Friday, September 30, 2005

A New Present

What a wonderful day, yesterday! A trip to Hermanus, a place up the east coast not too far from where I live and what a day. My lovely girl decided to bless me on my day with a purchase of C. H. Dodd's The Founder of Christianity. I've been meaning to read this for some time, and now thanks to a pleasant serendipity, I can! Dodd is of course one of the master exegetes of the last generation. His work on parables and realised eschatology are still being noted, discussed and reviewed. This book, however, is not a technical contribution to the quest, Dodd is very silent in dialogue with scholarship in this book. Rather, this represents the distillation of a life times research into the gospels, Jesus and the origins of Christianity. One reviewer summarised the book this way:

The entire study is dominated by a clear working hypothesis: "Taken together, these [gospel] stories, told from many different points of view, converge to give a distinct impression of a real person in action upon a recognizable scene" (p. 36). Jesus' personality (p. 43) and intentionality (p. 103) show through the diverse gospel materials. Jesus' teaching "arose out of the conviction that with the coming of the kingdom of God a new era in relations between God and man had set in. Morality might now draw directly from fresh springs" (pp. 76-77). Jesus' "aim was to constitute a community worthy of the name of a people of God, a divine commonwealth . . ." (p. 90), a new Israel in which the disciples of Jesus were to be its "foundation members" (p. 91). These disciples were disillusioned by Jesus' arrest and trial. Dodd then asks, "How was it, in these circumstances, that the Christian church ever got going at all?" (p. 96.) The answer: "Jesus returned to [the disciples], alive after death and . . . this return was an act of forgiveness, which reinstated them in the place they had forfeited by their disloyalty" (p. 97). "In an historical view, the one evident outcome of the whole life and work of Jesus was the emergence of the church, a society which regarded itself as carrying on the distinctive vocation of Israel as the 'people of God,' and yet was quite clear that it was a new Israel, constituted by a 'new covenant.' It had taken shape, not about a platform or a creed, but about a personal attachment to Jesus himself" (p. 99).

Yet what has excited me, are two related notions mentioned in the introduction. Firstly, Dodd goes on about how the church remembers Jesus, his actions and sayings. This struck me as reminiscent of Dunn's notion of Jesus Remembered. Dodd writes:

The church remembers that on a certain night is Founder said and did certain definite things, briefly reported... The memory of the church thus takes us back... up the stream of history. [pg. 14]

Dunn's notion of the Remembered Jesus is thus not that new. But then again, no one probably said it was! I find it fascinating to see how Dodd and others gone before us have influenced so much of our thoughts, ideas and concepts. It's all so interconnected and somehow related in a matrix of thought...

The next striking thing was seeing Mike Bird's notion of "Jesus in Corporate Memory" in Dodd's writing. In Mike's latest article, "The Formation of the Gospels in the Setting of Early Christianity: The Jesus Tradition as Corporate Memory" in Westminster Theological Journal, 67 (2005): 113-34, he argues:

What the Gospels produce is not the Christ of faith superimposed on to the historical Jesus; rather, they offer a dramatic representation, much like a docu-drama, of Jesus’ actions in the past and his voice for the present available through the public memory of Jesus. [pg. 134]

Dodd argues something along the same lines, though less critically and not engaging with scholarship.

A corporate memory handed down from generation to generation becomes what we call a tradition. Our knowledge about the origins of the church, and about its Founder, rests primarily on a living tradition, which had its beginnings in the actual memories of those who had witnessed the events and had personal dealings with the principle Actor. [pg. 15]

Whereas Dodd argued that once the tradition was written it could be tested and studied to see the earliest stages of development, Bird's article is more nuanced and focussed on isues of Oral Tradition and it's flexibility. A fantastic read [both of them!] and a very helpful proposal.

Oh yeah, and we saw the whales!

Thursday, September 29, 2005


There has been much discussion about the criteria of authenticity [See Bird, Eddie, Rafael, Crossley]. I am reminded of Geza Vermes who writes:
It is worth observing that the fundamental principle of New Testament criticism, namely that the burden of proof rests on the claim of authenticity, is to a large extent misleading. The thesis that in the absence of definite proof of its genuiness a saying must be declared inauthentic is logically false. Inability to demonstrate that a maxim assigned by the evangelists to Jesus actually stems from him, does not signify that he had nothing to do with it. It simply means that we are not in a position to prove that he had. Insufficiency of evidence does not automatically falsify a statement but puts a question mark after it. Likewise, lack of certainty is compatible with various degrees of probability.[1]
I think the question ultimately boils down to what are we prepared to use, and what we do actually use in our various reconstructions and models of the historical Jesus. One may think the confession of Jesus' Messiahship in Mark 8 authentic, but how does that affect one's reconstruction of Jesus' claims to messiaship. I suppose I'm slightly more interested in what one does with the authentic material, than just declaring a saying authentic.
For example, R. H. Stein's book on Jesus the Messiah would probably declare everything in the canonical gospels as authentic, but the picture he develops from their is sterile, or even myopic in it's reconstruction. Now I know one can argue that it wasn't meant to be a contribution to our quest but rather an aid for students, but I still question its usefulness and reconstruction. Or one could look at The Challenge of Jesus, based on JVG by Wright. While Wright certainly doesn't incorporate every single datum he considers authentic, the historical picture drawn is not only plausible, but I would argue probable.
Thus what I find more important than merely assessing which saying or event is inauthentic or authentic is what we actually do with that data that we consider authentic. I recall reading Dennis Ingolfsland's articles on Crossan, Sources, Method and using much of the material Crossan considered authentic, but still coming to a radically different portrait. [He has quite a few articles available online that many are unaware of. Please, take the time to read his stuff carefully.] Therefore, let us consider what material we think is authentic and then let us start our historical reconstructions!
Let us consider as much material as possible, even from Thomas and then slowly eliminate passages that seem to not fit the overall scheme of things. But then let us not consider this material inauthentic, but rather try and see if does have a place within our constructions, even challenging some of our models. Just a thought...
[1] Geza Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, pg. 419

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Dangerous Passages...

Just reading through Chris Marshall's essay: The Moral Vision of the Beatitudes: The Blessings of Revolution, and after my last blog, this quote smacks me in the face.......
The most dangerous passages in the Bible are the familiar ones, because we do not really listen to them. The sharp stone of God’s Word, smoothed down by the river of time, no longer cuts. Instead of being challenged by hard thought or hard choices, we lean back and savour pretty words. No pericope in the Gospels is more exposed to this familiarity, that contentment, than the beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel. Nine beatitudes, nine spiritual bonbons. No sooner is “Blessed are the poor...” intoned than eyes become glassy or moist, the heart is strangely warmed, and no one notices that Jesus the revolutionary is heaving a verbal grenade into our homiletic garden”.[i]
[i] J. P. Meier, “Matthew 5:3-12”, Interpretation 44/3 (1990), 281. Italics mine.

Jesus the Offensive Party Animal

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.[1]

Generous almsgiving may even be conscience’s last great refuge against the terror of open commensality.[2]

These two statements should not only shock us by what they convey, they should challenge us to our very core because of what they unveil. We are selfish and unlike Jesus, well most of us and certainly myself. Follow the logic: Jesus is the perfect example. Therefore, we as Christians should imitate his excellent example. Then why don’t we?
No, instead we [like the Pharisees and religious elites of the 1st century] like the dynamics of communal exclusion and social snobbery. Of course we don’t do this intentionally, most of the time. But we do it. We don’t fraternise with those who don’t think like us, act like us, dress like us, or like the things we like. Very rarely do we ever wonder from our crowds comfort zones and explore what’s out there. Nah, we like the safety and familiarity of our sub-cultures and the fact that in our enclosed communities, people understand us; our needs, fears and desires. They’re just like us. Well, sort of.
But Jesus turns the tables on this discriminatory behaviour of exclusion. Jesus acts out the parable of God’s intent, not with words that amount to little. But rather Jesus, as he sees what his Father in heaven typically does, demonstrates grace right before our eyes in caring for and accepting those whom society has forgotten, neglected and abandoned. Jesus invites them to his table, to be part of his posse. Rather than prematurely judge and thus reject them, Jesus embraces them. By inviting them into his company, the healing process from social extrication to becoming disciples who understand their relationship to ABBA and thus their identity, belonging and purpose.
This is what the Kingdom of God is like: all embracing. “Clearly his opponents perceived it as an alternative (and unacceptable) vision of Israel should be, competing with their own sense of what loyalty to God entailed.”
[3] Thus, Jesus’ actions are more than just social benevolence. These actions of grace are revolutionary in the sense that they challenge the prevailing modus operandi and force us to re-think, re-examine and re-configure ways in which we can be faithful to what the gospel of Jesus really entails.
I could push this further and argue that this was also indicative of how Rome, with it’s patronage system ostracised those who had nothing to offer the various benefactors of the day. But my point, and Jesus’, has already been made and the implications are clear.
Are we those, like the Pharisees, who exclude others?
Are we aiming to be just like the one who risked it all, and won over many?
Does Crossan’s axiom hit us as hard as it should?
What should we do now, lest we become foolish and forget these words?

[1] Matthew 11:19
[2] Crossan, The Historical Jesus, pg. 341
[3] Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, pg. 108

Monday, September 26, 2005

On Philosophy

In the English-speaking world the great majority of books that have been published in philosophy in the twentieth century are like academic paintings: they show unmistakable talent and are professionally competent, the result of long processes of learning, application and work; everything in them is accurate, in its right place, and as it should be; but it makes not the slightest difference whether they exist or not.
Bryan Magee -- Confessions of a Philosopher
Philosophy joke...
An eccentric philosophy professor gave a one question final exam after a semester dealing with a broad array of topics.
The class was already seated and ready to go when the professor picked up his chair, plopped it on his desk and wrote on the board: "Using everything we have learned this semester, prove that this chair does not exist."
Fingers flew, erasers erased, notebooks were filled in furious fashion. Some students wrote over 30 pages in one hour attempting to refute the existence of the chair. One member of the class however, was up and finished in less than a minute.
Weeks later when the grades were posted, the rest of the group wondered how he could have gotten an A when he had barely written anything at all.
His answer consisted of two words: "What chair?"

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Typification & Criteria

Stephen Patterson, in his book The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning offers an interesting idea, borrowed from R. W. Funk, about typifications. Patterson in explaining the problem caused by judging which events or deeds of Jesus are in fact historical, writes:

The best provisional solution to this problem is to say simply that the deeds of Jesus present us with the creative memory of the church. In the Jesus Seminar, it was seldom that we could assert, even tenuously, the historical accuracy of any particular event or occasion as it is depicted in the gospels, or in fact, that such and such an event occurred at all. But we did notice that certain types of events are depicted with great frequency in the Jesus traditions, and across a variety of sources and forms. Things like healings and exorcisms, cavorting with the unclean and the shamed, conflict with his family - such things began to emerge as "typical" of Jesus in the widespread memory of the early church. Such typifications became the basis for a general description of the sort of things Jesus probably did, even though the historicity of any single story in the gospels was always hard to demonstrate.

[Patterson, The God of Jesus, pg. 57]
While I abhor many of the absurd presuppositions that the Jesus Seminar approach the gospels with when doing historical enquiry, this method seems to make much sense. We know for sure that the gospels don't record every single detail of the life of Jesus. Whatever we think of the historical value of John's gospel, his statement that Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book [or any other I might add] appears a priori valid. It seems axiomatic that the gospels are a sampled survey of all the things about Jesus and they are not in an exact diary collection of facts and data.
Could the deeds of Jesus be likened to the position of Darrell Bock who has argued that the sayings of Jesus recorded in the gospels are the "voice" of Jesus, and not the exact literal word for word dictation that many assume? Could we have echoes of the typical deeds of Jesus recorded in the gospels? Patterson notes that "the limits of ancient history are considerable, indeed."
Could this approach fit better with a critical realist epistemology, where certainty on any exact event [with a few notable exceptions such as the temple action, cross & resurrection, and perhaps a few others?] is unknown but the gist and typical features of Jesus' actions in healing, exorcism, interaction with Gentiles and Jews are known? The plausibility of this being the case seems almost certain given what we know about the limits and strengths of oral tradition as well. Maybe the memory of two separate encounters got blurred into one event [would that explain gospel differences better than or as well as editorial emphases?]
Wright notes that there is nothing to suggest that the sermon on the Mount and the sermon on the Plain are the same event. Jesus probably regularly gave a set piece of didactic speeches - Luke and Matt record summaries of them - in different locations because that was typical of Jesus teachings in various locations.
Thoughts? Comments? Criticisms? Are there any published critiques or advocates of this view? In my mind, which is now reeling over the possibilities, this could alter our conception of the criteria of authenticity and exegesis.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Stuff & Stuff

Well, I'm not sure it's entirely accurate but I'm ROMANS. Check out what you are at Which Book of the Bible are You?
In other news, Mike Bird has a good discussion on Jesus and History, check it out.
My nemesis has a thought-provoking post on the Criteria used to Authenticate the Jesus tradition.
Mark Goodacre highlights the release of the 2nd edition of Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishna. An outstanding resource!
Other than that, Primal has a multimedia-fully interactive presentation on the life of Jesus entitled: Sessions with Jesus. In our attempt to be more informed by th Emergent Model and to incorporate my field of historical Jesus studies we're trying something new and improved...
Should be fun [if it works...].

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Hesitant but not Frustrated

Loren Rosson offers some thoughtful responses to my gripe about Allison’s proposal as to how to understand the origin of the early Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus. My comments here are hesitant because I realise that Loren reads from the vantage point of having read Allison’s work, while I’m just guessing how and why Allison has come to the conclusions he has. Not having seen and grappled with the argument that Allison is proposing, this response seems almost pointless. I also realise that their are meta-issues here which are being side-lined which probably shouldn't. But in my quest to understand, let me push the boundaries of my understanding. As Wright states:
Simply to raise the question, let alone to address it, demands that we prepare ourselves for criticism on the level of method, before we get anywhere near content. Walking into the middle of this 360-degree barrage of cold epistemological water reminds me of playing golf in the evening and suddenly being bombarded, on the last green, by the automatic sprinkler system. Is there any chance to make the final putt? Or must we retreat, soaked and frustrated?
My first quibble is that what Loren presents in his first objection may almost succumb to similar dangers as that of parallelomania [Sandmel, “Parallelomania” JBL 81: 1962]. That is, the associative linking of similar words, phrases, patterns, thoughts, or themes, in order to claim the influence or dependence of one text or tradition on another. Many earlier studies on the resurrection used pagan sources to explain this phenomenon and were based on isolated and superficial similarities in very dissimilar texts. Now, using other apocalyptic groups throughout history to try and explain what is going on in a specific case within the worldview of 2nd Temple Judaism may prove useful in illuminating understanding, but I remain sceptical that it helps to actually explain what happened. Again, the question is not can we find groups that engaged in “secondary exegesis” or groups that coped with failed hopes. Of course we can. The question is rather, is early Christianity an example of such a group? No evidence thus far presented warrants this conclusion.
What is there to suggest “secondary exegesis”? Is there evidence of traces of prophetic tradition in the resurrection narratives? I was fortunate enough to read two chapters of RSG before it was published and Wright’s section on “issues” in the resurrection narrative was the first time I was alerted to what Wright calls a “surprise when we read the resurrection stories in the canonical gospels that they are told with virtually no embroidery from the biblical tradition.” Having written critiques of Crossan’s notion of “Prophecy Historicized” I was awkwardly surprised by this revelation in the resurrection narratives. If these narratives amount to nothing more than “secondary exegesis” then where are the traces of the Hebrew narrative? If early Christians believed that this happened, “according to the scriptures” then where are the scriptures that it happened according to? In other clear examples of such exegetical exploration, there are almost always traces of this influence, and yet it is here [and in four separate accounts?] curiously absent. Why?
Furthermore, as Wright goes on to extrapolate:
There is a third feature of the resurrection narratives which should surprise us, especially when we think back and reflect on the second-Temple Jewish expectation of resurrection. If, as the consensus view has tended to say, these stories developed as the church pondered scripture and expressed and re-expressed its faith, we should have expected the resurrection stories to reflect the kind of things that the favourite ‘resurrection’ passages in the Old Testament had been saying. But they do not.
While I would concur that the early disciples claim that Jesus had been resurrected may indeed sound "preposterous" that does not negate their claim. What I still want to know is why they made this preposterous claim? Whatever happened started an entire movement and I don’t understand how one or two or three disciples having a vision and seeing an empty tomb is enough to generate the kind of revolution in life, thought and praxis in most, if not all and more, of the disciples lives. That claim seems arguably more suspicious, than the one Wright makes.
If I may borrow from Howard Marshall then “it has not proved possible to offer a full reconstruction of the resurrection event…, although it has been possible to show the inadequacy of some of the possible ones offered to us. The pathfinder is no more than a pathfinder; he is on his way through the jungle, but has not yet emerged into the clear light of day at the other side; he has been able to write ‘cul-de-sac’ at the entrance to some other attractive paths, but he has not yet been able to construct his own highroad; but he believes that he can see the goal distantly in front and takes courage to press on towards it.” [See The Origins of NT Christology, pg. 128].
The bulk of Loren’s response is the claim that: “the disciples would not have seen Jesus' death as a failure. There's a difference between being demoralized and failing. Jesus' suffering and death would have squared with what he told them to expect in the tribulation period.”
This is incredibly hard to digest as the evidence is stacked so high against this position. Again, not seeing exactly how Allison mounts an exegetical/historical argument for this position puts me in a terrible place to offer a critique. But we work with what we’ve got.
Mark 14:50 is surely indicative of what actually happened: “All of them deserted him and fled.” Jesus had performed the kingdom, given them hope that he would restore them to their former position of greatness. But Jesus was apparently mistaken, as the Roman cross demonstrated. Without the actual resurrection of Jesus, I think Allison is right on the money: “Jesus the millenarian prophet, like all millenarian prophets, was wrong: reality has taken no notice of his imagination.” And the disciples, at his arrest, at his trial and surely at his crucifixion realised what the disciples of Judas the Galilean and every other messianic pretender who got crucified in the first century realised: we got it wrong. We backed the wrong horse. We trusted the wrong things. “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” The implication and position is fully understandable: whether they liked it or not all their hopes for liberation, shalom, the Kingdom et. al. were now utterly worthless – Rome had demonstrated the bankruptcy of their hope by destroying their hope.
The movement should have dissipated like every other failed messianic movement. Or they should have elected James as Jesus’ successor but James never rose to so great a position as his esteemed brother. While I concur Wright’s rhetoric gets the better of him at times, Allison’s caution may be his Achilles heel.
These stories too, of course, provide evidence not directly for what happened but for what several different people thought had happened. (I do not wish to retreat from the critical realist position; I am simply concerned to be abso­lutely sure, here of all places, that I do not appear to smuggle into my historical argument anything more than it will bear.) The stories are, at this moment in our enquiry, answers to the question: why did early Christianity begin, and why did it take this shape? The answer is: because the early Christians believed that something had happened to Jesus after his death, something to which the stories in the four canonical gospels are as close as we are likely to get. I propose, in short, that the four canonical resurrection accounts, granted the presence in all of them of editorial features, almost certainly go back to oral traditions which provide the answer to the question of the origin and shaping of Christianity. The question which this then poses is, of course, the crucial one: what caused the earliest Christians to believe that something like this happened, and to tell this sort of story?
Because it actually happened?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

John, History & Jesus

Michael Bird alerts us to some of the issues in using the Gospel of John as a source for studying the historical Jesus. I have long felt that if scholars can find authentic material in the sayings of Thomas, then John must be re:considered for historical value.
It is the strongest short-coming of Wright's work that he does not fully explore the potential of the Gospel of John as a historical source for the understanding Jesus. Meier has given us a more balanced approach but still, it doesn't seem good enough. I'm looking forward to reading Eddies copies of Craig Keener's excellent The Gospel of John: A Commentary, which apparently argues for much authentic tradition. For those interested, David Wenham has a helpful article: A Historical View of John's Gospel. I didn't much care for Blomberg's book on The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel. I don't know why, but the arguments seemed so strained. Hopefully Keener will be more helpful.
My former teacher, Dr. Derek Tovey wrote an interesting proposal for understanding John in his book: Narrative Art and Act in the Fourth Gospel, [Sheffield Academic Press, 1997]. Yet while I appreciate the insights of the various hermeneutical methods, this one being narrative criticism, the historian in me just wants to weigh the material and allow my historical imagination to run wild as I grapple with the mysteries of who Jesus was, and is... and what he was trying to accomplish... and what he actually did accomplish.

Monday, September 12, 2005

God the Beggar

Stephan J. Patterson has given us some excellent insights in his book: The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning. There is a review available Here. But the strength of Patterson's book seems to have been neglected by many in the Quest. Although Patterson is a member of the Jesus Seminar, and a self-proclaimed liberal New Testament Professor, his insights are still invaluable and I am grateful to have found his book. I may quibble and disagree strongly with both his understanding of eschatology and his reliance on the results gained by the Jesus Seminar but the book offers a freshness that is insightful and not just repetitive.
In his chapter Jesus and the Empire of God: On Dirt, Shame and Sin in the Expendable Company of Jesus Patterson has aroused my thoughts in fresh and exciting ways. The following reflection is inspired by his section on Jesus as a carpenter in an expendable Roman society.

Isn’t this the τεκτων, the Mary's son and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and aren't his sisters here with us?”

And they took offence at him. Mark 6:3

In this isolated reference, Mk 6:3, Jesus is called a “builder/carpenter.” Early in Jesus’ childhood, Sepphoris, then capital of Galilee, had been destroyed by the Romans, and rebuilding had begun immediately. Thus builders were no doubt in demand in Nazareth, a village four miles from the ruins of Sepphoris; and Joseph, Jesus’ father, probably taught his son his own trade, as was common for fathers to do in those days. After Sepphoris had been rebuilt, they probably did much carpentry work from their home, as most Galilean carpenters did. If there was work that is...
Tacitus tells us that “To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname Empire; they make desolation and then call it peace.” [Agricola, 30] Sepphoris had been plundered because they weren’t pulling their weight and offering to Rome an acceptable sacrifice, so the whole city was sacrificed by Rome to teach them a valuable lesson of to whom the appropriate worth-ship [worship] should be shown. Rome was a mighty power structure that no-one could challenge. And those poor souls that did courageously challenge the imperial system were systematically tortured and crushed.
But the system was also more ruthless than just that. Romans subscribed to a proprietary theory of the state. That means that the whole state was regarded as not much more than a piece of property. Everything that the empire produced and provided belonged to the emperor. He would then delegate and offer various handouts to those who supported him and his cause. In all of this the emperor controlled the means to life. Without the kindness of the Emperor, one was dropped socially and economically to a place of destitution.
In this patronage system if someone has nothing to offer the Emperor, or some other delegated benefactor, one is deemed useless and worthless, in a word: expendable. If Rome or her great emperor had no need for you, then you were of no value to Rome, the emperor or anyone else for that matter. Such an existence was ultimately futile. Marginalized and ousted from the communities of those who had something to offer, desperation for the basic needs of society cause many to turn to dirty jobs such as tax-collecting, prostitution and begging. For others a life of crime was more appealing. For others, revolt was the only possible to solution to this crisis.
What does Jesus do, as a builder, when there is no work for days, weeks or months? Does Rome care for a Jewish peasant trying to support a family with an absent father? Do they have a welfare system that provides needy families with the essentials of life when the going gets tough? Most certainly not. So what does Jesus do? Does he go down to Heavens Bank and make a hefty withdrawal from him who owns the cattle on a thousand hills? Or does he join the marginalized of society? Does he turn to begging or odd jobs just to make enough money to put some food on the table for that day? It appears Jesus knew what it felt like to be expendable…
It is a fact that Jesus identified with the marginalized in society. But why? Why associate with dirty people? Is it due to the fact that Jesus himself was marginalized and could thus fully identify with their pain and struggles? In our scriptures we see Jesus seeks after the hated, the despised, the rejected, the lonely and the outcast. Why? Could it be because that’s what Jesus experienced for a good deal of his life? Jesus probably knew what it was like to go hungry. The shame of not having a job. The disgrace of having others look down on you as a worthless object. To go home to a mother and family and say: “Sorry, no luck today.” To see the look of disappointment and sadness in their eyes…
I live in a town where every single day I drive past hundreds of people standing on road corners hoping for a job so that they could have food for that day. What do I see? Instead of seeing expendables, I now see the face of the one who loved me and gave his life for me. What do you see? Do you see God the beggar, asking for a days wages? Or do you see a worthless, useless expendable that the world could do without. What do you see, if anything
No wonder Jesus said: Επεινασα γαρ και εδωκατε μοι φαγειν εδιψησα και εποτισατε με ζενος ημην και συνηγαγετε με γυμνοσ και περιβαλετε με, ησθενησα και επεσκεψασθε με εν φυλακη ημην και ηλθατε προς με. [Ματτ 25:35-36]

Sunday, September 11, 2005

τον εσταυρωμενον ηγερθη

The Crucified One - has been raised!
[Mark 16:6]

There is good discussion about the resurrection by Loren Rosson and Mike Bird with cameo appearances by others in the comments sections! The debate is far too dense to make any dent or developments in the discussion on a grand-scale level but there are a few things that can be said and asked along the way.
Why is it surprising that more Jewish groups didn’t make wild and offensive claims in order to make success of their failures? I don’t think that it is. Jewish groups weren’t in the habit of making things like this up to compensate for failed dreams. They didn’t do this with other messianic failures, why should we suppose that they did it with Jesus? Following this, I’m not at all sure that it is abundantly plain that apocalyptic groups become wildly creative, unpredictably creative, in the face of failed expectations. Where in the world of 2nd temple Judaism can we see this happening? The viability of this thesis would depend on it’s historical merits, not blunt assertions or appeal to authority (Festinger).
While I would concede that it’s no stretch of the imagination that the disciples could have invented a resurrection belief in order to cope with broken dreams and keep their movement going. The question that needs to be asked is “Did they?” It seems to me that they had every reason not too. Who invents this kind of belief and invites more persecution and hardships? Were the early Christians that crazy/stupid? With their primary leader, a failure par excellence, why would they want to continue? Rome had proved them wrong - what more was there for them?
Surely if they were going to invent something like this, the natural place to go looking for inspiration would be the Hebrew narratives and thus there would be traces of prophetic fulfilment/vindication in the resurrection narratives. But strangely, there is none. How do we explain this? As Bockmuehl noted:
Ironically, in the canonical sources the resurrection is nowhere described, never clearly defined and quite diversely interpreted. Nevertheless, the NT writings unanimously agree on one thing: in some sense that was both inexplicable and yet nmistakeable, Jesus was seen alive in personal encounters with his disciples soon after his death.
[Bockmuehl, The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, pg. 102]
I beg to differ that Jesus’ death was not a cause for dissonance in the minds of the disciples. The Lukan narrative makes clear that hopes were dashed and dreams destroyed when Jesus died. John tells of a Peter who left the movement to return to fishing. The cross, and the reports of the cry of dereliction [taken to be authentic by most] would surely cause the disciples to face a serious kind of dissonance that they were indeed mistaken about their claims, aspirations and hopes concerning this Jewish prophet. And they abandoned both him and his cause at the first major sign that God was not going to immediately act to intervene and save Jesus, and them.
I’m also struggling to see how for the disciples, things were still going “as expected”. As noted, Peter had forsaken the movement and gone back to fishing. Most of the other disciples had abandoned the cause because of the cross and all that was left was possibly John and probably a few women. How exactly were things still going “as expected”? What was the plan that these events were following?
The thought that transphysical visions of the dead are common is also hard for this student to digest. Transphysicality is a way of describing the notion that the resurrected body is both continuous with the present body and discontinuous. Wright has an extensive discussion of σομα ψχικον (ordinary human life or a body animated by life/breath) and σομα πνευματικον (a life indwelt by the Spirit of God or a body animated by the Spirit), This is illustrative of what the early Christians were grappling with. Somehow Jesus’ body was both continuous and discontinuous with that of his former body. (See RSG: pp. 347-56 and Ben Witherington’s commentary on 1 & 2 Corinthians is still the best discussion of this that I’ve found.)
Now how does one have a vision of transphysicality? I may be arguing semantics, but I’m confused as to how one can say that you can “see” [vision] transphysicality. Just because one has a vision that is interactive [hear, see & touch], does not make the vision transphysical. So this is a misnomer. You cannot see something transphysical. You can see something that's physical and then have other reasons for concluding that the physicality in question has somehow been transformed and it is thus a: transphysical phenomenon.
Good hypotheses are also good explanations; but sometimes what is needed is a simple exegetical demonstration. I hope when I get Allison’s book that this will be provided for me. My last quibble with Loren’s comments is that I’m not convinced that because of this mysterious vanishing act, we today have the doctrine of the resurrection. Maybe I’m being pedantic, and if so please forgive me, by the doctrine of resurrection precedes Christianity by some time. Wright and others have demonstrated this well.
The discussion, as Michael Bird notes, hinges on why the early Jewish/Christian sect used resurrection language to describe what had happened to a crucified wannabe. Wright states that:
“It remains the case that resurrection, in the world of second-Temple Judaism, was about the restoration of Israel on the one hand and the newly embodied life of all YHWH’s people on the other, with close connections between the two; and that it was thought of as the great event that YHWH would accomplish at the very end of the present age.”
Why did the early Christian movement believe this had already happened to Jesus? Why did they not just die out like many other messianic movements that lost their leader? Why make the daft claim that God had acted so decisively, if he clearly hadn’t? They knew what language to use to describe this freak event.
If they were trying to convey something else, then they had many Socio-linguistic resources available to them to convey that something else. I end with the wisdom of Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, pg. 291 and Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, pg. 165
Stanton: The New Testament writers stress that it was the appearances of the risen Jesus which led to the resurrection faith of the first followers of Jesus and to the their conviction that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Their claims about the risen Jesus do not fit into any of the Jewish and Greco-Roman ways of understanding post-mortem existence. They were not claiming that Jesus had been restored to normal human life only to die again in due course, as happened to the widow’s son at Nain, for example [Lk 7:11-16]. Nor were they claiming that the risen Jesus was some kind of ghost or apparition [cf. Mk 6:49; Matt 14:26]. In the Greco-Roman world the apotheosis of deification of a ruler or hero was not unknown, but this patter does not provide a parallel, for apotheosis was of the sour not the body. If was confined to the elite on the grounds of the alleged virtue – and it often drew scorn and derision.
Hays: The resurrection, just as much as the other events of the story, must be assessed as a historical event. It is told as such in the narratives. Certainly, it is a mysterious event, but is is not presented as a vision, a dream, theological inference, or an ineffable event in the hearts of those who loved him. It is told as another remarkable event within the narrative, as the bodily resurrection of the man Jesus, leaving the tomb empty, conversing with his disciples, showing them his hand and his feet, eating fish with them. This is the historical event that alone renders the development of the church historically explicable. This is the historical event in the light of which all our history must be interpreted anew.
Thus with Mark: τ ο ν ε σ τ α υ ρ ω μ ε ν ο ν η γ ερ θ η !

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Translating η Βασιλεια του θεου

η Βασιλεια του θεου
The Kingdom of god: This has been the standard way of translating η Βασιλεια του θεου but the question that must be asked is if this adequately conjures up the right images and understanding when people read this phrase?

The Reign of God
If memory serves me, Witherington in his thoughtful book The Christology of Jesus, translates it this way. It is helpful in that it brings out the issue that God's reign is not geographical but rather refers to the activity of God in the life of the disciples.

The Empire of God
Patterson: The God of Jesus. While not fully pushing the counter-imperial position of Horsley's Jesus and Empire, Patterson offers us a thought provoking translation. Warren Carter's Matthew and the Margins also translates our phrase in this way because they feel it adequately brings about the counter-imperial implications of announcing "another king" namely, Jesus.

Heaven’s Imperial Rule
Funk & Hoover: The Five Gospels. Tom Wright notes that translating it this way does have the virtue of jolting or confronting a contemporary reader in a way that "Kingdom of God" has largely ceased to do. It's a creative statement and does certainly jolt the readers. But my only concern is does it conjure up the right set of images and stories that Jesus is trying to convey?

The Government of God
Storkey's book [Jesus and Politics: Confronting The Powers] is basically a polemical work from one outside the guild of New Testament scholarship but nonetheless he does have some insights to offer. His notion of translating η βασιλεια του θεου as the government of God is interesting but maybe that's not strong enough. This is possibly built on the work of R. T. France in Divine government: God's Kingship in the gospel of Mark. The striking issue for me here is that on does not have to be unquestionably loyal to a government, as Jesus demanded. While this may be the closest modern equivalent, it doesn't appear to convey the same strength that other translations convey.

Heaven on Earth
Rob Lacey has given us a fantastic slang translation in his celebrated: The Word on the Street. It's an excellent read that at times freaks this reader out as it captures in a unique way almost exactly what the New Testament writers were attempting to convey. If we embrace Matthew's notion that Heaven is a circumlocution for YHWH then this attempted modernising is well on its way to conveying what Jesus meant. If Wright is accurate in his notion that the Jews were hoping for the return of YHWH to Zion, and Jesus was embodying that claim then "Heaven on Earth" could well be a good translation. But it would probably have to be supplemented by various echoes of Isaiah's recorded promises of YHWH coming back to Zion and setting up camp on the earth, which would then weaken it's usefulness.

The Domain of God
I've not found this as a formal translation by any scholars [please alert me to any studies of those proposing this as a translation] but it does seem like a plausible offer. However it would then more likely refer to a place of ruling. But need that place be geographical? Could the place of God be where one follows God? Or is that assuming too much?
The Realm of God
This is again noted by Witherington, The Christology of Jesus, [if memory serves me. My copy is packed away in some box in NZ which makes this exercise rather difficult!] For me the weakness is that it does not contain reference to God's oversight or leadership but rather appears to make βασιλεια a place of ownership or dwelling. Would this then refer to a place where God dwells/moves/acts or the place that God owns?

The Rule/Reign of YHWH
Wright: Jesus and the Victory of God never formally offers this as a translation, however, it does appear to be the gist of what his interpretive comments suggest. This remains my favourite because I think it most appropriately conveys what Jesus had in mind in making his proclamation. It is the good in that it implies active leadership and a firm rooting in the Hebrew narrative thought world.

YHWH’s Empire
This is how I often translate it because I feel this brings together the two worlds of Roman Imperialism and 1st century Judaism(s) that many, if not most, seem to neglect. It also remains anchored in Judaism and thus this god is no arbitrary or unknown god but rather the GOD of Israel confronting pagan idolatry.

Heaven’s Regime
Depending on the connotations of the word “regime” this could be an interesting experiment to see different peoples reactions. It appears to be able to capture both the positive and negative effects of YHWH’s reign given that the Romans and many Jews were having to cede ground to YHWH’s Empire, advancing in and through the mission and message of Jesus. The anciens regimes of this world were being transplanted by both another ruler with a community of followers extraordinarily loyal to this new movement. Given our contemporary context the word may carry hints of negativity, but it does capture something of what I reckon Jesus was conveying...

This all begs the question: Should we be consistent in our translations of η βασιλεια του θεου? If Jesus used various images/metaphors and actions to redefine, redescribe & reinterpret, this apparently amorphous concept then will one consistent translation of the various passages do the gospel justice? Shouldn’t our exegetical reflections lead us to translate the passage according to it’s intended nuance in the pericope or axiom in question? This is of course interpretive, but what translation isn’t?

Lastly, I’m still uncomfortable with using the word ‘god’ to translate this phrase. Jesus was a 1st century Jewish apocalyptic prophet. What we mean by that is debateable, but what is certain from that is that he was a Jew trying to be faithful to the god of Israel, that is, to YHWH. Using a small ‘g’ for God does jolt us, but not nearly enough. In our postmodern world where semantic games are almost ubiquitous, precision and accuracy call for more helpful translations. When Jesus spoke about god, who else could he have had in mind other than YHWH, the god of Israel? Thus, should we not translate this as The Lord’s Kingdom or YHWH’s Reign. This way, the Hebrew worldview/narrative thought world is immediately evoked in a way ‘kingdom of god’ seems never to do.
Any thoughts? How do you translate this or which translation do you prefer and why?

New Testament Text Books

Brandon Wason offers us his list of course books for his papers on the New Testament and Early Christianity. While there are some fab books mentioned, I'm not sure how helpful the recommended list is. There seem to be some key books missing, even given the fact that one could not include all the good books in one course! My recommended list for the New Testament World and Literature would include any of the following:
    • The Writings of the New Testament by L. T. Johnson
    • An Introduction to the New Testament by R. E. Brown
    • Introduction to the New Testament. Helmut Koester.
    • History and Literature of Early Christianity. 2nd ed. by Helmut Koester
    • Introducing the New Testament: It's Literature and Theology by J. Green, M. Thompson & P. Achtemeier.
    • The New Testament: Background, Growth & Content by B. Metzger

A good couple of books on Early Christianity and Society would include.

    • The Rise of Christianity by R. Stark
    • From Jesus to Christianity by L. W. White
    • New Testament History by B. Witherington
    • Introducing Early Christianity: A Topical Survey of Its Life, Beliefs and Practices by L. Guy

This list appears in no particular order but these are the books that have helped me in my New Testament courses and the simple church courses that I have taught. I recently received An Introduction to the New Testament by DeSilva which is proving to be rather useful as a class text. It's quite big and comprehensive and it does include a feature on ministry formation but the book is a wealth of helpful information for beginning students and those who've been around for a while.

I remember we were recommended John Drane's Introduction to the New Testament. But that was boring so I bought Brown's last monster instead! Yahoo! It took me forever as an undergrad to get through it, and I think I missed a good 40% of the debates and technical discussions. But it was still one of the best books for actually getting into the world and text of the New Testament. Rodney Starks book on The Rise of Christianity was so different and thought-provoking that I also recommend it when I teach.
Of course, all this depends on what level you're teaching and wanting to study at. My lecturers thought me mad for opting for Brown over Drane as an undergrad. But I'd already begun reading Brown's commentary on John, liked what I read, and so took the plunge! It wasn't an impossible task. And it helped me get a little ahead - only to come to Africa and be left behind... :(
It's important to get a textbook that will survey all the issues and give you an informed view on nearly everything. That's the strength of DeSilva's work. Even thought it's a mammoth book, 950pgs, the topics and history covered make it well worth the effort and cash. It's also got loads of pictures + diagrams and a much needed survey on the environment and social world of early Christianity. That's also where Koester is at his best. Vol 2 is simply fantastic for getting to grips with the backdrop of early Christianity.
On the early Christianity and Society, my teacher Laurie Guy wrote a cool book which has proved rather helpful and illustrative of what a textbook should provide. I've got all the class notes and the book and he did well transforming the notes into a book - which I think many should read as it deals quite a bit with primary sources!
But I'm rambling... Hope this helps for those starting out on the journey that will not end until you've breathed your last and then stand in front of the ONE who gave rise to all of this reflection!


Scot McKnight notes the following quote:

For Jesus, holiness was not something fragile in need of protection but something powerful in need of liberation.

Now this sounds pretty cool. But what does it actually mean? What is it pointing to? What is it referring to? What does it symbolise? Have I lost my marbles in the purity debates of 1st century Judaism(s) to realise the potency of this axiom? Did I miss something?

Craig Blomberg's new book, Contagious Holiness: Jesus' Meals with Sinners will hopefully offer some poignant insights on the practice of Table Fellowship and Jesus' attitudes and methods regarding holiness. The write up reads:

One of humanity's most basic and common practices--eating meals--was transformed by Jesus into an occasion of divine encounter. In sharing food and drink with his companions, he invited them to share in the grace of God. He revealed his redemptive mission while eating with sinners, repentant and unrepentant alike.

Jesus' "table fellowship" with sinners in the Gospels has been widely agreed to be historically reliable. However, this consensus has recently been challenged, for example, by the claim that the meals in which Jesus participated took the form of Greco-Roman symposia--or that the "sinners" involved were the most flagrantly wicked within Israel's society, not merely the ritually impure or those who did not satisfy strict Pharisaic standards of holiness.

In this excellent and thorough study, Craig L. Blomberg engages with the debate and opens up the significance of the topic. He surveys meals in the Old Testament and the intertestamental period, examines all the Gospel texts relevant to Jesus' eating with sinners, and concludes with contemporary applications.

How this equates to Contagious Holiness, I don't know. But I am hoping the book will explain this to a confused student. Also, see John Frye who has a cool post: Jesus the "UNHOLY" Shepherd, which is helpful enough. But back to McKnight...

For Jesus, holiness was not something fragile in need of protection but something powerful in need of liberation.

Why does holiness need to be unleashed from bondage, and what kind of bondage? How does Jesus unleash holiness? Or does someone else unleash it? Does Jesus inspire his disciples to follow his example. Thus, is it the abstinence of sin? Is that what holiness is? Or is it the quality of relationship that one has with Jesus? Undefiled, pure interaction. The re:gathering of community of those who have been marginalized. Thus, is it about community formation? Is that what holiness is? Or does it mean that Jesus was untouched by superficial debates about codes of conducts in the 1st century and was more interested that they not have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith/fulness. Thus, when engaged in these activities, one is holy. Thus, is it a praxis based on appropriate ethics? Is that what holiness is? Or is holiness something that resides in us, that by obeying Jesus it is released and thus we are given the power to do stuff that is pleasing to God. Thus, is it a power [character traits?] to help us to please YHWH? Is that what holiness is?

Just what exactly, if this is at all possible to define or describe, does McKnight mean? Or did I miss something - somewhere - somehow - ???

The Reality of Suffering

Ben Myers has excellent advice on proclamation during suffering. I would urge all preachers to take his comments seriously...

And in such times—when we do speak—we had better hope that we really have something to say. God forgive us if in such times we indulge in philosophical speculation about “the problem of evil.” God forgive us if in such times we utter pious jargon about “divine sovereignty.” God forgive us if in such times we resort to cheap talk about “the consequences of Adam’s Fall.” Most of all, God forgive us if in such times we merely find an occasion for preaching about heaven, hell, and the brevity of human life—so that the suffering and death of real human beings are reduced to a trivial moralistic example for the rest of us.

In short: God forgive us if in such times we have anything at all to say except the gospel. I’m not talking about a simple repetition of the gospel, but rather a concrete translation of this message, such that Jesus Christ himself is encountered anew right here and now in the depths of crisis and desolation.
While philosophical speculation, as well as theological reflection are important about these issues, it is never wise to do so in the company of those who are hurting - badly.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Marshall on η Βασιλεια του θεου

One of our former teachers in Auckland, Chris Marshall has a neat summary article on The Kingdom of God. We were recommended his book Kingdom Come: The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus (Auckland: Impetus Publications, 1993) as a primer on Jesus and the kingdom when I was an undergraduate. Some will know Chris' PhD. work which was published as Faith as a Theme in Mark’s Narrative SSNTMS 64 (Cambridge University Press, 1989) which has since been republished, I think by Eerdmans...?
Dr. Marshall has recently been appointed as the inaugural St John's Senior Lecturer in Christian Theology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. This is a position I am glad that Chris has decided to take. It will help Victoria return from its exile brought about by shoddy scholarship such as that produced by James Veitch in, Jesus of Galilee, Myth and Reality, (Colcom Press, 1994). But I digress... Enjoy the article...

And Jesus Stood

An excerpt from Holy Week Sonnets, by Philip Rosenbaum
Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. Matthew 27:11
Not all the stages set by mortal hands
And decorated long and lavishly
To evoke the flavor of exotic lands—
And yet to do it with such subtlety
That men hear nothing but heroic speech,
Envision nothing but the lovers' kiss—
Whatever heights theatric art may reach,
They'll ne'er do justice to a scene like this.
The stage, the script, the lights, and all the skill
of actors practiced till they could not err
Performed the Author-and-Director's will:
The moon paused in the path prepared for her;
The sun was silent; all the stars grew still—
And Jesus stood before the governor.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Sovereignty and Jesus

I am so thankful for posts like Ben Witherington's recent entry: But the Lord was not in the Wind. In further discussion in the comments, Ben makes these further remarks that are so helpful I must quote them at length!

The sovereignty of God is of course an important subject in the Bible, as my mentioning of Rom. 8 at the end of this blog ought to show. But it is a huge mistake to equate God's sovereignty with causation when it comes to a whole host of events. The issue is not whether God is almighty, but rather how does God exercise his sovereignty. The problem with John Piper and other scholars who read the Bible as if it were written by Augustine or Calvin rather than by early Jews, is that they do not understand how early Jews thought about these subjects, which involves allowing there to be more than one source of causation in the universe. The alternative is indeed to make God the author of what God in fact calls evil repeatedly in Scripture--- which is a huge besmirching of the character of God. It is equally problematic to make God's sovereignty the heremeneutical key by which then one tries to fit God's other attributes into a procrustean bed. For example God's love or God's desire that none should perish but all have everlasting life (see e.g. Jn. 3.16-17; 1 Tim. 2.6) do not fit the Augustinian understanding of sovereignty. And while we are at it, Ephes. 1.11 simply tells us that God is almighty to save. It is in no way a commentary on the cause of evil and tragedy in this world.
But perhaps the greatest failure of the Piper model of sovereignty is that it gets wrong the whole nature of God's love, which involves freedom not only on the part of God but also real freedom of response on the part of those he is wooing and loving. It is a case of "freely you have received, freely give". Love is not something that can be predetermined and still be love. Automata are not capable of love. And as 1 John reminds us in so many ways God is love. This I would suggest must affect the way we think about God's sovereignty or else we are actually Moslems, not Christians with a belief in pure fatalism, all things predetermined. The alternative to Augustinianism is not Deism-- it is rather a full orbed view of all of God's attributes including God's love. God is not the only actor in the universe whose will matters, and this is because God chose for it to be otherwise from before the foundations of the universe.
While some may have reservations about the theology of Open Theism, one must admit that Calvinism is bankrupt in it's notion that the God of scripture is ultimately the author of sin and/or evil. And where I'm sitting, Open Theisms attempt to deal with Freedom and Evil is a far better model [even though there are serious issues to be resolved] than that of determinism/Calvinism.
The most often quoted John 9 is helpless in the determinist case if we just pay attention to the text, the Greek text!
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so let God's works be revealed in him.
Jesus' response may be assumed to imply an agreement with those who wish to advance the view that even this man's blindness was determined by YHWH but the text doesn't actually support this premise. In the Greek text, the underlined section of this pericope is curiously absent. Therefore, in response to the primary question, Jesus simply says "Let the works of God be revealed." Translators include the words "he was born blind so that" because of a theological presupposition or they think it is implied in Jesus' answer to the disciples question. But presuppositions and assumptions don't carry much weight when they are being directly questioned and challenged. Grammatically, the passage does not require the insertion of extra bits.
Ergo, in response to the disciples question, Jesus responds by saying "Let God be Glorified". In essence, as per usual, they were asking the wrong question. What matters is seeing the work of God revealed, not debating who or what sin/agent caused the problem. If we do not allow the assumption that Jesus believed there was a divine reason for everything, the text is perfectly intelligible without the insertion. In response to evil or sickness, let's not seek to blame God, let's seek to glorify YHWH by asking Him to heal and restore. Jesus negates there question, he doesn't answer it. That's the theology of John 9.
Now obviously there are other issues that aren't resolved and that need to be addressed. But I think we best go back to the sources before assuming too much... Build on rock, not sand is what my master would say...

What is a Christian?

The Constructive Curmudgeon has an interesting post on What is a Christian? For some odd reason it sent my memory back to a quote that I fear many have missed in understanding just what a Christian is. Check it out...

Who were the strange people who called themselves “Christians”? what was the “kingdom” to which they claimed allegiance? And why did they stubbornly refuse to offer the usual, patriotic sacrifices to Augustus Caesar and, in so doing, willingly go to their deaths? These were the questions that most ancient Romans found hard to answer on the rare occasions when they came into direct contact with the unconventional sect of Christians, yet these subversive practices – the steadfast refusal to bow to false gods or pay homage to earthly powers – lay at the very heart of the early Christian faith. Emperor after emperor ordered campaigns of persecution against them. Roman authors branded them as “notoriously depraved” adherents of a “deadly superstition” that represented a direct threat to the moral majority of imperial Rome. Christians were hunted down in the slums and back alleys of Rome and other provincial cities. They were rounded up, beaten up, and condemned to execution for atheism and treason – that is, failing to participate in the state controlled cults of the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon and abandoning honoured family values of pagan society.

On the surface, at least, the Christians appeared to be quite harmless. “The sum and substance of their fault or error,” observed the Roman jurist Pliny the Younger at the beginning of the second century C.E., after interrogating a number of suspected Christians, “Was that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from fraud, theft and adultery and never make false promises or refuse to carry out a pledge when called upon to do so. When this ceremony was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again later to partake of food of an ordinary and innocent kind.”

This was only a part of the story. In close-knit communities and weekly assemblies, in which the Spirit moved people to burst into strange tongues and shouts of praise to Jesus the LORD and GOD the Father, early Christians rejected conventional career hopes, social ladders and civic honours. They fervently believed that the modern-day world of streets and market-places – the realm of tax collectors, loan agents, market inspectors, and imperial officials – could at any moment be rocked to its very foundations.

This was a Christianity without impressive churches, without authoritative clergy, without special outward trappings. Their hopes for a different kind of future for themselves and their children strengthened their faith in their impending redemption. Indeed, “Christianity” in its early decades was a network of a poor people and marginal communities in both cities and rural areas that a government, even a modern government, would have had a problem recognizing as a “religion” at all.

Early Christianity was in fact, a down to earth response to an oppressive ideology of earth power that had recently swept across continents, disrupted economies, and overturned ancient traditions. And this triumphant ideology of progress and development was expressed in many media: in the elegies of Latin poets, in the grandeur of Roman architecture, in Roman law-courts and statutes, in the technological triumphs of Roman engineering, and in the majestic, fatherly wave of every emperor’s hand. At the beginning of the second century C.E. – just at the time when Christianity was crystalising into a formalised, independent religion – a vast and growing publis was being taught to cooperate in the construction of a new global system of economics, culture, and civil administration, in which the gifure of the emperor had begun to take on the qualities of a single, supreme god. That was why the early Christians were viewed as so subversive.[1]

While the link provides us with a very theologically informed construction, I believe the quote provides us with a much needed injection of historical reality tht many theologians seem to have forgotten. Ad Fontes...
[1] Horsley R. and N. A. Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom, pg. 9-10

Devotion to Jesus

In his forthcoming book on early Christian Devotion, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Larry Hurtado investigates the keen devotion to Jesus that emerged with surprising speed after his death. Reverence for Jesus among early Christians, notes Hurtado, included both grand claims about Jesus' significance and a pattern of devotional practices that effectively treated him as divine. Directed at readers across religious lines, this book argues that whatever one makes of such devotion to Jesus, the subject at least deserves serious historical consideration. Mapping out the lively current debate about Jesus for interested newcomers, Hurtado explains the evidence, issues, and positions at stake. His clear and learned treatment of such matters as persecution of Jesus worshipers and Christianity's development out of Judaism will also catch the interest of students and specialists.
The book has a useful chapter: To Live and Die for Jesus: Social and Political Consequences of Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. The chapter outlines several interesting features on early Christian practices and how these would have been perceived by the various social and political structures of the day. These include, Family Relations, Christians married to non-Christians, and Christian Slaves. What I found most interesting in this chapter, was his section on Family Relations. The following reflections are based on that chapter, which Dr. Hurtado was kind enough to let me read. However, one should not assume that all my conclusions or comments are necessarily his.
Although Hurtado does not argue that these stem from the historical Jesus, but just notes that they come from the Jesus-Tradition, I think a strong argument can be made for the authenticity of many sayings referring to the family and allegiance to Jesus. The first two sayings on family come from the supposed Quelle document, the hypothetical source for Matthew and Luke. Without detailing arguments here, I feel this refers to oral tradition and there are ways around the synoptic problem that do not require the "Q" hypothesis [which in my mind has become overly complex and unnecessary]. The Lukan parallel of our Matthean axiom has Semitic traces.[1]
Matt 10:34-39 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever adores father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever adores son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Luke 12:51-53 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Luke 14:25-27 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.
Jesus’ call to become a disciple involved an exclusivist socio-political and religious claim upon those who chose to embrace him as their king. One should not think [cf. Matt 5:17] that Jesus’ mission brings peace rather than a sword. However, one should also not imagine that this means that Jesus has the intention of a violent agenda. Jesus goes on to explain what he intends by contrasting peace and the sword. Jesus does not appear to be ignorant that his call to “repent and believe for the reign of YHWH is dawning” will incite a war of allegiances.
But Jesus is quick to highlight exactly how his team must work out and remain faithful to his agenda within this dawning battle of loyalties. In a societal milieu of traditional values and familial commitments Jesus’ mission and message will divide and separate those wanting to be faithful to him, and those wanting to hold onto several time honoured traditions. It will affect every sort of relationship, whether by blood or marriage. It will also affect various authority structures set within the household as Jesus claims superiority in all relationships. This will, inevitably cause both trouble and division.[2] Jesus’ followers are warned that they may have to choose between their commitment to him and their own family (Matt. 10:37-39; Luke 14:26-27). The reason is clear: the royal proclamation of the reign of YHWH and the summons to embrace and entrust Jesus as the king, cannot be adequately understood apart from careful attention being paid to the “extended household” (Gk oikos; Lat familia). In households, the pater familias [father] was the head of the household who held the authority and position of honour.[3] This is whole structure is being directly challenged by Jesus. Loyalty to Jesus must take precedence over any other familial relationship.
The reason being is clearly stated by Jesus, and he is unashamed to note this. Jesus as their true king must be worthy of more affection, adoration and allegiance than anyone or anything else. The christological implications of this claim now come to the fore as one considers the notion of idolatry and Torah. Torah has clearly laid out that one should honour familial relationships, especially the patriarchal head of the house. But Jesus’ kingdom announcement calls for a loyalty that transcends such boundaries. We would not have to incorporate much more data to substantiate the further claim that Jesus, in proclaiming the kingdom of God, was claiming to be YHWH’s anointed Messiah/King. And this is not difficult to imagine. Jesus certainly claimed more allegiance than just a prophet. The allegiance that Jesus claimed went beyond the prescriptions of Torah and thus alert us to the unparalleled authority claimed by Jesus.
For Gentiles a proper conversion to Jesus would have to involve a radical disassociation from their previous, traditional religious groups and practices. One cannot but suggest this as a plausible account of Jesus’ petition to follow him in his counter-empire mission of bringing the reign of YHWH into play.
In commenting on the Lukan pericope, Joel Green notes generally that:
As his present discourse, begun in 12:1, has already made clear, a decision to adopt his canons of faithfulness to God would require a deeply rooted and pervasive transformation of how one understands God and how one understands the transformation of the world purposed by this God. This would involved Jesus’ disciples in dispositions and forms of behaviour that could only be regarded as deviant within their kin groups. Earlier Jesus had been concerned to prepare his disciples for the persecution before the authorities that would result from identification with his mission (vv. 1-12); now he maintains that his ministry has as one of its consequences the deconstruction of convention family bonds.[4]
In our Matthean version Jesus specifically states that the issue is worship, i.e. who is worthy of more affection, adoration and allegiance. The division is ultimately about worth-ship. Who is worthy of this kind of allegiance and adoration? What is so significant about Jesus that loyalty to him should transcend traditional kinship groups? Why should they allow Jesus to invade their family structures with his announcement of the reign of YHWH? Who does Jesus think he is that he can claim this kind of loyalty, that should possibly only be given to YHWH or even the emperor?[5]
Jesus was inciting allegiance to in a society gone astray. Gone away into exile…
And then we have mention of the call to the cross. Again, the issue of worth-ship is at the fore here. If one does not follow Jesus’ command and call, one is simply not worthy. One has not considered the weight of the matter at hand, and who exactly is issuing this call. We must remind ourselves that the cross is the greatest symbol of foreign oppression and dictatorship. It categorically states that this is what happens to those who do not pledge allegiance to Rome and her emperor. But if Jesus’ challenge applies to family units, does it apply to the greater Roman family where the emperor is the great Father of the nation? The one who provides PAX and prosperity? Is there again, a subversive challenge to the greater familial loyalty of local inhabitants to the Emperor?
[1] See Witherington, The Christology of Jesus, pg. 121
[2] According to Davies and Allison, Matthew, II pg. 217 n.22 “When Jesus and his messengers are not received, there cannot but be conflict.”
[3] One must remember that the father exercised total legal control (potestas) over both his family and the enslaved members of his household. According to Roman law, this potestas even included the power over life and death.
[4] Green, The Gospel of Luke, pg. 509
[5] Or as Green, The Gospel of Luke, pg. 509 asks: “How could a ministry the effects of which include the dissolution of family ties be sanctioned by God?”