Tag Archives: Marcion

Violence and the Bible

Battle of Gilboa by Jean Forquet (1420-1480)

Battle of Gilboa by Jean Forquet (1420-1480)

If you spend much time with scripture you have to come to some sense of resolution about how you will approach the question of violence within the Bible. If you are following what I am writing about Esther, we are entering a portion where when you take seriously the violence that is being talked about, which I will do, it should force you to ask some really difficult questions.

Probably the simplest answer that many people come to is to simply ignore it.  The bible like so much of the media we consume simply assumes violence is a part of life. In the book of Esther the violence is never ascribed to God or God’s will, it is simply a result of the way things are and the characters in the book work and live out of the societies assumption towards violence and revenge.  At other times the violence is directly attributed to God’s will, for example this is the prophet Samuel speaking to King Saul to get him to go and wipe out the Amalekites:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. 1 Samuel 15: 2-3

I choose this one because it may have some relevance to the story of Esther since the villan in the story is an Agagite (King Agag is the one Saul did not kill, but Samuel the prophet did and perhaps some think this is the cause of the animosity). But this is one of many throughout the Old Testament where God seems to tell the people in effect ‘wipe them out, all of them.’ At other times God is behind the violent action, whether in the plagues in Egypt or even God being behind the armies of Assyria and Babylon taking the people into exile. Yet on the other hand Jesus effectively argues for non-violent lifestyle, and throughout much of the Old Testament, particularly in the prophets, we see a hope for a vision of peace and harmony where swords are turned into plowshears and nations no longer train for war. The contrast was such that one of the earliest heresies in the church, Marcionism, argued that there were two gods, the New Testament God of Jesus and the Old Testament demiurge who was the violent and evil creator (more about Marcion in the Place of Authority 2-3: The Early Church’s Identity Problem).

At some level, I have had to reconcile how I approach this issue because within it rests a broader question on how we approach and value scripture:

An approach, but not one I advocate, followed by many conservative Christians is to fully embrace the picture of the violent God, hence God’s wrath and holiness become central parts of their theology. Within this approach violence may have a divine sanction, especially towards the other. This was the way of thinking that was operative during the crusades or the colonization of the Americas where the options presented were convert or die. This is in my opinion a very dangerous ideology and ripe for abuse in many ways, where the other is de-humanized and can be eliminated as offensive to God. Within this theology the spokesman (and it typically is a man-although not always) gets to determine what is holy and what is profane and as a mouthpiece of their god. Much violence, abuse, and destruction has been sanctioned by advocates of this theology and while one can make a biblical justification for it-it goes completely against the vision of Christianity I practice.

Another approach which tries to engage the question faithfully, is represented by the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who states God is in recovery from violence. Brueggemann attempts to take the Old Testament witness very seriously as a whole and is a phenomenal interpreter of texts and theologian, yet this is still not the approach I would advocate. You can see Brueggemann talk about this way of thinking here.

As a Lutheran pastor there are several pieces of my tradition that form my approach to this question:

  1. Ultimately as a Lutheran I am focused on God’s action of coming down in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus the Christ, as the lens through which the rest of scripture is viewed. Jesus words and ministry interpret and critique the rest of scripture, and so it is here that I look to find what God is like.
  2. Lutheran interpretation of scripture has always advocated for ‘a cannon within the cannon’ which is a fancy way of saying not all scripture has equal weight or value. As I mentioned a couple times going through Esther, Martin Luther didn’t like Esther (or James or Revelation for that matter) because what was important was what reveals Christ.
  3. Finally from a Lutheran perspective God is ultimately a gracious God and so while I would not go the direction of Marcion and eliminate the Old Testament, rather I read the bible back and forth, and even in the times of darkness and violence to ask the question of ‘where is the God of love in the midst of this’ and there may be parts where we say ‘the God of love does not seem to be in this’ at least at this point as we read, but sometime later we may see something different.

The scriptures are in dialogue with each other and are not one unified voice, but rather a chorus of different voice trying to point to God. I attempt to take scripture very seriously, but there will be times when I struggle against a certain piece (as I will with the ninth chapter of Esther) because it seems to go against the grain of the ultimate direction of where scripture is hearing, it may be out of tune with the rest of the chorus. Yet my own voice is just one voice within the larger chorus of voices trying to wrestle with the God scripture tries to point us to. The Old Testament in particular deals with the parts of life that we may not think God has much part of, yet it puts the place of God right in the middle of the messiness of life (violence, broken families, living in exile and many other situations). I think Ellen Davis does a very nice job talking about this here and I would like to think my way is similar to hers. Sometimes it means we will wrestle with scriptures and the pictures of God  it paints, but to me that is a part of our vocation as the people of God.

The perfectionist part of me struggles with putting out such a rough reflection, and I may come back and do some more work on this at another point, but I am also trying to put limits to how long I spend on any one project.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

The Place of Authority 2-3:The Early Church’s Identity Problem

Image of Christ Pantocrator (Almighty or Lord of Hosts), Hagia Sopia, Istanbul, Turkey

When a movement is centered on one person who is no longer present in a corporeal (bodily) form that the members of that movement can continue to speak to and learn from eventually there will come an identity crisis where people begin to ask, “Are we following the right Jesus?” “Are we being faithful to his vision?” “Are we still following the God he pointed to?” As the church entered the second century it was dealing with heavy pressures from the empire around it and at the same time this early church had to figure out who it was from pressures from within.

It was still early in the church’s young life; the canon (the selections of works that would come to make up the bible) was not fixed. The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were in wide circulation as well as many of the letters associated with Paul, but depending where you went the Shepherd of Hermas or the Letters of Clement or the Didache may also be present (which would later be viewed a positive works but not held at the same level as scripture). The challenge to how to tell the story of being the people of Jesus arose from within and to react to this challenge the church adapted and changed.

One of Christianity’s greatest gifts was that it was not tied to one language or culture. As it spread across the known world at that time it would be quickly translated into Greek (the language of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire) and eventually into more and more languages and cultures. The reason that the books that are a part of the New Testament are in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic,  is that by the time the stories of Jesus are written down and as Paul and others wrote letters they were going to churches that primarily spoke Greek (at least as a second language). With this encounter with the Greek world and language also came an encounter with Greek thought which was much different from the Jewish or Hebrew worldview that Jesus and all the original apostles came out of. As Greek speaking and thinking individuals encountered Christianity and they translated the message they would both be changed by it and in their own way they would transform the message as well. The question has to emerge what is a valid transformation and what is not? Two long lasting assumptions that many Christians include as central to their thought: the immortality of the soul or the absoluteness of God are Greek ideas not Biblical ones and yet with the introduction of Greek culture they become a part of the thought of the early church.

One of the early challenges came from a wealthy Christian named Marcion. While Hebrew thought has no problem with contradictions and gaps, a Greek thinker like Marcion could not abide contradictions. Among other things, Marcion felt that the God of the Old Testament was not reconcilable with the God of Jesus. Marcion read how in the Old Testament that God called for wars which wiped out entire populations, called down judgments in a harsh and unforgiving manner and came to the conclusion that in combination with these things he read and the reality of suffering in the world that the creator must be evil and different from the God of Jesus. In contrast to almost every other church leader at the time, Marcion read Old Testament literally rather than allegorically. Marcion felt that the Old Testament should not be a part of the Christian scriptures and therefore it should be thrown out. In addition to this, in a Greek way of thinking that viewed sex, childbirth and the body in general as bad, Marcion could not accept that Christ was born of a woman-even if it was a virginal birth God could not be born of a woman. For the first time we begin to see in a very powerful way the emergence of theology more than narrative as formational for a way of thinking about God and Jesus. Marcion quickly identified the contradictions and the differences in the New Testament gospels that were being held in most churches, so he eliminated Matthew, Mark and John and seriously redacted Luke to try to remove anything “impure” to be put alongside of Paul’s letters (also purified of Jewish “interpolations”). These modifications were viewed to be unorthodox by the leaders of the church in Rome and in 144 CE he was expelled from the early church. Marcion became one of the earliest to try to put together a canon, a list of texts that would form the basis for the church’s authority and the church would continue to deal with his followers for decades.

Another threat to the view of who Christ was came from those often referred to as Gnostic Christians. Gnostics are so named because they believed that they had secret knowledge that others, including other Christians, did not have. I am not convinced that there is one direction among the groups and the scriptures that we might label Gnostic, in fact they seem to represent a wide range of things. We are the beneficiaries of the rediscovery of several of the Gnostic gospels at Nag Hammadi in 1945 which give us a window into what Gnosticism may have looked like. Some of these, like the Gospel of Thomas, are very similar to many of the sayings in Matthew and Luke and portray Jesus as a wisdom teacher. Others like the Gospel of Truth associated with the Gnosticism of the Valentinians develop a whole cosmology that put Jesus among many heavenly beings and looks very little like anything we would recognize as Christian. Like Marcion they held the body as bad and the soul as good (or divine spark would be a term you might see in Gnostic gospels) and the purpose of having the proper Gnostic knowledge is for that soul or divine spark to be liberated from the body.  Again the early church made the decision that this was not an accurate representation of the faith and the Gnostic gospels would not become a part of the canon.

Each time a crisis presented itself between a Greek way of thinking and a Jewish way of thinking the church attempted to remain with the Jewish way. At the same time, even while trying to remain close to the Jewish origins of the story, the questions that were being asked were no longer the questions of the Hebrew mind, they were the questions of the Greek world. The Bible began to be viewed in terms that were familiar to the Greek way of thinking, so God had to be omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent (all powerful, all knowing and present everywhere) and this rather than the narrative became decisive for decisions. The biblical hope of a bodily resurrection at the return of Jesus, the participation in the new creation and all the images that populate the gospels and Paul’s letters began to be read in terms of the soul joining God in heaven. The story when it was read was often interpreted allegorically (there are gifts and challenges that come with this) and theology and a few common practices became the points where identity was formed for the early church. It is to these practices we will turn next.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com