Friday, May 27, 2011

Constructing Jesus

I just started Dale C. Allison, Jr.'s most recent (and, apparently, final) contribution to historical Jesus scholarship, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Baker Academic, 2010). I have the privilege of writing a review essay for an upcoming issue of The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus; the standard format of these kinds of things is that two or three people will offer reviews of a significant recent publication, and the author will respond to each of the reviewers. I've never done anything like this before, so I'm looking forward to this. (Allison and I are also co-participants in an upcoming conference on "the demise of the criteria of authenticity," to be held on Lincoln Christian University's campus in 2012 and for which a volume will be published by T&T Clark International.)

At any rate, I really have only just started reading this book; to date I've only read the preface. But already I like what I'm reading, especially as I compare it to Allison's previous work on Jesus (especially his volume, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet [Fortress Press, 1998]):
This volume as a whole is testimony to my conviction that the means that most scholars have employed and continue to employ for constructing the historical Jesus are too flimsy to endure [yes!!], or at least too flimsy for me to countenance any longer. I learned the discipline during the era when everyone was taught to employ the so-called criteria of authenticity. We were to find Jesus by, first, isolating individual units and then, second, running them through a gauntlet consisting of multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, and so on. After many years of playing by the rules, however, I have gradually come to abandon them. I have decided that knowing the old directives has been of much less help than promised. I am trying something else. This book is the result. (x; my emphasis)

This is, perhaps, the best beginning to a book on Jesus I've read in a very long time. And that would include my own book on Jesus.

I'll comment further as I work through this weighty book (pp. xxix + 588).

Thursday, May 26, 2011


No, it's not a sequel to the film, 300. It's the number of posts with which I've cluttered Al Gore's Internet. (Actually, this is no. 401; the four-hundredth had the unfortunate title, "contrasts (or, not ridiculicity)." I don't even know what that means . . .)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

contrasts (or, not ridiculicity)

In contrast to that other article I was reading, Samuel Byrskog's 2003 review of Rudolf Bultmann's classic, Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition [1921; ET: History of the Synoptic Tradition (1963)] strikes me as both fair and appropriate. I have my own disagreements with Byrskog's approach to memory and oral tradition, but his evaluation of Bultmann's work and its legacy seems pretty cogent to me. So I appreciate the force with which Byrskog gives the following blunt assessment:
The fundamental problem with Bultmann's method is not its inherent skepticism toward the historicity of the tradition. Occasionally he grants a good deal of continuity to the tradition; and skepticism is indeed part of all critical investigations. Rather, what is essentially problematic is precisely that his method does not work as a tool of historical inquiry. (Byrskog, "review of The History of the Synoptic Tradition" [JBL 122/3 (2003)], 554; emphasis added)

Byrskog goes on to demonstrate the unworkability of Bultmann's method; this is not simply dismissive invective. And so the blunt assessment is not only warranted but also welcome.


I'm reading a fairly ridiculous article by Helmut Koester. His short piece, "Written Gospels or Oral Tradition?" (JBL 113/2 [1994]: 293–97) responds to Edouard Massaux's argument that the written Gospel of Matthew bore significant influence on other Christian texts of the first two centuries CE. Koester, of course, argues that apparent Matthean tradition in 1 Clement, Ignatius' letters, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and others actually stem from oral tradition. And it seems to me that Koester says a number of silly things. For example:
When pieces of tradition are quoted and used in early Christian authors, their function in the life of the community is usually maintained. Indeed, it may not even be necessary to refer to them as traditions related to Jesus. This is most clearly the case in Paul's allusions to sayings of Jesus in Romans 12–14, in 1 Peter, and in the Epistle of James. As far as writings such as 1 Clement, Barnabas, and the letters of Ignatius are concerned, use of sayings of Jesus and allusions to them would seem to be natural continuations of this practice, whether or not Jesus is explicitly mentioned as an authority. Sayings of Jesus were known because they had been established as parts of a Christian catechism; the passion narrative was known because it was embedded into the Christian liturgy. (Koester 1994:297; emphasis added)

The entire perspective informing this paragraph seems absurd to me. Notice how Koester privileges a tradition's "function in the life of the community" over its significance as a "tradition[] related to Jesus." When, for example, a Christian text says something like, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse" (Rom. 12.14), that text is clearly performing certain functions among the Christian community. However, when another text narrates Jesus saying something to this effect (e.g., Matt. 5.43–48), the latter text is less authentic because its communal function has been muted. (That is, in Romans 12 Paul is overtly trying to persuade the Roman Christians to think and behave a certain way; in Matthew, the Evangelist may be endorsing certain patterns of thought and behavior, but his endorsement is covert, masked by the overt aim of narrating the life and teaching of Jesus.) I can't help but wonder where Koester thinks Jesus' followers procured the traditions that were at work in their communities if not from the teachings of the historical Jesus. I'm not even claiming that such traditions had to actually stem from the historical Jesus; only that the tradition's significance as a "tradition[] related to Jesus" must be more salient than any purported "function in the life of the community."

But even more to the point, I don't understand how Koester can claim that Jesus' teachings "were known because they had been established as parts of a Christian catechism," or that "the passion narrative was known because it was embedded into the Christian liturgy." Koester is clearly a fan of putting carts before horses. Where does Koester think Christian catechisms and liturgy came from if not from the sayings and passion of Jesus, among other things? Instead, the teachings of Jesus and the passion narrative were known because they were foundational to the beliefs and practices of Jesus' followers. As a result, their catechisms and liturgy reflected his teachings and passion. While the catechisms and liturgy might have been vehicles of the traditions of Jesus' teachings and passion, they were not the motivation or reason for knowing these traditions. Otherwise, Koester needs to explain what motivated the church's catechisms and liturgy.


Monday, May 23, 2011

on heavenly citizenship

When I was writing my Master's thesis on 1 Peter, one of the things that most impressed me about that letter was the language of "aliens and foreigners" at key points in the text (1.1, 17; 2.11). Paul exhibits a similar idea in a text that Tim Gombis cites in his discussion of the "cruciformity" (or "cross-shaped-ness") of Paul's ethical instructions (see Gombis's Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed [T&T Clark International, 2010], 73):
But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. (Phil. 3.20–21)

While I don't have a problem with Paul's point here, I really don't like the way we in the church often read this idea of "citizenship in heaven." We often think a Christian worldview denigrates or diminishes the value of this world—and the pains it inflicts—by way of realizing our citizenship is in heaven. Are you struggling in this world? Don't worry; our citizenship is in heaven. Wondering why good people suffer? It doesn't matter; our citizenship is in heaven. You're hungry or thirsty or naked or forsaken? Silver and gold I do not have, but our citizenship is in heaven.

I think neither God nor Jesus nor Paul would have accepted such an idea. Tim Gombis, however, has helpfully framed Paul's point in Philippians 3 and the idea that we live as subjects of God's kingdom. Gombis writes, "Just as the humiliation of Jesus led to exaltation and glorification, so believers' humiliation for the sake of Christ will result in exaltation and glory" (73–74). This is the actual point at play here: Jesus was exalted to God's right hand and enthroned in the heavens because he sought out and served the poor, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised from Temple or Council or Legion. Seeking and serving the poor, however, led to the cross; it did not lead to recognition as a prophet or even as a philanthropist. And Christ en route to Calvary calls his own to take up their crosses and follow him. But beware. If you take up your cross, you will find yourself nailed to it one day.

Why would anyone take up their cross? Why would anyone lay down their life to help others find theirs? What makes this transaction attractive? Enter our heavenly citizenship. Status as citizens of heaven, of God's kingdom, enables me to serve this world and not just endure it. Heavenly citizenship doesn't denigrate this world; it elevates this world as the object of God's care and concern and call us to enter into and live out of the same care and concern.

This world matters gravely to God, and we the Church must recognize its importance. In those moments when we do recognize this world's value as the work of God's hands, we come alongside the hurting, the hungry, the homeless, the weak. We enter into their pain and disenfranchisement. And we apply to their wounds the balm of God's Spirit. And the kingdom of God, of which we are citizens advances against the ruler of this age.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

identifying Paul (again)

I'm currently reading through Tim Gombis's introductory volume, Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark International, 2010). Of course, as I mentioned in a previous post, I read Rodrigo Morales's published doctoral dissertation, The Spirit and the Restoration of Israel: New Exodus and New Creation Motifs in Galatians (Mohr Siebeck, 2010), last week. So all things Paul have been on my mind these last few days.

Gombis's discussion of Paul is introductory and pitched at beginning ("perplexed") students, so of course there is lots of room to nitpick and complain about lack of nuance or precision. But the goal of the book isn't to provide nuance or precision; it's to speak in broad strokes and get people into the discussion. Details can come later.

So I hope it's clear that I'm not nitpicking here (or at least I don't think I am). And I should also disclose that I know Gombis personally, and I've found him to be one of the nicer, more congenial younger biblical scholars. I think he and I think a lot alike. But as Gombis briefly introduces Paul's letter to the Galatian communities, he attributes the problem Paul confronts to a "very conservative Jewish Christian faction . . . seeking to make certain that the Christian communities that sprang up in Asia Minor were thoroughly Jewish" (25). A little later, Gombis explains that Paul bristles against the claim that gentile converts "must adopt a Jewish way of life." I'm not sure what to make of Gombis's use of the term Jewish; even (or perhaps especially!) in an introductory volume such as this I think a little more nuance is necessary.

The problem comes down to this: If Paul sets out to correct the claims of the "agitators" (see Gal. 5.10) that gentiles "must adopt a Jewish way of life" (25), what should we think Paul set up as an alternative to that Jewish lifestyle? Should the converts remain gentiles? If so, we need to explain the continued negative references to gentiles in Paul's letters (e.g., Eph. 2.11–12; Gombis accepts Pauline authorship of all thirteen letters attributed to Paul). Should the converts become Christians? If so, we need to explain how Paul never uses the word Christian in any of his letters.

Since neither of these terms—gentile or Christian—will work for Paul, the question remains: What should we think Paul set up as an alternative to the Jewish lifestyle the "agitators" were advocating to Paul's gentile converts in Galatia? I think the only answer that will work, historically or theologically, is, Paul proposes a differently Jewish lifestyle to the universal Torah-obedience advocated by his opponents. If I learned anything from Morales (which I wouldn't expect Gombis to cite even if they weren't both published in 2010), Paul understands his vocation as "apostle to the nations/gentiles" in terms of bringing the blessing of Abraham to bear upon the nations of the Roman Empire, and this precisely because God has poured out his Spirit upon his people Israel and brought an end to their experiences of the covenantal curses (exile and, especially, death).

In other words, and to sum up Morales's point and wrap up this post, the problem Paul has with Torah in Galatians isn't that it's Jewish. The problem is that Israel has failed to keep the terms of the covenant and has brought upon itself the covenantal curses—exile and death (see Deut. 27–30)—rather than the covenantal blessings. But God has not abandoned his people or his promises to them; instead, Israel's messiah, Jesus, overcame the covenantal curses brought on by Israel's failure to observe Torah. (Notice the problem isn't Torah itself but the people's failure to keep Torah.) Now the gentile Galatian believers have a choice to make. Do they take on a Jewish lifestyle defined by Torah? Or do they take on a Jewish lifestyle defined by the blessing of Abraham, now unleashed on God's people in the aftermath of God's Spirit poured out on Israel and a new heart given them? This latter might be what we mean when we refer to a "Christian lifestyle," but we need to recognize (and teach others to recognize) that in all likelihood, for Paul, this was simply a better way to be Jewish.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

a Pauline transformation of Jewish eschatology?

I have been reading the published version of Rodrigo Morales's PhD dissertation (Duke, 2007), The Spirit and the Restoration of Israel: New Exodus and New Creation Motifs in Galatians (WUNT 2/282; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), which I'm reviewing for IBR. This is an excellent little book (only two hundred pages) that is very clearly and logically structured, cogently and carefully argued, and concisely written. As a brief introduction, Morales proceeds in three basic steps:

  • First, he briefly establishes the Status Quaestionis of the role of the Spirit of God in Paul and, especially, his letter to the Galatians. At a pivotal point in the letter Paul asks, "Was it by works of the Law that you received the Spirit? Or was it by hearing of faith?" While the answer is clear (Paul simply could not be proposing that the Galatians received the Spirit via Torah-observance!), the significance of the Spirit for Pauline thought and rhetoric is not. Morales argues that the connection between the outpouring of God's Spirit and the restoration of Israel provides the key to understanding Paul's argument in Galatians.
  • Second, he surveys the intersection of God's gift of his Spirit and the promise of Israel's restoration among the prophetic Hebrew biblical writings (specifically, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Joel) in Chapter 2 and among Second Temple Jewish texts in Chapter 3. His aim is not to identify how Paul reads either biblical or extracanonical texts but rather to assess how Paul takes up and employs themes and concepts current among (roughly) contemporaneous expressions of Jewish thought. Key among these themes are, among others, new creation and new exodus imagery, the heart and its need for renewal, and the sonship of God's people.
  • Third, Morales turns to Galatians 3–4 (Chapter 4) and Galatians 5–6 (Chapter 5) to bring the material from previous chapters to bear on the exegetical discussion. I am currently at the beginning of Chapter 4, so I cannot say very much at all about Morales's hermeneutic or exegetical work. But his handling of the texts in Chapters 2–3 has been responsible and cautious, and so I don't anticipate problems here.

Except . . .

Morales makes a comment almost in passing (it's even in a footnote) regarding the shift in late-Second Temple Judaism from metaphorical understandings of "resurrection" (and of "death," too) toward literal interpretations. He says, "The key transformation that Paul brought about was the idea that one figure would be raised in the middle of history, and that others would somehow participate both anticipatorily and ultimately in that eschatological life" (79, n. 5; my emphasis). I have some problems with the phrase "middle of history," because I'm not sure that helpfully frames Paul's rhetoric. Would Paul affirm the present as "the middle of history"? Or would he see in Christ's resurrection the dawning of the new age and the fading of the old? But given the complexities of the dynamics of what are commonly referred to in Christian theology as the "now-and-not-yet" (complexities which Morales recognizes), we likely won't solve that problem here.

But I have bigger problems with the idea that this was, somehow, a "key transformation" for which Paul was responsible. I'm not at all opposed to the idea that individuals affect, sometimes dramatically, how and what their cultures think. And clearly Paul is one of those individuals. But after reading Jerry Sumney's essay, "'Christ died for us': Interpretation of Jesus' Death as a Central Element of the Identity of the Earliest Church," pp. 147–72 in Reading Paul in Context: Explorations in Identify Formation (FS William Campbell; Edited by K. Ehrensperger and J. B. Tucker; LNTS 428; London: T&T Clark International, 2010), I'm a bit more suspicious of the image of Paul-the-theological-revolutionary than I previously was.

Certainly Paul takes this idea—viz., that the future resurrection was inaugurated and even is proleptically exprienced in Christ's resurrection—and advances it considerably. But here's the question Sumney has taught me to ask: Is it really likely that the pre-Pauline church had not already developed some idea of the inaugurating/proleptic/"middle of history" resurrection of Jesus? How would the earliest Christians, whom Paul the Pharisee (who almost certainly accepted the notion of bodily resurrection in the age to come even before his experience on the Damascus road) saw fit to persecute, have connected their eschatological ideas of resurrection with the experiences of Jesus as raised "according to the Scriptures" (see 1 Cor. 15.3–5)? Is it not more likely that this was one of the ideas Paul found incomprehensible, and so he sought to stamp them out from Israel? Can't we understand the failure of the disciples to understand Jesus' so-called "Passion predictions" in Mark's Gospel (almost certainly later than Paul's letters) as suggesting that this very point caused problems for Jesus' followers prior to their experiences of Easter?

Of course, I'm only raising questions; I have very little to offer by way of answers. In many areas Paul was almost certainly theologically avant-garde. But in some areas—perhaps in many areas—Paul inherited ideas from those around him, whether Jewish, Greek, or even early (or proto-)Christian influences. In the balance of things, do we really want to think that Jesus' earliest followers had to wait for Paul to come around before they began wrestling with the connection between pre-Christ[ian] eschatological ideas about resurrection and the Easter Event? I find this very unlikely.

Still, to end on a positive note, Morales's book is very easy to read. Even if you find it difficult, the thesis he's pursuing (and the evidence he considers) is well worth the effort it takes to access his argument.

My Visual Bookshelf