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.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Faith amid the ruins

A friend asks, "What have you been learning about the Kingdom of God?" As God is my witness, I have no idea how to answer that question.

My journey has been an interesting one. After an initial four years or so of absolute certainty overwhat I thought I believed, I now admit that my faith has been in a state of ongoing collapse ever since late 1992. There are days I am sure I have the essentials all together, and then there are other days where I am sure that I am to be pitied above all men; "[since] the dead rise not, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die."

Then I remember that God does not work the same way that I do, and his ways don't have to make sense to my modern way of thinking, nor even to my postmodern one; and while that strikes me as surely being a ridiculous cop-out excuse to have faith in something exceedingly unlikely, still it's enough for me. Sometimes.

My current dealings are with the Bible and how I approach it and understand it qua inspired writing. I just finished reading on Monday a most fascinating book by Bart Ehrman, "Misquoting Jesus: The Story of Who Changed the Bible and Why," a decent introduction into the world of textual criticism and the process by which the New Testament has come down to us over the centuries.

I can't speak to the experience of others. In the groups I associated with as a new Christian, there was a lot of emphasis on the Bible as a revealed text. By that I mean that the Bible was regarded as essentially dictated by God, if not in as strict a sense as Muslims believe the Quran was revealed to Mohammed, then still in a manner that left it free of any error at all. And then, I was taught, it was copied faithfully through the centuries so that the Greek manuscripts we have today are virtually identical to what the authors wrote in the first century A.D.

Except for a few places, but nothing that greatly affects anything of importance.

Except sometimes it is pretty significant. My study Bible notes that the first half of John 8, where Jesus rescues a woman caught in adultery, is not found in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts; and proponents of using the King James Version regularly point out that modern translations omit the Johannine appositive, the only place in the Bible that explicitly states the doctrine of the Trinity. (That's because the first time it shows up in any Greek manuscript is the time of Desiderius Erasmus and his publication of the Textus Receptus in the early 16th century.)

Ehrman's book doesn't say anything revolutionary or shocking, at least not to me, but in my mind he does a fascinating job of laying out, in black and white, a part of how the New Testament came to be. He gives a history of textual criticism and the principles that have been developed for assessing which manuscripts are closest in form to the originals, explains the circumstances under which the epistles, gospels and other canon books were copied in the first three centuries A.D. in particular, and then gives specific examples of how the Scriptures were changed, sometimes deliberately, by those copyists. (Hence the standard footnote in many Bibles: "Other manuscripts say 'blah blah blah.'")

I found this part the most compelling reading, honestly. There were heretics like Marcion, who excised all references to the Hebrew Scriptures, because he believed that Jesus was the son of a God who had come to rescue us from the vengeful God of the Jews. We should expect that, but what is striking is that there were also copyists who redacted the manuscripts against heresies, to strengthen the case for what we now consider orthodox belief. Others edited the gospels to harmonize them, which is why some Greek manuscripts have the Lord's Prayer the same length in both Matthew and Luke, and yet in older manuscripts, it is shorter in one of them.

In some sense, I found Ehrman's book to be a window into the mechanism of inspiration. We generally hold as a precept of faith that God inspired the biblical writers. Does that mean that he also inspired the later copyists who added to the Scripture? Sometimes their changes are significant, when they changed a word and it endured into later manuscripts -- does the Greek in the book of Hebrews say that "Christ bears all things," or that he "manifests all things?" -- and helped to form the basis for doctrine; and sometimes it's mind-boggling. John 1, for instance, is a beautiful hymn in praise of the Logos-become-flesh, and yet textually it's quite credible to claim that it was a later add-on to the Johannine gospel, since the motif of Logos, so central to that hymn, is never again used in the gospel.

The book I'm reading now is Ehrman's "Jesus, Interrupted," which so far has focused on the differences among the gospel narratives. Ehrman notes, for instance, that the synoptics place the Last Supper on the night of the seder meal. John's gospel, though, stipulates that the Last Supper was held on the Day of Preparation, meaning the seder meal would have been held on Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified.

So which is it? Was the Last Supper a seder meal, or was it held the night before the seder meal? There's other stuff that we're all aware of, like John placing the purging of the Temple at the start of Jesus' ministry, and the synoptics placing it during the Passion.

Ehrman's point, and it's a valid one, is that when we try to harmonize these texts and insist that they agree when they actually don't, we can create some interesting hermeneutical headaches. The truth is that each of the evangelists had a different point he was trying to convey with the details he included in his gospel.

John the Evangelist emphasized Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The synoptic writers were focused on the seder meal and how Jesus reinterpreted its elements to refer to himself. The christological points are compatible, but the narrative details are not.

I know some people would say that this is an assault on the integrity of Scripture, since its mystery is diminished by close scrutiny, but I don't see it that way. I find that it deepens the mystery, and while it does shift my understanding of the nature of the role Scripture plays in my faith, it doesn't remove it.

The Kingdom of God remains a thing of wonder to me. Perhaps I should say the Dream of God, or the Revolution of God; in some way, I think those expressions encapsulate the subversion that Jesus had in mind when he spoke of the new kingdom that had arrived. It's a revolutionary idea that can shake the world to its foundations if we allow ourselves to catch God's dream.

I don't believe that dream is essentially eschatological, played out in a grand battle between Good and Evil that will culminate on the plains of Har Megiddo. Nor do I believe that it is soteriological, and concerned principally with whether people go to heaven or to hell when they die. And I definitely don't believe that is ontological in the manner that Joel Osteen and other prosperity preachers posit, where Christ simply helps us to realize our full potential and makes us rich.

I find instead that the Kingdom of God is, and always has been, Incarnational, that it arrives within us, and changes not only us but our relationships with others, so that we perceive the connections that join us with the broad spread of humanity.

By God's grace, we learn to see Jesus not only in ourselves, but in those who help us, in those whom we help, and in everybody else whose path we either cross or do not cross. And you realize that if the Kingdom of God has arrived in this manner, then certain actions become unthinkable. War is unacceptable in any situation. So is hunger. So are racism, homophobia, and all the many ills that plague society.

And if you're determined to follow Jesus, that means you have to change not only the way you live your own life in private, but also the way you deal with other people. So when Westboro Baptist Church comes to town, you don't just pray for them, and you don't just go there and counterprotest, you go there and you take a stand for your neighbors whom they hate.

It can be fun to quibble over whether Jesus properly could be called a liberal or a conservative, but that's properly considered a bifuraction fallcy. I find that Jesus is someone who defies easy characterization as liberal or conservative, and who could give us all a blistering earful if we would really listen to him about what he thinks. I find that walking with Jesus means walking with integrity, pursuing justice for everyone, and speaking up against injustice, against evil, and against pettiness when the moment comes.

That's informed political opinions of mine, but I like to think that I can respect that other people have political convictions different from mine, based on the same Scriptures that I hold to be sacred, just I can respect other Christians whose beliefs vary widely from mine. (As far as doctrine goes, I find that very little matters to me anymore in terms of argument, save primarily where it touches on the person of Christ, and even there, I'm passionate only about the essentials.)

I don't even know where I stand on evangelism anymore. I am weary past death of the belief that we must harangue people over their sins so that we can then tell them that Jesus will forgive them the sins that we have labored mightily to convince them that they need forgiveness for, especially when that's not an approach that either Jesus or the Apostles used when they proclaimed who he was. I find it offensive and obnoxious when people hit me with that sort of drive-by evangelism, and I refuse to be party to it myself.

The good news should never have been "You're going to hell," and at this point I am still looking for a way to proactively share in words the renewal and restoration that Christ promises, because I've come to realize that all of us really do have a messianic longing within us for the renewal and restoration he promises. We all seek it, whether we are the activist who wants to see polluted rivers come to life again, the worker hungry for economic justice in a system that favors the wealthy and powerful, or the impassioned teacher who wants to help her children break free of the limits they have placed on themselves. The desire for that Easter experience is common to humanity, and surely there are natural ways to share what we have found that don't rely upon argument.

So, to sum up a long and winding answer to a fairly simple question, I don't know what I'm finding about the Kingdom of God. As I said when I began this, my faith has been in a state of progressive collapse for about 20 years now. I went to Haiti certain of many things, and when I returned two years later, Jenn Drescher could only demand an explanation. "You changed in Haiti," she told me one fall morning. "And it's not a good change."

No, and thank goodness; it was a much deeper change than one that was merely good. While I was there I realized how badly conceived my faith structures were, and how little they could explain life outside the echo chamber of my evangelical experience. To this day Phil and Lonnie Murphy remain two of the most significant figures in my life as a Christian, because of the friendship they extended to me and because of the work they did there.

If things were shaken in Haiti, they really started to fall apart seven years ago when we lost Isaac, and I reached the point that I would have given Jesus the finger and walked out on him if there had been anywhere else to go. About three years ago the last, delayed shreds of grief and betrayal over the loss of our church when we most needed it, took what was left.

I have no theological insights to offer, no great insights into the Kingdom of God to share. All I can say is that everything I once believed is in a shambles. Christ has ruined me for life, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, November 01, 2009


I started reading the book of Habakkuk this past week in preparation for the church's next sermon series, and I have to say I'm liking this book a lot.

Habakkuk is found among the minor prophets, or in the Nevi'im if you prefer the Hebrew term for the prophetic writings, and it's not one of the most familiar books. It lacks the easy narrative of Jonah, it comes after the really neat stories of Daniel, and no one's really sure how to pronounce his name. We don't know anything about the prophet, except that he was an early contemporary of Jeremiah.

But I'm really digging this guy, if for nothing else than for his honesty.

The first chapter of Habbakuk starts out with a complaint: Things stink, and there is no justice in the land. The wealthy exploit the poor; the proud and the mighty oppress the weak. Every time Habakkuk complains to God, his complaint is that absolutely nothing is happening to change the situation. His complaint essentially boils down to this: "Is anybody paying attention up there? Lord, have you fallen asleep at the wheel? Wake up and do something!"

This makes him rather unique among the Hebrew prophets, who typically saw vindication coming in the distance. But check out God's response to Habbakuk's complaint. He essentially says, "Oh yeah, don't worry about it. I've got it all under control. You know the Babylonians? I'm going to send them in to Judah, and they'll destroy all your cities, they'll kill a bunch of the men, they're going to burn your crops, and they're going to scatter the Jewish people all over the world.."

One can almost imagine Habakkuk's confusion. The situation is depressing as it is, and this is your answer? I'm objecting to the untrammeled greed and lust for power of the elites, and your answer is that you're going to dechouke every major population center -- you're going to pull them up by their roots -- and destroy our nation? Please pardon me while I jump for joy. (This isn't much of an exaggeration. Habakkuk's response immediately following God's answer to his prayer is to ask, "O God, aren't you Lord from everlasting? 'Cause it sure doesn't seem like it to me."

It's long been a point of frustration for me with other Christians when they try to sugarcoat bad situations by saying that God is in control, and he'll get us through them. "Just keep up the faith," they say. "Chin up. It looks bad, but give it 18 months, and you'll be amazed how much better things'll be. Look at it from God's perspective."

The message Habakkuk gets from God is completely different: "Sure, things are bad now, but just wait a few years. These will look like the good old days before I'm finished." Long-term perspective? The Temple will be destroyed, Judah will be a vassal state of Babylon, the Jewish people will be scattered across the Middle East from Egypt, throughout the Arabian peninsula and into Persia, and the House of David will to all intents and purposes be lost.

Sure, six hundred years or so from now, Judah's situation will be much better. It'll be a vassal state of Rome, subject to unbelievably high levels of taxation and relentless oppression. Having narrowly escaped eradication under the Seleucids in the first century B.C.E., the Jewish state will be dealt a severe blow in 70 C.E. under Titus Vespasian and then again a hundred years later under Marcus Aurelius, by which time it'll be annihilated for some 1,800 years.

It does so help to keep an eye on the big picture, doesn't it?

Admittedly, I'm being a little facetious here. As a Christian I'd have to add that the Diaspora created pockets of monotheism throughout the ancient world, leading to the presence of many God-fearing Gentiles who believed not so much in Plato's doting grandfather sort of God, known for his disinterested love, but in the Jewish sort of God who was relentlessly involved in human history as an active expression of love. These Jews, and the Gentiles who believed with them, would be eagerly awaiting a messiah; and while not all of them accepted Paul's proclamations about Yeshua ha Mashiach, ben David, a good many of them did. This in turn allowed Christianity to become a major force for justice and for mercy in the ancient world and in the centuries since.

But none of this was clear to Habbakuk. All he had to go on was a promise from God that things were going to get worse, a lot worse; and his faith that in the final analysis, God would still be worth following.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.