I mentioned circumcision once, but I think I got away with it.

It’s part of human nature to try and hide away embarrassing details about our lives or about what we believe. Whether that’s the baby photos your mum shows your girlfriend or boyfriend, or the awkward thing you did on holiday in Spain when you were 15 – you know which one I’m talking about. If you find it embarrassing, just hide it, or if it’s common knowledge mention as little of it as you can. Easy.

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus was no different. In the late first century AD, he wrote a book (or rather 20 books) called Antiquities of the Jews. It’s basically a story of the Jewish people all the way from creation to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. It’s a long read, but for us geeks it’s actually really interesting (just doing my job!).

Josephus is writing for Roman readers. He is a beneficiary of the last emperor of the Flavian dynasty, Caesar Domitian (he’s a bad guy, by the way). His aim is to try and show the Romans that the Jews are pretty awesome people. So he writes their history. It’s based mostly on the Bible, but with some serious additions (did you know that Moses was a General in the Egyptian Army, or that Abraham was an Astronomer? I didn’t, and I doubt they were), and omissions.

People usually get rid of things they are embarrassed about. One of those awkward things, for Josephus, is Circumcision. Romans and Greeks thought circumcision was nothing less than mutilation – a gross thing those nasty Jews did; no flint knives please, we’re Roman. Josephus had a problem. On the one hand, the Romans knew about circumcision. He couldn’t simply just say: ‘circumcision? noooo, we don’t do that. Who would do that kind of thing?’ The Romans would simply respond my mentioning the time they used communal showers after a football game with the local synagogue team. Josephus couldn’t just cut circumcision (pun intended), which is why he mentions Abraham’s covenant of circumcision from Genesis 17.

On the other hand, Josephus wanted Judaism to be respectable (Josephus himself wasn’t very respectable in other Jews’ eyes, but that’s another story). So what he could do was mention circumcision as little as possible. Briefly mention it when Abraham is told about it, and then try and brush it under the carpet. Don’t mention circumcision! I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it… Like an embarrassed teenager who changes the awkward details in a childhood story, Josephus changes and gets rid of embarrassing mentions of circumcision in the Bible. I’ve only got through the first six books of Antiquities (give me time!), but here are some significant instances where absent foreskins are conveniently erased from the story:

  • The (genius) plan of Jacob’s sons in Genesis 34 is changed. In Genesis 34, Jacob’s sons somehow convince the men of Shechem to get circumcised. Whilst they are still in pain, Simeon and Levi wipe them out. Josephus, instead, claims that the men of Shechem were celebrating a festival.
  • The weird passage in Exodus 4, where Moses’ son (or Moses himself? The Hebrew isn’t clear) get’s circumcised is left out of Josephus’ account. No weird stories about angels and flint knives, thank you very much!
  • In Joshua 5, the Israelites go through a mass circumcision before destroying Jericho. That didn’t get past Josephus’ editor.
  • When Saul offers his Daughter Michael to David, he asks for 100 Philistine foreskins as a prize. David is a little over-enthusiastic about marrying a king’s daughter and brings him back 200. Two-for-One foreskin marriage deals? No thanks, say Josephus. Let’s replace it with 600 Philistine heads. That’s much more politically correct.

All of which seems to show that unless he really needed to, Flavius Josephus didn’t like mentioning foreskins.


The Question of Canon

Well, I’m in a rail-replacement queue at Gatwick airport so I figured I could write a blog post to help the time go by. I’ve just finished reading Michael Kruger’s The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Devate and was going to write a brief review anyway. So here goes.

Kruger’s main aim in this book is to argue against the skepticism amongst scholars concerning the formation of the New Testament canon. The general opinion, nowadays, is to argue for what Kruger calls an extrinsic model for the formation of the canon, that is, a view which suggests that the formation of the canon was late, the result of external forces (hence extrinsic) and not something which the earliest Christians would have anticipated. Kruger, instead, proposes an intrinsic model. He spends the five main chapters of his book not refuting, but questioning and qualifying the arguments used for the extrinsic model.

Kruger deals with 5 arguments which scholars usually put forward to bolster the extrinsic model: (1) The definition of canon as a final and exclusive list which places it at 325AD; (2) early Christians were an oral culture and therefore averse to the idea of writing docents; (3) the earliest Christians had no reason to write a new canon (the world was about to end within a few years, they thought); (4) the authors of the New Testament had no sense that they were writing scripture; (5) it is only with Irenaeus in ca. 200 AD that we have the idea of canon appearing.

Kruger treats each of these arguments in a very balanced way, noting the strengths and truths of each one, but pushing against each on various issues. For example, he agrees that most early Christians were indeed illiterate; yet this does not lead to the conclusion that they despised written documents (the evidence certainly doesn’t support that idea).

This is a well-written book but one into which a large amount of research has clearly gone (the discussions in the footnotes will satisfy the inquisitive, academically-minded reader). A must-read for anyone studying the formation of the canon, or anyone who wants a good, clearly argued case against much of the skepticism which creeps into these discussions.

Puzzling about Pistis

Ah, Greek… it promises to solve all our interpretations of the New Testament, but instead introduces far more issues. I told this to a group of students learning Greek, and by the look of horror on some of their faces, they hadn't realised it. For all its usefulness, Greek has a tendency to bring up problems which are safely hidden away under the carpet of translation.

Here is one of those issues. Those who are familiar with studies of Paul's theology will realise that one of the most thorny translation issues in Paul's letters is how to render that annoying little duo of words pistis Christou. It could mean 'faith in Christ', as most translations have it, or 'faith(fulness) of Christ' – think of the similarities between 'trust' and 'trustworthy' in English.

Tom Wright, in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, of course, deals with this little expression. Wright is strongly on the 'faithfulness of Christ' side, and explains why, using the occurance of dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou (through the faith/faithfulness in/of Jesus Christ) in Romans 3.22. Wright argues that the strongest reason for the reading 'faithfulness of…' is not gramatical, but rather narrative.

He reasons like this: in 3.2, Paul says that Jews were entrusted (episteuthēsan) with God's oracles. They were meant to be a light to the nations (see 2.17ff). Paul asks, 'does their lack of faithfulness make God unfaithful?' Of course not! Paul, Wright says, is dealing with two problems: (1) all of humanity is sinful; (2) Israel has failed in their commission to be a light to the nations. The question, then, is how is God going to sort out the problem of sin through Israel in order to remain faithful to his covenant.

The answer, Wright explains, is the 'faithfulness of the Messiah,' referred to in 3.22. Christ's faithfulness as the true Israelite means that God can be faithful to his promise to bless the nations through Israel despite their failure to follow their mandate. Pistis Christou, for Wright, is about Christ's faithfulness, as Israel's Messiah, to God's commission. This faithfulness brings about justification.

Josephus and Scripture-reading tyrants

Josephus, it seems, loved to have pagan overlords reading prophecies about themselves in Israel’s Scriptures in his histories. I noted in a post yesterday how Cyrus of Persia, according to Josephus, had read Isaiah 45. Here is another instance of Josephus describing a (very unlikely) scenario in which a pagan king (in this case Alexander the Great) reads a Biblical prophecy about himself:

And when the book of Daniel was showed to him [Alexander], wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks should destroy the empire of the Persians, he supposed that himself was the person intended (Josephus, Antiquities 11.337)

Et maintenant, rien que pour toi, Marco 😉

Flavius Josèphe, il parait, aimait décrire les tyrants païens entrain de lire des prophéties sur eux-mêmes dans ses écrits d’histoires. J’ai montré hier comment Cyrus le Perse, dans la narration de Josèphe, avait lui-même lu Esaïe 45. Voici une autre instance où Josèphe décrit une situation (très improbable) dans laquelle un roi païen (dans ce cas, Alexandre le Grand) lit une prophétie Biblique qui parle de lui:

Et quant on lui montra le livre de Daniel, dans lequel Daniel déclara que l’un des Grecs détruirait l’empire des Perses, il [Alexandre] supposa qu’il était lui-même la personne en vue. (Josèphe, Antiquités 11.337)

Josephus and “smoothing-over” History

Josephus is a fascinating read, whether his Wars of the Jews, vividly describing the invasion and subjugation of Judea in 66-70AD, or his Antiquities of the Jews, in which he tells the story of the Jewish people. He is also quite helpful, as well, for finding out what people in his days may have done with Scripture and with history.

In Antiquities 11.68, Josephus omits a bunch of names from the biblical account of Ezra 2. Josephus’ warrant for doing so?

I do not think it proper to recite particularly the names of those families, that I may not take off the minds of my readers from the connection with historical facts and make it hard for them to follow the coherence of my narration.

Basically, Josephus wants the story he is telling to read well; so, unlike modern historians (though some could learn a lesson from this), he passes over particular details in order to make his account more readable. History, for Josephus, has to be readable as a coherent narrative (I can almost hear the squirming of post-modern deconstructionists…)

It is not only omitting details that Josephus, and I assume many other ancient historians, did. It is also “smoothing over” things and rearranging thing that aren’t straightforward in his sources. A couple of examples:

Josephus’ source for the story of Cyrus the great sending the Jews back in 539-38BC to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem is patently Ezra 1. In Ezra 1.2-3, the author writes:

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem.

If it is a verbatim quote from Cyrus (there are good reasons to think that it at least in spirit goes back to Cyrus – cf. the Cyrus Cylinder) then Cyrus claimed that Yahweh had told him to rebuild the Temple. Most likely, this is simply Persian political propaganda (he does the same kind of thing with the Babylonian God as well). This is all the more clear from Isaiah 45.4-5, the prophet claims (of Cyrus):

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you [i.e. Cyrus – cf. 45.1] by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me

Historically speaking, it is unlikely that Cyrus was a Yahweh-worshipper. He simply had good political skills (which were, of course, ordained by God). Isaiah 45 supports this – Cyrus does not know Yahweh.

Josephus, though, in a brilliant smoothing-over of history, combines that two accounts and claims that Yahweh had been reading Isaiah and realised that it spoke of him:

This was known to Cyrus by his reading the book which Isaiah left behind him of his prophecies (Antiquities 11.5)

Cyrus turns from (most-likely) a shrewd, divinely-yet-unconsciously-guided ruler to an avid reader of Israel’s Scriptures. Josephus seems to have reworked a few details together to produce a coherent readable narrative.

A second and final example. In Ezra 4 there is an account of how the first exiles who returned from Babylon met opposition when they were rebuilding the temple; their opponents frustrated their work until the reign of Darius (519BC). In Ezra 4.7-23, the author includes a letter in which Judea’s enemies denounce their building work to the Persians. The problem? The letter is written to Artaxerxes, who reigned from 465BC, not Cyrus the current ruler. Also, there is only mention of the walls being rebuilt, which is not what happened in the late 6th century BC. The letter in 4.7-23 is clearly from the time of Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls (in 445BC), not Zerubbabel’s rebuilding of the Temple (538-516BC).

Josephus, though, is trying to write a nice, coherent and easy-to-read account. So he simply claims that the letter was written to Cambyses (Cyrus’ successor) and keeps adding references to the temple. Compare Ezra 4.12 and Josephus, Antiquities 11.22:

be it known to the king that the Jews who came up from you to us have gone to Jerusalem. They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. (Ezra 4.12)

It is fit, O king, that you should know that those Jews who were carried to Babylon are come into our country, and are building that rebellious and wicked city, and its market places, and setting up its walls, and raising up the temple (Antiquities 11.22)

Spot the difference. Josephus has simply changed a few details in the text to make it fit with the flow of the narrative much more. A very tempting thing to do when you are trying to write a readable narrative.

Wright on the Bible for First-century Jews

Brilliant quote from Paul and the Faithfulness of God:

The Bible was not merely a source of types, shadows, allusions, echoes, symbols, examples, role-models and other no doubt important things. It was all those, but it was much, much more. It presented itself as a single, sprawling, complex but essentially coherent narrative, a narrative still in search of an ending. And one of the central features of the implicit story in the mind and heart of a first-century Pharisee, sectarian or revolutionary was the weight of that continuing narrative, the responsibility to take it forward, the possibility that all its threads might now come together, that the rich tapestry of Israel's history would disclose its full pattern at last, that the faithfulness of the one true God would be revealed to them but also through them. (p.116)

New Horizons

There are easy books which don’t teach you much, easy books which do teach you a lot, demanding books which don’t teach you much and demanding books which do teach you lots. Anthony Thiselton’s New Horizons in Hermeneutics falls into the latter category. I will happily admit that, for me, it was the most intellectually demanding one-volume read I have ever undertaken (and I love reading academic writing); I had to re-read the chapters on Derrida and Gadamer about three times to get my head around them. It was, however, one of the most intellectually thought-provoking and helpful books I have read in a while, and the difficulty certainly didn’t come from Thiselton’s inability to communicate; he has written a book which deal with very difficult concepts and, frankly, has done a fantastic job. I’m sure I will be coming back to it again and again in the future.

The subtitle of the book, ‘The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading’, deftly summarises Thiselton’s aim. Texts, Thiselton claims, have the ability to transform readers (expand their Horizons), but readers can also have a tendency of transforming the texts through misreading. Thiselton’s aim is to navigate the theoretical minefield that is hermeneutics and to ‘include a description and critical evaluation of all the major theoretical models and approaches which characterise current hermeneutical theory, or which have contributed to its present shape.’ (p.1). This is an ambitious approach, but the size of the book and Thiselton’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject-area mean that if any book and any author will succeed in achieving this goal, these can.

The first couple of chapters provide good introductory material. Thiselton describes various ways in which the text itself can transform readers (one of the major ones being texts as performative speech-acts) and also how a text can be transformed by the reader. He then proceeds to survey the development of the idea of what a text is, from 19th-early 20th century views of the text as being understood in light of other data, to mid-20th century new-criticism, in which the text stands alone as an independent entity, through to more post-modern views, in which the reader himself gives the text a meaning.

Chapter 3 onwards is where the real meat of the book begins (it is also the most challenging reading in the book), and it would be overly ambitious to attempts a full summary of each. Chapter 3 reviews semiotic theories (the view of text as an interlocking system of codes) and questions whether they should in and of themselves lead to the idea of deconstructionism (i.e. no ultimate meaning in a text). Jacques Derrida pops up quite a lot in this chapter. Thiselton concludes that Derrida’s (and others’) deconstructionism is not ultimately warranted by semiotic theory.

Chapter 4 addresses pre-modern biblical interpretation, from patristic to medieval readings. Thiselton’s summary is very lucid and helpful and also helped put to rest a few myths about medieval readings of the Scriptures. Chapter 5 then addresses the reformers’ approach(es) to the Scriptures with their emphasis on the historical meaning and the ability of Scripture to question tradition (Thiselton is very clear, though, that the reformers did not reject tradition as a helpful way of dialoguing about Scripture).

Chapters 6 and 7 address Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics of understanding, in which the reader must try and place himself in the writers shoes since a text is an outworking of the author’s emotions (classic Romantic view). Schleiermacher’s contribution to hermeneutics was exceptionally important, as he was the first to make Hermeneutics a discipline in itself. For Schleiermacher, Hermeneutics involved both a feminine, intuitive (or psychological) approach and a masculine, methodological approach. One could not be used as the expense of the other. Thiselton shows how this approach is particularly helpful in Pauline texts.

Chapter 8 surveys the hermeneutics of self-involvement, including speech act theories. Rudolf Bultmann exemplifies this approach and claims that we must either have faith or historical understanding, not both. Thiselton critiques this extreme approach by claiming that particular assertions about Christ presuppose language which relates to truth-claims. Adopting Bultmann’s view as an all-encompassing theory would be disastrous for biblical studies. Thiselton then surveys Austin and Searle’s views of the idea of illocutionary acts – i.e. speech-acts which have causal power.

In Chapter 9, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s approach is delineated. This chapter make for difficult reading. Gadamer sought to make Hermeneutics a meta-critical discipline (i.e. not just thinking of methods for interpreting texts, but ranking these methods metacritically). Gadamer stresses that the hermeneutical problem is universal in that all understanding is language bound. He also dislikes the idea of scientific method for approaching texts. For Gadamer,  the text itself only becomes actualised in its performance (i.e. reading). But like a play it is never read twice the same way. This does not force Gadamer to collapse reading into relativism. Instead, a text can be understood by common-sense (aristotle’s phronesis) and by the ongoing dialogue of community. Thiselton notes that although Gadamer is right to stress the role of the community and common-sense in interpreting, it is ‘very seriously unsatisfactory that no criterion for textual interpretation can be found other than the “performance” of the text itself, alongside some role accorded to human judgment in the context of community and effective-history’

Chapter 10 traces Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion and retrieval. The fallibility of human understanding was significant in Ricoeur’s hermeneutics. This means a hermeneutic of suspicion is needed (i.e. suspecting the reader of distorting the text). Ricoeur makes much of metaphor as double meaning (drawing on Freud’s psychoanalysis). Hermeneutics is meant to retrieve the meaning of the symbols in the text.  In a very helpful summary, Thiselton writes: “What remains central for Ricoeur is the double function of hermeneutics: the hermeneutics of suspicion which unmasks human wish-fulfilments and shatters idols, and the hermeneutics of retrieval which listens to symbols and to symbolic narrative discourse.” (p.372)

Chapter 11 looks at the idea of socio-criticla hermeneutics. Jürgen Habermas, in particular, contributed to this theory.  Habermas views all language as social (i.e. about social interaction). Within a social frame it is impossible to critique (actors cannot step out of the frame to critique the play). What is needed is a system which transcends the social to critique social norms. Thiselton applies this idea to the Law in Romans 7. The system of the Law critiques and transcends social norms. Richard Rorty’s socio-pragmatic view is also taken into account, here. For Rorty, society defines what counts as rational; there is thus no way of transcending this and critiquing from the outside. Thiselton, quite incisively, claims that this hermeneutic doesn’t sound as appealing to cultures that are extended in time (e.g. UK) as it does to those that are extended in space (e.g. US). History teaches that no outside critique of society is a scary thing.

This socio-critical hermeneutical agenda moves the book nicely onto a discussion of the hermeneutics of liberation (Chapter 12). In this lengthly chapter, Thiselton surveys Latin-American liberation hermeneutics, black hermeneutics and feminist hermeneutics. All three, ultimately, share common features: (1) A particular experience; (2) this experience becomes a critical principle; (3) biblical texts are understood in light of this principle; (4) an eschatological perspective. Care must be taken, Thiselton argues, to not collapse a so-called socio-critical hermeneutic (critique of a life-world, or use of texts) into a socio-pragmatic hermeneutic (use of texts to support an existing social agenda). This is a danger into which many liberation hermeneutics end up falling: the socio-pragmatic tool of the oppressor simply gets turned around and put into the hands of the oppressed.

I found chapters 13-14 particularly illuminating. They deal with the hermeneutics of reading and reader-response theory. Thiselton helpfully underlines some of the huge benefits of literary theory in biblical interpretation, not least in narrative interpretation. Chapter 13 also surveys structuralist narrative views (i.e. all narrative is objectively made up of a matrix of narrative codes). Once interpreters realised that these codes themselves were usually socially conditioned, the way was paved for a hermeneutic which would work in terms of the reader’s response, rather than the text or author’s view.

Chapter 14 surveys these reader-response theories. Wolfgang Iser, for example, views certain details in texts as left open to the reader to fill in (e.g. the text speaks of a table but doesn’t specify what kind of table). He also envisages that  text has an “implied reader” – a reader who has all of the presuppositions which enable the text to have its full effect on him. Umberto Eco reaches a not-disimilar viewpoint by appealing to semiotics. For him, texts envisage a “model-reader” who shares with the author the various semiotic codes of the text. Thiselton then moves onto more radical reader response theories (such as Holland and Bleuch). However, the ultimate proponent of reader-response theory is Stanley Fish. Fish questions the idea of the text having a given meaning: he claims that “reader-response is not to the meaning; it is the meaning.” (p.539) Thiselton critiques this extreme view by claiming (as Wittgenstein does) that some language-games (i.e. the socio-linguistic context and performance) transcend culture (Thiselton gives the example of pain). Fish’s theory would be devastating for biblical studies if it were the only model to be used.

The last two chapters (15-16) are entitled The Hermeneutics of Pastoral Theology. They are the most practical in the book, applying the various models viewed to different biblical texts and situations. Thiselton’s doctoral students have claimed they would be willing to give the rest of the book up for these two chapters and I can see why. Thiselton argues that we cannot apply one model of hermeneutics to all biblical texts. In the final few pages he emphasises that the cross and resurrection of Christian theology provide the meta-critique which socio-critical hermeneutics searches: ‘In this sense, the cross and resurrection stand not only as a critique of human self affirmation and power, but also as a meta-critique which assesses other criteria, and which transforms the very concept of power.’ (p.615)

There is so much more to say, but (1) I wouldn’t do it justice and (2) it would take a very long time. Personally, as I said above, I found this a tough read, but exceptionally worthwhile. It has helped me to realise the importance of thinking not just about how we approach a text critically, but about how we even think about what counts as a correct way of interpreting the scriptural text. It has also enabled me to understand what stands behind more post-modern and reader-oriented views of the text. Anyone who wants a thorough, balanced and intellectually rigorous treatment of hermeneutics will not be disappointed.