Baker Academic

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Why is Christmas on December 25?

Everyone knows that on December 25 unto us a child was born. He was born of historic lineage and became so popular that his legacy was mediated by fiction. Of course, I am referring to Humphrey Bogart. Yes, my friend, Bogart was born Dec. 25, 1899. Interestingly, Warner Bros circulated the rumor that he was born on January 23, 1900, hoping to avoid the Christ-typology.

What is my point, you ask? To you, I offer the simple lesson: don't bogart that point, my friend. Sometimes people weren't born when we think they were.

In the first six centuries of Christian expansion, Christianity was practiced somewhat differently from city to city (and importantly, from East to West). The date established for Jesus’ birth is an example of this variety. By the end of the 2nd century, May 20, March 21, and multiple dates in April were suggested for Jesus’ birthdate (I specify these dates using the modern calendar for clarity). Some eastern cities celebrated Jesus’ birth on what we now consider to be January 6. Concurrently, many other cities celebrated Jesus’ birth on what we now consider December 25. But it wasn’t until the 6th century that December 25 became the standard date for most cities that worshipped according to the Christian calendar.

While the subject of Jesus’ birth was interesting to Christians as early as the first century, our earliest sources—e.g. Paul’s letters and Mark’s Gospel—do not include nativity stories. And while Paul mentions a commemorative festival related to Jesus’ death (1 Cor 5:7-8), there is no evidence that the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke were celebrated as annual feasts until centuries later. And because neither Matthew nor Luke suggest a date for Jesus’ birth, later theologians were left to suggest, guess, and surmise when Jesus might have been born. December 25 was probably not seriously considered until the fourth century. (For more detailed names, places, and dates, see Thomas J. Talley, Origins of the Liturgical Year).

While Jesus’ birthdate was unknown to his first-century followers and disputed among later theologians, one assumption was common: every writer on this topic believed that Jesus’ birth was a theological event. In other words, God got involved and so the date probably wasn’t random. Whatever date it was, it would have to be theologically significant. Using this premise it became commonplace to believe that Jesus was crucified on the same date that that he was divinely conceived. Surmising that Jesus was crucified on March 25 (John’s Gospel associates Jesus’ crucifixion with the Jewish Passover feast; 14 Nisan), some theologians guessed that Jesus was also conceived on March 25. Andrew McGowan explains,
Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together.
Indeed, according to this logic, there are no coincidences in the divine plan. "In all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world . . . " 

Because many Christians believed that Jesus was conceived on March 25, they looked to December 25 as a logical birthdate, as it is nine months after conception. Others believed that Jesus was both crucified and conceived on April 6. Thus January 6 (being nine months later than Apr. 6) made better sense. In keeping with the logic that great theological events happen on important theological dates, many Christians also believed that Jesus baptism also happened on January 6. Indeed Christians in the Armenian Church continue to celebrate Christmas on January 6 (I envy their ability to wait until after the New Year for gift shopping).

The difference between December 25 and January 6 might help explain two things: (1) it explains why some churches eventually held feasts on both dates; (2) it also explains the tradition that there are 12 days of Christmas (thus measuring the time elapsed between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6).

Modern minds will no doubt have difficulty with the logic used to determine these dates. In order for one to conclude that Jesus was born on December 25 (for example), one must make four assumptions. First, we must grant that God chooses significant dates to intervene in human history. Second, we must grant that Jesus’ conception and death took place on the same date. Third, we must grant that March 25 is in fact the date that Jesus was crucified (which is disputed among historians) and so too was the date he was conceived. Fourth, we must grant that Jesus’ gestation period was exactly nine calendar months.

From the modern historian’s perspective, we must conclude that we haven’t the first clue of Jesus’ birthdate. Rather, December 25 is a theological guess that was not widely commemorated until the 6th century.  What I find most interesting, however, is that commemorating the life of Jesus restructured how Christians thought about their annual calendar. Conversely, once a commemorative calendar had been established, these traditions eventually restructured how Christians thought about Jesus.

This is just one of the fundamental things about history that apply
As time goes by

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Everything you thought you knew about the first Christmas is wrong

As I serve as the official ghost of Christmas past for the Jesus Blog, I should remind you that I've pointed our readers before to Stephen Carlson's revisionist history of the iconic stable scene in Luke's Gospel.

Brice Jones does an admirable job as the ghost of Christmas present here: 

We are now accepting applications for the ghost of Christmas future. Long-haired freaky people need not apply.


Friday, December 2, 2016

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

As we retell the story of weary travelers, a star, shepherds, and the Magi, I hope that we also focus ourselves on the message that this child brought to this Earth some 2,000 years ago. A message that says we have to be our brother’s keepers, our sister’s keepers. That we have to reach out to each other, to forgive each other, to let the light of our good deeds shine for all. To care for the sick, and the hungry, and the downtrodden. And of course, to love one another, even our enemies, and treat one another the way we would want to be treated ourselves. It’s a message that grounds not just my family’s Christian faith, but that of Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans; nonbelievers and Americans of all backgrounds. It’s a message of unity and decency and a message of hope that never goes out of style.

                                                                   ~Barack Obama

Thursday, December 1, 2016

New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1

Our new advertisement from Eerdmans (left column) features a book that sold out very quickly at this year's AAR/SBL conference. Check out this description and you'll see why:

New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1 More Noncanonical Scriptures 
Brent Landau, Tony Burke
Compilation of little-known and never-before-published apocryphal Christian texts in English translation. 
This anthology of ancient nonbiblical Christian literature presents introductions to and translations of little-known apocryphal texts from a wide variety of genres, most of which have never before been translated into any modern language. 
An introduction to the volume as a whole addresses the most significant features of the included writings and contextualizes them within the contemporary (quickly evolving) study of the Christian Apocrypha. The body of the book comprises thirty texts that have been carefully introduced, annotated, and translated into readable English by eminent scholars. Ranging from the second century to early in the second millennium, these fascinating texts provide a more complete picture of Christian thought and expression than canonical texts alone can offer.
Need I say more?


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Three Cheers for Dr. Bernier!

Well, really only two cheers. Today the McMaster University Dept of Religious Studies posted this on Facebook:
Congratulations to one of our graduates, Jonathan Bernier (PhD, 2012), on the publication of an article entitled “A Response to Porter and Pitts: Wright’s Critical Realism in Context” in the *Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus* 14 (2016): 186–93, and a book entitled *The Quest for the Historical Jesus after the Demise of Authenticity: Toward a Critical Realist Philosophy of History in Jesus Studies* (Continuum, 2016)!
I would like to echo this congrats. Well done, Jonathan, on both counts.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Meier vs. Zimmermann

Yesterday's Historical Jesus section about the parables was hot. First Crossan lit into Meier. Then Meier defended his use of authenticity criteria against unnamed critics (Meier suggested that no criteria is tantamount to no method at all). Then Snodgrass responded by saying that he had no confidence in the criteria method and parlayed that into a discussion about memory (citing Dunn). Then Notley observed some very useful parallels between Hebraic parables and those of the New Testament (he challenged the old consensus that Hebrew was a dead language in the first century). The Zimmermann exposed several weaknesses in Meier program by discussing the differences between the "criteria approach" and the "memory approach." Unfortunately, Annette Merz couldn't make the meeting.

Ruben Zimmermann's frontloaded his most effective criticism of Meier as he began his essay. He reminded us that (according to Meier) only four parables can be determined to be authentic using the criteria method. In short, "the historical Jesus only spoke four parables" whereas "the remembered Jesus spoke 104 parables." Zimmermann's point: the fact that Meier is only able to judge four parables as authentic exposes the failure of his method.

What followed was a clear indication that Meier and Crossan were not prepared for a discussion about memory. To his credit, Crossan seemed genuinely interested in Zimmermann's categories. Meier, disappointingly, seem altogether disinterested in the conversation.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

What I'm up to in San Antonio

If you're attending the AAR/SBL in San Antonio, I'd like to meet you. I will be talking a bit about my new book, Near Christianitytonight at the SoL Center. Larry Behrendt and I will be dialoguing about Jewish-Christian friendship. The cost of this event will be waived for those with AAR/SBL conference badges.

My more formal papers will be in these sessions:

Here are my paper abstracts: 

Jokes, Pokes, and Best Blokes: 
Exploring the Asymmetries among Jewish and Christian Readers of Scripture
Humor theorists note that jokes can be powerful tools to expose and (sometimes) subvert power asymmetries. Jokes, as philosopher Ted Cohen argues, can also create a possibility for intimacy. This paper will explore the importance of humor in Jewish-Christian dialogue, especially as it relates to reading biblical literature together. Humor shared by Jews and Christians can sometimes expose the historic power asymmetries between people groups and create the possibility of Jewish-Christian friendship. In some cases, humor can unite Jewish and Christian readers against the authority of Scripture and the hegemony of the biblical God.

A Bending before the Breaking: 
A Case Study in the Flexibility of Memory and Ethnicity in the Fourth Gospel
In the Aristotelian mapping of the social world, a large part of ethnicity was constructed by polis orientation. Geographical provenance, supposed ancestry, shared myth, etc. were factors in this construct but orientation toward a polis was crucial in determining ethnos. This was especially true for Jews as Jerusalem was home to their temple in a singular way. The Fourth Gospel, however, suggests a reorientation of early Christians. This paper will argue that some post-70 Christians began to commemorate Jesus' body as a temple and thus reoriented the poliscentricism of Jesus-following Jews. While most Jews commemorated a fallen temple with hope that it might be rebuilt, most Christians commemorated the significance of the temple by orienting toward Jesus. This variance in commemoration created the possibility for a new ethnos. The Fourth Gospel will be used a case study for this thesis.

I doubt that I will publish either of these papers anytime soon. So I probably won't disseminate rough drafts. The first of these, however, relates to chapter six of this book.


Friday, November 11, 2016

Post-Trump Political Consciousness

I have been vocal about my opposition to Mr. (now President Elect) Trump. There are lists and lists of reasons why I believe he is unfit to be president. Some of these are directly related to the teachings of Jesus. I am committed to try to love my neighbor and even my enemies wherever it is possible. But my prime motivation for opposing Trump isn't directly related to Jesus. It is because I've spent the last two years studying the actions and inactions of Christians during the rise of Hitler.

Mr. Trump's rise to power is not similar to Hitler's rise to power in every respect. But the two have enough in common that I cannot deny the parallels. I realize that I break one of my own rules in saying so. I usually try to avoid bringing the Shoah or Hitler into any discussion that isn't primarily about the Shoah or Hitler. Still, if I am honest, comparisons to Hitler ran through my head as I canvassed and voted for Secretary Clinton last week.

I don't suppose that the following will be compelling to Trump supporters; I'm just explaining how and why I voted. My political consciousness connects historical moments, draws analogies, and see particular personality types. I think that one of my Jewish friends said it best when he told me, "It may not be appropriate to say that Trump is Hitler. But I am going to do my best to act like a righteous gentile living in 1933 Berlin."

Now let me point out a few key similarities and differences between 2015-16 America and 1930s Germany. Both settings manifest a perceived cultural crisis. Germany's crisis was exacerbated by the failure of the Weimar Republic and the great economic depression of the post-WWI period. People were hungry, felt trapped, and looked for a particular source of the problem and blamed a people who represented the "problem." Centuries of hatred toward Jewish people and (caricatures of) Jewish ideas were easily exploitable. Christians played a large part in this collective hatred. Nazi ideology was not Christian. But there was a concerted effort to manipulate the populace using theologically motivated hatred. In other words, the Nazis trafficked in the currency of hate minted by centuries of Christian anti-Judaism. Through various (sometime innovative) media strategies, National Socialism fanned a very old prejudice.

Apart from media manipulation, xenophobia, and Christian culpability, today's America and 1930's Germany are worlds apart. America might be experiencing economic stagnation, but our "crisis" looks altogether different than 1930s Germany. Another difference: Mr. Trump will not have the power to enact the domestic policies he has promised (at least not right away). But he will have all of the power afforded to the Commander-in-Chief when it comes to foreign policy. Hitler did not have nuclear capabilities, but President Trump will. So the parallels with Trump and Hitler are limited because of context.

What then is the American "crisis" that made a Trump candidacy viable? First, there is a key racial element that is unseen (I hope) by most Trump supporters. This article is very revealing and well worth a read if you are curious about the massive upturn in white voters from rural America. I would also recommend this book to understand how and why evangelicals contribute to racial fault lines in America. And this book if you want to understand why significant segments of the white populace fear a loss of culture.

Second, we have witnessed a steady but disturbing decline in political consciousness. I'm not certain about millennials and I don't want to put baby boomers on a pedestal, but us GenX folks have been egregiously uninvolved. I agree entirely with this assessment by Michael Rosenblum:
Donald Trump is going to be elected president. The American people voted for him a long time ago. They voted for him when The History Channel went from showing documentaries about the Second World War to “Pawn Stars” and “Swamp People.” They voted for him when The Discovery Channel went from showing “Lost Treasures of the Yangtze Valley” to “Naked and Afraid.” They voted for him when The Learning Channel moved from something you could learn from to “My 600-lb Life.” They voted for him when CBS went from airing “Harvest of Shame” to airing “Big Brother.” These networks didn’t make these programming changes by accident. They were responding to what the American people actually wanted. And what they wanted was “Naked and Afraid” and “Duck Dynasty.”
While the Tea Party and white nationalists were organizing, creating and disseminating false narratives, and rallying against any policy that Obama was for, most of America was sedating itself with heavy doses of American Idol and fantasy football. Don't underestimate the fact that Trump's road to the Whitehouse was paved through reality TV. I really cannot imagine a more different context between ours and 1930s Germany. Our national crisis wasn't widespread hunger, it was the widespread starvation of our collective political consciousness. Out of 231,556,622 eligible voters 46.9% didn't vote.

I have a colleague who escaped North Korea as a refugee as a child. He's seen a few things in his seven decades. He's seen dictators rise to power. He's seen seemingly good people rise to power and then become dictators. Yesterday he told me that "America is finally awake."

So now that we've stirred a bit from our Reality TV stupor, what sort of political consciousness will we embrace? I will suggest that we begin with a very old definition of politics.

In his Politics, Aristotle declares that the human, by nature, is a political animal (Pol. 1253a). By this he meant that the polis ("city," or "city-state") represents the most natural environment for the human being. People of a polis orbit it's cultural center by way of custom, law, commerce, etc. Moreover, he believed that nature (which does nothing in vain) targets this goal for the human. A network of villages—with a shared commerce and central governing body—is the natural outcome of language. Language leads to partnership, which leads to households, which leads to villages, which leads to larger networks. The opposite of this is what Homer called the “clanless, lawless, and hearthless man” who is essentially anti-social and a “lover of war” (Aristotle quotes Homer on this point). Aristotle is describing human nature by analyzing binary opposites: either one is social (and thus living according to nature) or anti-social (and thus living contrary to nature). I'm not generally keen on binary opposites. But let's start somewhere, shall we?

We need each other. Even more, according to Aristotle, we are meant to live in relationship with each other. But he also tells us that if we cease to be just, we will be not be oriented to our common good as nature intended. (I probably don't need to tell you that justice is also a biblical ideal.) This is important because politics has become a dirty word in America. Moreover, for us, "politicians" are thought to be unnatural creatures; we expect them to act unjustly, out of self-interest. This was not Aristotle's vision for governance the polis. In his view, there is nothing more natural than drawing together in a common community, culture, and commerce. Being "political" wasn't for elites or crooks. It was the natural inclination of every human.

This is why, although I am political, I try to avoid Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher. I enjoy a good jab at the competition. In fact, I love political humor. But most simply aren't funny enough to pull it off. I when I sense a steady stream of hatred for an ideological opponent, I think language ceases to be "political" in the way Aristotle defined the concept. We argue, we strategize against, we lose our cools, but in the end we govern together. After eight years of obstructionism in congress, I am convinced that Washington hasn't been nearly "political" enough. Though I am not a fan, I quite appreciated what Maher said a couple days ago:
I know liberals made a big mistake because we attacked your boy Bush like he was the end of the world. And he wasn't. And Mitt Romney we attacked that way. I gave Obama a million dollars because I was so afraid of Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney wouldn't have changed my life that much or yours. Or John McCain.  
They were honorable men who we disagreed with and we should have kept it that way. So we cried wolf and that was wrong. But this is real. This is going to be way different.
I have a different view of Bush and McCain because I tend to focus on foreign policy when I vote. But I do agree that Trump is a different sort of animal and far more dangerous. He is essentially apolitical. Trump is the “clanless, lawless, and hearthless man” that Homer warned us about, the "lover of war." Trump's vision for America is what Hobbes called the condition of war (the condition that often leads to literal warfare):
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
This is what Trump's insecure, erratic, and self-interested behavior is already creating. But we liberals must shoulder the burden of blame too. We left scorched earth behind in our relentless alienation of our republican neighbors.

Today I was emailing a conservative friend (who opposed Trump because of is unconstitutional statements about the first amendment) about the conservative/liberal divide in America. My friend wrote, "They're [Democrats] convinced that everyone on my side is evil. So fuck them, I guess they get Trump." Most would hear this as a political statement. I hear it as not nearly political enough.

Yes, we get Trump. We get Trump because we've failed to be political in the only way that makes sense: politics is about learning to live together and creating policies that promote our common good. Take a look at Garrison Keillor's Homegrown Democrat and you'll have a sense of what I mean by political consciousness.

So now to a most central problem. I think that Trump (in his intentions to commit warcrimes and praise of war criminals) is far too similar to Hitler for me to stay silent about it. At the same time, how do I say so without implying that my conservative neighbors are akin to Nazis? How do I stand up for the hundreds of people who have been targeted for hate speech and beaten in the name of Trump (complete with swastikas in some cases) and then sit down to fellowship with my neighbors who are exultant about Trump's rise to power?

It may well be impossible to maintain political ideals when an authoritarian is in power. But in four years we will get to try again. My hope is that we are willing to try again. In the meantime, let us fight for politics in Aristotle's sense of that concept.

I will leave you with a passage from Jeremiah that has been on my mind. I read it as a call to political consciousness. . . . one that doesn't end well.

"Thus says the Lord: 'Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, 'We will not walk in it.' Also I raised up sentinels for you: 'Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!' But they said, 'We will not give heed.'" (6:16-17)


Anthony Le Donne (PhD, Durham) is the author of Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God.

Winner of Near Christianity giveaway

Thanks to all of you who entered the book giveaway for my book Near Christianity. The true random number generator has spoken and the number is 6. Which is a very unholy number. Which reminds us that integers are totally rigged.

So the unholy winner is "barabbasfreed".  If indeed the number had been 7, I would have won my own book. In sum, numbers cannot be trusted.

Barabbasfreed, please comment below with your email address (it will not be published). Congrats.

Finally, thanks again to Zondervan for donating this copy of my book to an unholy cause.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

Jesus’ Patris in John 4:44—Chris Keith

At SBL next week, one of my papers will deal with the portrayal of Jesus as a Galilean in the Gospel of John.  I'll be presenting with Marianne Meye Thompson, James Crossley, and Jens Schroeter in one of the final sessions of the John, Jesus, and History group (9am CST, convention center 302C).  This was organized by Craig Koester and he'll be publishing the proceedings.

In general, I'll be arguing that the Gospel of John does care that Jesus was a Galilean and, in fact, cares quite a lot about it.  That may sound like I'm stating the obvious to some of you, but I assure you that both things have been heavily contested (and also frequently defended) in Johannine scholarship.  But the research for this paper has brought me to one of the real problem texts of the Gospel of John, John 4:44.  This is where John's Gospel includes the proverbial saying of Jesus about a prophet not receiving honor in his hometown (patris), known also from the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Thomas.

Which city or region John 4:44 considers Jesus' patris is, however, not as clear as one might hope.  I'll have my own answer to the question, but I wondered what readers of the Jesus Blog thought. 

With only reading the verse in context and not consulting commentaries, what would you say is Jesus' patris in John 4:44?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Jewish­-Christian Friendship - To What End?

If you happen to be in the San Antonio area on Thursday, November 17th, I'd like to invite you to a Jewish-Christian dialogue at the SoL Center. Friend of the blog, Brian LePort will host:

Jewish­-Christian Friendship: To What End?

A Conversation between Anthony Le Donne and Larry Behrendt

Measuring against previous eras, Jewish-Christian friendship is experiencing a renaissance. But what is the benefit of this friendship? Can Jews and Christians be spiritual allies? Larry Behrendt will interview Anthony Le Donne about his new book, Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved my Faith in God. Le Donne will discuss how his Jewish friends and mentors enhanced his Christian faith. We will also discuss A Sacred Dissonance, a forthcoming book that Behrendt and Le Donne have co­-authored, focusing on how Jewish­-Christian similarity and diversity serve as a source of creative and spiritual energy for both Jew and Christian. The evening will conclude with questions and answers from the audience. Anthony Le Donne will be available to sign his book at the end of the session. Admission: $15 (AAR/SBL members will be admitted at no cost).
If you are planning to attend AAR/SBL, we'd love to see you a day early! Larry and I hope to go for drinks with a few conference folks after this event.


[Update: This event will be from 7-9pm, Nov. 17.]

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Don't Flick with Mr. Zero

It's not something that I like to admit in polite company . . . . but I sort of like When Harry Met Sally. Look, the heart wants what it wants. After years of denial, I'm prepared to own it. There is a line that I am especially fond of, "Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor but they couldn't possibly all have good taste." What Princess Leia is trying to say here is that good taste and a good sense of humor are acquired (rather than innate) talents. The fact that I enjoy a Billy Crystal-Meg Ryan flick once a year is proof enough that I have zero taste.

In preparation for my presentation on humor in Jewish-Christian dialogue in San Antonio (SBL), I have been studying theories of humor in the ancient world. Laughter and humor are very early topics in philosophy. Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, for example, are careful to address what seems to be an integral element of the human experience. While these thinkers do not agree entirely on the value of humor, they all share a common concern for the darker elements of laughter.

Plato, through the voice of Socrates, warns against laughter as much of it follows from malice. He was worried that delighting in the pain or ridiculousness in others would bring about an evil mixture of pleasure and pain in the soul. Laughter is dangerous because it might be used to elevate yourself by deriding another person. This is an example of what we might now call "superiority theory." Superiority theory suggests that laughter results in a sudden feeling of superiority over someone else. Thomas Hobbes (who later expands this theory) argues that people feel a kind of “sudden glory” over someone less clever. Or as Lodovico Castelvetro wrote, most people will laugh at the “deception of the naïve.” Why do adults like to laugh at the simple errors of children? The answer, according to this theory, is that there is a primal sense of superiority at work.

Aristotle acknowledged that not every instance of laughter is derisive. He suggests that relaxation and amusement are necessary elements of life. But Aristotle also warns that many jokes are abusive and too much laughter is a vice. Moderation, as always, is the rule. Too much joke-telling is the mark of the buffoon; whereas an inability to enjoy the occasional joke is boorish and dour. So Aristotle also associates humor with laughing at those perceived to be inferior in some way.

Cicero too worries about the power dynamics humor can betray. When improperly employed humor can deride a beloved person or one who is suffering. Serious matters, it seems, deserve serious responses. So as long as western philosophy has been speaking about laughing matters, there has been a tendency to include a warning about the negative motives and negative outcomes of laughter.

Nowadays we have different theories of humor (e.g. incongruity, psychic release, play signals) but I wonder if superiority theory might help us understand a few passages that refer to laughter in the Bible. Gen 18:12-15 might be the most famous example: 
So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
Why is Sarah afraid? And why is she afraid enough to lie about laughing? Could it be that laughing might have been taken as an affront to the Lord's superiority? Could it be that Sarah was worried about laughter along the same lines as Plato and company? Or consider Ps 2:2-4:
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.
Maybe in situations of extreme powerlessness people take comfort in a God who is superior to all other political forces. The way that laughter is represented here demonstrates the Lord's superiority. Hobbes would likely see this as an illustration of superiority theory.

While the philosophically minded Qohelet famously declares that sorrow is better than laughter (Eccl. 7:3), Qohelet also reminds us that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh” (3:4). But most instances of laughter in the Hebrew Bible require attention to a specific context to measure the motives and outcomes of laughter. Laughter—both on the lips of humans and the Lord—can take the form of derision. The Bible presents several kinds of laughter and, moreover, includes several stories that are funny (perhaps intentionally so). This brings us to Jesus.

Jesus seems to have taken Qohelet’s lesson to heart. In Luke’s sermon on the plain, Jesus teaches, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” He parallels this saying in the negative by saying. “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:21, 25). Jesus’s point, perhaps dissimilar to Qohelet’s, assumes an impending Day of the Lord that demands extreme action in the present. Jesus seems to postpone the time for laughter to a coming age marked by a reversal of social fortunes, abundant food, and an end to persecution. Keep in mind that Luke's Jesus is especially concerned with elevating the (perceived) inferior and demoting the (perceived) superior. Could Plato's take on humor help us understand the reference to laughter in Luke 6?

Here is another example:

James and John say to Jesus, "Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?" (Luke 9:53–54). Jesus rebuked the brothers. Could this be how these two get their nickname? In Mark they are called "the sons of thunder" (3:17). Maybe this was a derisive nickname meant to humble would-be Elijahs? By the way, the echo of Elijah's fire from heaven reminds us of another story featuring derisive humor. 1 Kings 18:27:
Elijah began to tease them: "Shout louder! 'He's a god, so maybe he's busy. Maybe he's relieving himself. Maybe he's busy someplace. Maybe he's taking a nap and somebody needs to wake him up."
Ooo that's harsh. You don't bounce back from that right away. . . . No, I'm a writer, I know dialogue and that's particularly harsh.

Friday, October 21, 2016

can Jews be Jews?

This isn't about Jesus directly, but if being a contributor to the Jesus Blog has any perks at all, surely they include being able to post marginally-relevant material from time to time.

This week an undergraduate student in my Romans class e-mailed me a question that was never directly relevant to the in-class discussion. Her e-mail:
I have a question that has been on my mind. It might be somewhat obvious, but nonetheless it has intrigued me. What would Paul say to a Jew who believed in Jesus as the Messiah and wanted to stop adhering to the Law? At first I think this would be fine due to salvation through Jesus is open to all, but what about the disruption it would have possibly caused in said Jew's family, who may or may not believe in Jesus? I immediately think of Romans 14:13-23, but Paul is writing that to the Gentiles. Does the same principle apply to the Jew who has already been living out a Law abiding lifestyle?
I love this because this student is obviously taking material we've discussed in class and applying it to material we haven't discussed. Also, it's just an intriguing question. So I thought I'd share my response, mostly in hopes that some of you who've thought about these same issues (ethnicity, culture, salvation, [Christian] faith, etc.) and how they intersect might have some additional response.

My reply:
Dear [student], 

You ask such great questions. This really is good. I like the way it shows me how you’re thinking about the things we’re talking about in class.

I can’t, of course, answer your question. Since we don’t have any record of Paul addressing a Jew who wanted to stop adhering to the Law, we don’t know what he would say. But we might imagine a couple of different scenarios and how Paul might react in each of them.
  • a Jew wants to set Torah-observance aside in order to present the gospel to gentiles: This is the easiest scenario to describe because it describes Paul himself. In 1 Cor. 9 Paul says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9.19–22). Notice that Paul does not “stop adhering to the Law” completely; rather, he sets aside his Jewish lifestyle in order to open up opportunities to present the gospel. As I read this passage, Paul’s default position is to live like a Jew (hence, he mentions it first), but he’s willing to move away from that lifestyle as the situation requires. I would expect that, as the situation changes, he would return to his Jewish lifestyle. In other words, Paul stops adhering to the Law temporarily.
  • a Jew wants to stop adhering to the Torah because he rejects the covenant between Israel and YHWH: I think this, too, is an easy scenario to describe: Paul would condemn this Jew as unfaithful and subject to the wrath of God. Israel was unfaithful in her history, and God punished them for their sin. Paul does not hide from this. If we ever get to Romans 9–11 (😉), we’ll see Paul discuss Israel’s unfaithfulness and, as a result, their being broken off from the tree of Abraham’s family. “You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith” (Rom. 11.19–20). If a Jew who keeps Torah but fails to understand that Torah finds its fulfillment in Jesus (see Rom. 10.4) is broken off, then a Jew who rejects YHWH’s covenant is almost certainly also broken off.
  • a Jew wants to stop adhering to the Torah because he accepts the gospel and wants to be like gentile Christians: This is the most difficult scenario to describe, and I suppose a lot would depend on the specifics of a given situation. If a Jew (esp. a Jewish male) married a gentile, that might present the kind of situation in which ceasing to live like (and so to be) a Jew might be understandable. If a Jew (esp. a Jewish male) was so integrated into a (gentile) Christian community that maintaining distinctive Jewish customs became increasingly difficult, that, too, might present an understandable scenario. But we need to appreciate that Jews had spent the previous 3–5 centuries negotiating how to live as faithful Jews in a world dominated by gentiles. Some Jews rejected that world and retreated into their ancestral customs (e.g., the Jews at Qumran); others rejected their heritage and embraced the culture around them (e.g., Philo’s nephew, Tiberius Julius Alexander). But most Jews chose a middle way and sought to live as faithful Jews even as they embraced life with and among gentiles. So it’s difficult for me to imagine that very many Jews would want to abandon Torah-observance/adhering to the Law, any more than most people want to abandon the distinctive customs of their native culture. And if it would have been rare, I can’t help but imagine that Paul would look at such a Jew side-eyed. 👀
But really, the reason I like your question is because it draws attention to a real problem in Christian theology: Because of Paul, we’re very clear that gentiles do not have to (really, should not try to) become Jews in order to receive the blessings of God and live a life of faith shaped by the gospel. But we’re not very clear on the opposite question: Does a Jew have to become a gentile in order to be saved by the gospel? When we ask it that baldly, I think most of us would say “no.”

But in actual fact we look upon Torah/the Law with such suspicion that we can’t imagine a Jew would want to continue to live as a Jew if they were set free from the Law by the gospel of Jesus. It’s difficult for us—as gentile Christians—to appreciate that Jews viewed Torah as a gift of life, even Paul, who describes the Torah as “the commandment that promised life” (Rom. 7.10). When he asks, “Did what is good, then, bring death to me?” (Rom. 7.13), he emphatically rejects that possibility: “By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.” If Jews considered the Torah as a God’s gift of life, and if Jews who confessed faith in Jesus as Israel’s messiah thought that Torah was established, fulfilled, and had its goal/purpose met in Jesus (see Rom. 3.31; Matt. 5.17; Rom. 10.4), then we should expect that most Jews would not want to abandon Torah. And those that would want to would stand out as being strange, and they would need to explain themselves to their loved ones if they hoped to avoid being judged by other Jews as apostates.

Does that make sense?

Again, this is a brilliant question. Thank you for asking it!