Sunday, July 17, 2011

Post-Exilic Joseph Story, Vanhoozer on I-Witness Testimony

I'm continuing my way through Understanding Poets and Prophets: Essays in Honour of George Wishart Anderson. In this post, I will comment on two essays.

1. In "Notes on the Joseph Story", J.A. Soggin dates the Joseph story to the late post-exilic period. He states that the story's message about God working things out for good was intended to comfort Jews who were dissatisfied with the Hasmonean dynasty and the failure of the Davidic dynasty to be re-established. Soggin thematically associates Joseph's accusation of his brothers of being spies with the later Pharaoh's suspicion of the Israelites in Exodus 1:9-12, and he wonders when an author would present tension between the Israelites and the Egyptians. Soggin does not think that the second millennium B.C.E. works because that was when Egypt controlled Palestine. He also dismisses the first half of the first millennium B.C.E. because that was when "Israel and Judah relied heavily on Egyptian help against Assyria first and Babylon afterwards" (page 340). Soggin believes that the date of the Joseph story must be from a time when Israel was "politically independent of Egypt which had become an independent power", and he posits two possibilities: the Persian Period, when Egypt frequently rebelled against its Persian overlord; and the early second century B.C.E., when Syria and Palestine were in the Seleucid empire, whereas Egypt was under the Ptolemies.

Soggin also discusses Genesis 43:32, which states that the Egyptians do not eat with foreigners. Soggin says that such a custom does not appear in ancient Egyptian sources, but it is "attested by later Greek authors" (page 341). Soggin's conclusion is that Genesis 43:32 was intended to promote the post-exilic belief that Jews should separate themselves from foreigners: "if the Egyptians were that strict, why cannot also you be at least as zealous?"

But I wonder if Soggin believes that there was an earlier stage of the Joseph story. He notes that Manasseh and Ephraim were technically "mamzerim", since they were not born to a Jewish mother, and he asks if this was a polemic against Northern Israel. But Soggin then states that the authors of the Joseph story tried to smooth this detail out---by presenting Jacob as adopting Manasseh and Ephraim and thereby making them legitimate. Soggin points out that later Judaism interacted with the same issue, for the first century C.E. Joseph and Asenath "makes Joseph's Egyptian wife pass through a complete ritual of conversion to Judaism, thus fully legitimizing the children" (page 341). For Soggin, was there an earlier version of the Joseph story that someone later attempted to smooth out?

I think that some of the things that Soggin mentions can fit the seventh century B.C.E.---the time of Josiah. That was when the Egyptians killed Josiah as they were racing north to assist the collapsing Assyrian empire. It was also a time of Egyptian nationalism, when Egypt despised what was foreign (see here). Regarding the issue of matrilineal descent, that is a complex issue (see the documentation here).

2. K.J. Vanhoozer's "The Hermeneutics of I-Witness Testimony: John 21:20-24 and the 'Death' of the 'Author'" contained things that I liked and disliked. I'll start with what I disliked. On page 377, Vanhoozer states, "After the indignities of being prodded and examined by historical critics, the deconstructed text now suffers the ultimate humiliation---interpretative rape." Vanhoozer is making a rather conservative point---against the tendencies of historical-criticism and deconstruction to nitpick the text to death. But I think he's being a little over-dramatic when he calls that "interpretative rape." It reminds me of over-dramatic people I've encountered in academia, such as a Union Theological Seminary student who called The Passion of the Christ "pornography".

But Vanhoozer does mention interesting points that others have made---or he makes profound points of his own. First, he states on page 374 that, "For Foucault, the idea of the author serves to give a false sense of textual unity and coherence." The idea here is probably that, when we take the author out of the picture and look at the text itself, we can see contradictions and incoherence. But this comment about Foucault reminded me of my reading of Ehud Ben Zvi's commentary on Zephaniah: that the Book of Zephaniah has different layers, yet all of these are brought together under a superscription that attributes them to the prophet Zephaniah.

Second, John 21:15-24 essentially says that the Beloved Disciple wrote the Gospel, and it contains a difference of opinion about whether or not the Beloved Disciple would die before Jesus' return. Apparently, there are scholars who have problems with the Gospel's claim in v 24 that the Beloved Disciple wrote it, for, if the Beloved Disciple is dead (as v 23 may imply), how can he claim to be the author in v 24? Vanhoozer's answer on page 373 appears to be that the Beloved Disciple wrote vv 23-24 when he was close to death. I was somewhat surprised by this discussion, for I thought many New Testament scholars assumed that vv 23-24 were added later. When v 24 says "This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true", why couldn't that be a later hand saying that the Beloved Disciple wrote about events that he saw? Why does it have to be the Beloved Disciple talking about himself?

Third, Vanhoozer challenges the hermeneutic of suspicion, saying that "Distrust should never be the first hermeneutical reflex, especially not with testimony" (page 379). He also raises good points about doubt and belief, on page 380: "The skeptic, at best, enjoys greater safety from error, but runs the risk of ignoring a narrative framework with greater explanatory power than the alternatives and of losing a number of beliefs that may be true. The believer runs the risk of acquiring false beliefs, but is open to receiving a greater number of true beliefs and an interpretative framework for understanding the life and fate of Jesus." Vanhoozer appears to advocate an Anselmian approach of "I believe, therefore I understand." I have issues with complete skepticism, but I also have problems with simply assuming the Christian worldview as true---which (in my opinion) amounts to tautology (which I've done myself).

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