The Bible As Sacred Commons

I am thinking about the Bible as a sacred

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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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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Problem Bible Texts (Part 2: Krister Stendahl’s Theology)

Stendahl1980LARGEIt’s time to wrap up this series on Bible problem texts. I’ve conducted this series in dialog with Anthony Le Donne, and Anthony has posted his Final Thoughts on this question (and then added more thoughts). Up until now, I’ve danced around the question of how I read problem texts. It’s time to stop dancing.

It will take me more than one post to wrap up this series. In these final posts, I’ll try to explain the Biblical theology of a remarkable man name of Krister Stendahl, who among other things was Dean of the Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of Stockholm (not at the same time). Stendahl was a leading voice in interfaith dialog – he was the second director of the Center for Religious Pluralism at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He was an arch feminist and defender of the rights of religious minorities. Most important for us, Stendahl’s theology is a useful guide to problem Bible texts.

Stendahl taught that we must combine two approaches to understand Bible texts: we must analyze what a text meant, and then determine what it means.[1] Sounds simple, right? You’ll sometimes see these approaches described as Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology, but “what it meant” and “what it means” will do just fine for our discussion.

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Problem Bible Texts (Response to Anthony Le Donne: Shared Nausea)

020fsOur ongoing discussion about problem Bible texts … goes on. Anthony Le Donne’s latest and most excellent response to my last post is here. Honestly, it grows tiresome to come up with imaginative and original ways to describe how much I like what Anthony is writing. If Anthony was the mensch he’s reputed to be, he’d write a crappy post every now and again, so I could take a day off from having to say nice things about him.

Anthony raised many compelling side issues. Can we conduct an effective Jewish-Christian dialog online? How is it that Anthony is “more invested” in the value of the Old Testament than in the New? But it’s going to take all the time I have to address Anthony’s two main points. The second point, Anthony’s evocative discussion of how problem Bible texts become his adversary and how he’s instructed to love his adversary … I want to join in that discussion, but at a later time. There’s an earlier point I need to address first.

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Problem Bible Texts (Response to Anthony Le Donne: Where The Problem Arises)

download (1)Over at The Jesus Blog, Anthony Le Donne has responded to my prior post on problem Bible texts. His response is a must-read, and makes me question why I’d enter into public discussions with someone who is a PhD, published author and pastor. Two possible answers: these discussions are good for my developmental efforts at humility (still on the drawing board), plus maybe I’ll provoke a piece of writing from Anthony as good as the one we just got.

My favorite part of Anthony’s response is when he talks about how his Christianity is “fused” to him in a way he cannot shed, how he wrestles with texts, and how sometimes “I limp away from Scripture and wonder what sort of God I’m dealing with.” Anthony quotes Ursula Le Guin, who here gives about as good a short description of how to read text as you’re likely to find anywhere:

In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood. Take the tale in your teeth, then, and bite till the blood runs, hoping it’s not poison; and we will all come to the end together, and even to the beginning: living, as we do, in the middle.

Wow. That’s great stuff.

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Self-Disclosure: What Do You Think?

self-disclosureOver at The Jesus Blog, Anthony Le Donne has posted a preliminary response to my Part 1 on problem Bible texts. In this post, Anthony offers up a few personal “rules for the road” that he follows in Jewish-Christian dialog, and I think his rules are well worth reading. Anthony’s rule #1: “self-disclosure is necessary”. Following his own rule, Anthony stated that he is Christian. This will come as a surprise to few of us.

Anthony suggested that those who participate in this discussion might also self-identify. I’m not sure what to think about this. I think that folks feel enough reluctance as is to get involved in faith discussions, let alone interfaith discussions. On the other hand, it would be helpful to me to know who I’m talking to.

I’d like to open this up for comment. Do you think it’s a good idea for commenters here to identify themselves as Christian or Jewish, or even to self-identify more explicitly?

For the record, I’ve self-identified here, here and here, and I have a more detailed self-identification in the works. But I’m not suggesting that this is appropriate for anyone else.

Problem Texts (Part 1: Techniques That Don’t Work)

cherry_picking_bible_versesIn my introduction to this series on problem Bible texts, I discussed a few such texts we might examine, and I settled on Ephesians 5:22-24, about how wives must “submit” to their husbands “in every thing”. As I discussed last time, this passage is often used as a weapon against women. How do we address these kinds of problem texts?

Let’s walk through five common techniques used with problem Bible texts. I want to deal with these five techniques together, because I don’t think any of them work. I admit that I’ve employed one or all of these techniques on occasion.

One note before I get started: my thoughts here have been influenced by a talk given last month by Amy-Jill Levine, so it would be well worth your while to listen to what she had to say.

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Problem Texts (Introduction)

Friend of this site Anthony Le Donne has suggested that he and I do an interfaith back-and-forth on the topic of how to read “troubling passages” in the Bible. He suggested that I post something here, then he’d respond on his blog, and we’d continue until we’ve achieved a resolution or (more likely) mutual exhaustion. Naturally, I agreed. Talking to Anthony is great fun, and besides, interfaith dialog is what this blog is all about.

I’d like to start the dialog by selecting a single “troubling text” to help focus our discussion. But which text to select?

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Boyarin, Isaiah 53 and Interfaith Dialog Done Badly (Part 3 – Boyarin)

This is the third and final post in my series on Isaiah 53. In part 1 of this series, I compared the Christian and Jewish interpretations of this verse: Christians view Isaiah 53 as prophecy concerning Jesus Christ, and Jews hold multiple views, with the predominant view being that Isaiah 53 is prophecy concerning the people of Israel. In part 2 I examined the clash between Christian missionaries and Jewish counter-missionaries over the correct interpretation of Isaiah 53. With this background in place, I can finally turn to what Daniel Boyarin has to say about Isaiah 53 in his book The Jewish Gospels.

Boyarin sets forth his purpose from the outset: he wants to overthrow the commonly accepted notion that Jews were not expecting a Messiah like Jesus. It is often stated that, during the time of Jesus, Jews were looking for (or at least hoping for) a Messiah-king that would restore Israel’s independence and usher in a time of justice and peace. Obviously, Jesus did not fit this conventional description. So according to many scholars, Jesus’ earliest followers explained Jesus’ messiahship by developing a new idea, one never before imagined by the Jews of that time:  that the Messiah was supposed to suffer and die to redeem humans from sin.

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Boyarin, Isaiah 53 and Interfaith Dialog Done Badly (Part 2 – Debate)

One of the most common–and least enlightening–exercises in religious history is the batting back and forth of biblical verses. Rabbi David Wolpe.

In Part 1 of this series, I looked at one of the most controversial chapters in the Bible, Isaiah 53. For Christians, Isaiah 53 is prophecy concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Jews interpret Isaiah 53 in varying ways, but the dominant Jewish interpretation is that Isaiah 53 predicts the redemption of the people and nation of Israel.

To understand the meaning of Isaiah 53, we need go beyond what this chapter says, and beyond how Jews and Christians have interpreted this chapter. To understand Isaiah 53, we need understand how this text has been used over the centuries. Isaiah 53 has been used in ways that have transformed what the text means.

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