Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Wisdom of Sirach and the afterlife

The book goes by many names:
Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira
The Wisdom of Sirach
Proverbs of Sirach
Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes, which was originally called Qoheleth.)

This last name, Ecclesiasticus, comes from the Latin word for "Church" and came about because the book was so often read in the early church. Thus, it is a misnomer for Protestants because they do not accept it as authoritative.

I finished reading it recently, and there are two major points to be drawn from it.

First, Sirach gives some window into the Jewish conceptualization of "Wisdom," which took on a meaning far more intricate than what we generally mean by the term. The Jews often anthropomorphized Wisdom. It is described as God's "first creation," begotten before all worlds. Note that these references are not just the Apocrypha, check out Proverbs 8 (and Proverbs 8:22 and Proverbs 8:30 in particular).

Sirach 24 begins

     1 Wisdom sings her own praises,
     before her own people she proclaims her glory;
     2 In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
     in the presence of his hosts she declares her worth:
     3 “From the mouth of the Most High I came forth,
     and mistlike covered the earth.
     4 In the highest heavens did I dwell,
     my throne on a pillar of cloud.
     5 The vault of heaven I compassed alone,
     through the deep abyss I wandered.
     6 Over waves of the sea, over all the land,
     over every people and nation I held sway.
     7 Among all these I sought a resting place;
     in whose inheritance should I abide?
     8 “Then the Creator of all gave me his command,
     and he who formed me chose the spot for my tent,
     Saying, ‘In Jacob make your dwelling,
     in Israel your inheritance.’
     9 Before all ages, in the beginning, he created me,
     and through all ages I shall not cease to be.
     10 In the holy tent I ministered before him,
     and in Zion I fixed my abode.
     11 Thus in the chosen city he has given me rest,
     in Jerusalem is my domain.

There was a deep connection that equated (or intrinsically linked) Torah with Wisdom running through much of Jewish thought. I think there is much to be understood by studying these connections because they appear to match the incarnation of Jesus as Living Torah  that provides Wisdom (the Holy Spirit). In Chapter 9 of TGYNH I wrote about the relevance of Jesus as living Torah for the Jew/Gentile issues in the early church.

The second important point to draw from Sirach is that it paints an empty picture of the afterlife. There is no post-death reward, no resurrection, no Judgment, etc. Sirach presents the interesting notion that God's justice is seen in how we die and how we are remembered. The wise and righteous do not have a painful death, are remembered by many after they are dead, and generally have lots of prosperous offspring. The ungodly may suffer greatly at the end of their days, perhaps just in the last day, and will not have a positive posterity.

This is quite an interesting way to grapple with the crises of faith the Jews of Sirach's day encountered. They had been dominated by ungodly nations and many righteous Jews (among a generally unrighteous nation) had suffered early death. Furthermore, those who oppressed the poor seemed to live a good life. Where is God's justice then?  For Sirach, the key was that one could never know what pain someone might endure in their final hours, so one could never claim that someone profited from evil.

More important than Sirach's view of God's justice is the simple fact that Sirach lived relatively late, only a couple hundred years before Christ, yet even then the notion of an active afterlife appears not to have been the norm.

For me this is important because people are often taught the great fiction that all Hebrews who came before Jesus were looking forward to a savior who would save them from hell, when in reality the Hebrews did not even believe in an active afterlife until a couple centuries prior to Jesus, let alone the notion that we are all in need of deliverance from a wrathful God who judges everyone based on a strict law demanding absolute perfection.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Finished Sanders' Book

It took a while, but I finally finished E.P. Sanders "Palestinian Judaism and Paul" text. The first portion of it was fantastic, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Christianity. The second half was not nearly as good. Perhaps I was not an ideal audience for the 3rd quarter (on Qumran) because I had already been reading a bunch on the dead sea scrolls, so I didn't see much new in Sander's book. The last portion, on Paul, was mostly frustrating because the author ended up just repeating himself over and over again in ways that did not further substantiate his argument.

One point that the author made very early was that Paul's letters could not possibly be seen as refuting the Jewish understanding of salvation because he never discusses repentance. It was one of those "why didn't I see that earlier" moments. Repentance is the most important aspect of practical salvation in the Jewish ethos, so a discussion that so clearly omits any mention of it cannot be primarily meant as a critique against Jewish salvation-theory. It would be like a Soviet political theorist criticizing the entire American system of government without ever mentioning democracy or separation of powers.

Another thing I took from Sanders was a nice way to articulate an idea that I have had for a long time but could not put eloquently. It is related to the point made in the last paragraph. Christians often present the Law as a false path to salvation...that is to say a path that:
  • Someone might believe to lead to salvation
  • Does not in fact do so. 
The problem with this is the first statement, the presumption that the Jews actually suggested that the law was a path to salvation. In reality, the Jews saw salvation as something that was already promised to them. The intention to keep the Law functioned as a marker of who was within the scope of that promise, but not because it made someone righteous. Rather the intention to keep the law indicated that the person accepted Israel's God as the rightful King of creation. If someone disavowed the Law, he could lose the inheritance promised to Israel not because he became unrighteous but because he failed to recognize God as the genuine article and thus was no longer part of the covenant.