Part of the spirit of the Reformation is
summed up in its embrace of Erasmus’ motto, "ad fontes," "to the sources!" For them, and for Protestants thereafter,
the emphasis was on taking the Scriptures back to the original Hebrew and Greek texts, and thereby hoping to recover the original
faith of the apostles, rescuing it from the mire of Medieval Roman corruption. Part of this Protestant agenda was to separate
from the tradition elements that were considered extraneous imports from neo-Platonic philosophy or Hellenistic pagan cults
and not part of the true Biblical inheritance.
But what if some basic pieces of this approach
were shown to be erroneous? What if, for instance, some of the things that had been dismissed from the tradition by zealous,
Bible-centered Protestants as hopelessly un-biblical, actually turned out to be rooted in a hitherto understated and nearly
lost stream of the Hebrew tradition? What if it could be shown that the scriptures of the early Church included more books
than appear in our Old Testament? What if the Old Testament they did have was different from the one we have today? What if
it turned out that Judaism at the time of Jesus was dramatically more multi-dimensional than we ever dreamed?
Were anyone to demonstrate these hypotheses,
it could have the potential to cause a seismic shift in the way we read and interpret the Bible. A British Old Testament scholar
named Margaret Barker has written several books attempting to do just this. Her main area of expertise is the symbolism, ritual,
and theology of the first Temple, the one built by Solomon. In the course of her work, Barker paints a picture of the era
from the reform of Josiah and Hilkiah to the visions of John the Apostle which is radically different from what we learned
For one thing, she begins to clear up one
puzzling aspect of the New Testament. There is an awful lot of material — especially the profound mysticism that comes
across in John and Paul — which simply seems to have scant basis in the Old Testament as we know it. Even some remarkable
central assertions about Jesus’ work of atonement seem to have only tenuous and implicit roots in the Old Testament.
It is easy to wonder if there wasn’t more to the way the early Christians understood their own Judaism than what we
Barker says there was.
For one thing, most of us don’t yet
realize how the findings at Qumran have the potential to change everything about how we look at the Bible. Not only do we
get a glimpse of a Hebrew text of the present Old Testament that is earlier than what we ever had before, but the whole contextual
framework surrounding the text has been greatly altered. We are seeing that many of the ideas that emerge in the New Testament
and early Christianity were actually current in the culture of the period. Not only that, but they have a deep pedigree in
the theology of the Israelite people.
Barker contends that much of what appears
in the New Testament, and even more of what became basic to the post-New Testament Christian community, actually has roots
in the cult of Solomon’s Temple. Her thesis is that the "reform" of Josiah and Hilkiah just before the Exile, was actually
a massive repression of an older Israelite religion and priesthood. These original elements were systematically removed —
in terms of the furnishings of the Temple quite literally — by the puritanical party we know as the Deuteronomists.
The Deuteronomists revised much of the tradition to suit their iconoclastic and radically monotheistic theology.
Meanwhile, the older priesthood went into
exile or underground. Their influence emerges in tantalizing hints and references, especially in books like Job, Proverbs,
and some Psalms. The prophets leave traces of this older form of the faith as well, and it becomes more pronounced in the
imagery and symbolism of apocalyptic literature. And we even see it implicitly reflected in the polemics written by the Deuteronomists
themselves. Much of this is material that scholars have usually felt to have weaseled its way syncretistically into Yahwism
from non-Israelite Canaanite religion. Barker attempts to show that a lot of it was not Canaanite import but essential to
the original faith of Israel.
The underground archaic Israelite religion
remained in semi-exile in their own land. When the exiles returned they brought with them a radically reconfigured Judaism
and imposed it, with the sponsorship of the new Persian rulers, on the people who had been left in the Promised Land. By the
time of Jesus, the remnants of the older priesthood were still around, and they became part of the original core of disciples
(see Luke 1:5 and Acts 6:7). They bring with them a lot of this older priestly and apocalyptic material (much of it unwritten),
which becomes integral to the theology and spirituality of the New Testament and the early Church.
These are the very pieces that scholars
have often concluded were imported from some part of the Hellenistic milieu. Barker goes so far as to say, not only that these
were original aspects of Israelite faith, but even that the Greeks themselves may have received them from the Israelites!
(Pythagoras is supposed to have visited "Syria" where he may have picked up this First Temple Israelite mysticism, which was
later taken up and reworked by Plato and Plotinus. This is one of Barker’s more far-fetched hypotheses based on mostly
circumstantial evidence. Even so, I find her surprisingly convincing.)
As part of the evidence for her point of
view Barker points to the remarkable persistence of liturgical forms from the First Temple in the worship of the Eastern Orthodox
Church. Some of the furniture of the Holy of Holies, which had been removed by Josiah, was also prophesied to be restored
by the Messiah. Hence, in (Orthodox) Christian worship we see the return of the menorah, the incense, the Table, and figures
representing the cherubim.
In addition, she sheds light on some movements
in the early Church, like the way they wanted to lift up Abraham and downplay Moses (see Romans 4), and the general ambivalence
towards the Temple.
Barker’s approach raises a lot of
questions, especially for those of us in the Reformed tradition. Perhaps more than any other branch of Christianity, we identify
most explicitly with Josiah, Hilkiah, and the Deuteronomists. This tradition continues for us in Paul, Augustine, Calvin,
and Barth. But if Josiah’s reform was not aimed at extraneous Canaanite elements defiling true religion, but at an older
form of Israelite faith, and if this older form of Israelite faith actually resurfaces to inform many very central doctrines
of the New Testament, then where does that leave us?
Part of the problem Barker is trying to
correct is an error commonly made by Christian scholars going back at least to Jerome in the 5th century. This
is the easy identification of contemporary Judaism with the religion of the Jews at the time of Jesus. The Reformers elevated
the Hebrew Masoretic Text above the Greek Septuagint as a primary authority. It seems to make logical sense, that the Hebrew
would be older than a translation into Greek from the Hebrew. But in reality we have known for some time that the Hebrew Bible
we have today is different from the one that existed at the time of Jesus. The Hebrew text approved by the founders of Rabbinic
Judaism at the Council of Jamnia had been altered from the original, in some cases explicitly to undermine its use by Christians.
The Septuagint reflects this earlier Hebrew text, and this is to some degree verified by findings at Qumran. The idea that
the Septuagint is actually often more reliable than the Masoretic Text is something Reformed Christians have yet to wrap their
Barker sees Christianity as Solomon’s
revenge, the reemergence and triumph of the long-suppressed faith of the First Temple. (Of course, Christianity does not restore
that faith in comprehensive detail. Rather, what emerges is a kind of "reformed" or transfigured version of that faith.) What
the Deuteronomists sought to expunge and erase, rises from the ashes of the Second Temple in Christianity.
One of these reemergent elements is Wisdom.
Barker draws a convincing trajectory from Asherah, whom she interprets as originally a female partner (mother?) of YHWH, to
the Hochmah/Sophia of Wisdom literature like Proverbs and Sirach, to the Logos/Wisdom of the New Testament incarnated
in Christ, the mysterious "woman clothed with the sun" of Revelation 12, and finally to the figure of Mary in the Catholic
Church. For instance, she points out that the original Hebrew, reflected in the LXX, of Isaiah 7:14, says "a virgin shall
conceive," while the MT has the more generic "young woman." Barker proposes that this might even have originally meant the
Virgin, referring to a long, lost goddess figure in Israelite religion.
Barker’s analysis raises at least
as many questions as it answers, which is why it is so interesting. For one thing, if the scriptures of the early Church included
books like 1 Enoch and Jubilees, why were these books not canonized (except perhaps in Ethiopia). On the other hand, why did
the Church accept the work of the Deuteronomists at all? Why is the Christian canon what it is, given Barker’s discoveries?
Most importantly, what was the purpose of the reform instituted by Josiah and Hilkiah? Where did they get their wildly radical
and unprecedented ideas and go to so much trouble to institute them, and why? And why, when this reform was followed by the
unmitigated disaster of 587, did the people not return to the older ways?
The religion of Solomon’s Temple as
Barker depicts it, at least to my mind, looks like a version of the kind of Perennial Philosophy, or even paganism, that prevailed
in most of the world’s traditional societies. The views of Josiah, Hilkiah, and the Deuteronomist school are wildly
new and unprecedented. They set the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition in a dramatically and radically different direction,
one which has virtually no parallel in world religion. (There is perhaps a parallel in the evolution of Buddhism towards the
iconoclastic spirit of Zen....)
I normally have little patience with schemes
attempting to identify "good guys" and "bad guys" in the text, dismissing some parts of the Bible as wretched and corrupt,
while others are elevated to higher status. Not that Barker does this... though it is easy to see how someone could take her
ideas and use them to, say, de-canonize those parts of the Old Testament most permeated with Deuteronomistic ideas. I am unwilling
to say that the Deuteronomists are no longer authoritative Scripture for me, especially since there is so much great and powerful
material in their writings. What I get from Barker is less a limiting of the canon but a lifting up of some other voices in
the text we don’t normally hear. She can show a conflict, even a mortal struggle, between different factions at different
times in Israel’s history; but for our time we have and can learn from both perspectives. Reading the text is less a
matter of taking sides as it is one of finding and living in a new sense of balance and a new quality of integrity. It helps
that these very voices that were stifled in the Old Testament, are lifted up and given more prominence in the New.
In this spirit, Christianity becomes an
inclusive faith, one that struggles to hear God’s Word in both Deuteronomy and Proverbs, in Psalm 119 and
Psalm 110, in Law and Wisdom. It is when we stray into one extreme or another that we are most likely to lose our way.
Christianity thus brings together into one synthesis elements from many different movements within Judaism at the time of
Jesus. (Rabbinic Judaism, on the other hand, tends to build more exclusively on the Deuteronomistic legacy.)
Barker’s gift to us, especially those
of us in the Reformed tradition, is to open up and make more accessible these other, very deep and primal, Voices, making
them less understated and more prominent in the way we perceive and understand God’s Word.
As a practical matter, I hope that at the
very least we Reformed Christians start giving more weight to the Greek Old Testament and the Apocrypha — even some
familiarity with 1 Enoch and Jubilees would be edifying — allowing these writings to open up our mindset, which remains
firmly within the Deuteronomistic field of influence.