Mark L. Strauss. Jesus Behaving Badly: The Puzzling Paradoxes of the Man from Galilee. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015. See here to buy the book.
Many Christians struggle with what is in the Old Testament, with its
laws, wars, and portrayal of God’s wrath. That is understandable, but,
speaking for myself personally, I also struggle with the picture of
Jesus that is in the New Testament. A number of Christians believe that
Jesus was a nice, accepting guy, and so they maintain that Jesus should
be the focus of religion and spirituality, and that we should look
primarily to Jesus to see what God is like. And what we are supposed to
see is love! When I read about Jesus in the Gospels, however, I am
often troubled by what I see. Sure, there are elements of Jesus that
fit in with the positive view of him, but Jesus also comes across as an
uncompromising fanatic, one who preached about hell, said that it is
difficult to enter the Kingdom of God, sounded a bit cultish and
absolutist, and could be impatient with people, places, and things.
There is also the possibility that Jesus may have mistakenly predicted
an imminent end of the world, which calls into question whether
Christianity is even true.
Mark L. Strauss is a New Testament scholar, and his book, Jesus Behaving Badly,
was written for people with questions like mine. Some of Strauss’
answers, I found satisfactory, or at least interesting. Others, not so
much. Either way, I had to respect Strauss for honestly and seriously
wrestling with issues. Strauss did not sugarcoat what is in the
Gospels, and, in his discussion of various viewpoints (i.e., about hell,
about scholarly views on Jesus’ resurrection), I found him to be fair
in summarizing them and presenting their better arguments. There were
also cases in which Strauss did not simply settle for an answer but
wrestled some more because the answer was not perfect in accounting for
details in the text; Strauss did not always do this, but he did it quite
a bit. For all of this, I give the book four stars.
I would like to offer some criticisms, however.
First of all, Strauss did well to quote Second Temple Jewish sources,
and that showed his scholarly background. At the same time, I thought
that he was quoting them rather one-sidedly, to make Judaism a foil for
Second, Strauss was not particularly critical in his treatment of the
Gospels. He referred to the Parable of the Prodigal Son to argue that
the historical Jesus saw God as a God of grace, and elements of Luke’s
Gospel to argue that Jesus envisioned an outreach to the Gentiles to
bring them to God. There are scholars, however, who would say that
these things are Lukan and do not go back to the historical Jesus. In
my opinion, Strauss would have done better to have used scholarly
criteria of authenticity (which he does in arguing that Jesus’
resurrection is historical) to support his portrayal of Jesus. Granted,
the book is probably for a popular audience, so Strauss did not intend
it to be a work of dense scholarship, but Strauss could have used the
criteria while not going too far over readers’ heads. Could Strauss
argue, using the criteria of authenticity to evaluate what is historical
in the Gospels, that the historical Jesus supported grace? Hans Kung
did so, so it is not impossible!
Third, in his chapter arguing that Jesus rose from the dead, Strauss
refers to some of what he says as “practically indisputable facts.” I
think that is overreaching, even though Strauss does present arguments
that deserve consideration. Bart Ehrman, after all, would argue
differently from Strauss on the question of whether we can trust the
story about Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of Jesus, and (contrary to the
impression one may get from Strauss’ book) Ehrman’s arguments go beyond a
naturalistic assumption that resurrection from the dead is impossible.
Fourth, in arguing for hell, Strauss says that God must be just.
Strauss appeals to evildoers to make his point: murderers, for example.
Strauss states that God upholds the rights of the poor. That does not
make the problem of hell go away, however, for, if a poor person does
not accept Christ before her death, she goes to hell, according to many
Fifth, I am conflicted about Strauss’ discussion of whether Jesus
envisioned an imminent end of the world. Strauss does well to argue
that early Christianity believed that, on some level, Jesus at his first
coming fulfilled Old Testament eschatological expectations about the
Kingdom of God, such as the Gentiles coming to God. In that sense, from
a Christian perspective, the Kingdom of God was near, as Jesus
proclaimed. At the same time, I question whether we should appeal to
Paul or Hebrews in trying to understand what Jesus meant by the Kingdom
Strauss also interprets Jesus’ soon coming, in places, as referring
to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., which, according to Strauss,
vindicated Jesus and ushered in a new spiritual era, with the end of
the Jewish sacrificial system. But Strauss acknowledges that there are
places in the Gospels in which Jesus’ coming refers to his second
coming, what many Christians understand as the second coming of Christ.
Can we really pick and choose when Jesus’ coming means that in the
synoptic Gospels, and when it does not?
In talking about Jesus’ discouragement of the potential disciple from
burying his father, and the potential disciple from saying goodbye to
his parents, Strauss says that Jesus’ calling was urgent, since what was
predicted by the prophets was being fulfilled. Why was there urgency,
though? Urgency would make sense to me if Jesus were expecting an
imminent end of the world (though I am open to other explanations). If
Jesus expected for thousands of years to pass before he returned a
second time to set up the Kingdom more fully, then why was there urgency
during his first coming?
In discussing Mark 13, Strauss, like others, argues that Jesus was
alternating between talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and
talking about the second coming of Christ. That, Strauss says, would
account for the contradictions within Mark 13: Jesus saying that this
generation will not pass away before all these things take place, and
Jesus saying that no one, even he, knows the day or the hour. For
Strauss, the first refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.,
and the second refers to the second coming. This is an intriguing
proposal, though I am not sure if I find it convincing.
I did learn things from this book, such as the fact that there
usually were tiny figs on fig trees when Jesus cursed the barren fig
tree. The book also included endearing stories and anecdotes, which
made the book more enjoyable and relatable.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
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