Saturday, October 20, 2007

My Paul Problem: Part III. Towards a Solution... Paula Fredriksen on the Dangers of Anachronism

Paula Fredriksen on anachronism in NT Scholarship, the need for "willed ignorance", and the importance of letting the ancients be ancient.

Animal Sacrifice in a Roman Setting.

Krister Stendahl's Three Rules of Religious Understanding:

(1) When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.

(2) Don't compare your best to their worst.

(3) Leave room for "holy envy." (By this Stendahl meant that you should be willing to find elements in the other religious tradition and faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)


"[From] the World Council of Churches [to] Catholic liberation theologians, Jesus's Jewishness is frequently erased. In the churches, as Jesus continues to be the symbol for all that is socially good, Christian minis­ters and laity alike depict his Jewish background as the epitome of all that is wrong with the world. If Jesus preaches good news to the poor, so the common impression goes, "the Jews" must be preaching good news to the rich. If Jesus welcomes sinners, "the Jews" must have pushed them away. If Jesus speaks to or heals women, "the Jews" must have set up a patriar­chal society that makes the Taliban look progressive...

... In the academy, certain schools of thought have managed to distin­guish Jesus, whether implicitly or explicitly, from any sort of "Judaism:" The popular push to depict Jesus as a Galilean and see Galilee as reli­giously and ethnically distinct from Judea winds up conveying the impres­sion that "Judaism," with its Temple and its leadership, is quite distinct from the Galilean Jesus. The popular image of Jesus as a "peasant" often serves not to connect him to his fellow Jews but to distinguish him from them, since "the Jews" remain in the popular imagination not peasants but Pharisees and Sadducees or, in academic terms, members of the retainer and elite classes. Worse, the lingering view that Jesus dismissed basic Jewish practices, such as the Laws concerning Sabbath observance and ritual purity, turns Jesus away from his Jewish identity and makes him into a liberal Protestant.

Historically, Jesus should be seen as continuous with the line of Jewish teachers and prophets, for he shares with them a particular view of the world and a particular manner of expressing that view. Like Amos and Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah, he used arresting speech, risked political persecution, and turned traditional family values upside down in order to proclaim what he believed God wants, the Torah teaches, and Israel must do. This historical anchoring need not and should not, in Christian teaching, pre­clude or overshadow Jesus's role in the divine plan. He must, in the Chris­tian tradition, be more than just a really fine Jewish teacher. But he must be that Jewish teacher as well.
Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School (emphases mine)

In Part I and Part II, I described some of the discomfort I'd felt regarding the Apostle Paul. I described how arguments between Catholic and Protestant apologists on the meaning of the writings of St. Paul, and on the apparent dichotomy between St. Paul and St. James on "faith and works" had left me uncomfortable about Paul himself in general... how he seemed on the surface to me to be much more of a Hellenstic Greek thinker than the Pharisee he claimed to have been. If left to standard, "orthodox" apologetic answers alone, I'd have remained unconvinced and unsatisfied. Here is where some help in resolving these doubts came to me from unlikely sources...

There were too many Catholics throughout our history who persecuted Jews brutally because they had rejected the Messiah. They had crucified the Savior. It was a charge of deicide. Blood libel ("let his blood be upon us and our children"). Unfortunately,this is part of our legacy, a history that includes harsh polemics, forced conversions, expulsions, endemic discrimination, and pogroms.

When Protestantism came along, rather than ameliorating this, their theologians simply piled on by adding the caricaturization of Judaism as a religion of legalism and works righteousness, which had certainly been present but had not really been the dominant strand of Catholic thought up until that time. When Luther was sitting in the tower pondering St Paul's Letter to the Romans, and came upon “justification by faith”, he thought he had come up with the key for reaching out to the Jews. He thought to himself, “The Papists have been so horrible to the Jews, no wonder they won’t convert. If I can only speak to them, and show them what Paul was really trying to say, perhaps it will open their eyes, and they will come to believe!”Luther went to the most learned rabbis in Germany and made his case to them. They listened, but they had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. As far as they were concerned, they were already living by faith. This put Luther into such a rage that he turned on them viciously, referring to them as “kinder der teuffel”, children of the devil. He wrote about “The Jews and their lies”, and died with a curse for the Jews on his lips.

When the enlightenment came along, instead of ameliorating that, the tendency only increased, although overt forms of crude violence and discrimination eventually faded. Jesus was increasingly being stripped away from anything that smacked of superanaturalism, in addition to being pulled away even further from his Jewish context. The "pure religion of the heart" preached by Jesus was contrasted in favorable terms against a "dead" religion of traditions, rules, forms, burdens, and outward appearances. As Amy-Jill Levine intimates above, it is still a trend that continues today, even with the best of intentions, in that Jesus is seen in liberal circles as resisting an oppressive, exclusive, anti-feminist, patriarchal, legalistic religious system.

Is all this accurate?

Today, even certain Protestant scholars like James Dunn, who have no intention of sticking up for the Catholic Church, realize that Martin Luther was reading back into the text trying to project the medieval Church onto 1st century Judaism.

The above-mentioned Krister Stendhal is a Lutheran NT scholar and the Bishop Emeritus of Stockholm. This site has a blurb on Stendahl’s central thesis:

According to Stendahl, the quest of the plagued conscience began with Augustine whose Confessions are "the first great document in the history of introspective conscience" and climaxed with Luther. Prior to Augustine, the church had read Paul accurately in terms of the question, what does the Messiah's arrival mean for (a) the law (not legalism) and (b) the relationship between Jews and Gentiles? Since Augustine, the church has misread Paul in terms of the question, how can I find a gracious God? Luther and the subsequent reformers read Paul's statements about faith and works, law and gospel, Jews and Gentiles "in the framework of late medieval piety" such that the law quickly became associated with legalism. "Where Paul was concerned about the possibility for Gentiles to be included in the messianic community, his statements are now read as answers to the quest for assurance about man's salvation out of a common human predicament". To illustrate what he means, Stendahl appeals to Luther's understanding of Galatians 3:24 to illustrate the second use of the law. Whereas Paul clearly envisioned the law as the custodian for the Jews until the arrival of the Messiah, Luther reversed the argument to assert that the law is the schoolmaster for everyone to crush self-righteousness and lead to Christ. Furthermore, the law is no longer the law of Moses which has become obsolete, but God's moral imperative as such. Stendahl concludes, "Paul's argument that the Gentiles must not and should not come to Christ via the Law, i.e., via circumcision, etc. has turned into a statement according to which all men must come to Christ with consciences properly convicted by the Law and its insatiable requirements for righteousness. So drastic is the reinterpretation once the original framework of 'Jews and Gentiles' is lost, and the Western problems of conscience become its unchallenged and self-evident substitute".

Is it possible that the whole antithesis between Gospel and Law is built on a cardboard cutout of Judaism? Is it a straw-man version of Judaism that didn't exist in the first century and does not exist now? Most NT scholarship (especially that which follows the German scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries) has St. Paul presenting Judaism as a religion of works righteousness, in which a man tries to earn God's acceptance through works of piety and good deeds, and that the Law for them was something arid, burdensome, and a curse, because it could not be kept completely. The Jew becomes a metaphor for "the religious man" who is contrasted unfavorably to the Christian who relies fully upon the grace of God. Many Protestant and Catholic and Jewish scholars over the last 30 years who've studied Second Temple Judaism have shown that this caricaturization is demonstrably false. Having had many close Jewish friends in my life, I know from my own anecdotal experience that it is false and has nothing to do with what they think about God. I once found what I thought to be an illustrative quote:

When I walk through the streets of a city and a Christian missionary meets me, the first question he asks me is: 'What do you do for the salvation of your soul?' I have never thought of salvation, it is not a Jewish problem. My problem is what mitzvah I can do next. Am I going to say barachah? Am I going to be kind to another person? To study Torah? How am I going to prepare for the Sabbath? Those are my problems. The central issue in Judaism is the mitzvah, the sacred act. And it is the greatness of man that he can do a mitzvah. How great we are that we can fulfill the will of God!
-- Abraham Joshua Heschel

For Jews, the Torah is not a curse, but through its study and application, it is a way to draw closer to God and to experience the divine in everyday life. They don't keep the Torah to earn their way into the membership in the people of God but to express it. Do they believe in faith and grace? I'd have to say yes, if faith means trusting God and believing that He will be faithful to His promises, and grace means believing that belonging to the covenant is a gracious gift and call, and that God is a God who lets both mercy and justice abound.

Jews don't believe in a false dichotomy between faith and works, but see them as an integrated whole. So do we as Catholics. Jews believe in Divine Providence that is compatible with free will. So do we as Catholics. Jews believe that God is totally transcendent, but that he is also immanent in the sacred acts of Mitzvah. So do we Catholics in our sacramentalism. We look for grace everywhere, including physical, tangible things. Any Jew who walks into a Catholic Mass will recognize elements of his own synagouge services.

Certain sects with Judaism were waiting for a redeemer, the Messiah. The Gentiles were beyond all hope. Christ came for both. The problem facing St. Paul and the early Church was how they were going to bring all of these Gentiles into what had been an exclusively Jewish movement. If he said that righteousness was from the Law, he would be excluding Gentiles, or at the very best, forever relegating them to second-class status. He knew that trying to force the Gentiles under the Law, which was foreign to them, and never meant for them, wasn't going to work. He knew that it would be inevitable that they would slide back into their pagan ways. I think that at least in some ways, this is what an accurate reading of his letters indicates. Sad that the circumstances of history have "parted the ways" as far apart as they are now....

There are two historical-Jesus scholars who write for the mass market that I enjoy reading. One is John Dominic Crossan, even though I think he's had a tendency in the past to project certain aspects of Irish history onto 1st Century Judea. He doesn't do that as much as he used to. Although he'd be considered "heterodox" in his views, I think he carries himself as the epitome of what it is to be a Christian, in addition to being a brilliant writer. The other writer is Paula Fredriksen, the Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University. I find her writing accessible and sensible, and she seems to me to be the most honest about following the texts wherever they will take her with the least amount of pre-suppositions and biases directing her. Then again, maybe I just have a soft spot for her because she's a Wellesley College grad. :-)

Regarding her final and ultimate conclusions regarding Jesus, I am not in agreement with her. I don't think she expects all of her readers to be. As I've said before, the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus are non-negotiables for me, along with the Creed. As indicated above, Amy-Jill Levine understands this, as does Fredriksen. They, as in all of us who believe in God, take certain matters on faith. As noted previously in this quote by Geza Vermes, "I have reached the point where my role as historian comes to an end. Preaching is not my job. If I have set out truths which some readers find meaningful and applicable to their lives, it is up to them to choose how to implement them."

Here are some excerpts from Fredriksen's Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity. In these passages, she stresses the importance of taking on a certain kind of "willed ingorance" in looking into the scriptures. We know more about how events eventually unfolded than the authors did, which in turn colors the way we subsequently look at them. We have to avoid the dangers of anachronism - of projecting our views and concerns onto texts that may have been entirely different from the ways that the ancient authors themselves understood them and meant them. This is especially true in the case of St Paul.

The question of Jesus' ethics leads us directly to the question of his attitude toward the Law. New Testament scholars frequently draw a distinction between the Law's "ritual demands" (and segue from there to purity codes, sacrifices, and the Temple) and its "ethical demands" (love of others, care for the poor, and so on), and argue that Jesus (and Paul, and early Christianity generally) rejected or discarded the former, favoring as of greater importance the latter. See E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism for an analysis of modern Christian scholarship's difficulties with ancient Jewish law: He notes that "ritual" becomes associated with "mere externality," and therefore with inauthentic religion, "ethics" with "internal" and thus "authentic" religion. These ways of thinking, he observes, trace back partly to the existentializing analyses of Bultmann in the earlier part of this century, partly to the Protestant critique of Catholicism embedded in New Testament scholarship more generally, given the discipline's birth in the late Renaissance, which coincided with the Protestant Reformation. Perhaps needless to say-but I will say it anyway-such a reading is hopelessly anachronistic and, to the extent that doing history requires sympathetic imagination, only obscures the ancient people whose lives and values we seek to reconstruct...

What is the single biggest difference between the religious sensibility of people in the modern West and our cultural ancestors of twenty centuries ago? When I put this question to my students, they invariably name distinctions of religious ideas: ancient people worshiped many gods, but we are monotheists; ancient people saw demons or astral influences as causing disease, but thanks to scientific medicine, we battle the virus, the bacterium, the errant blood cell; ancient people followed the courses of heaven, the stars and the planets, to understand the world and their place in it, whereas we look to terrestrial realities-society, economics, politics to analyze ours.

These answers have their virtues-though I have too often encountered fellow moderns who cast star charts or dodge demons to be entirely convinced. But I do not think that the biggest difference lies in the realm of religious ideas. Ancient Jews were monotheists but also fretted about planets and demons; for that matter, certain pagan philosophies had their own forms of monotheism. What has changed, altered utterly, is religious behavior. Worship in antiquity involved blood sacrifices. Universally, the worship of a deity-virtually any deity-involved the slaughter of animals and the ritual redistribution of their bodies: some parts burned on the altar to the divinity, some parts eaten by the priests, other parts distributed to the worshipers. And since proximity to a god's altar meant, in some sense, proximity to holiness as well, all ancient peoples who offered at traditional altars, whether pagan or Jewish, underwent rites of purification. Purificatory rites helped prepare the worshiper for his or her encounter, through sacrifice, with the sacred.

Tauroctony - Mithras slaying a sacred bull before the Sun God


PAGAN PURITY LAWS, like paganism itself, tended to be local, particular to the specific cult of a god. Their laws, when public (in mystery cults, silence was the rule), circulated much less widely than the Jewish scriptures: We find them inscribed in stone, on tablets associated with sanctuaries, or alluded to in ancient poetry and literature. Water rituals, abstention from sex, fasting or avoidance of certain foods-we might think of these as musical notes composing the scale of purification techniques. All ancient peoples concerned with purity expressed their religious culture by sounding these notes: Ancient pagan purification rites and sacrificial protocol, in technique similar to those observed by Jews, were thus particular variations played on this universal theme of worship. When commenting on what Jews did, pagans, whether admiring or hostile, would name circumcision or Sabbath observance or refusal to eat pork: These practices struck them as odd. Jewish purification and sacrifices, however, elicited no such comment, because in the religious sensibility of antiquity, such practices were simply normal. The thing most foreign to modern Western religiousness about ancient Judaism-the sacrifices and their attendant purity regulations-struck ancient observers as one of the few normal things Jews did.

We know much more about ancient Jewish laws regulating purity than we do pagan ones, because the Jewish laws are still published: Their establishment, together with the correct protocol for offerings, constitutes much of the matter between God and Moses in the opening books of the Bible. The biblical narrative specifies purity as a condition for a person's approaching the Divine Presence-in the language of the story, appearing before the tent of meeting; in Jesus' period, going to the Temple. Impurity in this context is an actual, objective, usually temporary state. It might be incurred through certain natural (and often involuntary) bodily processes, such as ejaculation, menstruation, childbirth or miscarriage, or various genital discharges. Certain defiling sub­stances or objects-human corpses especially; also scale disease (the biblical "leprosy," which could afflict clothing, houses, and furniture as well as persons); the bodies of some animals-could convey their impurity through contact or even proximity. Scripture assumes that everybody at some point would be in such a condition some of the time-it was virtually unavoidable-and most people were in such a condition most of the time. But Scripture also prescribed the means to remove impurity. A system of "wash-and-wait"-immersion and observing a liminal time period (until sunset; seven days; forty days: it varied, depending on the case)-cleansed most impurities.

Many of these purity laws specifically regulated access to the Temple. They were in principle incumbent upon all Israel, though priests, given their special cultic responsibilities, had additional purity rules peculiar to their station. The High Holidays especially occasioned huge effort to ensure that pilgrims were in the appropriate condition of purity to stand before God: Beyond the descriptions remaining in ancient literature, our evidence lies embedded in the very stones of the Temple Mount itself, where today traces of a multitude of immersion pools stand in mute witness to the great numbers of Jews that used them on their way to the altar. The Temple was designed and prepared to accommodate great numbers of worshipers.

The sheer size of the Temple and the archaeological remnants of its purification technology point to another social and cultural fact about ancient Judaism that distinguishes it from traditional paganism. The religions of antiquity's majority culture were local; as one passed from sanctuary to sanctuary, from a grove sacred to one god to a valley or mountain sacred to another, one encountered the rules peculiar to that individual god's site. The priests of that cult would ensure that visitors acquainted themselves with and observed these particular rules, lest they pollute the altar and so incur the god's anger. The cultic worship of the God of Israel, similarly, stood localized in Jerusalem, around the altar, in the sanctuary; similarly, his priests (and their assistants, the Levites) supervised. But unlike paganism, Judaism was not restricted by locality, and consequently instruction in its cult did not depend on direct contact with its priests. Knowledge of its traditions, its sacrificial may be acceptable" (Rom 15:16). Behind the English of the Revised Standard Version are Paul's words leitourgos ("minister") and hierourgeo ("priestly service"). In Greek, the first word means specifically "a priest's attendant," someone who assists with the sacrifices; the second, literally, means "priest's work," that is, making offerings at the altar. And since Paul in this passage names Jerusalem as his destination, we have a further clue that these images are not generically sacrificial, that is, related to just any first-century priestly service or priestly cult to any god, but they evoke specifically the cult of the God of Israel. For Paul, behind hieros, the Greek word for priest, stands the Hebrew cohen, the priest who in Jerusalem offers sacrifices to Israel's God.

If Paul, a diaspora Jew and active spokesman for the post-Resurrection faith in Jesus as Christ, so naturally and immediately esteemed the Temple and its cult, by that much more should we expect to see that same esteem evident in the pre-Resurrection mission and message of Jesus. But the Gospel sources complicate our view of him on this issue, because they are written after, perhaps in some sense in light of, the Jews' war with Rome. Thus, though the Gospels' narrative context is, roughly, the first third of the first century, from the final years of Herod the Great (d. 4 B.C.E.) to Pontius Pilate's term of office (26-36 C.E.), the Gospel writers' historical context is, roughly, the final third of the first century, c. 70-100 C.E. Between these authors and their subject yawned the unbridgeable breach in Israel's traditional worship. The evangelists' position as regards the Temple, then, is closer to ours, despite the nineteen centuries that intervene between us, than to that of those generations who immediately precede them. They, like us, know something that none of the historical figures about whom they wrote could have known: that is, that Jerusalem's Temple was no more.

This knowledge cannot but affect what the evangelists saw, and what we see, when we look backward. Both we and they are in the position of someone reading a novel or watching a film for the second time. Gestures and actions that the first time through seemed simply to give texture to the story now throb with heightened poignancy, because we know where things will end...

So, too, with the evangelists. Whatever the traditions they inherited about Jesus and Jerusalem, they received them in a period with a much-altered religious reality: the cult mandated by God to the Jewish people, whose details stretched through four of the first five books of Scripture, whose performance had been the particular responsibility of the Jerusalem priesthood, and whose manner of execution had fueled the wars of interpretation and the vigorous sectarianism of the late Second Temple period, had ceased to exist. Inherited sayings and stories about Jesus and the Temple, or about Jesus and the laws of purity concerning the Temple, or about Jesus and those groups whose piety focused especially on the Temple, accordingly acquired a dimension added by the evangelists' own, post-70 perspective: Jesus spoke about and interacted with an institution and its religious authorities that had vanished. How could he not have known what would so shortly happen? What could God have meant by permitting such a massive destruction? The evangelists' efforts to respond to these questions intimately affected their retelling of tradition.

So, too, with historical scholarship: It also is burdened with (in this sense) knowing too much. Our retrospective knowledge unobtrusively shapes what we see. We know that the Temple ceased being a focus of active Christian piety soon after the lifetime of Jesus; that most of the purity laws soon became irrelevant to the evolving movement; that the churches would become increasingly Gentile and, eventually, anti-Jewish. And this knowledge in turn can lend weight to those modern readings of New Testament material whereby Jesus himself seems alienated from or hostile or indifferent to the concerns and commitments of his Jewish contemporaries. The retrospect inevitable to the historical project can, ironically, threaten to collapse the distance between the present and the past. And such collapse in turn threatens the historical project both morally and intellectually.

Morally, this diminution of difference between present and past can lead us to project what is meaningful to us back onto and into our subject of inquiry. Especially when studying religious texts such as the Gospels or culturally central figures such as Paul and, even more, Jesus, the desire to have these ancient voices speak immediately to the present, to be spiritually and morally consonant with current concerns, too often pulls them out of their own historical context into territory familiar to later generations but foreign to them. We see the results in the Christ of the western Imperial church, depicted in a sixth-century Italian mosaic as a Roman army officer. We see them in the Jesus of liberal Protestant scholars in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, who emerges from their weighty tomes as a religious liberal himself We see them now, as the Jesus of the late twentieth-century academy battles nationalism, sexism, and social hierarchy. Such a Jesus is immediately relevant to the concerns shaping these later contexts. But his relevance comes purchased at the price of anachronism.

To do history both honorably and well, then, requires the moral discipline of allowing the gap of twenty centuries to open between us and our ancient subjects. What matters to us, what is meaningful to us, will coincide at best only rarely with what mattered to them. They lived in a different world. Some aspects of this world can be felt as well in ours: We, too, can understand the social consequences of oppression and poverty, the spiritual effects of prayer. But some aspects will remain obdurately other, forever outside our experience and our categories of meaning, precisely because the ancient past is ancient. It is not our own world at all, but a place where leprosy and death defile, where ashes and water make clean, and where one approaches the altar of God with purifications, blood offerings, and awe.

Respecting their historical integrity and moral autonomy, allowing Jesus or Paul or the evangelists as late Second Temple Jews or post-Second Temple Christians to be concerned with what concerned them and not with what concerns us-for which they had no responsibility and of which they had no knowledge-is the only way to see them in their full humanity. Anything less simply drapes disguised versions of ourselves in antique garb, presenting figures in a costume drama who comfortably inhabit a modern stage, not the ancient past. Thus, whether reading the Gospels themselves or assessing modern studies of them, we need to ask if later sensibilities affect the presentation of the past, the past as truly lived by Jesus and by his contemporaries-sympathizers, admirers, opponents, enemies.

The "backward" thrust of history also poses intellectual dangers. Again like the reader of the twice-read novel or the viewer of the twice-seen film, we cannot help knowing more than we should. Beyond the moral discipline of allowing for otherness, then, we need to cultivate as well the intellectual discipline of viewing the past as if we knew less than we know.

This is difficult precisely because history in its very nature is retrospective. We start from our vantage point in the present and work our selves back into an imagined past. But though history is always done backward, life is only lived forward. We all move from our present into the radical unknowability of the future. If in our historical work we wish to reconstruct the lived experience of the ancient people we study, then we must forswear our retrospective knowledge, because it gives us a perspective on their lives that they themselves could not possibly have had. We, looking back now, know how their stories ended; they, living their lives, did not.

To understand our ancient people from the evidence they left behind, we must affect a willed naivete. We must pretend to an innocence of the future that echoes their own. Only then can we hope to realistically re-create them in their own historical circumstances. Only by accepting-indeed, respecting and protecting-the otherness of the past, can we hope to glimpse the human faces of those we seek.

I propose that we start the search for Jesus of Nazareth by looking at an activity ostensibly common to both modern and ancient culture: the worship of God.

For anyone still hanging in here with me on this, Fredriksen does have some interesting takes on the various interpretations of what St. Paul meant, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each... If anyone is interested.


cowboyangel said...


This is really interesting. Alas, it's midnight and I could only get through about half of it. I'll be back, though.

Really good work.

Jeff said...

Thanks William. Whether it was good work or not, it was a LOT of work. :-)

Much to my chagrin, I heard an audio segment not long after I finished called Foreskin's Lament, written by a guy decrying the burdens of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. All traditions are vulnerable to fundamentalism.