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.
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.
Scripture and Worship
What is the role of scripture in worship? If scripture is to be our sole infallible guide to Christian practice as well as theology, what does that mean for worship? Since I'm writing this to enter it into the first Carnival of the Reformation, it's probably worth linking to a good summary of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Wikipedia's entry should serve that purpose well. What I'm interested in establishing in this post is what bearing that doctrine has on worship, both private and communal. Some readers may consider some of my conclusions suprising, but I think they come right out of scripture. There are so many elements of contemporary worship that seem to me to use a non-scriptural basis and even undermine what scripture says about worship. Some of these are subjects of common complaints, but I think the ones I'm zeroing in on are not the most common complaints about the worship of our day. I do think they're some of the more serious ones. If we take scripture seriously, as the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura requires, I think we'll need to change much of how we think about worship, including the role of scripture in worship, though how it will need to change will depend on our background and our current practices.
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.
Open Theism and Evil, Part II
In the first post, I gave some indications of why I think denying God's foreknowledge of free human acts doesn't really explain that much evil. What I'd like to do now is lay out a number of elements of the traditional response to the problem of evil, the one that open theists find unsatisfying. This will all be at a fairly basic level, but I'd like to get all the general things on the table before going into depth on how denying foreknowledge is supposed to help.
One of the primary strategies for responding to the problem of evil is to treat some good as a higher-order good in the sense that it can't exist without allowing some evil to exist yet the good is worth the evil it allows in some sense. Many traditional presentations of the problem of evil have assumed utilitarianism, and thus they will talk about the consequences for happiness and unhappiness, saying that more unhappiness is created than the happiness that requires it, so it's not ultimately worth it. Some theists have responded that utilitarianism is false, and thus the theist has more resources to explain evil. Some kinds of evil may simply be wrong to prevent, with no relevant questions about how much evil is allowed by not doing that wrong thing. If it's wrong to do it, then God shouldn't be expected to do it. So I don't want to assume utilitarianism here, even though it's easier to frame the problem of evil if you do have such assumptions. The way to think of higher-order goods in a non-utilitarian framework would be to see some goods as being so important that it would be wrong not to pursue them. Alternatively, one might simply see preventing certain evils as morally wrong, because any method of preventing that kind of evil would involve doing something wrong. Most theodicies or defenses (I'm not going to deal with the distinction some philosophers make between the two) fall under some kind of higher-order good, I would say.
Open Theism and Evil, Part I
I've gotten the sense that the problem of evil is the primary motivation for many who subscribe to what's commonly called open theism, i.e. the view that God does not know the future, takes risks, and changes his mind due to learning new information.
Some open theists take God to have voluntarily given up the right to have knowledge of the future for the sake of human freedom. The assumption is that divine foreknowledge and human freedom are incompatible. Other open theists take God's ignorance of the future to be a necessary fact about the nature of time, since there's no future to be known. This view assumes what I call a growing block theory of time. Some think it follows from presentism, i.e. the view that the present exists but the future and past don't, but if presentism is going to justify the view that there are no truths about the future, then it must also justify the view that there are no truths about the past. So it assumes a growing block view, according to which past and present exist but no future, since those truths aren't somehow sense "fixed".
I share neither of these assumptions, so I have little sympathy for open theism, but my concern here isn't to deal with those elements. I'm interested in a different motivation for open theism, the motivation that God's ignorance of the future can explain the kinds and amount of evil in the universe in a much more satisfying way than any other view. I just don't think that's true.
Why I'm Not a Libertarian
I'm not talking about the political view. I'm talking metaphysics here. For those more familiar with theology than philosophy, I'm talking about the view Arminians assume about free will. The libertarian view can be expressed in two non-equivalent ways (and some people hold one and not the other, in which case I don't know if I would call them libertarians).
1. Your action is free only if you could have done otherwise than you actually did. It has to be genuinely possible for you to have done otherwise. If determinism is true, then (on most views) this condition fails.
2. Your action is free if it's caused by you and not by prior events. This condition by definition rules out freedom if determinism is true.
The first principle is called the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP). Harry Frankfurt famously argued against this principle (I think successfully) but still thinks you can meet condition 2 without having alternative possibilities, so he considers himself a libertarian. He just only adopts the second condition. There are compatibilists who accept 1 and give a complex account of possibility to explain how we can be predetermined and still possibly do otherwise. So not everyone who accepts 1 accepts 2, and not everyone who accepts 2 accepts 1. Still, I think 2 is essential for libertarianism, whether 1 accompanies it or not. Therefore, I'm going to argue against 2, which is commonly called the concept of agent causation.
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.