Thursday, March 30, 2006

Amazing Images

I don't usually blog stuff like this, but this Stumbleupon blogger has loads of incredibly beautiful images. (Hat-tip to Matt Bertrand.) Keep scrolling down page after page. Nice!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Heroes, Charismatics, and Messiahs

Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson have announced the imminent publication of their two-volume climax of the Dune series, based on Frank Herbert's outline and notes for whatever Book 7 may have ended up looking like. The titles will be Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. The prequels written by these guys have been so appalling -- I stopped reading them a while ago -- though I may give these a try (much as I expect a similar decimation of Frank Herbert's vision) since they will be at least based on certain ideas the author had put down on paper before he died. Hunters is slated for publication this August, and who knows when Sandworms will come out.

So I've started rereading the original six-volume series in anticipation, and am almost nearly done the first book. It's been eons since I read these classics, and I'd forgotten just how good they are. A great story above all, but also a fictional "case study", as it were, of messiahship and the dangers of charismatic movements. Herbert had intended his epic to make a statement about the "messianic convulsions that overtake us" and inevitably fail -- the depths of their failure being directly related to how successful they are initially. In Omni magazine (1980), Herbert said the following about heroes, charismatics, and messiahs:

Don't give over all of your critical faculties to [heroes], no matter how admirable those people may appear to be. Beneath the hero's facade you will find a human being who makes human mistakes. Enormous problems arise when human mistakes are made on the grand scale available to a superhero... Heroes are painful, superheroes are a catastrophe. The mistakes of superheroes involve too many of us in disaster.

What strikes me is how applicable this observation is not only to the Dune messiah, but the messiah we "revere" (some much more than others) on our biblioblogs, Jesus of Nazareth. Herbert's remarks are obliquely reminiscent of Dale Allison's, who has emphasized the Jesus who "made mistakes", not least in his expectations of the apocalypse. Jesus didn't stick around for as long as Paul Atreides -- and his later heir, the "God Emperor of Dune" -- but he remains with us nonetheless, followed mythically worldwide. I'd be inclined to call the Nazarene one of the greatest superheroes our world has ever known.

I'll have to blog more about this when I've finished all six books. The mistakes of superheroes involve too many of us in disaster...

Monday, March 27, 2006

Second Call for Submissions: Biblical Studies Carnival IV

This is the second and final call for submissions and nominations for the fourth Biblical Studies Carnival. Please send links to suggested blogposts (your own or someone else's) to: biblical_studies_carnival AT hotmail DOT com, or alternatively use the submission form at Only blogposts from the month of March (and which relate to biblical studies, of course) will be considered.

Please have all submissions/nominations sent by Friday March 31, and expect the carnival to be posted soon after April 1. I have other devilish blogging plans for April Fool's Day itself.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Quote for the Day: The Powerlessness of Tools

(See previous quote here.)

"A tool just serves its user. It's only as good as the skill of its user, and it's not good for anything else. So if you want to accomplish something special -- something more than you can do for yourself -- you can't use a tool. You have to use a person and hope the surprises will work in your favor. You have to use something that's free to not be what you had in mind." (Stephen R. Donaldson, The One Tree, chapter 22)

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Quote for the Day: The Powerlessness of Innocence

"Innocence is a wonderful thing except for the fact that it's impotent. Guilt is power. All effective people are guilty because the use of power is guilt, and only guilty people can be effective. Effective for good, mind you. Only the damned can be saved." (Stephen R. Donaldson, The Wounded Land, chapter 2)

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Evangelical and Secular Scholarship

Lately I've been lounging in Alan Bandy's café, thoroughly enjoying the interviews about faith-based scholarship. I find myself more on the same page with Crossley and Goodacre than the evangelicals (no surprise), but good points have been made all around. I want to comment on a couple of things in Mark's interview. I agree with most of what he said, but would add the following, where he explains the advantages of evangelical and secular scholarship in turn:

I would say that one potential advantage is that the evangelical often gives the benefit of the doubt to a given Biblical writer, and that can enable a good case to be made for something that might otherwise not have been noticed.

Even more importantly, it enables a good case to be made for something that is alien or repulsive to a modern way of thinking. Evangelicals are predisposed to accepting the antiquated world-view of the bible at face value, so they don't have the same level of "embarrassment baggage" others may have. It probably did take an evangelical like Scot McKnight to write a book like Jesus and His Death, which argues so convincingly that Jesus saw his own death in terms of a converted passover sacrifice -- that his "body and blood" would protect people from God's wrath at the apocalypse. It's a persuasive argument, but doesn't deal with terribly attractive ideas in today's world -- even to mainstream Christians.

As a Christian myself, I am conscious of wishing certain conclusions to be true, and so aware of the danger that I might give more credence to poor arguments than a non-Christian might. I sometimes envy the atheist and the agnostic here in that they don't have to deal with the same baggage.

Speaking for myself, it's admittedly nice to be free of such baggage, and I do wish (echoing James Crossley) there were more secular scholars in the field. Of course, there are plenty of atheists and Unitarians (my group) who go through life weighed down by a different kind of baggage, especially if they're fighting a grim Christian past. I was fortunate: there was nothing suffocating or oppressive about my Christian upbringing (I was raised Episcopelian and went to Roman Catholic grade/high-schools). Like the rest of my family, I gradually "grew out" of Christianity but have positive memories of what I learned from it.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Jesus and Torah

James Crossley and Michael Bird have offered four-point manifestos about Jesus and Torah. I decided to take a stab with four points of my own.

1. Galilee vs. Judea. To an extent I think Jesus' disputes owed to a regional interpretation of the Torah. Whether Richard Horsley or Sean Freyne is more right about the northern religion, it's hard to escape the idea that early Christianity stood for a particular Galilean way of being Israelite. Josephus implies that Galileans adhered to a minimal Torah: circumcision (Vita 112-113,149) and sabbath observance (Vita 159) may reflect basic customs having roots in Galilee prior to Hasmonean takeover (from descendents of northern Israelite peasants left on the land after 722 BCE, as Horsley claims), but not adherence to a highly codified priestly Torah which had developed in southern Judah/Judea.

2. Competing Moral Imperatives. Jesus also entered into Torah debates in the interest of competing moral imperatives. An obvious case is where he appeals to the hunger of David and his men, saying that one imperative can trump another. Human need can override a commandment even if the commandment itself remains intact. Dale Allison notes (in Resurrecting Jesus, chapter 5) that we call this choosing the lesser of two evils. Peasant concerns to take care of their livestock, even on the sabbath, would be another example of pragmatic need trumping a general halakic rule.

3. Rhetoric and Honor. The ancients could be plenty offensive when it suited their needs, especially in order to justify views that were socially advantageous (see Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels passim). Men thrived on the macho game of challenge-and-riposte, and shafting their opponents with rhetorical wit and scripture one-upsmanship. But rhetoric can obscure the real reasons underlying a conflict. Jesus' prohibition of divorce is an example, targeting a practice that Moses may have allowed but created lots of bad blood and feuding (especially in village settings). But it would have been shameful and weak for Jesus to protest about social problems like this. No one would have taken him seriously. So he "burned" his opponents -- overturning Moses with the creation story (Gen. 2:24), cleverly implying that marriage was an unseparable "blood" relationship rather a legal one. In this way he honorably (and scripturally) legitimated what he wanted to accomplish.

4. The Apocalypse. I tend to think that almost everything Jesus said and did (whether it was about Torah or not) points back to the apocalypse in some way. And I'm rather surprised at Ed Sanders and Paula Fredriksen for resisting the conclusion that Jesus at least occasionally rescinded the Torah, while underscoring his millenarian outlook in the same breath. Breaking customs and defying tradition is exactly what apocalyptic movements are known for, from everywhere across the globe. They do this precisely on account of the new age being imminent.

So I doubt there is "a" single reason for Jesus' alleged conflict with the Torah. Many factors converge to produce a regional, reasonable, macho, and millenarian figure -- and above all messianic, who made himself the boss of these issues.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Fatal Revenant

Thomas Covenant fans will be pleased to learn that Stephen R. Donaldson has finished writing the first draft of Fatal Revenant, the second of four volumes in The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Not so pleasing is that it will still be over a year until publication. Here's what Donaldson says on his website (see "from the author", and then "news", entry 2/24/06):
"The first draft of Fatal Revenant is now finished. But don't get your hopes up. I anticipate a year of rewriting -- and editorial to-ing and fro-ing -- before D&A ('delivery and acceptance'); and my publishers may not commit to a schedule for release until after D&A.

"Fatal Revenant is roughly 150 pages longer than The Runes of the Earth was at this stage. As I recall, I cut about 125 pages out of Runes before publication. I think we can assume that the same thing will happen to Fatal Revenant, so the final version will still be somewhat longer than Runes.

"Incidentally, the first draft of Runes took me 20 months. I put Fatal Revenant on paper in 16."
UPDATE: According to amazon the release date is October 9, 2007.

Schweitzer's Legacy: "The Unknown One"

The most famous words ever penned about the historical Jesus would have to be the lyrical conclusion to Schweitzer's classic, in which he demonstrated that Jesus was a deluded apocalyptic:
"He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words, "Follow thou me!", and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is." (The Quest of the Historical Jesus, p 403)
High-profile scholars have tried to outdo Schweitzer by recycling this passage in support of their own view of Jesus. I know of three -- Tom Wright, Dominic Crossan, and Dale Allison -- all of whom stand at very different points in understanding Jesus. Let's take them in turn.

Here's Wright:
"Schweitzer said that Jesus comes to us as one unknown. This is the wrong way around. We come to him as ones unknown, crawling back from the far country, where we had wasted our substance on riotous and ruinous historicism. But the swinehusks -- the "assured results of modern criticism" -- reminded us of that knowledge which arrogance had all but obliterated, and we began the journey home. But when we approached, we found him running to us as one well known, whom we had spurned in the name of scholarship or even faith, but who was still patiently waiting to be sought and found once more. And the ring on our finger and the shoes on our feet assure us that, in celebrating his kingdom and feasting at his table, we shall discover again and again not only who he is but who we ourselves are: as unknown and yet well known, as dying and behold we live." (Jesus and the Victory of God, p 662)
Like Schweitzer, Wright thinks Jesus went to Jerusalem to die and bring in the kingdom. But his Jesus was victorious, his prophecies fulfilled in an unexpected way: via resurrection. Jesus' bodily resurrection was the fulfillment of the kingdom of God in miniature, with the full eschaton being postponed to a later date.

Here's Crossan:
"He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee. He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution. He speaks about the rule of God, and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else. What, they really want to know, can this kingdom of God do for a lame child, a blind parent, a demented soul screaming its tortured isolation among the graves that mark the edges of the village? Jesus walks with them to the tombs, and, in the silence after the exorcism, the villagers listen once more. Earlier Jesus had received John’s baptism and accepted his message of God as the imminent apocalyptic judge. But Herod Antipas moved swiftly to execute John, there was no apocalyptic consummation, and Jesus, finding his own voice, began to speak of God not as imminent apocalypse but as present healing." (The Historical Jesus, pp xi-xii)
Crossan rids himself of the Schweitzer-problem differently than Wright, insisting that apocalyptic expectations attributed to Jesus are unhistorical: Jesus broke with the Baptist's vision and introduced the kingdom of God as a completely present reality. Interestingly, Wright and Crossan are flip sides of the same coin, Christian believers who need Jesus to be "correct" and legitimate their view of the world. Their Schweitzer-summaries are thus more Christologies than histories.

Here's Allison:
"He does not come to us as one unknown. We know him well enough. Jesus is the millenarian prophet of judgment, the embodiment of the divine discontent that rolls through all things. He sees those who go about in long robes and have the best seats in the synagogues while they lock others out of the kingdom. He sees the poor, the hungry, and the reviled, and he proclaims that the last will be first. He makes the best of a bad situation: things are not what they seem to be; everything will be okay. He knows that God promised never again to destroy the world through a flood, but he makes ready for the flood of the end-time anyway. His realism is so great that it must abandon the world, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. He knows that we, being evil, cannot fix things, that the wall cannot climb itself; but with God all things are possible. Jesus was wrong: reality has taken no notice of his imagination. And yet despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only dream worth dreaming." (Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, highly condensed from pp 217-219)
Allison is Christian, though he evidently doesn't need Jesus to be "right" to the same degree Wright and Crossan do. He says: "From one point of view, Jesus was wrong, because he took apocalyptic language literally and expected a near end. But he wasn't, from my Christian point of view, wrong in hoping for God to defeat evil, redeem the world, and hold us responsible. I continue to be amazed that we can't do with the end what we do with the beginning. We have become very sophisticated in our understanding of Genesis as mythology. It still serves us homiletically and theologically even after we've given up the literal sense. Why can't we do the same with eschatology? We can say that the writer of Genesis was mistaken about the beginning of the world -- it didn't take place a few thousand years ago, there was no Garden of Eden, etc -- but he wasn't wrong -- God made the world, the world is good, but responsible human beings wreck things. I just want to do this with eschatology. I emphasize Jesus was wrong so that I can get to what he was right about."

Well said. Whether or not we claim the Christian faith, we can take seriously the hope and despair embodied in a vision of God throwing cataclysm onto the world, righting wrongs, and ushering in a utopian paradise. Most of us can't do without some kind of belief in a "good time coming", lest we relinquish ourselves completely to despair. The apocalypse can be one of many mythological pointers to something better, and offer "hope without delusion" when interpreted non-literally. Jesus may have been deluded like all apocalyptics, but we needn't keep repeating his error.

Jesus of Nazareth is known more through confessionalism (Wright) and revisionism (Crossan) than by acknowledging his failings and delusions (Schweitzer/Allison). Perhaps, in the end, that's why he's sure to remain the Unknown One.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Interviews in the Café

Alan Bandy of Café Apocalypsis has been conducting interviews with people about faith-based scholarship. Listen to evangelicals Michael Bird, Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, Peter Bolt, Craig Evans, Andreas Kostenberger, Scot McKnight, and Peter Williams; then secular scholars James Crossley, Philip Davies, and Thomas Thompson; then Blogfather Mark Goodacre.

Is the Resurrection a Dangerous Idea?

Back when I did the dangerous ideas list, Michael Pahl had suggested that Jesus' resurrection qualifies. I'd meant to address this at more length back then, and was reminded of it this morning as I was going through a part of Dale Allison's book. In the best treatment of the subject, Allison offers the following reasons why he would like the resurrection to be true:

1. Jesus' bizarre teachings need endorsement. "Unlike the wisdom sayings of Proverbs, Jesus' sometimes otherwordly, sometimes ascetical, often eschatological, often counterintuitive teachings -- love your enemies, do not be angry, do not divorce and remarry -- are not self-validating. They further self-destruct if the humble, including Jesus himself, are never exalted. So the crucifixion and Jesus' cry of dereliction require a sequel."

2. There's too little evidence that God cares about people. "I am a reluctantly cryptic Deist. My tendency is to live my life as though God made the world and then went away. It is hard for me to see the hand of Providence either in human history or in individual lives, including my own... So I would welcome an intervening God who, at least for a bit, cares more about making a point than keeping the so-called laws of nature... who comes out of hiding for a moment to break the monotony of death and do something truly wonderful."

3. Resurrection would point to the goodness of human flesh. "Belief in the resurrection should allow one to recite the words of b. Ber. 60b without discomfiture: 'Blessed is he who formed human beings in wisdom and created in them many orifices and many cavities.'"

4. Resurrection would point to an afterlife. "Most days I sympathize with Dante in the Convito: 'I say that of all the idiocies, that which holds that after this life there is no other is the most stupid, most vile, and most damnable.'... The heartbreaks and horrors and injustices of this age cannot be squared with the doctrine of a consoling Providence unless all is not as it seems to be, unless there is something more than death and extinction... The resurrection is the denial of death, and I want to deny death, or at least its finality."

(From Resurrecting Jesus, pp 214-219)

Allison's candor speaks well for him, all the more because he ultimately eschews apologetics. (His book isn't exactly for those who favor the claim that Jesus' resurrection falls "in the same sort of category of historical probability so high as to be virtually certain, as the death of Augustus or the fall of Jerusalem" (!) (Tom Wright, Resurrection of the Son of God, p 710).) Dale being a "reluctantly cryptic Deist" results in some healthy approaches to these things. He lists reasons for wanting the resurrection to be true -- perfectly natural reasons, perfectly normal reasons -- but no reasons for not wanting it to be true (though he acknowledges reasons for doubting it may be true depending on how one treats the subject matter: pp 219-228).

For the sake of quibbling, I'll note that it shouldn't take a resurrection to convince anyone of the validity behind reasons (1) and (3). Anything which seems strange and counterintuitive -- whether it comes from a religious figure like Jesus or a scientist like Richard Dawkins -- may well stand a good chance of being true, and that was the whole point of the dangerous ideas, both in biblical studies and science. Jesus had dangerous ideas of his own, and the merits/demerits of those ideas aren't determined by the postmortem state of his body. Regarding (3), nothing religious is required to appreciate the goodness of human flesh. As the Mission U.K. sings in "Wasteland", "the spirit is willing and the flesh is great"... Well, no elaboration necessary.

It's (2) and (4) for which a resurrection would provide the most hope. Two unpleasant facts are that the world abounds with horror and injustice, and that each of us will die. Resurrection counters this reality and tells people, as Allison says, what they want to hear. For this reason, I don't think the resurrection qualifies as a "dangerous idea", but just the opposite. I've yet to hear a good reason why someone would not want Jesus' resurrection to be true.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Interview with Chris Heard

Catch the interview with Chris Heard at Higgaion has become one of my favorite blogs, and I remember the day I added it to my blogroll simply on account of Chris' good taste in hobbies.

Broker and Patron

Regarding the excellent book by Zeba Crook, Reconceptualizing Conversion, Sean du Toit asks: "Can we be more specific about Paul's patron [God]? Along the lines of including Jesus in that identity?"

Last July I wrote a review of this book on the Corpus Paulinum mailing list and touched on the issue raised by Sean. Crook insists that in the New Testament -- but especially Paul -- there is no basis for equating the broker Jesus with the patron God:

"Throughout Paul's letters and the New Testament, Jesus is depicted solely as God's divine broker and thus is the agent through whom salvation was now to be attained. Since he was the deliverer of salvation, such a grand benefaction in the eyes of Mediterranean people, the honor that had to be directed at Jesus was great, and because of this it became ever greater throughout the centuries and people mistook the role of the broker for that of the patron... Significantly, however, in the letters of Paul, Jesus the broker is always subordinate to God as the divine patron. The confusion of the two for one is a later theological development that, from the perspective of patronage and benefaction, would have appeared foreign to Paul. Paul is consistent on this: Jesus must be honored -- as God's broker his benefactions are utterly indispensable to Paul -- but he is the broker and not therefore to be confused with the divine patron. Indeed, such a confusion would have been quite insulting to the patron." (Reconceptualizing Conversion, pp 195-196)

This is how I responded in the review:

"But Paul is actually, infamously, inconsistent on this point. Sometimes he subjects Jesus to God (I Cor 15) and sometimes he equates the two (Philip 2). Crook's claim becomes even more hazardous by bringing the entire NT into view, since the NT as a whole attributes more divine characteristics to Jesus than the mere fact that he is owed 'praise, gratitude, and loyalty'. The NT claims he is sovereign, exalted over angelic powers, worshipped, and pre-existent. These can only point to equality with God, not only by Jewish standards, but by the conventions of Greco-Roman patronage/benefaction. These attributes are patronal, almost be definition, and they indicate something much stronger than the 'praise, gratitude, and loyalty' which can be naturally given to brokers as much as patrons. The issue cannot be settled here, of course, but scholars (like Bauchkam, Esler, Witherington, etc) are becoming increasingly convinced that Paul (and most, if not all, NT authors) equated Jesus with God. The broker is the patron in this case (and Crook knows very well that brokers can be either clients and/or patrons at the same time; see p 73)."

I wonder if Richard Bauckham is getting any closer to completing his two-volume series on Christology in the New Testament, which is supposed to expand on the arguments in God Crucified. In that book he argued that the equation between Jesus and God happened early on account of the importance in Jewish thought of God's identity ("who" he was) rather than his nature ("what" he was). Hypostatizations like wisdom, word, and spirit (included in the divine identity) could conceivably trigger the divinization of a human being, if the person was associated with any of them.

But aside from this point (and a couple of other quibbles), I've nothing but praises for Zeba's book. It answered many of my own questions about the nature of conversion in anti-introspective societies.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Call for Submissions: Biblical Studies Carnival IV

This is the first call for submissions and nominations for the fourth Biblical Studies Carnival. Please send links to suggested blogposts (your own or someone else's) to biblical_studies_carnival AT hotmail DOT com, or alternatively use the submission form at Only blogposts from the month of March (and which relate to biblical studies, of course) will be considered.

I'm planning to post the carnival on April 2, resisting an evil temptation to run a more "creative" one on April Fool's Day.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Treachery at Antioch

All this blog-talk about the Gentile mission has prompted me to revisit the Antioch incident of Gal 2:11-14, which has plagued me for years. After reading the article by Paula Fredriksen (via Goodacre), I think the last part of the puzzle just fell into place.

What was Antioch about? Two points are crucial. First, it was about circumcision rather than dietary laws. The men from James were saying that Gentiles had to become circumcised converts in order to share table-fellowship on an equal basis with Jews. To my knowledge, only Philip Esler and Mark Nanos have recognized what Gal 2:12 makes plain: that Antioch centered on the question of circumcision -- that is, full conversion to Judaism -- rather than food laws, as if to imply that something "less drastic" than circumcision was being imposed by way of compromise. As Esler notes, "modern notions of fair play" have hindered scholars from interpreting the Antioch incident correctly (Galatians, p 137).

This leads to the more disturbing second point. If Antioch was truly about circumcision, then the pillars had revoked their own agreement: in Jerusalem they had agreed to leave Gentiles free of any obligation to become circumcised (Gal 2:7-10). Why the about-face at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14)? The immediate answer has to do with honor and revenge. Esler should be cited at length:
"[Paul] had extracted an agreement from the Jerusalem leaders without giving away anything himself. True, he had consented to remember the poor...but his point ['I was eager to do so'] is that he would have done it even without any action taken by the pillars, so that they really got nothing in return for the promise of fellowship..." (pp 135-136)
Not only did Paul get the better of the pillars, but of outside factions, like the "false brethren" of Gal 2:4-5. Esler goes on:
"The defeat of the circumcision group in Jerusalem would have left them steaming with the desire for revenge. Their honor had been besmirched by Paul's very obviously getting the better of them, and in this culture we expect that they would seek to turn the tables on Paul, just as Israel did on Ammon in II Sam 10-12... When Paul left Jerusalem, he would have been well advised to watch his back... Persons in this culture who are shamed to this extent do not forgive or forget... With Paul and Barnabus, and later Peter, out of the city they would have been left with James and John upon whom they could exert pressure to revoke the agreement." (pp 132,136)
To western readers, this kind of back-biting seems to make the pillars dishonorable liars, but actually the opposite is true. Lies and deceptions are quite honorable (and expected) of people in these cultures. As rival apostles, the pillars were under no obligation to keep any "promises" made to Paul, and indeed they would have been childish to do so. Paul, for his part, would have been under no delusions about how much weight, and for how long, the Jerusalem agreement carried.

I've always wondered how Paul managed to get the better of the pillars, as Esler claims, without giving up anything in turn. Now, having read Paula Fredriksen's article, I can better understand why. Paul's position had been their own for almost twenty years now. In the earliest days of the movement, any Gentiles would have been accepted as equals without halakhic conversion requirements. That's what the apocalypse was about: Gentiles being saved as Gentiles. (Mark Nanos has emphasized this too.) So by agreeing to Paul's demands they were only endorsing their own past practice and keeping things status quo -- despite increased misgivings, and increased pressure from outside groups, as time went on.

But the pillars broke their promise (and years of past practice) for the sake of their tarnished honor. In the end they probably saw themselves as keeping the church functional in the context of wider Judaism, in a present age which was promising to stretch on indefinitely. Paul, of course, could not accuse Peter of breaking his promise -- he would have made a fool of himself (so Esler, p 138). He had no right to expect the pillars to keep their word to begin with. The best he could do was accuse Peter of "hypocrisy" or inconsistency. But Antioch was about more than mere hypocrisy. It was about back-biting: treachery pressed into the service of an attempt to update beliefs and practices, as all millenarian movements eventually do.

The irony of the Antioch incident is that an apostle who never knew Jesus was keeping his savior's tradition, while those who walked by Jesus' side were now attempting change. Christ wasn't coming again, after all. Or at least, he wasn't coming as soon as they originally expected -- as Paul still expected.


Allison, Dale: Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, Augsberg Fortress, 1998.

Esler, Philip: Galatians, Routledge, 1998.

Fredriksen, Paula: "Judaism, the Circumcision of Gentiles, and Apocalyptic Hope", JTS 42, pp 532-564, 1991.

Nanos, Mark: "What Was at Stake in Peter's 'Eating with Gentiles' at Antioch?", The Galatians Debate, pp 282-318, 2002.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

20 Years is a Long Time

Thanks to Mark Goodacre for mentioning an article by Paula Fredriksen I wish I'd read before. From it:
"From its inception, the Christian movement admitted Gentiles without demanding that they be circumised and observe the Law...until 49 CE, evidently... What had changed between c. 30 and c. 49 CE, and why? Posing the question puts the answer...The kingdom did not come. Time drags when you expect it to end. Put differently, millenarian movements tend, of necessity, to have a short half-life. As the endtime recedes, reinterpretations and adjustments must reshape the original belief, else it be relinquished to unintelligibility or irrelevance." ("Judaism, the Circumcision of Gentiles, and Apocalyptic Hope", pp 558-559)
Dale Allison couldn't have put it better himself (the part about millenarian movements reinterpreting things over time to cope with broken failures), though even he apparently missed what Fredriksen sees too clearly about the Gentile issue: that in Jewish belief, Gentiles turn from idolatry at the apocalypse without converting to Judaism. When the kingdom comes, Gentiles will be saved as Gentiles: "they do not," says Fredriksen, "eschatologically become Jews" (ibid, p 547).

That's what Goodacre is saying: "the early Christian inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God coheres with apocalyptic hope of the period, and it is a mistake to confuse inclusion with conversion". Only two decades later was conversion (circumcision, the "works of the law") starting to be required of Gentiles -- as more and more of them were joining the church, and as more and more the kingdom just didn't come.

Evidently, Paul wasn't ready to give up on the apocalypse as much as the pillars. :)

Friday, March 10, 2006

Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations

Phil Harland mentions a review of his book by Peter Oakes of the Context Group. I've been persuaded by the sectarian view of this whole matter (Elliott et all), so I guess I should read Phil's book to get more of the other side.

Four Views of Galilee

The question of Jesus' Galilean identity has become an important one, and there's an informative two-part article by Halvor Moxnes in Biblical Theology Bulletin, here and here. The whole thing is worth reading, every sentence, but for now I'll focus on Moxnes' descriptions of four particular views -- represented by Mack, Meyers, Horsley, and Freyne.

Burton Mack, of course, sees Jesus as descendent from Gentiles, a thoroughly Hellenized Jew, sharing little (if anything) in common with the Jews of Judea:

"In a certain sense Galilee has become a modern space: open, complex in cultural mixture, with an emphasis on the wisdom of popular philosophy and questioning traditions. Galilee in Mack's construction is a space of ideas and easy social contacts; there is little interest in the topography of power, or in less modern aspects of Hellenism like superstition and magic. Galilee has become a spatial metaphor for Hellenism understood as culture in socio-intellectual terms."

Jesus is thus seen as a cosmopolitan, multiculturalist cynic-sage, a reconstruction derived from the hypothetical Q (hazardous enough) and Q1 in particular (hard to take seriously).

Eric Meyers gives the opposite picture: a Jesus descendent from the Hasmonean settlers in the second century BCE, sharing mostly everything in common with the Jews of Judea:

"Meyers has a much more sophisticated view of the relations between Hellenism and Judaism than many others in the discussion of Galilee, but in the end Hellenism does not make much difference to Galilean Judaism... On the basis of archaeological evidence about aniconic decorations, the use of Aramaic and Hebrew in inscriptions as well as many ritual baths, Meyers concludes that Galilee was an area congenial to and supportive of Jewish halakhic norms in the time of Jesus... There was not a specific form of Galilean Jewishness that could influence Jesus; rather, even with the influence of Hellenism there seems to be a basic unity to Judaism in Palestine."

Jesus thus emerges as a "common Jew", as someone like E.P. Sanders maintains.

Richard Horsley sees major differences between Galilee and Judea, though not in the way Mack does. His Jesus descends from the northern Israelites, peasants left on the land after the Assyrians deported primarily rulers, officers, royal servants, and retainers in 722 BCE. These peasants stayed in Galilee, for centuries remaining free of a native aristocracy and temple community, unlike their Samaritan and Judean cousins down south. Jesus was thus a relative of Judean Jews, but a very distant one. Immediately pressing for him was the problem of urbanization encroaching on Galilean peasants, who had long been accustomed to being "left alone":

"Horsley does not find enough evidence for urbanization in Galilee to conclude that there was a cosmopolitan Hellenistic culture in which Jesus acted as a 'Cynic-like countercultural sage.' Rather, Horsley's view of the imperial dominance and the effect of Antipas' rule if anything strengthens his conviction that the problem was the threat to traditional life posed by the disintegration of the basic social forms of family and village... The most prominent task for a popular leader is to protect this traditional village life against outward pressure and domination, and the most effective strategy is not armed insurrection, but rather the empowerment of the local people of the villages."

Jesus had little use for ideas about the Torah and Temple which had developed in southern Judah -- and even less use for accommodating things Greek which threatened the welfare of peasant families.

Like Horsley, Sean Freyne sees a conflict between "Jewish peasant ethos" and "Hellenic urban values" giving rise to Jesus' prophetic career, but like Meyers understands Galileans to be descendent from the more recent Hasmonean settlers than ancient northern Israelites (whom Freyne thinks had all been deported, contra Horsley). Jesus then shared more in common with the Judeans than Horsley allows, though the latter is on target about a clash between villages and cities:

"The foundation of Sepphoris and Tiberias by Herod Antipas is [Freyne's] starting point. Why did Jesus never enter these cities, if the Gospel narratives are to be believed? Freyne argues that it was a deliberate avoidance on the part of Jesus 'as an act of solidarity with the victims in order to generate a prophetic critique of their oppressors'... Tiberias and Sepphoris represented an economic structure that brought changes in the lives of Galilean peasants...This picture provides Freyne with a setting that makes plausible an image of Jesus 'espousing a prophetic critique of the dominant prevailing ethos, based on covenantal ideals for a restored Israel, within an apocalyptic framework that made it possible to imagine and propose a radically different lifestyle and values'...This is not just a religious Jesus, nor only a political one."

Two things are clear. Jesus can hardly be seen as either oppositely Hellenic or identically Judaic to the Judeans of the south, and certain tensions between Galilean villages and cities seems to have informed much of his prophetic ministry. I hope to have a review/critique of Horsley's Galilee and Freyne's Jesus: A Jewish Galilean posted over the next month or so. Their approaches to the Galilee question are probably the best available for getting these two starters right, though they draw different conclusions.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Goodacre's Passion

Here's a paper I'm going to read over lunch today: Mark Goodacre's "When Prophecy Became Passion: The Death of Jesus and the Birth of the Gospels", which no doubt builds on his earlier masterpiece, "Prophecy Historicized or History Scripturalized?" Mark's passion for the Passion has resulted in an excellent treatment of the history vs. fiction question.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Christianity Began With...

The Jesus Seminar is evidently still at it. On the Crosstalk mailing list, Gordon Raynal mentions the group's upcoming agenda.

"In the next year the group wants to assess the arguments for and against the following statements:

1. Christianity began with Pentecost.
2. Christianity began with the Resurrection.
3. Christianity began with Jesus.
4. Christianity began with Paul."

There should be another option acknowledging Acts 11:26, where Luke reports that "in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians."

People have been tackling this question forever, and the answer naturally depends on what is meant by the term "Christianity". If by it we mean simply a sectarian group, then I actually have no problems saying that Christianity began with Jesus himself. But for historical purposes I'm inclined to take the ancient perceptions of this matter more seriously, such as the tradition preserved in Acts 11:26. By this time (mid-40s? a decade or two after Jesus?) the sectarian nature of the movement was evidently extending into territory radical enough to call forth a new label. It was probably mixed table-fellowship with uncircumcised Gentiles (a practice predating Paul, in my view, perhaps the reason for which he persecuted the sect so mercilessly) which precipitated the special name: christianoí. Christianity essentially began with Jesus, but more officially began years later with unidentified followers who began incorporating the Gentile peoples in a manner for which Paul would become renowned as the originator.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Origin of Christianity's Sectarianism

The pattern of Jewish religion called "covenantal nomism", coined and described by E.P. Sanders, declares that physical descent from Abraham and Torah-obedience guarantees one entry into God's kingdom. First-century Judaism was largely about covenant religion, and Sanders believes that Jesus' thinking squared with it, that it was Paul who later shot down the twin pillars of covenantal nomism -- election and the law.

Dale Allison has critized Sanders on this point in "Jesus and the Covenant: A Response to E.P. Sanders", JSNT 29 (1987), pp 57-78, arguing that Jesus, like his mentor the Baptist, completely rejected covenantal hope. The two prophets believed that one must be "born again", that deliverance came not by belonging to the Jewish people or having the law, but through a radical turning around -- a radical repentance producing good fruit. Indeed, says Allison, the entire New Testament tradition leaves the question of one's salvation open: people should be rather worried about their fate in the kingdom.

Joan Taylor likewise thinks the Baptist started this understanding:

"[According to the Baptist] God can, if he so wishes, make new children of Abraham out of stones lying around on the ground, just as he created the first human being out of the dust of the earth. One cannot look to a community that followed God's Law and expect inherited zekhut; it has to be the present time by each person in his or her own life; only then can s/he truly continue the spirit of Abraham." (The Immerser, pp 129-130)

Sounds a lot like Paul in Rom 9-10. I think Allison and Taylor are entirely correct. Christianity's sectarian rejection of covenantal nomism goes right back to the point of origin, to the Baptist and Nazarene themselves.

UPDATE: It should be noted that despite the above, Taylor insists that neither John nor Jesus were sectarian, in the sense that "nothing about John's message requires us to assume that he intended to immerse people to form an exclusive group that might deem themselves to be God's faithful remnant in the last days...there is nothing sectarian or exclusive here." (The Immerser, pp 148-149). I have doubts about this, but am using the term sectarian more generally in any case: John and Jesus rejected common covenantal hopes and salvific avenues. I believe L. Michael White's use of the term applies to both John and Jesus: "The Jesus movement is a sect... A sect always arises within a community with whom it shares a basic set of beliefs and yet, it needs to find some mechanism for differentiating itself. So sectarian groups are always in tension with their environment. That tension is manifested in a variety of ways -- controversies over belief and practice; different ideas of purity and piety. But another manifestation of that tension is the tendency to want to spread the message out, to hit the road and convince others that the truth is real."

Friday, March 03, 2006

Two Views of Christian Origins

Here's some exciting news. Bibliobloggers Michael Bird and James Crossley will be facing off in a forthcoming book called Two Views of Christian Origins: An Evangelical and Secular Conversation. It's Craig and Crossan, and Wright and Borg, all over again -- though I expect it will be even more dynamic than those pairs for including a secular viewpoint (Crossley, unlike Crossan and Borg who are liberally faith-based) alongside the evangelical one.

On his blog, Michael describes the book as follows:

"The objective of 'Two Views' is to present two contrasting perspectives on the history of early Christianity. The contrast is evidently sharp as one co-author comes from a conservative Christian background (Michael Bird), whilst the other co-author (James Crossley) approaches the matter from a secular standpoint. The volume works sequentially through Christian origins and addresses various topics including the htorical Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, the Apostle Paul, the Gospels, and the early church. Each author in turn examines these subjects and lays out his historical arguments concerning their origin and meaning. The volume also includes responses by two other scholars (Maurice Casey and Scot McKnight) to the arguments of Bird and Crossley as to give an even handed and broad evaluation of the arguments and debates that unfold."

The book is slated for release in the summer of 2008. Congratulations to Michael and James for such a great idea. This may well indeed turn out to be, as Michael puts it, "the mother-of-all historical debates about Christian origins."

UPDATE: James makes his own announcement.

Thoughts on Antiquity

Chris Weimer's Thoughts on Antiquity has a new web address, now updated on the blogroll.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Baptist’s Prayer

I'm intrigued by the idea that the Lord's Prayer originated with John. Joan Taylor argues this in The Immerser: John the Baptist Within Second Temple Judaism, pp 151-153, and I'm a bit surprised her view isn't more commonly held. In Luke (11:1) the "Our Father" prayer is prefaced by the disciples asking Jesus to teach them to pray "as John taught his disciples". The Greek wording, as Taylor notes, could mean that the disciples are asking to be taught "just as" or "exactly as" John's disciples were taught. The Lord's Prayer, furthermore, would fit well with the message of John no less than Jesus'. And I agree that it's hard to see why Luke would want to invent this idea (Matthew's parallel account lacks this reference) which makes it look like the savior is copy-catting John.

Taylor's suggestion prompts the more general question: if the Lord's Prayer came from John, what else did? Did John speak in parables? Address Torah issues? Have certain ideas about taxation? One wonders. Jesus surely had plenty of novelty, but I suspect that his mentor left his mark on him more deeply, and in more ways, than usually assumed.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Biblical Studies Carnival III

Catch a snapshot of February's blog-business in the third Biblical Studies Carnival. Excellent job, Rick.