2011-08-11

Even IF “according to the Scriptures” meant “according to what we read in the Scriptures” . . . .

by Neil Godfrey

James McGrath appears to have conceded the possibility that Earl Doherty may (perhaps only theoretically) be right when he wrote:

Even if one granted that by “according to the Scriptures” Paul might have meant “according to what I have read in and derived from the Scriptures,” that would still not be incompatible with his understanding the Scriptures in questions as predictions of or applying to a historical Jesus

Not that McGrath believes for a minute that this is what Paul meant, since he later corrects any possible misunderstanding of his position by adding that the dominant view among biblical scholars is something else:

the dominant view, which is that the early Christians had persuaded themselves, wrongly of course, that the death and resurrection of Jesus were foreseen in Scripture, and that that is what Paul is referring to here.

[Since posting the above James McGrath has expressed concern that I misrepresented his stance, so to avoid any suspicion that I was implying McGrath holds a view he does not hold, let me repeat more prominently what I said just now: 

Not that McGrath believes for a minute that this is what Paul meant . . . .  ]

Surprisingly McGrath does not also explain that the first evidence that Christians came to think that Jesus’ death and resurrection were foreseen in the scriptures appears only quite some time after Paul wrote, and that the argument that Paul himself meant this is entirely an extrapolation from the mainstream model of Christian origins.

But anyway, I found Doherty’s response worth a read. What if Paul did mean to say that he learned about Christ from reading the Scriptures? Would this really impact the assumption that Jesus was historical and not entirely a figure understood through Scriptural revelation?

1 Corinthians 15:3-4 says “Christ died for our sins according to [as we learn from] the scriptures” and that “he was raised on the third day according to [as we learn from] the scriptures”.

Let’s see: “Christ died for our sins.” Hmmm, an historical Jesus could be known to have died, his death might even have been witnessed and told of in oral tradition, but ‘dying for sin’? Who could tell that just by witnessing Calvary? OK, maybe 15:3 means Paul got this interpretation of Jesus’ historical death from scripture.

But then we have “he was raised on the third day.” For Paul to reasonably claim that he got this from scripture, no historical resurrection on Easter Sunday could have taken place, no visitation in bodily form to any followers on earth. We’re giving ground here, since that means all the appearances represent visionary experiences (or even less).

But then we face the predicament of having no physical or witnessed resurrection (except in scripture) to impel the new faith movement.

A crucified criminal dies on Calvary, is thrown into a grave and no one ever sees him again, except it is claimed in visions. Is that really enough to get countless Jews and gentiles across half the empire to accept that man as the divine Son of the God of Abraham, creator and sustainer of the universe, redeemer of humanity by his death and guarantor of their own resurrection? (It wouldn’t do that much for me. A claim of merely rising to some sort of heaven in spirit form after death wouldn’t gain any headlines in the ancient world. It was a fairly common idea in one form or another, except perhaps among the Sadducees.)

Having given up that ground, we get closer to accepting the obvious meaning of a passage like Romans 16:25-26 in which Christ the Son is stated as being an entity revealed after long ages of being unknown, through the scriptures.

We get closer to accepting that whatever Romans 1:3 means in the mind of the writer, that information, too, came from scripture, as is stated in 1:2, not historical tradition.

That passage also tells us that scripture did not prophesy the figure and life of Jesus, but Paul’s gospel about him.

A host of other passages in the epistles, difficult to reconcile with historicism, suddenly fall into place as well, all pointing in the same direction. And so on…

You see . . . .  when you have a house of cards, disturbing one of them can bring the whole contraption tumbling down. So I welcome your rethinking of the meaning of “kata tas graphas” in 1 Cor. 15:3-4.

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  • 2011-08-12 04:12:28 UTC - 04:12 | Permalink

    Matthew says Joseph took Mary and the child to Egypt so that God could call forth his son, according to the scriptures. John says that people at the crucifixion affixed a sponge filled with vinegar to a hyssop branch, reminding us of the scripture (Exodus 12:22) in which Moses tells the Israelites to sprinkle their doorways with the blood of the Passover lamb using a bunch of hyssop.

    In these and in countless other cases, New Testament authors explained what they believed “must have happened” by referring to scripture. Most NT scholars don’t believe Matthew was relating history in the narrative of the flight into Egypt, nor do they think that John “witnessed” the use of hyssop (not a reed) at Golgotha. They know that the gospels are chock-full of prophecy historicized.

    But in one case there is a hard, certain, unshakable exception — the crucifixion itself. As McGrath says, “[T]he dominant view . . . is that the early Christians had persuaded themselves, wrongly of course, that the death and resurrection of Jesus were foreseen in Scripture . . .” Yes, that is the dominant view. Is it consistent? Well, that’s another question entirely.

    In light of all the other examples we take as a matter of common knowledge, why should the crucifixion be any different? What counter-evidence do we have that the “historical fact” of the crucifixion didn’t start with an interpretation of scripture rather than a real event?

  • GakuseiDon
    2011-08-12 08:15:19 UTC - 08:15 | Permalink

    Neil, out of interest, how would you answer Doherty’s question:

    “A crucified criminal dies on Calvary, is thrown into a grave and no one ever sees him again, except it is claimed in visions. Is that really enough to get countless Jews and gentiles across half the empire to accept that man as the divine Son of the God of Abraham, creator and sustainer of the universe, redeemer of humanity by his death and guarantor of their own resurrection?”

    Would your answer be “yes” or “no”?

    • Steven Carr
      2011-08-12 16:21:29 UTC - 16:21 | Permalink

      ‘ Is that really enough to get countless Jews and gentiles across half the empire to accept that man as the divine Son of the God of Abraham, creator and sustainer of the universe, redeemer of humanity by his death and guarantor of their own resurrection?”’

      My answer would be no.

      Especially as Jesus had brought shame upon his family y getting himself crucified, and allegedly his brothers then became leaders of this new movement. Surely of all people they must have known that their brother had not been the radiance of God’s being and the creator and sustainer of the universe?

      And then early Christians wrote stories about how Jesus disowned his brothers during his lifetime. How could cult members write about how their founder disowned people who went on to lead the church?

      • Robert
        2011-08-12 16:43:50 UTC - 16:43 | Permalink

        “And then early Christians wrote stories about how Jesus disowned his brothers during his lifetime. How could cult members write about how their founder disowned people who went on to lead the church?”

        As a protestation, via the use of pseudopigraphy, towards certain claimed authority via the mechanism of apostolic succession?

        • Steven Carr
          2011-08-12 17:10:00 UTC - 17:10 | Permalink

          You mean Christians trashed the source of their own oral traditions, as they disliked the authority of the brothers of Jesus?

          • Robert
            2011-08-12 17:16:43 UTC - 17:16 | Permalink

            Oral traditions? What, where??????

            (I see what you did there….)

  • 2011-08-12 08:24:04 UTC - 08:24 | Permalink

    . . . I am troubled by [this] post of yours. Since when does saying “If if one grants X, it still would not demonstrate your case” mean “I grant X”? Is this perhaps a linguistic or cultural difference? Where I come from and where I have lived, it indicates that one is speaking hypothetically. Is that not true in other parts of the English-speaking world? If so, I apologize for the confusion.


    [Neil's note: Dr McGrath's concern about my post here was expressed in another thread and I have taken the liberty to post it here where I think it is appropriately raised.]

    • 2011-08-12 08:29:54 UTC - 08:29 | Permalink

      James, if you can find where I said that you grant Doherty’s interpretation I will certainly remove it. I had intended to make it very clear from the outset of my post that you do NOT subscribe to that view.

      But since it is not clear to you that I have done so, I have repeated my caveat in a more prominent font to remove any taint of suspicion that you might ever concede an inch to any mythicist argument.

    • 2011-08-12 10:18:52 UTC - 10:18 | Permalink

      Nor did I, James, claim that you actually accepted the alternate understanding of the phrase. I think it was plain that I was being facetious. (Well, maybe not. Historicists, I find, do tend to be somewhat deficient in a sense of humor.)

      Earl Doherty

  • 2011-08-12 09:30:40 UTC - 09:30 | Permalink

    People need to understand what jim’s goals are. Feel free to contact me if you would like to get my impressions of Jims overall goals.

    Cheers! Rich

  • 2011-08-12 10:50:29 UTC - 10:50 | Permalink

    In response to Tim’s comment #1 above, one scholar of Jewish studies has written a book arguing that the crucifixion of Jesus was indeed a midrashic-inspired event based upon the sacrifice of Isaac.

    I have posted this argument in a series now archived here.

    (The same historian does not question the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus itself. But this, in my view, opens up the question of the simplest explanation. If we have one adequate source for the story that is clearly evident, why introduce another that is less so?)

    • 2011-08-13 08:58:23 UTC - 08:58 | Permalink

      With regards to the Binding of Isaac, there are also those who feel uneasy about the notion that early Christians were familiar with and appropriating Jewish traditions. Davies and Chilton went as far as suggesting that the Akedah must have been invented in the Amoraic period as a polemical “reaction” to Christian claims (Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 40, 514-546). However, as pointed out by several authors, radical interpretations of the Akedah occurred early (e.g., Jubilees and 4Q225), and so the first Christians would have been familiar with the Jewish interpretive tradition. Galit Hasan-Rokem remarks in a different context, “The widespread use of the term ‘polemic’ to denote the main mode of intergroup communication between Jews and Christians seems to me narrow, and perhaps even incorrect, as it misses dialogical modes that are not necessarily polemical” (Web of Life, p. 238, n. 31).

      Philo describes Isaac as the paradigm of the victims of the whole burnt offering, and also as son of God: begotten, not created!

      After a superficial reading, Leroy A. Huizenga’s dissertation, The New Isaac (Leiden: Brill, 2009), seems to me a contribution of great value; and if this blog has a wish list for future book reviews, I would very much like to submit this suggestion.

  • 2011-08-13 16:56:39 UTC - 16:56 | Permalink

    Thanks for the notice about The New Isaac. I checked it on Google Books and it looks like a good followup to what I read by Levenson. Will buy to read and hope to reference for future posts.

    • 2011-08-13 17:32:27 UTC - 17:32 | Permalink

      Bloody hell, I just saw the price. No I won’t be buying it. Interlibrary loan will do for this one.

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