Author: Thom Stark
Bibliographic info: 248 pp
Publisher: Wipf & Stock, 2010.
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With thanks to Wipf & Stock for the review copy!
See Part I of the review here.
As I said at the end of the first part of this review, the most interesting chapter of this book, as well as perhaps the most controversial, is titled Jesus Was Wrong. Basically, the thesis of this chapter is that Jesus himself believed that he would return in power and glory within the lifetime of the disciples. This didn’t happen, hence the title of the chapter.
Some Christians (such as myself) may be more than willing to forsake the inerrancy of the Bible and even believe that Jesus possessed inaccurate knowledge (e.g. that he probably did believe in a flat-earth geocentric cosmology). After all, that is just part and parcel of Jesus being human and it reflects that he was a product of his time and culture as much as we are of ours However, to say that Jesus was wrong about something theologically-related (e.g. predicting his return and being wrong about it), that is indeed a harder pill for a Christian to swallow (and something I admit to having qualms about).
Stark begins this chapter by providing an overview on the nature of ‘apocalyptic’. While I would agree that the apocalyptic worldview expected a restored paradise wrought by a decisive display of divine deliverance, I am not so convinced to attribute that worldview to Jesus (in its entirety), as I think the synoptics show that Jesus had an alternative and quite unconventional idea regarding the nature of the kingdom of God and what it would entail (e.g. Luke 17.20-21).
Stark anticipates this perspective of mine and says,
Thus, those who appeal to sayings such as Matt 12:28 (“But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you”) as evidence against an apocalyptic Jesus fail to understand the modified paradigm. What sayings like Matt 12:28 indicate rather is the idea of a proleptic presence of the kingdom through the agency of Jesus. In other words, his minstry was seen as a sign that the kindgom would arrive on a cosmic, global scale within a short period time. (pg. 167)
Fair enough point, though I am not fully convinced.
To support his argument of the failed apocalyptic Jesus, Stark examines Jesus’ prediction of his coming (Mark 9.1, Matt 16.28, Luke 9.27), as well as the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13, Matt 24, and Luke 21). Regarding Jesus’ prediction in Mark 9.1, I agree with Stark that the transfiguration account which follows could not have been the fulfillment of Jesus’ words, even though the authors of the gospels seemingly demonstrate that they thought it was the fulfillment by their placement of the transfiguration directly after Jesus’ prediction.
Stark then deals with the Olivet Discourse (which I think is clearly referring to the same event mentioned in Mark 9.1). After laying out the synoptic accounts of the Olivet Discourse in parallel and summarizing the data, Stark says that,
There seems to be no getting around the fact: if Jesus said what the gospels say he said, then Jesus was wrong. Admittedly, he was right about a lot of it. The good news did spread throughout the world. Wars, famines, and plagues did occur. His disciples were persecuted. Messianic hopefuls did attract followings, all of which were squelched. Nation did rise against nation. The temple was desecrated, and Jerusalem was destroyed. He got all of that right! The only part he got wrong was that little detail about the end of the world as we know it. But nine out of ten isn’t that bad. (pg. 184)
Note that Stark is addressing this from the inerrancy perspective. In other words, he is arguing that if inerrancy is true (and hence the gospel narratives are accurate) then Jesus must have been wrong (because he predicted his return in glory and it failed to happen). Thus, if Thom is correct in his reading of the gospel narratives, then Jesus mistakenly thought he would return in power and glory within a generation, which did not happen, hence the Bible is not inerrant.
Stark engages with an increasingly popular interpretation of the Olivet Discourse as put forward by everybody’s favorite British theologian, N.T. Wright. It is with Wright’s presentation in Jesus and the Victory of God that Stark tackles head on (see pp. 339-368 of Jesus and the Victory of God by Wright). Wright presents a preterist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse that sees it being fulfilled in the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem (I also hold to a preterist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse). The preterist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse is not new – the author of Luke interpreted it this way (see Luke 21, especially verse 20). Unfortunately, people have come up with all sorts of bizarre systems to make the Olivet Discourse (or portions of it) refer to a still yet future end of the world (e.g. dispensationalism and its associated Left Behind tripe). The preterist interpretation recognizes that the apocalyptic language Jesus used is thoroughly Jewish and should be seen as such, rather than being over-literalized by the modern Christian mind. Stark likewise recognizes the use of apocalyptic language and says:
The apocalyptic language used may sound strange to us: the sun and moon go dark, stars fall from the sky and the waves roar. But this would not have sounded strange to the disciples. They knew exactly what Jesus meant. Jesus was using traditional language the prophets employed to fortell the fall of Israel’s enemies. (pp. 180-81)
Stark did raise some pertinent critiques of Wright’s exegesis of the Mark 13, a couple of which do seem to point towards Stark’s argument that Jesus was mistaken about his return in glory and judgment. I guess this is still an issue I need to examine more (I tend to neglect eschatological matters nowadays).
As Stark points out, the inerrantist also has to deal with the imminent expectation of the end as portrayed in the rest of the New Testament (epistles and Revelation). For the inerrantist, it is a somewhat inconvenient predicament to have Jesus predicting an imminent return in glory within a generation, coupled together with Paul and John (in Revelation) also proclaiming an imminent return with all its trimmings (resurrection, final judgment, etc).
For me, however, once I dropped inerrancy it helped things make a whole lot more sense. What I mean is, I do not hold all the New Testament authors to the same standard, as they may very well have had conflicting ideas and so I am sure that some of them did expect an imminent end of the world as we know it. Though, I strongly suspect that this was the result of a misunderstanding of the apocalyptic language Jesus used (at least it was in some early Church writings). Whereas, for someone like Paul or the author of Revelation, both of whom seem thoroughly steeped in Jewish thought, perhaps they were just wrong regarding the imminent return of Jesus and its accompaniment with the general resurrection and final judgment.
The book ends with two more chapters. The first chapter argues against various methods which have been utilized to answer the moral, theological, and ideological problems of the Bible (such as allegorical readings, canonical readings, etc). Stark thinks that instead of using these methods to sidestep the problematic texts, we should face them head on in what he labels “textual interventions.” That is to say,
In order to save such texts, they must be confronted, their troublesome nature must be truthfully characterized, and they must be branded for life. Only then will they be able to serve a useful function within the life of the community. (pg. 217)
What is the value of these problematic texts? How now shall we look at the Bible after having dropped inerrancy? That is what the final chapter seeks to answer. Instead of excising these problematic texts in a Marcionic fashion, Stark asserts that we should retain them as scripture, because to do otherwise “is to hide from ourselves a potent reminder of the worst parts of ourselves” (pg. 218). Also, he contends that the authorial intent of these problematic texts should not be allegorized or trivialized away, but that we should instead read between the lines of what they depict so that they can be accurately used as object lessons in the Christian community.
Throughout The Human Faces of God, Thom Stark skillfully makes biblical scholarship relevant to those who have not had the time or resources to study it for themselves. Yet as he points out, the findings of biblical scholarship are not exactly compatible with biblical inerrancy. Should we continue to cling fast to the modern tradition of inerrancy, or should we finally put it to rest? The latter option will no doubt be hard to those who are married to tradition and reluctant to question the status quo of orthodoxy. Ultimately, I think that all Christians who read this book will no doubt find it provocative, challenging, and perhaps ultimately beneficial to developing a deeper understanding of the Bible’s nature.
It was only relatively recently that I stop trying to make the Bible conform to the unwarranted demands of inerrancy and to just let it be what it simply is – a sacred, but also thoroughly human, text.