Disciples as Scribes in the Royal Court

Here’s a snapshot of my current research project I’m finishing up this week. I’m exploring ancient pedagogy and fresh angles on the task of discipleship in the church today. 

POTLUCKS & POLITICS

I hail from good Lutheran stock from the Midwest (Minnesota) where we shared potlucks (with an endless variety of “hot dishes”) in the church basement, and Bible studies in the Fireside Room off the narthex. Beyond the church walls, however, we were careful to keep the two unwritten laws of all Scandinavian Lutherans.

First, our Lutheranism taught us to draw a sharp line between the kingdoms of the world (politics) and the Kingdom of God (viewed as personal faith)—and ne’er the twain shall meet. Second, my Norwegian/Swedish background taught me to keep my faith to myself lest I come off like a Baptist or Pentecostal.  The Eleventh Commandment was unspoken but universally known in these circles: Thou shalt not bring up religion or politics at the dinner table.

The deep irony is that when we examine the heart of the Christian faith in the pages of the New Testament we discover precisely what we’ve been trying to avoid: a ‘religion’ announcing a new kind of ‘politics’ (‘kingdom of God’) that transformed the nature of ‘table fellowship’ among its adherents!  As we familiarize ourselves with the first-century world of the New Testament, we may find ourselves echoing Dorothy in Oz: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” Or Minnesota!

But press on we must in our exploration of this strange land of the Bible if we want to pull back the curtain and really come to know the One who’s behind it all. So, like Dorothy and her traveling companions, this essay invites us take heart, have courage and use our brains as we explore a fresh angle on Christian discipleship in the church today.

CHRIST THE KING

There is much talk today about the political nature of Jesus’ central message (i.e., the Kingdom of God) and the anti-imperial flavor of Paul’s gospel proclamation— itself a royal announcement—under Caesar’s nose.  If the heart of the Christian faith is the reality of the Kingdom of God taking root in this world, then “all who have ears to hear” are summoned to become loyal subjects and servants of this Messianic Kingdom.

As basic and non-controversial as these ideas now seem in most scholarly circles (and slowly filtering down into many church pews), such “royal”, “kingly” and “political” imagery for describing Jesus’ ministry has taken a backseat for much of the church’s history and practice. We have preferred Jesus the Atoning Sacrifice & Savior, or the Miracle Worker & Healer, or the Social Revolutionary, or  the Apocalyptic Prophet, or the Divine Son of God (i.e., 2nd Person of the Trinity), or Great Moral Philosopher, or Jewish Rabbi or, in casual Christian circles today, Jesus my Best Friend. 

In a democratic society whose very foundation entailed the casting off of a royal crown, we in the United States are not especially keen on seeing King Jesus seated on a throne and what such a Jesus might be expecting of his loyal subjects.  Give us a savior and a teacher, but spare us a king! While much scholarship is rediscovering the royal language that saturates Jesus’ ministry and his kingly (messianic) identity, we have not let that same royal emphasis reshape our understanding of the disciples’ vocation and training.

This essay seeks a fresh vision of the disciples’ educational context and the purpose of their training, by taking into account the centrality of the royal background for Jesus’ Messianic role and ministry.  My contention is that our vision for the discipleship task will be inevitably shaped by our vision of Jesus’ central role.

For example, if Jesus was a social revolutionary taking on the injustices of the world, then his followers are to become “justice workers” in our world.  If Jesus was primarily a great moral teacher, then his followers are to become good people living out his moral vision. If he was another Jewish rabbi, his pupils are to master his halakah and pass it on to others in some kind of a rabbinic school setting. Or, again, if Jesus was mainly the atoning sacrifice for our sins and savior of souls, then his followers are mainly to be grateful recipients of this grace, to share this ‘soterian gospel’ (often void of any real here-and-now kingdom talk) with other lost souls so they can also be forgiven.  Discipleship training is all but removed within this framework where it’s not unusual to hear people saying things like “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.”

While all of the images of Jesus above have their place and may be part of the greater whole, I am going assume in this essay that the royal, messianic King Jesus is a central image presented to us by Jesus himself and throughout the rest of the New Testament for understanding what he was up to and therefore what his disciples should be up to on his behalf.  So, what happens when we re-examine the context for discipleship and the goal of Christian education with King Jesus and his royal messianic purposes in view?  I propose that when we take Jesus as our King, then the heart of discipleship becomes learning how to reign with Christ and serve faithfully in his royal court. 

ANCIENT EDUCATION IN THE KING’S COURT

What follows is a brief survey of the origins of education in the great civilizations of the ancient near east represented by Mesopotamia. With David Carr’s Writing on the Tablet of the Heart as a main guide, I hope to establish a basis for understanding some common features of scribal education within the context of the king’s court. We will then explore this royal scribal/educational context throughout Israel’s history, from the Monarchy to the Exile, through the Second Temple period and into the time of Jesus and the apostles.

We individualistic Western modern people, proud heirs of the Enlightenment (which was itself the outworking of various Renaissance ideals) need to shed some presuppositions about the nature, goals and especially the normative context of education if we are to think our way back into the ancient world of Jesus and his disciples. We have trouble envisioning a world before public education, government funded institutions with school buildings, tenured teachers on a salary, and eager (and not so eager) students of all social classes having an opportunity to learn. Yet, this is far removed from the reality of normative context for ancient education.

Education in the ancient world was for privileged elites, and those (often slaves) fortunate enough to be employed in their service. The primary context for the earliest scribal activity, as we shall see, is the royal court. Ancient education therefore prepared scribal students, first and foremost, to serve the King and his royal purposes. “Pedagogy of submission” was typical and heavy-handed, always completely in service of the King’s interests, and not for the benefit of the student or the purpose of pursuing his own interests (e.g., learning a trade), or gaining wisdom as an end in and of itself (e.g., later philosophical schools of Greece).

Centuries before the study of the humanities, traced back to ancient Greece, became the goal of education — providing students “culture, refinement, education” and, specifically, an “education befitting a cultivated man” — education was largely about training royal scribes to document and enforce the king’s royal decrees, and to celebrate and memorialize his major accomplishments and preserve the king’s ideals and culture. Carr uses the term “education-enculturation” for this process, and he traces its common threads across the major Near Eastern kingdoms of antiquity beginning with Mesopotamia.

Let’s take a look at the beginnings of ancient education and scribal activity in the court of the king. As we do, keep in mind another king who centuries later would surround himself with his own servants who he was training to serve in his kingdom!

Stay tuned.

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