Emerging from the academic study of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures during the Enlightenment and Reformation, Israelite religion became a topic of study in terms of the presentation in the Bible of Israel’s worship of its God. Gradually this separated into a synthesis of biblical teachings on worship and its prescribed practices, on the one hand, and a study of the history of biblical Israel in terms of beliefs and practices toward one or more deities, on the other. The former branch evolved into biblical theology, while the latter developed into the topic of Israelite religion. Beginning in the nineteenth century, archaeological excavations and the interpretation of ancient Near Eastern texts preceding and contemporaneous with the period of the Bible broadened the picture. Comparing and contrasting archaeological and textual sources with the application of anthropological models derived from comparative religious studies led to modern syntheses of the subject. Initially these were heavily based upon the biblical text, often with the application of theories of literary and historical criticism. Since the 1980s, however, a focus on texts from the same time and region, as well as interpretation of artifacts with religious significance, has challenged older models of Israelite religion. Influences and the interactions of believers and their deities appear increasingly complex. No longer is there an understanding of a mere one or two religions in Israel (e.g., worshippers of Yahweh and worshippers of Baal). It now seems clear that various religious practices and texts attest to the presence of multiple religions followed by people in the region of ancient Israel, sometimes reflecting differences in gender, culture, ethnicity, and other factors. While a form of worship as described in biblical accounts may have been followed, there were other forms which, in various ways, syncretized Yahweh with other goddesses and gods. This has led scholars to question the factors that led to, and the time of emergence of, belief in a single deity in Israel, as well as to question the nature of that deity. Answers and models remain in a state of flux; evidence remains to be reviewed and interpretations demand critical interpretation.
Richard S. Hess
Should Christian theology be interested in mysticism? A strong current within contemporary theology believes it should be, linking up with an older tradition holding that the mystical dimension has always formed the deepest current in the flowing river of Christianity and its theologies and doctrines, even if some have failed to recognize that. This article explores this modern current, its “founders,” its motivations, the questions it raises, and its accomplishments. Mystics are acknowledged as witnesses to the originary experiential source of Christian doctrine and theology. These modern pioneers explore possibly constant features of the mystical element, and emphasize the “turn to experience” as a central feature. The contemporary discussion has moved in the direction of exploring as holistic a view of experience as possible, stressing its constructed nature, and employing a lexicon emphasizing consciousness, practices, participatory awareness, and performative utterances. One typically thinks of mystics who have written classic articulations of their journey as “the” mystics. This is natural, as these writings are the time-tested paradigms that have founded the science of mysticism. But might one be a mystic whose form of expression occurs through art, or through the prophetic struggle for justice, or simply through the humble and often unnoted life of selfless love? Perhaps most mystics remain unknown! All forms of Christian mysticism are related to Jesus but take varying forms: a kingdom-centered and Father-centered focus, echoing somewhat the liberating focus of Exodus and the Gospels; a Logos mysticism, who indwells believers and whose indwelling unites all disciples (John 17:20–24); a spousal mysticism, echoing the bride and bridegroom theme in scripture (Hos 2:16–20; Mark 2:18–20; John 3:29; Eph 5:23–33). Paul’s letters are a treasury of participative mysticism (koinōnia), celebrating fellowship with fellow disciples in the body of Christ and being “with” and “in” Christ (1 Cor 10; Rom 6). As the trinitarian belief and doctrine gain clarity, one increasingly comes upon a more trinitarian style of mysticism (e.g., the Rublev Trinity icon). The relationship between theology and mysticism appears to be mutual: Christian sources and beliefs influence theology, but the mystical vivid experience of God’s presence keeps belief and doctrine anchored in a rich experiential soil. But it is suggested, by way of a heuristic for further exploration, that this mutual, back-and-forth interplay between mysticism and theology or doctrine is asymmetrical as well. That is, mysticism may be thought of as the originary and even paradigmatic source of theology (and formal doctrine). This would echo an older tradition voiced, for example, by Evagrios in patristic times and Vladimir Lossky and Karl Rahner in modern times. One way of understanding this would be to begin with the phenomenon of spirituality and to view mysticism as spirituality’s radically transformative expression. Spirituality derives from the work of the Spirit, who renders our life “Spirited” (1 Cor 2:15). Spirituality can take on a range of theological and doctrinal forms, as the human faculties needed for this are gradually enriched and transformed by the Spirit. At times the mystics become paradigms of theology and doctrine, through the radical transformation of consciousness and action. An important by-product of this model is that theology and spirituality are never really separated. When one begins to think in this separationist way, it is a signal that one’s experience and understanding are suffering from a certain narrowness and distortion. Finally, Christian mysticism and theology (along with doctrine) have been and are continually challenged by seismic transitions in human history, as is Christianity in general. These are never really left behind, even when their challenges are more or less successfully met. At best one can build on them and continually seek to integrate their enduring lessons. The key transitions that the mystic is challenged to learn from and integrate include: “primary”/cosmocentric challenges; biblical; Classical; sapiential; Far Eastern; Muslim; medieval; Renaissance and Reformation; modern; late modern; postmodern; globalization; neocosmocentric; and ecological challenges. The traditional mystic stages and states, for example, will undergo important transformations as they pass through these various transitions. To the extent that the mystics meet these challenges, they become the paradigmatic theological explorers and guides for the rest of us on our journeys.
Biblical laws are found mainly in the Pentateuch (i.e., the first five books of the Hebrew Bible). The laws are linked to the figure of Moses, who is depicted as having received them directly from God in order to transmit them to the people of Israel during the years in the Wilderness after being released from slavery in Egypt. Biblical laws are thus presented as being of divine origin. Their authority was further bolstered by a tradition that they were included in covenants (i.e., formal agreements made between God and the people as recorded in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy). Similar claims of divine origin were not made for other ancient Near Eastern laws; their authority flowed from kings, who issued the laws, although these kings might also be seen as having been placed on their thrones through the favor of the gods. The biblical law collections are unlike other ancient Near Eastern “codes” in that they include sacral laws (i.e., governing cult, worship, and ritual, as well as secular laws: namely, governing civil, and criminal behaviors). This mingling of sacral and secular categories is the likely reason both for the many terms used to denote the laws, as well as for the unexpected number of formulations in which they are presented. The formulations used in biblical law can be classified as “casuistic” or “non-casuistic.” They are not equally distributed in the books of the Pentateuch nor are they equally used with secular and sacral laws. While there are similarities in content between secular laws found in the Hebrew Bible and laws found in the ancient Near Eastern law “codes,” the latter do not exhibit a comparable variety in the numbers of law terms and formulations. The Hebrew Bible tended to “blur” the differences between the law terms and their formulations, ultimately to the point of subsuming them all under the law term torah (“teaching”) to describe the totality of the divinely given laws in the Pentateuch. Biblical studies in general and Pentateuchal studies in particular are challenged by the fact that manuscripts contemporary with the events described have not survived the ravages the time. Scholars must therefore rely on looking for “clues” within the texts themselves (e.g., the laws cited by the prophets, the reform of Josiah, the teaching of torah by Ezra, and evidence for customs and customary laws found in books of the Hebrew Bible outside of the Pentateuch).
In everyday English parlance, God’s name is simply “God.” In the Hebrew Bible, however, the God of Israel has a personal proper name, similar to “Susan” or “Teddy”: the four-lettered name YHWH, also known as the Tetragrammaton (Greek for “four letters”). This name is by far the most common designation for God in the Hebrew Bible. Four texts within this body of literature give special attention to God’s disclosure of the divine name to humankind: in Gen 4:25–26 shortly after the creation of the first humans; and in Exod 3, Exod 6, and Ezek 20 at the time of God’s emancipation of the Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt. English translations obscure the prominence of God’s name by replacing Hebrew YHWH with the common noun “Lord,” written in small caps. As it turns out, this practice has an ancient pedigree: already in the Second Temple era, spoken recitations of the Hebrew Bible replaced Hebrew YHWH with the Hebrew word for “Lord,” adonay, and written manuscripts marked the name YHWH with special orthography. Later Christian copies of the Greek Old Testament would bring the oral tradition directly into the text itself, substituting Greek κύριος, “Lord,” for YHWH. These customs probably trace back to the influence of several other biblical texts, including the fourth commandment of the Decalogue (Exod 20:7//Deut 5:11) and Lev 24:16. The Talmud (Pes. 50a) also records a rabbinic interpretation of Exod 3:15 according to which God says “This [YHWH] is my name to conceal.” But God has other names in the Hebrew Bible, too. Several names are formed by joining YHWH together with a second word, for example: YHWH ṣebaoth, a phrase that is usually translated into English as “the Lord of hosts”; or again, another example: YHWH elohim, translated “the Lord God.” The second part of this compound name is also an important name for God in its own right. The word elohim in Hebrew means “god” or “gods.” It is technically a plural noun, although most of the time in Hebrew it refers to a single divine agent. It is also typically a common noun similar to the English word “god”; that is, it signifies one among a class of divine beings. However, also as in English, Hebrew elohim occasionally functions as a proper name: capital-G God. Another Hebrew noun for god, eloah, shares a similarly dual purpose: mostly it is a generic word for divinity but sometimes it is the caption for the one God of Israel (i.e., YHWH). These two names—YHWH and its compound forms as well as elohim in its usage as a name—cover the majority of instances when the Hebrew Bible names God. A few other divine titles are name-like but not, properly speaking, names. The first among these is the word Shadday, but also the series of so-called “el-epithets” found in the book of Genesis: El Elyon, El the Creator of Heaven and Earth, El Roi, and El Olam.
Thomas B. Dozeman
The Pentateuch (“five books”) is the title for the first five books of the Bible in the Greek translation, known as the Septuagint (LXX). The more original title is the Hebrew, Torah, meaning “law.” The revelation and composition of the Torah is attributed to Moses, which is reflected in the additional designation of the books as the “Torah of Moses.” The authorship of the Pentateuch is central to its interpretation in Jewish and Christian tradition. The Mosaic authorship characterized the interpretation of the Pentateuch in the precritical period of research. The study of the Pentateuch in the modern era has been dominated by the quest to identify its anonymous authors and the changing social contexts in which the literature was written.
John D. Rempel
Anabaptism and its descendant movement, Mennonitism, came into being through the illegal baptism of believers upon confession of faith. Anabaptist worship was characterized by form and freedom. It included reading and interpreting the Bible by preachers and other worshipers, practicing baptism, the Lord’s Supper, anointing, and other acts while allowing for immediate promptings by the Holy Spirit, as in 1 Corinthians 14. Routinized worship developed gradually by means of leaders internalizing important turns of phrase as well as writing prayers and publishing prayer books. Some streams of Mennonitism, like the Amish, have laid great stress on following the tradition that emerged. At the same time there arose renewal and missionary movements for whom Spirit-led improvisation was essential for true worship that was accessible to seekers. Beginning in the late 19th century, Mennonite churches arose in the Global South. For them the movement between form and freedom was essential to authentic worship. Singing is the central act of the congregation in all types of Mennonite worship. There is a lean sacramentalism in which the visible church is the body of Christ in history. In the practice of ordinances or sacraments, there has been great concern from the beginning that God’s acts of grace be received by the faith of the believer in order for such acts to be true to their intention. The Lord’s Supper emphasizes encountering both Christ and one’s sisters and brothers in a transformative way. Baptism is entering a covenant with Christ and the church. In addition, anointing, discipline, funerals, marriage and celibacy, parent and child dedication, and ordination are practiced.
The relationship between Egypt and ancient Israel and Judah was far more complex than is often recognized. Egypt figures prominently in their national myths of origin as a way station for the patriarchs and as the “house of slaves” and starting point of the Exodus. Although no Exodus event can be confirmed from extrabiblical sources, its significance in the Bible suggests an historical kernel. The diverse existing traditions about Egypt in the texts of the Pentateuch and other early biblical writings, combined and written down at a later date, seem to reflect different experiences on the part of the groups that coalesced into Israel By the time of the monarchy, there is more direct evidence for Egyptian influence on Israelite culture, particularly in administrative affairs. It is also clear that Egyptian religion was practiced in the Levant at this time and would have been known in Israel and Judah. By the time of the divided monarchy, the historical picture comes into better focus. Relations between Egypt, Israel, and Judah were quite variable. Although Egypt’s New Kingdom empire in the Levant had ended, the region continued to be a useful trading outlet, and the pharaohs were not above raiding to assert their power. However, there are numerous examples of fugitives from the Levant finding refuge from their enemies in Egypt. In the interest of maintaining a buffer zone against the northern empires that encroached, Egypt and Kush gave military aid to Israel and Judah at times, through both direct action and supplies. The prophets had not forgotten Egypt’s role as an oppressor and frequently condemned it, as well as the tendency of Israelite and Judahite rulers to seek its help. But at times the prophets also envisioned peace with Egypt. There are a number of specific Egyptian texts that supply mutually illuminating points of comparison with biblical texts, including wisdom instructions, prayers, hymns, creation accounts, and autobiographies. These are indications of the extensive, ongoing, cultural interactions between Egypt and the cultures that produced the Old Testament.
Lincoln A. Mullen
Since the first printing presses were established in Britain’s North American colonies, print was a ubiquitous feature of American religion. Print was a powerful means of communicating religious ideas, both to the faithful and to people whom religious groups wished to persuade. One common form of religious communication was the pamphlet or, by the 19th century, the tract. These tracts were a way of catechizing people who were already a member of different denominational groups, and tracts provided them with inexpensive collections of religious reading material, such as hymns or psalms. Tracts become a primary feature of evangelism in the United States, as did Bible distribution. In the 19th century the American Tract Society and the American Bible Society managed to exert a long reach into the interior of the United States, with distribution channels that were more far flung than those of any other institution except perhaps the postal service. Print also functioned as a means of creating institutional loyalties. The American Tract Society created a network of tract distribution and funding which linked together large numbers of affiliate societies. While the American Bible Society preferred a different organizational structure, it brought together a wide array of denominations to make common cause for Bible distribution. In the 20th century, trans-denominational periodical publishers managed to unite various wings of Protestantism, as periodicals staked out positions in debates between fundamentalists and modernists, or later between evangelicals and liberal or mainline denominations. Yet smaller publications also functioned to establish denominational loyalties. The Bible was by far the most important printed text in American Christianity. One of the earliest imprints in North America was a translation of the Bible into the Algonquian language, and later missionary groups sometimes made it a priority to translate the Bible into Indian languages. Printing of the English Bible proliferated for a number of reasons. One was the repeated efforts of the American Bible Society to supply the United States with a Bible for every household. Another was the development of various editions of the Bible, containing different qualities of paper and typography, or distinguishing themselves by the purpose of the text, such as study Bibles rich in notes, maps, and other explanatory features. A third reason was the proliferation of Bible translations, beginning with the late-19th-century Revised Version. These Bible versions were aimed at improving the scholarly reliability of the text, but they were matters of intense interest and debate among Christians more generally. Bible translations came to be a key marker of group identity and a contested source of religious authority, even as they were sponsored by trans-denominational groups like the National Association of Evangelicals or the National Council of Churches. In short, print culture was a primary means of establishing group loyalty, for various Protestant groups as well as for Jews and Catholics, yet it also represented a key attempt at Christian unity and ecumenism. Print culture was both a proxy for many other ways of being religious and a powerful religious force in its own right.
Erik H. Herrmann
Martin Luther’s exposition of the Bible was not only fundamental to his academic vocation, it also stood at the very center of his reforming work. Through his interpretation of the New Testament, Luther came to new understanding of the gospel, expressed most directly in the apostle Paul’s teaching on justification. Considering the historical complexities of Luther’s own recollections on the matter, it is quite clear that he regarded his time immersed in the writings of Paul as the turning point for his theology and his approach to the entire Scriptures (cf. LW 34:336f). Furthermore, Luther’s interpretation of the New Testament was imbued with such force that it would influence the entire subsequent history of exegesis: colleagues, students, rivals, and opponents all had to reckon with it. However, as a professor, Luther’s exegetical lectures and commentaries were more often concerned with the Old Testament. Most of Luther’s New Testament interpretation is found in his preaching, which, following the lectionary, usually considered a text from one of the Gospels or Epistles. His reforms of worship in Wittenberg also called for weekly serial preaching on Matthew and John for the instruction of the people. From these texts, we have some of the richest sustained reflections on the Gospels in the 16th century. Not only was the substance of his interpretation influential, Luther’s contribution to exegetical method and the hermeneutical problem also opened new possibilities for biblical interpretation that would resonate with both Christian piety and critical, early modern scholarship.
John A. Maxfield
Scholarly analysis of biblical interpretation and commentary in the history of Christianity has become an important subfield in history as well as biblical studies and theology. From the Reformation and into the modern era, Martin Luther has been appreciated first of all as an expositor of the Bible and a confessor of its teachings. His vocation as a theologian called to teach in the University of Wittenberg was especially focused on the exposition of scripture, and his development as a theologian and eventually as an evangelical reformer was deeply tied to his experience in interpreting the Bible in his university classroom, in the Augustinian cloister, and in his household. His interpretation of scripture was the basis of his “Reformation discovery” of justification by faith, and his conflict with the papal church was largely the result of Luther’s conviction that the message of scripture, in particular “the gospel,” was being overwhelmed in the theology and churchly practice of his time by “human teachings” not supported by and contradicting scripture. As a result, Luther and other evangelical reformers of the 16th century appealed to scripture alone (sola scriptura) as the highest authority in shaping their theology and proposals for reform. Luther’s teachings and leadership in the Reformation were shared and celebrated not only through his doctrinal and polemical treatises and catechetical writings, but also through the many sermons, biblical commentaries on both Old and New Testament books, and prefaces on the books of the Bible that were published in his lifetime and thereafter. Old Testament commentary was an especially important genre of Luther’s published works, as it encapsulated much of his work as a university professor of theology and evangelical reformer.