Knowing: The Gnostic Lure of Knowing It All

“According to Irenaeus, sin in its primitive form is Man’s attempt to be God.”

(Jacobsen, Anders-Christian. “The Importance of Genesis 1-3 in the Theology of Irenaeus.” Zeitschrift Für Antikes Christentum 8, no. 2 (2004): 299–316 @ 303)

A few things have converged lately for me:

  1. A sermon I preached on the nature of sin in relation to Romans 1–3. This, by the way, led to discovering the curious facts that:
    • Oscar Wilde died at 46, having in some practical ways arguably explored the meaning of sin, at least as his society understood it, as a participant in the ‘Decadent Movement’.Doriangray_Raoul Van Coneghem[Raoul Van Coneghem, 28/01/2016, Wikimedia Commons]
    • Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, his sole novel, which has long fascinated me as a story concept, seems to have been inspired by the kind of life lived by another member of the movement, the Frenchman Charles Baudelaire, who also, it turns out, died at 46.
    • I am presently 46, so I had better watch how I conduct my affairs.
  2. Reading 1 Corinthians 1–2 with its deliberate antithesis of ‘knowing’ and ‘not knowing’. In 1 Cor. 1 Paul seeks to undercut the Corinthians’ smugness about their wisdom by showing how the gospel of Christ frustrates human expectations of wisdom. Then in 2:1–5 Paul recalls having adopted, at his previous visit to the Corinthian church, a policy of knowing nothing but “Christ and him crucified,” as if to avoid getting into a knowledge contest or encouraging that smugness. But in 2:6ff. Paul begins overtly to use a whole vocabulary associated with ‘gnosis’, e.g. ‘sophia‘, wisdom; ‘teleios‘, perfect, complete, ‘arrived’; ‘archōn‘, ruler; ‘mustērion‘, a hidden truth, and that’s just vv. 6–7. Just as familiar in gnostic discourse are the categories ‘pneumatikos‘, spiritual (v. 13) and ‘psychikos‘, natural as two different categories of persons. Paul clearly is no longer bound to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified,” because he is applying to himself and his fellow apostles the full vocabulary of spiritual enlightenment that we will see in later gnosticism, though not necessarily with the range of gnostic associations yet to come.

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Where are the Levites Mentioned? An Experiment in Visualization of Word Distribution in the Bible

I am experimenting with a template for visualizing the distribution of words and ideas in the Bible in a simple, at-a-glance format. Right now, with my limited IT skills, Prezi is the tool of choice. So here is a set of examples of how we might quickly and clearly show the distribution of a term or concept in the Bible. I’m using data on where Levites are mentioned in the New International Version, so it’s a simple English-language study, drawn from a search in BibleWorks.

The Pentateuch

Levite Refs in Pentateuch Sshot

What I notice here is that the book with Levites virtually in the name, ‘Leviticus’, barely mentions them! They don’t appear until ch. 25, almost at the end, and then only that chapter. So Leviticus is hardly about the Levites in any explicit way. But Numbers is loaded with references, as if it has Levites and their religious roles squarely in view. They appear among the underprivileged classes in many of the references to them in Deuteronomy, and they also appear significant in Exodus, especially in connection with Moses and Aaron as their patron figures.

The Historical Books

Levite Refs in Hist'l Books Sshot

Levites feature with some frequency in the historical books of the OT, with particular concentrations in the mildly bizarre story about the Levite and his concubine late in Judges and in 1-2 Chronicles, suggesting that Levites may have had a part in ancient Israelite society from very early on, but are a particular focus of interest after the exile.

The Prophets

Levite Refs in Prophets Sshot

Levites are distinct for their general absence in the (Latter) Prophets, appearing in just a single half-chapter in Jeremiah, and that being the section of Jeremiah, 33:14-26, that is absent from the Greek version of the OT, the Septuagint or LXX. The Levites are only mentioned in the last few verses of Isaiah 66, once in the Twelve (Minor Prophets) in Malachi 3:3, and a number of times in Ezekiel’s temple vision in Ezekiel 40-48, with suggestions that Levites are to have a demoted status in Jewish religion. That’s a very limited range of texts, and arguably late in production in each case. The general impression is of an appearance of this topic in exilic and post-exilic times.

The Writings

Levite Refs in Writings Sshot

It perhaps isn’t surprising in some cases, given the nature and subject matter of some of these books, but the Levites are not mentioned anywhere in the Writings, including the Psalms (not shown), apart from post-exilic Ezra and Nehemiah, where they become very prominent indeed.

I’m no scholar about the Levites, and in my mind the big three features of post-exilic Jewish religious life are Torah, Sabbath and, moreso later, synagogue. But perhaps Levites, though the Judges story in particular may set their origin in Israelite society very early, to say nothing of the Exodus references, are primarily a prominent feature of post-exilic society, and most references to them in our Bibles come from the exile or later. There is of course an intersection here with older historical-critical concerns, but I’m not an expert on these either, and would like to keep scholarly hypotheses from too quickly shaping the data at hand.

Another good visual study would be references to the Sabbath, no?

When Prophecy Was Meant to Fail

My title above is a spin on that of a book I long knew about but only read within the last 12 months, Robert Carroll’s When Prophecy Failed, published back in the 80s.  Carroll’s book pointed out a range of OT prophecies that look for all the world unfulfilled.  There are some celebrated examples where he is clearly right, such as the prediction in Ezekiel 26 where the word of God predicts Tyre’s utter destruction by Nebuchadnezzar, which was followed at a later date by the prophecy in the final verses of Ezekiel 29 (vv. 18-21) that offer King Neb Egypt as a consolation prize in place of the still-elusive Tyre, which he was unable to conquer despite a long campaign.

Carroll - When Prophecy Failed

I’ve just seen a reference to it in a fairly recent essay by a scholar I quite enjoy reading, Ronald Clements, ‘Prophecy Interpreted…A Case Study in Jeremiah 26:16-24,’ in Uprooting and Planting: Essays on Jeremiah for Leslie Allen, ed. John Goldingay (New York/London: T&T Clark, 2006), 32-44.  Here’s an apt comment about Carroll’s proposal in a footnote of Clements (p. 35 n. 3):

“When understood as a message of divine warning, prophecy would not be regarded as having “failed” if those who heard it responded in such a way that the threat could be…revoked.”

Here Clements picks up on a truth seen in prophecy throughout the Old Testament and fundamental to Jeremiah: The freedom of God to respond to human beings overrides considerations of the prophet’s predictive reliability.  That is, God is willing to let his prophet be wrong if a threat of doom He has given the prophet to proclaim achieves its main purpose.

That main purpose is not to predict the future.

It is to change the behaviour and attitudes of his people.

If the threat of trouble ahead brings about humility and practical repentance, then the predicted doom need not fall.  Check out this programmatic passage from Jeremiah:

 7  If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed,
8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
9 And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted,
10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
11 “Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’
(Jer 18:7-11 NIV)

An inevitable ramification of this is that the prophet will be left out in the cold, as far as being correct about the future!  But God will not bind himself to his forecast, hypothetical future, if that means being unable to change course in response to the very change the prophetic message he sent was intended to produce!  Theologically, we’re talking about the vital doctrine of the freedom of God.

Oh, and one other key theological issue is at stake: real relationship.  No-one who is utterly unable to respond to the opposite party is really in relationship with that other party.  The portrayed God of the Old Testament is, as our Jeremiah passage so clearly shows, really very willing to change his planned course of action in response to human changes in their relational stance toward him.

This is very profound and very important, and should be a key part of our personal theologies.

For other vivid OT examples of this principle at work, see:

  • The book of Jonah, whose prophetic content is limited to a single verse!  And whose single verse of prophecy turns out not to come true!  And that because it is warning, it is heeded, and the forecast doom is no longer needed!  All to Jonah’s profound displeasure, but let no-one fail to appreciate what a radical and profound little book this is!
  • 1 Sam. 2:30, where the LORD says of Eli’s priestly family:

“Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever. ‘ But now the LORD declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.” (NIV)

  • And Clements’ own example, Jeremiah 26:18-19, where the prophet Micah’s long-past prediction that Jerusalem would be so thoroughly destroyed that it would be like a ploughed rural hilltop is raised as an example of a prophetic word that did not come to pass because its hearers responded in repentance as intended.

There are many others.  The book of Jeremiah makes clear that prophetic prediction was not always meant to fail.  There comes a clear turning point in Jeremiah’s ministry where the forecast doom was no longer a warning, but an inevitability, and those who tried to avoid the sentence of God, e.g. by resisting the Babylonian advance, were just prolonging their own pain.  But this other side of the prophetic coin might just open our minds to the multifaceted purposes of OT prophecy, and to a neglected side of biblical theology.

Light on the Kingdom of God Theme from Daniel 7

The end of the Aramaic section of Daniel, Dan 7:28, sees Daniel troubled by a recent vision in (some) identical terms to those used to describe Belshazzar’s distress at his own ‘writing on the wall’ vision in Dan 5:6, 9.  That in itself is interesting but I’ll leave it with you to ponder.  My focus here is actually on the previous verse, v. 27.

The word translated ‘kingship’ at the beginning of v. 27 in NRSV and the New Jerusalem Bible and ‘sovereignty’ in the NIV is the same one (in the Aramaic, ‘malkû‘) translated a few words later, and often in Daniel, ‘kingdom(s)’.  It appears 57 times just in the Aramaic chapters of Daniel, showing how important these six chapters, Daniel 2-7, are for the theme of the kingdom of God in our biblical theology.  That, after all, is the point of the opening and closing visions of this Aramaic section.  Chapter 2 features a statue whose successive metals represent successive ancient Near East empires, which is finally wiped away by the uncut rock that represents this kingdom.  The same happens in Daniel 7, at the other end of the ‘envelope’ structure, when the heavenly court decides against the power of all the animal kingdoms and gives authority instead to the ‘one like a son of man’ (7:13).

But something I read in a classic OT monograph gave me a little more insight into this theme of Daniel.  R. R. Wilson in his 1977 work, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World, 81, makes the comment about the Sumerian King List that it “presents the dogma that only one city can possess kingship at any given time [and] also suggests that kingship is now located in Isin.”   While we are quite comfortable with the idea that more than one powerful nation might find room to exist simultaneously in the world, the idea in the Sumerian King List and at least one rival document was that in the Mesopotamian world, only one city could legitimately hold the heaven-sent ‘kingship’ or pre-eminence in human kingdoms.

So suddenly the statue and the animal series make sense, being based on this ‘one-at-a-time’ idea, and the succession of empires that dominated the Tigris-Euphrates valley, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and finally Seleucia, could only have reinforced this obviously widely-held idea.  Only one human kingdom gets to hold the sceptre than heaven gives.  In Daniel it is the ‘Most High’ or the ‘Ancient of Days’ that hands out the sceptre, and when human kingdoms have had enough of a day, takes it back to hand to…the human-like one (v. 13)/’the saints of the Most High’ (v. 27a) and therefore, ultimately, Himself (27b)!

P.S. Out of 20 occurrences of this word, malkû, in the determined singular in Daniel, several occurrences seem to carry this meaning, ‘kingship’, rather than ‘kingdom’.  Check out 2:37-38; 4:31; 5:31 (all English text) as examples.