This post is a part of the Patheos Book Club focus on Jesus Behaving Badly: The Puzzling Paradoxes of the Man from Galilee. See more here.
Mark Strauss, professor New Testament of Bethel Seminary San Diego, has just had Jesus Behaving Badly: The Puzzling Paradoxes of the Man from Galilee published by IVP Press. The book focuses on some of the more difficult passages of the Gospels. What do we make of Jesus killing a herd of pigs in Luke 8? What about his preaching of hellfire in Matthew 25? What about his apparent racism in Mark 7, or his anti-Semitic clashes with “the Jews” throughout the Gospel of John?
All these passages are worthy of close readings and historical couching, and this is exactly what Dr. Strauss spends the majority of the book doing. The withering of the fig tree must be understood in light of Jesus’ actions in the Temple courts, and his difficult teachings on eschewing one’s family should be couched in ancient rhetoric studies and the nature of the early Jewish church’s reputation as heretics among other Jewish groups. All in all, Strauss does a fine job of raising some of the facets of Jesus’ character that either get glossed over in Sunday School (caveat: I am a long-time Sunday School teacher) or are hindrances for non-Christians to get on board with the Galilean carpenter who can seem a bit cranky at times. I would certainly recommend Jesus Behaving Badly as a book for college students or church small groups; it deals closely with texts we as a whole are more prone to ignore than dive into.
And I think this is precisely where I most appreciate the book. Even if I don’t agree with him at all points and in all readings, Strauss does not shy away from the intense and confusing parts of the Gospel stories. I am always wary of attempts to boil Jesus down to conservative, liberal, or moderate paradigms, because the Gospel stories are bigger than that. Jesus is not contradictory—which Strauss points out—but he is certainly complex, and far more complex than modern readers tend to be comfortable with. Reduction with Jesus is simply not possible. We cannot say that Jesus was judgmental any more than we can say he was merciful; he was both judgmental and merciful, and this picture of his character is further complicated by his claim that both these characteristics were either part of his calling or divine gifts to him (Matt 9:13; 10:34; 28:18).
And this is something that can truly be said in general of the tenor of Holy Scripture. There tends to be a tension in the vastness of God. It is not contradiction, but a wildness, an affirmation that God is sovereign and uncontrollable. He answers to himself and not to human beings. That means that we at times simply cannot understand his ways, despite all the historical and cultural studying we do. This tension is the tension we see in the judgment of exile and the mercy of restoration in the Old Testament prophets. This is the tension between hardening Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus and replacing hardened hearts of stone in Ezekiel with hearts of flesh. It is the tension that sees Job blessed and sees Job tested, and it is the tension that defends Job before the adversary in chapter 1 and chastises Job himself in chapter 38. God is bigger than our boxes. That logically goes for Jesus too, the one claimed by us as God Incarnate.
And Strauss hits that on the head. He is able to make sense of some of the passages he highlights—the withering of the fig tree almost sorts itself out when you learn about Markan intercalations, aka “Mark’s sandwiches”—but not all. He admits that he doesn’t have all the answers. He also says we probably can’t arrive at said answers, at least not this side of eternity, and that that is okay. Part of that is found in the fact that Jesus is bigger than our boxes, explanations, and modern presuppositions. If he wasn’t, he probably wouldn’t be God.
Reed Metcalf is editor of the Fuller Blog and a media relations and communications specialist at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is a graduate of Fuller’s MDiv program and currently a ThM student in New Testament.