Cautious Blogging

Alan Bandy, Mark Goodacre, and Jim West discuss a perceived need for “cautious blogging” in light of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The issue is about how blogging may negatively impact one’s reputation. Alan lists pros and cons to blogging, Mark cites a nice passage from another article called “Do Not Fear the Blog”, and Jim opines that the cons listed by Alan are really not so (to which Alan responds in comments). Good observations from all.

Which Middle-Earth race are you?

Tolkien fans will like this. (Thanks to Siris for mentioning.) To Which Race of Middle-Earth Do You Belong? Of the ~18,000 people who have taken this, the breakdown is as follows.

Numenorean — 37% (graceful, dignified, tragic)
Hobbit — 6% (domestic, innocent, agrarian)
Rohirrim — 21% (fierce, courageous, loyal)
Entish — 15% (wise, cautious, resilient)
Dwarvish — 6% (stalwart, possessive, earthy)
Elvish — 16% (ethereal, lyrical, perceptive)

As if I couldn’t predict my results…


Apocalyptic fire, modern needs, resurrection

Every so often comes a book that everyone needs to read, and Resurrecting Jesus is one of them. Dale Allison’s sequel to Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet is as good its predecessor, and in some ways even better. It consists of six independent essays, each of which builds on and clarifies arguments made in the previous book.

The first essay, “Secularizing Jesus”, argues that the “third quest” for the historical Jesus is a misnomer, owing to chronological snobbery and the fantasy that we are progressive. Allison scores valid points here: many of today’s Jesus-questors are indeed repeating the past, whether for good or bad — and some of them are secularizing Jesus worse than ever before. But there has been more progress in the field than Allison allows. We have a better understanding of ancient Judaism and Mediterranean culture, and have become increasingly diverse in our methodologies. It’s a good essay but rather one-sided.

The other five essays, however, are completely excellent and can hardly be done justice in an amazon review. “The Problem of Audience” argues what may seem to be an obvious point, but one which has been given insufficient heed: that Jesus said different things to different people, and didn’t expect the same thing from everyone. (In an interesting anecdote from the preface, Allison says he wrote this particular essay because he had nothing better to do, during two long train rides.)

The third essay, “The Problem of Gehenna”, shows that Jesus more than likely believed in hell and judgment, however unattractive that is. We moderns may see little prospect in reconciling a God of compassion with the same deity who throws people into an apocalyptic incinerator, but that’s no way to guide our interpretation of Jesus: “All of us are bundles of seeming contradictions,” writes Allison, “from which generalization I see no reason to exempt Jesus. It would be unimaginative and foolhardy to subdue him with the straightjacket of consistency.” Consigning people to hell was standard fare in Jesus’ world, and he shows every sign of having done this, especially to his opponents.

Speaking of what’s unattractive provides a segue into the quasi-confessional fourth essay, “Apocalyptic, Polemic, Apologetics”, which addresses what people like and dislike about an apocalyptic Jesus who was wrong about the end. It ends by being surprisingly stronger for its own excursions into theology, and is my favorite after the sixth.

The fifth essay, “Torah, Urzeit, Endzeit”, tackles the controversial question of Jesus and the law. Allison realizes that however we sift the gospel testimony, it’s hard to avoid a Jesus who both observed/intensified the law, while in other cases relaxing it. When doing the latter, Allison believes it was often in the interest of competing moral imperatives. For instance, in sabbath controversies Jesus appealed to the hunger of David and his men, or the value of human need, arguing that one imperative can trump another. The commandment was overridden but remained intact. Today we call this choosing the lesser of two evils. Other Torah-controversies owed to Jesus’ eschatology — “the end in light of the beginning” — insofar as the law contained concessions to the fall and thus required repair. Thus, in cases like divorce and swearing, Jesus replaced Mosaic imperatives with Edenic ones, Moses not being strict enough in view of the apocalypse.

The last essay, for which the monograph is named, takes up half the book, is satisfying as it is long, and the best treatment of the resurrection to date. Allison steers between the dogmatic poles of Tom Wright and Gerd Ludemann, using the best from both worlds, but with a caution and humility lacking in these treatments. Weighing arguments for the empty tomb as legend and history, Allison comes down on the side of history: Jesus’ tomb was found empty, and because of this we today have the doctrine of the resurrection. He also discusses the apparitions of Jesus in terms of grief-induced visions, concluding that in some ways the early church was the reception history of what the disciples’ bereavement wrought.

One of his arguments for the empty tomb deserves close attention, since at first blush it resembles that of Tom Wright though is actually worlds apart. Wright has claimed that only the empty tomb could have caused the disciples to make the radical claim Jesus was raised from the dead, for there was no Judaic precedent for the resurrection of an individual (messiah or otherwise) before the apocalypse. This is emphatically not Allison’s argument. Allison recognizes that lack of precedent is no obstacle to invention and creativity. The disciples could easily have invented an empty tomb/resurrection legend. Religious people make wild claims all the time; apocalyptic movements find creative ways of coping with dashed hopes in order to survive; rude reality reinterprets expectations. Jesus’ original prediction about the destruction of the temple was spiritualized in the gospel of John (Jn 2) for precisely these reasons — in order to cope with failed hopes and broken dreams.

But here’s the problem, says Allison, and why Wright is onto something despite all this: the disciples’ dreams hadn’t been broken. In their minds, Jesus’ death wasn’t a mark of failure. The crucifixion would have demoralized them but ultimately been taken as part of the apocalyptic drama. Jesus had braced them for such tragedy: they were living in the end times, on the brink of the tribulation, and suffering/death had to precede the apocalypse. The shame and scandal of the crucifixion would have put them, as Allison says, “emotionally down but not theologically out”. They would have gone on hoping for the imminent apocalypse and the resurrection of the dead, at which point they would have been vindicated and resurrected with their savior. Jesus’ martyrdom does not constitute a failed expectation, and that is why Wright, despite himself, is right. It’s not that revisionism is itself unlikely (for indeed it is); it’s that there was no need for revisionism in this case. As far as the disciples were concerned, things were still going “as expected”.

The upshot is that both Allison and Wright think it took the empty tomb (in conjunction with visions) to cause the disciples to conclude that Jesus was resurrected prematurely. But they arrive at this conclusion very differently — Allison correctly. Allison also happens to be more humble about what we can say actually happened to Jesus’ body: any number of things. It may have been raised. It may have been moved or stolen. Whatever happened, the tomb was empty when found, and because of this, we today have Christianity.

Don’t wait to buy this book, but be sure to get the paperback edition. The hardcover goes for an extortionate $100.00 and has no cover art to boot. Resurrecting Jesus belongs on the shelf of any and all who are interested in the study of the historical Jesus, and the relationship between that study and modern needs.

Quote for the Day: Schweitzer’s Motives

“We can still speculate on what drove Albert Schweitzer. He once wrote: ‘I live my life in God, in the mysterious divine personality which I do not know as such in the world, but only experience as mysterious Will within myself.’ Someone who does not find God at large in the world may well be attracted to an otherworldly [apocalyptic] Jesus… I nonetheless remain unclear as to what extent a personal theological agenda advanced Schweitzer to his Jesus. One suspects that his otherworldly ideology was partly a product of his otherworldly Jesus [rather than the other way around]… It was the interpretation of an apparent discovery, not the motivating impulse behind that discovery.” (Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pp 134-135)

Wisdom from Pat Robertson

Check this out. Pat Robertson advises the people of Dover. Unbelievable.

“I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover. If there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city. And don’t wonder why He hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I’m not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that’s the case, don’t ask for His help because he might not be there.”

Five Things

Rick Brannan has tagged me, in the blogosphere equivalent of a chain letter. See here. I guess I’m game.

Ten Years Ago
At the Nashua Public Library (had returned from Peace Corps service in Africa a year prior).

Five Years Ago
At the Nashua Public Library, but a couple of promotions ahead.

One Year Ago
Still at the library…

Five Yummy Things
1. Lobster tails
2. Red lentil soup with onion, red pepper, tomato, and (yes) apricot
3. Charcoal grilled salmon with summer squash, broccoli, onions, and carrots
4. Brown Cow yogurt with fruit
5. Crunchy tacos and bean burritos

Five Songs I Know By Heart
Noteworthy favorites include
1. Radio Free Europe (R.E.M.)
2. Tom Sawyer (Rush)
3. Shock the Monkey (Peter Gabriel)
4. Tower of Strength (The Mission U.K.)
5. Welcome to the Machine (Pink Floyd)

Five Things I Would Do With A Lot of Money
1. Relocate to Portsmouth NH
2. Buy a home there
3. Install a surround-sound cinema
4. Travel abroad (to the Middle-East and Southeast Asia)
5. Donate to Amnesty International

Five Places I Would Escape To
1. Middle-Earth
2. Library stacks
3. A church, synagogue, or mosque
4. Home
5. My imagination — the best place there is

Five Things I Would Never Wear
1. Bell bottoms
2. Belts, unless the pants are too wide
3. Shorts, unless it’s over 95 degrees
4. Boots, unless for snow
5. Anything uncomfortable

Five Favorite TV Shows
I don’t watch TV anymore, but old TV shows now on DVD…
1. Doctor Who
2. All in the Family
3. Miami Vice

Five Things I Really Enjoy Doing
1. Writing
2. Reading
3. Blogging
4. Teaching/Discussing/Learning
5. Exercising

Five Favorite Toys
1. My iMac (yes, I’ve actually become a fan of these blasted MacIntoys)
2. Desk calculator
3. My “dentist” chair
4. Treadmill
5. A multi-purpose sex toy (no details here, sorry)

Five People Who Get This Meme
Well, I’m not going to tag anyone. I think enough bibliobloggers will be getting tagged soon enough…

Blog Feuds

Chris Heard and PZ Myers call attention to the petty feud going on in the blogosphere resulting in threats of legal action. I have a low opinion of all parties involved (Paul Deignan, “Bitch Ph.D.”, and Wallace Hettle — but especially Deignan himself; see his statements cited on Myers blog), and as Chris Heard says, let’s hope we never reach this state of affairs on the biblioblogs.

Blog commenters who have volatile temperaments are best ignored. Obnoxious comments can be deleted or left unanswered. To the proud visitors who are easily slighted and take offense, sometimes (though not always) it doesn’t hurt to apologize — even when they don’t deserve it — because really, when you get down to it, an apology costs nothing. Of course, that’s me the public servant talking.

Deignan has certainly acquired a lot of attention out of this, which was probably his motive all along.

The Historical Lamb

Scot McKnight’s Jesus and His Death is, ironically, a breath of life into a field of decay. Against the North American trend which views the question of Jesus’ understanding of his own death as misguided, McKnight assumes as likely that Jesus thought he would die prematurely, in the providence of God, and would probably die at the hands of elites who saw his movement as a potential source of rebellion. “It only makes sense,” he states, “that one who thought he would die, who on other grounds considered himself a prophet, also tried to make sense of that death” (p 177). Jewish leaders like this regularly looked to prototypes from the Tanakh in order to make sense of death and destiny, and even if they never saw their deaths as atoning, it was always a “short step to the atoning value of these martyrdoms” (p 179).

The book is suspenseful as it works from a more general discussion of how Jesus made sense of his prophetic mission, to the idea that he thought he would die prematurely, to exactly how he made sense of that death. It gets the foundation right, backing Dale Allison’s important dissertation, The End of the Ages Has Come: Jesus believed he was living in the end times, on the brink of the tribulation period. Like Allison, McKnight favors the collective interpretation of the apocalyptic Son of Man (Dan 7), referring to the suffering and vindication of Jesus and his followers in the last days (p 173) (see also Allison’s Millenarian Prophet, pp 65-66).

McKnight examines the Old Testament scripts invoked in the gospels — hardly leaving a stone untouched — and asks whether or not these were used by Jesus to make sense of his impending death. He finds that they do not, dealing instead with how the prophet understood his mission. In Mt 8:20/Lk 9:58, for instance, Jesus applied the script of Psalm 8 (in conjunction with 144) to himself and followers, making sense of the fact that they were itinerants who needed food and shelter (pp 191-194); Lk 9:61-62 points to an early period when Jesus saw himself as Elijah (pp 194-196); the calling of twelve special disciples may indicate a Joshua script, the formation of Israel’s nation at the Jordan River, which would be reconstituted at the apocalypse (Mt 19:28/Lk 22:28-30) (pp 200-201); and especially noteworthy is Mt 10:34-36/Lk 12:51-53, which alludes to the prophecy of Micah, through which we find “a rare glimpse into the inner mind of Jesus” (citing Caird) (pp 201-204).

For this last, McKnight notes how Jesus reversed the expectations of Malachi with Micah. While Elijah was supposed to bring peace and put an end to the family chaos in Micah (Mal 4:6; Mic 7:6), Jesus denied that he brought peace — he brought a “sword” and “division”, evidently concluding that he wasn’t Elijah after all (though he may have thought this initially). John was Elijah, while he was more like Micah. From the time of John/Elijah forward there would be an ugly time of tribulation (Mt 11:12/Lk 16:16) (a belief which probably owed in large measure to the rejection Jesus experienced from his own family (p 203)).

Moving into tangled territory, McKnight takes on the question of Isaiah’s suffering servant (Isa 52:13-53:12), where Christian tradition has for centuries seen Jesus reflecting on the pivotal meaning of his death. Against many scholars (Dodd, Taylor, Cadoux, Manson, Jeremias, Marshall, Caird, Wright), McKnight demonstrates that the servant song doesn’t provide a reliable anchor here (see pp 207-224). At best Jesus applied Isaiah minimally to his present ordeal (“he was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering”), but not the parts later pressed into actual atonement theory (“he was wounded for our transgressions; by his bruises we are healed”).

Turning to the passion predictions (Mk 8/Mk 9/Mk 10 and pars in Mt-Lk), McKnight finds that they breathe the air of prophetic martyrdom rather than atonement (p 230), and that they’re more about vindication than death in any case. The scriptural basis for them is mostly Dan 7, showing that God will vindicate the Son of Man and his followers at the apocalypse (p 238).

All of these scripts, but some less than others — the Psalmist’s Son of Man, Elijah, Joshua, and Micah, Isaiah’s suffering servant, and Daniel’s apocalyptic Son of Man — helped Jesus make sense of his prophetic mission in light of the tribulation period, the opposition he now faced, and the expected vindication/resurrection of him and his followers. But none offer a reliable window onto how Jesus saw his death, and the ransom saying of Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28 is doubtfully traceable to Jesus (p 356).

Where we finally locate Jesus’ understanding of his death is in the eucharist account, related in the synoptic gospels and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. McKnight’s analysis of the last supper has to be the best available, and is alone worth the price of the book. Not since Jeremias has the eucharist been so carefully weighed and considered against the background of Judaic passover. McKnight basically argues that the flesh and blood of the passover lamb was replaced by Jesus’ own “body and blood” (in the bread and wine), intended to protect his followers from God’s fiery judgment against Jerusalem and its leaders (p 323).

McKnight thus finds John’s chronology to be more likely than that of the synoptic gospels (p 270). Jesus celebrated passover a day early, without a lamb and in a home more readily available, and saw in the bread his sacrificial body (he was now the lamb) and in the wine his blood (p 271). He was thus reenacting the ancient tradition of smearing blood on the doors of Israelite homes so that God would deliver his people from oppressors. When Paul says that “Jesus is our paschal lamb” (I Cor 5:7), and when the fourth gospel writer refers to Jesus as “the lamb of God” (Jn 1:29), we are in touch, however obliquely, with the historical Jesus.

It’s crucial to keep passover sacrifice distinct from other forms of sacrifice, and McKnight (initially) does this quite well, distinguishing passover from covenant-ceremony and atonement (p 285). Passover sacrifice did not atone/forgive; it protected. Yahweh “passed over” those so protected when he came in judgment (p 281). Passover was also not a covenant ceremony; while covenant sacrifice dealt with relationship and commitment, passover was all about deliverance from tyranny and bondage. Exod 12 and 24 are, as McKnight puts it, “countries and ideas apart” (p 308).

The problem is that the synoptic writers and Paul portray the last supper as a covenant-renewal:

(Mark) This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. (14:24)

(Matthew) This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins. (26:28)

(Luke) This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (22:20)

(Paul) This cup is the new covenant in my blood. (I Cor 11:25)

Matthew’s “forgiveness of sins” (signaling atonement) is widely acknowledged as redactional, but what about the multiply-attested “covenant”? McKnight argues convincingly that covenant ideas do not trace back to Jesus anymore than Matthew’s sin-forgiveness. His argument can be outlined as follows (see pp 308-311).

* In the entire gospel tradition (including John), covenant is attributed to Jesus only at the last supper, “a text cystallizing a tradition that itself became a liturgical expression in earliest Christianity.” (p 308)

* Jesus based his vision on “kingdom”, not covenant. “Kingdom is the term Jesus chose to build his dream on; one doesn’t surrender one’s dream terms easily.” (p 309)

* The last supper betrays few signs of a covenant ceremony. The following prerequisites are missing: an oath, a promise, blessings for followers and curses for opponents, an unconditional bond for the suzerain, and a promise of blessings for Jesus’ followers. If Jesus is setting forth a new covenant, he does so without specifying it as such, “a practice abnormal in Judaism”. (p 310)

* Accordingly, Jesus probably only said, “this is my blood”, a tidy parallel to “this is my body”. (p 310)

* There are big steps needed to get from “my blood” in the context of passover sacrifice, to “my blood of the covenant”, and then to “the new covenant in my blood”. It was early Jerusalem-based Christians, or Paul and his associates, and then the writer of Hebrews, who took those steps. (p 311)

McKnight explains further:

“In the exegetical workshop of earliest messianism, then, the tool of covenant became a way of sifting the relationship of believers in Jesus Christ to the scriptural revelation of Torah and its people, Israel. For Paul, it was a tool that separated the Mosaic covenant from the new covenant, primarily by recognizing the significance of the Holy Spirit. For the writer of Hebrews, it was a tool that ontologically separated the old system from the new system, primarily by recognizing the effectiveness of the forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and his intercessory powers. If Paul crossed the threshold by sorting out the relationship of the old to the new in terms of covenant, the author of Hebrews set up shop and made the category his home to an unprecedented degree.” (p 303)

For Paul, of course, Christ’s death was many things — an example to be followed, a ransom price, a sin offering, a passover sacrifice, and an atoning sacrifice, (all on which see Finlan’s book). Covenant crops up occasionally in his letters, but not in terms of Christ’s death, only to contrast how the Spirit accomplishes what the Torah/covenant could not. For the author of Hebrews, Christ’s death became not only an atoning sacrifice but a covenant-establishing event. But in the beginning, Jesus understood his death to be a passover sacrifice. That’s all.

Having delivered such a convincing thesis, McKnight then undercuts it in his conclusion with a confusion of terminology. He writes:

“[Jesus saw his death as] vicarious and protecting. In stating that the bread was his body and the wine his blood, Jesus suggested that he was the passover victim whose blood would protect his followers from the imminent judgment of God against Jerusalem and its corrupt leadership. We have here the first genuine glimpse of a death that somehow atones. Jesus’ theory of the atonement then is that his own death, and his followers’ participation in that death by ingestion, protects his followers from the Day of YHWH, which in the prophets especially is often described as the wrath of YHWH. As the avenging angel of the passover in Egypt ‘passed over’ the first-born children whose fathers had smeared blood on the door, so the Father of Jesus would ‘pass over’ those followers who ingested Jesus’ body and blood.” (p 339; italics mine)

In claiming that passover sacrifice is a form of atonement after all, McKnight erases proper distinctions he made up to this point (see especially p 285). Atonement involved forgiving sins, whether understood in propitiary terms (appeasing an angry God with sacrifice) or expiatory terms (wiping sin away by harnessing the lifeforce in the blood of the sacrifice). Passover had nothing to do with forgiveness, nothing to do with atonement. It had to do with protection.

The problem is that in the above citation McKnight falls into the common trap of confusing vicariousness with atonement. But vicarious simply means “for the benefit of others”, and we saw in my review of Stephen Finlan’s book that Paul understood Christ’s death to be vicarious in four different ways (atonement but one of the four). So accurately speaking, Jesus saw his death as vicarious — it would protect his followers when God rained judgment down on everyone — but not atoning.

Aside from the confusion of terminology (and even concepts) at the end, I found myself agreeing with most of what is presented in Jesus and His Death. McKnight has seriously redressed a dimension to the historical Jesus which is too often ignored in the academy. Jesus lived on a landscape of eschatology and martyrdom. However foreign that landscape is to us (it certainly is to me), we need to get comfortable with ideas that pertain to it.

Previous posts about Jesus’ death: here, here, and here.