The Four Gospels and the Rule of Faith

Steve Walton has helpfully summarized Simon Gathercole’s plenary address to the British New Testament Society here. Walton’s entire summary is worth reading, and I can only imagine how beneficial Gathercole’s actual paper is. Gathercole cleverly draws our attention to 1 Cor. 15:3-4, a text that many refer to as the first “rule of faith,” to show that the four canonical Gospels alone among their rivals give a full throated picture of Jesus that mirrors this early ecclesial confession. In other words, only the four canonical Gospels contain the following elements together:

  • the identity of Jesus as ‘the Christ’
  • Christ’s saving actions fulfil Scripture
  • the atoning death of Jesus
  • the resurrection of Jesus.

This is, to me, the most crucial and profitable argument one can make in demonstrating the uniqueness of the Fourfold Gospel corpus. When I lecture on the issue in my Jesus and the Gospels course, I hammer home one main point – the Gospel writers do not simply narrate the events of Jesus’ life, they also provide the Spirit-inspired (and therefore correct) interpretation of those events. Their interpretive lens is the OT, and they give four distinct but unified portraits of Christ. This is what distinguishes them from the non-canonical gospels – their use of the OT as an interpretive lens. (Or, in the lone case of the Gospel of Peter, which does refer to the OT, the particular conclusions about Jesus which the four Gospels draw when using the OT distinguish them from GPeter.)

 

Debate on the Divinity of Jesus

Mike Bird has announced a debate via monograph concerning whether or not Jesus is divine. Bart Ehrman, lover and recycler of all things Baur, Bauer, and von Harnack, is set to publish a book arguing for the development (invention?) of the doctrine of the divinity of Christ after Jesus’ death and the earliest versions of Christianity. Bird, Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, Chris Tilling, and Charles Hill will be responding with their own monograph, How God Became Jesus.  You can read Bird’s comments, along with each book’s Amazon.com blurb, on his blog.

This should be a great debate. Ehrman has always been able to to put arguments against the veracity, historicity, and antiquity of the Bible in language that can be understood and adopted by the masses (and of course he’s been helped by Dan Brown in that as well). This particular issue is one that strikes at the heart of Christianity, and I look forward to what I will assume can only be a witty but penetrating and insightful critique of Ehrman’s position by Bird et al.

And who can talk about Ehrman debating Christ’s divinity without mentioning this episode of the Colbert Report? (apologies for any ads that pop up…not under my control)

The Johannine Split

If you were to walk into a bookstore or library with a section on the New Testament, and if you were to look for the books that discussed Luke, chances are you’d find a large number of volumes combining Luke and Acts under whatever topic. So “A Commentary on Luke-Acts,” “A Theology of Luke-Acts,” “The Spirit in Luke-Acts,” and so on. This is true also of NT Introductions, which often discuss Luke and Acts together. On one level this makes sense; Luke is the author of both books, the introduction to Acts calls it the second part of a two part work, and there are a myriad of linguistic, narrative, and theological points of continuity.

But on another level, the canonical one, it makes little sense. The fact is that John almost always comes at the end of the Fourfold Gospel corpus (see Metzger, The Canon of the NT, 296), and there are only three cases of Luke coming at the end, each of which are late (6th, 14th cents.) and regionally isolated.

Why don’t we follow the overwhelmingly dominate order of the NT in our interpretive practice when discussing Acts? While I would not go so far as to say we should start having “John-Acts” monographs, we ought to consider seriously the fact that Luke almost never comes immediately before Acts in any of our available lists, codices, or MSS. The arrangement of material matters in interpretation, even on a canonical level, and John splitting Luke and Acts ought to give NT readers pause in how the interpret the NT exegetically, narratively, and theologically.

4 Gospels Website

I just read over at Mike Bird and Joel Willitts’ blog that there is a new gospel website: 4Gospels. Some of the authors of the website are Peter Williams (Warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge) and Simon Gathercole (University of Cambridge). I’m sure it will be an interesting website with content on both canonical and non-canonical gospels.

The Gnashing of Teeth

I’m reading through the Psalms for my daily devotionals, and today I read Psalm 35 [34 LXX]. In this psalm, the speaker asks the LORD to contend for him and deliver him from his adversaries. Interestingly, in v. 16 when speaking of these enemies, he says “like profane mockers at a feast, they gnash at me with their teeth.”

The Greek verb used in Ps. 35:16 [34:16 LXX] for “gnash” is bruxō, and it is also found in Ps. 37:12 [36:12 LXX]; 112:10 [111:10 LXX]; Job 16:9; and Lam. 2:16. Of the occurrences, the ones in Psalms and Job both speak about adversaries of those under God’s protection, while the occurrence in Lamentations speaks about the adversaries of God himself. Of course, in the Psalter, “the righteous afflicted one” can be seen as a type of the Messiah, and this is especially true of Psalm 35. This particular psalm follows on the heels of Psalm 34:19 – “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.” Psalm 37:12 also suddenly shifts to the singular in its mention of the righteous being afflicted by those who gnash their teeth.In other words, it is possible to read at least Psalm 35:16 and 37:12 as speaking about the LORD’s anointed, and then along with Lamentations 2:16 we have three specific instances where this “gnashing of teeth” is done by those who are enemies of the LORD. Even if one does not take the Psalms references as explicitly Messianic, though, we are still dealing with enemies of God’s people, which in the OT makes them enemies of God himself. The phrase in the OT, then, appears to exclusively refer to God’s (or God’s people’s) enemies.

In the NT, the phrase “gnashing of teeth” occurs exclusively in Matthew. bruxō is the verbal equivalent of the noun (brugmos) used in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus describes what will happen to those who are not part of God’s kingdom (8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51). I think this verbal parallel with the OT occurrences tell us a few things:

  1. Hell is a place for the enemies of God. This phrase “gnashing of teeth” indicates rebellion against God in the particular state in which they find themselves. In other words, “gnashing of teeth” isn’t some sort of pain metaphor; it’s an indication of the disposition of the person’s heart in hell. Note that this says something to Rob Bell’s transformational view of punishment in eternity; people in hell are not inclined to turn to God, but in fact continue to rebel against him even in their judgment. They aren’t puppies with their tails between their legs who recognize that they’ve done wrong, but are in continual rebellion.
  2. I think Jesus’ use of the phrase lends greater weight to seeing Psalm 35, 37, and 110 as Messianic. Of course, Psalm 110 is used messianically all over the NT, but this may be further indication that it ought to be read as such. The parallels with Psalms 35 and 37 lend weight to reading them messianically as well.
  3. Finally, I think this tells us something about Jesus’ ministry and message in the Gospels. Jesus knew very clearly what he was saying and to whom he was saying it, and in many (all?) of the occurrences in Matthew he is speaking to Pharisees. This is seen nowhere more clearly than in Matt. 22:13, where he follows up his argument with the Pharisees and Sadducees and their request for a sign with this reference to God’s enemies gnashing their teeth. The implication is that it is they who are God’s enemies for not recognizing him as the Messiah. Another striking use is Matt. 8:12, where Jesus heals a centurion’s (read: GENTILE’S) servant, and then says he will sit at **Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s** (read: ISRAEL’S) table, but many “sons of the kingdom” will be cast into outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. What is this besides a declaration that those Israelites who do not have faith in Jesus as the Messiah are no longer part of God’s people and even more bluntly are now enemies of God? No wonder the Jewish leaders wanted him killed.

Southeastern Theological Review’s Round Table Discussion with Michael Licona

I’m thankful for STR for conducting a round table discussion concerning some of the brouhaha around Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27. I won’t get into my own personal feelings of how this situation unfolded. You can read the dialogue here and decide for yourself.

 

(HT Ben Blackwell)

Jesus and the Last Days

Last night I attempted to explain to my New Testament class that the Old Testament anticipates certain things to happen in the “last days” that are fulfilled in Jesus in the Gospels and Acts – e.g. the coming Davidic King, the new Temple, the resurrection, etc. After I demonstrated (hopefully successfully) that the “last days” anticipated by the Old Testament are inaugurated by Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and giving of the Spirit, and culminated by his return, I made this summary statement: “In Christ, the end of time has entered into the middle of time.” In other words, we are now living in the end times because of Christ’s life and work.

I came across this quote today from G. K. Beale’s new NT theology that summarizes what I was attempting to say:

. . . Christ’s resurrected body was the first newly created body to to pass to the other side of the new creation. The coming new creation penetrated back into the old world through the resurrected, new-creational body of Jesus. Although his postressurection existence was on this old earth for a time, he ascended to the unseen heavenly dimension of the beginning new creation, which will finally descend visibly at the end of time, when the old cosmos disintegrates (Rev. 21:1-22:5).

John’s Use of Drama

I’m currently reading George Parsenios’ work Rhetoric and Drama in the Johannine Lawsuit Motif for review. In it Parsenios explores the implications of reading John’s Gospel through the lens of Greek tragedy and forensic rhetoric. I must admit that I’m a bit skeptical of this endeavor, namely because I don’t see how we are supposed to conclude that John had Greek tragedy or legal rhetoric in mind while writing his Gospel. Parsenios admits as much in his opening chapter, saying:

We can say almost nothing with certainty about what [John] read, apart from the Old Testament. We know only such generalities as the fact that the tragedians were part of the school curriculum throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods in the East, or that many prose authors in the Roman Empire regularly rely on tragic language and scenarios in a phenomenon that is called the “thearicalization of ancient culture.”

Parsenios then concludes this section by arguing that:

regardless of what John read, if we read John in concert with ancient rhetoric and ancient drama, we will read John differently, and with greater insight.

My question is whether Parsenios can legitimately move from his first statement to his second without doing detriment to John’s intention for his Gospel.

I’m inclined to say that he cannot and should not.

What about you?

N.T. Wright on Jesus’ Vindication

I think I’ll start off this blog with its demise, which is to say I want to use it to critique the work of arguably the leading NT scholar in the world, N.T. Wright. How’s that for starting off with a bang (or a death wish)?

I just finished reading Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, volume 2 in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series. I actually thoroughly enjoyed the book; Wright’s explanation of Jesus’ prophetic program, aims and beliefs, practices, and stories all greatly enhanced my understanding of not only the Gospels but the OT as well. I think Wright is careful and meticulous, and he does the church a great service not only with this volume but also with The New Testament and the People of God and The Resurrection and the Son of God. All three of these books help the church first of all in its battle with the Enlightenment project’s seemingly endless quest to either “prove” the fictitious character of the Gospels or to undermine Jesus’ message through labeling him as a misguided apocalyptic prophet. Second, they serve the church well in its quest to understand the Bible better, especially the Gospels.

One nagging question for me, though, in reading through the latter parts of JVO is whether Wright is entirely correct in his assessment of how Jesus believes he will be vindicated as a prophet. Particularly in Part II of the book, Wright frequently argues that Jesus believes and teaches that he and his message will be vindicated through the fall of Jerusalem, which we know occurred in AD 70. Wright is especially concerned to show that when Jesus teaches the disciples about “when these things will be” in Mark 13 (cf. Matt 24), he is speaking not about “the end of the space-time universe” but about his vindication as a prophet. According to Wright, this vindication begins at his death (and resurrection, although Wright mainly leaves that for vol. 3) and ends emphatically with the calamity of AD 70. Wright sees the events of Mk 13:14-23 as referring to the events of AD 70 (the “abomination of desolation” standing where it ought not to be, fleeing to the hills, false prophets), and Jesus is speaking of these events as the way in which the disciples will know that he is right about the Temple’s destruction and his own program to restore Israel from exile.

Although I agree with Wright’s larger assessment of Jesus’ program and with his definition of “the last days” not as some distant, future end-of-the-space-time-universe event but as beginning with Jesus’ mission and especially his death and resurrection, I have a number of questions about Jesus believing he would be vindicated by the events AD 70. My initial reaction is to say no, Jesus believed he would be vindicated primarily by his death and resurrection. The following are a few reasons I lean this way and not with Wright.

First, there is no explicit reference in the NT to the events of AD 70. Although some would argue there are implied references, if those events were the main vindication of Jesus’ message one would think the writers of the NT would at least mention it in a few places, whether prophetically if the book was written before AD 70 or reflectively if written afterwards.
Second, other NT writers (esp. Paul and John) both use similar language in describing a) the period in which we now reside (commonly “the last days”, “these last days”, etc.) and b) the second coming of Christ. I wonder why they would interpret Christ’s words to refer to a future second coming if, as Wright argues, these chapters in the Gospels do not refer to his return at the consummation of the new creation.

Third, Wright consistently, and I think convincingly, argues throughout the book that the primary difference between Jesus’ message and the Pharisees’ and other first century Jews’ expectations was that Jesus saw the coming of the Kingdom centered around himself and inaugurated with his life, death, and resurrection, while the Pharisees and other C1 Jews saw it centered around various symbols and practices (Torah, Temple, Sabbath, food laws, etc.) and inaugurated with a military overthrow of Rome. I wonder why Wright so consistently argues for Jesus’ non-military agenda and then says that Jesus’ vindication will come through a military victory 35 years later (albeit by Rome over Jerusalem instead of the other way around).

Fourth, two of the events of Mk 13/Matt 24 that Wright argues are seen in AD 70, namely the “abomination of desolation” and the destruction of the Temple, are already seen in Jesus’ final work in Jerusalem and in his death. Wright himself argues that Caiaphas is presented as “evil incarnate” and his position as chief priest may point to his fulfillment of the “abomination of desolation.” Second and more strongly presented by the Gospels is the fact that the Temple is destroyed not in AD 70 but at Jesus’ death when the curtain is torn in two. As Wright demonstrates, Jesus proleptically enacts the Temple’s destruction in the Temple cleansing; the temporary cessation of sacrifices momentarily ends its purpose and thus its destruction is foreshadowed. Therefore when the curtain is torn in two at Jesus’ death, the Temple is permanently destroyed. The Holy of Holies has been violated; it can no longer serve its purpose.

Also of interest is Matthew’s use of the phrase “after these things”; Beale argues that John, through a quotation of Daniel, uses this phrase in Revelation to refer to the entire time period of the “last days”, and if Matthew uses it similarly then Jesus could be referring not just to one future event on the horizon but to the entire period of time between his first and second coming.

Obviously these arguments need to be fleshed out further to provide any sort of serious critique of Wright’s position. The purpose of this post  has not been to provide a definitive alternate position, but simply to put forth some questions about Wright’s conclusions concerning Mark 13/Matt 24 and the events of AD 70.

What do you think?