This blog doesn’t have a lot of traditions or rhythms. Just the one, that wasn’t planned, but sort of “happened”. Once a year, on (or close to) Easter Sunday, I blog about the resurrection. The first post was simply because I had to get some stuff out of my system, but now it’s the one rhythm that I try and keep to. So this time around I continue reflecting on this key theological concept, and I continue to find myself within the contemporary debate, attempting to move beyond the impasses which we have created.

In my own context, and that of many others in the various white Western parts of the world, the debates on the resurrection typically gravitate towards questions of historical reliability and speculations on biology rather than theological implication. This is a gross generalization I know, but just listen my out for a moment before condemning the statement. We turn to Wright or Crossan, but rather than actually engaging their texts in all their complexity (something which I can’t claim to have done), we like to quote them to justify our various positions on whether the resurrection was a historical event. And the debate continue, and the historians doesn’t seem to provide us with an end to it.

We try to work around it by turning to biology. Or we turn to biology to make sure the extremity of our claims don’t go amiss on our hearers. We do the biology trick by adding a bunch of descriptions onto resurrection. Jesus was not only resurrected, but it was a physical, bodily, historical, literal resurrection (and yes, I’ve heard this exact four strung together within the debate, although I’m still in the dark on exactly what is being implied with each, and how they relate to the various resurrection narratives of the Bible). Or we do the biology trick to the other side by explaining that it was not any of the above descriptors, or not certain of them, and then adding others such as “spiritual” or “metaphorical”. Although these words do help in pushing us towards theology, they are not quite what I’m moving towards.

What historians do not deny is that we have a whole bunch of resurrection narratives from the ancient world. They differ on whether all of them, or all but one of them, can be discarded. Within the church we’ve been confronted with this by various smart young catechists asking us why we make such a big deal about the resurrection of Jesus but ignore the other resurrection narratives in the Bible. Various well-meaning pastors has then mumbled something about how the other resurrections was only temporary and the people dies again, but Jesus’ resurrection was permanent.

But here is the thing: The Bible doesn’t consider resurrections to be a once of event (if you take the book literally that is). It does consider one particular resurrection narrative to be of special importance. The supernaturalism of it however doesn’t seem to bbe the biggest issue. Rather, the bigger story within which it is found is what gives meaning to it.

Many apologists have made claims about how we wouldn’t have worried about what Jesus said if it wasn’t for his resurrections proving that he is God. But I say, the early church wouldn’t have worried about the resurrection if it wasn’t for what Jesus said and did. For who he was. The fact that it was Jesus that was resurrected was important for the early church, not the fact that they has a circus-act of resurrection to dazzle the world with.

So where does this line of thought take us? Well, today the resurrection is a reminder that God chose the words of the propher from Nazareth above the power of those who send him off to be crucified. The resurrection is primarily a theological claim, rather than a historical or biological claim, saying that the God was found in the words of him who said that the poor and those who suffer are blessed, rather than with those who are powerful and control others. It is the claim that in Jesus the time when justice will come and injustice will end has been initiated, and that the death on the cross didn’t bring and end to this force for justice, this voice talking about the kingdom of God.

If today we would find ultimate proof that one of the Ceasers from the first century was also resurrected, put as many descriptions as you want before this, would that be proof that Ceaser was lord? That God is on the side of the Ceaser? No. Because the resurrection is only the final confirmation of the continuation of a much longer tradition: that God is the God of the widows and orphans, the God with an eye for the little things in life, the God of those who were cast out. The resurrection can theologically only give meaning where it is a confirmation of this. No amount of historical evidence or biological claims can bring any proof that there was a resurrection event that pointed to God if it isn’t a confirmation on a life which was in line with the God that was the God of the slaves, rather than the God of the Pharaohs.

Is this good history? No it isn’t. We need good history, but this is not it. This is theology. It is claims about God, about the world, about how we choose to interpret reality. About how we choose to hope, not because of the historical proof we have, but sometimes despite of it. This is faith. Claiming that the gods of this world does not have the final say. That not even the cross can have the final say. Most probably a few debates will resound again this year, or has already by now, about this celebration that the church have on Easter Sunday. But let us pray that we will not be pulled around by historical niceties but confess our deepest theological convictions, faith commitments, words that say much more about the meaning this celebrated event has for lives today than about the proof of a supernatural event many ages ago.

Let’s remember that we confess faith not simply because there was a resurrection which was kind of wonderful and strange and out of this world, but because the one we confess to be the resurrected lord is the one who preached about the kingdom of God. Jesus gives meaning to the resurrection, not the other way around (or at least, this year, on resurrection Sunday, this is the way around which I’d like to consider it, but we won’t exhaust the long tradition of reflection on this particular event in one blogpost, or in one year of celebrating Easter).

Last year’s reflection on the resurrection, where links to previous reflections can be found.

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I haven’t really blogged on Easter this year, as I usually do (2007, 2008), but I’ll be preaching on the Easter events again this Sunday, since I know that most of the kids sitting in that service wouldn’t have been to church over Easter weekend. But my preparation is a struggle! I know the kids in this service: They know nearly nothing of the Bible. Many haven’t been to church for a number of years now. And they are very prone to fundamentalism. Their fundamentalism worries me. But broader than the fact that I need to preach to these kids, I also need to find a way of talking about the cross; for myself. This has obviously not started today, but I’ve been theologizing about the cross probably for at least 9 years now, since the first time I led a small group of 13 year olds at a camp.

In the American conversation I notice a lot of talk about atonement. I found the fact that I don’t share this love of talk about atonement a bit strange, untill I realized that the Afrikaans translation of this word wasn’t one I ever heard much in church. Rather, we talked about salvation. But similar issues seem to be at stake.

If I’d ask the question “Why was Jesus crucified?” to a group of informed church members in our church, I’d probably get something in the line of the following: “God intended it” and “For our sins“. But my change in talking about the crucifixion isn’t that much a critique against these answers, but rather a reading of the Bible which calls for something else. I try and find the answer to the question “Why was Jesus crucified?” in the gospels, especially the synoptics, and I use historical and social scientific research as a lense in reading this.

Piet Meiring always talk about chapted 13 of Transforming Mission as vintage Bosch. If you want to know what Bosch thought, read chapter 13, he says. There Bosch the theologian moves to the background, and Bosch the preacher emerge, so to speak. I was just reading the part on salvation in Transforming Mission, and here Bosch does something similar than in chapter 13. His argument in both these parts is that we need to understand salvation and mission within the comprehensive christological framework – “his incarnation, earthly life, death, resurrection, and parousia” (p399). He explains the need for doing this with saying that

  • the Greek patristic tradition was orientated to the incarnation (I’ll have to read on the Orthodox church again to be able to point to the implication of this)
  • Western mission was oriented towards the end of Jesus’ life, his death on the cross. That tend to get us into a purely early Pauline understanding of salvation which focus on an apocalyptic event in the future
  • a Third model focused on the eartly life and ministry of Jesus, it was an ethical interpretation of salvation. According the Bosch this made Christ redundant in the end.

I think there is value in this comprehensive approach Bosch propose. However I’m thinking more and more that we should reorder this comprehensive narrative.

I love the historical Jesus writers. I really do. I’ve been reading parts of Nolan and Crossan again over the past two days. Bosch also liked the historical Jesus research, as can be seen in his approach to Transforming Mission. In writing Transforming Mission, he started out with the historical research on Jesus and the early church, and then moved onto three paradigms of mission found in the early church, this he found in Matthew, Luke and Paul. The historical Jesus research  help us in understanding Jesus, the person who lived and walked and talked in Galilea and Judea roundabout 27-33 AD. Who was crucified. Historical research has difficulty talking about the resurrection, not because of unbelieve, but the sources really makes it difficult (please make sure you really understand this point before critiquing). Historical research can however help us in understanding what the early church believed about this event.

The reordering I propose is to start where the early disciples started, and work in the same order that the story developed for the early church theologians.

  1. Jesus lives, walks and preaches in Galilea and Judea.
  2. He gets crucified
  3. The disciples experience him as alive and develops a theology of the resurrection
  4. Parousia (Christ’s second coming)
  5. A high Christology develops which lead to thoughts on the incarnation

So I simply moved the incarnation towards the end of the story. I think a fairly good case can be made that of these 5 elements, that was the one that became important to the early church last. My reason for doing this, is that when putting it first, we tend to answer the quesion “Why was Jesus crucified?” from the intentionality of God, while reality is that Jesus was crucified because the Jews [UPDATE: meaning, certain Jewish leaders, certain members of the Sanhedrin.  Thanx to Hugo’s comment] were really reallymad at him, and probably some Romans weren’t that fond of him either. This is reality: Some people really didn’t like Jesus, they didn’t like what he said or did, he was a threat, so they killed him. And at least some of what he said would have given enough reason to label him a terrorist, whether rightly so or not, so they could give him the death of a terrorist, and not of a religious heretic, which was being stoned, as with Stephen.

OK, but if this is why Jesus was crucified, where do we go from here? Well, we can say quite a lot about what Jesus said and did, the resurrection must have at least had a first meaning that what he said didn’t end with his death. That crucifying Jesus couldn’t kill what he started! But obviously his resurrection also gave rise to thoughts on his divinity, which I think there is also good evidence for that his disciples didn’t consider him divine before the resurrection, and it even took a while afterwards for the idea to sink in.

Only now could thoughts on the Parousia and incarnation develop. Now we could go full circle, or work backwords, and sya that if Jesus was God, and God was crucified, and a few obvious links with Jewish sacrificial rites can be made, and Jesus was God incarnate, then God’s intention with becoming incarnate in Jesus was to be crucified. That wouldn’t even be theologically incorrect! But that definitely is not the only interpretation! And I’m sure that wasn’t the first interpretation made in an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem; maybe it was in the house of Marcus’ mother, who later wrote a gospel with no incarnation as part of the narrative.

So, how do I preach it? I think historically a good case can be made that Jesus expected his own death. He knew about the rizing tensions, and that the leaders wanted to kill him. But did Jesus have to die? Yes, because the message he brought was so at odds with the rulers of the world, that they couldn’t exist side by side. Either he had to kill his message, or be killed because of the message. But the resurrection tell the story of hope, what Jesus brought cannot be killed! If I now turn the narrative into it’s usual order, I’d say that this is so at odds with what God is bringing to the world, that it would even go so far as to try and kill it, but it cannot be killed! The world cannot stop what God is bringing about in it.

Maybe I’ll have some more thoughts on how to preach this before Sunday. If you’ve actually read all the way down to this point, thank you! Let me know, and please critique and add on.

Jesus and his stories

January 30, 2009

As I’m trying to make my series on the historical Jesus a reality, it might be a good idea to say something of why I became to intrigued with the human Jesus and historical studies on this person. I illustrate this with some references to Jesus’s parables, since that’s what I’m currently preaching from.

It all started way back in 2005. I was buying about 60 books from a pastor who went out of ministry. Now, I must admit, most of the books was a waste, I’ve never used them, and for a lot of them I am becoming more and more convinced that i never will (so if you are interested in Dutch Reformed theology, let me know, I have a lot of Berkhouwer and Bavinck), but one little book changed my life. It was called Jesus and the Revolutionaries by Oscar Cullman. This is the same Oscar Cullman that David Bosch later studied under, and the argument in the little book was used extensively by Bosch. What Cullman argued for was that there was a lot of correlation between Jesus and the zealots, but that, although some might have thought so, Jesus was definitely not a zealot. He opened up a world for me! In this world, understanding the world of Jesus, a world which the authors of the gospels took for granted, brought Jesus to life!

Suddenly I felt completely different about historical criticism, because I found Jesus in a new and very real way through the help of this tool. It took another 2 years before I got introduced to the Quest for the Historical Jesus, started thinking about the possibilities of a low Christology, and another to coem round to the work of Bosch and making Jesus’s alternative way part of my everyday thinking as well as professional theology.

So, when I start preaching about the parables of Jesus, it’s to the historical Jesus researchers that I turn, and I discover Jesus anew time and again. Last week I was preaching about the parable of the sower who sowed in all the different places. Have you ever thought that the guy must have been stupid? I mean, why throw seed on the road? As a child I thought that must have been the way they sowed in those days, and I think some preachers helped that view along. But understanding the world in which Jesus lived yourealize this can’t be, since seed was a scarcity! Read this together with some of the other parables about seed, and you realize that Jesus consider himself to be the sower, and sowing means preaching. But  he is not the stupid sower that randomly throws around seed and most of it goes to waste, Jesus is the sower who, contrary to farmers of his time, sows everywhere! Everywhere, not just on the fertile ground, and it must have been intentional! We had a large paper where the youth could write and paint interpretations of the passage before the sermon started, in a time of worship, and one of the people wrote this questions about why the guy didn’t just prepare a field. So I’m not the only one asking questions.

Another one: I’ve always been bothered about the fact that Jesus use these dishonest people in his stories? The kingdom is like a treasure buried in the field, and this guy finds it, and in stead of doing the Christian thing and telling the owner about the fact that he actually has a treasure, he then hides it and buys the land. But how could Jesus compare the kingdom to being dishonest? But reading Buttrick it opens up, because the laws of land said that should it come out that he found treasure in the land he bought, the treasure must go to the original owner.

Somethings was always wrong. If the guy had bought the land after selling everything, and had the treasure, what would he have done with it? He couldn’t quite tell anyone about it, or they would have known. So, he would have lost everything!!! The message? We always had it as: Do everything to get the kingdom. But now I would say: The kingdom can’t be bought, if you try it, you’ll gain nothing, no, rather the kingdom is sown into your life, the kingdom must be lived, it is a treasure, but not a treasure that you can gain for yourself!

Jesus is still talking about dishonest rascals, but it makes sense now. That’s largely why I enjoy historical Jesus literature: Because it brings Jesus to life in a way that makes much more sense to me…

It always amazes me how quick we are to critique that which we know nothing about. I catch myself doing it. Did it again a few days ago when one of the young people at church was reading a book which I read almost 10 years ago, and couldn’t really remember. I went into an elaborate critique of the book, and that evening was greeted by a message of facebook from the girl, with a quote from the book showing me that I was completely wrong in my critique:-) We tend to learn the hard way…

I told Maryke the other day that I guess my biggest problem with fundamentalist Christians is the fact that they really don’t listen, and make assumptions about others on things they know nothing about. When it comes to the quest for the historical Jesus, you’ll find lots of opinions from people who haven’t ever read anything in this line! I remember visiting one of my lecturers in my second year, when experiencing some severe struggles with my own faith (a story for another day), and how he told me that in his research he works with historical criticism! I was shocked! I had the utmost respect for this person, both as lecturer, but also as fellow believer. I later learned what historical criticism was, and just smiled.

Now, in really listening to anything, in really attempting to understand something (including ourselves) I believe that we should make more of history and narrative. The two aint so far apart in my view. We should understand the story of how things came to be. How it developed. If you pick up almost any good book on the historical Jesus, you’ll find a long introduction explaining the different stages of the introduction and how this work slots into this history, and thus why certain methodological choices was made.

In the coming posts I will use terms like first quest, second quest, third quest, no quest, and several names of people. I do this not to sound smart or show of (actually, I would much rather have you take up a book like NT Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, but knowing that many of my readers would never do that, and also to get myself to rethink these things, I’ll continue this series). But to understand why we continue this search, we need to see why it started, why it stopped at certain points, which mistakes was made, and also how many different opinions exist.

I will use two questions throughout the series. And again I need to credit me professor in historical Jesus research for teaching me this way of looking at the quest.

  1. Is it theologically relevant?
  2. Is it methodologically possible?

Think about them. What would you say? Why?

Previous post: the historical Jesus 1: Introduction

We had our first gathering of the Pretoria Emerging Cohort (for lack of any better and more local name at this stage) tonight. I’ll skip on saying much bout that, you’d probably find more voices here in future. Mynhardt asked when I’ll blog about what I thought of the Historical Jesus debate which happened a few days ago… well, I did touch on it, but not much I guess. So I decided to write some more on it. Actually, I decided to a series! I’ve never been very good with blogging a series of posts, but I’m gonna try:-)

Works on the Historical Jesus is of importance in my own thoughts, so this series I write for Mynhardt, in response to the question, but also for myself, to actually just think through some of these things again. I’m gonna try and give some background to the quest for the historical Jesus in a few posts, and do it in such a way that the reader without knowledge of the quest can understand (I hope). Understanding the long history of the quest is of absolute importance in order to understand both the value as well as the limitations of the quest.

OK, another thing. I’m not into doing research on the historical Jesus. Firstly my Greek is way too bad, secondly, I’m much too impatiant to do that kind of detailed research. Rather, I’m a theologian, so I read books on the historical Jesus with the eyes of a theologian, thus asking what the theological implications of something would be, not that of a historian asking what could possibly be known.

I’ll try and keep posts short and to the point. Please ask questions, it would help me see where to go in the series.

If I write anything of worth, you probably have to thank professor Ernest van Eck at the department of New Testament Studies at TUKS. His classes on the historical Jesus not only opened my eyes for towards the research, it formed my faith in Jesus, and provided a place of comfort for my own theological thinking. He was the one lecturer that said we could miss his classes… and the one who’s classes I never missed. If ever you take his module on the historical Jesus: Pay attention!

OK, the series will start tomorrow…

OK, so it’s not a secret that large parts of the church consider academic theology a waste of time. It’s not a secret that large parts of the church consider historical Jesus research heretical. I’m not part of this large group, but sometimes I think academics need to get some perspective.

I attended a public debate today titled: “Who is the real Jesus? Shaman, fatherless child, or more?” The speakers were:

I consider the historical Jesus quest to be of great importance. The best reason in my view remain the way in which early 20th century Germany was able to massacre the Jews, and that in the name of the church! They have lost their historical roots, and forgotten that Jesus was a Jew, something which all historical Jesus research emphasize.

Also today historical Jesus research always remain a critical reminder of the radical message of Jesus. Dominic Crossan’s story written at the end of Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography (a popular edition of his major work The Historical Jesus), of how Jesus congratulated him on The Historical Jesus, and then asked him: “Are you willing to follow me on my mission?”, remain that of many of us who get to understand something of the historical Jesus… we cannot do other but answer: “I’m not sure”. Because historical Jesus research remind us of how radical the message of Jesus really was.

And in future this will still be the case, I believe, and I will keep on reading work done on the historical Jesus. But sitting there today, I felt like I was taking a step back, looking at the broader conversation, and wondering why we were having this debate. Why do we make such a big thing about the small differances between different scholars? Within the big picture, with Christian fundamentalism on the one side, the new Atheist movement on the other, they seem pretty close together for me.

I sometimes wish academics will take some more time to point towards that which they do agree upon, and help develop tools for addressing the major questions of the church today, and less fighting about small things among each other. But maybe I’ll have a little more perspective tommorow, and understand that this is the task of academics…