Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 42

Posted: May 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 42

89.  Resentment is linked with rancor. When the intellect forms the image of a brother’s face with a feeling of resentment, it is clear that it harbors rancor against him. ‘The way of the rancorous leads to death’ (Prov. 12:28. LXX), because ‘whoever harbors rancor is a transgressor’ (Prov.  21:24. LXX).

I’m reminded of the Didache. “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.” Even resenting another is a step on the way that leads to death. It’s also, of course, rather difficult to love someone you resent.


Mary 8 – Protoevangelion of James

Posted: January 20th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 8 – Protoevangelion of James

The oldest surviving complete text containing the even older oral tradition of the life of Mary is the Protoevangelion of James from the second century. There appear to be some older works that are quoted in later writings, but none of those have survived. The Protoevangelion of James is about the life of Mary up to the events surrounding the nativity. It’s not written by James, of course, which is why the Church did not include it in the canon lists of the New Testament. The only texts considered Scripture by the Church were those surviving texts written by an apostolic author — someone who had seen and been sent by the risen Lord. However, while some works were rejected completely and were not to be read at all, there were in the ancient world (as continues to be true today) many works that were considered valuable to read even though they were not Scripture. The Didache (often considered to have been distilled by those who were ‘traditioned’ the faith by Paul and/or Barnabas) and the Shepherd of Hermas are such works from the first century. This is one from the first half of the second century. If you’ve never read it, it’s not very long and worth taking the time to read.

The writing also describes a couple of events that are celebrated as major Feasts within the annual liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church. It describes the Nativity of the Theotokos, born to her aged and previously barren parents, Joachim and Anna. And it describes the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple (the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the West).

I happen to find some of the things people use to reject the protoevangelium interesting. For instance it describes Jesus being born in a cave as is depicted in the icons of the Nativity. If you look around online, you’ll find some people attributing the reference to a cave as Mithraic in origin and a reason to reject the account. Ironically, modern archeology has revealed that animals in that region at that time were often kept in naturally insulated rock-cut caves. It’s an instance where an ancient tradition that had been discounted by many is now known to be pretty likely. And that makes sense. Many of the people who preserved the text lived in that region. If the text (or the older oral traditions it captured) had been discordant with things they knew, they wouldn’t have accepted and preserved it.

You’ll also find people who reject the tradition because of its description of temple virgins. They attribute those references to the pagan Roman vestal virgins. However, there’s ample evidence in the text of Scripture and in extra-biblical sources like the Mishnah for a liturgical role for specifically Jewish temple virgins. Moreover, the document and the oral tradition it captures date from a time when many Jews were still converting to Christianity. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was not some distant event. It was still recent. And, at least according to apologists like Justin Martyr, Jewish leaders were trying to stem the conversions and discredit the Christian claims. If the description of temple virgins had had no basis in reality, there would have been no ground for the tradition to take root. That should be easy to see with just a little bit of historical imagination.

I have to admit I find it odd that so many people who don’t hesitate to read modern commentaries, theological, and inspirational books, reject out of hand ancient works that fall into the same category. You do have to be discerning, of course. But in a modern landscape filled with the likes of Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, John Hagee, Tim LaHaye, Mark Driscoll, and Bishop Spong you have to be pretty discerning in what you choose to read today as well.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 22

Posted: August 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 22

80.  If you wish to find the way that leads to life, look for it in the Way who says, ‘I am the way, the door, the truth and the life’ (John 10:7; 14:6), and there you will find it. Only let your search be diligent and painstaking, for ‘few there are that find it’ (Matt. 7:14) and if you are not among the few you will find yourself with the many.

As the Didache says, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.” Life is inherently a journey. The person I was is connected to the person I am, just as the person I am will be connected to the person I become. As I align the thread of the way of my life with the Way of Jesus, I come to walk along the path of life. But it is easy for us to choose the way of death instead. Lord have mercy.


Praying with the Church 5 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Tradition

Posted: July 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 5 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Tradition

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

This is the last chapter in the book on the general topic of set prayers before Scot McKnight begins exploring the different specific prayer traditions and some of the prayer book options.

As a pious Jew, it should be clear by this point in the book that Jesus prayed both spontaneously (and sometimes at great private length) and at the set times with others. Such prayers would have included the Shema, possibly the Amidah, and maybe the Ten Commandments. In this chapter, Scot explores Jesus’ contribution to the rhythm of the prayer tradition of Israel and his foundation for a new tradition of sacred rhythmical prayer. Scot sees three elements, one conservative and two progressive. In other words, Jesus “both adopted and adapted the sacred prayer rhythms of his people.”

First Element: Pray the Psalms

As soon as I saw the heading above, before I had even first read the section, my response was “Duh!” As soon as someone says it, it’s obvious. These are the great prayers of the Israelites gathered together. They cover all ‘moods’ and general sorts of prayers. And they remain amazingly appropriate to this day. We seem to do everything with the Psalms in our own tradition *except* pray them. Why is that?

Nevertheless, you see the Psalms constantly flowing from Jesus’ lips. His life was bathed with the Psalms. Jesus heard (and said with others) the Psalms in the ‘basilica’ (if you remember the analogy), i.e. the synagogue and temple, and took them from there into his ‘portiuncola’ (same analogy). The church has always followed him in doing so. The Psalms form the core of all prayer traditions. In order to be faithful to Jesus, it seems reasonable that we should develop similar habits. Scot notes that Billy Graham reads 5 Psalms and a chapter of Proverbs a day. Every day. (Actually, it’s less now for obvious reasons, but that was his habit for years.)

The Psalms help us come to God without pretense, which is actually what God wants. There is something primal and raw in the Psalms. No rules. No limits.

Second Element: Recite the Jesus Creed

I hope y’all remember that the “Jesus Creed” is Scot’s shorthand for the Shema as Jesus revised and extended it. Faithful Jews recited the Shema at least twice a day and you can be certain Jesus did the same, even if it was with his addition. It’s important to say the words out loud. To have them in a place you can see them, possibly. Anything you can do to keep them in your mind so your life and identity can begin to be shaped by them.

I’ve been developing the discipline of praying the Shema of Jesus twice a day myself. And I’ve begun reciting it together with my Sunday School class and encouraging them to make it a part of their daily routine and to consider it throughout each day as the early Christians did. Paul, James, and John draw their basic Christian behavioral principles from this revised Shema. John’s first letter is almost entirely shaped by it. The earliest text outside the NT on Christian education, the Didache, opens with it as “the way of life.”

Third Element: Pray the Lord’s Prayer

This was a new contribution of Jesus which he clearly instructed his followers to repeat as part of their sacred prayer rhythms in response to their question. Scot translates the opening in Luke as: “Whenever you pray, you should recite this prayer.” He explains why, but since I know little Greek myself I can’t judge his explanation. However, it seems completely reasonable, especially given all we know of first century Judaism. He also notes again the use of plural, not singular, pronouns. The prayer is intended to be prayed when the believers pray together.

The chapters up to here, especially these three points, convinced Scot McKnight of the central and almost essential nature of the Christian prayer tradition rooted in Jesus’ practice and the NT teachings. The rest of the book will explore traditions that grew from that beginning.


Praying with the Church 3 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Rhythms

Posted: July 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 3 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Rhythms

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

In this chapter, Scot begins by outlining how it slowly dawned on him, breaking through preconceptions and prejudices, that Jesus actually participated in the prayer life of his people. Coming to Scripture without those preconceptions, I never doubted it myself, even if I had a hard time connecting it to the things the church does today. It’s a good (some might say ‘postmodern’) illustration of how our lenses distort and shape what we see that a biblical scholar specializing in Jesus studies should have such a hard time breaking free of his particular lens and seeing what was right in front of his face. As soon as he understood that, though, he immediately began learning how to pray not just in the church, but with the church as well.

The rhythm of Jewish set prayers were three times a day, morning, noon, and night. Scot shows some of the biblical instruction for and description of that rhythm. Daniel even refused to abandon the set times of prayer when he knew that failing to do so could cost him his life. Scot then points to Jesus’ reference to fixed hour prayer and the early church’s practice of it in scripture. The Didache (a first century manual on the Christian life) tells us Christians prayed the Lord’s Prayer three times a day.

We need to advance one step now: What is important for us today for spiritual formation is that time for Jesus was shaped by a three-times-a- day sacred rhythm. time was measured by the hours of prayer.

Similarly, we must learn to allow prayer and thus God to shape and form our lives by shaping and forming our days and our time. “Jesus came of age in a Judaism shaped by a three-times-a-day-we-all-stop-and-pray- together sacred rhythm.” But it’s not about “establishing exact rules and times.” Rather, it is about learning to consecrate our whole day to God.

Rhythmical prayer sounds simple: Just stop what you are doing a few times in the day to pray with others, whether we see these others or not. But there are few things in life as hard as establishing good habits.

We need to find a rhythm and stick to it until it becomes a habit. For me, I’ve found the Shema as Jesus revised it a starting point and something I can pray each morning and evening and spend a moment reflecting on as I pray.

“Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

As I say that, knowing it is also the thought and mind of Christians around the world, it becomes increasingly difficult to forget it during the course of the day.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 9 – God All In All

Posted: July 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 9 – God All In All

If the Christian vision of ultimate reality does not revolve around a concentration camp in the midst of paradise, what does it then involve? As I discussed earlier in the series, God is seen as everywhere present, filling and sustaining all things. Although that is both the present and future reality, that glory is now veiled. We do not fully or readily perceive the reality of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

But that will change one day. It’s the tension between Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 11. On the one hand, the world is filled with his glory right now and has been from the beginning of creation. But one day, it will be filled with the full knowledge of the glory. It’s the image we see in Habakkuk 2:14.

“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

As the waters cover the sea? My first reaction to that verse was that the waters are the sea, but as I learned more of the ancient Jewish perception of reality, I came to understand that the “sea” stood for chaos and evil. The “monsters” come from the sea. This is the image of God’s healing waters covering and healing a disordered reality as creation, which is already filled with the glory of the Lord, becomes filled with the full knowledge of that glory. We see similar imagery in Revelation when we are presented with the healing streams and are told there is “no more sea.”

If God’s all-sustaining glory is no longer veiled and suffuses all creation, then one thing is immediately apparent. We will all experience exactly the same ultimate reality. The glory of God, the light of God, the love of God will be inescapable. We will understand and perceive God suffusing all creation, even our own bodies. There will be no place we can turn where that will not be true. And if that’s the case, then we can’t speak of some people (or any created being) or places being treated differently from others. It’s not the case that some are punished and others aren’t.

No, the question becomes rather, “How will I experience the fire of God’s love? Will it be warmth and comfort to me? Or will it be a consuming fire?” We will not be tormented because we have been confined somewhere and tortured by some external agent. No, if we are tormented, it will be because we do not want God yet cannot escape his presence.

Or perhaps we will lock ourselves in our own interior world consumed by passions we can no longer express outwardly. I think of the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ final Narnia book, The Last Battle. Huddled in the midst of a creation made new, with a feast before them, in the very presence of Aslan, they perceive themselves as in a dark, rank stable eating garbage and drinking dirty water. They will not be fooled again and render themselves incapable of sensing the reality around them. They are bound in delusion. I believe we all have the capacity for such delusion within us.

As I said earlier, hell cannot have the same sort of reality that creation – heaven and earth – has. It’s not a place where God is not, for no such place exists. It cannot be a place that is not renewed within creation. “Behold, I make all things new!” proclaims the Lamb. Hell can only be the experience of a renewed creation and of a God of relentless and consuming love by those who do not want either one and are not formed to live within that reality. The seeds of our own hell are within each of us. As the Didache opens, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 22

Posted: May 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

79.  Almsgiving heals the soul’s incensive power; fasting withers sensual desire; prayer purifies the intellect and prepares it for the contemplation of created beings. For the Lord has given us commandments which correspond to the powers of the soul.

This text is interesting to me on several levels. For those who don’t often engage with any aspect of the Christian ascetic disciplines, almsgiving, fasting, and prayer lie at their foundation. These are the disciplines discussed (and assumed considering his Jewish audience) by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. These are the disciplines encountered again and again in the rest of the New Testament and in the writings of the Church. The earliest document of Christian liturgical practice that we have, the Didache, discusses these three disciplines.

In this text, St. Maximos is linking the disciplines to the effect they have, if practiced properly, on our soul. Almsgiving soothes and heals our soul’s inflammatory nature. It is true that wealth and the accumulation of material goods tends to excite and provoke us. We then tend to defend what we have and the means we employ to acquire more. Jesus spoke a great deal about the chains with which material wealth can bind us. It does follow then, that almsgiving, the practice of giving our money away, would begin to heal us. I had never really considered it in that light.

The goal of fasting is to give us mastery over our stomachs, and through that mastery, free us from domination by all the desires of our senses. Fasting has always made more sense to me in its Christian form than many of the other practices and disciplines.

I’m not sure I understand his statement about prayer. I grasp that prayer is our mystical connection with God and thus is the only true route for studying anything about God. So it makes sense, I guess, that as we turn our minds toward communion with God in constant prayer, that our intellect would be purified. Prayer to God cannot inhabit a mind that is turned from God. As we turn toward sin in our minds, we stop praying. As we start praying, we turn from sin.

I’m not sure what he means about preparing us for contemplation of created beings. Perhaps he means that a mind of prayer is prepared to see the created order as it actually is. A very interesting text, indeed.


For the Life of the World 37

Posted: February 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 37

This post focuses on sections 1-3 of Sacrament and Symbol, the second appendix of For the Life of the World.

Fr. Schmemann notes at the start of this essay that much of Orthodox theology in recent centuries has been deeply swayed and influenced by the Western perspective that focused on the form and practice of sacraments and tried to fully define them in ways that Christianity had not traditionally done. Not only were the answers wrong, but often the questions were the wrong questions, or they were asked in the wrong way.

What is a “sacrament”? In answering this question the post-patristic Western and “westernizing” theology places itself within a mental context deeply, if not radically, different from that of the early Church. I say mental and not intellectual because the difference belongs here to a level much deeper than that of intellectual presuppositions or theological terminology.

That’s the first question. What is it about which we are speaking? Everyone seems to assume they know, but there are actually a lot of presuppositions and statements about the nature of reality behind every such answer.

In the early Church, in the writings of the Fathers, sacraments, inasmuch as they are given any systematic interpretation, are always explained in the context of their actual liturgical celebration, the explanation being, in fact, an exegesis of the liturgy itself in all its ritual complexity and concreteness.

You see this as far back as the Didache, where baptism cannot be explained apart from its actual liturgical practice, and it continues everywhere that baptism, the eucharist, and other sacraments are discussed. They are concrete things. It’s only much later that sacraments came to be discussed and analyzed independent of their actual practice. Fr. Schmemann notes that you could read about the sacraments in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, for example, and walk away with no knowledge or understanding of the liturgical act itself, how to “do” the sacrament.

In order to begin to explore the shift in perception and understanding, Fr. Schmemann begins by focusing on a Western “debate” with which most are familiar — the debate of the real presence.

Within the context of that debate the term “real” clearly implies the possibility of another type of presence which therefore is not real. The term for that other presence in the Western intellectual and theological idiom is, we know, symbolical. [It is clear in Western thought that] the “incompatibility between symbol and reality,” between “figura et veritas” is consistently affirmed and accepted.

Even before I began to read ancient Christian writers, I knew that was wrong. I knew that as a rule people int he ancient world did not make “symbol” the opposite of “real.” Rather, symbols always shared in the power of that which they expressed. And the truer the symbol, the greater the power. Once I began to read ancient Christians, I found a similar sort of perception of reality in their writings.

The Fathers and the whole early tradition, however — and we reach here the crux of the matter — not only do not know this distinction and opposition, but to them symbolism is the essential dimension of the sacrament, the proper key to its understanding. … “Symbolical” here is not only not opposed to “real,” but embodies it as its very expression and mode of manifestation. Historians of theology, in their ardent desire to maintain the myth of theological continuity and orderly “evolution,” here again find their explanation in the “imprecision” of patristic terminology. They do not seem to realize that the Fathers’ use of “symbolon” (and related terms) is not “vague” or “imprecise” but simply different from that of the later theologians, and that the subsequent transformation of these terms constitutes indeed the source of one of the greatest theological tragedies.

The use of many terms changed within Christianity, but most Christians don’t want to admit it, or if they do, they want to believe that they have somehow “recovered” an older meaning or understanding that was “lost.” Few people are content to simply let different be different and read and explore with that lens in place.


For the Life of the World 25

Posted: January 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The series now moves to section 4 of the fifth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter five.

Fr. Schmemann takes what, for me at least, was an unexpected turn in this last section of a chapter on marriage and love when he focuses on priesthood. His point, of course, is that any true Christian priesthood is rooted in love. And that makes sense to me when I think about it. If God is love, then it follows that those who serve the people of God do so in the context of love. Here’s how Fr. Schmemann introduces the idea.

Nowhere is the truly universal, truly cosmic significance of the sacrament of matrimony as the sacrament of love, expressed better than in its liturgical similitude with the liturgy of ordination, the sacrament of priesthood. Through it is revealed the identity of the Reality to which both sacraments refer, of which both are the manifestation.

Fr. Schmemann follows with some harsh words for what he terms “clericalism,” a process or attitude that makes “the priest or minister beings apart, with a unique and specifically “sacred” vocation in the Church.” Vocations that are not “sacred” become “profane” even if that precise language is not used. Fr. Schmemann notes that this is hardly something that happens only in the so-called “liturgical” churches. Every modern church that has specially designated or “ordained” ministers of any sort tends to fall into the same trap. It’s the modern distinction that made room for what we call “secularism” and in some sense made its rise inevitable. His words made me think of a friend who, from the stories he tells, at one point in his life was so heavily invested in his “ministerial” or “sacred” vocation that it became almost a destructive force. By the grace of God, he saw the danger and made some significant changes before it consumed him and those he loved. Others, however, are not so fortunate. “Clericalism” is indeed a path away from life and toward death. (And yes, I’m thinking of the “two ways” in the Didache — and in much of Jesus’ teaching — when I say that.) That’s true in the Orthodox Church. And it’s true in the SBC. Clericalism may not have exactly the same outward appearance when it grows from those two different soils, but it shares the same heart and is just as deadly.

It is not accidental, therefore, that the words “laity,” “layman” became little by little synonymous with a lack of something in a man, or his nonbelonging. Yet originally the words “laity,” “layman” referred to the laos — the people of God — and were not only positive in meaning, but included the “clergy.” But today one who says he is a layman in physics acknowledges his ignorance of this science, his nonbelonging to the closed circle of specialists.

As we saw in the last chapter, every member of the laos enters through baptism and chrismation. We are a royal priesthood, ordained to offer the proper thanksgiving of creation to God and live as the icon (image) of God as we were created and now are being recreated or made new. From the beginning of the church, there are those within our priesthood who are ordained to serve the laos in particular ways. But there is no “sacred” and “profane” divide. The division between “natural” and “supernatural”, “religious” and “secular”, or “divine” and “ordinary” is illusory. From the Christian perspective, those ways of ordering reality are a lie.

Our secular world “respects” clergy as it “respects” cemeteries: both are needed, both are sacred, both are out of life.

I’m not sure it even “respects” clergy that much anymore. This book was, after all, originally written in 1963 and revised and expanded in 1973. Attitudes have continued to degrade in the decades since it was written.

But what both clericalism and secularism — the former being, in fact, the natural father of the latter — have made us forget is that to be priest is from a profound point of view the most natural thing in the world. Man was created priest of the world, the one who offers the world to God in a sacrifice of love and praise and who, through this eternal eucharist, bestows the divine love upon the world.

And as Fr. Schmemann points out, Christ is the one true priest (and our high priest), because he is the one true man. Mankind failed and because of our failure “the world ceased to be the sacrament of divine love and presence and became nature.”

But Christ revealed the essence of priesthood to be love and therefore priesthood to be the essence of life. He died the last victim of the priestly religion and in His death the priestly religion died and the priestly life was inaugurated. He was killed by the priests, by the “clergy,” but His sacrifice abolished them as it abolished “religion.” … He revealed that all things, all nature have their end, their fulfillment in the Kingdom; that all things are to be made new by love.

And thus the central connection to love that this chapter explores. All things made new by love. All things made new. All things. We look into the heart of God, into the heart of creation and we find love.

If there are priests in the Church, if there is the priestly vocation in it, it is precisely in order to reveal to each vocation its priestly essence, to make the whole life of all men the liturgy of the Kingdom, to reveal the Church as the royal priesthood of the redeemed world. It is, in other terms, not a vocation “apart,” but the expression of love for man’s vocation as son of God and for the world as the sacrament of the Kingdom. … The Church is in the world but not of the world, because only by not being of the world can it reveal and manifest the “world to come,” the beyond, which alone reveals all things as old — yet new and eternal in the love of God. Therefore no vocation in this world can fulfill itself as priesthood. And thus there must be the one whose specific vocation is to have no vocation, to be all things to all men, and to reveal that the end and the meaning of all things are in Christ.

I can’t say I had ever looked at “priests” (or “ministers” if you prefer — presbyter and episcopos are the Greek words for the two orders specifically under discussion here I believe) as called to have no vocation so they could guide the laos in living out their priesthood within their various vocations. It’s a different way of looking at it. Fr. Schmemann goes on to describe how the priesthood reveals the humility of the Church and its utter dependence on Christ’s love. And it’s in that love that he finds the sacrament of ordination the same as the sacrament of matrimony. Even if the priest is also married with a family, he is in some sense also married to the Church he serves. There is (or should be) that same deep bond of love.

The final point is this: some of us are married and some are not. Some of us are called to be priests and ministers and some are not. But the sacraments of matrimony and priesthood concern all of us, because they concern our life as vocation. The meaning, the essence and the end of all vocation is the mystery of Christ and the Church. It is through the Church that each one of us finds that the vocation of all vocations is to follow Christ in the fullness of His priesthood: in His love for man and the world, His love for their ultimate fulfillment in the abundant life of the Kingdom.

The emphasis on vocation reminds me once again of N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. And certainly the common interest and concern of all with marriage and priesthood removes both from the sphere of individual concern where we so often place them today.


My Church History Perspective 4 – What does it really mean that ancient cultures were oral cultures?

Posted: December 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Church History Perspective 4 – What does it really mean that ancient cultures were oral cultures?

There are many aspects in the study of ancient cultures and life that make it difficult for us to grasp the way people thought and interacted and the way various events are tied together. Not least of these problems is the essentially ephemeral nature of most human artifacts. A lot of people I encounter seem to think we know (as in some certain knowledge) a lot more about the ancient world than we actually do. The reality is that ancient history is a process more akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces missing and no certain idea what the assembled mosaic should portray. Discerning the overarching threads of the picture is made even more difficult because we do not think about or approach the world around us in the same way they did. Our culture, that is our basic assumptions about the nature of reality, other people, power structures, and the threads that tie it all together, is very different from any ancient culture. When we simply look at collections of artifacts or bits of information through the lens of our modern culture and assumptions, we will invariably construct a false picture of the past.

That’s one of the things that has always made ancient history so fascinating to me. I love the challenge of trying to see the world through those very different lenses. I can never fully do it, of course. I’m as much the product of the forces and assumptions that shaped me as we all are. But I can catch glimpses here and there. I can have flashes of insight. In truth, it’s the same sort of problem that has also drawn my interest to different modern cultures, trying to understand how they shape and form the lenses through which people view reality. But with ancient cultures, you’re operating with fragments. The glass is shattered. Nobody presently alive was a part of that ancient culture and so you’re looking through small pieces at a time and trying to discern the whole.

One of the core differences between most of our modern cultures and the ancient cultures is that modern cultures are predominantly literate cultures rather than oral cultures. Now, that statement means a whole lot more than simply whether or not people can read and write. In the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish worlds it was not unusual for people of all classes (even slaves and women) to be able to read and write to some extent. But the cultures were fundamentally oral cultures. And that has some profound implications.

(I haven’t read biblical scholars to any great extent because many of the modern ones don’t seem to be historians and are thus less interesting to me. However, I have noticed that Ben Witherington III and N.T. Wright are two biblical scholars who are also historians and incorporate a lot of this into their work. I’m sure they aren’t the only ones. But, as I said, I haven’t read or listened to any broad spectrum of biblical scholars. I just happened to stumble across the two above over the course of years.)

One of the hurdles we face seems at first to be a relatively minor difference at first. We trust things in writing more than things that are spoken. They trusted things that were spoken more than things that were written. In other words, if somebody tells us something and we aren’t sure if they are telling us the truth or not, we will try to look it up in a trusted written work. We will look for a signed contract outlining the agreement. We elevate the text over the merely verbal.

In the ancient world the opposite was true. If someone spoke, you knew who was speaking and you knew for certain what they said. You could then decide (often through complex chains of trust) if the person speaking was someone you would believe or not. Agreements and contracts relied on verbal oaths with witnesses. Even when they were written down, the written text was considered poor evidence. Texts, on the other hand, were inherently untrustworthy. You had no idea if the person to whom they were attributed actually wrote them. You didn’t know if they had been changed or altered. And they were subject to misinterpretation.

Those problems were further exacerbated by the nature of writing in that part of the ancient world. Material on which to write was not inexpensive and so none of it was wasted. Ancient Greek, Latin, and Hebrew texts did not have upper or lower case letters. They did not use punctuation. And they did not put spaces between the words. Ancient written Hebrew didn’t even use vowels. They were inferred from the consonants and context.

Think about that for a minute. Imagine trying to read and understand this post if it were written in all capital letters, with no punctuation, and no spaces.

Now take out the vowels.

Most “letters” in the ancient world were very brief and factual. You could give a servant or messenger a letter that said (after greetings), “Here are the three donkeys I promised to send to you,” with little chance of being misunderstood. The “letters” in the New Testament are really not much like letters at all. They are generally sermons or treatises sometimes inserted inside the structure of a formal letter. (Not all the “letters” have any of that structure. 1 John, for example, is simply a sermon.) As a result, the written text alone would never have been trusted or even correctly understood by its recipients as a mere text. Rather, the text would have been entrusted to a messenger, someone those receiving the text would either know or know about, and would trust that the person came from the one said to have sent the text. That person would then deliver the text verbally in the stead of the one who sent it. It was the person carrying the message who was trusted first, not the message itself. And it was that person who knew how to accurately read the text and who could hand over the correct reading (or tradition it) to those receiving it. Once you recognize that fact, you realize how important those delivering any text like those in our New Testament canon actually were and you realize that a text had no independent authority. Paul does us the favor of identifying many of those who carried the sermons he could not deliver in person to various places. And it is therefore much more significant than many modern people seem to realize that the sermon/treatise to the Roman Church by Paul was given to Deacon Phoebe to deliver.

And that brings us to the way knowledge is held and transmitted in oral cultures. We use the written word as our repository of knowledge and our means of transmitting that knowledge to others. That is not essentially true in an oral culture. People instead commit the important things to memory. I’ve noticed that a lot of modern people are amazed at that or think it’s impossible. But it’s really not. We have trained our minds to work within the context of a literate culture so we use our memories differently than those in an oral culture do. But in an oral culture, people routinely commit segments of their tradition to memory essentially word for word. That is the process of “traditioning” knowledge in an oral culture.

When we do not understand that facet, we miss the many places where our texts speak of “handing over to you what I received” or urging people to hold fast to what was “traditioned” to them either in person or in a text delivered by a trusted messenger. We also misplace our trust. Their trust in the ancient Church was never in a text. They didn’t even have texts in all instances. (Texts were hand written and very expensive.) Their trust was in those who gave them the tradition of our faith within the context of our shared communion. The trust was in the network of people who proclaimed our Lord and who, originally, had seen our risen Lord and been instructed by him. That is actually the basis behind the acceptance of certain texts as canonical. They were texts believed to have originated from those taught by Jesus after his death, those who traditioned the apostolic witness to the Church, and they were texts that were widely read in the Church. (The gnostic gospels and other texts, by comparison, were very narrowly read. Others, like the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas, lacked a definitive connection to a specific apostolic witness.)

When we miss this facet of an oral culture, we also miss the import of statements like that in the Didache, where before Baptism those being baptized “say all these things”. They were reciting the tradition to show they had properly received it and were prepared to join the community. If you read ancient texts from an oral culture through the lens of a literate culture, you will misunderstand the framework that supports the texts and thus often misunderstand the texts themselves.

It’s hard for me to say whether any text in our Holy Scriptures has a “plain meaning” or not. I certainly find both John’s Gospel and Paul’s sermon to the Romans deep theological treatises that are not at all easy to understand and have layer upon layer of meaning. But I do know that even those texts that might have had a “plain meaning” to those originally receiving it no longer have one for us. We are simply too far removed from the cultural context, language, and understanding to interpret them on our own. We need the interpretation of the communion of the life of the Church to understand our faith. We need to receive it first from the Church. Now, that does not mean we cannot critically examine what we have received. That does not mean the Spirit will not lead us into new insight (though I tend to distrust ideas I have that seem truly new). It doesn’t even mean that everything we receive has necessarily been preserved accurately. But it does mean that if I read the text, or I meditate on God, and I come up with an idea that is not only new, but which contradicts the overall tradition of our faith, I am deeply suspicious of it. And that’s the standard I tend to apply to any teaching or idea promulgated by another.

I never applied that same standard to other spiritualities I pursued. There have been other buddhas and other sutras in Buddhism since Gautama Buddha. Every guru in the myriad paths we today label Hinduism takes a different turn of interpretation or application of the vedic literature. But Christianity is rooted in a specific person who lived, taught, and made known to us a very specific God with a particular perspective on the nature of reality. Christianity is tied to history in a way no other faith I’ve explored has been. Either Jesus of Nazareth was all that God is and the events of his life happened essentially as we believe, or there is no reason to be Christian. So there is no room for a plurality of visions about God within our faith. There is one faith and this is the faith in Jesus as delivered by and through the apostolic witness. If something demonstrably contradicts that witness, I don’t understand why someone would choose to believe it. If I believed their witness were wrong in a substantive way, or that the Church had lost the tradition that had been handed over to it, I wouldn’t see any point in being Christian at all. Once lost, I see no way a tradition as specifically focused as Christianity and rooted in historical events and teachings could ever be recovered.