I have been enjoying the greatest personal renewal in my life in the past six months as I have immersed myself in the life of Yeshua the Messiah. Having decided to follow him twenty-three years ago while a college student, I’ve been down many theological corridors and I’ve had the usual ups and downs in enthusiasm. I’m finding now that a lot of those experiences were part of the faith-maturing process. And now, thoroughly grounded in understanding of the books of Torah and the prophets, I’m reading the life of Yeshua with new appreciation.
I guess the lessons I see in my own experience include the following: trials of faith work for the best when we keep seeking reasons to believe, higher experience of truth and union with God come with time and perseverance, and, finally, you begin to understand Yeshua when you grasp the complexity of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition leading to his life and times. A simple reading can appreciate Yeshua, but a mature, nuanced reading is even more rewarding. It is sad to me that most people feel too busy to put in the time and have the discipline to read and think and appreciate the genius of Yeshua. As a writer, I hope to do my best to pass on what I have learned from my teachers (mostly through books). But to truly experience the good news (which was a word the apostles used for encountering the story of Yeshua) requires immersion, not a quick read.
Well, that is simply a reflective prelude on the whole enterprise of studying the life of Yeshua. I’m actually blogging today about one small issue, but an important one, one of those little questions that has plagued me . . .
It may not bother anyone else, but after years of hearing “experts” say that Yeshua did not know his own exalted status and identity, that he did not own the claim the be Messiah, I am angered at the self-important exaggerations of specialists who defraud in the name of the academy. I won’t go into all of the duplicities of this school of skeptical scholarship, but I will say that in challenging a simplistic and unreflective faith, they could have done people a service, but instead they stopped short of literary excellence and made the opposite but equal blunder of one-sided interpretation they claim to overcome.
What I mean is this: Yeshua himself challenges the messianic notions people had about him. I particularly like John 2:23-25 in this regard. The more common example people point to is the Messianic Secret theme in Mark. But, heavens, read deeper, O skeptical scholars! Is your literary sensibility so stunted that you cannot see how the synoptics in their own way and the fourth gospel in a different way bring us to deeper understandings of what Messiah means? And the gospels really aren’t that subtle. The exalted status, authority, even Messiahship of Yeshua is all over the pages inside.
One of the dozens of small problems in this field is at the trial of Yeshua before the chief priests. Yeshua is asked directly, “Are you the Messiah?” The question itself comes in three slightly different forms (note that John handles the trial in a different manner):
Mark 14:61 Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?
Matthew 26:63 I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.
Luke 22:67, 70 If you are the Christ, tell us. . . . Are you the Son of God, then?
And Yeshua’s answer in the three synoptic gospels takes three different forms. When you see them, if you’ve not thought before about the problem, you should see it easily:
Mark 14:62 I am.
Matthew 26:64 You have said so.
Luke 22:70 You say that I am.
The problem is Yeshua’s answer in Matthew and Luke seems to be either a negative or a qualified affirmative while in Mark is is a clear affirmative.
This problem has bothered me for years. At this key moment, why would Yeshua either deny or only ambiguously affirm his identity? And why would the apostles present three different answers to such a key question and at such a crucial moment in the story?
Yesterday I read Raymond Brown’s take on the matter in his 900-page study, The Death of Messiah. I’m giving you the short version of his study from pages 484-493.
As a prelude, it is good to understand that Yeshua has been engaged in all four gospels in a subversion and revolution in thinking about the idea of Messiah. To keep it simple here, I will just say that Yeshua has downplayed (even denied) being the militaristic deliverer and crassly human king of popular expectation. He has not denied this role entirely, since it is based on truth, but has pointed to a more nuanced, complex, and transcendent identity and role as Messiah.
With that in mind, Brown says of Yeshua’s answer in Mark that it is “unambiguously affirmative.”
Of the answer in Matthew, he points out all the possibilities:
1. Strong affirmative (“you yourself have said it”).
2. Sarcastic challenge (“you yourself said it but you do not believe it”).
3. Contrastive denial (“you, not I, have said it”).
4. Cautious affirmative (“”you, not I, have said it because I might get into trouble”).
5. Qualified affirmative (“you, not I, have said it because I am not happy with the phrasing”).
Cutting through many issues, Brown says what we are after is not merely some reconstruction of Yeshua’s time and motive, but more clearly, what the gospel writer wished his audience to think when they read the story.
1. It is not a negative. Yeshua has affirmed his messiahship earlier (Matt 16:16-17). Also, the chief priests take his response as affirmative (26:68).
2. It is not an unqualified affirmative (as in Mark). If it was, Matthew could have simply said, “I am.”
3. It is a qualified affirmative. Brown says, “There is truth in what the high priest has said, but he must take responsibility for the way he interprets it and the use he plans to make of it” (491). Remember, the chief priests are trying to get self-incriminating testimony from Yeshua. Yeshua is “putting responsibility on the questioner for what is being said” (492). The chief priests think they are condemning Yeshua, but Yeshua is actually condemning them and his next statement is about the Son of Man and is authority.
What, then, of the different form in Luke? “You say that I am” in Luke is best read as an ironic affirmative. He is saying, “You know that I am, but you will condemn me anyway.” Luke’s version separates the Messiah question (in which Yeshua wishes to avoid simplistic, political interpretations) from the Son of God question. But, as Brown points out, from Luke 1:35 on, the reader has known that Yeshua is God’s son with no human father. Yeshua, in answering the way that he does, puts the confession “Yeshua is God’s Son” on the lips of the chief priests. Luke emphasizes that “all” of them said the words “Son of God.”
So, we do not have a denial by Yeshua at his critical moment. We have three different perspectives on the same event:
1. Mark’s version gives the simple perspective: affirmation.
2. Matthew’s version gives one kind of nuanced perspective: a qualified affirmative putting the onus on the accusers and not the accused.
3. Luke’s version gives another kind of nuanced perspective: ironic affirmation which also puts the onus on the accusers.
In no case can we read the Matthew and Luke versions as denials. Although that is one potential reading of Yeshua’s statements in Matthew and Luke, the context drives us to a different conclusion. And the picture of Yeshua at his trial is very much of one wiser than his accusers.