The Bible As Sacred Commons

I am thinking about the Bible as a sacred commons.download

In most general terms, a “common” is any public resource that by law or practice may not be privately owned, or where the public retains rights even where privately owned. Some examples of commons are tidal waters and certain public grazing lands. But when I think of a “commons,” I think of a feature of many of the towns I’ve visited in New England, in the northeast United States. These towns are built around a “commons,” typically “an irregular grassy plot flanked by a tall, steepled church or two and an aging Victorian-style town hall.”

The origin of these New England commons is something of a mystery. They may have started out as common grazing lands, or they may have been organized for purposes of mutual defense. In some sense, these commons belonged to all. Residents of the town might cut down the commons’ trees for firewood, or remove its stones for building purposes. The commons contained the town’s meeting house, and church (or churches). The local militia might drill there, and store their armaments there. The town’s school might be built there. The town’s tavern might be built there. When court convened, it was probably at a building on the commons. Paths and cart tracks crossed the commons in every direction; merchants located their shops nearby. You might find the community bulletin board there, as well as the stocks or whipping post for the punishment of wrongdoers. History might even be made on the commons—the American Revolution began with a skirmish on the commons of Lexington, Massachusetts.

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More Thoughts on Violence in the Hebrew Bible

lead_deskew=0 checksum=b5c86a6fa2848f0e42380238b9887822In my last post, I returned to one of my favorite recent topics: violence in the Bible. My focus there was on the Hebrew Bible books of Joshua and Judges. I concluded that post with the question: how do we come to grips with a G-d who insists that G-d’s people must engage in total war, and who leads G-d’s people onto the battleground, in many cases demanding the total destruction of the enemy?

Here’s a particularly chilling illustration of what I mean, taken from the book of 1 Samuel. G-d orders Saul, the newly appointed first King of the Israelites, to attack the Amalekites:

Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.

Infants? Really?

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Joshua, Judges and Problem Bible Texts

attle-isaelites-wpIn case you haven’t noticed, so far this year I’ve been posting regularly to this blog—just about every Sunday or Monday, I’ve put up something new here. But lately, I’ve fallen off. I have a good excuse: I’ve enrolled in a program at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership to obtain a Master of Arts degree in Jewish Studies. I am currently buried in a class on the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, taught by Professor Leonard Greenspoon of Creighton. This is a serious class taught by one of the top people in this field, and it’s taking up a lot of my time. Something has to give, and lately, it’s been this blog.

With my focus on my Spertus study, it will be logical for me to post here from time to time about what I’m studying there. This means interrupting whatever series I might be working on at the time, whether it’s my unfinished series on posture in interfaith dialogue, or my unfinished series on Jesus’ arrest and trial, both of which series were themselves interruptions of something I’d started and didn’t finish. Ah well. It’s not like I’d be able to write the last word on any of these subjects. And it’s not like you haven’t seen my mind wander before.

In this piece, I want to return to one of my favorite topics: violence and nonviolence in the Bible. You might recall, a while back I had a blogger back-and-forth with friend of this site Anthony Le Donne about problem Bible texts. In our discussion, we hit on some doozies. There’s the war rule in Deuteronomy (21:10-14), where male soldiers are given permission to kidnap female captives and force them into marriage. We also discussed G-d’s command to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 20:16-17 to conquer certain cities in a way that does not “leave alive anything that breathes.” Somehow, these awful Bible passages become less awful when we isolate them. We can dismiss Deuteronomy 20, since it’s historically unlikely that the Israelites conducted a military campaign like that envisioned in the Torah’s war rules. We can try to live with Deuteronomy 21 by remembering that warfare in the ancient world was normally conducted outside of anything like a Geneva Convention, and that the treatment of women captives described in the Torah was probably an improvement over the prevailing norm.

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Things I Wish I’d Said

asblog10.3.22chabon_michaelAn essential aim of the innovative technique of fiction worked out by the ancient Hebrew writers was to produce a certain indeterminacy of meaning, especially in regard to motive, moral character, and psychology … Meaning, perhaps for the first time in narrative literature, was conceived as a process, requiring continual revision – both in the ordinary sense and in the etymological sense of seeing – again – continual suspension of judgment, weighing of multiple possibilities, brooding over gaps in the information provided … This sort of critical discussion, I would contend, far from neglecting the Bible’s religious character, focuses attention on it in a more nuanced way. The implicit theology of the Hebrew Bible dictates a complex moral and psychological realism in biblical narrative because God’s purposes are always entrammeled in history, dependent on the acts of individual men and women for their continuing realization. To scrutinize biblical personages as fictional characters is to see them more sharply in the multifaceted, contradictory aspects of their human individuality, which is the biblical God’s chosen medium for His experiment with Israel and history.

Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 12

Musings About Interfaith Dialogue

interfaithI’d like to take a giant step backwards from the matters I’ve been discussing lately – Christian anti-Judaism, Paul, Jesus’ arrest and trial, swords (or the lack thereof) – and talk more generally about what I’m trying to do here, and what I think I can do here.

The purpose of this site is to get people talking. If you read one of my posts and think to yourself, “I want to ask Larry a question,” or “I want to share another way of looking at this question,” or even “I must tell Larry something he’s failed to take into account,” then I’ve done my job. I understand that most of my readers will never post a comment – I am a regular reader of many blogs where I never comment – but to the best of my ability, I want to break down whatever barrier stands between you (my reader) and leaving a comment. Even better: I want people to comment on other comments. I’d love to get discussions going and step away from them, and watch them go on for days and weeks. That’s a tall order! I haven’t yet come close to accomplishing this goal – the closest I have come, I think, is in the comments to the post you can read by clicking here! They’re really, really good.)

The talk I want to get going here is loosely referred to as “interfaith dialogue,” and if you think about it, the expression “interfaith dialogue” is a strange one. We say “interfaith dialogue,” as if there was something like “Judaism” capable of talking, and something like “Christianity” capable of listening. Obviously, “interfaith dialogue” is a figure of speech, and we routinely use such figures of speech. We refer to “talks” between “Congress” and the “White House” as if buildings could speak, or between “India” and “Pakistan” as if land masses could listen. We aren’t confused by references to talking buildings and land masses: we understand that these talks are conducted by unnamed people representing these nations and institutions.

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What Was the Jewish Charge Against Jesus? (part two)

downloadIn my last two posts, I looked at a recent article by Dale Martin arguing that Jesus was arrested and crucified for leading an armed band of disciples into Jerusalem on Passover to join in a heavenly-earthly battle to inaugurate the Kingdom of G-d. After my last post, Professor Martin was interviewed about his article over at The Jesus Blog – I think he makes a better case for his argument in this interview than he did in his article, so the interview is certainly worth a read. I’m still not on board with Prof. Martin, for all the reasons I’ve stated earlier, but I want to emphasize that Martin is one of the smartest people in this room, and I share his focus on the presence of swords in the Gospels. He thinks that Jesus’ disciples were carrying swords for a reason central to his mission; I doubt that they were carrying any weapon like a sword, and I don’t think these swords were ever used. This is a good time to emphasize, both my opinion and Martin’s are minority opinions (at least Martin has the intellectual credentials to go out on a limb – so why am I doing out here on the opposite limb?).

I looked at Martin’s article because it speaks directly to my focus here in recent weeks on the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus. Specifically, I’m interested in the Jewish involvement in what happened to Jesus – did the Apostle Paul have any reason in 1 Thessalonians to write that the Ἰουδαίων (pronounced “Ioudaiōn,” and commonly translated as “Jews”) killed Jesus?  Most recently, I asked what crime Jesus was charged with at his arrest.

Note that I purposely avoided asking why Jesus was arrested – the reasons why a person is arrested may be quite different from the crime named in the indictment against that person. Consider the well-known case against the gangster Al Capone, who was indicted for tax evasion. It’s obvious that the Feds did not go after Capone because he failed to pay taxes on the money he stole. Here, I won’t ask whether Jesus was arrested because the Jewish authorities were jealous of his popularity, or because they saw him as a threat to incite a riot, or because they thought he was a zealous political revolutionary, or (as the New Testament puts it) because Jesus came to Earth “as a ransom for all people.” It’s a complicated matter to determine anyone’s motives, let alone the motives of a Jewish leadership that lived 2,000 years ago and left us with no record of what they were thinking.

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Jesus: Unarmed but Dangerous? (Part Two)

Jesus-SwordGreetings! In my last post, I began my analysis of Dale Martin’s controversial new article, “Jesus in Jerusalem: Armed And Not Dangerous.” In this article, Martin claims that Jesus and his disciples were armed with swords during Jesus’ final Passover in Jerusalem. Martin further claims that Jesus and his disciples carried swords in order to join an “angelic army” to do battle with the Roman Empire … and further, that Jesus was arrested and crucified because of those swords.

In my last post, I examined what I called Martin’s POINT 1, his conclusion that most or all of Jesus’ disciples were armed. It’s my view that Jesus’ group might have carried swords (perhaps for self-defense against robbers and other bad guys), but I don’t see anything in the Gospels proving that they were carrying swords. I then looked at Martin’s POINT 2, that it was against Roman law for Jews to carry swords in Jerusalem. I concluded that we don’t know much about the state of Roman criminal law in Jerusalem, but that this question is largely irrelevant, since Pontius Pilate could have executed Jesus for carrying swords or for any other reason (or no reason). But for certain, if Martin is right and Jesus and his companions were carrying swords in anticipation of joining in an earthly-heavenly battle against Rome, then for certain this could have resulted in Jesus’ arrest.

We’re now ready to address a third critical point in Martin’s article.

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Jesus in Jerusalem: Unarmed but Dangerous? (Part One)

UntitledShana Tova! A happy Jewish New Year to all readers. Here’s hoping your 5775 is a great year.

In my last post, I mentioned that Dale Martin, the Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies at Yale and all-around big deal, has written a recent article for the Journal of the Study of the New Testament titled “Jesus in Jerusalem: Armed And Not Dangerous.” In this article, Martin claims that in Jerusalem during Jesus’ final days on Earth, Jesus’ disciples (most of them, or all of them) were armed with swords. Why would Jesus have brought an armed band to Jerusalem? Martin believes that Jesus “led his followers, armed, to Jerusalem to participate in a heavenly-earthly battle to overthrow the Romans and their high-priestly client rulers of Judea.” Here’s how Martin describes the “battle” he thinks Jesus thought was coming:

Jesus was expecting the inbreaking of apocalyptic events. If he had come to believe that he himself was the Messiah (something I think is possible but not certain), he was expecting an angelic army to break through the sky, engage the Romans and their Jewish clients in battle, overthrow the Jewish leaders and Roman overlords, and establish the kingdom of G-d on earth, all under his own leadership as G-d’s Anointed. If Jesus thought of himself as a prophet and precursor of the Messiah, he would have expected that army to be led by the Messiah. In either case, he would expect that he and his followers would participate in the battle, along with the much more numerous angels, just as some documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that those Jews thought they would participate in an apocalyptic battle. Jesus expected the event to take place during Passover and to be centered on Jerusalem. He therefore led his band of Galileans to Jerusalem at Passover and had them arm themselves so they could participate in the overthrow of the Jewish ruling class and the Romans.

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The Far Western Wall

I apologize for not posting last week, and for falling behind in responding to your comments. No excuse other than the usual. Life intervened. Some weeks, it’s easier than others to throw something up here (pun intended).

What’s news: first, esteemed scholar Dale Martin has written an article for the Journal of the Study of the New Testament titled “Jesus in Jerusalem: Armed And Not Dangerous,” which as his titles go is not nearly as much fun as his “Sex and the Single Savior.” Anyway … Martin argues in his new article that Jesus and his disciples had come to Jerusalem “to participate in a heavenly-earthly battle to overthrow the Romans and their high-priestly client rulers of Judea.” According to a Newsweek article, Martin is arguing “that Jesus and his followers were likely expecting that an apocalyptic showdown was on the horizon, one in which divine forces (in the form of angels) would destroy Rome and Herod’s temple and usher in a holy reign.” Evidently, Jesus expected that he and his disciples might be required to do “some fighting” in this apocalyptic showdown. For this reason, according to Martin, most or all of Jesus’ disciples were carrying swords around Jerusalem during Jesus’ last days … and it was this sword-carrying, an act that may have violated Roman law and was certainly frowned upon by the Roman rulers of Judea, that got Jesus arrested and crucified.

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