In what was almost a tangent from his main point, Edwin took some time to portray a thumbnail sketch of the OT revelation that simply doesn’t agree with what I learned during my OT PhD program at Duke. But it does agree with what I continually read from people a lot smarter than me, who didn’t happen to choose OT studies. And I want to ask my friends: why do they believe this picture, and what would it take to stop believing it? (I ought, at some point, to write a blogpost about what I think I learned during my OT PhD program, and why it is different. But, among other reasons not to do so yet, I still am not sure that I am quite understanding this pervasive alternative, and so I’m not quite sure how to articulate why my own studies led me a different direction.)
Here is the the thumbnail picture, as Edwin summarized it: “In other words, God clearly revealed Himself to the ancient Israelites in terms that made sense to them in their culture, and only gradually revealed to them the fuller truth that we believe we now know.” In the context of this sentence from Edwin’s blogpost, I notice (predictably) that images of God which Israel shares with its neighbors get the word “pagan” (rather than, say, “human”), and that these images are considered more progressed if they are only meant “metaphorically” (Edwin usually doesn’t go down the metaphor-versus-literal wild-goose-chase).
Now, Edwin and I agree that the Incarnation/ Atonement constitute the great final act of God’s revelatory interaction with creation, making Jesus the Final Word and the best way to know God. But this doesn’t really get us to a gradual unfolding of “fuller truth,” one that involves pulling away from (rather than embracing more closely) those diverse cultural lenses that all humans use in seeing God.
Edwin and I agree that every human experience with God, in various interactions with Israel and with us, gives us ever-richer cumulative understandings of God. But this doesn’t quite imply that there is a discernible forward progress, within the OT itself, that only toward the end becomes “full” enough to match the NT witness.
This is not a critique of Edwin. It is a question: why are so many people, who are so very wise and informed about Scripture and canon and Israel and theology, continually relying on a thumbnail picture of what the OT is and how it came to be that doesn’t sit very comfortably with the hundreds of articles and books I read while getting a Ph.D. on OT (emphasizing theological and canonical perspectives) from Duke University? Am I missing something?
The obvious first answer is that this is the picture that much older OT scholarship gives. Or am I wrong? Isn’t this, for instance, the picture one would get from someone like William Albright, or from OT theologians like Von Rad? It’s more or less the picture I get from someone like Peter Enns today. Or am I radically misreading these authors? Doesn’t in fact the traditional formulation of the JEDP pattern imply something like this, with “J” being earlier and more anthropomorphic, and “P” being last and most transcendent/abstract in its picture of God? I’m quite aware that this approach has fallen from favor, but you seem to be saying that you never encountered it at all.
A further reason why I find this approach congenial is that it’s congruent with the classic Christian “shadow-promise” paradigm. And that’s also, I suspect, one reason why it’s fallen out of favor among Christian OT scholars, particularly given the anti-Semitic cultural context in which the “progressive revelation” paradigm was formulated in 19th century Germany.
I understand how annoying it can be when people outside your specialization insist on clinging to a scholarly paradigm that you think has been thoroughly debunked within your discipline. I get frustrated when theologically/historically educated people who aren’t Reformation specialists reproduce a “Whig narrative” of the Reformation. (Indeed, one thing that might persuade me to abandon the progressive revelation narrative is that in its modern historical-critical form it looks as if it might have been produced by the same cultural prejudices as the Whig narrative–a Whig narrative for the OT, as it were.) But in that case, while most of the scholarship I was most directly influenced by in grad school went against the stream of the “Whig narrative,” and while it’s definitely fallen out of favor, I certainly read plenty of material in which it was implicit, and there are scholars who continue to champion modified versions of it. Either the eclipse of the “progressive revelation” narrative is more total than that of the Whig narrative, or you read quite selectively in grad school, or you’re exaggerating a bit, or I have badly misread the bits of (mostly older) OT scholarship I’ve read or absorbed second-hand.
The second-hand absorption is, of course, one reason why older paradigms live on outside a specialization long after they’ve fallen out of favor within it.
A couple of specific points I wanted to address:
1. I used the word “pagan” not as a slur, but to refer to the religious ideas of ancient people who were not Hebrews. I’m also probably very influenced by Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances (both directly and through Lewis). Barfield identifies paganism with what he calls “original participation,” and sees the OT as a kind of divinely mediated “withdrawal” or “concentration” of participation in preparation for the Incarnation. But while Barfield used this idea for his own purposes, the basic notion would surely have been taken for granted by most people in the 50s when he was writing. At any rate, I have trouble seeing the problem in using the term. You suggest “human,” but modern people are human too. Stoics were human too (and pagan too–so really the more precise term would be “Ancient Near Eastern pagans”). I’m assuming something like the picture of Ancient Near Eastern paganism found in Thorkild Jacobsen’s Treasures of Darkness, and Jonathan can tell me if this is substantially erroneous. So, for instance, when I find Jacobsen saying that people in ancient Mesopotamia as early as the second millennium had a concept of a “personal god” who took care of them, then that seems to me to make a lot of sense of how Abraham would have viewed his relationship with God (and yes, I know it’s now wildly unfashionable to suggest that Genesis might preserve any genuine memories at all of anything from the second millennium). 2. I do try not to use the language of “metaphorical” and “literal” thoughtlessly–I especially dislike the word “literal.” But at a somewhat later date, both Greek pagans and early Christians did debate whether this kind of language should be taken to refer to a human/animal-shaped body or not. Kalman Bland–the only person I actually studied anything Hebraic with at Duke in a formal way–thought that a post-Biblical text like the Shi’ur Qomah was “literal” in its measurement of God’s body parts. So I suppose that would work against the idea that the “later” sections of the OT (if there are such things) have a less “literal” understanding. But again, it seems to me that the texts traditionally identified as “J” do have a more anthropomorphic language than the texts traditionally identified, say, as “P.” Genesis 2 describes God in much more concrete, anthropomorphic language than Genesis 1. And Genesis 1, like “Second Isaiah,” seems to be written in order to put as much distance as possible between Israel’s conception of God and the Babylonian view of their gods.
The reason I introduced this material at all was that many people use the “pagan” sources of the Islamic idea of God to prove that Muslims don’t worship the true God. Whereas, in fact, it seems to me that Islam marked a much sharper and more sudden break (sharper because it was drawing on existing Jewish and Christian tradition, of course) with its pagan context than the OT revelation did. And again, that’s all to the advantage of the OT, not Islam, in my book.
Because here’s the thing: I probably wouldn’t be a monotheist at all if I weren’t a Christian. I see the value of what Barfield would call the “withdrawal from participation” primarily as a preparation for the Incarnation. The grandeur of Second Isaiah would still tug at my heart if I weren’t a Christian, but so do the pagan myths. I don’t find the Islamic picture of God (outside of Sufism) to be appealing or convincing at all. (Although, to be sure, the concept of God in Islam is quite anthropomoorphic, while highly transcendent–at least in the more fundamentalist versions of Islam today, and probably in the earlier strands of the tradition as well.) So I find the picture of God in Genesis 1 “truer” than that in Genesis 2 only in the sense that it clears away more thoroughly possible misinterpretations of God’s nature, in preparation for the revelation of God as one who really does walk among us and breathe on us in a concrete, “literal” way. That doesn’t mean that I find Genesis 2 less valuable. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God. But I am not convinced either historically or theologically that we should abandon a narrative that makes sense of the flow of Scripture throughout centuries of Israel’s history for one that treats the entire Old Testament as essentially a postexilic creation. That may well be my ignorance. But in answer to your question about what it would take to convince me otherwise: it would first take more actual evidence and less argumentum ad auctoritatem than I’ve seen so far. And secondly it would take a narrative that has the same explanatory power as the one it replaces, including the same ability to make sense of the relationship between Scriptural revelation and paganism.