How theology mocks biblical history

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by Neil Godfrey

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It is slightly amusing, also disheartening, to see the way theologically biased biblical scholars make a complete mockery of their attempts to explain Christianity historically.

James G. Dunn did not like implications that could conceivably be drawn from the recent discussions of Bauckham and Hurtado over attempts to explain historically how Jesus came to be given a divine-like status and to be catapulted so early after his death to a position alongside God “at the center of their devotional life, including their worship practices”. Hurtado’s most recent book summarising many of the arguments and attempting an historical answer is provocatively titled: How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?

But throughout his valiant response to ensure that pure Christian doctrine is not compromised in anyone’s minds — and hence his Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? — Dunn apparently remains oblivious to the historical implausibilities and contradictions he is creating for himself, and his orthodox model of Christian origins.

His worry is not primarily historical, but theological. He writes:

[T]here are some problems, even dangers, in Christian worship if it is defined too simply as worship of Jesus. . . . Christian worship can deteriorate into what may be called Jesus-olatry. That is, not simply into worship of Jesus, but into a worship that falls short of the worship due to the one God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I use the term ‘Jesus-olatry’ as in an important sense parallel or even close to ‘idolatry’. . . .

So the danger with a worship of Jesus is that the worship due to God is stopping at Jesus, and the revelation of God through Jesus and the worship of God through Jesus is being stifled and short-circuited. (p.147)

(my emphasis etc)

Here Dunn has cast off his historian’s hat and is batting exclusively for “the pure faith”. He warns of dangers, deterioration, “our” Lord Jesus Christ, and the violation of the second of the ten commandments. Oh dear. No room for history students here. Of course I have no problem with Dunn taking this stance. But if he also claims to be “doing history” he is discrediting his efforts and declaring that on this particular topic he is totally in the service of The Faith.

Dunn then finds relevance to his argument in the late antiquity and early medieval debate within Christianity over the meaning and place of icons. The New Testament says Jesus is an icon (eikon=image), not an idol.

For, as the lengthy debate in Eastern Christianity made clear, the distinction between an idol and an icon is crucial at this point. An idol is a depiction on which the eye fixes, a solid wall at which the worship stops. An icon on the other hand is a window through which the eye passes, through which the beyond can be seen, through which divine reality can be witnessed.

Paul also says a man, any man who does not cover his head while praying, is an icon of God!

For a man indeed ought not to cover [his] head, since he is the image (eikwn) and glory of God (1 Corinthians 11:7)

Christians in particular are also said to be the very images of God himself:

and have put on the new [man] who is renewed in knowledge according to the image (eikona) of Him who created him (Colossians 3:10)

But I should leave that little question for the theologians to resolve.

Back to the historical difficulty that Dunn’s theology creates for the historian. . . .

Jesus, Dunn explains, is an icon and an icon is “a window” through which we can “see God” (I bet Dunn wishes New Testament authors actually used the Greek word for window). Now see what Dunn says about this window life of Jesus:

But Christianity has gone a step further in declaring that God has bridged the gulf [between the divine and the human, Creator and creation] not merely in scripture and temple, not only through priest and prophet, but in a particular individual through whom God revealed himself and who constitutes the bridge over the gulf in himself. That claim remains a claim too far for Jews and Muslims. But the claim that Christians make is that the character of God has never been revealed so fully and profoundly as in Jesus — in his mission, in his cruel death on the cross, and in his resurrection and exaltation. It is because Jesus died as he did that Christians find it necessary to speak of the God who suffers, even of ‘the crucified God’. And so Christians feel able to speak also of a God who knows from within the weaknesses and temptations of the human condition and who can sustain both individuals and peoples in their various bewilderments and questionings, their tribulations and agonies. . . . (p.150)

What Dunn is saying is that the very reason Jesus was exalted to a worshipful status alongside God is because his life and death revealed the very nature of God.

But we are also told that the very reason Paul takes so little interest in the human Jesus is because of his devotion to the heavenly Jesus (okay, that’s circular, sorry). Yet if the only reason for his devotion to the spiritual Jesus was because the life of Jesus revealed God himself, then it surely beggars belief to think that Paul and every other NT epistle writer passed over any of the details of the very life that revealed something so unprecedented, a very life that enabled mortals to see and understand God!

Now if a man’s life and death had truly been so astonishing, I would expect far more worshipful and wondrous deeds to be told about his time here that would pale any of the tales of any other mortal hero, ever.

Such a life must have been so astonishing, so astounding, that there would have been myriads of tales and anecdotes buzzing and zooming (not quietly or listlessly “floating”) around long afterwards.

Did Paul and the other epistle writers not need to address any of the deeds of this Jesus because “they had told all there was to be told” to their audiences already, and nothing more came to mind later when writing those epistles? Or the deeds were so “human” and “ordinary” that the authors would have found it a bit tiresome to repeat what people already had been told? And these were the deeds that were supposedly reflecting something never before revealed on earth!

And no-one thought to write any of these down for at least 40 years after his death? And even then they could only find a handful of stories to record. And even then they had to model these on Old Testament narratives anyway, and not describe a life that was so awe-inspiring as it happened without resort to such literary clothing? So this astonishing life was hidden in the text behind the old stories of inferior mortals and acts like those of Elijah and Elisha?

Dunn returns to the question at the end of his book and one can’t help but smile to read his struggles to try to avoid saying Jesus really was worshipped as a divinity (that is not quite correct theology, after all), but at the same time admitting that the evidence tells us that he was.

He knows the question really is important for historians and not only theologians. So, driven by his theology, he must use theology in an attempt to deflect the question from the historian’s too-serious attention.

His first tactic is to try to dismiss the question as not very meaningful. Jesus shows us that God identifies with our human weakness, etc. So given this amazing theology, the question is comparatively unimportant. (Nice effort to deflect attention from it!) He then attempts to say yes and no at the same time, and I draw attention to this with my emphasis:

In the light of such reflection and conclusion the particular question, ‘Did the first Christians worship Jesus?’, can be seen to be much less relevant, less important and potentially misleading. It can be answered simply, or simplistically, even dismissively, with a mainly negative answer. No, by and large the first Christians did not worship Jesus as such. Worship language and practice at times do appear in the New Testament in reference to Christ. But on the whole, there is more reserve on the subject. Christ is the subject of praise and hymn-singing, the content of early Christian worship, more than the one to whom the worship and praise is offered. More typical is the sense that the most (only?) effective worship, the most effective prayer is expressed in Christ and through Christ. That is also to say that we find a clear and variously articulated sense that Jesus enables worship — that Jesus is in a profound way the place and means of worship. Equally, it has become clear that for the first Christians Jesus was seen to be not only the one by whom believers come to God, but also the one by whom God has come to believers. The same sense of divine immanence in Spirit, Wisdom and Word was experienced also and more fully in and through Christ. He brought the divine presence into human experience more fully than had ever been the case before. (pp. 150-1)

And finally, apologetically . . .

The only one to be worshipped is the one God. But how can Christians fail to honour the one through whom the only God has come closest to the condition of humankind? Jesus cannot fail to feature in their worship, their hymns of praise, their petitions to God.

So here is Dunn’s answer to the historical enquiry that seeks to explain how Jesus could have been exalted to a status where he was worshipped alongside God himself, especially so rapidly after his supposed execution as a criminal. It was a mere incidental expression of gratitude!

David J. A. Clines (another Sheffield professor — it seems Sheffield yields both grist and chaff) writes in another context:

But the task of the historian is not to accept the word of our written sources except where they can be proved erroneous, but to weigh everything in the same scale of probabilities, and pass judgments against implausibilities even if a more coherent reconstruction of events cannot be proffered. (p. 164 of What Does Eve Do To Help? 1990)

I have argued that the historian needs to do something more than simply assess probabilities, but Cline’s point here is pertinent nonetheless. It is the most improbable scenario that one executed as a criminal should almost immediately afterwards exalted to a worshipful divine status. Something is seriously wrong with this Gospel-Acts-Eusebian model of Christian origins.

Some historians embrace it because it is their faith to believe it. But others have been censured as simply lazy:

Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation. — Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28.

And again from Clines (in relation to another biblical historical topic, with scholars like Myers, Herrmann, Miller and Hayes as his targets):

It is shocking to see how the narrative . . . has in fact been lazily adopted as a historiographical structure in the writing of modern scholars, and how rarely the question of the probability of the statements . . . has been raised. (p.164)

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “How theology mocks biblical history”

  1. ‘And no-one thought to write any of these down for at least 40 years after his death?’

    And the first person to do so did not immediately become famous throughout Chrisendom. How could that be? Paul’s letters were famous enough to be referred to by the author of 2 Peter, but not the Gospels,of course.

  2. DUNN
    ‘But how can Christians fail to honour the one through whom the only God has come closest to the condition of humankind?’

    So why did Paul not honour the mother of Jesus, and made only a fleeting reference to the brother of Jesus, who he seemed to regard as a so-called pillar?

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