Saturday, 3 October 2015

Drops of blood

[Translation from recent post in French]

Thanks to a conversation today with a French-speaking friend, who read the blog but gave up because of the language, I propose[d] to do an article in French! Truly I am sorry to have been such an English-lover up until now. One reason for that is that I write better in English - after all, it's my mother tongue. But a second reason is that the sources and references I am examining come for the mostpart from English persons and scholars. However, that is not an excuse, and I hope to do more articles in French, including one this week (on a worship song in the continuation of the series I started on theology in worship).

But my subject for today is the question of the Son of man according to Luke's gospel. This expression THE son of man is radical and innovative. Indeed, this expression (combined with its definite article) is present nowhere else in antiquity, including in the texts of the Old Testament, which contains a hundred or so references to "A son of man" or "sons of man".

Some readers will already have heard of the "historical Jesus". It is a movement that developed in the field of history that applies to Jesus the same criteria of historical research applied to any other historical event or figure. These historians do not apply faith-based or religious criteria, but historical criteria. Some of them are believers, although many are not, and many debates have been held over the issue of the "historical Jesus". One of the most distinguished scholars of our time, who is no longer a believer himself, is Bart Ehrman. No-one seriously undertaking critical Biblical study will be unaware of his contributions to the field. Ehrman is one of those who believes that by applying historical criteria to the data and research we currently hold (for example on the workings of oral transmissions of stories and human memory) that there is a wide variety of historical preciseness in Jesus' recorded words.

Indeed, even some of the more conservative scholars can concede that some stylistic wording can be considered as likely added by the gospel writer, i.e. not exactly word by word what Jesus really said, and this is what interests historians (see Just Bass in his debate with Bart Ehrman on 18 September 2015). Ehrman is in agreement that given the diversity of the multiple and independent sources quoting Jesus talking of "THE son of man" that he really did teach about this a lot, and that it was new. But, what is most surprising, is that if you accept that there can be a difference between the true unfolding of historical events and wording and what is reported by the four gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and you also accept that Jesus spoke a lot about the Son of man, you are not obligated to take the position of Jesus having historically appropriated the title himself. According to certain verses, it seems totally obvious that Jesus did appropriate this title. However, for some historians, it is just as possible or even probable that it is the gospel writers who at times make Jesus appropriate that title. Let us look at an example that does not at all require such appropriation:

Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:26)
For historians, this saying might be closer to the actual statement Jesus made than certain other statements recorded by the gospel writers concerning the Son of man.

But why am I telling you all this?

On his blog via several posts, Ehrman has explained why two verses from Luke chapter 22, verses 43-44, we can observe a real corruption of the text ("corruption" in the technical sense, not in the mean-spirited way), that is to say, an insertion. It is the passage that explains how an angel comforted Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and how Jesus was "in agony":

An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

Wow, a very famous passage indeed. But it is an insertion; it was added by a copyist in the second or third century. It is a verifiable fact that the human beings who copied these texts always made small (although occasionally larger) changes. For the vast majority of cases these were accidental and without serious consequence. This is one of the very few larger changes that is neither accidental nor without significant consequence, and can be shown by
  1. its absence from the best and oldest manuscripts
  2. the otherwise symmetrical structure of the paragraph
  3. the context of Jesus' "suffering" in Luke.
We can sometimes have the unfortunate habit of flattening the events of the life, and especially the death and resurrection of Jesus into one single account comprising four sources. This prevents us sometimes from some quite remarkable discoveries. Here's a whopper: if you only read Christ's passion in Luke, you can arrive at the astonishing conclusion that - WITH THE EXCEPTION OF LUKE 22:43-44 - Jesus didn't really have to suffer. Every time that Mark stresses that the situation was heavy and painful for Jesus, Luke, who has access to the Markan text, removes the agony and shows a Jesus who is in control, capable of conversation, reflective, profound exhortations, who does not cry out to God about why he has been forsaken, and so on. Honestly, the arguments for a corruption of this passage are coherent on multiple levels.

But one question remains, and I asked it to Dr. Ehrman: why would Luke have so intentionally described an absence of Jesus in his "passion"? I also made a fated suggestion, that I myself do not really believe but I just want to find an explanation for this reality if I can:

If in other parts of Luke we can indeed observe a connection between the Son of man and suffering, and if Jesus was referring to another, apocalyptic character such as observed in Daniel chapter 7, could not Luke have been avoiding the confusion between Jesus and the Son of man?

Ehrman's first response was "good idea". But the problem with my suggestion was that if Luke was the culprit for making Jesus appropriate the title of The Son of man, why would he seek to remove any trace of the Son of Man's suffering, since the Son of Man, for Luke, IS Jesus? Surely that could not be attributed to scribal corruptions!

Ehrman responded a second time with a brief alternative explanation I can give in the next post...

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