Sunday, January 02, 2005

Everything Old is New Again

revenant raises a fair question, one I'm, frankly, not competent to answer fully:

RMJ: Is there anything in the Bible that is original?

"Original" as in "wholly without connection to any human culture whatsoever, and without precedent?"

My New Testament professor claimed that he spent a graduate seminar trying to find both precedent and therefore, definitive explanation, for the statments at the "Last Supper," that: "This is my body, broken for you. And this cup is my blood, shed for you. Whenever you eat this bread, and drink this cup, do it in remembrance of me." I've seen some comments at Eschaton indicating this is mere blood sacrifice ritual, or explainable in other anthropological terms. But it isn't, actually. It's not understood as magic in any anthropological sense, and if it ever was, the meaning was lost millenia ago. One of the most skeptical and critical members of the Jesus Seminar, he was left unable to explain the words, or find a precedent for them, either.

Maybe the call to Abram, in Genesis 12, is without precedent in human culture. Abram answers a call from a god he does not know, and trusts in a promise he has no reason to believe will be fulfilled. Thomas Cahill considers that a "hinge of history," but I'd never make such a grandiose claim. Still, in a time dominated by tradition and experience (two keys to survival in a subsistence culture), it is a radical break, to leave home and family and go to a promised "better" place, whether for whatever reason you trust the deity making the promise, or you're just foolhardy.

But original? I'm not sure.

The other issue is epistemological. That is, how do we learn something new, if we can't relate it to what we already know? In other words, if anything was wholly original, would we recognize it? Related to that is the chicken/egg question, as in, which came first, the Hebrew oral tradition, or Gilgamesh? Frankly, I don't know the details well enough to answer that one. It's a question answerable only by intense scholarship, and even then the scholarly consensus shifts from generation to generation. For example, following Schweitzer's work on the historical Jesus (not the confessional Jesus), scholars largely agreed that Jesus of Nazareth was an apocalyptical preacher, expecting the end of the world in his lifetime. Even Schweitzer softened on that view, however, and today scholars emphasis the radical wisdom nature of Jesus, and see him as a "rabbi," a teacher. Some scholars even compare him to the Stoics of Greece, and think he should be understood in that model.

If scholars disagree on such issues, who are we to declare definitively? But the epistemological issue binds me most tightly: churches have split over the issue of the meaning of the words of institution of the Last Supper, and what the meal represents, so it isn't clear there is much explanatory precedent for it. And yet, unless what is given to a culture is in some way human and reproducible, and therefore by definition not unique, how are humans ever to accept it, understand it, and live by it?

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