Tue 24 Nov 2009
Recently the website PrudentialPublishing.info (why not .com, the domain is available?) was mentioned in the comments on one of P2C’s articles, “True or False: Doubters Welcome“. The site contains various articles and sample chapters from the author Andrew D Benson’s book, The Origins of Christianity & the Bible.
I was asked by the commenter for my thoughts on the site, however there is far too much there to respond to in the comments section of another article. So I’ve decided to respond here instead with a series of short commentaries instead. I’ll start with the numerous short articles on the site’s front page, but I may jump around since certain parts may not be worth commenting on (or I may even agree with them, we’ll see!) For brevity’s sake I will refer to Andrew D Benson as Mr Benson.
(One other quick note. I cannot be entirely exhaustive in my commentary, so out of necessity I will be selective, because I don’t have the time to write a 400 page book in response! If I have not directly addressed an issue, it may be because I feel it is a similar to an issue already addressed, or is inconsequential, or even that I’m tired and need to sleep! )
The first section on the site deals with Jesus’ omnipotence and is titled “Read the Bible and see for yourself that Jesus did not know everything!” In a sense, I do agree with Mr Benson here, but in a more important sense I do not.
I want to explain that the classic conception of Jesus’ identity (and the one that I think coheres best with the full witness of the New Testament teaching) is not that Jesus was God merely playing a role, acting like (pretending to be) a human. Rather, in the incarnation Jesus is simultaneously fully God and fully man. This was necessary to achieve the aims of the atonement. (Although not necessary in the sense that God was obligated to do it.)
What this means (besides the fact that in some respects we may never completely comprehend every last detail about how that works) is that in order to take on a fully human identity, Jesus willingly chose to self-limit certain of His attributes. This is what Paul mentions in Philippians 2:6-7: “[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.“ The Greek phrase translated “made himself nothing” above literally means “he emptied himself” … the NLT translates it as “gave up his divine privileges”. Because of this, Jesus’ omnis (omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc) were all muted as he voluntarily chose to limit his abilities while on Earth. Most of the time Jesus acted in accordance with his human abilities, exercising his divine power/knowledge/presence/etc whenever he chose. It is not that he “lost” his divine nature, but rather that he veiled it as he chose for his purposes.
Again, this is not a modern day hypothesis, but has been the traditional interpretation of the church. Keeping this in mind, many of the objections in this first section/article are not worth addressing. However some of them deserve further comment.
The first section, regarding Jesus and the seeds, unfortunately contains what I assume is a typo. Mr Benson says:
Jesus was not omniscient because he did not know which seed is the smallest. He said, “… a grain of mustard seed … is the smallest of all seeds …” (Matthew 13:31-32 KJV)
However, this is not how the text of the KJV reads. It does not say “is the smallest of all seeds”. It reads “is the least of all seeds.” He probably meant the NRSV, which reads as he has quoted it. However, the KJV translation of the word as “least” could still be appropriate, because the Greek word mikros can have that meaning (according to Strong’s dictionary). Elsewhere in the same NRSV translation quoted above as “smallest”, the same word mikros is translated “least” (Luke 9:48).
So Jesus is not necessarily referring to the size of the seed here. Even if he is, I don’t see a problem with him referring to the mustard seed as being the smallest of all seeds his listeners would be familiar with. It seems entirely reasonable to take Jesus’ words that way, which is why (I assume) the NIV adds the word “your”, not to cover up a blunder as suggested in the article.
Following the seeds section, Mr Benson says “He who knows all things does not ask questions.” But on what basis does he make that assumption? Jesus often used questions in order to communicate with his listeners. A college professor may ask dozens of questions to his class during every lecture, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know the answers! Jesus was interested in having conversations with people, and so naturally he would ask questions. Several of the passages cited in the remainder of this section follow this tact, so I won’t reply to each of them individually. In fact, Mr Benson later quotes John 11:42 where Jesus explains that he has said things “for the benefit of the people standing here” … which is exactly the point I am making.
However, we are given the example of Mark 13:32: “No one knows about that day or hour [of the endtimes], not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” This is not a question, it’s a statement, so Jesus is not merely encouraging audience participation here. Instead we have an example of the voluntary “emptying” of knowledge I referred to earlier; Jesus chose not to know because he did not want to reveal this info to his listeners. Note this carefully: The author of this gospel and the other gospels were quite aware that Jesus did not always openly profess omniscient knowledge. So the gospel authors themselves saw no problem with this; neither do I.
Then Mr Benson mentions the “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” quote which Jesus speaks on the cross (Mark 15:34). I use the word “quote” because Jesus is quoting Psalm 22:1. This should lead our inquisitive minds to ask: Why did Jesus choose to quote this particular Psalm? The reason is that it contains prophecies (or at very least parallels) with his own torment on the cross: a Psalm which opens with cries of anguish, but ends in confidence and triumph. Strangely, the Psalmist ended his Psalm with the words: “They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn – for he has done it.” (Psalm 22:31) Done what? The Psalmist is strangely vague here; but Jesus fulfills the Psalm through his suffering and completes our understanding of its meaning.
Mr Benson further accuses Jesus of lying in John 7, when Jesus says he will not yet go to the festival, but the disciples should go. He says this because the townspeople are telling him to go to the festival and “show yourself to the world” (v4) However, Jesus is not interested in doing so. He does not immediately go with his disciples, but at some unknown time later, he does go (as he said, it was not yet time for him to go right that moment (v6)) but in secret, not in the way that the townspeople wanted him to. This is not lying for both these reasons: Jesus did not immediately go to the festival, and he did not go in the manner in which the crowd wanted him to.
Briefly addressing the other objections, Jesus prayed both for the sake of the crowds (to show them how to pray) and because as a fully human being it was in his nature to pray. (Mr Benson here is taking a docetic view of Jesus, ie that he is God only and not human, which is not the biblical position and was renounced as heresy by the early church.) Mr Benson says “Had Jesus been omniscient, God would not have talked to him.” This seems to me to be a non-sequitur, and in any case the same rationale as applied to Jesus’ questions applies here.
Mr Benson ends his critique with what may be the most terrible two sentences of the entire section/article:
Furthermore, omniscient beings don’t think because they know every thought that can be thought. (The concept of omniscience is beyond human understanding.)
Apparently the concept is beyond the understanding of every human being … except Mr Benson, who according to the above seems (or at least claims) to understand it quite well. If it is beyond human understanding, how does Mr Benson know what omniscient beings do or do not do? Perhaps he means that fully understanding omniscience is beyond human comprehension; in that sense I would agree with him. But as stated, this argument is self-refuting.
What I think this first section demonstrates is how important it is to grasp that Jesus was both fully God and fully human. When one is emphasized above the other (either docetism or ebionism) it leads to not only an inaccurate apprehension of the New Testament view, but also a less than fully formed view of Jesus, which will lead to some of the problems noted above.
Whew. That took far longer than I anticipated … but I suppose it’s much easier to ask the hard questions than it is to answer them. I’m not sure when the next installment will be, but I will work on it when I have time.