Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I just saw who the other paper presenter is on my panel at this weekend's NSF conference. He recently won a Nobel Prize. That's not intimidating. Not at all.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Jesus as the Kinsman Redeemer in Hebrews 2

This is probably pretty obvious, but I just noticed it.

I've always taken the argument in Hebrews 2 about Jesus being made human -- sharing in flesh and blood, and so being our "brother" -- mainly in an Adamic sense: Jesus is the second Adam who, to save the fallen children of the first Adam, needed to be made human.

And that's true enough, but I think the passage is more resonate than that.

As a result of Jesus sharing our blood and flesh, i.e., being our brother, Jesus is enabled "that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives" (Heb 2.14-15).

So here's the sort of "uh-duh" point: In Lev 25, if an Israelite becomes the slave of an alien, then a "brother" or "blood relative" can free him from slavery.

The thing is, though, that in order to redeem the slave, you need to be a "blood relative." So Jesus, in order to be our kinsman-redeemer, needed to partake of blood and flesh, so he would be our brother, and buy us out of our slavery to sin.

Jesus as the "faithful witness"

Rev 1.5 refers to Jesus as "the faithful witness." The Scriptures often speak of other people being witnesses; not so often do they refer to Jesus being a witness.

To be sure, Jesus speaks of his "testimony" several time in John's Gospel. Some of this is expressly in the context of the Mosaic laws requirements that two or three witnesses confirm a fact (Jn 5.31-32, 8.17-18, Dt 19.15).

While this is fine, it makes little of the adjective, "faithful." After all, there was nothing particularly threatening in the situations in John that would induce Jesus, or any person, to be a faithless witness.

But Jesus is explicitly a witness before the Sanhedrin. There the high priest puts him under oath, thereby placing an explicit, divinely sanctioned legal requirement to be a . . . faithful witness (Mt 26.63). The point of the sworn testimony, after all, is to insure that the testimony is faithful, i.e., is true.

Indeed, Jesus' sworn testimony before the Sanhedrin contrasts sharply with the faithless witnesses who testified against Jesus (Mt 26.60). Moreover, the trial context is far more coercive than the incidents in John's Gospel. If there were any incentive not to be a faithful witness, it would be at the trial.

So the designation of Jesus as the "faithful witness" would seem to conduce to my working hypothesis that the Revelation isn't simply a revelation about Jesus -- although it is that. But more pointedly, the Revelation is about the testimony of Jesus before the Sanhedrin that he would be revealed to them as Israel's messiah (Mt 26.63-43). That Jesus is the "faithful witness" in Rev 1.5 connects directly with Rev 1.7, the revelation of Jesus Christ to those who pierced him at the right hand of God.

From the resurrection to the ascension, Jesus revealed himself to his household, the church (1 Co 15.5-8). The Revelation reveals Jesus as the ascended messiah, seated at God's right hand, to official Israel and to the world. All of this circles around, then, and underscores that Jesus is the faithful witness -- he told the truth about himself, under oath, before the Sanhedrin. He is Israel's messiah, and they would see that.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Sundry Thoughts on the Baptism of Jesus

A few random thoughts about Jesus' baptism prompted by yesterday's text & sermon:

[1] The Hebraic form of "Jesus" is, of course, "Joshua." So in Jesus' baptism, we have a second, greater Joshua entering the promised land through the Jordan.

[2] Jesus also refers to his crucifixion as a baptism (Mk 10.38-39, Lk 12.50). So we have a baptism as the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry and, as it were, at the end of his earthly ministry.

Somewhat interestingly, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest washes himself twice -- once immediately before he puts on the holy garments to do his work (Lev 16.4) and once immediately right after he takes off the holy garments after doing releasing the scape goat into the wilderness (Lev 16.24). So here, too, the high priest is twice baptized, once at the beginning of his work before God, and once the work on the Day of Atonement is completed.

[3] Jesus' baptism also represents the point at which God "anointed" him (Acts 10.38, 4.27). I'm not sure, but I think that the Spirit descending on Jesus is his anointing; I don't think that baptism is ever referred to as an anointing.

In any event, Saul and David were also anointed. That's worth noting because of what God said regarding Jesus, "This is my son, in whom I am well pleased." We often take it to be an ontological statement of Jesus' divinity. But I suspect that the Jewish hearers of the voice would more likely think of 2 Sam 7.14 -- i.e., that God's anointed son is Israel's (human) king.

Incidentally related -- I believe that all, or almost all, references to "anointing" prior to 1 Samuel are references to the anointment of priests. From 1 Samuel onward, all, or almost all, references to anointing are references to the anointment of kings. One apparent difference between "kings" and "judges" (i.e., Israel's judges in Joshua and Judges) was that the judges were not anointed, while the kings were. I'm unsure what the full upshot of that observation is.

[4] When Jesus responds to John the Baptizer's objection to baptizing him, Jesus responds that, receiving baptism should be permitted "at this time, for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness" (Mt 3.15).

My question at this point is the relationship of Jesus' statement about the purpose of his baptism, to John's statement is the purpose of his baptism (i.e., that it is a "baptism of repentance").

That is, is the purpose that Jesus identifies for his baptism -- that in this way he fulfills all righteousness -- is that purpose a different purpose than John's or is it in the context of John's purpose.

Let me first say that I don't have a problem with either answer. The idea that Jesus' baptism, as it were, is his identification with sinful humanity is just fine with me. It's just that I don't think that Jesus' language needs to be taken to mean that. It seems possible to me that in responding to John's objection to him being baptized, Jesus basically says, "You're right, it is not fitting that I undergo a baptism of repentance, nevertheless, I shall be baptized because righteousness requires that I do so."

That answer, it seems to me, would be consistent with the answer that the high priest would have made on the Day of Atonment: I am baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness -- i.e., in order to perform the work that I am doing.

I should note here, that I think that the high priest's baptisms on the Day of Atonement mark of liturgical movement, not ethical movement. To wit, there is no obvious reason for the second baptism of the priest, when he has finished his work after releasing the scapegoat. What I'd suggest is that the two baptisms liturgically represent the high priest's movement through the water barrier that separates heaven from earth (Gn 1.6-7).

I'll try to post more comprehensively on this idea at some point. While there is a fair amount in the Bible on this point, in point of fact, almost all of us are already intimately familiar with this theme from the words of the old spiritual, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Recall the words, "I looked over Jordan and what did I see, coming for to carry me home, A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home." The reference to "Jordan" obvious refers to the blue expanse between heaven and earth.

In any event, I don't have a problem with Jesus' baptism being, as it were, a union or identification with fallen humanity, but I do wonder about alternative ways of taking his first baptism.

Friday, January 09, 2009

A Brief Reflection on Neuhaus: "On Balance, and Considering the Alternatives . . ."

I spent about a month with Neuhaus in Liechtenstein at the first Centisimus Annus workshop, and then, later, a few weeks in Poland and the Czech Republic. We corresponded a bit after that, but not much.

Neuhaus was a public intellectual on "our" side -- I still fondly remember his appearance with Bishop Spong on WFB's "Firing Line." He completely laid out Spong. I always thought his biggest contribution was along the lines of institution building -- First Things, the Eerdmann's "encounter" seminars in the 90s, the Centisimus Annus seminars (although that may have been more Novak or Weigel than Neuhaus), the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

Beyond those very real contributions -- and his contributions as a witty controversialist -- I'm unsure what intellectual contribution it is that Neuhaus has made, at least in the realm of religion and politics. His signature book -- The Naked Public Square -- always reminded me of the quip about Oakland, and about whether there as really a "there, there."

When reading the book (a long time ago), I remember that I kept waiting for the bottom line. At the end of the book, the only thing I came away with for sure, was that Neuhaus thought that religion should "somehow" inform politics -- i.e., that the "public square" should not be "naked." But it was never clear to me what mechanism Neuhaus thought should or could serve as the link, or exactly what effect he thought religion should have on politics. The whole thing was so amorphous the book seemed to invite only adoption of a sensibility, and wasn't much help beyond that.

I remember at the CA workshops, it was like pulling teeth to nail him down on any specific aspect of a policy program.

In this he always reminded me of the "communitarians" (we don't here too much about them these days) -- those academics who waxed rhapsodic in the abstract about "community," but always returned to liberal individualism when any concrete policy was discussed.

I always hoped that First Things would turn into a sort of Christian version of Commentary. But the magazine has always seemed uneven to me. Usually I flip first to the book reviews, then skim Neuhaus's musings. As often as not, I found the front half of the magazine predictable and a bit more long-winded in making a modest point than my preferences allow. I'd renew for a year or two, then let my subscription lapse for a year or two, then renew again. (I just sent my two-year subscription renewal in a week ago. I guess I'll still have the book reviews . . .)

Like the neoconservatives associated with Commentary (which I mean in the 1980s sense of former liberals who became conservatives reconciled to the welfare state), I don't see a strong second generation of Christian neo-conservatives in the manner of Neuhaus.

Of course, I'm entirely open to neo-conservatism being a generationally limited movement: one the generation moves from left to right, the kids are on the right, and so does not share the movement's defining experience. So it can't be replicated.

I do fear whether First Things can continue at anywhere close to its current subscription base without Nehaus. But I guess we'll see.

In any event, I am sorry to lose Neuhaus. I remember one phrase he repeated regarding the United States and world affairs. He'd say, "On balance, and considering the alternatives, the United States is a force for good in the world."

Maybe that would be my epithet for him: "On balance, and considering the alternatives, he was a force for good in the world."

May I accomplish as much.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Richard John Neuhaus, 1936-2009

From Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things:

"Fr. Richard John Neuhaus slipped away today, January 8, shortly before 10 o’clock, at the age of seventy-two. He never recovered from the weakness that sent him to the hospital the day after Christmas, caused by a series of side effects from the cancer he was suffering. He lost consciousness Tuesday evening after a collapse in his heart rate, and the next day, in the company of friends, he died."

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Richard John Neuhaus is Dying

I have heard from one of the alums of the Centisimus Annus program that Richard John Neuhaus has a short time to live -- a few hours or a few days at most. Apparently, his cancer returned recently and he was hospitalized for treatment. The immediate problem, though, is an infection that his physicians seem unable to treat, and that has gone to his heart. He reportedly received last rites last night, and is unconscious.

While the source is credible, it is second hand. I couldn't be happier if the reports of his nearing death were exaggerated.

Update: A friend of mine who works closely with Neuhaus at First Things has confirmed the report.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Place of Chs 2 & 3 in the Revelation

My working assumption is that the Revelation is the working out of the revelation that Jesus promised to the Sanhedrin. Jesus' sole response to the high priest's adjuration was to admit the charge, saying "You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Mt 26.64).

Here Jesus applies Ps 110.1, a clear messianic Psalm, and Dan 7.13, about the son of man victoriously coming on the clouds to be received by God.

More pointedly, Jesus tells the Sanhedrin that they will see him as the ascended messiah, seated at God's right hand.

So, Rev 1.7, sets the Revelation in the context of Dan 7.13 and Zechariah 12.10-11, which is about Israel "looking" on Yahweh whom they have "pierced," i.e., seeing the pierced Yahweh, and mourning as a result of what they have done.

Here's the text: "Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all of the tribes of the earth [land] will mourn over him. So it is to be. Amen."

So the "Revelation of Jesus Christ" (Rev 1.1) -- which commentators say can be taken as either the subjective or objective genitive, or both, is not simply the revelation that Jesus provides to John, but is about Jesus being revealed in the events described in the book. The Revelation is about the revelation -- the revealing -- of Jesus Christ.

And, specifically, I'd suggest, is about Jesus redeeming the lone statement he made to the Sanhedrin, a statement forced from him under oath -- that they would see him enthroned at God's right hand.

But enough throat clearing about that.

What I wanted to comment on was the tendency of commentators to treat Rev 2 and 3 as somehow separate from the remainder of the book. Now, to be sure, there seems to be some sort of liturgical movement going on in the transition from chapter 3 to chapter 4.

In Rev 1, John turns and see seven golden lampstands, with the Son of Man dressed as a high priest standing in the middle of the lampstands. In the temple, the lampstands stood in the Holy Place. And, of course, the high priest would stand in the midst of the lampstands while in the Holy Place.

In Rev 1.20, Jesus specifically tells John that the seven lampstands are the seven churches. So the seven churches are, as it were, in the Holy Place of the heavenly temple.

When we move into chapter 4, however, we have moved from the Holy Place into the throneroom, i.e., into the Most Holy Place (or the "Holiest of Holies"). This is where the action takes place -- or at least where the action comes from -- in the remainder of the book (at least through Rev 18).

Although, for the most part, it is judgment that comes out of the Most Holy Place, onto a Jerusalem that is not close to God, in the large middle section of the book.

And here, I think, is the explanation for the interaction that Jesus has with the seven churches in Rev 2 and 3. The idea is that "judgment begins with the household of God" (1 Peter 4.17). This often is also the sequence in the OT -- Israel is judged, then the Gentile nations around Israel are judged.

The Revelation is, of course, a thoroughly Christological book. Hence, it naturally assumes that Israel has been recentered around Christ, as the true Israel, the bride of Rev 19-22, as opposed to the harlot of Rev 16-18. This is, of course, the church.

Hence, when judgment starts with the household of God, it starts with the true Jerusalem -- the churches -- in Rev 2 & 3, and then moves out to the false Jerusalem , differently identified as "Babylon" and "Egypt" and "Sodom" in Rev 4-18. (We of course know that Jerusalem is the reference because Rev 11.8 identifies the "great city" as the city in which Jesus was crucified.)

So the movement from Rev 2 & 3 to Rev 4 ff follows the traditional sequence of judgment from "in" to "out" (or from "near" to "far") that we find in the Old Testament. So Rev 2 & 3 are part and parcel with the overall thematic thrust of the book.

Nominal Trinitarian Sequence

We're used to saying "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." I first noticed in 1 Peter 1.2 use of a "Father, Spirit, and Son" sequence. And again in Rev 1.4-5, a "Fater, Spirit, and Son" sequence.

Nothing earth-shattering about it; just something I noticed.

(On the Trinitarian language in 1 Peter 1.2, see this.)