Saturday, 23 March 2019

Re-Visioning Ancient Israel

I've been working through parts of Neil Ormerod's Re-Visioning the Church with my graduate seminar on Early Christian Institutions. This has led to at least two developments in my thinking. One, that this book is too rich to only assign parts to students: you need to work through the whole thing. Two, a deepening of my conviction that there is need for a prequel, which uses the same basic Lonerganian approach to look at the history of ancient Israel and Judaism through to the early rabbinic era (ideally, such an account would continue through to modern Judaism, in order to combat the impression that the history of ancient Israel and Judaism leads most naturally into that of Christianity, but I personally lack the competence to produce such an account; the best I can do is take the account some distance into the rabbinic era).

This second conviction came out of a recent class discussion, in which we considered how the early church was not a creation ex nihilo but rather a new development within a history that goes back to the Canaanite Bronze Age. Leaving aside intellectually fraught efforts to argue that ancient Israel is an epic fiction manufactured in the Persian or Greek era--an effort that will forever stumble over the Merneptah stele--we can reasonably envision a basic chain of progression. What became Christianity first appears within the synagogues of Galilee and Judea; it soon spreads to those of the Diaspora, and both there and in the Land it sets up communities structured along the lines of Jewish precedents. But these synagogues and others Jewish precedents have a history. In the Land, they began as the city-gate, which stretches back to Bronze Age antecedents, a space in which the elders of the town assembled to debate and discuss matters of great concern to themselves (Ruth 4 offers an exemplary account of the sort of matters likely considered in that space, and one suspects that Genesis 23 does as well); and although the synagogues of the diaspora were largely modeled after the institutional forms of the Greco-Roman associations they nonetheless took on many of the same roles within the overseas Jewish communities as did the synagogues of home. It is altogether possible to write a history of both the synagogue and the church that begins with the Bronze Age Canaanite city-state, asking how various stages of development represented transformations necessary to better meet the needs of developing communities.

Of course, the deleterious effects of group bias would also need to be considered: sometimes--and we can argue about the relative frequency--transformations occurred not to better meet the needs of developing communities, but rather to allow particular groups (typically, the males of affluent lineages) to dominate others. Indeed, we would have to consider the degree to which the city-gate was rooted in such bias from the start; certainly, one could very easily build a narrative in which it originated precisely to further and sustain affluent male dominance. In any case however, ancient Israel probably in part emerged as a revolt against such domination, and there is I think evidence to suggest that it took measures to institute and sustain a degree (but only a degree) of egalitarianism. But as inevitably happens, revolution against inequality eventually gave way to new inequalities: certainly in the form of the monarchies, but probably yet earlier. This was probably the case especially for women, as revolutions have a remarkable capacity to insufficiently apprehend that women might desire the same freedom from oppression as do men. Consider that probably the most brutal description of violence against a woman is found within Judges 19, which leads directly to the Benjamite civil war in Judges 20 and in Judges 21 the kidnapping and forced marriage of four hundred young women who had just seen their families killed by the rest of Israel. Whether these accounts describe actual courses of events (and I am more sanguine than many about that possibility), they probably should be taken as an indication that the men of the Israelite settlements valued women less as persons and more as resources. The Marxist and feminist traditions excel in considering such sad realities, for probably no intellectual traditions have more fully explored how group bias--whether it be towards the affluent or towards the male--destroys the integrity of communities and the well-being of individual lives. (One of my students' criticisms of Ormerod was that he did not take much account of power; I am probably to blame for giving them that impression, as I did not have them read his discussions of bias. Again, that speaks to how Re-Visioning is not a book into which one can just dip).

Now, some students suggested that Jesus' life and ministry and salvific significance were such that there was some sort of rupture in the historical continuum. From a historical perspective, I would fully grant that Jesus represents one of those creative personalities who periodically emerges to address the urgent needs of their times; the emergence of such creative personalities might indeed be taken as signs of divine grace operating in history. And indeed, the needs of Jesus' time were urgent. The Jewish revolt was still a few decades away, but the Land was already suffering from many of the conditions that led to that event, most notably I would argue the economic depredations suffered by the local population under Roman rule. Jewish society in the Land was breaking down under these depredations, as lifeways were disturbed by predatory foreign rule. Leaders emerged, promising deliverance from these conditions. The real question for me as a historian is why from this particular situation this one particular leader, Jesus of Nazareth, began a movement that eventually took over the world. Theologically, one might articulate this in terms of God's gracious solution to the problem of human evil, but I would argue that historically this question can only be answered by the fullest understanding of the problems to which Jesus was responding and the conditions under which he operated, and that moreover the theological account would only be deepened by fully developing the historical.

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