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Tom Chaney: Reading Jesus

Of Writers And Their Books: Reading Jesus. Tom says Jesus Interrupted is an attempt to provide a clear and compelling account of the challenges faced when we begin to reconstruct the "life and message of Jesus." This column first appeared 12 April 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Time Out from Axes and Blood for Hobbits and Pipe-Weed

By Tom Chaney

Reading Jesus

Last Sunday we began the annual ceremonies of holy week -- the events at the very center of the Christian year and at the heart of its message.

The gospels tell of the progress of Jesus into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday up through the final meal with his followers on Thursday evening followed by the dark night of denial and betrayal in Gethsemane. The week culminates on Friday with his trial, crucifixion, and burial.

In those long-ago days I spent in seminary, we looked at the message of the four gospels through the lens of Dr. A. T. Robertson's Harmony of the Gospels. It consisted, as I recall, of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in four parallel columns on the page -- merging the telling of the events into a somewhat consistent whole.

This is, perhaps, a useful approach for the novice reader.

We were also led into a study of the sources for each of the gospel tales, learning that none was written by the apostle whose name it bears and that the earliest was set down decades after the events. Centuries would pass before those four and no more were accepted by the church as worthy of inclusion in the biblical canon to the exclusion of several other gospels attributed to other writers from the first century church.

Enter biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman with his latest book Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know About Them), published this year by HarperOne.

Ehrman makes the point that "Scholars have made significant progress in understanding the Bible over the past two hundred years and the results of their study are regularly taught, both to graduate students in universities and to prospective pastors attending seminaries . . . . Yet such views of the Bible are virtually unknown among the population at large. As a result, not only are most Americans (increasingly) ignorant of the contents of the Bible, but they are almost completely in the dark about what scholars have been saying about the Bible for the past two centuries."

Jesus Interrupted is an attempt to provide a clear and compelling account of the challenges faced when we begin to reconstruct the "life and message of Jesus."

Ehrman is one of the foremost secular biblical scholars writing today. This book along with his earlier volume Misquoting Jesus helps the reader come to terms in a fresh manner with just what the writers of the New Testament were getting at, and how those messages have been treated over the centuries.

Early on the author suggests several ways in which the texts have been read. First he speaks of the devotional approach in which a passage is read for its narrow moral or spiritual value. Then there is the harmonic approach in which the attempt is made to meld the various accounts into a coherent whole with a unified purpose.

For one who is kept awake at night most often by a good mystery, I found this book makes for equally compelling reading. I had trouble putting it down.

Ehrman takes the approach that each gospel author has something to say and attempts to speak in his own voice -- a voice which may not agree with those voices of the other writers. He begins with a comparison of the accounts of the death of Jesus in Mark and Luke.

Scholars have agreed that Mark is the earliest to be written -- about 65-70 CE. The authors of Matthew and Luke some fifteen or twenty years later used Mark as "one of their sources for much of their own accounts." Often the later writers used Mark word for word. Sometimes not. "It is probably safe to assume that if Luke modified what Mark had to say, it was because Luke wanted to say it differently."

Ehrman suggests that this "say it differently" approach accounts for the differences in emphasis in the two accounts of the death of Jesus.

Mark, he notes, stresses the silence of Jesus the entire time in contrast to the mocking of the robbers who are crucified with him; the taunts of those passing by; the scorn of Jewish leaders.

Jesus is silent until the very end when he says in agony "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He is given a sponge of sour wine to drink and breathes his last.

Upon his death two things happen: The temple veil is ripped in half and the centurion looking on says, "Truly this man was the Son of God."

Ehrman notes that this approach to the account is directed at the suffering being undergone by the early followers and "provides a model for understanding the persecution of the Christians."

Luke's approach is different.

Jesus is not silent along the way, according to Luke. He prophesies the coming destruction the witnesses will face. He is more concerned with others rather than with what is happening to him.

He is not silent on the cross either, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing," he prays. Jesus forgives one of the robbers crucified with him -- promising him an immediate place in paradise -- a far cry from Mark's desolation.

The two messages are not the same. "The two authors may be recounting the same events, but they are conveying very different messages -- both about how Jesus died and about how his followers can face persecution."

Ehrman's point is that when these two accounts are melded into one with Jesus doing and saying everything in both gospels, the significance of the different messages of both Mark and Luke are lost and glossed over. A third meaning has emerged which is faithful to neither.

I suggest Bart Ehrman's work to those who are serious about their study of the gospels. I find him a most compelling scholar of the New Testament. I have merely suggested here some of his most richly developed approach to the stories most relevant to this season of the year.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-04-20 04:52:52
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