Does Mark Balance Out Matthew? A Canonical Consideration (Gupta)

I have been very appreciative of a short work from 1992 by my Doktorvater Stephen C. Barton called The Spirituality of the Gospels. Barton does a lot of thinking and exploring out loud in this book. I found this canonical consideration very interesting.

Mark comes in the canon after Matthew. Perhaps, from the point of view of Christian spirituality, that is appropriate. Read in sequence, we move from a gospel of certainties, evidences, proofs, instructive discourses and Christian casuistry to a gospel where the blinding light of certainty is weaker, the evidences less watertight, the proofs more ‘hermetic’, the discourses more opaque, and the casuistry almost nonexistent. Matthew is more easily digestible–thought still demanding enough!–and provides more supports for those just learning (or relearning) to walk in the spiritual life. Mark, on the other hand, is for those forced by the stormy circumstances of life, and especially the experiences of loss, to find stronger nourishment, stand on their own feet, and walk alongside others who have come that way too. It seems to me not at all surprising, therefore, that whereas Matthew ends with Jesus’ promise of his ever-abiding presence, Mark ends with the absence of Jesus qualified by the mysterious announcement of the messenger that the Risen One ‘goes before’ his followers in Galilee. This absence, this abrupt ending, is disturbing and challenging. It leaves the completion of the story open and lacking in clear definition. It leaves it to be filled out and acted out by every reader and listener prepared to take up the call to follow the Master wherever he leads. (p. 65-66).

Whether or not Barton is right is impossible to know, I think, but he certainly draws out the importance of mystery and “wonder” inspired by Mark.

Culpepper’s Clever Categories for History of Markan Scholarship (Gupta)

The history of Markan studies up until the current period can be sketched in five eras: (1) the clumsy Mark (the church fathers until the rise of modern critical study), (2) the chronicler Mark (the source critics), (3) the compiler Mark (the form critics), (4) the clever Mark (the redaction critics), and (5) the creative Mark (the narrative critics). (p. 4, Mark Smyth & Helwys)

Possible Explanation for Late Reception of the Gospels by Early Church in Rome (Gupta)

As I prep for new courses here at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, I am enjoying getting more acquainted with gospels-scholarship (I am teaching “Gospels and Acts” this term). I found this statement from Eugene Boring (An Introduction to the New Testament) fascinating. 

There is no indication that the Christian community in Rome, during the period when it was becoming the leading church in the empire, accepted the Gospels into their collection of normative Christian documents until well into the second century. One reason for the hesitant reception of the Gospels is that the reading of narratives of Jesus’ life and teaching did not already have the accepted slot in Christian worship that had become standard by virtue of reading the Pauline letters and other letters in the Pauline tradition alongside the Scriptures. It is likely that another, theological reason played a role as well: narratives focused on a miracle-working, divine man Jesus were too easily misunderstood in docetic terms, and difficult to reconcile with the epistolary focus on the cross and resurrection. (p. 507).

Is Boring right about this? What do you think? 

New Series Responding to Pete Enns’ “aha” Moments (Skinner)

ahaFor the past several months Pete Enns has been hosting a series of posts on his blog entitled, “aha moments.” The series (to which I also contributed a post) consists of honest and (to my mind) compelling reflections from biblical scholars who have a credible connection to conservative evangelicalism and have moved to a more nuanced understanding of the Bible.

Michael Kruger, who is both a NT scholar and president of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, has recently announced that he will be hosting a series of responses to the 16 or so posts that have already appeared on Enns’ blog. Among the potential contributors he mentions are Greg Beale, Darrell Bock, Craig Blomberg, Andreas Köstenberger, and D. A. Carson. I am interested to see the turns this discussion will take as it seems that Kruger has decided to turn to the “elder statesmen” of conservative evangelicalism to enter into this dialogue.

In the comments section of his initial post, I wrote to Dr. Kruger, expressing my hope that this would be an irenic and charitable series. To his credit, he responded that that was his hope as well. Disappointingly (from my perspective), the very first post in the series (written by Greg Beale of Westminster Theological Seminary, Enns’ former institution) seems to be a direct response to Enns more than a specific argument for a particular approach to interpreting the Bible. I wouldn’t quite call it “Enns-bashing” but the condescending and dismissive tone of the post is troubling enough. However, what is more troublesome from an academic perspective is that Beale’s response, while rigorous and rooted in a thorough understanding of textual criticism and other principles of modern biblical exegesis, completely ignores the issue of whether such a reading would have even been possible within the context of Paul’s Jewish thought world. Sure, we can force our square pegs into round holes, but wouldn’t it be preferable to find square holes?

While I hope for genuine dialogue between those on both sides, I’m not naive enough to think that this will actually happen. One can already perceive a deep sense of entrenchment from some of the comments on the first two posts. A persistent comment among some is particularly troubling to me. Those who are anxious to “defend” their understanding of the nature of scripture accuse Pete (and presumably others) of wanting to sidestep the truth of the Bible or, as one comment intones, “escape Biblical authority.” Do the motivations for these serious and sober discussions really need to be issues of personal unrighteousness among the dialogue partners? Other comments suggest how perspicuous Beale’s reading is vis-a-vis Enns’ flawed reading. The texts discussed in these first aha moments–and presumably in the response series–are a lot of things, but none of them are CLEAR. That’s why we continue to have the discussions.

I fear that, despite Michael Kruger’s best intentions, this series of responses will become an exercise in shouting past one another rather than entering into meaningful dialogue, though I hope to be proven wrong.

Beyond Bultmann (Gupta)

Beyond Bult

When I was in seminary, “Bultmann” was almost a dirty word. He didn’t often come up in class, but if he did, what was said was usually not good. So, going into my PhD program, I had quite a negative impression of Bultmann. Things quickly changed when I audited a post-grad course with Prof. John Barclay on Paul and his interpreters. We studied all sorts of key Pauline interpreters throughout history, including Bultmann. Barclay did an excellent job contextualizing and humanizing these scholars so that we could get a glimpse of, not only what they thought, but also why. Since that course, I have a better understanding of how Bultmann was a man of his own time. I also appreciate how he dared to push beyond rigid categories of his own, and I came to learn that he was a passionate preacher. None of this is to say that he is my favorite theologian. Most of the time I cannot make heads or tails of what he is talking about, but I now understand how and why he was so influential in the early 20th century. 

So, I was very delighted to see the recent release of Beyond Bultmann: Reckoning a New Testament Theology (Baylor Press, 2014; ed. Bruce Longenecker and Mikeal Parsons). And it was no surprise to me that Prof. Barclay is a contributor. Alongside Barclay, we have such respected scholars as Samuel Byrskog, Kavin Rowe, Richard Hays, Joerge Frey, Richard Bauckham, Luke Timothy Johnson, James Dunn, Larry Hurtado, Wayne Meeks, Angela Standhartinger, and Francis Watson. More or less, each contributor was asked to interact with a section from Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament. As you can imagine, most contributors find Bultmann’s work a mixture of incisive, cogent analysis, curious assumptions, and unfortunate guesses. Bultmann is commended for boldness in his philosophical and theological interpretation. But he proves himself a product of his time with his inaccurate views of Judaism and Hellenism and what contexts and influences should be associated with Jesus and the early Christians. 

I think Richard Hays does a good job of summing up how it feels to pick up Bultmann’s work and read it today.

It is a bit like the disconcerting experience of going back to one’s high school reunion after more than forty years: there are familiar and welcome memories, but one also quickly becomes aware of how much has changed, how one’w own view of the world has been altered across time, and how impossible it is to go home again. (p. 61).

But none of the contributors, including Hays, believes that the exercise of wrestling with Bultmann is futile. Rather, the best scholars of our time make it a habit of understanding the history of scholarship to see the big picture of where our discipline has come from to better see where it is and where it will go.

Chris Keith’s “Jesus Against the Scribal Elite” (Gupta)

Scribal EliteRecently I finished reading Chris Keith’s new volume Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Baker, 2014). I am not going to do a full-blown review (you can find Steve Walton’s helpful review here). But I do want to offer my own appreciation for Keith’s work, as it is clearly written and brings a nice contribution to the scholarly realm as well as some helpful thoughts about Jesus in his context to the classroom.

First things first – the question I was wondering when I first picked up the book – who are the “scribal elite?” Keith uses this language to refer to those people “who could read the text [of the Hebrew Scriptures] in its original language and whose knowledge of the text translated into interpretive authority” (p. 27). Thus, this would include not only “scribes,” but also people within groups such as priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the law. 

A major plank in Keith’s overall argument about the nature of the conflict between Jesus and the “scribal elite” (SE) is that they felt threatened by his independent teaching and many around Jesus assumed he had scribal literacy. But did he in fact? Keith is open to the possibility, but finds it unlikely (see pg. 98). 

More important (in some ways) than the historical question about whether or not Jesus was SE is the matter of why it appears there are two diverging portrayals of Jesus in the Gospels on this matter. 

Already in the first century, Christians portrayed Jesus as someone whose audiences questioned him as a scribal-literate teacher (John 7:15), rejected him as a scribal-literate teacher (Mark 6:3//Matt. 13:55), and accepted him as a scribal-literate teacher (Luke 4 and throughout). (pg. 65)

Perhaps one of Keith’s strongest cases for believing that Jesus was probably not SE is the nature of the development of the Christian literature regarding Jesus’ literacy. There seems to be a tendency overtime in early Christian literature to extend to Jesus more scribal literacy. 

But I was especially appreciative of Keith’s major point that, though we really cannot know if Jesus was scribally literate, it is interesting to see how perception of Jesus’ literacy by the people around him led to many assumptions. Ultimately, one of the reasons why Jesus’ enemies were out to get him was because he was someone from outside their circle who criticized the status quo and threatened their authority and reputation. There is a really fascinating socio-historical layer that Keith’s study adds to historical Jesus discussions.

I will not say more about the book except to encourage you to read it if you haven’t done so. 

By the way, for another take on Jesus and the literacy question, check out this essay by Craig Evans on “Jewish Scripture and the Literacy of Jesus.”