On religious afflictions of the eye and ear

“Hearing, they do not hear …”

The hearing impairment to which Jesus referred, quoting Isaiah, was the same one which the Hebrew prophet had diagnosed in his own time – and it is no less prevalent in our day.

Diagnosis implies gnosis.  Jesus, like Isaiah, had a new truth (or more truth) to reveal to his listeners, but the words he had available for the purpose failed to penetrate the framework of every mind.  His choicest words were rejected as strange or irreligious in the context of old ‘tried and true’ principles which were in possession of their understandings.

The malady in question is worse than a physical ailment – with which Jesus had some success.  Instead it affects the listener’s inner attitude, the will, taking away the freedom with which they might break down the old shell of religious meanings from within.

“… and seeing, they do not see.”

It is likewise with the vision problem – the afflicted person has full use of his eyes, but lacks the insight required to get past conventional associations of meaning.

In the minds of the people of Galilee and Judea who suffered from these two afflictions  the man Jesus of Nazareth, qua Messiah, could not help but simultaneously evoke, disappoint, and offend their racial and religious hopes as long as he lived and breathed.  His fellowship with sinners was counted as sin, his healing was called Satanism, his forgiveness blasphemy.  His meekness was counted as weakness and, in our present age, his morality has been called the morality of slaves.

This sight and hearing failure especially affected matters of everyday appearances and social antecedents – things which ‘scientific’ historians most crave to know.  His place of origin (Nazareth!), family background (common!), accent (provincial!), formal training (or lack thereof!), apparel (unpretentious)  – all of the ‘facts’ only created, for his accusers (and for some modern historians), another layer of the unacceptable.

Does it seem unfair to suggest that the principle of interpretation used by believers to gain access to the Jesus of ‘history’ – then as now – must be different from that hermeneutic of suspicion used by the elders and others who rejected him (and by the ‘scientific’ historians who counsel rejection of his eternal truth today)?  How does one access the insight required to become receptive to a previously undiscovered truth?  What is the rational ‘order of love’ in a fruitful hermeneutic of faith?

This post is part of the promised continuation of thoughts posted on this blog last May.


The last 2,302 words from the cross (Pss 22:1 to 31:5)

if Jesus was in fact praying the Psalms on the cross, Mark supplies the origin (Ps 22:1) and Luke the terminus (Ps 31:5) of the Lord’s final conscious string of prayer.

According to Mark, Jesus is heard by bystanders to have spoken from the cross words which are found in Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34).  Most commentators will admit (even if they disagree) that an old interpretation of this text claims that Jesus might well have been ‘praying the Psalms’ to himself in Aramaic during that last forsaken hour.

However, Mark further relates that these bystanders believed Jesus was calling Elijah, and offered Jesus a sop of soldier’s wine, waiting to see if Elijah would come for him.  It is not until after this interlude that physical death comes when, as Mark writes, Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last (Mk 15:37).

According to Luke, the addition at Mk 15:37 doesn’t tell the whole story.  Luke has reason to report that the last loud cry which Mark reports on the lips of Jesus just before he breathed his last was in the form of actual words:  “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!”  Unbelieving Jesus scholars won’t like this, but I think Luke’s report of more speech is easier to accept than the idea of Jesus letting rip with one of those hideous screams that actors use when playing the bad guy falling off the cliff – AAAAUUGH!  Seriously?

Luke has given us a beautiful devotional window opening onto the mind of Jesus at the hour of his death.  Because these words reported by Luke are also from the Psalms (31:5).  This means that if Jesus was in fact praying the Psalms on the cross, Mark supplies the origin (Ps 22:1) and Luke the terminus (Ps 31:5) of the Lord’s final conscious string of prayer.

For Lent, then, it might be worth a shot to try ‘praying the Psalms’ with Jesus from the cross (Ps 22:1 – 31:5).  In faith imagine that you are experiencing a bit of what was actually passing through the mind of the Christ in the last few minutes of his material existence.  Put a little cheap wine on your tongue somewhere in the middle of it all.

PS – My word-count 2,302 is based on an English version I found online and copied to word processing for tabulation (minus choir directions and verse numbers).  I don’t know what it is in Aramaic.

What do Christian theologies look like without an inerrant Bible?

Recent publication of a book by Thom Stark has got my attention because it looks like it treats of the issue of scripture inerrancy by a method that is much more constructive than the kind of anti-Christian rantings we expect from Bart Ehrman or Sam Harris, or John Loftus.

I’m not sure – but short reviews of The Human Faces of God and a revealing interview of Stark give me reason to hope.

It was a recent two-part review by Kevin at Diglotting which got my attention in the first place.  Meanwhile Steve at Undeception has been busy in the same vein, and both writers have me thinking a little more systematically about the question: ‘What would we expect to see in a good Christian theology that explicitly rejects the dogma of Bible inerrancy?’ 

It’s no secret that many theologies have been written without support of the dogma of Bible inerrancy.  And I think all of the good ones have argued for a concept of Bible authority in which scripture remains normative for theology in a foundational sense.  Martin Kahler, C.S. Lewis, Karl Barth, Dorothy Sayers, H.R. Neibuhr,  Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – I believe all these thinkers and more have stressed the authority of the Bible without defending its inerrancy.  We see here a ‘Doctrine of Scripture’ or there a ‘Doctrine of Revelation’ or a ‘Doctrine of the Word of God’ which give greater breadth to a more mature and more promising theological approach to the Bible than the irrational restraints of inerrancy allow.

I notice that these kinds of theologies all tend to show greater development of the role of Christ himself  as Word of God – rather than alleging that the letter is identical with ‘the Word.’  And I think the question of the Holy Spirit’s testimony to Christ will see much-needed development any time the Bible is purged from the fetishism of inerrancy.  Because a theology’s rejection of the dogma of inerrancy should not change its need to treat constructively of inspiration.  The Spirit’s role in inspiring our fallible reading of the Bible becomes just as important and just as interesting as its role in inspiring the original (fallible) writer.

Evangelicals need quickly to see this as the new world of honest religion – it doesn’t signify the end of the world for faith.  Faith remains the key to our salvation by the grace of God.  The current drama – what looks to be the fast-approaching end of the dogma of Bible inerrancy – would not even be necessary if it hadn’t been for the proliferation of so much fundamentalism among Evangelicals in North America during the 19th and 20th centuries – while the issues of working with a fallible text were being treated by responsible thinkers in the religious mainstream.

Fundamentalism and theological modernism – both wrong?

Jesus is recorded to have remarked that his theological opponents had struck an attitude toward himself and his teachings that was so utterly inadequate that he called it seeing without seeing and hearing without hearing.  It is not unusual that a religious teaching  which makes a life-changing truth available to one mind can appear to another, differently-oriented mind as paradoxical or self-contradictory or crazy or even heretical.  The opponents of Jesus were blind and deaf to teacher and message because they looked and listened not with a spiritual outlook but with an almost positivistic reference to the ‘facts’ they thought they saw in their sacred texts.  This essentially material outlook revealed to them not spiritual results but empirical findings – most importantly, that his unusual mission did not resemble the mission of the Messiah as represented in their inerrant scripture.

Does this same rationalized positivism of texts and times characterize the dominant evangelical hermeneutic of the past century or more?  Maybe that’s what I find so irritating about evangelical commentaries.  Oddly, I find the same sort of inappropriate positivism and rationalism in much of the hermeneutic of theological modernism, and it is equally irritating.

I was helped to a better view of this surprising commonality by an interesting paraphrase of Stanley Hauerwas I saw Thursday in a guest post over on Marc Cortez’ blog  where the discussion goes on into today.

“fundamentalism and theological modernism are simply different sides of the same radical modernist coin. Both embrace the paradigms of Enlightenment empiricism and rationalism too seriously (Hauerwas affirms this) – theological liberalism tries to keep the faith by cutting out all the things that don’t fit into the empirical and/or rational modes, whereas fundamentalism tries to defend them using the tools of empiricism and rationalism to the nth degree. Both end up embracing rationalism and empiricism as the first order basis or “metaphysic” as such, upon which to build a worldview. This is what led the fundamentalist strain in evangelicalism, according to Hauerwas, to make “Sola Scriptura” equal to “Sola Text.”

If Hauerwas has been accurately paraphrased, his opinion is that the inerrancy principle requires a special, guarded form of the so-called literal-grammatical-historical method which amounts to a positivistic empiricism of the text in conjunction with a fanciful rationalization of discrepancies and contradictions – all of which, in the spiritual inadequacy of its positivism, shares an enlightenment-age pedigree with the unbeliever’s hermeneutic of suspicion.

The rejection of Jesus by scribe and elder was accomplished in the very presence of his person and mission by a simultaneous resort to both a hermeneutic of inerrancy and a hermeneutic of suspicion – another indication that these two are sides of “the same coin.”

How faith in Jesus can trump faith in scripture

“Our aim in the present study is to show that Jesus did not expect a speedy and supernatural destruction of the world.” (Lily Dougal and Cyril Emmet, The Lord of Thought, from the Preface, dated Sept. 1922).

At the time of their writing, these two New Testament critics were very much alarmed at a growing bias in NT criticism.  “It is now widely held that the whole thought of Jesus was governed by the belief that the end of the world was very near, or, at least, that this belief was a confusing element in his outlook.”  Of course the authors were discussing a 15-year trend inaugurated by Albert Schweitzer’s 1906 book, Von Reimarus zu Wrede (The Quest of the Historical Jesus).

Schweitzer had claimed that the teaching of Jesus is inconsistent with itself except when everything is viewed from the perspective of a thorough-going eschatological frame of mind.  Except the problem with his view is that it makes Jesus inconsistent with reality – because some scripture texts make Jesus wrong about the proximity of the end, and his return in glory.

Dougal and Emmet agree with Schweitzer that the eschatological teachings attributed to Jesus are inconsistent with his higher teachings, but they reject Schweitzer’s means of achieving consistency for Jesus.  Schweitzer, they argue, has only created his own false pattern of consistency in Jesus teaching, “by forcing upon all his sayings and parables an interpretation in harmony with the more fanatical Judaism of his time.”  (p.2)

They offer a solution which can only alienate both fundamentalists and moderns:

“Considering the circumstances in which the Gospels were compiled, it is more becoming for us, in the first instance, to suspect the records of inaccuracy than to assume that the inconsistency lay with Jesus.” (p.9)

I’m fine with the authors’ rejection of plenary inspiration.  Trouble is, they imply a new principle which skeptical critics are sure to hate – the principle of an inerrant Jesus  But I like it! 

“In the history of any one of the canonized Christian saints, when sayings and acts are attributed to him or her which to us appear inconsistent and unworthy, our first proceeding is to suspect the accuracy of the narrator … on the hypothesis that the inspiration of the saint for goodness and wisdom was greater than the inspiration for accuracy enjoyed by the disciple.” (p.7-8)

Seriously, a hermeneutic principle like inerrant Jesus is unapologetically faithful – only it requires that our faith in the perfection of Jesus trumps our belief in the perfection of scripture.  There’s bound to be difficulty discriminating the inerrancy of Jesus from the inaccuracy of apostles and gospel writers.  But the result for eschatology is an important one – the axiomatic rejection of a merely human Jesus who is either self-contradictory or  a fanatic and delusional Jew yields refreshing fruit in a healthy critical skepticism regarding all assertions or allusions in scripture which suggest that a destructive end-of-the world scenario is a necessary adjunct to the true Gospel.

I’m taking a stand on this one (Luke 17:21) – updated

“The Kingdom of God is within you.”

Commentators on these words of Jesus in Luke 17:21 are almost unanimous in expressing their disbelief that Jesus intended the literal meaning of his words “within you” to apply to the small group of Pharisees to whom he was speaking.  But since when did a commentator’s incredulity alone constitute adequate exegesis?  It sounds to me more like they are refusing to hear what Jesus is saying.  And as I reported in an earlier post, variant translations for this particular Greek phrase which render the English as ‘in your midst’ or ‘among you’ are not found in any other 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.

Yesterday I commented on a post by a Christian blogger who was trying to mount an argument against the literal meaning of this text from Luke.  I’ve seen this kind of attack before on Luke 17:21, and it happens to be a matter of prime importance to me, so I’m taking a stand for its literal meaning.

But what makes it so hard for my fellow Christians to accept a teaching of Jesus which extends the blessings of God’s presence even to his enemies?  Are they really listening to Jesus?  And anyway, which of Jesus’ so-called friends has completely escaped temptation and rebellion?  If we find that the spirit of God dwells with patient love in all such men and women, even in the face of their misunderstanding and antipathy, it is not impossible, I think, to have faith that this patient spirit also waits within all mankind.

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.

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.

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.