Baker Academic

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Who's afraid of the Cynic Jesus?

From Wikipedia

At the recent God, Religion and Politics: Election 2015 seminar, there was a non-polemical discussion between Michael Sandford and Justin Meggitt about Jesus and the Cynics after Meggitt’s paper, ‘Jesus, Insurrection and the Politics of Prefiguration’. One striking thing about this was that a discussion about Jesus and the Cynics could actually be non-polemical as this topic must have been one of the most polemical in recent historical Jesus scholarship. In fact, I recall Sandford giving a paper a few years back on how the Jesus movement along with various other groups interacted with socio-economic issues. These different perspectives included Essenes and/or DSS, prophets, bandits etc. and…Cynics. Sandford never made any strict connections (as far as I remember) but rather showed the sorts of ideological engagements that were taking place, as well as placing an emphasis on eschatological traditions which were sometimes seen as inherently antithetical on both sides of the debate. Nevertheless, there was a heated reaction from the some members of the audience about the use of Cynics in Jesus studies (bandits also provoked a reaction, but that’s for another time).

Why was the Cynic debate so heated, especially as adherents of the Cynic thesis would qualify this Jesus as ‘Cynic-like’? I’m not entirely sure myself (or indeed why I might have once felt the need to point out that I wasn’t an adherent of such a thesis, being caught up in my own particularly academic contexts as I was/am) but it was certainly tied in with the rhetoric of Jesus the Jew. Put crudely, the logic would sometimes go like this: Jesus was Jewish and therefore could not have been a Cynic; if you call Jesus a Cynic you are implying that he was not Jewish but Hellenistic or the like, possibly in a similar way to Nazi Jesuses (this link was indeed implied by opponents of the Cynic-like thesis). Now, there are debates to be had on the extent of Cynic presence (or otherwise) in first-century Palestine but the idea that a Jew simply couldn’t be a Cynic and a Cynic means you’re not Jewish (and I don’t think I’m overly caricaturing here) works with some problematic and essentialist assumptions of identity. 

Also from Wiki
It’s clear enough that both self-identifying and being identified as a ‘Jew’ could go hand-in-hand with other means of identification in the ancient world (associations, philosophical interests, etc.). It is also clear enough that different traditions could be in dialogue with one another, influence (consciously or unconsciously) one another, use similar language to describe the world around them, and so on. Comparisons between certain aspects of Jewish literature and certain aspects of Cynic philosophy have been made and such overlaps and shared interests must at the very least be theoretically possible. Moreover, as far as I am aware, no contemporary academic presentation of the Cynic thesis has ever claimed that their Jesus wasn’t Jewish.

There has been a lot of discussion about constructions of a fixed Jewish identity in scholarship as a backdrop to make Jesus ‘transcend’ this fixed identity (in ways simultaneously using the rhetoric of ‘very Jewish’). But why did the Cynic (-like) thesis cause so much outrage? One reason sometimes given is that it is theologically useless for the implicitly Christian discipline of NT studies and there is no doubt something in this (just read some of the most prominent reactions against a Cynic Jesus…). But even this needs to be qualified. The criticism that the Cynic (-like) thesis played into a particular North American liberal discourse is not without merit either and it is not exactly theologically useless from another perspective: is not difficult to see how this Jesus has its liberal theological uses (just read some of the prominent proponents of a Cynic-like Jesus). Perhaps it might be better to locate some of this debate in the ‘culture wars’ rhetoric, including such debates between churches.

Again, Wiki
None of this means that discussion of Cynicism is invalid for (ancient) historical reconstruction. I think Sandford was along the right lines in showing how presentations from the Jesus traditions through bandits to Cynics engaged with shifting socio-economic circumstances. Instead of asking whether Jesus was or was not a Cynic, it might be more helpful to think about how traditions negotiated the world around them and not be surprised if there are overlaps and similarities and so on. A study of Cynicism can shed light on the Gospel tradition in this respect, and vice versa. Scholarship has been interested in Jesus as ‘counter cultural’ for some time now; is not Cynicism at least analytically useful as a comparative phenomenon in this respect? Why be scared of that...?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Who were 'the sinners' in the Gospel tradition...?

Were they ‘the marginalised’, ‘the outcast’, ‘the oppressed’ and so on? Were they people perceived to be breaking the Law or an interpretation of the Law?

In Jewish literature from Hebrew Bible texts and through rabbinic literature the range of meanings appear to be relatively stable in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. We might say similar things about Christian Syriac translations of the Bible. One view of the Gospel ‘sinners’ which should be discounted, however, is one which should have long gone away: ‘the sinners’ as ‘the marginalised’, ‘the outcast’, ‘the oppressed’ etc. with whom Jesus was prepared to mingle. There is a lot of discussion about the socio-economic status of ‘sinners’ in Jewish literature (Psalms, DSS, 1 Enoch, lots of rabbinic literature etc.) and the answer is always clear: ‘sinners’ are perceived to be rich and oppressive. In this sense, they can only be ‘marginalised’ in the same way as ‘the 1%’ are marginalised today.  What else? The usual uses of ‘sinners’ have interrelated uses. They can be perceived to be beyond the Law (or a group’s interpretation of the Law), beyond the covenant, and act as if there is no God. ‘Sinners’ can therefore be synonymous with ‘Gentiles’, a usage known also from Paul (Gal. 2.15).    

What might this mean for the Gospel tradition? It is possible to read all the main uses into the various Gospel passages, though there is sometimes not enough contextual signs to be precise on a number of occasions. Might Jesus’ association with sinners have provoked a reaction for legal issues? Possibly. Passages like Mark 2.15-17 and parables of repentance-return in Luke 15 (esp. the Prodigal Son) might point in this direction. The close association of tax collectors and sinners would point to at least some understandings of ‘sinners’ in terms of wealth and oppression.

But why the controversy in the Gospel? Perhaps, as Dunn suggested, there may be a reflection of some sort of ‘sectarian’ dispute over interpretation of the Law. The suggestion made by others (esp. influenced by Sanders) that the controversies were over Jesus allowing a bypassing of the Temple for forgiveness is problematic not only because of a lack of evidence but because Jesus is criticised for associating with 'sinners': ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ Or, in the words of Sirach, ‘Who pities a snake charmer when he is bitten, or all those who go near wild animals? So no one pities a person who associates with a sinner and becomes involved in other’s sins’ (Sir. 12.13-14).

Largely based on Ezek. 33, some did look for the repentance-return of sinners, although most texts we have are highly sceptical that this would happen and imply something along the lines of Sirach 12. The Gospel tradition appears to be part of a more optimistic approach. But maybe Sirach and others were right to be sceptical. We don’t find much in the way of success stories in the Gospel tradition (which we might expect if there were plenty of available stories) and it is notable that one we do find—the story of Zacchaeus—is only attested in Luke (who especially liked themes relating to ‘sinners’) and which may have been written up in light of the lack of success. Perhaps this hope for the repentance-return of ‘sinners’ failed to materialise and the reactions were more predictably like that of the rich man of Mark 10.22. And even Zacchaeus only gives up half his possessions (Luke 19.8)…

There is much more to say on this topic, including how it relates to the ongoing survival of such traditions. All the answers can be found in Jesus and the Chaos of History (2015) which has just been published in North America.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Summation of the Torah - Hillel and Jesus

I have often told my students a story from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabat 31a) to illustrate the complexity of first-century Pharisaic thought. If we just go by the New Testament's portraits of the Pharisees, we walk away with the impression that Jesus was preaching consequentialism amid a sea of deontology. Put another way, Jesus prioritized wellbeing in context over the strict letter of the law. To problematize this caricature of both the Pharisees and Jesus, I've quoted this story:
On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, 'Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.' Thereupon he [Shammai] repulsed him with the builder's cubit which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, 'What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.'
This story tells of two competing rabbis that lived in the first century: Hillel and Shammai. Much of their legacy reflects the concerns of rabbinic Judaism of a later period (often favoring Hillel). But the the story works equally well even if it reflects a later date. My purpose has been to point out that we shouldn't think of "the Pharisees" an ideological monolith. Moreover, some rabbis were quite happy to sum the instructions of Moses (for non-Jews) into a simple "golden rule" while others endeavored to protect the complexity and intricacy of Torah.

Presumably a lesson taught while the student balances on one foot is a short lesson. The question becomes, then, can a non-Jew learn what is important about the Torah in one short, simple lesson? Judging from this story Hillel was willing to try; Shammai was not (we might also keep in mind that Shammai's "builder's cubit" might be a metaphor for the Torah itself). Of course, I have pointed to a similar "golden rule" attributed to Jesus: "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matt 7:12). These "golden rules" aren't exactly the same, but they are similar. And to the point: both Jesus and Hillel are willing to attempt a summative statement. Thus Jesus seems to have more in common with Hillel than he does with Shammai in this case.

But I was rereading this story today and I think that I've missed something important. In attempting to emphasize Jesus' Jewishness via Hillel's liberal tendencies, I missed Hillel's final statement: "...go and learn it." The suggestion here is that the non-Jew can begin with a simple summative statement, "What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor." Hillel can even make the remarkable claim that this summation is "the whole Torah"! Or it is at least a lens by which to read the whole Torah. But the final exhortation, "go and learn it" can be taken in two ways: (1) The non-Jew should go and practice the simple rule; (2) The non-Jew should go and learn the whole Torah. Traditionally (or at least from my limited study) the first of these interpretations has gotten the most traction. But there is a danger of superseding the Torah with a "Torah-lite" life ethic. If however Hillel is offering a hermeneutical key for unlocking the Torah for non-specialists (and this applies to me) the complexity and intricacy of the Torah is maintained. Indeed, the ethical lens offered by Hillel might heighten the complexity and intricacy of interpretation. This would fit well with what we read of Hillel elsewhere. Rather than reducing the Torah, Hillel might be inviting the non-Jew to use his other foot as he walks away on the right path.

For what it's worth, Jesus' view on Torah was not as simplistic as we make it out to be either: "But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail" (Luke 16:17).


Friday, April 24, 2015

James Crossley joins the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible at St Mary’s University—Chris Keith

Photo Robert Myles
I'm very excited to announce that on Sept. 1 of this year James Crossley, co-blogger here at the Jesus Blog, will join the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible at St Mary's University as Professor of Bible and Society.  He will add great strength to our centre and his addition signals the continued growth of Biblical Studies and New Testament at St Mary's, which in the past three years has seen also the addition of Prof Steve Walton and grown from one New Testament PhD student to ten.  Prof Crossley will be taking on new PhD students and any who are interested in studying with him are encouraged to contact him or me (  Although Prof Crossley will spend most of his time on research and PhD supervision, he will also teach undergraduate courses and courses on the MA in Biblical Studies (due to take its first class in 2016).

Readers of the Jesus Blog will be familiar with Prof Crossley's contributions here on the blog but also his previous publications on the historical Jesus and early Christianity, including his most recent work, Jesus and the Chaos of History (Oxford University Press, 2015), which will receive a panel review at this year's British New Testament Conference.  At St Mary's, Prof Crossley will also continue his important work on the Bible in contemporary culture and politics (see his Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968 [Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014]) and organize conferences and research projects on this theme.  As his is the most important voice in this discussion, he will add a key contemporary dimension to the social-scientific research already being conducted in CSSSB.

Congratulations to Prof Crossley and welcome to CSSSB at St Mary's!  We'll have to plan a special celebration for the Jesus Blog family at SBL in November. . . .

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Cities of God? Conference at St Mary’s University—Chris Keith

My colleague Steve Walton has passed along the schedule of speakers and topics for the Cities of God? Conference here at the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible of St Mary's University.  We're very excited to host these scholars and look forward also the published proceedings of the conference.  If you haven't registered yet, you can do so here.



Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible


An interdisciplinary and international assessment of early Christian engagement with the ancient urban environment(s)

Friday 22 May 2015

12.00–13.30     Registration and coffee/tea available
Lunch available to purchase in St Mary’s dining room

13.30–13.45     Welcome

13.45–14.15     ‘Early Christianity in its Colonial Contexts in the Provinces of the Eastern Empire’
David Gill, Professor of Archaeological Heritage and Director of Heritage Futures, University Campus, Suffolk and University of East Anglia

14.15–14.45     Paul’s Mission Strategy in the Urban Landscape of the First-Century Roman Empire
Volker Rabens, Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Lehrstuhl für Neues Testament, Friedrich-Schille-Universität, Jena (Germany)

14.45–15.15     Paul’s Caesarea’
Joan Taylor, Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism, King’s College London

15.15–15.45     Coffee and tea break

15.45–16.15     ‘Spiritual Geographies of the City: Exploring Spiritual Landscapes in Colossae’
Paul Cloke, Professor of Human Geography, University of Exeter

16.15–16.45     Paul, Pentecost and the Nomosphere: The Final Return to Jerusalem in the Acts of the Apostles’
Matthew Sleeman,
Lecturer in New Testament, Oak Hill College, London

16.45–17.15     ‘Heavenly citizenship and earthly authorities: Philippians 1:27; 3:20 in dialogue with Acts 16:11-40’
Steve Walton, Professorial Research Fellow, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

17.15-17.30      Break

17.30–18.45     Keynote paper: Engaging—or Not Engaging—the City: Reading 1‑2 Timothy and the Johannine Letters in the City of Ephesus’
Paul Trebilco, Professor of New Testament, University of Otago (New Zealand)

19.15 onwards  Conference dinner (La Dolce Vita)

Saturday 23 May 2015

7.00–9.00        Breakfast (your own arrangements)

9.30-9.45         Welcome, and introducing the Centre’s poverty conference in December 2015 (Chris Keith)

9.45–10.15       Diaspora Jewish Attitudes to Metropoleis: Philo and Paul on City Life, Jerusalem and Rome’
Jutta Leonhardt-Balzer, Senior Lecturer in New Testament, University of Aberdeen

10.15–10.45     ‘The Making of Social Vertigo: Spatial Production and Non-belonging in 1 Peter’
Wei-Hsien Wan, Research student, University of Exeter

10.45–11.15     ‘Placing 1 Peter: Proposed Locations and Constructions of Space’
David G. Horrell, Professor of New Testament, University of Exeter

11.15–11.45     Coffee and tea break

11.45–12.15     ‘Both Jews and Judeans: Claiming Jerusalem as Polysemy in Urban, Rural, and Diaspora Settings’
Anthony Le Donne, Assistant Professor of New Testament, United Theological Seminary, Dayton, Ohio (USA)

12.15–12.45     Jerusalem according to Matthew: The Sacred City of God’
Anders Runesson, Professor of New Testament, University of Oslo (Norway)

12.45–14.00     Lunch available to purchase in St Mary’s dining room

14.00–14.30     ‘The City as Foil (not Friend nor Foe): Conformity and Subversion in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31’
Helen Morris, Research student, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

14.30–15.00     ‘A Tale of Two (or Seven) Cities’
Ian Paul, Honorary Assistant Professor in New Testament, University of Nottingham

15.00–15.30     Coffee and tea break

15.30–16.00     Urbanization and Literate Status in the New Testament and Early Christian Rome’
Chris Keith, Professor of New Testament and Director of the Centre for Social-Scientific Study of the Bible, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

16.00–16.30     Alexandria ad Aegyptum—The City Which Inspired Polyphony of Early Christian Theologies’
Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski, Visiting Research Fellow, King’s College London

16.30–17.00     Round table reflections and discussion

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Jesus: Muscle-shirt Messiah

Joan Taylor as written a fascinating albeit short article on Jesus' physical appearance. In order to read the whole thing, you'll need to register with ASOR (free). Among her many interesting points, she argues that Jesus' long hair is probably a mythological addition to his legacy as are his flowing robes. We'd be closer to the mark imagining Jesus with short hair and with a sleeveless tunic. Or, in other words, Jesus looked more like high-school Chris Keith than high-school Anthony Le Donne.


Monday, April 20, 2015

An Important Overlooked/Underappreciated Historical Jesus Book—Chris Keith

A little bit ago I asked readers of the blog what they considered to be the most overlooked or underrated book on the historical Jesus.  I was pretty intrigued by some of the answers.  As I mentioned on that post, though, I had wondered about this because of a particular book that I don't think gets the attention that it probably deserves.  I confess that I'm not quite willing to say that this is the most overlooked or underrated book on the historical Jesus, but it's certainly an overlooked or underrated book on the historical Jesus.  That book is Der historische Jesus, edited by Jens Schroeter and Ralph Brucker and published in 2002 in the BZNW monograph series (de Gruyter).  The essays are written in English or German and come from some immediately recognizable names in the field (Werner Kelber, Michael Moxter, David du Toit, James Dunn, Jens Schroeter, Christopher Tuckett, David Aune, Joerg Frey, Hermut Loehr, Michael Wolter, Petr Pokorny, Ulrich Luz, and Andreas Lindemann).  It's important, though, because this book in many ways prefigured larger shifts in Jesus research that would come after it.  Especially the essays from Kelber, Moxter, Dunn, and Schroeter reveal the impact of various forms of postmodern historiography.  The essay of du Toit is an overlooked critique of the criterion of dissimilarity.  Kelber's essay was published in English elsewhere (initially in a book with John Dominic Crossan and Luke Timothy Johnson and now in his Imprints, Voiceprints, and Footprints of Memory [SBL]) and Schroeter's essay would go on to be included in his Von Jesus zum Neuen Testament (Mohr Siebeck), which is now, of course, thanks to Wayne Coppins, available in English as From Jesus to the New Testament (Baylor University Press).  It's certainly not the case that the book was totally ignored, but especially in English-speaking scholarship I'm surprised that it's not had a bigger impact.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

(On the parables of Jesus)

The selection is so made that at the same time the question of authenticity must be considered. In every case, even in the case of unauthenticity, i.e. when we cannot ascribe the text to Jesus, it is Jesus himself who gains by this.

                     ~Ernst Fuchs

Friday, April 17, 2015

"John and Judaism" Pre-SBL Conference—Chris Keith

I am happy to pass along this notice for a pre-SBL conference on "John and Judaism" at McAfee School of Theology of Mercer University.  I attended the last pre-SBL meeting in Baltimore and it was wonderful.  I'd encourage you to consider attending this one.



“John and Judaism”

A Pre-SBL Conference

Hosted by the McAfee School of Theology

at Mercer University

November 18-20, 2015

2930 Flowers Road

Atlanta, GA 30341

Building on the success of the Symposium on the Johannine Epistles, hosted by Mercer in 2010, and the conference on C.H. Dodd and Raymond E. Brown, hosted by St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore in 2013, the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University is pleased to announce a conference on “John and Judaism,” that will begin with dinner on Wednesday, November 18, and end at noon on Friday, November 20. 

Following the keynote address by Prof. Jan van der Watt on Wednesday evening, the conference will address three topics:  (1) John as a Source for Understanding Judaism (Thursday morning), (2) aposynagogos? Reappraising John’s Relationship to Judaism (Thursday afternoon and evening); and (3) Reading John as Jews and Christians (Friday morning).  Major papers will be presented by Craig R. Koester, Adele Reinhartz, Craig A. Evans, and Reimund Bieringer, and nine short papers, three on each topic, will fill out the program. 

Registration for the conference (including dinner on Wednesday and lunch and dinner on Thursday) is $125.  Checks should be made payable to McAfee School of Theology and sent to

Ms. Diane Frazier
McAfee School of Theology
3001 Mercer University Drive
Atlanta, GA 30341

Please include your e-mail address.  Further information and the full program will be sent to registered participants.  Conference rates (and transportation to campus) are available at the Hampton Inn—Northlake; 3400 Northlake Parkway, N.E.; Tucker, GA 30084 (770-493-1966). 

For further information, please contact Diane Frazier (; 678 547-6470) or Alan Culpepper (


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Are We Ready for an LGBTQIA Jesus?

Jesus is both an ancient historical figure and a contemporary mirror. In the first case Jesus represents a particular time and place. In the second he represents us. It will not take much effort to find images of a Scandinavian, African or Asian Jesus on the internet. Images abound of Jesus with a rifle, a cigarette, a tattoo, and/or boxing gloves. Such images are sometimes meant to shine a spotlight on a particular ideology. But, in many cases, these images are earnest attempts to make Jesus relatable to would-be religious followers. So, of course, you can also find a gay Jesus or two with google image search. I talk about the ways in which Jesus becomes an advocate for groups persecuted because of sexual orientation in my The Wife of Jesus (esp. ch.5).

Image from Rutgers University webpage
Today's post isn't about how the political left is recreating Jesus in their own image. Strangely we liberals are too fascinated with the possibility of Jesus' heteronormativity to seriously consider anything else. But today this article was brought to my attention:

College Prof. Doubles Down After Declaring That Christ Was ‘Potentially Queer’ and ‘Bigots Invented a White Supremacist Jesus’

Now if you're into self-reflection, you might take some inventory by asking whether you were more offended by the phrase "Potentially Queer" or the phrase "White Supremacist." Feel free to process it with your therapist this week.

The professor quoted in this article is Rutgers University's Brittney Cooper, Assistant Professor of Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies. And before you write her off, consider the quotation that spurred this headline. She says:
“The Jesus I know, love, talk about and choose to retain was a radical, freedom-loving, justice-seeking, potentially queer (because he was either asexual or a priest married to a prostitute), feminist healer, unimpressed by scripture-quoters and religious law-keepers, seduced neither by power nor evil.”
Let's leave aside, for the moment, the progressive tendency to place Jesus in opposition to "scripture-quoters and religious law-keepers." That is a different subject for a different day. Let's focus instead on the fact that Cooper loves Jesus and refuses to let the religious right co-opt him without a fight. If you happen to be a Christian reading this, you had better thank God for Brittney Cooper because she's represents your best hope. She is a university professor who is invested in your survival within the public conversation. Her Jesus, like the Pope's Jesus, is relevant. I might disagree with her historical reconstruction but I wish I had a professor like her when I was eighteen.

In order to understand what the phrase "potentially queer" means in this context, you might need to brush up on your initialisms. Here is is a footnote from my book that offers an (albeit skeletal) explanation:

What I don't state here that requires explanation is that "queer" can also be used as an umbrella category in academic circles (for example: Queer Theory). Unless you appreciate the way that Cooper is using this category, you will misunderstand her. Notice that she offers two possible ways in which Jesus might be "queer": Jesus is either (1) asexual or (2) married in a way that places him outside of social norms. Notice also that neither sense suggests that Jesus is homosexual. Like I told you, we liberals are preoccupied with Jesus and Mary Magdalene (who wasn't a prostitute, but she has become this in cultural imagination).

What is most interesting to me about Cooper's suggestion is the possibility that Jesus was "asexual." Asexuality is the new addition to our alphabet soup. For a quick introduction to asexuality, youtube might help. But, in short, asexuals simply do not experience sexual desire like most people do. This, as you might expect, is much disputed. Suspicion of asexuality creates difficulties for "A" folks who seem queer to both heterosexual crowds and LGBTQI crowds. "A" folks are often simply labeled disingenuous; i.e. they must just be hiding their sexuality from us. For the sake of this post, let's assume that those claiming to have no (or almost no) sexual inclinations are telling the truth. If so, these "A" folks are struggling not only with their "queerness" but also with the awkward ways they fit within the LGBTQI community. To the point, "A" folks are often not represented by the initialism.

So back to Cooper's interesting point: could Jesus have been "asexual"? I would tend to think not. But consider this queer saying: "For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it" (Matt 19:12). My take on this saying is somewhat unique and I won't rehash it here. But I cite it just to lend support to Cooper's possibility.

Getting to the point: There is an irony that is too wonderful not to recognize. Most Christians are extremely uncomfortable imagining Jesus with sexual inclinations. The religious right in particular seems to require an asexual Jesus. But as clever minds like Cooper know, "A" folk might be as queer as you get. As such, the conservatives who are most anti-gay have created a Jesus who aligns with their deepest fears.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Poll: Billy Graham a Positive Influence?

For a better portion of a century you'd be hard pressed to find anyone willing to say a bad word about Billy Graham. In many ways, Graham's legacy remains unchanged. I did see this book yesterday (initial reaction here). Kruse's book isn't specifically about Graham. Billy Graham's relationship with the Oval Office does play an integral role in the narrative, I'm told.

The above poll is overtly and admittedly simplistic. No legacy can be boiled down in this way. I am curious, however, to learn how Graham's influence is felt by the readers of this blog. Feel free to vote above and then comment here.

NB: I am speaking about Graham in the past tense. It may be bad form to do so. But I think that it is safe to say that his public career is in sunset.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Thomas Jefferson, The Under-appreciated Jesus Ideologue

Today is the birthday of Thomas Jefferson. There are perhaps more brilliant polymaths, more complex characters, and weightier influencers in American history. But Jefferson is a near rival no matter the name. Because of his multifaceted legacy, it is often forgotten that Jefferson was keenly interested in reconstructing Jesus: the ethics of Jesus, to be precise.

Jefferson had a sense that America was giving birth to something new but needed some sort of moral anchor. In a series of letters and then by way of literal cutting and pasting, Jefferson liberated "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man" from the shackles of irrational superstition. The result was an 84-page "Bible" constructed of Jesus' teachings, but without any supernatural accounts. Like Spinoza who planted the seeds of the historical-critical method in biblical studies, Jefferson had no use for the supernatural. Both Spinoza and Jefferson reconstructed a Jesus that was a prototype for the Enlightenment. Jefferson, to this end, created a physical artifact that represented his heterodox revision.

The "historical Jesus" can be defined as a scholarly construct that incorporates but is not limited to the multiple biblical portraits of Jesus. This means that historical research does not (1) attempt to harmonize the canonical Gospels, nor does it (2) simply construct Jesus using the elements that cohere in these Gospels. I would also argue that historical Jesus research is always an attempt to "set the record straight" over and against some previous construction of Jesus. Given these parameters, the Jefferson Bible represents an under-appreciated artifact of historical Jesus research. See this book by Stephen Prothero for a more detailed introduction.

Jefferson' Jesus, of course, is a revisionist history. Now, I will say again what I've said before: all histories are in some way revisionist. It is up to the historiographer to determine how and why particular revisions manifest. Three aspects come to mind. (1) In Jefferson's case, it is clear that the criterion of analogy was at work. This criterion works from the logic that there are predictable constants in the natural world, both ancient and modern. Thus if there were no legitimate accounts of resurrections and water-walking in 1840, it stands to reason that there were no such happenings in the first century either. This logic stands in contrast to various forms of dispensationalism that took form in American Christianity. (2) Another factor that influenced Jefferson was a key element of Neo-romanticism. Jefferson believed that a great man's genius (it was always a man) had the power to create a new epoch in human history. In Jefferson's view the genius of Jesus had created a new epoch and was worthy of revitalizing alongside the birth of America. (3) Jefferson's political interests influenced his reconstruction of Jesus. The idea of private religion as tolerated by the state but not enforced by the state was important to Jefferson. As such Jesus became a teacher, not a preacher. Jesus became a guide, not the agent of an apocalyptic judge. More to this point, Jefferson seemingly had no intention for his "Bible" to be published or widely disseminated. It remained in his private library until his death.

Finally it is noteworthy that Bob Funk (1926-2005), the founder and chief voice of the Jesus Seminar, dedicated his The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? to Thomas Jefferson. Prothero helpfully draws out Funk's interests in Jefferson's Jesus.

Yet another casualty of the standard "Three Quests" paradigm, Thomas Jefferson remains an under-appreciated remembrancer in historical Jesus research.


Friday, April 10, 2015

The Most Underrated or Overlooked Book on the Historical Jesus?—Chris Keith

Readers of the Jesus Blog, I put to you this question:  "What is the most underrated or overlooked book on the historical Jesus, new or old?"  I was wondering this the other day as I was thinking about a book that I do not think has received the attention that it rightly deserves.  Once I hear what others think, I'll say more about that book.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Crossley on the Crucifixion—Chris Keith

Jesus Blogger Prof James Crossley blogs for the OUPblog on the crucifixion of Jesus here.  I especially appreciate his comments on method and the need to keep in mind that multiple interpretations of Jesus, and especially his crucifixion, would have existed from the beginning.  Here's a sample: 

"But at the same time we might embrace the role of relentless interpretation and reinterpretation in historical reconstruction, even when ostensibly discussing the historical Jesus. For instance, once the potentially controversial idea of the death of the elevated figure was known then how was this to be interpreted? One way (and one that the earliest followers obviously chose) was the idea that, borrowing from long-established ideas of martyrdom (e.g. the celebrated Maccabean martyrs), Jesus’ death had some sort of redemptive function. Much, of course, has been written on this.

Other interpretations were happening too. Part of the problem was that Jesus’ death involved questions of masculinity, as Coleen Conway has shown in detail. Jesus could, after all, be understood as another emasculated, passive victim at the hands of the Empire. There are indications of this sort of understanding in Mark’s Gospel. Others were less prepared to present Jesus so emasculated; Paul, for instance, constructs Jesus in more manly and heroic terms. And we should not necessarily succumb to the old temptation of layering these interpretations, as if the emasculated construction came first, followed later by the masculinizing of Jesus’ death. This theoretically could have happened, and indeed may have happened for all we know. Nevertheless, different, perhaps contradictory constructions could have co-existed from the moment that Jesus’s crucifixion became clear. This sort of scenario has to be taken as a serious possibility given that so much interpretation of Jesus’ death was happening so soon and among different audiences."

I suspect there's more where this came from in Prof Crossley's new book, Jesus and the Chaos of History.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Happy Easter—Chris Keith

Happy Easter from the Jesus Blog!  For those of us who celebrate, let us celebrate today in solidarity with the friends and families of those Christians and others who were slain in the recent university attacks in Kenya.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Did God Forsake Jesus on the Cross (according to Mark and Matthew)?—Chris Keith

Today we take a break from the historical Jesus and focus just on the Gospel narratives for a Passion Week-themed entry on the Jesus Blog.  In Mark 15:34 and Matt 27:46, the Gospel narratives portray Jesus as yelling from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  I wrote my MA thesis on this verse in Mark many moons ago and have always found it interesting.  In my experience, preachers love to preach this verse because it makes for good pulpit drama, God abandoning his own son and whatnot.  I also think people tend to read Paul's statement that "God made him who knew no sin to be sin" (2 Cor 5:21) onto the Gospels here and say, "Ah, see, that's when he did it."  But we can't read Paul onto Mark or Matthew and the sinlessness of Jesus is not a prominent theme in Mark and Matthew at all, certainly not like it is for Paul or Hebrews (4:15) or some of the Johannine literature (Jesus as the "lamb" in the Gospel and Revelation, or 1 John 3:5) or the church fathers.  I'm also not concerned here with the theological implications of God's potential abandonment of Jesus.  There are other blogs dedicated to such topics.

I'd rather like to ask whether, on the level of the Gospel narrative, Mark and Matthew actually intend to claim that God did, in fact, "forsake" Jesus.  One can read the narrative in such a way as to support either claim.  For those scholars who see Mark 15:34 as a divine rejection of Jesus, they think this is the climax of Mark's dark and somber description of Jesus' demise.  Judas abandons Jesus when he betrays him (Mark 14:10), the disciples fail him in Gethsemane and abandon him (Mark 14:50), the naked young man abandons him (14:52),  the Jewish leaders reject him in his trial, Peter denies him (Mark 14:66-72), the priests and crowd reject him in favor of Barabbas (15:11) and now, God himself abandons Jesus.  Jesus thus dies as utterly and totally abandoned.

For those scholars who see Mark 15:34 as pointing to something more positive, however, the narrative can be read otherwise and as the climax of Jesus' distinct commitment to follow God in the midst of others' inability or unwillingness to follow.  Judas betrays Jesus, but Jesus presses on with the last supper, during which he states again his knowledge of how this will all end (Mark 14:17-20).  The disciples and the naked young man abandon Jesus in Gethsemane, but in the same location he commits himself all the more to God's will (Mark 14:36).  The Jewish leaders reject Jesus in his trial, but he affirms his identity as the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God (14:62).  Peter denies Jesus, but Jesus fails to deny being the king of the Jews before Pilate (15:2).  (The translation of this verse as "Yes, it is as you say" or some equivalent is a travesty because it doesn't preserve the ambiguity of Jesus' answer in the Greek, which is literally "You say."  The point at present is that he doesn't say "no.")  In other words, from this perspective, Jesus becomes more and more committed to following a path he claims is God's will and foreshadowed in Scripture while others consistently fall off that path.

This brings us back to Mark 15:34, which is the next thing that Jesus says in Mark's Gospel after he answers Pilate.  As almost all scholars of the Gospels know and many lay readers of the Gospels do not (though some do), what Jesus says in Mark 15:34//Matt 27:46 is a verbatim quotation of Psalm 22:1 (Psalm 21 in the LXX).  (Check out this interesting post on the pronunciation of the Aramaic with some observations about the Greek transliteration.)  This is important because Psalm 22 is a lament psalm where the psalmist concentrates alternately on either his seeming abandonment by God to his enemies or his conviction that God can deliver him now in light of his deliverance of other Israelites in the past.  The downswings focused upon his present circumstances eventually give way to a triumphant finish to the psalm where the psalmist expresses his conviction that, despite how things look right now, he will praise the Lord (22:22-23, 25), who has, in fact, not abandoned him (22:24) and is working a great deed that will bring about the worship of all the earth (22:27).

The pertinent question here is whether Mark and Matthew desire us to read Mark 15:34//Matt 27:46 in light of all of Psalm 22 or just the bleakness of its opening verse.  If the former, the verse would be the ultimate expression of Jesus' commitment to the Lord despite the causes for despair that surround him.  If the latter, the verse indicates the final abandonment in a series of preceding abandonments. 

There has been some considerable debate over whether, for Jews in the time of Jesus, citation of the first verse of a psalm automatically indicated the rest of the psalm.  We intuitively know how this works from our own experience.  When I hear "Turn it up..." I automatically grow sideburns, a Justin Boots hat appears on my head, and a cold MGD appears in my hand.  I'm immediately ready to tell everyone that I hope Neil Young will remember that a southern man don't need him around . . . anyhow.  When Anthony Le Donne hears, "Yo fellas, y'all ready to do this?" his glasses become flip-ups and he's immediately ready to tell everybody that Motown Philly's back again.  And James Crossley is an undefeated pub quiz champion when it comes to identifying professional wrestlers based on just the first parts of their entrance music.  He's a particular fan of Steve Austin's shattering glass, which is also his ringtone. 

But was this common practice for first-century Jews?  It's clear that this happened sometimes, but not necessarily every time.  So it doesn't exactly solve the problem for us.  I don't think it needs to, though.  I think that Mark and Matthew do want us to understand Jesus' citation of Psalm 22:1 in the context of the broader psalm precisely because they contain several other allusions from the psalm.  (I'll focus just on Mark.)  The soldiers' casting lots for Jesus' garments in Mark 15:24 is definitely from Psalm 22:18.  The reference to the mockers "wagging the head" in Mark 15:29 is definitely from Psalm 22:7.  The taunt to save in Mark 15:30-31 is possibly an allusion to Psalm 22:8.  The "despise" or "reproach" of the two co-crucifieds in Mark 15:32 is possibly an allusion to Psalm 22:6.  The confession of a Gentile in Mark 15:39 is possibly an allusion to God's acknowledgment by Gentiles in Psalm 22:27.  The reference to the "kingdom/dominion" in Mark 15:43 is possibly an allusion to the "kingdom/dominion" of the Lord in Psalm 22:28.  The crucifixion of Jesus in general is possibly an allusion to Psalm 22:16.  Some of these are more possible than others, but at least three (Mark 15:24//Psalm 22:18; Mark 15:29//Psalm 22:7; and Mark 15:34//Psalm 22:1) are certain. 

For these reasons, I think it's more likely that the author wants his audience to understand Jesus' citation of Psalm 22:1 in light of more than just that verse of the psalm.  Let me say it another way.  The author's memory of Jesus' death has been conflated with Psalm 22 in several places.  Thus, when the narrative is read this way, Jesus' statement, far from communicating God's abandonment, communicates something along the lines of, "It looks really bad right now. It looks like I've been abandoned. It looks like my enemies have won. But in reality this is what God's deliverance and establishment of his kingdom look like."  In my mind, this makes more sense of the broader narrative of Mark's Gospel.

If you're interested in reading further on this topic, see Holly J. Carey's monograph, Jesus' Cry from the Cross.  Finally, I shouldn't pretend that this ties up every loose end.  The best arguments against this type of reading of Mark 15:34 and Matt 27:46 are that Luke and John both decided not to follow Mark and Matthew.  They change Jesus' last words from the cross, and scholars often think this is because they want to avoid such a negative portrayal of Jesus, which would reveal that they did indeed think of Mark's and Matthew's endings as negative.  Of course, this really reveals only how Luke and John read Mark and Matthew, not necessarily what Mark and Matthew intended.  Further, it might be the case that Luke and John agreed about Psalm 22 (they repeat some of the allusions) but simply wanted to avoid any chance of misinterpretation.  Every once in a while you'll run across statements in the literature saying that those who take the perspective I have here simply don't want to face the possibility that the authors think Jesus was abandoned.  Although that might be true for some, it's certainly not true for all of us.  Regardless, we rarely get entirely tied up loose ends anyway.  As it stands, though, I think there's much reason to read Mark's and Matthew's portrayals of Jesus' seeming abandonment by God as just that . . . seeming.  Thoughts?