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.