I want to float an idea but don’t have time to develop it into a full-fledged argument. Still I want to propose a reading for an unusual text we find in the Synoptic Gospels. Since Mark is likely the first Gospel written, I’ll start there recognizing that what is true for Mark is also true for Matthew and Luke.
For years I’ve puzzled over the description of the John the baptizer as eating locust and honey (Mark 1:6). Translations differ. Some seem to underscore that John’s diet consisted of locust and honey as if that was all he could get in the wilderness (NLT, The Voice). Other versions don’t interpret it at all. Many commentaries notice the statement but have little to say about it. I’ve wondered why we are given this bit of information in a hard-hitting, fast-moving Gospel like Mark’s. After all we’re not told Jesus’ diet, and he’s the main character in the story. Is the statement about John eating (present participle; Mark 1:6) designed to present him as a desert-dwelling ascetic with odd habits? If so, that seems to fail since locusts are kosher and though most westerners cringe at the thought of biting into one, it would not strike a person of John’s day as strange. Then there is honey, a desirable natural sweetener on everybody’s wish-list.
So what is the point? Well let me suggest a reason. The description of John and his activities (living in the wilderness, preaching, baptizing, and his manner of dress) are part of John’s prophetic message. Where he was, what he was doing and how he did it were key aspects of his person and mission.
Prophets were known not only for speaking a message but also acting it out on occasion. This is uncontroversial. Isaiah (ch. 20) walks naked for two years to portray what would happen to the Assyrian captives of Egypt and Cush. Jeremiah (ch. 32) buys real estate as the barbarians are at the gate to depict a hopeful future after the exile. Ezekiel (ch. 4) famously constructs a small model of Jerusalem, portrays a siege against it, lies down on his left side for 390 days as a sign to Israel of things to come. Then God instructs him to lie on his right side for 40 more days and prophesy against it. Prophetic words were certainly memorable but prophetic actions garnered even more attention.
My proposal is this: John ate locust and honey as part of his message. So we shouldn’t imagine John sitting behind a rock snacking on locust and honey right before a big sermon. Rather, I suggest he makes eating locusts and wild honey part of his sermon.
So what would/could this mean? Well consider the prophetic record and what locusts represent. Joel may be the best place to look. An invasion of locusts offers a sign of things to come when an army invades from the north and strips the land bare. Locusts then are a sign of judgement. God’s people have behaved badly now disaster was going to come upon them. Yet even as judgment is announced there is a conditional promise of salvation. If God’s people will repent, return to God, and plead with God to deliver then, then God will restore to them everything the locusts have stripped away (Joel 2:12-27). Joel 2 ends with a triumphant declaration of God’s salvation when he pours out his Spirit (Joel 2:28-32). As many will recognize this passage is picked up in Acts 2 as Peter’s interpretation of the day of Pentecost: “This is what was spoke of through the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16).
So what does it mean for the prophet to eat the locust as part of his sermon? Well it dramatizes that God is on the move. The Destroyer is being destroyed. The Consumer is being consumed. And finally, the shame of their long exile is coming to an end when YHWH himself returns to his people (Joel 2:27):
Then you will know that I am the midst of Israel,
And that I am the LORD (YHWH) your God
And there is no other;
And my people will never be put to shame.”
Anyone who heard John in those days would have gotten the idea that the current invaders and consumers (the Roman occupiers) were going to meet their match when enough of God’s people repented and submitted to John’s baptism. The long day of judgement was coming to an end.
So what of the honey? Well, when enough Jews repented and turned from their wicked ways, when God himself intervened by destroying the Destroyers and consuming the Consumers, then the land would once again return to its richness for God’s people. Most will recall that when the recently freed Hebrew slaves first peered in from the wilderness, they said of the promised land: “Here is a land flowing with milk and honey.”
I can imagine John lathering his hand in honey, putting it to his mouth and savoring its sweetness as he stood in front of a group of pilgrims from Jerusalem or Judea proclaiming the imminence of God’s kingdom and warning his detractors of the coming judgment if they persisted in their hypocrisy. John could have simply spoken the message, but by dramatically acting it out, his message stayed with them and had a much greater influence on those who came to see him in the desert.
Now as I said above. This is only a proposal. It is not a full-fledged argument. I welcome your thoughts and comments.
We are only about 5 weeks out from the start of our theology conference at HBU. The theme is “The Church and Early Christianity.” The conference is scheduled for April 16-18, 2015. While it is too late to propose a paper for the conference, it is not too late to plan to attend. Ben Witherington, John Barclay, and Everett Ferguson will offer plenary addresses. We will have dozens of other papers from regional and national scholars.
Here is an announcement with all of the details you’ll need:
Houston Baptist University is sponsoring a theology conference April 16-18, 2015. The theme of the conference is “The Church and Early Christianity.” Our keynote speakers include Dr. Ben Witherington (Asbury Theological Seminary), Dr. John Barclay (University of Durham), and Dr. Everett Ferguson (Abilene Christian University). If you would like to attend, please follow the link here and plan to join us.
If this link fail, please copy and past the following into your web browser:
Papers and Abstracts
We are inviting papers representing a variety of approaches from scholars and graduate students in this area of study. We are particularly interested in the relationship of early Christian communities within their wider theological and cultural contexts. This includes theological developments related to ecclesiology as well as the social relationships with Second Temple Jewish practices and institutions (e.g., the Synagogue), the relationships within early Christian communities, and the relationship of early Christian communities with the wider Greco-Roman society. Participants will have 25-30 minutes to present papers (inclusive of Q&A). Please submit a 200-300 word abstract to Dr. Ben C. Blackwell at firstname.lastname@example.org by February 15, 2015, with notification of acceptance by March 2. Registration by March 23 is required for those who will present at the conference.
I was invited to give the Hayward Lectures at Acadia Divinity College (Nova Scotia) in October 2014. The series is entitled “Paul’s Kyrios Christology.” They were recorded expertly by Danny Zacharias and are now available on YouTube. My friend, Nijay Gupta, has made them available on his blog.
Click here to view the three lectures. Thanks to both Danny Zacharias and Nijay Gupta for making these available.
According to rumors I heard over a year ago, an early fragment of the Gospel of Mark has been discovered in mummy cartonnage. It is scheduled to be published this year along with a variety of other ancient manuscripts recently discovered. If initial reports are correct, this would be the earliest fragment of any New Testament document to date. Dr. Craig Evans, Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divnity College in Nova Scotia, is one of the scholars on a team committed to bringing these long, lost texts to light. You may be interested in article that describes what mummy cartonnage is and why it could contain important information from long ago:
I remember my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Potts, opening a vein when anyone wrote “Xmas” instead of “Christmas.” She felt there was a war on Christmas and that people who abbreviated the name of the holiday were trying to take Christ out of Christmas. I suppose that is true for some people, but when you look into the real story of “Xmas” you realize that something else is at work.
The story begins with the Ten Commandments. One of those commandments says, “Do not take the name of the LORD in vain.” The name by the way is not “LORD,” that was a respectful translation or substitute for the name. In Hebrew THE NAME is four letters, yodh-he-vav-he. The technical term for the name is the tetragrammaton (literally, “the four letters”). Scholars today think the name may have been pronounced—when it was pronounced—Yahweh or Yahveh. But we aren’t sure. This was the covenant name of God, the name revealed to Moses and Israel at Mt. Sinai.
Under the influence of the commandment about the misuse of God’s name, the faithful spoke it less and less. By the time of Jesus speaking the name was considered blasphemous in almost every circumstance. The rabbis made their mark by building a hedge about the law. If you never spoke God’s name, you could never be guilty of taking the name in vain. It was a way of safeguarding the name. Even when reading Scripture in the synagogue, a substitute word was used. In Aramaic-speaking synagogues the readers said “Adonai.” In Greek-speaking synagogues they said “kyrios.” Both mean something like “Lord” or “Master.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls provide good evidence for how the name of God was written in the centuries and decades leading up to the New Testament era. In many of the biblical scrolls the name of God is written in paleo-Hebrew script. That would be like shifting to a Gothic font when writing the name of God. In other scrolls the name is not written at all; it is represented by four, thick dots written in the center of the line. In yet other scrolls where the name of God should be there is a blank in the line just large enough for the tetragrammaton. Scholars theorize that the blank was left by a junior scribe and would have been filled in later by a senior scribe who had permission to write the name. Where there is a blank in the line, we think the senior scholar never got around to writing the divine name in the blank. These were some of the ways the faithful showed respect for the name of God.
Early Christians developed their own way of signaling respect for the names and titles associated with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Copying the New Testament books in Greek, they abbreviated the names (usually first letter and last letter) and placed a line above those letters. You can see this in the picture. Scholars refer to these as nomina sacra (Latin for “sacred names”). Copyists continued to write sacred names this way for centuries. It remains a common practice still among artists who create the icons used in the eastern churches. Many names and titles were written this way including “God,” “Father,” “Jesus,” “Son of God,” “Son of Man,” “Christ,” “Lord,” “Holy Spirit.” For our purposes note the nomina sacra for “Christ;” it was written XC. Now remember these are letters from the Greek alphabet not our Latinized version. It is not “X” (eks) the 24th letter of our English alphabet but the Greek letter “Chi,” the first letter of the title “Christ.”
Earliest versions of writing Christmas as “Xmas” in English go back to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (about 1100). This predates the rise of secularism by over 600 years. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the use of “X-“ for “Christ” as early as 1485. In one manuscript (1551) Christmas is written as “X’temmas.” English writers from Lord Byron (1811) to Samuel Coleridge (1801) to Lewis Carroll (1864) used the spelling we are familiar with today, “Xmas.”
The origin of “Xmas” does not lie in secularists who are trying to take Christ out of Christmas, but in ancient scribal practices adopted to safeguard the divine name and signal respect for it. The “X” in “Xmas” is not the English letter (eks) as in “X marks the spot,” but it is the initial Greek letter “Chi” (X), the first letter of the title “Christ.” No doubt some people today use the abbreviated form to disregard the Christian focus of the holy-day, but the background tells a different story, a story of faithful men and women showing the deep respect they have for Jesus at this time of year.
Merry Christmas or should I say “Merry Xmas”!
How God Became Jesus
I’m heading to San Diego to attend the Annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting. I’m meeting with former and future publishers, scholars, and a variety of former students. One of my duties while there is to preside over a session of a program unit called The Extent of Theological Diversity in Earliest Christianity. The session will offer a panel review of Bart Ehrman’s new book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. The title and subtitle tells you the essential story; Ehrman suggests that Jesus was understood first as Jewish itinerant teacher from Galilee; only later did his disciples claim he is divine. How much time goes by he does not say, but apparently he thinks in some circles it happened early even though it took centuries for the language to be worked out in church councils. Accordingly, Jesus didn’t regard himself as divine in any sense, nor did his earliest disciples. Jesus was, in fact, an apocalyptic prophet who announced the end of the current evil age. He did believe and describe himself as the coming king of God’s future reign, the Messiah of God. Once the disciples came to believe that Jesus had conquered death and was exalted to God’s right hand, they came to hold to his divinity. It is an important new book, some say his most significant book to date.
The book is published by HarperOne, an imprint of Harper Collins. Interestingly, when Bart’s book was being prepared, someone got the idea to commission a group of other scholars to respond to the book. This happened at Zondervan, which is now part of the Christian Publishing Group of . . . yep, Harper Collins. Nice stroke. Both ways, they win. “Heads, I win. Tails, you lose.” So editors at Zondervan appointed Michael F. Bird of Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia to edit the book, and he assembled an impressive group of internationally recognized scholars to answer various aspects of Bart’s book. Their book is entitled How God Became Jesus The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature. On the cover it also says it is “a response to Bart D. Ehrman.” The scholars Bird assembled include: Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles Hill, Chris Tilling. Each scholar takes on a different challenge. For example, Craig Evans addresses the question of burial practices at the time of Jesus. Ehrman claims Jesus was not buried; instead, in keeping with what happened with other crucified persons, Jesus’ corpse became food for scavengers. If there was no burial, there could be no empty tomb, so those traditions must have been invented by early Christians convinced Jesus somehow conquered death. Professor Evans presents evidence that crucified people were occasionally buried and makes the further claim that Jesus must have been one of them. This is the way it goes. Point. Counterpoint.
Both books make an important contribution to the study of early Christianity, in particular how early Jesus’ followers came to regard him as divine. In the history of the west and of the Christian church this may well be one of its most significant chapters.