How new is the New Testament?

How new is the New Testament?

How is it that the Old Testament (OT) seems to predict the coming of Christ?  Was the OT inspired by the God revealed in the New Testament (NT)?  Could be, but an answer internal to the Bible itself is persuasive.  The Gospel writers looked backward more than they looked forward, reinterpreting the experience of Jesus, which none had firsthand, as the fulfillment of OT prophecy.  Almost any statement about a good man who suffered, such as the suffering servant songs of Isaiah 52-53, was put to this use.

The Gospels were written no earlier than 40 years after the death of Christ.  Mark was written in about 70 CE, John about 100 CE.  Educated men wrote them in Greek.  The apostles were uneducated, probably illiterate, who spoke Aramaic.  The Gospels were written to make sense of the fact that the Messiah, who was supposed to be a mighty warrior who would liberate the Jews, died a miserable and degrading death by crucifixion. 

Even that seems to have been predicted by the OT, which says that if a man is guilty of a capital crime “you hang him on a tree.” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23*)  Acts refers to this passage three times (5.30; 10.39; 13.29).  The principal goal of the NT was to transform a humiliating death into the liberation of humankind from the grip of death.  The OT provides plenty of evidence for this reinterpretation.

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53.5)

It certainly sounds like the prophet Isaiah was talking about Jesus.  But was he? 

Hardly any passage of the Hebrew Bible is and has been of such fundamental importance in the history of Jewish-Christian debate . . . or has played such a central role in it, as has the fourth Servant Song of Second Isaiah.  Nor has any other passage experienced such different and sometimes mutually exclusive interpretations as this one. (Schreiner, p 419)

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Wild Gods: Barbara Ehrenreich and William James

Wild Gods: Barbara Ehrenreich and William James.

Better known for her books on low-wage workers, such as Nickled and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote her dissertation on cellular immunology, and had always considered herself a scientist, even as she began to write on social issues. 

Author of about twenty books, the one that breaks the pattern is among her last, Living with a Wild God, in which she writes about an encounter with god, an event for which she was unprepared.  “I saw God,” she says about an encounter years earlier in which she experienced the world alight with what the traditionally religious might call glory, “where God or gods or at least a living Presence” appeared to her (pp 127, 215).  Previously imperceptible “conscious beings . . . . that normally elude our senses” seems to be the expression she is most comfortable with, but she freely employs the terms God and gods.

This does not lead her to say “I believe in God.”  Rather, she says she knows God because she has encountered him in a wilderness called Lone Pine.  But if she knows God, her god is nothing like the traditional theistic God, for he (or it) has no interest in our welfare. 

As Eckhart . . .  had asserted centuries earlier, referring to the Other as “God,” the religious seeker must set aside “any idea about God as being good, wise, [ or ] compassionate.”  This of course poses a nearly insoluble problem: Mysticism often reveals a wild amoral Other, while religion insists on conventional codes of ethics enforced by an ethical supernatural being. (p 226)

If this wild god has a purpose, then it is to keep us company.  Since Descartes, we have made ourselves the center of reality, creating a lonely world, the result of the “collective solipsism” of our species.*  While the wild gods are unconcerned with humans’ need for cosmic company, she makes the surprising suggestion that they may be seeking us out (p 237). 

The suggestion is surprising not only because nothing else in the book prepares us for it, but also because it faintly reflects the traditional Judeo-Christian view of God as intensely involved with his people, first rescuing them from Pharaoh, and then saving them from the obliteration of death. 

Ehrenreich’s gods are more modest, seeking only companionship.  Or perhaps this experience of an invisible companion is how we put together our chaotic experience of the world when we are in a mystical state.  Or a psychotic one (p 215).  Ehrenreich is certain there is a difference, but not always certain which one prevails at the moment, and she is wise to hesitate.  She does not hesitate in her assertion that these gods are other than human, other than ourselves.  We may experience them in a mystical state, but their existence is independent of human desires. 

William James: “Something really wild in the universe” 

In his 1895 essay, “Is Life Worth Living?” William James concluded that human life is either a “real fight in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success” or it is a trivial game from which “one may withdraw at will.” With the latter phrase, he is referring to suicide.  As evidence for the first possibility, he stated that

it feels like a real fight, as if there were something really wild in the universe which we . . . are needed to redeem. (paragraphs 61-63)

Ehrenreich reveled in this wildness, which reached out to grab her and might even need her.  James would redeem it.  But what does that mean, and does nature need redeeming?  Theodor Adorno (1984) answered that anything that looks like the redemption of nature is bound to be domination in disguise.  What James seems to mean is that we need to “redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears.”

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The Quest for the Historical Jesus

The quest for the historical Jesus

Is Jesus Christ best understood as a prophet of the apocalypse?  Yes, argued Albert Schweitzer in 1906 in The Quest of the Historical Jesus.  Moderns, said Schweitzer, tend to miss this reality, turning Jesus into a wise and pacific God-man.  Schweitzer’s claim has been renewed and popularized by Bart Ehrman in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.*  

It’s a strong argument, though a complicated one, for there exists no history of Jesus without its own theological agenda.  The first Gospel, Mark, as well as the hypothetical source called Q, are filled with apocalyptic sayings of Jesus, many emphasizing that the end of the age would fall within the lifetime of his followers. “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.” (Mark 9:1).

The problem, of course, is that Jesus was wrong.  The Kingdom did not come within the lifetime of his followers.  It has yet to arrive.  Though the revision of the message is present in all the Gospels after Mark, it was most clearly changed in John.  The Kingdom was in heaven.  It was not coming to earth, at least not for some time.  Jesus was telling us how to live now, not how to prepare for the apocalypse.

“Already but not yet” makes it complicated

The complexity is best captured by what is called inaugurated eschatology, and reflected in the phrase already but not yet.”  There is much in the New Testament, virtually our only historical source, that says that the Kingdom of Heaven is already at work among the followers of Jesus.  The Beatitudes (blessed are the poor in spirit . . . ) or the antitheses, also in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (5:21–48), are exemplary.**  There is virtually no way to read them but as advice for how to live in this world now.  It is a stretch to argue that the Beatitudes are a statement about the reversal that will occur when God’s Kingdom is realized on earth.  About the antitheses, Ehrman argues simply that they are not independently attested, an especially weak argument about a Gospel he relies on heavily (p 171).

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Does Paul Tillich make any sense?

Since my first post on Paul Tillich, I’ve become convinced that his project is important, finding a new way of talking about God that doesn’t assume he is an actor in the world.  However, this new way works only for those with a traditional religious background.  Without this background, Tillich offers only a new and confusing vocabulary.

During the 1950s, Tillich was the most well-known theologian in America.  He was on the cover of Time magazine (2/16/1959), and a serious essay of his, “The Lost Dimension of Religion,” was published in the Saturday Evening Post (6/14/1958), then the most popular magazine in America.  His sermons were popular and well-attended.

Tillich reinterpreted the Bible in terms of existentialism.  Existentialism was fashionable in the 1950s, addressing the isolation and lack of meaning that many felt after World War Two.  We had won the war, the economy was booming, but what was the point of it all?  The fundamental existential question is the meaning and purpose of an existence from which God has been displaced.  This was, and is true, even for many who attend church.  They don’t act like they believe.  There is nothing sacred in their lives (Tillich, Depth). 


Instead of the word “God,” Tillich substituted the term “being-itself.”  With this term, Tillich wanted to get at the “God above God.”  For Tillich, God doesn’t do things.  He doesn’t intervene in the events of the world.  That’s our responsibility.  Rather, God is present in all things, allowing them to be.  God isn’t like a powerful person.  God is the structure of the universe itself, the force that brings everything into being.  God makes the grass grow.  God is no longer personal but remains transcendent (Novak, p 11).  He creates, supports, and maintains the world.  The “ground of being” is Tillich’s term for this God.  

God as being-itself is the ground of the ontological structure of being without being subject to this structure Himself. He is the structure; that is, He has the power of determining the structure of everything that has being. (Systematic Theology, p 239)

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Karen Armstrong, the new physics, and religion

Karen ArmstrongKaren Armstrong’s The Case for God is an impressive, impossible survey of beliefs about God from 30,000 BCE to the current God wars between the new atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, among others) and Christian fundamentalists.  Armstrong synthesizes an enormous amount of material, including basic introductions to Buddhism and Confucianism, while concentrating on the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  Her work is aimed at the well-educated lay person. 

Where she goes wrong is in imaging that developments in the new physics, such as indeterminacy, can change the way we think about God.*  She’s wrong because while the new science of sub-atomic physics, strangeness, string theory, and quarks may inspire us to think more flexibly about God, there is no reason that it should.  The same may be said of astrophysics, and the fantastically beautiful images of distant galaxies brought back to us by the Hubble and Webb telescopes.  The situation laid out by Albert Camus remains.  We call out for the universe to tell us that we are not abandoned, isolated, and alone, and the universe is silent.

The absurd is born of the confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (Camus, p 28)

The new science is a source of the sublime, that experience that shatters our previous categories of experience.  “Beauty is the beginning of terror we are still just able to bear,” said Rilke.  The new science is beautiful; the new science is terrifying.  But unless one is looking strictly for inspiration, it does nothing to change the absurdity of human existence.  Humans long for a world that cares about us, and the world cares not.  Camus calls that the absurdity (absurdité) of the human condition, and it’s as good a word as any.

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On Eliot’s Journey of the Magi

On Eliot’s Journey of the Magi

Eliot'sT. S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, a poem of 43 lines, was one of a collection of poems with Christmas subjects “suitably decorated in colours and dressed in the gayest wrappers,” published by Faber and Faber to celebrate the season.  However, if one bothers to read the poem there is nothing gay or celebratory about it. It reflects the dark musings of a pagan king who has seen the Christ child, knows that his birth will upend the world, but is hardly thrilled at the prospect.  Perhaps the magus would be better off dead.  First, the poem, and then a few comments on it. 

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Eternity again and again

I’ve posted before on eternity, but there is much to say on this endless subject.    The first thing to figure out is what eternity is.  There are two main contenders:

  • Eternity is time without beginning or an end, sometimes called sempiternity.
  • Eternity stands outside of time. It is a perspective on time, but not time itself.  Eternity is nunc stans, from the Latin meaning remaining now, unchanging.  Ordinary time is nunc fluens, time that flows or passes.

The second way of thinking about eternity is often attributed to Plato (Timaeus 37c-e), but it became theologically significant in the work of Augustine (Confessions, book 11).  God, and only God, is eternal.  Earthly time, temporal time, is so insubstantial and illusory as to border on non-being (Erie, p 62).  Just as humans can only find fulfillment in God, so they can only find fulfillment in eternity.  God and eternity are virtually the same thing.   

Now is a ceaselessly moving point between past and future.  It is ephemeral, and totally lacking in substance.  For this reason, time has no value.  I was going to write, “ordinary time just is,” but the thing about time is that its substance, moments, have no substance.  They are gone the instant they have begun. 

Eternity is the opposite.  It is always present and everywhere.  In eternity all time is now.  How to make sense of this?  I like the simple explanation of C. S. Lewis.  He is answering the question how could God hear every prayer uttered by all who are praying at the same time.

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A History of the Bible

A History of the Bible

Normally I detest 600 plus page books, but John Barton’s History of the Bible is an exception.  If the story he tells is not always compelling, it is almost always interesting.  I focus on his account of the New Testament.  Barton tells a story familiar to Biblical scholars, but I’m not one, and I assume most of my readers aren’t either.  Mine is not a book review, but I stick closely to his text.

Paul or the gospels?

Paul wrote first, about twenty years after the death of Jesus.  The first gospel, Mark, was not written until about forty years after Christ’s death.  Surprising is that Paul has a more developed Christology, a theory of the divinity of Christ.  The Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) never identify Jesus with God, and have nothing to say about the Trinity.  The only exception is Matthew 28:19, which most scholars think was an addition by later editors.*  (The term gospels refers to the Synoptic Gospels unless John is specifically included.  They are called that because there is so much overlap in their content.) 

The gospels openly puzzle about who Jesus is.  Jesus himself is not very helpful, claiming only that he is not God. “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18). So, who is he?  The son of God, you say, but this subordinates Jesus to God, which is incompatible with the doctrine of the Trinity, which says that Jesus is God.  The point, and Barton makes it again and again, is that Christian doctrine, such as the Trinity, is not supported by the Bible.  The doctrine came later. 

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