Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers

Jesus was notorious for the company he kept. He ate with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. In fact, this is one of the major criticisms Jesus' opponents weighed against him. Just look up "sinners" and "tax collectors" in the Gospels, and you'll be amazed how often this theme appears.

A careful look at the Gospel stories reveals something even more remarkable: in not one story does Jesus criticize these people -- or even call them to repent. Instead, Jesus invited himself to share meals with them. He enjoyed their company, and he brought them blessing with his presence. It's that simple.

This basic insight lies behind a book project I'm taking on for my current sabbatical. It's called Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers. When early Christians remembered Jesus, they repeated the stories that Jesus enjoyed the company of sinners. They told the stories of Levi the tax collector-apostle, the anonymous sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet with her tears, and Zacchaeus the tax collector.

They also recalled the "scandal" -- that's what Paul calls it -- of Jesus' crucifixion. Crucifixion indicated Jesus' condemnation as a criminal by the legitimate authorities of the day. Jesus was crucified because of his own teachings and actions. He stirred up a popular demonstration during the politically tense Passover celebration. During that same celebration he created chaos within the temple complex. He dismissed the authority of the empire to collect taxes and demand obedience. So the authorities arrested him and executed him.

Early Christians also knew they were "sinners" in the eyes of their neighbors. They were accused of a variety of offenses, but the main problem was, their values sometimes clashed with prevailing social and religious values. As a result, they found themselves toeing a very fine line between acting respectable in the public eye and celebrating their distinctive values. As 1 Peter tells it, they lived as "strangers and aliens" who avoided public scorn as much as possible.

As I look back upon the "sinfulness" of Jesus and his earliest followers, I realize that my own heroes of the faith were "sinners" too. As a single parent when that wasn't cool, my Mom made tremendous sacrifices so that I could have opportunities as a young person. Faithful white Christians who followed the African American Civil Rights Movement -- people like Clarence Jordan and Ed King -- were widely reviled as sinners in their own day. I think those models are the real inspiration for this project.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

I must confess that I'm a sinner, I own 2 sets of irons and 5 wedges as well as quite too many drivers and admitting I have a problem is very difficult. What do you suggest i do about this as I feel very much ashamed of myself for neglecting one club or set over the other. Thanks in advance for your understanding and guidance.

Sean du Toit said...

Great second post Greg. I really look forward to your continued posts on Jesus and Sinners, as this is something I'm really interested. Wondering how academic/historical you'll make it? For e.g., will you be interacting with E.P. Sanders and other historical Jesus scholars? Or is it a more popular book?

Welcome to the blogosphere, and long may your existence here be.

sean D.

Greg Carey said...

About the Sinners book, I'm about halfway through an initial draft, and hoping for a fall 2008 publication. With a lot of help from an editor, I'm writing the book as a popularly accessible academic book. The book isn't so much about the historical Jesus as about how early Christians remembered Jesus and constructed their group identity. Thanks for the kind words!

N. Clayton Croy said...

Greg,

Best wishes for your new blog. The first post, "Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers," is suitably provocative. I'm sure your book will get into details and the treatment of specific texts that a 400 word blog is obviously unable to do. Some passages that deserve attention are those in which Jesus' ministry and that of his disciples seem to include a call to repentance (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17; Luke 13:3-5; Luke 5:32; Mark 6:12). Even the story of Zacchaeus includes Zacchaeus's implicit repentance and Jesus' description of his transformation as the salvation of one who was lost (Luke 19:1-10). Also the story of the "woman caught in adultery," while unmistakably a display of Jesus' mercy toward the woman and implicit condemnation of the judgmental crowd, concludes with Jesus' call for her to "sin no more" (John 8:11). It is surely the case that religious folks, i.e., the self-presumed righteous, need to repent too, and they often have a harder time responding to the call to repentance. But isn't it the case that Jesus did ask his "sinner followers" to repent?

N. Clayton Croy

Richard Fellows said...

Greg,

You mentioned some "sinners": "Levi the tax collector-apostle, the anonymous sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet with her tears, and Zacchaeus the tax collector." There is also the Samaritan woman by the well (John 4), the man healed at the pool of Bethzatha (John 5:14), and the woman caught in adultery (John 8).

Now religious converts are often quite open about the sinfulness of their own previous lives. Perhaps the individual 'sinners' listed above were the original sources of the stories that survived about them.

Most of them are anonymous and I wonder if this is because there was a tendency to spare people the shame of being identified as sinners (even former sinners).

It is interesting that Levi seems to have been given the name "Matthew". This alias may have been to allow him to disown his earlier life. Mark and Luke afford him this protection: they state that Matthew was one of the apostles, but they spare him the indignity of explicitly equating him with Levi, the tax collector. Does this indicate that Matthew was still alive when Mark was written? Interestingly, Matthew's gospel has no qualms about calling Matthew a tax collector in this list of the twelve, and he refers to him as "Matthew" instead of "Levi" in the story of his calling. Does this suggest that Matthew had died by the time Matthew's gospel was written, and was therefore no longer in need of protective heteronymity? Or does it suggest that Matthew was the author of Matthew's gospel? It could be argued that it was not proper for anyone except Matthew himself to declare his sinful past. Or perhaps the early church reasoned that the gospel must have been written by Matthew because it would be shameful for anyone else to reveal his sinful past. And what are we to make of the fact that gospel of Matthew differs from Mark by failing to tell us that the house where Jesus ate with sinners was Levi/Matthew's house? Perhaps the author of this gospel, having revealed that Matthew was the tax collector, decided to afford him a degree of protection by at least hiding the fact that he invited sinners into his home.

The only other named sinner that comes to mind is Zacchaeus, and he is never mentioned again (at least not under that name).

Building on Theissen and Bauckham, I believe there are many cases of protective anonymity and protective heteronymity in the NT.

I look forward to your continuing blogs.

Richard.

Greg Carey said...

Thanks, all, for these substantive comments.

If we assume that Jesus was out to convert people, that's the kind of Jesus we're likely to find. I no longer share that assumption. I believe Jesus was out to bless people and announce good news. I don't find any examples in the Gospels of Jesus taking individual sinners (including Levi and Zacchaeus) and telling them to change.

Did they change? Maybe, perhaps probably. Did Jesus tell them to? Can't think of an example.

Now, mean people? Hypocrites? Jesus told them to change. But ordinary sinners. He just shared meals with them. I like to imagine he enjoyed their company.

(We all know the story of the adulterous woman is a later addition to John's Gospel.)

Steven Carr said...

Didn't Jesus also eat with Pharisees?

Steven Carr said...

Zacchaeus boasts of how much he will give back to people he has defrauded - 4 times as much, and he will give half his possessions to the poor. (Jesus told another rich person to give all he had to the poor, not just half).

Is such boasting really repentance?

Greg Carey said...

I think Zacchaeus' speech is fascinating. You could read it as a defense of his present conduct. I don't, but some do.

N. Clayton Croy said...

As for Zacchaeus's comments in Luke 19:8, they are not likely to be a defense of his present conduct (a view Greg mentions but does NOT espouse). The cultural image of a taxcollector (let alone a CHIEF taxcollector) is not one of generosity toward the poor and reparations for injustice. Zacchaeus has had a religious transformation. His remarks speak of a NEW pattern of behavior. Moreover, Jesus commends Zacchaeus in vs. 9. He would hardly do this if Zacchaeus were justifying himself.

Richard Fellows said...

Greg,

sorry about the delay. I had some technical problems.

I see what you mean about Jesus not criticising "ordinary sinners", but focussing his criticism on hypocricy and greed. However, we need to be careful to define our terms here, since hypocricy and greed are very ordinary sins,are they not? Incidentally, there is no need to believe that the rich young man was particularly mean.

Your reflections remind my of those of Kahlil Gibran, the poet. Take a look at his "Jesus the son of Man" p 38-39.

I am interested in whether the members of the Jesus movement would have helped (former?) sinners to hide their identities by giving them aliases or by affording them anonymity in written texts. Is this question outside the scope of your study?

Richard.

dougjantz said...

I heard of this book from a friend and appreciate your synopsis of it. The only thing I take issue with is Jesus not calling any of them to repent. The woman caught in adultery was told by him to go and sin no more. I believe that would be repenting. :)

dougjantz said...

And yes, I do know of certain mss not including the text. :)

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