Thanks to all the study group members for a wonderful experience. Your varied backgrounds made for terrific discussions and your enthusiasm was a delight.
In case anyone would like a recommendation for further exploration of our subject, I (and others) have found Bruce Chilton’s Rabbi Jesus to be a fascinating and imaginative exploration of several important questions concerning Jesus in the form of a “biography”; for example, Chilton provides a mind-blowing (even if completely speculative) motivation for the Last Supper.
I’m a little late with this post but wanted to alert you to a major topic for the discussion during our next session: if religion was not about belief until the advent of Christianity (and it was not), what can account for the sudden emphasis on belief beginning in the letters of Paul and continuing forward? This is not a question I’ve seen addressed anywhere so we’re on our own to come up with possibilities; no attempt is too far out, so put your thinking caps on!
Great session everybody! Thanks to Jennifer for providing the wonderful parody she read to us last week:
After the Sermon on the Mount
Then Jesus took his disciples up on the mountain and gathered them around him. He taught them, saying ….. (text omitted)
And Simon Peter said: “Do we have to write this down?”
And Philip said: Will this be on the test?”
And John said: Would you repeat that?”
And Andrew said, “John the Baptist’s disciples didn’t have to learn any of this stuff.”
And Matthew said, “Huh?”
And Judas said, “What’s this got to do with real life?”
Then one of the Pharisees, an expert in the law, said, “I don’t see any of this in your syllabus. Do you have a lesson plan? Is there a summary? Will there be a follow-up assignment?”
And Thomas, who had missed the sermon , came to Jesus privately, and said, “Did we do anything important today?”
* * *
We’re just at the point where everything changes so try to keep a relatively complete inventory of those changes as we finish up with Christology.
Thanks to all for your careful preparation and lively contributions to our discussion! As you could tell, I think that the one thing you should take away from the course (if you take only one!) is an understanding of the main difference between Judaism and Christianity. You by now know my answer! But I can tell that many of you are skeptical of it and I would like to consider other differences you find plausible so that I can make the argument that they result from the difference I take to be the main one. So, please, think about how you would describe the difference and we’ll consider each one next week. Including the one mentioned by Shaye Cohen, that Judaism is about sanctification and Christianity about salvation. (Can you formulate the argument that this is an outgrowth of the difference between cosmic monism and cosmic dualism?)
Based on our discussion, my guess is that many of you found it difficult to wrap your heads around the world-view of apocalypticsim. This is not surprising! It’s a very odd way of looking at the world to our twenty-first century minds. And that makes it rather hard to hear the storyline: this was Jesus’ message. He wasn’t providing advice about how to live in this world but in a world to come. That’s the argument we take up next week!
I propose to start our session with a review of the narrative so far. Keeping our eye on “evil”, we’ll discuss again what evil is and what the explanation for evil has been in polytheism, monolatry, and monotheism (cosmic monism).
Now that we’ve seen what Hayes calls the “really huge problem” with monotheism (and I call the “fatal flaw”), we’ll go on to explore the Jewish reaction called apocalypticism. Bart Ehrman does his usual outstanding job setting the scene and we go on to read five examples including the enormously influential vision in Daniel 7. Note that “son of man” was a normal colloquialism for human being but because the phrase was picked up and used to refer to a heavenly being who descended on the clouds to render judgment (and had the appearance of a human) we need to amend the JSB translation “human being.” Note the absence of any battle in Daniel 7 and its appearance in Daniel 11-12.
We now enter an age when eschatology (the study of the end times) looms large. Although there were previous prophetic visions of the renewal of Israel (Ezekiel’s dry bones), the idea of a climactic battle in which YHWH forever vanquishes the demonic force had to wait until the idea of a demonic force entered the picture, perhaps in the late third century BCE.
Note that the “kingdom of God” was expected by apocalypticists to be an earthly kingdom.
Thanks again to Shaye Cohen for taking the time to join us and reflect on some of the issues of the course! You may be motivated to watch more: viz. his undergraduate course on the Hebrew Bible (link). It’s also on iTunesU (link) along with a second course on The Hebrew Bible in Judaism and Christianity (link).
Our short discussion of the two answers in Job to the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” might be summarized in this way: for the prose envelope: “Congratulations! You passed the test! Truly sorry for any inconvenience. Any qualms about your replacement children should be mitigated by the outstanding beauty of your new daughters.” And for the poetic section, either “You wouldn’t be able to understand the answer even if I deigned to tell it to you.” or “You think you can make be accountable for my actions? Get used to it.”
I’ve been nudged to provide a description of how each class session fits into the overall narrative, so here it is for “The Triumph of Monotheism and its Consequences.” We’ve seen in the biblical text the constant admonition to avoid idolatry. This strongly suggests that those advocating monolatry (only YHWH may be worshipped) had a hard time of it at first and that it only gradually came to be the norm. We see the same story for monotheism, with clear statements that other gods are figments of the imaginations of “the nations” coming only after the exile. But that view did prevail and, combined with the traditional understanding that God rewarded the righteous and punished the wicked, left a serious question unanswered: since bad things (which I’ve dubbed “evil”) could only have come from God, why has he chosen to impose them on righteous people as well as on the wicked? (Tune in next time!) Addendum: read Ezekiel 18 for a clear exilic statement that reward and punishment are personal, not corporate.
[Don’t overlook the comments to the previous post! And if you have something to contribute, please respond to those comments or leave a comment on this post!]
I’m delighted that Prof. Shaye Cohen will be joining us for the first hour on Monday. I’ve asked him to respond to a few questions which are raised by our material but there will be an opportunity to ask your own questions. (Please respect the very limited amount of time available and ask only questions raised by our readings.)
During the second hour, I’ll encourage you to provide feedback on the experience of being in the study group so that I can make adjustments. The very best way to offer feedback is to comment on the latest post (right now that would be this one), by clicking on the title and scrolling down the resulting page). This will give other SGMs a chance to consider your opinion and respond to it, and me a chance to respond. Perhaps a dialogue may even ensue!
Because we’re not on iSites, we can’t use the standard feedback tool; therefore, if you don’t want your feedback to be available to others, just email it to me (or telephone me for that matter!). I’m always grateful to know how you feel things are going and to have suggestions for improvement.
I will take a few minutes to ask everyone to say which reading assignment was the least helpful, and which assignment they benefited from (or enjoyed) the most.
We then move on to consider Kaufmann’s insights into the difference between polytheism and monotheism. We’ll finish by looking at Job and its important role in our narrative.
Thanks to everyone for the lively discussion! I was particularly pleased that you seemed to enjoy the Smith paper as much as I did. I hope you went away convinced that the Israelites took a long journey on their way to cosmic monism. Now we’ll have a chance to see its downside.
If you’ve got anything to say relating to our session, please click on the headline of this post and scroll down to the bottom of the resulting page and have your say!
After the hiatus, we’re back! Our goal this week is to explore the central idea of covenant. I assert that the idea of reciprocal responsibility with a selected people makes perfect sense in the context of polytheism and especially monolatry and very little sense in a world presided over by a single, universal God. We’ll discuss the extent to which this assertion is plausible starting with Morton Smith’s engaging description of the function of the gods in all ancient middle eastern civilizations. If successful, we should end up with the fundamental notion propounded by the prophets: Yahweh rewards those who keep his commandments (the righteous) and punishes those who fail to do so. Note that the relevant scope of responsibility was originally corporate: all Israel would be judged for the sins of the idolators. (This is the most important of what I’ve been calling “the anthropomorphic expectations.”)
A heads-up! I recently viewed the recently-aired NOVA program Secrets of Noah’s Ark online and found that it avoided all of my complaints about previous biblically-oriented material. It’s main story line is an attempt to build a large boat according to the description contained in a cuneiform tablet which predates the Noah story. You’ll learn a lot of important additional information as well, including defenses of the notion that the flood story we have was written during or following the exile. Extremely well-done and highly recommended: (link)