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Monthly Archives: February 2014

Larry Hurtado: Were the Gnostics the Elite Intellects They Have Been Portrayed to Be?

One of the blogs I like to follow is Larry Hurtado’s.  He is retired professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Univ of Edinburgh.  Twice weekly he writes a stimulating blog on all things pertaining to early Christianity.  A recent  post by him questioned whether the Gnostics were the elite intellectuals they have often been portrayed to be.  I include a link here for those who may be interested.


How Did Jesus Become God?

I am fortunate to be chair of an SBL Program Unit called: “The Extent of Theological Diversity in Earliest Christianity.”

Here is our description as listed on the SBL site:

Description: Focusing on the evidence for Jesus’ death and resurrection as a narrative used to shape the identity of emergent communities, and on the alternatives to this narrative preserved in early Christian sources, this Consultation explores the origin, nature and extent of theological diversity in earliest Christianity from the beginnings until approximately 180 CE. By fostering a conversation involving the testing of various reconstructions of early Christian history against the range of relevant evidence, the unit seeks to bring greater precision to the study of “orthodoxy and heresy in early Christianity.”

This fall one of the two sessions we will sponsor seeks to address the question: “How Did Jesus Become God?”  Bart Ehrman has written a book on the topic and it will be published in March 2014 by HarperCollins.  Here is the full title: How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.  Ehrman has agreed to let us offer a session in review of his book.  We are in the process of putting together the panelists for the review session.  Ehrman will give a response to his reviewers.  I haven’t seen the book yet.  I am still waiting for my advance copy.How Jesus Became God

Ironically, a daughter company of HarperCollins, Zondervan, commissioned a book in response which is scheduled to be published this spring as well.  Michael Bird pulled together a group of contributors to “answer” Ehrman’s historical reconstruction.  Other than himself these include Simon Gathercole, Chris Tilling, Craig Evans, and Charles Hill. Zondervan will release the book this March as well under the title: How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart Ehrman.   Apparently HarperCollins shared the electronic manuscript of Ehrman’s book with Zondervan in order to provide—what can only be described as—a timely response.  I’d be interested in how all of this happened.  If you compare the front covers of each book, you can see how similar they are. How God Become Jesus

Needless to say this promises to be a great conversation over an important and controversial topic.

Here are some of the people we are talking with about being on the panel.  I’ll announce the final panel in about a month:

Bart Ehrman, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Larry Hurtado, University of Edinburgh

Dale Martin, Yale University

Michael Bird, Ridley Melbourne College

James McGrath, Butler University

Craig Evans, Acadia Divinity College

If you are planning on being at SBL in San Diego in November 2014, be sure to look up our group and join us for the dialogue.

Did Jesus Offer Sacrifices at the Temple?

Recently someone asked me this question: Did Jesus offer sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple?   I thought it was a great question so I thought I’d attempt to address it.  Now to answer it properly would take more time and space than I have, but let me at least point toward an answer.  The question is a historical question not one based on any particular theological agenda.  How likely is it that Jesus of Nazareth would have made pilgrimage to the temple and offered a sacrifice or sacrifices there? Jerusalem temple

Now the Gospels make it clear that Jesus did go the temple on occasion as a child and as an adult, but there is no account of Jesus himself actually offering a sacrifice at the temple.  That may not mean that Jesus did not offer a sacrifice while there.

Now the main activity of the temple was sacrifice.  That is why there were 24 courses of priests. Technically, only priests offered sacrifices but the sacrifices were provided by worshipers, usually male head of households. The worshipers brought the sacrifices (animals, wine, grain, etc) to the prescribed place and handed them over to the priests.

The temple was a busy place.  According to the law, the sacrificial system had been established by God; it was therefore good (Psalm 119). Even if some of the prophets had railed against empty ritual and ethical lapses, they did not condemn the temple itself and sacrifices wholesale (e.g., Amos 5:21-27).  Almost universally, it was the temple leadership who got an earful from the Jerusalem prophets. But we must remember that not all sacrifices were “sin” or “guilt” offerings.  Many sacrifices were for peace offerings, fellowship offerings, votive offerings, offerings of consecration.

Let’s consider a few episodes from the New Testament and see if they shed any light on our question.

After Jesus is born and the time of Mary’s menstrual impurity had run its course, Luke reports that Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord at the temple.  This was in keeping with Mosaic law (Leviticus 12.6-8).  We’re told they offered a sacrifice in accordance with the law, a pair of two young pigeons (Lev 5.11).

When Jesus healed the leper (Mark 1:40-45), he instructed him to go to the priest and offer for his cleansing what Moses commanded (Leviticus 14:1-32).  The declaration that a leper was cleansed involved sacrifices in the temple.  Would Jesus have directed the man to go to the temple and sacrifice if he was teaching his disciples to neglect the temple worship completely?

And there is the matter of the temple tax  (Matthew 17:24-27).  The tax collectors seek out Jesus and his disciples in Capernaum.  They appear to frame the question as if they expected Jesus to somehow object.  Perhaps Jesus’ teachings and actions had aroused their suspicions. But Peter lets them know in no uncertain terms that did pay the temple tax.  The tax is described in Exodus 30:11-16 as a half a shekel “a contribution to the LORD.”  When Peter approached Jesus at home, Jesus appears to claim exemption; but in order not to make waves Jesus instructs Peter to go fishing. And when he does he catches a  fish that had swallowed a coin worth enough to pay the annual temple tax for both of them.  The temple tax was used for the upkeep of the temple which included the sacrifices. tyrian shekel

Then, there is the Last Supper which many consider a Passover meal (though there are debates about it).  John, for example, has Jesus crucified on the day of preparation for the Passover (19:31).  But there may have been calendrical debates going on at the time because Mark (14:12-25) and the Synoptics present it as a Passover meal.  Jesus sends two of his disciples into the city to make preparations which likely included securing a place for the meal and securing the food itself which would have included the lamb from the temple.  Even if Jesus himself did not sacrifice in the temple, he had others do it for him.  This suggests he had no argument in principle with the sacrifices.

But what about the temple incident (Mark 11:15-19 and par.)?  I’ve written about that elsewhere. As a prophet, Jesus is enacting (God’s) judgment upon the temple and predicting its destruction. An event which happens in AD 70.  Essentially, the operation of the temple had become robbery under the temple authorities, and the place where the Gentiles were allowed to gather and worship was overrun by animals and merchants.  The sanctity of the temple and its purpose had been lost.  The problem was not the sacrifices themselves—they had been set up and ordained by God—the problem was with those who superintended the temple.

So what are we to make of this?  In the end I see no reason to deny that Jesus like any good Jew of his day would have made pilgrimages to the temple and offered sacrifices there.  Based on Hebrews some may wish to conclude that Jesus did not offered sin sacrifices, but there were other ranks of offerings and sacrifices which the righteous Jew could and should make at the temple.

Finally, when opponents accused Jesus of trying to abolish the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17), he claims boldly he comes to fulfill them not to neglect or abolish them. Nothing could be more central to the law than the sacrifices.




Putting off . . . putting on

A new friend of mine—let’s call him HB—is an accomplished legal mind and great Bible teacher.  Recently, he started using The Voice in some of his teaching.  He posed a question to another friend—let’s call him ML (another accomplished legal mind and amazing Bible teacher)—about how to read Ephesians 4:22-24.  Paul uses two aorist infinitives for “putting off” the old self and “putting on” the new self.  Most Bible commentaries describe the aorist as a one time act.  It is often called punctilliar aspect.  That’s probably telling you a lot more than you want to know.  But the idea would be that we decide once and for all to put off the old self and put on the new.  In other words it refers to a person’s salvation.  But Klyne Snodgrass, a distinguished professor at North Park Theological Seminary, has this to say: “The aorist tense is used for undefined action. Not necessarily ‘point action,’ as has been the traditional way of looking at the aorist tense!”

Now here is how we translated the passage in The Voice.

 baptismal font

22 then you know to take off your former way of life, your crumpled old self—that dark blot of a soul corrupted by deceitful desire and lust— 23 to take a fresh breath and to let God renew your attitude and spirit. 24 Then you are ready to put on your new self, modeled after the very likeness of God: truthful, righteous, and holy.

You may notice words in both regular font and italic font.  The regular font is more of a straight line translation from the original Greek.  The italic is “explanatory paraphrase;” this expresses the idea of the Greek because often it takes more than one word in English to express the nuance and artistry of the original language.

Eventually HB and ML kicked the question to me and here is what I said to them late Saturday night.

You are correct that Paul uses aorist infinitives for “putting off” (the old) and” putting on” (the new).  In between however, he employs a present infinitive to describe ongoing renewal by the Spirit which is to typify the Christian life.

There are times when the aorist points to a one-time event (punctilliar) and times when it is undefined.  After all Greek only has a few tenses to draw from. and it is probably unwise to pound the pulpit every time you see an aorist.  On this occasion, however, I think the punctilliar is warranted because most scholars are convinced that Paul is making use of baptismal language when he talks about putting off and putting on.  Since baptism was supposed to be a one-time act, these aorist forms are appropriate.  Christian baptism–widely understood as initiation into the Christian life–was seen as the decisive turning point when a person denied the old nature once and for all and took on (intentionally) the new nature.  This language about Christian baptism was taken so literally in the first part of the second century AD that the baptismal candidates took off their old clothes, went down into the water naked, and came up from the water to put on a new set of clothes.  That was one reason why the church needed women deacons, to superintend the baptism of women candidates.

That said, however, I think Paul would also agree that we are to always be working out our baptismal vows.  That means we are continually in the process of renewal, which means setting aside/repenting of the old and appropriating the newness of the Spirit. This is why we translated the passage in The Voice the way we did.

Perhaps you’ve gone to a church and noticed a water font at the entrance to the sanctuary.  They are usually small and off to one side.  The purpose of the font is to remind you of your baptism.  You may see people dip their finger in the water and make the sign of the cross.

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