Friday, June 09, 2006

UNCLE! he cries as the prophet Joel grips him in an exegetical headlock

It is becoming painfully clear to me that, despite my recent work on the Torah in general and Exodus in particular, I am no scholar of the Hebrew Bible. (Less of a knock on me, and more of mad props to those who have dedicated their entire lives to unraveling the complex mysterious of an ancient text which is at the heart of our experience of God.)

When I started this blog, one of my unstated goals was to examine the texts which establish the holy days of Christian liturgical calendar. Holy days are "thin places" in the calendar, in which the distance between the sacred and the profane seems a little less impossible to cover. Of course these days are not special in and of themselves. God is not more present on one day and less present on another. But these temporal "thin places" act very much like spatial "thin places," in that, while God may be experienced at any place and any time, at certain places and at certain times it is easier for us to experience God. This says less about God, I think, and more about us.

When we approach the altar to pray, for instance, we do so not because God is more present at that altar than at, for instance, a baseball field. We do so instead because the altar is a place that has been consecrated, set aside for prayer. It is a place where our spiritual ancestors prayed. It is a place where we ourselves have often prayed. And, when we go there to pray, we are reminded of our connection to our collective and personal spiritual pasts, as our prayers join the countless prayers of the past offered at places like the altar. The rich spiritual history of the altar, the fact that it is a place where people have prayed and somehow felt the presence of God, makes it a place where we are more likely to be open to that mysterious experience as we pray.

Holy days are very much like this. They are days which connect us to our spiritual heritage, and remind us of our collective experience of God in the past. As we are reminded of the rich legacy of that past, we are more open to reliving the experiences of that past, and encountering the holy. Thus they are holy days, days on which contact with the holy is made more likely. Again this has nothing to do with the nature of God, or with any value that the particular day has in and of itself. Rather, it has everything to do with the way in which we experience God. As we connect our present moment to our rich spiritual heritage, and as we connect our personal experience of God to the richness of our collective past experiences, our experience is made more real, more vibrant. We are more able to truly encounter the holy.

So one of my goals has been to explore the nature of these holy days by connecting them to the scriptures which establish them. This past Sunday Christians all over the world celebrated Pentecost, and with it the coming of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the church. And so, this past Sunday, I set out to explore the texts which give rise to Pentecost: specifically the second chapter of Acts, and more specifically still, the speech given by Peter in the second half of that chapter.

In his speech Peter either quotes or alludes to several different passages from the Hebrew Bible, and my goal was to analyze the way in which Peter uses and interprets these passages. Accomplishing this, of course, did not depend on whether the historical Peter ever gave such a speech and used those passages in it, or whether the author of Luke/Acts (two volumes by the same author) took some liberties with history. Whether Peter's speech in the second chapter of Acts was a historical record, the memories of the early church, or was merely a literarily and theologically useful construct by the author; it is certainly the case that looking at the speech as it is recorded in the second chapter of Acts gives us insight into how early Christians took the Jewish scriptures and made them their own, creating a new religion out of an older one.

If Peter's speech really did occur, then it was given long before any of the surviving Christian writings were written. Before the letters of Paul and other apostles, before the written Gospels, Christians had only Jewish texts as the sacred scriptures. As Christianity moved from being a Jewish sect to a religion in its own right, how it interpreted the sacred texts of that older religion informs us about the growing distinctions between the two groups. As I looked at Peter's speech, my thesis was that the way in which he used older texts represents the formation of Christian scriptures with the exact same words as the Jewish scriptures, but with much different meanings applied to those words.

In his speech in the second chapter of Acts, Peter either quotes or alludes to:

1. Joel 2:28-32 (in Christian versions), or Joel 3:1-5 (in Jewish versions) (Acts 2:17-21)

2. Psalm 16:8-11 (Acts 2:25-28)

3. Psalm 132:11 (Acts 2:30)

4. Psalm 16:10 (Acts 2:31)


5. Psalm 110:1 (Acts 2:34-35)

Four of the five scripture passages come from the Psalms, which Peter attributes to David as a way of connecting Jesus to David and showing Jesus as the "fulfillment" of "predictions" made in these Psalms. Interpreting these Psalms as prophesies, and interpreting prophesies as having a primarily predictive rather than prescriptive purpose, primarily concerning with the unfolding of future events rather than with rebuking present behavior, already indicates that a new interpretive method is being used. Peter in particular and early Christians in general are taking the raw material of the Hebrew scriptures and telling a new story with it. This is the earliest form of Gospel-making, a way to connect the Jewishness of Jesus and the very new thing which is emerging after his unexpected death and the Easter experience which followed.

As the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the story of the formation of the universal church and the distinction between Christianity and Judaism, it is appropriate that the way in which Peter interprets the verses he refers to is so distinctly Christian. But, Peter does remove the verses from their historical, textual and cultural context, and offers and interpretation of them which would be unrecognizable to most of the people who had ever read them. He fails to take into account the concerns of the people who had read (or, more likely, heard) those verses in the past.

This violates my interpretive sensibilities - and, of course, not just mine. In failing to place these verses in any context, Peter removes all possible constraints on meaning. With no interpretive boundaries, the verse can be made to mean anything at all, a practice which is quite common among some forms of Christians. Additionally, in failing to account for any possible Jewish meaning for these Jewish texts, Peter falls into the latent anti-Semitism which is present at the start of Christianity. That anti-Semitism grows much more overt as Christians gain power in the Roman empire.

As Walter Harrelson, a Christian scholar of Religion and former Dean and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Vanderbilt University wrote in Jews and Christians: A Troubled Family (which he co-wrote with Rabbi Randall M. Falk):

One mode of interpretation that is clearly not acceptable is the flat claiming of the Hebrew Scriptures as Christian Scripture exclusively. The conflicts mirrored in the New Testament show that sometimes the claim was made that what God had done for and with Israel was not for Israel's sake but for the sake of the Christian community. In assessing the adequacy of Christian use of the Hebrew Bible, a negative criterion seems to be in order. Any Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible that does not leave the message of the Hebrew Bible for Israel intact is inadequate or is plainly wrong. The Bible of the Jews cannot be claimed as applicable to the world only in the form of Christian interpretation.

That leaves Peter's interpretive legacy a mixed bag: On the one hand, he has offered a very creative reinterpretation of the passages of the Hebrew Bible, which connect the emerging Christian religion to the sacred texts of its parent religion. On the other hand, he has failed to account for the historical concerns which gave rise to the texts and their place in scripture, and he has failed to account for the Jewish interpretation of these passages. That does not render his interpretation completely invalid, but neither does it mean that the passages in question actually mean what he claims they mean.

Ultimately this isn't a real problem for Christianity, because Peter is not starting with the scriptures and then trying to bring a meaning out of them. Rather, he is starting with the Gospel experience, and then communicating that experience in the language of the Hebrew scriptures. This, then, is less exegetical, and more evangelical, using the language of a particular culture to try to communicate the Gospel to that culture.

But the key to understanding how Peter is using the scriptures in question is found, I think, in how Peter treats the first quoted passage, from Joel. This is the only passage which actually comes from a prophetic book rather than the Psalms. And, even more interestingly, Peter, while claiming to quote it, does not exactly quote it. There are a couple of very significant changes. These changes should not be a real surprise, because he is apparently reciting from memory. But the changes do teach us the interpretation which Peter brings to the passage.

But before we get to the changes, I should note that Peter is here using the Septuagint, a Greek language version of the Hebrew Bible which was particularly useful for Jews in the Roman Empire. This makes looking at the differences even more difficult for people like me who don't know enough Hebrew and Greek to be able to consider passages of the Bible in their original languages. That is because, when translated, the passage from Joel as quoted by Peter is translated from Greek, but the passage from Joel as translated in Joel is translated from Hebrew. This can sometimes be a very big deal, as in the case of Isaiah 7:14, which translated from the Hebrew text reads

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (NRSV)


Assuredly, my Lord will give you a sign of His accord! Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel. (JPS)

The writers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, however, read that passage in the Greek Septuagint, where the Hebrew word which is translated into English as young woman (with absolutely no virginal connotation) reads instead virgin, thus giving us Luke 1:27 and Matthew 1:20-23.

Fortunately for our purposes here there is no problem like that. Even still, in an attempt to make the differences between the Hebrew and the Greek as small as possible, let us only consider the differences present in the same English translation, the NRSV. First we will look at Acts 2:17-21, then at Joel 2:28-32 (which, again, would be Joel 3:1-5 in a Jewish Bible):

'In the last days it will be, God
that I will pour out my Spirit
upon all flesh,
and your sons and your
daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall
see visions,
and your old men shall
dream dreams.

Even upon my slaves, both men
and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy,
And I will show portents in the
heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and
smoky mist.

The sun shall be turned to
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the
Lord's great and
glorious day.

Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall
be saved.'

(Acts 2:17-21, NRSV)

Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on
all flesh;
your sons and your daughters
shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall
see visions.

Even on the male and female
in those days, I will pour out
my spirit.

I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon shall be turned to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

(Joel 2:28-32, NRSV)

Most of the differences are purely cosmetic. Peter's speech in Acts renders the ending as poetry while the text from Joel renders it as prose. Peter's speech mentions "young men" then "old men," while the text from Joel has the "old men" before the "young men." We could pick these trivial differences apart, and perhaps find that Peter's inversion of the old men-young men ordering from Joel is theologically significant, while the shift to poetry from prose is not. After all, having the young come before the old might be Peter's sly and subtle placing of Christianity (the young religion) ahead of Judaism (the old religion). But picking such nits would, aside from reading perhaps a little too much into a minor difference, distract us from the significant differences at the beginning and the end.

Peter changes the context of the passage, leaving off the ending and altering the beginning. He starts the passage in an overtly escatalogical way (escatology = the study of the "end times"), saying In the last days rather than the more ambiguous Then afterward. In doing so he forces an interpretation on a passage from a book which is notoriously difficult to interpret.

The difficulty in interpreting Joel became more apparent to me as I wrestled with the text this week. It generally takes me a day or two to put together a textual interpretation for this blog. Sometimes it takes as long as three days, and sometimes it takes only a couple of hours. I started working on this post Sunday. I am typing this (finally!) Friday evening, after having scrapped several drafts. My goal was to look at how Peter interprets the passage from Joel as a prediction of end time events which begin with the coming of the Holy Spirit, and then offer a counter interpretation which places the text in its historical, textual and cultural contexts.

Context is important when interpreting Biblical passages. As the late Ray Summers, who was a professor of New Testament and Greek at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and was chair of the Religion Department at Baylor University, wrote in Worthy is the Lamb, to date the best book ever written on Revelation:

No interpretation can be regarded as the correct one if it would have been meaningless to those who first received the book.

This is especially true of prophesy, as Summers notes

One of the basic characteristics of prophesy is that it takes its start with the generation to which it is addressed. Its first purpose is to meet an immediate need - to comfort, to instruct, to warn.

This is where the fact that I am not a scholar of the Hebrew Bible becomes most apparent: I have been wholly unable to place Joel in any kind of context. I have looked at it for nearly a week (which, of course, is not nearly long enough) and am simply baffled by it. There are a number of reasons for this. The text does not specifically respond to a problem, but is instead vague. As one commentary says, its "distressing metaphors tell of an invasion, but by whom? The book does not say."

We don't know who wrote the book of Joel, we don't know where it was written, we don't know what it was written in response to, and we don't know when it was written. It has been dated anywhere from 800 to 300 BCE.

More confusing, perhaps, is the text itself. Of it another commentary says

The book of Joel is an unusual prophetic book. Although it contains readings in the form of oracles, announcements of judgment against the nations, and promises of an ideal future, it does not follow the usual structure of most prophetic books.

The text offers no way to date itself, no reference to the reign of kings or specific historical events. As such the book has no specific historical setting. It is instead set in a kind of mythological setting - rather than being set in a particular time period responding to the concerns of ancient Israel within that time period, it uses mythological language to call to mind the entire course of Israel's history. It then has a generic setting, and it is very difficult for me to imagine the concerns of that generic setting.

Also, the text itself has as much in common with apocalyptic literature as it does with regular prophesy. This makes the text even more mysterious and difficult to interpret. And perhaps that difficulty makes it the most appropriate text for Peter to treat in his speech. If the book of Joel refuses to place itself in any particular context, wishing instead to be a more malleable book, useful in a wide variety of settings, then the book has many fewer interpretive limits placed on it than other prophetic works. It can, indeed, be made to say almost anything in any situation, which makes it particularly useful for the purposes of the early church.

Peter's speech, in changing the beginning of the passage, forces an interpretation on the whole passage, placing it in the context within which it refuses to place itself. It now has a specific purpose: to foretell the events of the day on which Peter is giving his speech, and to say something even more important about that day. This is, according to Peter, the beginning of the end. The Holy Spirit, as had been foretold in the passage he quotes from Joel, has come. The end is nigh.

I have been wholly unable to offer a serious treatment of the passage from Joel. But I will try again at Pentecost next year. In the meantime here's a question:

Peter was apparently wrong when he changed the language of Joel. While the Holy Spirit may or may not have come that day, the end was certainly not near. Is the early Christian emphasis on escatology (and emphasis which, as the success of the Left Behind books remind us, has never really left the church) a problem for us? Many times the end has been predicted, even (as is the case with Peter's treatment of passage from Joel in the second chapter of Acts) by apostles as recorded in the Bible. But so far, nothing. Does this in any way discredit the basic message of Christianity?


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