My new book, Three Skeptics and the Bible, is coming out soon! It’s a collection of essays I’ve written over the past several years, dealing with the biblical interpretation of Isaac La Peyrère, Thomas Hobbes, and Baruch Spinoza. I’ll post more on this when it becomes available on Amazon. It’s being published by Pickwick from Wipf & Stock, and is my first scholarly volume. At the side is the image they sent me of the cover. I’m still plugging away on my sabbatical projects, and hope to post more on those before my sabbatical is over. More to come in the not-too-distant future.
My dear friend Brant Pitre recently posted a wonderful blog post that deals with Loisy and the controversy surrounding the so-called “Jesus of faith” vs. the so-called “Jesus of history,” with the attendant replacing of that Jesus of faith with the Jesus of history. His post can be found here on the Historical Jesus Research Blog.
In addition to the book on Loisy that I had been working on over the summer, I’ve been working intensely since the end of August helping out on a broader project dealing with the roots of modern biblical criticism, stretching back from the 14th century into the
early 20th century. It’s been an amazing journey so far. I’ve helped draft sections on the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, and am almost done with the 17th century, although the 16th century sections still need a lot of cleaning up. The research has been gripping. It’s been very interesting to me to see the varied political connections. So far I would say that I think Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker’s many insights in their Politicizing the Bible are dead on target. It’s been amazing going through the connections between Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham, as they resided with Ludwig of Bavaria, all three in conflict with Pope John XXII—-and then to see how Marsilius’ and Ockham’s thoughts get carried through into later generations. I’m still processing some of the material on Luther and in Reformation England, even as I’m reading (and re-reading) material in the 17th century works of Hobbes, Spinoza, and Simon–which I know better. I know I haven’t done a very good job updating this blog as I progress on my sabbatical, but I’ll try to do a better job. I’m looking forward to getting into the 18th century, probably in a few weeks after we complete better drafts of the chapters I’ve already worked on. So stay tuned.
I’ve been working away on my Loisy book, and progressing nicely—actually, I began the work prior to July 1, so I’ve spent much of the summer working on it—and I thought I’d share some interesting finds. This is from his (in)famous L’Évangile et l’Église (The Gospel and the Church), which landed Loisy in a bit of trouble. The book was censured, placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, and it certainly contributed to his eventual excommunication six years later. In fact, many see this work as having “precipitated” the Modernist Crisis–I think that phrase is from C.J.T. Talar, but I don’t have on hand which of his many works he wrote that in. Loisy’s ecclesiological vision, his view of the Church, is the main topic of a paper I’ll be presenting this upcoming November in Atlanta at the meeting of La Société Internationale d’Études sur Alfred Loisy, in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature. It will also form part of one of the later chapters of my book.
In my rereading of L’Évangile et l’Église earlier this summer, I was struck by how Loisy emphasized again and again the Jewish context to the New Testament, and particularly Jesus’ Jewish context (and that of Paul et al). For many of you, perhaps most of you, this wouldn’t seem odd at all. We take it for granted that of course Jesus was Jewish, Paul was Jewish, and the New Testament should be read in its Second Temple Jewish context. And yet, even now, the Jewish context to Paul and the New Testament (if not the “historical” Jesus) is questioned frequently. I remember when my friend Brant Pitre came out with his Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, and one of the criticisms he received was his use of Jewish sources. Granted, Brant was using later rabbinic Jewish sources (Midrashic, Mishnaic, Talmudic, etc.), but even these later sources incontestably contain earlier traditions—the obvious question/debate is how much of their traditions are Second Temple or earlier. I recall last November’s meeting of La Société Internationale d’Études sur Alfred Loisy, which I chaired, the question my doctoral advisor Bill Portier (responses to whose fine work, Divided Friends: Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis in the U.S., occupied the first session) asked the final presenter, Belgian scholar Danny Praet about the absence of a discussion of the Jewish context to the New Testament in the correspondence between Franz Cumont and Alfred Loisy on the matter of Christian origins. The Cumont-Loisy correspondence began in 1908, the year Loisy was excommunicated, and I think we can detect a development in Loisy’s work from after his excommunication. It seems to me that Loisy’s later work, within the History of Religions (although now more influenced by Cumont than Hermann Gunkel, by whom I think he was more influenced prior to beginning his correspondence with Cumont). It was pretty clear that Post-correspondence with Cumont, Loisy was less inclined to situate the New Testament in its Jewish context, and more in a Greco-Roman context.
But, Loisy was early-on influenced by 19th century German scholarship (which for him was contemporary), and such scholarship was increasingly de-emphasizing, in fact, often denying, not only the Jewish context of the New Testament, but of Jesus (historical or otherwise) as well. This became something of a no-brainer with the push for Markan priority (which Loisy followed, but which we should bear in mind was relatively new…really getting going with a following in the 1880s when Loisy was studying biblical criticism [under Ernest Renan beginning in 1882] and Assyriology [under Arthur Amiaud also beginning in 1882]). Mark contains no genealogy for Jesus, and is arguably the least Jewish of the 4 Gospels. In light of this context, Loisy’s comments in L’Évangile et l’Église at the very dawn of the 20th century (1902 and in the expanded 2nd revised edition of 1903) are rather striking.
So, here are two quotations from L’Évangile et l’Église [from Alfred Loisy, The Gospel and the Church, trans. Christopher Home (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), which is an English trans. of the 2nd revised and expanded edition of 1903]:
“To seek in the gospel an element that shall be entirely new in regard to the religion of Moses and the prophets, is to seek a thing that Jesus had no desire to set there, a thing that on His own statement does not exist there” (65).
“The Gospel, appearing in Judaea and unable to appear elsewhere, was bound to be conditioned by Judaism. Its Jewish exterior is the human body, whose Divine Soul is the spirit of Jesus. But take away the body, and the soul will vanish in the air like the lightest breath” (121).
One could attribute some of this to the fact that he was explicitly responding to Adolf von Harnack, who famously desired the removal of the Old Testament from Christian Scripture (in Marcionite fashion). But, having read quite a bit of Loisy’s earlier works, I don’t think this is sufficient to explain these comments. I think Loisy was convinced of their Jewish context at that point, even if he changed his mind later on.
It’s official–I have begun the first sabbatical of my career. I have many projects on the plate, all relating to topics of interest to this blog. The first major one, with which I’ve been busy, is a book project pertaining to Alfred Loisy. Loisy was a Catholic priest and Bible scholar from the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. He was excommunicated as a Modernist in 1908. In fact, he was at the heart of the controversy over Roman Catholic Modernism which Pope St. Pius X condemned as the “synthesis of all heresies” in his 1907 papal encyclical, Pascendi Dominici Gregis. I’m convinced that the biblical scholarship of Loisy and many of his contemporaries, as well as the responses to such scholarship from the Magisterium and from other anti-Modernists, played a very significant role in what came later in Catholic biblical scholarship in the second half of the 20th century, and today. I’m excited about the Loisy project because I have found that most scholars of Roman Catholic Modernism are either historical theologians, systematicians, fundamental theologians, or the like (or a combination), but tend to know less about the history of biblical criticism. With few exceptions, when they do write about Loisy’s work in biblical studies (which is what got Loisy in trouble), they focus on his New Testament work without dealing much with Loisy’s quite substantial work on the Old Testament. Moreover, fewer know much about Loisy’s early work in the related field of Assyriology. The first few chapters of the book I’m working on during my sabbatical deal especially with Loisy’s Old Testament work and his work in Assyriology. They build upon work I’ve already done for conference presentations at the American Academy of Religion, La Société Internationale d’Études sur Alfred Loisy, and the Near Eastern Archaeological Society, which in turn resulted in an article last year in the Near Eastern Archaeological Society Bulletin, another article that came out earlier this year in Journal for the History of Modern Theology/Zeitschrift für Neuere Theologiegeschichte, as well as another article forthcoming from the Journal of Religious History. The work I did for those presentations and articles underscored for me the significance of Loisy’s early Assyriological work for his Old Testament studies. So, I’m enjoying pulling this all together as I write my book. So, thus begins my year-long sabbatical at undisclosed locations. I will try to post on some of the interesting findings as I progress.
Here’s another old book review I published in the Review of Biblical Literature back in 2010. It deals with the various versions of a later non-biblical book called The Life of Adam and Eve. As Murdoch’s fine volume shows, there were many different versions of this text. It was an incredibly rich tradition that found itself travelling all over Europe in the medieval period, influencing art, story, theater, etc. The story, in its varied forms, was about Adam and Eve after the Fall. At its core, the story is one of penance, of Adam and Eve’s sorrow over their sins, and the various ways in which they expressed this sorrow penitentially, including immersing themselves in the cold water of a running stream. For me, one of the other very interesting aspects of this tradition–which clearly has Christian influences in many of its later expressions, but which Murdoch believes may have Jewish roots in its earliest form–is the depiction of the demonic serpent as a violent aggressor. In his more popular work, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, Catholic Theology and Scripture professor Scott Hahn interprets the account of the Fall in Genesis 3 in such a way that the serpent was delivering a veiled threat of violence to both Adam and Eve with the serpent’s retort: “you shall not die.”(1) Indeed, such conflict may be implied in its ancient context, in light of comparable ancient literature from the ancient Near East.(2) Interestingly, The Life of Adam and Eve implies such violent intent on the part of the serpent. In fact, after Satan’s failure here, popular versions of the text depict the serpent going after their son Seth, and even biting him in the face. Murdoch’s volume is thus a welcome addition to the scholarly literature on the history of biblical interpretation, showing some of the many ways earlier readers understood Genesis 3 and its aftermath.
(1) Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture (Cincinnati: Charis, 1998), 69, where Hahn writes:
“He said, ‘You will not die.’ And that defiant contradiction hung in the air until slowly the serpent’s meaning became clear: ‘You will not die–if you eat the fruit…’ In other words, Satan used the form of a life-threatening serpent, with his evil stealth, to deliver what Adam rightly took to be a thinly veiled threat to his life, which it was from the outset.”
Where does Hahn get this interpretation, which to many may sound bizarre? From the combination of several factors: 1) the man was given the command (in Gen. 2) to “keep” or “guard” (in Hebrew, shamar) the garden (pp. 58-59). Hahn explains further:
“the other word, ‘keep’ (shamar), carries a distinct meaning, ‘to guard,’ implying the need to ward off potential intruders. This was how the word was used to describe the task of the sword-wielding Levites, who were ordered by Moses to keep Israel’s sanctuary free of encroachers (see Nm 17:12-18:6). Perhaps it struck Adam as a curious command, for it seemed to imply not only a need for the sanctity of the garden to be guarded but the existence of a potential intruder to desecrate it” (pp. 58-59).
2) Hahn underscores the ambiguity of the reference to “life” with the tree of life mentioned in Gen 2. He asks the pointed question, “After all, didn’t God already give Adam the gift of immortality? What’s the use of a tree with fruit to make you life forever if you’re already going to anyway?” (p. 59). Hahn thus takes this to imply that there would be a potential threat to life (pp. 59-60). 3) Hahn is also aware of the many ways in which “sons” are tested throughout the Bible, a sort of filial test. He thus envisions the temptation narrative as just such a test (pp. 63-64). 4) Hahn shows that the Hebrew word for “serpent,” nachash, is much broader than what we typically think of as a snake, e.g., it is used of Leviathan in Isaiah 27:1 (p. 66). He explains:
“Across this wide spectrum of usage, the word generally refers to something that bites (see Prv 23:32), often with venom (see Ps 58:4). In any event, at minimum, the serpent here is a life-threatening symbol. And it represents mortal danger. In this case, the danger was not only (or mainly) physical but spiritual, particularly since the New Testament identifies this ‘ancient serpent’ with Satan himself (see Rv 12:9; 20:2)” (p. 66).
5) Hahn also notes that the word employed for “subtle,” (‘arum), can be used to describe “the ‘stealth’ and ‘guile’ of the wicked (see Jb 5:12; 15:5)” (p. 66). 6) Finally, Hahn asks the question about where the man is during this ordeal when the serpent speaks to the woman. He emphasizes how the text seems to indicate the man was by her side, silent, the whole time. The serpent’s verbs are plural, not singular, and there’s no description of the woman looking for the man; apparently, he’s right there when she gives him the fruit (pp. 67-69). Thus, Hahn links the pride and envy of Adam with fear of suffering (pp. 69-74).
(2) Richard E. Averbeck, “Ancient Near Eastern Mythography as It Relates to Historiography in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 3 and the Cosmic Battle,” in The Future of Biblical Archaeology Reassessing Methodologies and Assumptions: The Proceedings of a Symposium, August 12-14, 2001 at Trinity International University, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Alan Millard, 328-356 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004).
Here’s an old book review I published back in 2009 in the Review of Biblical Literature, when I was still teaching at the University of Dayton as a Lecturer in the Religious Studies Department. I’m posting it here for those of you who do not regularly keep tabs on the Review of Biblical Literature, just in case you are interested. Leonhard’s book is impressive in many ways. One of my disappointments, however, was his starting point when assessing the antiquity of Jewish traditions, and particularly the Passover narrative recounted during Passover Seder meals. He begins explicitly from a position of suspicion. He doubts the antiquity of the tradition, assuming the latest date possible. This raises the debate about methodology. Obviously this is a contested issue. When examining ancient texts, should we assume they are later than they purport to be? What sort of evidence indicates a tradition’s antiquity? Leonhard goes so far as to suggest that the final form of the Passover story in Exodus 12, dates the time of the pilgrimages during the Second Temple period, like those recounted by the first century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus. He also suggests that the earliest use of the exodus story at Passover might be no earlier than the first written examples that have survived, from the medieval period. His work brings up a whole host of questions about methodology that are important to consider as we think about the history of biblical interpretation.