Person A writes a book inspired by his experience of dialogue. Person B writes a review of the book. Person A wants to talk about it. It makes sense, doesn’t it?
What follows is Anthony’s reaction to my review of his latest book.
If we don’t get a slew of light bulb jokes in the comments section, I’m going to be disappointed.
I would like to thank Larry Behrendt for reviewing my book and for allowing me to respond to it on his blog. I have read several book reviews by Larry and I’ve never witnessed a less than gracious and measured tone. Even when Larry disagrees—whether he knows the author or not—he does so with respect and kindness. Just don’t get him started on baseball. Downright mashugana.
In a recent piece on his subscription-only blog, Bart Ehrman—controversial scholar of the historical Jesus and early Christianity—addressed whether it bothers any of his more religious colleagues that he’s become an atheist-agnostic. According to Ehrman, this subject never comes up in academic circles. Why not? Because Ehrman has “never, ever, had a conversation with a colleague about my personal religious views. Never.” Why not? Because, Ehrman says, he works at a secular institution of higher education, “and faith commitments are irrelevant to scholarship.”
Ehrman’s statement is typical of my experience with scholars of religion. A few of them are willing to open up about matters of faith. Many of them are not. Most scholars (and, I think, all of the good ones) want their work to be evaluated on the merits, and not by how well their scholarship jibes with our faith assumptions. But that doesn’t stop me from wondering about the relationship between faith and scholarship. I can only speak for myself, but my study of religion is a personal matter. I am changed by the works I read, and the study I do. I cannot imagine studying religion for a lifetime, and not being profoundly affected by this study.
So it is with great joy that I read my friend Anthony Le Donne’s latest book, Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in G-d. Le Donne is a terrific scholar, particularly in the fields of the memory-history of early Christianity and the importance of gender and sexuality within Christianity. In Near Christianity, Le Donne describes his personal journey. Not his entire journey—for that, we’ll have to wait for his autobiography—but a particular personal journey Le Donne has taken, as a Christian, through his interaction with Judaism.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written here. I’ve been troubled by many things I’d like to talk about, but the words haven’t come. Where should I start? ISIS? Trump? Guns?
I think I’ll begin with guns. I’d like to talk about the speech Jerry Falwell Jr. gave on December 4 to his students at Liberty University. But I’ll start with a different story.
Last year, I invited my friend and Christian dialogue partner Anthony Le Donne to visit my synagogue in Los Angeles for Shabbat. I hoped he’d be impressed by our Buddhist-inspired meditation service, or our Torah teaching, or the conversation with my Rabbi during lunch. I think Anthony enjoyed it all. But when it was over, and we were alone to talk, the first thing Anthony mentioned was the security guard posted in front of the synagogue. I remember his asking me if the guard carried a gun. I didn’t know the answer, and I still don’t.
Let’s conclude my long-running review of Chris Keith’s Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict. I won’t try to summarize everything I’ve written so far – you can read it in all of its wordy detail here, in parts one, two and three. But briefly: Keith argues that Jesus’ teaching in synagogue drew comparison to the Jewish scribes, because it generally fell to Jews who were scribal-literate to read and explain Torah in synagogue. But Jesus was not scribal-literate (according to Keith), and this raised questions about his ability and authority to teach in synagogue. This questioning eventually became pointed and hostile and grew into full-blown conflict, with the result that Jesus wound up on the “radar” of the Jewish authorities as a potential troublemaker. Keith is quick to point out that he is looking at the issues that first brought Jesus to the attention of the authorities, which are certainly not the same issues that precipitated Jesus’ execution. Or as Keith bluntly put it, Jesus was not crucified “because of confusion over scribal literacy and scribal authority.”
I’ve already posted that I don’t fully agree with Keith’s take on “the origins of the conflict.” Nevertheless, I’m enthusiastically positive about Keith’s subject matter and the way he approaches it. Why? Because the topic of “Jesus Against the Scribal Elite” addresses one of my big New Testament questions: what’s so terrible about being a scribe?
In my last post, I began my review of Anthony Le Donne’s terrific new book The Wife of Jesus. I focused there on the first half of Anthony’s book, where he discusses why Jesus’s marital status is so important to us. Anthony argues (and I think he’s right) that we project our sexual aspirations, misgivings and hang-ups onto the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Given the complicated nature of our sexuality, it is no wonder that Jesus appears to some of us as celibate, to others of us as married with children, and to still others (albeit a few others, more than 100 years ago) as married multiple times.
But my guess is, no one purchased The Life of Jesus to read about projected sexualities. My guess is, Anthony’s readers want to know whether Jesus was married. My guess is that some of these readers want Anthony to confirm that traditional Christianity is right to believe that Jesus eschewed all sexual activity, because Sons of G-d do not and would not engage in that sort of thing. My guess is that other readers want Anthony to say that Jesus was married, had children and engaged in sex pretty much like other human beings of his time and place.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, we might say that there are two kinds of people interested in Jesus. There are traditionalists, who believe that Jesus was celibate throughout his lifetime. And there are the others. In recent years, we’ve witnessed some very public speculation over whether Jesus could have been married. The topic of a married-and-sexual Jesus is front-and-center in popular works such as The Last Temptation of Christ and The Da Vinci Code. The recent discovery of a purportedly ancient Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (which in all likelihood is a modern forgery) raised the question yet again.
Friend of this blog Anthony Le Donne has recently stepped into this controversy with a terrific new book, The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals. In my reading experience, Anthony’s book is the single best discussion of Jesus’ probable marital status. Was Jesus married? Anthony doesn’t think so. At least, Anthony thinks that Jesus probably wasn’t married during his public ministry. I agree with Anthony, though my reasons for thinking that Jesus wasn’t married are a little different from Anthony’s. I plan to discuss this question in a later post.
But here, I want to discuss what might be the best part of a very good book. In Wife of Jesus, Anthony examines why we care so much about whether Jesus married. In Anthony’s words, “what does it say about us that we’re so fascinated and repulsed by this possibility?” This is an approach typical of Anthony, to take our questions about the past, and ask instead what our questions say about us.
It’s time to wrap up this series on Bible problem texts. I’ve conducted this series in dialog with Anthony Le Donne, and Anthony has posted his Final Thoughts on this question (and then added more thoughts). Up until now, I’ve danced around the question of how I read problem texts. It’s time to stop dancing.
It will take me more than one post to wrap up this series. In these final posts, I’ll try to explain the Biblical theology of a remarkable man name of Krister Stendahl, who among other things was Dean of the Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of Stockholm (not at the same time). Stendahl was a leading voice in interfaith dialog – he was the second director of the Center for Religious Pluralism at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He was an arch feminist and defender of the rights of religious minorities. Most important for us, Stendahl’s theology is a useful guide to problem Bible texts.
Stendahl taught that we must combine two approaches to understand Bible texts: we must analyze what a text meant, and then determine what it means. Sounds simple, right? You’ll sometimes see these approaches described as Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology, but “what it meant” and “what it means” will do just fine for our discussion.
Our ongoing discussion about problem Bible texts … goes on. Anthony Le Donne’s latest and most excellent response to my last post is here. Honestly, it grows tiresome to come up with imaginative and original ways to describe how much I like what Anthony is writing. If Anthony was the mensch he’s reputed to be, he’d write a crappy post every now and again, so I could take a day off from having to say nice things about him.
Anthony raised many compelling side issues. Can we conduct an effective Jewish-Christian dialog online? How is it that Anthony is “more invested” in the value of the Old Testament than in the New? But it’s going to take all the time I have to address Anthony’s two main points. The second point, Anthony’s evocative discussion of how problem Bible texts become his adversary and how he’s instructed to love his adversary … I want to join in that discussion, but at a later time. There’s an earlier point I need to address first.
Over at The Jesus Blog, Anthony Le Donne has responded to my prior post on problem Bible texts. His response is a must-read, and makes me question why I’d enter into public discussions with someone who is a PhD, published author and pastor. Two possible answers: these discussions are good for my developmental efforts at humility (still on the drawing board), plus maybe I’ll provoke a piece of writing from Anthony as good as the one we just got.
My favorite part of Anthony’s response is when he talks about how his Christianity is “fused” to him in a way he cannot shed, how he wrestles with texts, and how sometimes “I limp away from Scripture and wonder what sort of God I’m dealing with.” Anthony quotes Ursula Le Guin, who here gives about as good a short description of how to read text as you’re likely to find anywhere:
In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood. Take the tale in your teeth, then, and bite till the blood runs, hoping it’s not poison; and we will all come to the end together, and even to the beginning: living, as we do, in the middle.
Anthony suggested that those who participate in this discussion might also self-identify. I’m not sure what to think about this. I think that folks feel enough reluctance as is to get involved in faith discussions, let alone interfaith discussions. On the other hand, it would be helpful to me to know who I’m talking to.
I’d like to open this up for comment. Do you think it’s a good idea for commenters here to identify themselves as Christian or Jewish, or even to self-identify more explicitly?
For the record, I’ve self-identified here, here and here, and I have a more detailed self-identification in the works. But I’m not suggesting that this is appropriate for anyone else.