From The Archives: Iron Man and the Ascension

Given the coincidence of the release of Iron Man 2 and the celebration of the Ascension in the Christian calendar, I thought I’d adapt and repost this blog post from a couple of years ago:

“The ascension is harder to believe in than the resurrection.”

Someone made the above statement in a conversation we were having, and I immediately thought of something mentioned in chapter 5 of Keith Ward’s book The Big Questions in Science and Religion. After discussing briefly some traditional notions of time and space in cosmologies of previous ages, Ward writes (p.107), “We now know that, if [Jesus] began ascending two thousand years ago, he would not yet have left the Milky Way (unless he attained warp speed)”.

I then found myself thinking about the movie Iron Man – specifically, the scene where Iron Man is fighting another “iron man” in the upper atmosphere and asks him how he dealt with the problem of freezing. A literalist might want to ask Jesus the same question. Many Christians emphasize that the risen Jesus returned to a physical, bodily existence. But not only his appearance in locked rooms, but his apparent lack of any need for oxygen, defiance of gravity and resistance to the cold and radiation of space suggest that whether one opts for extreme literalism or approaches the Bible using the historical critical method, the outcome may be the same, namely to question whether there is any sense in which Jesus in the post-Easter period may be said to exist physically. Sure, we can discuss whether or not he was manifested or experienced physically, but that is not the same as saying that he is inherently physical and/or bodily.

In the same chapter already mentioned, Ward writes (p.109), “Sacred space is primarily symbolic space, and it is possible that the literalization of such symbols already presages a loss of archaic religious sensibility.” The idea is that literalism, far from being a quest to preserve the past understanding of sacred texts and ancient cosmology, badly misconstrues them. Conscious literalism is always something significantly different than naive literalism, as Borg helpfully points out.

The key focus in this chapter of Ward’s book is that the language traditionally used about God and spiritual things has been explicitly acknowledged by theologians then and (for the most part) now as being metaphorical, symbolic, pointers to a reality that is infinite and indescribable. Attempts at literalism do not, therefore, simply lead to bad science and cosmology. They represent a radical departure from what religion has meant in the past, too. The irony is that those who claim to be “literal” also claim the label “conservative”, and yet the approach of fundamentalists is thoroughly modern and departs from the historic perspective of their faith tradition in important ways.

I’ll close by adding a quote from James D. G. Dunn which I’ve also shared on this blog before: “To demythologize the ascension is not to deny that Jesus “went to heaven”; it is simply to find a way of expressing this in language which takes it out of the realm of current or future space research” (James D. G. Dunn, in his article “Myth” in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992) p.568).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    The question is not whether the story of the ascension was meant to be literally true or not.The question is why did the author want to deceive people by making up stories.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13599662252662686373 BSM

    I never made the Iron Man ascension connection! Somewhat related to this post and Mr. Carr's comment is a special I just watched on the History Channel. When you look at how other stories in history have taken on almost religious significance, it's not too much of a stretch to see the same thing happening with Jesus. "Throughout Robin’s existence, writers, performers and filmmakers have probed their imaginations for new incarnations that resonate with their respective audiences. In 14th-century England, where agrarian discontent had begun to chip away at the feudal system, he appears as an anti-establishment rebel who murders government agents and wealthy landowners. Later variations from times of less social upheaval dispense with the gore and cast Robin as a dispossessed aristocrat with a heart of gold and a love interest, Maid Marian.Academics, meanwhile, have combed the historical record for evidence of a real Robin Hood. English legal records suggest that, as early as the 13th century, “Robehod,” “Rabunhod” and other variations had become common epithets for criminals. But what had inspired these nicknames: a fictional tale, an infamous bandit or an amalgam of both?"It may not be so much a matter of willful deception as it is a story that took on a life of its own. -B

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05283809456471966882 Bill

    Seriously? James, what has happened to that cloud, which blocked their view, from Acts 1?It's all fine to question claims of the Bible, but it's another thing entirely to extrapolate your own implications from those claims, and then to question those implications.What happened beyond that cloud? Where did he go? We don't know. If I suggest he disappeared and became transported to another realm, you can question that also. Feel free. But at that point we still aren't challenging the scripture itself.

  • http://joeyspiegel.wordpress.com/ joeyspiegel

    Bill, Acts 1:9 is hardly a detailed description of a physical event. To say he was "lifted into the sky and then a cloud covered everybody's view" is to dismiss the text. It says he was exalted (epairo) and that a "cloud received him out of their sight." It isn't dishonest to say that this is not a description of Jesus being raised into the sky and then disappearing. Why take a book written by somebody with out a modern understanding of science/observation and imply modern western reasoning to their descriptions as if the author hoped one day that their writing would make physics text books all over the world?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05283809456471966882 Bill

    "hardly a detailed description of a physical event"? Why yes, that's precisely my point. Whatever his flight path, the text says there came a point at which he was out of their sight. Beyond that, maybe he flew to maui for a few days. The text doesn't say.All this, of course, underscores James' original point. That he flew at all is incredible enough. Yes?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Bill, I don't think any first century reader would have understood the angel to have meant "The same way you saw him fly off to Maui is the same way he'll return". ;-) Surely their cosmological framework would have led them to understand that Jesus literally ascended to heaven.It might be possible to interpret this as God accomodating to human understanding, or Luke expressing what he believed through the cosmology of his time. But the need you feel to say that Jesus at some point stopped going up and did something else shows how our cosmological framework differs from that of the first century Greco-Roman world.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    How much of a role do think Luke had in creating this material? It would be interesting to know whether this is simply how he heard it or if he feels he has the right to edit details like where the Apostles saw the risen Christ or to move his appearance at a boat in Galilee to a miracle story at the beginning of his career. It would be interesting if Luke thought so little of historical context of the stories he heard that he could freely move them around for literary effect or to promote is ideology. If Luke were in a position to hear multiple conflicting accounts then his mind set would have been different than todays literalist because Luke would have no literally true account, just a collection of things said about Jesus. Since he goes though the bother of writing this account he must have believed something to be true about Jesus, but with the specific deeds of Jesus all being of dubious trustworthiness he seems free to edit them again for promoting what he wants his patron to see in Jesus.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    By the way was Iron man any good?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I have not seen Iron Man 2 yet, but I enjoyed the first one.I don't know whether Luke had independent traditions or if his placement of resurrection appearances in Jerusalem rather than Galilee, even though he used Mark as a source, was simply because of the symbolic value of having the movement spread from Jerusalem to Samaria and the ends of the earth. But clearly the earliest Christians were not as concerned about avoiding contradictions as some of their modern readers are! :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05283809456471966882 Bill

    "Surely their cosmological framework would have led them to understand that Jesus literally ascended to heaven."Yes of course. But if this "heaven" in which God lived was somewhere up there, in-between the sun the moon and the stars, then surely they also considered it to be invisible, like a spirit realm; not 'far, far away' (in the physical sense). In which case, I think my point stands.Argue that he did or didn't fly, but in their view, he'd have needed to go 'up' only so far.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Bill, locating "somewhere up there, in-between the sun the moon and the stars" doesn't reflect the Ptolemaic cosmology of the period. This is a basic piece of background to understanding the New Testament and other ancient literature from that time. If you're going to discuss this seriously, I think it would be worth informing yourself about this. The whole idea of multiple heavens, celestial spheres, all of it is well documented from ancient literature.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05283809456471966882 Bill

    I believe you mean pre-Ptolemaic, which means post-Aristotelian. At any rate, I submit that the upper eschelon's theoretical debates didn't affect (much less reflect) the normal understanding of the average Roman, Greek or Jew.Do you really mean to say [that you think] that the early Christians thought Jesus just kept on going, up and up forever?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Well, if you want to get technical. :) It is my understanding that Ptolemy essentially systematized a cosmology that pre-dates him, and so while technically anachronistic, it is fairly common to speak of the cosmology of New Testament times as "Ptolemaic."And against that backdrop, Jesus didn't need to ascend forever. Once past the sun and the fixed stars he had reached the highest heaven. The universe was a much smaller place in those days…

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    I don't think they would have thought of the fixed stars as being so far away. I think they did have an idea of how far the sun and moon. They also thought that objects could move very quickly, the Sun went around the Earth in 24 hours. At that speed Jesus would have got to Heaven in a jiffy. Of course just how much of this science of the Hellenistic world trickled down to the folks reading or writing Luke is unknown. A lot of people may not have thought to hard into it. For all the man behind the ox-plow might know, the Sun and Moon sat slightly above the clouds and the stars a little higher so that if you could hitch a ride on the back of an eagle, you could reach Heaven in a few minutes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    And of course folks were ascending to heaven fairly regularly (Enoch, Rabbi Akiba, Elisha ben Abuyah, Paul, to name just a few). Did any of them record how long the ascent took them?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05283809456471966882 Bill

    "Jesus didn't need to ascend forever"So glad we finally agree. ;-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    'Attempts at literalism do not, therefore, simply lead to bad science and cosmology. They represent a radical departure from what religion has meant in the past, too.'Should people take 'descended from the seed of David, according to the flesh' , literally?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Of course it is, Steven. So was the idea of heaven being literally "up there." My point about literalism was not that ancient people did not assume that their cosmologies were literally true. My point is that there is a difference between what ancient people believed because they knew no better, and people making belief in an outmoded cosmology an axiom of faith when we do know better.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05283809456471966882 Bill

    Okay, time out. James, it now sounds like you're saying the scientific inaccuracy of their cosmology is a primary reason for doubting the claim that Jesus flew. (Which, again, there are plenty of reasons to doubt, and that's just fine with me. But I'm trying to understand you better.)For the sake of argument, what's wrong with Jesus simply choosing to make a grand exit?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05283809456471966882 Bill

    Clarification: I mean a grand exit chosen partly to illustrate where he was going, because said exit deliberately played to everyone's rough understanding of where heaven was, making it clear that he hadn't just disappeared, but that he'd gone back to God's spiritual realm.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Bill, you are suggesting that Jesus, unaided by a ket pack, flew up into the air, even though he knew that wasn't how you get to heaven. He did so in order for people who believed that heaven is "up" to understand that he went to heaven.Then, once hidden from view by a cloud, he dematerialized and went to where heaven "really is"?You're free to believe that. I suppose my question is why someone would choose that particular belief, out of all the various ways we might think about this story.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05283809456471966882 Bill

    If we assume the story is factual, I see no other way we can take it.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    James, I don't think Bill's argument is so implausible if you believe that God maintains a parallel "hyperverce" called Heaven. It's so ingrained with the concept of "up" that it would be queer to say your going there by any other direction. people still depict Heaven as being on clouds, in a time of air plane travel. At the time though no one would think of parallel dimensions. I suppose you also address moderns who make up elaborate nonsense for where all the flood waters where based on modern notions of science and ignore that the people who first read Genesis assumed that the the Earth sat in in a bubble in an infinite ocean. So Luke would understand that that Jesus was literally "up" in Heaven and Paul would understand Jesus was literally from the seed of David (but from what I've read about family tree networks, most people in Palestine at the time would have been, if you trace from both the mother and father's side)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    And why would we assume that, Bill? :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05283809456471966882 Bill

    Why, James, "for the sake of argument". Don't you know me by now? ;-) In all seriousness, there should always be two options and a critical historian – it seems to me – should analyze any claims from both perspectives. Supernatural claims are included.Assuming the claim is false, we should take pains to suppose how and why it got into the text. But assuming the claim is true, we should take pains to suppose more precisely how it might be true.Only one of these two approaches is regularly called 'apologetics', but it seems like the very same process to me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    For the sake of argument, let's observe that only Luke tells the story, he sets it in Jerusalem while Mark and Matthew have the disciples go to Galilee after the crucifixion to see Jesus there.It seems as likely that Luke is turning the conviction that Jesus was exalted to heaven into narrative as that he had genuine historical information that no other early Christian source seems to have had.And of course, when you factor in the improbability of someone floating upward into the sky, my standpoint seems to have a slight edge. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05283809456471966882 Bill

    "You're free to believe that. I suppose my question is why someone would choose that particular belief, out of all the various ways we might think about this story.":-)All I expect is equal treatment. Credibility is subjective, but logic demands we consider all options.Again, thanks for the fun!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13036816926421936940 Edward T. Babinski

    James, Where does the first century mythmaking begin? Does it begin with the ending of Luke's Gospel in which the raised Jesus shows himself and asks for a piece of fish to prove he's "not a spirit, but has flesh and bone," and then "led them out to Bethany" and then "rose?" Or does the mythmaking only being with the "rising" part? In other words, it doesn't appear to be only "cosmology" we're taking about but a whole story made of ragged legendary cloth. As for the inerrantist who suggests Jesus arose and then once he was behind a cloud he "vanished" to "heaven," I think Strauss had the best reply: We know that anyone who wants to go to God and the precincts of the Blessed is taking a needless detour if he thinks this means he has to soar into the upper levels of the air. Surely Jesus would not have taken such a superfluous journey, nor would God have made him take it. Thus, one would have to assume something like a divine accommodation to the world-picture people had back then, and say: In order to convince the disciples of Jesus’s return to the higher world, even though in fact that world was by no means to be sought in the upper atmosphere, God nevertheless staged the spectacle of Jesus’s elevation. But this would be turning God into a sleight-of-hand artist.David Friedrich Strauss, Das Leben Jesu, 1837____________________________It was the common belief among the Jews that the Messiah would transcend the greatest of the patriarchs and prophets; and if Enoch was translated, and Elijah went up in a fiery chariot, it was only natural that the Messiah should ascend to heaven.G. W. Foote, Bible Romances, No. 14, The Resurrection, 1880____________________________The ascension of Jesus into cloudy concealment seems to have been modeled directly upon Josephus’ [first century] telling of the story of the ascension of Moses before the forlorn eyes of his disciples.Robert M. Price, “Of Myth and Men: A Closer Look At the Originators of the Major Religions–What Did They Really Say and Do?” Free Inquiry, Winter 1999/2000____________________________There were ascents into heaven made long before and quite apart from Jesus. The Roman historian Livy, described the ascension of Romulus, the founder of the city of Rome, who came to be venerated as a god: One day Romulus held an assembly of the people before the city walls to review the army. Suddenly a thunderstorm broke out, wrapping the king in a thick cloud. When the cloud lifted, Romulus was no longer on earth. He had gone up into heaven.Stories of ascensions were told in antiquity about other famous men, for example, Heracles, Empedocles, Alexander the Great, and Apollonius of Tyana. Characteristically the scene is set with spectators and witnesses, before whose eyes the person in question disappears. Often he is borne aloft by a cloud or shrouded in darkness that takes him from the eyes of the people. Not infrequently the whole business takes place on a mountain or hill. (Gerhard Lohfink, Die Himmelfahrt Jesu)From this standpoint, Jesus’s Ascension was nothing out of the ordinary. Jesus too, disembarked from a mountain, the Mount of Olives, for heaven. The point is that from a mountain it’s not quite as far to heaven.Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Putting Away Childish Things____________________________Millions of Muslims believe Mohammed “ascended into the sky” riding a horse. Makes me wonder whether Mohammed caught up to Jesus and galloped past? Or, being the gracious prophet that he was, gave Jesus a lift?E.T.B.____________________________The founding of Christianity was not only accompanied by miracles, but even today it cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. David Hume

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I think there are moments when there is no need to wrestle with anything mythological: Jesus went, Jesus said, and various mundane moments. But I think Bultmann was right to suggest that the whole of the early Christian faith is expressed through a worldview that is pre-scientific and thus "mythological." One of Bultmann's major emphases was that we cannot simply peel a mythical shell and remain with a non-mythical core of Christianity. If one is convinced that the Christian message is worth preserving and that it has something to say today, then we must find ways to "translate" that mythical message, not simply peel away myth and hold onto whatever scraps are left over.

  • Antonio Jerez

    James wrote:"If one is convinced that the Christian message is worth preserving and that it has something to say today, then we must find ways to "translate" that mythical message, not simply peel away myth and hold onto whatever scraps are left over."Which makes me wonder how you "translate" something like the return of Christ on the clouds of heaven (the Parusia) and the creation and rejuvenation of a new Universe into something more palpable to a modern liberal Christian ?

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    My studies into mysticism have taught me that a a person could have experiences that might seem to them as being caught up into heaven. There are also mass hysteria cases where large groups claim to see saint or signs in the sky. So people honestly reporting these things isn't impossible, but the interpretation may be flawed. Basically if the account says "the crowed saw Jesus fly into the sky" This isn't necessarily made up, but we can definitely doubt that Jesus flew up into the sky, but that a crowed reported to have experienced that may be accurate. In Luke's case there are reasons beyond him describing an impossible event that give reason to doubt it, and as James points out the premise behind the interpretation, that Jesus Flew into Heaven, is based on a flawed model of the universe. Antonio, on "translating" the second coming, I think Christians have long held that there work on Earth was the bringing of the kingdom of God. For modern and less superstitious fans of Jesus, the idea of a coming kingdom of God is a positive idea of making the world better, and not accepting its flaws. While I suspect that Jesus may have thought God was supernaturally going to take over the world, and Paul certainly seems to think so, later Christians were as vexed as us about the failure of this to happen in a timely fashion. By the time we get to Luke and John pretty much everybody of Jesus' generation was dead. There is of course lively debate on the topic. Its one of the reasons I like the field, despite being around for 2000 years, we have only recently began to seriously study Christianity.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Antonio, it may be that not everything can be translated. And it may be that, as Mike points out, the translation will be to recognize the rise of belief in the Parousia as an attempt to maintain that the paradoxical crucified Messiah would one day nevertheless fulfill the predictions about the Messiah.But already within the New Testament, we see reinterpretation, giving Christians significant leeway. Luke-Acts pushes the second coming away into the indefinite future, while the Gospel of John spiritualizes it, so that the Spirit, the Father and the Son come and make their home with the disciples, but not in a way that is publicly observable.

  • Antonio Jerez

    Mike and James,it sure is interesting to study the way people like Luke and John dealt with the delay of the Parousia and the Kingdom of God, but my question was actually how people like Mike and James themselves deal with the problem. If Mike and James don´t believe in the Parousia or the Rejuvenation of the Universe at the End Time then what do they offer conservative Christians in its stead? And on whose authority? Are liberal Christians going to revise the scenario for the future given by Jesus, Paul and the others based on som new revelation from the Spirit recieved in the 21st century? Or are we to expect that conservative Christians will be calmed by James assurances that there is nothing to fear if we throw Jesus, Paul and the others vision for the future into the trashcan of mistaken prophecy? If I follow James logic liberal Christians are free to play around with the mistaken teachings of Jesus, Paul and the others almost any way they want since Luke, John and others played around with teachings of Jesus and other Christians. Personally I find Bultmann´s strategy of "translating" the myths of the NT both mistaken and disingenious. From my perspective you cannot "translate" beliefs like the Parousia that were not seen as mythological by Jesus and Paul themselves. It is as disingenious as trying to "translate" Joseph Smith´s mistaken beliefs in some ancient golden plates into something more palpable for modern mormons who doubt about the golden plates. The only thing you can really do with things like the Parousia and the Golden Plates is to really face up to the thruth and relegate these beliefs to the same cathegory as belief in fairies, santa clauses, aliens and hobbits. Depending on how important one deems things like failure of the Parousia to be for the truthclaims of Christianity I think the next logical step would be to also throw the whole of a religion like Christianity into the trashcan of history. On that I think conservative Christians are a lot, lot more logical and honest than liberal Christians. At least they seem to grasp instinctively that some pillars of a religion are just to important to take away without the whole building collapsing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Antonio, I think you are using "mythological" in a different way that Bultmann did. He specifically meant a pre-scientific worldview, and if what you meant is that Paul didn't know that his worldview was pre-scientific, then presumably that is true, but I don't see how it is relevant.There are key ideas in Christian eschatology which may make as much sense today as ever, since they were only ever expressions of hope. And there are some that we may discard, just as previous generations of Christians found some things they could adhere to and some they no longer found meaningful in the writings of those who came before them.And I expect to think about these topics under the influence of the natural sciences, just as changes in ancient cosmology led to changes in the thinking of ancient authors.But I don't expect this to reassure conservative Christians! :)

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Antonio, I can't speak for what James thinks, but the ideas about the second coming have varied within Christianity for awhile. Most of Christian history and development has been since Paul and Jesus' own expectations for the end of the age came up bust. Those Christians expecting a rapture will likely also see their expectations come up short. This hasn't really bothered Christianity, at least not for the first 2000 years. Most of our current religions deal with some text that has been reinterpreted beyond its original meaning, but no then thinks there are no Jews, Hindus, Marxist, or Christians. Paul's Parousia certainly failed and that didn't end Christianity, it certainly isn't then the pillar that will collapse Christianity. The current fascination with the "end time" is a small, recent, phenomenon and is based on crap. It is one of those things that periodically raises its head and then blows away. Unlike many early Christians, I'm o.k. with the concept that Paul was wrong on the issue of Christ second coming, and I don't know enough about what Jesus thought about it to comment on whether I think he was wrong or not. I don't think he would be disappointed by the out come. Well maybe he would be, he wouldn't have wanted the Romans to have destroyed Judah. But in the long term.

  • Antonio Jerez

    Mike,I think you are bypassing the question I was asking. If Christians are not to expect any Parousia what do you have to offer them instead? And on what authority? The fact that the failure of the first Christians to correctly predict the fate of the Universe (despite having staked the credibility of their movement on it) has not led to the demise of Christianity is just among a zillion examples of religious movements that continue to thrive despite them proven wrong on many of their fundamentals. It´s just another among zillion examples of the human infinite capacity for seldeception. And if Mike thinks I am wrong maybe he can tell me what the difference is beetween the Mormon folly of the Golden Plates, the Shia expectation for the return of the hidden Imam and the Christians waiting for the return of their heavenly Messiah. Mike is certainly right that failure of the Parousia is not one of the pillars that will make the Christian house collapse. If people followed logic and reason and took their own spiritual forefathers like Matthew and Paul seriously then it should be obvious that the failure of the Parousia is actually one of the fundamental pillars of the earliest Christian belief and if that pillar falls the whole building collapses. But the simple fact is that in religious matters most humans neither follow logic nor reason, which is why religions like Christianity, Hinduism and Islam live on through the centuries despite most of the fundamental pillars that support the religious edificies having chrashed to the ground a long, long time ago.

  • Antonio Jerez

    continued…And Mike, it is not only Paul who was wrong about the Parousia. Mark, Matthew and Luke also were, despite the feeble efforts of people like bishop Wright and Andrew Perriman to argue otherwise. And it really doesn´t matter much if the historical Jesus never preached himself that he was going to return on the clouds of heaven. From a logical viewpoint Christianity cannot be salvaged anyway since Paul and the others were claiming that they had got the information about the Parousia and the End time either from the earthly Jesus or through the Holy Spirit after Jesus resurrection ( my guess is that the idea about the Recreation came from Jesus himself while the Parousia idea was a postresurrection idea). Whatever way it is Christianity is in a no-win situation since either the historical Jesus was a false prophet and/or the Spirit who talked to the Christians after the resurrection was a lying spirit who really didn´t have clue about how things work in this Universe. In contrast to James McGrath conservative Christians realize that from a logical viewpoint Christianity is in deep shit if Paul, Matthew and the others claimed that Jesus or the Spirit of God had told them that the Parousia and the Apocalyse was going to come soon and 2000 years later the Messiah is still not in sight. And since the Spirit cannot lie conservative Christians usually try to find a way out of the problem by claiming that a)we shouldn´t take the Parusia talk in the NT literally or b) "soon" in God´s vocabulary does not mean the same thing as "soon" in human vocabulary. Jesus will surely come some day… Christian liberals like James McGrath on the other hand try to find a way out of the problem by arguing that the failure of the earliest Christian predictions about the Parousia really isn´t a problem for Christians 2000 years later. Why get upset about a triviality like that since Jesus, Paul, Matthew and the others were only human after all, goes the refrain from James. The fact that the earliest Christians themselves didn´t claim that Jesus was just like any other fallible human nor the fact that Paul and the others saw themselves as any other fallible human being doesn´t bother James either. In James weird little world one shouldn´t judge a religion by the claims and the rule of the game that the founder of a religion nor his earliest followers originally set up. No, in James weird little world what ultimately counts is that we should ultimately judge a religion by the claims James himself makes about the founder of a religion and his earliest followers. To take the analogy of the baseball game used in an earlier exchange James thinks he can suddenly change the rules in in the middle of the game on his on wim. Forget, what Jesus, Paul and the others may have said because James has decided to set up new rules for the game because the old way the game was played leads into nonsense. From my viewpoint the way the game is played by both conservative and liberal Christians none is better than the other. Both camps are playing the game of selfdeception in different ways. If James had been born a pious mormon I another life am sure would have found him arguing that Mormonism is in a very healthy state despite having found out that those golden plates never existed nor the fact that Joseph Smith and his disciples way of reading the "egyptian" script is ridiculous. Things like that aren´t really important…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Antonio, if I were a Mormon I'd probably be saying that scholarship about "baptism for the dead" suggests that the Mormon practice is based on a very slim and dubious foundation. But that doesn't mean that the Family History Centers we've created are not valuable even though the doctrinal basis that gave rise to them needs to be rethought.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    I'm not sure that I could be classified as a Christian, but I do like Jesus the Christ and I like Christianity in many of it's forms. Jesus did have ideas about the "Day of the LORD", what Christians call the Parousia. He also had ideas about what made people good. I think his insights on morality are quite profound and a lot of people have agreed and I think this is the center of Christ popularity over time. If his message was that Judah needs step up the number of sacrifices at the Temple or wage war against Rome to win YHWH's favor, I don't think he would be as popular as he is. A number of his followers saw in the upheaval of the Jewish Wars of the 60's a vindication of some of Jesus' preaching of the Day of the LORD. Since or or understanding of what exactly Jesus said concerning it is unknown, its hard to judge their opinions of the meaning of Jesus' teaching. If he thought God was essentially going to end history "before you will have finished going thought the towns of Israel" he was wrong. I don't think this makes him particularly foolish unless we should label most of the people of antiquity foolish because lots of people held odd religious ideas. Issac Newton had some weird ideas about the Bible and the end of the world, but I don't think it invalidates his other ideas. Of course no one thinks that Newton is the last word on science. Then again even the earliest Christians didn't feel Jesus was the last word on religion, they frequently alter his quotes or make up new ones. All religions are the properties of the living adherents not the dead founders and few of them are what the founders envisioned. I think thought that religions tend to develop a view that certain foundational works or persons were effectively the voice of God. This is a stupid idea. Peter did not think Paul was infallible and vice versa. Paul's understanding of Jesus may have been warped, he only knew a vision in his head. But I would bet that the apostles did not think Jesus was infallible. They would have been aware of his human limitations. So would a Christianity that believed Jesus could be mistaking be invalid? Then Peter could not be a Christian. It is not my place to give Christianity a replacement for the second coming. I don't attend meetings, I'm not an active member, they don't ask for my opinions. I couldn't tell you there will not be a second coming. Like many others though out history I think the Kingdom of God will come thought the work of those who want to see it and not by way of a magic conquest of the Earth. As for the resurrection and final judgment, that is totally out of my experience and knowledge. I have no clue as to what the final state of anyones soul will be. My knowledge of people ends at their grave. If some one says, Jesus of Nazareth will judge all the souls of people, I don't think they could know. If they say people just rot in the ground I likewise don't think they have any knowledge of the situation, they are not dead.

  • http://www.postost.net Andrew Perriman

    I'm rather late to this fascinating party, but I would like to make a suggestion relating to the meaning rather than the literal factuality or astrophysics of the 'ascension', because I don't think we can deal with the question of what actually happened (or more importantly, what was still to happen) without understanding the theological significance of the event.Luke 24:4-7 surely has to be taken into account. Two men in dazzling clothing (en esthēti astraptousē) ask the women, 'Why do you seek the living among the dead?' They go on to remind them that 'the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise'. In Acts 1:10-11 two men in white clothing (en esthēsesi leukais) similarly ask the disciples a question regarding the whereabouts of Jesus: 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?' They then explain that Jesus, who was taken from their sight into heaven by a cloud 'will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven' (ie. with the clouds of heaven), at which point (presumably) the kingdom will be in some sense restored to Israel (cf. Acts 1:6).It looks to me very much as though the account of the 'ascension' is meant to be heard as the continuation of the story of the Son of Man. The story in Daniel 7 is of a symbolic figure who suffers at the hands of Israel's enemies but is brought before the throne of God, coming upon the clouds of heaven, to be vindicated and to receive a kingdom. It is the story of the judgment and displacement of a blasphemous pagan oppressor of the people of the covenant through the suffering of the saints.Luke 24:4-7 captures something of the first part of that story: the Son of Man suffers at the hands of apostate Israel and the pagan oppressor and is raised in vindication. Acts 1:10-11 predicts through the enacted symbolism of Jesus' departure to be with the Father the eventual vindication not of Jesus only but also of the suffering community of the saints, who will come to share with him in the kingdom. The symbolism of the going and coming in, on, with, or whatever, the clouds of heaven is bound up with this apocalyptic narrative regarding the intense and protracted conflict between the early church and pagan imperialism – ie. Rome.No one was wrong about the parousia: on the contrary, it was crucial for the survival of the early church that the evangelists and Paul and, of course, Jesus himself were right that the massive hostile power of Greek-Roman paganism would be overcome through the faithfulness of those who took the risk of following Jesus down a narrow path leading to life. Jesus 'came' to deliver his 'brethren' from persecution (in just the same non-literal but historically true way that YHWH would 'come' to defeat his enemies or rescue his people in the Old Testament) and brought them with him on the clouds of heaven to share in the vindication of the Son of Man (cf. 1 Thess. 4:16-17).This does not mean that there is not a final judgment or renewal of all things – it is simply that the particular language of coming on clouds or of parousia has reference to something much more pressing and immediate in the purview of the early church.

  • Antonio Jerez

    James,as far as I see it to "rethink" something that one knows is absolute balooney (in this instance "baptism of the dead)is a total waste of time. One simply discards it. And the fact that some things in mormonism may be ethically good or useful (like not drinking alkohol, not smoking etc) doesn´t make all the balooney that ties together the package more true. A lie or delusion is still a lie or delusion no matter how many times one wants to rethink things. So my advice for you is to keep the ethical nuggets that you find good in Mormonism or Christianity and wrap them in a religious package of your own making. The problem is when one keeps making the package less and less like the original package and still believes that the product can still be called Mormonism or Christianity. Sometimes it is better to realize that one cannot both keep the cake and eat it at the same time.Mike,I don´t know if Peter and the other apostles thought Jesus was infallible. And neither do you. But what I know from the NT texts is that a bunch of mostly anonymous disciples of a 1st century Palestianian Jew claimed that their guru was almost infallible, sinless and allknowing. The only thing their guru appears to have been unaware of was the exact date and hour of the Eschaton. And seen in the light of 2000 years of history Jesus and his disciples seem to have been as deluded as zillions of other selfstyled prophets and their disciples making more and more outlandish claims on behalf of their guru. And by their claims you shall judge them… Andrew,nice to see you dropping by on James blog. I read your book months ago. Only got half through it. The problem was that you left so many pieces in the puzzle about early Christian Eschatology unanswered that I got a minor headache. But I promise to make a new effort to get trough your book, and then we can hopefully discuss more on your blog or here.

  • Antonio Jerez

    Andrew,while I am at it I my already ask you a question. If my memory doesn´t fail me you are arguing that the Parousia talk in the gospels is about a specific event that has already happened, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. If so I wonder how this can be seen as a "massive overcoming" of the hostile grecho-roman powers on behalf of Jesus and his disciples since it was Rome itself who brutally crushed the Jews. And becomes an even weirder kind of massive overcoming of the enemies of God´s people if one follows the logic of Matthew, Luke and the others that God himself had chosen the Romans to punish the Jews who had rejected Jesus. Personally I believe Matthew, Luke and the others had lots and lots of weird ideas, but not as weird as that. If one takes all the pieces in the NT Eschatological puzzle into consideration I think it is hard to escape the impression that Matthew and the others saw the happenings in AD 70 as a day for tears and mourning – vindication for Jesus powers as a prophet YES, victory and overcoming for the Christians defintely NO. The day of overcoming of the Pagans was still into the future beyond AD 70. Not only does the destruction of Jerusalem as "overcoming" of the Pagans make for a bad reading of the NT evidence, it also makes for a horrible theology.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Antonio, I think religions often say true and useful things apart from the fiction of their packaging. People don't come up with religions (or at least not lasting ones) purely from hallucinations. They are reflections of reality and the reasoning of the founders. The reality of Christianity has little to do with great miracles or the supernatural overthrow of the worlds empires. I might be able to convince people to meet at some location for the promise of goods that I don't have to deliver, but I won't be able to keep this up for long. Most people didn't become Christians because they needed to walk on water or raise someone from the dead. Taoism isn't dependent on the predictive power of the I-Ching. Behind them are ideas that people find true. That the Hellenistic cosmological model isn't true doesn't mean logic is a useless concept. Even Hesiod's Theogony has truths that are worth preserving. At the heart of his myth is the progress of the new generation over the old and intellect over the forces of nature balanced by the ultimate sovereignty of natural forces non the less. If a persons Christianity is miracles and divine intervention, then it should be sent to the rubbish bin, it will fail them. Further more it is not the Christianity of the founders because they did not witness Jesus perform supernatural acts.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    When I talk about "rethinking" that doesn't necessarily imply holding onto. I'm certainly open to ideas and practices being discarded as well as reinterpreted.But as a LOST fan, I see a ready analogy. Being a LOST fan doesn't mean that I find every detail in every story plausible or even a wise storytelling choice. It simply means that I find the whole thing inspiring, sometimes even in spite of not being intellectually fulfilling. :)

  • http://www.postost.net Andrew Perriman

    Antonio, yes and no…I think that there is an important and historically plausible shift of perspective between Jesus and Paul. For Jesus the future event that would publicly constitute the vindication both of himself and of his disciples was the destruction of the Jerusalem and the temple.Paul, however, is concerned with the situation of the church as it moves into the pagan world. The fate of Israel remains a matter of importance (cf. Rom. 9:1-3); but he is also bound to look beyond that to the confrontation with paganism, for the simple reason that he is responsible as an apostle for the durability of the communities that he has established (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10-15).The Gospels do not present the destruction of Jerusalem as the overcoming of paganism – as you point out, Rome was the instrument of God's wrath against Israel – and when Paul speaks in Romans of wrath against the Jew first on account of centuries of intransigence and injustice, he is imagining an event such as this.But Paul also speaks of wrath against the pagan world – an eventual judgment (in the manner of Old Testament 'judgments' against pagan civilisations) against the Hellenistic-Roman oikoumenē or 'empire'. This is not conceived as taking place independently of the existence of the emerging church. Rather the New Testament expects it to come as the culmination of a period of faithful witness through suffering, and it is this faithful suffering that will prove to be the means by which paganism is overthrown.So from Paul's perspective the defeat of classical paganism will mark the vindication of the suffering saints of the Most High, their deliverance from persecution, and their participation in the kingdom that has been given to Jesus, the pioneer of their faithfulness, at the right hand of the Father. This is how Paul retells the story of the coming of the Son of Man so that it includes the suffering 'brethren' of Jesus.In response to Mike's comment, from this 'historical' point of view Christianity had everything to do with 'the supernatural overthrow of the worlds empires'. We have to wrestle with the fact that it is difficult to make sense of that from a post-Christendom standpoint, but I don't think it helps to ignore the contingent historical perspectives of the New Testament.

  • Antonio Jerez

    James,no doubt that there is much that is inspiring and good in the message of Jesus. There is also much that is uninspiring and bad. And personally I came to the point were the inspiring parts were not enough to have me go on repeating Creeds in public that I knew were manifestly false. I just found it silly. Neither did I find much use in trying blend the deluded worldview of Jesus and his disciples with a modern worldview that has a more solid foundation. I found that to be a vain enterprise.Mike,the problem is that a large, if not the major component that initially drew people to Christianity was miracles, extatic experiences and not the least the promise of eternal life (soon, soon, soon…) . Take away those ingredients and the brew modern liberal Christian preachers are trying to serve people isn´t really Christianity. From my viewpoint McGrath, Crossan and others are doing their best to convince themselves and others that a chicken soup without chicken can really be called chicken soup :) Andrew,I´ll get hold of your book again at the library tomorrow. I look forward to discussing with you more in detail. It´s not always one has the privilege of having the attention of the author of a book one has a a lot to quibble about.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Andrew, I would have to argue that the triumph of Christianity over Paganism had little to do with miracles or angels. It can be rationally explained in terms sociology and politics. i don't think many in the first century believed this is how Jesus would defeat Rome. That the Emperor would bow before the memory of Christ though is a triumph for Christianity and and Christians could point to all those prophesies and feel vindicated in some sense. But I don't think any one "knew" this would happen. Antonio, I can't really check the claims of any one having eternal life in the world beyond or any future resurrection. I personally haven't had any ecstatic experiences and my mind isn't made up on the value of such an experience but I do encourage people to get loaded every once in a while. I have by extreme doubts that Jesus performed many of the signs and wonders claimed for him and so if you ADD those ingredients, is it really still Christianity? (if we assume Jesus taught or founded Christianity) While lots of people may have been impressed by the miracle tales and adopted Christianity under the impression that Jesus had magical powers, I must note that many samurai accepted Christianity to get western cannons and fire arms, so are arms sales an integral part of Christianity? If I said I think the basic Christian message is "Life ain't nuttin' but bitchez and money" You would have a strong case that I have no idea what I'm talking about, but I'm not so sure that more mature ideas about the supernatural deflates Jesus' ideas and concepts.As far as Jesus and his followers being "deluded" I guess that depends on the accepted world views of the time. If some ancient thought the world is flat, while it is possible that they could figure out that it is in in fact not, I think deluded would be a strong word to describe their belief. It would be like saying Einstein was deluded because he didn't understand our latest developments in physics or Newton was deluded because he wasn't a proponent of evolution.

  • Antonio Jerez

    Mike wrote:That the Emperor would bow before the memory of Christ though is a triumph for Christianity and and Christians could point to all those prophesies and feel vindicated in some sense. I think one could rather say that the conversion of emperor Constantine to Christianity basically killed off Christianity rather than having it triumph. From that moment on Christians worked in symbiosis with the State and used the iron fist of the State to club each other to death over absurdities like the kind of divine nature of a galilean excorcist. If that doesn´t prove that the spirit that has led the Church for most of its centuries is the spirit of discord and confusion I don´t know what actually will…

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    The adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire I think would be a mixed bag of nuts. As before and now, there was no one Christian Church, so it was a great triumph for some sects and a kick in the butt for others. I wouldn't say that Constantine killed Christianity. As I keep saying Christianity has had a lot of variety over time and space. The Christians of Constantine's time were not like those of Paul's time, so it may have already been killed. It may have died with Jesus, and may have never existed, but that would hardly be a useful definition. If there was no Christianity then what do we call Christians? I personally don't believe in intelligent spirits that lead people around and don't think the Christians had any thing to lead them beyond what was sloshing around in their skulls. It may have been a spirit of discord and confusion but it compares well to the beliefs and philosophies of other cultures. No one from Europe wishes that Europe turned out more like India or China. Personally I liked the stoics and other philosophers and wish Christianity made more use of them, but the Church was on the rise during a multi-century depression, and intellectuals are the first to go when cash is tight. That the philosophers didn't make more headway I attribute to poor marketing, they needed to write books like Luke, get the middle class religious market. At times though, I wonder if philosophy of any kind simply isn't something the mass market will ever get behind. But I suppose a little virtue is better than none at all, it's just sad when a little virtue calls the shots over a lot of virtue.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Antonio, all I'll say is that I'll bet you've done some of the blending that you say is a vain enterprise – whether you've intended to or not. And my self-identification as a Christian, even when willing to reinterpret or set aside things that were important to Christians in the past and are important to many today, is above all else an acknowledgment of Christianity's formative influence on me, not only in childhood but in mediating to me a spiritual experience that changed my life in profound ways.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Andrew, a quote I found concerning your ideas on the Parousia. "But if it(the prophecy) is the expression of a great moral and spiritual truth, it will of a surety be fulfilled at sundry times and in divers manners and in varying degrees of completeness" in the history of the world."R.H. Charles.

  • http://www.postost.net Andrew Perriman

    Antonio, feel free to quibble at length…Mike, I don't see why Paul and others should not have believed or 'known' or had the prophetic conviction that their emerging faith in Christ as king of kings and lord of lords would lead sooner or later to the defeat of imperial paganism. The author of Revelation certainly expected this to be the outcome of the church's faithfulness, and there is ample basis in Jewish prophetic and apocalyptic literature to imagine that the early church harboured the belief (no doubt in indistinct form) that YHWH would indeed show himself to be God of the nations in this concrete historical fashion. But I agree that the supernatural in the crude sense of angels and miracles was not a major factor: from the NT perspective the decisive factor would be the faithfulness and integrity and resilience of the believing communities. But as the whole thing worked out, clearly sociological and political factors come into play.My response to the R.H. Charles quote is that the phrase 'expression of a great moral and spiritual truth' entirely misrepresents Jewish prophecy, which invariably the expression of the intention of God with respect to the concrete existence of his people under particular historical circumstances. We have to ask first: What particular, foreseeable situation does Jesus or Paul have in view? Any universal moral or spiritual characteristics of the prophecy are incidental.

  • Antonio Jerez

    James,I certainly did a lot of strange "blending" in my earlier days as a Christian. Now I have stopped. Or maybe I should say that I go on blending moral teachings that I find useful for myself and society from people like Jesus and Ghandi with a more robust view about how the Universe is made up, actually works and will go on working million years from now, than the cosmology held by Jesus or Ghandi. But I don´t find any necessity to see Jesus or Ghandi as anything more than good but fallible humans. Nor do I see any necessity to divorce the cosmology espoused by Jesus and Ghandi from their ethical teachings and wrap it all up in my own homespun cosmology in order to make their outdated or even false worldview more appetizing.Mike,your analogy between Einstein a Jesus falls flat to the ground. As far as I know Einstein never claimed that he got his formula about relativity by divine revelation, nor did he claim to have unlocked all the secrets about the universe, nor did he claim to be giving us the ULTIMATE truth that would make all further research by later scientists unnecessary. Since Einstein never claimed anything more than being a highly gifted human who had unlocked SOME of the physical secrets of the Universe I can´t really blame him if he later appears not to have unlocked ALL the secrets of the Universe and even got a lot of things wrong. But I can blame Jesus, Paul and the others if they made a lot of superexagerated claims about themselves, claims which 2000 years later are shown to be patently false. I could have used a stronger word than "deluded" to describe some of the teachings of Jesus about himself, God and the Universe, but I didn´t. I could have called Jesus a deceiver, but I won´t. To call somebody a deceiver I think there has to be an intent from the part of the deceiver to deceive others. A deceiver knows that the message he is trying to give to others is false. Joseph Smith appears to have been part deluded and part deceiver. Jesus and Muhammed appear to have been just deluded. Since I have been personally engaged with groups (one could also call it making field studies)like Hare Krishna and the followers of the brittish New Age guru Paul Brunton I think I know pretty well how delusion works on the parts of the leaders of religious sects and not the least the kind delusion on the part of the later disciples who elevate their gurus almost to divinity and uncritically swallow most of the nonsense said by the guru like nuggets of gold coming straight from heaven. I´ve also learnt that you cannot talk sense with most of these people, no matter how much evidence you show them that the guru is either deluded or a deceiver.Andrew,I have your book in my hands at the moment. Hopefully I can start shooting at you tomorrow :) . But Until then I will just ask you a preliminary question. When do you think the gospels were written? And can you tell me in what order you think they were written?

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Antonio, unfortunately I simply don't know enough about what Jesus thought of himself or his teaching to make an informed statement on his level of delusion. It would not surprise me if he where somewhat deceptive or even a lot so. I wouldn't say that he was deluded though if he believed that God was going to intervene in history, lots of people at the time held beliefs like this. Einstein let his assumptions about the worlds stability and regularity affect his judgment but to label him "deluded" by his belief that God didn't play dice would be an unfair simplification of his intellect. He was deluded on this issue, but other wise a fine intellectual mind. Paul's vision led him to beliefs about Jesus that I wouldn't endorse, but at the time people put a lot of stock in visions. An intelligent person now would be more sceptically, but I wouldn't expect a person of his time to be. The 20th century has taught me that the current generation should be humble about it's superiority over past generations.Andrew, as I understand the prophesies of the New Testament, many of them, such as the little Apocalypse, the revelation to John, and Paul's comments in 1 Thessalonians, express the belief that God was going establish his order on Earth during they're life time and this would involve supernatural forces and the gathering of the saints. That did not occur and later works play down this expectation. Compare the little Apocalypse in Luke with the one in Mark. I think there is a transformation toward the end of the first century so that the victory of the Kingdom of God over the world is made more metaphorical as the action of the Church rather than a supernatural end to history. Nearly all the big prophesies have ended in failure of some sort, but the ideals contained in them are powerful enough to keep the people interested in them and redefining them for other situations. in some ways they become self fulfilling. I think the restoration of Israel is in part because Israelis thought the millennia believed that the prophesies promised restoration and thus did not lose hope in a restoration. Strictly speaking the prophets did not have 1948 in mind, but their works helped make it happen.

  • Antonio Jerez

    Mike,neither do I have enough information about Jesus to really know if he was just deluded or a deceiver. As long as we don´t have his actual words one can´t do that. But my sifting of the evidence in the NT makes me guess that he was just deluded. And you are right that Jesus seems to have shared his belief in an Eschaton and general resurrection with a lot of other 1st century Jews. Where he seems to have differed from the majority position was his conviction that the Eschaton was going to come very soon. On that he was obviously both wrong and deluded. And from our perspective with 2000 years of hindsight one has to say that Jesus Sadducee opponents were right when they accused this particular Galiean excircist of being both deluded and of leading Israel astray with his New Age talk. Regarding Einstein I haven´t called him deluded. It is just that his underlying philosophical assumption that the order of the Universe is basically neat and harmonius led him astray on an important scientific question. Einstein wanted a clockwork universe were things could be predicted long into the future with neat mathematical formulas. Quantum mechanics showed that at the subatomic level there is just to much randomness and indeterminacy for such neat predictions to be possible. And the randomness at the subatomic level ultimately affects the larger Universe. I also think that Einstein meant his talk about God not playing dice to be taken metaphorically. Despite much confusion on the subject Einsten doesn´t appear to have belied in God, and definitely not in a theistic God who tampers with his Universe after he has set the laws in motion that will guide it.

  • http://www.postost.net Andrew Perriman

    Antonio, I regard the dating of the Gospels as very murky science. My assumption is that the three synoptics were written around the time of the Jewish War but use earlier material in ways which we cannot confidently disentangle. In The Coming of the Son of Man I deliberately eschewed these issues in favour of constructing a coherent story. The dangers of that 'naive' methodology are apparent, but I don't think that the thesis (which I think coheres also both with Jewish trajectories and with the story being told in the early church) is greatly affected by uncertainties regarding the dating of the Gospels. You may think otherwise. John I take to be late first century but beneath the surface much close to the outlook of the synoptics than we commonly think.By the way, I'm not sure you'll be welcome shooting at me here, though James seems a very accommodating fellow. You could get in touch via my blog if you wish – I'll happily post your critique.Mike, what differences between Mark and Luke do you have in mind? The basic question comes down to how we suppose Jesus understood the prophetic/apocalyptic language that he was using. My view is that what this language aims at is the foreseeable, decisive intervention of YHWH in the affairs of Israel and its enemies through historical events. I think that is how the language works in the Old Testament prophets and in much, if not all, Second Temple writings. I think Jesus (and Paul) understood this and used it to the same effect. Such details as the coming of the reign of God, the coming of the Son of man, and the gathering of the elect all draw on an overarching, retold story of judgment and restoration through the faithfulness of the suffering community, forged no doubt in the prophetic imagination of Jesus. The story admittedly came to be (not entirely) misunderstood as the centre of gravity shifted from a Jewish to a Hellenistic milieu, but I think that Jesus' apocalyptic narrative has to be understood in light of his grasp both of the prophetic precedents and of the historical circumstances of Israel.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I'm happy for the conversation to continue here. As with trees, sometimes conversations wither if uprooted and relocated… :)

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Antonio, this is what I had in mind by delusion, but other definitions would definitely put Jesus in as a delusional person. "A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture."Some Wikipedia dredging there. The rightness of the Sadducee's verdict on Jesus leading Israel astray depends on your view of what constitutes an Israeli. I think it could also be said from the Sadducee point of view that Rabbinical Judaism is leading Israel astray. What is not in dispute is that there haven't been any Sadducees for over a thousand years and that might undercut their judgment of other Jewish sects.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Andrew, the points I was looking at in mark Vs. Luke are Mark 13:24-27 and Luke 21:25-28. Luke makes a number of changes to Mark's account. A lot of this is a shift in audience, for instance in the earlier part about the Abomination that causes Desolation. Luke's non Jewish audience isn't familiar with the phrase so Luke uses a sign that more corresponds to the actual event. The Christians of Jerusalem would have needed to leave far earlier than the introduction of Romans into the Temple, and they probably did. Luke also uses a different wording for Mark's quote of Isaiah 13:10, 34:4 instead just saying signs in the heavens. The more important change though is the dropping of Mark's expectation that after the celestial signs the angels will gather the elect. This parallels 1 Thessalonians 4:16 with the dead rising and then the faithful being caught up to heaven. I have a hard time seeing this in a metaphorical way and can't help but think Paul expected Jesus soon return to involve the literal raising of the dead and the gathering of the saints to Heaven.I agree that the early Jewish prophets saw there prophesies being fulfilled in real world ways for real world results contrary to the fantastic meanings attributed to them by the Hal Lindsays and Pat Robertsons. The early Jews don't seem to have a concept of a metaphysical otherworld that they were going to and its seems that to them, except for the rare saint, humanity would lead their existence out on earth as they always had, marring, begetting children, eating, and dying. The language of the prophesies that seems so fantastic is poetic, so for Isaiah the signs in the heavens are not so much an expectation of eclipses to accompany YHWH's victory but just a stock phrase denoting YHWH's intervention on the world. Even in Daniel, it could be viewed that Israel is the rock not made by human hands and the one like a son of man who will defeat Antichious, but here we also have an expectation of those who sleep in the dust of the Earth being awakened for judgment. At this point I think Jewish theology was looking into more fantastic possibilities for the end of history rather than an everlasting kingdom, which had probably been the promise of the gods given to the Babylonians, Egyptians, Assyrians, and others. It would be interesting to look into if any sources exist, of Persian prophesies, since it is often said that the Jews got this idea of final judgment of the dead from Persia.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Back to the New Testament, I think most of the material of the Little Apocalypse and Revelation does look to real historical events told in a metaphoric way. While Revelation is bit hard to make out what in total he is expecting, it does seem to lay out a straight forward political situation, an invasion of Rome by Parthia for the purpose of putting Nero back on the throne. In the little Apocalypse it seems clear that the authors of Mark and Luke see the events of 70 as the fulfillment of Jesus reference to the Temple being destroyed with not one stone standing on another. Mark places the second coming as an event that will follow all of this calamity, probably soon, as implied by 13:28-30. Luke drops the reference to the gathering of the elect and I think in doing this he is distancing this prophesy from the resurrection of the dead, the true end of history. I think for Luke the signs in the sky and the Son of Man in clouds all refer to the events of 70. Luke has already established the Kingdom of God in within the believer, so when Luke refers to the Kingdom of God in 21:31 it likely refers to the establishment of the Christian community as a power on earth and not Christ physical rule of the world, as I think Mark expected. I think Luke sees the establishment of a Messianic kingdom as something for the future that shouldn't be speculated on (Acts 1:7 "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set for his own authority") Luke doesn't use the line about the day and time being unknown in the context of the Little Apocalypse as Mark does. This phrase is used only in reference to the resurrection of the dead and Mark uses it where he does because while the Temple has been destroyed, he does not know when the dead will be resurrected, but it will happen during this generation. For Luke the Kingdom of God is here and only the final judgment is yet to occur and there is no time limit by when it must occur.

  • Antonio Jerez

    Mike,of all the key verses in the NT that have been mistranslated I think Luke 17:21 is they worst example. The greek is ambigious and it is possible to translate the word in question as "inside" under some circumstances. But what clinches that matter is the way Luke describes the Kingdom of God throughout the whole of his gospel and the setting for 17:21. Then it is obvious that Luke´s Jesus is saying to the Pharisees that the Kingdom is AMONG them. Luke has exactly the same view on the Kingdom as Mark, Matthew and very probably Jesus himself. The Kingdom has already arrived with Jesus and is growing on earth, but the full consummation of the Kingdom on earth will not happen until the Parousia/Eschaton

  • Antonio Jerez

    Andrew,I think you will have to wait a couple of days more until I start shooting at your book. This time I am reading it really, really CAREFULLY. But I am already noticing that the pages are starting to fill in my notebook with objections to almost all pages that I have read so far. Anyway, I´ll give you a foretaste of my shots. Isn´t it almost fatal to your reading of things about the NT meaning of the coming of the SOM/Parousia (= the coming of the SOM is the destruction of the Jewish nation/Temple and the vindication of Jesus+his disciple)that Daniel 7 is all about the destruction of the PAGAN OPRESSORS of Israel/God´s people and the VICTORY of Israel/God´s people. If Jesus and/or Mark and the others alluded to Daniel 7 in the Little Apocalypse in the synoptics then they seem to have totally misunderstood Daniel 7 and turned the meaning of the text upside down, since according to your reading of things the Parusia is about the SOM crushing unfaithful Israel through it´s pagan (Roman) opressors. And although Josephus doesn´t say explicitely which text he has in mind when he talks about the Jews in his time believing in a wellknown "prophecy" that promised them victory against the Pagans it is very probable that Josephus is alluding to Daniel 7. And since the whole theme of Daniel seems to be VICTORY TO GOD´S PEOPLE OVER THE PAGANS and not PUNISHMENT OF GOD´S PEOPLE BY THE PAGANS Jesus and/or would really have had to stretch things to allude to Daniel and reuse it the way you claim they did.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Thanks for the note Antonio. You seem to be correct on Mark, Luke, Matthew agreeing on the Kingdom of God/Heaven. It is the coming of the Son of Man, the restoring of the Kingdom to Israel, that is different. I think you are right to that the speculation on the end was more a preoccupation of the disciples as opposed to Jesus himself. Though he may well have also thought that it would be soon. It seems a rather impossible task to definitively separate out what Jesus actually said from what people attributed to him.

  • http://www.postost.net Andrew Perriman

    Antonio,I understand what you're saying. My argument is a bit more complex than your reconstruction suggests.First, the story of the crisis of the covenant is told in Daniel 7-12 in a number of different ways. Daniel 7 is a highly symbolic version that emphasizes the sovereignty of YHWH, the eventual defeat of Antiochus Epiphanes, and the vindication of the righteous. But in the later chapters it is apparent that Antiochus, the pagan oppressor, is also understood to be the instrument of God's judgment against disloyal and apostate Israel – a point which is reinforced in the Maccabean literature. The suffering of the martyrs is interpreted as a suffering because of Israel's sin: they are being punished because of Israel's sin, therefore their suffering is potentially redemptive.So Daniel 7-12 tells a larger story of Israel's disobedience going back to the exile (Dan. 9), the attacks of Antiochus as a consequence of or as punishment for Israel's disobedience, the collusion of many Jews with the pagan oppressor, the loyalty of the saints of the Most High who refuse to abandon the covenant, the defeat of the pagan aggressor by YHWH, and the vindication of the saints before the throne of the Ancient of Days.Jesus focuses on the parts of that story which fit his prophetic perspective: the vindication of the suffering community that remains faithful to the covenant as he has redefined it. I think he uses the Son of man narrative in a limited way to differentiate between his disciples and an Israel that has violated the covenant (cf. Dan. 11:32). In the Olivet discourse he makes the bold but absolutely reasonable prophetic move of connecting their vindication with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple: for them, from that perspective, the coming of the Son of man is fulfilled, realized, achieved, in this concrete historical demonstration that their Lord was right.As the church moved into the pagan world, however, the perspective changed and different facets of the Daniel narrative came into view: the conflict between the faithful and the pagan aggressor, the assurance of victory over the Greeks (or Rome), and the giving of the kingdom to the suffering community – represented by the Son of man figure who suffers, is vindicated, and comes to reign at the right hand of the father. In practice the historical locus for this expectation was the victory of the persecuted church over Greek-Roman paganism.

  • Antonio Jerez

    Andrew,I have had a lot more to do this week than expected. So I haven´t been able to wade through the entirety of your book yet. Hopefully I will finish it during the weekend. Then I´ll quibble with you more in detail. But I wonder if it might not be better if we open up a thread on your blog and continue the discussion there?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16131308483959081297 Andrew Perriman

    Antonio, there's no hurry. I'll post a starter on my blog based on this discussion and you can take it from there. I look forward to it.


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