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…

Adventures in NT Greek: Is Jesus a vegetable?

Today I’m working my way through John 6, the famous “bread of life” chapter. I noticed something curious in a section where Jesus is contrasting the “true food” of his body with the manna Moses fed the Israelites in the desert. Throughout the passage, he uses what seems to me to be the more usual verb for eat, ἐσθίω, including when referring to eating his body. But when he’s drawing a contrast, he uses a verb I hadn’t seen before, τρώγω, which appears to connote primarily the eating of vegetables, particularly by herbivorous animals — but also human “snacking” on similar light fare. Are we to graze on Jesus, presumably as a food source that’s more reliable than manna, which only lasts a single day at a time?

The LSJ does have a later meaning for the term that says it is a substitute present tense for ἐσθίω, but there’s a verse in which both appear, in what’s hard not to read as a clear and intentional contrast: οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἄρτος ὁ ἐζ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς, οὐ καθὼς ἔφαγον οἱ πατέρες καὶ ἀπέθανον· ὁ τρώγων τοῦτον τὸν ἄρτον ζήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (6:58; “this is the bread that comes down from heaven, not like the fathers ate and died; the one who eats this bread will live forever). Of course, there is the tense issue that the LSJ mentions….

While I’m here, I have another issue: when the disciples are gathering up the leftovers from the feeding of the 5000, the text uses the verb συνάγω. Is this meant to evoke the synagogue, and hence to symbolize gathering up the “remnant” of Israel?

Jumping to conclusions in John

Since I’m teaching the Gospel of John this fall, I’m trying to make my way through it in Greek. I just finished chapter one this morning, and it included a passage that I have always found strange. I don’t think it’s a translation issue at all, but I’ll include the Greek just because it’s cool to be able to have Greek in the post: Continue reading “Jumping to conclusions in John”

The National Gospel of Liberty

Yesterday I shared the parable post with my former CTS colleague David Weasley, and he sent me this excerpt from a contemporary reimagining of Jesus’s preaching by our mutual friend and former colleague Nate Dannison. I have no doubt that if Nate rewrote the entire Bible along these lines, it would quickly replace the original version in the world’s affection.

National Gospel of Liberty,
Chapter 12.

A Warning Against the Poor
12. 1 Meanwhile, when the wealthy men had gathered into the temple, so that they required many disciples to gather their tithes, he began to speak first to his soldiers, “Beware of the yeast of the poor, that is, their laziness. 2 Nothing is hidden from you that you cannot see with your own eyes. 3 Therefore what a man has done in the dark will be shown by his appearance, and if he has sinned his condition will be made known to all.

Exhortation to Fearless Egoism
4 “I tell you, my followers, do not fear the philosopher and the mathematician, for they cannot change the minds of the faithful. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the sinner amongst you, lest he infect you with his curse. Yes, I tell you, fear him! 6 Are not the fields filled with thieves and outcasts? They are so for they have sinned, and must eat only grass and sparrows. 7 So I tell you, your sins are known by your Father in Heaven, who counts them, and uses them to determine the wealth of your storehouses. 8 “And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges the poor and the outcast will be acknowledged as an outcast; 9 but whoever denies the poor and the outcast will live in peace, because they are odorous and live in fields. 10 And everyone who speaks a word against the poor will be forgiven, for this is right; but whoever speaks out for the poor and the oppressed will not be forgiven. 11 When they bring you before the magistrate, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; 12 for you are wealthy and the wealthy need have no fear of the courts.”

Parable of the Wealthy Fool
13 One of the wealthy men who had gathered said to him, “Sir, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Foolish coward! Can you not work for yourself? 15 Do you not see those around you, who have prayed steadfastly and have built up great stores?” 16 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of laziness, for one’s life consists of the abundance of his possessions.” 17 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no more room to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods and my wives. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, for God has blessed you with riches.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night you will be blessed with additional riches. And the barns you have prepared, they are not large enough.’ 21 So it is with those who do not build enough barns to store all the treasures that God has blessed them with.”

Continue reading “The National Gospel of Liberty”