Reading Notes (March 2011) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Monday, 07 March 2011 14:19

Though the Reformers considered the Apocrypha edifying reading, they demoted it from its quasi- or fully canonical status and in many Protestant churches it gradually faded from memory. As a result, “inter-testamental” Israel is closed to many Protestants. That’s unfortunate. We turn the page from Malachi, where Persia still looms large, and suddenly there are Romans and Herods, Pharisees and Sadducees. Where’d they all come from?

Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Eerdmans, 2011) by Duke professor Anathea E. Portier-Young is a superb entrée into the period. The first part of the book lays out a subtle theoretic framework for thinking about the negotiations between hegemonic, dominant powers and the varieties of resistance. But the book shines in Part II, where Poitier-Young doesn’t just narrate events but makes sense of them.

Because the Ptolemies of Egypt abducted and enslaved Jews, for instance, the Syrian Seleucids who succeeded them were viewed as liberators. The defeat of the Ptolemies was, to Jewish consciousness, like a new exodus. By examining the conflicts between “Hellenism” and “Judaism” in terms of cultural boundaries and markers, she is able to acknowledge the reality of “Hellenization” without turning into it a monolith. She characterizes Antiochus’ attacks on the Jews as a program of “state terror” designed to “decreate” Israel and to shape it into something more to his liking.

As indicated by her title, Poitier-Young focuses on apocalyptic literature (Daniel and 1 Enoch) as “literature of resistance” that enabled beleaguered Jews to name imperial oppression and to fit it into a larger narrative of Yahweh’s deliverance of Israel. She late-dates Daniel, but her readings are attentive and illuminating. And along the way, Poitier-Young provides one of the best surveys of the history between Alexander and the Maccabees that I have read.


The writings of Eamon Duffy, John Bossy, Keith Thomas, and others have given historians a radically revised picture of the Reformation. These historians have focused more on ritual, liturgy, symbols, and popular customs than doctrine, and they have argued in various ways that the pre-Reformation church was far more vibrant than Protestant polemicists claimed. Because they attend to the effects on the ground, they have also shown that traditional religious practices persisted long after a region or city became officially Protestant.

Susan C. Karant-Nunn’s The Reformation of Ritual (Routledge, 1997) applies a similar method with similar interests to Reformation era Germany. She deals with engagement and marriage rites, baptism, the churching of women, penance and the Eucharist, death rituals and burial. In each chapter, she sketches pre-Reformation Catholic practices before examining the shift in Lutheran areas of Germany and in the more Reformed southern and south-western regions.

There are some irritations in the book. Karant-Nunn seems intent on putting Protestant ritual reform in the worst possible light. She argues that the use of Latin helped create a mystical atmosphere in the medieval Mass, but nowhere acknowledges the benefits of vernacular liturgies. She notes that medieval priests were socially and educationally closer to their parishioners than educated Protestant clergymen, concluding that Protestantism was in some ways more clerical. Surely, though, churches gain some advantage from pastors who have thoroughly studied the Bible.

She recognizes (following the work of Catherine Bell) that participants never make their own contribution to rituals, contributions that never coincide with the intentions of authorities. But behind most of the ritual changes, she discerns a Protestant drive to tame and discipline an unruly populace. She acknowledges that the Reformers’ stated intention was to increase lay participation through singing, vernacular prayers, communion in both kinds, but she regularly returns to the claim that Protestant churches rigidified hierarchy and reduced congregations to passivity. “Congregations did not feel themselves . . .  to be a community, and their quiescent participation in church ritual did not make them such.” One suspects that some medieval worshipers “felt” excluded too.

Despite the evident bias of Karant-Nunn’s book, it is, like the work of the other historians mentioned above, is exceedingly useful. It gives insight into what the Reformation was all about that more doctrinally or confessionally oriented histories cannot provide, and it shows the disjunction between the Protestant agenda and Protestant practice. Besides, she does spot many genuine flaws in Protestant liturgical life – a proper emphasis on instruction and catechesis degenerates into intellectualism; concern for the spiritual condition of worshipers modulates into a complete lack of concern for the bodily, sensible dimensions of worship; after an early period of relative flexibility, liturgical practice (like doctrinal formulation) hardens into rigid form; some Reformers are far too ready to seek civil enforcement when their plans for reform failed to advance swiftly enough; for all the talk of priesthood of believers, some aspects of Protestant liturgy do send the message that lay people exist to hear, not to be heard.

The conclusion is not that the Reformation was a mistake. The conclusion is that the Reformation was incomplete. The conclusion is to return to a venerable Protestant slogan, semper reformanda.

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