Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Gospels and oikonomia

For those unfamiliar with the Eastern Orthodox Christian usage of the term oikonomia, often Englished as “economy”, here’s a definition:

This Greek word oikonomia means, classically, the management of a household (oikos/house, nomos/law or rule). In theology the term refers first of all to God’s providence as the divinity extends itself beyond the inner life of the Trinity: all that pertains to the created worlds and to the divine actions taken on their behalf and for their salvation. The supreme example of the divine economy is therefore the Incarnation, i.e., the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From the risen Christ comes the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in the latter the presence in the fallen world of the Kingdom of God, i.e., the Church. As the Church exists in a fallen world, its fundamental concern must be the salvation of the sould whom it embraces. Thus the second and directly related meaning of economy: actions taken by the Church in the person of its officers (bishops, and by extension priests) for the redemption of individual believers in the sphere of Canon Law. While representing the Church’s governing of souls and communication of grace, the canons are neer in themselves absolute. They may be enforced literally, kat’ akribeian, or with discretion, kat’ oikonomian, depending on the discernment of the needs of the particular soul. “Economy” of canonical application can therefore mean either a loosening of the canonical prescriptions (akin to Roman Catholicism’s “dispensation”), or the imposition of a discipline stricter than that which the canons provide.

Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church. Michael Prokurat, Alexander Golitzin, and Michael D. Peterson. Scarecrow Press, 1996. s.v. “Economy.”

It’s with reference to the second meaning that I use the term in this post, though I will use the transliterated form, “oikonomia,” in preference to the ambiguous “economy.”

There is an intersection between oikonomia and the formation of the Synoptic Gospels, when viewing such formation through the Two Gospel Theory. This theory places Matthew as the first Gospel to be written (which reflects the unanimous, indeed catholic, opinion of the Church Fathers), followed by Luke, which is followed by Mark. What we then see is a first Gospel directed to a readership that is overwhelmingly of Judean descent, familiar with the forms of religious discussion and argumentation current in Judea (a tradition of that continued after the destruction of the Temple into Rabbinic Judaism), faithfully keeping the Law of Moses in its particulars, and who know and worship Jesus from within a tradition that shows very little concern with Gentile ways. The Jesus of Matthew is one who meets the religious authorities on their own terms, winning arguments in a manner that is spelled out in detail. In Luke and Mark, on the contrary, we find that Matthew’s Gospel is not so subtly altered, and the discussions and argumentation so familiar to Judeans, and certainly closer to the actual form of Jesus’ teachings and discussions with his countrymen, are edited and changed for a different readership: Gentiles. The extended argumentation found in Matthew is edited down into collections of gnomic, memorable sayings, with the sayings of one discourse in Matthew (surely original) sometimes scattered into various other discourses (surely unoriginal) in Luke and Mark. The coherent argument in Matthew in any particular passage is rendered incoherent in a Judean, and more original context, by this treatment in Luke and Mark. Yet, this treatment of Jesus’ various sayings is actually presenting them in a manner that is more coherent for a Gentile reader unfamiliar with Judean forms of dispute. And this, I suggest, is our earliest example of oikonomia in the Church.

As oikonomia, the sayings of Jesus were adapted to new environments, in order to render them more comprehensible and more acceptable to those who might be put off by the very foreign manner of discourse of the very Judean Matthew. We who are so used to reading the literatures of various nations, in translation or not, do not find this to be a matter of great import. Readers of Greek within the Roman Empire’s civilizational borders would have been quite put off by foreign discourse to a greater degree than they would be put off by writings in more familiar modes of discourse. Thus, the decision by various apostles—traditionally Paul was associated with the production of Luke-Acts, and Peter with Mark—to render Matthew’s Gospel in a form more suitable for Greek and Roman audiences. And why? In order to save their souls. And in this their tactics were successful.

And while, over time, Matthew became and remained the favorite Gospel of ancient Church writers, by far the most-quoted of the Gospels, the successful oikonomia employed in the production of Luke and Mark should not be forgotten.

Similarly, we can see oikonomia at work among Paul’s letters. In these, we see churches that have been recently founded, and to which Paul is writing early in their Christian lives, have a more basic, less complex, theology being presented to them by the Apostle. And in longer-established churches, we see more complex theology being presented to the congregations. (See here.) And in the case of the Pastoral letters, to Paul’s longtime co-workers, we see Paul express concerns of an advanced and “behind the scenes” nature. All of these letters are addressed to hearers at levels that they’re ready to hear, and not more. This is truly oikonomia.

And this practice of oikonomia remains alive in the Church today. The focus is still a love for souls, and guiding those souls gently into greater communion with God. They are approached in a way that they can understand, so that they can approach God from where they are. Certainly they will grow and be transformed, and come to a greater understanding of theology, asceticism, and a life of prayer, all of which is expressive of an ever-growing closeness to God. Just as in the early days of the Church, so today.

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True refinement

When he had offered up the “Amen” and finished his prayer, the men in charge of the fire lit the fire. And as a mighty flame blazed up, we saw a miracle (we, that is, to whom it was given to see), and we have been preserved in order that we might tell the rest what happened. For the fire, taking the shape of an arch, like the sail of a ship filled by the wind, completely surrounded the body of the martyr; and it was there in the middle, not like flesh burning but like bread baking or like gold and silver being refined in a furnace. For we also perceived a fragrant odor, as if it were the scent of incense or some other precious spice.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 15

True refinement consists not of the best breeding and upbringing, the best schooling and finishing, but in living a life fully in God. The safety and comfort of the former life is not a component of the latter. But what is more important? A crown that you might only wear for seventy years or so, one that can be taken away and melted down, and its wearer forgotten? Or to be wearing an eternal crown, forever living with it upon your head, and your never being forgotten by Him who crowned you? Polycarp—Christian, bishop, saint, martyr—knew the answer and lived his life accordingly. Let us all do the same.

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The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, 29 May 1453:

Muhammed II decided to make the general attack on 29 May. While the Sultan was marshalling his troops for the fight on the evening before, the Christians, Greeks and Latins together, joined in their last service in the Hagia Sophia. When they had finished their devotions, the defenders returned to their posts and the Emperor went round inspecting the fortifications until late in the night. The assault began in the early hours of dawn and the city was attacked simultaneously from three sides. For a long time the courageous defenders resisted every onslaught and beat back their opponents. The Sultan then threw in his main reserve, the janissaries who were the picked troops of the Ottoman army, and after a bitter struggle they succeeded in scaling the walls. At the decisive moment Giustiniani, who was fighting side by side with the Emperor, was fatally wounded and had to be carried away. This loss spread confusion in the ranks of the defenders and hastened the Turkish break-through. The city was soon in their hands. Constantine XI fought on to the end and was killed fighting, as he had desired. For three days and three nights the Sultan’s troops were allowed to plunder the city as they had been promised just before the final assault to raise their flagging morale. Property of priceless value, works of art, precious manuscripts, holy icons and ecclesiastical treasure were all destroyed. Mohammed II made his solemn entry into the conquered city and Constantinople became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Byzantine Empire had ceased to exist.

George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, 570-571.

On that day, an innumerable multitude gathered in the Hagia Sophia cathedral, at the time, the building with the largest interior space in the world, and the most beautifully adorned of all the Christian churces. They prayed for a miraculous deliverance, but in the midst of the last Divine Liturgy to be celebrated there, vicious Turkish soldiers forced open the doors and began the rape and slaughter of those within. A pious traditions states that the priest holding the Divine Mysteries, the Body and Blood of our Lord, saw the Turks rushing in, turned away from them, and bearing the gifts he simply walked miraculously into the wall of the cathedral itself, only to exit when the Divine Liturgy is once again resumed in the Hagia Sophia. It’s been 556 years since any Christian liturgy has been permitted in the Hagia Sophia. Though the cathedral is now a museum, even now the tour guides outrageously insist that those entering do not pray or cross themselves! There is even now a movement to free the Hagia Sophia, and restore it to Christian Orthodox use.

I think perhaps there is something else to be learned here. There was a time when Orthodox Christians had Constantinople as their imperial and ecclesiastical center, full of treasures reminding them of their long history and great faith, a period of more than a thousand years. This is a new phase, a time of testing of the people as an Orthodox Christian civilization in exile, shorn of its physically binding attachment to a particular center, however wonderful that place may have been, and however much more idealized it has become in its loss. But there is a greater strengthening that takes place in such an exile, a greater potential for spiritual grace developed not as a replacement for the physical loss, but developed rather with the two, spiritual and physical, in proper symbiotic balance. That balance was often lost during the years of the Christian Roman Empire, commonly called the Byzantine Empire. In that sense, awful as it was, the conquest of Constantinople might also be seen as a disguised blessing. Despite Turkish oppression for nearly 400 years, Orthodox Christianity survived, and even thrived. Yet in recent years we see an imbalanced attachment to worldly success to be so attractive to some that they apostasize from the Faith in all but name. In some ways, this age of easy comfort and even easier “spirituality” is a greater time of trial than was the Turkish Yoke. “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” Hasn’t “the love of many grown cold”? None of us is unaffected by the world around us, yet with effort we can maintain a proper balance in furthering the Faith in ourselves and among others and in our worldly committments. These are the years of the Orthodox Christian exile to Babylon and our diaspora among the nations. Whether we will ever have a return to our Zion, Constantinople, is unknown, but unlikely at the moment. Let that resonate in your readings of the exiles of the Israelites, far from home, far from their Temple, with their lands under the control of others, and their own ways foreign among foreigners.

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On the Shopping List

I’m very excited by this book by Anders Gerdmar: Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel and Bultmann (Brill, 2009). As Brill books are so expensive, I’d recommend using AddAll to find discounted copies.

Here’s the blurb:

As Adolf Hitler strategised his way to power, he knew that it was necessary to gain the support of theology and the Church. This study begins two hundred years earlier, however, looking at roots of theological anti-Semitism and how Jews and Judaism were constructed, positively and negatively, in the biblical interpretation of German Protestant theology. Following the two main streams of German theology, the salvation-historical and the Enlightenment-oriented traditions, it examines leading exegetes from the 1750s to the 1950s and explores how theology legitimises or delegitimises oppression of Jews, in part through still-prevailing paradigms. This is the first comprehensive analysis of its kind, and the result of the analysis of the interplay between biblical exegesis and attitudes to Jews and Judaism is a fascinating and often frightening portrait of theology as a servant of power.

Not just “theology as a servant of power” but as a servant of insanity and inhumanity. I’ve been waiting for a book like this to come along for a number of years now (mostly so I wouldn’t have to write it myself!). There is a persistent antisemitism present throughout the authors and works lying at the foundations of modern critical Biblical Studies. Even when an author is known to have been a rabid antisemite, this is typically shrugged off as of little account, as though such a mentality let loose at Jewish materials (that is, the Old and New Testaments) could be trusted to maintain an academic, critical objectivity. Such objectivity is, of course, a myth, and such a downplaying one might call poppycock, except poppycock is too charming a word. Rather, something like “filthy, evil, collaborationism” comes to mind as a better alternative. Just about ten years ago, the problem was brought into the spotlight by Maurice Casey, “Some Anti-Semitic Assumptions in the ‘Theological Dictionary of the New Testament” (Novum Testamentum 41.3 [Jul 1999], 280-291). Casey describes the full-blown antisemitism, and Nazi and even SS support of editor Gerhard Kittel and various authors of articles in the Theologische Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, in English translation, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. This work is still considered “[o]ne of the most widely-used and well-respected theological dictionaries ever created” and “one of the few agreed upon standard reference works in the area of New Testament studies” (see here, in the blurb for an electronic version). Though various articles about Kittel and his ilk had appeared on the subject elsewhere, they were hard to track down, generally in festschrift editions and more obscure journals. The appearance of Casey’s article in such an accessible and well-respected journal as Novum Testamentum brought the problem to light for many who otherwise would not have known of it. The Gerdmar volume mentioned above looks like it will be following in detail the trend of antisemitism throughout the work of two centuries which established what are now considered the unquestionable foundations of Biblical Studies. I suspect, and indeed hope, that readers of Gerdmar’s book will start questioning those foundations, for the motivations that lie behind them.

Posted in Biblical Studies | 7 Comments

Griesbachian samolians saved!

Here is your chance to pick up, at a substantial savings, two books that lay out the Two Gospel Hypothesis, formerly known as the Griesbach Hypothesis. This is the solution to the Synoptic Problem that posits Matthew as the first gospel, which Luke then uses, and Mark as a later conflation/epitome of those two. Dove Booksellers is offering these books at a 63% discount each!

The first is Beyond the Q Impasse: Luke’s Use of Matthew, edited by Allan J. McNicol, with David L. Dungan and David B. Peabody. The price is only 12.99.

The second book is One Gospel from Two: Mark’s Use of Matthew and Luke, edited by David B. Peabody, with Lamar Cope and Allan J. McNicol. The price is only 18.50.

There are only a limited number of copies available. So, if you’re interested in a solution to the Synoptic Problem that is both a.) logical, and b.) traditional, and the Two Source Hypothesis (with Q and all the other imaginary documents involved) isn’t cutting it for you, then you should have these books. Buying both volumes at these prices means you can get both of them for less than the regular price of either volume. Nice!

Happy shopping!

Posted in Biblical Studies | 4 Comments

Notes on Meier: Matthew 12.11

These are some more expanded reading notes of mine on John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Law and Love, his fourth volume in the historical Jesus mode.

Meier misunderstands the import of Matthew 12.11, because he viess the healing narratives from the Markan perspective of emphasis upon the healing as merely an example of wonderworking. Rather, in Matthew 12.11 lies the key, and an understandably historical and accurately halakhic concern missed by Gentile interest in Jesus as thaumaturge. This is the simple matter of not impinging upon a man’s livelihood due to keeping the Sabbath. Note the translation used by Meier for Matthew 12.11: “Which man among you, if he has a sheep that falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not take hold of him and draw him up?” The NRSV renders this much better (my emphasis): “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out?” The important and key element of the question is obscured in this translation. It should not be “a sheep”, but “one sheep.” Does the importance register better with this change, a reading that is explicit in the Greek, as it is not anarthrous here, but numbered (ἕξει προόβατον ἕν)? The question therefore relates to the loss of the man’s livelihood, his one and only sheep. This is the precise exepmption made by the Sages—no such rescue was permissible on merely compassionate or economic reasons, but such action on the Sabbath was permissible when life was endangered, for the man with only one sheep, the wool and the milk from which clothed and sustained him, would certainly die without it. See b Yoma 85 a-b, the discussion on saving a life on the Sabbath. In this case, in Matthew 12.11, a similar practice is presumed of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. In the case of Matthew 12, the extension is subtle but clear: just as the ordinary action of a man to preserve his livelihood was permitted, so the extraordinary healing of a man so that he could earn his livelihood was permitted. Meier misses this entirely, by focusing on the red herring of an animal fallen into a pit, which is only incidental here, and unlike the situation described in b Shabbat 117b, which is predicated on Leviticus 22.28, in which both a mother animal and its offspring are fallen into a pit, discussed within the context of slaughtering only one of those rescued. Meier does mention the strict ruling of the Damascus Document (CD-A XI 13-14: “And if [an animal] falls into a well or into a pit, he must not raise it on the Sabbath.”), which in its exclusivity is striking. This ruling being found in a short list of rulings regarding Sabbath restrictions may actually indicate differences with other contemporary pre-70 AD restrictions.

Despite these drawbacks, Meier shows good intentions:

In reality, the historical Jesus is the halakic Jesus, an important bulwark against those who would make him either the embodiment of the Epistle to the Galatians or a cipher for whatever program they are pushing at the moment” (p. 262).

So, A for intention, D for reliance on Marcan priority, which is completely throwing his conclusions out of whack, and away from a correct understanding of Matthew and its obvious priority. Matthew reflects precisely the halakhically sophisticated discourses that Meier wants to find, ones that are contextually and historically likely and illuminate the pre-70 situation in Judea and its environs, and the beginnings of the Church as a part of Israel, not as a Gentile religious philosophical confraternity. Meier at least is taking steps in the right direction, but he is hobbled by reliance on Marcan Priority, the Two Source Theory, and late-dating of the Gospels, as well as by other hobgoblins of New Testament Studies. Matthean Priority, the Two Gospel Theory, and a dating of the Synoptic Gospels prior to 70 AD lead to historically more accurate, understandable, and recognizably contextual conclusions. An author utilizing such an approach will discover or invent a much different historical Jesus than the one under construction by Meier in A Marginal Jew. We must be clear, however, that in Meier we see not a discovery of the historical Jesus, but the invention of one that is entirely a child of its time and place: the late twentieth century context of consensus Biblical Studies.

Posted in Biblical Studies | 8 Comments

Oakland Greek Festival 2009

For the next three days, I’ll be working selling icons inside the windmill at the Oakland Greek Festival, held every year by my parish at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension on Lincoln Avenue. The festival website is here. There’s a coupon for a dollar off the admission price here that you can print, snip, and present at one of the gates.

If you’re in the area, come on by. We’re expecting sunny weather in the 80s (high 20s for you metric heretics), and we’ve got a beautiful view, particularly at night, of the Bay Area spread out below. Stop by the windmill and ask for Kevin, if you like. If I’m not there, it means I’m nearby eating some delicious Greek food, or just hanging out with my beloved Greek friends. There are hourly tours inside the cathedral, giving a short introduction to Orthodoxy and a description of the church, icons, and vestments, if anyone’s curious. And different talks, Greek dance groups (mostly children = totally adorable), cooking demonstrations, and concerts are scheduled throughout each of the three days, as seen on the schedule.

Come by if you can. I’d love to meet some of my blog’s readers in person! And even if I’m a letdown, the festival itself will be a really fun thing. Especially the food. Everybody loves Greek food! Gyros (that’s yee-roess, not jye-roze), loukaniko, saganaki, tiropita, and loukoumades are going to play major roles in my diet over the next few days (after sunset on Friday, at least). It’s always delicious, and a big draw to people in the area. This is one of the largest Greek festivals in the country actually, and it’s always a blast.

During some of my little downtime there, I’ll try to get some reading and writing done, on A Marginal Jew: Law and Love and some other things. We’ll see how that goes, though.

Posted in Eastern Orthodoxy | 7 Comments