For those who despise history, and I know that there are many out there, I will warn you that I am beginning a long engagement with looking back through time at the narrative of where authority has rested at various points in time. Originally I planned to do this in one, and then a couple, then three, and well I found our as I began wrestling through this I apparently had a lot to say, so to keep it in shorter bites this may be part 1 of many so read what you want, I will try to make it worth your while.
We often think of things in terms of secular and religious authority as if they are nice and discreet things, but that is a recent phenomenon. In reality, authority has rested in a couple key places at any one time but the distinction between secular and religious authority is not as defined as we might expect from our worldview. Although the breakdown of the time periods is guided by Phyllis Tickle’s breakout in the Great Emergence, what follows are my own thoughts and reflections upon authority at each of these epochs.
Prior to 1,000 BCE, roughly 3,000 years ago authority rested heavily on a family’s ability to influence the course of actions for the realm around them. For the Abrahamic faiths this is the time of Judges, when the people would rally around a great leader in the time of crisis and these men and at least one woman would provide stability for the rough confederation of tribes and families that would become Israel. It is a time where these leaders and families would set up a shrine or worship sites but there is relatively little centralized authority. Family is the central place where authority rests and there is a struggle internally between the tribes and externally with the people of Aram, Moab, Philistia, Cannan, and Ammon for land (the primary source of wealth) and power. Much as in the song “Tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof a person’s role within the family and the practices, stories and traditions handed down from one generation to another shaped who they were and what they would become.
There was no centralized religious authority, there was no scripture, certainly there were stories but things were much more fluid than we often imagine. Even in the remembered story of Israel we see that the memory is that of a chaotic time, even a brief survey of the book of Judges within the Bible points to this:
Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of one hundred and ten years. So they buried him within the bounds of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephriam, north of Mount Gaash. Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. Judges 2.8ff(NRSV)
Someone will say, but surely there would be the first five books of the bible and Joshua as scripture, and the short answer is no. Even if one were to believe that Moses wrote the Penteteuch by himself and handed it on to Joshua and the people of Israel (which you would be hard pressed to find any reputable scholar of the Hebrew Scripture/Old Testament who does) even if that were the case, this was a time of very little literacy, very little true priestly/scribal organization, very little rule of law. In a very real sense might did make right. Take for example the story of Samson in Judges 13-16, one of those stories that many people have some acquaintance with, which is set within one of the times of crisis. When I read the story Samson makes Conan the Barbarian look both ethical and smart, and yet the story tells of a person who judges Israel for 20 years, delivers them from the Philistines. There is no centralized worship place or practice, families set up their own shrines, construct their own ‘idols’ or representations of who their god, gods, of God (depending on how one looks at it) are and if you need a good demonstration of this (this is one of many) take a look at Judges 17, the story of Micah and the Levite.
In a time of heavily decentralized authority, where family, clan and tribe hold the power and the wealth (i.e. land at this point) there is constant struggle and fighting to gain possession of more wealth, more power and to expand one’s familial authority. The book of Judges for example does not remember this time fondly, it is a dark time where horrible things happen, where former allies are almost exterminated, where enemies are everywhere and as they looked around them and as they remembered their own story they began to see a different way. As 1 Samuel remembers it:
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations” 1 Samuel 8.4f (NRSV)
And that is where we are heading next…