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Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Five things Western Christians can learn from African Christians

This post has been inspired by U.S. Evangelical leader Dr. Michael Brown's article, '4 Things Black Americans Can Teach White Americans About Faith'. I've now spent about half of my adult life living in Africa (seven years). During that time I've married into an African family, been part of a church in which I was the only white person, and am now part of a mixed-race church including people from many African countries. I currently belong to a Bible study group in which I'm one of two white people. Hence, I've been privileged over the past few years to have a window into African culture.

When I first came to Africa in 2007 as a volunteer/missionary, my attitude was that I was coming to 'fix' Africa; that I had a lot to offer to Africa and that Africa had a lot to learn from me. However, for the most part I had it backwards. I've learned a lot more from Africa than Africa has from me. Africa has 'fixed' me a lot more than I've 'fixed' Africa (or, rather, God has used Africa to fix me). Below I want to highlight a few of the things I've learned from the African church. Some of these observations will apply to African culture generally, regardless of religion; but I'm writing in a Christian context.

First, a disclaimer: I'm not claiming that the African church is superior to the Western church, or that African Christians have nothing to learn from Western Christians. Indeed, I think everyone benefits from cross-cultural exchange in the church. However, I think there may be a perception in the West - lingering from the colonial era - that Africa is culturally and anthropologically backward, the church included. When I returned to Canada from my first trip to Africa in 2008, an elderly Christian said to me something along these lines: "So, you've been over working in darkest Africa. But tell me, is it possible to teach them any morals?" While one seldom encounters such overtly discriminatory language with younger generations, I think the assumption that African culture is somehow morally or socially inferior to Western civilization persists in a latent form.

Anyway, on to what I have learned. (Note that I'll be using the term 'Africans' to refer to black people of African descent and 'Westerners' to refer largely to white people of European descent, while allowing for a certain lack of precision in this terminology.)

1. The value of time

The term 'African time' is generally used to refer to the lack of emphasis on punctuality in African culture. Hence, you might receive a wedding invitation where the starting time is specified as 12:00, and then arrive at 12:10, flustered and embarrassed at having arrived late only to find you're the first one to arrive. In an African community church, the Sunday service time is largely dictated by when the congregants arrive, rather than the other way around. This can be frustrating for Westerners who are used to running their lives by the clock. It may appear to us to be disrespectful to God when a service scheduled for 9:00 starts at 9:07.

However, this coin has two sides. When the service starts is one thing, but what about when it ends? Western churches tend to be just as punctual about ending their services on time. A church service will typically run for an hour or an hour and a half, and if it runs long people start shifting in their seats, pointing to their watches, and generally becoming unhappy. After all, they have important things to do: Sunday lunch, grocery shopping, housework, a sporting event to watch, an afternoon nap...

In an African church, however, just as the service starts when it starts, so it ends when it ends - which may be after three hours, or five hours. Instead of trying to squeeze everything into a predetermined interval, the church gives the Spirit freedom to dictate how long the service will last. This gives the impression that, for African Christians, worshiping God is the most important thing on their Sunday to-do list. Everything else can wait. (It's much more in keeping with the Sabbath concept, don't you think?) African Christians don't get tired of singing God's praises and don't get impatient of listening to a minister preach God's Word for an hour or more.

I've experienced Spirit-filled African church services which went on for five hours but which felt like one hour. I think in the West, with our attention spans having been abbreviated by a fast-paced lifestyle and overabundance of visual stimuli, we have a lot to learn from African Christians about the value of time spent with the church in the presence of God.

2. Worship through harmony and dance

Many African people are very gifted when it comes to vocal harmonization, rhythm and dance. Consequently, African worship through music tends to be very expressive and engages the whole being: heart, soul, body and mind. Like many white people, I don't have these gifts and my body generally remains anchored in position even when my emotions and mind are deeply invested in a song.

The fact that African worship music often sounds better, looks better and 'feels' better than Western worship music does not mean it is more pleasing to God or that Western churches should abandon their own beautiful hymns and choruses and try to emulate the African church. That would be a disaster; and what is most important in worship is the sincerity of the worshiper. However, Western Christians can be edified greatly by observing or participating in African worship.

3. Belief in the supernatural

The biblical world is full of supernatural beings and happenings. There are miracles and prophecies. There is angelic visitation and demonic possession. The activity of the Holy Spirit is so central to the life of the New Testament church. Prayer leads directly to divine intervention. However, in the Western church today, with its intellectual sophistication grounded in science and rationalism, these features of the biblical worldview are an embarrassment to many. All too often, when we encounter them in the text, we unconsciously ask, "How do I make this go away?" The question is typically answered by appealing to one of two hermeneutics. The first acknowledges supernatural realities but relegates them exclusively to the distant past, safely out of sight where we don't have to try to square them with our own experience (or lack thereof). The second is more extreme and simply denies objective reality to spirits, miracles, and the rest. Some or all of these features are interpreted metaphorically or existentially. In either case, we tell ourselves that in our daily lives we can completely ignore the supernatural world of the Bible and restrict our attention to the material realm.

According to traditional African belief, spirits (both good and evil) play an active role in life. Visions, healers and charismatics have a place in the worldview. Hence, Africans bring a basic credulity to supernatural features in the biblical text and tend to accept them at face value. African hermeneutics see no need to drive a wedge between the biblical world and our own. Africans thus encounter the supernatural aspects of Bible in an authentic way that is arguably much closer than rationalistic, Western hermeneutics to the way the text was read in antiquity.

Of course, African credulity with respect to miracles, prophecies and spirits also comes with dangers - namely, the danger of being duped by false prophets and deceitful, harmful charismatic practices. The same dangers were well known in the early church. Hence there is a balance to be struck between the extremes of naive credulity and cynical skepticism. This is what, in biblical language, would be called 'discernment'. However, African credulity still serves as a corrective to the Western church which has been heavily influenced by rationalistic skepticism and consequent marginalization of supernatural aspects of the Christian worldview.

4. Respect for authority

Within the African church, and African culture in general, one of the most important values is that of respect for authority and, in particular, elders. Children are disciplined and taught to obey parents and authority figures. Younger people address an older man as a father and an older woman as a mother (indeed, they tend to address other young people as such provided they are married). One follows certain protocols in the presence of an elder in order to show deference and respect.

In general, African churches are characterized by this respect for authority (including for spiritual leaders) which translates into order and decency in church life. This contrasts with the anarchy which characterizes some Western churches, in which each congregant thinks he or she knows better than everyone else and certainly better than the leadership.

Of course, once again this virtue has its downside, which is that an environment where respect for authority is paramount experiences great damage when that authority is abused. In the African context this is particularly evident in the political sphere, where citizens show endless patience toward corrupt and repressive regimes. In the African church, too, the flock is prone to being led astray by lupine leadership. In the West, we have long since 'learned' that human leaders cannot be trusted and that all human authority is suspect. However, at least in an ecclesiastical context, the order and harmony that accompanies sound church leadership more than justifies the African model of respecting authority by default unless or until that authority is abused.

5. Familiarity with certain biblical customs

The last area of learning is not a virtue per se, but simply a fact of life. In certain areas, African culture is much closer to biblical culture (i.e. the culture of the ancient Near East and the Hebrews in particular) than Western culture is. Hence, Africans may be able to encounter certain features of the biblical narrative with a deeper understanding than Western readers.

Firstly, the bride-price custom (ilobolo in Zulu), which is practiced in various forms throughout sub-Saharan Africa, is assumed (but never explained) within the Old Testament narrative (cf. Gen. 24:50-54; 29:16-20; 30:20?; 34:12; Ex. 22:16-17; Judg. 14:1-5, 10-13?; 1 Sam. 18:20-27). In this practice, a man must pay a woman's family a negotiated amount (traditionally cattle, but in urban areas today, cash) before he can marry her. This is not a 'dowry'; in fact, the closest analogue in Western culture would probably be the engagement ring (although in this case the gift goes to the woman's family and not the woman herself). In the traditional African mindset it is this payment, rather than a ceremonial exchange of vows or a civil procedure, which solemnizes the marriage! This is no longer the case from a legal standpoint, of course, but if a man refuses to pay, his in-laws may never recognize him as the legitimate husband of their daughter. The rationale behind the bride-price seems to be threefold. (1) It demonstrates to the woman's family that the man has the means to provide for her. (2) It compels the man to value his wife and marriage and not take it lightly. (3) It compensates the woman's family for their expenditure on raising her, an investment from which they will get no further return since her obligation's will now be to her husband and his family. The bride-price should in no way be construed as the man purchasing the woman as though she were chattel (although obviously in times past the woman moved in marriage from her father's to her husband's sphere of authority).

The bride-price custom is something I experienced firsthand. The social utility of this custom is a subject of debate today, including within the church. I won't go into detail on that here, but I certainly disagree with articles like this one which oppose the practice entirely. I think African Christian families ought to continue with this practice, but parents should not be greedy and should avoid demanding an unrealistic amount that will burden the young couple financially or delay the marriage.

Other examples of biblical rituals and customs which are practiced in modern Africa include male circumcision, animal sacrifice, and polygamy. To observe this is not to endorse these practices (some of which raise profound moral and theological challenges). Nor is it to claim that the way they are practiced in modern Africa corresponds exactly to the way they were practiced in Israel or elsewhere in the ancient Near East. One can simply note that in a number of ways, African culture is closer to biblical culture than Western culture is, and so familiarity with these African customs may assist us in understanding the Bible in its sociological and anthropological context.

I'm grateful to God for all of the faithful African believers in Christ whom I've been blessed to know over the past seven or eight years.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Form, Genre, and Historicity of the Wilderness Temptations of Jesus in the Gospels: A Response to Jonathan Burke (Part 4)

This concludes a series of posts which discuss the literary background to the TS in response to two online articles by Jonathan Burke.

7.       The TS as a Visionary Experience

Within the rubric of historicity, one must consider the question of what sort of experience is described here.[1] Does the TS describe visionary experiences or bodily experiences? The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. Paul, probably referring to his own visionary experience, admits in 2 Cor. 12:2-3 that he is ignorant as to whether the experience was “in the body or out of the body.”  Segal notes,
Paul’s confusion as to whether his ecstatic journey to heaven took place in the body is a rare insight into first-century thinking, since it demonstrates either a disagreement in the community or more likely a first-century mystic’s inability to distinguish between bodily and spiritual journeys to heaven.[2]
In summarizing the characteristics of ancient Jewish and Christian heavenly ascent texts, Gooder notes that some texts “describe a physical ascent in the body.”[3]

It is therefore possible that what is described here is a mystical experience which nonetheless entailed the transportation of Jesus’ body. For the second temptation (in Matthew’s order) requires Jesus’ bodily presence to be meaningful: how else could he be tempted to throw himself down?[4] Similarly, the third temptation seems to require corporeal presence inasmuch as Jesus is tempted to fall down and worship the devil.

In arguing that the TS are visionary in nature, some scholars have drawn a parallel between the TS and another visionary Jesus tradition involving Satan: that of Luke 10:18,[5] which “has usually been regarded as an authentic saying of the historical Jesus.”[6]

We have seen earlier that Schiavo noted parallels between the literary form of the ‘heavenly journey’ and the TS. For him, the characteristics of this form include
the holiness of the one who makes the journey, the ritual of preparation, being led by the spirit or in the spirit, disappearance, the ascent to the highest place, or to the highest heaven, being accompanied by an angel, the vision of angels, of the throne, of what is about to take place… fear, trembling and adoration, the return to earth[7]
He concludes that “There is no doubt that the account of the temptation can be read in the wider context of the heavenly journey,” although there are important differences in content, since Jesus is accompanied by the Devil rather than an angel, and “seems to remain on earth.”[8]

Orlov takes this point further:
Jewish apocalyptic accounts often depict the transportation of human visionaries into the upper realms with the help of angelic guides. In view of these apocalyptic currents, it is striking that in the temptation narrative Satan serves as a psychopomp of Jesus and transports him to high, possibly even the highest, places… In the temptation narrative, Satan seems to be fulfilling similar functions of a transporting angel… It is also important that in both Matthew and Luke, Satan serves not merely as a psychopomp but also as an angelus interpres who literally ‘leads up’ (ἀναγαγὼν αὐτὸν) the visionary and ‘shows him’ (δείκνυσιν αὐτῷ/ἔδεξεν αὐτῷ) the visionary reality, thus fulfilling the traditional functions of interpreting angels in Jewish apocalyptic and mystical accounts.[9]
What is evident from recent scholarly readings of the TS as visionary experiences do not portend well for Burke’s efforts to demythologize the tempter into a psychological impulse or deny that the TS have a narrative function.[10] Burke claims that because I allow the possibility that the temptations are based on a visionary experience of the historical Jesus, I am being inconsistent, having “completely abandoned” my “literalistic hermeneutic.” Specifically, Burke states:
What would Farrar say if confronted with the fact that the Greek word used here for ‘mountain’ means a literal physical mountain, that the verb used for ‘see’ means literally viewing with one’s own physical eyes, that the Greek translated ”all the kingdoms of the world” literally means ”all the kingdoms of the world”, and that to read these terms non-literally in order to justify a specific interpretation of the temptation accounts is therefore invalid?
On the “mountain” issue, one can refer Burke to Donaldson’s study referred to previously (Part 2), which concludes that the Matthean temptation is to be read within the setting of the cosmic mountain motif known from Jewish apocalyptic. Orlov sees the same idea here.[11] As to “all the kingdoms of the world,” one need not insist that this means literally every location on planet earth. This would be equivalent to arguing that, because Gen. 13:14-15 is part of a historical narrative, a consistently literal hermeneutic requires us to limit the scope of the promise exactly to Abram’s field of vision! As Burke should be aware if he has read my previous comments on this text, the land which Yahweh showed Moses according to Deut. 34:1-4 is not visible from Mount Nebo, so that it would require “an airborne experience for Moses to actually see all that the biblical text says he saw in his vision from the summit of Mount Nebo.”[12]

Finally, the “fact” “that the verb used for ‘see’ means literally viewing with one’s own physical eyes” is simply a figment of Burke’s imagination, since no verb meaning ‘see’ occurs in the Gospel TS! The verb that does occur is δείκνυμι, to show, which is used frequently of apocalyptic visions (Zech. 3:1 LXX; Rev. 1:1; 4:1; 17:1; 21:9f; 22:1, 6, 8).[13]

Burke fails to demonstrate why the presence of visionary experiences would be inconsistent with a narrative reading of the TS. In reporting about women who “had seen a vision of angels” (Luke 24:23), did Luke mean to convey that they had not actually seen angels? When we are told in Acts 7:55 that Stephen “saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” does the fact that this was a subjective, visionary experience (apparently no one else present could see Jesus) imply that Jesus did not literally appear to Stephen within the narrative? And, returning to the other ‘mythical’ narratives in the Gospels, if the heavenly voice which declared Jesus to be God’s beloved Son (Mark 1:11; 9:7) is understood as Jesus’ religious experience, does this mean God didn’t actually speak within the narrative? The clear answer in every case is “No,” and the same applies to the TS. Even if the temptations were visionary experiences, this would in no way negate their narrative function, or provide a license for explaining away the devil.

8. Conclusions

Similarities between the TS and haggadic midrash, particularly accounts of righteous biblical figures being tested by supernatural beings, assist us in situating the TS from a history-of-religions perspective. Nevertheless, this is only one component of the literary background. The Gospel TS are widely recognized as mythological narrative, owing in part to the presence of Satan as an active character. Narrative criticism has drawn out the role that Satan plays in the plot of each of the Synoptic Gospels, with the TS functioning as the opening salvo of a cosmic conflict that continues throughout the story. There are different views on the historicity of the TS, with most contemporary scholars regarding the account as rooted in experiences of the historical Jesus but embellished by later Christian tradition. Nevertheless, the Gospels clearly represent the TS as events in the life of Jesus, and for those whose worldview is shaped by Scripture, there is no compelling reason not to take their testimony at face value. The extent to which the TS describe apocalyptic visionary experiences is debatable, but either view on this issue is perfectly consistent with the dominant view that the devil described here is a supernatural personal being.

The consensus of modern scholarship is that Jesus and the early church believed in a supernatural being called Satan and interpreted his experience in the wilderness in terms of conflict with this cosmic enemy. Burke has failed to recognize this only by focusing all of his attention on form criticism and historical criticism of the TS while neglecting narrative criticism as well as scholarship which ascribes a mythological worldview to the historical Jesus. In the end, it is Burke’s exegesis of the TS that is idiosyncratic, as well as vague. Nevertheless, I do want to acknowledge Burke’s work as it has provided me with an impetus to deepen my understanding of the literary background of the TS.


[1] “To affirm the historicity of the temptations does not, however, settle the question of how they were experienced. At least two features suggest that the temptations were some kind of visionary or inward, spiritual experience” (Blomberg, C.L. (1995). Temptation of Jesus. In G.W. Bromiley (Ed.), International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Vol. 4) (pp. 784-786). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 785). In contrast to this, Burke appears to regard the idea that the temptation was “visionary” as antithetical to the idea that it is a “historical narrative.”
[2] Segal, A.F. (2008). The Afterlife as Mirror of the Self. In F. Flannery, C. Shantz, & R.A. Werline (Eds.), Experientia: Inquiry into Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Christianity (pp. 19-40). Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, p. 23.
[3] Gooder, P. (2006). Only the Third Heaven? 2 Corinthians 12.1-10 and Heavenly Ascent. London: Bloomsbury, p. 154.
[4] Stein, noting the debate over whether or not the experiences were visionary in some way, states, “Whereas the second [Lukan] temptation does seem to be visionary in some sense (Jesus was shown all the world’s kingdoms in an instant), the natural reading of the other two temptations appears to portray a real experience, and most probably Luke understood them this way” (1993: 144n41). Elsewhere, he states, "the general impression from reading the accounts is that they were objective and involved external events: a real place (the wilderness and the temple in Jerusalem) and real, if symbolic, time (forty days and forty nights)...This argues against seeing the temptations as entirely subjective visions or experiences" (Stein, R.H. (1996). Jesus the Messiah: A Survey of the Life of Christ. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, p. 104).
[5] Bird states concerning the TS “the tradition probably relates to the enigmatic saying in Luke 10:18… which comprises a visionary account from Jesus where he intimates Satan’s downfall” (2014: 639). So also Noll, “when he said he saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven (Lk 10:18), he most likely was referring to his own visionary experience. If such a vision came prior to or as part of his baptism, it would explain both the readiness of Satan to appear to him and his recognition of the tempter” (Noll, S. (2003). Angels of Light, Powers of Darkness: Thinking Biblically About Angels, Satan, and Principalities. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, p. 103.) Puig asserts, “Jesus only had two visions during the whole of his ministry – the first of the opening of the heavens (Mk 1.10) and the second of Satan falling from the heavens (Lk. 10.18)” (Puig I Tàrrech, A. (2010). Jesus: An Uncommon Journey. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 270).
[6] Gathercole, S.J. (2003). Jesus’ Eschatological Vision of the Fall of Satan: Luke 10,18 Reconsidered. Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, 94, 143-163.
[7] Schiavo 2002: 146.
[8] Schiavo 2002: 147.
[9] Orlov, A. (2013). Veneration Motif in the Temptation Narrative of the Gospel of Matthew:
Lessons from the Enochic Tradition. Paper presented at Seventh Enoch Seminar: Enochic Influences on the Synoptic Gospels. Camaldoli, 21-26 July 2013. Accessed at https://www.academia.edu/3626511/Veneration_Motif_in_the_Temptation_Narrative_of_the_Gospel_of_Matthew_Lessons_from_the_Enochic_Tradition
[10] As Blomberg, one of the sources quoted by Burke in support of a visionary interpretation, states, “Christ’s temptations may well have been to a certain degree subjective or visionary, though no less real or diabolical.” (Blomberg, C.L. (2009). Jesus and the Gospels. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, p. 261.
[11] “Several scholars have previously remarked that the mountain here might allude to the place of divine presence and dominion” (Orlov 2013: 16).
[12] Christensen, D.L. (2002). Deuteronomy 21:10-34:12. Mexico City: Thomas Nelson, p. 871.
[13] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 214.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Form, Genre, and Historicity of the Wilderness Temptations of Jesus in the Gospels: A Response to Jonathan Burke (Part 3)

This continues a series of posts which discuss the literary background to the TS in response to two online articles by Jonathan Burke.

5.       The TS as narrative

Narrative criticism is concerned with the text of the Gospels as literature and, consequently, how features such as plot and characters combine to communicate meaning. The primary focus is not historical or form-critical in the sense of recovering the sources, form or historicity of a pericope. Instead, the primary focus is on “the formal features of a text in its finished form.”[1] Despite the widespread use of this methodology in interpreting the Gospels, including the TS, Burke inexplicably ignores it and flatly denies that the TS are narrative. In a curiously circular fashion, this assumption becomes his basis for dismissing my evidence that the TS must be read as a narrative.[2]

As an element within a wider narrative, how does the TS communicate meaning? For one, narrative critics have noted how Satan functions as a character in the story in all three Synoptic Gospels, with the TS playing a key role in this feature of the narrative.

Concerning Mark, this approach has recently been explored by Shively, who states that “Mark introduces Satan as Jesus’ adversary in the prologue, arguably establishing Satan as a key opposing power for the rest of the narrative.”[3] She holds that Mark’s Gospel presupposes the Satan figure and demonology of the LXX and Second Temple Judaism.[4]

Concerning Matthew, Branden has written an entire narrative-critical monograph on ‘Satanic Conflict in the Plot of Matthew’. He observes that “the temptations function as the beginning of Satanic challenge to Jesus’ mission,”[5] while also noting the close correspondence between the characterization of Satan in this pericope and the demonology of intertestamental Judaism.[6] Similarly, Powell states the following on conflict in Matthew:
A better understanding is gained through the realization that neither Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders nor his conflict with his disciples is ultimately definitive of the Gospel’s plot. What this narrative is really about is conflict on a deeper level, namely, conflict between God and Satan…As the supreme agent of God, Jesus comes to save God’s people from their sin by giving his life as a ransom for many and by shedding his blood to establish a new covenant of forgiveness. Satan challenges Jesus specifically as God’s Son (4:1-11) and, indirectly, remains active throughout the story.[7]
Kingsbury states concerning Luke: 
Finally, one also encounters transcendent beings in Luke’s gospel story, such as God, angels, Satan, and demons, and the figure of the narrator. Strictly speaking, neither God nor the narrator can be said to be characters, and while Satan is alluded and referred to, in only one episode (the temptation) does he assume the more normal role of a character…Although Satan is, like God, a transcendent being, unlike God he does not remain beyond narrative sight but functions in part as one of the characters within Luke’s story (4:1-13).[8]
So also Carroll:
Both the intensity of the struggle and its cosmological import are heightened by the presence of the devil, introduced for the first time in the narrative. Luke uses the names devil (διάβολος) and Satan interchangeably for this character, and with comparable frequency, though only διάβολος appears in 4:1-13… His role in the testing narrative is reminiscent of the part played by Satan in Job, probing the character of a person. But the devil’s malevolence as the head of forces opposed to God becomes clear as the narrative proceeds.[9]
That the Gospels, in their finished form, position the TS fundamentally as events within the wider narrative about Jesus can scarcely be denied. As Bock states, Luke “simply presents the temptations as an event in Jesus’ life”.[10] Nothing in the context of Luke’s TS suggests that it departs from his stated purpose, “to compile an account… to write it out for you in consecutive order” (Luke 1:1-3 NASB); an account “about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up…” (Acts 1:1-2 NASB). As I’ve argued elsewhere, the writers fit the TS seamlessly into the narrative, with no internal indication that its characters or events are less real than other pericopae.

The TS belong to the genre of narrative within the Gospels, regardless of what view may be taken concerning their historicity. Hence, any enterprise in the discipline of biblical theology which seeks to recover the Satanology of the Synoptic Evangelists must approach the TS as narrative and, consequently, resort to narrative criticism.

6.       The TS as history

We have seen that there is general agreement that the TS is mythological. However, Nickle reminds us that “To designate a unit of Jesus tradition as myth is not to assess its historicity.”[11]

There are scholars who take a very high view of the historicity of the TS. Edwards, for example:
Jesus himself is the only plausible source of the narrative. Many modern readers, including modern Christians, find talk of the devil intellectually embarrassing. As a consequence, the temptation is commonly interpreted metaphorically. Ancient Jews, however, believed in an evil force, both superhuman and personal, that contended with and distorted God’s created ideal. They believed this power to be real, although not ultimate. We know that Jesus shared this belief, and we cannot doubt that Luke shared it. The temptation narrative is not presented as a dream, vision, myth, or parable, but as a historical occurrence in which an intentional and deadly earnest personification of evil attempts, using both natural and supernatural means, to mislead the incarnate Son of God from his salvific mission in the world.[12]
While many scholars would dispute the extent to which the TS describes actual historical events verbatim, there does seem to be support for the idea that has a basis in actual historical events:
There appears to be reasonable evidence that the temptation story does have a kernel of authentic tradition (Murphy-O’Connor; Allison). Perhaps Jesus communicated such visionary experiences to his disciples in a teaching context pertaining to temptations and the coming peirazmos or eschatological testing that was approaching (Twelftree 822-823). The authenticity of the story would also account for other traditions including Mark 3:27, Luke 10:18, Jesus’ belief in the presence of the kingdom, and the call for a return to pre-Edenic conditions, e.g. Mark 10:2-9 (Davies and Allison: 1.357).[13]
What seems to be beyond historical doubt in the minds of most scholars is that Jesus and the Gospel writers believed in Satan as a supernatural being. As Towner puts it:
the narrators of the Gospels and Jesus himself seem to have had a lively sense of an evil spiritual being who stood at the head of all demonic powers and who was able to enter into human hearts and to challenge the influence of God there.[14]

A large number of other modern sources which conclude that Jesus and the Synoptic writers believed in Satan and demons can be found in my paper on the accommodation theory.

Bock notes that the criterion of dissimilarity may support the historicity of the narrative, since temptation stories of this kind played no obvious role in the early church.[15] He also warns against divorcing symbolism from history (a warning which has gone unheeded in Burke's case). Moreover, as Gibson points out, in the Beelzebul pericope (the historicity of which is generally accepted), Jesus alludes to an earlier victory over Satan which is best understood to be a reference to the wilderness temptations (Matt. 12:29/Mark 3:27/Luke 11:21-22).[16]

However, the TS still remains problematic from a historical point of view because of its clear supernatural elements. Ehrman states in a similar context (Jesus’ exorcisms) that the ‘supernatural realm’ lies “outside of the historian’s province,” and consequently, “historians can’t say that Jesus actually cast evil spirits out of people.”[17] For many historical critics, such methodological assumptions rule out the possibility of judging the TS as historical.

Similar problems apply to the other Gospel stories that Dibelius regarded as mythological in genre, namely the baptism of Jesus and the transfiguration. Kvalbein notes a parallel between the baptismal miracle and the TS:
The stories of the theophany at Jesus’ baptism have no references to witnesses except Jesus himself and John. In this regard they are similar to the temptation stories, presented as an experience between Jesus and the devil, with no others present.[18]

He states the two prevailing views of the historicity of the theophany at Jesus’ baptism. The first is that it is a non-historical creation of the early church, and the second is that it is a tradition based on Jesus’ personal experience at his baptism, e.g. “a vision Jesus had in connection with his baptism.”

As for the transfiguration, Poirier notes,
For many, anything so otherworldly cannot be historical, and the account must be explained either as a heightening of tendencies latent within a more authentic report of as a wholecloth invention.[19]
He adds that some ascribe the account to “real religious experiences” while ducking the question of whether ‘real’ “refers to objective or subjective categories.”

We can see that the historical problems bound up with the TS are very similar to those in these other two pericopae. In all cases a transcendent being palpably interacts with the human sphere. There are, in each case, three basic positions that scholars may take. The first regards the event as a historical fact. The second regards it as purely symbolic, with no historical foundation. The third, intermediate position allows for some rhetorical license but regards the pericope as based on a historical “experience” of some kind, such as a vision.[20]

The third position is perhaps the most sensible for a historian to take in all three cases. However, for a reader who regards the supernatural worldview of the early church as normative, there is no reason why these historical "experiences" may not be seen as rooted in objective reality, and thus tantamount to historical facts.


[1] Resseguie, J.L. (2005). Narrative Criticism of the New Testament: An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 19. Emphasis added.
[2] Burke seems to take the formal resemblance of the TS to ‘haggadic midrash’ as final proof that they are not narrative. He then summarily dismisses all the evidence I adduced that the Gospel TS only make sense when read as narrative, rather than interacting with this material. See here for an overview of this evidence.
[3] Shively, E. (2015). Characterizing the Non-Human: Satan in the Gospel of Mark. In M.R. Hauge & C.W. Skinner (Eds.), Character Studies and the Gospel of Mark (pp. 127-151). London: Bloomsbury. Here pp. 127-128.
[4] Shively 2015: 136-137.
[5] Branden, R.C. (2006). Satanic Conflict and the Plot of Matthew. Bern: Peter Lang, p. 55.
[6] Branden 2006: 43.
[7] Powell, M.A. (1990). What is Narrative Criticism? Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp. 47-48.
[8] Kingsbury, J.D. (1991). Conflict in Luke: Jesus, Authorities, Disciples. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp. 9, 13.
[9] Carroll, J.T. (2012). Luke: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 102.
[10] Bock, D.L. (1994). Luke (Vol. 1). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 366.
[11] Nickle, K.F. (2001). The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 29.
[12] Edwards, J.R. (2015). The Gospel according to Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 131.
[13] Bird, M.F. (2014). Temptation of Jesus. In C.A. Evans (Ed)., Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (pp. 638-640). New York: Routledge. Here pp. 639-640.
[14] Towner, W.S. (2003). Satan. In D.E. Gowan (Ed.), The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible (pp. 447-449). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. Here p. 448.
[15] Bock 1994: 364.
[16] Gibson 2004: 93; so also Best, E. (1965). The Temptation and the Passion: The Markan Soteriology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 14; Jeremias, J. (1977). New Testament Theology: The proclamation of Jesus (G. Bowden, trans.) New York: Scribner’s Sons, p. 72.
[17] Ehrman, B.D. (1999). Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 197-198.
[18] Kvalbein, H. (2014). Baptism of Jesus. In C.A. Evans (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (pp. 55-58). New York: Routledge. Here p. 57.
[19] Poirier, J.C. (2014). Transfiguration of Jesus. In C.A. Evans (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (pp. 653-656). New York: Routledge. Here p. 655.
[20] These three scholarly positions, with respect to the TS, are described by Schiavo 2002: 142-143.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Form, Genre, and Historicity of the Wilderness Temptations of Jesus in the Gospels: A Response to Jonathan Burke (Part 2)

This continues a series of posts which discuss the literary background to the TS in response to two online articles by Jonathan Burke.

3.       The TS as a ‘trial of the righteous man’ story

We have already seen Kloppenborg’s claim that the form-critical background to the TS in Q is the ordeal of the righteous man (which for him is exemplified in the stories of Abraham and Job, especially in extra-canonical versions). As Morris states, “What is depicted at a basic level is a righteous figure who is confronted with demonic temptation.”[1]

The identification of the TS as belonging to the genre of the trial of a righteous man owes much to the analogues to the TS in Jewish haggadic materials identified by Kelly. These include the Apocalypse of Abraham, “a typically Jewish midrash on Genesis 15” in which Abraham is tempted by an unclean bird who is identified as Azazel.[2] A second parallel is from the Book of Jubilees, in which “Mastema (who in 10.8-11 may be identified with Satan) requests God to tempt Abraham further.”[3] Again, “The disputatious aspects of the Temptation scene in Mt and Lk, therefore, may have a partial inspiration in stories retailing the adventures of the Angel of Death in dealing with Moses.”[4] Furthermore, “As a parallel to the Mt-Lk Temptation account of the meeting of Christ with the ruler of the world, we may cite the Martyrdom of Isaiah.”[5] Again, “In the Damascus Document, which dates from well before the Christian era, we find still another analogue to the Temptation account of Mt-Lk”,[6] namely Beliar’s three nets. A striking feature shared by all of these parallels to the TS is that the antagonist is a mythological figure.

Hence, the parallels between the TS in Matthew and Luke and ‘haggadic materials’ actually support a mythological reading of the TS. The implications for historicity are not as pronounced: “We should emphasize here that the mere presence of literary elements in the Temptation accounts would solve no question as to the kind of historicity involved in these scenes.”[7]

Schiavo too thinks that the TS “could be placed within the literary genre ‘vocation of the divine man’ or ‘temptation of the wise’, a tradition that was well known in the first century CE”.[8] However, he goes further and asserts that the TS closely parallels a literary form known as the ‘heavenly journey’.[9]

Basser and Cohen comment, “Typically Jewish tradition has seen that once God has chosen someone to be his representative, that someone is then tested by an agent of God.”[10]

4.       The TS as myth

The role of ‘myth’ in NT scholarship owes much to the work of Bultmann, who defined the term primarily in relation to cosmology: “The world picture of the New Testament is a mythical world picture.” A major reason for this assertion was that the NT writers view the world as “a theater for the working of supernatural powers, God and his angels, Satan and his demons.”[11]

Hatina notes that the meaning of this term “has become a source of considerable debate”[12] in general academic discourse, while Caird describes it as “an exceedingly slippery term,”[13] particularly because of the negative connotations which the term bears in popular parlance, where ‘myth’ is synonymous with ‘falsehood’. Bell gives a detailed definition in a work specifically concerned with the Satan myth. He notes several characteristics of myth: myth is concerned with narrative in which “there is some interaction of a ‘god’ or a numinous quality in the world”; separation between the time (or world) of the narrator and the narrated time (or world) need not exist; myth “brings us into contact with reality itself”.[14] Similarly, Riches describes myths as narratives that describe the interaction of “divine being/s with the world of human beings”.[15]

There seems to be much wider scholarly agreement that the TS is mythological than that it is midrashic. Even Gerhardsson, one of the main proponents of the ‘haggadic midrash’ view, acknowledged that the TS is ‘mythological in character’.[16]

Although Robbins notes that ‘myth’ is a notoriously thorny category in biblical scholarship, he nevertheless states matter-of-factly, “The TS is a mythological narrative.”[17] In this, Robbins is following Dibelius, for whom mythology was itself a literary genre. Dibelius found three instances of myths in the Gospels: the baptismal miracle, the temptation of Jesus, and the transfiguration.[18] Commenting on the TS specifically, Dibelius noted,
a conversation between the devil and Jesus was handed down in the source Q, and that Marcan note which mentions the Temptation gave the occasion to Matthew iv, 1-11, and to Luke iv, 1-13, to narrate the dialogue here. Thus the framework of the conversation became mythological; the very homage of the angels (Matthew iv, 11) makes this impression.[19]
We have already seen that Kloppenborg regarded the TS as having a ‘mythic setting.’ Allison too regards the Gospel TS are “‘mythological’ elaborations based on fact.”[20] So also Dormandy: “In Matthew and Luke the three temptations are told in a mythical manner.”[21] Schiavo asserts that the TS should be read against the background of the “combat myth”.[22] Bell regards the Lukan TS as a prelude to demonic opposition to Jesus seen later in the narrative, all of which are “manifestations of ‘cosmic evil’.”[23]

Commenting more broadly on the narrative and the place of the TS within it, Pagels states:
Each of the gospels frames its narrative, first at its beginning and then at its climax, with episodes depicting the clash of supernatural forces that the evangelists see played out through Jesus’ life and in his death… Many liberally minded Christians have preferred to ignore or minimize the presence of such blatant supernaturalism. Yet as the evangelists see it, the story they have to tell would make little sense apart from the context of cosmic war.[24]

Similarly, Sim states that Matthew “describes the supernatural world in terms of a cosmic struggle between God and his agents on the one hand and Satan and his company of evil angels on the other”[25] and “Matthew deliberately relates the dualism of the human sphere to the cosmic battle which is being fought between Jesus and Satan.”[26]

Donaldson observes how the Matthean episode in which the devil takes Jesus up a high mountain heightens the mythological nature of the narrative. The setting probably “owes something to cosmic mountain mythology,” which is known from Jewish apocalyptic literature and in which “mountains are seen as places of significance in the cosmic order of things and especially as points of entrance into the heavenly realm.”[27]

Riches refers to De Boer’s well known assertion that there were two ‘tracks’ in Jewish eschatology of the Second Temple period: cosmological apocalyptic eschatology and forensic apocalyptic eschatology. Referring to Mark’s TS, he asks 
what kind of view of the origins of evil in the world underlies, is promoted by, Mark’s story? Is evil ultimately the work of some angelic/demonic power or does it derive from the rebellion of the human will?[28]
His conclusion is that these two worldviews are “intertwined” in Mark, who seeks to “give expression to both”.[29]

Like Pagels, Lieu specifically criticizes a hermeneutic which seeks to demythologize the TS:
We do not encounter Jesus’ clash with the devil in the wilderness in any other form than that which it takes in the text. To demythologize it into discarded strategic options for ministry, or even into a ‘visionary or inward, spiritual experience’ (Kimball 1994: 84), is to produce a different text, an episode in the history or in the psychology of Jesus. Yet we cannot ignore its textual positionings, in Matthew and in Luke, as well as in the greater narratives to which intertextual readings point us. Here we recognize that the temptation narratives can only have the form that they do, and that their meaning inheres in this and not in some supposed reference that lies outside them. The stones on the desert floor, the parapet of the Temple, and the mountain-top vista cannot be exchanged but neither can the devil; the mythic dimensions are integral.[30]

Remarkably, Burke’s discussion of the genre of the TS almost completely ignores the category of ‘myth’ (in his article, the term appears only in footnoted quotations from his sources). The scholarly consensus that the TS is mythological poses a serious problem for Burke’s exegesis, because he himself states, “A cosmological understanding of the temptation accounts would be that Jesus was tempted by a supernatural being,” and regards ‘cosmological’ and ‘mythological’ as synonymous terms referring to supernatural evil.


[1] Morris, M. (2014). Apotropaic Traditions in the Matthean Temptation. Trinity College, Dublin, Journal of Postgraduate Research, 14, 134-146, here 136. Morris also notes the presence of apotropaic (protection-against-demons) features in the Matthean TS.
[2] Kelly, H.A. (1964). The devil in the desert. Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 26, 190-220. Here 192.
[3] Kelly 1964: 198.
[4] Kelly 1964: 202. Cf. Deut. Rabbah 11.5.
[5] Kelly 1964: 210.
[6] Kelly 1964: 211.
[7] Kelly 1964: 215.
[8] Schiavo, L. (2002). The Temptation of Jesus: The Eschatological Battle and the New Ethic of the First Followers of Jesus in Q. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 25(2), 141-164. Here 144. See primary sources cited by him.
[9] This will be discussed further in a subsequent section.
[10] Basser, H. & Cohen, M.B. (2015). The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions: A Relevance-based Commentary. Leiden: Brill, pp. 103-104. They cite a number of rabbinic texts in support of this assertion.
[11] Bultmann, R. (1941/1985). New Testament and mythology and other basic writings (S.M. Ogden, trans.). London: SCM Press, p. 1.
[12] Hatina, T. (2013). New Testament Theology and its Quest for Relevance: Ancient Texts and Modern Readers. London: Bloomsbury, p. 228.
[13] Caird, G.B. (1980). The Language and Imagery of the Bible. London: Duckworth, pp. 218-219.
[14] Bell, R.H. (2007). Deliver us from Evil: Interpreting the Redemption from the Power of Satan in New Testament Theology. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, pp. 42-45.
[15] Riches, J.K. (2001). Conflicting Mythologies: Mythical Narrative in the Gospel of Mark. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 84, 29-50. Here 31.
[16] Gerhardsson, B. (1966). The Testing of God’s Son. Lund: C.W.K. Gleerup, p. 12.
[17] Robbins 2007: 21.
[18] Dibelius, M. (1935/1971). From Tradition to Gospel (B.L. Woolf, trans.). Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., p. 271.
[19] Dibelius 1935/1971: 274.
[20] Allison, D.C., Jr (2002). Behind the Temptations of Jesus Q 4:1-13 and Mark 1:12-1. In B.D. Chilton & C.A. Evans (Eds.), Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (pp. 195-214). Leiden: Brill, p. 204.
[21] Dormandy, R. (2003). Jesus’ Temptations in Mark’s Gospel: Mark 1:12-13. The Expository Times, 114(6), 183-187. Here 186.
[22] Schiavo 2002: 150.
[23] Bell 2007: 71n22.
[24] Pagels, E. (1994). The Social History of Satan, Part II: Satan in the New Testament Gospels. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 62(1), 17-18.
[25] Sim, D.C. (1996). Apocalyptic Eschatology in the Gospel of Matthew. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 75.
[26] Sim 1996: 79.
[27] Donaldson, T. (1987). Jesus on the Mountain: A Study in Matthew. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 71, 94.
[28] Riches 2001: 33.
[29] Riches 2001: 43, 50.
[30] Lieu, J. (2005). Reading Jesus in the Wilderness. In R.S. Gugirtharajah (Ed.), Wilderness: Essays in Honour of Frances Young (pp. 88-100). London: T&T Clark, p. 97.