Thursday, July 30, 2009

You are Confused!

I am increasingly amused, as I read scholarship, how often people portray opposing scholars as "confused." I'm sure the so-called "confused" scholar would say the same thing right back. Calling someone else "confused" does not seem very professional to me. Why can't we just disagree in our interpretations without calling someone else confused?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Rowan Williams's Eyebrows

While reading an article on the archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams's statement on "two ways of being Anglican" I became less and less interested in the internal discussion of gay clergy and more and more fascinated by his eyebrows.

He must have the most spectacular looking eyebrows among Christian clergy. I think he would be a great addition to a Harry Potter film. If Michael Gambdon is willing to give it up, I think he has the look of an Albus Dumbledore.

Hebrews 11:27: Moses' Vision of the Invisible

As I continue to work through my chapter on Hebrews, I am always struck by a certain productive ambiguity the homilist often exploits. One ambiguity is in a passage that I often just pass over in chapter 11. Indeed, the style of hall of faith of Hebrews 11 often makes my eyes glaze over, although I recognize the rhetorical effectiveness of its genre.

Nonetheless, this time I was struck by the following line (11:27):

πίστει κατέλιπεν Αἴγυπτον μὴ φοβηθεὶς τὸν θυμὸν τοῦ βασιλέως, τὸν γὰρ ἀόρατον ὡς ὁρῶν ἐκαρτέρησεν.

By faith he left Egypt not fearing the anger of the king, for as seeing the invisible he endured.

Immediately, I read this in two ways. Because of Moses' paradoxical vision of the invisible (i.e., God), he endured Pharaoh's anger. The vision gave him the strength or ability to endure. The other reading is that he endured the rare and frightening vision of God, the very sight of whom kills (since one cannot see God and live). Indeed, in Hebrews, as far as I have seen, only Moses is granted a vision of the invisible God. Moses also sees the "type" of the heavenly things, from which he builds the "copy," "shadow," or "antitype" of the earthly tent. Moses sees much in Hebrews, and vision language applies exclusively to him. Is it that of all humanity, only he could bear the sight of God or God's glory (at least pre-Christ)? On the other hand, what is the role of the "as"? Does that somehow qualify the vision? Did Moses, "in a way" see the invisible? Perhaps by seeing God's glory or the reflection of God's Glory, the Son, from afar (see 1:3)? Indeed, the previous verse makes Moses a proto-Christian, since he suffers abuse for (or of?) Christ. Nonetheless, it is difficult to endure even a refracted vision of the invisible, if, indeed, that is the gist (or one of the gists) of this line.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Judas in the New Yorker

August 3's edition of the New Yorker has an article by Joan Acocella discussing Judas traditions with special focus on the Gospel of Judas.

Did Judas deserve this fate? If Jesus informs you that you will betray him, and tells you to hurry up and do it, are you really responsible for your act? Furthermore, if your act sets in motion the process—Christ’s Passion—whereby humankind is saved, shouldn’t somebody thank you? No, the Church says. If you betray your friend, you are a sinner, no matter how foreordained or collaterally beneficial your sin. And, if the friend should happen to be the Son of God, so much the worse for you.

For two thousand years, Judas has therefore been Christianity’s primary image of human evil. Now, however, there is an effort to rehabilitate him, the result, partly, of an archeological find. In 1978 or thereabouts, some peasants digging for treasure in a burial cave in Middle Egypt came upon an old codex—that is, not a scroll but what we would call a book, with pages—written in Coptic, the last form of ancient Egyptian. The book has been dated to the third or fourth century, but scholars believe that the four texts it contains are translations of writings, in Greek, from around the second century. When the codex was found, it was reportedly in good condition, but it then underwent a twenty-three-year journey through the notoriously venal antiquities market, where it suffered fantastic abuses, including a prolonged stay in a prospective buyer’s home freezer. (This caused the ink to run when the manuscript thawed.) The book was cracked in half, horizontally; pages were shuffled, torn out. By the time the codex reached the hands of restorers, in 2001, much of it was just a pile of crumbs. The repair job took five years, after which some of the book was still a pile of crumbs. Many passages couldn’t be read.


The Codex Tchacos, like the Nag Hammadi library, was the work of an ancient religious party, mostly Christian, that we call Gnostic. In the second century, Christianity was not an institution but a collection of warring factions, each with its own gospels, each claiming direct descent from Jesus, each accusing the others of heresy, homosexuality, and the like. In the fourth century, one group, or group of groups, won out: the people now known as the proto-orthodox, because, once they won, their doctrines became orthodoxy. The proto-orthodox were centrist. They embraced both the Hebrew Bible and the new law proclaimed by Jesus; they said that Jesus was both God and man; they believed that the world was both full of blessings and full of sin. Of the many gospels circulating, they chose four, called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which, by reason of their realism and emotional directness—their lilies of the field and prodigal sons—were most likely to appeal to regular people.


That supposed exoneration of Judas was the most exclaimed-over aspect of the Gospel of Judas. Far more shocking, however, was the book’s portrait of Jesus. We know Jesus from the New Testament as an earnest and charitable man. Here, by contrast, he is a joker, and not a nice one. Three times in this brief text, he bursts into laughter over his disciples’ foolishness. The first time, he comes upon them as they are celebrating the Eucharist. What’s so funny? they ask him—this is what we’re supposed to do. Maybe according to your god, Jesus says. But you represent our God, they say. You’re his son. Jesus now turns on them. What makes you think you know me? he asks them. “Truly I say to you, no generation of the people that are among you will know me.” In other words, Jesus tells them that they are strangers to him. The next day, they ask him about Heaven, and he laughs at them again. Forget about Heaven, he says. No mortal will go there. In response, the disciples “did not find a word to say.”


What use could this bizarre document be to modern Christians? Plenty. Many American religious thinkers are more liberal than their churches. They wish that Christianity were more open—not a stone wall of doctrine. To these people, the Gospel of Judas was a gift. As with the other Gnostic gospels, its mere existence showed that there was no such thing as fixed doctrine, or that there wasn’t at the beginning.

That implicit endorsement of tolerance was probably what American scholars valued most in the Judas gospel, but the discovery gave them something else as well: righteous glee. What a joy to have an ancient document in which the man singled out in the Bible as Christianity’s foremost enemy turns out, arguably, to be Christ’s best friend. Hooray! The higher-ups don’t know everything! This was also the appeal of the new gospel to the political left. For people who claimed that the world was ruled by groups that controlled by marginalizing other groups, the Gospel of Judas was like a keystone being hammered into place. Men had silenced women, colonialists had silenced the colonized, and now we saw the Christian Church establishing itself by silencing other Christian voices.


The trumpet calls were not confined to the mass media. Even the gospel’s translators may have felt the need to augment its revisionist credentials. When Jesus, in the gospel, tells the disciples that no mortal, or almost none, will be saved, one assumes that Judas will be an exception, and that’s what National Geographic’s translators said in the first English edition. But then a number of other scholars took a look at the Coptic text and objected that this was a misreading. The translators must have seen their point, because in the second edition of their version, published last year, the line has been changed—to mean the opposite. Jesus now says to Judas, “You will not ascend on high” to join those in Heaven. In other passages, too, the second edition tells a widely different story from the first.

As you might be expecting, April DeConick gets mentioned at this point:

In fairness, no expert can tell us exactly what the Coptic said. That is not just because of the terrible condition of the codex; even when the words are there, they are often enigmatic. But, as April DeConick, a professor of Biblical studies at Rice University, pointed out in the Times in 2007, there was a troubling consistency to a number of the mistranslations in the first edition: they improved Judas’s image. If the gospel was truly the earth-shaking document that the National Geographic Society claimed it was—if it promoted Judas from villain to hero—then to have him denied admission to Heaven would be decidedly awkward.

She then discusses Karen King and Elaine Pagels's book as well as Bart Ehrman's. I thought the following summary of this literature review was quite appropriate:

Cumulatively, the commentaries on the Judas gospel are amazing in their insistence on its upbeat character. Jesus ridicules his disciples, denounces the world, and says that most of us will pass away into nothingness. Hearing this, Judas asks why he and his like were born—a good question. Jesus evades it. The fact that liberal theologians have managed to find hope in all this is an indication of how desperately, in the face of the evangelical movement, they are looking for some crack in the wall of doctrinaire Christianity—some area of surprise, uncertainty, that might then lead to thought.

Indeed, it does seem a bit desperate to see this as propounding anything that we might consider a progressive theology. It is different, to be sure, but just as doctrinaire. She then gives a history of Judas and anti-Semitism into the rehabilitation of Judas in postwar literature:

By the same token, postwar recoil from anti-Semitism (and, no doubt, the widespread abandonment of faith in the twentieth century) was good for Judas’s reputation. Several distinguished writers—Kazantzakis, Jorge Luis Borges, José Saramago—present him, or seem to, either as a hero, of the resistance-fighter sort, or as a suffering witness. In Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master & Margarita” (1966-67), written before the Second World War, Judas is just a young man, who, after receiving his pay from the Temple, goes off, in sandals so new that they squeak, to rendezvous with a woman. Meanwhile, Pontius Pilate, pained that he washed his hands of Jesus and wanting to punish someone for this, mobilizes his secret police, who get Judas’s lady to lead them to him. They butcher him. Significantly, this happens in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Judas turned Jesus over to the authorities. As the episode ends, Judas’s body lies forsaken in the dirt, but a ray of moonlight shines on one of the dearly bought sandals “so that each thong. . . was clearly visible. The garden thundered with nightingale song”—a scene both poignant and dry.

I have discussed Judas in Borges's work on this blog before (click on the tag, "Three Versions of Judas," and the Master and Margarita remains one of my favorite novels. Her final assessment of scholarly rehabilitations and the attempt to find alternative theologies (or even "rewrite" the Bible) is as follows:

All this, I believe, is a reaction to the rise of fundamentalism—the idea, Christian and otherwise, that every word of a religion’s founding document should be taken literally. This is a childish notion, and so is the belief that we can combat it by correcting our holy books. Those books, to begin with, are so old that we barely understand what their authors meant. Furthermore, because of their multiple authorship, they are always internally inconsistent. Finally, even the fundamentalists don’t really take them literally. People interpret, and cheat. The answer is not to fix the Bible but to fix ourselves.

It seems the response to fundamentalism is as naive as fundamentalism itself. If only we could figure out how to fix ourselves!

Philosophy, Science, and Religion

I'm reading some Bertrand Russell--his History of Western Philosophy. In his introduction he places Philosophy, interestingly, somewhere between theology and science:

The conceptions of life and the world which we call "philosophical" are a product of two factors: one, inherited religious and ethical conceptions; the other, the sort of investigation which may be called "scientific," using this word in its broadest sense. Individual philosophers have differed widely in regard to the proportions in which these two factors entered into their systems, but it is the presence of both, in some degree, that characterizes philosophy.


Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge--so I should contend--belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man's Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man's Land is philosophy.


Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales.... To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.


While Russell dismisses the fairy-tale tellers a bit too quickly (who doesn't like a good story here and there and many stories have important lessons to impart) just as Plato dismisses the poets too rashly from his totalitarian Republic, I am interested in two aspects of his statements: that (1) philosophy is something of a space between--it asks questions about unknowable things, but proceeds "rationally"--and, as such, (2) teaches to live with uncertainty--that, in fact, the most important questions about life have no sure answers. It is a life without knowledge, but also without ignorance. The space between is a nebulous mass of ambiguity. To be a lover of wisdom is to face this unknowable but all-important ambiguity with courage, hope, and awe.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Quote of the Day: The Joker

From the first Batman movie with Jack Nicholson as the Joker:

You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?

Shall we dance?

(The song in the clip is by Breaking Benjamin from their album Phobia)

Beer and the Origins of Civilization

Roland Boer has posted on Beer as the origins of civilization--on why hunters and gatherers left the forests for the backbreaking work of agriculture. I think he might be right. Beer is as old as any agricultural product we know of (including bread), and so that it might have been one aspect of community formation, greasing the wheels of social cohesion, is likely. Perhaps the next step of civilization was the one who controlled beer production became king.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Prophecy and Common Sense

Euripides, the playwright who was critical of traditional conceptions of the gods and much traditional religious practice--if you read many of his plays in a row, this aspect becomes very clear--says this in his play Helen. In a passage accusing prophets of merely spouting lies in order to make money, he writes in line 757:

γνώμη δ᾽ ἀρίστη μάντις ἥ τ᾽ εὐβουλία.

The best prophet is common sense, our native wit.

(Trans. Lattimore)

John Collins on the Vision of Gabriel

John Collins discusses and explains the Vision of Gabriel and its controversy with his typical clarity in the Yale Alumni Magazine. Click on the link for the full article, discussing the handwriting analysis, Israel Knohl's (unaccepted) conclusions. Here, however, is Collins's conclusion:

At a conference in Jerusalem in early July, Knohl was met by skepticism from both Jewish and Christian scholars. The skepticism had nothing to do with theology. The text simply does not say what Knohl claims. It is too fragmentary. It is not clear that the Ephraim mentioned is a messiah. Even if the word after "three days" is "live," it does not follow that it means "rise from the dead." A chariot does not necessarily imply ascent to heaven. This is not to say that Knohl's interpretation is impossible. But there is not much reason to think it is right.

But even if Knohl's interpretation were right, it would hardly warrant the ensuing fuss. Everyone who has taken an introductory New Testament course knows that the early Christians understood Jesus in light of Jewish prophecies and expectations. The motif of resurrection after three days is based on a passage from the prophet Hosea about restoration of the people: "on the third day he will raise us up that we may live before him." If Knohl's interpretation should prove to be right, it would be an interesting contribution to the history of religion. But its supposed threat to Christian theology is no more than a marketing strategy. In that respect, the Vision of Gabriel is only the latest of many discoveries that have been sensationalized for the sake of publicity.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Bible: Open, Interactive, Defaced

From the London Times:

A publicly funded exhibition is encouraging people to deface the Bible in the name of art — and visitors have responded with abuse and obscenity.

The show includes a video of a woman ripping pages from the Bible and stuffing them into her bra, knickers and mouth.

The open Bible is a central part of Made in God’s Image, an exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art (Goma) in Glasgow. By the book is a container of pens and a notice saying: “If you feel you have been excluded from the Bible, please write your way back into it.”

The exhibit, Untitled 2009, was proposed by the Metropolitan Community Church, which said that the idea was to reclaim the Bible as a sacred text. But to the horror of many Christians, including the community church, visitors have daubed its pages with comments such as “This is all sexist pish, so disregard it all.” A contributor wrote on the first page of Genesis: “I am Bi, Female & Proud. I want no god who is disappointed in this."


The exhibition has been created by the artists Anthony Schrag and David Malone, in association with organisations representing gay Christians and Muslims. Mr Schrag, the gallery’s artist in residence, said that he did not believe in God, but that his research for the £7,000 show had underlined his respect for people of faith.

The community church, which celebrates “racial, cultural, linguistic, sexual, gender and theological diversity”, had suggested the “interactive” Bible and pens and Mr Schrag, 34, said he had been intrigued.

“Any offensive things that have been written are not the point of the work,” he said. “It was an open gesture. Are those who say they are upset offended by the things that people write, or just by the very notion that someone should write on a Bible?”

The artist, a Canadian who took a master’s degree at Glasgow School of Art, said that human rights were at the centre of the show. “If we are to open up the Bible for discussion, surely we have to invite people to speak out,” he said. “Art allows us to discuss difficult things, and Goma allows difficult discussions to take place — that is why Glasgow is at the cutting edge of contemporary art.”

Jane Clarke, a minister of the community church, said she regretted the insults that had appeared. “The Bible should never be used like that. It was our intention to reclaim it as a sacred text,” she said. While the exhibition’s supporters insist that the exhibit promotes “inclusivity” and should break down barriers between orthodox religion and gay and transgendered people, most contributors have paid scant regard to matters of sexuality.

One writer has altered the first line of the Old Testament from “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth” to “In the beginning, God (me) I created religion.” Another has written “The Gospel According to Luke Skywalker”. The main sentiment, however, is rage at Christianity. “F*** the Bible”, one message says.


A video by Roxanne Claxton forms a second element in the exhibition. It shows a young woman ripping pages out of the Bible and stuffing them in her knickers and bra, and in her mouth. The film showed “the word as power”, Mr Schrag said. “Roxanne gave a performance where she ate a Bible and it became part of her.”

Made in God’s Image is part of a series of exhibitions focusing on human rights organised by Culture and Sport Glasgow, part of the city council. The division’s chief executive is Dr Bridget McConnell, wife of the former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell.

Church officials (from different groups--the Kirk, Catholic Church, etc.) have, of course, condemned the exhibit.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Quote of the Day: Genesis Rabbah 1.5

I'm reading some Genesis Rabbah, a Palestinian midrashic collection, this evening, and the following line stuck out for me:

דא"ר יוסי בר חנינא כל המתכבד בקלון חבירו אין לו חלק לעולם הבא

Rabbi Yose son of Hanina said, "Whoever elevates himself by his fellow's degradation has no part in the world to come." (Genesis Rabbah 1.5)

Bauckham's "Jesus and the God of Israel" 4C (Worship, Monotheism, and Christology)

This post completes my discussion of chapter 4 of Bauckham's Jesus and the God of Israel on worship. In it, B relates the discussion of worship of Jesus in terms of obeisance, doxologies, and hymns to ongoing fidelity to monotheism among Christians and christological developments through Chalcedon, as compared to the Alexandrian Christianity of Origen.

B argues that the worship of Jesus is not a departure from, but an adherence to, monotheism. He contrasts the exclusive worship of YHWH of Jews to the interreligious tolerance of the Roman world. Even monotheistic-leaning philosophers never denied the legitimacy of existing forms of “popular religion.”

“The difference between Jewish and pagan monotheism did not turn on the existence of supernatural beings inferior to the supreme God, but on whether they might be worshipped” (140).

Jewish and Christian refusal of other cults made them oddities, especially when Christians worshipped a crucified criminal! Nonetheless, Christians balanced exclusive monotheism with Jesus worship from NT onwards. For evidence, B again turns to Paul’s Christianization of the Shema (1 Cor. 8:6) in context of rejecting food offered to idols, and the worship of the Lamb as divine worship in Rev. 5:8-12 with the doxology of God and the Lamb together (5:13). The whole of Revelation is concerned with true and false worship between God and the beast. John of Patmos also twice prostrates before the angel who interprets the revelation, but the angel directs him to worship only God (19:10; 22:8-9), protecting against angelolatry. Angels are instruments of revelation, but God and Jesus are the source. Jesus shares in glory due to God. There is a tendency to apply similar language to Jesus and God, and often present them together with the same verb (in the singular!) (11:15)—I would add that they sit on the same throne.

Next B looks to the apocryphal acts, which demonstrate how conversion was demonstrated to outsiders as being from idolatry to the worship of Jesus as God. He claims these texts are not completely guilty of “modalism” as they often are described, because they distinguish the Father and Son as readily as they identify them, but they exhibit an “unreflective combination” of monotheistic worship, worship of Jesus as God, and Trinitarian distinctions reflecting more popular thought characterized by the more sophisticated Trinitarian thinkers as modalistic.

The broader importance of these texts is that traditional monotheistic formulas against paganism are used with reference to Jesus, intending “there is no other” to apply to Jesus.

B hypothesizes on how this might be appealing in a missionary context—this section is highly speculative. But it did get me thinking that we should consider the function, the use, of missionary documents such as the apocryphal acts. Are missionary accounts of conversion also tools of conversion themselves—this seems to be where B is going, although not explicitly stated. Or are they meant to be encouragement for those already in the fold? B overemphasizes the intellectual side of missionary appeal a bit. How many were attracted to Christianity because it preached a monotheistic God who was transcendent but who through Jesus is approachable versus the philosophical speculation who still needed many gods to satisfy everyday needs? Was it really this that made Christianity appealing? I doubt the majority of converts were focusing on Middle/NeoPlatonic debates about God and seeing how they conformed to worship of lesser deities, except maybe an elite few who were drawn to philosophy like Augustine. But as a mass movement? These texts are probably meant to encourage the already faithful through the conversion narratives, as many conversion narratives told in churches (usually of an evangelical bent) today.

B discusses the persecution and martyrdom from refusal of engaging in the sacrifices that were part of the daily social life of a city, but which would constitute idolatry from Christians. Martyr accounts (whether they are historical or not) cite proper worship as the prevailing unbending issue in terms of worship of God, and in the same breath, Christ, setting the kingdom of Christ against Caesar’s presumed divinity. This gives monotheistic worship political implications: radical, subversive, aspect of worshipping a crucified criminal and it undermined divine sanction of rule by Rome.

After considering the monotheistic fidelity in worship of Christ in the NT (in Revelation), in missionary documents (apocryphal acts), and martyr accounts, B turns to the patristic Christological development in light of Christ worship. He sees a shift here from a general popular understanding of worshiping Jesus without abandoning monotheism to the doctrinal understanding of this that would preoccupy Christian thinkers throughout the entire patristic period.

He identifies two trends in ante-Nicene reflection on Jesus’ relationship with God: (1) kept close to worshiping life of church and monotheism, reflects evidence already adduced faithfully, but could slip into modalism, which was originally appealing and tolerated; (2) another trend “independent” of worship and witness of “ordinary Christianity,” particularly the Alexandrians and Origenists who fell into the “danger” of Hellenizing (or Paganizing) Christianity. We should note, however, that Alexandrian Christians were responsible for the formulation of the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon (with a representative in Nicaea). (My quotations imply that I think while some of the observations are fine, the evaluation is tendentious—each form of Christianity should be considered on its own terms—so there is no “danger”).

In this second trend, Platonic monotheism is the model, which is also found in apologetic literature, in which Christians use the Platonic model to show its consistency (and to redeem their weirdness). Origen represents a growing gap between intellectual theology and popular faith (sort of—I bet a lot of people included Jesus in the divine identity in a subordinationist manner). Origen is self-conscious of their divergence (Or. 16.1) and claims that proper worship is to God alone—not even to Chirst—although it diverges from norm of Christian worship (Or. 14-15). The problem with this formulation is that the earliest evidence B adduced is directed primarily to God and mostly only “through” Jesus and not “to” Jesus, but, indeed, by the third century, perhaps popular worship was to Jesus. On the other hand, Platonizing language was a preexisting tendency in early Christianity. Recall that Philo was a Jewish figure who already combined Platonism and Judaism, and he was highly relied upon by Clement of Alexandria.

B presents Arianism as a reassertion of Judeo-Christian monotheism, but Arius made an absolute distinction between Creator and all other reality (something B claims is true of second temple Judaism too) and places Christ as the foremost of all creations (which the language of Jesus as firstborn of creation in the NT might already indicate!)—worship of a creature, though, threatened monotheistic worship due to Creator. Well…it threatened it from an emergent orthodox perspective.

Nicene orthodoxy did justice to the church’s practice of worshipping Jesus with worship due only to God without being modalistic (of course, modalist is only bad according to non-modalists). Large-scale acceptance of Nicene orthodoxy is due to it doing justice to popular practice as well as Chalcedon and Ephesus.

This perspective leaves out a great deal. Ephesus and Chalcedon actually did a great injustice to Egyptian and especially Syrian popular practice, which B dismisses as “extreme Antiochene Christology.” The Syrians may, in fact, think of those “extreme Greek and Roman Christology of Chalcedon.” It is a matter of perspective, and this account of patristic Christology smacks of orthodox apologetics rather than historical accounting of the evidence. Instead, we must allow that Christian practice could vary from place to place and Nicaea, which I agree puts an intellectual stamp on preexisting popular practice, represents the popular practice of a particular group against the practice of another group or groups. This theological apologetics is part of why the Christian texts from Nag Hammadi remain neglected, even though they form an important trend in Christianity in terms of theology and practice (on practice, see Three Steles of Seth, for example).

Finally, B ends with a theological reflection connecting to current Christian worship.

Overall, B adduces the strongest evidence of worship TO Jesus as God in the second and third centuries, although with some roots in the NT. I am not wholly convinced that Jesus is not the first-born of creation in some documents in the NT—all of which actually makes a lot of later theological developments that subordinate Christ (Arianism) or Origen’s thought that proper worship is only to God, also have theological roots in the NT. Nicene Christianity may, to a large degree, be faithful to popular worship and have some roots in the NT, but so did their opponents.

Bauckham's "Jesus and the God of Israel" 4B (Doxologies and Hymns)

In my previous post, I began discussing chapter 4 of Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the God of Israel on the worship of Jesus in early Christianity. That section focused on calling on the name of the Lord, the eschatological impulse of early Christian worship, and proskunesis and what that means. In this section, we turn to doxologies and hymns as evidence of early Christian worship.

B turns to doxologies and hymns because they are the most pervasive types of evidence. He claims that doxologies constitute unambiguously divine worship appropriate only for God in an unbroken tradition from NT to Nicaea. Is it broken thereafter?

He does a form analysis of doxologies, differentiating “strict” and “acclamatory” doxologies. Strict has four parts: (1) person praised in dative; (2) word of praise (doxa); (3) time (“forever”); (4) Amen. They usually form the conclusion to a prayer, sermon, letter, but are occasionally within. While benedictions are more common in Judaism, doxologies are still derived form Jewish forms of worship of God (to whom all glory belonged). Christians took the same basic formula and added “through Jesus Christ” to it. The commonest forms to Christ alone are later and fewer in number (2 Tim 4:18; 2 Pet 3:19; Rev 1:5-6), but given the distribution in three traditions in three geographical areas, it presupposes an earlier practice. Nonetheless, it becomes more pervasive in second and third century documents. Origen, for example, tended to end his homilies in doxologies to Christ as did the Acts of the Christian martyrs. As time goes on, these earlier doxological formulas are expanded into a Trinitarian formula, but these are all post-Nicene. Often doxologies are connected to the reign of Christ in martyr accounts to contrast with the idolatrous prelates of Caesar: “The doxology thus expresses precisely the issue of worship for which the martyrs died” (134).

I should note something—this may be an “unbroken” tradition, but it definitely does not appear to be a static one. It seems that doxologies to God through Jesus are most common earlier, then doxologies to Christ show up out of these, but, as he notes, this really does not catch on until the second and third centuries, and, finally, this is expanded into Trinitarian doxologies.

Next he turns to the “acclamatory” doxologies. They are basically “Glory to” plus an object in the second or third person with an optional closing giving the reason for the acclamation. Unlike the “strict” form, it is not necessarily concluding, but seems independent, and is often introductory. There are few examples of this extant. The NT uses it for God (Luke and Revelation), but tended to be used for Christ in the apocryphal acts. The NT does use it for God and Christ together (Rev. 5:13; cf. 7:10). I do find it interesting that B turns to second and third century documents for the majority of his evidence of Jesus worship.

While doxologies directly addressed to Jesus tend toward the second century, hymns, B claims, are as old as the Christian community itself (citing Martin Hengel, RIP), which also continue into the ante-Nicene period. Hymns “to the Lord,” for example show up in Ephesians, Pliny’s letter, Ignatius, and the Coptic Acts of Paul. Most endure into the third century Christological debate.

Hymns, however, in the NT, e.g, Phil. 2:9-11, are mostly not addressed to Christ, but are narratives about Christ, like the narrative psalms of the Hebrew Bible. He also discusses Melito of Sardis. I find this problematic in discussions of worship given to Christ. There are hymns about the Exodus, for example, but that does not mean these hymns are addressed to Moses!

Yet there are examples of hymns addressed to Christ (Did. 10:6; Rev. 5:9-10—is not for human use, but probably reflects hymns in churches; Heb. 1:8-12 interprets Ps. 45:6-7 and Ps. 102:25-7 as addressed to Christ (cf. Justin Martyr)). B suggests that a study of the Psalms probably inspired new songs—it is possible, but there is no evidence to adduce. The Phos Hilaron probably from the second to the third centuries vary from the texts that survive the earliest period; earliest hymns celebrate the death, resurrection, exaltation, and enthronement of Christ and have an eschatological edge.

In speaking of hymns, he concludes:

“The one who functions as God shows the divine identity with God and, naturally, receives divine worship, not of course as a competitor or supplanter of God in the community’s worship but as God’s plenipotentiary whose praise redounds to God’s glory” (138).

B also suggests that this type of worship led to more explicit formulations or statements of Christ’s divine identity. But again, B cannot escape “functional” Christology, since Jesus “functions as God” and acts as “God’s plenipotentiary.” Perhaps it is ultimately inescapable and cannot be fully replaced with a “divine identity” inclusion Christology as B had hoped.

B then briefly touches upon pagan perceptions, which indicates that worship of Jesus was the central distinguishing characteristic of early Christianity. Most second and third century pagan writers who talk about Christianity emphasize it (Pliny, Lucian, Celsus, and Porphyry). Pagans saw Christianity as a cult to Jesus like so many other cults to teachers and heroes of semi-divine status. But they thought Jesus was unworthy of such a cult and were appalled at its exclusivity, and they (mainly Celsus) saw it as inconsistent with Jewish monotheism (which was exotic at best, objectionable often).

In sum, it seems that B's best evidence for early Christian worship of Jesus comes after the NT documents in second and third century texts with occasional evidence from earlier sources. Doxologies TO rather than THROUGH Jesus appear mostly later (in both "strict" and "acclamatory" form) and hymns TO rather than ABOUT Jesus tend to be later. The developments are connected to what is found in the NT documents, but the "worship" of Jesus seems to be a dynamic rather than a static thing, making the equation of what is found in later documents with the scant earlier evidence difficult to maintain. Likewise, outsider observations begin in the later period.

Next in this chapter, B turns to how this worship is consistent with monotheism in first through third century documents and ongoing christological development.

Bauckham's "Jesus and the God of Israel" 4A (Worship)

It has been a while since I have posted on Bauckham's Jesus and the God of Israel. I have been busy with my own research lately, but thought I should get something up before too long.

To see earlier posts, follow the tags back.

Chapter 4 is on the worship of Jesus in Early Christianity. In this chapter, Bauckham discusses the significance of Jesus worship, which he sees as continuous from the New Testament to the great ecumenical councils, particularly Nicaea and Chalcedon. He does not, however, as clearly delineate what constitutes worship as McGrath does. In short, he does not compare and contrast worship of God in second temple Judaism with worship of Jesus in the New Testament in terms of the range from simple honor and reverence to full sacrificial cult.

B note that the origins of Jesus worship are shrouded in mystery, but evidence points toward the earliest Palestinian Jewish Christianity. Jesus is already considered risen, exalted, and continuously active in the community through the Spirit, and coming in the future as ruler and judge.

What points to this early worship is (1) Jesus as God’s eschatological agent is the focus of the “experience of eschatological salvation and the enthusiasm of the Spirit which characterized Christian gatherings for worship, and he was the focus of all Christian relationship, through him, to God” (128). McGrath might appreciate the language of agency and the idea that people worship God through Jesus, through the agent. But might this imply that the ultimate recipient of worship is God rather than Jesus? Or not? (2) B also sees psalms and hymns celebrating Jesus’ exaltation “from earliest of times” (128), as well as (3) acclamations and prayers—e.g., Maranatha (1 Cor. 16:22; Did. 10:6; cf. Rev. 22:20), Aramaic preservations in early documents indicating it’s early origin. (4) Personal prayer, which he thinks is underestimated, citing Paul and Acts (2 Cor. 12:8; 1 Thess. 3:11-13; 2 Thess. 2:16-7; 3:5, 16; cf. Rom 16:20b; 1 Cor. 16:23; Gal. 6:18; Phil. 4:23; 1 Thess 5:28; 2 Thess 3:18; Philemon 25; Acts 1:24; 7:59-60; 13:2; cf. further 1 Tim. 1:12; 2 Tim 1:16-18; 4:22). Bauckham admits that the dominant practice of the early Christians was prayer to God, but because Jesus was the mediator of grace, prayer was addressed to him. This is worth further reflecting upon: when thinking of praying “in the name of Jesus,” it does have this sense of mediator, but is it addressed “to” Jesus or “to” God “by means of” Jesus? Are both being addressed in the same way and, if not, how does that affect our ideas of worship? There is a nice structural inversion here as well: like Jesus is an agent of creation (by means of), he is also an agent of prayer (by means of), just moving in the other direction.

Indeed, B admits that petitionary prayer is not necessarily constitutive of worship, but he cites two phrases to show Jesus as an object of devotion. One means is Acts 13:2, in which the Antiochene church “worships” the Lord, using the verb λειτουργούντων, which is a typical cultic term (it is where we get the word “liturgy”). On the one hand, this might be an ambiguous example to adumbrate, but, on the other, Jesus is called Lord throughout the New Testament writings, including Acts. Worshiping the Lord could be a reference to worship of Jesus beyond simple reverence.

More prevalently is “calling on the name of the Lord,” a phrase drawn from Joel 2:32 and used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to worship of God (e.g., Gen. 4:26; 12:8; 13:4; Ps. 105:1), but in the NT applied to Jesus. It is the cultic confession of Jesus as Lord that defined the early Christians, and Hurtado connects it to practices of baptism, healings, and exorcisms. By applying the divine name to Jesus (LORD), or, using B’s terms, by “including” Jesus “in” the divine name (it is really the opposite, the divine name would be “in” him), Jesus also receives worship proper to YHWH.

B suggests that Jesus could have been accorded worship from the beginning or perhaps just reverence at first, but there is no evidence of resistance in a smooth transition to worship.

Therefore, the old view that transition to worship coincided with transition to pagan Hellenistic environment (basically, Bousset’s view) cannot be maintained. Matthew and Revelation, which show Jewish formulations and perspectives most clearly, also show worship of Jesus most clearly:

“That the worship of Jesus did not result from Gentile neglect of Jewish monotheism, but originated within, and had to be accommodated within, a Jewish monotheistic faith, which passed into Gentile Christianity along with it, is of the greatest importance for the course of later Christological development” (130).

In Matthew, B discusses προσκύνησις, which he recognizes has a wide range of meaning from obeisance, prostration in an expression of reverence, and/or worship. Matthew uses the term ten times with Jesus as object (Mark twice; Luke once). He concludes that Matthew uses it as a semi-technical term for obeisance due to Jesus. But is this worship? Or reverence? Indeed, Matt. 18:26, itself, uses it toward human beings without any sense of idolatry. LXX usage is primarily for God (or falsely for idols). He argues that it is a context-sensitive term, in which it is a gesture avoided in contexts where worship of a human being or exalted angel might be construed by it, but in contexts where such false construals do not occur, it is used:

“whereas in Mark and Luke the gesture of obeisance to Jesus is probably no more than a mark of respect for an honoured teacher, Matthew’s consistent use of the word proskunein and his emphasis on the point, show that he intends a kind of reverence which, paid to any other human being, he would have regarded as idolatrous” (131).

The term also tends to occur in epiphanic contexts (2:2, 8, 11; 14:33; 28:9, 17)

But what about Matt 18:26? This passage’s usage is not yet explained.

He concludes with Hurtado that this was a significantly new but internal development within Jewish monotheistic tradition.

The next post will explore further Bauckham's discussion of Jesus worship in terms of doxologies and hymns.

Blog Citation Question

I just thought of something. What if one of my readers on my blog (perhaps you!) made an excellent point on a post that is pertinent to my research (I actually rarely discuss my research on my blog, but it is still a possibility)--how would I cite that in an article, book, etc.? Is it different if it appears in the comments to my blog or to someone else's? If it specifically addressed to me or not? If you know, please respond, because I am curious. This might be a new realm for style guides to consider! Pay attention, Kate Turabian!

Monday, July 20, 2009

New Book on the Tabernacle

A new book on the tabernacle is coming out and looks interesting: Israel's Tabernacle as Social Space by Mark George. I am interested, at least, because I have a lot of work on the Tabernacle in Exodus 25-31, 35-40 and its later understandings in later texts in my dissertation. I am also interested in constructions/conceptions of space (and time) vis-a-vis the sanctuary, so this looks very relevant for me.

Here's the blurb:
The narratives about Israel’s tabernacle are neither a building blueprint nor simply a Priestly conceit securing priestly prominence in Israel. Using a spatial poetics to reexamine these narratives, George argues that the Priestly writers encode a particular understanding of Israel’s identity and self-understanding in tabernacle space. His examination of Israel’s tabernacle narratives makes space itself the focus of analysis and in so doing reveals the social values, concerns, and ideas that inform these narratives. Through a process of negotiation and exchange with the broader social and cultural world, the Priestly writers portray Israel as having an important role in the divine economy, one that is singularly expressed by this portable structure.

Mark K. George is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. The author of various articles and essays, he also is organizer and chair of the SBL’s Space, Place, and Lived Experience in Antiquity Section.

Hardback edition available from Brill Academic Publishers (

Spatial poetics...I will be looking forward to it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Sappho to the Moon

I'm reading Sappho's lyrics, attempting the Greek, but being held up by translation. I am simply not used to her 7th century BCE Aeolic dialect. Even so, I can still work it out, and poetry is always best in its original language. I am reading it and the translation given by Willis Barnstone's Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho, who tries to create poetic English cadences. Although her complete poems (there are only two surviving!) are well-known, her fragmentary poems are quite haunting. I was caught by two different fragments about the moon--what is more haunting than the moon?

πλήρης μὲν ἐφαίνετ' ἀ σελάννα
αἰ δ'ὠς περὶ βῶμον ἐστάθησαν

Full the moon appeared
when the women stood about the altar.

(frag. 154; translation mine)

ἄστερες μὲν ἀμφὶ κάλαν σελάνναν
ἂψ άπθκρύπτοισι φάεννον εἶδος,
ὄπποτα πλήθοισα μάλιστα λάμπηι


Stars around the beautiful moon
conceal their luminous form
when in her fullness she greatly shines
on the earth

in silver

(frag. 34; adapted from Barnstone's translation)

The first fragment elusively depicts some sort of night ritual by women illumined only by the full moon; in its fragmentary state, only the shadows of this moonliight ritual activity remain. The second depicts a moon's bright silvery light that, in its fullness, outshines all the stars. This silvery moon may refer to one of her lovers who outshone all others in beauty. Remember these lines when staring at the next full moon.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Gospels MSS

I was previously unaware of the collection of online images of surviving fragments and manuscripts of the "other gospels" online collected by Andrew Bernhard. He also has available English translations and background material.

His collection contains:
Gospel of Judas (and all of Codex Tchacos)
Gospel of Mary
Gospel of Peter (which is the newest addition)
Egerton Papyrus 2
Oxyrhynchus P840
Infancy Gospel of Thomas
Infancy Gospel of James

Without MSS:
Gospel of the Ebionites, Nazareans, Hebrews
Secret Mark

Not all of these sources have links to their papyri, but many do--a most useful webpage.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

McGrath's "Only True God" General Impressions

As of this minute, I just finished reading James McGrath's book, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in its Jewish Context. I need a bit of time to gather my thoughts, but expect a review (probably in a series) soon intermixed with ongoing discussions of Bauckham's Jesus and the God of Israel, which discusses much of the same issues with different results.

I will give a few general impressions. James's book is very succinct and perspicacious--a wise man once said, "Brevity is the soul of wit." He directs his book towards non-specialists, so he takes time to explain a great deal that scholars' assume, but I think this is an important exercise for all scholars, since we often forget why we assume what we assume and what we assume as a scholarly community needs continual reassessing. It is quite amazing that even explaining these issues, he gets in detailed exegeses of passages and reviews of entire corpi of literature and even material evidence in such few pages.

If I would sum up in one (long) line the difference between McGrath and Bauckham, it is that Bauckham sees similarities between Jewish and Christian monotheism (by the way, they both accept the term, both recognize it is anachronistic, and both note that modern definitions differ from ancient conceptions) in terms of the inclusion of Jesus within the divine identity (in terms of enthronement, sovereignty, and worship), whereas McGrath, while recognizing that theological perspectives are living things that grow and change over time, sees continuity in Jewish and NT views of God with Jesus as a highly exalted agent of God who, like Yahoel, etc., shares God's name ("LORD"), is enthroned (much like other figures), is an agent of creation (like Philo's Logos), but who only receives προσκύνησις(a rather generic term that can mean anything from a "bow" to "reverence" to full-scale sacrificial worship) and, unlike the "one true God," never receives cultic, sacrificial worship--what McGrath sees as the true worship dividing line between Jews (and early Christians) and non-Jews. It is precisely in the highly exalted mediator (agent) figures that Bauckham rejects that McGrath sees the true continuity between late Second Temple and NT theology.

I will let James assess whether my general impression of his book is accurate. For more detailed discussions, wait for later posts!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Roadside Shrines

There is an article in the NYTimes discussing whether spontaneous roadside shrines should be banned.

The reasons against the shrines:

1. It is public space, and the shrines tend to use religious symbols (primarily crosses); thus, they violate separation of church and state.

2. In a related vein, they use public property for private purposes.

3. They are actually a danger; they can distract and, if someone stops to keep up the site, the can create additional hazard, especially on a busy street (this point, of course, varies from location to location, but, if the problem is that someone died in a car accident on a hazardous road, this creates greater hazard).

The reasons to let them be:

1. Legislate all you want, but these shrines are weighted with a great deal of tradition, they are spontaneous, and represent a form of folk religion--the point is, legislate all you want, take them down, and people are going to do it anyway (I tend to agree with this point).

2. They help the grieving process...although others see them as an unwelcome intrusion of morbidity. I have to say, however, that my response to these shrines is that they remind me that I am on a hazardous road and need to be more careful--so, for me, it helps my driving. Perhaps in a society where we avoid confronting death so much, we need reminders of the fragility of life.

3. They represent spontaneous acts of free expression. On this point, they should be allowed BECAUSE they are in public space. They represent the values of creative free expression, and, as such, should be protected under the first amendment.

These are the positions of those contributing to the debate in the article. I tend to think they should be considered on a case-by-case basis on issues of whether they are actually hazardous, etc. And, if they are exercises of free expression that represent folk religion not governed by any authority (of the church or the state), and I am allowed to freely exercise my religious views and practices in public space (it is that the government is not allowed to do so--that's how I read the constitution anyway) then any attempt at broad-based legislation will be futile. Was denkst du?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Hebrews in Codex Sinaiticus

I thought it would be fun to use the amazingly accessible digitized Codex Sinaiticus as I work on my Hebrews chapter. Whether anything from this exercise will impact my dissertation or not, I do not know, but I thought it would be good experience to read it from an ancient witness in addition to and in contrast with (wherever relevant) the conflated Nestle-Aland text.

So, for the opening lines of Hebrews (coming on the heels of a portion of 2 Thessalonians), go here. Hebrews begins at the top of the fourth column. You might notice an interesting aspect of the codex here--often the last letter in the line of a column is dropped or minimized. For example ΤΟΥΣ ΑΙΩΝΑΣ looks more like ΤΟΥ ΑΙΩΝΑΣ where the masculine accusative plural ends the column line. You will also notice that, typical of its time, the capital sigma looks more like our C and their capital Ω looks like a bigger lowercase ω. You can even see some ancient editing at work where ΗΜΩΝ is indicated in the left hand margin in a different hand (notice the Ω is different-in the text it has a single bump on the bottom, where as in the margin it has a doubly curved bottom) with a little squiggle (that's my technical term for it) and an identical squiggle appears in the place in the line where it should be. Critical editing marks haven't changed that much over the millenia, have they? Overall it is a beautiful, regular script, clearly written by a steady hand, although the titles are clearly written in a different, less steady hand. You might also notice on the left hand margin of each column, that the scribe does sort of a reverse indentation. It seems to indicate new thought units (longer clauses, sentences, paragraphs). Overall, it is good practice to look at an ancient witness to remind ourselves that they lack punctuation (for the most part), accentuation, and, most importantly, spacing between words!

Have fun playing with this fantastic online tool!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Dickinson's Interpretation of Gen. 32:24-32

A little over Jordan,
As Genesis record,
An Angel and a Wrestler
Did wrestle long and hard.

Till morning touching mountain,
And Jacob waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To breakfast and return.

"Not so," quoth wily Jacob,
And girt his loins anew,
"Until thou bless me, stranger!"
The which acceded to:

Light swung the silver fleeces
Peniel hills among,
And the astonished Wrestler
Found he had worsted God!

Dickinson sensitively interprets the ambiguity between the "man" Jacob wrestles and the culminating verse where Jacob names the place of the wrestling match Peniel, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved" (Gen. 32:30), turning the ambiguity of the ancient text into a moment of delayed realization by Jacob--it is here, I think, that the astonishing impact of the poem lies. She leaves out, however, the impact, import, and perhaps transformative aspect of naming in the passage as Jacob, the swindler who grabs at the heel, becomes Israel, who has striven with humans and God and prevailed (32:28), as well as the "man" refusing to reveal his name (v. 29). Yet I like how she creates astonishment. Indeed, what a stunning closing line: finding that he had worsted God! It is a perfect line to end with because it makes you stop in your tracks; as Jacob stands astonished that he had worsted God, we stop astonished that God can be worsted.

Dickinson's Bible

The Bible is an antique volume
Written by faded men,
At the suggestion of Holy Spectres--
Eden--the ancient Homestead--
Satan--the Brigadier,
Judas--the great Defaulter,
David--the Troubadour.
Sin--a distinguished Precipice
Others must resist,
Boys that "believe"
Are very lonesome--
Other boys are "lost."
Had but the tale a warbling Teller
All the boys would come--
Orpheus' sermon captivated,
It did not condemn.

~Emily Dickinson

The Vatican, American Bishops, and Obama

The NYTimes reports that American Bishops and the Vatican take diverging approaches to President Obama. While American Bishops have been vocally adversarial (particularly on abortion rights), the Vatican has sought common ground on issues of the poor, redistribution of wealth, and so forth. These are the issues emphasized in the newest encyclical Caritas in Veritate, something which might highlight the differences between the Vatican and American Catholic leaders.

July 10, 2009
U.S. Bishops and Vatican View Obama Differently

Ever since he took office, President Obama has been given a cold reception by some Roman Catholic bishops in the United States who have repeatedly emphasized their church’s differences with him on abortion, birth control and stem cell research.

But Mr. Obama is likely to receive a much warmer reception in the Vatican on Friday when he meets Pope Benedict XVI for the first time, experts on the church say.

Both the pope and the president recognize that despite their differences, they have an opportunity to join forces on international issues that are mutual priorities: Israel and the Palestinians, climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, increased aid to poor nations and immigration reform.

Their encounter comes just as Mr. Obama leaves the Group of 8 industrialized nations summit meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, and three days after Pope Benedict released a weighty encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate” or “Charity in Truth,” which updates Catholic social teaching for the global economic era.

“The pope is trying to engage America’s capacity for good in the world at a time when it’s really critical,” said the Rev. Drew Christensen, editor in chief of America magazine, a national Jesuit weekly, who worked for the church for many years in international relations.

“You’ll never get Rome to admit it,” Father Christensen said, but the Vatican has a different approach than the American bishops to working with governments. “Some of the critics of the president think you have to be at war, and the pope is saying, there’s a different way to proceed here and it’s very essential to the church’s approach, in that what you want is consensus.”

American bishops early on set an adversarial tone with the Obama administration. The president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops warned in a letter soon after the election that “aggressive pro-abortion policies” would “be seen by many as an attack on the free exercise of their religion.”

Dozens of bishops denounced the University of Notre Dame for having Mr. Obama give the commencement speech and receive an honorary degree. Last month, the bishops conference issued a statement supporting Bishop John M. D’Arcy, whose diocese is home to Notre Dame and who led the charge against the university.

The Vatican, by contrast, sent Mr. Obama a congratulatory telegram immediately after his election — a highly unusual gesture, because the Vatican usually waits for the inauguration, experts said. The Vatican sent another telegram for the inauguration, followed by a phone call from the pope.

During the Notre Dame controversy, the Vatican’s newspaper ran a markedly positive story about Mr. Obama. Some Vatican officials have even expressed an openness to the president’s “common ground” initiative to reduce, rather than outlaw, abortions — an approach met with suspicion and disdain by some American bishops and anti-abortion leaders.

“Clearly a lot of people in the Vatican like Obama,” said Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, a conservative religious magazine. “But they’re never going to have a relationship that’s super close.”

With the release of this new encyclical, Obama and B16 will probably have a much more interesting conversation than when Bush went to Rome. At least, I can see a lot of common ground (more than I did a week ago).

UPDATE: See this article that reports on the meeting, where they did discuss their disagreements on abortion and stem-cell research, while also seeking common ground on the issues mentioned above.

Age of Wonder

When poets were scientists, when scientists were poets, oh what an age!

A new book, reviewed in the NYTimes called the Age of Wonder discusses the age from the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries when divisions between science, poetry, etc., were not so demarcated, but united in common wonder and awe.

July 9, 2009
When Poets Were Scientists and Nature Their Mysterious Muse


How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

By Richard Holmes

Illustrated. 552 pages. Pantheon Books. $40.

William Herschel, the German-born, star-gazing musician who effectively doubled the size of the solar system with a single discovery in 1781, was not regarded as a scientist. That word had not been coined during most of the era that will now be known, thanks to Richard Holmes’s amazingly ambitious, buoyant new fusion of history, art, science, philosophy and biography, as “The Age of Wonder.” And Mr. Holmes’s excitement at fusing long-familiar events and personages into something startlingly new is not unlike the exuberance of the age that animates his groundbreaking book.

In Herschel’s day (and that of his sister, Caroline, who functioned as his doting assistant to the point of feeding him like a baby bird), science was deductively methodical. And astronomy was no amateur’s game. But Herschel charted the skies as if making musical notations. And when he lacked instruments with enough precision, he painstakingly invented a telescope with startling new powers of magnification.

Looking through it, he noted a starlike object, twice as far from the Sun as Saturn, that appeared to be moving yet did not have a comet’s tail. He identified this as the planet Georgium Sidus, first named for George III of Britain but later known as Uranus. (Mr. Holmes is much too spirited a writer to resist making a bon mot about the English pronunciation of that name.)


A particularly inspired section of the book relates Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to dissection, to the debate about the existence of a life force, and to the way fiction writers and poets could invoke spiritual power while avoiding making reference to God. But by the time the book reaches the Age of Wonder’s concluding event, Charles Darwin’s five-year voyage on the Beagle beginning in 1831, it has raised both the antecedents and ramifications of today’s most enduring scientific debates, on subjects from global warming to extraterrestrial life to intelligent design. It is impossible to understand where these arguments are headed, “The Age of Wonder” maintains, without knowing where they began.

I would also note that Darwin was a very gifted writer. Origin of Species is not just a revolutionary book for biology and science more generally, but it is beautifully written. I have read passages from it in my literature class.

While speaking of wonder, I have to mention a friend of mine, Mary-Jane Rubenstein, has a book on Wonder called Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe.

The Worst Tourists

In a study questioning hotel owners from around the world rated tourists by nationality and, to my surprise, the worst tourists are not Americans but the French!

While the French got props for dressing well to travel, evidently they are even worse than Americans when it comes to speaking local languages where they travel and adapting to local customs. They are often viewed as arrogant because of that, and somewhat tightfisted (since they have different tipping customs in France where the gratuity is included in the bill). Most French vacation in France, preferring that to traveling abroad. Brits and Germans are considered the best international travelers from Europe.

The very best tourists in the world, not surprisingly, are the Japanese.

Monster Mash

James Crossley has posted an interview by the infamous NT Wrong with Frances Flannery on her journal about religion and monsters, "Golem," named after that most famous Jewish monster. The interview is available here and the journal itself is available online here. All of the articles are available to download as .pdf.

I am happy to see two articles in the current issue on my very favorite breed of monsters: vampires! (Yes, I am absolutely fascinated by vampires.)

Caritas in Veritate

I am usually somewhat repelled when Pope Benedict XVI makes an official statement, but I am intrigued by the new encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) recently released. In it, he basically softens anti-abortion language and calls for more socialized programs (medical, etc.) and redistribution of wealth. Someone has been reading the Gospel of Luke!

There are some responses to it here and here.

Here are some snippets of comments from Thomas Reese, S.J. (the first link above):

Pope Benedict's long awaited encyclical calls for a radical rethinking of economics so that it is guided not simply by profits but by "an ethics which is people-centered."

"Profit is useful if it serves as a means towards an end," he writes in Caritas in veritate (Charity in Truth), but "once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty."


Sounding like a union organizer, Benedict argues that "Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution in order to increase the country's international competitiveness, hinder the achievement of lasting development."

Rather the goal should be decent employment for everyone, which "means work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society: work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labor; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one's roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living."

The pope disagrees with those who believe that the economy should be free of government regulation. "The conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from 'influences' of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way," he writes. "In the long term, these convictions have led to economic, social and political systems that trample upon personal and social freedom, and are therefore unable to deliver the justice that they promise."


While Benedict acknowledges the role of the market, he emphasizes that "the social doctrine of the Church has unceasingly highlighted the importance of distributive justice and social justice for the market economy." He unflinchingly supports the "redistribution of wealth" when he talks about the role of government. "Grave imbalances are produced," he writes, "when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution."

Although Benedict's emphasis in the encyclical is on the theological foundations of Catholic social teaching, amid the dense prose there are indications, as shown above, that he is to the left of almost every politician in America. What politician would casually refer to "redistribution of wealth" or talk of international governing bodies to regulate the economy? Who would call for increasing the percentage of GDP devoted to foreign aid? Who would call for the adoption of "new life-styles 'in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments'"?

Has B16 moved left in response to the economic crisis? Or has he always promoted such redistributive economic policies?

On the issue of abortion, Anthony Stevens-Arroyo notes:

Caritas in Veritate makes two assertions that will limit its appeal to Catholic America. First, the issue of abortion is made one of many and removed from the center stage of political issues. The pope sidesteps the argument that the primary political concern of Catholicism is to abolish abortion. This will surprise folks outside the Church who have caricatured Catholicism as a Johnny-one-note on political issues. More importantly, this papal encyclical will disappoint the American Catholics - laity and clergy alike -- who have considered abortion as the intrinsic evil that compels all the church's political attention.

I am not suggesting that the encyclical revokes Catholic opposition to abortion (see #28). However, the pontiff contextualizes pro-life teaching by calling for remedies to the socio-economic causes of abortion, and much of the encyclical is dedicated to various aspects of how to end poverty and uplift the world's population with ample food, clean water, educational opportunities and the like (#43-51). Catholic Democrats will rightly consider this papal document to legitimize their alternative approach to Pro-life politics over the abortion-only policies that sounded very "Republican Party." Thus, the current divide in Catholic America will not be bridged with this instruction from Benedict XVI. In fact, the pope gives ammunition to the pro-life Democrats in their effort to reduce the number of abortions by addressing larger social issues.

Arroyo is rather pessimistic about the new encyclical flying in Catholic America (symbolized by Peoria--I have a lot of friends in Peoria!), but summarizes it as follows:

The pope says governments should redistribute wealth to sustain domestic social services and whenever granting international aid. Unions are to be encouraged (#22, 25), immigrant workers are to be respected (#25), and the profit motive must be subordinated to morality and social justice (#35-37). The redistribution of wealth and energy with emphasis upon the quality of life fits the European context of a mostly Socialist economy better than the current economic structures of the United States. The culprits in a global economy, according to the pope are Capitalism and secularism (#37-38).

This might be one of the few times I am drawn into agreement with the current pope on something.

Lod Mosaic

The rerevealing of the Lod Mosaic has made the NYTimes:

The late-Roman-era mosaic floor, one of the largest and finest in Israel, was unveiled by the authorities last week for just the second time since it was discovered 13 years ago in the dilapidated eastern section of this poor town near the international airport, south of Tel Aviv.

Some 1,700 years old, the magnificent tiled floor spreads over almost 2,000 square feet, shaded from the harsh summer sun by a thin awning and surrounded by a canvas fence. A panoply of colorful depictions of birds, fish, exotic animals and merchant ships, the mosaic conjures up an intriguing reminder of Lod’s more glorious past.

The archaeologists of the Israel Antiquities Authority believe the mosaic, which lacks any inscriptions, was commissioned by a wealthy individual who owned a grand villa here. Lod, which is mentioned in the Bible, was an important center in ancient times, and this part of it is known to have been a neighborhood of the rich.


The Lod mosaic was discovered in 1996, when Miriam Avissar, an archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority, was sent to carry out a routine salvage excavation because the local council wanted to widen a road. This area of old Lod was already known to be rich in mosaics, but most were badly damaged or under buildings.

“I saw a white frame, then a tiger,” said Ms. Avissar, who has recently retired, recalling her first glimpses of the mosaic. “It was completely flat and in marvelous condition.”

Once exposed, the mosaic was put on public display for a single weekend, during which some 30,000 Israelis flocked to see it. It was then covered up again while the antiquities authority sought financing to carry out the necessary conservation work and to build appropriate facilities at the site.

Donations have now been found and the project is being revived. The mosaic was briefly revealed last Wednesday to news organizations, and is to open to the public for three days, starting Thursday. It will then be removed to a laboratory in Jerusalem for painstaking conservation. In 2010, a section will be sent to the United States for exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Two years from now, the entire mosaic is supposed to be returned to this patch of ground in eastern Lod and put on permanent display in a protected environment.

I know this came across the Agade listserve recently. I just hope it comes to the Met during the spring of 2010, so that it is in NY while I am still at Columbia.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Weddings, Tartans, and Other Historical Bunk

One of the historian's first questions (other than when and where?) is cui bono or who benefits? In historiagraphy (the history of history), the one who benefits is the historian.

A review article at discusses this in terms of weddings, Scottish history, and even the origins of WWII:

July 9, 2009 | Let's start with something small. Many people believe that each of the tartan (plaid) patterns worn by Scottish Highlanders corresponds to a particular clan and that kilts made of this fabric have served as the uniforms and emblems of that clan since time immemorial. But, as the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper pointed out in a famous essay titled "The Invention of History: The Highland Tradition of Scotland," that simply isn't true. "Indeed," Trevor-Roper wrote, "the whole concept of a distinct Highland culture and tradition is a retrospective invention," cooked up in the 19th century. Much the same can be said of the customs of the "traditional" wedding (the elaborate church ceremony, the white dress, etc.), which were concocted a the same time. In fact, for most of the history of Christendom, a wedding was a low-key affair conducted at home without the benefit of clergy.


Yet kilts and bouquets have more common with simmering Weimar-era resentment than might initially seem. Even trivial "bad history," as MacMillan would call it, can be driven by profound desires. Trevor-Roper judged the "artificial creation of new Highland traditions, presented as ancient, original and distinctive," to be an attempt to assert a Scottish identity as a kind of protest against "Union with England." The idea of a gallant, free, Scottish tribal past appealed to the sensibility of the Victorian era as, too, did the notion of a very special white wedding dress; the first one was worn by Victoria herself when she married Prince Albert. Just as Scots thrilled to the idea of a rich native culture with deep roots, so we like to believe that the modern vision of wedlock as a union founded in true love is hallowed and eternal. Convincing ourselves that weddings have always been wrapped in sacred and sentimental rituals is like a charm against our suspicion that marriage may not be that romantic after all.

Being partly of Scottish descent, I had discovered that the tartans were of recent origin a long time ago, and I knew the whole thing about the white wedding dress and church weddings as well.

Like the tartans, much of the article speaks of retrospective creations that create ethnic and national groups:

Some people embrace "bad history" because it reinforces their national, regional or ethnic identity, as in the case of the Serbs or those Japanese conservatives who want archaeologists kept out of the ancient tombs of the royal family for fear that the remains found there will indicate that the emperors have non-Japanese ancestors. People seeking to keep the Irish divided once perpetrated the myth that only Protestants fought alongside the British in World War I, when in fact 210,000 Irish Catholics and nationalists volunteered. Others use the past to deflect attention from their own mischief, like the governing elites in China, who dwell on its history of colonialism, persecution and victimization at the hands of the West in order to invalidate any criticism from outsiders as more of the same.

The Maccabiades

I was reading Le Monde, as I do to keep up my French, and ran across an article on the Jewish Olympics, the Maccabiah Games or the Maccabiades. I had never heard of these games before, but evidently they have been going on since 1932. It is an event recognized by the international Olympic committee, and in 2009, they expect more than seven thousand participants from sixty countries.

Les Maccabiah Games, ou Maccabiades, réunissent tous les quatre ans des sportifs issus de la communauté juive, même si les Arabes israéliens peuvent également y participer. Lors de la première édition, en 1932, "il y avait trois cent quatre-vingt-dix athlètes, représentant dix-huit pays, venus essentiellement d'Europe mais aussi d'Egypte et de Syrie", explique Georges Haddad, président de la fédération française culturelle et sportive Maccabi, qui organise le déplacement de la délégation tricolore. "Aujourd'hui, cette compétition omnisports en est à sa 18e édition, elle est reconnue par le Comité international olympique, et en termes d'effectifs c'est la deuxième plus importante après les Jeux olympiques." Les organisateurs prévoient en 2009 une participation record, avec plus de sept mille athlètes, venant de soixante pays, allant des Etats-Unis (mille quarante personnes), au Kazakhstan, avec la plus modeste délégation (quinze personnes : une équipe de football).


Ces "Jeux olympiques juifs" revêtent forcément un caractère culturel et communautaire. Ainsi "certains athlètes ont découvert Israël à travers la Maccabiade", explique Georges Haddad. Et c'est également ce désir de découverte qui a motivé Jason Lezak. "C'est quelque chose que j'ai toujours voulu faire, mais les dates se heurtaient avec celles des championnats du monde", a déclaré le champion olympique américain devant la presse. "C'est une occasion formidable, et c'est non seulement important de nager ici, mais aussi de voir Israël. C'est une expérience unique pour moi, pas seulement pour la compétition, mais pour tout le reste."

It seems to be viewed as a training ground for the larger Olympics, the next to be held in London in 2012.

I was probably most intrigued by the name of these games, drawing on traditions of the Judah Maccabee and his brothers, who revolted against Seleucid rule in the second century BCE, after Antiochus IV "Epiphanes" desecrated the temple and basically outlawed Judaism. Judah, as recorded in 1 and 2 Maccabees and Josephus, fought off the Seleucid army, took back and restored the temple (from which we get Hanukkah), and whose brothers eventually took Judea, ruling as high priests and military governors and then kings (only to be succeeded by Herod the Great in 40 BCE). Is it the militancy of the Hasmoneans that these games remember? There is the whole situation of the Hellenization of Jerusalem by the ruling classes just before Antiochus IV came down to squash the Jewish practices. 2 Maccabees, in particular, (tendentiously) portrays the Maccabean revolt as one between "Judaism" (the first time this term ever appears as an "ism" in literature) and "Hellenism," which would make an Olympic games in the name of the Maccabeans highly ironic. Nonetheless, the Hasmoneans themselves did later take on the trappings of Hellenistic life once they attained sovereignty. Now their name is combined with that ultimate pan-Hellenic event: the Olympics.

New Look

For my regular visitors, seeing my blog today would be a shock! I have changed the template and color scheme. I do this about once a year, because I get bored with seeing the same template all the time. If you have any suggestions on color scheme, etc., let me know!

Heb. 2:10-11: A Discussion

I am revising my dissertation chapter on Hebrews, and since I am relating it to cosmogonic patterns that interlink creation, rest, sanctuary, and enthronement (beginning with the Enuma Elish, through the Pentateuch, and finally placed in the heavenly realm in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and Hebrews), today I am collating all of my references to creation (under which I, in fact, include restorative Day of Atonement rituals since they restore the temple--itself representative of the cosmos--to its original state of creation). In case you are interesting, in the broader trajectory, the Sabbath (rest) and the Sanctuary (particularly the Tabernacle) become interlinked in an interesting manner, often becoming equivalent symbols, or equivalent expressions of holiness (Pentateuch and Ezekiel) and, I would argue in Hebrews, they are equivalent symbols expressing God's heavenliness; all throughout the tradition, they equivalently express proximity to God in what I call sacred spacetime. In Hebrews the play on space and time is most marked in Chs. 3-4 (where the author plays with rest traditions) and Ch. 9 (playing with the tabernacle).

Back to creation, though. Most of the references are fairly straightforward and nicely interlink creation, restoration (through purification of sins) and enthronement (within the heavenly sanctuary), but I am a bit baffled by the pronouns in Heb. 2:10-11. I could look to all my commentaries, etc., but I thought it would be more fun to tap all those Hebrews folk I know are online:

ἔπρεπεν γὰρ αὐτῷ, δι' ὃν τὰ πάντα καὶ δι' οὗ τὰ πἀντα, πολλοὺς υἱοὺς δόξαν ἀγαγόντα τὸν ἀρχηγὸν τῆς σωτηρίας αύτῶν διὰ παθημάτων τελειῶσαι. ὅ τε γὰρ ἁγιάζων καὶ οἱ ἁγιάζόμενοι ἐξ ἑνὸς πάντες; δι' ἣν αἰτίαν οὐκ ἐπαισχύνεται ἀδελφοὺς αὐτοὺς καλεῖν

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren. (RSV)

When coming to verse 10, just previously the pronoun "he" was used for the Son, for Jesus, who is tasting death for everyone (his sacrificial restoration). As it is in 1:2-3, the sacrificial restoration is juxtaposed to creation. There it was the Son "through whom" God created the world. Yet, if one keeps pronominal consistency, then this passage becomes muddled. Because "he" perfects the "pioneer" through suffering. The pioneer who suffers is clearly the Son, so the "he" "by whom" and "for whom" all things exist must be God.

What about the next part? Keeping with references, who is the "he who sanctifies"? Is it God? Or Jesus, the Son? If it is God, we have some consistency in pronouns, but if it is the Son, we have without much notice switched back. In fact, I think it has switched back, since that makes the most sense in the context of being "brethren," with Jesus' followers being identified with Jesus, and with what follows in verse 14, emphasizing that because "the children" shared in flesh and blood, "he" partook of the same nature.

This raises another issue, however. If "he who sanctifies" and "those who are sanctified" have the same origin, or, literally, "are all from one," what does that mean? Does the sanctifier and sanctified have the same origin in creation (i.e., both being created beings, although one, once created now creates)? If one is preexistent, are all the rest somehow preexistent? Are they from the same origin by soul, by body? They partake of the same nature of blood and flesh in v. 14, but is this what v. 11 is referring to?

Perhaps the thrust of the passage pushes toward the natural commonality, since, again, the flesh and blood and issue of sanctification will come to the forefront with the first mention of the "faithful high priest" in 3:17, who makes expiation for sins. Still, I do wonder what the "every respect" entails in 3:17. V. 18 suggests there is even greater identification than flesh and blood, but even ability to be tempted (which gives the Son his compassion).

UPDATE: J.K. Gayle, having commented below, has appended a discussion of this to an earlier post. Gayle's translation nicely plays on the "beginning" and "end" language. Although I still think that the accusative aspect of the noun "beginner" and the verb aspect of "to end/complete/perfect" needs to be accounted for. In Gayle's translation we lose the doubled subjects. While we lose the subjects, Gayle's translation, nevertheless, does help account for the subject shifts with γάρ marking shifts in paragraphs more generally and shifts in subject here.

"Nature" from v. 14 probably is an overtranslation (by RSV) of παραπλησίως μετέσχεν which is something like "partook of common resemblance/equality." The language in Hebrews, I would agree, should be more broadly construed. Nonetheless, I am not sure the author would distinguish between "natural" and "supernatural" in the same way we do today. What we call "supernatural" would be perfectly "natural." This division strikes me as an Enlightenment distinction, although it may have had predecessors (perhaps in Aristotles distinction between "physics" and "metaphysics"). I think the underlying distinction here may be between created and uncreated, or, perhaps following Ken Schenck, between "shakable" and "unshakable" (Heb. 12:26-28). Even so, there is strong identification between sanctifier and sanctified, perfecter and perfected, having a common "origin," which instills mercy and compassion in the heavenly high priest.

FURTHER UPDATE: Ken Schenk has offered a helpful, clear reading of this passage in the comments below.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Jesus and the God of Israel (Chapter 3: "Most High")

Amazingly, I am going to be able to fit all of my comments on chapter 3 of Bauckham's Jesus and the God of Israel in one post! Follow the labels back to see the earlier posts.

Chapter 3 is about “The ‘Most High’ God and the Nature of Early Jewish Monotheism”

Of all the chapters I have read, I have found this one to be the most informative. In it B calls for listings and tables of divine names and titles in early Jewish literature to see which are popular and which are not in particular genres and in particular provenances. I think such an extensive study would be most useful indeed!

This chapter takes a small step towards this with a study of the term “Most High.” He tries to account for its high frequency, its significance, and how it sheds light on early Jewish monotheism.

Of course, to do this he must rehearse defining “monotheism” and “inclusive” versus “exclusive” monotheism. Again, inclusive monotheism, in B’s definition, is when the highest God is superlative in a gradient set—the highest god is strongest, wisest, loftiest, developing out of older polytheisms of Rome, Greece, and the Near East. Exclusive monotheism differentiates not only in degree, but also in kind, which is how he sees early Jewish literature with few or no exceptions, since God is the creator and ruler of all things. (I would argue that this, too, would develop out of older polytheisms of Rome, Greece, and the Near East, since Marduk, too, is the creator—or orderer—and ruler of all things in the Enuma Elish in much the same way YHWH is in Jewish literature). I would actually call Bauckham’s model of “inclusive monotheism” just “classical polytheism,” but that might just be a matter of semantics (I am increasingly thinking that neither “monotheism” nor “polytheism” carry much explanatory power—ironically, I am seeing this through the disputes B has with others, when they are saying the exact same thing, but one calling it monotheism, another saying monolatry, and another polytheism). Recognizing the Israelite-Jewish matrix that was polytheistic or inclusively monotheistic (in B’s definition), however, B writes:

“Because these definitions of God’s uniqueness drive an absolute difference in kind between God and ‘all things’, they override any older gradient features of the Israelite-Jewish worldview (such as survive in some of the vocabulary used) and create an essentially binary view of reality.” (109)

In fact, this is quite a sophisticated observation, noting (in other words) how older terminology sediments, persists even as such terminology shifts in meaning. “Most high” may have originally presumed a “gradient” pantheon (whether we call it “inclusive monotheism” or simply “classical polytheism”). This definition of divinity, again, was inculcated (or perhaps maintained) by monolatry.

In this chapter, I see a lot more qualifying remarks, and recognitions of changes from the early Israelite-Jewish matrix into what emerged in the (late?) second temple period.

“Early Judaism turned monolatry (which had originally been concomitant of henotheism) into a powerful symbol of exclusive monotheism.” (109).

Unlike his earlier chapters, B is no longer equating monolatry (“practical monotheism”) with monotheism, but sees more of a process, perhaps a “dialectic” (I would say “dialogic”) process between them. With such statements as these, I am not sure we can completely label Bauckham as providing a “static” model of Jewish conceptions of God as James McGrath has recently said in his latest book (Only True God, 12-15), although, to be fair, this essay was not available when McGrath’s book was in press and B’s earlier work (and his earlier chapters in this same book) do present a fairly static view. Yet now these qualifying statements in this chapter are forcing me to reevaluate this. Perhaps B sees more dynamism between Israelite and second temple literature and more static in late second temple Judaism and early Christianity.

On the issue of worship, B also notes:

“While appropriate honour might be accorded high-ranking creatures (but not in contexts where it might be mistaken for divine worship, and so usually not to angels or to rulers who claimed divinity), worship was different because it was acknowledgement of the transcendent uniqueness of the God of Israel.” (109).

With all of these qualifying remarks, nuancing his model to a greater degree than before in this book, B gets down to business and discusses the term “Most High.” It occurs 31 times in the Hebrew Bible (outside of Daniel; he excludes Daniel here and places it in Second Temple literature due to its late date). Then it occurs 284 times (minimum!) in literature 250 BCE-150 CE. In the OT, with partial exception of genesis, the title is exclusively in poetic passages, usually the Psalms. In Second Temple literature, all genres employ it. Moreoverly, 250 out of the 284 occurrences appear in Palestinian literature, making it much rarer in the Diaspora, a statistical imbalance that needs explanation.

B thinks this title is a good test case because “most high” seems amenable to “inclusive monotheism” and can be found in widespread usage with regard to supreme deities in other systems of the Hellenistic and Roman periods—Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, etc., use this term. But as B would be the first to point out, the usage of the same term does not necessarily indicate the same meaning of that term, although it may.

To discuss this, he turns to one of his favorite texts: Deuteronomy (his other favorite is Second Isaiah). The extant passage of Deut. 32:8-9 has significant differences between the MT, LXX, and 4QDeutj. In this text the “Most High” apportions the nations either according to the number of the “sons of Israel” (MT; which, I think, makes very little sense in this passage), “angels of God” (LXX), and “sons of God/El” (Qumran). YHWH’s portion is Israel. These latter two make much more sense to me. Apart from manuscript variance in which, I think, the MT is perhaps the least reliable in this case, this text has two basic readings: (1) YHWH is one of the sons of the Most High (this is how Margaret Barker reads it, for example); (2) YHWH is the Most High, and when he gives the nations to members of his heavenly entourage, he keeps Israel for himself (so while others get governors, Israel gets the emperor himself). (1) is often pushed as the original meaning, but it is hard to maintain this meaning in the context of Deuteronomy (contra Barker). I think it might be the case of an older view of God (1) sedimenting itself into a new context, reinterpreted by the Deuteronomist writer as (2). I agree that in the current context of Deuteronomy it almost has to be (2), but it may be that (2) is aware of and trying to subvert (1) by using (1)’s own language. Nonetheless, in the Second Temple period, (2) was the dominant interpretation (no matter its earlier possible meanings)—see Sir. 17:17, Jub. 15:31-32; 16:17-18; Philo, Post., 91-2; Plant., 58-9. So, Sirach, Jubilees, and Philo, very different authors and very different readers all presuppose (2). This, I would note, does not disprove that (1) is not an earlier understanding, but it establishes (for the most part) its meaning in the late Second Temple Period (with Sirach offering our earliest reading)—and it is this later period that is B’s primary concern. B. notes that there is not a different reading from (2) until Basil of Caesarea and, moreover, this passage does not figure in the Rabbinic “two powers” controversy.

An important note on terminology in the Second Temple period surrounds the usage of “gods.” While the Hebrew Bible freely uses it for a variety of divine beings, Second Temple literature tends to avoid using “gods” or “sons of god,” etc., preferring “angels” or “rulers.” Qumran, of course, is the significant exception to this. Jubilees and Sirach might consider them to be the “gods” (falsely) worshipped by other nations, but that they exist and are worshipped as such, does not mean that they exist as gods in these texts; thus, no “inclusive monotheism.” So, even if the heavenly rulers of other nations (being apportioned to them by the most high) are “gods” does not mean they exist in the same capacity “as gods” in the same way YHWH does. He is primarily arguing contra Horbury at this point, but the problem with the argument is simply that they divine “inclusive” and “exclusive” differently, so the difference is not substantive but semantic.

Subsequently, B surveys “Most High” in early Jewish literature. Most uccurrences fall under three issues (with exceptions for poetic parallelism, habit, etc.):

(1) Temple, cult, and prayer: Most High is the one worshiped in temple worship, such as in ben Sira’s discussion of temple worship (Sir. 50:1-21). The temple is the “house of the Most High.” As such, it is associated with sacrifice, worship, prayer, thanksgiving, blessing, and praise. Melchizedek, Levi, and the Hasmoneans are all called “priests of the Most High.” I might suggest that the term in a cultic setting refers to God in the Most High place (the holy/cosmic mountain, the devir). (I wish he had spent more time on the cultic associations, because it is the aspect that I find most intriguing.)

(2) God as sovereign (seemingly most obvious association of “most high”). He discusses the holy of holies as the heights of heaven (which, in fact, probably should be mentioned under (1)), interlinking God’s sovereignty and cultic worship. Prayers with “most high” address God as supreme over all. Underlines God’s role as universal ruler and is connected with judgment.

(3) Use by or in relation to Gentiles: It is used in the literature by Gentiles to refer to Jewish God or by Jews referring to their God when in communication to Gentiles. Some uses here may be authentic, but probably a literary convention (especially with Gentiles referring to Jewish God as “most high” in Jewish literature!). This though links back to (2), since the title that denotes universal sovereignty would be the name most appropriate for Gentile usage (since they do not have the name “YHWH” revealed to them). In this way, the title “most high” in late second temple Judaism replaces “god of heaven” of early second temple Judaism.

Additionally, the term is very highly prevalent in 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra. There are 68 occurrences in 4 Ezra alone! 2 Baruch uses it more in combination with other titles, like “Mighty One,” which appears 43 times in comparison with the 24 occurrences of “Most High.”

For the remainder of the chapter, B discussion how the “most high” relates to the “gods.” He notes that very few biblical texts use “Elyon” in the context of the council of lesser gods (Deut. 32:8-9; Ps. 97:9; Ps. 82:6). He claims that these are isolated, unusual cases and would not influence the early Jewish reader (!?!?). I will reiterate my objection to this reasoning. Just because something is isolated or rare or is not the dominant trend, does not mean it is not significant, important, or influential. An early Jewish reader may have, in fact, been fairly taken by these passages. Three passages is often the amount of evidence he presents elsewhere to make his points; for example, he only posited three readers for the “established” understanding of the Deuteronomy passage above.

He further notes that in many passages “Most High” does not necessarily mean “the highest of the gods” but could be locative—that God is “on high.”

Even Psalm 82, he claims, the most “polytheistic” passage, has its supposed polytheism contradicted by the judgment that the “sons” will die like humans (v. 71):

“The strong impulse to draw an absolute distinction of kind between YHWH and all other reality, characteristic of Second Temple Judaism, is here already at work, despite the use of the very old terminology that was not designed to express that.” (119)

He writes that you cannot read “forward” these passages’ reconstructed original meaning to be how they were read by later Jews. I agree on this point. He recognizes that the language of the divine council is an older concept and that in the Second Temple period (and even for most of the Hebrew Bible) the assembly does not really offer council, but just assembles to praise God. Earlier readings may not be how later Jewish readers took the passage. I would claim you cannot read backward either—just because something is the prominent understanding of a passage in a later place and time does not constitute its earlier meanings. He says these passages would be read in light of the monotheizing process already at work in the canonization process: “language that may originally have had polytheistic significance was refashioned in early Jewish use in the service of monotheism” (119). It is this process of retooling or, to take an earlier phrase of B’s, “refunctioning” older phrases, terms, or even broader patterns into a new context with a new meaning, such as “Most High.”

Ok, so what we’ve been waiting for in wading through some of the statistical data: why Palestine and not so much in the Diaspora? Diaspora usage mostly falls into the relations with Gentiles. “Most High” was of widespread usage among non-Jews, so it is a term a Gentile could readily understand and perhaps was used for apologetic purposes in Jewish engagements with Gentiles. (This implies, although B does not fully spell it out, that the Gentiles would associate the term with their own “Most High” of Zeus, Jupiter, Amun, etc.—would these be instances of “inclusive monotheism” when Jews (whether for apologetic purposes or not) somehow claimed their “most high” was basically the same as their “most high”? Might diaspora literature be more “inclusive” and Palestinian literature most “exclusive”?) In a way, this term was a place where Jews and Greeks (or Romans, etc.) could meet each other half-way (citing C.H. Dodd).

But this usage allows ambiguity—Greeks used the term primarily as a morphologically superlative whereas Jewish usage tended to be semantically superlative. Greeks see the “most high” has the highest in a series, but Jews use it for “God Most High.” So, this ambiguity and potentials for misunderstanding might be why Diaspora Jews avoided it for internal usage and only to meet Gentiles half way. When use by Philo, for example, he has to explain this differentiation of usage (Leg. 3.82).

B leaves open the issue of epigraphic usage, which is much muddier (although its ambiguity is itself an important datum). He also leaves aside the question of whether there was a general cult to Theos Hypsistos that spawned Jewish, Greek, and Christian usage. I find it disappointing that he does not triangulate his discussion by exploring epigraphic usages. A discussion of the Jewish epigram in the cave to Pan is an interesting case-in-point, although this may not be relevant for a chapter on “Most High.” It is something that is relevant to his more general discussion of ancient monotheism, nonetheless. Luckily, McGrath does discuss material remains in his book.

At the end of the chapter, B gives helpful tables of texts, provenance, and frequency of usage of the title “Most High.” I hope his further endeavors will seek out other divine titles in the same way. This is definitely the most informative chapter so far.