Temple Themes in Christian Worship by Margaret Barker
rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ah what can I say about Margaret Barker. She's one of my favorite feminist theologians. She's not as skeptical as Elaine Pagels or Bart Ehrman. She's not nearly as wordy as Karen Armstrong. Her world view is much more encompassing than some of the traditional conservative Christian thinkers I've read. I'd describe her theology as pan-christian.
She accepts, more than many, the validity of the non-canonical sources and the reality that what we have as "Christianity" today is merely the victor of the early Christian traditions. She also accepts that all scripture passed through human agents and was subject to human changes. If you have a problem with either of these assumptions than don't bother reading this book because these assumptions provide the paradigmatic backbone of this work.
In Temple Themes, Barker starts off with a bang. Going back to St. Basil and the 3rd Century C.E., she outlines how there were extra-canonical traditions within Christianity. These traditions derived largely, Barker contends, from 1st Temple worship. To show this connection then is Barker's main motivation.
She clearly outlines how the earliest Church Fathers expressed that such traditions existed and more importantly how they could or should not be wrote down. These were the traditions of the mystery worship, which she contends ultimately were the mysteries of the knowledge of God. Culling the non-canonical sources, Barker shows how elements of the pre-Josiah temple appear in places like the Epistle to the Hebrews, the writings of Clement, and the gnostic and Qumran texts. Pulling from the complete extant corpus Barker makes a compelling case that Christianity does not understand itself because it doesn't understand the Temple.
That said Barker runs into a problem that she doesn't readily admit. She is ultimately trying to prove the unknowable. Because Josiah purged the temple, destroyed the Tree of Wisdom, removed the anointing oil, and changed the priesthood, we have little documentary evidence to know what the first temple was and meant. What evidence we do have has come down through the generations in such a convoluted and corrupted form that we can only assume it's accuracy. This allows Barker to cherry pick quotes and traditions that support her argumentation but does not truly provide more than circumstantial evidence. That I tend to think she's right in her interpretation has more to do with my own religious beliefs than with the evidence she presents in this work.
That said, for those who are interested in speculative theology about the sources of Christian worship I highly recommend this work. It was entertaining, if a bit dense in parts. Further, if you've never read her works, Barker never shies from suggesting the most controversial things and this work does not disappoint in that regard. In the end this felt like the culmination of a lifetime of research and writing and was a highly worthwhile addition to my library.
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