Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Job and Satan and source criticism

Susan Garrett (The Temptations of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998]) points out that in Second Temple Judaism, the arch-enemy of God was known by many names, not just by the title satan [adversary/accuser], as found in the OT at 1Kgs 22:19, Job 1-2, Isaiah 6:2-3, Zech 3:4-7. There were names like ‘the tempter’, ‘the devil’, ‘Belial’, ‘Mastema’, ‘Sammael’, ‘the enemy’, ‘the angel of darkness’, ‘the ruler of this world’.

She then asks, and answers, Why was there such a bewildering variety of names and titles for this figure? The character of Satan as known in the first century was the end product of long reflection by the Jews on a number of ancient mythic traditions pertaining to the adversaries of Yahweh and mankind. (p.33) Jewish reflection on these diverse traditions occurred because of the seductive appeal of foreign cultures in general, and from the exilic period because of foreign occupation of their land and the need to call upon apocalyptic and cosmic battle ideas to explain their situation and give them hope.

Acknowledging the influence of the Genesis account and the Job-account (p.34, fn. 29) what happened to “Genesis” and “Job”?!) on ideas of Satan, Garrett cites a significant number of studies – and summarises their principal themes – that attempt at great length to trace these other pagan and mythological links and sources (pp.34-40).

This is all part of her discussion of traditions about testing, setting the scene for analysing Mark’s gospel. Only when one understands Satan’s composite nature (that is, blending elements from diverse mythic accounts) do certain tensions in the New Testament portrayals of this character become explicable. The most significant such tension is the seeming contradiction between Satan’s role as eschatological adversary who fights against God… and his role as servant of God, who carries out certain unpleasant duties for God… (p.35, her emphasis)

That claim is simply not true. Coming to an understanding of diverse sources behind the ‘Satan’ of the NT does not make the tensions explicable, it merely alleges their origins. It offers precious little by way of explanation – how did authors not spot these contradictions? Why did they let them stand? Unless the NT is seen simply as an uncritical reflection of the socio-religious beliefs of 1st century Palestine (and no one thinks that!) then an explanation of the apparent contradiction will take some theological work, not mere source criticism (which is shaky in its own right, let alone as an explanatory tool).

Furthermore, the digression in pp.34-40 onto divine warrior, cosmic battle, and heavenly court traditions casts no light on that particular tension. Garrett attempts to make all this relevant by alleging that the portrayal of satan as a member of the heavenly court in Job and Zechariah (and thus in the role of servant of God rather than enemy) is also not independent of the combat myths, which also presuppose a divine assembly of the gods (p.35, fn. 31). But all this serves to do is to make the claim that sources lie behind the OT. It does not explain how the writers made use of these sources, thereby implying an uncritical acceptance of whatever the sources portrayed. As if source criticism counted as exegesis! (What if we imagine another model: what if the sources were all fragmentary pagan witnesses to a theological truth faithfully synthesised in the Bible by Yahweh’s servants inspired by his Spirit? Just a thought…) Regarding this great tension, enemy-servant, we have it portrayed in the relationship between God and the human actors of the Pentateuch. Joseph’s brothers intended it for evil but God intended it for good (Genesis 50:20), while Pharaoh and the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 5-). The question of explanation is a theological one to do with God’s sovereignty, not a source-critical problem of images of divine enemies in other cultures.

Strangely enough, having stirred up all this mud Garrett still concludes after all that Job was the most important influence on the NT portrayal of Satan (p.40). However, she fails to explain either the predominance of ‘Satan’/‘tempter’ in the NT (her evidence that Job was decisive) or the particular uses of much rarer alternative names. Perhaps, stripping the unsupported stuff away, all Garrett is really saying is that Christians and Jews had an understanding of Satan that was based on the biblical account. But she can’t bring herself to say it. Perhaps that would offer too muh succour to unreflective fundies like me!

And after promising much with her insistence on the influence of Genesis and Job, she returns to the vomit…

I have already suggested that the conflicting notions of Satan as opposed to God but nonetheless subordinate to God had their origins in distinct mythic or literary complexes (p.44). This is not only simplistic (one idea, once source; two ideas, two sources;… n ideas, n sources) but unnecessary, since the biblical data give enough of a picture. We might as well say that the notions are conveyed to us through the OT text (and are thus inaccessible by other means) and that the authors of those texts conveyed their notions sometimes using existing cultural material that is distinctive enough for a source-critic to spot. The question of the origins or substance of the notions, however, is something that cannot be decided on the grounds of alledged sources. Material is used by authors of literature to generate meaning. Continual harping on at how sources explain (clarifying tensions or paradoxes, p.49) the apparent contradictions [they don’t!] spoils Garrett’s sensible theological and literary discussions (pp.44-49) on how Jewish and Christian writers did use this material.

Mrs L described this section of Garrett (1998) as a house of cards when she first read it for her OBI study on Mark, and I think she was right (not to mention considerably more succinct than me).