Saturday, 20 May 2017

Baal and YHWH

The richest thinkers will typically makes observations in passing that could be developing into entire monographs or even entire research programs. Bernard Lonergan was such a thinker, and so was Ben F. Meyer. On pp. 188-189 of his under-read and under-appreciated monograph, The Early Christians (which I maintain is even better than his more famous Aims of Jesus; written the better part of a decade later, EC represents that many additional years of reflection upon Christian origins), Meyer makes a series of observations about the nature of ancient Israelite religion that I increasingly feel need revisiting. Now, in saying that, and in the interests of appropriate humility, I must be clear: ancient Israelite religion is not my primary area of expertise. But cognizant of the difference between thinking about a matter and claiming to be an expert therein, I will risk a foray into that field.

Meyer discusses ancient Israelite religion almost in passing, as part of his larger discussion of the nature of syncretism. Syncretism, for those who do not know the term, refers to the practice of appropriating religious practices or beliefs foreign to one's own religion. Meyer distinguishes between weak syncretism and strong syncretism. Weak syncretism he describes as religious traditions that have a strong identity in their own right, such that any appropriations from other traditions are predominantly formal: they are taken over in order to better articulate the tradition's fundamental understandings. Strong syncretism he describes as occurring as religious traditions that lack such a strong identity, such that appropriations from other traditions will tend to be matters of substance. So, weak syncretism in ancient Israel would entail appropriating the imagery associated with Baal in order to describe YHWH, but making clear that Baal is not YHWH; strong syncretism would entail not only appropriating the imagery associated with Baal in order to describe YHWH, but also identifying Baal and YHWH as the same being.

I would prefer to describe this not in terms of strong and weak identities, but rather in terms of reducibility of being. The question at stake is whether the being in question can be reduced to another (yes, I know that classical theology would potentially raise technical objections to talking about YHWH as a "being," but I use the term in a more colloquial sense here, so please bear with me). In ancient Greco-Roman religion, various gods of the ancient world were interchangeable. If a god of another people's pantheon had functions analogous to those of a Greek or Roman god, they were thought to be the same being. In the Hinduism of the Brahmins, all the gods ultimately are reducible to Brahma. But for the pattern of ancient Canaanite religion that began to emerge in ancient Israel and in the fullness of time eventuated in ancient Jewish monotheism, Baal and YHWH were not so reducible. There was no divine reality more basic than YHWH. Indeed, as creator, YHWH was in a very real sense the ultimate horizon of being. Moreover, Baal could not be reduced to YHWH, because YHWH was defined not simply as Being but as a person, and thus insofar as Baal was another (perhaps real, perhaps fictive: here is the distinction between henotheism and monotheism) person they could no more be identified with one another than any two given human persons. And consequent to the above, the worship of YHWH could entail appropriation of all sorts of imagery used in the worship of Baal, but never in a such a way that YHWH became identified with Baal.

Of course, this understanding of YHWH took centuries to develop, and it was not without conflict. Nonetheless, there is a significant methodological point to be gleaned from all this, namely that it is insufficient to simply note "parallels" between religious traditions. One must also show what is happening with these parallels. This is the problem with such gobbledlygook as mythicism. Even if we granted all the parallels between Jesus and various mythological figures that their asinine memes and vacuous apologists trot out (most of these "parallels" of course tend to be vitiated by profound errors of fact), it would tell us next to nothing. What matters is not simply the existence of comparable material, but its significance. What were the New Testament and post-apostolic writers doing with this material? And no simple listing of putative parallels can tell us that. Rather, that demands the patient, hard work of slugging through the details, a task that meme culture is ill-equipped to carry out.

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