Archive for the ‘Jesus’ Category

Did Jesus ever Exist?

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

The latest so-called scholarship arguing against the existence of Jesus has appeared from a University of Sydney graduate student and part-time lecturer. It started on the University web site and was picked up by the Washington Post, at least it’s online edition. (I’ve not yet seen it in the print version.)

I sent a letter to the editor despite the fact that the Post does not print letters responding to online articles. So here is the text of my letter:

Ralph Lataster’s “Did historical Jesus really exist? The evidence just doesn’t add up” (Dec. 20) is so full of factual error and sloppy argumentation that it is not worthy of publication by a scholar—or by a newspaper—no matter what one thinks about the issue.

First of all, Lataster misrepresents the debate. Discussions about the existence of Jesus are debates among historians, not disagreements among atheists. Furthermore, even if Christians believe in “the Christ of faith” (though this is a problematic term in many ways) and also affirm the existence of the historical Jesus, that does not disqualify academically trained Christians from rightfully participating in the debate about Jesus’ existence. Many historians who are Christians are able to believe, in part, because they are convinced that historical study supports the existence of Jesus.

Second, Lataster misrepresents the text of the New Testament. There are plenty of passages in the gospels that narrate a teaching, healing, law-abiding, and law-breaking first-century Jewish teacher that do not even begin to fit the description of a “fictional Christ of faith”—though there are certainly texts that do portray Jesus as more than such a teacher. Moreover, in considering Paul’s letters, Lataster ignores Paul’s allusions to Jesus’ teaching, as well as Paul’s reliance on oral tradition like that found in the gospels when he describes Jesus’ Last Supper. Furthermore, Lataster mischaracterizes Paul’s apocalyptic language as indicating belief in a “celestial” rather than a human” Jesus. He also conveniently fails to mention Paul’s statement that Jesus was born of a woman (Galatians 4:4).

Third, Lataster misrepresents the nature of oral tradition and of the sources for our gospels, and either he is ignorant of current debate about each of these or else he fails to mention them. Yet he draws conclusions about the existence of Jesus based on such misrepresentation and ignorance (or suppression) of contemporary gospel scholarship.

The word “atrocious” that he applies to biblical scholarship does indeed characterize certain forms of published work. (Let the reader understand.) Another word comes to mind, too—“insulting”—both to people’s intelligence and, this week, to their spiritual and historical sensibilities.

Michael J. Gorman
Raymond Brown Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology
St. Mary’s Seminary & University
Baltimore, MD

Good Friday Reflections 2013

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Following is my annual set of brief statements about Good Friday, with some additions for this year:

What makes Good Friday “good”? Or, what is the meaning of Good Friday?

The first thing to say is that it is good only in light of Easter. Given the reality of Easter, it is good because it reveals the depth of God’s love and communicates that love to us in order to liberate us from Sin and Death and to give us life in abundance and life eternal.

Volumes have been written on this, including some by yours truly. Here are just a few reflections summarizing some of what I have written elsewhere at greater length:

1. The main purpose of Jesus’ death was to create the people of the new covenant, who would be empowered by the Spirit of God to resemble Jesus himself: faithful to God and loving toward their neighbors and enemies.

2. The cross is not only the source but also the shape of our salvation. This is the essential meaning of “cruciformity”–daily likeness to the self-giving, life-giving divine love manifested on the cross.

3. The cross reveals the love, power, wisdom, and justice of God, and it does so, paradoxically but powerfully, in weakness.

4. The cross is not only the signature of the Risen One (so Kaesemann), but also of the Holy One of Israel; that is, the cross is not only a christophany but ultimately a theophany–the ultimate divine self-revelation.

5. Thus cruciformity is ultimately theoformity; Christlikeness is Godlikeness; through participation in the cross of Christ, we are transformed most fully into the image of God. This is sometimes called theosis or deification.

6. The fact that Jesus died as the Jewish Messiah on a Roman cross means that his death contains within it a political theology and spirituality.

7. When the cross is used for anything that contradicts its character as divine love, power, wisdom, and justice displayed in weakness, it is being used blasphemously.

Finally: When I survey the wondrous cross, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

Daniel Kirk talks about his new Jesus-Paul Book

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Daniel Kirk of Fuller Seminary talks about his new book, Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul…?, a book I endorsed and called a page-turner. Have a listen and buy the book at your nearest independent Christian/theological bookstore, such as Hearts and Minds in Dallastown, PA.

Update: part 2, part 3, part 4.

Tom Wright on Three Recent Jesus Books

Monday, December 19th, 2011

Tom Wright reviews recent books by the Pope, Maurice Casey, and Bruce Fisk on Jesus, which (he suggests) represent premodern, modern, and postmodern approaches, respectively. He lauds their interest in Jesus’ rootedness in the Scriptures and Second Temple Judaism but decries their inability to see the centrality and meaning of the kingdom of God for Jesus. His own recent book Simply Jesus attempts to do both. (HT Dan Reid on FB)

N.T. Wright Video on his new book “Simply Jesus”

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Look here (sorry it’s Fox News) for a fine interview with Tom Wright on his new book Simply Jesus.

Review: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus

Friday, October 7th, 2011

Like a few other NT scholars, I am participating in a blog tour of Bruce Fisk’s new book, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus: Reading the Gospels on the Ground (Baker Academic, 2011). There’s even a “hub” site for the tour. I’m grateful to Baker for the copy of the book and the invitation to participate.

So here are some thoughts about the book.

First of all, Fisk has produced a fun book; it feels real, alive, current without being over the top. It’s written in the form of a journal about “Norm’s” trip to the Holy Land to find Jesus and keep his faith intact.

Second, there is serious scholarship here. The extended journal entries are interspersed with email correspondence with the professor who first challenged Norm’s simplistic understandings, attractive sidebars with significant quotes from key scholars and others, and tables–many tables–showing the similarities and/or differences between this account of Jesus and another or between some aspect of Jesus and a parallel scriptural or extra-scriptural source. The correspondence is often like the outline of a lecture, and the tables like classroom handouts. All of this works for the serious reader/student, even though it’s probably too much for someone who thought they were getting a fun and friendly overview of Jesus and the “Holy Land.” It is more like an intro to Jesus and the Gospels text–deceivingly simple in its format, quite thorough in its treatment of the key issues. From John the Baptist to the resurrection of Jesus, most every topic of significance is addressed.

Third, although Fisk has a leaning, even a sub-textual agenda, there are no easy answers here. “Norm” is not naive, and he is open to hearing even the most radical Gospel criticism, but he can also offer his own come-backs. Under and in the voice, and experience, of Norm we hear a voice that says, “Inquiry is ultimately good for faith, and yet historical investigation has its limits, both in what it can tell us and in how it ‘improves’ our understanding of the narrated Jesus of the Gospels.”

At the end of the book, Norm seems content to have better understood the issues, the dissimilarities and tensions, and is able to rest in the splendor of a many-faceted Jesus who cannot be fully understood or pinned down, yet whose presence in the world continues in people and communities that have been shaped by his story.

So how might one use this book? I suppose it would work well in a course on Jesus, or the Gospels, or NT intro, if not as the main book on Jesus and the Gospels, certainly as a good supplemental text. It makes the key issues come to life, both because they are addressed honestly and because they are addressed “on the ground.” (As a frequent leader of study tours, I am all for on-the-groundness in biblical studies.) The book would also be good reading for anyone seriously struggling with critical questions about Jesus and the Gospels, and it might be a good antidote for those who have had a radical introduction to the subject that seems to leave no place for faith.

Finally, a word about and to Bruce Fisk (whom I do not know personally): as others have said, you make many of us wish we had written this kind of book, yet it seems to me that only someone who had had such a journey could actually do it. Well done!

Mark Goodacre on Crucifixion and Passion Narratives

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

My friend Mark Goodacre of Duke has two very fine podcasts, one on crucifixion itself and one on the nature of the passion narratives; highly recommended.

War is a Red Horse

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

The absence from blogging is due to my intense efforts to conclude the semester while also finishing some articles and my book on Revelation. Most posts in the immediate future will likely be related to those projects, especially the book.

One of my very favorite interpreters of Revelation is Eugene Peterson in his book Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination. If you have not read it, do so immediately. Commenting on the second horse in Revelation 6, the red horse, Peterson writes (p. 77):

For a time, writ large in the headlines, war is perceived as an evil, and there are prayers for peace. But not for long, for it is quickly glamorized as patriotic or rationalized as just. But war is a red horse, bloody and cruel, making life miserable and horrid…. The perennial ruse is to glorify war so that we accept it as a proper means of achieving goals. But it is evil. It is opposed by Christ. Christ does not sit on the red horse, ever.

N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference Report (3)

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

The afternoon sessions on Friday continued the focus on Jesus with the following papers:

“‘Outside of a Small Circle of Friends’: Jesus and the Justice of God,” Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat (Toronto)

“Jesus’ Eschatology and Kingdom Ethics: Ever the Twain Shall Meet,” Nicholas Perrin (Wheaton)

I don’t have too much to say about these papers, not because they were uninteresting, but because my energy level was not real high after lunch following, essentially, three papers (Hays, Thompson, and NTW’s chapel address—an overview of Ephesians).

Always creative, husband-and-wife team Sylvia and Brian, who have been NTW’s students and friends for a long time, gave an impassioned address on the importance of taking Jesus’ teaching on wealth and injustice/justice even more seriously than does Bishop Tom. They argued for moving from a “crucifixion economy” where the non-elite are sacrificed on the altar of the “god of unlimited economic growth” to a “resurrection economy” that embodies the “prophetic critique and prophetic hope” of Jesus that is given validity and divine approval in the resurrection. They asked if we find that prophetic critique and hope of Jesus on the subject of wealth and justice in Jesus and the Victory of God. The basic answer—yes, but not as much as we should.

Former NTW research assistant Nick Perrin argued for seeing a close connection between eschatology and ethics in Jesus and in NTW, especially suggesting that NTW’s identification of Jesus with Israel yields an integrative biblical theology. In NTW’s work on Jesus we find a counter to docetism, a synthesis of soteriology and ecclesiology, and a basis for social ethics in its combination of Christology, praxis, and community.

Both papers, in other words, interpreted Jesus and the Victory of God as providing the foundation of a Christian social ethic grounded in Jesus, though the concrete implications of this (at least according to Sylvia and Brian) need to be explored more vigorously.

One small comment: Bishop Tom has grown increasingly aware of, and committed to addressing, social injustices, whether in his backyard or in Africa, since becoming bishop and a member of the British House of Lords. He grounds this in his meta-narrative and in his interpretation of Jesus and Paul. Jesus and the Victory of God might look a bit different now… That said, I will raise some questions in my next post, about NTW and Paul at the conference, about the direction he may be going.

N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference Report (2)

Monday, April 19th, 2010

As I continue my reflections on this historic conference, I want to state at the outset of this post that all of the participants are my professional colleagues, people with whom I have worked and/or interacted, and many of them are my friends, including Bishop Tom. So any criticisms I offer are those of a friendly critic.

I do not intend to give full summaries of the various papers. But Marcus Maher, a Trinity Evangelical Divinity School student who was at the conference, has done a look of summarizing over at his blog, Seeking the truth…

Day one of the conference, Friday, was dedicated to the Bishop’s treatment of Jesus and its theological implications, especially in his justly famous 1996 book Jesus and the Victory of God. The morning session was as follows:

“Knowing Jesus: Story, History, and the Question of Truth,” by Richard Hays (Duke)

“The Gospel of John Meets Jesus and the Victory of God,” by Marianne Meye Thompson (Fuller)

Richard Hays is probably the most respected American New Testament scholar and a long-time friend of Tom Wright. As always, Richard’s paper was incredibly well done, and one of the two or three from the conference that everyone interested in NTW or NT Theology needs to view, hear, or read. It was both a summary and a critique of Tom’s methodology in the study of Jesus and a public rejoinder to Tom’s devastating SBL review of the book Seeking the Identity of Jesus, edited by Richard and Princeton’s Beverly Gaventa. At that session, I remember Richard’s initial reaction to Tom’s review: “It makes me wonder if you read the book.” The tension over that book and the issues it raises have no doubt strained their friendship, and this paper and its hoped-for but unfortunately postponed dialogue (since Richard had to leave) can be seen in part as an attempt to heal the rift.

So what is the issue between Wright and Hays? It is the age-old tension between the so-called Jesus of history and the so-called Christ of faith, which has to get worked out in each new generation of theologians and scholars. More specifically, it is the relationship between, and the significance assigned to, the first-century Jew known through historical reconstruction and the no-less-Jewish but living Jesus whose identity is revealed in the canonical gospels and in the Christian tradition. In my view, Tom and Richard are actually closer together than they can sometimes appear to be, and their differences may be largely a matter of emphasis—though I’m not 100% sure either of them would agree with me on this.

After reviewing seven dimensions of NTW’s distinctive methodology for studying the historical Jesus and pointing out its principal strengths, especially vis-à-vis certain other approaches, Hays raised some concerns and questions, and then asked, “Where do we go from here?”

Among the most important points in Hays’s paper (meaning the ones I agree with most strongly):

• The story of Israel and Jesus that NTW posits as the biblical meta-narrative is never actually told anywhere in the NT; it is not the story proclaimed by any of the evangelists, nor is it the story of Jesus found in later Christian confession. I would say that this does not necessarily make it wrong, but it does make it suspect—or at least in need of nuancing. Hays rightly contends that sometimes the historical evidence or the exegesis gets overly systematized and forced into his (NTW’s) narrative construct.

• The quest for an alleged single story of Jesus behind the four gospels is theologically problematic, since such a quest deliberately muffles the distinctive voices of the evangelists and tries to create a kind of historian’s Diatessaron (melding of the four stories into one, as Tatian did with the four gospels; that phrase is my own, not Richard’s).

• The absence of the Gospel of John from NTW’s historical reconstruction is hermeneutically significant. Tom later replied that he did not include John for apologetic reasons—he would not have been taken seriously as a scholar of the historical Jesus. Interestingly, in light of recent scholarly developments, that situation is quite different now, and John’s gospel is receiving renewed attention for its possible contributions to understanding the historical Jesus. Maybe NTW would consider John if he were writing Jesus and the Victory of God today.

• The starting point for, and the basic fact of, a Christian statement about the identity of Jesus is the resurrection of Jesus. It is the key to any ultimately truthful and meaningful historical account of him. How would NTW as the author of The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003) reconceive the project taken on in Jesus and the Victory of God (1996)?

• There is no need to bracket out the Christian tradition in our quest to understand and identify Jesus. Richard implied what another panelist, Edith Humphrey, said the next day: that the effects of Jesus tell us something important about him as an historical figure.

Marianne’s paper developed a point made by Richard—the problem of the neglect of John in Jesus and the Victory of God. She made two especially important observations:

• The destruction of the Temple, which occurs early in John, would likely signal, not the end of exile, but a new exile, or at least divine judgment. What does one (especially NTW) do with that?

• Ironically, the Jesus of NTW’s Jesus and the Victory of God (taking on the role of YHWH, etc.) might look a lot more like the Jesus of John than of the synoptics. Actually, I think the work of Kavin Rowe on Luke and the forthcoming work of Richard Hays on the use of Scripture in the gospels indicate that all the evangelists saw Jesus as identified in a significant way with YHWH. But the standard critical interpretation of the differentiation between the synoptics and John on this matter makes Marianne’s point at least interesting and probably valid.

Clearly these two papers gave and give both Bishop Tom and the rest of us much to consider.

Three thoughts on all of this:

1. Later on in the panel (I think), Bishop Tom noted that one of his concerns about reading Jesus through the creeds and tradition is that they have tended to engage in the “de-Israelitization” (his neologism on the spot) of Jesus, God, and the gospel. I have heard him register this complaint before, and I share his concern to a point, as I share his similar concern that the creeds skip from Jesus’ birth to his passion.

One way to deal with this is to realize that the creeds and the Christian tradition more generally do not override or replace the gospels—or at least they shouldn’t. They provide a hermeneutical lens, not a straight-jacket. That is, when we read the gospel narratives of Jesus the Jew, the creeds tell us, we are not reading the story of merely a Jewish teacher, healer, etc. He is, of course, that first-century Jew, but he is that first-century Jew simultaneously, and inseparably, as the once-incarnate and now crucified, resurrected, ascended, and coming Son of God.

2. Someone on the panel spoke about a two-dimensional (purely historical) versus a three-dimensional (historical plus theological/canonical/creedal) interpretation of Jesus. I have to think more about this image, but if it is valuable, it reinforces my previous point. As Christians, we cannot think only two-dimensionally, historically (Jesus the first-century Jew), but neither can we skip the two dimensions, however flat they may be, and pretend that Jesus can be known only in the third dimension of canon/creed/theology. Or, better put—if the two-dimensional (historical) Jesus is inseparably part of the three-dimensional Jesus, then it is better to say that understanding Jesus historically, at least in regard to some basic aspects, is not merely an historical task but an essential part of the theological task, of understanding Jesus theologically. This is because, at the very least, (1) incarnation and resurrection and parousia all have something to do with history, and (2) failing to identify Jesus as a Jew, and a particular kind of Jew (the One who brought salvation to and through Israel), is a fundamental theological error in all sorts of ways.

3. It may be that Bishop Tom’s reading of Jesus, even in Jesus and the Victory of God, is more theological than he might want to admit. That’s OK. He’s a Christian! But that does not make his reading any less historical, or any less valid, in my view, because his implicit theological vision is fundamentally both historically and theologically true.

To summarize briefly: it’s a both-and, not an either-or; historical and theological readings of Jesus need to go hand in hand.

At almost 1,500 words, I will stop here and say something briefly about the Friday afternoon session in the next post.