Monday, April 13, 2009
Bart Interrupted--- A detailed Analysis of 'Jesus Interrupted' Part Three
One of the valid points made by Bart Ehrman at various junctures in this study is that each Gospel needs to be allowed to have its own say. He is guarding against the tendencies to blend all the accounts together, and I understand this. What we have in the NT is not the Diatesseron, the account later created blending four Gospels into one. His concern is especially with a sort of false harmonizing that vitiates some individual point a particular Gospel wants to make. Fair enough.
But Bart himself is well aware that any historical reconstruction of the life of Jesus does indeed involve comparing and compiling data from a variety of sources, after allowing each one to have its say. The so-called historical Jesus that Bart presents us with in his book Jesus. Apocalyptic Prophet involves precisely this sort of synthetic project. The trick is to do the combining without undermining. When it comes to the issue of the virginal conception vs. the incarnation it seems to me that something vital is missing in Bart’s discussion—namely the recognition that these two ideas are not rivals, nor do they contradict one another, for they speak really of two different things. Incarnation tells us that a pre-existent person showed up in the flesh, without telling us anything about how. The virginal conception tells us something about how the human being Jesus came into this world. Thus while it is true that Luke, at least, is silent on the issue of pre-existence, when he talks about the virginal conception (Matthew probably is not, since he tells us that Jesus is Immanel, God with us), this does not make the virginal conception and the notion of incarnation in any way incompatible. They are concepts which address two different, though related issues—how, and what, when it comes to the origins of Jesus.
On p. 77 Bart makes a surprising statement--- “Jewish apocalypticism was a worldview that came into existence about a century and a half before Jesus’ birth…” Now perhaps Bart is thinking solely of Daniel, and is really late dating the book, but even if so experts in apocalyptic literature are clear enough that we see the beginning of this way of thinking much earlier--- in the exilic period with Ezekiel and in Zechariah for example which certainly are not books that date to the second century B.C. Why quibble over this point? Well because of course historically it matters, and it calls into question Bart’s historical judgment. For my part, I don’t think, once one has read the gamut of scholarship and commentaries on Daniel, that one can conclude that even Daniel can safely be dated no earlier than the second century B.C. as a book.
In his succinct presentation of the teaching of Jesus in Mark, Bart is right that this Evangelist takes an apocalyptic approach to presenting Jesus. This is quite true (see my Gospel of Mark commentary), and he agrees that Jesus is presented as the Son of Man in Mark. He says nothing however about the connection between these two facts, namely that Jesus presents himself as the figure referred to in the apocalyptic vision in Dan. 7—the one ‘like a son of man’ who descends on a cloud from heaven, and is given a throne by the Ancient of Days and will judge the world, and rule in a kingdom forever. This text—Dan. 7.13ff. is in fact echoed and alluded to in various ways throughout this Gospel, and sometimes it is explicit (see e.g. Mk. 14.62). Now this son of man concept is crucial to understanding Jesus’ own self-presentation, and scholars of all stripes, and many of no faith persuasion, agree on that point. So what should we make of Dan. 7.13ff. ? In the first place I would suggest we compare that text to 2 Sam. 7—the famous promise to David to give him a kingdom for him and his offspring in perpetuity (with some provisos). What stands out about 2 Sam. 7 is the promise is to David and his descendants, but the promise to the Son of Man figure in Daniel 7 is that he himself will reign, judge, rule forever--- by himself. You have to ask what kind of human and more than human figure could do that, and the answer is--- a person who is both human and divine, which is exactly how the Son of Man figure is portrayed in that chapter. This is why the same text says the Son of Man figure is to be worshipped, again something reserved for God in the OT!
Now it is precisely this sort of analysis of Dan. 7 as a background to the Son of Man material in Mark that is totally and absolutely missing from Bart’s presentation, and it allows him to make a dramatic contrast between the presentation of Jesus in Mark as a human, messianic, but non-divine figure, and the presentation of Jesus in John. Unfortunately by making this contrast: 1) Bart has overplayed his hand, and 2) under-read the data from Mark with its apocalyptic background; and 3) as a result he has not done justice to a proper comparison and contrast between Mark and John and their respective portraits of Jesus. Bart is of course right that John presents the humanity and divinity of Jesus very differently than in Mark. The crucial point however is that both Evangelists present Jesus as both human and much more than human as a fair reading of both texts will show.
Besides this remarkable oversight, there are some other blunders along the way as well. Consider for example the suggestion that the coming Kingdom of God is not part of Jesus’ teaching and preaching in the Fourth Gospel (see p. 80). This frankly is not true. There are seven Kingdom of God sayings in John’s Gospel, and the Johannine Jesus certainly does make this a topic of conversation--- for example in John 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless he’s born again, he shall not enter or see the future Kingdom of God. Now it is true, that this subject is by no means as emphasized in John as it is in Mark, but it is quite impossible to say you don’t find the subject in John. But there is more. Bart insists that what ‘kingdom of God’ does mean in John is “life in heaven above”--- really??? This makes no sense of even John 3.3 which speaks about “seeing” the Kingdom of God. Jesus says nothing here about seeing or going to heaven. The discussion is about the Kingdom come on earth, and the key to seeing that kingdom is being born again here on earth.
One of the real caricatures of Johannine eschatology, is that there is no future eschatology in John. I agree that the focus in John is not on future events on earth at the End, but they are indeed mentioned in this Gospel. For example in John 5.28 Jesus says “a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his (i.e. Jesus’=the Son of Man’s) voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to life, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” There is no good reason for denying that this reveals some of how Jesus views the coming kingdom of God in this Gospel. It involves future resurrection and final judgment on earth and notice both are connected to the Son of Man language from Daniel 7.
But another caricature is involved in this analysis and contrast between Mark and John. On p. 81 Ehrman says “In Mark, Jesus predicts that the end will come right away, during his own generation, while his disciples are still alive (Mk. 9.1; 13.30)” Really?? Actually that would be a bad misrepresentation of what Jesus says in Mark. He says clearly enough at Mk. 13.32 that not even the Son knows the timing of the second coming! Mk. 9.1 is not about the second coming it is about seeing the Kingdom come with power which can refer to either the Transfiguration or the Resurrection (take your pick), both of which events happen whilst the original disciples are alive, but in any case this is not how Jesus in Mark refers to his return. Jesus is not the kingdom, he is the Son of Man, and his coming with power on the clouds is referred to differently (contrast Mk. 9.1 to Mk. 14.62).
But equally amazing is how Bart has simply amalgamated all the varied material in Mark 13 together to reach his conclusion. Mark says clearly enough that the events leading up to the destruction of the temple, which involve various signs and events on earth, will take place within a generation (= 40 years in the Bible). And sure enough, Jesus predicted this correctly in A.D. 30, for the Temple fell in A.D. 70. But what Mk. 13 also goes on to say is that after those days (i.e. when the temple is already destroyed), then we can talk about cosmic signs and the return of Christ at some unknown time.
In other words, Mk. 13 is perfectly clear that we don’t know how long after the destruction of the temple Jesus’ return will be, and there will be no signs on earth presaging it. Rather he will come like a thief in the night, at a surprising time.
In short, Jesus in Mk. 13 tells us that preliminary eschatological events leading to the destruction of the Temple will happen in a generation. He also tells us that the second coming will happen after that at an unknown time and without preliminary signs on the earth. You have to really do a demolition job on Mk. 13 and ignore the full context to come to the conclusion that Jesus said he was coming back within a generation in that chapter.
As always, much more can be said, but this is enough to show that Ehrman: 1) does not do justice to what Mark actually says or John actually says, which allows him to 2) over play the contrast between these two Gospels on various important matters. I am not suggesting that there are not some important differences between these Gospels on various matters in the way they present Jesus and the Gospel message. There are. But Bart has not adequately or accurately represented what these differences are, or their significance either. More later.