Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Meaning of Pistis Christou

N.T. Wrong has begun enumerating 100 reasons for the objective genitive translation of pistis Christou ("faith in Christ") over the subjective genitive ("faith of Christ"). I agree that the latter is faddish, but can understand to an extent why it's been embraced by even those who might normally be resistant to trends. For Paul there was a behavioral component to faith (though I wouldn't say an "ethical" one, at least not after I Corinthians), particularly in the way believers were to mystically imitate the savior. Believers die with Christ, to sin and the old epoch just as he did (Rom 6), following his example (as Jeffrey Gibson and David Seeley have argued, drawing on parallels of the noble death theme in Hellenistic Judaism and Greco-Roman literature), and when one is focusing on this aspect of Paul's thought, the subjective genitive -- the "faith of Christ" (or "faithfulness of Christ", or "fidelity of Christ"), whereby Christ can be seen as a model to be followed -- admittedly becomes alluring. But that some of Paul's thought is compatible with a subjective genitive reading of pistis Christou doesn't make the reading itself correct.

If the subjective genitive were really or primarily what Paul had in mind, we would expect him to have used (at least once, surely) Christ as the subject of the verb "believe"/"have faith", but as Thomas Tobin points out, that never happens in the 42 places the verb is found in his letters. But he did use Christ as the object of the verb in clear cases (Rom 9:33, 10:11). (Paul's Rhetoric in its Contexts, p 132). And if exegetes then desperately insist that the verb should be translated one way ("believe"/"trust"), the noun another ("faithfulness"), then they will have to contend with Francis Watson's demolition of that distinction, based on the evidence of Paul's scriptural interpretations in Rom 4:1-12 and 9:30-10:21 -- where noun and verb are seen to be interchangeable; "believing" and the response of "faith" one and the same (Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective, pp 241-244).

In one of the most careful considerations of Rom 3:21-26 I've come across, Stephen Finlan rightly notes how the subjective genitive makes for a clumsy reading of the passage (The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors, pp 147-148). I think he's a bit too gracious in conceding Rom 4:16 to the opposition, where Paul speaks of Christians who "share the faith of Abraham". The faith of Abraham, for Paul, is faith in God/Christ; I don't see Rom 4:16 as lending itself so strongly to the subjective genitive as it's made out to. In any case, Finlan follows Dunn's lesson that
"The subjective reading tends to make all instances of 'faith' refer to Jesus' own faith, leaving us without a noun phrase to refer to the faith of believers, which is the main theme of [Galatians/Romans]... If the 'faithfulness of Jesus' is present at all, it is secondary to, and directed toward, believers' own faith-practice. After all, salvation depends on 'believing in your heart' (Rom 10:9), on 'hearing with faith' (Gal 3:5)...The 'faithfulness of Jesus' argument may be theologically interesting but cannot bear the exegetical weight it is being asked to carry." (p 148)
I'm wondering if the subjective genitive reading serves more oblique agendas. Richard Hays was, of course, the first to defend it so influentially (in his 1983 publication The Faithfulness of Christ), primarily on the basis of implied narratives in Paul's thought, which frankly I think he's way over-reading into the text. Hays later suggested (in a 1997 article, "Pistis and Pauline Theology: What is at Stake?") that objections to his proposal might be grounded in an implicit docetic Christology. But Philip Esler has countered that if anything, the problem is the other way around -- that the subjective genitive lends to proto-Arian views (Conflict and Identity in Romans, p 158). Scholars like Hays and Johnson have ironically embraced a reading that carries within it the seeds for a very un-Pauline reduction of Christ. If Jesus is more a model of faith than the object of it, then it's a short step to start making him a "buddy"/"brother" instead of the "Father" as Paul would have it.

In fact, I think any fear that the objective genitive implies docetism is as much a phantom menace as Tom Wright's phobia that literal eschatology is anti-creationist or "gnostically" dualistic. Or at least, these would have been phantom fears by ancient standards. Paul's belief that people had to put their faith in Christ didn't diminish his view of Christ's humanity -- any more than the biblical belief that the cosmos would be destroyed meant the material world was inherently bad (as Wright claims it would have). Perhaps faddish trends like the subjective genitive reading of pistis Christou, and non-literal eschatology, owe their ultimate origins to neo-orthodox apologetics: underscoring how "this-worldly" Christianity really is, in the face of modern charges to the contrary.

UPDATE: N.T. Wrong's 47th Reason needs underscoring: none of the Greek-speaking church fathers read the phrase as a subjective genitive. Mike Aubrey makes the same point.

UPDATE (II): N.T. Wrong's 94th reason is interesting. He says that proponents of the subjective genitive may be trading in a Lutheran Paul for a Calvinist Paul, if the "faith of Christ" isn't so much about changing one's belief as it is responding to a call already made by God. In other words, a hyper-Protestant fear that human belief is actually a form of works-righteousness could be operative here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

100 Reasons Why Wrong is Right

I can't wait to see N.T. Wrong's 100 Reasons πίστις Χριστοῦ is an Objective Genitive. I favor the objective genitive reading myself, but couldn't come up with that many reasons if given 100 months to try.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Bifocal Vision of George Caird

According to George Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, p 256, the biblical writers
(1) believed literally that the world had had a beginning in the past and would have an end in the future

but also

(2) regularly used end-of-the-world language metaphorically to refer to that which they well knew was not the end of the world
Caird claimed that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible looked to the future with "bifocal vision" (p 258), with their near sight eyeballing a dramatic socio-political event soon to occur, with their far sight targeting the end of the cosmos. They imposed one image on the other so that their prophecies had a double-reference, an immediate historical one and a final eschatological one -- the former expressed through imagery pertaining to the latter. Thus the destruction of Babylon in Isa 13 stands as a model, or perhaps even begins, the final judgment to come over the entire world.

Caird's bifocal model applies more readily to some prophetic language than others, and it's not without problems. There are cases where I think pre-exilic apocalyptic language was intended more literally than he allows. But what's crucial to note is that Caird recognized in biblical thought a definite view of the literal end of the world. You can't say that for Tom Wright, who has run wild with Caird's ideas and denies the second half of Caird's (1) without ever making plain (at least in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series) that he departs from Caird on this particular point. Wright rejects the notion that the biblical authors believed the cosmos ("space-time universe", as he prefers) would ever be literally destroyed, reducing Caird's bifocal view of eschatology to pure socio-political upheaval -- not least on grounds because a literal destruction of the earth implies (to Wright) anti-creationism and a "gnostic" type of dualism on the part of God.

Edward Adams has critiqued Wright throughout his monograph The Stars Will Fall From Heaven: Cosmic Catastrophe in the New Testament and its World, which I'm now reading a second time for review. Adams' case against Wright is conclusive, and he's able to show repeatedly that a literal destruction of the cosmos didn't stand in tension with the biblical/intertestamental/NT view that creation was good, as Wright claims it would have. Adams also points out the difference between Caird and Wright in passing, and I was glad to see this since the two are sometimes uncritically lumped together. Caird's bifocal vision has become Wright's short-sighted one which truncates an ancient view in order to make it modernly world-friendly.

Monday, December 08, 2008

A Fresh Look at Aslan

The Narnia films have prompted me to look at Aslan with a fresh pair of eyes. For a serious review of the three films to date, see here (I did actually enjoy them). But for the not easily offended, here's an irreverent take on the Chronicles, with seven brand new titles.

(1) The Passion of Aslan (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). One critic claims that Mel Gibson's passion film is "the most a-religious Christ movie ever. There's one line snipped from the Sermon on the Mount, two sentences from the last supper, and that's about it for the preaching of Jesus. There's no character development, no background, just lots and lots of beatings. The movie provides little reason to sympathize with the main character, other than the fact that he's getting his ass kicked for about an hour." Adamson's film about Aslan isn't nearly as graphic and hard-hitting, but it's Gibson-for-kiddies nonetheless. Narnia is less a place for gospel wisdom and more for crusading warfare, and as in Mel's blockbuster, viewers have little reason to sympathize with the lion-king as he's getting ass-kicked, mocked, and shorn, other than because he saved an undeserving snot from the White Witch (Edmund) -- and, of course, because he's a cute giant kitty.

(2) Kicking Almighty Aslan (Prince Caspian). The Narnians kick some serious almighty ass in this film -- and get their asses kicked in turn -- and, well, that's pretty much all there is to the story. To be fair, they don't have much choice since Aslan refuses to help them in any way, let alone confirm his existence. Truth be told, he doesn't seem to care a whit about what happens to his poor subjects -- justifying his indifference on the lame ground that "nothing happens the same way twice" -- appearing only at the tail end to help mop up the defeated Telmarines and congratulate the Narnians. Mountains of bloodshed could have been avoided if his majesty had deigned to show up and unleash a flood before swords were drawn, but I suppose that would defeat the purpose of so much fun, righteous, and holy ass-kicking.

(3) No One Likes a Smart-Aslan (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Eustace Scrubb may be the most irritating smart-ass in western literature, but I don't think the kid deserved to get raped for it. Being molested by Aslan on the dragon's island is portrayed as his salvation, but any dimwit can tell what's really going on. The lion tells Eustace to undress and then manipulates him into agreeing to be horribly violated: repeatedly clawed and torn so deeply that he thinks his heart is going to burst. Sure, he's cured of being an insufferable snot -- he's too damn terrified to be bratty anymore -- but what kind of baggage will he carry around now? Curiously, for the briefest of moments at the end of story, Aslan appears as a lamb instead of a lion, for once accurately representing the gospel image of a non-violent savior -- and ironically, a more fitting image for a pedophile who comes on to kids as a benign sweetie-pie.

(4) Sitting on His Aslan (The Silver Chair). The title works on two levels -- the literal, with Prince Rilian strapped on his ass in the silver chair, and the more important metaphorical: Aslan sitting on his royal feline ass, doing absolutely nothing useful or proactive to help the kids rescue the prince (other than through cryptic riddles) or aid the Narnians against the army of the Emerald Witch. It may be objected that Aslan isn't terribly proactive in any of the books after the first (and that's indeed true), but in this story his Olympian laziness hits an all-time high. Even in Prince Caspian -- when everyone was about to give up on him -- he at least showed up at the end to help mop up the Telmarines. By now his sense of seniority is so inflated that he can't be bothered to lift a paw or claw to help anyone (other than to revive an aged Caspian who should be left to dying). Hail his majesty's ass indeed.

(5) A Horse's Aslan (The Horse and His Boy). This is about a boy who escapes to Narnia on the ass of a horse, but Aslan is the real horse's ass of the story -- even an asshole. I remember being stunned as a kid when he mauled Aravis, raking his claws down her poor back, for her past treatment of a slave. Matching cruelty, "an eye for an eye", wasn't exactly my idea of enlightened thinking even when I was young and ignorant.

(6) Going Aslan-Backwards in Time (The Magician's Nephew). The beauty to fantasy chronicles is they can be written ass-backwards, lending themselves wonderfully to prequels, and in this one Aslan is self-adulating as he always will be, setting himself up to be glorified at the dawn of time, orchestrating the creation of Narnia with completely ass-backwards scheming. He allows Jadis (the future White Witch) to escape after assaulting him -- and thus to achieve immortality by eating the forbidden fruit, whilst at the same time tempting Digory to do the same -- instead of just killing the bitch as she richly deserves and sparing future Narnians a lot of misery.

(7) An Aslan of Himself (The Last Battle). If Aslan is always in control of things as we're led to believe, then he makes a complete and utter ass of himself in the final story. An ape (Narnia's anti-Christ) dresses up a donkey as the lion-savior, and almost everyone is fooled by the disguise. The ape-ass duo set in motion enough evil and deception to give (the real) Aslan his long-awaited excuse to rain down judgment and throw unfaithful Narnians into the apocalyptic incinerator. After all, everyone now -- including the lion-king himself -- has fulfilled Paul's vision of becoming asses and fools for sake of the kingdom (II Cor 11-12).

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Augustine and the Jews

Paula Fredriksen's Augustine and the Jews apparently demonstrates that Augustine had become Jewish friendly by the time he was writing Confessions. Jim Davila calls attention to her interview with Time:
"Usually when ancient orthodox Christians said terrible things about heretics, they found even worse things to say about Jews. Until 395, Augustine had not been much different, but here he was, writing about one of the flashiest heresies of his time, and marshaling as arguments unbelievably positive things about Jews. As I read further, my scalp tingled. I had been working on Augustine for 20 years and I'd never seen anything like this before. Not only could I establish that he had changed his position, but I could locate this shift in his thinking very precisely, to the four-year period when he also wrote his monumental Confessions...

"In a fairly dark history of Christian-Jewish relations, his theology turns out to be one of very few bright lights. All of these ancient Christian-Jewish interactions are more complex and interesting than are the received ideas about them. Our lives are still shaped by this history; so it's important to get it right. And if modern Jews and Christians, attempting interfaith dialogue, find in Augustine a precedent for common ground, that would make me really happy. It would be an unintended consequence of my book. But a good one."
It's on my reading list.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Nanos, Chartrand-Burke, and DeConick

I don't usually do "around the blogosphere" posts, but here's a trio of papers/discussions worth checking out.

(1) Mark Nanos has a new article up on his website, "The Myth of the 'Law-Free' Paul Standing Between Christians and Jews", continuing his campaign for a Torah-observant Paul. Mark's papers are always a delight to read, and especially challenging to someone like me who thinks Paul had become anti-nomian after I Corinthians.

(2) Tony Chartrand-Burke has some things to say about the Secret Mark session at SBL, declaring that he's "pleased to remain agnostic in the debate" (not good), and rather nonplussed by Carlson and Jeffery who "are not biblical scholars", and whose "readers have been convinced by them, likely because their arguments merely confirmed in their minds what they hoped would be the case and not because the readers had sufficient knowledge of the contents of the text, nor of previous scholarship on it to make an informed decision." That's an awful half-truth, as I pointed out under the reaction of Mark Goodacre, who rightly underscores the scholarly character of debunking Secret Mark, even if Carlson and Jeffery weren't/aren't professionals in the field.

(3) April DeConick has followed up on the dating session at SBL, and Mark Goodacre responded to this as well. April's most striking point is the urge for memory experiments and more familiarity with cognitive-psychology literature. "Because human memory is a factor in the transmission of materials in rhetorical environments, it behooves us to know how the human memory works and how its effects might be reflected in the various versions of sayings of Jesus that we find in the literature." She says she might post more on this subject, and I look forward to it.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Biblical Studies Carnival XXXVI

The thirty-sixth Biblical Studies Carnival is up on Jim West's blog.