I am quite used to seeing stories about the historical Jesus in the media around Christmas and Easter. It is a good time for the History channel to trot out reruns of Secret Mysteries of the Bible or The Bible and Aliens. And to be honest, I occasionally watch these shows for entertainment. They are usually thin on details, but at least they have a few experts I know. Mark Goodacre, for example, served as a consultant on the BBC miniseries on the Bible (2013) and the more recent The Jesus Mysteries for the National Geographic channel.
But not all holidays need a historical Jesus tie-in. Yesterday was April 20, which for a variety of reasons I will not go into here has become an unofficial national pot smoking day. It used to be a few stoners would giggle when you said 4/20, but now the day has crawled out of the dim light of the hydroponic rooms and into popular media. Even Jesus has been dragged into this made-up holiday.
The website Core Spirit ran an article yesterday which claimed “Experts suggest that cannabis may have been a key ingredient in the “anointing oil” used by Jesus and his followers in rituals for healing.” The article cites Naturalnews as saying “the original Hebrew version of the recipe in Exodus (30:22-23), contained over six pounds of kaneh-bosem.” Since kaneh-bosem sounds a little like cannabis, the article suggests Jesus used cannabis in his healing rituals. Jesus anointed the sick with the oil described in Exodus, so he was using cannabis a natural remedy for illness. Although he did spit on blind people on a couple of occasions, Jesus never anointed anyone with oil in the New Testament.
Although the article does not say “Jesus smoked pot” (which would be an anachronism), it is a re-hash of a 2003 article in the Guardian which itself is almost entirely drawn from an earlier High Times article “Was Jesus a Stoner?” by Chris Bennett. This is not really expert support for a rather startling claim.
Blah. This is not at all accurate (obviously). The noun קִנָּמוֹן refers to cinnamon and בֹּשֶׂם is perfume made from a balsam tree. The standard lexicon for Hebrew Bible studies, the Hebrew Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament identifies the these words clearly and provides their derivation. Although the combination is usually translated “aromatic spices,” cinnamon and balsam cannot be confused with cannabis.
The article concludes that “the Christ–cannabis connection debate is perhaps an example of an overdue reexamination of some of our collective beliefs that have been clouded by propaganda.” It then goes on to condemn the failed War on Drugs.
Core Spirit focuses on “Alternative and natural medicine” as well as “myth , magic and spirituality.” The expert they cite to support the idea Jesus may have used cannabis in his healing is Carl P. Ruck, professor of classical mythology at Boston University. Ruck is in fact a professor at Boston University, but he is more interested in magic mushrooms than history: “he identified the secret psychoactive ingredient in the visionary potion that was drunk by the initiates at the Eleusinian Mystery.” Seriously, look him up on Rate My Professor.
Anyone with minimal critical thinking skills will reject this article, although possibly critical thinking skills are a bit dull on April 20.
Strauss, Mark L. Jesus Behaving Badly: The Puzzling Paradoxes of the Man from Galilee. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2015. 223 pp. Pb; $16.00. Link to IVP
In his introduction, Strauss points out most everybody likes Jesus. Although he begins with a mention of the Doobie Brothers’ hit single, Jesus is Just Alright, I thought of another song when I looked over the table of contents—Larry Norman’s The Outlaw. In that classic early “contemporary Christian” song, Norman sang “some say he was an outlaw….some say he was a poet….some say he was a sorcerer…some say a politician.” Every generation makes Jesus into something more recognizable and every scholar tends to read the teaching of Jesus in a way that supports their presuppositions.
As Strauss says in the introduction, Albert Schweitzer lambasted his generation for turning Jesus into a nineteenth century German Protestant Liberal, Larry Norman made him into a Jesus Freak hippie, just conservative American Christians make Jesus into a gun-toting fiscal conservative who drives a Ford truck. There is often a kernel of biblical truth in these odd portrayals of Jesus, often over-emphasizing a particular aspect of Jesus’ teaching to the exclusion of others. To be honest, Jesus does sometimes say and do things which may, on the surface, appear contradictory. He teaches his disciples to turn the other cheek, then he kicks over the tables at the Temple and occasionally is angry and frustrated with the lack of faith among his followers!
In order to study Jesus in the context of his own culture, Strauss proposes a series of contrasting descriptions of Jesus, such as “Hellfire Preacher or Gentle Shepherd?” or “Racist or Inclusivist?” In both of these examples, the answer should obviously be “neither.” One or two texts could be used to prove the extremes, but as Strauss points out, Jesus is far more complex than one or two verses. In the final chapter, (“Decaying Corpse or Resurrected Lord?”), Strauss is more or less arguing for a traditional view of Jesus’ resurrection through the use of a contrast.
Strauss’s first example is in many ways the most often cited contrast. Jesus can be described as a “revolutionary” similar to the Zealots who eventually went to war against Rome, but in many other passages he is a pacifist, blessing the peacemakers and turning the other cheek. So which is it? Did Jesus come to bring peace or did he come with a sword? Strauss tries to stay clear of the two extremes since Jesus does in fact resonate with more radical elements in Second Temple politics, but he also teaches his disciples to create peace.
As a second example, is Jesus “Angry or Loving?” There are a few verses where Jesus seems to be rude and offensive, angrily denouncing his opponents as a “brood of vipers.” There are times when his frustrations with his own disciples comes out as potentially angry statements. In some cases, these are glossed over by translators, but they are there and need to be recognized. How do we reconcile anger with the loving image most people have of Jesus? Strauss avoids both extremes by setting the “hard sayings” of Jesus in their proper historical and cultural context.
Some of the contrasts Strauss proposes will have different answers in different theological communities. For example, the answer to the question “was Jesus a failed prophet or victorious king?” may be answered differently in a premillennial community and a-millennial tradition. For the chapter concern Jesus as a “sexist or egalitarian,” church practice tends to inform why Jesus had only male disciples or what we make of Jesus’ relationship with Mary and the other women who followed him. Each of these chapters offers a solution, but each should generate some interesting discussion.
Some of Strauss’s contrasts seem strange to me. For example, in one chapter he asks if Jesus was an “environmentalist” or an “Earth-scorcher?” The two examples of non-environmentalism are the casting of demons into pigs who then kill themselves and Jesus’ curse on a fig tree, withering it until the end of the age. As Strauss explains, neither of these have much to do with environmentalism (the fig tree is a parabolic act not a model for the pave-the-Earth movement). I have a similar impression from the chapter entitled “Antifamily or Family Friendly?” Of course Jesus is “family friendly” in the way the phrase is normally used and the negative examples were never intended as models for mission (leave your family and follow Jesus). I realize Strauss is finding a way to deal with some “hard sayings of Jesus,” but both these chapters seemed like false-contrasts to me.
The most interesting chapter for me is “Was Jesus Anti-Semitic?” This is not a contrast, at least in the title of the chapter, but it does get at a very difficult problem in the study of the Gospels. Certainly Jesus was “against” some of the Jews, he in fact calls the “sons of the devil” in John 8:44. Sadly verses like this have been used to give biblical support to heinous crimes against the Jewish people. But Jesus was not anti-Semitic at all: he was a Jewish teaching who taught Jewish people to respond to the Jewish God properly. Anyone who thinks Jesus was “Anti-Jew” and therefore “pro-Christian” is simply foolish.
This issue raises a small problem with the book. Perhaps the question should have been, “was Jesus Anti-Semitic or was the Gospel Writer Anti-Semitic?” Since John wrote more than a generation after Jesus, it is possible to argue Jesus himself was not quite so angry with the Jews but John presented him in this way in order to support his own theology. Strauss does not broach the issue of historical Jesus or the authenticity of Jesus. The Jesus Scholar in my mind constantly raised those kinds of questions, but Strauss keeps this book on the popular level. He assumes everything in the Gospels comes from Jesus and does not worry about the source of the theology (Jesus or the Evangelist). Strauss deals with that in other places (Four Portraits, One Jesus, for example).
Another minor problem I have with this books is some of the chapters have excellent content that seems tangential to the topic. For example, in his chapter on Grace or Legalism, Strauss spends a large part of the chapter talking through several parables of grace. This is not a bad response to the question he poses, but it seemed to me the chapter was used as an opportunity to discuss parables as much as the topic of grace. Perhaps a section on Jesus’ habit of eating with sinners would have supported the idea Jesus was a grace-filled preacher as much as the parables Strauss chose.
Conclusion. This is a readable introduction to some of the issues one faces when they begin to read the Gospels seriously. Strauss writes the book on a non-academic level with a great deal of humor as well as plenty of pop-culture references. Although academic, it is written with a pastor’s heart.
The book includes a few study questions which could be used as discussion starters for a small group Bible study. In fact, I think this book would make an excellent read for a small Bible Study group interested in going a bit deeper into who Jesus was than the typical curriculum normally goes. The book might make a good auxiliary textbook for a Gospels college course, supplementing a more thorough textbook. Strauss challenges his readers to think more deeply about who Jesus is by stripping away some of the pre-conceptions about Jesus passed along by tradition and the Church. The result is clearer view of who Jesus was and more importantly, why Jesus still matters to his disciples today.
NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus first appeared after the resurrection. We are not told why and it may not be important. But while the other ten were locked in the upper room out of fear, Thomas was someplace else. Thomas seemed ready to die with Jesus in John 11, so it may be the case that he is willing to go about his life, almost daring the Jews to arrest him too.
On the other hand, perhaps Thomas experienced a “crisis of faith” when Jesus died. If he believed Jesus was the Messiah and that the Messiah was not going to be crucified by the Romans, perhaps Jesus’ death caused him to doubt everything. He may be in a state of denial, like Peter, but deeper.
Whatever the case, he returns to the upper room the disciples tell him that Jesus is alive. Jesus is “more than alive,” he has risen from the dead to a new kind of life. Whatever the reason, when he is told that Jesus rose from the dead, he refuses to believe without further evidence. Thomas gets a bad reputation as a skeptic for not believing what the disciples told him.
On the other hand, there is virtually nothing in Second Temple Period Judaism that anticipated the death of the Messiah not his resurrection to eternal life. It was something which Thomas was not ready to believe since it was unbelievable within his world view. The disciples are making an extraordinary claim, that the messiah intended to die and rise to eternal life. This will require them to re-think virtually everything that they believe.
When Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples a second time, Thomas believes and confesses Jesus as “Lord and God” (v. 28). Thomas’s confession is a theological statement for the whole book of John. The writer has been slowly revealing who Jesus is through a series of misunderstandings, people hear Jesus’ words but do not fully comprehend his meaning. Even after the resurrection, Mary thinks Jesus’ body was stolen, then the disciples wonder if he ever really died. Even when he appears to them, they still do not confess Jesus quite the way Thomas does in v. 28.
John therefore intends Thomas’s words as a final word on who Jesus is: he is the “Lord and God” of the reader, and that by believing that he is the Lord one can have eternal life in his name (verse 31). Are there other ways in which Thomas’s faithful statement functions like a theological conclusion to the Gospel of John?
While Jesus is in the high priest’s house being interrogated, Peter and another disciple have followed from a distance. This other disciple seems to be known by the servants of the high priest, since he arranges for Peter to be allowed into the courtyard. This “other disciple” could be the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” the apostle John. That is the simplest answer, but it is strange that John would not identify himself as the eyewitness to this sequence of events.
In addition, some find it odd that a Galilean fisherman would have access to the courtyard of the high priest and be known by the servants. One suggestion is that John is not a laborer, but rather a wealthy owner of a fishing business. He may have delivered fish to the high priest’s home in the past and had access to the grounds.
Peter has an opportunity at this point to speak up and declare his loyalty to Jesus, but does not (John 18:15-18). The girl who asks him if he was a follower of Jesus is a young girl using a diminutive form of the word for servant (παιδίσκη). The fact that Peter swears he does not know Jesus when confronted by a young girl stands in contrast to his words at the last supper and his attempt to defend Jesus in the Garden.
Peter denies his Lord twice more while warming by a fire himself in the courtyard (18:25-27). The third denial was to a relative of the man Peter had attacked in the garden! Perhaps Peter knew this and he feared that he would be arrested as well. Regardless, he wastes no time in denying that he was a follower of Jesus.
Immediately he heard the crow of a rooster and the words of Jesus at the last supper were fulfilled. It has only been a few hours since Peter swore loyalty to Jesus, and even less time since he pathetically tried to defend Jesus in the Garden. Yet while Jesus was inside bearing witness to the truth before the highest Jewish and Gentile authorities, Peter was on the outside denying that he even knew the man.
It is easy to relate to Peter as the “silent bystander” who witnessed a crime and said nothing. It is actually a bit worse than that in Peter’s case because he not only was silent, he contributed to Jesus; isolation by denying him three times. I have pointed out that Peter is perhaps the most faithful of the disciples since he was at least there – but when the moment for him to bear witness to his Lord he failed.
We have an advantage over Peter, we serve a risen Savior, we know how the story ended and that Jesus did in fact have victory over sin and death. We have the promised Holy Spirit to strengthen us and to enable us to stand up to persecution.
This is why our silent denials are even more scandalous than Peter’s.
At the Last Supper, Jesus predicted the disciples would all fall away, even Peter. Peter, as the leader of the disciples, denies this vehemently! Jesus declares to Peter that not only will he deny him, he will do so three times before the night is out! Jesus says Peter would disown him in only a few hours, not dawn. Westerners miss this since we start the day at midnight and usually associate a rooster crowing with dawn. The rooster was used to mark the changes in watches during the night, thus it is only a few hours until Jesus is arrested.
Peter’s statement might be a reaction to a ‘slur” on his loyalty. Peter is willing to fight to defend the Lord, he is ready to be killed defending the Lord, he is completely loyal. Remember Peter is the first disciple to grasp who Jesus was, in Mark 8 it was Peter who declared that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Even though at that time he understood properly, he does not understand here that the Messiah was going to suffer and die, he will defend the Lord, and die by his side. But that is not the plan, the Messiah is to be abandoned. Peter is speaking as a representative of the disciples, after he speaks, all the disciples join in with him in declaring their loyalty.
Yet when the time for action arrives, Peter does attempt to defend Jesus and wounds a servant (John 18:8-11). When the soldiers arrive to arrest Jesus, Peter attacks the servant of the High Priest, cutting off his ear with a short dagger (μάχαιρα). This servant, Malchus, is named in John’s Gospel, although he is unknown to us. The name appears in inscriptions, although almost exclusively for Gentiles and Nabatean Arabs (BDAG).
Why attack the servant of the High Priest? It is possible he was leading the group to the garden to arrest Jesus. Malchus was not a slave carrying a torch for the people in charge, he was the personal representative of the High Priest. JoAnn Watson points out “The servants of the high priest were known to perform the underhanded dealings of the high priest” (“Malchus (Person),” ABD 4:487).
It is likely that this is a badly aimed attack rather than an attempt to maim the man so he was no longer permitted to enter the Temple. Maiming priests by cutting off their ears is well known in the Second Temple Period. Rather than a blundering attempt to save Jesus, this may have been a calculated attack on the man in charge of the arrest. Rather than killing him, Peter humiliated him and rendered him useless as a servant of the High Priest.
Peter’s actions are sometimes dismissed as laughable, but they represent the actions of the most zealous of Jesus’ followers. Jesus wanted to protect them by giving himself up to the arresting guards, but Peter seizes the moment and “starts the revolution.” Even if this is a colossal failure, it is better than the response of the rest of the disciples! Jesus orders Peter to put his sword away, telling everyone that he intends to “drink the cup the Father has given him,” is a reference to the cup of God’s wrath, the crucifixion which he is about to face.
Peter is therefore not a bumbler who can’t do anything right, but the most faithful of Jesus’ disciples and seems willing to attack an important and potentially powerful member of the High Priest’s household.