Friday, March 27, 2015

Debunking the claim of "development" in the crucifixion narratives

I have recently been discussing with a friend the hypothesis, put forward by some skeptics of Christianity, that the gospels show evidence of legendary accretion in the form of the development of Jesus as a character in the crucifixion narratives. The general idea is supposed to be that we can see that Jesus changes from one crucifixion story to another in ways that are best explained by the hypothesis that the gospel writers were massaging or manipulating the portrayal of Jesus, putting words into his mouth, and so forth, rather than simply attempting to record historical events that lay within their knowledge or within the knowledge of their immediate sources. In particular, the claim is that the initial crucifixion stories in the earlier gospels Matthew and Mark portray a despairing Jesus and a prima facie meaningless crucifixion and that Jesus grows "nobler," more controlled, more martyr-like or even godlike, and the crucifixion more meaningful as the "line of development" proceeds through the gospels. This, in turn, is supposed to cast doubt on the idea that the gospels are simply memoirs of Jesus from people in the know. Rather, we are supposed to see them as having, at least to some degree, the characteristics of fictional portrayals which are therefore less than reliable concerning the actual details of what Jesus did and said.

In particular, the data used for this developmental hypothesis concerning the crucifixion narratives are

a) That Jesus says only, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" from the cross in Matthew and Mark.

b) That in Luke Jesus says, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit" when he dies, that he offers the thief on the cross a place in Paradise, and that he asks his father to forgive those who are crucifying him.

c) That Luke does not contain, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

Although the following was not presented to me as a datum when I was informed of the details of this hypothesis, I can continue spinning this alleged pattern myself (momentarily, before debunking it) by pointing out

d) That Jesus commits his mother to the care of John in the gospel of John, which may be regarded as a noble, controlled, and meaningful act.

Dear reader, let me make some suggestions. When anybody claims that Jesus "develops" in the gospels, do the following: First, get a handle on what sort of trajectory of development is being claimed. Then, sit down, pick up your Bible, open it up, and read swathes of relevant text to see whether they in fact display such a pattern. Do not allow cherry-picked, even uber-cherry-picked data points to be treated as evidential in themselves. After all, your Bible is sitting right there, is it not? And there is likely to be more evidence in the Bible one way or another concerning this alleged pattern, is there not? And the facts thus far mentioned, even if correct as far as they go, are a pretty meager basis on which to build such an hypothesis, are they not?

Let me also suggest that you bear in mind all the other data we have that argue that the gospels were not massaged, fictional accounts but rather are memoirs coming from truthful eyewitnesses--data such as undesigned coincidences among the gospels (including in Jesus' trial before Pilate), unexplained allusions, pointless but truth-like details, the clearly unretouched and strongly Jewish account of Jesus' conception and birth in Luke, etc. With all this in mind, a couple of points like a-d above should be treated with grave skepticism when it is claimed that they establish a pattern of development. But in any event, the matter is quite easy to test. Which I did.  I widened my focus to the passion narratives conceived slightly more broadly than the words on the cross alone. There are probably even more points than what I am going to give, but here are the ones I found even just in a brief re-reading:

1) In all of the synoptic gospels, including Mark, Jesus says to the Sanhedrin, when asked if he is the Christ, the Son of God, "Ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power." In fact, the wording in Mark (which skeptics themselves generally take to be the earliest gospel) is one of the strongest: "I am, and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven." Note that Jesus says this despite the fact that he has predicted his crucifixion (Mark 8:31). Therefore, not only does Mark not portray Jesus as surprised by his death or as seeing his death as a terrible and meaningless tragedy; Mark portrays Jesus as defying the Jewish leaders on the very eve of his death and predicting his own ultimate vindication and power!

2) These statements to the Sanhedrin are not found in John, the latest gospel! So in this area, there is exactly the opposite of any "development" of Jesus into a stronger, more godlike, or more in-charge person in the passion narratives.

3) All the synoptics record a) the darkness from the 6th to the 9th hour at Jesus' crucifixion, b) the rending of the veil of the temple, and c) the statement (attributed in Mark to the centurion), "Surely this was the Son of God." This is far from portraying the crucifixion as meaningless. These indications in the synoptics strongly imply a deep theological meaning in Jesus' death. The rending of the veil in the temple implies that his death had some sort of heavy theological effect concerning the Old Covenant. We can be sure that if these events occurred in John, they would be used to argue for "development" of Jesus, of Christology, and of the gospel writers' view of the meaning of the crucifixion. Yet they are in the earliest gospels, and...

4) John, the latest gospel, does not record the darkness, the rending of the veil, or the statement, "Surely this was the Son of God."

5) Of all the gospels, only Matthew states that the dead came forth after Jesus' crucifixion. Regardless of whether one thinks that this really happened or not, the point is that it is a counterexample to an alleged pattern of gradual development of significance from the earlier to the later gospels. Even Luke does not include this claim, and John certainly doesn't, though both are later than Matthew, but Matthew includes it along with the rending of the veil of the temple. Again, we can be sure that if Matthew were independently known to be the latest gospel, this would be used as evidence of the alleged pattern of development.

6) Of all of the gospels, only John, the latest, records the most human admission of physical pain and weakness in the words from the cross: "I thirst."

7) The three "noble" words from which, apparently, the skeptics are attempting to build their developmental thesis are, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," "This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise," and "Into thy hands I commit my spirit." But in fact, these are recorded only in Luke and not in John! John has the more ambiguous, "It is finished" just before Jesus breathes his last. In John, Jesus is not shown asking his Father to forgive those who crucify him and is not shown offering a place in paradise to the thief on the cross. So what is the developmental thesis? That Jesus got "nobler" abruptly in Luke's portrayal, for some unknown reason, and then less "noble" and more pathetic and human in John's later portrayal?

All of this is in addition to,

8) The words, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" should by no means be taken to be simply an expression of despair on Jesus' part. While they may express deep suffering on his part, they are a direct allusion to Psalm 22, which contains rather amazingly coincidental phrases seeming to foretell crucifixion and which ends with the vindication of the speaker by God. While the precise reasons for which Jesus cried out this phrase from the cross are not revealed directly in Scripture, taking it to be merely a portrayal of a man in despair is an extremely shallow, uninformed, and tendentious interpretation.

I would emphasize 1-7 even more right here, however, because they do not even require a knowledge of the Psalms. Of course, anyone investigating the claims of Christianity should know that about Psalm 22, but even more than that, anyone investigating the claims of Christianity should have a sufficient modicum of skepticism about the skeptics to take up and read and see the other points, which completely destroy the idea of a linear progression from sad, despairing, human Jesus dying a meaningless death to controlled, godlike figure. It's just a completely bogus claim. There is no such progression. In Luke we have three sayings not contained in John or any of the other gospels. In John we have three sayings from the cross not contained in any of the other gospels, in the synoptics we have some things not in John, and there just is no pattern of development. At all. What we have instead is exactly what we would expect to see if the various gospels had, at least to some extent, independent access to the events in question from witnesses who noticed different things, remembered different things, and recorded different things. That hodge-podge of detail is exactly what we get with human testimony to real events. 

In fact, an interesting conjecture (though only a conjecture) arises from John 19:35, where Jesus commits his mother to the beloved disciple. If that disciple was indeed the author of the gospel, it may be that John does not record the words given by Luke because he left the cross immediately and took Mary away from the grisly scene to his own home, returning thereafter alone and witnessing Jesus' last moments. It is, again, only a conjecture, and I do not wish to place too much weight on it, but it is certainly one kind of thing that happens and causes witness testimony to vary.

Skeptics, and unfortunately some Christians, are easily captivated by a kind of phony evolutionary hypothesis about the gospels. I call it the "eohippus model." Mark is the shortest, so it is like the little eohippus horse ancestor, and all the other gospels evolved by chance processes of accretion (not anything like truthful alternative witnesses!) from a Markan original.

All the evidence of the actual contents of the gospels tells against this, and there is nothing in the sheer shortness of Mark to support this hypothesis.

I submit that we need to get over, well over, and forever over, the entire picture of the gospel writers as "making Jesus say" things he never said, portraying different "Jesuses" in a literary fashion, and "developing" Jesus for their own agendas. That is not the way the evidence points. It is a mere construct of airy and unsubstantiated literary critical approaches. If anyone tells you that Jesus "develops" in the gospels, let your antennae twitch good and hard. Then, if you are interested, go and see for yourself that it isn't so.

Monday, March 23, 2015

I will not let thee go except thou bless me

Dorothy Sayers has her character Lord Peter Wimsey say that the personality of Jacob irritates him. I have been recently re-reading Genesis and am tempted to agree with Lord Peter. The personality of Jacob is both very distinctive and highly irritating.

The Anglican divine John James Blunt, who wrote an excellent work on undesigned coincidences in Scripture, argues persuasively that the vividness and consistency of Jacob's personality is evidence for the veracity of the sections of Genesis that tell his story. I think Blunt is right. Jacob is always the same--calculating, tricky, greedy, nervous to the point of cowardice, a master of self-pitying drama, pessimistic. In Laban he meets his match--a trickster and dodger after his own pattern. But after putting up with it for fourteen years, Jacob takes the opportunity to make a gigantic, Middle Eastern family scene about it.

When Jacob returns from Laban to Canaan and sends messages to Esau, whom he tricked out of his birthright, Esau decides to give little brother a good scaring. One can just see Esau chuckling into his beard when he sends the message, "Tell your master that his brother Esau is coming with four hundred men." As it turns out, Esau never meant Jacob any harm, but he knew quite well that Jacob would not have changed in twenty years and that the message would send him into a veritable frenzy of worry and fret.

So Jacob sends elaborate gifts ahead to Esau and, finally, sends everyone else on ahead, including his wives and children. But when he stays behind alone, he encounters Someone a good deal more formidable than Esau.

And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok. And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh. (Genesis 32:22-31)
I submit that this is a truly great passage of Western literature. Try reading it aloud sometime. We move almost seamlessly from the all-too-real cowardly Jacob, staying behind the women and children, to a vision scene fraught with a depth of meaning impossible to pin down.

What does it all mean? Why does the angel (or God in a theophany) call Jacob a prince with God? Jacob, of all people! Merely because he is persistent in a wrestling match?

One can just imagine what a film version of this scene would be like--the mysterious man who shows up, barely visible in the night, and falls into a wrestling position, the match, the dramatic dialogue. The attempt to "pin" each other, not only in wrestling but in the telling of names, as though knowing your adversary's name gives you power. But it is God who obtains Jacob's name, and gives him a new one.

And then the last verse: "And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted on his thigh." The sun rises on a Jacob permanently changed by something that could not have been only a vision, for it left behind an undeniable physical mark.

Yet in the text, Jacob is not changed in personality. He continues to be just as cautious, just as pessimistic, just as full of worry. He doesn't act any more like a prince with God after he receives the name Israel than before that all-night wrestling match.

What does it all mean?

To which I answer: I don't know. I think it happened, mind you. At the risk of trivializing its depth, I will say that one obvious application is that we ourselves are, or can be, God's instruments, even God's crucial instruments in sacred history, despite our absurdities.

If such a scene could come to Jacob, and such a name, then any of us may hope to see the face of God, and live.

Monday, March 16, 2015

So, what's Eve Tushnet been up to lately?

In this post at What's Wrong With the World, I criticized the ideas of the group some have called the New Homophiles. I dubbed them CHIs--Christian Homosexual Identifiers.

One of the most prominent of the CHIs is Eve Tushnet. In her explicit statements, Tushnet affirms that homosexual acts are morally wrong. She is therefore said to affirm the Roman Catholic Church's position on sexuality. However, she insists that homosexual "eros" ("eros" is the term she uses) is not wrong and that it can be channeled to good ends.

Recently, Tushnet has, to my mind, made it clear that, if she regards homosexual acts as wrong at all (as she claims), she doesn't regard them as all that wrong. Here are the two new items that have come to light:

First, Tushnet has unequivocally stated that she would attend a lesbian "wedding" in order to celebrate the positive aspects of the relationship. Here is the quote:
This decision about attendance is easier for me, because I believe God calls some people to devoted, sacrificial love of another person of the same sex. Let me be clear: I don’t think that that love should be expressed sexually. But some people who marry a same-sex partner are doing so out of a call to love, even though they misinterpret the nature of that love. We should support as much as we can. When a woman forgives offenses and humbly apologizes for her own wrongdoing, cares for children, listens, comforts, and learns to put others’ needs above her own preferences, those are acts of love—which do not become worthless or loveless when they take place within a lesbian relationship.
This is an absurd argument. Why should we "support as much as we can" the celebration of the sexual aspect of their relationship? And why should we tell ourselves lies that a wedding isn't, inter alia, a celebration of a sexual relationship? Answer to both: We shouldn't.

If you've ever attended a wedding in your life, you know quite well that the sexual nature of the relationship is made clear, even though this needn't be and often isn't done in crude ways. The glasses are clinked at the reception so that the couple will kiss. The couple kisses at the altar. There is not the slightest doubt that the people are there to celebrate this couple qua sexual-romantic pair. Is Eve Tushnet going to clap at the reception when the lesbians kiss? Because after all, I'm sure they're doing lots of selfless things, and those don't become worthless, blah, blah.

No one who thinks that homosexual sexual intercourse is all that wrong is going to make this kind of lame excuse for attending a homosexual "wedding" and celebrating lesbianism's alleged "positive aspects."

But it gets worse. If you have the stomach for it, watch this video. (It's about fourteen minutes long.) The video is openly celebrating homosexual sex from beginning to end. One of the men interviewed states in so many words that it is "inherently discriminatory" for the church to call upon homosexuals to be celibate. It also endorses homosexual "marriage" and transgender transitions. It is completely heretical. It makes not the slightest pretense to be anything but a celebration of homosexual sex.

Eve Tushnet is featured in the video. She sits about smiling with other participants. She makes various comments about what it feels like to be a lesbian in the Catholic Church. And she even informs us that she was very pleased to learn that the Bible uses "same-sex love" along with heterosexual love as "models and mirrors of God and the human soul" (minute 3:34).

That is a disgustingly false statement. At no point, anywhere, in the Bible is homoerotic emotion (even aside from actions) used as a metaphor for the love of God and the soul. Men are, of course, called upon to love God, and God is portrayed as masculine. But there is no place whatsoever where "same-sex love" is used as a "model and mirror of God and the human soul." That is some sort of Queer Theory perversion of Scripture and deserves to be anathematized. I don't, frankly, even want to know what passages Tushnet thinks she is talking about.

It is quite impossible that Tushnet does not know what this video is about and what it is promoting. On her blog she promoted the video herself just four days ago. The only thing she distances herself from is the title--"Owning our Faith." I don't even know why. She says, "I did not name this." But she in no way indicates any distance between herself and the pro-sex content of the video or the blatantly, openly pro-sex agenda of the group who has made it. She just makes a joke about how she needs a haircut. Ha ha.

It would be impossible for anyone who takes with any real degree of intellectual seriousness the immorality of homosexual acts to lend the slightest appearance of approval to this video. The video is utterly rebellious against traditional moral teaching on homosexual acts.

I therefore conclude that, her protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, Eve Tushnet does not take with any real degree of intellectual seriousness the immorality of homosexual acts.

At this point, anyone who wants to point to Eve Tushnet as an example of homosexual orthodoxy within the Roman Catholic Church needs to do some serious reevaluation.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Ravenswood Baptist Christian School

On the off chance that anyone reads this blog who is not also my Facebook friend and has not already seen my plug there, I want to take this week to do a little fund-raising. (Very unusual activity for me.)

Ravenswood Baptist Christian School, the educational arm of Ravenswood Baptist Church, was my high school. I went there at the age of 13 1/2 as a grumpy, funny-looking, social outcast. My parents had decided to transfer me to Ravenswood from the Christian school where I had gone for K-8, hoping that a change to a different atmosphere would give me a chance to start over and make friends. I was not only a nerd, I was also sarcastic, unkind, and argumentative. Peers and teachers alike were justifiably annoyed by me, and most other teenagers just couldn't be bothered.

The thing about Ravenswood, though, was that it excelled at dealing with misfits. It was, and I believe still is, the Island of Misfit Toys School. We had plenty of odd birds of all sorts. I was by no means the only one. (Details suppressed to protect the innocent.) The teachers were firm but kind. They referred to all of the students as "Mr." and "Miss." Strangely enough, the students picked up somehow from the teachers the message that bullying was not acceptable. "Anti-bullying programs" were completely unnecessary. The love of Christ was manifested in the love for the students.

It was at Ravenswood that I started on the road to becoming a person whom anyone would want to be friends with, to be close to, to work or to live with. I had been simultaneously spoiled at home and rejected at school before going there; my friends and teachers at Ravenswood began to correct both of those imbalances. There I made dear friends in my own generation whom I've been privileged to reconnect with now that the Internet makes that possible. Until I went off to college three years later, Ravenwood Baptist Church also became my church.

I have been back to Chicago and visited Ravenswood several times in the last few years in connection with deaths in my family. No church could have been kinder or more supportive at those times.

Now the school is struggling financially. My understanding is that they fell behind in the slump that began in '08, as did most everyone. They have yet to catch up with the financial losses of those years. Ravenswood is an inner-city school, and its families are by no means well off. Sometimes even now parents are unable to pay tuition.

Here is a GoFundMe page for Ravenswood Baptist Christian School. If you're looking for somewhere to make a donation, consider donating there. Or you can send a check directly to the school's address at 4437 N. Seeley, Chicago , IL 60625.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

For the truth be not dismayed

Last evening was a hymn sing at our home. One of the children chose the hymn "The Banner of the Cross," which I don't believe we've sung very often. Here are the words to the first two verses and the chorus:

1. There’s a royal banner given for display
To the soldiers of the King;
As an ensign fair we lift it up today,
While as ransomed ones we sing.
Marching on, marching on,
For Christ count everything but loss!
And to crown Him king, we’ll toil and sing,
’Neath the banner of the cross!
2. Though the foe may rage and gather as the flood,
Let the standard be displayed;
And beneath its folds, as soldiers of the Lord,
For the truth be not dismayed!
The lyrics were written in 1884 by Daniel W. Whittle. They are timely today. When we were singing I immediately thought of Barronelle Stutzman . I also thought of her when we sang "Dare to Be a Daniel."

Why did people write those songs? They wrote them because they realized that Christians need encouragement, and the hymns were supposed to offer that encouragement, that spine stiffening.

What struck me was that in our own time it is less likely that such lyrics would be written because too many Christians are afraid of sounding too sure that we know what God wants us to do. To apply a song like "The Banner of the Cross" to a concrete situation like that of Barronelle Stutzman requires confidence that she is displaying the banner of the cross, that she is fighting the good fight, and, most controversial of all, that her opponents represent "the foe." In short, such songs come from an era when we were not worried about identifying the foe and the fight. I really don't imagine that anybody wrote to Daniel W. Whittle and told him that he was being presumptuous and "demonizing" his opponents. Yet that's exactly the sort of advice Christians give Christians now--don't think in us-them terms, don't think of those who are on the other side (of the abortion issue, of the homosexual rights issue, of any issue) as "the Other."

It is a breath of fresh air to open a hymnal and sing a song that tells us that all will be well, that heartens us, that says, "Though the foe may rage, display the standard! Wave the banner! For the truth be not dismayed! We are fighting the good fight, and the Lord is with us. Stand up for what is right."

And in the meanwhile, for Christ count everything but loss. That line is in there too. Barronelle Stutzman may lose all her worldly goods. She counts it all but loss, as the Apostle Paul wrote,
But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; Philippians 3:7-10
Stutzman wrote the following to Bob Ferguson, the State Attorney General who has tried to induce her to promise "not to discriminate" in the future in return for his dropping the case in return for a small fine:

You are asking me to walk in the way of a well-known betrayer, one who sold something of infinite worth for 30 pieces of silver. That is something I will not do.
She knew when the moment came, she heard the call, she has answered the call. May God grant us grace to follow her example and not to be dismayed for the truth.