Was St. Paul a Christian?

Pamela Eisenbaum’s Paul Was Not a Christian (thanks to Matt Frost for the recommendation) makes a nice companion volume to Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew. Like Levine, Eisenbaum is a practicing Jew who studies Christian origins and thus brings an important and distinctive perspective to bear on the subject. In some ways, Eisenbaum has the harder task: While nearly everyone at least pays lip service to Jesus’s Jewishness, Paul is widely regarded, even by Jews, as “the first Christian”–someone who broke decisively from his ancestral faith to effectively lay the foundation for Christianity as we know it.

Eisenbaum sets out to show, however, that throughout his life Paul remained firmly planted in the soil of Judaism. She does this through a two-pronged approach: first, by providing background on Second-Temple and Hellenistic Judaism to show that Paul’s ideas are not as far outside the Jewish mainstream as they’ve been made out to be; second, by looking closely at key passages in Paul’s letters,* with the controlling assumption that their intended audience is almost exclusively Gentiles. Paul was first and foremost, Eisenbaum argues, an apostle to the Gentiles–someone who believed the long-foretold time had come when the God of Israel would gather all the nations of the earth into the Abrahamic family.

The argument of Eisenbaum’s book owes a lot to the so-called new perspective on Paul, associated with E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright and others. But she goes beyond the new perspective toward what she calls a radical “new paradigm.” In Eisenbaum’s account, there is not a “problem of the law” that needs to be solved by Jesus, at least not for Jews. Even new perspective authors, while toning down the anti-Judaism of traditional Christian interpretations of Paul, still see Jewish “works-righteousness” as something Paul is fighting. On this account, excessive Jewish pride in belonging to the covenant and having the Torah led to xenophobia toward Gentile Christians; Paul’s emphasis on justification by grace is thus his means of breaking down the barriers between these two groups. For the new perspective version of Paul, Both Jews and Gentiles stand on the same ground, namely the grace of Christ.

Eisenbaum argues, however, that Paul’s concern about “works of the law” is directed exclusively at Gentiles. The problem isn’t Jewish smugness; it’s how Gentiles can be brought into God’s family now that the end times are at hand. For Jews, Eisenbaum argues, Paul regarded covenant-belonging and keeping Torah as sufficient to remain in good standing with God. Jews belong to the covenant by grace, and there are provisions in the Torah for making atonement for their sins. But Gentiles, who have been outside the covenant, need something else.

Because Gentiles have not had the advantage of Torah, they have heaped up a massive debt of guilt due to their sins, idolatry chief among them. The death of Jesus is thus the means by which God cancels this debt and makes it possible for Gentiles to turn from idolatry and become progeny of Abraham. What this looks like for Gentiles is not Torah observance, per se, but imitation of Christ’s own faithfulness. Thus, Eisenbaum maintains, for Paul, Jesus is a solution to a specifically Gentile problem. The seemingly negative things Paul says about the law are aimed at Gentiles who (mistakenly) think they have to become Torah-observant. This doesn’t mean that Paul’s gospel has no implications for Jews, though: They are called to recognize that the end of time is at hand and God is acting through Paul’s preaching to reconcile all the nations to the one true God.

I learned a lot from Eisenbaum’s book and find much of it persuasive. It’s certainly a bold step beyond the “new perspective.” However, I couldn’t help but wish she’d addressed some nagging loose ends. For example, she says very little about Paul’s own religious practice. Did he remain a Torah-observant Jew? What about the position of Jewish Jesus-followers more generally?

More broadly, I’m not sure Eisenbaum fully accounted for just how important Jesus was to Paul. What I have in mind here is what’s sometimes referred to as Paul’s “Christ-mysticism,” or his sense of being “in Christ.” There’s also his notion that Christ is the new Adam–the source and paradigm of a renewed humanity. These elements of Paul’s thought suggest, to me at least, that Jesus is not only (mainly?) the mechanism by which God brings in the Gentiles.

That said, Eisenbaum’s argument (which I obviously can’t do full justice to in a blog post) definitely seems to move the ball forward. She has provided a credible anti-supersessionist reading of Paul, which, she notes, has implications for contemporary discussions of religious pluralism. Whether or not she has done justice to the centrality of Christ in Paul’s religious thought, I’m less sure of. But I highly recommend the book.

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*Eisenbaum generally limits her discussion to the seven letters whose Pauline authorship is undisputed by scholars: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.

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Jesus’s Jewish parables

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it here on the blog, but I’ve recommended Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus to a number of people. In fact, I consider it almost a must-read for any Christian given how saturated our tradition is with anti-Judaism.

I’d recommend Levine’s newest book, Short Stories By Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, almost as heartily. In the same scholarly yet accessible manner as her previous work, Levine deconstructs the negative stereotypes about Jews and Judaism that have pervaded much interpretation of Jesus’s parables. We see this, for example, in interpretations of the Good Samaritan that attribute the priest’s and the Levite’s passing by the robbed man to their horror of ritual impurity. Or readings of the Prodigal Son that say the elder son represents Jewish “works-righteousness.” And this is not confined to “conservative” churches and scholars; in fact, many of Levine’s targets are liberal scholars who like to contrast Jesus’s progressivism with a supposedly reactionary and oppressive 1st-century Judaism.

But Levine’s book isn’t just a polemic. Her goal is to try to recover the impression the parables–which by their very nature admit of multiple interpretations–may have made on the the people who first heard them. To this end, she reads them as dealing with very concrete issues of daily life, and not necessarily as allegories or Christological symbols. Her goal is to show that, when stripped of the more obvious messages people sometimes take away (like it’s good to be persistent in prayer, or you should help people in need), these stories can still move us to reexamine our priorities and how we live our lives. In particular, Levine shows that Jesus’s stories speak not only to our “spiritual” condition but also have implications for the very earthly (and still relevant) issues like economic injustice and violence. I personally found the chapters on the Good Samaritan, the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, and the Rich Man and Lazarus to be the most thought-provoking.

As a Jewish scholar of the New Testament, Levine doesn’t confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. But Christians can still benefit from the readings she offers, not only as a corrective to still-too-common anti-Jewish interpretations, but in the conviction that the there is more truth yet to break forth out of our Lord’s words.

Maimonides on the Messiah

I’ve been reading a (heavily abridged) edition of Moses Maimonides’ (1138-1204) systematic digest and commentary on the Jewish law, Mishneh Torah, and found his discussion of the Messiah toward the end of particular interest. The Messiah, he says, is not some kind of supernatural figure, but simply a righteous king in the line of David who will reestablish Israel’s sovereignty and freedom from external domination.

Do not think that King Messiah will have to perform signs and wonders, bring anything new into being, revive the dead, or do similar things. It is not so.

[…]

If there arise a king from the House of David who meditates on the Torah, occupies himself with the commandments, as did his ancestor David, observes the precepts prescribed in the written and the Oral Law, prevails upon Israel to walk in the way of the Torah and to repair its breaches, and fights the battles of the Lord, it may be assumed that he is the Messiah. If he does these things and succeeds, rebuilds the sanctuary on its site, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is beyond all doubt the Messiah.

[…]

Let no one think that in the days of the Messiah any of the laws of nature will be set aside, or any innovation be introduced into creation.

[…]

Said the rabbis: “The sole difference between the present and the Messianic days is delivery from servitude to foreign powers.”

[…]

The sages and prophets did not long for the days of the Messiah that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the heathens, or be exalted by the nations, or that it might eat and drink and rejoice. Their aspiration was that Israel be free to devote itself to the Law and its wisdom, with no one to oppress or disturb it, and thus be worthy of life in the world to come. (Book fourteen, chapters 11 and 12.)

I think it’s safe to say that this is very different from the prevailing Christian view of the “messianic age,” which is usually portrayed in frankly supernaturalistic terms. It’s also worth noting that Maimonides distinguishes the time of the Messiah and “the life of the world to come.” “The world to come” seems to refer to life beyond death, but this is distinct from the reestablishment of Israel under a just and pious king. The time of the Messiah is an entirely this-worldly affair, achieved through the “natural” means of politics, study, and obedience to the Law.

My (admittedly highly incomplete) understanding is that this is by no means the only way of thinking about the Messiah in Judaism, and that there are other, more overtly supernatural views. But Maimonides’ doctrine, in which the messianic age is not eschatological but arrives as a result of human effort rather than direct divine intervention, provides a striking contrast to the common Christian understanding.

UPDATE: Just a few further thoughts on this. I think this discussion highlights how the disagreement between Christianity and Judaism isn’t (just) about who the Messiah is, but what messiahship consists of. If you accept the criteria laid out by Maimonides, it’s obvious that Jesus was not the Messiah, since he was not a king who reestablished the sovereignty of Israel. In calling Jesus the Messiah, Christianity was taking a particular stance on what it meant to be the Messiah–something about which, as I understand it, there was no uniform consensus at the time. And this understanding was shaped by the particular details of Jesus’ life and death–and particularly the belief in his resurrection.

Christians have often talked as thought Jews’ unwillingness to embrace Christ was due to a kind of willful blindness, since he was “clearly” the fulfillment of their messianic hopes. But this dramatically undersells the extent to which the role of the Messiah as understood by Christianity drew on a particular selection and reshaping of ideas floating around at the time. Both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are ongoing traditions with their own ways of making sense of and appropriating the biblical material, including the idea of the Messiah.

The survival of chaos after the victory of God

Jon D. Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence is one of the most stimulating theology books I’ve read in a long time. I was expecting something different–a theodicy of sorts; but what I got instead was more interesting. Levenson argues that key passages in the Tanakh/Jewish Bible present creation not as “creation out of nothing,” but as God’s “mastery” of the forces of chaos. These forces continually threaten to reemerge and will not be fully vanquished until God’s final victory at the end of time; hence the “persistence of evil.”

While Levenson recognizes that creatio ex nihilo has become the more-or-less orthodox view in Judaism (as well as in Christianity and Islam), he demonstrates–rather convincingly–that the Bible contains an only partially submerged motif of “creation from chaos.” That is, YHWH creates by defeating those forces that threaten to undo the divinely constituted order, stability, and peace that characterize creation. This victory, however, is precarious or incomplete: violence, disorder, and suffering are all-too-familiar parts of our experience, suggesting “the survival of chaos after the victory of God.” Contrary to many other interpreters, Levenson sees affinities with as much as differences from other Near Eastern creation myths–such as the Babylonian–that posit a primordial battle out of which the world order emerged. Through analysis of key texts, including of course the beginning of Genesis but also several Psalms, Job, and others, Levenson reveals traces of the creation from chaos motif.

A key implication of this view is that evil and suffering are not the result of an inscrutable divine will, but rather of the incomplete, tentative, and agonistic nature of YHWH’s mastery of the forces of chaos, which continually resist his benevolent ordering. Peace, justice, and stability continually threaten to lapse back into the chaos out of which they were brought. This is vividly brought home for long stretches of Israel’s history, and the biblical traditions of lament and apocalyptic can be seen as a cry for God to finally bring about the decisive victory over the elements that threaten God’s good creation.

Importantly, the Bible also attests to the role human beings are to play in this victory. When Israel keeps the commandments of God–including its cultic and ritual obedience–it is expanding the area over which the divine will holds sway in the world. (In this regard, Levenson allows himself some shots at certain Christian theologies that minimize the importance of human action.) The completion of creation only comes when the forces of evil and chaos are vanquished both in external history and in the human heart.

Creation from chaos can seem a bit mythological, and Levenson generally avoids trying to cash it out in more rationalistic or metaphysical terms. Process theology is the most obvious candidate for a compatible philosophical account, but Levenson seems to prefer to let the tension between divine omnipotence and the “groaning” of creation stand. The point is that God’s sovereignty, or omnipotence, is not a static fact, but a true dramatic achievement:

The operative dichotomy, thus, is not that between limitation and omnipotence, but that which lies between omnipotence as a static attribute and omnipotence as a dramatic enactment: the absolute power of God realizing itself in achievement and relationship. What this biblical theology of dramatic omnipotence shares with the theology of the limited God is a frank recognition of God’s setbacks, in contrast to the classical theodicies with their exaggerated commitment to divine impassibility and their tendency to ascribe imperfection solely to human free will, the recalcitrance of matter, or the like. . . . But whereas the theology of the limited God provides exoneration of a sort for God’s failures (for, in Kantian terms, how can we say God ought to do what he cannot?), the theology of omnipotence as dramatic enactment allows people to fault God for the persistence of evil (including, on occasion, human evil) and to goad him into reactivating his primal omnipotence, which is never relinquished but often agonizingly, catastrophically dormant. One might call this latter position a theology of omnipotence in potentia, omnipotence recollected from the cosmogonic past and expected in the eschatological future but only affirmed in faith in the disordered present.

In any event, metaphysical speculation seems less important here than fidelity to experience. Faith in the God who is the source of all good can’t help but stand in tension with our manifest experience of evil and suffering. In this light, Levenson’s conclusion to his discussion of Job could (and probably does) double as a conclusion to the book as a whole:

Though the persistence of evil seems to undermine the magisterial claims of the creator-God, it is through submission to exactly those claims that the good order that is creation comes into being. Like all other faith, creation-faith carries with it enormous risk. Only as the enormity of the risk is acknowledged can the grandeur of the faith be appreciated.

Theodicy–in the sense of explaining why evil exists–is an inherently unsatisfying undertaking. Would you really be satisfied to learn that some tragedy that befell you or someone you loved was the inevitable outworking of the divine plan or the fundamental metaphysical principles of the universe? What Levenson’s biblical account evokes instead is a kind of holy impatience with evil and suffering and a faith–albeit one often sorely tested–in the One who laid the foundations of the world and who will “swallow up death for ever and . . . wipe away tears from all faces.”

Should Jews view Christianity as a new revelation?

Over the past several decades Christians have been rethinking their relationship to Jews and Judaism. This has been prompted, most obviously, by the horrors of the Holocaust and the recognition that centuries of Christian anti-Judaism and persecution of Jews helped lay the groundwork for it. Most notably, both the Catholic Church and most mainline Protestant churches have issued official statements repenting of Christendom’s long, sordid history of anti-Judaism. They have also, albeit not always quite as clearly, affirmed the ongoing validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people and largely renounced efforts to target Jews for conversion.

This sea change in Christian-Jewish relations has been accompanied by some provocative theological revisionism. Both in official documents and in the work of individual theologians, Christians have struggled to articulate a “non-supersessionist” version of their faith. This raises a host of thorny theological issues, particularly about what it means to affirm Jesus as savior while respecting the covenant Jews already have with God.

Jews have had far less reason to engage in this kind of theological soul-searching, most obviously because they were the ones on the receiving end of Christian hate and persecution. They don’t face the same obvious need to change their inherited theology or practice in light of improved Christian-Jewish relations. This is also in part because Judaism has, historically, been less inclined to make universalistic (some would say totalitarian) claims than Christianity since it has never taught that everyone has to convert to Judaism to be “saved.” Generally, the Jewish position seems to have been that the primary obligation of non-Jews is to follow the universal moral law.

Jewish theologian Michael Kogan thinks, however, that Jews should revisit their inherited views of Christianity and embrace a more positive evaluation. In his book Opening the Covenant he argues that Jews should view Christianity as, in effect, a new revelation from the God of Israel, one by which God has acted to establish a covenant with gentiles.

Kogan argues that Jews should acknowledge that, through Jesus and his interpreters (preeminently St. Paul), billions of non-Jews have been brought into a saving relationship with the God of Israel. This can be seen as a partial fulfillment of the promise that through the family of Abraham “all nations of the earth will be blessed.” Kogan thus wants to push beyond the traditional position that gentiles are saved by following the moral law (or the Noahide Laws) and affirm Christianity as a new revelation of Israel’s God.

In line with this, he contends that Jews can regard Jesus as not only a great Jewish teacher or prophet, but as the means by which God has acted to incorporate gentiles into God’s covenant. This doesn’t mean that Jews should be come Christians–on the contrary, Jews are already in a saving relationship with God and have no need to do anything more than live by the light they have already received. Christianity, he says, is a revelation specifically for gentiles.

Implied by Kogan’s argument is that Jesus is not the Jewish Messiah as Christians have long claimed. He spends a chapter summarizing various ideas about what the Messiah would be like that were circulating in the late BCE/early CE period. Contrary to what Christians sometimes argue, there was no single Jewish understanding of the Messiah that Jesus could be shown to have fulfilled (or overturned, as is sometimes maintained). The Messiah was variously portrayed as a Davidic king, a supernatural agent of God, or an Aaronic priest. In some cases, it was held that the messianic age would be brought about through God’s direct intervention, without the need for a “Messiah” per se. Early Christianity can be seen as one form of messianic Judaism, jostling for recognition and legitimacy alongside others, but there are no agreed-upon criteria for “messiahhood,” so to speak, which Jesus can be shown to have met.

Jesus has not brought redemption to Israel, Kogan says. The messianic age has not arrived. What Jesus has done, however, is “brought the salvific word of Israel’s God to the gentiles . . . helping Israel to fulfill its calling to be a blessing to all peoples” (p. 68). Kogan thinks that Jews can affirm this without abandoning their identity as Jews.

Underlying much of Kogan’s argument is a pluralistic theology of religions, but one that differs from some popular forms of pluralism. Often pluralists say that the various religions are humanly constructed attempts to reach the divine. But Kogan insists that revelation is a non-negotiable element of Jewish (and Christian) faith. It’s true that revelation is conditioned by human response; it is filtered and refracted through human language and concepts. But it is still God reaching out to humanity to reveal the divine self and will.

What makes Kogan’s view pluralistic is that he takes both Judaism and Christianity to constitute true–although partial–revelations from God. Both Jews and Christians can enter into a saving relationship with the God of Israel through their respective faiths. (He suggests that this applies to other traditions too–at least the “higher” religions–though developing a full-blown pluralistic theory of religion is outside the scope of this book.)

Kogan even goes so far as to suggest, drawing on Paul’s metaphor of the olive tree, that Christians and Jews are both branches of one Israel. They can, and should, be co-witnesses to God and work together toward realizing God’s reign of peace and justice. They have no need to try to convert each other, but Jews and Christians can have their faith mutually enriched and their understanding of God and what God requires deepened through dialogue. (Here Kogan echoes Christian theologians like Paul van Buren, Roy Eckhardt, and Clark Williamson.)

It’s not my place to say what Judaism’s theological self-understanding should be, but as a Christian I welcome Kogan’s positive assessment of Christianity as something other than a heretical mash-up of Judaism and paganism. I still think Christians have work to do in understanding their faith in a way that can truly affirm the ongoing validity of Judaism. Many Christians are uneasy with a full-blown religious pluralism and often take refuge in an “inclusivist” view that, while well intentioned, can be condescending toward other faiths (e.g., Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christians”). For what it’s worth, my hunch is that a suitably modified inclusivism will probably end up looking a lot like one of the more plausible versions of pluralism (such as Kogan’s).

Christians may also balk at Kogan’s claim that Jesus was not the Jewish messiah, but can we really continue to maintain this while affirming God’ ongoing covenant with Jews? Perhaps one viable approach to this is the one suggested by Tyron Inbody. He says that both Christians and Jews, if they’re being honest, must recognize that God’s kingdom has not arrived in its fullness. Both are awaiting the same Kingdom–God’s universal reign of shalom. But whether or not Jesus is the one who will reign as Messiah in that kingdom is ultimately an eschatological question that we can’t definitively settle now.

All these questions notwithstanding, I greatly enjoyed Kogan’s book, which provides (for Christians at least) a much-needed perspective on the Christian-Jewish dialogue.

What happens when we pray the Psalms?

According to Walter Brueggemann, in his essay “The Counter-World of the Psalms,”* the Psalms mediate to us a “counter-world” that subverts our “closely held world”–that is, the narrative or worldview we commonly live by.

What is this “closely held” world like? For Brueggemann, it is a picture of the world characterized by anxiety and scarcity, self-sufficiency, denial, amnesia, and normlessness. That is, we are anxious because we believe that we have to compete for a limited set of resources and cannot depend on others, who are our rivals and competitors for these resources. We deny that this is a dysfunctional way to live and we block out or forget the toll this way of living takes on human well-being. This all leads to a sense that “everything is permitted”–that there is no meaning to life other than what we individually and privately impose on it. This is essentially what Brueggemann elsewhere refers to as a “military consumerist mentality.”

But how do the Psalms counter this? In Brueggemann’s telling, the various types of Psalms (praise, lament, history, wisdom, etc.) counter the elements of our closely held world at every turn. By reciting, praying, and meditating on the Psalms, we are inducted into a world of trustful fidelity, abundance, ultimate dependence, abrasive truth telling, hope, lively remembering, and normed fidelity. In the Psalms, God is the trustworthy ground of existence who creates a world that, in Gandhi’s words, “provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not for every man’s greed.” It is a world in which trust in God goes hand in hand with neighborly interdependence, we can tell the truth about ourselves and our own failings and even complain to God when things go awry, and in which we believe that God will act to bring about shalom. It is a world in which we remember God’s mighty acts of salvation as both the reason for hope in the future and the basis for fidelity to God’s revealed path to human flourishing (Torah).

At the center of the Psalms stands YHWH, the God of Israel–“a lively character, and an agent of firm resolve who brings transformative energy and empancipatory capacity to all our social transactions” (p. 27). The living God of the Psalms stands in stark contrast to the mute and lifeless idols of nationalism, capitalism, and mastery; of a “conservative scholasticism” that tries to encase the truth in a set of propositions; and of a progressivism that reduces the scope of divine action to the confines of a narrow Enlightenment rationalism.

The Psalms “witnesses to and makes available a God of agency who shatters the serene sedation of our closely held world” (p. 29). By “performing” the Psalms, our familiar world is broken open, and the alternative of abundance, trust, truthfulness, hope, memory, and fidelity comes alive. “It is the work of the Psalter to populate our world with the character of this God. Where this God governs, the world is transformed and transformable” (p. 35).

It’s often said that the Psalms provide an expression of every human experience or emotion. But on Brueggemann’s account, they are also tools of transformation–of refining that raw material of human experience with the truth of God’s self-revelation. This provides a strong reason for keeping the Psalms at the center of both public worship and private devotion, as has been the case in both Jewish and Christian traditions for centuries.

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*Found in his book From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms.

Keep the Bible weird!

Peter Enns recounts a conversation he had with a Jewish colleague in graduate school about the story of Adam and Eve:

So my classmate and I were having lunch talking about this story and I mentioned casually the “fall” of humanity.

“The what?

“The fall of humanity. You know, Adam and Eve’s sin plunged all subsequent humanity into a state of alienation from God.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Really? That’s odd, since it’s so obvious.”

“No it’s not. The story nowhere says what you just said it says.”

“Well then what do you make of Satan tempting Eve with the forbidden fruit….”

“Who?”

“What do you mean ‘who?’”

“Satan? There’s no Satan in the story. There’s a serpent, just a serpent. He’s called the most ‘crafty’ of the creatures that God had put into the garden. He’s a serpent. A crafty creature. That’s what the text says.”

“But the serpent is talking.”

“Because it’s a story.”

It came as a bit of a shock to me that what I thought I “knew” the story of Adam and Eve was about wasn’t really “in” the story itself, but how I had been taught to interpret the story. The dominant Christian reading is rooted in the apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, where Paul seems to place at Adam’s feet (not Eve’s, curiously) the blame for human misery.

I was reading a Bible story book to my kids the other night and was struck by how much interpretation had been imported into its version of the Garden of Eden story. It included a full-blown quasi-Miltonian account of the serpent as Satan, the fallen angel who had rebelled against God. This isn’t exactly explicit in the original text, to put it mildly. This rubbed me the wrong way, because I felt like the Bible wasn’t being allowed to speak for itself, but was being overlaid with the “official” Christian interpretation.

Of course, it would be naive to suggest that you could have a story without some kind of interpretation. But the Bible’s stories can and have generated multiple meanings over the centuries, even within a broadly Christian framework. As Enns points out, the “fall into sin” is a particularly Western Christian understanding of that story–one that is absent from, or at least less emphasized in, Eastern Christianity.

I don’t have a good solution to this, but as I’ve been exposing my kids to the Bible, I’ve become more aware of the fact that many of the interpretations we take for granted are less than obvious. While I want my children to be inculcated with the Christian narrative, I don’t want to drill into them an overly pat understanding of the Bible. The Bible is often richer, weirder, and more interesting than our familiar theology leads us to think. Instead of thinking they have all the answers, I’d rather my kids experienced what Karl Barth called the “strange new world” within the Bible.

Heschel’s trilemma

Reading 20th-century Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel’s important work God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism recently, I was struck by this passage:

There are only three ways of judging the prophets: they told the truth, deliberately invented a tale, or were victims of an illusion. In other words, revelation is either a fact, or the product of insanity, self-delusion, or a pedagogical invention, the product of a mental confusion, of wishful thinking, or a subconscious activity. (p. 223)

This reminded me immediately of C. S. Lewis’s famous “trilemma” from Mere Christianity. Speaking of the claims the Jesus of the gospels makes for his own authority, Lewis writes that a man who did such things

would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. (p. 56)

What Lewis was criticizing was the view that Jesus of Nazareth was simply a “great moral teacher,” rather than God Incarnate. The claims Jesus makes for himself, Lewis argues, simply don’t allow us to place him in that category. His claims (e.g., the right to forgive sins) are much more radical than that.

Somewhat similarly, Heschel argues that we aren’t really in a position to evaluate the prophets’ putative revelation by our own canons of rationality. He writes that “[i]n calling upon the prophets to stand before the bar of our critical judgment, we are like dwarfs undertaking to measure the height of giants” (p. 222). Prophets like Moses, Amos, or Isaiah weren’t offering moral wisdom for our dispassionate consideration; they were propounding a radical demand for holiness and justice that, they claimed, came from God himself.

In both cases, we’re faced with a potentially life-changing challenge. Lewis and Heschel both want to bring us face-to-face with the unvarnished claim of God’s revelation. Categorizing Jesus or the prophets are purveyors of a vague and genial moral wisdom that we might choose to incorporate into our existing mental framework allows us to keep them at arm’s length. By denying this alternative and posing the remaining ones so starkly, both Lewis and Heschel are prodding us to decide whether we will accept their claims on us.

(Oh, and yes, it looks like I’m blogging again, at least for the moment.)

Was Jesus married? Does it matter?

It looks like there’s some skepticism among scholars about the authenticity of the already much-discussed “Jesus’ wife” papyrus–said to be a fragment from a non-canonical Coptic gospel that has Jesus referring to “my wife” and saying that she will be a “disciple.” Much of yesterday’s breathless reporting on the papyrus centered around its potential to “shake up” debates about women’s role in the church. So if the fragment is spurious, does that mean no such re-thinking is necessary?

To start with, we should be clear that, even if it’s authentic, all the papyrus would seem to show–at most–is that there was an early tradition that Jesus was married. (Curiously, few people seem to have considered the possibility that the wife “Jesus” refers to might be the church–an image that goes back to the NT itself.) It wouldn’t, as even the professor who discovered it acknowledges, show that Jesus was in fact married.

Second, even though Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was unmarried and celibate, it’s not clear to me that anything of theological significance stands or falls on this. How would the central Christological doctrines–the Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, Ascension, etc.–be affected by the discovery that Jesus was married? It’s true, as one Twitter-friend pointed out, that it may call into question the reliability of the gospels since you’d think they might mention such a significant fact about Jesus. But against this we should remember (1) the gospels don’t provide “biography” in our modern sense; they are theological-confessional documents intended to witness to faith in Christ, and (2) historical criticism has already called the reliability of the gospels into question in many respects, and yet they still function as the Word of God for people in the church.

All of this aside, I think it’s wrong to suggest that we need certain facts about the historical Jesus to be true in order to authorize things like the full equality of women in the church. As theologian Clark Williamson has written,

The problem with feminist theology is that in its constitutive assertions it is right. Women are fully human, clearly the equal of men, and need liberation from sexist oppression. But if the only way to warrant being a Christian feminist is by appeal to the empirical-historical Jesus as a norm, then Jesus will turn out to have been a feminist. . . . [But i]f Jesus was not a feminist, am I still not free to be one? Is it the role of Jesus . . . to authorize our conformity to him or to author our freedom and creativity, our right to reform the church? Dare we allow the historical Jesus to be himself, a first-century Jew, different from us, or must he reflect our concerns and ideals back to us? If so, how can he ever correct us? (Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel, p. 190).

Williamson is concerned to correct the tendency in some feminist theology to portray Jesus as the egalitarian, feminist liberator from an oppressive, patriarchal Judaism, an opposition that in effect “de-Judaizes” Jesus and reinforces the long history of Christian anti-Judaism. But his point has broader application, I think. If modern Christians want to be feminists (and they should!), they don’t need to justify it by appealing to a shaky historical reconstruction of a “feminist Jesus.” Many churches, drawing on the resources of the canonical scriptures and Christian tradition, have come to see sexual equality as a gospel issue–and that provides a much stronger foundation. Christians shouldn’t be threatened by historical research, but neither should they build their faith on it.

What does it mean to ask whether Christians and Muslims worship “the same God”?

Occasionally controversy arises as to whether Christians and Muslims worship “the same God.” (See here for an example.) I don’t find this to be a particularly helpful way of putting the issue: presumably there is, at most, one God, so asking whether two groups of people worship the “same God” must be shorthand for something else. With all due respect to polytheism, it’s not like there are multiple gods and the question is which god one’s worship is directed at.

What I think is really being asked is to what extent the two religions understand God in the same way. For example, Muslims deny the doctrines of the Incarnation and Trinity as Christians understand them. This doesn’t mean that there are two different “gods” but rather two different understandings of what the one God who exists is like. The object of the understanding is the same, but the manner in which that object is understood differs.

So given this difference, what should Christians’ attitude toward Muslims be? Should they be trying to convert them to (what Christians believe to be) a better understanding of God? Do Christians think that a person’s worship can only be “true” or that they can only be saved if they have a flawless understanding of God? That seems to be setting the bar too high. To be specific, do Christians deny that someone can worship God if one denies the Incarnation and the Trinity? Well, that would mean that all Jews, including most of the great figures of the Bible, worship a “false god.” It would also go against a longstanding Christian tradition that “virtuous pagans” could attain true (if incomplete) knowledge of God. Moreover, the Bible suggests that knowledge of God is available to all people–often outsiders to Israel’s history are depicted as worshiping God, and Paul notes that God’s existence and wisdom are evident to the Gentiles. Not to mention that Christians have long recognized that God exceeds the grasp of our understanding. So even if Christians believe they have a “truer” or more complete understanding of God than non-Christians, they should acknowledge that God transcends their comprehension. There thus seems to be no good reason to deny that Muslims are acquainted with God and worship God according to their lights.

What Christians should focus on, I think, is confessing the revelation they believe they have received. As the Anglican bishop John V. Taylor once said, for Christians, “whatever else he is, God is Christlike–humble and vulnerable in his love.” That is the central truth Christians are called to witness to. In their dialogue with people of other traditions, Christians should–humbly and vulnerably!–uphold this insight. It may be that other traditions obscure or even deny this insight; but it may equally be possible that adherents of other traditions can absorb this insight without abandoning their tradition. The goal shouldn’t be for everyone to “become Christian” but for everyone to hear and respond to the gospel of God’s unlimited love.