Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bauckham's "Jesus and the God of Israel," 2B (Historical Reconstructions and Modern Theology)

Continuing in Chapter 2 (to see earlier posts, just hit the "Richard Bauckham" or the "Jesus and the God of Israel" tags), Bauckham turns to historical models and their applicability to modern theology for the biblical theologian.

In the next section, Bauckham discusses the problem of how a biblical theologian to construct a theology of the old testament while allowing historical “facts” could have been different than the bible’s own narrative? I appreciate his recognition of a possible divergence here, and the archaeological evidence indicates such a divergence in ancient Israelite practice. I find this section difficult to evaluate, since I am not a theologian, but as a historian, I’ll give it my best try. For example, I could never ask, “Could YHWH really be as the Old Testament portrays him if, historically, even the claim of exclusive Yahwism has merely been projected back through fictionalized history after the exile all the way to Moses?” (71). I am more interested in how these texts variously portray God rather than considering whether or not what they portray is an accurate account of God. I’ll leave that to others.

But it does intrude into his assessment of historical reconstructions; for example, he doubts “that the emerging consensus that Israelite religion was in origin simply Canaanite religion has a historically persuasive basis in the evidence.” While framed as historical inquiry, by the time we get to the end of this section, his dismissal is based mostly on theological (and not historical) grounds. But let’s look at the historical points he makes along the way.

He recognizes the worship of other gods besides YHWH, particularly Asherah, in the preexilic period, which is itself consistent with biblical narrative (although biblical narrative is opposed to this practice). It demonstrates the existence of both polytheistic practice alongside exclusive Yahwism at least in the monarchical period. By the way, “exclusive Yahwism” will become his preferred terminology in this section to cover everything from “monolatry” to “Jewish monotheism.” He also accurately notes that Yahwism was a “theological judgment” often used in “historical retrospect,” due to its later normativity in the post-exilic period. He also notes that just because there is no archaeological evidence for exclusive Yahwism until the late monarchical period does not mean it did not preexist before this evidence; indeed, a lack of evidence is not an evidence of lack.

Next he turns to the necessity and problems of history of religions models, especially developmental models. He’s probably right here—developmental models are difficult to maintain, largely, actually, due to the persistence of polytheistic or henotheistic practice.

For the rest of the time, he reviews Robert Gnuse’s No Other Gods. In so doing, he will suggest that mainstream scholarship is as speculative and hypothetical as those outside the mainstream. By showing how Gnuse dismisses other models outside the mainstream, B notes that Gnuse places the greatest weight on the fact that they are outside the mainstream. Gnuse may problematically dismiss alternative and barely defensible models ineptly. I do not know. I haven’t read his work. But showing Gnuse’s inability to dismiss alternatives does not actually demonstrate the weakness of the consensus model. Of course, model building is how historical inquiry works, by developing the model that best accounts for all of the available evidence, taking into account the biases and ambiguities of the evidence, etc. You cannot “prove” or “disprove” a model, unless they are really bad, but can only offer a different one that better takes account of all of the evidence (this, in fact, is what B himself attempts in his first chapter—he constructs a model of divinity that tries to take into account the most evidence possible). B recognizes, however, since he is outside of his expertise that he is not really in a position to offer an alternative model. He will just pick away at the consensus model by reviewing a single proponent of that model.

He uses Gnuse as a foil against this model that sees Israelite religion as originally indistinguishable from Canaanite out of which later developments of exclusive Yahwism emerged in a process of “convergence” and “differentiation” (to use Mark Smith’s terms), choosing him not because he is necessarily the most influential or persuasive representative of that model, but because, like Bauckham, he claims to be doing “biblical theology.” I think not choosing to engage someone like Mark Smith, who is more influential, weakens Bauckham’s critique of this model from a historical perspective, but I do see a certain degree of defensibility in that Gnuse is a more direct interlocutor in a theological conversation. Yet on the model's historical persuasiveness (or lack thereof), if you are going to critique an entire movement, engage it at its most persuasive and influential to make your own critique more persuasive. I should note, however, that Bauckham himself later picks up on the model of “convergence” and “differentiation,” so it ultimately is not entirely clear how he differs from the emergent consensus in terms of the pre-exilic period.

Gnuse tends to follow an evolutionary model, in fact, a “punctuated equilibrium” evolutionary model, something I have found more popular not just in biblical scholarship, but in philosophical models of a great deal of processes (religious, economic, etc.) in the current academic climate. I agree with Bauckham that this is just an adaptation of the progressivist Enlightenment model, and often lacks explanatory force. Gnuse, therefore, sees an evolutionary series of revolutions in ancient Israel that culminates in exile where “true monotheism” emerged out of socio-political crisis. Crisis, in fact, is often a catalyst for innovation (by working with traditional materials in new and creative ways).

In addition to Enlightenment projections, B criticizes Gnuse for replacing the Bible’s own narrative with a modern reconstructed history with the conclusion: “It is merely rather surprising that Gnuse sees his work, in its theological aspect, as biblical theology” (79). I see nothing wrong with having a reconstructed historical narrative and using this to inform one’s own theology, even if it diverges with the Bible’s own account. B claims that Gnuse (and others) are just imposing their own ideological commitments onto the ancient evidence. He is probably right. But so does he. He imposes his own theological commitments onto the texts based upon his own current theological tradition. They just simply disagree on what a viable theology is. Not my fight.

According to Gnuse, moreover, this monotheistic breakthrough was only the beginning (evolutionary revolution is ongoing), moving beyond the biblical paradigm.

B criticizes Gnuse on two points here. (1) He only focuses on Jews and Christians, whereas if the evolution is ongoing, shouldn’t Islam be considered another breakthrough? I agree, whether evolutionary or not, if one is doing a broader history of monotheism Islam should be included. (2) He is not mindful to the modern repercussions of this idea, that on this model, the next “evolutionary breakthrough” could be perceived to be “postmodern atheism.” I actually am not quite sure what “postmodern atheism” is. Atheism seems to me to be a primarily modernist mode. Postmodern thought has been effectively employed by theists, in liberal, conservative, moderate (and other) theological circles. This, however, is not an argument of whether it fits the ancient evidence, but its current viability as a theological mode: not my fight except insofar as it is used to assess historical viability.

On the other hand, he praises Gnuse for moving beyond the old-fashioned search for what is unique to how old ideas are transformed.

“As Peter Machinist shows, while Old Testament scholars find it increasingly difficult to locate anything truly unique in Israel’s religion, a strong sense of uniqueness of YHWH and of Israel (and the two as clearly connected) pervades the writings of the Hebrew canon” (80). There it is an establishment of a counter-identity in the face of older and more dominant cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. I find this rather true. There isn’t much, if anything, in ancient Israelite religion that cannot be found elsewhere, but there is also a sense of their own uniqueness (a paradoxical combination). I think this is something to reflect upon a bit longer, and wish B had done so. Perhaps the self-perceived distinctiveness lies in a particular, unique configuration of individual non-unique elements. It is the interrelation and relationship of these elements that may be of greatest importance rather than any individual trait. It would be good to further discuss how or why these texts, such as D and 2nd Isaiah, construct this exclusivist theology based upon context, when they are nearly always a minor and subordinate religion vis-à-vis Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Hellenstic kingdoms, and Rome? It is quite amazing that they constructed their god as most powerful when they were so often without power. I think a more extended engagement with Machinist, whom B seems to approve of, might be fruitful.

B argues that the quest for the unique identity of YHWH in the Old Testament is not just looking for “monotheistic” claims, but that these claims are made with no diminution of the particularity of YHWH, the God of Israel:

“biblical ‘monotheism,’ whether or not we choose to use the word and however we find it necessary to define it, is a claim about the God who defines himself by his covenant with Israel and the particular name YHWH that cannot be abstracted from his particular identity in his history with Israel” (81).

I could not agree more. He, interestingly, has started to put “monotheism” in quotes—it seems he is loosening the need for the terminology, at least in this chapter, which is probably wise when dealing with the OT.

He often uses the quest for the historical Jesus as an analogue to the historical reconstructions of ancient Israel, criticizing both for trying to recover something behind the “distortions” of canonical accounts, but, instead, just puts a different, modern distortion on top of it. I would note that just because the modern reconstructions are “distorted” in some way, does not free the ancient accounts from distortion. The point is to recognize the tendency of that distortion and see if we can account for it in some way (an admittedly very difficult and ongoing task). On the other hand, I am not sure if the historical Jesus searches are the best analogues, because, in contrast to those in which we only can try to read the gospels against themselves, we actually do have contradictory evidence (such as archaeology) in ancient Israel that D’s perspective, for example, is not representative of the variety of ancient Israelite practice.

B continues:

“If the attractive religious paradigm is that of Israel when Israelite religion was very much like most other ancient Near Eastern religious cultures, then there can be no good reason for continuing to be religiously interested in Israel in particular. Ancient polytheistic religion is, after all, much better documented outside Israel, and has left much more impressive religious literature elsewhere than the few polytheistic fragments that might be recoverable from the monotheistic censuring to which Israel’s religion was subject in the literature that survives in the Old Testament” (81-2).

Maybe, maybe not. This dismissal is too easy. It is like saying that if you want to be monotheist, it does not matter if you are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim—they are all ultimately close enough. Maybe people coming out of a tradition of Judaism and Christianity are attracted to a Yahwistic polytheism or henotheism. Otherwise, perhaps people DO want to do this. If so, it is up to them. On the other hand, if this empties out the religious interest in ancient Israel (although I am not sure it does), it still does not dismiss the historical inquiry and interest. But, recall, he is using Gnuse more for his application of historical paradigms in current theological paradigms; it does not mean that if those theological paradigms are difficult to follow or contradict one’s own commitments that the historical paradigm is not the best we have at the moment.

Ultimately, Bauckham is right that "consensuses" come and go. It is not enough just to say something is or is not agreeing with the consensus view; one should engage the argument on its own merits. On the other hand, dismissing the consensus view based upon one proponent's (inept) dismissal of a non-consensus view and not engaging that view at its most persuasive and influential diminishes Bauckham's critique of it.

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