I. Historical Recital or Sacramental Mystery?

Is it credible that, throughout the course of Christendom, the church has been all wrong regarding its fundamental calling--namely, that it was to be a sacral institution run by consecrated priests (or "set apart" clergy) using sacred objects and liturgy in the performance of sacred ritual?

In particular, this book will address the church's as much as universal practice of baptism and the Lord's supper--though it will also be relevant to anything else the church chooses to call "sacrament." And right there is the word which will give us so much trouble.

As I hope immediately becomes apparent, this book is 100% in approval of the church’s practicing the New Testament rites of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Yet, as I also hope becomes apparent, the book is 100% opposed to the church's practicing those New Testament rites as sacraments. The distinction is a fine one; so--before doing anything else--let's get it as clear and precise as possible. A recent experience of mine can perhaps be our best point of departure.

One of my earlier books, on evangelism, was Proclaim Good Tidings (Brethren Press). In it (pp. 22-26) I had used the researches of Mortimer Arias and Robert Banks to argue that

  1. the early Christians had not understood their Lord's Supper as any sort of "cultic religious ritual," or "sacrament,"
  2. they had probably invited poor non-Christian neighbors to partake with them--this as a form both of material aid and of evangelistic outreach.

This idea (and consequently the work as a whole) proved personally obnoxious to one of the book's reviewers, a noted New Testament scholar of British background and, I think, clerical standing in the Church of England. The suggestion that "sacramentalism" is a late import into church tradition and has no standing within the New Testament itself--this was just too threatening for him to consider.

In his review, then, he offered an observation which he considered as absolutely demolishing of me and my position: "[Eller] seems totally unaware of the background to that command (namely, the eucharistic formulae of the synoptic Gospels and Paul] in the Passover haggadah." (Haggadah has reference to the collected tradition of wording and teaching that accompanies the observance of Jewish Passover.)

Yet, far from accepting the above as my demolishment, I want here to welcome it as the very ground and substance of my argument. I have nothing but gratitude for a badmouthing reviewer's providing the key that spells the unmaking of his own sacramental position and the making of my unsacramental one. If he is correct (as surely he is) that the true background and context of the Christian Lord's Supper is Jewish Passover, then the Lord's Supper is what I have been saying it is and not what he would have it be.

Beginning at this point and for some pages following, the first draft of this manuscript was quite different from what you will now read. The difference is attributable to the fact that submitted that first draft to the scrutiny of a true OT expert, Professor John Linton of The Oregon Extension.

I well knew, of course, that my presentation was a "simplification." That would be owing to two factors:

  1. Being anything but an OT expert myself, a simplification was as much as I could hack.
  2. Most of my readers being no more OT experts than I am, a simplification would be as much as they would be willing even to try hacking.

Yet Linton opined that my simplification was more than scholarship could endure. So I am now attempting a compromise which I hope Linton will be able to endure and my readers able to understand--though, of course, it is possible that I could lose it both ways. Linton’s contribution here was simply in forcing me to try again. At later points, his positive contributions will be incorporated--and full credit given.

We need now to imagine for ourselves a diagram consisting of a broad vertical bar. The left edge of this bar is headed Sacramental Mystery and the right edge is Historical Recital (with the bar wide enough for comparisons and interrelationships to be plotted between the two edges). Our study will develop the bar from the bottom up--a charting through the Bible the development of the Hebraic-Jewish tradition regarding these two forms of worship.

"Sacramental Mystery" (and those two words complement each other as Latin and Greek terms for pretty much the same idea) identifies any form of worship in which it is assumed that a properly qualified holy man's proper handling of holy objects in holy ritual as much as guarantees divine approval and blessing to the worshiper. A priest, for example, will wear special vestments, function in a special place (a temple or shrine), and use holy objects to walk through a holy ritual, such as an animal sacrifice.

Sacramental mystery, operates from the premise that its rite affects only the participating individual--and that only for the duration of the ritual moment itself. Thus, it is only in the one moment (or double moment) of eating the bread and drinking the cup that sacramental miracle occurs--its locus being confined to whatever individual actually partakes.

"Historical Recital," on the other hand, is that form of worship in which the community's recital of the mighty acts of God from out their common history enables the worshippers in effect to make themselves contemporary with God's action of those saving moments. It always assumes the faith community's on-going role within the total history of God's work from Creation to New Creation. Here the community uses the bread and cup to remind itself of the Grand Drama in which it is playing a part.

The two forms of worship represent entirely different frames of reference. And it is no secret as to which, overall, the Scriptures prefer. I am not offering to count verses; but the preference for community history over individualistic accomplishment could run on the order of ten to one.

As to the normal location for these two forms of worship, on a line under the main headings, hard to the left put the word temple, and hard to the right family home, and in the middle between the these put synagogue.

Another line down, as to the dominant personage at each place, under "Temple" put priest, under "Synagogue" put rabbi, and under "Family Home" put father.

Our use of the term "Rabbi" will be unusual enough that we had better stop and talk about it. Actually the concept "rabbi" (in any very formal sense) comes as a quite late development, along with the institution of the "synagogue. " Yet even then, "rabbi" (at least at any time during the biblical era) seems not to have been very formally or professionally defined. Thus, Jesus was regularly addressed as "Rabbi"--even though it is doubtful that he ever had rabbinical training or was officially recognized.

The word "rabbi," of course, is simply the common word meaning "teacher"; and we will use it in that common way, rather than as a technical term. So in your vocabulary, as subheads under RABBI, be prepared to deal with "father-rabbi," "priest-rabbi," "prophet-rabbi," as well as "synagogue-rabbi."

Yet there is a restriction: we will call "rabbi" only those whose teaching curriculum is that of Hebrew-Judaic historical recital. Thus, the so-called "teachers of wisdom," i.e. the proverbists and sages whose curriculum is that simply of ethical and moral counsel--they will not be treated. Only these other varieties will be.

Yet, whatever the titles may be, the function of priest, altar, and sacrificial cult always belongs hard left under Sacramental Mystery and the function of rabbinical teaching always hard right under Historical Recital. Things will come clear as we proceed.

A. Formative Beginnings


This chapter separates the biblical revelation into two worship traditions. "Sacramental Mystery" is rooted in the ancient cultic practices of the Israelite neighbors both prior to and after Abraham. "Historical Recital" is the unique tradition passed to the Hebrews and carried on into the New Testament. The first seeks to bring mystical and magical advantage through mysterious rites, while the second seeks to include the worshipper in God's original, historical manifestations through the process of recital.

The text refers abstractly to a chart of this format, without actually drawing it, describing each section as a "frame." The reader may wish to make a work sheet in this format and position his own notes horizontally and vertically in the chart proper.

The first segment of our chart begins at the bottom with Hebraic origins and runs up to the exodus from Egypt (the entire period commonly being identified as the Patriarchal Age), roughly the history recounted in the book of Genesis. Regarding our worship traditions, the prominent character of this period is its fragmentation and lack of continuity. This may in part be owing to our own paucity of information--but undoubtedly also signifies that our traditions were in the flux of getting themselves established.

On the side of Sacramental mystery, we do find occasional sacrifices being made at makeshift altars (including Abraham's near miss at child sacrifice and his encounter with Melchizedek, that strange priest out of nowhere, who apparently was not a Hebrew). Yet there is no indication that the Hebrews had a recognized priesthood. Who was credentialed to make sacrifices when and how--we simply don't know. The situation is quite inchoate.

Things are not much better regarding Historical Recital. Obviously, someone was doing the rabbinical teaching of passing down the common history from generation to generation. How else could have been preserved the stories that later came to be put in writing as the book of Genesis? Num. 21:27-30 quotes one such bit of tradition, ascribing it to "the ballad singers" (the poets, the bards, they that speak in proverbs)--though whether it was such people, the elders of the community, or some other group that bore this rabbinical function, we simply do not know.

The top part of this segment of the chart would represent the four hundred years of slavery in Egypt immediately preceding the exodus. Your mental image here should have the chart looking very ragged on either edge. Again, we aren't given much information; but what we have indicates that this period marked especially hard times for any sort of Hebrew tradition. Apparently these slaves as much as forgot who they were and found themselves virtually merged into Egyptian culture and religion.

The observation to be made now will prove crucial for our study as a whole: While the Hebraic tradition was in its formative beginnings, all the cultures with which the Hebrews came in contact already had in operation highly developed and well defined religious systems--were already entirely competent in matters of priest, temple, altar, and sacrifice.

Within this context, it does seem the case that the tradition of Historical Recital is a unique creation of (or a unique gift to) the Hebrews. Indeed, even to the present day, historical recital appears as a unique feature of the biblical faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Yet the case is quite otherwise with the tradition of Sacramental Mystery. The Hebrew cult was, of course, directed to the totally unique God, Yahweh. Yet the forms of that cult were virtually identical with the cult-forms of the nations. When it comes to those forms, Israel was not at all innovative, didn't have to invent anything. It was all ready, there for the taking, needing only a bit of adaptation.

B. Fixing the Traditions

This segment of the chart begins with the exodus from Egypt and runs up to the building of Solomon’s Temple (Exodus through 2 Samuel). It turns out that Israel's tradition both of Sacramental Mystery and Historical Recital anchor at almost the same point in history, namely during the exodus.

Scripture has it that the whole detailed prescription of the sacrificial cult was given to the community while it was camped at Sinai. It may actually have been a development covering a much longer period of time. Though it is mixed in with a great deal of moral and ethical law, there is nevertheless to be found (beginning at Ex. 25 and running through Leviticus and on to Num. 11) instruction for building the Ark of the Covenant, the tabernacle (Tent of Meeting), and the altar. There is instruction for the ordaining of priests, for dressing them, for their performing their ritual functions. There is prescription for one sort of offering after another--the list goes on and on.

As we observed, although all of this has a distinctive Hebraic flavor about it, in essence it can’t be a whole lot different from what neighboring cultures and peoples had already been doing for centuries. After all, a priest is a priest, an altar an altar, a sacrifice a sacrifice, and divine favor divine favor--no matter what religion is specified.

Not so with the tradition of Historical Recital. That comes across as something new, different, and exciting--a true revelation and gift from Israel's own one-and-only God. Scripture spots it at the end of the exodus--as Moses' last instruction to the people before he died and they struck across the Jordan into the promised land. This material (which, again, may actually have developed over a longer span of time) comes primarily in Deut. 4-11. Yet, precisely because this tradition is new and different, we will need to take time and care in comprehending it.

Let us trace the passage through:

"You have seen for yourselves what the LORD did." (Deut. 4:3)

"But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children's children." (Deut. 4:9)

[We will hereafter identify as "rabbi" whatever teacher works at this matter of not letting succeeding generations forget what the eyes of the community have seen.]

The text then goes on to suggest that what you (the community) saw as the mighty acts of God is to be understood as his offering himself to you in covenant; so

"So be careful not to forget the covenant that the LORD your God, made with you" (Deut. 4:23).

"For now ask about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings upon the earth; ask from one end of heaven to the other: has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of.... So acknowledge to day and take to heart that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other." (Deut. 4:32-39)

[Because Israel's sacramental cult is so similar to that of the nations, the God of that cult hardly can be understood as all that different from the gods of the nations. No, it is only in its tradition of Historical Recital that the true uniqueness of Israel and her God comes to view.]

"The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not [alone] with our ancestors did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today" (Deut. 5:2-3)

The action of historical recital is all-important. Only when, through it, we keep ourselves contemporary with God's mighty acts of covenant-salvation--only then can his be acts of covenant-salvation for us. As observed earlier, to my knowledge the biblical faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the only ones to operate out of such a rationale of historical recital. The sacramental mystery cults of the nations (including Israel's own) simply cannot be made to fit this frame of reference.

"Hear, 0 Israel: The LORD our God is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words which I commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children, and talk of them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deut. 6:4-9)

"When your children ask you in time to come, 'What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the LORD our God has commanded you?' then you shall say to your children, 'We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand'" (Deut. 6:20-21)

When a father and son, both of whom might be a thousand years and more from actually having been on the scene--but when they in truth can say, "We were Pharaoh's slaves and the LORD brought us out," well, then, this is precisely what we intend with the phrase historical recital. "Recital" means "going through it again." And as a result of this action, the worshiper will come to "know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations" (Deut. 7:9).

Note herein that it is made both specific and emphatic that the designated rabbi in this process is the father in the family home. The term "rabbi" won't come on for long years yet; but the concept is established just right here. It is the father's particular obligation to teach his kids to say with him, "We were Pharaoh's slaves and the LORD brought us out." And scripture never rescinds that assignment; throughout history, whenever the fathers fail as rabbis, the faith comes unglued and falls apart. As our study proceeds, several more rabbi-types will come into the picture. Yet if I may say so, those exist for the sake of helping the father in rabbiing (you got a better suggestion for spelling it?) his children; in the final analysis the responsibility is his.

Not according to the Deuteronomic order now (in which one would need to jump forward to Deut. 13, or preferably backward to Ex. 12) , but in logical order the feast of Passover becomes the quintessential expression of the historical recital of which we have been speaking. We don’t know just how long it was after the original Egyptian Passover before Israel got around to doing an annual observance of the same. We don't know that there was yet a Passover celebration at the time of Moses' last words to the Israelite fathers. Nevertheless, the two occasions fit together as hand and glove. Passover is a family festival at which the father presides as rabbi, the feast having no other purpose than to involve the kids in remembering that we were Pharaoh's slaves and God brought us out.

We should recognize that there was at least one point of contact between Passover (historical recital) and the sacrificial cult (sacramental mystery). The priests apparently promoted Passover and performed the ritual slaughter of the lambs that were then prepared for the Passover meal. Yet, obviously, this has no effect on the commemorative character of Passover itself; that remains what it is, with priestly involvement or without.

But the apparent continuity and relative stability of Passover throughout Hebraic-Jewish history is our best justification for making the right edge of our bar graph as much as a straight and solid line of historical recital orientation. To the best of my recollection, the only period where Scripture suggests there had ever been a lapse of Passover observance comes at the time of the Assyrian crisis under the kings Hezekiah and/or Josiah. In any case, where the right edge is relatively stable, the left edge contrariwise is shot to pieces.

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Going to that left-edge sacramentalism now, during our present period Priest Samuel's showdown with King Saul apparently established the rule that sacrifices were to be made by priests alone--and not by anyone else, even kings. Also, though we don't know just when, it became the rule that priestly sacrifices could be made only at the altar of the one central shrine. At least this was clearly the case by the time of our next period and Solomon's Temple. There can be no doubt that it was during our present period the sacramental-mystery tradition got itself well consolidated.

However, there was a problem--and a most serious one. During the exodus itself it seems that the priestly activity at the Tent of Meeting was everything the law called for. During the conquest, then, as Israelite armies possessed the land, the Tent of Meeting was installed at a village named Shiloh. At the same time, however, the tribes broke up to settle their individual territories, and it is hard to know how much attention they gave to that central shrine at Shiloh.

Then, sometime during the period of the Judges, the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant and presumably forced the use of the Tent of Meeting to be discontinued. Because their taking the Ark brought such bad consequences upon them, the Philistines soon returned it. Yet apparently it was only much later, after David had taken Jerusalem and made it his royal city, that he got the idea of sending for the Ark, having it taken out of storage and brought to Jerusalem, opened for business with a retinue of priests.

We aren't told what the priests may have been doing all this while. But there must have been an interval of one or two centuries when Israel's tradition of sacramental mystery was in as much as complete lapse and disarray--not too auspicious a start for a glorious history.

Finally, there is a priestly involvement in Israel's historical recital which needs to be credited. Our period from the exodus to Solomon's Temple is also the time in which the materials of the pentateuchal history (what in time would become the biblical books, Genesis to Deuteronomy) were being gathered and worked over--even if not yet consolidated in written form. One of the major strands within that mix is what scholars call "priestly"--because it seems evident that it was priests who did the work and left their mark upon it.

Now this pentateuchal history is, of course, the stuff of which historical recital is made. Yet today, if we are to have any hope of remembering that we were Pharaoh1s slaves when the LORD led us out, that remembrance can happen only through our reading the pentateuchal account--which, at least in part, was the work of priest-rabbis in their teaching function.

Yet we need to be clear as to what this implies. The suggestion is not that our chart should now show its two traditions approaching each other toward some sort of merger, or union. No, the traditions each reflect too different a philosophy and rationale for that to happen. It is rather that the priests found themselves quite capable of playing a double role. When they were at the altar performing their ritual functions, they were "priests," pure and simple, part of the sacramental-mystery tradition. When working on the pentateuchal history they were (pure and simple) rabbis in the service of historical recital. There was no reason at all why an individual could not switch back and forth between the roles.

Perhaps the significant thing this phenomenon does tell us is that these two traditions were not thought of as mutually exclusive--certainly not as contradictory or even competitive. They are simply the two worship traditions of Israel--the one presumably having as legitimate grounding as the other.

C. The Temple of the Psalms and the Prophets

Our new period runs from the building of Solomon&rsqul;s Temple to its loss in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The move of the sacramental establishment into a splendid new national shrine at the heart of Jerusalem--this had to mark a quantum jump in the tradition's power, popularity, influence and prestige. Beyond doubt, this period represents the Golden Age of Israel's Sacramental Mystery.

Historical Recital, on the other hand, seems simply to have continued in its unobtrusive way--with father-rabbis perhaps focusing on Passover, yet spreading that recital through the home over the year.

In his truly authoritative study, Rediscovering the Lord's Supper (John Knox, 1988), pp. 9-10, Markus Barth establishes that, at least at times during the pre-Christian era, Israelite-Jewish Passover took on to itself major elements of the sacrificial cult. The slaughtering of the Passover lamb was a priestly work of altar-ritual no different from all the other animal sacrifices of the temple.

Yet the distinction between the altar-sacrifice side of Passover and the commemorative-meal side was kept clear in any case~-with the meal representing the constant side of the equation. Barth puts forth the consideration that will become crucial in understanding the new Passover of the Lord's Supper: the shed blood so important to the altar ritual is never (never) brought over to be imbibed at the table fellowship. Sacramental Mystery and Historical Recital can (and have) come into tangential connection; they never have (and never can) combine.

However, during this period of Solomon's Temple, three new factors come into the middle space between our two traditions. The first of these is the book of Psalms. Those psalms actually represent the collected hymnody of the temple for the very span to time we have set off. And of course, as temple hymnody, these psalms are the work of none other than priests.

Yet even as priestly compositions, few of these (perhaps none of them) are sung in praise of what great guys the priests are in the sacramental mystery of their making holy sacrifice that propitiates God and makes him favorable toward us; On the contrary, not all of the psalms obviously, but a considerable number of them, are in praise of God for his mighty acts within Israel's history--the very stuff of historical recital.

Not strictly as priests, but as priest-rabbis during off-hours from their strictly sacramental duties, these composer-musicians used the temple service very strongly to the advantage of historical recital. No more now than earlier does this mean that the two modes have become merged or confused. It does mean that they are not seen as inimical to each other.

The second of our "middle factors" is the most significant of the three. These are the classic Hebrew prophets--the careers of almost all of whom fall within our designated period.

On the one hand, the accumulated sum of their combined witness comes down strongly on the side of historical recital. They are prophet-rabbis joining fully with Moses in calling the people to remember--remember God's mighty covenantal/saving acts out of our common history, lest we forget who we are and lose our special relationship to God. The prophets would have been very supportive of whatever father-rabbis were faithfully trying to drum that word into the heads of their kids.

On the other hand, what is new with the prophets is a very caustic critique of the sacramental cult.

  • Amos has God say, "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon" (Amos 5:21-22).

  • Hosea next says that, in becoming reconciled to God, "the Israelites shall remain many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or teraphim" (Hosea 3:4). The prophet may have in mind that the temple cult will itself be restored in the people's restoration to covenant with God; but he doesn't quite say that. He could as well be thinking of what the NT Revelator actually does say, namely that there is no temple in the new Jerusalem--i.e. in the situation where man is right with God there is absolutely no purpose to a cult of sacramental mystery.
  • In Micah 6:6-8, that prophet concludes that the LORD wants from us only moral and ethical obedience and that he is not particularly pleased with burnt offerings, thousands of rams, ten thousands of rivers of oil, or even my first-born (the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul).
  • Jeremiah tells us that regarding the coming new covenant, which is the goal and outcome of God's work with his people, the LORD says, "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jer. 31:31-33). No sacramental cult is needed or wanted.
  • Ezekiel (himself a priest as well as a prophet) portrays the LORD as being so fed up with the priestly corruption of the temple that he mounts his Ark-of-the-Covenant throne-chariot and takes off--actually abandoning his very own house, the seat of his glory, leaving it to the sinful human establishment that had built, operated, and now ruined it (Ezekiel 9--11). Admittedly, at the end of his book, Ezekiel has the LORD in his chariot return to a glorious new super-temple, where he promises to stay put forever. Yet the NT book of Revelation may again take precedence here. The Revelator clearly is following Ezekiel's portrayal of the new Jerusalem; yet he breaks rank to specify that "I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb" (Rev. 21:22).

The list (of prophetic denunciations) could go on and on. What is clear is that the overall witness of the prophets seriously undermined the legitimacy and prestige of the sacramental tradition.

The third of our "middle factors" has the same effect as the prophets. Regarding the Davidic-Solomonic proposal of building a great temple, a careful reading of the histories (2 Sam. 7; 1 Kings 5-9; 1 Chron. 15-17, 22-29; 2 Chron. l-7) shows that, although in general there is the highest sort of praise for the idea and its accomplishment, there is also an undercurrent of doubt and questioning.

Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying "Why have you not built me a house of cedar? (2 Sam. 7:5-7; cf. 1 Chron. 17:36).

Has God ever indicated that in a grand cultic establishment is how he wants to be housed among us?

Then, predicting the destruction of the temple perhaps a millenium before Son Jesus got around to doing so, God tells Solomon: "If you turn aside from following me, you or your children, ... then I will cut Israel off from the land which I have given them; and the house which I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my might ... and Israel will become a heap of ruins" (1 Kings 9:6-8; cf. 2 Chron. 7:19-2).

Building God a great temple doesn't guarantee Israel anything. In itself it is nothing worth--and God would be ready to let it go in an instant (which he proceeded to do on more than one occasion). God does time and again promise to be forever true to his historical covenant with the people--come what may. Yet, clearly, the sacrificial cult is not qualified under that covenant; its existence is only conditional.

Finally, clear down in New Testament times, the Christian teacher Stephen picks up on this minor note of protest--as expressing the truth about Solomon's Temple: "But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says, 'Heaven is my throne, and earth my footstool. What house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?'" (Acts 7:47-50; Stephen is quoting Isaiah 66:1-2--which adds another prophet to our list).

The period of Solomon's Temple does without doubt mark the Golden Age of Israel's sacramental-mystery tradition. Yet, with the prophetic critique and the note of protest out of the histories, it is also the time of that tradition was being most profoundly undercut and challenged. On this segment of our graph, the sacramentalist left-side must be drawn as ragged and eroded. The Sacramental Mystery tradition was taking a theological beating.

D. Destroyers of the Temple: from Babylonians to Romans

On the one side, this period traces Jewish sacramentalism on its rocky road to extinction. On the other, historical recital will experience it greatest burgeoning of all time.

Regarding the sacrificial cult, our period begins with a hiatus of the better part of a century. The Babylonian armies had come over to destroy Jerusalem. With it had gone Solomon's Temple--its antique and holy Ark of the Covenant never to be seen again. Much of the populace had died or been killed--and almost all the rest taken into exile in Babylon.

Clearly, there were priests among these survivors; yet, without altar, temple, or wherewithal, their priestly functioning was at a dead end. So, when they couldn't be "priests," they turned their efforts to the service of "the other tradition." It seems clear that it was the Babylonian exile that triggered the work of drawing Israel's literary remains into the coherent order of what we have in our Bibles today. It was also during this time, apparently, that these materials first came to be seen and treated as sacred writings, "the word of God." It will be centuries before the canon is finally fixed; but at least now, during the exile, there is for the first time a "Book" of which the Jews can be the people--"the people of the Book." And most likely it was these unpriested priest-rabbis (perhaps even the one priest named Ezra) who made it all possible. As it happened, it was the death of their sacred cult that guaranteed long life to a biblically-based tradition of historical recital.

In time, the Babylonian empire gave way to the Persian; and the Persian emperor was willing that displaced peoples be allowed to move around as they wished--within the confines and always under the jurisdiction of the empire, of course. There being nothing at Jerusalem (what had once been Jerusalem) to go back to, there was no concerted mass return from exile. Clearly, the people most eager to return would be priests committed to getting the sacrificial cult back into operation. The returnees first order of business was to get a temple built (re-built). With lots of good intentions but virtually no funds, it took a number of years to make this happen. Yet, finally, with what came to be known as the Second Temple, the gap of the better part of a century without sacrament was closed.

But what was true of this situation remained the truth for the rest of Jewish temple history. The Second Temple was but a small and shabby replica of the wonder of Solomon's Temple. The glories of temple worship would now be all in the past. Hereafter the Jews were a poor people who, though they cared enough, simply couldn't afford "the very best" for their God.

Hereafter the Jews were also a dispersed and scattered people, only comparatively few of them living within worship-distance of the temple. And hereafter the Jews were a subject people; whatever freedom of worship they had was at the sufferance of pagan overlords. From here forward, the glories of temple and cult are all in the past.

So the history of the Second Temple plods along until, down in the intertestamental period, the pagan overlords are the hellenistic Seleucids of Syria. Their decision is to terminate the temple cult and make the Jews over into hellenists. Their first step to that end is to enter the temple and desecrate it by slaughtering a pig on the altar. In time, this affront leads to a Jewish rebellion in which sufficient independence is won to allow for a ritual cleansing and reconsecration of the temple.

This time the gap in cultic practice is a matter of only a few years; yet it is one more instance of things falling apart. And the Jewish independence itself turned out to be short-lived and of little significance. The homegrown corruption of the Jews' own rulers (priestly rulers) wasn't all that much different from that of the pagan overlords.

The next foreign rule in line was that of the Roman empire. With it came the Rome-appointed-and-controlled King Herod the Great (at the close of whose reign Jesus was born). Herod thought to win the love and support of the Jewish people (and gain some fame for himself) by lavishing money on the temple. He ordered enough of rebuilding, remodeling, expanding, and refurbishing that the result was known no longer as the Second Temple but as Herod's Temple.

Architecturally, this may have been a return to ancient splendor--yet only in that regard. The Jews were still a poor, scattered, dominated people--and the new temple itself a very mixed blessing. The people hated King Herod (not least because he was only a half-Jew and not fully one of themselves). And it really galled them to have to be obligated to that fake Jew for their very temple. Yet, what Rome giveth, Rome also taketh away. In the 66th year of the Christian era, there began a Jewish revolt against the Roman occupation. In the 70th year, Rome put an end to it by sending in armies to devastate Jerusalem as thoroughly as Babylon had done the job in its day. The whole Hebraic-Jewish tradition of sacramental mystery had come to an end--apparently for all time. Judaism, of course, continues (continues, continues, and continues to continue)--though from now on without temple, altar, priesthood, or animal sacrifice. Historical recital has carried the day as the one continuing form of worship.

We need now to go back and, through this same period, trace the fortunes of Historical Recital. It will be clear that Historical Recital was waxing at the same time Sacramental Mystery was waning.

From everything we know, at the beginning of our period the tradition of Historical Recital was still being served simply by father-rabbis instructing their children according to the model of passover observance. Yet the Babylonian exile had quite different repercussions for historical recital than it did for sacramental mystery. We can't begin to be specific about date or place; but generally at some time following the exile, several related factors coalesced to produce something brand spanking new.

  1. As we already have seen, unpriested priest-rabbis got Israel's literary heritage pulled together into a sacred Book, a "word of God" absolutely made-to-order for purposes of historical recital.
  2. As a fact of life, Jewish existence was now that of "the dispersion." There was no temple, Jerusalem, or homeland that could serve as a physical focus; the faith had no "place." And even following the return from exile and the building of the Second Temple, it was still the case (and has been so right down to the present) that there have been many more of the Jews living in the dispersion than in the land itself. It was probably inevitable that the prestige and influence of the temple would dwindle as distance made it simply inaccessible to more and more of the constituency.
  3. It may have been precisely the answer of "the Book" to the problem of "the dispersion" that led to the creation of the "synagogue." The synagogue is a Book-centered institution (and thus historical-recital centered) just where the temple is an altar-centered one (and thus sacramental-mystery centered) Jewish law prescribed that there should be only one temple (and that at Jerusalem) but that there should be a synagogue wherever there might be as many as ten male Jews residing. It is my guess that, simply in itself, this geographical difference spelled the decline and eventual disappearance of sacramental mystery--while committing Judaism to the long haul of the synagogue's historical recital.
  4. Along with the synagogue, there also came into being the rabbi (the synagogue-rabbi). He in time replaces the priest-rabbi as caretaker of the tradition, interpreter of the Book, and regular Sabbath-day leader of the congregation in its communal acts of historical recital. It is my understanding that the father-rabbi’s assignment still stands and that he is not to cop out by making the synagogue-rabbi his surrogate.

John Linton noted that there have been instances when the synagogue got to acting a bit sacramentally. Certainly this was not through any attempt to introduce animal sacrifice into either synagogue worship or the passover meal. It must have been rather the case that "if we hold the cup or scroll right, say the right words and make the right gestures, we should be able to make God respond right." Yet this strikes me as being normal human aberration and not as anything that would challenge our analysis of the essential distinction between temple and synagogue.

But when, in AD 70, Judaism lost both its Jerusalem-center and its sacramental-mystery tradition, it seems already to have been firmly enough established in its synagogical, Book-centered, historical recital that the crisis turned out not to be fatal. Judaism has been stronger than ever without a priestly cult; and I am not aware of any Jewish desire to go back to it.

E. An Overall Assessment

Before John Linton had seen our historical charting here (or, for that matter, before I knew I was going to write it), he made the following judgment: "Now let me go way out on a limb: the sacramental tradition is not found--i.e. approved of--in the Bible.... It is possible to interpret the OT sacramentally, but this is not the way the prophets interpret the ‘cult’ nor is it the way the Pentateuch interprets itself."

I don't find the evidence of our study allowing me to go as far as Linton does. His analysis strikes me as being too much of a simplification (catch that!). So let me try both to interpret Linton and go as far as I can with him. Rather than saying that the sacramental tradition is not approved in the OT, I would say that the OT includes more in the way of significant critique of sacramentalism than it does of significant apology and defense. Also, the very raggedness of that side of the chart (along with Judaism's final desertion of the tradition)--this says to me that Judaism itself ultimately found its own sacramentalism to be nonessential to its truly God-given faith. But there is sacramentalism in the Old Testament--beyond doubt!

It was only after the writing of this book was virtually complete I discovered the study that can lend it some real authority. This wonderfully engrossing as well as illuminating work is Richard Elliott Friedman's 1987 book Who Wrote the Bible (Harper & Row edition, 1989). The task Friedman sets for himself is to sort out the strands of tradition (identifying them as to date, authorship, milieu, and character) that constitute what we know as "the Old Testament histories and he calls "the Bible," the first sixteen books, Genesis through Nehemiah (not counting Ruth). Friedman builds upon the best of earlier scholarship and then pushes matters another exciting step or two forward.

First, there is a matter that will become relevant for us only a chapter or two down the line, when we center in on the biblical theme of "covenant." Covenant, we will argue, belongs strongly to the right edge of our chart and not at all to the sacramentalist left. And says Friedman, "It is difficult to overestimate the importance of covenant in the Bible" (p. 104). He will not make any corresponding statement regarding the cult of priestly sacrifice.

His study, then, might lead us to modify one of our observations regarding covenant--and then again, it might not. We will spot a couple of instances we explain as God's reiterating a covenant he had made sometime earlier--a second covenanting with the same partner under the same terms. Friedman would likely find these to be two different versions of the same covenant story taken from different traditions. However, I am confident he would not object to our theological interpretation--namely, that God sticks by and is quick to reiterate even those covenants which we humans have summarily scorned. Friedman is clear that those biblical writers who combine and interweave different traditions have just as much "biblical authority" as those who broached the original traditions in the first place.

Yet Friedman’s work is most relevant to the chart we have just completed. He agrees that most (if not all) the collecting, writing, and editing of the OT histories was done by "priests." However, what he sees that we didn't is that, in ancient Israel, there were priests and then there were PRIESTS.

For a starter, the Bible tells us that any Israelite priest is of the tribe of Levi. Yet some people took that to mean that, by definition, any and every male Levite bore the qualification "priest." Others took that to mean that anyone who aspired to the priesthood had to be a Levite, but that not every Levite could qualify as a priest--a potentially disastrous difference of understanding.

Friedman, then (pp. 120-21), spots four different lines (or varieties) of Israelite priesthood and recounts what each contributed to the OT histories. Only the first of these would I call hardcore sacramentalists and put on the very left-hand edge of our chart; but they represent "priestliness" in the most powerful and exclusivist sense of the term. On page 191, Friedman tells us about them. They are Levites, of course--but a very special sort of Levites who are also Aaronids. They claim to be direct descendants of Aaron, presumably Israel’s original priest, and to take their authority from him. Their ancestral site of holiness is Jerusalem; and for almost the entire history of the temple, it was the Aaronids who were running things and keeping all sacramental power to themselves.

In the Bible, says Friedman, the Aaronida (or an Aaronid) wrote one of the three major strands that make up the Pentateuch--the strand commonly known as "P" (for Priestly). One of their number (who Friedman thinks was Ezra), during the Babylonian exile or at the beginning of the Persian period, seems also to have done the work of writing the various strands into the unified work that is now our Pentateuch. It was then this document that Ezra brought to Jerusalem and established as the "constitutional authority" for the operation of the Second Temple and its Jewish constituency. Elsewhere in Scripture, the Chronicler's History (1 Chronicles through Nehemiah) seems also to have been the work of Aaronid priests.

On page 191 of his book, Friedman describes the main features of Aaronid thought and work:

  1. The Aaronid history carefully avoids mentioning any Hebraic making of sacrifices until Priest Aaron is on the scene to do it. According to the Aaronids, there has never been any true sacrificing done except by duly ordained Aaronid priests. Thus is suppressed the truth recognized by all the other traditions--namely, that Hebraic sacrificing originated as a quite informal, unsacramental, and even democratic practice. There were no regulations as to where, when, or how it must be done. There was no distinction even between priests who could do it and laity who could not.
  2. "The issue is not just sacrifice. For the author of P, it is the larger principle that the consecrated priests are the only intermediaries between humans and God." And it is this attitude we mean to identify as hardcore, left-edge (of our chart) sacramentalism.
  3. The Aaronid version of Hebrew history was quite willing to play down Moses in order to play up Aaron. Aaron is Mose's older (senior) brother. Stories that show up Moses' faults are welcomed, if not relished. At the same time, the story of Aaron's sin with the golden calf is carefully skipped. Aaron is the hero and patron saint of the Aaronid priesthood.

What Friedman recognizes as the second major line of Hebrew priesthood is the one he calls Mushite (meaning that it looks to Moses rather than to Aaron as its progenitor). The Mushites are just as truly of the tribe of Levi as are the Aaronids. Thus the contention was not about who was Levite and who not--but about which Levite (Moses or Aaron) was founder of the true priesthood. The locus of holiness for the Mushites was the village of Shiloh, where the Tabernacle and Ark had been established when Israel first entered the land.

The respective geographical centers become most important to our story. Aaronid Jerusalem is in the south (Judean territory). Mushite Shiloh is in the north (Israelite territory). When, upon the death of King Solomon, the nation split, the Aaronids were left dominant in Judah and in control of the Jerusalem temple. The Mushites were left in Israel--though, as we will see, not dominant in anything. Yet the split in the priesthood conforms to the geography of the split of the nation.

Sometime during the United Monarchy it had become the rule that sacrifices could be made only by consecrated priests and that only at the one centralized altar in Jerusalem. This meant that any priests who did not have access to that altar were automatically deprived of any priestly function--as also their priestly way of making a living (by getting a tenth part of whatever meat or food was brought as sacrifice).

Apparently, through the reign of David, the two lines of priests shared power and took turns at their sacrificing duties. Then came David's last days, when he was still alive but virtually incompetent. There arose a contention between two of David's sons (Adonijah, the eldest, and Solomon, a much younger one) as to who was to succeed to the throne. This contention immediately split not only the royal house but also the military and the priesthood. Zadok, presumably an Aaronid, and his party backed Solomon. Abiathar, presumably a Mushite, and his party backed Adonijah. Whether at King David's behest or only with his approval, Solomon won out and Adonijah lost everything (starting with his life).

Consequently one of the new king Solomon's first acts was to grant the active priesthood to Zadok and his Aaronids--and banish Abiathar and his Mushites to the Jerusalem suburb of Anathoth. The significance here is not the geographical one of moving out to Anathoth; it is rather that the Mushite priests have lost access to the temple and thus any and all reason for their being priests.

When, then, at the close of Solomon's reign, the nation split, this would seem a made-to-order opportunity for the northern (Shiloh-looking) Mushites to gain a priesthood of their own--except that things did not work out that way. Jeroboam, founding monarch of the northern kingdom, apparently saw it necessary to break any sort of ties with the south. He set up entirely new temple employing a totally new non-levitical priesthood. The Mushites were still out in the cold--no more welcome in the new north than they were in the old south.

This non-levitical northern priesthood, by the way, would be Friedman's third line of priests (after the Aaronids and the Mushites). It would have lasted for only the two centuries the northern kingdom itself did. However, the only contribution this priesthood makes to the biblical development is in keeping the Mushites in their status of down-and-outers.

Friedman’s fourth line (which we might as well get in the picture here) consists of rural Levites. These would have been priests who had never had any sort of shrine or temple connection--priests who would have been active in the countryside, making sacrifices wherever they were called for. The law that confined all sacrifice-making to Jerusalem and the temple would, of course, have left them functionless and destitute. They could not be expected to figure in to the development of the Bible.

But (back to the Mushite priesthood) Friedman sees it having its day in the sun only long after the destruction of the northern kingdom, this during the reign of Judah’s King Josiah. Josiah, recall, was not only a reforming king but also a revivalist one. His revival was based upon a scroll found in the temple and brought to him by priests who subsequently became his advisors. That scroll (it is widely agreed) was what we now know as the book of Deuteronomy. And what we call Deuteronomy (it also is now widely agreed) is simply the first book of the unified Deuteronomistic History that, in our Bibles, begins with Deuteronomy and runs through 2 Kings.

Friedman finds abundant evidence that the entire Deuteronomistic tradition is quite anti-Aaronid in character. He is convinced that both it and the priestly finders of the scroll represent the Mushite line. Accordingly, he finds two great segments of the OT to have been contributed by Mushite priests.

The first of these would have been one of the three main strands of the Pentateuch--the one commonly known as "E." "P," as we have seen, stands for "Priestly"--and we have specified "Aaronid Priestly." "E," now, stands either for "Elohim" (the word this tradition regularly uses to identify God) or for "Ephraim," another term for northern kingdom Israel. The third major strand (to which we will get in time) is called "J." That letter can be taken as referring either to "Javeh" (Yahweh), the name it uses for God, or to "Judah," the southern kingdom with which this tradition is associated.

But it seems clear to Friedman that E comes out of the Shiloh, northern kingdom tradition of Mushite priests. That it reflects northern-kingdom memories almost everyone agrees. Friedman goes further to show that it is virtually a mirror image of the Aaronid P tradition that we analyzed earlier.

  • E is happy to recount all sorts of Hebrew sacrificing going on--long before riest Aaron is present. Rather than Aaronid priests monopolizing human communication ith God, E has God communicating via angels, animals, etc., etc. In E, Moses father of the Mushites) is obviously the main character (rather than Aaron, ather of Aaronids). E shows no reluctance at all in talking about Aaron’s ickedness with the golden calf. Friedman is convincing that E is both northern nd Mushite.
  • With J, it is not clear that any priestly tradition is even involved. J is certainly southern--and Jerusalem-oriented--but that more to the Davidic royal court rather than to any particular priestly interest. In fact, J and E are quite compatible with each other (in contrast to their mutual incompatibility with P). The biggest difference between them is not so much theological as it is the geographical individuality of north or south.

But it is Friedman's opinion that it is the Mushite priesthood that has given us both the E portions of the Pentateuch and the whole of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (a truly generous slice of Scripture). And he tops this off by suggesting that our most typical Mushite priest and actual author of the Deuteronomistic History is none other than the Jeremiah whom we have regularly taken to be a prophet rather than a priest. Yet there is no denying that Jeremiah was both--and both at once.

That Jeremiah (or Jeremiah with Baruch) wrote the Deuteronomistic History has to be a shot in the dark. Yet the significance--for our purposes--lies not so much in that dark shot as in the entirely bright light that leads up to it. The book of Jeremiah opens:

"The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah [sponsor of the Deuteronomistic Reform based upon the scroll that was found in the temple] in the thirteenth year of his reign." (Jer. 1:1-2)

Indisputably, Jeremiah is a Mushite priest of the line Solomon expelled to Anathoth--and he is active during the time of Josiah's Deuteronomistic Reform.

Regarding this Reform, the 2 Kings (Deuteronomistic History) account names Hilkiah as the priest who found and superintended the use of the Deuteronomistic Scroll and Shaphan as the royal secretary who acted as liaison between the priest and the king. Hilkiah could possibly be Jeremiah's own father (same name). And, in the book of Jeremiah, when Mushite influence in government is a thing of the past, the people credited as standing by and being most helpful to the outcast and persecuted prophet/priest are identified as different sons of Hilkiah and Shaphan. So whether or not Jeremiah actually wrote the Deuteronomistic History, he has all the right connections for being himself the intersection of the Mushite priesthood, Josiah's Deuteronomistic Reform, the Deuteronomistic Scroll, the overall Deuteronomistic History, and the E strand within the Pentateuch--and for that matter, classic Hebrew prophecy as well.

What all this says regarding our particular interest is that we are wrong to take any and every bit of biblical talk about priests and sacrifices as belonging to the hardcore "sacramentalism" of the left edge of our chart. Of course, when the talk is that of the Aaronids with their sacerdotal priestly exclusivism of the temple cult, the left edge is where they obviously belong. Yet, as Friedman has now shown us, the Aaronid is far from being the only biblical priesthood around. There is also Jeremiah and his whole Mushite family.

Jeremiah is a priest; yet he is a priest who, along with his whole ancestral line, has learned (the hard way) that it is possible to be priestily faithful to God quite apart from the apparatus of temple cult, without even having access to all that sacred stuff. In fact, Jeremiah is a priest (and a good priest) who can be entirely negative and caustic toward the temple: "You people who are all the time jawing about ‘the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh’ (as though our having that temple somehow guarantees us a good standing in the eyes of God)--you're talking like complete idiots. Just go look at the junk heap of Shiloh and ponder that God has shown himself quite willing to trash any temple (tabernacle) that chooses to go a way different from his. It was there my own Mushite ancestors learned that faithful. Priesting has no necessary connection with all the folderol of impressive temple cult" (Jer. 7:1-15 sort of).

So consider that, in setting up the right edge of our chart, we went to the early chapters of Deuteronomy in order to develop the totally non-sacramental concept of Historical Recital. That material, of course, is very much pro-Moses (and anti-Aaron). With the exception of his death notice, Aaron's one mention is Moses' recalling that, with the incident of the golden calf "the LORD was so angry with Aaron that he was ready to destroy him; and I interceded also on behalf of Aaron...." (Deut. 9:20, spoken like a good Mushite). And it must be said that the whole of the Deuteronomistic History is our very best stuff in the way of Historical Recital.

Also, a chapter or two down the line, we are going to spot covenant as the major biblical theme that, with Historical Recital, runs straight up the right-hand side of our chart. As luck (or, rather, the grace of God) would have it, the Deuteronomistic history is equally strong on covenant and the book of Jeremiah as emphatically covenantal as any piece in the Bible.

So where we had been thinking that everything "priestly" should go to the left edge of the chart and everything "nonpriestly" to the right, it now turns out that the right side of our chart is just as "priestly" as the left. We were using the wrong shibboleth for dividing the good guys from the bad. It is the sacramentalism of the Aaronid temple cult which puts that priesthood to the left. It is the non-cultic "Historical Recital of Covenant" which puts the Mushite priesthood to the right.

What it all comes to is that the left side of our chart never had even as much as the little solidity we ascribed to it. Always, I would guess, the Aaronid cult represented an elitist power-clique out to dominate and use "the people" to its own advantage. Always, I think we can again safely guess, the people (with their great national and religious traditions) saw themselves siding with the Mushite priests, a group that spoke their language and thought their thoughts with them. And surely, in his establishing Christian baptism and the Lord's Supper, with-the-people Jesus was following his own Mushite tradition rather than the entirely foreign Aaronid one.

Not Richard Friedman now, but John Linton helpfully put forward the judgment of the Epistle to the Hebrews. That author opines that, at most, the OT cult was a "shadow" of that which became "substance" only in Jesus Christ. It follows that the cult itself was never anything theologically "substantial"; and of course, that which finally did take substance in Jesus Christ was anything but "cultic." Now, as a Christian, I of course accept the word of Hebrews as God’s own verdict in the matter. Nevertheless, that is a post-Jesus opinion and not one that can stand as the OT's own witness. I think our study has shown that witness of the OT to be essentially negative toward sacramentalism though not yet final. So let's defer "finality" to the NT portion of our study.

F. How Christianity Relates

With Jesus' death and resurrection, Christianity was born out of Judaism just forty years before the Sacramental Mystery tradition came to its end. Jesus and the earliest Christians knew only the last days of Herod's Temple. Otherwise, the Christian background is the very same chart we have just developed for Judaism.

From all we know, Jesus attended temple and participated to the extent that would be expected of a Jew who actually lived in the dispersion, in Galilee. However, it is not recorded that Jesus ever recommended the sacrificial cult or stressed its importance. It is not said that he ever showed affinity with, or any approval of, the priests.

We do have much stronger evidence that he participated in synagogue services--where he was recognized as a rabbi wholly dedicated to the tradition of Historical Recital. It is in this, rather than the temple setting, that he obviously belongs.

The record makes it clear that Jesus stood firmly in the line of prophetic protest against the temple. He warned people about the priests. His symbolic cleansing of the temple was just a short, messianic step beyond what the prophets had already done. He was accused of having threatened to destroy the temple. The charge seems not to have been accurate--though it would have been just like Jesus to have voiced God's threat that, when the temple got out of line (which was most frequently), God himself would destroy it (1 Kings 9:6-8). And true to form, just as the Aaronid priests in their day had opposed the prophets, that same priesthood was pretty deeply involved in Jesus' crucifixion.

The earliest Christians dutifully attended temple. They were not rebels against it--though neither did they show particular attachment to it. Their own worship clearly was modeled more over the synagogue than the temple. They made no effort to establish any priesthood or sacrificial cult of their own. The NT reflects no Christian bemoaning of the loss of the temple in A.D. 70. Any Christian linkage to the temple seems to have been but cultural momentum--which apparently had given out even before the time of the temple's destruction. Christianity belongs entirely to the line of Hebraic-Jewish Historical Recital and not at all to that of sacramental mystery.

G. Christian History's Incredible Twist

Carefully follow each move now--and witness one of the world's greatest feats of prestidigitation.

Recall our chart, how the left edge of Sacramental Mystery had always been ragged and tenuous--and how, then, in AD 70, it had dissolved and disappeared entirely, a Judaism proceeded through the centuries holding exclusively to its time honored tradition of right-edge Historical Recital.

And Christianity had come on this scene, actually being a step ahead of the Jewish development: Christianity never possessed or recognized anything of left-edge sacramentalism and so did not have to accompany Judaism in giving it up. Christianity was based entirely upon Historical Recital and nothing else.

On this point, the key consideration is one we will later explore and argue in depth. But Christianity's central rite is, of course, the Lord's Supper. Jesus himself called that Supper a "Passover" (right edge); and we will discover that everything the NT tells us about the Supper has it hard right on the chart. So, following AD 70, Christianity and Judaism moved together into the future--in full agreement that God's will for us is totally that of Historical Recital, with no tinge of sacramental mystery about it. And Judaism has remained largely true to that understanding.

However, at a particular point in time, Christianity wrenched our charted ribbon through a 180-degree twist, completely reversing the two sides. Actually, the twist must have happened gradually. Nevertheless, dating it along with Christianity's becoming the official religion of the Roman empire, at the time of the Emperor Constantine--that should have things pretty close the mark.

But the right-edged Lord's Supper comes over hard left, now to be a sacramental mystery. Around this sacrament, the Church quickly introduces priest, temple (cathedral), altar, and sacrifice--not animal sacrifice now but the replication of Jesus' crucifixion-sacrifice (which is not an entirely different tiling). Christianity's left-edged faith has been distorted into right-edged sacramentalism. And what had been the vacated left edge now comes over to blank out the all-crucial right. In the process of going sacramentalist, the Church virtually forgot its great heritage of historical Recital.

Of this Big twist, John Linton says: "All I see here is a power grab of the Church; because it now has elements of salvation in its control."

"Them's hard words, McGee!" Yet Linton has good reason for what he says. The larger move of the Church’s buying into the structures of the Empire certainly signifies an adapting of itself to the ways of power. And the twist to sacramentalism does very well fit that overall picture. However, my explanation runs in but a slightly different direction. Recall that, at the very beginning of our chart, we observed that the original Hebraic cult of animal sacrifice was little more than a borrowing of what surrounding pagan cultures already had polished to a high art. Just so, when Christianity was admitted to the Roman empire, the most natural thing for the newcomer Church to do was to take on the ways of the pagan cults that were already so well regarded on the religious scene. The way to popularity was (and is) to get into and run with the popular crowd.

Although, admittedly, Christian sacramentalism was at least somewhat tempered by the Protestant Reformation, the Lord's Supper has retained its sacramentalist cast right down to the present day. In order to see what went wrong and how it happened--such is the purpose of our book (whether we then choose to do anything about it or not).

This brings us back to the earlier-mentioned reviewer of one of my books. His review had him arguing the side of the argument he meant to be attacking. But his suggestion, recall, was that Jesus' upper-room sayings carry echoes of Jewish Passover Haggadah. The idea will serve us beautifully as a "test case," as we seek to discover whether the teachings of the New Testament Jesus best fit the Historical Recital of Judaism--or whether they best fit the later Sacramental Mystery of the Church. Such testing will help clarify the basic issue addressed by this book and at the same time give us practice in differentiating and using the two traditions that concern us. So let's look at the Lord's Supper against the background of Jewish Passover--just to see how things stack up.

In addition to the reviewer's observation about Haggadah overtones, be aware that all three of the synoptic Gospels explicitly identify the last supper as being a Passover meal. The Fourth Gospel says that the last supper was "before" the feast of Passoveróbut retains a very close connection. Paul says only that the supper took place "on the night when Jesus was betrayed"--though in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 he does equate Jesus with the Passover lamb and call upon us to "celebrate the festival."

In any case, we should first remember that Passover has long (perhaps always) been primarily a home festival--with only sparse and tangential connections to either temple or synagogue. No, the right place for the Passover observance was then, is now, and ever shall be the Jewish home; it is an occasion of family worship. How, then, was it with Jesus and his disciples in the upper room--more like a temple ceremony or more like a family dinner? (You tell me; I'm not going to answer these questions for you!)

The Passover meal has never required the presence of a sacerdotally ordained priest as administrator. The fact that Passover has gone its merry way for almost two thousand years since there even have been Jewish priests is proof enough. Jewish rabbis are more to the point. They are not unwelcome at Passover meals--and undoubtedly are truly helpful in educating the actual administrators. Yet a rabbi is in no way essential to a Passover service. Besides, that rabbi needs to be home conducting Passover for his own family and so could not be expected to cover the homes of his congregation in any case. No, the administrator (overseer) of Jewish Passover is the father of the family, the head of the household. So, does Jesus in the upper room perform more like a priest doing sacred ritual--or more like a father-rabbi hosting his own family?

Jewish Passover most definitely is a mealtime service of gathered believers very deliberately doing Historical Recital. The presiding father fosters the recollection process by querying the children in such way as to bring out the story. But every person in attendance is a full participant in the dialogue. There is no priest present as the only one qualified to say holy words and perform holy actions in behalf of the laity.

The recorded tradition of what should be talked about during the meal--this is what my reviewer meant by the haggadah. Yet this "script" is the farthest thing possible from the prescribed formulas, the holy invocations and incantations, a priest is obliged to use in order to bring off the miracle of sacramental rite. At least, if that is what the haggadah is meant to be, all the rabbis with whom I have observed Passover have treated it with great disdain. We skipped long passages, paraphrased others, changed the order of service, had a high old time. Jewish Passover isn't even what could be called a formal service--let alone a sacramental one.

So, was Jesus in the upper room performing as a good Jewish father, making up or revising the Haggadah as he went along, but nonetheless working at historical Recital with his "kids"? I contend that he was--even though he faced a logistical problem that made the case unique. He had to work ahead of himself; but in actuality he was schooling his family in what would become their history only three or four days hence. That original supper in the upper room had to be used to set the pattern for subsequent observances. Yet every Lord's Supper since that first Easter--each has been (or was meant to be) a true Jewish Passover in which the family remembered, not simply the exodus from Egypt, but the even closer and more intimate action of God that we have witnessed in Jesus’ death and resurrection. What else could a thoroughly Jewish Jesus plausibly have had in mind at his Passover meal?

And if such be the case, then Jesus’ words on the occasion represent true haggadah. They are the suggested topics for conversation during an informal meal. They are not fixed ritual formulae that a priest (or even cleric) intones in the process of working holy miracle. To make them anything of the sort is to rudely rip them out of their true context of Passover Recital and put them to entirely different use in the foreign context of priestly sacramentalism. (And remember, it was not my idea to treat the upper-room words as Passover haggadah; that was the demand of my priestly critic. I am simply trying to take him seriously.)

This brings us, then, to the point that aroused his greatest umbrage. I had suggested it as a real possibility that the early church practiced an "open communion" in which non-Christian evangelistic prospects were invited to observe and participate as a way, first, of being fed and, second, of learning Christianity. The reviewer accused me of letting in "all and sundry"--though I had no more said that than I would say that your family dinner table admits "all and sundry." That table, of course, is not "closed," admitting only qualified "family members"--yet neither is it "open to all and sundry." It is "open to invited guests, " a quite different concept.

My reviewer cited a couple second-century documents showing conclusively that the Lord's Supper was then (at least in some congregations) limited strictly to Christian church members. Of course that is correct. Those same documents would show that we there are dealing with a church ritual that is part and parcel of the sacramental tradition. And whether one is talking Christianity, Judaism, or Paganism, it is plain that esoteric, sacramental ritual typically is reserved strictly for "initiates," those who rate the privileges of "insider." So, if it were the temple we had in mind, it is plain that only good Jews were ever permitted to bring sacrifices or even enter the inner court. Yet there is absolutely nothing to suggest that, in the upper room, Jesus was talking temple.

Obviously, showing what was true for second-century sacramentalism says nothing one way or another regarding first-century Recital. So let's stick with Jewish Passover, assume that it was the model for the original Lord’s Supper, and try things that way. I here will speak out of personal experience.

At the university where I teach, for some time now, each year near Passover, a professor of ours who is Jewish has sponsored what is called a "Model Seder." She tries to have a different rabbi in to conduct it each time; and everyone is invited. I have attended probably five or six times. The rabbi likely would say that these aren't quite the same thing as real Passover observances--this for the fact that they don't happen at quite the right time and, more importantly, that the participants are mostly Gentiles who don't form a real family with real historic ties to the exodus from Egypt.

(This raises a moot point upon which I and any rabbi will probably never agree--but about which we are never going to fight, either. But I claim that I have just as much right as he does to take part in a real Passover and put myself into the covenant community God led out of Egypt. My argument runs thus: Jesus of Nazareth was, of course, a good Jew who was just as well qualified to observe Passover as any Jew who ever lived. Well, I belong to Jesus--and that means that whatever belongs to him belongs to me, too. And for that matter, the story of the exodus is in my Bible just as much as it is in the rabbi's and is part of my familial memory just as it is of his. Yet, as I say, no rabbi is likely to agree with my argument--but neither is he likely to see anything gained by trying to dissuade me. So we both can be happy, together doing the Passover observance--me thinking of myself as a good Jew and him knowing good and well that I'm not.)

But the point is that Gentiles are invited and even urged to participate in the model Seder--with absolutely nothing being held back. The haggadah does get all bent out of shape for the rabbi's having to give a lot more explanation than would be necessary in a Jewish home--and for having to answer many of the Gentiles’ stupid questions rather than be asking them of his Jewish children. But at no point does he say, "Sorry, but we will have to skip this part of the service; it involves sacred actions that are the privilege only of good Jews." At no point does he say, "There are some Passover foods that you will not find on your plate, because they are sacraments that belong to Jews alone." At no point does he say, "here are some objects that only I am allowed to touch or handle, because they are considered holy." No, every food, every object, every action there is meant to function solely as a memory-trigger for the doing of Historical Recital.

One example will make graphic the distinction between Jewish Passover and most Christian treatments of the bread and cup. A piece of the shank bone of a lamb is one of the traditional memory-triggers of Passover. Yet there have been many times and places within Jewish history when people were too poor to afford lamb. So use a chicken bone; it will work as well. And no one ever gives a moment of concern as to whether the "right" sort of bone is involved in any particular Passover observance.

I possess a booklet, Haggadah for the American Family (in Hebrew and English). It was used and then given to me at one of these model seders. The rabbi who authored it calls it a "new" haggadah, says that it provides the entire Hebrew ritual, admits that the English is as much interpretation as it is translation, and confesses to having recast the service into modern terms of thought. The haggadah clearly is understood and used "functionally" rather than "ritually."

This very human, egalitarian, informal, family-oriented approach to Passover is obviously miles away from the formal propriety of Christian sacramentalism. Which way do you think it was with Jesus and his disciples in the upper room?

Then, in that English haggadah, the bread word (which, I must suppose, my reviewer considers the closest point of contact with Jesus' last supper)--at that point the leader says, "Let anyone who is hungry join us at this Seder, and let him partake of what we have to share." To which the family responds, "With gratitude for the blessings which we have been given, we invite the less fortunate to share with us at this meal, and also at other times." And the author-editor, again, in his foreword writes: "[Passover] is concerned with a universal concept, not one limited to a single people. Certainly, in the modern world, Jews need to feel that the Passover story offers counsel and direction to all mankind, in its desperate search for freedom and peace. The Jewish family, by concerning itself with the wider application of the Passover message, sees the direct relevance of its religious heritage to the modern struggle for a better world and a finer humanity."

Is it conceivable that, on the night when he was betrayed, father-rabbi Jesus was intent to "constrict" his Passover from what he had inherited, to make it apply to fewer rather than to more people? I have not had the argument until now; but I present the above as my strongest possible evidence that the early church's Lord's Supper likely involved an "open table." And along with this evidence, of course, goes the fact that the Gospels (quite apart from their upper-room accounts) frequently show Jesus practicing what would have to be called "an entirely open table-ministry."

Doubtlessly Judaism still assumes that a tight-knit family of deep-rooted Jewish religion and culture can do a far superior job of Passover Recital than can the weird catch of Gentiles that make up the model seder at the university. Nevertheless, that is not made an argument for strictly keeping all Gentiles out. Quite the contrary, they are wanted in; the experience can be nothing but good for them, and they might even learn something helpful from Judaism. So, in spite of any and all second-century edicts to the contrary, I am still inclined to think that the original Christian Lord's Supper (of Passover descent) was just as open to outsiders as Jewish Passover was (and still is).

It is interesting (is it not?) that, regarding their central rites, the more ethnically limited and exclusive faith of Judaism is the more open and outreaching--whereas the ethnically unlimited and inclusive faith of Christianity is the more closed and exclusive. I think it is Christianity's acquired sacramentalism that has made the difference.

This chapter has been intended simply to set the framework of discussion for the rest of the book. Thus, the issue is not at all whether baptism and the Lord's Supper should be practiced in the church of Jesus Christ. Everyone agrees they should. The issue is not even whether these rites should be central and essential in the life of the church. Everyone agrees on that, too. No, the one open issue is whether these rites were given us as part of a tradition of Historical Recital or of Sacramental Mystery. No one is asking you to decide between the two at this point (that should come when you finish the book). All that is expected now is that you understand what these two traditions entail, so we can proceed to talk about them.