Tuesday, June 29, 2010

B. Reynolds and the Son of Man

No, not that B. Reynolds (though I'm sure Burt would produce some interesting biblical scholarship!).

This morning I started reading the published version Benjamin E. Reynolds's PhD dissertation (University of Aberdeen, 2007): The Apocalyptic Son of Man in the Gospel of John (WUNT II 249; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), which I'm reviewing for Bulletin of Biblical Research. I've only read Reynolds's Introduction (1–23), but so far I'm enjoying the book.

I do detect one methodological quirk, and I'm not sure if this constitutes a problem of any significance.1 I would appreciate any insights on this.

In the first part of the book (25–85), Reynolds sets out to analyze the Danielic "one like a son of man" (Daniel 7) and the interpretation of that figure in Jewish apocalyptic and early Christian texts. He offers three criteria by which he chooses which texts he will include in his analysis here.
(1) Jewish apocalyptic and early Christian works that fall within the general time frame of 150 B.C. and A.D. 100 will be considered. (2) Are there clear verbal allusions to Daniel 7? (3) Is there a figure that is described in terms reminiscent of Daniel 7? These questions will be asked whether or not the phrase 'son of man' is used. (20)

It's a minor problem that the last two are questions rather than criteria, but I assume a positive answer to these questions—Yes, the text at hand clearly alludes to Daniel 7, and yes, the text describes a figure reminiscent of Daniel 7—brings a text within his purview. I'm not entirely sure, yet, how Reynolds will differentiate clear verbal references from more tenuous or obscure references; neither am I sure, yet, which terms Reynolds considered "reminiscent of Daniel 7." But I expect these questions will be answered in the coming chapters.

From here Reynolds will analyze "[t]he works that meet the three criteria, thus showing a connection to the 'one like a son of man' from Daniel 7, . . . in order to determine any similarities and differences between the various interpretations of this figure" (22). Reynolds adamantly claims that he's not trying to resurrection a synthetic, essentialized concept of "the Son of Man" in ancient Judaism; instead, he's trying to identify "common features in the interpretations of the Danielic son of man" (22).

In Part 2, Reynolds turns toward an exegetical analysis of every mention of "the Son of Man" in the final form of John's gospel. The Fourth Gospel fits at the extreme end of his delimited time frame; in fact, the Fourth Gospel set the terminus ad quem (20, ftn 85). But John does not meet Reynolds's other two criteria:
[A]lthough the Johannine Son of Man may share characteristics or features with the figure described in Jewish apocalypses (themselves significantly influenced by Daniel 7), there are no clear verbal allusions to Daniel 7 or any obvious descriptions of a figure reminiscent of Daniel 7 apart from John 5.27. (23; original emphases)

Reynolds's program is, therefore, intentionally comparative:
The characteristics of the Johannine Son of Man will be compared with any common characteristics that may emerge in the examination of the "one like a son of man" in Daniel 7 and the interpretations of this figure (Part 1). If a common set of characteristics emerges and if the Johannine Son of Man also shares these characteristics, it may then be determined appropriate to describe the Son of Man in John's Gospel as an apocalyptic figure, even if there may be no unmistakable influence from Daniel. (23)

It seems to me that Reynolds locates the Johannine Son of Man tradition within the interpretive tradition surrounding Daniel 7's "one like a son of man" rather than against Daniel 7 itself.

But here's my question: How legitimate is it for him to develop a comparative pool of data using one set of criteria, and then to map that data onto a text that doesn't meet those criteria?

1 I want to stress that I have only read the first twenty-three pages of Reynolds's book, so it may be that he discusses this quirk. I'm not yet sure if this is actually a problem for Reynolds's study, but as I prepare to work through Part 1 I'll be looking for him to address the issue I'm raising here.

Monday, June 28, 2010

the Old Testament among early Christians

I finished reading Ronald E. Heine's Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church: Exploring the Formation of Early Christian Thought (Evangelical Ressourcement; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007). I am relatively new to Patristics and the history of Christianity beyond 100 CE, so there's a lot I don't know here. But over the last ten months or so I've been doing quite a bit of reading, among both the literary remains of post-New Testament Christianity and the scholarship thereof, and Heine's book is perhaps the most engaging and wide-ranging of my recent reading.

At 194 pages and a list price less than $22.00 [USD], there's no reason why anyone should avoid this book. Heine draws together a diverse cross-section of primary materials, from the Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus, to Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome. He touches on Ephrem and the Cappadocian Fathers. He treats Origen at length (relative to his treatment of other Fathers in this book).

Despite this broad scope, Heine's book exhibits a clear structure that remains in focus throughout. As the book moves from the Fathers' reading of the Law to their treatments of the Exodus, the Prophets, and the Psalms, I found myself always aware of our location within both the canon and Christian history. His treatment of such difficult topics as allegorical vs. literal hermeneutics is nuanced and even-handed. The last major chapter, "Living in the Text" (175–91), justifies the book's rather meagre cost by itself.

I would have liked to see some [more] explicit discussion of the Fathers' struggles (i) against the developing rabbinic expression of Judaism, and (ii) with theological and philosophical controversies arising within their ranks. But these discussions would likely have weighed down what is an otherwise clear, concise, and lucid text.

Heine has, in my view, provided the Church with a valuable sense of its past and its conviction that Israel's scriptures are its scriptures, that Israel's story is its story. He has also provided the Academy with a helpful way into the vast body of material that is the early Christians' reading of Israel's sacred traditions. Many of the writings from this material are readily available in print and online (see "English Sources for Exegetical and Homiletical Works of the Church Fathers" [195–97]), though too few of us—in the Church as well as in the Academy—are very familiar with them. Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church offers a helpful corrective to this problem.

Bible review

Over on Exploring Our Matrix, James McGrath has offered a helpful (and positive) review of my booty. (For those of you too unmotivated to follow the links, James has reviewed Zondervan's A Reader's Hebrew and Greek Bible, not any part of my personage.) At a list price of $74.99, I can understand if this volume is beyond most people's budget. But a little online research can find it on offer—new, even—for less than $45.00.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

on the psalms, again

For nearly ten years now I have been intrigued by the social aspects of individual life, or—in other words—the way the world outside us becomes the world inside us. Think, for example, of the kinds of dreams you have: what they're like, what happens in them, how they make sense until you wake up and realize they don't make any sense at all. Dreams may be the most private aspect of our lives (we never dream with other people!), and yet we all seem to have fairly similar dreams. Even more importantly, we all understand the people around us when they describe completely nonsensical dreams. This is because our private worlds—who we are inside, apart from all of our relationships with others—are formed and shaped by the same (or at least heavily overlapping) social worlds. I would suspect that the understandability of our very weird dreams begins to break down cross-culturally; if a person from sub-Saharan Africa or pre-Renaissance Europe were to describe their strangest dreams to us, we would have a harder time making "sense" of them.

This sense of the outside-world-in finds marvelous expression at the end of Ron Heine's discussion of the Psalms. Heine writes:
We can also learn from the fathers that even if we must pray the psalms in private, we still pray them in community. When I pray the psalms my voice blends in praise, petition, and confession with that of the whole people of God, whether my contemporaries or my predecessors in faith, who have lifted and who continue to lift up these prayers to God. This solidarity with the whole church in prayer includes even Christ himself, the head of the church. In this communal sense all the words of the psalms become my prayer even if I am not at the moment experiencing the joys or sufferings they express. I can lift up even the words of Psalm 22:1, which Jesus prayed on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" for I am one with the whole body of Christ, and where "one member suffers all suffer together." My prayer is one with those in seemingly God-forsaken situations who cry out for deliverance but none comes, even as Jesus cried out for deliverance in Gethsemane, when none was forthcoming.1

Prayer in private is nevertheless prayer in community. The point of my doctoral thesis was similar: Memory in private is memory in community.2 Or even more simply, Memory is community—community in the present with the past. "So it is when people think that they are alone, face to face with themselves, other people appear and with them the groups of which they are members."3

1 Ronald E. Heine, Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church: Exploring the Formation of Early Christian Thought (Evangelical Ressourcement; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 174.
2 Rafael Rodríguez, Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance, and Text (European Studies on Christian Origins; London and New York: T&T Clark, 2010).
3 Maurice Halbwachs, The Social Frameworks of Memory (L. A. Coser, ed. and trans.; Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 49.

on the psalms

Ron Heine, on Athanasius's comments regarding the Psalms.
The unique element in the book of Psalms is that it allows the reader to get inside the personalities and events of the Old Testament as a participant; or, perhaps better said, it allows these personalities and events to get inside the reader as an emotive factor in shaping his or her life in accordance with the teachings found there.1

1 Ronald E. Heine, Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church: Exploring the Formation of Early Christian Thought (Evangelical Ressourcement; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 147.

Friday, June 25, 2010

reading the Prophets in the early church

I've picked up (again) Ron Heine's Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church: Exploring the Formation of Early Christian Thought (Evangelical Ressourcement; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007). At the end of his chapter, "The Gospel in the Prophets" (97–141), Heine borrows an image from masonry to explain the function of the prophets among the church fathers and their understanding of the gospel.
It might be said that the prophetic texts of the Old Testament served as the mortar for the church's construction of its understanding of Christ. Mortar is not the primary material in the edifice. Bricks are the primary material. The primary material in the church's understanding of Christ is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Mortar, however, is essential to the edifice, enabling it to take form and hold together. Without the prophetic texts of the Old Testament, the early Christians would not have drawn the conclusions that they did concerning Jesus. The ancient Jewish prophetic texts that the early Christians read and wrestled with in their attempt to understand who Jesus of Nazareth had been and what his life meant for their lives lie close at hand in the Christian Bible. The early Christians were the first to make their way through these texts from a specifically Christian viewpoint.1

One of the few things scholars of Christian origins agree upon is that Jesus' followers, historically, have read the texts of the Hebrew Bible through the lens of the gospel traditions. When God refers to "my son" in a Hebrew biblical text, early Christians hear "Jesus" (not "David," "Solomon," "Israel," or any of a number of other historical referents for that term). Heine shares that agreement (according to the quote provided above).

But we often neglect how the influence also moved in the opposite direction: Through the first four or five centuries of the church's history (and even beyond, including to the present day), the church has also—and simultaneously—understood Jesus from the perspective of Hebrew biblical traditions. If Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, raised the dead, brought the nations (= gentiles) into the kingdom of God, etc., Jesus' followers insisted on understanding these activities in light of Israel's history and sacred texts.

Heine draws our attention to this point. Jesus did not simply transform his followers' exegetical and hermeneutical understandings (though he did transform them). Jesus himself was recognized and portrayed in tones and hues directly evocative of Moses, David, the prophets, et al. I dare say that without these latter, early Christians (and we, too) would not know what to make of Jesus of Nazareth.

1 Heine, Reading the Old Testament, 141; my emphasis.

thank you, Zondervan

The folks on Zondervan's blog, Koinōnia, announced yesterday a Hebrew + Greek Bible Giveaway, in which Zondervan solicited readers' favorite Greek or Hebrew words. They selected five winners today. My entry, included below, was one of the five. Thank you, Zondervan, for my copy of A Reader's Hebrew and Greek Bible.

My entry:
ἀποτυμπανίζω, as in Dan. 7.11 [LXX (Old Greek)]:

I was then watching the noise of the great words, which the horn kept speaking, and the beast was beaten to death [ἀπετυμπανίσθη], and its body perished and was given over to burning with fire. (NETS)

According to the abridged LSJ, ἀποτυμπανίζω means "to cudgel to death." If language develops words to describe life, why did the ancients need a single word for "to cudgel to death"?

See my earlier post for my initial discovery of this word.

Friday, June 18, 2010

an interesting dilemma

Philip Sellew's article, "Achilles or Christ? Porphyry and Didymus in Debate over Allegorical Interpretation" (HTR 82 [1989]: 79–100) provides an interesting discussion of Porphyry (the third-century CE neo-Platonist student of Plotinus, who wrote a number of important works, including Against the Christians) and his criticism of the application of allegorical interpretation to biblical texts. I found this comment particularly interesting:
It was clear to Porphyry from his extensive firsthand knowledge that there was much of value in the Jewish scriptures, especially in some of the prophetic writings, and that they in some sense proclaimed the One High God that he too reverenced. But Porphyry was also strongly repelled by much of the Bible, particularly by its anthropomorphic images of God, its frequent anti-universalistic or even ethnocentric tendencies, and by such occasional episodes as Lot impregnating his own daughters in Genesis 19. Porphyry could not understand why the Christians did not simply reject the Jewish writings as no longer being religiously appropriate. (Sellew, "Achilles or Christ," 92; my emphasis)

I am fascinated by this dilemma. Why didn't the Christians, especially in the third and fourth centuries CE, simply cut loose of the Hebrew Bible and its traditions and pursue a more thoroughgoing New Testament theology? Why were Marcion and his followers the only ones to reject the Old Testament tout court?

I'm not advocating this move for contemporary Christianity; indeed, I find it worrisome that so much of contemporary Christianity seems to be following Marcion's lead, at least practically if not in so many words. My question (in the previous paragraph) really is, Why? I know what the Christians said: that the Bible was God's inspired word, that Moses and the prophets proclaimed Christ beforehand, etc. And these answers are themselves rooted in the general treatment of the Hebrew Bible in NT texts. But given the polemical and rhetorical energy the Church and its writers expended in its first four centuries repudiating the Jews and their reading of those texts, why did the Christians view the Jews' Bible as God's witness to the gospel's advent? Though I'm no church historian, from my NT scholar's point-of-view this seems a question too rarely raised.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

on great turns of phrase

I'm currently reading Virginia Burrus's article, "The Heretical Woman as Symbol in Alexander, Athanasius, Epiphanius, and Jerome" (Harvard Theological Review 84/3 [1991]: 229–48). The first full paragraph on p. 231 begins:
Christ and other feminist scholars have succeeded in redeeming the heretical woman, removing her from the margins of history and placing her instead at the center of a long tradition of women's struggles against patriarchal orthodoxy. (Burrus, "Heretical Woman," 231)

If it sounds like Burrus includes Christ among the "feminist scholars," that's because she does. Of course, it might help to know that she's engaging an essay written by Carol Christ.

Jerome and "our Judaizers"

I just finished reading Michael Graves's brief but very interesting article, "'Judaizing' Christian Interpretations of the Prophets As Seen by Saint Jerome," Vigiliae Christianae 61 (2007): 142–56. Graves asks what, specifically, Jerome objects to as "Judaizing" given his own striking (for the early fifth century CE) views vis-à-vis Hebrew texts (vs. the LXX), rabbinic exegetical traditions, and spiritual vs. literal interpretations.

Citing Vaccari,1 Graves identifies two aspects of Jerome's interpretive practice. First, Jerome draws upon three rather distinct perspectives in his hermeneutical discussions, (i) the historical or literal interpretive tradition associated with Antioch, (ii) the Jewish interpretive tradition, "as mediated primarily through personal Jewish teachers" (144), and (iii) the Christian mystical interpretive tradition associated with Alexandria. Second, Jerome's interest in Hebraic interpretations was closely associated with his appreciation for the texts' literal or historical interpretation.

Graves then provides examples of Jerome's interpretative practice, especially of Hebrew prophetic texts, that illustrate how these two factors relate as part of that practice. Here's the first of those examples:
A brief and clear-cut example of the spiritual and literal meanings given side by side may be found in Jerome's Commentary on Jeremiah 4:11–12, where Jerome says this about the ventus urens, the "scorching wind" which, as Jerome reads the verse, is coming in judgment: "iuxta historiam, understand the 'scorching wind' as Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed everything, but iuxta tropologiam understand the 'scorching wind' as the Adversarial Power, who, coming from the desert and the wasteland, where there is no shelter of God, tries to destroy His church." Here, Jerome gives both the "historical" and the "tropological" meanings one right after the other. As is evident, Jerome accepts both meanings as valid. (Graves, "Saint Jerome," 146–47)

Given Jerome's willingness to accept a "historical," "Hebraic" interpretation of prophetic texts (which focus on Israel and her history), how should we understand Jerome's polemical references to "Judaizing" interpretations (which, presumably, Jerome himself may have been accused of propagating)? According to Graves, Jerome accepted Hebraic interpretations only insofar as they referred to past events. Two things distinguished Jerome's interpretations from those he found unacceptable. First, Jerome insisted that every passage held some spiritual significance and was fulfilled spiritually, whether in reference to (one of the two advents of) Christ or to the church. Second, "literal" or "historical" interpretations applied to the past and not to the future.
Thus, it is not the literal meaning per se that Jerome regards as "Judaizing"; Jerome is comfortable with "literal" interpretations, provided that they assign the fulfillment of prophecy either to Israel's past history or directly to Christ. It is certainly not the futuristic aspect of the interpretations to which Jerome objects, since all prophetic texts have some contemporary or future application to Christ and the church. The problem, from Jerome's perspective, is that the "Judaizers" look for future, literal fulfillments that are not directly Christological. The particular combination of these two elements, literal and futuristic, is what Jerome does not accept. (Graves, "Saint Jerome," 151)

I'm certainly no scholar when it comes to Jerome and/or fourth- and fifth-century Christian history, but Graves's discussion is both clear and (as far as I am able to tell) insightful. How fascinating to watch elements within the Church, four centuries after Jesus, engaging "the continuing struggle . . . to determine how they relate to the promises made to 'Israel' in the Old Testament, and how the interpretation of prophetic literature intersects with Christian theology and Christian identity" (Graves, "Saint Jerome," 156).

1 A. Vaccari, "I fattori della esegesi geronimiana," Bib 1 (1920): 457–80.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Terminator Jesus?

Fire and property damage are never funny. But then this story reminds me of the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, in which Elijah calls down fire from heaven.

The Solid Rock Church, just off I-75 north of Cincinnati, OH, built a three-story tall statue of Jesus early in the previous decade. Everyone referred to this statue as "Touchdown Jesus" for reasons obvious to anyone familiar with American football.

This week that statue was struck by lightning and burned like Elijah's sacrifice. The images (available here) of the steel frame left behind after the fire destroyed the plastic foam and fiberglass reminded me of the classic Terminator. And can't we all imagine Jesus telling the Eleven just before the Ascension, "Hasta la vista, baby," or (wait for it . . .), "I'll be back."

Update: A colleague mentions this event on his blog.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Jesus' cross as symbol

In his discussion of symbolic interpretations of the exodus among the Church Fathers (viz., Origen and Gregory of Nyssa), Ron Heine highlights Origen's very interesting connection between the Exodus traditions and the gospel. Of course, some New Testament texts already make this connection. But I found the following very interesting:
Origen connects God's statement that he has seen his people's affliction in Egypt and has come down to deliver them from their taskmasters and from pharaoh (Exod. 3:7–8)—Origen inserts "pharaoh" into the statement—with the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. "For he did indeed set us free from Egypt and its leaders whom he nailed to the cross to make a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross." Christ is the "true Lamb," who has "freed us from the servitude of the world ruler of this present darkness." The passover lamb slaughtered in Egypt was the type. Egypt means darkness, Origen says, and pharaoh, Egypt's governor, "means dissipater, because he dissipates the works of virtue done in the light by means of his princely power." (Ronald Heine, Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church: Exploring the Formation of Early Christian Thought [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 86; citing Origen, Treatise on the Passover 47, 49 [Heine's emphases]).

Heine is discussing Origen's symbolic (= typological) reading of Egypt and Pharaoh as the world and the devil, respectively. But what caught my eye was Origen's symbolic reading of Jesus' crucified body. Notice what Origen says has been nailed to the cross: "Egypt and its leaders." This idea has its forerunner, perhaps, in 1 Pet. 2.24, which itself reads Isa. 53 symbolically in light of the salvific effects of Jesus' death. "He himself bore our sins in his body upon the tree" (ὃς τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν αὐτὸς ἀνήνεγκεν ἐν τῷ σώματι αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τὸ ξύλον; hos tas hamartias hēmōn autos anēnenken en tō sōmati autou epi to xylon). Of course, Origen hasn't abandoned the "literal" reading of the crucifixion, for Christ's victory over Egypt and Pharaoh (= the world and the devil) happened "in the cross."

It seems to me that in such short measure (Pasch. 47) Origen reads Jesus' crucified body as the instrument as well as the object of judgment. Thus the flexibility and adaptability of symbols in (some of) the Fathers' reading of the Bible, and thus the enduring power of those symbols.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Heine on the ancient Church and its Bible

For the last couple weeks I've been working on a course on the history of New Testament interpretation, which is far enough afield from my own specialty to force me to research a number of interesting topics and historical figures. I'm dissatisfied with approach of the course I inherited, which provided brief synopses of how the Church has read the NT but did not require any primary readings. The approach I'm taking is to provide brief introductory comments on significant figures and then feature extended readings of actual examples of biblical interpretation from those figures.

For unrelated reasons, I picked up Ronald E. Heine's book, Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church: Exploring the Formation of Early Christian Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), which is part of Baker's "Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church's Future" series. Heine's goal is to examine "the central role that the Old Testament played in the formation of Christian thinking and life in the early centuries of the church" (11–12). His book feeds my growing interest in the history and writings of the post-Apostolic church, and it overlaps considerably with the material I'm researching and writing for my history course.

Heine's discussion of the Hebrew Bible among early Christians highlights just how foreign contemporary (i.e., post-Enlightenment) Christianity is to its ancient counterpart. From the end of Heine's introductory chapter:
[T]here can be no doubt that there has been an erosion of the position and authority of the Old Testament in much of Protestant theology since the beginning of the Enlightenment. Protestant theology has not had a consistent position on the role of the Old Testament in the church.
We will see in the chapters that follow that the church fathers never questioned that the Old Testament held a central position in the life of the church. They did not all agree on how it should be read in order to speak to the church but, with the exception of Marcion and perhaps a few Gnostics who were not church fathers, they never thought that it should be dismissed as uncanonical or treated as second-class literature in comparison with the New Testament. Averil Cameron has correctly observed that the energies exerted by the fathers in their explanations of the Old Testament demonstrate "how tenaciously Christians" defended it in spite of the difficulties they often encountered in interpreting it. (Heine 2007: 29, citing A. Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991], 110)

As I read Heine's book and the writings of the Church Fathers (esp. the Ante-Nicene Fathers), I'm beginning to think that the early Christians had a clearer sense of the importance of Israel's history and texts for their own identity than they did of how that history and those texts informed and sustained their identity. Justin, Irenaeus, Origen, et al., might not have known what to do with the Hebrew Bible (though they spent a lot effort trying to figure it out), but they knew they had to do something with it. The contemporary church, perhaps, shows itself unwilling to continue the struggle to reconcile an emphatically Christian identity with that identity's foundationally Israelite (or Mosaic, or Abrahamic, or whatever) pedigree.

My Visual Bookshelf