2009-02-22

Embarrassing or stereotypical narrative details? (Eddy and Boyd, The Jesus Legend)

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by Neil Godfrey

I had been assured by a number of fundamentalists and book reviews that the Eddy and Boyd book (The Jesus Legend) was a cut above the rest of apologetics in its scholarly critique of sceptical arguments and buttressing of the veracity of the gospel text as it is. So far I have been disappointed in my search for something seriously challenging. In their discussion of what many call the “criterion of embarrassment”, there is nothing new, and it seems they studiously avoid the most obvious and well-known literary tropes to which the New Testament gospels were indebted.

On page 408 Boyd and Eddy write:

The presence of self-damaging details in a document usually suggests to historians that the author was willing to risk damaging his own cause for the sake of remaining faithful to history.

They continue,

early Christians would not have invented material that was counterproductive to their cause — material that put Jesus of themselves in a negative light . . .

After discussing the “embarrassing” account of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, Boyd and Eddy list 15 other supposedly self-damaging details, all from Mark’s gospel, to demonstrate “the prevalence” of this “honesty-at-all-costs” type of material.

Before looking at some of these 15 “self-damaging” points, a note on the “embarrassing nature” of Mark’s baptism narrative. What is embarrassing about Mark’s scene of the baptism of Jesus is that it flies in the face of later orthodox doctrine. Mark presumably believed that Jesus was a mere man who was possessed by the spirit only after his baptism, and it was only at that point that he was declared to be a “son of God”. The subsequent embarrassment is one over theological beliefs, not historical facts, about Jesus and his nature. But this is a discussion requiring a post of its own.

Eight of the fifteen points of “embarrassment” or “self-damaging honesty” in the narrative of Mark’s gospel that Boyd and Eddy (pp. 410-411) list are:

  1. Jesus’s own family questioned his sanity (3:21)
  2. Jesus could not perform many miracles in his own town (6:5)
  3. Jesus was rejected by people in his hometown (6:3)
  4. some thought Jesus was in collusion with, even possessed by, the devil (3:22, 30)
  5. Jesus’s disciples were not always able to exorcise demons (9:18)
  6. Jesus associated with people of ill-repute (2:14-16)
  7. The disciples who were to form the foundation of the new community consistently seemed dull, obstinate, and eventually cowardly (8:32-33; 10:35-37; 14:37-40, 50)
  8. Jesus was betrayed by an inner-circle disciple (14:43-46), and Peter denied any association with him (14:66-72)

I will address these separately from the others because they all belong to the same literary trope found in Hebrew (and non-Hebrew) literature to characterize the godly hero as stereotypically rejected by his own, misunderstood, burdened with uncomprehending “followers”, etc.

The other points listed by Boyd and Eddy are, for most part, no less readily explicable as UNembarrassing parables or anecdotes to teach particular theological or spiritually symbolic lessons.

  1. Jesus at times seemed to rely on common medicinal techniques (7:33, 8:23)
  2. Jesus’s own healings and exorcisms were not always instantaneously successful (8:22-25; 5:8)
  3. Jesus seemingly suggested he was not “good” (10:18)
  4. Jesus was sometimes rude to people (7:27)
  5. Jesus seemed to disregard Jewish laws, customs, and cleanliness codes (2:23-24)
  6. Jesus “often” (sic) spoke and acted in culturally “shameful” ways (3:31-35)
  7. Jesus cursed the fig tree despite it not being the season for figs (11:13-14)

These points require a separate discussion from the eight above. Suffice to remark here that (a) Jesus’s suggestion that he was “not good” sits equally with the observation I made with Mark’s portrayal of the baptism of Jesus;  (b) why would any early gentile Christian see it as an “embarrassment” that Jesus disregarded Jewish customs? and (c) — what do fundamentalists do with passages that seem to show Jesus as being rude and insulting? From the way some correspondence has gone with them I wonder if some of them see this portrayal of Jesus as offering licence to likewise be rude and insulting. But back to the first set of eight.

Why presume that an author who portrays Jesus as rejected by his own is somehow embarrassed by this fact and that he only records it because of his compulsion to be “true to the facts”? He would never fabricate such a portrayal of Jesus?

Why not? Since the first story of the martyrdom of Abel the Jewish literature portrays in both narrative and wisdom-sayings form the stereotypical notion of the true “man of God” always being alone in this corrupt world.

The Old Testament narratives would actually suggest that any story of a righteous — or a chosen — godly man would, for the sake of “ringing true”, of necessity have to depict him as misunderstood and rejected by his own.

  • Righteous Abel was rejected and betrayed by his brother.
  • Righteous Abraham had to endure and go out of his way to get along with his self-seeking kinsman, Lot
  • Isaac was hated by those in his own household
  • Jacob was hated by his brother and had to flee as a fugitive for his life
  • Joseph was hated by his brethren for the favour he found with God, and was betrayed by his close brethren.
  • Moses was rejected by his Israelite kin and had to flee into the wilderness
  • Jephthah was hated and rejected by his kin
  • David was not esteemed by his family, parents or brothers.
  • David associated with a band of undesirable fugitives from the law
  • David was thought to be mad by some of his enemies.
  • Like Joseph, David was falsely accused and betrayed by his closest kin
  • Elijah was persecuted and hated
  • Elisha had to patiently bear with an uncomprehending and failing disciple
  • Jeremiah was accused of being a false prophet
  • Daniel was falsely accused before kings

The portrayal of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is, I suggest, in complete synch with the Jewish tale of the stereotypical righteous chosen one: misunderstood, hated, even by family, betrayed, persecuted. . . .

The trope of uncomprehending disciples is also as old as literature iteself, perhaps. It is a multi-millennial old technique for enhancing the superiority of the heroic leader. We find it used as early as the Epic of Gilgamesh (Gilgamesh has his Peter, the wild-man Enkidu), Homer’s Odyssey (Odysseus has his wayward crew led by the devoted but rash Eurylochus); Jason’s Argonauts; Buddha’s followers . . .

Rather than being “embarrassing” details such points were the badges of honour, the signs of being truly an elect of God. The point of such details is, as the author of Hebrews would have understood, to show that “the world is not worthy” (11:38) of the divinely chosen hero. Even the chosen followers are “scarcely saved”, if at all.

An audience that has chosen the way of being rejected from their own kin and of being cruelly misunderstood or accused, such an audience needs a like hero with whom they can relate for assurance.

Most Christians I know and whom I have discussed it with absolutely adore the gospel accounts of Peter’s failures. Peter gives them hope, not embarrassment. Why would it have been any different among the first generations of would-be martyrs?

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