Tag Archives: Jesus

100 word ‘Thought for the month’

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to write “about 100 words” for the church newsletter. Below is what was sent and today published as a ‘Thought for the month’. For context, the name of our church is Ichthus.

The term Ichthus is a shortened form of a bold declaration: Jesus is the Messiah (Christ), the Son of God, Saviour. Three terms that denote the same person but which carry different connotations. Yet Jesus did not go about introducing himself with these titles. Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah came part way into Jesus’ ministry and wasn’t obvious, for it had to be revealed by the Holy Spirit. So when we introduce Jesus to others, should we immediately tell them of the conclusions of christian thought or invite them to become disciples and walk a path alongside us? 

Book Review: Jesus the Jew by Geza Vermes

As stated recently, part of my reading plan this year is to look at a number of different views of Jesus. Vermes is an author that I’ve been longing to read for some time. A renowned expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, he trained as a catholic priest before abandoning his faith and turning to a life of academia.

Subtitled ‘An historian’s reading of the Gospels’, this was the first of a trilogy of books that Vermes wrote on the figure of Jesus, releasing one every 10 years. The opening premise is that Jesus is neither the Christ of christianity nor the heretic of Judaism but something in between the two. With this, we may get a sense of the flavour of what might come, as it is a critical look at christianity and its origins, but which is quite learned, not falling into the silly denialism of the Christ Myth theory, which holds as much as weight as creationism or climate change denial.

Vermes starts with a look at the Jesus that the gospel writers want us to believe in. In other words, he looks at the prima facie case and critiques this before looking at the background setting. It’s not the approach I was expecting, but it makes for a very interesting, if painful reading. I say ‘painful’ because it is a most excoriating work which, if read with the due seriousness and respect it deserves, is enough to shake anyone who professes faith in Jesus, nomatter how conservative or liberal their take is. It is a far more insightful critique than many that are commonly regurgitated. I would thoroughly recommend that anyone interested in christianity, either for or against it, have a read as well as think about the questions raised. Many may well be answerable, but Vermes doesn’t offer us a counter-case here. That is left for others.

After this opening, he then looks at Jesus as a Galilean. i.e. what was the culture in which he existed? This is where Vermes the historian comes to the fore. Almost anyone who has heard of Vermes will probably associate his name with the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is from here that he draws most of his source material, though he doesn’t apply the same level of scepticism to the Scrolls as he does to the gospels. I shan’t recount the details here. I shall merely say that it is written with great care, in an accessible manner and with a combination of depth and breadth to enable the reader to get a grip on the time and place – an understanding that is rather lacking in some christian quarters as well as some atheist. A similar kind of picture is, I am led to understand, in E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism (focusing more on the latter part of the title than the first).

Having painted the background, there are some other figures that Vermes wants to bring into the picture to show that Jesus was far from unique. Labelled as “charismatic Judaism”, Vermes again draws on the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as various bits of rabbinic tradition. So while I would expect anyone reading this review to be familiar with the figure of Simon bar Kokhba and his revolt, there are others here that we meet who are far less familiar. I certainly admit that I knew very little about Hanina ben Dosa or Honi the Circle-Drawer. The overt intention is to show the kind of charismatic figures that were known in the area at the time, though the intended subtext seems to be to show that there was nothing special about Jesus; that he was just another charismatic preacher and healer.

A couple of interesting points to note: As stated in an earlier piece, my intention is to do a bit more reading around Jesus this year. One thing that Vermes states clearly is that there have been some who think Jesus was a Zealot. This is an opinion that Vermes rejects, saying it has no basis, but he doesn’t explore the possibility in too much detail. So I look forward to reading more about that in Reza Aslan’s recent book on the subject. The other thing is that while Vermes largely follows in the footsteps of Bultmann in supposing that the sources we have for Jesus are more indicative of the beliefs of the early church than an accurate portrayal, he doesn’t address the question of why the church believed what they believed. It is that question that Bart Ehrman takes up in his recent work, How Jesus Became God, which is the next major book on Jesus I’ll be reviewing this year.

The second half of the book is focused on the various titles of Jesus. Specifically, the titles of ‘prophet’, ‘lord’, ‘Messiah’, ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son of God’.  By far, the most focus here is on the title ‘Son of Man’ which is appropriate, as this is the most common appellation given to Jesus by the gospel authors. The normal view of this title is that it harks back to Daniel 7. However, Vermes is eager to avoid the possibility of this, given the christological implications that that would have. The great irony here is that early in the book Vermes draws a dichotomy between a conservative and a supposedly progressive view (the latter he attributes to Rudolph Bultmann), arguing that the progressive view is quite uncomplicated whereas the conservative view has to jump through all sorts of hoops, with some tortuous reasoning. Yet Vermes employs these kinds of techniques in order to distance the Son of Man of the gospels from the Son of Man in the gospels.

One of the problems with the methodology implicit in Vermes’ work is the assumption that Jesus could not have instigated anything new. If anything does appear to be in line with the early church teaching it assumed to be a back projection on the part of the gospel writers and subsequent editors, while the idea that it could possibly be genuine is ruled out. At the same time, if the gospel writers are in agreement with one another, then the assumption is that they have copied one from the other. So the idea of double attestation is hamstrung from the start. This is a feature that is not unique to Vermes’ writing. If any of you have followed The Jesus Seminar then you will see a similar methodology employed to evade the possibility of concluding that the early church had a true and fair view of who Jesus was.

With all that said, the lasting legacy of the book has been valuable, as it has helped to reassert Jesus’ Jewishness, in contrast to centuries of anti-Semitism that have existed within both the christian and Catholic churches. This is largely helped the more modern scholars such as N.T. Wright, Kenneth Bailey, Richard Bauckham and James Dunn see Jesus as both a key figure marking the culmination of Judaism and the start of christianity, but also as a figure of continuity between the two. It is a complex side to Jesus’ identity, but one that this reader thinks is necessary to grasp if one is to get a firm grip on this figure that so many have tried to mould into the image they like. Vermes was not innocent of this, but his contribution, though disturbing at times and at others contestable, is one that has much value and continues to be worth considering.

Book Review: Jesus – A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham

One might well work out that, being a christian, I am somewhat interested in the figure of Jesus. My aim really is to come to as true and fair an understanding of this figure as possible. One might question why I chose to read the VSI of Jesus – surely I know it all already? Well, while I might try my best to be a faithful disciple, Jesus is a figure one can never see him from enough angles. Over the next year, I aim to look at a number of viewpoints, some of which are referred to in this short book.

The opening gambit is the question of “how can we know about Jesus?” In and of itself, this would entail a whole other VSI in and of itself. So we skip over the details of textual and form criticism and jump to the working hypothesis that the gospels are, by and large, the most reliable works through which we can know who Jesus was. Other reviewers of this book object to this, as it does leave some key questions and objections unanswered. Though Bauckham does refer the reader to his earlier work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which makes a more compelling case than that presented here.

Rather than dive into the texts, Bauckham takes his time to let the reader get a look at the time, place and culture in which we may find Jesus. 1st century Israel/Palestine was a fascinating arena, though we focus mainly on the strands of Judaic thought that Jesus would have encountered. From here he looks at the one topic that Jesus spoke about more than any other: the kingdom of God. This is done in two ways, by looking at what Jesus did and also what Jesus said. It is in reading these chapters that one sees the need to have started with an assumption in the historicity of the gospels. In doing so, we can see what one of the major obstacles is in modern evangelism, where a healthy sceptical questioning of the biblical sources tips over and becomes an irrational denialism (think of a parallel between climate change deniers or young earth creationists, both of whom would try to claim the ground of reasonable scepticism but who in truth are impervious to evidence).

The kind of view that Bauckham puts forward is of Jesus being very Jewish, understanding the history of Israel and enacting renewal. Yet Jesus did this by reinterpreting the Torah and having a revolutionary way of looking at and speaking of God. The question that would probably be at the forefront of many people’s minds is “who is Jesus?” Yet Bauckham builds up to this, only asking the question once the background has been fully sketched (I say ‘sketched’ because in a VSI there is insufficient room to fill in many of the details). The answer is, as ever, many sided. We look briefly at Jesus’ identity as Messiah and as Son of God. Though necessary to include these, I felt there could have been a lot more said that would clarify the matter for readers who may have chosen to pick up this book having relatively little understanding of Jesus or what churches over the centuries have taught about him.

Naturally enough, as study of Jesus should, Bauckham eventually comes to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Bauckham remains resolutely orthodox in his stance here, affirming the historicity of the Easter weekend and again drawing on the eyewitness testimony, especially via the “embarrassment criteria” of having women recorded as the first to see Jesus risen from the dead. If anything, this chapter is a bit of a paraphrase of the Easter narratives, mainly as a combination of Mark and John’s gospels as well as 1 Corinthians 15.

The book concludes with how Jesus has been understood by the Church. The focus here is on the early church rather than views from the 2nd century onwards. He resists the idea that Paul was the real founder of Christianity, noting that that idea only emerged around the 19th century.

I would hope that most find this a helpful book. Bauckham is very orthodox in his view and doesn’t make space here for a wide variety of more heterodox views. So if you are looking for an overview of different beliefs, then this is probably not the best book for you. It is a view of Jesus that I largely agree with, even if some elements are glossed over and questions of high or low christology only appear towards the end and are dealt with in a very cursory manner. But if you have heard of the idea of a difference between the “Jesus of faith” and the “Jesus of history” then this is a good place to start to help see why such a distinction is false. And if you think you know who Jesus is, it’s never a bad idea to take a fresh look.

Highs and lows of christology

I’ve been thinking about Jesus lately. It’s probably the sort of thing christians ought to do, but then again I’m not necessarily a very “good” christian, whatever that means. In particular, I’ve been thinking of the aspect of Jesus known as christology. In case you’ve not come across the term before, it’s about how you view Jesus in relation to his qualities as being human and as being God.

A “low” christology tends to emphasise Jesus’ humanity over and above his divinity while a “high” christology tends to see Jesus primarily as God where the ‘incarnate’ is slightly more subdued.

I would hope it’s fair to say that the vast majority of christians subscribe to the idea that Jesus was fully God and fully human. However, it’s also probably fair to say that not everyone (myself included) understands this. It’s a dichotomy close to the heart of the christian faith that becomes harder to understand the more one thinks about it.

The way I tend to go about it is to alternate. As I try to live a life of discipleship, at times it seems to make more sense to think of Jesus primarily human, where the idea of his being God is slightly out of focus in the background. At other times it helps to get an understanding of God through looking at Jesus, which inevitably brings with it a higher christology. Such times tend to ebb and flow, sometimes depending on what teaching we have at my local church, at other times on my own study and musing.

If we look at the gospels, one of the most noticeable differences is between the low relatively low christology of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) and the higher christology of the gospel of John.

In the various evangelical/(ana)baptist/charismatic churches I have been a part of over the years, there is nearly always a real love for John’s gospel above the others. Mark often gets overlooked. It’s possibly in seeking for a sense of balance then that I am drawn to Mark and to seek a fairly low christology.

The highest end of the christology could well be said to be Docetism, an idea condemned as a heresy as it viewed Jesus as God but that he only had the appearance of being human. At the other extreme is Ebionitism which, amongst other things, says that Jesus was merely human and denies that he was one and the same as God.

Perhaps it is our failure to understand the paradox that leads to a suspicion against those who put forward a view that leans more towards one point of view. For example, the late Marcus Borg saw the American evangelical high christology as verging on the docetic and as a result advocated such a low christology that he denied the historicity of the resurrection.

Of late, I’ve been in a season of low christology. But for some reason that seems to be giving way to a higher view. Wherever we are, we can end up unnecessarily disagreeing with those who are at another point of the cycle. The other day I thought of an image of a rope. It’s made up of multiple chords, each of which is made up of other threads, some of which may be frayed or pointing in odd directions but on the whole, the chords spiral round one another and bind together. So it is with different christologies. We may not all point in the same direction all of the time, but given time we move along the timeline of our thread and we all end up winding towards Jesus.

In thinking this through, I couldn’t help but wonder about how we try to tell others about Jesus. My observation is that by and large the Jesus evangelists speak of is the Jesus of high christology. We refer to him as Jesus Christ without ever saying what Christ actually means. This is partly why some (e.g. Tom Wright) refrain from using the term Christ as it has come to be thought of as his surname instead of a royal title signifying his anointing. We refer to Jesus as “Son of God” as though it’s the most natural term to toss around, somehow implying that we fully understand what that means and expecting someone else to be on the same wavelength.

In my opinion, this is an arrogant and unhelpful approach.

Jesus didn’t come into the world declaring himself to be God. Read the gospels; you’ll have to look carefully to be able to construct an argument of Jesus’ divinity. This is where C.S. Lewis’ trilemma is rather unhelpful, as the message that Jesus preached was not “[I am God. Worship me]” or anything like that. The one thing he spoke about more than any other was the kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven).

Rather, Jesus appeared as a human. That was how he was first known. I’ve heard preachers say that his earliest disciples dropped what they were doing because they were answering God’s call. I emphatically disagree with that point of view. They didn’t know that Jesus was God. They followed a man, a teacher, someone with a reputation. It was over time spent in Jesus’ company that they come to some level of understanding. Peter’s confession doesn’t appear at the start of any of the gospels. It only comes part way through. Even then, though Jesus affirms that the declaration that he is the Jewish Messiah is the foundation of God’s renewed people, the Church, there still remains much that is unknown or misunderstood. It is only after the resurrection that the pieces start to fall into place and we get the first semblance of a high christology.

So if we try to introduce the world first and foremost to a Jesus of high christology then we are telling the story back to front. It starts with the conclusion and asks for that to be accepted, which is a rather large pill to swallow. It’s no wonder that it is so readily rejected.  It’s not how Jesus introduced himself. If he had, I’m sure the charges of blasphemy would have come far sooner than they did.

To my present understanding, part of the point of Jesus being a human was that he met us at our own level. He trod on the earth entrusted to us, he ate the food we made from it and he defecated it back again. Though he spoke of things of heaven, he drew his analogies from the world around that he saw every day, that he breathed in and out every day for over 30 years. To gloss over this and dive straight into declaring Jesus to be the risen Messiah is like skipping your meat and two veg by going straight for dessert.

If we can get to grips with a thoroughly human Jesus first, then we progress “upwards” and read the Easter narratives in the light of a life of deeds and words. It is right that we follow Jesus but it is hubris to think that there is any novelty in this. The disciples walked this path long before you or I, as have millions of christians across centuries since. Though with such a high footfall, the erosion caused by those who’ve gone a little off the track can make it hard to discern the narrow way.

Only then, if we can put on the glasses of a high christology can we loop back and meet Jesus afresh. It is this cycle that I referred to earlier and why I believe that it is hard to revisit the gospels too many times. There is always something fresh to be found; though of course one must be cautious against seeking novelty if orthodoxy becomes clichéd.

I have a hypothesis about why it is that evangelism is so often stated in terms of a high christology. It is to do with a reaction against the flattening out of the richness and variety of christian belief so that it fits into a neat box called “theism”. Against those who would like to bundle up christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. into this one term, there can be a temptation to go straight for the concept of “God”. But to do so is rather a tough task, not least due to the variety of ways even within just christianity that people speak of God. But we have a trick up our sleeve. If we believe that Jesus is God incarnate and take on board the idea that “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30) and “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.” (John 14:6-7) then we can point to Jesus. But doing this as a first response asks us to take a conclusion (a high christological view) and asks someone else to use this as their starting point. It may be a quicker answer to a critic but it is not an invitation to join in on a journey of discipleship.

There is a problem with this hypothesis. At present, I’m reading Eusebius’ ‘History of the Church’ and in it there is evidence of a consistent high christology in the first few centuries following Jesus’ resurrection. There is little by way of an expression of low christology. So it might be that evangelism via the high route is simply a tradition that has been in good stead for some 1,700+ years.

There is another problem with my rather idealistic view on introducing Jesus via a low christology. It is this: Jesus lived among, and spoke to, 1st century Jews. He was one himself. Their background, cultural understanding, their worldview if you will, was vastly different to ours. So there are allusions in the gospels which one can understand if you look into such a worldview (and here, the christian world owes a debt of gratitude to historically-minded theologians whose diligent work has shed light on this) but which are easily lost if one approaches the gospels under the misapprehension that they were written for a modern, western audience. Therefore, the message that Jesus taught cannot be fully comprehended without a modicum of education.

While this is no bad thing, it risks reducing christianity to an intellectual exercise. Like the flattening out into mere theism, this would be an equal underrepresentation. Having trod the path from low christology to high christology and back again several times, one gets a glimpse of something more than mere history, more than a binitarian view of Jesus and God the Father. Holding it altogether, bringing life, is the Spirit. And that’s a whole other way of looking at christianity.

What do we mean by “prophetic”?

This is sort of a follow up to this piece on the recent christian new media conference, prompted by a couple of the comments. It concerns the nature of prophecy and what we mean when we speak of something as prophetic.

The subject also came up recently when I was reading Roger Forster’s Prayer: Living in the Breath of God which I will be reviewing fairly soon. So I wanted to lay the foundations for that review first.

A very short summary may be found in my guest post the Big Bible blog, where we were looking at the book of Isaiah. The key point that I tried to make was put well by Jaroslav Pelikan when he said that prophecy was less about foretelling, but telling forth. In other words, the prophetic is rooted in the present but is forward looking. To imagine it simply as a form of fortune-telling is a lazy, simplistic and misleading way of talking of prophecy.

The biblical prophets were writing first and foremost to the world they lived in. As we have just been through Advent and Christmas, many will have heard snippets read from Isaiah (probably chapter 53) and Micah (chapter 5). While these passages certainly are forward looking, it is a disservice to them to remove them from their context and only read them with the benefit of hindsight. Both passages are to be found within a wider picture, and even those form a wider landscape of OT prophecy. This is a rugged and varied landscape. While Micah 5 is largely an expression of hope, this comes after pronouncements of judgment and warnings. Such warnings may be found throughout the OT prophets. As an example, the book of Jonah (which all too often is watered down through familiarity via Sunday school) tells of judgment which is to be pronounced against Nineveh, yet this judgment is not final. That judgment comes with the opportunity for redemption through repentance.

Likewise, John the Baptiser (I hesitate to call him “the Baptist” as it makes him sound like a Spurgeon-esque figure, replete with anachronistic overtones) was a fairly harsh figure, yet he called people to repentance. So we see that judgment should not be equated with damnation. It’s a conflation that happens far too often, particularly when christianity is viewed from the outside and our collective communication skills have failed, allowing the confusion to take place. Adopting Wright’s take on Paul’s view of justification, judgment is an eschatological verdict, but justification is the present verdict in anticipation of the final judgment. But that judgment, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, is in our favour. It is only when the offer of grace is rejected that the judgment becomes one of damnation, a verdict of the second death, or annihilation. But it is not our place to judge, either in favour or against, another.

It seems right that secular prophecy should not be excluded from such a discussion. What do I mean by secular prophecy? It is simply any prophecy where a spiritual element is lacking. It is observation grounded in the present, combined with insight as to the causes of a situation and the probable outcomes, which usually come with some kind of warning. As an example, I would state that one of our most prominent secular prophets is George Monbiot, whose frequent warnings over climate change meet the criteria above. In America, one of the most rigorous of the secular prophets is Nate Silver, whose work with polls, combined with an acute understanding of statistics led him to famously predict the correct result of 49 out of 50 of the US states in the 2008 general election. As a side note, I intend to read his book, The Signal and the Noise, later this year.

The final aspect I wanted to look at is the question of the “prophetic act”. This is slightly different, as it is generally less direct than the others. I want to illustrate by comparing two prophets: Elisha and Jesus.

Even among non-christians, the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (men) is fairly well known. But it is often portrayed simply as a miracle as though this were some kind of proof of Jesus’ divinity. I would contend that such a view rather misses the points (for there is more than one). On top of it being an act of kindness, it was a prophetic action that harked back to the lesser known story of Elisha feeding 100 (men) as told in 2 Kings 4:42-44. If one puts on a post-hoc set of glasses, one might think that Elisha is here foretelling what Jesus would later do. That’s one way of looking at it. The other way is to put yourself in the shoes of those who were in the crowd at the later event. They would be reasonably familiar with the law and the prophets and rather than Elisha’s act foretelling the act of Jesus, it was Jesus’ act that harked back to Elisha’s. In this highly symbolic action, which would not have needed to be explained out loud, Jesus was identifying himself with the ministry of the one of Israel’s great prophets. Seen this way, we remove some of the puzzlement over the disciples’ response when Jesus asked “Who do people say that I am?” and they come back with “John the Baptiser; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” If you will permit me a small liberty, if it walks like a prophet and quacks like a prophet then it might well be a prophet.

Sticking with Jesus’ miracles, many of the acts of healing that we find are not only compassionate acts that alleviate suffering, but that they were on those whose afflictions would have rendered them ritually unclean or cause them to be cast out from society. The act of healing then was a prophetic act that says “[you are clean]” which is brought out more explicit with the vision Peter had of the sheet being brought down containing foods that had been considered ritually unclean and commanded to eat.

Hopefully it should be clear that this way of looking at prophetic acts entails communion and baptism. They are highly symbolic acts which hark back to the most important week in world history.

A modern example of a secular prophetic act was the salt march that Gandhi undertook in 1930. As this is quite long, I’ll let you read up more about it rather than recount the history here.

So can we summarise what we mean when we speak of prophecy or to say that some word, image or action is prophetic? My usage would be thus:

An act of prophecy is the act of telling forth of an insight into the present which has repercussions for the future. Something which is described as prophetic is foremost an act or a statement that is loaded with symbolism which, when understood, is meant a statement of prophecy. Secondarily, a prophetic act or word can be something which harks back to earlier such words or actions, but which is marked out by being highly symbolic, yet not to such an obscure level that it needed to be explained by detailed semiotics. They typically reference things which are commonly known and understood. The primary and secondary meanings here need not be separate acts, but can be entwined in a single act.

What hasn’t been addressed here is determining true prophecy from false, or how to respond to it. I’ll leave that for you.

God and Jesus and a question of gender

Intro

I am sitting down to write this on the evening of Monday the 24th of February. Earlier today, @helen_a13 posed a question on Twitter.

“I get ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ confused sometimes. Totally get Jesus was male. But often ‘father’ is used so is that referring to Jesus or God?”

I am here only going to respond with a few thoughts. As @richardclarkson sagely pointed out, “I suspect it’s the kind of thing that either needs 140 characters or 1400 pages to do it justice.” So here I cannot pretend to give a satisfactory answer. Where I hope to shed a little light, I acknowledge that additional shadows may be formed. Others may choose different emphases and scriptures to look at. Much more of this may be dealt with as I continue my ‘A Personal Catechism‘ which is going far slower than I had hoped for, even though my initial plan was to spend 3 years on it.

Attempting to answer an ancient question

From the outset, it has to be said it’s a fantastic question and one that has been asked in various forms for centuries. It’s of particular interest to me as it sort of coincides with some reading I’ve been doing recently (in Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God) and it also taps into something I have been meaning to make explicit on this blog for some time.

Another form the question has been asked in is, “Was Jesus divine?” or “What does it mean for God to be referred to as ‘Son of God’ or ‘Son of Man’?” It is the differing answers to these questions that gave rise to, for example, the term in the Nicene Creed, “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God…begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” – here I would remind readers of my view of the creeds as products of the disputes of their time, not as normative statements which define christianity. That is not to denigrate the creed or falsify it.

Indeed, referring to Jesus as ‘Son’ may be found in several scriptures, but I would choose to highlight the narratives of his baptism (“And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased“, Matt 3:17, NRSV – see also Luke 3:21) and transfiguration (“Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!'”, Mark 9:7, NRSV). In these cases, we note the word translated as ‘Beloved’ is the Greek agapetos, which my concordance fleshes out as: dearly loved one, the object of special affection and of special relationship. A footnote in the Luke passage reads: “Other ancient authorities read You are my Son, today I have begotten you. This latter note makes explicit an allusion that could have been read in the other passages: Psalm 2.

Here, we have a poem which states “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will make the nations you heritage…” – just prior to this is a statement about setting a king on Zion. So when we read these declarations of Jesus as a begotten Son, this is not meant to say that he is the offspring of God. The term begotten is not meant to denote a genealogical relationship; it is a metaphor for being specially designated. But designated as what? As the king who sits on Zion. This identifies Jesus firmly within the royal line of David.

We might also note Peter’s confession whereby he says to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16:16, NRSV). And who revealed this to Peter? Jesus answers, “…flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

So we cannot escape the notion of a father-son relationship. It’s then a question of how we interpret this.

Yet none of this in and of itself points to Jesus actually being God. As mentioned above, a form of Helen’s question that has been posed before is, “Was Jesus divine?” Yet, and with further apologies to Wright for following his line of thought, this seems to be slightly the wrong question. It’s not that it’s a bad question, but it’s not the question that pressed the early church. Rather, what they were asking was, “Who was Jesus?” The shocking answer that Jesus was one and the same as God that was developed in the decades after Jesus’ resurrection.

This can be seen in, for example, Paul’s poem in Philippians 2:1-11. At the end of this, we see the attribution “Jesus Christ is Lord”. The word translated as ‘Lord’ here is the Greek kyrios. This is also used as a euphemism to translate YHWH, or the name of God, in Greek translations of the Old Testament. So to label Jesus as ‘Lord’ is to declare that he is God.

This is made most explicit in in 1 Corinthians 8:6 where Paul writes: “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” This is not a statement which says, “[there is God, and now in addition to this we have a new figure.]” This is a reworking of the Jewish Shema, a statement of monotheism, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one”. It is putting Jesus at the heart of this new form of modified/fulfilled Judaism which eventually became known as christianity.

This gets us as far as binitarianism: the idea that Jesus is God. For a full-blown trinitarianism, we’d need to look at the person of the Holy Spirit, but I haven’t the time or space here for that. Of course, as soon as you answer in a way such as this, lots more questions spring up. For example, one could take the lead from Jürgen Moltmann and ask, “If Jesus is God, then doesn’t that mean that God died?” as asked in The Crucified God.

Returning to the question

With that rather lengthy preamble, we return to the original question Helen asked earlier.

“I get ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ confused sometimes. Totally get Jesus was male. But often ‘father’ is used so is that referring to Jesus or God?”

I would refer to God as being the whole of the trinity, which are referred to as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some would use the term God to denote the “personality” of God the Father. Though each of these terms represent failures in our language. I wouldn’t take “God the Father” to mean that he is Jesus’ daddy. It is an honorific, meant to denote a kind of relationship. The title Son is also an honorific, but in this case denoting kingship.

Where we get into difficulty is using the term ‘father’ where such a word may, due to bad experience, carry negative connotations. I discovered this in my late teens when I worked with younger teens and I remember one of them asking me, “How can God be a good father? Father is the person who hits mum and makes her cry.” In such circumstances, I am in favour of adapting our language to suit the sensibilities (and sensitivities) of those we are talking to.

Addendum: A note on the style of this blog

As referred to above, there was an aspect of this blog which has thus far been demonstrated, but not stated explicitly. Regular readers may have noticed that I will often refer to God as ‘It’. Why use an impersonal pronoun? Again, our language is somewhat deficient. While I would like to be able to use a gender-neutral pronoun that is not impersonal, the English language simply doesn’t have one. Using ‘It’ for God tries to avoid designating a gender role. The stereotype (as aided by some of the language in the bible) is to refer to God generally via male pronouns. While there may be some uses for this, not least in thinking of God as a “person” (if not human) then some kind of gender specification may enforce this. After all, one may tend to think of something as having a personality if it has a gender. One might think in terms of the animal kingdom or even of the tendency to refer to ships using female pronouns (“all who sail in her”). Using “It” may offend some, but my aim is not to offend, merely to ask you think afresh. If we grow too accustomed to reading about God in anthropomorphic terms, then we risk entrenching ourselves in a wrong view.

Sympathy for atheists (part 2 of 2) – some frustrations

One of the frustrations I have in discussing matters of faith and ‘religion’ with atheists, which I don’t get when discussing with people of other faiths, is the insistence that the primary issue is whether or not God exists. But, as I said in part 1, to critique someone’s point of view, it helps if you try to see things from that point of view, even if you don’t hold to it yourself.

So in looking at atheism, which is not merely a rejection of christianity, but of any ‘religion’ that may be described as theistic, I do have a great deal of sympathy. After all, if the existence of God had been proved there would be no need for much further discussion and we could all agree. But the fact remains that God’s existence has not been proved. There is still doubt and disbelief, and that is not entirely irrational.

Where my frustration lies is with those who I would describe as more fundamentalist to whom this is seen as a blocking problem. i.e. one which must be resolved fully and finally before any other progress can be made. When I try to speak of the good work of many a philosopher and theologian over the centuries, who have wrestled with a great many of these ideas and those related to them, I often get a response back that theology is “nothing more than weasel words” or a play on semantics or some other similar kind of put-down.

That point of view I have little sympathy for. Imagine for a moment that I am a sceptic about chemistry. Having read a little chemistry, I know that the whole science is dependent upon the interaction of electrons and their “orbits” or quantum shells. But this imaginary sceptic doubts whether there is such a thing as an electron. “Show me one,” I demand. “Let me hold it in my hand and turn it over so that I may examine it.” The chemist friend, who is extremely patient, explains that one cannot hold an electron in the hand as one might hold a coin. He pulls up a blackboard and does some illustrative diagrams, though he explains that these are models which represent the behaviour of electrons, but which are not necessarily 100% accurate depictions thereof. He does some fancy demonstrations by throwing group 1 metals into water, putting nails into acid and setting fire to the resulting gas. He does everything he can with the means available to his disposal to show me that chemistry is real. I turn to him and say, “That’s just trying to weasel your way with coloured flames and powders. You haven’t shown me a single electron.”

The frustration that the chemist would feel at my imaginary dunce is the frustration that I do feel for those who would ask for a proof of God before looking at any other aspect of christianity. For me, and also for many other christians, the route to belief leaves a big clue in the name – Christ. Though my understanding is that Christ is a title, the same as Messiah, which is attributed to Jesus. So when referring to the person I will tend to refer to Jesus rather than to Christ.

Going after the historical Jesus

Given that this christian’s faith is grounded in the person of Jesus, if any wish to dissuade me from my belief (as you are perfectly entitled to do) then this must be the starting point, rather than an attempt to start with the question of God.

Logically, there’s nothing wrong the latter approach. If the idea of God could be disproved then not only would christianity fall but so would most religions. In this respect, it’s a prize that any atheist should desire, if being right is their aim. Yet it is because the idea of God varies so much from one religion to the next, that trying to disprove its existence is a tricky task.

There certainly have been efforts made to try to discredit Jesus, though some of these fall prey to the same kind of bad apologetics I alluded to before. Here, I think specifically of adherents to the Christ Myth hypothesis, who believe, contrary to evidence, that Jesus never existed. Even Richard Dawkins has backed away from such extreme irrational revisionism!

To discredit the figure of Jesus would only result in the falsification of christianity. To try to discredit all other religions would require more effort. This would put to the test those who not only do not believe in a god, but who also claim that not believing in a god is an insignificant part of their lives. I see whole twitter feeds, comment profiles and blogs dedicated to telling us how much of a non-issue it is for them. Yet such an effort would be needed to allay the suspicion that atheism is a lazy cop-out, a non-thought process. I’m sure there a number of things we don’t believe in, but the truth is we either don’t give them much attention or we have a glib answer to hand.

To those who do not think much about the matter, I can understand that. There are a great many things in this world to worry about, competing for our attention. So why should you pay attention to the guy on the street corner yelling out random things interjected with the word ‘Jesus’ every now and then. I don’t expect you to know the difference between a Mormon and a Jehovah’s Witness, let alone why neither of them are typically regarded as christians, in spite of seemingly having so much in common with your friend who says she goes a pentecostal church, or your uncle, the lifelong anglican. It’s absolutely to fine for you to have your (non-)belief and I don’t find there anything wrong with that. I might disagree with you, but if so, let us sit down and reason together.

To those who have thought about the matter, and admit as much, I commend you. It takes guts to be willing to take a serious look at something you disagree with. I would have some questions to ask you, though maybe I’ll save those for another time.

Conclusion

I suppose my point is this: atheists and christians often talk at cross-purposes. For a christian to speak of God, we do not all speak with the same understanding or viewpoint. I speak from my own perspective, many aspects of which will be familiar and shared with a wide range of christians from a number of denominations and those of none. There are ideas of God which I reject, such as the depictions of an old man with a large beard in the clouds, a sky fairy or kind of invisible puppeteer. I know of no christian whose beliefs are expressed as such, or which could be fairly described likewise.

Theology is not so much a study of God, as a searching of God. It cannot be contained in a cage to have Its behaviour studied, to see how it reacts to certain stimuli. In part 1, I mentioned an ordo fides that the christian has. In this respect, God is best seen as a sort of tentative ‘conclusion’, but not a ‘conclusion’ that is ever finalised, if you get what I mean. I know I’m playing loosely words there, but I admit I struggle to find the perfect expression. But one person’s ‘conclusion’ should not be another person’s starting point. To do so misses out on a wealth of reasoning and nuance which may not be readily apparent from a concise statement of conclusion – such as a creed or other statement of faith.

To be an atheist can be to be wholly independent of any religion. That is, a viewpoint of non-belief that is purely a vaccum, not referencing any other viewpoint, whether “religious” or not. It need not be though, and of those that I ‘meet’ on the internet, in particular their atheism is formulated with specific reference to a number of religions, in particular the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Catholicism (where I am careful to distinguish the latter two, though many conflate them  – incorrectly in my view).

It is almost inevitable that any prolonged discussion between a christian and an atheist will involve some level of disagreement. What I would hope need not be necessary is any form of insult, ridicule or hectoring. Because there is a great risk of talking past one another, or of possibly making assumptions about what another person does and doesn’t believe, why not listen to one another? Don’t assume you know what another person thinks, but hear them out before interjecting with any clarifications. Be aware that another may be approaching a subject from a completely different angle, couching their reasoning in different terms and with different emphases.

By all means, we should challenge one another and permit ourselves to be challenged. Only, if you do, don’t demand everything on your own terms. An atheist might want to discuss the question of God’s existence, but if that’s not the way a christian naturally approaches the issue, don’t be surprised if the response seems oblique. Likewise, to any christian that might wish to challenge an atheist, listen to what they have to say first; don’t project onto them the views of others who may hold similar views. If we can base discussions on these foundations, then I would hope that there may be a lot less unnecessary disagreement and that any disagreements remain solely on the things which matter to each of us in our shared humanity.

Book Review: Jesus by Marcus Borg

Having read with great interest N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God I was keen to look at a similar sort of style of modern academic writing on Jesus but from a different perspective. Wright is known to be no fan of the Jesus Seminar, though I am aware that he has quite a lot of respect for Marcus Borg. So it seemed reasonable that I might start with Borg. I may follow up with some J.D. Crossan (to whom Borg’s volume is dedicated, along with Sarah Crossan) at a later date.

I have earlier written some thoughts based on what I think is his false premise of a dichotomy of two methods of biblical interpretation, so I would encourage you read that post for a more detailed critique of some aspects of this book. He also employs the argument from authority fallacy on a number of occasions, usually when he lacks any credible reason or evidence for holding the views that he does. Again, I have written separately about that here.

Having tied himself up with his methodological straightjacket, it might seem that there is very little that Borg could say about the historical figure of Jesus. Thankfully, he actually disregards much of his own stated approach and does actually engage with some of what the gospels say. His study then becomes more akin to an interpretation of Aesop’s fables. He is not interested in whether or not there is any historical basis but is more keen on what he calls the “more than literal” meaning.

Early in the book, Borg reveals himself as an adoptionist, a position I have thought about for some time, but have ultimately rejected. Borg’s argument is that if Jesus were to be thought of as in any divine before Easter, then you must regard him as Superman, which Borg sees as docetist. But in rejected one heresy, he seems to have embraced another.

He also advocates panentheism (not to be mistaken for a similar, but distinct, idea of pantheism). That is, God is ‘present’ in everything in creation. However, in stating this position, he makes no attempt to answer what I consider to be one of the strongest arguments against it from a christian point of view; that of how to address the question of evil with a panentheistic paradigm. If any of you know writers who address this issue, please do let me know.

In regards to his actual portrayal of Jesus, though it is arguable as to how complete it is, given his take on the historicity of the gospels, what he does have is certainly interesting, thought-provoking and worth taking note of. His overriding theme is that Jesus was a Jewish mystic. To this, he seems to owe a debt of gratitude to the recently departed Geza Vermes, whose work on re-establishing Jesus’ Jewish identity helped undo many years of latent anti-semitism in the church. However, Borg does take care to define what he means by mystic, so as to avoid the wrath of Karl Barth’s dismissal of mysticism as, to paraphrase, “[misty theology leading to schism]”. Rather, Borg argues for what might almost pass a charismatic interpretation of mysticism, whereby Jesus derived his understanding of God more from a personal relationship than from any scriptural basis. Though whilst Trinitarians might see this as stemming from Jesus’ homoousios with God, Borg’s adoptionist stance forbids him from doing similarly.

He makes an excellent point about prophecy that I wish more christians would pay attention to, in that prophecy is not about fortune telling but is about making a sober assessment of the way things are now. As such, it is anachronistic to say that the likes of Isaiah predicted Jesus, but rather that Jesus acted in such a way as to reflect Isaiah. Though again, one notes that Borg readily accepts that Jesus was perceived as a prophet in his time, but when it comes to Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah (which follows immediately in the synoptic accounts), Borg sees this as a later addition and does not relate to the pre-Easter Jesus.

While I have questioned his dismissive approach to the historicity of the gospels, much of what he says about the implications of our discipleship is well worth listening to. But I could not let the review pass without discussing his view on the crucifixion, the resurrection and theology surrounding both. While he acknowledges the historicity of the crucifixion, he openly opposes the idea of it as any kind of penal substitution. Instead he favours the christus victor idea. For my own part, I think this either/or is a false dichotomy and that both/and is a far more helpful way to consider the implications of the crucifixion. In so doing, he makes an interesting statement whereby he tries to frame Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship as supporting Borg’s view that God’s grace needs no sacrifice. In other words, he tries to hijack Bonhoeffer as a supporter of ‘cheap grace’ – the very idea that The Cost of Discipleship was most firmly opposed to.  As for the resurrection, while not denying it completely, Borg is rather dismissive of the need to treat the resurrection as historical. It is then interesting to see what Borg makes of 1 Corinthians 15, the longest discourse on the resurrection in the bible. He ignores most of it, only using an English translation of soma pneumatikon as “spiritual body” to mean something that is not physical. For an in-depth study on this topic, I would refer Borg and any of his readers to N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Whether you agree with Borg or disagree with him, you have to admit that he’s a good communicator. The book is well written though (and I did mention this to the publishers) the American spelling and grammar mistakes were left in, even though he has a different publisher in the US. There are a few times when he comes across as slightly patronising, but he has made a good effort to make himself understandable to the general reader. This is a book for those who ask the question “Who is this Jesus, anyway?” Some of Borg’s answers I find enlightening, some I think miss the mark. Borg’s is a voice to take note of, though I would add, as a word of caution, not in isolation.

Biblical literalism and liberalism

Having started to read Marcus Borg’s ‘Jesus: Uncovering the life, teachings and relevance of a religious revolutionary’ I began to write a review as I normally do. The trouble was, I got quite frustrated because it was getting rather long when I was only a quarter of the way through the book. Yet it was more that I wanted to respond to Borg than to merely review the book. So here, and hopefully in another post, I hope to explore some of the thoughts that have been triggered by his provocative writing. 

In this post, I want to look at Borg’s dichotomy of ways of reading the bible, the gospels in particular. Borg presents us with 2 ways of reading, the ‘earlier paradigm’ and the ‘emergent’, though he instantly notes that the ‘earlier paradigm’ is not at all earlier. It is essentially a fundamentalist viewpoint, or at least as Borg portrays it. In such a view, the bible is not a library of books, it is a single book, inerrant and which trumps any and all facts and truth, even if the evidence for these goes against a prima facie reading; biblical literalism, if you will.

Set against this is Borg’s own view, which he considers more enlightened. This view focuses solely on the metaphorical meaning of the gospels. In this view, you can take or leave whatever aspects of the gospels you please. If the wedding at Cana doesn’t suit you, just dismiss its historicity, call it a metaphor and then look at the consequences and meaning of an event that never happened.

What annoys me is the gross caricature of each and that I know many who could not be described as either. It is fair to say that I have come across a few who I would say are metaphor-phobic. Taking 2 Tim 3:16 to apply to the 66 books of the bible, they do subscribe to both sola scriptura and biblical inerrancy, a combination which leads to such viewpoints as young earth creationism, affirmation of the virgin birth as a core tenet of faith, belief in the rapture and a worrying interpretation of the book of Revelation. Though I would not go so far to say that belief in any one of these necessarily entails belief in any of the others.

As well as such metaphor-phobes I have also met some metaphor-philes, albeit fewer in number. Having looked at the more conservative end of the scale with some alarm, they are quick to run away as far away as possible. In this mindset, everything in the bible is a metaphor. Not only is the poetry of Genesis 1 recognised for what it is, but Abraham becomes a figure of legend, Moses becomes mythical and David is turned into an amalgamation of a variety of rulers. But again, my approach is that scepticism about one does not logically cast additional doubt on any of the others.

I don’t think it would do an injustice to Borg to characterise his view as that of a metaphor-phile. In his approach to Jesus he wishes to distinguish between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the ‘Jesus of faith’. The latter is referred to in reference to the metaphor-phobic worldview, where the Jesus of faith was born of a virgin, performed miracles of various kinds, spoke with Moses and Elijah during the transfiguration, was crucified and resurrected. To the metaphpor-phile, this view must be countered, so in order to assert their ‘Jesus of history’, such aspects of the gospels must, a priori, be rejected.

While the concept of ‘fully God, fully man’ seems to be superficially acknowledged by Borg, he claims that to accept the possibility that Jesus performed miracles is to be docetic. After all, he argues, how can one claim Jesus is ‘fully man’ if he can turn water into wine? With large sections of the gospels thus expunged, the ‘Jesus of history’ that we are left with is a teacher of aphorisms who gained a following which became a church which then invented a narrative around which the teachings of this mystic itinerant preacher were weaved.

Crucial to Borg’s methodology, which seems to be almost identical to that of the Jesus Seminar, the group to which Borg belonged and contributed during much of the time that the Seminar met. This methodology maintains an assumption that the early church misunderstood Jesus. Then, if any features of the gospels are found to coincide with early church history they are dismissed as later additions to the gospels. Of what remains, there must be multiple attestation. There’s a catch, however. Any material in Matthew or Luke which is also attested by Mark is assumed to have been copied from Mark and so cannot count as having been multiply attested. The material which is common to Matthew and Luke, but not to Mark, is assumed to have come from a single source, known as Q. The Q hypothesis is quite a good one, but it is one which I admit I am agnostic about. With such a set of assumptions, one wonders if anything could pass the multiple attestation test. Thankfully, Borg doesn’t actually stick to his own criteria, so his book (the review of which I hope to finish and post shortly) is not without merit.

Anyway, that’s enough of an outline for now. This is a place for the crystallisation of thoughts and I shall attempt to get them down on pen & paper (as I usually write my posts thus, before typing up, editing and proofreading).

Borg’s characterisation of the ‘earlier paradigm’ and the ‘emergent’, which I refer to as ‘metaphor-phobic’ and metaphor-philic’ is not one that I can agree with. To my way of thinking, to adopt a critical attitude does not mean a wholesale rejection of anything that may be hard to believe. In some ways, the rejection of gospel as history is itself an uncritical point of view, as it is as easy and lazy a way of thinking as the fundamentalism which such a view seeks to oppose.

Every claim must be assessed on its merits, the evidence supporting or countering it and the reasonableness of the consequences that follow. When considering the bible as history, we don’t have all the evidence we might like. To some, this means none of it can be accepted. To my way of thinking, we have to deal with the evidence we have. This means that our beliefs are provisional and uncertain but not unreasonable. Assurance is not the same as certainty. Doubt is not the same as disbelief. Holding assurance in one hand and doubt in the other is how I maintain balance.

An example – the virgin birth

By way of illustration, I will expand a little on claim in the gospels mentioned above and which I have touched on before without being too explicit. I do not affirm that the virgin birth as a core tenet of my faith. Neither, though, do I deny it outright. It is a topic about which I am agnostic, but which I do not think is of vital importance. Let me explain why.

To start with, there is the well known incident of the Septuagint mistranslating ‘young woman’ as ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7:14 – with a possible supposition that this was an addition Matthew and Luke made to their accounts. To me, though, the question has to be ‘who was the eyewitness?’

It seems most likely to me that the Christmas narrative was not a fanciful work of fiction added to the oral history of Jesus’ life, but was rather a product of the same oral history. But it must have originated from someone who was there and remembered it, but who was also part of the early christian community. The person who best fits this description is Mary herself. Have a read of Luke 1 and ask yourself through whose eyes we are predominantly looking.

Jesus’ later ministry had many witnesses, most notably the disciples. They could correct each other’s recollections, a point well made by Kenneth Bailey in his seminal paper, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels. The fact that there were fewer witnesses to the events of the nativity means that we must regard them as more questionable as the later gospels. When I did some reading on this a little while ago, it was interesting that FF Bruce, Craig Blomberg and Richard Bauckham all overlooked the nativity. Bruce and Blomberg are both more conservative in their approach than I am, and even they are wary of attesting the virgin birth. For me, there are just too many unanswered questions to be able to affirm it. Moreover, I don’t believe the evidence exists that could settle the question one way or another.

The next question then seems to be, ‘what might we miss out on if we no longer affirm the virgin birth?’ i.e. is there any hole in our theology which would warp the gospel? I’ve thought this through and cannot find any. To me, why the nativity is important because of the theology of incarnation, Jesus being wholly God and wholly man at the same time, hard though that is to comprehend. The scientist in me cannot help but wonder what a DNA test on Jesus would have revealed. Just as I affirm that God created the universe but am not a creationist, so I find no significant issue with regarding Jesus’ divinity without boldly stating that he was born of a virgin. The ‘how’ is less important. In this respect, I do side somewhat with Borg. To me, the core aspects of the gospel are unaffected: the proclamation of God as king, the identification of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the atonement for sins through the sacrifice of the crucifixion and the victory over death as the vindication of all the above through the resurrection. It is these things and their ramifications that I would rather spend time thinking about and discussing.

Conclusion

The Jesus of the faith that I hold to with a light grip is the Jesus of my best, though flawed, understanding of history. To be a christian is not to be the holder of all knowledge and understanding, but to be a disciple, grasping at the coattails of those of who have gone before us whilst treading out our own path. But to portray this as a solo activity is misleading. To be a christian is entails being part of a community in the form of church, though I shall spare you from my further thoughts on ecclesiology. I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. Let me know if you agree or disagree.