Category Archives: Book Reviews

How Jesus Became God: Final Installment in Review of Ehrman’s Latest

In the previous three reviews of How Jesus Became God, I focused on summary and positive assessments of the book. Today I want to lay out some of my quibbles.

First, Ehrman has rightly challenged us to imagine that in the first century the relationship between the divine and the human was more of a sliding scale than the either/or binary we often carry with us as moderns. And, he has done well to point to texts in which he sees “divine humans” in early Judaism.

However, as convinced as I am that the Davidic Kings as “sons of God” are crucial for making sense of the New Testament, I am not convinced that these figures were considered divine, any more than Israel as God’s firstborn son was considered divine. If I’m right that, instead, this is a way of talking about idealized human figures, then this has some significant, under-explored implications for the church’s earliest Christologies.

Second, while I generally agree with Ehrman’s historical Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet (in contrast, say, to a cynic sage), I think Ehrman is wrong to place miracle-working under “later reflections” on Jesus, in light of resurrection-divinity, rather than recognizing it as part of how the historical Jesus was known in his own day and time.

This has some possible implications for Christological development. If, as Ehrman seems to think, working miracles is part of how someone is recognized as divine in some sense, then Jesus’ being known as a miracle worker in his own time might push back speculation about divinity to before the resurrection. But, if there is no inherent link between miracle working and being uniquely divine (cf. Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Peter, Paul), then some other development in our understanding of what sort of human Jesus may have thought himself to be is probably in order.

Third, as I mentioned in my first review I thought that the extended argument against the resurrection of Jesus was gratuitous. But there was one line of argument that I found particularly weak: his argument against a burial by a member of the Sanhedrin.

This argument begins (p. 152) with Ehrman drawing our attention to the fact that Mark 14:55 says that the whole Sanhedrin was looking for evidence against Jesus, and all condemned him as deserving of death. How, then, could one of them suddenly step forward and bury Jesus through some great act of charity?

First, Ehrman over-plays the historical significance of the words “whole” and “all.” While he rightly reads those words as indicating that everyone was entailed, they are the kinds of words that find ready exceptions in historical narratives. In Mark 1:32, we hear that “all” who were sick or demon possessed were brought to Jesus. Are we to take it, then, that the healing of the hemorrhagic woman four chapters later is unhistorical, because we’ve clearly been told already that all the sick people were healed? It is perfectly possible that “all” and “whole” are told for rhetorical effect, even though not every single person was present and/or in agreement.

Second, even if every single member of the Sanhedrin was entailed in the trial, I do not find it implausible that a good natured member, after getting swept up in the moment, felt a twinge of remorse and acted on it by having Jesus buried.

Third, Ehrman underplays the burial tradition by saying that Paul knows nothing of Joseph who supposedly buried Jesus, but Paul’s articulation of the early creed in 1 Cor 15:3-4 does include “was buried.”

Fourth, where Ehrman finds a tension in the burial tradition I see confirmation from another source. In Acts 13:28-29, Paul’s sermon says that the Jewish leaders who condemned and killed Jesus were also the ones who, “when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.” This association of Jesus’ burial with the Sanhedrin seems to my mind to weigh in favor of burial by those or one of those who condemned Jesus, rather than disproof of the whole.

A final word: this book asks a legitimate question, one that has also been asked by those of more traditional Christological convictions than Ehrman. (Larry Hurtado wrote a book a few years ago entitled, How on Earth Did Jesus Become God?) The question is not “Who is Jesus?” the question being asked is, “Who did the earliest Christians think Jesus was, and how did they get these ideas?”

One of the big mistakes we make when we read the Bible is to assume that the writers shared all of our theology. We do this without being aware of it, most of the time.

Why is this a mistake?

It’s a mistake because it deafens our ears to the things that the texts might actually teach us that we don’t already know (or where we might be wrong). For instance, if we recognize that Romans 1:4 has an exaltation Christology (Jesus was appointed to be Son of God with power through his resurrection, according to the Spirit), then we can start to hear the resonance between Jesus’ own resurrection-sonship and our own, when Paul draws together spirit, resurrection, and sonship in Romans 8. If we insist that the first passage is talking about Jesus being God, then we miss the fact that Jesus’ life, and even his exaltation by God, are definitive for our own lives and identities before God.

Ehrman’s book is always provocative, at times disconcerting, and at times (I would judge) wrong. But it asks the kinds of questions that can not only make us better readers of the biblical texts, but ultimately better theologians as we understand the multiple ways that the earliest Christians reflected on the significance of Jesus as Messiah.

How Jesus Became God: Review of Ehrman’s Latest (Part 3)

“The idea that Jesus is God is not an invention of modern times, of course. As I will show in my discussion, it was the view of the very earliest Christians soon after Jesus’ death.”
How Jesus Became God, p. 3

Bart Ehrman is asking a historical question: how is it that the earliest Christians started to think of and refer to Jesus as divine, and what, exactly, did they mean by it?

Here we start to put on the table the sorts of historical background data that, by and large, determines the possibilities that folks are willing to entertain about early Christian Christology. Ehrman addresses this question on two fronts.

First, he surveys “Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome.” He begins with one of his favorite “parallel” figures, Apollonius of Tyana, whose legend begins with an announcement of his birth, including an indication of his divinity. He was a preacher, exorcist, and healer, ascended to heaven and appeared to at least one doubting follower.

The point is that there are legends of miraculous births that signal divinity, and those often at the beginning of lives marked by supernatural endowments and final exaltations.

But Ehrman finds particular significance in the fact that Julius Caesar’s divinization left the title “son of God” to fall to Augustus. Augustus was acknowledged as divine both during and after his life–with a sort of divinity that could scale from less divine to more divine.

Two important conclusions follow: (1) ancient Greco-Roman people did not see God and humanity as an either/or proposition, but as a scale of possibility; and (2) “son of God” is a title given to the person who is acknowledged as ruler / lord of the world.

Ok, but that doesn’t sound very Jewish. Touché. Enter the next chapter, Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism. Here, Ehrman argues that there were divine humans even in ancient Judaism. (The point, remember, is to try to figure out what sort of categories were available to people in the first century to make sense of Jesus.)

A first claim is that there are a spectrum of divine beings in early Judaism: even if there is only one almighty God at the top of the pyramid, there are lots of other heavenly figures.

But at least one of these angelic figures is so close to God as to be, at times, interchangeable: the OT’s “angel of the Lord” (e.g., Gen 16), a figure who appears in human form, and is the means by which YHWH appears to people.

Then there are the “gods” of Ps 82 among whom God reigns.

But the list goes on: semi-divine beings in Gen 6,the son of man in Dan 7, Two powers, hypostases of God such as wisdom and the logos.

Then there are the divine humans: the kings of Israel who are “sons of God,” Moses who is made God to Pharaoh and Aaron.

Within Jewish monotheism, which Ehrman concedes to be the stance of early Jewish people, “it was widely believe that there were other divine beings.” And “Humans could be called the Son of God or even God.”

One of the main sticking points between folks of differing understandings of NT Christology has become the question of what a first-century monotheistic Jew could say of some person without transforming what they mean by monotheism. Ehrman has done a good job of reminding us that there are a lot of options on the table.

“Son of God” need not imply preexistence, in fact, it need to imply divinity at all (cf. Israel as son of God, and Christians as sons of God). But it does imply some sort of unique relationship with the Almighty.

The point is that there are a number of options open to early Christians to begin expressing devotion to Jesus without immediately reconfiguring their notions of monotheism. This needs to be taken seriously. The actual practice of rendering various figures in god-like ways is an important balance to the totalizing claims of God who will not share worship, glory, power, or sovereignty with another.

Jews have options about how to speak of exalted figures in closest possible proximity to God, even as divine, within the context of their monotheistic commitment.

As I have put my toe in the waters of these debates over the past few days, I’ve been reminded of how much of ourselves we bring to texts as interpreters. We fill in gaps and assume interpretations, often without realizing it.

One of the great values of Ehrman’s survey of early divine figures is to create the possibility in our minds that when we see language like “God” or “son of God” or “son of man,” that there may be a connotation for a first-century Jew or first-century Roman that is not the connotation of someone who has been shaped by the past 2,000 years of Christological reflection.

I have a few more things to say about this book, so stay tuned for a final installment in the next couple of days.

How Jesus Became God: Review of Bart Ehrman’s Latest (Part 2)

In part one of this review, I laid out some of Ehrman’s basic commitments and conclusions. In particular, Ehrman recognizes that the earliest and most historically reliable Jesus traditions do not include indications that Jesus spoke of himself as divine. The evidence seems to point toward early Christians reassessing Jesus’ identity based on the conviction that he had been raised from the dead.

But Ehrman does not subscribe to some sort of totalizing evolutionary narrative, in which early Christology is “low” and subsequent Christologies get gradually “higher.”

Ehrman reaches back to the character of the “angel of the Lord” from the OT to provide a framework for understanding how early Christians interpreted Jesus as one who was preexistent and divine. This character would sometimes be differentiated from God, but sometimes spoken of as though it is none other than God.

Ehrman maintains that Paul, the earliest Christian writer to which we have access, held to an “incarnation Christology”: a Christology in which Jesus was a preexistent, heavenly figure.

In this discussion, he offers one of the most intriguing suggestions of the whole book; namely, that when Paul says to the Galatians, “You received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus himself,” he speaks a hendiadys: the “angel of God” is none other than “Christ Jesus.” Such an identification intends to suggest that Paul sees Jesus as God’s chief angel, the angel of the Lord who is so closely joined to Yahweh, that the two figures are often conflated.

In a subsequent section, Ehrman addresses the so-called Christ hymn of Philippians 2. Although he disputes the idea that it was a sung hymn, he agrees that it represents a pre-Pauline tradition.

Moreover, he agrees with the majority reading that sees in the hymn an incarnation Christology: Christ was in the form of God before emptying himself and becoming human. He was not yet considered equal with God the Father (he had to be given that name above every name), but this is still an extraordinarily high Christology.

EhrmanPut those two things together and this is what you get: the so-called Christ hymn bears witnesses to an incarnation Christology as early, possibly, as the 40s, or within less than twenty years of Jesus’ death. As Ehrman goes on to say:

We don’t know how soon Christians started thinking of Jesus not merely as a man who had become an angel or an angel-like being, but as an angel–or some other divine being–who preexisted his appearance on earth. But it must have been remarkably early in the Christian tradition. This view did not originate with the Gospel of John, as I used to believe… It was in place well before Paul’s letters, as evidenced in the fact that the pre-Pauline Christ poem of Philippians attests it, as does Paul himself in scattered and sometimes frustratingly vague references throughout his writings.

That is why in yesterday’s post I had the audacity to give Ehrman a place in the Early High Christology Club: he strongly suggests that incarnation Christology antedates every extant Christian document we have.

Next time I want to dig a bit more deeply into why Ehrman thinks an early Jewish person could identify someone as divine without entirely reimagining or abandoning Jewish “monotheism.”

How Jesus Became God: Review of Bart Ehrman’s Latest (Part 1)

As I came to the end of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, I had three major take-aways:

  1. Ehrman has just cemented his seat at the table of the Early High Christology Club, claiming that within twenty years of Jesus’ death people were already proclaiming him as preexistent God.
  2. I can’t believe that Christians are so worked up about the Christology of this book, which is basically on target and that argues for Jesus being regarded as God “shockingly early,” as Larry Hurtado would put it.
  3. My biggest disagreements come from my own conviction that “idealized human figures” occupy a good deal of the space that Ehrman assigns to divinity. In other words, I’m not as convinced as Ehrman that Jesus is reflected as “divine” across the diversity of NT literature in which he claims to find it.

In a nutshell, here is Ehrman’s thesis: Jesus was a peasant and apocalyptic preacher from Galilee whose life and identity began to be reinterpreted by his followers after they became convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

In other words, this is not a book about how Jesus “became” divine, but how Christians came to regard Jesus as divine. It is a historical investigation into the development of Christology, not a theological assessment or claim that Jesus “really wasn’t” but then “came to be [considered]” God.

I don’t think that Ehrman’s basic thesis, that the Christology of the early church was a matter of post-resurrection reflection, should be all that controversial. The Synoptic Gospels show us that the disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ ministry, pretty much at all, and that it is only after the resurrection as depicted in Luke that the twelve have their eyes opened to understand not only the scriptures, but the words Jesus spoke while still with them. (NB: Richard Hays has argued something similar.)

Ehrman’s depiction of the historical Jesus as apocalyptic prophet entails two major threads: (1) Jesus preached a coming judgment at the hands of the Son of Man, whom Jesus thought to be someone other than himself; and yet (2) Jesus considered himself Messiah (but not God).

On the latter point, especially, Ehrman’s claim seems to be on target. The Synoptic Gospels do not depict Jesus making claims to his own divinity. That is the later work of John. In particular, Ehrman will go on to argue that the Synoptics, written later than Paul, nonetheless reflect a “lower” Christology than Paul’s. What this means is that the Synoptics were written at a time when some people did believe in the divinity of the earthly Jesus, and that it would have been quite easy to reflect this belief in the teachings and/or Jesus’ self-claims of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But it’s not there.

So, if Jesus did not consider himself God, why did his disciples?

Generally, I agree with Ehrman’s answer: their reassessments of Jesus are generated by their belief in the resurrection is on target. And yet this also brings up two of my greatest qualms about the book.

First, there are two chapters totaling some 82 pages (22% of the book) on the historical question of Jesus’ resurrection. While these chapters are interesting and present some fascinating data and arguments, they are largely irrelevant for the thesis of the book. At a couple of points, Ehrman indicates that it’s not really important to know whether or not the resurrection happened; what matters is that the disciples (or at least, some of them) believed that it did, and this in turn set off the process of reimagining Jesus’ identity. Why, then, provide 82 pages talking about why you think the resurrection probably didn’t happen?

To be clear, I don’t object to the chapters because of the wholesale doubt they articulate about Jesus being buried and raised–I think there’s an important place for this question to be asked in a historical Jesus book or book about the resurrection per se. But it felt to me like the chapters were included more for the purpose of laying out such doubt than for the purpose of furthering the book’s argument about how, in historical terms, the Galilean peasant came to be regarded as divine.

Second, in my view Ehrman jumps too quickly to the idea that the exaltation of Jesus is a divinization.

He does well to point out passages in the Psalms such as the royal “begetting” of the king as God’s son in Ps 2 and the declaration in Ps 45 that the king is “God.” Moreover, Ps 110 does become a heightened song of praise when Jesus is seen as “the Lord” enthroned, literally, at God’s right hand. And, he is surely correct to argue that applying such passages to Jesus was part of the process of reinterpreting Jesus’ identity as a glorified, heavenly messianic figure.

But does all of this mean that the king of Israel was thought to be divine, or that these psalms were so interpreted in Jesus’ case?

I think there is another explanation, an explanation we get hints of in a couple of places where Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation/enthronement is precisely the question at hand.

In Acts 2, when Peter gives a speech that is largely about the resurrection of Jesus fulfilling the promises of a coming messiah, he provides a quite plausible and sufficient Christology: “Jesus was a man attested by God.”

It may be that there is far more capacity for human beings to be exalted, heavenly figures than Ehrman has taken stock of.

Similarly, “the resurrection chapter” in 1 Corinthians 15, which is also an enthronement/exaltation chapter, the entire point is that Jesus is the first of a new kind of humanity. Jesus is not raised as God, which would nullify the whole argument about the “second man” who determines the destiny of the rest of the harvest, but as “consummated, idealized humanity.”

In my estimation, recognizing the place of exalted human beings to play the role of God throughout the Jewish tradition modulates some of Ehrman’s claims that the resurrection causes Jesus to be regarded as a divine figure in, e.g., the Synoptic Gospels. While I agree with him that the Synoptic Tradition contains an “exlatation” Christology that is an extraordinarily high Christology, I see this as an exalted, idealized human Christology, not a divine Christology per se.

In other words, my dissatisfaction has to do with the Christology being too “high”/divine in his reading of the Synoptic Gospels and a couple of other strands of the early Christian tradition. But then, that’s my own hundreds of pages of research in the works, not Ehrman’s.

Here endeth Part 1 of my review: in general, I think Ehrman is right that Jesus’ identity is interpreted by his disciples in light of their conviction about the resurrection; moreover, I agree that an exaltation/adoption Christology helps make sense of the somewhat tentative nods toward divinity we find in the Synoptics while they nonetheless depict Jesus residing at the center of the work of God’s coming Kingdom.

But if we say that these documents, written in the 60s-80s don’t imagine Jesus as a preexistent divine being, what are we supposed to do about Paul, the Christ hymn in Phil 2, and the like? Stay tuned…

John Caputo: The Insistence of Hospitality

This is the third stop in a book tour of John Caputo’s The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. Stop one was was hosted by Todd Littleton, and stop two was hosted by Julie Clawson. CaputoCover

My task is to jump into the chapter entitled “Insistence and Hospitality.”

What Caputo has already established in chs. 1 & 2 is this: when we say God, we are not speaking of some being who exists, but of an acting, an event that demands human response.

Aside: Does anyone else hear the echoes of Rudolf Bultmann here? Or, on the more conservative side, of pietistic revivalism that calls people to recognize a moment in which God manages to break in and demand a response?

Here’s a quote that sums up the chapter in a nutshell:

Hospitality means to say “come” in response to what is calling, and that may well be trouble.

We are insufficiently accustomed to the dangers of “hospitality” to instinctively appreciate where Caputo is driving us here. Hospitality is not inviting our best friends over for a meal or opening our home to family for the holidays.

Hospitality as Caputo articulates it, following Derrida, is about saying “yes” and saying “come” to the unknown stranger who is seeking shelter. “If you already know who is on the other side of the door, it is not hospitality. Or, only half.”

Where is God in this? God is in need. In need of our hospitality. This is not to say that God is the stranger at the door, but it is to say that God is insisting on the hospitality in the event of its being requested.

If this all makes us nervous, then we’re en route to understanding Caputo’s point.

His depiction of God intends not only to turn our attention to the insistences of the world in order that the God who needs us might find in us the existence of faithful response, but to turn away the God who is easily controlled by the dogma surrounding the church’s traditional descriptions of the God who is.

At the heart of this chapter is a delightfully revisionist reading of the Mary and Martha story inspired by Meister Eckhart.

JohnCaputoIn short, Jesus’ “Martha, Martha” is the pronouncement of a double blessing on the woman who understood that Jesus came in full need. He stood in all the scandalous need of incarnation: needing food, needing drink, needing rest, needing to relieve himself. The “peace” of Jesus’ presence cannot be purchased without the very real threat of his physicality–a threat both to him and to those in whose need he stands.

And with this recognition that God is found in the insistence of hospitality, our interpretation of the weakness of the flesh is rewritten: they co-constitute life, intensifying life to a fever pitch, providing opportunity to respond to the name of God.

Throughout the book, Caputo’s theological concerns shine through: he wants to disempower the bully God in whose name power is wielded to the detriment of the many. With a God who insists rather than exists, Caputo wants it crystal clear that the actions of religious faith are the actions of humans responding to the insistence of God–with no danger of being confused for God themselves.

Random Thoughts that the Book Generated

1. I have a tremendous amount of affinity for the notion that God is bound to the story of the humans who enact it. I posted a week or so ago the scandalous idea that God might, actually, need us. (Cf. the subtitle of my blog: telling the story of the story-bound God.)

2. In advocating a storied theology, in which God is intimately entailed in the unfolding narrative, I have been driven by the concerns that the dogma of the church (what some of my readers have told me goes by the label “analytic theology”) is a source of power whose use in practice is often contraindicated by the cross of Christ.

In both of these trajectories of my own, I find myself resonating a great deal with Caputo’s work. But, having said that…

3. To this point, the book is not Christian in any significant sense. It uses some biblical, and New Testament, imagery as a reflection of Caputo’s native tongue, but not as anything more than husk that might be cast away in favor of wheat. It is a “radical theology” in the sense of being a way to speak about God that demonstrates its positioning in a pluralistic world.

I hold out for a more robust Christian theology, and I think that a theology of the cross as the lens for making sense of the Biblical narrative as a whole holds promise for such a theology from within the Christian tradition in an explicit fashion.

4. For all its universality, I think that most people will find it sufficiently incomprehensible that Caputo’s project holds little hope of being the wave of the future. (Cf. Tony Jones’ “Walmart Test,” and his claim that Caputo’s theology fails on this basic level: it can’t be explained to someone with whom you’re standing in line at Walmart for 3 minutes.) What is it to say that God does not exist but that God insists? There is a great deal to learn from here, but one wonders whether the miracle of trickle-down economics will ever allow the theology of insistence to increase to the account of the religiously would-be-faithful.

For my own part, I’m not ready to give up on the God project as traditionally conceived. I want there to be a God–not to uphold my power, but to call me to account.

Perhaps more seriously, I fear that the notion that the only “existence” is of our actions in response to “God’s” insistence might well backfire: rather than the human reception dethroning the identification of humans with God, it might make inevitable that the human quest for God will land on nothing more than the human at work.

This book pays back rereading for its stimulating depiction of God at work in the realities in which we find ourselves.

**
The Federal Government, though currently shut down, continues in its theology of insistence by demanding that I disclose to you that I received this book on promise of reviewing it here, and for no payment in cash or kind.

Living Biblically

Way back in August, just before I decided to take a Blogbatical, I agreed to review Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood. With the awesome press coverage it’s getting, she sure doesn’t need Storied Theology to make folks aware of the book.

For all my self-aggrandizing tendencies, I do realize that I have nothing on the Today Show.

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But be that as it may, I have one big thought about the book that I’d like to share.

As you probably know, the book chronicles Rachel’s year of following every commandment in scripture directed toward women. The tongue-in-cheek exercise helps expose the difficulty in claiming that “biblical womanhood” is the goal toward which today’s women should aspire.

Her project exposes the most basic reality of biblical interpretation and application: we do not, cannot, and indeed must not, simply pick up the Bible, see what it says, and go do it.

All of us approach the Bible with some sort of interpretive grid that helps us to know when we do or do not need to take to heart the commandment issued. Rachel has grown weary of “biblical” as a trump-card adjective, thrown out in an effort to baptize whatever (conservative) social, religious, or theological position a person wants to endorse.

So, the story of the year is a story of challenging the notion that “biblical womanhood” is to be had by opening up the Bible and applying “God’s word to women.” (Camping in the backyard during your period, anyone?)

But there’s another story within the story.

And this is what the nay-sayers are going to avoid, deny, and otherwise be blind to.

As Rachel says at the end of her Today Show interview, she actually loves the Bible. And this thread runs right through the narrative of swear-jars, Thanksgiving dinner, and “Dan is awesome” signs.

What Rachel discovers this year is not simply that the Bible is embedded in a cultural context where myriad different assumptions about life make direct application impossible. She also discovers a richer, more potent biblical (there’s that word again!) prescription for womanhood.

That prescription is one of trust, of gentleness, of concern for the weak, of executing justice, of loving, and of honoring those worthy of honor.

This is a great book for raising, again, the question, “What is the Bible and what are we supposed to do with it?” (a phrase I steal from Enns on a regular basis). And my invitation to you is to read with an eye toward both stories: the over-the-top, witty narrative of literal biblical reading as a critique on our simplistic views of the bible, but also the underlying current of a true biblical womanhood that has the power to infuse even those “liberated women” who can’t quite bring themselves to call their husbands “master.”

Nestle Aland 28th Edition

The NA28 is poised to make its appearance! After 20+ years of NA27, the latest critical revision of the standard critical text is nearly upon us.

Here’s the blurb:

This is the twenty-eighth edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (NA28). NA28 is the standard scholarly edition of the Greek New Testament used by scholars, Bible translators, professors, students, and pastors worldwide. Now NA28 has been revised and improved: Critical apparatus revised and easier to use. Papyrii 117-127 included for the first time. In-depth revision of the Catholic Epistles, with more than 30 changes to the upper text. Scripture references systematically reviewed for accuracy. The NA28 with Dictionary includes the Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament prepared by Barclay M. Newman.

Now go get in line for your copy!

Abide with Me

I hadn’t ever heard of Abide with Me until a friend sent it in the mail, thinking I’d enjoy it. It’s a beautiful book about a pastor whose wife dies, leaving him with two small children.

The opening lines tell you that in the town of West Annett “the winters used to be especially long.” This introduces one of the recurring features of the book: the weather, the seasons, and especially the winter provide more than simply a setting. They almost become a character in their own right.

The book itself is filled with all the stereotypical crap of small-town church folk using the church for self-satisfaction, positioning, and a gossip channel, a situation into which a gifted and idealistic young seminary grad steps for his first call.

The book is laced with Bonhoeffer and hymnody. It’s the kind of work that clearly would repay multiple readings, as the various threads of the story-telling are too rich to be taken in on a first pass (at least, if you read like I do…). Abide with Me does not posses the haunting beauty of Gilead, but is still well worth reading.

The story is one of unraveling. The first 260 of the less than 300 pages are spent descending into a nadir of seemingly irreconcilable antagonism. As the pastor finds himself less and less able to cope with the strain of his loss and the strain his daughters are experiencing, relationships begin to sour and rumors start flying.

Without giving too much away, what made the story for me was the scene in which the story finds its redemption. Honestly, I had gotten to the point with the parishioners that I assumed most of them were beyond redemption and we were going to be left with a huge mess at the end. But Strout puts together a scene that resonates deeply with the sort of redemption scenes Luke constructs for us in Acts: a moment when people look upon the one in whose misery they are complicit and realize that they need forgiveness.

Some of the most penetrating insights come as the story begins to resolve. They include this realization: often it is as hard, if not harder, to receive love as it is to extend it.

Jewish Anticipations of a Suffering Christ

Was a suffering Messiah a surprise?

It need not have been: there were psalms of a suffering, lamenting king. There was Isaiah 53. Plenty of precedent existed for claiming that the Messiah would die. And, the NT writers depict this suffering as the focal point of the OT’s anticipations of Jesus (e.g., Luke 24).

In his final argument for the Jewish nature of the early church’s claims, Daniel Boyarin argues that a suffering Messiah is at home in the exegetical traditions of Judaism.

He wants to argue that the church’s construction of a suffering messiah is not a theology that was created after the fact, in light of its conviction that the suffering one was (and is) the Messiah, but a category that was already extant and applied to Jesus.

The chapter does not accomplish this.

What it accomplishes instead is the following: Boyarin demonstrates that one can use traditional Jewish hermeneutical moves to demonstrate from scripture that the Messiah had to die.

While he shows that the biblical interpretation is Jewish, he does not demonstrate that these moves had been made previous to the church’s claims about Jesus, such that he was simply fitting into one possible type of expected Messiah.

In fact, one might argue in parallel with Qumran that after-the-fact readings of Scripture in light of the realities being experienced by one’s community are, themselves, a hallmark of the type of midrash Boyarin sees in play in early Christianity.

He states on p. 132:

The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent.

What evidence does he offer?

He offers two arguments:

(1) The exegetical methods used in the Gospels are perfectly traditional Jewish, midrashic moves.
(2) Such an understanding of the Messiah as one who must suffer, in step with say Isa 53, continues in the later period of the Talmud, etc.

In other words, the evidence of non-Christian Jews making these precise moves comes from texts a couple hundred years later than the NT.

I think that Boyarin is offering in this chapter an excellent, challenging reading of Daniel 7 as a suffering son of man. In fact, I think that we should mine the suffering of the saints in Daniel 7 as part of what Jesus refers to when he says the son of man must suffer before entering his glory. I’ve not researched this possibility, but I’ve thought there might be something to it, and Boyarin encourages more research along these lines.

But to say that the NT writers use a Jewish way of talking about Jesus, and Jewish exegetical methods to demonstrate his messianic identity, is a very different thing from saying that they are putting Jesus into an already extant category of suffering messiah.

Such a category may have existed, but Boyarin has not shown it.

That Jews in the Talmudic period and later depicted a coming suffering Messiah in step with Isa 53, for example, does constitute an interesting piece of circumstantial evidence. It would have been easy, in the wake of the separation between Christianity and Judaism, to leave such argumentation entirely in the hands of the Christians. But arguing backwards a few hundred years is tricky business.

I have a few overall thoughts about Boyarin’s challenging and provocative book, including a revisiting of Jesus’ declaring all foods clean in Mk 7. So look for one more pass at Boyarin in the coming days.