Author Archives: Mike Higton

Follow the meme

Chris, over at Things I’ve Seen, is propagating a meme, and has tagged me as one of its carriers. I’m called upon to answer the following five questions:

Total number of books owned

Between 2300 and 2400, at a quick count. About 900 of those in my office at work; there are probably another 100 at home that count as my work books, 200 that are Hester’s work books; around 70 are Bridget’s books – and a further 150 are children’s books too old for Bridget.

Last book bought

The last book I bought was Grace and Necessity by Rowan Williams. As you’ll know if you came here from Chris’s post, I’ve written about Rowan Williams. I’m not planning on doing very much more of that, but I try to keep up with his more academic writing. I don’t know much about this new book, except that its a tweaked version of some lectures currently still available online: the 2005 Clark Lectures.

Last book read

Well, recreation-wise, I’m in the middle of The Count of Monte Cristo; before that I read John le Carre’s Secret Pilgrim. (I’m also reading some bits of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, which I found online, and which reminds me what it used to be like being a mathematician). Work-wise, I’m in the middle of numerous books, including Peter Ochs, Peirce, Pragmatism and the Logic of Scripture (for the second time), and Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology. Probably the last work book that I read all the way through was Nicholas Lash, Believing Three Ways in One God (again, for the second time). Although, come to think of it, I read various books on Barth for a review I was writing recently.

Five books that mean a lot to you

This is hard. It says ‘mean’ not ‘meant’, so I’m trying to think of books that I think shape who I now am, rather than books which grabbed me massively in the past.
The Bible
Paul Scott, The Raj Quartet. A book (okay, a set of books) that shows what novels can do by way of exploring people, events, culture, and place without flattening.
Tim Jenkins, Religion in English Everyday Life. It’s only a short step from the kind of novel Paul Scott writes to the kind of social anthropology that Tim Jenkins does: intelligent, rich, careful description of social facts.
Hans Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ. An enigmatic and easily mis-read book, this one – but learning to read it well has been a significant part of my theological education.
Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology. A remarkable collection of essays, which I continue to find deeply thought-provoking.

Tag five people to continue this meme

I don’t think five people read this blog, let alone five people with blogs of their own! However, I’ll tag Hester and Bridget (of course).

The coming King

καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” ’
(Mark 1:2)

ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἐξαποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου καὶ ἐπιβλέψεται ὁδὸν πρὸ προσώπου μου καὶ ἐξαίφνης ἥξει εἰς τὸν ναὸν ἑαυτοῦ κύριος ὃν ὑμεῖς ζητεῖτε καὶ ἄγγελος τῆς διαθήκης ὃν ὑμεῖς θέλετε ἰδοὺ ἔρχεται λέγει κύριος παντοκράτωρ καὶ τίς ὑπομενεῖ ἡμέραν εἰσόδου αὐτοῦ τίς ὑποστήσεται ἐν τῇ ὀπτασίᾳ αὐτοῦ διότι αὐτὸς εἰσπορεύεται ὡς πῦρ χωνευτηρίου καὶ ὡς πόα πλυνόντων καὶ καθιεῖται χωνεύων καὶ καθαρίζων ὡς τὸ ἀργύριον καὶ ὡς τὸ χρυσίον καὶ καθαρίσει τοὺς υἱοὺς Λευι καὶ χεεῖ αὐτοὺς ὡς τὸ χρυσίον καὶ ὡς τὸ ἀργύριον καὶ ἔσονται τῷ κυρίῳ προσάγοντες θυσίαν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.
(Malachi 3:1-3)

φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμῶν πᾶσα φάραγξ πληρωθήσεται καὶ πᾶν ὄρος καὶ βουνὸς ταπεινωθήσεται καὶ ἔσται πάντα τὰ σκολιὰ εἰς εὐθεῖαν καὶ τραχεῖα εἰς πεδία καὶ ὀφθήσεται δόξα κυρίου καὶ ὄψεται πᾶσα σὰρξ τὸ σωτήριον τοῦ θεοῦ ὅτι κύριος ἐλάλησεν
A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’
(Isaiah 40:3-5)

Malachi pictures an approaching potentate whose retinue precedes and announces him – the LORD of hosts coming to re-establish the covenant, to sit in the temple, to purify the people. Isaiah speaks of the return of the LORD to a broken people, and of the vast efforts to be expended on making ready for him, preparing for him. Both speak of the return of the King in splendour, and the re-establishment of the rule of law: a terror to the transgressors and a comfort to the oppressed.

As it is written

καθὼς γέγραπται
As it is written

Mark, or the Markan community, or the early Christians in general: what are they doing here? Something (someone) strange, radical, unsettling has happened in their midst – something that to some extent jarred against its surroundings – but they have wrapped it in terms drawn from the Scriptures which are so deeply embedded in those surroundings (or, better, have always already seen it in terms of those Scriptures). This has enabled them to make sense of this thing that has happened, certainly – but it has also made new sense of those Scriptures. I don’t think we should underestimate the complexity of the processes by which this dual ‘making sense’ takes place.

In the particular case we see here, however, things get even more complex, because we are also dealing with the appropriation by Mark, the markan community, or early Christians in general, of John the Baptist. He is being ‘made sense of’ as forerunner of Jesus, and Jesus being ‘made sense of’ as the one to whom he points – and this dual making sense is itself made possible by the fact that their relationship is made sense of by drawing on certain Scriptures, and those Scriptures made sense of by being applied to this relationship. And again, I don’t think we should underestimate the complexity of the process by which all these ways of ‘making sense’ take place.

The voice in the wilderness

καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ
ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου
πρὸ προσώπου σου
ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου
φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ
ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου
εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ

In the beginning … a voice crying in the widlernes, ‘Make straight…’
In the beginning … the earth was a formless void … then God said, ‘Let there be light…’

Son of God

υἱοῦ θεοῦ

“Son of God” – another of those densely loaded terms. Here’s my initial stab at teasing out what’s going on.

(i) In the early decades of Christianity, all the Christians we know about are (as far as I can make out) united in believing that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection mark some kind of decisive transition in God’s dealing with the world. They express that in various ways, mostly using different strands of Old Testament language for describing God’s dealing with the world. But what they’re describing is nearly always what God is up to, and how what has happened in Jesus fits into that – they’re not really addressing the question of what kind of being Jesus has to be or what kind of relationship he has to have to God in order for their claims to be true. And whilst there is plenty about the uniqueness, decisiveness, unprecedentedness of the stage in God’s ways with the world that has been inaugurated in Jesus – and also quite a bit about the unique character of Jesus that enables him to play the relevant part in God’s plan: uniquely obedient, uniquely pure, that sort of thing – that’s not really the same as an attempt to spell out claims about Jesus as a unique kind of being. (To give these different sets of claims names, the first lot are ‘functional’ – what unique function does Jesus play?, the second ‘ontological’ – what unique kind of being is Jesus?)

(ii) ‘Son’ language in the Gospels falls mostly into this kind of area: it is, I think, in large part a way of saying that God’s relationship with Israel, and with the Kings of Israel, has been perfected in the perfect Israelite, the perfect King. I don’t, personally, think that the hellenistic background is the most relevant one, although I’ve no doubt it colours the early reception and propagation of ‘Son’-language.

(iii) However, alongside this, and developing slowly around it, is an increasing fascination with the further question, ‘Well, if Jesus does play this unique role, who is he? What kind of being is he?’ And in the first few decades, we certainly get a bewildering variety of partial answers to this attempted. I think, however, that
the question is only vaguely perceived, is tentatively and speculatively answered (if at all), and that (most of the time) little weight appears to have been attached to the details or consistency of the answers given. And most of the answers offered in biblical literature draw on ideas or models available in the OT, or from intertestamental Judaism; I don’t see much evidence of direct plundering from straight Hellenistic sources. Even discussion of Christ’s pre-existence comes, I suspect, from this Jewish (albeit hellenized Jewish) milieu – from Jewish speculation about the preparation beforehand, in the will of God, of the decisive elements of his plan: the Law and so on. To some extent, ‘Son’ language might get drawn into that ambit, and so have
some connotations (even in the Synoptics) about the special kind of human being Jesus is – but not, I think, as its dominant notes.

(iv) As we move into the second century and beyond, there’s (a) a more direct focus on the ontological question behind the functional question – indeed, the growing realisation that you can’t keep on making functional claims without considering the ontological questions those throw up. There’s also (b) more borrowing from straight Hellenistic sources. So you begin to get descriptions of Jesus which clearly represent him as something other than human: as some kind of divine being who temporarily appears human. And ‘Son’ language sometimes gets transformed in the process, so that it starts to be taken as describing the special kind of being Jesus is – whether one of a class of ‘sons’ of God, or uniquely son of God, in some way which resembles the divine-human heroes of Greek myth.

(Cautionary note: any trading on a supposed Jewish/functional/active v. Hellenistic/ontological/static opposition is a wild and silly simplification. I mean here to refer only to a background of rather different stories featuring characters called ‘son of God’ at some point – stories that make certain ways of explicating the Jesus story seem more obvious than others.)

(v) One way of describing the process of doctrinal developments that runs from the second century through to AD 451 is as the slow, fitful, complex rejection of some of these Hellenistic, or more wildly speculative of Jewish answers to the ontological question: an attempt, that is, to answer the ‘ontological’ question in ways which both allowed Jesus to function as God’s decisive intervention in the world – the climactic action of God’s plan, both inaugurating our salvation and revealing the nature of God – and yet to be fully and entirely human. To be sure, those points were made using an ‘ontological’ language to do with natures and hypostasis, but the answer eventually arrived at is one that converts far more easily than do earlier, more speculative answers to the ontological question, back into functional categories. But those are big claims, and I haven’t justified them here.

So: here in Mark 1:1, the phrase ‘Son of God’ is I think primarily functional, and primarily tied to the Old Testament – but if you listen carefully you’ll hear the faint buzz of approaching ontological concerns, and creaks and pings as the word expands in an increasingly hellenistic context. And yet we only hear any of this by temporarily blanking out the noise of all we know from the fourth and fifth century debates – and yet such blanking will never be perfect, and should in any case only be temporary: what those later debates did with this term remains an entirely legitimate matter for consideration.

All about Jesus

εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ

Here we touch on my deepest reasons for beginning this study. An academic theologian, I say a lot about Jesus, about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, about the centrality of this man. But am I really interested in news about him? Is the Gospel in which I believe anything to do with him, except in the most tenuous of senses? Or am I captivated by a few easy ideas, a number of theological commonplaces, rather than by him? Am I captivated by the internal and self-sufficient dynamism of an academic and ecclesial conversation which trades on his name, but which bears no relationship to the actual traces of his historical particularity?

You see, I have a sneaking suspicion that these questions are the whole of Christian theology: that Christian theology is kept Christian, and kept theological, only by the relentless asking of that question. The whole edifice of Christian doctrine (Christology, Trinity, atonement, creation, providence – all of it) is a way of forcing this question: What will happen if we let Jesus break through?

Or rather, what will happen if we let Jesus Christ break through – Jesus Messiah. The whole edifice of Christian doctrine is a way of forcing the question, What will happen if we let break through Jesus the Jew, Jesus the Israelite?

Apologies for silence

Sorry to anyone who is actually checking here for updates. Work has been bracingly busy over the last couple of weeks – and now I’m off to Cambridge for a Scriptural Reasoning Theory Group conference – plus a trip to Oxford at the end of the week. I’m hoping that things calm down once I’m back..

An interrogative field

With all this in mind – i.e., all I said in the previous post and in some of the posts before that – reading this first line carefully sets up what one might call an ‘interrogative field’: a clutch of questions to keep in mind as we step further into the text. I’ve explained why I don’t think it’s necessarily productive to try and answer these questions if they are seen simply as attempts to divine the one correct meaning of this opening verse; rather, they are proposals about ways of seeing the whole text, to be tested by the way the text goes on.

Beginning? I’ve laboured this enough already. What kind of new beginning is this? How does it relate to the Hebrew Scriptures, and to Judaism? And are these questions constitutive for the text?

Good news? In what sense is this news? If we are about to be led on a journey which is primarily about discovering what we already know – some Socratic process which shows us what is always already presupposed in our thinking and doing, perhaps – then it isn’t really news. News sounds like information: particular data that cannot be deduced from what we already know. To what extent will our good turn out to be dependent upon hearing such information?

‘Gospel from’ or ‘Gospel about’? That question about news segues into a more obviously Christological question. Is the good news about which Mark writes a message of salvation proclaimed by Jesus Christ, or is it the proclamation about Jesus Christ? Is Jesus’ proclaimer or proclaimed – or is this Gospel as ambiguous about that as the genitive in its first line is ambiguous?

News of an imperial birth? And to what extent is this news politically subversive, in Mark? To what extent is it the news of an alternative empire or emperor – a proclamation of regime change?

And, as I begin again in the middle, I note that all these questions connect to questions about my own stance towards this text. Do I read the Gospel as an accidental Marcionite, extracting it from its Jewish soil? Do I read it as news, or as confirmation of what I already know? What is the connection for me between the person of Jesus and his message? And do I either ignore the political dimension of this Gospel, or politicise it too easily?

Good news

εὐαγγελίου: good news, glad tidings, ‘gospel’.

Words are slippery little beasts. The Greek word “euangelion” seems to have started out referring to a gift you give to a person who brought you good news – the opposite of “shooting the messenger”. Later on, first the plural and then the singular come to mean the good news itself. The word seems to have become a bit of a buzz word a decade or so before the time of Christ, when it gets used by the spin-doctors working on Augustus’ public image. There is a famous inscription in Priene, from 9 B.C.:

The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere… ; the birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him…

I’m reasonably firmly convinced that the word was still revolving with this theologico-political spin when it first got taken up by the early Christian movement, and that there was at least a hint of subversion involved in using it to describe the news of a different Lord – a different kingdom.
The word then slips slowly but surely into Christian normality – becoming, it seems, first simply one of the normal words Christians use to speak both about the message they spread about Jesus, and the message that Jesus spread (as far as I can make out, with very limited investigation, there seems at least initially to be some ambiguity about which of these is meant), before becoming as it were the official name for a written account of Jesus’ life.

The use of the word here in Mark 1:1 is caught up in that history, and a lot of the debates about how it should be read are attempts to position it more accurately in one episode or another. Is ‘good news of Jesus Christ’ a subjective or an objective genitive? Is there still a consciously subversive political spin? Is this a title for the book, or a description of the content, or simply a description of the message about Jesus of John the Baptist, which Mark is about to describe?

Now, I don’t want to say that we can’t make decisions about this. I’m pretty happy to say, for instance, that (if you’ll permit me switching to English) “Gospel” here does not refer to a style of music associated predominantly with black American church choirs (which is not to say that there’s no chance that some accidentally illuminating fun couldn’t be had by running with that meaning for a moment). Nevertheless, I suspect that there is no way of answering all the questions just posed firmly, and not just because our information is not good enough, but because precisely because it is caught up in a complex history, the word is bound to be somewhat unstable, dragging with it associations over which the author has little control (in this case trailing politics whether Mark wanted it or not), and acquiring new connotations by being used in this particular context (in this case beginning its journey towards becoming a book title precisely by being used in this incipit).

Inventing New Testaments

I’ve just read through David Parker’s inaugural lecture as Professor of New Testament Textual Criticism and Palaeography in Birmingham. Very interesting stuff:

It would seem obvious … that what I am trying to do is to demonstrate that  there is not and never has been a New Testament, and that copyists and users have been inventing New Testaments at a frightening rate.  I hope that I have sketched ways in which I might make this demonstration.  But I am not going to do so.  Instead, I would like to explore the reasons for the emergence of New Testaments and for their variety, avoiding the usual theological and textual explanations.  Instead I shall present evidence that the most significant contributions to developments in the understanding and character of New Testaments have been technological innovations in production methods and in physical form.  After all, “inventing” is associated most strongly in the modern mind not with artistic creativity but with scientific or technological discovery.  I leave open the question whether we invent particular technologies because we need them at that particular point.  My argument is that it has been developments in the format of books that have been most significant in shaping the ways in which those books have been used.