Wednesday, April 29, 2009


What you see above is the visual equivalent to my book The Many Faces of the Christ which surveys the various images and titles of Jesus in all the NT witnesses.


Pigs are big in eastern N.C.. Shoot they are so big there are even pig parlors where they go to be beautified. But as we all know, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it will still be a pig.

Pigs of course are big in N.C. chiefly because of barbecue by which I mean hickory smoked pork (barbecue is not a verb, nor does it refer to cooking in general, nor are we talking about a sauce, nor does it involve any animal other than the divine swine). There has been a big pig scare lately due to swine flu, which is a serious matter but it has nothing to do with eating cooked pork chops, bacon, ham, or barbecue.

It has to do with kissin' a pig. So, our crack team of researchers, this time including Craig Beard, have spanned the globe (or at least spandexed the globe) to find ground Zero where this virus began, and this time we think we have found the culprit. It's not the little boy in Juarez Mexico. No, its Maybelle Alice Swope, age two and a half of Chittlin Switch N.C. (see below).

Let me explain what I have discovered. You see the Swope family are big fans of Sarah Palin. You will remember her Republican Convention speech about puttin' lipstick on a pig. Well, Maybelle took that to heart, and started do it with her favorite pig, Buster (yes he's a male pig, but he liked the orange-flavored lipstick). In fact Buster was so grateful for the lipstick that he began givin' Maybelle a kiss of thanks. The picture above is positive proof of the outcome.

I am happy to report that Maybelle, after a Tamiflu injection is doing fine, and the pig has gotten over his virus as well. However, we must be ever vigilant from now on about pig-kissin' babies.

Turns out as well that it is mostly older pigs that get this flu, so the eastern N.C. hog farmers may have to rethink their recent ad campaign which had as its slogan-- "We will serve no swine before its time".

Buster may soon however be expecting his date with destiny, and a one way trip to hog heaven.

And dat's all I got to say 'bout dat.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Meet Kevin Roose. He looks like your average nice college dude, and he is sitting in the pews in the chapel at Brown University. You may not have known Brown has a chapel, what with it being a bastion of liberalism, but it does. There is an interesting news piece about this young man who is a student at Brown but decided to go "behind enemy lines" and spy on the domain of Jerry Falwell for a semester, and write a story about his experience. Here is the link you should paste into your browser.

Now Kevin has written a book about his discoveries, entitled The Unlikely Disciple, and it is an unexpectedly interesting read. He may have gone to do an expose piece, but what he discovered was mostly good things. Yes, there were students who gossiped, and yes there were students doing the Facebook thing (oh no, not that!), and what he did not find was God's commandos planning another raid, or at least protest, at an abortion clinic. Well, the thing is, Liberty University today is a wildly more liberal place than it was twenty years ago (I jest) when I visited the child of one of my parishioners there to see how she was faring. I mean dating and public displays of affection are even allowed these days on campus-- what's the world coming to? Shoot Kevin even ended up singing in the choir at Thomas Road Baptist Church. And this brings me to the point of this post.

Though Kevin went clandestinely to Liberty, his book is actually pretty fair, and it is clear that his semester there had more good effect on him, than this book could have negative effect on Liberty. He prays regularly now and is considering joining a church.

And this brings me to a key point--- without pre-conditions, and without pre-conceptions we need to be welcoming at our Christian schools. I remember very well a conversation I had with President Harold Ockenga about 1975. He had told the admissions committee at Gordon-Conwell to allow a Mormon and a Jehovah's witness to enroll. This created something of a furor amongst some students and trustees. Was the school going liberal? Ockenga's response was right on target-- "Look, we are supposed to be able to share our faith and convert folks. And where better to do so then in a truly Christian school? If a Mormon comes here and isn't at all changed when he leaves, you have to wonder about how good a witnesses we are." Amen to that.

We need to stop being so self-protective and stop making fear-based decisions in our churches and schools. After all, our Bible says "greater is He who is in us, than any of those worldly forces". If we really believed that, it would change the way we do Christian education and church.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Meet the vermin, aka varmint, aka varmin. He is a fearsome critter, but his pelt is much in demand. And in fact, the fur industry has given this animal an extreme makeover, by taking away the first letter of his name. They call him the ermin. Don't be fooled by this P.R. move, they knew that the name vermin had negative connotations and would never sell. Their 'rebranding' is about as reliable as those labels inside of furs that say 100% pure mink or the like. The vermin has had an identity problem from the start because various people have used this term in a non-technical sense to refer to any creature that is a pest. For example, in Australia farmers call the wild rabbit a 'varmit'. No wonder the poor vermin is confused. Between misidentification and the rebranding of the fur industry anybody could be confused.

One of the great problems in nature is human interference. We are all the time taking species of animals outside their native habitats and placing them where they don't belong, where they have no natural enemies, and multiply too rapidly. Take for example the case of 'so-called' ermin wraps. One woman goes out to Needless Markup (my name for the store), and buys a shoulder wrap made of pure vermin fur. Next thing you know both her neighbors are envious and they want one too. Pretty soon they have proliferated prodigously all over the city, and there is no returning them to their native habitat, shoot you can even return them to Needless Markup. It becomes an epidemic. This explains the old southern expression 'a fur piece', as in they live a 'fur piece' from here. Contrary to what you think, this means 'living only the length of a fur wrap from me', and it is used as a unit of measurement because some folks measure themselves by how big a fur wrap they can afford to have. Imagine that, people measuring their worth by the expense of their possessions. What's the world coming to?

What is a vermin really? Its not a rabbit or a mouse, or an ordinary pest, its a long-tailed weasel. Need I tell you that the fur industry definitely couldn't sell weasel-wraps due to the negative connotation of the word weasel. So they weaseled out of that deal by calling it an ermin, or as the French prefer 'le ermine'. One place this weasel was introduced into is New Zealand, to control the rabbit population. But this had an unintended effect. The vermin took a likin' to kiwi fruit, and the whole country almost had to rename all their sports teams that they like to call the Kiwis. You can see what I mean about it being a mistake to take a critter out of its native habitat where it has natural predators after it.

In Europe in fact this critter has another name-- the stoat (no not the Stout, that's a beer, or at least a beer belly). One of the odd facts about this animal whose pelt is so widely loved, is that in fact it is a member of the SKUNK family. Yes, you heard me right, the skunk family. Can't you just hear someone saying "Don't you just love my new skunk-fur wrap?" To which the proper but impolite reply should be "No, it stinks if you ask me." The vermin/ermin/skunk is a noturnal creature, which explains the tendency to only wear the wrap to evening functions. But I must report to you a very alarming development. Now people are using the vermin for food.

Now I am not talking about the kind of folks who scrap up roadkill from the side of the highway and cook them. I have a tin of that I bought in Tennessee in my office, and I am not referring to that old Southern practice. No, I am referring to using weasel parts to make pasta! Yes, you read right--- pasta.

Perhaps you've heard of it--- vermincelli??? It's real thin, kind of like angel hair pasta, and I have been told that what it actually is is vermin whiskers that have been battered up and cooked into a hard yellowish consistency. Turns out the vermin can be both the meat and the noodles in your spaghetti if you so choose. Who knew? Meditate on these things, and take some action. Don't try and weasel out of your responsibility either. Just look at that picture at the top here and those fearsome teeth, and do the right thing, at night of course. Otherwise your spouse will notice when you snag her wrap out of her closet and take it to Goodwill.

Question from alert reader Kimberley from Vancouver B.C. Kimberley wants to know, where does the Easter bunny come from? Thanks for this question Kimberley, and I will resist telling you 'from the same place as Santa' because that would be a fib. In fact they come from Easter Island of course.


Ours is an age of hybrids. Hybrid cars, hybrid economies, hybrid vitamins and foods in general. It is thus not unexpected that there might be hybrid holiday food, in this case for Thanksgiving. Enter the turducken, one part turkey, one part duck, and apparently some chicken as well. Scientists have had theories about the origins of these rare birds, even though no one seems to have seen them in the wild. Here below is one scientific hypothesis on the matter.

Even cartoonists have gotten into the act speculating about how this hybrid creature originated and propagated.

Still, no one has been able to catch one glimpse much less of a photo of this animal in the wild, but we have some theories. For one thing talk about this bird only comes up in the fall--- during football season (although now a days ESPN seems to think every season is football season, even broadcasting spring practice games, so desperate are they to satiate the hunger of football fans). For another thing, the most famous football announcer who has regularly talked about this bird is a man who refuses to fly, riding around the nation in a tricked-out RV of considerable girth. I am referring to John Madden.

Madden has just suddenly retired, and I think I know why. His secret about the turducken was about to be exposed, because you see, that RV is in fact a rolling scientific lab, where experimentation has long gone on, on innocent animals, producing the turducken! Madden would ride along between games gathering up ducks, chickens, and turkeys in the fall, and putting them through his animal synthesizer. Though we never saw the process, we certainly saw the product and proof these shenanegins had been going on. Here is a shot of a cross-section of a turducken.

You can see perfectly well how the dark and light meet have been sectioned together in zones, an amazing feat of alchemy, and making it almost impossible for the picky person to be able to avoid eating both dark and light meet. Whilst there are some theories that the turducken originated in the kitchens of Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme, I assure you it is not so. Madden, the mad scientist, is at the bottom of this. If you wonder where he got his favorite expression "then BOOM, the quarterback got sacked....", the boom of course comes from him regularly experiencing explosions in the back of his RV whilst combining animals, using a modified farm combine.

I have little hope now that Madden will ever be caught and charged, especially in the wake of his sudden retirement. In fact, he is now making enough dough (figuratively speaking) from his Madden NFL game to be able to retire. And I have heard rumors as well that he has cut a deal with the NFL commish as well. You thought all those footballs were really made of pigskin? Certainly not! The skin of a football is much too dark to have come from a pig. No, in fact over the last ten years it has been the hides of turduckens that have been used! This may explain why so many field goals have gone wide right, because when a turducken tries to fly with the will of a chicken, the mind of a duck, and the wings of a turkey, it flies in wobbly fashion for sure. But there is more. Look closely at the laces on the football. Notice they are no longer made of cloth or string, but rather of some kind of hide or leather. I'm think it is the turkey gobblet that hangs down that has been made the sacrificial source. Enough for now, next episode we must investigate that most famous of all sly creatures--- vermin, or as it is known in the South, the Varmint.

Question d'Jour from Bubba in Chittlin' Switch N.C. Does the turducken produces as much tryptophan, that sleep-inducing drug, as the turkey does? Answer: No, far less which is why Madden was trying to substitute it for the turkey at Thanskgiving, to improve the football ratings on the Thursday afternoon NFL games on Turkey Day. What would the Pilgrims say!!!

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Meet the spamster. He is native to small islands in the south Pacific, including Hawaii. The spamster is a cute little fellow who starts out without ears, and then grows little pointy ones, the better to hear the commands of his master when its time to stand up, roll over, play dead, or in general, look cute. When he is fully grown the spamster tends to be somewhat long and lanky, a sort of skinnier version of the chihuahua. The spamster is a carnivor who loves to eat chicken, ham, barbecue, but not beef. The cows in the Chick-Fil-A commercial think he's cool and are thinking of starring him in a future episode. Because the spamster only eats chicken and lean pork products, he is svelt and has very flexible muscle tissue produces a wonderfully flexible chewy meat product---- called SPAM. And you thought that spam was simply bad email. Wrong. Its a whole food group. Perhaps whilst perambulating through the grocery store you have come across a can of SPAM.

Little did you realize how many spamsters had to be slaughtered to produce just one can of bright pink, chewy spam. One estimate puts it at 13. Yikes. Now spam is a truly versatile food. So versatile that there are whole Spam cookbooks, and indeed Spam creation contests. For example, here below you will find an Ipod Shuffle created out of spam! Who knew!

Spam is especially popular in Hawaii, and anthropologists hypothesize this is because the natives hunted the spamster to near extinction for many centuries on the island of Molokai. Not surprisingly, the spamster jumped on some steamers heading west to the Orient, only to discover that their tasty meat was even more popular in places like Hong Kong where you can get Spam-musabi--- no lie, see below.

But that is hardly all. Spam has become not only the breakfast of champions, but the inspiration of poets in Japan, so it is no surprise at all that we have Spam Haiku. You think I jest??? Take a look.

It is hardly a surprise then that those latter day saints of comedy, the Monty Python troop picked up on the legendary potential of this food, and created a suitable epic to memorialize it--- SPAMALOT of course. I can hear them singing now-- "A law was made a distant moon ago here. July and August shall not be too hot, and there's a legal limit to the snow here... in SPAMALOT."

All of this attention of course has led to a comeback in America of SPAM after a brief lull. In hard economic times SPAM is very useful, as it has a shelf life of a millenium, even if the can is open :) And for harried housewives or househusbands, the answer to the call, what's for dinner, has increasingly been--- fried or pickled, or baked SPAM, or SPAM sandwiches. Notice the following ad.

But take a moment to have some pity on the poor spamster. These days their meat is in so much demand,especially the female meat which is chewier, that there are hardly any spamster spinsters in the known world. This is a sad irony, because the truth is-- there is no content to SPAM. Its filling because its all made of filler. The truth is that SPAM in a can contains only 10% actual spamster meat. The rest is unmentionable, undesirable, and unconsumable filler. Rather like the spam you get on your computer. So once more, please write Pres. Obama and ask him, not least since he is a native of Hawaii, to put the spamster on the endangered species list. Unfortunately I gather he is not all that sympathetic to this cause, judging from what was served at a recent White House lawn picnic for under-privileged children (see below).

Speaking of children, Suzie from Sagebrush Gulch in Wyoming has written asking for an explanation as to why sheep are so dumb. Well Suzie its a sad, and even sexist tale. It appears that female sheep are smarter than rams, so some smart scientists decided to take what little gray matter a sheep could spare and inject it into the brain of the ram, so he would have more ram memory, and would stop butting things he had just butted five seconds before. The goal was to create less senior moments in rams, but like all such messing with God's creation and creatures, this experiment went terribly awry. Unfortunately what happened is that it made the ram remember how much it enjoyed mating with sheep, whilst the sheep forgot what happened to her the last time this occured, and so there has become a bumper crop of dumb sheep being bred, and appearing now all over the world. Its gotten so bad that in the Lake District in England sheep won't get out of the road even if being bitten by the sheep dog. Sad, just sad.

In our next episode of Fractured Fairy Tales from the Farm, we must turn our attention a holiday creation--- John Madden's Turduckin.

Friday, April 24, 2009


The life of a mentally ill person is messy, and difficult, and often heart-rending. And what is interesting about such a person is that it is by no means simply a matter of some chemical imbalance in the brain, though that can be a large part of the problem. There is plenty of clinical evidence to support the view that a mentally ill person can live a much more normal life with plenty of love and friendship, indeed there is even evidence that such relationships can go some distance to change the chemical imbalances in the brain. Imagine that. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and are at the end of the day, psycho-somatic wholes, who are often far from whole. And of course as a culture gets more ill, people get more ill as well, and the ones who most often go down for the count first are the sensitive souls--- musicians, poets, artists, the one's who live out of the life of the soul and express in words or musical sounds. When the world is sick and fallened and abnormal, what then counts as normal, any more?

One such person with largeness of soul is Mr. Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. Yes, he is a real person, and the movie 'the Soloist' attempts to tell the story of some of his life, which to say the least is still a work in progress, but then that is true of all of us. Played by Jamie Foxx with empathy and sympathy and conviction (an Oscar worthy performance) this story, while hard to watch, is not hard to get emotional about. Most of us have had someone in our lives who at some juncture needed serious counseling, or medicine, or both because they were, or were becoming mentally unwell. What makes Mr. Ayers' story all the more remarkable is that he was and is a musician gifted by God with a rare talent for playing music--- in this case primarily stringed instruments. And Steve Lopez (played well by Robert Downey Jr.), exceptional columnist for the L.A. Times has chronicled his life first in columns and then in the form of a book. Here is a glimpse of the real Mr. Ayers...

The movie is as moving as such a disjointed and painful life can be, and indeed it gives glimmers of hope. I honestly don't understand those reviewers who don't get this movie simply because in form as well as continuity it seeks to tell the tale in a manner that suggests the incompleteness and messiness and troubling aspects of the story. This man has not led and is not leading a nice and tidy life, nor is it all happily ever after in the end. Authenticity rather than fantasy is what the director seems to be striving for and capturing. So, for about two hours one walks a mile with Mr. Ayers, and with his 'friend' Mr. Lopez. Mr. Lopez is not spared criticism in this movie, for indeed he did not originally set out to be a friend, he set out to write a remarkable story. And there is indeed a Christian under-current to the movie, ranging from the way the cello teacher is portrayed to the way Mr. Ayers prays the Lord's prayer, but in his less lucid moments thinks Mr. Lopez is either God or Neil Diamond (what a juxtaposition--- I can hear 'Brother Love's Salvation Show playing now in my head). There is also an interesting interview scene with an atheist where the atheist admits-- "its hard to build community around having something you don't believe in common." For sure.

Mr. Ayers has a profound and abiding love for Beethoven, and this movie shows over and over how, as Shakespeare once said, "music soothes the savage breast" even of a mentally ill person. Beauty, real beauty can do that. It can take you far from your troubles and even draw you close to God. And make no mistake, when you have become ill whilst becoming a world class cellist at Julliard, and then crashing and burning completely, you definitely need a little help from above. I must say I like Mr. Ayers taste in music. He goes for the best. But he had become a street person, a person of no fixed address, a person cast aside as the flotsam on the sea of life. This story is more about learning how to become less selfish and more loving and more friendly even towards those hard to love than it is about music however. This story reminded me of the story of a famous hymnist who lived early in the twentieth century and was incarcerated due to his mental illness. The story goes that he, Mr. F.M. Lehman, died in his confined cell, having written on the padded walls the following words...

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry.

If that verse is the mark of an unhinged mind, then we need more unhinged minds in this world.

Had Jesus lived in L.A. in my life time, Mr. Ayers is surely one of the people he would have spent time with. And so should we. Go see this movie, but take a box of kleenex with you. "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for..."

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Meet the Nauga, a species not of gerbil, hamster or guinea pig but of its own, and indigenous to America! The Nauga is known for its bug-eyes. The Nauga, unfortunately today, the day after Earth Day, has to be reported as an endangered species, oddly enough endangered by the Barca Lounger.

You see it takes an enormous amount of pelts to produces a naugahyde couch or reclining chair. In fact Sam van Pelt and Joe Hyde from PETA reckon that it takes over 1,000 Nauga's hides to produce such a product. The plight of the Nauga was recently brought to national attention by the Disney film 'Bedtime Stories', in which a genuine Nauga masqueraded as a guinea pig and family pet. It was an Oscar worthy performance but sadly there is no animal category at the Oscars.

Where do Nauga's come from? They appear to have originated in the northern peninsula of Michigan which explains why it is that so many loungers and recliners have historically been made in Michigan, including Lazy Boy Recliners.

The Nauga, interestingly enough is actually a carnivor, preferring cheese burgers to all other foods, which explains why the Nauga tends to be portly. Ranging in color from brown to white and splotchy versions in between, it is estimated that today there are less than 500 Nauga's still out there in their native habitat. This is of course why the latest PETA campaign to save the Nauga from being hunted to extinction involves printed bumper stickers which read in large black letters NAUGA! HIDE! Unfortunately Nauga are illiterate.

Sadly the Nauga has not yet been put on the endangered species list, but President Obama made a campaign promise whilst stopping to garner votes from environmentally conscious "Yoopers" (that's Upper Penisula folk for the unenlightened) to get right on having the Nauga listed.

Unlike the hamster or gerbil or domestic mice, the Nauga is not good on treadmills, which also helps explain its portly physique. In fact the Nauga likes nothing so much as to lie around all day, swilling beer and eating cheese burgerettes-- BK burger bites being a new favorite. Female Nauga's apparently are very turned on to male Naugas with BK Burger bites in their paws.

The Nauga has in fact become so domesticated that one can regularly find them dumpster-diving with the opossums behind a Wendy's or a Burger King. Their current favorite flick is 'Super-Size Me'. I suppose it is sort of poetic justice in the 'you become what you eat' category that Naugas who like to lounge around are being made into naugahyde loungers.

What is to be done to save the little Nauga? My suggestion would be to stop buying naugahyde chairs and loungers altogether. Go for the straight plastic ones like good and smart-shopping red necks usually buy. Plastic at least does not come from a harmless little animal, and as we all know, plastic, like cockroaches, endures forever, so its good value for money and can be passed down for generations.

In our next episode we intend to tackle another animal worry--- namely why are sheep so dumb! Hint: Someone, as of yet unidentified, is stealing their ram memory. Also, we will address where SPAM comes from, and why Hawaiians eat so much of it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Alec Garrard is a farmer, but he had a dream (not to be confused with a field of dreams). Alec has worked for more than 30 years to create a full and accurate model of Herod's Temple. His version of the Temple is so impressive that some of the world’s top archaeologists and experts from the British Museum have come to view it. The pictures speak for themselves. See what you think. BW3

Monday, April 20, 2009

All That Jazz--- in Daytona Beach

My sister Laura and I are musicophiles. To say we are music lovers is to say too little its closer to music-aholics ('Hi my name is Ben, and its been 21 days since I bought my last CD'). We were raised on the piano bench (our mother is a pianist and piano teacher) and so we were always going to concerts-- mostly classical, until I finally convinced my mother that Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass were not leading us all down the prime rose path to musical destruction. Of course, I wasn't going to take her to a Rolling Stones concert :)

But I digress. Over the years, my sister and I have gone to many concerts, rock, classical, and in the last twenty or so years, mostly jazz, as rock has waned, and you have to be in a major city to see a really good symphony most of the time.

So this past Thursday I flew down to see my Sis in Jacksonville and we went to the Daytona Beach International Festival (whose motto is 'Face the Music') with a wide variety of acts, mostly classical and jazz. We had tickets to concerts on Thursday and Friday night to see first Chris Botti and his band, and then the Yellowjackets with a stellar guest guitar player, Mike Stern.

I have, and have listened to, various Chris Botti CDs, most of which are decidedly in the smooth jazz or even pop category, and so I was mildly amused at his comment during the concert in which he distinguished himself from Kenny G, the ultimate snooze time smooth jazz artists. But then something unexpected happened--- I went to what I expected to be a smooth/snooze jazz concert, and a real jazz concert broke out.

This was in part because Botti had an incredible back up band-- including the ever funky Mark Whitfield on guitar and the Grammy winning Billy Childs on piano, plus a wunderkind on drums and a better than average bass player. The result was much jazzier versions of the Botti repotoire.

And in addition there was another surprise--- Botti appears on his CDs, and when he plays with Sting as a quiet, cool, sophisticated dude. Who knew he was Mister Entertainment in concert? He was alternately funny, playful, self-deprecating, and warm. When a group of people sitting down front waltzed in 30 minutes late he called them out, and then proceeded to play tiny samples of what they missed. It was hilarious. Boy were they put in their place. I must confess I really hate it when people come in late to good concerts, almost as much as I hate people talking loudly either on their cell or in person, especially during a quiet number. Why don't they have bouncers at concerts for rude and crude people who have no respect for the music, the musicians, or those who actually came to hear the music? I'm just sayin'....

The concert Friday night was vintage Yellowjackets who are still on top of their game and have added a whole new wrinkle with Mike Stern. Now Mike Stern is a very impressive jazz guitarist, who often sounds very much like early Pat Metheny, and that's the best compliment anyone could give him. He's a fine ensemble player as well. The Yellowjackets played mostly their new CD which features Stern. Speaking of featuring, it is mighty hard not to focus on Jimmy Haslip, the astonishing bass player (six string bass strung backwards as he plays it left handed), who is always impressive. He made Botti's bass player look very ordinary indeed. One of the highlights of the evening was Mintzer's long tour de force exploration of a ballad on the ewi, a truly versatile electronic woodwind instrument of sorts.

One of the more interesting aspects of these two concerts is that while the Yellowjackets drew a smaller but more knowledgeable jazz crowd, Botti attracted a lot of middle aged and older women who came to swoon over Botti and his love tunes. Chris was gracious, but it was funny to see all these women swooning over a much younger man who obviously was not interested in anything but playing and having fun, and being a good entertainer.

Nevertheless, a good time was had by all, and I can certainly commend the new Yellowjackets CD with Mike Stern, called Life Cycle. Its mighty good straight ahead jazz in a Yellowjackets kind of style, and no, they did not pay me to say this.

Bart Interrupted--- A detailed Analysis of 'Jesus Interrupted'--- Coda

In the first part of Chapter Six Bart Ehrman rehearses for us some of his major conclusions to his earlier work, Misquoting Jesus. Since I have responded to that elsewhere (see e.g. my Gospel Code book, and earlier blogs) I will not repeat myself here. The point Bart wants to stress, to which I do not object, is that some of the textual variants in our Greek NT manuscripts are theologically significant. Again, he cites 1 John 5. 7-8, which if deleted, deletes one discussion of the Trinity in the NT. He then goes on to add, that the response to his saying this is not in the original text is that the notion of the Trinity can be found elsewhere in the NT (see e.g. Mt 28). In my view, both the deity of Christ and the Trinity are notions that are clearly in various NT texts, but these ideas are equally clearly only more fully developed later in church history, at various ecumenical councils and elsewhere. Bart admits that “every single Christian doctrine” (p. 186) can be found in Scripture without appealing to textually debated or dubious ideas. If this is so, then it is of course right to ask the question--- What’s the big deal about textual variants if no essential Christian doctrine is at risk of being read out of the canon due to textual uncertainty? Well, in this book I think Bart makes clearer that the issue is that some textual variants are of theological significance, and as such we should not ignore this fact. I am fine with this point, but what this means is that the “sky is falling” approach to textual variants does no justice to the actual situation. I don’t lose any sleep over whether Lk. 22.43-44 is canonical or not, since of course the Passion of Christ can be found elsewhere in the Gospels. Bart is right that it matters to getting an accurate assessment of Luke’s portrayal of Christ as to whether these verses are original or not, but that is the only way it really matters.

The bigger issue that Bart wants to raise is of course how one could think the Bible as we have it is the inspired Word of God when, 1) this concept is limited to the original autographs of the Bible, and 2) we don’t have them any more, and anyway 3) the canon of Scripture was compiled by fallible human beings, not by God. For him, the deeper theological problem here is why God would allow us to lose the original manuscripts if it was so important to have the inspired Word of God. This is a perfectly appropriate question, and it deserves a fair answer. If we wanted to give a theological answer, we could immediately remind the reader of the problem with golden calves… namely in the hands of fallen human beings they tend to get worshipped. It is entirely believable to me that God allowed things to go as they did in regard to the original manuscripts of the Bible to prevent mistaking the means for the end, and even worshipping the means, by which I mean the original autographs of the Bible. In other words, bibliolatry, the worship of a perfect book, was and is a real possibility for fallen human beings. But in fact a more historical answer is possible. The Bible is not a book written by God (apart ostensibly e.g. from something like the ten commandments), it is a book written by human beings inspired by God, and there is a difference. More to the point the Bible, after the time of the original inspired authors, was transcribed by non-inspired and often not very inspiring scribes! They made numerous mistakes in copying, and sometimes they also made deliberate changes. Bart is right about this, but he is also right that no essential Christian doctrine hangs on these variants at all. There is a difference between a theologically significant textual variant, and a theologically crucial or world-changing one. And there aren’t really any of the latter out there to be worrying about. The Bible as we have it is an ever more close approximation of what was originally given. The good news is today, as Metzger says we know with a high degree of certainty what about 92% of the Greek NT originally said, and no crucial doctrine hangs on the other 8%. Indeed we have over 5,000 mss. of the Greek NT in whole or in part, and this is frankly far more and better evidence than we have for any other document of comparable antiquity. And we keep finding more such fragments and documents, which leads us closer and closer to the original text. It would be nearer to the truth to say that textual criticism actually helps confirm our faith and understanding in the original text and what it said, than deconstructs such a faith, because as it turns out in the vast majority of cases of importance, the scribes faithfully represented what was originally written.

So in the end, as it actually turns out, textual criticism is not in the main where I would disagree with Bart about most things. It is rather his reading of early Christian history that is fundamentally problematic. Consider for example the banner headline on p. 191—‘The Wild Diversity of the Early Christian Church’. Which church are we referring to? The church of the first century A.D. or thereafter? It doesn’t much matter to the discussion of the NT canon if there was considerably more diversity in the church in the second and subsequent centuries of Christian history, when in fact no books in the NT canon were written in or came from the period after A.D. 100. It is not really of much relevance to the discussion of the NT to talk about the Marcionites or the Gnostics when no such groups existed in the first century A.D. and we have no hard historical evidenced to suggest they did. Even in the case of the Ebionites, the NT itself bears witness to no such extant group, and no NT document refers to them or seeks to correct or rebut them. If they existed in the NT era, it would seem they were either so tiny or insignificant that they did not call for mention or rebuttal even by notably argumentative types like Paul who ran into all types of Christians in his travels. The problem for Bart is a fundamental historical assumption that he has by no means demonstrated, namely that the diversity one finds in the second century and subsequent centuries of the church already existed in the first century A.D. even when it comes to radical theological and ethical diversity. What we do find however in the NT documents is already a concept of heresy and its condemnation. This is not a surprise when all the NT documents were written by conservative Jews or their co-workers, such as Luke. So, again, it is not helpful nor is it convincing to chronicle heretical movements from the 2nd and subsequent centuries and either assume: 1) they already existed in the NT era, or 2) that the first century church must have been as diverse as that of subsequent eras. In fact, the evidence suggests this was not so, and Bart’s attempt to find dueling apostles and apostolic movements evidenced in the NT is weak at best, and I have dealt with it in previous posts in this series. So far as the first century church was concerned there was only two groups--- the proto-orthodox ones, and the heretics who had not yet become full-fledged movements like later Gnosticism. The proto-orthodox group does not begin in the second century with Irenaeus or Tertullian and the like, it begins with Paul, and Peter and Mark and others in the first century. Irenaeus and others are simply running with the ball the apostles and their co-workers handed them. They are certainly not the inventors of Biblical orthodoxy, and they would strongly protest any such suggestions were they here to do so.

Perhaps the most serious error in the discussion in Chapter Six is the assumption that ‘the proto-orthodox’ sat around and decided which books ought to be in their corpus of sacred texts and which not. The historical truth is quite otherwise. There was never a time when any Gnostic texts were ever included in a list of sacred texts, either a list like the Muratorian canon list in the second century A.D., or even the list of the heretic Marcion. The notion that the situation was open ended until the 4th century, or even that some heretical books were ‘in’ until they were excluded in the 4th century is historically false. There were indeed some extra books considered for inclusion amongst the sacred texts—books like the Shepherd of Hermas, or even the Apocalypse of Peter. What is notable about such books is that they were basically theologically and ethically consonant with the books from the NT period. No books from any Gnostic collection, or Ebionite collection were ever considered for inclusion in the NT, and with good reason. The criteria for being considered a sacred text, as already manifested in the Bishop Sarapion controversy in the second century over the Gospel of Peter were: 1) apostolicity (they had to be written by apostles) and/or; 2) eyewitnesses or co-workers of eyewitnesses. This in effect meant that the canon was closed of necessity by the end of the NT era, because no apostles or eyewitnesses survived beyond that period or wrote any documents beyond that period of time. I have dealt with this issue of canon and canon lists at great length in The Gospel Code, and in my forthcoming book What’s In a Word? (Baylor), so I will not belabor the point here. What happened in the 4th century was the recognition of the books which had already and indeed always been considered apostolic with very little debate ( 2-3 John and Revelation are partial exceptions, for there was some debate about them, especially about Revelation because Eusebius and others did not like its eschatology). One of the mistakes Bart makes when it comes to a manuscript like Codex Alexandrinus is the assumption that just because a book is included in a codex, it must be assumed to be considered canonical. Wrong. Such codexes are mini-libraries of collected and valuable books deemed to be orthodox. That 1 and 2 Clement is included in this codex merely means that someone thought it was valuable Christian literature that was not heretical. Codex Alexandrinus or Sinaiticus are not canon lists. They are approved reading samples. Already in the second century we see with Bishop Serapion a difference between what was approved for reading by Christians, and what would be read from the pulpit and preached on. The former corpus of books is larger than the latter. The notion of a 4th century power play, instigated in part by Constantine in order to determine the canon and what was orthodox Christianity is a very poor reading of what actually happened at the Council of Nicaea. The canon of 27 books was recognized later in the 4th century, not at Nicaea when Constantine was present, and I use the word recognized advisably. The church in Africa, Asia and in the West recognized these 27 books as our NT, which is pretty amazing since they disagreed on other important issues such as church polity. But they did so because they understood that the proper criteria for recognition was that these source books are either apostolic or eyewitness in origins. And as such they had to come from the very beginnings of Christianity, and could not include later fictions and forgeries. And in my view, the NT certainly does not include such books, nor were heterodox books ever considered for inclusion in the canon. And this rule thus applies—a book can not be said to be excluded from a canon that it was never included in, in the first place. You will look in vain for lists that include any Gnostic texts in early Christian canon lists.

At the end of the day, Bart Ehrman continues to do Christians a good service, as he makes them examine their unexamined assumptions about early Christianity, the origins of the Bible, and other related subjects. The fact that many of us would disagree with his historical analysis is not because we are reading the Bible devotionally and he is reading it as a historian. No, the difference is because we disagree about the history itself and what conclusions are warranted from a critical analysis of the history. My point would be that Bart Ehrman is entitled to his opinion but he does not speak for the majority of ancient historians when it comes to the New Testament, though he certainly speaks for a growing and ever-more vocal group amongst those historians. Bart Ehrman speaks for himself, and my concern would be to make clear that there are thousands of good and critical NT scholars of some faith or no faith who would disagree with his conclusions. The issue here is not faith vs. critical thinking, or devotional reading of the Bible vs. scholarly reading of the Bible. The issue is what sort of critical reading of early Christian history and its texts is warranted by the evidence, and indeed which view is more open minded about what counts as evidence, and what does not. In my view, Bart unnecessarily brackets out in advance too much of the data as ‘mythical’ or ‘miraculous’ which leads to skewed conclusions on various fronts. And this is sad, because Bart Ehrman is a fine writer, and lecturer and debater and an increasingly influential one. One can hope he will continue the conversation and his mind may change on some of these matters.

In the meantime, it is important to stress in conclusion that Bart Ehrman is not the voice of the critical consensus on the NT. He could be called the popular voice of one particular more liberal or radical interpretation of the data. BW3

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Assessing the "State of Play"

It has been a while since Russell Crowe had a real stellar performance in a movie, but this movie shows he is not losing his edge. Playing with an all star cast (especially the fabulous Helen Mirren) Crowe raises his game to the level of the story, and a very timely one as well. Here is a movie I can happily recommend which will actually make you think and pay attention (imagine that).

Remember Blackwater, the private defense subcontractor used by our previous administration to perform various tasks in Iraq? Well you should, because there was all sorts of bad stuff going down with those folks, and this movie in fact takes on the subject of mercenaries for hire, with the U.S. government as the employer. These folks make billions, meanwhile we barely pay our own soldiers a decent wage, and leave them in substandard hospitals when they come home--- shameful.

Anyway, this movie is not an ordinary thriller, not just because of the aforementioned theme, but also because of the timely discussion of the demise of hard news, both on TV and in the dying newspaper industry as well. Instead we have "MUFFY at 9 will discuss why she is mad as Hades about how little dog Froo Froo was stolen from a Hollywood car. What's the world coming to?" Or abrasive in your face shock commentator will foam at the mouth about how our country is being taken over by the "New World Order" (n.b. those words add up to 666 if you count in Roman numerals :). You get my point. Real journalism and hard news is dying--- and it is a story worth telling and complaining about, because real reporting is part of the life blood of democracy and the free spread of information. It has to do not merely with freedom of speech, but with the preservation of democracy, not to mention truth. Back to the movie.

This movie lasts 2 hours and 12 minutes, but you would never know it as it flies by there is so much suspense. Crowe plays an Irish American old school reporter, paired up with the new wave blogger (with a brain) played by Rachel McAdams. Mirren is the senior editor of the Washington Globe, a paper desperately trying to become profitable once more. Into the mix comes one Congressman Stephen Collins, a 'show horse' for his party who is tasked with being the lead on a Congressional hearing committee deciding whether a particular defense contractor company should be award billions in contracts to do our dirty work for us. Ben Affleck plays this role, and I have to say--- its the first time I've actually seen him do some acting of note, though he is completely outshone by Crowe and others in the film. The point is, he is better than adequate in this film, which is an improvement. There's some hope for him as an actor.

The story is set spinning in motion by the sudden death of Collins female aide, with who he was having an affair, suspicion is focused on Collins himself. But as it turns out, all is by no means as it seems, and the story plays out in some surprising ways, including an ending I certainly did not forsee, and you should go see.

Here is the summary of the plot from Universal---

Oscar® winner Russell Crowe leads an all-star cast in a blistering thriller about a rising congressman and an investigative journalist embroiled in a case of seemingly unrelated, brutal murders. Crowe plays D.C. reporter Cal McAffrey, whose street smarts lead him to untangle a mystery of murder and collusion among some of the nation’s most promising political and corporate figures in State of Play, from acclaimed director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland).

Handsome, unflappable U.S. Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is the future of his political party: an honorable appointee who serves as the chairman of a committee overseeing defense spending. All eyes are upon the rising star to be his party’s contender for the upcoming presidential race. Until his research assistant/mistress is brutally murdered and buried secrets come tumbling out.

McAffrey has the dubious fortune of both an old friendship with Collins and a ruthless editor, Cameron (Oscar® winner Helen Mirren), who has assigned him to investigate. As he and partner Della (Rachel McAdams) try to uncover the killer’s identity, McAffrey steps into a cover-up that threatens to shake the nation’s power structures. And in a town of spin-doctors and wealthy politicos, he will discover one truth: when billions are at stake, no one’s integrity, love or life is ever safe. --© Universal Pictures

If you like thrillers at all, this is a good one to see. It is not a movie filled with sex and violence with a threadbare plot. Indeed, the challenge was to whittle the plot down to manageable size since it had been an eight part British mini-series. But the larger reason to go see this movie is because of the disturbing trends it points to in our culture--- the death of real journalism, and the disturbing rise of collusion between government and private contracts, in part coupled with the rise of the deleterious effect of lobbyists on our whole political process, including the assigning of lucrative defense contracts. I do not know what the answers are to these problems, but they are serious problems, and we need to care about them. Full merits to 'State of Play' for raising the right questions, even though it provides us with few answers, other than suggesting we should return to old school reporting and news.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

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

In chapter five of his book, Bart Ehrman sketches out a basic narrative of the historical process which led to the production of the Gospels. I do not really disagree much with him about either the dating of the Gospels, or the Synoptic problem (i.e. the relationship of Matthew, Mark and Luke), but where I would have serious disagreements is with his analysis of the historical process that led to the production of the Gospels. In essence the difference is this—he imagines a long chain of oral tradition, involving the telling of these narratives by many people who were not eyewitnesses, which eventually led to the writing down of these traditions by others who were neither eyewitnesses nor in touch with eyewitnesses. By this means he seeks to explain what he sees as the many discrepancies in the Gospels. Besides the fact that this analysis is based on some enormous unproven assumptions, it in fact goes flatly against both the internal and external evidence we have about the matter. Let me illustrate, starting with Lk. 1.1-4.

In Lk. 1.1-4, Luke tells us that he had observed, for a long time the “things which have happened amongst us” and more crucially he says that many had compiled a written account of things before he did. In addition, and most crucially he adds that he had consulted eyewitnesses and the original preachers of the Gospel message. On the prima facie showing of this preface to his Gospel what would it be reasonable to deduce about the gap between Luke and the original Gospel events? Was he writing at a time or a place so far removed from the original events that he could not consult those who were actually eyewitnesses of these things? Unless one wants to claim Luke is simply telling a lie, which few scholars would do, Luke is telling us that while he himself is not an eyewitness of the life of Jesus, nevertheless he knew and had consulted those who were, and used them as sources in his work. We must also conclude that he had written sources, which he calls ‘many’. I suspect he means Mark, perhaps a written collection of Jesus’ sayings (‘Q’), and perhaps Matthew as well, and there may have been other sources as well. Now it is the consensus of most scholars that Luke is the latest of the Synoptic writers, using Mark, and possibly knowing Matthew as well, but in any case later than Matthew. He probably wrote sometime in the 70s, or possibly even the 80s. This reminds us of an important point. There were still eyewitnesses around to be consulted until the very end of the first century, as Papias tells us, for he consulted a couple of them in the early second century.

Now if Luke indeed consulted eyewitnesses and written sources, then the myth of a long chain of oral tradition with many weak links cannot stand close scrutiny. But there is in addition external evidence as well on this matter from a reliable tradition in Papias. It says the following:

"And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he [i.e. Peter] remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he [Mark] neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, and formed his [Peter’s] instructions into chreiae, but with no intention of giving a complete narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements."
Now the presbyter in this statement is the man Papias calls John the elder. This is not John Zebedee, whom Papias had not met, but rather John of Patmos, who himself had been in touch with the earlier eyewitnesses, including the Beloved Disciple. If you want this statement by Papias properly unpacked at length, read Richard Bauckham’s excellent treatment of it in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and if you want a lengthy critique of Ehrman’s myth about long and weak chains of oral tradition see my critique of James Dunn’s Jesus Remembered, forthcoming in my What’s in a Word?. Here it must be sufficient to say that Mark was the interpreter and translator of Peter. What the Greek text of this passage suggests is that Peter often spoke in Aramaic, and Mark translated for him, and this included translating various stories about Jesus and his words and deeds into Greek. This explains a good deal about the Gospel of Mark (not least its various parenthetical translations of Aramaic words). Jesus spoke in Aramaic and so did Peter. Mark was more skilled in Greek than Peter.

Now Papias tells us that Mark had no intention to give a full or completely chronological account of the life of Jesus, but simply to present some of the salient memoirs of Peter. He also tells us that Mark formed these narratives into chreiae, the rhetorical form for a persuasive short story that normally ended with a bang with either a notable saying of the hero, or a notable action of the hero. What this tradition tells us of course is that there is no long oral tradition gap between the events in the life of Jesus and Mark’s Gospel--- Peter himself is the missing link. And here it is worth adding that it is highly unlikely that the second century church, so enamoured with apostolic and eyewitness testimony, would have made up the notion that two of our earliest Gospels were written by non-apostles and non-eyewitnesses like Mark and Luke, who on the very showing of the NT itself were minor figures in early Christianity, not major ones. To this of course we could add the testimony about the Fourth Gospel from John 21 which says explicitly that the Beloved Disciple was an eyewitness of some of the events in Jesus’ life, that he wrote down his own memoirs, and that later the community collected them and composed what we call John’s Gospel. I would suggest the reason it is called that is because it was in fact John of Patmos who, having returned to Ephesus from exile, was the one who collected and edited the Beloved Disciple’s material. This is the same John who wrote Revelation and whom Papias had met.

There are other points in Chapter Five that need to be challenged: 1) the notion that Paul tells us nothing about Jesus or his words and deeds. In fact every Pauline scholar I know would say this is false. Not only because he can recite the tradition passed down to him about the last supper (1 Cor., 11), or the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor 15), but also because with some regularity he draws on the teaching of Jesus (see 1 Cor. 7, and Rom. 12 and Gal. 6 for example). Furthermore, in his earliest letter, Galatians, Paul tells us he went to Jerusalem more than once and consulted the three pillars of the Jerusalem church James, John, and Peter (Gal. 1-2). You may be sure that the subject of the many conversations included Jesus and his words and deeds. 2) Amazingly, Bart Ehrman serves up warmed over Albert Schweitzer and his largely discredited theories about Jesus, from over a century ago, not only in Bart’s own book on Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, but again here in this book. Schweizter to his credit was right that Jesus’ message and mindset was eschatological and prophetic, but he was quite wrong that Jesus thought the world was definitely ending in his lifetime and completely wrong that Jesus predicted the world would end within a generation. We have already dealt with this in a previous post (see e.g. Mk. 13.32). The fact that Ehrman ignores the numerous critiques of Schweitzer’s theories in most other recent detailed scholarly works on Jesus (see e.g. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, or Flusser’s Jesus as Sage, or my Jesus the Sage, and Jesus the Seer, or John Meir’s massive multi-volumes on Jesus a Marginal Jew, or A.J. Levine’s A Misunderstood Jew and there are many more), is frankly just not responsible scholarship. Of course the masses who read Ehrman’s book don’t realize that most Jesus scholars would disagree with him about this, because of course their works have not appeared in such popular form as this easy to read book. 3) on p. 174 we come to a statement which explains much, historians are unable to discuss miracles. He says this because he believes “there cannot be historical evidence for a miracle” (p. 175). This of course depends on what counts as evidence. I do not frankly see the evidence for ancient or modern miracles as any different than the evidence for other sorts of events. We should use the same criteria to evaluate all historical claims--- multiple attestation by reliable witnesses, and the like, which criteria Bart lists. A miracle, like any other historical event is a unique event. It does not differ from other historical events in this respect. This is of course why any historical event differs from a repeatable laboratory chemical experiment.

And this brings me to the issue of the study of history as opposed to the study of nature. The form is largely an analytical art, the latter is a science which involves empirical experimentation. It is a mistake to see the study of any ancient historical event as a “science”. It isn’t because historical events are by definition unrepeatable one time occurrences. It is equally a mistake, and this is where Bart’s definition of a historian goes sadly awry, to assume either that: 1) we know all the laws of nature, or 2) that they cannot be accelerated or transcended by the God of nature. At a minimum, even a skeptical historian must allow that remarkable and inexplicable things do happen in history, things not explicable by modern science. This is no knock on science, but like any discipline of knowledge it has its limitations. Just as I would not use my wife’s knowledge of botany to study Napoleon, so we should not apply the rules for chemical experiments or scientific testing of nature to study any historical event. Historians of course do seek to establish what probably happened in the past, and since miracles by the millions have been reported in all ages of history including the current one, it is quite impossible to say that miracles are the least probable historical occurrences. How in the world could we know that? Has anyone assessed all the occurrences of everything in all of human history and then weighed the probabilities? Certainly not. No one has that sort of exhaustive knowledge, and no historian should be so presumptious as to assume that he knows miracles have always been improbable. Rather, in humility, he should be open to whatever is the most plausible historical explanation of this, that or the other event, and then in addition admit, that sometimes we have to say ‘I don’t know or can’t explain that. Maybe it really happened and really was a miracle.’

Me personally, I am not merely open minded about this, I have been present when miracles of healing happened, that the doctors were unable to explain. This doesn’t mean it didn’t happen or a good historian should just ignore this kind of event in someone’s life, though he may be led to say ‘I don’t know how that happened, it doesn’t seem explicable in purely naturalistic terms’. But then there is no law that requires a good critical historian to be a naturalist in his assumptions about all life. None whatsoever. Let me leave you with a true story.

Some time ago I was pastoring in Coleridge N.C. and had gone to Charlotte with my wife for a few days to visit my folks. One of our most stalwart church members, Bertha Albright, suddenly and unexpectedly became ill on a Saturday and was dead by the time we returned. This was in an age before cell phones, and when I arrived back in Coleridge my neighbor was frantic and asking me to come to his house. He was worried his mother had gone bonkers. You see, Mrs Whitehead had been Bertha Albright’s best friend, and about 4 or so that afternoon she had received a phone call from Bertha, which her son Roger had overheard. The phone rang, they talked for a while, and then Mrs. Whitehead hung up. She had been talking to Bertha. The problem is, that Bertha was already dead some hours, and so a phone call of that sort was, on a naturalistic set of assumptions, quite out of the question.
When I came across the street and was told all of this, because of course now Mrs. Whitehead had learned Bertha was dead and was distraught, I tried to calm her down and ask her some questions. I asked her was she sure it was Bertha? Oh yes, she had known this person for many many years. How did Bertha sound? “She sounded far away.”

I remember saying “I guess so, it was truly a long distance call.” But when I asked her what Bertha said, one of her remarks struck home “She asked if Ben would be back to preach on Sunday, and to tell him not to be discouraged but to keep giving those good sermons and doing the ministerial work.” I was a pastor of four churches, and it was difficult. And indeed I was discouraged, and wondered whether I belonged in the pastoral ministry. And that message was precisely the word of hope and help I needed on that weekend.

I could tell many other stories like this from my life, but the bottom line is, anyone who rules out God and the miraculous and calls that good historiography has indeed left out a large amount of history from our purview. It is a sad, and stunted version of reality that is involved, and worst of all, it’s not really true to reality. Modern historians do not need to be theologians to do their work, but when they step on holy ground, they ought to have the good sense to realize that they don’t know enough to rule God ought of the equation. They would do better to simple say ‘something remarkable happened as the evidence we have suggests…. But I simply can’t explain it.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bart Interrupted: Part Four

We live in a text bound age full of litigious people concerned about copyright, intellectual property, and authorship in the modern sense. I have a friend in fact who is in fact a intellectual property lawyer. You don’t want to know all the permutations and combinations of that law. By contrast, the first century world of the NT writers was a dramatically different world. For one thing, it was largely a world of oral cultures. Perhaps 10-15% of the populus was literate, could read and write, and even less actually owned ‘texts’ or manuscripts. Furthermore, the production of texts in antiquity was a tremendously laborious process, and expensive as well. Scribes did not come cheap, papyrus and ink was not cheap, and the codex, or notebook form compilation was just coming into existence in the first century A.D. Most documents were written on a single sheet of papyrus which would be rolled up and tagged, with what I like to call a toe tag—a small identifying marker. Scribes were not mere secretaries in antiquity, they were in fact the intellectuals and scholars of their age. It you want to learn about their various roles you can read several of the chapters in my forthcoming Baylor book What’s in a Word.

Not surprisingly, ancient views about ‘authorship’ are not quite the same as modern views which assume ‘individual’ authors for almost all documents that aren’t collections of essays by some group of scholars. However in ancient collectivistic cultures this was not the norm. Many, if not most ancient documents were anthological in character--- a compilation of traditions from various different persons and ages through time. This was true about collections of laws, proverbs, songs, religious rituals, and stories as well. We should not be surprised in the least in reading through the book of Proverbs that all of a sudden in a book ascribed to Solomon, we have in Prov. 30 the sayings of Agur, or in Prov. 31 the sayings of King Lemuel, whoever he may have been. Or again, the psalms are compilations from various different ages, some are probably songs of David, but some are songs for or dedicated to David, some are composed by others still. It is a mistake to evaluate ancient documents as if they were just like modern documents, and this applies to NT documents as well, in various regards.

For example, the vast majority of scholars are in agreement that the Gospels we call Matthew and Luke are compilations from a variety of sources, including Mark and a sayings collection, and some unique material not found in other Gospels. Of course, this becomes puzzling to modern readers of Matthew because they rightly ask the question--- why would an eyewitness apostle like Matthew need to use secondary sources for events he was present to view? Why indeed. Here is where I say to you that while we must properly answer this question, one also needs to not do what Bart Ehrman does in his chapter on who wrote the Bible when it comes to this issue—which is to suggest that these Gospels were originally anonymous, and labels were added to them later for apologetical purposes, and that when we read of who they are attributed to in an early source like Papias, we can with a wave of the hand simply dismiss such evidence. If you want to read what a historian of merit has to say indetail about the Papias’ traditions I would point you to Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which is mostly a close reading and explanation of Papias and what he says. It does not in any way agree with Ehrman’s analysis of these early traditions. Indeed, most scholars today think there was a collection of the four canonical Gospels together at some point early in the second century in codex form which is when we get the official labels—according to Matthew etc. based on earlier traditions about the sources of these documents (see e,g, the work of Graham Stanton).

When the Gospel documents were originally written, the audiences that received them knew who the authors were and had a relationship with them. This is especially clear from a text like John 21 which informs us that while the final compiler of the Fourth Gospel is not the Beloved Disciple, nevertheless, he is the source of the traditions in this Gospel, having written them down, and “we know that his testimony is true”. The compiler of the Fourth Gospel knows the man personally, and can vouch for his trustworthiness in telling the Gospel stories. So let’s deal now with some of the flimsy assumptions made which are the basis of Ehrman’s conclusions.

1) Assumption One: The canonical Gospels were probably originally anonymous. This is wrong on two counts. First, when these documents were written down, if there were not identifiers in the document, the papyrus would have been tagged by the scribe to be able to distinguish it from other documents, and these tags regularly had the names of the author or compiler and sometimes a short title as well or instead. Second, we should not imagine that the Gospels were written for general public consumption. Publishing in antiquity was almost always an in house, small audience thing, unless we are talking about Emperor’s publishing laws and propaganda. The circles for which these Gospels were written in all likelihood knew who wrote these documents. Papias is simply basing on to us the early traditions about Matthew, Mark, and John that he heard personally from John the elder, who had know various of the eyewitnesses.

2) Assumption Two: In the case of a Gospel like Matthew which includes some 95% of Mark within it, obviously this means that Matthew had nothing to do with the content of this Gospel since it relies on earlier and even secondary sources. This sort of reasoning ignores the anthological nature of most ancient documents. All it took for a document like Matthew to be labeled ‘Matthew’ is if he was the most famous source used in the document for some of its material. And of course if the three sources used in that document are: 1) material from Mark, not an eyewitness, 2) material from Q or a sayings collection; 3) material from some other unique source scholars usually call special M material, then if either 2) or 3) came from Matthew, his name would take precedent over Mark’s in the document, especially if there very first source material in this Gospel, the birth narratives, came from Matthew. What Papias says is that Matthew had compiled some of the largely sayings material of Jesus in Aramaic or Hebrew. This sounds more like 2) above, than 3), but Papias is general enough that it could be 3) since the Greek word logia need not mean just ‘sayings’. It could mean teachings, for example or even ‘words about the Lord’.

3) Assumption Three: Jesus’ disciples were “lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic speaking peasants from Galilee.” (p. 106). First of all fisherman are not peasants. They often made a good living from the sea of Galilee, as can be seen from the famous and large fisherman’s house excavated in Bethsaida. Secondly, fishermen were businessmen and they had to either have a scribe or be able to read and write a bit to deal with tax collectors, toll collectors, and other business persons. Thirdly, if indeed Jesus had a Matthew/ Levi and others who were tax collectors as disciples, they were indeed literate, and again were not peasants. As the story of Zaccheus makes perfectly clear, they could indeed have considerable wealth, sometimes from bilking people out of their money. In other words, it is a caricature to suggest that all Jesus’ disciples were illiterate peasants. And Bart is absolutely wrong that Acts 4.13 says otherwise--- what Acts 4.13 says is that the council is shocked at the theological capacity of Peter and John because they are ‘unlettered’. This is not the ancient word for illiterate, it is the word for not being learned, not having done formal school training, say in a synagogue.

We need to move on now and consider what Bart says about forgeries and intellectual property in antiquity, and yes indeed there was a concern about such matters in the first century A.D. though certainly not to the same degree as we find today. Bart is also right that there were also not only forgeries in antiquity, there were also pseudepigrapha of various sorts. Now the latter has to be evaluated on a genre by genre basis. By this I mean that while there was a literary convention when it came to apocalyptic works to ascribe those works to ancient luminaries or worthies (e.g. the Testament of Abraham is not by Abraham, the Parables of Enoch are not written by Enoch and so on), it was not an approved literary practice to write letters in the name of other persons without their approval or dictation. This issue has to be evaluated according to the literary type of document we are talking about. The parables of Enoch are not a forgery, they are a pseudepigraphic apocalyptic document and the conventions were well known in early Judaism about such documents.

Pseudonymous letters, sermons or speeches are a whole different ballgame. These, if they are genuine letters or sermons, can be called forgeries if there is no connection between the putative author and the actual author of a given document. Bart is absolutely right when he says “Ancient sources took forgery seriously. They almost universally condemn it, often in strong terms.” (p. 115). He is also quite right that forgeries had the intent to deceive. And he is also equally right that various of these sorts of documents were penned in the second century A.D. to add to the corpus of Christian writings for various purpose. A good example of this would be the so-called Acts of Paul and Thecla, or the Epistle to the Laodiceans. Our concern is not however with such documents, but with those from the first century A.D. (and it is only first century documents in the NT) that made it into the canon of the New Testament. Are their forgeries in the NT?

First of all, we need to bear in mind that anonymous documents are not pseudonymous documents. Hebrews for example, has no attribution of authorship internally or externally, it is an anonymous sermon. Perhaps Apollos wrote it, but in any case, the author of the document is not trying to pass it off as written by some luminary. Secondly, there are documents which are internally anonymous but had an external attribution. For example 1 John, in the content of the document says nothing about the author at all. It is a sermon, and it appears that early Christian sermons, like Hebrews, were frequently produced without internal attribution. And exception to this is James. Bart wants to argue that this is by some otherwise unknown James. The problem with this suggestion is shown by the many commentators on the book of James, and also by the content of the book, which draws on no less than 20 sayings of James’ brother Jesus. As Bauckham has shown at length, there is no reason to doubt James is by the famous James the brother of Jesus, any more than there is reason to doubt Jude, who identifies himself as James brother is by Jude, the brother of Jesus. On the other hand, Bart is right that Revelation is by one John of Patmos, who is probably not John Zebedee, nor is he the Beloved Disciple. This man was a apocalyptic prophet whose Greek and theologizing is different from that found in the other Johannine documents (see my Revelation commentary).

The real issue when it comes to pseudeigrapha in the canon is whether documents like 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, the Pastoral Epistles, 2 Peter are pseudepigrapha. Bart thinks they are, and I think they are not. For the record, the commentators are about evenly divided on most of these books with the exception of 2 Peter, which most take to be a pseudepigrapha. In fact 2 Peter is a compilation document which draws on Jude in its second chapter, and on a testimony of Peter in the first chapter, and perhaps some Pauline material as well in 2 Pet. 3. As a compilation document it is attributed to its first and most famous source Peter. There is a Petrine testimony about the Transfiguration in 2 Pet. 1, that likely goes back to Peter himself. The compiler of the document does not see or present himself as an author. He follows the ancient tradition of attributing the compilation to its most famous contributor, as we saw was true for Proverbs, Psalms, Matthew as well.

But what about those Pauline letters? Let me remind the readers that Paul certainly used scribes. We see this in various of the ways Paul ends documents. For example, in Gal. 6 he says he is now taking up the pen and writing a bit in his own hand, which clearly implies he has been using a scribe to compose the letter. Or in Rom. 16 we have a greeting from the scribe Tertius whom Paul used for that document. In the Pastoral Epistles Paul tells us “Luke alone is with me” which explains why the Pastorals reflect so much Lukan vocabulary and style. ‘Authorship’ in the ancient world was a term that basically meant ‘a document which comes from the mind of X and faithfully reflects his views/message, whoever actually composed the document’. If an author had a faithful scribe who knew his mind on an issue, he could simply tell the scribe—compose a document on X on wax, I will review it, then you may copy it out on a papyrus, with possible changes. There was a sliding scale between on the one end using a new or hired scribe to simply take dictation for most of the document and on the other end of the spectrum using a trusted colleague who knew one’s mind to compose a document. Paul and Peter (using Silas, see 1 Pet. 1) used such scribes to convey their thoughts for them. When one examines these NT letters carefully, and takes into account the ancient conventions about composing such letters, I see no reason to conclude any of these documents are forgeries, particularly on the basis of style, which is a function of personality and personal preference if one is a skillful writer, and it depends on the type of letter one is writing as well. Rhetorical style was chosen according to the situation. Furthermore, a skillful scribe could choose to write in verbose Asiatic Greek rather than Attic Greek if he chose (cf. e.g formal English English to American slang). When we take these things into consideration, as we should there is no reason to come to the conclusions Bart does about forgeries in the NT.

The early church, as we begin to see already in Papias, was confident that their ultimate source documents went back to apostles, prophets, eyewitnesses and their co-workers, which is why these 27 documents are in the NT. They were composed by Paul (with help of scribes and co-workers), Peter (1 Peter with help of Silas probably), Mark, Luke (both co-workers of both Peter and Paul), the 4th Evangelist (drawing on Beloved Disciple written sources. The Beloved Disciple composed 1-3 John himself), the compiler of Matthew, James, Jude, perhaps Apollos in the case of Hebrews, John of Patmos, and at the very end of the NT period, the compiler of 2 Peter, drawing on Petrine and other materials.

In short, the NT can be traced back to about 8 people, either eyewitness apostles, or co-workers of such eyewitnesses and apostles. Early Christianity's leaders were largely literate, and some of them, like Paul and the author of Hebrews, were first rate rhetoricians as well (see my little primer NT Rhetoric).

Monday, April 13, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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