Tag Archives: New Testament

RLST 201: Week 5 Discussion Summary

There were many rich insights this week, which made it difficult to know where to focus my summary reflections. If time were not so limited, I would enjoy following up with pages of reflection on any of the following:

  • The patriarchal and patrilineal bias in the Lukan genealogy, and what the virgin birth of Jesus could have meant in terms of his membership in humanity.
  • The baptismal practices of the Essenes (Dead Sea Sectarians), how John the Baptist is reminiscent of the Essenes, as is Jesus in his desert sojourn.
  • The connections between Aesop’s stories and Jesus’ temptation.

But I also saw a potentially transformative moment for our class in the responses to my footnote on Annas and Caiaphas, which got some pushback. Disclaimer: by no means do I know everything, and I have been and will continue to be wrong about many things, so I welcome students reading, verifying, and checking the scholarly literature about any of the claims I make, this one included.

It’s certainly possible to find commentaries or articles out there that try to explain away the historically inaccurate claim of a dual priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. But there are also many commentaries and articles that honestly accept it and try to understand it, instead of explaining it away. Those who have or will have CRIT lenses, feel free to check me on this!

More broadly, this is one of literally 10,000s of examples of texts in the Bible not being historically accurate. Just in the last few chapters of Luke, we’ve seen that the genealogies of Matthew and Luke are radically contradictory, that the birth stories in Matthew and Luke vary by ten years as to when Jesus would be born, etc. Again, whenever you have your CRIT lenses, use it as an opportunity to check what some of the leading scholars on the Gospel of Luke have to say about the Annas and Caiaphas thing, or the dating of the birth of Jesus, or the contradictions between the Matthean and Lukan genealogies.

Please know here that I’m not trying at all to tear down the New Testament. On the contrary, I love it deeply and passionately! I’ve devoted much of my life, time, talent, and energy to studying it. To me, these texts are incredibly beautiful and powerful.

It is precisely because I respect these texts that I let them speak for themselves and try my best to listen to other ancient voices that would help me hear what was originally being intended in these texts. Because I respect these texts, I let them be whatever they really are, in all of their complexity, their inconsistencies, their biases, etc.

Studying Scripture academically can be kinda like falling in love. At first, you may believe that your beloved is perfect, flawless, and incomparable. And nobody could convince you otherwise, try as they may. That was definitely how I felt about the Bible when I was in my late teens and early twenties, so I get where some of you are coming from.

But if you give love time and cultivate it with prolonged, honest intimacy, they you will eventually come to see that your beloved is actually very imperfect, but still beloved in spite of and even because of these imperfections.

That’s real love. Not trying to make your beloved into something different, but letting your beloved be exactly what your beloved really is.

So we need to be careful to respect these ancient texts enough to let them say whatever it is they are saying, even if we find it to be historically problematic or inaccurate when compared with other sources of information. Our pre-existing assumptions that these texts have to be historically accurate and perfect are far more a self-reflection of our needs rather than an objective interpretation of these texts in their original historical and literary contexts.

Let me conclude with some Socratic questions to ponder, and then a pedagogical prayer.

  • Why would it be a problem for books in the Bible to have historical inaccuracies?
  • Pretty much all human writings that touch upon history have historical inaccuracies, so why not also the books that made it into the canon?
  • What does it say about our theology that we find the humanity of these texts problematic?
  • Do we view God as controlling/dictating humans, our history, and the production of our texts?
  • Is there authentic human freedom, thought, and creativity? If so, why wouldn’t that apply to the Bible as well?
  • Does the Bible really need us to protect and defend it? From what? From itself?

May your love for these texts grow into a fearless maturity that lets them be exactly what they are, and not what we or anybody else wants to force them to be.

RLST 201: Week 4 Discussion Summary: Body and Soul, (No) Birth Narratives, and Interpreting the Interpreters

There were several threads this week that piqued the interest of several students as well as my own interest. Since I can’t cover everything, I’ll pick three matters on which to focus for this post.

Body and Soul

There was some interesting discussion among students about the relationship of the body and soul. It’s important here to note that Christians through the centuries have borrowed the idea of the soul from Plato’s philosophy. In Plato’s thought, psyche (soul) is invisible and immaterial. It pre-exists the body, temporarily inhabits the body, and then leaves the body after death. In Christian theology, this usually is expressed in terms of the soul coming into the body (at conception or later), the soul inhabiting the body, and then the soul leaving the body and going to heaven or hell.

What Christians through the centuries have not recognized (or perhaps not wanted to recognize) is that this view of the soul is not based on the Bible, but instead on Plato. If you scan some translations of the Hebrew Bible / TaNaKh / Old Testament, you can find the terms “soul” and “spirit.” But nefesh (usually translated soul) means “life.” It is not an invisible thing that pre-exists the body or lives on after the body. It is the life-force that courses through the body. Similarly, ruach (usually translated spirit) means “breath” or “wind.” It is not an invisible object or ghostly version of ourselves. It is the breath we breathe, from the moment we are born until the moment we die. (Incidentally, these different understandings of soul and spirit are crucial to why Judaism has a very different ethical assessment of abortion than do most Christian traditions today.)

The New Testament does show hints of being influenced by Platonic thought about the soul, but its anthropology is customarily holistic, in keeping with Hebrew tradition, or focused on the resurrection of the body, in keeping with Zoroastrian tradition.

No Birth Narrative!?!

Several students found in their ancient lenses that there were few if any connections with Luke 1-2. This might have felt like a failure to find connections, but I see it far more as a success to see and be honest about the differences among these texts. Yes, Q did not have a birth narrative. Yes, the Gospel of Phillip did not have a birth narrative. This was also the case for the majority of Gospels written in the 2nd century. In the broader sweep of the earliest Christian literature, Matthew and Luke were strange for their focus on Jesus’ birth. Some roughly contemporaneous texts followed their lead and expanded their themes, especially the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (IGT) and the Protoevangelium of James (PJ).

So then the question is why. Why did Matthew and Luke and IGT and PJ have birth narratives, but most other Gospels did not? Why did Mark, the earliest Gospel written, not say anything about Jesus’ birth or childhood except (maybe) that his mother’s name was Mary (Mark 16:1)? For that matter, why did Paul, the earliest author represented in the texts of the New Testament, say almost nothing about Jesus’ birth and childhood except that he was “descended from David” (Rom 1:3)? Why did John, which speaks so emphatically about Jesus being the incarnate Word of God, ignore his birth and childhood?

When one steps back and looks at these texts with the critical eye of an historian, it leads to a healthy scepticism about the historicity of the birth traditions in Matthew, Luke, IGT and PJ. The earliest Christian texts didn’t say anything about Jesus’ birth and childhood likely because they simply didn’t have much information or interest in them. As time went on, Christians became more curious about the birth and childhood of Jesus, and as their curiosity grew, so did the texts and traditions treating of Jesus’ birth. Matthew’s birth narratives, written between 80 and 120 CE, started down this path of curiosity. Luke’s birth narratives, written between 120 and 150 CE, expanded it. By the late 2nd century, IGT and PJ expanded these traditions even more.

Interpreting the Interpreters

As students read later interpretations of Luke (Later Lenses), a skill that I want everyone to cultivate is to think critically about later interpretations and how they differ from the original meanings of the texts. Interpreters throughout history have their own cultures, biases, prejudices, priorities, and perspectives. If we look carefully at later interpretations of Luke, we can see their self-reflections embedded in their interpretations.

One potentially instructive example of this during week 4 was an interpretation by Ambrose of Milan. Regarding the story in Luke 1 about the elderly Elizabeth finally becoming pregant, Ambrose says, “But once a person has reached a more advanced age, an age more apt for instructing children than for giving them birth, there is a sense of shame in presenting the outward signs of a marriage that has been consummated – however honourable and legitimate that union may have been” (Luke, trans. Tomkinson, p. 24).

Critical scholarly commentaries on the books of the Bible where stories of barren or elderly women become pregnant (e.g., Sarah in Genesis, Hannah in 1 Samuel, and Elizabeth in Luke) give a very different take. (Feel free to check!) In ancient Semitic patrilineal cultures, having a child—especially a male—was seen as a tremendous blessing for a woman. Any prior barrenness would likely have been seen as a curse, and thus an unexpected pregnancy and birth would be a reversal of the curse. Such a woman’s social status and economic security, tied to the son who would take over control of the household, would be elevated greatly.

Ambrose, therefore, is likely not reflecting the original context of this passage. What is he reflecting then? Himself, his time, culture, and context!

Ambrose was an aristocrat and politically connected bishop in late 4th century northern Italy. His claim that Elizabeth’s late-aged pregnancy brings shame reflects his own aristocratic Roman cultural context.

This is the exact kind of gap or dissonance that I want to train you all to see with every passage in the New Testament. These texts had ancient contexts and meanings (revealed by the use of Ancient Lenses), but later interpreters had different contexts and thus transformed these meanings.

Every week, every assignment in this class is a chance to find and explore examples of this ancient vs. later dissonance. The research bibliography, discussion forums, topic paper, and even the creative project.

RLST 201: Week 3 Discussion Summary (Reader-Response and the book of Revelation)

The exercise of summarizing each of the books of the New Testament proved more useful than I had first imagined. My primary goal was for students to do a quick, skim read of each of the books of the New Testament so as to get an overview. I’ve been thinking about having everyone do the same thing at the end of the semester to see if your summaries would change, but I haven’t decided whether to do that yet. One way to go about this is to see whether and how your individual summaries cohere or conflict with some of the handouts I provided at the start of the semester about the authorship and date of the books of the New Testament.

Even at this point, though, at least one poignant take-away comes to mind. A very brief comparison of everyone’s individual summaries reveals lots of overlaps, but also lots of differences.

How is it possible that all of us read over the same books and yet have came up with such different summaries of their meanings?

You may recall that one of the methods we discussed in Week 2 is Reader Response. The basic idea of this method is that readers bring their own meaning and interpretive tendencies to the text. This is not necessarily bad. Indeed, good texts often intentionally leave gaps so as to create more engagement from a greater variety of readers.

Ironically, one of the best ways to see this tendency is in the history of the interpretation of the book of Revelation.

Remember the pictures of Jesus, how different cultures make Jesus look like them?

That’s exactly what happens all the time with the book of Revelation. People frequently use Revelation to predict the end of the world in their own lifetimes.

Each generation the predictions and players change, but one thing remains consistent across history.

All of their predictions end up being dead wrong.

Luther, for instance, pictured the Pope as the Anti-Christ and predicted the end of the world in the 16th century. His end times predictions helped him start the German Reformation, but they obviously ended up being wrong.

Seventh Day Adventists (a denomination of 17 million today) were started by a preacher named William Miller who predicted end of the world would come in the 19th century and people could see it on a mountain. His were obviously wrong, but the hype leading up to his predictions led to this grand error being known as the “Great Disappointment.”

Those are just two examples out of hundreds.

More problematic is that these interpretations of Revelation tend to be very ethnocentric and nationalistic. US interpreters tend to picture the US as God’s chosen people and picture foreigners (Russians during the Red Scare, Arabs/Muslims more recently) as the bad guys.

So Revelation is used to underwrite American exceptionalist prejudices and geopolitical stances.

This class—and the scholarly study of the New Testament—is about shaking ourselves free of our national and cultural prejudices and learning how to put ourselves in the shoes of the people who created these texts.

The author of Revelation lived in the Roman Empire. His whole world—and that of his fellow Jews—was turned upside down when Roman legions invaded Judea and destroyed Jerusalem and the 2nd Temple. The apocalypse written in response is saturated with references to these events and describes in exquisite and imaginative detail how divine vengeance and judgment will come upon the city, emperors, and empire of Rome.

Pick up any scholarly commentary on Revelation, and it will show you all of these historical and literary connections. But turn on the radio or go to most churches, and you won’t hear anything about them.

Scholarly commentaries are trying to teach you how to read these texts well. Many popular sermons today are doing something quite different, either scaring people into believing in God (fear sells), claiming some kind of esoteric, prophetic insight into the events of the day (so smart!), or just underwriting a deeply prejudicial view of Christianity and the US vs. the rest of the world (poo on the EU). 😉

It’s a false choice to say that one has to choose between saying Revelation is about the Roman empire or saying Revelation is about a future end of the world. In its original context, it’s about both. It’s about the end of the world as envisioned by people living in the Roman empire and suffering unimaginable disappointment when their temple, capital, and much of their culture was destroyed.

The true choice is to decide whether you will read Revelation to try to understand how it is about others (ancient interpreters) or whether to remain entrenched in our cultural biases and prejudices that make Revelation all about us (modern readers in the US).

Again, it’s just like the pictures of Jesus. We can try to respect and understand him as someone very different than us, or we can re-make him in our own cultural image so that he is little more than a reflection of us.

Reader response reminds us that people will see whatever they want, that they will see themselves, their culture, their biases and prejudices embedded in texts. But good Bible scholars should respect these texts and their original creators enough at least to try to see them from the point of view of their ancient creators.