DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
Cost of Discipleship

Most scholars agree that the first followers of The Way (whom we casually call Christians, even though they almost certainly did not think of themselves a as such) often had a hard time from their fellow Hebrews. 

This is reflected - although probably somewhat exaggeratedly - in parts of the gospels and in the various accounts of the Acts of the Apostles where Christians, and particularly Paul, were attacked or imprisoned because they spoke of Jesus as the Messiah (Christos in Greek).

The conflict between the old Hebrews and the new Hebrews probably arose because the religious authorities thought that the Christians were troublemakers. 

In the years before the gospels were written, Palestine had been torn apart by war. Between 66 and 70 fanatical Hebrews rebelled against the ruling Roman Empire. It took the Roman army some four years to subdue the rebels. After so great and damaging a social upset, the ruling authorities would not have been open to disturbances.

The Acts of the Apostles (written by the author of Luke's Gospel) tells us something of the conflict between Hebrews and Christians in the two or so decades after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70.

Chapter 4 of the Acts relates how the preaching of Peter and John annoys some Sadducees

... because the two apostles were teaching the people how Jesus had risen from death ... so they arrested them and put them in jail ... (Acts 4.1-2)

Haled before the Hebrew leaders, the apostles are let off provided they do not speak or teach about Jesus. More persecution follows, and Stephen is stoned to death by an angry mob. John and James are put to death by order of Herod Agrippa I, who also jails Peter. In the latter part of Acts the focus moves to Paul, who himself eventually falls foul of the Hebrew religious leaders (Acts 21.27ff).

A substantial number of scholars today have concluded that similar, though earlier, difficulties with the Hebrew authorities are reflected by passages in the gospels. 

The latter are not meant to be histories. Nor were they written as consecutive events, the way a modern biography would generally be conceived. Rather, the gospels were intended to present what Jesus meant to early Christian communities. That is, they are more about theology than about history. 

In addition, the gospel authors did not approach their sources as would a historian today. There is a wide consensus that (a) they used verbal and written sources but they (b) fitted them together in their own schemes, each intended to convey a particular overall message about Jesus.

Many think that the conflict between Jesus and the scholars and Pharisees reported in the gospels reflects this early Hebrew-Christian conflict rather than actual events in which Jesus was involved (though he may have had brushes with some opponents). 

This might appear strange to us today. But in the first century, writers thought nothing of "inventing" events or putting words into the mouths of their characters. In that sense, neither history nor biography had yet been invented. 

A good example is John's Gospel. The long, verbatim speeches by Jesus are, the vast majority of scholars now agree, theological reflections on the meaning of Jesus to the Gospel's author.

The earliest strands of Christian tradition recognise the cost of discipleship. Jesus associates his followers with denial and suffering on the cross (Mark 8.34; Matthew 16.24; Luke 9.23). Because it's unlikely that anyone could be sure prior to the event, many think the reference here to the cross indicates a date after the crucifixion. Nevertheless, this does indicate that the cross became symbol of discipleship very early on in the life of Christian communities.

This is the context of Luke 9.58, Matthew 8.20 and Thomas 86.1-2. Christians may have to face the penalty of some degree of exclusion from their communities and find themselves without a "home". The difficulties many early Christians were having make it more likely that sayings such as this about the cost of discipleship would have been preserved.

But why the saying about burying the dead in the next verse in both Matthew and Luke? A potential follower pleads that he must first bury his father before taking on Christian obligations. What's so striking about a saying a social duty such as a burial should not take priority over Christian discipleship?

For the ordinary Roman, burial was an important indicator of one's social status. A son who failed to bury and honour his dead father would have been considered in dereliction of duty by everyone around him. He would have felt great personal shame. 

Certain criminals were refused burial - a significant social statement.  Tacitus, the Roman historian, recalls a certain Pomponius Labeo who committed suicide rather than face trial and risk not being properly buried if found guilty.  If he had been condemned, his entire estate would have been forfeited. His family would have suffered accordingly.

The situation of a Hebrew who was refused burial was somewhat more severe. Such a fate was thought of as the result of God's curse. A dead body  was a strong source of ritual contamination, so the Hebrew dead were buried quickly and carefully. Not even a criminal was denied burial in the Jewish tradition.

These simple passages reflect the cost of discipleship to early Christian communities. The conflict built up, and as Christianity gradually moved out of the Hebrew faith into the Greek and Roman communities, the antagonisms became gradually exaggerated and institutionalised. 

We can conclude that as early as the beginning of the second century, when John's Gospel was probably written, what we today call anti-Semitism was already a theme in traditional accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus.

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