Sunday, February 21, 2010

On the Cultural World of the Gospels

More interesting than the facts surrounding the birth, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth are perhaps the potential collisions between the facts themselves – a point to which Reddish alludes and toward which I hope this class progresses. That is to say it matters less than Jesus was a Jew or a resident of Roman-occupied Palestine than it matters that Jesus was a Jew and a resident of Roman-occupied Palestine. And it matters less that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic than it matters that Jesus spoke Aramaic in the Roman world where the educated and wealthy all spoke Greek.

It must certainly matter what kind of Jew Jesus was (if any) and what kind of stance he took regarding both the occupying Romans and the co-opted Jerusalem Temple and its cultural system. It must certainly matter, at least to women then and now, that he was a man in a Jewish and Roman setting – what were Jesus Messiah’s own interpretive and active stances towards women, and what do they tell us about Jesus himself?

It must surely mean something that Jesus came to one of the most occupied and acrimonious places on the earth. We who have as our longest-term enemy the Soviet Union of the markedly un-violent Cold War might lack some of the conceptual tools to fully understand the problem. Often we Americans hear of violence such as the conflict between Palestine and Israel and think ‘but that is all in the past, why cannot they just let this go?’

But perhaps we fail to consider the psychology of on-going, intermittent, and recurring occupation and violence. It matters that Israel conquered, and then Babylon conquered, and then Persia conquered, and then Alexander, and on, and on, and on. I don’t know that I can say whether or not sins are visited unto the fourth generation, but I know that it would matter, analogically speaking, if your ex-wife came back to stab you every six months or so for the next eighteen years.

Rage accrues. Injustice and hostility accrue. I sometimes wonder if all these might do so exponentially – and, if so, what it matters that Jesus the Nazarene spoke both to conquered and to conquerors, and also to those whom such conflicts had simply run over.

All of this is not to reduce Jesus Christ to a mediator of entrenched imperial and ethnic conflicts – but it is to expand Jesus to a real person within a real and all-encompassing concurrent situation. And it is to suggest that these things mattered to him. I don’t know that I’d go as far as saying, as I heard last semester, that one cannot understand Revelation without understanding the history of Hanukkah, but I cannot but suppose that a Palestinian Jew of the first century CE would have had something to say about Jewish nationalism, and that this would have mattered, to some degree, to how he confronted everyone.

Of course, my very point is that this could not have been the only thing that mattered. The same Temple with which Jesus engaged was the one crushing its adherents with 40-50% taxes and pushing them into the very day labor that helped complete its renovation – almost until its very destruction in 70 AD. If money is mentioned more often than any other subject in the Bible as a whole, one can presume a similar emphasis in the Gospels and thus, more weakly, in Jesus Christ himself.

I mention the Temple in reference to economics instead of religion because Jesus, in his demonstrated concern for the daily realities of the people he encountered, would have cared very much how the Temple impacted the lives of fellow Galileans and other rural Jews (though of course not just those). It would have mattered to him that the institution ostensibly preserving the people from destitution was serving as a de-facto slaveholder demanding both their money and their work. It would have mattered to him that these people could not possibly store up their treasures on this earth, and one imagines him seeing these people needing more, and his coming to provide it.

It would have mattered to him (hence of course the language of the parables) that the local economy, the local source of thriving and life, was agricultural – but the economy of the local temple supported physicians, scribes, weavers, and a host of other laborers, all not markedly contributing to local thriving. One wonders how literal the parables about abundant harvests actually were.

It would have mattered to Jesus and his ministry (his being no less contextual than anyone else’s) that the people of the villages of occupied Israel were essentially squeezed by both Rome and by Jerusalem, by Caiaphas and by Herod and by Augustus. Jesus Messiah’s answer concerning taxes –‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’ – makes more sense if one recalls that Roman and Jewish coins were both failing his native village anyway.

The Lament over Jerusalem and the Denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees that precedes it both make more sense in the context of tensions between rural and urban Israel. Jerusalem was the locus of Roman occupation and Jewish corruption; Jerusalem was the culmination of his mission; and Jerusalem was the place that finally did him in. Did Jesus, as it is said, show a preferential option for the poor? Another, perhaps more scandalous way to ask the question is did Jesus show a preferential option for the laborer, for the farmer, and for the village peasant?

This is not to reduce Jesus to a champion of class struggle – but it is to ask where Jesus stands in regard to historical tensions, already extant in the Scriptures of his time, between wandering Abram and settled Gomorrah, between David of Bethlehem and David in Jerusalem, and between Jerusalem the city of peace and Jerusalem that kills the prophets.

And if economy means ‘of the household’ then Jesus would also have cared about that other locus of daily and vital life, the human, Jewish, and Roman family – I say all of these because Jesus would have experienced all of these, and perhaps, in his affiliations with his disciples, added still one more. One wonders how much of an exception Jesus must have been, if most all had married by age twenty – and one wonders if his critique of Jewish divorce could have been, just this once, his siding with the Romans.

It must certainly have mattered to Jesus Messiah that both Roman and Jewish society (and therefore family, hence its inclusion here) were stratified (to use our language), and so leveled in differing ways. Was the wife of a senator or prefect worth more to God than a scribe paid by the Temple? Did a God-fearing freeman have just as much a part in the Kingdom as a Jewish hired hand?

How did Jesus answer these questions – in whatever form he understood them – and what do those answers mean, then and now? Surely his encounters, his common, daily interactions with all of these people, slave and free, man and woman, Roman and Jew, as evidenced in the Synoptics generally and in Matthew in particular can tell us as much about Jesus of Nazareth as any theological or liturgical text.

On the Formation of the Gospels and the Canon


First, it has often been said that the four gospels provide four portraits of Jesus, not four snapshots. Given the processes in the composition of the four gospels (as outlined by Reddish), say how that is true (or in need of modification). Try to communicate your answer to a teen-ager.

Second, on the basis of the history of the formation of the New Testament canon, how do you respond to someone who assumes that the 27 books in the New Testament differ from all others because they are inspired, but other books are not. Is that sufficient; is there nothing more to be said?


The image of the portrait of Christ denotes an intimacy between artist and subject - the artist is sitting with the subject for some hours, the artist knows the subject on some personal level, and the subject, let's be honest, is usually giving the artist money – which skews the 'objectivity' of the portrait. But all of this connotes relationship. And, I would add, all of this connotes some degree of spirit (we've all heard of the beliefs about photographs stealing one's soul - there's nothing stealthy about a portrait, no paparazzi with a paintbrush and a canvas. does anyone even do portraits anymore?)

It makes sense of course that this idea of portrait would describe the gospels more than a snapshot. The writers of the gospels had some relationship with Jesus Christ. And their affection for the personality and work of Jesus Christ ‘colored’ what they wrote about him. But because the Jesus Christ of faith is worthy of praise and honor in the first place, it matters less that the Beloved Disciple didn’t catch Jesus making a fool of himself at a party, or drinking milk straight from the carton at 3AM. The whole person of Christ matters more than individual moments about him, right? This would include details about his birth and diet and stray comments – the whole matters more than the sum of its parts, and that comes in a portrait.

On the other hand, the image of the portrait implies only one artist, and we now know this simply could not have been the case for the gospels. I suggest the image of the mural would be more apt – that beautiful art form that is often whole communities of people building on each other’s work, sometimes over days and weeks, each adding their piece to a greater, messy harmony.

This brings up the subject of canonization, of course, because there were and are other 'murals.' And we are hard pressed, frankly, to say with any degree of certainty as to who was and wasn’t truly inspired by God when they wrote accounts of Jesus – in large part because so many people seem to have been involved in all the oral traditions, and in all the communities of people of the early Jesus Movement that kept traditions about Jesus going. What does that sort of inspiration even look like, what would the criteria be? Would the person have to glow to be inspired? Would they have to hear the voice of God audibly, or would a prompting of one’s consciousness suffice? If the latter, how do we know that the fourth person remembering a parable of Jesus to add to the book of Mark is inspired, but a second person remembering one of Jesus’s stray sayings for the Gospel of Thomas is not?

What we can say with greater certainty is that we choose these gospels, these four that we have today. We chose them in antiquity and we choose them again in our own time. We choose them all over the world just as we have chosen them for 2000 years because they describe the Jesus Christ we ourselves have relationship with better than the alternative murals of the Gnostic or other apocryphal gospels – these are the gospels which build faith. Yes, we choose them because they have better historical bona fides than the gospels we have not chosen, but at this point the sheer weight of our collective choice must matter more than any one reason for it. It’s like ‘dating’ manuscripts in the other sense of the word. It matters less that he has blue eyes and quite a bit more that he’s your boyfriend.

On the Historical- Critical Reading of Scripture


The task of Christology is to hold in tension the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith. It is very difficult to do this, and people of faith often err on one side or the other, with academics erring on the side of the Jesus of history and pastors often erring on the side of the Christ of faith. What Charlesworth does is try to presuppose and respect the Christ of faith while giving us as accurate a glimpse into the Jesus of history using as much archeological evidence as possible provided by the Scriptural witness to this man. By understanding as much as possible about the Jesus of history, we can continue to find fresh ways to speak of the Christ of faith.



I think you have the sense of it; whenever I read any of this historical-critical stuff, I feel like something of an archeologist myself – much of it is tedium, confirming or solidifying what we already know. Some of it is troubling or shocking or difficult to fathom; a few things are real, wonderful, and substantial finds. And I found all three here: the basic thrust of Jesus’s biography must certainly be familiar to many Christians, at least one would hope so. And I’m not as troubled with all of the conflations as the author tended to be – I think it’s probably okay, for example, to assume that the garden John mentions before Jesus’s arrest is indeed Gethsemane, though that name isn’t specifically there; I don’t see what harm that could really do. So most of the book was a recast for me, and that’s fine.

And there were certainly some points that were profoundly troubling; the suggestion, seriously entertained, that the wedding in Cana was Jesus Christ’s own wedding. Now I don’t, myself, have much of a stake in the answer to this question, it wouldn’t change my faith overmuch if Jesus had married – but to argue that there was a strong possibility of this specifically from the absence of evidence in the Gospels as to what the wedding was actually about assumes an almost maniacal editing of the Jesus traditions before we get them in Johannine form. Because so many of the historical-critical findings have been eventually overturned or revealed as exaggerations or distorted understandings of Christ, I wonder how easily, and at just how many points, contemporary historical-critical scholarship makes the same over-reaching mistakes. We say we’re getting better, but are we really?

But of course I did find several gems, the most recent of which in Charlesworth was the argument that because Jesus most likely did not know Greek, he would have lacked that language’s (and our New Testament’s) more sophisticated understanding of past, present and future, and would have dealt instead in the simpler Semitic paradigm of fulfilled or un-fulfilled time. That is a profound realization, it’s both based on historical data and consonant with the Hebrew Bible, and it helps us understand what the man was actually trying to say. That’s premium work; I wish all historical scholarship went down a similar vein and perhaps spent less time battling through the authority of sources.

Which brings me to the actual question: it’s not that I side with the Christ of faith or the Christ of history so much as that I choose the Christ of history because of the Christ of faith. Because and only because I believe that Jesus was the Son of God who was crucified for our sins and resurrected for our salvation, it matters what he taught and where he lived and how he understood God. That’s why the historical details matter to me, albeit in varying degrees. And that’s probably true for most Christians – I think the discussion of the historical Jesus alone is perhaps best for an outward-facing conversation, because the degree of certainty that we can have about Jesus’s human life is significant and telling in an apologetic sense, as a defense of the reasonableness of our faith .

Welcome to the Spring Semester

Welcome, Internet Community, to my Second Semester in Seminary!

I'm looking forward to working through a very focused array of questions this semester, mostly centered in that figure known as Jesus of Nazareth, our Lord and Saviour. My classes include one on the Gospel of Matthew, a Christology class, a class in Hermeneutics, Ecclesiastical Latin (less pertinent, perhaps) and a Christian Ethics class based upon a Reformation reading of scripture.

As you can see, the questions, and perhaps it is ultimately only one question, ask how we can know Jesus Christ and what that knowing means for ourselves and for those we live with - which, of course, is everyone. I don't know that there could be a more important question, for anyone, so I hope you follow along! I've already got some prelinary writing done, and since at least two of my classes do work online, it's already prepped for cyberspace!

Your obedient servant,
the Curious Monk