Reflections for 11/11: Jesus of Faith, Jesus of History and the “Real” Jesus

Being able to distinguish between biographical facts about Jesus’ life and the theological and literary elements of the Gospels can, to a certain degree, allow an element of autonomy in each distinct area of inquiry.  A person interested in the historical facts does not necessarily have to worry about conflicts with her own faith’s theological doctrines.  A person interested in theology does not need to be threatened by historical challenges to their interpretations.  Without these dangers it seems like some mutual enrichment is possible.  The opposite would seem to be the case; if the two methods of inquiry are autonomous than how can they be mutually supporting.  However, my argument is that they don’t need to see each other as a threat and can therefore move forward using what the other provides.  So a historian can make judgments about the sorts of things Jesus may have said to His followers and the way His movement worked in relation to other movements with awareness of what theological beliefs exist about these things.  And the person interested in theology can understand the full meaning of the themes of the Gospels in relation to the historical conditions which brought them about.

The reference to Psalms 110:1 which is used to explain David’s relation to the Messiah in Mk 12:35-37 seems to be a clear instance of using existing Scripture to explain Jesus’ role.  This is an interesting case because Jesus is literally in the Temple area quoting Scripture.  At first glance this makes it seem like Mark is not making this reference himself but is just quoting Jesus.  In order to know how much literary freedom Mark is taking here it would be useful to know if Jesus’ earliest disciples already called Him the Messiah without controversy among themselves (because this would hint to whether Jesus spoke extensively to the issue of being the Messiah – Mark seems to indicate He kept it hidden at other times) and perhaps some knowledge of whether Jesus was educated enough to have Scripture memorized like that.  This is just one example of how knowing some historical facts can give us the tools to know the extent to which something is interpretation or is very exactly based on Jesus’ literal actions or statements.


Reflections for 11/6: Community and Interpretation Around the First Century

Part 1

The information in Prof. Levine’s essay can help us to understand how Jesus’ teachings relate to contemporary Judaism especially how he criticizes, adapts, and changes certain elements of Judaism.  It accomplishes this by making us realize that not everything Jesus says or does is “anti-Jewish” or even if it is in opposition to certain Jews it probably isn’t in opposition to all Jews.  With this understanding we can pause when reading the New Testament in order to consider whether it is really a repudiation of past teachings or practices.

Part 2
The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life are all meant, at least in large part, to explain previous Scripture and therefore to give an account of who Jesus was (is) in terms of the history of Israel.  They all agree as seeing him as a savior.  His coming is foretold by John the Baptist who serves the role of a prophet.  Just as a prophet brought about David’s reign and anointed him John the Baptist signals Jesus’ coming and baptizes him.  At the same time John the Baptist’s proclamations see Jesus’ coming as a significant event in and of itself like God’s other interventions in history such as the ending of exile and the Exodus.  This, from this perspective, is just one more action in Israel’s salvific history.  His death is just like the conclusion (to use the term loosely) of Exodus in that a sacrifice is made to save the people, just like a lamb was sacrificed for the first born.  A Son is given to save the people just as a lamb was given to save the sons.

This is all very similar to the way that 1QS shows the Qumran community interpreted already existing Scripture to give an account of events happening in their own time and to explain their role in Israel’s salvific history. So both the early Christians and the Qumran community understood themselves as part of something which “fulfills” Scripture and therefore as part of the movement which will bring about Israel’s ultimate salvation.   They see themselves as part of something which will restore the Judeans to glory.

Reflections for 11/4: Groups Towards the Emergence of Christianity

Often times we initially think of Jews as homogenous and able to act with one voice like they did when Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd, for example.  However, the diversity of groups and the differences among them undermines this assumption.

We also think that the Jews were caught up in strict literalism and Jesus challenged this.  It would seem that this is also not the case, because there are groups who seem to take a certain amount of interpretative freedom in relating the scripture (like seeking smooth things or pesher interpretation).

We also perceive of the Jews as being directly controlled by the Sanhedrin and other priestly authorities.  However, these reading reveal that there were many separatist groups and the will of the masses was not always behind these authorities.

Furthermore, we assume that Judaism was united in expecting a single Messiah to come (and some Christians may take the attitude that they missed their chance with Jesus).  However, the Qumran community and Essene sect thought that there would be two Messiahs.

I would be interested to know more about whether and how the Qumran community might have reacted to the Christian movement since the reactions of the other groups are somewhat documented in the New Testament.  I am also aware that there was some violent resistance to the Romans but I never had a strong grasp on which groups participated in this or were against it and how their theologies reflected these matters.

Reflections for 10/30: Jewish Identity in a Greek World

Hellenism and Judaism seem politically opposed at first.  Within Alexandria at least there is limited integration between the communities but at the same time there was a distinctive Jewish identity with the area.  In the Holy Land itself those who claim to be defenders of Judaism wage war against the people they label as traitors against YHVH.  In this sense they draw a political distinction between two communities.  This distinction is further reinforced by the depiction of the Hellenists as the “fourth beast” which rules over Israel in contrast with an independent Israelite Kingdom.

However, at the same time Jewish theology and scripture is adapted, especially in Alexandria, is influenced by Greek.  Scripture is translated and the idea of allegory is introduced.  This shows that at the very least a cultural change was occurring as the Jews lived in a Greek world.

However, even as the identity of the Jewish people became a source of political antagonism what identity even means may have shifted.  Non-Greeks were considered essentially Greek as is indicated by the way Alexander is referred to as being from “Kittim.” But these means that lineage doesn’t have much to do with what identity someone has.  So someone’s commitments to particular cultural practices and perhaps to theological truths determine someone’s identity.  This in turn would open up those not descended from Jacob directly to participate in the Jewish community contrary to what Ezra and Nehemiah would have wanted.

So the most important question to explain this relationship between Judaism and Hellenism is what the relationship is between cultural practices and lineage in determining membership in a community and identity.  Someone interested in resolving who is and is not a Jew would have to put forward a theory which considers the relationship between these factors.  She would also, perhaps, need to explain the role of political alignment and cultural influences in determining what someone is.

Reflections for 10/27: The Return from Exile

Access to the temple allows people to understand themselves as legitimate descendants of Israelite ancestors and priests to be legitimate participants in the rituals.  The people already present are like the foreigners in earlier traditions whom the Israelites were warned not to intermingle with.  They are already in the land, but the land does not belong to them just like when Joshua started the conquest of the land.  From this perspective the Israelites should exclude these people and not intermingle with them just like they were originally warned centuries earlier.

The people are hopeful for a bright future to restore them to the former status they once had but are vulnerable to reminders of the inadequacy of their current position.  It seems, therefore, like the most important question for the People to ask are “is the punishment of exile over?”  The people still suffer from an inferior temple, the lack of a sovereign king, and are slaves to the Persians.  Yet they at least have a temple, they are keeping a crown for a king promised to come, and are slaves in the land instead of outside it.  The People therefore need a way to understand their current position as perhaps a transitioning phase between restoration to the “glory days” and the curse of exile.  When combatting this question the People would need to answer both why they are in their present state and also use predictions like the king Branch as tools for explaining how they might be brought out of it.

Kathleen’s Answer

Kathleen responded to my question #2.

The question was: Explain the relationship between Creation, the Tabernacle and the Temple, and ritual purity. How does the Babylonian exile relate to this relationship?  Consider what “order” means in this context.

The question asks the reader to recall various aspects of different concepts and then to see connections in order to make a general statement about the relationships between all of the different concepts.  The question hints that a unifying feature of all of the concepts is something to do with “order.”

Kathleen did a good job of recalling certain details and spotting relationships between them.  She noted that the structure of the temple/tabernacle resembles the 7 days of creation, that the order of the temple is called into question by the exile, and that as opposed to the Babylonian version of order the exiled Israelites are saying that their temple and their system of worship is what is proper.

A few other concepts could be brought in to tidy up these relationships and to develop the common theme of order even further.  Kathleen recalls the contrast between the tower of Babel (which represents a Ziggurat) and the temple.  What can be further developed is that the creation story in Genesis is meant to contrast with the Enuma Elish by asserting that God and not Marduk is the master over the universe and that God’s order is legitimate while Marduk’s is not.  Moreover, Kathleen could do a better job relating ritual purity to this concept.  Ritual purity represents religious order (as opposed to civil order through the law), and it associated with temple practices.  During the Babylonian exile the priestly tradition placed an emphasis on rituals which can be seen as part of this larger reaction to the Babylonian system of things.

Response to Katie’s Question

Katie’s Question: What is the metaphor for the covenant between God and Israel that is offered by Hosea? What role does Israel have in the metaphor? In the context of Hosea, had they lived up to or understood that role?

The Covenant as explained by Hosea can be interpreted in two different ways depending on the context of the reader/hearer.  The first interpretation would be familiar to us.  Israel is like the wife of God (metaphorically).  By worshipping other gods and goddesses the Israelis are unfaithful to God and are a bad wife that God will reject.  The children of Israel (i.e. the individual people themselves) are like the children in such a relationship.  God cannot really know if they are His or another’s.  From this understanding God casts aside His wife (although within the historical context we would understand this as his right) and rejects His alleged children.

From this understanding the people have failed to live up to their role because they have been a “bad wife.”  They have forsaken the covenant fidelity.  However, God still will ultimately show them mercy and will “court” them again and defend them just as He did when taking them from out of Egypt (and in the numerous other times He has changed His mind about them and saved them).  So for us this is a happy love story where one member of a marriage messes up and initially her partner is upset, but then He comes back and accepts her and forgives her anyway.

However, from a different perspective, taking contemporary beliefs into account, we get a different picture.  Hebrews, especially the uneducated, may have believed in a pantheon of gods.  They probably regarded Yhvh as the central figure in such a pantheon due to their cultural identification as Hebrew, but other local cultures probably influenced them and caused them to adopt some “foreign gods.”  This much is clear from a reading of the Old Testament itself.  What is not clear is that the Hebrews may have believed that Yhvh had a wife in the same way other gods would have (e.g. Baal). This conclusion comes from archaeological evidence and cannot be concluded from the text itself.

Belief in a married Yhvh changes the message of Hosea significantly.  Since the book rejects foreign gods one might include within this rejection a rejection in the belief that Yhvh had a wife.  However, Hosea goes farther than this.  He characterizes Israel as God’s true wife which displaces Asherah from that role.  This would mean that part of the message of the text may have been that the Hebrews misunderstood God’s relationships.  They thought His wife was another deity but instead His wife is Israel itself.

This new interpretation also has implications for whether Israel fulfilled this role.  The element of adultery is certainly still present, but if the Hebrews misunderstood Israel’s role in relation to God they also failed to participate in a divine union that is accessible only between deities.  Hosea makes it clear that union between God and Israel would have profound effects and would restore order to a disordered world.  Such a fulfilled union would bring fulfillment to the nation itself and goes beyond just a mere rekindling of a relationship.