Monday, January 29, 2007

Dates in the Prophets and Who Are the Poor?

In the last two weeks, I noted two things in the Bible. I thought I 'd throw them both out and try to keep it brief (hah!)

First of all, while reading the two minor prophets Haggai and Zechariah, I had long noticed how carefully they are dated to so and so year and so and month and day of King Darius. Suddenly, however, it occurred to me that that is more than just specifying the date. Rather it says something important about political leigitmacy. We tend to forget, but years and lordship are intimately connected. In China, for example, years are dated by reign years proclaimed by the emperor. But what if there were two dynasties dividing "all under heaven" and someone in one dynasty referred to something happening in another dynasty? Well, they might use the other other dynasty's dating system, but insert the word wei "bogus" before it. "In the bogus Tranquil Peace years of the bogus Jin dynasty, this or that happened." In the Roman empire, the use of dating to the emperorship of Jesus was contrasted to the dating by the Roman emperor, as we see explicitly in the martyrdom of Polycarp:

Now the blessed Polycarp was martyred on the second day of the first half of the month of Xanthicus, the seventh day before the kalends of March, a great sabbath, at the eighth hour. And he was arrested by Herod, when Philip of Tralles was High Priest, when Statius Quadratus was Pro-Consul, but Jesus Christ was reigning for ever, to whom be glory, honour, majesty and an eternal throne, from generation to generation, Amen.

After the confessionalization of Western Eurasia, the three religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) had their own dating systems -- which one you used depended on which one you believed in.* Recently, Jewish authors began using the Christian system (which unlike the Jewish one has the benefit of not being tied to an impossibly recent date of the creation of the world), but in an unconscious imitation of Chinese practice, they change AD to CE and BC to BCE. They might have just as well have written "In year 1954 of the wei (bogus) Messiah." This usage has spread widely among those writing on topics outside Christendom, in a futile attempt to create a dating system that is neutral.

So then, what does it mean that Haggai begins:

In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, in the first day of the month, came the word of the LORD by Haggai the prophet unto Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Josedech, the high priest, saying . . .

And Zechariah:

In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, came the word of the LORD unto Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, the son of Iddo the prophet, saying . . .

Well it means that these prophets recognize the legitimate authority of king Darius, that this Persian king is not an evil emperor, like the Babylonians or Assyrians, but a legitimate king. It is thus one more part of the strongly pro-Persian slant of the later Old Testament (more on that here).

And who are "the poor" in Jesus's first sermon?

And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.

We all know the two "standard" interpretations: the poor are low-income groups (social gospel), or the poor are the poor in spirit, i.e. those under conviction of sin (evangelical).

But going back to where this passage came from, i.e. from Isaiah's prophetic preaching to exiled Judah, it struck me that not just the second, but the first as well, is distorted by unintended individualism. To whom was Isaiah preaching? Not to the statistically lower 20% of the Babylonian population, nor to all those in Babylonia suffering pangs of conscience, but to a specific ethno-religious group, the Jews, who were despised for their corporate identity. He was promising that their hour of liberation, in which they would be freed of their bonds and strangerhood, was nigh. If a Jew did well in Babylonia and put a little money by (like Daniel), he was still part of a subject nation. He may be rich personally, but if he identifies with the despised community, then he longs for liberation as well -- indeed all the more as he moves out of the Jewish villages along the canal of Khebar and into the mainstream of Babylonian life, and faces head-on the assumptions and prejudices of the average successful Babylonian.

God's deliverance from this in time came about through the Persian armies of Cyrus. And as I've shown, the Jews were properly grateful to their liberators.

But what about sin? Surely there is a Gospel message here? Well, why were the Jews in exile in Babylon in the first place? Because they were sinners and couldn't help sinning and had no free will in the matter, and if given the same kingdom would do exactly the same as their fathers before them. That is bondage. Corporate bondage as a people, as a church. And that bondage was, as prophets like Isaiah kept telling them, the reason for the first bondage.

So if he is announcing the message of Isaiah, Jesus is saying: you of my people are indeed despised and thought to be stupid and backwards. You are poor, even if you have some money saved ( -- unless of course you decide to no longer identify with this despised religion and instead join the Greeks, in which case this sermon and this promise is not addressed to you). But your moment of liberation is coming. But God has also seen your failure to be the people of God. He knows that you have not and cannot live the kingdom life of the people of God. And He will liberate you from this as well, all through His own working.

This is indeed Gospel, a collective and apocalyptic good news of redemption from sin and its justified punishment, delivered to His people, and coming soon in the end of days.

Labels: , , ,