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Interview: Margaret Barker, theologian

20 January 2017

‘It’s a huge privilege to be able to contribute to the great stream of biblical scholarship’

I’m a Methodist local preacher, and have been a tutor for our preachers for more than 30 years. This constantly reminds me that biblical study which isn’t relevant to the life and worship of Christian communities is of secondary importance. I question much that is done in theology courses today.


I went to Sunday school from the age of three, and there was never a time when God wasn’t part of my life. My experience has grown with my understanding, since I now recognise more of what I’m living.


I’ve been immersed in Temple Studies for nearly 50 years, since I was an undergraduate at Cambridge. It seemed to me, even then, that the Temple was neglected, and that this distorted biblical study. I had the modest youthful ambition to redraw the map of biblical studies. It’s far too early to say that I have had any influence, but I notice my ideas in several other writers’, not always acknowledged. What matters is to get the Temple worldview restored to the Christian way of thinking.


I see little future for churches in this country unless they rediscover Christianity. There’s so much emphasis on “mission” — marketing — and very little knowledge of the actual product.


We’ve had two generations of New Testament scholars who have been trained in fashionable things like sociology and rhetoric. It’s time to get back to basics, like learning the biblical languages. When the Church of England’s Doctrine Commission published The Mystery of Salvation in 1995, they reached no conclusion on what salvation was about — but they hadn’t used the Temple material from the Old Testament. If you don’t use the material, you won’t find the answer. Temple theology shows that the original understanding of atonement was rooted in the Day of Atonement, and that penal substitution is without any biblical basis.


Temple theology puts the Temple at the centre of biblical study, just as it was at the centre of Hebrew culture for a thousand years: the faith, life, and worship of the people who gave us the Bible. It reconstructs the world of the first Temple, which was very different from the second, and shows how Jesus restored the ways of the original Temple. The notice on the cross actually said: “Jesus the Restorer, the King of the Jews.” The word is not “of Nazareth”. The more you research, the more evidence you collect. If you’re looking for it, you’ll find it, of course. But then, if you’re not, you won’t.


I’ve more requests to talk about Temple theology than I can possibly accept; so there certainly is great interest in the Church. It helps in the understanding of liturgical patterns, and it’s also the basis for any biblical theology of creation.


The everlasting covenant, also called the covenant of peace, is fundamental to Temple theology. It was renewed on the Day of Atonement, when all the effects of the sin that had damaged the covenant bonds with creation were removed. The people had to repent and restore such as they could, and then the High Priest ritualised the renewal of creation. The great restoration and liberty of the Jubilee was proclaimed on the Day of Atonement.


In the time of Jesus, the Qumran community called this “the covenant of loving kindness”: hesed. Jesus was restoring the older covenant at the Last Supper, not establishing a new one. This rids us of the terrible and unbiblical idea of supersession. Jesus taught that, by living within the hesed covenant, and loving one another, everyone would know they were his disciples.


Although he shared their belief in the “covenant of hesed”, Jesus wasn’t part of the Qumran community; there were many differences between them. But he was part of a wider movement that wanted to get back to a purer form of Temple worship. The religious scene of the time was far more complex than we’ve been led to believe, and there was widespread dissatisfaction with what the Temple had become. He was one of many who wanted to purify the Temple.


When I preach at Good Friday services, I find that people are much more able to relate to this Temple understanding of atonement, where Jesus’s self-sacrifice is not substitutionary — it’s the real thing. For practical reasons in the Temple, animals represented the high priest; so the symbolism was that the covenant bonds were healed and restored by self-sacrifice, not by other people doing it for you — which people rightly see as unjust. Romans 12.1, “offer yourselves as a living sacrifice”, is the basis of Christian ethics. We’ve simply lost that. The natural order is maintained by self-sacrifice. That’s the message we need today in a materialistic, consumer society.


I challenge anyone to find a biblical basis for penal substitution. We’ve created a culture of dependence rather than human beings as the image of God (page 1 of the Bible) acting in self-sacrifice.


Nave altars worry me, because people have been misled by the idea that Good Friday was about the Passover, drawn from Paul’s reference to “Christ our Passover”. But he wasn’t there. That was the date, perhaps, of the Last Supper, but not its theological framework. The other early references link Good Friday with the Day of Atonement, which requires the symbolism of the High Priest in the Holy of Holies, not a group of people looking at each other and a priest with his/her back to the Holy of Holies. We need to restore a sense of the holy which is lacking from so much church activity and thinking.


I began with an open mind to rediscover the world of the original Temple, not with a feminist agenda; but I found the key figure there was the Lady and her wisdom, the Mother of the Lord. This was quite a jolt for someone brought up in the most fundamentalist of Protestant circles. I used to give my Sunday-school pennies to convert Catholics. Now I’m regularly asked to speak at Walsingham.


The Lady of the Temple, “the Mother of the Lord,” comes through into Christian theology as Mary and Holy Spirit. She was known in the Old Testament as Wisdom, “the one who keeps you on the straight path”, the Queen of Heaven and the Sun of Righteousness. Most Catholic titles for Mary are these old titles, and the poetic forms of the earliest Marian hymns are those used for Hebrew poetry of the Lady.


She was written out of the text after the cultural revolution of 623 BC, when the heirs of the revolutionaries repointed the Hebrew text. Similarly, archaeologists used to throw away the many female figurines found in Jerusalem and Judah, because they thought they did not represent anything in the religion of the Old Testament. So, too, Bible translators. The Hebrew of Malachi 4.2 says: “The sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in her wings.” “Sun” in Hebrew could either be masculine or feminine, and here it’s unmistakably feminine, but I haven’t found any English translation which gives this. We read about Elijah and the Day of the Lord, but we’re never told about the third part of the prophecy, which is that the Lady returns.


My grandchildren’s voices — James, Joshua, and Sophie — are my favourite sound. I’m happiest when we have them to stay for a mega-sleepover. In the summer, we visit an island in the River Dove for picnics, and in the winter we write and produce family pantomimes. I also love to hide away in Cambridge University Library.


My Hebrew Bible is my favourite book. It roots me in something far greater than I can ever understand, and makes me aware of the huge privilege of being able to study and contribute to the great stream of biblical scholarship.


One thing that makes me angry is the poor quality of recent BBC TV religion programmes compared to other areas such as history, as though there’s a fear of offending the very vocal, very small minorities. The “religion” element can be just a gesture, and the result rather shallow. And I do wonder whom they consult for their facts.


I was Hugh Montefiore’s last undergraduate in Cambridge, before he was a bishop. We stayed friends for the rest of his life. He taught me how to research: to accept nothing without checking, to trust nobody’s translations, to read secondary sources only when you have already worked out your ideas from primary sources, and never to forget what biblical study is really about.


I pray for my family and my friends. And for patience. When I was confirmed, my bishop gave me a prophetic text: “For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise.” (Hebrews 10.36) The line I remember most often is “Ye have need of patience. . .”


If I was locked in a church for a few hours, I’d choose Jesus as my companion.


Dr Margaret Barker was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. The next Temple Studies Group summer school will be from 14 to 18 August, on Isaiah and his disciples. www.templestudiesgroup.com

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