Jesus the Riddler?

I’ve updated my “Currently Reading” section in the right-hand margin because, well, I’m reading a new book! Not that I’m no longer reading the apologetic commentary on the Old Testament… this new book – Jesus the Riddler: The Power of Ambiguity in the Gospels – just happens to pique my historical Jesus interest more.

No, not that Riddler… no matter how much the photo reminds my about one of my more favorite portraits of Jesus. But, I digress.

If you’re familiar at all with the gospel accounts – and especially, the words of Jesus as they are portrayed – you know there are many, many times when the disciples (or the crowds) simply do not comprehend the things Jesus says. The gospel writers/redactors sometimes take great joy from the fact that the disciples couldn’t figure their Rabbi out. Significantly, the writer of John identifies the instances where his readers would obviously understand Jesus words, even if those around Jesus at the time didn’t.

Knowing this, I decided to do some research into the potential ambiguity of Jesus’ message and how it might have sparked the wildly different and conflicting beliefs of Jewish-Christian groups that formed in the first two centuries following his death. This will eventually turn into my term paper for my History of the Christian Church class, where I am specifically interested in the Ebionites, Nazoreans and Marcionites, but for now, I want to share the book and the concepts it postulates. I believe it could introduce you to a new way to view Jesus!

From his ministry, we know that Jesus was a public orator. We also know that he would frequently teach only his disciples, and that at times he would engage in verbal confrontations with groups of Pharisees or Sadducees. But these facts alone don’t make him a riddler. Two essential elements of his conversation would qualify him as that:

  1. Ambiguity, which involves the delivery of teaching that could be taken to mean more than one thing, and in which one of the options is distinctly “correct” in the mind of the deliverer.
  2. Intentionality, or a purposeful use of language to create confusion, double meaning, etc. If a saying is ambiguous but unintentional, it is merely vague or poorly worded.

Tony LaRussa has been manager of the St. Louis Cardinals for almost as long as I can remember, since 1996. And when you listen to him answer questions at a press conference or on a radio show, generally you walk away wondering what exactly he said. His answers can frequently go either way, qualifying him as a riddler. This is a picture of LaRussa with a dog, for no reason in particular.

TLR with dog in dugout.

If I haven’t lost you yet, let’s come back to Jesus (isn’t that a Third Day song?). As I said, Thatcher’s book is a foray into the historical Jesus from an angle that is entirely fresh to me. Part of this, however, is due to the nature of Jesus’ sayings that qualify as riddles: often times they do not meet the principle of multiple attestation. In other words, a riddle may appear in the gospel according to Luke, but not any others. Or sometimes, the riddle may be part of a story that appears in all four gospels, but the riddle itself is only contained in the gospel according to John. Historical textual criticism values multiple attestation is a marker for sayings that are more likely to actually date back to Jesus, and in a lot of cases the Jesus Seminar had major doubts about riddle material.

But, this isn’t necessarily the case for the riddle construct that Jesus is ascribed to have used. And many of the parables can be understood as an extended form of riddling that also accompanies storytelling. So, are there implications that accompany the view of Jesus the Riddler? Thatcher writes (emphases his):

I assert that it is likely that Jesus asked and answered riddles on a regular basis; I am not concerned about particular riddles recorded in the Gospels but about whether he engaged in riddling at all. I claim that if Jesus engaged in riddling at all, this fact is significant to key aspects of our understanding of his social posture and message.

In other words, my argument does not depend on whether or not Jesus actually asked people how the Messiah could be both “David’s son” and “David’s lord” at the same time. My argument depends, instead, on the fact that Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Thomas, and virtually every other extant ancient source for Jesus’ teaching claims that Jesus said things like this to people on a regular basis.

I am presently about a quarter of the way through the book, and I am finding that Thatcher makes very thought-provoking arguments. While I may not start thanking God in prayer for sending the Great Riddler to this earth, this is a wonderful new way to think of Jesus. And, with these thoughts in mind, it’s much easier to be sympathetic to the way Gnosticism – in particular, the Gospel of Thomas, bloomed. Doubtlessly, I will seek to post additional blog entries when new ideas from the book excite me, and once I have read it, I will post my overarching conclusions and takeaways.

Inconsistencies in Exodus’ Ten Plagues

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. This last week included the first twenty chapters of Exodus, about 13 chapters of Numbers, and corresponding commentaries. The topic about which I chose to write was inconsistencies in the account of the ten plagues.

I was limited to one single-spaced page, but probably could have gone on for a while longer. For example, the topic of naturally occurring disasters that could explain the plagues intrigues me quite a lot. But, I digress.

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper. Enjoy!


Ten plagues wreaked utter devastation on the Egyptian people, land and spirit before Pharaoh ultimately allowed Moses and his fellow Israelites to proceed out to the desert (Ex 7:14-12:30).  In a fascinating fashion, the Exodus narrative simultaneously highlights the power of God over Pharaoh and the forces of nature in a display that Victor P. Hamilton claims will allow all parties – Pharaoh, Egyptians and Israelites – to “indeed acquire knowledge of the true God.”[1] All may not have realized that goal, however, and the account of the ten plagues unfortunately leaves inquisitive readers with as many questions as answers.  This reflection paper explores such questions regarding two major inconsistencies in the Exodus reading.

After repeatedly hardening his heart and having his heart hardened by God through four plagues, Pharaoh is once again offered an opportunity to let the Israelites leave.  Pharaoh does not respond, and God sends a plague of pestilence upon the Egyptian field livestock – or more specifically, upon “horses and donkeys and camels and on your cattle and sheep and goats” (Ex 9:3 NIV).  Shortly thereafter, it is reported that “all” of the Egyptian livestock died, whereas “not one animal belonging to the Israelites died” (Ex 9:6 NIV).  Bart D. Ehrman asks, “How is it, then, that a few days later the seventh plague, of hail, was to destroy all of the Egyptian livestock in the fields?  What livestock?”[2] Furthermore, the tenth plague relates that not only have the firstborn of Egyptians from all different kinds of social classes and backgrounds been killed, but “the firstborn of all the livestock as well” (Ex 12:29 NIV).

If one assumes the particular view of Biblical inerrancy, he or she might also have to deduce fanciful manners of spawning by Egyptian livestock.  Perhaps, however, a more apt explanation is simply lost in translation.  In their exploration of the ten plagues as “an aberrant El Niño-Southern Oscillation teleconnection that brought unseasonable and progressive climate warming” to portions of Egypt other than inland Goshen[3], N. Joel Ehrenkranz and Deborah A. Sampson make a decidedly linguistic deduction.  “We take ‘cattle’ to be a generic term for two distinct collections of livestock: animals in pasture that are killed in plague 5 and animals destroyed in plague 10 that are located elsewhere – presumably at Egyptian dwellings.”[4] Still, this assumption begs the question: what division of animals died in the hailstorm (Ex 9:21)?

Another significant inconsistency in the account of the ten plagues comes after an irritated Pharaoh orders Moses away following the ninth plague, of darkness.  Pharaoh claims that Moses will die if the Israelite sees his face again, and Moses affirms that he will never again appear before Pharaoh (Ex 10:28-29).  But depending on one’s reading of the passages that follow, Moses and Pharaoh definitely meet again at least one more time (Ex 12:31-32), and possibly even twice (Ex 11:4-8).  And chronologically, on the latter of these two occasions, Pharaoh urges Moses to bless him – a far cry from attempting to kill God’s messenger.

Even with his willingness to bring up – and explain away – criticisms within the source text, Hamilton does not address apparent inconsistencies within the ten plagues narrative.  To be sure, the presence of inconsistent textual renderings does not detract significantly from my comprehension of the story, and neither is such a phenomenon limited to these five chapters.  However, they do create certain problems for Christians with more lofty views of the Bible.

[1] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 159.


[2] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 10.

[3] N. Joel Ehrenkranz and Deborah A. Sampson, “Origin of the Old Testament Plagues: Explications and Implications,” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 81, no. 1 (March 2008), under “Abstract,” (accessed September 25, 2010).

[4] Ibid.

A Day In The Life… of The Beatles

And now, a post dedicated to what amounts to my favorite song of all time. It’s The Beatles, and it’s also epically unorthodox… maybe that’s why.

The Beatles, dressed in their "Sgt. Pepper" garb.

A Day In The Life is the culmination of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is often referred to as a concept album. Let’s just say it was a great concept; it sold in excess of 32 million copies. Sgt. Pepper was also the symbolic point at which Paul McCartney’s genius began to publicly outweigh John Lennon’s genius, though I would suggest that Paul’s contributions clearly validated this even before Revolver took shape.

But enough of the John-Paul nonsense. Some of their best work materialized in tandem, and A Day In The Life is either Exhibit A or 1a, depending on your empathy with The Beatles’ early library (I don’t listen to much before Rubber Soul, personally). Certainly, they wouldn’t have made it anywhere near as big without one another.

Many claim that A Day In The Life is John’s song, and I guess that makes sense if you’re only listening to the three “I read the news today” verses. If you think that’s all there is to the song, then try listening to this studio take and arguing that it would’ve been half as groundbreaking as it really was.

Take Paul out of the equation on this song, and you lose the middle eight (with that astounding voice, no less), the intoxicating bass line, most of the piano, and the orchestral crescendos. Without that, you’re just left with a guy strumming his guitar in a dimly lit coffee shop.

Add that back in, and you’ve got a redonkulous song. The first 1:30 of this video is that studio take, but the remainder of the clip gives you both the album version of the song (bonus, it sure sounds like the 09-09-09 remaster) and the closest thing to a “music video” that existed in The Beatles’ hay-day.

I’m also a big fan of this video as taken from The Beatles: Rock Band video game. They say that reconstructing history takes imagination, right?

So, there you have it. My favorite song of The Beatles’ library (at the moment), and one of the most epic songs of all time. And that’s only because the Abbey Road Medley isn’t considered a single song.

Wedding Photos!

Recently, my wife Lauren and I received our wedding photos from our photographers Cameron and Mindy Braun! I decided I’d post a sample of their great work here, but if you’re so inclined, you can check out all of their galleries. It goes without saying that if you’re getting married within a stone’s throw of Dayton – their home base – you’re doing yourself a favor by booking them!

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In addition to this, I’ve added a Privacy statement to my blog. It’s short. GoDaddy told me to do it.

Excerpt from the Dialogue of the Savior

First, I’m updating the “currently reading” section to reflect, well, a textbook that I’ll be reading for the remainder of the semester. I will say that the author must be the kind of guy that loves the sound of his voice!

But tonight, it’s time to step away from a bit of the divisiveness, whether I’ve been gentle enough or still too rough. I originally wrote this as part of a devotional for my History of the Christian Church class. Though not for credit, the professor asks for a student to come up with a devotional based on an extra-canonical source. He never fully explained his reasoning for this “assignment,” but with a little intuition, I believe he is saying to us that a vast array of Jewish-Christian sects believed they had the right interpretation of Jesus, and it so happened that the beliefs that would become “Orthodox,” and not “heretical,” won out – but meanwhile, there still are points of value we can take from the non-canonical documents. Now, doing the background research and reflections for this “assignment” was an invigorating process for me. And since I found the Gospel of Thomas to be some rather low-hanging fruit, I ended up choosing the Dialogue of the Savior.

Wait, the WHAT of the WHO (you may ask)? Yeah, I’d never heard of it either. So I’ll do this post kind of like this: first, some background on the Dialogue of the Savior, then the passage that I chose, and then a section of my reflection. Hope you enjoy!



A piece of the Dialogue of the Savior, as owned by the library at Yale University.


Facts about the Dialogue of the Savior

  • The Dialogue of the Savior originally was a Greek text, but only survives to us today in a Coptic version found in 1945. This Coptic version dates to the mid-to-late second century C.E. and was first published in English in 1976.
  • The Greek text may date as far back as the mid-to-late first century C.E., or around the time of the apostles and the writing of the Synoptic Gospels.
  • In Deconstructing Jesus (2000), Robert M. Price refers to the Dialogue of the Savior (and similar Gnostic documents) as “something like a news conference in which the Risen Jesus answers questions from the disciples, revealing great mysteries fit only for Gnostic ears.”
  • The text is in the form of sayings of Jesus, and parallels the Gospel of Thomas very closely. However, the Dialogue of the Savior includes more quotations from Jesus’ disciples, differentiating it from the Gospel of Thomas.
  • Throughout the surviving text, Jesus is talking exclusively with Matthew, Judas (not necessarily Judas Iscariot, though I proceed under this assumption in my reflection/devotional), and Mariam. However, near the end of the text, “all disciples” are invoked.
  • Interestingly, Jesus’ name never appears in the surviving text. He is referred to as “The Savior,” “Lord,” or occasionally the “Son of Man.” Within the context of the creation myth, Jesus is referred to as the “Word,” which we’re all familiar with from John chapter 1.
  • The Dialogue of the Savior is suggested to be dated after the Gospel of Thomas, and represents an evolution of textual tradition from “sayings material,” including the Gospel of Thomas and the lost source Quelle, to the narrative texts that today comprise the canonical gospel accounts. Of these canonical accounts, the Dialogue of the Savior most closely parallels John.
  • So, therefore…..         Gospel of Thomas < Dialogue of the Savior < Johannine Gospel
  • Possibly, the Dialogue of the Savior was a “response” to the Gospel of Thomas, given that it builds off Gos. Thom. sayings #1 and #2, and the divine references to Jesus.
  • Given the relationship to Thomas and John, the Dialogue of the Savior is hypothesized to have come from Syria. As with Thomas, the Dialogue of the Savior is heavily Gnostic.
  • Among the excerpt we will read today are elements of a creation myth, dialogue, and a so-called “wisdom list” delivered by Jesus.
  • The author (or redactor) of the Dialogue of the Savior is both cosmically and geographically inclined, which we’ll see in our excerpt.
  • The Dialogue of the Savior is NOT mentioned by any ancient church fathers, suggesting that it could have been a private or “barely public” document unique to a few communities.
  • The Dialogue of the Savior is HIGHLY fragmentary. In many cases, the meaning of words cannot be discerned from the text that remains, so we are left with sets of ellipses. However, in some cases, textual critics are able to reasonably deduce the original meaning (though this may not be perfect), and in our excerpt these cases are denoted with sets of brackets.
  • Our excerpt is the most complete pericope within the Dialogue of the Savior.
  • Before our excerpt begins, we see two things happening:

1.    First, Judas “gives glory to the Lord” after Jesus explains his purpose for coming, which is that the earth “might not be in want from generation to generation and age to age.” Jesus also explains that he became manifest from springs of milk, honey, oil, wine, good fruits with a sweet taste, and good roots.

2.    In response to this, Mariam asks to no one in particular where Judas, Matthew and she will “keep” the things Jesus has just said about himself, and Jesus interrupts by saying that they have a place in their heart for these things.  And, by keeping them in their hearts, they will no longer be confined by “this impoverished world” but enter “the place of life.”

With no further adieu, I give you, the Dialogue of the Savior:

Matthew said, “Lord, I wish [to see] that place of life, [that place] in which there is no evil, but rather it is [the] pure light.”

The Lord said, “Brother Matthew, you cannot see it, as long as you wear the flesh.”

Matthew said, “O Lord, even if [I can] not see it, let me [know it].”

The Lord said, “Every one [of you] who has known himself has seen it; everything that is fitting for him to do, [he does] it.  And he has been [doing] it in his goodness.”

Judas answered him and said, “Tell me, Lord, [the earthquake] that moves the earth, how does it move?”

The Lord took a stone [and] held it in his hand. [He said, “What] is this that I hold in my [hand]?”

He said, “[It is] a stone.”

He said to them, “He who sustains [the earth] is he who sustains the heaven.  When a word comes forth from the Greatness, it will go to him who sustains the heaven and the earth.  For the earth does not move; if it moved, it would fall, but (it does not fall) in order that the first word might not be annulled, namely ‘he is the one who established the world, and he dwelt in it, and he received incense from it.’  For everything that does not move I [will bring] to you, all ye sons of men, for you are from [that] place.

“As for those who speak out of [joy] and truth, you are in their heart.  And if he comes from [the] body of the Father through men, [and] they do not receive him, [he] turns again to his place.  He who knows [not] the works of perfection knows nothing.  If one does not stand in the darkness, he will not be able to see the light.  If one does not [understand] how the fire came to be, he will burn in it, because he does not know his root.  If one does not first understand the water, he does not know anything.  For what is the use for him to receive baptism in it?  If one does not understand how the wind that blows came to be, he will run with it.  If one does not understand how the body that he wears came to be, he will perish with it.  And he who does not know the Son, how will he know the [Father]?  And he who will not know the root of all things, they (all things) are hidden from him.  He who will not know the root of wickedness is not a stranger to it.  He who will not understand how he came will not understand how he will go, and is not a [stranger] to this world which [will perish and] which will be humbled.”

The third of my three points of reflection and devotional centered around the humanity of Judas and other notorious sinners. Now, I say “notorious,” but I could easily omit that to say just “other sinners.” Either way, we find that were this Dialogue of the Savior excerpt to be in the canon, we would have some significant character development for Judas, if it is indeed referring to Judas Iscariot (not explicitly stated). In the four canonical gospel accounts, commonly included in our numerous interactions with Judas is a phrase like “who would later betray [Jesus].” Instead, Judas is more well-rounded in the Dialogue of the Savior, which features no crucifixion narrative (or the betrayal leading up to that point). Judas asks about earthquakes, and multiple times he is explicitly stated to fall to his feet and worship Jesus. He also engages Matthew and Mariam, and is accepted by them rather than outcast as the one who came to betray Jesus.

This isn’t the portrait of Judas that we commonly hear.  In the same way, we are reminded of the humanity – the virtue – of sinners we’ve encountered in our own lives (whether personally or through the media). For example, unless you’ve done a biography on these people, how much do you know about Timothy McVeigh, Mark David Chapman, or even Tiger Woods or Ben Roethlisberger beyond their highly publicized sin?

It boils down to this: do you wish to be known to the world by the worst of your sins – and nothing else? You’ve probably heard this before, but we are challenged in our everyday lives to separate the actor from the action. This is difficult to accomplish if the action was committed against you, but God invites you to forgive this way…

“Forgive us our trespasses (debts), as we forgive those who trespass against us (our debtors).”

If you utter this without the willingness to forgive, you are actually saying to God, “Forgive me to the degree which I am willing to forgive others, which ends at a certain point.” Therefore, fresh light being shed on Judas isn’t a terrible thing at all. Of course, Judas will never be viewed as a good guy. But maybe he used to be. And maybe that’s why Jesus chose him as a disciple in the first place.

Excerpt and background information adapted from: Ron Cameron, ed., The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982), 43-44.