For my birthday, my friend Jeremy Bouma gave me a copy of Richard A. Burridge, Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics.
I am a third of the way through the book and I am fascinated. The book is worthy of a few posts here at Jesus the Radical Pastor.
Burridge, an Anglican pastor and scholar, sets out to discern the impact of Jesus on the ethical life of Jesus-followers. Without spoiling the book for you, I can say that it is a compelling, comprehensive and theological expression of Scot McKnight’s more popular The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others.
Burridge opens with a contemporary ethical dilemma (tragedy?): the “biblical” and ethical grounding for apartheid in South Africa. Without harranging those who biblically endorsed apartheid, Burridge wonders how something so racist and evil could be supported by any form of New Testament ethics. The last section of the book is a case study of South African apartheid. We’ll get to that section in a few days.
Burridge uses two illuminating analogies to set Jesus squarely in the forefront of New Testament ethics. The first is an archeological analogy. Usually archeologists must start with the latest layer (or top layer) in their dig down to bedrock. Applied to New Testament ethics, we must start with Paul and his letters, then dig to the Gospels (and other 1st century pseudepigrapha) and then dig deeper below the canonical Gospels to the documents “behind” them (e.g., Q or Quelle or “source” behind Matthew and Luke). Burridge counters this analogy by asking the question, “What created this (archeological) site in first place?” Was it a bridgable segment of river, a place to grow crops, a hill to build a fortress? Why are there any layers here at all? Applied to New Testament ethics, the founding “event” is Jesus. So Burridge starts with the startling event of Jesus of Nazareth.
The other analogy Burridge uses is kinds of glass. Are the Gospels windows through which we look to see what’s beyond or behind them? A lot of New Testament criticism treats the Gospels as windows. Or, are the Gospels mirrors, so that what we see in them is our own reflections? (To me this is comparable to the myth of objectivity.) Burridge suggests that the Gospels are stained glass. We can see through them, but not very clearly. And there are some reflections of ourselves as the sun shines through. Yet, the beauty of stained glass is the multi-colored picture that the stained-glass presents to us. That picture is Jesus.
Burridge is a student of the classics and offers the thought that the Gospels are bioi (”lives”), a common Graeco-Roman genre of literature about people worthy of imitating. This genre focuses on the words and deeds of the person and ends with how the person died. That sure sounds like the Gospel genre to me! The New Testament then, especially the Gospels, is not a book of ethics, but a biographical narrative about Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament is not about moral “directives,” but about life “direction” and Jesus is the Leader.
[note: Ben Witherington III leans upon Burridge’s ideas in his book The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (see “Introduction” pp 1-9).
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