The first time I studied Leviticus carefully (about 13-14 years ago), one of the things that stood out to me was the fact that ritual uncleanness transfers very easily, but cleanness does not. If someone is unclean for whatever reason, touching someone or something clean renders the clean person or thing unclean. It doesn't go the other way. Going from unclean to clean requires certain ritual ceremonies, and it often takes time, sometimes even a week or more. Going from clean to unclean simply requires exposure.
That's one of the reasons that it's particularly impressive that in the gospels Jesus touches people who have skin diseases or unhealthy menstrual conditions when he heals them, since those conditions were ritually unclean under the Torah ritual system. And it's clear that this wasn't out of some notion that the Torah ritual system was an ancient superstition that should be discarded. He insists in his teaching about Torah that it is the word of God and will be eternally true. But he also insists that it is eternally true not because it perpetually applies but because he fulfills it himself.
So what's going on when he heals people whose conditions would normally require a week or more of cleansing ceremonies? Sometimes he does tell them to go to the priests in the temple and do the ceremonies the Torah prescribes. Other passages don't mention him saying that. But certainly what's odd about it is that he touches them himself, when there are plenty of cases where he heals people without touching them. Are we to assume that he takes on the uncleanness himself voluntarily and then has to go through the rituals to be cleansed himself? The first would be a nice symbol of how he elsewhere describes what he would do at the cross, but I don't think that's the right way to think about these cases, because he's even telling them in some cases that he has simply made them clean (e.g. Matthew 8:3, although there he does say to make the sacrifices with the priest, but he says it's to be done for proof, not for actually making the guy clean).
I've long thought of this as just an exception. Normally cleanness doesn't spread to the unclean, but these passages are presenting Jesus as demonstrating something about himself as different. He can make unclean clean instantly, and that shows that he's superior to the Torah ritual system, which only looked forward to him.
But that turns out to be wrong, on closer inspection. For one thing, it can't be mere superiority. The Bible is clear across the entire canon that God can't entangle himself with sin or sinful beings, and that's why sacrifices are needed to begin with to deal with that sin. Isaiah 59:2 describes sin as separation from God. Jesus couldn't, merely by being God, do something that the scriptures clearly present God as not being able to do without sacrifice. So it has to be tied to sacrifices in some way, and it would be nice if we could find something explicit in the ritual ceremonies that looks more like what Jesus was doing in these passages.
It turns out that these cases in the gospels are not unprecedented. There is at least one mention in Leviticus of a case where holiness spreads to something common (although it isn't described as cleanness spreading to something unclean). That's in the description of the sin offering in Leviticus 6:27, where anyone who touches the flesh of the animal offered as a sin offering is made holy. I know of no other place where something is made holy merely by touching something in the entire Hebrew Bible, although maybe there are others that I just never connected with this issue.
What's going on in the gospel passages, then, given that there is a precedent for holiness spreading from a sin offering to something else? Perhaps the implication is that Jesus could reverse the normal flow of the symbolic status of ritual uncleanness to the clean because, as a future sin offering, he is in fact able to touch something and make it holy, whereas being divine without being the sin offering wouldn't do that. That seems to make these things fit together a lot better than the way I had been thinking about it.
Genesis and Camels
Earlier this week the NYT published a critique of Genesis based on, of all things, the appearance of camels within its narratives, and I'm starting to see more and more discussion of this, virtually all of it simply repeating the claims of that article, without much at all in the way of careful reflection on the problems in the broader thesis that it puts forward, which I don't think the evidence actually supports.
This isn't actually a very new objection. Scholars have long objected that there isn't a lot of evidence of domesticated animals within the Canaanite region during that time. But there is evidence of domesticated animals in Egypt and Mesopotamia during the period Genesis describes, and the NYT article even mentions that, and it says they were more commonly used more by those nomadic peoples living in the more desert regions. The only thing new here is some carbon dating of the bones of camels, along with techniques for measuring properties of the bone, which can allow them to determine whether they were wild or domesticated and had to carry greater weight for much of the time.
I think there are several reasons to be very skeptical of the conclusions the NYT article draws. Here are a few:
1. Genesis doesn't report lots of camels being used during the time of the patriarchs, as the article claims. They are sometimes listed among the animals they owned, but usually it's in smaller numbers, and the only reports of their being used for riding are to cross the desert regions or when referring to nomadic peoples like the Midianites who lived within such regions.
2. Abraham and Lot had to cross that desert to get to Canaan, and the only animals they could have used would have been camels. The NYT article even says that no other animals would be able to make that journey so easily, and even their skepticism doesn't apply to that sort of trip. So if Abraham did come from a region where camels were used regularly at this time (as the article admits), and he had to use them to cross the desert (as the article admits), it stands to reason that he wouldn't have killed them all when he got there and would have had at least a small enough number remaining when he had to send his servant to find a wife for Isaac and so on, and we know they kept their own cultural identity and may have been hesitant to trade their camels because of their relatively small number and inability or procure more while there. They might have increased in number during the time he was living in Canaan, as long as there were only a relatively small number of them in this period, belonging precisely to his family, but that doesn't mean we should think there would be evidence of the larger number of them that the NYT article seems to expect there would be if they had them.
3. Abraham is portrayed as being rich, and the existence of a small number of camels in the lists of animals he owned is presented in the book as evidence of his wealth. If they were common around him, the small number of camels would seem insignificant compared with the huge number of other animals he had. But even a smaller number is presented as evidence of his great wealth. So the portrayal of his camels in the book fits nicely with the claim that the locals didn't have them.
4. If his family only used them when traveling across the desert or on long journeys (as the narrative itself indicates) but just maintained them as domesticated by not pack animals or riding animals, then even the ones that they did have might not have appeared to be domesticated by the methods of measuring the bone density and such that these scientists have been using.
5. So I think at best the conclusion being put forward here goes way beyond the evidence. If someone were to conclude from the Genesis narrative that camels were being used throughout the Canaanite region the way the article assumes the book presents things, then it would create a problem. It's still an argument from silence, but it would be odd for there to be no preserved camels from this period if they were that commonly used. But the Genesis narrative doesn't present such a picture, and there's no reason to think the picture it does present is unlikely to have produced the (lack of) evidence this new research provides.
Seven years ago I wrote a post explaining why I think a common theory among biblical scholars is both against our best evidence and unnecessary in order to explain a few puzzling features of the texts we have. The puzzling features are as follows:
When Aaron dies in the Torah, it says his son Eleazar takes over the high priestly position, and then Eleazar's son Phinehas inherits that role when Eleazar dies. Yet the line of Eleazar does not seem to maintain that position by the time of Samuel. Eli seems to be occupying a high priestly role, and he's descended from Eleazar's brother Ithamar. Yet the biblical texts do report of the line of Eleazar being preserved, notably in a man named Zadok, whom David seems to elevate to a high priestly role of seemingly equal authority with a continuing high priestly descendant of Ithamar. It's only when that man betrays David that we seem to have a return to one high priest.
The common scholarly theory takes the texts to be unreliable reports of events. There's no direct evidence that Zadok was anything other than a Levite descended from Aaron through Eleazar. There's no direct evidence that the Eleazar line was invented wholesale in the Torah in order to retcon Zadok as a more legitimate priest than Ithamar's by-then-disgraced servants who had sided with the coup against David. But the suspicion because of the puzzling facts of the previous paragraph has somehow become unquestioned and even is presented as obvious by a lot of biblical scholars, when there are several other explanations of why the text reports what it does, none of them less likely to my mind than the suspicious explanation. I give two in that post seven years ago, and a third occurred to me this morning.
One possibility from the previous post is that the descendants of Eleazar had forsaken their responsibilities during the time of the Judges, which is entirely fitting with how Israel is described during that time, and the descendants of Ithamar were left to run the operation of the tabernacle and early pre-Solomonic temple structures (like the one we see in the early chapters of I Samuel).
The other possibility from the earlier post is just a decentralization of worship, not really being faithful to the tabernacle set up in the Torah (which would also fit with what the book of Judges tells us of that period). In this second case, Phinehas' descendants might still have been operating as priests, and indeed may even have considered themselves high priests, but other priests were operating in other locations, contrary to Torah specifications, and in each location someone was functioning like a high priest for that location.
The third explanation that occurred to me this morning is that there was a pattern for selecting the high priest that didn't consistently follow our expected rules of succession. Perhaps Phinehas' selection of high priest to succeed Eleazar has wrongly suggested to us that it would always continue as father to eldest living son. But perhaps instead the rule was eldest living male descendant of Aaron. If Ithamar died before Eleazar, then Phinehas might well have been the oldest male descendant at that time, as the eldest son of the eldest son of Aaron who had children (the oldest two seem to have died without children, or else their entire lines were disqualified for their fathers' sins). But the next high priest might have been a younger brother of Phinehas or an uncle or cousin from the Ithamar line. And this might not have had to have been a rule adopted at the outset. It could even have been a modification implemented later on, whether legitimately or not. The Torah doesn't ever specify, from what I can remember, how the high priest would be chosen. It might have been by Urim and Thummim or something, in which case the high priest could even be the youngest priest of age.
What Happened to Eleazar's Line?
In the Torah, Aaron is the first high priest of the Levitical order of priests. He had four sons: Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. The first two died in Leviticus 10, leaving Eleazar as the eldest inheritor of the high priestly line. We see in Joshua that Eleazar's son Phinehas had become the high priest by the time of the conquering of the land. Then we lose any record of what was going on with tabernacle worship until we get to Samuel, where there seems to be a fixed temple structure built up around the tabernacle implements of worship from the end of Exodus. Perhaps the most surprising feature of the priestly situation at the beginning of the book of Samuel is that the high priest Eli was not descended from Eleazar but his younger brother Ithamar. Where are the descendants of Eleazar, then? What happened after Phinehas?
This surprising fact in the Samuel history has led a number of scholars to propose a skeptical reconstruction of what really happened. On this view, the high priestly family has always been descended from Ithamar, and Eli's family in Samuel was the original high priestly family. With David we get the insertion of a priest named Zadok alongside the final remaining Elide priest Abiathar/Ahimilech. I Chronicles 24 tells us that Zadok is the head of the the Eleazar clan of priests, which Ahimelech (perhaps the same man called Abiathar in Samuel, perhaps his son) was head of the Ithamar clan of priests. The revisionist theory takes Zadok to be a complete outsider from the conquered Jebusite city of Jerusalem. David allowed him to continue his priestly duties, casting him as a priest under the order of Melchizedek, the original priest-king of Salem (which became Jerusalem) from Genesis 14. This allowed David to assert his legitimacy to be king in the Jebusite city, and then Chronicles and the other places that list him as a descendant of Eleazar are just reworking the tradition to make him fit the Israelite origin story, casting Zadok as a son of an older brother of the ancestor of the Elide priests. Thus no sign was left of the Jebusite origin of Zadok.
My first thought upon hearing this theory is that it seems entirely unmotivated by the evidence. After all, the only texts we have indicate Zadok as Levitical priest in the line of Aaron, Eleazar, and Phinehas. There is a difficult issue about what's going on in the Elide line of the Ithamarites, i.e. whether Ahimelech and Abiathar are the same person or father and son (or whether there's some other explanation why the texts say what they do in a way that seems to conflict), but that doesn't affect the issue of Zadok. The argument for this reimagining of the history of Israel's priestly line is pretty much that you can read the evidence this way if you really, really want to as long as you're willing to deny most of what the text actually says on the issue. That's a pretty flimsy argument, but much 20th century biblical studies is like that. We really have no further evidence besides the text on this issue, so I've never understood the motivation for this view apart from the need to come up with something new to maintain a job as a scholar.
This is the fourth post in an ongoing series of reflections on the gospel of Mark, which I haven't been very good at keeping up with. I think at this point I might just abandon it, because the long list of posts I had ready to go disappeared with my hard drive when it failed, and I'm not excited about figuring out again what I wanted to do. Also, I was doing this as I was working through the first half of Mark in a Bible study group that I'm not able to attend this semester because it meets while I'm teaching. I wanted to gather together some of the thoughts I did save in a draft of a post a number of months ago, though. Perhaps at some point I'll decide to do some more of these now and then, but this will be the last I expect to do for now.
What I wanted to do in the post I had saved as a draft was to consider two subtle clues even in the beginning of the book of Mark that run counter to a prevailing view among scholars. A number of respected scholars have claimed that Mark represents an early portrait of Jesus from a time before what the scholars call a higher christology had developed. The idea is that Jesus wasn't perceived to be anything other than the Messiah at first, and eventually he came to be identified as God. This usually puts John's gospel as the height of the high christology, at least within the New Testament itself. They might still consider the creeds a step or two beyond that.
I don't want to challenge the idea that theological understanding developed over time. Nor am I interested in arguing that every nuance to the Johannine portrait of Jesus is in the synoptic gospels, never mind in Mark, the most simple of the synoptics by many measures, including with regard to theological statements. What I want to point out is that the gospel of Mark has two important references even in the first two chapters (in Mark 1:3 and 2:10) to things that entail, but do not make explicit, a fairly high christology.
In the last Mark Tidbit, I looked at Jesus' anger at the leper's condition before he healed him (Mark 1:40-45). In this one, I want to look about Jesus' words to the leper after he healed him:
See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them. (Mark 1:44, ESV)
Some readers puzzle about why Jesus didn't want him to talk to anyone. I'll just record my conclusion that he wasn't out there to spread his reputation or to get everyone to see who he was and what he was all about. The fact that he kept going around and speaking to large groups, healing, performing exorcism, etc. shows that he did have a concern for the people, but he didn't seem to be about doing those things for their own sake. He seems to me to have been picking up disciples throughout these towns through a filtering process while caring for people's needs as they came to him. His avoidance of crowds and quick efforst to move on show that the healings and even teachings of crowds didn't seem to be his main purpose but more for the sake of preaching a message for the purpose of gathering that those who responded to it as a large group of disciples. He knew that crowds gathering for purposes other than his main focus at the time would just have distracted from his real purpose. Many people in these crowds had different expectations for him from what he had in mind for this visit but would eventually be fulfilled after his death and in many cases only at his return. His purpose for now was to gather the followers who would form the basis of his new covenant people, and he by demonstrating how different and new what he was doing was, and in effect it's a demonstration of who he is. That required talking to the crowds and performing miracles, but the key focus was on distinguishing himself from anyone else as divine. I'll dwell on that theme in the next post or two. Most of his teaching in the rest of the book once this primary filtering process is over is teaching to the disciples who would form the basis of his gathered people.
I say all that only to set up what I think is a more interesting question. He wasn't about simple popularity but in fact wanted to avoid it, as shown in this case by his command to the guy not to tell anyone (which the guy studiously ignored, leading to large crowds searching for him, forcing Jesus to leave for another town). Yet he insists that the healed man, who has already been declared clean by Jesus, go to the priests for their examination. This was important enough that Jesus saw it as the one exception to his command not to tell anyone. Why?
Mark Tidbit 2: Jesus' Anger
Mark 1:40-45 tells of Jesus' healing of a man with a skin condition (scholars are all agreed now that the symptoms of what was traditionally translated as leprosy in the Torah is not what we now call leprosy but a general term for skin conditions). The man comes to him, begs on his knees, and tells Jesus that if he's willing, he can make him clean. There's a textual debate over what happens next. Most translations say that Jesus is filled with compassion and heals him. Most scholars favor the alternate textual reading that Jesus was angry and healed him, and I think they're right. I also think this reveals something about Jesus's character that's worth reflecting on for a little bit, something that reminds me of another powerful display of emotion on Jesus' part in the gospel of John.
Mark Tidbit 1: Repent and Believe
Jesus' first words in the gospel of Mark are "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15, ESV) Paul summarizes the ministry of John the Baptizer: "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus." (Acts 19:4, ESV) The nouns for repentance and faith/belief appear together again in Acts 20:21. I'm wondering if there's a connection between the two concepts and that they're not just two indepedent commands, as I think this sort of statement is often taken, but one command put two ways.
Paul's statement about John in Acts 19 seems to be saying that John's message was to repent, i.e. to believe in the one who was to come after him, Jesus. In the next chapter, Paul tells the Ephesian elders in his farewell address to them that the message he preached was of "repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" (the same Greek word is used for faith here and belief in the other two passages). One further passage makes the connection. The author of Hebrews says his recipients don't need to keep laying the basic foundation but need to move on to deeper things. That basic foundation is " of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God". The same one foundation is those two things. So maybe they're not really two things at all. We might read the statement in Mark a little differently in light of all this.
The Name of the Trinity
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matt 28:18-20, ESV)
I realized something at a baptism last year about Matthew 28's Trinitarian formula. It doesn't just use a Trinitiarian formula that assumes enough of a parity between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to put them in the same sentence in parallel. I've seen commentators mention this, but it's not a strong enough argument that all three persons of the Trinity are fully God. After all, you could list God, the church, and the world in parallel like that, although here there's a sense of commonality and joint authority in addition. One thing occurred to me that I had to go check the Greek to be sure of. Jesus talks about the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This 'name' is singular, one name for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The name of the Father is 'YHWH' (Hebrew at the time didn't have written vowels), also called the tetragrammaton and covenant name of God. I can't think of another name that these three persons could share. Anyway, that's not the sort of thing those who deny the Trinity but want to affirm the scriptures will be able to deal with easily. Even the fact that there's one name they fall under is some threat to that view.
I think the clearest statement at least of the divinity of Jesus is in Philippians 2:1-11, but it will take some work to draw it out. Some common misreadings of what Paul says there (due to the infelicities of English renderings) hinder what I think would have been an obvious implication of the text to its original readers.
In a previous post, I considered whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. My answer was sort of a yes and a no. Literally speaking, I think the answer is yes. It's just that Christians and Muslims believe very different things about the one God that exists. As a Christian, I think Muslims believe radically false things about God, and I think Christians believe generally true things about God. There would be no meaning to calling myself a Christian if I didn't think something like that. In that sense, what some people really mean when they say Christians and Muslims worship different gods is true. Their sentence is false, but what they were trying to convey is true. The different things the two believe about God are very different.
I had another instance of happening upon a gem of a discussion this morning, when I was following a reference in a footnote on an entirely different topic. After looking up a reference in N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God, I decided that it might be worth looking through his introduction, since I've had the book for a while but barely looked at it. In the introduction, he explains his use of 'god' rather than 'God' consistently throughout the book (which I won't bother to go into here), and in the process he gets into the very issue of my aforementioned post, focusing mostly on the differences between first-century Christianity and first-century post-Christian Judaism (though mentioning Islam in the process). I thought enough of the issues were parallel that it was worth summing up Wright's thoughts and looking at their significance for the discussion about Islam from my previous post.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.