The Bible and Eternity

I’ve learned something recently. Do your job and you get paid. Volunteer at your job and you stand a good chance of getting dessert.

We’re getting a Cokesbury bookstore on the Christ Church campus, and instead of paying professionals (people who knew what they were doing) to take up the old brick walkway outside the building where the new store will be housed, the church asked its staff (people who had no idea what they were doing) to get the job done. And so we did, and they thanked us with some Mexican ice cream at this good little place in town.

Piled into the bus on the way there, we passed a church whose marquee read: “The Bible is not antique. It is not modern. It is eternal.”

Later on, when I mentioned this to my friend who is well-read on the Muslim religion, said “That’s Islam.”

He was right. This is no disrespect to Islam, but they hold a view of the Quran that is different from the way Christians think of the Bible. For Christians, to hold such a view of the Bible would be an improper level of devotion to the biblical text itself.

This is seen in the way people mischaracterize Christians as “people of the book.” Though I appreciate the point that it makes, because we do look to the Bible for God’s story, doctrine, stories, etc., Christianity appropriately conceived is adhered to not by people of the book but people of the Person.

Christians are those who are committed to Christ, whether they’ve never encountered a Bible or met Jesus through their reading of a Bible.

Come to think of it, Christianity came before the Bible, and in the new heavens and new earth I’m not sure it’s very important to think of what role the Bible will play.

In this stage of history, it certainly plays an important role. But its role is limited.

The Bible IS antique, and it DOES speak to modern times, but it is not eternal.

Christianity is Public

“I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the centre of the market place as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek … at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died. And that is what he died about. And that is where churchmen should be and what churchmen should be about.” –George MacLeod

As quoted by R. Paul Stevens in The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

Wisdom from The Iron Lady

Many people think Meryl Streep gave a great performance as Margaret Thatcher in a mediocre movie in The Iron Lady, but I actually thought the movie itself was quite good. Informative, thought-provoking, inspiring.

My favorite scene involves the retired Prime Minister of Britain in the doctor’s office. She has been experiencing dementia, and the doctor asks her how she feels. Surely, he says, she is bound to be feeling a certain way.

She responds: “What am I ‘bound’ to be feeling? People don’t think anymore. They feel.’How are you feeling?’ ‘Oh, I don’t feel comfortable.’ ‘Oh I’m so sorry, we the group, we’re feeling …’ Do you know, one of the great problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas? Now, thoughts and ideas, that interests me. Ask me what I’m thinking.”

The doctor obliges. “What are you thinking, Margaret?”

I don’t know if the actual Margaret Thatcher said anything like this, but I certainly find myself in solid agreement with her about many of those running the government in this country nowadays.

Aside from that, however, I find myself most readily applying her words to the church. The things on which the church stands on and stands for undoubtedly enlist all of our being, emotions included. I can’t conceive of a Christianity that checks emotions at the door. But, if we could get together and think a bit more than we simply feel I think we could avoid much of the intra-Christian argument and opponent-bashing that is plaguing the relationships that should be defined by what he hold in common in regards to our faith, our belief, and our thoughts.

This text I once got.

Thanks to my friend Sara Stanton who reminded me of this text I once got, apparently by mistake. I had forgotten about this, but I used to quote this all the time. Plus, I had it saved on my old phone and would at random times forward it to her and few others who would get the inside joke.

So a couple years ago I got a message that went like this. It was obviously from a wrong number. This is it, word for word, quoted from memory. The name has been obscured for my own safety.

Why you dint tell me D***** P****** got busted at his job friday. the feds got em and he had 20 yrs left on paper.

I never responded.

Ascension Day

Most of this post originates from a talk I gave at Christ United Methodist Church on July 27, 2011.

At Advent and Christmas we expect and remember the birth of Jesus.

On Good Friday we recognize the death of Jesus.

On Easter Sunday we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

As you can see, our major Christian holidays do a pretty decent job at helping us focus on the major stages of Jesus’s earthly existence.

However, Christians don’t worship a mere earthly Jesus. We worship an exalted Jesus, the one enthroned in the heavenly places.

What we need, then, is a special day to spark our awareness that Jesus has gone from earth to heaven, and therefore the grounding of all Christian hope is that Jesus will return from heaven to earth.

As it turns out, we already have such a day! At one time, Ascension Day was one of the most important times on the historic church calendar. In recent times, though, it has become one of the most ignored. Gone are the days of Augustine, for instance, for whom Ascension Day provided the opportunity to deliver brilliant sermons on the doctrine of the ascended Christ.

Today is Ascension Day, which is recognized 40 days after Easter Sunday. This time period comes from the timeline provided by Acts, which states that it was a 40 day period between Jesus’s resurrection and his ascension to heaven.

The ascension of Christ is a uniquely Lukan presentation. A later version of the ending of Mark added by scribes contains an account, but if we define our authoritative canonical New Testament as that which we believe comes from the original authors, then studying the ascension becomes a matter of analyzing Luke’s literary composition.

At the end of Luke, Jesus is resurrected, appears to the disciples, gives them final instructions to wait in the city until they get “what the Father promised” and “clothed with power from on high.”

He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. And they were continuously in the temple praising God (Luke 20:50-53).

Now, at the very beginning of Acts. Luke begins by reviewing what he has written about in Luke and then recounts the ascension one more time.

Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

 As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”

Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:1-11)

Taking the same event, Luke renders it in historical prose differently two times―once to display its significance as the final event of Jesus’ life and ministry in his Gospel, and once more to show how it is the beginning of the disciples’ ministry in continuation of Jesus mission in Acts.

Theologically, the ascension is a closure to some aspects of the person of Christ on earth, his work in salvation through his ministry, death and resurrection.

But it also a beginning to some of those aspects as Christ is now heavenly transcendent and the work of his salvation is carried out by his disciples. With genius skill, Luke translates these theological truths into literary terms, in that the closing scene of volume 1 of his entire historical work becomes the opening scene of the second volume. And thus the New Testament’s sole historical account of Jesus and the early church, which spans from Christ’s birth to the message of his salvation being brought to the entire world, is knit together.

First, the ascension as closing scene of the Gospel. The ascension is really the last logical step for Jesus, having died and been resurrected. It is a logical prerequisite for Jesus as someone who was believed to be returning at some later point. But Luke is the only Gospel writer to include the ascension in his story of Jesus’ life. Matthew and John especially presuppose that something like an ascension is going to take place.

Just for a couple of examples. Matthew ends with Jesus’ Great Commission and his promise to be with the disciples always as they go out and spread the good news of salvation. Some sort of heavenly exit is presupposed, but is not narrated. More than any other, John’s Jesus emphasizes over and over how he has come from heaven and is going back. After his resurrection he tells Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold on to me for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” It is presupposed, but not narrated.

Why Luke does narrate the ascension in his Gospel is probably due in part that it is the longest and most comprehensive Gospel, but it is due mostly to his second volume, which tells the story of the earliest church. The other Gospels may conclude without it narrated because it is blatantly obvious to the early church to whom they were read that Jesus is not around anymore like he was.

But Luke actually tells the story of the early church, so it would be a blatant missing piece if the means by which Jesus was not around anymore in the way that he once  was was left unnarrated. It is important to note, though, that Luke does not just narrate it, he puts it in the most pivotal place he can―at the connection point between his story of Jesus and his story of Jesus’s followers. This points rather clearly to its significance, and, it was typical for 2-volume Greco Roman works to recap the end of the first volume at the beginning of the second and, importantly as we’ll see, they were free to arrange materials differently in each case.

As the closing scene of Jesus’s life, the ascension completes the arch of the narrative as Jesus is born, i.e., comes into the world, and leaves the world. As the narrator presents it, it appears to happen on the same day as the resurrection after he presents himself alive to the disciples. In this way the Gospel is brought to a swift, concise conclusion. By being carried up into heaven, the portrait of Jesus as an historical figure is fully fleshed out. He is the one whose entire ministry is vindicated by his resurrection, and whose identity is more completely seen in his relocation to where God is. In other words, it is at the ascension (whether narrated or not) that Jesus’s entire earthy life comes full circle and finds its greatest significance. Augustine put it this way: “Unless the Savior had ascended into heaven, his nativity would have come to nothing … and his passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy resurrection would have been useless.”

As much as it functions as an effective conclusion to this narrative, the ascension scene here also sets the reader up for a sequel: Jesus’s last words to his disciples include the instruction to wait in Jerusalem for what the Father has promised. And the closing frame of the Gospel is just that―the disciples are waiting in Jerusalem. We, and presumably they, aren’t told just what they are waiting for.

Now, we come to the ascension as opening scene. Whereas the Gospel account reads as if the ascension is the same day as the resurrection, in 1:3 Luke adds the detail that Jesus appeared to the disciples over 40 days convincing people he was alive. The wording here is significant, for it says not that Jesus lived in Jerusalem or anything like that―it says that he made appearances over a period of 40 days―the Greek indicating scattered events.

This is a major clue to me that the ascension as narrated by Luke is not necessarily Jesus’s first transition to heaven, but his final transition to heaven.

It’s important to mention here that there does appear to be some overlap with the concepts of resurrection/ascension/exaltation. There are many indications in Scripture that at his resurrection Christ was exalted, that is, enthroned in heaven. And, of course, being exalted to heaven is a lot like an ascension. The best way to view the ascension event in Luke-Acts, then, is as the final concrete picture of Jesus’s exaltation. At his resurrection Jesus immediately inhabited the realms of both heaven and earth, which explains his strange abilities to appear and disappear. And it would also explain why Luke says he made appearances over a period of 40 days instead of saying that he stayed with them for these 40 days.

Having said that, what is this 40 days all about? It could be a reference to an actual 40 day period, (which would fit the chronology, because Pentecost is 50 days after Passover), or could be a conventional number (Jewish traditions about Ezra and Baruch have them giving 40 days of final words before ascending). But why is it not in the Gospel? Why does the ascension in the Gospel seemingly occur on the same day as the resurrection? Is this contradiction? I hardly think it could be contradiction, being such a unique detail coming from the same author. This is an example of how Luke has shaped the same historical event in different ways according to his literary objectives. He has condensed the ascension at the end of his Gospel to conclude it as a life of Jesus, and presented a fuller version for Jesus to appear to disciples as he gets ready to write a long book about disciples.

So, this is one major difference between the accounts. Another difference is that we find out that what the Father has promised is (1:5, 8) the Holy Spirit. That is what delivers the power from on high. Having set the reader up for a sequel about receiving what was promised at the end of the Gospel, at the beginning of Acts he sets the reader up by naming who is really the key player throughout the entire book. There’s a reason why people have recommended a title change to “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 1:8, which gives us the actual words of what was only referred to as a “blessing” in the Gospel account then sets the theological and literary paradigm for the book, and it sets the paradigm for the rest of the history of the church in which we find ourselves. It is the ascension that marks the importance of Jesus’s final words to us.

Here, therefore, we hit on the chief theological significance of the ascension. And this is not unique to Luke―it’s an important theme in John as well. Whereas the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in the next chapter is often given proper recognition in the church, it is often forgotten that is at Jesus’s physical absence and enthronement that he has the ability and authority to send the Holy Spirit.

In this same way the ascension is now the basis by which the whole idea of the church as the body of Christ makes sense. It would be quite weird if Jesus’s body was physically present but yet we were still considered his body. Christ ascends so we can make up for his absence and things can go according to plan – not that Christ would single handedly take care of everything, but that he would work in and through his people. Christ’s body leaves earth, but comes to it in a much more special way―through those who follow in his footsteps enlivened by his Spirit.

There is the important idea, then, of passing on the mantle to disciples in Jesus’ ascension. Another aspect to studying the ascension is to realize that it has many parallels within both the Greco Roman and Jewish worlds. For neither Greco Romans nor Jews was there much to be said for “going to heaven” at death. For the Greco Romans someone would typically go to heaven to become a god, and this is probably most relevant in the Imperial Cult during the NT era.

For the Jews, even in the OT, going to heaven at death is not that prevalent a theme in their literature. In Jewish literature closer to the time around the NT, interest in going to heaven explodes, but it has to do with going there to receive visions, not somewhere to go after death. In the OT itself there is surprisingly small precedent for Jesus’s ascension. The only examples are possibly Enoch, and clearly Elijah. And among the parallels between Elijah’s ascension in 2 Kings 2 and Jesus’s as it is here in Acts is the fact that it as at the ascension of Elijah that his disciple Elisha is then able to follow in his footsteps.

Having looked at both accounts of the ascension of Christ, I would like to flesh out some more theological significances of the ascension. Continuing in the whole idea of following in Jesus’s footsteps in his bodily absence, I want to put on the table how the ascension relates to Jesus’s return.

There are several ways in which Jesus’s life is the paradigm for believers. Not only his devotion to God’s kingdom, his selflessness, his ethics, his teachings, etc. But also the fact that just as he died, there is a sense in which believers must die. Just as he was resurrected, we will be resurrected. A lot of the time the ascension has been treated in the same way―he went to heaven, so that tells us that we are going to go to heaven. Is this right?

Before we answer that, let’s consider the question: Does Jesus belong in heaven? In one sense, yes. He is divine. He is enthroned. But that’s not where he will stay if what we’re talking about is a heaven separated from earth. In Acts 3:21 Peter says that Jesus “must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration.”

This universal restoration is the biblical vision of a new heaven and a new earth by the fusion of both, and Jesus does indeed belong right in the middle of this, for he is the means by which the new heaven and new earth come together. Through his ascension from earth to heaven, his return involves bringing heaven to earth. And what this means for us is not that we get to go to heaven but that we are resurrected into God’s newly restored earth where heaven is no longer separated.

We aren’t seeing the ascension for what it is if we think it’s merely a picture of what we are going to do. Even in Philippians 3:20 Paul says “Our citizenship is in heaven,” but he says “it is from there that we are expecting a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” The angels who appear after he ascends don’t say “and you will go in the same way,” but “he will come back in the same way.”

So, Christ died and so we die. Christ was resurrected, and so we will be resurrected. But only Christ ascends to heaven as an embodied person.

Related to this is that the ascension is the greatest biblical illustration of the goodness of physicality. Christianity has long had to deal with the falsehood that the physical is bad. The Gospel account makes so clear Jesus’s physicality by having him show his wounds and eat fish. It is as this embodied human that Jesus goes to heaven, not as a disembodied soul. The entire human being is therefore granted heavenly status with Jesus as its representative.

The 5th century archbishop Nestorius said it was the “Lord’s ascension by which he has placed our nature in the heavenlies.” It is in this way that we become who we are meant to be, reigning, shining people reflecting the image of God. J.G. Davies writing in the 1950’s in one of the few book-length treatments about the ascension: “”It consummates the reconciliation between man and God which is effected by God putting himself in man’s place at the incarnation and by man being put in God’s place at the ascension.”

The goodness of the whole physical creation is affirmed and restored through the taking up of Jesus’ resurrected body into heaven and his return from there, and he brings all of the glory of God’s redemption with him. This is the hope of the gospel. It is this ascended Lord that we worship and look forward to, who is no longer is asleep in the boat when a storm is coming but is always and everywhere present, and who we encounter when we take the bread and wine as his body to remember his first coming and look forward to and in our living, serving, and working, anticipate his return.

What if Christians were known for our belief in resurrection?

“We believe that a person without a body is incomplete. Salvation involves the renewal of a person’s life in a resurrection body.”

“A body?”

“Yes.”

“An actual body?”

“Yes.”

“So … reincarnation …?”

I witnessed a conversation like this take place a few days ago at a Greek Orthodox church in town. I was there for the annual Greek Festival. Greek food, Greek drink, Greek dancing, Greek jewelry.

And Greek rock walls and Greek bouncy things.

Oh, and of course, Greek Orthodoxy as well. A priest offered tours of the sanctuary, and he explained in detail why the architecture is designed as it is, why icons (images of Christ and the saints) are so important. He even took questions, and one of them led him to this discussion, with this woman in the front row who seemed baffled that Eastern Orthodox Christians keep as central to their idea of salvation the idea of resurrection into an actual body.

The priest gave a fine explanation of what resurrection is, particularly as opposed to reincarnation. Reincarnation is the idea of a soul transferring from body to body over time with no real memory of previous incarnations. Resurrection, on the other hand, is the belief that a person is created and possesses only one body. Death separates a person from his or her body but God will in the age of salvation reconstitute that person to an embodied existence. I leaned over to my Episcopalian friend and whispered “Protestants often forget this.” She nodded in agreement.

I don’t know whether or not this woman was herself a Christian. If she was, I doubt I would be any more surprised by the fact that she found the Christian doctrine of resurrection so foreign to her perception.

Christians have not been known for their belief and hope in resurrection for a long time. We have instead been known for many other things, such as the majority stance on marriage, praiseworthy things such as our commitment to charity, or not so praiseworthy things such as our frequent hypocrisy.

When it comes to the idea of Christian salvation itself, if those outside the Church know anything about it, they probably are familiar with the idea that Christ died for sins. And they probably are aware as well that the majority view among Christians is that salvation is found in Christ alone. And what that salvation probably seems to entail is a disembodied ethereal existence “in” some sort of non-place called “heaven.”

Are Christians ever known for their belief in resurrection? Perhaps that of Jesus alone … I do hear “Happy Zombie Jesus Day” at least once every Easter Sunday. But the fault is our own that we are not known for our belief in resurrection–not just “the resurrection of Christ,” but, properly represented, the resurrection of essentially the world.

The Christian doctrine of resurrection became central after the singular resurrection of Jesus himself. But resurrection formerly conceived in the Jewish thought world was a broad concept. Snippets of the Old Testament (e.g., Isaiah 65) and early Jewish sources indicate a view that God’s salvation at a certain point in the future would consist of him renewing and recreating the physical world–and physical human bodies as part of that world.

Though we can find clear traces of such a belief, it was not nearly as central to Jewish teaching as it would become in early Christianity. After Jesus’s resurrection, hopeful expectation in a renewal of the rest of the world became the cornerstone for the entire doctrine of salvation.

The Nicene Creed, which (whether your church has anything to do with it or not) for over 1.5 millennia has helped provide a canon for what is seen as orthodox, historical, Christian belief, holds to belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

Salvation in an actual, physical body? Sounds more like reincarnation to those who have been accustomed to Christian salvation being concerned with disembodied souls making their way through pearly gates.

This is the way Christians for the past couple centuries or so have articulated what they look forward to, and the wider world has gone along with it. There is no room for belief in a renewed physical existence in this world within this system, and so biblical texts that plainly teach resurrection such as 1 Corinthians 15 are simply not seen for what they are vividly attesting.

So what is the harm of not having a belief in resurrection?

Simply put, the harm is that the physical world proclaimed by God as “good” and even “very good”in Genesis is seen as that which God is seeking to save his people from. The value and beauty of the “stuffness” of the earth and our bodies are diminished. And it is tragic.

It is a distortion. It is twisted. And it makes us friends with death, when death is rather the last enemy to be defeated (see the great resurrection chapter of 1 Corinthians 15). The truth is not that death is good because with it we are finally separated from our bodies; the truth is death is bad because it means our end. Unless we are saved.

Thank God we have such a savior.

What if Christians were known for our hope in the divine redemption instead of the world instead of the divine rejection of the world? What if Christians were known for holding steadfast to the goodness of the world we live in instead of looking forward to an escape from it?

What if Christians were known for our belief in resurrection?

For a very readable, concise introduction to Christian theology that retains the centrality of resurrection, buy the great little book From Resurrection to New Creation: A First Journey in Christian Theology by Michael W. Pahl.

Learning to Look from Maurice Sendak

I’m pretty sure I could count on asking anyone my age if they read Where the Wild Things Are when they were young and they’d probably look at me funny.

Everyone read this book. And I bought a copy for my niece a few years ago to make sure she would.

Its author, Maurice Sendak, died yesterday. He was 83.

On Fresh Air with Terry Gross last night, they aired segments of his interviews that they had broadcast over the past couple of decades.

Sendak was ethnically Jewish, but not so much in the religious sense. When Terry asked him if he ever wishes he had faith, he quickly responded, “No. I don’t need it.”

He went on:

“I am not a religious person, nor do I have any regrets. The war took care of that for me. You know, I was brought up strictly kosher, but I — it made no sense to me. It made no sense to me what was happening. So nothing of it means anything to me. Nothing. Except these few little trivial things that are related to being Jewish. … You know who my gods are, who I believe in fervently? Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson — she’s probably the top — Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats. These are wonderful gods who have gotten me through the narrow straits of life.”

And so faith in God, for this remarkable, sensitive, thoughtful, artistic man, is equated with a need for something to get through life.

With that definition of “God,” I might have to say I don’t need faith either. If I wasn’t a theist, what could otherwise get me “through the narrow straits of life” are those things that I, as a believer, must sometimes call idols in my own life if I were to name them for what they are.

In other words, I don’t believe in God because I don’t love art. I don’t believe in God because I don’t depend on beauty. I don’t believe in God because music does nothing for me, or reading does not satisfy me, or nature or exquisite architecture does not give me peace.

I believe in God not because he is about “getting me through the narrow straits of life.” I could do this with my own Melvilles, Dickinsons, and Mozarts. I believe in God, and I have a choice for faith, because not only of what I believe God is but because of what I believe God is not.

That is, he is beautiful, but he is not the beauty found in one mere sonnet. He is just, but he is not the totality of a righteous decision made the courts. He is love,but he extends way beyond the love that we are capable of demonstrating, or even imagining. He is the creator, but his creative power is not wholly enveloped in these small vessels.

These things, while meaningful in themselves, are pointers to some(thing/one) else. I think I could instruct Sendak on one simple point. But, like all good teachers, I would need to learn my own lesson first. I think we all, for that matter, could learn to do one thing better and better when we are enjoying these things I’ve called “pointers” — LOOK.

Some Luke Timothy Johnson for those who put too much stock in government.

“… I do not agree with those critics of capitalism who make it the cause of all poverty, and propose instead of an economic system that promises to remove all poverty. People are widows and orphans because spouses and parents die; they are poor because of the vagaries of climate and topography, because of volcano and flood, because of poor choices and little talent, because of social collapse, war and revolution, because of injury and disease, because of psychological and cognitive incapacity, because of a lack of freedom and education. Economic systems — yes, forms of capitalism — can exacerbate such forms of poverty, but they do not of and by themselves exclusively create poverty. Nor can a structural change in an economy eliminate all these other causes of poverty. To think so is not to live in the real world” (144).

From Sharing Possessions: What Faith Demands. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.

A Critique of Maurice Casey

Let me start off this discussion by framing it with my acknowledgement of Maurice Casey as a genuine scholar, someone who I respect for his deep engagement with the Bible. Though he is not a believer, he takes the Bible quite seriously. From what little I’ve read of his book so far (I plan to read much more of his work with Aramaic), I appreciate the questions that he makes me ask and the hard facts that he brings to my attention.

I’m currently enjoying his book Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching, but there’s something there I must address. To all 3 of my readers. I treasure each one of you.

Casey recounts the scholarly history of Jesus research in his first chapter entitled “The Quest of the Historical Jesus.” In his discussion of the Jesus Seminar, and at the particular point in which he evaluates R.J. Miller’s efforts to defend the Seminar’s work, Casey cites Miller’s quotations of “opinions about the Seminar’s work which go beyond legitimate scholarly criticism into unscholarly polemic.”

Apparently holding this sort of “unscholarly polemic” in low regard, Casey then ironically returns the favor.

He spends approximately 1 whole page of his book denigrating one scholar–and even the institutions at which he has held teaching positions. According to Casey, not only is this scholar wrong, but both he and his schools don’t even produce actual scholarship.

Casey quotes Miller’s quotation of Ben Witherington III’s remark on p. 48 of his The Jesus Quest: “Too often scholars . . . assume they know better than the early Christians who preserved and collected the sayings of Jesus and composed the Gospels  what Jesus was or was not likely to have said. This assumption is founded on hubris.” Casey follows this up: “Miller is right to see this as rejection of critical scholarship, not just a critique of this Seminar’s work.”

Casey proceeds from stretching this one comment to make it a remark, no a “rejection,” of critical scholarship in general to pointing out that Witherington has a PhD that “qualified him to teach at an independent university,” but wrote these comments while teaching at Ashland Theological Seminary (22). Aside from the implied jibe at Witherington’s choice of institution, Casey goes on to cite the “Core Values” of Ashland, which includes holding the Bible as an infallible revelation from God. He adds that in 1995 Witherington was appointed “Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies” at Asbury Theological Seminary. Actually, Witherington was only hired at Asbury as a full professor in 1995; the Jean R. Amos Chair wasn’t created until Asbury unveiled its Ph.D. in biblical studies only a few years ago.

However, Casey was more thorough in his research on other aspects of Asbury. He cites from Asbury’s “Statement of Faith” that the school holds to an “infallible” view of Scripture, that it is “without error in all it affirms.” Casey is also familiar with its recent inauguration of its new president, Timothy C. Tennent, whom he names. Citing the seminary website for this information (Casey apparently watched the video of the proceedings), and notes “[i]ts trappings of scholarship . . . replete with lots of distinguished-looking academic gowns.”

If his derisive tone isn’t evident already, Casey makes his mockery explicit: “All these statements illustrate the hollowness of the trappings, because they ensure that independent critical thought is not allowed.”

Here’s where I make my own bias known if it isn’t already. I had three classes with Ben Witherington at my time at Asbury Theological Seminary enroute to an M.A. in biblical studies, which I finished in December 2011. Critiquing Witherington’s comments on Jesus scholarship in a published book is certainly fair game, especially in a scholarly book on Jesus, but ridiculing a seminary faculty’s academic gowns as a hollow sign of its supposed scholarly inauthenticity is a whole other matter. Simply because they teach at a confessional theological seminary with official statements on what they collectively believe about the theological nature of the Bible, does not in the slightest degree diminish the scholarly qualifications and contributions of a faculty who have completed Ph.D.’s at respected institutions and further our knowledge of the biblical texts.

One wonders what motivates Casey’s bitterness. Well, Casey connects all this to some remarks Witherington made in Christianity Today about the University of Sheffield. Casey quotes Witherington as saying that faculty at Sheffield were “bent on the deconstruction of the Bible, and indeed of their students’ faith.”

Aside from picking at Witherington’s “unacademic” use of the term “deconstruction” (The way that Witherington uses it, in the sense of “tear apart,” is not in fact listed in my dictionary. Casey has a point, but I have heard this usage come from the mouths of several other scholars, N.T. Wright for example, who Casey sees as a genuine scholar. The way people use words changes. Before long this could very well be a legitimate meaning listed in the dictionaries.), Casey notes that this resulted in some intense blog discussions involving Witherington and former students of Casey’s, James Crossley and Stephanie Fisher. As it turns out, Casey’s book is itself dedicated to Crossley and Fisher, who are both praised by Casey as having “completely independent minds” (In Casey’s lingo this means they’re “not religious.”) Crossley now teaches at Sheffield. (Stephanie Fisher is quite efficient at making the rounds of biblical studies blogs and offering her thoughts under the name “steph.” When I find her comments on one of my posts, I’ll know I’ve made it. More likely, though, is that we’ll just know that she’s got a lot of time on her hands.)

In these blog discussions, Witherington apparently added that “Sheffield has deliberately avoided hiring people of faith.” Casey says this claim is false. “Unlike American theological seminaries, ‘independent’ [scare quotes mine] British universities like Sheffield do not discriminate on grounds of religion …”

So, Casey continues, Witherington (don’t forget this book is actually supposed to be about Jesus) has demonstrated that he does not understand “independent” British universities (though he got his Ph.D. from one) and that Witherington “does not always tell the truth”! So he’s ignorant about something he should know something about, and to top it off, he’s a liar.

So concludes the first quest for the historical Ben Witherington.

And it is totally out of place. If Casey had a bone to pick against Witherington and wanted to pick it in a published format he should do like I’m doing — get a blog and rant. It’s a shame that he’s made a big book about Jesus that’s already big enough even bigger by a discussion that adds nothing to his “independent” account of Jesus’ life and teaching. After all, I paid for these pages.

Indeed, it’s always the easiest route to discount a scholar’s points through argumentum ad hominem and discount the scholar’s very status as a scholar, but it is much more relevant to actually argue the points themselves.

So anyway, I guess I’m playing the same game Casey plays in regards to the Sheffield debate, by defending the one I hold in high regard. But I don’t make any apologies for doing so on my personal blog that people can view for free. For what it’s worth, Witherington mentioned Casey several times in my classes and had only positive things to say about his work.

One last serious critique of Casey and hopefully I won’t have another throughout the rest of the book.

Casey’s usages of the word “independent” that I have quoted so far have had scare quotes around them because of the ridiculous way in which he uses it. Not only does it feature prominently in his book’s subtitle (An Independent Historian’s Account …) but he repeatedly asserts throughout the book that what this means is that he is not of a religious persuasion. Therefore he is “independent” and the implication is that his portrait of Jesus is all the more reliable because he is objective. Well hopefully he is aware of the fact that we’re all biased and no one is objective. To not be a Jew or a Christian (especially within the realm of Jesus studies) is to have a religious position and does not in any way make you “independent” or objective. Not to mention that Casey is himself a former Christian, having left the faith in the 1960’s as he admits (39). His praising of Crossley and Fisher as having “completely independent minds” as he does is strangely cult-like.

That being said, I really like Casey. It’s actually enjoyable to read academic material in which the author’s personality is reflected, and though he does have a chip on his shoulder, he is quite fair in his treatments and does actually come closer to what we may call objectivity than many other scholars do. Maybe that’s what’s so frustrating about this “independent mind” talk. We have a scholar here who if he just does his job people will see that he is rather even-handed with his treatment of the work of Christian, Jewish, and atheist/agnostic scholars, and that he really is on a quest for historical truth. And one that has a sharp mind and massive learning to help him on the way. Why he feels the need to defend himself, or worse, sectarianize himself with those who think similarly to him I am not sure.

The diversity of images of Jesus in the New Testament . . .

The diversity of images of Jesus in the New Testament is indeed dazzling … None of them captures all of Jesus; none is without some truth concerning Jesus. We are incredibly enriched precisely by their abundance and diversity, and we would be impoverished by the loss of any of them (198).

Luke Timothy Johnson so concludes in his book Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (San Francisco: Harper, 2000), a sequel to his The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (San Francisco: Harper, 1997).

In the latter Johnson not only tore apart the method and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar, but also laid out his view that the entire quest for the historical Jesus is basically irrelevant, especially to Christians.

Living Jesus is Johnson’s response to the question of what is relevant for Christians when it comes to Jesus, and for him it comes to us in two parts.

1) It’s about focusing on the portrait(s) of Jesus that we get through the literary presentations in the New Testament documents. In this way, we learn Jesus not through getting at the historical Jesus that lies behind the texts but the Jesus that we encounter in the texts themselves.

2) It’s about acknowledging the Jesus that is “known and loved in the community of faith not as an object of study but as a personal presence and sustaining power” (23).

And these two elements are intertwined through the high importance placed upon church tradition, for the NT documents themselves that show us Jesus were composed by those who believed they knew him as presently alive in Spirit.

As Johnson explains, “Their memory of his past was selected and shaped by their continuing experience of him in the present. But by no means did that present experience obliterate or falsify that past; rather the church understood that it saw more truly into who Jesus had been because of who he now was” (24).

And these selected and shaped memories are what have been handed down to us in canonical Scripture.

Johnson honestly faces the next issue when we consider that the Jesus we encounter in Scripture are based on those decisions on how to write him, and on those decisions that took these writings and established them as authoritative Scripture.

“How can we ever know that the decisions made in the past were correct? How could one be sure that the image of Jesus in the four canonical Gospels–so obviously different from that in the Gnostic Gospels–is in fact that true image of Jesus? One cannot know such things with certainty. This risk requires a trust in God that the community meeting in the name of the resurrected Jesus through all these centuries has not fundamentally been misled” (25).

The main part of the book breaks down into two major parts: one is where Johnson discusses learning the living Jesus in worship, in the lives of saints, and in the “little ones of the earth” (i.e., young, poor, weak, lowly).

The other main part which is by far the bulk of its pages is Johnson’s close look at the portraits of Jesus found in the various writings of the NT. What is most valuable about following Johnson’s approach here is taking into serious account what he calls the “most basic issue that every reader must inevitably confront, namely the diversity of testimony concerning Jesus” (79). What Johnson means here is that the “compositions simply do not speak with one voice” (79).

Readers then have a choice. “Will they refuse to acknowledge this diversity and insist on collapsing all the voices into one?”

or,

“will they recognize that each of the compositions–human interpretations of a person whose life, death, and resurrection far exceeded the normal categories of human experience–has genuine value as testimony to some particular facet of Jesus,”

but

“none of them alone (nor all of them together) adequate or comprehensively captures the living reality that is Jesus?” (79-80).

This is indeed the challenge that you face when coming to the NT for an understanding of Jesus, and the typical response especially in more recent times has been to deny the diversity and produce a unity portrait of Jesus that is actually found nowhere in the NT. Johnson himself chooses the other option, as do I.

I very much agree with his focus on the fact that these are literary traditions, and that we should respect and embrace the diversity of portraits of Jesus that we find within the Bible. We haven’t always been the best at doing this, but we should be! The simplest and most forthright reason being that the church has preserved four different biographies of Jesus within its authoritative canon of Scripture. The efforts of those such as Marcion (who wanted only one Gospel) and those such as Tatian (who produced one big Gospel with all the four mushed together) to reject this diversity among the Gospels were ultimately rejected by the universal church.

The church saw the good in diversity when it comes to talking about who Jesus is.

The problem with acknowledging diversity, though, clashes with the modern tendency to view truth as only singular. Those Gospel harmonies that are out there go along with this with their mission to do away with the diversity by resolving differences among the accounts.

Johnson argues, rightfully in my view, that the issue assumes that the Gospels intend to report mere facts and that a very simple correspondence between facts and report leads us to what the truth actually is. Truth must be singular, not plural.

But we have plural portraits of Jesus in the NT, or what Johnson calls a “rich diversity.”

He adds, “Attempts to deny or suppress this rich diversity for the sake of a simple or univocal understanding of Jesus require that violence be done to the very compositions that bear witness to him and interpret him” (199).

In other words, we end up with a Jesus that isn’t even represented in the NT but a Jesus of our own making.

Diversity being properly accounted for, don’t worry; there is plenty of unity in all of the NT portraits of Jesus. And Johnson centers this unity around what he sees as “the most consistent testimony in the writings of the New Testament,” the character of Jesus. And, “that there is a necessary congruence between the character of Jesus’ human life and the character of Christian discipleship …

“Jesus is everywhere associated with faithful obedience toward God and meek, compassionate, and self-emptying service toward other people” (200).

____

While I don’t dismiss an historical approach to the Gospels and Jesus as much as Johnson does, I certainly like his approach here and the points that he makes about taking into serious account who Jesus is according to Mark, according to Hebrews, according to Revelation, etc. We have such a tendency to systematize all the time and put the biblical testimony into manageable little boxes that we miss out on the fact that what we have in the NT asides from history is artistic portrayal, and perhaps even important, the stories of which the larger story of God and his mission in the world is composed. The diverse witness in the NT about who Jesus is portrays for us who Jesus was with much greater depth, mystery, and awe than any singular representation. It presents us with not just a dead figure of the past; it points us with greater resonance to who Jesus is as we surrender ourselves to the “overwhelming reality of the living Lord, who continues to surprise” (32).