Friday, April 28, 2006

'Akeelah and the Bee' gets an A

Sometimes movies get it just right. This is one of those cases. It would be hard to imagine a better told family tale of overcoming obstacles to excel than this movie. It is PG rated (apparently because the movie has exactly one 4 letter word in it), and runs one hour and 47 minutes. This is one of those films that you wish were longer in fact. But the story is tightknit, the action follows logically, and the acting is superb-- Laurence Fishbane may well get an Oscar nod for this one, and Angela Bassett as the barely coping single Mom dealing with teenage children in south L.A. also does a superb job. But the star of the show is of course Keke Palmer playing Akeelah Anderson, speller extraordinaire.

The story centers on the experiences of Akeelah Anderson at her dirt poor inner city middle school, where kids who excel are ridculed for being brainiacs. Akeelah, though she is bright, tries her best to fit in with the in crowd, by skipping classes and dising school, all the while making A+ in spelling. She has a deep love of words, derived from her father whom she lost at age 9. He was shot on the way home from work in L.A. It is a tough story about coping, and trying to find friends, and at the same time, trying to handle the fact that one is intelligent, but lives in an environment where educational excellence is often ridiculed not encouraged. Viewers will be reminded of 'Finding Forester' another great film about a mentoring relationship, but Laurence Fishburne plays a rather different sort of recluse than Sean Connery. He has his own family loses to deal with (loss of his daughter) and then of his marriage to cope with, and serendipitously, Akeelah and Dr. Palmer help each other with these losses.

I will not spoil the story line for you, but I will say this-- this movie has plenty of epiphanic moments, not the least of which is the occasion when Akeelah reads the placque on Palmer's wall which has the famous quote from Nelson Mandela in it about the fact that we are all frightened to be whom God intended us to be-- someone powerful, beautiful glorious in God's image and accomplished. I shed more than one tear in this movie as a teacher and one who needed and revered my own teachers.

Who knew a movie about a spelling bee could be this compelling, this human, this humane and moving? Well, we have one now, and all parents who have children with potential, much of which is still unrealized, should go with their children to see this movie and learn the role parents and mentors ought to play in their children's education, and along the way learn some lessons about how "a mind is a terrible thing to waste". As we stand on the cusp of the summer movie season full of fluff, and fun, and "much ado about nothing" if you can only go to one movie with your family, go to this one. You will be the richer for it. "Train up a child in the way that she should go, and she will not depart from it in her old age."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

What are we Doing Here? Christians in a Stange Land

The following was an expository sermon delivered today 4/25/06 in Estes Chapel at Asbury Seminary by my esteemed colleague Dr. David Bauer, also a professor of Biblical studies. This message is rich in thought-provoking material which I find myself agreeing with to a very great extent. Special thanks to David for allowing me to share this here

Text: Exodus 19:1-6; 1 Peter 1:1-9
Purpose : To lead Christians into a full experience of God’s calling for his people, esp. a hope that produces a culturally transcendent holiness.

We Christians are at a crisis point in our history just now. The Christian Church is being shaken to its foundations by the rise of what we commonly call “secularism,” which is a vision of society that attempts to exclude God and all divine things from public life, and, related to secularism, by the systematic dismantling of a Christian cultural consciousness that has been the cohering force in our western society since the fourth century. All of this has created an identity crisis for us Christians. This crisis—the rise of secularism and the casting aside of a Christian worldview, in other words, the emergence of the post-Christian society, has created for us the urgency of confronting the fundamental questions of our faith: Who are we? What does it mean to be Christian? What does it mean to be the Church?

You see, we Christians can no longer do what we have long tended to do, to define ourselves in terms of a prevailing Christian culture. Society will no longer have it; for the most part it wants nothing to do with the Church and is increasingly repudiating, sometimes to the point of ridicule, the gospel of Jesus Christ. This fact remains in spite of recent talk about the political clout of “people of faith,” which as a political force has been much overrated, and in any event represents a reaction to the dominant secularization of society; it is an exception on the social and political landscape that proves the rule of an increasingly dominant secular vision. So the Church is forced to go back to its beginnings and consider in a radical way what it means to be Christian, and how we live out our Christian faith in this new secular setting.

This seismic shift to a post-Christian society is a traumatic thing for us Christians, of course. But I am convinced that in the end it will be a good thing for the Church. It was, after all, never a good idea for the Church to play down the differences between its faith and the larger society, no matter how “Christian” that larger society appeared on the surface to be; nothing has so blunted the witness of the Church to its gospel or so dulled its spiritual experience as easy accommodation to the preferences of the prevailing culture. Besides, the Bible claims that the Church is strongest when it is weakest, that God manifests his power precisely through our powerlessness and vulnerability. But most of all, this new secular setting provides us with a great gift: the possibility of hearing the Word of God in Scripture in a fresh, new way. For the Scriptures present a pre-Christian period in society; they addressed people who had never known such a thing as a Christian society, who faced the task of living out their faith in a clearly alien world, even as now we must.

Of all the writings of the New Testament, the one that most directly addresses the issue of living the Christian life in an alien culture is First Peter. Peter sets for himself the task of defining what it means to be Christian, and he carefully develops his vision of Christian identity in a hostile world. In fact, Peter cannot wait to jump into this question of Christian identity, for already in the first two verses of his book he gives this defining declaration: We Christians, he says, are “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father;” this language of the foreknowledge of God Peter employs elsewhere to refer to God’s plan or purpose “before the foundation of the world.” The point is clear: We are those whom God has chosen to fulfill the predetermined plan God had for his people, a purpose he decided upon before he created one molecule of the universe. The plan of God is our identity; the purpose of God is who we are.

But let’s get specific. What is God’s plan for us? What is his eternal purpose for the Church that gives us our very identity as Christians? Peter describes the specifics of this eternal plan in the language of divine calling. In three passages punctuating his epistle Peter sets forth God’s calling to the Church. In 1:14 Peter tells us: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” In 3:9 he says: “Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may receive a blessing.” And in 5:10 he declares: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you.” God expresses his purposes for us by calling us to Holiness in the face of enculturation, Humility in the face of confrontation, and hope in the face of desperation.

We are a holy people. “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct.” God’s plan for us is that we should be holy in the face of enculturation. Now it is a remarkable thing that even in Methodistic churches there is a great deal of confusion about holiness. Since, according to Peter, holiness stands at the center of our identity as Christians in a hostile world, we owe it to ourselves to be very clear on this matter. Simply put, there are two affirmations involved in the biblical concept of holiness.

The first affirmation is that there is a great gulf, a huge chasm, between God and every form of human culture. God is essentially different from all human structures, institutions, and societies. That is not to say that human structures, institutions, and societies bear no imprint of the hand of the Creator. The Bible declares that they do. Peter himself will press the fact that society in some ways and at certain points reflects God’s will for human creation. But it is a general reality that at their deepest levels sin has so corrupted human life, structures, institutions, and societies that Isaiah’s verdict is perfectly valid: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” So the point stands: God is essentially different from all human structures, institutions, and societies. The New Testament refers to these things, insofar as they stand against God, as “the world,” and the world is engaged in a struggle to the death in violent opposition to God and God’s rule in the earth. The fundamental reality about the people of God is that we have been called to join God on his side of this struggle.

When God first called Abram, God called him to leave behind the cultural environment he had known and loved and to join God in a new land, a land where God would be in control, where God would set the agenda. In the same way, when God chose to make us his people, he called us to leave behind the thinking, values, and behavior that characterize a world that does not know God or his Christ. The issue, then, for us is: Will we fully leave our Ur of the Chaldees in order to join God in his very different place?

Now Peter frames that question in his own way. Will you, he asks, be conformed to the prevailing culture, or will you be conformed to God? Will you be conformed to the kind of thinking and acting that you have inherited by virtue of being born into it, or will you be conformed to God who has given you new birth and is therefore now your Father and expects you to resemble him, even as children in general resemble their fathers? The assumption is that we will be conformed to something. We are not free and autonomous, with the power to chart our own course and determine our own destiny. We are necessarily shaped by something outside ourselves, and our decision is what we will be conformed to. The two alternatives are starkly different: God or the world; the kingdom of heaven or this present age.

Now the culture in which we live is strikingly similar to that which Christians in the period of the New Testament experienced. Theirs was a pagan culture, untouched in any serious way by Judaism or the emerging Christian faith. They lived in a pre-Christian society, before the influences of the gospel were felt upon the culture. We live in a post-Christian society, which is likewise becoming increasingly pagan. For, as Lesslie Newbigen has pointed out, in trying to create a secular society—one that attempted to structure life merely on the human plane, with no regard for God or the divine—we have actually created not a secular society, but a pagan one, in which religious-like value is given to things that are unworthy of them. So secularism has become something of a religion in its own right, with its own creed, centered upon pluralism, its venerated saints, and its own ethic, an ethic that values liberation from the “artificial” and “inhumane” constraints inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition in favor of the free expression of the individual’s feelings and instincts, leading to a moral code that is increasingly reminiscent of certain aspects of the ancient paganism of Canaanite, Greek, and Roman cultures. And all this comes as no surprise to the Christian, for from the Christian point of view a secular society is an impossibility. Because God has created us there are irrepressible religious impulses within us and they will come to expression in society in ways either that glorify the true God or that form a distortion of his good purposes.

But in spite of the increasingly shocking character of the belief system and morals of the dominant modern American culture that surrounds us, this culture has a deep appeal for us and is powerful in its attempt to draw us in. For one thing, of course, it appeals to our inclination to cast aside the rule of God, to be free of God, and to create our own world. But there are two additional forces that pull us towards enculturation.

The first is peer pressure. It seems that the former friends of these Christians to whom Peter wrote were put off by their change of behavior since they had become Christians, and to try to win them back they abused them. Now this, of course, was violent peer pressure, involving physical attacks and trumped-up legal charges. This obviously is not the kind of response we typically experience for our distinctive Christian lifestyle. But peer pressure to conform is present nonetheless. To us it comes not—at least not usually—in the form of violence, but in the much more subtle form of thought manipulation, i.e., in the attempt to control thought patterns, especially in the subtle messages we receive through the various media, with entertainment the channel for the shaping of public opinion that more often than not involves values opposed to the Christian faith. You understand, of course, that there is no such thing as pure entertainment, that all entertainment has a “sub-script” of values formation, and it behooves us to learn to read this sub-script, the almost subliminal messages that come across and shape our thinking without our even knowing that they are present or how they affect our values. Those who work with Christian youth and college students, raised on a steady diet of television, are surprised at the fundamentally un-Christian point of view many of these young people simply assume to be true.

But beyond peer pressure, enculturation comes through the desire for acceptance, the desire to be part of the group, to belong. The major problem these churches to which Peter wrote were experiencing was a deep sense of social alienation, a sense that they no longer belonged to the society, a sense of being excluded. This sense of marginalization is extremely painful, and when the carrot of acceptance is held out, we are quick to grab it. We see this in our individual lives: someone tells an ethnic joke and we join in the laughter; we hear a racial slur, and we say nothing. We don’t want to make a scene; we don’t want to appear to be different; we don’t want to exclude ourselves from the acceptance of the group. But we see it also in our corporate lives, when denominations or Christian educational institutions cast off their historical counter-cultural and prophetic stance and attempt to move into the “mainstream.”

Before I leave this point, I want to make one clarification. On the basis of what I said about entertainment you might conclude that the danger of enculturation comes only from those dimensions of our society that are clearly at odds with “traditional values,” to use social and political categories, those that represent the left or the liberal. This would be a total misunderstanding of the biblical perspective. For, according to the Bible, the Word of God stands over and judges every culture and sub-culture and every human ideology. That is not to say that every human ideology and program is equally far from God’s perspective, but it is to say that none represents—in anything near a perfect way—God’s thinking. The political and social left and the political and social right both stand under God’s judgment, and we Christians must be careful not to equate any ideology, any movement, with the kingdom of God. In the end, to do that would be the worst possible form of enculturation.

So the first affirmation in biblical holiness is separation. This emphasis on separation is dramatically portrayed in the Old Testament by Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan. You remember that God commanded Israel when Israel entered the land of Canaan, they were to annihilate completely all the Canaanites who lived there. Thus we have the “wars of extermination.” Why did God command such a horrible thing? One reason was in order to establish Israel as a holy, separate people. They were to be separate in that they were to have no contact with the Canaanites at all, and the only way to assure absolute non-contact was to kill all the Canaanites. That is holiness as isolation. And, according to the Old Testament, it was appropriate and necessary at that time in God’s dealings with his people that holiness should involve isolation. God recognized that given where Israel was in its experience of being God’s people (mere babes in the experience) that Israel would be unable to avoid gross enculturation to Canaanite society and religion if the Canaanites were allowed to continue in the land.

But it is significant that when Peter scours the Old Testament for a model of Christian holiness he does not use the conquest, but rather the exile: that time in Israel’s history, long after the conquest, when God caused the Babylonians to attack God’s people, carry them off to Babylon, and scatter them to the ends of the earth, from which distant places God promised to bring them back. God commanded that in the meantime they should live out their vocation of holiness precisely as resident aliens within the context of that pagan Babylonian culture. They were to live out their holiness, their difference, in responsible engagement with the surrounding pagan culture. And, Peter says, that’s the way it is with us Christians. This is the second affirmation of Christian holiness, not only the separation of difference, but also responsible participation. Holiness no longer means isolation; now it means participation. Holiness at one time—at the beginning of Israel’s life—meant “come out from among them, and have nothing to do with them.” But now it means, in the words of Jesus, “I do not pray that you would take them out of the world, but that you would keep them from the evil one.”

Ultimately, it is impossible to be holy in isolation, in serene distance from the attacks, challenges, and opportunities of a culture that desperately needs God. The reason: Holiness is essentially a difference in love. God is holy, different from all human structures, in that he is perfect love. And we, as we share his holiness, are separate, different from the culture that surrounds us, in that we love—not perfectly, but we share the transcendent love of God. Holiness is a holiness of love, and love must be expressed in real participation with people. Do you remember the chilling poem by Dr. Studdert-Kennedy?

If I had a million pounds
I would buy me a perfect island home
Sweet set in a southern sea
And there would I build a paradise
For the heart of my love and me

I would plant a perfect garden there
The one that my dream-soul knows
And the years would flow as the petals grow
The flame to a perfect rose

I would build me a perfect temple there
A shrine where my Christ might dwell
And there I would wait to behold my soul
Damned deep in a perfect hell.

The only holiness that has God’s approval repudiates self-protecting and self-serving isolation in favor of real participation in the real struggles of people. The second-century Letter to Diognetus, written to explain to pagans who Christians are, puts it best: “For these Christians every homeland is a foreign country, and every foreign country is a homeland.”

But this participation in a society that is so unlike us will lead to confrontation, and that brings us to the second plan that God has for us, his people: “Do not return evil for evil, or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may receive a blessing.” Thus, God has called us to humility in the face of confrontation.

Now it is clear from the context that Peter is urging a submissive, non-retaliatory response to persecution; he is not discussing confrontation in general, but suffering for the sake of the gospel. And this immediately prompts the issue of relevance. How can this apply to us at all, when we do not suffer for the gospel, at least not in the same way or to the same extent these Christians did? But that question prompts a second, and more uncomfortable question: Why is it that American Christians are not suffering in this way for the sake of Christ and the gospel? And there are many answers to that question. For one thing, some are. Although not suffering criminal prosecution or physical beating, they have been shunned and ridiculed. Nevertheless, it is an arresting observation that the New Testament speaks so frequently of suffering for the cause of Christ and insists so strongly that it is a typical and necessary feature of our life in the world, and yet it is almost entirely absent from contemporary American Christian experience. One possible explanation—and not the only one—is that many of us modern American Christians (and I include myself first here) do not share the suffering of Christ because our discipleship is not as radical and threatening as the discipleship set forth in the New Testament, that we do not live out quite to the fullest extent the holiness to which God has called us. Perhaps Archbishop Trench’s famous verdict on the genteel and innocuous Jesus of 19th-century liberal theology applies to us as well: It is unclear why anyone would have ever wanted to put such a Jesus to death.

The Christian does not seek confrontation and persecution, but does not flee from them either. Some Christians are aggressively and unnecessarily adversarial. Have you been struck by just how uncivil is the discourse of many evangelical Christians directed against their opponents in the “culture war?” To them Peter will insist in chapter 2 that we must “show honor to all.” To those with an adversarial bent, the community of the scowl, Peter will urge that we have an obligation to identify those aspects of the surrounding culture that are godly, or at least that God can use, and affirm them and build on them, that we demonstrate that we are really interested in acting on behalf of the broader society. That we really do believe what St. Augustine declared in Book 19 of The City of God, echoing Jeremiah’s admonition to the exiles to work for the well-being of Babylonian society: The only peace we will have this side of the heavenly city is the peace of Babylon.

But the Christian does not escape persecution, either. We recognize that the consistent living out of the otherness of the gospel will lead to painful confrontation. Toward the end of his life, John Wesley, reflecting upon Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy (“All who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution”) was troubled, because in contrast to his earlier experience in the Methodist movement, he was enjoying general popularity and very little persecution. It gave him pause; it ought to give us pause, too.

But back to the principle of non-retaliation. If most of us cannot relate fully to the readers’ experience of suffering for Christ, we can apply this dimension of Christian self-identity in a more general way, for Peter suggests that it is God’s plan that we return good for evil even in the area of personal attacks and injustices. But what is wrong with retaliation anyway? Why is it a contradiction of God’s plan for his people? Simply because it attempts to bring justice and judgment, which belong only to God, into the orbit of our own power; to bring under our control the establishment of a right and just order. I will set this wrong right; I will meet out punishment in my way and time. But the result of this retaliation is the opposite of its intention: In the attempt to gain control of the situation by establishing justice in an unjust setting we lose control of ourselves; for when we retaliate we are no longer free to respond in creative and effective ways, but bind ourselves to a course of action that is established by the aggressor, so that my opponent determines what I will do, how I will act. I have forgotten Peter’s admonition: “Live as free people.”

Sidney Harris, the syndicated columnist, tells of walking down a busy street with a friend who happened to be a Quaker. His friend went to a boy who was selling papers on the street. The boy was very rude and gruff, not saying anything, even thank you. The whole time, however, Harris’ friend was pleasant and courteous. When Harris learned that his friend bought papers from this boy every day, and that he was always rude, Harris asked his friend why he continued to be so pleasant. His response: “Why should I let him determine how I will act?” That’s the freedom of non-retaliation.

There are times, of course, when people need to be held accountable for their actions. It would be unredemptive simply to allow the injustice to pass. But in cases like that we do not respond from an ego that seeks control, but from a love that seeks the healing of the other.

In the final analysis, of course, it is God who will establish his righteous rule on the earth. And he will do so by punishing injustice and pouring out his own vengeance upon evil. But his preferred method is to establish his righteous rule through redemption, bringing the wrongdoer into the sphere of his love and forgiveness. (Hence the New Testament connection between God’s justice and justification) We become partners with God in his work of establishing justice when we bear witness to his power and love by responding to personal hurt with a superhuman and supernatural charity.

But where does our power to do this come from? Where are the resources to fulfill God’s plan—his plan of holiness in the face of enculturation, and humility in the face of confrontation? The answer is the Christian’s third calling: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you into his eternal glory, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you.” God has called us to hope in the face of desperation. This is a hope that empowers; this is a hope that sanctifies.

This eternal glory is the final goal of God’s plan for us. And its meaning for us is revolutionary. It means that we are people of the future; the future belongs to us, and our calling is to live constantly in light of what God is going to do when the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of our God and of his Christ; when the Lord will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God and the dead in Christ will rise; when this perishable will put on imperishable and this mortal will put on immortality and will come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory.

This future that God has for us the greatest gift he God could ever give us. For the biblical portrait of humanity is that of people continually under the shadow of death. Whether they think about it or not, and whether they talk about it or not, the final reality for them is the grave. Elizabeth Achtemeier used to ask if we have every noticed how so many cemeteries mark their entrance roads with the sign, “No Exit?” People do have a deep-seated sense that there is no exit, no escape. Despair is written over their lives. To be sure, most people do come to accept the fact of their own mortality, and negotiate some sort of peace with the idea of their own death. Death is just a part of life, they say, or they adopt some misty concept about life after death. But according to the Bible such sentimental notions are woefully inadequate to address the deep despair that grips the human spirit and drives it to find meaning and security in all the wrong places.

In a world like this, bounded by a grim sense of death and despair, God has a plan for you and me. He unveiled that plan in an unlikely spot, in a lonely garden on the outskirts of Jerusalem on an April morning 1970 years ago when he raised Jesus from the dead, thereby changing forever the nature of human life on this planet. For now there is sure hope that death is not the end, but that God has something better for us. And so Peter says, in the passage we read as text, that we who believe that God raised Jesus from the dead have been born again to a living hope. Our confidence that God raised Jesus from the dead makes such a difference for us that it can only be described as a new birth to a life of hope, for we know that God’s raising Jesus from the dead is sure and certain demonstration that he will also raise us from the dead and give us a share in the glory that is now Christ’s.

Our hope is living, because it is the kind of hope that empowers and energizes us in the now. The notion that someone can be so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good would strike Peter and all the New Testament writers as nonsense. For them, the only way to be of any earthly good is to be heavenly minded. A hope that functions as an escape hatch from the present life is not Christian hope at all; it is a cheap counterfeit that lacks any substance. It is significant that this theology of hope is embedded in an epistle of suffering; this book makes it clear that this hope does not relieve present suffering, but produces the kind of life that leads to suffering. No, it is only through the power of a hope that is grounded in the past event of Christ’s resurrection and is focused on the future glory that we can fulfill God’s purpose of holiness and humility in the present. Because of the past we have a future, and because of the future we have a present.

But sadly the Church has had a difficult time embracing biblical eschatology. Ernst Käsemann famously remarked that Jewish apocalyptic, the notion of the sudden cataclysmic inbreaking of God’s kingdom at the end, is the mother of Christianity. Yet throughout the history of the Church, and especially in the past 200 years, Christians have oscillated between practical denial of apocalyptic eschatology on the one hand and wild and uninformed enthusiasm about the eschatological future on the other. The extremes are easy to describe.
In terms of practical denial: I remember attending a service in a highly liturgical church on the first Sunday of Advent, which you remember in the church year focuses on the second coming of Christ; the sermon text, following the lectionary, was Matthew 24, the eschatological discourse, but the sermon itself mentioned the second coming of Christ not at all but rather cheerfully announced that Christ comes to each of us every day so as to shower his blessings upon us. I thought the sermon would have had more integrity had the preacher simply announced that he could not bring himself to believe in the doctrine of the second coming and therefore had chosen to talk about something else that Sunday. In terms of enthusiasm: we have all encountered the well-intentioned but theologically challenged and exegetically problematic eschatological tell-all books that cater to people’s natural curiosity about the future and offer a kind of cosmic voyeurism.

In both cases—denial and enthusiasm—the problem is a theology that is not apocalyptic enough. That is clearly the case with the practical deniers insofar as they embrace a God who is so comfortable with this present world that they cannot imagine a divine decision to replace it with something entirely different. But it is also true of the enthusiasts, who envision the eschatological future simply as a grand projection of the same kind of the pain and pleasure we experience in this world. And they are confused over the New Testament’s ambiguous and obscure description of the details surrounding the end. They do not understand that this very obscurity of eschatological description reflects the reality that the end will be so transcendent, so apocalyptically different from anything we have ever experienced in the world that language cannot fully capture it. That’s why the New Testament’s description of the end is so ambiguous, obscure, and hard to understand. The take this necessarily obscure description to be an elaborate puzzle to be an elaborate puzzle that exists for us to de-code. The result is an unconvincing and even carnivalesque vision of the eschatological future that prompts sober-minded Christians to lose interest in the entire subject and thus exclude themselves from the kind of robust moral and spiritual empowerment that comes from embracing the eschatological hope in all of its true theological richness. There is no part of the Church’s faith more central than its eschatology; it is the framework for almost every other doctrine. And yet there is no aspect of biblical teaching that has been so largely misunderstood in the Church. One of the great theological tasks, and one that has practical implications for everything from pastoral care to missions, is to understand accurately and proclaim compellingly the eschatology of the New Testament.

So what shall we say? As we stand here at the beginning of the third millennium and confront an increasingly strange and confusing world, our primary challenge in maintaining the fidelity of our life before God and in proclaiming God’s salvation to the nations is to be clear, very clear, about who and what we are. Our life in the world requires that we attend to the task of developing and embracing a healthy Christian self-consciousness. We have barely scratched the surface of Christian identity in 1 Peter, to say nothing of the rich vision of Christian self-consciousness found in the rest of the New Testament. Yet it is a beginning. Holiness, humility, hope. In each case, a celebration of God’s reality and a recognition of our deficiency, a declaration of what is and a summons to what we must become. In the final analysis, then, our identity under God must be embodied in life. And in the long history of the world there has never been a moment that cried out more urgently for the incarnation of God’s great purposes in the life of his Church than right now.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Da Vinci Code Movie--- Are You Ready to Rumble?

May 19th lurks just around the corner and I have just returned from yet another Da Vinci Code seminar, this one in Burlington, N.C. a town of about 50,000. 2,000 of them turned out for the event! The anticipation, angst, excitement about this movie is palpable. My prediction is that it will eclipse all other previous movies in sales including Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, perhaps in short order. And in fact the church is trying to respond to the book and the whole Da Vinci phenomena, but its response is piecemeal and inadequate. We need to do a better and more concerted job of ramping up for the impact.

While in N.C. I was privy to a conversation between Andy Griffith and the man who once played his son on the Andy Griffith show--- Ron Howard (aka Opie!). Griffith, who is a commited Christian made clear to Opie over dinner he was not best pleased about this movie but that he was a Christian and he still loved him. There was that balance of mercy and critique we should all strive for.

How then can we best get ready for the blitzkrieg that is coming? My suggestion is that the church has a teaching moment and it needs to do its homework on the Da Vinci Code issues and be prepared to give a reason for the hope within them. This is why I have written the Gospel Code ,and of course more than a dozen others have written critique books-- the best of which is Darrell Bock's in terms of dealing with the actual Gnostic materials.

My wisdom about preparation for the impact of all this is as follows:

1) if you are a mature Christian well grounded in your faith and you haven't read the novel and don't really know the issues, then read it.

2) Read as well one or two of the critique books on the novel;

3) Have Sunday school lessons on the issues in the novel--- ranging from, when did the church first believe Jesus was the divine Son of God, to when was the canon formed, to what should we think of Gnosticism, to was Jesus married, and does it matter in terms of Christian doctrine?

4) Have special seminars on these subjects

5) provide congregations with hand outs or guides to read the novel by.

6) Preachers should offer topical messages of relevance on the subject.

7) Get ready for next year-- the sequel novel will be out sometime in 2007.

Lest you think this is much ado about nothing, I would remind you of a few facts:

1) This novel sold 43 million in hardcopy--- a record.
2) the paperback which came out in March has already sold 6 million.
3) in 2004 this novel outsold the Bible in America.

We are at a crossroads in our culture when it comes to the issue of the waning influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition on this culture. Our culture has a taste now for new answers to old questions. We must be read to give a reason for the hope that is within us in a winsome fashion and explain why these new answers and revisionist history about Jesus and the early church can't hold a candle to the old answers about 'the old, old story'.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Incandescence-- Light Shed through the Word

Even before the expected time, my new book of sermons with Eerdmans, Incandescence has now come into print. This volume is a collaborative effort between Ellsworth Kalas, one of our homileticians who wrote the introductory essay on preaching, J.D. Walt the Dean of Chapel at Asbury, Julie Robertson, who has provided the spiritual formation exercises, and myself.

My contribution to the book besides the opening remarks is a fair selection of my sermons from the last 25 years of my preaching. Since in my tradition one preaches either the lectionary texts, or at the very least according to the season of the church year (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Kingdomtide) the sermons have been arranged according to the church year.

You will find if you read this brief book (only 200 pages, and inexpensive by modern standards) that I preach three different types of sermons-- some basically doctrinal, some basically ethical, and some story or narrative sermons. Some of these border on expository sermons, some do not, as I have varied the practice depending on the audience. And I have deliberately included sermons that are works in progress, or better put on the way to being good sermons. Why have I done this? Well because I wanted to include sermons from the whole range of my preaching career, and of course there are some things I could say better or would say differently now. Hopefully a homiletician grows and changes.

You will discover that I preach from both testaments with regularlity, even though I do not believe we are under the old covenant any more. There is a difference then between recognizing the OT as God's Word, and asking the question how does it apply and how should it be preached by Christians.

This volume is set up to be used for retreats, spiritual formation purposes, discussion seminars and the like, and the aim of course is to help you with your soul work--- edification and education and exhortation. You will find various of my personal stories in these sermons as well, as you might expect.

I will be very interested to hear your reaction to this volume and to see whether you find it helpful. Let me know--- when you can, if it was illuminating or even incandescent for you.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Rising to the Occasion--- Easter Reflections

The word Easter comes to us from the word eastern and easterly—as in the direction the western worshipper should be facing when he thinks of the source of his redemption in Jerusalem. It has been said that Christians are by nature an Easter people, and certainly in all generations of the church belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ has been the sine qua non of Christian faith--- the most essential belief of all without which a person is not a confessing Christian.
As far back as we can go chronologically in the NT, to the earliest Aramaic fragments found in Paul’s earliest letters, there is clear evidence that Jesus was worshipped after Easter, but not really in any full sense before then. Indeed, Jesus was prayed to in Aramaic not long after his ascension—as we can see from 1 Cor. 16.22b-- the famous maranatha prayer--- “Come o Lord”. Now a monotheistic Jew only prayed to God. He or she certainly did not pray to some dead rabbi to come back. But here is a tiny window into the prayer life of those Jerusalem Jewish followers of Jesus who are urging Jesus to return as promised. What was it that led to this remarkable change in their piety from before and after Easter. How had James, a non- follower of Jesus, become one of the three great leaders of the Jerusalem church, one prepared to pray this prayer? The answer is found only a chapter earlier in 1 Corinthians---“then he appeared to James” (1 Cor. 15.7). It is the resurrection which produced worship of and confession of Jesus as the risen Lord.

Now it is notable that the text does not say of any of those who saw Jesus after he was dead—“he was seen by…” The Greek verb here does not focus on subjective sight, nor does it encourage us to think in terms of a vision. Indeed, it focuses on the initiative of the one making these appearances--- Jesus himself. This is about Jesus appearing, not merely about disciples thinking they saw him. The language is clear here. And notice as well from 1 Cor. 15 that he appeared to many different groups and individuals in different places at different times, in some cases to those who had not been Jesus’ followers before (e.g. James and Paul), in some cases to those who had. There is even the insistence here of an appearance to 500 persons at once. Whatever else one can say, the variety of these appearances in a variety of locales and the fact that the appearances happened to both disciples and non-disciples of Jesus rules out the mass delusion or hysteria theory.

And notice that there is no suggestion at all in 1 Cor. 15 that any one saw the event of the resurrection, except perhaps the angels! No, they are claiming to have seen the results of the resurrection of Jesus—the appearances of the risen Lord. We do have a later apocryphal account in the Gospel of Peter of what Jesus’ resurrection looked like when he came out of the tomb, but this is just later amplification of the tradition. Our NY is notably reserved on this topic. Perhaps it occurred to them that an empty tomb and a risen Jesus was not enough to change the lives of those who had seen the crucifixion. There had to be appearances. And in a heavily patriarchal culture no one would make up the notion that Jesus appeared first to women like Mary Magdalene. That story in John 20 is too improbable not to be true! You don’t make up a first appearance of the risen Jesus to a Galilean peasant woman who was formerly demon possessed--- not if you want to start an evangelistic religion.

Some of my favorite Easter celebrations occur in strange places. Everyone should have the privilege of going to Athens at Easter and celebrating with the orthodox as they march through town in the darkness before down singing and shouting ‘Christos anesti’ Christ is risen. Or you should show up at O dark 40 on Easter morning in Winston Salem N.C. in the Moravian Graveyard next to Salem college where the Moravian band will be playing and marching through the graves singing Easter hymns like ‘Christ the Lord is Risen Today” ( a good Charles Wesley hymn). The Salvation Army has got nothing on these tuba and other horn players. Or you should have been with me in County Durham when I was preaching at a small pit head chapel (a chapel built near the mines as Methodists were the ones who evangelized these folks in the 18th century). I got to the chapel before the service on Easter Sunday and the chapel steward raced out and said “ I’m ever so sorry but I must ask you something first”. I said “Shoot”. He said, “Nothing so drastic as shooting.” I said “Go ahead”. He asked with a worried look on his face “You do believe in the resurrection don’t you?” I said, “Oh yes, that’s what Easter is all about.” “I’m ever so relieved he said, the chap we had last year didn’t and preached on some nonsense about the beautiful spring flowers.” Not me brother-- Jesus did not rise from the dead as part of the rites of spring. His resurrection was a supernatural miracle, and as Peter was to say in Acts 2--- the bars of death could not hold him. God’s yes to life was and is louder than death’s no. And anyway Jesus didn’t merely give the resurrection, he said “I am the resurrection”.
There are oh so many Easter stories. Like the lady in 1992 whose house received a letter from the welfare department in Greenville S.C. which said “ We have been notified that you are deceased and so we are canceling your food stamps. If your circumstances should change please let us know and we will begin sending you the stamps once more.” Were they looking for resurrection? George Caird was a fine NT scholar at Oxford, and I had been accepted to do my doctoral work with him. I decided however that I would do better to study with C.K. Barrett at Durham. As things turned out it is a good thing that I did. Caird had the ultimate exit. He died a few years thereafter on Easter Sunday morning--- apparently in church!

I thought I would leave you with my favorite Easter poem from none other than John Updike, perhaps our most celebrated American novelist of this era. You can find this poem in the volume I did with Christopher Armitage entitled The Poetry of Piety.


Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

Happy Easter everyone……. :)

Did Jesus Found a Dynasty--- Part 4

This is the final installment of a four part critique of James Tabor's new book.

For whatever reasons, scholars often seem to enjoy setting up contrasts between Jesus and his followers, particularly Paul. Tabor is one who fits this mold. Tabor states boldly: “There are two completely separate and distinct ‘Christianities’ embedded in the New Testament.One is quite familiar and became the version of the Christian faith known to billions over the past two millennia. Its main proponent was the apostle Paul. The other has been largely forgotten and by the turn of the 1rst century A.D. had been effectively marginalized and suppressed by the other.” (p. 261). This latter was of course the Christianity of James. One wonders however why Tabor does not draw attention to the documents called Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation which also all reflect early Jewish apocalyptic thinking. Apparently, it is not true that there was a move to marginalize this form of thinking when the canon was beginning to be drawn up.
Besides the fact that Tabor dramatically overplays the contrast between James and Paul as individual thinkers and apostles, he also portrays a picture of early Christianity as involving dueling banjos which is also false as we have shown in this study. The fact that this conclusion of Tabor’s is familiar and not unique does not make it true. On the one hand Tabor allows that Paul was accepted into the inner circle of Jesus’ followers by the pillar apostles (p. 262). But somehow he thinks that what Paul preached radically distinguished him from the other apostles. Following Schweitzer he speaks of Paul’s Christ mysticism and thinks that Paul promulgated an other-worldly Gospel about a pre-existent Christ who came to earth, died and rose, and returned to heaven in glory. But this is to stop the tale before the end of the story for as Tabor admits, Paul believes Jesus is coming back, perhaps in his own lifetime. Further, Paul believes the kingdoms of this world are going to get a divine make-over when Jesus returns. In other words, the end of the story is not up there or out there somewhere, it is down here. Which brings us to another important point.
Tabor thinks when Paul refers to a pneumatikon sōma in 1 Cor. 15 he means an immaterial or spiritual body. This is not an accurate reading of this grammatical construction which means a body empowered by and suffused by the Spirit, not a body made up of ‘spirit’ whatever that might be. Paul’s view of the resurrection body is not ‘spiritual’ for Paul is at the end of the day no dualist. This brings us to a second misreading of Paul, in particular 2 Cor. 5.16. This text is not at all about the renouncing of the historical Jesus or his teaching, which Paul does from time to time quote or allude to (e.g. in 1 Cor. 7 or Romans 12-15). Paul is talking about knowing Christ ‘according to the flesh’ which is to say knowing him in a purely human way. He is not referring to some sort of dualistic idea that the historical Jesus is unimportant and the heavenly Christ is all important. Rudolph Bultmann has been shown to be wrong about this many times over in commentaries on 2 Corinthians and works on Pauline theology in the last fifty years.
On p. 260 of his study Tabor suggests that Rom. 13 shows Paul was an accomodationist when it came to Rome, but Jesus, the revolutionary was not. Of course this depends on what you think of the “Render unto Caesar…” saying, but at the very least as Tabor admits, Jesus was not a violent revolutionary. On Tabor’s showing Jesus assumed God would intervene directly and sort things out. In the meantime it was o.k. to render something to Caesar (respect, his own coins?). But for some reason Tabor wants to push the contrast further. Paul, he says did not believe in an earthly kingdom. For him it was a spiritual and heavenly one. This actually does an injust to Paul’s eschatology which among other things says quite clearly in 1 Cor. 15 that Jesus is coming back to earth, that the dead in Christ will be raised, and that Jesus will be busy after his return putting his enemies under his feet, after which death will be overcome and the reign handed back over to God. This hardly sounds like a list of activities that transpire in heaven.
Tabor also suggests that Paul had a radically different view of the Law than Jesus, and of the people of God. This is at best a half truth as we have seen in this study. James did think Jews Christians were obligated to be Torah true, while Paul thought it was optional as a text like 1 Cor. 9 shows. But James and Paul stood together in the view that: 1) true Jews were the righteous remnant, and these were the Jewish followers of Jesus (cf. the letter of James to Romans 9-11); 2) the Good News is for the Jew first and also for the Gentile, the latter of whom are grafted into the Jewish root, so that the people of God are now Jew and Gentile united in Christ. This is not just Paul’s view. It was also the view of James, and of Peter for that matter.
Since Tabor brings up the matter of the new covenant on pp. 266-67 one more thing should be said. The prophecy in Jer. 31.31-33 very clearly (see vs. 32) contrasts the Mosaic covenant with the new one. The new covenant will not be like that earlier one, and so will not be simply a renewal of the Mosaic covenant (see vs. 32). Eschatolog-ically minded Jews, including some at Qumran knew this text well, and it is true to say that both Jesus and Paul recognized that the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus was not simply a renewal of the Mosaic one.
The distinctive teachings of Jesus in the Sermon of the Mount, which Paul draws on in various places, make clear that sometimes Jesus endorses previous Mosaic teaching, sometimes he intensifies it, and sometimes he replaces it with his own new teaching. This is not just a matter of having a new hermeneutic applied to an old covenant. If one reads Mk. 7 and Mt. 5-7 closely this becomes apparent. Jesus was in various ways a radical Jew, and so was Paul. Both place the emphasis on the new eschatological kingdom thing God was doing. Both taught a ‘lex nova’ the Law of Christ. Paul had a good teacher when it comes to his more radical approach to Torah, Temple, Territory, and People. It was Jesus who got himself executed for such teaching after being repeatedly accused of blasphemy during his ministry.
Tabor in fact goes so far as to say that Paul and his vision of Christian faith has shaped almost the entire canon eclipsing other and earlier Christianities (he points not only to Paul’s letter but to Luke-Acts, Mark, Matthew indirectly, and John, and the letters of Peter (pp. 272-73). He is of course right that the letter of James had a hard time getting into the canon. It was long disputed and is left off the Muratorian canon list, which is our earliest such list from mainstream Christianity. He is equally correct about James’ indebtedness to the teachings of Jesus. Unfortunately he does not give either James. 1.1 or James 2.1 their due (see p. 277). Just like Paul, James believed in ‘our glorious Lord Jesus Christ’ and saw himself primarily as Jesus’ servant, not his brother. Were there actually a human dynasty concept in operation, we would have expected to find it in the letter of James. But instead any blood connections with Jesus go unmentioned and in their place we hear that Jesus is James’ Lord. We also hear that James believes Jesus is coming back to judge the world (5.7). It is an injustice to James and Jude to suggest that when they call Jesus Lord, they simply mean respected sir or master teacher. No, the term means what it means elsewhere in the NT in post-Easter texts. It means Jesus is the risen Lord, as the Christ hymn cited in Phil. 2.5-11 but not created by Paul makes evident.
This brings up a point quite neglected by Tabor. In 1 Cor. 16.22 we find an Aramaic prayer fragment—marana tha. Paul surely got this from his contact with Aramaic speaking Christians in Jerusalem. The most likely source is Peter or James whom we know he consulted. This prayer means ‘come oh Lord’ and it is prayed to Jesus. Now monotheistic Jews did not pray to anyone but God. This in turn means that the earliest Aramaic speaking Christians like James already had a very high Christology indeed, one that Paul adopted and adapted, one that Paul agreed with. It will not do to say that James lacks any teachings that are characteristic of Paul on such matters, or to suggest that for James it was all about Jesus’ teaching and not about his person. This is clearly false as a comparison of Acts 15 and the letter of James will show. It is equally false as an evaluation of that other brother of Jesus who is in the canon--- Jude.
It may be true that there were some early followers of Jesus who were Christologically challenged. It is possible to make a case that this is so of the person who wrote the Didache (see pp. 281-82), but we must be cautious about this because the Didache is more of a lab manual, and manual for how to practice the faith than it is a theological treatise. I would not want anyone to judge Methodist theology on the basis of most of the United Methodist Discipline! If there were such Christians with a very low Christology their works did not make it into the canon, and by this I mean James and Jude do not represent them. It is simply false to suggest that James did not worship his brother or consider him divine. The evidence we have in Acts 1-4, 15 and also in James 1.1 and 2.1 will not allow this conclusion (but see p. 282). James is not the poster child for modern minimalist visions and versions of the historical Jesus. Indeed, as Tabor himself suggests James 5.6 may be about Jesus the just one who did not resist his executioners (p. 288). But this of course means James has something to say about the significance of the death of Jesus, as well as his life and teachings and current Lordship.
This brings us to James’ successor in the dynasty, a man by the name of Simeon of Clopas (see Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.11.1). Tabor (p. 289) wants to identify him as the son of Mary, but this is unlikely. Most experts on the Holy family, such as Richard Bauckham, rightly say that this is some cousin of James and Jesus, not their half-brother. Tabor once more relies on the theory that Mary married Clopas after Joseph died, a conjecture for which we have no sound evidence. He is right to note however that these later witnesses speak of him assuming a ‘throne’. Clearly someone in the later church thought of a line of royal figures. We must allow that Tabor is right that someone in the early church thought this way, even if it was anachronistic to do so. The problem is that the first century evidence does not support this idea. At best we rely upon the second century musings of Hegesippus whom Eusebius cites.
What we can say with more certainty is that the family of Jesus was honored and respected well into the second century, not primarily because of the blood relationship to Jesus, but because they were his true followers and worshippers. It was not so much that they were the Christian equivalent of a royal blood line as they were the Christian equivalent of a paradigmatic holy family, properly relating to Jesus and the faith his inaugurated. We can see in a document like the Protoevangelium of James where this thinking might go in the hands of real ascetics, prone to deny that Mary and Joseph actually had any children together. It was primarily their spiritual holiness, not their royal blood the later church was concerned to protect (but see pp. 289-92).
But as Tabor says, we must not neglect the stories about the Ebionites whom Eusebius accuses of only believing Jesus was a ‘plain and ordinary’ man born to Joseph and Mary, who taught that salvation was by works as well as faith and that the Torah must be observed by followers of Jesus (Hist. Eccl. 3.27 cf. p. 303). Are these the spiritual descendants of James and Jude? More likely they are the descendants of those whom are called Pharisaic Jewish Christians in Acts 15.1 and 5. James it will be noted, was too liberal for them, and probably too Christological as well to judge from James’ speech at the council. This reminds us that there were such people on the fringes of the early Christian movement, however few, and they continued to exist into the second century. While they did not represent the views of any of the inner circle of Jesus, it would be wrong to say they did not exist.
We must be careful about the beguiling nature of an argument such as that of Tabor’s. The book is well written with parts of it almost reading like a thriller. It has copious pictures of Biblical sites with able commentary from Tabor. He is a good archaeologist and he knows the various sites in and around the Holy Land well. His more precise knowledge of the archaeological remains can lead one to think he also has more precise knowledge about what is behind and in the Biblical texts. This is not really the case in many instances. Many of his conclusions in this book would be disputed even by the most liberal of NT scholars. Much of it is pure conjecture. His hypotheses must be sifted with the same degree of rigor that Tabor sifts the archaeological remains he digs up. When we do this, there are some things left, but not nearly as much as Tabor would allow.
When one gets to the close of the book one discovers that Tabor is no dispassionate scholar, whose interest in Jesus, James, and Jude is merely academic. No, Tabor believes there is much at stake in studying the historical Jesus for Christianity today. He puts it this way: “If Christianity can give James his rightful place as successor to Jesus’ movement, and begin to realize that his version of the faith represents a Christianity with claims to authenticity that override those of Paul, even more doors of understanding between Christians and Jews will be opened. But just as important, in terms of Christian mission and purpose in the world the unfinished agenda of John, Jesus, and James can find new life and relevance in modern times.” (p. 315, emphasis added). He goes on to suggest that the view of Jesus in the Koran comports with this reconstructed image of Jesus, through the eyes of James and perhaps the Ebionites. Tabor is hopeful that this form of Christian belief may be resuscitated, if not revived.
One has to say, that a fair bit of what Tabor says about Jesus and James is true as far as it goes, but it leaves out far too much, and indeed much that is central and crucial. The inner circle of Jesus had all seen the risen Lord. The testimony of the earliest sources is clear about this. It is not just the sayings of Jesus as found in Q that can or should be the basis of Christian faith. It must also be about who Jesus was, and what he accomplished by means of his life, death, and resurrection. We do not need to pose an either or between what we learn from the sayings of Jesus, and what we gain from other materials. A both/and approach is much nearer to the truth. And part of this both/and approach must include a recognition that our chronologically earliest witness to Jesus in the canon, Paul, is neither a distorter of the truth about Jesus nor a liar, nor one who is radically at odds with James or Peter or others on crucial matters of Christology and eschatology. This is simply false. The differences come, as they so often do, in the sticky matter of praxis and how then Christians might be together, live together, have fellowship together, while still being Jews and Gentiles. Yet we must say in the end, that Tabor has done us a great service in trying hard to integrate his great wealth of knowledge about and love of archaeology with the NT text and other historical sources. Would that more scholars would take archaeology and history serious when they interpret NT texts. Though Jesus may not have intended to found a family dynasty, he certainly left a legacy and a following, and Tabor has given us some glimpses of that legacy. For this we should be grateful.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Did Jesus found a Dynasty--- Part III

This is the third of four posts on James Tabor's new book--- The Jesus Dynasty

Here is where I say that Tabor needs to realize that the historical Jesus could very well have viewed himself in a divine as well as human light. As such he was no different from various other notable figures of his era, including various Greek ruler figures (Alexander) and various Roman Emperors (see my Christology of Jesus, pp. 90ff). A divine yet human character is in fact what Dan. 7 suggests about the Son of Man—he is to rule forever over God’s people, unlike the promise to David in 2 Sam. 7 which speaks of siring a line of descendants to rule over them. Jesus did not plan on a dynasty, he planned on ruling himself when he returned from heaven, just as the Son of Man comes down from heaven for final judgment in Dan. 7. What kind of person sees himself as ruling forever over God’s people? Some moderns might well think Jesus deranged for having such thoughts, but the fact is, it was historically possible, even in a Hellenized Jewish context. Consider the case of Herod Agrippa, struck down by God, according to Josephus, due to his divine pretensions.
Tabor’s speculation about Jesus applying texts like Is. 53 or Zech. 13 to John the Baptizer of course goes against what evidence we do have from the Gospels, and Tabor is forced to admit “Of course we don’t know the inner thoughts and struggles of Jesus.” (p. 183). Indeed we only know what these texts say Jesus revealed about himself to his disciples. And what they suggest is that Jesus saw himself, not John in light of Is. 53 and Zech. 13. This view comports better with Tabor’s own argument later where he says that Jesus acts out Zech. 9.9 by sitting on a donkey and riding into Jerusalem as the king Zechariah envisioned (p. 192).
Jesus, according to Tabor, did not stay north of Galilee before his final march to Jerusalem. He also stayed in the Decapolis east of the sea of Galilee (John 10.40), and Tabor claims to have found the spot! (p. 186). He envisions Jesus staying across the Jordan from Aenon near Salim (Jn. 3.23) at ‘el-Yabis’ a spot thought to be near the brook Cherith where Elijah went and hid out ( 1 Kngs. 17). But Tabor has more.
Since this location in Jordan is not too far from the Decapolis city of Pella, Tabor envisions Simon the brother of Jesus leading the Jerusalem Christians to Pella in about A.D., 67 based on his memory of having hid in this vicinity as one of Jesus’ chosen Twelve (p. 188). There are surprises on most pages of this book, but like so many of the other ones it is based on the unsound conclusion that Jesus’ brothers were his close followers during the ministry.
Jesus during that final winter of A.D.29 only ventures forth once and clandestinely sneaks into Jerusalem at the time of Hanukkah but is confronted in the Temple and asked to declare whether he is messiah or not (Jn. 10.22-32). Jesus escapes and goes back across the Jordan (Jn. 10.40). On this particular historical matter Tabor could be right. It may be true that Jesus and his disciples hid out in the wadis and caves of the brook Cherith, though no text tells us so. It is however odd that after building up such a case for Jesus’ messianic self-understanding of the Davidic sort he then demurs and says “Judging from his actions he was an apocalyptic prophet, an exorcist, and a healer. His message was not about himself but about the arrival of the Kingdom of God. But he had explicitly tied the arrival of the Kingdom to his activities…” (p. 190).
Surely in fact, on the basis of Tabor’s own case, Jesus did see himself as a Davidic ruler figure, as a Davidic messiah. This is far more than any of these categories Tabor lists here. And entirely missing from Tabor’s discussion is the primary form of public discourse Jesus offered—wisdom speech in the form of parables, aphorisms, riddles and the like. The omission of the wisdom component is one of the most notable lacunae in Tabor’s case, and had he included it he would have learned that Jesus presented himself as God’s wisdom come in person to God’s people, speaking on his own authority, and indeed, speaking about himself, though mostly indirectly in public. He would have learned that the cry for healing from the ‘son of David’ in Mk. 10.47 refers to Jesus being like the Son of David, namely Solomon who was believed in early Judaism to have the wisdom for all sorts of cures, unlike David himself.
Tabor paints a picture of Jesus performing a series of prophetic sign acts on Passover week including entering the city on a donkey, symbolically interrupting trade in the Temple (while thinking of prophecies like Zech. 14.21, Jer, 7.11, and Is. 56.7—see p. 196). He stresses “Jesus’ activities… were not intended to change things or to spark a revolution…. He intended to signal something—namely the imminent overthrow of the corrupt Temple system was at hand” (p. 196).
This I think is correct, but it means that Jesus was not a revolutionary in any ordinary sense of the word. He was more like a messianic prophet signaling what would soon transpire. The term revolutionary then is not really a very apt term as it suggests willingly using violence against persons to achieve one’s aims. Tabor allows that Jesus followed up these prophetic sign acts with provocative teaching and debates with Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians later in the week. I agree. Things were building to a climax.
Tabor holds the view that Jesus was crucified on Thursday April 4 (14 Nisan) A.D. 30 rather than Friday. He does not justify this conclusion he simply states that in regard to crucifixion on Friday “We now know that is one day off” (p. 199). But how exactly do we ‘know’ this now? He also argues that Jesus never ate the Passover which transpired after his crucifixion. While I am inclined to agree that the meal referred to in Jn. 13 as before the Passover was earlier in the week than Thursday, it is a mistake to see this meal as the same as the one described as the Last Supper in the Synoptics.
Tabor points out, possibly correctly, that the accounts in both Lk. 22.14-16 and 1 Cor. 11.23 refer to the ‘bread’ (artos) not the matzos which would be the unleavened bread. This may well be a pointer away from these meals being Passover meals (p. 200). Notice as well no Passover lamb is mentioned in any of these meal accounts in the Gospels. But of course Tabor must interject his own speculations into the mix. He says categorically “It is inconceivable that a Jewish head of a household would eat Passover segregated from his family with twelve male disciples.” (p. 201). This is by no means inconceivable if it is true that for Jesus the family of faith was his primary family as Mk. 3.31-35 suggests, and there is the further point from this same text that we must insist once more--- Jesus’ family were not among his disciples at this juncture in time.
Tabor then objects to the idea that Jesus could have said ‘This is my body….this is my blood’ at the last supper with disciples. In fact he is categorical about it: “Such an idea could not have come from Jesus the Jew” (p. 203). He thinks Paul dreamed this idea up based on Greco-Roman Osiris worship where the blood of the beloved is consumed. He also assumed Paul grew up in Tarsus outside the land of Israel. This is quite clearly contradicted by Acts. 22.3 where we learn that Paul grew up in Jerusalem and was trained by Gamaliel.
And what are we to think about the words of institution given at the last supper? Is Paul simply lying when he says in A.D. 54 that he has this tradition ultimately from Jesus himself (see 1 Cor. 11.23)? I think not, since Paul knew both Peter and James and had consulted with them in Jerusalem on more than one occasion (see Gal. 1-2). No, it is not Paul who is playing fast and loose with the facts. Unfortunately this is part of what is yet to come in his study as like many before him Tabor credits Paul with the corruption of the true religion of Jesus and the fall from pristine grace that led to orthodox Christianity.
He also makes the mistake of assuming that apostles and the Twelve are one and the same category of persons, despite the evidence not only in 1 Cor. 15 but also in Acts to the contrary (see p. 203). The Twelve were certainly among the apostles, but there were many others who were apostles as well, including Paul. The fact that Paul is not included among the 12 in Acts 1.12-14 is irrelevant and is no surprise since Paul is not yet a follower of Jesus. While we are dealing with these verses in Acts it is important to note yet another contradiction to Tabor’s theory. According to Acts 1.14 Mary and the brothers of Jesus are a separate group from the Twelve! It is said that the newly reformed Twelve “all joined together constantly in prayer along with the women [disciples] and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” Most everywhere look, there is evidence to contradict the theory that Jesus was setting up a family dynasty.
The words of institution, ‘This is my body, this is my blood” are found in our earliest Christian documents, namely Paul’s letters, and in all four Gospels, which means we have multiple attestations to these words and their authenticity, Thus, Tabor turns to the Didache, a late first or early second century Jewish Christian document to bolster his case against their authenticity (pp. 204-05). What he fails to mention is that the Didache is only passing along the thanksgiving prayer to be offered at the Eucharist, not the interpretation of the meaning of the Eucharist. It is further developing the liturgy of the Eucharist, not supplanting what already existed in multiple Gospels and in 1 Corinthians as well. It is after all a practical training manual for those who already know the Gospel traditions! Therefore, Tabor reads more into the silence of a document, in this case the Didache, than can possibly be warranted.
On pp. 206-07 Tabor airs once more his theory that James was the Beloved Disciple. This will not do on several accounts, but it becomes clear that the reason Tabor is enamored with this conjecture is that he cannot imagine Jesus bequeathing his mother to anyone else. But let us think through the narrative logic of John’s Gospel for a minute: 1) on the only occasion we find Jesus’ disciples and his family together at Cana, mentioned in Jn. 2, they are distinguished (see 2.12); 2) the very first time after that we hear about Jesus’ brothers they are egging him on and said not to believe in Jesus (Jn. 7.5). Notice that this transpires prior to any mention whatsoever of the Beloved Disciple in this Gospel. That does not occur until at least Jn. 11 if not Jn. 13. Those who were hearing this Gospel, which would be read aloud to the audience, would have no way of associating James with the Beloved Disciple. Indeed, they would draw quite the opposite conclusion—James is not a disciple, nor are the other brothers. The Beloved Disciple is called by this name because he is a disciple not a relative of Jesus; 3) The coup de grace for this argument comes in Jn. 19.25. Here Mary is bequeathed to the Beloved Disciple who for the first time takes her into his own home, which is surely in Jerusalem. But the Gospels tell us that the brothers lived in Galilee, not Jerusalem. This is clear also from the discussion of pilgrimage to Festival in Jn. 7.3-5. Tabor apparently does not recognize that for Jesus his eschatological family of faith is the primary family from the beginning of his ministry to the end. Mary is joining the Jesus community, she is not going home with James. The Beloved Disciple as he exits in vs. 27 is simple called ‘the disciple’ not the brother of Jesus.
Tabor’s account of the trial(s) and execution of Jesus runs swiftly through the evidence. He agrees that Jesus had a hearing before the high priest. He thinks there was some sort of Sanhedrin meeting perhaps, though not the whole council. He accepts the idea that Jesus actually spoke Mk. 14.62 to the high priest which ended the proceedings, though as he have already noted (see above) he does not think Jesus referred to himself here as the Son of Man that would be coming to judge. He accepts the historicity of Jesus being passed along to Herod Antipas and then back to Pilate.
In this entire book it is clear enough that Luke is Tabor’s main touchstone when it comes to historical substance, with Mark and John following there after, and Matthew bringing up the rear it seems. He accepts that Pilate should be credited with passing final judgment and having Jesus crucified, though he does not deal with the possibility that Pilate, and anti-Semitic Roman if there ever was one, might well have delayed the proceedings to thumb his nose at the high priests and demonstrate his own final authority. He also does not come to grips with the crucial bit of Johannine evidence that what finally prompted the execution is that the Jewish authorities threatened to complain to Caesar, threatening his amicus Caesaris status with the Emperor.
Tabor also thinks Jesus was heavily flogged, even though Luke makes clear that Jesus only endured flogging prior to the attempt by Pilate to release Jesus. If this is correct, Jesus certainly did not endure the sadistic ‘viberatio’ the most severe form of flogging, and in fact the Gospels only mention the flogging in passing. They do not play it up ala Mel Gibson’s the ‘Passion of the Christ’(pp. 208-18).
Tabor’s description of crucifixion is both graphic and correct. There is however one obvious mistake in his account. He is right that Mark says Jesus was on the cross from the sixth to the ninth hour (Mk. 15.33), but in fact he means he was on the cross even longer from the third to the ninth hour (see Mk. 15.25) which is indeed a full six hours (p. 221). Tabor is right that crucifixion could take two-three days to kill a person, depending on the degree of their flogging, their physical strength, the weather, the form of crucifixion (nailing or using ropes), the degree of shock, and whether the victims were attended and plied with myrrhed wine or not. Jesus’ time on the cross was mercifully shorter than many. Tabor agrees that the cry of dereliction was likely spoken by Jesus near his moment of death (Ps. 22.1).
Continuing his mistaken identification of Jesus’ mother with the ‘other Mary’ he envisions her going to the tomb. He also thinks Mt. 27.60 is a later editorial insertion, but once again there is no textual or historical evidence to support this conjecture. If Joseph of Arimathea requested the body, which Tabor allows, then it is reasonable to assume he would bury it in a tomb he himself owned (p. 224). Tabor disputes both assumed sites in Jerusalem for the crucifixion and the burial. He sees the Mount of Olives as a more logical site for the crucifixion. His basis for this conjecture is the second century document the ‘Acts of Pilate’ so once again he prefers later evidence to the earlier evidence, always a historically dubious move. He also suggests that Jesus and the disciples had been staying in Bethany at the house of Mary and Martha (p. 227). This is certainly plausible, but then where are James and Mary and where is this house the Beloved Disciple took Mary to in Jerusalem? He does not say. What he does say is that Jesus was truly dead, that he was hastily and temporarily buried, and that his movement did not die with his death, rather it continued under the leadership of James. (p. 228). What he fails to note is that it was Peter, not James that first took up the mantle of leadership of this movement as is clear from Gal. 1-2, 1 Cor. 15, and Acts 1-4 especially. James, takes over when Peter moves on (see Acts 12). Once again there are flaws in the dynasty argument.
Tabor sternly reminds his audience, whilst discussing Jesus’ burial, the empty tomb, and his ‘appearances’ that “Historians are bound by their discipline to work within the parameters of a scientific view of reality. Women do not get pregnant without a male—ever….Dead bodies don’t rise—not if one is clinically dead—as Jesus surely was after Roman crucifixion and three days in a tomb. So if the tomb was empty the historical conclusion is simple—Jesus’ body was moved by someone and likely reburied in another location.” (pp. 233-34). Tabor has come up with a location as well. In Galilee outside the city of Tsfat. Who knew! This conclusion is based on the testimony of a 16th century mystical rabbi named Isaac be Luria (p. 238). Sadly, I have to say that Tabor has no right to lecture anyone about what is historically plausible if he is going to go chasing after these sorts of red herrings from a much later era. This is not the mark of a good historian who limits himself to the earliest and best evidence we have. Furthermore, one might ask--- which scientific view of reality does he have in mind? There are actually quite a few, and many of them include the possibility of what we might call miracles. Does he really not know that there are plenty of good historians and scientists that do indeed believe in miracles, and in no way see that as a violation of their critical judgment or commitments?
The idea that Mk. 16.8 is the original ending of Mark’s Gospel, is accepted by Tabor, but is not plausible as most major commentaries on Mark’s Gospel make clear. There was a reason why those various other endings of this Gospel were added by later scribes. They knew something was obviously missing. And now we have a definitive study which shows that Mk. 16.8 is surely not the ending of this Gospel (see N. Clayton Croy’s, Mutilation of Mark’s Gospel, Abingdon, 2003). The ending rather is lost, though perhaps we can see the vestiges of it in Mt. 28.
But more importantly, 1 Cor. 15 will not go away with the wave of a hand. There were many people in various places, in various states of mind, and at least one of them was not a disciple, who saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion. Clearly enough, not all these ‘appearances’ were simply visions, for resurrection does not refer to a vision as has been show at length by N.T. Wright ( The Resurrection of the Son of God, Fortress, 2003). The historical accounts we have suggest the male disciples, except the Beloved Disciple, all abandoned Jesus in his hour of need. It is clear enough that it would have taken more than a pep talk from James to have turned them into the courageous witnesses, and in some cases martyrs, that they became.
But how does Tabor see the revival of the Jesus movement, given that he denies the resurrection and appearances of Jesus happened? He hypothesizes that the Holy family takes over, particularly Mary and James, and that they continued to put forward the claims about the Good News of the coming Kingdom of God, and that what with the distress and turmoil of the era, a message about the coming end of the age still had a ring of truth to it (p. 244). In the course of making his case, he discredits Luke to a significant degree (see pp. 248-49) while in the same breath saying that Luke follows Mark more closely than Matthew does. This is not true. Even more confusing is that Tabor goes on to stress that Luke is writing theology, not history, and he has a pro-Peter, pro-Paul agenda, while sublimating the Holy family. This is very odd in light of the unique material in Lk. 1-2 which presents a very positive view of Mary. It is equally odd when one considers Acts 15 where James is prominent and decides the issue.
Lost altogether in the discussion is our earliest source for information about James namely Galatians 1-2. It is telling to follow closely Paul’s account of his visits to Jerusalem. On the first occasion he goes up to Jerusalem in the mid to later 30s to see Peter, and he also sees James. Peter is mentioned first. Fourteen years later he goes back with Barnabas and Titus and Gal. 2.9 mentions James, Peter, and John in that order. Paul says these are the ones reputed to be leaders or pillars of the Jerusalem church. This would refer to a time in the mid to late 40s. Then finally Paul says at Gal.2.12 that men came from James to Antioch to check out what was happening there.
These revealing narratives reflect the change in leadership amongst the inner circle in Jerusalem from Peter first and also James, then James, Peter and John, and finally James alone because Peter has moved on as evangelist of Jews and is found in places like Antioch. What we can say is that by the late 40s James is the head of the Jerusalem Church. What we cannot talk about is a Jesus dynasty that was always in place there from just after the death of Jesus.
Tabor has a very different reading of Gal. 1-2. He thinks that Paul had to consult with James on his first visit to Jerusalem. Actually what the text says is merely that he ‘saw’ no other apostle except James the brother of Jesus. In regard to consulting, that is confined to his time with Peter. Vs. 18 is quite clear. Paul went to Jerusalem to spend time with Peter. The verb historēsai refers to his consulting and learning from and conveying information to this one person over the course of a fortnight. We may be sure they didn’t spend all that time debating the weather. James he merely ‘saw’ Peter he consulted with. Why? Because Peter knew the whole Jesus story from stem to stern, whereas James had not been present for every so many things that went on during the ministry. He was at home with the family in Galilee and perhaps even in charge of the family.
Tabor also wants to argue that Gal. 2.9 suggests that only Peter and John are seen as the pillars supporting James on his right and left. But in fact Paul calls all three of these men pillars here including James. The head of the church is not James, it is the risen Jesus, with these three men as human leaders of the movement (p.252). And both Galatians and Acts agree that Peter is the first human leader of this church, then he is replaced by James after Peter goes on the road witnessing to Jews.
I must say at this juncture that I quite agree with Tabor that James has been given short shrift, and this very book hopefully helps remedy that. But it will not do to displace Peter or the importance of Paul, who knows these eyewitnesses, with some ‘Jesus dynasty’ argument. After all we are only talking about the leadership of the Jerusalem Church, and only in a tenuous way of the rest of the movement especially after 50 A.D. Tabor also wants to see James’ decree as being about Noah’s rules (Gen. 9.4), but in fact the decree is about eating in pagan temples and avoiding both the idolatry and immorality that happens in such a venue (cf. p. 254 and my Acts of the Apostles Eerdmans 1997) on Acts 15. Tabor is however right that James was the overseer of the Jerusalem Church from the late 40s until A.D. 62 when he died. Various later sources, including Clement of Alexandria even go so far as to suggest that Jesus chose James as Overseer of the Jerusalem Church (see Eusebius. Hist. Eccl. 2.1.3). If he did, he must have done it by some extraordinary means after Easter, because clearly enough, Peter was the one chosen as the head the Twelve, and stayed leader in Jerusalem until he became itinerant.

Friday, April 14, 2006

"The Jesus Dynasty"-- Part Two

This is the second of four posts on James Tabor's interesting new study---"The Jesus Dynasty"-- blessed Good Friday to one and all.

Here it is in order to point out a fundamental problem with Tabor’s approach to the sayings material found in Q. Tabor seems to simply accept the conclusions of Q scholars about the nature and character of the saying source, that collection of largely sayings material which Matthew and Luke share in common, but which are not found in Mark. This is a mistake on several grounds: 1) firstly the underlying form critical methodology used to determine the authenticity of this material, where you slice and dice even half verses into pieces, deeming one part authentic and another not, has been shown a long time ago to be deeply flawed; 2) it is simply not the case that any preference should be given to the more Lukan form of Q sayings. In fact, Luke is Hellenizing the material for his Gentile audience. We are far more likely to get closer to the original form of such sayings in the Matthean form of these traditions (see now my commentary on Matthew, Smyth and Helwys, 2006). Joachim Jeremias was right when he said of this material that it is the inauthenticity not the authenticity of these sayings that must be demonstrated.
Tabor argues Lk. 7.28b is a later addition, but on what basis? Grasping at straws, he appeals to a 14th century A.D. document alleged to preserve the more original Hebrew version of Matthew. Now this ‘Hebrew Matthew’ is found in a rabbinic document called ‘Even Bohan’ written by one Shem-Tob Ibn Shaprut of Aragon. This document was part of the ongoing border war between Jews and Christians in the attempt to claim the Jewish heritage for one or the other of these two communities. If we actually examine this Hebrew Matthew we see that it is material which has been edited to serve the polemical purposes of this Jewish author, reflecting later disputes between Jews and Christians. There is no historical evidence whatsoever that this document existed, even in an earlier form, prior to the third century A.D.
It will not do to take much later evidence which has obviously been edited and shaped by a polemical controversy of a later era and proclaim it an earlier version of the Gospel of Matthew than what we have in our Greek text of Matthew. This is not merely an argument from silence since we have no early evidence that Hebrew Matthew even existed. It is an argument against the earliest and best evidence we do have. Not many scholars have been at all persuaded by George Howard’s thesis about the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (published by Mercer Press in 1995), and rightly so. It violates all the basic historical principles about adhering to our earliest and best evidence in order to draw conclusions about a matter. It is sad to see that Tabor is prepared to stretch historical principles this far, being prepared to take even much later and more dubious data to fit the Procrustean bed of his pre-existing theory. This is unfortunate, because Tabor’s study has many pluses and good points when it comes to the archaeology and historical aspects of the study. The danger is, it will be all dismissed as eccentric and not well grounded in historical research because of this kind of material in the book.
Let us take another example of how Tabor does not ‘look’ before he takes exegetical leaps. On p. 137 he deals with the Lord’s prayer as presented in Lk. 11.1-4. Already there is a problem since he simply assumes that the conclusions of Q specialists are right that Luke preserves the more original form. A simply and systematic study of how Luke edits his Markan material and Matthew edits the same Markan material could have told him that Luke is a more free editor of his source material, and Matthew is consistently more conservative. But for the sake of argument, let’s just deal with the Lukan form here.
The text begins with the request of the disciples “teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples to pray”. Tabor takes this to mean “teach us to pray the same prayer John taught his disciples to pray”. Tabor even says “Jesus repeats to them the prayer that he had learned from his teacher John”. But the Greek here surely does not mean this. The comparative term kathōs indicates that the disciples are not asking for Jesus to repeat the teaching he learned from John. Rather they want to be taught to pray ‘just as’ John’s disciples had been taught to pray. The comparison has to do with the activity of praying, not with the content of the prayer. Notice something else as well. John’s disciples are distinguished from Jesus’ here, but Jesus’ disciples are comparing themselves to John’s. This is interesting and understandable since Jesus had earlier had some associations with John, and seems to have drawn some of his disciples from John’s as well. But nowhere in any historical source do we even remotely hear about John teaching Jesus the Lord’s prayer.
While Jesus may well have learned much from listening to John, we have no historical evidence that Jesus was ever John’s disciple. His baptism by John should not be interpreted this way. John baptized many people who did not become his disciples at all. Jesus was probably one such person. What the evidence we do have suggests is that John felt it would be more appropriate for Jesus to baptize him! But this idea of course is too often dismissed as later Christian editorial adjustments. John, as Jesus said, was more than a prophet. This does not mean Jesus saw him as either the messiah or his own teacher. Rather, he saw him as the final eschatological prophet, the Elijah figure who announced the coming of God’s divine saving reign on earth. Jesus, by contrast expected no singular successor, and notice as well he does not include himself amongst the Twelve. Both of these facts tell us something about Jesus’ self understanding.
Tabor, having gotten up a head of steam, is not only prepared to argue on the basis of questionable later evidence, and exegesis that is far from obvious. He is prepared to argue on the basis of silence itself. For example he says “It is no accident that the following year of A.D. 27 is largely blank in our records. That was the year of the joint work of the Two Messiahs—now lost to Christian history and memory.” (p. 137). In this remark, Tabor is admitting to the fact that part of his most crucial and essential theory, that Jesus and John viewed themselves as the two messiahs mentioned at Qumran, is nearly entirely an argument from silence. One has to ask—why should we think that either John or Jesus simply adopted the Essene view about two messianic figures? Nothing in their teachings suggest such a view. Indeed, nothing in the canonical Gospels suggest that anyone saw John as the priestly Messiah figure of Qumran at all, not even Jesus. This is simply pure conjecture.
It is Tabor’s historical reconstruction that while John was baptizing in the north near the sea of Galilee in A.D. 27, a sabbatical year when people would have more free time to listen to preachers like John and Jesus, Jesus was baptizing in the south in Judea (see pp. 141-42). There are several problems with this. One moment Tabor is prepared to give the Gospel of John its due for providing us with an eyewitness testimony with accurate historical and chronological details. But he chooses not to deal with the hard evidence of Jn. 4.1-2 which suggests that Jesus himself baptized no one, rather his disciples did the baptizing. Also, the Pharisaic observers of both practices noticed that Jesus was gathering more disciples than John. Apparently not wanting to undercut John’s ministry, Jesus stops his activities and returns to Galilee through Samaria. Tabor dismisses Jn. 4.2 as the work of a later editor (p. 149), without any textual basis at all. The same hand, writing in the same style, the Beloved Disciple himself, is responsible not only for the discussion in John 3 about Jesus and John, but also for the discussion in Jn. 4.1-2. There is no sound
The material in Jn. 3.27-30 is also important to this discussion for it has a parallel in the Synoptics in Mk. 2.19-20. In both these texts Jesus is called the bridegroom. In John 3 John the Baptist declares himself to be the friend of the bridegroom. This comports with the saying of John indicating that he knew someone greater than he would come after him, whose shoes he would not even be fit to tie or untie. It seems clear that in both our earliest and latest Gospel evidence (and in those in between), John himself denies he is the messianic one, but he believes he has a special relationship to the bridegroom—he is the best man, meant to announce the coming of the bridegroom. Tabor’s partnership of equals idea about Jesus and John does not deal adequately with what evidence we do have on this matter. Even allowing for the Gospel’s writers desires to place John clearly in Jesus’ shadow, there is still a clear pecking order in the earliest of these sayings which indicates that neither Jesus nor John viewed the matter as Tabor suggests.
But there is more. On p. 142 Tabor also suggests, based on his reading on Jn. 2.1-12 that the wedding feast at Cana was perhaps a family wedding where Jesus’ brother James got married, and he suggests that this text indicates that Jesus had permanently moved his family (mother and brothers) to Capernaum because they were a part of Jesus’ disciple group, with brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas being both half-brothers of Jesus and also members of the Twelve. This simply will not do however.
In the first place the wedding takes place in Cana, presumably the one north of Sepphoris. John 21.2 tells us this is the village of Nathanel, another of Jesus’ disciples, and perhaps we are dealing with his wedding. But the following factors rule out Tabor’s reading of this story: 1) Jesus’ rebuke to his mother indicates that it is not either his or his mother’s responsibility to provide the catering when they run out of wine. This would hardly be an appropriate response if this was his brother’s wedding; 2) the disciples are clearly distinguished from Jesus’ mother and brothers at the end of the story at 2.12. Notice as well that it is said in 2.11 that it is the disciples, not the family who believed in Jesus as a result of this miracle. This comports with what we hear in Jn. 7.5—the brothers did not believe in Jesus, and led a separate life from him during Jesus’ ministry. They were not among his disciples. This is precisely what Mk. 3.21-35 clearly indicates as well which tells us that Jesus’ family thought that what with all the exorcisms Jesus had become mentally imbalanced, fifteen degrees shy of plumb so to speak. Thus they came out to take him home (Mk. 3.21,31-35). This unflattering portrait of Jesus’ family is surely likely to be well grounded in history. It is not something Mark will have made up. 3) nothing in the conclusion of John. 2.1-12 suggests that Jesus’ mother and brothers had moved to Capernaum with Jesus. He is not in charge of them and we have no evidence he played the role of head of the family at this juncture. They could all just be on the way up to the Jewish festival for all we know.
One of Tabor’s underlying assumptions is some form of Schweitzerian eschatology. Jesus believed the end of the world was near at hand, and so all his teaching should be seen as some form of interim ethic. Never mind that we have sayings like Mk. 13.32 in our earliest Gospel which clearly do not reflect later Christian views of what Jesus did and didn’t know during his ministry. No, Jesus must be depicted as one who was convinced that not merely the eschatological age, but the end of the eschatological age could be expected soon. There are numerous problems with this reading of Jesus’ eschatology, and I have demonstrated at length why we need to exorcise the ghost of Albert Schweitzer from our discussions of Jesus’ teachings (see my Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World, Inter Varsity 1992). But Tabor operates as if no one had ever demonstrated the flaws in such an approach to the eschatology of Jesus, never mind the eschatology of Paul and others (notice for example on p. 143 how he misquotes 1 Cor. 7.29 which does not say that the time has grown very short, it says the time has been ‘shortened’, a very different matter).
Though Tabor is well aware of the differences in Jesus’ eschatological teaching from that we find at Qumran (see e.g. Mk.12.35-37 where in debate Jesus speaks of only one messianic figure), and he freely admits that the two messiah’s teaching had been given a long time before the time Jesus even was born, and by the first century A. D. (see p. 148) even the Essenes, who had seen the Teacher of Righteousness come and die without the two messiahs showing up were on the downward slope of their existence (“they did not die out despite the failure of their original expectations”—p.148), still he insists that this is how John and Jesus viewed messianic matters. The truth is, there was a wide gamut of messianic beliefs in early Judaism, only one of which involved a scenario with two messianic figures. I would also stress that the messiah son of David tradition refers quite specifically to a king like David, not a priest and also a king (see e.g. the Psalms of Solomon 17). The evidence we have does not suggest that either John or Jesus operated with a Qumranite double messiah notion. To the contrary, both the John and Jesus traditions suggest that they both operated with a single messiah notion.
One of the things that does happen to scholars as they become enthusiastic proponents of their own theories and hypotheses is that what they first call a theory, later is called a fact. James Tabor is both bright and has a very active imagination. For example he paints a scene for us on pp. 151-52 of him sitting outside the Suba cave (see above) imagining Jesus himself baptizing people in this cave, perhaps even his own disciples and family. It is a nice bucolic picture not well grounded in any historical evidence.
The general term ‘Judean countryside’ is used in Jn. 3 to indicate the place where baptisms were done by Jesus’ disciples. This surely is more likely to have taken place further down the Jordan river than where John was baptizing, not somewhere west of Jerusalem in some obscure spot. The Suba cave is not on any major thoroughfare. It is not a place you would go to attract a crowd to hear your urgent message. But notice as well what happens on p. 149. Tabor states boldly: “The historical facts are plain: Jesus joined the movement of John the Baptizer and was baptized by John ‘with a baptism of repentance for remission of sins.’ He then linked up with John in a strategic move to reach the whole country at once. Jesus was preaching and practicing that same baptism—the baptism of John. They were allies and there is no reason to think that either their message or their message or their mode of operation differed.” (emphasis added). No reason, except that the Gospels tell us that Jesus and John had a very different lifestyle and a very different modus operandi. Jesus was a healer, indeed our earliest Gospel indicates he was an exorcist. In fact, exorcisms are the most frequent miracles of Jesus during his Galilean ministry according to Mark. John was not a healer at all. But there is another difference as well. John is an ascetic, Jesus is not, at least when it comes to food and drink and general lifestyle. Indeed, Jesus is accused of fraternizing with sinners and tax collectors, and of being a winebibber. This was clearly not part of John the Baptist’ curriculum vitae. One must do a better balancing act than Tabor does to deal with both the similarities and differences between Jesus and John.
One thing that John and Jesus certainly did have in common is the proclamation of the coming Dominion of God, God’s final saving reign on earth. Tabor, ignoring the variety of ways this Kingdom language was used in early Judaism stresses “It was understood in a literal way, nothing less than a revolution, a complete overthrow of the political, social, and economic status quo.” (p. 156). But a revolution undertaken by whom? We know of course of the Zealot view, but Jesus did not agree with that view. He is on record as having said that those who live by the sword die by the sword. Neither John nor Jesus were busy setting up base camps in Galilee or Judea in preparation for a revolution. Instead, they were busily calling Israel to repentance in the light of the coming direct intervention of God. Tabor accepts this point, but he insists on the Schweitzerian view that Jesus thought the end was necessarily at hand, and that perhaps if he went up to Jerusalem and threw himself on the wheel of history, God would act.
Jesus believed he was bringing in the kingdom by such preaching coupled with his acts of healing persons, including by means of his exorcisms (‘if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then you will know that the Dominion has broken into your midst’). Spiritual liberation of course also had a social consequence, but Jesus was of the peace party, as Crossan puts it, not the revolutionary party, though he was certainly executed in a manner that means he was accused of being a revolutionary guilty of sedition or treason.
We cannot flatten out all the varied views of the Kingdom in early Judaism into one social action or revolutionary meaning any more than the messianic expectations in early Judaism were monolithic. Tabor knows this so he tries to have it both ways. He thinks Jesus’ strategy was first to engage in spiritual healing and renewal and then to expect God to get on with the political revolution by direct divine judgment. He puts it this way “Jesus was a political revolutionary who expected nothing less than the violent overthrow of the kingdoms of the world, but he did not think it would come about by collecting arms and gathering rebel bands of troops as some of his contemporaries had attempted. The first step was to defeat Satan and his powers.” (pp. 161-62). Thus Satan had to be deposed first, then Herod, Pilate and the rest would be deposed, leaving Jesus alone on the throne of Israel.
On the other hand, Tabor is quite right to envision Jesus reading various passages of the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Is. 61 which speaks of a healing messiah who liberates captives, and seeing them as referring to himself (see p.157). One of the strengths of this study is that Tabor meaningfully interacts with the genuine messianism of Jesus, his messianic self-understanding. He is equally correct that Jesus was by no means the first to read the Hebrew Scriptures this way, for the Essene Teacher of Righteousness had also done this (see the Qumran Thanksgiving Hymns). I can only endorse his conclusion that Jesus was driven by Scripture, and most of the texts he is said to have quoted or used of himself are not later impositions of Christians who wanted to see in Jesus one who fulfills all the prophecies and promises of God. (p. 159). And Tabor is likely right that we should read in Mk. 1.14 an indication that upon John’s arrest, Jesus shifted directions somewhat when it came to his ministry, now going on preaching tours throughout Galilee, with a base in Capernaum (p. 160). Tabor is also right that Jesus had both female and male disciples that had been recruited to engage in fishing for followers, what with God’s saving activity now breaking into their midst.
How do the Twelve fit into all of this? Tabor believes Jesus picked them as a sort of governmental officials to sit on thrones and rule the twelve tribes in Israel, sort of like regional governors, while Jesus would be the king. Tabor cites Lk. 22.30. Now this is a saying of Jesus connected with the Last Supper and clearly referring to a time after Jesus’ death when the eschaton would come. In other words, it is not a program Jesus sought to inaugurate during his ministry, but rather how he viewed the final eschatological sequel to his ministry.
At this point Tabor further argues for Jesus setting up a family dynasty. But consider for example Lk. 6.14-16 which Tabor cites (p. 164). Tabor says that the phrase ‘James of Alphaeus’ means James son of Alphaeus, and this is likely correct. Jewish men were normally identified by such patronymics (cf. Simon bar Jonah, Simon son of John). But Tabor then wants to turn around and read the adjacent phrase ‘Judas of James’ as meaning Jude brother of James. This will not do. The Greek construction is the same in both cases, and the original audience hearing this will assume that the genitive modifier has the same sense in both cases. Notice that immediately prior when Luke want to say someone was a brother of another disciple he inserts the word adelphos, for instance in vs. 14 when we hear of ‘Andrew the brother of Peter’. There is a good reason translations render the phrase ‘Judas of James’ as referring to a son and a father. This is the natural an appropriate way to render the phrase if there is no further qualification, as in the case of Peter and Andrew. This in turn means that this Judas cannot be the one who was Jesus’ brother. But then neither were Simon the Zealot or Jacob listed as one of the Twelve Jesus’ brothers. This logic cannot stand close scrutiny, and with its demise so also goes most of Tabor’s theory about a Jesus dynasty.
But where is Jesus’ brother Joseph amongst the Twelve? In a desperate move Tabor (p. 164) suggests that Matthew/Levi son of Alphaeus is actually Joseph, even though no Gospel text or later source even remotely suggests this. But then no source suggests Mary was married to Clopas who is really Alphaeus either. The facts simply won’t fit this theory no matter how hard Tabor strains to make it fit. There is a reason why the NT is silent about Jesus’ brothers not being amongst the Twelve (something Tabor calls the best kept secret in the NT)--- its because they weren’t! Tabor suggests (p. 165) that only Jn. 7.5 argues against his theory, but of course we have seen that Mk. 3.21-35 is clear on this score as well, and cannot be dismissed. It is ironic that in the process of dismissing such evidence he then adds “It is amazing what firm opinions have been built upon such shaky foundations.” (p. 165). Unfortunately, this remark can more naturally be applied to his own argument.
But we are not done with surprises yet. The ghost of Schweitzer is conjured up once more on pp. 166-67 where we are told that the phrase Son of Man, at least in the future oriented sayings about him does not refer to Jesus, indeed it does not refer to a particular individual, rather it stands collectively for the faithful people of God who would receive the rule from their messiah. Tabor thinks this is what Daniel 7 suggests. He says that the coming of the Son of Man refers to an event, not to a particular individual popping out of the clouds and Jesus thought his mission would lead right up to such final events. There are too many problems with this scenario to deal with here, but I must list the most egregious mistakes involved: 1) first of all it is perfectly clear that Jesus used the phrase bar enasha to refer to himself throughout his ministry, referring to himself in the third person as was not uncommon in a collectivist culture like that in Israel. This is one of the most well assured of NT scholarship in general. Clearly in the case of Jesus’ own usage it refers to an individual, though scholars sometimes debate whether Jesus used it of himself and also of another individual in the future Son of Man sayings; 2) in Dan. 7 there can be no question that an individual is involved. He is called ‘one like a son of man’ not a group like a son of man. Secondly he is seen as the human and humanizing figure that eclipses the previous beastly emperors and their empires referred to earlier in Dan. 7; 3) Jesus discussion of the Son of Man coming on the clouds (Mk. 14.62) refers to a theophany event involving an individual. In Mk. 14.62 it is an individual who will come and judge Jesus’ judges. It is this pronouncement which leads the high priest to say Jesus commits blasphemy. They understood perfectly well he was referring to himself! This is what prompted the handing of Jesus over to Pilate for execution. Jesus was claiming to be a ruler, indeed a judge over Israel as Dan. 7 predicted. More could be said but this must suffice.
Tabor argues that the death of John the Baptist was clearly a major blow to Jesus, and when his disciples came back from their missionary tour (sent out two by two), they withdrew beyond Herod Antipas’ borders first to Bethsaida (Lk. 9.10) the hometown of Peter, Andrew and Philip, and then on further north to Caesarea Philippi in Herod Philip’s territory. This in fact may be correct. It is hard to gage the impact of John’s death on Jesus, but this scenario is plausible and it helps us to connect some of the dots of our various disparate texts (see pp. 176-78).
Tabor suspects that Jesus chose this location because few if any would think to look for him in a place noted for being a pagan shrine (the ancient Greek city of Panias being there, complete with shrines to the Emperor and the god Pan amongst others). He envisions Jesus going there in A.D. 29 and wintering there until he could hatch his full plan of bringing in the Kingdom at the Passover in the spring of A.D. 30. Just when he makes some plausible historical arguments he then conjectures (p. 178) that Jesus meditated on Zech. 13.7 and assumed that the shepherd referred to who is struck down is John. This of course is at variance with the way Jesus himself uses the same text in Mk. 14.27 and parallels, a text which a wide variety of scholars think goes back to Jesus himself. Tabor then immediately cites Mk. 9.13 where Jesus clearly identifies John with Elijah not the shepherd figure of Zechariah. Tabor assumes that the phrase ‘as it is written of him’ in Mk. 9.13 must refer to Zech. 13.7! But it need mean no more than as with so many of God’s prophets in the OT, John met with an untimely end. Elijah it will be remembered, while not executed, was taken away from Elisha and others in an unexpected and untimely fashion, to judge from Elisha’s reaction. So was John the Baptizer. Shockingly, he also envisions Jesus applying Is. 53 to John, not to himself (p. 182).
To his credit, throughout this study Tabor tries to imagine how Jesus would have read the Scriptures and envisioned his own ministry and its goal. It is odd however that in the process of doing this, he refers to texts Jesus does not allude to (the ‘near death’ rescue texts like Ps. 16.10 or Ps. 22.21), and he rejects the Passion predictions we find in Mk. 8-10, including Mk. 10.45 suggesting “If Jesus did come to anticipate his suffering at the hands of his enemies, I am convinced that he expected that he would be saved from death.” (p. 181). But of course, this is not what any of our Gospel evidence suggests. It suggests that Jesus foresaw his own untimely demise, and indeed warned his disciples they would have to take up their own crosses to follow him. You don’t talk about crosses unless you are thinking of death. Jesus did not have to be a genius or a prophet to foresee his end would be violent. He need only look at the example of his friend and relative John the Baptizer.