Posts Tagged ‘New Testament’

Why New Testament ethics can’t be summed up by “love”

September 22, 2009

The first and greatest commandment, Jesus tells us, is to love God; the second to love our neighbour – and on these two the whole Law and Prophets depend. Paul echoes this in Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” and it is also prominent in the Gospel and Epistles of John. So why is it that Richard B. Hays does not use “love” as one of his focal images in his synthesis of New Testament ethics in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (London: T&T Clark, 1997)?

First, there are some New Testament authors for whom love is not an ethical emphasis. Hays mentions Mark’s gospel here – discipleship is defined more in terms of following Jesus and taking up one’s cross than it is by love. “If Mark were the only Gospel in the New Testament canon, it would be very difficult to make a case for love as a major motif in Christian ethics” (p.200). Hebrews and Revelation also have only sporadic references to love, and Acts does not contain the word “love” (more properly, any of the various Greek terms translated “love”) either as a noun or a verb. Luke is not opposed to love, but it does not form part of his narrative in Acts about the emergence and growth of the church. The problem is then that synthesising the ethical teaching of the New Testament with a focal point of “love”  drives these texts to the periphery of the canon, which is “an unacceptable result” (p.202).

Second, love is not really an image which can become a focal point in the same way as Hays’ suggested triad of “Community, Cross and New Creation” but an interpretation of an image. Hays points out that what the New Testament means by “love” is embodied and shown most clearly in the cross. The gospel narrative gives meaning and content to “love”, rather than the other way around:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1John 3:16)

In addition, though Hays does not mention it, John 3:16 might be better translated:

For thus God loved the world: He gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life.

John 3:16 begins with a statement of the manner in which God loved the world (God loved the world in this way, that he…), not about the degree to which he has loved it (“God loved the world so much, that he…) 

Apart from the focal image of the cross, love is ambiguous in meaning, which leads to the third reason Hays does not adopt it as a focus: the term can easily become debased in popular use and detached from the cross. Hays quotes Stanley Hauerwas to this effect: “The ethics of love is often but a cover for what is fundamentally an assertion of ethical relativism.” If love becomes a focal point of ethics, rather than the points of community, cross and new creation, ethics can lose its moorings in the gospel story. The radical demands of Christian discipleship made by the New Testament (e.g. Mark 8:38) might not be seen as “loving” things to impose upon others. I think that this is a very important observation – almost every appeal I have heard to evade the didactic moral teaching of the New Testament has been based on the priority of the admonition to love. Yet if we take the point Hays makes that the New Testament’s gospel narrative gives content, shape and meaning to “love” then such evasions become much less persuasive. We need to look to the gospel narrative, the Christian community and the Christian hope to know what we are to love and how we are to love it.

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1John 4:9-10)

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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.