A leap to monotheism

I do not have time to do another post on my reading project today.  But here is something I want to call your attention to.  James K. Hoffmeier makes what I think is a very good point about the so-called monotheism of Pharaoh Akhenaten.

Much writing about religion assumes an evolution from animism to monotheism.  Hoffmeier uses the term “Darwinistic” for this.  That seems wrong to me.  The evolution posited is more Hegelian or progressive.  The progressive idea that there is a right side of history and of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”–that things in the past are wrong just because they are in the past–has little to do with biological evolution.

But Hoffmeier makes this point:  Atenism did not evolve.  He points to good reasons to think that it arose from the Pharaoh’s personal religious experience.  He thought the singularity of the divine sun disk had been revealed to him.  There was a set history of Egyptian polytheism.  Into this came Atenism with little development.  It was a sudden emergence of a new religion.

Hoffmeier then points out that the biblical portrayal of Moses is similar.  Moses does not base monotheism of any development, but on experiences of revelation at the burning bush and on Sinai.

Now, of course, the sources of the Hebrew Bible do give us reason to see some development from local and tribal religion to national and even universal religion.  But you could describe these developments as leaps rather than slow evolution.


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Fredriksen-Eschatological Gentiles

Paula Fredriksen, in Paul, the Pagan’s Apostle, has a low view of the reliability of Acts of the Apostles for Paul’s life. For one thing she thinks Paul’s letters often contradict what Acts says. More than that, she puts the writing of Acts in the second century, too late for it to carry a living memory of Paul.

Sometimes she makes a good point about how Acts distorts Paul. But sometimes she stretches too far to assume a contradiction when Luke may simply tell the story in a different way. Luke has imposed a theologically conceived chronology on Paul’s ministry. But he also seems to have a lot of correct information—about the Macedonian and Achaean travels, for instance .

And I definitely disagree with her dating of the writing of Acts. Acts correlates with the writing of its first volume, Luke. That had to be between Mark and John, I think, around the 80s of the first century. It was probably by someone who had some contact with Paul during his ministry.

I am not going to argue this further. Just note that her interpretation of Paul is going to be based on the letters. She does not assume that Paul had a rabbinic education in Jerusalem. She does not even concede that he was from Tarsus. From what we can tell in the letters, he was from Damascus.

Paul’s call was not a conversion. Furthermore, he did not seek to convert pagans. This is a misunderstanding in some translations where a Greek word meaning to turn appears as convert. Paul called on pagans to turn from worshiping idols and to turn to the true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

This is important because Paul’s pagans did not become included in Israel. Conversion implies a movement from one group to another. The implication of conversion is that people were in one institutional religion and then converted to another.

What Fredriksen thinks happened was something harder for us to grasp. She gets at it by asking what Jews thought would happen to Gentiles when the apocalypse came. They did not try to convert pagans. Many did, though, think that the power of God would become evident in the end. Gentiles would acknowledge God. They would do this as Gentiles, without becoming Jews. It is evident that Paul was in this camp. She looks at Romans 15:9-12

9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name”;

10 and again he says,

“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;

11 and again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him”;

12 and again Isaiah says,

“The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope” (NRSV).

There is nothing here about Gentiles (ethne in Greek) becoming Jews. But they glorify God for his mercy. They sing God’s praises. They find hope in God. Particularly telling is the quotation from Deuteronomy 32 in verse 10, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” The Gentiles don’t become the people. They don’t convert. But they join in joyful worship with the people.

Fredriksen says that Paul’s goal was to create such “eschatological Gentiles” in light of the rapid approach of the kingdom. Since they were not going to convert or be included in Israel, there was no need for them to get circumcised or keep the dietary laws.

She probably means it paradoxically or ironically, but her use of Gentile as interchangeable with pagan is a little jarring.  Her point may be that even after turning to the God of Israel, Gentiles remained in a certain sense pagans.  But for me, to call them pagans implies something different.

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Fredriksen-Paul, the synagogue, and corporal punishment

I am reading Paula Fredriksen’s Paul, the Pagan’s Apostle.

She sets up the context of Paul’s activity in the cities of Syria, Asia Minor, and Greece. The theological background in Judaism was apocalyptic hope. I covered that in my first post. But the religious context in the Hellenistic cities was the interaction of Jews and pagans.

She uses the term “pagans” deliberately. The New Testament often uses the Greek word “ethne”, meaning the nations. But Fredriksen wants us to break out of the idea that the distinction between Jew and Greek was primarily ethnic in the modern sense. Ethnicity was intrinsically religious in the ancient world. People were born to certain gods and sanctuaries. They were part of their ethnic inheritance. Sometimes whole city populations physically descended from certain gods. So they had a family relationship to those gods.

Paul also referred to Jews as related to their deity.

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises (Romans 9:4 NRSV).

He held that the Jews were children of God by adoption. And he held that God had the freedom to adopt others.

But the big point that Fredriksen makes is that Paul distinguished himself from the synagogues by demanding that pagans who came to adhere to Israel’s God totally turn away from their ancestral gods. Surprisingly, the synagogues did not put this requirement on non-Jews who wanted a connection to the synagogue.

Inscriptions, especially in Alexandria, show accommodation between Hellenistic Jews and the cities where they lived. Pagans could worship and study in the synagogues without turning away from their ancestral temples. Jews could be citizens and participate in institutions dedicated to pagan gods—institutions like the market place, the gymnasium and the baths. There are even inscriptions praising the God of Israel that Jews placed in pagan temples.

The attitude in Jerusalem was more exclusive. But, even there, non-Jews were free to enter the court of the Gentiles and pray at the temple without renouncing their family religion.

Fredriksen thinks that the synagogues and the city authorities both persecuted Paul because he upset the delicate accommodation between these institutions.

She has a theory about what persecution meant when Paul used the term. In 2 Corinthians 11:24-27 Paul strings together his hardships, including affliction at the hands of Jews and pagans. He starts out by saying that on five occasions he had received 39 lashes from the Jews.

We know that flogging was a discipline administered by synagogue authorities on synagogue members (*see comments).  Deuteronomy 25:3 set the maximum number of strokes at 40. In practice one less stroke was given in order to avoid accidentally breaking the law.

Fredriksen proposes that this was the persecution Paul had once used against disciples. She distrusts the Acts story of Paul acting in Jerusalem on behalf of the chief priests. She also doubts the claim in Acts 22:4 that Paul persecuted the Way “unto death” and imprisoned disciples.

Rather, she thinks that Paul was acting on behalf or local synagogues in Damascus. He sentenced people to flogging. Maybe he even personally administered floggings.

The basic notion of Fredriksen is that Paul, before he became a disciple, and the Jews who later flogged Paul both reacted to the threat to Jewish-pagan relations posed by the demand that Gentiles turn away for their ancestral religions in order to follow Jesus and worship the God of Israel.

I close by noting her interpretation of Exodus 22:28 in the LXX.  Our Bibles say something like “do not revile God”. In translation into Greek the ambiguous Hebrew term elohim became not God, but gods. So Jews who read their Bible in Greek read “do not revile the gods.” This supported the accommodation with paganism practiced by Hellenistic Jews. Synagogues may have understood that Paul was reviling the gods.

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Fredriksen-Paul’s Jesus as end-time prophet

The winter vacation is over.  Missouri is still frozen.  But I escaped for a while.

This is the year of our fiftieth wedding anniversary.  So we plan to break up the year with several celebrations. This may slow down my blogging on occasion.

Now on to my next reading project. . . I have been reading Paula Fredriksen’s Paul, The Pagans’ Apostle.

Fredriksen is among those who see the historical Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. Specifically, she believes Jesus was executed because he had brought a message of an immediate world-ending divine intervention. This had caused the kind of mass excitement that the Roman and Jewish authorities found threatening.

But then, however you explain this, the disciples of Jesus reported experiencing Christophanies or appearances of Jesus as risen from death. As the reports from the first Pentecost event after his death show, this only intensified the apocalyptic excitement. More Jews sought to prepare by purifying their bodies through baptism and their moral state through repentance and the appeal for forgiveness—the actions both John the Baptist and Jesus had called for.

After the festival, this excitement spread far into the world beyond Jerusalem, where there were Jewish colonies in many cities. It even spread to some sympathetic non-Jews.

These Hellenistic cities became the context for the career of Paul. I will come back to the way she develops this context.

But today I want to stick with her notion of the hair-trigger nearness of the end. Paul held the idea that preparing for the end is urgent because it is something that will happen, for most people at least, before they have a chance to die. The delay of the return of Jesus is already a problem for Paul. He has to explain the unexpected reality that some have died before the end (1 Thessalonians).

Paul wrote in the decade of the +50’s. Jesus preached twenty years before that. And Mark wrote 15 or 20 years after that. So Paul is in the middle. Jesus expected the end in his generation. Paul could still see this as his generation. But Mark, writing after the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple, had to explain why the hope had been deferred to another generation.

So Fredriksen has an interesting interpretation of Mark:

The sinful and adulterous generation of Jesus’s contemporaries were not to receive the sign of the Kingdom’s coming (Mark 8:38). It was only the righteous generation—Mark’s generation—that would be given the sign, namely, the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (Mark 13:1-4, 26).

This set the stage for further attempts in later generations to mitigate the failure of the apocalypse such as Luke’s salvation history and John’s realized eschatology.

I have a few words in evaluation.  First, I fundamentally agree that the historical Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. For all of us who think that, the problem is that Jesus was wrong about the end. That, not only the Bible but Jesus, could be in error is deal-breaker for many.

However, I think Jesus was indeed wrong about the authorship of the Pentateuch, the Psalms, and, for a trivial example, that the mustard seed is the smallest seed. Even those of us who believe in the divinity of Jesus, can hold with the belief that Jesus emptied himself (Philippians 2: 7).

Jesus limited himself to the Aramaic language and the Galilean/Jewish cultural milieu.  The historical Jesus had divested himself of knowledge and beliefs that were beyond that. So it was always true that only the Father knew the times and the seasons.

So, in my faith, the important thing is God.  Jesus was one of God’s ways of being God.  I am not uncomfortable with saying “God the Son” or with directing prayer and worship to the now-risen Jesus.  However, I am not a “red-letter” Christian.  That Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet and that his words were historically conditioned, human, and subject of error is not a deal-breaker for me.

I am not sure, though, that Jesus and John the Baptist had exactly the same timetable, or that Jesus was as sure about the immanent Kingdom as Fredriksen assumes.  John said that the ax was already laid to the root of the tree. Jesus told a story about a tree that got a brief reprieve (Luke 13:6-9). So perhaps there was room, even in the teaching of the historical Jesus, for God to defer judgment in favor of mercy. Jesus was, after all, familiar with the book of Jonah.

At any rate, Fredriksen says that Paul, in between Jesus and Mark, saw the delay of the Kingdom in the light of his outreach to pagans. The “full number of the Gentiles” had not yet come in (Romans 11:25 ff.).

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Hiatus-and reasons not to wholly deconstruct the nativity or the exodus

I am about to travel for a few weeks. In mid February I should be back and begin to blog about Paula Fredriksen’s book, Paul, Apostle to the Pagans, which I should get read while traveling.

I leave you with a general reflection about history and invention in the Bible.

Recently, I watched the movie, The Death of Stalin. It is a dark comedy about the 1953 event and the power struggle that ended with the summary execution of Beria and the elevation of Nikita Khrushchev. The story is satirical and, sometimes, farcical. The writers were obviously very inventive. But they did not invent history. The major historical events recounted all happened.

I can imagine what a deconstructionist historian who had no other sources would do with this. Someone like that could easily argue that it was all invented. It was pro-Khrushchev. It made fun of Stalin and his family. It demonized Beria. It trivialized Molotov.

Yes, it did all that. But did not invent the actual events.

Something like this often happens in the Bible. Stories have both entertainment and propaganda value. Yet I can seldom catch a biblical writer just inventing historical events. Sometimes they don’t know exactly what happened. I don’t think Luke knew what happened with the census. He probably used it as a narrative device to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. But Matthew confirms the historical fact of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. There is no reason to think it did not happen.

So, on the one hand, I do not think biblical authors got accurate history channeled to them supernaturally. That is apparently what some evangelicals and apologists think.

The biblical writers depended on what they could know from sources and traditions of varying reliability. They sometimes filled in the gaps with suppositions and creative transitions. On the other hand, however, I don’t see that they invented some unhinged alternative history,

There are many examples of this. But I am thinking now of Mark Leuchter’s idea in his very stimulating The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity that the exodus from Egypt was invented in the court of King Jeroboam I.  Jeroboam wanted to be a Moses figure. That is true. He wanted to place his liberation of the people from Solomon’s forced labor alongside Moses’ liberation of the people from Pharaoh’s forced labor. But does that mean his scribes just invented the sojourn, slavery, and exodus from Egypt?

Such an invention seems unlikely. Jeroboam, himself, took refuge in Egypt and probably was set up in power by a Pharaoh. So I think a fiction would have gone in a more convenient direction. But, since the exodus actually happened, Jeroboam’s scribes worked with it.

So the scribes used invention and creativity to connect the dots and produce a story. But the dots they were connecting were remembered events. It must have taken another mixture of memory and creativity for the authors of the anti-Jeroboam E source to turn the story around again. There is character development, drama, humor and entertaining action built into the stories. They are not dry history. But at least some of Israel was in Egypt. And they came out.

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Moses’ death a mystery, but not a murder mystery

Sigmund Freud thought that the Israelites had murdered Moses. He based this on Hosea 12:13-14, which he saw as the oldest source.

13 The Lord brought Israel out of Egypt by a prophet,
and due to a prophet Israel was preserved alive.
14 But Ephraim bitterly provoked him to anger;
so he will hold him accountable for the blood he has shed,
his Lord will repay him for the contempt he has shown (NET Bible).

He thought verse 14 was still talking about Moses.

The word for “bloodguilt” in verse 14 is sometimes used for sins in general. Some translations just translate it as “crimes”. It is parallel with “contempt” in the next line. But it probably does refer to actual bloodshed. Hosea certainly did not think that Ephraim murdered Moses. He focused on more recent killings by the dynasty of Jehu (1:4) and the band of priests who had recently murdered someone on the road to Shechem (6:9).

Even rejecting Freud’s idea, the death of Moses remains mysterious. In Deuteronomy 34. God takes Moses up on Mt. Nebo and shows him the promised land across the Jordan. Although people assume Moses died on the mountain, the text says he was buried in the valley. But it doesn’t give us more information about his last movements. Deuteronomy 34:5-6:

5 So Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab as the Lord had said. 6 He buried him in the land of Moab near Beth Peor, but no one knows his exact burial place to this very day (NET Bible).

The strangest thing about this is the “he” who buried Moses. We usually interpret it to mean that God buried him. But the Hebrew could have said that much more clearly. And it gives us an odd picture of God as a gravedigger. I notice that the NRSV has obscured the problem by just saying he “was buried”. But the Hebrew is not passive.

Some rabbis interpreted this to mean Moses buried himself. This is not necessarily wrong, although it gives us a picture of a ghost with a shovel. Ancient ways of thinking are not our ways.

Tradition put Moses in the category of Enoch and Elijah who had not died, but been taken up. However, unlike with Enoch and Elijah, the text says someone buried Moses.

The Bible nowhere mentions that there was a shrine or memorial temple for Moses near Nebo. But King Mesha of Moab in an inscription giving his version of the war the Bible recounts in 2 Kings 3 says that he captured and plundered a sanctuary at Nebo.

So apparently a sanctuary once existed there, but was long gone by the time Baruch or some other scribe with a post-Josianic-reform world-view compiled our edition of Deuteronomy. Sanctuaries other than the central one at Jerusalem now were banned. Joshua 22:10 ff. shows that there was a tradition of altars having once existed for eastern tribes. But, according to Joshua, that case almost caused a civil war.

Deuteronomy has access to some kind of plains-of-Moab tradition.  In fact, the whole book is set there.

The way the burial tradition has been so thoroughly scrubbed in the Deuteronomistic History corresponds with a lack of any mention in other sources, even those that seem to have a date before the centralization of worship in Jerusalem. What was this about?

I wonder if there was once an ancestor cult dedicated to Moses. A hint might be Hezekiah’s destruction of the bronze serpent people believed was a Moses artifact (2 Kings 18:4). The developed prophetic and priestly traditions of Judah saw certain ways of venerating Moses as unhealthy.

The sanctuary at Dan which housed one of the calf shrines Jeroboam set up had an ancient connection to the grandson of Moses (Judges 18:30). Bethel, where the other one went, had a connection to the grandson of Aaron (Judges 20:26-28). Jeroboam’s supposed claim that the bulls were gods who brought the people out of Egypt seems to connect Moses and Aaron to the bull shrines. The golden calf story of Exodus 32 connects them to Aaron.

In Mark Leuchter’s The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity he characterizes Moses as a saint-priest, rather than an ordinary ancestor. People may have venerated him as an elohim, a powerful ancestor spirit. It is not hard to see how this would have brought about a reaction from a purer form of Yahwism. This reaction might have included a deliberate forgetfulness about the mortuary temple of Moses.

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Power vacuums, nation building, and early Israel

There is very little for historians to go on when seeking to write a story of exactly what happened when the Bible coincides with historical events. The biblical stories, epics or sagas were written with a very different purpose than to inform historians. This is also true of other ancient documents. The historian needs to take the royal inscriptions of the Egyptians or Assyrians, for instance, as something other than precise records of events.

One of the ways I have tried to think about what actually happened is to fit events into the rising and falling of the great powers. Israel and Judah were minor powers. They needed weakness in the great powers in order to be free at all.

That is why I tentatively look for the rise of proto-Israel (the Israel of the Merneptah stele) in the power vacuum left by the fall of the powerful city-state of Hazor late in the reign of Ramses II. With a lot more certainty, I see the rise of Israel and the United Monarchy taking place during the long weakness of Egypt that began after the first decade of Ramses III.

This weakness permitted the growing influence of Libyan settlers within Egypt. When the Libyans finally took power and established their own rulers in Egypt, they looked to reassert Egyptian power in the north. David and Solomon had established a state strong enough to set borders with the Philistines and to form alliances with other states. Then Solomon died and the Libyan pharaoh struck.

Some historians have described Shoshenk’s campaign as a raid. I think it was more a prolonged exercise in nation building designed to reestablish Egyptian control of the land routes to the Fertile Cresent.

Shoshenk set up a dissident Israelite, Jeroboam, as a vassal king in the north, Egypt was happy to leave the nation divided with a rump kingdom remaining in Jerusalem. This arrangement worked until the power of Aram grew. Then King, Asa of Judah aligned himself with Damascus and Egyptian power once again waned. This forced the north to depend upon the patronage of Tyre.

In support of my view of Shoshenk a new archeological report by Shirly Ben Dor Evian (Israel Museum) finds that Shoshenk’s limestone inscription at Megiddo was not part of a stand-alone stele, but came from a city wall or a building. She thinks a stone monument might indicate a mere raid, but an inscription that was part of local architecture means at least “aspirations of hegemony”. See here.

Egypt’s sphere of influence in the Levant expanded and then contracted. A detailed history of this long-ago time is denied us. But by paying attention to the geopolitical trends and what we can dig up from the layers of the past, I think we can get an idea of the broad outline of events.

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