July 19, 2015

He Has Abolished the Law: Ephesians 2.13-18

The author of this epistle1 makes the startling claim that Christ "has abolished the law" (Eph 2.15). Taken out of context it seems quite shocking, and not at all like anything we find in the gospels.2 To understand it, we need to read it in context:
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph 2.14-16).
By "the law" is not meant the entire Torah. "Do not kill," for example, is still in force. What is meant are specifically those laws that differentiated Jews from non-Jews: circumcision,3 dietary laws, and probably Sabbath observance. These served as markers of Jewish identity, which we might consider a positive thing, but the author here seems convinced that they were a "dividing wall" that contributed to "hostility" between the two groups.

But never mind! With the death of Christ, the two have been made "one new humanity in place of the two"! Here the author is very much in agreement with Paul.

The British scholar N. T. Wright notes that, for Paul, Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham, a covenant "whose purpose was from the beginning the saving call of a worldwide family through whom God’s saving purposes for the world were to be realized."4

God had promised Abraham, "I will make of you a great nation," and that "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 12.2-3). The coming of Christ is the means by which this blessing is extended to "all the families of the earth." (This is what Paul is getting at in Galatians 3.)

The law, writes Paul, "was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made" (Gal 3.19). The law, Paul writes, "was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith" (Gal 3.24-26). 

And then, in the climax to Galatians 3, Paul writes,
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3.28-29)
The wall of separation, i.e. those laws that separated Jew from Gentile, has come down. This is what the author of Ephesians means when he writes that Christ "has abolished the law."

Of course, while this may have made sense to Paul and those who soon followed in his wake, history since that time has told a very different story. Far from creating one group out of two, the coming of Christ has simply added another group. Far from subtracting a dividing line between peoples, it has added yet another.

If this was God's plan, to break down the "dividing wall," and end "the hostility between us," we must admit that this plan has failed, and failed miserably.

Unlike a lot of Christians on the progressive end of the spectrum, I quite like Paul and find much of value in his writings. But his interpretation of Jesus's role in God's plan for the world has been falsified by history.

[1] Although this letter identifies its author as "Paul" (Eph 1.1, 3.1) most scholars are convinced that it was written by someone else. Raymond Brown estimated between 70 and 80 percent of scholars denied Pauline authorship, and he included himself in this number (Introduction to the New Testament, 628-630). I'm inclined to agree with this, which is why I don't refer to the author of this letter as "Paul." But it was clearly written by someone who understood Paul very well, even if he differed from Paul in some respects.

[2] Cf. Matthew 5.17: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." Actually, this verse is probably not from Jesus himself. As John P. Meier points out, "this apparently clear statement of principle is probably, at least in its present form, a creation of Matthew or his church. Matthew’s redactional hand is clearly visible in both the wording and the placement of 5:17" (A Marginal Jew, 4.41). Ulrich Luz affirms that "It is risky to attribute this saying to Jesus and to make it the central point for interpreting Jesus' understanding of the law" (Matthew [Hermeneia], 1.211).

The contradiction between Ephesians 2.15 and Matthew 5.17 is less blatant in the original Greek, as two different verbs are used (katargeō in Ephesians, katalyō in Matthew), but it is still difficult to reconcile these two verses, and it's certainly difficult to imagine Jesus agreeing that he had "abolished the law," even in the restricted sense intended by the author of Ephesians.

[3] That the author has circumcision in view is evident from Ephesians 2.11, where he notes that Gentiles were called "the uncircumcision" by Jews, who called themselves "the circumcision." He notes that this circumcision was "made in the flesh by human hands," perhaps suggesting that this was merely a human custom.

[4] Wright, Justification, 12. It should be noted that Wright's interpretation of Paul is quite controversial, at least among Protestants who think (with some justification) that he has undermined the traditional Protestant understanding of "justification by faith." Actually, I think Wright gets Paul exactly right. But whereas Wright thinks Paul was right, I think Paul was demonstrably wrong, at least as far as his interpretation of God's plan for the world goes.

July 12, 2015

No Bread, No Bag, No Money in Their Belts: Mark 6.7-13

Jesus sends the Twelve, in pairs, to proclaim his gospel message about the reign of God.1 The most striking thing about this passage is Jesus's instructions on how they are to travel: "He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics" (Mark 6.8-9).2

Most scholars seem to think the instructions on what they could and could not bring were symbolic (that is, they were done for the benefit of those who would see the apostles, and they would find some meaning in what they saw). John P. Meier, for example, writes,
Such renunciation of the ordinary equipment for a journey was meant as a prophetic symbol of the urgent, eschatological, life-or-death nature of this brief mission, as well as a symbol of the disciples’ total dependence on the God who was beginning to regather Israel through them.3
I kind of wonder about this, though. Would the people in the villages they visited really interpret it that way? I'm not convinced Jesus was primarily concerned about how they would be seen by others. I think it was done not for the benefit of outside observers, but for the apostles themselves.

This story actually reminded me of something early in my teaching career, when I was teaching religion in a Catholic high school. I brought a grade 11 or 12 class (I can't remember which) on a trip where we were taken on a tour to learn about the life of drug addicts, prostitutes, and the homeless. The tour guide had the students try something that was way out of their comfort zone: for an hour and a half or so, they had to pretend to be homeless and see how they would be treated by strangers.

Because they were doing this for such a short time, I don't think it was quite as eye-opening as the tour guide hoped it would be. But the purpose of the exercise was clear: he knew that in order to have any understanding of what it's like to depend entirely on the kindness of strangers—and endure hostility from some of them—you can't do better than actually trying it out for yourself.

And I can't help but wonder if that's what Jesus was doing to his disciples. If Jesus understood his vocation as, in part, bringing "good news to the poor" (cf. Luke 4.18), and if he expected his disciples to do the same, perhaps he wanted them to understand the people he was so concerned about.

Now, one might argue that his disciples were already poor. And in a sense, they were. But when we understand what "poor" means in the context of the gospels, we find that Jesus's disciples would not have been considered poor.

The Greek word translated "poor" in the gospels (in the NRSV) is ptōchos.4 This is not run-of-the-mill poverty; it's more like destitution.5 It originally meant "begging," and typically refers to those who are "dependent on others for support."6

The Twelve apostles were, as far as we know, gainfully employed before Jesus called them. They were not rich men, but they were not ptōchoi, either. So traveling in such a manner as described in today's reading would have been an educational experience: they would learn the hard way what it means to depend on strangers for support.

 [1] Scholars often try to find some symbolism in the number two. Some find it likely that this "reflects the OT stipulation that two witnesses are required to establish legal testimony" (Marcus, Mark [AYB], 1.383). This strikes me as somewhat farfetched, since they are preaching a religious message, not testifying in legal setting. Morna Hooker admits as much, but defends this interpretation nevertheless, noting that "the idea that any kind of testimony needs corroboration seems a natural corollary" (The Gospel According to Saint Mark [BNTC], 155). I don't really buy it. Jesus, after all, preached on his own. And the disciples were merely relaying Jesus's message, not something they had "witnessed" themselves.

I think there were two because sending them individually would not have been as safe (Jesus knew his message could provoke anger, as we saw in last week's reading), and three would have been less efficient. This was recognized by the 11th century bishop Theophylact of Ohrid, who noted that if Jesus "had sent more than two, there would not have been a sufficient number to allow of their being sent to many villages" (Aquinas, Catena Aurea, 2.108-109).

[2] A number of scholars, notably John Dominic Crossan (The Historical Jesus, esp. 338-339), have argued that this reflects the influence of Cynic philosophers, but I find this unconvincing. 

Basically I agree with Paul Rhodes Eddy ("Jesus as Diogenes? Reflections on the Cynic Jesus Thesis," JBL 115 (1996): 449-469), who finds the similarities between Jesus and the Cynics superficial and ultimately insignificant compared with the vast differences between them. He argues that Jesus is better understood within the Jewish wisdom tradition, in that his teaching is very Jewish in both content and form (especially his use of parables). The "Cynic theorists," however, reduce Jesus's Jewishness "to little more than an ethnic accident" (468). Also, whereas the Cynics prized self-sufficiency, Jesus's teachings "attest...to one's absolute dependence on God" (463). In addition, there is no evidence of a Cynic presence in Galilee during Jesus's time (463-467). A more compact argument against the Cynic hypothesis can be found in Donahue and Harrington, The Gospel of Mark (Sacra Pagina), 192-193. 

Joel Marcus has suggested that, while there are some "overlaps" between Jesus's instructions and the practice of Cynic philosophers, "there are more extensive parallels with the Exodus tradition":

Presumably, their needs for food and shelter will be catered to by those who receive their message. But in a deeper sense the disciples will be looked after by God, and in this regard it is significant that there are strong overlaps between the Markan description of their equipment and OT portrayals of the gear of the Israelites whom God led out of Egypt and sustained in the desert for forty years. As the Markan missionaries will not need to bring bread with them, so the Israelites did not need to take bread because manna rained down on them from heaven (Exodus 16). As the Markan missionaries are enjoined to take only one suit of clothing, so the wandering Israelites did not need to replace their garments, since they were supernaturally preserved from deterioration. (Marcus, Mark [AYB], 1.389)
Marcus thinks that Mark has deliberately inserted parallels to the Exodus story to suggest "that the disciples' missionary journey will be a participation in the new exodus inaugurated by Jesus"  (Marcus, Mark [AYB], 1.389).

I find this possibility very intriguing, but I prefer to think about this a little more realistically, as if this is a story that might actually have happened.

As far as that goes, I think that there is likely some historical event underlying this story (see Meier, A Marginal Jew, 3.154-157, for a detailed argument), although it is clear the story as we find it here has been shaped by Mark for his own purposes.

[3] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 3.155.

[4] The only exception I can find is Luke 21.2, where "a poor widow" translates tina chēran penichran. But she's described as hē chēra hautē hē ptōchē ("this poor widow") in the very next verse.

[5] Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 271-274.

"πτωχός," BDAG, 896.

July 5, 2015

The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth: Mark 6.1-6

At first the people of the synagogue in Jesus's hometown of Nazareth seem impressedmore than impressed, actually: "astounded" (exeplēssonto).1

We are not told exactly what "wisdom" he shares with them, but we can surmise that it was something unfamiliar and new, something they have not heard before. Why else would they be "astounded"?

This feeling quickly fades, and Jesus begins to realize that this congregation is not like the one he encountered in Capernaum (Mark 1.21-28). They too were astounded (the same verb exeplēssonto is used of them as well). But the people in Capernaum were ready for something new. They recognized that although he brought a "new teaching," he taught it with "authority."

The people in Nazareth are not so receptive. They liked what they heard—at least, at first—but it will take more than the preaching of a local woodworker to get them to change their views.2

So they turn on him, as people tend to do when their religious convictions are challenged. Jesus responds with a familiar proverb, as he knows this is an old story: "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." He added that last part himself, perhaps reflecting a little bitterness at the fact that his own family doesn't believe what he's been trying to tell them (cf. Mark 3.20-35).

But what was he trying to tell them?

Like I said earlier, Mark doesn't tell us. But I suspect it might be the same message Jesus began his ministry with: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news" (Mark 1.15).

If this doesn't sound offensive to us today, it is only because we have domesticated the gospel message. We have made it safe so that we don't have to live up to its challenge.3

We have decided that what the "gospel" requires of us is only to believe in a story about Jesus, about how he died for our sins, and how we are saved if we believe this. But obviously this is not what Jesus meant by the "good news," as he was preaching it long before he died.4

We have decided that the call to "repent" (metanoeite) means something like "feel remorse for our sins." While it can mean that, that's not what Jesus meant by it. The repentence (metanoia) that Jesus calls for is something far more profound; it demands transformation, not only belief. 

Transformation is hard; we tend not to like it. We resist any understanding that will require it. We find ways of justifying our resistance: "Isn't this guy only a carpenter?" 

Today's reading reminds us that we need to stop doing this.

[1] This verb does not necessarily have a positive connotation. It appears also in Luke 2.48 (where it is translated "astonished" in the NRSV), to describe the twelve year-old Jesus's parents when, after searching for him for three days, they find him at the Temple. Obviously they were not pleased.

It is also found in Matthew 19.25 to describe the reaction of the disciples when Jesus said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." The disciples were "greatly astounded," and asked, "Then who can be saved?" It seems to me that this was a worried reaction, not a positive one.

[2] "Woodworker" translates the Greek tektōn, usually (as in the NRSV) translated "carpenter." The author of the Gospel of Matthew changed it to ho tou tektonos huios, "son of the carpenter" (Matt 13.55) perhaps reflecting embarrassment over Jesus's occupation. Some manuscripts of Mark have been assimilated to Matthew's version, possibly for the same reason. 

This may seem odd to us today, but embarrassment over Jesus's occupation was real: Celsus, a 2nd century philosopher and opponent of Christianity, had mocked the church for following a lowly tektōn. Origen responded to this by denying that Jesus was ever described as a tektōn in any of the gospels (Contra Celsum 6.36), which would seem to indicate that Origen was only familiar with the variant reading of Mark 6.3.

[3] Some Christians might argue that we can't live up to the challenge, and that this is the real point: to show us what hopeless sinners we are. But this is a cop-out; Jesus did not demand the impossible.

[4] It is also true that the gospel Jesus has been preaching cannot have anything to do with his identity as "Messiah," which won't be revealed in Mark's Gospel for another couple of chapters. And even then, Jesus orders his disciples not to tell anyone about him (Mark 8.29-30).