Author: Paul Vallely
ISBN: 978-1-4729-1596-2
Date: 2015
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Publisher: Bloomsbury Continuum

Playing truant from a conference in Rome I was in St Peter’s Square on 13 March 2013 when the white smoke appeared. To the excited crowd Cardinal Tauran announced habemus papam and named Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio as the new Pope. ‘Who? Who’s he?’ went round the crowd, but the new Pope was a mystery (not least because the sheer number of people present caused all the mobile networks to crash and we couldn’t google him). After the new Pope had appeared on the balcony, the first to take the name Francis, the crowds streamed away, still uncertain as to what to make of him.

Whilst it may be an exaggeration to say of Pope Francis that (as Churchill described the Kremlin) he is ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, it is no exaggeration to say he remains something of a mystery. He is capable of capturing the attention of the secular press while at the same time the attendance at the Wednesday Audiences is significantly declining. He is a ‘loyal son of the Church’ while at the same time flouting Church law on washing only men’s feet on Holy Thursday, a law which as Supreme Legislator he could easily change.


There was much talk of episcopal collegiality at the outset of his reign, but he actually takes far more executive decisions without consultation (such as the very recent Motu Proprio Mitis Iudex). The fact that he is a Jesuit adds to the enigma: people automatically expect him to engage in Machiavellian scheming.

Not surprisingly, after Cardinal Bergoglio’s election to the See of Rome a number of books were produced about him. Of these, Paul Vallely’s biography Pope Francis Untying the Knots soon rose to the top of the recommended list, despite the obvious difficulties in writing such a book so quickly. The subtitle refers to a copy of a painting called Mary Untier of Knots which hangs in a church in a suburb of Buenos Aires. It is a handy metaphor for explaining both the man and his impact as Pope.

Two years on Vallely has revised and expanded his book. The first edition mainly examined Bergoglio’s pre-Papal life, and the new edition has some revisions and amplifications in this respect. But Vallely has also added an examination of Francis’ first two years as Pope, adding nine new chapters in the second edition. As he puts it, ‘in many areas there is a distinct lack of clarity about Pope Francis’s strategy’. Although he is in the third year of his pontificate Francis is still something of a mystery.
One of the new chapters looks at Bergoglio’s ‘exile’ in Argentina’s second city, Córdoba, after his time as Jesuit Provincial and Seminary Rector which had become divisive. Vallely argues that his two years in exile changed Bergoglio from an autocratic reactionary into a ‘consultative radical’ (not dissimilar from Oscar Romero’s conversion), and this exile, along with the Argentine context (including the 2001 economic crisis and not least Bergoglio’s alleged complicity in the torture of two Jesuits in the ‘Dirty War’, which Vallely carefully investigates) explain his subsequent actions as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and as Bishop of Rome.

The other new chapters focus on such matters as the famous big gestures of paying his hotel bill (which Vallely demonstrates are calculated and not spontaneous), the scandal-ridden Vatican Bank, the resistance of the Vatican bureaucracy, Francis’ intentions for the Synod of Bishops, the sex abuse scandal, and Francis’ attitude to women.

One has some quibbles. There are a few typos and not everything is correct. Vallely describes the new Pope as ‘looking dazed’ on the balcony on his first appearance; this may be true but the reason he was standing still with his arms to his side was that the band was playing the Vatican anthem (I was there). He refers to the proclamation of the Gospel in Greek as if Francis introduced it to please the Greek Orthodox; in fact this long standing practice predates Paul VI. More importantly, Vallely’s own more liberal stance manifestly influences his judgement; he is very negative about ‘conservatives’ like Benedict XVI and Cardinal Burke, but positive about ‘liberals’ such as Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga whom he calls a moderate. There are a few internal contradictions in the book: earlier Pope Benedict XVI is said to have done nothing about child abuse but later is acknowledged to have made progress.

However, many of these quibbles arise because of the speed of producing the book and the complexity of the subject, and to describe the book as impressive would be an understatement. There is a wealth of detail on every page, and the judgements are mostly sure footed. Vallely even attempts to make sense of the baffling description in Evangelii Gaudium of evangelization as not a sphere but a polyhedron. His analysis of Papa Bergoglio is critical in the very best sense of that word, and he is surely right to allude to change and ‘paradoxes aplenty’ in this pontificate. Francis’ own words in the quoted Spadaro interview sum it up: ‘I am a bit astute ... but also a bit naïve’.

Those who bought the first edition will be vexed that a new and better edition is now published. Those who didn’t should now obtain and read it. The subsubtitle The Struggle for the Soul of Christianity is not unwarranted hyperbole. Vallely’s book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the present Holy Father.

David Gibbons,
Archdiocese of Southwark

November/December 2015

Author: Joseph Fitzpatpatrick
ISBN: 978 0761857549
Date: 2011
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Although this book has been published for several years, I feel moved to review it here because it continues to ‘make waves’, not least because of a bizarre attempt in 2014 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to muzzle its author.
Joe Fitzpatrick contends that Gen 2-3 is not about a fall of man but about his ascent, his hominization. It expresses in mythological language the fact that wisdom elevates an otherwise feral animal to a human level that has something of the divine about it. Human beings are, as YHWH states, ‘like God, knowing good and evil’ (Gen 3.22; cf 1.26-27 on the divine image). The biblical narrative is about ‘the passage or ascent of the species from a hominid or proto-human state on the basis of the acquisition by the hominid creation of intellectual and rational consciousness’ (p.56). Dr Fitzpatrick is correct, I think, to take the biblical story to be talking about the human condition, not about a primordial couple. (Cf 2 Baruch 54.19 ‘each of us has become our own Adam’). Fitzpatrick further notes the difficulty of squaring traditional exegesis of the text with Darwinism. It is inconceivable that evolution should throw up the first two fully human individuals from whom the whole race would descend in the same place simultaneously (individuals originally immortal, at that!).


The text does not, I agree, at least in its literal sense, teach Original Sin, a notion never found in the Hebrew Scriptures, nor in subsequent Jewish thinking. Romans 5.12 teaches that the first human being sinned, with the result that death is experienced by all human beings, eph’ ho– all have sinned. Augustine took the Greek term to mean, not because (as most do today) but in whom (all sinned in Adam), producing the fully fledged Original Sin doctrine that the sin of Adam was passed on to his descendants ‘propagatione, non imitatione’ (Trent; D. §§ 787-790). Paul certainly subscribes to a ‘doleful analysis of the human condition’ (J.D.G.Dunn), but not quite as doleful as Augustine’s. Many of us today find this doctrine of Augustine’s and of church councils hard to swallow (Irenaeus and the Greek Church have a less harsh understanding of these matters, which Fitzpatrick finds more palatable). Augustine taught that mankind was created immortal and became mortal by Adam’s sin. Wisdom 2.23-24 and St Paul in Romans had already taken the view that human mortality was, as we might say, part of a divine Plan B. Fitzpatrick plausibly argues that this is not only incompatible with Darwinism but it has no foundation in the biblical text. Death – apart from violent and premature death – is not seen in the Hebrew Bible as a punishment.

Fitzpatrick identifies within the Gen 2-3 narrative as we have it ‘three layers of memory’, ‘three traditions or themes’. The first presents mankind as a sort of anomaly in the animal world, as also are unclean animals. Mankind is a hybrid of animality and divinity as a result of having acquired knowledge/self-consciousness. This analysis owes much, as Fitzpatrick acknowledges, to the anthropological work of Mary Douglas. The second stratum concerns the pursuit of immortality. The Tree of Life (=immortality) is familiar to us from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which indicates that mankind nearly achieved immortality through ‘the plant of youth, which restores his lost youth to a man.’ (It was stolen by a snake!). Humanity yearns for immortality but can only achieve it as a divine gift, not by human effort. God’s statement that transgressing the boundaries would lead to immediate death (2.17) is not, Fitzpatrick believes, to be taken as a threat that is not carried out, nor (with Augustine) as
a threat about spiritual death which does come true. Rather it refers to the hominization of mankind whereby one’s old self is gone for ever, dead, giving way to a higher reality. Mary Douglas is again called in aid here and what she says about how primitive people viewed transitions. The third stratum concerns Wisdom. The two trees in Eden are closely associated with each other. Mankind is forbidden to eat from either because if the couple eat from the Tree of Knowledge ‘they will naturally gravitate to the other’ (p.114). (Why, I wonder.) The ability to distinguish Good from Evil is for the OT a good thing, not a bad (e.g. Deut 1.39; Isa 7.25; Sir 17.7). By preventing mankind from access to the Tree of Life, God leaves the human species ‘a creature manqué…incomplete, only half finished’ (p.115). The freedom which comes with self-consciousness means that its appetites open it both to unity with God (a further stage in its divinisation) and also to self-centredness. Humanity is not, however, pace Augustine, a massa damnata. To progress further is not something that mankind can achieve for itself, only by divine gift; not by virtue of the evolutionary process but through a divine intervention – through the covenants which God offers and in due course through the Incarnation, with the simultaneously human and divine Jesus finally giving mankind access to the Tree of Life (Rev 22.14).The passage is not, pace Aquinas and others, condemning mankind for wishing to determine for themselves what is good and what is bad. Wisdom in the Bible is thoroughly good, something that humanity shares with God himself. By blending together, Fitzpatrick says, the three approaches sketched out above, ‘it is possible to reach a reasonably clear, comprehensive and unified understanding of what the tale is telling us’ (p.23).

The existence of these three strata is not without a degree of plausibility, though I am not totally convinced. The first (the ‘primitive’ one, so-called) is perhaps the most speculative of the three. If it existed, I am not convinced that it would necessarily be the earliest. It sounds very priestly, and the priestly tradition is not normally taken to be of great antiquity. As for what is said about the trees, I note that Gen 2.17 does not, pace Fitzpatrick, prohibit eating of the Tree of Life, only of the other tree. If knowledge of good and evil is such a good thing, why are the couple forbidden to acquire it? Also, God’s ‘ruthless’ command (p.114) to the effect  ‘Thus far and no further’ does not seem to reflect very well on him. He leaves mankind for some time in his unfinished state before offering him covenants. ‘He deliberately blocked him access once knowledge had been attained’ (p.135). If this is meant literally, it is surely problematic. But perhaps Fitzpatrick takes it only as a literary device – a way of stressing that the natural Ascent to homo sapiens is not automatically followed by the supernatural one? If Fitzpatrick’s three strata are accepted, at least in outline, I wonder whether we should perhaps posit a fourth layer in Gen 2-3, standing in some tension with the Ascent motif, a story about sinfulness. After all, the man transgresses a divine injunction, which leads, inter alia, to God’s cursing the ground because of him (3.17). We may note too the denunciation of the King of Tyre in Ezek 28 as a man who claimed the wisdom of a god, for which he was cast out of Eden, the garden of God, by a cherub. This looks like a reading of Gen 3, or perhaps of a tradition behind it, as a tale of punishment for the sin of coveting divine wisdom. Given that Genesis, as Fitzpatrick stresses, ‘has probably been drafted and re-drafted over very long stretches of time’ (p.22), the presence of unresolved tensions is quite possible.

Gen 2-3 continues to fascinate and puzzle its readers. What are we to make, for example, of the fact that after human beings become one flesh they are not embarrassed about being naked (rumîm), 2.25, then we read in the very next verse that the serpent is subtle (‘a–ru–m)? Is there some sort of pun present, as supposed by a couple of the Targumim? Why in 3.3 does the woman tell the serpent that the tree of knowledge is ‘in the middle of the garden’? The location is not mentioned by God himself in 2.16. (She also adds that they were forbidden even to touch the tree.) Does the fact that in Gen 2.17 God does not forbid eating of the tree of life, only of the other tree, imply that immortality was God’s intention for humanity so that if we were not sinful we should be immortal? This is not consistent with Darwinism, but Paul clearly believed it to be true. In its portrayal of the ’a–da–m does the text imply a reference to Solomon (wisdom; enticement by a woman; fratricide; pride leading to a building project [Babel/Temple])? I am not totally convinced by Fitzpatrick’s central claim that Gen 2-3 is all about an Ascent. I am not sure either of his case that ‘there is not only a compatibility but a solidarity between the interpretation of Genesis 3 put forward in this book and the scientific theory of evolution’ (pp.179-180). Is it not difficult to reconcile the mechanistic world of Darwinian evolution (random mutations, natural selection…) with the biblical picture – even on Fitzpatrick’s interpretation of it? (He invokes the concept of ‘biological intentionality’ which I suspect that unreconstructed Darwinians might regard as special pleading.) Despite some reservations, however, I think that Fitzpatrick’s book makes a significant contribution to the interpretation of Genesis 2-3. He has given us an intelligent and stimulating reading of a difficult narrative. His book deserves to be studied carefully.

Bernard Robinson’s ‘Old Testament Chronicle 2015’ continues in the next issue.

November/December 2015

Author: Jenni Williams
ISBN: 978 0281 06684 1
Date: 2014
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Jenni Williams, who teaches Old Testament at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, here argues that although the OT was written almost if not totally by men, at times it portrays women as more than stereotypes, and that its narratives about women have much to teach Christian readers. Her book’s ten chapters (each of which ends with a few suggestions for reflection) comprise three sections: stories about women in relation to other women (Leah and Rachel; Ruth and Naomi; Sarah and Hagar); stories about women and men (the Levite’s concubine; the woman of Shunem; Michal; Deborah); and stories about women and God (Rahab; Hagar [again]; Hannah). Although most, if not all of the narratives take patriarchal society for granted, ‘many of them also go to great lengths to give a full and often sympathetic picture of women.’


A couple of them take delight in subverting androcentric views by presenting women as the epitome of faithful Israel: Hannah and Rahab. Some obliquely criticize the impact of patriarchy on women’s lives: the Levite’s concubine; Leah and Rachel; and Sarah. Why do the OT stories about women matter? ‘They speak of experiences that still resonate in our lives and so give us perspectives through which to understand our own walk with God, and they speak to us of God and his people’.

In order to illustrate Dr Williams’ subtle exegesis of the biblical texts, I shall instance her chapter on Hannah. She characterizes Elkanah, husband of Peninnah, who already has children, and of Hannah, who originally has none, as a decent man who loves Hannah (1 Sam 1.5) but fails to understand what her barrenness means to her. He says not ‘You are more to me than ten sons’ but ‘Am I not more to you than ten sons?’ (1.8); the fact that he already has heirs through Peninnah is the limit of his thinking. Peninnah, for her part, is ‘ungenerous and bullying’ towards Hannah. As a good Israelite, Hannah betakes herself to God, uttering a typical Psalm of Lament (1.11). Eli the priest takes her for a drunkard, but Hannah protests that she is not a ‘daughter of Belial’ (1.16); ironically we will soon learn that Eli himself is a father of ‘sons of Belial’ (2.12). Hannah’s recourse to God is rewarded, as Eli had hoped for, or perhaps predicted (1.17), with the birth of a son. Hannah ‘is the voice of suffering Israel’; after her lament, she utters a Psalm of Thanksgiving (2.1-10). From being a woman without community, Hannah has now earned her right to praise God within the worshipping community in the house of God at Shiloh. In gratitude to God, Hannah fulfils her promise to dedicate her son to the service of God, perhaps as a sort of first-fruits sacrifice. In any event, she is rewarded by having further children.

Dr Williams writes clearly and simply, with the very minimum use of technical terms and footnotes. She knows the academic literature well, but wears her learning lightly. Her book can be warmly recommended to the general reader who wishes to explore whether the OT is really as androcentric as is commonly supposed, and who would like to come to terms with its stories about women. Many of these narratives have depths which can easily go unrecognized.

November/December 2015

Author: John Barton
ISBN: 978 0 19 966043 8
Date: 2014
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This very impressive book on ethical thinking in ancient Israel represents the culmination of a lifelong study of the subject by one of the foremost authorities in the field, an emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford. His aim is to describe Israelite moral thinking, not to justify it or to apply it today. Dr Barton holds that the common supposition that moral prescriptions in the OT are presented exclusively in terms of obedience to the declared will of God needs to be challenged. There are indeed many instances of ‘command ethics’ in the OT, but very often we find in Israel, as in Egypt and Mesopotamia, a sense that some things are moral or immoral in themselves. In other words, there was a belief in a cosmic moral order. If Gentiles are condemned in Amos for barbaric practices in war (e.g. disembowelling pregnant women, 1.13), it is not for transgressing a divine injunction but for going against natural morality. Israel, like its neighbours, clearly had a concept of war crimes which was independent of the notion of divine revelation.


By making Abraham ask, ‘Should not the judge of all the earth do what is right?’ (Gen. 18.25), the biblical author shows that he believes that right and wrong are not simply whatever YHWH commands or forbids. Ezekiel says that YHWH gave Israel ‘statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live’ (referring to the sacrifice of children), (20.25). Highly problematic as that suggestion is, it clearly implies that it is ‘possible to evaluate commandments given by God against some standard other than the divine will’. The principle of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (whether originally intended literally or metaphorically, and whether or not it was meant to limit rather than demand retribution) arose out of a concern for moral equilibrium and harmony. So probably did the law about clean and unclean animals. Those treated as unclean are animals that were thought to constitute a sort of abnormality. The mouse, the crocodile and the weasel seemed like freaks, because they used hands to walk on. Pigs and camels were unnatural because they differed too much from the model animal for pastoralists to eat, the cow. Some of the marriage laws can be understood in the same way, e.g. the institution of the mo–har, money paid to the bride’s family as compensation, and even the requirement that a rapist must marry his victim (her wishes did not come into it) and pay her family a large mo–har . Barton notes at this point that he is not commending Israelite thinking, only trying to explain it. ‘People’, he adds, ‘who try to live “according to the Bible” seldom realize what they are taking on.’ The ethical thinking of ancient Israel is often, when judged by today’s standards, deplorable. The point is, though, that it had a certain logic to it.
Barton further argues that there is good evidence for the existence of a degree of critical reflection in ancient Israel on moral issues. Israel had no moral philosophy, properly speaking, but the ways in which prescriptions are often presented strongly suggests that the biblical authors were struggling with questions as to what was right or wrong, and why. Take the ‘motive clauses’ that often follow a moral injunction in Israel (but not in Egypt or Mesopotamia). Millstones may not be taken in pledge because that would be taking a life in pledge (Deut 24.6); blood must not be consumed because it is the life (Lev 17.10-14; Deut 12.23); trees must not be destroyed in war because they are not human (Deut 20.19). There was more of a rational element to ethical thinking than is sometimes acknowledged. 

In the course of arguing (very persuasively, in my view) for his thesis, Barton has occasion to examine many OT texts and to shed light on them. The notion that YHWH sometimes hardens the hearts of sinners (never of innocent people) is explained as a ‘somewhat merciless’ interpretation of the observable fact that one can get addicted to wrongdoing and become unable to desist. He discusses in some detail what the OT says about the relationship of sin to impurity. He argues that Jonathan Klawas is right to say that impurity took two forms, ritual and moral. Whereas, though, Klawas sees them as quite distinct, Barton thinks that there was a continuum, with ritual and moral impurity lying at either end, but with many things lying between the two poles. He discusses too the place of virtue ethics in the OT, noting that for the OT one is either a villain or a virtuous person. The villain can turn into a virtuous person overnight by repentance, and the virtuous person can grow in virtue (for which one is normally rewarded), but villains do not gradually become righteous.

The upshot of Barton’s book is that there is no clear unifying element to Israelite ethical thinking, such as Covenant or Torah. A divine command ethic is not uncommon, but the ethic of order is widespread, perhaps even dominant. Not a few of the Israelites practised a sort of pre-philosophical rational thought with its content having much in common with that of Israel’s neighbours.

November/December 2015

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