This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Why Margaret Barker is important.

One of the topics my wife and I get into what passes for a heated discussion about is Margaret Barker.  She even refers to Margaret as “the other woman,” since as soon as Barker’s latest book comes out I may be found curled up with it for days.  Barker is deeply interesting, but as Susan continually points out, Barker is vulnerable to the “so what?” critique.  This is what I will try and answer. in these three entries.


Margaret Barker is an Old Testament scholar who has written several books, all pertaining to what she calls “Temple Theology.”  Temple Theology seeks to discover the influence and symbolism of the Temple, main the first Temple, built by Solomon, and show how it pervades the Scriptures, even undergirding much of Christian theology.
Put in historical terms, Barker’s thesis is that the religious “reform” in Jerusalem instigated by Josiah and Hilkiah in the 7th century bce was actually a purge carried out by one particular faction of Judaism which then nearly wiped out much of what had been the religion of Israel and the Temple.  The original religion was suppressed and many of its adherents were scattered.  
In her earlier work Barker identifies the hints and vestiges of this lost religion in various shreds of tradition and text both within our canonical Scriptures and in a wide variety of other sources.  Her theory is that this tradition went underground but was carefully maintained in places like the Enoch/apocalyptic and Wisdom streams.  
(Much of her evidence for all this is admittedly circumstantial and anecdotal; but she amasses so much of it that it is hard to disregard.) 
She holds that the older, suppressed religion was still around in coherent enough form to provide much of the underpinnings of Christianity.  In fact, I think Barker would say that Christianity was in many ways a resurrection, reconstitution, revival of this older and nearly lost Judaism.  Her theories would be only mildly interesting did they not provide coherent answers to several of the major puzzles of the New Testament and early Christianity.
For instance, I was working with my confirmation class a couple of Sundays ago.  We were considering the question of why it is important that Christians claim that Jesus was God.  What did that claim mean to first century people?  How is it possible?  Why is it a scandalous claim to some?  Where did the early church get this idea?  What possessed them to imagine Jesus could be worshipped and prayed to as God?  As I am reflecting with them on this I hear a voice in my head saying that if only I could get them to read Margaret Barker.  Instead, I have to sort of settle for feeding them the standard party-line.  But Barker insists that the idea of two Gods in heaven was not new to the Jews of Jesus’ time.  We see it in the distinction between Elohim and YHWH.  Furthermore, it was not unheard of for God to become a person and vice=versa.  It was already part of the older tradition that a human-being, the high priest, would “become” YHWH in the Temple ritual.  Part of the liturgy of the Temple was “becoming” angels, like Enoch becomes the heavenly being, Metatron. 
What we understand as Judaism today is really an evolved form of one particular of many sects of Judaism at the time of Jesus.  Barker holds that as Rabbinic Judaism was forming, in tension with emerging Christianity, it took steps to adjust the Scriptures, removing or changing passages that the Christians were using to support their ministry and theology.  The most public and obvious example of this is the change in the Hebrew Masoretic Text in the wording of Isaiah 7:14, from “the virgin,” a reading that remains in the Septuagint, to “a young woman.”  The Septuagint wording reflects an older Hebrew text that was not available to us until copies of it were dug up at Qumran, showing that the original had been altered.  The Septuagint wording has obvious importance for Christians who were confessing Jesus to be born of a virgin.  Barker goes on to talk about how the child to be born and called “Emmanuel,” “God-is-with-us,” referred to the role of the king as representing YHWH to the people.  And that it was not just a virgin, but the Virgin, as in a long-lost semi-Goddess tradition within Judaism.  It emerges in Revelation 12:1-6 as “the woman clothed with the sun,” and obviously gets reinterpreted in terms of Mary as theotokos.  
The effort to repress the older form of Jewish faith, replacing it with the emphasis on Moses and Torah, is something that continued among the community returning from the exile, and was then imposed on the local people when they got back to Canaan.  We see vestiges of this conflict in Third Isaiah.  We also find direct hostility towards the Second Temple and its priesthood among the sectarians at Qumran.  
And we see it reflected in the New Testament where there is explicit talk about getting away from excessive or exclusive focus on law/Torah/Moses.  Paul and Jesus both lift up the older faith of Abraham as a counter to this movement to mosaicize the faith.  Even the term “Jews” may often refer to the mosaic parties like the Pharisees, not all Israelites.  Communities loyal to the older religion may have referred to themselves by other names.  Jesus has some negative things to say (and do) concerning the Temple.  Stephen’s final sermon in Acts deliberately downplays Moses and critiques the Temple.
The early Christians talked about Jesus as God, Lord, and Messiah.  They worshiped him.  They prayed to him.  And they remembered texts showing that he had to suffer and die, and be raised.  Barker says that they were accessing and reviving something already existent within Judaism.  Standard scholarship has had to find/invent Greek influences for this direction.  I have always found this hard to believe since it happened so very early and among people who were not educated Greeks.  But Barker says there was a preformed, deeply Jewish, theological framework that the Christians adopted, adapted, and activated.  This framework was the liturgy and theology of the original Temple.
Furthermore, Jesus may have had far more detailed and comprehensive understanding of his own mission, and one much closer to what the early church would claim about him, than has been realized by many scholars to date.  It is no longer necessary (if it ever was) to rip out of Jesus’ mouth and attribute to later writers the things Jesus says (or allows to have said) about himself as God and Messiah, and about his own suffering, death, and resurrection.  Barker’s view makes the Jesus of the gospels more plausible than any of the reconstructed imaginary Jesuses which  emerge from time to time from the academic community (least of all that of the The Jesus Seminar).  Under Barker’s framework, there is no reason why Jesus could not have known who he was (Lord, God, Messiah) and what he came to do (proclaim the Kingdom of God, establish the new community, and give his life as a sacrifice).

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