Monthly Archives: August 2013

Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 1 (“We need a gentle funeral”)


Chapter 12

The Funeral: ‘Oral Tradition’ And Its World


Chapter 12 of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus by Thomas Brodie addresses the problems Brodie came to see with oral tradition as an explanation for Gospel sources.

I have covered Brodie’s arguments on oral tradition in depth here (see Two Core Problems with the four links there), and have yet to do more posts on the detailed work of Barry Henaut. So this post will survey primarily what led Brodie to raise the questions he did.

I recently posted on Robert Alter’s description of literary artistry in Genesis. It was Robert Alter, in the same book, The Art of Biblical Narrative, whom Brodie credits with “waking him up”. Alter was reading an attempt by Robert Culley to demonstrate that the variations in the Hebrew Biblical narratives might be understood through the variants that appear in oral storytelling among peoples of West Indies and Africa. On the contrary, however, Alter noticed that Culley’s presentation of the Hebrew narrative variants were not at all random as the oral tradition thesis would predict. No, when in Genesis we read what seems to be the same narrative being told several times about different people, or even about the same person in different circumstances. What we are reading are predictable type-scenes, not unlike some of the repetitions we read in Homer that adhere to fixed patterns (though in Homer the conventions applied more to rituals of daily existence while in the Bible they are applied to crucial junctures in the lives of the heroes.)


Walter Ong

I grinned when I read that Brodie even went out of his way to meet personally Walter Ong, a scholar who published much on orality, because in my own early days of wanting to understand what lay behind the New Testament I myself traveled especially to dig out and copy many articles on orality by Ong.

What Brodie learned was that

even writing, for most of its history, resonated with orality. All ancient writing, until the eighteenth century, reflected orality or oral rhythms; it was aural, geared to the ear, to being heard — unlike modern writing, geared primarily to the eye. Virgil’s epic was highly crafted and a distillation of earlier literature, but it was saturated with orality; it was geared to oral communication , to being heard, and in fact it was being read aloud in Augustus’s imperial court before it was complete. But such orality was still not oral tradition, not oral transmission, it was simply a quality of ancient writing. (pp. 115-116)

“Studying non-literate tribes did not help”

How does one deduce from a piece of writing that it is based on oral transmission? Studies have been made into variations of oral transmission among non-literate tribes and into the variations that have arisen through rabbinic methods of memorization. The fact is (as Fitzmyer published in relation to the rabbinic variants) that these variations are not the sorts of variants we find in the Gospels. They do not account for the Gospel data.

“Gunkel’s influence has been massive”

read more »

Making of a Mythicist, Act 3, Scene 4 (The Dominican Biblical Institute, and its Research)


Chapter 11

The Dominican Biblical Institute


This hurts. It becomes personal.

From my outsider perspective I understand that the Dominican Biblical Institute (DBI) was founded by Thomas Brodie (though he has an oblique way of explaining this in Beyond the Quest), so when I turn now to the DBI’s website to see what they have had to say about Brodie and the book, aspects of which I am addressing in this series of posts, and read the contents on the following images, it hurts, as it must hurt anyone who knows a significant loss that accompanies religious differences.


And on another DBI page we read about the change of directors:


And so we come to chapter 11 of Beyond the Quest, in which Thomas Brodie gives an overview of plans, activities, a conference and research of the DBI. read more »

Functions of Dionysiac Myth in Acts, #2

Continuing the Jesus and Dionysus posts (sharing the 2006 Hermathena article by John Moles) . . .

The status of Christianity against Judaism

The Dionysiac myth also serves as a framework through which to address the status of Christianity in relation to Judaism. The god came to Thebes, to his own people among whom he was born to Semele, but he came as a stranger, unrecognized, even punished by the king as a trouble-maker for introducing something new that had no rightful place in the established order.

Christianity must also be presented as something “new” (“new wine” and the “sweet wine” claims made at Pentecost) but as nonetheless legitimate. Luke achieves this by portraying Jesus as the natural progeny, the rightful heir, fulfilment, of the (reputedly) ancient Jewish religion. All the Jewish scriptures spoke of him.

The above is my own interpretation of the state of affairs and my own synthesis of a longer discussion by John Moles. I’m open for others to make modifications or corrections.

Interestingly another scholar, Lynn Kauppi, has found that the same scene of Paul “on trial” before the Athenians is bound intertextually to another famous Greek play, Eumenides by Aeschylus. Kauppi cites F. F. Bruce and Charles H. Talbert as earlier observers of this link.

See Kauppi: Foreign But Familiar Gods for three posts addressing the details.

Creating a new work by weaving together allusions to more than one earlier master was consistent with literary practice and the art of mimesis in that day.

In Acts 17 we come to a scene that serves as a mirror for the narrative of the whole of Acts (p. 85).

Paul enters Athens and attracts notice as a purveyor of “strange deities” and a “new teaching”. Since Paul has just visited the synagogue in Athens to discuss his teachings we know that what he is bringing to Athens is far from “brand new”. It is an interpretation of the existing Jewish scriptures.

The scene evokes the Athenian reaction to Socrates. Socrates, we know, was also accused of introducing new deities. So the Athenians are doubly in the wrong: they are repeating the sins of their forefathers who condemned the wise Socrates and they are themselves enamoured of novelty. Indeed, they are no different from the “strangers” among them who share the same shallow interests. So Athenian prestige and distinctiveness is cut down by narrator.

“Luke” plays with the ironies of double allusions here: the Athenians are like their ancestor judges who condemned Socrates for introducing “new” ideas and like Pentheus who condemned the stranger for introducing a “strange” god. All the while, along with the “strangers” in their midst, they condemn themselves for their own love of the novelty. The Jews in Athens, on the other hand, condemned themselves for their love of the old and rejection of the new revelation.

The relationship between Jesus-religion and Dionysus-religion

At one level Dionysus represents the totality of pagan gods and here (in Acts 17) we find Paul using a “recognized Jewish proselytizing technique” to bring pagans to Christ through their own gods. read more »

The Point of the Dionysiac Myth in Acts of the Apostles, #1

English: Pentheus (Jonathan Klein) and Agave (...

English: Pentheus (Jonathan Klein) and Agave (Lynn Odell) from The Baccahe, directed by Brad Mays, 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The previous post in this series set out the evidence that there are correspondences between the canonical Acts of the Apostles and Euripides’ famous play Bacchae. This post continues presenting a lay version of classicist John Moles’ article, “Jesus and Dionysus”, published in 2006 in Hermathena.Do the allusions to the Bacchae and the Dionysiac myths and rituals in Acts actually “do” anything? Are they meaningless trappings, perhaps mere coincidences of imagery, or do they open the door to a new dimension of understanding of the work of Acts. If they “do” something meaningful that enhances our appreciation of what we read in a coherent and consistent manner then we have additional evidence that we are seeing something more than accidental correlations with the imagery and themes of the Dionysiac cult.

Anyone who does not know the play Bacchae can read an outline of its narrative in my earlier post linking it to the Gospel of John, based on a book by theologian Mark Stibbe.

We begin with some general points about the practice of imitative writing before addressing the significance of the use of Bacchae in Acts. Where I have added something of my own (not found in John Moles’ discussion, or at least not in the immediate context of the point being made) I have used {curly brackets}.

Why should we expect Luke to have written like this?

This conclusion should not surprise: similar intertextuality marks [Luke’s] engagement with the Septuagint, or, among Classical authors, with Homer. Hence, just as Classical texts are intensely ‘imitative’ in the sense of ‘imitating’ other Classical texts, so too is Acts. (p. 82)

At the end of this post we look at Luke’s literary predecessors who likewise drew upon Bacchae through which to frame their narratives of imperial efforts to impose paganism upon the Jews.

What are the chances of the author of Acts using this Greek play?

* 2 and 3 Maccabees

** Horace, Epictetus, Lucian

Bacchae remained for centuries a popular tragedy: it had been exploited by Jewish writers as a tool through which to explore the relationships between religion and politics, between Judaism and pagan (Dionysus) religion;* and by Stoic and Cynic philosophers** in philosophical and political contexts. The author of Acts (let’s call him Luke) knew of both these groups.

Are we really to expect Luke’s audience would have recognized all of the allusions?

* Origen (ca 249 CE), in Contra Celsum 2:34, noted thematic parallels with Bacchae.

Don’t think, however, that Luke’s knowledge of the way other authors used Bacchae and his own similar use of it in Acts means his audience must have been restricted to a sophisticated elite. Surely he would have expected some of his audience to recognize the allusions — and we know that some of them did* — but that does not mean he must have expected all of them to have done so. We will see that in Acts itself may contain the message that “while Christianity does not need great learning, it can hold its own in that world”: compare the charge against Peter and the original apostles that they were “unlearned” even though they were “turning the world upside down” with the charge leveled at Paul that when he clearly presented much learning to his accusers, that “much learning had made him mad”.

Why would Luke make use of a Greek play in a work of history?

Acts consists of a “highly varied literary texture”. {Pervo’s work demonstrating the characteristics of the Hellenistic novel that are found throughout much of Acts has been discussed on this blog.} Ostensibly the work is a form of historiography, but if so, we can note that in some types of historiography “tragedy” finds a very natural place. Herodotus’s Histories, for example, is one ancient instance of historical writing in which myth is part and parcel of the narrative. {Some scholars have also described it as a prose work of Greek tragedy.} Dennis MacDonald has identified certain Homeric influences in Acts and these Homeric episodes are themselves bound up in motifs and themes of classical tragedy.

How do the Dionysiac parallels highlight key elements in the Acts (and Gospel) narrative(s)?

First, note the key elements that are highlighted by the Dionysiac parallels: read more »

Jesus and Dionysus in The Acts of the Apostles and early Christianity

euripides-bacchaeJesus and Dionysus in The Acts of the Apostles and early Christianity” by classicist John Moles was published in Hermathena No. 180 (Summer 2006), pp. 65-104. In the two years prior to its publication the same work had been delivered orally by John Moles at Newcastle, Durham, Dublin, Tallahassee, Princeton, Columbia, Charlottesville and Yale.

The names Moles thanks for assistance with this work are many: Loveday Alexander, John Barclay, Stephen Barton, Kai Brodersen, John Dillon, Jimmy Dunn, Sean Freyne, John Garthwaite, Albert Henrichs, Liz Irwin, Chris Kraus, Manfred Lang, Brian McGing, John Marincola, Damien Nelis, Susanna Phillippo, Richard Seaford, Rowland Smith, Tony Spawforth, Mike Tueller and Tony Woodman.

John Moles begins his article with two questions. The first of these is a dual one:

Is Acts influenced by Dionysiac myth or ritual and does it quote the play Bacchae?

Old questions, yes, but they are still being raised in the literature, as Moles indicates with the following list:

E.g. Nestle (1900); Smend (1925); Fiebig (1926); Rudberg (1926); Weinreich (1929) ; Windisch (1932); Voegeli (1953); Dibelius (1956) 190; Hackett (1956); Funke (1967); Conzelmann (1972) 49; Colaclides (1973); Pervo (1987) 21-2; Tueller (1992); Brenk (1994); Rapske (1994) 412-19; Seaford (1996) 53; (1997); (2006) ch. 9; Fitzmyer (1998) 341; Dormeyer-Galindo (2003) 49 ff.; 95; 365; Hintermaier (2003); Lang (2003); (2004); Weaver (2004); Dormeyer (2005).

The second question is the one that is the main point of the article and the one given the most space in answering:

If the answers to the above are affirmative, what are the consequences?

I have it on authority that John Moles is not a mythicist so those who read this blog with a jaundiced eye can look elsewhere for material that serves their agenda.

Broad thematic parallels between Acts and Bacchae

John Moles lists the following:

  1. the disruptive impact of the ‘new’ god
  2. judicial proceedings against the ‘new’ god and his followers
  3. ‘bondage’ of the ‘new’ god or his followers
  4. imprisonments of the ‘new’ god’s followers
  5. their miraculous escapes from prison
  6. divine epiphanies
  7. warning that persecution of the ‘new’ god or his followers is ‘fighting against god’
  8. a direct warning by the unrecognized ‘new’ god to his persecutor
  9. ‘fighting against god’ by the ‘new’ god’s persecutor
  10. ‘mockery’ of the ‘new’ god or his followers
  11. general human-divine conflict
  12. kingly persecutors
  13. a kingly persecutor who arrogates divinity to himself
  14. divine destruction of impious kingly persecutor
  15. rejection of the ‘new’ god by his own, whom he severely punishes
  16. the destruction of the palace/temple
  17. adherence of women to the ‘new’ religion
  18. Dionysiac ‘bullishness’

Though some of these parallels need justification, as Moles points out, it is clear that the two texts “share numerous important themes”. The possibility that the Bacchae influenced Acts is thus not implausible.

Detailed thematic parallels between Acts and Bacchae

Moles lists three “crucial cases”. read more »

The Rich-Poor Divide Not So Extreme in Jesus’ Day

en:Lower Galilee

en:Lower Galilee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the discussions on the economy of Galilee in the time of Jesus, the presence or absence of large land-estates must play a significant role. Based on a reading of the parables attributed to Jesus, one could conclude that there were many estates of significantly large size and that they contributed to the economic conditions of Galilee causing loss of land and a growing rural proletariat. (From the abstract to “Did Large Estates Exist in Lower Galilee in the First Half of the First Century CE?” by David A. Fiensy, published in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 10 (2012) 133-153)

This is indeed the image that has been conveyed by scholars like John Crossan and James Crossley who have applied theoretical models of socio-economic development to the Galilee region and concluded that extremes of economic oppression and divides between rich and poor were critical in explaining the appeal of Jesus’ teachings.

More generally, however, many have taken the implications of Jesus’ parables as clear evidence of the economic conditions of early first century Galilee. This is so regardless of whether they have accepted the parables as having been literally spoken by Jesus himself.

David Fiensy informs us that scholars have assumed that the parables attributed to Jesus spoke of real economic conditions in Lower Galilee in the time of Jesus ever since the publication, in 1928, ‘Grossgrundbesitz in Palästina im Zeitalter Jesu’, Palästina Jahrbuch 24, pp. 98-113, by Johannes Herz.

Specifically, several of Jesus’ parables assume that there were large agricultural estates in ancient Palestine/ Israel. Certainly these estates were not as large as the celebrated ones listed above, but they were large enough to require tenant farmers, agricultural slaves, and bailiffs to care for the landowner’s farm.

Luke 16:1-7 speaks of debts of 100 measures of oil and 100 measures of wheat. According to Herz, such an amount could only be lent from an estate of at least 160 olive trees and 40 acres of wheat.

Similarly, great wealth and large estates are implied in the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30 / Luke 19:11-27), the Parable of the Debtors (Luke 7:41-43 / Matt. 18:24-34) and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:21-35).

Still other parables depict scenes on a large estate. The Parable of the Rich Fool (Lk. 12.16-21), for instance, describes an estate owner hoarding grain in a manner reminiscent of an account in Josephus (Vita 119) about the granary of Queen Berenice. Lk. 17.7 refers to a man’s servant plowing his field for him. Mt. 20.1-15 describes a large landowner who has so much land he must hire day laborers to work it. Lk. 12.42-43 alludes to a wealthy man who has a bailiff to run his estate.

The presence of large estates in Lower Galilee is crucial for understanding the society in the early decades of the first century. Their existence implies exploitation and dispossession of the small farmers and laborers. If they did not exist then we can infer “most peasants still lived on their own land and controlled their own economic destiny.”

This has significant implications for theories that relate Christian origins to Jesus’ appeal to economically oppressed and destitute — or some such variant of a Marxist hypothesis as we find in the works of the likes of Crossan and Crossley. Do economic conditions in Lower Galilee really contribute to our understanding of Christian origins? read more »

So John the Baptist was interpolated into Josephus? One more argument for the forgery case

jm_baptism_1Many of us are aware of the arguments of Frank Zindler that the John the Baptist passage in Josephus is an interpolation, but we leave those aside here and look at what Rivka Nir of the Open University of Israel offers as reasons for doubting the genuineness of the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities. The following is drawn from “Josephus’ Account of John the Baptist: A Christian Interpolation?” by Rivka Nir in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2012) 32-62.

Rivka Nir’s article also suggests her own answer to the old question of the origins of the idea of baptism as we read it in connection with John the Baptist.

To begin, let’s refresh our memory of what we read about John the Baptist in Josephus. The translation following is as it appears in Rivka Nir’s article:

(116) But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist.

(117) For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead [ἐπασκοῦσιν] righteous lives and practice [χρωμένοις] justice [δικαιοσύνῃ] towards their fellows and piety [εὐσεβείᾳ] toward God to join in baptism [be united by baptism] [βαπτισμῷ συνιέναι].

In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism [βάπτισιν] was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying [or: on condition] that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by [righteousness—R.N.] [δικαιοσύνῃ].

(118) When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused [ἤρθησαν] to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake. (Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119)

Rivka Nir first gives us the three pillars upon which the authenticity of this passage rests (I omit supporting details in the footnotes and add bold format):

  1. In view of dissimilarities or even contradictions between the Gospel and Josephus versions about John the Baptist, it is reasoned that had the passage been interpolated by a Christian, the interpolator would most likely have accommodated the account to its version in the Gospels.
  2. The passage’s correspondence in vocabulary and style to Josephus’ Antiquities in general and books XVII–XIX in particular.
  3. The presence of the text in all the Josephus manuscripts and its mention by Origen in his Against Celsus (1.47), dated to 248 CE.

Early suspicions of a brazen forgery

1893: Herman Graetz called the passage “a brazen forgery”.(Geschichte der Juden, III, p. 276, n. 3) read more »

Introducing Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

aslanReza Aslan’s book about Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, opens its prologue like an historical novel:

The war with Rome begins not with a clang of swords but with the lick of a dagger drawn from an assassin’s cloak. (p. 3)

Addressing the reader in the second person Aslan draws her into the colourful world Jewish worship at the Jerusalem temple and shocks her after half a dozen pages by having her witness the assassination of the high priest there in 56 C.E. One knows one is in for a dramatic read.

For the more academically minded reader there are over fifty pages of endnotes detailing sources and additional explanations for what appears in the main text. To Aslan’s credit, he makes abundantly clear in his introductory “Author’s note” that

For every well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative argument made about Jesus, there is an equally well-attested, equally researched, and equally authoritative argument opposing it. (p. xx)

That’s a refreshing change from the way some scholars introduce their own work or criticize the works of others. Aslan explains that his footnotes attempt to present some of the arguments of those who oppose his views in the body of the book.

Why this book about Jesus?

By way of preliminaries, however, Reza Aslan recounts how, after migrating from Iran, he became a Christian at fifteen years of age and how this new identity happily served to strengthen his identify as an American.

In the America of the 1980s, being a Muslim was like being from Mars. My [Muslim] faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed.

Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American. (p. xviii)

Not that his conversion was a matter of convenience,

On the contrary, I burned with absolute devotion to my newfound faith. I was presented with a Jesus . . . with whom I could have a deep and personal relationship.

Not “convenience” perhaps, but Reza might as well have added that he converted to the American way of devotion to the American religion.

And again like (most?) well educated Americans Aslan lost his naive fundamentalist beliefs as he learned more about the Bible, while at the same time becoming

aware of a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history. (p. xix)

Not being an American I was unaware of Reza Aslan’s prominent public profile as a Muslim scholar. If I had never seen the Fox interview with Aslan about this book but relied upon the book alone I would have assumed Aslan had left the Muslim religion and was writing as a liberal Christian (American and still evangelizing) scholar. He writes: read more »

The Muslim Brotherhood in post-Mubarak Egypt

rahimExactly one week before the Egyptian military’s removal of the Morsi government I received a copy of Muslim Secular Democracy: Voices from Within, edited by Lily Zubaidah Rahim. One of my particular interests at the time was in Turkey and I posted some interesting observations in the book about the Muslim government there: Can Democracy Survive a Muslim Election Victory? (That chapter raises the question of how valid are the fears of Muslim victories in democratic elections. The way the Muslim party has ruled in Turkey provides an instructive contrast with what happened recently in Egypt.) Other posts discussing Rahim’s book are archived here.

This post has been sitting half or less done in my drafts for some weeks now, and since the Egyptian military removed Morsi this post feels very academic and pointless ancient history. Patrick Cockburn’s view that Egypt has begun to enter a new dark age with the forces that had backed Mubarak’s bloody dictatorship more entrenched than ever.


Tara Povey

Anyone following Egypt’s events in any detail will not find anything new here. The author is Tara Povey. Her chapter is titled Voices of Dissent: Social Movements and Political Change in Egypt. There is an earlier version of this chapter (published before Tara Povey moved to the University of London, and so not with the same details I cover in this post) here. Tara’s chapter in Muslim Secular Democracy is a much revised and augmented version of that online post. But let me post one section from it that overlaps with the new print chapter:

Islamic movements are generally portrayed in the West as undemocratic and are equated with terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

In reality they are far from being homogenous and uniformly conservative.

Islamic reformism, modernism and dynamic jurisprudence have a long history in the region, beginning in the 19th century when reformers sought to strengthen and reform Islam and oppose colonialism. Today, diverse Islamist frameworks exist which are not based on opposition to the ‘West’ as a whole but rather oppose the West’s support of undemocratic regimes, the prosecution of wars in the region and highlight the importance of a society founded on the principles of social justice and equality.

In many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, Islamic groups have participated in t he democratic process and are playing the role of a genuine political opposition.

Since the 1990s a number of Islamist movements such as the al-Nahda movement in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbullah and HAMAS have entered electoral politics and have actively campaigned for democratic reform. This has prompted one author to note that in some countries Islamist movements “have been more strident in pressing for democratic change than have non-religious political parties.” Women’s activism has played a vitally important role in these movements and diverse strands of Muslim and Islamic feminisms have been formulated through which women have fought for gender equality as well as democracy, social justice and freedom from foreign domination. (my bolded emphasis.)

After the fall of Mubarak Western and other pundits were expressing fears that the events would lead to the takeover of Egypt by the MB.

The forces involved in the uprisings, however, says Tara Povey, “have been broader than any one organization or political party.”

Povey explains that the events surrounding the removal of Mubarak have forced out into the open generational and ideological splits within the MB. read more »

Making of a Mythicist, Act 3, Scene 3 (“It is original, but not off the wall”)

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailContinuing Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery

This post follows on from my earlier one on Chapter 9 that

  • began with a discussion of my own on parallelomania,
  • introduced Brodie’s desire to understand why the gospels appeared to use the Elijah-Elisha narrative as the framework for the life of Jesus,
  • Brodie’s deepening understanding of the literary artistry and coherence of the Book of Genesis,
  • and culminated in Brodie’s The Crucial Bridge, the hypothesis that the Elijah-Elisha narrative was an encapsulation of the larger themes of the Primary History, or Genesis to 2 Kings.


Chapter 10

From Homer to 4Q525: 1995-2000


Thomas Brodie continues with his biographical changes of circumstances that will segue into the establishment of the Dominican Biblical Institute, covered in chapter 11.

Among the snippets of interest for Brodie’s understanding of the Bible that emerge in this chapter:

  • By concentrating on understanding Genesis in its final form rather than through seeking to identify its possible sources, Brodie began to see the whole book slowly taking on a coherent shape, thus losing its initial appearance of a series of awkwardly joined story-segments. The story of Abraham began with the themes of those two all-too-ephemeral values of beauty and wealth.
  • The themes of duality in the Bible, discerned as early as the two creation stories of Genesis, are present even in the duality integral to the story of Elijah and Elisha. The same theme of heavenly focus balanced or set against the earthly plane is found in both. Indeed, it was work on Genesis that helped shape Brodie’s understanding of the Elijah-Elisha narrative, both in its episodic details and dual themes.
    • Michael Barré suggested that, like the ancient god Janus, the second creation account (Gen. 2.4b-24) is two-faced: it looks back to the first creation account, so that the two accounts form a pair, a diptych; but it also includes features that look forward to the account of the fall (Gen. 3).” (p. 97)
  • Could or should Genesis be related at all to Homer’s epics, in particular the Odyssey? The character of Jacob appeared to mirror the essential qualities of Odysseus. But was not Homer too far removed from the Bible? Then Brodie leaned that others had made similar observations linking Genesis to the Odyssey, and even between Jacob and Odysseus. But the notion of Homer-Bible relationship was prima facie too far removed from what was acceptable in Biblical studies. The Anchor Bible Dictionary said it all with its entry for Homer:

The Literary Artistry of Genesis

alterRobert Alter opens his book, The Art of Biblical Narrative (winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought), with a fascinating analysis of a small vignette that for most of us appears to interrupt the larger story of Joseph.

He takes the Hebrew texts of the Jewish bible and subjects them to the kind of critical analysis one might apply to Shakespeare or Proust. He tries to show, on the whole with success, that the astonishing literary effects often achieved by the Authors of the Bible are the results of art and not of artlessness. — J. M. Cameron, New York Review of Books, cover blurb.

So here we are, reading the book of Genesis and enjoying its familiar series of tales, and nearing the climactic final chapters we come to the story of Joseph. Joseph the young lad is given his famous coat of many colours; he’s then sold by his jealous brothers into slavery. But then just as we want to know what happens next we are diverted by a seedy chapter that has given us the word “onanism”. The chapter goes on to relate the patriarch Judah’s misdeeds, his daughter-in-law acting as a prostitute and the birth of his grandchildren. We then return to the Joseph drama with Joseph being taken to Egypt as a slave where he is purchased by Potiphar.

Why did the Genesis author break the Joseph story like that? (Or for those who are more discriminating with their sources, Why did the author of the J document break up the Joseph story like this?)

Robert Alter begins with the few verses preceding the Onan and Judah story. I have used much of Alter’s translation because he maintains the Hebrew word order and meanings that are significant for his argument.

Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery then stained his tunic in goat’s blood to deceive their father.

32 They had the ornamented tunic, and they bring it to their father, and say, `This have we found; recognize, we pray thee, whether it [is] thy son‘s coat or not?’

33 And he recognized it, and saith, `My son’s tunic!

an evil beast hath devoured him;
torn — torn is Joseph!’

34 And Jacob rendeth his raiment, and putteth sackcloth on his loins, and becometh a mourner for his son many days,

35 and all his sons and all his daughters rise to comfort him, and he refuseth to comfort himself, and saith, `For — I go down unto my son, to Sheol, mourning,’

and his father weepeth for him 36 and the Medanites sold him

unto Egypt, to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh, his chief steward . . .

The phrases highlighted in bold are the focus of Alter’s argument. read more »

Comments and Spam

Vridar is getting over 400 spam comments a day. This is too much for us reasonably to be expected to regularly check in any detail.

We do know that some comments for some unknown reason do get caught up in spam.

So if you post a comment that does not appear immediately please do email either Tim or myself (see the contact info page for how) and we will rescue your comment from the spam bin. read more »

Amanda Witmer on “Jesus, the Gospels and Historicity”

It seems the topic of the day is Amanda Witmer’s article in The Bible and Interpretation, Jesus, the Gospels and History. It covers many points I have addressed often enough here, and that others have addressed at length, so I will refer only in brief to some of these arguments in my little contribution to the discussion below.

Amanda begins her argument by erroneously framing the Christ Myth position as an extreme form of dogma that insists on absolutes. The same paragraph ironically calls for the necessity for “an open and enquiring mind”

In some quarters it is now fashionable to argue that Jesus did not exist! At the opposite end of the spectrum we find the position that every word of the Bible is literally true and that the gospels provide us with an unfiltered historical account of Jesus’ life. This is a false dichotomy rooted in our human tendency to insist on absolutes and true or false claims. Neither position takes the evidence seriously. As it turns out, historical information about Jesus can be found, but sifting through the data requires some work. An open and enquiring mind is also a necessary requisite.


The Christ Myth idea is hardly a current “fashion”. It has been with us since the eighteenth century, and in some variant of its modern form since Bruno Bauer.

Advocates of the Christ Myth view, and others who are in some way neutral on the position, are no more “absolutist” in their claims than are most who argue for the historicity of Jesus. Given that a number of Christ Myth advocates do think that the Christ idea began with a belief in the appearance at some time of a human entity or a figure appearing as a human on earth, we have to acknowledge that there is as wide a range of discussion about the nature of the origins of the Jesus myth among “mythicists” as there is among “historicists” debating the nature of the historical Jesus and how much, if anything, can be known about him.

Witmer’s introduction unfortunately appears to be ignorant of the simple fact that the Christ Myth arguments are indeed arguments that address the scholarly literature and methodologies and are very conscious of the degrees of uncertainty that must necessarily exist on both sides of the debate.

Witmer is right to call for an open and enquiring mind, but if one wants to address an opposing argument one does need first to be open to enquiring what the opposing argument does argue. Witmer does not appear to have done that in the case of the Christ Myth theories; but the serious “mythicists” who appear to be concerning theologians today do know and understand and address the arguments of the historicists. Had she done so, she could not have written that the Christ Myth exponents are unaware of, or do not take seriously, the evidence that has been advanced in support of the historicity of Jesus.

As time passed and memories were formed, faith began to shape the way in which the early Christian community viewed and wrote about Jesus. As a result, the portrait of Jesus we find in the gospels is nuanced, containing a mixture of biography, historical information, memory, faith and myth. . . . It is now generally accepted that the gospels can be fitted broadly into the genre of ancient Greco-Roman biography.

Facts: read more »

Making of a Mythicist, Act 3, Scene 2 (Discovering the Crucial Bridge) — With a note on “Parallelomania”

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailContinuing Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery

This post follows on from my earlier one on Chapter 8 where Brodie is beginning to appreciate the nature the literary artistry of the biblical books.

Chapter 9

The Third Revolution Deepens: 1992-1995


Reminder: This series is skipping over many of the personal details related to Thomas Brodie’s intellectual odyssey. It also needs to be kept in mind that generally this book does not present Brodie’s detailed arguments but rather traces how his understanding of the nature and origins of the Biblical literature emerged.

If a Jesus narrative were based on the Elijah-Elisha story (see “That Is An Important Thesis“) one had to ask why. Would not the story of Moses or David have been more appropriate as a model? This question perplexed Brodie until his further studies on Genesis opened up a new awareness of the nature of the biblical literature. But let’s digress a moment to consider an objection that has on some theologian’s blogsites recently been flung at Brodie’s arguments since he has claimed they lead to a “mythicist” conclusion.

Parallelomania: the facts

“Parallelomania” has once again been flung as a dismissive epithet by a number of theologians and religion scholars at Christ myth arguments in general and Thomas Brodie’s arguments in particular, so it is worth taking a moment to revisit the article that introduced the notorious notion of “Parallelomania”. It can be read on this page; I have taken excerpts from it in the following discussion.

Samuel Sandmel

Samuel Sandmel

I don’t think James McGrath has ever had the time to read that article that he invites others to read. If he had, he would know that its author (Samuel Sandmel) points out that by “parallelomania” he means plucking passages from the vast array of, say, rabbinical literature or from a work of Philo’s out of their broader contexts and using them (thus decontextualized) to claim they have some direct relevance to similar sounding passages in the New Testament. That is not what what Brodie is doing. Sandmel even explains that the sort of detailed analysis done by Brodie to explore questions of literary indebtedness is indeed justified and is not to be confused with something else that he is addressing.

The key word in my essay is extravagance. I am not denying that literary parallels and literary influence, in the form of source and derivation, exist. I am not seeking to discourage the study of these parallels, but, especially in the case of the Qumran documents, to encourage them. . . . .

An important consideration is the difference between an abstract position on the one hand and the specific application on the other. . . . . it is in the detailed study rather than in the abstract statement that there can emerge persuasive bases for judgment. . . . . The issue for the student is not the abstraction but the specific. Detailed study is the criterion, and the detailed study ought to respect the context and not be limited to juxtaposing mere excerpts. Two passages may sound the same in splendid isolation from their context, but when seen in context reflect difference rather than similarity.

Note the problem with taking excerpts from a corpus of literature and using them as parallels with something else. This results in

confusing a scrutiny of excerpts with a genuine comprehension of the tone, texture, and import of a literature.

In Brodie’s analyses, on the other hand, it is as much the tone, texture and import of the respective documents that is being analysed as the individual words and phrases.

One of the greatest sins of “parallelomania” is

the excessive piling up of . . . passages. Nowhere else in scholarly literature is quantity so confused for quality . . . . The mere abundance of so-called parallels is its own distortion . . . .

I recently posted chapter 7 of Brodie’s book to demonstrate that Brodie does not make his case by a mere piling up of matching words or ideas. The structure, the theme, the context, the motivation — these are all part of Brodie’s argument.

Finally, the crowning sin of parallelomania is one that I not too long ago identified in the work of historian Michael Grant about Jesus. I’ll first quote Sandmel:

On the one hand, they quote the rabbinic literature endlessly to clarify the NT. Yet even where Jesus and the rabbis seem to say identically the same thing, Strack-Billerbeck manage to demonstrate that what Jesus said was finer and better. . . . . Why, I must ask, pile up the alleged parallels, if the end result is to show a forced, artificial, and untenable distinction even within the admitted parallels?

Grant followed many theologians who insist that though the golden rule was known in some form among the rabbis (and in other civilizations), Jesus expressed it better than anyone else.

Sandmel’s article on “parallelomania” is actually an endorsement of the sort of work being done by scholars who work seriously on literary analysis of texts and a warning against the sins found too often among the mainstream scholars. Unfortunately some theologians, McGrath included in his Burial of Jesus, are on record as saying that literary analysis has no place in the work of historical inquiry. On the contrary, without literary analysis the historian has no way of knowing how to interpret literary documents.

It is that very detailed study that Sandmel said is necessary, and the study of the context, both immediate context and the wider cultural context of literary practices of the day, that Brodie is undertaking. He is not plucking passages out of context from disparate sources and making an abstract claim that they can be read as a “parallel” to, and by implication source of, what we read in the gospels. (Such “extravagance” is the characteristic fault of “astrotheology”, but not of the scholarly work of Brodie and MacDonald.)

This is not the same as saying that MacDonald’s and Brodie’s arguments are necessarily correct. They still need to be studied and engaged with. There may be alternative explanations for some of the data they have addressed and believe points to literary borrowing. But it is not particularly scholarly to simply reject an argument one does not like by dismissing it with a pejorative label.

Now back to Beyond the Quest read more »