Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Resurrecting Jesus: Buy now!

Yesterday I mentioned a Sept 30 release date for Dale Allison's Resurrecting Jesus, which is apparently incorrect. I just received word from Dale that his book is available now, yes, now. For glowing blurbs see the page at Continuum. Heed the words of David Aune: "Since excellent books are rare, I would counsel you to go, sell all that thou hast, and buy this one!"

As one who has had the privilege of reading much of this book in advance, most notably the crucial chapter on the resurrection, I add my own endorsement as follows:

This is a profound study of the relationship between the historical Jesus and modern needs, which ends by being (surprisingly) stronger for its own excursions into theology. Allison explains, with enviable critical acumen, what makes people like or dislike the apocalyptic Jesus who preached hell and judgment, and the persistent trend in secularizing his world-view. He concludes with a sound treatment of the empty tomb, and a satisfying response to Tom Wright. Acknowledging good and bad arguments for both the historicity and fiction of the empty tomb, Allison finds the scales tipping slightly in favor of historicity. Steering between apologetics and arch-skepticism, he shows that the cognitive dissonance experienced by the early Christians came not from the crucifixion (which squared with expectations), nor the visions (which were perhaps grief-induced, and a common enough phenomenon), but the empty tomb in conjunction with visions. Far from being the product of dissonance, the empty tomb was the cause of it, and Christian theology was further shaped by what the disciples' bereavement wrought.

Don't wait any longer. Order today.

Post-script: Note Mark Goodacre's comments here.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Death is so uplifting...

The latest issue of Choice magazine reviews Sean Freyne's Jesus, a Jewish Galilean. The book addresses how a Galilean prophet might have been inspired by his tradition to face death in Jerusalem:

"Freyne contends that the suffering servant of the book of Isaiah and the maskilim (wise ones) of the book of Daniel served as motivating figures in the self-understanding and the public ministry of Jesus. In particular he holds that those figures brought Jesus to accept the inevitability of his death as an eschatological prophet and to assign definite meaning to his death. The book illuminates this approach to Jesus with careful attention to the ecology, archaeology, history, and sociology of Galilee..." (Choice, Sept '05 p 117).

I'm pleased by ongoing fresh approaches to Jesus' death. One of the classic questions in HJ studies has been, "Was Jesus going to Jerusalem to work or to die?," and I think Schweitzer was right to say the latter. But details are destined to remain elusive, as Stephen Finlan's recent book has made plain, illustrating the complex and often contradictory ideas behind martyrdom, atonement, scapegoat, and ransom redemption.

Freyne's book has been out since December, and I'll need to read it, especially given its healthy attention to archaeology and the social world of Galilee (Context Group member Halvor Moxnes is cited in strong doses). Then too we should remember Scot McKnight's impending work which argues that atonement ideas (no less) trace back to Jesus. It will be interesting to see how such a case is presented.

On the same day Scot's book is being released (Sept 30), Dale Allison's formidable Resurrecting Jesus will appear. I'm excited about this book, which is definitely the best study of the resurrection. (I know from proof-reading a part of it.) It steers between the poles of Wright and Ludemann, using the best of both worlds while eschewing dogmatism from either side. Dale makes a good case for historicity of the empty tomb, though differently than Wright, and with sanity by recognizing the variety of possibilities which could account for an empty tomb -- an actual resurrection being but one of them. He dabbles into grief-induced visions, though again, better than Ludemann does, and with less dogmatic surety. Dale well understands that Jesus expected to suffer and die (probably expected some of his followers to die too) as a necessary prelude to the apocalypse. That apocalypse, about which our Galilean friend was obviously mistaken.

Saturday, August 27, 2005


On Codex Blogspot Tyler Williams comments on Palindromes, the latest film by one of my favorite directors Todd Solondz. Tyler’s reaction parallels some of the more hilarious comments of other critics here. He says: "my primary thought while watching the film was one of surprise -- surprise at the shots Solondz took at both sides of the abortion debate (among other things). This film is not subtle, many scenes hit you like a two-by-four". This is the beauty to Solondz' stories, in which pretty much everyone is a hypocrite and ultimately in the same mess no matter how they fit on the moral compass. I'm as pro-choice as they come, but I'm under no delusion that my position is unassailable; and I'm certainly not pro-choice for the some of the reasons other people are.

I review the film thoroughly here, noting similarities between Solondz' cynical worldview and that of Eccelesiastes.

UPDATE: Ken Ristau strongly objects to Solondz' amoral worldview and approach to filmmaking in general, suggesting that "popcorn movies are even better than art-house". See his comments and my reply under Tyler's post. [Edit: I probably should have quoted Ken with more precision. He wasn't saying that popcorn films are generally better than art films, only that they can be better, particularly in this case. See his remarks below in the comments section.]

UPDATE (II): Tyler Williams has followed up his post with further analysis of the film. He considers some dialogue which damns the pro-choice cause (ouch), and also lines from the character Mark -- which on closer inspection confirms what I think about Ecclesiastes being in the background. Good work!

UPDATE (III): Ken Ristau explains his late dissatisfaction with art-house films here. He too works Ecclesiastes into the discussion.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Strange Bedfellows

On The Loom, Carl Zimmer has been following Deepak Chopra's attempt to save Intelligent Design from the evangelical Christians. Deepak's misguided presentation is on The Huffington Post. PZ Myers retorted to Chopra here, as did many readers of Huffington. Deepak then replied to all of this with another string of confusion here.

Fundies and new agers make strange bedfellows, though we've certainly come to expect this. One finds parallels in the field of Jesus studies, where the fundies and Bultmannians agree, for opposite reasons, that searching for the historical Jesus is detrimental to faith. For fundamentalists, the historical Jesus is the Christ of faith; and Bultmannians say that Jesus is forever lost, and questing for him is not only impossible but represents a feeble attempt to justify oneself by works (!). I've never considered myself an especially aggressive proponent of the scientific method, just one who naturally accepts it, without letting it threaten any faith I have about transcendental mysteries.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

"To Touch a Jew"

The following quote is from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who preached the Second Crusade in 1146.

"Anyone who touches a Jew to take his life, is as touching Jesus himself."

The citation is provided by Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn, who was thirteen years old when he witnessed massacres in Jewish communities during the preaching of the crusade. The fiend responsible for the pograms was a monk named Radulf -- one of Bernard's own pupils -- who commanded people to "avenge Christ first, the crucified one, upon his enemies who stand right before you [the Jews]; and then only, go to fight against the Muslims." To which Bernard countered as above. The full quote given by the rabbi is as follows:

"It is good that you march against the Muslims, but anyone who touches a Jew to take his life, is as touching Jesus himself. Radulf, my pupil, who said that the Jews should be destroyed, did not speak correctly. For it is written about them in the book of Psalms, 'Slay them not, lest my people forget.'" [Psalm 59:11]

The rabbi emphasizes that the Jewish community hadn't investigated whether or not Bernard received a bribe to defend the Jewish people in this way, but in any case, the quote is rather stunning. Anyone who kills a Jew is as killing Christ. In effect, this inverts Jewish guilt, foisting blame for Jesus' death onto misguided Christians. The real "Christ-killers" aren't Jews, but those who harm Jews.

It's odd to hear sentiments like this coming from a medieval Christian, especially one who advocated crusade. In the New Testament itself, only Paul comes close to approaching such a positive estimate of Israel (in Romans). Historians have no reason to doubt that Bernard spoke as reported by the rabbi, for he wrote the following in Epistolae:

"The Jews are not to be persecuted, nor killed, nor even forced to flee. 'God,' says the church, 'says, "Slay not my enemies, lest my people forget."' [Psalm 59:11] Alive, the Jews are signs to us, a continual reminder of the Lord's passion. Because of this they were scattered into every nation, so that while they are paying the just penalty of such a crime they may be witnesses to our redemption. Therefore the church, speaking in that psalm, added: 'Scatter them by thy power; and bring them down, O Lord our shield.' [Psalm 59:11] So it happened: they were scattered and brought low everywhere, enduring harsh captivity under Christian princes. But 'at evening let them return' [Psalm 59:14] and in time there shall be respite for them."

Somewhat like Paul, Bernard was a supersessionist who became an aggressive defender of Jewish prerogative in the face of anti-Semitism.

No one wants to be an apologist for anything to do with the crusades. But when considered next to someone like Martin Luther, whose ravings might have inspired Hitler, the abbot of Clairvaux begins to appear "saintly" indeed.


Hallam, Elizabeth (editor): Chronicles of the Crusades: Eyewitness Accounts of the Wars Between Christianity and Islam. For Rabbi Ephraim's testimony see pp 126-127.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Blurb of Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus

Publisher's Weekly gives a starred review to Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the New Testament and Why.

"Ehrman points out that scribes altered almost all the manuscripts we now have...His absorbing story, fresh and lively prose and seasoned insights into the challenges of recreating the texts of the New Testament ensure that readers might never read the Gospels or Paul's letters the same way again." (8/22/05, pp 59-60)

Ehrman is getting more popular with the masses, especially after Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code. I look forward to reading this one.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Intelligent Design, Intelligent Falling

Everyone should read the following article from The New Republic: "The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name", by Jerry Coyne, Aug 22, pp 21-33. It’s available online (free registration) here.
"ID is here for only one reason -- to act as a Trojan horse poised before public schools: a seemingly secular vessel ready to inject its religious message into the science curriculum." (p 32)
It's embarrassing that we’re still dealing with this nonsense in the year 2005. One could regard the controversy almost as a spoof -- like the one mentioned by Tyler Williams on "Intelligent Falling":
"'Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, God, if you will, is pushing them down,' said Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture, and physics from Oral Roberts University."
We may as well start promoting Intelligent Falling too. What the ID idiots fail to grasp -- and as the New Republic article points out -- is that evolution is as theoretical and factual as gravity:
"It is important to realize that at the outset that evolution is not 'just a theory'. It is a theory and a fact... It makes little sense to doubt the factuality of evolution as it does to doubt the factuality of gravity... We know that species on earth today descended from earlier, different species, and that every pair of species had a common ancestor that existed in the past." (pp 23, 25)

"Intelligent Design is simply the third attempt of creationists to proselytize our children at the expense of good science and clear thinking." (p 25)
And so the travesty continues...

Pick List Update

Nice to see Michael Turton coming up for air. Two weeks ago we were doing pick lists for Jesus books, and Michael just got around to this on Friday. So I’ve updated accordingly here.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Lk 17:20-21 and the Apocalypse

I want to applaud Brandon Wason, whose recent post on Novum Testamentum defends a translation for the kingdom of God being “among” the Pharisees rather than “within” them. Following other interpreters, Brandon points to lexical evidence which supports a meaning of “among” (or, as I prefer, “in the midst of”) for entos. For Jesus to have said that the kingdom of God was within the hearts of his own rivals would have made no sense. Besides which:

“No matter what stage of the New Testament tradition is being considered, the idea of the kingdom of God as a purely interior, invisible, present spiritual state of individual hearts is a foreign intrusion. It is at home in 2nd-century Christian Gnosticism (so the Gospel of Thomas, sayings 3, 51, and 113), 19th-century German liberal Protestantism, and some 20th-century American quests for the historical Jesus, but not in the canonical Gospels in general or Luke in particular.” (John Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol II, pp 426-427)

Lk 17:20-21 has not only played a significant role in turing Jesus into a Western Protestant or quasi-gnostic thinker (the “within” translation), but also in undermining the idea that he preached a future apocalypse at all (however entos is translated). But that’s hardly warranted by a cumulative assessment of the evidence, and it’s not even implied by the Lukan narrative. Here’s what happens. When pressed by the Pharisees for the apocalypse’s timetable, Jesus redirects their attention to the kingdom’s present dimension:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed. Nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For in fact the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

Of course, that’s evasive and doesn’t answer the question. In fact, it insultingly implies that it was the wrong question to ask. Instead of worrying about apocalyptic signs, these fools should be taking advantage of the sacred prologue all around them (or among them, or in the midst of them). This is how Jesus dealt with rivals who challenged him in public. Rather than allow himself to be shamed or put on the defensive, he blew them off by changing the subject. But on other occasions he promised red rain, saying the apocalypse would be coming within a lifespan or generation (Mk 9:1/Mt 16:28/Lk 9:27;Mk 13:29-33/Mt 24:33-36,42/Lk 21:31-33,36).

Jesus was like many millenarian prophets, keeping his cards close to his vest and refusing to commit on specific dates. He would sidestep the issue (Lk 17:20-21) or offer vague timetables (Mk 9:1; Mk 13), but no more. Some things never change, do they?

Karen Armstrong on Solitary Reader Paradigms

Jim West calls attention to an article in Mail & Guardian Online by Karen Armstrong. The following part caught my attention:

“Historians have noted that the shift from oral to written scripture often results in strident, misplaced certainty. Reading gives people the impression that they have an immediate grasp of scripture; they are not compelled by a teacher to appreciate its complexity. Without the aesthetic and ethical disciplines of ritual, they can approach a text in a purely cerebral fashion, missing the emotive and therapeutic aspects of its stories and instructions.

“Solitary reading also enables people to read their scriptures selectively, focusing on isolated texts out of context and ignoring others that do not chime with their own predilections. Religious militants who read scriptures like this often distort the tradition they are trying to defend. Christian fundamentalists concentrate on the aggressive Book of Revelation and ignore the Sermon on the Mount, while Muslim extremists rely on the more belligerent passages of the Qur’an and overlook its oft-repeated instructions to leave vengeance to God and make peace with the enemy.”

As usual, Armstrong only gets half the story right. Selective scriptural reading is not the domain of fundamentalist militants. It’s everyone’s problem, even those with benign interests. Furthermore, if there is one group of people less prone to the solitary reading paradigm, it’s those from Islamic cultures where the Qur’an is engaged orally and frequently, in classrooms and on the radio. Certainly those living in third-world oral cultures, not least the ancients, are capable of understanding God as condoning violence.

Philip Esler has recently blasted solitary reader paradigms with more precision in New Testament Theology. The problem with reading-based cultures involves not only selective reading (in oral cultures, selective teaching may just as well be a problem), but more generally, the self-indulgent process by which individualists see in the text whatever they want, and supplant the author’s view with their own. The postmodern love-affair with “intertextuality” doesn’t help matters. We’re too caught up in making distant and alien texts “speak to us” this way, and to suit our agendas, however intolerant or benign. The more odious groups simply highlight the problem.

Armstrong notes that “the Qur’an insists its teaching must be understood ‘in full’ (20:114), an important principle that religious teachers must impart to the disaffected young”. Fine, but what exactly does that mean? It's possible to understand something “in full” and still end up supporting a jihad. More important is that the Qur’an, like the Bible, be assessed critically, with the expectation that parts will not -- and should not -- speak to us in the way they were meant to.

UPDATE: After reading the below comments, see Pete Phillips’ follow-up post on Postmodernible.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Second Biblical Studies Carnival

Over at Christian Origins, Peter Kirby will be hosting the second Biblical Studies Carnival. It will be nice to have a snapshot of what we're all blogging about these days.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Fall of Elves and Men

The Bible and Lord of the Rings have nothing and everything to do with each other. The latter is a thoroughly pagan story, lacking the metaphors and allegories so many Christian critics reach for. On the other hand, it shows an evident need for Christianity, or at least in the author's view.

Perhaps the clearest way in which Middle-Earth anticipates "something better" (again: Tolkien's view) involves the myth of the fall. "There cannot be any story without a fall," wrote Tolkien (letter 131), and he meant serious business by this remark. There are at least three -- and I think four -- falls we can speak of in The Silmarillion (#2 is controversial).

1. The Fall from Paradise (I) (Elves) The elves fall from Valinor on account of coveting their own Silmarilli gems and refusing to aid the Valar: "They pervert the greater part of their kindred, who rebel against the gods, depart from paradise, and go to make hopeless war upon the Enemy." (letter 131)

2. The Fall from Paradise (II) (Men) The men fall from Eden on account of breaking a mysterious ban. This nowhere appears in The Silmarillion -- for the appearance of the Judeo-Christian myth in Tolkien's own would be "fatal" (letter 131) -- though it is alluded to in the apocryphal "Dialogue between Finrod and Andreth". Men were "born to life everlasting, without any shadow of any end" (Morgoth's Ring, p 314). They were not meant to die originally, but in days forgotten Melkor corrupted this design. This can only refer to the Genesis story, which Tolkien didn't want to use explicitly.

3. Shunning Paradise, Making Paradise (Elves) In the Second Age there is "a second fall or at least error of the elves...they wanted the peace and bliss and perfect memory of the west, and yet to remain on the ordinary earth where their prestige as the highest people was greater than at the bottom of the hierarchy of Valinor". (letter 131) And so the elves created the Three Rings of Power, which enabled them to build pockets of paradise on earth: Rivendell, Lothlorien, and the Grey Havens.

4. Wanting Paradise, Warring on Paradise (Men) Running parallel to the second fall of the elves is the downfall of Numenor, which is about "the inner weakness in men, consequent upon the first fall... achieved by the cunning of Sauron...its central theme is (inevitably, I think, in a story of men), a ban, or prohibition." (letter 131) Men grow dissatisfied with their island of Numenor, and against the ban of the Valar, declare war on them and sail for the Undying Lands, meant for elves and other immortals alone.

In each of the four falls, the children of Eru crave godliness. The men want immortality, and the elves want to be gods of their own creations.

So the mythical backdrop to Tolkien's world is all about "fall". This sets the stage for a pagan epic pointing to a distant future, when fall-damage will be forever healed. Eventually, Eru (God) "will himself enter into Arda (Earth), and heal men and all the marring from the beginning to end" (Morgoth's Ring, p 321).

But for now in Middle-Earth, any trust in the triumph of good is foolish. The pagan Gandalf knows this too well. Under the leaves of Fangorn he reminds his friends that, while he's more powerful White than Grey, "Black is mightier still". Until the era of revelation begins with Abraham, Eru remains remote and distant.

I believe that Tolkien's use of the fall myth in The Silmarillion helps illustrate how he intended Lord of the Rings to "be consonant with Christian belief" (letter 269) without needing to pollute it directly with metaphor and allegory.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Real Story of Frodo and Sam

I wrote this audio commentary in March 2004, inspired by a similar spoof written by Jeff Alexander and Tom Bissell for The Fellowship of the Ring. I follow the story of Frodo and Sam in the next two films, and, likewise, with all the politically-correct sanctimony I can muster. Don't read this if you're easily offended -- or if Zinn, Chomsky, and Said are precious to you.

Audio-commentary for The Two Towers & The Return of the King:
The Story of Frodo and Sam
by Loren Rosson III

Emyn Muil

We begin at the feet of Emyn Muil, where Gollum is getting ready to pounce on the sleeping hobbits. It's important to remember that Gollum was once a hobbit, and that backbiting is a favored tactic of this race (recall Merry and Pippin leaping onto the back of the cave-troll and stabbing it from behind). Frodo and Sam, of course, are engaged in their own sleazy tactic of feigning slumber, so as to surprise Gollum in turn. As we proceed through this commentary, it will become abundantly plain that Frodo and Sam are vicious cowards -- a far cry from the heroes they're usually made out to be. Now Gollum rightfully curses them as "thieves". He speaks nothing but the truth. Bilbo stole his ring, and Frodo has no more legitimate claim to it than his uncle ever did. Look at this cat-fight -- all three of them grabbing, biting, kicking each other. It's all below-the-belt and very typical of hobbits.

Now we have this outrageous spectacle which lays bare the propaganda surrounding "Samwise the Brave". This is Samwise the Sadist, pure and simple -- choking Gollum, yanking him through rock and dirt, thoroughly indifferent to his screams of agony. So all of Galadriel's gifts are instruments of violence, even a rope, which goes a long way toward dispelling the myth of elves as peace-loving people. And notice how Frodo's outward display of "pity" is a facade which masks his true motive for removing the rope, as he suddenly realizes he can exploit Gollum as a guide to Mordor. Someone of genuine pity would not have permitted a starving and emaciated creature to be choked and dragged over the ground to begin with! Frodo is actually worse than Sam, because his evil is cunning and veiled. While Sam is openly sadistic, Frodo secretly revels in sadism until it conflicts with his own needs.

The Dead Marshes

Cut now to the Dead Marshes, where Frodo and Sam continue their shameless exploitation and terrorization of Gollum. Notice how Gollum cringes in front of Sam like a whipped dog, calling him a "nice hobbit". Gollum lives in a perpetual state of terror, much like an abused wife, never knowing when Sam will lash out at him. He has been abused and mistreated everywhere and by everyone -- Sauron, the wood-elves, Aragorn, Gandalf, and now the hobbits. It's analogous to a teen-ager who has been continually bullied by his peers and scorned by his parents and teachers. Should we be surprised when Gollum later tries engineering the death of the hobbits anymore than by the shootings at Columbine High School?

Now look at this. Gollum's neck is on the line as he leads the hobbits through the Dead Marshes. Sure, let him test the waters. Let him sprain an ankle. Let him take a plunge down to those horrible spectres. And despite this, it is Frodo who incompetently falls in! So there is at least some poetic justice in this world. Gollum rescues Frodo -- showing far more decency than either hobbit has shown him -- and so we're again forced to ask why he is supposedly so bad.

This next scene really makes me mad, where Frodo taunts Gollum with his real name, "Smeagol". It's obvious that he's making fun of him -- making him feel ashamed of the creature he's now become. Nobody wants to accept Gollum for who he is, but Frodo goes out of his way to reinforce the creature's self-hate by implicitly mocking him.

The Black Gate

Here we come to the Black Gate. The Black Gate. We're right back to fear -- fearing the other. Anything from an unknown culture is invariably black. First it was black riders on black horses; now it's a black gate. The racist implications are obvious.

Notice how Frodo really has no idea what he's doing, and that he's too paralyzed by xenophobic cowardice to make a responsible decision in any case. He's been duped into destroying a worthless ring by Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, who have poisoned his mind with litanies of racial hate. So now that he's come to the front door of Mordor he can only perceive its inhabitants as monsters -- even the men, whose eyes are "slanted" so as to appear Asian. Again, the racism is transparent. Now Gollum is genuinely concerned for Frodo, because he knows from first-hand experience how deadly Mordor can be: he has suffered unspeakable torture inside. His fear of Mordor is very reasonable (as is his fear of just about every other place, like Mirkwood Forest, for the same reason). By contrast, Frodo and Sam have an irrational fear of Mordor based on prejudice, hate, and the lies fed to them by Gandalf. See, watch how Frodo feverishly grabs at the opportunity to postpone his entry into Mordor as Gollum advises him of an alternate route. It's ridiculous. Gollum doesn't mention the Tower of Cirith Ungol, but Frodo isn't so stupid to think that any pass into Mordor could be unguarded. Whether it's the Black Gate or some other fortress... And look how he patronizes Gollum for "being true to his word", which keeps up the pretext for postponing his pointless quest.

Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit

Now it's Samwise the Cruel, jeering at Gollum as he struggles to catch fish. "Stinker" is the sort of name-calling we would expect from a juvenile, which says a lot about Sam's maturity level. The hobbits are bullies down to the core of their beings. Frodo was mocking Gollum with his real name, and now Sam insults him with a make-up name. The creature's self-hate is reinforced left and right. But now we come to the crux of the matter as Frodo proceeds to give Sam a tongue-lashing for picking on Gollum. The ensuing argument between the two hobbits is revealing, because Frodo is simply projecting his own problems onto Sam. It takes one to know one. He sees himself in Sam, because he harbors the same despicable thoughts, even if he is more covert in expressing them. "When people condemn others they condemn themselves", and no incident in the film better illustrates the proverb than this one here.

This is heartbreaking: Gollum's fit of schizophrenia. We should pause now and examine more closely the source of animosity between him and Sam. Why do they constantly bicker with each other? Why is Sam so spiteful? Why, moreover, does Gollum desperately want to perceive the equally spiteful Frodo as his "friend"? I would venture that the answer to all these questions lies in the burning desire both Sam and Gollum have for Frodo. It is abundantly obvious that Sam has wanted to fuck Frodo up the ass from the word go. And who can blame him? Gollum is probably impotent, but his psychological lust is made plain from the way he continually fawns on Frodo -- recall the way he kept rubbing his hands all over him at the Black Gate? It's jealousy, pure and simple, but someone like Sam has no excuse for engaging in such petty rivalry over perceived threats to a friendship. Is he so insecure? Is he sexually frustrated? Is there a conflict between his desire for Frodo and that for Rose, or is he simply bisexual? These are the kind of questions we need to be asking ourselves.

Now this scene really pisses me off, and you don't have to be a vegetarian to appreciate why. We're supposed to be disgusted by Gollum's "barbarism" as he plunges his teeth into raw rabbit. But Sam is no better! There is no proper or humane way "to eat a brace of coneys". Would the poor rabbits have cared whether their carcasses were subsequently eaten raw or cooked? Don't they have a right to live as much as any creature? Like all free-folk of Middle-Earth, Sam has a veneer of cultured civilization, passing off his own barbarisms as enlightened etiquette. The hypocrisy is gargantuan, the cruelty astounding. For Gollum to retaliate by calling Sam a "stupid fat hobbit" may be sinking to the hobbit's own level, but the insult isn't entirely inappropriate. For this is Samwise the Sick; Samwise the Slob.

The Forbidden Pool

Faramir's interrogation reveals how deceitful hobbits are by nature. But before we get to that, notice in passing Sam's snotty retort about being Frodo's gardener. Faramir is asking legitimate questions, and Sam is being a juvenile smart-ass. But Samwise the Snot pales beside Frodo the False, who claims that Boromir was his friend: a bald-faced lie. Frodo resented Boromir from the get-go, since he constantly threatened his prestige as the symbolic leader of the Fellowship. Yet Frodo is a coward at heart and never really wanted to be the Ringbearer. Boromir finally called his bluff, aggressively, for which Frodo could never forgive him. Catch the gleam of satisfaction in Frodo's eye as Faramir tells them his brother is dead. It's there all right, if you look carefully.

As if deceit weren't bad enough, we get treachery at the Forbidden Pool. Frodo's plea that Faramir spare Gollum's life is subterfuge so as to allow him the satisfaction of snaring the creature himself. Then too, he still needs a guide to Mordor (a moment of honesty there). Now just look at the cunning smile on Frodo's face as he beckons Gollum like a dog. He obviously relishes this sort of trickery. And...Jesus Christ! Look at this! These are men of Gondor, and look how they treat an unarmed captive: shoving a bag over his head, throwing him down, kicking him in the gut, punching him, and throwing him against the wall. Is this the kind of behavior we should expect from (supposedly) the most advanced and enlightened society of humans in Middle-Earth? Apparently so.


The detour to Osgiliath, absent from Tolkien's books, is entirely pointless and used only for the sake of propaganda, portraying Gondor as fighting a "defensive" war. Are we really to believe that Faramir and his men haven't been on the offensive in Ithilien? What is Henneth Annun other than a secret base from which to launch preemptive strikes and covert operations? This is warmongering and militarism at its worst.

Observe how Frodo and Sam have internalized the violence which has enveloped them ever since they left the Shire. Sam attacks Frodo (does he want to rape him?) under the pretense of "saving" him from the Nazgul, and Frodo retaliates by screaming like a Neanderthal and putting Sting to his throat. At this stage of the story it has become conclusively evident that friends are more lethal than enemies. Recall Arwen greeting Aragorn with a sword to his throat, the Lothlorien elves welcoming the Fellowship at arrow-point, and Legolas (defending Gimli) coming within a hair's breadth of shooting Eomer -- nothing more than a knee-jerk projection of his own anti-dwarf impulses. The free folk of Middle-Earth seem hell-bent on destroying themselves, let alone phantom enemies from Mordor.

Now it's Samwise the Crybaby. He can dish it out but can't take it. And look, he can't even face Frodo -- so ashamed of crying -- that he turns his back on him and starts rattling off a ridiculous and sentimental monologue about archaic heroism. In the end it comes back to war. Frodo wonders (quite rightly), "What are we holding onto, Sam?", and Sam responds (quite predictably), "That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for." Worth fighting for. Of course. The hobbits have become warmongers like everyone else.

The Morgul Vale

Frodo is drawn to the city of Minas Morgul as if he wants to be enlightened for the first time. What, after all, is there to fear? What do we really know about the Nazgul? We're supposed to believe that the Ring is malevolently propelling him forward, but that's rubbish. The Ring has nothing to do with it. Frodo is having a moment of genuine curiosity about Nazgul culture. But true to form, Samwise the Chickenshit "snaps him out of it", yanking him back into his world of xenophobic hate. (Gollum pulls him back too, though we must recall his good reason to be frightened of Mordor's minions.) Now Frodo cringes at the blue flame suddenly leaping from the tower, but I think we see envious awe mixed with his fear. The Tower of the Moon would be among the Seven Wonders of Middle Earth if the free peoples weren't such biased rednecks.

Whoa! Catch this spectacle of the Witch-King descending on his fell beast. Now it burns my tongue to say that, because "Witch-King" and "fell beast" are offensive deviance labels telling us more about those who use them than the beings themselves. They demonize the other and perpetuate fear. Indeed, the hobbits are now racked with terror -- though not from any superstitious Black Breath. The Nazgul shrieking scares them in the same way a rabbi singing the Torah scares a Nazi. It's foreign; something alien. It's impossible to overstate the racism being presented here. The Morgul-King actually strikes me as a figure of dignity (and his poor army is fighting a defensive war, recall from Osgiliath). If his spiked appearance and dragon-steed look scary to us, then perhaps we need to readjust what we think is scary.

The Stairs of Cirith Ungol

Now Gollum gets a feverish look in his eyes as he fixates on what is rightfully his. He should snatch the Ring and bolt instead of helping Frodo up the stairs, but he does the noble thing anyway -- and in the middle of being cursed and yelled at by Sam. Gollum justly demands to know why Sam hates him so much. What has Smeagol ever done to him? Besides going out of his way to do everything the hobbits want! Notice his genuine compassion for Frodo followed by an acute analysis of "the fat one". He knows that Sam is a gluttonous thief who has been projecting bad intentions onto him. In many ways Gollum is the true wizard of the story, offering Frodo better counsel than Gandalf ever did -- as he does now with his sagacious prediction that "the fat one" will try to steal the Ring.

Which is exactly what happens next. As they break for sleep, Gollum launches the first stage of his plan by throwing away all of the lembas bread and sprinkling crumbs of the evidence on Sam. Granted this is deceitful (Gollum's hobbit nature taking over), with what choice is he left? He's constantly terrorized by Sam and wants him gone. I actually thrill to Gollum's character when he accuses Sam of eating all the food and stuffing his face like a greedy slob. He's more a cunning fox than an actual villain. It's understandable that -- Jesus, will you look at this? Sam is beating the shit out of him. The sadism is here is intolerable, and even Frodo is genuinely appalled. But the jig is really up when Sam tries to appease him by making a lame offer to help carry the Ring -- "share the load", as he preposterously puts it -- and gets banished for the thief that he is. He panicked and let his true colors show. It doesn't matter that Gollum's particular accusation is false, because it is based on a truth far more profound: that Sam is a gluttonous thief who has indeed coveted the Ring all along.

Shelob's Lair

Gollum is now free to launch the second stage of his plan. He directs Frodo into a tunnel which we know leads to Shelob's Lair. But "lair" is another deviance label. It predisposes us to view the occupant as a monster before we even meet her. Should we call hobbit holes "lairs"? (They're actually quite similar: curving walls, underground, labyrinthine.) This is Shelob's home, be it ever so humble, and Frodo is an intruder. Look how he's horrified by the sticky webbing and sight of so many snared creatures. But this is how spiders survive as a species. There is nothing malicious about it, especially when done in the privacy of one's home. (More cruel and offensive is the killing and stewing of rabbits in their own habitat.)

Here comes the queen herself. Look how beautiful and majestic she is. But we're supposed to cheer for Frodo as he brandishes the Phial of Galadriel, screams an elvish curse, and flees like a coward down the labyrinth. Would we cheer for an intruder of Bag End who shoved a lantern in Frodo's eyes and shouted at him as he stumbled out of bed? Who then sashayed through his kitchen, smashing dishware -- just as we now see him slicing apart this beautifully intricate web-lattice? I certainly don't cheer for his narrow escape, anymore than for his subsequent murder of Gollum by throwing him off the cliff!

This part, on the other hand, makes me cheer with loud righteous joy: Shelob's revenge. It's one of the few times we get to see the innocent paying back the guilty in spades. Look at Frodo's mouth foam. If this hobbit doesn't deserve to be spider-feed, no one does... I take that right back. There's another hobbit who more than deserves the same fate, and he's back for more: Samwise the Speciesist. Sam is as fat and poisonous as Shelob, armed with venomous insults (like "filth") and an endless supply of dirty tricks. Hobbits actually make good adversaries of giant spiders. They know all the sly tricks in the book, every feint, when to back-bite, and where it counts the most. See how he deviously dodges, rolls away, leaps, somersaults over the spider's back, kicks, dodges, jumps, rolls -- never engaging combat, evading like a craven, until finally, more by accident, Shelob lands on his upraised sword. And now he gets aggressive, sure, backing her against the wall with intent to murder. That's what hobbits do: kill enemies when they're down. Thankfully for Shelob, the wall has an escape route. This entire episode is about two malicious juveniles tormenting a spider, and their arachnophobia being made to look heroic.

Now this epilogue makes me vomit every time, where Sam gushes crocodile tears. He is thoroughly incapable of forgiving Frodo and only came back to kill him (and Gollum) and then take the Ring for himself. Naturally the camera doesn't show him pocketing the Ring at first opportunity. Look at the dawning horror on his face when the orcs arrive and declare Frodo not dead. "Not dead? Samwise, you fool." Translation: "You should have stabbed him, Samwise, just to be sure."

The Tower of Cirith Ungol

Cut to the tower chamber, where Shagrat and Gorbag are feuding over Frodo's mithril vest. Convict behavior, to be sure, but that's essentially what the orcs are: inmates of an over-crowded prison. They've been sealed away in Mordor all their lives, faced with harsh economic sanctions, in a miserable habitat of cliffs and wastelands. If I were an orc living in these conditions, I'd be looting and torturing foreign yuppies myself.

We're meant to see the orcs as evil and full of discord, but the truth is they are desperate. Economically deprived people become enviously possessive and prone to strife, which is the sad outcome of this scene. A brawl here, a fall there, and before we know it, the orcs are massacring each other. They're trapped in a cycle of violence through no fault of their own.

Cut back to Sam. Victory over Shelob has gone to his head, and he thinks he can take on the world. His rage is endless, and he wants the satisfaction of rubbing Frodo's nose in the fact that he got the better of him before gutting him with his own sword. So he turns into a fantasy -- Samwise the Superman, leaping turrets in a single bound, flying up the tower stairs, roaring like The Hulk, and dispatching three orcs single-handedly. But if Sam is a superhero, I'm a Balrog. That he can invade the tower so easily and take on multiple attackers without getting scratched just proves that orcs aren't dangerous. They're a peace-loving people who have been conditioned into violence by warmongering neighbors. Notice, by the way, how Sam is perfectly visible, even though we know (from the books) that he's wearing the Ring.

Now Sam bursts into the top chamber and murders Shagrat, feeding his rage and Superman fantasy. Frodo rejoices, unable to believe his eyes -- and unaware of being just seconds away from following Shagrat into the Great Beyond. But something stops Sam; and it's not Frodo's lame-ass apology. He's utterly transfixed by the sight of his friend naked from the waist up. He's practically drooling. He hands over the Ring, mesmerized, and we can almost feel his hard-on, hear his panting, as Frodo slides the chain around his neck. Wrath has given way to lust. It's no longer a sword he wants to run through Frodo. He's prepared to "be friends again" for a chance to nail him up the ass until he screams.

The Slopes of Mount Doom

As the hobbits make their way across Mordor, we see the Great Eye looming in the distance. This is supposed to fill us with fear and trepidation, but the Eye of Sauron is no more menacing than the Wizard of Oz. Quite the contrary: Sauron is a wise and beneficent entity who would only ask people to take a long and hard look at themselves. On the slopes of Mount Doom, Frodo and Sam are forced to do exactly that -- and they hate what they see. Frodo sees a gullible fool duped by a fascist wizard into destroying a completely worthless ring; a pawn in a political power-game; a tool of war propaganda. It's no surprise that he can't recall the taste of food and sound of water, because the Eye has blinded him to everything except that which matters most right now: the cruel facts. The Eye is truly horrifying in this sense; it's terrifying to see oneself for the first time. Sam is faced with his own demons. He sees a sadist with a whole catalog of sins -- gluttony, greed, wrath, lust -- and as he cradles Frodo, he breaks down and cries, shamed (for the first time in his entire life) by the knowledge that all he wants to do at this moment is rape his best friend on the mountainside.

Now things get interesting. Sam suddenly wants to prove his worth, as if breaking his back for an empty quest will atone for a lifetime of crimes. Defying the Eye (and the bulge in his pants), he begins carrying Frodo up the mountainside -- Now this is truly ridiculous. Gollum is dead. He was murdered by Frodo outside Shelob's home. If Peter Jackson wants us to believe that he fell 5000 feet only to spring out of nowhere like a boogieman at this last possible moment, then he's been smoking too much pipeweed. "Gollum" is just part of Sam's denial to keep the fantasy going. "Gollum" allows him to play Samwise the Superman. And that's exactly what he does -- attacking his hallucination in order to exonerate himself as a hero.

The Cracks of Doom

But what about Frodo? As he stands at the Cracks of Doom, the Eye once again asks him to look inward. And staring at the Ring, he sees it for what it is: not a Ring, but a ring, a worthless trinket, yet the cause of so much bloodshed. The truth is outrageous and has him shaking in tears. Cursing Gandalf for his perfidious lies, he hurls the ring into the fire, where it is instantly destroyed. And of course nothing happens. Nothing at all.

But we see things through the eyes of Sam, whose Gollum-fantasy has gone into overdrive. The capering illusion should be dead twice over -- smashed in the head with a rock and disemboweled by Sting -- but it's back and ready for more, clubbing Sam from behind and knocking him to the ground. Through the haze of his "pain", Sam looks ahead to see Frodo claiming the Ring. He watches a nonexistent Gollum struggling with an invisible (but in fact perfectly visible) Frodo, who loses finger and Ring to the mirage; Frodo pushing the creature off the edge, then falling himself; and Samwise the Superman pulling him to safety. Pure rubbish, but this will be the hobbits' story when they return home.

Now Sauron is thoroughly dismayed. He has managed to get two members of the most malicious race in Middle-Earth to examine themselves, but with results less than promising. The hobbits will only tell lies when they leave Mordor -- that they tried their best, but Sauron got the Ring back from them, and more military power is needed than ever before. War and racism will go on. Frodo knows the truth about Gandalf and the elves, but he will never have the balls to expose them. Sauron sees only one option remaining: self-destruction. If he kills himself, the orcs will at least have a temporary reprieve from war. The fascist powers will think they have won, and a new age of "peace" (i.e. cold war) will begin, restoring at least some political and economic balance. So Sauron desists... the Eye implodes... Barad-dur comes crumbling down... and Frodo conveniently erases from memory everything the Eye helped him see. For he has apparently destroyed an evil Ring after all; and he will go down as the savior of Middle-Earth.

UPDATE: It looks like Alexander & Bissell did another spoof for The Return of the King, but not for The Two Towers.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Poll: Jesus in Film

On Codex Blogspot and NT Gateway, Tyler Williams and Mark Goodacre mention a poll being taken by the Arts and Faith website: "Who's your favorite film Jesus?" Jim Caviezel is currently in the lead. My favorite would have to be Lothaire Bluteau's performance in Jesus of Montreal. My three favorite Jesuses (and Jesus films, for that matter) are:

(1) Lothaire Bluteau -- Jesus of Montreal
(2) Jim Caviezel -- Passion of the Christ
(3) Enrique Irazoqui -- Gospel According to Saint Matthew

Frankly, I don't like most Jesus figures portrayed in film. I do like Monty Python's Life of Brian, though it's not on the poll.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Frodo Baggins: Embarrassing Failure?

I was browsing through Internet Infidels, in the Biblical Criticism and History section, under the thread "A Question for Vorkosigan Regarding Mark". Vorkosigan (who is none other than Michael Turton from The Sword) thinks the gospel of Mark is a second-century novel, and in passing makes an interesting remark about the criterion of embarrassment:

"If Mark were not the source of a religion that insists Jesus was real, what about it would convince you that we were dealing with real history somewhere in it? It can't be embarrassment, for that is only applicable when you have decided a tale is history -- I mean, no one believes that the Lord of the Rings is history because Frodo failed at the end, embarrassingly."

But the example of Frodo Baggins doesn't support Turton's case. Frodo does not fail embarrassingly. In the view of the author, he fails appropriately. Frodo had no more chance of willfully destroying the Ring than Aragorn did of winning a military victory against Sauron. Tolkien's heroes are tragic failures because they are intentionally not salvific figures, not allegories for any part of the Christian myth -- which for the author was absolute truth. They are pagan heroes, noble, heroic, but ultimately hopeless against the power of evil.

Frodo's failure may have been embarassing to Frodo (on which see here), but not to others -- and certainly not to the author of the story, which is what matters in using embarassment as a criterion.

Of course, Tolkien knew he was writing fiction, and there's no history in Lord of the Rings anyway. A criterion of embarassment would be used in this case not to determine whether or not "Frodo actually failed", but that given his failure in the context of a mythic pre-history which Tolkien intended to point towards Christianity without encompassing it, was he a pagan or Christian hero? The answer should be obvious. He was a pagan hero, a heroic but hopeless failure, and that's how Tolkien wanted him. I've written much on this subject here.

Unlike Turton, I don't think the gospel writers were writing novels. They were taking embellished and evolving historical traditions, and reshaping them to suit theological agendas. We don't decide the gospels are rooted in history by applying a criterion like embarrassment in advance. The criterion is useful on the understanding that the evangelists believed they were writing about things which actually happened.

Speaking of Jesus' death...

On Primal Subversion Sean du Toit mentions Scot McKnight's upcoming book, Jesus and His Death. It has a ringing endorsement from Dale Allison:

"This is a brave book. With due awareness of the historical traps and with a mastery of the recent relevant literature, McKnight here asks the crucial question, How did Jesus interpret his own death? His answer, which hearkens back to Albert Schweitzer, does full justice to Jesus' eschatological outlook and makes good sense within a first-century Jewish context. Even those who see things differently -- I do not -- will enjoy how the detailed and rigorous argument develops and will find themselves learning a great deal."

I just placed my order.

Luke and the Cross

Prodded by Richard Anderson's essay, "The Cross and Atonement from Luke to Hebrews" in conjunction with Stephen Finlan's recent book, I've been thinking more about Luke's unease with the cross. Anderson thinks Luke attributes no saving power to the cross at all. "For Luke, by the power of God, Jesus was resurrected from the dead." That's it. Jesus' crucifixion didn’t benefit others, whether as a sacrifice or ransom payment. Luke also goes out of his way to avoid scapegoat imagery (though Anderson doesn’t mention this in his essay). So that makes three death metaphors shunned by Luke. Compare with Mark and Matthew:

Sacrifice: Mk 14:22-25/Mt 26:26-29 (eucharist)
Scapegoat: Mk 15:16-20/Mt 27:27-31 (abuse by soldiers)
Ransom Payment: Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28 (servant saying)

Considering each, briefly:

Sacrifice -- Luke’s eucharist account (Lk 22:15-19a) implies nothing about Jesus dying as a sacrifice. It’s simply the last passover meal Jesus expects to eat before the apocalypse comes. Lk 22:19b-20, which speaks of “my body given for you” and “the new covenant in my blood poured out for you”, is missing from some manuscripts and is probably a later scribal addition (as argued by Bart Erhman; followed by Anderson).

It’s true that Acts 20:28 has Paul speaking of "the church obtained with the blood of God's son", but Anderson convinces me (see his Crosstalk post) that this reflects Luke's awareness, not agreement, with Paul's view.

Scapegoat -- Luke omits the scapegoat allusions in Mk 15:16-20/Mt 27:27-31, where Jesus is abused in a peculiar way by the Roman soldiers -- spat on and struck with a reed, before being led away to the (implied) "demonic wilderness" of Golgotha.

Ransom Payment -- Luke offers a simple statement about one who serves (Lk 22:27), but nothing about ransom redemption.

So Luke has no use for these metaphors. None of this, however, points to an early dating of Luke (pre-50s??), as Anderson claims. It just means that, for whatever reason, Luke doesn’t like this stuff.

Nor does this indicate that Luke is uneasy with martyrdom theology, as Anderson also claims (in this Crosstalk post). Consider the following, many of which are noted by Raymond Brown in Death of the Messiah, pp 31-32:

(a) Luke understands Jesus to be a prophet (Lk 4:24; 7:16; 9:8,19; 24:19), and believes that prophets are made for martyrdom (Lk 6:22-23; Acts 7:52).

(b) Luke believes that Jesus went to Jerusalem, because that’s where prophetic martyrs were supposed to die (Lk 13:33-34).

(c) Luke’s repeated theme of “innocence” invokes martyrdom, by implying that Jesus died for a holy and just cause.

(d) Luke parallels the deaths of Jesus and Stephen (the latter of whom is clearly a martyr); both die forgiving their enemies and “entrusting their spirits” to God/Jesus. Here we see a crucial aspect by which the martyr serves as a model to be followed, or copied, by others.

(e) Luke insists that the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected, before being killed and raised (Lk 9:22).

(f) Luke’s original eucharist tradition (Lk 22:15-19a; minus the editorial 22:19b-20) anticipates necessary suffering on the part of Jesus.

So Luke does have a theology of the cross. Jesus’ innocence as a crucified martyr is precisely what leads to him being raised from death.

UPDATE: Richard Anderson has a rejoinder to all of this here.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Classic King Kong

The Chicago Sun Times reports exciting news of a November 22 DVD release date for the King Kong classic. The descriptions of bonus features alone whet the appetite, and Peter Jackson is even contributing with his own two-hour documentary called “The Making of Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World” (which apparently takes up most of the second disc). We're supposed to believe the timing of this release, right before Jackson's remake hits theaters a month later, is coincidence. Well, if they say so.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Creationists, Biblical Scholars, and Rhetoric

A couple of days ago on The Loom, Carl Zimmer discussed some of the rhetoric used by creationists:

“Creationists try whenever they can to claim that Darwin was directly responsible for Hitler. The reality is that Hitler and some other like-minded thinkers in the early twentieth century had a warped view of evolution that bore little resemblance to what Darwin wrote, and even less to what biologists today understand about evolution. The fact that someone claims that a scientific theory justifies a political ideology does not support or weaken the scientific theory. It's irrelevant. Nazis also embraced Newton's theory of gravity, which they used to rain V-2 rockets on England. Does that mean Newton was a Nazi, or that his theory is therefore wrong?”

As in science, so in biblical studies. In The Symbolic Jesus, Bill Arnal criticizes scholars who have used similar rhetorical tricks in defending a Jewish-pleasing Jesus against a more Hellenized figure. Arnal cites Sean Freyne’s critique of Crossan’s work:

“To water down the Jewishness of Galilee... has the potential for anti-Semitism, as Walter Grundmann’s 1941 book on Jesus the Galilean shows...” (p 16)

But any potentials for another Aryan Jesus (whether real or imagined) are irrelevant. If Jesus was in fact less Jewish than we imagine, then it’s the historian’s duty to say so. If the resulting portrait ends up being pressed into bad service, that’s a completely different issue. I happen to believe that scholars like Sanders, Fredriksen, Allison, and Freyne are much closer to the truth than the Hellenized crowd, but not out of fear that I would be condoning an anti-Semitic view of Jesus if I didn’t!

With all of this in mind, I too am anxious to read Mark Chancey’s The Myth of a Gentile Galilee, mentioned by Michael Bird. I suspect I’ll agree with much in it. But let’s read with open eyes, and if we endorse its arguments do so for the right reasons.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Observations from Stephen Finlan

I've had some pleasant email correspondences with Stephen Finlan about my review of his book, parts of which I cite below with his permission.

"Loren, there is a theme in my book that you don't mention, namely that Paul 'is part of the problem and part of the solution here. By embodying problematic ideas about God in his metaphors, but offering the basis for a solution to such problems in his arguments, Paul is at the beginning and the end of all Christian conversation about God.' (p 223)

"The problem with sacrificial metaphors is not what it says about Jesus, but what it implies about God. I go much further in my next book, _Problems with Atonement_, which is due out by Oct. 1, from Liturgical Press."

I look forward to Stephen’s sequel, and I regret not touching on these issues at the end of my review, as they bear on academic agendas and modern needs. Finlan's conclusions remind us of the dark legacy behind Paul's metaphors, particularly atonement (Rom 3:25), in which Jews have been targetted "as agents carrying out a ritual murder on the body of God" (p 224). Stephen may have been nonplussed by the ambivalent way I related his findings to Mel Gibson's passion film -- a film I actually liked. The legacy of anti-semitism, and the question of a God who is appeased by torture and sacrifice, are of course ongoing concerns.

And Finlan has serious reservations about The Passion. He says to me:

“It was clearly a serious and honest effort, well acted and so on. But there is no need to dwell on the gore that way...It is sadistic... But then, it really highlights just how troubling it is to say that God would ever require that of anyone, for any reason. God does not require anybody to be tortured, and certainly not as a 'payment' for someone else's sins. Atonement ideas say some awful things about God.”

But for some reason, the idea of God reconciling himself to humanity through bloody sacrifice doesn’t trouble me so much -- or at least, no more than the idea of Greek deities who use the deaths of their own heroes for higher purposes. Homer portrayed the heroic ideal in terms of war, wrath, and just as much bloody savagery as seen in Gibson’s film. Yet The Iliad is ultimately about restoration through mercy (Achilles surrendering the corpse of his enemy to Priam). Achilles own death, "by the gods”, sustains life in binding immortals to the speech of men. Is The Passion really so different? Again we have savagery tied to an act of mercy, and a brutal and shameful death underscoring the dignity of life all the more. Something has always troubled me about those who expect their deities to behave like romantic, benign sweetie-pies. It rings false somehow.

Finlan and I are in complete agreement, however, on the question of agendas. There’s nothing worse than "distorting Paul in order to rescue him", as he puts it (p 224), of trying to explain away Paul's view of sacrifice -- as, for instance, MacLean and Stowers do -- in order to make him more palatable. However we adjudicate on the divine character, we need to do justice to those, like Paul, who pronounced on the matter.

The Loom

I've added The Loom to my blogroll. Top quality stuff about evolution and other science. Though my blog focuses on biblical studies, I'll occasionally stray into this territory, given my abiding interest in evolutionary psychology. Thanks to Matt Bertrand for pointing this out.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Many Deaths of Christ: Martyr, Sacrifice, Scapegoat, and Ransom Payment

Stephen Finlan's The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors is the book I've been waiting for since Mel Gibson subjected us to an unrelenting vision of the passion. How was Christ's death thought to be salvific by the New Testament writers, and Paul especially?

Finlan argues that four models drive Paul's particular view: martyrdom, sacrifice, scapegoat, and ransom payment. Taken together, they point to Christ as a martyr who reaches out as a paschal lamb, mercy seat of faith, sin-bearer, and redeemer all in one (p 194). This needs unpacking, because the various metaphors are so different and can even be at odds with one another.

Martyrdom is the primary metaphor, and the one most frequently invoked. Finlan cites Jeffrey Gibson's important essay, "Paul's Dying Formula", which shows how the apostle inverted the noble death theme found in Hellenistic literature (see pp 196-197). "X dying for Y" signaled the warrior ideal by which heroes die for friends, family, city, or religious ideas -- though never for enemies. So when Paul says that "Christ died for our sins", and for his enemies at that (and by submitting to dishonor on the cross rather than going down in combat), he was invoking martyrdom and giving it a polemical bite. Christ died for the benefit of sinners and ungodly people, and he went down in shame.

Very surprisingly, Finlan doesn't mention David Seeley's The Noble Death, which deals with the subject more comprehensively. Like Gibson, Seeley thinks Paul's view is closest to that of the Maccabean martyrs and Greco-Roman philosophers. In IV Maccabees the Judean heroes defeat tyranny through defiance and obedience to the Torah, dying for it (IV Macc 1:11; 18:4). In a Greco-Roman context, a philosopher like Socrates dies in prison in order to free humanity from the fear of death and imprisonment (Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales 24:4), an example followed by Cato who kills himself rather than be captured by Caesar. The deaths of the martyrs and philosophers benefit others who follow their example and die virtuously.

Paul believes that Christ is to be followed this way. Believers die with him at baptism, reenacting his death by destroying the sinful body and gaining release from enslavement to sin (Rom 6:1-11; 8:10). To be sure, Christians have only begun to die -- and they're not literally crucified like Jesus -- but the "mimetic pattern", says Seeley, is exactly the same. Just as copying a martyr gains victory over a tyrant, or copying a philosopher gains victory over fortune, copying Christ gains victory over sin and death.

I think Gibson and Seeley are right about this. IV Maccabees, the Greco-Roman philosophers, and Paul share an important commonality, believing in martyrs who die for a holy or noble cause, and as models for others to follow. Seeley further notes that the idea of sacrifice creeps in. The blood of the Maccabean martyrs served as "an atoning sacrifice" (IV Macc. 17:21-22); the blood of Thrasea's suicide was sprinkled on the ground as a libation to the gods (Tacitus, Annals 16:35); the blood of Christ was put forward in atonement as the messiah became a new “mercy seat of faith” (Rom 3:25). But Seeley thinks these sacrificial metaphors are subsidiary, supplementing the far more important martyrdom theme.

Finlan refutes attempts like this (though again, he never actually mentions Seeley's book) to downplay the importance of sacrifice, at least where Paul is concerned. Martyrdom may be the most fundamental theme, but not necessarily the most important. Martyrdom provides the platform for understanding Christ's death, but it's conveyed through imperative ideas of cultic sacrifice, and through other important metaphors too (scapegoat and ransom-payment):
"Martyrdom seems to have been absorbed into these other metaphors, to be interpreted by them; it may be the most fundamental of Paul's concepts, but its meaning requires the usage of metaphors from the cultic and social realms." (p 193)
This is the strength of Finlan's approach: it takes all of Paul's ideas seriously, and integrates them without glossing or distorting ideas currently out of favor. It’s helpful to lay out certain texts pertaining to each metaphor. (This fleshes out Finlan’s list on p 5.)
(1) Martyrdom/Noble Death -- I Cor 8:11, I Cor 15:3, II Cor 5:15 (x2), Rom 5:6-8 (x2), Rom 14:9, Gal 2:20-21, I Thess 5:9-10 (see J. Gibson’s essay)

(2) Sacrifice -- Rom 3:25, I Cor 5:7, I Cor 11:25

(3) Scapegoat -- Gal 3:13, II Cor 5:21, Rom 6:6, Rom 7:4, Rom 8:3

(4) Ransom/Redemption -- I Cor 6:20, 7:23
Paul's soteriology depends on all these usages taken in tandem. Martyrology undergirds the others, and in turn is expanded by them.

Finlan devotes an entire chapter to distinguishing sacrifices from scapegoats, showing why their fusion in the Christian tradition is so radical. Scapegoats were not sacrifices, a point too often misunderstood. They were expulsion victims, and opposite in every way. Sacrifices were pure and offered reverently to God; scapegoats impure and driven out harshly to a wilderness demon. The former were spotless, and their blood a cleansing agent; the latter were sin carriers, vile and corrupt (see pp 81-93). To portray an individual as a sacrifice and scapegoat at the same time, as Paul did, would have been a bewildering oxymoron.

But how did sacrifice, whether traditional or Christian, actually effect atonement? In Israel's earliest periods, sacrifice served a propitiatory function, appeasing an angry God ("food bribe"). As the Torah became increasingly important, sacrifice took on a purifying/expiatory role, the cleansing of impurity and sin. Lev 17:11 explains:
"For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement." (Lev 17:11)
The life-force that resides within blood, when harnessed properly, somehow reverses the anti-life of sin and pollution (p 41). This is an animistic idea, emphasizes Finlan, overlaid with theism: the life-force can be manipulated by priests, but only because God allows it. (p 42). The sacrifice also involves substitution -- “atonement for your lives” -- in the sense that it cleans up a person’s spiritual pollution (p 42). This is not, however the later idea of penal substitution, where the sacrifice "stands in" for the offender. It's monetary substitution, in the (propitiatory) sense of payment to a sovereign deity, in order to appease his anger and wrath (foodstuffs, after all, have value) (p 43). So by the time of the Levitical Holiness Code, propitiatory and expiatory understandings had become fused: tribute payment and animistic cleansing both explain how sacrifice atones for sin.

Paul's belief that Christ is the new mercy seat (Rom 3:25) likewise involves both propitiation (appeasing God) and expiation (cleansing of sinners) (p 135). Gentiles would have probably heard propitiatory themes in the background, while Judeans (and God-fearers) would have heard both (pp 141-143). Propitiatory themes dominate, however, since the cultic act of Rom 3:25 offsets the divine wrath recounted previously at great length in Rom 1:18-3:20 (p 144).

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Finlan's book is his discussion of the way sacrifice, in practice and thought, evolves. Though it irritates many scholars to speak of evolution in a way that suggests "progress through spiritualization", it’s a matter of fact that "a heightening of intellectual culture brings a heightening of moral sensibility, and calls bloody sacrifice into question" (p 46). Finlan proposes that sacrifice evolves away from its primitive roots in six stages: substitution, moralization, interiorization, metaphorization, rejection, and spiritualization (see pp 47-70):
1. Substitution, occurring when human sacrifice (Gen 22:2) becomes replaced with animal sacrifice (or other foodstuffs) (Exod 13:2,12-13; 34:20; Num 18:15).

2. Moralization (or reformism), attributing new spiritual and abstract meanings to the practice of sacrifice (Psalm 4, Malachi).

3. Interiorization, asserting that what matters to the deity is the right attitude and a clean heart, though sacrifice is not rejected (I Sam 15, Psalm 51, Psalm 141, Proverb 15, Proverb 21, I & II Enoch).

4. Metaphorization, applying cultic ideas to non-cultic practices; sacrifice is valued on a metaphorical level (IV Maccabees, Paul, Philo, Greco-Roman philosophers).

5. Rejection, repudiating the sacrificial cult altogether (Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah 1).

6. Spiritualization, interiorizing religious values to the extreme that transformation of the human character has become the chief goal of religious faith (Middle Platonic philosophies, the patristic and Greek Orthodox concept of theosis).
Paul values sacrifice on the metaphorical level, superseding without rejecting the temple cult. In saying that "God put forward Christ in a bloody death as a mercy seat of faith", he claims that the crucified Christ has become for the world what the mercy seat was for Israel.

Supersessionism is inherent to levels 3/4 (interiorization/ metaphorization), when death and glory are seen simultaneously in the old system (as in II Cor 3:6-11; Philip 3:4b-11). But it gets complicated, because sometimes a view of sacrifice can be found straddling many levels. And there are subtypes within levels. For instance, level 4 metaphorization can involve either typology (Paul) or allegory (Philo). Typology can lean in a direction of level 2/3 (reform/interiorization) or 5 (rejection) without taking sides. Allegory, meanwhile, involves a strategy of replacement along levels 1/3/5 (literal/ interiorization/ rejection). So typology sees fulfillment, whereas allegory sees replacement; each is a variation of the level 4 stage. (See pp 68-70)

One wonders, as always, what the Nazarene himself would have thought about all this. Did Jesus have a martyr's complex? Did he brace himself (and his followers) for a “noble death” as he prepared to take on Jerusalem? Did he have even more radical ideas -- cultic ideas which scholars are loathe to attribute to Paul, let alone him? Curiously, Finlan claims that sacrifice and ransom payment are out of place in the gospels, despite the eucharist tradition of Mk 14:22-25/Mt 26:26-29 and ransom saying of Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28 (pp 165, 181). Richard Anderson, Kratistos Theophilos, has argued more wisely: while Luke disdained these ideas (Lk 22:19b-20 is probably a later scribal insertion), Mark and Matthew clearly believed in them. Theodore Weeden of Crosstalk has recently argued (unconvincingly) that all death traditions misrepresent Jesus, whose focus was on the celebration of life in the present age. I suspect Jesus had a martyr’s theology, anticipating suffering and death as part of the tribulation period before the apocalypse.

Finlan's book is destined for a long shelf life, a must for anyone wanting to understand Christ’s death in Paul. A bit different from Catherine Emmerich and Mel Gibson's vision, though not to the extent that Passion of the Christ does any serious damage to the apostle’s meaning. Cultic atonement, bloody sacrifice, was part and parcel of Paul's view, integrated into a martyrdom theology.

UPDATE: Richard Anderson comments on the role of the scapegoat at Kratistos Theophilos. I fail to see how Richard resolves the tension in portraying a single person as both sacrifice and scapegoat. He claims that, "on the Day of Atonement, two goats were offered for sacrifice", but this isn't true, because scapegoats weren't sacrifices.

RBL Reviews: Allison and Calvert-Koyzis

Reviews have been added to the Review of Biblical Literature. The following two piqued my interest. (Anything by Dale Allison is to be read as soon as possible.)

Allison, Dale C.
Testament of Abraham
Reviewed by Jaime Vázquez Allegue

Calvert-Koyzis, Nancy
Paul, Monotheism and the People of God: The Significance of Abraham
Reviewed by Mark Nanos

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Top 10 Books of the Bible

As Scot McKnight continues cranking out top-10 lists, I thought it would be nice to return to the most primary of sources: the bible itself. If we could save only ten of its sixty-six books from extinction, what would they be?

Here’s my list, in descending order of preference.

(1) Ecclesiastes. My very favorite book for its refreshingly honest outlook. Suggests little meaningful difference between good and evil.

Favorite part(s): "I saw everything done under the sun; all is vanity and chasing after wind... I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil done under the sun... The same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil. As are the good, so are the sinners. There is an evil in everything under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone." (1:14; 4:2-3; 9:2-3a)

(2) Romans. A sincere attempt to deal with ethnic conflict and theological dilemmas, more positively than on a previous occasion (Galatians). The most carefully structured and considered of all the NT epistles.

Favorite part(s): Chapters 1-11 and 14-15, or in other words, virtually the entire letter. The argument of 1:18-11:36, broken down in terms of judgment (1:18-3:20), justification (3:21-4:25), death/life (5:1-8:39), and the promises made to Israel (9:1-11:36). Then linked with the directives of 14:1-15:13, telling two hostile ethnic groups to get along and respect each other’s practices.

(3) Mark. The best gospel, with blunt edges and rollercoaster pace that hurtles toward defeat, translated into victory.

Favorite part: Chapters 11-13. Jesus in Jerusalem. He's hailed a messianic liberator, curses a fig tree for no fault of its own, threatens the temple, arrogantly refuses to explain by what authority he does the things he does, obliquely opposes Caesar’s taxes, and caps it all off with the great apocalypse, "The Abomination of Desolation".

(4) Job. The poignancy of this drama cuts to the bone today as much as ever. Because there really is no satisfying answer to the question of suffering, the divine retort is ironically appropriate.

Favorite part: Chapters 38-41. "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its size? Who shut in the sea when it burst from the womb? Have you commanded the morning and caused the dawn to know its place? Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightning? Can you hunt prey for the lion? Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Is the wild ox willing to serve you, and will it spend the night at your crib? Will you dare put me in the wrong?"

(5) I Samuel. The best part of Israel’s history, to whatever degree historical. Great stories of the ark going into battle, Samuel the judge, and the start of Israel’s decline as she embraces a monarchy.

Favorite part: Chapters 8-12. Israel’s demand for a king, Samuel’s warning of the evils inherent in kingship, the election of Saul by lottery, and finally, Samuel’s ominous farewell-address to the people of Israel.

(6) Lamentations. Loss is essential to growth, which is why lamentations can be so moving. Take something away from people, and you show them what they had.

Favorite part: The beginning especially. "How lonely sits the city that was once full of people. Like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations, a princess among provinces. Weeping bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks. The roads to Zion mourn; Jerusalem remembers..."

(7) Luke. Mark is the best gospel for drama, though Luke is best for comprehensive narrative. Has a lot of tradition not found elsewhere.

Favorite part: Chapters 15-16. My three favorite parables are found in this section: "The Prodigal Son", "The Shrewd Manager", and "The Rich Man and Lazarus". A father contends with two equally lousy sons, attemptiing reconciliation. A landowner’s hands are tied by the shrewd survival tactics of his own manager. And a rich man burns in Hades, remaining blind to the plight of the oppressed.

(8) James. An encyclical of subversive wisdom.

Favorite part: On gossip and slander. "The tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed on our members as a world of iniquity. It stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue -- a restless evil, and full of deadly poison." (3:6-8)

(9) Song of Songs. Who says the bible is for prudes? Hebrew love poetry offers some mighty stirring images.

Favorite part: "Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand. Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks a mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies. Your breasts are like fawns, twins of a gazelle. Your neck is like an ivory tower... Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth." (7:1-9)

(10) Micah. Unlike the big leagues, the lesser prophets knew that "less is more", making diatribe more effective. Micah is especially to the point as he brings down aristocrats and priests while offering a vision of something better.

Favorite part(s): "Those who devise wickedness on their beds! They covet fields, seize them, and take away houses... Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights? Your wealthy are full of violence... In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest of the mountains. People will stream to it, and everyone shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks, and sit under their own vines and fig trees." (2:1-2; 6:10-12; 4:1-4)

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Open Source Biblical Studies

It’s nice to see efforts under way to coordinate such great projects for open source biblical studies online. In addition to those who have blogged on the subject, Peter Kirby wrote a detailed post to the Crosstalk mailing list this morning.

Friday, August 05, 2005

More Pick Lists

Pick-lists are going around the blogs again. Michael Bird, Scot McKnight, and Sean du Toit have come up with top-10 lists for Jesus books. I'm doing a top-7 list, which I posted on Crosstalk not long ago. See here for full commentary on my choices.

#1 The Historical Figure of Jesus, by E.P. Sanders, 1993.

#2 Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, by William Herzog II, 1999.

#3 Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, by Dale C. Allison, 1998.

#4 A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, by John P. Meier, 1991, 1994, 2001, 2009, ?

#5 Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews, by Paula Fredriksen, 1999.

#6 The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World, by Richard A. Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman, 1997.

#7 Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, by Donald Akenson, 2000.

UPDATE: As mentioned by Michael Pahl, Stephen Carlson wisely reminds us of the need for primary sources before engaging the secondary literature. See here. And Mark Goodacre supplements his advice here.

UPDATE (II): Better late than never! See Michael Turton's choices here.

E.P. Sanders on "The Gap"

Mark Goodacre mentions an interview with the reclusive E.P. Sanders. In response to a question about “a necessary gap” between historical criticism and modern relevance, Sanders says:

“I think there’s a gap, and I think there’s a tension. And since I’m going through life with this gap very strongly in my mind, it becomes difficult for me to listen to sermons because I keep thinking of what this meant at its time. And the proper business of the clergyman is to make sense of what this could mean for us today. That’s his job, and as I said, he doesn’t have time to work the issue out from the ground up, to go back to its origin and march forward. So, we all end up lifting bits from the Bible or other ancient sources and using them as it seems best to us, and I don’t think that this is evil. I think it sometimes has unfortunate results, but I don’t think Luther was evil to read Paul and be inspired by it, although his Paul is not quite the Paul of the first century. I don’t think Calvin was evil to read the Bible and derive from it the majesty of God, which led him from point to point so that he built up this enormous and wonderful structure (with somewhat biblical roots). But this sometimes ends up departing quite widely from what’s in the Bible. I think it’s a question of the quality of the person who does this. Luther and Calvin were great men, something I can’t say about the fundamentalist system-builders.”

I have a considerably lower opinion of Luther and Calvin than Sanders does, but never mind. For now I’m more interested in the tensions Sanders experiences while hearing sermons from the pulpit in his own church. Even as a non-Christian I can relate to what he’s saying. Consider the way Jesus is defined in my own Unitarian tradition:

“We do not believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, performed miracles and was resurrected from death. We do admire and respect the way he lived, the power of his love, the force of his example and his system of values. Most UUs regard Jesus as one of several important moral and ethical teachers who have shown humans how to live a life of love, service and compassion. Though some of us may question whether Jesus was an actual historical figure, we believe his teachings are of significant moral value.”

I disagree with a lot of this: I think Jesus was a popular exorcist-healer. There’s plenty not to admire about him as much as there is. He wasn't an ethical teacher; more like a prophet of doom. By all indications, he hated as much as he loved; was callous as he was compassionate. My point is that Unitarians practice Christology, just like Christians. This is understandable to an extent (as Sanders acknowledges), but it gets irritating to those of us who spend so much time in the history of it all. Bart Ehrman echoes this in his critique of The DaVinci Code:

“The ability of film directors and book authors to affect public sentiment and to shift public thinking is neither a good thing nor a bad one...But when the images they create for their viewers or readers are erroneous -- well, it means people misunderstand history as it really was and substitute fiction for facts. Maybe there’s no real harm in that. But for those of us who spend our lives studying the history, it can grate a bit on the nerves.” (Truth and Fiction in the DaVinci Code, p xvi).

We say it’s okay to reinterpret the past, yet in the same breath express unease (Sanders) or irritation (Ehrman) with it. There’s something disingenuous about this. Perhaps that’s why I’m so fond of Philip Esler’s approach to theology, which sees the gap between us and the ancients, and asks everyone to see just how wide it is; to heed the biblical authors on their own terms, disagree with them, follow them, to whatever extent applicable and as conscience dictates. Perhaps that’s reinterpretation properly understood, so unlike the revisionism seen in Lutheran theology, Unitarian humanism, or “DaVinci” sensationalism.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

A Military Peace Corps?

Until a couple of days ago, I wasn't aware that the armed forces had been authorized to let recruits serve part of their "military" time in -- of all places -- the Peace Corps. This was apparently done three years ago, but the program is being promoted now that it soon goes into actual effect. The Washington Post reports on the travesty here.

"'We are already accused on a daily basis of being CIA agents so I don't see how this [link to the U.S. military] could help,' a volunteer in Burkina Faso said by e-mail.

'It is hard enough trying to integrate yourself into a completely different culture, convincing people that... Americans are not these gun-toting sex maniacs... without having a connection to the U.S. military,' another volunteer in Africa wrote."

Not to mention the simple oxymoron of the Peace Corps holding hands with the armed forces. What an appalling idea. But at this point, why stop here -- let's cross-train in both directions and get the PC volunteers fluent in the arts of hand-to-hand combat and espionage. That's something I wish I could have done as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Galatians & Romans Pick List

Of all the books in the bible, Galatians and Romans have been the most worked to death. What if we had to come up with a pick list of scholars who have penned analyses of both letters? Here's mine:
1. Philip Esler. Galatians, 1998. Conflict and Identity in Romans, 2003.

2. Mark Nanos. The Irony of Galatians, 2002. The Mystery of Romans, 1996.

3. Francis Watson. Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach, 1986. Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective, 2007.

4. James Dunn. Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians, 1990. Romans, 1988.
Each is a New Perspective advocate, loosely speaking, but pushes different conclusions from the others. I outline the highlights and why I chose them.

1. Philip Esler. Galatians, 1998. Conflict and Identity in Romans, 2003.

Esler's approach uses all the best tools to make sense of Paul's polemic in an honor-shame world. He's "new perspective" but doesn't jump through exegetical hoops in order to make Paul sound as Jewish-friendly as possible. Paul could be seriously offensive -- and anti-Judean in the extreme -- when defending the rights of his Gentile converts. He was on a scriptural battleground, engaged in fiercely competitive interpretations of God's will. There's no place for systematic theology or benign literary approaches here.

Esler accounts for the differences between Galatians and Romans in terms of Paul's willingness to adopt a more positive (and hopefully more successful) approach to the problem of ethnic rivalry. Thus, while in the first letter Abraham was the heir of uncircumcised Gentiles (Gal 3:6-9), in the next he became the heir of both the uncircumcised and circumcised (Rom 4:1-17). Where the Torah had been an active agent in consigning Israel to sin (Gal 3:19-24), it was now holy (Rom 7:12) and either passive in relation to sin (Rom 7:7-13) or free of its taint altogether (Rom 7:14-25). And instead of advancing the supersessionist claim that the Christian movement has supplanted Israel (Gal 6:16), Paul now insisted that the promises to Israel were still being fulfilled, but in an unexpected way (Rom 9:1-11:32), with the result that the pagan nations had become a means to an end. Most importantly, Romans concludes positively by enjoining Judeans and Gentiles to "welcome the other" and respect one another's different practices (Rom 14:1-15:6).

But if Paul became more sensitive to his fellow Judeans, his essential doctrine remained the same, as agonistic and sectarian as before: the Torah was obsolete; the spirit offered access to the best the law promised but never delivered. The age of the covenant -- a period of gloom and doom -- was finished; the new covenant had dawned. As a Pharisee Paul had fulfilled the Torah adequately; nothing was more glorious than the Israelite covenant. But as a Christ-believer, he looked back on this covenant-era as a dark age, and at Abraham as a lone faith-figure who anticipated better things to come.

Here are the key points of Esler's work.

The Battleground of Ethnic Identity: Galatians and Romans deal with ethnic identity issues, the former diminishing Judean identity; the latter maintaining positive differences among Judeans and Greeks. Romans is carefully addressed to "the Judean and the Greek" every step of the way, putting each group on the same salvific plane, but in different ways.

The Law: The law is entirely obsolete with regards to salvation. Christians have access to best which the law promised but never delivered, by a different route: the spirit.

Salvation History -- Abraham an Exception to the Rule: Christ is the end of the law, not the climax of it. There's no salvation history in Paul’s thought. Abraham is an exception to the rule in a faithless era, who anticipated the faith-righteousness of later Christians. Pagans are his legitimate heirs, because God calls whomever he wishes. He hates Israel (for now) as he hated Esau, just as he showers favor on the pagans as he did to Jacob. The law is finished because Moses anticipated that it would be a dead-end project. It may as well be distant as the heavens and the abyss, for Christ (not the commandment) is nearby, on lips and in hearts of believers. This, however, is all a mysterious means to Israel’s end. Gentiles are actually worthless in and of themselves, dependent upon the root of Abraham and the coparticipation of faithful Judeans. Judeans who don’t persist in unbelief will be regrafted back into the olive tree -- supported by the lone but formidable faith-patriarch, Abraham.

Justification: Righteousness is equivalent to privileged identity, "life", or "blessing", used only in contexts where ethnic issues are at stake. It is not a covenantal or forensic term. The righteous are not judged on the last day; they are simply waived through.

Paul's Relationship to Jerusalem: Paul was hostile to the pillars, especially after Antioch. He was a sectarian apostle.

What was Antioch about? It was about circumcision, not food laws. And it was about lying and backbiting, not mere "hypocrisy". The pillars were now saying that Gentiles had to become proselytes in order to share table-fellowship. So James had revoked the agreement reached earlier (in an honor-shame context he was under no obligation to keep his word to a rival like Paul anyway) by sending a group of delegates to break off the fellowship. The best Paul could do was accuse Peter of hypocrisy, since he would have made a fool of himself if he had accused Peter of the simple truth -- that the pillars had lied and broken their promise, a promise naturally meaningless unaccompanied by an oath.

Is Luke's Apostolic Decree historical? No. Luke wanted to present Paul as being reconciled to the other apostles and on friendly terms. So he inserted the four requirements of the apostolic decree in order to portray a compromise.

2. Mark Nanos. The Irony of Galatians, 2002. The Mystery of Romans, 1996.

Nanos sits opposite Esler in almost every way. His Paul is Jewish-friendly to the core, much maligned and misunderstood. He didn't oppose the law, and he never gave up on the priority of Israel. But this isn't wild revisionism. Nanos' readings owe to careful and insightful considerations of Paul’s rhetoric. In many ways Mystery of Romans is one of those books you read and say, "It's so obvious. Why didn't we ever see this before?" How indeed can the weak in faith of Rom 14-15 possibly refer to Christians? And Irony of Galatians is one of those studies best showing how people don't always mean what they say. Mystery of Romans points to what's been under our noses for a long time, while Irony of Galatians digs up what's been under Paul's rhetoric for a long time.

Nanos' Paul has immediate relevance in a post-Holocaust age: we can warm to a figure who was doing away with discrimination and anti-semitism more than anything else. But again, it would be a mistake to dismiss Nanos as another Gaston or Gager. Nanos respects the text, and shows every sign of trying to understand Paul on his own terms. Rom 11 may offer the reader some surprises, but there are not exactly a two-path plan of salvation here.

Nanos sees non-Christian Jews in the background of Paul's polemic, in Galatians as much as Romans. The Galatian influencers took an understandable position for being outside the Christ-movement. As far as they were concerned, the new age hadn't dawned yet, and so Gentiles should be treated as usual and encouraged to get circumcised. Paul's point, made with exasperation, is that his converts should know better than this, that Christ's death inaugurated the new age and made conversion to Judaism unnecessary. Paul wasn't in dispute with Christian Jews -- far less the pillars, who fully agreed with him.

Here are the key points of Nanos' work.

Irony and Mystery: In Galatians Paul is impatient with his Gentile converts for considering becoming proselytes, and so launches a preemptive strike against the Judean outsiders who have been influencing his converts in this way. The irony is that Paul doesn’t have anything against the Torah at all; most of it remains in force. In Romans he is troubled by anti-semitism and addresses the Gentile faction throughout, making clear that Israel has first dibs. The mystery is that Paul is concerned about the fate of non-Christian Israel more than anything else, even through the Gentile mission.

The Law: The law is still in force with regards to salvation. Parts of it are optional for Gentiles, though they must abide by minimal Judean standards set forth in the apostolic decree, especially when in the company of other Jews.

Salvation History -- The Priority of Israel: Christ is the goal of the law, not the end of it. Israel is always God's priority. Through the Gentile mission Israel’s universal hopes are being fulfilled. The olive tree shows that the fate of Israel precedes and supports the fate of the nations. Israel hasn’t fallen, only stumbled. Her division has initiated Gentile salvation, which in turn will -- in the process -- end that division. Israel is in the process of being divided so that she may be restored.

The Weak in Faith of Rom 14-15: These are Jews who do not have faith in Christ. They are not Christian Jews who are supposedly weak for believing in the importance of Torah-observances -- about which Paul says "everyone should be convinced in their own minds what is right". Rather, if these Jews accepted that God raised Jesus from the dead they would become strong in faith, just as Abraham became strong in faith for believing God would give life to Sarah’s dead womb (Rom 4:18-25).

Paul’s Relationship to Jerusalem: Paul was on friendly terms with the pillars, who agreed with him about how the Gentile mission should be implemented.

What was Antioch about? It was about circumcision, not food laws. And it was about hypocrisy, not heresy. The circumcision faction was a group of non-Christian outsiders who accompanied the Christian delegates sent by James, outsiders who naturally believed that Gentiles should become proselytes before sharing table-fellowship with Jews. When Peter deviated out of anxiety of this faction, masking his true beliefs, Paul called him a hypocrite. Peter hadn't changed his beliefs -- far less switched sides or allegiances -- which would have been heresy rather than hypocrisy. He covered up his beliefs for expedient social reasons, compromising in order to get along with outsiders.

Is Luke's Apostolic Decree historical? Yes. It stands somewhere between requirements for resident aliens and God-fearers, developed as the basis for minimal Gentile requirements. Paul and James (and Peter) were on the same page, insisting that while pagans need not be circumcised, they were not free to "Gentilize" with abandon.

3. Francis Watson. Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach, 1986. Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective, 2007.

Watson's book (the original and revised) remains one of the most lethal critiques of the Lutheran approach. Amazingly, the author washed his hands clean of the New Perspective in between the two editions (see "Not the New Perspective"), but his thesis itself remains intact. His Paul is aggressively sectarian, advocating complete separation from the synagogues, as much now as before.

Watson's argument -- that Paul was trying to eradicate Jewish identity and heritage -- remains useful in interpreting Galatians, though it breaks down when applied to Romans. Still, there is helpful commentary in the Romans section. A superb case is mounted for the Genesis account behind Rom 7:7-13, the point being that Judean behavior under the Torah is parallel with Adam's under the commandment in Eden. And Rom 7:14-25 teases out further implications, in terms of the futility and despair resulting from Judean attempts to follow Torah -- not a timeless observation (since it contradicts Paul's actual experience as a Pharisee (Philip 3:4b-6)), but a hindsight one, seen backwards from the perspective of faith, understood for the first time.

Watson's view that Romans is addressed exclusively to Judeans (save in Rom 11:13-32) is extreme, but serves as a balance against what has since become a strong trend in the opposite direction. Esler would see what should be obvious: that the letter gives careful attention to both "the Judean and the Greek", and that far from trying to persuade Judeans to abandon their heritage, Paul wanted them to maintain it.

Here are the key points of Watson's work.

Separation from the Synagogues: Galatians and Romans insist that the church should be a sect outside Judaism, not a reform movement within. In Galatians Paul tells his Gentile converts to avoid Jewish practices at all costs. In Romans, he addresses the Jewish group (save in Rom 11:13-32) in trying to persuade them to abandon the synagogue and join the Gentile community (Rom 14-15 presupposes two different congregations separated by mutual hostility).

The Law: The law is relevant only in a sectarian sense. The Torah belongs to the Jewish community which Christians should have nothing to do with. Christians do, however, possess insight into the "true" meaning of the Torah.

Salvation History -- God's Inconsistent Consistency: Christ is the end of the law as practiced by the Jewish community. God is perfectly consistent with his scriptural character in rejecting Jews and calling Gentiles by law-free righteousness. He is inconsistently consistent, however, in planning to save all Israel despite this.

Sin and the Law: Rom 7 is neither introspective nor autobiographical; it proves exegetically that sin used the law to its advantage (with the example of Adam), and that it succeeded from that point on in reproducing itself within the human host.

Paul's Relationship to Jerusalem: Paul was hostile to the pillars after Antioch, and by the time of Galatians was a sectarian apostle.

What was Antioch about? It was about circumcision, not food laws, after testing a loose agreement reached in Jerusalem. Paul exaggerates the extent to which his understanding of the Gentile mission had been accepted by the pillars. They had accepted the legitimacy of the his mission without addressing the question of circumcision. James soon didn't like the way things were going, and so sent a group of delegates to Antioch in order to remove Judeans from impure table-fellowship until Gentiles fully adopted the Torah.

Is Luke's Apostolic Decree historical? No. Luke presents Paul as one of the "men from James", sent to impose food laws, which was not the case.

4. James D.G. Dunn. Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians, 1990. Romans, 1988.

Dunn was the first "new perspective" advocate to engage in comprehensive work on Galatians and Romans. Sitting somewhere between Esler/Watson on the one hand and Nanos on the other, Dunn thinks Paul both affirmed and opposed Judaism. Above all, he affirmed the covenant and claimed the Torah should be fulfilled. He only opposed the way the covenant confined the scope of salvation to Judeans. His problem wasn't with the law, only with the works of the law, since ethnic observances (like circumcision, food laws, sabbath) confined the grace of God to the chosen people. In effect, they served as covenant badges signaling Israel's favored status. Faith-righteousness did away with them and opened salvation to Gentiles on an equal basis. Liberated from a nationalist spin -- minus its "works" -- the Torah was to be fulfilled.

Dunn may have a point about the meaning of works, but Paul contrasted faith-law as much as he did faith-works. Paul says he destroyed the law in its entirety, and in a context like Rom 5-8 works are nowhere in view. It was virtuously impossible to attack works without bringing down the whole law in the process. One represented the other, and stark alternatives are in any case what to expect with contesting faiths in an agonistic culture. For Paul the choice was law or Christ; the works contrast supplemented as a corollary.

Here are the key points of Dunn's work.

Reform Movement within Judaism: Galatians and Romans assume the church should continue as a reform movement within Judaism, insisting on fulfillment of the Torah freed from a nationalist perspective.

The Law: The law is still in force, but without racial boasting and ceremonial works. The spirit allows fulfillment of the law apart from works, or apart from the Jewish monopoly on God’s favor.

Salvation History -- The Butterfly vs. the Olive Tree: Christ is not the end of the law, rather, the end of one stage of it and the beginning of another. The role of the Torah as a badge of privileged election is over, paving the way for a new era in which the law can be fulfilled by everyone on an equal basis. Israel has only been temporarily set aside, until the Gentile mission is complete. Paul doesn't advocate continuity by transformation, as when "a caterpillar becomes a butterfly and the empty shell of the caterpillar is all that is left of the old stage of existence". He believes in continuity by extension, as when "wild branches are grafted into an olive tree so that both old and new are part of the larger whole".

Paul's Relationship to Jerusalem: Paul acknowledged the authority of the pillars at an early stage, but after Antioch he became an independent missionary. He still, however, saw his work as falling within Judaism.

What was Antioch about? It was about food laws, not circumcision. The question of circumcision had already been settled. James was now calling for a more scrupulous observance of dietary laws, especially with regard to ritual purity and tithing.

Is Luke's Apostolic Decree historical? Yes and no. The Jerusalem Council settled only the circumcision issue, which is why food became a problem at Antioch. The apostolic decree was a later development, an accommodation between Jewish and Gentile believers once the Gentile mission had been established, perhaps by the late 50s.