Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Re-Posted Note from Six Years Ago from My Private Blog

Recently, as I was teaching a classroom of college students on the transfiguration and the following narrative in Mark 9:14ff, the words of the text caught my attention and stirred my imagination. Immediately upon returning down from the Mount of Transfiguration, the narrative says, "And when they [Jesus, Peter, James & John] came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him" (Mark 9:15-15; ESV). I posed a question to the students. Why do you suppose the text says that when the crowd saw Jesus they were greatly amazed? It is noteworthy to point out that elsewhere in Mark's Gospel the same verb ekthambeō occurs three times, once in 14:33 and once in 16:5 and 16:6, respectively. In 14:33, ekthambeō is used of Jesus in tandem with adēmoneō. The sense is that Jesus "began to be distressed and troubled." In 16:5 and 16:6, ekthambeō is used first of the women who came to the tomb and found it empty and were amazed, and then of the young man who had been seated at the right side of the tomb who cautions, "Do not be amazed!" The verb speaks of deep movement of emotions, particularly of trembling astonishment. Thus, in Mark 9:14, the verb ekthambeō bursts upon the reader with unexpectedness. Given the fact that Mark's other uses of the verb ekthambeō denote intense emotion, we would be amiss to devalue the verb's intensity in 9:14.

The unexpectedness of this verb at this juncture of the story is underscored by the fact that throughout Mark's narrative, verbs that speak of astonishment, such as ekplēssō in 1:22 signal the crowd's reaction to some remarkable teaching or miracle done by Jesus. In Mark 9:14, the crowd had not just seen any miracle nor had they just heard any extraordinary teach from Jesus. Nevertheless, the narrative expressly states that the crowd's astonishment came when they saw Jesus. This surely indicates that there is something about Jesus' personage that incited the crowd's astonishment.

It seems much too weak to take Mark's verb that signals intense emotion as does James Edwards who says,
On the other hand, if Jesus' countenance still radiates the glory of the transfiguration, the command "not to tell anyone" (v. 9) seems rather pointless. Moreover, if Jesus' countenance is substantially affected, we might expect the crowd to retreat in fear (Exod 34:30) rather than advance in avid pursuit. . . . On balance, the astonishment of the crowd appears to owe to Jesus' unexpected appearance and the hopes it raised (Mark 276-277).
Likewise, the comment by R. T. France seems too weak to satisfy the narrative when he explains, "More likely Mark uses the verb rather extravagantly to denote the powerful impression which Jesus' personal presence by now created: 'this authority emanates from him even before he speaks or acts'" (Mark, NIGTC, 364).

It seems more likely that my imagination, activated by the text of Mark that day in class recently, was intuitively right to direct the students to consider a recapitulation of Moses' descent from the mountain as recorded in Exodus 34:29-35.
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.
Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
Jesus has just come down the mountain after being transfigured in the cloud along with Elijah and with Moses. Echoes, in the tranfiguration account, of Moses' experience of the theophany on Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:17-23) are too strong to ignore. This is all the more so when we find Mark using ekthambeō to describe the crowd's response to Jesus.
Thus, it seems right that Morna Hooker says, "[Mark] must mean that there was something about Jesus' appearance which gave them good reason to be astonished. The only possible explanation seems to be that Mark means us to understand that Jesus' appearance is still in some way affected by the transfiguration. If Moses, coming down the mountain after speaking with God, reflected the glory of God from his face without knowing it, and so caused all the people to be afraid (Exod. 34:29f.), it is not surprising if Jesus also, coming down the mountain from a similar experience, caused astonishment among the crowd (The Gospel according to Mark, 222-224).
Robert Gundry also seems to get it right when he adds, "And something so striking as the heavenly whiteness of Jesus' garments seems required to account for a word so strong as exethambēthēsan. The extremity of the circumstances leading to later use of this word support this judgment" (Mark, 488).

What about James Edwards' objections to this understanding of the passage? What about his objection that this interpretation makes Jesus' command to the three apostles on the mountain "not to tell anyone" (v. 9) seem "rather pointless"? What about Edwards' objection that this interpretation should cause one to expect that the crowd would "retreat in fear (Exod 34:30) rather than advance in avid pursuit"?

It seems to me that any proper understanding of the interplay between Jesus' revealing and concealing his identity throughout Mark's narrative (the Secrecy Motif) has to acknowledge that Jesus' prohibition announced to his disciples on the mountain can hardly be taken the way Edwards does. In each of Jesus' acts, in each of his parables, in each of his miracles he both reveals and conceals. This is the nature of revelation. Jesus forbade the three disciples to speak of what they had seen on the mountain, but this prohibition hardly prevented him from carrying hints of his transfigured glory with him for his other disciples and for the crowd below to glimpse and to be astonished.

If the crowd got a glimpse of the glory with which Jesus had been clothed when the heavenly cloud descended upon him on the mountain, then why did the crowd not "retreat in fear" as the children of Israel did when Moses approached them after he came down from the mountain? Is it not reasonable for us to suppose that Mark tells us that the crowd was astonished but ran to him and greeted him because he wants us to realize that, even though the crowd likely acted better than they understood, their reception of Jesus who came down from the mountain with apparent glory yet shining from his clothing signals that Jesus truly is the one greater than Moses of whom Moses prophesied when he said,"The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him" (Deut 18:15; NIV). The heavenly voice on the mountain quotes this passage with the command, "Listen to him!" (Mark 9:7), signifying that Jesus is the True Moses, the one greater than Moses, the one of whom Moses prophesied.

So, as I reflect upon the recent day when I was teaching on Mark 9, I marvel at how many times I have read the words of Mark 9:14-15 and have read numerous commentaries on the passage and yet the text struck me as though it were the first time. The words leaped off the page and struck my imagination, prompting me to raise questions for my students, questions that I also needed to search out. I never cease to marvel that, if my students learn nothing when I teach, that I always learn, no matter how many times I have taught the same portions of the text before. Even though we who teach the text of Scripture repeatedly, year in and year out, there is something about the richness and fullness of the landscape of biblical narrative that we never take it all in at once. Even for us who teach there is much for us yet to learn.

I like the imagery probably originating from Gregory the Great but sometimes attributed to Chrysostom concerning the Gospel of John, that it is like a river--shallow enough for children to wade in it but deep enough for elephants to swim in it. Regardless the source, such is the nature of biblical narrative.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Why Did God Create All Things in Six Days and Not Simultaneously?

I have been working on a presentation I am to make in February. My work constrains me to engage Calvin quite fully. Even though I've read the whole of Calvin's Institutes and portions numerous times, the following had not stood out to me as it has today. Among the various things to notice, one stands out. Calvin, before famous Bishop James Ussher, already believed that creation was about six thousand years old. This is so despite the fact that many appeal to Calvin to provide support to their theory that the six days of the creation account in Genesis are actually extended periods of time. Calvin believed that the six days were just that, six days, and that the universe is quite young. In terms of categories thrown around these days, John Calvin was a "young earth creationist."

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.14.1.
Isaiah rightly charges the worshipers of false gods with obtuseness,because they have not learned from the foundations of the earth and the circle of the heavens who is the true God [Isa. 40:21; cf. v. 22; see Comm.]. Despite this, such is the slowness and dullness of our wit that, to prevent believers from deserting to the fabrications of the heathen, we must depict the true God more distinctly than they do. Since the notion of God as the mind of the universe (in the philosophers’ eyes, a most acceptable description) is ephemeral, it is important for us to know him more intimately, lest we always waver in doubt. Therefore it was his will that the history of Creation be made manifest, in order that the faith of the church, resting upon this, might seek no other God but him who was put forth by Moses as the Maker and Founder of the universe. Therein time was first marked so that by a continuing succession of years believers might arrive at the primal source of the human race and of all things. This knowledge is especially useful not only to resist the monstrous fables that formerly were in vogue in Egypt and in other regions of the earth, but also that, once the beginning of the universe is known, God’s eternity may shine forth more clearly, and we may be more rapt in wonder at it. And indeed, that impious scoff ought not to move us: that it is a wonder how it did not enter God’s mind sooner to found heaven and earth, but that he idly permitted an immeasurable time to pass away, since he could have made it very many millenniums earlier, albeit
the duration of the world, now declining to its ultimate end, has not yet attained six thousand years. For it is neither lawful nor expedient for us to inquire why God delayed so long, because if the human mind strives to penetrate thus far, it will fail a hundred times on the way. And it would not even be useful for us to know what God himself, to test our moderation of faith, on purpose willed to be hidden. When a certain shameless fellow mockingly asked a pious old man what God had done before the creation of the world, the latter aptly countered that he had been building hell for the curious.
Later within the same section Calvin addresses anyone who would "raise questions concerning immeaursable stretches of time" as with "space." He states,
Now if anyone should expostulate with God that the void exceeds the heavens a hundredfold, would not this impudence be detestable to all the godly? Into such madness leap those who carp at God's idleness because he did not in accord with their judgment establish the universe innumerable ages before. To gratify their curiosity, they strive to go forth outside the world. As if in the vast circle of heaven and earth enough things do not present themselves to engross all our senses with their incomprehensible brightness! As if within six thousand years God has not shown evidences enough on which to exercise our minds in earnest meditation! Therefore let us willingly remain enclosed within these bounds to which God has willed to confine us, and as it were, to pen up our minds that they may not, through their very freedom to wander, go astray.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Faith Comes by Hearing

Here is my most recent contribution at Credo Magazine and Credo Blog--"Faith Comes by Hearing: The Inclusivists' Abuse of Romans 10:9-17."