Mark’s Jesus: Who is the Gospel of Mark about?

I just finished Mark’s Jesus by Elizabeth Malbon and I must say I learned a lot from her study. Her main objective is to find understand “all the ways the narrative employs to disclose its central character, Jesus.” She has four main ways of approaching this objective: Enacted Christology (what Jesus does); Projected Christology (what others say); Deflected Christology (what Jesus says in response); Refracted Christology (what Jesus says instead) and Reflected Christology (what others do). She does a masterful job at not only reaching her goal but teaching those who (like myself) are not knowledgeable in narrative criticism how the science works. Just a couple of gems that I picked up along the way were 1) the narrator is not the same as the “implied author” 2) intercalation― the insertion of one story into another for interpretive purposes 3) oral composition (which parts of the Gospel of Mark may be taken from) works on an echo principle which has future narrative events being previously foreshadowed in some way so as to aid memory.

One of the things that really stuck in my mind was her finding that the Jesus in Mark always deflected credit/glory back to God. Jesus is the servant of God and in proper fashion cannot take any credit. She even makes a strong case for Jesus, even though he did not explicitly saying this, rejecting the title “son of David” as legitimate. In her study she shows that the story is about the in breaking of the rule of God at the expense of the Kingdom of Satan. Jesus is not the center of the story but is the main (although not the only) vehicle through whom the victory of God is accomplished. So the question remains in my mind, “Who is the Gospel of Mark about?”

Anyway for anyone doing Markan Studies or interested in narrative criticism/christology this is a must read.


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A Proposed Solution of the Matthew/Paul Problem

In a previous post I discussed (one of) the hermeneutical problems that the Gospel of Matthew presents for Christians: Christians must keep the Torah. This, of course, causes problems because the Apostle Paul says precisely the opposite, “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ.” (Galatians 5:4) So, it seems here we have a contradiction between to different writers (schools?) on a fundamental doctrine of Christianity.

My proposal to this solution is not based on a supposed univocal voice of Scripture, that is, all Scripture agrees with itself or the view of inerrancy. The solution is the result theological exploration and nothing else. If my proposed solution is wrong my faith is not in jeopardy because I do not need to have all Scripture “agree” or be “right.”

In order for my solution to work a couple of things must be explained. First, the hope for 2nd Temple Israel was for YHWH to become God of the whole world and Israel would live as Law keepers in their land. This is a very important point and should not be missed. Before I move on I need to point out that I am not committed to any theological system that demands that I need Israel to return to their land or a temple to be rebuilt. I am only saying that much of the literature from around that period invasions Israel in the land living as law keepers and worshiping in their temple. That is not to say that all of the literature has this desire (Josephus doesn’t care about the land only the temple) but that much of it did. (A good discussion of this can be found in the edited book by Scott.)

Second, there were two distinct missions within Christianity. One mission was to the Circumcised and the other to the Uncircumcised. More importantly though, the mission to the Circumcision became bifurcated due to unforeseen circumstances. Persecution became unbearable in Judea for Christians and Peter had to leave and James eventually took control of the Church in Jerusalem. Now, it is clear to all that the leader of the mission to the Uncircumcised was led by Paul and he clearly advocated a Christ-centered/Torah-free mission. The Gentiles were not to keep the Law. As for the mission to the Circumcised things get a little more tricky. We know that Peter was called the leader of the mission to the  Circumcised and in some way was not as strict law keeper. By this I do not mean that Peter stopped keeping the Law or even that the narratives in Acts are to be trusted as historical but that Paul makes this statement to Peter in Galatians 2. The problem is that when Paul said made that statement to Peter they were both in Antioch a land which was not in Judea proper (although may have been the edge of what many thought to be the Restored Israel). When Peter left, due to persecution, James took over the mission to the Circumcised that was in the land (remember that geography plays a huge part in my line of thought). I propose here (and will discuss more in detail later) that the Jewish-Christians inside the Land were expected, if not required, to keep the Law. This is where the Gospel of Matthew comes in to play. It was written for the community of believers that were living inside of the land. If Jesus did start the restoration of the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ then Israel was to look like Israel, that is, they were to be Law keeping Temple worshipers. I will have more to say about this later but for now here is a review of what I just said:

1. The Gospel of Matthew is evidence of Christians being required to keep the Law

2. Paul’s letters are evidence of Law keeping being forbidden.

3. The hope for Restoration usually included Israel being restored to their Land and Law.

3. There are two missions recorded in the New Testament Letters.

4. The two missions had different rules regarding Law keeping.

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The Possibility of Dogmatics Prolegomena

Epistemology, for Barth, is possible for the Church but it must be careful in doing it. (Who,  besides Barth, ever thought epistemology was dangerous?) He appears to understand a majority of major players in the last 300 of theology to have bought into a party line that claims the world is riding a steady uptick of wickedness and the Church has to engage the world and not retreat into a “Chinese Wall” mentality. This age, the line goes, has bought into radical rationalism and this is so different from other ages that now all of a sudden epistemological prolegomena is a necessity. If the Church does not explore this they will become irrelevant.

I could not help reading the first three or four pages of this section without laughing. Sometimes sarcasm is thinly veiled but that is not the case here. It is not often that I read theological work that has such a disdain for other opposing theological positions. Barth was no fan of Liberalism. He rejects what he just claimed was their position for three reasons: 1) No Scriptural evidence for the “worsening” of the world 2) It exchanges reason for Revelation 3) God’s word is relevant on its own terms.

I must say that he has built himself quite the argument. Who show him to be wrong? He could have said it in one sentence though: God, the flesh and world have never changed and neither should we! If the Church is to take unbelief seriously it has already lost. Atheism, Liberalism, Roman Catholicism etc., for Barth, are battles that cannot be won because their is one thing that the Church cannot question, God’s Word. It is the lifeline of the Church and cannot be diluted in any way. If the Church questions God’s ability and desire to reveal himself they have already forfeited the task of proclamation. Here is a great quote:

Theology is genuinely and effectively apologetic and polemical to the extent that its proper work, which cannot be done except at the heart of the conflict between faith and unbelief, is recognised, empowered and blessed by God as the witness of faith, but not to the extent that it adopts particular forms in which it finally becomes only too clear to the opposing partner that it is either deceiving him whine it proposes to deal with him on the ground of common presuppositions, or that it is not quite sure of its own cause in doing so.

Wow tell us what you really think. Gotta love it when someone calls it like they see it (unless you are the object at which the words are hurled). Barth had no time for complete unbelief but that is not to say he thought that the members of the Church never doubted. Here is his distinction:

The faith which is in conflict with doubt of the truth, with the question of the existence of God, is very different from the faith which asks whether the God whose existence is no problem is gracious or whether man must despair of himself.

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Problem #2 with Penal Substitutionary Atonement

In my series of posts that have concerned themselves with Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) I have critiqued this theory with having, at least, two crucial flaws. Before I get into the second problem, I would like to make clear that by “crucial flaws,” I mean that this theory cannot sustain itself as being necessitated by Scriptures teaching on atonement. It may still be true but it is not demanded by the witness of Scripture. Just because something is not “Biblical” does not mean it is not true or factual. My wife loves me this is true and the Redskins are terrible (again!) this is factual but neither of these things are “BIblical.” So my point is merely that if the Scriptures are authoritative for Christians and they do not explicitly or implicitly (on a fundamental level) witness to this teaching than it is not “Biblical.”

Now, quickly in review, it is important to remember that I claimed that the first crucial flaw in the PSA argument is that it requires that God’s character is so “just” that he cannot simply forgive sin without propitiating himself, that is, his wrath is real and it must be dished out since it is deserved and due for sins. I brought up the fact that God in many places in the O.T Scriptures simply forgives without even requiring a sacrifice. Even “High-handed Sin” of which the Torah gives no sacrifice is forgiven without sacrifice (see Golden Serpent story in Numbers).

The second “crucial flaw” in the PSA theory is, in my opinion, that it assumes that atonement was a form of punishment for things done wrong, like a breach of contract or rebellious activity. Unfortunately for PSA theory this is simply not true. Take for instance a house (Lev. 14:53), a woman who just gave birth (Lev 12) and the sanctuary (Lev 16:15), must at times “make atonement” for themselves/itself. Obviously, the concept of atonement in the O.T. Scriptures did not equal a payment for sin. (Although, I do not nor am I trying to deny that payment for sin is contained within the concept of atonement.) My main point is that built within the mechanism that supposedly makes PSA necessary is that the death of the atoning sacrifice was so that God could release his wrath onto the said substitute. This is clearly superficial since the O.T Scriptures conceive of atonement being necessary when no sin has been committed.

In the next post I will lay out an alternative understanding of atonement that includes purification and ransom but does not in anyway act as means by which God relieves wrath. Instead, I will argue, that the atonement is a payment of a lesser degree that God in his grace allows to function as repayment for offending him.

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God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World

I just finished Mark S. Smith’s newest work God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World and I have to say that he is quickly becoming my favorite author. About two years ago I began to really look into the “Creation Stories” in the Hebrew Scriptures and I stumbled on his The Priestly Vision of Genesis I which was phenomenal. So, recently I have been struggling with why idolatry is something only the Isrealites are warned of and not the nations until 2nd Temple literature? Well Dr. Smith is at it again with his newest work where he explains the “translatability” of God.

His main thesis is that originally Israel/Jacob was polytheistic like all the other nations. (This starting point is apparently very different than Assmann and Hendel who claim Israel was an exception to the rule.) Yes, Israel had YHWH but this god was a warrior god who was part of the “great” god El/Elyon. He shows that the nations around Israel at its earliest stage of literature identified their gods with other nations gods although by different names. So Israel’s YHWH is another nations Ba’al. This view then slowly morphed (around the Monarchic period) into the view that each nation had its god, of which none were inherently evil, which made up a larger “world theology.” This worked because nations were relatively small at that time but, by the time of the Neo- Assyrian empire, which was huge by the former standard, Israel began to be threatened. Also at this time, Babylon and Assyria began to shift to “one-god” religions (Marduk for the former and Assur the latter). The threat of empire plus the religious shift of the region caused Israel to fall back on allegiance to YHWH their “one-god” or King vs Assyria.

He does go on to talk about the Greco-Roman period but for my interests the first five chapters were worth the price of the book. I say this because I have often been asked about the destiny of those who don’t believe in the God of the Bible. I always say I don’t know due to the lack of information I have. This book, for me, confirms my suspicions. The earliest theology of the Hebrew Scriptures did not think it problematic for say, and Egyptian or Mesopotamian to worship their god. It seems that idolatry (or lack of worshiping YHWH) is a later issue that grows out of political and social reasons.

My own hunch (speculation) is that idolatry begins to be viewed as wrong because the other nations, and thus their gods, have shown themselves to be unjust and wicked. So we have Psalm 82 that claims Israel’s God will take charge of the other Gods bring justice to the world. So idolatry is rooted more in ethics than in ontology. There are other gods its just they are not Righteous like Israel’s God and he will deliver the world from wickedness just like he did Israel.

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Barth: Closing thoughts on chapter 1

Well what now that I have had time to reflect on my first Barth experience I must say I am quite impressed. Although initially I kept wondering to myself if I had not gotten into something that was going relieve my head of all its hair. Before I get into my thoughts about the chapter as a whole I would like to note a couple of things that I wish I would have known going into reading Church Dogmatics:
1.    The Church in the title appears to be there for a reason. This simple detail somehow failed to escape me and my first reading of the chapter frustrated me. Barth is not talking to everyone. He is talking to those who have a deep rooted and passionate trust in God. Non-believing critical scholars should not attempt to dissect this as it assumes things that they would not (this is his point in the Prolegomena section).
2.    I found that reading Barth slowly once does not do the trick. I devised a system that has a quick overview skim of a section in order to get the flow of the argument then I go back an read at normal pace underlining important phrases.
3.    Some sentences, clauses, uses of commas will be incomprehensible; its okay. That is why I am reading the blogs.

My final comment on the first chapter has to do with the unique experience that I had with this work. On my first reading I found myself frustrated because I was expecting (even demanding) that this work be just like everything else I have read in the last ten years. That is, an exegetically driven, background laden book that treats all views equally. Instead what I read was a book that assumes that the trust of God is a fundamental need to understand anything contained in its cover. In other words I thought I was reading a book for the academy and found out that I have undertaken a work for the Church. I think this has come at the right time in my life.

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Why is Hermeneutics so Important?

Because very popular and influential Christian speakers continue to say things that make absolutely no sense. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck then it must be a duck, that is, unless there is a story in the Scriptures I interpret as meaning there is no such thing as ducks.

Remember, it is not what the Bible “says” that is authoritative but what the Bible “means.”

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