What Jesus was doing on Saturday

Jesus died and was buried on a Friday afternoon.

Although the New Testament makes no claim on exactly when he was raised from the dead, the assumption is that he was resurrected early Sunday morning–at least after sunset on Saturday.

What was Jesus doing between sunset Friday and sunset Saturday? Between death and resurrection?

Nothing in particular?

Many Christians, especially in ancient through medieval and even in modern times, assume that what he was doing must have been something particularly Christian in nature. It was even thought by some that he went to preach in Hell. This even made its way into the Apostle’s Creed.

Christians haven’t been particularly aware or even open to the Jewishness of Jesus. Some Christians were even antagonistic to such an idea. But he was Jewish. Christianity as we know it does not exist without its entirely Jewish basis and framework, and so when this Jewish context is ignored, and the story of Israel remains forgotten, a distorted, diminished Christianity remains. Even the name “Christian” is from a Greek word representing a Jewish concept: Messiah. Anointed, rightful, Davidic, king of Israel.

When we “accept Christ,” we accept a king of a certain ethnic group/nation/religion. That ethnic group/nation/religion happens to be that of the Jewish people.

Augustine is definitely the most influential father of the church. I would say that he is probably one of the most influential figures for

Last known photo of Augustine.

Last known photo of Augustine

the Western world, period.

And I disagree with so much of what he says. But, gosh, was he smart. And he had a heart of gold. And he battled for things that the church needs to be battling for.

One is anti-Semitism, evidence of which in our own time have tragically broken out recently. Anti-Semitism is an ironic, even self-contradictory position for a Christian to hold. Those who do are usually driven by necessity to say that Jesus was not Jewish.

Against Faustus, a former fellow Manichae, Augustine asserts that, yes was Jewish, and so observant and devoutly Jewish was he that he did not rise from the dead immediately because it was sunset on Friday by the time he was in the tomb.

It was the onset of the Sabbath, and lifting up his body would be work.

So in the tomb, Jesus waits until the Jewish Shabbat is complete so that he could do the rather considerable work of rising from the dead.

Unless Christ had considered this Sabbath-which in your want of knowledge and of piety you laugh at–one of the prophecies written of Himself, He would not have borne such a testimony to it as He did. For when, as you say in praise of Christ, He suffered voluntarily, and so could choose His own time for suffering and for resurrection, He brought it about that His body rested from all its works on Sabbath in the tomb, and that His resurrection on the third day, which we call the Lord’s day, the day after the Sabbath …

Contra Faustum, 16.29

Remarkably, for Augustine, even at his resurrection–and even with how he deals with his resurrection–Jesus remains Jewish. This is good news. Not because the most pervasive problem for Christians and Judaism in our world today is violent anti-Semitism (I’m glad to say that it is not), rather, it is a Christianity without its Jewish basis and framework that has been pulled up from its roots in the story of the people of Israel. All with a decontextualized Jesus to match. If you’re still looking for some Eastertide reading, I suggest The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine.

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I do not think that “interview” between Stephen Colbert and Bart Ehrman means what you think it means.

There’s been a lot of changes going on recently. I’ve already experienced so many changes in 2014  that the past several months have  been like one big reminder that time gets away from us, and the future just keeps rushing on in. Some of these have been major changes, and the impact of the major ones highlights the minor ones. And one of the minor ones that have had something of an impact on me is that David Letterman will be leaving late night TV.

And I’m not even what could be called a faithful viewer of Letterman. I’m not always watching TV of any sort late at night, and when I have he’s actually annoyed me in some pretty major ways. So much so, that a few years ago I went away to Leno for several years when I actually did happen to be in front of a TV after 10:30. But, my official endorsement of Letterman is that he’s extremely funny and a gifted host. And he’s been on TV practically every single week night since I’ve been alive. So I’ll miss seeing him on.

In this new era, Stephen Colbert, the long-time creator and host of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, will be taking his place. And since that was announced just recently, the buzz around him this Eastertide has renewed interest in an interview he did several years ago on his show with Bart Ehrman, an agnostic formerly Christian New Testament scholar at UNC Chapel Hill.

Bart Ehrman on Stephen Colbert's The Colbert ReportIn this episode, Ehrman is on the show not necessarily to discuss his work (because a “discussion” isn’t exactly what you get on The Colbert Report), but basically just to sit as a target for Colbert as he fires off his comedic routine impersonating a super-obnoxious, hyper-conservative talk show host. Ehrman, as the guest (from whom Colbert always hilariously steals the applause from even as he welcomes them), is supposed to act as the target for Colbert’s interruptions and retorts and snarky remarks while his recent book serves as the topic (or, at least what the topic is “supposed to be”). For this interview, the “topic” is the release of Ehrman’s book, Jesus Interrupted–Ehrman’s overview of what he sees as contradictions in the New Testament.

Here’s the point: I keep having to use scare quotes to describe all of this, because it’s not a real interview. This is satire.

The problem is that the video of this interview is being passed around on social media by Christians celebrating it as a big defeat of the non-believing scholar by the Christian talk show host. And it all has probably been spurred, or at least supported, by the Christian Post recently publishing it online under the headline “Bible Critic Says Jesus Isn’t God, Stephen Colbert Leaves Him Speechless – You’ll Be Cheering at the End.”

This is all rather problematic, because of three major reasons:

  • Reason #1: While, yes, (the real) Colbert appears to be a devout Catholic, he’s not the obnoxious hyper-conservative that he portrays on his show. This is why there’s been anticipation building about Colbert’s character as host of The Late Show. He has responded by confirming that he will indeed be doing the show as himself, not as his character on The Colbert Report. There’s a reason why people are wondering what that’s going to look like. They haven’t seen much of it before. So, when Colbert is talking with (at) Ehrman, it is satire. Colbert, in posing challenges to Ehrman, is actually at the same time making fun of his own challenges.

Well, ok, but even if he’s not being 100% genuine, Colbert is still refuting Ehrman’s points, right? And shouldn’t I just stop not-picking and be satisfied that he’s doing so even if many people may not realize that he’s playing a satirical character? Well, unforunately, no, because:

  • Reason #2 –> Colbert’s challenges are awful. But that’s the point. This isn’t a problem if you recognize that this is entertainment, and I wouldn’t even begin to fault Colbert for it because he is impersonating a sort of fictional character that shares his name. It would be just as big a mistake to fault Colbert’s points as it would be to embrace them as legitimate.

And this is why I write about it–Christians misinterpreting Colbert’s interaction with Ehrman as genuine, and then taking that and upholding it as a praiseworthy model for emulation for how Christians (or anyone, for that matter) ought to engage in conversation with people who believe differently than they do stretches and breaks the extent of what I can tolerate.

But again, I can’t fault Colbert. I can only fault (and hopefully help to correct) those who misunderstand what Colbert is doing and think that it is actually worth celebrating, and heaven-forbid, worth imitating.

If we think not listening, constantly interrupting, and taking the “LALALALALA I can’t hear you LALALALALA” approach to conversations with non-Christians is the way to do things, we’ve got a much bigger problem than supposed contradictions in the Bible.

  • And this brings us to reason #3 why this entire flurry of excitement is completely misguided: Contrary to the Christian Post headline, Ehrman never says that Jesus is not God, and he is not left speechless. Though he might actually like it if people stopped believing in Christianity as he did, his goal and his work as an author does not directly and explicitly challenge the truth of Christianity, or the divinity of Jesus.

Now, the “discussion” does immediately center on the truth of Christianity, but–that’s not Ehrman’s doing. Ehrman is there to have a discussion (under a comedic guise, remember) about his book detailing what he sees as contradictions in the Bible, but the discussion turns immediately to the truth of Christianity. These are two different things. The question of contradictions in the Bible is not the same question as the question of the truth of Christianity.

It is Colbert’s character that takes the discussion there. As soon as Ehrman starts to provide some details about what his book is about, Colbert interrupts with his sarcastic question, “Ok, so why is the Bible one big lie?” But that’s not Ehrman’s point, that’s not what Ehrman believes (even as an agnostic former Christian), and that’s not what Ehrman is there to “talk about.”

Every time Ehrman starts to talk about some of his points, Colbert interrupts–as he repeatedly does–I hardly think this is worth celebrating. “What are you talking about, Jesus was the Son of GOD,” Colbert says. “Even Jesus recognized that. You read the Gospel of John, ever?”

Three points:

  • Ehrman doesn’t write about whether Jesus was (or is) the Son of God. And the conversation was not taken by Ehrman to whether Jesus actually was the Son of God. It was taken here by Colbert.
  • Colbert goes straight to John in his sarcastic “challenge” to what Ehrman is saying, which reveals an actual point Ehrman could talk at length about (given the chance), and which he does write about in his book that he’s “there to discuss.” This point is how different John is from the rest of the Gospels, and why.
  • And, of course, Ehrman has read John. If you take Colbert’s character literally here, it gives the impression that Ehrman is out to wreck the Christian’s faith but that he hasn’t actually reckoned with what Jesus said in John. Of course Ehrman has read John. He’s completely capable of reading it in its original Greek, and his scholarly expertise is in the manuscript traditions (the copies and copies and copies made of biblical documents like the Gospel of John) that would actually tell us about about how that original text of John has come down to us. So, Ehrman is aware of the content of John. Just saying “But Jesus said he was!” isn’t a worthy response to Ehrman’s points (had he the chance to make them), primarily because it’s not even dealing with the substance of Ehrman’s work. A worthy response would be, rather, to then deal with the question of whether Jesus actually did make those claims, what they mean, and why it matters either way. But, again, I’m not faulting Colbert! He’s not trying to engage Ehrman in a serious way, and within the context of his satirical show, he’s not even supposed to. But if we still want to think that he is serious, are we going to embrace his point about Matthew, Mark, and Luke being rough drafts that don’t quite get things right until John finally does?

“You know the early Jews better than the early Jews?” Taken seriously, Ehrman can’t comment on early Jews because by doing so he’s saying he knows more about them than they do. This is nonsensical. He’s not trying to understand them better than they did – he’s just trying to understand the early Jews better than people do today! But, nonsensical as it is, it works well for Colbert’s show.

What’s the Son of a Duck? A duck! So the son of God is God, right? In Old Testament Israelite religion, “son of God” does indeed refer to non-divine beings, as Ehrman says. It refers to humans and angels. But, fitting better with the duck analogy, in Greco-Roman religion a son of god was a god, but not God. The son of Zeus was not Zeus, but Hercules.

And then, the elephant analogy that supposedly leaves Ehrman speechless. It might be a good analogy for something somewhere, but not here. It’s not relevant. It doesn’t deal with either contradictions in the Bible, or how the Gospel authors shaped their accounts, or how we read the Gospel accounts, or even the truth of Christianity–which is what Colbert made the conversation about in the first place.

So if we’re going to (wrongly) take Colbert literally, I fail to see what point Ehrman is missing so that the elephant analogy has any meaning or significance at all.

He’s not taking Ehrman to task–he’s playing the hyper-conservative, obnoxious know-it-all that has always been his satirical character on The Colbert Report. Ehrman wasn’t “owned.” He wasn’t quiet because he didn’t have anything to say, he himself was playing along the whole time, knowing full-well that the show was satirical. He didn’t have to fight to get his point heard, because that wasn’t the point. The Colbert Report gives him publicity for his work, and that’s it. The rest is fun and games. “I am divine and you are the branches.” Ehrman is completely relaxed so as to even let loose a bad pun.

And if you actually know anything about Ehrman other than that he’s supposed to be the bad guy, he’s not prone to be left speechless by anyone. Even in a debate he did with N.T. Wright, who is without a doubt the most formidable representative of the more “conservative” side of biblical scholarship, with whom I would side going into the debate and with whom I ended up siding with at its conclusion, Ehrman is anything but left speechless.

Now Ehrman clearly has an axe to grind. As a former Christian who is now agnostic, he is clearly biased against Christianity. I don’t think it’s his goal in life to get people to renounce Christianity, but the tone of his work (or at least the titles given to it by the publishers) doesn’t sit real well with me because it does seem geared to not just teach people about early Christianity but to at least challenge their faith, even if this is not what he is overtly doing. So it’s a little odd for me to offer such a defense of Ehrman, as I have. But then again, his books are well-written and informative and point out things that Christians need to consider. And everyone would see this if they actually read his books. 

I’m not prone to cover hot topics, but it matters that Christians can actually think in an informed, reasonable way, that we study the Bible and its ancient contexts, that we’re able to educate our own people and talk intelligently, respectfully with people who believe differently in a way that’s beneficial for both parties. I think we’re in need of urgent correction if we jump on false opportunities like misinterpreting a satirical “interview,” and hailing it as a victory for our side and a defeat for the other when the only real lesson we can learn from it is what not to do if what we really do want to do is represent Jesus well and listen before we respond.

That’s not what Colbert does, and thankfully that’s not what he’s expected to do while using his fake persona on The Colbert Report. And for what it’s worth, the Bart Ehrman episode is pretty amusing. Colbert is a funny man. I look forward to seeing a fellow believer–in his real persona, no less!–host The Late Show. 

Some people still think The Da Vinci Code was on to something. :(

I like to think of myself as a pretty open-minded person. I’m willing to at least consider any proposition, even if I don’t end up accepting it. I don’t hide from questions, because I do value the truth and believe in an ambitious–albeit humble–pursuit of it. Truth itself fears no questions; nor should I.

So, I’ll admit that I’m quite ready to embrace anyone’s thoughts about Christianity, however antagonistic or confused or favorable in their tone they may be. But thoughts are one thing, and propositions are something else. Propositions demand evaluation, or they aren’t even being heard in the first place.

And there’s one particular proposition about Christianity–one that seems popular especially in my generation–that looks like weTHE DA VINCI CODE just can’t get away from, and that I have little patience for:

This is the proposition that the New Testament Gospels have been exposed as late, Christianized documents that present a falsified Jesus that the church wants you to believe in. And that the other Gospels made famous in The Da Vinci Code over a decade ago now reveal to us at last the real, authentic, cool, captivating Jesus that the church has concealed from us. Now at last, so it goes, we’ve got the real Jesus unladen with all the stuff that connects him to Christians and the church and … “organized religion.”

If this proposition is motivated and perpetuated by the comfort and convenience it affords you in being able to so easily dismiss the Christian claims about Jesus, well, I’m breaking it to you: you’re not actually accomplishing that much. Unfortunately, Christians themselves are far too often to blame for the rise of this misperception, but a lot less of the Christian faith stands or falls based on what conclusions someone may draw about the biblical text than what we so often assume.

But, at the same time, people like me aren’t doing that much to demonstrate the truth of the Christian claims about Jesus by holding fast to our historically-reasoned position that the New Testament Gospels are the best sources for material about his life.

What I mean is this: The craziest–and the most important–things that Christians are going to ask you to believe don’t have anything to do with completely inerrant Scriptures or a literal seven-day creation or even that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John actually are our best sources for the life of Jesus and the non-canonical Gospels aren’t.

Rather, they have to do with things like, believing

    • that your life is not your own.
    • that the creator of all things loves you, and the people you don’t love
    • that God himself knows intimately and cares passionately about the meaning, value, joys, and sorrows of human life.
    • that God indwells, works in, and works through you and the person totally unlike you.
    • that loving your enemy and dying daily and considering the good of other people above your own is your calling.
    • and a whole bunch of other crazy–and important–things.

To acknowledge the historical primacy of the New Testament Gospels is not necessarily to agree

  • that every single bit of them is historical.
  • that they are inspired.
  • that they are the Word of God.
  • that Jesus died for your sins, is God in flesh, and will return one day.

Rather, to acknowledge the historical primacy of the New Testament Gospels is to agree, as a matter of history, that the four New Testament Gospels are the earliest and the most reliable sources for gaining knowledge about the first-century Jewish man known as Jesus who came from Nazareth.

And by the way, I actually think there stands a decent chance of some genuine sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, for example, but no historian has offered an adequate argument in support of holding any non-canonical Gospel as earlier or more historically reliable than the New Testament Gospels.

[A little anecdote, as an aside: When I was doing research for an article I wrote about the non-extant Gospel of the Hebrews, I asked a well-known historical Jesus scholar why he had dated this writing as earlier than the New Testament Gospels. His answer? “To be provocative.” Now that he mentions it, provocativeness may explain, at least in part, our culture’s fascination with the secondary Gospels. People like a good conspiracy theory.]

And so, I have little patience, as I said, for the proposition that the Gospels of Thomas, and Mary, and Philip give us the real Jesus because when the conversation gets to this level, we aren’t actually dealing with what its proponents think we’re dealing with.

You don’t get to escape from the question of who Jesus was that easily.

And I don’t get to trap you into believing what I believe about Jesus that easily only because I think the canonical Gospels are the best ones to read if you want to know about Jesus. Even if that actually is true.