The Unforgivable Sin

I recently acquired a volume of Northrop Frye’s collected works (vol. 5 of the “Late Notebooks”: Architecture of the Spiritual World). Random, I know.

One of the entries addresses Mark 3:29 (“whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”). Here is what Frye has to say:

[441] I regret very much that the gospel reports Christ as saying that the sin against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable … The sin against the Holy Spirit is original sin itself. Perhaps it can’t be “forgiven,” but it must be annihilated, or the whole Christian structure, which depends on a love that forgives everything, is a lot of balls. That’s what I think now, anyway. An unpardonable sin means a stinker God, and I will never accept such a creature in the Christian set-up.

More to follow, I’m sure.

Walter Kasper on Demythologization

Bultmannians and anti-Bultmannians alike, take note!

“Whatever detailed criticism may have to be made of these attempts to demythologize faith in Christ, we must always remember that demythologization is not unjustifiable in its critical or in its positive aspects. There is a time and a place for demythologization. It is undeniable that in generally current ideas of Christianity, Jesus Christ is often thought of more or less as a god descending to earth whose humanity is basically only a kind of clothing behind which God himself speaks and acts. Extreme notions of that kind see God dressed as a Father Christmas, or slipping into human nature like someone putting on dungarees in order to repair the world after a breakdown. The biblical and church doctrine that Jesus was a true and complete man with a human intellect and human freedom, does not seem to prevail in the average Christian head. Therefore demythologization is not only permissible but necessary; precisely in order to disclose the authentic meaning of belief in Christ”

From Walter Kasper’s Jesus the Christ (New York: Paulist, 1976), 46.

Ulrich Luz on Jesus’ Burial Shroud

Ulrich Luz’ commentary on Matthew (Hermeneia) is wonderful for many reasons. Not least of these is his ability to be tastefully cavalier. Today I stumbled upon this gem, in which he comments on Jesus’ burial shroud (σινδών), with passing reference at the end to the famed Shroud of Turin:

Why is it that wrapping the corpse of Jesus is so important for the tradition? Although this question is easily answered for the Johannine portrayal, since the cloths lying in the tomb on Easter morning amaze Peter (John 20:5–7), for the Synoptic texts it is difficult to arrive at an answer. Is it to negate Jesus’ nakedness, which was regarded as shameful? I do not know.

The most famous “influence” of our passage (and of John 19:40, which speaks of “binding”) is the Shroud of Turin about which there is today an extensive scholarly literature; indeed, there is a separate scholarly discipline called “sindonology.” As an exegete I can only say, with great relief, that based on the New Testament I have nothing to contribute to this discipline. Here the experts in ancient textiles, chemists, psychologists of religion, and students of the history of piety may have their say.

Well said, Prof. Luz!

What Child is This?


What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping,
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
Come, peasant, king, to own Him!
The King of Kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone Him!
Raise, raise the song on high!
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy! joy! for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Nestled at the center of this hymn are several lines that are routinely excised from hymnals (check yours next time you’re in church): “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the Cross be borne for me, for you.” The image of an executed person, it would seem, is simply too much for us to bear at Christmas. We prefer the cleaner image of the sleeping baby.

The inclusion of the cross at the nativity is not unique to this hymn. Neither is it novel. One could argue, as Michael Goulder does, that Luke’s image of Mary wrapping her baby in strips of cloth prefigures her preparation of his body for burial. We might also note Simeon’s words to Mary as she presents the infant Jesus in the temple: “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed … and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35). From the moment of his birth, this Messiah is destined to suffer.

Today, as the Church celebrates God’s entrance into human history, let us remember that God did not arrive as a warlord, but as an infant, peaceful and innocent. As we contemplate the profundity of this image, let us also bear in mind that God did not take on human flesh out of boredom or curiosity; God took on human flesh in order to redeem it. Moreover, let us not forget that God does not redeem humanity by violence, but by becoming a victim.

In a world that continues to fall prey to the allure of violence, be it in the form of assault rifles, concealed handguns, racism, or apathy, let us remember that today God enters into our midst in order to offer and make possible a more excellent way: peace.

Super Spuds

I’ve always been slightly amused by funny looking words, especially funny looking foreign words.

This past week I was rifling through a tome that I’m fairly certain most have not heard of…Walter Bauer’s Das Leben Jesu im Zeitalter der neutestamentlichen Apokryphen…titillating, right?

Anyway, the fifth chapter of the second part of the book (confusing, I know) is entitled “Jesus als Wundertäter.” I will leave it up to you to Google Translate that, but in the meantime I leave you with a few images that are more or less what popped into my head when I first read that Jesus was a “Wundertäter.”

First, a group of “Wundertäters”:









Second, one of my favorite “Wundertäters”:









And of course, the ultimate “Wundertäter”

Unreading Narrative

Lately I have been asked by more than a few people to explain, in plain terms, what precisely my dissertation is about. The exercise is a good one, yet difficult.

The object of my study is the Protevangelium of James, an “infancy gospel” that was likely composed in the second half of the second century (150-200). It tells the story of Mary’s birth, her betrothal to Joseph and the birth of Christ, among other things. The text was banned in the West, presumably because certain aspects of it were deemed heretical (or something along those lines).

My approach to the text is one that examines its relationship to the New Testament. Many in the past have noted the ways in which the Protevangelium uses material from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke to tell its story. My interest in the text is in the ways that it changes one’s reading of the New Testament. This is where I end up having to explain myself.

At the heart of my project is the notion that it is difficult to “unread” something once you have read it. In the age of Gmail, “unreading” is simple enough. You read something, and then you click “unread.” This is not exactly what I have in mind, however. I’m certain that at some point in your life you have had someone perform the following “experiment” on you: you are told that, for the next minute, you may think of anything that you like, as long as you don’t think about an elephant. When faced with this exercise, most will have difficulty thinking of anything but an elephant. Even when you think of “not an elephant,” you are thinking of an elephant. Perhaps this is a strange example, but it is fitting nonetheless.

I first read the Protevangelium in the Spring of 2010. Like many, I was fascinated by the story. Despite its simplicity, or perhaps because of its simplicity, something about it stuck with me. Shortly after I had read the text, Ellen and I decided to start reading the Bible together a couple of times a week (cute, right?). We started with Luke, and we took turns reading the gospel aloud, one paragraph at a time. To her amusement dismay, I started saying things like, “Well you know, in this text I just read, this actually means that.” Or, “Hey, in this text I just read, there is a character named X and they do Y.” I remember thinking to myself how silly this was, as Luke was much older than the Protevangelium. What use could this newer text be to interpreting the older? The answer, of course, is complicated, and my dissertation is an attempt to answer it.

This example serves to illustrate the idea that it is difficult to unread that which you have read. Narratives have a way of sticking with us and altering the way that we perceive reality (and texts, for that matter). Even those narratives that we try to “unread” crop up from time to time when they are triggered by various elements we encounter. So, one who reads the canonical gospels after having read and internalized the Protevangelium will see certain things that the evangelists themselves  may not intended or foreseen. The goal of my dissertation is to articulate what such reading might look like.