Adventures in NT Greek: Even though no one cares….

I think I just read a passage in Hebrews that incidates that God is a great father, similar to Abraham… UPDATE: I promise this post is more than just noodling around with Greek grammar. Probably more worth reading than my other Hebrews posts.

In the NRSV, Hebrews 7 is translated as “Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?” The word used for “treating” is προσφέρω, which has a variety of meanings but has occurred frequently in the letter in the sense of “offering a sacrifice.” Indeed, it occurred in chapter 11 in the description of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up [προσέφερεν] his only son” (11:17). (Weirdly, “was ready to” seems to be supplied by the translation. The author is saying Abraham really did offer Isaac up, and then he figuratively received him from the dead, i.e., Isaac was as good as dead when the angel intervened.)

Earlier in chapter 12, the author says his readers haven’t yet endured to the point of shedding blood, and obviously Christ’s blood is a huge deal in the chapters leading up to this. It appears that the author is thinking that we’re to follow the “pioneer of our faith” all the way, ideally to the point of death — then we prove ourselves to be “children of the promise” whom God (like Abraham) will receive back from the dead.

Hebrews may be trying to “deconstruct” or render “inoperative” the logic of sacrifice, but by setting his readers free from the necessity of animal scapegoats through Christ’s “once and for all” sacrifice, he is paradoxically pushing the logic of sacrifice onto them. We’re set free from the logic of sacrificing others, so that we can then completely sacrifice ourselves. In fact, all our sufferings will perfect and complete the sufferings of the heroes of faith! (Perhaps one should hear a reference to Paul’s notion of completing what was lacking in Christ’s suffering.)

This may be the point in the New Testament where the Christian logic Nietzsche critiques, whereby God’s self-sacrifice proves to be a “consolidation loan,” takes shape most clearly. To me, it’s a pretty appalling vision. Perhaps the strategy of trying to escape sacrifice by redoubling the sacrifice… simply redoubles sacrifice.

9 thoughts on “Adventures in NT Greek: Even though no one cares….

  1. On your “no one cares”: I’m learning Attic Greek right now, and I really enjoy these posts. Glad to hear you’ve finished the epistles, and hope you’ll keep us updated on any future Greek adventures/insights.

  2. Glad you enjoy it. I’m planning to try to read the Gospel of John this summer in preparation for class, as well as re-reading 1 Corinthias — so hopefully there will be something to post on all that.

    (Honestly, I also think I might need to work through another course book so that I can really nail this grammar stuff and all the parsing, etc. It’s the only way I’ll ever be able to really read the classical stuff.)

  3. If Hebrews is written to Jewish Christians in the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction in 70AD, it is responding to this even in the way that many early rabbinic leaders did: sacrifice should become self-sacrifice, which may include martyrdom (Akiva). This certainly did intensify the logic of sacrifice in one sense (something better than an animal needs to be sacrificed), but is this necessarily only an intensification of sacrifice. If it breaks the logic of vicarious atonement, is self-sacrifice so bad? The problem is, however, with the idea that self-sacrifice is really God sacrificing us as a punishment or as a disciplinary measure. This sort of kills the love that ought to be the expression of self-sacrifice (when Akiva dies by having his skin raked by the Romans, he says, according the martyrology, “Now I have finallyh fulfilled the commandment to love the Lord with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strenth”). To submit to discipline to the point of death is simply masochism. Even if your father says, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you,” it doesn’t make the infliction of punishment or discipline an act of love. The rabbis knew this and said that the destruction of the Temple was the result of the Jews’ motiveless hatred of one another, and that acts of self-sacrificing love (chesed) were now to replace the Temple service. Such acts were certainly not forms of discipline, but expressions of thanksgiving for God’s continuing love. The whole question of how to justify punishment from a loving God, as everyone knows, exercised many thinkers at the time (Origen et al.), but one would hope that to love God in the midst of what seems like punishment from God would not itself be interpreted as a form of punishment. The rabbis did say that God’s punishments were those of a loving parent, but they never said that that meant that punishing yourself was a way to love God. That is why there were no ascetic rabbis.

  4. That makes it sound like Judaism actually fits Kant’s definition of a religion of reason much better than his preferred example of Christianity, even though Judaism is a purely negative example for him.

    I’m also reminded of the part in Romans where Paul talks about your “reasonable act of worship,” which he defines as following the law of love.

  5. Very interesting, Adam. Kant actually says that the command to love God with all your heart, etc. is sublime because love, if it needed to be commanded, would not be love, so the command expresses the infinite outer limit of human achievement, sort of like the command “Be Perfect.”

    Hegel attacked Kant for his overemphasis on law, which he described as Jewish, so yes, Hegel agrees with you, Adam, that Kant is essentially Jewish (I am reminded of Derrida’s essay “Kant the Jew.”) And Hegel framed his attack (in his Spirit of Christianity) in relation to the theory of punishment. So we are back to the question of whether or how the God who is Love could ever inflict punishment. Hegel thought that he couldn’t, and that law itself was a self-inflicted punishment for cutting oneself off from Love. But that leaves us with law as pure violence born in self-love. I am fascinated by the idea that you seem to be suggesting, that Hebrews stages the reconciliation of law and love in the form of self-inflicted punishment, loving God so much that you help him to avoid having to punish you (which would injure his love) by injuring yourself. (There is in fact a rabbinic midrash to the effect that Isaac took the knife from Abraham and slew himself, as a reward for which act of love he was restored to life.) So would the sinners in Hell be able to flip Hell into Heaven by loving God so much that they choose to refuse to repent in order to take their eternal punishment upon themselves? Is this the meaning of the prodigal son? And would that make the perfect messianic gesture an act of sinful self-destruction on the part of a person who loved God so completely that he couldn’t bear to let God punish him? This is the sort of twisted logic you get from Kirillov in Dostoevski’s The Devils. It does seem to come out of trying to separate love from the law the way Hegel does in Spirit of Christianity. It turns Kant’s radical evil (the deliberate choice to follow self-love as one’s maxim) into the ultimate act of love for God. Since Kant thought Judaism was exactly the “religion” (he actually said it was really only a “politics”) of radical evil, a way to give oneself the appearance of obeying God when one is only loving oneself, this means that for Hegel the perfect Christian would be the one who loved God so much that he would convert to Judaism. Perfect love as radical evil.

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