The Power of Parable – and metaparable

At “By Common Consent”, there is a review of John Dominic Crossan’s “The Power of Parable: How fiction by Jesus became fiction about Jesus”.

This interests me particularly for two reasons, firstly because BCC is a Mormon site, and I don’t get to look at Mormon sites very often. The more important reason, though, is that I read this book last year and would unhesitatingly recommend it as a radical new look at the Gospels.

I go along with most of what that review says; I love the direction of thinking Crossan is pursuing, but do not think he supports his hypotheses sufficiently rigorously for me to say “Yes, this is the way it was”.

But Crossan tells a wonderfully engaging and convincing story about how and why the Gospels were written, and one which is well worth considering as a possible way of reading them, and a new way which gives an additional and sometimes surprising set of insights. At the least, it can be regarded as a parable of its own (about writing parables about a teller of parables one of which is perhaps itself about parables – which is even more “meta” than the comment which starts the review).

I’m not sure I want to try to suggest what kind of parable it is, though. In a way, it’s a challenge parable, the “marginalised person” here being parables themselves. In a way it’s a riddle parable, because the stories themselves become significant of something other than what they first appear to be. I don’t at the moment see any indication of example parable there, but wouldn’t be surprised if someone were to correct me.

One thing Crossan does do here, however, is use the texts we know well to tell us some stories about the early development of Christianity and its transformation from being a Jewish sect to being a religion crossing divides of ethnicity, and to underline a particular understanding of Jesus. It’s an understanding of Jesus which resonates extremely well with me, and I like the book fine for that. It is, however, too limited an understanding of Jesus to reflect all that I consider Jesus to be to us now, even if (as I rather suspect) it may reflect a very substantial part of what Jesus was during his lifetime ministry.

Pharisees in Room 101

Larry Behrendt, who blogs at Jewish Christian Intersections, has a set of recent posts about Pharisees. Pharisees are given an incredibly bad press in the Gospels, being probably the individual group most often identified as being opponents of Jesus in discussions (the others being Sadducees, Scribes and, in the Fourth Gospel, “Jews”). Larry’s plea is that we stop using the terms “Pharisee” and “Pharisaical” as terms of abuse, as they paint a very inaccurate and incomplete picture of the real historical group called “Pharisees” and the term has become synonymous with “Jew”, and is therefore a form of stealth antisemitism.

I think he makes a very good argument indeed, particularly in his analysis of the German Biblical scholars who have definitely in the past used the term “Pharisee” as just a placeholder for “Jew” to conceal what is really just antisemitism. I’ve commented a bit on his last post (and some of this post is lifted from that), and one of the additions I picked up on was the result of discussion with a former forum sparring partner, Bob Dick, whose attitude was that as he knew that Rabbinic Judaism was the lineal successor of Pharisaism, if I used the term “Pharisaical”, he was going to read that as just “Jewish” and as antisemitic whatever I actually intended.

We have tended to have difficulty regarding Jesus as having been Jewish in the past, though this seems to have largely been unlearned. Actually, though, as (inter alia) Daniel Boyarin points out in “Border Lines”, Christianity is also a lineal successor to Pharisaism, and if you try to categorise Jesus within the Judaism of the time, you end up deciding that Jesus was a Pharisee himself. He was clearly blue collar, scripture based rather than Temple based, in opposition to the Temple authorities (signified by the Scribes and Sadducees) and in many of his recorded statements following the great Pharisaic teachers of the time, Hillel or Shammai – almost always Hillel, it has to be said. If there was a public argument about scripture with others in that period (other than in the Temple), it was virtually guaranteed to be between Pharisees, as they were the group who considered public argument about scriptural interpretation to be desirable and who were “out among the people” rather than clustered around the Temple or (in the case of the Essenes) removed from general society.

In relation to the term “Pharisee”, I have a copy of the full version of the Oxford Dictionary, which (inter alia) gives earliest word-uses in English with examples; I thought I recalled an usage in some early 19th century book I’d read, and checked. I find that “Pharisee” is first used as a term of abuse in the early 1800s, rather earlier than would argue that our attitude here has been influenced by the great German biblical scholars of the late 19th and 20th centuries. We haven’t, in other words, just copied the Germans here.

Frankly, I half expected to find an usage in Shakespeare, but it appears he managed to avoid that (although “The Merchant of Venice” is a problem in and of itself).

That, of course, points up another piece of the problem – England used to be a profoundly anti-Semitic country as well, it just started moving beyond that rather earlier than most of continental Europe (with the notable exception of Holland, which was well ahead of us). We have stacks of writings, fictional and non-fictional, from those days which require an educated eye if those reading them are not to take in antisemitism by the “drip” method.

Of course, those writings tend to be non-PC in terms of gender equality as well as race and religion (individually and collectively), and we do, I think, these days, manage to instil enough consciousness of that to lead the majority of educated readers, at least, to be very aware that they’re reading something written from what is now an outdated and reprehensible viewpoint.

The snag is that relatively few are going to be aware that “Pharisee” is an anti-semitic usage (20 years ago, I wasn’t aware of this myself). We’re a fairly secular society these days here, and a significant majority of educated readers are not going to have put any effort into studying the Bible. Those who *have* stand an unfortunately high chance of being part of an evangelical church (those being the only churches which are not contracting here), and my experience of evangelical churches is that they push a very negative view of Judaism as a religion. I have yet to hear an evangelical preacher here who does not consider that Judaism was at the time of Jesus a dysfunctional religion. I probably shouldn’t restrict that to evangelical preachers, either – there are precious few mainline preachers I’ve heard advancing any contrary viewpoint either, although they have a greater chance of being silent on the issue.

One of the major planks of this understanding is very much that the Judaism of Jesus’ time is seen as a religion of works righteousness. Humanity is seen as fundamentally incapable of measuring up to such a system (interpreted as requiring absolute adherence), the system is seen as leading either to radical insecurity about one’s status vis a vis God or to complacent hypocrisy, and Christianity is then put forward as a way out of this impasse.

Of course, I see this as a fundamentally wrong assessment of Second Temple Judaism, and so does the (modern and academically fairly dominant) chain of scholarship known as “The New Perspective on Paul”. Unfortunately sending the average churchgoer off to read (for instance) E.P. Sanders, James Dunn or Douglas Campbell is impractical, as their books are very substantial tomes and they’re often regarded as “too liberal”. N.T. Wright’s “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” is huge, too; Wright might just be acceptably not-quite-liberal enough, but two large volumes is going to put most people off thoroughly, in price if not in the investment of time needed to read it! I suppose in 20 or 30 years time this might have trickled into the majority of Christian thinking in this country, but not yet… I wrote about this at more length recently.

So, should I use “Pharisee” or “Pharisaic” in the way I used to, denoting a particular rather hypocritical “my works are better than your works” kind of Christian? I think not. Firstly, it’s hugely tarnished by association with some Nazi or neo-Nazi German theologians with whom I wouldn’t want to be associated. Secondly, it is likely to look like anti-Judaism (even if not antisemitism) to anyone Jewish. Thirdly, by using it I am in fact criticising Jesus, and lastly in using it I am implicitly supporting a view of Christian origins and salvation with which I disagree strongly.

Into Room 101 it goes, therefore…




Dispensing with the dispensation

In discussion last night I heard again what I’ve heard many times before. I can’t guarantee to use the exact wording (and so much for the ability of eyewitnesses to recount exact wording 40 or 70 years after the event!) but in general terms the statement ran:-

“The Jews had the Law, but the Law didn’t work, so God sent Jesus to deliver the New Covenant.”

This is a depressingly familiar line of thinking typical of post-Luther Pauline scholarship in the West; the proof text for it is the extended discussion in Romans 1-11, but in particular Romans 2:9-18, 5:20, 8:3, 11:7 and 13-25. Happily, scholarship during the last 50 years has taken a new turn, interpreting Paul very differently. I quote from E.P. Sanders “Paul and Palestinian Judaism”:-

“It has been a common view among Christian scholars that there is such an incongruence in Judaism generally and in Rabbinic Judaism in particular. God, it has been said, became very remote in the period after the return from Babylon. He was no longer spoken of familiarly, but only by circumlocutions; and angels were necessary as intermediaries. Yet Judaism possessed no means of access to the remote God save obedience to the Torah, which is manifestly insufficient and inadequate. This situation led to a religion of anxiety on the one hand (could one do enough works to earn favour with the distant God?) and smug self-reliance on the other hand (some could).

This estimate of Jewish religious experience – anxiety coupled with arrogant self-righteousness – rests on three theories about Jewish theology, all wrong. They are the view that a man must do more good deeds than he commits transgressions, that God is viewed as inaccessible, and that the individual felt himself to be lost, having no access to the remote God.” (my emboldening). Sanders is at that point well on the way to showing that there is no justification at all for taking that view of Judaism.

Sanders’ book, published in 1975, was the first major book to express what has become known as “The New Perspective on Paul”. Other major names taking this kind of view are James Dunn, Douglas Campbell and, most recently, N.T. Wright. Douglas Campbell’s “The Deliverance of God: an Apocalyptic Re-reading of Justification in Paul” takes Paul’s relevant statements, mainly in Romans but also in Galatians and elsewhere and where Sanders has exposed a problem (that if we are to read Paul in this way, Paul has got his Judaism very seriously wrong), Campbell sets out to re-read Paul, finding that this viewpoint is not, in fact, justified from Pauline scripture in any event. Sanders (and those following him) comes to the conclusion that individual salvation in Second Temple Judaism was by something called “covenantal nomism”, which, briefly, is the view that all members of Israel (i.e. Jews) are saved by that status, and that adherence to the Law is an appropriate response to that salvation, and potentially at least required in order for someone to retain that status (a viewpoint not in fact dissimilar from that of reformed theology). Campbell finds that justification in Paul is by participatory atonement, in which the believer participates in Christ’s atoning sacrifice by participating in his death and resurrection, in the process “dying to sin”, and in the process finds that Paul’s strictures about the inadequacy of the Law to save are in fact a rhetorical device presenting the views of a competing teacher whose viewpoint Paul then proceeds to ridicule.

I am very pleased to have found these lines of argument, which I find convincing enough (at the least) to cast serious doubt upon the previous reformed orthodoxy, as it serves to restore Paul in my view away from “someone who corrupted the message of Jesus” (which would have been my stance a few years ago) to that of an inspired writer.

Among other things, it avoids the hugely problematic question of how it could be that God would deliver to the Jews a system which didn’t work, and leave them with nothing better for a period of at least 500 years and potentially well over 1500. In the classical Theist concept, that just doesn’t work; a God who would do this would not be both omniscient and omnibenevolent, i.e. he would either be surprised it didn’t work or uncaring of the fate of many members of his chosen people (or, perhaps, both, as 1500 years is a rather long time for something not to work and not be “mended”).

I will grant that this just might work in a “process theology” framework, where God is not omniscient and develops in response to man’s own development, but even then the scale and duration of lack of knowledge seriously stretches my ability to understand how that might be the case.

It had to be, therefore, that this conception was untrue, and until reading Sanders and Campbell fairly recently, I unfairly laid the blame for this misconception on Paul. In fact, it appears, the main culprits were Luther and Calvin.

In point of fact, as I currently read the scriptures, I think the point of view of covenantal nomism is only somewhat justified, as it seems to me that the question of individual sin and salvation is thoroughly and adequately dealt with by Ezekiel 18. Ezekiel appears to date from 592 BC (something over 600 years before Paul). However, this passage is somewhat foreshadowed in earlier material, parts of Isaiah, Proverbs and Psalms, so that would represent the latest date at which this concept came into Judaism. All that there matters is the orientation of the individual (whether toward God and his commandments or away from those) at any particular point in time. Repent and turn to God, says Ezekiel, and you will live; this can readily be amplified to indicate that repentance requires that amends be made and, of course, that where the Law demands certain ritual observances, that these be done.

Earlier than this, is the same charge against God for not having created and made known an adequate mechanism for individual salvation justifiable? On the whole, I think not. I am sticking my neck out considerably here, but I do not think that the earliest parts of the biblical witness speak to individual salvation at all, but to collective salvation, that is to say preservation and increase of the whole people, and I suspect that anxiety about individual rather than collective salvation is the product of a later stage in the unfolding response of the people towards God. When the issue first becomes a problem in human consciousness (perhaps around the time of David), solutions begin to arrive via writers of what is now scripture, culminating (to my mind) in Ezekiel.

I am somewhat embarrassed that it has taken me so long to come to this conclusion, but in my defence say that it is very difficult to overcome the preconceptions instilled by several centuries of focus on the individual following the Enlightenment – just as it was very difficult (and therefore demanded a mammoth and extremely detailed analysis) for Douglas Campbell to overcome the preconceptions instilled by several centuries of reformed theology.

Paul, it now seems to me, was speaking only to the issue of how to integrate non-Jewish followers of Jesus with Jewish ones without establishing a hierarchy in which the non-Jewish followers were “second class citizens”, and doing this to counter another teacher who was preaching the necessity of full conversion to Judaism. He was also doing this from a thoroughly Jewish perspective, as Alan Segal’s “Paul, the Convert” and Daniel Boyarin’s “A Radical Jew” have underlined for me.

It wasn’t, in other words, a “new dispensation” as some think, and the comment last night assumes, more a small step in a widening of the scope of a message which was already well in place.

It depends how you look at it…

An issue came up in a recent Alpha session, that on “When and how should I read the Bible”, regarding fulfillment of prophecy by Jesus. In fact it came up twice, once in casual conversation and once in the group discussion. A friend gave me a copy of a brief article suggesting that Jesus fulfilled many prophecies and that the odds against this were astronomical, asking if I agreed with this – and, of course, I didn’t; then someone in the group pointed to Psalm 22 and the close similarity with the crucifixion account in Matthew.

It is fairly easy to find sites which list dozens of prophecies ostensibly “fulfilled” by Jesus. Here’s one such which deals only with messianic prophecies. It is slightly less easy, but still trivial, to find sites giving the Jewish attitude to fulfillment of messianic prophecy. Here’s on the topic.

I’m inclined to agree with that it’s all very well to have fulfilled some messianic prophecies (quite a few people have fulfilled significant numbers of these, including the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who at least according to his followers managed a better overall total than did Jesus), but in order to claim the status of the one and only messiah, you need to fulfil all of them. It is, of course, standard in Christianity to say that the unfulfilled prophecies will be fulfilled at the second coming, but this does not convince, just as the suggestion of many Chabad Lubavitch supporters 20 years ago that the late Rabbi would return to fulfill the remainder does not convince. Now, I happen to think that both Judaism and Christianity have gone up a wrong path in determining that there should be one and only one messiah, as I wrote about here some time ago. However, there we are; we do not have a full set of fulfilled messianic prophecies for anyone who has so far lived, including Jesus.

The reference to Psalm 22 is not, however, a reference to a specifically messianic prophecy; Psalm 22 is not generally regarded in Judaism as prophetic or as messianic. There are, of course, also lists of prophecies more generally which are said to have been fulfilled; here’s a list of 351. The list of correspondences between Psalm 22 and Matthew and John’s accounts of the crucifixion is fairly extensive in its own right; consider verses 16 to 18, for instance (the link I use there is to a parallel literal translation of the Hebrew Masoretic text which includes links for the derivation of each word, and I find this very helpful in “going behind” English translations).

However, there are also a lot of features in Psalm 22 which are not recapitulated; there are no bulls besetting him like ravening lions, for instance, no swords, no dogs, and it is clear from the passage that the author survives rather than dies. This points up something which I always find when looking at claims that prophecy has been fulfilled where the “prophecy” has been gleaned from a non-prophetic passage; you can find snippets of Hebrew scripture to echo almost any circumstance you might wish to, but in the wider context the parallel breaks down.

But, you might say, in those three verses, at least, the parallels are fairly numerous and close.  Abandoned by friends and surrounded by enemies, bones disjointed (probable in a crucifixion), hands and feet pierced, casting lots for garments… and this in a context in which Matthew describes Jesus as quoting the first verse of the Psalm (“Eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani” – Matt. 27:46).

Well, not so much so. The Psalms were the worship songs of Judaism (and still are), and Jesus and those who wrote about him could be expected to know them rather well. Aside from casting lots for garments, all those components of vv. 16-18 I quoted would refer to any crucifixion, and anyone crucified would be likely to think that God had abandoned them (if they had any belief in divine providence for them, at least), so at least if Jesus were able to speak having been crucified (which is rather dubious) this would be a natural verse to come to mind. If you’re a churchgoer, it’s likely that you’ve found yourself framing events in your own life in the words of worship songs or hymns, if you’re not, in popular music you know well.

The casting of lots for garments, however, is not in Matthew, but in the far later account of John. Now I tend to think that casting lots for Jesus’ garments is unlikely if you attempt to harmonise the gospel accounts, as by this point he doesn’t have any garments to speak of. However, if you’re a Jewish writer of the day and you hear that soldiers at the scene were playing dice (i.e. casting lots), you are going to think of Psalm 22, and assume that division of garments is involved.

And, indeed, this kind of mechanism is what the vast majority of historical-critical scholars see in the Gospels; the writer knows his scripture and fills in details from the library of scriptural references he has in his head. This may even have happened in the minds of actual eyewitnesses (though the overwhelming probability is that none of the gospel writers was an eyewitness). Our brains fill in detail we didn’t actually see from what we expect to have seen. Having had a career in which I needed to assess and test eyewitness accounts in court on a regular basis, I am only too familiar with this mechanism.

The same historical-critical scholars see a great deal more of this in the gospel accounts, and the result is that they discount most sections of the accounts which appear or are said to fulfill prophecy on the basis that it is to them probably eyewitness or interpreter bias in favour of what they expect to have happened, even if it didn’t actually happen, particularly those which the biblical author explicitly states are fulfillment of prophecy.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that events didn’t happen exactly as the gospel-writers say they did, and they happened to fit neatly to various scriptural passages which the writers knew – indeed, there is such a range of potential passages that there were bound to be some which could be brought to mind. What it does mean is that in terms of historical proof, apparent fulfillment of scripture is worthless.

The talk was, of course, about reading the Bible, and this post also has something to say about “how”, and the choice of a version (of which there are huge numbers in English).

There is a translation issue revolving around “they have pierced my hands and feet” in Psalm 22:16/17 because the primary meaning of the word “ariy” is “lion”; “kaariy” can be translated as “like a lion” rather than as deriving from the word “karah” meaning to dig, plot, bore or open and being “they have pierced”. That is why my link is to an etymological parallel translation.

You will find “they have pierced” in most Christian bibles, and indeed in many Jewish translations into English, but a substantial amount of Jewish scholarship prefers “they bite like a lion my hands and feet”, which does not map to crucifixion well. There’s some further discussion of this in a Wikipedia entry.

There are, in other words, times when our translations will not deliver us a complete picture, and where any translation is going to arrive at a decision as to how to translate something on the basis of their theological preconceptions; the Christian sees scriptural fulfillment, the Jew sees nothing of the sort. There is no way of knowing which is correct, and there is therefore good reason not to rely too strongly on any one translation.

Finally, my friend who passed me the article on fulfilled scripture saw divine providence in the fact that he had brought this hoping to ask me about it on an evening when the talk should have been about prayer, but had been changed at the last minute to being about the Bible due to a miscommunication between organiser and speaker. I wonder whether he would see the same divine providence in the coincidence that the passage brought up as evidence of scriptural fulfillment in the talk was, unbeknownst to the person who mentioned it, one which rests on a seriously dubious piece of translation?

I suspect not!

The truth and freedom

There’s a story I’ve heard a few times now, most recently ten days ago, about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a former policeman called Van de Broek. It’s a popular story for sermons and talks, it seems. It’s a very uplifting story about an unnamed woman forgiving the policeman for the murder of her son and husband and wishing to treat him as a replacement son.

I want to make two points here.

The first is that the story probably never happened as it’s been reported to me. I rather suspected that it might not be, as some of the details didn’t fit well with what I knew of the Commission. Here’s an analysis: frankly, I come to the same conclusion as the writer. Neither of us thinks its factual truth matters. It may not be a factually accurate story, but it is in its own way a true story about how Christian forgiveness to the extent of loving one’s enemy should happen. I know of a few other factually correct stories of victims who have bridged that gap and befriended their oppressors, in any case, including one woman whose husband was beaten to death senselessly, and who forgave and visited those responsible in prison.

In discussion after hearing it most recently, people were asking themselves if they could bring themselves to do what the anonymous woman did in the story. Some didn’t think they could, or would even want to, some hoped that they would if they were ever in that kind of position.

I hope I would myself, because I possibly couldn’t afford not to. As you may have gathered if you’ve read earlier posts in this blog, I’m a member of a twelve step fellowship. Several steps of the twelve are very relevant; 4, making a searching and fearless moral inventory; 5, admitting to yourself, God and another human being the exact nature of your wrongs; 6, becoming ready to have God remove your defects of character; 7, humbly asking him to do so, 8, making a list of all persons you have harmed and becoming willing to make amends to them all and 9, making amends except when to do so would injure them or others.

The “searching and fearless moral inventory” in step 4 is commonly done as a list of resentments which you have accumulated over the years, in column form; who against, what the circumstances were and (crucially) what your part in it was. These then later usually feed directly into the making of the list for step 8. The objective is to recognise all resentments (including against yourself – to which I am especially prone), to admit them publicly and to make good the damage caused; at step 9 it is normal to ask the wronged person how you can put right your wrong.

This is, of course, very much similar to what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was doing in South Africa, a sort of national twelve-step programme. Both are examples of restorative justice. What both realise is that an un-dealt with resentment is poisonous to the person who holds the resentment. For an alcoholic or addict, keeping hold of resentments long term is near to being a guarantee of relapse; I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t do those who are free from addictions any good either.

As I sit here at the moment, I have a clean slate as far as resentments are concerned. I work on this on a continuing basis (through step 10 – continuing to take personal inventory and when wrong promptly admitting it – and, which is not explicit in the wording of the step, trying to restore things to the state they would have been in had I not done something wrong). Could I cope with the resentment which would be produced if someone did to me something similar to what was, in the story, done to this woman? I don’t know, but I would try as hard as I possibly could to admit the resentment, to deal with it and to let it go. “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay”: it is not my part to pursue vengeance, I can and must leave that to God.

Of course, the story seems to go a step further, to an act of positive love towards the enemy. This may seem a step too far. It’s marginally further than I’ve been able to go with one or two people who have wronged me in the past, but they are not around me any more (and I do not at the moment harbour any resentments toward them). If they were here with me now, I think it might be necessary to go that step further and act in a positively loving way toward them, as otherwise their mere presence might lead to the resentments of the past being renewed.

For me, this would be not saintly but wise. I cannot afford to have people from my past taking over my thoughts and ruining my present. I need to be free of them, and, one day at a time, today I am.