I’m continuing my way through Understanding Poets and Prophets: Essays in Honour of George Wishart Anderson. In this post, I will comment on four essays.
1. I read an essay by R. Davidson entitled “The Old Testament in the Church?” Davidson begins his essay by talking about Ptolomaeus the Valentinian, who, around 160 C.E., wrote a letter to a lady named Flora that distinguishes among the laws in the Torah. Valentinian had three major classifications of the laws in the Torah. The first contained laws that came from God. The second contained laws that came from Moses. And the third contained laws that came from the elders of the people. For Ptolomaeus, Matthew 19:3-8 supported such a system of classification, for that passage distinguishes between Moses’ permission of divorce in Deuteronomy 24, and God’s original design that man and woman be permanently one. Ptolomaeus also appealed to Jesus’ criticism of the tradition of the elders in Matthew 15:4-9 to support his claim that there were laws in the Torah that were not from God (though many would argue that Jesus there was not criticizing laws that were from the Pentateuch, but rather Pharisaic regulations).
Ptolomaeus was a Valentinian, or Gnostic, and so he believed that the law of God came from a Demiurge, who created the world, yet was not the high god. Consequently, Ptolomaeus had sub-classifications in his first category, the laws that come from God. The first was the Decalogue, the law that Jesus came not to destroy, but to fulfill. The second was the laws of retribution, which were made on account of human weakness, but which were contrary to God’s goodness. The third included laws such as circumcision, the Sabbath, sacrifice, and other rituals, which foreshadowed the coming truth, but which are to be performed spiritually now that the truth has come.
Davidson also talks about Marcion, who lived in the second century C.E. According to Davidson, many have stereotyped Marcion as one who dismissed the Old Testament, but, while Marcion indeed did have a limited canon, he did not dismiss the “Old Testament”, per se. Rather, Marcion believed that God was loving and redemptive, and he rejected as corruptions the parts of the Bible that contradicted that theology. Marcion agreed with the Gnostics that the visible world was from a Demiurge rather than the high God. Marcion expressed agnosticism about whether the Demiurge was evil or just, but he rejected the Demiurge because he was not the God of love and redemption.
These were interesting points, especially since I encounter people with the same sort of hermeneutic—even though they don’t really believe that a Demiurge was responsible for the troublesome aspects of Scripture. But Davidson’s main concern in this essay is when what we know as the “Old Testament” became known as the “Old Testament” (or old covenant), and why. Davidson appears to attribute the origin of this designation to Melito of Sardis, who lived in the second century C.E. Since then, “Old Covenant” was used for the books of the Hebrew Bible, until the Council of Laodicea officially adopted that term in the fourth century. Possible reasons for the designation that Davidson proposes include Paul’s reference in II Corinthians 3:14 to the old covenant being read in the synagogue, as well attempts to affirm the Hebrew Scriptures, against their detractors.
2. Another essay that I read was A.P. Hayman’s “Qoheleth, the Rabbis and the Wisdom Text from the Cairo Geniza”. The Wisdom Text was from the Cairo Geniza, which contained “material that had been discarded by medieval Jews as out-of-date” (page 150)—and some of this material included a Hebrew text of the Book of Ben Sira, and the Damascus Document of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There has been debate about the date of the Wisdom Text, as some have located its origin to the first century C.E., maintaining that it’s from an ascetic Jew, like the Essenes and the Jews of the Therapeutae, whom Philo discusses. Others date the Wisdom Text to medieval times, and they contend that the medieval Karaites had a strong ascetic feature.
Essentially, the Wisdom Text, like rabbinic texts, sought to undermine the message of the Book of Qohelth, with its claims that life is meaningless and that there is no afterlife, through its reinterpretation of the book. The Wisdom Text affirmed asceticism, which was somewhat consistent with Qoheleth’s view that this world is futile; yet, it also held fast to a belief in the afterlife. Rabbis also said that study and righteous-living could bring happiness in this life, against Qoheleth’s claims to the contrary, and they read Qoheleth to cohere with their own worldview.
Hayman states in his conclusion that the tradition of reinterpreting Qoheleth came after the failure of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, as “The rabbis enabled the Jewish people to survive this crisis by completely refocusing their attention away from the political issues of Land, Temple and freedom from foreign rule, to other-worldly occupation with the Torah” (page 164).
What intrigued me was Hayman’s discussion of Proverbs 14:32, which, in the MT, states that the “righteous person takes refuge in his death.” The Wisdom Text applies this verse to the afterlife, contending that those who fear the LORD do not love this world, but take pleasure in the World to Come. But the Revised Standard Version follows the LXX, which states that the righteous person takes refuge in his integrity. According to Hayman, the RSV does this because “Jews were not supposed to believe in a worthwhile life after death before the Maccabean period” (page 153).
3. Another essay that I read was W. Johnstone’s “The Deuteronomistic Cycle of ‘Signs’ and ‘Wonders’ in Exodus 1-13”. Johnstone, like many European scholars, appears to be skeptical about the existence of the J and the E sources. Rather, his model is that the Deuteronomist wrote prominent aspects of the story of the plagues in Exodus 1-13, and that P added some material. In the story of the plagues, according to Johnstone, D uses the characteristic Deuteronomic terms “otot” and “mophetim” in a technical sense to refer to plagues, whereas P’s use of those terms is incidental and less precise. The plagues in D’s story demonstrate God’s beneficence for his people and confirm Moses’ status. (Recall that John Van Seters argued that the confirmation of Moses’ status was a concern of J, who was seeking to uphold the authority of exiled Jews’ leader, the nasi.) But P depicts Israel as slow-to-believe and as potentially recalcitrant towards God.
Like Erhard Blum (who posited that the Tetrateuch contained a Deuteronomistic layer, which was supplemented by a priestly layer), Johnstone argues that there are parallels between the Tetrateuch and the Deuteronomistic History. Both talk about a Golden Calf. Similar terminology is used to describe the building activity of Pharaoh and Solomon (Exodus 1:11; I Kings 9:19). The crossing of the Sea in Exodus 14 resembles the crossing of the Jordan in Joshua 3-4. Johnstone’s idea appears to be that significant aspects of the Exodus story and the Deuteronomistic History are from the same school.
4. I also read A.C.C. Lee’s “Genesis 1 from the Perspective of a Chinese Creation Myth”. Lee criticizes Christian missionaries to Asia, who encouraged converts to disregard their “pagan” heritage. Lee, by contrast, recognizes that one’s culture will influence one’s reading of the Bible, and so Lee appears to propose an intertextual reading of Genesis 1 and the myth of P’an-ku, as each is read in light of the other.
The myth of P’an-ku states that P’an-ku came from primordial chaos, and that he separated the yin (earth, female, darkness, coolness) and the yang (heaven, maleness, brightness, warmth), which entailed the separation of the heaven from the earth. When P’an-ku died, his body became the things on the earth—mountains, rivers, etc. People were transformed from the parasites on his body—from “the finest essence of breath which becomes the human spirit” (page 194). Notwithstanding their lowly origin, however, humans are still “invited to unite with heaven and earth” (page 195). Lee sees similar themes in Genesis 1: separation, humans having a lowly origin while containing a noble sort of breath within them, etc. But Lee also acknowledges differences: the Chinese myth does not have a god who is from outside of nature, plus it lacks creation ex-nihilo. (Lee may believe that creation ex-nihilo is the teaching of Genesis 1, but I am not certain if that is Lee’s stance. But there are many scholars who argue otherwise, maintaining that, in Genesis 1, God is organizing chaos into cosmos, rather than creating material out of nothing.)
Lee does not provide dates for all of the writings discussed in this essay—but Lee does offer a fourth-third century B.C.E. date for some of them. The Greeks, also, had similar themes—about chaos and separation. The ancient world appears to have had common cross-cultural themes that appeared in cosmogonies. This may be due to influence. Some conservative Christians may contend that people of various cultures have a vague recollection of the true religion, of which (according to them) Genesis 1 is a part.