Scholarly attempts to “explain” historical methods for Jesus studies (1)

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by Neil Godfrey

Scot McKnight of recent controversial article fame, devotes an entire chapter in his book Jesus and His Death to a discussion of the historiography of New Testament scholars, and writes:

In fact, the historiography of historical Jesus scholars is eclectic and often unconscious or uninformed of a specific historiography. (p.16)

Biblical scholarships’ ignorance of the significance of different types of evidence

This unfortunate state of much scholarship of Christian origins is aptly illustrated throughout many studies of the historical Jesus, but I focus in this post on statements by one such self-professing “historian” of the New Testament who makes a point of explaining what he understands by “the historical enterprise”:

I’ve long been perplexed by the frequent complaint from mythicists (i.e. those who claim that Jesus was a purely invented figure, not even based on a real historical human individual) that those working on the historical Jesus simply assume as a presupposition that Jesus existed, rather than addressing the question directly.

I think such individuals are looking for a demonstration by historians, in the introductory part of their book about Jesus, “proving” he existed, before going on to discuss anything he may have said or done. That this is what is meant seems clear because one may cite a saying or incident that is generally considered authentic, only to be met with the retort, “But how do you know he even existed?”

Such objections reflect a serious misunderstanding of the historical enterprise. I think it is safe to say that there is no historical figure from the past that we know existed apart from evidence for actual things he or she said or did. We know George Washington existed because he wrote documents, because he served as President of the United States, because he slept here or there. There is no such thing as proof of a historical person’s existence in the abstract or at a theoretical level. There is simply evidence of activity, of speech, of things said or done, of interaction with others.

And so when historians engage in the tedious but ultimately rewarding process of sifting through the relatively early texts that mention Jesus, and painstakingly assess the arguments for the authenticity of a saying or incident, they are not “treating the existence of Jesus as a presupposition.” They are providing the only sorts of evidence we can hope to have from a figure who wrote no books or letters, ruled no nations, and did none of the other things that could leave us more tangible forms evidence.

This “historian” (he has no academic background in historical studies of which I am aware) attempts to explain that the evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ is of the same nature as for the existence of George Washington, so that to doubt the existence of Jesus is, by implication, as bizarre as doubting the existence of George Washington.

This particular argument is a classic illustration of Scot McKnight’s concern about Jesus scholars’ ignorance of historiography as understood in (nonbiblical) history departments.

The “historian” who wrote the above demonstrates an embarrassing ignorance of one of the most fundamental concepts in (nonbiblical) historical research: that is, the difference between “primary” first-hand evidence, evidence that physically belongs to the events or person being studied, and other evidence that originates at a later time and place of the events or person under study. The former type of evidence is what we have for George Washington. We have artefacts, physical remains, that can be demonstrated as physically belonging to the time — and even the person — of George Washington.

This “historian” attempts to explain that we know George Washington existed “because he wrote documents, etc.”. That particular explanation is not an explanation at all. It is circular to reason: “We know Washington existed because he wrote documents.” That is simply begging the question. It is saying in effect: “We know he existed because he had to exist in order to do this or that.” Yet the criteria that are used to determine what “this or that” details are historical assume from the outset that there was a historical person to perform them. To take a hypothetical case to illustrate:

How do you know Jesus cleansed the temple?

— Because that explains why the authorities killed him.

But how do you know he existed?

— Because he did something that explains why the authorities killed him.

No, the reasons we know Washington existed are many. But the one the historian relies upon is this: We have primary evidence, documents, that can be traced back through witnesses (including archival records) and systems and physical realia to his actual person. The evidence is so palpable that the question about the existence of Washington simply does not arise.

If the only evidence that existed for George Washington was a narrative written introducing him, and claiming he existed from 40 to 80 years earlier, and we lacked any earlier contemporary evidence for him at all — no artefacts, no other records from contemporaries — then we would have a right, even an obligation, to question the historical reliability of that narrative.

In presenting the above “explanation” of the “historical enterprise”, this biblical historian has demonstrated how detached his notion of history is from the most basic principles of historical research as understood in other scholarly history departments.

One distinguished scholar, whose publications did much to turn the tide of Old Testament studies against Albrightian methods that appeared to be finding proof for historicity yet were just as circular as early Christian studies, does himself state that Jesus historians truly have begun with the assumption that there was an historical Jesus in his book discussing the relevant scholarship. See posts here and here for citations. I think any scholar would be exceedingly brave to accuse Thomas L. Thompson, a significant figure in any discussions the Bible (New and Old Testaments) as history, of reflecting “a serious misunderstanding of the historical enterprise“.

The evidence we have for Jesus is entirely secondary, which is to say it belongs to a time much later than when Jesus is said to have lived. Scholars use “criteriology” in attempts to arrive at what pieces of late narrative can be judged to be “probably” or “plausibly” historical. That is, they do not begin with facts that derive from primary evidence, but are seeking to make judgements about what details in, or supposedly behind, the gospels, might indeed be “facts”.

So I do not find this particular attempt by this biblical scholar to explain the historical enterprise overly convincing.

He did, however, advise readers to read a Wikipedia article titled Historical Method . . . .

Wikipedia demonstrates just how different biblical scholars are from nonbiblical scholars

The same scholar who claims to be an historian in another place cites a Wikipedia article titled Historical Method, “not because it is authoritative”, but to raise the following question:

Is there anything in the method outlined there (or better yet in the books cited if readers know them well or have time to consult them) that is not in keeping with the practices of historians working on the historical figure of Jesus? Or is there any point at which this survey and summary (or the method set forth in the sources the article cites) is at odds with what most historians do?

And the reason he raises this question is:

I ask because mythicists (who deserve to be ignored but, like young-earth creationists and other such groups, cannot be because people who turn to the internet for knowledge listen to them) regularly claim that what scholars investigating the historical Jesus do is different from what mainstream historical study does.

While making patronizing remarks about the naivety of “people who turn to the internet for knowledge”, this “historian” has bypassed the standard works discussing historiography as practiced in nonbiblical areas, and himself turned uncritically to the internet to advance what he believes is a further explanation for “the historical enterprise”. More seriously, he has demonstrated his ignorance of historiographical debates, and own shallow swallowing of anything on the internet that superficially looks like it’s what he wants to find. Without even thinking about the points listed in that Wikipedia article, he is here recommending a series of superficial dot-points that, if anyone stops to think about them for a moment, also allow room for historians to assume that God writes books and to prove miracles really were performed by the saints in the Bible and the Middle Ages.

The source of as many as 17 such points in that article are taken from an obscure historian of many decades ago who was a Catholic apologist for the divine inspiration of the Bible and the reality of historical miracles. (One of the people originally largely responsible for the publication of that Wikipedia article did, incidentally, later convert to Catholicism.)

A historian from the first century could approach many of those dot-points listed with the assumption that Hercules was a historical person, and find in those rubrics grounds to rationalize that belief and so “prove” that Hercules was indeed historical.

Yet this scholar who calls himself a historian and who accuses “mythicists” and their readers of sustaining their arguments in a shallow internet culture, himself demonstrates his own thoughtless swallowing of internet information solely on the basis that it had an appropriate title, nice easy to read undergraduate-level dot-points, and some citations that looked good.

Scot McKnight’s point about Jesus historians not being aware of basic historiography as it is practiced outside their field is regrettably underscored here.

So I have not been strongly persuaded that this biblical scholar’s recommendation of a Wikipedia article titled Historical Method is very helpful, either.

Do all historians and scholars with expertise in relevant fields really agree?

The same pseudo-historian in another place appeals to the authority of the guild when he writes:

I think that all historians and scholars with expertise in relevant fields who have examined the scenarios and arguments put forward by mythicists would agree that not one of them makes sense in the historical context and time frame in question, not one of them fails to engage in special pleading or unwarranted speculation, not one of them, in short, is plausible . . .

What is the support for this assertion?

Is it true that “all historians and scholars with expertise in relevant fields who have examined the . . . arguments put forward by mythicists would agree that . . . not one of them . . . is plausible”?

This scholar himself does not, as far as I have been able to discover, have any expertise in historical studies. I have also failed to elicit from him any unequivocal verification that he has himself “examined the scenarios and arguments put forward by mythicists” apart from serendipitously skimming a few occasional blog posts and comments. He did read one chapter by Price, but his review of that, analysed here and here, only served to demonstrate how out of his depth he was.

So what about other historians and scholars with expertise in relevant fields who have examined the arguments?

I have cited above one of the most renowned historians of the Bible, Thomas L. Thompson, above.

Here are the words of another professor of religious studies:

Of course, there are scholars who are more openly secular humanist, and are willing to depart from the religionism that permeates historical Jesus studies. One example is Robert M. Price, a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, who provides a devastating critique of historical Jesus studies in his Deconstructing Jesus — and we share many of his conclusions. Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle outlines a plausible theory for a completely mythical Jesus. . . .

That passage was written by Hector Avalos in his book The End of Biblical Studies (p. 197 – my emphasis). Avalos is an “associate professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, author and editor of six books on biblical studies and religion, the former editor of the Journal for the Critical Study of Religion, and the executive director of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion”.

So it appears that we now have two professors with relevant expertise on record as saying the mythical Jesus argument is plausible.

Another, Professor Stevan Davies of Misericordia University, and the author of Jesus the Healer (a significant contribution to Historical Jesus studies), wrote in a scholarly discussion venue (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk/message/5438) the following (my emphases):

I haven’t read Kuhn in a coon’s age, but recall something to the effect that a prevailing scientific paradigm gradually accumulates problematic elements that are swept under the rug until a new paradigm appears, accounting for those elements, at which time it becomes clear (where it did not before) that those problematic elements should have indicated fatal flaws in the former paradigm.

Earl’s paradigm is a paradigm. It’s not simply a reworking of the usual materials in the usual way to come up with a different way of understanding them. It’s not an awful lot different than the claim “there is no such thing as phlogiston, fire comes about through an entirely different mechanism.”

New paradigms are very very rare. I thought that my J the H gave a new paradigm rather than just another view on the subject, but no. Earl’s is what a new paradigm looks like. (And if he’s not the first to advance it, what the hell.) A new paradigm asserts not that much of what you know is wrong but that everything you know is wrong… more or less. Your whole perspective is wrong. The simple thing to
do is to want nothing to do with such a notion
, which simple thing has been violently asserted on crosstalk by various people. Indeed, at the outset of this discussion, more than one person asserted that since this is an Historical Jesus list, we presuppose the Historical Jesus, therefore a contrary paradigm should not even be permitted on the list. I think this is cognate to the establishment’s reaction to Galileo.

But it’s not that Earl advocates lunacy in a manner devoid of learning. He advocates a position that is well argued based on the evidence and even shows substantial knowledge of Greek. But it cannot be true, you say. Why not? Because it simply can’t be and we shouldn’t listen to what can’t be true. No. Not so quick.

The more you think about early Christianity from the perspective of the new paradigm, the more the old paradigm can be seen to be flawed. … and the more the rather incoherent efforts to make those flaws disappear seem themselves flawed. Ptolemaic astronomy does work, sort of, if you keep patching it up. So we can say that the host of Historical Jesus scholars haven’t got it right, but we know that they are going about
it more or less the right way because it’s the only way we know of.
Or indeed we say that HJ scholars are going about a task that is just impossible, but still their goal is in theory, however impossible in practice, the right goal. Really?

This isn’t to guarantee that Earl’s arguments are always correct… I’m not at all pleased with the redating of Mark etc. Or that he’s thought of everything… the normative Jesus who is a Galilean Jew whose followers immediately were subject to persecution by the pharisee Paul are huge holes the standard paradigm just ignores… but he’s thought of a lot.

You cannot advance very far in thinking if you simply refuse to adopt a new paradigm and see where it takes you. Even if, ultimately, you reject it, the adoption of it, or at least the effort to argue against it, will take you to places you have not been before. Hence Goranson (an intelligent knowledgeable person, thus the foil for this letter) is wrong.

Stephen Carlson’s objections to Earl on the grounds that Mark is evidence for an historical Jesus just takes the
standard paradigm and asserts it. That’s one way of going about it, as pointing to the self-evident fact that the sun
goes around the earth will nicely refute Copernicus. But it’s not that simple.

But in going along with Earl I’ve learned more than by going along with anybody else whose ideas I’ve come across anywhere. I went along with Mark Goodacre, and learned some there. Refusing to go along, refusing even to argue against, being happy that nothing new is being discussed except widgets of modification to the standard paradigm, that’s where you really learn almost nothing.

Crossan, or Johnson, Allison or Sanders, can give you slightly different views of the standard view. Earl gives a completely different view. His is a new paradigm, theirs are shifts in focus within the old paradigm. From whom will you learn more?

And another professor in the field of biblical studies who is critical of Doherty (though I have yet to see evidence of his having read Doherty’s work), yet who speaks positively of “common sense” in relation to taking up the thesis of the non-historicity of Jesus, is R. Joseph Hoffmann:

I should also mention that the biggest reason for the shyness of scholars with respect to the non-historicity thesis had/has to do with academic appointments (as in security thereof) rather than common sense. As a middle-of-the road Hegelian like Strauss discovered.

I have enjoyed immensely R. Joseph Hoffmann’s dissertation on Marcion, which is a serious and “real” historical study of early Christianity. He is described as “a historian of religion” in the Wikipedia article about him.

The first three scholars and historians with expertise in relevant fields who have examined Doherty’s arguments specifically find them plausible. The fourth scholar has read the arguments of another mythicist, G. A. Wells, and is on record as at least indicating their plausibility, too:

In addition to the following books by the most visible contemporary champion of the myth theory, the British scholar G. A. Wells, a number of older studies can be recommended. Of Wells’s many titles, The Jesus of the Early Christians (London: Pemberton. 1971) is the most tightly argued; Did Jesus Exist? (London: Pemberton, 1986) is also worth mentioning, as is The Historical Evidence for Jesus (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988). (R. Joseph Hoffmann in the introduction (p. 39) to “Jesus the Nazarene: Myth of History” by Maurice Goguel.)

On pages 15-16 of the same book R. Joseph Hoffmann sums up, with a clear intent to convey their plausibility, the arguments that some mythicists would consider their core points:

First, the earliest Christian literature, the letters written by Paul, is completely silent about Jesus as a historical figure. The six or seven “genuine” letters of Paul, written mainly in the fifties of the first century, know Jesus as the kyrios Christos (Christ the Lord) who died for the sins of the world, gaining forgiveness of humanity and a form of “immortality” for those who believed in him. There is little — one almost has to say no — reference in these letters to a Nazarene who taught by the sea of Galilee, healed the sick, and spoke in parables about the end and judgment of the world. There is next to nothing, and certainly nothing on the order of a historical narrative, about a public crucifixion and resurrection, merely a reference to a “deliverance,” death and resurrection as events of his life (see Galatians 6.14) which were understood to have bearing on the life of believers within the cult or “church.” Problematically, indeed, the most explicit of these references (Philippians 2.5-11) is a hymn which seems to locate these events in a cosmic dimension that bears closer resemblance to Gnostic belief than to what emerges, in the end, as orthodox Christianity. There is nothing to suggest that anything found in the Jesus tradition as Paul knew it in the fifties of the first century is significant or pertinent to being a Christian, beyond the bare datum that the overcoming of death by Jesus (or God raising him from the dead) provides a reason for the Christian to be confident of salvation and everlasting life. While the whole meaning of Christian “faith” was predicated on the acceptance of a single event located in time (Paul does not specify the time, and seems to have an eschatological view of the days nearing completion: Romans 8.17-20), the earliest form of Christianity we know anything about yields not a historical Jesus, but a resurrection cult in search of a mythic hero. It is found in the divine-man (theios aner) cult of Hellenistic Judaism.

So I remain unpersuaded by the biblical scholar’s appeal to some implied authority of the scholarly guild as grounds for dismissing the mythicist arguments.

This post has covered only a few of his “explanations” of how history works. Maybe will post more in future.

Since drafting the above, I have seen an exchange between Maurice Casey and Philip R. Davies (see vridar.info for my notes on his contributions to exposing the mythical character of much of the Old Testament’s history about Israel) on Yahoo’s “biblical studies” scholarly list. In response to Maurice Casey’s new book in which he argues that “the historical Jesus” can best be reconstructed through hypothesizing an original Aramaic text behind the gospels, and that Jesus believed he foresaw his own death written in Aramaic scriptures, Davies asks what strikes me as the most sensible questions of all: How would Jesus have found this in the scriptures? Were there Aramaic translations available? When and where would Jesus have read them, and which texts would he have seen as pertaining to his own death?

Maurice Casey’s reply began with the remark that such a question “reflects to a considerable degree a more radical view of the Jesus tradition than I have suggested,” and continues: “Your question reflects some things which we really do not know. . . ” But Casey follows with several lengthy paragraphs of what he imagines “could have been” the situation. Not a single shred of evidence is drawn upon — it is all arm-chair mind-games.

This is not historical methodology at work. Davies’ questions are in the genuine spirit of the need for historical inquiry to rely first and foremost on empirical data. This was the topic of my earlier post referencing the (by now archaic father of history) Leopold von Ranke’s discussion of history as both a “science” and an “art”.

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  • Steven Carr
    2010-10-15 05:12:04 UTC - 05:12 | Permalink

    I haven’t seen this Casey exchange.

    But then, neither has Casey seen his Aramaic ‘sources’….

    Is Maurice Casey really just making things up, deciding they are ‘plauisble’ and so claiming they must have happened?

    • 2010-10-15 06:25:00 UTC - 06:25 | Permalink

      You might have to join/login to see his post at http://tinyurl.com/2abwk4q

      Casey does not know what precisely happened, but knows something like something he imagines must have happened: “I have no idea what Aramaic biblical texts were available to him. The tradition written down later in the Targums was however already alive and well, and he could easily have learnt what he heard at Jewish meetings and from rabbis.”

      (I’m sure he didn’t mean to use the anachronism “rabbis” here. And I’m sure he knows Judaism was far more diverse in the early first century than we are led to understand it through the Tagums. And I am sure he is aware of the different ethnic, cultural and religious character of Galilee from Jerusalem. And I am sure there could have been Aramaic bibles . . . )

      But being a scholar he is far from dogmatic:

      “Jesus and Joseph might have gone to synagogue in Sepphoris, financed by relatively wealthy Jews, and that Jesus could have spent a lot of time there reading Torah scrolls and being instructed by learned rabbis. Moreover, such people might have provided Torah scrolls for the rabbi in Nazareth, or even for Joseph. Do we know this is what happened? No, we haven’t a clue. But it does not follow from the massive gaps in the information transmitted to us that nothing happened.”

      I’m not completely clear if Casey is referring to Joseph the cuckolded husband or Joseph of Arimathea who founded the church in the British Isles. Probably the first, since we have less evidence for him than the latter.

      I fail to see any difference between this reconstruction and that of fundamentalists who find clues that Jesus owned two houses, was a wealthy businessman running his father’s building business, . . . .

      I like the idea he went to India, actually. And on his return trip to get crucified he took a detour to the Druid conference in Cornwall.

      • Steven Carr
        2010-10-15 15:31:11 UTC - 15:31 | Permalink

        But it does not follow from the massive gaps in the information transmitted to us that nothing happened.”

        What do historians do when they have ‘massive gaps in the information’?

        They fill them in with their own reconstructions of course.

        That is what mainstream historians do.

        Or am I thinking of Hollywood biopic screenwriters?

  • Aziz
    2010-10-15 03:01:42 UTC - 03:01 | Permalink

    I still find it a major disappointment that you won’t discuss more interesting perspectives on mythicism such as,

    The Mythicist Position – video

    What is a Mythicist?

    For further explanation see, The Evemerist vs. Mythicist Position

    I’ve tried to post it at McGrath’s blog but he refuses to even allow it to be posted. I’ve even e-mailed it to him. He’s a coward when it comes to any *REAL* discussion on mythicism. I suppose Carrier is telling him not to post it for discussion like he does with Loftus and others:


    The case for mythicism is far more broad than just narrowly focusing on Jesus and the New Testament alone. If that’s all one is ever doing then, you’ll never get the bigger picture.

    • 2010-10-15 11:48:02 UTC - 11:48 | Permalink

      My interest is the origins and nature of early Christianity. The view that the Jesus of earliest Christianity is a spiritual or theological concept and not a historical one is a result of that inquiry. I have never been interested in “proving mythicism” for its own sake. My interest is in understanding Christian origins, and that is a topic that is much broader than mythicism.

  • Michael W. N.
    2010-10-15 12:30:41 UTC - 12:30 | Permalink

    Using George Washington as a reference for assessing the historicity of Jesus seems arbitrary. Besides, the time gap is very large. As I see it, Scot McKnight might have been better advised if he had drawn some parallels between Jesus and Simon Bar Kochba. The Bar Kochba silver coins and the letters found in the Cave of Letters are physical remains “that can be demonstrated as physically belonging to the time” of Bar Kochba. Presumably, these physical objects may be designated as “primary evidence,” and the availability of such evidence could be one reason why the historicity of Bar Kochba has never been questioned.

    Jesus and Bar Kochba are both described as messianic figures. Hence, the lack of attention that most modern Christians pay to Bar Kochba is puzzling. According to Michael E. Vines, Mark should be read as a “Jewish novel.” What could have led an anonymous Jew (or pagan) to write a novel about the Messiah? Did the outcome of the Bar Kochba Revolt have a psychological effect on Jews (and pagans) interested in messianic ideas? Did the Markan author deal with the crisis by writing about an idealized character? I wish I could find some literature helping to ask the right questions.

    • 2010-10-15 15:09:41 UTC - 15:09 | Permalink

      The George Washington example was from the Christologist McGrath. (I have been calling him a historian up until now because that was how he describes himself and I had naively taken his word for it. At least now I understand why he is out of his depth when discussing historical methods.)

      I take it you are aware of Herman Deterings’ argument that the “Little Apocalypse” (Matthew 24, Mark 13) dates from the Bar Kochba rebellion. Its details match the events of that time more closely than any earlier events.

      I differ from Detering who sees the passage as a late creation added to an earlier gospel. I tend to think the passage is integral to the literary structure of the narrative, however, and so it is not a later insertion. I prefer to see it as composed at the same time as the gospel.

      I would like to take time out to restudy Mark from the perspective of that war, too. I sense there is a lot in Mark that is a midrashic play on the destruction and replacement of the temple of Jerusalem and the end and replacement of Jewish society as a political unit, and the many anachronisms in it would be more explicable if it was dated as late as the 130s.

      But finding the time to look at that seriously in depth is not easy. I also wish I could find how to access Bruno Bauer’s discussion of the same idea, and Lightfoot’s criticisms of it. (Is there anyone reading this who knows how/where to locate Bauer’s arguments, preferably in English?) I have read that Lightfoot “demolished” his arguments, but as another scholar once told me, the idea that Lightfoot ever “demolished” anything radical is more wishful thinking than reality.

      The idea that the Christian narrative we read in the canonical gospels originated as an indirect response to the destruction of Jerusalem (and probably much more than just Jerusalem) would have such strong explanatory power for the rise of Christianity as we know it (or the rise of what became the “canonical” stream of it). But I don’t know if it is possible to find any evidence for it.

      I’m thinking of the development of the stories of the Patriarchs and Exodus developing as narrative answers to the need for new identities of people newly settled (deported to?) Persia’s Jehud province.

      Davies, Thompson, Lemche et al have given the model for the creation of biblical narratives to answer the need of resettlement. I keep toying with the idea that the gospels are nothing but an extension of the same process — as instigated by the new identity needs in the wake of the demolishing of that Judean resettlement.

  • Bill Warrant
    2010-10-15 18:02:17 UTC - 18:02 | Permalink

    Speaking of the date of the Little Apocalypse. Isn’t it interesting that the apocalypse of Peter has strong parallels with the synoptic versions, but is dated around the Bar Kochba revolt by people like Richard Bauckham, while the synoptic versions are dated around the earlier revolt of 66-73. Surprise, surprise!

    • 2010-10-15 18:31:05 UTC - 18:31 | Permalink

      I think it was Price who wrote it has been only ideological reasons for pushing the gospel dates as close as possible to the supposed Jesus event.

      If we were to date them the same way historians normally date non-Christian texts it would be much more respectable to speak of the gospels as originating in the early to mid second century.

      • Tom
        2010-10-15 23:46:44 UTC - 23:46 | Permalink

        All of them? So you would date Mark after 100? What are your reasons for differing from the standard “70” date?

        • 2010-10-16 09:09:19 UTC - 09:09 | Permalink

          There is no explicit evidence that anyone had ever heard of the Gospel of Mark till the mid second century.

          In the latter half of the second century we have Tatian’s Diatessaron and Irenaeus’s authorization of the four gospels by name.

          Before then, around 140, Justin Martyr speaks of Jesus changing the names of James and John to Boanerges, a detail found only in Mark.

          But the only other indication of his knowledge of the gospels is in a few references to what he calls the Memoirs of the Apostles. The name he uses echoes Xenophon’s Memorabilia, a fourfold book discussing Socrates’ philosophical thoughts. Justin was himself a philosopher, so this fact is worth considering in his use of the name for the memoirs/memorabilia of the apostles. If Justin did have something comparable to Xenophon’s work in mind then his reference to the Memoirs of the Apostles is not really the same as our four independent gospels.

          Some scholars (at least one I read) have noted that the references to these Memoirs occur at a few discrete points in Justin’s writings, and wonder if this is an indication that they are later insertions into his works.

          I also find the sole pointer to the renamig of James and John as a thin twig on which to build the assumption that Justin knew of the Gospel of Mark. Justin also knows of other details found in the gospels, such as the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. But when one reads Justin’s account of these it is clear that he has a source other than our gospels. In his description of the baptism of Jesus, for example, the entire Jordan River bursts into flame, or a flame of light. Justin’s description of the birth of Jesus that seems to draw on elements found in Matthew in fact goes well beyond Matthew in its application of OT prophecies to the account.

          There are just too many questions about the text of Justin to allow for definitive certainty. He is supposed not to have heard of Paul or to have rejected Paul as a Marcionite apostle, but there is one passage in his works that sounds very much like someting we read in Romans.

          I have read some detailed studies examining sayings of Jesus as found in both Justin and the Gospels. I wonder if the evidence raised can also have other explanations, such as common sayings circulating among Christian writers being later captured and set down in the Gospel of Matthew. Such hypotheses involve more complex discussions than I can go into here.

          In response to the studies of the sayings of Jesus in Justin, I attempted to do a study of the deeds of Jesus in Justin. That is where we find some very stark anomalies.

          Add to the above the fact that it was in the early and mid second century that we do have more widespread persecution of the Christians, and the Gospel of Mark does strongly suggest that it is written against a background of persecution.

          Add to this the anomalous reference to Nazareth (maybe – if this is not an interpolation in Mark) and synagogues in Galilee, and “Rabbis”, and a date some decades after 70 makes more sense.

          And of course, the Little Apocalypse’s references to persecutions and false messiahs and the abomination of desolation — all making more sense in the wake of the Bar Kochba rebellion, when we do have a clear case of a “false messiah”, along with his religious backer, Rabbi Akibar, a “false prophet” (not to mention the many more pretenders one sees in hindsight from this date) and a distinct counterpart to Antiochus’s “abomination of desolation” in the establishment of the Temple of Zeus on the Temple site.

          Given Mark’s many affinities to the structural characteristics of Greek epics and tragedies, which generally include a lengthy prophecy on the eve of a hero about to enter a death/hades situation in which his followers will be lost or threatened with loss, and the many allusions in the Little Apocalypse to the narrative imagery in the Passion scene of Mark, and other stylistic and content affinities, I think this prophecy was originally an integral part of the Gospel. It was composed for the Gospel at the time of the Gospel.

          These are just my own thoughts on the matter. But I have not read Bauer who apparently first argued the case, and I really would love to know what his arguments were, and why others thought they had been “demolished”.

          (Wow, I didn’t expect my reasons to take such space. Maybe I should build on them for a blog post instead.)

      • 2010-10-16 01:33:24 UTC - 01:33 | Permalink

        Ideological reasons drive the apologists. NT scholars have different motivations. They need early sources by authors whom they imagine to be scrupulous stenographers, writing down oral tradition that originated from Jesus himself. Without those trusted sources, their criteriology has no foundation.

        I think it’s instructive to see how these same scholars date a non-canonical gospel. Absent the anxiety of credulity, they’re perfectly content to say something like, “That’s a second-century work.” Of course it will have to come after the magical, arbitrary date of 100 CE, but when, exactly? Who can say?

        • 2010-10-16 09:11:54 UTC - 09:11 | Permalink

          It is indeed remarkable how critical judgement is quickly restored in the minds of some biblical scholars when they read theologically tendentious biographies and gospels that were not sanctioned by the religion they (or our culture generally) have personally inherited.

          • 2010-10-16 11:54:29 UTC - 11:54 | Permalink

            Neil: “…critical judgement is quickly restored…

            Yes, and in fact it turns out those non-canonical gospels, apocrypha, and pseudepigrapha are just full of invention and exaggeration — completely different from books in the canon.

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