What do I think of Paula Fredriksen’s book published by Yale University Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
Recently I was debating issues of the New Testament with someone on Facebook who thought I was obviously unfamiliar with research on the New Testament, so he recommended I get this old book. I am always eager to do such and so I went straight to the library to get a copy. As I read through, I didn’t really see anything I was unfamiliar with. Fredriksen does at times bring up interesting questions that we should spend time thinking about, like why exactly was Paul persecuting the church so much and why do we not have any records of others doing such? Of course, part of that is the argument from silence, but that’s not the point of this review.
Something I find about many works that argue from a more liberal perspective is that some starting conclusions are never argued for. Those positions could be right of course hypothetically, but I would like to see an argument for them. Why should I think that Mark and the rest of the Gospels were written after 70 A.D.? In fact, I find Fredriksen’s talk of this issue to be a major problem in her interpretation.
When Fredriksen gets to a passage like the Olivet Discourse, it’s consistently interpreted as if it means the end of the world. This could be understandable as a lot of people do see it this way, but as my readers know, it’s simply wrong. Jesus is not predicting the end of the world. (What good would fleeing to the mountains do if the world was coming to an end?) Instead, Jesus is describing judgment on the Temple and that it will come within one generation.
When the talk is made of the parousia, that is the coming of Jesus, it is assumed that this means Jesus is coming to the Earth and ending it all. That’s not what he means. In Matthew, the text specifically points to Daniel. Look at the coming of the Son of Man in that book. He’s not coming to the Earth. He’s coming to the Ancient of Days. He’s taking His heavenly throne to sit at the right hand of God.
Unfortunately, Fredriksen seems to make this a centerpiece of her thinking on Jesus. She will say that it’s odd that writers would include this false prophecy and that Christians had been sure the end of the world was coming. One has to wonder why a prophecy would be included if it was knowingly false? The Gospels are thought to be after 70 A.D. because this is predictive prophecy and somehow, we know that doesn’t happen, but then the prophecy predicted was wrong. It’s something that doesn’t make sense.
For Fredriksen, this leaves the rest of the Christians confused. They thought the end was coming. This included Paul. The reference for this is 1 Thess. 4:17 with the “we who remain” passage, but there’s no reason why this we had to include Paul. If Paul is speaking about Christians, then Paul could generically say “We Christians who remain.” Paul could very well not say “Those who remain” either because he again did not know when the return of Christ would take place. (Not the parousia. The return. These are two different things.) Maybe it would take place in his lifetime. Maybe not.
Fredriksen also says the resurrection would be spiritual since flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Why should I not see this as a Jewish idiom? In this case, Paul is saying mortal and sinful humanity cannot inherit the Kingdom. That is why we must all be changed.
I also find it problematic to keep pointing to what the communities needed to hear that the Gospels were written to understand why the writers wrote what they wrote. What we have immediate access to is the writing itself. We don’t have access to the communities or even proof that there was a “Matthean community” or a “Lukan community.”
One way I find this problematic also is that she says that Matthew knew about the tradition that Jesus had to be virgin born so here comes Isaiah 7:14. So what is this tradition? Do we have any record of it? Does it exist in the Dead Sea Scrolls? Do we have any knowledge that Christians thought the Messiah would be virgin born? It’s as if it’s unthinkable to some that these things happened not because prophecy had to be fulfilled so the events were made up, but maybe because, well, they actually did happen and indeed, I do affirm that this virgin birth happened.
The benefit is even when Fredriksen doesn’t agree, it’s not like reading Ehrman. When one reads Ehrman, it’s like he has a vendetta to debunk the past Christian fundamentalism he used to embrace. (Note: He still embraces the methodology. Just not the outcome.) Fredriksen does raise good questions as pointed out and they should be discussed, but I just find the attempts to explain Jesus to be unconvincing.