“Known knowns, known unknowns,” and the New Testament


The good folks over at the Babylon Bee, a Christian satirical site, posted a gem of a fake article today called “Historical-Critical Scholar Doubts Authorship Of Paper He Wrote,” which comically captures some of the dubious certainties that sometimes come out of the New Testament studies combine.

The article quotes the fictitious Dr. Gunther Burg of Yale questioning the authenticity of an article he himself had written. Continue reading

Ridiculous and sublime: Richard Bauckham’s “The Pooh Community”


More and more I am finding satire the proper vehicle to address some of the more foolish antics of both the church and the academy.  So I was delighted to come across Richard Bauckham’s delicious deadpan savaging of his own guild in his lecture “The Pooh Community,”  in which he employs some of the methods of contemporary New Testament scholarship to analyze A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh.”
His careful sifting leads him to posit the existence of several “communities” behind the final redaction of the text.  Here’s a sample:

“The very distinctive nature of the Pooh community can be further appreciated when we compare it with other children’s literature of the period, such as the Noddy books or the Narnia books (though it may be debatable whether these were already written at the time when the traditions of the Pooh community were taking shape). Words and concepts very familiar from other children’s literature never appear in the Pooh books: the word school, e.g., is completely absent, as is the word toys, even though the books are ostensibly about precisely toys. Conversely, the Pooh books have their own special vocabulary and imagery: e.g. the image of honey, which is extremely rare in other children’s literature (not at all to be found in the Narnia books, e.g., according to the computer-generated analysis by Delaware and Babcock), constantly recurs in the literature of the Pooh community, which clearly must have used the image of honey as one of the key buildingblocks in their imaginative construction of the world.

The stories afford us a fairly accurate view of some of the rivalries and disputes within the community. The stories are told very much from the perspective of Pooh and Piglet, who evidently represent the dominant group in the community – from which presumably the bulk of the literature originated, though here and there we may detect the hand of an author less favourable to the Pooh and Piglet group. The Pooh and Piglet group saw itself as central to the life of the community (remember that Piglet’s house is located in the very centre of the forest), and the groups represented by other characters are accordingly marginalized. The figure of Owl, for example, surely represents the group of children who prided themselves on their intellectual achievements and aspired to status in the community on this basis. But the other children, certainly the Pooh and Piglet group, ridiculed them as swots. So throughout the stories the figure of Owl, with his pretentious learning and atrocious spelling, is portrayed as a figure of fun. Probably the Owl group, the swots, in their turn ridiculed the Pooh and Piglet group as ignorant and stupid: they used terms of mockery such as ‘bear of very little brain.’ Stories like the hunt for the Woozle, in which Pooh and Piglet appear at their silliest and most gullible, probably originated in the Owl group, which used them to lampoon the stupidity of the Pooh and Piglet group. But the final redactor, who favours the Pooh and Piglet group, has managed very skilfully to refunction all this material which was originally detrimental to the Pooh and Piglet group so that in the final form of the collection of stories it serves to portray Pooh and Piglet as oafishly lovable. In a paradoxical reversal of values, stupidity is elevated as deserving the community’s admiration. We can still see thepoint where an anti-Pooh story has been transformed in this way into an extravagantly pro-Pooh story at the end of the story of the hunt for the Woozle. Pooh and Piglet, you remember, have managed to frighten themselves silly by walking round and round in circles and mistaking their own paw-prints for those of a steadily increasing number of unknown animals of Hostile Intent. Realizing his mistake, Pooh declares: ‘I have been Foolish and Deluded, and I am a Bear of No Brain at All.’ The original anti-Pooh story, told by the Owl faction, must have ended at that point. But the pro-Pooh narrator has added – we can easily see that it is an addition to the original story by the fact that it comes as a complete non sequitur – the following comment by Christopher Robin: “‘You’re the Best Bear in All the World,” said Christopher Robin soothingly.’ Extravagant praise from the community’s major authority-figure.”

To see the entire lecture go here.

Richard Bauckham is a theologian and biblical scholar who was Professor of New Testament at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.   His web site is here.

Can Judas be saved? Ruminations on his role in the drama of Redemption.

Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve Apostles, and the one who betrayed Jesus with a kiss, has become a byword in English for a betrayer.

None of us is a stranger to betrayal.  It is a particularly painful experience because it comes at the hand of someone we trusted; someone we thought would look out for us;  someone we loved, and believed loved us.  We must consider that one of the sufferings that constitute Jesus’ passion must have been that he was betrayed by one of his close friends, a member of his inner circle.

For my Holy Week devotions this year I have been reading At The Cross:  Meditations on People Who Were There by Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart (IVP, 1999), two fine scholars from the University of St Andrews.  I highly recommend it.

Their meditation on Judas is particularly insightful.  Although they admit that Judas’ deed was a dark one (“there is no getting Judas off the hook”), they assert the paradox that his betrayal was a necessary act:  “The structure of the Gospel plot demands it.”

And it is quite true that Jesus speaks repeatedly, not only that he will experience death, but that he will “be given up” to death.  So Judas is the instrument of that happening, and therefore an important player in the narrative of the passion, what I like to call “the drama of redemption.”

But though Judas plays his part in the drama, the Christian tradition has pretty consistently painted him to be an utterly despicable character. I have been ruminating on this, since it raises many questions, some of which I will leave to others to address.

But with the help of Bauckham and Hart, I have two thoughts to share about his role.

The first is Judas’ solidarity with all of humanity.   We are all, to some degree or another, betrayers.  There are the big betrayals, of course, like marital infidelity or financial shenanigans like the recent ones by Bernie Madoff.  But there are also the little daily betrayals where we break trust with those we love and care for, and in this case Judas is not so different from all of us.  His sin is different in degree and not in kind.

My second thought follows from the first, and that is whether Judas can be saved?  The Christian tradition has generally said no.  Perhaps I have fallen under the spell of Karl Barth’s alleged universalism, but I believe in a God whose mercy is so vast that there might be a place for Judas in it.

I don’t make the move to dogmatic universalism, because the separating of the “sheep from the goats” is God’s job and not mine. I think I have also been influenced by a fine dissertation I read this summer by Jason Goroncy, in which he asserts convincingly that the trajectory of P. T. Forsyth’s theology should (but doesn’t) lead him toward dogmatic universalism, a belief that all will ultimately be saved.  I still don’t know whether I am there yet, but I have been ruminating about the “love that will not let me go.”  As a theologian of the cross and the atonement I would be the last to limit its power and scope.  Who can say where the saving work of Jesus Christ ends?

Is this another scandal of the cross?  It just might be.  Have you noticed that in many of our theological discussions about who is in and who is out with God, we naturally gravitate toward the extreme cases: Hitler, Stalin, and, of course, Judas.  This lets us off the hook.  But it shouldn’t.  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

One of the most powerful and poignant moments for me every Holy Week is when I come to the line in the passion hymn Herzliebster Jesu where the congregation sings, “I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.”  That pretty much settles for me the ever vexing question of who killed Jesus.  Yes, the Romans, but they were stand-ins for all of humanity.  Still, from the cross Jesus forgives his murderers, and by extension, us.

So if I can be saved, can Judas be saved?  I am not the one to say, but I am intrigued by what Bauckham and Hart do in their meditation. They end with a poem that speaks to this very point, an “imaginative construal between Judas and Jesus in death, which ironically brought Judas much closer to his master than any of the other disciples, as they hung on their respective trees.”  I am reassured that I am not the only one who sometimes has to turn to a poet when the language of theology reaches its outer limit:

The  Ballad of the Judas Tree

In Hell there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified
Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever hanging on the tree
Grown from his own despair
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
“It was for this I came” he said
“And not to do you harm
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept
In three days’ time
I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had
My tree will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell”
So when we all condemn him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first


These mediations are particularly significant to me since they were developed for a Good Friday service at St. Andrew’s, St. Andrews, Scotland, very near to where we lived, and where we sometimes worshipped, during our sojourn there in the Spring and Summer of 1995.  Alas, we left a year too early to hear them there, as they were done in 1996 and 1997.

(At The Cross:  Meditations on People Who Were Thereby Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart, InterVarsity Press, 1999)

“What is on your bookshelf?”

Here’s a fun blog ( Faith and Theology: On Richard Bauckham’s books) with lots of pithy comments on two of my favorites:

Richard Bauckham, who was my sabbatical advisor at St Andrews in 1995 when I wrote When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:  Reflection on the Atonement, and

Marilynne Robinson, whose Gilead and Home I hungrily devoured, and whose Death of Adam is one of the best things ever written on Calvin.

Pastors take note: on the Great Day you will be judged by the novels on your bookshelf, or lack thereof.  Go to the blog:  Faith and Theology: On Richard Bauckham’s books.

Book Review of “God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament” by Richard Bauckham

God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament
By Richard Bauckham
Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999. 79 pp. $12.00.

Richard Bauckham, professor of New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, is perhaps best known for his studies of the book of Revelation and for his commentaries on Jude and 2 Peter. He is also a thoughtful theologian who has written an introduction to the theology of Jirgen Moltmann. God Crucified displays the craft of both a careful exegete and a deft theologian as Bauckham explores the riddle of how the radically monotheistic Jews who composed the earliest church could have come to call Jesus “Lord.”

His argument turns much of mainstream christology, which has often assumed that a high christology is both a later development and incompatible with Jewish monotheism, on its head. According to Bauckham, “the earliest Christology was already the highest Christology,” a theology of divine identity that focuses on “who God is” rather than on what “divinity” is. In the Jewish monotheism of the Second Temple, the identity of God was understood by analogy with human identity, which includes both character and personal story. This unique identity had two key features: (1) God as the creator of all things and (2) God as the sovereign ruler over all things. God is also identified by God’s acts in Israel’s history, especially in the exodus, and by the character description God gives to Moses: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6). The acts of God and the character of God together identify God as the one who acts graciously towards his people.

This God, then, by his very identity, was expected to act in the future. For example, Second Isaiah, an important source for early Christians, expects a new exodus, which will show decisively God’s identity as creator and ruler of all things. So the first Christians, who had experienced this new exodus in Jesus, understood that God was continuing the story, and “a new narrative of God’s acts becomes definitive for his identity.” The God who acted in the exodus had now acted again in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

When the church included Jesus, a human being humiliated and exalted, into the identity of God, they were saying something radically new about God’s identity. Nevertheless, the novelty of God crucified did not betray the identity of the God of Israel. On the contrary, as the early church examined the Scriptures it could find consistency in the novelty. It found the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ to be one and the same God.

Bauckham helps us understand early Jewish monotheism as the context for New Testament christology. On one hand, he takes issue with “strict” approaches, which claim that only a radical break with Jewish monotheism could allow for the attribution of divinity to Jesus. On the other hand, he rejects “revisionist” approaches, which focus on intermediary figures– principal angels, exalted humans, and the like-as models by which to understand the divinity attributed to Jesus. Bauckham also maintains a strict view of monotheism but argues that a high christology was possible precisely within a strict monotheism by identifying Jesus directly with the God of Israel. Bauckham rejects the second view as being unimportant for the study of christology, for the intermediary figures were never worshipped. He understands the presence of divine attributes such as word and wisdom as expressions of God’s identity and not separate creatures. They demonstrate, he believes, that Second Temple Judaism does not find distinctions in the divine identity inconceivable or threatening to divine uniqueness.

Such a christology of divine identity helpfully moves us beyond functional and ontic understandings. A functional christology, in which Jesus exercises the functions of lordship without being ontically divine, would have been problematic for Jewish monotheism, since the unique sovereignty of God was not something God could delegate to someone else. The ontological approach has often assumed that while early Jewish monotheists could speak of divine functions when speaking of Jesus, they shied away from speaking of divine nature, something that only later patristic development spelled out. Against this view, Bauckham shows that throughout the New Testament there are clear and deliberate uses of the unique, divine identity to include Jesus. Bauckham’s christology of divine identity offers a proper way to understand the New Testament within its Jewish monotheistic context by including Jesus, cross and all, within the unique identity of Israel’s God.

Richard L. Floyd.

(This review first appeared in Theology Today in April 2001, in a slightly edited form that eliminated my masculine personal pronouns for deity, an editorial practice I find stylistically awkward, theologically problematic, and troublesome to free speech. This is closer to what I originally wrote.)