Monday, April 11, 2011

The Shocking Truth about Jesus' Death and Resurrection (They Are Historical Events)

Book Review: Jesus, The Final Days: What Really Happened by Craig A. Evans and N.T. Wright (Westminster/John Knox, 2009)
"Historical argument alone cannot force anyone to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. But historical argument is remarkably good a clearing away the undergrowth behind which skepticisms of various sorts have been hiding. The proposal that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead possesses unrivaled power to explain the historical data at the heart of early Christianity." N.T. Wright

"The Shocking Truth About..."
This book is composed of three essays by New Testaments scholars Craig Evans and N.T. Wright which deal with the historicity of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. Taken as a whole, the essays aim to show the essential reliability of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' crucifixion, death and resurrection

Recent years have seen a flood of skeptical/revisionist books about Jesus which are of the "shocking truth about Jesus" genre: Jesus did not really teach that...Jesus did not really say...The early church surely invented... Books of this genre have indeed been written by biblical scholars (Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, etc.) but it is often forgotten that biblical scholarship does not speak with one voice and it always takes place in a context. There is no such thing as biblical scholarship without presupposition and the presupposition of this genre of biblical scholarship is that Jesus is a very interesting figure but that the faith of which he is the center must be replaced either by "enlightened thought" or a vague "spirituality". "Shocking truth about Jesus" books sell not so much because they original works of incisive scholarship but because they conform to a cultural mood, a mood which assumes that "the church" must have gotten Jesus all wrong.

The Reality of Jesus' Death
The first essay in this book makes the case for Jesus' death being a historical event. The actual death of

Jesus by crucifixion is taken to be a historical event not only by New Testament writers but also by the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus both of whom mention it. The main argument for the historicity of Jesus' death is that both the fact and the manner of his death constituted an enormous embarrassment since messiahs were not supposed to die much less to die in the most degrading way possible--crucifixion. The New Testament is very clear about the fact that not only are Jesus' followers surprised by his death but also they are surprised by his resurrection. At every point in the four gospels mention of Jesus' death is met with resistance or incomprehension.

As the first essay by Craig Evans makes clear, there were ample historical reasons for the Jewish leaders and the Roman authority to cooperate in putting Jesus to death. The events of Palm Sunday (cf. Mark 11:1-10) clearly echo the enthronement of Solomon as king of Israel (cf. 1 Kings 1:32-40) and show Jesus to be a messianic figure: the citation of Zechariah 9:9 makes this plain. Furthermore, Jesus' actions in the Temple (cf. Mark 11:15-19) challenged the very existence of the Temple itself. Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah (but in a way that dramatically differed from available expectations) and has having an authority to pronounce judgment on the Temple. Scenarios which present Jesus as merely the teacher of a humble spirituality or as a mere political revolutionary simply ignore inconvenient evidence: "In the end, the Jewish authorities sought to kill Jesus not because he was a good man but because Jesus was perceived as a very serious political threat. His message of God's rule threatened the status quo...Jesus entered Jerusalem as the anointed son of David, he assumed authority int he temple precincts as though possessed of messianic authority..."

Evans also makes a case for the historical reliability of Jesus' trial before Pilate. He argues that both Pilate's behavior and the offer of a pardon fit with our historical knowledge. Pilate's first concern would have been to avoid a riot at the Passover as the population of Jerusalem swelled with pilgrims. As the Roman procurator of Judea he needed to work with the priestly aristocracy to keep order but he would not have wanted to execute Jesus without first being certain that such a move had popular support. Roman officials did offer pardons at important feasts as a way of gaining popular favor. Pilate's offer of a pardon is both a way of honoring the Jewish Passover and a way of making sure that the execution of Jesus will have popular support. In response to the view that the gospels present a falsified picture of Pilate, Evans responds that when "we remember the political and social setting of Jewish Palestine in the time of Pilate,we should not be surprised that Pilate was reluctant to execute in such a public and provocative manner a popular prophet from Galilee, whose many followers were present in Jerusalem." Evans concludes that what the gospels tell us about Jesus arrest and trial coheres with historical reality: "Everything we are told about Jesus' arrest, trial(s), and mockery is consistent with what we know of Roman practice in the first century and consistent with the political and social establishment of Judea in the time of Jesus." The Roman killing machine was unleashed on Jesus and this seems to render nonsensical claims that somehow Jesus survived his crucifixion and later presented himself to his disciples as "resurrected".

Was Jesus Really Buried?
John Dominic Crossan and others have made the argument that Jesus' body was never actually buried and that it was simply left to be eaten by dogs. This is part of Crossan's argument that the accounts of Jesus' burial and resurrection are wholly fictional. Here Crossan is on very shaky ground. While it is true that the Romans did sometimes leave the bodies of crucified people to be consumed by animals, it is highly unlikely that they followed this practice in Jerusalem because Jews had strong sensibilities about the burial of the dead and because Jerusalem was regarded a holy; the leaving out of corpses would constitute pollution of holy ground. Crossan's theory holds that the bodies of crucifed Jews were left unburied but this theory runs into trouble in light of the fact that the Sanhedrin did arrange for the burial of executed Jews and the fact that in 1968 the skeleton of a crucified young Jewish man was discovered placed in a family tomb (the young man was crucified most likely during the administration of Pilate). As Evans concludes, "The literary, historical, and archaeological evidence points in one direction: the body of Jesus was placed in a tomb, according to Jewish custom. Furthermore, there is no good reason to think that family and friends of Jesus has no idea where Jesus was buried or hand no plans eventually to recover his skeletal remains and transfer them to his family bomb or to another place of honor."

In short, the portrayal of Jesus' trial, execution and burial is thoroughly believable and are consistent with what we know about the period from history and archeology.

Was Jesus Really Raised From the Dead?
The third and final essay in this book is by N.T. Wright on the resurrection. Wright argues that the resurrection of Jesus can be treated as a fundamentally historical event for several reasons. The most important of these reasons is that the Gospels offer an understanding of resurrection which departs significantly from Jewish views. Central to Jewish expectations was the belief that resurrection would happen to all at the consummation of history. The Gospels present a very different picture: in Jesus resurrection has happened in one person in the middle of history. Resurrection was in Judaism an essentially eschatological concept. If the disciples had simply experienced fond memories of Jesus after his death or if they simply wished to express the fact that he was still real to them, they would not have spoken of resurrection. All of this means that in speaking of the resurrection of Jesus the Gospels are not simply writing Jesus' name into an already existent narrative, a narrative which Jews simply were waiting to be fulfilled. The question is: What would have made the disciples depart so radically from standard Jewish expectations? This is an especially pressing question since such a departure would have made their claims about Jesus only more unbelievable not more credible.
Wright also notes that both before and after Jesus there were figures who became the center of a messianic movement. In each case, however, the execution of the figure resulted either in the movement evaporating or in the movement locating another messianic figure. Why did neither of these things happen in the case of Jesus' movement?

Wright's conclusion here, argued more at length in his substantial book The Resurrection of the Son of God, is this: One can propose historical answers to these two questions but "there is nothing that comes remotely near explaining these phenomena, except for the following proposal: Jesus of Nazareth really was raised from the dead on the third day, leaving an empty tomb behind him".

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lenten Sermon Series: "God-Centered Living in a Self-Centered World"

Book Review: Jesus' Sermon on the Mount
By D.A. Carson (Baker Books, 1999)

Editor's Note: This book is the companion resource to St. Peter's Lenten Sermon Series and can be purchased in St. Peter's Book Cellar.
As D.A. Carson notes, two unfortunate tendencies now mark popular interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. The first tendency is to read the Sermon as if it were an ethics lecture; this tendency wrenches it out of its original context and places it in a foreign context which completely distorts the meaning. The second tendency follows from the first, the tendency to view the teaching of the Sermon simply as a set of instructions which the more "spiritual" of us are to put into practice. With these two tendencies at work, proper interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount will be nearly impossible.
Carson's exposition of the Sermon on the Mount actually begins not with Matthew 5:1 but with Matthew 4:17 where Matthew records the substance of Jesus' preaching and where Jesus provides the context within which the Sermon is to be interpreted: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." It is crucial to note that for Jesus the Sermon on the Mount is not primarily about what human beings do but about what God is doing. There is, to be sure, plenty of room for human action but the action which Jesus anticipates is made possible by the action of God. The "kingdom of heaven" in 4:17 refers to the "kingdom of God" and reflects the Jewish preference for indirect references to God. As Carson notes, the kingdom of God is not a "place" so much as it is a state of affairs, the state of affairs that results from the exercise of God's sovereign lordship. As the whole of Matthew's Gospel makes clear, Jesus understands himself to be the locus of the exercise of God's lordship. The Sermon on the Mount, thus, is primarily about what God is enacting in Jesus and only secondarily about human behavior; apart from the exercise of God's lordship the teaching of the Sermon is not only impossible to live out but finally makes no sense.
This becomes clear in Carson's exposition of The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:2-12). Here Jesus pronounces a series of blessings, the blessings of the kingdom of God. To be blessed is to be approved by God; this is, of course, the ultimate blessing. The blessings are not arbitrary but rather describe what results from the possession of a certain type of character (remembering that the character mentioned in each blessing is understood to be a gift of God). A quick look at Matthew 5:3 will make the point. What is the principal character trait of those who, to use Matthew's phrase, "enter the kingdom"? They are, above all else "poor in spirit". For Carson this means "the personal acknowledgement of spiritual bankruptcy" which is "the deepest form of repentance" (p. 18). Jesus addressed the Sermon to those who have recognized that they lack the spiritual resources to live into what the Sermon teaches; only God can supply the needed resources. To read the Sermon as a mere ethics lecture is to completely miss its real meaning.
Another key to interpreting the Sermon comes in Matthew 5:13-16 where listeners are exhorted to "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven". The witness to God's kingdom is provided by the character described in 5:2-12. All of this, of course, presupposes a community of disciples whose collective life constitutes "a city set on a hill" (5:14).
Matthew 5:17-48 may be the most daunting section of the Sermon since here Jesus relates the demands of God's kingdom to those of the Old Testament. Clearly, Jesus sees continuity between the kingdom and the Old Testament and rejects even the slightest suggestion that the kingdom involves the negation of the Old Testament (see especially 5:17-20). Carson discusses the senses in which Jesus relates to the Old Testament (a relation which is ultimately about fulfillment and fruition rather than about attenuation). But the key to this whole section is given in 5:48, a verse which intentionally parallels Leviticus 19:2. The meaning of discipleship and the purpose of God's kingly activity is not to be found in mere moral improvement ("living a good life") but in the restoration of human beings to their role as creatures who reflect the glory, goodness, beauty, and holiness of God. We may settle for much less but God will not. The whole Sermon is demanding, overwhelmingly so, but it also presupposes that God is acting through Jesus to bring about what is being described.
Another key to the Sermon is Matthew 6:9-13, commonly referred to as the Lord's Prayer. As Carson notes, the prayer is organically connected to the Sermon in that prayer is crucial to the kingdom's realization. The kingdom of God is not a "project" or even a "ministry" of the Church; it is something for which the Church prays and to which it bears witness. It is not coincidental that the first three petitions deal with God's Name, God's kingdom and God's will. This prayer presents us with a God who is both intimately present to us and at the same time infinitely transcends us. The prayer is also about character: those who pray this prayer and really mean it will be people who are passionately concerned about God, God's glory, God's reign and God's will.
We tend to avoid Matthew 6:19-34 with its rather starkly phrased admonition "You cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24). Of course, this section only continues the emphasis of the Lord's prayer (and calls one of our central assumptions into question!). Jesus recognizes that one of the central obstacles to living a God-centered life is simply our anxiety about having "enough". If our anxieties eclipse God a God-centered life will simply be impossible. As Carson notes, "...our whole lives drift relentlessly toward the spot where our treasures are stored, because our hearts will take us there. To follow Jesus faithfully entails therefore a consistent development of our deepest loves, to train ourselves to adopt an unswerving loyalty to kingdom values and to delight in all that God approves" (pp. 83-84). It is important to recognize that one of the central features of our culture, the acquisition of "stuff", works against genuine discipleship.
Another important clue to the interpretation of the Sermon is found in 7:7-11. Clearly, 5:3 is still in view here and the emphasis is still not on moral heroism but on complete confidence in God. The God-centered life begins not with our decision to make ourselves God-centered but with the recognition that we must ask for it from God. As Carson notes, "No one is capable, by himself,of even approaching the quality of life characterized by the Sermon on the Mount. And certainly no one will ever enter the consummated kingdom simply because he has determined to improve himself and make himself presentable to God" (p. 118).
The Sermon on the Mount describes a God-centered life and we need to avoid being so self-centered as to believe that such a life can simply begin by our deciding to live it.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Restoring "The Lost World of Genesis I"

Book Review: The Lost World of Genesis 1: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John H. Walton (InterVarsity Press, 2009)

John Walton, who teaches at Wheaton College, is an Old Testament scholar who thinks that the "creation--evolution debate" has obscured the meaning of Genesis 1. As this debate has become yet another element in a larger culture war, Genesis 1 has been interpreted by two very different groups of Christians with very different agendas. One group has advocated for a "literal" reading of Genesis 1 and, thus, has appropriated it as a refutation of evolutionary theory. On this reading, Genesis 1 provides a straightforward account of creation and leaves no room for either micro or macro evolution. A second group has attempted to interpret Genesis 1 in such a way that it can be understood to be consonant with evolutionary theory. On this reading, the seven days of creation become periods of time in an attempt to reconcile creation and evolution. Walton argues, persuasively in my judgment, that both groups make serious interpretive mistakes, the most significant one being that each wrenches Genesis 1 out of its original context and makes a modern debate the key to understanding the meaning of the text.
Walton, who knows a great deal about ancient cosmology, argues that the context for reading Genesis 1 is not modern concerns about evolution but ancient cosmology--when we take it out of this context we are not interpreting the text but reading things into it. The principal difference between ancient and modern cosmology, Walton argues, is that their central concerns are different. Modern cosmology (and modern science) is interested in the material origins of things and so understands all of reality as a function of material properties (properties which the natural sciences then describe). By contrast, ancient cosmology is interested in the function of things as part of an ordered whole; it is not interested in what things are made of but in how things are related to one another. Walton surveys creation accounts from various Ancient Near Eastern cultures and concludes that Genesis 1 shares their fundamental concerns even if it has a very different theological content. Creation is understood in ancient cosmology to be the establishment of functional relationships between things not the establishment of material properties. It is crucial to recognize that Genesis 1 comes from a very different intellectual outlook that ours (an outlook which must not be dismissed as "primitive"). As Walton concludes, "All of this indicates that cosmic creation in the ancient world was not viewed primarily as a process by which matter was brought into being, but as a process by which functions, roles, order, jurisdiction, organization and stability were established" (p. 53).
What, then, of the seven days? Walton argues that the first six days are devoted to the establishment of creation's chief functional relationships and functionaries, plants, animals and human beings. Human beings are created on day 6 as the "jewel in the crown" of a hierarchically ordered world (this does not mean that Genesis 1 understands human beings to be disconnected from the rest of creation but, rather, sees them as profoundly related to it). The most important action occurs on the seventh day, the day on which God "rests". As Walton notes, the Hebrew verb in Genesis 2:2 does not indicate that God was now "done" with the work of creation but, rather, has the sense of a king "resting" on his throne. When the king rests on his throne, he does not enter into a period of idleness but enters into a period of secure rule. On the seventh day God does not cease from his work as creator but, rather, having established all things in their proper order he takes up his throne to rule what he has made; creation is not simply a seven day process.
This prompts Walton to ask a further question: Where is it that the Old Testament in particular and ancient cosmology in general understand a god to rest? On this point there is no debate: The resting place of God is the Temple (see especially Psalm 132). From this, Walton concludes that Genesis 1 understands the cosmos to be a temple and notes that the Temple in Jerusalem was clearly intended to be a replica of the cosmos (cf. 1 Kings 7). What does it mean to have the lost world of Genesis 1 restored? It means something like this: "Genesis 1 can now be seen as a creation account focusing on the cosmos as a temple. It is describing the creation of the cosmic temple with all of its functions and with God dwelling in its midst. This is what makes day seven so significant, because without God taking up his dwelling in its midst, the (cosmic) temple does not exist. The most central truth to the creation account is that this world is a place for God's presence. Though all of the functions are anthropocentric, meeting the needs of humanity, the cosmic temple is theocentric, with God's presence serving as the defining element of existence" (pp. 84-85).
All of this suggests that our nervous modern efforts to argue for either seven actual days or for seven ages of time are simply wrongheaded and simply read into the text things that are not really there. As Walton says, "the seven days are not given as the period of time over which the material cosmos came into existence, but the period of time devoted to the inauguration of the functions of the cosmic temple...It is not the material phase of temple construction that represents the creation of the temple; it is the inauguration of the functions and the entrance of the presence of God to take up his rest that creates the temple" (p. 92).
This gives us much to think about. It is a misuse of Genesis 1 to enlist it in a battle against evolutionary theory. This much is clear. But this does not mean that Genesis 1 is metaphysically neutral. Quite the contrary is true: Genesis 1 understands all of reality in relation to God as it understands God to reign over creation and as it understands creation to be the "place" where God is worshiped. In this way, while Genesis 1 is neutral with respect to theories of evolution, it certainly rules out both naturalistic and deistic understandings of the cosmos. Walton has done the Church a great service by not allowing the "creation--evolution debate" to obscure the glory of the God who is revealed in Genesis 1, the God who both creates and dwells with his creation.

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