Jonathan T. Pennington, Jesus the Great Philosopher

Pennington, Jonathan T. Jesus the Great Philosopher. Rediscovering the Wisdom Needed for the Good Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2020. 230 pp.; Pb.; $18.99. Link to Brazos

Many writers have lamented the rise of the Nones, people who mark “none” for their religious affiliation. Pennington suggests the problem is the loss of Christianity as a whole life philosophy, in the view that Jesus is a great philosopher. Yet in an ancient church in Dura Europos a mosaic portrays Jesus as a philosopher, and Justin Martyr set up a Christian philosophy school. People describe Jesus as a wonderful teacher, a religious guru, but rarely as a philosopher.

Jesus the great PhilosopherPennington suggests four reasons for this. First, Christian faith is disconnected from other aspects of life. Second, we look for alternative gurus for wisdom on how to live a flourishing life. He specifically mentions people like Nick Offerman or psychologists like Jordan Peterson. Third, we stopped asking big questions this scripture wants to answer. Oddly, a high view of scripture might lead to not asking the right questions about life the universe and everything.

Fourth, this limits the Church’s witness to the world. Christians failed at addressing questions the world wants answered, and Nick Offerman has succeeded: people learn hard work and common sense outside of the church. Pennington refers to The Good Place, a popular TV comedy which seamlessly welds philosophical ideas (ethics, epistemology, metaphysics) with religious ideas about the afterlife and what it means to be a good person. Those two worlds were not meant to be separate (34).

After setting up the idea of Christianity as a philosophy, the book moves through four sections. First, the Bible as philosophy. Here he covers the big ideas in the Old Testament, and the New Testament. How does Scripture answer questions about metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, or politics? Pennington summarizes New Testament philosophy as helping humans “enter into what it means to be fully human” (78).

Pennington then covers three topics philosophy addresses: emotions, relationships, and happiness. There three are what it means to be human: we are emotional creatures developing relationships and seeking to be genuinely happy in life. Each topic contains two chapters, the first summarizing Greco-Roman philosophy (usually Aristotle, Epicureanism, Stoicism) and a brief look at modern thinking on the topic. In the second chapter, he describes how Christianity addressed the issue. Pennington creates a mini-biblical theology on the topic, surveying the whole canon. For example, commenting on Christian relationships, “every book of the New Testament contains instructions for the new Christian politeia, life together” (173).

Some Christians think philosophy and Christianity are opposite ends of a spectrum, so that anything a philosopher says is suspect (or assumed wrong). Because they are both dealing with the most basic questions of life, ancient philosophers sought answers to the same questions Scripture addresses. What is remarkable is how close a biblical view of emotions or relationships is to ancient philosophy.

Under the heading, “Being Human and Happy” Pennington describes Christianity as a sort of “pursuit of happiness.” Christianity is about living a whole, meaningful, and flourishing life. By flourishing life, Pennington means nothing at all like the “health and wealth gospel” or happiness, as defined in contemporary American pop culture. He does not mean Christianity promises someone will be a wealthy, successful person if they are just “spiritual” enough. The problem with the modern pursuit of happiness is that “happiness has been defined as health, wealth, possessions, status, etc. they will flourish in the place where God has called them.

It might surprise some readers to find Christianity described the way to live a happy life since contemporary American Christianity seems dissatisfied with life and is often cranky about other people’s sins (while secretly enjoying them). But that is not biblical Christianity!

In some ways, Jesus the Great Philosopher is like Pennington’s book on the Sermon on the Mount (reviewed here). In that book he suggested the Sermon is concerned not simply with theological questions but also with the important the existential question of “human flourishing.” By “human flourishing” Pennington means happiness, blessedness, or shalom, a true flourishing which is only available through fellowship with God revealed through his Son and empowered by the Holy Spirit (14).

Conclusion. Pennington’s Jesus the Great Philosopher is an excellent introduction to what the Bible has to say about being human and living in a Christian community. The book is written for a popular audience, Pennington draws from a wide range of pop cultural to illustrate his points and avoids technical jargon of philosophy. Jesus the Great Philosopher should appeal to both Christians and non-Christians.

 

NB: Thanks to Brazos for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Following Jesus around Galilee

Today out tour focused on sites in Galilee associated with Jesus and his ministry. We stopped at Migdal yesterday, so we began our day with a drive through Tiberius to Mount Arbel. This is not so much a biblical site, but a hike up to the top of Mount Arbel to view the Sea of Galilee. From the top of the cliffs we can see the west and north quarters of the sea, essentially where all of the Jesus sites are located. The carob tree at the top of the hill was struck by lightning a few years ago and is recovering nicely (I have done group photos from that spot for many years).  Although the morning was warm, there was a strong breeze on top of Arbel so the walk was pleasant.

Mount Arbel

We arrived at the Mount of Beatitudes about ten AM and despite being Sunday morning, there were not many pilgrims crowding the grounds. We found a mostly shaded spot to read from Matthew 5 and talk about the Beatitudes. (See this post, What are the Beatitudes?) The group was able to visit the octagonal chapel then had a few minutes to pray and read the Bible privately.

Beatitudes

We then drove a short distance to Capernaum, which I was afraid would be closed at noon. But to my surprise, they are now allowing visitors to stay in the grounds all day. Most Chrstian sites close form  noon to two PM. For most the highlight here is Peter’s house, although it is difficult to see much of the house due to the large church built over the top. There is also a beautiful synagogue, although it dates to the fifth or six century, long after the time of Jesus. For me, the highlight of a visit to Capernaum is walking out in the beach near the Sea and reading the Bible. In this case I read Mark 2 since the healing of the paralytic takes place at Peter’s house.We took some time in the shaded area near the synagogue to read Mark 2:1-12 and talk about the authenticity of the site (is this really Peter’s house? Maybe?)The only negative thing about this visit is an enormous group of 250 people led by Mike Huckabee took over the shaded area, some even seated themselves among our group. (FYI, our tour did more for much less money…)

After lunch (Aroma Coffee, avocado sandwich and a double espresso) we headed back to Nof Ginosar to to the Yigal Allon center where the Galilee boat is on display.There is a presentation describing how the boat was discovered and preserved and the actual boat is on display in a climate controlled room. I have visited this museum a few times and I have enjoyed the presentation. The shop is quite nice and has a nice selection of Christian and Jewish oriented souvenirs (including wine and olive oil).

My students were very tired out by this time and were looking forward to swimming in the Sea of Galilee or the pool (or a a short nap). We met our guide at 5:30 for a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee before dinner. I have done the boat ride a long time ago and was never really impressed. But this was a little different, we were able to talk through the two big miracles on the sea of Galilee (See Matthew 14:22-33, Why does Jesus walk on the Water? and Why Does Peter Ask to Get Out of the Boat?) Several people shared some idea about why Jesus chose to reveal himself first in Galilee and many enjoyed some praise music.

Sea of Galilee

Tomorrow we enter Jordan and visit Jerash on our way to Petra.

 

Tithing and Purity Laws – Matthew 23:23-26

The next two of the seven woes in Matthew 23 concern two common religious practices, tithing and ritual purity. Although Jesus specifically has Jewish practice in mind, it is not difficult to apply this teaching to Christian practice.

Jesus Tithing

Tithing (23:23-24). The practice of tithing is common in the Old Testament (Lev 27:30-33; Deut 12:6-9; 14:22-29; 26:12-15). The general principle is that the first tenth of one’s produce should be set aside for the Lord. To not pay one’s tithe is like “robbing the Lord” (Malachi 3:6–12). There is some tension between the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy with respect to the issue of the tithe. Deuteronomy requires a tithe on all produce every year except for the Sabbath year. This tithe, however, could be enjoyed by the family which produced it by selling it and spending the money in Jerusalem during a feast. In this way they gave a tenth by contributing to the economy of Jerusalem (Deut 14:22-27). Every third and sixth year the tithe was to go to the poor and needy.

The Law specifies tithes on some produce, generally food. But there was no tithe required for wild herbs (although this is debated in the Mishnah, see m. Ma’as. 4:5). The general principle seems to be, if you planted it, you tithe on it. To be sure the proper tithe was paid, a Pharisees would take each item that they produced, even these tiny seeds and herbs, and divide out the tenth to give to the temple.

m,Ma’as. 4:5 4:5 One who husks barley removes the husks [from the kernels] one by one, and eats [without tithing]. But if he husked [a few kernels] and placed [them] in his hand, he is required [to tithe]. One who husks parched kernels of wheat sifts [the kernels] from hand to hand, and eats [without tithing]. But if he sifted [the kernels] and placed [them] inside his shirt, he is required [to tithe]. Coriander which [the farmer] sowed [in order to harvest its] seed [for future sowing]—its leaves are exempt [from the removal of tithes if they are eaten]. [If he] sowed it [in order to harvest its] leaves [for use as an herb]—[both] the seeds and the leaves are subject to the law of tithes. R. Eliezer says, “Dill is subject to the law of tithes [in regard to its] seeds, leaves and pods.” But Sages say, “Nothing is subject to the law of tithes [in regard to both its] seeds and leaves save cress and field rocket alone.”

The real problem is that the Pharisees make sure they tithe properly, but overlook justice, mercy, and faithfulness (maybe alluding to Micah 6:8?). For Jesus, it does not matter if you pay all the tithes you owe if you do not take care of the poor, the widows, orphans and immigrants. Doing justice, mercy, and faithfulness are weightier commandments. This might use the language of the Pharisees when they determined which commandment was more important when there was a conflict of duty.

The Pharisees are “straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel” Jesus makes a humorous analogy to point out the absurdity of the Pharisees’ practice of tithing.   This is usually explained as straining one’s soup to avoid eating a gnat. The κώνωψ word can refer to a mosquito, both are unclean food (Lev 11:41, m. Sabb. 20:2) but not even noticing an entire camel is floating in the same bowl! The Greek word διϋλίζω refers to straining wine, LXX Amos 6:6, but a bowl of soup works in a modern context since modern wine does not need to be strained.

Does the word gnat (κώνωψ) sound like camel (κάμηλος)? Not really, but in Aramaic gnat is qlm, camel is gml. Similar, enough to make this a playful, memorable phrase. The contrast is between a very tiny bug and a very large animal (cf., Matt 19:24, the camel through the eye of a needle). In the Sermon on the Mount, the hypocrite points out the speck in someone’s eye while missing the plank in their own (Matt 7:3-5).

What good is Pharisee purity about tithing if they neglect the things that God really desires (Micah 6:8)?

Purity Laws (23:25-26). Jesus dealt with the Pharisee’s purity traditions in Matthew 15:1-20. In that passage he also called the Pharisees hypocrites and declared only what comes out of a person makes them unclean. By the first century there was a complex system established for the cleaning of eating utensils, plates, bowls, etc. The Pharisee would not eat from plates that had not been properly cleaned, to do so would render them ceremonially unclean.

Ironically Jesus says the Pharisees are only cleaning the outside of the bowl and ignoring the inside. The outside looks clean, but the inside is still filthy, full of greed and self-indulgence. This is similar to the conclusion in Matthew 15:16-20, what comes out of a person defiles, not what goes in.

Commentaries usually object that the Pharisees were not known for their greed or self-indulgence. This is true of the Temple aristocracy who became rich and powerful by their service to the temple. Archaeology of priestly homes near the Temple Mount support this conclusion and there are similar condemnations of the Temple aristocracy in other early Jewish literature (the Dead Sea Scrolls especially). The Testament of Moses (also known as Ascension of Moses) has a similar condemnation, probably written by a Pharisee and directed at the Sadducees:

As. Mos. 7.6–10 But really they consume the goods of the (poor), saying their acts are according to justice, (while in fact they are simply) exterminators, deceitfully seeking to conceal themselves so that they will not be known as completely godless because of their criminal deeds (committed) all the day long, saying, ‘We shall have feasts, even luxurious winings and dinings. Indeed, we shall behave ourselves as princes.’ They, with hand and mind, will touch impure things, yet their mouths will speak enormous things, and they will even say, 10 ‘Do not touch me, lest you pollute me in the position I occupy.

In the Testament of Levi 14:5-8, the chief priests abuse their office for personal gain:

Testament of Levi 14:5-8 You plunder the Lord’s offerings; from his share you steal choice parts, contemptuously eating them with whores. 6 You teach the Lord’s commands out of greed for gain; married women you profane; you have intercourse with whores and adulteresses. You take gentile women for your wives and your sexual relations will become like Sodom and Gomorrah. 7 You will be inflated with pride over your priesthood, exalting yourselves not merely by human standards but contrary to the commands of God. 8 With contempt and laughter you will deride the sacred things.

Although it is easy for a modern, Christian reader to read this section of Matthew 23 and smugly condemn first century Jewish religious practice as legalistic and hypocritical, that is not what Jesus intended nor why Matthew included this in his Christian gospel. Christians are just as hypocritical with respect to giving money to a Christian ministry working in Africa (for example), then hating the immigrant or doing nothing to help the poor in their local community.

What are other examples of how Jesus’s words could be applied in a modern church context?

Seven Woes – Matthew 23:13-22

Beginning in Matthew 23:1, Jesus delivers a prophetic woe-speech in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. Although the details of the speech focuses on the Pharisees and their traditions, these seven woes can be applied to any religious hypocrisy.

Angry Jesus Seven WoesBefore looking at the seven woes, where is Matthew 23:14? In the KJV, Matthew 23:14 reads “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.” All modern translations omit the entire verse, it was probably added to Matthew 23 based on Mark 12:40 and Luke 11:47. In some manuscripts the line appears before verse 13, in others it appears after.

Shutting the Kingdom in People’s Faces (23:13). The first woe imagines the kingdom of heaven as a walled city that can be locked to prevent unauthorized entry. In Matthew 16:19 Jesus gives the “keys to the kingdom” to Peter, for example.

The Pharisees have shut the door to the kingdom for some people in two ways. First, they consider some people unworthy of the kingdom, the “the tax collectors and other sinners.” Second, they may be preventing people from hearing Jesus’s teaching, effectively “shutting the door” on people who want to enter the kingdom. Previously Jesus has described the outsiders entering the kingdom, or the Pharisees not entering or entering last. Matthew 8:10-12, many will come from the east and west to enter the kingdom before the Pharisees.

Corrupting Converts (23:15). There is very little evidence Jews did anything like evangelism in the first century. However, proselytes did exist. Nicolas of Antioch (Acts 6:5), there were “devout converts in Antioch (Acts 13:43), and Izates (in Josephus) are examples. It is possible this refers to God-fearing Gentiles, people like Cornelius who were attracted to the ethics and practices of Judaism but did not fully convert by submitting to circumcision.

If they do make a convert, the new convert is “twice the son of hell” that the Pharisee is. If the Pharisee is a hypocrite, the new convert is even more severe and strict than even the Pharisees. Often new converts are zealous

Swearing Oaths (23:16-22). Jesus calls the Pharisees blind guides and will be called blind three more times in the chapter. In Matthew 15:14 he called them blind guides in a discussion of hand washing. Romans 2:19 says some Jews considered themselves “guides for the blind,” although Paul also says they are hypocritical. Jesus taught on swearing oaths in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:33-37).  Although the Law permitted oaths, Jesus tells his disciples to not to swear oaths at all, but to “let your yes be yes.” For Jesus and his disciples, all oaths are binding: if you promise something, you must fulfill that promise.

As in the Sermon on the Mount, the problem was not swearing an oath, but finding ways to set the oath aside. Jesus gives two sets of conditions as examples. If one swears by the temple, the oath can be set aside, but swearing by the gold of the temple the oath is binding. It is not clear what “gold of the temple” refers to, possibly the “wealth of the temple.” If someone swears by the altar, the oath can be set aside, but if one swears by the gift on the altar, it is binding.

m.Nedarim 1:3 He who says, “Not— unconsecrated produce shall I not eat with you,” “Not-valid [food],” and, “Not pure,” “[Not] clean [for the altar],” or “Unclean,” or “Remnant,” or “Refuse”—is bound. [If he said, “May it be to me] like the lamb [of the daily whole offering],” “Like the [temple] sheds,” “Like the wood,” “Like the fire,” “Like the altar,” “Like the sanctuary,” “Like Jerusalem”— [if] he vowed by the name of one of any of the utensils used for the altar, even though he has not used the word qorban—lo, this one has vowed [in as binding a way as if he had vowed] by qorban. R. Judah says, “He who says, ‘Jerusalem,’ has said nothing.”

The Pharisees may have regarded an oath made in anything other than the name of the Lord or his attributes as not binding. If you swear a binding oath, it must be in the name of the Lord. If this is the case, then verse 20-21 points out the hypocrisy, if one swears by the temple, then are in fact swearing by God because God dwells in it; if one swears by heaven or the throne of God, one swears by God since he dwells there.

The first three of the seven woes may have shocked and offended the original audience. Modern readers are often surprised that Jesus harshly condemned hypocrites, usually because they tend to think of Jesus as teaching pure love as a non-confrontational preacher of kindness. But Jesus is not saying it is wrong to make converts or swear oaths. The problem is the hypocrite focuses so much on traditional practices they miss the grace God is extended to sinners, inviting them to wedding banquet as well.

What Does “Woe” Mean in Matthew 23?

Matthew 23 is a prophetic judgment speech condemning the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders for their hypocrisy. This is not the first time Jesus speaks against the Pharisees. In Matthew 15:1-9 he dismisses their traditions of handwashing and in Matthew 16 he warns his disciples about the “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Now Jesus uses the word “woe” to draw attention to specific aspects of their hypocrisy. What does the word “woe” mean?

Woe unto You Scribes and Pharisees

The word woe (οὐαί, הוֹי) is sometimes translated “alas” in English, giving it the idea of despair, or a sense of hopelessness. The word carries the connotation of mourning and is an onomatopoeia, a word that comes from a sound. Even today, people mourn in the Middle East with a whooping sound. Women at a funeral, for example, wail dramatically.

In this case, the word is drawn from the Old Testament Prophets. Both Isaiah 5:8-30 or Habakkuk 3 have a series of woe-statements pronouncing judgment. In Isaiah 6:5, the prophet sees the throne of God and says, “Woe is me!” because he has seen the holy God (and he expects to be destroyed as a result!)  Other prophets use the word to announce doom on some people who are under God’s judgment. A woe is therefore something like a curse. In Matthew 23, Jesus makes a prophetic announcement that the Pharisees and other religious leaders are under a curse because of their hypocritical practices.

Lists of woe sayings are common in Jewish literature. Deuteronomy 28:15–19 has a series of four woes on those who do not obey the word of the Lord. There are three in in 1 Enoch 100:7–9 and five in 1 Enoch 96:4-8; 99:11-16, seven in 1 Enoch 94:6-7. Like Matthew 23, there are seven woes in 2 Enoch 52:1-14; 9 and eight in 1 Enoch 98:9-99:2. Here are a few examples from 1 Enoch:

1 Enoch 98.9 Woe unto you, fools, for you shall perish through your folly! You do not listen to the wise, and you shall not receive good things.

1 Enoch 98.11 Woe unto you obstinate of heart, who do evil and devour blood! From where (will you find) good things that you may eat, drink, and be satisfied?

1 Enoch 98.13 Woe unto you who rejoice in the suffering of the righteous ones! For no grave shall be dug for you.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave a series of “blessed are” statements, these woes are the counterpart to those beatitudes. Luke has only four beatitudes, but they are mirrored by “four cursed are you” sayings in the next paragraph. Matthew begins Jesus’s public teaching with blessings and ends his public teaching with a series of curses. Maybe in a modern context, we want avoid the word woe, or worse, curse. If a beatitude is “happy are you when this is the case…” the woe-sayings are “unhappy are you when this is the case…”

Were all the Pharisees and religious leaders bad? Matthew 23 leaves the reader with that impression. He does not portray any of the religious leaders in a positive light. The Gospel of Luke more positive and in Acts the Pharisee Gamaliel defends the apostles. Later, Luke says there are many Pharisees who have accepted Jesus as Messiah (Acts 15:1-2), including rabbi Saul. In John, the pharisee Nicodemus talks with Jesus, defends him against accusations and helps bury Jesus. But Matthew is clear: the Pharisees are hypocrites who have rejected Jesus as the Messiah and they are to blame for judgment falling on Jerusalem (Matthew 24-25).

The Pharisees and scribes are made to be the representatives of all Jews. By condemning the Pharisees, Jesus is does not approve of Sadducees, the Essenes, or any other group. Other than Jesus’s followers, they are guilty of rejecting the Messiah.