December 10, 2012

The Historical Jesus-birth-census

Only Luke calls this a "decree" but it was Augustus' regime which first expanded the Roman census outside Italy. Since provincial governors were responsible for their provincial registrations, it's no surprise that we can't find a record of one universal census happening everywhere in the same year. There would be no practical reason to have everyone count simultaneously. Obviously, without instant telecommunications, last year's numbers were as good as next year's numbers.

I'm not sure what Luke was thinking, but it's mostly our own reading of 2:1 that assumes Luke meant "the whole world, all at the same time". Yes, the next line flows into "everyone" going home, but the third line jumps ahead to Quirinius in AD 6, whereas Augustus' new census was probably put into effect during the 20's BC. Whatever Luke thought he was accomplishing, that's a long span of history being collapsed into not many words. If the first and third line are 30 years apart, how can we decide whether that "everyone" belongs at one end and not the other?

If the conservative grammar police would allow Luke the soft fallacy of awkward usage, everything would be simple. If Luke tried to say (or meant to say) that the Jesus-birth-census was "before" that more famous one two decades later - that's "before" and not "first" or "when" - then these awkward book ends would clearly reveal themselves, merely, as broad scale historical framing. Luke would then only be saying, my story begins after Augustus changed censusing but before Quirinius put down Judas' rebellion.

That is, it could all be so simple if we allow that Luke apparently slipped into coherent but nonstandard grammar. Alas, theologians apparently require an inerrant linguistics much more than a coherent accounting of actual events. Tis pity, tis true. Some of them feel that way about *you*, too. (Caring much more that you say the right words than what you do with your life.)

Nevertheless, despite Luke's lack of clarity he does reference the Jesus-birth-census 4 times in 5 verses, so let's home in on that. If Augustus decided to count Herod's subjects, it had to be punishment for the alleged offense of 9/8 BC, the precise years when the Proconsul of Syria was Gaius Sentius Saturninus, Augustus' former brother-in-law, the one whom Tertullian cites as being actually responsible for the Jesus-birth-census.

Besides, that fruit basket turnover plan was so ludicrous, it must have been unique (at least, to that point). Personally, I suspect Saturninus came up with it on his own. He was probably trying to be thorough, since there were no previous records to go by, but the logistical and scheduling nightmare that surely ensued does make him look like a bit of an idiot. As it happens, Saturninus isn't known for any notable accomplishments in his long career babysitting important provinces. Ah, nepotism!

To sum up: I don't care so much about explaining what Quirinius is doing in verse three. What matters much more is that - as it so happens - we do in fact possess a coherent accounting of factual data to explain how and why Joseph had to go down to Bethlehem. That Mary came too probably means the census was their excuse to relocate and leave scandal-town.

Faith doesn't and shouldn't depend on having facts to support what we might as well already believe... but such background evidence is still very nice when we happen to have it. Don't you think?

search bar: [Luke census] or [Saturninus] or [Quirinius] for much more on this site

December 3, 2012

Steve Mason on Irony/Josephus*

(*For the hopeful takeaway towards my own research in Matthew, skim to bottom.)

I've been re-reading Steve Mason's chapter in Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome, called "Figured Speech and Irony in T. Flavius Josephus". It's amazing how the same piece can be so much more helpful when much reflection goes on between first and second reviews. Anyway, here's what I got this time around:

Ancient people were "partial to figured speech" but modern ironologists find definition impossible. The most elusive forms of Irony involve "saying something without saying it". Of course, doing so effectively depends on having a clued-in observer, so the writer's challenge is how to clue them in, and the analyst's challenge is how to determine where/when the game is afoot.

The two types of irony (in literature) are text-dependent irony and audience-dependent irony. Mason explains carefully:
Text-dependent irony is the simpler and less risky of the two forms. An author wants to ensure that an audience, or an indefinite number of audiences, will detect his intended irony. So he frames the ironic story within an authoritative statement, for the audience alone, of facts unknown to characters in the story.
...
The most famous [non-comedic] example is probably the Gospel of John, which includes an authoritative divine prologue (John 1:1-18) concerning Jesus' heavenly origin... The repeated claims of ignorant characters in the story to certain knowledge of Jesus' origins (John 2:45-6; 6:42; 7:41-3) are devestating because the audience - any audience at any time - knows otherwise. 
Audience dependent irony is what the ancient critics had in mind when they discussed 'figured speech' (above). [Mason had previously cited Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, and several others.] ... Because of the tacit connections with current affairs, the genre is not easily portable: a modern reader of Aristophanes can only appreciate these references through diligent background study... [But] It was prior audience knowledge of the plot that gave poignancy to Oedipus' vow to find and punish the one who was polluting Thebes... 
Audience-dependent irony can be subtler and more effective than text-driven irony, though it is riskier because it operates without the safety net of authoritative guides. The author must be sure not only that the audience will know certain crucial items but, in potentially dangerous contexts, that they will not read the wrong sort of irony into his presentation.
From this point, Mason goes on to show the necessity of dissimulation in the upper classes of early Imperial Rome, from Augustus' age to Domitian's. The rest of the article is a compelling argument that much of Josephus' writing included sly winks to his Flavian readers. A comment about Nero served as a subtle jab at Domitian, for example. In such cases, Mason argues, what helps contemporary readers to feel certain about Josephus' true meaning is the contemporary knowledge we have about ancient Rome in those days.

It's a great article on the whole, and Oxford only wants $225 for a copy of the whole book. Alas, I don't get by TCU as much as I used to. But if anyone wants to get this for my christmas gift... seriously, don't do it. $225, are you crazy? But thanks for the thought. (!)

As far as my new questions about Irony in Matthew, this helps tremendously by giving me practical terms in which I can proceed. Instead of reading the Gospel again and asking "Okay, where's the irony?" it seems more appropriate (and more obvious, suddenly!) to ask, "What did Matthew expect his readers to know, at any given point?" To be thorough, of course, I'll look for both text-dependent irony as well, because any time one character knows something another does not, the reader is "clued in" as well.

One more thing; Quintilian found three "contexts" [appropriate times for usage] for such language. They are: "when it is unsafe to speak frankly, or unseemly to do so, or merely for subtle effect." After I've gone through and found places where Matthew either (type 1) directly provides or (type 2) seems to expect any special knowledge from his readers, I shall also consider which of these three (if any) may have motivated his usage.

Tons of fun, right? I actually think so, though it can be exhausting.

Feel free to join in and help...

November 25, 2012

Matthew's Historical Use(s?) of Irony

It's very difficult to compose a narrative about historical persons without employing dramatic irony at some point. Given hindsight, the writer naturally observes significant moments in ways the participants did not, and leveraging those contrasting contexts or awarenesses is very tempting, for understandable reasons. Using irony gives one's reader a perspective superior to the figures or characters in view and engages the mind more enjoyably during a storyline, not to mention the educational advantage of using irony to provide critical relief, illustrating more clearly and helpfully for a novice some previously unrealized aspect of what past times were actually like. To accomplish all this, however, the use of irony (ironically!) draws the reader's mind just as much towards the present as into the past, which is why some historians detest using irony, or at least over-reliance upon it. Nevertheless, for as long as historians continue to write, some amount of dramatic irony will inevitably find its way into most forms of History, especially historical narrative.

In my present study, I'm examining whether Matthew's use of dramatic irony in 2:22 should be recognized as clear literary evidence of a more specific intent on the part of the writer. I mean, I'm convinced that it should, but I'm working on the argument more carefully. Here's a quick offset summary, in one paragraph:
Since Matthew draws the reader's mind to an ironic contrast between past and present - in this case, Galilee under Archelaus (which already was unsafe) versus Galilee after Archelaus (which turned out to be safe) - we should count this as evidence that Matthew assumed his readers would be familiar with both ends of that context, including the distinction or 'gap' between time periods.* Further, because he placed that demand on his readers' collective cultural memory, we can take confidence that Matthew is giving this episode a very specific chronological setting. For critical purposes, it does not matter here whether Matthew intended to relate fact or compose a historical fiction. In either case, Matthew has effectively set Jesus' return from Egypt precisely into the earliest weeks of Archelaus' reign, when the younger Herod was actually "King" over all Israel. (*) For more on the historical period from 4 BC to 3 BC, and for a rough sketch of the argument-in-progress, see this post. (*)
The payoff here is that a deliberate and fairly precise chronological context was intended by Matthew to go along with this story. What we do with that conclusion is another discussion; today's post is to continue refining what I'm doing so far.

Today, I'm hoping you can help me find Irony elsewhere in Matthew.

But, ah, what kinds of irony (in Matthew) are very similar to this kind of irony!?!?

I have enough confidence in my analysis so far that I might proceed without parallels, except of course for the intrinsic value and potential surprise benefits of simply doing the diligence to examine Matthew more broadly. Is this as unique in Matthew as I suspect, or is it part of a pattern? I'm not really sure how to begin answering that question.

For starters, I'd rather not research broad irony in general. Yes, Jesus becomes the true King and Herod/Archelaus/Caesar/Antipas was not. I see that, and I like it too. I could stand to be oriented towards more examples like that, personally, but in the end I'm not sure it's a helpful comparison for my study on the implied future context about Archelaus in 2:2. What I'm looking for is dramatic irony relating to historical context/s that were both recent and well known in Matthew's day.

Are you aware of any other "historical irony" (so to speak) in Matthew's Gospel? Is there other dramatic irony in the Jesus storyline, or something about the disciples? Could there possibly be any such irony regarding the implied futures of King Herod or Pontius Pilate? (I mean, aside from them dying or being recalled in disgrace, which is so general I'm not sure it qualifies. What do you think?) Or the future of the high priest? Does anything in Matthew allude to the rising influence of the Pharisee party? (Post AD 70?) Or am I overlooking someone else whom the original readers may have known as a historical figure? Is there any irony implied about John the Baptist's future legacy? Does Jesus wink at us, via Matthew's pen, about JTB's future legacy, when Jesus discusses the old wineskin? It'd be a stretch to think Matthew was concerned about Apollos, but perhaps there were other folk running around Judea not too different than Apollos. Or perhaps not. Of course, since we're unaware this kind of irony would be hard to detect, but it could potentially be there. But - again - is it like the implied reference to Archelaus' future in 2:22?

These questions today are just me spitballing, of course. I'm trying to purify my own expectations before I begin research, and I guess you can see that my tactical focus is starting to narrow a little bit.

For now, friendly readers, if you have any ideas or prior knowledge about Irony in Matthew - whether about any kind of Irony in general or whether the specific kind I'm considering - I will greatly appreciate all your suggestions. Thanks in advance!

November 16, 2012

Did Galilean Anti-Imperialism really exist?

Prior to 44 AD, "Roman Galilee" wasn't Roman. How, then, could it be anit-Roman?

Although Judea became Roman in AD 6, Galilee remained "independent" for all of Jesus' natural born life. Of course, today we know very well that Herod Antipas ultimately answered to Caesar in Rome, but at that time a large part of the imperial "client king" understanding was that Herod and all of his subjects got to maintain the illusion of true independence.

Thus, for Jesus and all his contemporaries, Judea was Roman, but Galilee was decisively not. Here are several concrete examples to help paint the picture in a bit more detail:

The tax collectors in Galilee were Herodian. (The Gospels call Levi a 'publican' for semantic convenience. That Italian word had become Greek-ese for "tax collector".) In political-financial terms, what we know is that the residents of cities like Sepphoris paid taxes to Antipas, whose own financiers dutifully sent along the imperial tribute. Likewise, the merchants of harbor towns like Tiberias paid customs fees to Herodian agents, one of whom was Antipas' own nephew Agrippa (who served there briefly, somewhere between 30 and 32 AD, before leaving Galilee, and later returning as King in 41).

In Jesus' era, Herod Antipas was free to collect all the revenue he could justifiably commandeer. Rome would look into his overall wealth and increase expectations when appropriate.

Any soldiers in Galilee were Herodian. The centurion in Capernaum was retired (and probably not even Italian*). Any local peace keeping was done by Herodian soldiers or by Herodian-authorized armed Galileans. At one point, Antipas built his own army. (We don't know when, or how large it remained, but there may be some continuity between the Royal Army dissolved in Judea (by AD 6) and the Army which Antipas stationed at Gamla (c.34-36). At the very least, some internal peacekeeping was necessary, to say nothing of providing deterrent for potential threats: whether Trachonitie brigands, revenge-minded Nabateans or budding Gaulanite Zealots.

Antipas couldn't have not kept at least a small army. Syria's four legions were more than twelve or fifteen days' march to the north!

(* On Capernaum's Centurion: We know he was retired for two reasons. First, there were no Romans stationed in Galilee directly at this point. Second, the Centurion's wealth suggests he must have sold the land granted to all Legionaries who survived 20 years' service. Now, his designation as "Centurion" means he'd worked for the Romans, not that he was born an Italian. Like most Roman soldiers recruited under Augustus, the man probably came from outside Italy; but he probably wasn't Galilean himself, given his gentile status. The major piece of knowledge we don't have is to know why he chose to relocate to Galilee, of all places - especially since, circa 30 AD, it had been 24 years since a Legion's recorded march through the region, and 34 years since Rome's last military action *in* Galilee!  One plausible explanation could be that this Centurion bought, freed and married a Galilean slave woman whom he found somewhere else in the empire. This could also explain the great fondness he reportedly held for in general. Alternatively, he could have grown up a gentile in Galilee before becoming a soldier, but that would not as easily explain the fondness involved in his desire to return. *)

The synagogue communities, whether or not they received oversight from or paid tax to the government, held joint property and did commerce solely at the pleasure of Herod Antipas. Tiberius sometimes had opinions about Jewish people in Rome, and he paid due heed to the political prowess of the Jerusalem Temple party and all their adherents, but there was no need for Caesar to meddle directly with religious affairs that took place strictly in Galilee.

In general, therefore, the population of Galilee, being Jewish but not Judean, were in a more comfortable position regarding everything Roman. As long as Herod Antipas kept the peace, Rome wasn't worried about Galilee. As long as the Galileans didn't revolt, Rome wouldn't come depose Herod. This much should have seemed abundantly clear after the Galileans observed what happened to Archelaus' Judean regime (4 BC to AD 6). Being content under Herod was a good way to remain with the "devil they knew".

One natural consequence of Galilee being so insulated from Rome is that Galilee never seemed to develop as much concern about Rome. The independent government of Judea (AD 66 - 67) had to send out Judean generals (such as Josephus) to rouse a Galilean defense from the coming onslaught. And when Vespasian came in, his first target was the zealot hotbed of Gamla (that also being strategic high ground in the Golan). In contrast, the Galilean defenses were neither such a priority nor very difficult to surmount.

For another example, the famous rebel of AD 6, "Judas of Galilee" stirred up a lot of anti-Roman feeling in Judea, due to Quirinius' settlement, but his "No Lord but God" rhetoric didn't go down as being leveled against Antipas in Galilee or with Philip's tetrarchy. (It's well known Judas was from Philip's lands, not Antipas', but that doesn't affect the point here.) Apparently, it must be the case either that Judas didn't feel that way about Herodian princes or that he couldn't make the argument stick with their subjects. 

Either way, the Galileans seemed content enough to remain under Herod. Instead of making them anti-Rome, that only makes them conservative culturally (as all ancient cultures naturally were). Granted, also, Antipas' peaceful rule deserves some credit for its own modest success. One can paint pictures of the big, bad, evil empire from Italy, but the very strong evidence for that accurate portrait is not based on experiences being felt by the Galileans of Jesus' day or before. 

((** Not even in Sepphoris of 4 BC, where that individual city was itself overrun by a gang of toughs who decided to play king of their very small mountain. That Judas, "son of Ezekias" had no grand vision or ideological agenda, is the record from Josephus. That Sepphoris was burned down is probably due to the inexperience of the Legion's commander on that day when, after a brief ultimatum, Varus' son ordered destruction by fire. A dark tragedy can be written about the drama in Sepphoris in that season, but it did not stem from prior anti-Roman sentiment and could as easily have been blamed on the brashness of the Galilean agressors or the (passive?) complicity of the Sepphorian city folk. At any rate, if Galileans had any cause to hate Rome, it would have been over Sepphoris, and yet we have no record of such sentiment. In fact, we don't even have record of Galileans in general caring much about Sepphoris. As horrific as it turned out to be, the burning of Sepphoris had been Rome's first violent incident and the after-event publicity no doubt did put the blame onto Judas E and his gang. Such a dubious and isolated event - however horrible - cannot by itself succeed in creating a national uprising of furor against those involved, nor sustaining such furor three to four decades later (nor even seven, apparently). **))

All in all, the Galilean experience prior to Jesus' heyday just doesn't show any evidence of being rife with anti-Roman sentiment. To the contrary, all the above evidence quite suggests that, at least to speak of, there simply was none. Probably there was some general sympathy pain for the Judean experience, since many Galileans cared a good deal about Jerusalem. However, again, since these feelings didn't seem strong enough to stoke up much resistance even in the raging days of the late 60's, how much righteous secondary anger was there likely to be around Galilee in the placid 20's and 30's? 

Down in Judea, Pilate made one or two newsworthy mistakes but they were cleaned up quickly enough, and Caligula didn't threaten his Temple stunt until AD 40/41. Even those were primarily, if not strictly, Judean events. (Personally, I'm fully convinced the Galileans were Jewish, but they weren't Judeans. Or, to rephrase that as a comedic Greek speaking New Yorker might say - The Galileans were Ἰουδαῖοι, but not, you know, Ἰουδαῖοι-Ἰουδαῖοι.)

Even the Judean's own strong feelings against Rome weren't built in a day! Significantly, it wasn't so much the famous but isolated incidents which caused Judean hostility to develop, but the daily emotional grating effect of seeing Roman influence everywhere. After five hundred years of being ruled from afar, the Romans were least tolerable - not only because they came last, but because they were most brutally effective at the actual governing part. Rome didn't just send Satraps to send home their tribute money. Rome stationed soldiers in the Antonia fortress next to the Temple. Rome greatly limited local governmental autonomy in micro-managerial ways. Rome acquired the Samaritan cavalry in 4 BC and kept them (with their Greek name, Sebastioi) as enforcers of Roman authority over Judeans. Rome did all this and more - relentlessly - for several decades in a row.

But Rome did all of this only in Judea. In great contrast, Galilee suffered from none of these symptoms.

In short, "Roman Galilee" wasn't ever Roman enough to become anti-Roman.

In fairness to certain popular theories today, one can indeed make a case that Jesus himself was somewhat anti-imperialistic, but it seems only for personal, spiritual and devotional reasons. There's no way to show that Jesus was overtly driven by feeling that "Caesar is bad". There are, deeply, many ways to show that Jesus was jealous for the Hebrew Divinity's behalf. If Jesus had any "anti" imperialistic sentiment, it wasn't anti, but pro. It would have been, simply, "God ought to rule". 

In conclusion, however, I don't think one can argue strongly that such a message played well *politically* in Galilee in the late 20's and early 30's AD. Judea, yes. But Galilee, no.

And in this, perhaps, we might find a surprising new opportunity for research.

One could perhaps look for a slight change in message as Jesus moved from Galilee into Judea, late in his ministry... but then that would require re-examining the Gospels (first as literature, second as historical portraits of both Jesus and the context swirling around him) to determine whether Matthew, Mark, Luke and/or John made any efforts to consistently present such a "slight change in message" as their narratives draw towards Jerusalem. And if so, another question is whether that narrative arc would stand as evidence of deliberate chronological or generally developmental narration by the Gospel writers.

Such a new research project only has to begin with one simple chronological supposition. It is both general, basic and easy to detect in the Gospels. The general alignment of episodic content across the Synoptic Gospels (and John, to a lesser extent) divides sharply into two groups content narrated before John's beheading versus after John's beheading. If the episodic content aligns so consistently, perhaps the didactic content was also placed deliberately into two groups - what Jesus preached early in Galilee, and what Jesus preached later in Judea. (Full disclosure: in complete honesty, these last two paragraphs came on me by surprise. The post above was never set up to lead me to chronology. It's just that chronology wasn't far from my thoughts at the moment this post was beginning to wrap up. Go figure!)

Again, I say all this would involve a great deal of future research. I hope someone is game enough to take all of this on. I heartily encourage them hereby so to do!!!

BONUS: One more side observation to all this: the crowd members shouting "make him King" at the seaside around Passover time were most likely those crowd members from outside of Galilee. There was already reason to suppose that some of these multitudes seeking Jesus were substituting one pilgrimage for another, but the present discussion now suggests with more definite specificity that there were most likely Judeans in this crowd of pilgrims, Judeans who were leaving Judea and traveling away from the Temple to go visit Jesus at Passover time, instead.

November 9, 2012

Appeal to Nero? To Nero you will go!

Luke-Acts names "Tiberius" and "Claudius", but with Festus and Paul, it says "Caesar". Not "Nero". Seven times, in Acts 25-28, the text avoids all opportunities to name the specific Emperor and add credibility. But why?

That this Caesar is Nero has been already flatly implied. Any readers familiar with the time of Felix and Festus would have understood this was Nero's era. So why not name drop? I'm no expert on the 5th (6th) Roman Autocrat (Dictator), but I've never heard of any taboo against using his name.

This, along with the inclusion of "Augustus" (Gk: Sebastos) at 25:21 suggests (to me) that Luke was deliberately attempting to honor Nero, because his writing was intended to defend Paul before Nero. Using the imperial title repeatedly and throwing in the superlative honorarium to boot?

It's no smoking gun, but it's absolutely something Luke would have been wise to do at the time.

---------------------
Note: I just noticed this today, so if it's been discussed before feel free to enlighten me, anyone, though I'm sure the late-date advocates can offer some other explanation, if they haven't already. Personally, I will always believe the bulk of Luke-Acts was researched and written drafted during Paul's two year Judean imprisonment. Still, this observation seemed remarkable enough to post on. So there it is, FWIW.

Don't get Miscouraged

Bad success happens to everybody. Accomplishing X proves difficult so you find yourself shifting to Y. At least it's going well, and it's almost the same. But Y isn't X. You've been mistakenly encouraged. Don't get miscouraged.

Should I struggle through disappointment or settle for something else? That's not the problem. The problem is celebrating a victory but failing to notice you've 'won' a whole different fight.

This blog post was ENcouraged today by Seth Godin, who continues to find helpful ways to give us great life reminders. Seth's real focus is studying human endeavor, which applies to us all. Check out "the false proxy trap". I hope it helps reset your focus on the right yardsticks, so to speak.

The "false proxy", btw, is very different from the subordinate goal. Sometimes we have to focus on taking one hill, before we can refocus on taking the city. 

November 5, 2012

The Memory of the Eyewitnesses (or) The potential of *very* early oral tradition, among the Twelve

Let's begin with a thought experiment based on a personal experience of mine, one that some of you may possibly share.

When your preacher gets big, you get visitors. Some of them show up already knowing a lot, about who you all are, about what you all do, and about the famous personality whom you all gather around. Other visitors, however, show up having learned only small bits of info about what's going on, information intriguing enough to get them moving in your direction, and intriguing enough to spark lots more questions once they arrive.

Have you been with this guy very long? What's his story? Where's he from? How did this all get started? What's he like, really? Can you help me meet/see/talk to/follow him?

Jesus' disciples must have dealt with this often. With thousands of visitors, and with only one Jesus, the new people would naturally gravitate towards them. Over time, certain questions probably came up more frequently than others, and it's a worthwhile thought experiment to apply Jesus' own question historically.

Jesus said to his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" Well, so? Who did they say that he was? I mean, during the time of Jesus' actual ministry, what did the disciples tell people about who Jesus was?

Back to the modern analogy, which is timeless enough in the basic dynamics. As any popular group quickly learns, the group-task of repeatedly answering 'FAQs' starts to generate a collection of routine and semi-routine answers. That is, the group as a whole develops one shared collection of frequently offered responses, which become regularly expressed with less and less variance by distinct individuals. Surprisingly, this happens not so much because of any social coercion or group pressure to emulate certain people in answering, but mainly because of a gradual and mutually shared discovery that certain phrasings and certain key details simply prove to be more direct, more efficient, and more helpful in creating positive responses to the persistent, repetitive FAQ experience.

Back to Jesus' disciples, we might be able to do slightly more than imagine. At least, it would be interesting to work through the Gospels and try to re-imagine these stories about Jesus - and Jesus' own stories and sayings - as if some version of them was already being shared very soon after the original events. The more you think about this, the harder it is to imagine things as wonderful as the Beattitudes or the Parable of the Forgiving Father (aka, 'the parable of the prodigal son') or the story about Levi's philanthropy - it's hard to imagine that these stories weren't being shared and repeated as soon as humanly possible.

Let's take, for example, the Lord's Prayer. From one angle, the Gospel story reflects to us that someone was asking for instruction in prayer and was given an illustration in actual words. From another angle, the Gospel text certifies that the words of the LP as we have them were eventually written down. Now, it's yet a third different question to inquire about what happened in between! But what seems more likely? Did someone reconstruct, years later, the kind of prayer Jesus would have prayed, and then attribute those words to him after the fact? ((**  I'm not against the implications of that, btw. It's one possible explanation for the text that we have, and we could still take it as a very faithful rendition of Jesus' actual praying, not to mention (more importantly) of his driving passion in life. **)) Or instead, does it seem more likely that Jesus actually did answer someone's question and then pray something very close to those actual words? ((** Please note, I'm not answering that question! **))

The answer is, we don't know. Of course we don't know. And we'll never know. One theory seems more likely to some, and the other theory is clung to by others. Like many speeches in ancient histories, it may be that the LP is a reconstructed example of the kind of prayer Jesus was remembered as praying. Or, it may somehow be that there was such a prayer on some particular day, so unique, so impactful, so inspirational, and so peculiarly well ordered, that it simply happened to prove extraordinarily memorable.

If, then, Jesus did perhaps pray these words (or something very close to these words) of the Lord's Prayer as we have it today, at least once (or perhaps more than once) then is it not likely that his public prayer on one occasion (if not several) was so amazing and so quotable that - and here we come back to the thougt experiment from at top - that the disciples in this case pursued an active policy of repeating those words? As prayer, to God. As encouragement, to one another. And to new 'visitors', as one illustration of Who Jesus Was. (And if the words aren't "accurate like a courtroom transcript", they could be very close, being based on a recent and collective memory. More on this in a moment.)

In all this, please don't misunderstand. I'm not talking about the reliability of the text. I'm talking about the potential reliability of the text, based on this theory, that development of oral tradition may have begun from the earliest possible dates. (More on "potential reliability" below.)

Imagine for a moment - and this is *not* to write fiction freely but to illustrate the idea that we're grasping at here - imagine that one day someone walked up to the disciples and asked, Does Jesus ever pray? Seems like a likely and plausible question, doesn't it? And it seems equally likely and plausible that a variety of answers emerged, which gradually coalesced into a community FAQ response.

Continuing this thought experiment: let's suppose, for instance, on the first time someone asks, "Does Jesus ever pray?" that maybe one disciple starts to answer that question with an emphatic description of Jesus' devotion. But then someone else wants to prove that Jesus really does pray by giving a concrete example of Jesus actually praying, so that disciples begins offering their own remembered version of that one significant prayer. And perhaps at that point this new strategy seems to be helping, and so it (the strategy) piques the enthusiasm of some other disciples. Next, perhaps, another disciple or three might take turns interrupting and offering their own slightly different versions of different LP phrases. And so on. Or they discussed things among themselves later.

Note again, this is just a hypothetical example. But after this kind of thing happened a few times, with any particular piece of testimony about Jesus, a remembered community version of that testimony would very likely begin to develop. ((** By the way, I'm also not against hypothetically supposing that someone among them was known to have had a very reliable memory, which could have often been helpful... but I'm also not insisting on that wishful thinking being true (aka, 'special pleading') because my point isn't to push the supposition that we have anything close to 'courtroom transcripts'. Again, not only is that not my argument here, that's not even remotely my focus, in this piece. **))

In sum, what I'm trying to suggest might be seen as a blending of work by Richard Bauckham and recent memory studies, such as those by Anthony Le Donne, in that I am starting to see the Gospel material as coming from the Memory of the Eyewitnesses. What that means is, no I don't think we have courtroom transcripts entirely and yes I do see a great deal of merit in the logic of what memory studies have to say about personal testimony. But on the other hand, I still don't see any logic in the idea that oral tradition didn't begin to reach final form until the eyewitnesses started to die off.

The Jews weren't all literate, but they were communally literate. They were a people of the book, and a traditionally encouraged oral readings, much more than oral recitation. Just how quickly the Jesus movement began writing things down is a completely separate question, but here's where I'm settling for now:

I do think there was a middle stage in between the actual Jesus events and the eventual Jesus writings. I do think the limitations of human memory affected the initial transmission of those stories. And I don't think that the entire text of any Gospel account is entirely "accurate" in the sense of a transcript, but I do think that any given portion of a Gospel account could be entirely accurate in the sense of a transcript.

Note, I do not say is. I say could be. and this will be the central refrain of my argument from here on.

Despite all of our best theorizing, we don't know which portions of remembered details may or may not happen to contain a great deal of accuracy. However, by the same token, we also don't know which remembered details don't contain a great deal of accuracy!

Therefore, in the case of the Gospel texts, it is my contention that any particular reference or phrase potentially could have made it through unscathed, or at least relatively unscathed due to limitations of memory. The basic quotes and descriptions of things in the text - not entirely, or on the whole, but in any particular case - are not guaranteed to be, but may potentially be, as reliable as any historical reference ever can be - and to be clear, I am arguing *not* that this is true of the Gospel texts in their entirety, or even on the whole, or in general, but I am arguing that it could be true in any particular case. In the end, we simply don't know that it's not. ((** I won't contend over supernatural assertions today, but naturally, the method I'm proposing is also subject to questions of basic historicity as well, obviously. For instance, if resurrection is simply impossible, then none of this logic can be applied to texts which purport resurrection. **))

Again, this boils down to merging Memory theory with the generally greater reliability of early eyewitness testimony. But again, I'm not trying to apologize for reliability here. What I'm after by increasing reliability is not defense of the sacred (!) but a justification for historiographical exercise.

Why is this a unique or a new suggestion? Here's an illustration to answer that question:

Although a police sketch is not the same as a photo, but a remembered face, drawn skillfully, can be very similar to the actual face. We might not have the nose quite right, but that mole on the cheek might be drawn almost exactly in the right place. If we're handed the sketch, we can easily pick the face out of a lineup. But if wey have only the sketch, having not seen the face, we still have seen something very much like the actual face. We don't know if it's the nose or the mole that's a bit off, or the part of the hair, or the tilt of the eyes. We don't even know if one or two of those details are completely contrived. Nevertheless, with a police sketch in hand we can proceed to more than merely trust that the overall image is very generally close. Critically, and practically speaking, we can do one other thing. If we're looking for this person, we can, should and morally must do this one other thing. We can walk around town looking for this face, while hypothetically considering that any given detail in the sketch could be a part of the telling combination that reveals, finally, which person you're seeking. Now, to complete the analogy, which I think actually holds up more consistently than most analogies do, we may or may not find Jesus' actual face on Main Street today... but while "looking" for the "real" Jesus, we can proceed to hypothetically consider that any given detail in the Gospels could indeed be a part of the telling combination of details which reveals, finally, which Jesus it is that we're seeking.

By the way, this applies not just to sayings but to phrases describing events, also. With memory theory being applied to early testimony from actual eyewitnesses, it's very plausible that any particular detail in a story may be a more or less if not perfectly accurate account of the historical aspect it attempts to describe.

Logically, this much is true: Not that a testimony is accurate, but that it could be accurate, for as much as we know. As with the sketch artist, memory theory suggests that it's most logical to suppose we have the accurate 'gist' more than all the trimmings in perfect detail. But, again, with individual details, it's not necessarily logical to assume that a text doesn't recount that particular detail with a great degree of accuracy.

In all this, I hope it is very clear that I'm not interested in defending a high view of scripture. In fact, I hope it is clear that I've personally retained a high view of scripture throughout this entire discussion, but I hope it's equally clear that I'm not pushing such a view. Not at all. The Gospels say what the Gospels say, and I can't make anyone believe what they say. My struggle is to figure out what we can say, what we can see, and what we can do with these sacred (but not sacrosanct) texts.

Where my interest lies is in building potential for hypothetical reconstruction of History based on the Gospel.

Personally, I think there is great potential indeed. How about you?

November 3, 2012

The Complete Irony of Matthew 2:22

When Joseph fears Archelaus, and chooses Galilee, Matthew winks at the reader. Did Joseph really need divine instructions on where to go? After all, the reader should be aware that Archelaus didn't wind up ruling Galilee after all. His brother Antipas did. That is, at least, Antipas took over Galilee once Caesar finally ruled on King Herod's modified will.

At any rate, Matthew's irony works because *we* know, as his original readers most certainly also did know, that Matthew had no need to fear Archelaus in Galilee. But Matthew says Joseph did not know that, which is why God has to send one more dream with instructions. Trust me. Go north. Well, wphew! Thank God that God knew what Joseph should do! Because Joseph himself, Matthew is telling us, didn't know any place else to go.

This geographical irony is so well recognized among scholars of Matthew's Infancy Narrative that they can refer to it obliquely, or barely in passing, but there is another significant aspect hiding here which I've not seen commented on yet by anyone, and it is simply this. This geographical irony works much better if the reader is somewhat familiar with the basic timeline of that year, the year King Herod died, the year we call "4 BC".

Remember, Matthew claims that Joseph, Mary and Jesus left Egypt on the very night Herod died. Even if critics today take that to be legend (which I do not, but nevertheless) the reference still stands as Matthew's embedded chronological marker, one of three major deaths recorded in Matthew's account. Regardless of Egypt, Matthew is placing Joseph's fear of Archelaus at a time shortly after the death of the King. And (for the critics) if Joseph had not yet left Bethlehem, we should find this massacre of that April was most likely his very best reason for doing so. Likewise (for the faithers) if there was an angel in Egypt, Matthew is still locating this event - Joseph's moment of fearing the new Herod - in a very precise window of time.

Either way, therefore, Matthew is telling us two things, at least: that Joseph took his family to Nazareth for fear of Archelaus, and that it happened very shortly after the King died.

Now, to be more specific; that this time frame includes the famous massacre of thousands at Passover is a fact without question, and IFF the account has a historical basis then it's logical to conclude that the massacre was at least one major factor in Joseph's eventual determination. However, there are no words in Matthew's literary construction that directly refer to any specific events. The Gospel here credits Joseph's fear only to the (purported) news that Archelaus was ruling just like his father.

For Matthew's original readers, a reference to Archelaus at the start of his rule would instantly spark recollection of this massacre. Again, historicity aside, Matthew is directly alluding to a specific time frame that his readers knew well, and Matthew is placing this moment in that one. (More can be said about this. See below.)

The decision to leave Judea is one thing but where to go is another. More critically, why should Joseph need advice from God about how best to avoid Archelaus? And why did Joseph not decide on Galilee for himself? Even without Luke's testimony (which may give us Galilee as Matthew's previously adopted home, but which *cannot* help us in understanding Matthew's text purely on its own terms) Galilee should have seemed like the obvious choice. But this begs the original question: was Galilee even an option?

If Archelaus was truly ruling ἀντὶ ("in the place of" or "just as") his father, does that not include Galilee?

***

(There is much more to be said here in a future version of this piece. For today, let me cut to the chase.)

***

This may be the principle objection to the argument, here. Does the irony in Mt.2:22 require a chronological aspect in order to work, as irony?

At first glance, perhaps not. Obviously there are many adept readers who've recognized the geographic and political irony without taking thought for the chronological context, and certainly without having any idea of the year 4 BC's precise micro-chronology (as here outlined in this paper). However, one consistent failure of virtually all scholars who've commented on this passage is a gross over-simplification (if not complete unawareness) of the transitional phase of Galilean government in the year 4 BC. In short, most writers and commentators routinely sum up this transition in one sentence, to the effect that Herod died and Caesar divided his kingdom into three parts (etc). So summarized, time has stopped moving and all is collapsed into one grammatical 'moment'.

What this reveals is that a trans-chronological irony has been detected by scholars who seem to have only a trans-chronological view of the background material. To be fair, readers only have so much mental space for the geographical catalog! Archelaus gets assigned to Judea, in the mind, and Antipas to Galilee. The nuance of development and sequential interaction is never considered, because, of course, such aspects are the very fabric of what makes someone's study historical. (*** In the Academy, of course, what do we have? The historical-critics are indeed free to treat the Egyptian interlude as a fantasy, but in neglecting the return from Egypt they neglect a historical separation between Joseph and Archelaus that still begs some type of explanation. The evangelical-positivists are indeed free to trust that Matthew is providing reliable facts, but they do not proceed here to analyze and reconstruct historically. All a positivist needs is the text and defense of it. That is less than one half of proper Historiography. ***)

Back to Matthew's original readers; aside from recognizing that Antipas took Galilee and recalling that Archelaus was restricted to Judea for nearly all of his 10 seasons of power, what else did they know? If human nature is any guide, we shouldn't expect Matthew's readers remembered anything with a high degree of precision, and we shouldn't even imagine that many participants, even scant decades later, would have been able to reconstruct conversationally a general progression of all the events from the 8 to 12 months of transition in Galilee. In sum, it is highly unlikely that any of Matthew's readers knew the details from Josephus' sources, or that they knew as much from other available means, and to go further we should be certain that Matthew absolutely did not expect his readers to know the precise chronological map of the year 4 BC. But none of that is necessary to this argument.

What I think Matthew's readers did know - and what Matthew expected them to remember - is that there was a brief period in which Archelaus had absolute power, political, military and geographic. As Matthew does in fact say, the young man had begun ruling ἀντὶ his father, or "just as" Herod had ruled. This, necessarily, incorporates Galilee.

What Matthew's readers should have remembered - or the story they should have known well - is that good news came back from Rome some time later, and that all Herodian subjects became greatly relieved. The Galilean subjects and others outside Judea were obviously free from the hothead. The Judean subjects took benefit from their new ethnarch's resources being halved! And the new subjects of every Herodian tetrarch could be glad that Augustus had shown these three would *not* be allowed to rule "just as" Herod had done.

The point here is vital: that, in general, the experience was tremendously memorable. When it finally came, the news-breaking of Caesar's settlement was, by itself, a significant event and (more importantly) a distinct event coming many moons after the death of King Herod. The chronological context does not have to be anything close to complete, or at all so precise, as it can be made through historical reconstruction. The chronological context for a reader of Mt.2:22 only has to be general. But, and this is the crucial justification for this paper's existence - the chronological context at least has to exist.

It really doesn't take much. Matthew's readers only need be aware that there was a progression, a development, that the Herodian transition took place in stages. The most specific knowledge this reading requires is simply that Archelaus' brutal massacre came immediately after the King's death, and that the news about someone else being ruler in Galilee was sent around much later on.

No matter whether this Gospel was written for passing around in the 30's, 50's or 80's of the first century AD wrote in the mid or late first century, we should feel very confident that this basic distinction would have been carried on by social memory, easily recalled by the group being read to when the Gospel was shared.

The wink and the nod here isn't that Antipas ruled Galilee. It's that Antipas ruled Galilee later on. And, see? That's why God's God. Because He knew in advance why it was going to be safe!

The irony of Matthew 2:22 is geographic, political and chronological, but that irony isn't complete without knowing all three.

October 18, 2012

Words Tyndale Invented

Update (10/18/12): A helpful & courteous web-surfer just alerted me to the following examples, apparently from David Daniell's introduction to a 1989 republishing of Tyndale's New Testament (with updated spellings). Google Books doesn't show me the page with the list, but here are some words from the list my new friend just sent.

Beautiful, Fisherman, Landlady, Seashore, Stumbling block, Taskmaster, Zealous, Jehovah, Passover, Scapegoat, Atonement, Modesty, Mediocrity, Industrious, Long-suffering, Peacemakers

When I had only heard *that* this occurred, my original interest was to wonder which *kinds* of words Tyndale had coined. In particular, I wondered if we owed many theological terms to his personal creativity. The list here suggests these were mostly common words, and generally seem to innovate along the lines of creating new compound words or word endings.

Other than passover, scapegoat and atonement, I don't see anything particularly theological on the short list here. From the number of words (I have heard) Tyndale supposedly coined, there may be much more. Among the phrases my new friend also passed on: gave up the ghost, salt of the earth, salt of the earth, and Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us. Again, none of these seem to be more than straight and common sense translations of phrases which had supposedly not appeared in English before... which makes me wonder what Wycliffe had written in these places. (?!?!?) Or does Wycliffe's language somehow count as middle english, whereas Tyndale came in right before Shakespeare, making the whole topic at hand little more than a (somewhat artificial) category distinction?

At the very least, my new friend confirms that David Daniell's work is the place to begin looking for more information. Obviously, I still don't have time to pursue this any further, but hopefully the next person who googles this page will be encouraged, knowing where to look next. If so, please send back some information. I would love to know more.

The original post I wrote, in September of 2009, now follows:
------------------------------------------------------
The contribution of William Tyndale is inestimably great, and I feel a great personal devotion to his poor, still confounded ploughboy. But I have one nagging suspicion about Tyndale. I was told once - and don't know if it's true - that he invented thousands of words in doing his translations. So far, I can only verify the word 'scapegoat', but wondering what else he made up sometimes bugs me, just a little.

Someday, I would like to find a list of other such words, but it may not exist. Leading Tyndale scholar David Daniell may know. If anyone knows anyone at University College in London, somebody should ask him. But now that I think about it, my interest is probably broader than Tyndale. I want to know, from Wycliffe to Webster, what words entered the English language simply because someone needed to translate scripture in a new way they thought would be more accurate, or more helpful.

I guess someone could computer scan the OED and cross reference it with early English translations, but Daniell said "the great Oxford English Dictionary has mis-attribued, and thus also mis-dated, a number of [Tyndale's] first uses." Sounds like it would actually be a pretty complex research project. Has anything like this been done? Or is anyone working on anything like this at all? If you know, please do tell...

October 16, 2012

Our Incoherent Jesus(es)

The Gospels paint him well, but the church has re-mixed their parts into chaos. I've grown to appreciate that having four perspectives on Jesus should be helpful, but I was never taught to read each account as one presentation, with integrity. I know I wasn't alone. For new readers, especially, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John come across like an unorganized encyclopedia of general information.

It's tragic and fixable, but as of now this is generally true. The four Gospels appear to most readers as one giant hodge-podge of Jesus stories and Jesus sayings... which of course helps explain why cherry picking our favorite bits and baking them into our own personal Jesus(es) has become so commonplace.

However, the print formatting isn't the root of the problem, but a symptom. Evidently, those editorial headings and breaks have remained popular because they must be performing a function that works, at least for someone's purposes. A similar phenomenon is the christian lectionary, also a tool that works precisely as designed. The lectionary doesn't only serve the needs of liturgy. Pre-selecting manageable portions of Gospel text in advance also serves the needs of sermon preparation very well indeed. And sermon prep, for at least seventeen centuries, has been primarily aimed at one thing: keeping people in check. But lest you think I digress...

Here's my point: The cacophony of Jesus views, which we find ourselves with today, is both the direct and indirect but entirely the unintended consequence of the heavy handed manipulation of scripture which has gone on for centuries - by the church!

In other words, we have chaos in our printed Gospels because the publishers mimicked the lectionary, and yet the lectionary faithfully served the needs of church fathers since late antiquity, whose conscious intention was to use scripture as proof texts for sermonizing moralizing - very much like Greek orators had long since employed proof texts from Homer, Hesiod, Plato or Aristotle before speechifying whatever point they believed needed to be driven home, on a given occasion.

My apologies. That was one very long sentence. Let me sum it up in much simpler terms.

Religious leaders have often preferred bite-sized Jesus. He's easier to use.

Now, please note: I'm not even saying the churches' interpretation has necessarily (or ever) been wrong. That's a different discussion. What I'm saying is that the early fathers simplified things for utilitarian purposes and the institutional christendom maintained the tradition for centuries because it worked really well. (Not in my opinion, you gather. But for moralizing and crowd control, it worked amazingly well.) Nevertheless, the usefulness or (un)righteousness of what they did isn't the point at the moment.

This one gigantic, destructive, unintended side-effect is what I'm trying to comment on, today.

The lectionary led to the chaotic format (and our general mental approach) to the Gospels. It isn't that modern scholars and liberal protestants suddenly came along and started spinning their own views of Jesus, based on selecting bite sized chunks of the Gospels. It's that the church taught them how to do this in the first place!!!

It is western christendom which first chopped Jesus up into manageable snippets. Maybe the orthodox (theological) views of Jesus are entirely fair, and maybe they're not, but (again) that isn't my point at the moment. This is: when bite-sized Jesus began to dominate christian interaction with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, I'm telling you, the very integrity of their fourfold witness began to disintegrate, in our perception of them.

Thus, we don't often read Matthew from start to finish, and appreciate his unique view. At least, that's not the standard way to read Matthew among christians at large. And we never go on to (w)holistically combine the four Gospel perspectives into something completely integrative. It's an undeveloped and misguided instinct that attempts to find the solution in Gospel Harmonies, as I once did. But some combination is necessary.

Let me say that again. Combination is necessary.

What's ironic is that, although I keep on repeating this desperately, the western church (officially) does not disagree.

The church has long had its own program(s) for combining the four Jesus portraits in scripture. Anthony Le Donne recently pointed out that we do it in hymns! In more formal writing, Christian Theologians of all stripes are encouraged to draw source material from across all four Gospels when they write about Jesus. Doctrines about Jesus were, are and will continue to be constructed (and refined) from statements and implications found in various parts of the New Testament. So yes. Combination is helpful, apparently. For Theologians, but somehow not for Historians?

Today, churches and individual christians across christendom-at-large have created multiple views of Jesus because theological combination is too susceptible to creative and subjective interpretation, and theological conclusions are too easily justified by scriptural proof texting and romantic literary imaginations. The main reason why churches get away with such obvious cheating is because of Tradition. When new strains of christianity crop up, the charismatic founder simply creates new Tradition, and the succeeding generations of his/her followers reinforce the 'new view'. Still, tradition enforces the problems of subjectivity.

Thus, when someone like Scot McKnight protests against historians by saying "The church has a Jesus", it sounds to me like what he's really saying, "Let the religious authorities deal with this stuff and don't make it more complicated. We're barely holding onto things now as it is!"

Of course, Scot's not hardly wrong about most historians, as it stands.

For the past centry or three, it's become well known that most historians' Jesus(es) are heavily (notoriously) critical (unaccepting) of much (most) of the Gospels' testimony. Thus, the liberal critics have clearly "cheated" in constructing their revised Jesus pictures. And they've done so as the church taught them to do, by picking and choosing which parts of the Gospels to privilege.

Okay. So this is the part where I'm supposed to present you with *my* solution. Afterwards, of course, you'll all (rightfully) ask, "Why does a critique about too many Jesuses end with yet one more plan for discovering "the real Jesus"? At least, you *would* ask that, if I had my own 'new' or 'secret' solution to offer. But I don't. At least, I don't have a 'new' one, and it's not much of a 'secret'.

The secret is that I actually agree with McKnight. The church *does* have a Jesus. Where I disagree with McKnight, however, is that I don't think we're viewing that Jesus holistically enough, and standard religious/theological practice is one of the main causes for this.

The secret is that I actually agree with the critical historians. The "real" Jesus has been obscured by the church. Where I disagree is that this distortion wasn't caused by the Gospel writers, but by centuries of authoritarian manipulation since then.

The secret is that I actually agree with the Theologians. We need to reach across the four Gospel accounts and combine content from all of them them into forming a coherent view of Jesus, for all our sakes' (God and Jesus included!) Where I disagree is that analysis toward forming this combination shouldn't begin with the mind of a poet or a philosopher, but with the basic and common sense inquiries of a historian, or a journalist.

The secret is that I trust the Gospels, but I did not personally find a coherent picture of Jesus in them until long after I started reading the Gospels historically, and long after I began focusing primarily on the types of questions a journalist would ask ('who?', 'what?', 'when?', 'where?', 'how?', and 'with whom?') instead of starting first with a theo-philosopher's interest ('why?', or 'what does this mean?') or a moralists ('what does this tell us about how to behave?').

A theologian will tell me we can't answer those journalist questions with any kind of certainty. The same theologian will most likely also tell me how certain the trinity is, or the nature of destiny, or how salvation depends on sincerity (but not really), or on doing good works (but not really), or what Jesus meant by any given passage, plucked at random, from the four perfect accounts we've been given of the Good News about Him.

Ahem. So much for all that. Let me sum up and conclude.

The problem isn't the Gospels. The problem is how we approach them.

Christian views of Jesus are generally and often wildly incoherent. And yet, HE is right there, in the Gospels.

What are YOU going to do about that? What am I?

Let's find out together with diligence and humility. Let's pray that God will show us how to quit cheating in constructing a combined view of the fourfold witness to Jesus. Let's stop trying to use such reconstructions to help us promote today's ecclesial or political agendas. Let's take on the best qualities of everyone I just criticized, and take on none of their faults. Let's take the faith of a Theologian and the critical mind of a Historian. Let's take a long, slow, painstaking, historical look at the Gospels. Let's take the rest of our lives doing it.

Let's allow the Gospels to be what the Gospels actually are, and let's allow the Past to be what the Past actually is: not what we wish it to be.

The Gospels reveal Jesus. The "real" Jesus is right here, in their pages, but some combination is necessary.

May all readers (& writers) take care... and may the Lord reveal himself to those who would see.

Amen?

October 8, 2012

Scot McKnight's infuriating Jesus-Bubble

I was not angry with Scot's opinions on Jesus & History until this instant. Oh, I've been disappointed before. Scot said things in 2010 that made me cheer, and then left me puzzled. And it's no stretch to say his book, Jesus Creed, was a lot more like something from Max Lucado than David McCullough. But I really am trying to quit expecting Theologians to be Historians. I'm about to try even harder, too. But in Scot's contribution to the Ledonne'r Party's new Jesus book, from the #JesusCriteria Conference , called Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity... well, first read it for yourself. Then read on to see the (unexpected?) reason it made me so angry.

From the penultimate paragraph of Scot's chapter, which was apparently supposed to be crushing:
[T]he historical Jesus enterprise is no use to the church [because] studies shift and change, from generation to generation, and that means the Jesus offered changes, and that means the church, if that Jesus is of value to the church, would be asked to re-do its Christology every generation. Whose Jesus will we trust or follow or worship? Reimarus's? Strauss's? Weiss's? Schweitzer's? Bultmann's? Kasemann's? Bornkamm's? Jeremias's? Dodd's? Montefiore's? Cadoux's? Ladd's? Meier's? Borg's? Crossan's? Levine's? Hengel's? Allison's? Bock's? Wright's? These are not the same Jesuses and that means we have to choose. Who will do the choosing? The local pastor? If so, do you realize how many more Jesuses we have? The denomination? Can you imagine that happening on a denominational floor? Nicea happened once. Or should we vote on it, a thoroughly Western approach to knowledge if ever there was one?
Now, reading this, can anyone guess why that made me mad? 

It's not because of the voting. Not that I understand why Scot thinks a denominational floor (convention?) is a bad place to discuss finer points about Jesus' identity and life story... or why he seems to think it's a good place for anything else. Or why Scot thinks Nicea was good, but that voting is bad. (Did the Nicean bishops just smile and nod to the Emperor? And is that what Scot wants?) Yes, western individualism has brought us quite the cacophony of purported Jesus-es, and given the ridiculousness of many such Jesus-es, I absolutely agree with Scot that this is not an ideal situation. But, right there, that's the point.

Do you see yet? This is what kills me about the quote: Scot writes as if he's describing some preventable but dystopian future, within christendom. But it's not hardly a yet-to-be situation. We are already thick into this chaos!!!!!

Dear Scot, all due respect completely aside, what kind of bubble are you living in? Do you really think all the christians with whom you worship in Chicago share the same view of Jesus? And if so, Scot, are you under the further deluded impression that this particular shared view somehow aligns with the "one" officially sanctioned view handed down by "the church"? Which church is that, again? Yours? Rome's? Constantinople's? Luther's? Calvin's? John Wesley's? John Darby's? Watchman Nee's? Billy Graham's? John McArthur's? Francis Chan's? Mark Driscoll's? Rob Bell's? Frank Viola's? (Etc.)

Again and again, Scot writes of "the church's Jesus". Academically, he refers to the "one" Jesus we have in our four canonical Gospels. On paper, perhaps. But which Jesus do you wake up and pray to, dear Scot? Matthew's Jesus? Mark's Jesus? Luke's Jesus? Or John's Jesus? Do you change your mind every day, sometimes preferring to pray to the shining Jesus of Revelation? I trust you don't go as far as Ricky Bobby, the character Will Ferrell portrayed as preferring to pray to the "eight pound, six ounce, baby Jesus", but Ferrell was laser honed into this issue 

It's like Richard Bauckham said at Baylor last year, in a group conversation after the lectures: we cannot wake up and decide to call on Luke's Jesus today. Therefore, some combination is inevitable. And that, Scot, is what the work of HISTORY, actually, does.

Neglect that... deny that... ignore that... avoid that... and you only wind up perpetuating the chaos.

For worse, and perhaps not often for better, we each already have our own personal Jesuses. It happened a long time before we had Matt Mikalatos or Depeche Mode to show up and observe that we did.

In 2010, Scot tried to make clear that "the HJ enterprise" was his target. Not "historical" work in general. But now he's gone farther, and the fact that he's against all historiography on the Gospels is only slightly less infuriating than the fact that - apparently - Scot believes christendom is currently insulated from such chaos and can remain so if we just ignore the academic Jesus-es.

Our people perish for lack of knowledge. We have the Gospels. But how can we understand what we read if we have no one to explain it for us?

We need Christian Historians, not to defend the Gospels (like Bock & Wright), but to build a coherent portrait of Jesus through performing competent historiography on top of the Gospels.

We need this very badly. And I confess, the real reason I get mad at disinterested scholars like poor Scot McKnight... honestly... is because I still deeply and desperately wish the academic version of this were going to be pioneered by someone other than myself. But if it is to be, it may be up to me. And I'll have to stop complaining about others failing to do what only I seem to care about doing...

Either way, we need Christian Historians to do Historiography on the Gospels.

One way or another, dear God, hasten the day...

October 6, 2012

How old was Paul of Tarsus?

The question came in my g-mail this morning and a quick response grew into this blog post.

The Question: "How old do you think Paul was - at any given time - let's say his death?"

My answer: The only educated guess I can make on Paul's age would be as follows, based on the most likely dates as I've worked out Paul's timeline:

Paul died in 64 AD, and met Jesus on the Damascus road in 34 AD. I don't know how long Pharisaical training used to take, but I don't suppose we should imagine Paul was less than 20 years old at Stephen's death. At Paul's own death, untimely as it was, being caused by execution and not by old age, it wouldn't be very reasonable to imagine Paul living past age 60. Kings and Emperors lived to 70 sometimes, but they had the best of comfort, health, medicine, etc. Common folks very often didn't live to age 50, which may help a bit to explain the remark about Jesus' age in the Gospel of John. Today we think of 100 as an age most people don't reach, but the few who do are considered really old, and it seems to me '50' had that same relevance then.

So, then, here is one possible reconstruction: If it was possible to become "a Pharisee of Pharisees" by age 20, then we're safer putting Paul's age at Stephen's death much closer to age 20 than to age 30. On the road to Damascus, then, Paul would be in his early to mid twenties. At his return to Tarsus, only 3 to 4 years older than that. At the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), Paul would be in his mid to late 30's. At his death in Rome, Paul "the aged" would indeed be around 50 years old, but probably not much older.

It's hard to imagine Paul living that long with all the travelling he did and all the beatings he took, but of course one option is to assume divine providence over Paul's longevity. Still, it's more reasonable to put the execution near 50 (than 60). Also, "Pharisee of Pharisees" doesn't sound like he'd attained lofty status. If Paul started training around age 13, he could easily have felt very full of his own knowledge by age 18. On the balance, then, my "possible reconstruction" above could be stretched a bit in either direction, which makes me happy enough to stick with these dates, given the understood "margin of error".

Calendar Year        Paul's Age (approximate, plus or minus 3 to 5 years)
AD 34  --->                         21     (Damascus Road experience)
AD 35  --->                         22     (Unknown activity in Nabatea)
AD 36  --->                         23     (Paul left Nabatea, returned to Damascus, fled to Jerusalem)
AD 37  --->                         24     (Left Jerusalem for Tarsus, this year or late last year)
AD 38  --->                         25     (In Antioch with Barnabas, by this year at the latest)
AD 39  --->                         26
AD 40  --->                         27
AD 41  --->                         28
AD 42  --->                         29     (Approximate year of Paul's "3rd heaven" vision)
AD 43  --->                         30
AD 44  --->                         31     
AD 45  --->                         32
AD 46  --->                         33     (Approximate date of the prayer meeting in Acts 13, plus 'trip prep')
AD 47  --->                         34     (Approximate start of the Gentile mission with Barnabas)
AD 48  --->                         35     
AD 49  --->                         36     
AD 50  --->                         37      (Council of Jerusalem, this year or last; Paul writes Galatians)
AD 51  --->                         38      (Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth; Paul writes 1 & 2 Thess)
AD 52  --->                         39     (Corinth, Jerusalem, Antioch of Syria)
AD 53  --->                         40     (Paul joins Aquilla & Priscilla in Ephesus)
AD 54  --->                         41     (Paul writes 1 Corinthians, before Claudius' death in October)
AD 55  --->                         42     (Paul by this time is said to demonstrate some healing ability)
AD 56  --->                         43     (Paul writes 2 Corinthians, after planting a church in Dyrrachium)
AD 57  --->                         44     (Paul writes Romans, 1 Timothy, arrested in Jerusalem)
AD 58  --->                         45     (Caesarea prison, from AD 57 to 59)
AD 59  --->                         46     (Caesarea to Crete, shipwreck on Malta)
AD 60  --->                         47     (Paul reaches Rome)
AD 61  --->                         48     (Paul writes Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, this year or last)
AD 62  --->                         49     (Paul writes Philippians, this year or last)
AD 63  --->                         50     (Paul released, this year or last; arrested again in Asia Minor)
AD 64  --->                         51     (Paul writes 2 Timothy; Nero persecutes the Roman church)

Note One: I do not entertain the timelines that keep Paul alive after Nero's purge for a number of reasons. For a brief sketch of my Timeline on Paul's activity, see here.

Note Two: I do hope no one is eager to use Paul's age as a comparison for accomplishments, against themselves or against anyone else. For one thing, that's not at all fair. More importantly, the best use of reconstructed data like this is to help us flesh out the details of Paul's story. Hopefully there's a lot we can learn from Paul's life, and not just from Paul's words. Perhaps the best thing a list like this can accomplish is to make us think four-dimensionally about a human being whose living and active engagement with God's mission on Earth was much more than the sum of his collected thoughts put down on paper.

One last thing, just because it's been on my mind.

The work of History, rightfully, is about taking 2 and 2 and coming up with 5. It doesn't give us rules to stand on. It gives us potential realities to consider... and a fleshed-out depiction of actual reality - while understanding that it happens to be an approximate and reconstructed reality - is always going to be much more valuable for real people to consider, and much more enriching for our actual lives, than always focusing merely on extracted principles, taken at random from decades of thought, which are then artificially cut down to a [seemingly] manageable size.

"Paul" is not a system of thought. "Paul" is not a collection of writings.

Paul of Tarsus was a man of God who walked the earth and built the church.

Examine his life, and examine your own. And please, God, be merciful to all of us, after that!

September 28, 2012

on Jesus' not being married

April DeConick has the most intriguing post I've yet seen on the recent discussion. The intrigue I feel has - of course - nothing to do with Jesus' historical life, but with the religious traditions about celibacy. And, obviously, that's the main reason this fake gospel text is being pushed in the media and blogosphere.

Catholic priests shouldn't be forced to abstain from marriage. That's obvious, except maybe to diehard Roman Catholics themselves. But what can you say? Some traditions die harder than others.

What offends me about the recent silliness is the same thing that often offends me about religious arguments over history. It should not be necessary to create revisionist backgrounds in order to promote current agendas. Promoting this idea that Jesus was married - as a political ploy - is no better than David Barton's false characterization of America's Founders as proto-evangelicals.

As for Jesus himself, he almost certainly remained single, but why? I can only think of two possible explanations, and the first - divine guidance - may be at least somewhat true but isn't worth much discussion for historiographically. The more practical reasons are what I find interesting.

A parallel presents itself in the larger issue of family-in-general. The reason Jesus denied having a mother was most likely to protect her. We don't know how many years in advance Jesus conceived (or had revealed to him) what his mission was going to be, but once that mission began the threats were obvious. The Gospel of John suggests Jesus had some inkling in advance, because it suggests Jesus moved his mother and father from Nazareth to Capernaum. The Gospel of Luke shows why Nazareth may not have been safe for Jesus' parents and brothers. (The married-off sisters were no longer accountable.) The Gospels also suggest some advance foresight about Jesus' final fate, and securing his mom's future welfare at Golgotha. The man who washed others' feet would not fail to care for his intimates.

In this light, it's not extreme to deduce that Jesus' bachelorhood was most likely chosen responsibly. How could the Lamb of God, who came for the world, commit himself to take care of a wife? As songwriter Rich Mullins said in the song Homeless Man, "There were pretty maids all in a row/ Who lined up to touch the hem of your robe/ But you had no place to take them, so/ You did not take a wife."

But what of Jesus' marriageable age? Why did he not marry earlier in life? Again, there's the catch-all Divine Guidance, but that's not very helpful. Much better, perhaps, is specific estimating. If Jesus predicted his death near the end of his ministry, and if Jesus predicted his Mom's need for safety just before the start of his ministry, then how far in advance might Jesus have predicted his unsuitability as husband material?

For the sake of discussion, let's assume girls marry around 13 to 15, to established bachelors with some means, maybe 18 to 20 or more. That would mean Jesus needed to have some specific sense of his future mission about ten or fifteen years before being baptized by John. I won't seek to defend or explore that idea further right now. It's enough at the moment to delineate the boundaries. This is what we're discussing.

It's wrong to suggest Jesus' failure to marry was all about sex. Wrong on all sorts of levels. It's just as wrong to think the only alternative to celibate Jesus was sexually active Jesus. These are twin sides of the same obsession coin. We ought neither be overly prudish nor overly sensual. Nor should we be, hypocritically, both. But now I really digress.

As for Jesus himself, I find it much more historically plausible to suggest simply that the young man didn't marry because of a secret and building fanaticism. Such an 18 or 20 year old wouldn't be too far removed from - and I think also fits very nicely as a natural extension of - the 12 year old we read about via Luke. We don't have to suppose God spoke and said, "By the way, don't get married." We just have to understand this very special young man had begun, from an early stage in life, to form a specific direction for his future life. And just like the 12 year old was ready to consecrate his future to the academics in Jerusalem, the 18 to 20 year old (it seems) was prepared to consecrate himself more than that.

It wasn't anti-sexual. It was devotional. I've known more than one teenage (male) athlete who broke up with his girlfriend for hopes at a golden season in his sport of choice. What - I'm proposing - Jesus actually did isn't too much different, in aspect, from that.

September 1, 2012

About Borg's Chronological Aims...

Marcus Borg wants to see the New Testament's 27 documents rearranged "based on contemporary mainstream biblical scholarship" and "scholarly consensus about the basic framework." This article is so interesting, I don't quite know where to start. For brevity's sake, I'll just cut to the chase.

If any mainstream publications start making hay with such a "chronological new testament", one based on the liberal consensus Borg recommends, then I predict one of two reactions from the conservative side (who are tragically always reactive instead of proactive about the NT historically). Either (a) a handful of contrary projects will develop, with a more scripture-affirming timeline, which might raise the concern among evangelicals that NT chronology needs more attention (thus providing us with chronology projects deeply flawed in another direction, because conservatives generally care more about shoring up doctrine than for reconstructing actual history)... Or (b) a handful of strong authority figures will simply circle the wagons around canonical sequencing by decrying once more the feasibility of knowing such dates with much confidence (as they go on passionately debating the finer points of much more knowable things, such as precisely how much God does or does not predetermine).

I don't honestly know which of those two outcomes I'd prefer less.

The major parts of Borg's rationale, I agree with. His "consensus" package of dates, not so much. Yes, it makes a huge difference in the way we see the New Testament, and yet it's for that very same reason that we certainly do ourselves more harm than good with the wrong sequence of dates.

Obviously, all this merely begs the main question once more. What are the right dates? As it so happens, a couple of Bibliobloggers were on Facebook just this week, discussing how there's so little consensus among various NT Chronologies currently 'out there', and how it's easier to just make up one's own and then look for whomever's published work most closely approximates that, to get support! (Yes, I'm pretty sure they were mostly just joking, but it's not far from the truth.)

I have so much work still cut out for me. (He said, unashamedly.) Though it is not now what it might have been in recent years. (He said, mysteriously.)

More to come on my changing objectives, anon, but unless I suddenly win the lotto (anyone want to buy me a ticket?) I'll just keep battling circumstances to carve out more significant project time. Any year now, I really ought to start hitting my groove. Until then, I'll just let these others speak for themselves, without further commentary, from me, today:

Marcus Borg:  A Chronological New Testament

Aside from 347 comments at the moment (which I've not yet read more than a dozen of), the post also has over a thousand shares and 'likes', and a couple of bibliobloggers have already responded:

Phillip J. Long: Reading the New Testament, Chronological or Canonical?
Victoria Gaile Laidler: Chronological or Canonical?

Perhaps more opinions will follow. I'd love to see yours, in the comments below...


August 23, 2012

Wanted: Gospel Historians

"[A conservative] Historian of Jesus' life needs to believe in the texts of the Four Gospels, but analyze those texts historically. She must read, consider and comment on them while asking different sorts of questions than theologians typically ask. She must write different sorts of overviews than theologians have usually written. Like any good Theologian, she must build up and make more of scripture's God-breathed content, in ways that neither add to nor take away from scripture's claims, but which enhance what is already contained there. The Historian must engage with historical issues without ignoring theological truths, and construct narrative summaries without ignoring the deep perspectival distinctions of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

"Like any good work of Theology, a Gospel based History should impact readers by making them *more* eager to dive into the scriptures, not less. Such a project should neither be calculated to inspire a radical new vision OR a refreshed reinforcing of traditional views on church history. Instead, a Gospel History project should be expected to render fresh four-dimensional (ie, fully spatial & temporal) perspective on historical facets of the original Gospel Story - especially on the most living and active aspects of that holy scripture. Properly situated, the goal of any such work will be merely to bring out more fully the actual vibrancy of the One Story which is already there to be found in the four irreplaceable Gospels."

--excerpted from my header page, Gospel History. To read the whole thing, click here.
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