Catherine Bell’s trichotomy of (1) ritual performers; (2) their clientele; and (3) critical scholars of ritual and ritual performance helps explain why (3) critical scholars of biblical literature; (2) rank-and-file members of synagogues and churches; (1) and clergy give different answers to the same question: What does this text mean?
On another level, the three constituencies ask different questions. For example: How can I get a merciful God? How shall we then live? What distinguishes the biblical understanding of divine benevolence from that of texts which bring other ANE and Mediterranean religions to expression?
It is possible for one and the same person to grapple with all of the above questions. It is in fact productive to do so. But it is not easy to weave the entire range of questions and answers together in a single cloth.
Bell's trichotomy is of interest to students of biblical literature because lectio divina is a rite in Judaism and Christianity.
Bell’s take on the differences that distinguished early Christianity from coeval Judaism is debatable but worth considering for the kind of details it emphasizes:
As befits an alternative sectarian group outside mainstream Judaism and critical of Judaism’s accommodations to a worldly ethos and political necessities, Christians made a sharp distinction between insiders and outsiders—the “way of life” and the “way of darkness”—and ritually guarded it with rites rich in the symbolism of death and rebirth. By the early 3d century in Rome, the initiate had to prepare for three years by taking religious instruction and concentrating on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. During this time, the initiate, known as the “catechumen,” was expected to change his or her life by withdrawing from all non-Christian relationships and abandoning certain professions abhorred by the Christian community. The baptismal rite was eventually held on Easter night in commemoration of Jesus’ own passage from death to new life. The early-3d-century Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of Saint Hippolytus of Rome describes the ritual.
And when they are chosen who are set apart to receive baptism let their life be examined, whether they lived piously while catechumens, whether “they honoured the widows,” whether they visited the sick, whether they have fulfilled every good work. If those who bring them bear witness to them that they have done thus, let them hear the gospel. Moreover, from the day they are chosen, let a hand be laid on them and let them be exorcised daily. And when the day draws near on which they are to be baptised, let the bishop exorcise each one of them, that he may be certain that he is purified…. And let those who are to be baptised be instructed to wash and cleanse themselves on the fifth day of the week. And if any woman be menstruous she shall be put aside and be baptised another day. Those who are to receive baptism shall fast on the Friday and on the Saturday. And on the Saturday the bishop shall assemble those who are to be baptised in one place, and shall bid them all to pray and bow the knee. And laying his hand on them he shall exorcise every evil spirit to flee away from them and never to return to them. And when he has finished exorcising, let him breathe on their faces and seal their foreheads and ears and noses and let him raise them up [sign of the cross]. And they shall spend all the night in vigil, reading the scriptures and instructing them…. And at the hour when the cock crows they shall first pray over the water … [which should be] be pure and flowing. And they shall put off their clothes. And they shall baptise the little children first…. And next they shall baptise the grown men; and last the women, who shall have loosed their hair and laid aside [their] gold ornaments. Let no one go down to the water having any alien object with them. And at the time determined for baptising the bishop shall give thanks over the oil and put it into a vessel and it is called the Oil of Thanksgiving. And he shall take other oil and exorcise over it, and it is called the Oil of Exorcism. And let a deacon carry the Oil of Exorcism and stand on the left. And another deacon shall take the Oil of Thanksgiving and stand on the right hand. And when the presbyter takes hold of each one of those who are to be baptised, let him bid him renounce, saying: “I renounce thee, Satan, and all thy service and all thy works.” And when he has said this let him anoint him with the Oil of Exorcism saying: “Let all evil spirits depart far from thee. [Turning to the East, saying] I consent to Thee, O Father and Son and Holy Ghost, before whom all creation trembleth and is moved. Grant me to do all Thy will without blame.” Then after these things let him give him over to the presbyter who stands at the water. And a presbyter takes his right hand and he turns his face to the East. Before he descends into the water, while he still turns his face to the East, standing above the water he says after receiving the Oil of Exorcism, thus: “I believe and bow me unto Thee and all Thy service, O Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” And so he descends into the water. And let them stand in the water naked. And let a deacon likewise go down with him into the water. And let him say to him and instruct him: “Dost thou believe in one God the Father Almighty and His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ our Lord and our Savior, and His Holy Spirit, Giver of life to all creatures, the Trinity of one Substance, one Godhead, one Lordship, one Kingdom, one faith, one Baptism in the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church for life eternal?” And he who is baptised shall say thus: “Verily, I believe.” And when he who is to be baptised goes down to the water, let him who baptises lay hand on him saying thus: “Dost thou believe in God the Father Almighty?” And he who is being baptised shall say: “I believe.” Let him forthwith baptise him once, having his hand laid upon his head. And after let him say: “Dost thou believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, Who was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate, and died and was buried. And rose the third day living from the dead and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?” And when he says: “I believe,” let him baptise him the second time. And again let him say: “Dost thou believe in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh?” And he who is being baptised shall say: “I believe.” And so let him baptise him the third time. And afterwards when he comes up from the water he shall be anointed by the presbyter with the Oil of Thanksgiving, saying: “I anoint thee with holy oil in the Name of Jesus Christ.” And so each one drying himself with a towel they shall now put on their clothes, and after this let them be together in the assembly.
The many successive phases of the catechumen’s initiation into the Christian community described in this account emphasize the closed and sectarian nature of the organization. By the 3d century, the orthopraxy of the early phase of Jewish Christianity, already somewhat relativized by the importance of belief in Jesus Christ, began to give way to an emphasis on orthodoxy. In answer to a growing crisis in the Christian community about the middle of the 1st century, Paul decided that Gentiles (persons who were neither Romans nor Jews) who wanted to become Christians did not need to convert first to Judaism and obey all its laws; they simply needed to profess belief in Jesus. With this decision, Christianity took a decisive step toward distinguishing itself from Judaism and asserting more orthodoxic practices over orthopraxic ones. This step effectively made the message of belief in Christ independent of the cultural practices of a particular group, although Christianity continued to appropriate both Jewish and non-Jewish practices as its own and, as Hippolytus made clear, did not disregard rules and ritual. Indeed, there is evidence that many aspects of Jewish life, including food regulations and circumcision, were quite attractive to Gentiles at various times and places. Nonetheless, what it meant to become a Christian was consciously streamlined and simplified; Christianity was deliberately distinguished as a new dispensation of personal faith in contrast to the old order, now depicted as involving excessive “empty” ritualism. The act of defining Christianity in terms of a few fundamental beliefs made it possible to spread the message by missionary efforts to all sorts of cultural groups within the loose grasp of the Roman Empire. In fact, the Roman Empire had done much the same thing by recognizing local legal and religious systems wherever it went, as long as they did not fundamentally oppose Roman interests and were ready to acknowledge the central Roman cult. While Judaism essentially remained an orthopraxic system committed to preserving a holistic religiocultural way of life threatened by the diaspora, the historical situation of Christianity encouraged this new synthetic religion to define itself in more belief-oriented terms. This can be seen in the emergence of rules of faith (regula fida) that served as declarations of commitment to a developing creed and in a series of doctrinal controversies that were the vehicles for defining orthodox practice as well as heterodox practice, or heresy.
Catherine Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. Revised Edition (Kindle Locations 5751-5819). Oxford University Press (2009). Kindle Edition. [The text Bell copiously cites, The Apostolic Tradition, deserves an online multiglot edition. The edition prepared by Paul F. Bradshaw, Maxwell E. Johnson, and L. Edward Phillips for the Hermeneia series (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002) is an excellent point of departure.]
I have issues with Bell’s analysis. But she asks important questions and zeroes in on a text of central importance. The centrality of rite in the lived faith of most people is undeniable. Since that is the case, the details of The Apostolic Tradition ought to be known by heart by scholars of Greco-Roman Judaism and Christianity. Yet the composition is widely neglected and remains an unknown quantity to many.