Jesus and the Gospels


Various online news groups are reporting that the scientific studies conducted on the fragment of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife have shown it NOT to be a forgery! See, e.g., the article in he Boston Globe. See also the official Harvard Divinity School site. Can’t wait to hear the reactions of Watson, Gathercole, Goodacre, and others.

The following is an extended quote from Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 30.5 (one of his Five Theological Orations), written near the time of the Council of Constantinople (AD 381).  The work is a refutation of the Eunomians/Anomeans/Neo-Arians, who thought that the Son did not eternally share the same nature as the Father.  As part of his argument he discusses the relationship of the Father to the Son when he is hanging on the cross.

If the Father and Son share the same essence/nature, how can they be separated at the cross? What could Jesus have meant when he exclaimed (quoting Ps 22.1), “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Gregory answers:

Why? You will say.  Is [the Son] not subordinate now?  If he is God, does he need at all to be made subordinate to God?  You are talking as if he were a bandit or an opponent of God!

No–look at this fact: the one who releases me from the curse was called “curse” because of me; “the one who takes away the sin of the world” was called “sin” and is made a new Adam to replace the old.  In just this way too, as head of the whole body, he appropriates my want of submission.  So long as I am an insubordinate rebel with passions which deny God, my lack of submission will be referred to Christ.  But when all things are put in submission under him, when transformed they obediently acknowledge him, then will Christ bring me forward, me who have been saved, and makes his subjection complete.  In my view Christ’s submission is the fulfillment of the Father’s will.  As we said before, the Son actively produces submission to the Father, while the Father wills and approves submission to the Son.  Thus it is that he effects our submission, makes it his own and presents it to God. “My God, my God, look upon me, why have you forsaken me?” seems to me to have been the same kind of meaning.  He is not forsaken either by the Father or, as some think, by his own Godhead, which shrank in fear from suffering, abandoning the suffer.  Who applies that argument either to his birth in this world in the first place or to his ascent of the cross? No in himself, as I have said, he expresses our condition.  We had once been forsaken and disregarded; then we are accepted and now are saved by the sufferings of the impassible.  He made our thoughtlessness and waywardness his own, just as the psalm, in its subsequent course says–since the Twenty-First Psalm [LXX, English = 22nd], clearly refers to Christ.

When representing humanity on the cross, Christ does not cease to be divine.  He subordinates himself on our behalf, but he can only humble himself if he were exalted in the first place.  The Father and the Son did not have separate intentions because sharing the same nature entails sharing the same will.  Miroslav Volf captures this idea when he recently tweeted: “Christ is not a third party inserted between an angry God and sinful humanity; he is the God who was wronged embracing humanity on the cross.”

Reading up on Schweitzer for an article on Colossians 2 and was reminded of this gem:

What endless trouble theology has given itself about the problem of Paul and Jesus, and what shifts it has been put to to explain why Paul does not derive his teaching from the preaching of Jesus, but stands in this respect so independently alongside of Him!  In doing so it is talking all round a problem, which it has first made insoluble by failing to grasp it in its completeness.  The discovery that Paul takes up an independent attitude towards Jesus is misleading, unless one at the same time recognises all that he has in common with Him.  For Paul shares with Jesus the eschatological world-view and the eschatological expectation, with all that these imply.  The only difference is the hour in the world-clock in the two cases.  To use another figure, both are looking towards the same mountain range, but whereas Jesus sees it as lying before Him, Paul already stands upon it and its first slopes are already behind him. (The Mysticism of the Apostle Paul, 113)

I had a friend ask why, according to NT Wright,  Jesus rebuked the Pharisees.  I gave this response:

The Pharisees were, according to Wright, as concerned with the need for a political solution of purity as well as the religious, which I think is important to remember.  In the ancient world religion and politics were explicitly mixed, whereas today it is more implicit or at least mostly on the level of rhetoric rather than practice.  Thus when Jesus was preaching the Kingdom of God, the Pharisees could easily get on board with that as a restored kingdom of Israel, which entailed kicking out all the impure gentiles much like had happened with the Hasmoneans and the Hanukkah story.  However, the way that Jesus went about bringing in the kingdom was not through rebellion, which didn’t fit with the Pharisaic mindset of zeal for purity.  Rather, Jesus’ vision included not only the impure Jews as included in the kingdom but also the (really) impure Gentiles.

NTW in his own words on this:

the rigorous application of the law in the way we have observed, as a defence against Gentiles and hence as a reinforcement of national boundaries and aspirations, had become, in Jesus’ view, a symptom of the problem rather than part of the solution.  The kingdom of the one true god was at last coming into being, and it would not be characterized not by defensiveness, but by Israel’s being a light to the world; not by the angry zeal which would pay the Gentiles back by their own coin (as Mattathias had advised his sons), but by turning the other cheek and going the second mile.  The command to love one’s enemies, and the prohibition on violent revolution, constituted not an attack on Torah as such but a radically different interpretation of Israel’s ancestral tradition from those currently on offer.  Jesus, precisely in affirming Israel’s unique vocation to be the light of the world, was insisting that, now that the moment for fulfilment had come, it was time to relativize those god-given markers of Israel’s distinctiveness. (Jesus and the Victory of God, 389)

I have an article in the latest volume of JBL (131.3 [2012], 547-66) titled “Voluntary Debt Remission and the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13).” JBL doesn’t include abstracts, but here is a lengthy soundbite at the end of the survey/critique of existing interpretations that, more or less, explains what I try to do in the piece:

Numerous other interpretations could be presented here, each with its own shortcomings. The foregoing survey, however, has sufficiently demonstrated the common assumption underlying most of these inadequate explanations, namely, that unless the steward is deducting from his own profits, the reductions are to be viewed as hostile to his master, or in the words of Douglas E. Oakman, as “betrayal” and “an abrogation of the then-current social mores of fidelity.” Kloppenborg similarly remarks, “[T]he natural implication of the story is that the steward’s actions are injurious to the master’s interests.” Schellenberg concurs, explaining, “The expectation within the world of the parable [is] that loyal stewardship requires meticulous collection of the master’s debts.” But these assumptions rest on a limited understanding of the purpose and function of debt remission in the ancient economy. And since, as Klyne Snodgrass suggests, “[t]his is a parable where one must fill in the blanks,” in this essay I will offer a new explanation of the master’s praise based on the general custom of lease adjustment in the early empire. Through the testimony of Roman landowners such as Pliny the Younger, Cicero, and Columella, as well as those represented in leasing contracts from early Roman Egypt, I will demonstrate that the instability of land tenancy during the early imperial period quite often required wealthy proprietors to reduce debts (rents and arrears) in order to enable and encourage their repayment, as well as to secure the longevity of their tenants and their own long-term profitability. Debt remission in antiquity, then, was advantageous both to landlords and tenants, an insight that has significant implications for the interpretation of our parable (552-53).

If you interested in matters relating to the ancient economy and/or the interpretation of this confusing parable, I would encourage you to check out the article.

In a discussion forum about Jesus movies, Bruce Longenecker was praising the BBC’s The Passion as one of the better recent Jesus movies (not to be confused with Mel Gibson’s similarly titled film).  I had almost forgotten about it because it came out just after we moved to the UK.  I highly recommend it too.  If you want to get a feel beyond the limited trailer, I noticed on Youtube someone has uploaded the different episodes if you look for “The Passion Episode …” 1-1, 1-2, etc.

Also in the discussion forum was a note about a dramatized version of the Gospel of Thomas.  Since there is no narrative in the account it is 45 minutes of Jesus giving the sayings with other actors for the disciples.  It does show the distinct contrast with other Gospels since there isn’t any narrative to go along with the teaching.

Sinces it was first introduced just a few weeks ago, there has been an enormous amount of specticism about the authencity of The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. Many scholars have charged that the fragment is a forgery, several even advancing theories about its possible dependance on the coptic version of The Gospel of Thomas. Now scholars are suggesting that the fragment was probably composed with the use of a specific online interlinear of Thomas, since the fragment and the interlinear share the same typographical error. This evidence looks quite damning for The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. For more, see the article by Andrew Bernhard, as well as the blog posts at Evangelical Textual Criticism and the NTWeblog.

So we are familiar with Jesus being described as the son of David. However, a listener to BBC Radio 4 asked whether this might not be so significant because there could potentially have been many such descendants at the time. Of course, we recognise that this description carries a particular theological significance in the Bible, but it nevertheless raises an interesting question: how many descendants of David (assuming he was a historical figure) might there have been in Jesus’ day?

The startling and non-intuitive answer by evolutionary biologist Dr Yan Wong is that, mathematically speaking,

all of Jesus’ contemporaries [would] be descended from David… This is a good illustration of what’s been called the “genealogical paradox”

A mathematical possibility does not, presumably, tell us very much about actuality, although it is a very interesting idea (with implications for claims of common Abrahamic descent, etc.). For the full argument, and rather mind-boggling mathematics, see here. The podcast for the associated radio programme, More or Less, is also available for download.

As with all forms of media, the eye catching title or blurb garners the most attention.  During my last few months in the UK I did some editing work for the Voice translation that just recently published the OT and NT together for the first time.  Due to some catchy titles like the one of this post, the translation has garnered some attention that might be unnecessarily negative.

One of the goals of the translation is to take terminology in the biblical text that didn’t have a specifically religious connotation at the time and use modern terminology that isn’t specifically religious.  For instance, ἀπόστολος is translated in the Voice not as “apostle” which is really only a transliteration and only has religious connotations today, but with “emissary” which does not.  Also for χριστός, rather than merely transliterating it like apostle, the translation goes with Anointed One.
When discussing this on USA Todayand other outlets the media has picked this up as taking Christ out of the Bible, when a better way to phrase it might have been taking “Christ” out of the Bible.  I’ll not take time to reduplicate the efforts by Daniel KirkLarry Hurtado, and Greg Garrett.
If you are interested in a copy to see what the translation first-hand, let me know and we can get one to you.

In the previous post, I noted several comments from Wright on how the Church has misread and distorted the gospels. I found much in Wright’s essay that I appreciated, and as one who comes from a tradition that undervalues the Gospels and ‘spiritualizes’ the kingdom, I completely understand his reaction against this view. However, I have reservations about the way that he pits ‘tradition’ against historical reconstruction and particularly his assertions that ‘the whole church’ or ‘the entire Western tradition’ has misunderstood the Gospels. Let me make two points.

1) The goal of biblical scholarship (indeed of any scholarship) is to advance knowledge. Scholars identify unresolved issues and attempt to provide solutions; we reassess the sources in light of new evidence, such as archaeological discoveries or new philosophical theories about knowledge. We put forth ideas that are often in conflict with previous interpreters. But at what point is it correct to declare all previous interpreters wrong not merely on issues of individual verses but rather on whole subjects like the Gospels (or Paul)? Note, this is not just saying ‘Hey, we have missed this key issue that needs to be included’. Rather, this is declaring ‘Hey, you all have gotten the whole thing wrong! This is how it really is’. Wright’s claim in the quotes listed in the previous post is not merely that we have misunderstood some aspect, but rather that the whole church—every previous interpreter—has completely missed the whole thing. The church has sailed the ship in the wrong direction for 2000 years! Or, more strongly, the church has not even been on the right boat. This is a bold claim, and although Wright is arguing for the importance of understanding the Gospels and Jesus historically, it raises for me a theological question: If the whole of the church has gotten it wrong, does it mean that God’s Spirit has not actually been guiding his people in their reading of Scripture?

2) I’m no expert on the Reformation, but Wright’s claim to be upholding the Reformation seems mistaken. The Reformers certainly stood opposed to tradition, but they didn’t declare the tradition to be wholly wrong. Luther and Calvin regularly turned to Augustine, for example, for support for their interpretations. They certainly went beyond Augustine at key points, but they were keen to make sure that others in the church’s tradition supported their interpretations. Indeed, a number of scholars have appealed for Wright to give more attention to earlier interpreters, not least because Wright may well find supporters for his views (Mike Bird has made this point on several occasions particularly in his response to Wright at IBR in 2010; after drafting these comments I read Edith Humphrey’s essay, ‘Glimpsing the Glory’,  in Jesus, Paul and the People of God and she makes some very pointed remarks to Wright  about the issue ). The whole issue raises this question for me: when proposing a radical reworking of a particular issue (such as the meaning of the Gospels or justification), how important is support from previous interpreters?

I don’t think there are easy answers to these questions. I find neither a ‘blind’ acceptance of tradition nor Wright’s absolute rejection of tradition acceptable. There must be a middle ground that recognises the value of previous interpreters while also realising that they were humans. Michael Gorman makes some good points here about the role of the creeds (and tradition) that are worth reflection.

I hope that this post doesn’t come across as another bash Wright argument. However we treat the relationship between biblical scholarship and church tradition, there is much in this essay by Wright worth pondering and much that the church does need to hear.

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