Sunday, January 10, 2010

"The Gospel versus Judaism"?

First an explanatory comment: In my view the function of scholarship is debate and agonizing movement [in the sense of ἀγωνίζομαι (agōnizomai; "I struggle, fight; I make effort")] toward greater understanding. So my engagement with Michael Holmes's treatment of the Apostolic Fathers is appreciative rather than adversarial, critical rather than combative.

Okay. Holmes (2007: 243) introduces his translation of Ign. Phld. 8.2–9.2 under the subheading "The Gospel versus Judaism." Given my exposure to Ignatius thus far (my reactions are available in these posts), I expected certain things. I was surprised, then, that I didn't encounter what I expected. Holmes, of course, is the expert and I the neophyte newly come to Ignatius' epistles, so I may be am ignorant of the scholarly discussions on which this label may be based. In other words, I speak here (as sometimes elsewhere) from ignorance.

Ignatius begins with a very interesting (if typical) exhortation to "do nothing in a spirit of contentiousness." I say "interesting" because this particular exhortation (which is fairly typical of Ignatius) is based [ἐπεί (epei; "because, since")] on Ignatius' experience of "some who say, 'If I do not find it in the archives, I do not believe it in the gospel'" (Ign. Phld. 8.2). When Ignatius responded, "It is written," these apparently contentious people (snidely?) retort, "That is precisely the question" [πρόκειται (prokeitai; lit: "it is put [before us]," in the sense of "that is the issue at hand and under consideration")]. Ignatius then responds (to the Philadelphians, not the contentious people), "But for me, the 'archives' are Jesus Christ, the unalterable archives are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith that comes through him" (Phld. 8.2).

Holmes's interpretation, including his translation (which I've reproduced here), clearly understands "the archives" [τὰ ἀρχεῖα (ta archeia)] as a reference to Hebrew biblical texts (the Law and the Prophets, understood generally). I think this is right. What is more, Ignatius, then, privileges the gospel story ("Jesus Christ . . . his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith that comes through him") to the Bible. Then, in To the Philadelphians 9 Ignatius goes on to talk about the priests and the high priest, about the patriarchs "and the prophets and the apostles and the church" (9.1). Then, as he did in 8.2, Ignatius privileges the gospel over these things:
ἐξαίρετον δέ τι ἔχει τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, τὴν παρουσίαν τοῦ σωτῆρος, κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, τὸ πάθος αὐτοῦ, καὶ τὴν ἀνάστασιν. οἱ γὰρ ἀγαπητοὶ προφῆται κατήγγειλαν εἰς αὐτόν· τὸ δὲ εὐαγγέλιον ἀπάρτισμά ἐστιν ἀφθαρσίας. πάντα ὁμοῦ καλά ἐστιν, ἐὰν ἐν ἀγάπῃ πιστεύητε.

But the gospel possesses something distinctive, namely, the coming of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, his suffering, and the resurrection. For the beloved prophets preached in anticipation of him, but the gospel is the imperishable finished work. All these things together are good, if you believe with love. (Ign. Phld. 9.2; Holmes 2007: 244, 245)

My guess is that Ignatius' "the gospel has something different," along with his submission of the Bible to "Jesus Christ," provides a substantial portion of the reason Holmes subheads this section "The Gospel versus Judaism." Here I have two comments. First, that peculiar term, Ἰουδαϊσμός, which I've discussed here (and follow the links back), doesn't occur in this passage. So "The Gospel versus Judaism" is clearly an interpretive mood not (necessarily) warranted by the text.

Second, in the movement from 9.1 (priests, highpriest, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, church) to 9.2 ("the gospel possesses something distinctive"), I can't help but notice that Ignatius privileges the gospel not over Judaism (= not-Christianity) but over the entire history of God's revelation to his people, including the apostles and the church. All these former (Jewish and Christian) figures are simply a means by which to "enter in" to something [εἰσέρχονται (eiserchontai; 9.1)]. Immediately previously Ignatius made reference to the highpriest, who "has been entrusted" [πεπίστευμαι (2x)] with the Holy of Holies [τὰ ἅγια τῶν ἁγίων] and with the secret things of God [τὰ κρυπτὰ τοῦ θεοῦ]. God's "secret things" presumably refers to the things available only to him, and the Holy of Holies is that sacred space reserved for his presence alone, except for that one time a year (Yom Kippur) when the highpriest entered God's exclusive space to atone for himself and the people. So, equally presumably, when Ignatius refers to "entering in" to something, he means "entering in" to God's presence as his [acceptable] people.

Oddly, this is a remarkably Judaic way of viewing the gospel, one that, I would argue, is not "versus" Judaism and which characterizes other writers who make much more extensive use of Hebrew biblical traditions than does Ignatius. In fact, I would hesitate to attribute this understanding to Ignatius at all, except that (you'll recall) Ignatius lumps "the apostles and the church" along with the priests, highpriest, patriarchs, and the prophets (see Phld. 9.1). Perhaps, then, we should take a cautiously broader view of "the archives," mentioned in 8.2, than simply as the Law and the Prophets. That is, Ignatius is saying that all of the writings (perhaps including Paul's epistles [and any other Christian texts Ignatius both knows and considers authoritative]) are subject to the gospel story (8.2; 9.2). And in making this point, Ignatius is able to simultaneously (i) subsume the apostles and the church along with Jewish heroes to the gospel, and (ii) frame all of this in terms of Israel's historic access to YHWH, a framing much more characteristic of the (Jewish) NT authors and others, such as the didachist and the author of 1 Clement.

So Ignatius finishes 9.2 with πάντα ὁμοῦ καλά ἐστιν, ἐὰν ἐν ἀγάπῃ πιστεύητε, "All these things together are good, if you believe with love." Perhaps we should take Ignatius literally here: Not "the gospel is good, unlike Judaism," but all these things—from the priest to the patriarchs to the apostles and the church—are good, but under one condition. "If you believe with love."

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