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Jesus Interrupted 3: A Mass of Variant Views

05/10/2011

Ehrman points out that not only are there differences in factual statements in the different parts of the Bible, there are also differences in themes that are often contradictory. Paul and Acts for example, show different views of what Paul believed about those who worshiped Pagan gods. Acts says that they worship out of ignorance and will be forgiven, but Paul in his letters say they do not worship out of ignorance. Assuming Paul was not a liar, these are contradictions. Same for Paul’s beliefs about justification, compared to Matthew’s beliefs. Is it works and faith, or faith alone? Once again, Ehrman say s that we lose an important part of what the original authors were like if we force harmonization. We must accept that the authors were different people with different beliefs.

Kindle Notes:

The historical-critical approach to the Bible does not assume that each author has the same message. It allows for the possibility that each author has his own perspective, his own views, his own understandings of what the Christian faith is and should be (1051).

rather than looking for minute disagreements here or there, we are looking for broader themes, major differences in the way a story is told. One story told very differently in the Gospels is the key story in them all: the crucifixion of Jesus. You might think that all the Gospels have exactly the same message about the crucifixion, and that their differences might simply reflect minor changes of perspective, with one author emphasizing one thing and another something else. But in fact the differences are much larger and more fundamental than that. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the accounts of Jesus’ death in Mark and Luke (1074).

Like Jesus, his followers may not know why they are experiencing such pain and misery. But Mark tells these Christians they can rest assured: even though they may not see why they are suffering, God knows, and God is working behind the scenes to make suffering redemptive. God’s purposes are worked precisely through suffering, not by avoiding it, even when those purposes are not obvious at the moment. Mark’s version of the death of Jesus thus provides a model for understanding the persecution of the Christians (1111).

Some critical interpreters have suggested that Luke may also be writing for Christians experiencing persecution, but his message to those suffering for the faith is different from Mark’s. Rather than stressing that God is at work behind the scenes, even though it doesn’t seem like it, Luke may be showing Christians a model of how they, too, can suffer—like Jesus, the perfect martyr, who goes to his death confident of his own innocence, assured of God’s palpable presence in his life, calm and in control of the situation, knowing that suffering is necessary for the rewards of Paradise and that it will soon be over, leading to a blessed existence in the life to come (1148).

The idea that Jesus preexisted his birth and that he was a divine being who became human is found only in the Gospel of John; the idea that he was born of a virgin is found only in Matthew and Luke. It is only by conflating the two views that one could come up with the view that became the traditional, orthodox doctrine. For the writers of the Gospels, the idea of a virgin birth and the idea of an incarnation were very different indeed (1221).

Jesus’ teaching in Mark is apocalyptic: “The time has been fulfilled” implies that this current evil age, seen on a time line, is almost over. The end is almost within sight. “The Kingdom of God is near” means that God will soon intervene in this age and overthrow its wicked powers and the kingdoms they support, such as Rome, and establish his own kingdom, a kingdom of truth, peace, and justice (1284).

For Mark’s Jesus, this kingdom is soon to come. As he tells his disciples at one point, “Truly I tell you, some of those standing here will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God having come in power” (Mark 9:1); later he tells them, after describing the cosmic upheavals that would transpire at the end of the age, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place” (Mark 13:30) (1289).

It is important to know that for ancient Jews the term “son of God” could mean a wide range of things. In the Hebrew Bible the “son of God” could refer to the nation of Israel (Hosea 11:1), or to the king of Israel (1 Samuel 7:14). In these cases the son of God was someone specially chosen by God to perform his work and mediate his will on earth. And for Mark, Jesus was certainly all that—he was the one who performed the ultimate will of God, going to his death on the cross. It is striking, though, in the Gospel of Mark, that Jesus never refers to himself as a divine being, as someone who preexisted, as someone who was in any sense equal with God. In Mark, he is not God and he does not claim to be (1309).

For many historical critics it makes sense that John, the Gospel that was written last, no longer speaks about the imminent appearance on earth of the Son of Man to sit in judgment on the earth, to usher in the utopian kingdom. In Mark, Jesus predicts that the end will come right away, during his own generation, while his disciples are still alive (Mark 9:1; 13:30). By the time John was written, probably from 90 to 95 CE, that earlier generation had died out and most if not all the disciples were already dead (1336).

In Matthew, Jesus will perform no sign to prove himself. That is why his miracles are called miracles, not signs in this Gospel. They are demonstrations of power meant to help those in need and to show that the kingdom of God is soon to appear. What about John? In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ spectacular deeds are called signs, not miracles. And they are performed precisely to prove who Jesus is, to convince people to believe in him (1387).

Do followers of Jesus need to keep the Jewish law if they are to be saved? It depends on which author you ask. Does a right standing before God depend completely on faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection? At least one key story in Matthew’s Gospel differs from Paul on this point.

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