2010-10-23

Jesus Not Being Good Is No Embarrassment

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by Neil Godfrey

Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me
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Matthew was embarrassed by Mark’s Gospel that had Jesus effectively saying that he was not good. Only God is good

And . . . . a person ran up to [him], and kneeling to him asked him, Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?

But Jesus said to him, Why callest thou me good? no one is good but one, [that is] God. (Mark 10:17-18)

Matthew deftly shuffles the word order to have them come out of Jesus’ mouth with a sleightly different meaning.

And lo, one coming up said to him, Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have life eternal? ‭

And he said to him, What askest thou me concerning goodness? one is good. (Matthew 19:16-17)

Modern theological scholars are also said to be embarrassed by Mark’s Jesus, and no doubt it remains a puzzling point for many other Christians, too:

Jesus’ objection to being called ‘good’ because God alone is entitled to be called good has provoked a great deal of comment among Christian interpreters. The reason for the unease lies in the neat distinction which the saying prima facie stipulates between Jesus and God. (Geza Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus p. 288 of the Penguin ed.)

A few scholars have been willing to concede that the criterion of embarrassment requires them to accept that this is a genuine saying of Jesus:

Some [Jesus Seminar] fellows thought it improbable that a Christian would have invented Jesus’ refusal to be called “good” (10:18). Matthew was apparently bothered by this refusal and so rephrased Jesus’ question (19:17a). Luke, on the other hand, has repeated it without difficulty. (Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar: The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, p. 91)

I can’t deny that as a believer I was always open to a new explanation that might put at rest my “unease” over this passage, too.

There was, however, an early Christian gnostic religion in Alexandria (Egypt) founded by Basilides whose teachings were in many respects accommodated by Clement  of Alexandria, and this Basilides is linked with the Gospel of Mark. Do a word search for Basilides on this and this page for some of the details of this link. I would like to reserve a more thorough look at these links in detail in a separate post.

What I’m getting at here is that there was a significant early Christianity that saw no problem, no embarrassment, about Jesus not being “good” while he was flesh. In other words, “embarrassment” is specific to one’s own particular doctrinal beliefs about Jesus. If we can see that this detail was not embarrassing at all to a significant form of early Christianity, then the argument that this detail is very likely historical on the grounds that  no Christian would have made it up falls apart.

Here is a fragment from Basilides addressing this question. It demonstrates that early Christianity could have no qualms about attributing a deficit of goodness to Jesus while he was in the flesh:

Nevertheless, let us suppose that you leave aside all these matters and set out to embarrass me by referring to certain figures, saying perhaps, “And consequently so-and-so must have sinned, since he suffered!” If you permit, I shall say that he did not sin, but was like the new-born baby that suffers. But if you press the argument, I shall say that any human being that you can name is human; God is righteous. For no one is pure of uncleanness, as someone once said. {Actually, Basilides’ presupposition is that the soul previously sinned in another life and undergoes its punishment in the present one. Excellent souls are punished honorably, by martyrdom; other kinds are purified by some other appropriate punishment.

Earlier in the same fragment Basilides is quoted as saying:

A new-born baby, then, has never sinned before; or more precisely it has not actually committed any sins, but within itself it has the activity of sinning. Whenever it experiences suffering, it receives benefit, profiting by many unpleasant experiences.

This reminds us of Jesus Christ’s teaching to become as little children in order to enter the kingdom of God. It also reminds us of the passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews that declares even Jesus Christ profited and learned as a result of suffering.

Birger A. Pearson in his 2007 book, Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature, does not accept Irenaeus’s assertion that the Basilidians taught that Jesus Christ did not suffer on the cross but was substituted for Simon of Cyrene (scroll to paragraph 4 here for Irenaeus’s claim).

Here Irenaeus has undoubtedly misinterpreted his source, which probably taught that it was not the Christ but the corporeal Jesus who was crucified. A similar doctrine is found in the Second Treatise of the Great Seth . . .) .

What Basilides probably taught was that the divine Mind-Christ descended into the human Jesus and displaced his human soul at the time of his baptism, and, at Jesus’s crucifixion, the Mind-Christ ascended to the Father. We know from one of the fragments preserved by Clement that Basilides taught that Jesus did suffer. . . . Basilides’ Christology thus comports with his anthropology: Salvation is for the soul alone, not the corruptible body. (p 140, my emphasis)

This interpretation of the evidence sits very neatly with the views of those who see the baptism of Jesus in Mark as involving a descent of the Spirit of God  into the human Jesus, possessing him in a way that “drove” him into the wilderness to confront Satan and launch his career. (Have discussed this here and here previously.) This spirit, as we can detect in Mark’s Gospel, exited his body at the moment of his death on the cross.

Putting all of this together, we have a scenario where Christians apparently represented by Basilides understood that once the holy son of God himself entered into a fleshly human, that identity (spirit/son of God and human Jesus) could no longer be considered “good.” Even the flesh of babies is considered to have the potential to sin and thereby will profit from suffering (according to the teaching of Basilides above.) So when Jesus was teaching his followers to become as little innocent children to enter the kingdom of God, he was commanding them to be sinless, perfect, even though they were still filled with the future possibility of sin simply because they were still flesh and blood.

Such an interpretation, I think, need present no cause for embarrassment. It was a neat way to reconcile the holy spirit and son of God entity occupying a human body. The human body is unavoidably, from birth, inbuilt with the “activity of sinning” without actually sinning.

Then this of course becomes the rationale for Jesus’ death on the cross. “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” the scripture declared. Jesus’ body is made a curse because of sin even though they were uncommitted sins.

In other words, it appears that ancient Christians of certain persuasions could readily embrace an idea that Jesus is not “good” while in the flesh without any need to cast half a glance at a truly human or historical person. The very idea of Jesus being less than good once having come in the flesh is, according to this understanding of the teaching of Basilides at least, a theological idea that finds a way to tie the knot between the Son and Jesus. If an innocent infant can remain innocent because it has not yet committed the sins that its body is eventually capable of acting out, then we have a space also here for Jesus Christ being both god and man. And it is all a matter of theology, not historical reminiscence and accompanying embarrassment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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27 Comments

  • pearl
    2010-10-23 05:05:51 UTC - 05:05 | Permalink

    Neil, my impression is that we are seeing confusion over Mark’s meaning of “good.” I’m seeing influence from some form (pun intended) of Platonism used by Mark (“no one is good but one”) vs. more mainstream Christian morality via actions of goodness (“what good thing shall I do”).

    Consider the Form of the Good.

    The sensate, physical world was corruptible. As you say, Jesus’s physical body was, too, and not perfect. But his spirit, the higher Christ was perfect. Not all varieties of Christianity would equate him with “God”, but for instance, the higher gnostic Christ of myth might be seen in the incorruptible Pleroma with other aeons below the highest abstraction, the perfect parent–unengendered, invisible, etc.

    Mark had his own theology, but similarities of philosophical underpinnings can be seen in other Christian sects and later non-Christian systems, too.

    For instance, from The Corpus Hermeticum, VI. In God Alone Is Good And Elsewhere Nowhere:

    There is no Good that can be got from objects in the world. For all the things that fall beneath the eye are image-things and pictures as it were; while those that do not meet [the eye are the realities], especially the [essence] of the Beautiful and Good.

    In spite of this being a later work, it is still based on classical Greek philosophy:

    Notes on the text include: “This sermon on the nature of the Good, like To Asclepius (CH II), relies heavily on the technical language of classical Greek philosophy – a point which some of Mead’s translations tend to obscure. “The Good,” in Greek thought, is also the self-caused and self-sufficient, and thus has little in common with later conceptions of “goodness,” just as the Latin word virtus and the modern Christian concept of “virtue” are very nearly opposites despite their etymological connection. The word “passion” here also needs to be understood in its older sense, as the opposite of “action” (cf. “active” and “passive”).

    Back to Christian theologies, we see sects that regarded the world as flawed not because of human sin, but because it was created or fashioned in a flawed manner. The concept of sin itself varies. There is potential to “sin”, but does that stem from moral issues regarding “goodness” or from a corruptible, physical world and ignorance, lack of “acquaintance” of spiritual origins?

    I’m not sure where Mark fits in all this, but I can’t help seeing some kind of Platonist philosophy in the mix.

  • 2010-10-23 06:55:46 UTC - 06:55 | Permalink

    It is quite obvious to me from the manuscript evidence that the original reading in Matthew was “Why do you ask me what is good? One thing is good” followed immediately by “So if you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

    Jesus, after all, taught elsewhere in Matthew that men can be good, like for example “a good man out of the good treasure of his hear brings forth good things.”

    So, initially Jesus’ response was that one THING is good, i.e. keeping the commandments. But later as Paul’s moronic nobody can be good theology from Romans 3 caught on, some turd edited Matthew to conform to it slightly, thus changing “Why do you ask me what is good? One thing is good” to “Why do you call me good? None is good but one.” Thus the sense of KAI in the next sentence changed from “so” to “but anyways.”

    ORIGINAL:

    “Why do you ask me what is good? One thing is good. So if you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

    PAULINIZED:

    “Why do you call me good? None is good but one [i.e. God]. But anyways, if you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

    The original is clearly the one where Jesus actually answers the question rather than departs to a silly tangent that contradicts what he says elsewhere in the gospel. This is clearly a case of the gospels being corrupted by the heretical influence of Paul the liar.

    • 2010-10-23 07:00:59 UTC - 07:00 | Permalink

      In Mark also see the parable of the sower, where the good ground obviously represents good people. There is clear MSS evidence for the original reading “Why do you ask me what is good? One thing is good” in Matthew and Luke. For Mark, perhaps not, but if anything that only proves either that Mark was written after Matthew and Luke or simply that it was Paulinized much earlier than they were (the more likely option). That the original form of the story in its first form (whether it was oral or written) was basically Jesus saying “duh, why are you even asking what is obvious? keeping the commandments is what is good” is obvious. The thrust of the synoptics is certainly NOT Pauline in tone concerning the distinction between faith and works. Only here and there do we find that the Pauline libertine heretics have infiltrated the gospel texts and destroyed their meaning with interpolations and edits–and this is one. To argue that “why do you call me good?” was the original reading is to argue nonsense.

    • 2010-10-23 11:19:11 UTC - 11:19 | Permalink

      NPA: “The original is clearly the one where Jesus actually answers the question rather than departs to a silly tangent that contradicts what he says elsewhere in the gospel. This is clearly a case of the gospels being corrupted by the heretical influence of Paul the liar.”

      It isn’t clear at all. If anything, the original pericope in Mark reads like a Cynic question-and-response scenario. Consider other so-called pronouncement stories in Mark, where Jesus replies with somewhat unexpected statements like, “They that are whole have no need of the physician” and “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” Especially striking are the Synoptic sayings (mostly found in Q) that throw the audience for a loop — “Let the dead bury the dead” and “Who made me your judge or lawyer?”

      See Burton Mack’s “Q and a Cynic-like Jesus”

      http://books.google.com/books?id=UB4u-y-4laEC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA25#v=onepage&q&f=false

      Seen in this context, Jesus in Mark and Luke is actually saying, “What are you asking me for, when you already know the answer? — What does the Torah tell you to do? What does God tell you to do?!”

      Matthew can’t have the original saying, because the clumsy cut-and-paste of “good” makes no sense. People in the NT ask all the time, “What must I do (τί ποιήσω)…?” “What must I do to be saved?” “What must I do to to inherit eternal life?” But who would ask the question, “What ‘good thing’ must I do…?” — and why?

      Mark’s Jesus responds with a saying that’s like a slap in the face, and then gets right to the point. Yes, the rich man follows the law, but he’s attached to the things of this world. It reminds us of the Q saying, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

      Matthew is clearly copying Mark, editing yet again in his typically crude, hammy-handed way.

      • 2010-10-23 11:59:53 UTC - 11:59 | Permalink

        “Matthew is clearly copying Mark, editing yet again in his typically crude, hammy-handed way.”

        Say Mark was written first. Fine. Then Matthew copied. Fine. Then Luke copied. Fine. Then the Paulinizing editor came and fixed them all. How will you prove now that Matthew changed Mark rather than that all of them were changed by a later editor? The entire assumption that Jesus even said ANYTHING AT ALL in the original before “keep the commandments” is simply an assumption, since we clearly do not have the original text of ANY of the gospels. Maybe he neither said “why do you call me good” nor “why do you ask me what is good.” Maybe he just gave a straight answer: “keep the commandments.”

        “Matthew can’t have the original saying, because the clumsy cut-and-paste of “good” makes no sense.”

        Which “good” is not original? It is clearly the one connected to “master” and this is the one that actually DROPS in some MSS. Some MSS of Matthew say “Master, what good thing shall I do to have eternal life?” and the ones we are more familiar with add the good “GOOD Master, what good thing shall I do to have eternal life?” NONE, ABSOLUTELY NONE, ZERO drop the “good” on good thing in “what good thing.” That is dropped in Mark and Luke, and this is the proof that Matthew somehow retains the original. The Paulinizing editor was not as effective in Matthew as in Mark and Luke.

        “Consider other so-called pronouncement stories in Mark, where Jesus replies with somewhat unexpected statements like, ‘They that are whole have no need of the physician’ and ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?'”

        These aren’t in response to direct simple questions by people seeking to be disciples. The first is a response to a question but one asked in sneers not directly, “why does he eat with sinners?” and by obvious opponents. The next is in the same context, again an answer to opponents on why the disciples do not fast.

        The rich young ruler was a seeker, not an opponent, and his question was not some sneering jab thrown around at the table to make fun. Its a different situation.

        “Who made me your judge or lawyer?” Given to a demand that he divide the inheritance for them. Again, totally different.

      • 2010-10-23 12:02:41 UTC - 12:02 | Permalink

        “Mark’s Jesus responds with a saying that’s like a slap in the face, and then gets right to the point. Yes, the rich man follows the law, but he’s attached to the things of this world. It reminds us of the Q saying, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

        Wrong. He responds with stupid Pauline doctrine “nobody can be good” which is entirely contrary to the whole thrust of the synoptic Jesus’ teaching elsewhere.

        • 2010-10-24 07:38:50 UTC - 07:38 | Permalink

          It would be a strange thing for Mark to adopt this particular (and peculiar) Pauline doctrine when they don’t even agree on the definition of “gospel.”

          • NPA
            2010-10-24 16:43:09 UTC - 16:43 | Permalink

            Do you define “Mark” as the final editor of the gospel we call Mark or as the first author? As I already said the official text (Byzantine) of Matthew and Luke (not just Mark) also read “why do you call me good? none is good but one” — yet, there are many manuscripts of Matthew that read “why do you ask me what is good? one thing is good” and even one of Luke that does. For Mark we apparently have no manuscripts that diverge from the standard text here, but that doesn’t mean they never existed. My position is not the Mark himself adopted the Pauline doctrine, but that all the synoptics originally said “why do you ask me what is good? one thing is good” and that all of them were updated by a Paulinist editor. The remains of the earlier reading in many manuscripts of Matthew and one of Luke prove the point for those two. For Mark we don’t have the evidence per se, but it is easily assumed due to our knowing that this happened to Matthew and Luke.

            • Michael W. Nordbakke
              2010-10-24 18:27:33 UTC - 18:27 | Permalink

              A simple alternative to the theory of a Paulinist editor is that the Markan author read Matthew 19 and failed to understand what the text was about. He failed to realize that the Matthean author was alluding to Proverbs (cf. Pirke Aboth 6:4); and this is not the only passage where the Markan ignorance on Jewish matters shines through.

              The Matthean author need not have been a Jew; but is there any question that his knowledge on Jewish exegetical traditions was probably superior to that of the Markan author?

              It sounds reasonable that the Lukan version may originally have been correct.

              Speaking of Mark and Paulinism, the distribution of “to euaggelion” within the NT collection is quite puzzling. Paul (including pseudo-Paul) and Mark together account for fully 67 of 72 occurrences of “to euaggelion.” By contrast, Matthew has only 4 occurrences of this noun. Luke omits the noun altogether and Acts has it only twice.

  • 2010-10-23 07:11:34 UTC - 07:11 | Permalink

    As for Basilides, were not the Gnostics rather hyper-paulinist and very contrary to Judaism and Jewish Christianity? I think it goes without saying almost that most of them would agree with his baseless nobody can be good theory that Paul (or rather, perhaps his editor) designed by taking several passage from Psalms and Proverbs out of their original contexts where they were arguing that atheists cannot be good, as I show here.

  • GakuseiDon
    2010-10-23 10:00:17 UTC - 10:00 | Permalink

    The criterion of embarrassment (also called “criterion of dissimilarity”) is not that something was “embarrassing”, but an attempt to explain changes in the text. Whether someone — either ancient or modern — found something “embarrassing” is neither here nor there. It’s not what the “criterion of embarrassment” is about. It’s about how later texts treated earlier ones. That Basilides saw no problem with Mark doesn’t tell us about Matthew.

    • 2010-10-23 11:54:07 UTC - 11:54 | Permalink

      GDon: “The criterion of embarrassment (also called “criterion of dissimilarity”) is not that something was “embarrassing”, but an attempt to explain changes in the text.”

      Nope. The criterion of embarrassment is a tool that NT scholars use to try to establish historical probability. We can surmise that Matthew is later than Mark, since he kept the story of the rich man who wanted eternal life, but he was embarrassed by its implications. So he rewrote it. Similarly, he was embarrassed that Mark called John’s baptism was for the “forgiveness of sins,” so he excised it. The theory is that certain events had to be preserved in the narrative because they went back to the “real Jesus,” but suffered more and more edits as the concept of Christ changed. However, as Paula Fredriksen pointed out, the best these criteria can really do is establish antiquity, not authenticity.

      GDon: “That Basilides saw no problem with Mark doesn’t tell us about Matthew.”

      You’re missing Neil’s point. Matthew, or the community he was writing for, was uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus implies that he is not good. We may infer from Matthew’s edits that his/their Christology was more elevated than Mark’s and Basilides’. It shows us that even in the very early stages, Christianity had different ideas about Christ’s place in the cosmic order.

  • 2010-10-23 12:11:34 UTC - 12:11 | Permalink

    My guess is that the business about Jesus denying that he was God was a later interpolation. There were a number of early Christians who believed Jesus was God rather than a human being. The followers of Sabellius were lumped together with those who said that Jesus was the Father rather than the Son. This would close the book on that interpretation but the Sabellians are said to have used the Gospel of the Egyptians which must be related to (Secret) Mark (so F F Bruce). It has always struck me as a later addition – a break in the natural flow of the narrative and ultimately unnatural. What’s the objection to being called ‘good teacher’? What only God is allowed to be a good teacher? Or only God can be good? The adgjective ‘good’ is a problem for Jesus?

    Why does he then speak of “the eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light”? Wouldn’t that guy who was corrected back in Mark chapter 10 stand up and say ‘hey Jesus only God’s eyes are good.”

    Indeed it makes no sense that you can’t be called a good teacher because God is good but you can speak of giving ‘good gifts’ even though God’s gifts are better than yours:

    If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

    The whole thing is a later addition. From memory Origen cites a different version here in Commentary on Matthew Book 16 and there are many others.

    • pearl
      2010-10-24 00:28:46 UTC - 00:28 | Permalink

      “Good” can have different meanings.

      A thought: The passages about eye as lamp of the body and then “good gifts” are found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark.

      • 2010-10-24 04:47:31 UTC - 04:47 | Permalink

        Yet in all three, we find the parable of the sower with three types of ground representing three types of people. There we have the good ground, representing the good people who alone out of the three will be saved. It is impossible that the original text said “why do you call me good? none is good but one” — just flat impossible.

        • 2010-10-24 07:46:46 UTC - 07:46 | Permalink

          NPA: “It is impossible that the original text said “why do you call me good? none is good but one” — just flat impossible.”

          If arguments by assertion swayed me, I would agree with you. 😉

          I still recommend reading Burton Mack. It will help explain this kind of thing. A saying like “Let the dead bury their dead” is meant to be disorienting, to knock us off center. Same with “Why do you call me good?”

        • pearl
          2010-10-24 14:06:11 UTC - 14:06 | Permalink

          Gosh, NPA. Say the word “impossible” twice in one sentence and you’re sure to get a reply or two. 😉

          Tim has an interesting take. And here are some more ideas…

          Whether or not just one meaning of “good” should be required throughout a gospel, let alone throughout the entire synoptic gospels, could be debated. However, at least as far as Gospel of Mark, which has limited use of the word “good”, let’s see if we can somehow make possible what you call impossible.

          You say, “There we have the good ground, representing the good people who alone out of the three will be saved.”

          Mark’s gospel conveniently offers an explanation for this parable. And in the explanation I only see “good” used as an adjective for “soil” (or “ground”), not “people”.

          What might “soil” mean?

          “People” would indicate corporeal figures. Neil mentions that Basilides is linked with the Gospel of Mark. And Neil quotes from Birger A. Pearson, “Basilides’ Christology thus comports with his anthropology: Salvation is for the soul alone, not the corruptible body.” Pearson mentions the “Mind-Christ”. (Plato viewed the soul as synonymous with mind.)

          Keeping that in mind, we should not forget that this parable also occurs in The Gospel of Thomas, which does not supply an explanation. There has been commentary, of course, on this saying (#9).

          At kunar.com, we find a collection of comments, such as:

          Marvin Meyer writes: “In each occurrence of the parable in the New Testament, the author has added an allegorical interpretation of the parable and placed it on the lips of Jesus (Matthew 13:18-23; Mark 4:13-20; Luke 8:11-15). Stories similar to the parable are known from Jewish and Greek literature. Thus Sirach 6:19 says, ‘Come to her (that is, Wisdom) like one who plows and sows, and wait for her good crops. For in her work you will toil a little, and soon you will eat of her produce.’ In his Oratorical Instruction 5.11.24, Quintilian writes, ‘For instance, if you would say that the mind needs to be cultivated, you would use a comparison to the soil, which if neglected produces thorns and brambles but if cultivated produces a crop. . . .'” (The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus, pp. 72-73)

          “… if you would say that the mind needs to be cultivated, you would use a comparison to the soil…” Might that “soil” refer to the mind?

          If so, then “good” could very well be an appropriate adjective for the mind (soul) itself that is saved, if that salvation means acquaintance or reunification with the incorruptible godhead (after all, “no one is good except one, [that is] God”),… whereas, it would not be appropriate for nouns such as “people” or “teacher”, indicating physical bodies in the mix.

          • NPA
            2010-10-25 10:29:10 UTC - 10:29 | Permalink

            The good soil is good before it receives the seed not because it receives the seed. In fact the seed grows to completion in it only because it was good already.

            • pearl
              2010-10-25 22:11:42 UTC - 22:11 | Permalink

              Yes, the good soil (mind/soul) is good already. But the soil (mind/soul) is ignorant of its true, higher nature in this corruptible world until the seed (word) is introduced to the soil by the saving sower. The soil (mind/soul), being good, is able to accept the seed (hear the word). The soil (mind/soul) then re-cognizes, recollects, becomes acquainted with its real, incorruptible, good, higher nature and subsequently proceeds to bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. (The seed (word) has “brought forth grain.”)

  • Michael W. Nordbakke
    2010-10-23 18:55:16 UTC - 18:55 | Permalink

    NPA makes some good points. According to Lamar Cope (in Farmer, ed., New Synoptic Studies, 1983), the solution to Matthew’s puzzling sentence (“One is the good”) is to read “ho agathos” as a substantive article which has as its referent the Torah (“ho nomos” in Matthew) and not a person or God. Cope defends his argument by reminding us that Pirke Aboth 6:3 attests to an exegetical tradition in which honour = good; good = the law; therefore honour = the law. The passage is based upon catchword connections from Proverbs 3:35; 4:2; and 28:10:

    “And honour is naught else than the Law, for it is written, ‘The wise shall inherit honour’ (Prov 3:35), and ‘The Perfect shall inherit good’ (Prov 28:10), and good is naught else than the Law, for it is written, ‘For I give you good doctrine, forsake ye not my Law’ (Prov. 4:2).”

    Matthew’s version of the rich-young-man story not only employs the same key words, but “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17b), is a simple conditional variation of Proverbs 4:4. According to Cope, it is more probable that Mark and Luke had difficulties with understanding Matthew’s puzzling sentence, and that they altered it because they were ignorant of the exegetical tradition, than that Matthew derived the elements of the passage from Mark and subsequently constructed a new version:

    “Faced with Matthew’s version, ignorant of its subtle allusions [to Proverbs] and puzzled by a grammatical difficulty, either Mark or Luke revised the introduction to the passage and thus destroyed the exegetical tradition, the logic of the story, and the formal structure” (p. 153).

    Cope is attacked by Peter M. Head (Christology and the Synoptic Problem, 1997, p. 63), who claims that, since the sixth chapter of Pirke Aboth was not part of the earliest collection, Cope’s attempt falls into a type of “parallelomania.” Nevertheless, Cope is right that the secondary evidence goes against the grain of the priority of Mark: “The supposedly embarrassing Mark/Luke version was clearly preferred by the Fathers in the second century. Even the copyists assimilated the text of Matthew to that of Mark and Luke. In other words, in spite of modern assertions about the theological embarrassment of the Mark/Luke version of this story, it was preferred over Matthew’s supposed correction by the early church…” (p. 153).

    Put differently, the Fathers and the copyists found that Matthew’s supposed correction was “harder” to explain than the text of Mark and Luke. Cope does not explicitly say so, but this is a classical case for the invocation of Bengel’s four-word phrase: “Proclivi scriptioni praestat ardua” (the more difficult reading is preferable to the easier one,” see p. 111). There is no way around it: Matthew’s version of the rich-young-man story is by all odds the oldest one.

  • 2010-10-24 11:54:58 UTC - 11:54 | Permalink

    Look forward to catching up with this discussion in a day or two when I return from Phnom Penh.

    • 2010-10-26 21:24:17 UTC - 21:24 | Permalink

      Returned from Phnom Penh but reading the above has disoriented me again. Might pick up on some themes here after returning to Australia and my little reference library collection.

  • Steven Carr
    2010-10-25 14:46:11 UTC - 14:46 | Permalink

    Neil still does not understand how a Real Historian does history.

    On page 22 of Reconstructing Jesus, Allison points out that because of the failings of human memory, much is uncertain and a Real Historian *always* has to have a reconstruction by inference out of indirect knowledge.

    Readers of religious texts might wonder if rampant invention, propaganda and theological agendas are more responsible for this uncertainty as to what happened rather than the failings of human memory.

    But Allison presumably discounts those factors as not as important as the fact that people might have forgotten what they were doing on the day Kennedy was shot or the day the earth was plunged into darkness for three hours.

  • 2010-10-26 21:48:29 UTC - 21:48 | Permalink

    While I was in Phnom Penh all of this biblical history thing was light years away and so totally meaningless. In Australia we speak of Uluru (Ayers Rock) and the Great Barrier Reef as tourist attractions, in Cambodia they speak of the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng S21 genocide museum. In Australia we have fantasy theme parks, in Cambodia they have tuk tuk drivers wearing slogans demanding tourists not to molest their children.

    And these biblical historical debates are surely the most out of touch with reality. What historian investigates what words Julius Caesar actually spoke on a particular occasion? They would be quietly pensioned off. History is about real things for which there is real evidence, and is about explaining those real things. Bauckham’s eyewitness book, any discussion at all that gets to the level of nothing more than presumptions about anonymous “eyewitnesses,” and fails to see a narrative as a literary artifice, is Alice in Wonderland fantasy-make-believe stuff.

    For the first time (or maybe the second) I am wondering if I am making a fool of myself for even taking it seriously enough to discuss seriously.

    • pearl
      2010-10-27 00:31:59 UTC - 00:31 | Permalink

      Neil, I didn’t take this post’s message to be read as simply a historical debate.

      You were showing how many people – possibly gospel writers themselves, redactors, theological scholars, not to mention “many other Christians”, including yourself at one time – found a particular passage troublesome, “puzzling”, “embarrassing”. And then you showed how, by theological means, this embarrassment could be stripped away.

      You end with:
      “And it is all a matter of theology, not historical reminiscence and accompanying embarrassment.”

      Accompanying comments to your post prove your point. There is a wide variety of theological and philosophical perspective, speculation, and interpretation based on the literature (canonical and extra-canonical), not only by those with belief in the necessity of “historical reminiscence”. Whether or not it all is artifice, it is literature with imposed theological meaning, the author’s and outsiders’.

      What’s reality, if you want reality, is that there are, by some estimates, over two billion Christians in our world with various perspectives that directly affect us socially and politically. We don’t have a similar population that follows Caesaranity. How many of these Christian people have open-mindedly engaged other interpretative views in discussion in order to enhance understanding and tolerance?

      That is perhaps just as important a message that you share as is your exploration of proper historical method, etc.

      • 2010-10-27 14:17:28 UTC - 14:17 | Permalink

        Gee Pearl, I feel like I’ve just been slapped out of a sulky dummy spit and told to pull myself together. The way you put it makes it sound almost like this is a worthwhile exercise after all! 😉

        • pearl
          2010-10-27 23:12:05 UTC - 23:12 | Permalink

          Yep, consider yourself slapped then. 😉

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