The Triumph of Elohim: From Yahwisms to Judaisms
Diana Vikander Edelman, ed.
(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1996) 262 pp., $25 (paper)
The study of Israelite religion has undergone a transformation in recent years as old orthodoxies have been criticized and rejected and new orthodoxies jostle to take their place. One new view that has become dominant in some circles is that everything in the Hebrew Bible is late and post-exilic (after 586 B.C.), dating to the Persian or Hellenistic periods.a The late-daters generally maintain that we have no reliable historical information about Israel in the pre-exilic period, since all biblical writings are late fictions. Moreover, they claim that Israelite religion in the pre-exilic period was indistinguishable from other varieties of Canaanite and West Semitic religion in this period. The present volume represents a fleshing out of this position by a group of scholars who, the editor explains, “do not espouse standard views.” She promises “a set of challenging ideas and proposals that are not easily dismissed.”
What are these challenging ideas? First and foremost, the authors—including Thomas Thompson, Philip Davies and other late-daters—agree that Israelite monotheism, in any recognizable form, is an invention of the Persian or Hellenistic period. Prior to this time Israelite religion was polytheistic, just like the neighboring religions. The gods worshiped alongside Yahweh included his wife Asherah, the Sun, Moon and other astral deities, the snake-god Nehushtan (who might have been a form of Yahweh), Baal, Death, Plague and others. Yahweh was commonly portrayed in graven images, and is perhaps represented as the strange creature (usually identified as the Egyptian god Bes) drawn on a jar from Kuntillet Ajrud. Distinctive aspects of biblical ideas of God were derived from Persian religion, or perhaps from religious conflicts of the Maccabean period (141–37 B.C.).
While this summary scarcely does justice to the range of ideas proposed in this book, it gives a taste of the “challenging ideas” put forth. Many of the ideas are derived in one way or another from biblical texts, which are read in interesting ways by the authors. The chief problem is that the authors tend either to ignore or to condemn as “dogma” standard scholarly views, without offering cogent arguments against them. The result is a sort of brainstorming session in which the participants try to imagine what is possible, with a curious lack of sophistication in gauging what is probable.
Take Brian Schmidt’s reading of the second commandment. The prohibition against graven images, he tells us, does not extend to all material images of God; the prohibited images include only “faunal forms inhabiting the sky, earth and sea.” Schmidt suggests that “inanimate objects, floral or vegetal images or composite forms, are the most likely candidates for the acceptable YHWH image of biblical traditions.” According to this view, it would have been perfectly unobjectionable to worship Yahweh in the form of a large carrot, like the creature in the sci-fi classic The Thing. To reach this position one has to read the second commandment very narrowly and ignore the stanof this commandment is its short first clause: “You shall not make sculptured images (of God).” The unembellished short form is 016preserved intact in commandments six through nine (for example, “You shall not murder”), as interpreters have long noted.
Many things are possible. It is possible that a roomful of monkeys typed up the Bible. But it is not very probable. Similarly it is possible that the Hebrew Bible was written entirely in the Persian or Hellenistic period, and that pre-exilic Israelite religion was indistinguishable from Phoenician or Philistine religion. But the archaeological evidence (which is largely neglected in this volume) makes this view extremely improbable. Consider, for example, the sharp differences between Israelite shrines and Phoenician, Philistine and Edomite shrines of the Iron Age.b Archaeology, linguistics, other Near Eastern texts and the history of biblical writings combine to make less “challenging” ideas far more probable and plausible. It is always refreshing to read and think about new ideas, but ultimately what one wants are ideas that work and explain the evidence adequately. Novelty is exciting, but it wears off quickly.
New Testament Ethics: The Legacies of Jesus and Paul
Frank J. Matera
(Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), vii + 325 pp., $30 (cloth)
New Testament literature provides no systematic ethic. Instead, Frank J. Matera asserts, the authors of the various gospels and letters wrote to unique communities, tailoring their moral instruction to the issues and circumstances particular to those audiences. In his analysis of these diverse ethical reflections, Matera argues that they are all nevertheless connected because they are all “the gospel viewed from the point of view of humanity’s response to God’s work in Christ.” Each author explains God’s work in Christ, and the ethical imperatives that derive from it, to his target audience.
Matera divides New Testament ethics into two “legacies”—the legacy of Jesus and the legacy of Paul. Jesus’ legacy consists of the ethical perspectives presented 018in the four canonical Gospels. The Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—Matera argues, focus on the proclamation that the kingdom of God is at hand. For those gospels, the kingdom is the work of God, to which humans ought to respond. Jesus’ preaching about this kingdom and his activity, which reflects its power, reveal God’s will. To align themselves and their activities with God’s will, humans must repent and believe in ways that bring about God’s kingdom, transforming both the discipleship community and the larger community that surrounds and often persecutes it.
In the Gospel of John, however, the norm of morality is no longer one’s response to the impending arrival of God’s kingdom; it is instead one’s response to Jesus. In John 1–12, the book of signs, the key ethical response is faith in Jesus. The second half of John, the book of glory, emphasizes living out that faith by loving others in the community of faith.
Paul’s legacy consists of the ethical instruction found in the undisputed letters, especially Galatians and Romans. In Galatians, Jewish Christians maintain that Gentile Christians should submit to the cultic demands of the Mosaic law, but Paul argues that salvation comes through God’s grace, not through the law. Matera helpfully demonstrates how this statement of salvation through God’s grace (gift) has social implications for Paul in that God’s grace, not ethnic or national heritage, matters in human relationships.
In the church addressed by Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Matera envisions a similar tension between two groups, one that practices a Judaizing form of Christianity and one that practices a form closer to that which Paul preaches. But Matera argues against those who maintain that, in promoting a justification based on grace, Paul opposes good works. According to Matera, Paul instead opposes the necessity of the Mosaic law for salvation—particularly circumcision, dietary laws and festival observances. For Paul, salvific power comes only through God’s act of redemption in Christ; that act forms the basis for the ethics of the community of believers.
Such an understanding fosters the building of community, the ultimate ethical objective behind Paul’s theological and christological discussions. In such a community all are equal regardless of ethnic or national background or spiritual gift or talent. The equality comes from God’s grace, offered freely to all.
New Testament Ethics is lucid, engaging and often provocative. Matera presents complex issues, such as the relationship between law and grace, without over-simplifying and in a way that makes them understandable for both lay readers and scholars.
I don’t think Matera goes far enough in fleshing out the ambiguities, at least for modern readers, in Paul’s ethic. For instance, in Galatians 3:28 Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Does this imply an ethic of social egalitarianism, one aimed at razing ethnic, class and gender barriers? Probably not. Other statements by Paul caution us against imposing such 20th-century views on the first-century apostle, such as his admonitions to women and his acceptance of slavery.
The book’s greatest weakness is that it merely describes the ethical concerns in the New Testament. Matera does not evaluate what they mean for us today. The New Testament, however, is not a descriptive document for most who read 020it. Matera recognizes this when he discusses household codes (the lists of family duties for husbands, wives, children and slaves) that may be considered suspect from a contemporary perspective. Matera’s use of the term “legacy” also suggests that he is aware that these materials about Jesus and Paul have more than a historical-descriptive importance.
Prayer in the New Testament
Oscar Cullmann translated by John Bowden
(Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994) xvii + 190 pp., $19 (paper)
Prayers, even simple prayers, are often beset with difficulties. Consider this petition from the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven…Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13/Luke 11:4). Is the benevolent God really being asked not to cause us harm?
Questions like this one are straightforwardly addressed in Oscar Cullmann’s study of New Testament prayer. Take the example from the Lord’s Prayer cited above. Cullmann shows us how past scholars and theologians have understood the plea “Lead us not into temptation.” Some commentators have argued that it means “Lead us not into the terrors of the Eschaton [the end of days, which gives rise to false prophets],” such as are described in Mark 13. This interpretation of “temptation,” however, which these commentators prefer to designate as the “Test,” underplays the element of human choice in the phenomenon.
For other commentators, “Lead us not into temptation” has much more to do with the fact that God can use Satan’s evil to further His mysterious plans. For these commentators, the petition is a plea that we not be brought into that arena where, because of our weakness, we might choose evil. Cullmann throws his weight behind this interpretation because it matches his perception of a similar dichotomy—between human freedom and God’s imperial design—found throughout Scripture.
Cullmann sheds new light on numerous New Testament passages about prayer. These include prayers of petition (Matthew 7:9), intercession (Matthew 5:44; John 17), and thanksgiving and praise (Colossians 3:16; Revelation 5:12).
With much dexterity, Cullmann tackles a troubling passage in John 17. In Jesus’ last prayer before his crucifixion, he asks God: “Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (John 17:2). But Jesus then adds, “I am not asking on behalf of the world” (John 17:9). According to Cullmann, Jesus is not condemning the world; rather, he limits his intercession to the disciples because it is their mission to communicate his word to the unbelieving world. Jesus presupposes God’s love for the created world—but the world’s ultimate salvation can only be effected through the efforts of the disciples for whom Jesus prays.
Nonetheless, Cullmann’s book is plagued by a number of problems. He suggests, without citing any supporting evidence, that Jesus could have talked to the disciples about “our God”—thus dispensing with Jesus’ exclusive role as the 021revealer of God’s will. In other places, however, Jesus explicitly assumes this role: “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27/Luke 10:22). Cullmann forgets that the verb used in the phrase “your kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer is never employed in the Gospels to say that the kingdom has already come. He also ignores scholarship indicating that the Lord’s Prayer stems not from the historical Jesus but from Jesus’ followers in the post-crucifixion period. Further, Cullmann neglects to consider the degree to which one New Testament document or group of documents relating to prayer may have been written as a response to another part of the New Testament. To what extent, for example, is prayer as presented in Ephesians—thought to have been written by a disciple or admirer of Paul in the last third of the first century—a conscious editing of prayers in the letters undisputedly written by Paul?
Cullmann also pays scant attention to the parallels between New Testament passages and prayers that come to us from Judaism and a variety of other venues. For example, some prayers in the Johannine literature (Revelation 4 and 5, among others) bear an affinity to Greek epideictic hymns (hymns that praise the subject being considered), especially those employed in the emperor cult. John’s usurpation of the rhetoric and theater of the most prominent and antagonistic secular power of the day might have provided the grounds for an interesting discussion.
These are not just idle issues. Some prayers involve questions that are generally not relevant today. The Christian community, for example, no longer must define itself against Judaism. The stark characterization of that struggle in John 17 —especially Jesus’ refusal to pray for “the world”—has much to do with the Jesus movement’s need to differentiate itself from Judaism. Conversely, a careful understanding of the context of some New Testament prayers may reestablish their relevance for contemporary believers.
It is to Cullmann’s credit that he has brought the discussion this far forward. But more scholarly work still must be done to enable Christians to pray with the fullest possible understanding—to express a love of God with all their “heart and soul, mind and strength” (Mark 12:20).
The Triumph of Elohim: From Yahwisms to Judaisms