Jesus’ Piety

Jesus’ Piety November 28, 2014

One text which received a significant amount of discussion in the Bart Ehrman book review panel session at SBL was Mark 10:18, in which Jesus is depicted as saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone?”

No one is good except GodThere is a long tradition of avoiding the most natural sense of these words: that Jesus was denying that he is God, and denying his own goodness.

While that meaning is at odds with later orthodoxy in which Jesus is both God and not merely good but sinless, it is the only understanding of the text which is compatible with Jesus having been a historical human being who was more specifically a pious and devout Jew.

In Judaism, the pious consistently express humility before God, and emphasize their own inability and inadequacy and unrighteousness when compared with the one God. This is true even of those who are astonishingly upright and capable. To be good and able, and proud of one’s accomplishments, would simply show oneself to have fallen into the sin of pride.

And so here we see a Jesus who does not think he is God, but who is not necessarily lacking in goodness. Indeed, it was an expression of human goodness to not be proud of one’s own goodness, and to recognize that no human goodness compares with the perfection of God.

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  • Dan

    Was there a video of the Ehrman session? How did the Evangelicals in the panel react to that verse?

    • Dan

      I think the best understanding is that Jesus understands that the rich young man has a misunderstanding of what it means to be “good.” The young man believes that he has been good, yet Jesus shows him that he has not been good by the standard of God. Only God is good, for only God can keep the commandments to the standard of good.

    • As far as I know it was not recorded – SBL sessions usually are not. The Evangelicals pointed out that there are other ways of understanding that verse, to which Dale Martin replied that he already said he is aware of the various ways of avoiding the more natural meaning of the text. The question is why anyone ought to prefer those alternatives other than wanting to avoid having the text mean what it appears to.

      • Dan

        The simple response would be to understand Scripture as a whole as opposed to simply reading a section by itself out of context.

        • The problem with that approach is that scripture was not written as a whole. It was written as separate accounts, stories, letters, etc. with differing contexts and agendas.

          It may be appropriate to read a passage understanding the context of the “book”, but the context of scripture as a whole varies widely.

          In this instance, the context of the passage is the book of Mark, a context in which Jesus is never referenced as “God”. James has written on this before:

          • Dan

            Yes it was written as separate accounts, and understandings vary on how appropriate it is to follow the understanding of Scripture interpreting Scripture. But that is why denominations are here.

          • Denominations? I’m more interested in the methods of historians, myself.

            But, taking the books of the bible as the contextually separate works that they are, it’s pretty clear that the writer/editor of each gospel had a very different perspective on Jesus. Especially, the gospel written last – John.

          • Tim

            Yes; and this isn’t the only place where Jesus effectively denies he is God, although I’m not sure any of those are quite as obvious as this example. Trinitarians will just chime in with something like, well; he’s just denying he’s God the Father.
            But that’s not what the text says or implies.

      • Tim

        I think the obvious answer to this question is; doctrinal commitments. If one is beholden to Trinitarian doctrine (or any view in which Jesus must be God), then this can’t mean what it appears to be saying.

        The same mechanic is applied to the universalistic texts, where God makes it pretty clear that he intends to save all, and that that has been the plan all along, fulfilled in Christ. But people committed to the traditions of “eternal” hell or annihilation refuse to see it.

  • guest

    I find the idea that being proud of your accomplishments is wrong, to be really disturbing. Just because someone else is better than you at something, does not erase your achivements. Even if they’re god. Too many good people mentally torture themselves with the idea that they’re never ‘good enough’. It’s an aspect of Christianity I find distasteful.

    • I think that there is a fine line here between appropriate humility and self-loathing denigration. There are forms of Christianity (and other religions) which promote the latter, but not all of them do. But it is an important point to make in this context, so thank you for pointing this out!

  • John MacDonald

    Another similar example in Mark is Mark 14:32-42 where Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here, Jesus shows himself to be a pious human Jew, not a God incarnate third person of the Trinity. When Jesus is praying he is not praying to himself. Jesus exhibits a willingness to allow God to continue with the plan that
    he die. It is worth noting that Jesus’ words here assume a strong
    distinction between himself and God: the execution willed by God is
    experienced as something foreign and imposed from the outside, not
    something freely chosen by Jesus. The phrase “Abba” is Aramaic for
    “father” and denotes a very close relationship, yet it also excludes the
    possibility of identification. —