For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Dr Margaret Barker and Temple Theology

A friend drew my attention to an approach to the bible, both the New and Old Testament, pioneered by the Methodist theologian Dr Margaret Barker. Her website lists a series of publications building on the idea of a "Temple Theology", the notion that the first century Jewish Christian theology and liturgy was continuous with the kind of theology and ritual of the Jerusalem temple rite. It looks like a fascinating line of study from the little I have gleaned from this website, and another one linked to it called Temple Studies Group. (On the Temple Studies website they also list conference dates and programs, and very generously publish abstracts and texts from various papers given at their symposia.) The whole idea fits very neatly with two other pieces of biblical research I have fallen in with lately, these being Austin Farrer's interpretation of the book of Revelation as a series of Jewish liturgical feasts and symbols taken up into Christian life and thought, and the heavy influence of the Temple ritual and Passover feast on the Eucharistic liturgy.

There were a couple of things, however, that stopped me short when I was reading the book reviews etc. of Dr Barker's published work, and which I would like to look into further.

(1) She mentions a historico-critical claim that the Jehovah of the Old Testament was a local deity, and who was (possibly) called the Son of the Most High God, i.e. a god of a larger pantheon of whom the Most High God was the head. I had heard of this before; but Dr Barker seems to advance a theory that this was in fact a live notion at the time of Jesus in the Temple cult, and that the early Christians drew upon the notion in their understanding of Jesus as the Son of God and as Jehovah. I find this a little surprising, but would like to read more: was there already a Trinitarian strand in Hebrew theology? She mentions a couple of passages in the New Testament that made me think that there might be something in it.

(2) She seems to draw a clear distinction between the First Temple, destroyed in the reign of Josiah, and its rites, and the rites of the (according to her) much more Mosaic and Deutoronomic Second Temple which was not so conducive to Christian theology. This seems to open up a theological split within the Old Testament itself in favour of the more ancient rites prior to the writing of Deutoronomy. However, I am not so sure that recent critical scholarship is in favour of Deutoronomy being a late addition to the Penteteuch, and I am not sure what Dr Barker does with the well known and extensive parallels between Moses and Jesus in the synoptic gospels. Part of her claims seem to centre on the prominence of Psalm 110 in the book of Hebrews, in which Christ is linked to David's kingship, and through Melchisedek to the high priestly role: in order to bypass the hereditary priesthood of Aaron the Christians must reach back to an earlier idea of priesthood residing in the house of David via their participation in the divine priesthood of the mysterious Melchisedek (who turns out to be the Son of God). But I am not sure if one needs to set up an First Temple rite in opposition to the Second Temple, and introduce the notion of an anti-Mosaic theology, in order to frame these observations. I will be interested to see how extensive and radical her claims actually are.

(3) She mentions the important notion that the old Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, actually witnesses to a scheme of theology conducive to Christian ideas, and that the Hebrew Masoretic text, formed as it was during a period of Christian-Jewish controversy, has (on the Jewish side) edited out certain theological notions sympathetic to Christian thought. I had heard that the Septuagint was in certain respects more ancient - for example in the more accurate ordering of Jeremiah - but Dr Barker points out that one of the quotes in the Epistle to the Hebrews from the prophet Isaiah ("and let all the angels of God worship him") is a Christian Messianic text edited out of the Masoretic manuscripts. This is food for thought: was St Jerome's preference for the Hebrew text, and his canon, a mistaken preference for a less ancient and less Christian text? Dr Barker certainly seems to think so, which is interesting coming from a Methodist.

(4) She draws attention to the maternal figure of Wisdom in the First Temple, and the early Christian understanding of the Theotokos, and seems to suggest that there is some kind of direct influence.

(5) Dr Barker is reported to argue, in her study of the Apocalypse, that St John is writing to the churches in Asia to warn them against St Paul's influence. Oh dear, it's that evil Paul at his work again, misogynist, complicating Jesus' simple gospel of love, and now caught in the act of falling foul of another clever academic revisionist theory. How naughty of him! I don't have much sympathy for this line of argument, but I suppose one should read it and be fair all the same.

(6) One other thing - among many! - that caught my eye was the notion that the succession of pieces of furniture and rituals on entering the Temple are parallel to the days of the Creation week, culminating in the washing of the High Priest in the golden Laver and symbolising the creation of Adam as the High Priest of Creation. And there seems to be a strong tradition of understanding Adam as the first High Priest in other ancient Hebrew sources.

What this scholar seems to understand is the hologram technique of the book of Revelation, where one image is piled on top of another: the City coming down from heaven, the Garden of Eden, the Holy of Holies - these are cumulative images that draw in depth after depth of meaning until every layer of biblical history and imagery is vibrating in harmony as a polyphonic song to Christ.

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