Monday, May 11, 2009

two kisses

At our May teaching in Mthatha on the History of Christianity, I elaborated on the early Christian practice, also attested in the New Testament, of "the holy kiss." My point was as follows.

In the Roman society in which the early church grew up, people greeted one another with a kiss. The kiss, however, was exchanged only within social boundaries--not across them. Consequently, when members of the church, drawn from "Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female," began to exchange the kiss as a sign of their unity in Christ, they drew the ire of their pagan contemporaries.

This is all interesting in and of itself, but that is not my point for the present.

One of Bethany Bible School's most inquisitive students wanted to know what "the holy kiss" had to do with Absalom's kiss (2 Samuel 15).

"Did you even know that there was such a kiss?" a visiting North American friend asked me later that evening.

I hadn't.

She went on to say that, when she and her husband, former missionaries in West Africa, reported on Africans' propensity for knowing portions of the Bible obscure to many western readers, some North American supporters "wondered what [they] were there for." The Africans, after all, knew their Bibles better than the westerners.

In one sense, yes. Her husband, however, had responded, "I think I am there to give some perspective."

I would view my job, as an American whom South Africans call "Teacher", in exactly the same way. Though many of my students are more likely to know than me that Absalom had a kiss, they are less likely to know what that kiss, if anything, has to do with other parts of the Story we call the Bible.

Hence, the student's question. I had been talking about, aside from the few references at the end of certain of Paul's letters, post-biblical material. The student heard about the "kiss" and thought of Absalom (I might point out here that he did not even think of Judas). His associations were free, unbound by time (of which elapsed more than 1000 years, between Absalom and the early church), or text (Old vs. New Testament or even second and third-century CE writings from the Graeco-Roman world).

Did he even know (and this is not ridicule!) that, at least in the sense of time, it is impossible that "the holy kiss" and "Absalom's" were one?

I take such a distinction for granted. As a result, I look to answer the question by finding out what the purpose behind the respective kisses was; only then can I compare them.

Another student, however, simply chose as his answer the simple narrative facts: "Absalom was using that kiss to overthrow his father. [Therefore] that kiss has nothing to do with ["the holy kiss"]." Case closed.

Still, I had to add: "Yes . . . Absalom used his kiss for the purpose of betrayal, the early Christians used theirs for love."


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