Seccombe-on the way to Jerusalem

For Lent, I am reading David Seccombe’s account of the last part of Jesus’ ministry from his The King of God’s Kingdom.

In Mark 10:32 we read:

They were on the way, going up to Jerusalem.  Jesus was going ahead of them, and they were amazed, but those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was going to happen to him (NET Bible).

Seccombe says it is hard to account for the disciple’s and crowd’s amazement and fear before Jesus makes his death prediction. Within the story as Mark tells it, the amazement and fear anticipate what Jesus will say. But if we put the verse at the beginning of Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem from his hide out at Ephraim, thus connecting Mark and John, the fear and amazement make much more sense.

So our author comes back to the three synoptic gospels to talk about Jesus’ final approach to Jerusalem.

Jesus goes through Jericho. So perhaps the Zacchaeus story in Luke 19 goes here. Also the story of the healing of the blind beggar, Bar Timaeus, goes here (Mark 10:46ff). In Mark the triumphal entry into Jerusalem immediately follows this story.

Luke puts the parable of the Talents or Minas just before the triumphal entry. Jesus tells this story because they were near Jerusalem (Luke 19:11). The parable ends with a king pronouncing judgment on “these enemies of mine” who did not want him to be king (v. 27).

The parable has a king go to a far country and then return to a poor reception (vs. 12-14). Seccombe says the story mirrors the historical event of Archelaus returning from Rome after the death of Herod the Great. Jesus is coming to Jerusalem to establish a kingdom.

Seccombe points out that on the way from Jericho to Jerusalem you pass Herod the Great’s winter palace, which Archelaus repaired. Jesus, he thinks, may have used this as a prop as he told his parable.

Seccombe brings up N.T. Wright’s suggestion that Jesus’ was knowingly enacting and dramatizing prophecies of God’s return to Zion. He is not sure that is quite right. Some have thought that, though Luke sees Jesus kingdom not necessarily immediate, Jesus himself expected a decisive political or apocalyptic event to follow immediately upon his coming to Jerusalem.

Seccombe rejects this. He thinks Jesus was consciously going to Jerusalem to die. He always threw cold water on the disciple’s expectation for an immediate kingdom. The kingdom would come, but not at once.

At this point I am going to raise an issue with Seccombe.

He thinks Luke’s and Jesus’ views were one (p. 497). If questioned about this, he would probably qualify it. The thing is that Luke, because he came a generation later, knew things Jesus didn’t know. Jesus never claimed to know the times and the seasons. But Luke knew about the events of 70 CE and what led up to the Jewish war. He also knew about Paul’s mission to the gentiles.

So to say that Jesus’ view of the coming of the kingdom is one with Luke’s goes too far. There is good evidence that Jesus expected something apocalyptic to happen soon. His ethic was in part an interim ethic that was not going to work if life just went on and the world needed bankers, policemen and new generations of babies.

I don’t know what Jesus expected when he went up to Jerusalem. His prayer-ordeal in the garden points to a lot of uncertainty. He was probably partly wrong in his expectations. Albert Schweitzer’s idea that he expected to usher in the apocalypse by his actions should not be entirely rejected.

It is a theological problem. Many think that to say Jesus may have been mistaken is heresy. We need to ask ourselves how seriously we take the humanity of Jesus. When Paul says that he emptied himself, what does that mean for his participation in the human state of only knowing in part?

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Seccombe-Lazarus and polarized opinions about Jesus

If you have read my posts so far on David Seccombe’s The King of God’s Kingdom, you have noticed that he uses John’s gospel as a more accurate source for the chronology of Jesus’ life than the other gospels. That is unusual among scholars today, but not unprecedented. Paula Fredricksen, a much more liberal scholar than Seccombe, also takes chronological cues from John’s gospel. The argument is that Jesus is quite likely to have gone to Jerusalem for several feasts, as John has it. The synoptics mention no feasts except the final Passover (Luke does have him in Jerusalem as a child).

However, Seccombe goes beyond more secular scholars when he argues that the resurrection of Lazarus really happened and is an event that played a crucial part in the lead-up to the crucifixion.

He admits that Lazarus is the most widely doubted of Jesus’ miracles. He even admits that there are solid reasons for being suspicious about it. For one thing, you have to explain why, if it played a major role in the final events, none of the synoptics mention it. The line taken by many scholars is that the story was manufactured out of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke. It didn’t happen. It is just a symbolic story.

But Seccombe asks if the use of the name of Lazarus in Luke might run the other way. Luke’s use of the name might be influenced by the story of raising Lazarus. The two are related, but the dependence could run either way.

The story in John uses many names and relationships that were well-known in the early church. His sisters, Mary and Martha, seem to have been real people familiar to the Jerusalem church.

The effect that the report of Lazarus’s resurrection seems to have had on the authorities in Jerusalem also seems credible and explains some otherwise puzzling facts.

As to why the event does not get mentioned in the other gospels, the real question is why Mark omitted it since Matthew and Luke just follow Mark. Seccombe thinks this comes from the same reason that Mark omitted all the earlier visits by Jesus to Jerusalem. Acts 10:36-43 gives us a pattern that early preaching about Jesus probably followed. Mark followed that evangelistic outline because it was effective in its simplicity. It did not complicate maters by introducing a bunch of other travels of Jesus.

“To have had Jesus coming and going from Jerusalem in between times would have destroyed the stylization that was familiar to those who had heard the gospel preached, and would have called for explanations which were not possible in the compass of Mark’s short work” (p. 488).

Now comes the crucial thing for Seccombe. He argues that the resurrection of Lazarus happened six weeks before the final Passover. It was not the immediate cause of Jesus crucifixion. For John it was an important part of the story because it caused the divide in public opinion about Jesus that carried into the Passover week. The other gospel writers could be aware of it, but treat it as one of the complex events that they chose to leave aside.

So Seccombe accepts Goguel’s scenario that Jesus left Jerusalem for Perea, perhaps because of anger caused by his prediction of the Temple’s fate. But he adds to it that while in Perea word came of the illness of Lazarus. Jesus traveled the thirty miles or so to Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. Many people from Jerusalem saw something happen there that caused them to believe in him. But this also galvanized the powers in Jerusalem (John 11:47-50 and 53).

Because of the Lazarus incident, the Jerusalem authorities began to take Jesus very seriously as a threat. The Talmud says:

“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favour, let him come forth and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forth in his favour he was hanged on the eve of Passover” (p. 490).

If the mention of sorcery refers to the resurrection of Lazarus, the Talmud report fits Seccombe’s scenario.

John says Jesus went to Ephraim (John 11:54). Seccombe argues that this was a place known today as Ein Samiya, an “isolated and inaccessible oasis about twenty kilometres north-east of Jerusalem, surrounded by steep hills pockmarked with cave entrances” (p. 491). Jesus took his disciples into hiding.

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Crimes against history

I am distracted today from events in the ancient Near East by events in the contemporary Near East.

Note the Biblical reference in  the New York Times report:

The reports are like something out of a distant era of ancient conquests: entire villages emptied, with hundreds taken prisoner, others kept as slaves; the destruction of irreplaceable works of art; a tax on religious minorities, payable in gold.

. . .

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has presented itself as a modern-day equivalent of the conquering invaders of Sennacherib’s day, or as Islamic zealots smashing relics out of religious conviction.

The Assyrians acted like that in the 6th century before Christ.  So did Ammonites, Moabites, and, indeed, Israelites.  I am always encouraged by Hosea’s condemnation of the “blood of Jezreel” and God’s refusal, against Jonah’s wishes to destroy Nineveh.  There are anti-violence notes in the divine symphony of the Hebrew Scriptures, so the idea of a warlike Old Testament God is an oversimplification.  (Of course, violence is what will eventually stop this, so I find it hard to be pacifistic.)

I do not know much about the Koran, but I expect that there are mixed voices there too.

From the point of view of the historian the destruction of ancient art and artifacts is not worse than the human suffering caused, but is very sad because so much of the past is already lost.

I was reading just the other day about a carved relief from the Ramses era in Egypt.   It was in a museum in London when it was bombed in WWII.  It was a fragment of a monument that already was partly lost, but it had important carvings on it. Much of the information we have from ancient Egypt and Assyria is visual and requires careful examination and interpretation.  No one had ever photographed this Egyptian monument, apparently.  We just have some line-drawings of it.

So among the war crimes happening now are crimes against culture and history.

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Secommbe-Jesus’ death as generating a community

It is Lent, the season leading up to Good Friday and Easter.  So I am blogging about David Seccombe’s account of the closing months of Jesus’ ministry.

The gospels portray Jesus as giving Peter a special place in the kingdom he expected. He had promised Peter the keys to the kingdom (Matthew 16:19). Seccombe suggests that Jesus thinks of his kingdom in terms of the old monarchy in Judah. The key to the house of David belonging to a royal official mentioned by Isaiah lies behind this notion:

“I will place the key  to the house of David on his shoulder. When he opens the door, no one can close it; when he closes the door, no one can open it” (Isaiah 22:22 NET Bible).

Seccombe thinks it was as Jesus approached Jerusalem after finishing his Galilean ministry that the other disciples raised their concern about this. Along with Peter, James and John seem to constitute an inner circle within the twelve. It is James and John who ask about their status in the kingdom–or their mother does according to Matthew’s gospel.

They also want high positions. According to Mark:

Now when the other ten heard this, they became angry with James and John. Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them.  But it is not this way among you. Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave   of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (10:41-45)

Jesus seems to envision what we would call a non-hierarchical form of government. Yet he has designated a key-holder position for Peter. So Jesus is not presenting an academic theory of government. His view of the kingdom goes beyond human politics. It involves “resurrection, universal judgment and the abolition of death” (p. 467). But most of all, it involves the service of giving his life as a ransom. In other words, he sees giving his life not as martyrdom but as redemption.

We see here the evangelical character of Seccombe’s work. He is presenting a view of Jesus life that takes account of modern scholarship. But it is also a believer’s account.

I am not sure Jesus actually anticipated the way his death would be redemptive. Some of this may be the gospel writers reading what post-resurrection preachers like Paul had to say back into the situation of the historical Jesus.

But servanthood must have been a theme of the historical Jesus. In some sense, he must have seen his fate in Jerusalem as benefiting his disciples. And I agree with Seccombe that, although Jesus adopted the political term “kingdom”, he was doing way more than proposing political reform or regime change. He had a mysterious “baptism” that he had to undergo and a “cup” that he had to drink (Mark 10:39).

The disciples were confused. On the one hand Jesus talked about glory. On the other hand he talked about servanthood and self-denial. He may have mentioned bearing a cross. Jesus points out the irony that they were jockeying for position with regard to the glory, but not really prepared for the other side of it.

Seccombe takes seriously the gospel theme that Jesus repeatedly predicted his own death. He sometimes talks as though Jesus understood his redemptive death the way evangelicals do. But sometimes he goes beyond that. He suggests that Jesus saw his death as something that would “generate a kingdom of forgiven people” (p. 473).

Some have seen the mention of “the church” in several sayings of Jesus as a sure sign that we have sayings that the community later put into his mouth. But Seccombe says that the word is just the Greek word that the LLX uses repeatedly for the assembly of Israel. Jesus may well have seen himself as producing a restorative community.

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Seccombe-the mission of the 72

For Lent I am reading the last chapters (those leading up the passion of Christ) in David Seccombe’s study of Jesus, The King of God’s Kingdom.

In Luke’s gospel Jesus sends the disciples on a major mission twice.  First, in Luke 9:1-6 he sends just the twelve on a mission.  They go through the villages (presumably in Galilee) preaching the good news and healing the sick (v. 6).  Then in Luke 10 he sends out 70 or 72 (there is a textual variation) on a similar mission.

Seccombe asks if there really were two missions.  Most critical scholars have seen a doublet here with the same story getting told again.  But Seccombe argues that there may have been two stories in Luke’s source (Q).

Matthew has one mission.  But Matthew’s gospel is built around five discourses.  One of those discourses is the missionary discourse in Matthew 10.  A characteristic of Matthew is to lump all the sayings of Jesus about a topic into one discourse.  Matthew cared about what Jesus said about mission, not the particular episodes of mission.

Seccombe’s best argument here has to do with the texts, which say Jesus sent 72 and other texts that say 70.  Seventy could be a symbolic number.  But Seccombe argues that 72 is a practical number.  Each of the twelve may have been assigned 3 pairs of missionaries.  You can see scribes changing 72 to 70 as a simplification.  But there would be no reason to change 70 to 72.  It would be an unnecessary complication.

So Seccombe argues that the source, Q, may have had two separate missions. Matthew pulled bits and pieces from both accounts to make his missionary discourse.  But Luke, who used blocks of material from Q, has the second mission. I root for this solution simply because I feel the Jesus Seminar scholars got really arrogant in claiming to tell us exactly what was in a non-corporeal source like Q.  This would open the door to other unexpected stuff from Q.

Then Seccombe asks when this second mission would have happened.  He has argued against the idea that the two missions are a doublet.  But he thinks the mission to Samaria mentioned in Luke 9:52 may be a doublet with the mission of the 72 in Luke 10.

The statement in Luke 9:51 shows the end of the Galilean mission and a new focus for Jesus: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Then the mission to Samaria gets introduced.

Seccombe points to Maurice Goguel’s reconstruction of Jesus’ ministry using John’s gospel for clues about chronology.  Goguel thought that Jesus arrived in Jerusalem in October of the year before the final Passover and stayed for the Feast of Dedication in December.  Then, after predicting the destruction of the Temple, he was forced to leave for Perea.

Seccombe puts the mission of the 72 in the period just before Jesus came to Jerusalem in October for Tabernacles.  John 7:1-6 says that Jesus stayed in Galilee and avoided Judea.  His brothers advised him to go to Judea to enhance his reputation as a miracle worker.  To this Jesus replied that his time has not yet come.

Seccombe says:

“One can only be struck with the contrast between this and Luke’s statement that the mission of the seventy-two was triggered by Jesus’ realization that the time for going up was fulfilled.  One expresses a feeling of not yet, the other of now”(p. 461).

So, according to the author, Jesus’ mission to Galilee would have ended in the summer and his pilgrimage to Jerusalem would have lasted for a couple of months.  Then there would have been his withdrawal from Jerusalem to Perea until Passover.

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Seccombe-Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem

It is Lent.  So both as a spiritual exercise and because I need to look at the New Testament from time to time, I will write something about Jesus.

There is in my library a book that not too many people know about.  It is David Seccombe’s 2002 book, The King of God’s Kingdom: A Solution to the Puzzle of Jesus. Seccombe is a South African evangelical.  I have found his perspective on Jesus refreshing.  He disagrees with the likes of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, but without the usual obscurant and circular apologetics.  He doesn’t argue with others too much.  He just makes his own positive case.

He starts his book by arguing for the resurrection of Jesus.  He says the evidence is sufficient.  But the evidence take the form of witness.  There is a strong case for the resurrection, but it doesn’t force anybody to believe.  You can always disbelieve a witness.

So his apologetic push is mild.  He believes the witnesses.  He rests in the sufficiency of their testimony.  It provides the basis for the rest of what he writes.  But he does not pretend that we believe because reason or science compels us.

(The major reason most Christians believe is not because of historical evidence, but because faith in Jesus has made all the difference in our present.  Addictions  and hang ups have dropped away.  Forgiveness has transformed relationships.  Physical healing has taken place. Hope has replaced despair.  Sometimes it has happened quietly and gradually, but our tangled lives have been somewhat straightened out.  We stand in awe. We are grateful.  So we willingly believe things about Jesus that we would not believe about anybody else.)

I put the above in parenthesis because it is my commentary, not a summary of Seccombe.

Seccombe sometimes tries to tidy up the New Testament witness and harmonize the testimony more than I would.  But he usually gives decent reasons for the positions he takes.  He avoids the circular reasoning that goes like this: the Bible is true because the Bible claims to be true and we know this because of our doctrine of inerrancy.

Anyway, he has written a solid book about the life of Jesus that I have found helpful.  So I am going to share some of it.

Because it is Lent, I am going to pick up the story nearer the end.

According to Seccombe, there came a time when Jesus finished his Galilean ministry.  In one sense the ministry had been a failure.  Jesus’ statement that towns like Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum face judgment because even Tyre and Sidon and Sodom would have repented in their place (Matthew 11:20-24 which parallels Luke 10:13-15), means that Jesus felt they had missed their last chance.

But Jesus was not disillusioned or bitter, as some have thought.  He praised God that the things hidden from the wise stood revealed to little children.  So, although rejected by the elites, he saw the impact he made among the humbler and more ordinary people.

Nevertheless, his focus now changed.  Luke used the device of having Jesus begin an extended journey toward Jerusalem.  Jesus now “set his face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-52).  This journey continued through Luke 19.  However, John’s gospel has Jesus in Jerusalem for the Feast of Dedication just three months before the final Passover and in Perea during the intervening period (John 10:22 and 40).  Seccombe thinks John’s chronology more likely to be historical.

Still, Luke grasped that there came a point where Jesus no longer focused on Galilee, but turned his thoughts to Judaea and the end.  Seccombe interpreted Jesus’ vision of  Satan “falling like lightning” in Luke 10:18 as a vision of something future, something that would be the outcome of his mission to Jerusalem.

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Zipporah’s conversion

One of the problematic texts that Georg Fohrer assigned to his N (Nomadic) stratum of the Torah was Exodus 4:24-26.  I am going to do a pretty literal translation here.


Now on the journey, at a lodging place, YHWH met him and sought to kill him; But Zipporah took a flint knife and cut off her son’s foreskin, and caused it to touch his feet, and said, `Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me’  So he let him alone.  (In those days she used the phrase `A bridegroom of blood,’ in reference to the circumcisions.)


I usually do not tell what I thought when I read a passage, because I am more interested in the objective meaning of the text.  But here I will make an exception.

First, I thought of a cartoon I think I saw once in a Jewish magazine.  Moses is looking up and speaking to God.  He says,  “Let me get this straight.  The Arabs get all the oil, and we have to cut off what?”

Then I thought of some stories I heard as a child from some Native Americans in Montana.  They were tales that seemed weird and superstitious and came from a culture I did not grasp at all–like this story.

So that this story originated in a nomadic culture is not hard for me to believe.

What do scholars think it means?  Brevard Childs, in his commentary on Exodus, gives three classic critical interpretations.

First, this story explains the change from circumcision as a puberty rite or marriage rite to circumcision as something done to a child.  Moses had not been circumcised, so God attacked him.  But his wife intervened by substituting the circumcision of the child for adult circumcision.  God accepted this, thus changing the age at which circumcisions happened.

Second, the story originated with a primitive belief that a local god could claim a bride on her wedding night.  Childs does not go into detail but, as I understand it, the god might have appeared in a vision or as part of a pagan sexual rite in which the local priest went into a trance and claimed the bride for the god who had taken over his body.  The story here would explain adult circumcision as blood sacrifice to protect bridegrooms and brides.

Third, is the Midianite theory.  Childs mentions Georg Fohrer as a scholar whose thinking is compatible with this theory.  Zipporah was Midianite.  A Midianite god sought to claim the child’s life.  But Zipporah knew the ritual and the magic formula to identify the child as a blood circumcised one and thus saved him.

Childs faults all these theories as not having enough evidence to support them.  He thinks critical scholarship has reached an impass in trying to find the original meaning of the story.

Notice that some of the theories require us to understand that God wanted to kill Moses and some that God wanted to kill the child.  Also, the theories point up how the Hebrew is unclear about whether Moses, the child or God is the “bridegroom of blood.”  The Hebrew just says “he” without clarifying who it refers to.  The players actually mentioned in the text are God, the child (as the object of the circumcision) and Zipporah.  Many translations import Moses into the text.  But he is not really there.

So what if we assume that the text just told of an encounter of Zipporah with God? Zipporah was not a Hebrew.  Presumably she had not circumcised her child because she was not committed to this deity.  So perhaps (though who knows what the original meaning of the story was?) the story in the Torah is about Zipporah’s conversion to Yahwism.  God passes over her firstborn in anticipation of how he will pass over all the firstborn of his people when the angel of death comes upon the Egyptian firstborn.

She circumcised her child and presumably her next child, as well.  In Hebrew in the little aside at the end of the story, circumcisions is plural.

Apparently, there was controversy later about Zipporah.  Aaron and Miriam did not like Moses’ wife (Numbers 12:1 ff.).  And the Priestly writings include a vicious attack on those who take Midianite wives (Numbers 25:6 ff. and Numbers 31).  So our Exodus 4 story could fit with Numbers 12 as part of a defense of Zipporah against the insinuations of the Aaronic priests.

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