Thursday, October 20, 2011

Essay: The Decline and Fall of Free Will: JE to the Evangelists

Tonight, my oldest son wrote his first "serious" paper.  He's in the 7th Grade, so it's not that serious, but it actually has MLA citations.  It was a battle, but he got it done.  While it is very rough, it actually touched on a couple of interesting ideas.  However, since it was a last minute cram job and already a day late, he didn't get to travel down those interesting paths as far as I would have liked to see...

Anyway, I babble and I miss the point.  He is definitely after my own heart.  The paper's title? "The Biblical History of the Israeli and Palestinian Conflict."  Right down the center of my academic studies...  The primary focus of his paper was the history of the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants.  Damn.  I love that boy.  It wasn't even my idea!  He came up with it on his own.

It reminded me of a paper I wrote back in 2005, dealing with the covenants.  I thought I'd dig it up and take another look before passing the hell out.  Another long day.  Another long week...

Link to PDF: The Decline and Fall of Free Will: JE to the Evangelists

April 16, 2005

The Decline and Fall of Free Will: JE to the Evangelists

The concepts of free will, responsibility and the punishment of sin in the Hebrew Bible and in the Christian New Testament transform slowly over the course of the text, reflecting the views of different writers living in different societies and times.  Essentially, the Israelites’ covenant with Yahweh, binding them to a god who delivers divine guidance and punishment for their actions and failures, is defined early on by the J (Yahwist) and E (Elohim) writers, is modified by the Deuteronomists who live in a new social situation, and then is completely replaced with a new covenant by the Evangelists in the New Testament Gospels, resulting in the redefinition of the nature of sin, the revocation of Torah law, and the essential elimination of the concept of free will.   

In the early JE texts, the first humans and then the Israelites have more free will coupled with the lightest responsibilities to God than at any other time in the course of the Bible.  These writers cover the creation of the Abrahamic Covenant and Mosaic Covenants, covering the first limitations on humanity’s free will, but the original demands of these covenants and the punishment for violating them is light compared to what follows.   In Who Wrote the Bible?, Richard Elliott Friedman writes, “[Wilhelm] Vatke … concluded that J and E reflected a very early stage in the development of Israelite religion, when it was essentially a nature/fertility religion” (25).  A religion in this stage is not concerned as much with obeying God and his representatives on earth, nor in the fate of a dualistic immortal soul, as it is with the cycle of the seasons, prosperous crops and herds, and the general well being of the tribe.  And in the JE texts, we see that Yahweh’s major concerns are not with making rules and punishing sinners, but with the second creation myth, cult legends (especially when relating to future centers of Israelite worship), etiologies ranging from the salt pillars near the Dead Sea to the foundation of Israel’s claim on Canaan, and fertility issues, where many women, starting with Sarah, require Yahweh’s divine aid to conceive.

Though the themes of sin and punishment are secondary in the J and E texts, they are still present, and J begins to explore these concepts almost immediately.  In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve have almost complete freedom.  There is only one rule and it is punishable, supposedly, by death.  Joseph Campbell, in The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, expresses the idea that having at least one rule was necessary, enabling God and his creation to have a relationship.  Such a relationship requires “an absolute distinction in being between Creature and Creator, which can be bridged, and even then but precariously, only by man’s obedience to a particular, quite specific, schedule of announced rules” (Campbell 109).  While the one rule in the garden may have been necessary for precariously bridging Adam, Eve and God, it also initiated a series of covenants, laws, sins, and punishments that would eventually, by the time of the Evangelists, lead to the loss of all free will for humanity.  For, “in the case of Adam and Eve, the announced rule was of a type very popular in fairy tales, known to folklore students as the One Forbidden Thing,” and as the folklore students can attest, abiding by this rule is impossible (Campbell 109).  When the couple ate the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2.17) and “the eyes of both were opened” (Gen. 3.7), God’s retribution is immediate.  He punishes the sin by expelling humanity from the garden and, while not limiting their freedom, arguably he expands it. Due to these events, Adam and Eve’s descendants now have the ability to discern right from wrong; the ability to recognize and follow laws, and the ability to choose not to follow those laws.  Even more, by the time of the Evangelists, this violation and its consequences will be seen by Christians to be so severe that all of humanity has been tainted with sin by it. 
Moving from the mythic stories to the legendary stories in the JE texts, after much sin and much punishment, the concept of the covenant community is introduced with Abraham.  The covenants may have an etiological background, since contract religions did exist in the region in ancient times.  Eliezer Oren, a prominent Middle East archaeologist, offers the following description in Bruce Feller’s book Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses:
…from all the records we know, in the ancient Near East the relationship between gods and man is always contractual.  Every single one of them: the Hittites, the Mesopotamians, the Assyrians.  And a contract is binding.  Every partner has its obligation.  If man behaves in a certain way, then he assures the prosperity of his family, his tribe.  The gods, meanwhile, must make it rain and make the land bear fruit.  In this respect, the Bible is beautifully embedded in its surroundings. (73)
Oren continues on to point out that another such written religious contract has been discovered, “In Mari. Up in Syria, we actually found similar contracts written down” (Feller 74).  In this region, it appears that covenants were an integral part of a religion’s expression, so the necessity of free will, tempered by divine retribution for betrayal, was defined in the cultural traditions responsible for the myths and legends that J and E were recording.  But these early Hebrew contracts were still fairly basic, dealing more with generalities than with complex systems of morality and punishment.  In fact, it appears that “the great majority of the laws … were not a part of life in the days of Moses,” let alone earlier (Friedman 25).  The vast lines of law in the later books of the Pentateuch were not guiding the lives of the Patriarchs or Moses and the Israelites in the desert.  Their covenants were simple, little more than the worship of Yahweh.  Because of this, mortals defined most sins and mortals handled most punishments. The covenants, being the structure on which the Jewish faith was based, are also important because they require that humans have free will.  For there to be any meaning in a mutual contract, humanity must have the freedom to join with it or to break with it, and the characters of the JE texts exercise great amounts of free will.  They were free to argue and disagree with Yahweh, and the punishments for their rare transgressions, though at times terrible, were usually directed only at those who committed the actual sin, not against the entire covenant community.  Also, the covenant creates a situation where God is not limiting the people’s free will to the terms of the covenant, but the people take these limitations upon themselves. 
The first covenant defining the chosen people is the Abrahamic covenant.  When describing the covenant to Jacob, in the J text, God stands above the ladder to heaven and says:
I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves.  (Gen. 28.13-15)
In exchange for allegiance to Yahweh, Jacob and his descendants not only receive the Promised Land and great fertility, but they also will be a blessing among men.  In addition, Yahweh promises to protect Jacob on his journeys.  But at this point, Jacob has the freedom to add his own conditions to his entry into the covenant.  In an E text, he says that “the LORD shall be my God” only “if God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I can come again to my father’s house in peace” (Gen. 28.20-21).  Through the remainder of the JE texts to the creation of the Mosaic Covenant, this exchange fairly well exemplifies the relationship between God and his chosen people.  The punishment for breaking this covenant is apparently the loss of the special privileges and fertility offered by Yahweh, but since no one is shown breaking it, we do not know if Yahweh holds any special fury for the transgressors.  People are relatively free to act on their own and any sins committed are punished either by God or by humans arbitrarily, since there is apparently no codified religious law at this point.  When free will is manipulated by Yahweh to move his people along towards the fulfillment of his promises to them, it is with a soft touch or by acting against his people’s enemies, such as in an E text, where God repeatedly  “hardens” the Pharaoh’s heart during the plagues, even after, through his own free will, he declares, “I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you,” he begs Moses and Aaron for forgiveness, and he attempts to free the Israelites (Ex. 10.16-20).  Earlier, Joseph eases his brothers’ concern over their ignoble treatment of him by telling them, “do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you” (Gen. 45.5).  Three times he tells his brothers this, that “it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45.8).  In these J lines, the obvious implication is that there is no free will and that humanity’s fate lies in God’s will.  However, such a reading seems contrary to the general themes in J’s text.  In The Book of J, Harold Bloom agrees that these lines do not conform with J’s theological philosophy and, while attributing them to him or her in his commentary, he omits these problematic lines from his reconstruction of J’s hypothetical scroll.  In his commentary, Bloom consistently maintains the idea that J “does not allow Yahweh to intervene directly in Joseph’s story” (34).  He feels that “we should be wary of literalizing J: when she says of Joseph that Yahweh was with him, she is giving us a complex metaphor for Joseph’s persuasiveness” (235).  In these specific lines, Bloom sees not a message about God’s divine hand pushing humanity towards the fulfillment of his plan, but a simple literary touch.  He writes,
We would lack literary tact if we confused Joseph’s graceful suggestion that Yahweh sent him to Egypt to prepare the brothers’ way before them (Gen. 45.5-8) with a serious theological reflection on J’s part.  It is a realistic touch that the gracious Joseph cannot forbear reminding his brothers that once they sold him down to Egypt; no one who is human could say well less. (237-38)
And we see in the text another occasion where Joseph gives credit to God for actions that he knows were his own.  On his brothers’ first departure from Egypt, he secretly “gave orders … to replace every man’s money in his sack” (Gen. 42.25).  However, when his brothers attempt to return the money, Joseph lies to them, stating that “your God and the God of your father must have put treasure in your sacks for you; I received your money” (Gen. 43.23).  With this precedent, I agree that these problematic lines do not indicate that J has suddenly changed his or her worldview.  If this is true, then the primary example in the JE texts of God enforcing his plan at the expense of an Israelite’s free will disappears from consideration.  Pretty much what is left is that the covenant members generally do well in life, especially Jacob while working for Laban and Joseph while working for the Pharaoh, and that they are fruitful and they multiply.  What is left is an incredible amount of free will.  In fact, in Mesopotamian and Hebrew mythology and legend, the “victory of the principle of free will, together with its moral corollary of individual responsibility, established the first distinguishing characteristic of specifically Occidental Myth” (Campbell 24).
Setting the stage for the trials and tribulations dealt with by the Deuteronomists, the J and E texts are the earliest texts dealing with the creation of the Mosaic Covenant.  Though the E writer, according to Friedman’s chart in Who Wrote the Bible?, added three chapters of detailed law, compared to nearly entire books added by later writers, the J writer essentially limits his or her covenant commitments to the version of the Decalogue outlined in Exodus 34.14-28.  These laws and commandments bound the Israelites to the will of God in a new way and, for the first time, the people become “active participants in the covenant, agreeing publicly to follow the dictates of God” (Feller 258). They commit themselves to laws that can be broken, and wrath can be visited upon them for their transgressions.  It didn’t take long for transgressions to occur, but they still managed to find their way out of the desert and to take Canaan. 

After the establishment of the Kingdom, and then the Kingdoms, of Abraham’s descendants, the Deuteronomic writers, or writer, defined their texts by basing the success or failure of Jewish society on its adherence to the Mosaic Covenant.  Free will was still essential to the faith illustrated by the Deuteronomists, since the survival of the state depended upon their choice to keep the terms of their covenant with God, though this was mostly reduced to worshiping Yahweh and not worshiping the idols of “foreign” gods.  In Understanding the Bible, Stephen L. Harris writes that in Deuteronomy 32, near the end of the Pentateuch, in a Deuteronomic text:
In truly “winged words,” Yahweh emphasizes the people’s freedom of choice.  Setting before them “life and prosperity” or “Death and disaster,” he urges them to choose a life in which they and their descendants can live to enjoy the love of their God. (154)
The need to freely enter the covenant is reaffirmed after the conquest of Canaan when Joshua gives his followers a choice. 
Now therefore fear the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.  And if you be unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve … but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. (Jos. 24.14-15)
As in the JE texts, free will was critical to the formation of the covenant, but it could be taken away by God to meet his goals.  Unlike the JE texts, in the Deuteronomic History the goals do not involve the fulfillment of God’s plan; they involve the punishment of those who sin.  One of the clearest examples of this comes in 2 Samuel 24 when “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them,” forcing him to take a census of Israel and Judah, providing God with an excuse to punish Israel for their transgressions (2 Sam. 24.1). 
And God punished the Israelites often.  In the eyes of the Deuteronomists, this had little to do with Judah and Israel being weak states surrounded by more powerful empires that often conquered and subjugated them, but with the people of Judah and Israel constantly breaking the covenant and worshiping the wrong gods.  As Campbell states, “In the period before the fall of Jerusalem … the stress of prophetic teaching had been on the requirement to adhere to the statutes of the Lord, that is to say, live as Jews, not as gentiles” (208).  Regardless of this belief, many of the Israelites, including many of the kings, found themselves assimilating into the local, non-Hebrew cultures and worshiping other gods along with Yahweh.  For these sins, God punishes the Jewish kingdoms by inspiring their more powerful neighbors to strike.  Campbell illustrates this concept by pointing out the following examples from Jeremiah and Isaiah.  The prophet Jeremiah, who, Friedman speculates, may have worked closely with the Deuteroniomist, announces God’s intention to punish the Hebrews’ wickedness by sending
For the tribes of the north … and for Nebuchadrez’zar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants … I will utterly destroy them, and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting reproach. (Jer. 24.8-9)
In 586 BCE, Nebachadnezzar II (r. 604-562 BCE) conquered Judah, destroyed the Jerusalem temple and forcibly migrated much of the native population to Babylon, beginning the period of the Babylonian Exile, which ended after the Babylonians fell to the Persians and their king Cyrus the Great (Campbell 214). After the release of the Israelites from their captivity by Cyrus, we see God being credited for a positive development in Jewish history.  Though generally considered to be a later writer than the Deuteronomists, Second Isaiah give credit to God for Cyrus’s military achievements, which allowed the Hebrews to return to Jerusalem and to build the Second Temple.  The Lord tells Cyrus, “whose right hand [he has] grasped, to subdue nations before him,” that
I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut asunder the bars of iron … I the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name … I gird you, though you do not know me. (Is. 45 1-5)
This principle of statewide sin, punishment and redemption, established by the Deuteronomists, continued on with the Prophets and the later Hebrew texts.  As Campbell states, “Natural evil (catastrophe) was in the eyes of the prophets the result of human evil.  God, the creator of nature, cannot be the source of evil … The deeds of man are, therefore, the source of evil in both society and in nature” (207).  While war may not be a natural disaster, the weakness of the Hebrews compared to their neighbors meant that they had as much control over their fate in war as they did when facing an earthquake, or a flood.  Destruction, though at the hands of men, was still destruction inflicted upon them by God.
   According to the Deuteronomists, only one king, Josiah, was written of as being truly successful in the eyes of the Lord.  “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, and according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him,” the Deuteronomists wrote of Josiah, the most glowing judgment of all of Israel and Judea’s kings (2 Kg. 22.25).  It was also during Josiah’s reign, in 621 BCE (Harris 230), that the “book of law” was found in “the house of the LORD” (2 Kg. 23.8).  This book is believed to be, by most interpreters, the Book of Deuteronomy itself.  Josiah, after renting his clothes and weeping, “made a covenant before the LORD to … perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book; and all the people joined in the covenant” (2 Kg. 23.3).  Unfortunately, this tremendous expansion of the Israelites’ duties meant that abiding by the Mosaic Covenant became a much more complicated endeavor, and choosing to continue to abide by the covenant meant choosing to sacrifice a tremendous amount of personal freedom.  Maybe it was too complicated since, four kings later, God struck down Judah.  Israelite sovereignty came to an end and there would not be another truly independent Jewish state until 1948 CE (Ochsenwald 749).  The Jews had exercised their free will too often and failed to meet their responsibilities to God.

Between the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE and the rise of Christianity, the nature of Jewish writing changed tremendously.  The Apocalyptic writings of the Prophets, the spread of Hellenism, the influence of Persian Zoroastrianism and many other factors led to the creation of a new world view where such black and white views of contractual religion, free will and divine punishment were no longer valid, or relevant, for the Evangelists.  Heavily apocalyptic and eschatological in their theology, the Evangelists create a new covenant where free will is essentially eliminated, sin is the original state of humanly being, and reward and punishment is reserved for the afterlife in the spiritual world. 
Later Jewish writers attempted to reconcile themselves with God’s apparent violation of the Davidic Covenant, allowing for a descendant of David to rule in Jerusalem forever, and the Evangelists turn to these writings to define their New Covenant.  This covenant is inspired by the revisions of the Davidic Covenant, “which became a promise only that the throne was eternally available to David’s family … that a descendant of David, a messiah, might come someday and rule justly” (Friedman 143).  They were also influenced by the apocalyptic writings, where the “vast majority of people walk in spiritual darkness and are doomed victims of God’s wrath” (Harris 319).  In addition to the ethical dualism of these writings, we also see a strong turn towards predestination, where “apocalyptists view history as progressing in a straight line toward a predetermined end” (Harris 319).  Because of this, “human efforts, no matter how well intended, cannot avert the coming disaster or influence God to change his mind” (Harris 319), a dramatic shift from the Hebrew Bible where we see many people successfully accomplishing these very things.  Predestination was reinforced by the influence of Eastern mythologies on the increasingly cosmopolitan Hellenistic world.  Where free will was a defining principle of Western mythology, Eastern spiritualists saw “a fixed world of fixed duties, roles and responsibilities … There is no concept, or even sense, of either will or mind as a creative force” (Campbell 6).  In Eastern spirituality, there was only the option of “engagement” or “disengagement,” the latter leading to devastating consequences.  In this, we can even see imagery that would be reflected, in greater and greater detail, in Christian texts.  Campbell offers this description of the results of engaging and disengaging in the fixed Eastern cycles:
…the wise … “Scorched,” as we read, “with the fire of an endless round of birth, death, and the rest- like one whose head is on fire rushing to a lake-” either retired to the forest, there to plunge beyond the non-being of being, or else remained in the fire, to be burned willingly to naught through an unremitting giving of themselves, without hope, but with compassion, to futility. (191)
A fourth influence on the development of the Christian texts was the Hellenistic Mystery Religions, where faith was a secret held closely by the initiates, hidden from the surrounding community.  According to Harris, the followers of these religions “took oaths never to reveal their secrets” (364).  As for their influence on the Christian community, Harris states, “Although scholars question the extent to which these esoteric cults anticipated Christian rites, in some cases participants shared a community meal in which their god was invisibly present, perhaps allowing them to absorb the divine body into themselves and thus partake of the deity’s immortality” (364).  Essentially, in these religions, we may find the possible roots not only of some of the most important Christian rituals, but also the roots of the exclusive, almost secretive, aspects of the New Covenant.  Due to these influences, we do not see humans negotiating with God over the terms of the New Covenant in the Gospels, nor does it seem to matter if the majority of the community is even aware of the New Covenant. 
Mark, the first Gospel written, and Matthew, the first Gospel in the canon, provide an interesting look at how these factors all came together.  With Mark, probably written between 66 and 70 CE, before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (Harris 20), “so persuasive is [his] eschatology that some scholars regard the entire Gospel as a modified apocalypse” (Harris 411) while Matthew focuses more on linking the new scriptures with the Hebrew ones, “writing in about 80-85 CE to answer Jewish criticism of Christian claims about Jesus and to emphasize Jesus’ adherence to the Mosaic Torah” (Harris 401).  This also means that Matthew was writing after the destruction of the Second Temple, when Jews and Christians alike were struggling to redefine their faith. 
In Mark, we see that the New Covenant, unlike the old one, is not based on free will. First of all, there is now a dualistic worldview where the mortal world is less important than the spiritual world and the mortal world is tainted by sin.  This sin, in the Christians’ eyes, dates back to the Garden of Eden, and has been burdening humanity ever since.  As Campbell explains,
All mankind has inherited from the revolt of the first couple a corruption of nature that has so darkened understanding, so weakened the will, and inclined to evil, that without the miracle of God’s merciful assumption to himself of the guilt and punishment due to that sin, the human race would have forever divorced itself from its proper end in the knowledge, love, service and beatitude of its creator. (114)
With such complete corruption “divorcing” mankind from their ability to serve God, any desire they may have, in the Evangelists’ view, to uphold the covenants is made moot by the burden of their sin.  In other words, they may have the freedom of will to pursue the Lord, but they do not have the capability of exercising this will because “there is nothing within, according to this view, but a corrupt creaturely soul, neither godly in itself, nor capable of achieving, of itself, any relationship with God” (Campbell 114).  Paul discusses this principle in his letter to the Romans, written before the Gospels in 56 or 57 CE (Harris 20), where he writes,
For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.  I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. (Rom. 7.18)
Because of this massive corruption, the mortal world is unimportant spiritually.  It is a world of sin and everything in it is secondary to being saved from sin and to reaching the spiritual plane of God’s kingdom, where true life begins.  This mortal realm is so insignificant, when compared to the spiritual realm, that, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus says, “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off: it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to unquenchable fire” (Mk. 9.43).  This seems to imply that, though doomed to fail, humans can still exercise some degree of free will and that there are rewards and punishments involved with following the New Covenant correctly.
There is one major change in the New Covenant, however, that is devastating to the principle of free will.  There is no choice on whether or not to enter into God’s New Covenant with humanity. One can attempt to accept the soul over the body, the spiritual world over the mortal world, and therefore choose whether to accept eternal life or unquenchable fire, but this is the only choice, and even this choice is not necessarily in mortal hands.  Since Jesus speaks to the uninitiated only in parables, it is not clear if the masses are ready or able to understand the message.  At one point Jesus claims,
There is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.  If any man has ears to hear, let him hear. (Mk. 4.22-23)
Though, a few lines earlier, he tells the Apostles, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they turn again, and be forgiven” (Mk.4.11-12).  Considering these things, much later on after being asked who can be saved, Jesus replies, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (Mk. 10.27).  It is revealed that God decides who can be saved and prepares them if they are ready.  If God does not choose them, they are not allowed into the spiritual kingdom.  It is not a choice humans can make for themselves.
Matthew, who may have used Mark’s Gospel as a pretext, along with a lost collection of Jesus’ sayings labeled the Q source and other lost sources, focuses more on linking the new scriptures to those of the Hebrew Bible by quoting heavily from the Septuagint and by “taking great pains to show that Jesus both taught and observed the principles of the Mosaic Torah” (Harris 424).  However, “like the Essenes of Qumran, Matthew interprets the Hebrew Bible as applying exclusively to his group of believers, whom he regards as the true Israel” (Harris 424).  While he shows Jesus proclaiming that the Mosaic Covenant remains in effect, in the antitheses he drastically reinterprets many of the laws, though without “contradict[ing] Torah rules” (Harris 433).  Still, in Matthew’s depiction of Jesus, it is clear that the old covenant is subservient to the New Covenant.  Though Jesus does say that, “Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven,” they shall still be allowed into the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5.19).  Only the truly unrighteous in his eyes, the “scribes and Pharisees” will be denied (Mt. 5.20).  This denial does not mean absolution from the New Covenant; it means unquenchable fire.  In fact, in the Christian tradition, “at [Jesus’] death … the Mosaic ritual law, which up to that time had been the vehicle of God’s purpose in this world, ceased to be so” (Campbell 114).  While much of this doctrine arises from the Pauline Letters, these passages in Matthew helped legitimize the abandonment of Torah law by the Christians, and Matthews’s words, ironically, achieved the opposite of their originally intended effect.  Matthew continues on to dismantle the principle of lex talionis, a concept that culturally predates even the Mosaic Laws, where it was codified. Jesus says,
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil.  But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn him the other also. (Mt. 5.38-39)
Although this is an important element when looking at biblical themes of free will and punishment, this reinterpretation of the Mosaic Law may have less to do with the evolution of the Christian theology than with the political realities of the early Christian era.  As Harris states:
In ancient society, the lex talionis served to limit excess revenge: Simply receiving an injury did not entitle one to kill the offending party.  In the world inhabited by the … members of Jesus’ audience … retaliatory actions of any kind against those who exploited them automatically led to severe reprisals, including torture and death. (Harris 434)
Essentially, all aspects of retaliatory punishment have been taken out of the people’s hands and placed into God’s hands, to be dispensed in the spiritual world, not in the mortal world.  Since all people are working, whether they know it or not, towards the fulfillment of God’s plan, only God can truly judge the value of humanity’s actions on earth.  Finally, individuals no longer suffer due to the failings of the community.  Community responsibility to God has been replaced by individual responsibility to God in the worldview of the Evangelists, a complete reversal from the Deuteronomists’ views. Still, it is difficult to talk about the concept of responsibility at all when free will has been eliminated.

Over the course of hundreds of years of development and the works of many different writers working in vastly different societies with vastly different cultural beliefs and political systems, we find a God that has essentially grown tired of dealing with his constantly faltering children and has taken away their ability to fail him.  Or we see a religious movement that has constantly adapted itself to build hope for its faithful when the very foundations of their belief systems were shattered. For many reasons, as the followers of Yahweh changed over the years, their ideas on what a god was were transformed, along with their ideas on how to worship God in general.   Essentially, J and E wrote books that would have been impossible for the Evangelicals to write, and vice versa.  Yet today, we still try to view all of these works as a whole and, by doing so, we are able to experience the remarkable transformation of a people and a faith over the course of thousands of years.

Works Cited
Bloom, Harold and David Rosenburg.  The Book of J.  New York: Grove Press, 1990.
Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology.  New York: Penguin Books, 1964.
Feller, Bruce.  Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses. New York:
Harper Collins, 2001.
Friedman, Richard Elliott.  Who Wrote the Bible? New York: Harper Collins, 1987.
Harris, Stephen L. Understanding the Bible. 6th ed.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
May, Herbert G. and Bruce M. Metzger, eds.  The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha.
New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1977.
Ochsenwald, William and Sydney Nettleton Fisher. The Middle East: A History. 6th ed. New York:
Mc Graw-Hill, 2004. 

No comments: