A Few Good Men
As George Mendenhall has urged, the social purpose of a really transcendent God is to have a court of appeal against the highest courts and orders of society around us. Thus a truly free God is essential to any marginal people if they are to have a legitimate standing ground against the oppressive orders of the day. But then it follows for those who regulate and benefit from the order othe day a truly free God is not necessary, desirable, or perhaps even possible.--Walter Brueggemann
If you start here on a dull Sunday afternoon, and follow a link here, you will end up (if you are still following links) here. And immediately fall into error, because neither the reviewer nor Mr. Aslan is trained in scriptural studies:
When Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, using the description from Daniel as a title, he is making a clear statement about how he views his identity and his mission. He is associating himself with the paradigm of the Davidic messiah, the king who will rule on earth on God’s behalf, who will gather the twelve tribes of Israel (in Jesus’s case, through his twelve apostles, who will “sit on twelve thrones”) and restore the nation of Israel to its former glory. He is claiming the same position as King David, “at the right hand of the Power.” In short, he is calling himself king.In even shorter: no.
"Son of Man" is an Aramaic locution; the language Jesus actually spoke* (odd that Aslan mentions the gospels were written after Jesus died (and the reviewer gets that wrong, too:
The first third of Aslan’s book brilliantly paints this bloody backdrop, which ends in 70 c.e. with the total annihilation of Jerusalem, more than three decades after Jesus was killed and about three decades before the gospels would first take shape.Nope. John is usually dated to the early 2nd century; Mark is dated nearer 80, or even 75, C.E. Matthew and Luke sometime in between. But that's a minor quibble.)
Where was I? Oh, yes: "Son of Man." It is more accurately translated from the koine Greek as "The Human One" (ask The Jesus Seminar, a collection of Greek and scriptural experts). It's a common Aramaic way of referring to oneself in the third person, rather like the Irish English locution "himself," which shows up in the American South as "his own self" or even "my own self."
It's not extraordinary, in other words; and it's not just from Daniel. In fact the Hebrew version, "Son of Adam," appears in Job and in the Psalms; contexts that couldn't be more different than the apocalyptic Book of Daniel. In Job, the "son of Adam/son of man" is lower than a worm; in the Psalms, the same phrase indicates someone slightly lower than God. Daniel gives us the apocalyptic reference, the "one like the Son of Man" coming in clouds of glory. Odd even that it would be, for Jesus of Nazareth to quote Daniel, since the reviewer has already pointed out Jesus of Nazareth, as a peasant, would have been illiterate. Well, Paul would, too; by our standards. He could read, but scribes were paid to write.
There's the further historical issue of whether Jesus of Nazareth ever referred to himself as the Messiah who would rule the 12 tribes on earth through 12 apostles. The modern scholarly consensus is: no. If Mr. Aslan or the reviewer want to challenge that consensus, let them bring their arguments. But don't bring this lame 19th century shtick about Jesus as a Zealot. That was the position of Johannes Weiss in 1892, one picked up and furthered by Albert Schweitzer. That the historical Jesus was a preacher of apocalypse coming with in his lifetime was a consensus view for a century; but beginning in the 1980's, the consensus began to fall apart. As Dom Crossan pointed out in 1991, by 1986 it was apparent that there were "seven different images of Jesus that have been proposed by scholars in recent years, the differences relating to the different Jewish backgrounds against which they have been chosen to locate their image of the historical Jesus." Aslan is not so much ahead of Biblical scholarship, as he is behind it.
My New Testament professor, Stephen Patterson (who is a Biblical scholar), makes this interesting observation in discussing the history of the quest of the historical Jesus; interesting, because it lines up, somewhat, where Scott Korb did when he tried to write about 1st century Palestine:
The intellectual challenge of the Enlightenment was really about the ability and authority to name what is true and what is not. Insofar as the Bible is finally about ultimate reality, that is, ultimate truth, the question of the historicity of the Bible, and with it the question of the historical Jesus, has always been bound up closely with the search for Truth. The quest for the historical Jesus has, from its very beginning, also been about the search for God.Stephen Patterson, The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning (Harrisburg, Pennsyvlania. Trinity Press International, 1998). p. 28.
I bring this up because Korb admits his book on 1st century Palestine couldn't avoid being a book about Jesus. Which is only reasonable: if not for Jesus, why would anybody be interested in a popular history of 1st century Palestine? It's not as if there's equal public fascination with the Roman conquest of Britain in the same century. But I also mention this because Korb ends his review urging us to ground our search for truth not in a deity but in humanity. I have to say, having been a lawyer and a pastor and now an English teacher, I have learned at least one thing from my experiences: people are not only not worth believing in (whatever that means), I don't put my faith (i.e., trust) in them, either. Do I mean that people are no damned good? No, but neither do I even understand what it would mean to believe in people. Is that the same as believing in God, and is believing in God the same thing as saying God has existence? Is believing in God even the same thing as saying I have faith (trust) in God? Should I follow that up with "All others pay cash," because I don't have trust in people (at least not that much), and I don't know what it would mean to believe in them?
It will discomfort many to say the search for truth is the search for God, but insofar as that search is limited to knowledge of the historical Jesus, I think Patterson is right. And that brings us back to the issue of the historical Jesus: if he was only a zealot; or a pacifist; or a political figure; or a teacher; or a holy man; or an itinerant: why does anybody pay attention to him 2000 years later? Why is Scott Korb, by his own admission, haunted by "the illiterate preacher," especially if that's all Jesus was? To ground the question a bit more closely in history and the stuff of empiricism, consider this, also from Patterson's book:
The second experience is a seminar with Burton Mack, in which we undertook to study the early Christian traditions surrounding the Lord's Supper. In due course we came to the phrase "This is my body, broken for you." Mack put the question in a most disarming and challenging way: what could it possibly mean for someone to look at a piece of bread and say, "This is my body, broken for you"? Collectively we searched high and low for anything in the ancient world that might help us to understand this peculiar statement, but to no avail. In the end, we had simply to struggle with the meaning of the text at some basic human level.Patterson, xi
Biblical scholarship involves, among other things, placing words in their historical context. The work of the Jesus Seminar was centered on discerning what words attributed to Jesus were likely his, and what were not, based largely on originality. The parable of the Prodigal Son is a striking example of uniqueness; I still struggle with just what that parable means, the way Stephen and his colleagues struggled with the meaning of the words of the Eucharist. Other parables, such as Matthew 13:47-48, is similar in form and meaning to one of Aesop's fables. It more likely came from "common wisdom," and found its way into the gospels from the community who used and produced that gospel. Does that mean we must discard this parable from Matthew? No; it means this is one of the ways Biblical scholarship does its work. There is a great deal in the scriptural accounts of Jesus which is as culturally specific to the creation of the gospel or letter (of Peter, or Paul, or others) as the Gospel of Prosperity is today. But there are also pieces which are striking, original, powerful; and these, I think, separate the New Testament accounts from the work simply of people trying to make sense of the world, or even of the death of their teacher. It doesn't by itself mean Jesus was God; but it does mean something striking and unique in human history was going one here, just as it was for Abraham or Moses, or the Buddha or Mohammed.
The mention of Moses brings this to mind, which is also on point with the discussion:
It is clear that the emergence of Israel by the hand of Moses cannot be extrapolated from an earlier reality. Obviously nothing like the Kenite hypothesis or the monotheism of the eighteenth dynasty in Egypt will help us at all. While there are some hings that the God of Israel is known to be the God of the fathers (cf Exod. 15:2), that evidence is at best obscure. In any case, the overriding experience of Exodus is decisive and not some memory now only hinted at in the tradition. However these antecedents are finally understood, the appearance of a new social reality is unprecedented. Israel in the thirteen century is indeed ex nihilo. And that new reality drives us to the category of revelation.Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress Press 1978), p. It is into the category of revelation that we must fit the experience of Jesus of Nazareth simply as an historical matter, or all the rest is just a reductio ad absurdum: Jesus was a fictional character of Roman satire; Jesus was an itinerant preacher whose followers raised him to Godhood; Jesus was the fever dream of a group of Zealots wiped out by the Romans in a backwater whose history nobody would even be interested in today, were it not for....Jesus.
Let me just pause here and put Korb's faith in human beings up against Breuggemann's concept of the prophetic imagination. Brueggemann places the question beyond the reach of either liberals (who want change) or conservatives (who want to protect the status quo):
Indeed, it has been hard for liberals to imagine that theology mattered, for all of that seemed safely left to others who still worried about such matters. As a result, social radicalism has been like a cut flower without nourishment, without any sanction deeper than human courage and good intentions. Conversely, it has been the tendency in other quarters to care intensely about God, but uncritically, so that the god of well-being and good order is not understood to be precisely the source of social oppression.**...a case can be made that unprophetic conservatives did not take God seriously enough to see that our discernment of God has remarkable sociological implications. And between liberals who imagine God to be irrelevant to sociology and conservatives who unwittingly use a notion of God for social reasons because they do not see how the two belong together, there is little to choose. Here it is enough to insist that Moses, paradigm for prophet, carried the alternative in both directions: a religion of God's freedom as alternative to the static imperial religion of order and triumph and a politics of justice and compassion as alternative to the imperial politics of oppression. The point that prophetic imagination must ponder is there there is no freedom of God without the politics of justice and compassion, and there is no politics of justice and compassion without a religion of the freedom of God.
Yahweh makes possible and requires an alternative theology and an alternative sociology. Prophecy begins in discerning how genuinely alternative he is.
Brueggeman, pp. 18-19.
Truly radical alternatives reshape history. While communion is little more than a tradition for much of Christianity (do we do it 4 times a year? Once a day? A week? Kneeling? At the altar? In the pews? With bread? Crackers? Wine? Grape juice?), the event of the Exodus, like the event of the Resurrection (assuming either are true; based on history, not just confessions of faith) continues to resound in the modern world. Without the Exodus, would there be a state of Israel today? And does it matter if the event itself happened as the Hebrew Scriptures say it did (there is, for example, no Red Sea in Egypt; certainly not one that could drown Pharoah's army)? The "overriding experience of Exodus is decisive," and has been for millenia. How is this possible? I asked Walker Percy's question once, about where are the Hittites and the Amorites, etc. I got an answer, but it proved Percy's point: "Jew" is a term that goes back to the 1st century; it is still in use, still an identifier, still a "live option," in William James' terms. Hittite? Amorite? They can be traced to their descendants, but is it an identity anymore?
And so with the experience of Jesus, the experience (later) of the Resurrection: it is decisive, even if today it is derided. Denounce it, but it cannot be destroyed. Why not? Augustus Caesar was a "son of God," as was Tiberius after him. Augustus was even thought to have been resurrected; so Jesus' resurrection was not unique in world history (although I've spoken of it here as if it was). But why did Jesus' resurrection, and his life, have such an impact, while Augustus' didn't? Jesus was an itinerant peasant from a Roman backwater who died a shaming and mostly overlooked death. But Augustus?
Patterson. p. 51.
Now, there was a religion. All over the Mediterranean world one can find its legacy still today in grand temples and arches, dedicated to the gods "Roma and Augustus." Rome was very clear about what it believed in. It believed in power. No one embodied that more than Augustus. He conquered lands far and wide, from which great treasures were extracted. He subjugated cultures, gave them a new language and new institutions. He quashed rebellions. His life was one great manifestation of power. The imperial cult was about power. And the great thing about a religion of power is that it provides its own authentication: victory reveals the favor of the gods. Resurrection became the ultimate symbol of that religion: the final victory. The ultimate bestowal of power was to rise beyond the limits of this world to join the great pantheon of the gods in heaven.
"Look on my works, ye mighty; and despair." Some echo of the institutions of Augustus remain in Europe and, through Britain particularly, around the world. But even the language Augustus imposed on others is dead. And where is the religion he embodied? It was a religion of power, of the lessons of the world. Why did it vanish? Maybe because "victory reveals the favor of the gods," and Rome eventually ran out of victories.
And while we're even on the issue of transmission and inclusion/exclusion, let me bring in a bit of church history Stephen noted in his book:
And the presbyter would say this: Mark became Peter's interpreter and wrote accurately whatever he remembered, not, however, in the order in which things were said and done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed him. Rather, as I said, later on he followed Peter. And he used to give instructions as the need arose, but did not make something like an arrangement of the Lord's sayings. So Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to falsify nothing in them.
Patterson, pp. 24-25.
That is from Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, written in the fourth century. The presbyter is Papias, who lived around the turn of the 1st century, who in turn got his information from an elder who knew Mark. That, at least, is the story. You want to understand the scriptures? It's helpful to understand them the way the church did back when there barely was a church. Things change, and more often than not, knowledge is lost. We might, today, argue that "Mark" did do something wrong in writing down single points as he remembered them. I mean, it's hardly accurate, is it? But the accuracy we demand, especially in language, is largely a consequence of living in a post-Hume world. We equate inaccuracy with falsehood, when we should connect it with verifiability. The scriptures were assembled based on how they coincided with the community's understanding of the revelation. What's remarkable is that one voice never dominated; that a consensus arose from so many conflicting (sometimes in large matters, sometimes in small) accounts, from Genesis to the Revelation.
Still, without the resurrection, would Paul have written a word? Would the gospels have been composed?
And would writers have no end of claptrap to write about Jesus and Christianity?
*Which puts us at a further remove from the historical Jesus: he didn't speak Greek, but his "biographers" did. And we don't speak Greek, so we read him twice removed from his original words. Oh, dear, how shall we ever know anything?
**Precisely what Eagleton was getting at with his critique of Dawkins. Just because you are an atheist, doesn't mean you don't have a "god."