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Constructing a meaningful alternative.

Over the years I have had occasion to review more than one book written by Walter Wink. When I was a sophomore in college I took a class on "The Mission and Expansion of Early Christianity," taught by Abe Malherbe. Dr. Malherbe asked us to review a book called John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition. (1) This was Dr. Wink's first book, and I regret to say that I gave it a scathing review. The reason for this was not the book itself but the fact that I was a naive young fundamentalist encountering historical criticism for the first time. I would have given a similar critique to any work of a historical-critical nature. Fortunately for me, Dr. Wink had not yet written his latest book, because if that had been assigned I might well have had an apoplectic fit.

Wink's Aim

In this latest work, The Human Being, Dr. Wink wants to reinvent Christianity, at least its christology. According to Wink, Christian orthodoxy has portrayed Jesus as the omnipotent God in a man-suit. This perfect, almost inhuman Christ of dogma has dominated two millennia of Christianity. Yet this image of Jesus no longer speaks to some Christians. Is it possible then to construct a meaningful alternative christology that focuses on Jesus' humanity? Such is the task that Wink sets for himself in this book. Dr. Wink writes as one who is deeply committed to the Jesus tradition. Yet he shares in what he sees as a growing effort to recast the original truths of Christianity in molds that have more appeal for people in our day. Combining historical-critical analysis with Jungian image of fully human being. And Ezekiel, as the son of this being, is one who is capable of becoming fully human.

In this interpretation, only God is fully Human, and the task set before human beings is to become human as God is human. Yet human beings have only a vague idea of what it means to be human, and we are incapable of becoming human by ourselves. This is where Jesus comes in: Jesus serves as a model of true humanity who shows us how to be fully human. In Wink's reconstruction of the historical Jesus, Jesus actually was a human being: he must have made mistakes, had flaws in his personality, sinned, and exhibited other imperfect (that is, human) behavior. Yet he presented a new vision of humanity, reflected in his use of the term "son of the man." Jesus drew this expression from Ezekiel and used it in the same sense, as referring to an archetypal image of what it means to be human. As such, it could denote Jesus, who exemplified this new reality, but at the same time it had a collective meaning that included those who followed Jesus' way.

Dr. Wink is not the first scholar to find the origin of the Gospel expression "son of man" in Ezekiel. Since the time of the Reformation scholars have periodically argued that Jesus employed the term in the same way that it is used in Ezekiel. (2) However, these scholars have not always agreed on exactly how it is used in Ezekiel. For some, the expression referred to Ezekiel's prophetic office; for others, it expressed his human lowliness. Dr. Wink stands closest to those for whom "son of man" in Ezekiel expressed ideal humanity.

While deriving the expression from Ezekiel, Wink also gives it a genealogical interpretation, such that the son of the Man is literally the offspring of an individual called "the Man." This genealogical type of interpretation goes back at least as far as Gnostic Christianity. (3) Certain Gnostics designated one of their divine aeons as "the Man," and the emanation or offspring from the Man was thus "the son of the Man." In my dissertation I gave a similar interpretation of the expression in the Fourth Gospel, proposing that "the Son of the Man" there actually means "the Son of God." (4) Dr. Wink advocates a genealogical interpretation while deriving the expression from Ezekiel. I am not sure that this combination is a particularly happy marriage. The expression ben adam in Ezekiel was a well-known idiom with a specific meaning. In this idiom adam did not refer to a specific individual but to humanity in general. A son of adam therefore was not the son of a particular individual but a member of the class of humanity. To maintain his interpretation, Dr. Wink has to argue that the expression ben adam in Ezekiel has a different meaning than it normally does. While this is not impossible, we might expect that something in the context of Ezekiel 1 would alert us to the fact. For example, if the one on the throne occasionally addressed Ezekiel as "my son," we would have a better reason to think that he meant the same thing when he addressed him as "son of adam." As it is, nothing in the context suggests a different meaning than usual for ben adam and the normal meaning makes good sense here. The one on the throne is not adam but is like adam. He is the one in whose image adam was created. Ezekiel on the other hand is not like adam, but is adam. He is a member of that humanity created in the image of the one on the throne. Thus if we take ben adam in its normal sense, Ezekiel is related to the one on the throne not as son to father but as image to archetype. That idea is certainly consistent with Dr. Wink's proposal, and I think that he would not lose a great deal by dropping the genealogical aspect of his interpretation.

Of course even if ben adam in Ezekiel did not originally express a father/son relationship, it is still possible that a first-century interpreter such as Jesus understood it in that sense. Yet surprisingly, though Wink traces Jesus' use of the term to a particular interpretation of Ezekiel, he does not argue that Jesus took over the genealogical aspect of this interpretation.

Son of Man in the Gospels

That brings us then to the next major part of Wink's work, his interpretation of Son of Man sayings in the Gospels. Wink divides these sayings into two main groups: pre-Easter sayings and post-Easter sayings. The pre-Easter sayings relate to the earthly, human, living, suffering, and dying son of the man, while the post-Easter sayings relate to the ascended and returning son of the man. The pre-Easter sayings are much more useful to Wink in formulating a christology from below, since in these it is much easier to see Jesus as a truly human being, even though somewhat above the norm.

In discussing these sayings, Wink makes clear that his primary interest is truth rather than historicity. If these sayings are true, in the sense of providing insight about being fully human, then they can contribute to Wink's project whether Jesus said them or not. At the same time, Wink does want to root his christology in the words of Jesus himself, and so he does argue for the authenticity of some of these sayings, especially the pre-Easter sayings.

I have no problem with focusing on truth rather than historicity and finding truth in the pre-Easter son of man sayings. In fact I think that this is one of the strongest aspects of Dr. Wink's work. I am impressed by the way he has tied together the vision of Ezekiel with the son of the man sayings in the Gospels and interpreted both in the light of Jungian psychology. In this mixture it is modern psychology and a sense of social justice that determine what is true, while the ancient vision of Ezekiel and the ancient words of the Jesus tradition can be seen as true insofar as they support this insight into true humanity.

But in seeking truth Dr. Wink does not want to relinquish historicity totally, and it is at this point that his project raises a question for me. Specifically, how do we know that Jesus drew the expression son of the man from Ezekiel and understood it in the way that Dr. Wink has described? Dr. Wink addresses this question in Appendix 3 entitled "Ezekiel's Influence on Jesus." There he lists eleven points of contact between the book of Ezekiel and the Jesus tradition in the Gospels. One problem that I find with this list is that only four of these points of contact occur between Ezekiel and Son of Man sayings. The other seven are between Ezekiel and the Gospel tradition in general. For example, just as Ezekiel experienced the Holy Spirit entering him, so did Jesus at his baptism. This parallel, however, provides no evidence that the Gospel expression son of man is derived from Ezekiel. In Ezekiel, God calls the prophet son of man, but this does not occur at Jesus' baptism. At Jesus' baptism God refers to Jesus as "my son," but this does not occur in Ezekiel. The only parallel is the presence of the Spirit. This parallel and the other six like it show that the Gospel tradition in general drew on Ezekiel, but they do not show a specific connection between Ezekiel and the Son of Man tradition.

We must look more closely at the four parallels that Wink does find between Ezekiel and Son of Man sayings. He finds two of these in sayings concerning the suffering Son of Man. In the passion predictions, the Son of Man is to be rejected and treated with contempt. Wink finds the prototype for this treatment in the prophet Ezekiel, a ben adam who did in fact endure rejection and contempt. Similarly, just as Mark 10:45 says, "The son of the man came to give his life as a ransom for many," so God says to Ezekiel, "Son of man ... you shall bear their punishment" (Ezek. 4:4). Despite some similarity, I don't think that these parallels to Ezekiel are sufficient to account for the suffering Son of Man sayings. All of the suffering Son of Man sayings have in view Jesus' death. They served in early Christianity as apologetic for the death of a crucified Messiah. The question was, how can you claim that Jesus was the Messiah when he experienced rejection, contempt, and ultimately death at the hands of the Romans? The answer was, this was all part of a plan predicted in scripture. But what scripture? Not Ezekiel, because in Ezekiel the prophet did not die. Ezekiel may have experienced rejection, but he did not suffer unto death, he did not give his life. And any suffering less than this would have been inadequate to serve as a justification for a crucified Messiah.

Dr. Wink's third parallel is that "In the case of both Ezekiel and Jesus, God gives judgment over the people to the son of man." Here Wink is referring to two son of man sayings in Matthew and to another in John 5:27. With respect to Matthew, close parallels occur between the Son of Man sayings unique to Matthew and the Similitudes of Enoch. (5) These include the depiction of the son of man sitting on his throne of glory as eschatological judge, and the motif of a burning furnace into which the wicked are cast. These are precisely the motifs that we find in the two passages from Matthew cited by Wink. In Matthew therefore it is probably not Ezekiel but the Similitudes that account for the judgment of the son of man. As for John 5:27 I have argued elsewhere that this passage uses "son of man" in the same way that it is used in the Testament of Abraham A 13:3. (6) My argument may not be more cogent than that of Dr. Wink, but it shows at least that the allusion need not be to Ezekiel.

Wink's fourth parallel is in Luke 19:10: "The son of man came to seek and save the lost." This alludes to Ezekiel 34, in which God says that he will seek out his lost sheep and rescue them. This is the only indisputable allusion to Ezekiel in the Son of Man sayings. On Dr. Wink's theory we would expect to find here a parallel between Ezekiel the son of man and Jesus the son of man. However, that does not happen. Jesus the son of man is paralleled not with Ezekiel but with God. As God seeks his sheep so will Jesus the son of man. What occurs here occurs not infrequently in the Son of Man sayings: the function of God is transferred to the Son of Man. Such a transference occurs for example in the two Matrhean passages mentioned earlier. There the function of God as eschatological judge is transferred to the Son of Man. Another instance can be seen in Mark 13. There the Son of Man comes amidst celestial phenomena that Isaiah 13:10 associates with the coming of Yahweh on the Day of Yahweh. The role of God in Isaiah has been transferred to Jesus the Son of Man. Likewise in Luke 19:10 it is the role of God, not the role of Ezekiel, that has been transferred to Jesus the Son of Man.

Thus I am not convinced that the Gospel expression son of man came from Ezekiel I like the idea as Dr. Wink develops it in relation to Jungian psychology, but I am not convinced that it is a historically accurate interpretation.

The Historical Jesus

This tension between truth and historicity lies at the heart of Dr. Wink's work. It appears again in the portrait of Jesus that emerges from his interpretation of the Son of Man sayings. He depicts a Jesus who is very appealing to modern sensibilities. As a model of true humanity, Jesus criticized the dehumanizing system of domination, including patriarchy, economic exploitation, hierarchical power arrangements, and racial superiority. He proclaimed in his own ministry the dawning of the Reign of God, God's domination-free order. Jesus substituted the archetypal image of true humanity for the image of the Messiah that obsessed his disciples. While the image of the Messiah projected power onto a single public leader, Jesus wanted to help others discover messianic powers within themselves, to relocate the truly human within them. He died, not because God willed it, but because this was the consequence of following the God of true humanity in a world organized for exploitation and greed.

As I said, this is a very appealing image of Jesus, one that we can easily find worthy of emulation. And that is ultimately the most important thing for Dr. Wink. It is a true and meaningful portrait, whether it is historical or not. At the same time, however, Dr. Wink does present this image as his version of the historical Jesus. He is well aware that portraits of the historical Jesus usually tell us more about the quester than about Jesus, but he also believes that his portrait is supported somewhat by the data.

Prior to the publication of this book Dr. Wink sent me a copy of the manuscript to critique. In my feedback I suggested that he might want to resolve this tension between truth and historicity in favor of truth. Arguments for authenticity of disputed sayings rarely convince anyone who doesn't already hold the same view. And for those who hold the same view, they are unnecessary. These arguments struck me as somewhat of an anomaly in a book that upheld the superiority of truth to historicity. What made more sense to me was an analogy that Dr. Wink made in that earlier manuscript. There he compared his own method of interpretation to a method used in Jewish Kabbalah mysticism. In that type of interpretation the goal was not to discover the original meaning of the text. It was instead to uncover a meaning previously hidden in the text but now uncovered by an inspired interpreter. For me that provided a valuable way of regarding Wink's own work, and to me it meant that arguments for the historicity of particular sayings were unnecessary.

When I wrote Dr. Wink how useful I found this analogy, he responded by immediately removing it from the book. I am sure that he was right to do so. I had warned Dr. Wink that I was probably the last person he should consult in matters of a theological nature, and he apparently took me at my word. Actually, I doubt that nay comments had anything to do with Dr. Wink's decision to retain the tension between truth and historicity. In his book he gives us two good reasons for retaining this tension. First, Wink believes that Jesus actually did say some of these things. And if that is what you think then that is what you have to write. Second, Wink is constructing a myth of the human Jesus. And such a myth requires that it at least have the appearance of being rooted in human history. As Wink says "The myth of the human Jesus can have no credibility unless grounded on data that appear to be both factual and true. Otherwise, what authority does the story of Jesus possess? Why should we preoccupy ourselves with Jesus at all?" (112). I cannot argue with either of these reasons. Nevertheless, I still missed the analogy to Kabbalah mysticism when I did not find it in the published version of the book. Dr. Wink's work is an engaging and thoughtful attempt to reinvent Christianity in a form more suitable to modern sensibilities. It is therefore not difficult for me to regard his work as the uncovery of a new meaning hidden in an ancient text, and to regard Dr. Wink himself as an inspired interpreter.

Notes

(1.) Walter Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition (SNTSMS 7; London: Cambridge University Press, 1968).

(2.) See Delbert Burkett, The Son of Man Debate: A History and Evaluation (SNTSMS 107; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 57-60.

(3.) Burkett, Son of Man Debate, 6-12.

(4.) Delbert Burkett, The Son of the Man in the Gospel of John (JSNTSMS 56; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991).

(5.) Burkett, Son of Man Debate, 78.

(6.) Burkett, Son of the Man in the Gospel of John, 38-45.

Delbert R. Burkett, Associate Professor of New Testament at Louisiana State University, has written two monographs on the New Testament rifled "Son of Man." His textbook, An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity, was publish in 2002 by Cambridge University Press.
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Author:Burkett, Delbert R.
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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