Friday, August 18, 2006

What Would Jesus Say?

Ordinary Time

Rob the Cuban is having a chat on Historical Jesus issues; if you're interested, you might check out the comments, as Rob and Stephen Peltz and I go at it.

Meanwhile, I'm reading at LTS again today. I found something interesting in Richard Bauckham's essay, "Reading Scripture as a Coherent Story," in Hays and Davis, The Art of Reading Scripture:
The existence of the four Gospels, not to mention commentary in the apostolic letters, keeps readers aware that Jesus is neither captured in the text nor existent only as a textual contruction but that he had and has his own reality to which the texts witness.
I'm thinking about this in the context of the differences between the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels and John's Jesus. If you've read the Bible for any period of time, you might have noticed that the Johannine Jesus is a little more esoteric and mystical, and spends more time talking, particularly about who he is. The Jesus the other evangelists talk about does more stuff and tells stories and talks a whole lot about the Kingdom and quotes Scripture all over the place. These are uncontestable facts: if you actually read this stuff, you have to say, "Golly gee, the way John describes Jesus is really very awfully different than the way the others do!"

Now here's what that doesn't mean: it doesn't mean that one is "wrong." If the gospels are bearing witness to the truth of Jesus the Christ as experienced by the apostolic communities (and indeed the people who hung out with Jesus) it's okay for them to care about different things. If we need these things to be straight-up and complete histories in and of themselves, one of them is definately "wrong." For example, the synoptics execute Jesus on Friday. John kills him on Saturday. Who's right? For John, Jesus performed his temple action at the beginning of his ministry, and according to the others, he did it at the end - which for my money is the most likely reason for both the blasphemy charge, and ultimately his execution. John moves it around, however, and has to credit another reason for his death: calling himself the "Son of God." However, this was actually a Davidic title and even a common designation for miracle workers: it implied nothing about being "divine." However, for John, it does - because John has a more developed, and even a proto-Trinitarian Christology. But you know what? John was written later. John is more theologically developed, and has more to say about the "essence" of who Jesus was as the incarnate logos, while the others didn't have quite the time to think about it in the course of editing and story-telling (and yes, I am for the moment ignoring things like "Johannine community" as opposed to John - one thing at a time). That's really okay. If you treat the Bible like it's relating straight history in the modern sense, it will disappoint you, frustrate you, and just generally freak you out, because it simply won't work that way.

The gospels bear witness to the truth about Jesus. I think the synoptics are more "historical accounts" while John is more "metaphysical." That doesn't make John "historically unreliable," but it does limit how much you can use John and what you can use John for when "doing history."

Did the real live Jesus who walked around Palestine 2,000 years ago necessarily say the things attributed to him in John's gospel? No. Are the things spoken by the Johannine Christ true of Jesus? Yes.

Don't make me get started on those infancy narratives...


Expax said...

No please do go on about the infancy narratives. =) Please do. =o)

+ Alan said...

What would Jesus say? ... to whom and in what context? That would be my question to the question. It depends on these things what the answer will be.

I don't have a problem seeing the Gospels being written from different perspectives and not all being tightly "consistent" in the way people seem to want them to be sometimes. It is in reading them all that we get the "whole story" - well the story that they can tell anyway.

The Gospels are interesting - they're evangelistic. They're apologetic. They are transitional - they introduce the people of that place and time to Jesus. That's why they were written. They're not quite in the same category as the Epistles, although, they hold equal weight as Scripture. They speak to a different kind of people in a different context than do the Epistles. I think we forget that sometimes. We try to lump it all together in one bug gumbo. Doesn't work too well.

Scott M. Collins said...

If you've got the time, come down and hang out at Asbury Seminary for the day!

Peter said...

If you treat the Bible like it's relating straight history in the modern sense, it will disappoint you, frustrate you, and just generally freak you out, because it simply won't work that way.

I like this line. It's important to remember the biblical writers (and first biblical readers) don't have a concept of objective history. Context, as Alan notes, is crucial. Sometimes its good to remember that Paul didn't write 1 Corinthians for me. But at the same time, the Holy Spirit did.

And the Holy Spirit is interested in lots more interesting things than history.

The narrative of the bible is narrative for the sake of moral and spiritual formation, not narrative for the sake of history.

And yes, come visit Wilmore and partake of one of the many ethnically themed rural Kentucky restaurants :)

(There is more than one road to Wilmore, you know)

Expax said...

I just thought that road throws you off at high bridge. *the sound of a car going off a cliff*

I am very happy for my coastal living.

But I do miss some Sim's Pizza. Thats some good stuff. =)

I really do wonder at times how those who hold to the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy handle these issues in the text? *shrug*

stc said...

I don't dispute the possibility that what you say is true. John could be writing a "spiritual" account of Jesus, similar to the approach of apocalyptic: lifting the veil to show us what's behind it. In which case, his Gospel would be accurate theologically, if suspect historically.

But I'm more sceptical than you are about John's account. I think it matters a great deal whether the theology is rooted in history, or entirely in the realm of pious imagination.

Christianity, like Judaism before it, isn't a system of abstract metaphysical speculation; it's supposed to be a faith grounded in history.

The fact that Jesus didn't actually say, for example, "Before Abraham was, I am", makes John's incipient Trinitarianism highly suspect for me. I want to know: How did Jesus understand himself and his work? And I doubt very much that Jesus had any awareness of himself as a preexistent being!

Insofar as John is out on a limb, detached from what Jesus understood about himself, his account possesses little authority for me. After all, it is Jesus who is our Lord and exemplar — not John or any of the other interpreters of the Christ event.

(I know, the synoptic Gospels also present an interpretation … but one that is grounded in history to a significant extent, in my view.)

stc said...

By the way, since I know how interested you are in the historical Jesus — Chris Petersen is exploring some of the Johannine issues over on his blog, Resurrection Dogmatics, just now.

+ Alan said...

The problem there is that it becomes either history or speculation. As if these are the only two choices. This is certainly not the case. If John is not writing a strict historical account does this necessarily put him in the land of speculation? I don't think so. Whatever happened to old-fashioned prophetic revelation from the Holy Spirit?

The entire Scriptural canon is a mystical thing. It is about God revealing Himself to people through people. I like what Peter said about Paul not having written the Corinthian letters to me, but the Holy Spirit surely having done so. So, can John have been writing from Spiritual Revelation, which was connected to his general memories of events? I think so.

Now here's some theological speculation - but perhaps because of John's particular closeness to Jesus he also had a greater mystical union as well and saw deeper into the Reality of Who Jesus was and IS. Maybe so.

stc said...

Alan, I understand where you're coming from, and I know it is the orthodox understanding of scripture and inspiration. But may I just quibble with this statement? —

The entire Scriptural canon is a mystical thing. It is about God revealing Himself to people through people.

No; it is about God revealing himself to people through historical events.

It is no coincidence that Moses received the Law immediately after God delivered his people from bondage in Egypt. First came the historical, salvific event; then came the commandment, "You shall have no other gods before me".

Christianity follows the same template. The Gospel begins with, and is anchored in, the historical events of the life of Jesus —

beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. … [The Jews] put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear … (Acts 10:37-40).

Revelation is not merely "a mystical thing", but is always a matter of explicating those historical events.

I think that is what the synoptic Gospels do. And I think Paul does the same. Even if Paul doesn't make explicit reference to the deeds and words of Jesus very often, at least he doesn't ascribe things to Jesus that never actually happened.

But John? He puts statements in the mouth of Jesus that seem utterly indefensible to me. You view it as a revelation of God. My faith isn't up to making that leap — sadly for me.

+ Alan said...

Well, I think I do see it as "sadly for you." Somebody give Q a paper-cutter so he can chop John out of his copy of the Bible. That is the logical conclusion there. You really can't get around it, and I think I'm at least a fairly logical thinker.

My faith does believe that it's all Scripture, all from God as He wanted it to come. I don't believe it's dependent on historical events. I think the salvation from God for us all has certainly been happening throughout history. Sure it has. But these events are not some kind of cold, separate "thing" that happens and then people interact with it - and then God can use them to teach something. That's a little odd.

History IS people! It is the recorded activity of people BY people. It is fluid until we concretize it in writing or in spoken stories. But the historical events are nothing more than the fluid running of the river of life. Sure, things happen and some are perceieved as more significant than others and so are recorded. Maybe some ARE more significant for ALL of us in the salvific economy of God and so HE chose them to be recorded - and this happend through people, by people, and for people. This is all about Him drawing us to Himself.

So, all of Scripture is not so tightly dependent on historical accuracy. Some of it is simply Prophecy - GOD talking to us spiritually, laying our hearts open so He can inhabit them. Personally I don't go looking for historical innarcuracies and little inconsistencies in Scripture. What's the point? God is able to speak in ways that transcend these things. We've got to get out of the weeds here.

Again I'll say, I'm not sola scriptura fundy protestant for sure. I believe God has spoken through the Scriptures as well as Tradition, and in the context of the Community, to us interiorly. But if we look at "scripture" as merely a collection of writings by screwed up men with personal agendas, we might as well toss it. If there is no Holy Spirit guiding them to write what they wrote in some way then we have a mess of trouble.

Hopefully that didn't come off too hard. I have issues with this stuff. Keeping in mind this is a blog comment conversation and many of us dont' know each other, etc. Thinking out loud. Peace.

stc said...

Well, I think I do see it as "sadly for you".

I meant it sincerely.

Somebody give Q a paper-cutter so he can chop John out of his copy of the Bible. That is the logical conclusion there..

Your remarks are mostly respectful, but "somebody give Q a paper-cutter" oozes a certain smug superiority.

That said, I understand you're making a serious and legitimate point. Here's a quick response.

I do think the canon is problematic. As you presumably know, there was a long debate over which books should be in and which, out. On your view, I'm sure the final decision was an act of God rather than a merely human decision. I regret that I don't share your confidence in the infallibility of the Church.

As it has come down to us, the canon suggests a sharp demarcation between what's in and what's out. I suspect it's actually more of a continuum, and the boundary between the two is more blurry than a print edition of the New Testament implies. We could easily have ended up with the Didache or the Shepherd of Hermas in, for example, and Revelation out.

I think that view of the canon has implications for the authority of scripture. I accept that Romans was genuinely written by Paul, whereas I regard the Pastorals as a second-generation, pale imitation of Paul. Therefore Romans is more authoritative for me than the Pastorals.

It doesn't mean that I think we should clip the Pastorals out of the Bible. It's more a question of having the right mindset about the strata of scripture, if I might put it that way. I give more "weight" to Romans than to 1 Timothy — certainly I would do so if I were writing a theology of Paul.

Same thing for the synoptics vis-à-vis John. John tells us much about the rapid evolution of christology in the early church. But it tells us virtually nothing of Jesus' self-consciousness, in my view.

John's soteriology is more mainstream, or so it seems to me. In general, I think Christ's advent was interpreted in a more-or-less uniform way with respect to soteriology; but there is some diversity of opinion discernable, even within the canonical texts, with respect to christology.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think you're being far to hasty in dismissing the historicity of so much of John, relegating it to the status of fairy tales that are technically true, even if Yeshua didn't talk about it. So what if the style is greatly different? The context is also entirely different - for where the synoptics focus on the general public teachings and acts of Yeshua, John takes these as its epicenters:

1. Private dialogues generally amongst his trusted in-group where extended identidy discussion is more appropriate, while amongst outsiders the identidy is more masked and guarded.
2. A focus upon the deeds of Yeshua upon the various Jewish festivals, wherin he appropriates the functions of the festivals to himself.

All in all, I don't really think John's portrait is really so hopelessly contradictory to the sort of walking Shekhinah Yeshua of the synoptics which N.T. Wright describes. I would recommend readers here go and read John for Everyone by Tom Wright, and perhaps Craig Blomberg's defense of John's historicity (though I haven't read it yet, I'm only going by reputation).

Anonymous said...

Kyle, you'll probably find this humorous.

I was in class and my english teacher (who reads my blog) told me "You know, I dno't really like Kyle. He and I would disagree on a lot of things. He's soft on inerrancy." She said something else and asked me if I knew you, lol.

I suppose going on my school/church's def of inerrancy, that yes, you'd be soft. Of course, that standard isn't held universally, as the blogosphere helps make clear.

Anyway, I'm still working out my ideas on John. I shouldn't make any decisions before I read the relevant literature, though this little blog discussion has been good!