Monthly Archives: January 2007

Luke’s portrait of Jesus: Prophet Elijah and “Saviour” (NT 2.14)

There are a variety of approaches one can take in studying the gospels from an historical or academic perspective. Among them is an approach that looks at the gospels as ancient biographies, with each sketching out a particular portrait of the main protagonist, Jesus. This is a particularly fitting method in studying documents that are explicitly advocating a particular understanding of Jesus (namely the gospels are more interested in what scholars sometimes call the “Christ of faith” rather than the “historical Jesus”, that peasant). One can ask literary questions like what is the main plot of this story, who are the main characters, and how is the main protagonist, Jesus, portrayed?

Previously I have discussed the portrait of Jesus in the gospel of Mark, particularly the centrality of the secrecy of Jesus’ identity and the way in which this identity unfolds at key points in the narrative, when characters in the story, including Jesus himself, identify who he is (suffering Son of Man, Son of God, and Christ): Who is this guy? The Gospel of Mark and the Identity of Jesus. While Mark’s gospel can’t help but have a Jewish Jesus (because Jesus was a Jew in a Judean context), Mark is usually considered a Gentile author writing to a Gentile audience (the author has to explain basic Judean culture).

On the other hand, I have discussed the very Jewish portrait of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel: A very Jewish Jesus: Matthew’s portrait. There Jesus is cast as the new messianic David (anointed king) and the new Moses (prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15), and Jesus repeatedly fulfills scripture and advocates following the Torah (law) to the “t”.

Luke’s portrait of Jesus is likewise heavily indebted to Jewish models, but Luke is also concerned to present Jesus in a way that would make some sense to Greeks and Romans, at least to some degree.

On the Jewish side, Jesus is most emphatically a prophet, and at times the author seems to have in mind the promised prophet like Elijah specifically (see Malachi 4:5-6). The author of Luke chooses to begin Jesus’ adult teaching and healing activity with Jesus reading a passage from Isaiah (61:1-2; Luke 4:14-21). Jesus then goes on to explicitly identify himself with the prophet mentioned in Isaiah, an anointed prophet who will preach good news to the poor, bring freedom to captives, and give sight to the blind. This emphasis on Jesus as a prophet to the socially downtrodden or marginalized continues throughout the gospel, beginning with Jesus healing the blind, casting out demons and hanging out with social outcasts, “sinners” and tax-collectors. Luke preserves or presents many teachings of Jesus focussed on supporting the poor and condemning the rich, and this reversal theme is explicitly linked to his role as the prophet.

Almost immediately after identifying himself as the prophet (of Isaiah), Jesus then goes on to compare his rejection in his hometown as a sign of his affinity with Elijah and Elisha (4:24-30). Not only that, but there are further signs that Luke wants his readers to think of Jesus as the promised Elijah prophet (of Malachi). Jesus, like Elijah (in 1 Kings 17:17-24) raises from the dead the widow’s son, and those who witness this call him a “great prophet” (Luke 7:11-17). Almost immediately after this, as if to underline-and-bold-with-all-caps his point, Luke presents John the Baptist asking Jesus who Jesus is. Jesus’ answer once again echoes the Isaiah passage: “Go tell John what you have seen and heard; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (7:22).

Alongside this emphasis on Jesus as the ultimate Jewish prophet like Elijah who has come to help the poor is the portrayal of Jesus as “Saviour” (John’s gospel does momentarily apply this title to Jesus). No other gospel identifies Jesus in quite this way. In Luke’s gospel to be a saviour is to quite literally save people here and now by giving sight to the blind and healing the lepers. The identification as Saviour comes early, in the birth story, and continues to bubble up at various points in Jesus’ down-to-earth salvation for the sick and the outcasts. The title “Saviour” (soter in Greek) was a very common one to use in the Greco-Roman world for benefactors, especially gods but also emperors and others, who brought safety and security–salvation in down-to-earth terms–on an ongoing basis. Emperors from Augustus on, for instance, could be praised for their good works in the form of the title “saviour and benefactor”.

Here, then, in Luke is a portrait of Jesus that might ring bells for both Jewish and Greek or Roman hearers.

Visions of the End: Where did they come from? (End 1.1)

This term I am teaching a course on early Jewish and Christian apocalypticism, including legacies for the medieval and modern eras. You can get a glimpse into this course on Visions of the End on my courses page. One of the key questions to start with in such a course is where did apocalypticism come from? By “apocalypticism” I mean, in part, the worldview that I have outlined in skeletal form in the post: It’s the end of the world as we know it: Paul’s apocalyptic worldview. I have also dealt with such issues in many previous posts collected together in my blog category apocalypticism, as well as my category on the history of Satan.

Like most questions of origin, the issue of the origins of the apocalyptic worldview is a slippery one to handle and there are no simple answers, despite my attempt at a sketchy but partial answer here. The first time that we witness what scholars often identify as the Jewish apocalyptic worldview in its “full-blown” sense is in writings such as 1 Enoch and Daniel around the turn of the second century BCE. Yet there are important pieces of the puzzle from various cultural spheres that preceded the Jewish apocalyptic worldview and that help us to make better sense of the full picture.

First of all, there is the importance of the Mesopotamian “combat myth” (on which see my earlier post here). Central to the later Jewish apocalyptic worldview is the combat between God and Satan which will come to a complete end in the certain defeat of Satan, who is sometimes identified with that age-old monster or dragon Leviathan (as in Revelation 12-13). As far back as the earliest written evidence of civilization we find a recurrent theme in the mythology of Mesopotamia and the Near East generally. This particular recurrent theme or plot which scholars have labeled “the combat myth” involves the following:

One among the many gods engages in activity that seriously threatens the very order of the society of the gods, and it seems that all may revert to chaos (i.e. almost literally all hell is breaking loose). None among the older generation of gods seems willing or able to stand up against this chaotic threat which may undo the cosmos. A young or up-and-coming god (e.g. Ninurta or Marduk) steps up after being offered kingship over all the gods if he succeeds in restoring order among the gods. That young god succeeds in slaying the chaotic god or monster and reigns supreme (at least until the next threat of chaos).

This pattern can be seen in the story of Ninurta vs. Anzu and in others such as Ba’al’s defeat of Yamm (personified Sea) and Marduk’s defeat of the chaotic sea-monster Tiamat, from whose body Marduk fashions the world as we know it (in the Babylonian Enuma elish).

This pattern is also reflected in the basic assumptions of some authors of the Hebrew Bible, who speak of Yahweh slaying Leviathan, Rahab, or Yam, sometimes in connection with his creation of the world (see Psalm 74:12-17; Psalm 89:5-18; Isaiah 51:9-11). There is some truth in the claim that the apocalyptic worldview is the combat myth writ large: instead of simply being a recurrent theme in mythology, the ongoing combat between God and Satan (the ultimate adversary) is central to the overall apocalyptic worldview and now there is a vision of a future, final battle in which Satan will be put out of business permanently.

Second, there is the Persian case of Zoroastrian apocalypticism, about which I have posted in connection with Plutarch’s ethnographic summary (and, no, the actual Ahura Mazda was not interviewed on The Daily Show — yes, I had an email asking if he had been). The Zoroastrian material speaks of an ongoing battle between Ahura Mazda (Lord Wisdom) and Angra Mainyu (Evil Spirit) that will come to a complete end in the defeat of the power of darkness and all of its allies. An end-time figure (Saoshyant = “future benefactor”) will play some role in bringing about Lord Wisdom’s plans. There will be a resurrection of the dead and judgment will follow. The power of light will punish or destroy all evil and will “make things wonderful” by establishing a blissful existence for all humans who chose to live in accordance with Truth rather than the Lie.

Clearly there are many parallels between this Persian (Iranian) worldview and Jewish apocalypticism. Yet there are difficulties in assessing what is the relation between the two: We don’t know precisely when Zoroaster lived (either the sixth century BCE or the 12th century BCE!); it is difficult to know what aspects of later Zoroastrianism go back to Zoroaster himself; and all of our writings from Zoroastrians themselves (Avesta and Pahlavi) were only put into the written form we have from the fifth century CE on (i.e. either around seventeen or eleven centuries after Zoroaster lived). So there will always be debate on how the two influenced one another.

Third, there are other important traditions within Israelite religion (before the building of the second temple around 500 BCE) that provide a framework for the development of apocalypticism.

On the one hand there is the wisdom tradition, reflected in writings such as Proverbs. An assumption behind this tradition is that God has wisdom, and that he imparts this wisdom to very special human beings, to wise men. The apocalyptic worldview makes this same assumption and, in this case, the content of the wisdom relates to God’s plan for the coming final intervention to destroy evil and save the righteous (as well as how God runs the universe as a whole). The figure of Daniel, for instance, is presented as the ultimate wise man of Yahweh whose wisdom surpasses that of the Babylonian “wise men”, such that he (someone writing in his name) is the natural candidate to produce one of our earliest apocalyptic writings.

On the other hand, and closely related, is what we can call the prophetic tradition. The writings of the prophets preserved in the Hebrew Bible struggle to explain why God has allowed terrible things to happen to the people he chose (namely, to explain the fall of the Northern kingdom to Assyria in 721 BCE and then the fall of the Southern temple to Babylonia in 586 BCE). An assumption held by these prophets is that God has future plans for his people (namely to save them) and he reveals important aspects of this plan to the people through the prophet.

In the process of communicating what Yahweh tells them to tell the people (as they see it), many prophets look forward to “that day”, namely, the day when Israel would be freed from foreign domination and restored to its united glory. Quite often Yahweh’s communications take the form of visions, like Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones or the two sticks (Ezekiel 37). “That day” also often includes the “judgment” and/or subjugation of foreign nations. As we approach the (most likely) post-exilic era, a prophecy such as that in Isaiah 24-27 (the so-called “Isaiah Apocalypse”) can say that on “that day” (which is imminent) Yahweh will “lay waste the earth and make it desolate” (24:1), that he “will punish the host of heaven in heaven [heavenly beings], and on earth the kings of the earth ” (24:21), and that this can be compared to Yahweh repeating in some more final manner the slaying of “Leviathan the twisting serpent” (27:1 [RSV]).

Although I would hesitate to call the material in Isaiah 24-27 the “full-blown apocalyptic worldview”, we are certainly well on our way towards its development. Many of the pieces of the puzzle were quite quickly coming together in the wake of exile and return, in the fifth century BCE. Soon “that day” would be the day on which Yahweh, God of Israel, did battle with Satan (or some other ultimate adversary) and all of Satan’s earthly allies (kings of other nations) in order to wipe out evil forever and establish an eternal kingdom for the righteous. By soon, I mean sometime before 1 Enoch and the book of Daniel were written (c. 225-160s BCE). By then, the apocalypse had arrived in various senses, although Satan was yet to develop fully as his completely evil self.

Much more could be said, but this will have to do for now (the post is too long!!). You can read more about such things in books by the likes of John J. Collins and Norman Cohn as listed in the outline for my course.