Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Christian Moses: Choosing a Path

The historian of ancient religion typically lives in a patchwork world.  The dearth of ancient evidence is a daily reality to which one submits oneself.  The study of Moses in antiquity, however, oddly presents itself as an embarrassment of riches.  In addition to the Hebrew Bible and Jewish sources, Christian, Muslim, and even “pagan” writers repeatedly retold stories of Moses, sometimes presenting an entire “life,” sometimes focusing on specific episodes or events, and sometimes referring to a general quality or ability of Moses.  Second Temple Jews revisited Sinai over and again, retelling how Moses received the Torah in new circumstances.  He was alternatively invoked as absolutely unique and a model for emulation.  Several events, tropes, roles, and images caught the ancient imagination:  the birth story; the burning bush revelation of the divine name; the signs and wonders he performed in Egypt; the Passover; the Exodus; standing on Sinai; meeting God at the Tent; holding hands up high in battle.  He was liberator, lawgiver, king, priest, magician, visionary, and, dare I say it, a "god."  Moses was and is central for Judaism, but also for Christianity and Islam.  As one historian, C. Umhau Wolf, noted, no other figure from the Hebrew Bible receives as much attention in both the New Testament and the Quran as Moses—outnumbering references even to Abraham!  
There is currently an upsurge in interest in early Christian mobilizations of Moses.  There is a recent monograph by John Lierman on Moses in the New Testament.  The Catholic University of America has recently held a conference featuring Moses in ancient and medieval Christian representation with a promised conference volume forthcoming.  With so much terrain to cover, what paths should one take?  Follow beaten paths, worn-questions and answers from other scholars—often an inevitable occurrence when faced with documents as over-scrutinized as the New Testament?  Seek new paths and questions, but risk being overwhelmed by the unknown?  How does one organize one’s evidence:  by author, corpus, historical period, or topic?  One must choose a path carefully:  one that is one’s own, but that crisscrosses others; one that is original but representative, related to others but coherent in scope.  One such path, I believe, is how ancient Christians represented Moses’ visionary abilities:  What exactly, if anything, did Moses see on the Mountain?  And why does it matter? 
Different early Christians would answer differently:  God, angels (because no one can see God and live!), darkness, the “pattern” of ultimate heavenly realities, and, yes, he saw Jesus.  New Testament writers, while making Jesus a prophet like (or greater than) Moses, tended to claim Moses did not see God (except in Hebrews 11).  Especially moving into the second through the fourth centuries, sometimes he “foresaw” Jesus (these are the “hindparts” Moses was vouchsafed); sometimes the eternal Christ was the being who met with him directly on the mountain; or, my personal favorite, when Jesus was on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah was when they ascended their mounts, making the mountain a trans-temporal hub of some sort as if early Christians were watching Doctor Who.  
Early Christian alternatively affirm and deny Moses' divine visions, and whether they demote or exalt Moses has an important social context:  the authority of Christ and authority of Christian leaders, especially bishops, as mediators of divine realities.  There are many subtle variations to explore on this theme of “who benefits?” by affirming and/or denying Moses’ abilities.  Overall, however, denying Moses’ visions of God was often used to claim Christ as ultimate mediator, even as Christ was a prophet like Moses; affirmations of Moses’ visions affirmed his place in society as analogous to Christian leadership, which, as Andrea Sterk has emphasized, reaches its apogee in the writings of Basil of Caesarea:  as Moses stood between God and the people, so does the bishop.  As bishops aligned themselves with Moses, they tended to emphasize his positive visionary abilities and references to Exod 33:20 (no one can see God and live) fall away to passages like Num. 12:8 (Moses sees the very form of God whereas no one else can).  This will start out as my operating hypothesis.  This project, therefore, dovetails quite nicely with the questions that generated my work on the Sabbath and the Tabernacle in Hebrews:  who can access and mediate access to the divine?

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