Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bauckham's "Jesus and the God of Israel" 2C (Canonical Criticism)

This is the third installment on chapter 2; there is one more to come. To see what I have written before, just follow the "Richard Bauckham" or "Jesus and the God of Israel" tags back.

In this part, Bauckham turns to canonical criticism. Note that we have not engaged any passage of any length in this chapter since Deuteronomy!

B claims that, contra MacDonald, not everyone who perceives monotheism in ancient documents is influenced by the Enlightenment. He suggests that Second Temple and NT scholars are more immune. I disagree: they too have a tendency toward Enlightenment universalizing categories and, too, often employ evolutionary or progressivist models. Nonetheless, he still, I think wisely, keeps to his language of “exclusive Yahwism.”

Shifting from pre-exilic Israelite historical models and their usage for current theology, he shifts lenses to canonical criticism. This criticism does not engage with what a text might have originally meant, but how it was read by ancient Jews who formed the canon. In this way, he can avoid engaging often ambiguous texts and read less monotheistic texts in light of more monotheistic texts. In understanding the texts themselves, I think this is a highly dangerous methodology, but he may be right that these texts were later read in this way. So he has shifted the debate from any particular text’s original context to later contexts, thereby never really engaging in the chapter a particular text’s perspective (except D). I am not criticizing canonical criticism, but think that it should be informed by engaging the texts on their own to see how their meaning may have changed by being placed in the canon; that’s all. This theology of canon, then, will be a building block in his pan-biblical theology.

He then reiterates much of chapter 1: the unique relationship with Israel, the importance of the first commandment and the Shema, inadequately called “monolatry because the practice marks out monotheism most obviously through practice. And God as creator and sovereign marks him as unique. Exclusivism of election and universalism of monotheism worked out in “eschatological monotheism” when all nations would worship YHWH (basically 2nd Isaiah). He acknowledges that some texts are more particularistic and other more universalistic, based upon particular conditions of diaspora, resistance to Roman rule, etc., but ultimately not contradictory.

He notes that this is the Jewish reading of Jewish scriptures that the NT presupposes.

He acknowledges that there might be some difficulties of reading the OT as a whole rather than in parts: only parts of it are clearly exclusively monotheistic. He cites James Sanders’s “monotheizing” (from Canon and Community) tendencies that have residues of the polytheisms of its surrounding cultures. This is not just a struggle of monotheizing found in a book of the OT, but in its editing and selection process. Nonetheless, the selection process presupposes a preexisting monotheizing tendency. Not all literature in the canon is monotheizing, but its inclusion probably indicates that (at least for the Jews making the selection) the books do not resist or contradict such a process. These books that are not monotheistic, however, are monotheized when read together with the monotheizing books in the monotheizing canon.

In what follows, he wades through several scholarly discussions of canonical criticism and the degree of monotheizing by Bernhard Lang, John Sawyer, and Ronald Clements. Sawyer suggests that there are three categories of OT texts: (1) a few clearly monotheistic; (2) some that are not originally monotheistic, but later read in that way due to influence of monotheistic texts; (3) embarrassingly polytheistic texts. The conclusion is that the Hebrew Bible is not prevalently monotheistic.

Clements, however, notes that when read diachronically, the texts do not seem to be prevalently monotheistic, but when read synchronically, do.

For B, monotheism is not the exclusion of other “gods,” but the placement of YHWH in a class of his own apart from all other beings, even if they are called “gods.” It is “transcendental uniqueness” (a new term in the book). B argues that it is through being creator and ruler that the monotheizing process hypothesized by Sanders occurs (although there are passages in which this process is undetectable).

This expands the field of explicitly monotheistic texts, since Sawyer only included those that exclude other gods, while considering the ruler and creator texts as non-monotheistic, but later read in a monotheistic way. Neh. 9:6 is the test-case: in a text that mentions the host of heaven for Sawyer, it is non-monotheistic; for B, it is. The host of heaven does not qualify, but underscores YHWH’s uniqueness by making him their creator.

In other parts of the Bible, other gods are either part of YHWH’s retinue or impotent non-entities. Retinue: gods, sons of god, sons of the most high, holy ones, host of YHWH, and host of heaven. The divine assembly, he argues, does not constitute a council, since they do not argue or give advice or express independence (the exceptions are Job 1:9-12; 2:4-7; and 1 Kings 22:19-22, in which they do act independently and/or offer YHWH advice). These scenes, I would note, are important “residues” of earlier conceptions of how YHWH’s retinue functioned, although in its current context they struggle against the “monotheizing dynamic.”

“YHWH’s retinue are the attendants of an absolute monarch, whose sheer numbers evidence his greatness and whose constant praises serve precisely to define and preach his transcendent uniqueness” (88).

Other gods, moreover, do not diminish YHWH’s uniqueness not by denying their existence, but by denying them any effective power vis-à-vis YHWH. As such, the use of “god” is not decisive as how these figures are defined in relation to YHWH. Although there are some interesting distinctions made on a linguistic level and even malformations of the term “god” (see Ps. 96:5).

In the Second Temple period, the words for “god” almost completely drop out of use (except at Qumran and in Philo) for heavenly beings. In a footnote, he also notes that language of God’s imcomparability also drops out (again, except at Qumran).

Ultimately, he claims that using monotheizing texts to read non-monotheizing texts is a legit move because it just continues the monotheizing dynamic inherent in canonization. I only agree insofar as it regards canonical criticism if this is, in fact, how late second temple Jews were reading these texts. It is not legit, however, in trying to understand the text itself. To normalize the texts against the later monotheizing tendencies can distort their meaning; at the same time, to read their earlier meanings forward into later periods distorts how later Jews (and Christians) read them.

Another difference between Sawyer and B’s categories regard the “incomparability texts” (e.g., Exod. 15:11; Jer. 49:19; 50:4; Ps. 89:6, 8)—such as “who is like you among the Gods, O LORD?” Sawyer reads these as originally polytheistic but become monotheistic by later reading. B claims that they are inherently monotheistic or early expressions of an emerging “monotheizing dynamic” and only “superficially polytheistic.”

“Whether the existence of other gods is denied or whether YHWH is simply said to be in a class of his own by comparison with them is of small importance to the general sense of all these texts” (90). I might push it the other way. Texts that say “there is no other” are another form of incomparability texts that do not deny the existence of other gods. As in D, it is the different between the gods and the god of gods.

Finally, the “embarrassingly polytheistic” texts. These are mostly where YHWH battles a chaotic monster (Rahab, Leviathan, the Sea): it is “part and parcel of traditional monotheistic religions” (90-91). And, as B knows, of polytheistic religions (e.g., Enuma Elish). Again, the taming of chaos does not diminish but underscores monotheism by showing YHWH is more powerful.

“Recognition of the ‘monotheizing’ dynamic in the form I have proposed does not prevent us recognizing in the Hebrew Bible material that in a wide variety of ways resembles the language and myths of Canaanite and other Near Eastern religions. Rather, it shows us the way such material is constantly being re-functioned to serve the purpose of asserting and characterizing the transcendent uniqueness of YHWH” (91).

I am drawn into agreement on this point. I have found this true in my own research as well.

He concludes that his proposal does not suppress the diversity of the texts (although this seems counterintuitive to his general reading to me) but that the whole of the Hebrew Bible can be read in accordance with early Jewish monotheism. Or, I might nuance, that it may have been read this way by ancient Jews. This focus on the monotheizing tendencies, however, has interestingly led him into the language of “convergence” and “differentiation” (via Mark Smith) used by historical model currently preferred among Hebrew Bible scholars for pre-exilic Israel. It is not evolution, but dynamic. I think someone like Mark Smith might agree on this point.

He adds a little section on Ancient Near Eastern parallels to the “incomparability texts” that sound just like those of the Hebrew Bible, from Babylon (regarding Sin and Marduk) and Egypt (regarding Amun-Re, who also creates and is sovereign over all things). He regards these as also monotheizing in tendency, but they never consistently stick to one god, but apply this language to different ones: what is usually called “henotheism,” the worship of one god as supreme at a time. He admits that this may have been the case in ancient Israel too, but in the Hebrew Bible as a collection, this older language is only applied to YHWH, being “re-functioned” for monotheism.

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