Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Wine Offered to Idols, ABD on Zechariah, Lewis and Penal Substitution

1. I’m continuing my way through Jacob Neusner’s Uniting the Dual Torah. I really want to finish this book tomorrow, but we’ll see how that works out! I’ll have to pull myself away from the computer, sit down, and read.

What stood out to me was something I read on page 87. Neusner says that, according to the Mishnah’s Abodah Zarah, an Israelite cannot “derive benefit (e.g., through commercial transactions) from anything that has served in the worship of an idol.” Consequently, Jews are prohibited to buy or to sell wine that’s used by Gentiles, for the Mishnah presumes that the Gentiles could’ve made use of it for a libation.

I vaguely recall hearing in a class at Jewish Theological Seminary that it’s still forbidden for Jews to buy Gentile wine. Why? At least in the U.S., I doubt it was used in idolatry, unless one wants to consider Christian communion an idolatrous custom. And some Jews very well may, since (for Catholics) communion assumes that a wafer is God, or (for many Protestants) it honors Jesus Christ. Yet, as the professor for that class pointed out, if Jews were to consider Christianity idolatrous, what would that do to the churches in the state of Israel? If churches are pagan temples, should they be tolerated on God’s holy soil?

Although the Mishnah came later than the New Testament, can it help us to understand Paul’s discussion about meat offered to idols in I Corinthians 8? If Jews thought that deriving benefit from something used for idolatry was wrong, then that should ban them from eating meat offered to idols, shouldn’t it? But people have debated about the identity of the groups in I Corinthians 8. Paul says that people should assume that the idol is nothing, meaning it’s not wrong to offer meat offered to it. But Paul points out that not everyone has this knowledge, for some feel guilty about eating meat used in an idolatrous worship. Who’s who? I remember Tim Keller identifying the “idol is nothing” crowd as the Jewish Christians, since Judaism held that idols were nothing because there is only one God. The converts from paganism, by contrast, still regarded their old gods as real, in some sense. Eating meat offered to idols reminded them of their old lives of idolatry, and so they were offended by the practice. Tim Keller’s proposal is counter-intuitive, considering the Mishnah’s objections to deriving benefit from things used in idolatry. You’d expect the Jewish Christians to oppose eating meat offered to idols! Yet, his proposal makes a degree of sense.

2. I read two articles in the Anchor Bible Dictionary about the Book of Zechariah. The first one was about Zechariah 1-8, and it said that it’s agenda is to justify the construction of a temple in the post-exilic period, when Israel no longer had a king. That was quite irregular in those days: a temple existing without a monarchy! There may be something to this, since the Book of Zechariah goes out of its way to uphold Zerubbabel and Joshua. Could this be because Jews at the time wondered if Zerubbabel and Joshua were legitimate for the task of temple construction, when they weren’t kings?

The second article was on Zechariah 9-14. Nowadays, scholars by-and-large assume that Zechariah 1-8 and 9-14 are two separate sources. Interestingly, what got the discussion going was Matthew 27:9-19, which attributes Zechariah 11:12-13 to Jeremiah. And so discussions started about whether or not there were different authors of the Book of Zechariah, for some wanted to say that Jeremiah wrote part of the book, in an attempt to safeguard the New Testament’s infallibility. Dividing a book into sources is not exactly fundamentalist, yet, in the case of the Book of Zechariah, a rather fundamentalist belief in biblical inerrancy provided the impetus for source criticism. Odd, isn’t it?

3. I was watching The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe today while I was reading Neusner. A while back, I read in Christianity Today that C.S. Lewis did not believe in penal substitution, the view that Christ died to pay the penalty for sin in place of sinners. What I read in Mere Christianity a few years before, however, was that Lewis wasn’t dogmatic about the precise mechanics of the atonement.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe seems to have penal substitution, though. Aslan dies to pay the penalty for Edmund’s sin. The innocent dies in place of the guilty so that the guilty doesn’t have to die. That’s penal substitution.

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