April 3, 2012

Temple Cleansing(s) ...again?

So an apocalyptic Jewish messiah walks into Jerusalem's Temple and says, "Change for a denarius? I only change for the Dominus." Ah hah. Heh. Hoo. Ha ha. Ahhhh. (Sigh)

But seriously, folks...

Brian LePort just reminded me of the age old conundrum: When did Jesus cleanse the Temple? John depicts Jesus overturning money tables just before he gets famous. Matthew, Mark & Luke show the same behavior right before Jesus gets killed. It's a problem. Unless it's not. Unless it's also a problem to say that it's not. (Got all that? Sure you do. Moving on.)

For centuries now, the debate has been over which Gospel's "timeline" to believe? Naturally, some propose they're both right, that it happened twice. Politically, camps tend to split based on how we view scripture. The closer one is to fundamentalist literalism, the more likely one claims two cleansings occurred. The closer one is to theological liberalism, the more likely one claims Mark is right and John took some liberties. It's been this way for a good long while. But it really should stop.

Neither position can be defended arguing solely from Gospel texts. Both positions stake claims they cannot possibly verify. We don't know whether a similar thing happened twice, or just once. We don't know whether John fudged, or even drew upon accurate sources! Scholars argue and "vote", but no one knows. We're guessing based on scenarios mostly imagined, mostly conjured up just to support our prejudicial preference in the first place.

But I do have a suggestion. We might just re-frame the debate.

And this doesn't necessarily help my position. Necessarily. Watch and see.

Here it is:

Instead of asking whether this or that text is more accurate (or, perhaps, more accurately located within the chronology of it's narrative context), and - even better - instead of focusing on text at all, we might just focus on Jesus and what we know (or don't know) of his general behavior. Since we all tend to accept the context of both stories, that Jesus did attend Passover at both the onset and the culmination of his public ministry, let's start with just this much:

Was Jesus at both Passovers in Jerusalem? (Yes.) Did he enter the Temple at some point during each pilgrimage? (Doubtless, yes.) Were the money changers probably there every year during Pontius Pilate's tenure? (Almost certainly, yes.)

Now the key question:

At which of those two Jerusalem Passovers did Jesus arrive in the Temple, see the Money changers, and NOT assault their little folding table empires?

Choose. That is, based on anything and/or everything that we know about Jesus' life, behavior and ministry phase(s), do you think Jesus more likely FAILS to rip into those guys: (A) early, (B) late, or (C) never.

Personally, I don't believe he'd have skipped either opportunity.

My methodological point is that this question *should* have nothing at all to do with defending scripture or trusting narrative sequence or dueling anyone's source theory. Of course, that's precisely what it HAS been at many times in the past, but at this point it's mainly become a familiar problem to review, as Brian just did so thoroughly. But still, IMHO, the question ought to be focused on Jesus' characteristic behavior and motivations. (Quite honestly, I mean something like Dale Allison's recent encouragements to move from the particular to the general. But if you're not familiar with that, forget I said anything.)

If you don't frame the question in terms of textual contradictions, it's a non-debate. It's just a character question. If you don't set out to defend or debunk fundamentalist readings, it's really possible to get back to Historical thinking about actual persons who did things in particular places. Then reading the story might be all about looking at Jesus again. Maybe.

In some ways, the question here is a bit more like asking, Which time did Caesar visit Germany when he DIDN'T kick butts and take names? (Answer: None times.)

However, if we had fewer sources on Augustus' military career, someone might have suggested that Dio Cassius borrowed liberally from both Tacitus and Livy and rearranged some of their military content to make his own story more interesting in places. Of course, we do have other sources on Augustus' German campaigns. And if Caiaphas had left us a diary we might not be guessing at Jesus' Jerusalem rap sheet, or how long it was. On which again, of course, nobody knows.

In Augustus' case - there's nobody staging debates about which German campaign is more likely "the original one". But in Jesus' case, we've only got two sources (John & the 'Synoptic' view). And while we can't (or at least certainly shouldn't) try to dream up a new hypothetical source, we can still look patiently for additional evidence to arise... especially if the evidence might be already there.

The logical options with two texts are either believe in them both, or else pit them against one another. But other logical questions apply in a proper historical inquiry, such as: Who was where, at such-a-time? What was happening? And based on everything else that we know about these people, how would they most likely have behaved around one another in such circumstances?

The real world of activity isn't necessarily lying "behind" the text, and it may or may not contradict the text, but the real world of activity is absolutely more than the text.

Personally, I can't believe Jesus wouldn't knock down at least some of those tables on both occasions he went past those guys. Say what you want about scripture's exact wording in all four gospels, and accuse John of mucking with chronology if you really feel that you must, but take a brief moment to play out the probable moves of the people we know were involved at both possible crime scenes. I dare say the argument for two cleansings makes more sense from this angle than for one.

Granted, there's still no airtight case, either way. But at least now we're discussing something potentially actual, not completely theoretical.

The historical debate about Jesus and money lenders should have more to do with the probable actions of Jesus & the lenders than with hypothetical notions about Mark, John, Matthew & Luke.


April 2, 2012

The Nazareth Puzzle

Small towns aren't perfect but they usually know what they're doing. Every village may have its share of idiots, thieves and abusers, but long lived towns generally benefit from having developed, over time, their own brand of tried and true customs, mainly interpersonal channels for dealing with trouble, and for keeping the peace.

Granted, successful villages also tend to favor the powerful over the peons, but for most of history the peons haven't had much else to hope for besides their resulting if tiny share of the general welfare. In most instances, a dry crust with peace and quiet actually does far outweigh the great cost of tempting fate for remote chances of achieving remarkable fortune in big cities, such as Jerusalem, Athens, or Rome.

Yes, we're talking about ancient small towns. Some general principles do apply in all ages.

In the foothills of Galilee, Nazareth was such a place. The advantageous location had probably been claimed and reclaimed through the eons but the village of Jesus' day had most likely built up its particular customs for a hundred years (give or take) before Joseph wed Mary. The synagogue (gathering) most likely met in a multi-use space, but had well established customs and leadership, and probably a decent collection of scrolls. Herod's tax collectors made the rounds at least once a year. Jerusalem Pharisees might come to visit once in a while. The Sabbath service was well attended and featured several hours of discussion on scripture, of whatever quality. The women were subordinate to their husbands, who in turn submitted to the town's leadership, which was undoubtedly influenced both by the synagogue leaders and the most prominent (local) landowners. Multi-family households were probably common, as were dawn to dusk days for the peasants at certain times of the year. The annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem was an opportunity to represent Nazareth, not a requirement for everyone. Would be looters were not left behind without watchful authorities prepared to apprehend and cast judgment upon them.

In all, the data we do have about Nazareth fits the description of a typical and well established small town, particularly of the first century era. And this was the town in which Jesus was well liked, but not seen as particularly vocal or wise about God-business. He grew in favor with his fellow Nazarenes, but they did not know he was gradually mounting up spiritual wisdom beyond anyone's years.

How was Jesus so well liked, in a town such as this? So well liked, and yet so poorly known?

THIS is the primary question to ask about Jesus' so-called "silent years" in his hometown.

I have asked it before, and I'll ask it again. But I wonder - what's your answer?

Think on this, please.

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