Pastoral Review of The Burial of Jesus

Pastoral Review of The Burial of Jesus April 4, 2019

I was very happy to receive a message from the pastor of my church, Rev. Mark Pittman (of Crooked Creek Baptist Church), in response to reading my book The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do With Faith?, published by Patheos Press (in ebook format, second edition). Here’s what he said:

James, just finished a cover-to-cover-one- sitting-binge-reading of your The Burial of Jesus. I appreciated the early NT101 chapters as you lay the groundwork for your later conclusions. Really helpful in getting me in tune with your discussion. I have had no issues with seeing Scripture as being written with spiritual or theological intent. Have never been quite able to figure out what to do with the resurrection of Jesus. The bodily resurrection as described just didn’t fit with my view of faith and scripture as a whole. Think I had the pieces, but you put it together for me so well. Most helpful was in the reminder that the gospels each contain hints that this was an event confusing and uncertain even for the earliest believers. Matthew’s words at Jesus’ final appearance, “but some doubted” are very significant. Thanks again. Just picked up your work on One God. Probably not a binge read.

Having what one wrote not merely be found worth reading, but worth binge reading, is a particular honor. When it is the pastor of one’s church who says something like this, it is all the more meaningful and encouraging. As a result of what he wrote, my wife decided to reread the book – and ended up binge-reading it as well, although not all in one sitting. Since the book is very much about matters related to Easter, I am glad Pastor Mark gave me permission to share his recommendation of the book when he did!

Also on the topic of how historical study of Jesus relates to faith is a recent post by Jonathan Bernier, which starts out focused on ancient Israel, but ends as follows:

Now, some students suggested that Jesus’ life and ministry and salvific significance were such that there was some sort of rupture in the historical continuum. From a historical perspective, I would fully grant that Jesus represents one of those creative personalities who periodically emerges to address the urgent needs of their times; the emergence of such creative personalities might indeed be taken as signs of divine grace operating in history. And indeed, the needs of Jesus’ time were urgent. The Jewish revolt was still a few decades away, but the Land was already suffering from many of the conditions that led to that event, most notably I would argue the economic depredations suffered by the local population under Roman rule. Jewish society in the Land was breaking down under these depredations, as lifeways were disturbed by predatory foreign rule. Leaders emerged, promising deliverance from these conditions. The real question for me as a historian is why from this particular situation this one particular leader, Jesus of Nazareth, began a movement that eventually took over the world. Theologically, one might articulate this in terms of God’s gracious solution to the problem of human evil, but I would argue that historically this question can only be answered by the fullest understanding of the problems to which Jesus was responding and the conditions under which he operated, and that moreover the theological account would only be deepened by fully developing the historical.

Of related interest: LiveScience had a piece about Pontius Pilate. And Jim Spinti blogged about ancient authors, writing: “Not all cultures think about history the same way. In the ancient world it is difficult to find anyone who could legitimately be identified as a historian or journalist. Their cognitive environment had no need of such professions.” He also quoted John Walton in another post, “We cannot read the Hebrew Bible as it it were journalistic or academic history such as might be written today. Such reading would compromise the intentions, presuppositions, values, and poetics of the literature and its authors. When we critique the literature, we should critique it in terms of its own guiding criteria rather than expecting it to reflect our own and dismissing it when it does not.”


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  • The real question for me as a historian is why from this particular situation this one particular leader, Jesus of Nazareth, began a movement that eventually took over the world.

    Speaking purely from a historical perspective, this is an excellent, excellent question. Jesus’ mission seems so Israel-centric and so conditioned by the concrete historical circumstances of his day, it’s interesting how so many Gentiles so quickly began to find themselves in this story. Theologically, we can define the ramifications of Jesus for Gentiles, but in terms of the historical phenomenon of so many Gentiles buying it and seeing the relevance for themselves, it’s an interesting question.

    • John MacDonald

      Just a thought. Maybe the crucified Jesus became a symbol to some of the Gentiles of what was wrong with their world: a good, just man executed on the false charges of being a violent political messiah by a Roman administrator who cared more about placating the Jewish elite/crowd than actual justice (Pilate in Mark didn’t get a confession from Jesus). Maybe some Romans had become tired with the Peace through Victory model of Caesar and were drawn to the Peace through Justice model that Jesus represented. Perhaps Mark 15:39 is a jab against Caesar:

      When the centurion standing there in front of Jesus saw how He had breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

      • John MacDonald

        Mark saying “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” closely matches the formula found on a monument erected by the Provincial Assembly in Asia Minor (1st century BCE): “Whereas… Providence… has… brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving us Augustus Caesar… who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior…, and whereas… the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euaggelion) concerning him, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth.” So, Mark’s Gospel may be challenging the idea that Caesar and his ideals are what should be in charge.

        • Mark

          Representing Emperor and Empire as a parody of the Christ and Kingdom seems to permeate all the early literature – Paul, Mark and Revelation. On the other hand, the Josephus passage on the “ambiguous oracle” that incited the Temple militants — that “one from their country would become ruler of the world” — suggests such an analogy was widespread.

          • John MacDonald

            I think Mark 12:17 seems to indicate that Caesar is to be satiated with trivial things like tax money, but that one’s entire life is to be given over to God. It is God and His ideals that are ultimately in charge, not Caesar.

      • I think Mark 15:39 probably is a jab against Caesar.

        What you said is a good take on why Gentiles might have approved of Jesus or his political views or even tried to enact social change as a result.

        It seems to me that the identification went somewhat deeper than that, but I could be wrong. Would these people endure persecution and death to make a statement about political corruption? Socrates did, perhaps, but what of his followers?

        And certainly what theological writings we have from these early, believing Gentiles seems to indicate less of a concrete application of the implicit social critique of Jesus’ death and more about unity with the story of Jesus as king appointed to judge the world, albeit in Hellenized categories as opposed to continuity with the Jewish narrative.

        You have these stories and claims about Jesus that end up in the hands of Gentile thinkers, and they instantly begin to look for ways for this to make sense in their world and commit themselves rather holistically to the ramifications and in large numbers in a fairly short amount of time. Historically speaking, how did we get to this phenomenon of a predominantly Jewish narrative centered around the destiny of Israel being so attractive and meaningful to Gentiles – far more Gentiles than Jews, eventually?

        I like that your hypothesis identifies what about the Jesus story might be attractive to Gentiles, and I don’t think you’re wrong. I’m not sure that alone accounts for what seemed to happen.

        • John MacDonald

          Yes, I didn’t mean to say my interpretation was the only cause for what happened, just that it may have been a part of it.

          • I think you’re right, and I hadn’t really thought about that angle before.

        • Bones

          The success of the gospel among the gentiles iowed mainly to its embrace by gentile women.

          “In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul begins with personal greetings to fifteen women and eighteen men who were prominent members of the Roman congregation. If we may assume that sufficient sex bias existed so that men were more likely than women to hold positions of leadership, then this very close sex ratio suggests a Roman congregation that was very disproportionately female. Indeed, the converts of Paul “we hear most about are women,” and many of them “leading women.” Thus, the brilliant Cambridge church historian Henry Chadwick (1920-2008) noted, “Christianity seems to have been especially successful among women. It was often through the wives that it penetrated the upper classes of society in the first instance.”…

          The question persists, Why? The answer consists of two parts. First,…religious movements always attract more women than men…. Far more important is the second part of the answer, which suggests that Christianity was attractive to women far beyond the usual level of gender differences. Women were especially drawn to Christianity because it offered them a life that was so greatly superior to the life they otherwise would have led….

          Christian writers have long stressed that Jesus’s “attitude toward women was revolutionary…. For him the sexes were equal.”….[R]ecent objective evidence leaves no doubt that early Christian women did enjoy far greater equality with men than did their pagan and Jewish counterparts. A study of Christian burials in the catacombs under Rome, based on 3,733 cases, found that Christian women were nearly as likely as Christian men to be commemorated with lengthy inscriptions. This “near equality in the commemoration of males and females is something that is peculiar to Christians, and sets them apart from the non-Christian populations of the city.” This was true not only of adults, but also of children, as Christians lamented the loss of a daughter as much as that of a son, which was especially unusual compared with other religious groups in Rome.”

    • robrecht

      “Jesus’ mission seems so Israel-centric and … ”

      I don’t think that Jesus engaged in an active mission to convert gentiles, ‘though he may have sought the lost sheep of Israel among them, but surely he believed the imminent apocalyptic Kingdom of God would somehow include the incorporation of the gentiles. This was a central tenet of Jewish faith as can be seen in many places, notably in the words of Isaiah placed on the lips of Jesus by Mark:

      ‎בֵיתִי בֵּית-תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל-הָעַמִּים

      My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.

      • Yes, there was the expectation that Israel would be the priestly mediator for the other nations who would also come to worship Israel’s God, but it seems to me that both Jesus and John the Baptist in the gospels are reasonably focused on the repentance and restoration of Israel. We get Jesus setting his sights on “the nations” after his resurrection, but it seems he leaves that segment of the eschatological program to others.

        Within the gospels, there are certainly encounters with the faith of Gentiles, although the whole reason they’re mentioned is because they stand out in their rarity. Jesus is amazed by them and often refers to their trust as an indictment against the power structure in Israel that rejects him. And there’s the concept of “God fearing” Gentiles, like the centurion with the sick servant, which also predates Jesus’ ministry.

        But what’s interesting to me is that Jesus’ activity to restore Israel to what she was meant to be and prepare faithful Israel to weather an impending judgement is a story that would find such resonance with Gentiles. I do see the theme (carried forward by Paul at least) of the judgement waiting for Israel would be rolled out to the nations with Jesus as judge. An awful lot of Gentiles latched onto that story. I wonder if maybe seeing the destruction of Jerusalem had something to do with it. It’s one thing to be told that judgement was coming first to Israel, then to the Gentiles, and another thing to actually see the first part of that occur.

        • robrecht

          Paul’s successful mission to the Gentiles took place prior to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. He is the most obvious propononent of pushing forward Israel’s mission to the Gentiles. The views of John and Jesus may not be recoverable on this point, but I agree with Jason Staples on how Paul saw the redemption of all Israel as inextricably linked to that of the nations. Because Israel (not speaking of Judah here) had been scattered among the Gentiles, the lost sheep of Israel would only be restored by an outreach to and among the Gentiles.

          “I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of this mystery (lest you become high minded yourselves) that a hardening has come upon a part of Israel until the fullness of the nations [τὸ πλήρωµα τῶν ἐθνῶν] has come in—and thus [καὶ οὕτως] all Israel will be saved … ”

          See Staples JA. What Do the Gentiles Have to Do with “All Israel”? A Fresh Look at Romans 11:25–27. JBL 130, no. 2 (2011): 371–390.

          • I definitely agree on that score – that Paul concluded that Israel would be saved by the influx of Gentile converts. He also calls that a “mystery,” which seems to imply that this perspective is something of a new development, probably in response to historical circumstances that were hard to understand (i.e. the general rejection of Jesus by Israel but the acceptance of the Gentiles – cf. Eph. 3:4-6 of the inclusion of the Gentiles as a mystery hidden from previous generations).

            Again, though, it raises the question from a historical perspective of why Gentiles so readily bought into this story or what they even conceived “the story” to be. Why would they care about the salvation of Israel? At some point, they became convinced in a reasonably rapid and widespread manner that having faith in what Israel’s God had done in Israel’s Messiah had ramifications for their own welfare.

          • robrecht

            Having already discussed to what extent John and Jesus’ mission(s) were exclusively Israel-centric and choosing instead to emphasize the traditions within Judaism that were already oriented toward the nations, I would also like to emphasize continuity over discontinuity with this side of the question as well. In other words, I would not focus on an entirely new interest on the part of the gentiles in the Messiah event. Prior to Jesus’ time, there had already been a very high regard for ‘Judaism’ and the Jewish people and their profound faith in one God on the part of many gentiles. Awareness of this high regard is sometimes obscured by Christian apologists who want to overemphasize anti-Jewish sentiment in the pre-Christian classical world in order to obscure the Christian theological roots of antisemitism. To some extent, the Messiah event was indeed an obstacle for the gentiles (1 Cor 1,18-23). I do not want to empty Paul’s gospel of its specifically Christological component, but I do want to highlight the traditional appeal of Judaism that also may have already attracted gentiles to the preaching of the Christian faith and communal life.

          • Hey Rob,

            We might be talking past each other. I’m not saying that Gentiles were anti-Jewish or that Jesus and his followers were anti-Gentile or that these groups had nothing to do with each other. I’m asking the question why, from a historical perspective, Gentiles would see a primarily Jewish story as immediately relevant for themselves.

          • robrecht

            Sorry, I wasn’t trying to imply that you were saying those things. Just explaining my perspective on the two sides of your question.

          • I appreciate that. In that spirit, here’s where I’m coming from:

            1: The formative promise to Abraham includes the idea that, as his descendants become a nation, this will also benefit the Gentiles.

            2: The mission of Israel, broadly stated, is to be a community holy to the Lord in the midst of nations that are not. By modeling what this new creation people would look like and enjoying the accompanying prosperity in safety, this would be both a call and an example to the other nations who would come to worship Israel’s God, albeit still as Gentile nations and not assimilated into Israel, etc. This brings the whole world into a right relationship with God as well as creating an overall reign of justice, compassion, wisdom, equity, mercy – the attributes God values.

            3: Over time, the leadership of Israel disregards this identity and mission and, instead, becomes like the despotic rulers around them. This has severe ramifications for the spiritual and moral health of the nation and constitutes a breaking of the covenant. A series of prophets is raised up to call Israel to repentance and restoration, but this project is largely unsuccessful, and a succession of pagan nations dominate and disperse Israel.

            4: Jesus, in continuity with the prophets before him (including John the Baptist), calls Israel to repentance, although it appears most of his time is spent not addressing the power structure but the rank and file of Israelites suffering under the state of affairs. Although the overall eschatological trajectory is the same, Jesus enters the mix at a time when Israel has drifted way off course and is in dire straits. While we do get small episodes involving Gentile faith and Jesus’ favorable response, he is largely focused on setting Israel to rights, which is a necessity before being able to bring benefits to the Gentiles. In fact, a few times, he explicitly commands his disciples to leave the Gentiles alone. With his death, resurrection, exaltation, and the imminent outpouring of the Spirit, it seems this restoration has at least begun in an irreversible way, and Jesus sets the sights of his followers on the nations.

            5: To me, this seems jarring to Jesus’ followers, and this may be the point where you and I differ somewhat. Bringing the nations into focus and, more remarkably, their grafting into the promises by the Holy Spirit, seems (to me) to be shocking to Jesus’ followers and they have a hard time dealing with it. Whether it should have been jarring to them or not, we could debate, but it seems to me from Paul’s writings that it is. These are unforeseen things happening in unforeseen ways and causing all kinds of practical tensions in the early church. However, the fact remains that they are happening. Gentiles are having faith in what Israel’s God has done in Jesus and have declared him as Lord, believing that he will judge Israel and the nations.

            It’s that success rate that makes me curious, from a historical perspective. What is it about all of this that the Gentiles found so compelling for themselves? I have some guesses, but I have to admit it’s still something of a mystery.

            Maybe I’m just reading too much of our contemporary situation into the first century, but it seems more likely that most Gentiles would hear about this stuff and go, “Ok, that’s a nice story. Hope things go well for you guys. I’m going to get back to what I was doing, thanks.”

          • robrecht

            “Jesus … is largely focused on setting Israel to rights, which is a necessity before being able to bring benefits to the Gentiles. In fact, a few times, he explicitly commands his disciples to leave the Gentiles alone.”

            That is certainly Matthew’s perspective. It also accords with Luke’s general historical trajectory of the progress of the gospel message, which is perfectly plausible. But the remarkable shift toward the gentiles still seems hard to explain as a complete novelty if it were not already part of Jesus’ own apocalyptic message and vision. Recall that prior to the men from James coming to Antioch, Cephas did not seem to have any qualms about eating with and living like a gentile, if we believe Paul’s first-hand account in his letter to the Galatians.

            I believe most of the oral traditions incorporated into the gospels probably originated within Jewish Christian communities. These oral traditions and Jewish Christian perspectives may have imprinted a particular slant on the memory of Jesus before they were written down in Greek from ‘Mark’s perspective. Even Luke may have been a proselyte who followed kashrut before and after becoming a Christian author.

            I do believe Jesus himself would have naturally followed kashrut, but maybe not so strictly when he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors and allowing himself to be seen as a glutton and drunkard by his perhaps more strictly observant Jewish contemporaries. And if Jesus did indeed travel outside of Galilee into Syria or the Dekapolis, what was he doing there if not seeking abroad even more lost sheep of Israel among the gentiles. I know his encounter there with people such as the Syro-Phoenician woman is frequently seen as a later invention to retroject some element of a later Gentile mission into the life of Jesus, but his being bested in humorous public argument by a woman seems quite realistic to me and not likely to be pure invention.

            I find it more plausible to find the seeds of the Gentile mission within the apocalyptic vision of the historical Jesus than to attribute it to the initiative of the resurrected Jesus as imagined in Matthew’s great commission.

          • I mean, I might agree with “the seeds of the mission” being there perhaps, but again, I would say Jesus is focused on Israel. And I think what surprises the early Christian community is not so much the theological perspective on Gentiles as it is A) their inclusion in the inheritance of Israel as one, new people, and B) the fact that the Gentiles are responding in droves while their own people are responding very slowly.

            And that latter part is remarkable to me, as well. Even if Jesus and his followers were constantly focused directly on Gentiles 24/7, it doesn’t really tell us why the Gentiles themselves found all of this relevant and so compelling. At some point, Gentiles have to convert. Why do they?

            One interesting story in this vein is Philip and the Ethiopian. Here, Philip explains a passage in Isaiah, then uses it as a springboard to tell the “good news about Jesus,” and the Ethiopian is ready to go. What dots were connected for him from Isaiah that made an Ethiopian eunuch decide to be baptized? Why did so many other Gentiles who probably were not reading Isaiah go in for it? What’s the relevance they see to themselves?

          • robrecht

            Latter question first: there are many reasons why Christianity succeeded among the gentiles. Ehrman discusses this in one of he recent books, The Triumph of Christianity. I largely agree with his point of view, but I would hope that a few other factors also played a role, namely the profundity of Jewish monotheism and its prophetic moral vision that Jesus also championed. I would like to believe that the early church was largely faithful to this moral vision, for example, in their caring for widows and orphans and the sick. To some extent, I think this is the great legacy of Catholicism, among many other less noble and even evil tendencies. Julian the Apostate attests to this more noble appeal of the early church.

            As for why Christianity did not succeed more among first-century Judeans and hellenistic Jews, they already possessed the profundity of Jewish monotheism and its prophetic moral vision. What more did the teaching of Jesus offer? Much of his most profound teaching merely crystallized and expressed the earlier tradition, while some of his potentially unique teachings, eg, our forgiveness of others being the prerequisite for God’s forgiveness of us, were easily incorporated into and did survive in the later Jewish tradition. Ultimately, in my humble opinion, the intellectual and moral legacy of gentile Christianity, proved to be a pale reflection of what the Jews already possessed. And the negative and evil tendencies of triumphalist Christianity were before too long expressed in vile hypocrisy and even persecution of Jews and others.

          • Yes, I definitely agree with you that Jesus was more or less in continuity with the Jewish tradition before him. There may have been things about the behavioral “evolution” of Jewish thought among certain groups that he had issues with, but by and large, he’s continuing the Jewish narrative, not creating a huge disjuncture with it.

            And I also agree about the outcomes of the Gentile dominance in terms of the narrative. Specifically, there was no narrative. In fairness to them, they were trying to figure out the relevance of these events and Scriptures for their world, so it’s understandable how it happened, but the outcome was largely to ditch the very Jewish narrative and eschatological trajectory in favor of extracting transhistorical dogma and passing that down from generation to generation. I wish their posture had been more to learn how to stay in continuity with the story of their Jewish spiritual forefathers. It’s hard to imagine what church history might have looked like if Greco-Roman theologians and philosophers didn’t control the shape of that early formation, but I think overall we and the world would have been healthier for it.

            I also read Ehrman’s take and, like you, more or less agree with it. I do have a question for you, though.

            You placed a lot of weight on Gentiles being drawn to the “prophetic moral vision.” Is this an element you see being the focus of Paul’s messages to the Gentiles? How would categories about the lordship of Jesus, the kingdom, and an imminent judgement of the world / end of the age play into a Gentile being drawn to the message?

          • robrecht

            I actually don’t think I put all that much weight on gentiles being drawn to Jewish monotheism and it’s prophetic moral vision. It usually feels like I am going against the grain and swimming upstream against an almost overwhelming gale (not sure how many synergistic metaphors I can mix here) to put any emphasis at all on this. Most of what I would like to highlight in Paul’s thought world are sometimes barely more than implicit in his text. It is a great accomplishment of some contemporary scholars to finally rediscover the ‘Jewishness’ of Paul, so encrusted his text had become with Christian misunderstandings and triumphalism, as well as Paul’s own misguided over-emphasis on apocalypticism. Jesus’ lordship and soteriological importance are ultimately much more subtle. If there is an afterlife, l hope to discuss this with Paul. But, yes, these exaggerated elements of Paul’s message did appeal to the gentiles of his time as they continue to appeal to the the fundamentalists of every age. We all want simple answers, myself included.

          • Gary

            “Paul’s successful mission to the Gentiles took place prior to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.”
            The question is how successful was Paul’s mission in Paul’s time? Ehrman in one of his books (don’t remember which) said the #’s of Paul’s followers were extremely small – handfuls in each church location. The implication is that Paul would be unknown, his writings would be unknown, and the Gentile mission of Paul would have been unsuccessful and died out, if the Temple and Jerusalem were not destroyed.

          • robrecht

            We really don’t know how successful Paul was, but that he was successful is not really in doubt. Seven of his authentic letters have been preserved in the NT. Six or seven other forged letters try to usurp his authority. He was successful enough for the authors of the letters of James and 2 Peter to respond to his influence and the author of Acts to orient this whole work toward his mission. The only other author whose actual name we know (John of the Apocalypse) also wrote partly in opposition to what may have been Paul’s influence on the eating of meat sacrificed to idols in a couple of churches in Asia Minor.

            Would the Jewish Jerusalem church, had it survived, have succeeded in somehow eradicating Paul’s influence? I certainly would not make this hypothetical assumption. Are you sure that Ehrman believes this?

            Might early Christianity have evolved differently? I certainly hope so. Would Paul have been much less successful in such a scenario? Who can say? Eusebius recounts a tradition of some 15 Jewish leaders of the church in Jerusalem up to the time of Bar Kokhba in the early 130s under Hadrian. We know so little of this period. That Jewish-Christian opposition to Paul’s influence continued long afterward can be seen in the pseudo-Clementine literature. Would it have been so much more successful in eradicating Paul’s influence if only the Temple had not been destroyed? Or would Jewish Christianity have been eliminated more quickly had the temple authorities prevailed? These are interesting parlor game discussions, perhaps, but they are all predicated on Paul having achieved some real success early on.

          • Gary

            “Are you sure that Ehrman
            believes this?”…
            I got the small numbers of Christians during Paul’s years from Ehrman’s “The Triumph of Christianity”. I also got the impression that if Jerusalem and the Temple were not destroyed, he felt Christianity would have been an obscure, failed sect of Judaism. But I don’t have access to his book now, so I can’t check it. Just going by my memory. Which brings to mind his other book, “Jesus before the Gospels” – on memory.