Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

Paul and Jesus

April 28, 2010

Hello! It’s been a while since I’ve posted – but I’ve not given up blogging. Just not done it for a while, though I have kept on reading quite a few other people’s blogs. Kind of like my attitude to playing cricket.

Anyway, thought I’d mention that BeThinking.org have put up an excellent lecture by David Wenham on whether Paul is the real founder of Christianity. David Wenham is also the author of a number of books on the subject – Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans, 1995) and Paul and Jesus: The True Story (SPCK, 2002), both of which I’ve managed to find in my university library, so if you’re a student at a university which offers Theology/Religious Studies you might be able to read a copy for free. Of the two, the second is probably a bit more accessible.

The debate, which I had not encountered at all until coming to university, revolves around the charge that Paul actually invented what we would recognise as “Christianity”, and that Jesus (if he even existed!) taught something entirely different to Paul, and did not believe he was the divine Son of God or that his death was sacrificial (“for our sins” 1Cor 15:3; Gal. 1:4).

This is something which a lot of more liberal Jesus scholars have put across, and which quite a lot of non-scholars have found quite attractive. The idea finds a lot of resonance (apparently – I’ve not read it yet) in Philip Pullman’s new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. I think part of the attraction is the idea that you can have Jesus’ moral teaching without all the crazy stuff about the resurrection, sacrificial death, Son of God stuff. In fact, you can have Jesus as just a human being (which is probably all you’ll find if you look at the gospels with atheist presuppositions) who taught some nice stuff but was misunderstood by his followers and misrepresented by the Church. It’s a lie, but a tremendously powerful lie because it lets you have Jesus on your own terms (he can even be an atheist if you want) and because he’s not God incarnate he can’t challenge you any more than Plato or Cicero challenge you: Take the bits of his teaching you like and discard the bits you don’t. It’s a way of being against the Church without necessarily being against Jesus (at least, not the Jesus you think really existed).

Wenham deals with these arguments very cogently, particularly in the area of Christology. I won’t summarise the arguments in this post, but I’ll just add that I’ve been studying some stuff Paul wrote for my dissertation and have discovered quite a few verbal parallels with the teaching of Jesus, and much theological cohesiveness between the attitudes of Jesus and Paul to (in this case) civil government. The two of them aren’t opposed, at least not in the texts I’ve been studying.

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Why “Good” Friday?

April 2, 2010

He enters the capital to applause and singing crowds. Days later, he leaves it, beaten, stumbling, and being led to the place where they put him to death. As he dies, there’s darkness, despair and anguish.

Why, then, do Christians commemorate this as “Good” Friday?

The answer is so well-known that any child in Sunday school can tell you; yet so deep, profound and mind-expanding that the greatest minds in church history have found themselves speaking in hushed, humbled and reverent tones. He died for us. He died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3). He died to make peace between us and God (Romans 5:1-11).

Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Why should God die for us, for me? Why would God want to do that? For someone like me, who’s grown up in a country with a heritage still shaped by the gospel, it can seem familiar enough to skip over lightly. Speaking about the gospel with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds has opened my eyes to see how surprising this is, and how offensive it sounds. If God comes to earth, surely he would be welcomed, feted, enthroned? That would be “Good”, right? Palm Sunday should be “Good” Sunday, followed by “Terrible Friday”. Surely? In any case God wouldn’t submit to betrayal, wrongful arrest, abandonment, miscarriage of justice, beating, humiliation, mocking, and a slow, painful death. Right?

But here’s where we’re wrong. Here’s where God’s wisdom shows us to be foolish. Here my idea of what is “good” is shown up for the shadow it is – for God’s good plan subverts human wisdom. This is what God actually does! Glory is achieved through sacrifice. Christ’s crown is one of thorns. His enthronement is his execution. The innocent one is condemned that the guilty may be pardoned.

It’s crazy stuff. We would never, ever, not in a million years, work out that this was what “good” meant. No philosopher could tell us what we can see happening at the cross. When the Church calls this Friday “good”, it is able to do so because of the revelation given it by God. We call today “Good” Friday in opposition to the world and its wisdom. We call it “good” by faith and not by visible appearances.

Sunday is coming, and we know this is not the end. He has died; He has risen again. There will be a visible triumph. But, today and tomorrow are here before the day after tomorrow comes, and I’m going to spend a little time more reflecting on the message of the cross before I sing “Risen, Conquering Son” – for only the former makes the latter possible, and only reflecting on the first day will help me to understand the third correctly.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Jesus in the Qur’an and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas

February 26, 2010

I’ve been to some of the Islam Awareness Week events at Nottingham University this week – including a talk about Jesus and Muhammed. I was surprised to hear that Jesus (or “‘Isa”) is mentioned much more frequently in the Qur’an than Muhammed is, and that several things are said about him in the Qur’an which, to my mind at least, suggest that he is more than a prophet.

One of them is the well-known verse (5:110) where several (possibly apocryphal) events from the life of Jesus are recounted: 

Then God will say, ‘Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favour to you and to your mother: how I strengthened you with the holy spirit, so that you spoke to people in your infancy and as a grown man; how I taught you the Scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel; how, by My leave, you fashioned the shape of a bird out of clay, breathed into it, and it became, by My leave, a bird; how, by My leave, you healed the blind person and the leper; how, by My leave, you brought the dead back to life; how I restrained the Children of Israel from [harming] you when you brought them clear signs, and those of them who disbelieved said, “This is clearly nothing but sorcery”

Quite often people point out that this verse has parallels (and is probably dependent upon) the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” (and also the “Proto-Evangel of James” for the talking baby Jesus story). There are also allusions to things in the Canonical gospels, such as healing the blind and the leper, and raising the dead. But rather than doing a “source criticism of the Qur’an”, perhaps we should consider also the theological implications of this story.

1 1 When the boy Jesus was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. And he gathered the disturbed water into pools and made them pure and excellent, commanding them by the character of his word alone and not by means of a deed.
   2 Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows. It was the Sabbath when he did these things, and many children were with him.
  3 And a certain Jew, seeing the boy Jesus with the other children doing these things, went to his father Joseph and falsely accused the boy Jesus, saying that, on the Sabbath he made clay, which is not lawful, and fashioned twelve sparrows.
  4 And Joseph came and rebuked him, saying, “Why are you doing these things on the Sabbath?” But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.” And the sparrows, taking flight, went away squawking.
  5 When the Pharisee saw this he was amazed and reported it to all his friends.”

Following Oscar Cullmann (in his translation of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in Hennecke and Schneemelcher (eds), N.T. Apocrypha, I:363-417), scholars have tended to see the stories about Jesus in the apocryphal gospels rather as gratuitous miracle stories – or “‘theologically mute’ stories of marvels”  when actually they have a purpose and theological significance (Stephen Gero, “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: A Study of the Textual and Literary Problems” Novum Testamentum 13 (1971), p.47), much as the “nature miracles” of the canonical gospels have a theological (Christological) significance. In the case of the “animation of the birds” story in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, there is both a point about observing the Sabbath (Jesus is rebuked for making clay birds on the Sabbath) but also a Christological point: it is no accident that Jesus makes these birds out of clay before giving them life. This is parallel to what God does in Genesis 2:7:

“then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

The version of the story in the Qur’an is even more closely parallel to God’s creative activity in Genesis 2:7, with the added detail that Jesus breathed into the bird so that it became a living being:

Genesis 2:7 Qur’an 5:110 (excerpt) Infancy Gospel of Thomas 1:2-4(excerpt)
then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. how, by My leave, you fashioned the shape of a bird out of clay, breathed into it, and it became, by My leave, a bird Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows.[…]

But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.”

It seems to be bizarre that the Qur’an (usually an advocate of a low Christology!) should include this tale, given the high Christology implied by the story and the details of phrasing in the Qur’an. According to the Qur’an, God created Adam out of clay (7:11-12) which makes it even more clear that Jesus is doing a divine, creative thing. To be sure, the text inserts (by my leave) to a number of Jesus’ miraculous signs out of monotheistic embarassment, but the problem seems to remain. How can it be that Jesus is doing something which the Qur’an ascribes to God, if he is merely a prophet?

To this might be added the Qur’anic claim that Jesus, alone of all the prophets, is sinless; and that (arguably) he did not die. This is in tension with the normally low Christology of the Qur’an. Even from the Qur’an there are suggestions that Jesus is more than a human prophet.

Render to Caesar

September 11, 2009

One of the books I’ve been reading for my dissertation is Christopher Bryan’s Render to Caesar (Oxford: OUP, 2005). As well as being one of the more well-written books I’ve read so far, I’ve found it really helpful both in presenting an attractive synthesis of the New Testament’s teaching on government; and in the questions it raises about approaches to Jesus and the New Testament which interpret early Christianity as a politically subversive or revolutionary movement.

Many scholars do read early Christianity in this way – for example, Jacob Taubes talks about Paul’s letter to the Romans in terms of “a declaration of war against Rome”. Richard Horsley has written much on New Testament political theory and sees Christianity in this revolutionary sense. N.T. Wright takes much of this onboard too, perhaps motivated by a desire to (correctly) affirm the public and universal nature of Christian claims about Jesus.

Bryan does not question this reading of the New Testament as a subversive or revolutionary manifesto by appealing to an anachronistic division between secular and sacred, private and public spheres. In fact, his seventh chapter draws out precisely why this modern idea cannot apply to the New Testament or the world where Christianity began: politics, even Roman politics, had a theological and religious dimension. He does not deny that Jesus and the apostles had things to say about Caesar’s empire. Instead, Bryan questions whether those who see the political teaching of the NT as a revolutionary agenda are reading it closely enough, and sets it in the canonical context of the prophetic tradition:

“My conclusion, briefly, is that Jesus and the early Christians did indeed have a critique of the Roman superpower, a critique that was broadly in line with the entire biblical and prophetic tradition … I think that the biblical tradition challenges human power structures not by attempting to dismantle them or replace them with other human power structures but by consistently confronting them with the truth about their origin and purpose.”
(p.9 – emphasis in original)

One of the frequent claims made in the literature on this topic is that the early Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” was meant in the sense that “Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord”. It is common to find scholars arguing that Christians were persecuted for proclaiming Jesus as “another King”. Does not Acts 17:7 bear this out? Actually, Bryan points out, this is a Jewish accusation against Paul that seems to be ignored by the Romans, and which Paul himself denies (Acts 25:8). In a world of many gods and many lords, Christians were not persecuted for proclaiming Jesus as Lord, but rather, because they refused to pay homage to the Roman divinities – Bryan adduces a wealth of ancient evidence that the most common charge against Christians was that of superstitio and impietas (pp.116-7) i.e., that they did not honour the Roman gods and thus became a “security risk” to Roman society, inviting the gods’ displeasure and wrath.

When Christians called Jesus “Lord”, “Son of God”, “Saviour”, they were not using these terms in the same sense that Romans used them as a title of Caesar. This Christian rhetoric was not a parody of imperial rhetoric or “deliberately calculated treason”, as Crossan would have it, but should actually be read against a Jewish background rather than an imperial Roman one. This seems to me to be a fair and crucial point – surely the early Christians meant rather to identify Jesus with YHWH by calling him “Lord” (κύριος – used to translate  יהוה in the LXX) rather than to identify him with Caesar.

To digress a moment, this can be seen by a look at Philippians 2. There are many Greek terms that are used in secular literature as technical terms of government and politics – Peter Oakes is quoted by Bryan as an example of someone who reads this as a subversion of imperial rhetoric. Yet the real parallel is with the Jewish background of Isaiah 45:


Isaiah 45:24

Philippians 2:10

… that to me every knee shall bend and every tongue shall swear by God … … so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord ,to the glory of God the Father.
ὁτι ἐμοὶ κάμψει πᾶν γόνυ, καὶ ἐξομολογήσηται πᾶσα γλῶσσα τὸν θεὸν ἱνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὁτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός.

This passage is about identifying Jesus with YHWH’s throne rather than with Caesar’s throne.

In addition, Bryan examines the Synoptics and John against their Jewish background and concludes that Jesus was no Zealot – he did not make the cause of Jewish home rule his own. His teaching does, however, indicate a concern for God’s glory, which includes that rulers set in place by God understand their power to be a gift from God and exercise it justly. This is not about the form or structure associated with that power, nor (and I think Bryan is aiming his remarks at his adopted country of the United States here) whether or not those in power are Christian or not, but about rulers doing their God-given task of ruling. For Bryan, abdicating the responsibility or political power given to us is just as much a sin as its misuse: “If you are Caesar, you must not claim to be God, but you may no more step aside from being Caesar than a mother may abandon her children or a captain the ship” (p.128).

All in all I found this a very helpful book and Bryan’s synthesis of the New Testament’s attitudes to government very helpful. It’s also very easy to read and I’d recommend it highly!

A thought on Luke and the date of Jesus’ birth

August 18, 2009

Luke’s mention of a census (ἀπογραφὴ) around the time of Jesus’ birth has often been a problem when trying to date the birth of Jesus, so much that it has become a commonplace of popular as well as academic discussions of Jesus’ birth. Both Luke (1:5) and Matthew (2:1) put Jesus’ birth in the context of Herod’s reign, i.e. in or before 4 BCE, when Herod died. The problem then is that the only census we know about from extrabiblical sources that occurred under Quirinius happened in 6 CE (Josephus Ant. 17:342-44, 354; 18:1-10) – a full ten years later. So there’s a disparity here.

Some scholars suggest that the census was begun under another governor, and completed under Quirinius; that Qurinius was governor before 6 CE – possibly in 7/6 BCE – supported by the fact that we know from an inscription that an (unnamed) Roman citizen was a legate on two separate occasions, in Syria at least the second time. Or others have suggested that Luke 2:2 be translated “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria” rather than “This was the first registration…”. The Greek could mean this, but it is a bit forced. Or, as many scholars have found themselves having to do, we might say Luke has made a mistake here – even A.N. Sherwin-White, who reckoned Luke among the greatest ancient historians, thought he had erred with the date of the census (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, 1963, pp.162-171).

So has Luke made a mistake? Robert Stein (in Jesus the Messiah, 1996, p.55) suggests that we give Luke the benefit of the doubt, because he seems to be a very reliable historian on other matters. This is fair enough, although being right about a lot of other things doesn’t always mean one is right about a different issue (take pretty much every theologian who ever lived as an example!). But I think there is something else which I’ve not found mentioned in discussions of Luke’s dating of Jesus’ birth that suggests Luke does not think Jesus was born in 6 CE – his comment on the age of Jesus when he begins his ministry.

In Luke 3:23, Luke says that Jesus was “about thirty years old” (ὡσεὶ ἐτῶν τριάκοντα) when he began his ministry, which was during the ministry of John the Baptist – dated to between 25/26 and 29 CE by Luke 3:1-2, and about 28 CE by John 2:20 (see Stein, p.57; Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus, 2002, pp.71-75). If Luke had meant to imply Jesus was born in 6 CE at the time of Qurinius’ census (of which he is aware – Acts 5:37) then he would only be 22/23 at the oldest when he began his ministry, which is a bit too young to be described as “about thirty” (I’m 22 in 6 months!). If, on the other hand, Jesus was born in 7/6 BCE, he would be 33-35 when Luke and John say he began his ministry, which is close enough to thirty for Luke 3:23 to be a good description. So given that:

  • Luke thinks Jesus was “about thirty” when he began his ministry, which is likely to be ~28 CE
  • Luke also associates Jesus’ birth with the time of Herod (1:5) – before 4 BCE
  • Luke knows about the 6 CE census (Acts 5:37)
  • 22/23 is too young to be “about thirty”

… it is unlikely that Luke wants us to understand from his reference to the census that Jesus was born in 6 CE, assuming he can count. This might not get us much further, but I think it rules out that Luke has got it completely wrong. It certainly should rule out the common claim that “according to Luke’s gospel, Jesus was born in or around 6 CE” – Luke really can’t mean for us to understand this from his account.

As for the wider problem of the census… my hunch is that there may have been a different census, earlier, during Herod’s reign – although I have to admit we don’t have access to any records of this.

Charles Wesley’s Christology

June 16, 2009

I’ve heard it said that the early Methodists learned their theology through hymns, and particularly those of Charles Wesley. There’s a lot of theology to be learnt from his hymns, and I noticed this in my module on Christology and Atonement this semester. Almost every point of orthodox Christology is expressed in one hymn or another – a mark both of Wesley’s theological learning and tremendous poetic skill.

One of the favourite Christmas hymns of my pastor at my “home” church is Let Earth and Heaven Combine, with the line “Our God contracted to a span / Incomprehensibly made man”. As well as major bonus points for getting a six-syllable word into a metrical hymn, I think this is a brilliant and lyrical way of describing the incarnation. The same hymn goes on to summarise the theology of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation in a verse:

He deigns in flesh to appear
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.

The theologians of the early Church, particularly Irenaeus of Lyon and Athanasius, rejoiced in the parallelism of Christology – “God became man that men might become god (θεοποιηθῶμεν)” (Athanasius, On The Incarnation 54.3 – modern Western Christians might prefer to say “godly” or “Christlike” for the last word; in context this is what Athanasius means) and Wesley expresses this neatly and devotionally here. “We the life of God shall know, for God is manifest below” is (whether deliberately or not, I don’t know) exactly the thought of Origen in Against Celsus 3.28.

But perhaps better-known, the great-granddaddy of all Christmas carols, is Hark! the Herald Angels Sing:

Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
late in time behold him come,
offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’ incarnate Deity,
pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”

I’ve heard it claimed (and indeed askeda few people myself!) if “Veiled in flesh” is a bad choice of wording and possibly docetic. Giles Fraser calls it “heretical“, but the following lines “pleased as man with man to dwell” essentially rule out doceticism. What I think Wesley is trying to do with “veiled” is to emphasise the hiddenness of the divine nature in Jesus (that glory which is manifested for a second in the transfiguration [Matthew 17]).

Many of Wesley’s hymns have too many verses to fit comfortably into a carol service or worship “sesh” so we usually pick three or four. Hark! the herald has some extra verses, one of which picks up on Paul’s image of Christ as the Second Adam (1Corinthians 15:45-49):

Come, Desire of nations, come,
fix in us thy humble home;
rise, the woman’s conquering Seed,
bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface;
stamp thine image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”

Love it.

Of course, nobody is perfect, not even Charles Wesley – and unfortunately one of his best hymns (and my favourite Wesley hymn) does have an unfortunate Christological line in it. I refer, of course, to And Can It Be?

He left his Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite his grace!
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race

The offending line “Emptied himself of all but love” isn’t great – as one of my lecturers says, “I don’t believe that!” Kenotic Christology has its devotees, who take the self-emptying of Philippians 2:5-11 to mean precisely this – that Jesus gave up the divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence …) in the incarnation. I don’t believe that – and I don’t think the Bible teaches that (topic for another post, I think!). I thought it would be unfair to have a post on Wesley’s Christology without dealing with this anyway. Any suggestions for emending the verse? Use the comment box!

All in all, however, I think Wesley’s hymns show a great Christology and are jam-packed with theological truths, expressed in a way I find compelling and memorable – and that is why it’s great to sing them and learn some (biblically faithful!) theology from our hymns.

Is a sinless Jesus truly human?

May 13, 2009

In 451 the Council of Chalcedon declared that:

“We confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity; “like us in all things but sin.”…”

The quote “like us in all things but sin” is a direct allusion to Hebrews 4:15 = “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” The Bible repeatedly affirms that Jesus, being fully human, was without sin – he “committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1Peter 2:22); “in him is no sin” (1John 3:5) and he “had no sin” (2Cor 5:21) – and Jesus himself claimed that he always did what pleased the Father (John 8:29).

But is this a contradiction of Jesus’ humanity? It is sometimes claimed that, if Jesus is truly human, he could not have been sinless (or vice-versa). “To err is human…” and Jesus can be no exception – or, if he is, he is not really human. The implication is sometimes that those who affirm the sinlessness of Jesus don’t really believe in the incarantion; they don’t really believe in his true humanity and are in fact closet Docetists.

The same principle of sin (moral error) is sometimes also charged to Jesus in respect of his teachings – might he not also be fallible in some of his views and opinions (intellectual error)? For example, in his ascription of the Pentateuch to Moses, or his teaching about hell. Is an inerrant Jesus truly human? “To err is human…”

But this is, in fact, not the case. To claim that a person who does not sin is not truly human is in fact to claim that sinfulness is an inalienable part of human nature. But then, we must logically deny that humanity in the new creation is not going to be true humanity. There will be no sin in heaven… does that mean that we will not be entirely human in heaven? No – in fact, we will be more human in the new creation. Sin is not an essential part of human nature; and in fact, to assert that it is is to measure Jesus by our humanity rather than measuring our humanity by Jesus’.

The question shouldn’t be “is Jesus as human as we are?” but rather “are we as human as Jesus is?” (Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, p.737) The upshot of all of this is that we are right to read the Bible as affirming both the full humanity and the full sinlessness of Jesus – and that imitating Christ makes us more authentically human, not less. Ultimately, when we are no longer troubled by the presence of sin in the new creation, we will be human in the way God always intended for us to be. Jesus’ sinless life is an foretaste of what that is going to be like – amazing!

Some more thoughts on Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman

May 6, 2009

Having handed in my exegetical study last week, I’ve had a few thoughts on the implications of Matthew 15:21-28 for us. I think a good starting point is from the exegetical observation that Matthew’s primary accent or concern in his presentation of this episode is salvation-historical; that is, with reference to Jesus’ consciousness of a mission (primarily) to ethnic Israel before Easter (c.f. Matthew 10:5); only after which does a mission to the nations (i.e. non-Jews) become explicitly commanded (c.f. Matthew 28:16-20). In other words, Matthew agrees with Paul’s dictum in Romans that salvation is “first for the Jew, then the Gentile” – and thus the exorcism of the Gentile woman’s daughter in this passage is, as Calvin noted, a prelude to the situation after Easter. (Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke, 2:116)

Taking this as the primary concern of the passage, we run into the problem in seeking out the implications for us today that we exist in a predominantly Gentile church, where the “grafting in” of the nations to the people of God (to use Paul’s metaphor) is taken for granted. There is no perception of shock or impropriety for us in this, as in this passage (15:26!). So how would we preach from this passage? We are left only the (subsidiary!) point the passage makes about faith.

Ulrich Luz makes a (helpful, I think!) suggestion in his commentary on Matthew:

“In a situation in which the gentile church was solidly established and Jewish Christianity had practically disappeared, the salvation-history interpretation of our text no longer demonstrated bthe power of God’s love that bursts the borders of Israel; it almost exclusively justified the legitimacy of the church’s status quo in history. It no longer opened new doors; it merely injured the Jews who were not present in the church. What might a new “salvation-history” interpretation that preserves something of the explosive power of the old text look like today? The text might receive new power, for example, ecumenically explosive power, if an interpreting church community were ready to identify with the Pharisees and scribes from whose territory Jesus withdrew, rather than with the Canaanite woman or her daughter as is usually done…”
(Matthew 8-20 [Hermeneia], p.341)

It’s an idea that is both intriguing and pregnant, and subversive/offensive, that we as modern Gentile Christians might have more in common with the Pharisees than we do with the woman in this text. But perhaps we do, if we are too satisfied with largely middle-class churches who do mission to largely middle-class communities. Preaching from this text should remind us again of our responsibility to take the gospel to all people – both people of all nations, and people of all social groups (perhaps Marx and Engels were onto something with the suggestion that, in the modern world, class divides more deeply than nationality? – that’s quite a rare intellectual tradition for me to agree with!) It should also remind us of grace – for in actual fact we shouldn’t have to think of ourselves as more like the Pharisees if we realise that we are actually recipients of undeserved and unmerited grace; like the woman in the text. Realisation of God’s surprising and sovereign grace in the justification of the ungodly should remind us of just why we can and should proclaim the gospel beyond our social boundaries and comfort zone – because if nobody earns God’s grace then everybody should hear the gospel. If we’ve lost sight of the shock this passage presents to conventional religious wisdom then maybe it is time to start reading it with ourselves as the Pharisees, if only to remind us of God’s powerful love and refusal to constrain it to the social or ethnic boundaries we try and impose on it.

Judaism, Christianity, Islam: “Distinct and Undivided”?

April 29, 2009

I’ve just got back from an inter-religious discussion event organsied by the Nottingham University Jewish Society (J-Soc) called “Distinct and Undivided”. Three clerics (a Progressive Rabbi, an Imam and a Vicar) from London were holding a public conversation about relations between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, during which the audience could also ask questions. There was also a (kosher) buffet served afterwards, so I managed to get some falafel and salad as well, which is always a bonus.

The conversation itself did raise some interesting points, but I felt that the “ground rules” given at the beginning really impoverished the discussion and prevented these points being fully developed. The Christian speaker started by drawing a distinction between a “debate” and a “dialogue” and said that the event would be the latter – which he then went on to define in a very Hegelian way: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. This didn’t bode well, I felt!

The approach taken by the Jewish Rabbi and the Christian Vicar in particular was fairly pluralist – the question of conversion came up and they both tried to say that it wasn’t their aim to convert people to their own religion, but that people should just celebrate who they are. The vicar did concede that the New Testament seemed to command mission but that it needn’t be taken literally or prescriptively: The “Great Commission” is only a few verses, after all, and it apparently reads “make disciples of all men” – so if we are to take it literally we should not evangelise to women. Of course, this is a parody of what “taking the Bible literally” actually means, and the text actually says “make disciples of all nations”! Another question from a J-Soc member pulled the speakers up on their apparent readiness to disregard their own scriptures in order to maximise the common ground between the different religions, which was an absolutely valid point: The Rabbi then admitted he did not consider the Torah to be the word of God; and the vicar made appeal to “you can interpret it how you like” line. By this stage I was developing more respect for the Imam, who at least held that the Qur’an was entirely true and divinely inspired, although he too seemed ready to reinterpret “problem texts” when questioned on the penalty for apostasy. The approach the three speakers were using for interfaith dialogue was really exemplified by their answer to a question on whether unity within a religion (intramural debate) or relations between different religions (extramural debate) was more important: the answer was that all religious debates are intramural; after all, Christians, Muslims and Jews all worship the same God.

In fact, after the event, chatting with some of the other people from the audience, I got the distinct feeling that none of the adherents of any religion felt that this was a good approach. The first thing a guy from J-Soc said to me was that the Rabbi didn’t represent his views, or the views of 90% of British Jews – and I wanted to add that I did not agree with the vicar’s insistence that Christ was not the only way to God. Christian, Jewish and Muslim students seemed to be unanimous that at least two of these three religions must be wrong – since they are fundamentally irreconcilable. To model the kind of approach to interreligious dialogue given by the Rabbi and the Vicar really does mean you have to compromise on core doctrinal points of your own religion. But why not take the Imam’s approach of holding your own religion to be true and seeking to be consistent with that, and then talking to those of other religions from that perspective?

For a Christian, such an approach must not compromise on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, and his divine-human identity. He must not be conceded to be a mere prophet, or teacher, or just one of many ways to God. The New Testament’s bold insistence on the universal validity and need of the gospel must be given full force – and we must not abandon the hope that our non-Christian partners in interreligious discussion will be converted. Of course, and I shouldn’t need to say this, nobody can be compelled by argument or pressure to trust Christ – but it should be something we prayerfully hope for.

From this perspective it is possible to have authentic friendship and relationship with an adherent of another religion – the differences between our religions are honestly highlighted and given full recognition, as well providing us with a chance to talk about common points of contact. In some ways this is harder than the kind of pluralism that pretends diverse faiths can all be equally valid – because it involves tolerating the right of someone  to believe what we believe to be wrong.  Tolerance of people’s right to false belief is great, and a Christian thing to do, but it doesn’t mean we cannot criticise that false belief. None of the religious students I spoke to objected to this kind of approach – it seems we don’t want syncretism, or postmodern acceptance-of-everything-as-true, but real, honest debate.

And with that in mind, come along to Lunchbar this Friday (1st May) where the speaker will be addressing the question “Do all religions lead to God?”. 1.00-1.50pm, Portland Building Atrium. Free lunch included etc etc.

Pseudo-Clement and the Syrophonecian woman

April 29, 2009

The Pseudo-Clementines sound like an odd citrus fruit, but are (at the earliest) third-century sermons purporting to be from the first-century Clement, Bishop of Rome. I’ve been working on Matthew 15:21-28 and picked up on the relation of the same incident in Psedo-Clement’s Homilies:

“There is among us one Justa, a Syro-Phoenician, by race a Canaanite, whose daughter was oppressed with a grievous disease. And she came to our Lord, crying out, and entreating that He would heal her daughter. But He, being asked also by us, said, ‘it is not lawful to heal the Gentiles, who are like to dogs on account of their using various meats and practices, while the table in the kingdom has been given to the sons of Israel.’ But she, hearing this, and begging to partake like a dog of the crumbs that fall from this table, having changed what she was, by living like the sons of the kingdom, she obtained healing for her daughter, as she asked. For she being a Gentile, and remaining in the same course of life, He would not have healed her had she remained a Gentile, on account of its not being lawful to heal her as a Gentile.”
Pseudo-Clement, Homily II:19

Bearing in mind that this is essentially fictional expansion of Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, there are some interesting points (beyond finding out that the name of the woman is Justa – perhaps a question the UK Borders Agency can add to their “Are you really a Christian?” exam) raised by Pseudo-Clement.

For a start, he seems to make the exact opposite point to Matthew with relation to the grounds of the Canaanite/Syrophonecian woman’s acceptability. Pseudo-Clement has her converting to Judaism and following the (Mosaic) Law in order to get Jesus to heal her daughter. Matthew has Jesus stating explicitly that her request is granted on account of her faith (15:28) and no mention of conversion to Judaism is made in either of the gospel accounts.

Why would Pseudo-Clement come up with such a bizarre theology, considering that the overall thrust of his homilies is not Judaistic? Perhaps his copy of Matthew had the textual variant ἔξεστιν in15:26 (“It is not lawful to take the children’s bread…”) rather than ἔστιν καλὸν (“It is not good/fitting to take the children’s bread…”) – this would make sense of why he feels that (at least, before Easter) the woman must convert to Judaism to receive any blessing from the Messiah. ἔξεστιν is found only in one major Greek manuscript  – Codex Bezae (D) – the readings of which, according to Aland, originate from a theologian of the third/fourth century at the earliest, probably located in or around Egypt (The Text of the New Testament, pp.67-69). This might give us more of a clue as to whom Pseudo-Clement was – he must be writing in the third or fourth century at the earliest; and using a Greek manuscript with the readings of Codex Bezae, suggesting that he was not anywhere near Rome, but in fact likely to originate from the eastern end of the Mediterranean. It’s not conclusive, but a bit more specific than the description of him as a “post-Nicene pseudonymous author” in NPNF.

Finally, it’s interesting that Pseudo-Clement doesn’t describe the daughter as suffering from demon-possession, as Mark and Matthew do, but as being seriously ill. Perhaps even by a few centuries after the New Testament, such things were being de-mythologised?