Pass My Exam!

As most of you know, I’m doing quite a lot of teaching right now… I’m up to my eyeballs in my new day-job teaching high school and had already committed to teaching two Master’s level classes before getting that job offer. Thankfully, I had taught one of those before—my Church History class. However, I decided to do something a little differently this go around…

I’m trying to prepare my students to use their Church History where it counts—at the back of the church when some one asks an innocent question that is best answered with thirty minutes and a pile of books yet you know their eyes will glaze over after just a minute. Therefore, I’m giving an exam where the students will have to prepare short [short] answers to the kinds of questions that I’ve heard.

So, how well would you do on my first-section of the semester exam? It spans the period from the writing of the New Testament to the Church Fathers (end of the 4th century). Here’s the study guide I gave them:

H601 Study Guide for First-Half Exam

The few dates I actually want you to memorize (and why)

  • AD 70–The Destruction of the Temple: This event ended the plurality of Late Second Temple Judaisms and set the stage for the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity as distinct entities. The Early Church saw the destruction as confirmation of Jesus’ prophecy in the Gospels. Also, it established Vespasian and Titus as the new dynasty of the Roman Empire
  • AD 136—end of the Bar Kochba revolt, the third and final Jewish revolt against the Romans that led to Jewish expulsion from the region of Jerusalem. Continuing anti-Jewish policies played a role in Jewish-Christian self-differentiation.
  • AD 180 (roughly)—Irenaeus writes Against Heresies and demonstrates a coherent Christian self-understanding embodied in the three marks of the Church that is only two generations removed from Jesus’ own circle: (Irenaeus learned from Polycarp who learned from John the Elder)
  • AD 250—The Decian Persecution: This is the first time that persecution of Christians became a matter of Imperial policy requiring sacrifices and written proof of thereof. Although short-lived, it set an important precedent.
  • AD 313—The “Edict of Milan”: While probably less formal than an edict, this was the agreement between Constantine and Licinius to allow Christianity throughout the Empire
  • AD 325—The First Ecumenical Council at Nicea called by Constantine to address the Arian Controversy and ended the Quartodecemian Controversy.
  • AD 380—Theodosius declares Catholic Orthodoxy the religion of the Empire.
  • AD 410—The Sack of Rome by Alaric and “the Goths”: More an internal policy dispute between a Roman army and Roman officials than a barbarian sack of a civilized city, it nevertheless prompted a crisis concerning the efficacy of Christianity as a state religion.

Important Relationships (and their chronological order where pertinent)

  • Apostolic Fathers—Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, the anonymous author of the Didache (The first generation of Christian thought and witness after the age of the New Testament)
  • The birth of Monasticism: Origen – The Desert Fathers & Mothers, know Antony and Pachomius – Athanasius – Jerome – John Cassian – Evagrius of Pontus
  • The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Ambrose – Augustine – Jerome – Gregory the Great
  • The Four Doctors of the Eastern Church: John Chrysostom – Basil the Great – Gregory of Nazianzen – Athanasius
  • The Great Trinitarian Champions: Athanasius of Alexandria – Leo the Great – Gregory of Nazianzen – Gregory of Nyssa – Basil the Great
  • The African Fathers of Latin Christianity: Tertullian – Cyprian – Augustine

Be able to identify:

  • The Three Marks of the Church according to Irenaeus (Canon/Creed/Apostolic Succession)
  • The main idea of the Gnostics
  • The main idea of the Arians
  • The two positions in the Quartodecemian controversy
  • The main idea of the Donatists
  • The main idea of Ecumenical Councils

Short Answer Questions to Prepare:

  • Why was the destruction of the Temple in 70 such a big deal?
  • Acts says that the Early Church was “of one heart and one mind.” Is that really how it was and how do we know?
  • I hear that the Gnostics were very spiritual people—why did the Early Church think that they were so wrong?
  • As long as we have the Bible I don’t know why we need any of this other stuff.
  • I’ve been reading the Gospel of Mark—it seems to me like Jesus becomes divine at his Baptism. Is that right?
  • I just think the idea of dying for a belief is strange. Why wouldn’t early Christians just fib and skip the whole martyrdom thing?
  • Why did the Romans want to kill Christians, anyway? What were the Christians doing that was so bad?
  • Christians hid from the Romans in the catacombs so they wouldn’t get martyred, right?
  • Why would reasonable people believe in all of this allegory stuff? Why not just read the Bible the right way?
  • Well, I take all of this stuff with a grain of salt. We all know that nobody thought Jesus was a god until Constantine decreed it to be the case.
  • If the creed is what the church believes, why are the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed different?
  • The Church Fathers may have written a lot of stuff but that’s just their opinion. Why should theirs be any better than mine?

Money Autobiography: Qoheleth

My parish has a periodic group that meets to consider topics around how we integrate living out the Gospel and how we use our resources. Much of the discussion is sparked by materials from the Faith & Money Network. For the latest meeting, they decided to use the concept of the Money Autobiography, but to incorporate biblical materials by presenting Money Autobiographies of biblical figures. I was asked to write and present a piece so I selected Qoheleth.

Qoheleth is the Hebrew word meaning “the Teacher” or “Preacher” which is the name by which the narrative voice of Ecclesiastes identifies himself. All of the details offered lead readers to identify Qoheleth with King Solomon but Ecclesiastes never quite comes right out to say it. To compose this, I looked over the questions in the Money Autobiography, selected several, then answered some of these imaginatively from the Samuel/Kings narratives, and cobbled together selections for Ecclesiastes itself for the others.

Following the style of Qoheleth, I don’t identify his family members by name, but only by role. (I will footnote them, though.)


Money Autobiography: Qoheleth (King Solomon as seen through Ecclesiastes)

Have you ever stood in an empty plaza, a market-square that you remember full and bustling with life? Your memory recalls smells and sounds that delight the senses and call to mind the vibrant fabrics, the flashing glances, the pagentry of the daily moment, but your eyes see only the vacant space with crumbling walls, weeds creeping through between flagstones, and the dust and broken crockery pushed to the corners.  Then a breeze flows over the hills from the desert, and caught in the corner, catches up the dead leaves and dust and whirls them in a cloud that passes by and over you and grit pelts your skin and attacks your eyes. And, just for a moment in the sound of its passing you think you catch the sounds of voices long dead of, opportunities left behind, of experiences fading. And a tear forms at the corner of your eye to wash the grit or—perhaps—to cleanse the memory as the circling eddy of wind with its muttering breath passes along its way. And—just for a moment—you think to grasp at it, to hold on to trap that moment, all that which is now past and gone but that is simply a vanity. It is a chasing after the wind.

So it is—in my experience—with the grasping after wealth.

I never lacked for wealth as a child, and in my youth walked the corridors of privilege and ease. Whatever I desired I could lay my hands upon. I made a test of joy and experience and “I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was the reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Eccl 1:4-11).

My unhappiest childhood memory is remembering flight in the night from the hands of my brother. He had risen in arms against my father—because my brother desired what he did not have. He wanted wealth, yes, he wanted power, but more than that he wanted the revenge that these things could give him and in his youth and blindness thought that the power to continue his revenge would heal the hurts of his sister. While he had slain his brother who had raped her, he still blamed our father for not giving her the justice she was due.*

I do not know how my mother felt about wealth but I do know this: There would be nights was I was young when she thought I slept. She would remove her rich robes, take the jewels off her neck and ears, and sweep them from her table to the floor and, putting on a simple dress of Hittite pattern, would cry with her face to the north.

As for my father his wealth was his security. He would shower it on his men with an easy smile, buying those whose spears would bring him safety. He was a man of excesses and contradictions. A man’s man—virile, dashing, and handsome—who had elevated himself from following the sheep to Jerusalem’s throne by his own hand. A lover of women, of battle, and of the God whom he honored even when he acted against his God’s command. Having come from nothing, he could return to nothing, casting mere things aside to melt into the desert, trusting in his canny craft to regain his throne again—which he did at the cost of my beloved brother.

Once my father passed, I stepped into his place. Wealth flowed freely in and out of my coffers. Counting it was important and I had teams of scribes to account for my gold and silver and precious goods, patiently marking tablet after tablet to describe my riches. For only then would I know how I could move and spend it, to turn it from glittering coin to stout carven stone. In my middle years, I kept a close eye on my money. Not because I craved it, but because of the power it allowed me to project. With my money I bought masons and supplies and costly materials with which to build. And build I did, straining my treasure and the will of my people to build great buildings. A temple, yes, the likes of which had never been seen before in Jerusalem but not only the temple. Walls and fortifications and towers were raised at my command. The overseers’ whips cracked as I forced my people to labor, mothers wailed as I sold my own people into servitude in Egypt for horses and chariots, acquiring the military hardware that would keep my nation safe and secure. Protecting my people even as I sold their bodies to purchase my weapons of war.

But—even then—as time would tell—all of my efforts at security would be but vanity and chasing after the wind. For my works of building, my projects of forced labor, so alienated and enraged my people that the northern tribes would grow embittered and in the lifetime of my son would split the kingdom I had spent so deeply to protect.

All of it was a vanity and a chasing after the wind.

Opening my eyes, seeing my own follies, “I saw all of the oppressions that are practiced under the sun, Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who had already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better yet than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (Eccl 4:1-1)

“Again, I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. ‘For whom am I toiling,” ‘thy ask, ‘and depriving myself of pleasure?

This also is vanity and an unhappy business.” (Eccl 4:7-8).

“There is a grievous ill that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owners to their hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture; though they are parents of children, they have nothing in their hands. As they came from their mother’s womb, so shall they go again, naked as they came: they shall take nothing for their toil which they may carry away with their hands. This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind? Besides, all their days they eat in darkness, in much vexation and sickness and resentment.

This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life that God gives us; for this is our lot. Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—this is the gift of God.” (Eccl 5:13-19).

Now—I have heard it said “The righteous are delivered from trouble, and the wicked get into it instead” (Prov 11:8); I have heard it said, “Be assured, the wicked will not go unpunished, but those who are righteous will escape” (Prov 11:21). I have heard it said  “Misfortune pursues sinners; but prosperity rewards the righteous” (Prov 13:21). I have heard it said, “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life” (Prov 22:4). But this too is vanity and a chasing after the wind. “In my vain life, I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing” (Eccl 7:15). “There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous I said that this also is vanity” (Eccl 8:14).

As the gold slips through my fingers I know that it is not worth a puff of wind for it gives me not one more puff of wind into my breath. My wealth cannot save my life. “The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth with gain. This also is vanity. When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep” (Eccl 5:10-12).What gives me joy at the end of my days—at the end of my life—are the simple pleasures that cost but a handful of copper: “So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink and enjoy themselves for this will go with them in their toil through all the days of life that God gives them under the sun” (Eccl 8:15). “Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (Eccl 9:8-10).

“Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ’I have no pleasure in them’ : before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel is broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, all is vanity” (Eccl 12:1, 6-8).

 

  • This is a reference to Absalom’s uprising against his father (and Solomon’s father) King David. Absalom’s anger against his father began when his half-brother Amnon raped then rejected Absalom’s full-sister Tamar. Absalom slew him after King David refused to punish Amnon’s crime. Solomon’s mother is Bathsheba; the mention of the “Hittite” dress is a reference to Bathsheba’s first husband Uriah whom David killed—with Bathsheba’s collusion.

Sanctoral Hash

Before we start talking about the legislation around the sanctoral calendar that occurred at General Convention, let me refer you once again to the brief history of the Episcopal Calendar that I wrote for the Liturgy Center at VTS.

There are two directions from which to approach the question of the sanctoral calendar.

The first is to approach it as a place are individuals are recognized. An individual is lifted up as a saint—however that gets defined and understood—and is put on the calendar because their life-story appears to fit the criteria used for judging saintliness. From this perspective, the question of whether a person belongs on the calendar or not is a matter of whether they tick all of the right boxes and none of the wrong ones.

The second direction is to approach the calendar as a set, a deliberate group. As a set, the balance of individuals says something about how the church as a whole understands sanctity and the various breakdown of roles and functions within the church as a living organism. To borrow the great Pauline metaphor, a proper sanctoral calendar ought to reflect the disposition of the various parts of the body that make up the whole. It can’t be all made up of “brain” or all made up of “foot” or you get a warped view of the Body of Christ and its constituent features. To say it more clearly, the composition of the whole needs to reflect that contemplative holiness, self-sacrificial martyrdom, theological brilliance, pastoral sensitivity, just social action, and more are all in the mix in terms of what sanctity looks like. Furthermore, other kinds of balance matter here, not just the theological. This is where issues of race, ethnicity, temporal period, and gender come in as well.

One of the classic instances of imbalance is the late 19th century Roman Catholic calendar which was dominated by French and Italian bishops. What it said was, if you want to be holy, be a French or Italian bishop. If you’re a married woman of color, you’re out of luck.

When you approach the calendar from this angle, the question isn’t just about the worthiness of a given individual; it also has to do with how many of a given sort are in the whole system. Balancing the competing theological criteria with race and gender concerns makes this a very complicated matter. But if we are trying to portray sanctity across a wide range of time, locations, and social classes, it’s an exercise worth doing. We are literally trying to image the full humanity of Christ by illustrating how instances from across the whole spectrum of human experience have communicated Christ in their time and place.

What the proposed LFF 2018 was trying to do was to attack the calendar from the second angle. It tried to create a balanced group of worthies. Because our previous calendars had been so badly skewed in terms of gender and ordination status, and theological role, the only way to accomplish balance was to take some people off and to add some new people on. Overwhelmingly, the people removed were 19th century American white (male) bishops. The people added were women from across time and space. This is how numbers and math work—you can either add more and more people to come up to your target figure (and the addition of commemorations itself was an issue), or you can remove some from an over-represented group which means you will not to add as many from your under-represented groups.

The reaction from convention on seeing LFF 2018 was to approach it from the first direction and to freak out about people not seen. The issue is not that those people were not properly saintly; the issue was one of representation and balance. Otherwise, we send the message that the best path to sanctity is to be a white American bishop.

Now. All of that having been said, here is the resolution that General Convention passed:

A065 Authorize Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, that the 79th General Convention authorize the continued use of Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006; and be it further

Resolved, commend the continued availability of Great Cloud of Witnesses 2015 for the 2018-2021 triennium; and be it further

Resolved, that the new commemorations in Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018 proposed by the SCLM be authorized for trial use and be included in the calendar for the 2018-2021 triennium, under Article X(b); and be it further

Resolved that the SCLM provide the 80th General Convention with a clear and unambiguous plan for a singular calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts.

The first resolve retains Lesser Feasts & Fast 2006 as the official Calendar of the Church.

The second resolve “retains” Great Cloud of Witnesses by extending its non-canonical status (?) as available. I’m not sure what this does. To me it signals that they still want to keep the Great Cloud/Holy Women, Holy Men material in the mix but—as we have been over a number of times—there are issues with this material with regard to which criteria the entries match and whether all entries meet all of the criteria.

The third resolve essentially misses the point of LFF 2018—i.e., the principle of re-balancing—and smooshes [technical term] the new entries into…what…LFF 2006?…thereby watering down the intent of re-balancing.

The fourth resolve is kind of a middle finger to the SCLM and folks who have been doing Calendar work over the past several years. Here’s the thing. Constructing a calendar that will be accepted by all Episcopalians is an inherent impossibility. Some of us believe in saints in the objective sense: that there are baptized Christian people who are physically dead who are participating in a closeness with God now that other physically dead people are not currently enjoying. Other Episcopalians fundamentally reject this notion and the theology that flows from it. A person who regards a sanctoral calendar as a roster of those actively praying for us now is going to have a different set of criteria and a different set of understandings about how that roster is made than someone who is looking for a list of inspirational figures who may or may not have been Episcopalian. In Great Cloud of Witnesses and in LFF 2018, we tried to put together a compromise list that would balance out competing Episcopal understandings of sanctity yet still have a list that people on both ends of the spectrum could live with.

Let me be blunt. There are people in Great Cloud of Witnesses that I do not regard as saints. Which is why Great Cloud was offered as a list from which local communities could identify those people they considered to be saints. That way we could have a list of inspirational people and yet not call them saints—because not all of them met that standard.

LFF 2018 was another attempt at a singular calendar that would address the concerns raised by the 2003 demand for attention to balance and representation. But Convention decided that wasn’t ok either.

At one point in 2013 or 2014, I listed out six different competing demands that a given calendar proposal would have to meet in order to satisfy all interested parties. Not all six can be met—something has to give. One of the major problems was the sheer volume of material in Holy Women, Holy Men/Great Cloud of Witnesses. Despite the fact that everyone in it is optional, there was tremendous push-back at GC 2012 that there were far too many names. Thus for a calendar to be accepted it must be smaller that HWHM/GCW. General Convention will not pass a lazy process of addition that just keeps adding on more and more names. Therefore if there is a “a clear and unambiguous plan for a singular calendar” there have to be winners and losers. We can’t do another compromise document. What the SCLM will have to propose is an actual sanctoral theology, and then follow that theology up with criteria and commemorations that meet those criteria.

They’ll be in my prayers…

General Convention + 2 Months

Now that the program year has gotten underway, we’ve starting having adult forums again at my parish. My rector asked me to give a wrap-up of the events of General Convention. I did that this morning, and it’s got me thinking again about the major things that happened there. The way that I laid it out, there were six big things that occurred

  • Budget: We passed one. $134 million over three years. And for the three main pillars of the Jesus Movement, Evangelism got $5.2 million ($.7 million less than last time), Racial Reconciliation and Justice got $10.4 million (up from $9.5 million), and Creation Care got an even $1 million (up from $650K). At such a time as this, I remain confused/surprised/bewildered that Evangelism receives so little. Sure—there is work going on at the diocesan level as well, but we need a major shot in the arm to wake the Episcopal Church up to help us talk about our faith in meaningful and important ways,and to share best practices for doing so.
  • The Return of Cuba: Cuba is back as a diocese of the Episcopal Church. This is a good thing. In making this move we have rolled back a unilateral move by the House of Bishops that, while understandable perhaps at the time, was a clear violation of our polity.
  • The intersection of General Convention and the #MeToo Movement: We finally began to make some steps to address some of the glaring gender problems in our church. But we have to make sure they keep going. This is a very personal issue for me. I have seen the ways that my wife has been treated by the church. Far too many times I’ve had to say, “That would never happen if you were a guy.” In terms of clergy, women assistants/associates are at a major power disadvantage with regard to both their rectors and their congregations which increased the potential and possibility for bad things to happen from either side. In terms of laity, because of the greater number of women lay workers than men the inequities around clergy/lay compensation and benefits disproportionately impact women. We really can’t attempt to speak a prophetic word about economic justice to others if we can’t get our own house in order. Resolutions and covenants and task-forces are a start, but are only a start unless they keep going forward.
  • Compensation for the President of the House of Deputies: This is one of the tricky technical issues that, while important, is difficult to easily convey to people in the pews. This fight is about the nature of the relationship between the House of Deputies and Bishops and the structures of authority that we have. How can we be both democratic and episcopal? What does authority at the top of our church actually look like? Convention gave a relatively nuanced answer by funding the position but not granting it salary or benefits.  I think this is a good move because it emphasizes that we are episcopal in governance yet we still recognize that our non-episcopal leaders have more than just a volunteer role and deserve to be compensated for their effort and  labor.
  • Marriage Equality: The original resolution that added the same-sex blessing materials into the prayer book and removed the need for the bishop’s permission was a hand grenade. I personally want to see these materials widely available but I also want to keep parishes and dioceses within the church that struggle with the issue. The negotiated settlement of B012 is not perfect, but at least—so far—has been able to accomplish these two aims in a way that the original resolution could not have done. I’m not even going to try to crystal-ball this one and predict how this decision will shake out through the rest of this triennium…
  • Liturgical Stuff: In my presentation, I deliberately put the liturgical stuff last because I knew that if I led with it, I’d never get to any other to other stuff, my own interests and proclivities being what they are… I called out three major things here: 1) the trial use inclusive language editions of Rite II Prayers A, B, and D, 2) the shift to TFLPBR for prayer book innovation, and 3) the sanctoral calendar.

The net effect of pulling this presentation together was to make me mad all over again about what was done to the sanctoral calendar.

The final action in the House of Bishops made a thorough and complete hash of the issue. The state of the calendar  is truly a mess, so much so that I can’t keep writing about it here—it requires its own separate post.

Ember Monday

It’s totally not a thing…

Despite what the St. Bede’s Breviary tried to tell you this morning and/or this evening depending on your time zone and when you pray the Office.

It was an algorithm error. And, since I had an action-packed weekend—complete with Back-to-School Sunday yesterday—I slept in until 6 and didn’t get to Morning Prayer, I didn’t learn about it until many friends on Facebook started wondering if Ember Monday might be a thing.

Other than a glitch—no!


The new job is great fun and very rewarding. I’m not getting a lot of writing done at the moment, although I must begin producing more and soon. Now that I’m getting in the swing of the school year, you’ll see more substantive posts arriving shortly. And, for those of you who support me on Patreon, let me know what kinds of posts you’d like to see!

PC: Is Allegory OK?

Here’s the next set of material from Psalming Christ. Now—if you thought that the previous two posts on David were building to something important about Jesus, you’re totally right! They are! But this isn’t it…  Indeed, I’m working on three different sections of the book simultaneously as the ability/energy/mood/Spirit direct.

There’s one line of thought on how reading more Scripture helps us pray the psalms better. The section I’m currently working on is how reading the prophets helps us understand the Psalms & vice versa. And yes, Ellen, this is one of the places where I’m tackling the imprecatory psalms with the suggestion that reading them in consonance with the prophetic destruction oracles can actually be a helpful thing.

There’s a second line of thought on how the psalms have been read in the voices of various biblical people, initially David and later Christ and how this is ok based on the insights of modern biblical scholarship. That’s what the previous two posts were leading to.

Then there’s a third line of thought on what modern people could or should do with the rampant allegorization that pervades patristic thought on the Scriptures generally and the Psalms in particular. As you’ve probably guessed from my title, that’s where we are today…

So—take a look, let me know what you think.


One of the biggest hurdles for modern readers of patristic biblical interpretation like Cassiodorus and Augustine is the idea of “allegorical interpretation.” Let me give you an example of what we’re talking about, then I’ll explain why I put that term in quotes and why it’s not nearly as much of a hurdle as we think it is.

Here are the opening lines of Psalm 11:

In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to me,
“Flee like a bird to the mountains;
for look, the wicked bend the bow,
they have fitted their arrow to the string,
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.
If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind. (Ps 11:1-4)

When I look at this text, I see the psalmist speaking as one with a firm trust in God. The unnamed person to whom the psalmist speaks—the “you” in the first verse—lacks the same trust as the speaker. Hence, these lines beginning with “Flee like a bird to the mountains…” are the words of someone who does not have faith that the Lord is going to right all wrongs, especially when the wicked are in power. The rest of the psalm will continue to assert trust in God’s vindication of the righteous from a Wisdom orthodoxy perspective. If you wanted, you could almost see this psalm as a counter-argument from Proverbs against Ecclesiastes.

Now, here is how Cassiodorus reads Psalm 11:1:

This [rhetorical] figure is called caenonema, the divulging of a plan; it frequently occurs when we join words with foes or allies. These words are in fact addressed to persuasive heretics who wish to utter evil to seduce innocent souls with vicious argument. So to them the faithful man says: “Since I am established on the fixed peak of religion, how is it that you seek to persuade me, saying: Get thee away to the mountain, in other words, have recourse to the wickedness of heretics, falsely claiming that Christ is where Truth is known to leave no trace?” In the divine Scriptures, mountain is ambivalent, being applied in comparison to very different things. It is often used in both good and bad senses. When it is used in a good sense, its strength and notable height are regarded; when in a bad sense, its inner stolidness and lofty pride. So the one term is aptly applied to different objects after reflection on their qualities. There are also several types of sparrow. Some take pleasure in holes in walls, while others make for dewy valleys, and others haunt scaly mountains. But here the psalmist speaks of those whose most random inclination bears them off to the loftiest region of earth. So those who in fickleness of wavering mind turn to most wicked doctrines are rightly considered similar to them.[Cassiodorus, ExplPs 1.135.]

He is taking the image of a bird winging away to the mountains, and is infusing it with theological meaning. As a modern reader, I think that Cassiodorus is over-reading the text. That is, I think that the psalmist is trying to communicate to the reader a certain feeling of escape, giving us a mental picture of a bird swooping off into the distance intended to convey either a physical or emotional distancing of the self from a difficult situation. I see Cassiodorus finding more in the text than what the psalmist intended. He uses his knowledge of rhetoric to identify this passage as a particular figure of thought, caenonema, and then moves into a discussion of the possible deeper meanings of the words “mountain” and “sparrow.”

This is precisely the kind of thing that we are talking about when we refer to “allegorical interpretation.” Over the centuries certain patterns of substitutionary reading built up (“when the text says ‘mountains’ what it really means is X; when it says ‘sparrows’ it really means Y”). By the late medieval period, knowing and understanding these patterns of substitutionary reading were considered necessary for the proper interpretation of the biblical text. This is why the Protestant Reformation insisted so strongly on the perspecuity of the text—that is, that a normal lay person can read a biblical passage and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can understand what it says without needing the layers of additional interpretation to read it rightly. The Reformers objected to the notion that the Bible had to be withheld from those who had not been trained in this extensive system of substitutionary and additional meanings. In their day it was about power, control, and who was allowed to have access to the biblical text. This is a key reason why “allegorical interpretation” gets a bad rap: it was used as a means of keeping the Word of God from the people of God.

Another key reason why both the Reformers and modern readers don’t like it is because it seems so arbitrary. Why, for instance, in the next verse of the psalm does Cassiodorus insist that: “We must interpret the bow as the divine commands which the heretic wields and orders according to his own wickedness[Cassiodorus, ExplPs 1.136.]”? Do we really have to use the word “must” here? Surely there are other ways that we can read this. Why does Cassiodorus fix upon this particular meaning to the exclusion of others?

In defense of Cassiodorus, there is a reason why he reads this psalm in this way. From his reading of the whole psalm and his theological context within the doctrinal disputes on the nature of Christ, he has decided that this psalm as a whole speaks about and against heretics who are troubling the church. Coming at it from this angle, he is going to interpret the details that he sees in ways that fit this reading.

The question that we need to ask is, what is prompting him to read this psalm in this way? Why does he believe that the psalm needs to be read in this way? And what are the limits on this kind of interpretive model? Furthermore, is there anything that we can take away from this model to assist our praying of the Psalms?

 

The first place we need to start is getting clear on terminology—specifically around allegory. As we’ve mentioned, the art of rhetoric involves quite a number of figures of speech and figures of thought. Allegory in its technical sense is simply one of these, one among many. According to the formal definition, an allegory is a statement or narrative that is intended to be read in a substitutionary way, where the actors or characters or references are intended to refer to something other than their literal referent. It’s usually a deliberate and conscious choice on the part of the author. Hence, when George Orwell sat down to write his barnyard classic Animal Farm he did so with a solid working knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union and its relationships to the rise of totalitarian powers in Europe. An uninformed reader will find a story about how the animals tried to free themselves from human control but then—slowly but surely—the leadership began acting in more and more human ways until the situation of the workers were no better under the new management than they were under the old. The story makes sense on its own. An informed reader having the allegorical key (“this story is actually about the progress of Communism in the Soviet Union”), though, will have no problem matching up certain characters with certain historical figures: Farmer Jones is Czar Nicholas II, Napoleon is Joseph Stalin, Snowball is Leon Trotsky, etc. This is intentional allegory.

Allegory in this technical sense is not foreign to the Bible itself. Allegory as a compositional technique is found in many places in the Old Testament. The image of the vineyard as a representation for Israel is used creatively by several authors in an intentionally allegorical way. The ancient Song of Moses alludes to it, concluding with this image: “[God] brought [the people] in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession” (Exodus 15:17). Psalm 80 makes explicit use of the allegory, using it in the same way as the Song of Moses:

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.
Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
the stock that your right hand planted. (Ps 80:8-15)

The allegory is clear: Israel is the vineyard, the wild boar and other beasts are the enemies of Israel. Another classic adaptation of this image is the prophetic oracle in Isaiah 5. It starts in the same place as the Song of Moses and Psalm 80:

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes. (Isa 5:1-2)

Instead of moving into lament like the psalm does, Isaiah does something unexpected and slips into the prophetic courtroom accusation mode taking on his own lips the voice of God (that is, making a propospological move himself):

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it. (Isa 5:3-6)

Psalm 80 expects God to tend the vineyard; to strengthen its wall and secure its boundaries. He is the owner and the planter, therefore it is his job to care for the vineyard and protect it. But Isaiah takes this conventional image and turns it on its head. The issue here isn’t with God/the owner—it’s with the vineyard and its crop! Isaiah finishes the oracle by both making its allegorical character exceedingly clear and clarifying the fruit:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
but heard a cry! (Isa 5:7)

Isaiah acknowledges his use of allegory by identifying the beloved farmer as “the Lord of hosts” and the vineyard as “the house of Israel /and the people of Judah.” The wild grapes produced by the people are “bloodshed” and “a cry”—violations of Israel’s covenant responsibilities rather than the fruit that God intends of his people, “justice” and “righteousness.”

As if that weren’t enough, a later author writing in the same tradition as Isaiah reclaims the vineyard image from God’s perspective in Isaiah 27:1-6 to speak of the future victory of God and the full restoration of Israel concluding with a mix of allegory and its interpretive key:

In days to come Jacob shall take root,
Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots,
and fill the whole world with fruit.

It’s not just Isaiah either in the prophetic literature. Jeremiah 12 uses this same agricultural image for Israel and the nations with regard to planting and plucking up (“Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, /they have trampled down my portion, /they have made my pleasant portion /a desolate wilderness” Jer 12:10). So too does Ezekiel 19:10-14. Thus, the Old Testament itself uses allegory as a compositional tool.

Because of this fact, it’s therefore no surprise at all to see the use of allegory proper pop up in the New Testament. Indeed, knowing this allegory of the vineyard from the Song of Moses, Psalm 80, and the Prophets is essential to understanding the parable that Jesus tells in Mark 12:1-12 (and its parallels in Matthew 21:33-44 and Luke 20:9-18) that begins “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower…” (Mark 12:1). Anybody who knows Isaiah 5 will immediately recognize what’s going on here. Matthew’s telling in particular wants to be sure that the allegorical connection is made by concluding his passage with a focus on the fruits just like Isaiah 5 does: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matt 21:43).

With these kinds of scriptural antecedents rolling around in our heads, then, what are we to make of the familiar passage from John 15 where Jesus begins speaking like this: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit…” (John 15:1-2)? Shouldn’t this address to the disciples at the Last Supper be heard as an allegory informed by Psalm 80 and Isaiah and the prophets where Jesus himself is the vine that God plants and all those connected into him are the people of God, called to bear fruit worthy of God’s kingdom?

The point I’m making here is that allegorical composition is not foreign to the Bible. To deny the legitimacy of allegory as a whole is an inaccurate reading of Scripture itself. However, what Cassiodorus and Augustine are doing goes far beyond recognizing allegorical composition. We need to make a distinction between allegorical composition which is something that a writer does, and allegorical interpretation which is something that a reader does. But here again, we have to look at the New Testament itself and how it teaches Scriptural reading.

The place where we must start to understand the role of allegorical reading in the Christian tradition is with St. Paul. Informed readers recognize that there is allegorical composition in the Bible—but Paul takes that and kicks it up several notches. In Galatians 4 he turns to the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar to contrast those who live by the law and those who live by the promise. After introducing the two children (Ishmael and Isaac), he says this:

Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. (Gal 4:24-6)

Paul is doing something different than what we saw before. He has gone to a narrative text which does not contain any signals that it is allegorical in nature and asserts that there is, in fact, an allegory at work here—one that has bearing on Christian faith and practice. Nor is this the only time that he will do this.

First Corinthians 10 is an important text for understanding how Paul reads and for how he expects us to read as well. He begins the chapter by focusing his readers attention on what happened in and after the Exodus:

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. (1 Cor 10:1-4)

This is different from what he says in Galatians; he is not claiming that this narrative is an allegory, nor does he inform us exactly how he is reading. His use of the term “spiritual” is important though. It points to the fact that he sees a deeper theological meaning embedded within the narrative and that there are certain meanings and identifications that have to be made in order to get the fullest meaning out of the text with one central hermeneutical key: “…and the rock was Christ.”

Within this section of 1 Corinthians, Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for their moral and ethical lapses. Despite the fact that they are baptized people, souls incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ, they persist in immorality that would make pagans blush. He introduces the generation of the Exodus and the pre-figurement of Baptism in the Red Sea to go on to chronicle both the ethical lapses of that generation and also the punishments that they received. He frames this material with an appeal to the utility of the scriptural text: “Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. . . . These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:6, 11). Paul is not saying that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the Exodus generation wandering in the wilderness and his Corinthian flock. Rather, he indicates that the biblical material has a bearing on and was intended to inform this present generation. These past events were written for our present instruction.

He makes this point again in a different way near the end of Romans where he explains to the Roman congregation his fundamental philosophy of reading:

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”[Ps 69:9] For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 15:1-6)

Paul’s emphasis is that the purpose of reading Scripture is to give hope and to constructively build up the community in Christ. That’s why we read: for the spiritual advancement of us all through the building up of the neighbor. Furthermore, whatever was written in Scripture is there in order to advance this purpose—to build up one another in love so that we may glorify God together in both our words and our works.

This, then, is the full and proper intention of the Pauline injunction in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. While the first verse of this passage is often proof-texted to make non-biblical assertions about inspiration, seeing it from this perspective helps us hear what Paul was intending:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

Paul’s point is that all scripture bears a spiritual meaning and that the purpose of that spiritual meaning is to build up the community so that we are equipped to do acts of love and service. This is what the Scriptures are for and how they ought to be read: they are God’s self-revelation intended to build the Church up through an understand of how God wills us to live in love and reconciliation with one another.

At this point, let’s take a step back and summarize what we’ve been up to here. Why have we been spending so much time talking about Paul in a book about the Psalms and Jesus? What we’ve established here is that:

  1. Cassiodorus and the Church Fathers read the Psalms in an extra-literal way often referred to as “allegorical interpretation.”
  2. There is a suspicion of allegorical interpretation in the modern church.
  3. That suspicion is warranted because of the ways that substitutionary readings became a way to keep the biblical text out of the hands of the laity.
  4. However, certain texts of the Bible are demonstrably allegorical in composition.
  5. Sparked by this recognition, Paul taught allegorical or spiritual reading to the Church for a specific purpose—the upbuilding of the Church for acts of love and service.

PC: David the Ideal

J.R.R. Tolkien’s last book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is entitled Return of the King. One of the final chapters in the book portrays this episode—where the ranger Strider finally claims his destiny as Aragorn Elessar, the long-awaited king of Gondor. Tolkien describes his crowning like this:

“But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him.” (Tolkien, Return of the King, 246).

Tolkien constructs Aragorn as the ultimate messianic king. He is not just a monarch, but an idealized figure who rules with almost supernatural qualities of wisdom, justice, and mercy. He is a healer, a sage; he is both a prophet and a subject of prophecy, promised to return at a crucial time. Aragorn is not the sole possessor of these characteristics in English literature; Tolkien, a medievalist, was thoroughly familiar with the legends of King Arthur. Of course, the lord of the Round Table and its mighty warriors, is said to be not dead but sleeping on the Isle of Avalon to return at the hour of Britain’s greatest need (apparently neither the Blitz nor Brexit).

Behind both of these figures and broader character of the messianic monarch in Western Literature is King David. He represents an ideal figure because he simultaneously embodies three deep archetypes: the king, the priest, and the prophet.

As king, David was the ultimate warrior. Slayer of Goliath and a mighty war leader, David became the target of Saul’s wrath because of the people’s celebration in song: “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam 18:8). David was responsible for defeating the Philistines and taking Canaanite cities. While Saul had favored his fellow Benjaminites, David unified the tribes of Israel into a coherent unit around the tribally-neutral city of Jerusalem where he centralized both political and sacred power. This unification was a difficult task, almost proving too much for him, exploited as it was by the revolt of Absalom. Nevertheless, David was able to pass a united kingdom on to his son Solomon after whom it would splinter again into the two nations of Israel and Judah.

As priest, David was responsible for bringing the worship of Yhwh to Jerusalem and centralizing the worship of the God of Israel around the ark of the covenant. While he did not suppress the old shrines like Gilgal and Shechem, he identified the ark with the presence of God and tied its presence in Jerusalem to the royal court. In his day, royalty retained some priestly functions as it had in former days—remember that Melchizedek the king of Salem (Jerusalem) was both a king and a priest (Gen 14:17-24). Thus, when David brings the ark into Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6 he does so with dancing and sacrifice, performing the sacrifices himself while wearing an ephod, the distinctive garment of the priests (2 Sam 6:13-14, 17-19). Similarly, David offers atoning sacrifices to avert a plague from his people in 2 Samuel 24:18-25. The materials in 1 Chronicles further ties David himself to the Jerusalem Temple. David is identified as the mind behind the entire project and Solomon just the hands that carry it out, contradicting the Kings account where Solomon has the larger role.

As prophet, David’s is identified as a vessel of God’s Spirit twice. The first time is in connection with his anointing as king; Gods favor is transferred from Saul to David. When Saul was first anointed as king Samuel told him “the Spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with [a band of prophets] and be turned into a different person” (1 Sam 10:6). After Saul did not follow God’s directives Samuel was told to find and anoint David. As in Saul’s case, the anointing with oil is tied to the coming of the Spirit (as it is today in traditions that follow baptismal chrismation):

Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed [David] in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah. Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him… (1 Sam 16:13-14)

Thus the giving of the spirit to David went hand-in-hand with its removal from Saul; it proceeded from the king-making ritual. In David’s case, though, it did not depart from him. While the Spirit operates in a prophetic frenzy for Saul on several occasions (1 Sam 10:10-13, 19:18-24), David never displays this kind of behavior. Rather, his oracular last words connect it with his poetry: “The spirit of the Lord speaks through me,/ his word is on my tongue…” (2 Sam 23:2). Later interpreters would pick up this theme. Second Temple literature including both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament routinely refer to David as a prophet or to the psalms as prophetic documents (see Matt 22:43; Mark 12:36; Acts 1:16; 2:25; 2:31; 4:25; etc.).

As if all of this weren’t enough, there’s one more important piece of David’s legacy: the covenant that God makes with his house. In 2 Samuel 7, just after David brings the ark into Jerusalem with dancing and sacrifice, he considers building a house for the Lord. However, God sends a message through the prophet Nathan that completely flips this. David is not going to build a house for God; rather, God is going to build a house for David! A promise to place one of David’s sons on the throne becomes a covenant:

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established” (2 Sam 7:12-16).

From a narrative perspective the initial lines of this passage refer to Solomon. As time went on, though, they were interpreted more broadly. David represents a godly king who rules a restored people of Israel with justice. God’s covenant with the house of David became both a challenge to the throne’s current incumbent (does he measure up?) and a promise that God would restore Davidic rule if this succession was ever broken. The Zion theology of Isaiah emphasizes this point: God will raise up and protect godly kings and, conversely, all kings of Judah are vassals of the true King, Yhwh. This brings us back to those psalms we discussed above, Psalms 45, 72, and 89 that sketch out the lines of an aspirational messianic figure.

The exile to Babylon and eventual restoration caused a theological crisis: how was God remaining faithful to the promise with David? How would God make good on this promise in the present situation? Thus, this post-exilic period became one of intense messianic expectation. The victories of Judas Maccabeus and the restoration of a line of priest-kings in Israel described in the books of the Maccabees seemed an initial answer, but the Roman occupation crushed the people’s hopes once again.

At the turn of the millennium and at the time of the birth of Jesus, this is what the faithful of Israel were hoping for: God’s Messiah (anointed one) who, like David, would be anointed with oil as a sign of his kingship, receive the Spirit of God with power, and act in a Davidic way by driving out the foreign oppressors, restoring the house of David, and ruling with justice and equity from Jerusalem. This is what it meant to be “Son of David” in the world that would birth the New Testament.

PC: David the Man

Of all of the figures of the Old Testament, David is the richest and most complex. His story begins in 1 Samuel 16 and extends through the remaining 15 chapters of 1 Samuel, though all 24 chapters of 2 Samuel, and even into 1 Kings where David’s death is recorded in 1 Kings 2:10. Through almost 1,200 verses, we get a deep and intimate portrait of this pivotal king of Israel.

On one hand, there are signs that certain portions of his story have the air of political propaganda: the image of the handsome young shepherd boy fighting the Philistine Goliath with just a sling is calculated to play well in its Ancient Near Eastern setting. Kings were referred to as “shepherds of their people” and were expected to be successful warriors. Emphasizing David’s youth and apparent naivety implies that it would take a (literal) miracle for him to win, and thus his victory is a demonstration of God’s favor, recalling other divinely sanctioned victories against overwhelming odds like Gideon’s (Judges 7). But contrary to this portrait (and every Sunday School illustration you have ever seen), David is described to Saul the chapter before the Goliath episode as already being a full-grown and accomplished figure: “One of the young men answered, ‘I have seen [David,] a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing [the lyre], a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence and the Lord is with him’” (2 Sam 16:18). Saul—already on the lookout for “any strong or valiant warrior” (2 Sam 14:52)—not only brings David into his household to play the lyre but also promotes him by the end of chapter 16 to be his own armor-bearer, a position of importance and trust. Thus, it’s odd that Saul barely recognizes him in chapter 17.

The fact that there would be this kind of idealization of David comes as no surprise at all. After all, he was the founder of a dynasty, the man who freed Israel from Philistine control, united the divided north and south, captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites, and established it as the centralized capitol of his kingdom. Rather, what does come as a surprise is that we hear of so many things that David did wrong! From his days as a bandit captain to his sinful taking of Bathsheba to the revolt of his son Absalom, we hear of all kinds of things that could have been covered up and expunged from the historical record altogether—but weren’t. The picture we get is far more interesting because of the ways that it wasn’t sanitized by court historians. We are shown a fully human David, warts and all.

The David we meet in the books of Samuel and Kings is a shrewd, rakish fellow who lives by his wits, his sword—and also his faith. He is a complicated person: a canny opportunist, a lover of many (married!) women, a wise king, and a loving father who we see grieving the death of an infant son and the betrayal and subsequent death of another. He is a devoted follower of the God of Israel and—despite his many moral lapses—is nevertheless a man after God’s own heart. He is the only character in the Old Testament with such a complete emotional spectrum. After all, we don’t see Moses feeling a lot, and the only feelings we get from Job are bad ones! Add to this portrait the several references to David as a musician and it’s no surprise that not only is a large early collection of psalms named after him, but that they are interpreted through and connected with episodes in his life.

The David featured in 1 Chronicles adds a whole extra layer to our picture of the man. The two books of Chronicles are a post-Exilic rewrite of the history of Israel from a liturgical perspective. That is, it’s most interested in what’s going on with the Temple, who has been appointed to do what, and how all of the various priests and Levites are organized. In the book of 1 Kings, it’s pretty clear that Solomon was the ruler responsible for building the Temple in Jerusalem and setting up worship. In Chronicles, Solomon is simply carrying through on all of the detailed plans that his father David had orchestrated. David is the worship planner par excellence especially when it comes to establishing the rota the levitical singers and, by implication, what they ought to be singing. Chronicles is an interesting addition to David’s legacy. That’s not because it gives us any new, accurate, historical information about David (after all, it was written some six hundred years after his death!); instead, it shows us the reverence with which David was seen amongst the liturgical musicians, the pre-eminence given to him and his memory. This will only grow throughout the Second Temple period including into the time of Jesus and the early church. The Jewish liturgically-obsessed sect that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls attributes to David some 4,050 fifty songs which included 3,600 psalms as well as songs to be sung at temple worship every day of the year, and even 4 therapeutic songs of exorcism to be sung over the demon-possessed (hearkening back to his original role at Saul’s court in 2 Samuel 14).[11Q5, col. XXVII (Martinez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated, 309).]

This is David the man. But there’s more to the biblical picture of David than this—and that’s what we have to turn to next. We must reckon not just with David the man, but also with David the ideal.

PC: Hearing the Psalms in other Voices

Here we go again…

In this section, I’m tackling a key question about the way the Church Fathers read the Psalms. They heard them in the voice of Jesus. But can we do that? Is this an appropriate reading strategy based on what we know from modern biblical scholarship? This is the first of four sections on this topic.


Is this a legitimate way to read the Psalms? Coming from a modern perspective, grounded in the insights of the scientific study of the Scriptures, is this a means by which we can approach them?

There are a couple of angles we can use to think through this question. The first is to come at it from the perspective of the historical critical method, the method that was the centerpiece of the academic study of Scripture from the nineteenth century until the last quarter of the twentieth century. This approach privileges the idea of authorial intent—what was the  original author intending to communicate to the people they expected to be reading or hearing this material? Was the original author of any given psalm writing it with the idea that it should be heard in the voice of Jesus? The quick and simple answer to this question is no, of course not. Remember, a fundamental premise of the academic study of Scripture is that supernatural causes or authors are outside the realm of this form of research; we can’t assume or refer to supernatural knowledge on the part of the authors. Scholarship cannot make an appeal to the Holy Spirit to suggest that a psalmist of the ninth century BC was either consciously or unconsciously writing about Jesus. As a result, this form of biblical research must answer this specific question in the negative: no, the original authors did not have Jesus in mind as they wrote, nor would their original audience have thought of Jesus when they heard or read these psalms.

That having been said, even though this form of research would deny this kind of reading in its specific application, it may give it a cautious go-ahead based in its general application. Let me explain what I mean by that. Put simply, Jesus is not mentioned by name in the Psalms for obvious temporal reasons—his Incarnation occurred centuries after the last psalm was written. However, a key feature of the psalms is a studied generality. Think back to the psalms you know. Many of the lament psalms talk about the troubles that their authors were or are in. But what specifically are these troubles? Does any psalm refer to the threat of poverty because a band of Amorite raiders seized a caravan of goods coming up from Egypt that the author had spent his last shekels on? Does any psalm talk about the political danger the author is in because he knows that Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah have heard a false rumor about him and suspect him of disloyalty in the current difficulties with the Neo-Babylonians?  No—none of them do. One of the things that makes each psalm so hard to date is the lack of specificity within them. Rather, the psalms as we have received them speak in vague generalities about the trials, tribulations, and narrow escapes of the righteous. They are general enough that anyone can find themselves within their troubles. Everyone has experienced tribulations, and the laments are crafted in such a way that each of us can hear their situations through our own experiences. As a result, the psalms taken as a whole can be read as the praise and lament of the a righteous one—a righteous one who has suffered greatly yet still praises God.

Furthermore, royal figures appear frequently in the psalms. If we wanted to group the many references to kings, we would end up with three major groups: foreign kings, usually enemies of Israel;[See Psalm 2:2, 10; Psalm 48:4; Psalm 68:12, 14, 29; Psalm 72:10-11; Psalm 76:12; Psalm 89:27; Psalm 102:15; Psalm 105:14, 20, 30; Psalm 110:5; Psalm 135:10-11; Psalm 136:17-20; Psalm 138:4; Psalm 148:11; and Psalm 149:8.] Yhwh, the God of Israel who is also the true king of Israel;[See Psalm 5:2; Psalm 10:16; Psalm 24:7-10; Psalm 29:10; Psalm 44:4; Psalm 47, Psalm 48:2; Psalm 68:24; Psalm 74:12; Psalm 84:3; Psalm 93; Psalms 95-99; Psalm 145; and Psalm 149:2.] and the human king of Israel/Judah[See Psalm 2:4; Psalm 18:50; Psalm 20:9; Psalm 21:1, 7; Psalm 33:16; Psalm 45; Psalm 61:6; Psalm 72; Psalm 89; Psalm 119:46; and Psalm 144:10.]. And yet, despite all of these references in the first and third groups, only three kings are ever mentioned by name—David, Sihon of the Amorites, and Og of Bashan—and one by implication—the unnamed Pharaoh of the Exodus. There’s no Hezekiah or Joram or Manasseh or any of the other kings of Israel or Judah mentioned in the historical books. Too, the royal psalms 45, 72, and 89 speak in hyperbolic terms about the relationship between God and the king, portraying a set of expectations that seem far beyond what any human person and accomplish or achieve! These appear to portray less historical figures and more aspirational messianic figures, a future unnamed figure of the line of David who will bring peace, prosperity and security to God’s people. What would a reader of the time hear? Is this political propaganda exalting the current occupant of the throne, or an aspirational vision of who a king could be—who is, in any case, a client king of the Yhwh, the true king—that qualifies and challenges any current occupant of the throne?

As much as a scholar working within the historical method would deny that any of the psalms were written to be placed in the mouth of Jesus, it is nonetheless a true statement that the psalms were written (or edited) in such a way that they can be seen as the words of any suffering righteous person and that they refer to an aspirational messianic king of the line of David.

But the historical method is not the only approach that modern scholarship offers. In recent decades the historical method has been joined by other methods that expand our view on the text by asking different questions that complement the historical ones but open other lines of inquiry. Reader-response and reception history take seriously how readers would have heard these texts and look for evidence about how they were actually received, understood, and put into practice. These are particularly fruitful approaches for what we’re talking about. Again—these shouldn’t be seen as an either/or, either we use one approach or we use another; rather, the most edifying perspective is a both/and. There is no single right answer about what a biblical text means—there are a multitude of questions that can be asked, some questions are better than others, and taking the answers to the better questions together can help us gain clarity about what we see in the text and how we act as a result of it.

If we come at this question—is it legitimate to read the psalms in the voice of Jesus or the church—from the direction of reader-response and reception history, we will discover some fascinating material to put into the mix.  The first question we will tackle is whether it is appropriate to read individual psalms as the voice of a community. We’ll take this on first because it is the easiest to answer: according to the psalms themselves, the answer is a resounding yes! Specifically, in and amongst the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), there are psalms that invite all of Israel to hear themselves in the “I” and “we” of the psalms:

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side —let Israel now say—If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, When our enemies attacked us… (Psalm 124:1-2)

“Often have they attacked me from my youth” —let Israel now say—“Often have they attacked me from my youth, Yet they have not prevailed against me. (Psalm 129:1-2)

The easy slippage between the singular “I,”  plural nouns like “tents of the righteous,” and collective nouns like “Israel,” “house of Aaron,” “those who fear the Lord” in a text like Psalm 118, supports the notion that even psalms written in the singular are intended to evoke the whole community’s experience. Moving outside the Psalter, Isaiah’s servant songs function in a similar way—although they are written about an exemplary individual, internal clues show that their author intended them to refer to the whole community as well: “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,/ Israel in whom I will be glorified’” (Isaiah 49:3). Thus, the psalms themselves invite their readers to investigate plurals as singulars and singulars as plurals.

Next, let’s look at the more complicated question about hearing the psalms as the voice of a particular individual. The place to start is by turning our attention to the superscriptions—those brief taglines that appear before the psalms in most translations.[It’s worth noting that some liturgical translations of the psalms—like those found in the Books of Common Prayer—leave these out.] As we discussed in our initial look at the psalms back in chapter XX, there are a couple of different kinds of superscriptions. There are those that identify the collections that were edited into the final form of the Psalter. There are others that identify tune names or are directed to the leader of the Levitical choir. Then, there are contextualizing superscriptions—superscriptions that attempt to locate certain psalms within a particular event in the life of David or another biblical figure. These are the earliest examples of prosopological interpretation of the psalms: before the canon was even closed, the psalms have been interpreted by placing them in the mouth of a specific individual expressing that person’s thoughts and feelings in the midst of a given experience. Most scholars believe that the superscriptions were not original to the psalms; they were not part of the process of composition but rather are part of the editorial work of the unknown Levites or priests who gathered these poems into collections and wove those collections together into the book that we now have. An important piece of evidence that supports this is the freedom in the Septuagint to alter and add superscriptions in ways that other parts of the biblical text are not altered.

Thirteen psalms receive historical notes in their superscriptions connecting them to events in the life of David, most of which are described in the books of Samuel; a fourteenth (Psalm 30) is unclear:

We see a lot of these historical superscriptions at the beginning of the psalter—in that initial “Book of David” collection. Even though there are many connections between these superscriptions and events listed in the biblical books as we have received them, there are enough differences to make us wonder if the editors were looking at a different version of these books. Second, the connection between the psalms and the referenced events varies in quality amongst them. For instance, the connection between David’s repentance and Psalm 51 is a great one. Liturgically speaking, Psalm 51 is considered the penitential psalm par excellence, and is eminently appropriate for this episode in David’s life. The connection between the betrayal of the Ziphites and Psalm 54 is a bit more puzzling. Despite these curiosities, these superscriptions set a pattern that would be extended both farther and deeper. Farther in the sense that David was not the only biblical figure to whom specific psalms were assigned. (I leave aside here those referring to David, Asaph and the Korahites here because these superscriptions are best seen as referring to collections rather than being prosopological connections of the sort we’re discussing here.):

The anonymous figure in Psalm 102 is interesting because it suggests a process: read the psalm, construct a emotional profile based on the content, then consider who and where in the biblical records such a person might be found. For Psalm 102 at least, the first few steps have been accomplished, but the process as a whole has not been completed.

The Septuagint, though, that translation into Greek by Egyptian Jews in the 3rd or 2nd century BC, took this idea and added to it (The bolded words in this chart shows what is in the Hebrew; the regular type is what was added in the Septuagint’s psalter):

So—what do we make of all of this?

The evidence that we see here tells us that people started interpreting the Psalms prosopologically—hearing them in the voices of particular people at particular times—early in the collecting and editing of the Psalter. They were pre-eminently tied into the life of David, but other biblical figures received attributions as well. This trend only increased as time went on. The evidence of the Septuagint shows that the editors of that tradition were comfortable doing both things: connecting more psalms with events in the life of David, and connecting them to other people and events including post-exilic people (like Haggai and Zechariah) and situations (the resettlement of Israel).

The psalms themselves invite us to hear and pray them in our voices and in the voices of biblical figures. Understanding how the early church found Jesus within them requires us to take a deep dive into David which we’ll do next.

Liturgical Look Hiatus

I really don’t want to do this, but for the sake of my sanity, I’m taking a break from the Liturgical Look Forward series.

Two main factors are driving this. The bigger reason is life changes. As some of you know, I recently changed jobs. After a decade in the corporate IT world, I am going to be teaching Computer Science and Math to high-schoolers as my day job. (I’ll still be teaching Church History & Scripture to Master’s students in the evenings.) As the new semester approaches at rocket speed, I’m trying to wrap my head around five new class that I’ll be teaching in the Fall while tying up some loose ends like—finishing Psalming Christ and a big web site project that you’ll hear more about once it’s implemented.  As much fun as “The Liturgical Look Forward” is, I can’t commit the time to it until some of these other things get fully finished and I get my bearings in the new job.

The other factor is that I’m still not completely pleased with the format or the reception of LLF. I think I’m still missing some key elements, but I’m not entirely sure what they are. I believe the concept is sound, but it hasn’t connected with people in the way that it could or should. So, I need to do some thinking around that as well. In my spare time…