A Word in Edgewise

A Doubter’s Guide to Jesus

On March 19, 2018 John Dickson gave the Ellis lecture at Wheaton College.  Ellis was my Doctor Father so it was my privilege to help introduce the lecture.  The topic was one, I think, Ellis would have appreciated, “A Doubter’s Guide to Jesus.”

Here is a link to that lecture.  I hope you enjoy it.

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Who does Mark say that I AM?

One of my favorite features of our book, Rediscovering Jesus (InterVarsity, 2015), comes in the Gospels themselves.  In each chapter we ask the question: Who does Mark/Matthew/Luke/John say that I am?  In effect, we take a look at how each evangelist tells the story of Jesus.  Here is an excerpt from the chapter on the Markan Jesus.

WHO DOES MARK SAY THAT I AM?

And who is this Jesus? He is the Messiah (Christ) and Son of God—that is, God’s end-timeRediscovering Jesus agent whose task is to liberate the world from evil, oppression, sin, sickness, and death. The world that Jesus enters is hostile and contrary to the human race. The Messiah appears in order to claim all that God has made on behalf of heaven. In Mark’s account Jesus moves quickly along “the way” challenging and disrupting demonic powers, disease, religious authorities, storms and, ultimately, the power of Rome itself.

But Jesus does not appear from nowhere; prophets such as Malachi and Isaiah have written of him long ago. They foresaw his coming, and John the Baptizer arrived right on schedule to prepare his way. If John is God’s messenger (Mal 3:1) and the voice crying out in the wilderness (Is 40:3), then surely Jesus is the “Lord” whose paths must be made straight (Mk 1:2-3). But the word “Lord” here is no polite address to an English country gentleman or a simple affirmation of a person in authority; it is the way Greek-speaking Jews uttered the unspeakable name of the one, true God of Israel. Jesus the Christ is no ordinary man, for the very name of God—a name protected by the Ten Commandments—belongs rightly to him. As Mark’s story unfolds, it is apparent why this is so.

When Jesus heard that a prophet had again appeared in Israel, he left Nazareth to see for himself. As he entered the Jordan River to be baptized, onlookers would have thought that Jesus was becoming a disciple of John. But it was what Jesus heard and saw next that dramatically changed his life. He saw a vision: the heavens were ripped open, and the Spirit descended on him like a dove. Then he heard a voice from heaven: “You are my Son” (Ps 2:7) and “with you I am well pleased” (Is 42:1). Whether or not anyone else saw or heard what was going on in the heavens that day is unclear. Mark tells us only that Jesus saw and heard; perhaps Jesus’ special sonship was a secret that needed protecting for a while. But it was enough for Jesus to see and hear it, because it was about him and him alone. He knew what he must do next. He must leave behind Nazareth and the anonymity of the workshop for a public life in Galilee and beyond. He must trade a builder’s tools for the skills of a traveling rabbi.

 

To read more, check out our book here.

Why is Jesus’s Genealogy Different in Matthew and Luke?

I had the privilege in 2014 of giving the Hayward Lectures at Acadia Divinity School in Nova Scotia.  While there I met a young scholar who is working on various topics in the Gospels.  His name is Danny Zacharias.  He had recently finished a project on the question of why Matthew (ch. 1) and Luke (ch 3) have different names in their genealogies of Jesus. Some point to this as a contradiction  which cannot be solved, thus undermining the reliability of the Gospel accounts.  Others see the differences as a matter of purpose and focus. Matthew starts with Abraham and moves forward to Jesus to show that Jesus is the true son of Abraham, the embodiment of Israel.  Luke starts with Jesus and moves back through Abraham to Adam, demonstrating that Jesus is the Savior of all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.   One traditional “answer” has been that Matthew has Joseph’s genealogy while Luke records Mary’s. Not all, of course, think this is the case.

Dr. Zacharias offers an intriguing approach to the question.  Here is a link to a brief video he did a few years back:

http://www.dannyzacharias.net/blog/2014/10/1/why-is-jesus-genealogy-different-in-matthew-and-luke 

I think you may find it helpful.  If so, please let him know.

 

 

 

The Library of Early Christology

Carey Newman, director of Baylor University Press, recently announced the (re)publication of a number of books under the series title “The Library of Early Christology.”  NewBaylor Press.man, a NT scholar in his own right, has looked over the past forty years at some of the most interesting and influential books published on the earliest Christian assessments of Jesus’ significance.  In part these books have contributed to the emerging consensus that an early high Christology originated in the first years or decades of the Jesus movement, most likely in a Jewish context.  Carey Newman has taken Baylor University Press from obscurity to become one of the most important university presses in North America.

Newman had already published one of the late Alan Segal’s signature books, Two Powers in Heaven (see Hurtado’s article here).  The publisher’s page is found here. Wilhelm Bousset’s classic work, Kyrios Christos, has also been republished by Baylor (check it out here) .  These are two of the most influential books published on the topic in the past 100 years.

There are other books in the series (I’m grateful to Larry Hurtado, who on his blog, pulled together the list and the links).   Here are the first books published in the series:

  • Charles A. Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology:  Antecedents and Early Evidence (originally Leiden:  Brill, 1998; reprint edition information here).
  • Loren T. Stuckenbruck, Angel Veneration and Christology, (originally, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995; reprint edition information here).
  • David B. Capes, Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul’s Christology (originally Tuebingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 1992; Baylor information here)
  • April D. DeConick, Seek to See Him: Ascent and Vision Mysticism in the Gospel of Thomas (Leiden:  Brill, 1996; Baylor reprint information here)
  • Carey C. Newman, Paul’s Glory Christology:  Tradition and Rhetoric (Leiden:  Brill, 1992; Baylor reprint information here)
  • Jarl E. Fossum, The Name of God and the Angel of the Lord:  Samaritan and Jewish Concepts of Intermediation and the Origin of Gnosticism (Tuebingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 1985; Baylor reprint information here)
  • Donald H. Juel, Messianic Exegesis:  Christological Interpretation of the Old Testament in Early Christianity (Fortress Press, 1988; Baylor reprint information here)
  • The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism:  Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus, eds. Carey C. Newman, et al. (Leiden:  Brill, 1999; Baylor reprint information here)

In addition to this list I must include Larry W. Hurtado’s contribution in this series:  Ancient Jewish Monotheism and Early Christian Jesus-Devotion (publisher’s information here).  This volume of essays contains some of the “best of” Hurtado over the last 30 years).

 

The 2018 Wheaton College Theology Conference, April 4-5

Wheaton College has a history of hosting first rate theology conferences.  2018 is no exception when Marilynne Robinson and Rowan Williams address the campus.  The theme of the conference is “Balm in Gilead.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson is one of the most eminent public intellectuals in America today. In 2016, Time magazine even identified her as one of “The 100 Most Influential People” in the entire world.Marilynn Robinson 2

She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and, until her recent retirement, was a Professor of English and Creative Writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the University of Iowa, Iowa City. Elegant and probing meditations upon the Christian faith often grace her work. Her trilogy of novels, Gilead, Home, and Lila,evocatively and sympathetically present the lives, families, and spiritual convictions of two Protestant ministers in mid-twentieth-century Iowa. Her essays – gathered in collections such as The Death of Adam, When I Was a Child I Read Books, and The Givenness of Things – also recurringly contemplate theological themes.

Many of these reflections are grounded in her defiant judgment that the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer John Calvin still deserves a hearing in the twenty-first century. This conference will offer a memorable opportunity for leading theologians, historians, literary scholars, and church leaders to engage in a thoughtful theological dialogue with both her published work and with Marilynne Robinson herself as she participates fully in this event. There were also be an emphasis on how Robinson’s work can illuminate Christian preaching and ministry, and pastors are warmly invited to attend. The keynote addresses will be given by Marilynne Robinson and Rowan Williams.Rowan Williams

Registration is required and there is a cost for anyone who is not a Wheaton College student, staff member, or faculty member. We expect this conference to sell out, so we recommend booking as soon as possible. For more information, please email theology.conference@wheaton.edu

Do We Need a New Lord’s Prayer?

Pope Francis is no stranger to controversy.  This week he suggested that Catholics need to re-translate part of the text of the Lord’s Prayer.  Now, before you say, so what?, consider that Christians the world over pray the Lord’s prayer weekly in worship and some daily in their personal devotions. It is part of the spiritual heritage of the ages.

Now, I realize, I’m limited in this post to the English language and more Catholics around the world don’t speak English than do.  But still, it seems, from my limited knowledge of languages, that the idea the Pope is concerned about is reproduced in other western language versions of the Lord’s Prayer. Pope Francis

In particular, the line in question is the one which says “lead us not into temptation” (Matt 6:13; Luke 11:6).  The phrase makes it seem, he says, as if God actively leads his people to be tempted to sin.  Instead, he says, we should translate the line “do not let us fall into sin.”

Now let’s see how three major English translations render that line.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil . . .  (King James Version)

And do not bring us to the time of trial
but rescue us from the evil one.  (New Revised Standard Version)

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one. (New International Version)

Four observations.  First, most western Christians have memorized the King James Version (KJV).  Second, the power of the KJV to shape modern translations should not be underestimated.  Even translations like THE VOICE use the same language.  Third, the NRSV comes closest to the Pope’s suggestion. Four, modern translations view the prayer as poetic and so render it in poetic verse.

The challenge of translation from one language to the next is a significant one.  I’ve written about this problem on this site. But with the NT it is even more challenging because we are even further removed from the original source than we might imagine.  Jesus spoke Aramaic.  The Gospels are written in Greek.  And most of us rely heavily on English translations.

Now, I think the Pope is onto something to which Christians—Protestant, Catholics and Orthodox—need to pay attention.  God does not tempt people to sin. They are tempted by their own desires, or so says James (1:13-15).

The crux of the matter is the meaning of the word peirasmos. It is a word that does not occur outside the New Testament, so we can’t appeal to other Greek texts from the period—what scholars call comparative philology.  Based on the NT itself, it seems the semantic field or range of meanings of this Greek word includes temptation (to sin) and trial or testing (of faith).  If we take the rest of the NT seriously, as it seems the translators of the NRSV, it is best to take this as something like “(to God) do not bring us to a time of testing.”  The opposite is this: “(God) rescue us from the evil one.”

It seems to me that the prayer of Jesus is similar to Jewish prayers from the same period.  They ask roughly the same thing.  “God, do not hand your people over to trials and tests, instead rescue them from evil.”  In the arc of the Scriptural story think of someone like Job, Abraham (and his near sacrifice of Isaac), and the people of Israel in exile.

Whether Pope Francis’ teaching on this makes it down to your average congregation, we will see. If I were a “bettin’ man,” I’d say it will.  In the end, no we don’t need a new Lord’s prayer, what we do need is good translations of the one we have.

 

Xmas: Is It Taking Christ out of Christmas?

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. nomina_sacra

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 nomen sacrum 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”!