More on the Book ISRAEL’S GOD AND REBECCA’S CHILDREN June 3, 2008

I have noticed a burgeoning interest in the post I made earlier on the FS for Alan Segal and Larry Hurtado entitled Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children which covers the broad topics of Christology and community in early Judaism and early Christianity. In the next several days I will blog about particularly interesting chapters.

Today I will cover Paula Fredriksen’s chapter on methodology in the study of Christian origins entitled ‘Mandatory Retirement: Ideas in the Study of Christian Origins Whose Time Has Come to God’ (pp. 25-38). Fredriksen, in this essay, has chosen 4 terms/phrases that she thinks are abused, anachronistic, and/or inaccurate as explanatory words:

1. Conversion

2. Nationalism

3. religio licita

4. Monotheism

Unsurprisingly, F. dislikes the term ‘conversion’ because Christianity was not formally something to convert to (see p. 28). Also, the notion of ‘conversion’ in the ancient world has much to do, according to F., with following a particular group’s ancestral traditions. Paul was wanting his Gentiles-in-Christ to worship Israel’s God, but not to become a Jew or follow Jewish ancestral customs. Though I see F.’s point, I don’t think it is that problematic to use the term ‘convert’. F. prefers the idea of ‘turning’ which she finds to be more biblical (as in 1 Thess. 1.9-10). Conversion, though, is just such a term. Can we use it more loosely than its technical meaning of switching from one religion to another? To me, it is not such a misleading term if, in scholarship, we recognize that ‘Christianity’ was not a formalized religion for some time.

In terms of the use of ‘nationalism’ for religion, F. dislikes when scholars refer to Judaism as too nationalistic. For F., ‘ancient gods run in the blood’ (p. 32). Cult, tradition and gods were ethnic, she argues. She notes that Paul and Israel’s vision was that, at the end of the ages, Gentiles would worship God as Gentiles (and not as Jews). She asks, ‘Is this nationalism or anti-nationalism? How can this concept possibly help us here?’ F. only spends a couple of pages on ‘nationalism’ and though I find here thoughts interesting, I need more on this. What does she make of Paul’s enigmatic statement in Romans 9.6 that ‘Not all Israelites truly belong to Israel’? Again, I am not sure about F.’s concerns.

As far as religio licita, F. offers very helpful points of note for scholars who sort of flippantly throw around the term. First of all, it was not a Roman legal term at all (p. 33). F. observes that it comes from ‘that great ecclesiastical sound-bite meister Tertullian’ (p. 33). F. points out that the Imperial concerns with Christianity was not that it new or mysterious or evil. As F. often relates the ancient concept of religion with ancestral practices, she argues that the real problem for the empire is that these Gentiles as Gentiles still need to fulfill their duties towards their ancestral deities lest the gods get angry and make trouble. She summarizes:

‘cult makes gods happy. If deprived of cult, gods can grow resentful, then angry. Unhappy gods make for unhappy humans’ (p. 33).

This seems a bit too CLASH OF THE TITANS for me, but I appreciate her point: ‘Ancestral obligation, not legal status, is what mattered’ (p. 33). I think F.’s word for scholars is that we need to be more careful in how and why we throw around the term religio licita in the classroom as if it were a matter of beliefs and ‘theology’. We are very much in danger of transporting modern notions of religion into the ancient world. If one visits India today, for instance, religion has much less to do with ‘beliefs’ than rituals and practices (and ancestral customs).

Finally, F. condemns the term ‘monotheism’. She argues ‘In antiquity, all gods exist’ (35). If anything, says F., the closest religions get to monotheism is a strict hierarchy (i.e. henotheism) with one god at the top. She argues that all early theologians ‘envisage a cosmos thick with multitudes of other divine personalities, to whom they refer to as theoi, “gods”‘ (p. 37). I think the debate is really what counts as a god? Are any supernatural beings of the ancient world ‘gods’? What is the minimum criteria for being a ‘god’? WHat do we do with Josephus’ statement in Against Apion 2.193: ‘There ought also to be but one temple for the one God…This temple ought to be common to all men, because he is the common God of all men’?

F. has offered some very incisive critiques of the ways that the above terms are sometimes misapplied or abused, but I don’t think they are all in need of mandatory retirement. What is needed, I think, is more discussion about these subjects with a view towards the ancient context and progress towards an ’emic’ description of the phenomenon of religion in the ancient world. Nevertheless, this was a very stimulating chapter worthy of mulling over several times.

WHAT’S NEXT? In the very next chapter, Richard Bauckham indirectly issues a challenge to F. on the matter of whether or not early Judaism was monotheistic…

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