Jesus and Rome

Were Jesus and the early Christian movement foes of the Roman Empire? This common claim is critically examined by biblical scholar Christopher Bryan in his thought-provoking book Render to Caesar. He takes issue with those who regard Jesus as primarily concerned with opposing Rome in the name of “home rule” for Israel. Bryan examines the OT and the inter-testamental background, the gospels, the letters of Paul, and other NT writings (as well as extra-biblical sources) in making his case. There’s scant evidence, he says, that Jesus regarded Rome as illegitimate as such, and significant evidence to suggest that he recognized its authority–within limits. (The same goes for Paul and other NT writers.)

Bryan contends that Jesus and the early Christian movement stood broadly within the biblical prophetic tradition, which regards earthly powers as permitted by God for the purpose of ensuring peace and justice. The powers are legitimate insofar as they seek to fulfill their God-ordained purpose, but are subject to vigorous critique (and divine judgment) when they don’t. Pagan empires are not bad per se, and the biblical tradition can in fact be quite positive about them (as in the case of Cyrus). Jesus and the early Christians certainly believed the claims of God transcended those of Rome, but that doesn’t mean they rejected the claims of Rome within proper limits.

I confess I’ve never been persuaded by the “Jesus as dedicated enemy of Rome” interpretation. There just seems to be too little evidence in the gospels to support the idea that this was the primary purpose of his ministry. Obviously Bryan’s book isn’t the last word on these issues, but it makes a persuasive (and highly readable) case.

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The living Constitution

Garrett Epps’ American Epic: Reading the U. S. Constitution is a fascinating, informative, lucid, provocative, and not infrequently humorous tour through the text of the Constitution, including all twenty-seven amendments. Epps, a lawyer, professor, and correspondent for the Atlantic, isn’t uncritically reverent toward the text–he recognizes that it can be confusing, opaque, and occasionally self-contradictory, as well as containing ideas that are “repulsive.” But neither is he out to debunk it as a tool of anti-democratic elites. The Constitution binds us together as a people, and over its history it has–albeit often fitfully–expanded the reach of democratic self-government and equality before the law.

Epps takes issue with those who treat the Constitution almost as an infallible oracle that provides a single answer to every legal or political question, frequently comparing them to biblical fundamentalists. He approaches it in a more “literary” fashion, seeing the language as producing a surplus of meaning beyond what the original framers may have intended (even assuming we could always figure out what that was, which we can’t). He proposes that different kinds of reading–“scriptural, legal, lyric, and epic”–yield different meanings, none of which can lay claim to being the definitive meaning.

This doesn’t mean that Epps dispenses with legal analysis. He moves meticulously, passage by passage, teasing out possible meanings, some more plausible than others. His close reading of the text often calls into question what “everybody knows” it means, and he recognizes that different and opposed readings (of, say, the Second Amendment) can lay claim to plausibility. Where we come down will, often as not, depend on prior political and philosophical assumptions. “As a whole,” he notes, “its composition spanning two centuries, the Constitution forges a complex language, its words drawing meaning from their interrelation and the gloss of new uses.”

Actually moving through the Constitution, warts and all, and reflecting on the circumstances under which its various parts were composed, probably provides the best argument for seeing it as a “living” document that takes on new meanings in different historical circumstances. It’s not unlike how, to borrow Epps’ frequent comparison, actually reading the Bible closely often calls into question simplistic theories of inspiration or “inerrancy.” Epps’ book is an eye-opening guide to a text that “so many revere and so many fewer have read.”

Odds and ends for a Friday

I realize I’m exactly the type of person you’d expect to like a Sufjan Stevens album, but nonetheless–the new album is really good!

Evangelical Christian groups are working on a statement of theological concern regarding factory farming. I’m no longer a vegetarian (and feel vaguely guilty about it), but I’m all for any efforts to reform how we treat the animals we raise for food.

There’s been some good stuff published to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Some pieces I found of particular interest were this on why we should mark the surrender of the Confederacy with a national holiday, this one on how the issues that split the country still drive our politics and this one on the surprising divergence of Grant’s and Lee’s reputations after the war.

Yesterday was also the 70th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death at the hands of the Nazis. Bonhoeffer continues to inspire Christians of every stripe, who often jostle to claim him as one of their own. But Bonhoeffer was far from a plaster saint and clearly recognized his own complicity in evil. Which, if anything, makes him more relevant for us.

Ready for Hillary?

Why early Christians confessed Jesus as divine

In his review of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, Luke Timothy Johnson readily concedes that neither the empty-tomb stories nor the accounts of Jesus’ appearing to the disciples after his crucifixion prove–or could prove–the Christian confession that Jesus is divine. Rather, Johnson says, this confession was rooted in the early Christians’ experience of being made “new creations” through the power of the Holy Spirit:

To close that gap [between the appearances and the confession of Jesus’ divinity] we must turn to a register of language in the New Testament’s earliest writings (the letters of Paul) that Ehrman’s historicist blinders do not allow him to consider. Paul speaks of the “new creation” as a reality that is experienced, not by a few visionaries, but by all the members of his churches. This new creation is at work through the presence of a personal, transcendent, and transforming power called the Holy Spirit.

The Resurrection experience, in Paul’s letters, is not something that happened to Jesus alone. It is happening now to those who have been given this power through the one Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 15:45 as having become “life-giving spirit”—a statement oddly absent from Ehrman’s discussion of that chapter in First Corinthians. Similarly, Ehrman fails to consider 1 Corinthians 12:3, where Paul states emphatically that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” The presence of the transforming power of the Spirit among believers is the basis for Paul’s remarkable language about the Holy Spirit “dwelling” in them (Rom 8:9) and their being “in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:2–3). In the same way, Paul speaks about Christ “dwelling” in his followers, and their being “in Christ ” (Rom 8:9–10).

In short, it was not the reports concerning an empty tomb or claims about post-mortem visions among a few of Jesus’ followers that caused the early Christians to recognize Jesus’ divinity. It was the shared experience of divine power—manifested in a variety of wonders and gifts and new capacities of existence—among those who had all “drunk the same spirit” and had become members of “Christ’s body” (1 Cor 12:12–27).

As Schleiermacher would say, the heart of Christian piety is the experience of redemption in Christ. This, not “proofs” derived from historical reconstructions, is the basis for Christian faith. As Johnson notes, both Christian apologists and their critics like Ehrman tend to argue on the positivist ground of historical criticism. “But the good news is not and never has been based in verifiable fact; from the beginning and still today, it is based in the experience of God’s power.”

“Get down, you damn fool!”

When Confederate General Jubal Early drove a small Union army out of the Shenandoah Valley in the summer of 1864, crossed the Potomac, and threatened Washington itself before being driven off, Lincoln went personally to Fort Stevens, part of the Washington defenses, to observe the fighting. It was on this occasion that a Union officer standing a few feet from Lincoln was hit by a Confederate bullet and that another officer–none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.–noting without recognizing out of the corner of his eye this tall civilian standing on the parapet in the line of fire, said urgently: “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!” A chastened president got down.

–James McPherson, “Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender,” from Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, pp. 67-8

“Jesus’ wife” revisited

It looks like the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus fragment has been shown to be authentic–meaning that it comes from a legitimately ancient document, and may represent a tradition going back to a fairly early point in Christian history:

A wide range of scientific testing indicates that a papyrus fragment containing the words, “Jesus said to them, my wife” is an ancient document, dating between the sixth to ninth centuries CE. Its contents may originally have been composed as early as the second to fourth centuries.

The fragment does not in any way provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, as Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, has stressed since she announced the existence of the fragment in the fall of 2012. Rather, the fragment belongs to early Christian debates over whether it was better for Christians to be celibate virgins or to marry and have children. The fragment is weighing in on this issue, according to King.

“The main topic of the fragment is to affirm that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus—a topic that was hotly debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued,” King explained.

I blogged about the theological implications of this back when the fragment’s existence was announced. (Short version: there aren’t many.) There are ample resources in canonical Christianity to support the value of married and family life and the equality of the sexes. If anything, the existence of women disciples who were not linked romantically to Jesus seems to make a stronger case for equality.

 

Best of the week

I end up sharing a lot of links on Twitter, so I thought it might be worth collecting what I think were the stand-out pieces of the week. (“Stand-out” doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with every word, just that these were the most interesting or thought-provoking items I came across).

Anyway, here goes:

–Elizabeth Stoker, “The Christian case for raising the minimum wage”

–Mary Charlotte Ella, “Gladiators of the gridiron” (the moral case against football)

–Isaiah Berlin, “Roosevelt through European eyes” (from the Atlantic, July 1955)

–Eric Reitan, “Civil Marriage vs Civil Union: Why NOT Leave Marriage to Churches?”

–David A. Graham, “Peter Seeger’s All-American Communism”

–Michelle Goldberg, “Feminism’s toxic Twitter wars”

–William Saletan “The Work Ethic” (on the economic philosophy underpinning President Obama’s State of the Union address)

–Claude S. Fischer, “Libertarianism is very strange”

And for fun, Miley Cyrus (yes, that Miley Cyrus) doing a surprisingly good cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”: