Monday, March 30, 2020

The Third Heaven and God's Dwelling Place

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows-was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. (II Corinthians 12:2-4 NRSV)
The creation story of the first chapter of Genesis uses the word "heavens" in two different ways referring to (1) the atmosphere (where the birds fly) and (2) the placement of the celestial objects (the sun, moon, and stars). To these, a "third heaven" - a "heaven of heavens" or "highest heaven" - is mentioned in Genesis 28:12 and Deuteronomy 10:14. In this primitive worldview, the "highest heaven" seems to be the realm of God and his heavenly council.

The term "heaven of heavens" is a typical Hebrew superlative in which language - and the concepts it points to - intensifies and becomes all-inclusive. Apparently, this "highest heaven" points to all space above the earth - however vague, undefined, and immeasurable this may be.

It seems that is to this primitive concept that Paul refers to in his mystical - perhaps apocalyptic - journey to the realm of God himself in the passage above. This language is not intended to be scientific; nor is it to be understood literally. Rather, it means that Paul has had some sort of inexplicable, visionary, "out of the body," "caught away" experience that he perceived as a visit to the divine realm. Paul was clear that this experience was impossible to describe, consisting of things that mere mortals were not permitted to speak. [Clearly no commentator has the ability to expound on that which Paul himself found indescribable.]

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It is important to remember that later, mature Hebrew theology - beginning with the Deuteronomist - struggled with any literal conception of God's dwelling place. In Solomon's dedicatory prayer for the new constructed Jerusalem temple, the Deuteronomist records Solomon's denunciation of the limiting language of the temple as God's abode or resting place.
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! (I Kings 8:27 NRSV)
For the Deuteronomist, neither the temple, nor the Ark of the Covenant, nor the holy city of Jerusalem could "contain" God or rightfully be called his dwelling place. Consistently, the book of Deuteronomy offers a "name theology" in which only the "name of God," not God himself dwells in the central sanctuary. The transcendence of God disallows any primitive notion of a single place as God's abode.

Gerhard von Rad, in his Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel's Traditions, reports that ancient Israel pointed to a number of "places" as God's dwelling place: Mount Sinai, the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon's temple, Mount Zion (Jerusalem), and heaven. The multiplicity of these theologically significant, but mixed metaphors speak loudly (1) against any primitive cosmology of God's literal dwelling place and (2) to the mature conceptions of "God's separateness, transcendence, and limitlessness."

Friday, March 27, 2020

Paul's Letters and a Gentile Audience

The primary audience of Paul's missionary labors and letters were Gentiles who never fell under the Torah obligations of the Jews.  Despite the fact that Paul's "churches" were populated by both ethnic Jews and Gentiles, his letters are always - first and foremost - informed by his mission as an "apostle to the Gentiles." Paul understood himself - and his prophetic call - as the harbinger of the great end time ingathering of the Gentiles into the "people of God" that the Hebrew prophets had predicted.

Given Paul's clear - and often stated - self-understanding, there seem to be three simple rules for discerning Paul's audience in his letters:
(1) Unless otherwise noted, Paul writes to a Gentile audience.

(2) When Paul writes about "Jews," these references are most likely to Christ-believing Jews - including the Jerusalem church and other ethnic Jews - that were full participants in the various mission churches rather than to all Jews in general.

(3) Whenever Paul addresses his Jewish kinsmen (sometimes all ethnic Jews, more often Christ-believing Jews as determined by context), these statements are always the exception - and never the rule - to Paul's normal Gentile audience and these statements are always clearly delineated by direct statements or obvious clues in the text itself.
Whatever Paul says about the Jewish Torah and its obligations - especially the cultural identity markers of circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food regulations (kashrut) - it is significant to note that he (unless otherwise stated) is speaking to a Gentile audience upon whom falls no Torah obligations.

The question in Paul about Jews and Gentiles together in "one body" is the question of whether the end time ingathering of the Gentiles requires Jewish proselyte conversion (washing, circumcision, Torah observance). Paul answers an emphatic "NO!" to this question. For Paul, "Gentiles as Gentiles" are included in God's "age to come" without Torah observance that never applied to Gentiles in the first place.

Paul's "apparent" repudiation of the Mosaic law - in Romans and Galatians and similar passages - means one thing if directed toward Torah-observant Jews like himself, but it means an entirely different thing if addressed to Gentile converts who as part of God's final, end time action in Christ are now included into the "people of God" - without taking on the specific obligations of Torah observance.

Primary and Secondary Sources

Whether conducting research in the social sciences, humanities (especially history), arts, or natural sciences, the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary source material is essential. Basically, this distinction illustrates the degree to which the author of a piece is removed from the actual event being described, informing the reader as to whether the author is reporting impressions first hand (or is first to record these immediately following an event), or conveying the experiences and opinions of others-that is, second hand.

Primary Sources

These are contemporary accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question. These original documents (i.e., they are not about another document or account) are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews and other such unpublished works. They may also include published pieces such as newspaper or magazine articles (as long as they are written soon after the fact and not as historical accounts), photographs, audio or video recordings, research reports in the natural or social sciences, or original literary or theatrical works.

Secondary Sources

The function of these is to interpret primary sources, and so can be described as at least one step removed from the event or phenomenon under review. Secondary source materials, then, interpret, assign value to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. These are usually in the form of published works such as journal articles or books, but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Deuteronomy and the Book of the Covenant

A close reading of the Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12-26) shows this legal collection to be a commentary of sorts on the earlier collection of Hebrew laws, the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23). Again and again, the Deuteronomic writer refers to and builds upon specific themes and principles raised in the earlier collection of laws.

While the Book of the Covenant seems to provide structure to a simple, semi-sedentary agricultural village society, the Deuteronomic code speaks to a more complex society and economy of city states, monarchical government, social class divisions, and external pressures from neighboring peoples.

At the same time, Deuteronomy builds on earlier traditions from the period of the conquest of Canaan and the tribal confederacy. We see this earlier influence most clearly in Deuteronomy's emphasis on the necessity of standardized ritual worship in a single sanctuary, the centrality of covenant and the renewal of the covenant, the negative regard for the institution of the monarchy, and the repeated appeal to the "holy war" tradition. 

These early themes are remolded – updated and expanded to changing social and economic realities – by Deuteronomy's new emphasis on an absolute centralization of the sanctuary (with the attendant destruction of all local shrines and the end of family-based worship), the "name theology" which moves away from the primitive notion of the sanctuary as God's dwelling place, the fleshing-out of the concept of the election of Israel, and updating of laws beyond property rights to social justice concerns (care for the widows, the orphaned, and the immigrant) – themes first found in Hebrew literature in the pages of the Deuteronomic code.

Refer to the linked document below to compare the relatively primitive legislation of the Book of the Covenant and the clear extension and updating of early principles in the Deuteronomic code.

Download The Book of the Covenant and Deuteronomic Code Parallels.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Law Collections of the Pentateuch

There are four distinct, self-contained collections of laws found in the Hebrew Pentateuch – the "books of Moses": Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Each of these collections is clearly delineated by (1) opening and closing formulae, (2) repetitive vocabulary – key words and phrases that are regularly used in introductory formulae, transitional passages, and points of particular emphasis – and (3) recurring themes – large overall literary motifs that tie the individual laws together into a cohesive whole.

These four legal collections are 
  • The Decalogue (The Ten Commandments) – Exodus 20
  • The Book of the Covenant – Exodus 21-23
  • The Holiness Code – Leviticus 17-26
  • The Deuteronomic Code – Deuteronomy 12-26

 In the Pentateuch, these law collections are nestled within lengthy narrative passages that tell the story of ancient Israel's exodus from Egypt, initial reception of the law at Mount Sinai, generational wandering in the desert, and impending entrance into Canaan. Along with these narratives are a smorgasbord of rules and regulations which are not a coherent whole, but rather a compilation of loosely connected laws. Since most of these laws reflect a priestly outlook focusing on Hebrew worship, sanctuaries, sacrifices, and Levitical oversight, this loose conglomeration is often referred to as the "Priestly Code." This name should not be taken to suggest that these laws have the same literary unity and cohesion as the Decalogue, the Book of the Covenant, the Holiness Code, and the Deuteronomic Code.

Each of the collected law books – the Decalogue, the Book of the Covenant, the Holiness Code, and the Deuteronomic Code – reveals clues as to the time and social setting of their collection. Each collection seems to codify – place in written form – laws that speak to a specific and changing historical setting. Clearly, these collections are often built around existing and, in some cases, much earlier individual laws. Equally true, there seems to be a progression among the law "books" with later collections building on earlier collections, revising more primitive laws to apply them to changing social and economic realities.

This trajectory – devotion to early law codes that are revisited and re-applied in future generations – is exactly the same trajectory we see in the later "oral" law and the centuries-long debates among the Jewish rabbis about when and where and how ancient Israel's laws are to be applied in later generations.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Paul, the Gentiles, and Torah Obligations


The primary audience of Paul's missionary labors and letters were Gentiles who never fell under the Torah obligations of the Jews.  Despite the fact that Paul's "churches" were populated by both ethnic Jews and Gentiles, his letters are always – first and foremost – informed by his mission as an "apostle to the Gentiles." Paul understood himself – and his prophetic call – as the harbinger of the great end time ingathering of the Gentiles into the "people of God" that the Hebrew prophets had predicted.

Given Paul's clear – and often stated – self-understanding, there seem to be three simple rules for discerning Paul's audience in his letters: (1) Unless otherwise noted, Paul writes to a Gentile audience. (2) When Paul writes about "Jews," these references are most likely to Christ-believing Jews – including the Jerusalem church and other ethnic Jews – that were full participants in the various mission churches rather than to all Jews in general. (3) Whenever Paul addresses his Jewish kinsmen (sometimes all ethnic Jews, more often Christ-believing Jews as determined by context), these statements are always the exception – and never the rule – to Paul's normal Gentile audience and these statements are always clearly delineated by direct statements or obvious clues in the text itself.

Whatever Paul says about the Jewish Torah and its obligations – especially the cultural identity markers of circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food regulations (kashrut) – it is significant to note that he (unless otherwise stated) is speaking to a Gentile audience upon whom falls no Torah obligations.

The question in Paul about Jews and Gentiles together in "one body" is the question of whether the end time ingathering of the Gentiles requires Jewish proselyte conversion (washing, circumcision, Torah observance). Paul answers an emphatic "NO!" to this question. For Paul, "Gentiles as Gentiles" are included in God's "age to come" without Torah observance that never applied to Gentiles in the first place.

Paul's "apparent" repudiation of the Mosaic law – in Romans and Galatians and similar passages – means one thing if directed toward Torah-observant Jews like himself, but it means an entirely different thing if addressed to Gentile converts who as part of God's final, end time action in Christ are now included into the "people of God" – without taking on the specific obligations of Torah observance.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Paul and the "Parting of the Ways"


Paul wrote before the "parting of the ways" of Jews and Christians. He regularly expressed a utopian view of Jews and Gentiles living together as an eschatological community – the "people of God" at the end of the age joined together as one body, one house, one loaf. Christianity did not have an independent existence during Paul's lifetime. Rather the "Jesus assemblies" – whether meeting in the homes of well-to-do patrons or in tenement work places and houses – grew out of and paralleled the synagogues of the Jewish diaspora. It is hard to imagine the first Gentile "Jesus worship" as anything other than a mirror, or extension, of the liturgy borrowed from the first century synagogues.

This is not to say that Paul was oblivious to the ever-present problems of his utopian vision. The great bulk of Paul's major letters – Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians – deals specifically with the challenges of Jewish and Gentile believers coexisting in a single community of faith. These challenges were voiced with great volume and frequency by Paul's diverse opponents. Nevertheless, Paul never abandoned his vision of end time unity.

We – as modern interpreters of Paul – approach his letters from the other side of the "parting of the ways." And this historical perspective always colors our reading of Paul. Like Luther who "read into" Paul the Protestant conflict with late medieval Catholicism, we often see Paul only through our experience of Western individualism – as so clearly expounded in Krister Stendahl's essay "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West."

The new perspective on Paul not only challenges Luther's misrepresentation of the religion of second temple Judaism and Paul's place in it, it also – and appropriately so – questions contemporary Western readings of Paul's letters. Whether the new perspective offers a satisfactory reconstruction of second temple Judaism and Jesus and Paul is a separate matter. But the importance and necessity of this quest is beyond question.