I have taken a bite out of a burning candle twice in my life now. The most recent occasion was in front of my forty juniors and seniors in a course called “Jesus of Nazareth” at the University of Oklahoma. Their gasps, followed by confused laughter, revealed that the theatrics had worked: they were surprised that their professor lit a candle and then ate it.
I then told students that the key to interpreting this brief performance could be found somewhere on the course syllabus. They were to gather in small groups, examine its pages, and figure it out. When we reconvened, the students offered various explanations using different components of the syllabus. Some pointed to the course book list. By alternate accounts, I was enacting the “apocalyptic prophet” piece of Bart Ehrman’s title (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium) or deliberately trying to be “misunderstood,” as in Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew. Others focused on the images of Jesus adorning the syllabus pages. Perhaps, some reasoned, the fire was related to the illuminated halo in one particular depiction they observed. Still others tried to make it add up by targeting specific words on the assignments page: was the light of the candle related somehow to the “reflection” paper they were to write? In reality I had none of these purposes in mind. I had no specific purpose in mind. The students thought creatively because they were compelled to do so!
I then revealed that the point of the exercise was to engage the students in an activity of meaning-making that would mirror the account some historians give of the process by which the gospel writers came to make use of Jewish scriptures in their narratives about Jesus. Most of my students come from confessional Christian communities and enter the academic classroom with deeply-entrenched views about the body of texts they call the Old Testament. A simple example: for many of them, the biblical prophets were predicting Jesus. I am sympathetic to this hermeneutical move because it is the stance the gospels themselves advocate. Indeed, the writers of all four canonical accounts of Jesus’ life and death represent the events they narrate as consistent with God’s providential intervention in human history as revealed through Israel’s scriptures. The phenomenon I find myself pushing back against, then, is that my students have normalized, and accepted as fact, the gospels’ theological interpretation(s) of history. In no other college class, I suspect, would a student look at two texts whose compositions were separated by hundreds of years and make the claim that the prior author had predicted the content of a later text rather than that the later author had made use of a prior text. That is not how time works. In any other history class, chronology proceeds in only one direction. So the question is: if we assume, as historians must, that the same principle of single-direction influence can be applied to the gospels’ literary relationship to pre-existing Jewish scriptures, what explanation can be offered for the great degree of coherence between details of biblical prophecies and the details of Jesus’ life and death as represented in the gospels? If the prophets weren’t predicting Jesus, how do we explain the fact that the biblical prophecies appear to “come to pass” as narrated events in the gospels?
As a literary historian in a secular context, I want my students to grapple with (or at least be able to describe accurately) an alternative possibility: a production process John Dominic Crossan has termed “prophecy historicized.” (I myself am more persuaded by my former teacher Mark Goodacre’s account of “tradition scripturalized,” but that’s a conversation for another day.) Crossan suggests that early Jesus followers were shocked by the crucifixion of Jesus and, believing that it must have been part of God’s plan, made sense of it by using the literary and theological resources available to them in their scriptures. In other words, the gospel writers may not have known much at all about the events leading up to Jesus’ execution or the manner in which he died, and so they searched their scriptures and created stories (good stories!) of Jesus’ passion from elements they found there. My favorite pop culture analogy I use to illustrate this idea is the relationship of ‘70’s Swedish super-group Abba to the 1999 musical “Mamma Mia.” Many students easily grasp that Abba was not performing songs in deliberate anticipation of the later musical that stitched together a coherent narrative based on these songs.
When I realized that some students were still tempted to treat earlier texts (Jewish scriptures; “Old Testament”) as predictive of the gospels’ content, I set out to devise an activity that would compel students to inhabit the gospel writers’ intellectual space as understood by the “prophecy historicized” model. Conversation with brilliant friends Deonnie Moodie and Dave King led to the idea of combining: (1) a performance of an ambiguous, shocking action (the experience of which would be analogous with how the earliest Jesus followers would have reacted to their leader’s terrible fate of crucifixion), with (2) a text represented as having explanatory power (on analogy with the scriptures that the earliest Jesus followers would have held as authoritative for revealing God’s will). The candle-eating accomplished the first part because it was neither expected nor easily explained. For the second part, I chose to use the course syllabus because it best approximated a sense of authoritative text for our classroom context. My hope was that students would, by the end of the activity, both get a sense of the potential shock of crucifixion in antiquity, which has today become a familiar, domesticated event among Christians, and also have practiced a task of meaning-making that challenges the inevitability of reading the prophets of Israel and Judah through what Warren Carter has called “Jesus-glasses.”
If all went as planned, the students’ historical imaginations would be ignited in such a way as to render unnecessary a teleological, predictive reading of the Jewish scriptures.
For me, this activity is part of a larger ethical imperative I attempt to enact in my teaching: I want my Christian students to question supersessionism. I want them to acknowledge that the scriptures of the gospel writers do not belong only – or originally – to Christianity. I want them to see that the gospel writers’ interpretations do not exhaust the Jewish scriptures. I want them to realize that these texts were meaningful first in their own original contexts, and that these scriptures remain meaningful, without Jesus, for observant Jews today. When it comes to thinking about the claims of their own tradition, I want them to be just as curious as they are confident.
And in case I’ve left any readers curious: no, I did not really eat a candle. I resurrected (and re-appropriated) a trick I observed and once performed while growing up in the Deep South and participating in a church youth group: it was a potato cut into a slender tapered shape, with an almond sliver in place of a wick. It was gross but, in the end, gratifying.
Dr. Jill Hicks-Keeton is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Oklahoma University.