Nothing to recommend him – misinterpreting the divine

“We imagine that the man Christ Jesus would have been irresistible to us.  Alas! He has never for a moment been beyond misinterpretation.”   – George Steven, Free Church, Scotland, 1917

If we had been contemporaries of Jesus, if we had seen a living and breathing man walking our streets, healing our sick, forgiving our sins, who or what do we think we would have seen – or failed to see?

“… There is no expression, deed, or event that ever happens, which does not immediately take its place in the order of natural events, to be criticized and judged as such” (Steven, The Development of a Christian Soul, p. 67).

Judged, but also misjudged.  There’s no wonder that he who came into the natural order of events as the Son of Man simultaneously evoked and disappointed the racial hopes of his people as long as he lived and breathed.  His fellowship with sinners was counted as sin, his healing was called Satanism, his forgiveness blasphemy.  And more recently, “His meekness has been counted weakness, his gentle speech timidity, his burning words ill-temper, his morality the morality of slaves. …”  (Ibid.)

His love, his eternal truth, his good name (and that of his Father) were all freely offered to his times, an infinite sacrifice to the misinterpretation  and calumny – the disappointment – of the finite.  It was a tribunal to which he submitted in full, with no quarter asked and none given.  Even  in the  matter of everyday appearances – the kind historians crave to know about their subjects.  His place of origin (Nazareth?), family background (common), accent (provincial), apparel (unpretentious), formal training (or lack thereof).  All such knowledge only created, for his accusers, another layer of the unacceptable.

We who believe in Jesus – then as now – believe from a different hermeneutic principle than the one applied by the religious elders of his day (and by the religious historians of our own day).  This hermeneutic of faith allows us to ‘see’ a different Jesus than his critics apprehend – one who flies under (or over) the radar of ‘the historical.’   Even 2000 years of ‘history’ cannot separate the soul from this Jesus of faith.  (to be continued)

“And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders …” (Mk 8:31)


Understanding the synoptic gospels without Q

What’s at stake in the challenge mounted by Mark Goodacre and a few others against the hypothetical Q document?  Q is a major theoretical pillar of modern New Testament source criticism, and we can be sure there is a mass of academic ego on the line, and great stacks of painstaking research and interpretation threatened with obsolescence.  In other words, the discussion isn’t going to happen.  Because those stakes are too high.

Modern criticism is now so heavily invested in the Q-romance of an imagined “lost” gospel containing primitive logia of Jesus that any general acceptance of Goodacre’s argument might cause a crisis in NT hermeneutics.  I believe that the gospels would be just fine in the exchange, but I think it would be a long time before the failed theological ties to the imaginary Q were sorted out, and scholars became adept at re-interpreting this double-tradition as simply that portion of material new to the author of Matthew which Luke also saw warrant to repeat in his own Gospel.

I am in general agreement with Goodacre and with Austin Farrer (1955) and Michael Goulder (1989), because I think Luke’s dependence on Matthew explains the common material between them better than Q-theory.  With the object of fortifying myself in this regard, I have had Goodacre’s book, The Case Against Q (2002), home from the library since early April.  But I have been distracted by the Johannine passion, Historical Jesus, N. T. Wright, reading Kant, priority of Mark, and other interests.

In a comment I made over at Near Emmaus yesterday, however, I cited my rejection of Q in support of a point I was making about the dating of Matthew.  Well I started to feel the need for some study of the problem in depth, because I didn’t want to be hanging out there with nothing but a personal preference for Luke’s dependence on Matthew.

The last straw came this morning, however, when I sat down with Ernst Fuch’s 1960 Berlin lecture, “Jesus’ Understanding of Time” (Studies of the Historical Jesus, SCM Press, 1964, p.104).  I’ve had Fuchs’ book home only a week, wanting to give the post-Bultmann scholars of the New Quest – and Fuchs in particular – a fair turn.  However, from the first paragraph it became apparent that I could not follow the author’s thesis without possessing an utter faith in the existence of Q (a faith which I don’t have).  After four pages, I put the book down and reached for Goodacre.

I want to nail this argument now, and will post a short review series on The Case Against Q in the near future.

Are all beliefs suitable as objects of faith?

I found Carl McColman’s great Website of Unknowing last week, and something really wonderful he was saying about belief attracted my attention immediately. Carl was quoting from his first book, Spirituality:

[the word Belief] stems from an Indo-European word, lubh-, which means “to hold dear” or “to like.” … the same ancient root from which love originates. This connection between belief and love suggests that belief has something to do with being in relationship. To believe means to trust and to love. To believe in the Sacred means to love the Sacred — and to be the Sacred’s beloved. To believe in God means to trust, depend on, and rely on God. Belief is not a matter of certainty or lack of doubt. Belief is a matter of emotional openness. Belief grows out of such characteristics of spirituality as willingness and vulnerability.

This is all very well. But what of those beliefs which cannot be transformed into this sense of active love, trust, and embrace?  This attitude of heart and mind which Carl calls belief I have long known as ‘living faith.’  And I’m wondering how far this quality of loving activity which he writes about will aid me in drawing a useful distinction between beliefs which can and cannot be fit objects for faith.

Take for example a belief like that which the creed asks us to hold about the virgin birth of Jesus.  The incarnation itself is clearly a divine gesture whose present meaning and value overcomes my resistance and draws me into an attitude of service and love.  But I can’t say the same thing for the virgin birth.  Belief in Mary’s virginity seems to be more of a statement about the technique of incarnation, a detail that is over, past, and done, and this is beyond my power of response. But if a belief cannot be acted upon, realized, lived into, how can it attain to trust, reliance, love?

Take on the other hand a New Testament concept which we don’t find in the creed – that the risen Lord has bestowed a Spirit of Truth, a divine Comforter, upon the world.  Now this belief about a spirit of adoption which may be apprehended in prayer and in life is something which I may certainly act upon, verify, realize (or not) in contemplation and action. And this has all the hallmarks of a religious concept which can be a proper object of faith – trust, reliance, love. It can be truly “embraced” in more than a merely subjective way.

Anyway, I’m still mulling over the differences.  The original discussion may be found here

Nurturing my philosophical side: Reading event for Kant

In the next few weeks I hope to be participating in the discussion of Kant with Robert Minto and friends at the Anti-Moderate.  I would call  The Critique of Pure Reason the most important single work in modern philosophy, although it points to the second Critique with enough persistence to be called half of a double work.

Unlike some, I view this book as more of a help to theism than a threat.  Granted, it’s tough on metaphysics and the alleged philosophical ‘proofs’ of God and the soul’s immortality which some theists depend upon.  But my metaphysics does not depend wholly on reason; it looks to subjectivity, value, wisdom, faith, and revelation for the total picture.

Why did the Word of God refuse to leave anything in text?

In a previous post I hinted at the tremendous theological depth I saw in a single very simple assumption about Jesus of Nazareth – a very pedestrian, un-theological assumption – that he was able to read and write his mother tongue.

The assumption of a basic functional literacy for Jesus makes a very unspectacular human claim – one which requires no miracle, no mysterious wisdom, no superhuman power.  Literacy was a skill set that was a credible attainment for any first-born Jew of the age (as professor Craig A. Evans has shown – see the earlier post).

The historian might ask, “If Jesus could read and write, why don’t we have any of his writing?”  And I think too many historians hold this question to be an unanswerable proof that Jesus was illiterate.  However, it is just this lack of writing by Jesus that I find so theologically deep when taken in conjunction with a supposition that he could both read and write:  What if the Word of God, when incarnate, had been perfectly able to render his purpose, his idea, his gift, his teaching, his gospel, under the discursive form of an authoritative text – but determined not to do so?  Would this tell us anything about the divine attitude toward textual authority?

Nothing requires us to follow the historians who account for Jesus’ lack of writing by suggesting an illiterate ‘rustic’ teacher (of astonishing wisdom).  For if we choose to see instead a deliberate decision against leaving such a sensitive artifact as an actual text, we may still join the historians in asking, Well indeed, why didn’t such a man leave any writings?   However, by laying aside the picturesque assumption of illiteracy, we open up possibilities which tend to move the discussion away from dependence upon alleged Galilean literacy rates and in the direction of dependence upon divine will and divine wisdom.

Spirit of Truth and spirit of error at Pentecost

Any good search engine will return thousands of hits for Simon Peter in return for the two words, impetuous apostle.  The same two words will fetch hundreds of Google Books titles dating back over 200 years which include a sketch of Simon Peter’s character along this line.  “Impetuous” is simply the epitome of this Apostle’s reputation, drawn from honest reflection on his behavior as recorded in the Gospels and Acts.

Not many, however, would judge impetuosity, given to headlong plunges, precipitous action, sudden resolves lacking in substantial reserve, as a trait in the character of a truth-seeker.  I think most of us would probably see it as more the spirit of error than the Spirit of Truth.

I think this fact about Peter’s temperament, and its opposition to the frame of mind required for entertaining new or greater truths, are evident at the first Christian Pentecost.  If Acts 2:14-41 preserves the true outline of his Pentecost sermon, I think we must admit that Peter on this auspicious day moves head-first into an error which embarrassed the church for more than a generation.

Peter Preaching at Pentecost - Masolino

By his quotations from Joel and David (Psalms), Peter proclaims “the great and manifest day” of impending doom for all who do not “call on the name of the Lord,” even Jesus of Nazareth, whom God  has raised, and who is now at God’s right hand until his enemies are made his footstool.  If this was Peter’s message, and it cut his listeners to the heart (2:37), we might assume that what led to the ‘conversion’ of about 3000 was a dread of impending retribution for shared guilt in the death of the Messiah.  Is this a gospel?

Not in my view.  Peter’s dire imagery – his fearsome but empty implications that the slain Messiah was to make an imminent return to judge the unrepentant Jews and the world – was in fact simply wrong.  Here we see perhaps the historical root of the error which Paul also taught – the Messiah’s imminent return.  Wrong and wrong.

[Note added May 16:  So much for the “spirit of error.”  I also am a firm believer that Pentecost marked the beginning of a real connection between the Spirit of Truth and the life of the church.  Suffice it for now to say I do not believe this Spirit to function in a manner which protects the church from all error whatsoever.]

Preface to a theological turn

With the blog little over 60 days old I am pleased to have two good pans in the fire, with the series on the Priority of Mark and on John’s historical value for the trials of Jesus .  Meanwhile my earlier topics – the pre-Calvary Gospel, Das Messiasgeheimnis, the indwelling Kingdom, and Jesus’ refusal to be a Text – are simmering on the back burners, and will get more bandwidth soon.

However, I haven’t featured any Peter or Paul, or any Old Testament, and virtually no theology.  So I want to inaugurate my ‘theology’ category, and I believe I have a topic that will lead to a sustained series of posts, both from personal interest and because it is related to so many points of Christian reflection and doctrine in its own right.

So when I can get my ducks in a nice row, I will be looking at the whole NT tradition of Jesus’ prevalent and varied table ministry.  My aim is to unite the theological content inherent in ‘the Lord’s Supper’ with all those many examples of  Jesus’ table fellowship we find before (and after) the Passion meal.  I want to see how far a single theme – God’s unabashed presence and free communion with sinners at table  – may be understood to unify such diverse theological concepts as atonement, forgiveness, reconciliation, grace, Eucharist, communion, Christian love, inclusion, prayer, approach to God, and fellowship with God.

In honor of this theological turn, I have established a new banner atop the blog, from Paolo Veronese’s celebrated “Feast at the House of Levi” (Lk 5:27-32/Mk2:14-17).  I look for this really remarkable painting to set a tone that is at once both in this world and not of this world.

Priority of Mark (2) – What it means for the other Gospels

St. Mark - French XV Cent. - Rosenwald coll.

Last week I called the principle of Markan priority a good place to start in NT criticism.  That post probably sounded naïve to anyone not joined with one of the Christian inerrancy cults.  Because the priority of Mark is a very well-established principle in mainstream Christian hermeneutics, and there would seem to be no need to belabor that.  In fact, I realize now that my post was a kind of outreach, over the head of the mainstream, toward those who would gladly accept a key to NT criticism by which they may extract themselves from the fundamentalists without losing their religion.

There are two substantial reasons why I think the priority of Mark is a critical principle suitable for all Christians and compatible with a living faith in all four gospels.

First of all, it is a source theory which concerns a real text, itself canonical, rather than an imaginary one such as ‘Q’.  The hypothesis of Q is not required as a condition for accepting the priority of Mark.  These two elements of what is called the “Two-Source Theory” are completely independent from each other.  And I find it easy to reject both Q and the Two-Source Theory, with adequate scholarly support for my rejection (although it is a minority view).  Yet I can find no compelling grounds for the rejection of Mark’s historical priority among the four gospels.

Secondly, literary or historical priority is a principle which does not create or require a theological bias for Mark over against the other gospels.  Placing Mark’s Gospel text first in time gives his material a special critical interest in relation to its effect upon the writers of the other three Gospels, but this value does not give Mark’s theological content higher status than the content of the other three.

The Four Evangelists - Carolingian miniature

Nor would the fact that the other writers used Mark as a source make their later gospels inferior to Mark, or further removed from ‘the original’ than Mark.  If God lives, if the Spirit and the Son still dwell with mankind, there are no logical grounds for basing spiritual priority or authority on the fact of a document’s historical priority.  That would be a fundamental category error.

Having said that, it remains a fact that the truth about any historical person, event, or idea often lies a little loosely to the narrative structure when encountered in its first recording; truth often benefits from exposure to a wider sample of experience and a longer period of reflection on the facts.  Later writing therefore often represents riper fruitBut neither does this suggest that placing Mark first in time takes something away from the value of his unique contribution to the record about Jesus – A gospel’s truth is measured at the circumference of a circle whose center is not a text, but a living and speaking Jesus.

With these preliminaries out of the way, I want next to introduce a view of Mark in a context of gospel history which is not much celebrated by scholars, but will I think be of increasing interest to the next theology.

Crossan, the trials of Jesus, and religious violence

copyright HarperCollins 1995

I really had no idea what I was getting into when I grabbed John Dominic Crossan’s Who Killed Jesus? (1995) from the library shelf.  I was looking for help with my recent blogging of the trials of Jesus, and expected some ‘sporting’ push-back from an historian like Crossan, whose minimalist approach to the New Testament writings I find irritating most of the time.  But I had no idea that the book’s subtitle, Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus, meant, for Crossan, a magisterial dismissal of the historical reality of my topic!

That much slashing of text (39 verses in Mark and all of the related matter in the other three writers) still seems to me to be a completely strange result for professional and allegedly neutral criticism of the Gospels.

Dr. Crossan makes it plain from the start that he has been mightily moved by the fact that these are precisely the gospel accounts which have catalyzed violence against Jews since medieval times.  But the historian seems motivated by this fact to make an inference backwards into history, by which he ‘divines’ that these texts look not so much like history but more like creative artifacts of the eternal cycle of religious violence.  The account of Jesus’ strength in suffering abuse and incrimination under both Jewish and Roman authorities, he argues, was  likely a fiction  published  as an encouragement to the church of the times, which suffered persecution and abuse by men of these same two nationalities.   Crossan allows that this was an understandable creative accretion to the Gospels during the harsh, early times when the church was comprised of the powerless few.  However, Christians as a group have long since risen from obscurity to play a dominant role in the state, and these fictions now only encourage religious violence, and so ought to be neutralized.  Hmmm.

In Crossan’s view, no actual trial and abuse was  necessary to account for the creation of the story of the trials and abuse.  He suggests that the matter of the Jewish and Roman trials, with their attendant abuse and mockery of Jesus, could conceivably have been inspired by Psalm 2 (I can’t give his argument in full – see p.82ff; p.106).  Further, neither the trials nor the abuse of Jesus by his captors are necessary to explain his crucifixion.  Crossan asserts that formal proceedings against Jesus are unimaginable, and the details which filled the time between arrest and execution are anybody’s guess (anybody not an evangelist).  Here is author Crossan’s own best guess:

“Imagine, for example, that Caiaphas and Pilate had standing agreements and orders concerning Passover whereby any subversive action involving the Temple and its crowds would beget instant punishment with immediate crucifixion as public warning and deterrent.  There would be no need to go very high up the chain of command for a peasant nuisance nobody like Jesus, no need for even a formal interrogation before Caiaphas, let alone a detailed trial before Pilate.  In the case of Jesus, there may well have been Arrest and Execution but no Trial whatsoever in between” (p.117).

I think it would be more to the credit of professor Crossan’s minimalist method if, in taking so much away from the evangelists, he had refrained from filling in the gaps with the spin of his own unrestrained creativity.  In fact Crossan seems to manifest every fault he alleges in the evangelists – all the way from Mark’s ‘special concerns’ (p.17) to John’s ‘extremely creative adaptations’ (p.21).  In my view, the professor himself is working not far from the realm of historical fiction.

Where does this leave me in my recent study and blogging of the trials?  I will continue my series on the confinement and trials of Jesus until I have finished making my point about the value of John’s gospel in sorting out the synoptics.  If nothing else, Crossan reminds me that the trials and abuse are a sensitive topic, controversial, even slightly radioactive.  Terrific.  But I think Crossan’s ornate argument and sweeping dismissal of text is misguided and will do nothing to curtail the madness that is anti-Semitism.  His is an empty gesture, from an ivory tower.  And like most of the professor’s unique brand of minimalist history, it will amount to very little in the deliberations of the next theology.