Saturday, September 27, 2008

Messy Revelation

In the May/June 2006 issue of Christianity Today, Susan Wise Bauer wrote a review of Peter Enns' Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. It is revealingly titled: "Messy Revelation: Why Paul would have flunked hermeneutics." Bauer begins her review by recounting that, while reading Sumerian poetry, she came across this passage from "a 4,000-year-old epic describing the Sumerian paradise, a garden city free of evil and sickness where
the raven utters no cry …
the lion kills not,
the wolf snatches not the lamb,
unknown is the kid-devouring wild dog."
The connection to Isaiah 11 was as obvious to Bauer as it is to most readers familiar with the Old Testament. This, says, Bauer, is emblematic of the "opening dilemma" that Enns presents in his book. As Bauer states the dilemma:
The uniqueness of the Old Testament as a piece of literature has been seriously dented by the discovery of more and more ancient texts that predate (and anticipate) biblical forms. Creation story, flood story, prophecy, proverb: all of these were in use in Mesopotamia long before the first biblical book was penned.

So how can we claim that the Old Testament—and it alone from all the texts of that pre-Christian age—is divine communication from God to man?
How indeed? And moreover, the question is not only can we, but should we claim that the Old Testament writings are "divine communication[s] from God to man?" Is that, after all, the meaning of "revelation"? That the writings so labeled are "divine communication[s] from God to man?" And if so, what exactly does this mean--is it a useful characterization or, perhaps, a misleading characterization of the nature of these writings?

For the Christian there is, in fact, no particular reason to regard the Old Testament writings as "divine communication[s] from God to man"--that is, there would be no reason, but for the obvious relationship of Jesus to the world of the Old Testament. Even so, it is the fact of Jesus' resurrection that causes the Christian to ponder that relationship and to consider it to be part of a scheme that in some way fulfills God's will.

But in what sense is the Old Testament a communication from God to man, and is such a belief--at least one that is framed in such terms--necessary for Christian faith?

Monday, September 22, 2008

The One Who Is To Come

The October issue of First Things contains a review of Joseph Fitzmyer's new book, The One Who Is To Come. The review is by Gary Anderson, a professor of Old Testament at Notre Dame. As summarized by Anderson, the problem that Fitzmyer addresses is this:
The problem is one of historical anachronism: What beliefs can we determine that people held, before the birth of Jesus, about the coming messiah—when the coming of Jesus and the rise of Christianity so transformed all those beliefs? It is a very old methodological principle that the historian must learn again and again: What comes after does not always follow from what came before.

And so for the Christian claim that Jesus was the suffering messiah, long expected in the Sacred Scriptures. After the rise of the early Church and its claims to fulfill the hopes of the Jewish people, it was simply presumed that the coming of Jesus could easily be plugged into a pre-existent Jewish matrix. Modern biblical scholarship has seriously challenged that presumption. [my emphasis] The idea of a suffering messiah is difficult to trace in the Hebrew Scriptures, and even the notion that a single, royal messianic figure was expected is not easy to locate.

This is sometimes an alarming detail for Christian readers.
How does Fitzmyer's inquiry fare?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Misfortune and History - Continued

In “Misfortune and History” (from The Myth of the Eternal Return) Mircea Eliade deals at considerable length with “Hebrew” thought. This is, to my mind, perhaps the least satisfactory section of The Myth of the Eternal Return, due in part to its reliance on scholarship that has now been pretty definitively superseded but also due to faulty analysis.

Eliade characterizes as "Hebrew" thought what is now known to modern scholars as the Deuteronomic ideology, accepting the now discredited view that Israelite thought essentially underwent no development from the origins of Israel to the fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Modern scholarship has conclusively demonstrated both that the Biblical accounts of Israelite origins (the Exodus and Conquest) are not historical and that Israelite conceptions of divinity as well as religious practice underwent significant development and change. What I have characterized as the Deuteronomic "ideology" attained social effectiveness during the years between the fall of the northern Israelite kingdom (722 BC) and the final fall of the southern kingdom of Judah (586 BC). The so-called Deuteronomic "reform" was politically dominant especially during the reign of Josiah (649-609BC). The Deuteronomic ideology combined a rather advanced development of Israelite religion in the direction of monotheism, away from a more traditional West Semitic pantheon of gods, with a basically conservative "archaic" worldview. Where the "archaic" worldview saw misfortune in history as either a defeat of one set of gods by an opposing set of gods, or as the result of a failure to conform to divine will, the Deuteronomic ideology interpreted misfortune in Israelite history--and the misfortune that threatened in the form of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires--as the result of Israel's failure to conform to the Deuteronomic theology of Yahweh as the sole god of Israel and obedience to Torah. The history of Israel was rewritten to conform with this view. Thus, according to this ideology, the history of Israel could be understood according to a very simply logic: when Israel followed the commandments as set forth in the Deuteronomic books of the OT, all went well. When Israel failed in some respect--as when the Israelites followed their more traditional West Semitic religious traditions--things fell apart.