Thursday, September 24, 2009

Jesus: Jewish Hero Par Excellence

In working my way through Robert Alter's Art of Biblical Narrative for class, I came across a proposal of his that I found striking, though not for the reasons Alter intended it to be. He proposes that there are in the Old Testament a number of narrative type-scenes, literary motifs which are repeated so often that there repetition must be deliberate. These scenes, according to him, were so ingrained in the literary tradition that their inclusion was expected, their alteration suggestive, and their omission telling. He enumerates these six recurring motifs:
  • Epiphany in a field
  • Betrothal scene at a well
  • Annunciation to a barren mother
  • The initiatory trial
  • Danger in the desert and the discovery of a well/sustenance
  • The testament of the dying hero
In reading that list, I was struck by how clearly those motifs seem to be incorporated into the Gospel narrative. Alter alludes to this with regard to at least one of his type-scenes (or perhaps more...I admit I'm not finished reading the book yet), and I imagine that someone has written extensively on this. I have not, however, seen or interacted with that literature. So forgive me as a I fly blindly and try to work through just how I see these conventions of the heroic literature of Israel's past being incorporated and reworked into the story of Jesus to depict him as the Jewish hero par excellence.

In The Art of Biblical Narrative, Alter alludes to the Christian appropriation of the annunciation theme, but does not go into detail about how it is employed or what it might mean.

Throughout the Hebrew literature, the scene is extremely familiar, even to the casual reader of the Old Testament. In Gen 11:30 we learn that Sarah is barren. In Gen 18, God appears to Abraham in the form of three men. There He announces to him that Sarah will have a child, despite being nearly 100 years old. In Gen 25, Rebekah is barren, but when Isaac prays to God, she becomes pregnant with twins. God speaks to her, explaining the fate of her two sons. 1 Sam 1 tells of Hannah's childlessness and oppression. While praying, she is approached by God's representative and who blesses her before she finally conceives Samuel. The motif spills over into Luke 1 where Elizabeth is both aged and barren, but an angel prophesies the birth of her son.

In each case, the barren mother is miraculously with child, and not only a child but one who will be a great hero in Israel's history. Alter notes earlier in his book, not in connection with these type-scenes, how even the story of Judah and Tamar can be understood as a woman taking her childlessness into her own hands. She overcomes and gives birth to a progenitor of David. Isaac, the child of promise, Jacob, the namesake of Israel, Samuel, the greatest judge of Israel and the anointer of David, and even David in a radical revision of the motif. The greatest heroes of Israel's history are conceived through the greatest miracles of God, against all odds. They are unique even before their birth.

And yet Jesus is greater. A named messenger comes to Mary and announces to her that she will give birth to the greatest of Israel's heroes, the Messiah. As had been the case with Sarah, as had been the case with Elizabeth, Mary answers with doubt. After all, she is a virgin. But the angel reminds her that the power of God overshadows all else. The God who has proved in the past that He needs neither fertility nor youth to create will prove once and for all that He alone is the Creator. In a way that was truly unprecedented, God would overcome an impediment greater than had been overcome with Isaac and Jacob and Samuel. From before his birth, the very conception of Jesus is shown to be in the line of great Jewish heroes, and yet a cut above the rest. The revision of the "barren mother" motif serves to punctuate to totality of God's power and foreshadow an epic career that would transcend any other. The virgin birth is not merely a scientific oddity, no matter how the modern mind would like to reduce it to that, but an organic link between Jesus and the heroes of Israel's past as well as a definitive statement about his place in the pecking order.

Like I said, the observation is almost certainly not novel, and doubtless you can already see the other motifs threading through the Old Testament into the story of Jesus. Nevertheless, I intend to pick this up again in another post at another time. Until then...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

An Earnest Prayer For Taking the Eucharist

"You have vouchsafed me, O Lord, that this corruptible temple, my human flesh, should be united to your holy flesh, that my blood should be mingled with yours, and henceforth I am your transparent and translucent member. I am transported out of myself. I see myself such as I am to become. Fearful and at the same time ashamed of myself I venerate you and tremble before you." -- St. Symeon the New Theologian

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Wisdom of Helmut Thielicke

A Little Exercise for Young Theologians is one of the most insightful and convicting works that I have ever managed to read in less than an hour. Weighing in at a meager 41 pages (in my edition), Thielicke has nevertheless squeezed a wealth of wisdom into his work. The quotations I'm going to provide by no means do the whole book justice. I recommend this "exhortation to spiritual hygiene" to every aspiring theologian and every lay person who has a distrust of scholarship or theology.

"Theological thinking can and ought to grip a man like a passion."

True theologians "think within the community of God's people, and for that community, and in the name of that community."

"Dialectic and paradoxes are the way a law-abiding church's thought overcomes the most monstrous frictions."

Overzealous theologians "have smothered the first little flame of a man's own spiritual life and a first shy question with the fire extinguisher of their erudition."

"Truth seduces us very easily into a kind of joy of possession: I have comprehended this and that, learned it, understood it. Knowledge is power. I am therefore more than the other man who does not know this and that. I have greater possibilities and also greater temptations. Anyone who deals with truth - as we theologians certainly do - succumbs all too easily to the psychology of the possessor. But love is the opposite of the will to possess. It is self-giving. It boasteth not itself, but humbleth itself."

Of the proper use of theology when correcting another: "The purpose of his action was not to impart to the other man some understanding of what we theologians are driving at, or to lead him gently beyond the stage of his previous knowledge, but to render him helpless - this person who because of his previous education could not be equal to this literature set before him - and to suffocate his perhaps very simple objection to the historical-critical study of the Bible by throwing over them an overbearing and imposing blanket of arguments. Here truth is employed as a means to personal triumph and at the same time as a means to kill, which is in the starkest possible contrast with love."

"...history reconstructed apart from faith cannot possibly be the foundation of faith..."

"To express this in another way, theology can never "prove" preaching, but it has the same outlook as preaching; it is also a witness, only with other methods and means."

"Esoteric concealment on the perfidious ground that "I can't expect the people to be equal to this" could even lead to that offense against those least, for which Jesus coined the momentous picture of the millstone."

"My plea is simply this: every theological idea which makes an impression upon you must be regarded as a challenge to your faith. Do not assume as a matter of course that you believe what ever impresses you theologically and enlightens you intellectually."

"I don't believe that God is a fussy faultfinder in dealing with theological ideas. He who provides forgiveness for a sinful life will also surely be a generous judge of theological reflection. Even an orthodox theologian can be spiritually dead, while perhaps a heretic crawls on forbidden bypaths to the sources of life."

"Before the young freshman has really looked at the cornerstone of the Biblical story of salvation, for example, the story of Creation, and the account of the Fall, before he has come to know the Alpine peaks of divine thoughts in their majesty, he is made familiar with the mineralogical analyses of that stone. But anybody who studies geological formations on maps and graphs, and learns mineralogical formulae from a set of tables before he ever climbs the Alps, is hardly in a position to comprehend at all what the Alps are."