Baker Academic

Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Chris, James, and I are pleased to honor Seán Freyne's The Jesus Movement and Its Expansion as the 2014 Jesus Blog Book of the Year!

This book is an important contribution to our understanding of first-century life in Galilee, Jesus' upbringing, his early career, and the launch of his movement. Notable achievements of this book include: an explanation of how a strong Judean presence—faithful to the Jerusalem Temple and its associated symbols—emerged in Galilee; a deconstruction of any simple dichotomies between Galilean and Judean cultures; a nuanced overview of Galilee's economy (sensitive to its three different ecological demarcations); the opportunities for and/or erosions of Jewish civic identities within the matrices of Roman power systems. Freyne masterfully situates Jesus and his movement within this network of interests.

We only regret that Professor Freyne (1935-2013) is no longer with us. We would have liked to celebrate this excellent book with him.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Anthony Le Donne on Mrs. Jesus, Part One: Apology—Chris Keith

After starting Anthony Le Donne’s The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals when it first came out, I’ve only now had the opportunity to go back and finish it.  The book has rightly been well-reviewed but I’m not sure if some of its real contributions have been sufficiently highlighted.

I need to start this brief review with an apology to Anthony Le Donne, however.  When he first told me that he was working on a book on the wife of Jesus, I thought exactly what he knew I would think.  I wasn’t concerned that he was writing a popular-level book.  There’s a real place for this type of scholarship and anyone who’s read Anthony’s Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? knows that he has a real gift for writing on intricate topics in a way that is not only accessible but interesting.  I was concerned because of the topic.  Writing something on the wife of Jesus seemed an obvious attempt at simultaneously ruffling feathers and gaining attention—basically, selling out to sensationalism.  My thinking at the time was that this topic—the wife of Jesus—is a black hole.  There is, in my opinion, very little in Second Temple Judaism or early Christianity that would make scholars seriously think that Jesus was married and thus there was not very much that could be usefully said about it.  I was dead wrong in the latter opinion.  I’ll explain in later posts.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

I'm friends with Jeremiah Wright, not because I agree with everything his says but because I love the man. I'm friends with Louis Farrakhan, not because I agree with him but because I love the man. I'm a free, Black man. I'm a free, Jesus-loving, Black man. I'll love anybody I choose to love!

                                ~Cornel West

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Mika Ahuvia on Toledot Yeshu

Mika Ahuvia writes a thoughtful introduction for newcomers to Toledot Yeshu. This is a family of parodic texts mocking the life of Christ. While these texts are extant from the medieval period, they possibly represent tradition that was shared orally for some time. Ahuvia offers a bit of information new to me in this introduction: "According to some late medieval sources, it was a Jewish custom to read Toledot Yeshu on Christmas Eve." She also offers this insight, "Mockery, however, is one of the most powerful tools of the weak, and it is not surprising that Jews resorted to this tactic at various times and places." 

This is an important point and deserves much more weight in Jewish-Christian discourse. We must read our traditional polemics within the framework of power dynamics. We do this not to justify the rhetoric, but to better understand our ancient (and often alien) relatives.

I especially appreciated this paragraph:
"Many scholars prefer to avoid discussion of Toledot Yeshu, which recalls uncomfortable periods of history when relations between Jews and Christians were antagonistic. Unfortunately, such avoidance of history has disastrous consequences. I would argue that it is the parts of our history that we refuse to look at that pose the most danger to us. Avoidance of historical shortcomings encourages complacency, displacement of responsibility, and lack of sensitivity to others. It is when we confront the difficult parts of our shared history that we can come to terms with why people needed such mockery and why others might employ such rhetoric against them, understanding the historical violence and prejudice that shaped this text. It is only when we confront that part of the human spirit that loves to degrade the other that we can invite in more enlightened responses."
This is a short introduction to a much misunderstood text. I highly recommend it.


Friday, December 26, 2014

2014 American Nativity

HT to Matthew Rindge.

Happy Kwanzaa from the Jesus Blog!

Happy Kwanzaa folks!

In light of America's renewed interest in racial justice, let us take a moment to remember the Watts riots that were (in part) the impetus for this holiday.

Let us also reflect on the fortitude and vision of our 1960s forebears who deconstructed a culture of shameful injustice for the sake of reconstructing a better way forward.

Matunda ya kwanza!


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Eugene Peterson on Christmas' Progeny

The story of Jesus' birth has an immense progeny. Our planet fairly teems with stories and songs, paintings and drama that got their start from this story. The reproductive energies show no sign of tapering off. Writers and singers and artists, to say nothing of countless children and parents and grandparents all over the world, continue to find fresh and novel ways of keeping this story going.

But even more impressive are the lives that continue to get a fresh start - a new birth - in the story of this birth. Day after day, men and women who feel more dead than alive, in the hearing or singing or seeing of this story rediscover the utter and unspeakable and beautiful preciousness of life. The story of Jesus' birth gets reproduced in these human lives still, over and over again.

                     ~Eugene Peterson

Monday, December 22, 2014

Has Mary Magdalene's Synagogue been Discovered?

Today HAARETZ is reporting that another first-century synagogue has been discovered, this time in Magdala (perhaps the home of Mary Magdalene). Ofira Koopmans writes:
When archeologists and volunteers started digging, they were astonished to find a treasure: A 1st-century synagogue, one of only seven in Israel - and in the entire world. 
"This is the first synagogue ever excavated where Jesus walked and preached," says the father, calling it "hugely important" for both Jews and Christians. 
Experts say it's highly likely that Jesus would have preached in the recently uncovered synagogue, believed to have first been built in the year 1 as a simple structure which was then upgraded into a more ornate one in the year 40.
I always feel skeptical when an article refers to "experts" who are equal parts confident and anonymous. I'm also skeptical when a news source reveals some new discovery around Christmas or Easter. That said, Jesus may well have visited this synagogue. Perhaps Mary was in some way connected to the group that met in this place.

What is even more interesting - and enjoys the stronger claim - is that this site may also boast the oldest etching of a menorah. Koopmans writes, "A sculpted limestone block found in the center was probably used for writing or reading the Torah. Its relief depicts the oldest menorah ever found on stone."


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

The icon of Jesus may not look like the man Jesus two thousand years ago, but it represents some quality of Jesus, or his mother, or his followers, and so becomes an open window through which we can be given a new glimpse of the love of God.

                     ~Madeleine L'Engle

Friday, December 19, 2014

Stephen Colbert and Elijah Typology

I watched the last episode of the Colbert Report last night. The schtick, it seems, is over. We will continue to see Colbert and his amazing talent on late night, but the persona that satirized American exceptionalism and egotism is no more.

Because I've seen nobody else mention it, I thought I would point out the clear use of Elijah typology in the episode. Colbert, instead of killing his persona, cheats death in the last of a reoccurring bit that features "Grimmy", that hooded, chess-playing Grim Reaper. This sets the stage for Colbert to emerge as an immortal. Rather than saying goodbye, Colbert and a about 100 celebrity guests sing "We'll Meet Again." Colbert hints at a return some day, joking that J.J. Abrams will reboot the Report in the future. He then, as a type of Elijah, is swept away heavenward in a chariot. This chariot (as we would expect) is driven by the patron saints of materialism (Santa) and the Republican party (Lincoln).

So to cap his persona's massive American ego, Colbert depicts himself as a divine figure. I imagine that most folks will miss the typology because the "chariot" is literally Santa's sleigh. But anyone familiar with the legends surrounding Elijah will see that (1) cheating death, (2) ascending to heaven in a sleigh, and (3) promising to return are suggestive of this typology. One might press further and suggest that Colbert models the same Elijah typology we see of Jesus in the New Testament. In any case, Colbert signs off "from eternity" as he skims along the top of the clouds.

I especially enjoyed the twist of including Canadian personality Alex Trebek in the sleigh. I won't ruin the final lesson learned by Colbert for those who haven't yet watched the episode. I will say, however, that Trebek's crucial message deconstructs Colbert's mythological ego with sublime irony.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Durham Ranked Highest among all Theology and Religious Departments in UK

I am very proud of my alma mater, Durham University. Durham's department of theology and religion ranked highest again among all UK universities. Congrats Dunelm!


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Crossley on the Criteria and Vermes—Chris Keith

On Dec. 3, three of my PhD students and I made the journey into the city to hear Prof James Crossley, coblogger here on the Jesus Blog, present at King's College, London.  The lecture was titled, "Does Jesus Plus Paul Equal Marx Plus Lenin?"  Prof Crossley basically argued against an affirmative answer to that question but the paper was wide-ranging, as it was designed as something of a sampler of his new book, Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus.  The presentation included much that we have come to expect from Crossley:  close attention to larger scholarly trends and their socio-political significance; the power structures at work in those trends; and some witty statements on the messiness of history ("Human beings just don't work that way") and modern politics ("The Tea Party and ISIS might not light everybody's candle. . . .").  There was also a (to me) surprise statement on his behalf that he's "coming around" to agreeing with positions of an early high Christology. 

His lecture emphasized two other things for me as well.  First, the work of really appreciating and articulating the influence of Vermes's 1973 Jesus the Jew is perhaps still only starting.  Obviously, most people in historical Jesus studies know that Vermes's study was important, even a watershed.  But I have heard several lectures here lately where scholars are emphasizing just how revolutionary it was.  This position is not just because of Vermes's emphasis on seeing Jesus against a Jewish background, which deservedly gets attention, but also for his noted dislike of structured "methodology."  Post-criteria Jesus research, which is specifically what Crossley is terming his work, is coming to recognize all the more what Vermes was already onto, which is that there really is a lot less strict methodology in proper historical work than historical-positivist historiography would lead one to believe . . . and that this isn't a bad thing because history itself is messy and does not submit nicely to our desires for tidy explanations.  This is, of course, not to suggest that there are no rules for the road, only to observe that approaching the past is not the same as following a set of instructions.  [In light of some discussion on Facebook, let me emphasize that this is not a wholesale endorsement of Vermes.]

Second, and strongly related, the post-criteria era of Jesus work is off and running.  I know there are those who will disagree with this position and, of course, I have something of a dog in this fight.  But Crossley, like myself and many others (Stan Porter gave a paper along these lines at SBL this year in a session in which I also presented), is done with trying to make the criteria of authenticity work.  I note this, however, because I want to pass along my favorite quotation from Crossley's lecture:  "The failure of the criteria is a blessing."  I love this quotation because it places what is (to me) exactly the right accent mark on this trend.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

The religion of the eighteenth century undertook a great work of reform. It waged war against superstition and ignorance. It obtained recognition for humanity in the eyes of the law. Torture was abolished, first in Prussia in the year 1740 through a cabinet order of Frederick the Great. It was demanded of the individual that he should place himself at the service of the community. English emigrants formulated in America for the first time the rights of man. The idea of humanity began to gain in significance. People dared to grasp the thought that lasting peace must reign on Earth. Kant wrote a book on Everlasting Peace (1795), and in it represented the thought that even politics must submit to the principles of ethics. Finally, an achievement which the spirit of the eighteenth century brought about  in the nineteenth century, came the abolition of slavery. The religious-ethical spirit of the eighteenth century desired then to make the Kingdom of God a reality on earth.

                                   ~Albert Schweitzer

Friday, December 12, 2014

Cornel West Public Lecture

Dr. Cornel West will be speaking in Dayton at 7:00 p.m., tonight (Dec 12). The event will be hosted by United Theological Seminary and held at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. Dr. West has a longstanding relationship with United and we are pleased to invite him back to our community.

If you find yourself in Dayton tonight, we'd love to have you for this event.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Helen Bond on Sexism and NT Scholarship

The Jesus Blog is proud to host Dr. Helen K. Bond as a guest blogger today.  This post is
Part Two to Chris Keith's post yesterday.

As a 22-year old PhD student, I was ill equipped to deal with the sexism within our profession. I had been brought up in a household where men cooked, where girls played with Meccano, and women’s academic success was not only accepted but expected. Looking back, I suppose the warning signs were already there in my undergraduate degree. Only one of my lecturers was female, and she was safely pigeon-holed as a ‘feminist theologian.’ But the undergraduate cohort was half women, we did just as well as men in our exams, and I was blissfully ignorant of the trials to come.

Almost as soon as I took the step into postgrad work I knew something was wrong. I was the only female in a relatively large group of doctoral students (25 or so) and my fellow students treated me very differently. I noticed that they discussed their research with one another but to me they’d comment on my hair or my clothes. I had neither the background experience nor the vocabulary to articulate the sense of marginalization and resentment that I felt. Part of the problem was that I was ‘other’ in so many ways - the only person in her 20s, the only single student, the only person from the UK - so it was hard to pinpoint gender as the root cause of my isolation. At times I wondered if my male colleagues were right to trivialise me and my research: perhaps it was patently obvious to everyone but me that I wasn’t up to the task? It was only much later, at a theological college which took sexism seriously, that I learned to put a name to what I’d experienced – and started to formulate strategies to deal with it.

One of the difficulties is that sexism in the academy often manifests itself in small matters: the male colleague who calls me ‘my dear’; the elderly male professor who introduced me at a prestigious gathering as ‘Helen Blonde’ - realising his mistake, he added, ‘Well, she is a blonde’ (many of the delegates laughed); the visiting academics who ask my male colleagues about their research but talk to me about my children (or, worse, their own). A colleague of mine recently was the only female speaker at a conference; instead of introducing her with a flourish (as he had with all the male speakers), the organiser asked her to introduce herself! All of these are minor misdemeanours in the grand scheme of things. Often the slight is so subtle that others hardly notice. To complain might make me feel better in the short term, but it would get me a reputation for being ‘prickly,’ ‘over-sensitive,’ or ‘hard to work with.’ And we all know that that can be just as devastating to an academic career as poor scholarship.

Over the years, I’ve sometimes found unexpected allies. Older male colleagues with adult daughters develop great insights into what it’s like for women in the profession. Blindly oblivious in the past to the needs of their wives (who mostly gave up their own career aspirations to look after the home) their daughters often have first class degrees and PhDs, and are at the stage of trying to juggle their first steps in an academic career with family responsibilities. Suddenly these male colleagues observe things through their daughters’ eyes, and are shocked by what they see.

I’m also aware that we women don’t always help ourselves. It’s quite amazing how many women refer to their own research as ‘niche,’ or ‘non-mainstream’ – perhaps in an attempt to belittle ourselves before others get the chance. Women are much less likely to brag about our achievements, or to refer to our books as ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘seminal.’ Well meaning souls (usually male) have sometimes taken me to one side and suggested I cut my hair, lose the heels, and ditch the ‘bling.’ I could do all of this, of course, but somehow I wouldn’t feel like myself any more. And there has to be something rather ironic in a discipline which praises originality and independence of scholarship and yet expects those who engage in it all to look the same!

One of the things I like least about conferences (and particularly the SBL) is that question: ‘What are you working on?’ In the past, I tended to approach it much too literally, noting that as it was November I was really quite busy with teaching just now. Over the years, though, I’ve honed my strategy. I noticed that no one really answers this question literally at all – the most successful answers (by which I mean the ones that sound impressive to other people) start by outlining what research the person has had published in the last couple of years before ending up with a brief outline of current plans. Now I never go to conferences without my ‘what are you working on’ speech firmly in my head. (Of course, I only need to give it to men, women don’t usually ask).

My experiences in the academy are far from unique. They are all too common, particularly amongst women who don’t have a strong female support group around them. As I’ve become more senior, overtly sexist behaviour has become much less common, though it can still appear on the fringes of any gathering. I’m lucky now to have several female colleagues. Edinburgh’s School of Divinity has four full time permanent female members of staff in biblical studies, and Scotland’s ancient universities have seven women in New Testament (we’re meeting up soon to celebrate the fact).  But there’s still a long way to go. Female PhD students still report the same feelings of marginalization and isolation that I felt, and the number of women continuing into postgraduate work is pitifully low. (I’m convening a group to look at this, so if anyone has any suggestions as to how to recruit and retain female PhDs I’d be happy to hear from you).

What else can we do? I’m not in favour of positive discrimination (the last thing anyone needs is to be told by resentful competitors that she got a job because she’s a woman), but there are other strategies. We need to make sure that female scholars are represented in course bibliographies, and that their views are taken seriously in course curricula. Historical Jesus studies are particularly bad in this regard. Most are still in thrall to the cult of the male scholar, and many courses are even designed around the ‘great male scholar,’ treating the views of a handful of men as representative of Historical Jesus studies as a whole. (My own Historical Jesus course, for what it’s worth, is topic based, and we’re as likely to look at essays by Amy Jill Levine, Paula Fredriksen and Kathleen Corley as we are Crossan, Sanders and Wright).

As a female biblical scholar, I’ve often been landed with the ‘Women in the Bible’ class. This is something I’ve enjoyed teaching, but my longer-term hope is that one day it won’t be needed. Things are changing, and Paul’s views on gender are nowadays likely to be found in a mainstream Paul course, but there’s still a way to go before we can scrap the ‘Woman’ class completely. At a more senior level, people planning research papers and conferences might ask themselves whether any women might have something to contribute. (I still go to conferences or SBL panels at which every speaker is male). It’s all too easy to invite our friends to participate, and not to ask what an all-male cast list says – either to outsiders, or to people of the opposite gender within the discipline. And women too need to set aside time for networking (even if it’s not our natural habitat) and mentoring more junior colleagues. When you start to think about it, there are plenty of ways that we can make the discipline a more welcoming place for women. And that can surely only be to everyone’s advantage.



Tuesday, December 9, 2014

#HeForShe, Sexism, and NT Scholarship—Chris Keith

Some while ago, I was one of many people who watched with admiration as Emma Watson introduced the #HeForShe campaign at the United Nations.  If you haven't seen the video, here it is.  After watching it, I couldn’t help but think about how some of these gender issues continue to play out in the small corner of the world that I inhabit.  My initial thought was that higher education generally and Biblical Studies specifically could pat themselves on their backs because they have come a very, very long way.  The back-patting didn’t last too long, however.  I couldn’t get out of my head three different experiences I’ve had.  All three involve my Doktormutter, Helen Bond at the University of Edinburgh, a brilliant scholar, fantastic PhD supervisor, and even better human being.  I’m honored that I get to continue to work with Helen as co-Chairs of the Jesus and Gospels Seminar of the British New Testament Conference.  I asked her permission to tell brief versions of these stories and she granted it.  I also asked if she’d write a Part Two to this post, where she could speak to her own experiences.  She granted that request, too, so consider this an appetizer to the main course that she’ll offer tomorrow.

The first experience occurred when I was a PhD student.  I was randomly having lunch with a senior scholar in the field who had been invited to lecture at Edinburgh.  In the course of the conversation, he stated explicitly that Helen had used her sexuality to advance her career.  I’m 100% that this person meant it as a compliment, that Helen had been shrewd and used everything she could to her advantage.  But it essentially came across as a statement that Helen wouldn’t have been where she was if she was ugly.  I was shocked not only at the statement but at the fact that he said it to her PhD student.

The second experience occurred at the tail end of my PhD studies in a research seminar that I can only describe as tragically majestic in every way possible.  I’ve written about it before here.  I mentioned in that post that Helen was presiding over this paper and that, at one point when trying to make the case for a sexualized reading of the woman at the well, Jesus, and the bucket of John 4, the presenter used hand motions to explain a bucket going in and out and looked at Helen like, “Right?”  Well, one thing I didn’t mention in that post was that—for some reason I honestly can’t now remember and I’m not sure it would matter if I could—in the midst of his case for his reading of John 4 and the sexual nature of the woman’s statement that Jesus had no bucket, the presenter said:   “Well, and we all know what women are like at cocktail parties, don’t we?”  When he asked “Don’t we?” he turned and looked right at Helen for affirmation, as if she was going to say, “Oh yes, that’s how I always am at cocktail parties, as is every woman I know.”

The third experience occurred several years ago in a meeting.  I was meeting with Helen and two other senior NT scholars.  One of the other two was addressing Helen in a manner that seemed overly-informal; it sure looked like flirting.  At one point in time, he leaned close to her and I instinctively thought he was going in for a kiss.  He wasn’t, but that’s how close he was.  Later on when I had a chance, I asked Helen what that was all about.  She told me that this person has always acted like that toward her, including calling her “my dear” and whatnot.  I couldn’t believe it . . .

. . . and I suppose that’s the problem that arose freshly for me after hearing Emma Watson’s speech and thinking about my professional world.  I had conveniently filed these away as isolated odd experiences.  But these types of things are quite clearly common for Helen.  I mention it, and write this post, however, because the real issue that I saw freshly was my response in each situation, which was simply and embarrassingly silence, a silence that permitted such things to continue unaddressed. 

I wrote to Helen and apologized for being part of the problem while thinking that I was not.  As mentioned before, I also asked if she’d be willing to address these issues here on the Jesus Blog.  Thankfully, she said yes, and that post is coming soon.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

I don't preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn't say, "Now is that political or social?" He said, "I feed you." Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.

                             ~Desmond Tutu

Friday, December 5, 2014

Cornel West to be Hosted by United Theological Seminary on Dec 12

Dr. Cornel West will be speaking in Dayton at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, December 12. The event will be hosted by United Theological Seminary and held at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. Dr. West has a longstanding relationship with United and we are pleased to invite him back to our community. 

For my part, I am looking forward to meeting Dr. West for the first time. I've been re-reading his dialogue book with Michael Lerner this month and benefiting from it all the more the second time through. While written in 1996, this book continues to speak aptly about contemporary America. I recommend it to anyone interested in race-relations or Jewish-Christian relations. While the dialogue is heated at times, it continues to be a model for an honest, authentic, and respectful posture toward the perceived other.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

You Win!

And by "you" I mean the person that goes by the name "83dub."

83dub, please comment below with your email address (this will not be published) and I will arrange to have Oneworld Publications send you a copy of my book: The Wife of Jesus.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The War on Xmas – A Preemptive Strike!

‘Tis the season for misgiving. I don’t watch much cable-networked news anymore, but I know (just like you know) that there will be hours devoted to the “war on Christmas” this month. The gist of this argument is that (1) the liberal left is conspiring to turn “Christ” into a dirty word, (2) most people celebrate Christmas, so who are we really offending anyway? and (3) we Christians ought to express our religious liberty by proclaiming our joy as an act of protest.

As a Christian who celebrates Christmas, who does indeed say “Merry Christmas,” and who partakes in the Who hash and the rare Who roast beast with great pleasure, allow me to share a few thoughts on Christmas.

First, most Christians I know aren’t thrilled with what we’ve made of Christmas. So this is a problem for both “insiders” and “outsiders.” In the words of one of the great prophets of our time: “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel. I just don't understand Christmas, I guess.” Many of us echo Mr. Brown. Christmas is problematic, but it is also an opportunity to gain some perspective. Being generous in spirit might serve us better than guarding our territory.

Second, we Christians are responsible for turning “Christ” into a dirty word. The term “Christ-killer” has been used for centuries as a slur by Christians. The use of this term has coincided with a justification for anti-Semitism and religiously motivated violence. While the term is no longer widely used, the sentiment is alive and well. Just last week a friend told me that his daughter came home from a children’s Bible study and asked her sister, “Do you like the Jews?” She then followed up by explaining “…they killed Jesus.” As long as this sort of hate speech is active within our churches, we ought to be careful of how and when we use the word Christ. We will need to transform ourselves and our behavior in order to rehabilitate the legacy of our namesake.

Third, it is true that many more people celebrate Christmas than otherwise (at least in the four countries where I’ve lived). But we Christians ought to care even if we’re injuring the minority. Jesus commanded care for the “least of these” not the “most of these.” Moreover, one of the reasons that Christians are a disproportional majority is that we've killed millions of Africans, Native Americans, Asians, Arabs, etc. And those are only the “A” groups. We who benefit from such atrocities may have forgotten our historical failures, but the groups who continue to worry about their extinction remember.

Fourth, most of my friends who do not celebrate Christmas are not much offended by the phrase “Merry Christmas.” What is problematic is when Christians celebrate Christmas without any gesture of respect for their neighbors. When said from a posture of “peace on earth and goodwill toward all humanity,” most non-Christians that I know are quite happy to be happy for us as we celebrate. Like almost anything, much more is deemed acceptable within the context of friendship. What is especially vexing to “outsiders” is when Christians deck the halls of every public space available for decking and then complain that they’re being targeted for religious persecution.

Fifth, it just will not do to shrug off public offenses as if certain minorities are just being over-sensitive. Christmas is complicated. We don’t want it to be complicated, but it is. (A) Many Christians look around and see consumerism, decorated trees, Santa Clauses, snowmen, Jingle Bells, and Happy Holiday signs. We see these everywhere and think, none of these symbols relate to my faith; i. e. these symbols are not part of the Christian narrative. We see these not-Jesusy symbols as a nod to the secular. Whereas most non-Christians see these as symbols of Christianity. Perception creates the reality. (B) This divergence in perceptions only becomes clear once we become sensitive to the “other.” We must stop and take interest in why others see the world differently than us. Not only will we understand and appreciate our neighbors better, we will understand ourselves better in the process.

Finally, the phrase “Happy Holidays” is no solution. This phrase isn’t sensitive to the eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses who do not observe holidays as a rule. (I’ll admit that I admire their devotion to this rule and often wish that I could do likewise.) Simply adopting a vague gesture does little to help and probably exacerbates the existing problems. The best solution will not be found in a more tolerant slogan. The best—and perhaps only solution—is to get to know and care for our neighbors no matter what we say. Most Christians who perceive a "war on Christmas" have misunderstood their neighbors and therefore are incapable of relating to them. We must ask, have we adopted a posture of fascination or frustration with our neighbors?

As the Grinch found out, Christmas is coming and we can’t stop it. We might as well try to do it better. Perhaps we ought to begin with the suggestion of James 1:27: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." Or if you'd prefer non-patriarchal language, here is the RUN DMC translation: "Fight poverty, give to the needy; Don't be like the Grinch cause the Grinch is greedy." I would suggest that we extend this proverb to our religious territory; defending it will defile it more often than not.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Greg Carey reviews Keith's Latest Book

The always thoughtful Greg Carey reviews Jesus against the Scribal Elite for the Christian Century. Here is just a taste:
This book includes several examples of remarkably insightful biblical interpretation, particularly when [Chris] Keith examines the distinctive ways in which each Gospel treats Jesus’ relationship to literacy. One outstandingly presented case involves Mark’s “layered portrayal” of Jesus as a synagogue teacher in diverse contexts. Mark contrasts Jesus’ teaching with those of the “scribal-elite teachers,” combining Jesus’ teaching with his powerful deeds: “Where an audience is willing to allow Jesus’ exorcisms and healings to influence their view of his identity, he is accepted as a synagogue teacher,” but where the audience does not link Jesus’ deeds to his teachings, they reject him. Indeed, after the account of Jesus’ difficult visit to the Nazareth synagogue, Mark never again describes Jesus teaching in a synagogue. Thus “Mark portrays Jesus as a compelling teacher whose contemporaries did not expect him to be a synagogue teacher because he was a member of the manual-labor class.” Keith then goes on to show how Matthew and Luke subtly and not so subtly revised Mark’s version of the story to enhance Jesus’ teaching authority (Matthew) and his literacy (Luke).
I have now read three of Greg Carey's reviews and have decided that he is the world's finest book reviewer. He is level-headed, generous by default, but honest throughout. Most importantly, he engages the heart of the thesis and assesses the book accordingly. I wish that he would review every book.