Monday, June 29, 2020

On "From the Maccabees to the Mishna" by Shaye J. D. Cohen *****

This introduction to the transition that occurred in the Jewish faith during the early centuries of the Christian era does a good job of keeping things simple for those not intimately acquainted with the Jewish talmudic writings. The book wasn't quite what I was expecting, given that the title leads one to believe the account will be a narrative one, marching from a few centuries from Jesus to the rabbinic era that would follow a few centuries after. Cohen, however, opts to organize the book around themes more than chronology. While the lack of chronology was a bit disappointing to me, the themes prove to be an effective means to explore the transition nonetheless.

Cohen does, of course, provide some chronology, especially toward the beginning and end of his book, but that is mostly to give readers a bit of a skeleton onto which to hang the subjects that he addresses.

Among those subjects are the hellenization of the Jewish faith and the manner in which the Jewis faith existed in these early centuries. Cohen posits that religion was more of a practice, a way of life, than a philosophy for most Jewish people--and indeed for most religions until the tenets of Greek philosophy began to play a greater role in the thinking of peoples. As that took hold, some Jewish diasporic writers also tried to do more "thinking" on various theological subjects and even to pose Judaism as a philosophical religion that predated much of the philosophy that was emerging.

Cohen also explores the various sects that existed within the Jewish faith and how sectarianism in large part ceased as rabbinic structures took hold. The reason for this was in part because many sects were forged around criticism of temple authorities; once the temple no longer existed, the reason for the existence of many such sects also ceased to exist.

One chapter explores the canonization of the Jewish scriptures and the formation of the Mishnah, a subject dealt with by another book (Early Biblical Interpretation) in this series (The Library of Early Christianity) but that is summed up quite effectively in one chapter.

The final chapter focuses on the emergence of the rabbinic system.

As with all the books in this series, the fact that these books are in many ways summaries of prevailing research in the field makes them difficult to summarize themselves. But among the books in the series, this is one of the better ones.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

On "The Earliest History of the Christian Gathering" by Valeriy A. Alikin ****

Valeriy Alikin's basic thesis in this work seems to be that the Christian gathering and its attendant customs largely developed out of Greco-Roman associations and, as such, worship of pagan deities. Judaism, as such, played only a secondary role in the worship patterns of early Christians.

There are some difficulties--namely that the scriptures themselves testify to frequent meetings and evangelism of the Christians in the Jewish synagogue--in trying to prove such a thesis, but Alikin dodges those by claiming that even Jewish synagogue services were, in part, akin to the meetings of Roman associations in service to other deities. On this, Alikin may have some grounds to stand on, since the Jewish people would have been subject to similar laws with regard to meeting that others in the empire would have been, thus requiring official association approval. Further, that both Jews and non-Jews shared in some customs with regard to worship should be hardly surprising--prayer, singing, socials, communal eating, speeches--many of these are shared by virtually all religions when it comes to meeting together. And this in turns goes to Alikin's basic point: that Christian gathering developed out of a single tradition shared by Jews and non-Jews rather than disparate ones.

Alikin takes the fairly stand Protestant stand that the transition to a separate meeting for Christians versus Jews occurred very early. Using various scriptures in which the first day of the week appears (Paul's instructing the Corinthians to gather charity goods on the first day of the week; the meeting in which Paul is about to leave the city and heals a man who falls from the second floor), Alikin claims that the first day of the week very early replaced the Sabbath as a day of meeting. He furthers this view by claiming that the Eucharist meal, which he seems many similarities to in association banquets, was held on Sunday nights because Saturday nights were given to Jewish family gatherings. Sunday night, thus, became the earliest convenient time for Christians to meet as a body separately.

The Eucharist meal itself seems to be mixed with agape feasts. Wine and bread became the center of the meal, but early meals also included olives, meat, and other items--just as in association banquets (though the weekly nature of them was borrowe from Judaism). Over time, the meal became associated with the Passover (Alikin takes the stand that the Gospels were written later rather than earlier and that part of their agenda was to tie the Eucharist meal to the Passover).

Borrowing the practice from other religious groups, Christians began to meet also on Sunday mornings at dawn. Eventually, these meetings spread throughout the week. A simplified Eucharist was served, and the Sunday night gathering increasingly became a meal only for supplying the needy of the curch.

Similarly, the practice of reading and expounding on scripture, accordingly to Alikin, comes from similarly practices at the Greco-Roman banquets, more so than from synagogue practices. He reasons that because synagogue reading of scripture did not take place in the context of a meal, Christians likely did not gather the tradition of reading and expounding on scripture from the Jews but rather from other associations. Such claims seem incredibly specious, given scriptures like Acts 15, where the assembly specifically designates some decisions regarding the church because the Gentiles heard the reading of the scriptures in the synagogue each Sabbath, drawing into question both the idea that Christians met separately early on and that scripture reading was drawn from a different tradition.

One thing that particularly interested me with regard to this book was the fact that it was to explore the origin of the weekly (or daily) Eucharist meal. By drawing parallels to the practice in non-Jewish meetings, Alikin has certainly shown where the practice may have originated, but by downplaying the Jewish influence throughout, the assumptions from which Alikin bases the rest of his argument call into question the accuracy of his observations.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

On "The Legend" by Edith Wharton (10,468 words) ****

So some author writes some cool stuff, but no one notices or cares. That's probably the tale of most writers, though most probably aren't that good, which helps explain why no one care, but sometimes there are good authors who aren't good at catching the market. This happens. This happens to Pellerin. So he leaves, drops out of society, disappears. Meanwhile, in his absence, his books catch on. Folks forge reading groups around him. Scholars write about his work. A whole philosophy of life gets based around what he has to say. And then one day, he returns, not as Pellerin but as someone else. He's heard rumors, wants to know what people think of his work. He goes to the reading groups, meets with his fans and scholars, none of whom know who he is. He even writes another book. What do you think happens? Read the story here.

On "The People That History Forgot" by Ernest L. Martin *****

Martin writes about religious history as if he were writing a mystery novel. This book is about a set of people, he claims, who have been forgotten. Who are these people? They are people who many have thought were Jews. Archaeologists have found synagogues scattered throughout Europe and the Near East that include not just Jewish symbology but pagan. Such symbology is merely ornamental, not stuff the Jews worshipped, most scholars say. Martin says it is unlikely Jews would have added pagan symbols to their synagogues--these were the synagogues of another people: the Samaritans.

His points are interesting insofar as what I've read about the Samaritans from scholars who actually study the faith is that most of the ideas about them, picked up from the Bible and Jewish and Christian writings, are wrong. The very few that exist tend to be very faithful to their religion, which is in most ways much like Judaism. But Martin says otherwise. Those few Samaritans we know today are simply a remnant that remained faithful to their one-time beliefs. Most were quite as the Jewish records recount: namely, they were like Jewish people when it was convenient and like others when it was more convenient to be something else (not unlike many other Gentiles in the early centuries). As such, they mixed other religions with the Jewish faith. These are the synagogues with a mix of symbols.

But Martin doesn't stop there. He also shows how the people of the Near East, from around the area of Babylon, in fact migrated and spread around the areas near Israel in a sort of diaspora not unlike the Jews. These were the people who largely made up the Samaritans--and in turn, those Samaritans, numbering in the millions, spread across the Roman Empire. Most interestingly, Martin even claims that their numbers were so great, and their use as slaves so widespread, that they eventually came to outnumber the Romans in Italy such that the empire really became a Babylonian one.

Martin quotes from a number of primary documents, examines quite a bit of archaelogical evidence, and spends time with some secondary sources (most notably when it comes to the spread of people from the Near East throughout Rome) such that his argument seems fairly convincing, even if it hasn't gotten wide play, but I do wish the book had notes so that the argument could be even more fully traced.

The book is available online here both in audio format and to read (I mostly listened to this book, and the audio was good enough to keep me riveted), in addition to being available for purchase.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

On "The Lady's Maid Bell" by Edith Wharton (8729 words) ****

So much for going to the country for rest. A woman recovering from typhoid goes to work as a maid at a quiet estate, but one of the people she meets her first day is not alive. Why doesn't the staff use the bell system that has been integrated throughout the house? We soon find out. The ghost leads us down many paths, though I'm not sure that the story provides many answers by its end, but I think that's what makes this story so mystifying. Read the story here at Project Gutenberg.

On "Kingdom through Covenant" by Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum ****

I picked this book up on something of a whim, it being part of a set of free samples. Because I've been reading a lot of early Christian history lately, I thought it might be interesting to step back and read about something a bit broader in scope--namely, something about the covenants in the Bible stretching back into the Old Testament. As seven-hundred-plus pages, I figured this book would be very thorough in discussing the various covenants, and it was. In fact, while I was expecting the book to be informative, I don't think I was expecting to learn quite as much as I did.

The authors seem very much conservative Christians (Presbyterians) in terms of how they interpret scripture and in terms of their belief in it. In a way, that was refreshing, seeing as much of the scholarly writing on early Christianity seems to be by people who are agnostic or atheist, even though they study the scriptures. Thus, the authors of this book take views about that canonization of scripture (during the time of Ezra and during the early second century) that I've read only in books by writers with generally less scholarly bonafides. Gentry and Wellum, thus, helped me to glean sources of others of their ilk who serve in religious studies departments but whose views are more conservative than what seem the vast majority of scholars who argue that canonization happened much later for both the Old and New Testament (namely, during the late second through fourth centuries A.D.). That said, the authors' Calvinist thinking certainly shows through, especially as they draw their conclusions at the book's end.

The book opens with a couple of chapters that set the terminalogical base and that help to spell out the controversy that exists regarding the covenants and how the authors' own theory aims to bring two divergent views into line with one another. First, the authors discuss biblical versus systematic theology. The former, in the authors' view, has to do with the interpretation of scripture, and the latter with how one applies it to one's life. They spend some time discussing how the former has become something quite different over the course of the last two hundred years--namely, that more recent nonevangelical scholars tend to look at the scriptures and discrete pieces rather than as a whole, robbing the Bible of much of its uniform message in favor of something that is more rooted in the historical meaning as per the creators of the books within their particular time and place.

The next chapter focuses on two theories, or way of looking at, biblical covenants: covenant theology versus dispensational theology. As the authors describe these two ideas, I could see aspects in which my own views fit into both, but by the book's end, it was clear that I probably fall more in line with dispensationalists than covenant theologians. It was interesting to examine my own beliefs in light of terminology used by a wider swath of theologians. Covenant theology essentially sees the Christian Church as an extension (or really, replacement) of the nation of physical Israel. Dispensational theology tends to look at the promises to physical Israel as being binding to the physical nation rather than to its spiritual replacement and as such as yet to be fulfilled. The Church, as such, is distinctive in some ways from Israel, which serves more as a metaphor for than as a literal extension of the Church.

The two differing views affect such things as the doctrine of infant baptism. If one holds to the covenant theological line, then all the church is like Israel, which means that as in Israel, there was a mix of believers and unbelievers, to be sorted out at the end. Baptism is like circumcision; as such, if babies could be circumcised on the eighth day, before any real awareness of their national identity, so it goes that babies can be baptized without real awareness of their religious/spiritual identity. A dispensationalist, by contrast, is largely going to argue that a person has to decide to become part of spiritual Israel; thus, baptism, as that sign, requires a conscious decision. The church, for those of this mindset, is made up solely of believers. (This is where some of the Calvinistic line of thinking comes in, however, as these authors seem to suggest that one cannot fall away--that is, if one falls away, one was never actually a believer. Your fate is sealed from before time.)

The authors then trace the various covenants through the Bible, discussing idea of covenant in its historical context (how a covenant, for example, differs from a contract: the latter has to do with material things, the former with a relationship between people). They trace how each covenant foreshadows the ultimate New Covenant through Jesus and how this was God's plan all along, starting from creation, through Noah, Abraham, his sons, the nation of Israel, and King David. In a sense, God forged a covenant at/with creation itself, intending man to serve him in the garden as his steward and as part of his family (in this sense, the authors' ideas seem quite close to the ways I read much of the Old Testament). Adam's failure necessitated a replacement. And each case down the line shows a replacement and its failure. Thus, Noah is a kind of second Adam and a kind of Christ, as are Abraham and his sons. Israel, too, serves a similar role. All failed by sinning. King David serves as a prefigure of the kingly Christ--but again fails to be the perfect king. It is only the Christ who can actually play the Adamic role perfectly and thus reconcile man and God and fulfill the covenant role required to make possible our relationship with God. This all seems fairly basic, but the real joy in the book is seeing the authors discuss the specifics. I hadn't ever thought of many of the parallels between Noah and Adam/Christ. And I hadn't thought much of the meaning of the sacrifice in Genesis 15.

At the end of the book the authors offer their assessment of how their ideas reconcile the covenant and dispensationalist view of the covenants. Like the dispensationalists, they see physical Israel as being something distinctive from the Church; the latter included believers and unbelievers, the latter only believers. Like the covenant theologists, however, they see the promises of the New Covenant as fulfilling those of the old and as being much greater than the old, thus replacing them. Thus, the promises of specific land to Abraham, and thus to Israel, are fulfilled in the New Covenant through the church's inheritance of the world. While I would agree with this assessment, I tend to think that the promises to Israel are much too specific in places to allegorize them all away (Manasseh to become a strong nation, Ephraim a company of nations; the return of Israel from the islands and the lands of the north, etc.); certainly, the greater promise to Abraham is that all are blessed through his name, and all who become spiritual Israelites inherit the earth--that is the overall message of the Bible--but why these other specific promises if in the end they are all somehow just metaphors?

Still, the specific readings of the covenants are very informative and thought provoking, and I will return to parts of this book again as needed as I reread certain passage of scripture.