Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Jewish Problem: a theological interlude

Protestants are generally untalented at the visual arts

One of the most impressive pieces of Gnostic writing that we have is a second-century letter by one Ptolemy to a woman named Flora. It is a sophisticated interpretation of what the Old Testament could mean for a Gentile Christian.

Although it's easy to over-emphasize the differences between the Old Testament (written by Jews for Jews) and the New Testament (written largely by Jews for a racially mixed movement) in a cartoonish way, it's also not difficult to be struck by their differences. 

Unlike the wisely economical Muhammad, who discarded both of these texts entirely in favor of his own single composition in the Quran*, Christians --being originally a Jewish movement-- added their sacred writings to the Jewish ones they were taught to revere. Thus, the composite library we know as The Bible. 

It's always been an issue. The first Apostolic council in 50 AD was convened over squabbles about Jewish observances for Gentile Christians, especially the painful practice of circumcision and the dietary rules. Bishop Marcion, also a second-century man, was unable to see any way to harmonize Moses' Jehovah and Jesus' Abba and wanted Christians to wash their hands of the Old Testament completely**. As well as a good chunk of the New; his movement may have been the catalyst for the formal definition of the Christian scriptural canon. You can clearly see the problem still percolating in Luther's reformation, pitting Law vs Grace.

One of the salient divergences between Moses and Jesus has to do with the role of sacred law. Sacred law is at the heart of Judaism, witness the famous 613 Torah commandments which orthodox rabbis discern as the essential structure of religious Jewish life.

In the Gospels, Jesus shows a certain ambivalence about the Law of Moses, both in word and in practice. At times defending, at times re-shaping, at times discarding. The dominant Apostolic voice in the New Testament is the converted Pharisee St Paul, who made freedom from the Mosaic Law the centerpiece of his mission to bring Gentiles into the newly emerging Church.

As trolling atheists and cartoonish gays like to point out, the "Good Book" that Christians revere as the written Word of God finds it an abomination not only for men to "lay with a man as with a woman," but to eat shrimp, cross-dress or consult a fortune-teller. Blasphemy, hitting your parents and adultery are capital crimes. Slaughtering whole villages on divine command is not. 

Ptolemy resolves these issues with clarity and sophistication, using a textual theory that sounds a lot like modern Higher Criticism as well as some traditional orthodox Bible interpretation.

Here's his argument:

The Mosaic Law is actually three different sets of legislation combined into a single text, authored by

a. the God of Israel, 
b. Moses himself, and 
c. the elders of Israel. 

In the dispensation of Christ, b and c are of no intrinsic interest any more and can be ignored.

Only the laws authored by Israel's God are of interest. But for a Gnostic, the "God of Israel" is not the ultimate Godhead revealed in Jesus; he is an inferior and preliminary being, a kind of super angel who created the material world. For some Gnostics, he is an evil tyrant. Ptolemy, a Valentinian,  moderately describes him as neither truly divine nor evil, just limited, temporary and local.

Consequently, this "divine" Law is itself divided into three parts:

a. The Ten Commandments, which are indeed holy but incomplete, 
b. the mixed law --just but inferior-- which Jesus replaced with his own teachings, and 
c. the ceremonial laws, transformed into allegorical "images of the soul."

So the Jewish Problem is resolved: for this Gnostic Christian, all that actually remains of the Old Testament legal code is
Jesus' interpretation of the Ten Commandments 
a treasury of spiritualized images 
(Sabbath, circumcision, festivals, Temple rites)
without any prescriptive force.


The Jewish Problem is not quite so easily solved for Apostolic Christians, who have maintained that the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus were one and the same divinity. Consequently, the influence of the Old Covenant in orthodox Christianity is palpable. But the general lines of thought would not be unfamiliar to anyone who has studied classical theological attempts to work this out.

Ptolemy, unorthodox though he be, way back in the second century, was a trailblazer.

* But even the Koran presents problems of internal coherence. The struggling early Muhammad of Mecca is very different from the later warlord Muhammad of Medina. Muslim scholars categorize the texts into Meccan and Medinan, and where there is conflict, the earlier texts are abrogated by the later. Given that they also hold the Koran to be eternal and perfect in every respect, this is an odd way for Allah to reveal himself, don't you think?

**There is a school of thought that posits a Jewish origin to Gnosticism and explains its anti-Jewish attitude as the bitter sense of betrayal felt by some faithful Jews, disillusioned at the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. 


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how any Christian could completely reject the Old Testament, even if it is superseded by the New Testament. Without the Old Testament, there is no context for Jesus, and everything loses its significance: Jesus' status as Messiah, the Temple, the prophecies referenced by the Evangelists, all of it. Wasn't it Jerome who said that ignorance of Scripture was ignorance of Christ?

On the matter of the purity laws, my uncle has said that they were certainly not necessary from a moral perspective, more akin to disciplines imposed on an entire culture to mark their devotion to Him.

He also laments the lack of context that so many people have when interpreting the Bible. "There are two kinds of people who interpret Scripture literally," he once told me, "fundamentalists and atheists. All of them are idiots."


DrAndroSF said...

It would be tough to be an orthodox Christian without the Old Testament. It is conceivable that the Church, once fully Gentiled, could have declared the OT fully transcended and either a) kept is as a deuterocanonical work or b) created a digest text out of it, Tatian's Diatessaron. But that is alt-history.

A Gnostic Christian is not limited to orthodoxy, locating religious authority more internally than externally, so any scripture, Old or New has a provocative and musical role rather than a prescriptive and commanding one. With such a moving center of authority, Gnosticism is very hard to institutionalize and remains mostly an irritating ghost for orthdoxy.

But like all the heresies, it responds to a problem within orthodoxy and that makes the heresies interesting to a fella like me.

-A said...

I found this to be a very interesting post. You could probably write a book about this kind of stuff if you really wanted to. It also made complete sense to me. I doubt Gnosticism has a Jewish origin, however. I can see why many things would be removed from Scripture. Everything that we really know as being good about Catholicism is a product of the Vatican and of European Theology. An all new religion eventually had to be made in the first place. Furthermore, I just do not see anybody viewing Yahweh as being Israel's God. On some primal level, even Catholics brought up to believe that Catholicism is the completion of Judaism view Him as being their God. The God of Europe or of Gentiles. They only bring up the concept of a shared God so that they can avoid being called antisemitic.


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