Sunday, August 30, 2009

Book Notice: Greg Carey - Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers

Greg Carey
Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers
Waco, TX: Baylor, 2009.
Available from

In this provocatively named book Greg Carey (Lancaster Theological Seminary) looks at how the early Christians included deviance and transgression of social norms as part of their self-identity, and so explodes the common myth that Christianity is the religion of social respectability. In chapter one, Carey uses the story of the "sinful woman" of Lk. 7.36-50 to show that "sin" is not simply a theological idea but also a social construct. In chapter two, he looks at Jesus' association with tax collector and sinners and believes that there is no tradition in the Gospels of Jesus criticizing these sinners or calling them to repentance. Chapter three tackles the complex subject of Jesus and the purity laws. In the healing stories of the Gospels, Jesus did not violate the purity laws (which lead to Christian anti-semitism) as much as he does simply respond positively to unclean people who impose themselves upon him. In chapter four, Carey looks at how Jesus and Paul disregard conventional social norms about masculinity. Chapters five and six are dedicated to the cross where it is suggested that Jesus did indeed sin in the eyes of public officials by creating a public disturbance. Carey goes onto suggest that we should queston the notion of Jesus' sinlessness so that "we might conceive of the incarnation as God's full investment in the human condition, including its moral brokenness" (p. x). In chapter seven Carey shows how deviant Christians were considered in their own social locations by outsiders. He also looks at the Jewish and pagan perspective as to why Christians were considered as threats to the social and cultural order. In a touching epilogue, Carey notes how some of his own faith heroes have had the courage to violate social norms and identify with sinners.

This is a most interesting book. Carey shifts between exegesis, theological reflection, and personal anecdotes with great ease and to great effect. Elements that I enjoyed were his description of Jesus and purity laws in Judaism. Much of what he says is correct, esp. that Jesus did not abrogate the Torah and contracting impurity was not necessarily sinful in Judaism since it was part of life. Though I think that for some groups (e.g. Qumran) moral impurity and ritual impurity were closely equated and the Pharisees might not have always neatly distinguished Torah from halakah. In what sounds like a paradoxical blend of Crossley meets Blomberg, Carey suggests that Jesus acted as if holiness were more powerful than impurity as evidenced in his physical touching of lepers. The chapter on the scandal of the cross also raised some valid points about whether the shame of crucifixion led some gnosis-oriented Christians to abandon the cross as a saving event. He also provides a good study on the social awkwardness of the Christians as those seeking socio-political legitimation, but regarded as deviants in Graeco-Roman society. In many ways, this book reminds me of Richard Burridge's recent volume on Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics and perhaps should be read beside it. Justify Full

But I have two major criticism of this book: (1) Carey does not want to refute the doctrine of Jesus' sinlessness, but he believes that it has some "serious liabilities" and he suggests "let's ditch the language of Jesus' sinlessness and talk about his righteousness and faithfulness instead" (p. 98). So be it, but what grounds is there for regarding these as opposites, why must we abandoned the canonical testimony to Jesus' specific sinlessness if it becomes socially awkward for us? Carey regards Jesus as participating in the social sins of society by virtue of him being in society and he thinks sin is also necessary for personal development and moral growth. To his credit, Carey wants a robust doctrine of incarnation, Jesus participates fully in humanity to the point of participating in its sinfulness. In response, I would deny that the experience of sin is necessary to be human, because sin is precisely an inhuman act. By sinning we become less than human. Jesus is fully human, properly human, and is therefore without sin. He is not the model of fallen humanity that rises upward, but the exemplary humanity, the new humanity of the new age. Jesus is what humanity was always meant to be and what it will one day be. What sinful humanity needs is not a God-man who can sympathize with their sinfulness; no, what they need is the God-man to deliver them from the penalty, the power, and the presence of sin. The sinlessness of Jesus does not indicate the absence of sympathy with sinners, it is the ground of the sinners hope, in that one has been sinless for us. (2) Carey is correct to appreciate the under applied elements of inclusiveness towards outcasts and pariahs in the Gospels. But where he flounders, I think, is that the Jesus tradition also contains a large amount of asceticism, imagery filled with apocalyptic judgment, and ethical rigorism as a criterion for discipleship. Understandably, Matthew 23 does not figure prominently in Carey's paradigm for following Jesus. Likewise, Paul for all his ethnic inclusiveness, also has detailed vice-lists and practiced church discipline, and only the most tortured exegesis can make him a proponent of hyper-inclusiveness (that said, Carey does recognize the rigor of Pauline ethics about issues relating to gender and sexuality esp. when Christians were in the public eye).

The strength of this book is its historical examination of Jesus, Paul, and the first Christians, coupled with theological reflection on certain topics, and a social commentary on Christianity in "white America". Though I don't profess to be convinced by the major premise of the book, it is instructive about the social context of the first Christians and how to live out the inclusiveness of Jesus towards those that society casts aside. As I often tell my students (most Americans won't get the metaphor): Jesus accepts the fish that John West rejects!


Alison B said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for an excellent review of Greg Carey's book which sounds very interesting. And thankyou for your reflection on areas of weakness.

In my own experience of moving to a new country and feeling utterly out of my depth, I prayed the following prayer almost every morning for the first six months, "Lord, unless you help me, I can't get through this day." As I prayed this prayer I remembered that it was similar to the prayer that I had hear alcoholics, or people with other addictions pray.

My hope in praying such a prayer was that I had a Saviour who not only sympathised with what I was going through but who could rescue me from the despair that I faced.

Anonymous said...

A good book to read is Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI :)

John Thomson said...

Point about respectability seems well made, though over-stated. Paul/Peter keen that christians if they suffer, suffer for righteousness, not unrighteousness. They are keen that Gospel is not placed in disrepute/blasphemied.

Early apostles clearly felt Jesus' sinlessness was something to stress - he did no sin... he knew no sin... in him was no sin....

What about Jesus, by his comments on what goes out of a man etc, 'declaring all foods clean'; is this not a criticism of the old covenant, not merely accretions?

John Thomson said...

And again

Jesus shares our 'weaknesses' and can sympathize. Weaknesses seems to be the experience of being human in a fallen world apart from sinning. We want a High Priest like this as Mike says. One who faced trial and conquered rather than collapsed under it.

I think carey is right about Christ's holiness/virtue overcoming the effects of the fall. The lepers need to present themselves to the High Priest but Christ doesn't.

What does the incident of the Sabbath eating say about Jesus and the Law. His justification seems based on two things. One, he like David is a king in rejection, and two, he is Lord of the Sabbath, and as such has the right to abrogate it.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Michael, for this senstive review. I appreciate all of it.

I find it off-putting when authors jump in to defend their books from others' criticisms, so I'll refrain there. I would simply add that on the doctrine of Jesus' sinlessness, I draw heavily on Bonhoeffer. The more I live, the more compelling I find Bonhoeffer.