Tag Archives: nt

What Did Jesus Sacrifice?

In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lots-of-fun Jesus Christ Superstar, the crowd (in the guise of journalists at Jesus’s arrest) sing

“Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, who are you what have you sacrificed?”

It is part of a certain subset of Christianity to focus on the sacrifice of Jesus. I’ve heard sermons preached with statements such as “Jesus gave up everything, even his life, for your sins.” or “It cost God everything to restore relationship with you.”

Now, I’ve written (and excoriated) penal atonement theory before (the idea that God sent himself to kill himself to atone to himself for the sinful nature he’d created in human beings in the first place).

But that’s not the purpose of this post. I want to ask about the sacrifice of Jesus. Was it costly?

This paradox has been pointed out by lots of people before, but I’ve been thinking about it this evening. What did it actually cost?

Before launching into some thoughts, let me just say that I may slip into language describing what Jesus did and felt here. Of course, everything should be prefaced with “accordingly to the portrayal of the gospels” or “according to orthodox Christian doctrine”. I’ve said before that I don’t believe these accounts are historical. I’m really interested in how these things can be understood on their own terms, when they seem to hold so little water (at least for me). So read what follows with those disclaimers in mind.

1. Jesus was fully human. And was, therefore, able to feel pain as a human. It hurt a lot to be crucified. So let’s give the doctrine this: Jesus suffered a day of agony on the cross. (Skipping lightly over the fact that many Christians, from the earliest records we have onwards, believed that Christ didn’t have a real body and didn’t really suffer).

2. Jesus has foreknowledge of his coming death. So it would have been a really miserable run up to his execution. For reasons I might share another time, I know a little about this feeling. And it does suck.

3. Jesus also knows about his resurrection. So, like childbirth, he would have known that after a period of intense pain, fear and powerlessness, the outcome was really joyful, and ultimately wonderful.

4. Jesus doesn’t die. He doesn’t end. I’ve said before that “being raised from the dead” means you didn’t die, by definition. You may have experienced heart-death, but we’ve long since left that concept behind as a culture (interestingly except for some highly religious countries or states that still use it). Dying is the end of a person, brain and personality death. It isn’t death if you are raised 2 days later.

So the total of Jesus’s only claim to sacrifice is pain and anguish. Now, I’m not saying being crucified is a walk in the park. But really? For the God of the universe, a finite amount of human pain followed by being raised into glory in the sure knowledge that the battle for the universe is won? That hardly qualifies as epic sacrifice, surely?

Anyone got a reasonable rationale for understanding the doctrine of sacrifice?

Edit 2010-10-15: I obviously don’t know my musicals as well as I thought. I confused the arrest song with this. The line comes a little later…


Filed under Uncategorized

Synoptic Gospels

The first three gospels in our NT are called the ‘synoptic’ gospels. They share a lot of material, and it seems very clear they were written with a great deal of mutual influence. Unpicking the particular pattern of influence is a tricky puzzle, commonly called the “Synoptic Problem”. Currently the most widespread view is that Mark was first (known as “Markan priority”), then both Luke and Matthew used Mark as a source, along with another shared source (known as “Q”, short for the German “quelle” which just means “source”) that Mark did not have access to. I’m not so sure, I tend towards a more complex picture that is somewhere between this and the “Farrer” hypothesis, which says that Mark was first, then Matthew used Mark, then Luke used Matthew*.

These debates are played out based on the patterns of sharing between the gospels. Obviously the same stories are found in multiple gospels (although, surprisingly very few are shared between the Synoptics and John – other than a couple of key events, John seems to have a conspicuously different life of Jesus). But beyond the same stories, the exact same words are often used, in idiomatic ways that are very unlikely to be coincidence. There are other clues: signs that one writer has copied another. The Fatigue argument** shows how writers can copy, intending to make a change to the copied text, but then get bored and revert to a straight copy. For example in the well known parable of the talents, Luke (19:17) has the servants given “cities” initially, but is obviously copying the same text Matthew uses (Matt 25:21 doesn’t say specifically what they are given), because by the end of the parable Luke has reverted to calling them talents as Matthew does.

When you learn about the synoptic problem, your homework is to colour in synoptic parallels: versions of the gospels printed with the same story from each gospel printed side by side. In this way you can see the material and the phraseology that is unique to each gospel, that is shared between each pair, and that is common across all three.

Now in the modern age, we can program computers to do our homework for us. And behold: a complete colour map of the synoptic gospels.

In this map the three columns represent the three gospels, Matt first, then Mark, then Luke. Each small square (2×2 pixels) in the diagram is one Greek word (from the Nestle-Aland 27 critical edition), so the size of the column tells you the relative size of the gospel (Mark is by far the smallest). The words are from left to right and top to bottom, just as you’d expect.

The color of the pixels tells you whether the word is shared in that story between the gospels (so there’s some complicated matching behind the scenes to compare equivalent stories, no matter which order they appear, and then map them back out into the proper order for diagramming). The color key is:

Red – Matthew’s gospel only.

Green – Mark’s gospel only.

Blue – Luke’s gospel only.

The other colors are combinations of Red, Green and Blue light:

Red+Green = Yellow – Matthew and Mark only.

Red+Blue = Magenta – Matthew and Luke only (so called “Double tradition” material, normally associated with the Q source).

Green+Blue – Cyan – Mark and Luke only.

And finally all three gospels agreeing is shown in black (I know, it should be white, but white is difficult to distinguish from the Yellow and Cyan).

So the diagram tells you an awful lot about the gospels: it shows that virtually none of Mark is unique to Mark. It shows the big block of magenta material near the start of Matthew and Luke which is the sermon on the mount and other so called “sayings” material of Jesus – the stuff that is thought to come from Q. It shows there is a lot more Yellow than Cyan, so Matthew sticks to Mark far closer than Luke does. And it shows there is more Magenta than Cyan, so Luke sticks far closer to Matthew than to Mark (giving further credence to the idea that Luke used Matthew who used Mark). You can also see that the birth narratives at the start of Matthew and Luke are very different, and that Matthew and Luke also have a number of other large blocks of original material.

So the colouring scheme used here is based on words in stories. there are other ways of dividing this up. In particular you can divide it just by which stories are shared. This doesn’t tell you as much historically, since we can’t tell if the stories were copied from one another or just in common circulation. But if you colour that way you get very different amounts of each color. You get much more black, for example – which is to say that the gospel writers often all write the same story, but in quite different words.

The final thing to say is about John. I said John is very different. How different? Well I couldn’t put John in the same diagram as above, because I didn’t have enough distinct colours to clearly show the 15 different patterns of sharing between 4 gospels. But here is John on its own. In this diagram the brown color is the stuff that is only in John. The other colors are as before: the stuff that John shares with Matthew (red), Mark (green), Luke (blue), Matthew and Mark (yellow), Matthew and Luke (magenta), Mark and Luke (cyan), and all three of them (black). Clearly John is a totally different beast.

Anyway, I’ve written enough on this. I love diagrams like this – diagrams that are incredibly complicated and specific, but that the overall patterns can be seen from those details.

* If you know anything about this topic, then it might not surprise you to know that I was a student of Mark Goodacre, who is one of the most longsuffering proponents of the Farrer hypothesis. I’m not sure I totally agree with Farrer, however, the Q arguments still sway me somewhat.

** The fatigue argument, one of the most elegant synoptic arguments, in my opinion, is also due to Mark Goodacre.


Filed under Uncategorized

Texts of the Greek New Testament

In a previous post I discussed the greek word translated “daily” in the Lord’s prayer. In the comments I got asked about the categories that we use to talk about the greek text. I promised to post more on that, so here goes. I don’t have long this evening to edit this thoroughly, so I may do that more over the next few days.

So, we have a lot of different Greek texts of the New Testament. How are these classified, grouped and understood? Well aside from dating, which is (obviously) a continuum, there are two important ways to group them:

The First Division — Type of Text

The most obvious division is between three groups of text that have different forms. They are the Papyri, the Uncial Texts and the Minuscule Texts. The papyri were written on papyrus (obviously), the uncial and minuscule texts were typically written on vellum, parchment or paper, and bound into codices (in book form), although in many cases we have only individual leaves. The difference is in the style of writing. The uncial manuscripts are written in capitals, the minuscules in lower case.

1 John 5:7-8 in the Codex Vaticanus, a Uncial Codex of the Alexandrian text-family.

1 John 5:7-8 in the Codex Vaticanus, an Uncial codex of the Alexandrian text-type

This division is roughly chronological – papyrus manuscripts (c. C2 – C8) tend to be earlier than uncials (c. C3-C10), which are in turn earlier than minuscules (c. C9-C16). This isn’t rigid, however. There is a lot of overlap between papyri and uncials in particular.

When you see a NT manuscript discussed, it will be referred to by a code. Papyri have a prefix written as a Blackletter P (e.g. 18, a papyrus of Rev 1 found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt and now held at the British Library). Minuscules are written as numbers (e.g. 44, a complete  C12 text of the gospels also in the British Library). Uncials have a broader range of symbols, the most important are represented by single letters, in a range of different scripts (e.g. א, Codex Sinaiticus, or B, Codex Vaticanus), often with superscripts (so Ha is distinct from He – the stories behind these letters are complex and for another day). These letters are called ‘Sigla’, and there are a little less than 50 of them. Other uncials are represented by their number, which is always given with a leading zero (to differentiate from Minuscules), so 068 is a C5 uncial of John 16, once more at the British Library [I’m picking the British-housed texts deliberately – there are plenty of these texts not housed in the British Library!]. All Uncials have a numerical value, but those that also have a letter are rarely referred to by their number (א is 01, for example).

The Second Division — Text Family

Scholars also divide the texts according to the text tradition they come from. A text tradition is a group of related texts. Because corrections, changes, editing and additions all tend to be copied from one text to another, the premise is that, texts that all display the same features, are likely to trace back to common ancestry. This isn’t always a perfect premise, but it is normally a good one.

So we divide the texts into three again. The Alexandrian text tradition, the Byzantine text tradition and the Western text tradition.

These are obviously named for places, but don’t let the names fool you. Each of these traditions may be clustered in a particular area, but they are all relatively geographically spread. The names are names of convenience rather than being hard-and-fast geographical distinctions.

The Alexandrian text is evidenced in the earliest manuscripts we have. Most of the Papyri are Alexandrian (those that aren’t are either later, or else are unclassifiable because they contain too small a fragment, or contain sections without significant variation among the text-types). The Alexandrian texts are clearly the earliest we have. Whether they are better evidence of the original text, is a more theological debate. As I’ve said before I have little patience for the obsession with ‘original’ texts, whatever that means. Recently critical editions of the NT, and most new translations, have methodologically preferred the Alexandrian texts because of their demonstrable age, and the fact that they lack what look like interpolations and decorations of later texts.

The Byzantine text tradition is also sometimes called the Constantinople tradition (Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine empire – the Greek speaking part of the Roman empire that survived until the C15 – 1000 years after you were probably told the Roman empire fell in your western-biased high school!). But it is also more problematically called the Majority text. This name is somewhat politically charged, it is the remnant of a bad scholarly program that tried to prioritize this text over the Alexandrian tradition because of the sheer number of manuscripts we have. It doesn’t take a scholar to notice that the quest for authenticity is not democratic – there are more extant copies of the LOLcats bible than the Byzantine text tradition – that doesn’t make the LOLcats bible more authentic. So I’d recommend staying clear of “Majority Text” (and its paranym “Received Text”). The Byzantine texts are much later, and tend to be more verbose than the Alexandrian. It is in the Byzantine family that we have the bulk of texts with the post-resurrection narratives in Mark, for example, or the woman caught in adultery, or the end of the Lord’s Prayer. We also have a lot of Byzantine-style texts in the form of Lectionaries – compilations of bible verses used for daily prayer or ritual. This is not surprising, the Byzantine empire was a Greek-speaking Christian state. Byzantine texts often have more fluent, liturgy-friendly, wording. You can think of the Byzantine texts as being equivalent to the various versions of the Latin Vulgate used in Catholic Europe.

P37, from the University of Michigan library. An example of a Papyrus containing the Western text of Acts.

The Western text tradition is more eclectic. Originally named for a group of texts associated with the Western Mediterranean, this group of texts has now been found in a much wider spread. From France to Switzerland to Syria. It is characterized by a freer style, bordering on paraphrase and retelling at points. There are more additions (some the same, some different to the Byzantine texts), although in Luke there is a section that is shorter in the Western text (proving that all rules have exceptions). Unlike the Byzantine texts, which were highly influential in the production of early protestant translations, the Western texts haven’t had much of an impact on our English bibles, and so their alterations are less well known. There are relatively few Western texts, in contrast to the other categories. Though a couple of Papyri in this text-type are very early (C2-3 for P37, for example), most scholars consider their obvious paraphrasing and changes in wording to be evidence that they witness a later stage of the text than the Alexandrian text-type. With a much smaller number of texts, we get more patchy coverage. We have no copies of this tradition for the non-Paul epistles and Revelation, for example (and it could be that these books were not canonical for the communities who originated the Western text-style). Scholars of the Western text tradition often use non-Greek sources as primary evidence, particularly Syriac versions of the text, which appear to have a lot of similarities.

There are plenty of other texts that aren’t obviously thoroughly in one category or the other, or else are so fragmentary as to have no clear indication of their type. Various other text-types have been proposed, although none are unequivocally accepted. The Ceasarean text tradition, for example, is useful in categorizing some patterns of change in the Gospels, but on close inspection tends to fragment into sub-families and more nuanced arguments.

And that, phew, is a whirlwind tour of NT text classification. I hope it wasn’t too tedious. I find this geektastic, but I’m aware that there were plenty of my fellow undergrads asleep in these lectures!


Filed under Uncategorized

Give us this day our ………. bread. — Matt 6:11

Fill in the gap.

The Lord’s Prayer is probably the most famous passage from the whole bible. Certainly in the UK where many folks grew up saying it every day in school. But the funny thing is we don’t really know what should fill the gap.

The greek word is ἐπιούσιος (epi-OO-sea-os). Which is a very odd word. It doesn’t appear in other greek literature, and it doesn’t appear elsewhere in the gospels except in the two versions of the Lord’s prayer (Matt 6:9–13 and Luke 11:2–4). So we have no absolute way of knowing what it might mean.

But it seems to be pretty obvious. The Greek splits into two parts: “ἐπι-” (epi) is a common prefix in Greek that means “upon”, or “over”, and by analogy “beyond”, “more-than”. We have it in our word “epidemic”1 where “-demic” is again related to a Greek root meaning people (c.f. words such as demographics or democracy). The second part of the word “-ούσιος” is a common morpheme in Greek with meanings of “substance”. Hence the debate in the early church between whether Jesus and God were “homo-ousios”: of the same substance.

So using this analysis, we get “Give us this day our super-substantial bread”. And this is exactly how it was translated in the Latin Vulgate (“supersubstantialem”), and in some of the earliest English bibles. But, of course, if you are a protestant, “super-substantial bread” is unacceptably reminiscent of “trans-substantial bread”. And Jesus praying a Catholic prayer? Unconscionable!

Instead you can kind-of make a contrived Greek derivation through a misspelling and odd contracted verb form of ἔπειμι (EP-eye-me) “to come upon”, which is often used along with the word for day (“ἡμέρα” herm-EH-ra) to mean “on the following day” (if you’ve read much of the gospels you’ll recognize that phrase, that’s what it is translating). So it could be that we are meant to read “give us this day our following day’s bread”2, with a spelling mistake and a missing word (the missing word isn’t uncommon, it must be said). From there with a squint we could end up with “daily”. Phew. We’ve avoided sounding Catholic! Hoorah! Let’s not mention the fact that there are perfectly reasonable ways of saying “daily” in NT Greek (such as “κατά ἡμέρα” and “πᾶς ἡμέρα” both using the word for day “ἡμέρα”), so that this construction would be an obtusely strange way to say “daily”.

So early protestant translators used “daily”, even though there is very poor evidence for it3. The King James Version, and practically every English version since has used “daily”. I can’t find who originally used this form of words. It is present in Luther’s 1545 version (“täglich Brot”), was written back into the lexicons, and has passed into most other languages from there (“pain quotidien” in the French Louis Segond, for example, and “日々の食物” in the Japanese Living Bible [specially for Sabio]).

So we’ve ended up with “daily” bread. More through historic accident and sectarianism than through good Greek.

So let’s use the obvious Greek parsing “super-substantial”, via a more common English phrase “supernatural” (which is further from the Greek, of course, I’m not suggesting the author meant supernatural, just that supernatural is the nearest reasonably common word in English). We get the Lords prayer (following Matt):

Our father in heaven:
May your name be holy;
May your kingdom come;
May your will be done,
As in the heavens4, so upon the earth.
Give us today our supernatural bread.
Forgive us our sins, even as we forgive sinners5.
Do not bring us to temptation, but from hardships draw us to yourself.6
—Matt 6:9-13 (tr. mine)

So all together we have a prayer which is about the life in the new Kingdom. It doesn’t talk about prosaic things. And using “daily bread” stands out therefore, where “supernatural bread” works fine.

But of course, when you have such an iconic translation, the translation becomes more important than the ‘original’ (or even first 1500 years of) meaning of the text.


[1] My first thought for an example was “epididymis” which is the coiled tube that pipes sperm out from the testicle. It has a more amusing derivation “epi-” meaning “beyond”, of course, but “-didymis” is also greek, and in fact you may know it from a character in the NT, Didymus Thomas. Didymus means “twins”. So the epididymis, is “beyond the *nudge-nudge-wink-wink* twins”.

[2] Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, mentions that the (now lost) Gospel of the Hebrews had “bread of the morrow” here, so the sense of the following day’s bread is not entirely new. But Jerome concludes the “of the morrow” translation doesn’t work in context and makes little sense. He wisely goes with the Greek. He doesn’t mention “daily” as a possible translation.

[3] Interestingly, the Syriac translation (Pesshita) of the NT uses “neccesary”, although it isn’t clear what parsing of the Greek they were using to arrive at that. This is sometimes pointed to as supporting evidence for the use of the “daily”, though that is a huge stretch even then, since the Syriac used is definitely not that for “daily” – as in the Greek, there is a perfectly normal way of saying “daily”, used elsewhere in the Pesshita, but it is not used here.

[4] I’ve taken a liberty here of pluralizing the Greek singular word ‘heaven’. The plural form is very common as well, both in Greek and Hebrew and doesn’t seem to have much of a semantic difference. Here it just reads more smoothly.

[5] My translation of ‘sin’ here is a bit sneaky. Sin would be correct in Luke’s version, but in Matt he uses the normal word for debts. It is pretty certain, however, that it is being used metaphorically, to mean spiritual debts, and this is the sense in which Luke obviously takes it. Not many folks would argue that the gospel writers want you to understand that Jesus is talking monetary debts here. Particularly since Matt 6:14 goes on to have Jesus explain that he was talking about sin. Of course, if Jesus were to be taken as asking you to pray for the forgiveness of your monetary debts, then it would dent my suggestion that the Lords prayer is all about the kingdom.

[6] The “For thine is the Kingdom” bit at the end is not considered authentic. It is only found in some text traditions and has numerous variations in other texts, so I have omitted it in accordance with the recommendation of Nestle-Aland. — I’m sure that would be yet another reason why conservatives hate the NA text.


Filed under Uncategorized

Ananias and Sapphira — Acts 5:1-11

Acts 5:1-6 has a famous story of the deceit of Ananias and his wife Sapphira:

A man named Ananias, and Sapphira his wife, sold their property. But they kept back part of the price (his wife having full knowledge of it). He brought just a part of the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the holy spirit, and to keep back part of the money from the land? While you had it, was it not yours? and after it was sold, was it not in your control? why have you thought to do this? You have not lied to men, but to God. On hearing these words, Ananias fell down, and died: and a great fear came on all who heard it.
— Acts 5:1-6 (tr. mine)

Next Sapphira arrives and Peter asks her about the money. She too lies, and she too dies.

Now this passage is interesting because it is one of the few incidents of a negative miracle: a miracle of condemnation, rather than of grace. Peter is the focus of this story; obviously the story is a morality tale about lying to the church, but it is Peter who engineers this situation. He acts pretty shabbily, particularly to Sapphira.

Clearly this is a bizarre account. The theme of being struck dead for lying to God isn’t developed elsewhere. So we have to recognize that this story is an isolate. And that bizarre quality would have been apparent to the early readers too.

Most scholars think that this story is probably an earlier pericope that Luke weaves into Acts after the story of a man (Barnabas) who sells his land and gives all the proceeds to the church. Luke talks about Barnabas and sees the opportunity to weave in another folk-tale from the early church. That seems likely to me too.

So where did the pericope come from?

Well, the fact is we can’t possibly know. Anything is speculation. But sometimes speculation is fun. And this week I came across:

Menoud, Phillipe H., “La mort d’Ananias et de Sapphira, Actes 5, 1-11″ in Aux sources de la tradition chretienne. M. Goguel (ed.), Delachaux & Niestlé, 1950.

And that paper contains some wild speculation that is particularly fun. Menoud suggests that Ananias and Sapphira might have been the first Christians in the Jerusalem church to die. Now we know from elsewhere in the NT (1 Thess is particularly concerned with this) that there was angst in the early church when members started to die, because they believed Jesus would come again in their lifetime (as the gospels clearly portray him teaching).

So Ananias and Sapphira die, and this is a major blow to the church. The way in which they rationalise it (and the way in which some modern churches still rationalise misfortune) is to claim some spiritual dimension. Some deeper, darker (and, of course, unverifiable) reality behind the observable facts. They make the death of these believers into a deserved punishment. Everyone would have known Ananias and Sapphira were generous donors of the church. So the story was started that they could have been more generous, but were skimming their own donations, and God took his divine retribution, through the authority of Peter.

This is fantasy, of course. We simply cannot expect to find evidence to confirm or deny it. And if you search for citations of that article, you get a selection of worthly scholars telling you how unverifiable it is. But it is interesting, feasible with what we know about the early church, and it is psychologically realistic. And, of course, it is 100% more likely than the story of their death by divine fiat after holding back some of their donation!


Filed under Uncategorized

Peter: Feed My Sheep, A Group Bible Study — John 21:15-17

I’d like to try something new. I’m not sure if I’ve got nearly enough commenters on this blog, or if enough of them are former or current Christians. But hopefully we can get started. I want to think about the rather odd passage in John 21:15-17, where a ressurrected Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, and each time, when Peter agrees that he does, Jesus tells him some variation on ‘feed my sheep’.

The passage is:

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

— John 21:15-17 (NIV)

Christ 's Charge to Peter by Raphael

Christ's Charge to Peter by Raphael 1515-1516. Currently in the Victoria and Albert museum, London. This stunning piece is a combination of two scenes: Matthew 16:18-19 (giving Peter the keys to the kingdom), and our John 21:15-17 (pointing to a flock of sheep to feed).

I haven’t used my translation of this. I’m using the NIV translation because I don’t want to introduce my bias onto the text at this point (although I did select the translation to use, so I’m not entirely innocent).

So the question I want us to answer is this: what does this mean? What is Jesus saying, what are the significant elements to the story? Is there an explanation of why it is in this format (why three times, why sheep, why Peter emphasizes Jesus’s knowledge, why love, why ‘Simon son of John’, etc). No explanation will cover more than one or two of these features, but I’m interested to see the gamut of interpretations.

Please add in the comments, but can I ask you to state carefully whether your response is a personal intepretation, or one you’ve been taught (if the latter, can you say where: a sermon, a bible study, sunday school). You can add as many comments as you like with as many interpretations.

Anyone is welcome to contribute and your intepretations will not be ridiculed (not by me, anyway – comments are always free to disagree). There is no correct answer I’m looking for, and I don’t have any bombshell to undermine the text. You don’t need to know the original greek, or be a bible scholar or theologian. Simple explanations are as welcome as complicated ones. I am curious because I know of several different ways of reading this passage, and I suspect there may be many, many more. If you are a believer and lurk here, please contribute.


Filed under Uncategorized

Jesus as a Boy? — John 2:1-11

I’ve been doing a little bit of study on infancy gospels recently. They are early Christian writings about the life of Jesus before his public ministry. Works such as the Protoevangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, both (we think) second century texts. These got me thinking again about the NT, however, and an interesting thesis that I think has some merit. I’d like to share it.

First, some background on Christology. The various writers of the NT texts had different ideas about what it meant to be the Christ (which is just the greek word for Messiah), and the way in which Jesus fulfilled that label. One variation that is often cited is time. A very simplified version goes like this:

Paul – (the author of the earliest NT texts, around 60AD) believed that Jesus became the Christ through his death and resurrection.

Mark – (the earliest gospel, around 70AD) believed that Jesus became the Christ at his baptism.

Luke and Matthew – (the next tranche of gospel writing, around 80AD) believed that Jesus was the Christ from conception.

John – (the last gospel, from after 90AD) believed that Jesus was the Christ from before creation.

So during the first century, Christology got pushed back through the life of Jesus and out the other side.

The first and most significant push-back gives motivation for the gospels. Paul isn’t interested in Jesus’s life. The man Jesus isn’t as important as the Christ he becomes. It takes a theological shift, putting the Christ-event at the baptism, to give Mark the reason to write his life of Jesus. Now Jesus the man is important because he is the Christ on earth. Then another key change is that between Mark and Luke. At this point the Christ-event gets pushed back beyond the unknown.

[Can I stress again that this is over-simplified, the gospels and Paul are more nuanced and there is Christological variation on other axes than time!]

So the unknown is intriguing, and potentially juicy. If the boy Jesus was the Christ, he must have had his divine powers then, surely? If so how did he use them? Was he born with the mind of an adult? Or was he a petulant youth with the power of the creator of the cosmos at his fingertips? This is the speculation that gives rise to the rather comical tales in some of the infancy gospels (including Jesus cursing another boy he’d fallen out with: the boy dies and his parents are struck blind). By the second century this speculation had got really far fetched. But it was pretty modest in the first century when the gospels were being written.

I think (and this isn’t a majority position, as far as I can tell) that there are two such stories surviving in the NT. They are evidence of the emerging tradition that started out of that theological innovation: to push back the Christ-event to before Jesus’s baptism.

The first story is pretty clearly in this category (though some scholars don’t share my view that it predated the gospel that contains it). It is the story at the end of Luke 2 where a 12 year old Jesus is teaching in the temple. Jesus’s parents have set off for home after the passover and they find Jesus is missing, they return to Jerusalem and find him teaching in the temple – amazing the priests and scribes with his knowledge. The text even comments that his parents share their amazement.

The second is more controversial. It is the story of the family wedding in Cana (start of John 2), where Jesus turns water into wine. This story could be read as having taken place during Jesus’s public ministry (John places it after the baptism and calling of the first disciples), but the details don’t quite work in that context. It makes more sense to read it earlier.

Both these stories work on their own. They have no significant context or relationship to surrounding material. Luke 2, coming at the end of the birth narratives seems to contain yet another revelation to his astonished parents that Jesus is the Christ, even though Luke has already given us two (possibly independent) accounts before. The wedding story doesn’t make theological sense in terms of Jesus’s ministry – turning water into wine is domestic, hedonistic, it is out of kilter with the more obvious theological points of John’s other miracle stories. John’s setting is odd – it takes place out of the area that John (and the synoptics) want to portray Jesus’s ministry. Both stories use an ‘three days’ mnemonic (Jesus is lost for three days in Luke, and the wedding happens ‘on the third day’ in John), which is characteristic of Christological concerns, and suggests the stories are self-consciously written to that end. Both have linguistic characteristics that could suggest they are independent from the surrounding text.

I support the idea that both are pre-existing stories (not necessarily written sources) that Luke and John use and wind into their narrative. None of these bits of evidence is a slam-dunk, all can be contested. But there are answers to these objections (we can go over them in the comments if anyone wants to), and I am drawn by the balance of evidence.

I think many such stories circulated in the early church. Their number and impressiveness increased as the early church developed its theology and ‘realized’ that Jesus was the Christ from the beginning. These tales spread and these two early tales were successful enough to gain literary attention from the gospel writers, who found use for them and worked them into their texts. This same process continued over the next 300 years, and gradually taller and taller tales were spun, turning the pre-baptismal Jesus from an unremarkable tekton (skilled laborer), into a magician of the ages.


Filed under Uncategorized

What is Early Church History?

An article at the end of the Jewish Study Bible got me thinking. It made a nice distinction that I think very well summarises the challenge of doing early church history:

The difficulty is distinguishing the religion that generated the bible from the religion that the bible generated.


Filed under Uncategorized

The Birth Narratives and Dating

There are two stories about Jesus’s birth in the NT. One at the start of Matthew, the other at the start of Luke. They are very different in many regards. I wrote more about these in other places at Christmas, so I won’t recap too much about their content.

Because the stories are in some ways similar and in others completely different (and contradictory – unless you jump through some bizarre exegetical hoops) they give us a lot of data. From a source critical perspective, when you have two different accounts of the same thing, you typically divide the story into three sources: those sources that belonged to each individual (Matt and Luke) and the sources they both knew and drew on.

In this latter category, for the birth narratives, seems to be a set of interesting features, including:

1. Jesus came from Nazereth.
2. The Messiah comes from Bethlehem.
3. Jesus is the Messiah.
4. Jesus was born around the turn of the CE.
5. Jesus’s parents were named Mary and Joseph (Miriam and Yosef if you degreekify them).

Clearly 1-3 are a problem! And so many scholars believe that the birth narratives are motivated by the desire to resolve 1-3. To show how, even though everyone knows Jesus comes from Galilee, he must have been born in Bethlehem. And this is where the common source gives out. Whatever it was, it didn’t resolve the issue, because Matt and Luke each take a stab at squaring the circle and do so in different ways.

I’m posting on this topic because of imarriedaxtian’s comment in the previous post. I said that we can use the birth narratives as evidence of the dating of Jesus’s birth, even though few scholars think they are anything but mythological inventions. This is point 4, above.

We can deduce 4 because the *rough* dating is common, and therefore likely to be an earlier tradition. I say rough because, as is commonly pointed out, the disparities in the two accounts mean that they can’t both be exactly right – the dates just don’t line up. This has been pointed out many times, and is a favorite tool of ridicule by some atheists, who unfortunately stop right there and fail to think through the issue.

Having the dates not match exactly is not really surprising if you follow the standard model described above – both writers (or sources only they knew) are making up their birth narratives much later.

What is significant is that they both plump for the same kind of period. Imagine if you read two accounts of the birth of a famous man from the middle twentieth century. One places his birth in 1920, the other in 1926. From that I think you can probably say that the evidence points to a birth somewhere in the early 20s. Clearly the evidence does not support a birth in the 40s. You could deduce further that the two accounts don’t agree, they both can’t be right, and it may be that neither is correct. But the balance of probabilities suggest that the 1920s is the most likely period.

So the birth narratives give us evidence on the dating of Jesus’s birth, even though we don’t trust the specific dating that either gives us.

Of course, as I said in the previous comment, there are other threads of evidence for the dating of Jesus’s birth – just as (if not more) speculative, but contributing to a consensus view that Jesus was born somewhere around the turn of the CE.


Filed under Uncategorized

Factions in the Corinthian Church — 1 Cor 1:11-12

The Temple of Apollo at Corinth

The temple of Apollo at Corinth, with the city

Yesterday my eye was drawn to something intriguing at the start of 1 Corinthians. This is a letter written by the apostle Paul to a church he founded in Corinth which has grown and matured to some extent, but is gripped with some serious infighting and factional disputes. Some scholars (I’m thinking particularly of Dale Martin’s excellent “The Corinthian Body”) posit that these disputes line up on class lines, making the division basically a class war. Paul’s message can then be seen as giving succor to the majority, lower class position the church.

But what interested me was the list of names, Paul writes:

My brothers, some of Chloe’s folks have told me that there are quarrels among you. In other words: one of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Peter”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
– 1 Cor 1:11-12 (trans, mine)

The first thing that is amusing is the little gossip you get – word of the infighting came to Paul from a spy in the camp: “Chloe’s people” (this could mean members of her household, or her friends, or the house church that met with her). Lots more could be said about Chloe, but she’s a sideshow for this post!

The thing I noticed here is the four names mentioned. I wonder if that suggests four, rather than two factions. We know, for example, that Peter and Paul were at odds (read Galatians 1 for Paul’s rather arrogant take on their disagreement, and Acts for the official version that tries to smooth over the cracks!). For some of 1 Corinthian’s debates, such as the eating of food sacrificed to idols, I can imagine Paul and Peter lining up on opposite sides. We know further that Apollos was a follower originally of John the Baptist, rather than Jesus, but was converted later (Acts 18), but we don’t know of any theological differences here. Tradition also has it, via Jerome, that Apollos was so discontent with the split at Corinth, that he left the city and retired to Crete.

But most tantalizing to me is the faction who traced their teaching direct to Christ, I wonder what they believed.

I also wonder if the various problems Paul addresses (sexual abstention, food sacrificed to idols, speaking in tongues, etc) were distributed among those other three factions. Is he taking on all comers here? Trying to assert his theological dominance as the head of the community. Or was it basically a two-sides dispute as Martin, convincingly, argues.

Certainly something must have worked, because in a later letter Paul seems to have fewer debates he wants to win. (I’m referring to the first part of 2 Cor – the second part of 2 Cor, chapters 10-13, is a separate letter, and may even be the “letter of tears” referred to in 2 Cor 2:4).

I’m going to need to read more about it, obviously. I’m particularly loose on the early church traditions around Apollos. Any particular book suggestions would be welcome.

One of the reasons I love studying just one compilation of texts in detail is that you notice and take off on these new flights from time to time. The text doesn’t change (much!) but there are always new questions to research, and new insights to be had.

I know Shakespeare scholars who feel the same way about their text. For various historical twists of fate, the New Testament is my personal playground.


Filed under Uncategorized