Sunday, March 26, 2006

Weird and wacky Revelation

I'm currently reading Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation by Malina and Pilch.

They show how Revelation is all about astrology. The various "beasts" the writer depicts are star constellations. The sky played a big role in ancient cultures, as they believed that all the stars were living beings who affected life on earth. They had a complicated series of myths about the history of the lives of these sky-entities (the constellations, stars, spirits etc), and how they had interacted with each other and the earth. There were known ways of going into a trance and speaking to these sky-beings, and learning secrets from them, and reading the heavens. The Revelation of John is very similar in style to a number of other such ancient sky-visions.

An interesting point that the authors of the commentary make is that the ancients didn't believe the sky could tell the distant future. What can be seen is what the stars have done in the past or are currently doing. The near future can be determined from the current activity of the stars, because since the stars affected what was going to happen on earth, studying the star-processes would tell you the near future (exactly like weather-forecasting). The writers take the rather interesting view that far from describing the future or even the Roman empire of the writer's day, most of Revelation is describing the distant past. (ie the time before and after the Flood)

The way Revelation depicts Jesus is interesting. He is described as the Lamb, a reference to the constellation Aries which was believed by the ancients to be the first-created and pre-eminant sky-being. He is described as holding seven stars in his hand (Ursa Minor = control of the future, due to its position in the sky) and having control of the seven spirits (of the 7 planets = ultimate power). John plays on the idea of Jesus as a slain Lamb: Aries is a Lamb with a broken neck; each constellation corresponded to a month of a year and hence on the first month (Aries) the Israelites would sacrifice a Lamb (ie at Passover); Jesus died on Passover and hence parallels the slain Lamb. John describes Christ as the Lamb "slain from the foundation of the world" (because, of course, Aries had long been in the sky like that). It is somewhat amusing then if you think about it that the reason Christians today speak of Jesus as the "Lamb" is ultimately because the ancients saw some stars in the sky that looked like a Lamb and had that as their first month of the year. (We also have 7 days in our week and 7 notes in a musical octave because the ancients could see 7 planets (incl Sun and moon). And there are 24 hours in our day and 12 months in our year because there are twelve signs in the Zodiac)

Basically, according to the commentary, Revelation is the result of someone combining John's letter to the prophets of 7 Churches with a series of John's visions of the pre/post Flood drama unfolding (which are of little relevance to us, and were presumably meant to supplement the existing knowledge of the ancient events). For example, the 144,000 who haven't defiled themselves with women are referring to the angels who came to earth in God's service in pre-flood times but who didn't interbreed with humans.

The long and the short of it is that I'm inclined to conclude that there is little to nothing of value in Revelation for Christians today. The book was intended for a very select audience - christian astral prophets in seven particular cities in the first century AD who dealt in such visions. Even though we can now identify the references to all the beasts and the meanings of their colours and so forth, the entire story is one that does just not concern us. Though the writer tries to throw in a very occasional one-line "moral of the story", who really cares about the depicted pre-flood deeds of sky-beings? Such things were fascinating to the ancients because out of such myths they wove their understanding of the origin of their world, culture and people. In other words it shaped their worldview and gave their life meaning. Somehow I think stories of constellations fighting millennia ago wouldn't do it for most people today.

Monday, March 20, 2006


I recently read Brian McLaren's book A Generous Orthodoxy. It was an interesting read. But I came across one term I really liked which was "Post-Protestant".

"Post-Protestant", to me, picks out the people today who:
  • come from Protestant backgrounds (though not necessarily I suppose)
  • but who feel no strong connection with any given Protestant denomination
  • and hence struggle to identify themselves as any Christian sub-group
  • would prefer to just consider themselves "Christian"
  • don't hold any animosity against Catholics
  • aren't really interested in defending Traditional Protestant Doctrine
  • are interested in taking the best from all Christian denominations and history and moving forward in a spirit of unity

I like that, because I think it accurately describes me.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Limited Good, and the Parable of the Talents

Nathan's post on Tall Poppies reminded me of quite an important cultural difference between us and New Testament times, which I didn't mention in my recent post.

Ancient people very firmly believed that there was a finite amount of wealth/goods/honour in the world. Thus, if someone got rich, they always got rich at the expense of someone else who was made poorer. (I would assume that this view came about because in small communities the amount of material possessions and money was quite obviously limited and it was quite obvious that someone becoming richer made others poorer.) Sociologists title this view "a perception of limited good" - there's only so much stuff to go around, so the more you have the less I have. As a result in these societies, the desire for material gain is considered bad - it's effectively trying to take stuff off your neighbours and as such is not viewed as a positive social value (basically it's on par with stealing).

Today we have a different view - that there is infinite wealth to go around - that the rich are not making other people poor by virtue of being rich. Our economic system works in such a complicated fashion that it's not clear that our own gain results in anybody else's loss. Our culture thus assumes that there are infinite goods to go around - we can all strive for riches and one person's gain isn't another man's loss. It would be quite interesting to know if this is actually true - does our economic system provide for infinite goods? Do we actually cause loss to others by our own gain? I don't actually know.

Anyway, this difference in view has some important effects in bible interpretation. Perhaps the single most misunderstood parable in the Bible (that I am aware of anyway) is the parable of the Talents / Three Servants (Lk 19:11-27). A man entrusts his money to his slaves and they make different amounts of money from it, and he rewards/punishes them as a result.

According the perception of limited good mentioned above, the slaves' duty was to look after it and neither gain more money (which would cause others to lose money) or to lose money (which would cause loss to the master). One slave does the honourable thing of preserving the precise amount and the greedy master punishes him for it. Other slaves do the dishonourable thing of expanding their master's riches (at the expense of others) and the greedy master rewards them for it. Thus the people in the parable complaining about how the master is evil and they don't want him as a ruler are clearly justified - and the wicked master kills them for it.

How do Christians typically interpret that parable? Well, the Master is God, and we are his servants, and if we don't serve him well by earning money we will be punished. (In our society of infinite goods, earning money is a good, and is what servants ought to be doing for their masters.) The people complaining against the rule of the master are those in this world who refuse to submit to God's rule. We see the master as acting rightly, the earning servants as acting rightly. We see the servant who earns nothing as acting wrongly as are the whiners in the parable who don't want God to be king of them. But in fact to Jesus' hearers the situation was precisely opposite as to which characters were good and bad.

Jesus conclusion is "I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away." To his hearers that would be a terrible thing. Jesus' followers were by and large the poor and outcasts and here he is saying "The rich will get richer and the poor will lose what little they have". That is not a positive moral, it's very very bad.

So what is Jesus saying and why is he saying it? The people he is speaking to are hoping that the "Kingdom of God" would come soon. This was the Jewish revolutionary slogan - these people were hoping that soon the Jews would overthrow the Roman occupation and establish national sovereignty. Jesus responds with this parable explaining that such a revolution will be bad for his hearers not good for them. He is trying to scare them away from supporting national revolution: Do they really think that those greedy for royal power are going to be good masters?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Patron-Client system and Hebrews 11:1

One of the most interesting devolopments in theology in the last decade is the study that has been done on the cultural contexts.

Now of course historically some people have tried to take the cultural setting into account when interpreting the Bible. However, until recently we have had very little understanding of the culture of ancient societies, so their efforts were rather futile. In the last few decades however, subjects like Anthropology have really got going in a serious way, and the amount of study that has been done in looking at different cultures and their developments is tremendous. The results of studies of ancient medditeranean cultures is slowly trickling into theological studies, with some rather important results.

The two most important cultural concepts to grasp are that the New Testament era was an "Honour/Shame" society, with a "Patron-Client" system. So what does that mean?

An honour/shame society is a society where one's worth in the eyes of others is all-important. Your "honour" is approximately how well you are thought of, how much "standing" you have, how respected you are. It also doubles as money, and is thus also roughly equivalent to a modern day credit rating. If you are honourable people will be happy to do business and favours for you in the sure knowledge that you will pay them back (if you didn't, your honour would consequently suffer). Societies develop sophisticated ways to gain and lose honour, and mark out various behaviours as honourable or dishonourable. A feature of honour societies is the use of favours as opposed to money. A person will do a favour for you, and you will remember that you "owe them a favour", and then at a later time do a favour for them of the same value (or of higher value, putting them in your debt). Favours ranged from giving someone a meal, helping them with their harvest, giving them a gift, granting them a position of authority, finding some way of honouring them (thus increasing their honour) etc. In such a way it can be "better to give than receive" for the very mundane reason that it puts others in your debt which means you'll receive even more later.

The Patron-Client system is the name given to a particular way of structuring a society such that is organised in a roughly hierarchical structure. Each person in the hierarchy has a "patron" above them (perhaps more than one) and a number of clients below them. The analogy of an army with one general commanding lots of captains each commanding lots of soldiers is a useful one. Basically in the patron-client system, people seek to make mutually beneficial alliances, with the less poweful people seeking out the more powerful people and offering allegiance in exchange for protection and benefits. So if I found a person I wanted as a patron, I would offer my allegiance to them, promising to do what I could to enhance their honour (thus increasing their power and wealth, see above) and serving them as I could, and in exchange they might grant me (or get their friend, or their patron to grant me) a position in government etc or some other favour that I am wanting. Hence society was made up of this huge web of tree-like structures of Patron-Client relationships. The Clients offered their faithfulness and the Patrons responded by granting favours. Clients could ask particular favours of their Patrons, or alternatively a Patron could shower their clients with gifts, and the client was then expected to praise in extravagant terms their Patron's generosity to others thus increasing the Patron's honour (and thus wealth). Of course if you had a reputation for extravagantly praising your patrons for their gifts, other patrons would seek you out, wanting to effectively invest in you, giving you gifts in exchange for you publically praising them and increasing their honour.

So, an example of how the Patron-Client system can be relevant to Biblical interpretation is Hebrews 11:1.
"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (NRSV)
That is a rather horrible translation.

The words "faith" (faithfulness) and "hoped" (expected), are technical terms in the Patron-Client system. As noted before, "faithfulness" denotes the client's loyalty to their patron (and also the patron's loyalty to the client). "Expect" denotes the hope of future favours. A client could validly expect favours from their Patron if they had been faithful to their Patron and served them well. Thus, in the first half of the verse we actually just have a basic statement about how the Patron-Client system works: If you are faithful you can expect favours. That's it. It's a summary of how a part of their every-day life society worked. The second half of the verse is just saying the same thing a different way: Our faithfulness testifies that we will receive favours that we haven't yet gotten (that we do not yet "see").

Historically this verse has been a minefield for people arguing over the definiton of faithfulness. A huge amount of stuff has been written trying to nail down precisely what each of the words in the sentence meant in an effort to get a precise definition of "faith" out of it. (Unfortunately this didn't work too well as a few of the words in the sentence have a variety of translation possibilities) But as a result of these efforts a lot of people are convinced that the Bible here defines faith as belief in things we can't see. As a result of theologians' sterling efforts over the centuries in mining the bible for sentences such as this one they have had great fun in formulating exactly what it means to have "faith". "Faith" had become an almost-magical word, set apart from everyday life.

That's one of the reasons, I suspect, that theologians have been relatively slow to pick up on the findings of the social sciences. The discovery of how the word "faithfulness" was actually used in the day-to-day life of the first century AD Mediterranean world has made hundreds of years of theological discussions worthless, and a lot of people don't like to let mere facts or evidence get in the way of their ideas and traditions. [Maybe I'm being too harsh, after all, the first book on the subject of linking Social Sciences with NT exegesis was only in 1981, and it was pretty badly written]

Anyway, the take home lesson is:
Next time you're reading the bible and you see the words "faith" or "belief" read "faithfulness" instead and think "Patron-Client system = faithfulness repaid with favours". (Of course the result won't make much sense because it won't fit with how the translators have translated the rest of the sentence)

A great rule to keep in mind is this: Faithfulness is targeted at people, belief is targeted at ideas. You can be committed to a person, or committed to an idea. But talking about faithfulness to an idea, or belief in a person is nonsense.

Another example: Jesus says "believe in me". [which is a mis-translation of course, breaking the above rule] Jesus is asking for people to become his clients. ie he's saying "follow me". He's not saying "believe that I am God". There are other examples in classical literature of people saying "believe in me", and guess what, they were wanting clients, not claiming divinity.

I can only hope that over the next couple of decades that these developments can start filtering through to mainstream bible translations.

Some books for those wanting to know more:
Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Hanson & Oakman, 1998
The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era, James S. Jeffers, 1999
Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, David A. Desilva, 2000
The New Testament World, Bruce Malina, 3rd Ed 2001
The social setting of Jesus and the Gospels, Stegemann, Malina & Theissen, 2002