Tuesday, January 21, 2020

England -- NT Background and Theology 3

previous post
38. I forget the name of the man associated with Cranmer and Johns (Rob?) who suggested to me that the "Maccabean martyrs" of 2 and 4 Maccabees might have provided a theological lens through which the earliest Christians might have in part processed Jesus' death. The man was working on his PhD in theology, if I remember correctly.

So I found myself reading a little into the Apocrypha in my first year at Durham. 2 Maccabees 7 does seem to view the deaths of seven brothers as in some way bringing the wrath of God to an end toward Israel in the 164BC. 4 Maccabees is even more explicit about their deaths being a ransom and expiation (17:21-22). The word hilasterion in 4 Maccabees 17:22 is used in Romans 3:25, making this an important background text for Paul.

I had not read much in Jewish background literature up to that point. If I were in the States, perhaps I would have had occasion to take a comp exam on them. At IWU I was privileged to teach a course in intertestamental literature. I often told the students in that class that while the Old Testament provided the fundamental elements of the background story of the New Testament, the intertestamental period provided the lens through which people at the time of Christ processed and organized the Old Testament content. Since the significance of data gives it its meaning, there is a sense in which the intertestamental period is virtually as determinative background to Christianity as the Old Testament itself.

Although I had taken a course on patristics with Bundy at Asbury, it was in my first year at Durham that I sat down and plowed through the Apostolic Fathers. In the second term (Christmas term), the graduate research seminar read through much of the New Testament Apocrypha, using Schneemelcher. These are writings in no one's Bible but include writings like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Protoevangelium of James, and the Gnostic writings.

This was the time when John Dominic Crossan was at his height. He was putting forth ideas that seem quite unlikely to me, such as that Jesus was a Cynic and that the Gospel of Peter preserved the earliest form of the passion narrative. It seems like the public was in conspiracy mood, as they always are. Another example when I get to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

39. I might back up a little and speculate why Jimmy took me on as a doctoral student in the first place. Partings of the Ways came out in 1991. In it, he suggests that Hebrews had come under the influence of Platonic idealism. He thus saw in Hebrews a combination of a vertical interest in the heavenly with the eschatological. In other words, my proposed topic fit with a position he had just taken.

The book itself is a great example of Jimmy's ability to see the next step in the flow of scholarship. The train of thought had begun with the "new perspective" on Paul, a term that originated with Tom Wright but that became the coin of the realm because of Dunn's ability to identify and magnify the trends of the day. The new perspective showed, more than anything else, that Paul remained much more in continuity with Judaism than older scholars had supposed.

The next step was thus the third quest for the historical Jesus. It looked at Jesus through this same lens, believing that Jesus was a Jew and that Jesus remained in full continuity with Judaism. He did not start a new religion. In the first century, Christianity was nothing other than a form of Judaism that saw itself as the true heir of its promises.

Here we arrive at the question Dunn asked in Partings. When did in fact Christianity become a distinct religion from Judaism? His answer is that it was in the early second century, after all or almost all of the New Testament books were written.

40. I haven't mentioned one of the first books by Dunn that I read before I went to England. This was Unity and Diversity in the New Testament. I have to say that this 1977 book really helped me see the New Testament in three dimensions rather than in the flat, unreflective way I saw it before. Let me try to express what that looked like:
  • He begins with brief glimpses at the fundamental message of Jesus, Acts, Paul, and John. Previously, I would have read these voices in light of each other rather than as individual, potentially distinct voices.
  • He moves on to early titles for Jesus--Son of Man, Messiah, Son of God, Lord--a practice that pre-dates Dunn among other attempts to describe New Testament Christology.
  • He deals with some of the practices of the early church, something I think was noteworthy. What was ministry like in the early church? What was worship like in the early church? How did the "sacraments" function?
  • In the second half of the book, he tries to identify distinct groups in the early church--Jewish Christianity, Hellenistic Christianity, Apocalyptic Christianity, and Catholic Christianity. 
In his work, he built on the past but brought his usual tendencies toward objectivity. Seeing the New Testament through these lenses was like staring at one of those pictures that is three-dimensional if you look at it a certain way.

41. I'm trying to remember the sequence of Greek. It sure seems like I taught Greek Bible in the fall. A man named William Morrice taught introductory Greek using a book he wrote, Durham New Testament Greek Course. He had been teaching Greek for the University, but was gradually moving toward retirement. I especially remember him for having the idiosyncratic view that Tatian's Diatesseron was "through four," which requires five pillars. He thus added the Gospel of Thomas to the Four Gospels as a source for Tatian.

This seems quite quirky to me. Yet the seriousness with which his presentation to the Easter seminar was given (as I recall) was indicative of the nature of study in England. The most idiosyncratic of theories were taken seriously. They were critiqued, to be sure, but they were given a good ear.

As I side note, I remember one presentation by a person from Canada on 1 Corinthians 11:19. It says there need to be factions among them to find out who is worthy. This person suggested that the factions showed who would be "top dog." This was an unfamiliar expression and there was quite a bit of chuckling in the room. Dunn in particular found it very amusing.

In my class we read Mark 1-8 in Greek. It was a great opportunity to add yet another part of the New Testament to my repertoire. I remember a Greek Orthodox priest being in my class in year 2. He was quite annoyed with my pronunciation, as modern Greeks always are.

No comments: