The King James Bible (a.k.a. ‘The King James Version’, or simply ‘The Authorised Version’) has long been celebrated as one of the most significant works of English literature full stop. This 1611 translation of the Old and New Testaments has now been printed more times than any other book in English and, in so doing, not only helped transform the English language and spread it worldwide but also coined every day phrases — such as, “how the mighty are fallen” (Samuel 1–19), “can a leopard change its spots?” (Jeremiah 13–23), “the writing’s on the wall” (Daniel 5–6) and, “the blind leading the blind” (Matthew 15–14).
Even the secular novel is replete with the prose and poetry of the King James. Consider examples such as F. Scott Fitzgerald: This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and the Damned; John Steinbeck: East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath. William Faulkner: Go Down Moses, Absalom Absalom. Novels like Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea are evidently influenced by the King James. Within “The King James,” is the poetry that inspired Handel’s Messiah and some of its passages are considered by some to still be the highest poetry of (hu)man(kind).
— § § § —
Old/New Testament indices
There is a lot of utility in knowing the basics of the bible in relation to the discipline of English Literature. This is because so many — so, so many — works of literature are influenced by the trials and tribulations found within the bible’s tales (see this site’s Anthology and Chronology of English literature).
THE OLD TESTAMENT
39 books (parts/chapters)
Written: c. 1200–165 B.C.
• • • • • •
These books are divided into three groups: (A) ‘The Law’ or ‘Pentateuch’ which covers ‘Genesis’ to ‘Deuteronomy’ (B), ‘The Prophets’ and (C), ‘The Writings’ which includes ‘the Psalms’ (songs and prayers), ‘the Proverbs’ (sayings of wisdom) and ‘Job’ (the nature of suffering).
|THE NEW TESTAMENT
27 books (parts/chapters)
Written: c. 50–100 A.D.
• • • • • •
These books are divided into two groups: (A) ‘The Letters’ or ‘The Epistles’ and (B), ‘The Gospels’ which includes the story of Jesus, ‘Revelation, ‘the Battle of Armageddon’, the tale of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the tale of the ‘Hideous Beast no. 666’ and, ‘the End of Days…’
— § § § —
“The King James”
In short, it took seven years to compile “The King James” and was the collective work of around 50 scholars. These scholars were appointed in 1604 by King James I (who reigned between 1603–1625), and this bible was dedicated to him. This really was a landmark event because, until this time, attempts to give normal people access to an English-language Bible had resulted in severe punishment (typically death by fire).
According to Levy (2017) translations of ancient texts exploded in the 15th century. Scholars in Italy, Holland and elsewhere perfected the Latin of Cicero and learned Greek and Hebrew. The “rediscovery” of these languages and the advent of printing allowed access to knowledge not only secular (the pagan Classics) but also sacred (the Bible in its original languages). The new market for translated texts created an urgent demand for individuals capable of reading the ancient languages. Its fulfillment was nowhere better seen than in the foundation at Oxford University in 1517, by one of Henry VIII’s personal advisors, of Corpus Christi College — the first Renaissance institution in Oxford, whose trilingual holdings of manuscripts in Latin, Greek and Hebrew Erasmus himself celebrated. At the same time, Protestant scholars used their new learning to render the Bible into common tongues, meant to give people a more direct relationship with God. The result, in England, was the publication of translations starting with William Tyndale’s 1526 Bible and culminating in the so-called “Geneva Bible” completed by Calvinists whom Queen Mary had exiled to Switzerland.
Earlier English Translations
John Wycliffe, an English lay preacher, philosopher and reformist actively supported a translation of the bible in an attempt to provide more autonomy for the Church of England. Often quoted as a forefather to the Protestant Reformation, Wycliffe and his followers (know as the Lollards), translated the Vulgate (the fourth century Latin version of the Bible) into English during 1382-1384.
The official language of the medieval Church was Latin – the language of the Roman Empire, which had adopted Christianity as its religion during the fourth century. Christians continued to be governed from Rome by the Pope during medieval times. Church services were conducted in Latin throughout the Christian world, and translation of the Latin Bible into the vernacular, in other words the local language anyone could understand, was actively discouraged. Translations of the Bible into various forms of English, such as Old English, were made over the centuries, but these were hand-written copies with a very limited circulation.
In 1401, on the advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry IV introduced a law which outlawed the translation of the Bible and made heresy a capital crime, punishable by burning at the stake. The first martyr to do die in this way was William Sawtre, a priest in London who preached John Wycliffe’s teachings, in February 1401.
Although Wycliffe had died in 1384, he did not escape Papal retribution. In 1415 he was declared a heretic, his bones were exhumed and burned along with his books, and the ashes cast into the River Swift at Lutterworth. By then the Lollard movement was in decline and it would be a hundred years before further attempts were made for an English Bible.
In England , under the “1408 Constitutions of Oxford,” it was decided to strictly forbid the translation the Bible into the native tongue. This ban was vigorously enforced by Sir Thomas More, in an attempt to prevent the rise of English ‘Lutheranism’. The only authorised version of the Bible was St Jerome’s “Vulgate,” which was understood only by highly-educated people.
However, by the 1500s vernacular Bibles were available in parts of Europe, where they added fuel to the popular questioning of religious authority initiated by the monk Martin Luther – a religious crisis known as the Reformation, which resulted in the splitting of Christianity into Catholic and Protestant Churches.
The preachings of Martin Luther, challenging the authority of the Pope, lit the flames of Protestantism across Europe in the 1520s. In 1521, the Pope condemned Luther’s writings and ordered that they be burned. Henry VIII, who had an extensive theological education, opposed Luther’s views, and the Pope conferred on Henry the title ‘Defender of the Faith’. There were public burnings of Luther’s books in London.
Flouting the ban on translating the Bible by working abroad, William Tyndale published his English version of the New Testament in Germany in 1525. Some copies were smuggled in to Britain, but many were burned – as was Tyndale, at the stake, in 1536, after being betrayed while working on his translation of the Old Testament. Whilst he was burned as a heretic before he could complete his translation of the Old Testament, Tynsdale’s translations did become the basis for many versions to follow; including “The King James” itself. Tynsdale’s last words were reportedly, “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes”.
New King, New Bible
In the mid- to late 1500s many people in England were hearing one version of the bible when they went to church, but were reading from another when they were at home: the “Geneva Bible.” The Geneva Bible is one of the most historically significant translations of the Bible into English — it came out 50 odd years before “The King James” and was compiled illegally outside of England; it was was used by William Shakespeare and John Donne et al.
For King James I however, the “Geneva Bible” posed a political problem, since it contained certain annotations questioning not only the bishops’ power, but tat of the British monarchy too. So in 1604, when a Puritan scholar proposed the creation of a new translation of the bible at a meeting at a religious conference at Hampton Court, James surprised those gathered by not only agreeing but also undertaking some of the translating work himself.
A committee of 54 translators and revisers made up of the most learned men in the nation was introduced to complete the translation and was made up of 6 committees, called companies. The most striking characteristic of the translation is its simplicity. It was written with resonance and uplifting rhythms. It was easy to remember with the familiar structure of 10 syllables and an iambic rhythm which was written to be spoken, much like William Shakespeare and John Milton. Three companies were responsible for the Old Testament, two for the New Testament and one for the Apocrypha, the books that the Protestant Christian Church considered useful but not divinely inspired.
King James I also abolished the death penalty attached to English Bible translation — as much as 80 per cent of Tyndale’s translation is reused in “The King James” version. “The King James” was published in a large format, suitable for public use, and without illustrations. Importantly, it was free of biased footnotes and commentaries.
— § § § —
01. — The Parts of the Whole
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 01 of 24 | duration. 45:45]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes]
You don’t need me to tell you that human civilization is very, very old. Nevertheless, our knowledge of the earliest stages of human civilization was quite limited for many centuries. That is, until the great archaeological discoveries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which unearthed for us the great civilizations of the Ancient Near East, of which I have drawn a remarkably life-like map here on the board: [laughter] Mediterranean, I always start with the Mediterranean Ocean, the Nile River, the Tigris and the Euphrates. So: the great civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the area we refer to as the Fertile Crescent, of which a little part here about the size of Rhode Island is Canaan. And archaeologists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were stunned to find the ruins and the records of remarkable peoples and cultures–massive, complex empires in some cases but some of which had completely disappeared from human memory. Their newly uncovered languages had been long forgotten; their rich literary and legal texts were now indecipherable. That soon changed. But because of those discoveries, we are now in a position to appreciate the monumental achievements of these early civilizations, these earliest civilizations.
And so many scholars, and many people, have remarked that it’s not a small irony that the Ancient Near Eastern people with one of the, or perhaps the most lasting legacy, was not a people that built and inhabited one of the great centers of Ancient Near Eastern civilization. It can be argued that the Ancient Near Eastern people with the most lasting legacy is a people that had an idea. It was a new idea that broke with the ideas of its neighbors, and those people were the Israelites. And scholars have come to the realization that despite the Bible’s pretensions to the contrary, the Israelites were a small, and I’ve actually overrepresented it here, I’m sure it should be much smaller, a small and relatively insignificant group for much of their history. They did manage to establish a kingdom in the land that was known in antiquity as Canaan around the year 1000. They probably succeeded in subduing some of their neighbors, collecting tribute–there’s some controversy about that–but in about 922 [BCE] this kingdom divided into two smaller and lesser kingdoms that fell in importance. The northern kingdom, which consisted of ten of the twelve Israelite tribes, and known confusingly as Israel, was destroyed in 722 [BCE] by the Assyrians. The southern kingdom, which consisted of two of the twelve tribes and known as Judah, managed to survive until the year 586 [BCE] when the Babylonians came in and conquered and sent the people into exile. The capital, Jerusalem, fell.
Conquest and exile were events that normally would spell the end of a particular ethnic national group, particularly in antiquity. Conquered peoples would trade their defeated god for the victorious god of their conquerors and eventually there would be a cultural and religious assimilation, intermarriage. That people would disappear as a distinctive entity, and in effect, that is what happened to the ten tribes of the northern kingdom to a large degree. They were lost to history. This did not happen to those members of the nation of Israel who lived in the southern kingdom, Judah. Despite the demise of their national political base in 586 [BCE], the Israelites alone, really, among the many peoples who have figured in Ancient Near Eastern history–the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Hittites, the Phoenicians, the Hurrians, the Canaanites–they emerged after the death of their state, producing a community and a culture that can be traced through various twists and turns and vicissitudes of history right down into the modern period. That’s a pretty unique claim. And they carried with them the idea and the traditions that laid the foundation for the major religions of the western world: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
So what is this radical new idea that shaped a culture and enabled its survival into later antiquity and really right into the present day in some form? Well, the conception of the universe that was widespread among ancient peoples is one that you’re probably familiar with. People regarded the various natural forces as imbued with divine power, as in some sense divinities themselves. The earth was a divinity, the sky was a divinity, the water was a divinity, had divine power. In other words, the gods were identical with or imminent in the forces of nature. There were many gods. No one single god was therefore all powerful. There is very, very good evidence to suggest that ancient Israelites by and large shared this world view. They participated at the very earliest stages in the wider religious and cultic culture of the Ancient Near East. However, over the course of time, some ancient Israelites, not all at once and not unanimously, broke with this view and articulated a different view, that there was one divine power, one god. But much more important than number was the fact that this god was outside of and above nature. This god was not identified with nature. He transcended nature, and he wasn’t known through nature or natural phenomena. He was known through history, events and a particular relationship with humankind. And that idea, which seems simple at first and not so very revolutionary–we will see, that’s an idea that affected every aspect of Israelite culture and in ways that will become clear as we move through the course and learn more about biblical religion and biblical views of history, it was an idea that ensured the survival of the ancient Israelites as an entity, as an ethnic religious entity. In various complicated ways, the view of an utterly transcendent god with absolute control over history made it possible for some Israelites to interpret even the most tragic and catastrophic events, such as the destruction of their capital and the exile of their remaining peoples, not as a defeat of Israel’s god or even God’s rejection of them, but as necessary, a necessary part of God’s larger purpose or plan for Israel.
These Israelites left for us the record of their religious and cultural revolution in the writings that are known as the Hebrew Bible collectively, and this course is an introduction to the Hebrew Bible as an expression of the religious life and thought of ancient Israel and as a foundational document of western civilization. The course has several goals. First and foremost, we want to familiarize you with the contents of the Hebrew Bible. We’re not going to read every bit of it word for word. We will read certain chunks of it quite carefully and from others we will choose selections, but you will get a very good sense and a good sampling of the contents of the Bible. A second goal is to introduce you to a number of approaches to the study of the Bible, different methodological approaches that have been advanced by modern scholars but some of which are in fact quite old. At times, we will play the historian, at times we will be literary critics. “How does this work as literature?” At times we will be religious and cultural critics. “What is it the Israelites were saying in their day and in their time and against whom and for what?” A third goal of the course is to provide some insight into the history of interpretation. This is a really fun part of the course. The Bible’s radically new conception of the divine, its revolutionary depiction of the human being as a moral agent, its riveting saga of the nation of Israel, their story, has drawn generations of readers to ponder its meaning and message. And as a result, the Bible has become the base of an enormous edifice of interpretation and commentary and debate, both in traditional settings but also in academic, university, secular settings. And from time to time, particularly in section discussion, you will have occasion to consider the ways in which certain biblical passages have been interpreted–sometimes in very contradictory ways–over the centuries. That can be a really fun and exciting part of the course.
A fourth goal of the course is to familiarize you with the culture of ancient Israel as represented in the Bible against the backdrop of its Ancient Near Eastern setting, its historical and cultural setting, because the archaeological discoveries that were referred to [above] in the Ancient Near East, reveal to us the spiritual and cultural heritage of all of the inhabitants of the region, including the Israelites. And one of the major consequences of these finds is the light that they have shed on the background and the origin of the materials in the Bible. So we now see that the traditions in the Bible did not come out of a vacuum. The early chapters of Genesis, Genesis 1 through 11–they’re known as the “Primeval History,” which is a very unfortunate name, because these chapters really are not best read or understood as history in the conventional sense–but these 11 chapters owe a great deal to Ancient Near Eastern mythology. The creation story in Genesis 1 draws upon the Babylonian epic known as Enuma Elish. We’ll be talking about that text in some depth. The story of the first human pair in the Garden of Eden, which is in Genesis 2 and 3 has clear affinities with the Epic of Gilgamesh, that’s a Babylonian and Assyrian epic in which a hero embarks on this exhausting search for immortality. The story of Noah and the flood, which occurs in Genesis 6 through 9 is simply an Israelite version of an older flood story that we have found copies of: a Mesopotamian story called the Epic of Atrahasis [and] a flood story that we also have incorporated in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Biblical traditions have roots that stretch deep into earlier times and out into surrounding lands and traditions, and the parallels between the biblical stories and Ancient Near Eastern stories that they parallel has been the subject of intense study.
However, it isn’t just the similarity between the biblical materials and the Ancient Near Eastern sources that is important to us. In fact, in some ways it’s the dissimilarity that is remarkably important to us, the biblical transformation of a common Near Eastern heritage in light of its radically new conceptions of God and the world and humankind. We’ll be dealing with this in some depth, but I’ll give you one quick example. We have a Sumerian story about the third millennium BCE, going back 3000–third millennium, 3000 BCE. It’s the story of Ziusudra, and it’s very similar to the Genesis flood story of Noah. In both of these stories, the Sumerian and the Israelite story, you have a flood that is the result of a deliberate divine decision; one individual is chosen to be rescued; that individual is given very specific instructions on building a boat; he is given instructions about who to bring on board; the flood comes and exterminates all living things; the boat comes to rest on a mountaintop; the hero sends out birds to reconnoiter the land; when he comes out of the ark he offers a sacrifice to the god–the same narrative elements are in these two stories. It’s just wonderful when you read them side by side. So what is of great significance though is not simply that the biblical writer is retelling a story that clearly went around everywhere in ancient Mesopotamia; they were transforming the story so that it became a vehicle for the expression of their own values and their own views. In the Mesopotamian stories, for example, the gods act capriciously, the gods act on a whim. In fact, in one of the stories, the gods say, “Oh, people, they’re so noisy, I can’t sleep, let’s wipe them all out.” That’s the rationale. There’s no moral scruple. They destroy these helpless but stoic humans who are chafing under their tyrannical and unjust and uncaring rule. In the biblical story, when the Israelites told the story, they modified it. It’s God’s uncompromising ethical standards that lead him to bring the flood in an act of divine justice. He’s punishing the evil corruption of human beings that he has so lovingly created and whose degradation he can’t bear to witness. So it’s saying something different. It’s providing a very different message.
So when we compare the Bible with the literature of the Ancient Near East, we’ll see not only the incredible cultural and literary heritage that was obviously common to them, but we’ll see the ideological gulf that separated them and we’ll see how biblical writers so beautifully and cleverly manipulated and used these stories, as I said, as a vehicle for the expression of a radically new idea. They drew upon these sources but they blended and shaped them in a particular way. And that brings us to a critical problem facing anyone who seeks to reconstruct ancient Israelite religion or culture on the basis of the biblical materials. That problem is the conflicting perspective between the final editors of the text and some of the older sources that are incorporated into the Bible, some of the older sources that they were obviously drawing on. Those who were responsible for the final editing, the final forms of the texts, had a decidedly monotheistic perspective, ethical monotheistic perspective, and they attempted to impose that perspective on their older source materials; and for the most part they were successful. But at times the result of their effort is a deeply conflicted, deeply ambiguous text. And again, that’s going to be one of the most fun things for you as readers of this text, if you’re alert to it, if you’re ready to listen to the cacophony of voices that are within the text.
In many respects, the Bible represents or expresses a basic discontent with the larger cultural milieu in which it was produced, and that’s interesting for us, because a lot of modern people have a tendency to think of the Bible as an emblem of conservatism. Right? We tend to think of this as an old fuddy-duddy document, it’s outdated, has outdated ideas, and I think the challenge of this course is that you read the Bible with fresh eyes so that you can appreciate it for what it was, [and] in many ways what it continues to be: a revolutionary, cultural critique. We can read the Bible with fresh and appreciative eyes only if we first acknowledge and set aside some of our presuppositions about the Bible. It’s really impossible, in fact, that you not have some opinions about this work, because it’s an intimate part of our culture. So even if you’ve never opened it or read it yourself, I bet you can cite me a line or two–“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” and I bet you don’t really know what it means. “The poor will always be with you”: I’m sure you don’t really know what that means. These are things and phrases that we hear and they create within us a certain impression of the biblical text and how it functions. Verses are quoted, they’re alluded to, whether to be championed and valorized or whether to be lampooned and pilloried. But we can feel that we have a rough idea of the Bible and a rough idea of its outlook when in fact what we really have are popular misconceptions that come from the way in which the Bible has been used or misused. Most of our cherished presuppositions about the Bible are based on astonishing claims that others have made on behalf of the Bible, claims that the Bible has not made on behalf of itself.
So before we proceed, I need to ask you to set aside for the purposes of this course, some of the more common myths about the Bible. I have a little list here for you. The first is the idea that the Bible’s a book. It’s not a book. We’ll get rid of that one. The Bible is not a book with all that that implies, that it has a uniform style and a message and a single author, the sorts of things we think of when we think in a conventional sense of the word “book.” It’s a library. It’s an anthology of writings or books written and edited over an extensive period of time by people in very different situations responding to very different issues and stimuli, some political, some historical, some philosophical, some religious, some moral. There are many types or genres of material in the Bible. There’s narrative, wonderful narrative stories. There’s all kinds of law. There are cultic and ritual texts that prescribe how some ceremony is supposed to be performed. There are records of the messages of prophets. There’s lyric poetry, there’s love poetry, there are proverbs, there are psalms of thanksgiving and lament. So, there’s a tremendous variety of material in this library, and it follows from the fact that it’s not a book but an anthology of diverse works, that it’s not an ideological monolith. And this is something a lot of students struggle with. Each book, or strand of tradition within a book, within the biblical collection sounds its own distinctive note in the symphony of reflection that is the Bible. Genesis is concerned to account for the origin of things and wrestles with the existence of evil, the existence of idolatry and suffering in a world that’s created by a good god. The priestly texts in Leviticus and Numbers emphasize the sanctity of all life and the ideal of holiness and ethical and ritual purity. There are odes to human reason and learning and endeavor in the wisdom book of Proverbs. Ecclesiastes reads like an existentialist writing from the twentieth century. It scoffs at the vanity of all things, including wisdom, and espouses a kind of positive existentialism. The Psalms are very individual writings that focus on individual piety and love and worship of God. Job, possibly the greatest book of the Bible, I won’t give away my preferences there, challenges conventional religious piety and arrives at the bittersweet conclusion that there is no justice in this world or any other, but that nonetheless we’re not excused from the thankless and perhaps ultimately meaningless task of righteous living. One of the most wonderful and fortuitous facts of history is that later Jewish communities chose to put all this stuff in this collection we call the Bible. They chose to include all of these dissonant voices together. They didn’t strive to reconcile the conflicts, nor should we. They didn’t, we shouldn’t. Each book, each writer, each voice reflects another thread in the rich tapestry of human experience, human response to life and its puzzles, human reflection on the sublime and the depraved.
And that leads me to my second point, which is that biblical narratives are not pious parables about saints. Okay? Not pious tales. They’re psychologically real literature about very real or realistic people and life situations. They’re not stories about pious people whose actions are always exemplary and whose lives should be models for our own, despite what Sunday School curricula will often turn them into. And despite what they would have us believe. There is a genre of literature that details the lives of saints, Hagiography, but that came later and is largely something we find in the Christian era. It’s not found in the Bible. The Bible abounds with human not superhuman beings, and their behavior can be scandalous. It can be violent, it can be rebellious, outrageous, lewd, vicious. But at the same time like real people, they can turn around and act in a way that is loyal and true above and beyond the call of duty. They can change, they can grow. But it’s interesting to me that there are many people who, when they open the Bible for the first time, they close it in shock and disgust. Jacob is a deceiver; Joseph is an arrogant, spoiled brat; Judah reneges on his obligations to his daughter-in-law and goes off and sleeps with a prostitute. Who are these people? Why are they in the Bible? And the shock comes from the expectation that the heroes of the Bible are somehow being held up as perfect people. That’s just not a claim that’s made by the Bible itself. So biblical characters are real people with real, compelling moral conflicts and ambitions and desires, and they can act shortsightedly and selfishly. But they can also, like real people, learn and grow and change; and if we work too hard and too quickly to vindicate biblical characters just because they’re in the Bible, then we miss all the good stuff. We miss all of the moral sophistication, the deep psychological insights that have made these stories of such timeless interest. So read it like you would read any good book with a really good author who knows how to make some really interesting characters.
Thirdly, the Bible’s not for children. I have a 12-year-old and an 8-year-old. I won’t let them read it. I won’t let them read it. Those “Bible Stories for Children” books, they scare me. They really scare me. It’s not suitable for children. The subject matter in the Bible is very adult, particularly in the narrative texts. There are episodes of treachery and incest and murder and rape. And the Bible is not for naïve optimists. It’s hard-hitting stuff. And it speaks to those who are courageous enough to acknowledge that life is rife with pain and conflict, just as it’s filled with compassion and joy. It’s not for children in another sense. Like any literary masterpiece, the Bible is characterized by a sophistication of structure and style and an artistry of theme and metaphor, and believe me, that’s lost on adult readers quite often. It makes its readers work. The Bible doesn’t moralize, or rarely, rarely moralizes. It explores moral issues and situations, puts people in moral issues and situations. The conclusions have to be drawn by the reader. There are also all kinds of paradoxes and subtle puns and ironies, and in section where you’ll be doing a lot of your close reading work, those are some of the things that will be drawn to your attention. You’ll really begin to appreciate them in time.
The fourth myth we want to get rid of: the Bible is not a book of theology, it’s not a catechism or a book of systematic theology. It’s not a manual of religion, despite the fact that at a much later time, very complex systems of theology are going to be spun from particular interpretations of biblical passages. You know, there’s nothing in the Bible that really corresponds to prevailing modern western notions of religion, what we call religion, and indeed there’s no word for religion in the language of biblical Hebrew. There just isn’t a word “religion.” With the rise of Christianity, western religion came to be defined to a large degree by the confession of, or the intellectual assent to, certain doctrinal points of belief. Religion became defined primarily as a set of beliefs, a catechism of beliefs or truths that required your assent, what I think of as the catechism kind of notion of religion. That’s entirely alien to the world of the Bible. It’s clear that in biblical times and in the Ancient Near East generally, religion wasn’t a set of doctrines that you ascribed to. To become an Israelite, later on a Jew–the word “Jew” isn’t something we can really historically use until about this time [ca. 500 BCE], so most of our period we’re going to be talking about the ancient Israelites–to become an Israelite, you simply joined the Israelite community, you lived an Israelite life, you died an Israelite death. You obeyed Israelite law and custom, you revered Israelite lore, you entered into the historical community of Israel by accepting that their fate and yours should be the same. It was sort of a process of naturalization, what we think of today as naturalization. So the Hebrew Bible just isn’t a theological textbook. It contains a lot of narratives and its narrative materials are an account of the odyssey of a people, the nation of Israel. They’re not an account of the divine, which is what theology means, an account of the divine. However, having said this, I should add that although the Bible doesn’t contain formal statements of religious belief or systematic theology, it treats issues, many moral issues and some existential issues that are central to the later discipline of theology, but it treats them very differently. Its treatment of these issues is indirect, it’s implicit. It uses the language of story and song and poetry and paradox and metaphor. It uses a language and a style that’s very far from the language and style of later philosophy and abstract theology.
Finally, on our myth count, I would point out–well I don’t really need to cross this out, this is something to discuss–I would point out that the Bible was formulated and assembled and edited and modified and censored and transmitted first orally and then in writing by human beings. The Bible itself doesn’t claim to have been written by God. That belief is a religious doctrine of a much later age. And even then one wonders how literally it was meant–it’s interesting to go back and look at some of the earliest claims about the origin of the biblical text. Similarly, the so-called five books of Moses–Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, the first five books we call the Pentateuch of Moses–nowhere claim to have been written in their entirety by Moses. That’s not something they say themselves. Some laws in Exodus, you know, the Book of the Covenant, a few things–yes, it says Moses wrote those down, but not the whole five books that tradition later will ascribe to him. The Bible clearly had many contributors over many centuries, and the individual styles and concerns of those writers, their political and religious motivations, betray themselves frequently.
I leave aside here the question of divine inspiration, which is an article of faith in many biblical religions. It’s no doubt an article of faith for people in this very room. But there is no basic incompatibility between believing on faith in the divine inspiration of the Bible and acknowledging the role that human beings have played in the actual formulation and editing and transmission and preservation of that same Bible. And since this is a university course and not perhaps a theological course or within a theological setting, it’s really only the latter, the demonstrably human component, that will concern us.
It’s very easy for me to assert that our interest in the Hebrew Bible will be centered on the culture and the history and the literature and the religious thought of ancient Israel in all of its diversity rather than questions of faith and theology. But the fact remains that the document is the basis for the religious faith of many millions of people, and some of them are here now. It is inevitable that you will bring what you learn in this course into dialogue with your own personal religious beliefs, and for some of you, I hope all of you, that will be enriching and exciting. For some of you it may be difficult. I know that, and I want you to rest assured that no one in this course wishes to undermine or malign religious faith any more than they wish to promote or proselytize for religious faith. Religious faith simply isn’t the topic of this course. The rich history and literature and religious thought of ancient Israel as preserved for us over millennia in the pages of this remarkable volume, that is our topic, and so our approach is going to be necessarily academic; and especially given the diversity of people in this room, that’s really all that it can be, so that we have a common ground and common goals for our discussions. But it has been my experience that from time to time students will raise a question or ask a question that is prompted by a commitment, a prior commitment to an article of faith. Sometimes they’re not even aware that that’s what they’re doing, and I want you to understand that on those occasions I’ll most likely respond by inviting you to consider the article of faith that lies behind that question and is creating that particular problem for you. I’m not going to be drawn into a philosophical or theological debate over the merits of that belief, but I’ll simply point out how or why that belief might be making it difficult for you to read or accept what the text is actually and not ideally saying, and leave you to think about that. And I see those as wonderful learning opportunities for the class. Those are in no way a problem for me.
All right, so let’s give a few sort of necessary facts and figures now about the Bible and then I need to talk a little bit about the organization of the course. So those are the last two things we really need to do. An overview of the structure of the Bible. So you have a couple of handouts that should help you here. So, the Bible is this assemblage of books and writings dating from approximately 1000 BCE–we’re going to hear very diverse opinions about how far back this stuff dates–down to the second century: the last book within the Hebrew Bible was written in the 160s BCE. Some of these books which we think are roughly from a certain date, they will contain narrative snippets or legal materials or oral traditions that may even date back or stretch back further in time, and they were perhaps transmitted orally and then ended up in these written forms. The Bible is written largely in Hebrew, hence the name Hebrew Bible. There are a few passages in Aramaic. So you have a handout that breaks down the three major components. It’s the one that’s written two columns per page. Okay? We’re going to talk in a minute about those three sections, so you want to have that handy.
These writings have had a profound and lasting impact on three world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For the Jewish communities who first compiled these writings in the pre-Christian era, the Bible was perhaps first and foremost a record of God’s eternal covenant with the Jewish people. So Jews refer to the Bible as the Tanakh. It’s the term you see up here. It should be also on that sheet, Tanakh, which is really the letter [sounds] “t”, “n” and “kh”, and they’ve put little “a’s” in there to make it easy to pronounce, because kh is hard to pronounce, so Tanach. Okay? And this is an acronym. The T stands for Torah, which is a word that means instruction or teaching. It’s often translated “law”; I think that’s a very poor translation. It means instruction, way, teaching, and that refers to the first five books that you see listed here, Genesis through Deuteronomy. The second division of the Bible is referred to as Nevi’im, which is the Hebrew word for “prophets.” The section of the Prophets is divided really into two parts, because there are two types of writing in the prophetic section of the Bible. The first or former Prophets continues the kind of narrative prose account of the history of Israel, focusing on the activities of Israel’s prophets. All right? So, the Former Prophets are narrative texts. The Latter Prophets are poetic and oracular writings that bear the name of the prophet to whom the writings are ascribed. You have the three major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and then the twelve minor prophets, which in the Hebrew Bible get counted together as one book, because those twelve are very small. The final section of the Bible is referred to as Ketuvim in Hebrew, which simply means “Writings,” and that’s probably about 50% of the Hebrew you’re going to get in the whole course, so please don’t be scared. You know, I’ve got two or three other terms that’ll be useful along the way, but there’s really no need to know Hebrew. I just want you to understand why Tanakh is the word that’s used to refer to the Bible. So the Ketuvim, or the Writings, are really a miscellany. They contain works of various types, and the three parts correspond very roughly to the process of canonization or authoritativeness for the community. The Torah probably reached a fixed and authoritative status first, then the books of the Prophets and finally the Writings. And probably by the end of the first century, all of this was organized in some way.
If you look at the other handout, you’ll see, however, that any course on the Bible is going to run immediately into the problem of defining the object of study, because different Bibles served different communities over the centuries. One of the earliest translations of the Hebrew Bible was a translation into Greek known as the Septuagint. It was written for the benefit–it was translated for the benefit of Jews who lived in Alexandria–Greek-speaking Jews who lived in Alexandria, Egypt in the Hellenistic period somewhere around the third or second century BCE. The translation has some divergences with the traditional Hebrew text of the Bible as we now have it, including the order of the books, and some of these things are charted for you on the chart that I’ve handed out. The Septuagint’s rationale for ordering the books is temporal. They’ve clustered books Genesis through Esther, which tell of things past; the books of Job through the Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon contain wisdom that applies to the present; and then the prophetic books, Isaiah to Malachi, contain or tell of things future. Some copies of the Septuagint contain some books not included in the Hebrew canon but accepted in the early Christian canon. The Septuagint, the Greek translation, became by and large the Bible of Christianity, or more precisely it became the “Old Testament” of the Hebrew Bible [correction: Professor Hayes meant to say Christian Bible instead of Hebrew Bible here]. The church adopted the Hebrew Bible as a precursor to its largely Hellenistic gospels. It was an important association for it, with an old and respected tradition. Our primary concern is the Bible of the ancient Israelite and Jewish community–the 24 books grouped in the Torah, Prophets and Writings on that other sheet–which is common to all Bibles. Whether Jewish or Christian, those 24 are the baseline common books. So those are the 24 that we’re going to focus on.
Because the term “Old Testament” is a theologically loaded term, it sort of suggests the doctrine that the New Testament has somehow fulfilled or surpassed or antiquated the Bible of ancient Israel, you’re going to hear me refer to the object of our study as the Hebrew Bible. You may certainly use any other term, and you may certainly use the term Old Testament, as long as it’s clear we’re talking about this set of 24 books and not some of the other things that are in the Old Testament that aren’t in the traditional Hebrew Bible. It means you’re studying less, so that might be a good thing. So, it’s fine with me if you want to use that but I will prefer the more accurate term “Hebrew Bible.” Also while we’re on terminology, you’ll notice that I use BCE to refer to the period before 0 and CE to refer to the period after 0; the Common Era and Before the Common Era, and in a lot of your secondary readings and writings they’ll be using the same thing. It corresponds to what you know as BC, Before Christ, and Anno Domini, AD, the year of our Lord. It’s just a non-Christian-centric way of dating and in a lot of your secondary readings you’ll see it, so you should get used to it: BCE and CE, Before the Common Era and the Common Era.
From earliest times, Christians made use of the Bible but almost always in its Greek translation, and the Christian Old Testament contains some material not in the Hebrew Bible, as I’ve mentioned. And some of these works are referred to as the Apocrypha–so [some of] you will have heard that term. These are writings that were composed somewhere around here, sort of 200 BCE to 100 CE. They were widely used by Jews of the period. They simply weren’t considered to be of the same status as the 24 books. [beeping noise] I’m glad they pick up the garbage at 11:10 [laughs] on Wednesday mornings. But they did become part of the canon of Catholic Christianity and in the sixteenth century, their canonical status was confirmed for the Catholic Church. With the Renaissance and the Reformation, some Christians became interested in Hebrew versions of the Bible. They wanted to look at the Hebrew and not the Greek translation from the Hebrew. Protestants, the Protestant church, denied canonical status to the books of the Apocrypha. They said they were important for pious instruction but excluded them from their canon. There are also some works you may know of, referred to as the Pseudepigrapha–we’ll talk about some of these things in a little more detail later–from roughly the same period; [they] tend to be a little more apocalyptic in nature, and they were never part of the Jewish or the Catholic canon, but there are some eastern Christian groups that have accepted them in their canon. The point I’m trying to make is that there are very many sacred canons out there that are cherished by very many religious communities, and they’re all designated “Bibles.” So again, we’re focusing on that core set of 24 books that are common to all Bibles everywhere, the 24 books of what would in fact be the Jewish Tanakh.
Not only has there been variety regarding the scope of the biblical canon in different communities, but there’s been some fluidity in the actual text itself. We don’t, of course, have any original copies of these materials as they came off the pen of whoever it was who was writing them, and in fact before the middle of the twentieth century, our oldest manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts of the Bible dated to the year 900. That’s an awful long distance from the events they’re talking about. And we’ve got to think about that, right? You’ve got to think about that and what it means and how were they transmitted and preserved without the means of technology, obviously, that we have today; and what was so exciting in the middle of the twentieth century was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I’m sure that you’ve heard of them. They brought about a dramatic change in the state of our knowledge of our Hebrew manuscript evidence. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves in the Judean desert. We used to think they were a library of a sectarian community; now I think they think it was a pottery factory or something. So maybe they were just shoved there by people fleeing the Roman conquest in 70 [see note 1].
So that’s up for grabs. But we have this really great collection of scrolls, and among them we have found an almost complete copy of every book of the Bible. Sorry–almost complete copy of the Book of Isaiah and then partial copies or fragments of all of the biblical books, except maybe Esther. Am I wrong about that? I don’t think there’s an Esther from Qumran, I think that’s the only one. [This is correct. No book of Esther has been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.] And some of them date back to the fourth and third century [BCE]. So do you understand now why everybody was so excited? Suddenly, we have evidence, thirteen or fourteen hundred years earlier, that people were reading this stuff and, by and large, it’s a pretty constant textual tradition. Sure there are differences, sure there are differences. We see that our manuscripts are not exactly like those fragments, but there is a remarkable degree, a high degree of correspondence so that we really can speak of a relatively stable textual tradition but still some fluidity. And that’s going to be interesting for us to think about.
— § § § —
02. — The Hebrew Bible: Biblical Religion in Context
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 02 of 24 | duration. 46:11]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
Professor Christine Hayes: I mentioned in the opening lecture that this course is going to examine the biblical corpus from a variety of different viewpoints and take a variety of approaches, historical, literary, religious, cultural. And today we are going to begin our appraisal of the first portion of the Bible as the product of a religious and cultural revolution. The Bible is the product of minds that were exposed to and influenced by and reacting to the ideas and cultures of their day. And as I suggested in the opening lecture, comparative study of the literature of the Ancient Near East and the Bible reveals the shared cultural and literary heritage at the same time that it reveals great differences between the two. In the literature of the Bible some members of Israelite society–probably a cultural religious and literary elite–broke radically with the prevailing norms of the day. They mounted a critique of prevailing norms. The persons responsible for the final editing and shaping of the Bible, somewhere from the seventh to the fifth or fourth century BCE–we’re not totally sure and we’ll talk more about that–those final editors were members of this group. And they had a specific worldview and they imposed that worldview on the older traditions and stories that are found in the Bible. That radical new worldview in the Bible was monotheism. But why, you might ask, should the idea of one God instead of many be so radical? What is so different? What’s different about having one God, from having a pantheon of gods headed by a superior god? What is so new and revolutionary about monotheism?
Well according to one school of thought there isn’t anything particularly revolutionary about monotheism; and the classical account of the rise of monotheism, that has prevailed for a very long time, runs as follows, and I have a little flow chart here to illustrate it for you. The argument goes that in every society there’s a natural progression: a natural progression from polytheism, which is the belief in many gods–usually these are personifications of natural forces–to henotheism–“heno,” equals one, god–or monolatry, which is really the worship of one god as supreme over other gods, so not denying the existence of the other gods, ascribing reality to them, but isolating one as a supreme god, and onto monotheism, where essentially one believes only in the reality of one god. And in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this progression was viewed as an advance, which is not very surprising because the whole theory was put forward by scholars who were basically western monotheists. And these scholars maintained that certain elements of biblical religion represented pure religion, religion evolved to its highest form, no longer tainted by pagan and polytheistic elements of Canaanite religion generally. So applying an evolutionary model to religion carried with it a very clear value judgment. Polytheism was understood as clearly inferior and primitive. Monolatry was an improvement. It was getting better. It was getting closer. But monotheism was judged to be the best and purest form of religion. And at first the great archeological discoveries that I talked about last time in the nineteenth century seemed to support this claim–that Israelite monotheism had evolved from Ancient Near Eastern polytheism. Cuneiform tablets that were inscribed with the great literature of Mesopotamian civilizations were uncovered and when they were deciphered they shed astonishing light on biblical religion. And these discoveries led to a kind of “parallelomania”–that’s how it’s referred to in the literature. Scholars delighted in pointing out all of the parallels in theme and language and plot and structure between biblical stories and Ancient Near Eastern stories. So more than a thousand years before the Israelite legend of Noah and the ark you have Mesopotamians telling the stories Ziusudra, or in some versions Utnapishtim who also survived a great flood by building an ark on the instruction of a deity, and the flood destroys all life, and he sends out birds to scout out the dry land, and so on. So with parallels like these, it was argued, it was clear that the religion of the Israelites was not so different from the religions of their polytheistic or pagan neighbors. They also had a creation story. They had a flood story. They did animal sacrifices. They observed purity taboos. Israelite religion was another Ancient Near Eastern religion and they differed from their neighbors only over the number of gods they worshiped: one or many. It was just a more refined, more highly evolved, version of Ancient Near Eastern religion.
Well, this view, this evolutionary view, or evolutionary model, was challenged by man a named Yehezkel Kaufmann in the 1930’s. And Kaufman argued that monotheism does not and cannot evolve from polytheism because the two are based on radically divergent worldviews, radically divergent intuitions about reality. And in a multivolume work which was later translated and abridged, and you’ve got a selection of reading from the translated abridgment, so it’s translated by Moshe Greenburg, an abridged version of his massive work The Religion of Israel Kaufman asserted that the monotheism of Israel wasn’t, it couldn’t be, the natural outgrowth of the polytheism of an earlier age. It was a radical break with it. It was a total cultural and religious discontinuity. It was a polemic against polytheism and the pagan worldview. That’s implicit, he says, throughout the biblical text. It’s been said that Kaufman replaces the evolutionary model with a revolutionary model. This was a revolution not an evolution. Now one advantage of Kaufman’s model is that we can avoid some of the pejorative evaluations of polytheism as primitive, as necessarily earlier and primitive and inferior. We’re simply positing the existence of two distinct orientations, two divergent worldviews. They each have their explanatory merits and they each have their specific problems and difficulties. It’s not to say that Kaufman wasn’t clearly judgmental but at least the potential is there for us to understand these as two distinct systems, each again, as I say, with its explanatory merits. But as we’ll see some of the things that monotheism solves only invite other sorts of problems that it has to wrestle with throughout its long life.
Now in Kaufman’s view the similarities, therefore, between the Israelites and Ancient Near Eastern religion and cultures that everyone was so busily finding and celebrating, these were in the end similarities in form and external structure, appearance. They weren’t essential similarities. They differed in content. Sure they both have animal sacrifice. Sure they both have ritual purity laws. Sure they share certain stories and legends. But these have been adopted by the Israelites and transformed, transformed into vehicles that convey the basic ideas of the monotheistic worldview. So a similarity in form doesn’t mean a similarity in function; and in this, Kaufman is anticipating arguments made by anthropologists. The ritual cult of the Israelites may look like that of their neighbors but it functioned very differently; its purpose was drastically different from that of Israel’s neighbors. The Israelites like their neighbors may have set up a king over themselves. But Israelite monarchy differed from Canaanite monarchy in significant ways because of their monotheism. These are all things we will test and explore. So the meaning and function of Israel’s cult, of Israel’s king, of its creation stories or any of its other narratives–they derive from the place of those items within the larger cultural framework or worldview of Israel and that larger framework or worldview is one of basic monotheism.
So let’s turn then to Kaufman’s description of the fundamental distinction between the polytheistic worldview and the revolutionary monotheistic worldview that took root in Israel. And I am going to be rehearsing and then critiquing the arguments that are in that hundred-page reading that I assigned for you this week. This is the only time something like this will happen in the course. And I do that because these ideas are so fundamental and we are going to be wrestling with them throughout the course, so it’s important to me that you absorb this stuff right from the beginning and think about it and be critical of it and engage it. Kaufman’s ideas are very important. They’re also overstated in some ways and that’s why we’re going to be wrestling with some of these ideas throughout the course.
So, let’s begin with Kaufman’s characterization of what he calls pagan religion–that’s the term that he uses. The fundamental idea of pagan religion, he says, and I quote, is “the idea that there exists a realm of being prior to the gods and above them, upon which they [the gods] depend, and whose decrees,” even “they must obey” [Kaufman 1972, 22]–the metadivine realm. This is the realm of supreme and ultimate power and it transcends the deities. The deity or the deities emerge from and are therefore subject to the laws of the metadivine realm, the forces and powers of the metadivine realm. And the nature of this realm will vary from pagan tradition to pagan tradition. It might be water. It might be darkness. It might be spirit. Or in ancient Greek religion, a more sort of philosophical polytheism, it might be fate. Even the gods are subject to the decrees of fate; they have no control over that. Kaufman asserts, therefore, this belief. Once you posit a primordial realm, some realm that is beside or beyond the gods, that’s independent of them and primary, you have automatically limited the gods. So what I’ve done is I’ve spelled out here for you, consequences, logical consequences of positing a metadivine realm. Once you have a metadivine realm all of these things are going to follow.
The gods are going to be limited. They are not the source of all. They are bound by, they’re subservient to, this metadivine realm. There can therefore, be no notion of a supreme divine will, an absolute or sovereign divine will. The will of any one god ultimately can be countered by the decrees of the primordial realm and the will of all the gods can be thwarted by the decrees of the primordial realm. The will of any one god can be thwarted by perhaps another god. So the gods are limited in power. They’re also limited in their wisdom: that falls under this as well. They’re not going to be all-knowing or all-wise because of the existence of this realm that’s beyond them and which is in many ways mysterious to them as well. It’s unpredictable to them too. It’s not in their control or in their power. Individual gods might be very wise; they might be wise in particular crafts. There might be a god of healing, very very wise in healing, or a god of some other craft or area of knowledge. But they possess wisdom as an attribute, not as an essential characteristic.
Kaufman asserts that mythology is basic to pagan religions. Mythologies are the lives or tales of the lives of gods, tales of the lives of the gods. In pagan religions the gods are born, and they live lives very similar to human lives but on a grand scale and then they die. They might be reborn too. Pagan religions contain theogonies, birth of a god, “theogony”, accounts of the births of gods. Now this impersonal primordial realm, Kaufman declares, contains the seeds of all beings. Very often in these creations stories there is some sense of some realm from which life begins to emerge usually beginning with gods. So these cosmogonies and theogonies will describe the generation of sexually differentiated divine beings; also the generation of the natural world; also the generation of human beings and animals: in other words, this is the primordial womb for all that is–divine, human and natural. It is the source of everything mundane and divine.
What that means, Kaufman asserts, is that in pagan religion there’s very often a fluid boundary between the divine, the human, and the natural worlds. They blur into one another because they all emerge ultimately from the same primordial world stuff. These distinctions between them are soft. We see this in the fact that the gods are very often associated with natural powerful forces, right? The sky is a god; the fire is a god; fertility–a natural process–is a god. So there’s no real distinction between the worship of gods and the worship of nature. Second, he says, because humans also emerge ultimately from this primordial realm there’s a confusion of the boundary between the divine and the human that’s common, he says–he chooses the word “confusion”–that’s common in pagan religion. And so we often have in pagan religions unions between divine beings and human beings. Kaufman argues, and I quote, that “the continuity [of] the divine and human realm is [at] the basis of the pagan belief in apotheosis” [Kaufman 1972, 36]–humans becoming gods; perhaps after death for example becoming immortal, or very often kings when they ascend to the throne become gods.
Whatever power the gods have, Kaufman says, is not due to the fact that their will is absolute or their spirit is absolute. The realm that transcends the gods, this metadivine realm, is that which has ultimate power and the stuff of which it is made is what has ultimate power. So power is materially conceived. It inheres in certain things, in certain substances, particularly substances or materials that are deeply connected to whatever this primordial world stuff is. So if it’s blood, then blood that courses through the veins of living creatures is seen to have some deep and powerful connection with the metadivine realm and that is where power resides. If it is water, then water will be viewed as particularly materially powerful in that particular system.
So gods have power only insofar as they are connected with that primordial world “stuff,” a technical term that I use throughout this lecture! That means that magic is possible in such a system. Because power is materially conceived–in other words, since it is believed to inhere in certain natural substances that resemble or are connected to the primordial world stuff that’s the source of all power–then magic is possible by manipulating those material substances in certain ways. It might be clay. It might be water. It might be blood. Then whatever is believed to hold the power of this primordial life force, humans can tap into, and influence the activities of the metadivine realm. So through manipulation, magical manipulation of certain substances, they can harness, Kaufman says, they can harness these forces, these independent self-operating forces. And so the human magician is really a technician and he can make these forces come to bear on even the gods, to coerce the gods to do his will and so on. So magic in a pagan system, Kaufman claims, is a way of getting around the gods, circumventing the capricious will of the gods and demons. His magic is directed at the metadivine realm, trying to tap into its powers. It’s not directed at the gods. It’s trying to tap into the ultimate source of power to use that power to influence the gods in a particular way or protect oneself against the gods. Similarly, divination. Divination is an attempt to discern the future that, once again, heads right to the source of power. It’s not directed at the gods, unless you’re hoping to use them as a medium through which to get access to the metadivine realm, but ultimately most divination is aimed at tapping the secrets of the metadivine realm and not the gods. Discerning the will of the gods is really of little use, because even their will can be thwarted or overthrown by other gods or by the decrees of the metadivine realm.
The pagan cult, Kaufman claims, is a system of rites. Now I use the word “cult” and every year people look at me and say “what is cult? I don’t even understand what that means.” We’ll learn more about “cult,” but it refers to a system of rites, okay? A system of rites, and we’ll be looking at the Israelite cult later. So the pagan cult, he says, is a system of rites that involves a manipulation of substances–again, blood, animal flesh, human flesh, precious metals and so on–that are believed to have some kind of inherent power, again, because of their connection to whatever the primordial world stuff may be in that tradition. So according to Kaufman there’s always an element of magic in the pagan cult. It’s seeking through these rituals and manipulations of certain substances to, again, let loose certain powers, set into motion certain forces, that will coerce a god to be propitiated, for example, or calmed or to act favorably or to vindicate the devotees, and so on. Some of those cultic acts might be defensive or protective so that the god cannot harm the worshiper. Many of the cultic festivals are keyed in to mythology, the stories of the lives of the gods. Many of the cultic festivals will be reenactments of events in the life of the god: a battle that the god had…the death of the god. Usually in the winter, cultic rituals will reenact the death of the god and then, in spring, the rising or resurrection of the god. These are all reenactment festivals that occur very often. And it’s believed that by reenacting these festivals in this cultic way, one brings magical powers into play and can in fact ensure and maintain the reemergence of life in the spring. So it’s essential for the maintenance, preservation of the world.
One final and very important point, and we’re going to wrestle with this quite a bit during the year: Kaufman claims, again, in the polytheistic worldview, the primordial realm contains the seeds of all being: everything is generated from that realm, good and bad. So just as there are good gods who might protect human beings there are also evil gods who seek to destroy both humans and other gods. Death and disease are consigned to the realm of these evil demons or these impure evil spirits, but they are siblings with the good gods. Human beings are basically powerless, he says, in the continual cosmic struggle between the good gods and the evil demons, unless they can utilize magic, divination, tap into the powers of the metadivine realm, circumvent the gods who might be making their lives rather miserable. But what’s important is that Kaufman insists that in the pagan view evil is an antonomous demonic realm. It is as primary and real as the realm of the holy or good gods. Evil is a metaphysical reality. It is built into the structure of the universe. That’s the way the universe was made. The primordial stuff that spawned all that is, spawned it good and bad and exactly as it is, and it’s there and it’s real.
Salvation, he says, is the concern of humans. The gods aren’t interested in human salvation from the capricious forces and powers in the world because they’re trying to save themselves. You know, the good gods are being attacked by the evil gods; the powers and decrees of the metadivine realm are hassling them as well as anybody else. So they can’t be worried about humans; they’re worried about themselves. Salvation is attained through magic or gnostic means–gnosticism refers to knowledge of secrets that can in some way liberate one from the regular rules–and so as long as one can somehow circumvent the gods, tie oneself into the powers of the metadivine realm to be beyond the reach of the demons and the capricious gods who make life on earth a misery, that is the path for salvation.
So, Kaufman says that the pagan worldview is one of an amoral universe [looking at the blackboard] somewhere around here…there we go. Amoral universe. Not a moral universe; not an immoral universe; but an amoral universe. It is morally neutral. There are gods who are legislators and guardians of social order and justice. But their laws aren’t absolute: they can be leveled by the decrees of this supreme metadivine realm. And since the knowledge and wisdom of each god is limited, morality can be defined as what a particular god likes or desires and that may be different from what another god likes or desires. And there’s no absolute morality then. And it’s that picture of the universe, Kaufman wants to argue, that is challenged by the monotheistic revolution. Again he sees this as a revolution of ancient Israel.
So according to Kaufman the fundamental idea of ancient Israelite writing, which receives no systematic formulation but permeates the entire Bible in his view, is a radically new idea of a god who is himself the source of all being–not subject to a metadivine realm. There’s no transcendent cosmic order or power. He does not emerge from some preexisting realm and therefore he is free of all of the limitations of myth and magic–we’ll go through these one by one–but a God whose will is absolute and sovereign. All right? So what then are the implications of the elimination of this metadivine realm? Just as these points flowed logically from positing a metadivine realm, what flows logically from eliminating a metadivine realm and positing simply a god that does not emerge from any preexisting power or order or realm? Well, first of all there’s no theogony or mythology in the Bible. God isn’t born from some primordial womb; he doesn’t have a life story. There’s no realm that is primary to him or prior to him and there is no realm that is the source of his power and wisdom. So in the opening chapters of Genesis, God simply is. He doesn’t grow, he doesn’t age, he doesn’t mature, he doesn’t have in the Bible a female consort. God doesn’t die. So in the Hebrew Bible, Kaufman claims, for the first time in history we meet an unlimited God who is timeless and ageless and nonphysical and eternal.
That means that this God transcends nature. Which means we’re going to get rid of number three [on the blackboard] as well, right? As the sovereign of all realms, God isn’t by nature bound to any particular realm. He’s not identifiable as a force of nature or identified with a force of nature. Nature certainly becomes the stage of God’s expression of his will. He expresses his will and purpose through forces of nature in the Bible. But nature isn’t God himself. He’s not identified [with it]. He’s wholly other. He isn’t kin to humans in any way either. So there is no blurring, no soft boundary between humans and the divine, according to Kaufman, in the Bible. There’s no apotheosis in the Bible. No life after death in the Bible either. Did you know that? Have to wait a few centuries for that idea to come along, but certainly not in the Hebrew Bible: people live 70 years and that’s it. So there’s no process by which humans become gods and certainly no process of the reverse as well. Magic in the Hebrew Bible is represented as useless. It’s pointless. There’s no metadivine realm to tap into. Power doesn’t inhere in any stuff in the natural world. So the world is sort of de-divinized. Demythologized. Power isn’t understood as a material thing or something that inheres in material substances. God can’t be manipulated or coerced by charms or words or rituals. They have no power and cannot be used in that way, and so magic is sin. Magic is sin or rebellion against God because it’s predicated on a whole mistaken notion of God having limited power. There are magical conceptions throughout the Bible–you’re going to run into them. But interestingly enough the editors of the stories in which they appear will very often hammer home the conclusion that actually what happened happened, because God willed it to happen. The event occurred because God wanted it to occur. It didn’t occur independently of his will or by virtue of some power that’s inherent in the magician’s artifices. So Kaufman argues that magic in the Bible is recast as a witness to God’s sovereignty, God’s power. And they’re stripped–magical actions are stripped–of their autonomous potency. Again, they’re serving as vehicles then for the manifestation of the will of God.
Divination is also unassimilable to the monotheistic idea, according to Kaufman, because it also presupposes the existence of some metadivine realm, some source of power, knowledge or information that transcends God. And again, it’s an attempt to reveal God’s secrets in an ungodly way, predicated on a mistake. It is permitted to make inquiries of God through oracular devices but God only conveys information at his own will. There’s no ritual or incantation, Kaufman says, or material substance that can coerce a revelation from God. So, we will see things that look like magic and divination and oracles and dreams and prophecy in the pagan world and in ancient Israel. But Kaufman says the similarity is a similarity in form only. And it’s a superficial, formal, external similarity. Each of these phenomena he says is transformed by the basic Israelite idea of one supreme transcendent God whose will is absolute and all of these things relate to the direct word and will of God. They aren’t recourse to a separate science or lore or body of knowledge or interpretive craft that calls upon forces or powers that transcend God or are independent of God.
By the same token the cult, Kaufman says, has no automatic or material power. It’s not just sort of a place where certain kinds of magical coercive acts happen. The cult isn’t designed to service the material needs of God, either. It doesn’t affect his life and vitality by enacting certain rituals: you don’t ensure that God doesn’t die and so on. No events in God’s life are celebrated–the festivals that are carried out in the cultic context. So the mythological rationales for cult that you find amongst Israel’s neighbors are replaced, and they’re replaced very often by historical rationales. This action is done to commemorate such and such event in the history of the nation. So pagan festivals in Israel, Kaufman says, are historicized, commemorating events in the life of the people and not in the story of the god’s life since we have no mythology. But we are going to be spending a fair amount of time talking actually about the meaning and the function of Israel’s purity laws and cultic laws in a later lecture.
Now since God is himself the transcendent source of all being and since he is good, in a monotheistic system there are no evil agents that constitute a realm that opposes God as an equal rival. No divine evil agents. Again, in the pagan worldview the primordial womb spawns all sorts of beings, all kinds of divinities, good and evil that are in equal strength. They’re sort of locked in this cosmic struggle. But in the Israelite worldview, if God is the source of all being, then they’re can’t be a realm of supernatural beings that do battle with him. There’s no room for a divine antagonist of the one supreme God, which is leading us down here to this point: that sin and evil are demythologized in the Hebrew Bible. And that’s very interesting. It’s going to lead to a lot of interesting things. It’s also going to create a really huge problem for monotheistic thought [that] they’re going to struggle with for centuries and actually still do struggle with today. But again, in the pagan worldview, sin is understood very often as the work of a demon or an evil god that might possess a person, might have to be exorcised from that person by means of magic. If you tap into some of these substances then you can use the magical, the powers in those substances, to coerce the demon to be expelled from the person’s body. These are things that are very common in polytheistic and pagan practices. But in Israel we have no metadivine realm to spawn these evil beings, these various gods. So Israelite religion did not conceive of sin as caused by an independent evil power that exists out there in the universe and is defying the will of God. Instead evil comes about as a result of the clash of the will of God and the will of humans who happen to have the freedom to rebel.
There’s nothing inherently supernatural about sin. It’s not a force or a power built into the universe. Kaufman is claiming therefore that in Israel evil is transferred from the metaphysical realm (built into the physical structure of the universe) to the moral realm. I’ve put it up here for you. Evil is a moral and not a metaphysical reality. It doesn’t have a concrete independent existence. And that means that human beings and only human beings are the potential source of evil in the world. Responsibility for evil lies in the hands of human beings. In the Hebrew Bible, no one will ever say the devil made me do it. There is no devil in the Hebrew Bible. That’s also the invention of a much later age. And that is an important and critical ethical revolution. Evil is a moral and not a metaphysical reality [pointing to a student in the classroom]. You had a .
Student: What about the serpent in the Garden of Eden?
Professor Christine Hayes: Great. That’s what you get to talk about. Wonderful question. Well what about when Eve is tempted by the serpent? Who is the serpent? What is he doing? What’s going on? What is Kaufman claiming? Okay. That’s exactly the kind of stuff that should be popping into your head—-What about…what about?–okay, and in section, you’re going to be discussing exactly that story. Okay? And that’s one of those texts… and in a minute if I haven’t at the end of a lecture, ask again if I haven’t kind of gotten to part of an answer to your question. Okay? But again, this emphasis on evil as a moral choice–think of Genesis 4, where God warns Cain, who’s filled with anger and jealousy and is thinking about doing all kinds of horrible things to his brother, and God says, “Sin couches at the door; / Its urge is toward you, / Yet you can be its master” [Gen 4:7b]. This is a question of moral choice.
Final point then is…and we’re not going to talk about salvation right now…but we’re going to talk about the fact that the only supreme law is the will of God, because God is a creator God rather than a created God. He’s imposed order, an order upon the cosmos. And so the pagan picture of an amoral universe of just competing powers, good and evil, Kaufman says, is transformed into a picture of a moral cosmos. The highest law is the will of God and that imposes a morality upon the structure of the universe. So in sum, Kaufman’s argument is this: Israel conceived of the divine in an entirely new way. Israel’s God differed from the pagan gods in his essential nature. The pagan gods were natural gods. They were very often associated with blind forces of nature with no intrinsic moral character, he says. And the god of Israel was understood to transcend nature and his will was not only absolute, it was absolutely good and moral. A lot of people say, well in a way didn’t we just rename the metadivine realm God? No. Because the difference here is that it’s posited not only that this God is the only power but that he is only good. And that was not the case with the metadivine realm. Right? That was morally neutral. But there’s a moral claim that’s being made by the writers of the Hebrew Bible about this supreme power, this God. God is depicted as just, compassionate. Morality therefore is perceived as conforming to the will of God. And there are absolute standards then of justice and reverence for life.
Now Kaufman says God is demythologized, but even though he’s demythologized he’s not rendered completely impersonal. He’s spoken of anthropomorphically, so that we can capture his interaction with human beings. This is the only way, Kaufman says, you can write in any meaningful sense about the interaction between God and humanity. So he has to be anthropomorphized. But the interaction between God and humans, he says, happens not through nature but through history. God is not known through natural manifestations. He’s known by his action in the world in historical time and his relationship with a historical people.
I just want to read you a few sentences from an article Kaufman wrote, a different one from the one that you read. But it sums up his idea that there’s an abyss that separates monotheism and polytheism and he says that it would be a mistake to think that the difference between the two is arithmetic–that a polytheistic tradition in which there are ten gods is a lot more like monotheism than a polytheistic tradition in which there are 40 gods, because as you get smaller in number it gets closer to being monotheistic. He says the pagan idea, and I quote, “does not approach Israelite monotheism as it diminishes the number of its gods. The Israelite conception of God’s unity entails His sovereign transcendence over all.” That’s the real issue. “It rejects the pagan idea of a realm beyond the deity, the source of mythology and magic. The affirmation that the will of God is supreme and absolutely free is a new and non-pagan category of thought” [Kaufman 1956, 13]. That’s in an article in the Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People. And he goes on again to say that this affirmation isn’t stated dogmatically anywhere but it pervades Israelite creativity, biblical texts. He also asserts that the idea kind of developed over time, but that basically there was a fundamental revolution and break, and then within that there was some development of some of the latent potential of that idea.
So, which is it, which is part of the question that came from over here, [gestures toward student who had earlier asked a question]? You have on the one hand the claim that Israelite religion is essentially continuous with Ancient Near Eastern polytheism. It’s merely limiting the number of gods worshipped to one, but it houses that God in a temple. It offers him sacrifices and so on. And then on the other hand we have Kaufman’s claim that Israelite religion is a radical break from the religions of the Ancient Near Eastern. Well, the value of Kaufman’s work, I think, lies in the insight that monotheism and polytheism in the abstract–now I’m not sure they exist anywhere in the world–but in the abstract are predicated on divergent intuitions as systems. They do seem to describe very different worlds. And therefore as a system, the difference between Israel’s God and the gods of Israel’s neighbors was not merely quantitative. It was qualitative. There’s a qualitative difference here. However when you read his work it’s clear that he often has to force his evidence and force it rather badly. And it’s simply a fact, that practices and ideas that are not strictly or even strongly monotheistic do appear in the Bible. So perhaps those scholars who stress the continuity between Israel and her environment are right after all.
And this impasse I think can be resolved to a large degree when we realize that we have to make a distinction between–well let’s do it this way first. We’re going to talk about a distinction between the actual–I hate to say that as if I can somehow show you a snapshot of what people did 3,000 years ago–but between the actual religious practices and beliefs of the actual inhabitants of Israel and Judah, we’re going to call that Israelite-Judean religion: what somebody back in the year 900 BCE might have done when they went to the temple; and what they might have thought they were doing when they went to the temple, because I’m not sure it was necessarily what the author of the Book of Deuteronomy says they were doing when they go to the temple; so there’s a difference between what actual people, the inhabitants of Israel and Judah, did–we’ll call that Israelite Judean religion–and the religion that’s promoted, or the worldview, I prefer that term, that’s being promoted by the later writers and editors of biblical stories who are telling the story of these people–we’ll call that biblical religion, the religion or the worldview that we can see emerging from many biblical texts. That distinction is found in an article in your Jewish Study Bible, an article by Steven Geller (Geller 2004, 2021-2040). You’re going to be reading that later on in the course. But be aware of that distinction and that article.
What second millennium Hebrews and early first millennium Israelites or Judeans, Judahites, actually believed or did is not always retrievable, in fact probably not retrievable, to us. We have some clues. But in all likelihood Hebrews of an older time, the patriarchal period, the second millennium BCE–they probably weren’t markedly different from many of their polytheistic neighbors. Archaeology would suggest that. In some ways that’s true. We do find evidence in the Bible as well as in the archaeological record, of popular practices that are not strictly monotheistic. The worship of little household idols, local fertility deities, for example. Most scholars conjecture that ancient Israelite-Judean religion, the practices of the people in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the first millennium BCE, was maybe monolatrist. They might have promoted the worship of one God, Yahweh, without denying the existence of other gods and still kept their little idols and fertility gods or engaged in various syncretistic practices. It was probably monolatrist rather than monotheistic, really asserting the reality of only one God. Moreover our evidence suggests that Yahweh was in many respects very similar to many of the gods of Canaanite religion. And we’ll be talking about some of those at the appropriate time. But continuities with Canaanite and Ancient Near Eastern religions are apparent in the worship practices and the cult objects of ancient Israel and Judah as they’re described in the biblical stories and as we find them in archaeological discoveries.
The Hebrew Bible also contains sources that exhibit features of what Kaufman has described as contemporary polytheisms. In Genesis 6–I mean, the text you pointed out is a good one but even better, go look at Genesis 6 where you have these nephilim, these divine beings who descend to earth and they mate with female humans. That’s a real fluid boundary between the divine and human realms, if you ask me. But it only happens there, in one spot. In many passages too Yahweh is represented as presiding over a counsel of gods. Certainly in the Psalms we have these sort of poetic and metaphoric descriptions where God is, “Okay guys, what do you think?” presiding–or he’s one of them, actually. In one Psalm–it’s great–he’s one of the gods and he says, “You know, you guys don’t know what you’re doing. Let me take over.” And he stands up in the council and takes over. And there are other passages in the Bible too that assume the existence of other gods worshipped by other nations. So there’s certainly stuff like that in there you have to think about.
Now nevertheless, the most strongly monotheistic sources of the Bible do posit a God that is qualitatively different from the gods that populated the mythology of Israel’s neighbors and probably also Israelite- Judean religion. In these sources the Israelites’ deity is clearly the source of all being. He doesn’t emerge from a preexisting realm. He has no divine siblings. His will is absolute. His will is sovereign. He’s not affected by magical coercion. And biblical monotheism, biblical religion, assumes that this God is inherently good. He’s just. He’s compassionate. And human morality is conformity to his will. Because certain texts of the Bible posit this absolutely good God who places absolute moral demands on humankind, biblical monotheism is often referred to as ethical monotheism, so it’s a term that you’ll see quite a bit: ethical monotheism. Beginning perhaps as early as the eighth century and continuing for several centuries, literate and decidedly monotheistic circles within Israelite society put a monotheistic framework on the ancient stories and traditions of the nation. They molded them into a foundation myth that would shape Israelite and Jewish self-identity and understanding in a profound way. They projected their monotheism onto an earlier time, onto the nation’s most ancient ancestors. Israelite monotheism is represented in the Bible as beginning with Abraham. Historically speaking it most likely began much later, and probably as a minority movement that grew to prominence over centuries. But that later monotheism is projected back over Israel’s history by the final editors of the Bible. And that creates the impression of the biblical religion that Kaufman describes so well.
But the biblical text itself, the biblical record, is very conflicted, and that’s part of the fun of reading it. And you will see the biblical record pointing to two different and conflicting realities. You will find religious practices and views that aren’t strictly monotheistic and you’ll find later religious practices and views that are. And the later sources, which we might best call biblical religion, are breaking therefore not only with Ancient Near Eastern practices but also with Israelite-Judean practices, with other elements within their own society. So biblical religion as Kaufman describes it, isn’t, I think, just a revolution of Israel against the nations. I think it’s also a civil war of Israel against itself. And that’s an aspect that is really not entertained by Kaufman. And I think it’s an important one for us to entertain so that we can allow the biblical text to speak to us in all its polyphony. And not try to force it all into one model: “Well, I know this is monotheistic text so, gosh, I’d better come up with an explanation of Genesis 6 that works with monotheism,” You’re going be freed of having to do that; you’re going to be freed of having to do that. Let the text be contradictory and inconsistent and difficult. Let it be difficult. Don’t homogenize it all.
So the differences between the god of the monotheizing sources of the Bible and the gods of surrounding Mesopotamian literature and older Israelite ideas, perhaps, they’re apparent from the very first chapters of Genesis. That’s a creation story in Genesis 1, we’re going to see, a creation story that’s added to the Pentateuch, Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy. This creation story is added to the Pentateuch probably in one of the last rounds of editing, probably sixth century perhaps, we don’t really know. But Genesis 1 is a very strongly monotheistic opening to the primeval myths that are then contained in the next ten chapters of Genesis. So next time we’re going to start with a close reading and examination of Genesis 1 through 4. We’re going to read these stories with an eye to Israel’s adaptation of Near Eastern motifs and themes to sort of monotheize those motifs and themes and express a new conception of God and the world and humankind.
— § § § —
03. — The Hebrew Bible: Genesis 1–4 in Context
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 03 of 24 | duration. 47:42]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
Today what I’d like to do is begin our survey of Genesis 1 through 11, in order to illustrate the way that biblical writers–and precisely who we think they were and when they lived is something we’ll talk about later–but the way biblical writers drew upon the cultural and religious legacy of the Ancient Near East that we’ve been talking about, its stories and its imagery, even as they transformed it in order to conform to a new vision of a non-mythological god. We’re going to be looking at some of Kaufman’s ideas as we read some of these texts.
Now one of the scholars who’s written quite extensively and eloquently on the adaptation of Ancient Near Eastern motifs in biblical literature is a scholar by the name of Nahum Sarna: I highly recommend his book. It appears on your optional reading list, and I’ll be drawing very heavily on Sarna’s work as well as the work of some other scholars who have spent a great deal of time comparing Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern stories, particularly these opening chapters, in order to see the features that they share and to wonder if perhaps there isn’t after all a chasm that divides them quite deeply.
In our consideration of Genesis 1 and 2, we first need to consider a Babylonian epic, an epic that is known by its opening words at the top of the column over there, Enuma Elish, which means “when on high,” the opening words of this epic. And the epic opens before the formation of heaven and earth. Nothing existed except water, and water existed in two forms. There’s the primeval fresh water, fresh water ocean, which is identified with a male divine principle, a male god Apsu. You have a primeval salt water ocean which is identified with a female divine principle, Tiamat. Tiamat appears as this watery ocean but also as a very fierce dragon-like monster. I will be reading sections from Speiser’s translation of Enuma Elish, part of the anthology put together by Pritchard [Pritchard 1950, 1955, 60-61]. It begins:
When on high the heaven had not been named,
Firm ground below had not been called by name,
Naught but primordial Apsu, their begetter,
[And] Mummu-Tiamat, she who bore them all,
Their waters co-mingling as a single body;
No reed hut had been matted, no marsh land had appeared,
When no gods whatever had been brought into being,
Uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined–;
Then it was that the gods were formed within them.
So there’s some sort of co-mingling or union of these male and female divine principals, a sexual union of Apsu and Tiamat that begins a process of generation and it produces first demons and monsters. Eventually gods will begin to emerge. Now, in time, Tiamat and Apsu are disturbed by the din and the tumult of these younger gods.
The divine brothers banded together,
They disturbed Tiamat as they surged back and forth,
Yea, they troubled the mood of Tiamat
By their hilarity in the Abode of Heaven.
Apsu, opening his mouth,
Said unto resplendent Tiamat:
“Their ways are verily loathsome unto me.
By day I find no relief, nor repose by night.
I will destroy, I will wreck their ways,
That quiet may be restored. Let us have rest.”
Then answered Mummu, [Mummu Tiamat] giving counsel to Apsu;
[Ill-wishing] and ungracious was Mummu’s advice:
“Do destroy, my father, the mutinous ways.
Then shalt thou have relief by day and rest by night.”
When Apsu heard this, his face grew radiant
Because of the evil he planned against the gods, his sons.
So he decides to destroy the gods and he is thwarted by a water god named Ea, an earth-water god–sorry, he’s a combination earth-water god–named Ea. And Apsu is killed. Tiamat now is enraged and she’s bent on revenge. She makes plans to attack all of the gods with her assembled forces. The gods are terrified and they need a leader to lead them against her army and they turn to Marduk.
Marduk agrees to lead them in battle against Tiamat and her assembled forces, her forces are under the generalship of Kingu, and he agrees to lead them against Tiamat and Kingu on condition that he be granted sovereignty, and he sets terms.
His heart exulting, he said to his father:
“Creator of the gods, destiny of the great gods,
If I indeed, as your avenger,
Am to vanquish Tiamat and save your lives,
Set up the Assembly, proclaim supreme my destiny!
…Let my word, instead of you, determine the fates.
Unalterable shall be what I may bring into being,
Neither recalled nor changed shall be the command of my lips.”
And the agreement is struck. And Marduk fells Tiamat in battle. It’s a fierce battle and there is in fact a memorable passage that details her demise.
In fury, Tiamat cried out aloud,
To the roots her legs shook both together.
…Then joined issue, Tiamat and Marduk…,
They strove in single combat, locked in battle.
The lord [Marduk] spread out his net to enfold her,
The Evil Wind, which followed behind, he let loose in her face.
When Tiamat opened her mouth to consume him.
He drove in the Evil Wind that she close not her lips.
As the fierce winds charged her belly,
Her body was distended and her mouth was wide open.
He released the arrow, it tore her belly,
It cut through her insides, splitting the heart.
Having thus subdued her, he extinguished her life.
He cast down her carcass to stand upon it.
Well, what do you do with the carcass of a ferocious monster? You build a world, and that’s what Marduk did. He takes the carcass, he slices it into two halves, rather like a clamshell, and out of the top half he creates the firmament, the Heaven. With the other half he creates the land, the Earth.
He split her like a shellfish into two parts.
Half of her he set up and ceiled it as sky,
Pulled down the bar and posted guards.
He bade them to allow not her waters to escape.
Alright, so he has used her body to press back her waters and that’s what the ceiling is, the firmament, a firm sheet or structure that’s holding back waters. When little holes come along, that’s rain coming through. And the bottom part is the land, which is pressing down waters below. They come up every now and then in springs and rivers and seas and lakes and things.
That is the created world, but he doesn’t stop there and he creates various heavenly bodies at this point. “He constructed stations for the great gods”–the heavenly bodies were understood as stations for the great gods–
Fixing their astral likenesses as constellations.
He determined the year by designating the zones;
He set up three constellations for each of the twelve months.
The moon he caused to shine, the night to him entrusting.
And then the complaints begin to roll in. The gods are very unhappy because they have now been assigned specific duties in the maintenance of the cosmos. The moon god has to come up at night and hang around for a while and go back down. And the sun has to trundle across the sky, and they’re pretty unhappy about this and they want relief from working and laboring at their assigned stations, and so Marduk accedes to this demand.
He takes blood from the slain General Kingu, the leader of Tiamat’s army, the rebels, and he fashions a human being with the express purpose of freeing the gods from menial labor.
Blood I will mass and cause bones to be.
I will establish a savage, “man” shall be his name,
Verily, savage man I will create.
He shall be charged with the service of the gods
That they might be at ease.
“It was Kingu who contrived the uprising,
And made Tiamat rebel, and joined battle.”
[So] They bound him, holding him before Ea.
…[And] Out of [Kingu’s] blood they fashioned mankind
[And] Ea imposed the service and let free the gods.
So the grateful gods now recognize the sovereignty of Marduk and they build him a magnificent shrine or temple in Babylon, pronounced “Bab-el” which simply means gateway of the god, the gate of the god. Babylon means the city that is the gateway of the god. And a big banquet follows and Marduk is praised for all that he’s accomplished, and his kingship is confirmed and Enuma Elish ends.
It was the great national epic of the city of Babel or Babylon. It was recited during the New Year festival, which was the most important festival on the cultic calendar, and Nahum Sarna points out that it had four main functions which I’ve listed over here [on the blackboard]. The first of those functions is theogonic. It tells us the story of the birth of the gods, where they came from. Its second function is cosmological. It’s explaining cosmic phenomena: the land, the sky, the heavenly bodies and so on, and their origins. It also serves a social and political function, because the portrait or picture of the universe or the world and its structure corresponds to and legitimates the structure of Babylonian society. The position and the function of the humans in the scheme of creation corresponds [to] or parallels precisely the position of slaves in Mesopotamian society. The position and function of Marduk at the top of the hierarchy of authority parallels and legitimates the Babylonian King , with others arranged within the pyramid that falls below.
The epic also explains and mirrors the rise of Babel as one of the great cities in the Ancient Near East. It explains its rise to power, and Marduk’s rise from being a city god to being at the head of the pantheon of a large empire. This also had a cultic function as well. According to Sarna and some other scholars, the conflict, that battle scene between Tiamat and Marduk which is described at some length, symbolizes the conflict or the battle between the forces of chaos and the forces of cosmos or cosmic order. And that’s a perpetual conflict. Each year it’s dramatized by the cycle of the seasons, and at a certain time of the year it seems that the forces of darkness and chaos are prevailing but each spring, once again, cosmic order and life return. So the epic served as a kind of script for the re-enactment of the primeval battle in a cultic or temple setting, and that re-enactment helped to ensure the victory of the forces of cosmos and life each year over the forces of chaos and death.
So if we recall now, some of the things we were talking about last time and the theories of Kaufman, we might describe the worldview that’s expressed by Enuma Elish in the following way, and this is certainly what Sarna does. We’re going to consider first of all the view of the gods, the view of humans, and the view of the world: three distinct categories. First of all the gods. The gods are clearly limited. A god can make a plan and they’re thwarted by another god who then murders that god. They are amoral, some of them are nicer and better than others but they’re not necessarily morally good or righteous. They emerge from this indifferent primal realm, this mixture of salt and sea waters, that is the source of all being and the source of ultimate power, but they age and they mature and they fight and they die. They’re not wholly good, not wholly evil, and no one god’s will is absolute.
The portrait of humans that emerges is that humans are unimportant menials. They are the slaves of the gods, the gods have little reciprocal interest in or concern for them, and they create human beings to do the work of running the world. To some degree, they look upon them as slaves or pawns.
The picture of the world that would seem to emerge from this story is that it is a morally neutral place. That means that for humans it can be a difficult and hostile place. The best bet perhaps is to serve the god of the day–whatever god might be ascendant–to earn his favor and perhaps his protection, but even that god will have limited powers and abilities and may in fact be defeated or may turn on his devotees.
Now if we turn to the creation story, the first of the two creation stories that are in the Bible, because in fact there are two creation stories with quite a few contradictions between them, but if we turn to the first creation story in Genesis 1 which concludes in Genesis 2:4…and, not for nothing, but everyone understands the function of the colon, right? So if you say Genesis 1:1, I mean chapter one, verse one. And then it goes to Genesis 2 chapter two, verse 4; left side of the colon is chapter, right side of the colon is verse, and every sentence has a verse number in the Bible; approximately [each] sentence.
If we look now, we’ll see a different picture emerging. The biblical god in this story, which I hope you have read, is presented as being supreme and unlimited. That’s connected with the lack of mythology in Genesis 1 or rather the suppression of mythology. Okay, there’s a distinction between the two and we’ll have to talk about that, and I hope that you’ll get into some of that in section as well. I’m using the term mythology now the way we used it in the last lecture when we were talking about Kaufman’s work. Mythology is used to describe stories that deal with the birth, the life events of gods and demi-gods, sometimes legendary heroes, but narrating a sequence of events. The biblical creation account is non-mythological because there is no biography of God in here. God simply is. There’s no theogony, no account of his birth. There’s no story by means of which he emerges from some other realm. In the Mesopotamian account, the gods themselves are created and they’re not even created first, actually; the first generation of beings creates these odd demons and monsters, and gods only are created after several generations and the god of creation, Marduk, is actually kind of a latecomer in the picture.
And this is also a good time for us to draw a distinction between mythology and myth. Kaufman and others have claimed that mythology is not in, certainly, this biblical story or if it’s not there it’s at least suppressed. But in contrast, myth is not mythology. Myth is a term we use to refer to a traditional story. It’s often fanciful, it relates imaginatively events which it claims happened in historical time, not in a primordial realm before time, and a myth is designed to explain some kind of practice or ritual or custom or natural phenomenon. “And that is why to this day,” you know, “there…”, I don’t know, give me some myth that we all know of, you know, Paul Bunyan’s axe handle is something in American nature which I now no longer remember! But myths are fanciful, imaginative tales that are trying to explain the existence of either a thing or a practice or even a belief…sometimes it’s a story that’s a veiled explanation of a truth, we think of parables, perhaps, or allegories. And so the claim that’s often made is that the Bible doesn’t have full-blown mythology. It doesn’t focus on stories about the lives and deaths and interactions of gods, but it does certainly contain myths. It has traditional stories and legends, some quite fanciful, whose goal it is to explain how and why something is what it is.
So returning to Genesis 1, we have an absence of theogony and mythology in the sense of a biography of God in this opening chapter and that means the absence of a metadivine realm. If you remember nothing else from this course and certainly for the mid-term exam, you should remember the words “metadivine realm.” There’s a little hint for you there. It’s an important concept. You don’t have to buy into it, you just have to know it, okay. But there is an absence of what Kaufman would call this metadivine realm, this primordial realm from which the gods emerge. We also, therefore, have no sense that God is imminent in nature or tied to natural substances or phenomena. So, the biblical god’s powers and knowledge do not appear to be limited by the prior existence of any other substance or power. Nature also is not divine. It’s demythologized, de-divinized, if that’s a word; the created world is not divine, it is not the physical manifestation of various deities, an earth god, a water god and so on. The line of demarcation therefore between the divine and the natural and human worlds would appear to be clear. So, to summarize, in Genesis 1, the view of god is that there is one supreme god, who is creator and sovereign of the world, who simply exists, who appears to be incorporeal, and for whom the realm of nature is separate and subservient. He has no life story, no mythology, and his will is absolute.
Indeed, creation takes place through the simple expression of his will. “When God began to create heaven and earth,” and there’s a parenthetical clause: “God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” He expressed his will that there be light, and there was light and that’s very different from many Ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies in which there’s always a sexual principal at work in creation. Creation is always the result of procreation in some way, male and female principles combining. There’s a very similar Egyptian creation story actually in which the god Ptah just wills “let this be.” It reads very much like Genesis 1 and yet even so there’s still a sexual act that follows the expression of those wills, so it is still different.
Consider now the portrait of humans, humankind, that emerges from the biblical creation story in contrast to Enuma Elish. In Genesis, humans are important; in Genesis 1 humans are important. And in fact the biblical view of humans really emerges from both of the creation stories, when they’re read together–the story here in Genesis 1 and then the creation story that occupies much of 2 and 3. The two accounts are extremely different but they both signal the unique position and dignity of the human being. In the first account in Genesis 1, the creation of the human is clearly the climactic divine act: after this God can rest. And a sign of the humans’ importance is the fact that humans are said to be created in the image of God, and this occurs in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” What might that mean? Looking at the continuation of the verse, of the passage, we have some idea because humans, we see, are going to be charged with specific duties towards, and rights over, the created world. And it seems, therefore, that the idea of being created in the image of God is connected with those special rights and duties. A creature is required who is distinguished in certain ways from other animals. How are humans distinguished from other animals? You could make a long list but it might include things like the capacity for language and higher thought or abstract thought, conscience, self-control, free-will. So, if those are the distinctive characteristics that earn the human being certain rights over creation but also give them duties towards creation, and the human is distinct from animals in being created in the image of God, there’s perhaps a connection: to be godlike is to perhaps possess some of these characteristics.
Now being created in the image of God carries a further implication. It implies that human life is somehow sacred and deserving of special care and protection. And that’s why in Genesis 9:6 we read, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, in exchange for that man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God was man created” [Hayes’ translation]. [They] invoke that rationale from Genesis 1 in the absolute prohibition on murder. There is no way to compensate or punish someone for murder, it simply means forfeiture of one’s own life. That’s how sacred human life is. That’s the biblical view.
So, the concept of the divine image in humans–that’s a powerful idea, that there is a divine image in humans, and that breaks with other ancient conceptions of the human. In Genesis 1, humans are not the menials of God, and in fact Genesis expresses the antithesis of this. Where in Enuma Elish, service was imposed upon humans so the gods were free–they didn’t have to worry about anything, the humans would take care of the gods–we have the reverse; it’s almost like a polemical inversion in Genesis 1. The very first communication of God to the human that’s created is concern for that creature’s physical needs and welfare. He says in Genesis 1:28-29, he blesses them, “God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky and all the living things that creep on earth.'” In Genesis 2:16 after the creation story there, “And the Lord God commanded the man saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat.'” His first thought is what are you going to eat? I want you to be fruitful and multiply, and so on.
So, humans in Genesis are not presented as the helpless victims of blind forces of nature. They’re not the menials and servants of capricious gods. They are creatures of majesty and dignity and they are of importance to, objects of concern for, the god who has created them. At the same time, and I think very much in line with the assertion that humans are created in the image of God, humans are not, in fact, gods. They are still creatures in the sense of created things and they are dependent on a higher power. So in the second creation story beginning in Genesis 2:4, we read that the first human is formed when God fashions it from the dust of the earth or clay. There are lots of Ancient Near Eastern stories of gods fashioning humans from clay; we have depictions of gods as potters at a potter’s wheel just turning out lots of little humans. But the biblical account as much as it borrows from that motif again takes pains to distinguish and elevate the human. First, the fashioning of the human from clay is–again–in that story, it’s the climactic or, well not quite climactic, it’s the penultimate, I suppose, moment in the story. The final climactic act of creation is the creation of the female from the male. That is actually the peak of creation, what can I say [laughter]? Second and significantly, not an afterthought, it’s the peak of creation! Second and significantly, God himself blows the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils. So while he fashions this clay figure, this carcass actually–and then breathes life, his own life into it. So, in the second creation story just as in the first, there’s a sacred imprint of some kind that distinguishes the human creation from the other creatures. So this idea that the human being is a mixture of clay, he’s molded from clay, but enlivened by the breath of God, captures that paradoxical mix of sort of earthly and divine elements, dependence and freedom that marks the human as unique.
It should further be noted that in the first creation account, there’s no implication that man and woman are in any kind of unequal relationship before God. The Hebrew word that designates the creature created by God is the word adam. It’s actually not a proper name, small a; it is adam, it’s a generic term. It simply means human or more precisely earthling because it comes from the word adamah, which means ground or earth. So this is adam, an earthling, a thing that has been taken from the earth. Genesis 1 states that God created the adam, with the definite article: this is not a proper name. God created the adam, the earthling, “male and female created he them.” That’s a line that has vexed commentators for centuries and has spawned many very fascinating interpretations. And you will be reading some of those in the readings that are assigned for section discussion next week and I think having a great deal of fun with them. Moreover, this earthling that seems to include both male and female, is then said to be in the image of God. So that suggests that the ancient Israelites didn’t conceive of God as gendered or necessarily gendered. The adam, the earthling, male and female was made in the image of God. Even in the second creation account, it’s not clear that the woman is subordinate to the man. Many medieval Jewish commentators enjoy pointing out that she was not made from his head so that she not rule over him, but she wasn’t made from his foot so that she would be subservient to him; she was made from his side so that she would be a companion to him. And the creation of woman, as I said, is in fact the climactic creative act in the second Genesis account. With her formation, creation is now complete. So, the biblical creation stories individually and jointly present a portrait of the human as the pinnacle and purpose of creation: godlike in some way, in possession of distinctive faculties and characteristics, that equip them for stewardship over the world that God has created.
Finally, let’s talk about the image of the world that emerges from the creation story in Genesis 1. In these stories, there’s a very strong emphasis on the essential goodness of the world. Recall some of Kaufman’s ideas or categories again. One of the things he claims is that in a polytheistic system, which is morally neutral, where you have some primordial realm that spawns demons, monsters, gods, evil is a permanent necessity. It’s just built into the structure of the cosmos because of the fact that all kinds of divine beings, good and bad, are generated and locked in conflict. So the world isn’t essentially good in its nature or essentially bad. Note the difference in Genesis. After each act of creation what does God say? “It is good,” right? Genesis 1 verse 4, verse 10, verse 12, verse 18, verse 21, verse 25… and after the creation of living things, the text states that God found all that he made to be very good. So there are seven occurrences of the word “good” in Genesis. That’s something you want to watch for. If you’re reading a passage of the Bible and you’re noticing a word coming up a lot, count them. There’s probably going to be seven or ten, they love doing that. The sevenfold or the tenfold repetition of a word–such a word is called a leitwort, a recurring word that becomes thematic. That’s a favorite literary technique of the biblical author. So we read Genesis 1 and we hear this recurring–“and it was good… and he looked and it was good… and he looked and it was good,” and we have this tremendous rush of optimism. The world is good; humans are important; they have purpose and dignity.
The biblical writer is rejecting the concept of a primordial evil, a concept found in the literature of the Ancient Near East. So for the biblical writer of this story, it would seem that evil is not a metaphysical reality built into the structure of the universe. So all signs of a cosmic battle, or some primordial act of violence between the forces of chaos and evil and the forces of cosmos and good are eliminated. In Enuma Elish, cosmic order is achieved only after a violent struggle with very hostile forces. But in Genesis, creation is not the result of a struggle between divine antagonists. God imposes order on the demythologized elements that he finds: water, but it’s just water. Let’s look a little bit more closely at Genesis 1 to make this case.
The chapter begins with a temporal clause which is unfortunately often translated “In the beginning,” which implies that what follows is going to give you an ultimate account of the origins of the universe. You sort of expect something like, “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth,” like this was the first thing to happen in time. So, that translation causes people to believe that the story is giving me an account of the first event in time forward; but it’s actually a bad translation. The Hebrew phrase that starts the book of Genesis is pretty much exactly like the phrase that starts Enuma Elish: “When on high,” there was a whole bunch of water and stuff, then suddenly this happened–very similar in the Hebrew. It’s better translated this way: “When God began creating the heavens and the earth… he said, ‘Let there be light and there was light.'” And that translation suggests that the story isn’t concerned to depict the ultimate origins of the universe. It’s interested in explaining how and why the world got the way it is. When God began this process of creating the heaven and the earth, and the earth was unformed and void, and his wind was on the surface of the deep and so on, he said, “Let there be light and there was light.” So, we find that, in fact, something exists; it has no shape. So creation in Genesis 1 is not described as a process of making something out of nothing: that’s a notion referred to as creation ex nihilo, creation of something out of utter nothing. It’s instead a process of organizing pre-existing materials and imposing order on those chaotic materials.
So we begin with this chaotic mass and then there’s the ruah of God. Now sometimes this word “ruah” is kind of anachronistically translated as “spirit”; it really doesn’t mean that in the Hebrew Bible. In later levels of Hebrew it will start to mean that, but it is really “wind,” ruah is wind. So: “when God began to create heaven and earth–the earth being unformed and void,” the wind of God sweeping over the deep. Remember the cosmic battle between Marduk and Tiamat: Marduk the storm god, who released his wind against Tiamat, the primeval deep, the primeval water, representing the forces of chaos. And you should immediately hear the great similarities. Our story opens with a temporal clause: “When on high,” “when God began creating”; we have a wind that sweeps over chaotic waters, just like the wind of Marduk released into the face of Tiamat, and the Hebrew term is particularly fascinating. In fact, the text says “and there is darkness on the face of deep.” No definite article. The word “deep” is a proper name, perhaps. The Hebrew word is Tehom. It means “deep” and etymologically it’s exactly the same word as Tiamat: the “at” ending is just feminine. So Tiam, Tehom–it’s the same word, it’s a related word. So, the wind over the face of deep, now it’s demythologized, so it’s as if they’re invoking the story that would have been familiar and yet changing it. So the storyteller has actually set the stage for retelling the cosmic battle story that everyone knew. That was a story that surely was near and dear to the hearts of many ancient Israelites and Ancient Near Eastern listeners, so all the elements are there for the retelling of that story. We’ve got wind, we’ve got a primeval chaotic, watery mass or deep, and then surprise, there’s no battle. There’s just a word, “let there be light.” And the Ancient Near Eastern listener would prick up their ears: where’s the battle, where’s the violence, where’s the gore? I thought I knew this story. So something new, something different was being communicated in this story.
And don’t think the biblical writers didn’t know this motif of creation following upon a huge cosmic battle, particularly a battle with a watery, dragon-like monster. There are many poetic passages and poetic sections of the Bible that contain very clear and explicit illusions to that myth. It was certainly known and told to Israelite children and part of the culture. We have it mentioned in Job; we have it mentioned in the following psalm, Psalm 74:12-17: “O God, my king from of old, who brings deliverance throughout the land;/it was You who drove back the sea with Your might, who smashed the heads of the monsters in the waters;/it was You who crushed the heads of Leviathan,” a sea monster. Other psalms also contain similar lines. Isaiah 51:9-10: “It was you that hacked Rahab”–this is another name of a primeval water monster–“in pieces,/[It was you] That pierced the Dragon./It was you that dried up the Sea,/The waters of the great deep.” These were familiar stories, they were known in Israel, they were recounted in Israel. They were stories of a god who violently slays the forces of chaos, represented as watery dragons, as a prelude to creation. And the rejection of this motif or this idea in Genesis 1 is pointed and purposeful. It’s demythologization. It’s removal of the creation account from the realm and the world of mythology. It’s pointed and purposeful. It wants us to conceive of God as an uncontested god who through the power of his word or will creates the cosmos.
And he follows that initial ordering by setting up celestial bodies, just as Marduk did. They’re not in themselves, however, divinities: they are merely God’s creations. In the biblical text, the firmament appears to be a beaten, the word in Hebrew is something that’s been beaten out, like a metal worker would hammer out a thin sheet of metal. And that’s what the firmament [pointing at blackboard] this by the way is the portrait of the world; it looks a lot like my map of the Ancient Near East, but it’s not. So you have this firmament, which is beaten back to hold back primeval waters that are pressing in; you have land which is holding down the waters here. We inhabit the bubble that’s created in that way. That’s the image in Enuma Elish and it’s the image of Genesis 1. And later on when God gets mad he’s going to open up some windows up here, right, and it’s all going to flood. That’s what’s going to happen in the Flood. That’s the image of the world that you’re working with. So, the firmament is sort of like an inverted bowl, a beaten-out sheet of metal that’s an inverted bowl, and again as I said: echoes of Enuma Elish, where you have Marduk dividing the carcass of Tiamat, like a shellfish. He separates the waters above and the waters below and creates this space that will become the inhabited world.
Now the story of creation in Genesis 1 takes place over seven days, and there’s a certain logic and parallelism to the six days of creating. And I’ve written those parallels here [on the blackboard]. There’s a parallel between day one, day four; day two and five; day three and six. On day one, light and dark are separated. On day four, the heavenly bodies that give off light by day or night are created. On day two, the firmament is established. That water is separated, that bubble has opened up so we’ve got the sky created and we’ve got the waters collected in certain areas down here, and we’ve got sky. On day five, the inhabitants of the skies and the waters are created, birds and fish. On day three, land is formed to make dry spots from the waters below. So you have land being formed on day three, it’s separated out from the sea and on day six you have the creation of land animals. But days three and six each have an extra element, and the fact that the first elements here pair up nicely with each other suggests that the extra element on day three and the extra element on day six might also be paired in some important way. On day three, vegetation is produced, is created, and on day six humans are created after the creation of the land animals. So the implication is that the vegetation is for the humans. And indeed, it’s expressly stated by God that humans are to be given every fruit bearing tree and seed bearing plant, fruits and grains for food. That’s in Genesis 1:29. That’s what you are going to eat. There’s no mention of chicken or beef, there’s no mention made of animals for food. In Genesis 1:30, God says that the animals are being given the green plants, the grass and herbs, for food. In other words, there should be no competition for food. Humans have fruit and grain-bearing vegetation, animals have the herbiage and the grasses. There is no excuse to live in anything but a peaceful co-existence. Therefore, humans, according to Genesis 1, were created vegetarian, and in every respect, the original creation is imagined as free of bloodshed and violence of every kind. “And God saw… [that it was] very good.”
So on the seventh day, God rested from his labors and for this reason he blessed the seventh day and declared it “holy.” This is a word we’ll be coming back to in about five or six lectures, talking about what it is to be holy, but right now it essentially means it belongs to God. If something’s holy, it doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to God. And part of the purpose of this story is to explain the origin of the observance of the Sabbath, the seventh day, as a holy day. So this is a myth in the sense that it’s explaining some custom or ritual among the people.
So Israelite accounts of creation contain clear allusions to and resonances of Ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies; but perhaps Genesis 1 can best be described as demythologizing what was a common cultural heritage. There’s a clear tendency in this story towards monotheism in the abstract terms that Kaufman described. A transformation of widely known stories to express a monotheistic worldview is clearly important to these particular biblical writers, and we’ll be talking later about who these writers were who wrote Genesis 1 as opposed to Genesis 2 and 3. But these stories rival, and implicitly polemicize against, the myths or mythologies of Israel’s neighbors. They reject certain elements but they almost reject them by incorporating them. They incorporate and modify them.
So, one of the things I’ve tried to claim in describing Genesis 1 is that in this story evil is represented not as a physical reality. It’s not built into the structure of the world. When God rests he’s looking at the whole thing, [and] it’s very good, it’s set up very well. And yet we know that evil is a condition of human existence. It’s a reality of life, so how do we account for it? And the Garden of Eden story, I think, seeks to answer that question. It actually does a whole bunch of things, but one thing it does, I think, is try to answer that question, and to assert that evil stems from human behavior. God created a good world, but humans in the exercise of their moral autonomy, they have the power to corrupt the good. So, the Garden of Eden story communicates what Kaufman would identify as a basic idea of the monotheistic worldview: that evil isn’t a metaphysical reality, it’s a moral reality. What that means ultimately is that evil lacks inevitability, depending on your theory of human nature, I suppose, and it also means that evil lies within the realm of human responsibility and control.
Now Nahum Sarna, the scholar whose work I referred to earlier, he points out that there’s a very important distinction between the Garden of Eden story and its Ancient Near Eastern parallels. He says the motif of a tree of life or a plant of life or a plant of eternal youth, that’s a motif that we do find in other Ancient Near Eastern literatures, in Ancient Near Eastern myth and ritual and iconography, and the quest for such a plant, or the quest for immortality that the plant promises, that these were primary themes in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. We’ll have occasion to talk in great depth about this story next time. But by contrast, Sarna says, we haven’t as yet uncovered a parallel in Ancient Near Eastern literature to the biblical tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It’s not the tree of knowledge, it’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–it’s a longer phrase. What is the significance of the fact that the Bible mentions both of these trees? It mentions a tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; and then goes on to just focus on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It virtually ignores the tree of life until we get to the end of the story, and that’s important. But this tree of life which seems to be central to many other myths of this time and this part of the world… Sarna argues that the subordinate role of the tree of life signals the biblical writer’s dissociation from a preoccupation with immortality. The biblical writer insists that the central concern of life is not mortality but morality. And the drama of human life should revolve not around the search for eternal life but around the moral conflict and tension between a good god’s design for creation and the free will of human beings that can corrupt that good design.
The serpent tells Eve that if she eats the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she will become like God. And he’s really not telling a lie, in a certain respect. And God knows that, that human beings will become like God knowing good and evil. It’s one of the things about God: he knows good and evil and has chosen the good. The biblical writer asserts of this god that he is absolutely good. The humans will become like gods, knowing good and evil, not because of some magical property in this fruit; and it’s not an apple, by the way, that’s based on an interesting mistranslation. Do we know what the fruit is? No, I don’t think we really know but it’s definitely not an apple. That comes from the Latin word which sounds like apple, the word malum for evil is close to the Latin word for apple which if anybody knows… whatever [see note 1]. And so iconography began to represent this tree as an apple tree and so on, but it’s not an apple tree. I don’t know if they had apple trees back then, there! But it’s not because of some magical property in the fruit itself, but because of the action of disobedience itself. By choosing to eat of the fruit in defiance of God–this is the one thing God says, “Don’t do this! You can have everything else in this garden,” presumably, even, you can eat of the tree of life, right? It doesn’t say you can’t eat of that. Who’s to say they couldn’t eat of that and just live forever? Don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
There have been about–how many thousands of years of speculation–on what’s going on and you’re going to be reading a wonderful and interesting gnostic interpretation. And so, yep, there’s been lots of interesting… and this is all in the realm of literary interpretation: read the story closely, see if you can figure out what’s going on here. Why does God do this? Isn’t this, in a way, putting an obstacle in front of someone almost ensuring they’re going to trip over it? That’s been an argument that some commentators have made. Others see it differently. So, keep that thought, take it to section and read Elaine Pagels’ work and some of the other interpretations. That’s something that people have struggled with for centuries. Where does this come from? Who’s the serpent and what’s he doing there? They’re all very important.
It is true–and maybe this will go a little bit of the distance towards answering it–it’s by eating of the fruit in defiance of God, human beings learn that they were able to do that, that they are free moral agents. They find that out. They’re able to choose their actions in conformity with God’s will or in defiance of God’s will. So paradoxically, they learn that they have moral autonomy. Remember, they were made in the image of God and they learn that they have moral autonomy by making the defiant choice, the choice for disobedience. The argument could be made that until they once disobeyed, how would they ever know that? And then you might raise all sorts of questions about, well, was this part of God’s plan that they ought to know this and should know this, so that their choice for good actually becomes meaningful. Is it meaningful to choose to do the good when you have no choice to do otherwise or aren’t aware that you have a choice to do otherwise? So, there’s a wonderful thirteenth-century commentator that says that God needed creatures who could choose to obey him, and therefore it was important for Adam and Eve to do what they did and to learn that they had the choice not to obey God so that their choice for God would become endowed with meaning. That’s one line of interpretation that’s gone through many theological systems for hundreds of years.
So the very action that brought them a godlike awareness of their moral autonomy was an action that was taken in opposition to God. So we see then that having knowledge of good and evil is no guarantee that one will choose or incline towards the good. That’s what the serpent omitted in his speech. He said if you eat of that fruit, of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you’ll become like God. It’s true in one sense but it’s false in another. He sort of omitted to point out… he implies that it’s the power of moral choice alone that is godlike. But the biblical writer will claim in many places that true godliness isn’t simply power, the power to do what one wishes. True godliness means imitation of God, the exercise of one’s power in a manner that is godlike, good, life-affirming and so on. So, it’s the biblical writer’s contention that the god of Israel is not only all-powerful but is essentially and necessarily good. Those two elements cannot become disjoined, they must always be conjoined in the biblical writer’s view. And finally, humans will learn that the concomitant of their freedom is responsibility. Their first act of defiance is punished harshly. So they learn in this story that the moral choices and actions of humans have consequences that have to be borne by the perpetrator.
So, just to sum up, Sarna sees in the Garden of Eden story, as I’ve just explained it, a message that’s in line with Kaufman’s thesis about the monotheistic world view. He says this story conveys the idea that, “…evil is a product of human behavior, not a principal inherent in the cosmos. Man’s disobedience is the cause of the human predicament. Human freedom can be at one and the same time an omen of disaster and a challenge and opportunity” [Sarna 1966, 27-28]. We’ve looked at Genesis 2 and 3 a little bit as an attempt to account for the problematic and paradoxical existence of evil and suffering in a world created by a good god, and that’s a problem monotheism really never completely conquers, but other perspectives on this story are possible. And when we come back on Monday, we’re going to look at it from an entirely different point of view and compare it with the Epic of Gilgamesh.
1. The identical word malum in Latin also means apple.
— § § § —
04. — Doublets and Contradictions, Seams and Sources: Genesis 5–11 and the Historical-Critical Method
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 04 of 24 | duration. 47:52]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
So, last time I gave a reading of the creation accounts that are in Genesis 1 to 3. These are two very different stories but their placement side by side suggests the possibility of a joint reading. Nevertheless they are very different in character, and today I want to focus in on the second creation story. This is a story that is predominantly in Genesis 2 and trickles into Genesis 3, and I’m going to look at it mostly in isolation from the first account. I’m going to be looking at it in light of an important parallel. This parallel is The Epic of Gilgamesh–I get to point this way now, to the boards, okay? The Epic of Gilgamesh, and I’ll be drawing on the work of many scholars, Nahum Sarna probably most prominently among them, but others also who have devoted themselves to the study of these textual parallels, and developing an interpretation of these stories. I’d like you to carry that with you into your discussion sections as you look at some of the other interpretations from antiquity and on into the modern period.
Now The Epic of Gilgamesh is a magnificent Mesopotamian epic that relates the exploits of a Sumerian king, King Gilgamesh of Uruk. That’s the name of the city-state over which he is king. And the epic as we now have it was probably composed between 2000 and 1800 BCE. Gilgamesh was apparently a historical character, an actual king of Uruk, but the story of course has fantastic and legendary qualities to it. We have a full text of the epic that was located in the library of Assurbanipal, an Assyrian king. It’s a seventh century copy of the story. But we have fragments that are much, much older (that date back to the eighteenth century) that were found in Iraq. So clearly it’s an old story and we have even older prototypes for elements of the story as well.
The story opens with a description of Gilgamesh. He’s an extremely unpopular king. He’s tyrannical, he’s rapacious, he’s undisciplined, he’s over-sexed. The people in the city cry out to the gods. They want relief from him. They particularly cite his abuses towards the young women of the city. And the god Aruru is told that she must deal with Gilgamesh. Aruru is on the board.
So Aruru fashions this noble savage named Enkidu. Enkidu is designed to be a match for Gilgamesh, and he’s very much like the biblical human in Genesis 2. He’s sort of an innocent primitive, he appears unclothed, he lives a free, peaceful life in harmony with the animals, with nature and the beasts, he races across the steppes with the gazelles. But before he can enter the city and meet Gilgamesh he has to be tamed.
So a woman is sent to Enkidu and her job is to provide the sexual initiation that will tame and civilize Enkidu. I’m reading now from The Epic of Gilgamesh (Pritchard 1958, 40-75):
For six days and seven nights Enkidu comes forth,
mating with the lass.
After he had had (his) fill of her charms,
He set his face toward his wild beasts.
On seeing him, Enkidu, the gazelles ran off,
The wild beasts of the steppe drew away from his body.
Startled was Enkidu, as his body became taut.
His knees were motionless–for his wild beasts had gone.
Enkidu had to slacken his pace–it was not as before;
But he now had [wi]sdom, [br]oader understanding.
Returning, he sits at the feet of the harlot.
I’m not sure why that translation [harlot]. I’ve been told by those who know Akkadian that the word could mean “harlot/prostitute,” it could mean some sacred prostitute… I’m not an expert in Akkadian. But:
He looks up at the face of the harlot,
His ears attentive, as the harlot speaks;
[The harlot] says to him, to Enkidu:
“Thou art [wi]se, Enkidu, art become like a god!
Why with the wild creatures dost though roam over the steppe?
Come, let me lead thee [to] ramparted Uruk,
To the holy Temple, abode of Anu and Ishtar,
Where lives Gilgamesh, accomplished in strength
And like a wild ox lords it over the folk.”
As she speaks to him, her words find favor,
His heart enlightened, he yearns for a friend.
Enkidu says to her, to the harlot:
“Up lass, escort thou me (to Gilgamesh)…
I will challenge him [and will bo]ldly address him.”
So that’s tablet I from The Epic of Gilgamesh.
So through this sexual experience Enkidu has become wise, growing in mental and spiritual stature, and he is said to have become like a god. At the same time there’s been a concomitant loss of innocence. His harmonious unity with nature is broken, he clothes himself, and his old friends the gazelles run from him now. He will never again roam free with the animals. He cannot run as quickly. His pace slackens, he can’t even keep up with them. So as one reads the epic one senses this very deep ambivalence regarding the relative virtues and evils of civilized life, and many of the features that make us human. On the one hand it’s clearly good that humans rise above the animals and build cities and wear clothes and pursue the arts of civilization and develop bonds of love and duty and friendship the way that animals do not; these are the things that make humans like the gods in The Epic of Gilgamesh. But on the other hand these advances have also come at a cost. And in this story there’s also a sense of longing for the freedom of life in the wild–the innocent, simple, uncomplicated life lived day to day without plans, without toil, in harmony with nature, a somewhat Edenic existence.
So there are very obvious parallels between this part of the epic that I’ve just read to you and our second creation story. Enkidu like Adam is fashioned from clay. He’s a noble savage, he’s a kind of innocent primitive, and he lives in a peaceful co-existence with animals. Nature yields its fruits to him without hard labor. He’s unaware of–he’s unattracted by–the benefits of civilization: clothing, cities and all their labor. Just as Enkidu gains wisdom and becomes like a god, and loses his oneness with nature, so Adam and Eve after eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil are said to have become like gods, and they also lose their harmonious relationship with nature. In Genesis 3:15, God says to the snake:
“I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your offspring and hers;
They shall strike at your head,
And you shall strike at their heel.”
Presumably there had been a peaceful relationship between creatures like snakes and humans to that point. They [humans] are banished now from the Garden. It used to yield its fruits to them without any labor, but now humans have to toil for food and the earth yields its fruits only stintingly. So in Genesis 3:18, God says to Adam:
“Cursed be the ground because of you;
By toil shall you eat of it
All the days of your life:
Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you.
But your food shall be the grasses of the field;
By the sweat of your brow
Shall you get bread to eat”
So knowledge or wisdom or perhaps moral freedom, seem to come at a very high price.
But there are important differences between these stories too. And the most important has to do with the nature of the act that leads to the transformation of the human characters. It’s Enkidu’s sexual experience, his seven-day encounter with the woman that makes him wise and godlike at the cost of his life with the beasts. There has been a long tradition of interpreting the deed or the sin of Adam and Eve as sexual, and there are some hints in the story that would support such an interpretation. I was just reading recently a scholarly introduction to Genesis that very much argues and develops this interpretation. Adam and Eve eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in violation of God’s command. Now eating can perhaps be a metaphor for sex, some have argued. Knowledge of good and evil–perhaps that could be understood in sexual terms. In biblical Hebrew the word “to know” can mean “to know” in the biblical sense. It can mean sexual intercourse. Snakes are symbols of renewed life and fertility in the East because they shed their skins so they seem to be eternally young; and they’re also phallic symbols. Eve says that the snake seduced her. [She] uses a term that has some sexual overtones.
So do all of these hints suggest that, in the biblical view, the change in Adam and Eve came about through sex? If so, is sex a negative thing forbidden by God? It would depend if you view the change as a negative thing. That seems unlikely in my view. You will certainly hear it argued, but it seems unlikely in my view. God’s first command to the first couple was to be fruitful and multiply. Now admittedly that comes from the first creation story in Genesis 1; nevertheless in the second creation story when the writer is recounting the creation of woman, the writer refers to the fact that man and woman will become one flesh. So it seems that sex was part of the plan for humans even at creation.
Also, it’s only after their defiance of God’s command that Adam and Eve first become aware of, and ashamed by, their nakedness, putting the sort of sexual awakening after the act of disobedience rather then at the same time or prior to. So maybe what we have here is another polemic, another adaptation of familiar stories and motifs to express something new. Perhaps for the biblical writer, Adam and Eve’s transformation occurs after an act of disobedience, not after a seven-day sexual encounter.
The disobedience happens in a rather backhanded way. It’s kind of interesting. God tells Adam before the creation of Eve that he’s not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that’s in Genesis 2:16, on pain of death. Eve doesn’t hear this command directly. She has not yet been created. In Genesis 3 we meet the cunning serpent, and although many later Hellenistic Jewish texts and the New Testament will identify the snake as a Satan, an enticer, a tempter, some sort of evil creature, he doesn’t seem to be so in this fable. There’s no real devil or Satan character–we’ll talk about Job later–in the Hebrew Bible, the snake in Eden is simply a talking animal. He’s a standard literary device that you see in fables of this period, and later–the kind that you find for example in the fables of Aesop. And the woman responds to the serpent’s queries by saying that eating and even touching the tree is forbidden on pain of death.
One wonders whence the addition of touching. Did Adam convey God’s command to Eve with an emphasis all his own? “Don’t even touch that tree, Eve. It’s curtains for us if you do.” She didn’t hear the original command. Or did she just mishear in some very tragic version of the telephone game. And the serpent tells her, No, “you are not going to die” if you touch or eat the fruit. In fact, he adds, the fruit will bring you wisdom making humans like gods who know good and bad. And in fact that’s certainly true. He tells her the truth.
Genesis 3:7 is a very critical verse and it’s rarely properly translated. Most translations read like this: “She took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband and he ate.” The implication is that Eve acts alone and then she goes and finds Adam and gives him some of the apple and convinces him to eat it. But in fact the Hebrew literally reads, “She took of its fruit and ate and gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.” “With her” is a very teeny-tiny little word in Hebrew, so I guess a lot of translations figure they can leave it out. But the “with her” is there in the Hebrew. At that fateful moment, Adam and Eve are standing together at the tree, and although only the woman and the serpent speak, Adam was present, and it seems he accepted the fruit that his wife handed him. He was fully complicitous, and indeed God holds him responsible. He reproaches Adam. Adam says: Well, Eve handed it to me. She gave it to me. Eve explains, the serpent tricked me. God vents his fury on all three, and he does so in ascending order: first the snake for his trickery and then the woman, and finally the man.
So just as the harlot tells Enkidu after his sexual awakening that he has become like a god, so Adam and Eve after eating the forbidden fruit are said to be like divine beings. Why? Perhaps because they have become wise in that they have learned they have moral choice. They have free will, they can defy God and God’s plans for them in a way that animals and natural phenomena cannot. But now that means there is a serious danger here, and in Genesis 3:22, God says, “Now that man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil [bad], what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever?” So it’s the threat of an immortal antagonist that is so disturbing and must be avoided. And so God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden and he stations these kerubim, these cherubim–not puffy cute little babies like Raphael painted, but these fierce monstrous creatures–and a fiery, ever-turning sword to guard the way back to the tree of life. It is now inaccessible.
So the acceptance of mortality as an inescapable part of the human condition: it’s a part of this story. It’s also one of the themes of The Epic of Gilgamesh. As the story continues Enkidu enters the city and Enkidu earns Gilgamesh’s respect and deep love. This is the first time that this rapacious tyrant has ever actually loved anyone and his character is reformed as a result. And then the rest of the epic contains the adventures of these two close friends, all of the things that they do together. And when Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is absolutely devastated. He’s for the first time confronted with his own mortality. He’s obsessed with grief over Enkidu, and he’s obsessed with the whole issue of mortality. He begins a quest for immortality, and that takes up most of the rest of the epic. He leaves the city, he travels far and wide, he crosses these primeval seas and endures all sorts of hardships. And finally exhausted and battered he reaches Utnapishtim, also there on the board, Utnapishtim, who is the only mortal ever to have been granted immortality by the gods, and he comes to him and asks for his secret. It turns out that Utnapishtim can’t help him, and we’ll come back to Utnapishtim later in the flood story, and Gilgamesh is devastated. He then learns the whereabouts of a plant of eternal youth. And he says: Well that’s better than nothing. That at least will keep him young. And so he goes after the plant of eternal youth, but he’s negligent for a moment and a thieving snake or serpent manages to steal it and that explains why snakes are always shedding their skins and are forever young. Gilgamesh is exhausted, he feels defeated, he returns to Uruk, and as he stands looking at the city from a distance, gazing at it, he takes comfort in the thought that although humans are finite and frail and doomed to die, their accomplishments and their great works give them some foothold in human memory.
Now Nahum Sarna is one of the people who has pointed out that the quest for immortality, which is so central in The Epic of Gilgamesh, is really deflected in the biblical story. The tree of life is mentioned, and it’s mentioned with a definite article. Genesis 2:9 says, “with the tree of life in the middle of the garden,” as if this is a motif we’re familiar with, as if this is something we all know about. But then it’s really not mentioned again as the story proceeds. The snake, which in The Epic of Gilgamesh is associated with the plant of eternal youth, in Genesis is associated instead with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That’s the focus of our attention in Genesis, and it’s only at the end of the story that the tree of life appears again in the passage that is emphasizing its permanent inaccessibility.
And we could perhaps draw two conclusions from this. First it may be that Adam and Eve had access to this tree up to that point. As long as their will conformed to the will of God, there was no danger to their going on eternally, being immortal. Once they discovered their moral freedom, once they discovered that they could thwart God and work evil in the world, and abuse and corrupt all that God had created, then God could not afford to allow them access to the tree of life. That would be tantamount to creating divine enemies, immortal enemies. So God must maintain the upper hand in his struggle with these humans who have learned to defy him. And he maintains the upper hand in this, the fact that they eventually must die. Second of all the motif of guards who block access to the tree of life suggests that no humans have access to immortality and the pursuit of immortality is futile. So it might be then that God really spoke the truth after all. The fruit did bring death to humankind.
Before we leave this story and move onto Cain and Abel, I just want to make a couple of quick observations. First of all the opening chapters of Genesis, Genesis 1 through 3, have been subjected to centuries of theological interpretation, and I hope that you’re in the midst of reading some of them now. They have generated for example the doctrine of original sin, which is the idea that humans after Adam are born into a state of sin, by definition. As many ancient interpreters already have observed, the actions of Adam and Eve bring death to the human race. They don’t bring a state of utter and unredeemed sinfulness. In fact what they tell us is that humans have moral choice in each and every age. The story is primarily etiological rather then prescriptive or normative. We’ve talked about this: these etiological tales are tales that are trying to explain how or why something is the way it is. This is why serpents shed their skin, for example. In The Epic of Gilgamesh they were the ones who got the plant of eternal youth. It’s etiological. The writer observes that humans emerge from innocent childhood to self-conscious adulthood. The writer observes that survival is a difficult endeavor and that the world can sometimes seem harshly hostile. The writer observes that women are desirous of and emotionally bonded to the very persons who establish the conditions of their subordination. The story is explaining how these odd conditions of life came to be as they are, which is not to say that it’s the ideal situation, or even that it’s God’s will for humankind; these are etiological fables, and they’re best read as such.
Second of all in this story we see something that we’ll see repeatedly in the Pentateuch, and that is that God has to punt a bit. He has to modify his plans for the first couple, by barring access to the tree of life. That was not something presumably he planned to do. This is in response to, perhaps, their unforeseen disobedience: certainly the way the story unfolds that’s how it seems to us. So despite their newfound mortality, humans are going to be a force to be reckoned with. They’re unpredictable to the very god who created them.
Finally I’ll just draw your attention to some interesting details that you can think about and maybe talk about in section. God ruminates that the humans have become like “one of us” in the plural. That echoes his words in Genesis 1 where he proposes, “Let us make humans,” or humankind, “in our image.” Again in the plural. Who is he talking to? And what precisely are these cherubim that are stationed in front of the tree of life barring access? What do we make of these allusions to divine colleagues or subordinates in light of Kaufman’s claims regarding biblical monotheism? You should be bringing some of the things we talked about when discussing his work, into dialogue with and in conflict with some of the evidence you’ll be finding in the text itself. So think about these things, don’t pass over these details lightly, and don’t take them for granted.
The Cain and Abel story which is in Genesis 4:1 through 16: this is the story of the first murder, and it’s a murder that happens despite God’s warning to Cain that it’s possible to master the urge to violence by an act of will. He says, “Sin couches at the door;/Its urge is toward you/Yet you can be its master,” Genesis 4:7. Nahum Sarna and others have noted that the word “brother” occurs throughout this story repeatedly, and it climaxes in God’s question, “Where is your brother, Abel?” And Cain responds, “I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And ironically you sense, when you read this that, even though Cain intends this as a rhetorical question–“Am I my brother’s keeper?”–in fact, he’s right on the money. Yes. We are all of us our brothers’ keepers, and the strong implication of the story is as Sarna puts it, that all homicide is in fact fratricide. That seems to be the message of this story.
Note also that Cain is culpable, and for someone to be culpable of something we have to assume some principle that they have violated. And therefore this story assumes the existence of what some writers, Sarna among them, have called “the universal moral law.” There seems to be in existence from the beginning of creation this universal moral law, and that is: the God-endowed sanctity of human life. We can connect it with the fact that God has created humans in his own image, but the God-endowed sanctity of human life is an assumption, and it’s the violation of that assumption which makes Cain culpable.
The story of Cain and Abel is notable for another theme, and this is a theme that’s going to recur in the Bible, and that is the tension between settled areas and the unsettled desert areas and desert life of the nomads. Abel is a keeper of sheep. He represents the nomadic pastoralist, unlike Cain who is the tiller of soil, so he represents more settled urban life. God prefers the offering of Abel, and as a result Cain is distressed and jealous to the point of murder. God’s preference for the offering of Abel valorizes the free life of the nomadic pastoralist over urban existence. Even after the Israelites will settle in their own land, the life of the desert pastoralist remained a sort of romantic ideal for them. It’s a theme that we’ll see coming up in many of the stories. It’s a romantic ideal for this writer too.
Now the murder of Abel by Cain is followed by some genealogical lists. They provide some continuity between the tales. They tell us folkloric traditions about the origins of various arts, the origins of building, of metalwork and music, but finally in Genesis 6:5 we read that, “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart,” the human heart, “was evil continuously” [Revised Standard Version translation]. And this sets the stage then for the story of a worldwide flood.
Now here again the Bible is making use of older traditions and motifs and adapting them to their own purposes. I’ve hinted at this already and we’ll look at it in a bit more detail now. We know of a very ancient Sumerian flood story. The hero is Ziusudra, also on the board. We also know of a very early Semitic work, the Epic of Atrahasis, in which there’s a flood. But the most detailed flood story we have actually comes from The Epic of Gilgamesh, on the eleventh tablet of The Epic of Gilgamesh. You’ll remember that in his search for immortality Gilgamesh sought out Utnapishtim, the one human who had been granted immortality. He wants to learn his secret. And when he begs for the secret of eternal life he gets Utnapishtim’s story, and it’s the flood story. He learns that Utnapishtim and his wife gained their immortality by a twist of circumstances: they were the sole survivors of this great flood, and as a kind of reward they were given immortality.
The Sumerian story of Ziusudra is very similar to the Genesis account. In both you have the flood coming about as the deliberate result of a divine decision; you have one individual who’s chosen to be saved from the flood; that individual is given specific instructions on building an ark, and is given specific instructions on who to bring on-board the ark. The ark also comes to rest on a mountaintop, the hero sends out a bird to reconnoiter the land, to find out if it’s dry yet. When the hero emerges he builds an altar. He offers sacrifice to the deity and receives a blessing. Very similar, parallel stories, and yet there are significant contrasts between the Mesopotamian story and its Israelite adaptation.
Let’s compare some of the elements from all three of the stories with the biblical story. In The Epic of Gilgamesh we have no motive given for the divine destruction whatsoever. It just seems to be pure capriciousness. In the Epic of Atrahasis we do in fact read of a reason, and the text there states, “The land became wide and the people became numerous. The land bellowed like wild oxen. The god was disturbed by their uproar. Enlil heard the clamor and said to the gods, “Oppressive has become the clamor of [hu]mankind. By their uproar they prevent sleep” [Pritchard 1950, 1955, 104]. So it seems that humankind is to be destroyed because they irritate the gods with their tumult and noise. In the Gilgamesh epic, Ea, an earth-water god, does ask another god, Enlil, how he could have brought the flood on so senselessly. He says, “Lay upon the sinner the sin; Lay upon the transgressor his transgression” [Pritchard 1950, 1955, 95], which would indicate that in The Epic of Gilgamesh there is this element of capriciousness.
The biblical writer in retelling the story seems to want to reject this idea by providing a moral rationale for God’s actions. The earth, the text says, is destroyed because of hamas. Hamas is a word that literally means violence, bloodshed, but also all kinds of injustice and oppression. Noah is saved specifically for his righteousness, he was righteous in his generation. He was chosen therefore for moral reasons. So the writer seems very determined to tell the story in a way that depicts God as acting not capriciously but according to certain clear standards of justice. This was deserved punishment and the person who was saved was righteous.
Furthermore in the Mesopotamian accounts the gods do not appear to be in control. This is something that’s been pointed out by many writers. Enlil wants to destroy humankind completely. He’s thwarted by Ea who drops hints of the disaster to Utnapishtim so Utnapishtim knows what to do and therefore manages to escape the flood. But that’s thwarting the design of the god who brought the flood. He wanted everything destroyed. When the flood comes the gods themselves seem to have lost control. They’re terrified, they cower. The text says they “cowered like dogs crouched against the outer wall. Ishtar,” the goddess Ishtar, “cried out like a woman in labor [travail] [Pritchard 1958, 69]. And moreover during the period of the flood they don’t have food, they don’t have sustenance. At the end when Utnapishtim offers the sacrifice, the gods are famished and they crowd around the sacrifice like flies, the text says [Pritchard 1958, 70].
The biblical writer wants to tell a different story. In the biblical flood story, God is represented as being unthreatened by the forces of nature that he unleashes, and being completely in control. He makes the decision to punish humans because the world has corrupted itself through hamas, through bloodshed and violence. He selects Noah due to his righteousness and he issues a direct command to build an ark. He has a clear purpose and he retains control throughout the story. At the end, the writer doesn’t depict him as needing the sacrifice for food or sustenance.
We might say that this story, like the story of Cain and Abel before it, and like the story we will read later of Sodom and Gomorrah, this story presupposes this universal moral law that Sarna and Kaufman and others have talked about, this universal moral law that seems to govern the world, and if God sees infractions of it, then as supreme judge he brings humans to account. If morality is the will of God, morality then becomes an absolute value, and these infractions will be punished, in the biblical writer’s view.
The message of the flood story also seems to be that when humans destroy the moral basis of society, when they are violent or cruel or unkind, they endanger the very existence of that society. The world dissolves. So corruption and injustice and lawlessness and violence inevitably bring about destruction.
Some writers have pointed out that it’s interesting that these humans are not being punished for religious sins, for idolatry, for worshipping the wrong god or anything of that nature, and this is important. The view of the first books of the Bible is that each nation worships its own gods, its own way, perhaps. At this point in the story, perhaps the view is that all know of God even if they ignore him. But the view eventually will be that only Israel is obligated to the God of Israel, other nations aren’t held accountable for their idolatry in the books of the Torah. We’ll see this is we continue along. And yet everyone, all humans, Israelites or non-Israelites alike, by virtue of having been created by God in the image of God–even though they may not know that God, or may ignore that God–they are bound to a basic moral law that precludes murder and, perhaps from this story, we could argue other forms of oppression and violence.
What better way to drive home the point that inhumanity and violence undermine the very foundations of society than to describe a situation in which a cosmic catastrophe results from human corruption and violence. It’s an idea that runs throughout the Bible, it also appears in later Jewish thought and some Christian thought, some Islamic thought. The Psalmist is going to use this motif when he denounces social injustice, exploitation of the poor and so on. He says through wicked deeds like this “all the foundations of the earth,” are moved, “are shaken” [Psalm 82:5, RSV].
The Noah story, the flood story, ends with the ushering in of a new era, and it is in many ways a second creation that mirrors the first creation in some important ways. But this time God realizes–and again this is where God’s got to punt all the time. This is what I love about the first part of Genesis–God is trying to figure out what he has made and what he has done, and he’s got to shift modes all the time–and God realizes that he’s going to have to make a concession. He’s going to have to make a concession to human weakness and the human desire to kill. And he’s going to have to rectify the circumstances that made his destruction of the earth necessary in the first place.
So he establishes a covenant with Noah: covenant. And humankind receives its first set of explicit laws, no more implicit, “Murder is bad.” “Oh I wish I had known!” Now we’re getting our first explicit set of laws and they’re universal in scope on the biblical writer’s view. They apply to all humanity not just Israel. So these are often referred to as the terms of the Noahide covenant. They apply to all humanity.
This covenant explicitly prohibits murder in Genesis 9, that is, the spilling of human blood. Blood is the symbol of life: that’s a connection that’s made elsewhere in the Bible. Leviticus 17[:11], “The life… is in the blood.” So blood is the biblical symbol for life, but God is going to make a concession to the human appetite for power and violence. Previously humans were to be vegetarian: Genesis 1, the portrait was one in which humans and animals did not compete for food, or consume one another. Humans were vegetarian. Now God is saying humans may kill animals to eat them. But even so, he says, the animal’s life is to be treated with reverence, and the blood which is the life essence must be poured out on the ground, returned to God, not consumed. So the animal may be eaten to satisfy the human hunger for flesh, but the life essence itself belongs to God. It must not be taken even if it’s for the purposes of nourishment. Genesis 9:4-6, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of humans… So if you are killed by a beast or a human, there will have to be a reckoning, an accounting. “…of every person’s brother I will require the life of the person. Whoever sheds the blood of a person, in exchange for that person shall his blood be shed, for God made humans in his image [Hayes translation]. All life, human and animal, is sacred to God. The covenant also entails God’s promise to restore the rhythm of life and nature and never again to destroy the earth. The rainbow is set up as a symbol of the eternal covenant, a token of the eternal reconciliation between the divine and human realms.
We should note that this notion, or this idea of a god who can even make and keep an eternal covenant is only possible on the view that God’s word and will are absolute, insusceptible to nullification by some superior power or some divine antagonist.
Now, I handed out, or there was handed out to you a sheet of paper. You might want to get that out in front of you because we’re going to talk a little bit about the flood story in Genesis 6 through 9. When we read the flood story in Genesis 6 through 9, we’re often struck by the very odd literary style. I hope you were struck by the odd literary style, and the repetitiveness and the contradictions. So I want to ask you now, and be brave and speak out, in your reading of the story did anything of that nature strike you? Was the story hard to follow? Was it self-contradictory, and in what ways? Anything? Just don’t even be polite, just throw it right out there. Yes?
Okay, we seem to have two sets of instructions. Someone’s pointing out here, we seem to have two sets of instructions about what to bring on-board: either to bring two of each sort of living thing, animals and birds and creeping things, or in another passage God tells Moses to bring on seven pairs of pure animals and one pair of impure animals and seven pairs of birds. Right? Different sets of instructions. Anything else strike you as odd when you were reading this story?
Okay, rain seems to be there for different amounts of time, doesn’t it? There are some passages in which the flood is said to have lasted for 40 days, or be on the earth for 40 days. We find that in Genesis 7:17, but in Genesis 7:24, 150 days is given as the time of the flood. Anything else? Any other sorts of doublets or contradictions, because there are a few more?
Who’s giving the instructions? That’s not hard; you have it right in front of you. Who’s giving the instructions?
Lord. Those are actually different Hebrew words underneath there, okay? Those two terms are different names of the deity that’s giving the instruction. Okay, so there are two designations used for God. Yahweh, which is the sacred Tetragrammaton, it’s written with four letters in Hebrew, they don’t include vowels. We don’t really know how it’s pronounced; I’m guessing at Yahweh, and that is a proper name for God, and in your translation that would be translated as “LORD” in small caps. So wherever you see ‘”LORD” in small caps, that’s actually the English translation for Yahweh, the proper name, like almost a personal name for God. And then in other places we have this word Elohim, which actually is the word for “gods,” a sort of generic term for deities in the plural. However, when it’s used to refer to the God of Israel it’s clearly singular, it always has a singular verb. So that will be appearing in your text as “God” with a capital G. So whenever you see “Lord” or “God” those are actually pointing to different words that are being used in the underlying Hebrew text.
Twice God is said to look down on creation. Twice it is said that he is displeased. Twice he decides to destroy all living things. Twice he issues instructions and as we’ve seen they’re contradictory. We seem to also have a different account of how long the flood lasted; there are more subtle contradictions throughout as well. Sometimes the flood seems to be the result of very heavy rain, but in other descriptions it seems to be a real cosmic upheaval. You’ll remember the description of the world from Genesis 1 as an air bubble essentially that’s formed by separating waters above and waters below. They’re held back or pressed back by the firmament above. And it’s the windows in the firmament that are opened–those waters are allowed to rush in and dissolve that air bubble. It’s as if we’re back to square one with the deep, right? Just this watery mass again. So it’s creation undoing itself in some of the descriptions, as opposed to just heavy rain.
And in keeping with that idea of a kind of a return to chaos, Noah is represented in a way as the beginning of a new creation. Because like Adam and Eve in the first creation story, Noah is told to be fruitful and multiply. He’s also given rule over everything, and that’s now extended to the taking of human life [correction: Professor Hayes actually meant to say animal life here].
The Bible contains a lot of repetition and contradiction. And sometimes it occurs in one passage, as in the flood story here, and sometimes it occurs in stories or passages that are separate from one another, for example, the two creation stories. There are many significant differences between the two creation stories. They different greatly in style. Genesis 1 is formalized, it’s highly structured, it has the seven days and everything’s paired up. It’s beautifully structured, it’s very abstract. Genesis 2 is much more dramatic, much more earthy. The first creation story doesn’t really contain puns and wordplays, it’s a little bit serious. The second creation story is full of them: there are all sorts of little ironies and puns in the Hebrew. Adam, the earthling made from the earth. Adam is made from adamah. Adam and Eve are naked, arum, which is the same word for clever or shrewd, and the snake is arum, he’s clever and shrewd: there are lots of little puns of this kind.
There are also differences in terminology between the two stories. Genesis 1 speaks of male and female, one set of Hebrew terms, but Genesis 2 uses man and woman, a different set of Hebrew terms to describe the genders. So the terms for gender are different in the two stories.
Genesis 1 refers to God, as in your translation “God,” Elohim, the word that’s translated as “God.” He’s remote, he’s transcendent. He creates effortlessly through his word and through his will. But Genesis 2 refers to the deity as a name that’s really a combination, it’s Yahweh Elohim, so you’ll see ‘”Lord God” right? You see that a lot in the Bible as well, Lord God. That tells you both of those words were side by side in the original Hebrew. So in Genesis 2 the deity is Yahweh Elohim. He’s much more down to earth. He forms the human like a potter working with clay. He talks to himself, he plants a garden, he takes a stroll in the garden in the cool of the evening. He makes clothes for Adam and Eve. He’s spoken of in much more anthropomorphic terms then the God that we encounter in Genesis 1.
So what we have in the first few chapters of Genesis are two creation stories that have distinctive styles, distinctive themes, distinctive vocabularies and they’re placed side by side. In Genesis 6 through 9 we seem to have two flood stories with distinctive styles, and themes, and vocabularies, and substantive details, but they’re interwoven instead of being placed side by side. And there are many such doublets in the Bible.
At times we have whole books that repeat or go over the same material. In fact the whole historical saga that’s recorded from Genesis through the end of 2 Kings is rehearsed again in the books of First and Second Chronicles. What are we to make of the repetitions and the contradictions here and throughout the Bible? What are the implications?
Suppose you came across a piece of writing that you knew nothing about just lying there on the table. You didn’t know who wrote it, where, when, how, why, and someone says to you, “I want you to draw some conclusions about that piece of writing. I want you to draw some conclusions about its authorship and the way it was compiled or composed.” And so you pick it up and you start reading and you notice features like this. What might you conclude? Throw it out, what might you conclude? No presuppositions. You pick up the work and you find these features. What might you conclude about its authorship or manner of composition?
You might conclude that there are multiple authors. Right? Multiple authorship. Yeah?
That revisions may have been made, so that you might have different sources that have been revised or put together in different ways. Right? Revisions implying that you’ve got something and then it’s worked over again, additions might be made so now that’s a new source. You might conclude that these features are evidence of multiple authorship; a good deal of revision which points itself to a kind of composite structure, different layers maybe, different sources.
Well as early as the Middle Ages there were some scholars who noticed these things in the biblical texts. They noticed that there are contradictions and repetitions and there are anachronisms too, other features that were evidence of multiple authorship, revisions and composite structure. So what? Why would that be a big deal?
Okay, it could be a bit of a problem if this text has become the basis for a system of religious faith or belief, and your assumptions about it are that its telling a truth that is singular in nature. And also what about the traditional beliefs on the origin of this text? Right, who wrote this text according to traditional beliefs? [inaudible comments from audience] I’m hearing Moses, I’m hearing God, I’m hearing a bunch of different things, but there are traditional ideas about generally the Mosaic authorship of the Bible, certainly the first five books of the Bible.
And so these features of the text which were noticed were a challenge to traditional religious convictions regarding the Mosaic authorship of the first five books of the Bible, and in many ways the perfection of the Bible, as speaking with a unified voice on matters of doctrine or religious theology. So medieval commentators for example began to speak a little bit more openly about some of these features. One of the first things they noticed is that Deuteronomy 34 describes the death and burial of Moses. So they decided it was possible that Moses didn’t write at least that chapter.
Similarly there are some anachronisms that they had to explain. One of the most famous is in Genesis 13:7. It’s in the midst of a story about dividing the land between Lot and–at that time his name was Abram, it later becomes Abraham–but between Lot and Abram. And the narrator in telling this story sort of interjects and turns to us, the readers, and says, “The Canaanites and Perrizites were then dwelling in the land.” Now what’s weird about that sentence? The narrator is speaking to us from a time in which the Canaanites and Perrizites don’t live in the land, right? “That’s back when the Native Americans lived in Connecticut.” Is that writer living at a time when Native Americans are still living in Connecticut or owning Connecticut? No. They’re writing from a later point of view. So the narrator breaks and talks to the audience in Genesis 13:7 and says, “That was back in the time when the Canaanites were in the land.” When did Moses live? Who lived in the land in the time of Moses? The Canaanites. I know you haven’t gotten there yet, but when you get to Deuteronomy you’re going to find out he doesn’t make it into the land. So he never makes it in there, he never gets in before the Israelites conquer. He dies–the Canaanites are still in possession. So that line was certainly written not by Moses; it was written by someone at a much later time who’s looking back and referring to the time when the Canaanites were in the land.
So these are the kinds of things that people began to notice. And with the rise of rationalism in the modern period, traditional notions of the divine and Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the Torah, the first five books of Moses, were called into question. The modern critical study of the Bible begins really with Spinoza who in the early seventeenth century suggested that the Bible should be studied and examined like any book: without presuppositions about its divine origin or any other dogmatic claims about its composition or authorship. But it was a Catholic priest, Richard Simon, who first argued that Moses didn’t write the Torah, and that it contained many anachronisms and errors.
— § § § —
05. — Critical Approaches to the Bible: Introduction to Genesis 12-50
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 05 of 24 | duration. 48:44]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
06. — Biblical Narrative: The Stories of the Patriarchs (Genesis 12–36)
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 06 of 24 | duration. 49:16]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
07. — Israel in Egypt: Moses and the Beginning of Yahwism (Genesis 37-Exodus 4)
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 07 of 24 | duration. 46:02]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
08. — Exodus: From Egypt to Sinai (Exodus 5-24, 32; Numbers)
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 08 of 24 | duration. 47:34]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
09. — The Priestly Legacy: Cult and Sacrifice, Purity and Holiness in Leviticus and Numbers
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 09 of 24 | duration. 48:34]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
10. — Biblical Law: The Three Legal Corpora of JE (Exodus), P (Leviticus and Numbers) and D (Deuteronomy)
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 10 of 24 | duration. 50:42]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
11. — On the Steps of Moab: Deuteronomy
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 11 of 24 | duration. 47:54]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
12. — The Deuteronomistic History: Life in the Land (Joshua and Judges)
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 12 of 24 | duration. 50:18]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
13. — The Deuteronomistic History: Prophets and Kings (1 and 2 Samuel)
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 13 of 24 | duration. 49:31]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
14. — The Deuteronomistic History: Response to Catastrophe (1 and 2 Kings)
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 14 of 24 | duration. 51:34]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
15. — Hebrew Prophecy: The Non-Literary Prophets
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 15 of 24 | duration. 49:50]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
16. — Literary Prophecy: Amos
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 16 of 24 | duration. 47:59]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
17. — Literary Prophecy: Hosea and Isaiah
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 17 of 24 | duration. 48:57]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
18. — Literary Prophecy: Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum and Habbakuk
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 18 of 24 | duration. 48:39]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
19. — Literary Prophecy: Perspectives on the Exile
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 19 of 24 | duration. 47:06]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
20. — Responses to Suffering and Evil: Lamentations and Wisdom
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 20 of 24 | duration. 52:52]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
21. — Biblical Poetry: Psalms and Song of Songs
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 21 of 24 | duration. 48:39]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
22. — The Restoration: 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 22 of 24 | duration. 49:17]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
23. — Visions of the End: Daniel and Apocalyptic Literature
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 23 of 24 | duration. 49:50]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
24. — Alternative Visions: Esther, Ruth, and Jonah
[Audio: Old Testament, Lecture 24 of 24 | duration. 28:54]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Christine Hayes, Yale University]
— § § § —
01. — The New Testament
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 01 of 26 | duration. 40:11]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
02. — From Stories to Canon
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 02 of 26 | duration. 48:53]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
03. — The Greco-Roman World
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 03 of 26 | duration. 48:41]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
04. — Judaism in the First Century
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 04 of 26 | duration. 48:27]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
05. — The New Testament as History
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 05 of 26 | duration. 36:41]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
06. — The Gospel of Mark
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 06 of 26 | duration. 44:37]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
07. — The Gospel of Matthew
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 07 of 26 | duration. 48:16]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
08. — The Gospel of Thomas
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 08 of 26 | duration. 50:28]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
09. — The Gospel of Luke
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 09 of 26 | duration. 49:15]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
10. — The Acts of the Apostles
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 10 of 26 | duration. 48:34]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
11. — Johannine Christianity: the Gospel
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 11 of 26 | duration. 49:49]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
12. — Johannine Christianity: the Letters
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 12 of 26 | duration. 50:55]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
13. — The Historical Jesus
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 13 of 26 | duration. 52:28]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
14. — Paul as Missionary
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 14 of 26 | duration. 50:14]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
15. — Paul as Pastor
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 15 of 26 | duration. 47:30]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
16. — Paul as Jewish Theologian
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 16 of 26 | duration. 47:49]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
17. — Paul’s Disciples
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 17 of 26 | duration. 49:51]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
18. — Arguing with Paul?
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 18 of 26 | duration. 45:51]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
19. — The “Household” Paul: the Pastorals
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 19 of 26 | duration. 46:03]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
20. — The “Anti-household” Paul: Thecla
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 20 of 26 | duration. 48:33]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
21. — Interpreting Scripture: Hebrews
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 21 of 26 | duration. 48:05]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
22. — Interpreting Scripture: Medieval Interpretations
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 22 of 26 | duration. 49:28]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
— § § § —
23. — Apocalyptic and Resistance
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 23 of 26 | duration. 47:11]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
The word “apocalypse” is the Greek word apocalypsis that is translated as “revelation” because that’s exactly what it means, “an uncovering.” You will often hear the Revelation of John also referred to as The Apocalypse because that’s also its title. Now one point, please don’t call it “The Revelations.” I don’t know why people think that “Revelations” is the name of the book. It’s not, and it’s the “Revelation of John,” that’s the title. The word just means “the uncovering,” it refers nowadays in the modern world to an entire genre of literature of the ancient world, most of which is Jewish, but there are some maybe Greek apocalypse, things that people would call a Greek apocalypse or apocalyptic type literature in some Latin texts or in Egyptian or in other near eastern situations. Most of what we call apocalypses comes from either an ancient Jewish or ancient Christian milieu.
This kind of literature has several characteristics the scholars have pointed out, and I’ll go over this very briefly. They tend to be pseudonymous, and they are set deep in the past like we saw in the book of Daniel. In fact, Daniel is where we get a lot of our generic notions of what an apocalypse is. The two apocalyptic, most apocalyptic books in the Bible are Daniel and Revelation. There’s kind of an apocalyptic world view that I’ll talk about also. When we talk about apocalypse we’re talking about first that genre of literature. They’re usually pseudonymous, they’re ascribed to some ancient hero, so we have apocalypses that are titled after Enoch, said to be by Enoch, who lived way, way, way back just after Adam. We have apocalypses attributed to various other Old Testament characters, so that the idea, as we saw with Daniel, is it’s written at one time but the author claims to be writing centuries before. Like we saw in the case of Daniel, they usually tell you what’s going to happen in the future. Of course it’s actually in the past for the writer, all up until a certain point, and then the end of the current society or the end of the world as we know it. It’s not normally the end of the world entirely. Usually it is a destruction and then a resettling or recreation of a physical world. It’s just called in the Kingdom of God or something like that.
They usually have a chronological span of time. They have all kinds of images, angels, demons, sometimes beasts, sometimes monstrous kinds of beasts as you’ve seen also in Revelation and in Daniel. They’re usually constructed as some kind of narrative. The author will say something like, I was in a dream and I saw this and then this angel grabbed me and took me to this part of heaven and to took me to the third heaven, or the fifth heaven, or the 12th heaven, and then I went down to the deep and saw the dead. Think Dante’s Inferno and the way that Dante is led around into the different parts of the cosmos. And they have a cosmology. They usually have a storied structure to the universe with several different layers of heavens and often several different layers of underneath, the different hells or Hades. That’s the genre of an apocalypse.
There’s also the world view of apocalypticism we’ll call it. Why we use this term is because Paul, as far as we know it, never wrote an apocalypse, and yet his letters show strong influence of apocalypticism, that is an apocalyptic world view. You have, for example, three different kinds of dualisms. You’ve already seen in the Gospel of John and other texts how there’s a dualism between good and evil, there are the good guys and the bad guys, there is God and there is Satan, so there’s an ethical kind of dualism. There’s also a spatial dualism. There’s a dualism of up there and down here, and so you have things that go on on the earth are simply shadows of what’s going on actually in the heavens. It’s like every country, according to Daniel, has its own prince, by that he means some kind of angelic being. The Prince of Persia refers in Daniel to some huge angelic super human being who actually rules Persia. The Prince of Judah, the angel of Judah tends to be Michael or some other angel that you’ve probably heard of, like Raphael. Each of the nations has its own angel so you can imagine sort of that Russia has its angel, and so then America has its angel, and if Russia and America were to go to war this would be actually simply an earthly shadow type reflection of the true reality which would be going on as the angel of Russia was battling the angel of America in heaven. So everything that goes on in our cosmos is simply a mirror image of these battles that are going on the heavens. So that’s another dualism of space.
Then there’s of course a dualism of time. We’ve talked a lot about how for Daniel, remember there is a dualism of before time and the after time. There’s a time that Daniel’s writing, which is up to this, and then what will happen is some big cataclysm will happen, and then, according to Daniel, the Son of Man will come down, battle against the bad evil forces, overthrow Antiochus the IV Epiphanes, and set up the Kingdom of God. You have the same kind of structure of the time before and the time after in the New Testament except it’s squirrely, right? Because according, say, to Paul, this is what’s happened: you have the now time which is still going on, and then you have the future time which has already started impinging on the present. The thing that marks the beginning of the end time has been the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was raised–what do you have when people are raised? The end of the world. The dead are supposed to be raised according to Jewish mythology, and this is something that doesn’t happen all the time, and mainly it happens at the end of time.
The early Christians were Jews expecting an apocalyptic Kingdom of God to happen, and Jesus probably taught this sort of thing himself as an apocalyptic prophet. But when Jesus was killed then the whole thing seemed to go awry because the Messiah is not supposed to be killed. The followers of Jesus, though, very quickly believed that they had seen him after he died, so they believed they had seen the resurrected Jesus. We’re not going to talk about what they actually saw or what happened. From a historical point of view all we can say is that they believed they saw him raised from the dead. And that meant they thought, oh the end time must have already started because he has been raised. In other words, remember how Paul talks about Jesus as the “first fruits of those who sleep.” That just means that Jesus is just the first apple on the tree in his resurrection, and all the rest will be raised when the final end comes. But for the early Christians they believed the end had already to in some sense started with the resurrection of Jesus, so that’s this end. But then they also know the full end hasn’t come because we don’t see the Kingdom of God around us. Those damn Romans are still in charge. The bad evil American government is still running things in the world, so this must not be the Kingdom of God. It may be the kingdom of Obama but it’s not yet the Kingdom of God. The Christians expected Jesus to come back down, to come from heaven. This was called the parousia. We’ve already seen it in several texts. In I Thessalonians, for example, Paul talks about Jesus will come and then we’ll fly up in the air and meet him. That’s the parousia, which is a Greek term that just means “presence” or “coming,” and we’ll refer to the time when a king or the emperor would come to visit a city, and all the people in the city, the important people would come out of the city, out of the gates, to meet the king and give him gifts and the king would give them gifts, and they would all accompany the king back into the city. That’s called a parousia. It’s a purely sort of political civic kind of term. This is what early Christians use to call the coming back of Jesus in his parousia. Christians lived, according to Paul’s theology, right in this middle time of an overlap of the before and the after, but that’s still the before and after that you see of apocalyticism. It’s still there. All these different dualisms are one of the characteristics, and you can see these sorts of things even in texts that aren’t themselves apocalypses, but they show influences from this kind of world view and this kind of narrative view of history and the cosmology.
Often apocalypses seem to have served as a form of cultural resistance. They make the most sense often if you see them as being popular among people who either are oppressed by some more powerful entity or at least believed that they are oppressed. They fear themselves to be oppressed. For example, it’s a perfectly natural world view–you can understand how the world view is, if you believe you’re an oppressed minority and you can’t really fight against the more powerful entity. There’s no way these early little Christians groups or even the nation of Israel could rebel against the Roman Empire and win. The idea is that, well, we will resist them and eventually God will intervene in history with his angels and his army and the divine armies will come, and we will fight alongside them to overthrow the Greeks. The earliest apocalypses, Daniel was talking about the Greeks and Syrians, the Greco-Syrian Empire. So the Greeks were the first oppressive power that people thought they could overthrow this way. Then of course the Romans became the more oppressive power later, so in Jesus’ time and Paul’s time it’s the Romans who are the enemy that will be overthrown. But that will all happen.
It’s not always true that the people who believe in these kinds of apocalyptic ideas are themselves in fact an oppressed minority. After all, Ronald Reagan was the President of the United States, and he still believed this stuff. He still believed that God was going to come any day, he thought it was going to happen right then, any day now, and God was going to have a big battle. Israel would be involved in it and all the different nations of the earth, and then God would set up the Kingdom of God in Jerusalem. Reagan talked about this on the phone with different Israeli politicians and leaders. How does this make sense for Ronald Reagan, the most powerful man in the world, to have this apocalyptic world view? Well Reagan spent a lot of his life feeling like he was on the out and feeling like he was not one of the liberal establishment of the east coast and this sort of thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that people who hold these views are themselves discriminated against minorities or oppressed minorities, but it usually means that they perceive themselves that way, because, otherwise, if you really do have power you just make the world like you want it to be. You overthrow somebody or you wage a battle, and wage war, and you fix the problem yourself. It’s when you don’t have the power politically or militarily to fix the problem that this kind of world view becomes very persuasive to you, very believable, plausible.
That’s what the Book of Revelation is. In fact, we use the title of Revelation, the Apocalypse, as the term for the whole genre and for the whole world, and it comes basically from this book because it’s the most famous apocalypse of all, naturally. The weird thing about Revelation, though, is that it’s [not] pseudonymous. We don’t–the book says it’s just written by a guy named John. It’s not the same John who was the brother of Zebedee, it’s not the same John–if there was a John who wrote the Gospel of John and the letters of John, which we don’t really know who wrote them, but whoever wrote Revelation is not the same person who wrote any of that literature. The style is too different, the theology is too different. It’s just clearly not the same person. He doesn’t claim to be any famous John, he just claims to be John, and so we call him often John the Seer or John the prophet or something like that. He doesn’t seem to hide who he is, and, interestingly enough, he doesn’t place the composition of his book centuries in the past. He actually places it in his own time. This is also tells you where he thought he was. He really believed that he was right there and that the end had already begun in a sense with Jesus. He doesn’t feel the need to pass back into the past and prophesy again. He sees himself as a prophetic figure like Daniel, but a prophetic figure not for the future, he doesn’t believe there’s going to be any more future. He believes that Jesus is coming back right now, so he just places himself right at the beginning.
It’s also a little bit unlike some apocalypses because you have these seven letters in the beginning of the book that are addressed to seven different churches in Asia Minor. One of the interesting things about all of Revelation is its structure. I talked about Hebrews last week and I gave you an outline to the letter to the Hebrews to show you that it was a very elaborately structured sermon. Hebrews was very well written. It’s some of the best Greek in the New Testament. Revelation is interestingly structured, and I’ll show you why I say that, but actually it’s not very well written. The Greek is almost illiterate, and scholars have wondered about this, is it just because the writer of this didn’t have a very good education? Or some people have even suggested maybe he’s intentionally writing in kind of a weird way as sort of almost a form of protest against people in power. There are different theories about this, but it’s not very good Greek, and it’s not very well written.
But it does have a fairly intricate and interesting structure, and I call this a structure of cycles, the spiral. I’ve titled your outline “a spiral outline of Revelation” because the story–a lot of people have read Revelation–well, let me also back up and explain what’s different this week from what we did last week. Last week, if you recall, I spent a lot of time talking about Hebrews and medieval interpretation because I was trying to illustrate how the historical, critical interpretation of these texts that I’m teaching you in the semester is not the only way to do it. There are other kinds of allegorical, theological, literary ways to read these texts, and those are perfectly fine. Now, though, I’m completely reverting back to the historical critical way of reading this text. Partly because the way that so many people in popular culture read Revelation, especially very conservative Christians, is to read it about our time. It’s been read over and over again to be about English wars or World War I or World War II, or most recently in The Late Great Planet Earth and these kinds of things, it’s about the Soviet Union versus the United States of America, and everything that it talks about is referring to what’s going to happen in our lifetimes. So the weird animals, the locust type things that have the heads of men and fly through the air, there are all kinds of modern Christians that say, oh those are helicopters. The author didn’t know what a helicopter looked like in the ancient world so he just described kind of what he saw, but we know now those are helicopters, so he’s actually describing a big war that’s going to break out around Israel and in Israel when the whole world’s going to come to this big cataclysmic nuclear war, and it’s all talked about right here in Revelation. Well, obviously I’m not going to do that. What I’m going to show you is how historians read this text precisely by putting it back in its ancient context.
One of the things is, if you notice, the Book Revelation doesn’t give one strict timeline. In fact it seems to have cycles of setting up some kind of weird crisis, having all these terrible things happen, and then have something that looks like a quasi resolution and then starting the cycle again. It ends up being a big cataclysmic crash at the end of the book, so this is why I call this a spiral of cycles that are going on in the Book of Revelation. First though look at just chapters 6-8, and I’m going to walk you through this very rapidly because you can see something of the structure of this book right here. Now this is after you’ve had the letters in the beginning of Revelation, then you’ve had the throne room scene with God, which we’re going to talk about in a minute, and all the songs that everybody’s saying. Let’s just walk through first structure here.
Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out with a voice of thunder, “Come!” I looked and there was a white horse. Its rider had a bow, a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.
This is conquering, and warfare is this first horse. “When he opened the second seal,” –where is he going with the seals? — Picture this now: we’ve talked about how books were composed in the ancient world, and we talked about scrolls. Things were in scrolls not in books like this with all the different pages all sewn together. What he’s imagining seeing is there’s this huge scroll in the sky that this angel is holding and doing different things. When you want to finish a letter or a book you roll up the scroll, and then you put a wax seal at the end of the roll and that seals the book. So anybody who wants to read that letter or that book the first time has to break that wax seal. The seals that he’s talking about are the wax seals on the scroll. You imagine that you’ve got this scroll that has one seal and you can break that seal and you can unroll the scroll a little bit, but then you get another seal, so you undo that seal and you can unroll it a little bit more, so he’s gradually unrolling this scroll that’s going to have all these things pop out of it. There’s this big huge scroll that has horses and riders jumping out of it and flying through the air.
He opened the second seal. I heard the second living creature call out, “Come!” And out came another horse bright red. Its writer was permitted to take peace from the earth so that the people would slaughter one another and he was given a great sword.
So the first seal releases this horse that looks like Empire, the conquering of the conqueror; the second is just general warfare.
When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, “Come!” I looked and there was a black horse. Its rider had a pair of scales in his hand, and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s pay and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine.”
The third seal is what? Famine and poverty.
When he opened the fourth seal I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, “Come!” And I looked and there was a pale green horse. Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him. They were given authority over a fourth of the earth to kill with the sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.
So death is the fourth seal. “When I opened the fifth seal I saw under the altar”–notice we’re not talking about horsemen anymore. You had four horsemen representing four different things. The fifth seal has something like a digression, the fifth seal is not another horse like you expect. In other words, you’re given to expect that you’re going to see another horse that’s going to be some other catastrophe, but you don’t get that, you have a digression.
Under the altar, the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given, they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer until the number would be complete, both of their fellow slaves [it says “slaves” actually in the Greek, not “servants”] and of their brothers.
It doesn’t say sisters. There’s almost no women in this text at all. It’s all men, virgin men who have never been polluted by touching women. It’s not exactly a pro-woman book. You might not get that idea if you have an English translation that keeps putting sisters in here, but there are no sisters in this book. There’s the whore of Babylon, there’s the mother bride, and then there are men. “. . . your slaves, you fellow brothers, who are soon to be killed as they themselves have been killed.” What’s the fifth seal? Well it gives him a vision of the altar of God, in the temple of God in heaven, and there’s this big altar. And under the altar are the souls of all the followers of Jesus who have been martyred up to this time, and the souls of those people who will be martyred. They’re not punished, they’re saying how long, how long, and he says, oh keep your pants on, here’s a white robe, just sit there and be nice under the altar, we’re going to take care of it all very, very soon. The fifth seal is actually a digression that tells you, the audience, that if you suffer in this present time it will be taken care of by God. You have these four building up of terrible things, and the fifth is a digression that gives you comfort. But now we’re going to get back.
He opened the sixth seal, I looked and I heard a great earthquake, the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, the stars of the sky fell to the earth as a fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up.
Remember I talked about how the sky in ancient cosmology isn’t just air, it’s actually a firm thing, it’s like a big piece of leather or something like that sits up there, and there’s water on the other side of it in most ancient cosmologies, or something on the other side of it. When he talks about seeing the sky rolled up like a scroll he means that quite literally. The sky goes jrrrjrrjrrrrjrrr and rolls up, and you can see heaven above it. So the sky vanishes like a scroll.
Every mountain and island moved from its place. Then the kings of the earth, and the magnates and the generals, and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves, and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
The sixth seal is all hell breaks loose. The cosmos is coming down on top of itself. He’s created an increasing level of anxiety and catastrophe with this, but that fifth seal there’s kind of a digression. “After this I saw four angels. . .” Now you think, oh man, if the sixth seal is like that you know one more seal is coming up. What’s the seventh seal going to be? Man, I’m eager to hear this! Remember all this was read out loud in the ancient world so you’re hearing all this.
“I saw four angles standing at the four corners of the earth, hurrying back the four winds of the earth.” Now you get a bunch of other stuff, “I saw another angel ascend, and I heard the number of those were sealed.” Now you have all the followers of Jesus are numbered into different tribes of 12,000 a piece, and each of those tribes is sealed themselves. Isn’t that interesting, you have another use of the term seal but now this is a seal that’s put on the faces of all the people who are the true followers, who are the true Israel, twelve tribes like the twelve tribe–the lost ten tribes and the other two tribes of Israel. There’s the reconstituting of Israel now, and they’re sealed, and the seal is a good thing. It means you won’t be harmed if you have this on you. That goes on all of chapter 7. You’re thinking where is the seventh seal? We had six, I know there’s another one coming, where is it? You have to wait all the way through chapter 7 wanting the seventh seal but you’re not getting it yet. In other words, he’s just stringing you along. But he’s stringing you along in a way that’s kind of good because he’s reassuring you. You know the seventh seal is coming, and you’re just–you’re pretty sure it’s going to be really, really, really, really bad because the sixth seal was. But before you get to the seventh seal you have this sealing of you, if you’re a faithful follower of Jesus, with the reassurance of a seal.
And then you have some songs, we’re going to talk about some songs, but everybody comes in and it’s like a Broadway play. You have something happen, and then the chorus all runs on stage and they do a little song, blessed be the lamb, and the blah, blah, blah, halleluiah, halleluiah, and then they run off and you have more action. That’s the way the story is structured, for interesting reasons.
We get to the end of chapter 7, we’re finally to this chapter, so you get to Chapter 8–of course they’re not numbered in the ancient world. But “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal,” you ready for this? “there was silence in heaven for a half an hour.” That’s the seventh seal. What’s going on? The text builds up tension, and you hear this read out loud, and it keeps building up this tension, but then the seventh seal is such a anticlimax: silence in heaven for a half an hour. Then it doesn’t explain anything about that, it just starts over. And then you have another cycle a little bit later. “Another angel of the golden censor came and stood by the altar.”
In other words, what’s you’ve got is something like this. You have these four scrolls–the four seals which are terrible, terrible, terrible awful things, and then you have the fifth which is a digression, and it’s actually a good thing, it’s the telling of the souls who have been martyred, don’t worry, you’ll be saved, here’s a white robe, relax. Then you have the sixth seal which is another worse thing than all of these, it’s really, really bad and its goes on longer, and then you have this long digression again, this is like the fifth seal, it’s a sealing of the followers of Jesus with salvation. Then after that digression then you have this seventh seal which is really kind of anticlimactic. But it’s not bad because, you know, silence in heaven for a half an hour.
Look at your spiral outline now because this kind of structure of having a cycle of catastrophes that are interrupted every once in a while by some kind of digression that then ends with something good, that’s the way the whole book is structured in three different cycles. For example, I said in the fourth chapter of Revelation you have the big heavenly throne room scene. Revelation 5, you have the introduction of the scroll with seven seals and the lamb, and then you have the first cycle of seven, and that’s what I just walked you through just now. Then right after 8:1, the silence in heaven, it starts again with a second cycle, and you have in 8:2 introduction of seven angels with seven trumpets, and then again you have the first, second, third, and fourth trumpet which announce these kind of catastrophes. And then you have an interlude where this eagle comes through and announces woes on everybody. And then you have the fifth trumpet in 9:1-12, and the sixth trumpet in 9:13, and then you have chapter 10 which has another interlude which is about the scroll of prophecy. Chapter 11, you have the talk about the temple, and he has to measure the temple. And then in 11:14 you have the end of the second woe. And finally in 11:15 you have the seventh trumpet. And what does the seventh trumpet introduce? Praise in heaven, sort of like that half hour of silence.
Then you have a long interlude, which is chapters 12, 13, and 14 which is about battles between the woman who’s the mother of church or the mother of the Savior, and the dragon. Chapter 13 is about the dragon and the beast. Chapter 14 is about the lamb, the horned lamb which represents Jesus who’s a horned lamb who is wounded. And then you have starting in 15:1, you have a third cycle of seven angels and seven plagues or bowls. Then you have the great conclusion, which is the very end, the destruction of Rome in chapters 17-19. The final battle which is 19:11-21, the imprisonment and eventual destruction of enemies which is Chapter 20 and the establishment of the new Jerusalem in chapters 21 and 22.
What does this structure tell us? Because the structures in these different cycles, it builds up crisis and then it gives you something, a relief at the end. There’s a famous New Testament scholar who teaches at the Divinity School, this time it’s not me, who teaches in the Divinity School, Adela Yarbro Collins. Many years ago when I was still a student I read this book she had wrote called, Crisis and Catharsis. It’s a wonderful book about Revelation. And her thesis was, the very purpose of the Book of Revelation is to build up a sense of crisis in early followers of Jesus. If you’re too comfortable with your world, you don’t know that things are really a lot worse than what you think they are. If it’s addressed to Christians who are, if they’re comfortable, it wants to make them uncomfortable with Roman rule. If they’re uncomfortable with Roman rule, and feel depressed and oppressed, then eventually the book will lead them to feeling comfort. So crisis is created by the book in order to let you experience a catharsis of the salvation. The looping structure of the book tries to work that out psychologically in its hearers. You can see how it’s going to do this.
And, remember, it’s meant to be performed. You’re hearing it read out loud. It’s a long book, but you sit there, and you imagine a bunch of Christians in Asia Minor in some church, say, in Ephesus, and they’re meeting is dark, they’re meeting in some house somewhere, in somebody’s dining room, and somebody has sent around this document and asked it to be read. You’re all sitting around with just some candles going and somebody’s reading this book, and it’s got all these strange things going on, strange creatures, and a lot of these songs and things that people are singing, and angels are singing, and beasts are singing, and elders are singing. It’s sort of like in the fourth chapter, look at the fourth chapter of Revelation. This is where we’re in the throne room of God.
After this I looked, and there in heaven, a door stood open and the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne with one seated on the throne. And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. And around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders dressed in white robes with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne were flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne were seven flaming torches with the seven spirits of God.
You have all this going on and then the four living creatures, these monstrous combination kind of monster creatures are standing around the throne and they starting singing “holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come.” Then you see the twenty-four elders, and they’re singing another song. The whole thing is meant to be seen in your mind, not just read silently.
We’re going to do a little experiment here to show how that might happen. We’re going to break up into thirds. You [pointing to a group] get to be the four living creatures. Then we’re going to split the rest of the class right here, you all [pointing to another group] get to be–I think it’s the elders I can’t remember, and then you’ll be another group [pointing to the last third of the class]. These are the quotations. I want you to say this with me very soft at first, all right? Don’t rush, don’t get faster. I’m a musician you know, I’m going to make you stick with the tempo I set.
[Instructs the first group to chant continuously.] “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come.” Say it!
[The next group begins to chant continuously.] “Worthy is the lamb that was slain.” Don’t rush. “Worthy is the lamb that was slain.”
[Last group begins to chant.] “Glory, honor, power to thee, oh Lord, most high. Glory, honor, power to thee oh Lord most high.” Now get a little bit louder.
[All three groups are chanting while Professor Martin speaks.] There’s smoke in the throne room. There are beasts flapping their wings. Now close your eyes and get louder. [Students are chanting.] Shout it! [Students are chanting loudly.] Stop! [Everyone stops.] You feel something? You’re supposed to feel something. You’re supposed to kind of feel weird. You’re supposed to feel uncomfortable just a little bit, you’re supposed to feel a little tingle, because reading Revelation as if it’s a blueprint for Jesus coming back and what’s going to happen with the Republicans and the Democrats kind of misses the point. Because what it really is doing, it’s trying to pull you into a world, a very performative world. That’s the thing–it really is like a stage show except the stage is the whole cosmos and all kind of weird things that are happening all around.
Part of what’s going on here, to use Professor Collins’s phrase, is it introduces this sense of a crisis in the cosmos. It doesn’t do that because it wants you to, in the end, simply live in that crisis. It’s because the author believes God’s going to take care of the crisis eventually but not necessarily today. The book, having this book performed in your church for you, read out loud in the middle of the night, deals with your sense of persecution if you have one. But what if you don’t have a sense of persecution? What if you’re actually fairly comfortable with Rome? What if you’re fairly well off? You’ve got a good business, the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, actually allows you to travel. You can get on a ship and not have to worry about pirates, unlike today [student laughter], or unlike it was a hundred years before this. Pompey was the general who cleaned the pirates out of the Mediterranean in the first century BCE. So if you’re a businessman, and you’re fairly well off, you might think that the Roman peace is a pretty good thing. Sure a few people’s heads got to get cracked every once in a while, to keep the peace, that’s just the way it is.
The Book of Revelation seems to have a dual purpose. It’s like that old saying about what good preaching is, good preaching is supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That’s kind of what the Book of Revelation seems to try to do. Because notice, what is the view of Rome that you get here? Look in Revelation 18 and 19. If all you had was the letters of Paul, what might you think about Rome, what might you think about the government, what might you think about the emperor? If you all you had were certain other books such as the Pastoral Epistles what would you think the–about their politics? There’s no way you could find this author saying something like “honor the emperor,” which is precisely what you get in some other early Christian letters.
After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven having great authority and the earth was made bright with his splendor. He called out with a might voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, a haunt of every foul bird, a haunt of every foul and hateful beast. For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants, and the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.”
This is clearly Rome. Babylon is the code name for Rome here. We know it is because in 17:9,18 he talks about this city being on seven hills, referring to the famous Seven Hills of Rome. Of course in 13:18
. . . so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark of the beast, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom, let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is 666.
What is 666? Well, back in the 1980s some of us leftists said Ronald Wilson Reagan, or you can come up with all kinds of other things. Scholars think that if you take the word “Nero,” the name of the Emperor and you spell it “Neron,” with a final N like you would, in the Hebrew letters, it comes out to be 666, adding up those three letters. Now you’ll notice there’s also a footnote that says other ancient authorities say 616, so some scribe comes along and sees 666 and said, oh no that can’t be right, it must be 616. It’s actually–that makes a lot sense if this is supposed to refer to Nero because if you spelled Nero’s name slightly differently, in a way that was still possible to spell it for the ancient world, it comes out to be 616 rather than 666, which leads a lot of us scholars just to think the writer is probably referring to Nero in some way. Nero is a beast, and Nero is the whore, Rome is the whore that’s had sex with every rich man and every king throughout the whole world. This is not a very positive view of Rome, and Rome of course is completely destroyed at the end.
The part of Nero is when we don’t when this text was written. Some people actually believe that Revelation was written in the 60s when Nero was himself the emperor. More tend to believe that it’s written toward the end of the century, when Nero had already been dead. This refers to a great myth from the ancient world called Nero redivivus. The myth was that Nero was such a terrible, terrible, terrible bad man that even though he had been assassinated he was going to rise from the dead someday. Or some people believed he wasn’t ever dead, he escaped and he was off living with Parthians, who were these people who lived on the very eastern corner of the Roman Empire. The idea was Nero was still alive somewhere and he was going to raise an army of Parthians, and he was going to come back and he was going to wage war and take over the Roman Empire again. Or he was going to rise from the dead and raise an army and take over the empire again.
This was especially chilling for followers of Jesus because Nero was well known, at the end of the century, for being the first emperor to have persecuted the followers of Jesus in Rome. The famous story is that Nero–there was a big fire in Rome, and Nero was blamed for the fire because he was clearing a bunch of apartment buildings of lower income people out of a certain area of Rome, it’s right by the Coliseum, to build his huge big palace. In fact now, if you go to Rome, they’ve opened up the Golden House, they call it, and this was the palace that Nero built. It’s beautiful, you have to go under the ground to get into it and see it and everything because it’s all covered by the ground. If you go to Rome, get tickets and go to Nero’s palace because it’s only in the last several years that it’s been reopened for the public. The idea was, Nero had actually burned a bunch of tenements in order to make room for his palace, but because this was so unpopular he blamed it on the Christians. He said, the Christians set the fire, the Christians are those really bad people, and the story goes that he had big barbeques in his palace grounds and he put the bodies of Christians covered with tar on stakes and crucified them, and put them on stakes, and lit them and their burning bodies provided the torchlight for his party. This is the story that was circulated about Nero by later Christians and by other people too. For followers of Jesus, Nero was this terrible figure, who they thought he might even rise again from the dead and do battle against us.
What does all this make sense of? The writer is giving this big myth, obviously the whore is killed, Babylon is killed, Rome is destroyed, all the wealthy people are destroyed, all the kings of the earth are destroyed by the angels and by Jesus coming down. And then the setting up of the new Jerusalem that’s gold and beautiful, and there’s no night or day there because God is its light and everybody lives happily ever after. What is the kind of situation that this speaks too? We’re going to go back to the beginning of Revelation now.
Look at chapter 2. These are in the letters. We know it was written by a guy named John. He says he was imprisoned on the isle of Patmos in the Mediterranean when he wrote this, and then he circulates it around. He starts off with these seven letters to seven churches. “To the angel of the church in Ephesus.” Ephesus, we’ve seen Ephesus haven’t we? One of pseudo-Paul’s letters may have been addressed to Ephesus. Paul apparently did found a church in Ephesus, and it was one of his bigger churches it seems like. He spent years there.
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lamp stands. I know your works, your toil, and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evil doers, you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. [There are false apostles running around.], I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. But I have this against you . . .
See some of the letters are mainly letters of praise to the churches and some of them are scolding letters, so it’s interesting to see what does he scold people for, and what does he praise them for?
Remember, then, from what you have fallen, repent. [This is a backslid church he thinks.] Do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place unless you repent. Yet this is to your credit, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. [Well, we don’t really know anything about the Nicolaitans, so that doesn’t tell us much.] Let anyone who has an ear, listen to what the spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
Then he goes onto another church. So there are false apostles, but then look at 2:9:
I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
There is this poverty, he’s praising poverty. He talks about people who -say they’re Jews but they’re not. 2:13: “I know where you are living.” This is to Pergamum which happened to be a huge site of the imperial cult, the cult to the emperor. In fact you can go there now, I’m going to be there in June, aren’t you jealous? You can go to the top of this mountain, the Acropolis in Pergamum, and the Austrian archeologists are rebuilding all these temples to Trajan and Hadrian on the top of this hill. Of course Trajan and Hadrian are after he wrote this, but there was still a big emperor cult there.
I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. [well maybe that’s a reference to the emperor cult itself.] You are holding fast to my name, you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, I have some things against you, you have some . . .
Well, I’m running out of time but let me tell you what basically he really doesn’t like. He doesn’t like a woman named, he calls Jezebel, who is one of the prophets in one the churches. He doesn’t like rich people. He says stuff about idolatry which makes it sound like he doesn’t like people who are eating meat sacrificed to idols. We don’t think there were any of these churches that were actually practicing pagan idolatry. What’s probably going on is, he knows that there are some Christians who eat meat sacrificed to idols, and he calls that idolatry.
Now let’s think about it, which churches are in this area of western Asia Minor that have women as leaders in them, they’ve been told by their apostle that it’s okay to eat meat sacrificed to idols, and some of them are not that poor, like there seem to be people in Corinth who seem to be fairly well off. Maybe this guy, and this is just a theory, but I think it’s fun to think about, maybe he’s actually writing to Paul’s churches precisely because he thinks they’re too comfortable with Roman rule, and he wants to make them uncomfortable with Roman rule in order to turn them against Rome and to convert him to his own vision about this anti-Roman version of the Gospel. And that’s why he constructs the letter to say, as I said, if you’re troubled, if you feel like you’re oppressed you’re supposed to be comforted by this text. But if you’re too comfortable with the Pax Romana you’re supposed to be mad uncomfortable by the text and get on the right side. On Wednesday we’ll talk about some texts that may have been more comfortable with Roman rule.
— § § § —
24. — Apocalyptic and Accommodation
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 24 of 26 | duration. 48:18]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
Last time we talked about the Book of Revelation, and I ended up by trying to place Revelation in the context of Roman politics in the imperial cult. Clearly this author, whoever wrote Revelation, and it is somebody named John, although as we said it’s not the same John who wrote the Gospels or wrote the letters, it’s not John son of Zebedee, it’s just some other guy named John. John was a very common name for Jews in the first century, so it’s not uncommon that we have a guy named John but don’t know exactly who he is in relation to anybody else in early Christianity. One of the things that I ended was by saying, let’s imagine his politics. This is clearly an anti-Roman document. That’s the one thing we can say about it for sure. Who would write this and why would he write these seven letters to these seven churches that we have in Revelation? One way to think about this is if this document was written toward the last part of the first century, as a lot of scholars think it is, he may–and I said remember his Greek is bad. He doesn’t write Greek well, sometimes it’s even grammatically wrong in places, and it’s just bad Greek–even though we don’t have really good Greek in most of the New Testament, but this is the worst.
What do you think of someone who is against eating meat sacrificed to idols, seems to think of himself as a true Jew, and the Jews who are occupying synagogues in different parts of Asia Minor as not true Jews, and is anti-women as far as their roles in the churches? There’s nothing we know about this woman he calls Jezebel except that he’s using this nickname from the Old Testament for a whore-like idolatress woman, Jezebel, and labeling some Christian woman, who’s a leader in one of these churches. He’s labeling her with this terrible term. I suggested maybe he’s actually writing against the kind of Christianity we see represented by Paul’s churches, which were right there in these places such as Ephesus and Smyrna that he’s writing too, because Paul’s churches actually have people in them who are fairly well off in some cases. They seem to be fairly comfortable with Roman culture. They may have their own businesses, they have their own slaves, there are women leaders in Paul’s churches. Paul allows that sort of thing, as some of you have pointed out in your papers on that, and they believe it’s okay to eat meat sacrificed to idols, which this author seems to think is idolatrous in itself. I’ve suggested that maybe this guy is writing Revelation precisely to attack the kind of Christianity we see represented in Paul’s own letters.
What kind of person might this be? One way is just to imagine, and this is pure speculation, pure imagination, what if this guy had come from Palestine himself? Maybe he lived through the Jewish war of 70 C.E., remember it was 70 C.E. when the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed and Jerusalem was overrun by the Romans. Thousands of Jews were taken into slavery and taken to Rome and sold off to be slaves, and the land was devastated to a certain extent. Maybe he lived through that war and that increased his hatred of the Romans. He gets to western Asia Minor, he’s travelling around other parts of the eastern Mediterranean, he gets to western Asia Minor, and here he doesn’t see followers of Jesus who are, like him, poor, not very well educated perhaps, hateful of the Roman Empire and see themselves as being oppressed by the Roman Empire. He sees Christians who think that they’re followers of Jesus also but they’re fairly comfortable in their world. They live in comfortable Greek and Greco Roman urban environments. So he writes Revelation to try to shake them up, to get them to hate Rome as much as he hates Rome. To get them to be just as wary of the imperial cult as he is. So that’s one picture definitely of early Christianity that we see an anti-Roman kind of politics.
The live question this week, and the question you’ll be talking about in your discussion groups on Thursday and Friday, and some of you will be writing papers about, is what is the politics of early Christianity? In the old Hollywood days, the idea was that early Christianity was a movement of slaves, or all completely poor people, and Rome was always going around persecuting early Christian groups, and there was these little bands of early Christians huddled in dining rooms somewhere, or huddled in the catacombs in Rome, or huddled in caves. Well, that’s Hollywood. The Romans actually didn’t pay that much attention to the early Christian groups at all until much later than this. There was no coherent persecution attempt by the Romans against the Jesus movement at any time until much later in history. You don’t have Rome even taking notice of most of these little house churches founded by Paul and other Christian missionaries for the first several decades. You had actually a variety of ways that these people themselves related to Rome as an empire, and so we see that.
With Revelation we see this heavily anti-Roman view. But remember what Paul said in Romans 13:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resist what God has appointed. [God has appointed the Roman governors, according to what Paul is saying here.] Those who resist will incur judgment, for rulers are not a terror to good conduct but too bad.
Roman governors are a threat only to people who are bad not to good? The writer of Revelation would have disagreed with at completely. He would think this is crazy.
Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good and you will receive its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good, but if you do what is wrong you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain. It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.
The Roman governor, from Paul’s perspective, at least as he puts in there in Romans 13, is actually God’s servant to punish wrongdoing. Completely different view of Roman power than we had in Revelation.
So where do the different documents of early Christianity–remember we’ve stressed in the whole course the diversity of early Christianity, its different Christianities in the first century. Where do the different documents line up on their politics? Are they revolutionary or are they accommodating to power? Are they pro-Roman or are they anti-Roman? We’ve already got now two seemingly opposite positions. Except look over at 1 Corinthians now. Remember, you have to have your Bible’s with you, 1 Corinthians 2:6:
Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
Now Paul knows that the Romans crucified Jesus. Crucifixion is not a Jewish punishment, that would be stoning. So when the Jewish leaders wanted to punish somebody with death in Jerusalem they got a mob together and they stoned the person. Stoning was the Jewish means of capital punishment; crucifixion was the Roman means of capital punishment, and Paul knows this. Is he here talking about these authorities who crucified Jesus, that is the Romans? Pilate obviously is the governor of Judea at the time, but Pilate was simply the representative of the Senate and the emperor. Is Paul blaming the Senate and the Emperor for the crucifixion of Jesus here? What does he mean by rulers? You have some scholars who use this text to say, well even in spite of what Paul says in Romans 13, Paul doesn’t have any great love in his heart for Rome. He still believes that they are evil powers who crucified Jesus; they’re in the process of perishing as we speak, and they will certainly be destroyed by God when Jesus comes back on the clouds with his holy angel army.
Other scholars say no, the word here for “ruler,” archon in the Greek, could refer to superhuman angelic kinds of powers, what we would call supernatural powers. Is Paul talking here about sort of satanic angelic powers that ruled the cosmos? Because remember [we] talked about apocalyptic world view, and one of the aspects of an apocalyptic world view is that different countries have these angelic forces, these angelic leaders that are the true power behind their government, behind their nation. In Daniel we’ve got the Prince of Persia is understood as this angel who runs Persia. Every nation has these angelic powers or satanic powers, because of course Satan is himself depicted as an angel in the Jewish Bible. So is Satan just one of many kinds of powers like this or rulers of the cosmos, and is Paul actually talking angelic superhuman powers here that crucified Jesus rather than the Romans? Or, as some scholars would say, and I’m in this last camp, maybe he’s talking about both. Maybe Paul is including the Romans in these rulers who ignorantly crucified Jesus and so will be destroyed, but maybe Paul also believes that the Romans are themselves controlled by superhuman satanic angelic powers. If that’s how you read I Corinthians 2, then Paul’s view of Rome isn’t quite as positive, just straight forwardly positive, as you would get from Romans 13, right?
When you ask scholars this question, is early Christianity politically revolutionary against Rome or is it politically accommodating? You’re going to get scholars lining up on both sides of this. Some of them say, no, they read early Christianity for the most part as revolutionary and anti-Rome. Others say, no, it was accommodating; they were fairly conservative and comfortable. We assign this topic for your papers this week because this is actually something where there’s a live debate that goes on among scholars themselves. There’s not one correct answer to this question. It’s complicated, and so it’s a good thing for you to look at.
Of course we’ve already read Luke and Acts, too. In Luke and Acts that author seems to present Rome in kind of a strange ambiguous way. On the one hand, the author goes out of his way to have Roman governor after Roman governor say that Jesus is innocent. Paul is innocent, this movement is innocent, and they’re not revolutionary. Paul is eventually taken to Rome, but it’s after the governor said, well I could release him, I don’t see anything that this guy has done, it’s just a dispute among Jews. Yet Paul appeals to the emperor, so he is sent to Rome in the Book of Acts. All these Roman governors declare that Christianity is not politically insurrectionist. It looks like the author is actually writing almost a more apologetic book about the Romans, except in that, and as other people have pointed out, all of these Roman rulers come across looking like they’re rather incompetent and powerless. They almost can’t seem to control the mobs that are around them. They can’t seem to really resist the Jewish leaders who want to accuse Paul of being insurrectionist. So is Rome presented in the Book of Acts, and the Gospel of Luke, as a good force or a bad force, or an ambiguous force?
Now what we’ve got is the documents we’re going to look at here. First let’s look at 2 Thessalonians. We’ve looked already at some of these documents that seem clearly to be anti-Rome such as the Book of Revelation. 2 Thessalonians is one of these letters of Paul that some scholars believe Paul actually wrote and other scholars believe he did not write. I tend to be in the camp that said he probably did not write 2 Thessalonians. But unlike Ephesians and Colossians and the Pastoral Epistles, where it’s much clearer that they’re written in a very different style of Greek than Paul’s seven undisputed letters, the Greek of 2 Thessalonians actually looks pretty much like Paul’s Greek. So you can’t throw 2 Thessalonians out of the authentic Epistles of Paul on the basis of the Greek style like we can I think some of the other letters that claim to be by Paul. Why is it that I say I don’t think 2 Thessalonians is by Paul?
Well, for one thing, this is not so important, but we’ll get to it a minute, he actually has a message in 2 Thessalonians about the coming of Jesus that seems to contradict what he had been saying in 1 Thessalonians. In 1 Thessalonians he says, it’s coming very soon, get ready, don’t go to sleep, Jesus is coming back, and the parousia will happen–is all going to happen very soon. He says, now we don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen but it’s going to happen very soon. In 2 Thessalonians, as we’ll see, he actually says, no, no, no, no don’t quit work or anything, don’t quit your day job, because some of the people in Thessalonica, according to this author, seem to have quit their jobs because they’re ready for Jesus to come back so soon. He says, no, no you should still be working, there are going to be a few things that will happen first before the end comes, and then he lays out a timeline of what he’s expecting to happen, and I’m going to walk you through that timeline in a minute. Some scholars have said what 2 Thessalonians teaches about the end time and the coming back of Jesus differs enough from what Paul had actually said about it in 1 Thessalonians that it might be written by a different person at a different time in a different situation. That’s one argument.
I think the more convincing argument, to me, is if you take the beginning of 2 Thessalonians and the end of 2 Thessalonians, and put them side by side with parts of 1 Thessalonians they look very, very much alike. Now wait a minute, they look alike, so that means they’re not by Paul? This is what I’m thinking. If Paul is going to sit down and write another letter to 2 Thessalonians is he going to do so with the copy of 1 Thessalonians in front of him? Is he going to do so even recalling the same words and phrases that he used in the previous letter? I don’t think so. In other words, I think 2 Thessalonians, in certain parts of it, look suspiciously too much like 1 Thessalonians to be an authentic letter by Paul. Because when people write another letter they use different words, you don’t sit down and basically repeat words and phrases and things from your previous letter. The one place where you don’t find those words and phrases being the same is precisely in the second chapter of 2 Thessalonians, that middle part, where this author is teaching a different time line for the end time than 1 Thessalonians had. In my mind I’m thinking okay if you want to write a pseudonymous letter and claim to be Paul, how do you make it convincing? Well if you knew 1 Thessalonians as a letter you might actually take that as a model. Read 1 Thessalonians carefully and imitate the style and imitate even what’s said, but then you stick in the second chapter of 2 Thessalonians where you give your own timeline to what you think is going to happen. That’s why I think it’s probably not by Paul. But scholars kind of divide up on 2 Thessalonians in a lot of different ways, with many scholars, even critical scholars who don’t believe Paul wrote all the letters that are in his name in the New Testament, and they’ll say they still think Paul did write 2 Thessalonians.
Now what’s the goal of writing and let’s look at the chapter 2, the first twelve verses of chapter 2. Now read along with me so you’ll know I’m not lying to you, because every time I get a chance I like to lie to students and lead them astray.
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our being gathered together to him, we beg you brothers [again, it doesn’t say sisters in the original Greek] not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word, or by letter as though from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.
He’s mentioning there may have been a letter circulated in Paul’s name claiming that the resurrection has already happened, the day of the Lord has already come. Notice how if this letter is pseudonymous as I claim, there’s a reference to a pseudonymous letter in the pseudonymous letter. That’s actually not unusual in the ancient world. Sometimes if you’re writing a pseudonymous letter you’ll put a reference saying, well now some people have been circulating pseudonymous letters by me and I condemn them for it. Of course it’s in a letter that probably itself is pseudonymous. That’s an irony we see in some of these ancient letters.
Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, [Okay, the lawless one, what’s he talking about here?] the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship so that he takes his seat in the temple of God declaring himself to be God.
This is something like another sort of antichrist figure that we’ve seen in the Book of Daniel, Jesus and his own little apocalypse in Mark 13, and other places talk about the abomination of desolation being set up in the temple. This author is saying this person is going to call himself God and set himself up in the temple in Jerusalem.
Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him so that he may be revealed when his time comes.
The thing restraining him comes from one Greek word, katecho, and it means something holding back or something holding back something. We can’t tell necessarily here whether this is talking about a thing, a power, or a person. Is there a person who’s keeping this guy back in the wings, who’s not letting this divine self-promoter set himself up in Jerusalem? “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains is removed.” This restraining force or restraining thing, or restraining person is at some point going to be removed from the political scene and then this other character is going to come in.
And then the lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false so that all who have not believed the truth but to pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.
What’s going on here? Well, to some extent your guess is as good as mine, except that I know a bit more about ancient Jewish apocalyptic, and so I have a few resources to draw on. For one thing, though, I think what’s going on here is this author is referring to some kind of antichrist figure. He doesn’t use the term here but he’s clearly saying this is someone who’s setting himself up as divine as God, he’s going to take a seat in the temple in Jerusalem, and he’s going to proclaim himself to be God, or perhaps he’s also referring to a messianic pretender. Maybe he’s thinking that this will be another Messiah, a false Messiah of sorts, that is, the antichrist. If that’s true then what was he imaging going on? I think what he’s doing, and this is my speculation, I think he’s actually imagining a Jewish false messiah that’s somewhere hidden, he knows not where, there’s some guy somewhere in Palestine or someplace else who’s hiding in the wings, waiting for the moment when he can come out, declare himself as the messiah, and enter the Jerusalem temple and set himself up as the divine messiah figure.
If so, what’s keeping him from doing it now? Well maybe it’s just some supernatural force, maybe it’s even God, and maybe God has just decided it’s not yet time for this to happen. What if the thing that’s keeping him from doing it now is precisely the Romans? In other words, the force that’s keeping any Jewish messiah figure down now would be the Roman Empire. They’re not allowing kings, look what they did with Jesus. They also executed other messiah figures in the first century. The author therefore sees the Roman emperor at work, and the Roman Empire, and that’s the thing restraining this false messiah from setting up shop in Jerusalem. But he says, that’s going to be taken away. How is that going to happen? Again we don’t know. But in my mind, it’s the idea that somehow the Roman emperor is going to be moved out of the way by God when the time comes for this all to happen, and then this Jewish messiah will set himself up and then Jesus will come in, destroy the false messiah, and that’s when we’ll have the setting up of the real Kingdom of God.
Now, as I said, that’s speculation, but what I’m doing is saying, what kind of scenario is he possibly imagining? The reason I do this little scenario is because what would be this guy’s view of Rome and the relationship between the Christian movement, the Jesus movement, and Rome? If my little scenario is right, he doesn’t see Rome as simply a wholeheartedly negative thing. Rome actually has a purpose in God’s plan. Rome’s purpose is to keep back this false Jewish messiah from appearing, and then when that purpose is done God will remove the Roman Empire from being a geopolitical force and then the real beginning of the end time schedule will kick into gear, and Jesus will come through, destroy this lawless one, the false messiah, also destroy the Romans, perhaps, and set up the Kingdom of God.
What that does is that gives us another look at what an author may have conceived Rome to be. It’s not nearly as negative as the Revelation author. It may not also be completely positive either because he still sees Rome apparently as being destroyed in the end. 2 Thessalonians, therefore, looks like a case where someone’s writing a letter in Paul’s name, precisely to counter the idea that Jesus is coming back tomorrow. Because he believes you have to have a certain number of things that are going to happen. It still is fairly soon in the future, he’s not expecting a thousand years or anything like that, but he seems to believe that there’s going to be a timeline of geopolitical events that take place before Jesus comes back. So that’s II Thessalonians. Any questions, comments, or outbursts about that before I move on? Yes sir.
Student: Is it possible that given the cult of the Roman emperor he might be referring to the Roman emperor here?
Professor Dale Martin: That he might be referring to the Roman Emperor here? It could be. In fact that’s possibly the way some things have been set up. The reason I don’t think it’s the Roman Emperor here is because he talks about this character as if he’s hidden for the moment, it’s a mystery and he’s not revealed. The Roman emperor, you could have never said here was not revealed. The Roman emperor was visible everywhere you looked in the Mediterranean at the time: statues, inscriptions, temples so I think he’s probably not talking about the Roman emperor as the lawless one because the Roman Emperor wasn’t hidden at the time. Any other questions?
Now, though, let’s look at 1 Peter. So we’re going to another little text that’s asking again the same question, what is the politics of the early Christian movement, the early Jesus movement? Most of us scholars don’t believe Peter actually wrote 1 Peter. The reasons are, again, numerous, and, notice, this is not an anonymous letter like the letters of John are that don’t claim to be written by John. This one actually claims to be written by Peter the Apostle, as does 2 Peter. Why do we think Peter, the actual apostle, didn’t write it? Well for one thing Peter was, even as the New Testament several times lets us know, an illiterate fisherman. He probably couldn’t read or write. If he could read or write it’s almost certain that he couldn’t read or write Greek at the level of Greek that this letter is written. There are all those things in the letter that make us think that it looks like a Christianity in a little bit later stage than the very primitive area of Christianity. The development of doctrine, the development of the notions of Peter himself, the idea that certain theology of the letter seem to look later than the most primitive time of early Christianity. Most of us would just, say simply on the basis of the language itself, we don’t believe Peter, the actual Apostle, wrote this letter.
Look what he’s writing, he says:
Peter an Apostle of Jesus Christ to the exiles of the dispersion in Pontius, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.
Again he’s writing too–he calls them exiles of the dispersion, so some people might think, well, he’s talking to Jews then, the dispersed Jews. But he’s clearly including Gentile Christians in this too, so he’s talking about followers of Jesus who live in all this different geographical area, and again, this is sort of what we would now call Turkey, the area of Turkey. Both Asia Minor, which proper was just the western side of Turkey, but pretty much all that area that occupies Turkey now.
He calls them exiles, though, and I don’t think he’s talking about this in an actual political sense. He’s spiritualizing the notion that followers of Jesus are exiles in our world. We don’t belong here, he says. He says also in 1:17, “If you invoke his father, the one who judges all people impartially according to these, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.” Again, followers of Jesus are exiles–2:11 “Beloved I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.” These are Greek terms that would have mean in the ancient context precisely what illegal alien means in contemporary American context, you’re here illegally. All the followers of Jesus, according to this writer, live in the Roman Empire as illegal aliens basically, or not illegal aliens but definitely as aliens. Maybe they’re legal aliens but they don’t really belong.
I said he’s talking not just to Jews, he says in 1:18:
You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors not with perishable things like silver and gold with the precious blood of Christ.
The ancestors referred to here, he’s clearly referring to Gentiles who have come into the church as Gentiles and then now occupy their role as part of this alien people too.
Now what’s this guy’s politics? Look at 2:13: “For the Lord’s sake, accept the authority of every human institution.” Now we’re pretty clear that authority here is not at least just referring to angelic type supernatural authorities, but he’s referring to the human rulers, “Whether of the emperor as supreme or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong, and to praise those who do right.” Of course the governors of the different parts of the Roman Empire were appointed either by the Senate or by the emperor himself. This author is not too neat about the actual politics of the first century so he seems to believe that all Roman governors are appointed by the emperor, which was in fact not the case, but some of them were, and many of them were appointed by the Senate. He doesn’t care about those kinds of niceties.
For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God live as free people yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
Can you imagine the author of Revelation saying that? It would have broken his jaw to say “honor the emperor.” He also doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of love for just people in general. The Book of Revelation seems to have a lot of loyalty for the people who are in the group, but there seems to be a lot of despising for pretty much anybody outside the group.
That’s the political conservatism of 1 Peter, he’s writing a letter to followers of Jesus who live throughout the area of Turkey, and he’s trying to get them to see that they don’t really belong to Rome, they’re not Romans, and he doesn’t address them as Romans. They don’t really belong to the political situations they’re living in. They should see themselves as aliens, as exiles, and yet they should see themselves as properly subservient, honorable, well behaved exiles in a Roman context.
That plays itself out also in some of the other social justice issues in this, in the politics. Look at 2:18 right where we stopped, after he says honor the emperor:
Slaves accept the authority of your masters with all deference. Not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if being aware of God you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong what credit is that? If you endure when you do right and suffer for it you have God’s approval.
This is ideologically very problematic. Telling slaves, just submit, and if you’re being beaten don’t blame your master for beating you, just endure it. I mean, if you do wrong and your master beats you then you deserve to get beaten, but you should endure it even when you get beaten for things you don’t deserve. Talk about “the opiate of the masses”! This is precisely the kind of religion that classical Marxism critiques: a religion that exists to keep the slave the slave, to keep the poor, poor; to keep the downtrodden, downtrodden. Part of the honoring of the emperor is to teach slaves just to submit, and if you can’t enjoy it when you’re being beaten, at least put up with it.
Look at 3:1-7, “Wives, in the same way except the authority of your husbands.” My mom used to always hate it when they would read out these passages in church. We’d have a very loud discussion of such passages over Sunday dinner. Then, after this.
Wives in the same except the authority of your husband’s so that even if some of them do not obey word, they may be won over without a word by their wives conduct.
Some of these women are followers of Jesus, and their husband’s are not Christians. They should still obey them though he says, he doesn’t allow women to use their Christian allegiance and the Lordship of Christ over them to get out from under the lordship of their husbands.
Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, by wearing gold ornaments, or fine clothing. Rather let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight.
My mom especially hated that “gentle and quiet spirit” part; she had no intentions of being a very gentle and quiet spirit. “It was in this way long ago that the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves by accepting the authority of their husbands,” and then it goes on like that. Now look at 5:5:
In the same way you who are younger must accept the authority of elders and all of you must clothe yourselves with humility and the dealings with one another. For God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
In all of this stuff, this author is basically telling people, stay in your place. No revolution, no rebellion, don’t even resent the people who are over you and have authority over you. This is quite clearly political quietism, political accommodation, and one of the reasons he’s doing this, as scholars will point out, is that he seems to believe that Christians can help their reputation if they don’t rock the boat, so you get verses like this, 2:12: “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles.” Now notice these are converted Gentiles themselves, but he doesn’t call them Gentiles because “the Gentiles” is still a term for those people outside the body of Christ, outside of Christianity.
Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles so that though they malign you as evil doers they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.
And in 3:15:
In your heart sanctify Christ as Lord, always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.
He’s basically very conservative in his politics and his ideology. For one reason, he wants these groups of followers of Jesus not to be disrespected by outsiders. He wants them to develop a good reputation so that they can’t be persecuted, so that they can’t be opposed by local authorities. Here we have a clear case of a totally different ideological take on early Christianity, but it’s still apocalyptic.
This is what’s interesting. This author hasn’t thrown away the Christian apocalyptic that we saw working so much in Revelation to be anti-Roman. He still has it. You can see places. He says in 4:7, “The end of all things is near,” well that’s apocalyticism, and the end is near. “Therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.” In 4:12:
Beloved do not be surprised by the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you as though something strange were happening to you.
Any suffering that you have, he says, chalk it up to the suffering that comes with the apocalyptic fire, this is testing you, again just endure it. In 4:17:
For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God, if it begins with us what will be the end for those who do not obey the Gospel of God?
He does believe that the people who are persecuting them now, or dissing them now, I’m not so sure that sometimes it was actual physical persecution these communities were enduring, he may just believe that they’re being disrespected, that they’re being discriminated against in some way. But his solution to this is for them not to rock the boat, not to rebel, not to fight back, but actually to just be good boys and girls, be submissive slaves, be submissive women to your husbands, and then, if possible, people will see your submission and it’ll make them respect the message of the Gospel. If not, those people will be destroyed, but we have to endure our own punishment and serving now also.
The apocalyptic material there serves a different purpose than it did in Revelation and some other Christian and Jewish text. It’s not particularly to explain your suffering, it’s just there to be endured, and it’s just there because it’s part of the message of early Christianity. It doesn’t really help fight against injustice in any way, as you might be able to see it do in other texts.
Now how does this happen in 2 Peter? We’ll just look at this briefly because we’re almost out of time, but I want to show you one more thing. I believe 2 Peter was written by someone else, not Peter again, for some of the same reasons, but I also believe it was not written by the same person who wrote 1 Peter because it’s rather different. In fact, I believe 2 Peter was written sometime in the second century, maybe even decades after the letters of Paul and the Book of Revelation and these others were written.
It seems to me to show a different stage in the development of Christianity. Christianity now looks different in the second century than it did in the first century, and I’ll walk you through this and show why I say that and how it works. First look at 2 Peter 3:2. We’ll start reading right at the beginning of chapter 3.
This is now beloved the second letter I am writing to you. [He seems to know about the existence of the first letter of Peter.] In them I am trying to arouse your sincere intention by reminding you so that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken through your apostles.
This is already something like a post-apostolic letter. He’s harkening back to the beginning of the Christian movement when there were prophets and apostles. Even though he’s setting himself up as Peter the Apostle in the letter, the tone of the letter makes it sound like the apostolic era is somewhere in the past for this guy’s version of Christianity for his community. We read 2 Peter as actually a really good example of post-apostolic New Testament writing.
He also has references to the Gospels themselves. Look at 1:17, I’ll start reading at 1:16:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the majestic glory saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain.
What is he referring too? What’s the event?
Exactly, the transfiguration. He’s read his Gospels, at least one of them, and he’s harkening back to the story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain with Moses and Elijah there, and of course who were the apostles, the disciples that were with Jesus at the time? Peter was one of them, there were three of them, so Peter was there, and he’s recalling that scene from the Gospels. There’s reference to Gospel traditions here, and he’s even actually read some written Gospels that we have in our text. He also says something like a reference to 1 Peter, as I already said that, but he says I’ve already written to you once, that could be a reference to 1 Peter.
Then he talks about Paul’s letters, so he knows Paul’s letters. 3:15. Start reading at 3:14:
Therefore beloved while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace without spot or blemish and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them, hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved . . .
So he goes on to admonish them. Notice what he’s doing, he actually calls Paul’s letters scripture. Now Paul, when he was writing his letters, he thought he was writing authoritative letters, but they were authoritative because he was an apostle who had founded the churches. Most of the time he was writing to churches he himself founded, so he felt like he had authority over these churches to write authoritative letters. But Paul didn’t think he was writing scripture. When Paul talks about scripture in his letters he’s talking about Jewish scripture, the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible. This guy, though, is far enough removed from Paul’s own day that he can actually refer to Paul’s letters as themselves part of scripture. That’s one of the reasons we think this took awhile to develop. You just don’t have in early Christianity, the automatic acceptance of Paul’s occasional letters, because they were letters written to real situations, being elevated now to the status of holy writing, scripture. This author is living now in a post-apostolic age and a post-Pauline age, and he obviously–he’s probably by this time–they don’t have a New Testament yet, but probably by this time he’s already familiar with maybe a collection of Paul’s letters that are being circulated as scripture among different churches in Asia Minor. He also may, as I said, be familiar with some Gospels that are being circulated as authoritative texts in early Christianity. He’s clearly living in a later time, like I said, maybe in the second century, when these things have happened.
Then one last thing that is interesting to talk about, keep your finger there in 2 Peter but we’re going to look at Jude, so flip over to Jude which is right before Revelation. Jude is a short little letter, Jude 14, “It was also about these,” he’s talking about evil angels or angels of some sort, “that Enoch,” remember Enoch is that character in the very, very early part of Genesis who was only a few generations from Adam, but there were apocalypses written in Enoch’s name and published just in the century or so before this, two or three centuries before this. So we have different documents called the Apocalypse of Enoch or the Revelations of Enoch, or Enoch itself.
Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied saying, “See the Lord is coming with ten thousand of his holy ones to execute judgment on all, and to convict everyone of the deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against.
Notice what he’s doing, he’s quoting Enochic literature, which isn’t in our Bible, as if it is also true prophecy and scripture from Enoch. Now that’s what Jude does, it’s important because he’s having a debate about angels. Now look over at 2 Peter 2:10. I’m not going to read all of this but if you read 2 Peter 2:10-22, you have a bunch of material that 2 Peter is getting out of Jude. In other words, the author of 2 Peter doesn’t only know the letters of Paul, he knows Jude also, and he’s using Jude as a source, and he copies some of that out. What’s interesting enough, he takes out the quotation from Enoch, he doesn’t have that. In other words, he takes Jude as a good Christian source but he takes out the stuff he found in Jude that he doesn’t consider good Christian material and Christian scripture. He edits out of Jude stuff, that by that time, he believes is not really part of Christian scripture.
Again, what this shows us is that the author of 2 Peter is living in a time when we actually see the beginning of Christian scripture coming about. This is a very different time from the apostolic period when they were just writing letters, occasional letters for different purposes–not having any idea that they were creating a New Testament themselves. This author is not living in the time by which we have a New Testament. That’ll take another few centuries to come about, as I talked about the first lecture, when I talked about Canon development. That’s going to happen. But he’s certainly living in a time that’s between the apostolic period, when everything is much more chaotic, and there’s not any Christian scripture, and now you do have Christian scripture on its way to becoming its own Canon. This is in a post-apostolic period.
So the last thing is: what does the apocalyptic do here? Look at 2 Peter 3:3, because there is apocalyptic here also.
First you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come scoffing and indulging their own lust and saying, where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.
Notice that’s got to be post-Peter, Peter in his own time would never have talked about the beginning of the Jesus movement as happening way, way–with our ancestors. ”
They deliberately ignore this fact that by the Word of God, the heavens existed long ago, and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. By the same word, the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, have been kept until the Day of Judgment and destruction of the godless.
He believes this end is coming, this end of fire, the destruction of the current world.
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promises as some think of slowness, but he is patient with you not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
He does have an apocalyptic scenario. What does it do for him? Nothing, it’s just something that’s part of Christian doctrine that he’s passing on. There’s no franticness here, there’s no idea that it’s going to happen right now. In fact he says it could happen in a thousand years. We’re no longer with this letter in a kind of Christianity that has apocalyptic fervor to it. We’re in a kind of Christianity that is starting to have its own Christian scripture, that’s fairly conservative again politically, that you don’t see a lot of stuff against Rome, and that sort of thing, and the function of the apocalyticism here is simply it’s just something you believe if you’re a Christian. Again, it’s another example.
Apocalyptic is a political ideology, but what kind of politics it teaches in the early times of Christianity can vary. Apocalyptic can be something that strengthens you against Roman oppression, that labels Rome for you as a whore, and Jezebel, and a monster, or it can teach you to be quiet and go about your business. One of the things that you’re going to be talking about in your sections is, which kinds of text in early Christianity that we’ve looked at function what way politically? Apocalyptic is one of those political kinds of forces in early Christianity, although certainly not the only one.
— § § § —
25. — Ecclesiastical Institutions
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 25 of 26 | duration. 48:23]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
Okay we’re going to talk about several different things today, several different texts, because we’re coming up to the end of the semester. I often conclude with two different lectures that talk about the rise of institutionalism and institutionalization of the church, but I’ve decided this year to combine them into one. That’s why your reading list, your reading for today, had some canonical material, the letters of Ignatius, you’re also asked to read the Didache, another non-canonical early Christian writing because I want to pull different themes together. So next time, the last class of the course, the last lecture, I want to then address the kinds of big questions you might have been having all semester, which can be something like, how did this little bitty group of people following this unknown Jew in Syrian Palestine in the first century become this huge world religion? What’s the continuity, if any, because I’ve been stressing all–in the whole semester the differences between contemporary notions about Christianity, what Christianity is, what is orthodox Christianity for people in our day and age, what people assume Christianity is all about. I’ve been talking about how that’s very different from the canonical Christianity that we see in the New Testament, and it’s even more different from some of the non-canonical Christianity that we’ve seen in things like the Acts of Paul and Thecla. Next time I will talk about the bigger issue of the growth of Christianity from this fledgling little movement and a few house churches scattered around in Greek cities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
I’ll also talk next time a little about what is post-modern interpretation of scripture. I did talk a bit about the theological interpretation of scripture and how that’s different from the historical critical interpretation of scripture that you’re learning in this semester. If you really want to get into theological interpretation of scripture in an academic environment you need to do that through something like the Divinity School or in a seminary because that’s, of course, where they’re supposed to be teaching people how to interpret this text for contemporary Christians. That’s not what we’re going to talk about in this course most of the time. I have hinted at that, but there’s also a way of approaching scripture that might be considered not the canonical traditional way of theological interpretation and also not the modernist way of modern historical criticism, and that’s what we might call post-modern approaches to the text, and even to the text as scripture itself. Next time I’ll address some of those bigger issues about the New Testament that I’ve kind of put on the side for the whole semester. Today we’re taking a first step toward that because I’m going to look at some canonical material in this lecture, but I’m also going to look at the letters of Ignatius and the Didache to show you how the church started becoming institutionalized in ways that look more familiar to us after the period of the New Testament composition.
How do you create and maintain unity in a social movement? That’s what early Christian leaders had to face pretty quickly. We’ve already seen that in Paul’s letters, right? In 1 Corinthians shows a church that is at odds with itself. People disagreeing about what the basic nature of the Gospel is, and Paul writes 1 Corinthians in order, the whole theme of 1 Corinthians is, you are the united body of Christ now start acting like it. And so Paul’s trying to get a fractured church to see so it’s united. There are different ways you can see this being done in early Christianity. Paul, of course, didn’t have church structures to appeal to. Paul couldn’t say something like, if you have a question go to your bishop. He also couldn’t say, look at the New Testament, he was writing it at the time. There wasn’t anything like that to look at. Paul exercised his own charismatic authority. By that, we mean that in the sort of Weberian sociological sense of an authority that doesn’t derive from an office, from any kind of official office that Paul had, but it derives from simply his force of character. When someone has a leadership position that derives more from their personality, their force of character, their ideas than it does from an official office then that’s charismatic authority as opposed to an official kind of institutional authority. That’s what Paul had to deal with. That’s what all the earliest leaders of these little house churches had to deal with. They had to push their own ideas of what the church meant, of what the body of Christ meant, of what was proper ethics, of what proper interpretation of scripture, and they had to do it on the strength of their own character and their force of personality. That was one way that people tried to create unity in this early fledgling movement.
Gradually, of course, you have other ways of developing. Another way of developing unity that we see around this time is hierarchical leadership. You have officers, you have people who are either elected or appointed as officers, and they control unity and enforce unity from the top down. And you can see this, therefore, in modern Christianity, modern religious movements. The Roman Catholic Church has bishops, and cardinals, and the Pope. And everybody who knows anything about Roman Catholicism knows that what the Pope and the cardinals say goes, or it’s supposed too. American Roman Catholics and a lot of northern western European Catholics sometimes don’t go along with The Vatican on many things, but the structure of the Roman Catholic Church is intended to help maintain unity by the means of an official hierarchical leadership structure.
You also have different Protestant ways to do this which are constitutional kinds of systems. When say, the Presbyterians, have debates about whether to ordain homosexuals, whether to allow gay marriages, the ordination of women, which was the debate that really rocked the Presbyterian church and many other churches back in the 1970s, most of them got over that by now; now the thing that’s rocking them is sexuality. When they had disagreements they would go to the general convention, which occurs every year, and you have people elected out of different local churches and parishes, and presbyteries, they call them the Presbyterian Church, and those people who are themselves basically elected from their local churches and their local presbyteries are representatives to the general convention. It looks very much like American politics. It’s not much of an accident. The American Constitution to some extent, is based on what was a more Presbyterian Protestant kind of church polity, of having different houses of representatives and this sort of thing. So American denominations, Protestant denominations, which were growing up at the same time, as different Protestant movements were growing up, and at the same time as American constitutionalism was growing up, all influenced each other. That’s another way to maintain unity that Protestant churches tend to use.
Then you have other churches in America that are very free churches. I grew up in a denomination that didn’t even call itself a denomination because it considered itself simply the Church, called the Church of Christ, and the Churches of Christ don’t have any national offices, no place you can go anywhere in the world like there are for most other denominations that have a national office with officers and set rules and decide on hymn books and decide on Sunday school materials. There’s nothing like that anywhere in the world. These churches are all completely autonomous and individual to themselves. They appoint their own officers, they decide what is doctrine and what is not doctrine, they hire and fire their own ministers, and not even the ministers of these churches are the highest authorities. They basically preach and teach, but they’re not the ones who actually run the churches, so each individual church–there are lots of churches like that in the United States. There are a lot of Baptist churches that aren’t even part of the Southern Baptist Convention. There are lots of free churches and some of them would even have “free” as part of their name. Of course in America this is not at all unusual. Anybody can rent out a storefront and start their own church, and many people have done so.
These kinds of churches, it’s remarkable that the denomination I grew up in, although there’s no meta-congregational organization that runs this, it’s amazing how much alike they are. When I was a kid I would travel to Alabama, or to Maryland, or to St. Louis, Missouri, and you would go to a Church of Christ, as long as it said it on its sign and it was one of the same kinds we went to, and the services would be the same, They sing the same songs, they have the same doctrine. It’s almost like somebody wrote it all out and said, this is what you’ll do on Sunday morning. The amazing thing was nobody had written it all out. It was just done by the sheer nature of these churches of being very close knit and sort of ruling each other by threatening to dis-fellowship you if you didn’t do like everybody else did. There was a great amount of cohesiveness. In fact, I remember being astounded when I was twenty years old, and I was in a rock band at my college, and we did a two-month tour for the USO playing on military bases all over–in Japan, Taiwan, Okinawa, Hawaii, the South Pacific, different places, the Philippines. And we would actually–because the college I went to was a Church of Christ College we would often visit a Church of Christ in Tokyo or wherever we were in Asia. It was amazing. You would go in, and although everything was in Japanese, it was exactly like it was back in Texas. There was no organization forcing this. It was just the cohesiveness of the socialization of these different groups.
What we’re going to see today is the move in early Christianity, the very beginnings of the move from this freewheeling, charismatic, structureless kind of organization structure and authority practice that we see in Paul’s letters and in other documents we’ve looked at so far, and we’re going to see a move towards more institutionalization. It’s not going to be the Catholic Church yet, it’s not going to be what becomes Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries, when it does become much more highly organized. But we’re going to start seeing that move. We see the move a little bit already in the letter of Jude, so open your Bibles and look with me at Jude.
Jude claims to be the brother of James, and scholars think most of the time what he’s trying to do is claim that he’s the brother of James, who was the head of the Jerusalem Church, that is, James the brother of Jesus. Jude, by that figuring, would also make himself the brother of Jesus. Mark 6:3 or Matthew 13:55 links these guys together. What most scholars think is that this pseudonymous, you won’t be surprised now to know that we don’t think the brother of Jesus or the brother of James actually wrote this text. What we know of Judas, who would have been and of course as I think I’ve explained already, “Jude” is simply the Anglicization of the Greek name Judas, which is simply a Greek version of the Hebrew name Judah, so they all refer basically to the same name. Jude, or Judas, or Judah was–if he was a brother of Jesus as the Gospels seem to imply, then he was an illiterate fisherman, and we don’t think someone with his background, with his lack of education would have been able to write this letter. So that’s the reason we basically assign it to pseudonymity.
He’s dealing with some divisions; I’m not going to go through the letter very much because I want to move ahead to some of these other documents. There are signs, like I talked about with 1 and 2 Peter last time, that this is a post-apostolic letter. One of those is verse 3:
Beloved while eagerly preparing to write you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and to appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.
This faith is this thing that was delivered to the saints at one time. He also talks in verse 17 about the Apostles,
But you, beloved, must remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus; for they said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers indulging their own ungodly lust.”
So he sees himself living in the last times, but he didn’t see the apostles living in the last times. Even though Peter, and James, and John saw themselves as living in the last times, he’s living far enough after them so that he could put them in a prior time, a sort of apostolic stage of the church, and now he’s writing in the last times. So this is a post-apostolic letter. But it’s also pre-canonical, as I said last time talking about 2 Peter. Remember I talked about how 2 Peter uses this letter of Jude as a model for his own letter, and he quotes stuff out of out, takes stuff out of it.
One of the things, though, 2 Peter did was, he took out the stuff that he found in Jude that was not canonical, that he didn’t believe was part of the real Bible. But Jude has it in there. In verse 9, “But when the archangel Michael contended with the devil and disputed about the body of Moses,” and he goes on says what happened. Well, why does this happen? Is this in your Bible? Nope, it’s not in your Bible. Michael never disputed about what to do with the body of Moses after Moses died according to our Bible. It is in a Jewish document we call the Assumption of Moses. He’s citing a Jewish document that’s not in the Bible that we use, and it may be that that’s why the 2 Peter took that reference out. He didn’t want the Assumption of Moses being cited in this text. He also, as I said last time, he cites some Enoch material in verses 14 and 15.
It was also about these that Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam prophesied saying, “See the Lord is coming with ten thousands of his Holy ones.”
What we have now, literature, under the name of Enoch, which was written probably written over a period of a few centuries, was an accumulation of several different documents, but it started being written in the third century BCE and then was added onto in the centuries after that. So he cites materials from the Assumption of Moses and Enoch, which demonstrates that he’s still living in a time when what’s considered scripture by these early followers of Jesus is still in a state of flux, so he’s not writing in a time where the Canon, even the Jewish Canon, the Hebrew Bible Canon, has been set yet.
He’s also writing in a time when some of the Eucharistic practices may also be not like they were later. Look at verse 12, “These are blemishes on your love feast [your agapes] whilst they feast without fear, feeding themselves,” and he goes on and condemns the people. These agapes probably refer to the taking of the Communion, The Lord’s Supper, but in the context of a bigger meal as we’ve seen was the case also in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul talks about them coming together and having the meal, and as part of that meal they would have the wine and the bread of the Lord’s Supper.
So Jude represents an in between time in early Christianity that’s post-apostolic, so it’s not of the apostolic period as Paul’s letters are, Paul’s authentic letters, but it’s also not quite to the firm ecclesiastical institutions that now for the rest of today and next time I’ll talk about become formed. You don’t have here, at this point yet, bishops, set creeds, set liturgies, and set scripture. All of those things will later be used to settle disputes. What did I say? Bishops, creeds, liturgy, and scripture. Those are four things that come to be used as, you might call them, technologies of unity, technologies of control in bringing unity out of this wild diversity of early Christianity that we’ve been making a theme of this course all along the way.
Then the next thing we want to talk about is the letters of Ignatius, because he then represents another stage in this process, and especially the use of the office of the bishop itself. First, you notice how much Ignatius makes himself out to be this great martyr. Part of his authority derives simply from the fact that he’s been arrested and he’s being taken from Antioch, where he was bishop, to Rome to stand trial and then to be killed. Along the way, he writes these letters when he’s going through Asia Minor, to different cities in Asia Minor, sort of like the author of Revelation had done. Notice what he does: he plays on the idea that he’s going to die and he makes so much out of it that it becomes pretty much gross. Look, for example, at the Letter to the Romans if you can find it in your packet. I need to have a Bible song for Ignatius’ letters so we’ll know where to find them. It’s toward the last one. The Letter to the Romans from Ignatius. Look at chapter 4:
For my part I am writing to all the churches and assuring them that I am truly in earnest about dying for God, if only you yourselves put no obstacles in my way.
So he’s telling the Romans, when I’m getting tried and put before the beast, don’t you try to intervene and save me, don’t try to save me, he’s saying.
I must implore you to do me no such untimely kindness. Pray, leave me to be a meal for the beasts, for it is they who can provide my way to God. I am his wheat, ground fine by the lions’ teeth, to be made purest bread for Christ. Better still, incite the creatures to become a sepulcher for me.[He wants the lions’ bodies to be his tomb.] Let them not leave the smallest scrap of my flesh so that I need not be a burden to anyone after I fall asleep. [I’ll just sleep here in the dark don’t worry about me.] When there is no trace of my body left for the world to see, then I shall truly be Jesus Christ’s disciple. So intercede with him, that is with God, for me that by their instrumentality [that is the instruments of the lions] I may be made a sacrifice to God. However, I am not issuing orders to you as though I were a Peter or a Paul [a little bit of modesty here] they were apostles. I am just a condemned criminal. They were free men. I am still a slave. Though if I suffer Jesus Christ will give me liberty and in him I shall rise again as a free man. For the present, these chains are schooling me to have done with earthly desires.
Look at the next chapter, chapter 5 and about halfway down. I don’t have page numbers here. “How I look forward,” this becomes almost morbid. Modern people reading Ignatius’ letters, and he looks like he’s morbid in his craving for martyrdom. That’s how odd it looks to us modern people.
How I look forward to the real lions that have been got ready for me! All I pray is that I might find them swift. I am going to make overtures to them, so that unlike some other wretches, whom they have been too spiritless to touch, they may devour me with all speed. And if they are still reluctant I shall use force to them. [He’s going to pull the lion’s teeth right toward his chest.] You must forgive me but I do know what is best for myself. This is the first stage of my discipleship, and no power, visible or invisible, must grudge me my coming to Jesus Christ. Fire, crosses, beast fighting, hacking, and quartering, splintering of bone and mangling of limb, even the pulverizing of my entire body, let every horrid and diabolical torment come upon me, provided only that I can win my way to Jesus Christ.
This is martyrology stuff, folks. This is the beginning of the entire cult of the martyrs in Christianity that becomes so important in early Christianity and then for hundreds of years. Now Paul had also talked about chains, his chains being something that was good. He gloried in his chains and being in prison. Ignatius takes this from Paul and just runs with it even more. In Ephesians, the eleventh chapter of Ephesians, the letter not of Paul to the Ephesians but the letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians, he talks about his chains as pearls. In the first chapter of this letter of Ignatius to the Romans, he talks about the chains of Jesus. Then also, I mentioned that he sees himself, in his martyrdom, as getting closer to Jesus, and in this he’s becoming himself–he calls himself in the first part of this and the second chapter of the letter to the Romans, the logos theou. What do we know that means? We’ve seen this logos stuff before, right? Transliterated, remember what logos means? The “word,” correct, theou, anybody know? “Of God”: Ignatius himself is the word of God. This is what the Gospel of John called Jesus; Jesus was the Word of God. Ignatius can even claim, for himself, the status that he, especially to his martyrdom is the Word of God. Where does he get all this? Well this is this developing martryology kind of ideology in literature.
The idea was, in most of early Christianity, if you’re good Christian people, when you die you won’t immediately go to heaven. It’s not like popular thinking about Christian doctrine. True Christian doctrine doesn’t say that you immediately go to heaven. necessarily. It says that you may be sleep or do something, but you have to wait for the resurrection of the body. That’s why you confess things like in the Nicene Creed, if you confess the resurrection of the body or the resurrection of the flesh. That’s because, according to Christian doctrine, that’s the true afterlife experience, not just the immortal soul living forever, but the resurrection of your body, it’s a newly made body. But what happens before the resurrection? Because we all know that comes at the end of time. Well, most Christians believed you slept somewhere, or maybe your soul, your spirit, would go to some kind halfway house. This develops into the notion of purgatory or some kind of Hades-type place, a place where you would either sleep or your soul will go someplace else, and you’d wait for the resurrection.
Well, according to developing Christian ideas, martyrs didn’t have to wait for the resurrection. Once they were martyred, as a reward for their martyrdom, their spirit goes straight to heaven to be with Jesus immediately. You bypass some bad waiting room type experience if you’re martyred. This became even so important that people who were condemned to be martyred but then weren’t actually killed, for whatever reason, sometimes people would be condemned, and maybe the beasts weren’t hungry that day. After being thrown to the beast they might be turned loose later, or they might be imprisoned for awhile, or they might have a different governor who comes along and decides to pardon people or release them. What do you do with people who are condemned to martyrdom but not actually martyred? Well, they were very close to martyrdom so that makes them very close to God. Remember, if martyrs, right after they die go to heaven to be with Christ, they’re right there in heaven, and therefore you can kind of pray to martyrs to intercede with God or Christ for you because they’re in heaven already.
This idea that martyrs could be intercessors for living Christians develops. This even carries over to where if you are condemned to martyrdom but you don’t actually get martyred, you become what they call a confessor. This is because people can confess to you, they can confide in you, they can help you. So even people who are not actually martyred that have been condemned to death at some point for their faith, they attained a certain kind of closeness to God through that activity, and they gained therefore a certain kind of authority. Now this was not an official ecclesiastical authority. No institution of the church granted these confessors their authority, but they developed this authority because people respected them and trusted them. Confessors became somewhat of like charismatic authority figures in the early church.
Now this caused problems in a few places. Because what if you have a bunch of people going out to see some monk who’s now a confessor because he was condemned to martyrdom but then still lived, and they’re asking his opinions about, should I eat meat on Friday? What days of the week should I pray on? Is it okay to do this? Is it okay to do that? What if the confessor gives a different answer from the bishop? Well some people might think the confessor, who is closer to God after all, has more authority even than the bishop. Well, bishops don’t like this of course, they consider themselves the authority in that location, and so you get sometimes problems of who’s the greater authority? The confessor, the martyr type figure, or the ecclesiastical official figure of the bishop?
Notice what Ignatius does with this, though. He spends a lot of time in his letters claiming the authority of a martyr because he’s on his way to being killed. He says, don’t save me, I want to be killed as a martyr. But Ignatius also is one of the earliest people we have in Christianity who claims great authority also for himself as bishop. Now he wouldn’t necessarily have authority as a bishop over anywhere except the region he was actually a bishop. He wasn’t the bishop of the world; he was the bishop of Antioch, the town in the east where Paul and Barnabas spent a good bit of their time. His actual official ecclesiastical authority as bishop was only in Antioch and its environs. He’s playing up his martyrology kind of authority so that he can exercise a bit of authority even over these other churches that he’s writing too. That gives him a little bit of a reach of authority.
Notice what he does then with all this bishop stuff, and here we see the beginnings of the development of the Catholic Church structure at this very early time. This is early because we think that Ignatius is writing these letters around the year 110. If you have this developing episcopacy, that’s just the Greek sort of sounding word for bishop or bishopric or something like that. If you have this developing office of the bishops–then that’s happening at a fairly early time in Christianity. Look therefore at the Letter to the Trallians, and its right before the Letter to the Romans, chapters 2 and 3.
Your obedience to your bishop, as though he were Jesus Christ [wow talk about raising the bishop up] shows me plainly enough that yours is no worldly manner of life but that of Jesus Christ himself, who gave his life for us that faith in his death might save you from death. At the same time however, it is essential that you should never act independently of the bishop as evidently you do not. You must also be no less submissive to your clergy.
The Greek word here is literally “presbyters.” Remember we’ve already seen this word come up, which means “elders” more literally in Greek. Now it’s starting to be used for particular kinds of clergy in the church. So we see here the bishop, presbyters, which will come to be priests,
. . . and mind them as apostles of Jesus Christ, our hope in whom we shall one day be found if our lives are lived in him. The deacons, too . . .
So now we have this other office. We’ve seen these before, right? We saw presbyters and deacons, and bishops in a certain sense, in the Pastoral Epistles, but they weren’t carefully formed into a three-tiered institution of offices. Now we’re getting it in Ignatius. What will become later basic church structure, that lasts up until the Reformation, will be bishops on top, appointed to a particular location, so the bishop will be over a city and all the churches over this city. Then under that will be priests, who have certain duties, for example administering the Eucharist in the mass, and baptizing, and under that will be deacons who have other kinds of duties in church, and they’re in that 1, 2, 3 hierarchy.
The deacons, too, who serve the mysteries of Jesus Christ must be men universally approved in every way, since they are not mere dispensers of meat and drink, but servants of the church of God, and therefore under obligation to guard themselves against any slur or imputation as strictly as they would against the fire itself. Equally, [this is paragraph 3] it is for the rest of you to hold deacons in as great respect as Jesus Christ, just as you should look upon the bishop as a type of the Father, and the clergy as the apostolic circle forming his counsel.
Notice what we’ve got then, you’ve got a Trinity, almost, of offices that are matched by something like a trinity of these figures. The bishop, is the Father, the deacons are Jesus Christ, and the presbyters–he calls them an apostolic council. What he’s doing is he’s actually setting up these offices of the early church to look kind of like a law court. Where you have a judge and you would have other officials. So he’s imitating Roman official legal and political government structures by having regional bishops presiding over a plurality of priests who then are also over a plurality of deacons.
What makes it really odd is that he equates Jesus, the Father, and Apostles with deacons, bishop, and clergy. He’s giving these men in these offices a great deal of power. In fact, it’s giving them way more power and authority than most of us historians think they actually had at this point. We know from other historical documents that bishops didn’t have that much power until much later. Presbyters didn’t have that much until way later. So Ignatius is trying to pump up what is actually a fairly new structure of authority and institutional structure in these. He says all the time things like, don’t do anything without the bishop. He talks about, in the Letter to the Magnesians, paragraph 6, he talks about “the bishop’s authority is the authority of God the Father.” He says in Magnesians paragraph 7, ” the bishop is to be regarded it as the Lord Himself.”
What is he doing here? He’s writing these to these different churches, and even in fact scriptural interpretation–the main thing about modern Protestantism is the idea that every Christian is responsible only to the reading of scripture, scripture only. Your responsibility is to find the will of God through scripture, though the revelation of scripture. Ignatius totally disagrees with that. He says there should be no individual interpretation of scripture apart from your bishop. Why? Ignatius knows what we’ve all learned ourselves, that you make a text mean anything you want, and as we see from Protestantism, fracturing up into a million different denominations in churches, all claiming to be following the Bible, you can make the Bible say whatever you want it to say, and everybody does. So Ignatius also, he says, you can’t even interpret scripture on your own. You have to do that in an agreement the bishop.
What have we seen here going on? We see Christianity, this fledgling movement, starting to imitate the structures of the Roman Empire. It’s no longer a bunch of simply house churches that are loosely federated by the fact that they send letters back and forth, and have emissaries between them. It’s no longer an authority structure where Paul simply has to exert his authority as much as he can through his own force of will and his charismatic authority, and claim authority as an apostle, although he doesn’t have paper. Nobody ever gave Paul a diploma that said, “Paul is now an Apostle.” He couldn’t refer to his Princeton Seminary, theological seminary diploma to prove his authority. He just had to depend on this claim that he had that he had seen the risen Jesus, that he had had this revelation experience. We’re moving from that kind of charismatic exercise of authority to what is now much more institutional kinds of hierarchy structure of authority.
Medieval Christianity would itself, therefore, imitate the structures of monarchy and empire. Who elects the Pope? We’ll see later that, in this period, bishops seem to actually have been elected by the people, at least by the presbyters. In bishops weren’t often elected. Bishops in the modern Roman Catholic Church are not elected by the people, they’re appointed by the Vatican. Who elects the Pope? Well the cardinals. So if the Pope is elected, but by only a limited number of men, old men who themselves were appointed by previous Popes. This is not a democratic system that the Roman Catholic Church is structured on. What is it structured on? It’s structured on monarchical and imperial ideas of politics. The– in the ancient world, in the Middle Ages, so you have an emperor and you have a pope and they come to hold their power in remarkably similar ways. They each have a court, the emperor or the king has a court of officials with knights and that sort of thing that advise him and carry out his will. The Pope has a house with cardinals and bishops. The Reformation comes along and things change. The Reformers, of course, sort of claim that what they were doing was simply getting back to the biblical model. That’s not really right. What they were doing was reflecting what was a rising bourgeoisie form that was at least a bit more like Republican or Democratic political structures.
Protestant churches have their different kinds of ways of structuring themselves, which are not free from political influence either, they just represent the early modern political structures that arose as the bourgeoisie in Europe developed more and more power and took more powers onto itself. The growth of a mercantile middle class, and the decline of the aristocracy in Europe, led to more Democratic tendencies, first in towns, and then in countries overall. It led to Republicanism. The Dutch were the first to completely get rid of kings and have a modern republic. And then of course the United States becomes the most famous of modern republics in the beginning. In place of having the king or the emperor in control, you’re supposed to have constitutional controls. Things that bodies of people come together to make laws and constitutions, and then you use that constitutional control to bring about unity. Now of course, as we’ve seen in our own modern politics, you can’t always depend upon the constitutions to protect you from certain rulers, but that’s the ideal reflecting a modern movement.
That’s one of the ways that you see how Christianity both comes out in the ancient world, changes in the medieval period and then changes again in the early modern period. It’s reflecting the changes that are going on also in politics in society, which we of course shouldn’t be surprised about.
The other thing that we can see developing too is, and we see this more from the Didache, the other document I asked you to read today, the shift toward trying to control things like liturgy. The Didache is simply a Greek work meaning “the teaching,” because this document purports to be the teaching of the twelve apostles. Now it wasn’t actually written by the twelve apostles. It was written much later. It may have been written around the same time as the letters of Ignatius. Most people place it around the turn of the first century, so around the year 100 or a little bit after that. It’s called, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, and it’s the first time we get in Christian literature something like a manual on how to do it. Here’s how you’re supposed to do worship service, here’s how you’re supposed to do a baptism, here’s how you’re supposed to do the Eucharist to the mass. Here’s what authority structures you have. It was discovered in 1873, so really it’s a very modern discovery, didn’t exist from the ancient period. As far as we know, it was discovered in a monastery in Istanbul, Constantinople that is, now Istanbul. The importance of the discovery of this document is hard to overestimate because it’s just a great, great document for seeing how early Christians actually practiced their liturgy. It’s very dependent upon the Gospel of Matthew and the letter of James in the New Testament. It shows a lot of things like that, it’s also dependent upon certain Greek philosophical and Hellenistic Jewish ideas.
Now let’s just look at some of the things it says. Look on chapter 7 of the Didache. We get hints about how early Christians did baptisms from different places. We think most of the time that baptism, in the earliest period, was not sprinkling the water or dipping a little water on somebody, but putting people all the way under the water. We also get hints maybe that they had people do it at night, and they had people do it naked. So you took off your clothes, you went down into the water, you were baptized, you came up, and they put a white robe or something else on you. We have a few hints about this, but this is the earliest docuemnt we have with anything like these instructions. It says now about baptism: “This is how to baptize. Give public instruction on all these points, and then baptize in running water. . . .” Notice, it actually says “living water” in the Greek, but what it means is, try to baptize in a river or something that has actual running water and not in still water, if you can.
. . . in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. [so you have Trinitarian formula as part of the baptism] If you do not have running water, baptize in some other. If you cannot in cold, then in warm [so they had to be baptized in cold water]. Before the baptism moreover, the one who baptizes and the one being baptized must fast, [so you have fasting ahead of time] and any others who can, and you must tell the one being baptized to fast for one or two beforehand.
Then he goes into fasting, here’s how you’re supposed to fast:
Your fast must not be identical with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Mondays and Thursdays but he should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Who are the hypocrites? Probably Jews. He’s probably trying to say, I don’t want you Christians to fast in the same fast days of the weeks that Jews are fasting on, so he gives them other days to fast. Notice what he says: he gives the Lord’s Prayer, which is familiar to most modern people.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name. Your kingdom come, you will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our bread for the tomorrow. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Do not lead us into temptation but save us from the evil one, for yours is the power and the glory forever.
That sounds a lot like the Lord’s Prayer that you yourself may often say in church if you ever go to church. If you notice carefully, this prayer is actually more like what most modern Christians pray in church than is either the version of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew or Luke. In other words, he’s closer to what we actually pray today than either the prayer version in Matthew or Luke, which is a very interesting fact in itself, that our prayer comes more from a tradition, it’s closer to the Didache, than it is to the Bible.
Notice that he gives them instructions on the Eucharist. One of the interesting things is if you go to a church nowadays, usually what they do is, they bless the bread first and then the cup of wine. He actually has it the other way around. He says, you give the cup first and then the bread. You have, first, prayers of thanksgiving, and it’s this word thanksgiving that we actually get the term “Eucharist,” and that just comes from the Greek word “thanksgiving.” If you go to different Christian denominations, they’ll call this differently. Some places call it the Lord’s Supper, some people call it just the Communion, and if you–some churches, especially Episcopal churches, will call it the Eucharist. Catholic Churches, they usually call it the Mass, but they’re all referring basically to the same thing, the sharing of the bread and the wine.
He gives instructions on that. Notice it says the Eucharist is to be restricted to only baptized Christians. You don’t give the bread and win to people who are not baptized. Then he gives some prescribed prayers in chapter 10, and it’s interesting. Now we’re not in a time where people are just allowed to pray any old way they want too, he actually gives written prayers that he wants them to use. Again, don’t exaggerate this guy’s control, whoever’s writing this. We don’t believe that this document was actually controlling behavior of all Christians of this time. He’s trying to bring about some unity and conformity in a time when, we historians assume, there was a still a huge amount of diversity. By publishing this document and telling people even how to pray he’s trying to bring about this kind of unity.
In chapter 14, it’s interesting because he’s give the different events that would take place on the Lord’s Day, that is Sunday. For example, you’re supposed to have confession, you confess your sins, you’re supposed to reconcile with anybody that you’re not in agreement with, and then you have the Eucharist, which he talks about as a sacrifice. Paul had never talked about sort of The Lord’s Supper as being something alike a sacrifice. In later Christianity it will be considered something like a sacrifice, and so that’s why you can only have a priest do it because it actually changes the elements and something real is going on there. The Eucharist has by this time started becoming considered something like a sacrifice for Christians who don’t have any other form of sacrifice, because Christians don’t go around sacrificing lambs or anything else.
Then you have different leaders, he has in chapter 11 roles for apostles, and he also has roles for prophets. Notice what he said in chapter 11, and I think is really interesting. This is a time when there seems to be regular sorts of officers, but then there are these non-sort of regular officers.
Now about the apostles and prophets, act in line with the gospel precept. Welcome every apostle on arriving as if he were the Lord. But he must not stay beyond one day; in case of necessity, however, the next day too. If he stays three days he is a false prophet. On departing, an apostle must not accept anything, save sufficient food to carry him until his next lodging. If he asks for money he is a false prophet.
So he’s kind of mixing these words–apostle and prophet. Remember “apostle” just means “one who is sent out” in Greek. What he’s talking about are roving prophets who go around to different churches. And it’s really interesting. He says, let him stay with you two or three days. If he’s going to stay longer than that he’s going to have to start working for his bread. And if you have a prophet who says, I’m getting a message, I’m getting a message, oh yeah you’re supposed to give me $5, Jesus says so. Then you know he’s a false prophet and you kick him out. It’s a nice way to figure out which are genuine prophets and which are false prophets. If this were followed in most modern Christianity, it would have a lot of false prophets not on TV. Unfortunately it doesn’t work in modern Christianity, so we have a lot of false prophets on TV asking for a lot of money.
There’s also in chapter 12, this is not just true for prophets. He talks about how to treat other travelers. The churches are becoming something almost like hotels, which makes sense, because in the ancient world there aren’t really very many hotels. You couldn’t just check in at the Motel 6 or the Holiday Inn, when you’re traveling around. You have to stay with friends. There are a few taverns, yes, some brothels, but they’re not very safe. In fact they’re very unsafe, and they’re not respectable places for a good person to stay. They’re houses of ill repute. And so what do you do if you’re good respectable Christian and you want all your other fellow Christians to know that you haven’t been sleeping around when you’re on your business trip? Well, you have to either stay with friends or, now increasingly, you can stay with the church. But, he says, if you have these travelers who come in and they want to stay more than two or three days, then they have to get a job, and they have to start supporting themselves. You see him developing this church as a networked organization. Again, we have more and more organization coming into play here, that has defined offices and some others that aren’t so well defined, like these traveling prophets which he’s trying to regularize. He’s trying to give rules for an institution of the prophet, because that itself is not an institutional kind of office in early Christianity.
So, with Ignatius and with the Didache, we have moved a long way from this tiny little band of followers of a Jewish apocalyptic prophet named Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, we’ve even moved a good ways away from the informal charismatic kind of house churches planted by the apostle Paul. We’re now seeing the institution. We’ve not yet arrived at what will become Christianity. That is, with all the trappings of late antiquity, full church structures, creeds, doctrines, social networks, monasticism, this will be a big thing that starts developing especially in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, the rise of monasticism as another form of Christianity that provides a very important structure for it that will last all the way through the medieval period. We don’t have that yet. We don’t have a Canon yet. We don’t have a Canon even of the Old Testament, much less of the New Testament yet. We see developing in the letters of Ignatius and in the Didache the beginnings of this later development and to what will become a more mature Christianity.
The move from that late antique Christianity though, say, to the Christianity of the fourth century when we get the major creeds, like the Nicene Creed, and the Creed of Chalcedon, to modern Christianity, and it being what we call a “world religion,” is itself centuries away though. I’ll talk about that next time. What we’ve done this whole semester is barely scratch the surface of what would be the history of Christianity. The main point of the scratching has been to get you to see that, at the very beginning, the first one hundred years of this Christian movement–because that’s basically all we’ve covered, and not all that either, but the basic first one hundred years–this was not anything like the religion it came to be. It was diverse, it was widely different across geographic areas, it had lots of different doctrines. There wasn’t anything called orthodoxy yet and heresy yet. That all develops later. This is the very beginnings of it.
— § § § —
26. — The “Afterlife” & Postmodern Interpretation
[Audio: New Testament, Lecture 26 of 26 | duration. 47:40]
[Transcript: the words of Professor Dale B. Martin, Yale University]
We’re going to talk about the big question, how did this little group of Jews following a prophet, an apocalyptic prophet, around Galilee, who was then executed shortly thereafter in Jerusalem, become what we now call a major world religion. How did that happen? Because the whole first hundred years we’ve talked about in this class of what we now call Christianity. Of course it’s not even called “Christianity” until the letters of Ignatius. There’s no term “Christianity” in the Bible itself, and as I’ve said, the Apostle Paul certainly did not use the term “Christian.” He probably would have rejected it because that would imply that he was doing something else besides just bringing the Gentiles into Israel. He thought he was continuing Israel, not making another religion. How did this rag tag bunch of people following Jesus, and then these different house churches become what’s called now a major world religion? We’ll talk a bit about that today, and then I’m going to talk in the class with a little bit of stuff on theory of interpretation that we’ve hit on over the semester.
I should also remind you that at the end of the class we’ll be passing out the instructions for your final exams. I’ll leave about ten minutes or so of time for us to talk about that so you’ll have plenty of time to ask questions about the final exam once you get the instructions. Finally, since this is your last chance, be sure and stick up your hand if you want to ask a question or make a comment. This is time if you want to throw things and rebel against the course. This is probably the best time to do it, it’s your last chance. So ask any questions you want also about any of these topics, and we’ll talk about that.
From the teachings of Jesus to the gospel about Jesus, that’s one of the first things that happens. We’ve already seen that going on. The historical Jesus, and if you really have not had enough of this and you want to take a historical Jesus course, I’m going to be teaching a seminar for undergraduates on the historical Jesus in the fall, open to anybody, and we’ll have a full semester to deal with these problems of the historical Jesus in a seminar setting. The historical Jesus did not talk about himself as the Christ. We just don’t have him doing that except in the Gospel of John. It may well have been that he thought he was the Messiah or that he was preceding the Messiah. Somebody must have thought that he was a Messianic figure because that’s what the Romans executed him for. Either he may have thought he was the Messiah or some of his disciples may have hoped that he was the Messiah, but he didn’t go around preaching about himself. The topic that Jesus talks about the most in the Synoptic Gospels is actually the kingdom of God, this thing that was expected to happen in the future. The historical Jesus first is talking about some gospel that it’s good news but it’s about this coming kingdom of God that’s going to–when God’s going to break in.
Very quickly after his death, as we see already by the letters of Paul, the earliest material in the New Testament, the gospel of Jesus, the good news he proclaimed became the gospel about Jesus. In other words, the good news was who was this man, and what does that mean for us? That’s the first major change that happens in early Christianity on the way to becoming Christianity.
You’ve seen the growth of the Pauline churches, so the first thing that happens is it moves out of Palestine and it moves throughout the Greek speaking world in the west, and very early, we don’t know by whom, a church was planted in Rome because it’s already there by the time Paul writes to the Romans. It’s been there for years. We’ve seen how there’s a diversity of early Christian groups. In fact your final exam will require you to choose one of two questions. It will require you to address this issue that we’ve been hitting on all semester long about how diverse this early movement was, what did different groups look like? We’ve also talked in the last lecture about how did some of the institutions of the church start gradually being developed, such as having a bishop, having priests, having deacons, and then the establishment of the Lord’s Supper as a piece of liturgy and ritual that becomes celebrated throughout these different groups, the practice of baptism being pretty much universally practiced by these groups very quickly.
We also have seen part of the beginning of the rise of Christian scripture. We’ve not gotten to the Canon in this course, the actual development of the Canon, because that doesn’t happen until the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, when the list of these books that become the New Testament canon become more solidified. But we’ve seen the beginnings of this. We’ve seen how different Gospel writers will use other Gospels. We’ve seen how the writer of 2 Peter will talk about Paul’s letters as scripture. So we’ve seen a collection of Paul’s letters coming about, and we’ve seen the Gospels coming about as a collection in the second century.
Then one of the major things we’ve seen the beginnings of that will become more and more important for the nature of Christianity later is its separation from Judaism. As I’ve repeated several times in this course, the earliest people who followed Jesus never thought they were starting a new religion. They thought they were simply continuing the right behavior of Judaism. Paul himself thought he was continuing Judaism. It’s just that he thought he was bringing non-Jews into it in a fairly new way. We’ve seen the beginnings of how, in the letter to the Hebrews, we’ve seen the sermon end with the author making this weird statement about, “let us go outside the camp,” as Jesus was executed outside the city of Jerusalem, and the sacrifices were done in Exodus outside of the camp, so we now as followers of Jesus should go outside the camp, sounding like he’s meaning we’re going to leave Judaism, we have a now superior liturgy. In the second century this separation of the church from the synagogue will start becoming clearer in certain places, and, finally, what you’ll end up with, after the fourth, fifth, and sixth century is a Christian church that’s not Jewish and Rabbinic Judaism that comes to look more like what Judaism has looked since that time, even different from the Judaism as it was in the time of Jesus.
The second century therefore sees some important changes. First, as I’ve said, Christianity is still remarkably diverse even in the second century, and it does grow. How quickly it grows numerically is really impossible to say. We don’t have the kind of demographic data to know how much numerical growth there was in the Christian church in the second century, but we can obviously tell it’s happening in different places by, if nothing more, an increase in written literature that comes about in different geographical locations during the second century.
Connections among these different groups also started growing. As I’ve tried to make clear, we don’t really have any reason to believe that the churches that Paul founded were that closely connected to, say, other churches that may have existed in Syria, or in Egypt, or in Italy. Paul did want his churches to remain closely connected to the church in Jerusalem, and that’s precisely why he started this collection, among the predominantly Gentile churches, of money to give to the poorer church in Jerusalem. Paul already was starting this connection, and he’s writing letters back and forth. We’ve seen already that other churches seem to be writing letters back and forth. These connections start coming a bit more networked in the second century also.
We’ve also seen how Christian churches start, in the second century, imitating Roman political and social structures. They start imitating the Roman household and their government, which is having the monarchical bishop, the one ruling bishop over a town area, and we call it the monarchical bishop because the bishop becomes like a king, a monarch, the single bishop over a town. That starts happening in more places in the second century. We’ve already seen it a bit in the letters of Ignatius; it becomes a lot more prevalent by the time you get to the end of the second century.
Jewish Christianity starts dying out. In the second century we do have some Jews who follow Jesus; they take Jesus to be the Messiah. Some of the don’t seem to believe Jesus is divine. They just–they take him to be a great prophet and maybe even the Messiah but not–that doesn’t make him God necessarily. And these Jewish churches are still there in the second century. We gradually see them become less and less visible after the second century.
We’ve already seen some other things in the second century that are going on. I’ve talked in the class about Gnosticism. So the Gnostics–there was no church of the Gnostics, there was not a movement that had a sign and website somewhere that said Gnosticism, but we use the term as an umbrella term for Christians who held onto certain kinds of mythological views about Genesis, and angels, and the creation, and different divine figures. That’s one thing that becomes more visible. In fact, we believe that most of the texts that we find in the Nag Hammadi Library, we know that the library itself seems to have been written in the fourth century, the actual texts, but we believe that a lot of those texts were written originally in Greek in the second century, and then they were translated into mostly Coptic by the fourth century. This literature, which modern scholars place under the bigger rubric of Gnosticism, starts being written in the second century with these elaborate mythologies, with different layers of heavens, with different angels or beings ruling those different layers, and different mythologies about creation and how the created world came to be.
There is also a very important figure that some people will call Gnostic, but we now tend not to. Valentinus was a Christian scholar who lived in Rome in the middle of the second century, and he gathered around him other Christians, and they indulged in sort of a very philosophical way of thinking about Christianity and the Gospel. They look Gnostic in some ways, but they don’t seem to have a belief in two gods, necessarily, that other Gnostic groups do. Valentinus, though, represents another kind of Christianity that becomes very visible in the second century, and it remains important for a couple of centuries after that until all these kinds of Christianity are declared heretical later in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries and they’re run underground. Valentinus is a major figure because you can see him, and he’s a highly educated–we don’t know a whole lot about him historically, biographically, but you can just tell from pieces of the history that he must have been a highly educated, philosophically educated individual, who was trying to raise the mythologies that he found in Genesis and in the Bible to a level of higher philosophical platonic speculation, so that becomes very visible.
We’ve already talked also about Marcion, and I’ve said that a lot of scholars take it that when Marcion came up with his own Canon of the New Testament, his list of the New Testament, which included the Gospel of Luke, which he edited to take out all the Jewish stuff in it that he thought shouldn’t be there, and the letters of Paul which he also edited and just that list of things was his sort of New Testament, his Christian Canon, and he threw out the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, because that was too Jewish. Marcion also then is being kicked out of the church in Rome and being declared a heretic in the second century, but he founds churches that exist then for a couple of centuries after his death, especially in the eastern part of the empire. These are all different kinds of Christianity that are really boiling up in the second century as–churches are trying to figure out what does it mean to be Christian but not necessarily Jewish anymore.
One of the other figures that we haven’t talked about is Montanus. This was a prophet who went around declaring that he had a special gift of the Holy Spirit, maybe even that he was the Holy Spirit, there were two women who also followed him, and they all claimed to have prophetic gifts and to be able to have the Holy Spirit and God speak directly through them. They developed quite a following, they were very ascetic, very strict, so they forbade marriage, and these sorts of things. So they were practicing a certain kind of early asceticism and monasticism but with this very strong prophetic stream of it also. They were very active in the second century also, and then people like Augustine would later have to sort of fight with these people.
You also have in the second century the first people that we really can say are Christian philosophers. You could say that Paul had a rhetorical education. Every once in a while you can see stuff in Paul’s letters that looks a bit like what you’ll see in say philosophy, stoicism perhaps. A friend of mind, Troels Engberg-Pederson, a professor at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, has written a lot trying to prove that Paul’s ideas are heavily Stoic and probably deeply influenced by Stoicism itself. Most of us don’t buy that, but we think you might see traces of Stoicism in Paul’s writing. You might say that you see traces of Platonism in, say, the letter of Hebrews, or in the Gospel of John. But you don’t find any New Testament writing that looks like it would have come out of a real philosophical school. It doesn’t have that high level of philosophical speculation or knowledge that we have.
In the second century, we do have, though, some individuals arising who style themselves as Christian philosophers, and they style Christianity as itself a philosophy. One of the most famous is Justin Martyr. “Martyr” of course is not his last name, and it’s not like Justin H. Martyr. Martyr is his nickname because he was martyred around the year 150 in Rome. Justin claims, and we have several writings of him that survived, along with an account of his martyrdom. Justin claims that he shopped around when he was a young man in all the different philosophies and he couldn’t find any that really satisfied him until he found this Christian teacher. And he attached himself to that Christian teacher, and that teacher introduced him to the philosophy of Christianity. You have a person who goes around in robes, he grows his beard long, he carries scrolls around so he can look like a philosopher. At his trial, when he’s being condemned, he defends himself as a philosopher like philosophers that had to defend themselves against Roman emperors often in the first centuries. Justin Martyr is one of the first truly sort of philosophical Christians.
Another that existed a little bit later than this is Clement of Alexandria. He was probably head of a catechetical school, a Christian school in Alexandria in Egypt. He wrote toward the end of the second century, so around the year 200 is when he’s writing. And Clement also clearly has a very good philosophical education. His writing is excellent, he tries to make Christianity–for example he downplays apocalyptic kinds of stuff in Christianity because he knows that doesn’t look very philosophical. He downplays the emphasis on poverty, and there are lots of parts in the New Testament that basically teach that if you’re rich you won’t go to heaven. Remember how the letter of James basically seems to condemn rich people just out of hand, not just rich people when they’re evil and not using their money badly, but just by being rich itself, you’re condemned in some early Christian documents. Clement writes against that kind of stuff. He writes stuff showing how you can be a rich person and enjoy nice things, and still be a Christian. So he’s writing at the end of the second century, again, making Christianity into something that looks much more like a philosophy.
These things are going on in the second century and that’s going to change Christianity to a great extent because what becomes traditional orthodox Christianity is heavily influenced by philosophy, especially by the Platonism that’s around in late antiquity. The very notion, for example, of the immortality of the soul that you get in a lot of popular Christianity, it comes from Platonism more than it does from anything in the New Testament.
The other development that’s going on at this time that will become very important is martyrdom. I’ve talked about that last time, and of course Justin Martyr is one of the examples of this. So there’s no general empire wide persecution of Christians in the second century, but you do have sporadic persecutions arising against Christians in certain areas. In Rome, at certain times, you will have certain people martyred, usually leaders, or bishops, or people like Justin Martyr who are key figures. Martyrdom, therefore, starts developing its own ideology and its own theology in the second century, which will become very important for later monasticism and the how Christianity develops in the Middle Ages. You have this idea I’ve talked about last time, that martyrs are especially close to God. Martyrs go straight to heaven, they don’t have to go paradise or any place else first, they go straight to heaven on being killed. Confessors, that is, people who are condemned to martyrdom but not martyred, also become especially important, as figures who are considered to be closer to God.
These attacks on Christianity and the way Christians respond to it with this sort of martial, almost warlike ideology of martyrdom–the martyr becomes a soldier in the army of God in the way it’s depicted in the second century. This is even picked up by enemies of Christianity. Galen was a very famous doctor. Galen was the most famous medical writer of antiquity and tons and tons of his medical writings still survive, and it takes forever to read through them, even in an English translation much less in Greek and now in Arabic translation that survived. Galen actually mentions Jews and Christians in a few places in his writings. One of the things he says is that he thinks Christians are stupid. He thinks they’re crazy because they believe in a God who gets angry. God doesn’t get angry! That goes against the very definition of God. He believes that Christians are superstitious, uneducated. He thinks that it probably only succeeds with the gullible. But he still admires Christians because of the way they face death. Even Christians’ enemies recognize that they had a certain bravery and courage in being totally willing to face death.
Celsus was a contemporary, also living in the middle of the second century, he wrote against Christianity also and wrote against Christians, and he will admit, though, that they seem to have a certain bravery. He just says they’re foolhardy in being willing to throw themselves on a sword the way they do, and throw themselves to the beasts as we’ve seen Ignatius do in his letters, let the beasts come to me. So Celsus and Galen admire Christians for the courage and the almost military discipline they have even though they despise them for being, they believe, gullible, superstitious bumpkins. So you have for the first time in the second century, also then, educated non-Christians taking notice of the movement and writing about it and having an idea about it.
Then in response to this kind of thing you have the beginning of apologists, people like Justin Martyr himself, who wrote an apology for Christianity against its detractors. Either against the governmental type detractors who said it was seditious because it wasn’t loyal enough to the emperor, or philosophical detractors who said it was superstition, and Celsus famously said, the only people these people can convince are old women, and slaves and kids. No educated man would fall for all this bunk. You have Christian apologists, therefore, writing apologies in the second century, trying to defend Christianity against these attacks. All of that’s already in the second century, one hundred years after Jesus, this little Palestinian movement is turning into something that’s going to start looking more recognizable to us. But it still takes a long time.
In the third century you have developments that are very important. You have the real rise of monasticism. Now all the way through the beginning of Christianity we’ve seen that some Christians practiced asceticism. You know the word asceticism just comes from the Greek word for “exercise.” It’s come to mean any sort of self-discipline for a higher good: the avoidance of sex, the avoidance of food, as much as possible, the avoidance of wine, drinking only water. So different groups in the ancient world including some Jewish groups will be called, for example, “water drinkers” because they will avoid wine. It’s not because they felt like these things were in themselves sinful. It’s that they were using these deprivations of pleasures in order to train the body and train the soul. Again, they were borrowing from Roman military imagery and military ideology.
St. Anthony becomes famous, he’s not necessarily but he gets the reputation later for being the first one to go out in the desert and live totally by himself and discipline his body. He gets attacked by demons all the time. Demons are always going out to the desert to find him, and disguising themselves as young lovely girls or boys, and trying to seduce Anthony. And so he has to fight these demons all alone out in the desert in the middle of the night. How do you fight demons like that? Well, you buffet your body, you buffet your soul, and you make your will strong. How do you do that? You avoid sex, you avoid desire, you avoid rich food, you avoid wine, so training the body and training the will, like a soldier or an athlete, they use both these athletic imagery and soldier imagery, to describe the training. This all becomes a highly elaborated ideology and theology starting in the third century. You have not only groups of monks and sometimes nuns living together, that’s one kind of monasticism we call cenobitic, koinonia, monasticism, that is monks or nuns living–not monks and nuns living together, although that seldom happened but sometimes did–but usually monks living together or nuns living together. Then you have with this movement, like I said with Anthony, of some monks going off into the desert and living alone and that sort of thing. You have both these forms of monasticism starting to develop in the third century.
This will become hugely important, as you know, for Christianity all the way through the Middle Ages. You couldn’t have had Europe, as we think about Europe. You couldn’t have the learning, the vast learning and the texts, and the classical stuff, all the classical texts, the passing on of literature and in philosophy from antiquity; you couldn’t have had any of that without monasticism through the Middle Ages. That begins in the third century when you have these movements really taking off, and they become hugely important and hugely popular for people.
You also have in the third century the first really empire wide persecution of the church. An attempt to actually destroy it and get people to de-convert and to denounce Christianity and to sacrifice to the emperor, and this happens with the Emperor Decius, so we call this the Decian Persecution. It happens around the time the year 250, so right in the middle of the third century. And this is the first time that there is an empire wide attempt to suppress the Christian church.
Also in the third century you have one of the most brilliant and famous Christian scholars of all of history actually, Origen. Origen was later considered to be a heretic for some of the teachings that he came up with–for example he taught that even Satan could be converted in the end. He believed that all created beings would be brought back up somehow into God in the end. And he had views about the nature of God and the nature of human beings that later would be deeply suspected of being not quite orthodox enough. In his own day, though, in the third century, he was completely orthodox. He had actually been trained in probably the catechetical school in Alexandria that I mentioned before that Clement probably headed up. He started his own school, then, in Palestine, and that’s where he spent the rest of his life in Palestine. Origen was a great biblical commentator.
He was the first one, for example, who took all the different versions of the Old Testament, for example, the Hebrew of it, the Septuagint, which was the most famous Greek translation, but then parts of other Greek translations like by Theodosian or Aquila, and he would put these in parallel columns. This was a remarkable sort of technology for studying the Bible: to be able to have all these things in parallel columns to be able to compare side by side. He did that sort of thing; it’s called the Hexapla because it had six columns of the Old Testament. He wrote reams and reams of commentaries on different books of the Bible, most of which don’t survive, but we do have quite a bit of it. Origen practiced this way of interpreting scripture I had illustrated for you from the medieval period, that scripture always has more than one level of meaning. In fact, you remember you read some Origen’s commentary when you read that chapter from my book, Pedagogy of the Bible.
Origen represents, in the third century, a new very, very strong rise in the level of Christian biblical scholarship. He’s also very philosophically educated, so he’s part of that too. The tradition of commentary and high level of Christian scholarship also becomes much more visible in the third century than it had been before, especially through people like Origen.
The fourth century, then, brings us to basically where I’m going to stop, because it’s in the fourth century that you have the triumph of Constantine. He beats all the rivals to the throne. The Roman Empire, by this time, by the year 300, has been divided up into two different basic empires, the west and the east. There was an emperor for each one and then there was also a Caesar for each one, so there are four rulers who ruled the Roman Empire in the year 300. Two emperors, one in the west and one in the east, and two Caesars, one in the west and one in the east. Constantine went to war with the other guy on the other side, and he won. He was actually in the west in the beginning. He won. He reunited the empire, east and west. He built his new Rome. He didn’t take Rome anymore as the capital. He moved the capital to Constantinople, named after him of course, the city of Constantine, what we call Istanbul, or Byzantium was its ancient name also. This is basically where we start talking about the beginning of Byzantine Christianity because it’s named after the town Byzantium or Constantinople, or Istanbul. That becomes the capital of the Roman Empire that goes on for them.
Constantine also wanted to stop all this feuding about what was orthodox Christianity. So he uses the power of the emperor’s throne to force bishops to come together in several different councils. The most famous of which, in 325, is the council of Nicaea, and of course this is where we get the term the Nicene Creed, which if you’re Roman Catholic or Episcopalian or several other kinds of Christianity, you may recite the Nicene Creed on certain holy days or in church. This is the longer creed, which talks about Jesus being fully man, fully human. It brings in the Trinity, so you have Trinitarian theology becoming a bit more solidified at the council of Nicaea. It didn’t win the day because throughout the fourth century you still had fights among different bishops, some people not accepting the Nicene Creed. Years later you had another creed pronounced at Chalcedon, so that’s called the Chalcedonian Creed. And all of these were attempts though promoted by the emperors. The emperors wanted to use Christianity to solidify a one empire again and to keep it from being split. You couldn’t do that if you had different groups claiming to represent the right Christianity and claiming that everybody represents the wrong Christianity. That was the real push for what counts as orthodox Christianity and the bringing of more unity to Christianity.
What we have not seen in this semester is what you would call correct Trinitarian doctrine in the New Testament, it’s just not there. You’ve got all kinds of views about Jesus that would later be declared heretical. They’re still there in the New Testament, and what Christians do is that we just read kind of carefully and interpret it a little bit slickly so that it makes it look more orthodox than it actually is. That’s because there was no orthodoxy that could claim to rule different Christians who called themselves Christians throughout the empire. This is what starts changing in the fourth century. Like I said, they don’t succeed. So you have debates about orthodoxy for centuries, but it’s with Constantine in the beginning of the fourth century, and he had a long dynasty. His progeny, his sons, and then their sons, and their sons retained the throne for years after that. So you had this Constantinian dynasty that was able to bring a good bit of solidity to the Roman Empire in the fourth century that it hadn’t enjoyed in the third century. And therefore, they used this to sort of bring about orthodox Christianity as the single form of Christianity. That’s the most important change, therefore, for the fourth century.
After that, of course, as you know from your history, the empire splits again. Later you have this split between eastern Christianity, which is represented by those churches we call Orthodox, located mainly with the authority of the Greek Orthodox church, but of course you have Orthodox churches in each of the nations of the east. So you have Russian Orthodoxy, Greek Orthodoxy, Syrian Orthodoxy, and you have different Orthodox communities in the east and then Roman Catholicism in the west. And that split of course is still with us. That starts happening in later antiquity.
But notice it’s still not what anybody would call a world religion. Now the very term “world religion” is something that has only come about in the twentieth century. It was a term that was invented when Christians were exploring around and seeing that there were other ways of being religious, and how do you want to categorize these things? Around 1900, some scholars invented this concept: well, there are world religions and then there are local religions. African religion is not a world religion; it’s just a certain different kind of paganism, they thought. They thought that Judaism is not a world religion. It’s a religion of the Jews, and by its very definition it’s an ethnic religion. Therefore, it’s not a religion that is for anybody in the world. That’s why Jews don’t go around missionizing and trying to convert everybody in Asia to Judaism, or everybody in Africa to Judaism. But they said Christianity is different. Christianity believed that it was the one true religion, and therefore launched in the nineteenth century all these missionary activities. It was in the nineteenth century that you had mainly Protestants that in the nineteenth century really trying to convert the whole world to Christianity and sending out missions. This of course had started in the beginning in the seventeenth century with Roman Catholics, in North America and South America, trying to convert the Indians and trying to set up colonies. The conversion of the Indians in North America and South America, mainly by Roman Catholics to Roman Catholicism, and then later the attempt in the nineteenth century by Protestant churches to convert people all over the world really does make Christianity start looking like a worldwide phenomenon.
That’s not really until the nineteenth century that that happens. Before that, Christianity is basically the religion of Europe. That’s why Europeans, still to this day, even if they’re not religious, even if they don’t consider themselves Christian, they may consider themselves completely atheistic, but they see Christianity as part of the very fabric of European identity. This is what’s leading to the big debate about whether to admit Turkey into the European Union. There are a lot of people in Europe, even good liberal people, who are open minded and don’t necessarily have anything against Islam, who don’t want to have Turkey as part of Europe. One of the main reasons is because it’s not a Christian nation. It doesn’t have this–of course most of their nations aren’t really Christian in the sense of having the majority of people observing Christianity, but they still have this idea that what it means to be European is some connection, historically, with Christianity. That’s quite true, because Christianity was not a world religion; it existed in Europe until the modern period.
But with the idea that there are other world religions, that had to do with colonialism. Christianity starts defining itself as a world religion. So the first scholars who talked about this term said, well there’s only one world religion, Christianity. All the rest are local religions linked to some particular geographical area. Then they started saying, well, okay wait a minute, they kind of liked Buddhism, they thought it kind of looked a bit like Protestantism. So they said, we’ll let Buddhism be a world religion also. So for a while around 1900, the two world religions recognized were Christianity and Buddhism. Then gradually they started saying, well maybe Islam is because you don’t have to be an Arab to be Muslim, and you can see Muslims existing all through Asia and that sort of thing, and Africa. So maybe Islam is the third world religion. Then kind of more for ideological purposes they said, we’ll let the Jews in, so Judaism can be a world religion also, because you don’t actually have to be in one location to practice it. Hinduism was a problem because the very word “Hindu” is a made up term for a religion because it just means Indian. Hinduism is a modern invention, a label to put over whatever people in the subcontinent practice that relates to something that we would call gods. We’re going to call that “Hinduism.” So “Hinduism” gets invented in the twentieth century, and then that gets to be another world religion.
Then you get this ideology. If you had taken a class in world religions or Introduction to Religion in, say, the year 1980, you would have probably read a textbook that would probably list as the undisputed world religions five: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Now does Confucianism count? Well, some textbooks would say no. What do you do with paganism? What about people who just worship all kinds of gods of trees, and rocks, and things?
So this whole category of having “world religions” and having a list of them becomes something that really is only developed in the academic study of religion in the twentieth century. If someone asked you the question, how did this little movement, started by this Jewish prophet in Galilee, how did it become a world religion? You really–the most honest question is to say, well it didn’t really happen until scholars invented it in the twentieth century because that’s when the very category of “world religion” came about for us to use. Of course if you wanted to say, well when did you start having Christians all over the world, not just in Europe? Well you’d have to say starting in the seventeenth century with missions to North and South America, and then really in the nineteenth century with the missionaries, especially from England and North America, going to China, and going to Japan, and going to all over Africa. When you talk about, when did this thing become a world religion? Probably about the nineteenth century would be a good answer, but that’s counterintuitive to most of us.
The last question I’m going to talk about is–nah, we’re out of time. I was going to talk about why did Christianity grow before Constantine? Obviously with Constantine you get the emperor promoting this religion now. There are various theories about what caused it to grow before that. Some people have said because they forbade abortion and birth control, contraception. Most early Christians seem to think that contraception was wrong and abortion was wrong, and putting out infants was wrong. Some people will say, well, it’s because they promoted the family. I don’t particularly buy that because we’ve got all these monks and nuns running around too not reproducing. Some people have even said, well, when Christians themselves write in this period about why they grow and why people are flocking to them it’s because we’re better healers and exorcists. We’re better than Asclepius at healing people and exorcising demons. So Ramsey McMullen, retired historian right here at Yale, has written famously about this that, apparently, in the second and third century Christians were just really damn good healers and exorcists, and that may be why they grew. The question of why Christianity grew before then is a hot one that a lot of historians are even right now debating.
Are there any questions about that? I’m going to cut the lecture there because I want to pass out the final exams. I think we’ve talked enough about in previous classes the difference between historical interpretation and theological interpretation, and modern interpretation and post-modern interpretation, that was what I was going to end up on but I believe we’ve covered that enough, and you can always ask me questions about that later at some point if you like. Let’s pass the exams out please. Any questions while they’re doing that? This is your chance. Yes sir?
Why we think Rome was persecuting Christians? Was your question, what evidence do we have that they were doing it or why were they motivated to do it?
Why were they motivated to do it? It’s a very good question, and you’ve got to realize that so much of the power of Rome was built on the ideology of the emperor. Romans really did believe that they were the most pious nation on earth. This is why whenever the Roman army went to another country they would always sacrifice to the local gods, because they believed the local gods protected them and caused growth. The Romans would sincerely believe that if you don’t sacrifice to the gods, if you’re not a pious person, the gods may punish you. Well, what happens then if you have a bunch of these Christians running around who refuse to sacrifice to the gods, refuse to sacrifice to the emperor? Not only is it a threat against the emperor himself, it’s a threat against all the people, and it’s also just a matter of patriotism. What would happen to you, right after 9/11, or even now, if at a Yankees game when they stand up and we’re going to sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” if you refused to stand up, you sat down, you kept your baseball cap on your head, and you started singing “Happy Birthday” instead. You’re going to get beat up because the locals just won’t like it. Well that’s the way it was a lot with early Christians. It was the locals who felt like what they were doing was dangerous. It tore against the social fabric of Roman society, and it offended the gods. They had a lot of reasons to try to suppress Christianity. Yes sir?
Do we know why Constantine converted? He says it’s because he saw a vision right before the battle. Scholars debate that. Some scholars say he converted because he looked around and he saw that this was, although it was a minority movement, there was no way that this was a majority, it was a vibrant movement that was going on in Rome, in the Roman Empire, and maybe he said, that’s something I can use. He was already an admirer of the sun god, and he was moving toward a certain form of monotheism where the sun was the only god. Some people say it wasn’t that big of a jump for him to switch that to Jesus, and so some people say, he had this political idea that it would be a smart thing to do and that he made up the vision later. There are different reasons. We don’t really know truly his psychological motivations for conversion. Okay–yes sir?
The question was what was the nature of persecution? Was it really throwing Christians to the lions and that sort of thing, or was it more like destroying Christian texts? It was different things at different times. A lot of times it was crucifixion or killing people, torture to get the people to confess, sometimes, especially in the Decian Persecution, there was an attempt to force priests and bishops to turn over Bibles and Christian literature. And in fact, people could save their lives by giving up Christian books or Christian Bibles, and they would be destroyed by the authorities. It took different forms like that, and sometimes it was just less overt pressure. You couldn’t get promoted, you couldn’t do certain things, sometimes people would try to get you out of the Roman army if they found out you were a Christian, and so it took different forms. Yes sir?
The papacy? He asked about the institution of the papacy. It was originally simply the Bishop of Rome. But as you might imagine, pretty early in Christianity in the third century, the bishops of the most important cities just became more important. The Bishop of Jerusalem was important because Jerusalem was important. The Bishop of Alexandria was important because Alexandria was important. The Bishop of Constantinople was important because it was Constantinople. Likewise, the Bishop of Rome was important, and there was struggling among different major bishoprics about which one would be leading. Rome was still considered the center of the earth for a long time, and so gradually it just became so that the Bishop of Rome just sort of held preeminence among all other bishops, and it was informal in how it developed. The real recognition of the Bishop of Rome as sort of the Pope, in the way we think of it, that actually develops in the Middle Ages. You don’t, for example, have papal infallibility declared as a doctrine until the early twentieth century. So when we think of the Roman papacy now as being sort of the infallible Pope who has kind of has full say over everything, that really is almost a development that starts more in the medieval period and comes into the modern period. In the beginning he was just recognized as the head–the sort of recognized, more respected bishop.
Dawkins, R. (2011). The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. London: Bantam Press.
Hagerty, B. B. (2011). Hallelujah! At Age 400, King James Bible Still Reigns. National Public Radio
Hayes C. (2015). What’s Divine about Divine Law? Early Perspectives. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Levy, J. J. (2017). How the King James Bible Came to Be. Time.
Martin, D. B. (2004). Inventing Superstition. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Martin, D. B. (2010). Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press.
The British Library (n.d.). King James Bible, 1611. Retrieved from, bl.uk/collection-items/king-james-bible