Posts Tagged ‘Gail O’Day’

The “high Christology” of doubting Thomas

April 19, 2016

Carson_Gospel of JohnCritical Bible scholarship—the air that seminarians of mainline Protestantism breathe—is in love with “low Christology,” the idea that if the earthly Jesus was, in any sense, God, he was unaware of it—as were his apostles until a long time after Christ’s resurrection (however that event would be construed by these scholars).

Therefore, Thomas’s confession of Christ as God in John 20:28 (“My Lord and my God!”) couldn’t have been spoken by Thomas only a week after Easter. “John,” whoever he is, invented the story to reflect his community’s high Christology, which developed decades after Easter. After all, they say, there’s no hint of Jesus’ being God in Mark, the earliest gospel, written (so they say) around 70 A.D., because that belief hadn’t developed by then.

(I’m not agreeing with this assessment of Mark. I’m just saying that’s their position.)

Of course, since even critical scholars accept that Paul’s letters date from about A.D. 48 to A.D. 60, they have to explain away any high Christology found there. (Examples are plentiful, but I would start with the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:5-11.)

When I was in seminary, few of us knew that there was any serious alternative to critical scholars. (I certainly didn’t.) We knew nothing about evangelical scholars, even those who, like N.T. Wright, keep one foot in each realm. We never read them. Professors never mentioned them. Critical scholars that we studied never cited them.

So it’s been eye-opening for me, as I’ve worked through John’s gospel in my current sermon series, to read, for example, D.A. Carson’s The Gospel According to John, published by Eerdmans. Dr. Carson interacts with critical scholarship throughout his commentary—voicing both agreement and disagreement where necessary—from the classic skeptic Bultmann to one of my Candler professors, Gail O’Day, author of Abingdon’s New Interpreters commentary on John.

Carson tackles the alleged “plausibility problem” of Thomas’s confession on a number of fronts. For one thing, Thomas would have been familiar with Old Testament accounts of “believers who conversed with what appeared to be men, only to learn, with terror, that they were heavenly visitors, possibly Yahweh himself.”[1]

This is exactly right: I’m thinking of Abraham’s encounter with the three heavenly visitors in Genesis 18 (before they destroy Sodom and Gomorrah). One of those visitors, without explanation, is referred to as Yahweh beginning in v. 17. Abraham knows he’s talking directly to God.

Or what about the story of Jacob’s wrestling an angel in Genesis 32. Is he wrestling an angel, or is he wrestling God? The text is ambiguous: Jacob, at least, is convinced when it’s over that he’s wrestled God, and is relieved to have survived the encounter. In fact, the very name that he’s given during this encounter, Israel, means “strives with God.”

Carson’s point is that Thomas would have already had precedent within an orthodox Jewish framework to identify Jesus as literally God—just as Abraham and Jacob did in their encounters with the divine.

Critical scholars employ another tactic to explain Thomas’s confession away: they say that his wasn’t a confession at all; it was an exclamation, like OMG! As Carson writes:

Thomas’ utterance cannot possibly be taken as shocked profanity addressed to God (if to anyone), a kind of blasphemous version of a stunned ‘My word!’ Despite its popularity with some modern Arians, such profanity would not have been found in first-century Palestine on the lips of a devout Jew. In any case, Thomas’ confession is addressed to him, i.e. to Jesus; and Jesus immediately (if implicitly) praises him for his faith, even if it is not as notable as the faith of those who believe without demanding the kind of evidence accorded Thomas.[2]

“Modern Arians.” That’s harsh, but why not call a spade a spade?

1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 658.

2. Ibid.

Bad ideas we accept uncritically in mainline Protestant seminary

March 3, 2016

Carson_Gospel of JohnOr at least I did, until too recently… I’m referring today to the idea that when Jesus questions the Samaritan woman at the well about her husband in John 4—and exposes the fact that she’s been married five times and is currently living with a man outside of marriage—he isn’t speaking literally; and the woman herself understands this. Or if he is speaking literally at one level, he isn’t judging the woman for her sexual sin; rather, he’s using her sexual history to make a point about Samaritan idolatry: her five husbands represent the five deities worshiped by the nations that settled Samaria after the Assyrian conquest. Again, this very perceptive woman understands what Jesus is up to.

Of course, since “John” (whoever he is) often doesn’t bother to narrate historical events, the Samaritan woman is probably only a literary character anyway.

Sandra Schneiders teaches this in her commentary on John. Gail O’Day does the same in hers. My professor at the time made the same point.

In fact, these and other scholars say, the “Johannine Jesus” never cares about any sin other than failing to believe in him. This is why he doesn’t tell the woman to repent. Instead he commends her for her honest answer in v. 18. (It’s easy to see how comfortably this viewpoint fits in with today’s cultural preoccupations.)

I’m not making this up. Think for a moment about the doctrine of scripture implied by this understanding of John’s Gospel. Ugh! And you wonder why United Methodist preachers don’t preach the Bible anymore! We’re being brainwashed in seminary! Only Christians with more spiritual maturity than I possessed at the time can escape unharmed. (Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!)

Be that as it may, in his commentary on John, D.A. Carson attacks this allegorical reading head on:

The most common allegorical interpretation of John 4 holds that the five husbands represent five pagan deities introduced to the residents of Samaria by the settlers who were transported there (cf. notes on 4:4) from five cities in Mesopotamia and Syria (2 Ki. 17:24); the Samaritan woman represents the mixed and religiously tainted Samaritan race; and the sixth man, to whom the woman was not legally married, represents either another false god or, more commonly, the true God to whom the Samaritans are connected only by an illicit union. In fact, the details do not work out. The transported settlers originally worshipped seven pagan deities, not five… and these gods were all worshipped at the same time, not serially. Moreover, although it is true that John frequently uses institutions and details in symbolic ways…, his symbolism in such cases is not only commonly predicated upon larger typologies connecting Jesus with the Old Testament, but in any case the symbolic value is tied to broader and demonstrable themes in the Fourth Gospel. The proposed symbolism in this instance fails both tests.[1]

1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 232-3.

When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?

January 27, 2016

Last Sunday’s scripture was John 2:13-22, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. Careful readers of the gospels may wonder why John puts this event near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, while the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) place it near the end, during his Passion Week.

In the world of critical scholarship in which I was immersed for several years, this wasn’t even a question: since John cares little for historical accuracy, he places the pericope here to serve his thematic purposes. Here’s a typical explanation, from Candler professor Gail O’Day’s commentary on John:

It is unlikely that Jesus performed this bold act twice, so the two traditions probably narrate the same event. The synoptic chronology is the more historically reliable, because it is difficult to see how the Jewish religious authorities would have tolerated such a confrontational act at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John moves the temple scene to the beginning of his Gospel because it serves a symbolic function for him. The temple cleansing in John completes the inaugural event begun with the Cana miracle. John 2:1-11 reveals the grace and glory of Jesus and the abundant new life Jesus offers. John 2:13-22 highlights the challenge and threat that new life poses to the existing order (cf. John 5:1-18).[1]

Many evangelical scholars take this position, too.

N.T. Wright, that rare evangelical who gets published by mainline publishers—including Abingdon, which published his Romans commentary alongside Dr. O’Day’s John commentary above—disagrees. Like O’Day, he thinks that the event happened once, only not near the end of Jesus’ ministry, but at the beginning. Since the Synoptics, unlike John, compress Jesus’ public ministry into a one-year rather than three-year period, they narrate this event near the end, not because that’s when it took place, but because that’s when they have Jesus in Jerusalem.

Few would deny that the four Evangelists arrange pericopes to suit their thematic purposes. This is consistent with Article XIII of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which says (emphasis mine):

WE DENY  that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

Wright, who neither confirms nor denies that he is an inerrantist, says:

In favour of putting the incident at the beginning, as John does, is the fact that Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t have Jesus in Jerusalem at all during his adult life, so the final journey is the only place where it can happen. John, however, has Jesus going to and fro to Jerusalem a good deal through his short career. And if he had done something like this at the beginning, it would explain certain things very well: why, for instance, people came from Jerusalem to Galilee to check him out (e.g. Mark 3.22; 7.1), and why, when the high priest finally decided it was time to act, they already felt they had a case against him (John 11.47-53).[2]

The final alternative—and the more conservative one—is that the event took place twice—once at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and again two or three years later, near the end.

In his commentary on John, D.A. Carson doesn’t take a firm stand, but he’s unimpressed with arguments against the event’s occurring twice. First, he notes that critical scholarship’s skepticism about events occurring in doubles is based on speculative “just so” theories. Second, he writes:

[I]t is often argued that if Jesus had cleansed the temple once, the authorities would never have let him get away with it again. This is ingenuous. If there were two cleansings, they were separated by two years, possibly three. During that interval Jesus visited Jerusalem several times for other appointed festivals, without attempting another temple-cleansing. The authorities could not possibly be expected to keep their guard up against him indefinitely. If he was not arrested the first time, it may well be because a certain amount of public feeling sided with Jesus: is not that suggested by 2:23?

In short, it is not possible to resolve with certainty whether only one cleansing of the temple took place, or two; but the arguments for one are weak and subjective, while the most natural reading of the texts favours two. Meanwhile it is important to note (1) that a detail in John’s account of the temple-cleansing does not issue immediately in a conspiracy by the authorities to have him arrested and killed, for Jesus has not yet established his reputation, whereas the later cleansing reported in the Synoptics is presented more or less as one of the last straws that call down the wrath of the religious establishment.[3]

One final note: As if to give the lie to the idea that John’s gospel is less historical than the other three, please note that it is only John, in v. 19 (“Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’”), who narrates the event that led to a spurious charge reported only in the Synoptics: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58; Matthew 26:61). (Notice Jesus didn’t say, “I will destroy…” but that’s how rumors start.)

Did Mark and Matthew know where this rumor originated? We don’t know. But if they knew it was connected to the Temple-cleansing event that they report in their own gospels, why didn’t they say so when they reported it? This conspicuous omission lends credence to the idea that there was an earlier temple-cleansing.

1. Gail O’Day, “The Gospel of John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 543.

2. N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 25-6.

3. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 178.