Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Gospels: For All Christians?

Were the Gospels written for specific early Christian audiences, perhaps even particular congregations, or did their authors intend a wide dispersion for a general audience?

And why would it matter? Two reasons come to mind. First, if the Gospels aimed at particular audiences, identifying those audiences could greatly enhance our understanding. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a literary classic that transcends its particular time and place, but knowing the circumstances in which King wrote and the behavior of white moderate clergy in Birmingham sure sharpens our appreciation of the letter. Second, it might help us to know whether to read the Gospels as evangelistic (for a wide general audience) or pastoral (for a specific believing audience) literature.

In this decade Richard Bauckham has gained both notoriety and influence for positing that the Gospels targeted a wide general audience, much like the popular novels of the ancient world. His edited volume, The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences, argues that he believes the Gospels were designed to serve believers wherever they might reside. Thus, Bauckham suggests neither a specifically evangelistic aim (since the Gospels were for Christians) nor a narrow pastoral aim (one specific audience). Rather, “an evangelist writing a Gospel expected his work to circulate widely among the churches, had no particular Christian audience in view, but envisaged as his audience any church (or any church in which Greek was understood) to which his work might find its way” (11).

Bauckham stands among the scholars I admire most. He’s a genuine polymath whose erudition is simply humbling to the rest of us. As it happens, I think he’s both wrong and importantly right at the same time.

I do believe the Gospels envisioned specific early Christian audiences. How else would one explain the profoundly touching reference to Alexander and Rufus in Mark 15:21? Surely this passage points to a group familiar with Simon’s two sons. What about Luke’s obscure and controversial reference to Theophilus? Even if Theophilus is just a generic term for Luke’s audience (the name means, “Lover of God”), would a general audience have appreciated Luke 17:7 (“Which of you, who owns a slave…?”)? Most ancient people were poor, hardly likely to identify with slaveowners. The Gospel of John says its aim is to help people believe (as if it were an evangelistic tract), yet it clearly relies on the testimony of a authoritative disciple with whom the audience would be familiar (21:24). If Matthew intends a general audience, everyone agrees it speaks to people who follow Israel’s law – not quite a universal audience. (Bauckham addresses some of these objections on p. 24, but I’m not persuaded.)

Thus it seems to me – and to most reviewers – that Bauckham is wrong. At least in a narrow sense. But I think his basic emphasis is entirely correct. Perhaps the Gospel authors intended specific audiences, but remarkably and rapidly early Christian communities decided to do something else with the Gospels. (The same thing happened with Paul’s letters.) They made copies and shared them. By the middle of the second century, it seems that just about any church around in the Mediterranean had copies of four Gospels and ten letters of Paul, among other literature. Whatever the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John intended, their earliest readers sensed something more profound: the Gospels were for all Christians after all.

Bauckham and his colleagues are fully aware of how rapidly early Christian literature spread among the churches. In that same volume appears a terrific essay by Michael B. Thompson, “The Holy Internet: Communication Between Churches in the First Christian Generation.” Bauckham himself spells out the implications: earliest Christianity perceived itself as a global movement nearly from the beginning, maintaining active networks of communication all over the Mediterranean world. (The evidence for this network extends well beyond New Testament literature.)

When I pause to contemplate the energy and investment early Jesus people devoted to keeping in touch with one another, it inspires a sense of wonder. Most of us are old enough to remember copying documents by hand; imagine doing so with long documents, on animal skins or natural fibers, using basically pointy sticks and ink wells, with no punctuation and no spaces between words to guide your work. Yet that’s what these people did, time and again, so that they could have copies of these works – and in the long run, so that we could as well.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sinners briefly #1

It only lasted a little while. Already at #2.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ann Jervis on the Meaning of Suffering in Paul

Ann Jervis recently published At the Heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message. Thanks to Michael Gorman for pointing out that you can hear her interview on Australian public radio (or view a transcript) here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How'd the Movement Even Get Started?

With Sinners about to show up in my mailbox any day now, I'll return to a question I ponder there. Given the stigma attached to their gospel -- that is, how on earth could Israel's messiah get himself crucified? -- how did this movement get off the ground? Paul calls this stigma the "scandal of the cross" (1 Cor 1:23; Gal 5:11), and it must have posed a major obstacle for the proclamation by all of the early missionaries.

James D. G. Dunn's massive new entry, Beginning from Jerusalem (Eerdmans, 2009), grapples with Christian origins between Jesus' death and 70. But so far as I can tell, Dunn never engages this fundamental problem: how did such a counter-intuitive message find adherents?

For now I have to leave this as a question, though I can see two possible hints toward an answer.

First, I wonder about the power of early Christian religious experience. Paul reminds the Thessalonians how God's "power" was manifest with the presence of the Holy Spirit upon his first visit there (1 Thess 1:4). What does that mean?

Second, I wonder about the relationships early Jesus people fostered with one another. Rodney Stark's classic The Rise of Christianity (HarperCollins, 1997) points out that new religious groups grow through previously established family and friendship networks.

I wonder about both those possibilities. But I really, really wonder what it would have been like for an early Jesus person to tell their neighbor that they followed a crucified messiah.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Two very different books: hopeful blog preview

I just received my copy of Dale C. Allison, Jr.'s The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Eerdmans, 2009). Dale's book provides an honest, heartfelt assessment of how historical critical New Testament scholarship can or should relate to theology and the life of faith. I'm only halfway through this little book (126 pp.), but I've found it personally moving.

Dale's book led me to request a review copy of Bart D. Ehrman's new Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know about Them) (HarperOne, 2009). As I understand it, Bart's book reviews the results of historical critical research to suggest that it blows away what most church people know or believe about the Bible. That is, most people in churches ask, "Why have I never heard this before?" The book is for "people in the church and people on the street." In Bart's personal case, this sort of study led to abandoning Christian faith.

I don't know whether Harper will send the copy, but I'm eager to bring these very different books into conversation.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Shack: A New Apocalypse

It seemed everyone around me was talking about this novel, The Shack. Not only had I not read it, I'd never heard of it. Because I teach in a theological seminary and do a lot of local speaking appearances, it seemed obvious I needed to read this book. So when I walked into Barnes & Noble, only to find a whole stack of shelves devoted to it, I learned what many people have been trying to tell me: I was way behind the curve.

I don't want to write a full review of this book. Nor will I assess its theology (some of which appeals and some of which doesn't). Nor will I spoil its plot line for anyone. All I want to say is one thing. The Shack demonstrates that the apocalyptic genre is alive and well, even in 2009.

Someone will object: Wait a minute. This book only hints about last things. There's no meteor creating a new Ice Age, no imperial power play that leads to Armageddon, no Antichrist taking over the subprime market. This isn't an apocalypse at all.

That person would be correct, sort of. The Shack is an apocalypse because it meets all the criteria of a literary apocalypse and because it performs the functions one would expect from an apocalypse.

First, let's consider what makes an apocalypse. Thirty years ago a Society of Biblical Literature team led by John J. Collins developed this definition.
"'Apocalypse' is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world." (Semeia 14 [1979]: 9)
Let's look at The Shack. It describes a revelatory experience in which Mack, the protagonist, travels into an alternative reality. It certainly has a narrative framework, in which Mack encounters a variety of otherworldly beings who guide him (or mediate) to understand the experience. While The Shack does engage the ultimate future (temporal) of humanity and creation, its interest lies more heavily in interpreting reality from a heavenly (spatial) perspective. Indeed, many ancient apocalypses feature visions of the heavenly throne; The Shack presents its own take on that scene. The Shack does not tell us whether or not Mack's experience is a dream, but the story suggests more of a mystical revelatory experience.

So The Shack is an apocalypse. So what? Stephen D. O'Leary has suggested that apocalyptic rhetoric revolves around three questions: time, evil, and authority. (See his Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric [Oxford UP, 1994], 20 et passim.) The Shack does engage time. And because Mack's vision is mediated by heavenly beings, it certainly comes with authority. But the real center of The Shack revolves around moral evil. How can one justify a God who allows innocent suffering? Reading from the back cover of the paperback edition,
Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain? The answers Mack gets will astound you and perhaps transform you as much as it did him.
In this light, The Shack very much reminds me of 4 Ezra, an ancient Jewish apocalypse. Grieving Jerusalem's destruction by a pagan empire, Ezra presses his questions against God. Ezra complains, "It would have been better for us not to be here than to come here and live in ungodliness, and to suffer and not understand why" (4:12, NRSV). While Ezra receives several theological responses to this challenge, none of them convince him. He is moved only through an experiential revelation of the glorious future God has to offer. Something like that is going on in The Shack. Theo-logic doesn't "transform" Mack; what changes him is the revelation of God's goodness.

Finally, I would add some of my own categories. In Ultimate Things: An Introduction to Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic Literature (Chalice, 2005), I suggest three categories for interpreting apocalyptic discourse.
  • The first is poetry. That is, apocalyptic language employs stories, symbols, and other poetic devices to make this transcendent reality "more real" than our mundane existence. Those stories and symbols are not "literally" true -- that is, who wants to walk golden streets and enter pearly gates? -- but they invite us to imagine the world differently.
  • The second is rhetoric. Apocalyptic language calls us to change our behaviors and our beliefs. Anyone who reads The Shack faces a call to trust in the goodness of God while abandoning attempts to control our environment and the people around us.
  • Finally, constructive theology. Just as apocalypses apply story and symbol to challenging theological questions, so does The Shack. Indeed, many have observed that this novel strongly echoes the theology of Karl Barth. No Barthian I, I do recognize Barth's famous distinction between trust and religion and his view of the Trinity as relational. The Shack uses story and symbol to convey its particular theological and spiritual point of view -- and to respnond to the problem of radical moral evil.
At the end of the day, an apocalypse presents a vision of a transcendent realm. It judges our current social order in the light of that more compelling vision, and it presents an alternative way of living as a result. The Shack reveals the ongoing potential of this literary form.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mark's First Evangelist?

I just can't get past that intrepid leper in Mark 1:40-45. The guy approaches Jesus, kneels in his path (depending on your assessment on a significant text problem), and challenges him: "If you choose, you can cleanse me."

I've written before about the ways in which this guy's behavior provokes Jesus. Begging and kneeling are aggressive acts, and his speech -- If you choose -- places quite the claim on Jesus' attention. One might add that the description of Jesus reflects the tension in the scene. Jesus is angered by the leper (another text problem, but I'm highly confident this is the best reading); the "touch" Jesus extends is hardly a gentle word (haptō); Jesus' command that the man not relate what happened to him carries the force of a scolding; and Jesus "casts away" the poor guy (ekballō).

Nevertheless, the leper goes out and preaches (kēryssein) the word about Jesus. This contributes to the growing role of crowds in Mark's narrative. Crowds eventually determine the shape of Jesus' ministry in many of Mark's stories.

But there's one thing about the leper's behavior that has my attention for now. Jesus warns him to "say nothing to nobody" (mēdeni mēden eipēs), an emphatic double negative. Both forms, mēdeni and mēden, occur elsewhere in Mark, but never together as a double negative. Yet we encounter one other double negative at the very end of the story. Having seen the empty tomb and received the commission to tell the disciples about the resurrection, the women "say nothing to nobody" (oudeni ouden eipan), another emphatic double negative connected with the same verb (16:8). Again, both oudeni and ouden occur elsewhere in Mark, but never together as a double negative.

Let's compare. The leper is commanded to say nothing to nobody, but he tells everybody. The women are commanded to tell the disciples, but they say nothing to nobody. One story occurs almost at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, immediately before it becomes controversial; the other at the very end.

Could it be that Mark is contrasting the leper as first evangelist with the women, whose witness occurs despite their fear? (Otherwise, how would the story have been told?)

One more thought. Mark is entirely capable of constructing such extended echoes of its own story. Consider the tearing (schizomenous) of the heavens at Jesus' baptism ("You are my beloved Son"; 1:10-11) with the tearing (eschisthē; same verb) of the temple veil at the moment of his death ("Truly this one was the Son of God"; 15:38-39). These are the only two occurrences of schizō in Mark.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

I wonder about Zacchaeus (Luke 19:8)

It's been awhile. Maybe I haven't had anything smart to say.

The story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) has long been taken as a model story of repentance. According to this reading, this rich -- and corrupt -- tax collector encounters Jesus. Jesus, who has come to call "sinners to repentance" (5:32), so impresses Zacchaeus that he determines to give half his possessions to the poor and to repay those he has defrauded four times what he has taken.

In Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers, I basically agree with this assessment. There, I simply note that Jesus never criticizes Zacchaeus or calls him to repent. The larger point is that in Luke (and in all the Gospels) Jesus never condemns ordinary sinners; instead, he simply joins their company as he does with Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus responds to Jesus not because Jesus condemns his behavior but as a response to Jesus' self-invitation: "Zacchaeus, hurry down, for I must stay at your house today." Since it happens before a crowd, I understand Jesus' call as a public affirmation of Zacchaeus, regardless of his business affairs.

But one thing gives me pause, Zacchaeus' speech in 19:8. Perhaps Zacchaeus accepts his identity as a sinful tax collector, yet he has already struggled to live righteously. Here's the speech in my own literal translation.
  • But standing, Zacchaeus said to the Lord, "Behold, half my possessions, Lord, I am giving to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I repay [it] fourfold."
Let's look at each piece slowly, looking toward the possibility that Luke portrays Zacchaeus as a righteous sinner.
  • But standing, Zacchaeus said to the Lord.... The crowd is complaining that Jesus has chosen to keep company with a sinner. What if (a) in response to their complaint, (b) Zacchaeus stands up for himself and (c) addresses Jesus directly in the presence of the crowd?
  • "Behold, half my possessions, Lord, I am giving to the poor...." Note that Zacchaeus speaks in the present, not the future, tense. Perhaps Zacchaeus is defending himself: what if he already gives half his possessions to the poor?
  • "and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I repay [it] fourfold." We normally translate this clause in the future tense but the verb is present tense here as well. What if Zacchaeus (occasionally?) does defraud people as an inevitable part of being a tax collector, then tries to correct the fault?
According to this reading, Zacchaeus is indeed a sinner, but he's a sinner who tries to live righteously. His encounter with Jesus indeed leads to salvation -- not because he repents but because Jesus blesses him. As I've indicated, this is not how I actually interpret the story. But some smart people do interpret it so, and the idea is intriguing.

After all, are there not righteous sinners all around us? That is, are there not people whom we stigmatize on account of their lifestyle or profession, who nevertheless demonstrate impressive acts of compassion and righteousness? I recall Chris Chambers, the "bad" kid in Stand By Me who reconciles his friends and risks his own life to save his friends. Sure enough, Chris participates in delinquent behavior, yet he's the hero of the story. Perhaps people of faith would do well to think about the heroism and compassion of the supposed "sinners" in our midst.