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Margaret Barker, The Older Testament: The Survival of Themes from the Ancient Royal Cult in Sectarian Judaism and Early Christianity. Sheffield Press, 2005.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price

This very important book has been very difficult to obtain for some years, even through second-hand search services. It is not a book anyone is likely to get rid off. And even if one has been able to fill in the blanks by reading Barker’s more recent works (e.g., The Great Angel), there is still much to learn in this one, the fountainhead of her oeuvre. Thank Elyon it has now been reprinted in paperback!

As Morpheus asks Neo in the great Gnostic epic The Matrix, are we willing to see how far down the rabbit hole goes, even if it should transport us into another world entirely? Barker says yes, and she is our guide to the unsuspected religious world of the past. Some ecumenically correct scholars do not like to draw the Germanic distinction between “Judaism” (since Ezra, more or less) and “the religion of ancient Israel,” fearing that such a boundary is a tool for imperialistic Christians to undermine Jewish priority by claiming it is merely one path of evolution from the original pre-Jewish Israelite stock, not much earlier than Christianity. But I’m afraid we must draw that line. Barker shows why. As long as we do not, we will never escape from the blinders of ancient Jewish (Deuteronomic) apologetics and its systematic rewriting of history and doctrine.

How deep goes the rabbit hole? Barker is following to new lengths the trajectory set by previous scholars who demonstrated that what we had thought to be the ground floor was really a superstructure. F.C. Baur demonstrated that the early church was divided at least into Petrine and Pauline factions, and that the subsequent fusion of (elements of) these groups resulted in the Catholic/Orthodox Church whose spin doctors forever after proclaimed it to be the original Christianity from which all others, ancient Gnostics as well as modern Protestants, broke off. In the next generation, Walter Bauer, in his Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, showed how the second-century church was not yet universal or uniform. Christianity continued to exist in many irreconcilable forms, each with its own set of roots. The first Christians in Edessa were Marcionites, the first in Egypt Gnostics, etc. Only later did “official” Roman Christianity crowd (stamp) the others out, like a religious Wal-Mart. Jacob Neusner, Norman Golb, and others showed how there was in reality no “mainstream Judaism” until the Yavneh sages erected it upon the graves of a dizzying variety of earlier Jewish parties and sects. For too long Christian and Jewish scholars alike had let themselves be bamboozled by rabbinical apologetics which sought to read the “official” Judaism of their own day back into history to lend it an illusory sense of foundational priority.

Julius Wellhausen and the original Higher Critics long ago demonstrated that a great gulf separated the Israelite faith before the “reform” of Josiah and the Deuteronomic School from what came after it. Both geographical (only Jerusalem) and theological (only Yahve) centralization changed the face of the ancient faith. And with Ezra, Judaism became a true religion “of the Book,” an adaptation that would serve Jews in good stead once Exile became a reality again, instead of just a memory. Margaret Barker (often following in the pioneer footsteps of the Scandinavian Myth and Ritual School) has learned to sniff out subtle and half-effaced clues to the contours of that pre-Jewish, pre-Josianic faith. Her chief method is to compare canonical Old Testament books (much edited by the bowdlerizing scissors of Deuteronomic censors) with later writings not in the official canon, especially 1 Enoch (itself a kind of canon of various religious writings). Certain patterns of similarity run so strong between the two bodies of literature as to suggest that the later books, because they had lain beyond the long arm of the law, managed to preserve the earlier doctrines. Thus Barker is able to fill in blanks in Isaiah with material from Enoch. She shows that earlier Israelite faith was complex and baroque. And she shows the surprising extent to which the Old Testament text has been corrupted, almost like the Koran, with numerous passages no longer readable. In both cases it seems that theological zealots obscured the original, now-heretical, readings, usually replacing them with a lot of text-critical throat-clearing.

Reams of grave and preachy Old Testament scholarship, even in the supposedly critical twentieth century, took for granted Deuteronomic history and theology. Scholars might have been able to penetrate the veils of the Priestly Writer and the Chronicler, but that’s about where it stopped. Like African aborigines who find certain aspects of pre-Christian biblical culture (including polygamy) to their tastes, theologians like Von Rad and Eichrodt found congenial the theologies of recital and covenant that had replaced the more colorful creed of pre-Josianic Israel and Judah. That was a religion centered upon the king as the earthly vicar and son, even incarnation, of the nation’s deity, who was one of many. Cultural clashes and political conflicts on earth visibly mirrored invisible wars in heaven. Yahve was one of the seventy sons of El Elyon (until 2 Isaiah fused the two gods, Israel’s patron and the head of the pantheon). Yahve created the world by killing deep-sea dragons, as did his mythic counterparts in neighboring mid-eastern mythologies. Evil infiltrated the world because of the wiles of fallen sons of god. This last occupies more space in the book, and in the whole ancient scheme of ideas, than my mention of it here might suggest. Indeed, I am tempted to invoke an analogy with the role played by extraterrestrials in the belief of today’s Flying Saucer religions, like the Raelians or Scientology. The comparison is not meant to imply any sort of eccentricity in Barker’s theory; it is just hard to find a suitable analogy to this element of ancient pre-biblical thinking because the Deuteronomic redaction was so effective in expunging it from our religious thinking.

There are, however, a few other analogies to the ancient theology in modern times. Much of the ancient Israelite angelology/polytheism has been rediscovered in Mormonism (whose scholars are understandably great fans of Margaret Barker), the Anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner, and in Christian Theosophical works like C.G. Harrison’s The Transcendental Universe (1893). But the old belief has broader implications for all students of the history of biblical religion. For instance, we are used to the notion that the early Christian view of the Messiah had assimilated several features of Hellenistic Jewish martyr theology as well as Mystery Religion sacramentalism. As per Jewish apologists, it was from paganism that the distinctly Christian messianic job description came. It must have been so, since Judaism seemed always to have possessed a far more modest concept of the messiah as a human Jewish king with no divinity, no atonement, no death and resurrection. But what if Barker (to say nothing of Mowinckel) is right? What if the Christology that makes Messiah God’s Son, even in a metaphysical sense, and has him suffering in battle for Israel’s sins, etc., even resurrecting, represents an earlier, pre-revisionistic, pre-rationalistic and pre-reductionistic form of Israelite faith? It looks as if Jews, worrying about the prospect of God sharing his divinity with another, shrunk the outlines of the divine hero to those of a mortal king. The Christian Jesus looks a lot more like the ancient kings of Judah than the righteous warrior of the Psalms of Solomon or the Yavneh rabbis. Oh my: what if the Christian framework is older? If Barker is right, early Christians did not have to rediscover this stuff (as Mormons did); they were direct heirs of archaic popular religion that had never been eradicated no matter how many of Josiah’s or Hezekiah’s or Judah Maccabee’s “revenuers” made the rounds smashing the stills of hilltop worship and sacrifice. They knew it had always been good Israelite religion, no matter that the priests had begun labeling it as “Canaanite.” (In fact, even to draw such a distinction presupposed the legend of the Exodus, seeking to hide the fact that Israelites simply were Canaanites whose ancestors had never left.)

Vatican II hardly spelled the end of old-time Catholicism. Likewise, Wareeth Deem Muhammad tried to expunge the heresies of his father, but they only bounced back, full strength, with Minister Farrakhan. There are still a lot of Episcopalians out there piously turning the loosening pages of 1928 prayer books. Old beliefs do not politely take the hint and retire. And the early Christians, as Barker sketches them, happily continued in the faith of their remote forbears, who had mourned for Tammuz and rejoiced at his resurrection, who had called Baal “my husband,” who had made cakes for the Queen of Heaven, who had run into Jehovah in human form on the threshing floor, and who had worshipped him enthroned alongside his white-haired Father, Elyon.

As I said, this wonderful book was followed by many more including The Lost Prophet, The Great Angel, The Risen Lord, The Gate of Heaven, The Great High Priest, and The Revelation of Jesus Christ. I’d say that, if your goals include understanding the Old Testament and the faith of ancient Israel and early Christianity, you’ve got your work cut out for you. But so does Margaret Barker. I hereby summon her to do her duty: she owes us her own heavily annotated translation of the “Older Testament” books, at least the main ones she deals with, those most relevant to the ancient belief. She ought to indulge freely in hypothetical reconstruction of the texts, labeled as such, that the ancient censors garbled. She’s got my permission! Speculate! The collection ought to include annotated versions of Enoch, Jubilees, etc., even sections of Philo and some of the Nag Hammadi texts.

What a delight it is to read Barker’s books! Through their pages breathes the fresh breeze that animated the works of Wellhausen, Robertson Smith, Colenso, Kuenen and the other pioneers of the Higher Criticism of the Old Testament. The day of the angels and giants imparting their wisdom to the human race is not over!


Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
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