The Pope, Forbes Magazine and Biblical Exegesis
In two recent articles in Forbes Magazine, Mr. Jerry Bowyer has taken Pope Francis to task not for his economics as such but for supporting his “lefty” economics (Bowyer’s word not mine) with bad biblical exegesis. His first article (March 13, 2013), IsJorge Bergoglio, The New Pope Francis, A Capitalist?, demonstratesBowyer’s concern with Pope Francis’s reading of the figure of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. The second article, Pope Francis's Economics: Yes, He Has A Leftist View Of Free Markets, challenges the Pope’s comparison of the golden calf episode in Exodus 32 with today’s market economies. He says of the Pope’s reading of Exodus 32, “The text is the text and even great men can, and do, misunderstand it.” While this statement – “the text is the text” – hides the hard reality of biblical interpretation, and the fact that a text does not always give forth its meaning easily nor that all interpreters agree as to the best reading of any given text, a fact which goes back to the biblical authors themselves, the rabbis and the Church fathers, let us grant the claim: “even great men can, and do, misunderstand it.” What applies to great men, then, must necessarily apply to those of us who are not great men or great biblical scholars.
Bowyer’s basic complaint about the Pope in the first article is that he opposes neo-liberal market economics:
Neo-liberalism is a term used by the left to describe the modern school of economics which attempts to move the world towards free-markets (classical liberalism) and away from various forms of central control. But the Argentine political debate tends to take place between two statist camps: Peronism on the ‘right’ and Marxism on the left.
According to the Catholic Herald the former Cardinal’s ideological orientation is more from the anti-market right than from the anti-market left:
“Where do his political sympathies lie? Certainly not on the Left. Those who know him best would consider him on the moderate Right, close to that strand of popular Peronism which is hostile to liberal capitalism. In the economic crisis of 2001-2002, when Argentina defaulted on its debt, people came out on to the streets and supermarkets were looted, Bergoglio was quick to denounce the neo-liberal banking systemwhich had left Argentina with an unpayable debt.”
The liberal National Catholic Reporter says that “Bergoglio has supported the social justice ethos of Latin American Catholicism, including a robust defense of the poor…” and approvingly quotes him as saying,
“We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”
The former Cardinal placed a strong emphasis on the distribution of wealth, not the creation of it. Spiritually he places emphasis on identification with the poor and the spiritual benefits of living a life of poverty.
After setting the stage by sketching Pope Francis’s and Argentina’s economics, Bowyer refers to a papal homily, though he does not actually cite the homily, but a report on the homily from www.chiesa.espressonline.it on Jorge Bergoglio prior to his election to Pope. This is the citation Bowyer offers from the short article written by Sandro Magister:
“At the celebration of the Te Deum at the most recent national feast, last May 25th, there was a record audience for Cardinal Bergoglio´s homily. The cardinal asked the people of Argentina to do as Zacchaeus had done in the Gospel. Here was a sinister loan shark. But, taking account of his moral lowliness, he climbed up into a sycamore tree, to see Jesus and let himself be seen and converted by him.”
Bowyer is riled up by Bergoglio’s image of Zacchaeus being described as a “sinister loan shark,” saying “the image of a ‘sinister loan shark’ is, well, sinister, and politically charged.” He goes on to say that “the problem is that this is not actually what the gospel says about him,” Zacchaeus is “not a lender, but a tax collector.” But there is a major problem with Bowyer’s analysis: Bergoglio, as far as I can tell from reading his homily in Spanish never calls Zacchaeus a “sinister loan shark”; that is what Magister wrote. Bowyer is welcome to see Bergoglio’s whole homily here. He criticizes Bergoglio’s use of the Gospel passage and never actually reads what Bergoglio wrote? I am not certain what that is called in Forbes Magazine, but in biblical studies it is called bad research. In fact, far from making Zacchaeus a “sinister loan shark,” Bergoglio called us all to see ourselves as Zacchaeus:
Lo mejor es dejar que el Zaqueo que hay dentro de cada uno de nosotros se deje mirar por el Señor, y acepte la invitación a bajar. Este llamado del Evangelio es memoria y camino de esperanza. Aquel que busca y se deja alcanzar por lo sublime da lugar a una alegría nueva, a una posibilidad de redención. Y Zaqueo se redime, accede alegre a la invitación del único que nos puede reconciliar, Dios mismo. Accede a sentarse a la mesa de todos, a la de la amistad social. Nadie le pidió a aquel publicano que fuera lo que no podía ser, sino que simplemente se bajara del árbol. Se le pide que se avenga a la ley de ser uno más, de ser hermano y compatriota, que cumpla la ley.
In the passage I just cited, the Pope calls Zacchaeus a “publican,” which is an excellent translation of the Greek telônês, which means “tax-collector,” but in Latin is publicani. Actually Zacchaeus seems to have a more pronounced role, for he is called “chief” or “head” tax-collector, architelônês.
So, if the bad scholarship here belongs to Bowyer not the Pope, what about the second article, published just today (May 23, 2013)? Once again, there is a link to a description of Pope Francis’s homily, but at least in this case Bowyer actually cites what appear to be the words of the Pope and not someone’s summation:
“The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly human goal,” Francis told the ambassadors.
Bowyer dislikes the Pope’s use of the image of the golden calf in this example. To be sure, this does not seem to be an extended exposition of the golden calf metaphor, but an image the Pope is using. To my mind it is comparing the worship of the golden calf by the Israelites, an idol, not the true, living God, with the worship of money by many people today, an idol, not the true, living God.
Bowyer, on the basis of this citation, writes:
The story is told in Exodus 32. After the escape from Egypt, and the passage through the Red Sea, Israel made its way to Mount Sinai. Moses went up onto the mountain to receive the law of God, while the nation waited below. After a long absence in which Moses was away from provisions, the Israelites became impatient and demanded that Aaron, Moses’ brother and second in command, fashion gods which could lead the people in Moses’ absence. Aaron collected jewelry from the people and out of it fashioned a graven image of a calf, a traditional object of worship in Egypt.
So, where exactly in that story is the tyranny of the neo-liberal market order to be found? This account is clearly a conflict over political power. Pharaoh held political mastery over the Israelites. Moses fights against the Egyptian state and prevails. The Israelites become a newly independent nation, with Moses as civil ruler under God. Moses loses the confidence of the people, and they demand a new leader. Egypt had used graven images of gods, including calves, to buttress the authority of the pharaoh who was both king and god. Aaron did the same. Gold was taken out of circulation (that is out of the realm where it might be used in market exchanges) and collectivized by the new civil head for propaganda and political cohesion, who would then use the Egyptian-style political system to form a leader who would lead them back to Egypt, back under the dominion of an all-powerful state.
Bowyer reads the story of the golden calf basically as a political symbol not a religious symbol, which is why he asks, “Where exactly in that story is the tyranny of the neo-liberal market order to be found?” I do not think that it is to be found in the story of the golden calf, but nor is it the story of “the dominion of an all-powerful state.”
He offers “Nehemiah 9”as a support for his reading of the Exodus text, not a particular verse, writing that “the prophet Nehemiah later in Israel’s history interprets the story that way (see Nehemiah chapter 9), as a search for a leader (in Hebrew a rosh, a head) to return them to Egypt.” The theme of a “search for a leader” may be present in Nehemiah 9, it is not certain, though even if it is, it is not the predominant issue in understanding the meaning of the golden calf. I did find the word rosh in Nehemiah 9:17, however, the word does not necessarily have the meaning of “leader” or “head,” but more likely that of “start” or “beginning.” So the NRSV translates this phrase as they “determined to return to their slavery in Egypt.” The NAB does translate this phrase with“they were obdurate and appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery in Egypt,” which is similar to the NIV’s “they became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery.” For me, what clinches the NRSV’s reading, though, is the Septuagint, which has edôkan archê, which I would translate as “they established a beginning/start to return to their slavery in Egypt” (LXX II Esdras 22:17).
But even if his reading of Nehemiah 9:17 is correct, that the Israelites were looking for a leader to return them to Egypt, and even if a later leader Jeroboam created golden calves to solidify his political power (1 Kings 12:26-33), the great sin is the worship of false gods, whether of a human king or graven images. This is not about the worship of the Egyptian “state” or God’s freedom, exemplified in “the Book of the Covenant, the civil implementation of the ten commandments, a short national constitution with a small state and strong protections of property rights.” This is about the worship of God alone, not the worship of any state, small or large, or any political system, free market or “statist,” or the security of money. This is about the one, true living God and idols which take the place of God. We all give ourselves away in our biblical interpretation, but Bowyer clearly reads the Bible as a way to support free-market capitalism. Let me suggest that “the text is the text,” except when our biases overwhelm our reading and we use the text to support our own golden calves. It is possible that all interpreters have these blind spots, but usually they are not this anachronistic: Moses as free market warrior; the golden calves as representative of “statist” cradle to grave welfare system.
The Pope has spoken about gaps between the rich and poor, he has spoken about the tyranny of money, but he need not take any particular economic stance, “neo-liberal,” socialist or somewhere else on the spectrum, to realize that so, too, does Jesus criticize the gap between the rich and poor and the tyranny of money. The tyranny of money is best on display in Jesus’ parable about the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), while his concern about the gap between the rich and poor might best be seen in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, neither of whose rich characters are described as neo-liberal or socialist. They are simply people who have let money rule their lives. It can happen under any system of economics, even the best of systems.
In interpreting the golden calf episode in Exodus 32 as a criticism of “statism” and not false gods, Bowyer has tipped his hand as an interpreter too far. It is true that each political entity in the ancient Near East, probably the whole of the ancient world, was associated with gods. There was no division between Egypt and the gods of Egypt, just as there was no division between the God of Israel and Israel. Yet in turning to golden calves, Exodus 32:1 tells us that the people desired Aaron to “make gods for us, who shall go before us.” In 32:4, Aaron says of the calves, “these are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” They are not essentially a symbol of Egypt, or even of a desire to return to Egypt, but false representations of God to who is attributed the release from slavery and their salvation from Egypt because the people lost their trust in the true God. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary reads, “worship of them violates the first commandment (20:2-7)…In ancient Near Eastern iconography bulls figure prominently either as representations of gods, i.e., Bull El in the Ugaritic texts, or as animal thrones of deities standing upon their backs. In the people’s eyes, the images represent Yahweh (hence an altar is built before them), contrary to Israel’s aniconic tradition” (59). Whatever the Israelites thought the golden calves represented- other gods, Yahweh, the thrones upon which Yahweh sat - the worship of them is false. So, too, can money be a golden calf, when it is worshipped instead of the true and living God. This love of money transcends political systems, but whenever and wherever it is an idol, the Pope is right to criticize it.
Finally, it gives me comfort to know that I do not have to add Forbes to my list of essential reading on biblical studies, for on the issue of biblical exegesis Jerry Bowyer non est audiendus. As to the Pope, it remains a necessity to listen to him when he talks about money, the poor, the rich and the Bible; as for economics, I will leave that to the experts.
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Thanks for your comment Craig. Actually my article does not take a political stance, but lauds the Pope for criticizing "idols" wherever they might be - in political systems, money, "the state" - and that is something to which any of us can fall prey. I wrote, "So, too, can money be a golden calf, when it is worshipped instead of the true and living God. This love of money transcends political systems, but whenever and wherever it is an idol, the Pope is right to criticize it." Idols transcend political commitments, but our worship must be reserved for God. Thanks again Craig for taking the time to comment.