Monday, April 13, 2009

Bart Interrupted--- A detailed Analysis of 'Jesus Interrupted' Part Three

One of the valid points made by Bart Ehrman at various junctures in this study is that each Gospel needs to be allowed to have its own say. He is guarding against the tendencies to blend all the accounts together, and I understand this. What we have in the NT is not the Diatesseron, the account later created blending four Gospels into one. His concern is especially with a sort of false harmonizing that vitiates some individual point a particular Gospel wants to make. Fair enough.

But Bart himself is well aware that any historical reconstruction of the life of Jesus does indeed involve comparing and compiling data from a variety of sources, after allowing each one to have its say. The so-called historical Jesus that Bart presents us with in his book Jesus. Apocalyptic Prophet involves precisely this sort of synthetic project. The trick is to do the combining without undermining. When it comes to the issue of the virginal conception vs. the incarnation it seems to me that something vital is missing in Bart’s discussion—namely the recognition that these two ideas are not rivals, nor do they contradict one another, for they speak really of two different things. Incarnation tells us that a pre-existent person showed up in the flesh, without telling us anything about how. The virginal conception tells us something about how the human being Jesus came into this world. Thus while it is true that Luke, at least, is silent on the issue of pre-existence, when he talks about the virginal conception (Matthew probably is not, since he tells us that Jesus is Immanel, God with us), this does not make the virginal conception and the notion of incarnation in any way incompatible. They are concepts which address two different, though related issues—how, and what, when it comes to the origins of Jesus.

On p. 77 Bart makes a surprising statement--- “Jewish apocalypticism was a worldview that came into existence about a century and a half before Jesus’ birth…” Now perhaps Bart is thinking solely of Daniel, and is really late dating the book, but even if so experts in apocalyptic literature are clear enough that we see the beginning of this way of thinking much earlier--- in the exilic period with Ezekiel and in Zechariah for example which certainly are not books that date to the second century B.C. Why quibble over this point? Well because of course historically it matters, and it calls into question Bart’s historical judgment. For my part, I don’t think, once one has read the gamut of scholarship and commentaries on Daniel, that one can conclude that even Daniel can safely be dated no earlier than the second century B.C. as a book.

In his succinct presentation of the teaching of Jesus in Mark, Bart is right that this Evangelist takes an apocalyptic approach to presenting Jesus. This is quite true (see my Gospel of Mark commentary), and he agrees that Jesus is presented as the Son of Man in Mark. He says nothing however about the connection between these two facts, namely that Jesus presents himself as the figure referred to in the apocalyptic vision in Dan. 7—the one ‘like a son of man’ who descends on a cloud from heaven, and is given a throne by the Ancient of Days and will judge the world, and rule in a kingdom forever. This text—Dan. 7.13ff. is in fact echoed and alluded to in various ways throughout this Gospel, and sometimes it is explicit (see e.g. Mk. 14.62). Now this son of man concept is crucial to understanding Jesus’ own self-presentation, and scholars of all stripes, and many of no faith persuasion, agree on that point. So what should we make of Dan. 7.13ff. ? In the first place I would suggest we compare that text to 2 Sam. 7—the famous promise to David to give him a kingdom for him and his offspring in perpetuity (with some provisos). What stands out about 2 Sam. 7 is the promise is to David and his descendants, but the promise to the Son of Man figure in Daniel 7 is that he himself will reign, judge, rule forever--- by himself. You have to ask what kind of human and more than human figure could do that, and the answer is--- a person who is both human and divine, which is exactly how the Son of Man figure is portrayed in that chapter. This is why the same text says the Son of Man figure is to be worshipped, again something reserved for God in the OT!

Now it is precisely this sort of analysis of Dan. 7 as a background to the Son of Man material in Mark that is totally and absolutely missing from Bart’s presentation, and it allows him to make a dramatic contrast between the presentation of Jesus in Mark as a human, messianic, but non-divine figure, and the presentation of Jesus in John. Unfortunately by making this contrast: 1) Bart has overplayed his hand, and 2) under-read the data from Mark with its apocalyptic background; and 3) as a result he has not done justice to a proper comparison and contrast between Mark and John and their respective portraits of Jesus. Bart is of course right that John presents the humanity and divinity of Jesus very differently than in Mark. The crucial point however is that both Evangelists present Jesus as both human and much more than human as a fair reading of both texts will show.

Besides this remarkable oversight, there are some other blunders along the way as well. Consider for example the suggestion that the coming Kingdom of God is not part of Jesus’ teaching and preaching in the Fourth Gospel (see p. 80). This frankly is not true. There are seven Kingdom of God sayings in John’s Gospel, and the Johannine Jesus certainly does make this a topic of conversation--- for example in John 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless he’s born again, he shall not enter or see the future Kingdom of God. Now it is true, that this subject is by no means as emphasized in John as it is in Mark, but it is quite impossible to say you don’t find the subject in John. But there is more. Bart insists that what ‘kingdom of God’ does mean in John is “life in heaven above”--- really??? This makes no sense of even John 3.3 which speaks about “seeing” the Kingdom of God. Jesus says nothing here about seeing or going to heaven. The discussion is about the Kingdom come on earth, and the key to seeing that kingdom is being born again here on earth.

One of the real caricatures of Johannine eschatology, is that there is no future eschatology in John. I agree that the focus in John is not on future events on earth at the End, but they are indeed mentioned in this Gospel. For example in John 5.28 Jesus says “a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his (i.e. Jesus’=the Son of Man’s) voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to life, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” There is no good reason for denying that this reveals some of how Jesus views the coming kingdom of God in this Gospel. It involves future resurrection and final judgment on earth and notice both are connected to the Son of Man language from Daniel 7.

But another caricature is involved in this analysis and contrast between Mark and John. On p. 81 Ehrman says “In Mark, Jesus predicts that the end will come right away, during his own generation, while his disciples are still alive (Mk. 9.1; 13.30)” Really?? Actually that would be a bad misrepresentation of what Jesus says in Mark. He says clearly enough at Mk. 13.32 that not even the Son knows the timing of the second coming! Mk. 9.1 is not about the second coming it is about seeing the Kingdom come with power which can refer to either the Transfiguration or the Resurrection (take your pick), both of which events happen whilst the original disciples are alive, but in any case this is not how Jesus in Mark refers to his return. Jesus is not the kingdom, he is the Son of Man, and his coming with power on the clouds is referred to differently (contrast Mk. 9.1 to Mk. 14.62).

But equally amazing is how Bart has simply amalgamated all the varied material in Mark 13 together to reach his conclusion. Mark says clearly enough that the events leading up to the destruction of the temple, which involve various signs and events on earth, will take place within a generation (= 40 years in the Bible). And sure enough, Jesus predicted this correctly in A.D. 30, for the Temple fell in A.D. 70. But what Mk. 13 also goes on to say is that after those days (i.e. when the temple is already destroyed), then we can talk about cosmic signs and the return of Christ at some unknown time.

In other words, Mk. 13 is perfectly clear that we don’t know how long after the destruction of the temple Jesus’ return will be, and there will be no signs on earth presaging it. Rather he will come like a thief in the night, at a surprising time.

In short, Jesus in Mk. 13 tells us that preliminary eschatological events leading to the destruction of the Temple will happen in a generation. He also tells us that the second coming will happen after that at an unknown time and without preliminary signs on the earth. You have to really do a demolition job on Mk. 13 and ignore the full context to come to the conclusion that Jesus said he was coming back within a generation in that chapter.

As always, much more can be said, but this is enough to show that Ehrman: 1) does not do justice to what Mark actually says or John actually says, which allows him to 2) over play the contrast between these two Gospels on various important matters. I am not suggesting that there are not some important differences between these Gospels on various matters in the way they present Jesus and the Gospel message. There are. But Bart has not adequately or accurately represented what these differences are, or their significance either. More later.


Don said...

Ben, I am thoroughly enjoying your review of Jesus Interrupted. It is scholarly and accessible, finding its way between the halls of the academy and the public commons. Thanks so much.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Witherington,

In this post you mentioned the Markan apocalypse and the age-old "this generation" controversy.

I much enjoy your writings on the theology and eschatology of Jesus, and have read "Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World." You make your case there, as well as in this post, that the Markan version of the apocalypse distinguishes between the days of the destruction of Jerusalem and the unknown time of the Son of Man's coming.

But I've not seen you address Matthew's version of the Olivet Discourse. Matthew records Jesus as saying that, "Immediately" after the destruction of Jerusalem, the cosmic signs will occur and the Son of Man will come. The word "immediately" forces the city's destruction and the Coming into close chronological proximity, and thus Matthew's version of the discourse does not allow for the indefinite gap between A.D. 70 and the Coming of the Son of Man that Mark's version does.

So what are we to make of this fact? Does Matthew wish to communicate something else through the apocalyptic discourse that Mark does not?


Knowing Thomas said...

I really like what you are doing with Ehrman's book. Very nice job.

If I may I have a very quick unrelated question on the Gabriel Stone.
I remember how you a few months ago commented on how you were inclined to believe it was authentic as Yardeni found it to be so.
Going by this article, she now agrees with Knohl's interpretation (which I assume is that it talks of a suffering, dying and rising messiah).

So my question is, going by Yardeni's testimony, do you agree that it is in fact talking about a suffering, dying and physical rising messiah? It seems troubling to me, as it raises the idea of theological theft (and even more horrifying, the hallucination theory (given the pre-conceived idea that Jesus would be resurrected + mental anguish of seeing the empty tomb. Especially with the mass hallucinations (like the Fatima and Limpias cases)

ABC said...

Ben, when you finsh this analysis, do you think you can also post a pdf file (or html) with all the parts (either as one pdf/html or several pdfs/htmls as parts [as you have been doing]) but without the user/reader comments below? Just a request/suggestion

Jonathan Bowman said...

Dr. Witherington,

I agree with that comment about compiling a PDF, but what about a book or booklet of some sort for the public to read? I know that you have already written against Ehrman, directly and indirectly in previous works. But I really feel that his scholarship is, quite frankly, out of control.

In his footnotes I have not seen him interact regularly with any genuinely scholarly material.

Also, I am a youth pastor, and I plan to compare and contrast the Jesus presented by Ehrman with the Jesus presented in the gospels. I will use your material here, while giving you proper credit.

Many thanks,

Jonathan Bowman

elderchild said...

Simply, sad for you and all others who have not yet received The Light of The New.

And The Only True G-D said ""Let There Be Light" and there was Light".......

Such Light was and is The Messiah, He who was "The Beginning of The Creation of The Only True G-D, Father(Creator) of ALL.......

The Light, "the glory The Messiah had with Our Father before the world began".......

The Messiah, "The Light which enlightens every man born into the world".......

As for The NEW Covenant.
Jer 31:31-37 "Behold, the days come, says YHWH, that I will make a NEW COVENANT with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: NOT ACCORDING TO THE COVENANT THAT I MADE WITH THEIR FATHERS IN THE TIME THAT I TOOK THEM BY THE HAND TO BRING THEM OUT OF THE LAND OF EGYPT FOR THEY BROKE THAT COVENANT, although I was an husband unto them, says YHWH: (Thankfully no longer natural "fathers" but YHWH, "Our Father" in "the NEWness of The Spirit not the letter")

But this shall be the NEW covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, says YHWH, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts(not in stone, but in their heart consciousness); and I will be their Elohim, and they shall be MY people. ("Come Out of her, MY people"! Come out of this world and it's systems of religion)

And every man shall no longer teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, "Know YHWH", for they shall all know ME, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, says YHWH: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

Thus says YHWH, which gives the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, which divides the sea when the waves thereof roar; YHWH of hosts is HIS name:

If those ordinances depart from before ME, says YHWH, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before ME for ever.

Thus says YHWH; If Heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, says YHWH."
In The NEW Covenant, "he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, whose circumcision is that of the flesh, he is a Jew who is one inwardly, whose circumcision was of the heart" as he was immersed in, of, by and through The Holy, Set Apart Spirit that is of The Only True G-D, Father(Creator) of ALL.......

And The NEW Spiritual Israel?

"A Holy nation".......

"A nation of kings and priests" indeed and Truth, and the Spiritual Jews are "strangers and pilgrims on the earth" whose "citizenship(Life) is in Heaven". They are not of this wicked, evil world and it's systems of religion because they have taken heed unto The Call of The Only True G-D, Father(Creator) of ALL to "Come out of her, MY people".......

And the NEW Spiritual Jew is exhorted to "set their affections on things above, Heavenly things" and not be of those "whose god is their bellies, and whose glory is in their shame, because they mind earthly things".......

Sadly, there are multitudes who profess a belief in The Messiah with their mouth only for they "love this world and it's things".......

All such will hear those woe filled words, "Depart from Me all you workers of iniquity".......

"A Holy nation" of "kings and priests", all of whom are thankful that, that which was "decaying and waxing old" DID "vanish away" with the destruction of the natural, earthly kingdom centered in jerusalem.

"THY Kingdom" DID "Come", and IS, indeed and Truth.......

No longer old, natural, earthly and temporal, The NEW is Spiritual, Heavenly and Eternal.......

All Thanks, Praise and Glory Be Unto The Only True G-D, Father(Creator)of ALL.......

James said...

There's no more basic a question in the history of Christianity than whether Jesus was a apocalypticist or not. He began his religious career by seeking baptism from one who warned of the wrath to come and of the ax already lying at the root of the trees. The community of believers he inspired in its earliest writings tells us that Jesus said his followers would be raised from the dead or caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, then to be with the Lord forever. (I Thes. 4, see also I Cor. 15:51-57) As Ehrman sums up, "Jesus' ministry began with his association with the John the Baptist, an apocalyptic prophet, and ended with the establishment of the Christian church, a community of apocalyptic Jews who believed in him."

Everything we know of Jesus in in his own time of ministry--his being seen to be dangerous by Pilate, the temple incident, his choosing of the twelve, the import of his exorcisms and healings, his teachings--comports with his being a prophet of an apocalypse.

In chapter 16 of his textbook on the New
Testament, Ehrman has much more to say in favor of the view that Jesus foretold--indeed centered his gospel upon--the imminent coming of the kingdom. Before dismissing his views as those of a blundering ignoramus, one might judge his case in as laid out there. It's only thirty pages long.