of some, but not all, of the various books that constitute what we call the Bible do in some cases treat of past events--or sometimes of events better described as set in the past. Whether the narratives do in fact describe actual events is quite another matter, as is the question of the original authors' intent. Other books, particularly some of the prophetic books, treat of what, for the prophet, were current or contemporaneous events, although at times also referring to the past. Therefore, while the redactors who formed what we now know as the “Bible” may well have had a view regarding the historicity of the narratives in the Biblical books that treat of events set in the past, that viewpoint must be carefully distinguished from the intentions of the actual authors of those books.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Mark Smith: Monotheism and the Structures of Divinity

In Chapter Three of The Memoirs of God, "Biblical Monotheism and the Structures of Divinity," Mark Smith attempts to explain the development of monotheism in Israel, a process which we have touched upon repeatedly in this examination of Israelite religion. As Smith observes in his introductory remarks, a major difficulty in dealing with this aspect of Israelite religion is that "monotheism was a development in Israelite religion that was read back into its earlier religious tradition." Briefly, monotheism developed within an elite segment of the Israelite population during the late monarchy. However, from the perspective of these relatively late thinkers, monotheism was read back into earlier times, although the writings of the Israelite scriptures clearly preserve important information that shows that earlier Israelite religion was not monotheistic. As a result, the Israelite scriptures must be approached with caution in order to separate out genuine early traditions from later interpretative developments based on Judaic monotheism. Later Christians unfortunately adopted late Jewish interpretations of the early traditions uncritically, as well as reading Christian meanings back into the Israelite scriptures. Smith's approach to this issue views the development of monotheism as part of a "survival strategy" for Israel, one intended as a response to historical challenges to Israel's continued survival--in particular, the fall of the dual kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Mark Smith: Challenges To Israel During The Biblical

Challenges To Israel During The Biblical Period

Pre-Monarchic Challenges

We have seen that the early origins of Israel were the result of a basically peaceful development, involving a migration of farming populations from relatively nearby regions to the lightly populated highlands of Canaan. The infusion of tribal elements from the south (Midian) with their strong influence on religion and certain social structures was complementary to the "anti-feudal" attitudes of the indigenous population, and gave rise to a distinct Israelite identity. This distinct Israelite social, as opposed to political, identity was recognized as early as the victory Stela of Pharaoh Merneptah in 1208 B.C. The Egyptian inscription makes a careful distinction between the states or political entities that the Pharaoh defeated and Israel, which is categorized as a "people": a social reality but not one that was organized as a state or political entity.

As time went on and the population increased, two areas of conflict emerged for Israelite society, both of which are described in Judges: on the one hand intertribal tensions and feuds between Israelite and allied groupings, and conflicts with both more advanced coastal societies (primarily Philistines) as well as tribal groupings from the desert fringes (Midianites, Arab tribes, Amelekites, etc.) who combined trading and caravaneering with raiding. The informal tribal levy, the traditional response to such problems, is portrayed as effective in the case of intra-Israelite disputes, but we may well believe that as Israel became a more cohesive social reality the need was felt for a formalized authority to control the more destructive aspects of intertribal disputes. The informal response of the tribal levy proved clearly ineffective against external threats of a more organized character, particularly that of the Philistines. The Philistine threat was probably the most significant factor that led to the limited kingship of Saul--limited in that it was largely confined to the more advanced Josephite tribal groupings of the central highlands and Transjordan. Judah and the Galilean regions do not appear to have been part of Saul's kingdom. However, with Saul's death in battle against the Philistines the weaknesses of Saul's kingship were clear: it was still based in tribal loyalties and lacked the cohesive organization of a true state that was needed to withstand external threats of the type that Israel faced. (MG 46-50)


The Challenges of the United Monarchy

The Israelite response to this challenge came in two stages. First, a charismatic warlord, David, arose in the sparsely populated and rugged hill country of Judah, centered around Hebron. David gained valuable experience both in Saul's army as well as in the service of the Philistine city state of Gath, and he parleyed this experience into an independent military power base.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Mark Smith: History and the Israelite Scriptures

We are now at a point from which we can attempt a synthesis of these disparate reflections on the Religion of Israel. I will do so by working through Mark S. Smith's The Memoirs of God over as many as four separate posts. I have argued that the essence of what Christianity has termed 'revelation' in the pre-Christian past is the development of Israelite religion toward a true monotheism centered on God whose identity--in so far as it is knowable to human reason--is that of creator. From that standpoint Peter Machinist's comments regarding Smith's book are suggestive:
[Smith's book] is not simply a study of the history and religion of ancient Israel nor of [its literature], but of the complicated interface between [Israel's history and religion]--of how the Bible chose to remember the history and religion of the Israel that gave it birth. As Smith compellingly argues, the formation of memory is indeed the central characteristic of the Biblical text, and in a wide-ranging provocative discussion, he allows us to see the multiple ways in which the Biblical authors struggled to make sense of their past and to define its ongoing significance for them.
Obviously, Machinist's language is somewhat anachronistic, in that the vehicle of revelation--seen as the development of Israelite religion to the point that God's own self revelation in Jesus becomes a meaningful event--is a people, not simply a book. Nevertheless, from the Christian standpoint this development (of Israelite religion) is of interest not merely in itself, as a record of historical memory, but for what this development led to. It is this development and its culmination in Jesus that gives it "ongoing significance," enduring and universal significance.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Reaffirming Natural Law - Always Timely

Natural Law Not Going Out of Style, Says Commission


So said the Vatican's official newspaper, Osservatore Romano. You can follow the link for the whole article at Zenit. Here's a selection:
The experts note in this regard that natural law affirms "persons and human communities are capable, in the light of reason, of recognizing the fundamental orientations of a moral act in conformity with the nature itself of the human subject and of presenting them in a normative way, in the form of precepts or commands."

"These fundamental precepts -- objective and universal -- are called to found and inspire together the moral, juridical and political determinations that regulate the life of man and society," the document proposes.

"To propose natural law in today's context, one should distance himself from the caricaturist presentations that have made it incomprehensible to many of our contemporaries [and] take advantage of the recent innovate elements of Catholic moral theology," Father Bonino suggested.

The document recalls that there is already a common ethical patrimony, as witnessed by the numerous convergences among the cultural and religious traditions of the world.

It also opposes a rationalistic vision of natural law, though it defends its rational dimension, and indicates that the "interior call to follow the good as such is the experience on which all morality is founded."

The final chapter of the document considers the "profound change of perspective in the presentation of natural law" that was offered by Christ.

"In the light of faith, man recognized in Jesus Christ the eternal Logos who presides over creation, and who, in incarnating himself, presents himself to man as the living Law, the criteria of a human life in conformity with natural law," Father Bonino explained.

"Natural law is not abolished," he concluded, "but taken to its fulfillment by the new law of love."




The Religion of Israel V: Frank Moore Cross on Israelite Religion

In previous posts I've made several references to Frank Moore Cross' classic study Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (CMHE), published in 1973 and now in its ninth edition. Cross, professor emeritus in Harvard's Department of Near Eastern Languages, was a student of William Foxwell Albright who in many ways pioneered the comparative study of Canaanite and Israelite religion. (William Dever, whose work we have cited frequently, was a student of Cross.) In 1998 Cross published a collection of essays, most of which date to the 1980's, under the title From Epic to Canon (FEC). Several of these essays are relevant to our concerns and are worth considering before we move on to summarizing our conclusions concerning Israelite religion.


Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel

In Chapter 1, "Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel," Cross stresses that the notion of kinship is absolutely fundamental to a correct appreciation of ancient Israel, based as it was--in common with other West Semitic groups--on a fundamentally tribal society. I would wish to go somewhat further and point out that kinship concerns are not exclusive to tribal societies per se but are a common feature of many societies that Mircea Eliade characterizes as "archaic" or "traditional." For example, traditional Japanese society is not usually considered to be tribal, yet it is based on the mythology of common blood descent from the god and goddess on Mount Fuji. In theory, therefore, all Japanese are members of an extended family.

Kinship, Cross notes, defines "the rights and obligations, the duties, status, and privileges of tribal members." Of particular importance was the concept that an attack on one member was, given the blood tie, an attack on all members. Thus, the notion that all members were one flesh, blood, bone (Cross cites Gen 29:14, 2 Sam 5:1, Judges 9:1-4, Gen 37:27) had very practical ramifications in terms of group cohesiveness for the common defense. Rights and obligations were defined by this relationship not only for other members but also with regard to non-members.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

According to the Scriptures - N. T. Wright

N. T. Wright has a somewhat popularized book, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture, which is directly relevant to some of the posts here--especially the post devoted to C. H. Dodd's classic work: According to the Scriptures. (Frustratingly, Wright's book has no index and does not cite Dodd's work, but I find it impossible to believe that Wright has not read and thought deeply on Dodd's ideas.) I am in general agreement with Wright's approach, but would wish to amend it in some respects. Here are the key passages, spread across two chapters, with my comments:

3. Scripture and Jesus (pp. 42-46)
... I have argued...that Jesus believed himself called to undertake the task ... through which God's long range purposes would at last be brought to fruition. ... What this means in practice is that in and through Jesus evil is confronted and judged, and forgiveness and renewal are brought to birth. The covenant is renewed; new creation is inaugurated. The work which God had done through scripture in the Old Testament is done by Jesus in his public career, his death and resurrection, and his sending of the Spirit.
Comment: I believe this is generally the correct approach. However, there are complexities that need to be addressed. First, Wright refers to "[T]he work which God had done through scripture in the Old Testament," yet at the time of Jesus the Old Testament did not yet exist: there were significant differences among versions of the writings that we now call the Old Testament, and there was not yet general agreement as to which books could be regarded as scripture. In addition, Wright describes God as working through a book--a view which is at some variance with the picture we get from scripture itself, which describes God as working through a people in history. This is not nitpicking. Rather, it gets to the heart of a central question: how did Jesus himself regard the Israelite scriptures?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Religion of Israel IV: Historical Overview of Ancient Israel

In the previous section we went over William Dever's synthesis regarding the origins of Israel. Dever Israelite origins as largely, although not entirely, an indigenous development of Canaanite culture, while at the same time being a reaction or protest against the same Canaanite culture from which it developed. Dever, in common with virtually all archaeologists, is willing to flatly assert that a violent conquest of Canaan simply never happened. We also reviewed some of the data that argue in favor of the view that certain non-Canaanite elements were, nevertheless, an important part of the "proto-Israelite" mix. In particular, those associated with Midian and other Semitic tribes to the southeast of Canaan played an important role in the formation of Israelite identity--crucially, perhaps, in the introduction of Yahweh as Israel's tutelary deity. We will now proceed to a brief overview of Israelite history, with special emphasis on the role that rivalry among priestly families played in the development of both the Israelite scriptures as well as in the development of Israelite religion generally. In what follows we will rely heavily on Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible (WWB) and to a lesser extent on Israel Finkelstein's David and Solomon (DS).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Religion of Israel III: Origins of Ancient Israel

Dever's Synthesis on the Origins of Israel

At this point it may be well to revisit Dever's attempt at an explanation of the origins of what he terms "proto-Israel," Israel as it developed from Canaanite culture at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the early Iron Age (Iron I). As we saw, Dever reviewed (Who Where) the archaeological data and came to the conclusion (with essentially all other archaeologists) that "the biblical tradition grew out of earlier Canaanite culture (168)." But, Dever asked, what led to this development? Dever's theory, based on the data, is that while Israelite culture grew out of Canaanite culture, at the same time Israelite culture arose as "a radical protest" against what remained of Canaanite culture at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Religion of Israel II: Archeology and the Exodus and Conquest


As we have seen, historical and archaeological study confirms that Israel, while a new development in the history of Canaan, had indigenous origins within Canaan. This is not to suggest, as we will later see, that these indigenous origins were exclusive--that no elements within Israel came from outside Canaan.  Nevertheless,  it is clear that the dominant cultural factors that gave birth to Israel as an ethnic identity were developments of and reactions to Canaanite culture and socio-political factors that were peculiar to Canaan at the end of the Late Bronze Age. How, then, does this square with the Biblical account of an Exodus from Egypt and a violent conquest of Canaan?

It is now universally recognized by all but fundamentalists that the Exodus and Conquest narratives in the Bible are not historical in the modern sense, although these narratives may contain nuggets of otherwise useful information regarding Israelite history and culture. The time frame for the Exodus is now definitively established as the late 13th century B.C., coinciding with the rise of Israelite culture in Canaan and the reign of Rameses II as pharaoh in Egypt. However, very little of the overall narrative can be confirmed and, of what can be confirmed, much is anachronistic.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Religion of Israel I: Issues, Canaanite Origins


To this point we have, with related digressions, been discussing 1) Eliade's theory of archaic ontology, 2) the development of human thought through history based on archaic ontology and 3) reactions to perceived inadequacies in archaic ontology. This study has not been, of course, exhaustive and has focused on models largely provided by Christopher Dawson in his Progress and Religion. For example, we have noted that, in what Dawson calls the “World Religions” (the classic civilizational traditions of India, China, Persia and Greece) there arose a reaction to archaic ontology that focused on the issues of human mortality and the problem of evil. The archaic traditions had sought to explain these problems through variations on the myth of reincarnation--essentially an expression of faith in a solution at the same time that it was a recognition of the inability of human reason alone to provide a definitive answer. But these mythic explanations proved unsatisfactory for many and movements such as Buddhism and Taoism, to cite two examples, are properly understood as attempts to short circuit and escape the cosmic cycles that had come to be understood in a literal manner. Needless to say, the failure of these new salvific doctrines to address the nature of mythic expression was a serious weakness, one which was attacked by new movements of thinkers who had discovered and been intoxicated by the power of formal logic but had failed to understand its limitations (the Greek Sophists are one famous example).

We will turn now to Israel as an example of a response to these problems that approached a clear break with myth, without definitively achieving such a break. This in turn will lead us, after returning once more to Greek thought, to the Christian solution.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Benedict XVI and the State of Israel

David P. Goldman, a self described "writer in New York" who also writes as Spengler, writes today at the neoconservative journal First Things, Benedict XVI and the State of Israel. (Relevant excerpts are appended to this post.)

As usual, Goldman attempts to convince Catholics that Church acceptance of the State of Israel is a matter of fundamental theology, but he can only do so by fudging distinctions and avoiding basic issues:

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

According to the Scriptures

I recently reread C. H. Dodd's According to the Scriptures: The Substructure of New Testament Theology. The book, a 1952 version of lectures that Dodd delivered at the Princeton Theological Seminary, is Dodd's classic examination of the idea of "fulfillment" in early Christian thought. Specifically, Dodd sought to understand the use that Christians made of the Old Testament scriptures in asserting that--as the Lucan/Pauline writings state--a) the Messiah had to suffer, b) would rise on the third day, and c) that in His name repentance leading to forgiveness of sins would be preached to all nations. (Luke 24: 46-47)

Without attempting to summarize the entire range of Dodd's insights, I will simply state that Dodd's analysis leads him to conclude that the early kerygma (preaching) of the Church can be traced back to its earliest days. In point of fact, there is no good reason to doubt that it is rooted in the teaching of Jesus to his disciples. Dodd offers four main conclusions to his study, which delimit the substructure of New Testament theology:

Monday, February 2, 2009

Islam and Christianity--Modernity v. Tradition

This morning Spengler's column--Who are the 'extraordinary' Muslims?--made two points of interest to me. The first is one that's been on my mind lately:

“My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives,” United States President Barack Obama told an Arabic television channel on January 26. Really? What are their names? Word has come to the West of no extraordinary Muslim thinker since the 12th century. There is one first-rank Arab writer working today who tries to explain why there are no extraordinary Muslims--but on that more below.
By “extraordinary,” to be sure, Obama means no more than Garrison Keillor meant in saying that the children of Lake Wobegon all are above average. There is no “there” in Obama's “patchwork,” as he characterized America in his inaugural address. America is all patches and no quilt, arranged in no particular order, as in his remark in the same interview that America is “a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers.” Everyone is ordinary, or maybe extraordinary--whatever. If Obama had said that “the Muslim world is filled with ordinary people, etc.,” his meaning would have been clearer. 

This really is an extraordinary (!) statement that Obama made. Think about it. To be “extraordinary” means no more than “to simply want to live your life and see your children live a better life.” No statement about the content or the quality of that life, the connectedness of that life to others, of an overarching meaning to that life. Presumably, the meaning of life is the meaning we give it--a concept familiar to students of modern atheistic ideologies. One can be extraordinary, according to Obama, while leading a life of the utmost ordinariness, while having no ambition beyond mere living--and wishing for your children more of the same!