A canon of rivals

Last night, I gave a talk on the Temptation of Christ at an event for the DePaul Humanities Center. My focus was on the devil’s offer to give Christ all the kingdoms of this world, which I used as a starting point for tracing the roots of apocalyptic in the Jewish tradition and its legacy in Christianity. One point I emphasized was the intertwining of religious and political concerns in the second and third temptations, which Matthew and Luke present in a different order. I suggested that this differing order might indicate a certain interchangeability between the political and the religious.

Whenever I make claims like this, the angel of biblical scholarship always appears on my shoulder and starts saying things like: “You don’t know that Matthew and Luke knew of each other’s work! They could have both been reworking a shared oral tradition, etc., etc.” And on my other shoulder, an angel of not-caring appears, saying, “You know what? We can’t know any of that for sure. All we know for sure is the texts we actually have in front of us, and they certainly give an impression of being in rivalry with each other!”

Finally, forced to mediate between these two influences — and I’ll let you decide which is good and which is evil — I decide that the angel of biblical scholarship is right to advise caution, but that the angel of not-caring is ultimately pointing us toward something that is more interesting. I don’t have to make a hard historical claim that Luke read Matthew and decided he could do better, but it’s more interesting than hand-waving toward an “oral tradition.” It’s more discussable if you start from the premise that Luke took a look at Matthew’s Nativity narrative and said, “Wow, this is a hot mess — it needs a serious rewrite!”

I would go so far as to extend this to the Gospel of John as well. I know, I know — it probably represents an independent oral tradition (Ockham’s principle of ontological parsimony is not among the axioms of biblical scholarship), which furthermore was written by a community rather than a single author, etc., etc. People have made good arguments for that, and far be it from me to presume that I could overthrow the scholarly consensus. But again, we can’t know any of that for sure, and treating John as an attempt to “correct” the synoptics is just more interesting and discussable in my opinion.

This tendency to favor the angel of not-caring might stem from my experience in the Great Books classroom, where my goal is less to ensure students follow disciplinary guidelines and more to get them engaged with the texts as directly as possible. In that setting, gesturing toward some hypothetical entity like an “oral tradition,” which by definition we can never have access to, is a distraction from our work on the text that we actually have in front of us. When someone swoops in with that kind of #actually, experience shows that conversation gets shut down. Better to start with the bold, or even over-bold, hypothesis, which at least gets us digging through the text itself.

Actually, it would likely be more accurate to say that my pre-existing impatience with disciplinarity made a Great Books setting congenial to me — and classroom experience affirmed my intuitions in this regard.

The just one will live outside the social bond

I’ve got Romans on my mind, specifically 1:17 — “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith'” (NRSV translation; Greek text: δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται, Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται). This is the locus classicus of the Protestant emphasis on justification by faith (as opposed to works), an emphasis that has obscured the basic political meaning of the passage, including at the level of translation. Here I’m going to be following the inspiration of Ted Jennings’ reading as found in Outlaw Justice, but I am working through this verse myself.

Continue reading “The just one will live outside the social bond”

Against sacraments: On the Gospel of John

Normally one reads the Gospels as all filling out details of the same basic story. This traditional attitude even affects critical scholars, who have focused on questions about the synoptic gospels’ shared source and their incorporation of their own particular sources into its basic framework. When they come to John, they assume that he has some other source — hence “further information” about Jesus. But as class prompted me to read Mark and John in rapid succession (along with the basic context surrounding the temptation in the desert in the other two gospels), another theory forced itself on me: what if the Gospel of John is a polemic against the picture of Jesus we get in the synoptic gospels? And more specifically, what if the Gospel of John has a polemic against the sacramental rites that the synoptic gospels helped to legitimate?

Here are some data points: Continue reading “Against sacraments: On the Gospel of John”

Jesus, the Resurrection, and Zombies

Last week in class, we were discussing 1 Corinthians. When we got to the discussion of the resurrection in chapter 15, the students seemed to be converging on an understanding of the resurrection as a primarily spiritual reality — in fact, they seemed to think Paul was envisioning us “becoming” a soul in the resurrection, as opposed to having an immortal soul that was freed from the body — and I attempted to steer them in a different direction by pointing out that Paul talks about a spiritual body. “In fact,” I said, “in the resurrection accounts in the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as having a body. He can eat in some accounts, and in one he still bears the scars of the crucifixion.”

One student without any religious background was utterly outraged by the idea. “He comes back to life and has a body!? That’s insane! So we’re all going to come back and be zombies?!”

Thoughts on the Parable of Leaven

Here is some theological exegesis I am thinking through, resulting from a subconscious insight. Lately I have been reading some books concerning the Jewish roots of Christianity, and other material on the role of (biblical) Israel in Christian theology, and these ideas have been pervading my thoughts, directing what I look for in how I see things: reading theology, writing, and—apparently—other subconscious activities, such as watching my wife bake zucchini bread. I was watching her, and as yeast got mentioned in our conversation, it dawned upon me: the parable of the leaven in the synoptic Gospels has something to say about Israel within it.

Another parable he spoke to them: ‘the kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until it was all leavened.’ (Matt. 13:33) Continue reading “Thoughts on the Parable of Leaven”

The abrupt ending of Mark: A cynical reading

The ending of the Gospel of Mark is one of the most puzzling issues in New Testament scholarship. Barring the discovery of new manuscript evidence, it is probably unknowable whether the author intended it to end abruptly at 16:8 or whether he or she composed a longer ending that has since been lost. I’d like to put forward a hypothetical answer to this question, however, which ties in with one of the other big questions about Mark: namely, the messianic secret.

Many readers of Mark have been puzzled by Jesus’s insistence that no one tell anyone that he is the messiah. A cynical explanation that I find somewhat satisfying is that he’s trying to account for the fact that the historical Jesus never openly claimed to be the messiah and there were people alive at the time who remembered this.

If we turn a similar logic toward the ending of Mark, he may be trying to account for the fact that no one actually claimed Jesus had been resurrected immediately after he died — of course he was resurrected on the third day, etc., but you know how unreliable women can be…