This is the second installment of my response to Tony Burke’s article, Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium.”[1] Regarding the citation by conservative scholars of “bizarre” elements of the apocryphal writings, Burke offers the following objection:

“Such focus on the ‘bizarre’ elements of the texts misrepresents their contents. There is plenty of material in the canonical texts that is bizarre or objectionable but it would be unfair to characterize Acts simply on the basis of the cursing stories, or Luke on Jesus’ disappearing act (4:30) or the sweating of blood (22:43-44), or John on its anti-Semitism.”

Before commenting on the conservative scholars’ “focus on the ‘bizarre’ elements’ of the apocryphal writings, I think it would be worth responding to Burke’s description of these elements in the canonical narratives as “bizarre or objectionable.” Now, granted, Burke’s point is that “it would be unfair to characterize” these works by referring only to these elements. However, he makes this point as the premise for claiming an equivalency between the canonical and apocryphal writings in this regard. In order to assess this claim, we must first look at the alleged examples of the bizarre and objectionable in the canonical writings. The only way I know how to do this is to consider each example in turn. For the sake of coherence and focus in this post I will address only the examples from Luke and Acts, all of which Burke cites as examples of the bizarre in canonical writings.[2]

Burke’s reference to “the cursing stories” in Acts is not specific, but presumably he is referring to the accounts of the death of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and the blinding of the Jewish magician Elymas Bar-Jesus (Acts 13:6-12). He may also have in mind the death of Herod Agrippa I that resulted when “an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:23). We have no independent information to support the story of Ananias and Sapphira, and there is no doubt that the occurrence is shocking (as it no doubt was meant to be). The credibility of the story will depend largely on our view of the credibility of the supernatural in general and of the claim (basic to the entire book of Acts) that the apostles were divinely authorized agents of the risen Christ in particular. The same is true for the story of the blinding of Elymas, although here we do have some indirect factual support for some elements of the account. Sergius Paulus is most likely Quintus Sergius Paullus, known to us from inscriptional evidence as a Roman official in Cyprus during the time in question. The idea of a court magician like Elymas is also quite consistent with what we know of the culture.[3] For an allegedly bizarre story, it seems to have at minimum a considerable degree of verisimilitude. As for Luke’s account of the death of Herod Agrippa I, we actually have an independent, parallel account in Josephus (Antiquities 19.343-50) that agrees with Acts on the basic facts. One may question Luke’s statement that an angel of the Lord was involved, but evidently Agrippa died in just the way that Luke describes.

Burke’s reference to “Jesus’ disappearing act” would seem to be reading something into the text that is not there. Luke 4:30 states, “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (NRSV). Luke uses the verb “passed” (dielthôn, participle of dierchomai) 13 times in his two writings, and it occurs in 5 other places in the NT and in 36 places in the LXX, and in no other text does it seem to have anything to do with “disappearing.” Luke’s use of the word here may allude to Isaiah 43:2 LXX, “when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,” which like Luke 4:30 has the unusual wording dielthês dia (cf. dielthôn dia in Luke 4:30). With or without this allusion, Luke’s statement indicates that Jesus slipped through the crowd’s fingers, as we might put it, perhaps implying divine protection, not that he literally disappeared.

Similarly, Burke seems to be reading something more into Luke’s description of Jesus’ agony than is actually there—though in fairness Burke would be far from the first to do so. Luke writes, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:44 NRSV). Luke’s precise wording here does not describe “sweating of blood.” His use of the adverb hôsei, which means “like, as if, as though” (see any of the standard lexicons), fairly rules out such an interpretation. The point is almost certainly that the beads of perspiration became so large that they fell from his face with a size and visibility similar to large drops of blood. Luke may intend the comparison to anticipate the literal shedding of blood for human redemption that Jesus was about to undergo, but there is no indication here that Jesus was literally sweating blood from his pores.[4]

Ironically, this passage in Luke (22:41-44) presents Jesus emphatically as fully and authentically human. Jesus kneels in the garden and prays, expressing frankly to the Father his wish to be spared the ordeal that is coming. He is in a heightened state of emotional anxiety, of agony, breaking out in a sweat even as he prays ever more fervently. Jesus never seems more human than in this pericope. There is an earthiness to Jesus, a humanness, with feet (and in this case knees) firmly planted on the ground, in this and other passages in the canonical Gospels, that stands in stark contrast to what one finds in almost all of the apocryphal gospels. This is one of the points that conservative scholars writing on the subject of the apocryphal gospels emphasize most strongly, and it pertains directly to the overriding issue that dominates their concern, which is the comparative value of the canonical and apocryphal writings as sources of information about the historical Jesus.

 

NOTES

 

[1] Burke has already responded graciously and thoughtfully to my first installment. I appreciate his interest in engaging the issues in constructive discussion and intend to respond as time permits.

[2] Presumably the allegation of anti-Semitism in John’s writings is meant as an example of something “objectionable” rather than “bizarre.” These are such different criticisms that it is worth treating them separately.

[3] On the historical background to Luke’s account in Acts 13:6-12, see, e.g., F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, rev. ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 248-50.

[4] Some commentators have suggested that there is a medical phenomenon that Luke may have intended to describe in which a person under intense stress might have capillaries burst under the skin and small amounts of blood exude and mix with sweat. If these commentators are correct, there would be nothing bizarre about Luke’s account even on Burke’s popular reading, but again, this is probably not what Luke meant.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, October 16th, 2008 at 5:41 pm and is filed under apologetics, Biblical studies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. Burke vs. Bowman: Christian Apocrypha & Apologetics « Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth    Oct 18 2008 / 1am:

    […] “Bizarre” elements in Luke-Acts? A Reply to Tony Burke (II) (Bowman) […]

  2. Apocryphicity » Blog Archive » More Responses to “Heresy Hunting”    Oct 22 2008 / 10am:

    […] to my Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium article from the latest issue of SBL Forum. The first addresses my point that the modern apologists tend to disparage the apocryphal texts as bizarre by […]

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