Against sacraments: On the Gospel of John

Normally one reads the Gospels as all filling out details of the same basic story. This traditional attitude even affects critical scholars, who have focused on questions about the synoptic gospels’ shared source and their incorporation of their own particular sources into its basic framework. When they come to John, they assume that he has some other source — hence “further information” about Jesus. But as class prompted me to read Mark and John in rapid succession (along with the basic context surrounding the temptation in the desert in the other two gospels), another theory forced itself on me: what if the Gospel of John is a polemic against the picture of Jesus we get in the synoptic gospels? And more specifically, what if the Gospel of John has a polemic against the sacramental rites that the synoptic gospels helped to legitimate?

Here are some data points: Read the rest of this entry »

My article on the resurrection

A new issue of Princeton Theological Review is out, featuring my article “The Resurrection of the Dead: A Religionless Interpretation.” It is my first published foray into New Testament studies, featuring actual untransliterated Greek!

Jesus, the Resurrection, and Zombies

Last week in class, we were discussing 1 Corinthians. When we got to the discussion of the resurrection in chapter 15, the students seemed to be converging on an understanding of the resurrection as a primarily spiritual reality — in fact, they seemed to think Paul was envisioning us “becoming” a soul in the resurrection, as opposed to having an immortal soul that was freed from the body — and I attempted to steer them in a different direction by pointing out that Paul talks about a spiritual body. “In fact,” I said, “in the resurrection accounts in the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as having a body. He can eat in some accounts, and in one he still bears the scars of the crucifixion.”

One student without any religious background was utterly outraged by the idea. “He comes back to life and has a body!? That’s insane! So we’re all going to come back and be zombies?!”

Thoughts on the Parable of Leaven

Here is some theological exegesis I am thinking through, resulting from a subconscious insight. Lately I have been reading some books concerning the Jewish roots of Christianity, and other material on the role of (biblical) Israel in Christian theology, and these ideas have been pervading my thoughts, directing what I look for in how I see things: reading theology, writing, and—apparently—other subconscious activities, such as watching my wife bake zucchini bread. I was watching her, and as yeast got mentioned in our conversation, it dawned upon me: the parable of the leaven in the synoptic Gospels has something to say about Israel within it.

Another parable he spoke to them: ‘the kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until it was all leavened.’ (Matt. 13:33) Read the rest of this entry »

The abrupt ending of Mark: A cynical reading

The ending of the Gospel of Mark is one of the most puzzling issues in New Testament scholarship. Barring the discovery of new manuscript evidence, it is probably unknowable whether the author intended it to end abruptly at 16:8 or whether he or she composed a longer ending that has since been lost. I’d like to put forward a hypothetical answer to this question, however, which ties in with one of the other big questions about Mark: namely, the messianic secret.

Many readers of Mark have been puzzled by Jesus’s insistence that no one tell anyone that he is the messiah. A cynical explanation that I find somewhat satisfying is that he’s trying to account for the fact that the historical Jesus never openly claimed to be the messiah and there were people alive at the time who remembered this.

If we turn a similar logic toward the ending of Mark, he may be trying to account for the fact that no one actually claimed Jesus had been resurrected immediately after he died — of course he was resurrected on the third day, etc., but you know how unreliable women can be…

Adventures in NT Greek: Is Jesus a vegetable?

Today I’m working my way through John 6, the famous “bread of life” chapter. I noticed something curious in a section where Jesus is contrasting the “true food” of his body with the manna Moses fed the Israelites in the desert. Throughout the passage, he uses what seems to me to be the more usual verb for eat, ἐσθίω, including when referring to eating his body. But when he’s drawing a contrast, he uses a verb I hadn’t seen before, τρώγω, which appears to connote primarily the eating of vegetables, particularly by herbivorous animals — but also human “snacking” on similar light fare. Are we to graze on Jesus, presumably as a food source that’s more reliable than manna, which only lasts a single day at a time?

The LSJ does have a later meaning for the term that says it is a substitute present tense for ἐσθίω, but there’s a verse in which both appear, in what’s hard not to read as a clear and intentional contrast: οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἄρτος ὁ ἐζ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς, οὐ καθὼς ἔφαγον οἱ πατέρες καὶ ἀπέθανον· ὁ τρώγων τοῦτον τὸν ἄρτον ζήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (6:58; “this is the bread that comes down from heaven, not like the fathers ate and died; the one who eats this bread will live forever). Of course, there is the tense issue that the LSJ mentions….

While I’m here, I have another issue: when the disciples are gathering up the leftovers from the feeding of the 5000, the text uses the verb συνάγω. Is this meant to evoke the synagogue, and hence to symbolize gathering up the “remnant” of Israel?

Jumping to conclusions in John

Since I’m teaching the Gospel of John this fall, I’m trying to make my way through it in Greek. I just finished chapter one this morning, and it included a passage that I have always found strange. I don’t think it’s a translation issue at all, but I’ll include the Greek just because it’s cool to be able to have Greek in the post: Read the rest of this entry »

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