Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Prophecy, the Prophetic Imagination, Hermeneutics Part 1

Currently, I'm working through D. Brent Sandy's Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (IVP, 2002). I'm about a third of the way through it, and I am compelled by Sandy's methodology and research abilities, his literary prowess, and thoughtfulness. What is more, I'm exegetically working through portions of the prophets (i.e. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel) in Hebrew, a fascinating venture.

Moreover, I'm being challenged to rethink, or think afresh concerning texts commonly held within popular level Christianity as so-called "direct" or "clear" messianic prophecies. Today, we focused on Jeremiah 23:5-6, in light of Jeremiah 33, arguably an exilic reflection on the originally pre-exilic oracle in 23:5-6. Of late, I was already pondering the state of Jewish apocalypticism pertaining to the development of messianism (as should be obvious from virtually every post on this blog). However, some of my initial suspicions are now being framed in a new, and indeed, more lucid landscape.

My current work, albeit only initial investigations of classical Israelite prophecy, happens to be directly impacting my thinking in other areas. What I'm seeing now in Jeremiah is as follows. Firstly, there is no trace of messianic expectation from a contextual (i.e. historical-exegetical) standpoint in Jeremiah. The "righteous branch" or more properly "legitimate scion" (a phrase I borrow from Dr. Gordon Johnston) is a prophetic expectation not of an individual, but of the restoration of a Davidic dynasty. This is confirmed by both a) the immediate context and b) Jer 33. What is so important about this observation is the implications, namely, there is no eschatological messianism present until at least Zechariah or the Second Temple period. Hence, many traditional passages often "clearly" messianic in traditional interpretation, in terms of their Sitz im Leben were nothing of the kind. What does this mean? On one level, the passage in Jeremiah shows that what takes place in Zech is a projection, in light of the apparent failure of the expected Davidic lineage of kings to sit on the throne again, of the apocalyptic imagination, albeit inspired by the Spirit, in resistance to the Yahwists' socio-political situation (oppression, subjugation, etc) of an eschatological figure. That is, a dynamic transformation takes place between the exile and the Second Temple period, the reorientation of Israelite future prophetic expectation, via apocalyptic expectation, of a archetypal Davidic kingly figure. This figure is initially shrouded in apocalyptic ambiguity, appearing "like" a human, often as angelic, sometimes as military victor, elsewhere as priestly ruler.

Much more has to be said about this, and even now I am merely focusing my thoughts. Any feedback would be much appreciated.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Suter, David W. "Weighed in the Balance: The Similitudes of Enoch in Recent Discussion"

David Winston Suter, "Weighed in the Balance: The Similitudes of Enoch in Recent Discussion," Religious Studies Review Vol. 7, No. 3 (July 1981): 217-221.

In this article, as the title implies, takes up SOE (=Similitudes of Enoch) within scholarly dialogue up through 1981 (so admittedly the state of affairs nearly thirty years ago. Suter gave lucidity to the discussion, tracing various trajectories in the conversation from Milik through his own position. Chiefly, in the end he argued that SOE is firmly rooted in the mid to late 1st century CE roughly contemporaneous, but not antecedent to the Jesus movement(s). For Suter, the SOE is too late to be of any influence on the Son of Man tradition in NT gospels. He offered great insight in solidifying the untenable position offered by Milik that the SOE was late 3rd century Christian tradition (270 CE).

This is a helpful but dated article establishing the shape of the discussion toward the twilight of the 20th century pertaining to NT studies and Second Temple Judaism studies.

Several interesting quotes (either for their literary artistry or academic significance):
  1. "In recent scholarly estimation, the Similitudes (or Parables) of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-70) has suffered a fate akin to Bright One, son of Dawn in Isaiah 14, who was cast down to Sheol" (217).
Come on, that is a beautifully crafted sentence for biblical studies.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Book of Ruth in Postcolonial Perspective

The book of Ruth is something of an anomaly as one of the few books in the Hebrew Bible written specifically around women, what a refreshing thought. How could the book of Ruth be understood in Postcolonial optics? While there is great scholarly disagreement concerning the date of Ruth, most would concur that the purpose of the book is to legitimate the Davidic monarchy and the Davidic throne in light of David's mixed ancestry. Whatever the book accomplishes within its milieu, aside from offering a inspiring tale of the loyalty of a daughter-in-law for her foreign mother-in-law and her ultimate redemption by a nobleman, it certainly offers a beautifully colored narrative.

What else might the book be/do? Could it be that Ruth, as an apologetic serving to legitimate the rightfulness of David to rule over against his Moabite ancestry is fundamentally the quintessential postcolonial literary specimen? As such we have power structures, the Davidic monarchy, with vested interest in perpetuating a divine justification for his questionable genealogical line. To that end, does it presuppose detractors to the Davidic rule? What kind of discourse is going on here?

After an analysis of the document itself, I think, whatever Ruth's (the book = Ruth) purpose is, one aspect of it likely is propaganda. This document legitimates Davidic rule as a result of Yahweh's divine ordering of his forebears in terms of genealogy. These are some preliminary thoughts that deserve further attention. I will continue to consider the issues and report to you as is possible.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Three Days and He was Raised, before Jesus?

There is much commotion about a recent Time's article relative to an archaeological finding in Israel that purports to have found a pre-Jesus narrative, depicting the angel Gabriel as describing another messiah (Simon?) having been raised from the dead after three days. Unfortunately, there is much to cloud any scholars purview, gaping holes in the text, unsure wording, leaving much to conjecture (-al emendation!).

For a look at the Hebrew and English translations of this text see:
1) Biblical Archeology Review
2) Time's Article

Also, for commentary from several noted NT scholars see:
1) PrimeTime Jesus

American Patriotism: A Competing Metanarrative?

A cover story at depicts the new fight an atheist solidier is waging against the U.S. Department of Defense. What is most interesting, however, is a quote from Michael Weinstein, a retired senior Air Force officer and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. He states: "Our Pentagon, our Pentacostalgon, is refusing to realize that when you put the uniform on, there's only one religious faith: patriotism," Weinstein said. (Click Here for Article)

I realize this is a rather touchy subject, but in the first century religion and politics were not separated, there were not neat taxonomic glasses through which one could parse out their spiritual life from their socio-political life as is often the norm in America. This is a vexing question that I am really dealing with. Though I have been accused of it lately, I'm not a card carrying leftist liberal (whatever that means!). I'm someone who was raised in the deep South, raised to sincerely be devoted to my country. As an academic and as a thinking Christian, it is my duty to QUESTION whether patriotism can be, is, or could possibly be construed as a competing religious metanarrative. Therefore, I query: Is Patriotism a religion? Why or why not? Is Patriotism compatible with following Jesus?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Religious Affection, Part 2

I have been participating lately in a rather heated set of discussions pertaining to Empire, allegiance, and what it means to follow Jesus. So far, I have been accused of being "indoctrinated by leftist liberalism." What is so funny about the accusation, is not so much whether its true or not, but the criterion this individual used, namely, 1) I use the abbreviations BCE and CE (before the common era/common era) rather than BC/AD (before Christ/Anno Domini[sp?]), 2) I refer to America as Imperial, and 3) I had the audacity to question whether the pledge of allegiance might be roughly similar to oaths to Caesar in the first century CE (there I go again!).

Well, odds are Christ was actually born before the close of the "Before Christ Era." This dating system of BC/AD shows up, I believe, in the fourth century CE and later was found to have been off a couple of years. So am I obligated to use a dating system that: a) is rather arrogant to anyone other than Christians (ah, considering others, that makes me a liberal too!), and b) that is historically inaccurate? I think not.

Secondly, America fits perfectly the definition of an Empire. Most people around the world perceive us as such. Ben Franklin evidently did because his quote to that effect was printed on Dick Chaney's Christmas cards in 2003. So if that makes me a liberal, well I'm guilty. America is an Empire, it is in fact the most powerful empire on earth (at least right now; how long that will be the case is another matter entirely).

Third, I am trying to be a careful and honest historian with regard to first century Christianity(-ies) in the Roman Near East. If being honest with the historical data and being self-critical of my own socio-political location somehow makes me an "evil leftist liberal," well I think that judgment is indicative of a close-minded fundamentalistic attitude/worldview. I think I can safely say that because I used to be the one indicting liberals as though somehow thinking freely is a sin against God; however, I have reconsidered my loyalties, and I am seeking to hold only one true loyalty--the way of Jesus. Fidelity to wife, yes that is included in fidelity to Christ. However, fidelity to a nation is not.

In the final analysis, I wonder this: To say that I do not have allegiance to the country to which I live, is not to say 'I hate america' or 'I am ungrateful for the opportunities I have had.' So why when people are actually critical of facets of the American empire, are the lambasted? Is that Christian? Would Jesus approve?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Can a Christian Pledge Allegiance to the Flag: Reflections on Religious Affections Ancient and Modern

This past March I presented a paper at the 37th Annual Society for Pentecostal Studies meeting at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. The paper was entitled "'Savior' and 'Lord' in the Lukan Birth Narrative: A Challenge to Caesar" (which has been submitted for publication in a NT related peer-reviewed journal presently). In this paper, I spent a great deal of time constructing the historigraphical picture of Palestine with reference to the rise of the Imperial cult through the end of the first century BCE and the mid-first century CE. In so doing, I spent much time wrestling with the ideology of religious affection in a milieu in which the taxonomic lenses of modernity's bifurcation of "political" and "religious" were alien, unthinkable demarcations; for religion was political and politics ipso facto was intrinsically enmeshed with religious concerns and affections.

As I studied the rise of the Imperial cult, I found myself torn internally by what I was uncovering about the past and how such knowledge was impossible for me to keep from deconstructing my own current experience as a human in the American Imperial West in the 21st century. Granted I was very careful to reconstruct the ancient world as the ancient world. However, what I did not expect from my research was the overwhelming effect, residual effect, such study would ultimately have upon my own Weltanschauung in the present. Indeed, the ways in which I conceived of myself in the socio-political and historical present. Now to my thought for the day, actually, I have been pondering this for quite some time now, almost a year.

In the ancient world, Israel was, even after exile, (as N.T. Wright has labored exhaustively to show) Israel likely still perceived herself as still in exile, even during the time of Jesus' advent. First, the Persian empire financially and politically offered the support (or rather sponsorship) of the reestablishment of a temple-state in Israel (i.e. Ezra and Nehemiah's building programs). Throughout the period that followed from the Persian sponsorship of the rebuilding of the Temple and Jerusalem to the Roman occupation stretching into the earliest Jesus period, Israel was perpetually ruled by socio-political forces outside of their control. At times there was a feeling of independence, but historically the period clearly evidences the nation as a subject peoples, though often granted the beneficence of being able to practice their own religion and operate on a semi-independent scale, barring the perpetual extraction of monies by the overlords.

By the latent first century BCE, the Roman Empire was in process, that is, they were undergoing an internal transformation, a transformation instilling national power in an individual--the Emperor. This, of course, is a complicated manner that here, my brush strokes only outline vaguely. However, with Julius the religious landscape, polytheistic as it was, was also changing along with the power structures (because they were intimately wed together). Underlying the difficulties of the tremendous expanse of the Empire in lands and people was the ever illusive task of grounding the locus of authority, originally with the Republic (510 BCE), but ultimately in the Emperor (ca. 50 BCE). The imperial cult arose, slowly, but steadily in response not to a necessarily religious need, rather the imperial cult functioned as a means of perpetuating the Imperial ideology, a tool for the dissemination of Empire, if you will. Granted this functioned primarily in the East, often arising from the indigenous peoples seeking the favor of the Empire via the Emperor. With Augustus a new age had dawned in which the Emperor himself would function as the locus of Rome's authority, as the symbol of the Empire par excellence. Thus, a two-way relationship was forged: a) from the provincial areas toward the Empire (centripetal) and b) centrifugally from the Emperor as "savior" (Σωτήρ) or benefactor by providing games, food, and drink. Hence, the socio-political constellation revolved on the axis of the ancient universe--the Emperor himself. There is no little significance to the fact that the "government/emperor" oppressed the people through the extraction of monies from the provincial areas to fund the perpetuation of Empire building (wars, construction, etc.). The Imperial cult offered individuals on a local level a venue to evidence their patriotism to the Empire. Here they would come and offer prayers for (and sometimes to) the emperor, they would give offerings, they would participate in a sacerdotal system of spending in order to show their religious affection for their nation via the emperor. In fact, the mantra of the day became "Caesar is Lord." That is not to say, "Caesar is the unique creator, monotheistic deity who is holy and will save the world from sin" (that would be anachronistic. Rather Caesar is the supreme Lord in the sense that he saves the people from their own peril--lack of food, etc. (Often at the Imperial games the Emperor would distribute meat to the populace, etc.).

However, the first Christians refused to say "Caesar is Lord" because they followed a different Lord. Their claim, while possibly including the theological freight of restoration to God through Jesus, certainly first was socio-political (because remember in the first century there is no separation--religious and political are inseparable). So what was the real issue? I submit to you that fundamentally faith = allegiance. Following Jesus is a fundamental commitment of one's allegiance (socially, politically, spiritually) to have no other allegiances than Jesus. First Christians were murdered because they would not pledge an oath to Caesar. Evangelicals often appeal to the claim that Christians opposed the oath for spiritual reasons, i.e. it offended their religious commitment to Jesus; but does that not prove my point?

Now, what does any of this have to do with the "pledge of allegiance?" For those of you who are not American or have not lived in this country, this may or may not make much sense to you; but I was raised in the United States, indeed, the deep South for that matter. Every day at school students would stand, face the American flag, place their hand over their heart and say, "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Today, I can no longer in good conscience pledge allegiance to the flag or to the nation. In fact, I think that if one takes Jesus seriously, takes his followers seriously, then in rough terms I find very little difference between the Imperial Cult's oath's to Caesar and the pledge of allegiance.

Here is my rationale:
Purpose and Function:
The Oath to Caesar functioned in order to: a) perpetuate the Empire's ideology and power structure, b) to identify, articulate, and perpetuate individuals personal commitments to the Emperor (a metonymy for the Empire), c) to foster Imperial unity of purpose under one monarch; and probably other reasons that I can't presently think of.

The Pledge of Allegiance functions in order to: a) perpetuate the ideology of the American Empire, b) to identify, articulate, and perpetuate individuals personal commitments to the Empire (flag a metonymy for America), and c) to foster American unity and a sense of patriotism toward one's place within the empire.

If first Christians died because they wouldn't simply say, "Yes, I am a patriot. I love my country and my leader, Caesar is Lord" then neither can I today fail to perceive that being a follower of Jesus necessitates that no other governmental allegiance may be held for where my "treasure is, there will my heart be also."