Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Holy books


I don't know of any holy book that is straightforward. Most primary religious scriptures are odd. It makes sense to me because we are.

When I see the verse-slinging that goes on in comments sections, usually around homosexuality, it will not be long before some brilliant self-anointed theologian wants to counter, say, Leviticus' condemnation of "a man laying with a man as with a woman" by pointing out that the same book forbids eating shrimp, mixing certain kinds of cloth and also proposes death by stoning for rebellious teenagers.

As if, in two thousand years, no one else in Christianity had wondered how, according to Matthew, Christ came to fulfill the Law and not abolish it, and according to Paul, he came to set us free from it. The first Council at Jerusalem around 50 AD had to cope with that one: can a Gentile become a follower of Jesus without also becoming a Jew?

An interesting early witness of more sustained reflection on this issue comes from a work of Valentinian Gnostics, Christians who resolved the evident tension between Israel's moody and legally minded God with Jesus' more paternal and less commandment-focussed Father* by saying that they were two separate kinds of divinity. The Letter to Flora, a 3rd-4th century Gnostic document ascribed to Ptolemy (not the astronomer), comes up with the following outline of how to deal with the Old Testament:

The Law of Moses is actually a composite work deriving from the Israelite God, Moses himself, and later Jewish traditions. Jesus relieved Christians of having to concern themselves with the latter two types of content. What comes directly from the Israelite God, Jesus himself reinterprets as likewise having three parts: the The Commandments, mixed laws combining justice and inferior values, and ceremonial laws which become poetic images of the life of the soul. The text says,"Therefore, my sister, through the Gospel Lord, the ritual law was transformed, the mixed law was erased, and the holy Law was perfected." This ancient precursor to the documentary hypothesis is a sophisticated and rather even-handed reading, evidence of having given this complex set of texts a lot of thought.

Jews themselves are, of course, masters of this art of interpretation. The vast literature of the Talmud bears witness to that. The work of rabbis over millennia have allowed Jews to maintain a primary reverence for the text of the Torah but distance themselves from, for example, the death penalty for juvenile delinquents. They accept the commandment, but specify a set of conditions for enacting it which make it virtually impossible to do.

Even Muslims, with their comparatively unitary Quran, very likely enunciated by Muhammad in his seventh-century lifetime, and therefore the work of one man and a few decades, have their issues. On the one hand, for example, you get suggestions that Christians and Jews are ok, but then you are told not to befriend or trust them and to humble them by rules and special taxes.  Many contrarieties like this exist. Muslim scholars have take the chapters of the Quran --which are printed by order of length, from longer to shorter--- and divided them into those given earlier in Mecca and those given later in Medina. The doctrine of abrogation then allows them to relativize some in favor of others. In a strange way, this parallels the Christian practice of interpreting the earlier Jewish scriptures by their own later ones, abrogating or spiritualizing some and keeping others intact.

It seems there's no escape from skill and art in interpreting holy books. And throwing a verse here and a verse there seems to underestimate the complexity of these conversations.

*This personality difference can be overdone; there's a lot of continuity, too. Even, or especially, the gauzy image of Jesus as Mr. Rogers is quite flawed, as well.


Anonymous said...

The interpreter with the most shills prevails — or rather, the interpreter with the shills most eager and able to implement the interpretation prevails.

Anonymous said...

Throwing a verse into here and a verse into there has surely been one of the most useful methods. For instance, fulfilling the Law there in order to free here from the Law.

Leah said...

Good points. btw, recently I heard Dennis Prager talking about religion, he said, Jews are to involved in the legal minutiae and Christians in the theology.
But we are human after all -what does he expect?

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