Into the wilderness

Beginning Palm Sunday, I’ll be away until Easter, on our seventh annual spring week in the desert.  This year it happens to be Holy Week.

Approaching Friday, the joshua trees will be a constant reminder of the cross.  Not because they look like crosses (they don’t), but because there is a poetic sense in which the cross became a ‘Joshua Tree’ when Yeshua was placed upon it.

This post gives me a chance to utilize my first embedded image (this one from last year’s trip). A new look for the blog (maybe a portent of the next level).

A soft version of the Messianic Secret – Part 1

Two weeks ago I listened to a lecture podcast over at NTpod on the Messianic Secret in Mark, by Duke professor Mark Goodacre. The podcast (and the .pdf handout) were my first exposure to modern criticism of Wrede and showed me that I had been needlessly repelled by the theory (i.e., balked at reading the book) by my misconception that it was an organic whole which must be taken as such or discarded.  Goodacre’s freestyle treatment (the podcast is of an informal classroom lecture) unlocked a door for me.

The textual basis of Wrede’s theory is a widely scattered class of Markan logia of Jesus.  The characteristic of these logia is that they always check or censor the potential for popular acclamation and interpretations of the power, identity, and teachings of Jesus. The four categories are: (1) silencing of demons, (2) silencing of those who are healed, (3) concealment of teaching through parables, and (4) silencing of the disciples.  It’s a pretty strong motif, although all four categories have been shown to contain some elements that are not clear indicators of the theory (James D. G. Dunn showed this back in the 70’s).

I’m OK with Wrede’s hypothesis that elements of post-resurrection tradition have contributed a constructive theological spin to Mark’s record.  Without affecting the true identity of the Son, it suggests a healthy questioning of Peter’s later teaching of the imminent and fearsome return of the crucified and risen Jewish Messiah (Acts 2:22ff).  Also I’m open to anything that would tend to bring the historical value of the Fourth Gospel more into line with Mark and the synoptics.

I reject Wrede’s assumption that the silence/concealment motif is all post-resurrection material, without foundation in the pre-crucifixion history.  To the contrary, I think it is quite natural and uncomplicated to assume the existence of at least a core of authentic logia in which Jesus is “hushing-up” public acclamations about his identity and works.  I think the problem in Mark can be solved better without taking the pre-crucifixion Jesus completely out of the picture, and without implicating him in any deception, and without creating the need for wholesale fabrication of tradition (which is why I call mine a ‘soft’ version of the Messianic secret).

I still won’t be able to check out Wrede’s book for several weeks (it’s 50 miles away on 2-hour class-reserve and my status is non-student).  So I start with a few broad strokes until I can read it.  I plan to continue this important thread in additional parts under this subject category.

“Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Questioning alternate readings of Lk 17:21

I find no English translator before the late 19th century rendering the last words in Luke 17:21 by any other than the classic phrase, “the kingdom of God is within you.”   The interpretive glosses “…in your midst” and “…among you” appear as early as the 16th century (commentaries by the Protestant Beza and the Catholic Maldonatus).  But these interpretive expansions were always part of the commentary, never the text.

By contrast, modern translations began including these interpretations as alternate readings in footnotes over 100 years ago.  And finally these glosses have graduated to the text itself, completely displacing the original literal sense.  Examples of the trend can be seen by comparing the American Standard Version with the RSV or New American Standard Version. See also the New International Version vs. Today’s NIV.  And there are many more.

I think this development is remarkable for the fact that it has not come about as a result of any new textual discoveries.  The variant usages of this particular Greek phrase are found in no Biblical text whatsoever.  By contrast, “within you, in your hearts” has the authority of Ps. 38:4, 108:22, 103:1, Isa 16:11, Dan 10:16, Ecclus. 19:23.

Why then, are the variant readings proliferating?  If a textual basis is ruled out, there must be a theological principle afoot – either that or we must call it only a matter of theological taste among the dominant type of Christian mind, or a prevailing direction in the theological wind.

Behind all this, I think, is the fact that Luke’s commentators are almost unanimous in their disbelief that Jesus could have intended the literal meaning of his words “within you” to apply to the small group of unsympathetic Pharisees who questioned him.  What makes it so hard for a Christian to accept a teaching of Jesus which would extend the reign of God to his enemies?  Which of his friends, by contrast, has completely escaped temptation and rebellion?  Neither would the spirit of God be lacking in patient love for men and women even in the face of their misunderstanding and antipathy.

I think the next theology faces three tasks in this matter of Luke 17:21;  first, the bulky problem of sorting out the history of ecclesiastical and theological tastes in regard to the “Kingdom of God.”  Second, the examination of the predjudice among Lukan commentators against inclusion of Jesus’ enemies in this kingdom.  Third, the useful task of rehabilitating the literal sense of this precious text.

The message of Jesus and the preaching of the church

According to Mark’s record, Jesus is already preaching a “gospel of God” at the very start of his public career.  At some point not much later than the imprisonment of the Baptist and before his selection of the twelve, we find Jesus preaching, “The Reign of God is at hand; Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mk 1:14-15). 

Here it is, a long time before the cross and tomb and resurrection, long before Pentecost, but Jesus is already preaching a message which qualifies as “good news.”  Can this early “good news of God,” personally commended by Jesus of Nazareth shortly after his baptism resemble very closely the preaching about the crucified Messiah which was immediately proclaimed by Peter at Pentecost?

And what of the potential differences that might exist between the early message of Jesus and the later evangelical gospel of salvation, which follows (even surpasses) Paul in incorporating the whole redemptive work of crucifixion, resurrection, and Pentecost?

I want to look at the exegetical and/or theological apparatus developed in the church to reconcile these two gospels and ask, can they in fact be reconciled?  The answer is important, I think, for the next theology

In my view, The least helpful approach to Jesus is the one which apprehends his ‘reign of God’ in the manner portrayed by the Jewish eschatological writings which preceded his day, although their influence on his hearers and followers – and even on his precursor the Baptist – cannot be deniedBut this assertion will need further elucidation.

A divine ambivalence toward recorded history?

I found a good argument for a reading and writing Jesus by Prof. Craig Evans in The Cambridge Companion to Jesus (“Context, Family, and Formation,” 2001, pp.11-24).

I was interested in scholarly views of the literacy of Jesus because I see a surprising theological depth in the possibility that Jesus was a voluntary non-participant in “history” at this level of written records.  In later posts I want to look at the theological implications of a Jesus who is perfectly able to leave a record for history, but who makes a conscious decision to leave absolutely nothing behind in the form of written teachings or memoirs.

Meanwhile I was not surprised to learn the following:

“Some members of the North American Jesus Seminar do not think Jesus could read.  The seminar also tends to think that quotations of and allusions to scripture are the work of the early church, not of Jesus.”  (Evans, p.15, citing Funk, 1998, p.274).

Evans outlines the standard critical objections to the two most obvious Gospel accounts depicting a literate Jesus:

Luke 4:16ff records Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth actually finding and reading a passage from the book of Isaiah.  Our historians tend to brand this text “not Jesus” simply because it finds no corroboration in the alleged parallel of Mark (6:1-6), where mention is made of his teaching without establishing whether or not Jesus himself introduced his words with the usual practice of reading from the scroll.

John 8:6, depicting Jesus writing in the sand, is proclaimed “not Jesus” because its location in the Gospel changes in a few of the ancient texts, suggesting lateness.  That’s not to mention the unrealistic critical attitude toward John in general.  And if this is not enough, the suggestion is out there that, after all, our Lord may have been only doodling!

I have a pretty low estimate of the grounds on which a Jesus scholar would reject the likelihood that his subject was able to read and write his mother tongue.  Evans is more even-tempered, offering no overt challenge to these critical roadblocks.  Instead his case for a literate Jesus rests upon an exploration of the context of household and community education and Torah instruction in the Judaism of that period (especially for an eldest son).  The result is a suitable picture of an ‘unlearned’ Master or Rabbi who is not without education. 

In fact, however, my point does not depend on a proof of literacy for Jesus.  It would not be unusual for a teacher of that day to utilize an amanuensis or secretary if he were motivated to do so.  And if Jesus had believed that his teachings, committed to contemporary scrolls or tablets, might have saved one poor doubting scholar in this later day and age, what power on Earth or in Heaven could have prevented him from leaving such a personal record?  The issue of literacy here rightfully gives way to the higher issues of divine wisdom and divine will.

To be continued.