Sunday, November 22, 2009

'Jesus, Interrupted'

The first rule of reading is to set aside what you think you know about the text and understand the larger context which the book appeared in.

That’s not particularly difficult to do with a modern book, whose background is readily accessible to a modern reader. But with a book as ancient as the Bible, there are thousands of years separating its ancient author from contemporary readers. That gulf, combined with our familiarity with the text, can lead to all sorts of assumptions that arent necessarily justified.

One of the most intriguing sections of Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus, Interrupted” is his description of the identity Jesus would have had in first-century Palestine.
Ehrman’s book deals with the evolution of Christian orthodoxy over the first four centuries A.D., from the earliest Christian communities up through the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E.

It’s a fascinating look at how the New Testament canon gradually took shape, and how the familiar orthodox beliefs also formed, ultimately evolving into the familiar Christian doctrines of the Trinity, the virgin birth, the pre-existence of Christ, and even the nature of Jesus as a suffering messiah, a radical concept in first-century Judaism. (In one of his epistles, Paul acknowledges that the Crucifixion is a stumbling block to other Jews, who had expected a messiah similar in nature to Judah the Maccabee.)

Along the way, Ehrman discusses the narrative inconsistencies among the gospels, the inconsistencies among Paul’s epistles and the book of Acts, the authorship question about a number of the New Testament books, and the different views of Jesus and his significance that each of the writers has.

Plus there’s talk about all the books that didn’t make it into the Bible, such as 3 Corinthians, the Acts of Peter, and various gospels and other books. This is all done from a historical-critical perspective, which I have to admit is intellectually and spiritually a far more invigorating approach than the devotional one that I’m accustomed to.

Ehrman’s contention, which has provoked sharp disagreement among other New Testament scholars, is that the proto-orthodox community redacted biblical texts to push their view — in “Misquoting Jesus,” he gives a few concrete albeit minor examples of this — and that they pushed a canon that supported their views.

No surprise there, except that he makes the claim that in many cases the proto-orthodox view, which has come to be the only acceptable view today, often was the minority position among early Christians, and that the eventual victory of the proto-orthodox view over the heretical ones was due more to the efficacy of their campaign than to the accuracy of their claims that Jesus and the Apostles had taught this proto-orthodox view.

That was interesting, but what really struck me was his description of how Jesus would have been understood as an apocalyptic preacher in first-century Palestine.

Jesus arrived on the scene around 30 C.E., and was associated early in his ministry with John the Baptist, an apocalyptic preacher who declaimed by the banks of the Jordan River that an apokalypsis was coming that would overthrow the established order of corrupt rulers and leaders, and see the administration of a new age that would see righteousness rewarded, the poor lifted up and the wealthy laid low, and so on.

John appears in all four gospels, warning people to repent, because judgment is coming. And then Jesus arrives, with a similar message, and begins to attract a following of his own, eventually eclipsing John himself. Ehrman takes the view, sensibly enough, I suppose, that our understanding of Jesus as a suffering messiah was forced upon his followers by the unseemly end to his earthly ministry.

I’ve noted before that Jesus himself seems to realize just before the Passion that he’s going to die. Prior to that time, he’s been calling for a change in the way people live, declaring that the Kingdom of God has arrived in their midst, in his person; but as they near Jerusalem for the Passover feast, the synoptic gospels note that he begins to tell his disciples increasingly about his impending death.

It was, for me, an intriguing look into how Jesus’ view of himself and his ministry must have changed as time went on. He began at some point to welcome Gentiles into his following, healing the child of a Syro-Phoenician woman, and commending a Roman centurion for his faith.

Did he initially think that he was going to bring about a religious revival that would usher in an apokalypsis, an unveling of God’s plan for the world, that would lead people to usher in a messianic age? That was the expectation of the Pharisees, that the righteousness of the people would usher in the Kingdom of God.

There’s no indication in the gospels that he ever envisioned himself as a militaristic messiah, as the zealots had looked for, one who would lead an armed revolt against the powers. God knows that Judea had had plenty of those in his lifetime, and they had all ended badly.

It was a fascinating idea to see how his message might have been understood by others, and even by himself, in the months and weeks leading up to the Crucifixion.

I can imagine him, working as an intinerant preacher in Galilee and Judea, drawing huge crowds because of the miracles he was purported to have worked, expecting to ride into a messianic age on the momentum that he had gathered, while also realizing that there were forces moving to neutralize him before he could lead an anticipated rebellion against the Romans and the established order. And as he wrestles with these thoughts, he starts to realize that he is going to die, and that’s all part of God’s plan.

It’s an amazingly human picture of Jesus. I wish we saw more of this in our churches.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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