Gerd Theissen on Evil and the Aporia of the Theodicy Problem

Being relatively new to the blogosphere, I have been enjoying the way that a diverse range of blog posts have been exposing me to new ideas and reminding me of things that I had nearly forgotten. For example, Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne’s announcements of an upcoming Conference on Evil in Second Temple Judaism and Earl Christianity at St. Mary’s University turned my thoughts to Gerd Theissen’s characteristically insightful reflections on evil and theodicy in his 2007 book Erleben und Verhalten der ersten Christen: eine Psychologie des Urchristentums (Experience and Behavior of the first Christians: A Psychology of Primitive Christianity), which I reviewed here for RBL.

As usual I will begin with the English translation so that the grammatical commentary directly follows upon the German passage.

English Translation (WMC): “We have seen that the theodicy question leads to varying causal attributions of evil to God, Satan, and human beings. It is always ‘causal factors’ that are filled out as roles with subjects that are equipped with intentionality and interactivity.  We found the key to overcoming the problem of theodicy in the Christ figure, the central role offering of primitive Christianity. It [the Christ figure] makes possible a communitarian theodicy:  because God, as God who became human, suffers in Christ, the human being is reconciled with his/her suffering and stands in community/fellowship with God even in suffering. Because God acts as a human subject in Christ, the human being is strengthened in his/her responsibility and not crushed by God’s almightiness.

Erleben und Verhalten der ersten Christen (p. 326): “Wir haben gesehen: Die Theodizeefrage führt zu wechselnden Kausalattributionen des Bösen an Gott, den Satan und den Menschen. Immer sind es ‘Kausalfaktoren’, die als Rollen mit Subjekten ausgefüllt werden, die über Intentionalität und Interaktivität verfügen. Den Schlüssel zur Bewältigung des Theodizeeproblems fanden wir in der Christusgestalt, dem zentralen Rollenangebot des Urchristentums. Sie ermöglicht eine kommunitäre Theodizee: Weil Gott als menschgewordener Gott in Christus leidet, wird der Mensch mit seinem Leid versöhnt und steht auch im Leid in Gemeinschaft mit Gott. Weil Gott in Christus als ein menschliches Subjekt handelt, wird der Mensch in seiner Verantwortung gestärkt und nicht von Gottes Allmacht erdrückt.“

Selective grammatical commentary: I am uncertain whether the force of “wechselnden“ is alternating, changing, or varying in this context. Thanks to Laura Hunt for alerting me to the fact that I had incorrectly translated “Immer sind es” as “they are always”. It should, I think, be translated “It is always”. The translation of “über … verfügen” is difficult: the sense seemed to be “equipped with” but “have power/control over”, “dispose over”, or “have … at their disposition” could be better. I have discussed my reasons for translating “Urchristentum” as “primitive Christianity” here.  I am very uncertain about the translation of kommunitäre, since I think that this is also a loaded word in German. Is “communitarian” on target or should a less loaded translation such as “community” or “communal” be adopted? I am also uncertain about the word order for the translation of “Weil Gott als menschgewordener Gott in Christus leidet”, but it seems to me that “in Christus” is more closely linked with “leidet” rather than with “menschgewordener Gott”. Though menchgewordener can often be translated as “incarnate”, it seemed preferable to retain the literal meaning of “having become human” here. I have written his/her to reflect the fact that der Mensch encompasses both men and women, but this solution might be too awkward for a published translation. And I have translated “auch” as “even”, though “also” might be preferable. I remain very uncertain about the best word order for the translation “Weil Gott in Christus als ein menschliches Subjekt handelt”. I have translated Allmacht as “almightiness”, though “omnipotence” could be better.

Substantive analysis: I have selected this paragraph as today’s “key quotation” both because I think that it is an attractive attempt to approach the topic of evil, suffering, agency, and theodicy from the perspective of an early Christian understanding of the person of Jesus Christ and because I think that Theissen’s broader discussion of evil and the aporia of the theodicy problem in this chapter is one of the more learned, sophisticated, and insightful attempts to investigate the ways in which this subject area was grappled with within early Judaism and early Christianity. Hence, I hope that my readers will not only find this quotation helpful, but that it will also direct you to Theissen’s larger discussion of this topic.

Links to some other blog posts relating to Gerd Theissen: Anthony Le DonneJohnny Walker, Jeremy Cushmann, Tim Henderson, Larry Hurtado, Jonathan Clatworthy, Diglotting, Matt J. Rossano, Michael Kok, Tanner Gish, Michael Kruger, Neil Godfrey, Michael Barber, Nijay Gupta

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! In an effort to provide a sense of regularity and predictability for this blog’s readership, I plan on writing a new post each Monday. So hopefully I will ‘see’ you again in a week’s time. Best, Wayne.