Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Last Week - FIVE: Thursday

Key ideas from The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.

As might be expected, this chapter that looks at the Thursday of Jesus' last week is crammed with material for reflection and study. The "last supper" on Maundy Thursday is critical for the church's understanding of the ministry of Jesus. Disciples of Christ, who make the Supper central to their worship, will find much here to challenge and edify.

I will mention only one of the many ideas found in Chapter Five. That is that the account of the Last Supper in Mark's Gospel is significantly different than what is presented in John's Gospel. Christian tradition has "mushed" the two accounts together, thus making it more difficult for us to see how each author interprets this final meal.

Note: "Maundy" comes from the Latin "mandatum," which means "mandate" or "commandment." It comes from Jesus' words in John's account where Jesus says "I give you a new commandment, that you should love one another." (John 13:34)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

O Mary I Hardly Knew Ya

In the synoptic tradition, there are two stories of Jesus being anointed: 1) an episode at Bethany in Judea by an unnamed woman(Mark 14:9 and followed by Matthew) and 2) an episode in Galilee by a woman who is a sinner (Luke 7:37-38).

In the Gospel of John there is also an anointing at Bethany (John 12:1-8). Scholars assume that Mark and John are recording the same event, though John combines elements of Mark's story with details from Luke's story. And John identifies the woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus!

Try this as a challenge: Read the stories side by side and compare and contrast their details. Pay close attention to what John does. Has this author revealed the real identity of the unnamed woman in Mark? Is this conflated oral tradition? Or is this a third anointing?

For a detailed look at John's story and the possibility of a historical kernel, see Volume 1 of Raymond Brown's Anchor Bible commentary on the Gospel of John. From a different perspective, one which argues that Mary is the unnamed woman in Mark, see Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.

What do you think?

More On Her

What then besides gender bias could account for Mark's failure to include the name of the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany?

Some scholars have suggested that Mark's gospel is shaped by a common Hellenistic literary form called a chreia, a short, concise recollection of what someone did or said. As such, the focus is on Jesus and not the secondary characters that interact with Jesus.

Others have suggested the missing name is due to the concept of protective anonymity. That is, when the tradition took shape in the early church the woman, if identified, would be in danger due to her association with Jesus and her action of anointing him as Messiah. Support could be found in passages such as John 20:19 and Saul's action against the fledglin Jesus movement in Acts 8:3.

I also think one simple explanation may be in order. The woman's identity was not known by Jesus or the disciples at Bethany and consequently was not available to the developing tradition.

Finally, studies in oral tradition show how details were often changed or omitted by the various story tellers who adapted the tradition to their particular life situation. Because oral tradition is fluid, the woman's name was not part of the tradition that Mark inherited. In other traditions, she may may have been specifically named.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In Memory of Her

In a recent post, I asked about why we do not know the name of the woman so highly praised by Jesus because of her actions at Bethany (Mark 14:9 - the anointing).

In her important work, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza offers up the following explanation: " . . . the name of the faithful disciple is forgotten because she was a woman."

There is ample evidence to show how the developing church in later New Testament times and into the second century began to down play or denigrate the role of women in ministry? But is there evidence that this tendency was at work in the tradition that Mark inherited or that Mark himself is an example of gender bias at work in primitive Christianity?

Here is contra-evidence to suggest other factors may have been at work that led to the woman's name not appearing in Mark:
- Mark shows no hesitancy in identifying women by name. The important role of witnesses to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is filled by specifically named women.
-Mark fails to identify some male disciples as well as this female disciple.
-Early Palestinian tradition as portrayed in Acts shows:
1. a parallel charismatic ministry for both men and women (Acts 2)
2. a specifically named female disciple (Acts 9:36)
3. prophetic activity by women
- And Paul, who is dependent on Palestinian tradition for many of his new-found Christian concepts, employs named female disciples as co-ministers.

So why was our mystery female disciple not named? I'll leave that discussion for a subsequent post.

Monday, March 23, 2009

What Is Your Shower Theology?

I realized today that I have been singing the following fragment of a "gospel hymn" in the shower almost every morning for quite some time:

Life's evening sun is sinking low, a few more days and I must go to meet the deeds that I have done, where there will be so setting sun.

Now I don't have a death wish or plan on leaving this world anytime soon. So, why am I singing this song? I'm not sure. But every Sunday (or almost every Sunday) when I was young (a really long time ago), we sang this song at the Fordland Church of Christ. At the mature age of 10, it was my favorite in the hymn book because Brother Ernie and the rest of us powerful bass singers had the lead in the chorus. I'm not sure of the song's title (Beautiful Life??), but I can still recall many of the stanzas. And without conscious thought, the words just pop in my head at shower time (probably at other times as well).

So here's my question? How much of our thinking about spiritual matters is shaped by songs seemingly long forgotten, songs no longer top of mind, but songs that still continue to percolate like freshly brewing morning coffee. Such songs occasionally bubble up from our subconscious, leaving evidence of their influence and catching us by surprise.

What have you been singing lately? What is your shower theology?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Last Week - FOUR: Wednesday

Observations and key ideas from The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan:

Borg and Crossan use Wednesday to discuss what they see as a key theme in Mark: failed discipleship.

In Mark, Jesus makes three passion predictions, and in each instance, the disciples respond inappropriately: 1) Peter rebukes Jesus (8:32); the disciples argue over who is greatest (9:32-34); and 3) James, John, and the other disciples vie for positions of honor in the coming kingdom (10:35-37).

The book's authors continue their critique of traditional atonement theology by suggesting that for Mark, it is about participation with Jesus not substitution by Jesus. The disciples do not recognize the way of the cross, the way of true discipleship.

This leads to a brief discussion of the first real believer, a woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany. Jesus is reported to have said: "Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her." (14:9)

revJohn Question: The identity of this female disciple is not known, lost forever. Given the unrivaled praise from Jesus, why do you think her name is not found in any of the New Testament writings?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Gospel of Thomas Debate in Kansas City

Stephen Patterson, noted in the previous post, and Craig Evans engaged in debate on the Gospel of Thomas at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Kansas City on Friday evening, March 13. Evans finds little or no early or authentic material in the gospel, while Patterson is open to new insights into the life of Jesus through the study of Thomas. For a brief report on the debate, see this brief summary in the Baptist Press.

For additional discussion of the Gospel of Thomas see the work of April DeConick and check her blog for various archived posts on the Gospel of Thomas at the Forbidden Gospels Blog.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Gospel of Thomas

"These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down."

The Gospel of Thomas contain 114 purported sayings of Jesus. There is no narrative, no mention of the death of Jesus. The focus is on what Jesus said, not what he did.

The interest for Christians is how many of these non-canonical sayings might actually come from the historical Jesus. For a brief look at Thomas from two well know scholars (Elaine Pagels and Helmut Koester) and a link to the text of Thomas, click here.

The Gospel of Thomas comes to us primarily through a Coptic manuscript from the Nag Hammadi library discovered in 1945 and dated to the mid-fourth century. Yet portions of the gospel in Greek also survive, with scholars dating these papyri to circa 200 C.E. or later. The question then arises: What is the dating of the earliest edition of this work? Scholars are here much divided, with some opting for a mid-first century date and others arguing for late second century origin.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Beyond the Passion

A book of interest for interpreting the death of Christ is the 2004 publication by Stephen J. Patterson, Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Patterson, Professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary, argues that Christian theology has mistakenly attempted to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus apart from his life. He illustrates by asking us to imagine how off the mark it would be to assess the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by focusing on his assassination and ignoring his life and leadership in the civil rights movement.

Patterson focuses on three categories that help understand how the death of Jesus was seen by early Christians and utilized to demonstrate the significance of his life: 1) Victim; 2) Martyr; 3) Sacrifice.

Especially helpful is his discussion of the Noble Death tradition in antiquity. He notes David Seeley's study of Hellenistic literature on the topic which contains five key ideas:
1. The one who dies nobly dies in obedience to his/her principles
2. The hero overcomes physical vulnerability, facing torture and death without fear
3. Loyalty is often at stake in the death
4. The death is seen as vicarious for others in that it may be imitated
5. There are sacrificial overtones in the description of the death

Patterson points out that the Noble Death idea certainly influenced Jewish writers of the period, with perhaps the best example found in Fourth Maccabees. In essence, the martyr's death expresses obedience and is vicarious in that it sets an example for others to follow.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Life not Death

With the reality of Jesus' death in mind, I want to point out an important Greek word for the early Christian movement. That word is zoe (dzo AY) and means "life." The writer of the Gospel of John uses the word 36 times. It is now just physical life (the Greeks had another word for that concept - bios), but rather life that is filled with meaning and received as a gift from God.

Often John refers to it as eternal. But here is the interesting point. For John and his community, eternal life is experience now in the present. It is not something that must wait for a future heavenly bliss. Indeed Jesus is remembered as the bringer of Life: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." John 10:10

I believe John would argue that Jesus did not come to die on a cross. He came to bring life. During this Lenten season, let's pay more attention to what Jesus' life represents, not just his death.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Christ Died

As Holy Week approaches, this painting by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1521 - 1522 captures the reality of the earliest Christian tradition that Christ died and was buried (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). The rest of the tradition, that he was raised on the third day, must be seen in conjunction with the stark reality of his death.

For a better look at the painting, see various images at Wikipedia.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Jesus Interrupted

Prolific biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman, has a new book. The title is a good indicator of the book's content: Jesus Interrupted: Reading the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them).

Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air has a lengthy (38 min)interview with Ehrman that provides helpful insight into Ehrman's work. There is also a link there that allows you to read an excerpt.

The Last Week -- THREE: Tuesday

Chapter Three - Tuesday: Comments and key ideas from The Last Week (Borg and Crossan)

Tuesday of Jesus' final week in Jerusalem receives more space in Mark's gospel than any other day. Approximately two-thirds of this day's narrative deals with Jesus in conflict with various Jewish groups. The final third deals with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and speaks of the coming of the Son of Man (the return of Jesus) in the near future. This final third is often called the "little apocalypse," meaning "unveiling" or "revelation," with "little" distinguishing it from the "big apocalypse," the Revelation of John.

This material is an example of of what scholars call "apocalyptic eschatology," a technical term that refers to the expectation of a near-future divine intervention into this world. This belief may or may not have been held by Jesus. It is most likely a post-Easter creation of the early Christian movement.

From the vantage point of history, Mark and the early Christians were wrong. But from another angle they were entirely correct. Behind the culturally conditioned apocalyptic language is the conviction that what was begun in Jesus will ultimately triumph, despite the resistance of domination systems throughout history.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Witnesses

"Even the smallest, strangest, simplest, or obscurest among the biblical witnesses has an incomparable advantage over even the most pious, scholarly, and sagacious latter-day theologian. From his special point of view and in his special fashion, the witness has thought, spoken, and written about the revelatory Word and act in direct confrontation with it. All subsequent theology, as well as the whole of the community that comes after the event, will never find itself in the same immediate confrontation."
Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sacrifice - Judaism 101

A revJohn reader recently asked me about a source for the Jewish understanding of sacrifice. Like Christians, I'm sure the answer would vary, depending of the Jewish community sourced. But here is one site, Judaism 101, that provides a helpful look at the concept of animal sacrifices. The article points out that Jews do not now offer animal sacrifices because the authorized place of sacrifice, the Temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. The author of this entry believes, however, that when the messiah comes, sacrifices will resume. Until then, forgiveness for Jews is obtained through repentance, prayer, and good deeds. See the article here.

It is helpful for me to see that after 2,000 years the concept of animal sacrifice is still seen, in some Jewish communities, as something that God desires. So it is not surprising to me that first century Jews who actually approached God in this manner and who became followers of Jesus of Nazareth and who struggled to find meaning to his cruel and horrific death, would conceptualize this event as "blood sacrifice" and as an "atonement for sin."

Cross Tapestry: Strands of Salvation

A guest post by Rodger Kube, Senior Minister at Hillside Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri.

The New Testament contains a rich diversity of teaching and images about how the death of Jesus on the cross accomplishes our atonement (at-one-ment) with God. The contextual rootedness of the New Testament is nowhere more on display than in its understanding of atonement. Drawing on the language and though patterns of Israel’s faith tradition and their life experiences in the Greco-Roman world, the New Testament writers struggled to make sense of Jesus’ crucifixion. The saving significance of Jesus’ death is chiefly (although not exclusively) represented in the pages of the New Testament through 5 clusters of metaphorical images:

• The court of law—justification
• Commercial dealings—redemption
• Worship—sacrifice
• The battleground—triumph over evil
• Personal relationships—reconciliation, both among individuals and groups.

Why does the New Testament enlist so many images in developing its understanding of Jesus’ death? First, because language for atonement is metaphorical, and given the nature of metaphor, it is hard to imagine that one word picture or model could express all that can be said about the saving significance of Jesus’ death. So, even if Christians could have always spoken with one voice about their affirmation of Jesus as Savior, already in the New Testament, and certainly ever since, readers have understood the affirmation in various ways.

A second reason for the variety of New Testament images of atonement is pastoral. Because very different models and images were employed to describe the ‘lost-ness’ of the human family prior to Jesus, different descriptions of how humans have been ‘recovered’ by Christ’s death needed to be developed. If people are lost, they need to be found. If they are oppressed, they need to be delivered. If they exist in a state of enmity, they need to be reconciled. And so on.

Third, the early Christians used a variety of metaphors to draw out the saving significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection because of wider cultural considerations. If hearers in ever-expanding locations and cultural circles were to understand the message of salvation, then leaders were compelled to articulate the message in a culture-specific way. . .

If we are to be faithful to Scripture, we need to use metaphors that communicate the atonement in our day and age, drawing on images from the everyday experience of people’s lives. We not only must seek to be understood by people, we are also called to shape them in the way of Christ.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Last Week - TWO: Monday

Chapter TWO: On his first two days in Jerusalem, Jesus performs two prophetic acts. On Palm Sunday, he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, providing a stark contrast between the kingdom of God which comes by means of peace and lowliness and the kingdom of Rome that comes by means of power and violence. On day two, Monday, Jesus again enacts his vision of the kingdom of God, over tuning the tables of money changers in the Temple. It is a protest not against Judaism, but a protest again a religious establishment that has allied itself with Roman imperial power and injustice.

Jesus, say the authors, "also stands against those forms of Christianity that were used throughout the centuries to support imperial violence and injustice."

Also Borg and Crossan on blood sacrifice: The word sacrifice comes from the Latin sacrum facere, "to make" "sacred." In the ancient world, the sacrificial animal is made sacred and is given to God as a sacred gift or returned to the offerer as a sacred meal. These concepts should never be confused with suffering or substitution. Ancient peoples never thought that:
1. the point of sacrifice was to make the animal suffer
2. the animal was dying in their place

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Roll On J. J.

This past week J. J. Cale released his new CD "Roll On." For those of you who know his work, nothing really needs to be said except "check it out here." For those of you who don't recognize his name, two of Eric Clapton's biggest hits, After Midnight and Cocaine are Cale songs.

Cale turned 70 this year; he was a late-bloomer in the music business, beginning when he was 30. To hear an interview on NPR with Melissa Block on a veteran songwriter's 'old man' music, click here.

And if you want to see old Mr. Cale in action with support from old Mr. Clapton, check out this YouTube video: