On anachronistic puffery

Some new reading is surprisingly supportive of the points I made the other day in my post titled A Core of Belief.

The following excerpts on the subject of modern perceptions of ancient Greek divinatory practices come from Michael A. Flower’s The Seer in Ancient Greece (UC Press, 2008) [Buy one now: they’re having an awsome sale!]:

I well remember an incident in a seminar that made a great impression on me at the time. A student of mind from India, who happened to be a practicing Hindu, said that he found nothing peculiar about accepting at face value the Delphic prophecies recounted by Herodotus; for it was simply the case that a god, whom the Greeks happened to call Apollo, was speaking through the priestess. The other students jeered terribly, and my attempts to defend the intellectual legitimacy of his point of vew had little effect. What this incident impressed upon me was not the authenticity of Delphic prophecy, but rather the difficulty that many of us have in taking different systems of belief seriously on their own terms.

I think that in a book of this sort it is not out of place to reveal something of my own biases right at the beginning. The reader will not find any declaration as to the validity of divination. That is not to say that I believe in the power of the Pythia to predict the future or in the ability of seers to determine the divine will by examining the entrails of sacrificial animals. But it is to say that I am convinced that the vast majority of Greeks really believed in such things. THey took their own religion seriously, and as a system of knowledge and belief it worked very well for them. It is methodologically inappropriate when modern scholars project their own views about religion on the Greeks and sometimes even claim that the seers as a group were conscious charlatans who duped the superstitious masses. Such assertions fly in the face of work on divination by anthropologists, work that reveals a good deal about the mentality of diviner and client as well as about the social usefulness of divination. From the Preface, p. xiii-xiv.

[I]t is common to be told that the priests at Delphi, who knew the questions in advance, put into verse the inarticulate ramblings of the Pythia; that generals cynically (or at least consciously) manipulated the omens to suit their strategic needs or to boost the morale of their troops; and that seers told their employers precisely what they thought they wanted to hear. Since divination is a marginal practice in industrialized Western societies, such questions and answers are formed from the viewpoint that divination must have been an encumbrance to the Greeks, something that rational individuals either had to maneuver around or else had to manipulate for their own interests. Above all, to modern sensibilities, a random and irrational system of divination must not be seen as determining what the elite of the Greek world thought and did. In fact, it has been argued that the elite manipulated divination for their own ends, whether to exploit or to assist the uneducated masses. It is easy enough to validate this prejudice by appealing to the more “rational” segment in Greek society; for instance, by quoting isolated expressions of skepticism, such as the famous line attributed to Euripides that “the best seer is the one who guesses well.”

Our own biases can be hard to overcome. As the anthropologist Philip Peek has observed, “the European tradition tends to characterize the diviner as a charismatic charlatan coercing others through clever manipulation of esoteric knowledge granted inappropriate worth by a credulous and anxiety-ridden people.” In reference to divination in sub-Saharan Africa he concludes: “Instead, we have found diviners to be men and women of exceptional wisdom and high personal character.” I am convinced that if we could go back in time and conduct the sort of fieldwork that a contemporary anthropologist is able to engage in, we undoubtedly would find that Peek’s observation would hold true for the Greek seer as well. Pages 4-5

The book is fascinating. I recommend it to all. It’s the first book-length treatment of the subject.

Messiahs come and gone

(These are some notes out of my journal, inspired by some recent reading and pondering.)

In view of the approach I’m taking in seeing a strong/high expectation of the Son of David specifically as Messiah, with some very elevated characteristics, notably supernatural ones as the Son of God, there is a necessity to look at or address the different core approaches in Christianity and Judaism.

I think it’s fairly clear that prior to the advent of our Lord there was a high expectation of the Messiah Son of David, especially elevated by the fall of the Hasmonean dynasty and the rise of Rome and their client-king Herod. (Perhaps the fall of the Hasmonean priestly kingship was seen as the equivalent to the end of direct Theocracy in the time of Samuel, with a Son of David to appear soon just as David followed Saul, a cypher for Herod.) And while this entailed a political kingship in the coming kind, it also entailed the supernatural healings, etc. The advent of Jesus was only partly satisfactory to those who expected the political/supernaturally-gifted Son of David, Son of God. The political aspect was completely unsatisfied, though the supernatural was satisfied. His own teachings, however, and statements about Himself, pointed away from the expected character and nature of the Son of David/Son of God. Rather than Son of God through descent from Adam as His firstborn son in creation/humanity, He was directly God the Son. This was a surprise to His disciples, and He lost many, who were expecting something and someone else.

In that regard, we have to see the choice of various “messiahs” by the Judeans and others in the first and early second centuries, most notably Bar Kokhba. It is likely that various of the leaders of Jewish factions in the First Revolt were also presenting themselves as messiahs, though this characterization is lacking explicitly in Josephus, who prefers Vespasian (!) as his messiah. [I think it likely that Josephus is the false prophet, and Berenike the whore of Babylon in the Apocalypse.] In any case, after Bar Kokhba and the banning of Jews from Jerusalem, major changes occurred in what must be called Rabbinic Judaism, the majority sect. It was undoubtedly at this point that an emphasis on the coming Messiah Son of David was stripped out of the tradition in order to prevent any further such disasters as the Bar Kokhba War and its consequences, after which the Messiah becomes such a pale character in Rabbinic traditions. Whatever earlier readings and interpretations and aggadot relating to this vividly expected Son of David therefore fell out of the tradition at this point. Concomitantly, a picture was lost of pre-Christian Messianic expectation, which would have largely overlapped with the readings incorporated in the NT (at the very least–I expect these were, in extent, similar to the body worked up in Patristic tradition, or at the very least built upon the same principles).

It is likeewise at this point, post Bar Kokhba, that the emphasis irrevocably moves from the Messiah Son of David as the Lawgiver and the source of judgments and so on to the conception of Oral Torah–a body that stands independently of every individual, but which is preserved and transmitted by the Rabbis, predicated now as originating at Sinai in an oral tradition rather than as the ad hoc rulings of the King who was righteous because of his having internalized the Law. This is another alteration. As Jesus in the Gospels is shown as one who is above the Law, this is reflective of the pre-Bar Kokhba royal understanding of the Messiah Son of David. This conception was not to survive in Rabbinic Judaism, and so is now considered something quite outrée, if not blasphemous. On the other hand, Christianity has maintained this older tradition of the Royal Law propounded by the King Messiah, Son of David, Son of God.