Friday, April 22, 2011

Guy Stroumsa on the Third Century Alexandrian Exegesis of the Book of Joshua

There is no experience on earth like reading a good book. I think all of us who are attracted to scholarship have done so because we were once touched by the glow of insightful exegesis. I have to admit I am always biased in favor of any scholar who manages to develop his interpretation of the New Testament from a proper grasp of the so-called 'Old Testament.' I even think Marcion functioned this way, but that is another story for another day.

Guy Stroumsa's Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism (Studies in the History of Religions 70; Leiden: Brill, 1996) is a rich, provocative look at the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in the third century. There is a lot of insightful analysis in this little article, but for our purposes we will only extract that portion of the study which deals with Origen's exegesis of the Book of Joshua.

The truth is that I would have liked to just jump into my own interpretation of Origen's Homilies on Joshua, but I am not Guy Stroumsa. I have decided it is a better introduction to a very complicated work to have a recognized authority in comparative religion walk the reader through the third century Alexandrian exegesis of what certainly should be the second most important book in the Old Testament - the Book of Joshua. Yet as Stroumsa points out the rabbinic tradition does not have a Midrash on Joshua. Why is this? The obvious and almost unavoidable answer is that it has something to do with Christianity and its interest in another 'Joshua' figure.

Eulogius of Alexandria (who probably lived 582-603) tells us that still in his day "the Samaritan multitude believes that Joshua, the son of Nun, is the person concerning whom Moses said, 'The Lord will raise us up a prophet' etc" According to Kippenberg the Joshua material is part of an anti-Dosithean polemic and Eulogius did not quite understand this implication. Be that as it may it still draws attention to the rabbinic traditions incredible silence when it comes to the Book of Joshua. Yet the rabbinic tradition is not alone when it comes to an eerie silence with respect to the Book of Joshua. A quick consultation of Schaff's index to Clement of Alexandria reveals that this Church Father also refuses to say anything about Joshua.

It is simply impossible to believe that these sources had nothing interest to add to the Book of Joshua's story of Israel's first entry into the Holy Land. We must much rather suppose that the subject matter was inherently problematic. Any discussion of Joshua, the successor to Moses necessarily led to messianic speculation - a subject the earliest Jewish sources tended to avoid undoubtedly owing to Imperial suspicions. But what can explain Clement's reluctance to speak about Joshua? I strongly suspect that it has something do with the fact that the narrative of τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ (i.e. the actual title of the so-called 'Gospel according to Mark' cf. Mark 1:1) was conscious literary development of το βιβλίο του Ιησού (the Book of Joshua). The eternally unanswered question in scholarship is 'what does evangelium mean?'

In any event here is Stroumsa's article:

I shall illustrate here by one last and striking example the very different ways in which Fathers and Rabbis expressed a rather similar religious sensitivity. Origen's Homily on Joshua is the first - and the most interesting — Patristic work on the book which the Samaritans considered to be the "sixth book of Moses," and which describes the Conquest of the Promised Land by the Israelites. In the eyes of a Christian writer, the immediate importance of the book is rooted in the Septuagint's rendering of Joshua's name: lesous. Moses' successor at the head of Israel is thus, first of all, a sacramentum of Jesus Christ, announcing that the Law of Moses has ended and that under his guidance the new Israel will enter the spiritual land, the kingdom of God.

The warfare described in Joshua — including the extermination of the seven peoples who lived in Canaan before the Hebrew conquest — was branded by the Gnostics, as well as by the Manichaeans after them, as testifying to the cruelty of the Jewish God. Origen, who refers to these attacks in his Homilies, feels the need to answer the heretics and to show them that a proper understanding of Joshua shows only God's goodness. Here, too, Jews and heretics are similar in their simplistic, literal interpretation of the text. The Christian, then, knows that Joshua represents "Jesus, my Lord." The seven peoples who were the unworthy inhabitants of the Land before the Chosen People took possession of it are identified either with "diabolical races of inimical powers" (the demonology developed by Origen is rather striking) or or with the vices (omnes gentes istae vitiorum), of which the second circumcision, that of the heart, frees us. Thus, all things which happened to the Israelites in figure (figuraliter) should be translated from the letter to the spirit, a figuris ad veritatem. Just as the Exodus from Egypt was a mystical exodus, the conquest of the Land represents the spiritual fight against demons and vices.

The new commandments to be followed are those of the Church (et praeceptis ecclesiasticis parere coepisti). Outside the Church, writes Origen, as also Cyprian, no one will be saved. The house of Rahab the prostitute, in Jericho, represents the Church in a world full of evil, and which will eventually collapse. Does this mean that Israel will not be saved? By no means, answers Origen in Paulinian fashion — but it will be saved "from afar" (Salvabitur tamen et Istrahel, sed longe positus salvabitur): Israel follows his way not through his own virtue, but with the help and under the protection of the priests — which means that the Christians do not need priests: they are now the "Kingdom of priests and holy people" (IV. 3).

The massacre of Ai receives special treatment (VIII. 1-2): why did the Holy Spirit see fit to mention precisely this one massacre, when history is full of such occurrences? It is, answers Origen, to show us that both Jews and Gentiles work together in the new Israel: Jesus divided the people into two: those who simulated flight with him represent the Jews who converted to Christianity, thus seeming to abandon the Torah, while those who attacked by surprise and murdered the people of Ai and their king (the devil), are the Gentile Christian "And they smote them with the edge of the sword ... " (Joshua 8:22). When the Jews read this passage, says Origen, they become cruel, and thirst for human blood . . . while our reading — according to which the passage refers to the killing of our guilty passions — is the only way of sanctifying war (sanctificare bellum, VII.7). Thus, he concludes, war stories are actually a teaching of peace that is offered to us, contrary to the Jewish literal reading. Origen appeals to the Jews: "If you come to the earthly Jerusalem, and find it in ruins, reduced to ashes and dust, do not cry, as you do now, like children. Look for a city in heaven, instead of looking for it upon earth . . ." (XVII.1).

An obvious question must be asked in our presentcontext: what was, in Origen's time, the Jewish reading of Joshua? The answer is striking: the Rabbis do not seem to have cared much about Joshua and his conquest of the Land. There is no Midrash on Joshua, as there is on other biblical books, and only little lore can be found in Talmudic and later Hebrew literature on these chapters.

So why did the Jews go to great lengths to avoid what seems to be the very intention of the author of the Torah - viz. to assume that Joshua was a 'type' of the one to come? There can be only one answer - the Jews again were trying to avoid 'Christian logic' with respect to Jesus. Yet we shouldn't simply assume that the Jews were reacting to a belief that Jesus was the messiah in the third century. A careful examination of the evidence will actually reveal that the earliest Christian understanding was in fact that Joshua served as an example of the mystery that Jesus the Son of God would give his name 'Jesus' to someone else who would become the messiah. This position is clearly outlined in another third century author Tertullian of Carthage and this understanding will be very significant for an understanding of 'Secret Mark.'

But more on that later ...

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.