In this inaugural episode, Arthur Dewey answers “the burning question” and discusses the book, The Gospel of Jesus: According to the Jesus Seminar.
Natalie: Hello and welcome to the first episode of Better Not Mention It, a podcast that talks about things that lie in the space between religious fellowship and general knowledge. You know, the things that we’re not supposed to notice, the things that don’t exactly fit together, that make folks itchy when you look closely at text like the Bible and its surrounding ancient or contemporary context, the things we’re not supposed to talk about. I’m Natalie Renee.
So first, a little about me and what I’m doing here. I’m a member of the Westar Institute and this podcast is my experiment in contributing to the work of Westar in helping to bridge the gap between religious scholarship and with the general population has access to. For those of you who don’t know the Westar Institute, here’s the cliff notes version. It’s a collection of scholars called ‘fellows’ and the about page on the website describes them as a non-profit public benefit research and educational organization that is dedicated to fostering and communicating the results of cutting edge scholarship on history and evolution of the Christian tradition thereby raising the level of public discourse about questions that matter in society and culture.
Back in the 90s, they began their first seminar called ‘The Jesus Seminar’. About 200 scholars from North America, Europe, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand research the words of Jesus in the Bible. Their goal was to find the historical Jesus, first in word and then in deed. Using the Red Letter Bible, that– for those of you who don’t know is called that because it has all of Jesus’ sayings in red– so using this version, they devised the voiding system to help them describe their research findings. About 75 scholars signed off on this work. All of this is compiled in several books, one of which holds both the words and deeds together. That book is entitled, ‘The Gospel of Jesus According to the Jesus Seminar,’ and today I’ll be talking to one of the scholars and authors of this book, Arthur Dewey. He goes by Art for short.
I ran into Art at the annual conference that is held every fall for the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. It’s called AARSBL for short and is held along with Westar’s Fall Meeting. The conference this year was held on a hotel in Downtown Atlanta, and to give you a picture of what it looks like, imagine 10,000 introverts together all wearing tweed jackets– that’s about it. Though it has been slowly shifting over the years, it is still mostly old white males and Art is no exception. However, I would be incorrect by describing him as an introvert. Warm and funny, he always has a comment to share or critique on the work being done in the two seminars at Westar’s now conducting, one being the seminar on God and the human future and the other is the Christianity seminar. I’ll let Art introduced himself through a recording we made at the conference. We were able to find a room with minimal noise, but unfortunately, it had a lot of echo.
Art: I’m Art Dewey and I’m a Professor of Theology at Xavier University. I’m a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. I also do tutorials for The Fourth R.
Natalie: The Fourth R is Westar’s magazine that is geared towards the general public. It includes articles from the Fellows and other guest contributors in less technical language than in their journal and also publishes the findings of the seminars. I took this opportunity with Art to ask him a burning question– one that had been on my mind since I began observing Westar and its fellows. If there is one thing that you wanted the general population to know surrounding religion or Christianity or anything in that world, what is the thing that you think people should be wrestling with, the ideas they have in their head as they’re thinking about God?
Art: I think perhaps I would quote the angelic interruptus who say “mei phubu”, don’t be afraid.’
Natalie: Side note: The Greek he is quoting is the original language in the book of Luke found in the Immaculate Conception Story. In Chapter 1:28, the angel Gabriel comes to Mary who in verse 29 is perplexed to say the least, I mean who wouldn’t be, so then in verse 30, Gabriel says to her “mei phubu: don’t be afraid.” Art went on to explain how this connects for him to how we as a contemporary society think about God.
Art: In this society and in this world, which is getting increasingly frenetic, in an atmosphere where we look towards the future and wander through will be any grandchildren or great-grandchildren, in a world that we worry about whether there’ll be any planet frost or whether human beings will be around, we need to hunker down and begin to re-imagine what other possibilities that we have with this and as we get into the future. And by that I mean if we take seriously some of` the words of the historical Jesus and use them as not prescriptions or as commandments but use them as wisdom sayings and we struggle with them. For example, one line is “What you treasure is your heart’s true measure.” In some ways that is all about religion but even more so, it’s all about what we are in this planet, what we can be. And perhaps the first thing we have to do is ask ourselves, “What do we really treasure and how do we share this treasure?” Another way putting it, to use another metaphor, Jesus talked about the empire of God. I am much more inclined to phrase “the atmosphere of God.” Why do I use it? Because I think one of the difficulties that we have is learning how to breathe again, learning how to realize that the breath we take is the breath we share with each other, and that we are completely interdependent, and that we need one another to survive and to thrive in this planet. And I don’t know if we have to wrestle with it but we certainly have to sit with those thoughts and with those possibilities of imagination and let these possibilities deepen and widen so that we realize that what we’re really doing is in fact setting the conditions of existence for one another and not just the ones who are presently existing but the ones who will exist. And so we have to tread carefully but with some confidence that we can do something, that we are not paralyzed. Especially in a time when we have fear among us a plenty we have demagogues and mystagogues all over the place and we have a public sphere, which is almost dedicated to amnesia and fascism. I hope that we learn to speak strongly and intelligently and compassionately, and we have to do in small groups, fine, let the murmuring continue.
Natalie: His answer bred more questions, so I asked Art if he’d be willing to discuss further via Skype. I read Westar’s book, The Gospel of Jesus, and thought it was a great starting point for this kind of conversation. Art immediately set me straight.
Art: The starting point really was the results of The Jesus Seminar in terms of both the words and the deeds. We had gone to three phases. We went through the examination of the words, then we went through the deeds, and then the third phase which lasted about two and a half to three years was the profile seminar. So that we took what we argue to have come from minister of Jesus and said, “Okay, if we put this together, what do we get?” and so we constructed profiles. And the third volume that came out of the profiles of Jesus gears a variety of profiles from the fellows in addition to some analysis of other people’s work just to show that people not even involved in the seminar will be doing similar things. They were trying to create a profile. Then, we pointed out the limits of some of their positions because they really didn’t and look at all the sayings, all the words nor do they were consistent at times with their criteria. What we did then was to say, “Okay. Some people are just simply asking, ‘Well what would it look like if you just isolated the material that we argue to be read in pink, what would it look like?’” So we put together the Gospel of Jesus. That’s where it’s coming from. The sayings that are there and the few deeds, mostly healing situations and illusions to meals, those things are all the results of the deliberations and the judgment of the fellows. And then when I redid the Gospel of Jesus for the Second Edition, there were number of things that had to be done.
First of all, I had to provide a new preface and a new introduction. The Gospel of Jesus, the First Version didn’t really consider the third phase. The third phase was still going on when the first one came out, and then there has been work after that especially in terms of the Acts seminar and the Paul material. All that had to be mentioned and a much rounder picture of the whole process had to be given. And then in the introduction, I tried to provide people with a, I think, a door that can open at least somewhat ajar to what was really going on and trying to get people to get in to the adventure of it. And what it means is that the sayings, they’re in particular chapters but the chapters are completely arbitrary. We’ve grouped the sayings because they sometimes have similar themes but as I point out in the introduction, you can simply move them about and in fact, I changed some of the sayings, moved them about, put all the healing stories into one chapter and added a couple of sayings which were gray but they had received at least 50% of the vote red or pink, so I put just a couple of them and put those in. The notes, I actually push the notes and expanded them, and then there were many, many typos especially in the index. I went through the original index and I found, oh something like 50 or so problems, and then since I moved everything around, we had to change all the numbers. I was playing the Biblical Bingo for weeks.
Natalie: How similar do you feel that process was, particularly with moving things around, with how these texts have been treated historically?
Art: Say that again, now?
Natalie: How…. Do you find any similarities or differences between, like, how you were able to look at these texts and maybe move things around; or as you’re considering how it’s put together, do you see any similarities or differences between that and the way that these texts have been handled historically?
Art: Well, what usually happens when you look at these texts, many scholars just presume that the overall scene is the Gospel narrative and, I think you mentioned this in your notes, these things seem to be obstructed and removed from that. In fact, that’s what we wanted to happen. We wanted people to see that the narrative which coaches and frames these sayings is secondary.
Natalie: Yeah, I mentioned something about it feeling sparse compared to what I’m used to reading.
Art: Exactly! One of the difficulties with reading this or actually reading Q or Thomas is that these are just collections of sayings and how do you read that without a narrative. And that’s what we really wanted to point out that at the earliest level, we have these sayings that have been passed down. How were they passed down? Well, first of all they were remembered, memorized and many of them were very memorable so you could remember them. But then as they are being passed down orally, you might say gravitate, some gravitate to one another and there are what the Germans called “zigfords”: stitches. For example, if you’re talking with some people at night and you said, “Oh, you know that reminds me of this teacher I had in high school,” and then you tell the story, and then somebody says, “Yeah, that reminds me of my English teacher in high school ” and then you tell a story. So the stitch word or the stitch phrase is “the teacher I had in high school” and that becomes like the branch upon which hang on the story. And the same thing happens in the sayings.
For example, in Mark Chapter 4, most New Testament scholars would argue that there are three parables in Chapter 4 of Mark. It begins with Parable of the Sower, and then you get explanations, two levels of explanation. One is a level which says the outsiders don’t understand, the insiders get the message. And then you get in verses 13-20 an overall allegory and that’s definitely a Markan allegory and even the explanation verses 11-12 are later explanation. So you go back to the original story of the sower in verses 3-8 and there’s no context and you’re not really sure what it is about. However, if you go through the rest of Chapter 4, you find two other stories and they begin with a seed being sowed in the ground. And that’s the connection. In other words, before Mark got his hands on these things, they were circulating in the triplet fashion and people would use them for a variety of things and Mark did the same thing. So that’s how they get into the tradition and many of us would argue that these are indications of an oral tradition that’s developing and then Mark write from that and then Matthew and Luke take them over, but they also begin to interpret them in their own way too. So the tradition was to words and even the written gospels were oral performances so that the oral aspect of the gospels really should not be forgotten and that’s usually the first thing we forget.
Art: We read them flat as printed text and, you know, we all know how to read print. You read print silently and that’s exactly not how they did in the ancient world. So we have reduced it and flattened it and part of the job of the historical interpreter is to really invigorate it, toughen it up, give it some dimension and time space and give it some fluidity and when you do that, then you begin to see these are very interesting sayings, then the question comes how do you begin to interpret these? And that’s why you really need more breath in terms of the culture, the culture of Israel in an occupied country under Roman rule and, you know, what is the farming situation like? What is it like in Galilee? What was going on? All these things have to be cited in as you’re listening to the stories. So that’s really how you do it. And so in terms of the Gospel of Jesus, one of the things you need to do is basically you stop at each saying and you have to engage your imagination. So okay, what could be the context? What’s going on? What is really happening here? And the note is supposed to help a little bit in terms of providing, a little bit of context so that you can begin to say, “Aha.” For example, the line, “Congratulations, you’re poor, God’s empire belongs to you,” Well, that sounds okay and it sounds…
Natalie: We’re used to hearing that one. That’s usually part of the beatitudes, right? The blessed–
Art: Yeah, that’s right. But it’s probably a separate line and then you have to imagine what would the audience be and the audience is probably peasants. And if somebody says to peasants, “Congratulations, God’s empire belongs to you,” what are they going to do with that? You know, I mean they are going to look around and say, “Yeah,” What’s this mean? One of the key things is to first of all, look at the word empire. Empire doesn’t refer to a place. It refers to effective presence. Okay? So that the Romans have a word for it, they called it imperial. And the Greek word for this is basileia. And so Jesus is talking about the effective presence of God. Well, his audience would already have in their mind an image of God’s effective presence. For example, if I were a Jew in Galilee, when I hear empire, I might just go to Roman Empire until I see Roman occupation. I could be a Jew who resents the Roman occupation and I might be thinking of empire in terms of days of Solomon and days of David, so rebellious thing.
If I were a priest, I would see the Empire of God as already established in the temple and they would have no problem with that then, God’s presence is there. And if I were a Pharisee, they were intent about bringing about God’s empire but for them, it meant to live the traditions everyday in the home and in the marketplace. And if you were simply a peasant, you might see the empire as having your own land and resting under the shade of your own tree. And that would be it. So they had all these expectations of an empire, but when Jesus then says “the empire and God is like,” that’s the key. The key is that connection and basically, he is upsetting almost all those expectations and saying it’s not that, but then he doesn’t explain it. He leave it to them to figure it out, so one of the things that we concluded in the seminar was that the empire comes, as it were, when people begin to figure it out. So let’s go back to the “Congratulations you’re poor, God’s empire belongs to you.” Well, first of all, everybody in the ancient world would say, “That’s crazy talk because we already know what the empire is– it’s the Roman occupation, it’s Roman rule, that’s what the empire is.” So what about the poor, what about the peasant? Well, they’re all expandable. They don’t count. So that to say to these people, “God’s presence is with you”, is literally to turn the pyramid of power on its head. That’s what’s really going on.
Art: Yeah, I mean when we heard in the 60s and 70s: Power to the People, that’s equivalent to that. It really is.
Natalie: That is what I was just wondering where you see connections between that, those Romans in history and what is happening, maybe in our more contemporary history or even happening now.
Art: Right. I mean think of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” You know that some of the crazy debates were reaction to that. Well, I mean the point is that these people count and you know, sort of how dull you have to be not to see that, but in the 1st Century, peasants don’t count. They’re all expandable. They’re all servicing the elite. So, for somebody in that position to hear that God’s presence is in your midst, that could in effect, turn them around, give them hope, give them the sense of worth, and then if you couple that with eating with them. Now one of the biggest problems of the ancient world was you are with whom you eat, and so if I shared the meal with somebody under me, I was demeaning myself. If I shared the meal with somebody above me, that person might be elevating me or I might be trying to jump up and I’m not supposed to. In other words, people are very concerned about where the level is and it seems in the argument that people made it about Jesus was, he ate with anybody, and that means he broke all those rules. And so his eating habits reflect his speech and the speech reflects his eating habits. And the same thing goes with the healing. I mean he heals people. There were many other healers. They weren’t a common daily occurrence but they were many, and for him to touch people makes him taboo. He should not be touching these unclean people. So to touch them and to say to them that their trust has- he never said that he healed them, he says their trust has healed them.
So what that means is he functions as a conduit of God’s power which people recognize. And it’s that which heals them, not Jesus. So, the other way of putting it would be that he’s saying that it’s connections. Connections are possible and the people you would not expect to have any connection get connections. And so I think one to begin to see that, if you have somebody doing that, you’d be saying something in contrast to what the upper classes would want and that would be not a good thing and that you would become suspicious, rather suspect. And yeah, so at [inaudible], we used to say this a lot [inaudible] (24:32) Blateman (?) used to say that Jesus’ speech betrayed them, betrayed you know what he dreamed of and that part of this fascination with the historical Jesus by the people was that they began to share the dream and also maybe to experiment in ways that he hadn’t even imagined. One of the ways you could see that is in the Sayings Gospel: Q. We have, you know, said that some of the sayings go back to historical Jesus. Well, you’ve got a lot of other sayings put on Jesus’ lips that are not from Jesus. Where did they come from? They come from the Q community. And….
Natalie: Do you want to talk about what Q is for anyone who doesn’t know?
Art: Okay. Yeah, Q for many people is a theoretical gospel, but what it really is when you look at the Synoptic Gospels: Mark, Matthew, Luke, you find out that there are apparent interrelationships. They are word-for-word agreements in many places, and the question is how do you solve the relationship? And the first thing that we’ve done was to say that it looks from a comparative study of Mark, Matthew, Luke, that Mark was probably written first and Matthew and Luke copied the skeletal structure of Mark. Now, there are specific arguments that people can make but primarily it’s that Matthew apparently follows Mark’s order and adds material and deletes some material at certain points, and Luke does the same thing but at different points. So they both seem to be following the same skeleton but they are not doing the same thing with it. That’s the primary argument for the priority of Mark. We don’t have any indications in any of the text of time. So we have to work with the comparative analysis and the internal comparative analysis.
Natalie: And this is in a basic Bible 101 class in seminary but you know, hopefully, there will be people who have not taken that class who will listen to this.
Art: Yeah, well, then if Matthew is the first one and Matthew/Luke use it, then if we removed the Markan material from Matthew and Luke, something odd happens and that is there’s still word for word agreement it in major portions of Matthew and Luke. And there are also materials in Matthew that are found only in Matthew and materials found only in Luke. So you know, scholars creatively called special materials in Matthew M and special materials in Luke L. So if you remove the special materials in Luke, special materials in Matthew, you still have a lot leftover when Matthew and Luke agree, and that’s Q. That is how you find Q. And people said, “Well, this is most of the stuff is just sayings.” There’s no such thing as a collection of sayings. Well, John Kloppenborg, in his book The Formation of Q, many years ago pointed out, indeed this is one of the major genres of literature in the ancient world. You have it in Egyptian literature. You have it in Greek literature and in Roman literature, as well as Jewish literature of collection of wise sayings. And we know that in the Book of Proverbs, it’s right there, Book of Sirach, Ecclesiastes. In other words, you had a format where people collected sayings of wise people and they memorized these things. In fact, some people have pointed it out that some of these sayings traditions were the ways in which the scribes when to write. They would copy them out or they actually will be dictated and then the scribes would write them out. And that’s how they would learn the sayings.
But also, it’s been argued that there’s a high wisdom tradition and the low wisdom tradition. The high wisdom tradition is the elite, the people who can write, but the low wisdom tradition was the peasants and that tradition existed too, and that tradition would consist of stories, parables, aphorisms, illustrations, jokes, puzzles, and all that stuff would be passed down. So it looks like the historical Jesus comes out of that lower wisdom tradition and he’s a very creative sort. So getting back to Q. If Q existed, it probably existed before even the Gospel of Mark. There is no indication for example on the Fall of Jerusalem in Q so that– the dating has been set between 45 and 65. And Kloppenborg even sees, believe it or not, three different levels in Q and I think he is substantially correct on that. In any event, the point I’m getting to is that we in the seminar detected historical sayings of Jesus in that other Q material. And the other Q material would represent the movement of the Q Community working with the sayings of Jesus and adding to that, and it’s similar to if you hear a good story. One of the things that happens with a good story is that you want to repeat it. That’s one thing. Another thing that happens is that a good story sort of authorizes or initiates more so storytelling. So, you know?
Art: You tell a good story what’s going to happen.
Natalie: Right, exactly.
Art: Somebody else is going to come up with maybe even a better one….
Natalie: And also how does it morph, right? So it makes sense that you have this Q Community but also when Mark, or whoever the author of Mark is, gets ready to write– there’s a community in which Mark is speaking to, just like there’s a community in which the author of John is speaking to. So all of these different books have their own community from which they were born.
Art: Exactly. And all the evidence to that is internal. For example, the Q material looks like it’s a community maybe in Galilee. They see themselves as carrying on the work of Jesus, the vision of Jesus and many of them are itinerant and they are speaking basically to their own people.
Natalie: So in this way we get all those other– Is this where we get the other parts that have been assigned to Jesus in the Bible? Is that where they come from or? Like the birth narrative, is that where all that stuff is, is that how we attribute that?
Art: Yeah, for example, some of the sayings and warnings, the dire threats, that comes from the Q community. Yeah, and that’s to get the people, their fellow Jews to see, to come into the relationship with God that they understand Jesus is offering and they were not well received. They were not well received. Mark has his own thing but he is dealing with the fact that Jerusalem has fallen, thousands of Jews have been killed, hundreds have been crucified, and so he is dealing with a mixed community and they are trying to deal with the seismic upheaval, the fall of the temple. And the Markan community believes that they were the final generation. They thought the end was there, it was coming. That was it. And then Matthew and Luke coming later, Matthew’s dealing with the fact that the end didn’t happen, and so if you look at what Matthew does to Mark 13 which talks about the end, he postponed the end. Matthew postpones it. And Luke does the same thing in his own way. They sort of put the end off and Matthew is writing to, again, a Jewish community maybe in Galilee too. But they see themselves as trying to carry on Judaism. And they lose that gambit. I mean by the time Matthew’s community is gathering and putting together the gospel, the rabbis had been meeting in Jamnia and then into Galilee and they’re the competition. And they’re both jockeying for being the spokespeople for Judaism. And the ones who decided it is actually the Romans. The Romans decided to go with the rabbis. They certainly wouldn’t go to Jesus group because their leader was crucified by them. So then you get each community as you’ve rightly said, they have their own agenda and they’re turning the words of Jesus in different ways.
So for example, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Love your enemies.” Okay. Now that’s pretty shocking and that actually goes back to Q and we’ve argued that indeed it goes back to Jesus. So you’ve got 3 levels here: you’ve got the historical Jesus saying it, you’ve got Q repeating it, and then Matthew taking it over and putting in his construction which we call the Sermon on the Mount. And then in chapter 23, Matthew’s Jesus has no good things to say about the enemies that is, to say, they are the rabbis. So you know either Jesus has a multiple personality or is thoroughly inconsistent or something’s wrong, you know.
Art: And how do you solve it? Well, the way you solve it is chapter 23. That’s Matthew’s community speaking against their opponents, the Pharisees and so — go ahead.
Natalie: I was going to say you spoke, or in the book on, — there’s a point where you talk about the different versions that are clearly reflected —
Art: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Natalie: As perspectives of that community, why is this info on perspective so important?
Art: Because it gives you a clue as to the intentionality of the writer or the audience at that point and you can distinguish between that and the intentionality on the imagination of Jesus. So again, in the 19th century, critics had a field day with the gospels because if you just assume that Jesus said everything, he sounds crazy. I mean he really does. How can you say love your enemies in the 5th chapter of Matthew and then in chapter 23 hate your enemies. How do you solve that? Well there a number of ways of solving it but one the things they didn’t do was to say– we have layers and “love your enemies” probably goes back to Jesus, whereas the excoriation of the Pharisees in 23 really reflects the typical in house battles between Jews.
And so in some ways you can say that Matthew’s community forgot or muted the force and the challenge of “love your enemies.” And indeed in the Gospel of John, which you know in tradition has been called the Gospel of Love, the love of enemies is never mentioned. It’s love those in your group, love one another. And that reflects a community that actually is divorced from other Jews. They’ve already seen themselves alienated. So they’re thrown back upon their own group. So in some ways, the gospel of John is a little tragic, a very tragic gospel. Yeah. So Augustus, for example picks it up, he sees that loving one another and love your enemies, they’re not the same. How does he solve it? Well Augustus is incredible, the way he solves it, he defined “How do I love my enemy? I love the truth in my enemy. But what if the enemy doesn’t know the truth? Well, then maybe I have to torture him in order to bring out the truth.”
Natalie: Right. Yeah.
Art: It’s really weird. And that’s what really you know we can get off —
Natalie: But not far from what we do now.
Art: No, that’s exactly right.
Natalie: Sometimes you try and make it fit, yeah. Make it make sense.
Art: Yeah I mean think of the Spanish inquisition or Abu Ghraib– there we are. We can just find anything we want.
Art: But that’s why it’s important to have some critical controls if you can establish, did Jesus say this or not, then you can make some interesting distinctions and say, “No, this later saying. It’s first of all later and it also indicates a certain forgetfulness of the challenge” and then the question remains for us. Where do you want to read the text? Do you want to read the text with the historical Jesus or do you want to read the text with the later community. You know.
Natalie: Well how were you able to tell which things were historic Jesus and which things were not? And if you want to about some of the resources you used as well.
Art: Well, basically you have to have criteria. You have to have criteria and there were 11 criteria. The second thing is you have to have a sense of the time and the place, you have to have control over the evidence. So for example, let’s go back to “love your enemies.” How many people could say love your enemies? And when you look at Jewish text in the first century, you don’t get that. For example, the Qumran the Essenes at Qumran called themselves the sons of light. Everybody else is a son of darkness and that includes other Jews. So you don’t get people innately looking at the other side especially the other group. The enemy was by definition wrong and “other.” So to say “love your enemies,” what kind of figure speech is it? It looks like a command. But a command makes sense only when you can understand it as a command.
For somebody in the first century when they heard love your enemies, that doesn’t make any sense. And so one of the things we did in the debate was to see that it’s not a command, it’s what we call an aphorism a short saying designed to get into your head and do damage and to really play with your assumptions. And so because it is so distinctive we would argue using the criterion of distinction that very few people could say that. That would be the primary reason for that. We’d also look at the source and we’ve seen that in Luke and in Matthew which means it’s in Q which means there’s only one source. There’s only one source. So it’s not something that is widely shared in the tradition. It gets into the tradition because it goes into Q and then Q is used by Matthew and Luke.
But it’s not picked up by John and nor is it picked up by Thomas. So it’s limited and so you have to say, well what does that mean? It means that it’s important to some and not to others. Does that make it from Jesus? No not by itself. But because it is so unusual, you’re not going to get many people saying that and it really goes counter to not only the people at that time but also it goes counter to later followers of Jesus. This is one of the things the later followers of Jesus do not do is love their enemies. I mean they don’t really do this well. They fall back into the patterns of group think. And so those will be the basic reason why you would argue that saying goes back to the historical Jesus. Is there hundred percent certainty. No. It’s probability. It’s probability.
But you know when you look at Greek literature and you look at Roman literature, you look at Jewish literature and try to find somebody saying “love your enemies,” rarely do find it. One Greek playwright wrote a play about the Trojan women and so — every now and then, you get somebody who’s beginning to think of the enemy but not many. And then take another story, take the story of the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. And in the Lukan version and it’s only in Luke, so there’s only a single source. In the Lukan version he frames it as an example story. But in the story itself, it’s not an example story it’s a very — it just blows your mind because it starts off with this– from presumably a Jew going from Jerusalem to Jericho and anybody who knows the scene there knows that road is full of bandits.
So a man going by himself is a fool. So we start out with a “stupid Jew” who gets what he deserves. He gets mugged and left half dead. So that would not be that surprising and then you get a priest and then a Levite going down, they go down separately. But it also indicates they’re going down by themselves. Now no priest or Levite would do that. So the listener would say number 1, “Oh, this is a fiction. This is just a story.” And number 2, “There’s resentment on the part of the peasants towards the upper class priest and Levites.” And what did the priest and Levite do? They pass on by. They don’t want to be touched — or rendered impure anything like that. And the audience would say, of course that’s exactly how those bigwigs do it. So the third person and since we now know it’s simply a story. The third person should be the Jewish hero and that would be a Pharisee because in the eyes of many people the pharisees were the heroes. And it wasn’t a Pharisee, it’s a Samaritan. And when that word was uttered the Jewish people in the audience, they will almost feel as if their skin was crawling. Because these people are just the wrong sort. You don’t associate with them and whoever is telling the story is imagining the enemy as somebody who can act out of human compassion. Exactly what you would want but it’s the enemy doing it. And so the argument from the seminar is that the story is so outrageous and it goes against the grain, again, it’s distinctive. But by the same token, it coheres with the phrase “love your enemies.” In other words, can you imagine the person who says “love your enemies” putting together a story like that? And the answer by the majority of scholars was yes. Yes.
So that’s how you begin to create a profile too. You begin to say, this saying and this saying– oh my. Once you see them in context, you see that they’re dynamite. And again, he tells the story and he leaves it for the audience to figure it out if they’re courageous enough to see what’s going on then the lights go on and for Jesus in a wisdom sense, the presence of God is there. You know the story of the man who had two sons is another interesting story. You know some people called it the story of the dysfunctional family. And it’s an interesting story because there’s no mother.
Art: There’s no mother you know. Where are the female figures? Well actually the female figure was the father because the father acts like a woman in two respects. The first thing is that the youngest son insults the father and asks for his inheritance. He effectively saying to the father, “you are dead to me.”
Art: Now if the father were a man in the first century, he would just throw the kid out. Because he should be dead to him, instead he gives him his inheritance. So there’s a weakness there…
Natalie: Which in that time period was associated with women.
Art: Exactly, exactly and then the kid, you know, screws around and says you know even my father’s slaves have it better and he goes back. This kid is always calculating. Even rehearses what he’s going to say to get back.
Art: And before he does that the father comes out, he comes running out and man of his gravity shouldn’t be running. He’s acting like the woman again. And you know it’s a very interesting thing and then the story continues actually the story always had a deeper side because it’s a — the man had two sons. And the first sons story is told first. The second son is lurking in the background and then he comes out of the shadows and it’s very apparent that this kid has despised his father all the time because he said, “I slaved for you” and what have you done for me? Yeah. And the father says, you know, kinda, “Cool it. Your brother is home. We welcomed him. Everything I have is yours.” You see the father doesn’t say we’re splitting it up again. He thought the youngest kid had lost all his stuff. So, the youngest son is actually now dependent upon the older brother and their father is sort of this inviting the older brother into the feast and that’s how the story ends. We don’t know if the brother will go in. We also don’t know what happens after the father died because after the father died, the older brother could assert his authority and kick him out. And so the story would continue in a very, very tragic way. And the question to the listener would be, “How did this end?” And you’ve got to figure it out.
Natalie: So you’ve been doing this work for a while now and continue to do it.
Art: Oh yes.
Natalie: And I’m just curious why do you do this work and what nourishes you about doing this work?
Art: Well, I must confess, I once wrote an editorial for The Fourth R and I pointed out that when I began working in the texts and doing graduate work in the texts, my biggest fear was becoming a dinosaur, that I would get into something that would render me completely incapable of connecting with real people and I’ve never felt that actually. And the reason for that is that number 1 as I’ve pursued this, I have checked every now and said, “Is this still giving me some excitement, some bliss?” And I’ve had to admit yes it does. Secondly, it’s– I’ve been able, especially with the work at the seminar, been able to answer a number of questions that get to the question of Jesus and it’s opened up other issues in terms of the origins of Christianity or the origins of Judaism. That has allowed me to help many people deal with, for example, the whole collection of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism.
And I’ve done workshops and in fact, I’m going to be doing courses next fall on that again. Trying to deal with the question “is the New Testament, in itself anti-Semitic?” Where does this stuff come from? Where did hatred come from? And the only way you can solve it is by going into the sources, going into the material, looking at the context, trying to figure out how the language is working. And I must say especially when they do it on their workshop class whether Jews and Christians and the first thing you find out when you’re doing that is the immense pain on both parts. And the tragedy, I mean I had one woman whose brother had married a Jewish girl and the parents of both families just abandoned those two.
Art: And she, the sister of the brother was the “go between”– the mother and the father would ask her, “How are they doing?” But they would never talk to them. And when she was working through these texts and things like this she said, “You mean there’s no basis for it? That we shouldn’t be?” I said, “You’re right. Yeah.” And I’ve done some work with — there’s a Jewish Christian group in Silver Spring, Maryland. They are people who are basically ostracized by both sides and therefore they’ve come together. And the pastor of that community invited me some years ago about 8 years ago to come and talk about the death of Jesus because she said “this is a real biggie; we’ve gotta to deal with that.” And I said, “Sure, I’ll be glad to come.” And we had a really good discussion. And the little tidbit of that is one of the things that I found out is that the death story of Jesus– and, again, it starts with Mark, and then picked up by Matthew and Luke– but the death story of Jesus is written in the format of the tale of the Innocent Sufferer. The one who is persecuted, tortured and then vindicated and that story is an old Jewish story– it goes back to 160 before the Common Era– and so the format is there, all the elements is there. And when Mark is trying to tell the story of the death of Jesus, he doesn’t go to eyewitness account. What he does is to create a story that speaks to the experience of the suffering of innocents and Jesus is seen as the innocent sufferer just as the many hundreds who were killed in the Jewish war were innocent sufferers. And so the death of Jesus is not a solitary death but is a death in solidarity with all those who died. And that’s a very different way of looking at the death of Jesus; it’s very Jewish way of understanding it. The horrible irony is that Christians have used the death Jesus as an excuse to kill Jews. And that comes in later with Matthew with the blood curse. But even the blood curse I can show that this is part of the format you know by Matthew and he’s actually trying to get his fellow Jews to see what the death of Jesus means.
And it doesn’t mean a curse. The blood curse is actually ironically meant to mean forgiveness. So when these people say, “Let his blood be upon us and our children,” Matthew’s saying, “the blood is the blood of forgiveness because even though you’re not suffering [that kind of] loss, that word blood is used because this is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins, not for condemnation but for forgiveness. So they’re ironically calling for forgiveness and they don’t know it exactly; it’s dramatic irony in scene.
Art: But Matthew is lost. I mean his fellow Jews did not listen to Matthew’s community. They imitate the Pharisee who become a rabbis. And then the Gospel of Matthew, 100 years later, is read by people who have no Jewish context and they used it in a very wooden way as an excuse.
Natalie: So, I think it would be safe to say at this point that you think that there’s some incredible value to the different messages that you found —
Natalie: In the historical Jesus and what is true about the historical Jesus. And I’m just wondering if you remember the moment when you realized these messages were important and what that time or experiences like for you and also where you’d like to see these messages today?
Art: I don’t think I have any major one moment that you know it just makes sense in it. I think what happens is you get these insights and then you begin to share. Although I must say in my experience, usually these insights come and then within a day or within 2-3 days, I use them and I see the effects upon people. So in some ways, that’s one of the ways I’ve seen this happened. I’m not only see it with students but I’ve seen it with other people that have had to deal with questions of scripture and things like that. These things do good in people. I put this way, in some sense, basically, what I’m teaching, I’m teaching survival skills. When I speak to women, particularly women in the church, I say you really need to know this. You really need to know the kind of situation out of which the texts were created. You got to see the patriarchy. You got to see the injustice. You got to see all this. So that when people come up to you, basically males in power and they quote texts at you. You’re not cowered by it.
Art: Because you probably know better than they what these texts are about. I just don’t want people to be placed in a position where they are reduced to silence. But you know teaching is strange thing, scholarship is even worse. It’s kind of a — a crazy thing, a lonely thing, you know. You don’t what you’re doing that’s going to bear fruit.
Art: You never know.
Natalie: And it’s that story I’m– I don’t know whose story it is, the one about the seeds that are scattered and some of them land on like the rocks and some of them land in the–
Art: That’s the Parable of the Sower. That’s the Parable of the Sower, yeah. And the interesting thing about that story is that when you read the story, it doesn’t seem to make sense to us and the reason it doesn’t make any sense to us is because we’re not Galilean farmers. If you tell the story, it seems like so much seed is wasted and only a little bit comes up. And in fact, that’s one of the indications that it’s authentic because Galilean farmers did not sow seeds the way the Romans did or the way we do it. When we sow seeds, we create a little furrow, put the seed in then we water it and cover it over. They don’t. They take seeds and they just scatter it and it falls everywhere. And you say, you think they’d wise up! Well, Milton [inaudible] who was a New Testament scholar in the 40s, he had a father who is a missionary, German missionary to Israel around 1900. And he went up to Galilee and guess what? He saw the farmers doing the same thing. Just taking the seed and scattering it. And you know being a good German he tried to say, “You know that’s not the most efficient way of doing it.”
But getting back to the story that’s an indication — that’s what we call the environmental criteria. It fits the environment. So only somebody who knows that kind of farming method would be able to tell that story. So the crazy thing of the story is not that; the crazy thing is the yield of 30, 60 and 100. Brandon Scott did research on the recorded yields and the best recorded yield he found among Roman records was the yield of 32. Usually, the yield, a good yield is about 7-fold and so the crazy thing then of the story is that the yield is beyond belief. So the story is about a situation that you are very familiar with where there is significant loss and yet the results are beyond belief. You see? And that’s not what people usually interpret from the Parable of the Sower, they allegorize it and say, “this stands for this and this stands for this” and that reflects the later community trying to deal with the fact that there was people falling away. But the parable is not about people falling away. The parable you don’t know because you don’t have the beginning and the other two parables of the seed it begins “the empire of God is like….”
So maybe this is also about the empire of God. And so the story would be, the empire of God is like a situation where there is, you know, presumably great loss and yet the results are beyond telling. And that’s a very different God to the story. But it’s trying to imagine how the presence of God can be experienced and that is a very different way of looking at the story, there. And indeed, the historical Jesus is talking about the effective presence of God. He’s not saying, “it will come,” he’s saying, “it is here.” And so then the question becomes, well how do you know it’s here? What does that mean? And that gets you in the whole wisdom challenge of how do you understand God’s presence and I — I leave it to my students, I said “Look, I good news and bad news. The good is the bad news and the bad news is the good news. Presence of God is here.” And guess what? Apparently nothing changed or has it? And then I say, sit with that. Sit with God is effectively present, just sit with that.
Does that do anything to you? And one of my students said, “Well, if that’s true then I shouldn’t be afraid.” I said, “Yes, that’s right.” And think about that, think about how political candidates are selling this gospel of fear.
Art: Constantly, you know. And they’re basically saying something which is very un-Jewish, mainly that God is present. And if God is present then what’s your problem? What are you afraid of? And so you know one could literally turn the message to Jesus over against the politicians and say, “You guys are idolaters. You guys are not recognizing God’s presence.” And you know you’d say, “Where is it?” Well, if you follow Jesus’ inklings, God is present and the very one’s you would abandon, you would not think of. And so, look there.
Natalie: Right, right.
Art: Yeah, yeah. And then what happens when you do that? Like Francis of Assisi did that among the lepers and among the poor in Assisi and they thought he was out of his mind. So yeah. I think what we have to do is look for the signs of hope where you least expect it.
[music playing in the background]
Natalie: So ladies and gentlemen and everyone in between, what’s Art Dewey’s advice that this podcast prepares to talk about things that generally aren’t mentioned in religious circles. Be not afraid.
I’d love to hear your feedback, questions etcetera on this podcast. As I mentioned before, it’s an experiment so your thoughts are extremely important as this continues to take shape. Additionally, your questions around these theological ideas help form the direction of future episodes, until then, “mei phubu.” Don’t be afraid to have these conversations with your friends, your family, your community, whoever you think might be worth the conversation. But if you find yourself at your grandmothers 90th birthday celebration and she’s gathering her breath to blow out all those candles, don’t try to talk about it then. It might not be the best time. In fact you’d better not mention it. Sing happy birthday instead. Special thanks to Art Dewey, Cassandra Farrin, the Westar Institute, Audiobinger, Eddie Front, Podington Bear and the Free Music Archive. This is Natalie, signing off.