Monday, March 31, 2008

The Year of the Lectureship

This academic year, 2007-08 has involved my giving a variety of lectures and doing a variety of lectureships in a variety of places, to say the least. In the fall I did the Strauss lectures at Lincoln Christian College and the Distinguished Parchman lectures at Truett Seminary at Baylor University. In the new year I gave three lectures at St. Andrews University in Scotland and one at my alma mater Durham University in England. Then I gave the Cooley lectures at Gordon-Conwell Charlotte campus, and have just returned from doing the Hall lectures at the University of South Carolina. What follows in this post is a sample of one of the lectures I gave at USC in Columbia. Kudos and thanks to all those who gave me such gracious hospitality along the way. A fuller form of this discussion can be found in my book Jesus the Seer and the Progress of Prophecy (Hendrickson).


There are few things that all scholars agree on when it comes to the historical Jesus. One of those however is that Jesus used two key phrases in his public discourse– Son of Man and Kingdom of God What is seldom asked about this usage is– is there an OT text where we find both these phrases or essential concepts together? The Answer surprisingly is--- Yes.

Dan. 7.13-14 reads as follows: “In my vision I looked and there before me was one ‘like a son of man’ (bar enasha) coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory, and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” This text should be compared to Dan. 7.25-27 where we are told this everlasting kingdom is handed over to the saints, and is taken away from the beastly ruler and empire which had existed before. The whole pattern of inhumane empires (4 of them) followed by a human and humane one, is the big picture. This should be compared to 2 Sam. 7.12-13: When your days are over…I will raise up your offspring to succeed you…and I will establish his kingdom.”

Notice the difference between these two texts which were read messianically in Jesus’ day. The one refers to a normal succession of a royal family– from David to his offspring. The other refers to an everlasting kingdom ruled by ‘the one like a son of man’ who can be so closely identified with the saints that they can be said to rule in Him, or through him. Dan. 7.13-14 is remarkable in another regard as well. The figure in question comes down (not up) from heaven, for the judgment scene upon the earth, and is handed authority, power etc. to rule by the Ancient of Days. Of course in the OT the Yom Yahweh was normally envisioned as the Day Yahweh came down in theophanic fashion and judged.

Even on a minimalist approach to the evidence about the historical Jesus, while we do not much find Jesus calling himself Son of David, nor does he ever cite 2 Sam. 7, scholars are quite clear about Jesus referring to himself as Son of Man, and his speaking of a everlasting Kingdom which he is inaugurating. The question that begs to be asked is– what kind of person thinks he can personally reign forever (not him and his offspring, but just him)? Or again what sort of person thinks he can bring the eschatological saving reign of God upon the earth, the one that eclipses and replaces all previous human attempts at Dominion?

My answer is– a person who thought he was both human and divine, and here is the interesting bit. It is the title Son of Man, not the title Messiah, or some other more familiar ones that has the potential to convey the notion of both humanness and more than humanness. And interestingly, the title Son of Man, was not all that much used in early Jewish messianic speculation, and so Jesus was free to fill it with the content he had in mind, without being pigeon-holed by other people’s preconceived notion of what a Savior or Messiah must be and do. In short, Jesus, in his prevalent use of these two concepts conveyed an exalted image of who he was and what he came to do and be, and it is likely this, and a few other things Jesus said, that led to exclusive claims being made about him by his first followers, claims such as Jesus being the way the truth and the life and no one comes to God except through Jesus. While that claim is found in John 14, in essence the same sort of claim is made by Jesus in Mt. 11 where Jesus says that know one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son reveals God. Notice the language of special revelation. Jesus claims to have special revelation from God that others do not have. This saying, if authentic, places Jesus in the category of a remarkable seer. Do we have other evidence that suggests this as well? In fact we do.

The earliest form of the story of Jesus’ baptism in Mark’s Gospel, a story which all stripes of scholars believe contains historical substance, not least because you don’t make up a story about your messianic figure being baptized by another remarkable prophetic figure if you want people to think Jesus is more important than John the Baptizer. In order to understand the account fully in Mark 1, we need to say something about the history of prophecy.

Prophecy in the ANE, including in the Biblical tradition was a complex phenomenon. One of the features which rose to prominence in Biblical prophecy during the exile was apocalyptic prophecy, which is to say prophecy based on visions. Sometimes these were day visions, sometimes they came in the form of night visions or dreams, but in either case they were different from the earlier oracular forms of prophecy which were a matter of the prophet listening and then repeating verbatim what he believed the deity was saying. With visionary prophecy a whole new element was added to the picture, namely what the prophet had seen in a vision. I need to be clear at this juncture that visions, whether waking or in dreams were not seen as purely subjective phenomena in antiquity, not something generated, for example, by an overactive imagination or wish projection. No, these were seen as one form of revelation from God, and increasingly during and after the exile they were seen as the main form of revelation from God.

Scholars have often remarked on the fact that Jesus does not use the oracular formula—‘thus says Yahweh’ nor does he quote God, so to speak, and on this basis some scholars have concluded that Jesus was not a prophet in the OTmental sense. This however is a mistake, as it involves mistaking the part for the whole. Jesus clearly was not an oracular prophet like an Isaiah or an Amos. Rather he was a visionary prophet like Daniel or Zechariah. It is no accident that Jesus was so indebted to these two sources for his sense of calling and self-understanding. He too was a visionary prophet like those earlier Jewish figures.

In the Markan account of the baptism, we find several major features of a visionary account. The sky is said to split open (cf. Rev. 1,4), the Spirit of God descends, and is described in typical apocalyptic diction (‘it was like….’) and then, and only then Jesus hears the divine voice speaking directly to him saying “You are my beloved Son”. Mark’s account differs clearly enough from Matthew’s in that it recounts a public occasion, but a private vision that happened on that public occasion. The voice from above did not speak to everyone, but only to Jesus. The Matthean account makes it a more public affair. We need to stick with the earlier account.

What we can say about what happened on this occasion, besides Jesus being baptized by John, is that Jesus received identity confirmation, an indirect commissioning, and indeed an empowering for ministry. It is no accident that it is only after this event that the ministry proper is said to begin, nor can it be accidental that we are told in Mk. 1.15 that Jesus’ begins with a proclamation John himself could have made--- ‘repent for the Dominion of God is at hand’.

Less often noticed than some of these features of the story, is the connection it has with the sequel. Mk. 1.12 is emphatic--- the Spirit cast Jesus out into the Judean wilderness and he spent 40 days there being tempted by Satan. He is both with the wild animals, and angels also attend him. What is less seldom noticed is that having just been called God’s Son, he is now tested as a royal figure in a fashion like the king was tested in Daniel when he was out in the fields with the animals, or as Solomon was tested in Wisdom of Solomon. But here again we are still in the realm of vision, visions that Jesus saw whilst in the wilderness.

Mark of course only mentions the visionary experience in passing but Matthew and Luke give us a detailed account. The Matthean account seems to be closer to the original form of the story, and we will follow it. Notice immediately that Jesus is tested in regard to the very same title that had been revealed to him at the baptism--- Son of God, in the form “if you are the Son of God… then….” Of course some scholars have scoffed at treating this story as an historical one, completely forgetting it is possible to take this as a relating of a visionary experience Jesus had whilst full of the Spirit, and we might add in a limnal state. Matthew is explicit that Jesus had these visions of the nefarious one after having fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, which makes the first temptation, to turn stones into bread, a quite natural one. Now one of the most remarkable features about this visionary encounter with the Adversary, Satan, is that Satan is tempting Jesus to do things that mere mortals cannot do. I have known some people who can turn bread into stones, but not any that have been tempted to do the opposite. The point here is that Jesus is being tempted to act in a fashion that only a divine Son of God was capable of doing. This story then undergirds the theology that Jesus was no ordinary or mundane messianic figure, and like the title Son of Man, the story suggests a more than mundane character for Jesus. Now a temptation is hardly a temptation if you know perfectly well you can’t do. The point here is that Jesus is being tempted to act in ways that would obliterate his true humanity and his identification with us. The essence of Jesus’ being truly human and acting in accord with that is being put to the test. To be human means to have certainly limitations of time, space, knowledge and power. Yet Jesus believed he could transcend these limitations in some fashion, and here he was being tempted to go ahead and do so. What kind of person believes such things about himself? Notice then that Jesus respond’s to Satan by quoting Scripture, a resource any human being could use to combat evil. Jesus throughout the Gospel acts by the power of the Spirit and by using the Word of God, the same two resources these Gospels say Jesus bequeathed to his followers. This is interesting.

Returning to the vision itself, the second temptation is to cast himself off the pinnacle of the temple. Here Satan becomes the exegete and cites Ps. 91. 11-12 to encourage Jesus to do it. The text refers to ministering angels who would bear him up if he leapt off the pinnacle and not allow him to harm himself. This is interesting since Mark had mentioned that Jesus was ministered to by angels in the wilderness. But again, Jesus resists the temptation. Notice that here Jesus responds, in a battle of Bible quotes “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Scholars have resisted seeing this as evidence that Jesus placed himself in the category of the Lord God, but surely that is the most natural implication here, and it is interesting that Jesus’ brother, James is later to say emphatically that God cannot be tempted and he tempts no one (James 1). Perhaps he knew of the story of Jesus’ vision quest and battles with the powers of darkness.

The third and final test is indeed the climactic one where Jesus is offered the kingdoms of the world if he will just bow down and worship Satan. Jesus refuses to do so and like a good monotheist says only the one God should be worshipped. Notice and compare the reply to test 2 and the reply to test 3. In test 2 Jesus identifies himself with the Lord God, in test 3 his reply distinquishes himself from Yahweh. What sort of person sees both identity with and distinction from God as categories he could freely use to describe himself?

Lest we think that we have exhausted the evidence for Jesus as a Seer, it is not so. There are interested logia, like Lk. 10.18 where Jesus, upon the report of his disciples performing exorcisms successfully like their Master says “I saw Satan fall like lightning from the sky.” This should be compared to a text like Mk. 3 where Jesus’ exorcisms are recognizes by his antagonists, but they attribute them to his being in league with the Devil. Jesus counters by saying that to the contrary, he had to first bind that strong man Satan before he could loose his captives. Far from being in league with Satan, the work of Jesus has been to destroy his strongholds and liberate his captives. This, I would suggest is what Lk. 10.18 suggests as well. It has often been noted that the most frequent sort of miracle predicated of Jesus in Mark, is exorcism. Furthermore, it is the sort of activity which led to the later rabbinic charges that Jesus was a magician, dabbling in the dark arts. There must indeed be a historical foundation for this aspect of Jesus’ ministry, whatever one may personally believe about demons.

And here it will not go amiss if I say something about evaluating Jesus on his own terms. Whether or not one personally believes in the powers of darkness is really irrelevant to the historical quest for understanding Jesus, as it is perfectly clear that many early Jews, probably most of them, did believe in such beings, and there is no good reason to doubt Jesus did as well. We cannot eliminate evidence from our quest for the historical Jesus just because we don’t share such a belief system or particular belief. Jesus was without doubt different from many moderns in what he believed in, and if the goal is to understand him, and understand his self- understanding and presentation, then it is a mistake to evaluate the evidence with certain anti-supernatural prejudices or biases in place. This may tell us much about ourselves, but such biases skew a fair and accurate assessment of Jesus’ self-understanding and self-presentation.

Our next port of call is Mt. 11.27, the so-called Johannine thunderbolt. This text, it will be remembered presents Jesus as claiming that no one knows the Father but Jesus and those to whom Jesus reveals him. Now this text speaks to the apocalyptic mentality and frame of reference of Jesus. The basic assumption of apocalyptic is that heavenly and spiritual things are now hidden from fallen mortal gaze, and can only be known if they are revealed through a revelator, one who sees into the other realm. Jesus is presented as one such person who does so. Indeed, Jesus presents himself as one who plays out the apocalyptic script of Daniel and Zechariah not only by proclaiming the Kingdom and calling himself Son of Man, but even by performing prophetic sign acts like riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, as Zechariah spoke of, or cleansing the temple. The closer we look at the drama of Jesus’ life, the more he seems to be dancing to an apocalyptic tune not entirely of his own making.

And this brings us to the trial narrative in Mark 14. After offering a whole chapter of prophetic pronouncements about the near and more distant future, in Mk. 13 (notice that the cosmic signs are only associated with the second coming account, whereas the signs upon the earth are associated with preliminary mundane events which lead up to the destruction of the temple), we have the trial narratives seriatim. While it is noteworthy that Jesus predicted the demise of the Herodian temple within a Biblical generation (40 years), a prediction which was spot on as the British would say, since the temple fell in 70 A.D. and Jesus made the prediction in 30 A.D. not long before his own demise, what is more important for our purposes is that the predictions about the return of the Son of Man in Mk. 13.32 prepare for the prediction at the trial narrative in Mk. 14.62 where Jesus partially quotes Dan. 7.13. Here to the high priest who assumed he was judging Jesus and would have the last word about him, Jesus in effect turns the tables and says to the high priest—‘yes I am messiah, Son of God, but what you really need to know is that you will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds to a theater near you, judging you.’ What kind of person thinks that his own life will have an earthly sequel?

Now it will be noted that I have stuck carefully to our earliest witness Mark, and the Synoptics in this lecture without bringing the later Fourth Gospel into the discussion. This was intentional, but here is where I say that the Christological portrait of Jesus in Mark is hardly any less exalted than the one in John, its just differently focused. John famously does not give us an exorcism stories nor does he mention Jesus being an exorcist. But just as the first canonical Gospel raises the question--- what sort of person can get in a championship cage match with Satan and live to tell the tale, so the last Gospel raises the question, what sort of person thinks he came from God, and is ‘of God’? The claims are presented differently, but the end result is much the same. There is no canonical Gospel which does not present in a clearly heavenly light, all the while emphasizing his true humanity as well. In other words, there is no non- messianic Jesus to be found at the bottom of the well of historical inquiry. Like or not, Jesus made some remarkable claims for himself and his ministry, and it is the job of the historian not to explain the claims away, but rather to explain them.

As I draw this lecture to a close I would like to remind us all that who a person is, who a person claims to be, and who others say a person is can all be different things. The age old question--- ‘Who do you say that I am?’ is actually preceded by the historical question, who did Jesus think he was, and who did he claim to be? In my view there is continuity between Jesus’ self-understanding, his self-presentation, and the later theologizing that was done about Jesus. They are not identical things, but there is a historical continuum that binds these things together.

The earliest disciples after Easter had been Jesus’ disciples before Easter, and Easter, whatever it entailed, did not have the affect of creating massive amnesia on the part of these persons. This means that a historian has to explain how the high Christology of the church could have arisen after the unexpected and precipitous demise of Jesus through crucifixion. This conundrum becomes more puzzling, not less, for those who don’t believe in Jesus rising from the dead, than for those who do.

It was Martin Dibelius the old German form critic who said “one must posit a large enough X to explain how Easter faith could have arisen after the shaming and crucifixion of Jesus.” On any showing the crucifixion should have put an end to the Jesus movement once and for all, in an honor and shame culture like early Judaism. The disciples on the road to Emmaus in Lk. 24 were not heading for a spiritual retreat experience, they were leaving town with their tails between their legs mumbling “he had hoped (past tense) he was the one to redeem Israel”. Their actions spoke as loud as their words--- they had abandoned such hope, until fate, in the form of an appearance of a stranger, intervened. In my view, the X which Dibelius spoke of which bridges the life of Jesus and the rise of Christianity, must include the fact that Jesus made some exalted claims about himself directly and indirectly long before his disciples responded in kind. He is as Eduard Schweizer once said—“the man who fits no one modern formula”. In this regard, he was as much of an enigma as the visions he related to his followers. It appears it still take divine intervention from above to decode the man and his mysterious self-revelation, for “no one knows the Son except the Father” or so I’m told.


Anonymous said...

This is absolutely irrelevant to the real content, but I can't tell you how disappointed I am to hear just now that you were at my alma mater this past fall (Lincoln Christian). I've enjoyed hearing Francis Beckwith and J.P. Moreland at the Strauss lectures; as a longtime reader of this blog, I would've loved to have heard you speak. Bah.

James Garth said...

Excellent essay, thankyou so much for posting it!

Agus B. Sadewa said...

this is great, dr. ben. i heard from a friend that you will deliver a public lecture in jakarta, indonesia. is that right? that's my hometown.

ed said...

As an Asbury alumnus I can only say I wish I could have taken a class or two (or a dozen) under your leadership.

Ben Witherington said...

Indeed, several such lectures will I be giving there, God willing.


Unknown said...

Dear Ben - That was an outstanding lecture on Jesus the Seer that you gave this past year. Thanks for sharing it here.
I just have to encourage you to keep giving lectures like this, because the academic world puts so much pressure on scholars for novel analysis of the biblical texts that nothing is left unquestioned. Even academics who want to stay within orthodoxy can get quite "parched" for lack of scholarly encouragement like this.
I'm sure there were many scholars and students who found your lecture quite a worshipful experience. Please keep it up!
Blessings -
Leah Hokmah