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Posts from the ‘Theology Not Yet Applied’ Category

Melchizedek in 4QVision of Amram and Hebrews 7

One previously unknown text found at Qumran was 4Q543-547 Vision of Amram. The story goes that Amram (grandson of Levi and father of Moses and Aaron) married off his daughter Miriam to his younger brother Uzziel. At the wedding feast Amram calls to his son Aaron and says, “Call for my son, Malaki’yah [messenger of God] [Moses]… who will give wisdom.” Then, a break in the fragments. Next, Amram goes up from Egypt to Hebron to build a burial site for the patriarchs, but a war begins to break out between Egypt and the Philistines, stranding Amram away from his wife (and aunt) Jochebad for 41 years. He remains faithful to her the entire time, and she to him. Then, another break in the fragments. Amram has a vision: two angelic beings are arguing over who will have authority over Amram. One, dressed in multi-colored clothes with a face like a viper and who rules over the darkness, is named Melkiresha, king of wickedness. The other rules over the light, so he is presumably the opposite of the first character (though the text is fragmentary). He would be dressed in white, and would be named Melkizedek, king of righteousness. The text also mentions that he is smiling, has something on his forehead (a phylactery? the high priestly diadem?). Two choices for Amram. Who will he choose to follow?

Some have interpreted this text as a kind of cosmic dualism where there are two paths, good and evil, black and white. The dualism used here as a literary troupe, these interpreters have assumed, indicates a more general dualism that goes throughout the universe. However, the helpful article “Reassessing the Dream-Vision of the Vision of Amram (4Q543-547) by Blake Alan Jurgens offers a more deflationary reading. Instead of thinking about this text as cosmic dualism, he reads it as a rivalry between two warring priesthoods (or the actual priesthood and an idealized conception of what the priesthood should be). He gives several reasons for this. The incestuous marriages between Miriam and Uzziel and between Amram and Jochebad would ostensibly be forbidden, so the fact that it appears anyways indicates that the author is trying to say something that involves endogamy. The most plausible explanation is that the priestly line had to be preserved from impurity and needed a known genealogy extending back as far as possible, so these marriages secure the priestly qualifications of Amram and by extension Aaron. Furthermore, if the other figure opposite Melkiresha is Melkizedek, then the priestly connotations of Melchizedek must be important, since he is always and everywhere associated with the priesthood. The object on Melchizedek’s head may be the high priestly diadem inscribed with the sacred name (Exodus 28:36-38). The colorful robe on Melkiresha may indicate the dazzling wealth and status of the high priesthood (Exodus 39:1-7; Philo Special Laws 1.84-95; Josephus Ant. 3.184-186; Ben Sira 50:5-11).

Why does this matter? I will quote from Jurgens’s conclusion:

“Interestingly enough, Amram’s apparent choice of Melchizedek over Melchiresha associates him with an entirely different priestly inheritance, one which temporally and genealogically is independent of the Levitical line. This makes Melchizedek an exceptional individual to align one’s self with, especially if one is attempting to exhibit both the flaws of priestly administration in Jerusalem as well as establish a ground for sacerdotal authority which does not fall under the categories of a corrupted administration. This means that allegiance with the ancient priesthood of Melchizedek, due to its pre-Levitical origins, served as a priestly endorsement that was not dependent upon the opinions and approval of other priestly powers. The bestowal of the title ‘a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek’ would have provided the one claiming this pedigree a link to an ancient priesthood and the cultic authority which derived from it, both of which would have served him well in any case where the legitimacy of his office was being questioned or threatened. It is far from presumptuous to note that such an agenda would have suited a wide array of Jewish sects and groups during the Second Temple period who faced opposition from the reigning priestly authorities in Jerusalem. Considering the general consensus that the Vision of Amram was initially composed sometime in the latter third/early second centuries BCE, it seems that Robert Duke’s assessment that the author of the Vision of Amram may be assessing the priesthood of Onias II and intermarriage of his sister into the Tobiad family is certainly plausible, though such specific historical interpolation is difficult to discern in a fragmentary document such as the Vision of Amram.”

“Nevertheless, it seems rather likely that Amram’s vision is referencing a conflict over the legitimacy of a particular priestly group, a conflict in which the author may be using the choice of Amram as a mirror image ofthe possible choices others may have been making in light of a perceived corruption ofthe priestly line and office. Thus, it diould come as no surprise that multiple פרשגן  of Amram’s sacred and esoteric words would be extant in the Qumran library, especially when one considers the community’s general opposition to the governing authorities ofthe Temple. Though the Vision ofAmmm was not a literary product of the Qumran community, the visionary experience of Amram, and his subsequent allegiance with Melchizedek over Melchiresha, could have been reappropriated by the Qumran community and applied to any potential conflicts they may have been experiencing with the Jerusalem Temple, adding clout to their case for sacerdotal legitimacy in opposition to the alleged corruption of the reigning religious authorities.”

I think 4QVisions of Amram could be helpful for understanding Hebrews 5-7. The author of Visions of Amram has selected a character one generation before Aaron (and thus the priesthood). This matters because if the selected character was one generation after Aaron, for example Eleazar or Ithamar, then whatever priestly construct this text comes up with would be subordinated to the ordinary Aaronic priesthood. By going back a generation, the reverse happens: you get down below the foundation. This also appears to be the logic in Hebrews 7, but instead of selecting Amram, the author of Hebrews has selected Abraham. “Melchizedek did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises… One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor” (Hebrews 7:6-10). Just like in Visions of Amram, the construction of an alternate priestly line 1. is situated genealogically prior to Aaron, and 2. invokes the figure of Melchizedek and tells how Aaron’s ancestor interacted with him.

On a more speculative note, the author of Hebrews could share the same critical attitude toward the Jerusalem priesthood. Maybe this is because the Temple was administered by the Sadducees, who were considered corrupt and illegitimate. Or because the High Priest was selected by the King, who in the case of Herod was corrupt and half Idumean (so, ethnically illegitimate). Or maybe this was because the Temple had been destroyed, if Hebrews was written after 70 CE. While it is impossible to know the exact political situation behind the Epistle to the Hebrews, using Melchizedek to assert a unique priestly role for Jesus certainly served some political function with respect to the Jerusalem priesthood.

However, the argument of Hebrews 7 goes beyond this genealogical and priestly discourse. First, the problem is that Jesus cannot actually be situated before Aaron — he has a known tribal identity, the tribe of Judah, and nobody from the tribe of Judah has ever served as a priest (7:14). Second, Melchizedek by 7:15 turns out not to be the genealogical progenitor of another priesthood, but a literary foil for the author to compare Jesus against. Melchizedek’s priesthood is, explicitly, not on the basis of his genealogy (7:16), since he has no father or mother or genealogy nor beginning of days nor end of life (7:3). Third, what happens instead is that at the resurrection of Jesus, the Father has declared the words of Psalm 110:4 over him: “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” Because of Jesus’s “indestructible life” (7:16) he can serve as a better priest because he will never die. His priesthood comes not on the basis of genealogy, and produces no further offspring, because he himself is our great high priest forever.

The author of Hebrews participates in the contemporary talk about the priesthood, genealogy, and the patriarchs, and uses recognizable literary strategies when maneuvering these topics. But he uses them for his own purposes, and he deploys these literary strategies to make an argument based on resurrection (“indestructible life”). The resurrection of the dead was a shared belief among some Jews but not all. Notably, the Sadducees who administered the Temple complex did not believe in the resurrection. Hebrews may then be driving the wedge in further: not only is the currently priestly class illegitimate and corrupt (a common belief in the lead-up to the war in 70 CE and in reflection after the fact) but those same people cannot see the solution due to their own blindness. This makes me wonder if the author of Hebrews, in addition to appealing to his Christ-following audience, is trying to make his argument appeal to the Pharisees and perhaps certain other Jewish groups as well. It cannot be a coincidence that Hebrews’ main argument and main rhetorical strategies align with several of the main divides in the matrix of early Jewish sectarianism. Perhaps this points to a time before the Jesus movement gave up the politics of early Jewish life and still thought they could make a meaningful contribution to those sectarian debates.

Illumination and Concursus

I wrote this post on Facebook last week and had some fruitful engagement in the comments. Here is the post and discussion.

Enjoying my time in Holland so far. The town is lovely, my new seminary community has been so welcoming, and my academic research is challenging me and keeping me busy.

Quick thought prompted by a discussion in class today, though I’ve mulled it over for years now. There are (at least) three ways that we say the Holy Spirit cooperated with the human authors of Scripture to produce a divine-human text. First, the Spirit could expressly, actively declare something to be written down. These are the “thus saith the LORD” moments. Second, the Spirit could provide a spark of inspiration, a sudden clarity, an epiphany, which the writer then develops. In these cases the Spirit acts first, and the writer second, but the composition in total can be understood as the product of both authors. Third, the Spirit by divine providence can guide the writer into life circumstances that in total result in the author writing the kind and substance of texts that the Spirit wanted all along. This is like how Paul studied under Gamaliel, which gave Paul training in scriptural interpretation he would later use to great effect. The Spirit and the human author are still both writing the text, but in this case the circumstances of the composition would appear to be totally “natural” from an outsider’s view and probably even from the human author’s own view.

My doctrinal suggestion is that the same ways the Spirit cooperates with humans in writing Scripture can explain how the Spirit cooperates with humans in interpreting Scripture. There is a direct and necessary parallel between Scripture’s inspiration and illumination. Sometimes, I guess, the Spirit can explicitly and verbally explain what a passage of Scripture means. Other times the Spirit can provide a kind of prompting or epiphany which the human interpreter then carries forward into interpretation through ordinary means. Still other times the process appears to be entirely human, but actually the Spirit’s providential guidance of the interpreter (to go to this school or that school, to sit under the preaching of this pastor or that one, to be involved in these circumstances of life or others) has formed their default interpretive tendencies so that they naturally read a certain way. The same Spirit, using the same providential guidance of history, has caused this text to be written as is, and then caused you to interpret it as you have.

(This third option, where nature and providence meet, has been called “inscripturation” for the composition of Scripture, but I am still trying to think of a good word for this when it comes to the illumination of Scripture.)

On the hand, this model of illumination requires us to ask careful questions about the operation and meaning of history itself. Why is God directing these texts to be written in such a particular way if God is just later going to direct us to read them in another particular way? Couldn’t God skip the Scriptures and make us do what he wants here and now? But we are well reminded that God always and everywhere uses ordinary means to achieve later purposes, like how God truly does use our prayers to effect change in the world even though he could just as well ignore our prayers and do it anyways. God is directing not only our lives but all of history toward something… or someone… and he is using these very human, often cryptic, often historically bound, texts along the way to guide us there.

On the other hand, this model of illumination makes a good foundation for “identity readings” of Scripture, i.e. Black interpretation of Scripture, Feminist interpretation of Scripture, Queer interpretation of Scripture, etc. which often otherwise lack much systematic ground for their interpretive method. God made this interpreter (say, a Black woman) who she is, by means of divine providential guidance, and now uses this identity and life situation to allow readings of Scripture which are natural to her to emerge as she studies. This process is not actually different from the way that the Spirit in the first place used some ancient author’s identity as an Israelite man subjugated by the Roman Empire (or etc) to produce the text. The diversity of identities contributing to the Church’s interpretive work is itself one of the unnecessary (you could say ‘graced’) ways that God is guiding the Church into all truth and ultimately towards the end of history itself, which is, himself.

Sean replied: My main worry with this model probably comes as no surprise: how would you distinguish the illumination of the Spirit from inscripturation such that the latter is authoritative, infallible, and truthful in all it affirms, whereas we are not in our interpretations? And what norms interpretation if interpretation is illumined in the same way that scripture is inspired?

I said: The Spirit using the same mechanism does not mean that we know what the Spirit is doing (behind the scenes). That is the problem with God’s providential direction of history in general. You never quite know. 

As to authority, infallibility, and truthfulness, I would probably have to nuance these with respect to composition first. All of these have to be submitted to our Christological rule of faith. Scripture is authoritative, infallible, and truthful only when we read it according to “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning him” (Luke 24). (This is my claim based on Luke 24, not per se what that passage says according to a literal interpretation). 

What would it look like for my “inscripturation” metaphor for illumination, to be regulated by Christ? Here I would introduce the concept of “paradigmatic events” (from Grenz and Franke, Beyond Foundationalism, 79). They write: 

“A paradigmatic event may be defined as a historical occurrence that captures the imagination of a community in a such a manner as to shape or form the community’s way of conceiving the totality of reality and its understanding of its ongoing experience of reality. Because of the event’s wide-ranging influence, the community preserves its memory, while both reinterpreting the event in the light of subsequent situations in which the community finds itself and discovering in it the source of renewed hope for the future. Hence, paradigmatic events connect the community and its participants with the past and the future. Through their appropriation of these events, succeeding generations understand themselves in relationship to the experiences of the past history of the community and in anticipation of a future that will bring about the actualization of the community’s ideals.” 

For some reason Grenz and Franke don’t draw this into its obvious Christological significance, but I will. Jesus’s incarnation, death and resurrection are a paradigmatic event in this same sense. The events of the Gospel are so pivotal, so paradigmatic, that it comes to norm all future Christian practice, reflection, identity, and interpretation. So while I mentioned Black interpretation of Scripture, and this is a valid interpretive positionality imo, we should remember that it is always already Black Christian interpretation of Scripture. The same thing for Queer interpretation of Scripture, it is always already Queer Christian interpretation of Scripture. If these secondary identities (and the material conditions that produced them) are not understood in light of their primary identity (Christian) (and the material conditions that produced that, the Cross and Resurrection) then it fails to be Christologically normed illumination of Scripture. More to the point, the most crucial providential guidance the Spirit has wrought in my life is opening me to the grace of God in Christ. 

Okay, but even given all this, how would an “inscripturation” metaphor for illumination, normed by the paradigmatic event of Christ’s death and resurrection and the Spirit’s regenereation of the believer given Christ’s death and resurrection — how would this correspond to authority, infallibility, and truthfulness? I would tentatively suggest a few thoughts on authority. 

Here the redefinition of authority suggested by Walter Brueggemann in his first essay in “The Book that Breathes New Life.” (Unfortch I don’t have this book with me in Holland so I can’t quote it). He suggests that texts have authority by their sheer weight. Romans has authority not because anyone “gave it” authority, and not because it “authorizes” the community to exist which reads it, but because Romans is written in such a way that it demands to be read and responded to. More or less this amounts to defining authority of texts as their status as the “locus classicus” for the conversations which they have generated. I would say that our illuminated interpretation of Scripture actually does have this same status. For example, we are still reading 16th century biblical interpretation five hundred years later because it carries authoritative weight for the traditions it spawned which continue today. Every generation of Christians forms an entry in the democracy of the dead which later generations must consider for their own ways. 

With infalibility and especially truthfulness, though, the metaphor stretches beyond use. I could say that my interpretation “truthfully” communicates what I am interpreting but this is mostly tautologous. The most I would say here is that the Spirit is always illuminating our reading of Scripture “for” some other purpose, not just our own giddiness, and the Spirit will “infallibly” achieve this purpose as the Spirit intended.

Thanks for engaging, I always appreciate your thoughts Sean.

Sean responded: likewise brother–i appreciate your thoughtfulness and thoroughness! So it sounds like (correct me if I’m wrong) you’re saying that the paradigmatic Christ-event is such that it’s the norm through which we interpret and evaluate all reality–and that the event stands over and above even Scripture as a norm? And because authority is a function of how the text demands to be read, our interpretations can carry the same kind of authority (which doesn’t entail total truthfulness either for Scripture or our interpretation)?

I answered: I would nuance “stands over and above” and probably say instead that the Gospel narrative (Christ’s incarnation, life, death, etc.) is the only access we have back to Scripture “by nature,” meaning by what is natural to us as readers of Scripture. We can try, through some imaginative exercise, to imagine how we would interpret these texts if we weren’t Christians. And better yet we can just ask non-Christians how they in fact do interpret these texts (Robert Alter’s HB edition is great for this). But we have no way that is congruent with our reading selves to access these texts outside of Christ. 

I would also qualify that interpretation only carries this kind of authority when it is done with the entire church catholic, extending across denominational contexts, geographic space, and back into the history of the tradition itself. 

This is not an epistemic claim for religious certainty either, but a confession of faith, trusting in Christ who had more to say than the disciples could bear, so he has sent his Spirit to guide us into all truth (John 16)

In a separate response, Taylor said: I’m not sure it’s an identity reading of scripture. It seems to be more of a cultural reading of scripture, or at least that’s what I’m seeing in global theologies. 

However, the caution in this understanding, and to what Sean is hinting towards, is what happens when an “identity or cultural reading” contradicts other passages of scripture?

I said: Yeah, identity in quotes because I am not sure what unites these various reading strategies or what distinguishes them from (extreme air quotes) traditional readings of Scripture. But identity vs culture is an even more tendentious distinction imo since identities are culturally shaped and cultures themselves are produced in spaces where some identities are allowed to develop and others are not. So I am going to stick with vague language on this point to avoid overspeaking…

On contradicting Scripture, they would have to find some way to negotiate that difference, though it is too detailed to answer all at once how each group would do that. I assume the group you have in mind is Queer interpretation of Scripture, and yes I agree this will have to address substantively the passages that would a priori rule such an identity out (Gen 2, Lev 18, Romans 1, etc). But this can be done… People have done this. So I’m agnostic on that point.

Taylor responded: thank you for the response. A queer reading of scripture is one aspect I was thinking about, but not soloing it out. There are broader issues to reconcile. For example, take the current passible vs. impassible debate into consideration. This is an element central to God’s character, but is disagreed upon. Which side is correct? Or are we allowed to think differently about God given our presuppositions? And if we do think differently about God, doctrinally speaking, are we accidentally creating a god that doesn’t exist?

I responded: I am willing to hold to doctrinal pluralism only in the short-term, provisional sense. I don’t think we can go on disagreeing forever. Oliver O’Donovan put it well in an essay from 2006 (titled “The Care of Churches”). 

“When really serious issues are at stake and talk of a status stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae begins to rumble like thunder, urging the search for resolution can seem like an invitation to capitulate, to concede essential points before beginning. It can seem as though Scripture is deemed to be inconclusive and ambiguous, so that either side is free to concede the possible right of the other’s interpretation. It can seem as though what is needed is an indefinite irresolution about everything important in which there is no need for, and no possibility of, a decisive closure. But that is all a trick of the light. None of this is implied in the search for agreement. The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape – a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think – and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject! – is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.”

In another comment, Carl said: This sounds very similar to the perspective that BB Warfield settled on in his final article on inspiration in 1915, distinguishing between modes of revelation and the concursive operation of the Spirit.

I responded:  Interesting… would love the link or pdf if you have it. Actually now that I think about it, I might have first thought of this idea when reading something by Warfield. It rings a certain bell.

And Carl sent these: link one, link two.

Photo by Henki on Unsplash

Reading someone else’s mail: conflicting methods

Without endless citations and in shorthand, I want to lay out two conflicting methodologies that together drive my thinking about the New Testament’s content and relevance. I suspect that, in enough time, they will merge into a more balanced and comprehensive approach.

First, the “within Judaism” approach. I will take as an extreme example something that Jason BeDuhn said in this lecture. He claims that the earliest reception of Paul outside the New Testament are authors operating in a radically different context than Paul himself. Paul wrote in the 50s-60s CE. The Romans destroyed the temple in 70 CE. This inherently led to the abolition of the priesthood and the near-total reconstitution of Jewish religion and practice in the following years. The emperor Domitian oversaw persecution of Jews across the empire throughout the 80s and 90s CE. During the Kittos War in 115 CE, the Romans killed Jews widely and indiscriminately enough that it can be characterized as a genocide. Two decades later in 134-136 CE, the Bar Kochba Revolt led to further mass killings of Jews, the destruction of Jerusalem, and a ban on Jews entering the old city. Some historians call the period from 70-136 CE “the Jewish-Romans Wars,” plural, because of the continuous bloodshed.

Paul lived and wrote before the Jewish-Roman Wars, and his first substantial non-canonical reception occurs after them, in Tertullian, Marcion, and the Valentinians. Each of these streams may have retained some interpretive traditions about Paul from the earlier times, but what they all misunderstand is that the Jewish-Gentile balance has shifted from when Paul wrote. The early Jesus movement began as a 90%-10% Jewish-Gentile movement, but after the wars, and the increasing separation between the Jesus movement and the synagogues, the numbers were more like 10%-90%. Beduhn argues that the earliest interpreters of Paul read his comments in light of their own context, thus skewing his comments about the ongoing practice of Jewish law and proselytization, and Messiah’s role in creating one united community between Jews and Gentile.

The goal of historical New Testament studies, BeDuhn would say, is to try to get back before Tertullian and proto-catholic theology and see Paul “within Judaism,” as a wholly Jewish thinker who did not see himself in a competitive relationship with Jewish religion or Jewish institutions at all. We need to peel back the layers of accretion left behind by the interpretive tradition to read Paul afresh.

Second, the “theological interpretation of scripture” (abbreviated TIS) movement tries to read Scripture using the categories of the successive interpretive tradition. These scholars are interested in the ways that texts have an openness to expansive readings, for later settings. Even if the original authors did not mean them to mean so much, these texts may have enduring flexibility in meaning because the Spirit also wrote these texts. TIS seeks to avoid reinventing the wheel, so to speak, because earlier interpreters were wise and careful. The interpretive tradition can be a “democracy of the dead” just like the theological tradition in general. TIS also recognizes the scholars’ own social situation as readers of Scripture for the church. Why pretend not to have a bias that you absolutely do have? And anyways, there are millions of Christians who read the New Testament as Scripture, so the scholar recognizes they have an influential voice in the continuing conversation about these authoritative texts. Scholarship becomes a form of activism, however subtle.

Two examples of TIS, from two of my New Testament professors. Wesley Hill argues in his book Paul and the Trinity (2015) that the “High Christology / Low Christology” debate imposes an artificial construct onto Paul’s letters. Instead, the categories of persons and relations better help readers of Paul see that speaking about Christ and speaking about God cannot really be disentangled in Paul’s letters. This, notably, is the same approach that the third and fourth century Fathers took when constructing their more elaborate Nicene Christology. Madison Pierce argues in her book Divine Discourse in the Epistle to the Hebrews (2020) that the quotations in Hebrews reveal a consciously Trinitarian pattern: the Father and the Son speak to one another, and the Spirit speaks to the recipients/Church. She also argues that this early, possibly “proto,” Trinitarian theology is consistent with the developments that occurred later in the tradition.

Both Hill and Pierce, then, are reading New Testament texts through the categories of the later tradition, not as a subversive anachronism, but as earnest presentation of the original meaning of these texts in light of their later theological significance.

Can these two methods come together? What fellowship hath Durham with Yale? My own research question this year, while not strictly methodological, fits within this uncomfortable middle ground. I am asking whether reinterpreting Paul “within Judaism” would allow us to resolve the (imo unresolved and stagnant) debate over same-sex relationships in the New Testament. But I am doing this through a theological interpretation of select sections in Romans, particularly chapters 1:18-2:29, 4, 7:7-25, 8:1-17, and 11. My historical critical reconstruction will dominate what the text “meant,” and my theological interpretation will dominate what the text “means.” But I want a better synthesis between the two methods than that. I also want a better understanding of how this synthesis could impact the interpretation of the entire New Testament: for early texts like Paul, and texts from the middle of the Jewish-Roman wars like John or possibly Hebrews, and texts from the aftermath, like (arguably) Acts, as well as the Marcionite texts and Valentinian texts.

That is enough for today. Sorry I can’t provide more historical details or citations. Hopefully I can clarify some of these method questions as my Thesis deadline draws near next summer.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

The Flight from the Cross

Excerpt from Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, 95-98. Originally written in 1934 in Romanian, translated in 1992 by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston. This is a challenging and complex text. I am not sure what to make of it yet. His points fit nicely with the last point of my last post, that Jesus models doubt and alienation from God.

“I do not like prophets any more than I like fanatics who have never doubted their mission. I measure prophets’ value by their ability to doubt, the frequency of their moments of lucidity. Doubt makes them truly human, but their doubt is more impressive than that of ordinary people. Everything else in them is nothing but absolutism, preaching, moral didacticism. They want to teach others, bring them salvation, show them the truth, change their destinies, as if their truths were better than those of the others. Only doubt can distinguish prophets from maniacs. But isn’t it too late for them to doubt? The one who thought he was the son of God only doubted at the last moment. Christ really doubted not on the mountain but on the cross. I am convinced that on the cross Jesus envied the destiny of anonymous men and, had he been able to, would have retreated to the most obscure corner of the world, where no one would have begged him for hope or salvation. I can imagine him alone with the Roman soldiers, imploring them to take him off the cross, pull out the nails, and let him escape to where the echo of human suffering would no longer reach him. Not because he would suddenly have ceased to believe in his mission—he was too enlightened to be a skeptic—but because death for others is harder to bear than one’s own death. Jesus suffered crucifixion because he knew that his ideas could triumph only through his own sacrifice.

“People say: for us to believe in you, you must renounce everything that is yours and also yourself. They want your death as a warranty for the authenticity of your beliefs. Why do they admire works written in blood? Because such works spare them any suffering while at the same time preserving the illusion of suffering. They want to see the blood and tears behind your lines. The crowd’s admiration is sadistic.

“Had Jesus not died on the cross, Christianity would not have triumphed. Mortals doubt everything except death. Christ’s death was for them the ultimate proof of the validity of Christian principles. Jesus could have easily escaped crucifixion or could have given in to the Devil! He who has not made a pact with the Devil should not live, because the Devil symbolizes life better than God. If I have any regrets, it is that the Devil has rarely tempted me . . . but then neither has God loved me. Christians have not yet understood that God is farther removed from them than they are from Him. I can very well imagine God being bored with men who only know how to beg, exasperated by the triviality of his creation, equally disgusted with both heaven and earth. And I see him taking flight into nothingness, like Jesus escaping from the cross. . . . What would have happened if the Roman soldiers had listened to Jesus’ plea, had taken him off the cross and let him escape? He would certainly not have gone to some other part of the world to preach but only to die, alone, without people’s sympathy and tears. And even supposing that, because of his pride, he did not beg for freedom, I find it difficult to believe that this thought did not obsess him. He must have truly believed that he was the son of God. His belief notwithstanding, he could not have helped doubting or being gripped by the fear of death at the moment of his supreme sacrifice. On the cross, Jesus had moments when, if he did not doubt that he was the son of God, he regretted it. He accepted death uniquely so that his ideas would triumph.

“It may very well be that Jesus was simpler than I imagine him, that he had fewer doubts and fewer regrets, for he doubted his divine origin only at his death. We, on the other hand, have so many doubts and regrets that not one among us would dare dream that he is the son of a god. I hate Jesus for his preachings, his morality, his ideas, and his faith. I love him for his moments of doubt and regret, the only truly tragic ones in his life, though neither the most interesting nor the most painful, for if we had to judge from their suffering, how many before him would also be entitled to call themselves sons of God!”

Photo by Craig Tidball on Unsplash

Paul within Judaism Reading List

Here is my reading list for Paul within Judaism. I developed this list by finding a few writers in dialogue with one another, and finding the journals and volumes where they have published, who else writes there, what books they tend to cite, and who endorses or forewords whose books. This started because I happened to check out the 2012 Paul and Judaism: Crosscurrents in Pauline Exegesis volume right before quarantine, and then the seminary library let us keep our books all summer, so I used that volume for my summer class term paper.

Before this gets going, a word from Paula Fredriksen on the diversity of views that go under this label:

the so-called “Paul within Judaism” [school] is a doctrinal mess. Important differences within it abound. Significant ones… distinguish my views on particular issues from those of John Gager. Gager’s Paul is no longer Law-observant; mine continues to be. (Why wouldn’t he be?) Gager’s Paul thinks that Christ has redemptive relevance only for gentiles; my Paul sees Jesus quite precisely as the eschatological Davidic messiah, thus and therefore the christos of Israel as well. And so on. Do we then represent “a school” or “a perspective”? Or something more like a “network”? A movement, maybe? Whatever.

But the label represents some unity. She continues:

The interpretive point of principle that binds us all together is the
recognition that no one in Paul’s generation would have looked at his euangelion as anything other than a particular — perhaps peculiar — inflection of late Second Temple Judaism. Thus our commitment, no matter what our various conclusions, to construing Paul’s letters within and with those criteria of meaning specific to late Second Temple Jewishness. “Christianity” as an idea and as an entity is born only long after Paul’s lifetime. To echo Pam Eisenbaum’s felicitous title, Paul was not a Christian.

From Paula Fredriksen, “Putting Paul in His (Historical) Place: A Response to James Crossley, Margaret Mitchell, and Matthew Novenson.” JJMJS No. 5 (2018), 105-106.

With that said, here is my list of journals, key scholars, edited volumes, studies, and commentaries. I will update with any suggestions.

Journals

Journal of the Jesus Movement in its Jewish Setting (online)

Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations (online)

Key Scholars

Frantisek Abel, Michael Bachmann, Thomas R. Blanton IV, Daniel Boyrain, William S. Campbell, James D.G. Dunn, Kathy Ehrensperger, Paula Fredriksen, Jorg Frey, John Gager, Joshua Garroway, Amy-Jill Levine, Caroline Johnson Hodge, Joel Marcus, Mark Nanos, Isaac W. Oliver, Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr, Matthew V. Novenson, Rafael Rodriguez, Anders Runesson, Matthew Thiessen, J. Brian Tucker, Magnus Zetterholm.

Edited Volumes

Abel, Frantisek, ed., Israel and Nations: Paul’s Gospel in the Context of Jewish Expectation. Minneapolis, MN: Lexington Fortress, 2020.

Abel, Frantisek, ed., The Message of the Apostle Paul within Second Temple Judaism. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2020.

Avery-Peck, Alan, et al., eds. Earliest Christianity within the Boundaries of Judaism: Essays in Honor of Bruce Chilton. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016.

Baron, Lori, Jill Hicks-Keeton, and Matthew Thiessen, eds., The Ways that Often Parted: Essays in Honor of Joel Marcus. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2018.

Bieringer, Reimund and Didier Pollefeyt, eds., Paul and Judaism:  Crosscurrents in Pauline Exegesis and the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations. London, UK: T&T Clark International, 2012.

Boccaccini, Gabriele, and Carlos A. Segovia, eds., Paul the Jew: Rereading the Apostle as a Figure of Second Temple Judaism. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2016.

Johnson Hodge, Caroline et al., eds., The One Who Sows Bountifully: Essays in Honor of Stanley K. Stowers. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2013.

Nanos, Mark and Magnus Zetterholm, eds., Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015.

Nanos, Mark. Reading Paul within Judaism: Collected Essays of Mark D. Nanos Vol. 1. Eugene, OR: Cascade Press, 2017. See also Reading Romans within Judaism (Vol. 2), Reading Galatians within Judaism (Vol. 3), and Reading Corithians and Philippians within Judaism (Vol. 4).

Thiessen, Matthew and Rafael Rodriguez, eds., The So-Called Jew in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2016.

Studies

Boyarin, Daniel. A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1997.

Campbell, William S. Paul and the Creation of Christian Identity. London, UK: T&T Clark International, 2008.

Eisenbaum, Pamela. Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle. New York, NY: HaperOne, 2010 ed.

Fredrikson, Paula. Paul: the Pagan’s Apostle. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2017.

Fredrikson, Paula. When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2019.

Johnson Hodge, Caroline. If Sons, Then Heirs: A Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in the Letters of Paul. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Novenson, Matthew V. The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Uses. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Stowers, Stanley K. A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1994.

Thiessen, Matthew. Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Thiessen, Matthew. Paul and the Gentile Problem. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Thiessen, Matthew. Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020.

Thornhill, A. Chadwick. The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Tucker, J. Brian. Reading Romans after Supersessionism: The Continuation of Jewish Covenantal Identity. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018.

Windsor, Lionel J. Paul and the Vocation of Israel. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014.

Commentaries

Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler. The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017 2nd ed.

Tucker, J. Brian. Reading 1 Corinthians. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018.

Rodriguez, Rafael. If You Call Yourself a Jew: Reappraising Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014.

New Thoughts on Romans 1

There is a creative freedom to my reading of the Bible’s homosexuality texts that began when I realized that none of the six passages are essential. Everything necessary for a non-affirming stance can come from Genesis 1-3. God has created humans in his image in distinctly complementary sexes. Men are men in the image of God insofar as their relations to women are distinctly male, and Women likewise with men. Genesis creates basic assumptions about the purpose and function of men and women as distinct, sexed, and complimentary products of God’s creation. These basic assumptions continue to resurface throughout the canon. For example, Ephesians 5 is not a text that mentions homosexuality, but I think it matters more in our theology of sexuality than any of the texts that outright name the topic. I think even if the standard six texts — Genesis 19, Leviticus 18, Leviticus 20, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 Timothy 1 — did not exist, the Biblical prohibition of same-sex marriage would remain.

In that light, I have come to love the exegesis of these chapters. The pressure is off. They can say whatever they really say, and any number and combination of the affirming or non-affirming interpretations may be right for any of the texts. None of it will lead to an affirmation of same-sex marriage anyway, so some texts may be truncated in their reach by the affirming interpretations. And that’s okay, if the interpretations are convincing. I do not think many of them are, but some, here and there, are actually great exegetical observations. In this post I want to talk about 5 valid considerations on Romans 1 which should shape our understanding of that passage. None of these points are intended to indicate that I’ve changed my mind on the topic as a whole. Instead, I love the text too much to misread it whenever a better reading is on the table.

1. Wisdom of Solomon

I can’t describe my shock when someone first showed me this point. Paul’s discussion of idolatry and sexual sin in Romans 1 looks a whole lot like Wisdom of Solomon’s discussion of those same topics (ch. 13-14). The logic of that text works like this: sexual sin is caused by idolatry. Gentile nations worship idols, which is why we also see that Gentile nations practice wild sexual sin. Israel does not practice idolatry, and so, does not have widespread sexual sin. This is also why marrying Gentiles is so bad. Not because it defiles the bloodline (a 19th/20th century concept), but because it leads to idolatry with their foreign gods and so also sexual immorality.

What Paul, then, is really doing is Romans 1 is this. He is agreeing with Wisdom of Solomon in its straightforward observation that idolatry leads to sexual sin, but he is going to disagree with the reason for that, or that Israel is any less sinful. If that is true, then Wisdom of Solomon, while not scripture, is essential to understanding the argument of Romans. It is a crucial piece of the background noise of 1st century Judaism against which we have to read the New Testament.

There is a book called God, Grace, and Righteousness in Wisdom of Solomon and Paul by Jonathan Linebaugh that I really, really, need to read, which makes this argument at full academic level. In the meantime, reading those two chapters in the link above is a great place to start.

2. Shape of the Discourse in ch. 1-3

That point leads into this point. Romans 1:26-27 is part of the larger context of Romans 1:18-31, and this is often acknowledged. Less often, though, is it put into the even wider context of Romans ch. 1-3 in their entirety. There is a shape to this whole discourse that helps us understand not just what Romans 1:18-31 (and so, 1:26-27) is saying, but also how that content functions in Paul’s argument.

The shape, roughly, goes like this. Paul agrees with the author of Wisdom of Solomon in Romans 1 that idolatry is stupid and that sexual sin and even all kinds of other sins result from idolatry. But in ch. 2 he abruptly pivots to another perspective (“But you”). Where before he had been railing against the Gentiles, he now turns to his fellow Jews and says, “Yes, that’s true about them, and sure you don’t have idolatry, and you even have the perfect embodiment of the law in Torah, but you STILL practice all the same sins as the Gentiles.” Even though Paul has agreed with the content of Wisdom of Solomon’s basic claim, he here disagrees with its argumentative function. The idolatrous Gentiles’ sin is actually not reason to gloat and be proud for our (Jewish) righteousness, Paul thinks. Instead, Paul introduces a different theological principle in ch. 3. Everyone is sinful. The everyone here is not intended to mean “every individual single person,” although that is also true, but it is mainly meant to say “both Jews and Gentiles.” Every national group is sinful.

What Paul does in these chapters is level the ground beneath the feet of Jews and Gentiles alike, affirming the types of sin that result from idolatry, but asserting that non-idolaters also sin anyways. (Later in ch. 5 he goes into why, which is Adam’s original sin impacting all humanity).

I first got this point from a podcast interview with Tim Gombis. He thinks, and he is right, that we need to follow “the whole thrust of the logic of Romans.” Gombis argues (35min mark &f.) that the discourse structure of ch. 1-3 is shaped to condemn exactly the kind of people who would use 1:26-27 as a clobber passage to condemn gay people. How ironic. So then, it would seem that the shape of the discourse in ch. 1-3 would prevent us from taking 1:26-27 out of its argumentative function and using it to isolate one class of people as uniquely sinful.

3. No Concept of Sexual Orientation

There was no concept of sexual orientation in the first century. There wasn’t such a concept until the late 1800’s, for that matter. So, what is Paul referring to in 1:26-27 when he clearly describes men having sex with men and women with women?

I don’t mean they didn’t understand what homosexuality was. I mean that in Greco-Roman society same-sex sexuality was socially constructed differently than we socially construct it today. Today, it is a categorical mark of personhood because it is fixed from birth/puberty/biology and defines how the rest of society interacts with you for your whole life. In our society, in the popular understanding, you are either straight, or gay. If you are bisexual, you are mentally lumped in with gay as “non-straight,” because our society is highly heteronormative.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, same-sex sex was common between male masters and their male slaves. Similarly, adult male tutors would have pedophilic sex with male children students, and it was not condemned as a part of 1st century sexuality. Gay sex was also common in temple prostitution for the local gods and in mystery cults. None of these are “sexual orientation” like we think about that concept today. I have even heard it claimed by someone, I forgot who, that “everyone was just vaguely bi” back then, because there was no defining standard for heterosexuality, and polyamory and free sex were common practices anyways. The Greco-Roman world was far more sexually diverse than 2019 America, and whether that is hard to accept says more about you than it says about Paul’s social context.

So it has been proposed that what Paul must mean in 1:26-27 is not “gay people,” or anything to do with sexual orientation, but instead basically straight people who are so full of lust that they turn to gay sex. I say “basically straight people” because sexual orientation did not exist, and to be male (per Genesis) is to relate to women in a way that is distinctly male, and vice versa. You are attracted to women not because you are straight, but because you are a man. In this reading of the text, Paul must mean that gay sex is not a lesser form of straight sex but a further, more powerful, more raw and lustful form of sex. Paul is criticizing this practice after vv. 24-25 because same-sex sex is an even greater example of the sexual fallenness he describes in those verses.

Notice my move there. I just accepted the affirming argument that sexual orientation did not exist in the Greco-Roman world, but still argued that Paul sees the sex described in vv. 26-27 as sinful, and even, more sinful.

4. Break between vv. 24-25 and vv. 26-27

Shorter point here. One significant feature of the text in 1:24-27 is that they should never be grouped this way because there is an intentional break between them. Paul finishes his point about people serving the creation (idols) with their bodies (sexual sin), then mentions the name of God and promptly lets out a hearty ὅς ἐστιν εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, ἀμήν. ([God] who is forever praised, amen). Even without the amen, this sentence would neatly divide 24-25 from 26-27. But with the amen, they become entirely separate points with distinct content and distinct rhetorical functions. We should read 1:24-25 as not being about gay sex at all, which only enters the conversation at 1:26. The payoff of this idea is that now Paul spends as much space in 1:24-25 criticizing straight sexual immorality as he does in 1:26-27 criticizing same-sex sexual immorality. Not that that equalizes or levels the two forms of immorality to be the same. Instead, it makes the second a “step further” than the former. They (1:24-25 and 1:26-27) are not the same point, and the first is logically prior to the second.

5. Gay Sex Joke / Play on Words in v. 27

There is no way I am the first person to argue this, absolutely no way, but I can’t find anyone else making this point. I read 1:27 with a certain innuendo. Paul says that men who have sex with men receive “in themselves” what is due for their errors. The phrase is ἐν ἑαυτοῖς , en + the dative 3mp pronoun. I’m not sure how else to read this other than as a Spatial Dative, they received “inside themselves” what is due for their errors, they received “in their physical bodies” what is due for their errors, they received “in their anus” what is due for their errors. I think Paul is intentionally phrasing this sentence to be a play on words so that the “due penalty” is not some abstract punishment from God but instead it is the physical pain of having to receive gay sex.

There is another possible connection here with Wisdom of Solomon 14:26, which normally just gets translated as “homosexuality” but the particular words are interesting as well. There it reads γενέσεως ἐναλλαγή , “inverted nature” [not philosophical nature/essence, but physical nature]. Could Paul be glossing this verse from Wisdom of Solomon and expanding what he thinks it means?

Or alternatively, it could be that “what is due” is that they receive shame (ἀσχημοσύνην, v. 27) and dishonor (ἀτιμίας, v. 26) for having gay sex. In that case, we go back to the Greco-Roman mindset, where it is not shameful to give gay sex, but it is shameful to receive gay sex, because the receiving partner is the “feminine” of the two, and for a man to be cast as feminine in any way is a source of social shame. This would accord well with the joke Paul appears to be making. Shame and dishonor would be the penalty which someone receiving gay sex receives “in themselves.”

Conclusion

We have been over-simplifying this passage since forever, but complicating it does not need to lead in an affirming direction. It can be more complicated than we learned in Jr. High youth group, and still align with the broader assumptions about men and women in the divine image which began in Genesis 1-3 and continued throughout the canon. This post doesn’t answer every question about the affirming hermeneutic, but I hope it demonstrates the kind of stance I take. I am very open to the exegetical claims, but highly skeptical that they lead anywhere in our broader theology of sexuality.

Photo by adrian on Unsplash

A good word from Barth

The promise of the Word of God is not as such an empty pledge which always stands, as it were, confronting man. It is the transposing of man into the wholly new state of one who has accepted and appropriated the promise, so that irrespective of his attitude to it he no longer lives without this promise but with it. The claim of the Word of God is not as such a wish or command which remains outside the hearer without impinging on his existence. It is the claiming and commandeering of man. Whatever may be his attitude to God’s claim, man as a hearer of His Word now find himself in the sphere of the divine claim; he is claimed by God. Again, the judgment of the Word of God is not a mere aspect under which man himself remains untouched, just as the same man may seem to be a giant from the standpoint of the ant or a dwarf from the standpoint of the elephant without in fact being any different either way. The judgment of God as such creates not only a new light and therewith a new situation, but also with the new situation a new man who did not exist before but who exists now, being identical with the man who has heard the Word. Again, that would not be the blessing of God’s Word which as benedictio [declared blessed] was not immediately and as such seen and understood to be beneficium [actually blessed] as well, a real placing under God’s good-pleasure and protection.

We find all this expressed in the strongest imaginable way in James 1:18, where (cf. also 1 Peter 1:23) there is reference to the fact that the Christian is begotten of the λογος αληθειας. Then in v. 21 goes on logically to speak of a λογος εμφυτος, i.e., a λογος which, so to speak, belongs to man himself, without which man would no longer be himself.

Church Dogmatics I/1 p. 152-153

Against “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation”

I will start this post with a long, overloaded quote from John Goldingay in his book Do We Need the New Testament? pp. 173-4.

It is true that the Rule of Faith provides a horizon from within which we may come to understand the Scriptures, and it may open our eyes to see things from within the horizon of the Scriptures themselves. It thus fulfills a function analogous to that of a concern for the gospel’s significance for the whole world, which makes it possible to look back at the First Testament [JG’s term for the Old Testament] and see that this concern is also present there, so that theological interpretation is missional. But its role is to enable us to see things that are there; it does not determine what is allowed to be there. It is not the “definitive hermeneutical framework for understanding the Scriptures.” The Scriptures do not need to be rendered coherent and relevant; they are coherent and relevant. The Rule of Faith can help us see how that is so. But where they have a broader horizon than that of the Rule of Faith, we will be wise not to narrow down their horizon to ours; we allow them to broaden our horizon. In practice the church has followed the Rule of Faith in a way that did constrain what the Scriptures are allowed to say, and the Rule of Faith has thus been a disaster for the hearing of the First Testament. The Rule of Faith has no room and no hermeneutic for any episodes in the scriptural story between Genesis 3 and Matthew 1. As Robert W. Jenson put it, “The rule of faith saved the Old Testament as canon for the church — or rather, the church for the Old Testament canon — but in the process it did not open itself to the theological shape of the Old Testament’s own narrative, and so it could not support the Old Testament’s specific role in the church’s practice.” One recalls the alleged statement about a Vietnamese city by a major in the United States army, that “it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”

I have bolded the idea I want to highlight. A story line of “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation” tells the Old Testament too simply. This is bad enough on its own: we should want to understand the Old Testament correctly. But it becomes outright disastrous later because the New Testament emanates out of the Old Testament. The shape of God’s intervention in history in Israel becomes the setting of Jesus’s ministry and his purpose. So to reduce the Old Testament story is to outright flatten the New Testament gospel. You can’t understand Jesus’s mission statement for the spread of the Gospel (Acts 1:8) unless you understand the question that prompted it: the disciples asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Why was this their question?

Instead of the Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation structure, I want to chart a brief sketch of Exile and Restoration in the history of Israel. This path is not original and has been done many times before.

To live with God is to live in his presence, where he dwells, under his blessing and authority. God made a covenant with Abraham that God would live with Abraham’s descendants in this way. However, in God’s mysterious providence, they ended up in Egypt rather than in Palestine. They were exiles, living in the wrong place under the authority of the wrong ‘king,’ Pharaoh. So God brought them out (the Exodus) and Restored them to their rightful place, and ruled over them directly. They now lived in the Kingdom of God.

Fast forward 650 years and it happens again. The people of Israel/Judah have fallen into great moral wickedness and unrepentant idolatry. God has decided they must be disciplined, and so the neighboring warlord empires (Assyria, then Babylon) come destroy them and take the surviving Israelites into exile for a time. The prophets consciously realize that this is a repeat of what has happened before. They declare that just as God was faithful to Israel before in rescuing his covenant people from exile in Egypt — a first exodus — he would be faithful again to rescue his covenant people from exile in Babylon — a second exodus.

This second exodus happened. Nehemiah 7 even goes on for dozens upon dozens of verses to list how many exiles returned home alive from each tribe and clan. They rebuilt the temple, and the city walls, and God’s blessing and favor was on them. Or, it should have been. But it was not. The Seleucid Empire took control and did awful things. So awful that the Jews tried to revolt and restore God’s kingdom, which worked for a while but then fell apart again. Rome came and conquered Israel, installing a fake “Jewish” king but mostly ruling through the Roman Governor in the region.

As a result, the Jews of the first century were convinced that the second exodus never really happened. Yes, it happened physically, since the people did return to the land and now live there. God, though, is not ruling, and so his blessing is not on the people, and they suffer in “exile” in their own land. God will send a warrior-king to overthrow these enemies and institute the Kingdom of God again.

The Sea of Galilee, looking east. I took this picture last December on a trip to Israel.

Enter Jesus, who claims that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” His audience would have looked around, noticed a Roman soldier standing across the street, pointed at him and said, “no it’s not.” As a matter of fact the Kingdom of God is not at hand, they would have said. This gets right at the heart of Jesus’s mission. Jesus did not come to achieve satisfaction of the wrath of God to pay the debt of your sin on the cross and regenerate your heart and etc. No. Jesus came to restore Israel. You don’t personally “get saved.” You get ingrafted into Israel, which gets saved. Your sin-debt isn’t cancelled. God’s unique wrath wasn’t against you, silly Gentile who did not have the Torah. You were just going to hell, courtesy of God’s general wrath. God’s unique wrath was against Israel, who had the Torah and did not follow it, which is why he sent them into exile in the first place. Jesus appeases this unique wrath of God, ending the exile. Yes, you are a sinner in the hands of an angry God. But this same angry God has created a covenant with his people, and now you are part of his people, whose unique wrath from God has been appeased. Similarly, you yourself are not “regenerated,” whatever that means, but instead the Spirit of God is poured out on the True Israel and so the Spirit enables you to walk the Way (another exodus term) of Jesus. If Jesus was on a mission to restore Israel, all our doctrines of salvation and holiness flow from that mission.

Of the whole New Testament, Mark focuses the most on the second exodus theme. He outright begins the entire Gospel with a quote about it from Isaiah 40. He keeps quoting Isaiah his whole book. Mark structures his gospel (1:16-8:21; 8:22-10:45; 10:46-16:8) to parallel the structure of Isaiah 40-66, a second exodus text. Mark’s Jesus does many exorcisms and then explains them (Mark 3:27) by quoting Isaiah 49:24-25, a second exodus text. The Jewish people who were called to repentance would not repent and instead killed the innocent messenger: Isaiah by sawing in half, Jesus by crucifixion, in fulfillment of Isaiah 53, a messianic second exodus text. Mark also pulls themes and quotes from Malachi which is all about this second exodus (as is Hosea which is kind of a missed opportunity by Mark but Matthew catches it and adds it to his gospel in Matt 2:15). Anyways, I could keep going since the New Testament is full of this concept and I would even say is defined by it. (See Beale’s New Testament Biblical Theology pp. 694-699 for a good summary of Watt’s book on this topic).

“Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation.” What is redeemed? Are we, individuals, redeemed? Hardly. Israel is redeemed by Jesus’s faithfulness as a Suffering Servant. Because of his faithfulness, God has resurrected Jesus from the dead several thousand years ahead of the general resurrection of the dead on the Last Day. Now, Israel is invited to participate in the kingship of God, the kingdom of God, the sovereignty of God, by hope-filled and sanctified presence under any earthly king. Earthly kings can’t stop the power of God (seen in Jesus being killed by an earthly king and then getting unkilled by God). In an unfortunate plot twist, the Jewish people for some reason overwhelmingly rejected this work of God, but that doesn’t change its shape or content. Instead the followers of Jesus were a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish people, which begins to achieve the purpose all along. God was always going to use Israel to reach the rest of the world, and even if 99% of Jews in Jesus’s day rejected the message, God’s mission was going to continue.

What I am getting at is that “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation” hardly captures the richness of the Old Testament second exodus theme and so misconstrues the New Testament from the start. So the Old Testament gets mostly cancelled except Genesis 1-3 and few Messiah prophecies, just to set-up a misconstrued New Testament. Not great.

Even if you understand the Rule of Faith [C, F, R, C] as corporate salvation instead of individual salvation, which is a step in the right direction, it still place salvation outside of history. Who cares when Jesus came to earth? He could have died 1000 years before, or in 1978 for all it matters, our salvation is still understood the same. No. Jesus’s Incarnation is a specific invasion by God into history in a particular time. To take the Incarnation out of its historical time is to screw up the whole picture. Israel has been “already-not-yet” restored by Jesus’s death and resurrection. This wouldn’t have made sense 1000 years before, when Israel was still functioning. The hope for a Messiah was built out of a specific historical reading of the work of God in the world. The Judaism that Jesus fulfilled was a religion in history. God did not just create a timeless ethical teaching that would last for all the ages. God acted in history in a first exodus, and then neglected to do so in the second exodus, which set up the hope for a Messiah and made history itself a Jewish and so then also a Christian concept.

That summarizes what I want to say on this topic for now. There is more — how do the other topics of Creation, Fall, and Consummation fit into this frame? Another time, maybe another nitro cold brew and another late afternoon on a fall day at a coffee shop near campus, to the neglect of my actual homework. The most important and hardest work is to do what Goldingay said in the opening quote: “where [the Scriptures] have a broader horizon than that of the Rule of Faith, we will be wise not to narrow down their horizon to ours; we allow them to broaden our horizon.”

Jesus had to be one with us.

diary of a country priest image

We human people are so fallen, and we’ve been so fallen for so long, that we actually think that we are the measure of what it means to be human. It’s striking. We say things like “to err is human.” And we unwittingly then begin to define humanity in terms of that fallenness, in terms of its brokenness, in terms of its incompleteness. But if you define humanity like that, what do you do with Jesus? What do you do with Jesus who takes upon himself our humanity, yet, as the Bible tells us, is without sin, who does not err?

What we see in Jesus is true humanity. What we see in his incarnation, his earthly life and ministry, is what humanity was meant to be, what Adam was created to be but ruined in his sin and his fall. So, as Romans 5 teaches, the first man Adam sins, and through his sin death enters the world. But here comes a second Adam, a true Adam, Christ, who is truly man. What Christ does in his humanity is nothing short of remarkable. In his humanity, he offers to God everything that we owe God. In his humanity, in his perfect obedience to God’s commands, he offers to God the obedience that we refuse to give him (and could not give him) because of our fallen, sinful nature.

It’s absolutely essential that what we see in Christ is perfect righteousness, because he’s supplying that righteousness on our behalf. All the righteousness we will ever need is in the Son of God who took upon himself our flesh, our likeness, our human nature. Not only does he positively supply the righteousness, but on the cross, our Savior dies and pays the penalty that humanity owed. He dies in our place. We owe God not only righteousness, but now because we didn’t supply that righteousness, we also owe God our lives, our death, our blood. Christ takes our place, and he supplies to God the sacrifice on our behalf that satisfies God’s demands for righteousness and his righteous determination to punish sin.

And so in order to be for us a perfect High Priest, in order to be for us a perfect offering, Jesus had to be one with us. He had to take upon himself our nature and in that nature demonstrate what humanity is, what is was meant to be — righteous before God, obedient to God, worshiping God in all things, loving him fully. And he also demonstrates what humanity owes when he pays the penalty on Calvary’s cross for our sin. And so to be that High Priest, a perfect High Priest, who also now sympathizes with us, knows our suffering, knows our failures, knows our troubles, and knows them intimately because he experienced them in our flesh, he can look to humanity with sympathy and represent humanity to God with perfection.

And so it was necessary that he be made like us in every way, but without sin.

Thabiti Anyabwile, from question 22 of the New City Catechism Devotional.

Photo of Claude Laydu from Diary of a Country Priest (1951), a symbol of ultimate humanity.

Agamben on Paul and the Law, monastic rule

This is the most succinct I have found Agamben on Paul and the Law. (He wrote a whole book on it, The Time That Remains, but besides that he brings it up often). The second paragraph is what matters here, the rest are given for context, the italics are original but boldface is my emphasis.

highest poverty image

The considerations developed up to now must have rendered obvious the sense in which it is almost impossible to pose the problem of the juridical or nonjuridical nature of the monastic rules without falling into anachronism. Even granting that something like our term juridical has always existed (which is no less dubious), it is certain, in any case, that it means one thing in Roman law, another in the early centuries of Christianity, another still starting from the Carolingian age, and another, finally, in the modern age, when the State begins to assume the monopoly over law. Furthermore, the debates that we have analyzed over the “legal” or “advisory” character of the rules, which seem to approach the terms of our problem, become intelligible only if one does not forget that they are superimposed over the theological problem of the relation between the two diathēkai, the Mosaic law and the New Testament.

In this sense, the problem ceases to be anachronistic only if it is restored to its proper theological context, which is that of the relationship between evangelium and lex (that is, first of all, the Hebraic law). The theory of this relationship was elaborated in the Pauline letters and culminates in the declaration that Christ as messiah is telos nomou, end and fulfillment of the law (Rom. 10:4). Even if in the same letter this radical messianic thesis —and the opposition that it implies between pistis and nomos—is complicated to the point of giving rise to a series of aporias (as in 3:31: “Do we then render the law inoperative by this faith? By no means! On the contrary , we uphold the law”), it is nonetheless certain that the Christian life is no longer “under the law” and cannot in any case be conceived in juridical terms. The Christian, like Paul, is “dead to the law” (nomōi apethanon; Gal. 2:19), and lives in the freedom of the spirit. Even when the Gospel is counterposed to the Mosaic law as a “law of faith” (Rom. 3:27), or later as a nova lex to the vetus, it remains the case that neither its form nor its content are homogeneous to those of the nomos. “The difference between the law and the Gospel,” one reads in Isidore’s Liber differentiarum (chap. 31), “is this: in the law there is the letter, in the Gospel grace . . . the first was given for transgression, the second for justification; the law shows sin to the one who does not know it, grace helps him to avoid it . . . in the law the commandments are observed, in the fullness of the Gospel the promises are consummated.”

It is in this theological context that one must situate the monastic rules. Basil and Pachomius, to whom we owe, so to speak, the archetypes of the rules, are perfectly conscious of the irreducibility of the Christian form of life to the law. Basil, in his treatise on baptism, explicitly confirms the Pauline principle according to which the Christian dies to the law (apothanein tōi nomōi), and as we have seen, Pachomius’s Praecepta atque iudicia opens with the statement that love is the fulfillment of the law (plenitudo legis caritas). The rule, whose model is the Gospel, cannot therefore have the form of law, and it is probable that the very choice of the term regula implied an opposition to the sphere of the legal commandment. It is in this sense that a passage from Tertullian seems to oppose the term rule to the “form of the [Mosaic] law”: “Once the form of the old law was dissolved [veteris legis forma soluta], this is the first rule which the apostles, on the authority of the Holy Spirit, sent out to those who were already beginning to be gathered to their side out of the nations” (Tertullian 3, 12). The nova lex cannot have the form of law, but as regula, it approaches the very form of life, which it guides and orients (regula dicta quod recte ducit, recalls an etymology from Isidore, Etymologiarum 6.16).

The problem of the juridical nature of the monastic rules here finds both its specific context and its proper limits. Certainly the Church will progressively construct a system of norms that will culminate in the twelfth century in the system of canon law that Gratian compiles in his Decretum. But if Christian life doubtless can readily encounter the sphere of law, it is just as certain that the Christian forma vivendi itself—which is what the rule has in view—cannot be exhausted in the observance of a precept, which is to say that it cannot have a legal nature.

 

Agamben, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, 45-47.