Bravo Beit Berl (legitimacy of prophecy)

b.gardner at b.gardner at
Sun Feb 11 04:04:05 EST 2001

Hello Dan,

I wrote:

‘Just writing to support Jonathan Safen on his history of messianic writing. It 
seems to me laity's exaltation. The concept of the (Son of) Man reflects an 
exalted (Greek-influenced) position on human ingenuity grafted onto an ancient 
and (post-Zerubbabel) usually safely-defunct kingship... None of this is meant 
to denigrate the objective truth, in spiritual terms, of Christian reference. 
but perhaps we may find common ground in the dignity of humanity issue. In any 
case, I think what Jonathan says is true of redaction in the Pentateuch - it 
went through 'corrective updates' which were intended not to reflect literal, 
historic Past but a clarifying eternal Plan for believers. That way, you can 
ally redactional history to progressive revelation, if you like, and get away 
from Greek-annalistic notions that things written in the Bible must be 
historically 'true'...’

 You wrote: 

1] ‘I think this post relates more to the issue of the legitimacy of neo-
orthodox theology than to Hebrew...’

Comment: I thought my remarks were biblical-critical. I did not ask for labels 
as I prefer arguments that examplify the respect of the university classroom. I 
may be wrong but using a label seems to indicate less than that due respect.

2] ‘Paul (1 Cor. 15:14-19) certainly didn't agree with you concerning the NT 
portion of the Christian Bible’. 

Comment: I asked for this. I said ‘things written in the Bible’ when of course 
I meant ‘things written in the Hebrew Bible’. Of course, Luke 1:1-4 and II Pet 
1:16 suggests there was a literalism expected in the NT Church (whether one 
thinks the events of the NT happened as said or not). I did not refer to the NT 
because this is a Hebrew Bible listserv, and I assumed we were speaking about 
the HB. In British universities we tend to assume an HB-focussed approach with 
no NT extension. Anyway, apologies for the confusion there. My remarks were not 
intended to cast doubt on the virgin birth etc for Christians. I do not think 
that is automatically entailed by believing in HB cyclical redactional growth.

3] ‘In any case, the whole tenor of prophecy in the OT was that it needed to be 
searched out and verified if it were true or not. Jeremiah is constantly 
emphasizing this (Jer. 14:14ff; 23:30ff; many more; cf. Ezk. 22:28; Mic. 2:11; 
etc....). The primary tests of a false prophet were whether his signs were 
fulfilled (Dt. 18:20-22) and if his message agreed with the antecedent 
revelation of Yahweh (Dt. 13:1-5). So everybody had to be on their guard 
against the false ones.’ 

Comment: all the above remarks are applied to pre-exilic and exilic texts, but 
that is not majorly relevant to P and the Chronicler, for whom the issue was 
not Deuteronomic judgement but the roles of the priesthood and the Temple, and 
in the Chronicler’s case, over against the royal house. One cannot transpose 
the philosophy of the D tradition and make it a straitjacket for later ones 
which focused on the eternal and ideal. For example: how does even Ezekiel 
shape up as a prophet in the D sense by promising the Temple of chapters 40-48? 
Do we do call him ‘false’? He is there introducing a quite different dimension.

Nor are the quotations you mention about false prophets applicable to later 
biblical traditions, which focus on restructuring experience into paradigms 
moulded into festal and cultic patterns and not to denying the fact - or the 
theological significance - of the Babylonian victory over Judah. D's ideas on 
what is true prophecy are neither relevant to, not a serious limit on, P and C, 
for whom redaction was embodiment of what was seen as fresh divine revelation. 

History for P, as in the modern Passover, was not annalistic but corporate and 
remembered in a living way. The HB tradition had a sense of having captured the 
essence of Heilsgeschichte, but it was still able to update to take account of 
experience. This is what made the tradition so successful as societies have to 
cope with individual and corporate (even ethnic) existential anxiety. If I read 
Judeo-Christian tradition correctly, answering existential anxiety is its main 
transferable theme, the reason why it has a perennial appeal after 2000 years.

4} ‘The fact that some prophecies and/or signs *were* valid established the 
prophet as one qualified to also make statements that were eschatological and 
not yet fulfilled in the lifetime of the prophet/audience.’ 

Comment: I presume you mean, foreseeing my objection above, that this is where 
Ezekiel 40-48 finds its let-out in Deuteronomic terms? It is hard, then, to see 
how anyone could apply the D rule on prophets in any practical sense? In fact, 
D was about acknowledging sin and judgement and disallowing 'soft' prophecies 
which avoided them, but that cannot be held to be applicable across the board 
to bar complementary traditions which focus not so much on the judgement of 
Exile, which was then realised, but the need for atonement through Temple or 
Torah, mythically conceived within a history that appeared to have SHAPE, and 
therefore predictability. It is no more possible to impose D wholesale on all 
aspects of the Hebrew Bible than one can say to John that Paul has said it all, 
and if we accept progressive growth in ideas in the NT, why not in the HB too?

In fact, this is necessary, because across-the-board imposition of historicity 
to virtually all aspects of the Hebrew Bible, is an anchronistic application of 
late Second Temple Hellenism which has proven an intellectual cage for those 
who add, to P and C writers, D, NT and other constraints which any sound common-
sense (and intellectual honesty about the evidence) would preclude. The tension 
creates an embattled fanaticism as believing people force themselves to swallow 
unnecessary and unbelievable things while knowing well, underneath, that they 
cannot justify their views even to themselves without formulae which are more 
learned as the tenets of their own spiritual group than any seriously examined 
criticism. I see this as a ethical-intellectual crisis for the Western Church.

In societies where Christianity is not the folk-religion, with the privileges 
of that position (which include being conventionally unexamined as to principle 
or even reality) there is a reckoning as newcomers dismiss Christianity as mere 
mythology. If there had been more honesty about the Bible when the Church was 
triumphant in 19th Century Britain, there would not be so much suspicion and 
hostility towards it now as the manipulative superstition of centralised power. 

It sounded good to resist Science and to refuse to adapt; it proved near fatal.

In conclusion, therefore, we must beware of the monolithic application of rules 
from part of the tradition to be a prohibition on other aspects. The (Hebrew) 
Bible is more complicated than that, and at the end of the day, the Bible can 
stand it. If it is the truth, then it needs no cotton-wool shield. If it is not 
then the sooner we clear its errors out of the way the better. For me, who has 
a faith in the God of the Bible, it's an uncaged lion needing no special favors 
and I have no doubt that like an automobile engine stripped down and put back 
together, an understood HB will be no less what it was before we started. I do 
wonder if the resistors of critical ideas have that faith in what they defend.

If that is neo-orthodoxy, I plead guilty. I find it essential to believe, and 
yet perceive, honestly, and if we apply D to P and C we will never understand 
the growth of the Hebrew Bible. But it will of course make us popular amongst 
those who want us not to rock the boat, or our salaries. I prefer unpopularity.


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