The Law and the Prophets

Even scriptures that are adhered to by the most rigid of conservatives do not fully dictate their own application. There is always an ‘excess’ in application: decisions made on grounds other than unyielding continuity – pragmatic grounds, aesthetic grounds. That is not simply a failure of continuity, though, or a force that fights against continuity: this possibility of excess is also what makes faithfulness to a text possible in history.

(It is, by the way, easy to slip between talking about texts and talking about power-structures in this context, even though they are not quite the same thing. But what I have said about scriptures is true of ‘power-structures’: they are perpetuated, but always perpetuated differently. Power always evolves – though not necessarily in ways you’d like…)

The relationship between law and prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures is, perhaps, analogous on to this relationship between continuity and excess. Prophecy is the arrival of the word of God at the edges of our current obedience, showing where our obedience is no such thing and calling us to change. You could see it as the excess which makes continuity possible – which calls to new construals of the existing text, a new grasp (pragmatic, aesthetic) of what is central and what peripheral, that is needed in order to carry on. It is not that without prophecy, continued application of the text would involve no excess. No, it would still necessarily evolve over time and space. But prophecy, as it were, authorises evolution in a particular direction – or calls readers back from the direction they thought was the way forward and sets them on another. Prophecy makes obedience to the law possible as obedience – precisely at the same time as, in fact precisely because, it attacks existing obedience to the law, existing construals of the law. Without prophecy there is no faithfulness, only arbitrariness.

And, yes, to those looking back, the claimed ‘authorisation’ will in part be judged by what it made possible – by what happened, or can happen, next.

When John the Baptist is described, he is wrapped in the words of the Hebrew Bible. He is presented as a continuation, a form of faithfulness to the text. But that means (whether we think about John the actual human being, standing in the desert, or “John” the character in the gospel texts) that John will be a new way of reading the text: he will of necessity be excessive – and this is necessarily true before we have noticed the explicit liminality that marks his portrait. But when we go on to look at the details – the desert setting, the raw food, the strange clothing, the asceticism – we can see that John stands explicity for divinely authorised liminality: for that prophetic call to faithfulness which disrupts present obedience. He stands for, announces, represents a call to continuity that explicitly recognises that continuity must be excessive, and therefore must involve us in decision and repsonsibility – and precisely in doing this he stands in the prophetic tradition that has always announced this message, but of necessity stands in it differently (as all the prophets do).

So, yes, John’s liminality is the form that ‘as it is written’ takes.

And, no, I don’t know what to make of the leather belt.

4 Thoughts on “The Law and the Prophets

  1. Well, as Freud didn’t say, sometimes a leather belt is just a leather belt. Maybe it really is just there to hold his camel-hair clothes on. Maybe it’s the kind of physical detail you’d notice if you met him. Just possibly, for some community of readers with at least two members, i.e. people who are interested in theological readings of Mark but have no idea what the leather belt means, it functions as a reminder precisely of the excessiveness of any concrete instance of answering to a description/ fitting a pattern/ fulfilling what is written?

  2. I just have this hunch, that somehow the belt is the thing that holds everything together…

  3. I think sometimes we can try to look too deeply at a passage, for eg all ideas tied in with Jesus and fishing, it may just be fishing, the same with a belt, he needed to keep himself respectable after all! … even though the dress code he decided was a little odd

  4. I was not being very serious about the belt… but, yes, sometimes a belt is just a belt. So maybe I should belt up about it, lest someone belt me.

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