Bart Ehrman’s “Christianity in Antiquity” Blog is Simply the Best!

By some counts there are over 500 “Biblioblogs” broadly defined. It is a dizzying list and the content, diversity, approach, quality, and usefulness defy any easy classification.

In terms of sheer content, depth, range, interest, and fascination there is no better blog in the field of early Christianity than Bart Ehrman’s “Christianity in Antiquity.”

It is different from all other “biblioblogs” in that it is a members only site if one wants to access its full content. That means you need to make a modest contribution of $24.95 a year (or trial for a month at $3.95/three months at $7.95). Every penny contributed goes to charities fighting “poverty, hunger, and homelessness,” see philanthropy page here. Bart told me last week that he had raised $37,000 last year from membership fees and donations–and Bart picks up the blog costs himself.

You can browse the site as a non-member but to access the “members only” materials, which is the real substance of the site, you need to join. I should have joined a year ago but just now got around to it. I urge my colleagues, students, and all readers of my books to get a membership. Just browsing the archive is well worth the membership price. It is rich, riveting, and endlessly stimulating. The time Bart has put into this blog is truly impressive with a half-dozen posts a week. It would be hard to think of a topic in the area of early Christianity that has not been addressed with Bart’s inimitable style, depth of knowledge, and approach.  The site has recently been completely revamped and expanded with the following major categories. I urge you to join today!

BART’S THOUGHTS & IDEAS
The public forum contains Bart’s ideas and thoughts about issues directly relevant to the study of the New Testament and early Christianity. Members who join the site will be given fuller access to Bart’s deeper ideas and thoughts.

BART ANSWERS HIS READERS
For members of this blog, Bart addresses questions and concerns presented, in two forums. First, all members may ask Bart questions that he will try to answer. Second, Bart will choose several questions to comment on from his voluminous email correspondence, while keeping the questioner’s identity anonymous.

BART RESPONDS TO CRITICS
Bart’s writings have generated enormous response from critical readers who object to one or another of his views. Some of these critics have published books taking alternative stands; a large number have attacked Bart on the Internet. Members to this site will see, for the first time, how Bart responds to these critics.

BART REVISITS DEBATES
Over the years, Bart has had the privilege of debating with prominent public figures, such as authors, church leaders, professors, theologians and well known apologists. Members who subscribe to the blog will be given access to postings that continue the debates, as Bart expands and explains the positions he has taken.

James Tabor on PBS: Imagining Immortality and Eternal Life

One more in this three-part series of conversations about the “Afterlife” on the PBS show “Closer to Truth” with the ever perceptive host Dr. Robert Kuhn. Here we explore more specifically the “Imagining Immortality and Eternal Life,” click on the video image here for the link:

If you are not familiar with this remarkable PBS series created by Dr. Robert Kuhn dealing with the “Big Questions,” namely God, Cosmos, and Consciousness, you can browse some of the past shows here. The group of experts he has gathered together is truly impressive, a virtual “Who’s Who” on all sides of every issue, with Kuhn’s probing skills as host bringing out their best.  I am honored to have been included. Television does not get better than this.

For further background reading on this topic see the links in the first post here.

James Tabor on PBS: What Is Immortality?

Here is a continuation of my exploration with “Closer to Truth” host Dr. Robert Kuhn regarding the concept of “Afterlife.” Here we explore more specifically the question of immortality. Click on the video image here for the link:

If you are not familiar with this remarkable PBS series created by Dr. Robert Kuhn dealing with the “Big Questions,” namely God, Cosmos, and Consciousness, you can browse some of the past shows here. The group of experts he has gathered together is truly impressive, a virtual “Who’s Who” on all sides of every issue, with Kuhn’s probing skills as host bringing out their best.  I am honored to have been included. Television does not get better than this.

For further background reading on this topic see the links in yesterday’s post here.

Reincarnation is Real?

Below is an intriguing video clip taken from Simcha Jacobovici’s new film “Science of the Soul.” I am not a “believer” in reincarnation so I remain skeptical, though I have to admit, back in the 1960s, like millions of others I read the famous book by Morey Bernstein, “The Search for Bridey Murphy” and found it totally gripping. Since then I have read lots of such things, from Edgar Casey materials, to Gurgjieff, to Shirley McClaine, but never been taken much by the idea. My own approach to “life after death” is one of skepticism, and I find the “silence” of the Hebrew Bible on this point instructive–no mater what turns out to be the case, see my blog post, “Reflections on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament,” here. I guess all of us are geared up to do our “lab work” on the adventure of life and death soon enough, one by one. In the meantime, I continue to be open.

Either way, this clip is worth watching:

Reading Mark and John: The Last Days of Jesus

I want to begin a series of posts on the “last days” of Jesus’ life as we come up to Passover, next Monday night, and Easter, the following Sunday. We will consider the textual as well as the archaeological evidence. What do we know about the “final” days and how do we know it?

For Christian believers and scholars alike the most dramatic and riveting section of our four New Testament Gospels is the “Passion Narrative,” found in three versions in the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, Luke), as well as in the gospel of John. Whether John’s Gospel offers an independent version of the narrative or not is a question that scholars have wrestled with.  Is John’s account simply an edited expansion of the core account we have in Mark, our earliest gospel, or is it an independent production? John Dominic Crossan, for example, is convinced that John is simply recasting Mark, just as Matthew and Luke do, taking out things here and there, expanding in other places, with each contributing their own theological perspectives and emphases relevant to their times and to the tradition and communities from which they come.

I have struggled with this question for years and as readers of The Jesus Dynasty know, my conclusion is that although the final editors of John are likely aware of Mark, the core narrative of John offers an independent account based on materials and testimony the authors attribute to the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” (John 20:24). This mysterious figure shows up out of the blue at the “last supper” and appears again at the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and up on the Sea of Galilee when the disciples had returned to their fishing (John 21:24; 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7 & 20). To what degree this source, independent of Mark, runs through earlier sections of John, and might be behind the “Signs Source,” that I mentioned in a recent post, is a larger and more complex question that I hope to address more fully in the future.  My sense of things is that the narrative and chronological materials are more likely from this source while the extended discourses of Jesus, with the distinct theology, style, and tone we see also reflected in the letters of 1, 2, and 3rd John, are overlaid on this more primitive source. In terms of the Last Days of Jesus that would mean that the “red letter” material that runs so extensively through John 13-17 is secondary and thus has little if any connection to the historical Jesus.

If I am correct it follows the narrative and chronological framework that runs through John 12-20 (the appendix in chapter 21 is a separate matter) is based on traditions that are earlier and that developed outside of, and independently from, what became the “standard story,” as represented in Mark 11-16. It is also possible that Mark “knows” something like the underlying narrative tradition now reflected in John and that he not only makes use of it but offers his own corrective overlay in places. In other words, maybe a more interesting question is not whether John knew Mark, but whether Mark knew “John”–not in its finished form of course, but as an alternative tradition.

What I want to do in this post is simply highlight in a list form some of the more interesting materials we get from John, none of which are found in Mark, regarding these “Last Days of Jesus.” What emerges is not only an alternative view of the “standard story,” but one which often is in contradiction thereto.

1. Mark knows that Jesus headquarters his movements during his last week at Bethany (11:1, 11-12; 14:3), the little village on the backside of the Mt. of Olives, but John provides the connection with the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, who lived there (John 11:1; 12:1). Mark never mentions this family though Luke, in an oddly placed story in his special section “on the road to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-18:14), tells us how Mary chose to sit at the Teacher’s feet while Martha complained that she should be helping with the serving (Luke 10:38-42). He does not say “the certain village” where this took place was Bethany, and indeed, both the chronology and the geography of Luke show that he has no idea where it might have been (they are not even to Jericho in his narrative, much less near Jerusalem and the Mt. of Olives). In the gospel of John the raising of Lazarus from the dead is a critical point in the story and it not only accounts for the huge crowds that flocked around Jesus, having heard of the miracle, but also the sharp opposition of the Temple establishment (see John 12:9-11, 17-19). Mark knows nothing of this event or this family.

2. John says that the woman who anointed Jesus with a costly perfume was indeed Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, and that she wiped his feet with her hair, a decidedly shocking and intimate act in that hair was considered part of “nakedness” (John 12:1-8). He explicitly says this took place six days before Passover. John adds other details, not in Mark, of how the house was filled with the scent of the fragrance, and that Judas, who objected to the “waste,” served as treasurer for the group and used to pilfer funds. Mark has an anonymous woman, he puts the scene two days before Passover, in Bethany, but at another house, of one “Simon the Leper,” and has only the anointing of the head and nothing about wiping the feet with her hair (Mark 14:3-9). Either he knows nothing of the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, or he is quite interested in writing them out of the story. One very odd feature of Mark is that even though he gives no name for this woman, he nonetheless insists that her story will be told throughout the whole world “in memory of her,” see my recent post “Mary’s Memorial: In Memory of Her.” That surely is taking the motif of the anonymity of an important woman to the hilt.

Until just recently I had leaned toward giving Mark’s account of the anointing priority, but I am beginning to question my judgment in that regard. The two stories we have of the sisters “Mary and Martha,” come from independent sources (Luke and John) and both stress the intimacy and closeness of Mary to Jesus, as well as her status as “learner” or disciple, sitting at his feet. Also, in John there is a critical difference regarding the meaning of the anointing itself. In Mark, Jesus says that the unnamed woman has “anointed my body before hand for burying,” but in John he says she should keep the costly ointment to use for his body on the day of his burial, which is quite a different idea (John 12:7). That leads one to think, immediately, of the women coming early Sunday morning to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus for burial in Mark, and Mary Magdalene coming alone to the tomb very early before the sun was even up in John (Mark 16:1; John 20:1). In my post on Mary’s Memorial I began to deliberate on these two passages and I have still not resolved the tensions and contradictions, though I have considered the possibility, suggested by others, that the figures of Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are confused and conflated in our early gospel traditions just as they are in subsequent texts such as the Acts of Philip. Let me just say here that I am not at all convinced that Mark should be given priority and that John is derivative with regard to this scene.

I should add here just a note, for later expansion, that the fragments of the Secret Gospel of Mark that Morton Smith found embedded in what I take to be an authentic letter of Clement of Alexandria, contains the following passage about Larzarus of Bethany and his sisters. Whether this was original to Mark or not is disputed by scholars:

And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me.’ But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near, Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightaway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb, they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do, and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.”

3. The last night of Jesus’ life John narrates a “last supper” scene that is clearly not the Jewish Passover Seder (13:1). It is a fellowship meal between Jesus and his disciples at which he offers them parting words of encouragement, anticipating his ordeal ahead, washing their feet as an example of service, and telling them about his forthcoming betrayal. In John it is clear that the Passover Seder is the following night (18:28). In Mark Jesus sits down with his disciples to “eat the Passover” (Mark 14:12-16). John mentions no sacred meal of bread and wine, which is the central feature of Mark’s account. In fact, everything that John narrates takes place “before the Passover” and “after supper,” so that the meal itself is deemphasized completely, in contrast to Mark.

Here we have two starkly contrasting traditions regarding Jesus’ last meal with his disciples and although various attempts have been made to harmonize the accounts I am convinced that John is not offering an edited version of Mark but rather an alternative and independent account. It is worth noting that in our earliest written record of this “last supper,” found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we are told that it took place “on the night he was betrayed,” with no explicit mention of Passover per se (1 Corinthians 11:23). Paul understands Jesus to be slain as a Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7), which means his chronology fits more with John’s, who has the crucifixion on the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan, with the Passover lamb eaten as part of the Seder meal that evening. It is common for scholars to discount the chronology of John as part of his theological agenda, that is, wanting to portray Jesus as a slain Passover lamb, but in fact, there are enormous historical problems with imagining Mark’s scenario. It is quite inconceivable that Jesus’ Jewish enemies left their Passover Seders and their family gatherings the night of Passover in order to arrest Jesus after midnight, try him before the High Priest and Pilate, and crucify him the next morning, which would be a holy annual Sabbath Day, the 1st Day of Unleavened Bread, the 15th of Nisan, when nothing of the sort could possibly be done (Exodus 12). Mark’s account simply makes no sense in any Jewish context and even he notes the “rush” to get Jesus arrested and killed before Passover, and the “bread” he mentions is not “unleavened,” even though he says they sat down to eat the Passover (Mark 14:2, 16, 22).

When it comes to matters of chronology and many historical details I am convinced that the authors of John are relying on traditions not only independent of Mark, but closer to the testimony of the one they claim was their “eyewitness” (John 21:24). These scenes of the “last supper” are a good case in point. Their essential framework fits well with what we know of Jewish custom and calendar, despite the heavily overlaid theological discourses put in the mouth of Jesus in these chapters (John 12-17).

4. John’s account of the arrest and trial is heavily colored by theological motifs. For John the “agony” of the scene is removed, and Jesus is so triumphant that his captors fall backward when they first see him. Characteristically, however, John supplies details that demonstrate that he is drawing upon an alternative tradition, not just pulling things from Mark and embellishing them:

a. The garden where Jesus is arrested is across the ravine called Kidron

b. A cohort of Roman troops are involved in the arrest, including the chiliarch, who was their commander.

c. The name of the servant of the High Priest whose ear was cut off was Malchus.

d. Jesus was taken first to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphus the High Priest. John alone knows this detail but it fits the historical situation based on what Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us. It was Annas who really ran things behind the scenes and Caiaphus, who was his son-in-law, was under his bidding. Mark knows nothing of Annas and never even mentions him. It was in the courtyard of the house of Annas that Peter got in through the gate because the “other disciple,” elsewhere called “the beloved disciple,” was known to the servants of the High Priest. This indicates that whoever this mysterious “Beloved Disciple” was, he had Jerusalem priestly connections. I am convinced this role fits James, the brother of Jesus, based on things we are told later about him in various historical sources, particularly Heggisippus.

e. Jesus is brought before Pilate at the Praetorium, which was part of the palace on the west side of the city. The Jewish crowd stands outside, on the steps that are still visible today, as I have discussed in my recent post, “Ecce Homo Revisited.” They are not willing to come inside because they have already completed the ritual requirements for eating the Passover Seder the next evening. Pilate questions Jesus inside, has him scourged, and allows the soldiers to mock him with the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate would have stood at his canopy-covered Bema on the bedrock platform above the crowd that was called Gabbatha, or the pavement. Jesus had been taken inside the palace grounds, then back outside. John’s description reflects someone who knows the place and the scene, while Mark simply says “they delivered him up to Pilate” (Mark 15:1). John also notes that it was the “day of the preparation for the Passover,” at 6:00AM in the morning, not the day after as in Mark (John 19:14)

5. John provides several interesting and important details regarding the crucifixion and burial of Jesus that I do not think are merely embellishments of Mark. Once again, John’s Passion Narrative seems to be drawn from an alternative source.

a. The place of crucifixion was “near the city” and nearby was a garden (John 19:20, 41)

b. Jesus’ mother was present at the execution scene, and also the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” otherwise unmentioned in Mark who says that all the disciples “forsook him and fled” (John 19: 25-27; Mark 14:50).

c. The Sabbath that was arriving was a “high day,” or Nisan 15th, the 1st day of Unleavened Bread, that introduced the Passover (John 19:31).

d. Jesus’ side was thrust through with a Roman spear to assure he was dead and not just passed out or in a coma (John 19:34).

e. The tomb into which Joseph of Arimathea hastily put Jesus’ corpse was one that just happened to be in the garden near the place of crucifixion. It was a new tomb, not belonging to Joseph, but used temporarily by him in an emergency situation with the Passover Seder hours away, simple because it was “nearby” (John 19:41-42). One would expect, accordingly, that the body would be moved the next evening, just as soon as the Sabbath was over, so that the burial rites could be properly completed. Mark knows none of these details, as I have discussed in my recent post, “The First Burial of Jesus.”

c. Mary Magdalene came alone to the tomb early Sunday morning, while it was dark. See my recent post on “Mary Magdalene as First Witness.” There is no indication that any of the other women were with her, as Mark has it, grouping them together for a single visit, after sunrise. When she arrived she saw that the golal, or blocking stone, had been removed from the entrance. She sees no one in the tomb, neither a young man (Mark), nor angels ascending from heaven (Matthew & Luke). She ran to Peter and the beloved disciple and told them the obvious: “They have taken away the Master out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.” The “they” in this case clearly refers to Joseph of Arimathea and those who had taken charge of the burial.

Based on this material I am convinced that the authors of John are drawing upon a source independent from Mark and that when it comes to matters of chronology and the locations of places, in contrast to theology, this source should be carefully considered for its historical value. This is very much like Luke’s special material that is not taken from Q or from Mark. For example, it is only Luke that tells us that Jesus is sent by Pilate to Herod Antipas, who is in town for the festival, once Pilate learns he is a Galilean. When Luke is editing Mark’s account, which he does quite heavily, it is obvious, but when he is providing independent materials from his own tradition they can be quite helpful in terms of filling out the picture.

In writing The Jesus Dynasty I make use of this method throughout. I realize that to the average reader this can appear to be a rather arbitrary “picking and choosing,” of sources, but such is decidedly not the case, see my recent post on this point here. One’s method is everything and as much as is possible we should endeavor to sift carefully through the various layers of our traditions and separate out the editorial, the purely theological, and the more likely historical.

Was Jefferson for Jesus?

Robert Orlando has an interesting piece in the Huffington Post today titled “Was Jefferson for Jesus? Our Founding Father’s Religious Resume.

Many realize that Jefferson’s view of religion–and Jesus for that matter, were based on three insights: 1) The preeminence of reason over fable, myth, or miracle; 2) the corruptions of the gospels and all ecclesiastical and theological systems; and 3) Jesus as the greatest “moral rationalist” of history. His secret but now famous “Jefferson Bible” simply cut out portions of the Gospels that he considered offensive, mythological, rationally unacceptable, or immoral. I have the Smithsonian edition on my desk–it is a lovely  facsimile, complete with handwritten notations and the equivalent of 18th century “sticky notes” in the pages. Here is a bit of Orlando:

During our recent 2012 partisan campaign, with its familiar bipolar rhetoric regarding religion, we inevitably heard calls upon Jesus and the Founding Fathers, the latter among whom Thomas Jefferson stands as the most towering figure. Curiously, he supported both political sides. And he left an historical record, one that can be verified and that plainly spells out his hotly debated religious views (unlike Jesus, who never revealed his private thoughts in pen and ink). In his book “Thomas Jefferson, Author of America,” the late Christopher Hitchens, an outspoken atheist, defines Jefferson as a secular deist. Yet, Hitchens needs no artfully blended facts to find Jefferson a man clearly on the side of a secular nation. Though his writings at times publicly favored or encouraged the practice of religion, some of Jefferson’s most private writings did not.

You can read the rest at the link above…”Rest in peace Mr. Hitchens.”

Interpreting the Bible Through Art

To convey the meaning of Scripture, we commonly resort to words. That is how we explicate the text—with words. That’s also the case with those nonbiblical books denominated apocrypha, as in the Book of Judith, the subject of this column. But the meaning and interpretation of the text can be conveyed also through art. We have customarily used art in this magazine simply to illustrate the words that convey the meaning. In this instance, however, the art is the primary focus—a portrait of Judith by the great early-20th-century artist Gustav Klimt.

Don’t miss the fascinating by Hershel Shanks, “Art as Bible Interpretation,”  in the January/February 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. It is available on-line here.

Many of us have enjoyed browsing through art works treating biblical characters and themes since we were children. We find the portrayals endlessly diverse and alluring.  Shanks offers an insightful analysis here to the portrayal of the “Judith” story from the “Apocrypha.”

A friend recently gave us a wonderful book by Patrick de Rynck titled How to Read Bible Stories and Myths in Art: Decoding the Old Masters from Giotto to Goya. I have been spending some happy hours flipping through this wonderful book. It is arranged alphabetically by figures or scenes related thereto: Abraham, Achilles, Adam and Eve, Anna and Joachim…Christ/Adoration of the Magi, Crucifixion, et al. That Rynck includes both Bible stories as well as figures from “mythology,” mostly Greek, makes it all the more fascinating as a comparative endeavor. I also like Rynck’s method. He focuses on a single painter/painting and then breaks it down into its components, trying to get at the innovations, intents, presuppositions, and interpretations of the artist, placing each in a wider art-history context. This is the kind of book one can “dip into.” I highly recommend.

Not To Be Missed: The Top Five Posts on TaborBlog in 2012

Here is a listing of the Top Five most visited articles on this blog during the calendar year 2012

Many of you will have already looked at these but I encourage you to revisit and especially to send this post to others whom you think might be interested in this kind of in-depth content. Each of these posts, along with the embedded links, offers a rather substantial treatment of the topic. It does not surprise me that the #1 visited post is the one on “Resurrection of the Dead” and that the “Easter Morning” post came in at #4. What I offer in both these posts, taken together, is an approach that has taken me the span of my 30 year career to develop though a combination of thinking through the implications of our textual, theological, philosophical, and archaeological evidence.

“And the dead shall be raised” Qumran Cemetery

1. Why People Are Confused About the Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead

2. Keeping Up with the Latest on the Talpiot Jesus Tomb

3. Was Mary Magdalene the Wife of Jesus? Was She a Prostitute and Sinner?

4. What Really Happened Easter Morning?–The Mystery Solved

5. Huffington Post Op-Ed: Did Paul Invent the Virgin Birth?

 

Christmas–What Would Jesus Do?

The well-worn admonition to “put Christ back into Christmas” raises some fascinating issues for those of us who study the origins and history of Christianity. Most know that Christmas as celebrated today has evolved over the centuries, drawing from a diverse and rich assortment of customs, none of which go back to Jesus. The season itself can be traced back to the Roman Saturnalia, which was the birthday of Saturn, celebrated at the end of December and corresponding to the Winter Solstice. Many ancient cultures celebrated the “return of the sun” and the sure promise of spring. Our most popular customs today such as gift giving, the decorated Christmas tree, Santa Claus, wreaths, and mistletoe can be traced back to various European cultural roots.  But “Christmas” means the “Mass of Christ,” and nativity scenes, Christmas carols, and church services  mark the religious holiday today.

When History and Faith Collide…What is not right with this picture?

Is Christmas really the birthday of Christ? And is it a “Christian” holy day? Our best evidence indicates that Jesus was more likely born in September rather than December, so his birth has nothing to do with the later holiday as it developed. More important, Jesus was a Jew not a Christian. His Hebrew name was Yehoshua, a fairly common Jewish name of his time, born of his Jewish mother Miriam and his father Yehosef—known to us of course as Mary and Joseph. Jesus would have grown up with Jewish holidays and customs—including Passover, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Hanukkah in late December. The gospel of John mentions all of these festivals, including Hanukkah, which Jesus celebrated in Jerusalem the last winter of his life.

As a Jew living in Roman-occupied Palestine he would have perhaps been familiar with the celebration of the Roman Saturnalia—since Judea had a series of Roman governors during his lifetime and even in the Galilee, where he grew up, the sight of Roman troops was a familiar one. Both Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas had built the thoroughly Roman cities of Caesarea, Tiberius, and Sepphoris in Jesus’ lifetime. The archaeology of the period has amply demonstrated that Greco-Roman culture was widespread and influential. It is evident in the style of the buildings, the clothing, and many artifacts of daily living.  The Jewish city of Sepphoris, only four miles north of Jesus’ hometown Nazareth, was complete with theater, amphitheater, and Roman baths. The contemporary Jewish historian Josephus called it the “jewel of all Galilee.” If Jesus  knew anything about Roman festivals he would have surely considered the celebrations of the Winter Solstice to be alien and pagan.

But what about Christmas as it came to be understood—the celebration of the incarnation of the virgin-born Son of God as Savior of the world? What would Jesus do—or think—about all that? Here we enter the complex area of what scholars call the “quest for the historical Jesus.” In other words, how does one separate the Christ of Christian faith and tradition from the Jesus of history? Is there any evidence that Jesus as a Jew in his own time would have  endorsed the later theological affirmations of Christianity, such as those found in the Apostles Creed?

Many historians are convinced that it is the apostle Paul, not Jesus, who should be credited as the founder of Christianity. Paul never met Jesus but he based his gospel message on a series of clairvoyant visions and revelations that he experienced some years after Jesus’ death. Paul’s letters are the earliest documents in the New Testament, predating even the Gospels. In those letters we encounter a portrait of Christ as the divine Son of God and Savior who was “born of a woman,” taking on human flesh, living without sin, and dying as an atonement for the sins of the world. Paul’s Jesus was the heavenly Christ whom he expected to return in his lifetime. The theological understanding of Jesus that is largely drawn from Paul influences even the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Although they come first in the New Testament they are among the last documents written—in the last decades of the 1st century when Paul’s understanding of Christ predominated.

Perhaps the deepest meaning of Christmas might lie beneath the popular customs of our culture and the  overlay of Christian theology. If we sift through the texts as archaeologists sift through the material layers of human habitation we might well find  Jesus as a Jew in his own time and place, defining the “kingdom of God” as the will of God done on earth as in heaven. This  was the Jesus who denounced the corrupt societal norms of power, wealth, and oppression, and called for a radical change that broke down the barriers of class, gender, and privilege. This  was the Jesus who taught love of God and love of neighbor as the heart of true religion and cited the “Golden Rule” as a summary of all of God’s commandments—a Jesus who even called for “turning the other cheek” and loving enemies. Such a focus on the historical Jesus, in contrast to the Christ of theology, might  help us to better address the question this Christmas season—what would Jesus do?

James Tabor on PBS–Does God Know the Future?

Does God know the future? Millions of Bible believers would answer “yes” without hesitation! Doesn’t the Bible say God knows the end from the beginning? And would not time–whether past, present, or future–be irrelevant to God, who is somehow “outside of time,” as well as Omniscient or “all knowing”? There are dozens of popular films dealing with the alluring theme of “time travel.” We all know the famous conundrum about predicting the future. If I could see that tomorrow you would leave your house, get in your car, and be involved in a wreck and I told you so, could you not just decide to stay home or not drive that day–thus proving my prediction wrong? The past is past but the future is unfolding in nanoseconds, yet to be determined with all the implications and repercussions of an infinite number of causal “events,” and variable choices large and small.

The issue, even from a biblical perspective, is more complex than one might think. What God, according to the prophet Isaiah, actually says is “I declare the end from the beginning, from ancient times things not done, my counsel shall stand and I will accomplish my purpose” (Isaiah 46:10). This is actually quite different from knowing a predetermined future. It is rather a declaration about purpose and intentionality, and it allows for all the variables of human choice and history to unfold in a process. It might be comforting and appealing to believe that anything that happens is somehow “predetermined” by God, but that is not really the biblical perspective of God. There is a vast difference between saying “all things that happen are good” and believing that God works within all things for the good. Strangely, rather than “limiting God” the biblical understanding of God and human history as an unfolding process, involves God in our lives in a way that is profoundly deeper and more responsible, as participants, “made in the image of God,” who have real choices as how the future unfolds.

Here is one more in a series of conversations on the PBS show “Closer to Truth” with the ever perceptive host Dr. Robert Kuhn, where we explore this topic, “Does God Know the Future?”. Click on the video image here for the link to this interview:

If you are not familiar with this remarkable PBS series created by Dr. Robert Kuhn dealing with the “Big Questions,” namely God, Cosmos, and Consciousness, you can browse some of the past shows here. The group of experts he has gathered together is truly impressive, a virtual “Who’s Who” on all sides of every issue, with Kuhn’s probing skills as host bringing out their best.  I am honored to have been included. Television does not get better than this.