Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave

Robert Price's The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave is a collection of essays from the skeptic's corner, containing much to agree with, much to dispute, as each contributor deals with the resurrection inquiry in some way. Peter Kirby has an essay refuting the authenticity of the empty tomb; Richard Carrier has a lengthy essay, also arguing that the empty tomb was a legend coming later than Paul's two-body doctrine of the resurrection, and then a shorter article arguing that if the empty tomb were authentic it is plausible to assume Jesus' body was stolen. Keith Parsons writes about the plausibility of hallucination theories; Jeffrey Jay Lowder argues for the relocation of Jesus' corpse to a second tomb. Then there is an extremely polemical piece by editor Robert Price -- called "By This Time He Stinketh: The Attempts of William Lane Craig to Exhume Jesus" -- bemoaning the influence of neo-conservative scholarship, insisting that William Lane Craig is a menace both to scholarship and the commonweal.

There are more essays (fifteen total), but for now I'll focus on four which particularly grabbed my attention: two by Richard Carrier, one by Keith Parsons, one by Robert Price. It's a sizeable enough agenda for one review/post.

"The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb" (Richard Carrier)

Carrier's first essay on the legend of the empty tomb is unconvincing as it is long, propped up by an unlikely hypothesis of Paul's view of the resurrection: that Jesus rose in a different body completely distinguished from the old. I want to focus on this two-body idea, because Carrier offers the most thorough treatment of it I've ever read. He begins by trying to pinpoint the source of the Corinthians' objections and concerns:
"If the corpse of Jesus remained on earth, it is easy to see how some [of the Corinthians] might [have] come to believe his resurrection was peculiar, in a way ours could not be. It is possible some decided his resurrection was only metaphorical or that it was simply a necessary consequence of his divinity -- just as God lived without a body before the incarnation, so obviously he would afterward. And we are not gods, so we cannot count on the same fate. Whatever their particular interpretation was, like these, it must have made our own resurrection somehow dubious. Only that would make any sense of Paul's reply. So now their specific worry becomes explicable: If Christ didn't get back his old body, how are we going to live without ours? Paul's answer is: We get a new body." (pp 121-122)
Carrier, in other words, has the Corinthians worrying about a bodiless fate. But this was compatible with the things they'd always believed. Even more to the point, Paul's answer ("we get a new body"), in its simplest and unelaborated form, would have already been taught to them. It's simply incredible that Paul wouldn't have initially mentioned anything about the "new body", whether that of Jesus or those of believers.

I think it's clear from Paul's language that the Corinthians accepted Jesus' resurrection from the old corpse, yet wondered, on the basis of old-beliefs-die-hard, if this would really end up being true for themselves. After all, he says, "Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?" (I Cor 15:12), presupposing that everyone already accepts Christ has been raised -- and raised "from the dead", or from the old corpse.

Carrier, as expected, leans heavily on the two passages which have been pressed into service of sharply distinguishing a new spiritual body from the old physical. Taking the first, "It is sown a natural body, and it is raised a spiritual body" (I Cor 15:44):
"There are two subjects in that last clause, hence two bodies. That two distinct bodies are meant is clear in 15:46 and the final clause of 15:44. Paul is saying the earthly flesh that is sown is dishonorable and weak and subject to decay, but what rises is glorious powerful, and immortal. And he captures all this in his concluding dichotomy between two fundamentally different bodies: a biological body and a spiritual body... If Paul meant that one body would be changed into the other, he would say so. He would not use analogies that he has, which all entail different things, not changes from one living thing into another. Likewise he would use appropriate grammar (e.g. "that which is sown is raised"), but he doesn't." (pp 127-128)
Too many commentators have pointed out, however, that the metaphor of a seed sprouting (I Cor 15:38ff) supports the idea of an old body transforming into a new one. The two subjects ("it, it") refer to the same essential entity.

For the infamous second statement, "Neither flesh nor blood can inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable" (I Cor 15:50), Carrier declares:
"Flesh and blood goes away, to corruption and decay. Period. Flesh does not receive immortality. It cannot receive it. That is why there must be a new, different body, one capable of immortality... Christ is now a pneuma and has a pneumatic body, unlike the body of Adam, which was made of the flesh and blood formed from the dirt of the earth... Paul says such things are perishable, and they cannot enter heaven, so they cannot have any place in the resurrection. And he clearly says, contrary to Luke, that the risen Christ is a spirit." (pp 134-135)
Furthermore, says Carrier, against Wright's claim that Paul was using spirit as an adjective of relation as opposed to material -- that Paul was speaking of a pneuma-driven, or pneuma-powered, body:
"Contra Wright, the distinction between -ikos (adjectives of relation) and -inos (adjectives of material) is not so clear-cut, especially in Koine, as even he admits... The context decides, and our context clearly indicates substances are the issue: sarx versus pneuma, different kinds of flesh, astral bodies versus terrestrial ones... We can therefore reject all gospel material emphasizing the physicality of Christ's resurrection as a polemical invention." (pp 129, 135)
It's true that Paul didn't express himself well in I Cor 15:50, but Carrier's "period!" shouldn't come at the end of this verse, rather three verses later, when Paul qualifies with the idea that the perishable body itself "must put on imperishability" (15:53), again implying continuity. "Flesh and blood" is simply a loose (and admittedly confusing) way of referring to an ordinary human body as yet unchanged. Wright gets a lot of things wrong, but he's at least somewhat on the right track about this.

From this point Carrier proceeds to the second half of his essay and argues that the empty tomb was a legendary development after Paul, made to square with later gospel reports of a more physical resurrection. I don't think Carrier is any more persuasive here than he is with Paul's supposed two-body hypothesis, but I'll leave it alone and proceed to Carrier's second essay, about which I can say good things.

"The Plausibility of Theft" (Richard Carrier)

In this shorter essay Carrier assumes the opposite conclusion of what he argued previously: if the empty tomb were historical, then Jesus' body may have been stolen.

Indeed, it may well have been. Grave-robbing was common enough in antiquity, and necromancers especially valued the body parts of holy men and/or crucified men; Jesus was both. There's obviously no way to rule out other ideas (Jesus' corpse being moved to another tomb, the disciples stumbling on the wrong tomb, etc.), but the grave-robbing explanation remains a strong candidate. Carrier makes interesting analogies to the rumor of theft reported in Mt 28:15, suggesting that Matthew blames the rumor on conspiracy ("the Jews' desire to conceal the truth") in the same way that the Heaven's Gate cult blamed the argument against their imminent spacecraft on a conspiratorial earth traitor (pp 356-357). And just as Matthew accuses Jews of paying off guards, the survivors of Jonestown accused the government of fabricating evidence and paying off forensic doctors to fabricate evidence which made them look bad.

The upshot is that Carrier's short essay on "the plausibility of theft" is a better piece than his lengthy article preferring legend which rests, in turn, on an incorrect interpretation of Paul's view of the resurrection. Less is more with Carrier, though Michael Turton evidently prefers the argument for legend.

"Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli on the Hallucination Theory" (Keith Parsons)

Keith Parsons accounts for the New Testament appearances of Jesus in terms of visions, or as he prefers, hallucinations. In responding to Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli's thirteen objections to the hallucination hypothesis (argued in their Handbook of Christian Apologetics), he successfully refutes ten arguments, but not three.
(1) Kreeft and Tacelli: "There were too many witnesses; hallucinations are private." Parsons says this ignores the phenomenon of mass delusions (pp 435-438).

(2) K&T: "The witnesses were qualified -- simple, honest, and moral, who had firsthand knowledge of the facts." Not only do the gospels portray the disciples as disloyal and dense, it's equally true that honest and moral people are perfectly susceptible to hallucinations (p 439).

(3) K&T: "The five hundred saw Christ together, at the same time and place." But this may have been a collective vision (see (1)) (p 440).

(4) K&T: "Hallucinations usually last a few seconds or minutes; rarely hours. Jesus hung around for forty days (Acts 1:3)." This naively assumes a literal forty-day period in which "Jesus" was continuously present (p 441).

(5) K&T: "Hallucinations usually happen only once, except to the insane." This claim is simply unfounded (p 441).

(6) K&T: "Hallucinations come from within, from what we already know and expect. Jesus did unexpected things, like a real person and not a dream." A bizarre claim: in dreams and visions many unexpected things occur (p 442).

(7) K&T: "Not only did the disciples not expect this, they didn't believe it at first; they initially thought he was a ghost." This not only begs the question by assuming a vision cannot overcome skepticism, it's a common rhetorical tactic of religious believers to claim they began as skeptics until later convinced of the "truth" (p 443).

(8)/(9)/(10) K&T: "Hallucinations do not eat."/"Hallucinations cannot be touched."/"Hallucinations cannot be heard." All are unfounded claims (p 444).

(11) K&T: "The apostles could not have believed in the hallucination if the corpse had still been in the tomb." A smoke-and-mirrors (ultimately empty) objection (pp 445-447).

(12) K&T: "If the apostles had hallucinated and then spread the story, the Jews would have stopped it by producing the body." That depends on the corpse's state of decay (p 448).

(13) K&T: "A hallucination would explain only the appearances; it would not explain the empty tomb; only the resurrection explains both." Point-counterpoint: that's like saying only real ETs explain all phenomena associated with UFO sightings (p 448).
For full elaborations on these rebuttals see the pages cited. Most of them are solid, save (3), (8), and (13). Objection (3) is more valid than Parsons allows, since documented cases report less than ten people experiencing the same hallucination at the same time; certainly not crowds of hundreds. Objection (8) also appears to be valid; reported apparitions do not eat or drink. Parsons may be conscious of the difficulty since he tries dealing with (8) (9) and (10) all as a single objection, but while testimony abounds for tangible and audible visions, that's not true for eating/drinking visions. Objection (13) carries weight only on the assumption that there was no cognitive dissonance in place which could have (easily) caused the disciples to make any outlandish claim they wanted, regardless of whether or not there was an empty tomb. But without cognitive dissonance (i.e. if, for the disciples, expectations hadn't yet been shattered) the objection is more valid than Parsons allows. [When I originally wrote this review, I'd finished proof-reading Dale Allison's manuscript for Resurrecting Jesus, in which he raises similar counters to these three objections and deals with them better than Parsons does. Now, of course, Allison's book is available.]

On the whole, I agree with what Parsons is getting at. There is nothing unlikely about the appearances of Jesus being "hallucinations", whether those described by Paul or the more explicitly tangible ones by the gospel writers. I would use the term to refer to apparitions occasioned by grief or trauma over the recently deceased. Gerd Ludemann has been the champion of this view, and Dale Allison explored the possibility by going even deeper into this territory.

"By This Time He Stinketh: The Attempts of William Lane Craig to Exhume Jesus" (Robert Price)

Price's diatribe against William Lane Craig will amuse the irreverent and anger the pious. For me it was mildly off-putting. Price declares that biblical scholarship is in dire straits, with the ever increasing influence (as he sees it) of the more conservative wing: "Craig may well be correct that NT scholarship is more conservative than it once was. This has more than he admits to do with which denominations can afford to train the most students, hire more faculty, and send more members to the SBL...Is this trend toward neo-conservatism an enlightenment? Rather, I regard it as a prime example of what H.P. Lovecraft bemoaned as the modern failure of nerve in the face of scientific discovery." (p 412). This strikes me as paranoid, and I don't quite see neo-conservatives dominating the field of NT scholarship to the extent Price does. What about the influence of the Jesus Seminar? Burton Mack and Jonathan Smith? More feminist scholars? Biblical studies, if anything, seems to be more diversified than ever these days.

Furthermore, the rise of neo-conservative influence in some quarters has brought as much good news as bad. The early Christians had many beliefs conducive to "conservative" thinking, for better or worse, and scholars like (say) Bauckham and McKnight can certainly appreciate this more than a quaint Bultmannian.

To top it off, Price concludes his screed against Craig with the worst topic he could have chosen -- by going down the same avenue as Richard Carrier with a quasi-gnostic interpretation of Paul's view of the resurrection, laced with trademark rhetoric and contempt for his dialogue partner. I don't particularly like being a defender of William Lane Craig, but here Emperor Price has no clothes. Others, however, may think Price's rhetoric and idiosyncratic ideas make for some entertaining reading (like Michael Turton).

Conclusion

This is an important collection of essays which should be on the shelf of anyone interested in the resurrection. Studies from the last few years have been impressive. Wright's Resurrection of the Son of God ('03) is good for understanding what resurrection meant to the early Christians, though perhaps not for its apologetics. Ludemann's Resurrection of Christ ('04) is a fair counter to some of Wright, though it doesn't offer the most comprehensive treatment of hallucinations/apparitions. Dale Allison's Resurrecting Jesus ('05) is of course the best study to date. The Empty Tomb supplements the Wright-Ludemann-Allison trilogy with verve and covers a lot of important ground.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Fessing Up: What was Morton Smith's Payoff?

Over a fun Wednesday lunch, Stephen Carlson (who was passing through town) and I talked about why Morton Smith never admitted to fabricating Secret Mark. If he created Clement's letter for the reasons Stephen thinks, one would expect him to have fessed up in order to prove how smart he was.

Recall Carlson's distinction between forgeries and hoaxes:

"While the circumstances surrounding Secret Mark do not support the conclusion that it is a criminal forgery done to defraud, that does not exhaust the possibilities of its being a twentieth-century fake. Secret Mark could also be a hoax. Although hoaxes share with forgeries the element of creating a document with the intention to deceive, hoaxes are done with a different motive -- to test the establishment, whether to expose flaws in the gatekeepers of authenticity, to exhibit one's skill and cunning, or to take pleasure in the failure of self-appointed experts to pass the test." (Gospel Hoax, p 78)

On my earlier list of Top 20 Literary Hoaxes, I made no distinction between forgeries and hoaxes (since by most definitions they're often the same thing), though I distinguished between motives involving profit, attention-grabbing, or ideological-support (Carlson's "forgeries") and pranking/testing (Carlson's "hoaxes"). I confess that Stephen's terminology has grown on me for these motive factors.

Reason being, forgers don't want to get caught while hoaxers ultimately do. That's their payoff: not money or ideology, but satisfaction from showing the world how superiorly clever they are. That's why Dionysius, the "Ern Malley" authors, and Alan Sokol (#’s 6, 11, & 15 on my list) came clean. The fallibility or gullibility of others goes unnoticed unless the hoaxer eventually fesses up. But Morton Smith never fessed up. Does this undermine Carlson's (and Donald Akenson's) claim that Secret Mark was fabricated, above all, for the sake of testing scholars and having a good laugh?

Stephen was asked this question by Steve Shoemaker, whose radio interview is archived online (see Nov 27, '05). Stephen's response squares with what he hints at by way of irony on p 86 of Gospel Hoax: it was Smith's friends who ended up "running with Secret Mark", while his enemies refused to be taken in by it. ("If Smith was motivated partly by malice against his opponents, it is ironic that exposure of Smith’s hoax may end up hurting mainly those who trusted him." p 86) Smith, in other words, created more of a monster than he'd ever bargained for. With fellow-liberals like Koester devoting their careers to Secret Mark, how could he have played into enemy hands by undermining their scholarly credibility?

Then too we should bear in mind that not all pranksters reveal themselves in the long run, and Smith may not be as exceptional as initially supposed. No one disputes Paul Coleman-Norton's prank (#20 on my list), but he never fessed up either. Perhaps, in the end, Coleman-Norton and Smith had a sense of shame after all.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Christ is the Question

The new book by Wayne Meeks, Christ is the Question, has some ringing endorsements, including one from Bart Ehrman:

"Witty, perceptive, learned, and wise, this is not just another book about the historical Jesus; it is a masterly reflection by a master scholar with four decades of scholarship behind him. For Wayne Meeks, the question of who Christ is cannot be resolved by post-enlightenment scientific historical investigation (the advent of which he sketches with verve and insight). For him, this historical Jesus is the Jesus who 'makes history', as he has been understood by his followers over the centuries and in our own day."
-- Bart D. Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina

"Written with Wayne Meeks's customary clarity and power, Christ is the Question will engage and benefit both the church and the academy-all who care about Jesus and about the way his image is used and misused in the world today."
-- Susan R. Garrett, Professor of New Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

"In this explosive book Wayne Meeks shows the way beyond both liberal and conservative readings of the New Testament. This book is an intervention that does what all truly important books do: it entirely changes the conversation."
-- Cyril O'Regan, Huisking Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

Meeks apparently wants us to dispense with the historical quest, believing that Jesus is lost and unfixed to the extent that he can only be located as "a figure whose identity continues to emerge as contemporary persons engage him in their daily lives" (publisher's description). Meeks may find William Arnal to be an ally of sorts. In The Symbolic Jesus Arnal recently concluded that the search for the historical Jesus should be abandoned because the "symbolic Jesus" is what ultimately matters, even in historical research, whether or not people realize it. I'll have more to say about this after I read Christ is the Question, and I may review Meeks' book alongside Arnal's if there are enough commonalities for comparative purposes. I don't accept that the quest for the historical Jesus should be abandoned, even if Meeks and Arnal light on plenty of reasons to make us wonder if reasonable objectivity is attainable.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Luminous Dusk

Eerdmans is releasing Dale Allison's The Luminous Dusk at the end of June.

"For millennia humans knew the stars as well as they knew their own backyards. Yet many of us have lost both this and other vital connections with our natural world, and so have in many ways lost our sense of wonder.

"In the thoughtful, genre-bending nonfiction tradition of Wendell Berry and Walker Percy, Dale Allison charts the effects of loss of wonder in Western society. Drawing on insights from ancient creation myths to the popularity of cartoon animals, he highlights our ongoing disconnection from the cosmos, tracing its spiritual and philosophical impact. In eight elegant and profound essays, The Luminous Dusk calls readers to a life of sustained wonder, open to the divine and connected to the creation, a life that chooses divine ascent over our culture's reflexive mediocrity."

Anything by Dale Allison is something to look forward to, no matter what your philosophical leanings are. Just added to my summer reading list.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Success and Disintegration in Biblioblogdom

Prompted by Jim West’s concern about a "disintegration of the biblioblogging community", Chris Heard, Chris Weimer, Ed Cook and Mark Goodacre each address the situation as he sees it. Jim seems to be more concerned about a decline in the interactivity between bloggers than in biblioblogdom per se.

To an extent, the two are inversely related. Many have mentioned the exponential growth of our biblioblogging community, and it does seem that for everyone who goes on blogging sabbatical (like Michael Turton and Alan Bandy) there are three or four new faces who come along to fill the void. I myself haven't noticed a major decrease in the interactions between bloggers, but some is no doubt due to this astronomical growth. The rise of biblioblogdom makes it harder to keep up with everything going on. "Victims of our own success", Mark? Too true.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

More on Secret Mark

Stephen Carlson calls attention to yet another rebuttal of Secret Mark coming out this September: The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery, by Peter Jeffery. According to Adela Yarbro Collins of Yale University:

"Peter Jeffery's book proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Morton Smith forged the discovered text. It demonstrates that he had the scholarly expertise, the wit, the sense of humor, and above all the motivation to do so."

Evidently some of the book's arguments complement those in Stephen's Gospel Hoax, though Jeffery approaches the hoax from a musician's angle, which is curious. Stephen cites an article from The Daily Princetonian:

"Jeffery... approached the text from his perspective as a musical historian and conclusively refuted it. Because 'everything it says about the early Christian liturgy is utterly nonsensical, it can't be made to fit into the history,' he said. [He] said that it took more than 30 years to debunk the text because the study of rituals is complicated, involving a high degree of non-textual interpretation."

It will make for interesting reading, that's for sure. Poor Morton Smith: only in death does his last laugh really pay off.

Interesting post-script to the article: Jeffery apparently sued the Smashing Pumpkins for damaging his hearing at a concert. For some reason that doesn't surprise me. When I used to listen to the Smashing Pumpkins on a walkman I remember having to turn the volume way down. Great band, but painful at high decibels.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Stephen Finlan on Atonement Theories

Stephen Finlan has just replied to my review of his take on atonement theories from last Saturday. It’s a lengthy reply and well worth checking out. Thanks for stopping by, Stephen.

Self Deception

See Daniel Gilbert's article in the New York Times, "I'm Okay, You're Biased" (thanks to Matt Bertrand for the link). It mentions some studies on self-deception, noting, among other things, that

"By uncritically accepting evidence when it pleases us, and insisting on more when it doesn't, we subtly tip the scales in our favor."

No kidding. Those unsympathetic to traditional Christianity have been swallowing Michael Baigent's (/Dan Brown's) nonsense with a vengeance (see here), and it's only going to get worse after the release of The DaVinci Code film. Meanwhile, the enthusiasm -- even in scholarly circles -- for Tom Wright's "resurrection evidence" has been no less astounding. We know that lack of precedent has never been an obstacle to religious creativity, yet people continue parroting Wright just the same: "no ancient Jew would have claimed that a messiah was raised before the end, unless he really was". I'm not saying that Wright is generally comparable to Baigent, but on this particular point he is, and the massive followings garnered by each on the basis of pseudo-evidence or -logic point to the self-deception phenomenon mentioned in Gilbert's article. We take what's pleasing to us, however bogus the evidence (Baigent), however greasy the logic (Wright).

I love this part:

"Because the brain cannot see itself fooling itself, the only reliable method for avoiding bias is to avoid the situations that produce it."

How encouraging.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

DaVinci Beliefs

According to a recent poll, 17% of Canadians and 13% of Americans believe that Jesus' crucifixion was faked, and that he married and had kids, just like Dan Brown tells in The DaVinci Code:

"Andrew Grenville, the polling firm's senior vice-president, said he was shocked that many Canadians believe the death of Jesus was faked. He said the number was particularly surprising considering only 10% of Canadians identify themselves as atheist or agnostic.

" 'I would have expected a lot of people to say Jesus never existed, or Jesus was just some guy, but to say the death was faked and he had kids is a very firm position to take. It speaks to the power of storytelling.' "

I think these figures will only increase after the movie comes out next month. Film is a very powerful medium.

(Hat tip to Michael Pahl for the link.)

Monday, April 17, 2006

Wolf Creek

Slasher films have to be the worst genre in the filmmaking industry, but I was pleasantly surprised by Greg McLean's Wolf Creek, a vicious account of three post-college friends who take a road trip across Australia to a murderously unhappy ending. The critics are almost evenly divided at Rottentomatoes (52% approve). Liz Braun, representing those who "have no affection or respect" for slasher films, grudgingly admits there are at least some good things about the film. Spence D. says the convincing terror makes the film an "interactive experience, something so few of the horror films tossed out onto the public ever achieve". This is quite true: most slashers, especially the lame PG-13 variety, involve the victimizing of teenage air-heads whom we actually want to see get killed for their stupidity, yet they manage to prevail against their tormenter anyway. Wolf Creek involves us with sympathetic characters whose pain and terror becomes our own, and the story does not have a happy ending.

On the negative side, Tyler Hanley opines that "viewers eager to embrace 90 minutes of footage featuring women being brutalized, beaten, stalked and slaughtered may want to consider some serious introspection". Such judgmentalism is misplaced: a good horror film is supposed to be nasty. Roger Ebert gives an amazing "zero-star" rating, complaining about the film's supposed misogyny and "sadistic celebration of pain and cruelty". James Berardinelli rightly counters Ebert:
"To slam Wolf Creek as a 'sadistic celebration of pain and cruelty' (as Roger Ebert did) is to misunderstand the genre. That description, loaded though it may be, could be used to describe more than 50% of the horror movies to have come along since Halloween re-invented the genre in the late 1970s... If the film evokes squeamishness, it has done its job. You're not supposed to sit through a film like this placidly munching popcorn. The reaction is intended to be visceral."
What I liked about Wolf Creek is that nothing bad or scary happens at all during the first half of the film. It's just a tour of the Australian Outback, taking in the sights, enjoying the friends' camaraderie. Most films bring on the horror too early, and on undeveloped characters we aren't even given time to care about. McLean takes 52 minutes to warm up, ominously building tension, and when hell finally breaks loose we feel the victims' pain with a vengeance. I was left very disturbed.

Wolf Creek isn't Hitchcockian in achievement, by any means, but it does what a film like this is supposed to do, tapping into our fears about psychopaths on a serious level. If you like to be frightened but have given up on the slasher genre, give it a try. Here's the film's website.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Resurrection

"Either God raised Jesus from the dead, or the disciples somehow got the job done in their imaginations. If it was God, then the Deity thought that crucifixion was not the appropriate finale to the story of Jesus, that something in his history cried out for a different ending. If, however, it was the disciples who, through deceit or self-deception, raised Jesus into Christian mythology, then clearly they felt the same way: something was wrong with death having the last word with their master, so they persuaded themselves and others that it had not. In either case, whether it was God or the disciples, crucifixion was deemed to be the wrong denouement. Resurrection was needed." (Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, p 215)

Happy Easter to everyone.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Penal Substitution and Atonement in General

"Atonement theories confirm two fundamental and universal instincts about life and divinity: the belief that nothing is free, that there must be give-and-take in the spiritual economy as there is in the material; and secondly, the intuition that ritual establishes order... The problem is not what all this says about Jesus but what it says about God: if God wants to save, why is such intercession necessary? Why should Jesus' pleading for humanity only be effective after he had been murdered? It does us no good to perceive Jesus as heroic if we are forced to view God as sadistic." (Stephen Finlan, Problems with Atonement, pp 80,97)
The idea of penal substitution is peripheral to the New Testament. Two books which should be required reading for the origins of atonement doctrine are Stephen Finlan's The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors and its sequel Problems with Atonement. Finlan distinguishes between four understandings of Christ's death found in the New Testament: martyrdom, sacrifice, scapegoat, and ransom redemption. None of these really involves the idea of penal substitution where Christ supposedly "stands in" for others.

1. Martyrdom. Christ dies as an example to be followed (Gal 2:19; Rom 6:6-7,11; I Pet 2:21,4:1-2).

2. Sacrifice

(a). Passover Sacrifice. Christ dies in order to protect believers from God's wrath in judgment (I Cor 5:7,11:23-26; I Pet 1:19; Mk 14:22-25/Mt 26:26-29/Lk 22:14-20).

(b). Covenant Sacrifice. Christ dies in order to make peace between people and renew commitment to God (Gal 3:14; I Cor 11:25; Mk 14:24/Mt 26:28/Lk 22:20; Heb 7:22,8:6,9:15-21).

(c). Atoning Sacrifice. Christ dies in order to reconcile humanity to God through forgiveness (Rom 3:25; Mt 26:28; Eph 1:7; I Jn 2:2,4:10; Heb 2:17,9:11-14,22,26,10:10,19).

3. Scapegoat. Christ dies taking on curses and bearing away peoples' sins (Gal 3:13; II Cor 5:21; Rom 6:6,7:4,8:3; I Pet 2:23-24; Heb 9:28).

4. Ransom Redemption. Christ dies as the price for humanity's freedom, liberating people from captivity under evil (Gal 3:13; Rom 3:24; I Cor 6:20,7:23; Eph 1:7; I Pet 1:18; Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28; I Tim 2:6; Tit 2:14; Heb 2:14-15,9:12,15).

Neither martyrs (1) nor scapegoats (3) were substitutes. The former were examples to be followed, and the latter were sin carriers. Scapegoats were not sacrifices, a point emphasized repeatedly by Finlan. They were opposite in every way: sacrifices pure and offered to God, scapegoats impure and driven out to a demon.

Sacrifices (2) involved substitution, though not in a penal sense. A sacrifice didn't "stand in" for the offender, but appeased God's wrath in a propitiary sense. It was a monetary substitution (or "food bribe"), buying off God more than anything, and closer to the satisfaction model introduced in the 11th century, based as it was on honor-shame values. Moreover, the propitiary aspect of sacrifice is only half the picture: a sacrifice was also expiatory, in the sense that blood was a cleansing agent on its own right. The expiatory dimension to sacrifice wasn't about any kind of substitution, let alone penal.

Ransom redemption (4) involved substitution, though as a monetary transaction; it had nothing to do with penal substitution.

The only passage in the New Testament which possibly evokes penal substitution is I Pet 2:24b (cited by Michael), which owes to Isa 53:4-5, "by his wounds we are healed". This may indicate that Christ, like Israel's servant, died in place of others. Aside from this one text, however, there is nothing in the NT pointing to Christ's death as a penal substitute.

The lesson here is that the NT writers used and blended many metaphors of Christ's death so that "any one metaphor, by itself, would be misleading" (Finlan, Problems with Atonement, p 66). If there is a prime metaphor, it's martyrdom, which provides the platform for the others. But from the second century onward, church thinkers started to use a single atonement metaphor under which other ideas were subordinated. These were ransom redemption (the "Orthodox" view), satisfaction (the "Catholic" view), and penal substitution (the "Protestant" view). Each understanding moved further away from the biblical metaphors:

1. Ransom Redemption. God tricks the devil by offering Jesus as a ransom payment to free humanity from his influence, and Satan is foiled by the resurrection. (Origen, Augustine, Gregory the Great; dominant theory in the 2nd-10th centuries)

2. Satisfaction. Christ dies in the place of humanity, in order to satisfy the demands of God's honor. (Anselm; dominant theory in the 11th-15th centuries)

3. Penal Substitution. Christ dies in the place of humanity, in order to satisfy the demands of God's justice. (Luther, Calvin; dominant from the 16th century onwards)

The ransom redemption theory is based on NT understanding (#4 above), though it introduces deceit into the picture. The satisfaction theory is an honor-shame understanding (reflecting the feudal structure of medieval times) and thus has affinities with the biblical view of sacrifice. The penal substitution theory is the most popular today, but least biblical, as it answers individualist concerns about guilt and innocence.

Whatever its theological merits, I see almost no biblical basis for the penal substitution model. And I'm not sure it's superior to the other two in any case. They get at the same idea, just under the trappings of different value systems.

Is Atonement essential to Christianity?

According to Finlan, the Incarnation is the central doctrine of Christianity, but atonement is something Christianity can (and should) do without. In place of atonement -- and anything relating to blood sacrifice -- he suggests the principle of theosis, whereby "the Word became man so that you might learn from man how man may become God" (Problems with Atonement, p 121). Not that Finlan advocates gnosticism -- far from it: "Those who teach that every person is as divine as Christ is (such as the gnostic gospel of Philip) lose sight of the Incarnation, and cannot really be called Christian" (ibid, p 4; my emphasis). He advocates what orthodox thinkers like Athanasius and Clement of Alexandria maintained, that people may be deified on account of the "the Word becoming man". Says Finlan further:
"Theosis has a biblical basis, and this should not be forgotten. There is the promise that 'you may become participants of the divine nature' (II Pet 1:4); there is the command to become perfect, Godlike (Mt 5:48); there are the prophecies of doing greater things than Jesus did (Jn 14:12) and of revelations yet to be seen (Jn 1:51). Theosis means each person incarnating divinity in his or her small way, inspired by the direct Incarnation of divinity that took place in Galilee and Judea." (pp 121-122)
As a Unitarian I'm hardly qualified to say whether or not dispensing with atonement theories amounts to a betrayal of Christianity. But the principle underlying theosis is one I can certainly endorse. To forgive freely -- truly freely, without any give-and-take in between -- is one of the hardest things to do, and divine indeed.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Show Trial of Good Friday

"Jesus was never tried to determine his innocence or guilt... In a show trial, the guilt of the person being 'tried' has already been determined. There is no effort to weigh evidence, nor is there a defense of the offender. Show trials are conducted under the firm control of the state; there is no independent judiciary. The procedure does not conform to laws but follows the expedient will of power elites. Some ad hoc body of accusers stands in place of a jury, and its members belong to the same ruling class as the accusers. A show trial is not a legal process but a political process whose purpose is the public degradation and humiliation of an enemy of the state before his foreordained conclusion." (William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, pp 240-241)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Future of Libraries

Here are some sobering predictions as to where libraries are headed. (No, this site has nothing to do with The DaVinci Code.)

Jesus and Taxes: A Hidden Transcript

(Prologue to this series here. Part I here. Part II here.)

Let's now proceed through the "Render to Caesar" account in the synoptics, following Mark (the earliest) for sake of convenience when there is disagreement. My argument is that Jesus' reply is a hidden transcript -- a veiled way of saying that Caesar's taxes are unlawful, but should be paid with contempt since God would soon be dealing with the empire once and for all.
Mk. 12:13-15a/Mt. 22:15-17/Lk. 20:20-22: The temple authorities sent some Herodians and Pharisees to trap Jesus, so as to hand him over to the governor. And they came to him and said, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us then: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
The Herodians and Pharisees are trying to get Jesus to admit his revolutionary sentiments so they can have him arrested. Their opening flattery is a hostile compliment(1) intended to put Jesus on the spot in front of the crowds. By calling him a "true" teacher who doesn't curry favor with the wealthy and powerful, they are daring Jesus to commit himself in this politically loaded situation.(2) They have thrown down the gauntlet, and everyone is held in suspense.
Mk. 12:15b-16a/Mt. 22:18-19/Lk. 20:23-24a: Jesus, knowing their malice, said to them, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Bring me a denarius and let me see it." And they brought him one.
In honor-shame societies men don't defend themselves when challenged publicly, nor do they respond to questions. They go on the offensive by flinging back counterquestions, insults, and demands -- which is exactly what Jesus does here. He sidesteps the challenge, combining a counterquestion ("why are you putting me to the test?") and insult ("you hypocrites") with a demand for a coin. In so doing, he wrests control of the debate from his foes. It's significant that Jesus doesn't have any coins himself. He and his closest followers refused to own or carry money (see Mk. 6:6b-13/Mt. 10:5-15/Lk. 9:1-6;10:1-12). His adversaries must produce one for him, and it would have been the Herodians, since the Pharisees didn't use Caesar's coins anymore than Jesus did. So in the context of their own initial challenge, the Herodians have been shamed by the public disclosure that they possess something idolatrous.(3)
Mk. 12:16b/Mt. 22:20/Lk. 20:24b: Jesus said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this?"
Jesus escalates the conflict with a nasty question -- "Whose image and inscription is this?" -- which skewers the Herodians on the spot. The question is obviously superfluous. Everyone in the crowd -- Herodians, Pharisees, and peasant onlookers alike -- knows too well what is on the coin, and, with the exception of the Herodians, they hate its violation of the first and second commandments.(4) On this particular point, the Pharisees agreed with Jesus and would now have begun arguing with the Herodians instead of him. Jesus has thus cleverly deflected the initial attack by setting his adversaries against each other.(5)
Mk. 12:16c/Mt. 22:21a/Lk. 20:24c: They answered, "Caesar's."
The Herodians invoke Caesar's name in vain, thereby identifying themselves as idolaters, shaming themselves in the eyes of everyone -- Jesus, the Pharisees, and peasant onlookers. By answering the question directly, moreover, they have lost face by being put on the defensive. They have conceded ground to Jesus, and he now has the upper hand.
Mk. 12:17/Mt. 22:21b-22/Lk. 20:25-26: Jesus said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God what is God's." And they were amazed and unable to trap him by what he said.
Jesus twists in the knife with his infamous command: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." Jewish belief dictated that everything belonged to God. People were created the image of God to whom they owed their entire allegiance (Gen. 1-2), just as the promised land and its resources belonged to him alone (Lev. 25:23). "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" would appear to mean "Give Caesar nothing and God everything".(6) That's how Jesus' foes understood him, and that's exactly what they later reported to Pilate: "We heard this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to Caesar" (Lk. 23:2a). They got the right idea but missed a nuance. In shaming his enemies with the denarius, Jesus indicates that there is at least one thing that belongs to Caesar: the coin minted in his image. That had to be given back to the emperor, for it was idolatrous and polluting. Jesus says, in effect,
"Give Caesar back his coins, and give your undivided allegiance to God, so that Caesar and his coins may be removed from God's land."(7)
This isn't a call to pay taxes but to expel the coins from the Jewish land; to give the Romans their money as an act of resistance; or, if you like, to pay taxes "with contempt". By implying that Caesar's taxes are immoral and illegitimate, but in such a way that his adversaries are "unable to trap him", Jesus has bested his foes while at the same time shaming the Herodians as idolaters who do not give God his due. On top of this, he has manipulated the Pharisees by making them unwitting allies who now look like fools for their contradictory position.

What good was Jesus doing?

As I mentioned in the last post, what Jesus advocated doing with Caesar's coins is the sort of thing we would expect from an apocalyptic prophet. Leaders of millenial movements often make demands which put their followers' well-being at risk,(8) like asking them to forsake money (or "throw it back in Caesar's face") and embrace poverty and hardship (Mk 6:6b-13/Mt 10:5-15/Lk 9:1-6,10:1-12). Jesus told people to pay taxes "with contempt" -- or, alternatively, to avoid money altogether -- as part of the tribulation-drama which anticipated God's imminent triumph.

Jesus thought the kingdom of Caesar was about to end because, like all apocalyptics, "his realism was so great that it must abandon the world",(9) knowing that armed insurrection was futile, social reform impossible. But with God all things were possible: he would soon wipe out imperial dominion once and for all. In the meantime, ridding the land of Caesar's coins was a gesture anticipating the divine reign -- a just reign under the twelve disciples (Mt 19:28/Lk 22:28-30), Jesus, and, ultimately, God himself.


Footnotes

(1) "In limited good societies, compliments indicate aggression; they implicitly accuse a person of rising above the rest of one's fellows at their expense. Compliments conceal envy." Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pp 243-244.
(2) William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 227.
(3) Malina and Rohrbaugh, p 256.
(4) Herzog, p 229.
(5) Malina and Rohrbaugh, p 137.
(6) So Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, pp 306-317. Horsley has the right idea (he may even be right), but it doesn't make the best sense of Jesus' shaming strategy with the coin. See further.
(7) Herzog, p 232; and R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet, p 68.
(8) Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth, p 89.
(9) Allison, p 218. Ironically, Herzog and Kaylor insist that Jesus wasn't apocalyptic. But if God wasn't about to destroy Caesar, what was the good of returning the emperor's coins, however contemptuously? Herzog acknowledges the problem and struggles with it on p 232.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Jesus and Taxes: The Answers

(Prologue to this series here. Part I here.)

In the last post we considered six interpretations of Jesus' "Render to Caesar" statement. The first two are apolitical; the middle ones attempt to recognize Jesus' political character; the last two very political. Thanks to everyone who voted in the comments section! Now let's see how likely each is.

1. A distinction between religion and politics, implying that Caesar’s taxes were lawful and should be paid. Jesus wasn't trying to liberate the promised land but to transform the individual heart. And while he opposed exploitation of the poor, he identified the problem not in sociopolitical structures but in individuals. (Martin Hengel, Victory over Violence, pp 1, 47-48.)

Hengel followed the anachronistic "separation of church and state" line, and like two other Martins of Germany (Luther and Heidegger) was guided by individualist concerns. His interpretation can be rejected out of hand (most scholars recognize it as dated and implausible). The only reason I bothered mentioning it is that laypeople (like Garry Wills) persist with it. Safeguarding our separation of church and state is imperative, but unfortunately we can't use Jesus to do it. In antiquity "religion", like "economics", was embedded in (and inseparable from) the discrete institutions of kinship and politics.

2. An enigma which deliberately left the issue unresolved. Jesus had fun teasing people's minds and making them think for themselves. He wanted people to decide on their own if Caesar and God were compatible. On top of this, he "probably slipped the coin into his purse while they were haggling over what he told them." (Robert Funk, The Five Gospels, pp 102, 236, 379, 526.)

Funk was always amusing if not persuasive, turning Jesus into an open-minded college professor (like Funk) instead of a prophet who actually took sides on these issues. Jewish prophets weren't interested in making people think for themselves. They were voices of divine authority, mad at the world, and had clear ideas about things, even if they sometimes had to resort to veiled meanings in order to stay alive. [As for pocketing coins (does Funk want us to laugh with him or at him?), it's the last thing Jesus would have done; he shunned money like the plague (Mk 6:6b-13/Mt 10:1-15/Lk 9:1-6,10:1-12).] I was a bit surprised at how seriously this option was taken in comments.

3. A cryptic way of saying that Caesar's taxes were lawful and should be paid, as long as this didn't conflict with duty to God. People owed their entire allegiance to God -- for they were created in his image (Gen 1-2) as much as the coins were created in Caesar's -- and they could acknowledge the legitimacy of Caesar's taxes only after considering their duty to God. (David Ball, "What Jesus Really Meant by 'Render to Caesar'", Bible Review, April 2003, pp 15-17).

This view at least attempts to address a conflict, as Jesus saw it, between the demands of Caesar and God, and squares with the modern wisdom that says government is okay so long as it doesn't make demands which violate a person's conscience. In many cases this would have been empty advice in the world of agrarian dominion, though it could offer the escape route of accommodation. Many of the Pharisees used similar logic to justify their accommodation with Rome. But the point is that Jesus opposed the wishy-washy accommodation of the Pharisees.

4. A paradoxical command to revolt and pay taxes at the same time. Jesus was protesting both against Caesar as a false lord and against tax-evading revolutionaries. His punchline meant: "Pay back Caesar as he deserves, and give God the divine honor claimed blasphemously by Caesar." In so doing he was implying that tax-evading revolutionaries were the true compromisers with Rome. (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, pp 502-507.)

Wright's apparent affinities for a revolutionary Jesus are an illusion. To suggest that paying taxes amounted to "true" revolutionary behavior is doublespeak, and the idea that tax-evading revolutionaries were the actual compromisers with Rome beggars belief. (In the comments section of the last post, Doug Chaplin noted, "like Wright himself, Wright's Jesus always manages to have his cake and eat it".) Most obviously: if the Jewish people kept paying their taxes, Caesar couldn't care less about whether or not they reserved their divine honors for God. This is exactly the accommodation most of the Jewish people had worked out with the empire already. As with Ball in (3), Wright ends up putting Jesus on the same page with the Pharisees.

5. A veiled way of saying that Caesar's taxes were unlawful but should be paid "with contempt" in order to rid the land of idolatry. Jesus' punchline meant: "Give Caesar back his filthy coins, and give your undivided allegiance to God, so that Caesar and his coins may be removed from God's land." People should throw money back in Caesar's face, so to speak, and pay their taxes as an act of resistance. But Caesar had no valid claim to taxing people, even if he was entitled to his blasphemous currency. (William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, pp 225-232. R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet, pp 63-68.)

This view is plausible, along with (6) below.

6. A veiled way of saying that Caesar’s taxes were unlawful and should not be paid. Jesus' punchline meant: "Give Caesar nothing, God everything." Jesus believed no one could serve two masters at the same time (Mt. 6:24/Lk. 16:13) and followed the early Israelite tradition that since God was king, no one else could be (Judg. 8:22-23; I Sam 8:4-7; Hos. 8:4). Jesus' question, "Whose image and inscription is this?", was a ploy targeting the possession of something idolatrous rather than what actually belonged to Caesar. (Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, pp 306-317. Richard Rohrbaugh, email correspondence.)

This view is plausible, along with (5) above.

Jesus could have meant either (5) or (6). Each has the advantage of making sense of (a) the charge preserved in Lk 23:2a, or more generally, that Jesus was executed as a political troublemaker; (b) that as a Jewish prophet Jesus naturally opposed idolatry, and couldn't stomach the accommodations (Pharisaic or otherwise) worked out with the empire; and (c) that he also opposed injustice -- taxation by the first century was lethal, with more than one third of the peasantry's grain and half of their fruits/vegetables going to the Roman land tax (on top of that, the poll tax just added insult to injury, not to mention temple tithes and the half-shekel tax).

I prefer option (5) for the simple reason that it makes better sense of Jesus' shaming strategy with the denarius coin, and more generally in light of his apocalyptic world-view. Listen to the logic in each case:

Option (5)

Opponents: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?"
Jesus: "Whose image and inscription is this?
Opponents: "Caesar's."
Jesus: "Then give Caesar back his abominable coins, and give your undivided allegiance to God, so that Caesar and his coins may be removed from God's land."

Option (6)

Opponents: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?"
Jesus: "Whose image and inscription is this?"
Opponents: "Caesar's."
Jesus: "Then Give Caesar nothing, for an idolater doesn't have a claim on his own property."

Either sentiment is revolutionary and denies the legitimacy of Caesar's taxes. But the logic behind (5) is more readily apparent, and squares with the fact that Jesus was apocalyptic rather than insurrectionist. What Jesus advocated doing with Caesar's coins (according to (5)) is actually the sort of thing we would expect from a millenarian. Leaders of apocalyptic movements often make demands which put people's well-being at risk, such as asking them to forsake money (or "throw it back in Caesar's face") and embrace poverty and hardship (Mk 6:6b-13/Mt 10:5-15/Lk 9:1-6,10:1-12). Jesus advised paying taxes "with contempt" as part of the tribulation-drama preceding God's triumph over Caesar.

In the comments section of the last post, Chris Weimer prefers (6) over (5), because he "wouldn't suggest that Jesus actually wanted people to 'pay' Caesar anything." But the point of (5), unlike Wright's (4), is that Jesus didn't really advocate "paying" Caesar, which is why I qualified with the phrase "in contempt". Herzog and Kaylor describe it as "returning" coins to Caesar, which is probably the better way of putting it. Here's Herzog:
"[Jesus was saying] 'Return the coins to Caesar. He minted them in his image, and they should be returned to the one in whose image they are made.'... But this is not a call to pay tribute; it is a call to expel the coins from the land, to rid the land of their presence." (Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 232)
In the next post we will analyze the text of Mk 12:13-17/Mt 22:15-22/Lk 20:20-26 in detail, under the assumption that (5) is correct, and through the lens of Jesus' challenge-riposte strategy. For now, I have to get busy paying back my own taxes before the imperial authorities come to get me.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Jesus and Taxes: The Options

(Prologue to this series here.)

Jesus was crucified by the Romans as a messianic claimant, "King of the Judeans", and the gospel of Luke preserves a charge that he opposed paying taxes to Caesar (Lk. 23:2a). But for centuries Christians have maintained that Jesus condoned paying tribute, and the passage of Mk. 12:13-17/Mt. 22:15-22/Lk. 20:20-26 couldn’t be clearer. When asked by a group of Herodians and Pharisees whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes, Jesus replied: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." But this answer isn’t clear at all, for it begs the question. Just what is Caesar's? What is God's? And even if one should give Caesar tribute, does that mean he has the right to demand it in the first place?

Let's begin with a survey of scholarly opinion. The following diversity alone shows how hard it is to unravel Jesus' answer. On a sliding scale, (1) is the strongest "yes", (6) the strongest "no", in answer to the question, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?"

Jesus' answer, "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God’s", was...

1. A distinction between religion and politics, implying that Caesar’s taxes were lawful and should be paid. Jesus wasn't trying to liberate the promised land but to transform the individual heart. And while he opposed exploitation of the poor, he identified the problem not in sociopolitical structures but in individuals. (Martin Hengel, Victory over Violence, pp 1, 47-48.)

2. An enigma which deliberately left the issue unresolved. Jesus had fun teasing people’s minds and making them think for themselves. He wanted people to decide on their own if Caesar and God were compatible. On top of this, he "probably slipped the coin into his purse while they were haggling over what he told them." (Robert Funk, The Five Gospels, pp 102, 236, 379, 526.)

3. A cryptic way of saying that Caesar's taxes were lawful and should be paid, as long as this didn't conflict with duty to God. People owed their entire allegiance to God -- for they were created in his image (Gen 1-2) as much as the coins were created in Caesar's -- and they could acknowledge the legitimacy of Caesar’s taxes only after considering their duty to God. (David Ball, "What Jesus Really Meant by 'Render to Caesar'", Bible Review, April 2003, pp 15-17).

4. A paradoxical command to revolt and pay taxes at the same time. Jesus was protesting both against Caesar as a false lord and against tax-evading revolutionaries. His punchline meant: "Pay back Caesar as he deserves, and give God the divine honor claimed blasphemously by Caesar." In so doing he was implying that tax-evading revolutionaries were the true compromisers with Rome. (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, pp 502-507.)

5. A veiled way of saying that Caesar's taxes were unlawful but should be paid "with contempt" in order to rid the land of idolatry. Jesus' punchline meant: "Give Caesar back his filthy coins, and give your undivided allegiance to God, so that Caesar and his coins may be removed from God's land." People should throw money back in Caesar's face, so to speak, and pay their taxes as an act of resistance. But Caesar had no valid claim to taxing people, even if he was entitled to his blasphemous currency. (William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, pp 225-232. R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet, pp 63-68.)

6. A veiled way of saying that Caesar’s taxes were unlawful and should not be paid. Jesus’ punchline meant: "Give Caesar nothing, God everything." Jesus believed no one could serve two masters at the same time (Mt. 6:24/Lk. 16:13) and followed the early Israelite tradition that since God was king, no one else could be (Judg. 8:22-23; I Sam 8:4-7; Hos. 8:4). Jesus' question, "Whose image and inscription is this?", was a ploy targeting the possession of something idolatrous rather than what actually belonged to Caesar. (Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, pp 306-317. Richard Rohrbaugh, email correspondence.)

Which of the above interpretations is most plausible? Leave your vote in the comments section if you wish, and in the next post we'll examine the likelihood of each.

Jesus and Taxes: Prologue

According to Garry Wills in the New York Times article, "Christ Among the Partisans":

"There is no such thing as a Christian politics. If it is a politics, it cannot be Christian... This is a truth that needs emphasis at a time when some Democrats, fearing that the Republicans have advanced over them by the use of religion, want to respond with a claim that Jesus is really on their side. He is not."

Wills should know better than this. Obviously there is such a thing as Christian politics, because that's what people have "made of Jesus" (= Christian). But even if Wills means to suggest only that Jesus himself -- the historical Jesus -- wasn't political, he's still wrong. The Nazarene, like most apocalyptic figures of his day, was aggressively political. The kingdom of God called for political change in every way, a heaven on earth not least involving the crushing of rulers and their oppressive regimes. It may not have been the kind of political change modern Democrats or Republicans have in mind -- and it was a supernatural kingdom too -- but it was political nonetheless.

Wills continues:

"[Jesus] avoided those who would trap him into taking sides for or against the Roman occupation of Judea. He paid his taxes to the occupying power but said only, 'Let Caesar have what belongs to him, and God have what belongs to him' (Matthew 22:21). He was the original proponent of a separation of church and state."

Wrong. Separation of church and state is an anachronism (Jesus wasn't anticipating Anabaptism). Jesus took sides on the question of taxes, and he believed Caesar's rule to be illegitimate. What he meant by "Render to Caesar" may be foreign to both parties of the modern American system, but it's even more foreign to those of us who (however rightly) cherish our separation of church and state.

Over the next week, in a three-part series, we will examine what Jesus really meant by "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (Mk. 12:13-17/Mt. 22:15-22/Lk. 20:20-26/Thom 100). I suppose it's an ideally suitable topic for tax season.


The complete series:

Prologue
The Options
The Answers
The Hidden Transcript

Friday, April 07, 2006

Baigent and Tabor

Michael Baigent is an embarassment wherever you look. He lost his lawsuit against Dan Brown, as foreordained, and continues making a fool of himself in The Jesus Papers. Laura Miller of Salon.com -- a gift from the review-gods -- explains a few things here, contrasting Baigent's Papers with James Tabor's recently-released Jesus Dynasty. I'm not wild about Tabor's book, but almost anything serves as an antidote to Baigent.

From the review (click past the ad to read the full thing):

"The most intriguing discovery to be found in The Jesus Papers will probably only interest those of us who pursue the odd and somewhat pitiful hobby of crank-watching; it's finally clear from reading this book that it was Baigent -- rather than co-authors Leigh and Henry Lincoln -- who actually wrote Holy Blood, Holy Grail. The voice, which grows more and more authoritative in tone as the foundations of its arguments dissolve into piffle, is unmistakable... The style of The Jesus Papers, a masterly counterpoint of bluster, false humility and self-righteousness, matches that of Holy Blood, Holy Grail like a fingerprint. ..

"In ambition and organization, The Jesus Papers can't hold a candle to Holy Blood, Holy Grail, but because it's a less seamlessly constructed edifice of bunkum, it gives you a clearer picture of how Baigent et al. managed to hoodwink millions of readers...

"Readers who have only recently learned, via The Da Vinci Code, of the complicated history of the New Testament, are much better served by books like James Tabor's [The Jesus Dynasty] than by conspiracy-mongering like The Jesus Papers. Like Baigent, [Tabor] doesn't believe in the literal truth of the resurrection, but unlike Baigent, he keeps his religious beliefs to himself...

"Like all efforts to re-create historical events from the New Testament, The Jesus Dynasty is by necessity highly interpretive and contestable, but it's certainly more grounded than the fantasies of The Jesus Papers. Tabor is primarily interested in recovering the history of Jesus' immediate family -- his mother, four brothers and two sisters -- who, he maintains, played a far more important role in the young religious movement than is generally known...

"If [Tabor's] book can't win at least a few readers away from The Jesus Papers this Easter, then, well, there is no God."

The Gospel of Judas

The Gospel of Judas has finally been unleashed. See the National Geographic website for more details, and don't miss the photos of the manuscript and timeline.

UPDATE: For not a stone uncovered, see Mark Goodacre's Gospel of Judas megapost.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Thomas Thompson: The Incompetent Faithful

In the last of Alan Bandy's interviews on faith-based and secular scholarship, Thomas Thompson says bluntly:

"To the extent that a university scholar accepts the guiding principles of a specific faith, he or she is incompetent in the performance of their work as scholars. To the extent that an institution presupposes such a commitment, it is, I believe, incompetent as a university... In my experience, secular theology or university scholarship in the field of biblical scholarship is incompatible with the premises of a faith-based scholarship, which belongs to the realm of apologetics, a pursuit which may have some legitimacy within the context of a particular faith community, but which in the public or 'secular' sphere is inappropriate to both the civil service role of the university professor -- and in direct conflict with open and critical scholarly discourse."

Chris Heard retorted here, and I too disagree with Thompson, if for no other reason because faith-based scholars (yes, even evangelicals) have proven themselves entirely capable of engaging the historical critical task. As I said before, faith-based scholars can be inclined to receive history where the secular prefers not to, and vice-versa.

That's why I still like John Meier's vision of an "unpapal conclave": a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and agnostic who have been "locked in the bowels of Harvard Divinity School, put on a spartan diet, and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus was and what he intended in his own time and place" (A Marginal Jew, Vol I, p 1). Last fall Stephen Carlson suggested improving on this by adding an evangelical, Unitarian, and atheist to the mix (see biblioblogs.com, October interview). Well, I liked Stephen's idea so much that I decided to put it into practice. For the last month there has been an "unpapal conclave" busy at work assessing the historical Jesus. I'll have more to report about this later, but for now simply wish to register my disappointment with what Thompson advocates -- and with his sweeping judgments on "faith-based incompetence" -- which can only lead to tunnel vision. Perhaps it is this sort of attitude which gives secular scholarship a bad name in some quarters.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Simplicity of Christianity

Library Journal reviews Tom Wright's Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, ISBN 0-06-050715-2. From the blurb:

"[Wright] shows how the God of Christianity can bring real justice, true spirituality, genuine relationships, and awesome beauty by answering simply yet profoundly most of the key questions associated with Christian systematic theology... Wright accomplishes exactly what the title of his book suggests: he presents Christianity as the straightforward and uncomplicated answer to so many of life's most complex and difficult problems." (LJ, 4/1/06, pp 101-102)

I'm glad to see that Wright has solved the world's problems for us in the space of 250 pages. If only real answers came this simple. It's tempting to wax rude about the simple-mindedness of such an approach, but it could be the reviewer who is presenting things rather artificially here. So I'll kindly desist. Good old Wright...

A Song of Ice and Fire: Update

On "Not a Blog", George Martin mentions a new title he has settled on for the seventh book in his series: A Dream of Spring. (Instead of A Time for Wolves.) Let's see, that should be out... in another 15 years or so. He also explains why he left out some of the crucial characters in the recent fourth book, A Feast for Crows -- probably a good decision in the long run, despite the fury of so many fans.

So here's what the completed Song of Ice and Fire series will look like:

1. A Game of Thrones ('96)
2. A Clash of Kings ('98)
3. A Storm of Swords ('00)
4. A Feast for Crows ('05)
5. A Dance with Dragons ('10)
6. The Winds of Winter (?)
7. A Dream of Spring (?)

What a landmark this will be when finished. George Martin and Stephen Donaldson are the only fantasy authors I bother reading anymore. They seem to be the only popular writers who can tell a story on their own terms, with more originality than everyone else in the genre combined.

Monday, April 03, 2006

On Fooling and Being Fooled

I enjoyed the April Fool's gags over the week-end. See Mark Goodacre's post on the nature of hell, Stephen Carlson's discoveries (in which he refers to the discovery of Q posted years ago on Xtalk), and Tyler Williams' announcement of the King of Judah seal.

This time of year puts me in mind of Harold Love's rather harsh view of those at the giving and receiving end of literary fakes. I read his book a few months after finishing Stephen Carlson's Gospel Hoax. This is what Love has to say about foolers and the fooled:

"Faking is the cancer of scholarship. The apropriate punishment for fakers should be public execution, with a last-minute interruption when a reprieve is brought to the gallows, only to be disregarded when it is discovered to be a fake. Likewise there is nothing amusing in the fact that a fellow scholar may have been misled by a fake: it is a sign of incompetence and dereliction in the individual concerned." (Attributing Authorship, pp 192-193)

For the public execution part, Love footnotes Roman Polanski's film, The Ninth Gate, the conclusion of which apparently involves something like this (p 250). I might have to check that one out. (Polanski's Pianist was excellent.) But Love will just have to pardon my sense of humor. Hoaxes like Secret Mark and the Ern Malley poems are a riot.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Top Films of 2005

After catching up on some DVD releases, I'm ready to rate my favorite films from last year.

1. Palindromes. Loved or despised among critics, this satire on abortion wins my heart for the year. A thirteen-year old girl is forced to have an abortion by her mother, then runs away to join a family whose patriarch kills abortion doctors. It's open season on the pro-life and pro-choice crowds equally, suggesting both sides wind up at square one, mired in hypocrisy and contradictions. Reviewed here.

2. Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan's revisionist approach to Batman, not to mention the whole superhero genre, is what we've been waiting for. Here are all the gritty origins: Bruce Wayne's ninjitsu training in the Himalayas, his phobia of bats, his guilt over the murder of his parents, all of which set him on the course to "save" Gotham City as a a vigilante. As good as this film is -- and it's very good -- it's only setting the stage for a much greater sequel, The Dark Knight.

3. Crash. A parable of racism, in which everyone is both guilty of and victimized by it. Like Palindromes it doesn't anchor us in a comfortable morality, is all the more progressive for it, and gets better with subsequent viewings. Granted the world is too small: characters run into each other too repeatedly for coincidence sake. But the film functions as a parable in this way, and for whatever reason it doesn't smack of lazy scriptwriting.

4. Mouth to Mouth. A Canadian indie about a rebellious teen, Sherry, who joins a gang while living on the streets of Europe. Based on the director's actual experience with gangs, it portrays a manipulative leader seducing but ultimately alienating Sherry, yet who incredibly succeeds in brainwashing her mother when she comes to rescue her. Ellen Page forecasts her future success in this much overlooked gem.

5. New World. There is a stunning aesthetic here, in the way of all Malick's films, though in a historical treatment of Pocahontas that somewhat distracts: nature is the main character here. But it does an excellent job rescuing Pocahontas from sissified Disney versions; and most commendably, this isn't a slam against the White Man, nor a condescending, racist reverence for fantasy "noble savages" (who must nonetheless be saved by a whitey who grows to loathe himself -- per Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar, ad nauseum).

6. A History of Violence. David Cronenberg's take on "survival of the fittest" in a mob context, suggesting that peace can be purchased only, ultimately, with violence. Viggo Mortenson's character is a bit too superhero, but the characters are otherwise convincing, and it's probably Cronenberg's best film to date -- certainly his most thoughtful.

7. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As much as I despise C.S. Lewis' Narnian books I have to give Andrew Adamson credit. Forget the Christian allegory, and never mind the fact that the Pevensie kids are snotty brats (aside from Lucy); this is a well done fantasy, much better than the Harry Potter films and indeed most children's fantasy. Reviewed here.

8. Mysterious Skin. A drama about two teenage boys who were molested as kids and now cope with their trauma in different ways, one by repression of memory, the other by prostituting himself to old men. You might feel the need to wash your brain out with soap after you watch this, but it does examine filthy issues for the right reasons. Watching the "five dollar bill" scene (where the baseball coach tells two little boys whoever can fist him up the ass the farthest gets the bill, and they proceed to do exactly that) was like getting punched in the gut.

9. The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Told through flashbacks in a courtroom setting, where a priest is on trial for treating a college girl's dementia as demonic possession and letting her die. From an objective view, she seems to have had epilepsy which the exorcism might have cured (psychosomatically) if drugs hadn't blocked the process. The film doesn't push the supernatural on us, though there's enough ambiguity preserved to let the viewer decide.

10. King Kong. While I have mixed feelings about the middle part (Skull Island), the first and third acts of Peter Jackson's remake are the ingredients of classic tragedy. The final act has my palms sweating every time I see it (I have serious vertigo issues). Only the director of Lord of the Rings could offer so much action and soul at the same time, though again, he's starting to get out of hand with the former -- some of the Skull Island sequences are way too over the top.

(See also: The Top Films of 2006, The Top Films of 2007, The Top Films of 2008, The Top Films of 2009, The Top Films of 2010, The Top Films of 2012.)

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Biblical Studies Carnival IV

Welcome to the fourth Biblical Studies Carnival. Thanks to the organizational skills of Tyler Williams, these carnivals have become monthly treats, a great way to glean the best of the biblio-blogposts you may not have had time for, or just want to revisit. So sit back and enjoy the ride, as we backpeddle through thirty-one days of rousing commentary. Who says we can't relive the past?

The Big Question: To Have Faith or Not

The most memorable blog-event of the month came out of Alan Bandy's Café Apocalypsis: unending interviews with scholars about faith-based and secular scholarship. Many evangelicals responded: Michael Bird, Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, Peter Bolt, Craig Evans, Andreas Kostenberger, Scot McKnight, and Peter Williams. Secular scholars James Crossley and Philip Davies also got their oar in the water, and Blog-Emperor Mark Goodacre had his say too. Those who haven't read these interviews need to visit Alan's café ASAP and see why believers and non-believers are equally needed in the academy. Alan promises even more interviews to come in the month of April, so stay tuned.

One of the above scholars, Peter Williams, conducted his own interview with translator Dan Wallace on the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog. It's a lengthy interview, well worth reading, addressing how relevant theological presuppositions have become in the field of textual criticism.

Meanwhile, in the background of this and more, Danny Zacharias of Deinde has continued updating his Blogger Cooler Roundup of "Faith and Scholarship" begun in February. This is a good place to go for a ready guide to all the comments, observations, and interviews about faith-based and secular scholarship.

Archaeology

Chris Heard of Higgaion received a letter from Paul Iversen regarding the Tel Zayit abecedary, and with trademark caution agrees that there's much to be skeptical about here. Read the letter in Paul Iversen on the Tel Zayit "abecedary": the author raises serious objections against what Ron Tappy has made of the so-called abecedarium, and as expected, the spectre of the minimalist-maximalist debate hovers in the background.

Hebrew Bible

Our Hebrew Bible gurus have been active as ever. Joe Cathey provided two lengthy research bibliographies, one for Conquest and Settlement A-D, another for Ezekiel 40-48. Joe is always good with these lists.

Tyler Williams of Codex Blogspot is in the middle of writing an impressive commentary on Jonah. His bibliography in Jonah's Big Fish Story: Resources for the Study of the Book of Jonah paves the way for the first part of the actual commentary in Jonah and the Sailors. This will be an amazing piece when finished. Keep going Tyler!

Michael Barber of Singing in the Reign is a new Catholic figure in the blogosphere, and no slouch. Check out his trio of posts on Loose Canons: The Development of the Old Testament Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Novices who are on the hunt for Hebrew Bible study tools will find H.H. Hardy of Daily Hebrew a godsend. How to Spend Your First $200 and Text Criticism for <$150 are his lists of essential purchases.

New Testament

Mark Goodacre of NT Gateway kicked off the month wondering Did Jesus Have a House in Capernaum?, and using the often neglected criterion of "accidental information", suggested that Jesus may have used Capernaum as base in his early career. Like many Goodacre posts, this one drew plenty of comments.

Two bloggers have continued working on two gospels, challenging assumptions about their Judaic/anti-Judaic underpinnings. Richard Anderson, Kratistos Theophilos, argues that Luke's use of certain technical terms shows that he was a Jewish author writing for a Jewish audience in Precision Time Markers. On the other side of things, Chris Weimer of Thoughts on Antiquity believes that Matthew's Judaic leanings are an illusion and that he was supersessionist; check out The Sins of Jesus.

Ephesians received some attention, first from Clifford Kvidahl of Theological Musings; see Thoughts from Ephesians Part 1. Then, springing off Wayne Leman of Better Bibles, Rick Brannan of Ricoblog explained the importance of paragraph breaks, clause breaks, punctuation, and how words relate to each other in general, in Ephesians 5 and Clauses.

Those fascinated by Jesus' debate strategies will enjoy Harvey Bluedorn's Jesus' School of the Logical Dilemma Part I and Part II, from the Prove All Things blog. Good grist for the mill here.

The Torah in Early Christianity

Much ado about the law in early Christianity warrants a separate category for the month. James Crossley of Earliest Christian History, Michael Bird of Euangelion, and Loren Rosson of The Busybody each gave four-point summaries on the subject. See, respectively, Christian Origins and the Law, Jesus and Torah: 4 Theses, and Jesus and Torah. Michael's post is actually the third in a series, following after Jesus and Torah (I) and Jesus and Torah (II).

Mark Goodacre of NT Gateway entered the discussion in Jesus, Torah, Sanders, Hengel, and Deines, clarifying what E.P. Sanders' has meant by referring to a "common Judaism", and also mentioning an important article written by Paula Fredriksen which distinguishes between including and converting Gentiles in light of eschatology.

Finally, Loren Rosson discussed the Antioch incident in Treachery at Antioch, showcasing Philip Esler's argument that Cephas' withdrawal from table-fellowship signaled treachery and revenge more than mere "hypocrisy".

Miscellaneous

Don't miss other lively points of interest, like Mike Sangrey's presentation of chiastic structures on the Exegetitor blog. In Chiasmus in Exegesis he illustrates the importance of these forms with an example from John 6.

If bibliobloggers aren't vulgar and graphic enough, Stephen Carlson of Hypotyposeis at least got graphic with Power Law in Biblical Citations, showing how online citations of each verse in Gal 2:1-21 follow a power curve. Stephen suggested that curves like this help us identify our "canons within canons". That's pretty neat.

Duane Smith of Abnormal Interests had stimulating things to say about the way "Jerusalem" is written in the Akkadian of Amarna tablet EA 287; see Jerusalem in the Armana Tablets. Duane also continued considering texts which might be written in short cuneiform in The Cuneiform Short Alphabet (8).

Ever hear that law codes were intellectual exercises? Ken Ristau of Anduril says that's how the laws of ancient Mesopotamia should be understood -- as modes of scientific inquiry, given the lack of evidence for statutory significance; see Law Codes in the ANE. Ken also responded to economic historian Karl Polanyi's view of ancient economies in Markets in the ANE, challenging the idea that such economies were exclusively palace-dominated redistribution systems.

Resurrection buffs will be happy to see that Christopher Petersen of Resurrection Dogmatics just joined the blogosphere. Be sure to read his Task of Reinterpretation, in which he lends a sympathetic ear to the inventive strategies used by millenarian movements to cope with failure.

Accepted SBL Proposals

Alluring SBL papers loom on the horizon, and here's a sample of what to expect this November (pardon me if I missed anyone here; announcements are still appearing on the blogs): Sean the Baptist will be Re-reading the Great Commission (Matthew 28.16-20) in Imperial Context, engaging postcolonial readings of the text and offering an alternative. Rick Brannan of Ricoblog is going after Word Groups, Head Terms and Modifiers in the Pastoral Epistles, examining word group usage data for both the Paulines and Pastorals. Fake-nabbing Stephen Carlson of Hypotyposeis is tracking down The Nineteenth-Century Exemplar of "Archaic Mark" (MS 2427) -- another forgery involving gospel writer Mark -- and Stephen will also explain Luke's Panel Technique for His "Orderly" Narration in another paper. Michael Bird of Euangelion plans on answering Who Comes from the East and the West? Luke 13.28-29/Matt 8.11-12 and the Historical Jesus, engaging (and disagreeing with) Dale Allison's argument that Jesus was referring to Jews in the Diaspora rather than Gentiles. Finally, Mark Goodacre of NT Gateway will tell us why he thinks many of Paul's Galatian converts were Already Circumcised when the apostle wrote his blasting letter. Great topics, and who knows, maybe I'll finally make it to SBL this time to hear some of these.

Upcoming Biblical Studies Carnivals

Biblical Studies Carnival V will be hosted by Kevin Wilson at Karamat in the first week of May, 2006. Look for a call for submissions on his blog sometime in the middle of April.

Submissions for blog entries posted in the month of April should be emailed to biblical_studies_carnival AT hotmail DOT com, or entered via the submission form at BlogCarnival.com. For more information, consult the Biblical Studies Carnival Homepage.

Thanks for taking a ride through the fourth carnival! I hope it was worth your time.