If you have ten minutes to spare, go check out my recent contribution to Oslo University (TF)’s “Luther Blog.” You can find it by clicking HERE.
Imagine writing a text. The slow process, the everyday banality suddenly crafted into beautifully penned narratives. Imagine reading and re-reading the final product, gripping it firmly in your hands while your heart swells with a sweet pride. Now imagine that 300 years after you wrote your text, your proud grip has been replaced by the bloody hands of persecutors using the words you wrote to justify murder.
When the author of the Matthean Gospel wrote that the Scribes and Pharisees were whitewashed tombs, could he (let’s be honest, the author was statistically most probably male) ever have imagined that those words would be used to validate the systematic persecution of his own people (yes, I am assuming that the Matthean author was Jewish, there is lots of scholarly literature in favour of this, look it up). Post-Constantinian Christianity turned the Gospel authors into persecutors. They read the narratives, the parables, and the miracle stories and saw in them the legitimacy they needed for their colonial oppression of the Jews. Imagine that someone discovers your writings 300 years after your death, and sees in your words the justification for a systematic terrorization of your own people. The tragedy is overwhelming.
When I get criticised for reading New Testament texts as Jewish texts, this is what I think about. The overwhelming tragedy that was caused by Christians not understanding that these texts were written by Jews, not against Jews. Scholars who are part of what is sometimes called the ‘radical movement’ (if reading texts in their proper historical context is considered radical, then so be it) are occasionally referred to as “Post-World-War-II-Scholars”. My question is this: would you want to be a “Pre-World-War-II-Scholar?” It is impossible to ignore the terrifying fact that certain aspects of the NT exegesis of the 1900’s played a part in the success of Hitler’s hate campaign. If the systematic murder of European Jews isn’t enough to make exegetes change their stubborn strategies, what is? Academia cannot be so disconnected from the events of history that it doesn’t react or respond to the disasters it contributes to. We are part of the constant ebb and flow of reality; we are not above it. We are subject to the tide of history in the same way as everyone else, and if we choose to not react or respond, the fault lies with us.
We live in a Post-WWII world, and we need to be constantly aware of this in our scholarship. We work in a field that was both misused and actively contributed to one of the greatest disasters of the modern era. The Holocaust would not have been possible if Christian texts had not been used to caricature and other Jews during the centuries leading up to these events. Biblical interpreters saw in the Gospels and the Pauline Letters the ammunition they needed for their war. If we ignore this fact, we risk repeating it. We need to be responsible interpreters, relentlessly aware of the fact that our articles and monographs have the power to change a two-thousand-year old pattern. We have the power of releasing NT texts from the interpretative prisons they have been trapped in from the time of the Church Fathers. It will be an uphill battle, not least due to the alarming number of scholars who have during the decades attached their sense of self-worth to anti-Jewish exegesis, but so is everything worthwhile. The climb may be steep, but there is an oasis of redemption waiting at the top, redemption for the authors whose texts we turned into weapons.
The ecclesial situation is dire. We live in a world where an ordained priest in the Swedish Church can hold and even annunciate the belief that the Eucharist has no sacramental value, without causing a commotion. This would be fine if the stance was the product of an informed dialogue with the official Church doctrine, rather than the result of being unaware of said doctrine and its historical importance. The fact that the servants of our Mother Church no longer know the difference between official Church doctrine and the whims of their own pseudo-secularized minds is perhaps the greatest travesty of our time (after the popularization of crocs), not necessarily because they end up deviating from doctrine, but because they do not know that from which they are deviating, or why their opinions constitute a deviation. I once heard someone say that if the Church survived the corrupt Popes of the medieval period, than the Swedish Church can surely makes it through the crisis of the twenty-first century. At first, this clever little anecdote inspired me with hope. However, upon further consideration, a terrible realization hit me, like a de-railed train heading straight for an unknowing pedestrian. When the Medieval popes impregnated their illicit mistresses, they did not change canonical law in order to make them sleep well at night (pun intended). They lived in their hypocrisy. When the modern leadership of the Church, however, realize that they do not agree with, for example, the traditional Church doctrine concerning sexuality, abstinence and marriage, they are not simply content to waddle around in the hypothetical mud of their self-contradiction – no, they actually have the nerve to change traditions and doctrines which have been upheld for thousands of years by eager servants of Christ, just so they can tell their children that it’s ok for them to ‘experiment’ in high school.
On a more serious note, this tendency to historical and doctrinal ignorance has consequences far more terrifying than the creation of sexually confused teenagers. The inability to differentiate between the Self and the Church is not a new ecclesial challenge: it has been one of Christ’s bride’s most consistent battlegrounds (take, for example, the traditional Vaticanesque difficulty of separating the individual economy from that of the Church, highlighted by Pope Francis’ lovely, rage-inebriated Christmas speech of anno domini 2015). The real issue here is the painfully obvious and rapidly escalating ignorance of actual Church doctrines, history, and beliefs. The vast majority of priests in the Swedish Church today live in a disturbing state of un-knowledge, especially concerning the rich and elaborate doctrinal inheritance of our Mother Church. I use the word un-knowledge in order to emphasize that the fault does not lie with the priests themselves (at least, not with most of them). If our ecclesial educational institutions put just a little bit of effort into their God-given responsibility of tradition-transmission, we would be turning out rows and rows of doctrinally-aware priests. Instead, our eager servants of Christ are let down by an educational system that encourages skills such as being able to ‘draw the incarnation’ (crayons were provided – I have never wished so intensely that I was joking.) over the ability to be aware of one’s place and function in the historical and salvific history of one of the oldest religious institutions in the world. Our congregational pillars are not ignorant by nature or by lack of ability; rather they have been educated by a system which encourages them to live in a state of un-knowledge concerning the beliefs of their own Church, a state of notable disinterest. In this Year of Reformation, is it not our divinely inaugurated duty to awaken in the earthly representatives of our Ecclesial Mother an active, lasting, and dynamic interest in these, the ancient roots of our faith?
I do not want to be misunderstood: I am in no way a strong advocate for a church of doctrinally-lobotomized priests who follow traditions without problematizing, reflecting, or creating anew. What I am strongly against is a church of priests who are not aware of the doctrines or traditions upon which their institution is built. You cannot argue against that which you never learned. In order to reform, you must be informed. Amidst all this talk of changing the church, making it more accessible, creating a more modern theology, it strikes me again and again that every reformatory project which is not put into dialogue with the traditions and doctrines which it wishes to challenge is a failed project from conception to fruition, no matter the outcome. If we do not take our ecclesial inheritance seriously, we are not worthy of challenging it, nor will we be successful. Let us return to the clever (if I may say so myself) anecdote of the Medieval popes and their mistresses. The papacy was able to recover from this period of neglect and corruption because those wishing to reform had something to go back to. The doctrines and traditions of the Catholic Church, meant to regulate the Papal life, had not been changed or altered by those ignoring them. Because of this, reformers were able to re-create the traditional Papacy. But what about us? Are we giving our children and grandchildren a fair chance of recovering their Church if we keep burying the evidence of what it was originally built upon? As Lutherans, we should know the value of ad fontes – are we giving future generations a fair chance at semper reformandum if we keep erasing all the traces of our past? There will soon be no sources to which they might return.
Disclaimer: the next couple of posts will attempt to delve into the complicated world created by the intersection of Church and Academia.
I have not posted in a while, mainly because I have been busy with my BA Thesis (now completed…if anyone is curious the title was “The Life and After-Life of Canonical Psalmody: The Role of Psalm 69 in the Establishment of Eschatological Group-Boundaries in the Qumran Community and the Pauline Ekklēsiai” and I had a blast writing it, ergo lack of blogging). I am, however, looking forward to reacquainting myself with my own blog, and as a step in that direction I have decided to spend some time tackling this issue – the intersection between Church and Academia – which I’ve always had a lot of opinions about but not necessarily the courage to let them spill. The anonymity of internet identity has provided me with that courage. So here goes – brace yourselves. I know I am.
Note: I am not going to preface the blog-series with a disclaimer of which religious institution I belong to or how religious I am on some sort of postmodern scale of nonchalance. You’ll simply have to piece it together as I go. May the odds be ever in your favour!
The second issue of the “Journal of the Jesus Movement in its Jewish Setting” is out. Brace yourselves for yet another amazing read – prepare to have your horizons widened! The issue is jam-packed with interesting reads, an academic goody-bag. As someone who has recently become increasingly intrigued by the vortex that is modern Pauline studies, this issue became a little like a gateway to the Paul within Judaism context. I especially enjoyed Ralph Korner’s article on the ekklesia as a Jewish synagogue term (which left me with the distinct feeling that universities should focus more of their teaching on institutions, especially in our field).
Click here to explore and be challenged!
A few days ago I did something outside my comfort zone: I led a Bible study on Ephesians 5 in a Christian student association. Those who know me well enough will note that almost every word in the preceding sentence is like a little gust of wind propelling me farther and farther from my safe little zone of convenience and comfort. First, I’m one of those individuals that people avidly fear inviting to Bible Study groups – that annoying girl who just can’t stop herself from pointing out that “there’s like a -10% chance that Pilate’s wife’s dream was a historical event rather than a theological point” or the eternal reminder to “choose silence over harmonization”. Second, I’m a Gospel Girl through and through; the letters have always been more of a Sunday event for me than an everyday occurrence. Third, I’ve never really been part of a Christian association: when I go out (as in exit my own little bubble) I like to kill two birds with one stone and learn something new at the same time, so I’m often drawn to events and associations catered to people who are different from me in some way, or are part of a group I don’t know that much about (like my brief stints with the Muslim Student Association and Community Garden Club at my Highschool or my faithful attendance to the various lecture series hosted by Hamilton’s Jewish Association). The result of this is that I sometimes find myself in possession of more knowledge about other traditions and faiths (and gardening techniques) than my own. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I’ve become more and more drawn to various Christian settings since I started university (make no mistake though: the restless nature of my relationship with associations perseveres: I think I visited every Christian denomination in Uppsala before I finally set foot in a Church of my own tradition).
But enough of this introspection, let’s get down to the good stuff: what did I learn? Answer: our attitude to the Bible can either unite or divide us. To explain: I was determined to lead the Bible study on Eph 5 because I was keen that 5:21-33 (on the “Christian family”, as its labeled, faultily, in most Bibles) should be given the space for theological and exegetical reflection it deserves (and I was obsessed with the text for a good two months last semester, so I felt that I could cater to this aim). What’s most fascinating about this text is how much it changes when put under the scrutiny of a rhetorical analysis. If read quickly, one would categorize it as the first section of a “family theme” stretching into chapter 6, but the more I read the text from the perspective of literary analysis, the more I felt that it should rather be seen as the conclusion – the summa summarum – of chapter 5. Permit me to expand the explanation: 5:1-5 can be epitethed “Imitatio” (it explains that we should imitate God), 5:6-14 can be renamed “Beware the Emptiness” (since it explains how empty words lead to actions of darkness, revealed only by the light of Christ), 5:15-20 can be re-labelled “Lonely Planet: Guide to Christ” (since it’s like a guide of how we should live once Christ’s light has shown us the difference between good and evil deeds). This leads (as is demonstrated below) to the not-so-un-controversial christening of 5:21-33 to “Christ gets cozy with his ἐκκλησία”, instead of the frankly more triste “Man Heads, Purifies, and Dies For Subservient, Respectful Wife”. How do I have the chutzpah to suggest such a name shift? Have I brought some show-and-tell artifacts with me to back up my gutsy claims? Indeed I have. Exhibit A:
Green: universal statement/rule
Blue: social implications
Red: Theological justifications.
Before I delve into this colourful little affair I have to come clean about something. The idea for this colour-coated interpretative key was derived from a lovely little article I read on 1 Cor 7:17-24 (comment below if you want a link to the PDF), in which the scholar categorized the different types of statements Paul makes, in order to ascertain what the main message – or the universal, theologically normative statement – of the passage was. I dubbed this delightful method statement typology and proceeded to apply it shamelessly to as many Pauline texts as I could possibly get my hands on, until I hit gold with Eph 5:21-33. The typology above is self-explanatory, but one thing should be noted: I am not oblivious to the fact that vv. 21 and 33 are not a perfect match in the chiastic sense, but then again, this is not a chiasm, simply a categorization of the significance of Paul’s statements, and I think both the first and last sentence were written as universal rules. What we see when we look at the typology is that the theological justifications (red) do not concern marriage so much as they concern Christ’s relationship to his ἐκκλησία. In particular, vv.26-27 stick out as two ugly sore thumbs when compared to Paul’s other statements about marriage (ex. 1 Cor 7), but fit snugly and neatly into the framework of Paul’s ecclesiology. Thus, my conclusion was that this passage is the summa summarum of chapter 5: because Christ and the ἐκκλησία are united in a marriage of sorts, each member of the congregation lives in such intimate proximity to that which is holy – the presence of God – that it is of the utmost importance for everyone to live as ἅγιος ( 5:3) – consecrated (with all the purity implications this word brings with it), in order to ensure that the presence (kavod) of God continues to dwell amongst them. Thus, in the larger statement-typological scheme of the chapter, vv.21-33 represents the theological (-ecclesiological) justification for the guidelines and rules presented in vv.1-20 (these rules are, of course, intermingled with theological justifications on a smaller scale).
Ergo, when we read vv.21-33 as part of the “family scheme” of Ch. 6 rather than as the theological justification for the rules and guidelines outlined in vv.1-20, we risk loosing the full rhetorical beauty of Paul’s argument. Without vv.21-33, the reader will not understand that the reason Paul sets such high moral standards for the congregation is because the ἐκκλησία, much like the Jerusalem Temple, is a place where God’s presence (in the form of Christ) mixes and mingles freely with the human. But in order for this holy blender to function, the congregation has to be pure (because, according to Jewish temple theology, relevant as always, the holy [set apart] and the impure cannot coexist). The metaphor of marriage to describe this relationship is a genius move for which Paul deserves much kudos: he uses contemporary ideals and constructs in order to explain a universal and normative concept. The metaphor also fits like a hand in a custom-sown glove with the classical Jewish way of describing the covenant between God and Israel – the very reason Israel needs to follow the Law (or should I say guidelines and rules) in the first place (see Hosea, Song of Songs’ traditional interpretation etc.). If we attempt to contextualize all this, I would posit that the focus in the Church today should perhaps be shifted away from the social construct and instead be centred on the universal concept Paul was in fact attempting to explain.
The point that I began making about three paragraphs ago is this: although this interpretation of the text may seem very academic and not very Christian (better word: confessional), the Bible study went unexpectedly well. Turns out that as long as you are serious about your interpretation and you don’t dismiss the Bible’s every detail as “contextual with no chance of universal”, you can have extremely rewarding conversations with people from all different kinds of denominations. Ergo, if we are serious about ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue, the answer is not to trivialize our differences, but rather to take them seriously and discuss them in an engaged, respectful, and reflected manner.
Disclaimer: I am aware that there is an ongoing discussion as to whether the historical Paul was in fact the author of Ephesians. My usage of his name in this entry should not be taken as proof that I side with those who believe in Pauline authorship. It is simply a result of my not knowing enough about the debate to make a reflected decision, and thus choosing to use the name that the text itself identifies as its author. Whether this “Paul” (Eph 1:1) is in fact the historical Paul or someone else writing in his name is a different question, one which I am not equipped to even take a guess at here. In addition, I also want to make it clear that I don’t mean to posit here that Eph. 5:21-33 is unconnected to the first section of Ch.6 – because it is – but I think the implications and meaning of the text changes dramatically depending on which emphasis you choose to read it with.
Last week I attended a seminar which was a bit out of my usual academic range: a joint venture between the faculty of Semitic Languages and Hebrew Bible (otherwise known as “Old Testament”, although I have to admit that I’m 100% ready retire that term for good in academia). It was an interesting experience, and I learned hordes of peculiar facts that I never would have even gotten close to learning if I hadn’t gone (for example, I am now able to distinguish between three different types of deer based on the Hebrew word used to describe them in the HB, something which I’m actually childishly excited about). During the seminar, we examined different usages of the term “ayal” or “ayelet” in order to determine exactly which animal the term refers to (deer, ram, gazelle etc). Ps 42 was used as a point of departure, something which propelled my mind in a multitude of directions (as psalters are bound to). One of the professors said that the literary function of the word “ayal” was not to specify which sort of animal it was, but rather to use the animal as a comparative tool, so as to highlight certain qualities or attributes. I agreed that this was the word’s function, and proceeded to attempt to establish exactly which qualities or attributes the animal was meant to emphasize or highlight in the text at hand:
As a deer (אַיִל) longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.
Two answers presented themselves to me: either a) אַיִל is used to highlight the feeling of an animal low down on the food chain searching for life-giving water or b) אַיִל is used as part of a larger imagery scheme. Option a) is pretty much self-explanatory, and who knows, it might even be the better of the two, but my mind couldn’t just let option b) slip away unnoticed. When I looked up ayal in BDB Abridged Hebrew Dictionary (courtesy of Accordance, as so much is nowadays), the word was translated as “ram”, and the explanation dealt largely with cultic usages of the animal: the sacrifices of Abraham, Balaam, Aaron and his sons, as well as in shelamim and Passover sacrifices and various consecration rituals. At first I dismissed this as irrelevant information, in favour of option a), especially since the definition is ayal also includes mention of how it is used as a simile for leaping/skipping behaviour. But upon closer inspection, it occurred to me that the verses actually include a number of other cultic images. Water can, albeit perhaps rather hazily, be linked to the temple via Ezekiel’s visions, ‘beholding the face of God’ was a temple-related activity, and, of course, we have the explicit mention of the “house of God” and “festivals” in the latter verses. Thus, I would posit that ayal, as a common sacrificial animal, was used as part of a larger temple-based imagery scheme. The aim of the psalmist is to express a desire to come closer to God, for God to draw near to him/her. The natural setting for such divine closeness during this time period was, in fact, the temple, and thus it is, to my mind at least, not unthinkable that an author wishing to express a desire to draw nearer to God in a concrete way would situate this desire within the narrative framework of cult and temple.
This little tangent lead me down a disconcerting thought-path. Regardless of whether my musings about this particular psalm are justified or not, how often do we miss the meaning of a text because our minds are not perceptive enough to the more subtle examples of temple imagery? Take Ps. 69:22-25 as an example. Here, the psalmist writes about his/her enemies, that their “table (שֻׁלְחָן)” should be a “trap and a snare for their allies (shelomim; from the root שָׁלוֹם)”. Many commentaries state that this “table” is related to v.21: “they gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (thus: the psalmist wishes his/her enemies and their allies to be poisoned). I have my (perhaps unjustified albeit still strong) doubts about this hypothesis. I would rather see v. 22 as the beginning of a new section. After naming the various injustices the psalmist has been subjected to, s/he now turns their attention to the misfortune s/he in turn wishes his/her enemies to fall victim to. These misfortunes are not necessarily related to the specific injustices the psalmist as fallen victim to. In fact, I believe them to be much, much worse. Shulkhan (table) can also be used to describe an altar, and there are several scholars (as well as a Targum) who wish to connect the word shelomin to the shelamim sacrifices. If these two things are emphasized, the summa summarum of v. 22 is that the psalmist wishes his/her enemies to loose their divine connection and thus all their fortune – if their altars become a trap for them and a snare for their sacrifices, they can no longer uphold a relationship to the divine. To my mind, this interpretation is a nice narrative fit – the psalmist juxtaposes his/her desire for God to draw nearer to him/her (vv. 17-18) with the desire for God to remove God’s presence from the camp of her/her enemies (v. 25).
These thoughts left me with the question: how can I apply this in my studies? I decided that the next time I am indulging in a bit of Bible reading, in particular NT reading, I would try to read the text from a perspective of temple and cult, just to see if the meaning of the text could be altered. It’s been an exciting experiment so far, one which I think I will continue with for a while! Matthean texts in particular take on a life of their own when you read them from a perspective of temple and cult, especially the Sermon on the Mount (I won’t say how – that’s for you to discover!), but I’m really enjoying reading John from a temple-oriented perspective as well. Is there any greater feeling than the realization that a text has been severed from the constraints of your own presuppositions and biases, if only for a moment? We have a regrettable tendency to colonize our texts with our own wants and needs – it’s high time we took a hint from postcolonial exegetes and set them free!
PS. I don’t usually keep my posts as gender neutral as this one when speaking of Biblical literature (because, let’s be honest, the authors were in all historical likelihood men, so I don’t see the point in pretending this unfortunate historical statistic doesn’t exist), but in the spirit of setting the texts free from my own constraints, I thought it would be fun to experiment with the thought that the psalmist could be either male or female, and if marking this in my analysis would have an affect on my own perception of the text. I have to admit that I enjoyed the affect it had – textually admitting that the author of a Biblical text could be either male or female actually opened it up for me, made me feel closer to the psalmist and more connected to the narrative. I’m still not sure how historically productive it was, but not everything has to be done from a functional perspective!