Saturday, March 07, 2015

The Hungry Jesus

Asaraton mosaic, Chateau de Boudry
Across the spectrum of theological and historical opinion, one thing most pictures of the historical Jesus share is that he was a good eater, participating in meals with diverse company and a lack of ascetic restraint. But the same variety of portraits, from N. T. Wright to John Dominic Crossan, tend to share a more specific and curious claim, namely that Jesus was somehow a radical and inclusive host. One of the above-named authorities may suffice as a representative, as well as confirmation of the consensus:

“The tradition of festive meals at which Jesus welcomed all and sundry is one of the most securely established features of almost all recent scholarly portraits.”[1]

There is really just one, quite large problem: such meals are a fantasy, not (or not only) for those who are sceptical about the historicity of much of the Gospel meal material, but even at the canonical, literary level. Jesus is simply not depicted as welcoming diverse guests to festive meals.

Since I may seem to have just uttered nonsense or heresy or both, let me explain. Jesus is indeed depicted, at least in reports attributed to his enemies, as an indiscriminate eater, both with regard to company and to quantity, and perhaps also as playing fast and loose regarding different kinds of foods. None of these however amounts to “Jesus welcoming all and sundry to festive meals."

Jesus was accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:16 etc; Matt 10:3, 11:19/Luke 7:34, Matt 21:31-2, Luke 15:1-2). This single repeated accusation of guilt by association has its simplest narrative form in Mark 2, and its most elaborate in Luke 19 (the story of Zacchaeus), although the identification of one of the twelve as a tax collector may be a separate and solid tradition. Historical critics generally, if not universally, acknowledge a core of likely fact underneath these narratives, although the stories (especially in Luke) are artful compositions that reflect the literary genre of the symposium rather than mere historical reminiscence. Note however that Jesus is always the guest in these stories, not the host. He is welcomed, not welcomer.

Jesus is also accused of being a “glutton and a drunkard” in a Q saying (11:19/Luke 7:34) linked there with the first accusation, and which serves to contrast Jesus and John. This reads like a stock piece of abuse, echoing Deut 21:20, but the slur is itself unlikely to have been invented by later Christians, just because it is so awkward. How much it tells us about Jesus’ real eating and drinking habits practice is another question; but there is no reason to think Jesus emulated John’s asceticism.

The question of just what he ate can also be difficult, with Mark 7:23 as a sort of crux: “in saying this, he declared all foods clean.” This is however an explicitly editorial interpretive comment, and does not allow even the most conservative or credulous commentator to think Jesus himself rejected Jewish dietary laws in his teaching, let alone that he ate in disregard of them.

So we can still accept that Jesus was neither discriminating about company nor ascetic about food choices. But all this material has to do with his acceptance of invitations, not his welcoming anyone. This is a hungry Jesus, not a hospitable one.

Whence the welcoming Jesus then? From at least four other sorts of meal story or tradition, also interesting but more problematic as evidence of a historical Jesus who could be agreed upon by the usual standards of critical scholarship.

First, Jesus could be read into the role of host in parabolic or eschatological banquets attributed to him as teacher - not as literal eater. Is he the King and/or host of Matt 22 or Luke 14? If so, he is not a very inclusive host – but in any case he is a literary or imagined one.

More promising for the welcoming Jesus, but problematic for historians, are the miraculous feeding stories found in all four Gospels (Mark 6:34-44 etc.). Here Jesus does take the role of a host, blessing and feeding the multitudes. But these are not presented as typical or characteristic events, whatever we make of them historically. They point to an eschatological reality more than a present one; and while the size of the crowds suggests some sort of inclusiveness, bread and fish are not really festive (where's the wine?), and these stories are not connected with Jesus’ problematic associations with sinners. They depict Jesus as an impressive caterer, not as inclusive host.

Third there is the most famous meal story, the last supper. Here again we can acknowledge Jesus as host. Is this an inclusive meal? While assumptions about the exclusion of women from the meal can be challenged, the makeup of the twelve - including the tax collector and the zealot - is the clearest form of inclusivity here, but amounts to a representative rather than an “all and sundry” selection. There are of course many scholars who doubt the historicity of the supper at least in the familiar terms, although some of us think that the existence of quite distinct versions of the so-called “institution narrative” in Paul (and Luke) as well as Mark (and Matthew) makes a case for its authenticity.

Last, there are resurrection meal scenes where Jesus is host (and cook - John 21). Despite formal blessings in one case (Luke 24:13-35), these are not really festive, and not at all inclusive. And it must go without saying that whatever their force for readers with eyes to see, they will not serve to establish the practice of the historical Jesus.

So the welcoming, inclusive, festive Jesus may well be a common feature of many scholarly portraits, but is not, despite that, a strongly-based historical one.  Jesus appears as host in quite different material from that where he is depicted as keeping bad company and being a wine-bibber. The “host” material tends to be the product of later reflection rather than the best-attested traditions that scholars would attribute to the historical Jesus.

So the inclusive welcoming Jesus is the product of creative theological reflection, some in the Gospels and the ancient Church to be sure, but a remarkable amount of it simply modern fantasy. It is yet another instance of how picturing Jesus, we seem to picture ourselves or our wishful thinking. Theologizing is not, I hasten to add, a bad thing - but it is bad to confuse history and theology precisely when one is supposedly in the act of distinguishing them to assess their relative roles and functions.

Why so many scholars believe or assume this inclusive, festive, welcoming, historical Jesus suggests a problem of the social psychology of knowledge as much as of historical criticism, but there have been other similar cases where the obvious has turned out to be false, in NT studies and elsewhere. What was thought obvious about Paul’s attitude to Judaism, or about Jesus and Jewish purity, have had to be deconstructed and rebuilt in recent times; this may be another case.

What, if anything, does the historical Jesus really offer for further reflection on food and meals? Jesus was apparently an itinerant without direct means of support, and his willingness or even desire to be included indiscriminately is not really so surprising in itself. He will have been hungry from time to time, and hunger makes for interesting and diverse table fellowship. So his willingness (or need) to be included, rather than to include others, is the most striking and most overlooked  aspect of Jesus’ life as an eater.

Perhaps the Christian rush to do good in Jesus’ name, taking him as a supposed moral example, has fueled a stampede past this simple and I think fairly solid historical reality. Perhaps it is too hard for some Christians to think of a hungry Jesus making himself dependent on others, when we would rather use him as a model for acts of “radical welcome” that assume we are privileged host and not the needy guest. But this hungry Jesus also has his more explicitly theological and eschatological place in the tradition too: "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).


[1] Wright, N. T. The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was & Is. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999. p. 45.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Long ago..." (Hebrews 1; John 1)

Were the openings of either the Letter to the Hebrews or the Gospel of John to be depicted using the forms available in modern cinematography, the means to do so are obvious, I think. Imagine a wide screen depicting the silent depths of infinite space, evoking in the viewer a sense of awe. Then a great scroll of words - a “crawl,” technically - appears at the bottom of the screen, and proceeds across the field of view: “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors…”; or “In the beginning was the Word…"

Both these readings invoke a perspective of the widest kind, but they do so in different ways. Hebrews will go on to spend much time in a Platonizing world of ideas, exploring a timeless picture of how heaven and earth relate. It begins, however, with a reflection on the ancient rather than the timeless, alluding to that “long ago” of prophets and patriarchs. John will soon become a historical narrative, depicting the life of Jesus as a concrete set of events in human experience. It begins, however, with this eternal cosmological reflection on just how the world is.

In our own encounter with Jesus we may find ourselves also starting at one or the other of these places. There is the concrete historical person, a man of one place and time, whose teaching and actions belong to that time, but nevertheless point beyond them. And there is that wider reality of the cosmos, the mystery, beauty and curiosity of what is, whose profound reality calls us to think differently about the concrete and the specific.

Augustine, in his Confessions, says he read 'books of the "Platonists," wherein
I found, not indeed in the same words, but to the same effect... that "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” ...Similarly, I read there that God the Word was born "not of flesh nor of blood, nor of the will of man, nor the will of the flesh, but of God.” But, that "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” was not there.
It is, however, in John, as well as in Hebrews. It is this intersection of timeless mystery and historical existence that undergirds the Gospel. These two books both tell us that the Jesus who led a concrete, enfleshed life in ancient human history is a figure whose significance transcends time; and also that time itself and the universe have mysteries whose exploration leads to back to ourselves, and to him. We can start at either place and make our way to the other; and in both journeys we encounter him who was not just “long ago,” but in whom we all find out own beginning, and our end.

[From a sermon preached at St Luke's Chapel, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Monday February 16  2015]

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"If your eye causes you to stumble..." (Mark 9:42-50)

Today's Gospel is of course proof that no-one really takes the whole of Scripture literally. "If your
St Lucy - Domenico di Beccafumi (1521)
hand causes you to stumble, cut if off...if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out!" Of course Jesus can't mean this literally. So we end up with a sense that this text means we have to...get serious about things, or something.

In a public lecture here at the Yale Divinity School last year however, Notre Dame New Testament scholar Candida Moss suggested that the almost universal effort to spiritualize this confronting text from Mark may not be as well grounded as we tend to assume. In "The Righteous Amputees: Salvation & Sinful Body in Mark 9" (which I am hoping may show up as part of a forthcoming book), Moss pointed to evidence that quite a few ancient medical and philosophical commentators could see the removal of an offending body part as appropriate for moral or therapeutic reasons. So - perhaps Jesus meant it too?

I don't recall Moss going in this direction in the lecture, but it has occurred to me that there were many people in a first century Mediterranean setting living in grinding poverty, without adequate health care, and subject to the systematic as well as the arbitrary violence of occupation, who would have found themselves one-handed, one-footed, or one-eyed without having faced any real dilemmas about the matter, prior to being in it at least.

For such hearers of these sayings, their significance was not merely spiritualized, but on the other hand would not in all likelihood have implied the need for further voluntary mutilation. Rather they might have functioned as a sort of beatitude: "you have only one eye? Better far to enter the kingdom with one eye than to be two-eyed and cast into hell." "You have only one foot? Better to stumble towards the kingdom than run towards hell." And so on.

There is certainly something to ponder here regarding disability, but today in a group without such obvious experiences visible, I will fall back on offering us a different version of the spiritualizing route to consider these sayings. While we have hands, eyes, and feet, each of us has experiences of difficulty and suffering which affect our capacity to live, and to serve others. Our psychological or emotional limits, imposed or inherent, can also affect how we perceive ourselves and our capacity to progress to the kingdom. The Gospel however suggests we should take courage however we find ourselves, and use who we are and what we have. It does not mean that suffering or oppression are justified or to be celebrated, but that our real embodied existence, even if it results from them, always offers cause for thanksgiving nonetheless.

The other reading, from 2 Timothy, captures something of this same message, reminding each "Timothy" who apparently lacks confidence not to despise their own gifts; for "God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline" (2 Tim 1:7). So whatever it may be, let us "rekindle the gift of God that is within" us (v.6) as we progress towards the kingdom, just as we are.

[Preached at St Luke's CHapel, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, February 10 2015]