Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Deciphering an Ancient Meal: Food and Identity in Early Eucharistic Practice

It can be tempting to think that Christians did not have distinctive culinary habits, or were distinguished from Jews precisely by a lack of particular concerns or rules.

There are at least two reasons for viewing such assumptions critically. One is that literary evidence makes clear a variety of preferences and avoidances among the general diversity of early Christian eating practices - even if some NT texts seem to prescribe omnivorism, it obviously wasn't that simple in reality.

The other is that nobody eats everything all the time. Or to attempt a more sophisticated rendering of the same point, note Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s observation that “where there is culture there is asceticism.” Cultures and communities do make choices about what to eat and not to eat, as well as when, where and with whom, that both reflect and create identity.

There are different scholarly understandings about the relationship between specific ritual actions, specific sacral foods and the whole of ancient Christian banquets in which these were initially set. Many have assumed there were always two distinct sorts of Christian meal ritual, a token or sacramental meal typically referred to as Eucharist, and a substantial communal meal known as an Agape. My own position, along with an increasing number of other scholars, is that attempts at distinguishing a sacramental ritual from a substantial meal at the earliest point fail because of mistaken assumptions, drawn not from the ancient texts but from later understandings of the Eucharist itself. There is no discernible difference between the communal banquets of early Christian communities and the rituals which came to be known as the Eucharist, at least in the first century or so, and the emergence of the sacramental liturgy as a distinct event is somewhat later than traditionally assumed.

Each of these views about Eucharistic development, traditional and revisionist, has at least an implied complementary position about the role food and drink themselves play in the commensal formation of identity. Accompanying the traditional view is the assumption that ancient Christians were quite unconstrained in, and hence undefined by, issues of dietary preference or avoidance in their general eating, but highly constrained in and defined by the elements of their token sacred meal, always taken to be bread and wine.

Where however the Eucharist is taken actually to be the banquet and vice versa, or at least where their relationship is seen to be organic rather than merely being joined together, then these two spheres of culinary signification, sacramental/ritual and communal/commensal are superimposed or identified, and the choice of right foods and avoidance of wrong ones is relevant both to a communal supper and/or a sacramental ritual.

Yet such an approach, considering these aspects together more than separately, may be useful even where a more traditional account of Eucharistic origins is assumed. As Mary Douglas put it in her famous study focusing on the meals of the 20th century English bourgeoisie, “the smallest, meanest meal metonymically figures the structure of the grandest, and each unit of the grand meal figures again the whole meal—or the meanest meal”.

In the case of Christian Eucharistic meals, even the most stylized medieval Mass continues to replicate the fundamental structure of the Greco-Roman symposium in its sequence of bread and cup, and to reflect ancient Mediterranean staple diet in its focus on bread and wine. So from either perspective, in Christian Eucharistic meals just as in the Greco-Roman dining tradition generally, the morphology of the meal is closely bound up with its food and drink via the expected sequence of deipnon (solid food with prominence of bread) and symposion or drinking session focused on wine. This sequence of δ + σ is the first of a number of expressions that could be used express the structural relations of food and drinks in the ancient meal but which also imply certain things about foods themselves….

[An extract from a paper given at the SBL Annual Meeting in the "Meals in the Greco-Roman World" Group, San Francisco, Nov 20 2011. This is part of a longer study applying some of Mary Douglas' ideas about meals to the ancient meal tradition and Christian eucharistic meals in particular, part of a new book project.
For further reading:

Geoffrey Galt Harpham, The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Andrew B. McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999).

Mary Douglas, “Deciphering a Meal,” Daedalus 101 (1972): 61-81.]

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Method and Meaning: A new collection of essays on New Testament interpretation

[Method and Meaning is available from SBL Press here; this is an extract from the Introduction]

There has never been a more diverse set of possibilities for understanding the 
canonical texts of the New Testament, other early Christian literature, and the history 
of the emergent Christian movement that was to become the Church.

Diversity in methods of reading the New Testament is of course as old as or 
older than the texts themselves. The first few generations of Christians struggled
 with basic questions of method and meaning in their own attempts to read and
 respond to the scriptures of Judaism. These attempts, various elements of development,
 interpretation and controversy, are documented both in the processes of
 composition as well as in canonization; without them the New Testament itself
 would not exist.

If the New Testament documents are themselves inscribed efforts at understanding
 the Jewish scriptures as well as the person and teaching of Jesus, they
 quickly became the objects of renewed interpretive debates, and the catalyst for
 further literary production. From arguments over esoteric and philosophically
 ambitious interpretation such as that of so-called Gnostics in the second century,
 through the methodological differences between the Alexandrian and Antiochene
 schools in the fourth century, the key doctrinal and other disputes that characterized
 ancient Christianity were centered on just how to read Christian and Jewish

Fundamentalisms, casual or assertive, are  never more vulnerable than 
when faced with the pluriformity of canonical scripture itself. While theological 
debates both mirrored and fueled the ways Christian social formations developed,
 the emergent institutional and cultural divisions between Churches were manifested
 not only in preference for distinct interpretive methods, but in decisions
 even about the actual canons to which those methods are to be applied.

Debates over the extent and content of scripture reflected contention over the
 authentic borders of Christianity itself. This can be seen as when Marcion championed
 a Gospel without supposed accretions, or when “Montanists” claimed the 
ongoing reality of the Paraclete outside as well as inside the written word. From
 the ancient divisions between groups aligned with Chalcedonian Christology
 on the one hand, and others such as Armenian, Ethiopian, and Egyptian Christians
 on the other, through the millennial schism between eastern and western 
Churches, and on to the Reformation, each large and enduring division has been
 accompanied by the entrenchment of discrepancies between canons. Those discrepancies 
as well as the subtler, more diffuse, but equally profound cultivation of 
differences in how to read those books accepted has lead to a lively debate.

Modern scholarship has added to these dilemmas, not only because of the 
increased awareness of cultural and canonical diversity through more immediate
contact with different cultures and peoples, but also as a result of the discovery
 and publication of new sets of ancient documents pertaining to, or even purporting
 to be, scripture.
 The Dead Sea Scrolls have raised unprecedented but unresolved problems 
in the presentation of extra-canonical Psalms interspersed with the familiar 
ones. The appearance of Ben Sira in Hebrew both there and in the documents
of the Cairo geniza has forced new perspectives. The Nag Hammadi codices shed 
remarkable light on the ways scripture could be re-written in the process of being
 read, as well as providing the now-famous Gospel of Thomas.

Despite the differences just noted, the varied Christian traditions of the late antique
and medieval periods had in common tendencies to weave biblical 
traditions organically into their complex liturgical, spiritual, and doctrinal
 constructions. They continued to use earlier methods such as allegorical interpretation,
 if in new ways and with a new sophistication, tending at times to
 sophistry. They continued to use biblical texts for devotional practices such as
 lectio divina, and in the communal settings of eucharistic and other liturgies.
 The Reformation brought the Bible to a quite new centrality in the West, via
 the principle of sola scriptura and the explosion of biblical translations, exemplified
 in the King James Version published four-hundred years before this volume, and provided its own layer of complexity to canonical issues. While an accompanying 
emphasis on “plain sense” of scripture was common, the exposure of
 the Bible to the light both of the resources of emergent humanism such as that
 of Erasmus and of new emphases on evidence and rationality also heralded the
arrival of modern critical scholarship, whether undertaken in pursuit of new
 theological wisdom, skepticism, or intellectual curiosity.

Like any other aspect of western thought, understanding of the New
 Testament and biblical literature generally was impacted profoundly by the
Enlightenment and its successors such as Romanticism. Figures such as Spinoza
 and Hobbes noted issues that later scholars were to pursue more systematically.
 For the Hebrew Bible this was often the problem of Pentateuchal sources or the 
authenticity of Isianic prophecies; the equivalent seed-bed for New Testament
studies was the Synoptic problem and the closely related issue of the historical

To a significant extent this volume reflects the current state of the modern
 biblical scholarship that emerged in the West from that time forward. This has 
come to include an array of technical and hermeneutical processes sometimes
 worked out of as distinct “criticisms” but in fact often overlapping and interdependent.
These have been used to establish the textual detail, as well as the 
canonical scope, of the New Testament; to consider its sources, literary composition,
 influences, and historicity; and to examine it in its ancient social, cultural,
 and religious contexts. This set of interdependent disciplines constitute classical
 biblical criticism, which, while not necessarily a complete set of tools for considering 
the significance of the ancient texts in the modern world, cannot be
 dispensed with by any serious reader.

Before the mid-twentieth century, critical New Testament scholarship as a 
tool for exegetical and hermeneutical purposes was a largely Protestant phenomenon, 
enabled or allowed by the diffuse authority structures of those religious 
traditions but not universally accepted. The arrival of Roman Catholic scholarship 
in this modern sense was heralded by the encyclical Divino afflante spiritu, which
 affirmed the use of philological, historical, and literary studies to support faithful 
reading and understanding. This and other developments in scholarly ecumenism
 have meant that debates in the academy around biblical interpretation often 
have little correlation with expected confessional loyalties, and that even in New 
Testament studies the contributions of Jewish and secular scholars can and must
 have their acknowledged place, based on criteria of adequacy applicable in any

The second half of the twentieth century saw the emergence not only of
 additional methods, but also of approaches that generally assumed and often
 acknowledged established critical scholarship, yet sought to go beyond it. One
 broad set of methods has emerged from more recent philosophical and literary 
theory, wherein the literary character of the text has been reasserted not merely
 as historic artifact for genre analysis, but as a dynamic reality whose life is interdependent
 with the act of contemporary reading. There have also been renewed
 calls for theological engagement, in particular with the canonical text, with what 
has been termed a “second naivety” that acknowledges the results of critical study
 without reducing the text to them.
 Scholars and readers have also become more aware of what was culturally 
specific and historically conditioned in pursuit of method, even in studies
 undertaken with “scientific” rigor and intent; that the assumptions of western
 modernity were not absolutes, and that the reality of Churches and academies 
dominated by white males was not irrelevant to the limits of scholarship or to its
 future prospects. The relationship between such new readings emphasizing diversity 
and liberation and what has been termed classical scholarship is not always
 clear, and their interaction along with debate continues.

 This volume in its 
collective voice suggests that careful attention
 to questions of method in interpretation offers possibilities for fruitful readings 
of the texts themselves, and insights into other unavoidable issues for any who 
would read with understanding.
 More than this, it suggests that interpretive method is not simply an issue
 that arises after the text, when as in every period individuals and communities
 have considered and contended about proper ways to read; rather, the individual 
writings and the canon of scripture are actually the products of such interpretive
 questions, and cannot be adequately understood except with attention to them.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Not the King James Version: How a Bible shaped the history of the Churches

The story is well known: the King, considering the need to make holy scripture readily available in the vernacular, draws together dozens of scholars who are conversant in its ancient tongues. They combine their efforts, and produce a version still read today, and which has influenced many others. Its importance is such that some have regarded it as inspired in its own right, and as the only authentic translation of the scriptures for Christians.

No, not the King James Version.

This is the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Septuagint was the Bible known to and cited by the Christians who wrote the books of the New Testament scriptures, and was regarded by many Jews and Christians in the ancient world as literally or verbally inspired by God, through the work of seventy(-two?) sages who translated it (hence the name, from the Latin Septuaginta, seventy - LXX for short).

Legend attributes the initiative of translation to King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt in the early third century BC. In the oldest known version of the story, the King assembles 72 Jewish scholars, feasts and tests them, then provides them with an ancient research centre to do their work. They compare their notes and happily produce the result - the translation of the Torah or Pentateuch, into Greek.

Subsequent versions of the story of the LXX move into more fanciful territory, suggesting that the scholars worked independently but all produced identical, inspired texts. This may be the first appearance of an idea later influential in various Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, wherein scriptural authority involves a sort of divine dictation.

It is difficult to say how much even of the more sober version is accurate. Third century Alexandria is a plausible locale for the translation, since it was a centre of Hellenistic culture with a large Jewish population. There was a demand for such a Greek translation of the Torah, which for Jews then and since has a unique canonical status but which was becoming inaccessible to Jews who lived far from Judea and did not speak Hebrew or Aramaic. Not long after, the prophetic and other writings (as then collected) were similarly translated.

This of course was before there was a "Bible" in the later sense of a strongly-defined canon, let alone a single "book"; so some of the writings in the LXX did not later appear in later Hebrew versions of the scriptures. When early modern translators came to compile versions like the KJV they took the position that books handed on in Hebrew had higher canonical authority than those found in the LXX alone - hence the "Apocrypha" of the KJV, which provides a sort of intermediate, semi-canonical place for those Jewish scriptures that survived only in Greek.

The Septuagint however was the first Christian Bible, the "Old Testament" properly speaking - it is to its text that the much-misused quotation "all scripture is inspired by God..." (2 Tim 3:16) refers, perhaps even nodding implicitly to the story of how it was supposedly written. In some cases manuscripts of the LXX are the oldest versions of the Jewish scriptures that have survived. The LXX remains the Old Testament of the eastern Orthodox Churches (who are thus the only Churches who can claim to have kept the Bible just as they received it originally!). It influenced Jerome's Vulgate, and early modern translations including the KJV. Although the KJV translators sought to return to the Hebrew text, some of their translations reflected inherited theological positions influenced by the LXX - check how Matt. 1:23 and Isaiah 7:14 are translated in your Bible.

Although its obscure origins deprive it of an anniversary to celebrate, this Bible deserves as much attention and consideration as the KJV, as one which shaped Christian belief and history; for its influence extends across a far longer period and over many more cultures. Its origins and its shape also present some profound questions for Christians about what we mean when we speak of holy scripture.

[Based on a talk given at St Paul's College, Sydney, for the St James Institute, in September 2011. Photo of P. Rylands 458, of a 2nd century BC MS of Deuteronomy, public domain]