A Reformation Tour

A Reformation Tour, September 2014

Some friends asked me to lead a tour to sites of the Reformation.  I agreed but with misgivings.  It was years since I had studied the Reformation and many of the places were new to me.

Our group began in Berlin and moved west to the Luther sites, Leipzig (also famous for Bach), Wittenberg, Eisleben, Eisenach (including Wartburg Castle), Erfurt and Worms.  In other words, we visited to the most significant places of Luther’s life, education, work, trial and death.

A man of humble background Luther emerges as highly intelligent, but also deeply determined.  After being condemned as an outlaw at the Diet of Worms he was hidden in Wartburg Castle where he translated the Greek New Testament into colloquial German.  Luther saw out his days at Wittenberg as an academic, but was greatly helped by various colleagues including Philip Melanchthon.  It is evident that as a devout Catholic he did not set out to divide the church.

Luther great insight was that in his death, our Lord embraced and dealt with human wretchedness.  Luther knew this at first hand, and it was his study of Psalm 22 that showed him that the Christ who had been ‘forsaken’ had been forsaken for him.

We left Germany and visited sites associated with the French lawyer and classicist John Calvin, Strasbourg, Basel, Zurich and Geneva.  Very different in temperament from Luther, the Frenchman emerges as similarly highly intelligent and industrious.  Calvin’s roots were more socially prominent than Luther’s and the circumstances of his conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism are unclear.

John Calvin methodically wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible.  It’s true to say that Calvin in the ‘father’ of commentators.  His treatment of the texts is disciplined and careful, and mercifully to the point.  He established a seminary in Geneva in which he was the Old Testament Professor.  Equally, Calvin wrote the Institutes, a compendium of Christian belief only six years after his conversion, which he continued to revise and expand throughout his life.

Apart from being a model commentator Calvin is noteworthy for his insistence of the majesty and glory of Almighty God in the Institutes.

We moved across the channel to Oxford and Cambridge where we traced the ‘masters’ of the English Reformation, as Marcus Loane called them, Bilney, Tyndale, Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer.  These men had been greatly influenced by Erasmus, Luther and to a lesser extent, Calvin.  Unlike Luther and Calvin who died in their beds, the English leaders died violently, burnt alive or strangled.

Cranmer takes rightful place alongside Luther and Calvin.  His great legacy is the Book of Common Prayer, the Articles of religion and the Ordinal.  Cranmer’s genius was to endorse as much of the past that was consistent with the Bible (liturgies, creeds and church government) whilst embodying the insights of the great continental reformers.  His Articles of Region are expressed briefly yet profoundly.

I asked the British tour company for local guides who were at least sympathetic with the Reformation and was very agreeably impressed with their enthusiasm and knowledge.

It was for our group a truly educational, but also spiritually uplifting experience.

I offer the following reflections about my recent revisiting of the three Reformers, Luther, Calvin and Cranmer.

First, each was a man of great intellect and piety.  As men born in the fifteen century, when scholarship was in its infancy, their achievements were remarkable.  The Bible was not available in their respective languages and there were few great scholarly shoulders to stand on.

Secondly, each of them was supported by networks of friends and supporters.  They did not work in isolation.

Thirdly, each of then benefitted by political protection: Luther by the Elector of Saxony, Calvin by the Geneva Civic Council and Cranmer by Henry VIII and Edward VI.  In those violent times it’s fair to say that without such protection their achievements would not have been possible.

Fourthly, the invention of the printing press made possible the rapid dissemination of Tyndale’s translations and the writings of Luther and Calvin.  It is difficult to imagine the speed and effectiveness of the spread of reformation thought without this revolutionary new medium.

Finally, it is true to say that each man had his faults.  Luther’s views on the Jews near the end of his life are a problem.  Calvin’s vision of a whole secular community complying with church disciple was impractical.  Cranmer wavered under pressure. (Who can blame him?)

In other words, these men were not perfect or without their blind spots.  Yet we are beneficiaries of their courage and faithfulness to God.  May we be as faithful to Christ and his Gospel in our times as these men were in theirs.

Anglicans do well to thank God for each man, but not forgetting Thomas Cranmer for his gift to us of the rich and edifying deposit in the Prayer Book, Articles and Ordinal.

 

 

Wise Judgements

Wise Judgements
Paul Barnett

For many years biblical scholars have baulked at the idea that Jesus was a transcendent figure and have busied themselves redefining him in humanistic terms.
Is this due to the ‘secular’ spirit of the age that airbrushes the Almighty from the public square?

For a period in early the twentieth century some thought there was little we could know about Jesus, for example, in 1934 Rudolph Bultmann declared, ‘We can now know almost nothing about the life and personality of Jesus’.  The pendulum has swung back so that in 1985 Ed. Sanders could say, ‘We can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish…we can know a lot about what he said…’.

Despite Sanders’s confidence there is no agreement about how to think about Jesus.
The great philosopher, musician and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer thought Jesus was a confused apocalyptic prophet.  Robert Eisler and Samuel Brandon thought he was a warrior-zealot ready to inspire a revolt against Rome.  According to Geza Vermes Jesus was a devout, charismatic rabbi who healed.  For Ed. Sanders, Jesus was yet another species of prophet.  Others, like Burton Mack, reacting against a Jewish Jesus found it more plausible to locate him as a social reformer in the Greek cynic tradition.  The list is long and seemingly unending.

There are, of course, some elements of the above to be found in Jesus.  He was called a rabbi, many thought of him as a prophet, and he did forcibly eject the traders from the temple.  The problem is that these are secondary activities that some have over-inflated and made definitive.  Those who redefine Jesus along these lines tend not to address all the evidence, in particular the witness of the apostles in the New Testament.

Jesus’ miracles, if accepted, would clinch the issue and identify Jesus as singular and otherworldly.  That is a subject for another day. What then about his judgements, which form a significant part of the Synoptic Tradition?

Judgements
Jesus’ judgements were part of the Jewish synagogue culture of the Second Temple period.  The synagogues had become the spiritual and social centres of the towns and villages of Israel, led by their teachers, the rabbis.  The rabbis combined several activities in their vocation.  They explained the Scriptures in the synagogues and they gave legal judgements appropriate to a whole range of pastoral situations.

The Gospels make many references to Jesus as a ‘rabbi’ or ‘teacher’.  He travelled to the synagogues teaching the Scriptures, as well as in the open.  Mainstream, recognised rabbis had one or two disciples; Jesus had twelve.  Typically a disciple took the initiative in approaching a rabbi; Jesus called those who followed him.  So Jesus was a rabbi, but an unorthodox, unrecognised one.

Like other rabbis Jesus made legal judgements on real life, day-to-day issues.  Often these arose from his provocative teaching about the kingdom of God and its application to the law.  The oral tradition about Jesus reported in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letters is biographical, with no record of his legal judgements.  When Mark committed Peter’s oral gospel to writing he included many of the judgements of Rabbi Jesus.

The Mishnah
The Mishnah (c. 200) is a collection of the legal judgements of rabbis from two centuries before the time of Jesus and extending over the next century or more.  Its editor, according to tradition was Rabbi Judah the Patriarch.  The Mishnah is a bridge between the Tanakh (the Old Testament) and Rabbinic Judaism.

There are six main divisions in the Mishnah: (i) laws dealing with agricultural produce and portions due to priests, Levites and the poor; (ii) the set feasts; (iii) laws affecting women; (iv) property rights; (v) the holy things of the temple; (vi) the laws of uncleanness.  Each division has the judgements and counter judgements of the various rabbis.

Overwhelmingly the judgments of the rabbis relate to interpretations of the written law, but equally to the generation-by-generation tradition of oral law.  These judgements were not codified, but are analogous to secular Common Law judgements that form the precedents for ongoing legal decisions in the courts.  Like modern lawyers the rabbis appealed to judgements of earlier rabbis.

Neither Jesus nor Paul, both rabbis according the Christians texts, is mentioned in the Mishnah.  This comes as no surprise given that the Synagogue and the Church had dramatically separated by the nineties.  Had that separation not occurred it is more than likely that both men and their judgements would have been documented in the Mishnah.  According to the eminent Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, ‘No rabbi was so important to rabbinic Judaism as Jesus was to Christianity.  None prophesied as an independent authority’.

The Judgements of Jesus
Let me reflect on six judgements of Jesus.  The question is: do Jesus’ judgements mark him as a rabbi who was a transcendental figure, or not?  So far as his followers were concerned it did not matter whether Jesus was explaining the Bible, or giving a legal judgement, he spoke with ‘authority’, that is with the authority of God, not like the scribes.           

            1.         The Heart not the Hands
In the era of Jesus it was believed that ‘sinners’ and Gentiles transmitted their impurity to the ‘righteous’ by physical contact.  By analogy, it was like people with influenza passing on their sickness by touching or sneezing.  To protect themselves from defilement the people washed their hands before eating.  It was not a matter of hygiene but of religion.

Mark described current practices: ‘[they] do not eat unless they wash their hands…When they come from the market place they do not eat unless they wash’.  They also washed ‘cups, pots, copper vessels and dining couches’ (Mark 7:3).  The preservation of purity from any physical contact with ‘sinners’ or Gentiles, whether direct or indirect, was critically important.

Stone water jars were placed near the house entrance for this washing, which was not for a hygienic but a ritual purpose. Perhaps due to shortage of water in Israel the hands were not immersed, but a small quantity was poured on to cupped hands with fingers extended.

In the eyes of his critics Jesus would have rendered himself ‘unclean’ by eating with ‘tax collectors and sinners’, and by his contact with the leper and the woman with the ‘issue of blood’.  A major dispute arose when the scribes from Jerusalem observed that some of Jesus’ disciples ‘ate with hands that were defiled, that is unwashed’ (Mark 7:2).  They challenged him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’  The washing of hands prior to eating had become a matter of ‘religious correctness’, which his disciples purposely disregarded.

Jesus made a twofold response.

First, the food that is eaten does not defile because it simply passes through the body as waste into the ground.  By this judgement Jesus pronounced ‘all foods clean’ (Mark 7:19).  In one stroke Jesus abolished the classification of food as ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ which in turn removed the distinction between ‘clean’ people (with whom one could eat) and unclean people (with whom one could not eat).  This meant that Peter, a Jew could sit at table with the Gentile, Cornelius.  Peter said, ‘God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean’ (Acts 10:28). The Gentile is not unclean because the food he eats is not unclean.

Secondly, Jesus’ action provided him with the opportunity to give his judgement about the true source of impurity.  Food that is eaten, with or without washing beforehand, simply passes through the body so that he said, ‘There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him’.

Jesus then makes this piercing judgement.

What comes out of a person is what defiles him.
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual             immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit,
sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.
All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person (Mark 7:15).

Because food that comes into a person and goes out again cannot spiritually defile it means that ritual washing of hands beforehand is irrelevant.  Rather, it is the evil that proceeds from the heart that defiles.  Jesus lists thirteen items that directly or indirectly break the Ten Commandments that Lord God gave to Israel at Mount Sinai.  Ironically, Jesus directed these words to those who sought to defend the law by building a ‘hedge’ around it.

By these pointed words Jesus abolished the superficialities of ritual and reached into the human heart.  As he said on another occasion, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God’. But this was only to say what the Psalmist had said years earlier.

Jesus’ judgements were radical but liberating.  Preoccupation with purity by ritual washings obscured the reality that evil does not flow out of what is eaten, but from the heart.  Jesus did not abolish the Sabbath or washings, but by his actions gave penetrating and liberating insight to a deeper morality.

2.         Marriage
John the Baptist was killed because he condemned the marriage of Herod the tetrarch to the wife of a living brother.  This was adultery.  Pharisees posed a question that was intended to trap Jesus in an answer that would also endanger him: ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’

Typical of debates between rabbis, Jesus responded to a question with a question: ‘What did Moses command you?’  They answered, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away’.

The Scripture in question was Deuteronomy 24:1, which declared the basis for a husband’s divorce of a wife.  It was ‘because he has found some indecency in her’.   The rabbis were divided over their interpretation of ‘indecency’.  The School of Shammai said, negatively, ‘a man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her’ (i.e., adultery).  With greater laxity, the School of Hillel said, ‘He may divorce her even if she spoiled a dish for him’ (Mishnah, Gittin 9:10).

Jesus said Moses’ words were given because of ‘hardness of heart’, that is, to give the woman at least formal recognition that she was legally divorced.  Jesus then stepped back over Moses to God’s creation narrative in Genesis 1-2.  God ‘made them male and female’ who leave father and mother and ‘become one flesh’.  To those words, Jesus added his own, ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate’ (Mark 10:1-10).

In the present context Jesus fearlessly stated his judgement in absolute terms, adopting the same stance as John the Baptist towards the marriage of Herod the tetrarch to Herodias.  Marriage is between a male and female, and it is to be a lifelong union.  There are other passages where Jesus allows the possibility of divorce on the grounds of adultery. But Jesus’ ‘in principle’ judgement to the Pharisees who sought to ‘test’ him was that God joins a man and a woman together in marriage until ‘death do them part’.

Christianity was born at the height of the Roman Empire.  Roman views on marriage and divorce differed sharply from Jesus.  Men or women could initiate divorce, and they did so frequently.  Seneca wryly observed that most women did not reckon a year’s date by the name of the ruling consul but by the husband of that year.  ‘They divorce in order to re-marry.  They marry in order to divorce’ (Seneca, De Beneficiis iii.16.2). Those views began to change when the Roman Empire embraced Christianity.

Minucius Felix, a Roman Christian of the second century, made this comment about contemporary attitudes toward marriage.

In Persia, a man is allowed to marry his mother, in Egypt and Athens his sister.     Your histories and tragedies, which you eagerly read and listen to, treat incest      as something to be proud of; hence it is that you worship incestuous gods,             united to mother, daughter, and sister.  Not without reason, then, is incest often detected amongst you, but always permitted.

We, on the other hand, show our modesty not only outwardly but inwardly;

we willingly cleave to one marriage-tie ; in the desire to have children, we    have only one wife or else none (Minucius Felix, Octavius 87).
Through Jesus’ ideal of marriage as a lifelong, exclusive union has been the norm in Christian-based societies, that is, until recent decades.

There can be little doubt that the judgement of Jesus on marriage, which his followers have generally implemented, has been a great stabilizing influence within wider society.  Men and women who are committed to each other and to their children work to provide for them and create the moral and economic backbone of society.

3.         Children
Almost certainly Mark has deliberately located this passage about children immediately following Jesus’ judgement about marriage.  Children were not regarded as ‘unclean’, like ‘sinners’, Samaritans or Gentiles but along with women, as inferior.  Women and children played no active part in a male dominated, patriarchal society.

This explains why the disciples rebuked those who brought their children for Jesus to bless, especially if young girls were among them.

And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the    disciples rebuked them.  But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to             them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs             the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the       kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it’. And she took them in his arms         and blessed them, laying his hands on them (Mark 10:13-16).

Jesus memorably said that child-like trust of small children towards their parents was the necessary attitude to God of those who would enter his kingdom.  Jesus ‘took them in his arms (they were small children) and blessed them, laying his hands on them’.

Jesus saw in a child’s simple trust an attitude to God for adults to emulate.  Jesus applauded the trust of these little ones that adults need to have if they are to engage with God in his fatherly majesty.

We are the heirs of Roman civilization, its laws, principles of administrative governance, its excellence in engineering and architecture and its military discipline.  But the Romans allowed the exposure to the elements and wild animals of unwanted children.  Child killing was accepted in Roman culture.  Excavations of Roman sewers have found the bones of hundreds of children.

Minucius Felix also made this telling comment about contemporary attitudes toward children.

I see your newly born sons exposed by you to wild beasts and birds of prey, or   cruelly strangled to death.  There are also women among you who, by taking         certain drugs, destroy the beginning of the future human being while it is still          in the womb and are guilty of infanticide before they are mothers.  These          practices have certainly come down to you from the gods (Minucius Felix,             Octavius 83).

But societies that have evolved from Roman society developed laws to protect children, reversing Roman practices.  How did that come about?  It was the influence of Jesus’ powerful judgement about children that contributed to the changing attitudes towards them.  

            4.         Women’s education
Martha was preparing food for Jesus and the disciples while her sister Mary was seated ‘at the feet on Jesus’ listening to his teaching, that is, in the posture of a disciple being instructed.  Martha was upset because her sister had left her with all the work and she complained to Jesus, ‘Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?  Tell her then to help me’.

But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled           about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good          portion, which will not be taken away from her’ (Luke 10:41).

Mary has made the right choice in listening to Jesus.  For Jesus to recognise and affirm Mary as a disciple, someone keen to learn, represented a social revolution in that conservative and patriarchal society.  Boys of five learned to read at the synagogue school, to enable them to study the Torah.  But girls remained illiterate, confined to childbearing and to domestic duties.  Sadly this remains the norm in some cultures today.

Jesus’ encouragement of Mary as a learner was a significant social advance, the endorsement of the education of women.

           

            5.         Taxes and Caesar
The Pharisees and Herodians (partisans of Herod the tetrarch) faced Jesus with another question to trap him: ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?’ (Mark 12:14).

The background to this was the Roman annexation of Judea as a Roman province in AD 6.  The Romans conducted a census as a basis for levying of personal tax to be paid directly to Caesar.  In AD 6-7 Judas the Galilean led an uprising on theological grounds insisting that only the Lord could ‘number’ his people, and that the Lord and not Caesar was their ‘master’.  The Romans killed Judas.  The people of Judea grudgingly paid the tax to the emperor.

If Jesus replied, ‘Yes’ it would align him with the gentile Romans.  If Jesus replied, ‘No’ he would thereby endorse the rebel Judas and automatically secure punishment as an insurgent.  Jesus did not answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but called for someone to present a denarius, a Roman coin, asking whose likeness and inscription it bore.  They replied, ‘Caesar’s’.

Then Jesus gave his judgement:

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and to God the things that are God’s
.

The ‘likeness’ (image) on the coin was that of Tiberius Caesar, but the inscription described him as ‘chief priest, son of the deified Augustus’.  In other words, the coin implied that people were to worship the Roman Caesar as a god.

Jesus, however, separated paying taxes from worshipping the emperor.  By answering, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’, he was saying, ‘pay the tax’.  But the words, ‘Render to God the things that are God’s’ was to deny worship to Caesar.

By this judgement Jesus separated Caesar from God, but giving each his appropriate due.  In brief, Jesus was saying, ‘Worship God’ and ‘be an active and positive part of society’.

Judas the Galilean was really seeking a theocracy, whereby the covenant people were to be ruled directly by God through his law.  Throughout history there have been Christian theocracies, for example, the Byzantine Empire.  The ideal for Islam is for a theocratic state based on Sharia Law.

Jesus words, however, imply the acceptability of living under Caesar’s ‘secular’ rule.

Jesus’ wise judgement warns against enthroning Caesar as powerful in every sphere, whilst enjoining Christians not to worship any one but the Lord.  Traces of Jesus’ teaching are to be found in the letters of Paul and Peter.  Christians were not to pray to Caesar, but they are to pray for him and pay taxes for the needs of society.  Peter’s words to persecuted Christians in Northern Anatolia were inspired by the judgement of Jesus.

Honour everyone.
Love the brotherhood.
Fear God.
Honour the emperor
(1 Peter 2:17).

The followers of Jesus are not to regard themselves as a sect on the fringes of society, but as active and involved members.  They are to ‘honour’ fellow citizens and the emperor but they are to ‘fear’ God and love his people, ‘the brotherhood’.

Jesus’ words, as adapted by the apostles, imply the viability of the separation of church and state.  That viability is threatened, however, when the state assumes a ‘messianic’ status, as in Germany under Hitler.

            6.         Redefining the neighbour
A religious lawyer sought an argument with Jesus.  To his initial question, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus replied, ‘Love…God, and your neighbour as yourself’.  He added, ‘Do this and you shall live’, that is, ‘inherit eternal life’.  The lawyer asked, ‘And who is my neighbour?’

The lawyer knew that a neighbour was a fellow covenant brother and doubtless expected Jesus to reply likewise.  Instead, Jesus tells an astonishing parable about a man (we assume a Jew) who was in great need but whom his fellows did nothing to help.  Worse, the priest and the Levite, who were ‘official’ religionists ‘passed by on the other side’.  These high profile ‘neighbours’ did nothing to save their desperately needy fellow-neighbour.

Scandalously, it was not a fellow-neighbour but an unclean, contaminated, hated Samaritan who went to great lengths to rescue the man who ‘fell among thieves’ on the road from Jericho up to Jerusalem.

Jesus’ shocking parable was not about a broadminded Jew who patronisingly helped a Samaritan, but a Samaritan who instantly and without thought to his own safety saved a man whose tribe despised him.

Jesus ends a conversation that the lawyer may have wished he had never started.

‘Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who         fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy’. And     Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise’ (Luke 10:36-37).

Strictly speaking Jesus did not directly answer the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ but by his famous parable he did.  The Samaritan who ‘proved to be a neighbour’ radically redefined the question.  Any fellow human who is in trouble and whom I can help is my neighbour.

This profound parable has all the marks of transcendence.  It is so unexpected and yet so obviously ‘true’ that we readily accept its profound insight.  Jesus’ great parable has inspired emergency services around the world and the ‘Good Samaritan’ is now part of international speech.

From early times Jesus has been regarded not only as the teller of the Parable of the Good Samaritan but has been seen as the ‘good’ Samaritan who acted with compassion towards those in need.

 

The Judgements of Jesus
My argument is that the wisdom of Jesus’ judgements marks him as more than an insightful rabbi or prophet, but as a transcendental figure.  His judgements in real life situations have had profound effects for good throughout history.  Because societies are non-transcendental, whose members are prone to self-interest, Jesus’ words could never bring perfection.  But the values arising from his judgements have made a difference for good where they have been heeded.

Jesus’ practical involvement with social outcasts speaks eloquently against any version of a caste system, where some are inexorably and without exception stamped as inferior and forever doomed to remain so.  Similarly, Jesus’ description of himself as a ‘physician for the sick’ is a message that the socially marginalized are important and to be helped.  Enlightened communities attempt to be inclusive and give serious opportunity to everybody, without fear or favour.

Jesus’ profound Parable of the Good Samaritan, if followed, spells the end of tribalism and racism.  The priest and the Levite ignored the plight of their ‘neighbour’, but a despised, ‘unclean’ Samaritan saved him.

By deliberately eating without ritual washing Jesus swept away the false belief that ‘unclean’ food contaminates the person.  The food we eat passes through the body and leaves the body as human waste.  It is the heart, and the evils that proceed from the heart, that defile us.  Humanity is not controlled by a multiplication of rules and regulations, for that exposes us to hypocrisy.  Rather, Jesus pointed to the blessedness of a pure heart.

The rabbis were divided about admissible grounds for divorce, but men were able to send their wives away by merely giving them a certificate.  Romans divorced repeatedly.  Some cultures endorsed male marriage to mothers, daughters and sisters.

Jesus’s judgement about children has elevated their importance and made their trust a paradigm for an adult’s relationship with God.

Jesus’ judgements about the sanctity and permanence of marriage and the importance of their children have made his ideals about the family very important.  Where  parents are committed to each other and to their children they form a hard working team for the education and nurture of their children.

Finally, Jesus’ word, ‘Render to Caesar’ and ‘render to God’, where heeded, have been the origin of true democracies that separate church from state and where freedom of worship has been a human right.

No society can be perfect, and no society has been perfect.  But some societies have been democratically governed, freer of corruption, more prosperous across the population, generous to poorer nations, better educated, with more schools, universities, and hospitals, scientifically innovative, expressive in the arts, and with widespread engagement in sport and exercise.

It would not be hard to demonstrate that countries historically influenced by Jesus’ wise judgements have been blessed in many if not all of these ways.

Reflection
Jesus’ judgements as a rabbi are deceptively disarming.  They appear to be mundane and not extraordinary but when carefully compared with the values of the cultures of his day, and their successors, they identify him as uniquely wise.

Furthermore, his judgements effortlessly translate into any culture, timelessly.  They are as applicable in modern western society as they were in first century Jewish and Graeco-Roman society and in every culture since.

 

Why Follow Jesus?

                                            
At the end of the rather amazing narrative in John 6 Jesus asks the twelve remaining disciples, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’

Context
The context was that 5000 were following him at the beginning of the day but now the last of them has drifted off and only the original twelve remained.

Peter replies for the twelve, ‘Lord, to whom can we go?’ And his reason was, ‘You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the holy one of God’.

The day started spectacularly.  Jesus had travelled from the west side of the lake to the east side  the Golan Heights side of Lake Galilee.  It’s about 8 kilometers wide.  A large crowd followed him because of his miracles of healing the sick.  They become hungry so Jesus provides bread in abundance miraculously, a great ‘sign’ from God pointing to his ‘oneness’ with the Creator, who is the ultimate giver of bread.

This food reminded them of the time when, as they wrongly thought, Moses gave them ‘bread from heaven’.  It also reminded them of God’s promise, recorded in Deuteronomy 18, that God would send them a prophet like Moses.  The crowd thought, ‘Well this is it.  This is the prophet’.

Those were bad times.  The very corrupt local ruler, Herod the younger, was based just across the water in Tiberias.  It was an oppressive regime, propped up by the even more corrupt Roman Empire.  So the people who had been fed, who had found the God-sent prophet, attempted to force him to become their king.

Jesus forthwith withdrew privately to pray and packed the disciples into a boat back to the other side.

Back on the Western Side
John resumes this exciting narrative on the western side of the lake, at Capernaum.
‘You are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.  They had not looked beyond the bread to the bread-giver.

He cautions them, ‘Do not work for food that spoils, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you…’  Bread goes mouldy after a few days and is inedible.  But not the bread the Son of Man will give.

Do we see what is going on here?  Is Jesus’ message transcendental or temporal?
There was a big debate about that recently in the Australian newspaper.

It’s not an either/or question is it?  Jesus speaks the words of eternal life.  That’s transcendental.  But he had healed the sick and fed the hungry.  That’s temporal.  So with Jesus it’s not either/or but both/and.  But there is a priority: the transcendental.  That’s really the message of John 6.

We easily think that the world back then was like ours now. We have pensions, they had pensions.  We have schools and hospitals, they had schools and hospitals.
Wrong.  They didn’t.  For the poor, the widows and the orphans there was nothing.

The first Christians went to their world with Jesus’ words of eternal life and they also cared for the sick, and widows and orphans.  Carthage mid 200s was overtaken by a severe plague.  People fled, leaving their sick behind.  The Christians stayed and cared for their own sick, but also other sick people.  Good Samaritans.  These temporal acts were a factor in Constantine adopting Christianity as the religion of the empire.

The emperor Julian, Constantine’s nephew, gave up the faith and attempted to de-convert the world back into the old religions.  He was angry with the ‘Galileans’, as he called them because they cared for people outside the churches as well as their own ? schools for children, hospices for the dying, hostels for the poor.

That’s a snapshot of history.  Christians have pioneered many things that the welfare state now does ? provides schools, hospitals, universities.

But with Christians, as with Jesus, the temporal flows out of the transcendental.  First the transcendental, then the temporal.

The Bread of God
So Jesus said, ‘the bread of God comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’.

Then, ‘I am the bread of lifeWhoever comes to me will never go hungry…’.  Jesus identified himself by the name the Lord revealed to Moses.  The Lord was, is, and will be; always.  So, too, Jesus was, is, will be, always…bread for hungry hearts to sustain eternal life.

Throughout the remainder of John 6 Jesus becomes more specific and pointed and the crowd becomes correspondingly more restless.  ‘How can he be bread come down from heaven when we know his mother and father.  He’s a local boy’.

Even more specifically Jesus said, ‘   I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.  This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world’.

The people began to argue sharply among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’

He tightens the screw even more.  ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’.

No wonder they were perplexed.  What does he mean?  The words are a metaphor for violent death.  Blood separated from flesh is a figurative way of referring to a violent death.  Jesus meant crucifixion.

Jesus is the bread from heaven not just as the Son of God, but as the crucified Son of God.

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’  From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

The king they wanted was a military figure like Moses, a Messiah who would drive out the Herods and the Romans.  But Jesus is speaking of himself crucified, as a defeated figure.  A loser, not a winner.

Their reaction corresponds with Paul’s comment in First Corinthians, ‘We preach Christ crucified, a scandal to Jews’.

Fitting in with Jesus
So from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

The crowd of 5000 who had been filled with the bread and who hailed him as a king, now melt away.  A crucified king was a contradiction in terms.

They were probably angry.  We all want a god to fit in with us and our ideas.  A tame god, our designer god.

He says, ‘You must fit in with my definition of who I am’.  Part of discipleship is to follow Jesus as he reveals himself.

Jesus asked the remaining twelve, ‘Do you want to leave, too?’  The Greek of that question expects the answer, ‘no’.  Jesus expects them to stay with him, because he has chosen them.  All that the Father gives to him will come to him.  Jesus even knows that one of the twelve will betray him.

Eternal Words
Peter replies for the twelve, ‘To whom else could we go?  You have the words of eternal life’.

Many people have words, lots of them.  Politicians, philosophers, experts, commentators, all these bombard us with their words and seek to win our admiration and agreement.  But none of these have ‘the words of eternal life’ that Jesus has spoken during this chapter.

When I think about life in a macro sense whose words do I want to hear?  When I am at my deathbed whose words do I want to hear?  Jesus was qualified to speak ‘eternal words’ because he was the Son of God, something historically confirmed by his miracles and his resurrection from the dead.  So when he says, ‘Come to me, I am the bread from heaven’ I say to him, ‘I come, I believe’.

 
 

Jesus’ Improbable Plan

Jesus and the apostles expected the nations of the world to be won for him.  This is a historical statement that is historically true that will stand in the face of even the most stringent, critical analysis.

Consider how improbable such a vision must have been.

‘Make disciples of all nations’ he said but those to whom he said it were but eleven in number, simple uneducated men, without friends in high places.  Their own track record had not been good; one was a betrayer, another a denier and all were deserters.
He, their leader, had been handed over by the temple hierarchs and crucified by the Romans.

Yet he expected world conquest, but not achieved by naked power but by mere words backed up by an ethical life.

His apostle Paul looked for the full ingathering of the Nations and the salvation of all Israel.  But the members of the church in the city of Corinth were at odds with one another and with him.  And they were a mere handful of people, perhaps 150 in a city of 250,000.  Yet these issues did not seem to faze him.

The Christians in Rome were probably not more than few hundred and they were divided into separate groups that could not yet find a way to meet together as a single ‘church’.

Another apostle, John, wrote that the whole creation would worship God and the Lamb.  How improbable those words must have seemed to the tiny membership in the seven churches in Roman Asia, that were probably less than 1000 altogether.  These churches were fractured doctrinally, their members compromised by association with pagan cults and under extreme pressure to abandon worship of the crucified Lamb for the worship of the seemingly all-powerful Caesar.

If we exercise a little historical imagination we reach the staggering conclusion that these visions of a world won for Christ would have seemed absolutely implausible at the time.

And yet, within a few years there were signs of remarkable growth in early Christianity.  Two hundred years after Paul wrote the church in Rome had ‘an immense and countless laity’ who supported ‘no less than 1500 widows and persons in distress’ who were served by forty-six presbyters, seven deacons, seven sub-deacons and fifty two exorcists (Eusebius, History of the Church VI. 43.11-12).  This is a spectacular reversal of the broken and scattered communities Paul wrote to in his Letter to the Romans.

Historians debate the genuineness of Constantine’s ‘conversion’ early in the fourth century.  What cannot be disputed, however, is that the new ‘Roman Empire’ based on Constantinople (‘the city of Constantine’) was founded on Christianity.  That Christian empire stretched from the Balkans, through Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt to North Africa and it lasted from the mid-300s until 1453 when Constantinople fell to the siege of the Muslim Ottomans.

A Nestorian version of Christianity captured Mesopotamia, the Caspian region of Central Asia and extended eastward through India into China and southward into Africa.  Christianity in that massive geographical expanse continued until the twelfth until it was eventually extinguished by Islam.  See Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2008).

Meanwhile Christianity spread north into Russia and northwest into Europe, Ireland and Britain.

Jenkins points out that for centuries there were three great geographical expression of Christianity ? Byzantine Christianity that ringed the eastern Mediterranean Christianity, European Christianity that extended from Russia to Britain and Nestorian Christianity that extended east Mesopotamia and Central Asia to China and southwards into Africa.  Jenkins’ argument is that we know about the Byzantine and European versions of the faith, but have forgotten the very extensive church of the Middle East and Central Asia and its expression in Africa.

In the Colonial Era Christianity spread to the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia and New Zealand.

Thus the expansion of Christianity from its tiny beginnings is as amazing and improbable as the initial vision of Jesus was as re-stated by his apostles.  That expansion has occurred in the face of great opposition ? from Jews and pagans in the early centuries, from Jihardist Islam from the eighth century, from secular humanism from the era of the Enlightenment.  That opposition has often brought with it considerable suffering, even death.  The symbol of Christianity was and remains an instrument for killing people in Roman times, a cross.

As a consequence of that opposition Christianity has but disappeared from the the Middle East, Asia Minor and Central Asia and it is significantly diminished in secular Western Europe.   Nevertheless, it has survived the repression of atheistic communism in China, Russia and Eastern bloc countries.  Christianity has grown dramatically in Korea, China and Africa.

Thus despite all the issues, many of them created by Christians themselves, there is a remarkable statistic to note.  It is that 31% of the people in the world still identify themselves as ‘Christian’.  While there may be debate about the level of understanding and commitment in that statistic, it is nevertheless amazing in light of the impossible circumstances of Jesus and the apostle two thousand years ago.

There are two critical conclusions we draw from these observations.

One is that Jesus’ vision has been fulfilled by God and not man.  Men and women could not have brought made such an an unlikely dream the reality it still is.  Despite claims to the contrary God is emphatically not dead.  We think that God will continue to expand his kingdom in human hearts throughout the world.

The second conclusion is that we ordinary mortals are offered a partnership in this great project.  Ultimately God doesn’t need us.  He will do it regardless.

But should we choose to join hand with God what would be involved?

John and Paul give us some strong clues.

John, in writing to his seven churches, encouraged their hope that God would bring them out of ‘Babylon’ to ‘the New Jerusalem’, the City of God.  Their’s was to be a life and death commitment to the Lamb, who had been slain for them, and a disengagement from the worship of the Caesar and the pagan religions around them.

Paul encouraged the Romans each to present their whole selves to God in loving service of one another in the wholehearted exercise of their gifts.  In Romans 16 Paul calls on the readers to ‘greet’ twenty-six named members on account of their ‘work’.

‘Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you’; ‘Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord’; ‘Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa’.  Their ‘work’ is not specified, except in some cases ? Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus…greet the church in their house’.  Prisca and Aquila were church planters, who were also tent makers.  Note that word ‘also’.  It’s not in the text, but sits there between the lines.  Not one of the twenty-six is identified as a ‘presbyter’ or ‘bishop’, or any other church official.  Women were as prominent as men.

From Romans it is absolutely clear that they did not ‘work for’ their salvation since that was God’s gift in the crucified and resurrected Lord.  But the apostle certainly expected them to ‘work out’ that salvation in the hard work of ministry to others, both within and outside the community of faith.

Today we need to support our church institutions, but only if they are worthy of our support.  At the same time individual Christians and local churches should not depend on the central institution.  Like the laymen Shaftsbury and Wilberforce who took initiatives independently of ‘organised religion’ Christians in all ages need to be opportunists for the kingdom, entrepreneurs for Jesus.

Above all Christians need to get the idea ‘also’ right.  I must not think of myself a husband who is ‘also’ a Christian, a Christian who is ‘also’ a father, ‘also’ a neighbour, ‘also’ a friend.  I will seek to express my Christianity ethically and spiritually as a husband, father, neighbour and friend.  My engagement with the idea ‘also’ tells me about my ‘heart’ and my ‘heart’ regarding Jesus reveals everything.

Recently I visited the home of a woman I know well to be a great wife, mother and friend.  On her dining room table were dozens of gingerbread figures (dare I call them gingerbread ‘men’?).  They were all neatly wrapped in cellophane and there was a message inside.

She replied to my question that they were gifts for the other children in her boys’ school classes.  ‘What’s the message inside’, I asked.  Her answer: ‘Today to you is born this day in the City of David, a Saviour who is Christ the Lord’.

It took her initiative, her hard work, her love and it set a great example to her two young boys.  It is an example of godly opportunism, doing a simple thing that draws people to Jesus.

Paul Barnett
Christmas 2013.

 

 

 

The Cross-Shaped Bronze Serpent at Mount Nebo, Jordan

To stand at Mt Nebo looking across the Jordan Valley to Jericho is a great experience.

There across the river is the Promised Land that typologically symbolizes the Kingdom of God, the hope of the Christian.

There’s no evidence that Jesus ever stood there, although the site of his baptism is not that far away, so it’s possible.

The bronze serpent sculpture is a recent creation, but an inspired one.  It combines the serpent (as from Numbers 21) with the cross.  The sculptor has cleverly portrayed in bronze the words of Jesus to Nicodemus.

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3.14-15)

Nicodemus was religious (a Pharisee), clever (the teacher of Israel), and eminent (a member of the Jerusalem Ruling Council).  What is more, he believed that Jesus was a teacher come from God on account of the miracles.  He believed about Jesus.

But none of these things gave him eternal life, but only believing in the Son of Man lifted up on the cross, as the Lamb of God who bore the sin of the world.

Under the leadership of Joshua the whole nation entered the Land.  It was their national possession, provided they carefully observed all they had been taught by their great prophet Moses.

But Jesus told Nicodemus that under God’s new arrangement each person individually had to be ‘born again’ in order to ‘enter the kingdom of God’.  God makes individuals his children, but their children must each be ‘born again’ to belong to God’s family, members of his kingdom.  It has been said that God has children, but not grandchildren.

The local Christians (the Franciscans) at Mt Nebo have done a great thing in creating the cross-shaped bronze serpent.  It is such a powerful symbol as it stands at the place where the Promised Land lies before you.

They have also installed a plaque with John’s words:

The Law was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17).

Jesus, the One ‘lifted up’, was and is the ever-renewing source of ‘grace’ (= mercy) and ‘truth’ (faithfulness) to those who commit to him.  The message is clear even to a good, religious and clever man like Nicodemus: look to Jesus and be saved.

Constantine R. Campbell Paul and Union with Christ. An Exegetical and Theological Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012) 478 Pages

This is probably the most important biblical thematic study by an Australian since Leon Morris’s Apostolic Preaching of the Cross published in 1955.  Dr Campbell has already established an international reputation for his work on the Greek of the New Testament.  To this distinction he has now added the major thematic and theological work, Paul and Union with Christ that promises to be the benchmark on this key subject for years to come.

Paul and Union with Christ falls into three main parts.  In the first, Campbell surveys major contributors from Deissmann (1892) to Gorman (2009).  Although the analyses are necessarily brief they represent a massive achievement and in themselves make the book worth owning.

He proceeds, second, to the major core of the monograph, a two hundred page exegetically detailed study of every Pauline union-with-Christ text, related to the key prepositions en, eis, syn, and dia.  Campbell examines each text in turn providing his own translation of the Greek, all with attractive simplicity.  This section will prove to be invaluable for those who teach from or write on these critical Pauline texts.  The author concludes this part with a discussion on Pauline metaphors like ‘body’, ‘temple’ and ‘marriage’ that elucidate the union-with-Christ texts.

The final ‘theological’ section, occupying the latter 40 percent of the book, rests squarely on the foundational exegesis of Paul’s union-with-Christ texts in the second part.  Here he discusses the work of Christ, the Trinity, Christian living, and justification.

Dr Campbell is acutely aware of past as well as present attempts to understand Paul’s union-with-Christ texts in relationship with the apostle’s overall theology. The ‘occasional’ character of his epistles makes the task quite complicated, if not impossible.  Paul’s focus and emphasis from letter to letter depends on the issues he is addressing.  Romans is the closest to a systematic statement of his beliefs, yet even here Paul is addressing a series of specific pastoral issues amongst those in his mission in that city.

So do the ‘union’ texts represent the ‘centre’ of Paul’s thought, or perhaps their ‘key’?

Campbell is fully aware of these issues and that many (most?) of the union texts have layered and interconnected meanings and without a single, dominant, controlling idea.  So he settles on the notion of ‘webbing’: ‘…union with Christ is the “webbing” that holds it all [Paul’s thought] together…Every Pauline theme and pastoral concern ultimately coheres with the whole through their common bond – union with Christ’ (p. 441).

Inevitably such a massive work prompts some questions.  One is that he notes the fact but not the content of Dr John Lee’s trenchant criticism of the BDAG Greek lexicon (p. 27 n. 8).  Lee, an Australian, is an international expert on lexicons so it would have been helpful to know his concerns, especially since Campbell follows the structures BDAG to the degree he does (though not uncritically).  Another, is the question how historically Paul became ‘a man in Christ’ (2 Cor. 12:2) and how historically his addressees became ‘those who belong to Christ’ (1 Cor. 15:23)?  What was the role of Paul’s Damascus conversion for him and the role of his gospel preaching for those who became his churches?  Connected, third, is how important to Paul was his failed attempt to relate to God through law in contrast to his life-changing epiphany as from Damascus that he now knew his ‘Abba’, Father in the Crucified One, in the power of the Christ who loved him in him (Gal. 2:19-21).

Dr Campbell has put us deeply in his debt by his dedicated labours in producing this epochal book.  Despite its immense erudition and imposing research it is written humbly and simply and with due respect to those with whom he differs.

Paul Barnett

(A review published in Southern Cross, Sydney, April 2014)

 

Why I am Still A Christian

Why I am still a Christian

It was a long time ago.  I had become dissatisfied with my life’s direction and that of the friends in my social circle.  In my early twenties I began to attend a church and thankfully found the minister’s message and the congregation’s welcome deeply encouraging.  I began for the first time to read the Bible.  One day I attended a lunch hour service in St Andrew’s Cathedral where the speaker, Dr Howard Guinness spoke on John 6.37.  That’s where Jesus said, ‘Whoever comes to me I will in no wise cast out’.  I prayed a prayer in which I told Jesus I was ‘coming’ to him.  That was in 1957.

I could now go on and say that life had been easy ever since, one green light after another.  I have indeed been blessed with a wonderful marriage, a loving family and a satisfying life’s work, but there have been challenges to my life as a Christian.  Let me mention four.

One was doubt.  Yes, doubt.  While my ‘conversion’ was real and deeply helpful I had questions about the truth basis of Christianity.  My new friends assured me it was true, but they didn’t really know why it was.  Even four years in a good seminary (Moore College) didn’t really address that question.  It was only when I began Ancient History studies that I understood how numerous and early were the sources for Jesus and the spread of earliest Christianity.  I have sometimes often wondered about God’s providential dealings with people, but thankfully I have no doubts about the truth basis of our faith.

Another challenge was the difficulty of my wife Anita’s prolonged back pain.  She had been a nurse and this had left the unwelcome legacy of extreme back pain that lasted for many years.  Two operations failed but thankfully a third was successful, but that was after a decade of suffering.  Not that she complained or stopped her partnership with me in our work for the Lord.  She soldiered on bravely.  I am aware that many people don’t find the relief that she found, so we count ourselves much blessed by the way things have turned out.  But when things were bad we found it all very hard.

A third challenge has been discouragement.  I am thinking of my own luke-warmness as a Christian.  Truly I am a Laodician, neither hot nor cold!  My prayer life and Bible reading are pretty average and my ministry to people often falls short.  Along with that I have to say I have been discouraged by some of my fellow Christians, including fellow ministers, whose ethics are sometimes lower than the ethics of the non-Christian company I worked for.  I am thinking of people who have been a bit too keen on advancing their own interests rather than serving the Lord.  I sometimes think that behaviour in church circles are not unlike the attitudes of the chief priests and the Sanhedrin that condemned that innocent man who is our Lord.   But I pass this judgement as one who has not lived up to his own ideals, fully aware that it is precarious to judge the behaviour of others.

A fourth challenge has been what I am calling decadence.  I am thinking of the decline in the social fabric of society.  ‘Where is God’, I ask, ‘allowing this to happen?  Why have you allowed things to deteriorate so much?’  I am thinking of the media’s exaltation of celebrities regardless of their values or lifestyle, of the collapse into binge drinking and substance abuse by so many, and of the decline in civil discourse in public life, to mention just a few examples.

In a way there’s nothing new here.  The ‘good old days’ were not always that good.  The difference is that when bad things happened back then it was against the values of the times, values that were significantly Christian.  When many bad things happen today they are just accepted.

I realize that compared with the headwinds many have struggled against that mine seem relatively minor.  Yet for me they did and to a degree still do represent challenges to my faith and reasons not to continue as a Christian.

Jesus knew well that continuing to follow him would be fraught.  ‘Take up your cross and follow me’, he said, referring to the pain of rejection for those who identify with him.  When the crowd of 5000 whom he had fed drifted away due to his challenging words he asked the twelve who remained, ‘Will you also go away?’  In fact, they all did fall away when at last he came to Jerusalem.  One was a betrayer (for money), another a denier (for approval) and ten who were cowards (because of fear).  Their sins live on in us so that we fail him repeatedly.

It was because Jesus knew how morally feeble we are that he commanded his followers, ‘Abide in me’, words which simply mean, ‘Continue with me’, ‘remain with me, ‘don’t give up’.  St Paul said, ‘We don’t give up’, implying the struggle he had had to do just that.

So the following of Jesus was never going to be easy.  The exodus pilgrims’ journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Canaan anticipates the pilgrimage of the disciple of Jesus, the spiritual journey from conversion/baptism to the promised kingdom.  Soon after the Lord brought them out of Egypt they worshipped a golden calf, a pagan fertility symbol, in spite of their agreement to his covenant to refuse to make for themselves an idol or image that they will worship.  They grumbled and they sinned so that in the end only a minority actually arrived in the Promised Land.

So we must not underestimate the challenges of continuing and moving forward as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the end, however, we depend on him to strengthen us to continue.  At the beginning he said, ‘Come to me.  I will welcome you and not cast you out’.  But he also said, ‘My sheep hear my voice and they follow me and no one will snatch them from my hand’.  Here the Lord makes two promises.  He welcomes us and he holds us.

This does not relieve us of the responsibility to continue.  ‘Make your calling and election sure’, said Peter.  That means I need to confirm and reconfirm my commitment to Jesus.  Bible reading, prayer and gathering with other Christians is basic to my continuance as a Christian.  I need to support and love of other members of the Christian family and they need mine.  We help one another along the way, not least in times of distress and heartache.

Why am I still a Christian?  Ultimately it is the Lord’s doing.  He made the invitation, ‘Whoever comes…’ and he gives the assurance, ‘no one will snatch them out of my hand’.

(A talk given in Brisbane in March 2013 under auspices of Matthew Hale public Library)

A New New Testament (March 2013)

A New New Testament (2013)

Hal Taussig and a team of eighteen scholars and religious leaders have chosen ten texts (out of sixty seven surveyed) to be published alongside the twenty-seven that comprise the New Testament and called it A New New Testament.  The ‘new’ texts are from the post-New Testament eras and are mostly ‘gnostic’ in character (an exception is the Acts of Paul and Thecla). (http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2013/03/sls_20130329_0710.mp3)

 In fact, these texts are not ‘new’ but go back almost to the era of the apostle and for the most part have been known for many years by historians.

 The stated aim of the group is to bring these texts to the general public.

Publicity for the book asks, ‘…don’t we have a great deal to gain by placing them back into contact with the twenty-seven books of the traditional New Testament—by hearing, finally, the full range of voices that formed the early chorus of Christians?’  In fact, however, the New Testament and the extra texts did not form a ‘chorus’ of united voices.  The mainstream Christian leaders called the teaching in these texts ‘heresy’.  An intellectual and spiritual chasm separated these opposing religious viewpoints.

Hal Taussig and his colleagues say that the ‘canon’ of the New Testament was not really ‘closed’ until relatively modern times and that it is therefore valid to publish other texts with the twenty-seven of the biblical canon within the one book.  This asserts that the canon is, in effect, elastic.  It is an elastic canon, capable of the addition of new texts.

That was not the view, however, of church leaders in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  By ‘church leaders’ I am thinking of people like Irenaeus who was a pupil of Polycarp, who was a pupil of John, who was a disciple of Jesus.  Irenaeus, through the chain of orthodox teachers going back to Jesus, was articulating the views of those teachers, back to Jesus himself.

In the 2nd century these leaders were confronted with strongly differing, in fact, antithetical views.  Marcion rejected the Creator God of the Old Testament and reduced his canon mainly to an expurgated version of Luke and some of the letters of Paul.  The Gnostics from Egypt created extra gospels (mainly gnosticized adaptations of Jesus’ teachings with little narrative), for example the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Thomas.  Scholars are broadly agreed that these are derived from the canonical gospels.

So the big issue for the true followers of Jesus in the century after the apostles was to establish which gospels were genuine and which were not.  A succession of 2nd century leaders asserted the fourfold gospel.  Irenaeus insisted that the gospel was ‘quadriform’, not less that four and not more than four.  Likewise the Muratorian Canon and Tatian’s Diatessaron (= ‘one through four’) each insisted that there were four gospels.  The codex P46 dated to the end of the 2nd century has in it the four Gospels plus the book of Acts.  The four superscriptions that date from the early second century – ‘according to Matthew’, ‘according to Mark’, ‘according to Luke’, ‘according to John’ – assert there is ‘one gospel’, but each ‘according to’ the four named gospel-writers.

Accordingly, it is clear that those who were disciples of the disciples of Jesus in response to Marcion, on the one hand, and to Valentinus, on the other, insisted on a closed canon of four gospels.

Following the first Easter the original followers of Jesus formulated creeds and confessions, for example, as quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 that affirms the death for sins, the burial, the resurrection and the numerous sightings of the risen Christ.  This and other creed-like statements eventually became expanded as baptismal creeds in the second century (e.g., by Ignatius), which then became the great creeds of Christendom to expose heresies like Gnosticism (the Apostles Creed) and Arianism (the Nicene Creed).

These creed-like statements within the New Testament insisted on the facts of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus and permeate the literature of the New Testament.

The Gnostics altered the sayings of Jesus in the genuine Gospels as vehicles for their alternative doctrines.  Those doctrines reacted against the historical and geographical facts about Jesus and formulated a religion that was essentially non-historical, mystical and meditative.  They reacted strongly against the Old Testament.  It was all about being absorbed upwards out of this material world into the pure world of deity.  It skilfully used New Testament terms like ‘enlightenment’ and ‘salvation’ which it employed in diametrically opposite ways to the New Testament.

Should these texts be published?  Definitely.  It would be helpful to have these texts and others like them available in good translations, with critical manuscript apparatus and scholarly commentary, but not published in the same book as the twenty-seven genuine texts.  Otherwise it would imply that the canon is indeed open-ended and that the genuine and that the non-genuine are reducible to the same level.

John Dominic Crossan, a leading member of the Jesus Seminar, was part of the panel of nineteen.  This sends a pretty clear message that the publishing group is somehow connected with the Jesus Seminar, a body of scholars dedicated to questioning the integrity of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels.  Marcus Borg, another member of the Jesus Seminar, has written a glowing review the book as part of its advertising campaign.  In other words, this panel is not a broad-based body of scholars (for example, the Society of Biblical Literature) but an association committed to questioning the integrity of historic Christianity and promoting instead its own alternative version of Christianity.

 

Epiphany – Five Reflections from a Life Time

Epiphany

(Mere Anglicanism Conference, Charleston SC, January 2013)

 I count it a great privilege to share these thoughts with my fellow-Anglican Christians. Like the apostle Paul I do so with ‘fear and trembling’, though for a different reason.  Paul was amongst dangerous enemies; I am amongst friends.

My fear is threefold.  First, much of what I will say is in the realm of history, and history is a turn off for many.  Secondly, I want to speak personally, and that could easily sound egocentric and self-indulgent, another turn off.  Thirdly, and most worryingly, is my Aussie accent that I know is foreign to many ears.  So, please pray for me!

I am mindful of the critical times in which we live.  Yes we have the passionate campaigns of the New Atheists outside the church, but we also have the sceptics inside the church, amongst church leaders and scholars.  It would not be unfair to use the word ‘apostasy’ of some branches of the Anglican family.  The same sadly holds true in other traditions, Presbyterian and Lutheran, for example.

But I do not intend to dwell on the negatives but the positives and to do so in terms of my personal discoveries over the 55 years of my Christian journey.  ‘Discovery’ is not the right word because it puts the emphasis on me.  ‘Epiphany’, or ‘epiphanies’ would be better because these discoveries are really ‘revelations’ from God, God-given insights.  ‘Flesh and blood’ does not discover truth about God; God must reveal it.

As it happens it is, or recently was, the season of Epiphany – if you will cut me a little slack.

Nor will I speak mainly about theological issues, but historical ones.  Theology to be true depends on what happened historically.  If the Word did not actually become flesh in Bethlehem in the latter years of Herod, then the theology stated in John 1:14 is just empty words, akin to myth.  F.F. Bruce saw no incompatibility between theology and history and observed that ‘a man cannot be a good theologian unless he is a good historian’.[1]

The first epiphany happened in a class in Ancient History 101.  I was a mature age student, 29 years old.  I had not studied classical history at school, but I was now a junior professor at a seminary and my President sent me off the University to study Classical Greek and Ancient History.  My background had been in the Building industry.

Six years earlier I had been converted out of a totally unchurched background.  It was pretty dramatic, but I was wary of emotionalism and kept asking my new church friends, ‘How do we know it’s true?’ to which they replied, ‘It just is.  Just believe it’.  But the question remained, even when I spent 4 years in seminary and did well enough to become an instructor.

The epiphany happened when I suddenly realized how good were the historical sources for Jesus and the birth of Christianity.  We had been studying Alexander the Great and the Roman Caesars.  For Tiberius, the Caesar in whose time Jesus ministered, we mainly depend on Suetonius for information.  But Suetonius wrote about eighty years after Tiberius’ death, when no one was alive who could question what had been written.  Mark wrote his Gospel only 30 or so years after Jesus, when many Jesus’ contemporaries were still alive.

My first epiphany quickly connected with things I had come to know.  I knew that the 27 books of the New Testament were written by ten mostly independent authors, and were in circulation and use by the mid-90s – less than 60 years after Jesus; most of them much closer to Jesus, especially the epistles.  As well, I knew by then that these early texts had been accurately transmitted and copied from the time they were written.  I knew there are 5600 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament from the early centuries and 19,000 translations in Latin, Coptic, Arabic, and Armenian – more than 24, 000 in all.  Cross checking by Textual Critics means that the texts in our Bibles are 99% certain, and nothing doctrinally hangs on the 1%.

I cannot tell you how excited I was in that lecture room.  It was a ‘eureka’ moment.  The witness of the New Testament to Jesus more than holds its own relative to the documentation of the Caesars of those times, whose life stories are not in doubt.

Also connected with my first epiphany was a little book by A.M. Hunter, Paul and His Predecessors, which pointed out that Paul did not write the words we find in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7.  That’s where he quotes that Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised the third day, and appeared on 5 separate occasions to more than 500 people.  Paul was quoting what he had been taught at or soon after his conversion, that is, only about one or at most four years after Jesus.  In other words, the idea that Jesus was the Messiah, who died for sins and who was resurrected on the third day, did not evolve decades later than Jesus but was part of Christian understanding from the beginning, in the immediate aftermath of his lifespan.  Why would the earliest Christians in Jerusalem have formulated this teaching, if it wasn’t true?

By now I was hooked on history and found myself researching a post-graduate thesis on first century Jewish history.  My topic was ‘Civil Disturbances in Judea in the First Century’.  Did you know that three civil wars broke out when Herod died in 4 BC, led by Judas in Galilee, Simon in Perea and Athronges in Judea?  Each of these claimed to be a king and it took the might of the Roman army from Syria to put down these revolts.  Then there were violent Pharisees like Saddok in AD 6, a prophet like Theudas who was killed in 46 in and patriots like Menahem who marched into Jerusalem in 66.  These were formidable figures with big followings, who spanned the era of the New Testament.

So why are these men who fill the pages of Josephus forgotten today and Jesus is a household word?  It’s because history is full of people who blaze briefly like comets and are then forgotten.  But Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man who forgave sins, who healed the sick and raised the dead, who entered Jerusalem as its Messiah-king, whose teaching on love and forgiveness was profound and unheard of, and who himself was resurrected from the dead.  Without the resurrection Jesus would have been just another mistaken prophet whose death guaranteed his relegation to obscurity, like the shadowy figure of the Teacher of Righteousness, the founder of the Dead Sea Sect, whose name we do not even know.

Now in my 30s, whilst pastoring a second congregation I had the opportunity to do research for a PhD.  This was not in theology but again in Jewish history in roughly the same era as the New Testament.  Following that I became head of a University College and a professor in New Testament history within an Ancient History university department.

It was then I began my visits to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Greece, which I still continue on an annual basis and have done for twenty-five years.  I am privileged to have visited every place mentioned in the New Testament, with one important exception – Tarsus, birthplace of Paul.  That was to have been in 2011, but for the civil war in Syria.

A second epiphany – in my forties – was based on my first visit to Israel and Jordan – and confirmed many times since.  That lake – the Sea of Tiberias – its storms, its fishing, its surrounding hills is the lake of the Gospels.  The towns of the Holy Land – Bethlehem, Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, Chorazim, Bethsaida, Gennesaret, Magdala, Sychar, Caesarea Philippi, the Decapolis, the borders of Tyre and Sidon, Jericho, Bethany beyond Jordan, Bethany near Jerusalem are the towns and places of the Gospels.  They have been mostly continuously settled in the years since, with place names unchanged.  The geography of Galilee and the topography and streetscape of Jerusalem cohere amazingly with the biblical text.  The entire ministry of Jesus is embedded in places we can still visit.

The context of John’s ministry and Jesus’ ministry is stated by Luke (3:1-2) – the fifteenth year of Tiberius (AD 28 or 29) when Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod Antipas tetrarch of Galilee, Annas and Caiaphas high priests – link in exactly to the complex jurisdictions of the holy land after the death of Herod and Augustus’ division of Herod’s kingdom.

In Luke-Acts there are no less than sixteen texts that connect Luke’s narrative with famous named people in world history, like Sergius Paulus Proconsul of Cyprus, to take one example.  Then there are dozens of lesser figures like the centurion Cornelius in Caesarea Maritima who are no less authentic.  In other words, the geography, topography and history of the New Testament coheres with the geography and history of the era in which it is located.  This is the more impressive because such references are made in passing, matters of incidental detail, easily missed because of the weightiness of the narrative.

Luke-Acts is an amazing text covering 70 years from the birth of John the Baptist to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome and represents 25% of the volume of the New Testament.  It is widely commended by great secular historians like Mommsen, Meyer and Sherwin-White, but surprisingly spurned by many specialist Christian scholars.  Crossan’s index to his Birth of Christianity, for example, does not have a single reference to the book of Acts and declared the first thirty years of Christian history to be ‘dark decades…cloaked in silence’.  That is a convenient viewpoint if you want to write your own history of Christianity and present your own revisionist, designer theology!  Luke-Acts is critical to recovering Christian origins, the beginnings of Christianity.  Only this continuous text connects the rise of early Christianity to the impulse of Jesus, his identity, his saving death and his glorious resurrection.

As Luke tells us in his opening words, it was the original disciples of Jesus who handed over textual sources to Luke for him to write his great global history.  Who was better placed than them to do so?  The ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages in Acts 21-28 tell us that Luke was with Paul for the last five years of the narrative of Luke-Acts.  Luke was Paul’s companion and therefore well placed to write about Paul.  Who else but Paul could have given Luke the material he uses about Paul, his early life, his persecutions, his conversion, and his remarkable missions in Syria-Cilicia, Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia?  Luke-Acts shows us the immediate continuity between Jesus, crucified and risen, and the first three decades of Christianity.  The apostles preached Jesus as the risen Christ and Lord, because he was!

The archaeologists’ spade as well as accidental discoveries have confirmed much of the data we encounter in the biblical texts.

•A fishing boat from this period, discovered in 1985;

•an inscription bearing the name Pontius Pilate, discovered in 1961;

•a burial chest inscribed Joseph Caiaphas, discovered in 1990;

•the Pool of Siloam, identified in 2004;

•Jacob’s well near Joseph’s tomb under the shadow of Mount Gerizim;

•a Pool near the Sheep Gate, known as Bethesda;

•the tragic remains of the crucified man, Yehohanan, discovered in 1968;

•the discovery of rolling stones to seal tombs.

All these subtly but cumulatively reinforce the sense that we are in the realm of historical and geographical reality when we read the Gospels.

So far I have shared some ‘eureka’ moments, epiphanies.

•The quality, quantity of the sources for Jesus, and their closeness to him.

•The early, oral formulation of words embedded in 1 Cor. 15:3-7 about Christ’s death for sin, his burial, his resurrection on the 3rd day, and his multiple appearances.

•The linkages from Luke-Acts into world history, pointing to Luke’s integrity.

•Based on numerous visits to Israel the amazing coherence of geography, topography, and history, supported by archaeological finds and discoveries.

Each of these has confirmed my strong confidence in the integrity of the New Testament texts in their witness to Jesus, a the Son of God, who performed inexplicable miracles, who proclaimed the kingdom of God, who was the friend of sinners, who trained his disciples for world-mission, who died on the cross as our sin-bearer, and whom God raised from the dead to give us the hope that God has triumphed over evil and will triumph over evil – and who established the church.  I have absolutely no doubts about the authenticity and historicity of the New Testament.

One thing is certain.  No mere prophet or holy rabbi could have been the impetus for the amazing movement that arose in his immediate aftermath, as reflected in the New Testament in general and Luke-Acts in particular.  As I have mentioned, there were many warlords, prophets, and charismatic rabbis in Palestine in the first century, but they are lost in the dust of time.  It is only the deity of Jesus, his gracious miracles, his profound love ethic and his resurrection form the dead that explain not merely the survival of faith in him, but the immediate explosion of that faith and its rapid dissemination around the Mediterranean world.  Jesus gave hope to a hopeless world, and – thank God – he still does.

Let me share three other epiphanies.

The third was when I was lecturing at university.  I decided to make a detailed comparison of the accounts of a miracle that each of the four Gospels narrate.  I chose the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  As I spread out the four Greek texts in parallel, I was quickly reminded that Matthew and Luke make use of Mark’s account, often word for word.  Matthew and Luke are derivative texts, based mainly on Mark.  Most scholars accept that Mark’s is the earliest of the three, and that Matthew and Luke also incorporate other sources in their idiosyncratic Gospels making them both longer than Mark’s.  John, however, does not replicate any words from the other three, except for the statistics – 5000 men, five loaves, two fishes, twelve baskets, etc.

But there are other differences.  In John they are barley loaves and pickled fish that belong to the boy, details found only in John.  And his story line is a little different:  In John Jesus welcomes the crowd but in Mark he arrives after them.  Clearly Mark did not depend on John or John on Mark.  At a secular university with mostly secular students with no church background I set an essay question about this incident as in the four gospels.  The universal opinion was that Mark and John were primary, independent sources.  That means there are two independent witnesses to this miracle.

I was reminded of ‘Momigliano’s Rule’: ‘historical research is based on the distinction between original and derivative authorities’.  Professor Momigliano of Cambridge is one of the doyens of ancient history studies.

So what we have are two core texts – Mark’s and John’s – that are independent of each other.  Each is the final, written up version of a tradition – written or oral – that went back to the event, and that separately testifies to the truth of the event, the great miracle.  This criterion is called ‘Multiple Attestation’, and it is fundamental to all historical enquiry but no less to the jury process.  One witness may inspire confidence, but two or more – if credible – make for a weighty case.  But a second witness who merely repeats a primary witness is no use at all, according to Momiglinano’s wise counsel.

There are thirty-seven separate miracles of Jesus in the four Gospels. These fall into four categories – exorcisms, nature miracles, healings and raisings up from the dead.  These are found in the independent Mark and John and in the three independent sources underlying Matthew and Luke, known as Q (common to Matthew and Luke), L (unique to Luke), and M (unique to Matthew).  The thing is that each of these miracle types in found in at least two independent sources, of which the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes is a case in point.  Based on the principle of Multiple Attestation a historian would rightly conclude that these four miracle types – exorcisms, nature miracles, healings and raisings up from the dead – actually happened at the hands of Jesus, testifying to Jesus’ unique deity.

This is a matter of history, based on the historical method.  It is not mere unsubstantiated dogma.

My next epiphany – the fourth – occurred while I was giving a talk on a university campus about the reliability of the New Testament when a questioner asked me about the Qur’an.  I had to admit that I didn’t know enough to respond.  So I set about reading the Qur’an and thinking about the question.

Let me say, I do not doubt that Muhammad was a real person, with a huge impact, and that the Qur’an reflects the oracles he believed that God spoke to him.  But when I read the text, I was struck by an absence of linkages into world history and local geography that we find in the Gospels, Acts and Letters.  There are no people like Jairus, no places like Capernaum, no references like, ‘the next day’ that tie down the narratives about Jesus to other people, real places and actual times.  What we find in the Qu’ran is mainly ‘teaching’ that is not anchored – so far as I can see – into times, places or people within the Prophet’s life span 570-632.  The earliest extant biography of the Prophet, written by Ibn Hisham 213 years after Muhammad’s death has some of these details, but not the Holy Qur’an.  In this regard the New Testament is another world.  The letters of the New Testament – even the Revelation – are full of personal, historical and geographical information.

I discovered another fascinating difference.  To my knowledge there are no external contemporary texts that shed light on the Prophet or the early years of Islam.  Early Christianity is different.  Josephus, writing mid-90s from Rome, reports that Jesus was a ‘wise man’ whose tribe still continued sixty years later.  Tacitus writing ca. 110 observes that the ‘Christians’ took their name from Christus whom Pilate executed in Judea, but whose movement did not die with its founder but spread to Rome where it became an ‘immense multitude’, and a convenient scapegoat for Nero after the great fire in 64.

Also writing about 110 was Pliny, governor of Bithynia a Black Sea province, who said that the Christians’ practice was to meet weekly to sing hymns to Christ, ‘as to a god’.  This is a striking detail that confirms the witness of the New Testament that the early Christians met, worshipped and prayed to the exalted Jesus, ‘as to a god’, as Pliny would say.  Pliny confirms the witness of the New Testament that the early Christians met to worship Jesus as Lord.

It is striking that Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny strongly dislike Christianity and the Christians.  Tacitus and Pliny describe Christianity as a spreading disease.  Tacitus said the Christians pursued ‘vile practices’ and Pliny implies that they were fanatics.

Although these writers are opposed to the Christians their accounts of the raw facts about Christian origins and practice exactly correspond with the raw facts in the New Testament.  The interpretations of Jesus and the Christians are diametrically opposed, but the facts corroborate one another. These are unbiased, even hostile witnesses, yet they confirm the accounts written from inside the movement.  This is not merely Multiple Attestation, but Multiple Hostile Attestation that neatly dovetails with the narrative of the New Testament.

So to my final epiphany, the fifth.  It occurred in the mid-90s when I was a scholar in residence in a seminary in London preparing to give a public lecture series back in Sydney.  I stumbled across a book called The Practice of History by Geoffrey Elton, a distinguished scholar of Tudor history.  There wasn’t a thing in it directly related to the New Testament.  However, Elton made a distinction between ‘evidence…intended for publication’ and incidental information produced for ‘another purpose’.

I immediately thought the Gospels and Acts belonged to the first category of ‘evidence…intended for publication’ whereas the Letters were produced ‘for another purpose’, that is, informal even trivial documents relating to the passing, sometimes mundane needs of the recipient churches.   Elton shrewdly observed that those who wrote histories – documents intentionally written for publication – were open to suspicion regarding their motives to whitewash their subjects whereas surviving trivia like invoices and laundry lists were not, and were often full of useful information about the economy of the times, for example.

I thought to myself, ‘How important therefore are the New Testament epistles.  They have not been written as chronicles or histories to convince somebody, yet they contain lots of historical and chronological information.  This is especially true of Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, Romans and Philippians.  At so many points these texts ‘written for another purpose’ – the often trivial problems in the churches, and not originally intended for wider publication – confirm the details in the intentionally written Gospels and Acts.  For me this was an important discovery and it became a chapter in a book, Jesus and the Logic of History published in 1997.

So these have been some ‘Eureka’ moments, some God-given ‘epiphanies’ I have received over the years along with connecting ideas.

Epiphany 1:  The historical source material for Jesus is very close to Jesus.  In the case of Galatians it is a mere 15 years after the crucifixion and resurrection.  Information about Tiberius, the Caesar under whom Jesus was executed is approaching a century after his death in AD 37.

Connected with this:

•The text of the New Testament is recoverable because of the many manuscripts from the early centuries – 5600 in Greek, 19000 in translations in Latin, Armenian, Coptic, etc.

•Paul did not originally write the little catechism in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 that teaches Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the 3rd day and appeared to many hundreds, several of whom are named.  The Jerusalem Christians had devised that catechism in a narrow time corridor of less than three years after Jesus.  Why would they have devised that catechism unless Jesus had been raised from the dead?

Epiphany 2:  My many journeys to Israel have convinced me that the Gospels reflect the time, and place and people – the history, topography and geography of Galilee and Judea in the late 20s and early 30s of the first century.

Connected with this:

•The numerous artefacts – the boat, the Pilate inscription, the Caiaphas ossuary, the Pool of Siloam – all combine subtly to reinforce the integrity of the Gospels.

Epiphany 3: Careful study of the Gospel accounts of the Feeding of the Multitude led me to conclude that there were two independent traditions to that miracle that arose in parallel because of that miracle.  The principle of Multiple Attestation -– so vital in the work of history and of jury trials – convinced me of the historicity of the thirty seven miracles classified as four types of miracles of Jesus, pointing to his unique deity.

Epiphany 4: Study of the Qur’an made me appreciate the contrasting historical and geographical character of the New Testament.

Connected with this:

•Study of the non-Christian witnesses – Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny – point to the principle of Multiple Hostile Attestation that confirms the raw facts of the New Testament about the crucifixion, the spread of Christianity throughout the Empire, and that the early Christians worshiped Jesus ‘as a god’.

Epiphany 5: The recognition that the New Testament letters are not intentionally written history but are confirmatory of intentionally written history, especially since they predate the writing of the Gospels and Acts.  The early dating of the letters of Paul indicate that the three or so decades between Jesus and the writing of Mark were alive with missionary work and the creation of Christian congregations far and wide.

There is more, but I mustn’t indulge your patience further.  History is not for everyone!  But I am encouraged in my confidence in the witness of the New Testament to Jesus, Son of God, Lord, and Saviour.  The creeds we confess in church arise out of the New Testament and the multiplicity of its sources and the integrity of its transmission undergirds its trustworthiness.

I could not reject the historical reliability of the New Testament, even if I wanted to.

Let me conclude by referring to your mission statement:

 

Mere Anglicanism’s vision is for a reformed, renewed orthodox Anglicanism  within North America. We recognize that to achieve a restored and faithful   Anglicanism, many battles must be fought, many lessons learned. Seminaries must be re-made with faithful, godly deans and teachers.

 

Today, however, there are teachers of biblical subjects in universities and seminaries who deconstruct the texts and reconstruct them in line with their own worldviews. The duly reconstructed then reconstructed Christ is a tame individual, with views similar to the collective ‘groupthink’.  This is not evidence of the Spirit of God, but the spirit of the age.  It promotes scepticism and doubt, including among church people.

By way of example, a recent article argued that the narrative about Paul in Acts 13-28 was imaginatively reconstructed from Paul’s letters by an unknown author in the Second Century.  Those chapters did not correspond with what actually happened in Acts 13-28, but were the novelistic creation of this unknown second century author.

According to the article this author wrote Acts 13 to identify Antioch in Pisidia as ‘little Rome’, anticipating Paul’s arrival in ‘big Rome’.  This was the point of a contrived narrative that was said to have had no basis in historical truth.

I can think of several historical reasons why this article in wrong, but let me mention two.  The first is the problem of an author fifty or more years later inventing the detail in Acts 13-28, detail that based on modern archaeology is quite credible to us.  It is far more likely that Paul himself was the source of the information that Luke used, that Luke had written up while Paul was still alive, or at least had begun to.  The subtleties of Paul’s seaboard and overland travels in Acts 13-14 are consistent with what we know of the sea lanes and road system of the region, but which may not have been imaginable to an author remote in time and place from the places and events in the narratives.

The second is that Luke in no way exploits a ‘little Rome’ / ‘big Rome’ typology because the words ‘Rome’ and ‘Roman’ do not appear in Acts 13.  It is true, as we now know, that this Antioch was a Roman colony, built on the model of Rome.  Luke may or may not have known this, but either way it is not the point he was making.  Luke’s point was that at Antioch God had ordained that the gospel the Jews were rejecting should be taken to the Gentiles.  That is the point that Luke is making, and that is the point we the readers should be understanding.

Do we understand what is going on here?  First, this scholar explicitly says that Acts 13-28 is not historically true, but is a fictitious narrative.  This robs the text of the truthfulness that Luke claimed for it in his Prologue to Luke-Acts.  Secondly, by finding a Rome-to-Rome motif would make the text of merely antiquarian interest, a talking point for the scholars’ guild.  But the text is not merely an ancient relic for scholars to discuss.  It is a canonical text of sacred scripture that has a continuing missionary mandate for us today and tomorrow and until the Day of the Lord.  That mandate if for us to spread the good news about Jesus to Gentiles everywhere, but also to God’s historic people, the Jews.

How can I say this?  We do not want our ministers in training shaped by that kind of scholarship.  The vision statement calling for ‘faithful, godly deans and teachers’ is exactly right, and the key to future revival of the faith. We want Christian scholars to apply their skills to teaching and applying the Bible, not deconstructing it.

So we need to hold the line and ‘contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints’.

Paul Barnett

Epiphany 2013.

 

 



[1]Bulletin of the Johns Rylands Library 51 (1969), 294.

Luke’s Acts as a Historical Source for Paul

The Acts of the Apostles is critical to historians for establishing (a) the connection between Jesus and earliest Christianity, and (b) a chronology of the life of Paul and its relationship with his letters.  In this brief paper we will direct our attention to (b).

During the twentieth century, however, four criticisms have been directed against the usefulness to historians of the book of Acts for providing a historical and chronological basis for the life and ministry of Paul (see R. Riesner, Paul’s Early Period Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1998, 3-28).

Four Criticisms of the Acts of the Apostles

(a)            As compared to Paul’s own references the Acts is not to be regarded as a ‘primary reference’ but as a ‘secondary reference’. This view is especially connected with J. Knox but has become critical orthodoxy for many. For some authorities Acts as a ‘secondary reference’ means that it is of little or no use to the historian, whereas for others it means that it is of use where it can be shown to agree with Paul.

(b)            Closely connected is the viewpoint that discovers historical divergences in Acts as an unreliable secondary source from Paul as the reliable primary source.  These include the omission by Acts of Paul’s sojourn in Arabia (Gal. 1:17) and its conflicting accounts of Paul’s first and second return visits to Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18-21/Acts 9:26-27; Gal. 2:1-10/Acts 11:27-30).

(c)            Passages in the Acts of the Apostles are historically inaccurate and significantly diminish the value of its text.  A prime example is Gamaliel’s speech to the Sanhedrin where he locates the revolutionary prophet Theudas before the insurrectionist Judas, contrary to the witness of Josephus (Acts 5:33-39). Josephus states that Theudas led his insurrection in the mid-40s, thirty years after the uprising of Judas the Galilean (Antiquities of the Jews, xviii.3; xx.97-99).  It is no less serious that the Theudas incident occurred between AD 44-46 whereas Luke quotes Gamaliel speaking to the Sanhedrin about Theudas in ca. 34, about twelve years earlier.

(d)            There is such theological disparity between the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters that the two authors must have been unknown to each other.  It is claimed, for example, that the two authors do not share the same attitude to the law, and therefore to the centrality of the cross of Christ and the role of faith for divine justification.

Responses to these Criticisms

It is possible to make reasonable responses to these criticisms.

(a)            Two responses may be offered to the distinction between Paul as the ‘primary source’ and Luke’s Acts as the ‘secondary source’.  By ‘secondary source’ critics of Acts do not mean that Acts is directly derived from or dependent on the Pauline literary corpus (as Luke’s Gospel was directly derived from Mark’s Gospel).  In their view, to the contrary, Luke’s Acts depends on extraneous, late and unknown sources.

This brings me response (i) to this criticism.  It is that the ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages (Acts 16:10-16; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16) are most sensibly understood as indicating the author’s presence alongside or near Paul during the five years those passages narrate. Significantly, these chapters are intensely more detailed than the preceding chapters of Luke-Acts prompting J. Fitzmyer to refer to a ‘a diary-like record’:

…they [details in Acts] are drawn from a diary-like record that the author of  Acts once kept and give evidence that he was for a time a companion of Paul (J. Fitzmyer, Luke the Theologian: Aspects of his Teaching  (London:Geoffrey Chapman, 1989, 22).

Understood in this way means that the ‘we’ and ‘us’ chapters should be read alongside Paul’s letters (insofar as the narratives overlap) as an equal primary source.  Paul’s letter to the Romans spells out his intention to come to Rome and his letter to the Philippians (most probably) written from Rome indicates that did in fact reach Rome.  Acts 27-28 authentically narrates why and how Paul travelled from Corinth via Judea to Rome.

Luke’s companionship with Paul AD 57-62 would have provided opportunity for the author of Acts to know about Paul’s life beforehand.  Through conversation and perhaps written memoirs Luke would come to know of Paul’s birth in Tarsus, his resettlement in Jerusalem, his conversion, his ‘unknown years’ between Damascus and Antioch, and his subsequent westward missionary journeys prior to their years of companionship.

Response (ii) is to point out that ‘primary source’ material isn’t necessarily free from bias and that ‘secondary source’ material isn’t necessarily inferior or inaccurate.  Who is to say, for example, that Paul did not underplay certain details in his memoir to the Galatians in the first two chapters of that letter?  This is not to say that he did, only that the possibility is there.  On the other hand, based on the hypothesis that Paul told Luke about his earlier life, is there any good reason to argue that he falsified the details at hand?  It is not doubted that he shaped his raw material, but that is not the same as arguing against his integrity overall or in matters of detail.

(b)            That Luke’s details vary from Paul’s at some points does not necessarily indicate that the author of Acts was ignorant of Paul’s missionary movements.  Such a hypothesis would suggest that Luke’s source for chapters 13-20 (as well as details of Paul’s life to that point) was remote from Paul, not dependent on him.

In fact, both the Acts (explicitly) and the Pauline corpus (implicitly) refer to the same theological-geographical ‘narrative’ for Paul.  Both writers interpret the promises of the Old Testament as confirmed in Christ and envisage the gospel message proceeding from Jerusalem to the gentile world.  More specifically, both Paul and Luke trace the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem in a westerly, Rome-ward direction.  That sense of direction emerges clearly from Paul’s Romans (chapters 15-16) and from the entire narrative of the book of Acts.

Luke was constrained by the capacity of his scroll and was forced to abbreviate and omit detail to fulfill his Jerusalem to Rome narrative.  This might explain why, for example, he passes over Paul’s story from Damascus to Antioch, a period of about fifteen years, in a few sentences and omits Paul’s journey to Arabia altogether.

The major problem identified by scholars is the disparity between Paul’s second return visit to Jerusalem narrated on the one hand by Paul (Gal. 2:1-10), and on the other by Luke (Acts 11:27-30).  According to Paul the purpose of the visit was to secure the pillar-apostles’ recognition of Paul’s proposed circumcision-free mission to the Gentiles, whereas Luke states that it was to deliver famine relief from Antioch.

It is right to ask, however, why should Luke’s account be treated as incorrect?  It is quite possible that Paul focused on the divisive issue of circumcision while passing over the delivery of famine relief (an in Luke’s narrative).  It is well known that Luke generally tends to play down divisions within the apostolic community whereas Paul was prepared to highlight them, which he does implicitly in Jerusalem and explicitly in the ‘Incident in Antioch’ (Gal. 2:1-10; 11-14) – especially when defending his doctrines to the Galatians, as he does throughout this letter.

Furthermore, Luke’s account of the beginnings of the westward missions from Antioch occurred immediately after Paul’s return from Jerusalem (Acts 13:1-3).  This is entirely consistent with Paul’s note that the Jerusalem ‘pillars’ agreed that Paul and Barnabas should ‘go’ to the Gentiles (Gal 2:9).  Their condition was that Barnabas and Paul were to ‘remember the poor’, which, Paul adds, was the ‘very thing I have taken pains also to do’ (Gal. 2:10 – As translated by E. de Witt Burton, Galatians ICC (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1980, 99.).  Paul’s retrospective defensive remark confirming Luke’s account of the journey from Antioch to Jerusalem to bring famine relief (Acts 11:27-30).

Many scholars, however, seek to eliminate Acts 11:27-30 as a genuine visit to Jerusalem and prefer to equate Gal. 2:1-10 with Acts 15:4-29 (otherwise known as the Jerusalem Council) as Visit 2.

There are substantial problems with this reconstruction.  One is that Visit 2 according to Galatians was specifically held ‘privately’ between Barnabas and Paul and James, Cephas and John (Gal. 2:2) whereas the Acts 15 meeting involved ‘the apostles and elders with the whole church’ (Acts 15:6, 22, 23).  Furthermore, the private meeting in Jerusalem (Visit 2) preceded the missions to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:9) and the plenary meeting in Jerusalem (Visit 3) succeeded the mission to the Gentiles, and was held to address the issues raised by the missions of Barnabas and Paul ‘among the Gentiles’ (Acts 15:12).

Galatians does not mention a Visit 3 to Jerusalem for the simple reason that it had not yet happened when Paul wrote the letter.  Paul wrote to the Galatians following the Incident at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14), which occurred after his return to the Syrian capital after his missions in Galatia.  It was only then that Barnabas and Paul travelled to Jerusalem for Visit 3, the Jerusalem Council.

(c)            What, then, can be said regarding passages in Acts that are regarded as historically inaccurate, in particular Gamaliel’s speech to the Sanhedrin where he locates the revolutionary prophet Theudas before the insurrectionist Judas?

It is possible that Gamaliel is referring to an otherwise unknown Theudas who preceded Judas.  Theudas is an abbreviation of Theodotus (‘gift of God’) that in turn is the Greek version of the Hebrew name, ‘Jonathon’.  Was Gamaliel referring to an insurrectionist named Theudas who arose during the time of Archelaus (3 BC-AD 6) or, before him, in the time of Herod (40-4 BC)?  Whilst this is theoretically possible it is unlikely because Gamaliel’s quoted words about Theudas and Judas closely match Josephus’ references to men of that name.

It appears, then, that Luke has reversed the true sequence of Judas and Theudas and placed words anachronistically in the mouth of Gamaliel.

In defence of Luke it is possible that the fault lay with the source or sources that Luke used.  My thesis is that Paul was a good source for Luke, based on their extensive companionship.  But for other events like the Gamaliel incident Luke depended on hearsay or written fragmentary chronicles.  It is not reasonable to fault Luke for matters about which he would have been dependent on hearsay or upon an earlier written account of that incident.

In any case, the reference to Gamaliel is but one problematic reference amongst many references to people cross-referenced in world history that are regarded as historically reliable.   These include the named members of the Annas dynasty (4:6), the famine that occurred in the days of Claudius (11:28), Herod the king (12:1), Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Cyprus (13:7), the ‘Politarchs’ of Thessalonica (17:8), the exile of Jews from Italy (18:2), Gallio, proconsul of Achaia, and the ‘Asiarchs’ of Ephesus (19:31).

Thus whilst candour requires acknowledgment of problems in the Gamaliel incident, this needs to be recognized in the broader context of many other unproblematic references.

(d)            It not come as a surprise that there is theological disparity between the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters.  Luke was probably a Gentile and a God-fearer whereas Paul was a Jew, in fact a strict and educated Pharisee.

The pre-Christian Paul may have outwardly seemed ‘under law blameless’ (Phil. 3:6), but within his conscience he was aware – however dimly – that he was ‘a captive under law, a prisoner’ (Gal. 3:23-25), a Jew like other Jews ‘under a curse’ as a law-breaker (Gal. 3:10), in desperate need of divine redemption (Gal. 3:13; 4:4).  Given this circumstance it is understandable that Paul should write so passionately about the cross of Christ as God’s instrument of freedom, and of the role of faith not ‘works of the law’ (Gal. 2:21; 5:11; 6:14-15).

Nonetheless, there are echoes of Paul’s ‘righteousness’ language in Luke-Acts (Luke 18:9, 14; Acts 13:38-39).

Luke was already a disciple (from Antioch?) by ca. 50 when he joined Paul in Troas and travelled to Philippi where he remained for the next seven years (Acts 16:10; 20:6).  By the time he re-joined Paul in AD 57 he had doubtless formed his own theological views so that there is no reason to expect these to have been identical with Paul’s very distinctive theology.

Thus it is quite unreasonable to demand similarity of viewpoints between Paul and Luke and to argue that Luke could not have known Paul because these were not identical.

Summary    

Our argument has been that the case against the historical value of Acts based on historical and theological divergences from Paul are significant but not ultimately sustainable.  The ‘primary’ versus ‘secondary’ viewpoint fails because a ‘primary’ source may be tendentious or forgetful and a ‘secondary’ source may be based accurately on the witness of the ‘primary source’.

Moreover, it is fallacious to require a ‘secondary’ source slavishly to follow the narrative of the ‘primary source’.  Both Paul and Luke follow a Jerusalem-to-Rome missionary thrust, but for his part Luke omits and compresses his narrative according to his overall literary-theological design.  Whilst the Gamaliel incident raises significant questions for Luke’s accuracy this issue must be seen within the broader context where his historical competence is demonstrable, especially in the ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages.

Furthermore, the demand that Luke’s theology must cohere tightly with Paul’s is unreasonable.  Paul was an intensely religious Jew and Luke was apparently a Gentile so that to expect an identical theological framework is unfair to both men.

Unimaginable Details in Acts 13-20

The data about Paul in the book of Acts is extensive, especially for the span of years between his persecutions and his final journey to Jerusalem, where the principal ‘we’ and ‘us’ passage begins.  Within that quarter of a century Luke narrates Paul’s movements and mission in considerable detail, especially the westward mission decade AD 47-57.

That extensive detail includes the names of people and places and the passage of time and these are too numerous to repeat.  Did Luke invent these details, as some suggest, so that these narratives should be regarded as fictional?  One has only to compare the Acts accounts with various later apocryphal works to see how unlikely this suggestion is.

For the moment let us consider a few unimaginable details, but details that have been confirmed through modern study.  One such example is the travel information related to the journey of Paul and Barnabas through Pamphylia, Pisidia and Lycaonia, the so-called ‘first missionary journey’ (Acts 13-14).  Paul and Barnabas passed through Perga and travelled directly to Antioch in Pisidia and from there to Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, whereupon the missionaries retraced their steps to Perga but departed for Antioch from Attalia.

What is not clear from these references is the nature of the cities and network of roads between them.  From modern scholarship including archaeology we have information about these cities and roads that most likely would not have been available to a writer who was inventing this narrative.  How could a fictional writer located elsewhere know that the relatives of Sergius Paulus Proconsul of Cyprus were significant in Pisidia, as demonstrated by the discovery of the Paulli inscription in Antioch?  This would explain why Paul was so keen to travel directly from Cyprus to Antioch, without preaching in the major city of Perga.  Could someone who invented these narratives know that Antioch, Iconium and Lystra were Roman colonies and thus relatively safe for Paul the Roman citizen to visit, and explain by he bypassed other major cities in that region?  Would a novelistic writer know that Antioch, Iconium and Lystra were connected by a network of well-made Roman roads, including the Via Sebaste, providing further reason why the missionaries preached in those cities?  Could pure invention explain why they travelled on a non-Roman road to obscure Derbe, except to escape the immediate danger from Lystra and Iconium?

Similar questions could be posed about Paul’s numerous other travel details, which modern scholars understand through easy access to research information but which would not have been apparent to an anonymous chronicler in antiquity who would have lacked access to maps and encyclopaedias to inject verisimilitude into contrived narratives.

It is more realistic in every way to attribute the travel and other information in Acts 13-20 to Paul himself who, in turn passed it on to Luke, whether orally or by writing or both.

But this brings us again to the significance of the ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Plausibility of the ‘we’ and ‘us’ Hypothesis

Our argument is that the unimaginable and otherwise inexplicable details in Acts 13-20 are best understood as originating directly from Paul to Luke, who then wove them into his global narrative in Luke-Acts.

The significance of the ‘we’ and ‘us’ narratives, especially in Acts 21-28, is that they directly connect Luke as Paul’s companion and for no less than five years.  The overwhelming probability is that Luke became acquainted with Paul’s earlier life, including his missionary travels, through those years of companionship.  Although many scholars dispute the ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages as pointing to this, Martin Hengel is clear on this point.

…the remarks in the first person plural refer to the author himself.  They do not go back to an earlier independent source, nor are they merely a literary convention, giving the impression that the author was an eyewitness… ‘We’ therefore appears in the travel narratives because Luke simply wanted to  indicate that he was there (Martin Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, London: SCM, 1979 ET, 66).

Such a conclusion is straightforward and sensible.  If indeed true it undergirds the historical integrity of the greater part of the book of Acts.  Without that integrity, as indicated earlier, it would not be possible to identify the connection between Jesus of Nazareth and earliest Christianity, or to provide any kind of framework for the missionary career of Paul and the dispatch of his letters to the churches of his mission.

Although written many years ago, the verdict of Alfred Plummer continues to be applicable.

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that nothing in biblical criticism is more             important than this statement’ – ‘The Author of Acts was a companion of S. Paul’ (Alfred Plummer, St Luke ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1901, xii.)

Conclusion

Although the various criticisms of Acts appear to damage the credibility of that text for commentary on Paul, those criticisms diminish when carefully evaluated.  The ’we’ and ‘us passages in Acts 27-28 are most cogently understood as the work of a companion of Paul throughout the five years, AD 57-62.  Such a companionship would equip one who was to write about Paul’s earlier years, especially the decade of westward mission, AD 47-57.  The alternative is that such narratives were essentially invented and therefore novelistic.  However, the numerous details of Paul’s journeys narrated in Acts, which are corroborated through modern research, would have been unimaginable to the writer of a contrived chronicle.