Sunday, August 29, 2004


8/22 -- The Hemorrhaging Woman and Making the Gospels Irrelevant

8/14 -- A Seeming Paradox - Why people pay no attention to the idea that Jesus did not intend to start a new religion.

8/8 -- To the Stars or To Our Selves? - Travelling to the past can be every bit as exciting as space exploration.

Sunday, August 22, 2004


I have said it before (like, two posts below this one and many other times) and will say it again: Gospels scholars have succeeded in creating a field in which the Gospels have become irrelevant in the study of the Gospels. An excellent case in point is the hemorrhaging woman (Mk 5:24-34; Lk 8:43-48).

If you are at all familiar with Gospel studies, you know that scholar after scholar tells us that this story is about Jesus defying the purity codes of his time. Supposedly, the woman is unclean by Jewish standards and will make anyone whom she comes into contact with unclean as well, yet Jesus does not become angry with her for touching him. Instead, contact with him heals her and he blesses her.

The problem is that nothing in the texts, in either Mark or Luke, says that this is about an issue of impurity. In a brilliant essay in the volume I have mentioned in the last two posts ("The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels" [2002], edited by Wolfgang Stegemann, Bruce J. Malina, and Gerd Theissen), Annette Weissenrieder points out that, according to the Gospel authors, this was simply a case of a woman needing healing for a physical complaint.

Weissenreider is exceptionally erudite, as she discusses ancient medical literature (from both pagan and Jewish sources) on an issue of blood, but what makes her article brilliant is that she gets to the heart of the matter and reveals how simple it all is. Nothing in the Gospel texts says anything about concern for purity. The woman says nothing about it, Jesus says nothing about it, he does not pronouce her clean, nor does he ridicule anyone for believing in these standards. It is simply not an issue. No one in the crowd says anything. Coming out of a crowd, the woman must have bumped into other people. Yet we are not told that anyone regarded her as unclean or complained that she had polluted them too. No one accuses Jesus of tolerating an unclean woman. No priestly issues are brought up.

In short, there is absolutely nothing in the texts to justify the assertion that this is about Jesus defying the purity conventions of his time. Mark and Luke would be quite surprised to hear that this is what the story is about. All they tell us is that the woman had been seeking medical help (going to many physicians) for years and no one could stop the bleeding until she touched Jesus. She was simply seeking help for her medical condition. Not a word is said about any concern over being unclean and nothing is said about her being an outcast for this reason. Not a word. There is no evidence for any of this.

The problem is as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza has pointed out: The scholarly quest for the historical Jesus has required a negative portrayal of Judaism as a foil for Jesus ("Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation" [2000], p. 43). Scholars will get there by hook or crook, mostly by crook, and they don't mind inventing things which are not in the Gospels to create a false impression of Judaism and an equally false version of Jesus in opposition to it. They substitute their own ideas for evidence.

Stick to the evidence and you will get quite a different indication of a very Jewish Jesus who has been preserved in the Gospels.

Saturday, August 14, 2004


The idea that Jesus did not intend to start a new religion has been around for a very long time, at least 200 years. The correlative idea that Paul invented Christianity has probably been around just as long.

I want to make a few comments about the first idea, but as to the second, I will just briefly note that it is too much of a generalization. There are complications. Paul was not the first to spread the news of Jesus' resurrection and Paul, for all his new found inspiration, never loses his Jewish identity. But if you mean by Christianity a belief that Jesus' resurrection changes your whole life, then Paul might qualify as the first Christian or at least the first one to leave us a written record of this kind of experience. It is just that there is so much more to Paul than this.

And what about the first idea that Jesus did not set forth to create a new religion? Most scholars would agree with this. It has become a commonplace. Yet even though it is also a very shocking statement, it seems to have had almost no effect on either scholars or Christians in general. For such a grand idea, it has actually meant very little.

This might appear to be a paradox, until you start to think about it. It is quite understandable why such a radical notion has had almost no consequences on anyone's life or thoughts (though I am sure that there are many exceptions).

For one thing, it is a very general statement with no details to give it life. It is very easy to dismiss broad ideas. A Christian can say, "I choose not to believe it." No one ever fleshes it out to give it real force. So it's a weak statement in the end, despite the fact that it appears to be saying something that would undermine Christianity.

A second point is that, while scholars readily agree that Jesus was not starting a new religion, they still present Jesus as if he were something completely new. Wolfgang Stegemann calls this approach one-upmanship, in his essay in the scholarly collection "The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels" (2002), which I mentioned in the post below this one. Jesus always has to be better than anything in any culture of his time. So while Jesus may not be exactly Christian for scholars, he is not Jewish either, not really. Jesus is always radically one-up (or other) for most scholars.

If the idea that Jesus was not creating a new religion had any force to it, it could only come from seeing the details of the kind of Jew he was. It is not enough to say he remained a Jew. It is vital to know the specifics. And no one wants to examine those details. It seems frightening to know them. Everyone will gladly assent to Jesus not trying to initiate a new institution as long as this is always stated in general and never in detail.

The general idea is thus used by scholars for a negative effect. If Jesus did not start Christianity, then he most likely would not approve of institutional Christianity. That negative conclusion means scholars can come up with their own spiritual or philosophical or ethical idea of who Jesus was. They use this to criticize religious institutions which they don't like. But their philosophical Jesus isn't very different from the radically other Jesus who has no home in Judaism. He is not very different from the anti-Jewish Jesus you will find in much of traditional Christianity.

So while scholars say that Jesus was not starting a new religion, this idea is not meant to have any great effect. It just gives them permission to rewrite Jesus anyway they see fit, but a good deal of their so-called rewriting just repeats many of the traditional formulas. For example, it used to be said that Jesus cleansed the Temple and now scholars say he committed an act of symbolic destruction against it. Their new way of saying it is actually more radically anti-Jewish than the old way. It is a good example of Gospel scholarship going backwards.

Now a Jewish Jesus studied in detail might have profound effects -- and paradoxically, he might reinforce some of the spirituality Christians cherish. Proper historical study means giving a historical person (such as Jesus) the freedom to be the person he really was in his cultural context. That simple task could have the profoundest results of all, which won't be as frightening as people always assume.

Sunday, August 08, 2004


When you were a kid, did you ever dream of going into outer space? It was thrilling, wasn't it? To travel among the stars, to visit other planets, to see exciting new wonders, perhaps discover alien life and strange civilizations. Even before getting to those mind-boggling adventures, the very idea of being in a rocket planted on the ground and feeling the thrust of lift-off could make your skin tingle and your head giddy.

Everything about space travel was exciting and every movie about it -- from sci-fi flicks to documentaries -- still gives a thrill. This is the start of something new.

Travelling into the past could be like that. It is just as much of an adventure to be launched into the past. Maybe more so since it contains so many secrets to our own civilization.

Imagine if you could get so close to the historical Jesus that you could brush up against his skin -- brush up against his own thoughts, what his words originally meant. You might feel the breath of his laughter, if he told a joke, or be tickled by his hiccup after he imbibes some wine. You might be so close that you'd shiver when he shivers, tremble when he trembles at the realization of some characteristic of God, or be struck by something peculiar in his teeth and lips when he smiles. When his cloak rubs against your arm, you'd itch and scratch yourself.

Would you like to be that close? Would anybody? It's rare for anyone to get as excited about travelling to the past as we do about flying into space. Space is an adventure. We're clear about that. We believe it will take us away from ourselves. We can leave all earthly crap behind. It's the great escape.

History doesn't feel like an escape. It feels like more of the same, only now we'll know the origins of it all, and that all is what we'd like to leave behind. This must be how we feel about it because we put a lot of effort into preventing historical travel. And the Bible is the one history we really don't want to know. An entire field has been created to make sure we don't know how Jesus and the movement that followed him began. It's called historical criticism of the New Testament -- the most anti-historical field ever invented.

I don't know how many people believe in God, but I know that probably every one of us believes in culture and civilzation. They are our mother and father. They are our foundation. We don't want to know anything that could possibly question our foundation. The world turned topsy-turvy is nobody's dream. Getting away from the world is one thing. Revisiting and rethinking our beginnings is something else again.

Not that historical travel has to turn our culture upside down. It may not do that at all. But we fear it so much. We fear that this is exactly what will happen. Therefore, we shut down all inquiry before it can ever begin, or, more cleverly, we invent a pseudo-historical travel to stand as a bulwark against the real thing. There will be no genuine lift-off here, no quivering at the excitement of feeling the vibration of blasting into the past. Don't even think about strapping us into those seats.

So scholar after scholar imagines that Jesus learned nothing from his culture. He wasn't even born into a historical culture, not really. Whatever knowledge he had -- of Torah, of parables, of stories of biblical, Jewish heroes, of healings -- was all inborn. It was engraved in his brain at birth. Scholars will make vague allusions to his culture -- to keep up the pretense of doing history -- but nothing concrete is allowed to enter the picture.

Does it occur to anyone that Jesus -- that is, this Rabbi Joshua -- must have studied with other Jewish healers, listened to stories about Moses, David, Elijah at the feet of Pharisaic storytellers, and learned Hebrew from other Jewish teachers? No. It never does. I've read several essays in a recent collection of essays, "The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels" (Fortress Press, 2002), and none of them can work up the nerve to say that Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism was Jesus' culture, his social setting. They all make obligatory references to his Israelite traditions. "Pharisee" and "rabbi" are still dirty words in Gospel scholarship. Jesus may be called rabbi a lot in the Gospels, in all four of them, but scholars have made the Gospels irrelevant to their study of the Gospels.

Think of how truly bizarre this is. If I announced a plan for space exploration in which the moon and Mars were off-limits, would anybody condone this as sensible? If I even drew a map of our own planet, lopping off countries left and right because I did not want anyone to visit them -- or to know that they exist! -- nobody would praise me as a great mapmaker.

But that is exactly what Gospel scholarship is like. Pharisaic and rabbinic culture is rubbed off the map of the past. Scholars will quote Greek writers for comparisons to Jesus (see Gerd Theissen's essay in the volume I just mentioned), but rabbinic literature does not exist. Not for these scholars, the mainstream scholars of the field. Hillel and other ancient Jewish figures are never quoted. And these are some of the top scholars who do this. Top scholars? If our space scientists were like this, we'd still be piddling around with little rockets that get only a few feet off the ground before sputtering out.

A trip to the past is a trip to ourselves, to our origins. But it also means a trip to our fear of the past and to our fear of the other cultures we have tried to wipe out. A trip to the stars is comparatively without fear, and much easier as a result.

A trip to the past means hearing the silenced voices of the past and, most frightening of all, hearing ourselves continuing to try to silence those voices. To recapture those voices that seem to have been effectively silenced but are actually still speaking could be every bit as thrilling as travelling to the stars. But I will confess that I don't know how to make people face those fears that inhibit the excitement. The greatest escape of all is to face those fears. It is the greatest thrill of all, only it won't be as easy as space travel. The far more difficult task, psychologically, is the trip to ourselves and to the places our culture first peeked at the light of day.

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