Unusually tumultuous

Crucible of Faith, Philip Jenkins, Basic Books.

We understand the Bible is a collection of books with much variety in style, authorship and date, but we tend to notice less its theological variety, exacerbated by the tendency within the churches to read selectively from the Old Testament in order to make resonances with the New. After-all, such inconsistency might trouble conservative Christian notions of divine inspiration and the infallibility of Scripture.

Scholars note the development throughout the Old Testament of Jewish ideas of God, and of the practice of Jewish religion. Philip Jenkins, author of many books on the history of religion, argues that much of what we would think of as core doctrines of Judeo-Christianity came late in the piece, in the Inter-Testamental period – what he calls the ‘crucible’ era because it was an unusually tumultuous and heated time that forged new ways of thinking about how God interacted with people. He argues that these new thought-worlds remain with us, even beyond the walls of the Church, so influential have they been in the West.

This period, when the Scriptures that became the Tanakh (our Old Testament) were compiled, is neglected because of its comparative lack of documentation, but in it developed a more individual spirituality, focussed on the home and synagogue rather than on infrequent Temple sacrifices, and the ideas of a universal God, Satan as a rival to God, and an afterlife for all. There was also a new focus on sacred texts, where God’s Word and, especially, laws could be encountered.

The Jewish God moves from being the local god of the Hebrews to the only god, a more aloof, pure figure, betraying the influence of Greek culture, which at this stage had a more abstract concept of God than the human-like gods of Hesiod and Homer. That influence can be seen in the opening to John’s Gospel, with its description of Jesus as abstract Truth (‘Word’).

Angels become more tangible in this period, after having a fuzzy meaning in the older Old Testament, where they were as much ‘message’ as ‘messenger’, according to Jacques Ellul. Jenkins suggests that the concept of many gods morphed into the myriad of (lesser) heavenly beings. Satan, though, gets an upgrade, from the figure in Job who is described sometimes as God’s justice minister, though prosecuting lawyer might be more to the point. (Some readers will likely have no problem identifying Satan with lawyers.)

Satan becomes key to theodicy. Previously, bad things were thought to have happened because of the Hebrews’ disobedience, but perpetual warfare led some to offer an alternative explanation of malevolent forces manipulating reality. Jesus takes this attitude, saying that you can’t directly attribute someone’s misfortune to sins they have committed.

Rather than a person’s worldly status being a sign of blessing or curse, the ‘crucible’ period saw a rise in belief in the afterlife, and Heaven and Hell as places of reward and punishment. A clear lack of worldly justice meant that God would need to put things right in the next life. As we know, in Jesus’ time some had embraced this concept (the Pharisees) and some had not (the Sadducees), usually in inverse proportion to how prosperous they were in this life.

Some may be unsettled by this suggestion that the Bible contains a development in theology. (Is doctrine simply made up as we go along?) But Scripture is the catalogue of a process of gradual revelation, through various authors and styles, being a collection of books and not one book, and the long story of the development of a relationship between God and his people, unlike, say, the Koran or the Book of Mormon. In the New Testament we see, of course, the most radical development in Jesus’ messiahship, to the extent that the majority of Jews in Jesus’ time could not accept it. And we see development in church history. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, is not obvious from the New Testament, which is why it took decades for the early church to clarify it. On the other hand, Jenkins’ book may prompt us to question some of these ‘basics’ of Christian doctrine, how much they gel with Jesus’ ministry, or Pauline theology, and how fundamental or dispensable they are.

Jenkins also notes the parallels with our own time, and the issue of accommodation with the world outside the church, which might entail re-evaluation of our harsher beliefs, about exclusive favour from God, retreat into tradition, over-correction, and the assertion that current beliefs have always been with us.

(A shorter version of this review appeared in Journey magazine.)

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