The post title takes inspiration from a recent documentary we saw about Greatest Generation Jewish comics and what made Jewish Americans funny. What’s not funny is the way that Joseph Pearce leaves the Israelites and the Old Testament out of his attempt to pull Christianity out of the pagan philosophical hat:
Classical paganism brought forth the golden age of philosophy in which giants, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, mused upon the meaning of the cosmos and the meaning of life within it. This pagan philosophy, once she had been impregnated with the truths revealed by the Bridegroom, brought forth a new generation of Christian philosophy, her children including such giants as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
It would be a sin of omission, however, to celebrate the golden age of pagan philosophy without also celebrating the golden age of pagan literature, which, preceding the philosophical golden age by several centuries, brought forth the genius of Homer, whose creative brilliance is unsurpassed in the whole history of human letters, with the possible and arguable exception of Dante and Shakespeare.
But if Jesus and Paul are more important to understanding Christianity than philosophers like Augustine and Aquinas, then isn’t the Jewish background to the Word incarnate (who was Jewish) and the apostles (who were also Jewish) way more important to the church and the gospel than anything Plato or Aristotle read. After all, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews seems not to have received the memo about the Greeks as forerunners of the gospel:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”?
“I will be to him a father,
and he shall be to me a son”?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.”
Of the angels he says,
“He makes his angels winds,
and his ministers a flame of fire.”
But of the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”
“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.”
And to which of the angels has he ever said,
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?
Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1 ESV)
By the way, all those quotes in Hebrews 1 are not from the Loeb Classical Library.
Of course, if you want a religion that is civilizational in scope, and one ready to underwrite Europe (read Christendom), then leaving out the Hebrews and writing in the Greeks and Romans makes sense. But if you take special revelation seriously, you may want to do a little more with the Hebrews than Pearce does.
Come to think of it, if the Mass, a ritual that points to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, a death that only makes sense after reading about all those sacrifices in Jerusalem’s Temple, then you may want to spend more time with the Hebrews than the Greeks. If you want a pagan inflected version of Christianity, that’s on you.
7 thoughts on “When Hebrews Weren’t Funny”
Preach it, Darryl.
Only one minor quibble with things as written, though I imagine we’ll agree since you have a real love of the significance of the road to Emmaus on basic biblical hermeneutics:
“Come to think of it, if the Mass, a ritual that points to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, a death that only makes sense after reading about all those sacrifices in Jerusalem’s Temple . . .”
***I’d rather flip it and say that Temple sacrifice really only makes sense in the light of the Cross. I would think that’s what the Epistle to the Hebrews is all about–rereading Scripture in light of Christ (again, the whole road to Emmaus hermeneutic).
In the same way (though obviously not in an identical one), I’d tweak Pearce’s take:
“We began by asserting that “paganism” is a perilous word. We shall end by saying that paganism is also a perilous world because it leads beyond the realm of gods and men to the One God who rules all men. Let’s give thanks to the Muses who paved the pagan path to Christ.”
***But they didn’t pave the path to Christ; Christ paved the way to Himself (a la the Spirit), through which those pagan authors can be reinterpreted and grafted onto a Christotelic narrative (if one desires to do such a thing, which many in the ancient and medieval churches did–from Gregory of Nyssa to Dante). To run with the light metaphor: this pagan poetry depicted shadows barely witnessing any light, wholly unrecognizable until the light shone itself. So a road to Emmaus that runs through Athens, Crete, and Rome. I think that’s what Pearce is trying to do; he just doesn’t admit the proper Christological hermeneutic. And he ignores the Israelites. I’m sure you knew that Saint John the Baptist and the Theotokos are considered the last of the Old Testament figures in many of the writings of the ancient churches. For what it’s worth.
There, that should make everyone wince.
love Hebrews a lot, and here in chapter 1- the ultimate history book summation explaining that it is Jesus Who divides history into two .
More Aristotle, less Bible:
Another Hebrew who wasn’t funny:
NT Wright thinks the narrative about the Jews is so important that we should not get hung up on Adam’s sin. But Paul Zahl thinks of Jesus as the first Christian.
To say that Jesus is in more continuity with Christianity than with Second Temple Period Judaism can make many uncomfortable or even angry. Rather than wanting to raise the divide between Judaism and Christianity, Paul Zahl contends that heightened Christology recognizes that Jesus identified the universal human problem (sin) which trumps “gender, race and power”, but also is the honest thing to say about Christianity to the Jewish person. If Jesus were only a “good rabbi” then does this not denigrate the 2,000 years of Jewish resistance to him?