September 26, 2011

Stephen as Scapegoat, Scattering as Ingathering

Chronology tells me Stephen's martyrdom came around this time of year.  Typology makes it more interesting still.  Nevertheless, on any given date, Stephen's martyrdom and the scattering offer parallel typology with events from the Day of Atonement to the Festival of Tabernacles.  That may not suggest Stephen died on a certain day, but it does suggest some things about Acts 6-7.

As always, first we must do the Chronology.

With Jesus' temporary death at the Passover of 33 (see here and here) and Paul's temporary blindness coming before Passover of 34 (see here and here), the necessary event sequence undoubtedly puts Stephen's death at some time around the Feast of the Booths.  On Atonement Day?  It doesn't matter.  At any time even close to the High Holy Days, these events easily should have seemed extra pregnant with meaning.

Which events, you ask?  Forget the speech for a moment.  Here's what happened.

Merely a few months into the tumultuous days of Acts 1-6, the Sanhedrin and Temple authorities were still fighting against fresh claims about Jesus' resurrection, trying to convince everyone in Jeruslaem that they themselves were not, in fact, guilty of helping to execute Israel's Messiah.

So, on the day they heard Stephen's "blasphemy", they had him executed to set an example, and quite an effective one, evidently.  In the moment, however, at some psychological level, this execution also must have been partly to cover up their own suspicions of self-guilt.  Whatever their internal thoughts, the Sanhedrin evidently decided that killing Stephen was a sacrifice needed for Israel's good.  That makes him a "scapegoat" in the absolutely most classical (if not absolutely the most biblical) sense.

Next, all but twelve Christians fled Jerusalem.  Not only Stephen, but the Church was therefore sent out of the camp, exiled to wander away, in the Wilderness.  Not only Stephen, but the Church became Israel's - well, Jerusalem's - Scapegoat.

But then, what happened next is even more typologically interesting.

Acts 8-11 shows that believers fleeing Jerusalem reassembled in various towns, both near and farther away. With a bare bit of basic logistics, we can imagine quite easily how long that took.  If the scattering happened the day Stephen was stoned, then believers began reassembling (in nearby towns) within 24 hours after fleeing Jerusalem.  Obviously, those who reached as far as Phoenicia and Antioch took much more time, probably at least one to three weeks.  But that only shows the upper limit.

Within Judea, and more near to Judea, daily and for several days after Stephen was stoned, the scattered believers were reassembling themselves.  Daily and for several days, after the Christian Church became exiled, the members of Christ's body found one another in various places.  And God himself put up temporary dwellings.

Just like the events in Jerusalem on Atonement Day, and for several days afterward... Spiritual Sukkot were being assembled, from the day of the scapegoating, for several days afterward.  The Lord God himself was building tents, for himself, out of Christian believers.  Temporarily - and whether a given church met in each place there for ten days or for forty more years, each was temporary - the dwelling of God on Earth was moving onward again.

The Tabernacle of God, the Movement of God, the House of God, the Testimony of God.  Moved again.

It almost doesn't matter what Stephen said, or how much of Luke's speech in Acts 7 might have any historical root in all actual fact.  (Of course, I also have an idea that the time of year made something like Stephen's speech incredibly memorable to Paul and the other eyewitnesses on that day, but that's a post for another day.)

What matters is what happened.

Stephen's martyrdom - on any day that it happened - was a type of the Scapegoat event.

The Church's scattering - in the same way - was a type of both Scapegoat and Sukkot.

And the scattering - given what should be the most obvious logical implication from simple practical sense - quickly led to a tremendous ingathering.  God himself reaped the fruits of one marvelous season, brought his crop of new Christians (who'd spent a scant few months in the city that crucified Christ) out from that troubled field and into brand new storehouses.  Fresh produce, fresh dwellings, fresh new direction.

Thousands of new believers suddenly scattered, reproduced themselves into dozens and probably hundreds of new gatherings.  The Son of Man, who'd had no place to lay his own head, had suddenly produced many spiritual houses for his Father to dwell in.  And, like in the days of Moses, like the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, and unlike the previous thousand years beyond King David... these houses could move.

It doesn't matter what Stephen said.  It doesn't matter what day it took place.

What matters is what actually happened.  Even from the barest fact claims of Acts 6-12, we should be able to tell this much, without much real debate.

The martyrdom of Stephen and the scattering fulfilled, in this view, new, deeper and possibly final categories of meaning for the (prior to then) pregnant symbolism of the third and last movement in Israel's festival cycle.

The types of the Scapegoat and Sukkot were thereby fulfilled, in these ways, and almost certainly about this time of year, in the year 33 AD.

Mazel tov!

September 15, 2011

Matthew's Minor Mystery

Brian LePort drew my attention to "the Licona Controversy", which is nice I guess, because I can't keep as close tabs these days as I'd like to be keeping.  But my first comment has to be - poor Mike Licona, having his new surname become "Controversy".  Dang, dude.  Rub some salt in that wound and then wrap it down with duct tape.  At any rate, Mike Bird has also commented today, after which point I had two things worth posting.  So that means I'll take this brief moment to do so.

First, Yes, Mohler and Geisler are bullies.  Duh.  As it happens, that's an occasional part of their official job description.  Seriously, it is.  (Sigh.)  Someday, semi-independent evangelical protestants are going to wake up and realize that you can't ask leaders to be kinder, gentler dictators.  Although I do personally and wholeheartedly believe in the concept of benevolent dictatorship, it works best in places like Kindergarten, or small task force missions, and maybe also - someday, somehow - in the great hereafter.  However, once you get up past a dozen or two thousand people (or somewhere in between, all depending) the "benevolent" dictator must inevitably run up against someone who isn't towing the line, AND who's also rocking the boat.  There is NO way for the dictator to simultaneously hold down his/her job description while ALSO avoiding bullying tactics.  None.  It doesn't happen, Brian.  You either give up power and control, giving in or creating a compromise with the radicals, or else you hold the line you've decided must be held, and in the process you become something you swore not to become.  There is never a third option.  Oh, with a lot of boat rockers there are polite, subtle, friendly ways to maintain control without your "bullying" being so obvious.  But it's still coercion.  In the family of God.  And we baptize it every day.  Every Sunday, at least.

To quote an old friend:  "These things ought not to be."

Second, Mike Bird and Brian agree with Licona and several others that the first Gospel's author didn't really intend for his readers to take 27:52 literally.  He didn't?  Well, I don't see how the heck not.  I mean, don't get me wrong!  The sentence may or may not be intelligible, and the fact claims as they appear may or may not have happened quite in that way, but that isn't really my point at the moment.  My issue at present is merely the passage itself:  v.54 tells us that the earthquate in v.51 actually happened and was witnessed to by the centurion; v.50 is obviously a fact claim, because Jesus died; the torn veil in v.51 has always been hard to believe but it seems plain enough... until v.54 says the centurion and his cohort also witnessed this veil tearing... which they couldn't have viewed at the moment from Calvary... but that would then merely and logically imply that the centurion was called in to investigate, presumably after some Temple authorities made noise about it, or someone tried to blame Jesus' followers.  Again, all this as the text reads is clear enough.  It may or may not have happened quite as we think we understand what Matthew's telling us.  (For instance, who are the "saints" at this point?  How far back in Israel's history does one have to go to find "many Jewish holy men" (Bird's interpretation)?  But they'd certainly be decomposed.  It's a very odd problem.)  I don't know what to make of this passage.  A straightforward interpretation certainly poses some problems, but what Bird and LePort are proposing seems to me like a much bigger problem, grammatically.  If the risen dead weren't an actual happening, then what about the earthquake and veil tearing?  What about v.54 which says the soldiers at Cavalry observed both Jesus' death and these other things?  Mike, Mike & Brian, if you find ways to conveniently jettison the risen saints into "allegory-land", then why not the earthquake?  And how, in any event, does v.54 make any sense at all, if the centurion didn't really see what it says he did?  I don't know what solves the conundrum, but the allegory "defense" seems like nonsense to me.

What else can I say?

In the text being fought over this month, we have major problems and ultimately little to go on.  But to go back to my first point, we might shed some grace on the second.  If evangelical christendom hadn't already built itself on the foundation of "inerrancy", we might not be striving so hard to attack one another or defend poor old Matthew.  But "inerrancy" itself is a convoluted facade.  The doctrine purportedly works to assure us that Scripture itself is a sure foundation, but Scripture-as-a-foundation was the Reformers' (de-facto) hat trick for blessing themselves with the political authority they needed to keep mass Christian Chaos from breaking out all at once.  Thus, "inerrancy" today is just a circularly self-justifying game.  Why believe it?  Because they say that we must.  Why such a must?  Because if they're wrong then we don't have to listen to them anymore.

Authoritarian dogma is one Medieval holdover I really hope the post-evangelical movement makes some progress against.  Embracing Mystery, however, is a different Medieval tradition.  That one, I'd like to see Fervent Bible Affirmers attempt to enjoy more.  Perhaps.

September 10, 2011

Hoehner's Chronological Aspects

I wrote this post two years ago, in late July 2009.  I should probably rewrite it, but I'll let it stand as is, with this necessary explanation.  At the time, biblioblogger Nick Norelli had challenged me with the big meme of that summer, which was to post about five Biblical Studies books that one wanted to like, or should have agreed with, but couldn't quite get fully behind.  I blogged separate posts on my chosen books, One, Two, Three and Four, in that same month.  This post was to be my fifth, but for reasons that will soon become obvious, I couldn't bring myself to post it at that time.  Now, perhaps it's been long enough.  We shall see.

Two years late, unaltered and for the first time... here it is:


It has scarcely been six months since we lost Dr. Harold Hoehner. Longtime blog readers know how much I value his work and how upset I was at his unexpected passing, even (especially) considering I never met the man. I kick myself even harder for that now, because after confessing to one of his students recently the main reason I never contacted him (I realized my main purpose was wanting to argue with him about what I considered to be flaws in his Chronological Aspects), I was told "Actually, he would have really enjoyed that." Yes, I had gathered as much from the many tributes I read after his death. So I will always regret never meeting him, unless perhaps it was somehow for the best.

As I said, it has not been long since his passing, but when I was recently challenged to write about "Biblical Studies" books I cheered for but felt some reservations about, I decided it could actually be the best time to go ahead and blog my critique of Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, by the great Dr. Hoehner. Hopefully, furthering that important conversation will be taken as another way of also furthering his memory. So here goes everything...

Chronological Aspects remains one of my most cherished academic books, because of its uniqueness and because of the same thorough scholarship poured into Hoehner's Herod Antipas. The footnotes alone are tremendous. I could quote the entire preface right here, cheering loudly. His treatment of the major points and their issues is comprehensive and arguably definitive. I have long since worn out the glue in the spine. (Making this the one book of my "5" that I actually did read every word of, and that several times over.) But... yes, I have a few problems with this book, and they are not minor.

Hoehner's arguments are arranged chronologically, on dating the birth, baptism, duration of ministry, and crucifixion of Jesus - in that order - but my gripe is not with the presentation. A proper argument should proceed by skipping forward and backward through time as necessary.  Since Hoehner didn't do this, it was not always clear how each chapter depended on points previously (or yet to be) made. Dates for the (1) commencement, (2) duration and (3) consummation of Jesus' ministry are supported by seemingly independent arguments, when in fact, solid conclusions on any two of these points should automatically render the third set of arguments unnecessary. Instead, Hoehner admits (p.37) to his views on all three of these points early on and then argues each separately, as if none are dependent on each other. Of course the strongest arguments are those for dating the crucifixion year, which therefore ought to predominate the overall work, and yet it comes last.

This automatically makes his earlier arguments suspect. The chapter on duration, for example, consists mainly of objections to Johnston Cheney's 4 year view followed by arguments supporting the 3 year view. The fact that 30 and 33 AD have been presupposed as the boundaries of that duration is only mentioned in the chapter summary, and never acknowledged during the arguments. However, IMHO, a carefull reading of Hoehner's presentation shows that the 3 and 4 year arguments come off as equally inconclusive and I'm sorry to say his assertion that only one had "suppositions" was simply unfair.

Unfortunately, the biggest problem is that for all Hoehner's laudable and high view of the "grammatical-historical interpretation of the New Testament", an overall reading of the book suggests his primary mental orientation was not to reconstruct chronology but to defend the integrity of scripture on chronological points. That is also laudable, but the particular apologetic efforts Hoehner used to reconcile John 2:20 and Luke 3:1-3 & 3:23 with other historical data are the real reason - combined with 33 AD - why he HAD to argue for a three year ministry.

A holistic view of his arguments shows which ones really depend on certain others. The defense of scripture was more important than building a historically based chronology, leaving a work that I believe - for all its great qualities - was less than perfectly faithful to either. Academically, it would have been more accurate to say this much: Luke 3:1-3 cannot mean 26 AD, so 30 AD is out. Therefore, 33 AD is in. The 3 or 4 year views each have their challenges, and we could easily date Christ's baptism to 28 or 29 AD. For all our investigations, we may or may not know the best way to "break the tie".

In the end, nothing in Hoehner's book, other than his [somewhat contrived] interpretaion on John 2:20 (as compared with Josephus) gives an entirely unflexible resistance to 28 AD and the 4 year view. The argument for John 2:20 therefore becomes the central governing point, de facto, of the book's major argument, which is hardly fair.

The fact that we have no idea how long the prep work lasted (after Herod announced the Temple project in 20 BC) means we don't know what year construction actually began. Our ignorance of that prep time means John 2:20 is inconclusive - unless we wish to guess whether prep work began in 18 or 17 BC - for settling this one year difference in question.

Therefore, the de facto "tie breaker" of all Hoehner's arguments is actually irrelevant. Therefore, Cheney and the implications of his view deserve much greater attention. We desperately need a new tiebreaker. (Personally, I think it may be the death of Sejanus - which must fall either just before or after the death of John the Baptist - because the 4 year view (the 'after' view) better explains the timing of Jesus' final movements into Judea.)

Despite my strong critique, finding these flaws only increases the value of Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, imho. The book remains a wonderfully comprehensive treatment of the key points, and Hoehner was certainly able to process more scholarship on the topic than I'll ever be able to review in my entire life. I'm a layman, like Cheney. I deal with the major points. So this book is a major influence in my life as much for its flaws as for its strengths. If I didn't care so greatly for it's subject matter, for which Hoehner obviously felt a great deal of passion as well, I would never spend so much of my life trying to improve on what it attempted to accomplish... nor could I ever have hoped to, probably.

As Samuel Johnson said in the preface to his first English Dictionary, "I have only failed at that which no human powers have hitherto completed." In that regard, Hoehner is even more a giant, in my estimation. What other book like his has ever gone to print? None so comprehensive, as far as I can tell, and certainly none since Chronological Aspects. To call it required reading in the field should be putting it lightly. I say again, I will always treasure my old, worn out copy.

I heard a rumor last May from someone who corresponded with him that Harold Hoehner had mentioned a desire to revise his book, if not also (?) his chronology. On the hopeful prospect of this, I began trying to make my arguments stronger and more worthy of his valuable time. Time, alas, we did not have.

If anyone reading this, today or in the future, was working with him on such a project, or had been hoping to, I would very much love to argue with you about it. In my experience, arguing is the sport of friends. Since I hear Dr. Hoehner liked arguing as well, and if you were his friends, I would look especially forward to meeting you. Perhaps soon... or at least soon enough, hopefully.

Thank you, Lord, for Harold Hoehner and his Giant work. From his shoulders, give us eyes to see farther. Amen.

September 5, 2011

The Gospels and History

What is History?  Events reconstructed with words aren’t what happened.  They’re the best we can do at describing what we think might have happened.  And that’s not what most people think History is.  But – for worse and for better – that’s what History is.

So then, what are the Gospels?  Most scholars these days will concede that the Four Gospels of the New Testament are the best window we have into Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Son of Man, the Messiah.  Skeptics debate how much accuracy they offer, on face value.  Theologians defend Christian Faith by retreating from fights over historical value.  The Gospels aren’t History, say our Christian Scholars.  They are narratives, written to convey theological views of our Lord Jesus Christ.  That view's worked well for christendom at large, at least in recent centuries.... but now times are in flux.  Today, many say 'We don't care as much for dogma and defense of the faith.  We want more questions asked, fewer answered.'

So, again, what is History?  All written accounts of the past are limited re-presentations of real life situations we can no longer access.  The people, events, ideas, relationships, physical structures, social context and the infinite number of decisions made based on unknown factors – decisions both simple and complex, either rash or deliberate – the vast web of interactive human experience for a given region and time – these are inscrutable.  All we have is aspects, pieces, cross-sections of real life, as it actually took place.  All we have is accounts of the past.  We do not have the past, any longer, at hand.

Yet, we do have these accounts.  We do have the Four Gospels.  And they do give us a great deal about Jesus and his activities.  He taught.  He healed.  He prayed.  He led women and men across Galilee and Judea, proclaiming that God was eager to make a new way to rule over them all.  And he did many things.  We don’t know all that the Lord did, but we do know – however sharp or fuzzy this picture may turn out to be – that these are indeed aspects of the true past.  The Four Gospels do give us something of Jesus’ History.  The only debates on this topic – yes, in all of the many debates across the vastness of Christian and Secular New Testament Scholarship – always boil down to how much they do give us.

Now to you, my dear blog reader, come these very same questions.  In what ways, to what degree, and to what effect are the Gospels qualified to speak of Jesus historically?  Does his actual life matter?  

Personally, I say that if his life mattered not, then our life matters not.  But if the Gospels all about meaning and message, and if my Christian life is really all about what I believe... then why would his life matter?  And what about mine?  I could just sit and listen, think and agree, pray the right prayer, and voila!  The power of the Gospel is my name on a salvation card.

Paul of Tarsus wrote a lot about why Jesus died, and I absolutely do believe each little word.

But the New Testament opens with how Jesus lived.

It also says a lot more about how Jesus lived than some think it does.  But that's a topic for some other day.  For now, here is what we should just stop disputing:

History matters.  Events matter.  What we do to, with and for one another... these things matter much more than what we believe about salvation or angels or even (gasp) the Holy Spirit.  Facts are facts, and the more often it happens that Christians come out from inside the barrier walls of their institutional borders, the less it sounds like we still care so much about fine theological distinctions.

These Christian scholars who need to make narratives all about hidden theology, well, they're no longer doing quite so well as they used to at holding congregations together, using that old approach.  God protect us from whatever they cook up next, to keep their flocks in the pens... and it'll probably be a retreat back to authoritarian dogma... but in the meantime I'd like to put out my little cry that we might take advantage of a growing opportunity here. 

People are starting to seem less automatically predisposed against what I've been yearning for.

We should study the life of the Lord Jesus Christ, through the Gospels, as History.

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