I want to thank Ben DeVan for his review of the “Behaving Badly” series. Iron sharpens iron, and any constructive critique is welcome. I also appreciate the opportunity to respond to his review.
I found Jesus Behaving Badly particularly challenging to write for a variety of reasons. For one thing, a certain standard had already been set by David Lamb’s well-written God Behaving Badly. David produced a book that was at the same time provocative, engaging, funny, and apologetically useful. To write an apologetic for the hard sayings and deeds of Jesus was one thing; to do so in an accessible, interesting, and even entertaining manner was another.
Another challenge in writing a book like this was dealing in a serious manner with the apologetic issues, while staying accessible to a popular audience. I mention this because it is the area that evokes perhaps the strongest criticism from DeVan. Early in his review, he writes, “Strauss occasionally obscures matters for people who are less familiar with skeptical biblical scholarship.” For example, I point out the likely historicity that Jesus was crucified under the placard “King of the Jews,” implying a charge of messianic pretentions. I also note that the Gospel accounts together with I Corinthians 11:23-26 suggest that the Eucharistic words are “very old tradition, likely going back to Jesus himself.” DeVan writes, “Strauss’s phrasing implies that these biblical records, and by insinuation others, are vulnerable to scholarly verification. … The manner of appeal to critical scholarship here disorients and distracts.”
I have to acknowledge that I struggled with how much to introduce critical methodology and historical Jesus terminology into a volume meant for a popular audience. From the beginning, however, I wanted the volume to be more than just a “hard sayings” book. I wanted to use these passages as entrance points for making sense of the historical Jesus. This is why I state my thesis as, “when Jesus is at his most difficult, he is also at his most profound” (14). It is also why I start with the question of whether Jesus was a “Revolutionary or Pacifist” (Ch. 2). In addition to interpreting Jesus’s hard sayings about taking up the sword and bringing fire to the earth, this chapter seeks to discern what Jesus meant by his announcement of the kingdom of God. Jesus links his kingdom proclamation not to the overthrow of the Romans but to the Isaianic signs of eschatological salvation and to the defeat of humanity’s greatest enemies: Satan, sin, and death. This is not a return to the glories of the Davidic era, but rather a return to Eden and the restoration of creation.
So the book was intended not only to interpret the hard sayings, but also to make sense of the historical Jesus. To this end, the last two chapters deal, respectively, with (1) whether Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet, whose kingdom did not materialize (see, for example, Albert Schweitzer, Bart Ehrman, et al.), or whether his vision of the kingdom entailed the restoration of creation through an atoning sacrifice for sins (Ch. 11), and (2) whether the resurrection accounts, which serve to vindicate his claims, are historically credible (Ch. 12).
These chapters clearly move beyond a discussion of hard sayings to a focus on the identity and aims of Jesus. I write:
So was Jesus a failed prophet or was he Israel’s Messiah and Savior of the world? Was his death just one more act of brutality meted out by Roman thugs, or was it an atoning sacrifice that paid for the sins of the world and launched the new age of salvation? These are radically different options! We might say that the ultimate “bad behavior” for Jesus would be if his expectations for the coming of God’s kingdom turned out to be wrong and his life’s mission was a grand failure. (165)
Since these questions are at the heart of historical Jesus research, it seemed inappropriate and irresponsible simply to ignore historical-critical research. Though the hard sayings and deeds of Jesus have a presumption of authenticity because of their difficulty, this is not necessarily the case with reference to Jesus’s claims concerning himself and the kingdom of God. The challenge was how far to go methodologically. I chose to limit comments about historicity to passages that had particular relevance for the aims of Jesus—such as the ransom saying of Mark 10:45 and Jesus’s Eucharistic words—and that were widely regarded as having some connection to the historical Jesus. I also tried to speak in general terms of historical reliability rather than with the technical jargon of historical Jesus research. Hopefully, these arguments are not as disorienting and distracting for the reader as DeVan asserts.
I have few qualms with the rest of DeVan’s critique. He helpfully fills in some gaps in my presentation. As he notes, Mark 12:38-40 and Luke 20:45-47 could be added to Jesus’s stinging criticism of the religious leaders. I focused primarily on Matthew’s presentation, which is harsher and more extensive than that of Mark or Luke. Similarly, although I explain the reason and justification for Jesus’s (righteous) anger toward the religious leaders, it would have been helpful also to point to evidence of his love and compassion for his wayward children (Matthew 23:37).
While I would agree with DeVan that the sellers and moneychangers in the temple were likely duplicit in turning the temple into a marketplace, I would still assert that Jesus’s ire was directed especially against the priestly leadership, which had allowed this sacrilege to take place.
Finally, concerning Jesus’s cursing of the fig tree, DeVan seems to favor the interpretation that Jesus is simply predicting its demise rather than causing it. While possible, this seems at odds with the context. In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus’s analogy of “commanding” a mountain to be thrown into the sea suggests that the fig tree saying is an imperative rather than an indicative (Matthew 21:21; Mark 11:23). Similarly, in Mark’s account, Peter refers to the death of “the fig tree which you cursed” (ἡ συκῆ ἣν κατηράσω; Mark 11:20), not “the fig tree which you predicted would die.” Jesus’s actions in the temple, which parallel the fig tree episode, also seem to represent an active rather than a passive judgment.
Again, I want to thank Ben DeVan for his welcome assessment and critique, with hopes that this will lead to even more dialogue, understanding, and a sharpening of perspectives.