Sunday, 10 August 2008

Jewish and Christian appropriation of the Law of Moses

A friend wrote me an e-mail today with a question on the differences between Jewish and Christian appropriations of the Law of Moses. As anyone mildly acquainted with this blog will know, I can't do anything other than think in Childsian categories, so I post the spontaneous answer I wrote with the hope that if I'm wrong some kind soul on the Internet will point this out:

This is a complex area, Jewish and Christian hermeneutics. I think B.S. Childs had the best insights, but his views are hard to understand and not particularly systematically worked out in one place (they presume a knowledge of other works, such as Barth and Hägglund, which I'm still trying to get through). His point is that regardless of the hermeneutic we use to interpret the Bible, it is always undergirded by a specific theology. Christianity inherited the Old Testament as Holy Scripture, just like the Jews, but how it functioned within the community was different. This is seen in the fact that for Jews midrash was the primary mode for appropriating Scripture, whereas for Christians it was allegory. For the Jews, with their focus on Torah as the centre of Scripture, there was a strong emphasis on making the various parts fit into an interconnected whole which could then be put into practice. The boundaries of the canon, the order of the books, the language of the text, where all firmly fixed so that the text could be "applied" as strictly as possible. The church however, confessed that the centre of Scripture is Christ. The text was seen to point beyond itself to another reality, which was not necessarily to be identified with the literal meaning of the text but which as the same time could only be accessed via it. Hence the development of "allegory" as a means of moving beyond the literal and on to the spiritual sense.
This has implications for how the church appropriates the law. Along with the rest of Scripture, it can't be taken literally - read "legalistically," - as to do so runs the danger of missing the real point. The law is connected with God's eschatological will for His people and makes ultimate sense within that framework. Reading it in the light of Christ, then, provides the church with the angle of reading that can open up what the text "is really all about," what its true kerygmatic function is within the overall economy of God.
This doesn't give you a concrete answer, but I think it shows a starting point. I think the hermeneutical implication is that for the Christian the narrative framework relativizes the legal content by placing it within its utlimate eschatological framework (e.g. Genesis 12.1-3). I don't know how a Jew relates law and narrative in this sense. A great way of seeing these two different theological hermeneutics at work is to look at the history of interpretation. Childs' 1974 commentary on Exodus does this helpfully. I strongly recommend you get hold of it and read the section on the Ten Commandments. He outlines the history of thought and looks for general trends, differences and similarities between the two traditions.


James Pate said...

Hi Philip,

There are times when Paul looks to the law for moral guidance. In I Corinthians 9:9, he sees in the law of Moses the principle that he as an apostle should be praised. In I Corinthians 14, he says the law demands that women be silent (of course, this may be deutero-Paul). Are these connected to a grand eschatological vision? Or are they an exception to the general Christian approach to the law?

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi James, thanks for the question and sorry about the late reply.

I think I need to figure the relationship between two things: the eschatological framework of Scripture and the concept of "penetrating the text to its substance." Childs spoke of both, but the second was more primary. In his commentary on Exodus, he often comes to a text in the NT which interprets the OT in an odd way and says that the author was not interpreting the text literally but rather according "to its substance." I think this means the author took the text and saw it as it functions as a part of the whole. This totality doesn't have to be eschatological (temporal), it can also be ontological - operating on the principle of similar reality undergirding different parts. I can't say what is going on in Corinthians I'm afraid, as it's late and I haven't the time to work through it right now. One day ...

This is all very abstract and are the ramblings of a tired mind. I'm on the threshold of writing an essay which deals with this in detail, so perhaps when I'm finished I'll be able to get back to you with more concrete arguments. In the meantime, read Childs Exodus commentary! Oh, and feel free to push me if I'm not making sense.

slaveofone said...

I really couldn’t say one way or the other how Childs-ian this is, but I will offer up my own comments as kindly as I may…

First, it seems that in this (albeit brief and spontaneous) answer there is no understanding of the pluriform nature of Judaism and its texts. In fact, the post seems to equate all Hebrew hermenutical perspectives with Rabbinicism and its related ancestor Pharisaism. It also seems to uphold a false dichotomy between “Jews” and “Christians” as if there was never any such thing as a “Jewish Christian” (or whatever name you want to use) or Greek Jews, or non-Torah observant proselytes, or the many other flavors of history. If the same Law of Moses was accepted by all Jews and understood the same way, the book of Jubilees would never have been written, the Samaritans would not exist, the Essenes would not exist. Etc.

“The boundaries of the canon, the order of the books, the language of the text, where all firmly fixed so that the text could be "applied" as strictly as possible.”

This struck me as very bizarre thing to say. Even as late as the compilation of the Oral Law, which was definitive of one flavor of Judaism only, a cannon had not been fixed and they were still arguing over what counted and what didn’t. Even as late as the commentary on the Mishnah by the Amoraim, they were still cementing the rules for what scrolls “make the hands unclean” and which didn’t. Even if we focus only on the “books of Moses,” we are still left with the question—which ones? Outside Palestine in the Diaspora, Greek translations with their alternative texts and text-forms had taken on the very same authority and inspiration as the more “Masoretic”-like ones. It is abundantly telling that when Justin claims in his dialogue with Trypho that the Jews have learned to view the Greek text as just as inspired and just as authoritative as the Hebrew to support his theological arguments that Trypho doesn’t deny the claim at all, which would have devastated Justin’s entire argument, but instead says Christians altered the Greek—thereby validating that the Greek’s inspiration and authority is accepted and taught among them. And even inside Palestine we find alternate Hebraic and Aramaic texts and text-forms—some which agree with the Greek against the Masoretic and some which are different than both.

Personally, I think the reason Christianity took on this allegorical hermeneutic in terms of the “books of Moses” whatever one means by that, is because that was really one of its only options. Christianity had found itself stuck between a rock and a hard place. It had cut itself off from Judaism and tried to replace Judaism with itself and yet, at the same time, wanted to pretend to itself and convince Jews that Judaism was still its source and foundation while having no continuity with it whatsoever. The only way to hang on to something completely foreign to itself was either to change it into something else through allegory or to chuck the entire thing and go the way of Marcion.

Phil Sumpter said...

Slave of One,
I appreciate your detailed and kind reply! I am in total agreement with you concerning the diversity of early Judaism. As for the history of canonization, you know more than I, so thanks for the info. I especially found Trypho's response interesting. I probably need to clarify where I was coming from in my email. It was a response to a question concerning contemporary Jewish and Christian practice, so when I use the category "Jewish" I'm doing so in an idealised, "ontologised" manner, rather than in a historically descriptive manner. Which is misleading as I used historical categories to back up my argument ... It's not that I am attempting to describe the "essence of Jew," as if it were some static category. I'm refering to that group of people who have continued to exist through history and carry the banner forward, so to speak. And they are the descendants of the Pharisees. In that sense, in order to understand the people who have lived until today, who in some mysterious sense are a unity, it's necessary to describe how they developed theologically. Contemporary Judaism, in some continuity with its pharisaic anscestors, displays the characteristics I outlined in my post.

Have I understood you right? Am I misrepresenting the Pharisaic brand too, with its modern offspring?

What group did Trypho belong to? And in relation to the history of canonization, though it took a long time, didn't at least certain groups (Pharisaicial) have a vested interested in strictly defining its boarders? When I talk about "fixed boundaries," I'm talking about a theological thrust and not about what actually happened.

I think your evaluation of patristic exegesis fits in with common consensus. Things are changing though ... especially from the side of patristic experts who are showing that what we have previously understood by "allegory" has been misrepresented. Origen seems to be a figure of renewed interest, especially concerning understanding of the different levels of meaning (including the literal or plain sense) and their interelation. It's looking as if our dismissal of this approach has more to do with modern blindspots than with the quality if their work. I've posted a bibliography here, written a thread on the literal and spiritual sense here and have generally commented on the issue here. I'd appreciate any feedback.

Phil Sumpter said...

I've since posted on Jesus and Jewish tradition, as understood by the German theologian Hermann Diem, which I think backs up what I state here.

And I've also checked the Childs article I had read long ago which had inspired this post ("Jesus Christ the Lord of the Church," in The Rule of Faith, 1997), and he explicitly says "rabbinic Judaism."

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

Found you through the patristics carnival.

Picking up on slaveofone's comments:

I see the relationship of Christianity to ancient Judaism much differently. When the message of Christ went abroad, it was all under the banners of Jews who saw themselves in fulfillment of the ancient Jewish code. The Talmud also speaks of different levels of analysis in which all prophets spoke only for the days of the Messiah -- so that the early Jewish Christians who saw all Scripture as Christ-centered had Jewish precedent for doing so. In the meantime, there seems to have been a significant backlash from some of the Gentiles who considered the philsophers (say Plato) more of their Old Testament than Moses. This view was largely reflected in the Gnostic Gospels. Even in Augustine you find remnants of Gentiles who did not want to study morality from polygamists or religion from people who taught animal sacrifice. Much of the push for an allegorical interpretation that I see in, say, Augustine's confessions was not over Christ at all, but over the fact that they found much of the Old Testament ethically problematic. Not all the pagans were off sacrificing their children to Molech, and the more civilized pagans did not want to see their own cultural heritage overthrown by a Jewish one.

Lots of historical angles were at work there.

Take care & God bless
Anne K. / WF

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your thoughts Anne. I'm not sure I see anything to disagree with. I'm not sure by what degree allegorical interpretation was funded by a quest to see Christ in the OT, but a book which argues that this is its starting point is Orthodox theologian A. Louth's Discerning the Mystery. Sister Macrina has a fairly detailed summary of it in a series of threads here.