Thursday, May 26, 2016

The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review-"According to Matthew"

AMatthias Stom's depiction of Jesus before Caiaphas, c. 1630.
If a biblical lesson starts off with a false assumption about the text the whole text is inadequately explained. The second lesson of the Presbyterian Women’s Bible study, Who is Jesus? What a Difference a Lens Makes, begins with a half-truth. The lesson, “According to Matthew,” written by Judy Yates Siker, is written around the assumption that the Jewish community and the Christian community were in conflict with each other because of the fall of Jerusalem.

 In the midst of the crisis Siker believes each community was attempting to find their identity minus the sacrificial system.  The Jewish community found their identity in the Law while the Christian community found their identity in Jesus and his interpretation of the law

Siker’s point is that Matthew and the community he was writing for were involved in a debate and the Christian side of the debate involved “derogatory remarks and venomous hate speech” which the author of the text placed in Jesus’ mouth. The words of the Jews at the trial of Jesus, that his blood should be on them and their children, is also blamed on the crisis of the community rather than the truth of history. Siker puts it this way:

 “As we noted at the beginning of this lesson, the Gospel of Matthew was written at a time when there was great turmoil among the Jews; the temple at Jerusalem had recently been destroyed for a second (and final) time, and the Jews were struggling to determine for themselves what it meant to be a good Jew in the wake of this disaster. There were those who believed that even without the temple (and thus the sacrificial system) it was possible to remain strong in their faith because they had the Torah and could not only survive, but thrive, by living in accordance with God’s revealed law. They did not believe that the messiah had come. We call them non-messianic Jews.[1] There were however, others who believed that the messiah had come—Jesus of Nazareth—and that he had fulfilled the Jewish law, he had offered the definitive understanding of the law; thus, through belief in him and his teachings, Jewish faith could flourish. We call these Messianic Jews.”

Siker goes on to explain that the non-messianic Jews evolved into rabbinic Judaism while the Messianic Jews became Christians. She writes that we are looking at an “in-house debate” and “sibling rivalry.” Siker’s explanation, “the mistake that many Christians have made over the centuries is to take the in-house Jewish debate from the first century, adopt its animosity and use it to denigrate the Jews across time. The misuse of our Scripture has resulted in centuries of anti-Semitism, culminating with the horrors of the Holocaust.”

While Siker’s concerns about hatred of the Jews are valid and compassionate, her understanding of the text and history is very confusing and wrong. It is a tangle that needs undoing.

First, while Rabbinic Judaism did evolve from the crisis of the loss of the temple, the conflict between Jew and Christian was really a conflict about who Jesus is, not about Jewish identity.

Second, Jesus’ words to the religious rulers of his day was in the long line of the Jewish prophets. Malachi, who was of the priestly line himself, shames the priests of his day insisting they despise the name of the Lord. He even tells them that God will spread refuse (manure) on their faces because they offer blemished sacrifices and do not honor God. Ezekiel, after God shows him the evil committed by the religious rulers in Jerusalem, including the priests, has him listen to the proclamations of their death by the hand of an angel. Isaiah and Jeremiah include the religious leaders in their prophetic judgments.

In the end Jesus wept over Jerusalem because of their rejection of his offer of salvation. The text is not hate speech but rather in the line of the prophetic word of the Jewish Bible.

Third, although too many people have misused the words of scripture against the Jewish people it was, in reality, those in the liberal tradition in Germany who combined their disbelief with a radical nationalism and helped to persecute the Jews to their death. They also, like many progressives today, did not uphold the authority of scripture. They also had texts that they tried to explain away.

All of this takes the focus away from who Jesus is. Siker rightly sees him, in Matthew, as a teacher like Moses. The book is written to the Jews. But there is so much more.

R.T. France in his Tyndale commentary on Matthew[2] writes of Matthews theological emphases:

“The essential key to all of Matthew’s theology is that in Jesus all God’s purposes have come to fulfillment. That is, of course, true of all New Testament theology, but it is emphasized in a remarkable way in Matthew. Everything is related to Jesus. The Old Testament points forward to him; its law is ‘fulfilled’ in his teaching; he is the true Israel through whom God plans for his people to go forward; the future no less than the present is to be understood as the working out of the ministry of Jesus. History revolves around him, in that his coming is the turning point at which the age of preparation gives way to the age of fulfillment. Matthew leaves no room for any idea of the fulfillment of God’s purposes, whether for Israel or in any other respect, which is not focused in this theme of fulfillment in Jesus. In his coming a new age has dawned; nothing will ever be quite the same again.”

And France sees in Matthew several answers to who Jesus is. Matthew uses Messiah, Son of David, Son of Man, King and Son of God. But he uses them carefully that they might be filled with the additional understanding of one who is crucified for the sins of his people. And so that they might be seen as titles connected to the one who fulfills God’s purposes which means that several of them such as Son of Man has been enlarged.

[1] This must surely bother any Jewish person reading the lesson because the Jews of the time, although they rejected Jesus as the messiah did look for a messiah.
[2] R.T. France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Leon Morris, General Editor, reprint,  (Intervarsity Press, 2008).

Monday, May 16, 2016

The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review-"According to Mark"

“… the high priest was questioning him and saying to him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed one? ‘And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.’” Mark 14: 61b-62)

Picture by Ethan McHenry
One of the causes of error in the church is an emphasis on one truth with neglect or rejection of other truths. This too often occurs because Christians fail to consider the paradoxes of faith. For example when we think of Jesus’ victory and the coming of the kingdom we rightly think of the words, ‘already—not yet.’ The kingdom has come because of Jesus’ death and resurrection but it is not yet fully here until the bodily return of Jesus. That is a paradox. Again the incarnation, Jesus fully human and fully God is a paradox.

The first lesson in the Presbyterian Women’s Bible study, Who is Jesus? What a difference a Lens Makes, looks at the gospel of Mark. There are beautiful truths here—that Jesus as the messiah is the suffering servant, and that as the suffering servant he is able to help us in our suffering. But there is a paradox that is ignored. The suffering servant, the messiah, is also the Coming Son of Man.

And, in fact, Judy Yates Siker writes:

“The Jewish expectations of ‘the messiah’ included one who would be king in a future age, when there was peace, and ranged from ideas about a political figure who would restore Israel to a position of power to a cosmic figure (as in Daniel 7) who would come in on the clouds of heaven, or a priestly figure. Clearly, for many Jews at the time of Jesus, Jesus did not fit any of these categories.” P. 17

While it is true that many Jews did not see the messiah as a suffering messiah and were horrified to think that the messiah would die like a common criminal, the gospel of Mark does not fail to inform the reader that Jesus is not only the suffering servant and Son of God. He is also the Coming One. The One who’s coming is glorious.

It matters not that Jesus’ family, disciples, and enemies did not understand him and often rejected him, Mark gives a complete picture of Jesus’ identity. A picture that does not contradict the other gospels.

Jesus, in the gospel of Mark often refers to himself as ‘the Son of Man.” In some cases his self-identity as the Son of Man clearly includes his divinity.

 Biblical scholar George Eldon Ladd, in his book A Theology of the New Testament, provides a whole chapter on the Son of Man texts in the gospels. He divides them into three categories. “The use of the Son of Man in the synoptics falls into three distinct categories: the Son of Man on earth serving; the Son of Man in suffering and death; the Son of Man in eschatological glory.”

All three are in Mark. The last category, the eschatological Son of Man in glory is found at Mark 8:38, “When he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels;” Mark 13:26, “They will see the Son of Man coming with clouds and great glory.”; and Mark 14:62—see above.[1]

Mark’s perspective does emphasize the suffering servant but it does not preclude Jesus as the coming Lord of glory. And the fact that Jesus the suffering servant is identified as Jesus the coming Son of Man enhances his identity and lifts up the Christian’s call to service and suffering. Jesus is always the Lion who is the lamb who was slain—who purchased, with his blood—people from every tribe and tongue, nation and ethnicity. (Rev. 5)

Siker, at the end of the first lesson, writes: “So, who is Jesus according to Mark? He is the suffering Son of God, and he will meet you in your suffering.” And so he will. But still in another place writing of Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane, Siker refers to Jesus as “The Jesus in this story …” But there is not a different Jesus for each gospel. There is instead Jesus, absolute, seen from different perspectives, yes, but always the same.   Trustworthy because he is the same, yesterday, today, forever.

[1] George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, fourth printing (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1979) See the chapter on The Son of Man 145-158.


Saturday, May 7, 2016

The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review- the introduction

I am beginning a review of The Presbyterian Women’s 2016-2017, Bible study, “Who is Jesus? : What a Difference a Lens Makes. Although this is a study written and published by a women’s organization connected to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and I now belong to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, there are good reasons to do the review. A large group of ecumenical women use the study, in fact, there is a copy published, in particular, for women in other mainline churches. More importantly several years ago PW officially allowed those women whose churches had left the PCUSA to still maintain their PW status within their new denominations. If they do exist they may be studying this material.

This first review will entail looking at the introduction with its basic premises about Christology and what different ways of looking at Jesus involves and produces. I also will look at some of the suggestions for leaders worksheet found in the back of the study.

In attempting to look at—not answer—the question “who is Jesus,” Judy Yates Siker, the author divides the first four chapters into the four New Testament gospels. She then, in the following chapters, looks at some of the writings of Paul, extra biblical literature not included in the canonization of the New Testament, and views about Jesus within the Jewish community and within the Moslem Qur’an. Finally she looks at contemporary cultural interpretations. The final chapter is meant to apply to the cultural views within the church.

While there is good material in the study there are two errors that cause the study to be extremely problematic. The first is Siker’s understanding of Christology in its relationship to Scripture. The second error is a failure to accept that there is a revelation of Jesus Christ in Scripture that is, taken as a whole, complete and unchangeable.

Finally although it does not contaminate the whole study there is a theological error in one of the study worksheets which may not have been intentional but nonetheless kills any correct view of who Jesus is. I will return to that at the end of this review.

Christology: Siker explains Christology in the New Testament using her understanding of a High Christology versus a low Christology. She defines those terms in this way:

“High Christology is one in which the emphasis is on the divinity of Jesus; that is, Jesus is God in human form. Low Christology puts the emphasis on Jesus’ humanity; that is, Jesus is a human in whom God chose to dwell. Most of our definitions (if we attempt to define Jesus identity at all) fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.”

Siker applies her definitions to the gospels. The synoptic gospels have a low Christology and John a high Christology. Siker points out that the words high & low for this are not a matter of superior or inferior and yet, perhaps she should do so. Here is the problem:

A high Christology is a Christology that is superior in that it not only emphasizes the divinity of Jesus but also affirms the humanity of Jesus. It is a balanced account of the person of Jesus, fully God and fully human. Think of the creed of Chalcedon. A fence is placed around the person of Jesus Christ and there are some things that cannot be said. A low Christology does fail to uphold Jesus’ divinity.

While the Gospel of John and the writings of Paul give a more direct and straight forward picture of Jesus’ divinity they also are very clear about the humanity of Jesus.  Matthew, Mark and Luke give very practical understandings of Jesus’ humanity, but in terms of his miracles, wisdom and even his actions they clearly picture Jesus as God. Who can still the raging waves but God? (Matthew 8) Who can forgive sin but God? (Mark 2) Who can raise the dead but God? (Luke 7)

Larry W. Hurtado, author of Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, in a comment on his blog explains first that Mark was not writing a Christology, but then Hurtado writes these helpful thoughts:

“But certainly Mark reflects and presumes a very “high” view of Jesus. E.g., the opening lines effectively make Jesus the “Lord” whose paths are prepared for by the Baptist. And at various points Jesus is pictured as heralded by demons who (unlike the humans in the story) perceive his transcendent significance. And Jesus acts in ways that allude to YHWH in the OT (e.g., walking on the waves and calming them).”

One of the troubling aspects of Siker’s way of looking at Christology affects a worksheet in the back of the study. The worksheet divides up the four gospels under categories including “More human” and “More divine.” Readers are expected to decide which gospels see Jesus as more human and which as more divine. Nothing in this study is more troubling than asking Christian women to state whether a biblical gospel presents Jesus as more human or more divine. Jesus’ person is never divided in that manner.

The unchanging Jesus: The second error has to do with the whole biblical picture of Jesus. Siker in attempting to look at the different perspectives of the biblical writers fails to place alongside that the truth that there is a biblical picture that is whole and does not change with different perspectives. Yes, different New Testament writers did write from different perspectives but they did not change the absoluteness of the person of Jesus.

While Siker presents some very clear and devout pictures about what various writers teach about Jesus, she leaves open the possibilities of optional answers to the question “Who is Jesus.” Siker is loyal to each author she writes about, but seems to toss them aside with each new text and new author. In the last chapter on contemporary cultural interpretations Siker offers scholarship that questions Jesus’ sinless nature.   When presenting the lesson on the non-canonical gospels she praises them for their ability to teach about diversity.

The question “Who is Jesus” is never clearly answered.

Explaining Jesus: fully God, fully human:  In a worksheet meant to teach how one states the biblical understanding of Jesus as both God and human the author or perhaps the editors use poor wording. There is a list of statements one is to choose from. On another page all but one of the statements, the last one, is shown as being in error and the heresy it contains is named. The last one is meant to be correct—but this is what it says:

“Jesus is made of the same “stuff” as God the Father.”

The answer states “Yes. This is what the Nicene Creed says: “… being of one substance with the Father …”

But what else does the creed say, “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father …” (Italics mine.)

Yes the creed does go on to say that in His incarnation Jesus was made man but that is how and why he is fully human. We can say that in his humanity Jesus was made or in his divinity he was begotten of the Father. Or we can say that Jesus Christ was begotten of the Father and made man in his incarnation. But we cannot say that Jesus was made of the same stuff as God the Father.

There is one more problem. The sentence “Jesus is made of the same “stuff” as God the Father,” implies, unintentionally I know, that God the Father is made of “stuff.” This makes “stuff” higher then God. The creeds were worked out with great care. In most cases it is important that we simply use the words of the creed. “… being of one substance with the Father.”