Philip Esler: Ethnic Betrayal & Academic Betrayal

coverMatthew’s gospel is a tough one to crack. With the other evangelists and Paul I’m in a comfort zone. I can see how the factions work. But the question of Matthew’s relationship to “Judaism” — whether his community was sectarian or involved in a nasty intra-synagogue dispute — can be answered either way. Cases for both sides have been impressive.

Philip Esler has been on both sides. Back in the ’80s he maintained that the Mattheans differed from the other gospel (and Pauline) communities in a serious way. Following the authority of Peter (Mt 16:18; Gal 2:11-14), they refused to engage in mixed table-fellowship, indicated by the way Matthew revises his Markan source in Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30. The Markan woman legitimates mixed table-fellowship by saying that even the dogs under the table eat from the children’s scraps, but Matthew’s revision has her speaking of dogs eating scraps falling from the master’s table — meaning that the children (Jews) and dogs (Gentiles) no longer eat the same bread. (See his Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts, pp 91-93). The “dogs”, for Matthew, appear to be saved apart from the chosen who remain a light to the nations in their own way.

But Esler has come around. In his new essay, “Intergroup Conflict and Matthew 23: Towards Responsible Historical Interpretation of a Challenging Text” (Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol 45 No 1, pp 38–59), he argues that the Matthean community engaged in mixed table fellowship (based on Mt 8:10-11) just like the other gospel communities, and that these Christians considered themselves separated from the Judeans. (“Judeans” being the more accurate term for Jews during the first century — a point to which I’ll return at the end.) The key is that Matthew is working on two temporal levels. He situates Jesus within the timeframe of his actual ministry to Israel, with his message for post-70 Christians often working in tension with that setting. In the case of Mt 23, verse 1 says that Jesus is addressing both the crowds and the disciples. The next two verses read,

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, and so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.”

“Here,” says Esler, “Jesus is speaking in a manner dramatically appropriate to the crowds in the time of his mission to Israel and ironically for post-Easter Christ-followers“. (p 44) Passages like this don’t actually validate synagogue authority for the Mattheans, who by all indications mistrusted, hated, and/or feared Judean authorities.

Social-identity theorists like Daniel Bar-Tal have documented various delegitimization strategies used by groups who hate or fear others. Such strategies include dehumanization (labeling others as subhuman or demonic), trait characterization (portraying them so worthless as to be parasites or idiots), and outcasting (portraying their offenses so transgressive that it warrants calling them murderers, thieves, or maniacs in order to exclude them from society). Abusive invective like that fits Matthew 23:13-36 to a tee. Pharisees and scribes are “sons of snakes” (dehumanization), “blind guides” and “blind fools” (trait characterization), and full of “violence and rapacity” (outcasting).

Most striking, as Esler notes, are certain parallels with John’s gospel. Both evangelists flagrantly misrepresent Judeans. John ascribes to them a belief that they are actual “disciples” of Moses (Jn 9:27), which was never true. Matthew casts them as tight-asses on the question of salvation (Mt 23:13). For the historical Pharisees, righteousness conveyed the simple sense of privileged and blessed identity owing to descent from Abraham. Matthew’s view of righteousness (see Mt 5:20–48) is a lot like Paul’s reworking of the term: “an audacious attempt by Matthew to appropriate a primary expression of Judean identity” (p 51) by simply claiming that the Matthean Christians have it, not the Judeans.

On the other hand, neither John nor Matthew denies Judeans their Abramaic ancestry (as Paul did, by claiming that believers in Christ are the true sons of Abraham based on faith, regardless of ethnicity). They do something even more offensive, and turn it into something foul. For John, the sons of Abraham are sons of the devil (Jn 8:39,44). For Matthew, they are sons of snakes (Mt 23:32-33). The dehumanization strategy differs from Paul’s re-interpretive one.

But like Paul, Matthew elevates faith to an uncharacteristic level of importance. He accuses the Pharisees and scribes of “ignoring the weightier matters of the law — justice and mercy and faith” (Mt 23:23):

“Since when was faith one of the heavier aspects of the law? The word only appears once in the Septuagintal version of the Pentateuch, at Deuteronomy 32:20, where it means ‘faithfulness,’ a characteristic God taxes the Israelites in Sinai with lacking. On the other hand, it appears eight times in Matthew — its use at Matthew 23:23 representing the last instance of the word — and on each occasion it refers to a, perhaps the, fundamental characteristic of those aligning themselves to the new reality Jesus has announced (Matt 8:10; 9:2, 22, 29; 15:28; 17:20 and 21:21)… Jesus is accusing Judean leaders from the 30s of neglecting something which was actually crucial to Christ-movement identity towards the end of the first century. The manner in which faith is (very artificially) presented as an aspect of the law continues Matthew’s efforts to appeal to the Judean members of the Christ-movement.” (p 53)

This all starts to pile into a mountain: delegitimization strategies, ugly parallels with John, hints of mixed table-fellowship, outrageous misrepresentations (and appropriations) of Judean religion. It’s hard to make room for an intra-communal dispute here. I’m not sure what to do about Mt 15:21-28 anymore (which seems to imply separate table-fellowship), and would be curious to know what Esler makes of it on his newer view of Matthew.

Last but not least: Esler’s article serves as response to Amy-Jill Levine, who has objected to using “Judean” in place of “Jew” out of political fears. That’s no way to do history, and in my review of her book on the parables I showed how her anti-Jewish phobias get out of hand and torpedo what could have otherwise been fine analyses. Esler draws on the example of Cardinal Augustin Bea, who during Vatican II was intent on absolving Jews from the charge of killing Jesus. He wanted to interpret the New Testament texts historically to achieve this end, but was opposed by other cardinals on grounds that any document dealing favorably with the Jews risked pushing the church too much towards Israel and Zionism and causing problems in the Islamic world:

“If Bea had taken Levine’s approach, he would have succumbed to the blandishments of abandoning history in the interest of politics. But he did not. Instead, he insisted that the declaration had nothing to do with political questions. Yes, people might misinterpret a biblical text and manipulate it for political ends but we should not forsake our duty of accurate historical interpretation for that reason. In my view, Bea was right on this, and Levine is mistaken.” (p 57)

That’s right. We shouldn’t be bullied into silence for fear of appearing anti-Semitic (Esler), Islamophobic (Bea), or whatever prejudices people like to manufacture to cover their own insecurities. If bigots want to abuse historical facts, that’s a different conversation. The same holds true for abuses in science (like Social Darwinism). You correct the abuse, not the facts themselves. As I’ve been pointing out frequently on this blog, the problem of manufactured bigotry is huge in contemporary discussions of Islam; depicting the violence, hatred, intolerance, and expansionism inherent in Islam supposedly makes one hateful in turn. But that’s not true. Honest and intelligent critics of Islam like Bill Maher and Sam Harris are not bigoted demagogues like Terry Jones and Phil Robertson.

The ethnic betrayal in Matthew is very real. I’m moving toward (the new) Esler’s view of this gospel as a sectarian one in which the Christians stood at a considerable distance from Judeans and flamed them out of disgust, hate, and fear.

The “betrayal” of scholars who refer to first-century Jews as Judeans, on the other hand, is imagined. While I often use the term “Jew” anyway (“Judean” may confuse readers who are unfamiliar with debates over terminology), I do believe that Philip Esler, Jack Elliott, and Steve Mason have advanced sound arguments for “Judeans” being the best word for those groups of people whose ancestors were Israelites and whose successors were Jews. Regardless of how this idea can be misused.

(Esler’s article is available here. See also here, for his earlier view of Matthew as compared to Luke.)

Reading the Bible and Qur’an like Zach Hunt

Over at the Huffington Post, Zach Hunt is upset that people don’t read the Qur’an before judging it. I wish more people would read it too, including him. His rant is predictable:

“Armed with contextless passages from a book we’ve never read and know nothing about about, we beat the drums of war and sanctify our hatred. Not simply against ISIS, but against anyone of a different skin color who reads the Quran and worships at a mosque.

“But here’s the thing. If we cherry-pick verses from the Bible the way we cherry-pick verses from the Quran, we can read the Bible exactly like we read the Quran and come to the exact same conclusions about Christianity that we do about Islam being a religion of hate, violence, and oppression. For example, Deuteronomy 3:3-7, Joshua 6:20-21, and 1 Samuel 15:3 all sanction the genocide of infidels. 1 Kings 18:40 is clear that we should also kill the infidel leaders of other religions. Exodus 21:1-11 gives us the go-ahead to own slaves. But not just any slaves. Need a little extra money? Exodus 21:7 suggests selling your daughter as a sex slave. Do your children talk back to you? Well, Leviticus 20:9 is clear about what should be done: put them to death.”

These are worn objections and easily refuted. The fact is that Jewish and Christian groups don’t wage holy war or practice a sharia-law equivalent by appealing to the biblical texts cited by Hunt. And there are good reasons for that.

The direction of evolving beliefs

Many theologians believe that the Judeo-Christian tradition (the Tanakh & Talmud for Jews; the Old & New Testaments for Christians) depicts a process of moral evolution — a gradual advance out of primitive savage beliefs into more enlightened thinking. This has always been an artificial reading, to be sure. The increased levels of enlightened thinking in the bible owe to a shared history of being on the “wrong” side of history (after Israel lost its monarchy and political independence), not some inevitable maturity. Islam, by contrast, ascended on the “right” (politically successful) side of history and so never had cause to adjust to the vicissitudes of life. But the accidents of history are irrelevant here. However they actually evolved, the Jewish and Christian texts facilitate a reading of moral evolution, and its adherents naturally read it this way.

Because Islam was politically triumphant, the opposite direction (devolution) is embedded in the Qur’an. It’s known as the doctrine of abrogation (Qur’an 2:106, for instance), which holds that later revelations supersede earlier ones — and the later ones are especially savage and intolerant. When Muslims are weak and in a minority position, they should behave peacefully according to some of the Meccan passages (reflecting the early time when Muhammad was vulnerable and building his power base), and when strong, they are obligated to wage war according to the Medinan passages (written when Muhammad came to power). Whenever the two are in conflict, the later ones trump the earlier ones.

So when modern liberal Muslims cite “there is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256) and that if you disagree with someone, “to you be your religion and to me be mine” (Qur’an 109:6), that’s commendable, but a feeble protest, because the doctrine of abrogation refutes their citations in advance. There’s nothing like this in Judaism, Christianity, or other religions. When rabbis debated whether or not children suffer punishment for the sins of their parents, there is no controlling text within the Tanakh that would lead one to favor Exodus 20:5 (“yes”) over Ezekiel 18:20 (“no”), or vice-versa. That’s what makes most scriptures conveniently malleable. Not so in Islam.

Even the bible’s ugly parts that haven’t been officially superseded are usually leavened with enough positive supplements that seed their transformation. Paul’s homophobia is strong, but the New Testament (including Romans, where the most offending text resides) is tempered by pervasive requirements for universal charity that allows many Christian leaders to get around the apostle’s bigotry. You can’t pull that off in Islam. That’s why homosexuality earns the death penalty in all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

Descriptive vs. prescriptive warfare

Most theologians also believe that the Israelite holy wars were acceptable for the Israelites alone, not later Jews and Christians. God approved slaughtering the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Jesubites, etc., but none after, and his commands never amounted to “marching orders” for believers. Unlike Allah in the Qur’an, Yahweh never commanded his subjects to fight unbelievers as a general rule.

That difference is critical. The violence of the bible is descriptive. In the Qur’an it’s prescriptive.

Parting blows

As for Hunt’s parting blows:

“I think we find ourselves at an important moment in history when the rubber really meets the road for those of us in the United States who call ourselves Christians. Will we continue to fuel the fires of hate, mistrust, violence, and oppression?”

This is a standard rhetorical trick. Describing the hateful, mistrustful, violent, and oppressive features in a religious ideology doesn’t make one hateful in turn.

“Or will we choose to take the gospel seriously and actually love our Muslim neighbors and treat the Good Samaritans in our midst with the same dignity, grace, and respect that Jesus embodied? In spite of our anger, will we dare to follow Jesus all the way to the cross and pray for our enemies that do seek our death and return their hate with love?”

This is the common error of conflating of the doctrine of Islam with Muslims as people or as a race. Christians should indeed love and respect Muslims as Jesus commanded by the example of the Good Samaritan, and repay evil with good, etc. However, they (and all of us) should not hesitate to point out the inherent problems with Islam — in the Qur’an, the hadiths, and the schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Christians (and all of us) should support and applaud the many nominal, secular, and liberal Muslims, especially reformers who oppose jihad and sharia law. At the same time, they (and all of us) should recognize that reform in Islam is nothing to be optimistic about. But there’s absolutely zero hope when people like Zach Hunt keep repeating the myth that all religions have the same potential for peace or violence. We can’t fix a problem that’s falsely diagnosed.

God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades

Gods battalionsIf you want to read just one book about the crusades, make it God’s Battalions. It’s the wisdom of scholars condensed into something accessible, and the unapologetic truth for a change. Namely that the crusades emerged as a long overdue response to Islam, a hijacking of the peaceful Christian religion, to be sure, but tailored for medieval knights whose profession didn’t allow for peace, and who could now at least channel their aggression into a needed cause.

Islam’s “Golden Age”

The book starts as it should: with Muhammad, not Urban II. Much has been written about early Islam and its “golden age” of tolerance, but in fact Muslim rule had always been militant, supremacist, and expansionist. Its cultural sophistication originated with the conquered dhimmi populations who lived in humiliating servitude. Medicine came from the Nestorian Christians; mathematics from the Hindus; philosophy from the Persians; etc. When in the 14th century Muslims east of Spain and Africa stamped out nearly all religious nonconformity, Muslim backwardness suddenly came to the fore — but that backwardness was always there.

The Crusades: Offensive or Defensive?

That the crusades were an overdue response to jihadist conquests implies that they were reactive wars of defense. This would seem to contradict the arguments of experts who emphasize the crusades’ proactive and offensive nature. Who’s right? Rodney Stark or Christopher Tyerman? Thomas Madden or Thomas Asbridge?

Obviously both are. In the general sense, and in the pope’s own words, the crusades were defensive responses to (a) help the Byzantines against invading Muslims and (b) take back the the holy lands where Christian pilgrims were frequently attacked and their shrines desecrated. Muslims had been the aggressors for four and a half centuries. That, however, doesn’t answer the real question, “Why the crusades?” Latin Christendom could have responded to the Byzantines with standard military aid. Why the radical step — so radical it contradicted everything fundamental about Jesus’ teachings and Christian theology — of making warfare sacred, like Islam’s jihad, and not simply to fend off invasion but take back Palestine?

The crusades only make sense in the context of the 11th-century papal reforms. The 10th century had been the worst in French history. Church corruption abounded, nobles warred on each other, sometimes right next door. In the 1020s the reformers tried enforcing the Peace of God (or Truce of God), which prohibited knights from fighting certain days of the week. That was like telling a monk not to pray — an epic fail. A knight’s lifestyle during this era was nothing less than a celebration of bloodshed and sin, as Stark says, and priests imposed stiff atonement penalties which often required pilgrimages to the holy land.

“War was chronic among the medieval nobility and any knight who survived for very long was apt to have killed someone. Even when victims were evil men without any redeeming worth, their deaths were held to constitute sins, and in most instances the killer enjoyed no obvious moral superiority over the victim — sometimes quite the reverse. In addition to violence, the lifestyle of medieval knights celebrated the Seven Deadly Sins and was in chronic violation of the commandments against adultery, theft, and coveting wives. Consequently, knights were always in need of penance, and their confessors imposed all manner of acts of atonement, sometimes even demanding a journey all the way to the holy land.”

What the crusades did was extend this principle of atonement in a radical way: warfare itself could now be penitential under the right conditions, and a pilgrimage itself. Liberating the holy lands from Muslim control was not only justifiable warfare, it was sacred. Going on crusade effected the remission of a knight’s sins and enabled him to bypass purgatory. If the pope could not get these knights to observe a peace of God, he could at least enlist them into a worthy cause.

In sum: a responsible sifting of the evidence requires us to acknowledge the proactive nature of the crusades that were pressed into a primarily defensive purpose.

Lingering Myths

That crusaders were motivated by the need for penance has become non-controversial in academia — about as standard as the idea in New Testament studies that the apostle Paul wasn’t criticizing Judaism for being legalistic. (Jonathan Riley-Smith being the E.P. Sanders of crusades scholarship.) But myths linger, and Stark reminds us out of necessity: Crusaders weren’t driven by greed; they were impoverished by crusading expenses. Nor by conquest; Palestine was no “land of milk and honey”, and the resulting crusader kingdoms had to be supported with subsidies from Europe. Nor even by desire to convert Muslims; unlike in Islamic countries, where resident Christians were forced to live in a humiliating state of dhimmitude unless they converted. Crusaders were motivated exactly by what all the evidence shouts: religious zeal.

The mountain of evidence puts this beyond dispute. Had crusaders been motivated by land and loot, the European knights would have responded earlier (in 1063), when Pope Alexander I tried to get a proto-crusade off the ground by driving the Muslims out of Spain. Unlike Palestine, Moorish Spain was wealthy, had an abundance of fertile lands, and was close at hand. But hardly anyone responded to the pope’s summons. Yet three decades later, tens of thousands of crusaders set out for the dry, impoverished wastes of faraway Palestine, with dim prospects about their future. Why so? Because the holy lands weren’t Spain. The riches to be won were spiritual: individual redemption, and the take-back of Christian shrines and relics. The lands where Christ walked and was killed.

The Irony

And here we come to it. The one (and only) commonality between the crusades and jihad: religious zeal. It’s this one similarity, ironically, that completely undermines what modern liberals tell us about Islam, and what scholars used to tell us about the crusades: that religion itself isn’t responsible for violent behavior. This isn’t true at all. Religious killers are often motivated by sincere piety. Crusaders were driven by religious fervor, not greed or conquest; jihadists were — and still are today — propelled by that same fervor, not poverty or the political grievances that inflame it.

This shouldn’t be a controversial point in view of the evidence. But the liberal/academic mind has incredible difficulty here. That people base their violent or suicidal behaviors on worries about suffering in purgatory, or on desires for virgins in paradise, suggests alarming things about the human psyche. And so we project a rationality onto religious killers, and misuse social and economic frameworks to make sense of them. We’re uncomfortable with “craziness” that can’t be tangibly accounted for, and so deny the clear link between religious beliefs and behavior. It’s intellectually irresponsible to do this. We need to face hard questions about the power of abstract beliefs.

Different in every other way

The crusades and jihad were different in every other way, and the differences derive from the nature and origins of the two faiths. Jesus had built a following by suffering for others; Muhammad had done so by the sword. Christianity had conquered the Roman Empire by conversion under persecution; Islam later conquered it by the sword. Islam continued by the sword, and when crusaders in the 11th-century finally took up the sword themselves, that was a hijacking of a peaceful religion, but tailored for a warrior class whose profession was at clear odds with Christ’s pacifism. In a similar way, the principles of Zen Buddhism have been bent to meet the needs of bushido. Christianity and Buddhism are for the most part peaceful religions, but crusaders and kamikaze pilots stand as proof that religions of peace can be hijacked under exceptional circumstances.

Jihadist warfare has never been a hijacking, or distortion, or perversion, of Islam. It has been an essential ingredient from the start, and remains so today in all schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The crusades were voluntary; jihad was and still is mandatory. The crusades were a burp and foreordained to pass; jihad is built into Islam’s DNA.

“The Best and Brightest”?

The following assessment from Stark comes as a breath of fresh air:

“It was not until the upper-class sons of Europe were slaughtered in the trenches during World War I that Europe suffered the loss of a generation of leaders equal to that which took place during the First Crusade. Those who marched east were among the best and the brightest of their time. When they died, the responsibilities for managing many major estates and dealing with many important concerns fell upon widows and minor sons, and on those who failed to serve, just as it did in England, France, and Germany in the 1920s.”

Which is not to say that Stark soft-peddles crusader atrocities. Only that it’s absurd to judge the crusades by Geneva-Convention standards. The point isn’t that Christians couldn’t be brutal and intolerant — this was a brutal and intolerant age. But to suggest that Muslims were the lesser villains, or enlightened supporters of multiculturalism, is revisionist fantasy. They were the aggressors, and usually the side more deserving of censure. “The best and brightest” may be rhetorical flourish, but Stark is right than when judged by the time period, the crusaders don’t deserve to be demonized. He makes a good case for their cause.

It’s a book that President Obama would do well to read, given his recent remarks about the crusades. When objectors scold him by saying, “The medieval Christian threat is under control, Mr. President, please deal with the Islamic threat today,” the real problem isn’t even being addressed. Of course the crusades are long gone, but they were never the “threat” that Islam was and is.