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.

August 18, 2012

Did Judas let Peter into Caiphas' house?

Johannine scholars traditionally assume "the other disciple" in 18:15 refers to the beloved disciple, and this is due to the similar language of 20:2-8. However, the language is not identical, especially because 20:2 names "the beloved disciple" before going on to use "the other" repeatedly, whereas 18:15 says no such thing, but specifically identifies this particular "other disciple" as being known to the high priest. Of course, the Gospel has just named Judas as being acquainted with both high priests, at 18:5, when it said Judas took a group of men from those priests on their way to get Jesus.

Why would the Gospel writer avoid naming Judas? The most obvious reason has to be the great shame of that situation. The writer can trust his readers will recognize Judas' position here, and sees no need to "speak" the disgraced name, which might only revive indignation for the reader's audience, just as the writer's main narrative is productively heading elsewhere. Judas, at this moment, literarily, plays only a bit role. He gets Peter inside. But for this analysis, going forward, I am less interested in the writer's narrative purpose than in the historical situation being represented by the narrative here.

Let's try this on in four dimensions, and see how well it "fits" what we know. Reconstruct the actual situation, in your mind, from the traitor's perspective. But please note: we are not here to imagine up clever or romantic scenarios, for fun. We must simply consider the basic possibilities, according to the known facts. (The main reason we should do this because they are being ignored; both of them - the possibilities, and the facts!)

Judas, inside, sees Peter's face at the door. An hour or so prior to this moment, Judas had been lucky to keep more than a swords' length of distance from Peter. But now? Judas is safely inside the compound. Surely Peter won't charge in waving a sword, and if he does, he won't get far. But perhaps Peter has come to consider switching sides, as Judas has? [However slight that possibility seemed to Judas, it would most naturally have occurred to his thoughts at that moment. Apart from unimaginable emotions, this moment for Judas was an irresistible turnabout situation. It's like Antony approaching the conspirators after Caesar's execution. It's like Hector coming outside the walls to Achilles. It's like Mordecai suddenly finding the upper hand against Haman.]

With the tables turned, Judas has nothing to fear, at least physically. Thus, evidently the key factor was Judas' curiosity at that moment - Peter's face at the door! - the possibilities were simply too intriguing. (Or perhaps is was simply some shred of loyalty. These two had just been close colleagues for 2 to 4 years. That can't be discounted.)

So Judas motions to the slave girl who lets Peter inside, proceeding to ask him the most natural and obvious question. Since it was one of Jesus' disciples who wanted Peter inside, clearly, Peter himself must also be one of Jesus' disciples. Thus she asks - Are you one of the captive's disciples? And when Peter responds in the negative, he therefore immediately has to distance himself from wherever it was that this other disciple is standing. He cannot stand with Judas, for multiple reasons.

A natural, logical flow of events is in evidence here. Peter doesn't randomly stand by the officers' fire. Peter is actively trying to avoid looking like he's with Judas! And the ironic thing is that this first cursory denial of Jesus now appears to be - somewhat self-consciously, in that moment - a strategic denial of Judas.

Strategically, what else could Peter have said? If Peter admits being a disciple of Jesus, then he's got to go stand next to Judas, ostensibly as an additional witness to Jesus' identity (and guilt?). Otherwise, if Peter is seen as being one who was with Jesus but who now won't stand with Judas, then Peter's own life could be in danger. "Are you with Jesus?" is tantamount to "Are you with Judas?". Now it isn't so simple.

But let's go back to the door, for a moment.

We've all read the story so many times that it seems predictable, inevitable. Peter comes up to the door and gets in. That's what we all do, at doors. We walk up and go in. In this case, however, considering the facts at that point, the option of waltzing into the high priest's own house - I dare say - should very most likely NOT have seemed natural, predictable or inevitable, in that moment, to Peter! No, indeed.

So, then, what's a more likely progression for what must have happened?

At the moment he looked through the gates, Peter was still safe. But Judas motions for him to be let in... and suddenly Peter was faced with a choice. Again, as overly familiar story readers, we've mainly come to suppose Peter looked in as if expecting to be let in. But since this cannot have been likely, we should take a moment to consider the complexity of the situation just at this point.

Judas sends the slave girl. Does Peter see the girl first, or does he see Judas first? We don't know. Does Peter step in because he thinks its a fortunate mistake, and then see Judas and realize what a pickle he's in? Possibly. Does Peter see Judas and then decide to step inside anyway? On sheer nerve, or on morbid impulse, or on irrational late night adrenaline? Maybe. Does Peter simply reason that if he took off running at this point they might start chasing him, and feel forced to step inside suddenly? Perhaps.

It could have been anything like this, though we'll never know which it was. (In that moment, Peter himself might not have known for sure who he saw, or even why he stepped in. What an impossibly stressful moment that must have been!) But there is something we should conclude with great confidence here.

One scenario that absolutely does not fit the text is to imagine "the beloved disciple" somehow being chummy with Caiaphas, while Peter gets the third degree in the courtyard from servants. That makes no sense whatsoever. No, despite unknown circumstances, and whichever reconstructed set of details may seem more likely (about how Peter got inside), the telling detail here is that "the other disciple" escapes scrutiny while Peter does not, and that this occurs even though it was precisely by their apparent association with one another that the slave girl first inferred that connection.

If their connection caused scrutiny for Peter, but not for this "other disciple", than he must have been Judas.

From a Gospel perspective, from a narrative perspective, from a literary or theological perspective, this sacred passage of scripture at hand makes the same point, holds the same purpose, and illustrates all the same themes, regardless of my reconstructed scenarios, and regardless of whether this question is answered in the positive or the negative. However, from an historical perspective, the entire situation makes a great deal more sense when we realize it had to be Judas who told Caiaphas' servant to let Peter inside.

One surprising historical detail does suggest itself, that may provide fresh insight into what happened within Peter himself, on that night. At the initial moment of truth, when Peter denied that he knew Jesus, it was most likely a conscious strategic decision by Peter to avoid associating himself with Judas. (See above.) In other words, it wasn't "Are you one of his disciples?" that Peter first denied. It was, "Aren't you one of his disciples too." No. I'm not. Not like he is. Not like Judas.

In this light, our traditional analyses of Peter's failure suddenly seem so two-dimensional.

"Do you know Jesus or not?" If it had been just that simple, Peter might still have denied Jesus, but it would have been a much more conscious denial. In such a case, the cock crow would not have surprised him. If there had been less complexity in Peter's motivation for his answers, there would have been nothing to realize later.

And perhaps this gives a worthwhile takeaway, an unexpected reward that sometimes comes from such historical study.

It isn't usually the clear and present threats to our allegiance that most challenge us.

It's when social and political situations get complicated that we have a harder time judging our own motivations, declarations, and loyalties, and whether we stand for the Lord.

August 12, 2012

My long shift towards academia

In a whole different context, the other day, Larry Hurtado just happened to sum up why I've felt increasingly certain (more and more, the past few years) that it's more important to present my historical arguments to an academic arena than it is to just 'write my version' of NT History and 'put it out there' with some apologetic appendices, and then hope for the best. Nope. I'm now aiming to write books and articles directly for the SBL audience.

As Hurtado just said:
serious scholarly work won’t get done in blog-comments.  The way things work is that those who seek to influence scholarly/informed opinion (1) do the hard work involved in mastering the evidence and scholarly procedures, (2) produce sufficiently informed and well-argued cases that are directed to those competent to judge matters, (3) these are reviewed and assessed by fellow scholars (and, as anyone who has been so assessed can vouch, it isn’t an easy ride), and (4) if found persuasive, or at least a cogent alternative view, the work gets recognized and its views treated as worth the time of scholars.
In personal terms, for my book projects, this means I'm no longer as driven to portray the final vision I reached, so much as the process which led me there. I'm no longer as eager to push my version of the NT timeline, so much as to point out the boundaries and discuss all the options, while freely inviting enthusiasts to try the task for themselves. Yes, I began feeling strongly this way about two or three years ago. What's recently changed is that I've become fully convinced of the tactical necessity.

The only alternative is to out-do everyone else in dogmatic assertions. Even if I were going to do well at that, my persuasion would most likely die when I do. What I have to share is a lot more important than me.

At any rate, since all of this remains easier said than done, the blogging will remain sporadic. The academic work I pursue in my spare time may increase if my new career arc keeps improving. Time shall tell... as it always does. Keep on listening...

August 6, 2012

Why did Paul write Philippians?

In four paragraphs, inspired by an earlier exercise:

In about 61 AD, or about four years after the last time they laid eyes on Paul's face, the church in Philippi received news from Italy. (This very strongly implies that the church hosted Tychicus and Onesimus on their long hike from Rome to Colossae, on which see Colossians.) As the brothers and sisters learned about Paul's recent struggles, including illness, imprisonment and (as usual) poverty, some saint/s in Philipi were able to leverage their connections [perhaps chiefly as members of a Latin Colony] so the whole church could send Paul the two best kinds of encouragement - both words and money. In turn, Paul - feeling equally as grateful for news about how they were doing as he was for the gifts - felt deeply moved to consider the maturing needs of an 11 year old church.

Wisely, Paul's letter focused on much more than grateful thanks and spiritual encouragement. As an established, healthy and apparently persecution free church with no significant difficulties to speak of, the Philippians' most glaring need was sustainability. Having been raised up with Luke's assistance for the first seven years, and having determined they did indeed have some "elders" on the last time Paul had visited, the church in Philippi had now gone nearly five years without regular ministry from an extra-local evangelist or apostle. And so, like a good mother, Paul played his matchmaking hand with as much subtlety as he could muster.

As Paul reflected on how Philippi had inquired after the health of Epaphroditus (aka, Epaphras, from Colossae or thereabouts), and determining that Epaphras had also proven capable - not only of helping three churches in Asia, but of having the significant wherewithal to do things like cross an empire seeking Paul's advice for those churches - the elder apostle sent his letter to Philippi by the hand of his budding co-worker. Epaphras himself handed Philippi this letter, wherein Paul assured the Philippians that Epaphras was not only availble, but that receiving Epaphras was the next best thing to receiving Timothy or himself! This was like a betrothal between church and worker, but probably not an introduction between them; that Philippi had inquired about Epaphras' illness suggests they'd met him before, most likely during the time of Onesimus' first trek across the Empire, from Colossae to Rome. So, Philippi had inquired of Epaphras and Epaphras had agreed to carry Paul's letter to Philippi, and the supreme practical purpose of this letter was to join Epaphras to Philippi for the foreseeable future.

The letter to Philippi is rightly praised as a letter of gratitude and exhortation for the Philippians' endurance as a christian community: to rejoice, to stand firm, and to press on together in Christ, but it was also a practical strategy by Paul to provide his recommendation that Philippi should embrace Epaphras as another significant means by which the Lord might "supply all their needs" in the future. The incarnation was still going on in two forms at once - the local body of Christ in their city, and the travelling minister of Christ whose invaluable gifts and whose precious objectivity - from an outsider's perspective - they could now count themselves as able to call upon, as needed, on future occasions. This was, indeed, a suitable cause for rejoicing.

August 5, 2012

Archelaus in 4 BC & 'Being-King' vs 'Reigning'

Is it the same to 'rule' as to 'be king'? The answer may depend on the time and place of the pseudo-monarch in question. For example:

When Herod the Great died, he decreed his son Archelaus the new King. However, because Augustus Caesar hadn't yet confirmed Herod's last will & testament, Archelaus officially refused to presume to be King. Of course, despite that political front, Archelaus absolutely did spend the next several weeks in Judea actively ruling as King (Antiquities 17.188-250, 299-323). This "reign" lasted no more than weeks because the 19 (18?) year old "non-king" started a riot and skipped town, sailing straight for Augustus, and - five or six months later on - a demotion to 'Ethnarch'.

Cut to the Gospels, where Matthew 2:22 says Archelaus was 'reigning' (βασιλεύει), or perhaps literally, 'kinging'. If the holy family left Egypt when Herod died, according to divine messenger, then Matthew's timing and grammar happen to agree with the specific chronology of Josephus' Antiquities. That is, somewhere around mid-April of the year 4 BC, Joseph heard about Archelaus' behavior, and this occured while the yet-to-be-Ethnarch was still boldly and foolishly acting as King.

In other words, the content and grammar of this particular scripture verse appears to align accurately with historical data, as long as the reader has precise awareness of the historical and chronological context.

Unfortunately, most NT surveys present Archelaus' demotion to Ethnarch as if it occured at the moment when Herod died, and therefore most NT commentators react with embarrassment to Matthew 2:22 or apologize for it. English translators, notoriously, avoid any royal allusions here. As a group, they strongly prefer 'ruling' to 'reigning', and when Raymond Brown translated "Archelaus was king", it was a deliberate setup for his vigorous criticism. Of course this would be fine, if it were actually justified.

I've got *much* more to say about the history and the commentators, but that's for some other time.

Today, I'm thinking more about the translating. Here's why:

It's starting to look like the most famous translators of Josephus (Whiston, Thackeray, Wikgren, Feldman) sometime preferred translating functional verbs and participles (such as βασιλεύσει or βασιλεύοντος) into official designations (as Brown did, above). I don't have an exhaustive list yet, but just a bit of a hunch. Perseus is very helpful, but exhausts me far more quickly than I exhaust it's examples, much less understand what I'm trying to read.

Anyway, here's what I'm thinking.

I'm wondering if English preference for translating the verb form <kinging> as noun <was king> owes anything to the increasingly non-executive nature of the British Monarchy (after 1689). I mean, if the chief function of Queen Elizabeth II is to "be Queen", then isn't "reign" the same idea as "being Queen"? Today, yes. In the ancient world, methinks, absolutely no way.

There's probably not enough data to prove that's an influence, even if it is true. On the other hand, maybe some astute reader here will be able to think of a similar pair of Greek words (noun-verb) where the verb doesn't (or does?) get translated like a noun just for custom's sake. Or maybe a study has already been done on this? (I wish!) Any help here will be greatly appreciated...

For what it's worth, it seems to me that a non-modern and non-western mind would make the proper distinction more easily here. For what it's worth, I think it's clear to see in Josephus what Archelaus was and wasn't, and how he acted. For what it's worth, I'm not so very clear on the translation issues, but arguing over what to call a phenomenon is less important than observing carefully the behavior of that phenomenon.

Am I right here, or what?

X-mas, Tebow & Chick-fil-A

It's becoming more obvious that institutional christendom ruled the U.S.A. for far too long, or at least we all thought they did. It's becoming less clear what "Christian" even means in this 100% wired-up, 24/7 cacophony of postmodern 'everyone'. Whatever your pleasure, I do wish it were more clear that the culture wars in America actually reflect a much deeper confusion about God's divine plan for his people on Earth.

In this corner, a very large and increasingly vocal subset of American believers want to portray as "Christian" their corporate retail merchandise chains, and their NFL quarterbacks, and their fast food restaurants, and their republican presidents (when possible) and whatever comes next on the pop culture radar. God is pleased by *our* culture and values, which should return to dominance just as quickly as possible, hopefully once again marginalizing and re-silencing those obnoxious liberal malcontents.

And in the other corner, an increasingly large and very vocal subset of American believers want to repaint as "Christian" their permissive values, and their alternative lifestyles, and their dreams for reordering social and economic arrangements, and their democratic presidents (when possible) and whatever comes next on their progressing agenda. God is pleased by *our* culture and values, which should gain dominance just as quickly as possible, hopefully turning the tables on our intolerable conservative overlords.

The battle shall rage on, quite surely. But whatever it is someone next labels as "Christian"... if it becomes clear that their actual goal is to increase the power of *their* group against others... if the agenda starts focusing primarily on what's allowed and what isn't, or what's good and what's bad... and if the rhetoric consistently lacks a significant sense of either grace & mercy or morality & sin... and if the program focuses heavily on either excluding or condemning... then that goal, that agenda, that rhetoric, and that program...

Well, they might not necessarily be entirely un-christian, but they probably are very deeply confused.

August 1, 2012

Mere Historicity

This is the chief problem with all Historical Jesus work, I believe: that is, mere historicity. Allow me to explain...

Accepting the Resurrection as true, if one can only believe it, absolutely provides the single best possible answer to every pertinent question about the early Jesus movement, which all essentially boil down to the most obvious question of all: Why did it last, when he died? There's never been any question about this. If it's true, it's the best explanation for everything since.

Denying the resurrection, if one cannot believe it, leads one down an alternative but equally and entirely valid line of rational questioning. Logically, if an actual resurrection doesn't explain things, then omg, what the heck does? It's a very good question. Despite the fact that I, personally, could only undertake such a study as hypothetical exercise, the line of reasoning itself and investigation which follows is completely legitimate. If Jesus didn't rise, then historians all have a duty to explain what's happened since then.

Challenging the resurrection, whether sincerely or hypothetically, has led scholars like Dominic Crossan, Dale Allison and John P Meier to some very engaging and arguably compelling historical representations. In stark contrast, however, defending the resurrection hasn't led anyone anyplace nearly as fascinating in a very long time. If there's an exception I've overlooked, it would NOT be anyone like NT Wright, Mike Licona or Craig Keener, whose conclusions about the Gospel Testimonies always faithfully result in nothing more than further assurance of mere historicity.

I'll confess my political ignorance: the choir may not or may require such preaching and unbelievers may not or may be convertible. I don't know, but I care less every day. Longtime readers know my primary rooting interest is Jesus, Historically, and what I'm dying to see is a new group of scholars arise who will set themselves up to address this great problem we have... this great problem, that is, which most Christians don't often seem to recognize as being much of a problem.

What problem? This potentially earth-shaking cognitive dissonance. To wit:

Assuming the Resurrection actually happened, then how does that change the ways we view Gospel texts, as historians? Is the Resurrection always our conclusion, or can we begin there, for historical research? For example, does accepting the resurrection change any of our views on memory, source theory, redaction or form theory? Should it? Why or why not? And what would we do then, that we don't do now, historiographically?

And for that matter...

If this Jesus in Nazareth was the Son of the Almighty God, then how did he live a devout life, in practical terms? How did this Christ go about engaging with God and his world? I mean not to ask for isolated theological or ethical principles that we might observe, extract and perhaps re-apply, but rather I mean to ask - How did Jesus of Nazareth actually do what he did, in his days, in his world? How on earth did that spiritual life work for him?

If historical facts about Jesus are so hugely important, then why don't we do more historical writing about Jesus, based on the Gospels? Why don't we analyze Jesus' career with historical reasoning? Did he learn from John the Baptist? Did he change course here and there? Did he make any specific blunders or profound paradigm shifts at any recognizable points in his life? If so, what-where-when-why-and-how?

These are just some of the big questions worth asking. There are easily dozens more, and probably hundreds of smaller ones.

But here is the point:

If we can't answer those questions... or if the questions themselves even sound somewhat odd... then I submit that in all practical terms we Christians effectively have no Gospel Historiography to speak of, almost none whatsoever... in which case, how can the Church claim that our Jesus is the Historical one?

We desperately need for our Christian Historians to move far beyond mere historicity.

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton