Monday, January 25, 2010

how early Christians related to Israelite tradition

Over the last five years or so I have been growing increasingly aware of and frustrated by the tendency among NT critics to describe early Christians—especially the evangelists—in terms that imply they related to the sacred traditions of Second Temple Judaism as outsiders. Though these descriptions only imply and insinuate a view of the early Christians vis-à-vis their traditions, those implications and insinuations have dramatic consequences for our views of the evangelists as authors, the texts they left behind, and the larger issues of Christian origins we try to get at when we approach the gospels.

Sometimes this tendency almost casts the evangelists' relationship with sacred tradition in a light similar to a heart surgeon's relationship with the organs occupying the open ribcage on the table before her. The evangelists "worked with," "manipulated," "redacted," "revived," "created," "transformed," etc. their traditions, whether their Jesus traditions or sacred Israelite traditions. This view is directly related to the outdated view of the evangelists dominant among the form critics who explicitly and conscientiously cast the evangelists in the role of the Brothers Grimm, collectors of other peoples' traditions and stringers of pearls. For well over fifty years biblical scholarship has been aware of the inadequacies of this conception of the evangelists with respect to the Jesus tradition, but we have nevertheless continued to talk about them in similar terms with respect to Israelite tradition.

Notice, for example, Robert Stein's description of Mark's original audience: "It is also apparent Mark’s readers were familiar with various OT characters and possessed considerable knowledge of the Jewish religion” (Mark [BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008], 10; my emphasis). I can’t help but think that Stein has rather understated the point. Mark and his readers—the movement of Jesus’ followers who proclaimed him as Israel’s messiah to Jews throughout the Roman empire and, in time, to gentiles—were not “familiar with” Hebrew biblical traditions. Rather, they lived in a world defined and appraised by those traditions. By way of analogy, I am (vaguely) familiar with things Kanye West has written and/or said, but I live in a world defined by the writings and sayings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Even putting the two men next to each other seems a bit ridiculous, and I think the same can be said of Stein’s (and most NT critics’) comments about Israelite tradition in Mark.

Jewish scholar Lawrence Schiffman evinces a similar conception of the evangelists and the early Christians, especially in his rather strong distinction between ancient Judaism and early Christianity. In his description of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls—4Q521, also known as the Messianic Apocalypse—Schiffman rightly emphasizes this text's Jewish provenance. However, he also draws too stark a distinction between Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, and that too-stark distinction gives rise to the following:
This text, therefore, has no connection to Christianity at all, except that it indicates the presence of the messianic idea in Judaism before Christianity emerged. It is understandable that those Jews who started the early Jesus movement brought with them the teachings of Judaism that they had learned. This beautiful poem [viz., 4Q521] sums up these beliefs, calling on human beings to observe God's Torah in order to bring about the eternal redemption. (Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls [New York and London: Doubleday, 1995], 350; my emphasis)

"Brought with them"? "That they had learned"?! I can't help but think that we have (wrongly) imagined the evangelists along the lines of representatives of the British Museum who acquire cultural property from distant and exotic lands and cultures and cross borders with said property, relocating these objects in altogether foreign contexts. But the evangelists weren't Britons digging in the sands of Egypt or the ruins of Assyria. They were Jews (as Schiffman acknowledges) who lived and moved and had their being in the stories of Moses, David, Isaiah, Elijah and Elisha . . . the story, in other words, of YHWH, which they saw also in the story of Jesus.


Caleb Gilmore said...

I believe I agree with your sentiments that make early Christians look like Nicholas Cage in National Treasure. What I would be interested to hear your opinion would be how the early Christians took traditions that they were already quite familiar with and ingrained in (i.e. circumcision, resurrection, etc) and mutated them. I agree that they understood and perhaps firmly believed and practiced some Jewish tradition, but in your opinion, how much of that was transformed in the light of the Messianic Advent?

For example, the resurrection underwent several changes due to the Christian perspective. Mainly the fact that it was not a renewal of Israel to an actual future embodiment of the flesh as well as the metaphorical qualities as seen in Romans 6. What are your thoughts?d

Rafael said...

Thanks, Caleb. I'm not sure transformed is the most helpful way of thinking about what Jesus' earliest followers "did" to Hebrew biblical tradition; certainly mutate is even less helpful. A number of very helpful scholars do think in terms of transformation, but I'm not sure I agree with this.

I'm still in the process of thinking through these issues, but it seems to me at this point anyway that nothing about the NT suggests Christians were thinking in terms of neglecting or abrogating Torah, still less of "changing" it. Certainly they were open to this accusation by other Jews, and equally certainly we think they neglected Torah (at least some of them did, eventually). But the rhetoric and polemics in the NT seems to me to be more about how to properly interpret/observe Torah. This is obviously true in a number of passages in the gospels (e.g., Matt 5.17–48; Mark 7.1–23; John 5–8). I think it's also true of Paul, whether in Romans or even Galatians.

None of this is to say that Christian understanding of tradition (both biblical and Jesus traditions) was static and unchanging. Jesus' resurrection, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, etc. may have changed how Jesus' early followers thought about the restoration of Israel, but the texts seem to suggest (to me, anyway) that they always thought in terms of Israel's restoration.

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