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.

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The early English defense of the Fourth Gospel

If you are someone who thinks modern New Testament criticism contains unanswerable arguments against the historical value of the Fourth Gospel, I think you have never studied the critical defense of John’s Gospel by English scholars of the nineteenth century.

Beginning about 1848, the British scholars who took up the task of refuting the negative German criticism of the Fourth Gospel followed in the footsteps of Germans who had already begun to counter the negative arguments point by point on valid historical and textual-critical grounds. But fundamentalists beware – the best of this early defense of John’s Gospel (both English and German) was not buttressed by special pleading for plenary inspiration.

So I’m saying that a ‘battle of modern scholars’ was fought over 150 years ago and was by 1900 fairly won by the side supporting the Fourth Gospel’s authenticity. I can’t blame you if you ask – Why then do we find so many scholars of repute today who hold the Fourth Gospel in less esteem than the other three? I can only urge you to consult the ‘British defense’ and judge for yourselves whether it has had a fair hearing among negative critics.

Here is a story told by archdeacon Henry Watkins, canon of Durham Cathedral in 1889, of a conversation he had with the Bishop of Durham, J.B. Lightfoot.

“One day while walking with the late Bishop of Durham, when we hoped he was regaining strength, I took the opportunity of asking him how he accounted for the fact of the frequent assertion that the genuineness of the Fourth Gospel was disproved by modern criticism, in the presence of the strong and accumulating evidence in its favour.” (Modern Criticism Considered in Relation to the Fourth Gospel, 1890, p.viii)

Lightfoot was age 61 at the time and suffered from an illness which was to end his life that same year. It was at the bishop’s urging that Watkins prepared a review in rough outline of the chief issues of the convincing 40-year campaign to defend Johanine scholarship against the negative critics. Bishop Lightfoot then gave the last effort of his life to securing the archdeacon’s appointment as the next Bampton Lecturer at Oxford.  “No subject,” he wrote before his death, “could be more useful at the present day, and I think that the time has arrived when it can be effectively treated”.

Last year I began a defense of the historicity of John on this blog, and I mean to keep pushing this point.  Last month I found Watkins’ 1890 Bampton Lectures in my favorite old seminary, and I want to get some results of reading posted in the near future.

It should come as no surprise that I feel the history of fundamentalist bluster against the higher criticism can play no real part in the issues at stake with John’s Gospel.  The evangelical mind seems to have neither taste nor capacity for this kind of argument – due to its habitual abdication of reason in the presence of texts conceived to be almighty.  Even the ex-evangelical mind seems unsuited to the task of positive criticism.  The negative German critics themselves were often ex-evangelicals who, after losing their belief in the Bible’s divine authorship, also lost their way in critical scholarship.

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.

The belief and unbelief of the Apostles

“your disciples … were not able” (Mark 9:18)

All three gospel records agree that the epileptic boy and his father enter the picture immediately after the events described on the mount of transfiguration.  Whatever we believe about the mountain-top experience, this sequel has a strong historical flavor – indisputable even by the unbelieving Jesus scholar who knows nothing outside of his poor ‘embarrassment principle’ – because it certainly reports a shameful failure of faith and power in the alleged Messiah’s chosen men.

Jesus, Peter, James and John return to camp to find the other apostles overwhelmed by defeat.  Two or more of them had tried and failed to perform an exorcism in a case obviously complicated by epilepsy.

Confronted with the scene, Jesus lumps the chagrined disciples together with the crowd and the scribes as one and all “faithless” (Mk 9:19).  “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” These expressions reveal an almost sorrowful astonishment, a mingling of disdain and divine homesickness.

“Faithless.”  In the absence of Jesus the disciples have been tested and proven ‘unable’ – they have tried and failed to exercise one of the hallmarks of messianic authority (power over demons).  What form might this failed exercise have taken?  I think it is fair to assume for it a standard form of prayer in his name, something like: ‘In the name of Jesus the Messiah of Nazareth, I bid you come out of him.’  Examples of the apostolic use of similar forms for healing are attested in the Acts.

But why had the authority of the messianic name been here invoked in vain?  Not because they lacked belief that Jesus was their Messiah.  These nine apostles had been present at Peter’s recent profession (Mk 8:29) of belief in their master’s messianic status.  And they had certainly seen wonders aplenty to confirm this special knowledge about Jesus.

And yet Jesus clearly viewed their failure as some kind of failure of belief, an example of faithless action, of unbelief.  In fact it looks very much like Jesus judges their current belief in his person and his mission not as belief but as unbelief.

“I believe, help thou my unbelief!” This cry of dilemma by the distraught father in Mk 9:24 is easily imagined in the mouths of the disciples later, when they asked about their failure privately (Mk 9:28).  And what did Jesus tell them they lacked?  Nothing but prayer (Mk 9:29).

So here is a group of logia with a strong warrant of historical authenticity which suggests two things:

(1) there are cases of belief about Jesus’ person and mission which are viewed by Jesus as a type of unbelief;

(2) there are forms of belief without which ‘prayer in his name’ cannot effect anything.

In a later post I will get some help from Martin Buber (Two Types of Faith, ET 1951) in further analysis of this story’s meaning for faith and belief – and unbelief.

Mark’s gospel: a Good-news/Bad-news day for God

In my last post I quoted Dr. Vincent Taylor’s fine commentary on Mark, joining him in praise of the strokes by which the evangelist captured the complex and edgy person of the divine-human Son of God.  But there are also difficulties in Mark.  There are inadequacies in Mark, causes of perplexity, scandal and stumbling which engender further questions, questions about the birth and early life, about the lack of spiritual teachings, or whether anything substantial happened after the women found the empty tomb.

Do angels sing when the acts of a fallible human mind establish for all time such a history as Mark has made of the divine mission of the Word?

On the positive side, it cannot be denied that Mark’s story evokes a genuine sense of apostolic experience of an Incarnate Savior.  Mark’s framework of events was barely challenged by later writers, indicating that few in a fast-disappearing generation knew of a better.  And the passion narrative seems to have been a piece of his original territory.

Still, neither Jesus nor his apostles had (in 40 years) ‘put up’ any generally-accepted and authoritative text (even such a seminal text as the Sermon on the Mount seems not to have been known at Rome at the time of Mark’s writing).  There is a sense in which Mark broke this 40-year ban on written histories of the Word of God.

Mark makes available his invaluable material truth regarding the divine Son, but at the same time he casts into the world a Divine Antithesis, a ‘corpus’ a textual God of the letter, engendering other texts.  I think it has been the tendency of these texts to both release and to limit the power of the Divine Son.  But I am inclined to view a God-of-text as ultimately a negation of divinity, not to be worshipped.  The living God is real, shaping us in his image, but the textual God is a creation of human mind, a god shaped in our own image.

The human mind seems to crave escape from the obligations posed by the invitation of spirit to join it in real and living relationship – and it finds this escape in the relative safety of second-hand, imitative religious forms.  This retreat to creedal and textual forms is a kind of apotheosis of rejected mercy.  Since Pentecost the Spirit and the Son have been offered stubborn resistance by this human god (the text) which was ‘thrown’ into our finitude as a god of the ‘old ways,’ born from below.

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)

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.

The Fourth Gospel and a ‘Fourth Quest’ for the Historical Jesus

Church fresco in Overselo, Sweden. Photo by Klafui

As announced by JohnDave Medina at Near Emmaus, Dr. Paul N. Anderson’s lecture series on John, Jesus, and History should begin today at Reedwood Friends Church, Portland, Oregon.  JohnDave indicated to me that Dr. Anderson was agreeable to the idea of uploading audio and/or video of one or more key sessions in the program.  I’m eager to see that happen.

It’s a Sunday-Wednesday split venue.  The Sunday series, Reading John again … for the First Time, is scheduled to begin today and finish next Sunday.  The Wednesday series, Jesus, Christ, and John, begins this Wednesday, April 21, and concludes April 28. 

Paul N. Anderson is founding co-chair of the John, Jesus, and History Group at the national Society of Biblical Literature.  I am currently reading Volume 1 of this group’s work (ed. Anderson et al, 2007 by SBL).

Capping off the series, Anderson promises a joint session with Marcus Borg entitled, The Origin of the Gospels – The Synoptics and John, scheduled for Wednesday, May 19.  There will also be a public symposium tabled by Anderson and Borg at Reedwood the following Saturday, May 22, Jesus in Bi-Optic Perspective: Latest Scholarship on the Synoptics and John.

Has the Fourth Quest for the historical Jesus already begun?  How fitting if it is to be characterized by a just resort to the Fourth Gospel – a supplementation of the synoptic approach with this very promising ‘Bi-Optic’ approach which Anderson is talking about!

The Gospel of John meets NT Wright at Wheaton

This morning’s studies have been illuminated by the ongoing Wheaton Conference blogging of Nijay Gupta especially the link I found there to the conference videos and MP3

Needless to say I was very much edified to listen in full to Marianne Meye Thompson’s talk on “The Gospel of John Meets Jesus and the Victory of God.”  Thompson gives a convincing recommendation of the value of John’s Gospel as a supplement (and more than a supplement) to the ostensibly limited synoptic views of NT Wright’s book.

I doubt Wright will contradict, although I haven’t been able to find interaction between him and Thompson yet. 

Thanks to Brian LePort at Near Emmaus for the initial link to Nijay’s post.

Luke, John, and the trial[s] of Jesus

I have been looking on at Matthew D. Larsen’s blog as he analyzes the differences between the synoptic versions of the Jewish trial[s] of Jesus.  Matt has made it pretty clear that Luke differs too much here to call this part of the story a ‘synoptic’ view of events.  I think the synoptics fail here to deliver (as a threesome) a cohesive ‘history’ of events between Jesus’ arrest and his appearance before Pilate.

Mr. Larsen has exercised his critical right to attempt an explanation of why Luke isn’t seeing eye-to-eye with Mark and Matthew at this point.  Now I want to suggest that – not in all cases but in this particular case – when the synoptics are in conflict, an examination of the Fourth Gospel is warranted before attempting a solution based upon the synoptics alone.

Recently I was pleased to find a very early modern example of a fruitful resort to the Gospel of John to solve the riddle of Luke’s diversion from Mark and Matthew in the matter of these trials.  F.D.E. Schleiermacher applies the text of John to the problem of this particular synoptic conflict in his lectures of 1832 on the life of Jesus (The Life of Jesus, Eng 1975, p.395-401).  And Schleiermacher was not ignorant of the modern criticism of John’s historicity – neither Strauss nor FC Bauer had yet published, but he knew and rejected Karl Bretschneider’s early (1820) attack on John (Ibid, Introduction, p.xxxi).

John’s account differs significantly from the account in Mark by its rejection of Mark’s report of an immediate appearance before Caiaphas.  And this is a place that Luke differs from Mark as well.  John states that Jesus (with Peter and ‘another disciple’ following) was first taken to the house of Annas, the former high priest and father-in-law to Caiaphas.

Could John be here offering an eyewitness account which enables this synoptic ‘problem’ to be solved?  Schleiermacher thought so (p.398).  Is John’s claim of relation to the high priest (whether by business or marriage) absurd for a son of Zebedee of Capernaum? And is it fair to assume that ‘another disciple’ (18:15) is an authorial reference?  In future posts I want to examine what special characteristic of ‘eyewitness’ accounts scholars have noticed in John.

In my next post I will show how huge this material from John can be for a better understanding of events which transpired between the arrest of Jesus and his appearance before Pilate.  Larsen has done his work by showing how tenuous our ground of resort to the synoptics is (since Luke differs so much from the other two).