"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Fr. Paul Tarazi on Scripture, Theology, and Mysticism: An Interview

Last week I gave you a taste of what was in store if you buy a copy of Fr. Paul Tarazi's new wonderfully refreshing and provocative new book The Rise of Scripture.

I was put in touch with him by my friend Fr Bill Mills, whom I have often interviewed on here over the years. I sent Fr. Paul some questions, and here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your background.

Fr. PNT: The Tarazi family is a traditional Rum Orthodox family from the city of Gaza, Palestine. A copy of the family tree goes back to our forefather David, who “was in Gaza in 1755.” My mother was from a traditional Rum Orthodox family in Nablus, Palestine. My father was born in Gaza but established himself in Jaffa where I was born in 1943. In 1948, the household left for Cairo, Egypt, where we stayed one year and in 1949 we relocated to Beirut, Lebanon. There I did my primary and secondary studies at the Christian La Sallian Brothers School where I, as with many of my colleagues, was influenced by the teaching of “Brother Paul” who was practically unique. In a pre-Vatican II era we never heard him using the phrases “the (Catholic) church” or “the magisterium.” He simply referred to “le Christ” and taught us the gospel parables and the letters of Paul. When I learned of the Orthodox Youth Movement of the Orthodox Church of Antioch in Beirut, he urged me to join. There I received and taught others a thorough knowledge of the Orthodox faith centered on scripture.

Upon graduating from high school in 1960, I enrolled in the School of Medicine at the Jesuit St. Joseph University of Beirut, where I completed five out of the seven required years for the MD diploma before I decided to study theology in Bucharest, Romania, starting in the fall of 1965. In 1970, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch launched the St. John of Damascus School of Theology at Balamand in North Lebanon, just south of Tripoli. I was summoned to start teaching there after the completion of my first year of doctoral studies and did so while completing those studies. I earned my Th.D. in Scripture in December 1975. At Balamand I taught Old and New Testaments, Hebrew, and Greek. In 1976, the School of Theology closed sine die, and I was offered the position of Lecturer of Old Testament at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York. I accepted and taught there since then and until my retirement in 2014 as Professor of Old Testament, teaching both Old and New Testament, Hebrew, Greek, and intermittently teaching Homiletics and Arabic.

I was ordained to the priesthood in October 1976 upon my arrival in the USA. Between 1980 and 1996 I was Visiting Professor of Scripture at Balamand where I gave intensive courses twice a year. Between 1994 and 2004 I was Associate Professor of Scripture at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA.

AD: You've written a considerable number of other books. What led you to write this one, and are there connections with your other books?

Fr. PNT: Over the years I wrote an Old Testament Introduction trilogy and a New Testament Introduction tetralogy, as well as many commentaries on books of the Old and New Testament. I produced an audio commentary of 175 hours on all the biblical books. This prepared me to produce my latest book, The Rise of Scripture, which was conceived and based on scholarly research, yet written for the general readership. This goes along the lines of my commentaries where I use transliteration to invite my readership to deal directly with the “original” biblical text.

However, the uniqueness of The Rise of Scripture lies in that it is the fruit of 60 years of “labor” with the original text, which “labor” gave birth to a completely novel view of the origin of scripture, a view that runs on a different path than contemporary “scholarly consensus” as well as that of classical theology. The book is a more “solid” version of the audio version, which I presented to two audiences of former students in the summer and fall of 2015. The Rise of Scripture is rooted in my earlier work in that I refer to them profusely in this book, and draw the ultimate conclusion from decades of study. A branching off the book was lately conceived as a podcast series entitled “Tarazi Tuesdays” where I discuss in more detail issues dealt with in the book itself. One can access this podcast at this link.

AD: Nicolae Roddy (editor of this three-part Festschrift for Fr Paul Tarazi), in his foreword, notes that getting students to read Scripture today is difficult on account of our culture's emphasis on autonomous individualism and consumerism. Is that also your experience? Any suggestions to those of us also trying to teach Scripture in this context?

Professor Roddy accurately reflected my stand since he knows me personally and is familiar with my work. His assessment renders accurately my sentiment. What makes teaching Scripture so difficult for Roddy and for me is not so much the contemporary cultural background and its assumptions; rather it is the rampant fake scriptural scholarship to which the students readily appeal as being reflective of scripture itself. Biblical scholars want us to believe or, rather, take for granted that scholarly, theological, and confessional tenets accurately reflect what scripture is saying. The same is done with so-called incontrovertible archeological discoveries. Notice how more often than not a statement by a scholar is taken as “scripture,” that is, what so and so said or so and so wrote. Such an approach becomes ludicrous in view of the Pauline “as it is written” that refers exclusively to scripture itself. Paul’s writings were scripturalized through apostolic (Petrine) authority—not through a gathering of humans as the ecumenical councils were, let alone through the words of intellectual giants, like Origen and Athanasius, and their followers, the Cappadocians: “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote (egrapsen) to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures (graphas)” (2 Pet 3:15-16).

Just listen to how terminology—“the Lutheran take on scripture,” “the Orthodox approach to scripture,” “the Calvinist understanding of scripture”—has become the authoritative “hermeneutical key” to the entire scripture. It is contemporary scholarship that fell prey to individualism and consumerism when it devised “the reader response exegesis.” Even worse is “the reception history criticism (hermeneutics),” which opened the floodgates for every individual to consider one’s take on scripture at any given moment and equate it to what scripture is “actually” saying. As was made clear for the ages in Matthew 23 the onus of responsibility falls on us the “theologians” and not on the flock.

The solution, then, is for us to teach exclusively the scriptural text and refer our students eager to learn “more (stuff)” to satisfy their curiosity and ego with textbooks of patristics, church history, history of the interpretation of scripture, church architecture, and the like, although these “subjects” should not be part of the curriculum itself. Otherwise, scripture will remain what we have turned it into: one of the “subjects” learned or dealt with at theological schools. It is no wonder that church tradition fantasized with bestowing the higher honor of “theologian” to the fourth evangelist, leaving the other three with the lesser honor of simply “evangelist”! The noun “evangelist” is scriptural (Acts 21:8; Eph 4:11; 2 Tim 4:5), whereas, the noun “theologian” is nowhere to be found in that literature.

AD: You end your second chapter, "The Language of the Old Testament," by saying that "in Scripture it is the Semitic language that has the upper hand, a premise that classical theology across the board has a hard time accepting" (79). Tell us more what you meant by that. Would you say that's true even of the Syriac theological tradition?

My statement you are referring to should be taken in conjunction with my entire argument. Classical theology is basically Greek. That language—which was subdued in scripture and relegated to secondary status (see especially the Prologue to Sirach)—became at the hand of the Greco-Roman Christian intelligentsia the referential language, proof thereof being seen in the treatment of the Septuagint as scripture per se.

This is evident on two levels. On the one hand, Greek was the official language of the first three ecumenical councils endorsed by all major Christian traditions, including the Syriac. On the other hand, and more importantly, the “Founding Fathers” of the Syriac theological tradition engaged the pre-Chalcedonian controversy by writing in Greek. At any rate, even the major Syriac Fathers who wrote in Syriac were post-Nicean and thus—as my Finnish colleague Dr. Merja Merras, herself a Syriac Patristic scholar, said—were already under the spell of Nicea’s teaching rooted in homoousios, an essentially “Greek” term as is evidenced in the Armenian Nicean Creed that, by the confession of the Armenians themselves, hardly renders the meaning of homoousios. Let me, an Arab by upbringing, point out that even Semitic Arabic cannot render the play on ’adam and ’adamah which is essentially not found except in the scriptural language that, as I argued, is based on Aramaic, yet hardly equal to Aramaic, the parent of Syriac. The scriptural language was made/build up by the scriptural authors themselves on the matrix of Aramaic, as is clear from the Book of Daniel.

AD: Much of the first several chapters of your book speaks of "shepherdism" as the backdrop for the entire scriptural story" (133). Explain that term a bit more for us if you would.

By shepherdism I mean the total way of life as witnessed specifically by a Syrian Desert shepherd. Unlike city-centered socio-polity, shepherdism is anchored in a full symbiosis between human, animal (specifically Syrian Desert sheep), and vegetation, which fits perfectly the description of what the scriptural God intended for the scriptural ’adam “on the ground (’adamah)”: “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food’” (Gen 1:29-30). Furthermore, this is precisely, we are told, what the same God found to be “good” (v.30), actually “very good” (v.31). The sheep are an integral part of the shepherd’s “family,” as is evident in Nathan’s parable to David: “the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his morsel, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him” (2 Sam 12:3). In shepherdism the human does not kill at will the sheep of his flock, which he relies on for food and wool for himself and for members of his immediate family. Even the sheep are not allowed to dilapidate at will the common source of food (Ezek 34:17-22).

Actually shepherdism “defines” the scriptural “divine” in that the scriptural God resides and meets his people in a “tent (of testimony)” to the extent that it is as shepherd leading his flock that he sits upon the cherubim (Ps 80:1). Thus, whereas the anti-kingly scripture says that it is the shepherd who “rules” (malak, acts as a king), classical theology turns the matter on its head by saying that it is the essentially “eternal” one seated on his celestial throne that condescends to show himself as shepherd! Put otherwise, whereas the “reality” in scripture is the shepherd of whom the ruler is a reflection; in classical theology the “reality” is a Platonic ethereal presupposition of which the shepherd is just a figure of speech. How can that be when the scriptural Lord God already in Genesis 3:8 walks (mithallek) as a shepherd does in the Syrian wilderness in order to judge the man (ha’adam), as he does the deities as though they were mere ’adam in Psalm 82:8, just a couple of psalms after we are told that, as shepherd, he sits on his throne of justice (80:1)?

AD: Am I wrong in detecting a clear, underlying goal of your book as being the drawing out of many, intimate, but often overlooked connections between Old and New Testaments? Thus, e.g., you speak of "Paul as Moses" (ch.18) and look to Joshua in ch. 19 as a central "literary protagonist" to the Pauline "corpus [which] corresponds to the prophetic literature" (p.383). My students often struggle to see any connections between the Testaments, as I know many Christians in general do. How is it that the modern Church struggles with this in a way that many of the Fathers, e.g., did not?

You are on the mark, so long as one looks at the interconnections between the two Testaments as “literary.” In my eyes, for the New Testament to be scripture, it has to be cast in the same mold as the original scripture, the Old Testament. Here again I refer my readers to 2 Peter 3:15-16 in my answer to your third question. Today’s students cannot ignore modern scholarship that, far and wide, has shown the inadequacy of historicizing the scriptural data, which is essentially literary and thus mashal-ic as is evident from Ezekiel who was dubbed as memashshel meshalim (parabler of parables; Ezek 21:5; see also Hos 12:10).

The Fathers who did not have to struggle with the issue were able to do so simply because they eschewed the reality of the matter. Their interest was a Jesus of whom the Old Testament spoke not so much as a coming one, but rather as someone who existed in eternity and thus before the Old Testament. In other words, their solution was a fake solution anchored in Platonic “realism.” Even more, their premise is rooted in the fact that they were Hellenized minds that subscribed to the superiority of Greek over “barbarian.” Since they were well aware that the Greek Septuagint was a translation of an original Semitic text, they upheld that superiority—or at least the equality between Greek and Semite—by putting the Old Testament on par with Greek philosophy: the latter was a propaedeutic for the Greeks unto Christ just as the Old Testament was for the Jews. In other words, the Old Testament was not necessary for one to accept Christ (Paul would have rolled in his grave!). Justin the Philosopher launched the view that the human being had a spark of the divine in him, a view that found its culmination in Maximus the Confessor and his “natural theology”: scriptural “revelation” is ultimately unnecessary. A serious contemporary student of scripture cannot possibly subscribe to the patristic theory that the one who was on the mountain speaking to Moses is none but the eternal logos, i.e., Christ himself!

AD: Your ch.24, "Scripture vs. Theology," contains some absolutely scathing comments one might more readily expect from a Protestant apologist than an Orthodox priest-scholar. E.g., "theology, which is the lingo of every Christian group, whether church or denomination, is by definition a 'perversion'...of God's gospel teaching found in the Old Testament writings propounded by God's apostle Paul...in his writings" (421). And later in that chapter (pp.422-29) you spend a good bit of time denouncing (I do not think the word too strong) the introduction of philosophical and other technical language (Trinity, ousia, physis, homoousios) as "non-Scriptural."  The sum of these developments, you say, is that "historical theology, in all denominations, Christian as well as Jewish, supplanted scripture with its own comments intended to sacralize tradition and thus give it a binding value equal to that of scripture" (432). I'm wondering if you want to elaborate more on this, not least in indicating what, if anything, you think can be done to move the churches beyond (or back behind, if that were possible) this language to see God as He reveals Himself in Scripture.

PDT: Let me begin by inviting my readers to consider how much of the theological debate between denominations revolves around our different understandings of concepts introduced by us. Take, for instance, the “fine” lines between Lutheranism and Calvinism—not to mention the other trends issued from the Reformation—regarding not only classical fabricated lingo, but even concerning an assumedly solid scriptural notion or concept: faith. This term whose original meaning in both Hebrew and Greek is “trust” has suddenly been taken as equivalent to “belief.” In other words, a behavioral matter was transformed into an intellectual subject. I am not saying that this misunderstanding started with the Reformation. To the contrary, the Reformation, which was hailed as liberation from traditional Christian thought, became actually enslaved to a phenomenon that goes back to the ancient “creeds” or “creedal formulations” that split rather than united the one church of God. The saga continued in the Reformation churches that came up with their multitude of “confessions of faith” to which the believer is supposed to “subscribe.”

All our theological debates are carbon copies—or at least sub-tunes—to the debate between Samuel and Israel in 1 Samuel 8. Israel subscribed to the understanding of “king” à la nations, whereas Samuel was offering Israel a king who is essentially a shepherd—an oxymoron among the nations. But the theologians are “Greek” by definition. Witness is that the Renaissance, the Janus face of the Reformation, reintroduced Plato and Aristotle on the scene of the natio Christiana. So all theological effort boils down to “going back” to something that is considered by its proponents to be the “pristine” and “unadulterated” truth of the matter. Against 1 Samuel 8 we de facto advocate that every stage at which our community is at today is “faithful” to the original message.

At heart we are British in that these viewed and still view Great Britain as the “goal” and “culmination” of all preceding civilizations. One can easily see how this state of mind pervades the United States. While we are enslaved to progress, scripture is inviting us to “regress’ to a higher standard of life where human, animal, and vegetation share the same “one” world, a movement clearly reflected in the flood story. When and only when the teachers at our schools endorse this, will they be able to move the churches beyond (or back behind, if that were possible) this dilemma and revert to the “literally” and “literarily” scriptural God. Otherwise, we shall continue on our path of self-justification, the self-righteousness condemned by scripture, assuming the correctness of the delusion that “progress is by definition tantamount to improvement.”

AD: It's clear by the end of ch.24 (and scattered references passim) that you have no truck with "mysticism." I confess that I don't either, and have been writing right now an English Anglican solitary, Maggie Ross (Silence: A User's Guide) who shares much of your criticism of "mysticism." Tell us, briefly, what the problem is with the usual notions of "mysticism," especially in the Eastern Churches.

The heart of the problem lies in the unproven and unprovable assumption that there exists somewhere on its own a “world” of the divine, the numinous, with which one connects directly with one’s spirit or soul or being. Furthermore, the possibility of such intercourse is due to the fact that the spirit or soul or being are somehow of the same nature or essence as the (eternal) divine. These assumptions do not correspond in any way with the scriptural premise.

In scripture the nephesh is the breathing, and thus a mere sign that someone is living, and has nothing to do with the Platonic and theological “soul.” It is of the realm of the “flesh” (basar), animalic as well as human. Even the ruach—which is essentially divine (the Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses are flesh, and not spirit; Is 31:3a)—when applied to the human being, is no different than the ruach of an animal: “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?” (Eccl 3:21) The reason, as I explained in my book, is that the scriptural God is intentionally “inexistent,” is not egregious, does not “stand out,” cannot be pointed to as a statue. So, from the scriptural perspective, a divine world is a projection of the human mind “in the image” of that mind, in order to deify oneself rather than glorify God. In other words, mysticism is a self-serving creation of man. What makes it worse is that it reflects arrogance toward the “lesser” human beings. See for instance how Origen and the Fathers after him divided humanity into three classes: the fleshly, the soul-ly, and the spiritual. Only the latter can accede to theosis. This is the epitome of arrogance in the eyes of the scriptural God who uttered the words of Isaiah 2.

AD: Give us a sense of your hoped-for audience--who should read this book, The Rise of Scripture, and why?

My intended audience has always been the people at large—regardless of their “beliefs”—because of my conviction that the so-called scholarly community is self-serving, if not self-aggrandizing. “Scholars” fell under the prophetic indictment because there is no need for them in scripture. God on the Holy Mount spoke directly to the entire people. The duty of the “medium” was to communicate God’s words verbatim as Moses, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel did, and not to comment on them. The scriptural God does not need a Hermes, let alone hermeneutics. My so-called commentaries and studies are basically an explanation of the original vocabulary to my audience in order to have them hear scripture with the “ears” of the original addressees. Once this is done, the contemporary hearers will hear God’s words which summon them to do (obey) those words (Deut passim), and not cogitate on them. My profuse use of transliteration aims at circumventing the–by definition--imperfect translations and at inviting my readers to “visually” hear the original. In this sense, my hope for the audience is that they make the effort to absorb the original text if they truly want to be free and decide for themselves, and not be mesmerized by a guru. However, the “general” audience is not to be equated with a “passive” or “lazy” audience, because whether they are aware of it or not they will be judged on whether they will have done God’s words (Mt 25:34-46). My hoped-for audience is a mindful audience that will have to digest what I shall have chewed for own sake!

AD: Having finished The Rise of Scripture, what projects are you at work on now?

Considering that this work represents the summation of my engagement with the scriptural text since the age of thirteen, I should like to concentrate, besides my podcast series that is planned to run indefinitely, on prodding and helping former students to write on scriptural matters. And, out of obedience to (some of) them, I am planning to finish my work on the Pauline corpus by writing a commentary on Ephesians and on 2 Thessalonians. All the notes are ready, and I should be able to finish it by the end of the year and see it published in 2019. If the good Lord grants more years with enough energy, then I should like to produce a one-volume commentary on Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers.

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