Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Brief Excursis: Christ came to set captives free

by Ray Soller

As part of the Comments following the July 2, 2008 Acton Institute article, Christianity and the History of Freedom by Kevin E. Schmiesing Ph.D. Jonathan Rowe wrote:

"Christ came to set captives free, the scriptures say."Arguably your [Schmiesing's] contextual use of this scripture distorts its meaning pretty significantly. This has nothing to do with political liberty or abolishing chattel slavery; rather it means freedom from sin or sin's consequences (however you want to put it). One can be both a chattel slave and "free" in Christ at the same time. Conservative Catholic political scientist Robert Kraynak of Colgate understands this when he writes:

"Thus, when St. Paul spoke of Christian freedom, he meant inner freedom, not the external freedom from the state protected by natural rights. Thus, Paul could say (without contradicting himself) 'for freedom Christ has set us free … do not submit to the yoke of slavery' (Gal. 5:1) and 'slaves, obey … your earthly masters' (Col. 3:22). Paul is not endorsing slavery in his admonitions to obedience; but he is saying something that is hard for modern Christians to understand: Inner freedom from sin is more important than external freedom from oppression, making spiritual freedom a higher priority than claiming one’s rights."

Where Jonathan takes the meaning of Jesus "came to set captives free," as having "nothing to do with political liberty or abolishing chattel slavery," I have learned to take this verse literally. I suspect a few others (i.e., John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus) have taken it literally also, but not anywhere in the same sense or to the extent to which I do. The specified gospel passage to which Jonathan is referring is not any old scripture picked at random, as has been done at various presidential inaugurations. (This practice is called Sortes Biblicae, Bibliomancy.) This particular passage is taken from Isaiah 61: 1, 2. When interpreting what is meant by setting "captives free" one can't ignore the succeeding announcement "to declare the acceptable year of the Lord." Scholars have recognized these two verses taken together as an haphtarah (haftarah) scripture. This means, inside Jewish tradition, it was a liturgical reading (or chanting) that was part of a triennial cycle; twice repeated to fill out a span of seven years. Each haphtarah is synchronized with a corresponding sidrah (or parashah - a chapter oriented biblical reading) from the Torah (Pentateuch - the five Books of Moses). (See a liturgical explanation here .) When following this course of reasoning the associated sidrah for Isaiah 61:1, 2 becomes Deuteronomy chapter 15 verse 7 through chapter 17 verse 13. The scripture (Dt.17:12-15) tells it all:
12. And if the brother, an Hebrew man [anyone who was a descendant of Eber (Gen. 10.21, 11.14)], or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee.
13. and when thou sendest him out from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty:
14. Thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of the winepress: of that wherewith the Lord the God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him.
15. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing to day.

The above interpretation of what Jesus meant in the historical context of his day is the topic I have explored at Jesus and the Acceptable Year of the Lord. Chapter 6 - Anouncing the Good News deals with the program that Jesus set in motion by declaring the Acceptable Year of the Lord. (Here's the Introduction, and the Table of Contents.)

As for Paul, what can I say, but I could never figure out just what he was saying.


Brad Hart said...

Fascinating post! I'm reading it in conjunction with my hard copy of the Bible just so I can better understand it.

Ray Soller said...

There's some good online information at ScreptureFromScratch - The Sabbatical Year & the Jubilee Year by Richard A. Freund. Here's a significant excerpt:

There is evidence that the concept and practice of the Sabbatical year had an influence upon the origins of early Christianity. Based upon calculations of the known Roman period Sabbatical cycles, it is hypothesized that the origins of the ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist may have dovetailed with a Sabbatical year and created the types of hardships for the poor that had earlier forced Hillel to reconstitute the meaning of remission of loans and created the legal fiction of the “prosbul.”

In addition, Jewish tradition tied the observance of the Sabbatical year to the coming of the messiah and so the emphasis upon the poor and the meaning attached to the sermons of Jesus may have had even greater significance in the Sabbatical year cycles.

Some scholars even attach this same emphasis in Paul’s teachings about the poor to the cycles of the Sabbatical year in Paul’s time as well. If this is the case, the Sabbatical year in particular can be seen as a series of laws with long-term importance for Christian and Jewish theology.