SNTS: Second Main Paper and Seminar

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Today’s program started with a service in French. Very few members attend any of these chapel services, but today it was interesting to notice that almost everyone who was there was not a native speaker of French.

Next on the program was the second main paper of the conference, by Paula Fredriksen, asking “How Jewish is God?” Gods were thought of in antiquity as sharing in the ethnicity of their worshippers, often indeed being viewed as the ancestors of the rulers of nations and cities, if not indeed whole populations. And so Fredriksen broached the question of how the Jewish God was viewed in light of this on the one hand, and the insistence that the Jewish God was the universal God on the other. The paper was fascinating, noting the contrast between Genesis 10 and Deuteronomy 32:8-9 on whether other gods are among the ethnic identifiers of nations, and also the idea (found in 1-2 Maccabees and Josephus) that Jews and Spartans were related because of a connection between Heracles and one of Abraham’s granddaughters. The Sabbath was one of the most distinctive ethnic identifiers of the Jewish people, and it was claimed (e.g. in Jubilees) that this practice of theirs came to them because the God who created their nation and set it apart from others kept the Sabbath. Fredriksen has striking ways of making her points, such as when she says “In antiquity, all monotheists were polytheists,” believing that one God is supreme, not that no subordinate beings exist that might be called “gods.” Her paper also drew attention to the fascinating reinterpretation of Psalm 96:5 in the LXX, making the gods of the nations not merely idols but daimonia. Likewise fascinating was the consideration that Paul had no clear designation for the Gentiles who came to worship the one God through his proclamation – they were not converts to Judaism, nor ‘Christians’ (a term not yet coined). The very last point was perhaps the most striking of all: although Jews were linguistically diverse in his time and so language did not serve as an ethnic identifier in the same way it did for other peoples, nonetheless the Gentiles who are in Christ call God abba, using the Jewish tongue, Aramaic.

I initially thought that perhaps Galatians 4 might provide counterevidence. But a I reflected further, I realized that Paul focused on Abraham precisely because he is father of many nations, ethnoi. Ethnic Arabs and ethnic Jews and other Israelites were different ethnicities but children of Abraham. And extending the family imagery, Fredriksen pointed out in the discussion time that the other gods were themselves bene elohim, “sons of God.” Margaret Mitchell asked about how this relates to the mobility of gods around the Mediterranean in the Greco-Roman era. She also noted 1 Corinthians 10:1, where Paul seems to give Gentile Christ believers the shared ancestors of the Israelites, and thus asked whether Paul is consistent. It seems to me the tension for Paul is between the one body in Christ which includes many nations. I was also struck by the way this might change the significance of something else Paul says in 1 Corinthians, talking anout how sharing in the cup of “demons” provokes God to jealousy. Was the issue that these were the gods of the nations as the Psalm says, rather than that they were “demons” in the modern sense.

After a coffee break, we met in seminars. In the John seminar, Jean Zumstein offered a paper on John 6. He argued against diachronic approaches that deny the coherence of the final product, and focused on the intertextual relationships between John’s miracle stories here and the Synoptic equivalents on the one hand, and the Hebrew Bible on the other – hypotext and hypertext, intratextuality and intertextuality, brought together to offer an interpretation of the final shape of John 6. John’s relationship to Mark is different from that between Matthew or Luke and Mark. The Johannine version ends with a crisis, the misunderstanding of the identity of Jesus. John 6 can be read in two different ways, depending on whether the reader already knows about the eucharist. Intertextual interplay is dialectical, as we see when we consider the relationship of the manna story to John 6: not only does knowledge of the manna story change the way John 6 is read, but the latter in turn changes the way Exodus, manna, and Moses are viewed and understood. Susanne Luther was the respondent, and sought less to critique Zumstein, and more to offer a perspective on the topic that draws on her Habilitationsschrift, which is about history and factuality in the Gospel of John. I found this fascinating, having come across earlier today while browsing the book exhibit a chapter by Joel Marcus asking whether Matthew believed his own myths, focusing on Matthew’s introduction of an earthquake into his passion narrative. Luther built on the work of Martinez and Scheffel, treating the distinction between fictional and factual as a pragmatic one, while real vs. fictive has to do with ontology. Dennis MacDonald, in the discussion after, suggested that the eucharistic issue is in view in the earlier layer rather it coming into view in the later redactional layer. Jorg Frey brought up some points that he addressed in a publication on the feeding of the 5,000 in Mark and John, arguing that John alludes to the narrative about Saul in 1 Samuel, with a young boy involved and Saul hiding when they want to make him king. The wider context of John’s Gospel was also brought up – how does the later insistence of “the Jews” that they have no king but Caesar impact consideration of the historicity of the attempt to make Jesus king in John 6? In response to a question from Johanne Beutler, Zumstein emphasized the difference between his perspective and that of Rudolf Bultmann:  In John 6 we have the interpretation of eucharist within the developing Johannine tradition – out of and in continuity with it rather than in opposition to it.

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  • John MacDonald

    There was a post here by Dr. McGrath yesterday regarding a discussion about lying and deception in the ancient Greco Roman and Jewish world at the conference he is attending. The post has disappeared for some reason so I will repost my comment here:

    Dr. McGrath wrote: “While Jerome Neyrey has warned against anachronistic evaluation of ancient behavior in terms of our moral sensibilities, Reinhartz drew attention to the condemnation of lying in both Jewish and Greco-Roman literature, as well as elsewhere in the New Testament itself.”

    (A) There were certain instances of well thought of lies in Greco Roman literature, such as the Noble Lie of Plato, and the lie Cadmus advocates for about Dionysus in Euripides’ Bacchae. The line in Euripides’ Bacchae reads “Even though this man (Dionysus) be no God, as you say, still say that he is. Be guilty of a splendid fraud, declaring him the son of Semele, for this would make it seem that she was the mother of a god, and it would confer honour on all our race.”

    (B) As for the bible, there are numerous instances where lying was permitted:

    1. God rewarded the Egyptian midwives for lying to the Pharaoh.

    And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men-children alive? And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives. Exodus 1:18-20

    2. Rahab was “justified” when she lied about Joshua’s spies.

    And the woman [Rahab] took the two men and hid them and said thus: There came men unto me, but I wist not whence they were; and it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark that the men went out; whither the men went I wot not; pursue after them quickly, for ye shall overtake them. But she had brought them up to the roof of the house and hid them with the stalks of flax. Joshua 2:4-6

    Was not Rahab, the harlot, justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?. James 2:25

    3. David lied to Ahimelech when he said he was on the king’s business. (He was King Saul’s enemy at the time.) We know that God approved of this lie, since 1 Kings 15:5 says that God approved of everything David did, with the single exception of the matter of Uriah.

    David said unto Ahimelech the priest, The king hath commanded me a business…. 1 Samuel 21:2

    4. Elisha told King Benhadad that he would recover, even though God told Elisha that the king would die.

    Benhadad the king of Syria was sick … And the king said unto Hazael … go, meet the man of God, and enquire of the LORD by him, saying, Shall I recover of this disease? Elisha said unto him, go, say unto him, Thou mayest certainly recover: howbeit the Lord hath showed me that he shall surely die. 2 Kings 8:8-10

    5. In the Deuterocanonical book of Tobit, the angel Raphael lied to Tobias, saying “I am Azarias.”

    Tobias said to him: I pray thee, tell me, of what family, or what tribe art thou? And Raphael the angel answered … I am Azarias. Tobit 5:16-18

    6. Jesus lied when he told his family that he wasn’t going to the feast, but later went “in secret.”

    [Jesus said] Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast. … But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret. John 7:8-10

    7. Even God lies now and then by putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets.

    And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him … I will go forth and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him and prevail also; go forth and do so. 1 Kings 22:21-22

    And I would disagree that lying and deception was universally frowned upon in the Greco-Roman world.

    Aside from the presence of the Noble Lie or Pious Fraud in Plato and Euripides that I already mentioned, Seneca famously said “Religion is true to the masses, false to the wise, and useful to the rulers.” For example, Serapis (Σέραπις, Attic/Ionian Greek) or Sarapis (Σάραπις, Doric Greek), was cleverly instituted as a Graeco-Egyptian god. The Cult of Serapis was introduced during the 3rd century BC on the orders of Ptolemy I of Egypt as a means to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm.

    It is not out of the realm of possibility to speculate that the miracle/resurrection tales about Jesus started as Noble Lies to assist in selling Jesus’ ethical teaching of “love your enemy and neighbor,” a cause the disciples may have been willing to die for. As I said above, this notion would not be unknown in the ancient world: In Euripides’ Bacchae we read: The line in Euripides’ Bacchae reads “Even though this man (Dionysus) be no God, as you say, still say that he is. Be guilty of a splendid fraud, declaring him the son of Semele, for this would make it seem that she was the mother of a god, and it would confer honour on all our race.”

  • Marcus Maher

    Fredriksen’s paper sounds fascinating. Are papers at conferences like these typically published at a later date?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Yes, I would expect all of them to appear in print at some point, whether in NTS, another journal, or a book.