Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Class Warfare and the New Testament


In circa 30 CE, at the zenith of Jesus' ministry, the Judaean Province was a fairly unstable place politically. In the mid-second century BCE, the Jewish state won a fleeting independence from the Ptolemaic Hellenists, only to absorbed into the Roman empire in the mid 1st century BCE. While the state was allowed some degree of autonomy, resentment against the Roman rulers was constantly brought to the fore in the form of protest and occasionally revolution, right up until the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Galilee, in the north of modern Israel, was at the time a largely rural province, populated almost entirely by small, agrarian communities. Although empire can be a cruel imposition on any population, there is evidence that it was these poorer, less politically influential communities who tended to suffer most at the hands of imperial policy. In general, Shauel Noah Einstadt writes, "the middle and lower peasant groups were the largest part of the rural population" in ancient agrarian empires and "the peasantry [also] carried the greatest burden of taxation" (Political Systems of Empires, p. 207). Land appropriation and increasingly burdensome taxation seemed to be a common feature of Roman policy within Galilee and much of the rest of the Near East at the time.

The incapacity of farmers to produce at surplus levels (as all surpluses tended to be appropriated by the state) produced what might be termed a permanent underclass of communities barely capable of sustaining themselves. "[T]he Roman Empire was an agrarian society, characterised by... marked social inequality", John Dominic Crossan writes. "Agricultural productivity increased, elite appropriation of peasant surpluses increased, and inequality between the producers and the takers increased" (The Birth of Christianity, p. 153). This meant that the Peasant Class, "that vast majority of the population, was held at (or close to) sustenance level so that their appropriated surplus could support elite conspicuous consumption. Those appropriations could reach, cumulatively, as high as two thirds of the total crop" (p. 155).

But if even those landed peasants - capable of self-sustenance at least at some fundamental level - were barely capable of supporting themselves, what can we possibly say for those who owned no such land at all? This "Expandable Class", writes Gerhard Lenski, "included a variety of types, ranging from pretty criminals and outlaws to beggars and underemployed itinerant workers, and numbered all those forced to live solely by their wits or by charity" (Power and Privilege, p. 281). This class existed, he continues, because "agrarian societies usually produced more people than the dominant classes found it profitable to employ... [H]igh death rates were usually offset by the steady stream of new recruits forced into [their] ranks from the classes immediately above [them]. These recruits were largely the sons and daughters of poor peasants and artisans who inherited little more than the shirts on their backs and a parental blessing" (pp. 281-283).

It is from these disenfranchised, impoverished classes of Galilee that Jesus and his early followers first emerged.

Jesus and Poverty:

When it comes to determining exactly who Jesus was and what his message consisted of, we have no choice but to abandon any pretense of talking about "facts" and enter instead the wonderful world of "probabilities". No account of Jesus' life or teachings exists from his day, the earliest surviving account dating to perhaps forty years after his death (presuming a 70 CE date of authorship for gMark). There are certain criteria that can and have been used to adduce what parts of the gospels report reliable history and which are the invention of the gospel authors (I explore J.P. Meier's criteria on here, for those interested) but this is scarcely a scientific process and not especially important if (as in the case of this post) we're not particularly concerned with distinguishing Jesus' message from that of his earliest followers.

From what we can tell, Jesus was the son of a manual labourer (tekton in Greek: can be translated as "carpenter", but not the sort of who produced fine furniture) who - based on his absence from the later gospel record (cf. Mk. 6:3) - may well have been dead or otherwise absent for much of Jesus' life. In any case, all the indications are that Jesus came from an impoverished family and grew up in a tiny, inconsequential Galilean community.

It is clear from the early sayings traditions preserved in gMark and the "Double Tradition" (i.e. those sayings common to gMatthew and gLuke but not to gMark, which a majority of scholars explain as having come from a hypothetical, now lost "Q" gospel) that concern with poverty was present in the philosophy of Jesus and the early Christian tradition from the very beginning. Only "concern with poverty" doesn't quite capture it: the tone is far more severe than that. But to understand we must first we digress into a brief discussion of "eschatology".

Eschatology and Judaism:

For the Jews of the ancient world - particularly those who lived pre-diaspora - there was usually little distinction made between the realms of theology and politics. All that happened to Israel (both from within and without) was a consequence of divine machination, a response to the piety (or lack thereof) of Israel's children. This can be seen most vividly in the books of the prophets, where the success of kings and the state are linked entirely to Yahweh's whim, which is itself determined by how faithfully the king and his subjects carried out Yahweh's commandments. Within this prophetic literature, though, existed a more specific genre called "the Apocalyptic", which involved not merely a theological explanation for contemporary events but a genre in which future events were "revealed" (the most accurate translation of the Greek word "apocalypse") to the prophets. These kinds of "prophecies" were particularly common during periods where the sovereignty of Israel was under threat from foreign powers, and people looked desperately to the prospect of future divine intervention for reassurance.

Note, then, that the apocalyptic genre was from the beginning an outlet for the weak and disenfranchised to imagine a future time in which the power imbalance would be righted. Israel may well be at the whim of foregin powers now, but at some point in the future the great power of Yahweh shall be revealed and all these presently powerful kings who have so tormented his children shall be made subject to him. Eventually, this idea of a future turning point in history (or, more accurately, an end to history as we know it) where God shall arrive and institute a quite literal kingdom on Earth, became a common feature of Jewish theology. This, naturally, gave rise to the belief that this future eschaton (lit. "the last") was close at hand, and that the adherence to certain standards of behaviour might either draw the eschaton nearer or, in the case of early Christians, offer one a means of salvation in the event that God (or one acting in his name - i.e. "the Son of Man") were to arrive in judgment, determining who exactly was worthy to live in his kingdom.

It is this concept of "ethical eschatology" (i.e. a future, definitive turning-point in history) that is at the centre of most early Christian beliefs.

Eschatology, Christianity and Power:

From the beginning, Christian theology has clearly been motivated by a belief in an imminent eschaton, the first step of which was marked by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Like many other Jewish eschatologies, there appeared to be a belief in a general resurrection of the dead at the "coming of the Lord" (see 1 Thess. 4:13-18 - the earliest surviving work of Christian literature, and also the passage that has inspired modern Christian visions of "the Rapture"). In 1 Cor. 15:20-23 Paul spells out his "Adam Christology", his belief that Jesus represents a kind of inverse Adam (where Adam tried to raise himself and inflicted death on mankind, Jesus lowered himself and brought life to mankind) and - more importantly - his belief that the resurrection of Christ marks only the "first fruits" of a more general eschatology, which involves the "resurrection of the dead".

But Christian eschatology was about more than just the promise of eternal life. Like other Jewish eschatologies, the Christian message was one of a coming "kingdom of God", where the oppressive rulers of the current age would be swept aside by God in a glorious inversion of power. Consider the passages that come immediately after the two quoted above:

1 Thess. 5:1-3:
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, "There is peace and security", then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!
1 Cor. 15:24-25:
Then comes the end, when [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.

Note that we are not just talking about salvation in some distant, heavenly sense, we're talking about salvation on this Earth, here and now. Just like Yahweh coming down and smiting Israel's enemies in the prophetic OT literature, so to shall he arrive to deliver his children from the present day kingdoms (i.e. Rome) that oppress them. Like the earlier apocalyptic literature, we see the expectations of a future day where the powerful shall be toppled by the powerless in a divinely led revolution.

Even after Paul, during the 70s when Mark wrote, the eschatological belief that "the Kingdom of God has come near" (Mk. 1:15) was apparently still going strong. It's only towards the end of the second century, where several decades of expectation had ended in disappointment, that the belief in the parousia (i.e. the second coming of Christ) and coming eschaton were placed at some point in the indefinite (as opposed to immediate) future. But the eschaton was not just about inverting the power imbalance between competing societies, it was about inverting the power imbalances within societies themselves.

Eschatology, Christianity and Poverty:

The New Testament as we have received it was written by many different authors, living in vastly different parts of the world, over a period spanning many decades. It's important to recognise, therefore, that we cannot expect to find a unified theology or ethical system undergirding all the books that comprise it: different authors, put simply, are bound to have differing opinions. Although there is a unity of sorts in the way that the NT treats poverty (all its authors who breach the subject naturally regard it as a pressing ethical concern), there is no question that different authors treat the issue of poverty in different ways.

For instance, there is no shortage of passages instructing readers to simply show due ethical concern for the plight of the poor. When modern Christians consider their ethical responsibilities to the poor (excluding sola fide Protestants, of course, who don't actually care about the poor at all), these are probably the sort of passages they have in mind:

Luke 3:11:
And [John the Baptist] would answer and say to them, "Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise."
1 Tim. 6:18:
Do good... be rich in good deeds, and... be generous and willing to share.
Mt. 6:2:
When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

Now it goes without saying that each of these injunctions are noble enough in their own right, but it also has to be said that they are otherwise quite pedestrian and unremarkable. Similar sentiments, I am sure, could be found in any other religious work which dwells on the issue of poverty: there is nothing particularly or uniquely "Christian" about any of them. Such injunctions to share if you can, to always be good and generous and to never boast about such deeds could scarcely be said to represent a bold or unique system of ethics.

The interesting thing about each of these passages, though, is that they can all be dated to late "strata" within the New Testament - special Lukan material ("L"), pseudo-Pauline Pastoral material and special Matthean material ("M") respectively, each of which date to the late first century at the earliest. As a general rule, we find that the later material in the NT often has a "softer" edge than the earlier material. Much of the early ethical injunctions concerning poverty in the New Testament have a distinctly unreasonable and polemical tone about them.

Consider some of the most famous ethical injunctions presented by Jesus:

Luke 6:29-30:
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
Luke 18:22:
When Jesus heard this, He said to him, "One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."

A simple reading might tell us simply that Jesus is suggesting that it is good to give to the poor, but the unreasonableness of Jesus' expectations tells us that there is something deeper going on here. What kind of society can function with these counter-intuitive ethical norms of giving more to those who have stolen from you, or where having any possessions at all is a hindrance to future salvation? The answer is simple: a society who didn't expect that the world (as we know it) would last much longer. Recognise that Jesus was not the irenic hippy that we often imagine him to be, going round telling people to be nice to each other out of some general altruistic concern for mankind. He offered all these strict ethical injunctions, rather, because he believed that the world was about to end and that the coming judgement would require everyone to measure up to extremely particular ethical standards.

But again, his beliefs were even more strident than that. He believed not only that giving excessively to the poor was a necessary moral condition for salvation, he apparently believed that poverty in itself was virtuous and wealth, by extension, inherently sinful. Take this famous passage:

Matthew 19:24:
Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

The message is clear: wealth itself is an anathema to divine salvation. The reasoning behind this idea is that the world is inherently "evil" (for want of a better word) and so therefore those who have profited most here must be evil as well, and that those who have profited least must therefore be "good" - a situation that will be rectified, with each getting their just desserts, when the eschaton finally arrives. It is this belief in a complete reversal of fortunes that scholars refer to as an inversionary ethical eschatology.

The meaning of this is simple enough. It means that "the last shall be [made] first, and the first last" (Mt. 20:16) and that "the meek shall inherit the earth" (Mt. 5:5) when this future kingdom arrives. For this reason "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Lk. 6:20) and "woe to you who are rich, for you have [already] received your consolation" (Lk. 6:24). The author of the book of James has an especially blunt message for those who amass wealth:

James 5:1-6:
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.

And an eschatological consolation for the poor:

James 5:7-8:
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

Note that the word translated here as "poor" is the Greek word ptochos, which refers not merely to those who are struggling a bit for cash, but rather to the completely destitute: that expendable underclass I spoke of at the top of this post. This inversionary eschatology was both written by and directed to this permanent underclass, giving them the hope that the iniquities of the present ages would soon pass. Jesus, then, was a champion of this poor, a revolutionary who saw his battle as being played out on some future heavenly realm rather than in the present material world. His revolutionary zeal didn't manifest itself in the taking up of swords, but rather the adoption of counter-intuitive standards of ethical piety. The early Christians were also drawn from this underclass, uplifted by the prospect of a divinely inspired revolutionary reversal of fortunes that they - as a lowly and disenfranchised people - could never hope to realise of their own volition. The New Testament is by construction, then, a statement of class warfare.

So what went wrong?

As I have already said, the earlier strata of the New Testament seem to represent a much courser polemic than the later strata. Put simply, as Christianity spread and the plight of rural Galileans became less central to the Christian message, the polemic was necessarily toned down. We can already see this happening in the first century, as Matthew (writing in the cosmopolitan city of Antioch) tones down the invective from the passages he derives from the "Q" gospel (written several decades earlier in the less developed province of Judea). Take the beatitudes, for instance, that both Luke and Matthew have taken from Q:

Luke 6:20-21:
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

Compare Luke's rendition of the beatitudes (most scholars believe that his rendering of Q is generally closer to the original wording the Matthew's rendition) to those in gMatthew:

Matthew 5:2-6:
Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Note that Matthew's beatitudes are no longer strictly about the poor and hungry, but (with the addition of the bolded words) are softened into more general, spiritual blessings, without class overtones. The later "woe to the rich" passage in gLuke is, not surprisingly, absent from gMatthew. Matthew, in fact, quite frequently seems to deliberately downplay the role of poverty in Jesus' life and message. Whereas in gLuke Jesus is born in a stable and visited by shepherds, in Matthew Jesus is visited by mighty kings from the east. Whereas in gLuke Jesus gives his sermon on a plain, in gMatthew he gives it atop a mountain. Whereas in gLuke Jesus is unequivocal in his denunciation of the rich, in gMatthew he fraternises with tax-collectors (the ultimate class-traitors: those drawn from local communities to procure funds on behalf of the empire). And that's just in gMatthew: by the time we get to gJohn (circa 95-100 CE) there is scarcely any mention of poverty at all.

And, unfortunately, that's the Christianity that we've been left with. A Christianity whose origins are to be found only in a few exposed roots among the surviving literature, otherwise completely obscured by a more dominant theology of vicarious atonement. The idea of salvation being delivered on the basis of need to groups, communities and nations has been supplanted - perhaps inevitably - by the more selfish concerns of personal salvation and "treasures in heaven". However, although the Christian message has been castrated by a church who preaches concern for the poor only in some abstract, pandering sense, it is important not to forget that at the centre of the church's canon lies a bold and revolutionary message: in one way or another, the poor will be delivered salvation at the expense of the rich.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

On Christian Pessimism

As an atheist, one quickly has to get used to the idea being frequently charged with pessimism and nihilism by believers. If one does not accept the idea of a deity, so the logic goes, one's life becomes inherently meaningless, one's outlook necessarily lacking optimism. Many ministers have recently elected to use the occasion of the resurrection of the Lord of the universe to re-emphasise their feelings about what certain people just don't happen to believe in (I mean, what else could they possibly have to talk about at this time of the year?). Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen, for instance, attacked the "the secularist philosophy" for "invit[ing] us to invent our own lives and... undervalue commitment to other human beings" (link). From my own perspective though, I would argue the opposite is true.

I was reminded of this through a post recently made by Fred Clark on his slacktivist blog. Normally Clark is especially adept at avoiding the more egregious excesses of Christian thought (indeed, he's normally an extremely articulate denouncer of them) but the idea of the hopeless futility of the Godless life is apparently so ingrained in the Christian ethos that even its most reasonable and egalitarian adherents cannot help but reproduce it.

Clark begins with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.

Now to most I'm sure that this triadic formula (to use the language of Biblical Scholarship) represents nothing more than a rather beautiful explication of the hopefulness of the Christian philosophy. For Niebuhr, the fragile obscurity of man is countenanced by the infinite and glorious power of the divine. In the face of our mortal limitations, we can rest assured that all that is worth acheiving can and will be acheived through the will of the immortal Lord. Surely no grander statement of optimism could be conceived?

Well, not really. My qualm rests in the almost reflexive dismissal of human potential inherent in Niebuhr's world-view. "Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime" - what a horrible sentiment! Where does that leave us, then? Are we all to simply lapse into fatalistic despair? Perhaps Mandela might just as well have stayed in prison, or Rosa Parks might just as well have moved seats, or Neil Armstrong might just as well have stayed in the space capsule if "nothing worth doing" can be completed during the course of a human life? What does that say about the Christian philosophy's "commitment to other human beings", given our apparent incapacity to ever acheive anything worthwhile in our lives?

But the fatalistic despair grows: "Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history". While it is true that sometimes the grandeur of human acheivement can take time to be duly appreciated, that in no way means that it is impossible to immediately discern the "true", "beautiful" and "good" when and where it happens. Even if a philosophical case could be mounted for the impossibility of objectively discerning what is "true", "beautiful" and "good" (which I don't think Niebuhr was going for) to proceed as though such objective discernment were possible is probably a necessary basis for meaningful human action. I shudder to think what human action might look like if we dispose with any pretense of concern for that which is "true", "beautiful" or "good".

And finally: "Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone". In actual fact I have some sympathy for this passage: no man is an island, as that old cliche goes, so man necessarily requires the formation of community with other human beings to acheive anything at all. We are biologically social animals for whom, I suspect, all higher functions (consciousness, emotion, logic etc.) are entirely predicated on our capacity for interaction with others. However, I'm inclined to think that this impression of biologically determined sociality was not quite what Niebuhr was aiming for, and his intention was probably rather to simply engage in a crude assault on human individualism. His claim that "nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone" belies that fact that individuals throughout history have indeed acheieved great things as a consequence of their own, individual volition. Some such as Gallileo acheived what they did in spite of the interjection of the community around them, certainly not because of it.

Now while we mustn't overstate the representativeness of a single passage from a single author, it seems quite apparent to me that this almost general, almost casual disdain for humanity is indeed endemic to to Christian thought more generally. Neitzsche writes that "Christianity finds man sick so that it may offer him the cure"1, continuing:

"It was Christianity which first painted the devil on the worlds wall; It was Christianity which first brought sin into the world. Belief in the cure which it offered has now been shaken to it's deepest roots; but belief in the sickness which it taught and propagated continues to exist'."2

In other words, it was once necessary for Christians to emphasise the "sickness" of man - how small, and fragile, and unworthy he is - in order to convince him of the need to accept the cure: namely, salvation through Jesus Christ3. While the proclamation of soteriological exclusivism has diminished in public Christian thought in recent times (all religions are, afterall, just different means to the same end - whether you believe in Jesus or Buddha, you'll still get to heaven) that fundamental belief in the sickness of man remains. This is the malaise that undergirds all in Christian philosophy that can be found to be abhorrent.

Now, though, it finds itself confronted with a newer philosophy: a philosophy which asserts the ethical trascendence of humankind over and above the cold, dead universe into which we are all born. To the Christians, of course, such a proclamation represents "a form of idolatry in which we worship ourselves", borne of our "resentment that we do not in fact rule the world" (link). But the humanists think nothing of the kind. The general, overarching philosophy of humanism can be expressed in a single line: all that is that is good in the universe both begins and ends with a human being. Simple, powerful and completely impervious to misinterpretation or corruption.

Perhaps, though, the Christians recognise the weakness of their own position and the strength of our own. Perhaps, as Sartre put it, they resent the humanists "not [for] our pessimism, but the sternness of our optimism"4. A person optimistic about the human capacity for goodness and self-determination, of course, has less need for the salvational myths sold to them by those who hold a far dimmer view of humanity.

So I say leave the Christians alone with their delusions of a sick, deficient human species completely enslaved by the inexorable fate into which they were born. I, however, can only assert my belief in the potential in every human being for overwhelming acts of good, and the power of each of us to alter for the better the course of human history. If that makes me a pessimist, so be it.


1 - I'm struggling to find a source for this, but I'm almost certain I didn't make it up. Perhaps my memory has twisted the words in my mind enough - while retaining the general sentiment of the passage - that it no longer resembles the original passage enough to be able to find it through Google. Perhaps, as an aside, this is a good analogy for how the sayings of Jesus were remembered and transmitted during the 40 years period prior to the penning of the gospels.

2 - From Human, All Too Human in Volume Two: The Wanderer and His Shadow, p. 329.

3 - As Jesus himself is reported to have said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." - Matthew 9:12.

4 - From Existentialism as a Humanism.

Five Criteria for Assessing the Historicity of Jesus in the Gospels

When we're dealing with the historical Jesus, we're not so much dealing with facts as we are "probabilities". The gospels are plainly of dubious historical reliability because they were written a long time after Jesus' death and, in any case, they have all clearly been written through a particular theological prism, which throws the objectivity of their authors into grave doubt. Put simply, these are not "historical" documents, and I don't think that any of us who advocate a historical Jesus have ever claimed otherwise. Nonetheless, so long as one proceeds carefully with the above facts in mind, I think there are clearly elements of the gospel narratives that are far more likely to be historically true than not.

Devising a completely objective, fool-proof methodology for separating the historical gospel material from the non-historical gospel material is obviously beyond the powers of the historical-critical method, but some attempts have still been able to come pretty close. One of the better attempts at devising a set of criteria for determining the historicity of Gospel material was that of J.P. Meier. He argued that five primary criteria could be used to determine how likely it was that facts or events in the gospels had a historical core. They are:

  • Embarrassment: A fact or event that appears to cause embarrassment to the theology of the gospel authors is less likely to have been invented by them than a fact or event that bolsters their theology.
  • Discontinuity: A fact or event that does not appear to have had any basis in earlier tradition is less likely to have been invented by the gospel authors than an event that may have been predicated in an earlier tradition.
  • Multiple Attestation: A fact or event that appears to have been preserved down multiple lines of independent tradition is more likely to be true than one that is only preserved down a single line.
  • Coherence: A fact or event that appears to be consistent with our present understanding of the historical context is more likely to be true than one which appears to be at odds with it.
  • Rejection and Execution: A fact or event that looks as though it might provide an realistic explanation for the rejection or execution of Jesus is more likely to be true than the more tendentious explanations offered consciously by the gospel authors (e.g. divine providence, the Jews being in league with the devil etc.). (This criterion is less strong as it presumes historicity of the execution to begin with, but given that the execution of Jesus appears to satisfy each of the four previous criteria, it's based on a fairly solid foundation so far as second-order criteria go.)

Now there are very few facts or events in the gospels that appear to satisfy all of these criteria, which is why we can say very little with any certainty about the historical Jesus. However, a fact such as Jesus being from Nazareth - an otherwise, minor or incidental fact - appears to be one of those facts that we can state of Jesus most certainly because it does happen to satisfy each of these criteria:

  • Embarrassment: The fact that Jesus came from Nazareth was inconvenient for those who accepted the OT prophecy that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). Matthew and Luke had to invent convoluted (and entirely contradictory) accounts to reconcile these two "facts" and even John appears to be aware of the theological difficulties concerning Jesus' origins in Nazareth (Jn. 7:41b-42).
  • Discontinuity: There was no tradition in the OT - or any other Jewish literature - about the messiah hailing from Nazareth, or anything else of any significance concerning that town - in fact, the town of Nazareth does not appear once in any context in the OT. This discontinuity was plainly an embarrassment to Matthew who was required to invent a prophecy concerning Nazareth as a means of obscuring it (Mt. 2:23).
  • Multiple attestation: This fact is recorded down at least four independent lines: Mark (Mk. 1:9), M (Mt. 2:23), L (Lk. 2:39) and John (Jn. 1:45-46).
  • Coherence: It's consistent with our understanding of Jesus as an outsider, or a "Marginal Jew" in the words of J.P. Meier.
  • Rejection and Execution: The fact that he came from such a backwards and inconsequential part of the world may have contributed to his being rejected as a messianic figure by many. John appears to suggest as much (Jn. 7:52).

Now again, none of this is foolproof, but it surely makes the competing suggestion - that the place of Jesus' birth was "made up" somewhere along the line, for want of a better expression - extremely difficult to accept.

In any case, what these criteria really allow us to do is make comparative probabilistic judgments concerning the historicity of various events in the gospels. Where Jesus' birthplace appears to satisfy all five of Meier's criteria, an event like the Last Supper appears to satisfy two (multiple attestation and coherence, with regards to Jesus' use of bread as a spiritual metaphor throughout the gospels) and fail two (it does not represent any kind of discontinuity because it appears to have predicates in both Jewish and Gentile tradition, and it fails the embarrassment criterion because the Eucharist is something that the early Christians would have been motivated to trace back to Jesus). At the other extreme we have plenty of events, such as the raising of Lazarus, that appear to fail all five criteria: there would have been a clear motivation for early Christians to invent stories like this, there are clear predicates in earlier traditions (e.g. Elijah), the story is presented down just one tradition (i.e. John), the story is at odds with any realistic historical context and it doesn't appear to offer any coherent reason as to why Jesus came to be rejected or executed by the Jewish authorities (cf. John 11:45-54).

Now none of this is to say that Jesus was definitely born in Nazareth, that he might have presided over the first Eucharist and that he definitely didn't raise Lazarus from the dead: we are incapable of making such definitive judgments. It is true, in one sense, to say that all content in the gospels may or may not be true: the mythicist is as justified in rejecting the Nazareth accounts as the fundamentalist is in accepting the Lazarus accounts. However, I think an objective methodological approach to the gospels - such as this one set out by Meier - can only lead us to the conclusion (for whatever it is worth) that the Nazareth accounts are far more probable than the Lazarus accounts, and that the Nazareth accounts are far more likely to find their origin in some historical memory than in the imagination of some early evangelist.

(Adapted from my RS post here.)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Who is the "Son of Man"?

No Christological title has inspired as much confusion as that of "the Son of Man". What it means, to whom it refers, in what context it was used and from where it came remain a matter of on-going debate, though perhaps we can take heart in the fact that the confusion apparently goes back to Christianity's earliest days ("Who is this 'Son of Man'?" - Jn. 12:34).

Part of the problem appears to be that different individuals in the early Christian movement had different ideas about what the title "Son of Man" actually meant. The OT literature, the NT literature and the intertestamental apocrypha all seem to use the term in different ways. We begin with its use in the OT.

Uses of "Son of Man" in OT literature:

There are three different ways that the phrase "Son of Man" is used in the Old Testament1.

Firstly it is used as a perjorative (Job 25:4-6):

How then can a mortal be righteous before God?
How can one born of woman be pure?
If even the moon is not bright
and the stars are not pure in his sight,
how much less a mortal, who is a maggot,
and a son of man2, who is a worm!’

Secondly as an honorific emphasising human beings as being next to God in the order of creation (Ps. 8:3-6):

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
sons of men that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet.

And thirdly in an apocalyptic or eschatological sense (Dan. 7:13-14):

As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a son of man
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

First thing to note is that the first two uses of the term (lowly creature, creature slightly beneath god) don't really seem to influence any of the New Testament uses of the term. Daniel - with its use of the "son of man" in an apocolyptic context - seems like a much better fit. However, could the litany of New Testament uses of the term really all be derived from a single passage in Daniel? Could the NT authors have been inspired by a somewhat more contemporary source?

Uses of "Son of Man" in intertestamental literature:

The intertestamental period (i.e. the very rough period of some 200 years between the penning of the last books of the OT and the first books of the NT) was actually a period of great literary creativity within the Jewish faith. Although most of this material remained at the fringes of acknowledged scripture within both the Jewish and Christian faiths, that is not to say that it wasn't a great influence on (and, indeed, reflection of) the thought of the day.

The intertestamental work of greatest relevence to the issue at hand is surely the book of 1 Enoch. Although doubts and controversies about the date and manner of its composition linger, there is good reason to believe that the oldest sections of the work (mainly from 1 En. 1-36, aka the Book of Watchers) were penned at some point near the beginning of the 3rd century BCE and it was probably completed in something approaching its surviving form by the end of the first century BCE.

Its relevence to the topic at hand is that it appears to present a quite developed eschatology centered (in part) around a figure titled "the Son of Man"3. While clearly sometimes inspired by the passage from Daniel, the author(s) of The Book of Parables (1 Enoch 37-71) flesh the figure of "the Son of Man" out in a way that often startlingly resembles later Christian understanding of the term. This "Son of Man" is described as a pre-existing being who has a rank higher than the angels, as "the Elect One" and - perhaps - even as a messianic figure (48:10, 52:4). He is described as having "righteousness", is depicted as sitting on a throne at the right hand of God, where he has the wicked brought before him in judgment to be shamed. The parallels between the understanding of "the Son of Man" in 1 Enoch and the gospels (at least the first way that the term is used in the gospels - see below) are there for all to see.

But could such a work have really influenced Christian thought? It seems likely that the work was popular in early Christian circles, as it has the distinction of being the only non-OT work cited in the entire NT (in Jude 1:14) and is cited as authoritative scripture (a precursor to canonicity) by many early early church fathers. Even Jesus' own thought may have been directly influenced by 1 Enoch, or at least the exegetical philosophy that gave rise to it. To quote Raymond Brown4:

All this evidence suggests that in apocolyptic circles of the 1st century AD, the portrayal in Dan 7 had given rise to the picture of a messianic human figure of heavenly pre-existent origin who is glorified by God and made a judge. Against that background Jesus, if he was familiar with apocolyptic thought, could have used "Son of Man" terminology. He need not have read the Parables of 1 Enoch, but only have been aware of some of the burgeoning reflection on Dan 7 that gave or would give rise to the presentation of the Son of Man in the Parables [and elsewhere].

We now finally move onto the use of the term "Son of Man" in the New Testament.

Uses of "Son of Man" in NT literature:

One of the most confusing aspects of the use of this title in the NT is that it is extremely frequent in the Gospel literature (appearing some 80 times) but appears just three times outside of the gospels (excluding Acts). Why this title appears so frequently in the Gospels but not in other early Christian literature (both within and outside of the NT) is one of the most mysterious questions surrounding this title.

NT treatment of "Son of Man" outside the gospels - As I have already mentioned, the phrase "Son of Man" appears just three times outside of the gospels and Acts. These appearances are Hebrews 2:6, Revelation 1:13 and Revelation 14:14, all of which appear to be direct allusions to the OT passages posted above. Hebrews 2:6 is taken directly from Psalm 8:4 (a popular Psalm in the early Christian community) and the passages in Revelation appear to have been inspired by the apocolyptic use of the term in Daniel 7:13. That is, in contrast to the use of the title in the Gospels, the rare use of the title outside of the gospels can be traced back directly to the way it is used in the OT: why is its use in the gospels so different?

NT treatment of "Son of Man" within the gospels - In addition to the earlier fact that it is used so frequently, there are two vital facts we must note about the use of the term in the Gospels.

Firstly (with the possible exceptions of Mk. 2:10 and Jn. 12:34) the term "Son of Man" is only placed on the lips of Jesus - that is, it appears nowhere in the general narrative or on the lips of other characters within the gospel. It is a term almost completely peculiar to the purported sayings of Jesus. Secondly, as J.D. Kingsbury notes, no person ever addresses Jesus as the "Son of Man" and Jesus never makes any attempt to address its meaning5. The precise significance of these facts is difficult to ascertain, but they may be important in piecing how the term came to be used within the gospel literature.

With that in mind, there are two main ways in which the title is employed within the gospels6. Firstly as a reference to some future eschatological being "who is to come" (e.g. Mk. 8:38; 13:26; 14:62), an understanding probably derived from the apocalyptic passage in Daniel. Often in these passages the most straightforward reading is that Jesus is referring to a third person, eg. Mk. 8:38:

'Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

It takes a very contrived reading of the text to assume that Jesus here is referring to himself.

On the other hand, most of the passages featuring the phrase "Son of Man" do appear to be third-person references made by Jesus about himself. These are passages which refer to "unique events in the story of Jesus' suffering and death, so that 'son of man' seems to be only a roundabout way of saying 'I'"7. With all that in mind, how do we square these different usages and account for the inconsistent yet frequent use of the term throughout the gospels?

It's difficult to say for certain, and about all we can say about the issue with any confidence is that the understanding of the term within the early Christian community was confused, and this confusion is demonstrated by its inconsistent use both between and within each of the gospels. On the other hand, the frequency with which it is used probably suggests that the term goes back to Jesus and the idea that all instances of the term "son of man" were anachronistic inserts by the gospel authors probably doesn't hold much merit.

One possible explanation for the data is that Jesus actually did reference a "son of man" figure quite frequently throughout his ministry, and his understanding of this figure was furnished by the eschatological uses of the term in Daniel and 1 Enoch. In other words, he believed that the eschaton would bring with it "one like the son of man" as a cosmic judge, to be given dominion of the Earth during the coming Kingdom of God (e.g. Mk. 8:38; 13:26). After his death, the failure of the eschaton to manifest itself and the growing belief in the Christian community concerning the parousia8 and higher Christological views, this "son of man" ceased being associated with a heavenly agent of the eschaton and instead started being linked to Jesus himself.

Firstly the apocolyptic "son of man" sayings (which plausibly originated with Jesus) were transformed into expectations of Jesus' return as that son of man, and secondly other sayings were invented linking the "son of man" to events in Jesus' life (usually by the means of having Jesus "predict" these events, while referring to himself with this third person title). Though the evidence available to support this position is hardly unequivocal, it does have the virtue of explaining:

  • Why the term is so frequent in the gospels (it originated with Jesus, and may have formed an intergral part of his overall eschatology).
  • Why only Jesus uses the term and why no-one else applies it to him.
  • Why the term is so inconsistently and confusingly applied.

Now if I've done this properly, you should be more confused about the term "Son of Man" than ever. Hopefully, though, my argument becomes more apparent as we progress through the gospels and encounter more specific instances of how it is used by the gospel authors.


1 - Taken from The Five Gospels by Funk et al., pp. 76-77.

2 - In some translations the phrase is rendered as "human beings" or "mortals", but the original Hebrew is ben 'adam (בן אדם), literally the "Son of Adam" (where "adam" refers both to the mythical first man of Genesis and is the Hebrew word for mankind more generally).

3 - One problem is that much of the material concerning the "Son of Man" was not found amongst the manuscripts of 1 Enoch discovered at the Qumran site, leading some scholars to suggest that the "Son of Man" material might not have been original to the book and may have therefore been redacted by later Christian authors. However, such a conclusion is hasty in my opinion, as the "Son of Man" material exists within the lastest layers of 1 Enoch, and the Qumran manuscripts may therefore simply represent an earlier stage of the work, an explanation that fits in with our current understanding of how the work was developed in successive stages.

4 - An Introduction to New Testament Christology, pp. 95-96.

5 - The Christology of Mark, pp. 166-179.

6 - Funk et al., p. 77.

7 - Ibid.

8 - i.e. Jesus' second coming.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Mark 1:35-45

The text:


Mark 1:40-42 - Jesus Heals a Leper

As a matter of process, the historian must always be sceptical about ancient claims concerning divine intervention or miraculous deeds. Though the believer might object to such apparent prejudice, given that there is wide a preponderance of such claims in ancient literature there are only two realistic alternatives available to the historian: either to proceed as though all miraculous accounts in all ancient histories are true, or proceed as though all miraculous accounts in all ancient histories are false. Special pleading for the historicity of Biblical miracles simply won't do: by what objective criteria could we accept Jesus' purported divine capacity to heal people and reject Julius Caesar's purported divine capacity to heal people? Whatever process might lead us to accept Biblical miracles in lieu of all others, it could certainly not rightly be called "history".

Given all that, there is still one objection to the rejection of Biblical miracles that warrants our attention: the fact that some of them are as well attested in Biblical literature as those more mundane aspects of Jesus' biography that most Biblcial scholars are prepared to take for granted.1 I don't believe that this is cause for contemplating the historicity of miraculous deeds (the above argument still stands) but I think it does require us to at least give a considered account of the miracle stories, and what we are to make of them. Simply dismissing them as unhistorical won't teach us anything.

In this account of the healing of the leper, we get our first indication that there is a "symbolic" aspect to many of the miracle accounts in the gospels that we may miss if we concern ourselves only with the issue of their historicity.2 In the case of Mark's account of the healing of the leper, our clue for a deeper symbolism comes from his use of the word "clean" and its relationship to OT theology.

For Jews of the day (including Mark, almost certainly) leprosy was not merely seen as the set of physical symptoms caused by the Mycobacterium leprae bacterium (obviously they were neither familiar with the idea of bacteria nor its implications for public sanitation), it was just as importantly seen as an affliction which deemed one as ritually impure or "unclean" in a religious sense. Such a designation not only held grave consequences for one's ability to exist in everyday society, it was also an indictment of sinfulness that could not be alleviated without the assent of (suitably intermediated) divine authority. That is to say, the OT treats the diagnosis and prognosis of leprosy as the sole domain of the priest (Lev. 13:1 - 14:57): it is he alone who is permitted to declare your fitness (or otherwise) to participate in public life and religious ritual. It is this idea of "cleanliness" in the context of leprosy that is brought before Jesus.

"If you choose", the leper says to Jesus, "you can make me clean" (v. 40). (Not "you can cure me", note, but rather "you can make me clean".) Jesus obliges: "I do choose", he says, "Be made clean!" (v. 41). Some manuscripts say he made this declaration out of pity, others out of anger, but the theological import of this miracle is clear: Jesus not only has the authority to to cure disease, he has authority over ritual cleanliness and uncleanliness, an authority previously reserved for Yahweh and his Aaronic priestly caste. Mark, then, is not so much demonstrating Jesus' power to heal people with this miracle, he's rather demonstrating Jesus' authority to absolve sins.3

As a means of emphasising this point, Mark then has Jesus tell the man to "go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them" (v. 44), ostensibly "a demonstrative testimony or 'witness' against the priests and the costly offerings required by their code".4 This theme of Jesus' authority in relation to the priestly caste (especially the Pharisees) and OT law is extremely common throughout the Gospel accounts (especially gMark and gMatthew) and one we will find ourselves regularly returning to, so I shall leave it there for the time being.

The pericope closes with another example of Markan secrecy ("See that you say nothing to anyone..." - v. 44) and an indication of Jesus' growing notoriety (v. 45).


1 - One of the criteria for determining the historicity of Biblical events is that of "multiple attestation": if something is attested in more than one independent tradition, we can probably treat it as being more probably true, ceteris paribus, than an event preserved by only a single tradition (and when we're reconstructing the historical Jesus, probabilities are the best we have to go on).

Another criterion we might wish to invoke is that of embarrassment: that is, we might be well within our rights to suggest that we should be more accepting of reports concerning events that might be considered "embarrassing" to the authors (depending on the view they are attempting to promote), in preference to reports concerning events that the authors may have been motivated to invent or contrive. Events attested in all four gospels that (to me at least) also satisfy the criterion of embarrassment include Jesus' being from Nazareth (note: not Bethlehem!), Jesus' baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, Jesus causing a raucous at the Temple, Jesus' trial at the hands of Pilate and Jesus being crucified.

With regards to miracles, it is only the miracle of the loaves and fishes (Mk. 6:30-44; Mt. 14:13-21; Lk. 9:10-17; Jn. 6:1-13) that is specifically attested in all four gospels and surely none of the miracle accounts can be said to pass the criterion of embarrassment. Although Jesus' healing powers (the subject of this post) are attested in all four gospels, only three record this particular incident, and - even then - the Matthean and Lukan accounts are derived entirely from the account in Mark.

2 - Note that I use the term "symbolic" as opposed to "metaphorical". "Symbolic" merely implies that that the author intended a deeper meaning to the event described, whereas "metaphorical" implies that the event was contrived as a symbolic fiction to begin with. Liberal scholars enjoy wielding the term "metaphor" to sweep uncomfortable passages under the carpet without having to properly address them, but I'm not sure that such an attitude is intellectually honest. While there may have been a theological subtext to many of the gospel miracle accounts, that's not quite the same as suggesting that the gospel authors believed them to fictitious in the sense that the term "metaphor" implies.

3 - This is made more explicit in our next pericope, the healing of the paralytic: cf. Mk. 2:5.

4 - The New Oxford Annotated Bible: NRSV Ed., p. 60 NT.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Mark 1:16-34

The text:


Mark 1:23-28, 32-34 - Jesus Exorcises some Demons

This story encapsulates two elements that are integral to understanding Mark's gospel: namely, Jesus' capacity for miraculous deeds and the so-called "Messianic secret". I shall address miracles in the next section, and use this pericope instead to focus on the role of the Messianic Secret in Markan theology.

The Messianic Secret was an idea coined by William Wrede at the turn of the century in a book of the same name. He noted that Jesus quite frequently made a secret of his Messiahship in gMark, telling people that he has healed (or in any other way betrayed his great powers1 to) not to tell anyone about it (cf. v. 44 below, 5:43, 7:36). As a consequence, no-one in Mark's gospel recognises Jesus for who he is except for the demons (Mk. 1:24, 5:7) and the Roman Centurion after Jesus' death (Mk. 15:39). Tellingly, even Jesus' family and his disciples are kept ignorant about his true nature.

Wrede's solution to this quite enigmatic Markan motif is that it was a later retrojection, completely original to the author of this gospel, to explain why Jesus was not more widely acknowledged as the Son of God during his own lifetime. This may be especially pertinent if Mark was addressing the claims of early Christians who might have rejected higher Christological ideas (see, for instance, the Ebionites) and might have been able to point to the lack of surviving testimony concerning Jesus' powers in the oral tradition as proof of their claims. For Wrede, therefore, Mark invented - out of whole cloth - both the idea that Jesus performed great deeds befitting the Son of God and the idea that Jesus then compelled observers to keep these deeds a secret, as an explanation for why none of Mark's contemporaries were familiar with them having ever occurred. If true, the challenges for Christian theology are "legion".2

However I'm not inclined to rush to this judgment, as there are other credible solutions. Firstly, we must note that Mark, throughout his gospel, goes to great lengths to portray Jesus' disciples as ignorant of Jesus' true nature and the "Messianic Secret" motif might have been a means of explaining why. If so, it might be a coded reference to proto-Christian3 contemporaries of Mark that even people who lived close to Jesus had trouble understanding who he was, so struggles with faith and understanding should be considered par de course for a follower of Jesus, and that they should not be discouraged by such difficulties.

Secondly, perhaps it is the case that Wrede was on the right track (that Markan secrecy was borne of necessity due to genuine disagreements between Jesus' first century followers as to who he actually was) but that he simply over-reached by declaring that the issue was completely original to Mark. Perhaps, as Raymond Brown notes4, Markan secrecy:

"...may have its roots in Jesus' historical rejection of some messianic aspirations of his own time and his having no developed theological language to express his identity."

I'm not completely convinced by the "undeveloped theological language" argument, but the idea that Markan secrecy can be traced back to the uncertainty of Jesus' early followers (as opposed to Mark alone) about the exact nature of his minstry (perhaps due to Jesus' own uncertainty or coyness?) is one I find quite compelling.

Thirdly, the theme of secrecy in Jesus' ministry may be one which pre-dates Mark, perhaps even going back to Jesus himself. In the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (and other gnostic texts) Jesus is presented as teaching a secret, hidden message, available only to this with special gnosis (γνῶσις) or knowledge. Mark himself appears to have Jesus explicitly endorse such a proto-gnostic message (Mk. 4:10-12):

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that:
“they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”

Is there any historical truth to this notion that Jesus preached a secret message - available only to a select few - as the gnostics always maintained? Do we find traces of this in Mark? I'm quite drawn to the idea (it would certainly fit in with my own view of the historical Jesus, which will surely be fleshed out as we progress) though the evidence is - at best - inconclusive. For now, don't worry about making a firm decision about the nature of secrecy in gMark: just be aware that it is there, and that there are a number of different approaches as to determining its meaning.


1 - δύναμις / dynamis - from the same root that we get dynamite in English.

2 - Particularly, why should we be inclined to consider Jesus as the miracle performing Son of God if - according to this theory - no-one in the first 40 years of Christianity could have held such a view? The word "legion" here is an EXTREMELY clever reference to a later exorcism in this gospel (Mk. 5:9).

3 - Christianity as we recognise it today (with its attendant set of fundamental dogmas) hadn't really developed by the time of Mark's gospel. I use the term "proto-Christianity" as a way of pointing out that the ideas common to this group would later give rise to the Christianities that we are familiar with today, but it was not yet developed (or homogenous) enough to earn the title of Christianity proper.

4 - Introduction to the New Testament, p. 153.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Mark 1:12-15

The text:


Mark 1:12-13: The Temptation

In the tradition of Moses (Exodus 24:18 / 34:28) and Elijah (I Kings 19:8) Jesus finds himself driven into the wilderness for 40 days1. Mark says that Jesus here was "tempted" by Satan, but goes into no further detail (we'll have to wait for Matthew and Luke for more specific accounts). But for now, it bears touching upon who exactly this "Satan" is.

The name "Satan" doubtless inspires a cacophany of vivid imagery, drawn from a long and fecund Christian tradition, but in the interest of approaching the New Testament objectively, it's probably best to dispense with all of it. The Satan of orthodox Christian theology (a kind of subterranean "anti-god": a freely-acting being of great power and even greater evil) hadn't been fully developed by the time Mark's gospel was penned. The ha-satan (הַשָׂטָן) of Old Testament Judaism (and therefore, most likely, of early Christianity as well) simply means - to translate the term literally - "the accuser" or "the opposer". This is a being who operates within God's divine court, often depicted as playing the role (if you'll excuse the pun) of devil's advocate. This is made especially clear in the book of Job, where Satan is essentially cast as the prosection attorney to God's own judge and jury. This role, by the way, is performed under the auspices of God, with (we can only assume) his implicit support.

What, then, are we to make of Satan tempting Jesus? Was this a case of God using Satan to demonstrate or test the loyalty of Jesus (a la Job), or was Satan - as later Christian theology would have it - acting of his own accord, stirring up chaos for the sake of chaos? I'll leave the issue here for now, but it shall be returned to.

Mark 1:15: "The Kingdom of God has come near."

A full exposition of the term "Kingdom of God" may have to wait for another post, but a brief treatment of this phrase here is probably in order.

The expression "Kingdom of God" is not merely used in the NT as a poetic way of referencing heaven, it is - as best I can discern - an expectation of a future in which Yahweh2 will establish his quite literal kingdom3 here on earth. It deserves to be noted that this is our very first introduction to the topic of "eschatology" on this blog (that is, the expectation of some radically altered future state of the world, usually consequent to some form of divine intervention4). Although it's a subject that modern theologians are not wont to dwell on, the belief in some future eschaton appears to have been integral to the philosophy of Jesus and his early followers.

Secondly, the term "come near" (ἤγγικεν / ēngiken) gives us the indication that this coming eschaton is not set at some indefinite point in the future, but is rather extremely close to - or even in the process of - manifesting itself. This theme of immediacy, of breathless urgency, is a common motif throughout Mark's gospel.5 For Mark (and probably Jesus as well) there is an impending eschatology, where history will not merely end, it will end in this generation (see Mk. 9:1, 13:30). This passage, then, suitably sets the eschatological tone for Mark's portrayal of Jesus' ministry: God is gonna get here soon, so best get your act together in a hurry!


1 - Again, take note of how Jesus is portrayed gMark. Is he being cast in the role of divine saviour or OT prophet?

2 - "Yahweh" (or "YHWH") is the name given to God in the Old Testament.

3 - Yahweh is frequently portrayed in OT literature as a literal king, complete with throne: e.g. Ps. 47.

4 - "Eschaton" (ἔσχατοv) literally means "the last". Most eschatologies carry the assumption that history as we know it will end at the point of the eschaton, but that's not quite the same as saying that the world itself will be destroyed in the kind of fiery vision that contemporary Christian imagery so often associates with the end of times. Best to think of eschatology in terms of a "coming of a new age" rather than the destruction of the world proper.

5 - Some of it is lost in the English translation, but Mark uses lots of "ands" and "thens" to link his pericopes together. Not particularly great grammar, but it does succeed (deliberately or otherwise) in giving the gospel a real sense of urgency.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Mark 1:1-11

The Text:


Mark 1:1, 11 – “The Son of God”

Throughout the New Testament, we will find a number of titles attached to Jesus including "messiah", "Lord", "Christ" and – in this case – "Son of God". While all these titles run together in modern Christianity and are often taken as different ways of describing the same idea – say, that of Jesus' divinity and / or his soteriological power - modern Biblical scholarship proffers the idea that each of these titles once had their own distinct meaning, likely a reflection of confusion within the early Christian communities as to who exactly Jesus was.1 The study of such titles, and how Jesus was perceived by his earliest followers, is known as "Christology".

Our understanding of the phrase "son of god" is unfortunately clouded by its rather literal use in gMatthew and gLuke2, where Jesus' mother is impregnated by the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:18, Lk. 1:26-35) making Jesus quite literally "God's son". However, this understanding of the phrase "son of god" occurs nowhere else in the New Testament and so we should not assume that the phrase means the same thing for Mark as it does for Matthew and Luke. Indeed, although the phrase "son of god" is often used in the New Testament as a unique title for Jesus (i.e. "the Son of God") it is a phrase with a long history and a wide variety of meanings.

In the original Hebrew of the Old Testament3, for instance, the expression "sons of god" can be used to describe angels (or "heavenly beings" as it is rendered in many English translations - see Gen. 6:1-4 and Job 1:6) or holy men blessed by god (i.e. priests and kings, especially of the Davidic line – e.g. II Sam 7:14, Ps. 2:7; 89:26). The Jewish author Philo, writing in the same century as Jesus, used the expression "sons of God" in a very general way to refer to the entire Jewish people. And the expression doesn't only have a history within the Jewish faith: the Roman emperor Augustus (who was almost certainly emperor during Jesus' lifetime), for instance, was also given the title "Son of God" (from divi filius4 in Latin) during his long reign.

For Mark’s understanding of the phrase, we’ll ignore the titular reference in the first verse (a later redaction, absent from many of the earliest manuscripts) and focus instead on verse 11, where God declares of Jesus: "You are my son". How are we to interpret this?

If we relieve ourselves of our preconceptions about Jesus and allow the text to speak for itself, we are forced to make certain observations that may not sit comfortably with contemporary Christian theology. For instance, the text appears to imply that Jesus receives the Holy Spirit only at the moment of his baptism (v. 10) and only then does God proclaim him as His son (v. 11). This needn’t imply a strict adoptionist attitude on Mark’s behalf (that is, that Jesus was not God’s son until he was "adopted" at this precise moment), but this episode was doubtless considered by Mark to be a singularly important moment in the context of Jesus' ministry and implies strongly that – for Mark – Jesus’ sonship and his divine spirit are strongly – perhaps inextricably - connected to the moment of his baptism at the hands of John the Baptist (henceforth JtB).

In other words, in contrast with orthodox Christian theology, there is no indication in Mark that Jesus was either born "the Son of God" (gMatthew, gLuke), nor that he was "the Son of God" from the beginning of time, sharing heaven with God as a pre-existent heavenly being (gJohn). The evidence – such that it is – seems to suggest that Mark places Jesus more in the role of the traditional, divinely-ordained prophet of the OT (albeit, a uniquely important one) rather than in an especial divine class of his own.

Anyway, we'll leave the Christological discussion there for the moment (it's one we'll return to time and time again as we progress through the New Testament) and focus next on JtB’s role in the gospel of Mark.

Mark 1:4-9 - John the Baptist:

John the Baptist is an enigmatic figure, one we know little about outside of the gospels and a short passage penned about him by the Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities XVIII 5:2). So far as we can tell, he was a prominent preacher and religious leader in the 20s and 30s who used baptism as a purification rite. His historical relationship to Jesus is largely unclear from the gospels alone, but his prominence (his story appears in all four gospels at some length) probably indicates that he was a figure of some importance in Jesus' early ministry.

For Mark, JtB’s primary role appears to have been that of forerunner of Jesus; he was sent as "messenger" (v. 2) to "prepare the way of the lord" (v. 4). This verse (and the two preceding) are taken from Malachi 3:1 (not Isaiah, as Mark suggests) and this book appears to have furnished Mark’s understanding of JtB's role. Later in that book (Mal. 4:5-6) we get the following:

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

Mark seems to be quite overtly casting JtB in the role of the resurrected Elijah5. Even John’s dress ("clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist") appears to be a direct allusion to the clothing worn by Elijah (II Kings 1:8). Later, when Jesus is asked about the need of Elijah to "come first" (i.e. before Jesus’ own ministry), Mark has him reply: "I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him what they pleased…" (Mk. 9:13).

This role (of prophetic forerunner) is preserved down the gospel tradition (although in gJohn, JtB explicitly denies being Elijah – Jn. 1:21) but a separate aspect of Mark’s portrayal inspired some backtracking among the later gospel authors. Mark suggests that JtB was "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins", so why, later Christians may have been moved to ask, was Jesus (who they held to be sinless) baptised? The later gospel authors deal with this problem in different ways (which I will address as we get to them), but this offers another little clue that at the time of gMark - the earliest surviving gospel - Christianity was still in the process of defining itself and Jesus was not yet considered the perfect divine figure of the last gospel (gJohn) and subsequent Christian theology.

We will see plenty more evidence for this as we make our way through the gospel.


1 - One important thing to remember is that at the time the books of the New Testament were being written, there was still no “official” theology of Christianity. These books represent the effort to define the tenets of the faith, both within the context of – and yet, increasingly distinct from – the traditions of Judaism. As a consequence, we should expect to find disagreements and inconsistencies between the authors, as each had their own unique view on who Jesus was and what it meant to be his follower. We must try – so far as it is possible – to resist the temptation to read the New Testament through the lens of 2000 years of Christian theology (which invariably attempts to gloss over these disagreements by anachronistically imposing a unified theology upon them) and allow the texts – including the original views and intentions of the authors - to speak for themselves.

2 - The lower case “g” in Biblical scholarship simply denotes “gospel of”.

3 - The OT was familiar to most of the NT authors only in its Greek form, known as the Septuagint. As a consequence some of the literal meanings of the original Hebrew phrases – including this one – were lost in the translation, hence the need to distinguish between the Hebrew OT and the Greek OT.

4 - It’s true that divi filius is more literally translated as "son of the divine one" rather than "son of god" (which would be dei filius in Latin), but it bears pointing out that the distinction is completely lost when translated into the Greek (where both expressions become θεοῦ υἱὸς / theou huios) that our New Testament authors would be familiar with. See The First Paul, pp. 101-102.

5 - Elijah was an OT prophet accredited with performing a slew of incredible deeds, including raising people from the dead and raining fire from the sky. His real claim to fame, though, was his ascension into heaven on a chariot (II Kings 2:11), making him one of only two OT characters (the other being Enoch) to be raised to heaven without dying.