Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Finding Authority


More important than the question of how Meister Eckhart used the scriptures is the question of how Jesus used them. This morning my set readings led me to continue to plough through Leviticus, and I suddenly saw something which has been right there under my nose these past thirty years but unnoticed; overshadowed by my own preconceptions about the meaning of scripture. Leviticus was written in the exile by the priests, and has a great concern for regulating priestly behaviour and for making sure that the priests get well provided for by the sacrificial system: a concern, which, as a priest, I heartily approve of. There, in the middle of chapters devoted to making sure that the holy blokes are pure enough to offer the peoples' sacrifices are some regulations about touching dead bodies. Corpses are ritually impure, and the priests are told, unless it's your immediate family, don't. And in ambiguous cases: what part of DON'T do you not understand?

Scripture is just as unequivocal on this point as it is in the bits about gays.

Why had I not seen this before? It casts a whole new light on the parable of the Good Samaritan. When Jesus tells people that the way to justification is to love God and love your neighbour, a lawyer asks a fair enough lawyerly type question, "who is my neighbour?" Many bits of the law refer to neighbours, and it's easy to get tied up in knots playing one bit of the law off against another, until you don't know what to do. When trying to sort out duty to neighbour, you must first understand who exactly is my neighbour?

Jesus responds by asking "have you heard the one about the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan?" I have retold this story myself a thousand times and waxed artistically lyrical on the self righteous, lazy or frightened priest and Levite. How wrong I was. The priest and the Levite are merely obeying the plain word of scripture. Leviticus leaves no room for interpretation, no not even a little bit. Their duty to God and to their neighbour as laid down in scripture is to keep themselves ritually pure, at all costs. When they see the poor guy in the ditch, apparently very short of breath, and they think about lending a hand,they have one choice and one choice only: what part of DON'T do you not understand? (Lev. 21:1-4)

Think about it. A lawyer asks a question about the law. Jesus tells a story about two men who are faithfully obedient to the law and one, who because of his birth, is outside the law. He ends by telling us to emulate the latter. So what is Jesus modeling for us in his use of the Torah? His use of the Bible is consistent here with another record of his use of scripture, namely in the synagogue at Nazareth. There, when handed the scroll of the book of Isaiah he breaks tradition by taking the scroll in his own hands, turning to a passage other than the one opened for him, reading a section and leaving off the reading in the middle of a verse before pointedly closing the scroll and sitting down.

What, indeed, is he modeling in the way he treats the holy scripture? What is he telling us about the way we should live, and from whence we draw our authority?

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh my. You are right. Amen.

Anonymous said...

"Leviticus was written in the exile by the priests, and has a great concern for regulating priestly behaviour and for making sure that the priests get well provided for by the sacrificial system"

Actually we *don't know this; the 'evidence' for P (if such an independent writing ever existed), as Wellhausen presented it, is entirely circumstantial, based on his reading of references to the cultus in Samuel-Kings and the absence of explicit reference to the hatt'at sacrifice in the prophetic corpus. Gordon Wenham doesn't agree (he thinks the essence of the book is actually Mosaic), neither do a number of contemporary Jewish scholars, not all conservative. That Wellhausen (and most German biblical scholarship) has been perceived as antisemitic hasn't helped! For myself, I've never been too clear how regulations governing the temple cultus could carry much weight in exile in Babylon, the putative provenance of P. I think it more likely to have been a temple manual. The interests of the book don't sound 6th century.

Jesus' lack of concern for ritual purity is of course well known. After all, he wasn't an Aaronite priest (neither are you, Kelvin, so hand back the shinbone of the lamb!), and he mixed with all kinds of people that both Pharisees and Sadducees kept their distance from - tax collectors, 'hamartoloi', prostitutes, lepers etc. Two observations on this.
1. It was not the case that Jesus consciously overthrew the Law of Moses (which he agreed was of divine origin), but rather that he claimed dominical authority in giving the true meaning of the Law ('But I say to you...')over against the other interpreters - as well as fullfilling in practice what God intended. Luke 13.15-16 is an instance of qal wahomer.
2. Jesus understood himself in such settings as a doctor making house calls (Matt. 9.12), not social visits. I know doctors don't make house calls any more, but when they did, it was for the purpose of bringing saving health, not amiable chitchat.
Do you think he did not agree with (proto-, deutero-, trito- etc) Isaiah that there would be 'the day of vengeance of our God'? Or is not more likely that he was proclaiming his own present ministry as the time of Messianic blessing, while also warning with great solemnity of 'that day' - as he explicitly does in Luke 21.34?

Brian

VenDr said...

Regardless of who wrote the Priestly code, Jesus seems to be condemning people who lived in the light of a literal interpretation of scripture and praising one who didn't.

I don't know what Jesus thought about passages he didn't speak of. I do know that he deliberately stopped his reading before the bit about God's judgement, and then underscored his point by symbolic actions: closing the book and sitting down and by saying "today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing".
His refusal to pronounce damnation is what made people angry enough to kick him out - Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Anonymous said...

Well, Kelvin, since your offer your interpretation of Scripture, let me offer mine.
The priest and the Levite in Luke 10.31-32 seem to be criticized for caring more about preserving their ritual purity (which Jesus didn't disdain - see Luke 17.14) than bothering to ascertain real human need - after all, the man wasn't dead, but if he was, they couldn't have helped him anyway. A similar point is made in Lk 13.15-16.
The crowd in the Nazareth synagogue did not turn ugly and homcidal on him because of 'his refusal to pronounce damnation' (on whom, exactly?) - up to that point (v. 22) they were pretty impressed by his words - but because of their failure to recognize or accept him as messiah unless he did the same kind of miracles as he did in Capernaum (v. 23). The passage makes it clear they were enraged because he castigated his own townfolk for their lack of faith and spiritual blindness - like their predecessors in the days of Elijah (vv. 24-27). In other words, he was saying, 'You are no different to the faithless Israelites of Ahab and Jezebel when the prophet Elijah was in their midst.' No wonder they were furious (v. 28)!
Jesus gives plenty of warnings of coming judgment in the Gospel of Luke, but they did not belong to his present ministry but to the future (e.g. 16.31; 18.8; 19.43; 21.34 etc). It was because he did not proclaim judgment ('fire') in the present that John was perplexed as to his messianic identity (Matt 3.11-12; 11.2-5).

Brian

VenDr said...

With regard to the Priest and Levite, precisely. They chose ritual purity, as the plain word of scripture unambiguously interpreted commanded them to do, rather than human compassion which common decency and a much more interpretative and broader view of scripture commanded them to do. It's a telling example in the current debate, don't you think?

You are right that he castigated his townsfolk for their spiritual blindness, but how was that blindness manifested? The bit of Isaiah Jesus quite deliberately omits is an announcement of of God's vengeance. The reaction of the crowd, after Jesus says the scripture has been fulfilled, is not quite what you have just said. hemarturoun: All bore witness to him (the verb is neutral in it's value judgement, and does not imply 'speaking well' as the traditional interpretation has it. It may mean only that they all paid him attention. Given his astonishing breach of synagogue protocol this reading is, I think, more likely) and all were amazed at the words of grace which came out of his mouth"
Here's my reading: "[following his astonishing display]they all sat up and took notice and were gobsmacked at the message of grace which they had just heard coming from his mouth" This fits what goes before and what comes after much better than the stuff about them all saying nice things about Joseph's lad.
His subsequent words about God working outside of Israel were fuel on the fire. The actions: handling the scroll, reading a passage not in the lectionary,deliberately stopping, rolling the scroll and sitting down and his following words are all of one piece. The crowds reaction is not one of dithering between positive and negative projection: it is one of growing surprise, astonishment and anger at the new interpretation he is bringing to a favourite passage.

Yes, I believe the crowd did turn ugly because of his refusal to pronounce damnation. No, more. They turned ugly because of his determination to speak of grace.

VenDr said...

Who is the damnation pronounced upon? Upon those outside the bounds of God's grace: in popular Jewish thinking, on the Gentiles. Jesus' words and actions are an attack on the comfortable chauvinism typical of phariseeism: We are in, they are out (and typical of much evqangelical Christianity) Jesus refuses to pronounce the judgement refuses to endorse the superiority of Nazareth for being the hometown of the prophet, reminds the people that God has worked outside of the bounds on several occasions before. This makes more sense to me as an explanation of why a crowd would turn murderous than a preacher castigating them for spiritual apathy and blindness - which presumably they heard every other week.

VenDr said...

For the record, here is my literal translation of Luke 4:20 -22

and having closed the book returning to the assistant he sat down and all the eyes in the synagogue were staring at him and he began to say to them that this day it has been fulfilled this scripture in your ears and all bore witness to him and were astonished at the words of grace coming forth from his mouth and they said is not the son of Joseph this man?"

and my paraphrase:
then, closing the book, he gave it to the assistant and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was steadily fixed on him. He started to teach them, saying, "Today this passage you have just heard has been fulfilled." Everyone took notice of him and were astonished at the new teaching about grace which was coming out of his mouth. "Isn't this fellow Josph's lad?" they asked one another

Anonymous said...

Kelvin, a few comments.
1. Thinking about it more, I consider it is not a case of biblical fundamentalist priest and levite (bad!) versus liberal hermeneutics Samaritan (good!), since the passage says nothing about Scripture here. If they could see the man was still alive, plainly they should have helped. If they assumed he was dead, perhaps they could do nothing more, but in the absence of relatives they knew it was their overriding duty, even for priests, to bury the dead (Nolland, Luke vol 2, p. 593). For all we know, the priest and Levite may each have feared a trap if they went to help. The text doesn't say. & it certainly doesn't say the Samaritan was a biblical scholar!
2. You are right that 'emarturoun auto' literally means 'they were bearing witness to him', which is interpreted in the succeeding clause 'in that [exepegetical 'kai'] they marveled [ethaumazon] at the words of grace coming from his mouth' - impressed but not convinced. The meaning is: 'Those are mighty fine words you just spoke, but are you really the Messiah? Prove it by doing one of your alleged ('we have heard') miracles here! Otherwise we won't accept you.'
The fact that Jesus ends the quotation before the mention in Isa 61.2 of the 'day of vengeance' is not the reason for the crowd's hostility (nothing in the text says this at all), but reflects instead Luke's two-stage eschatology for Jesus - salvation now, judgment in the future (of which there is plenty in Luke). The crowd is not angry at "the new interpretation he is bringing to a favourite passage" (which is what, exactly?), but at the claim that the passage refers to him as the Messiah, had they only eyes to see, and by Jesus' further provocative words that they are unbelievers like those in the days of the northern kingdom. Who would like to be compared to Ahab and Jezebel? You wrote: "I believe the crowd did turn ugly because of his refusal to pronounce damnation." But he did imply jsut a damnation - on them (luke 2.34-35). Their hostile reaction and attempted lynching presage the definitive rejection in Jerusalem.

Brian

VenDr said...

I don't agree at all, in either case.

Leviticus 21 is absolutely clear: A priest or Levite who is on duty - as these were (they were on the road to Jerusalem, remember) was expressly commanded not to touch a corpse, except if it was that of an immediate family member.

Your reading of verse 22,
"The meaning is: 'Those are mighty fine words you just spoke, but are you really the Messiah? Prove it by doing one of your alleged ('we have heard') miracles here! Otherwise we won't accept you.'" is pure conjecture, and lays an awful lot on a verse which is actually quite simple: "they were amazed at the words (teaching) of grace coming from his mouth"

Their amazement is at what they have just seen and heard. The breach of etiquette has been extreme: his handling of the scroll, and his breaking off and the associated symbolic actions are enough to explain the amazement. "Every eye in the synagogue was upon him" I bet they were! ethaumazon does not necessarily imply a positive emotional loading. That is it may not mean "marvelled" but more neutrally "asonished". and in the context, I think astonished is a better reading. What they have just heard is what has got the crowd's dander up: the words of grace.
I think everything in the text points to this, rather than the speculative implications about his messiahship

VenDr said...

With regard to the Good Samaritan, Brian, you say,
"since the passage says nothing about Scripture here." and again I beg to differ.
The story is told in the midst of a discussion about the Torah: "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?"
The expert on the Torah knows the correct answer, of course, and Jesus responds in a surprising way "Do this and you will live". That is, the answer is about how you live out the Law. The expert's attempt to wriggle out of the implications of this are answered in the parable.
That is, the story is precisely about the scripture and how we live it out. On the one hand, people who read it literally and precisely act out the letter of the law. On the other hand a man who in all probability lives in ignorance of the law, but whose actions show that he has grasped the spirit of the law.

Anonymous said...

Kelvin, at the risk (nay, certainty) of being tedious, I'll have one more go.
1. My reading is not mine but based on John Nolland's Word commentary (which builds on his Cambridge PhD, 'Luke's readers', which includes an extended study of Luke 4.22-28). But this is my own point, from the Greek: if you want to press the 'priestly purity' claim (which didn't in any case apply to the Levite, so why is he mentioned?), note that the priest also was 'going DOWN from [apo] Jerusalem' (katabainen, not enabainen), so he obviously wasn't going to the temple. Nothing in the text mentions ritual purity. The priest and Levite are simply examples of Jews who ought to have known better from their study of the Law.
2. I didn't express myself as well as I should. When I wrote:
'Those are mighty fine words you just spoke, but are you really the Messiah? Prove it by doing one of your alleged ('we have heard') miracles here! Otherwise we won't accept you.',
I meant 'That is how Jesus in v. 23 interpreted their reaction in v. 22'. It IS about their surprise and skepticism over his messiahship and claim to divine authority, about which you say nothing. I repeat - there is nothing here, either way, about the 'day of vengeance'. Read vv. 23-24 again, it's the key to understanding the crowd's response.
I don't know what you mean by his 'extreme breach of etiquette' in his standing, reading, then sitting to teach - sounds fairly standard synagogue practice, acc. to Strack-Billerbeck.

Brian

Anonymous said...

'With regard to the Good Samaritan, Brian, you say,
"since the passage says nothing about Scripture here." and again I beg to differ.
The story is told in the midst of a discussion about the Torah: "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?"'

True enough - what I meant was the chapter, and a fortiori the parable within in, has nothing to say about laws for ritual purity for priests (nowhere mentioned in it, and not in any case any issue for Levites, let alone Samaritans) but is about the meaning of neighbor love in the Mosaic Law. The expert in the Law (not surprisingly) may have wanted a strict definition to be safe, but Jesus effectively reverses the question (always a good thing to do with lawyers) to get him to see things from the desperately needy person's perspective: not 'Who is my neighbor?' but 'Who are you a neighbor to?'
Enough for tonight!

VenDr said...

Let's deal with the simple one first. In the synagogue the reader never touched the scroll he was reading from. The scroll was kept in a jar, and never touched directly - but was handled by hands wrapped in cloth. The reader traced the reading not with his finger, but with a stick. The scroll was brought out of it's secure place, the correct reading found by the assistant and it was laid before the reader. No words in this story are accidental. Jesus took the scroll (sharp intake of breath) he found the place where it is written (even sharper intake of breath) he reads and then finishes halfway through a verse (nobody is breathing) rolls up the scroll, and hands it to the attendant (several older members of the synagogue have turned a distinct shade of purple) He sits down. No breach of synagogue etiquette huh? All eyes in the synagogue were upon him. I bet they were. This is what the crowd were reacting to. Remember that several men present would know Isaiah by heart. All men and most women would be familiar enough with it to recognise and be shocked by the omission. This colours everything that comes after.

In Luke 4 Jesus is not claiming to be the Messiah. The most that could be said is that he was claiming the mantle of Isaiah and possibly Elijah - that he was claiming to be a prophet (v.24) How can the crowd's reaction be to a messianic claim that he had not made?

This is an important passage. It describes how Jesus saw his ministry and what he was about. You are perfectly right that 'there is nothing here about the day of vengeance.' That is precisely my point. It is this absence which so incensed the crowd.

As to the good samaritan... well, I think you're pushing interpretation a bit far if you think "by chance there happened to be a priest coming down the road" and, "similarly, a Levite happened along" as an indication of which direction they were moving. Not that it matters: coming home from the temple, Priest and Levite carrying holy meat and/or cash derived from the same were still under the obligation for purity until such time as their families consumed it. But let's not forget that this is a work of fiction. There was no man who actually fell among thieves. My point is not that this is a story about the purity laws. I agree that, ultimately, the story means what you have said it means. My point is that by the plain word of holy scripture priest and Levite were perfectly justified in the actions they took. Commendable even.

Anonymous said...

Kelvin, not so simple. First, I don't know where you get your account of elaborate 'synagogue etiquette' from - is it from the Mishnah or Talmud? If so, it would date from AD 200-500, and to use such a source uncritically would be like imagining there were vestments, communion wafers and processional crosses in use in Acts 2.42. Yes, things did get mroe elaborate and 'reverential', esp. after AD 70 when Judaism became essentially Pharisaism (something hugely reflected in the Mishnah), but early 1st C. Judaism was diverse in character, no less so within Palestine. Luke actually gives us the earliest extant account of a synagogue service, and Billerback and Schuerer (ed. by Vermes) think it reflects an accurate knowledge of 1st C. practice. Note that the scroll 'was handed over' (epedothe) to him (he didn't grab it). Further, we don't know that there were fixed prophetic lections then; the initiative to read that particular passage (and how much of it) from all of Isaiah was Jesus' rather than the attendant's. Anyway, wanting to kill a man because he didn't finish an (alleged) lection seems a tad over-reactive! You paint a lovely picture of a fastidious congregation (not from experience, I hope!) but I think it's anachronistic.
I agree that primary focus of v. 24 is on Jesus' claim to be a prophet, but think the reference to 'anointing' (mashach) by the Spirit and the character of his work suggests a messianic element as well (cf. 3.22, when the Spirit comes upon Jesus). In any case, to reject God's prophet is a stern charge of unbelief. And this is what Jesus condemns them for: rejecting (dishonoring) God's prophet.
As for the 'good Samaritan', I don't think I was 'pushing interpretation' (tu quoque, care frater!), I was simply reading the text in its plain - literal!- meaning. The priest wasn't going to the temple (the temple isn't even mentioned) but 'from Jerusalem' (katebainen) - and of course there's nothing here at all about 'holy meat' or temple cash! That two of the characters in this story are a priest and Levite has no particular significance; they simply stand for 'two Jewish guys who ought to have known better'. The story is *not about purity laws (as I said, how could this apply to the Levite?), and it is not true that 'by the plain word of holy scripture priest and Levite were perfectly justified in the actions they took'. If it was, you can be darned sure the lawyer would have pointed this out!

I will be praying for you as the operation draws nigh.
Brian

VenDr said...

I believe Donald Binder is the leading authority on synagogue practice in the 2nd Temple period. His basic thesis is that the very early synagogues functioned as extensions of the temple cult and echoed the practices of the temple, rather than the theory current in Christian circles of the synagogues being a grassroots reaction to the temple. His book, Into the Temple Courts: The Place of the Synagogues in the Second Temple Period (Atlanta: The Society of Biblical Literature, 1999) lays it all out quite cogently.

Thanks for the best wishes, Brian. I will value all the prayer I can get as Saturday approaches.

Janice said...

Kelvin - I remembered the following passage, and thought I'd throw a little levity into the debate, as well as some very relevant questions that the passage raises. You may have seen it before, but it's worth another read just for the irony! I realize your big day is very near, and I'll be praying nonstop for you!
May God Bless and Keep You

Laura Schlesinger is a US radio personality, who dispenses advice to people who call in to her radio show. She recently said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination, according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned under any circumstances. The following response is an open letter to Dr. Laura which was posted on the Internet.

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination... End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God's Laws and how to follow them.

1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness - Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord - Lev.1:9. The problem is, my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath.Exodus 35:2. clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination - Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this? Are there 'degrees' of abomination?

7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle- room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16.

Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

Your adoring fan,