What were they talking about? (MOOC)


I keep thinking about Marcion after reading Markus Vinzent’s book (my post, “Resurrection, does it matter? ) because it seems that Christianity adopted a fair amount of Marcion’s teaching even though he wound up being labeled a heretic. For example, it was Marcion who suggested the unfortunate title of “Old Testament” for the Hebrew Bible, and who suggested we should read that scripture very selectively. After all, what could the stories about relentless violence and war have to do with a God who was all about love? We seem to have taken Marcion’s point: We still talk about an “Old Testament” and we still read Tanach very selectively.

I was reminded of that as I read Jacob L. Wright’s King David and His Reign Revisited (2013.) Early in Wright’s busy book (more on that below), he writes that the reason that war is pervasive in the ‘Old Testament’ is not because of a “bellicose culture” or “warmongering members [who were] keen to praise martial valor and espouse theologies of ‘holy war.’” KDHRR at 42. Rather, the ubiquity of war should be appreciated “in view of its authors’ political project.” KDHRR at 42.

Maybe. Maybe the war stories are literary devices. Even if the “war commemoration as literary device” notion works (and I think it does), the war stories can also be more than literary devices. They can be what they seem like: a reflection of the centrality of war and war-making in ancient Judah and ancient Israel. War and war-making continued to be important for Imperial Rome (in the “New Testament”) and it is an undeniable reality in our own world.

Maybe some aspect of that war and violence – how to endure or survive it, how to outsmart or un-mask it  – was what those travelers were talking about on the road to Emmaus.


War commemoration


Wanting a sneak peek at my next MOOC (“The Bible’s Pre-History, Purpose and Political Future” – Emory University via Coursera) I read an “enhanced e-book” written by the professor, Jacob L. Wright: King David and His Reign Revisited, Jacob L. Wright (2013.)  Find it here on iTunes.

It is a busy book. The format is busy – full of illustrations and links to valuable, interesting material – and the content is “busy:” Lots of names, places, arguments and proofs.

One thesis...

is that The Succession Narrative (2 Sam 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2) is not as old as “generations [of] scholars have insisted.” King David and His Reign Revisited at 263. Other traditions are older, notably:

(1) The History of David’s Reign written perhaps even earlier than 722 BCE, and an independent, perhaps older still History of Saul’s Reign.
(2) The synthesis the HDR and HSR traditions, sometime before 586 BCE intended to:

  • “come to terms with Judah’s relationship to the older and more powerful kingdom of Israel” (KDHRR at 176), and
  • portray David as the creator and promoter of a state (Judah and later “all Israel”) which was embodied most clearly in its military. “David represents the powerful state that employs strong-arm methods and elite corps of professional warriors to… vanquish its enemies… and (even) enforce its will upon the people within its borders.” (KDHRR at 182.)

(3) A post-exilic revision of the David story, (Chronicles?) intended “to set forth a new model of political community: a people (or nation) that can survive the loss of statehood and territorial sovereignty.” (KDHRR at 267.)

There is no one place to read each of these traditions. Each revision exists in verses scattered throughout our version of the Bible. Each revision is a redaction and revision of source texts the content of which we can only postulate. Think “Documentary Hypothesis,” the JEDP gang and all of the Isaiahs.

See what I mean by “busy?”

A second thesis…

is that the relentless stories about battles and wars, kings and generals, soldiers and warriors is actually the literary genre of “war commemoration” like the statue of a Civil War soldier in the Town Square, or as in Boston, the designation of many street corners as a memorial to a Bostonian who died in an American war.forest hills and brookley - ruso

Whether our “war commemorations” are statues or plaques or stories, they are the means whereby “[p]opulations on the margins of society confront “corporate amnesia” by calling attention to their own sacrifices on behalf of the larger community. (KDHRR at 38.) In other words, it is a way for ethnic groups perceived as outsiders to remind the community that they have earned the right to belong. Wright says that in scripture, it was a means of determining who belonged to “the community of Israel” and who did not. Which ethnic groups (often represented by heroic or dastardly individuals)  demonstrated their loyalty and willingness to make sacrifice for the community of Israel — whether as a state or as a people — and which ethnic groups did not. (KDHRR at 42.)

“If I am right,” Wright writes, “we can better explain the pervasiveness of war in the ‘Old Testament.’… The ubiquity of war [is a] political project [the purpose of which] was to fashion a collective identity that could withstand the onslaught of foreign imperial powers and ultimately the loss of political sovereignty. (KDHRR at 42.) The biblical states/kingdoms of Israel and Judah might be destroyed, but that does not mean the end of Israel, which is more than a state and more than a kingdom.