“Homosexuality Under the Reign of Christ”
“So I got your book. I’ve only read the chapter on homosexuality, and I’ve got a couple of questions for you.”
Way back in August, just before I decided to take a Blogbatical, I agreed to review Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood. With the awesome press coverage it’s getting, she sure doesn’t need Storied Theology to make folks aware of the book.
For all my self-aggrandizing tendencies, I do realize that I have nothing on the Today Show.
But be that as it may, I have one big thought about the book that I’d like to share.
As you probably know, the book chronicles Rachel’s year of following every commandment in scripture directed toward women. The tongue-in-cheek exercise helps expose the difficulty in claiming that “biblical womanhood” is the goal toward which today’s women should aspire.
Her project exposes the most basic reality of biblical interpretation and application: we do not, cannot, and indeed must not, simply pick up the Bible, see what it says, and go do it.
All of us approach the Bible with some sort of interpretive grid that helps us to know when we do or do not need to take to heart the commandment issued. Rachel has grown weary of “biblical” as a trump-card adjective, thrown out in an effort to baptize whatever (conservative) social, religious, or theological position a person wants to endorse.
So, the story of the year is a story of challenging the notion that “biblical womanhood” is to be had by opening up the Bible and applying “God’s word to women.” (Camping in the backyard during your period, anyone?)
But there’s another story within the story.
And this is what the nay-sayers are going to avoid, deny, and otherwise be blind to.
As Rachel says at the end of her Today Show interview, she actually loves the Bible. And this thread runs right through the narrative of swear-jars, Thanksgiving dinner, and “Dan is awesome” signs.
What Rachel discovers this year is not simply that the Bible is embedded in a cultural context where myriad different assumptions about life make direct application impossible. She also discovers a richer, more potent biblical (there’s that word again!) prescription for womanhood.
That prescription is one of trust, of gentleness, of concern for the weak, of executing justice, of loving, and of honoring those worthy of honor.
This is a great book for raising, again, the question, “What is the Bible and what are we supposed to do with it?” (a phrase I steal from Enns on a regular basis). And my invitation to you is to read with an eye toward both stories: the over-the-top, witty narrative of literal biblical reading as a critique on our simplistic views of the bible, but also the underlying current of a true biblical womanhood that has the power to infuse even those “liberated women” who can’t quite bring themselves to call their husbands “master.”
The NA28 is poised to make its appearance! After 20+ years of NA27, the latest critical revision of the standard critical text is nearly upon us.
Here’s the blurb:
This is the twenty-eighth edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (NA28). NA28 is the standard scholarly edition of the Greek New Testament used by scholars, Bible translators, professors, students, and pastors worldwide. Now NA28 has been revised and improved: Critical apparatus revised and easier to use. Papyrii 117-127 included for the first time. In-depth revision of the Catholic Epistles, with more than 30 changes to the upper text. Scripture references systematically reviewed for accuracy. The NA28 with Dictionary includes the Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament prepared by Barclay M. Newman.
Now go get in line for your copy!
I hadn’t ever heard of Abide with Me until a friend sent it in the mail, thinking I’d enjoy it. It’s a beautiful book about a pastor whose wife dies, leaving him with two small children.
The opening lines tell you that in the town of West Annett “the winters used to be especially long.” This introduces one of the recurring features of the book: the weather, the seasons, and especially the winter provide more than simply a setting. They almost become a character in their own right.
The book itself is filled with all the stereotypical crap of small-town church folk using the church for self-satisfaction, positioning, and a gossip channel, a situation into which a gifted and idealistic young seminary grad steps for his first call.
The book is laced with Bonhoeffer and hymnody. It’s the kind of work that clearly would repay multiple readings, as the various threads of the story-telling are too rich to be taken in on a first pass (at least, if you read like I do…). Abide with Me does not posses the haunting beauty of Gilead, but is still well worth reading.
The story is one of unraveling. The first 260 of the less than 300 pages are spent descending into a nadir of seemingly irreconcilable antagonism. As the pastor finds himself less and less able to cope with the strain of his loss and the strain his daughters are experiencing, relationships begin to sour and rumors start flying.
Without giving too much away, what made the story for me was the scene in which the story finds its redemption. Honestly, I had gotten to the point with the parishioners that I assumed most of them were beyond redemption and we were going to be left with a huge mess at the end. But Strout puts together a scene that resonates deeply with the sort of redemption scenes Luke constructs for us in Acts: a moment when people look upon the one in whose misery they are complicit and realize that they need forgiveness.
Some of the most penetrating insights come as the story begins to resolve. They include this realization: often it is as hard, if not harder, to receive love as it is to extend it.
Was a suffering Messiah a surprise?
It need not have been: there were psalms of a suffering, lamenting king. There was Isaiah 53. Plenty of precedent existed for claiming that the Messiah would die. And, the NT writers depict this suffering as the focal point of the OT’s anticipations of Jesus (e.g., Luke 24).
He wants to argue that the church’s construction of a suffering messiah is not a theology that was created after the fact, in light of its conviction that the suffering one was (and is) the Messiah, but a category that was already extant and applied to Jesus.
The chapter does not accomplish this.
What it accomplishes instead is the following: Boyarin demonstrates that one can use traditional Jewish hermeneutical moves to demonstrate from scripture that the Messiah had to die.
While he shows that the biblical interpretation is Jewish, he does not demonstrate that these moves had been made previous to the church’s claims about Jesus, such that he was simply fitting into one possible type of expected Messiah.
In fact, one might argue in parallel with Qumran that after-the-fact readings of Scripture in light of the realities being experienced by one’s community are, themselves, a hallmark of the type of midrash Boyarin sees in play in early Christianity.
He states on p. 132:
The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent.
What evidence does he offer?
(1) The exegetical methods used in the Gospels are perfectly traditional Jewish, midrashic moves.
(2) Such an understanding of the Messiah as one who must suffer, in step with say Isa 53, continues in the later period of the Talmud, etc.
In other words, the evidence of non-Christian Jews making these precise moves comes from texts a couple hundred years later than the NT.
I think that Boyarin is offering in this chapter an excellent, challenging reading of Daniel 7 as a suffering son of man. In fact, I think that we should mine the suffering of the saints in Daniel 7 as part of what Jesus refers to when he says the son of man must suffer before entering his glory. I’ve not researched this possibility, but I’ve thought there might be something to it, and Boyarin encourages more research along these lines.
But to say that the NT writers use a Jewish way of talking about Jesus, and Jewish exegetical methods to demonstrate his messianic identity, is a very different thing from saying that they are putting Jesus into an already extant category of suffering messiah.
Such a category may have existed, but Boyarin has not shown it.
That Jews in the Talmudic period and later depicted a coming suffering Messiah in step with Isa 53, for example, does constitute an interesting piece of circumstantial evidence. It would have been easy, in the wake of the separation between Christianity and Judaism, to leave such argumentation entirely in the hands of the Christians. But arguing backwards a few hundred years is tricky business.
I have a few overall thoughts about Boyarin’s challenging and provocative book, including a revisiting of Jesus’ declaring all foods clean in Mk 7. So look for one more pass at Boyarin in the coming days.
Did Jesus say that it doesn’t matter what people eat?
In what I found to be the freshest part of Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels, he argues no. Unlike the interpretation he offered of Daniel 7, Boyarin makes his claim based on the interpretation of the biblical text as it currently stands.
Here’s the passage in question:
14 Then Jesus called the crowd again and said, “ Listen to me, all of you, and understand. 15 Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person. ” k
17 After leaving the crowd, he entered a house where his disciples asked him about that riddle. 18 He said to them, “ Don’t you understand either? Don’t you know that nothing from the outside that enters a person has the power to contaminate? 19 That’s because it doesn’t enter into the heart but into the stomach, and it goes out into the sewer. ” By saying this, Jesus declared that no food could contaminate a person in God’s sight. (Mark 7, CEB).
The traditional interpretation is this: Mark is telling us that Jesus just overturned the whole system of food laws–food can’t make you unclean before God, not even pig or shrimp.
Contextually there is one particularly problematic feature of such an argument: Jesus had just condemned the Pharisees for abolishing the commandments of God in favor of their own tradition. Could Jesus really, then, turn around and abolish the law of God in favor of a new tradition?
Boyarin follows the argument of Yair Furstenberg in saying no.
He distinguishes between laws of impurity and laws of kosher food.
Food laws tend to be about certain foods that are always off limits, or situations that differentiate between kosher and non-kosher foods.
Purity laws are about contagion that comes from different sources: often from the body itself (through sores, through menstruation, through ejaculation), sometimes through circumstances such as death.
Boyarin’s point is this: the kosher laws are not purity laws.
What Jesus and the Pharisees are arguing about is not whether certain foods are kosher, but whether certain ways of handling foods could make them impure.
In this context, the Pharisees have created an additional tradition: even kosher foods can be rendered unclean if eaten with defiled hands.
Jesus, according to Boyarin, is arguing against this “liberalizing” of the tradition, arguing for a more “conservative” reading of the law. Jesus disagrees that purity or impurity is transferred to and through food. You can still transgress the law if you choose to eat a detestable thing. However, eating kosher food with impure hands or that has overshadowed a corpse is not going to make you impure.
Thus, for Boyarin, this is an intramural Jewish debate, among kosher Jews, about an innovation in the food laws added by the Pharisees.
He extends his argument by focusing on things coming out of the body as the typical sources of impurity (fluids, for example). Jesus says that things going in don’t make you impure, but instead, things coming out.
The one point where I would have liked to see a bit more concession from Boyarin is that here Jesus’ “what comes out of a person” is not body fluids, but instead actions that spring from the heart.
It’s a point that needs to be addressed, because it seems that Jesus’ definition of what makes impure does not, in fact, uphold the law as such. If he is refusing the Pharisees’ redefinition of “impure,” he is still creating his own new definition when we does not revert to fluids but instead to the actions that spring from the heart.
I need to do more research on OT laws, and see what folks more versed in them, and Jewish traditions, than I think about this argument. But it is the one thing that I’ve read so far where I’ve stepped back and thought that Boyarin might be presenting something that truly has the potential to transform how we read a crucial text.
Is the “Son of Man” God?
Daniel Boyarin suggests that Daniel 7 (rightly deconstructed) provides us with a first affirmative answer, and then moves on to demonstrate that this affirmation is echoed in other early Jewish texts.
Chapter two of The Jewish Gospels provides his reading of the Son of Man in First Enoch and Fourth Ezra.
The material from First Enoch provides a much stronger basis for arguing that the “son of man” was considered some sort of divinity in early Judaism than Daniel does, in my opinion. This figure is clearly preexistent, one who becomes incarnate at a particular time in order to be messiah, redeemer, savior.
One indication that this figure is divine comes from the statement that his name is known before creation came to be:
Even before the sun and the constellations were created,
Before the stars of heaven were made,
His name was named before the Lord of Spirits. (cited from Boyarin, 78)
In addition to this figure’s preexistence, at the end (in what is perhaps a later addition to the vision), Enoch is revealed to be the son of man.
Boyarin reads the text as a whole, indicating, first, that Enoch on earth was an incarnation of this eternal son of man, and that he is then deified in his ascent into heaven.
Presumably, this means that Enoch will return in order to fill the role on earth of the Son of Man who is the saving messiah.
But this presumption raises a question for me: Is the text that precedes Enoch’s exaltation a description of Enoch before he comes to earth as Enoch? Or is it, instead, a description of the heavenly Enoch after his exaltation to heaven, who will come again as Messiah?
The idea that someone’s name is known from all eternity need not entail their actual existence. Compare Revelation, where people’s names are known and written in the books from all eternity.
Finally, there is the repeated use of “son of man.” This word means “human.” I want to see more from Boyarin about why this figure is called “human being” if he is not, in fact, human being throughout most of the apocalypse?
This ties into another general question I have, both from last time and this: to what extent does the fact that this is apocalyptic literature–literature that depicts earthly realities using heavenly visions, literature that is highly symbolic and stylized–influence how we read these descriptions? If sometimes feel that Boyarin is reading too literally.
In this case, however, most scholars agree with Boyarin that the Son of Man in 1 Enoch is a preexistent deity and not simply an exalted Enoch who comes back as a messiah. Here there is some good fodder for discussing the presence of a preexistent, perhaps even divine, messiah figure as present in non-Christian Judaism.
In the discussions of both 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, however, I have a larger problem with Boyarin’s work. It’s not that there are not parallels between Jesus as son of man and these early figures. There certainly are. Even important dynamics of their life such as receiving worship are entailed across different texts.
But Boyarin has adopted Richard Bauckham’s heuristic of “divine identity Christology” as a measure for saying “here is a figure who is being described as God.” This is problematic.
Receiving worship does not make someone God. Not even in Judaism. Unless, of course, Solomon was God (1 Chro 29:20).
Controlling the waters of the sea does not make someone God. Not even in Judaism. Unless, of course, Moses is God (Exod 14).
Ruling the world does not make someone God. Not even in Judaism. Unless, of course, Adam is God (Gen 1).
Being called Lord does not make someone God. Not even in Judaism. Unless, of course, David is God (Ps 2).
I agree wholeheartedly with Boyarin that the Jesus tradition is participating in a larger Jewish tradition of exalted son of man figures redeeming, saving, coming as David’s seed, receiving worship, and riding on the clouds.
Where I am not yet convinced is that all of this entails divinity, as such, for an early Jewish audience. There is a whole tangle of unexplored possible implications that swirl around a very different possibility.
Perhaps “son of man” really intends to connote “human one.” Perhaps rather than a divine christology, this is all part of a larger Adam Christology in which the early Jewish people are envisioning human beings, or a Human Being, restored to the primal place of ‘adam: God’s son, ruling the world on God’s behalf.
Daniel Boyarin has come out with a short, readable book arguing a provocative thesis.
The Jewish Gospels, The Story of the Jewish Christ sets out to demonstrate that early Christian ideas about Jesus are all Jewish ideas about a coming messiah figure.
Many Jews, argues Boyarin, believed that a divine being would come to rescue them. This is not a development of the later church, an explanation of what had just happened with Jesus, but a thoroughly Jewish idea.
This, says Boyarin, is what we find in texts looking for a coming Son of Man. This is a title indicating divinity.
Furthermore, early Jewish people were looking for a coming a king, a messiah. This is what “son of God” means: a human being anointed by God.
Today, I want to engage his chapter on Jesus as son of man.
Boyarin’s argument is this: the son of man in Daniel 7 is God. Therefore, early Christian depictions of Jesus as son of man indicate that the Gospel writers saw Jesus filling this role, expected by many Jews.
This leads Boyarin to make a couple of exegetical moves that I think are important: interpreting Mark 2, he says that Jesus is claiming to be the son of man figure from Daniel, the one who rules the world for God.
But I take considerable issue with Boyarin’s reading of Daniel 7. He argues that the son of man in Daniel 7 is “part of God” (p. 26), or a second God. A divine figure.
It is crucial that we realize what the reader has to agree to in order to arrive at such a conclusion. Three pillars uphold his argument.
First, Boyarin recognizes that his interpretation runs counter to the interpretation given by the author of Daniel. In Daniel, the explanation of the vision of the son of man is that the human figure represents the holy ones of the most high, or, the people of the holy ones of the most high–in context, the Maccabean martyrs.
Boyarin sees this interpretation as a later interpretation by the author of Daniel in which the redactor is attempting to silence the clear meaning of the vision by giving a contradictory meaning. Thus, for Boyarin, Daniel 7 itself embodies the question of whether a redeemer figure can be God or not as an intramural Jewish debate.
The idea that the visions and the explanation are from different redactional layers strikes me as special pleading. It is quite common in apocalyptic literature to have a confusion vision explained to the seer. Was this particular apocalyptic vision not interpreted in some non-extant older strand?
Questions of apocalyptic genre and the age of the vision persist in the other two planks of Boyarin’s argument.
Boyarin says that the human one being divine, and the interpretation being secondary, represent the clear and obvious reading of the vision as it stands.
Are we to assume that Daniel 7 teaches that the world is or has been run by lions with wings, man-eating bears, flying leopards, and iron-toothed monsters?
The son of man figure is the last in a series of rulers, of kingdoms, that exercise power over the earth, and over God’s people in particular.
Does all of this end when we get to the Son of Man and the vision suddenly shift into a “clear” vision telling us literally what happens? Such an argument depends upon a genre mistake, akin to many that Christians make in attempting to make sense of Revelation.
Third, Boyarin argues that we have here the remnants of an ancient Canaanite tradition in which there were two gods ruling the earth: El and Ba’al, who came into Israelite religion as El and YHWH before the latter two were joined into one.
Without questioning the evolutionary picture outlined by Boyarin, are we still to believe that a second century, post-exilic, post-Josianic, apocalyptic text reflects a genealogical antecedent from which it was separated by hundreds of years? This seems highly unlikely. What year would Daniel’s vision have had to be written to make such a Canaanite influence viable?
It is important for readers of Boyarin’s argument to recognize that the argument concerning Dan 7 is not an interpretation of the passage, but an interpretation of an alleged prehistory of the passage that stands in direct tension with Dan 7 as it now stands. Moreover, it is worthy of scrutiny even as offered.
To claim that the Gospels depict Jesus as the Danielic Son of Man is important. And, it is important for showing that Jesus occupies a special place of authority not generically given to all people. Boyarin makes these points well.
But the argument as offered in ch. 1 does not go very far toward demonstrating that Jewish people were looking for a divine messiah, and that this is the claim of the Gospels.
The book suffers from a bit of equivocation in terms of what Boyarin intends to demonstrate with respect to the son of man’s divinity. In a curious footnote, Boyarin says that one might distinguish between functional divinity–someone exercising divine activities such as ruling or judging human begins at the end times– and ontological divinity.
After exerting 55 pages of ink affirming Jewish people’s expectation of something that could only be construed as the latter, Boyarin inexplicably indicates in this note that he intends the former: functional divinity is what he means by someone “being” God. The remainder of the chapter is spent discussing how, in light of Daniel 7, we know some Jews anticipated a divine messiah.
Throughout, Boyain does not mean someone like Adam, ruling the world on God’s behalf (a functional divine christology) but someone like the early Christian confessions indicate: a preexistent God (ontological christology).
The early Jewish usage of the son of man figure might be more to Boyarin’s point than his reading of Daniel 7. We’ll discuss that next time.
A couple weeks ago, I was alerted to the fact that the Rob Bell Reader for Kindle was selling for just the right price on Amazon. Which is to say, of course, that it was free (as it still is today, as it is also at Barnes and Ignoble for Nook and in the iTunes store for whatever people read on when they buy at the iTunes store).
Having never read anything Bell has written prior to this, I figured this was as good an excuse as any to see what he’s up to.
The book is forthrightly offered as a teaser for the books Bell has published with HarperOne and Zondervan (both part of the same parent company). Each of the five chapters is a selection from one of Bell’s earlier books: Love Wins, Velvet Elvis, Sex God, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, and Drops Like Stars.
Here’s my bottom line: Bell offers a compelling overarching theological vision, peppered with various detailed exegetical and/or theological claims that make me wince.
The book’s selection from Love Wins is Bell’s exposition of the Prodigal Son parable. It contains some vivid, beautiful insights about our lives as they stand in relation to God:
Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.
We all have our version of events. Who we are, who we aren’t what we’ve done, what that means for our future. Our worth, value, significance. The things we believe about ourselves that we cling to despite the pain and agony they’re causing us.
This description of the brothers, each needing the father to retell their stories as stories of beloved sons, each refusing in their own way to believe it at different points in the story, is packed with insight.
The brothers both have skewed visions. And the father offers them each a new story of acceptance and love.
But one wonders whether this metaphorical description of “hell” is really to the point when reading an author who is claiming to make a point about “hell” as a potential destiny for human beings who reject the work of God on their behalf.
We believe all sorts of things about ourselves.
What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God’s version of our story.
Toward the end, Bell comes around to a stronger argument about Hell. If this God we serve is the one who is constantly rewriting our stories of guilt and shame with his story of peace and grace and forgiveness and love, then how can this same God turn on a dime and cast into Hell those who refuse? What sort of grace and forgiveness and love are those? What kind of God is that?
This is an important question for us to wrestle with.
How one understands the gospel they claim, and the God who offers it, will inevitably impact how a person lives. Bell joins the ranks of those who call us away from a gospel that’s too small: a focus on “getting in” that does not entail a whole new life, is a truncated gospel at best.
We’re invited to trust the retelling now, so that we’re already taking part in the kind of love that can overtake the whole world.
Bell presents a captivating vision, and it is not without its challenge to us to examine our shortcomings. This is not just about “inclusion,” but calling us to repentance as well. He writes these challenging words:
The second truth, one that is much more subtle and much more toxic as well, is that the older brother is separated from his father as well, even though he’s stayed home.
His problem is his “goodness.”
His rule-keeping and law-abiding confidence in his own works has actually served to distance him from his father.
The parable is, in fact, told in Luke 15 to a bunch of older brother types who are grumpy about the folks Jesus is celebrating. Bell does a great job of bringing this back around to us, the presumed insiders, to challenge how we posture ourselves toward the rest.
Ok, so that was just one chapter of the reader. But perhaps its illustrative: Bell has a penetrating theological vision that is worth learning from, even when we find ourselves disagreeing along the way.