Monthly Archives: September 2013

Why the Gospels are Historical Fiction

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A recent book by Jacob Licht, Storytelling in the Bible (Jerusalem, 1978), proposes that the “historical aspect” and the “storytelling” aspect of biblical narrative be thought of as entirely discrete functions that can be neatly peeled apart for inspection — apparently, like the different colored strands of electrical wiring.

This facile separation of the inseparable suggests how little some Bible scholars have thought about the role of literary art in biblical literature. (Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 32)

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By “historical fiction” I mean a fictitious tale, whether it is a theological parable or not, set in a real historical time and place. Authors of “historical fiction” must necessarily include real historical places and real historical persons and events in their narrative or it will be nothing more than “fiction”. Ancient authors are known to have written “historical fiction” as broadly defined as this. We have the Alexander Romance by Heliodorus that is a largely fictitious dramatization of the person and exploits of Alexander the Great. Of more interest for our purposes here is Chariton’s tale of Chaereas and Callirhoe. These are entirely fictitious persons whose adventures take place in world of historical characters who make their own appearances in the novel: the Persian emperor, Artaxerxes II; his wife and Persian queen, Statira; the Syracusan statesman and general of the 410s, Hermocrates. There are allusions to other possible historical persons. Sure there are several anachronisms that found their way into Chariton’s novel. (And there are several historical anachronisms in the Gospels, too.) Chariton even imitated some of the style of the classical historians Herodotus and Thucydides.

In this way Chariton imitates the classical historians in technique, not for the purpose of masquerading as a professional historian, but rather, as Hagg (1987, 197) suggests, to create the “effect of openly mixing fictitious characters and events with historical ones.” (Edmund Cueva, The Myths of Fiction, p. 16)

A word to some critics: This post does not argue that Jesus did not exist or that the there is no historical basis to any of the events they portray. It spoils a post to have to say that, since it ought to be obvious that demonstrating a fictitious nature of a narrative does not at the same time demonstrate that there were no analogous historical events from which that narrative was ultimately derived. What the post does do, however, is suggest that those who do believe in a certain historicity of events found in the gospels should remove the gospels themselves as evidence for their hypothesis. But that is all by the by and a discussion for another time. Surely there is value in seeking to understand the nature of one of our culture’s foundational texts for its own sake, and to help understand the nature of the origins of culture’s faiths.

Cover of "The Art Of Biblical Narrative"

Cover of The Art Of Biblical Narrative

This post is inspired by Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter believes that the reason literary studies of the Bible were relatively neglected for so long is because of the cultural status of the Bible as a “holy book”, the source of divine revelation, of our faith. It seems gratuitously intrusive or simply quite irrelevant to examine the literary structure of a sacred book. So the main interest of those who study it has been theology. I would add that, given the Judaic and Christian religions of the Bible claim to be grounded in historical events, the relation of the Bible’s narratives to history has also been of major interest.

But surely the first rule of any historical study is to understand the nature of the source documents at hand. That means, surely, that the first thing we need to do with a literary source is to analyse it see what sort of literary composition it is. And as with any human creation, we know that the way something appears on the surface has the potential to conceal what lies beneath.

Only after we have established the nature of our literary source are we in a position to know what sorts of questions we can reasonably apply to it. Historians interested in historical events cannot turn to Heliodorus to learn more biographical data about Alexander the Great, nor can they turn to Chariton to fill in gaps in their knowledge about Artaxerxes II and Statira, because literary analysis confirms that these are works of (historical) fiction.

Some will ask, “Is it not possible that even a work of clever literary artifice was inspired by oral or other reports of genuine historical events, and that the author has happily found a way to narrate genuine history with literary artistry?”

The answer to that is, logically, Yes. It is possible. But then we need to recall our childhood days when we would so deeply wish a bed-time fairy story, or simply a good children’s novel, to have been true. When we were children we thought as children but now we put away childish things. If we do have at hand, as a result of our literary analysis, an obvious and immediate explanation for every action, for every speech, and for the artistry of the way these are woven into the narrative, do we still want more? Do we want to believe in something beyond the immediate reality of the literary artistry we see before our eyes? Is Occam’s razor not enough?

If we want history, we need to look for the evidence of history in a narrative that is clearly, again as a result of our analysis, capable of yielding historical information. Literary analysis helps us to discern the difference between historical fiction and history that sometimes contains fictional elements. Or maybe we would expect divine history to be told with the literary artifice that otherwise serves the goals and nature of fiction, even ancient fiction.

The beginning of the (hi)story

The great Latin poet, Virgil, holding a volume...

The Latin poet, Virgil, holding a volume on which is written the Aeneid. On either side stand the two muses: “Clio” (history) and “Melpomene” (tragedy). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take the beginning of The Gospel According to St. Mark. Despite the title there is nothing in the text itself to tell us who the author was. This is most unlike most ancient works of history. Usually the historian is keen to introduce himself from the start in order to establish his credibility with his readers. He wants readers to know who he is and why they should believe his ensuing narrative. The ancient historian normally explains from the outset how he comes to know his stuff. What are his sources, even if in a generalized way. The whole point is to give readers a reason to read his work and take it as an authoritative contribution to the topic.

The Gospel of Mark does indeed begin by giving readers a reason to believe in the historicity of what follows, but it is has more in common with an ancient poet’s prayer to the Muses calling for inspiration and divinely revealed knowledge of the past than it does with the ancient historian’s reasons.

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger . . . .

That’s the reason the reader knows what follows is true. It was foretold in the prophets. What need we of further witnesses?

Yes, some ancient historians did from time to time refer to a belief among some peoples in an oracle. But I can’t off hand recall any who claimed the oracle was the source or authority of their narrative. I have read, however, several ancient novels where divine prophecies are an integral part of the narrative and do indeed drive the plot. Events happen because a divine prophecy foretold them. That’s what we are reading in Mark’s Gospel here from the outset, not unlike the ancient novel by Xenophon of Ephesus, The Ephesian Tale, in which the plot begins with and is driven by an oracle of Apollo.

Note, too, how the two lead characters in the opening verses are introduced. read more »

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 2: The Letters of Paul

This is the second post in the series: A Simonian Origin for Christianity.

Some argue that Paul’s theology just underwent a very rapid development.

Or that he changed his position to suit changed circumstances.

Others chalk up the inconsistency to his temperament. He was impulsive and wrote things in anger that he probably regretted later.

Or he toyed with ideas that he never seriously embraced.

Some say he just had an undisciplined mind and that we should therefore not expect logical consistency from him.

Was he even aware that his assertions were contradictory? Some scholars think so, and that love of paradox may explain his apparent unconcern for contradictions. But others think he was clueless.

. . . from the very first indications in the extant record of the existence of a collection of Pauline letters voices were raised to protest that it had been tampered with. . . .

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A Reworked Collection of Simonian Letters

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Pauline Zigzags

A much rarer author portrait of St Paul C9th, ...

A much rarer author portrait of St Paul C9th, follows similar conventions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A major problem for Pauline interpreters has always been how to explain the inconsistency of Paul’s theology. The inconsistency shows up especially when the letters deal with subjects about which the proto-orthodox and early gnostics had differing positions. It is particularly noticeable in passages concerning the Law.

For instance, has the Law been abolished? Or is it still valid?

You can find passages in the Paulines to support both positions.

Can anyone actually do all that the Law requires?

Again, one can find Pauline passages to support either a yes or no answer.

Was the Law given by God? Or by angels?

That depends on which Pauline passage you look at.

Was the purpose of the Law to incite man to sin and multiply transgressions? Or to lead men to life?

Again, the letters can be enlisted to support either.

Did the author of the letters think that being under the Law was something to be rightfully proud of? Or was it slavery?

It depends.

All kinds of explanations have been offered to account for the zigzagging, but with nothing close to a consensus reached. There are those, for instance, who argue that Paul’s theology just underwent a very rapid development. Or that he changed his position to suit changed circumstances. Others chalk up the inconsistency to his temperament. He was impulsive and wrote things in anger that he probably regretted later. Or he toyed with ideas that he never seriously embraced. Some say he just had an undisciplined mind and that we should therefore not expect logical consistency from him. Was he even aware that his assertions were contradictory? Some scholars think so, and that love of paradox may explain his apparent unconcern for contradictions. But others think he was clueless:

[T]he thought wavers and alters with heedless freedom from one letter to another, even from chapter to chapter, without the slightest regard for logical consistency in details. His points of view and leading premises change and traverse without his perceiving it. It is no great feat to unearth contradictions, even among his leading thoughts. (William Wrede, Paul, p. 77, my italics)

Ten scholars who argue for interpolation

But there have always been scholars who solved the problem of Pauline inconsistency by questioning whether the letters were in fact the work of only one writer. And not just the Deutero-Pauline letters, but also the seven generally regarded as authentic. The inconsistencies existing right within the individual letters are such that many think it more likely that more than one writer was involved:

If the choice lies between supposing that Paul was confused and contradictory and supposing that his text has been commented upon and enlarged, I have no hesitation in choosing the second. (J.C. O’Neill, The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, p. 86) read more »

Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 3 (Deeps Below, Storms Ahead)

brodie3Chapter 14

THE SHIPPING FORECAST: DEEPS BELOW AND A STORM AHEAD

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Chapter 14 of Thomas Brodie’s Memoir of a Discovery is probably one of the volume’s most significant and it is to be regretted that some of Brodie’s critics have so totally avoided its message. This chapter strikes at the heart of what most of us at first find most challenging about Brodie’s thesis.

But first, let’s start where Thomas Brodie himself starts in this chapter. Let’s begin when he meets the new professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School, Richard B. Hays, in the 1980s. There is a new wind beginning to blow in New Testament studies and Hays’ work is among those ships that have felt its first gusts. (We will see that many are still in denial and refusing to prepare.) Meanwhile, Hays invited Brodie to speak on Luke’s use of the Old Testament to his New Haven class.

hays250Richard Hays’ thesis has been published as The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11. Hays argues that a section of Galatians is a product of an author reworking a larger narrative about Jesus Christ and some of the Old Testament.

Since then, Brodie informs us, Hays has become “a pioneer in narrative theology — in showing how New Testament narrative often builds a story or narrative that is grounded on that of the Old Testament”. Others have come along to complement his work. Some of these:

  • N. T. Wright 2005, Paul: In Fresh Perspective
  • Francis Watson, see bibliography
  • Carol Stockhaussen 1989, Moses’ Veil and the Story of the New Covenant: The Exegetical Substructure of II Cor. 3:1-4:6; 1993, ‘2 Corinthians 3 and the Principles of Pauline Exegesis’, in C. A. Evans and J. A. Sanders (eds) Paul and the Scriptures of Israel.
In acknowledging the importance of the Old Testament “allusions” or “echoes” in the New Testament, these works (according to Brodie) are “a real advance for New Testament research.”

But there’s a but . . .

Brodie’s optimism is tempered, however. The above “pioneers” speak of “echoes” and “allusions” and for that reason do not really do full justice to the way the New Testament authors re-worked/re-wrote the literature of the Old.

If many scholars have jumped at doing “history” with the Gospels before they have taken care to explore the nature of their literary sources, Richard Hays has been too quick to jump into doing theology. By that Brodie means that Hays has failed to appreciate that questions of theology can be significantly influenced by understanding how the texts being studied came to be put together, how they were transmitted. By understanding how authors put the texts together one can better appreciate the questions of theology they posed in their final products.

Hays can appreciate that the continuity between the narratives of Luke-Acts and of the Old Testament functions to give readers the theological message that they can have assurance in the continuity and reliability of God’s plan. But what he misses, according to Brodie, is that one of the most central factors of God’s plan was the composing of Scripture itself. So by studying the way Scriptures were composed, how they were sourced and put together, we can understand how God worked, how he implemented his plan. For Brodie, such questions are fundamental to truly appreciating the theology of the New Testament writings.

Brodie appears to me to be suggesting that a scholar can trace the mind of God, at least as it was understood by the New Testament authors, through an analysis of the literary sources of the New Testament writings and the way the Old Testament writings were “reworked” into the New.

And the ineffectuality of “intertextuality”

The word intertextuality has been frequently used by scholars studying the ways New Testament authors made use of their literary sources but its meaning is also too often imprecise. The word originated with Julia Kristeva in 1966 and today is more commonly associated with anthropological questions of interaction between cultures, Several biblical scholars use the word to refer to concepts as light as “textual allusions” or “echoes”. This is fine insofar as it draws attention to the relationship between written texts. But Brodie is arguing that ancient writing involved much more than “allusions” and “echoes”:

The kernel of ancient writing was not in allusions: it was in taking hold of entire books and transforming them systematically. VIrgil did not just allude to Homer; he swallowed him whole. And there are comparable systematic transformations within the Bible. Allusions and quotations were often little more than decorations and embellishments. (p. 127)

So what is the nature of the textual relationship that is at the core of Brodie’s argument if it’s more than “echoes” and “allusions”?

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Transforming Texts Beyond Immediate Recognition

Spotting the differences between the following stories earns no points. But spotting the similarities AND being able to coherently explain them might yield rewards. Many scholars have discussed the comparisons of Luke’s narrative with its matches in Matthew 8:5-13 and John 4:43-54. Many commentators of the Lukan narrative have even been aware of the Naaman episode. read more »

How Historical Imagination Destroys the Gospels

Most of us understand that the Gospels are theological narratives and do not report literal history. At the same time, probably most critically inclined readers believe that those theological narratives are ultimately inspired by historical persons and events. Their authors (or those responsible for their source information) are so “spiritually overwhelmed” by the inexpressibility of the wonder of these historical events that they are compelled to write about them through a language of theological surrealism.

Jean Fouquet: Caesar Crossing the Rubicon (Wikipedia)

Jean Fouquet: Caesar Crossing the Rubicon (Wikipedia)

Comparisons are even drawn with ancient historiography. Ancient historians regularly introduced supernatural events and persons into their accounts of historical persons. It is worth looking at a few examples. We are meant to be assured that the Gospel narratives are of a similar ilk.

As he [Caesar] stood in doubt, this sign was given him. On a sudden there appeared hard by a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed; and when not only the shepherds flocked to hear him, but many of the soldiers left their posts, and among them some of the trumpeters, the apparition snatched a trumpet from one of them, rushed to the river, and sounding the war-note with mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank. Then Caesar cried: “Take we the course which the signs of the gods and the false dealing of our foes point out. The die is cast,” said he. (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, 32)

No one doubts the reality of Augustus Caesar despite it being “recorded” of him by Philo that he stilled storms and healed diseases:

This is Caesar, who calmed the storms which were raging in every direction, who healed the common diseases which were afflicting both Greeks and barbarians . . .(Philo, Embassy to Gaius, 145)

The stilling of the storms may have been a metaphorical synopsis of Augustus putting an end to the wars that had long ravaged the empire but the philosopher Empedocles was reputed to have done as much literally:

Ten thousand other more divine and more admirable particulars likewise are uniformly and unanimously related of the man: such as infallible predictions of earthquakes, rapid expulsions of pestilence and violent winds, instantaneous cessations of the effusion of hail, and a tranquillization of the waves of rivers and seas, in order that his disciples might easily pass over them. Of which things also, Empedocles the Agrigentine, Epimenides the Cretan, and Abaris the Hyperborean, receiving the power of effecting, performed certain miracles of this kind in many places. Their deeds, however, are manifest. To which we may add, that Empedocles was surnamed an expeller of winds (Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras, 135-136)

And of course we know of the tales of miraculous births of Alexander the Great and Plato. Both were conceived by a god. There are many more. King Pyrrhus healed by touching a reclining patient with his foot. Emperor Vespasian healed a withered hand and restored the sight of a blind man.

So there we supposedly have it. The gospels, we are assured, are no different from other ancient accounts of famous historical persons, mixtures of fact and fable.

I don’t think so. read more »

Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 2 (“What Is Rule One?”)

brodie3Chapter 13

The Quest for History: Rule One

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The theme of chapter 13 in Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discover syncs well with a recurring theme on this blog. I have posted on it repeatedly and alluded to it constantly. I even posted on the contents of this chapter 13 soon after I began reading Brodie’s book and before I considered doing this series. That earlier post was Quest for History: Rule One — from Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

Many scholars of Christian origins (biblical and religion scholars, theologians) write in the belief that the most important thing to grasp about the narratives and sayings in the Gospels is the historical context that gave rise to them.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Being first in importance does not necessarily mean being first in the order of investigation. The first thing to be sorted out about a document is not its history or theology — not the truth of background events or its ultimate meaning — but simply its basic nature.

For instance, before discussing a will — its possible many references to past events, and its provisions for distributing a legacy — the first thing to be established is whether it is genuine, whether it is a real will. (p. 121, my bolding)

Its basic nature! The nature of the text we are reading! Exactly. One theologian who regularly refers to himself as a historian has insisted that historical analysis of the Gospels has nothing to do with literary analysis and that literary analysis has no relevance for historical analysis. That is flat wrong. Even at a very superficial level everyone necessarily does some form of literary analysis in order to determine how to interpret the content of what they are reading. Is what we are reading a diary, a parody, an advertisement, an official news report, a novel? Deciding that question involves some basic level of literary analysis.

The commonly expressed view that the Gospels are a form of ancient biography actually arises more from the a priori assumption that they contain or are based ultimately on biographical data than a theoretical analysis of the genre. For an analysis of the influential work of Burridge (whose work arguing for the Gospels being a form of biography is widely taken for granted but less widely analysed critically) see other Vridar posts in the Burridge archive. For discussions of a work that is, by contrast, a theoretically grounded analysis of the genre of the Gospel of Mark see the Vines archive.

(Unfortunately not even classical studies helps much here since, I’ve been informed, questions of genre generally remain fairly fluid in that department. But biblical studies does elicit certain distinctive questions critical for cultural reasons so genre analysis of biblical literature does deserve to be taken more seriously.)

But enough of my take. This series is meant to be about Brodie’s views. So for the sake of completeness I have decided to copy my earlier post within this series here. If you’ve already read it then think of this as a refresher. It’s a topic that can’t be overstated given that it appears to be utterly lost on the bulk of the present generation of scholars of Christian origins. read more »

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 1

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A Vridar reader, Chris S, recently expressed interest in my hypothesis that Christianity was Simonian in origin but pointed out that it would be helpful to have it laid out systematically in a post or series of posts. As it is, my proposals are scattered among random posts and comment threads. So this series will provide an overview of the hypothesis. I will first summarize the main ideas and then briefly defend them and show how they fit together.

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A Simonian Origin for Christianity

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Status of the Hypothesis

I want to acknowledge up front that my hypothesis is not completely original. It builds on the identification of Paul as a reworked Simon of Samaria that has been argued by Hermann Detering in his The Falsified Paul and by Robert M. Price in his The Amazing Colossal Apostle.

And I want to be clear that my hypothesis is still a work in progress. There is much that I continue to mull over and much that needs to be added. I am aware too that it is speculative. But, as I see it, one of its strengths is that it draws from the earliest extant descriptions of the internal quarrels that plagued Christianity at its birth and can plausibly account for a remarkable number of the peculiarities in those records.

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State of the Evidence: The Problem

The proto-orthodox claimed that their brand of Christianity was the original, and that their earliest Christian competitor, Simon, was the first who corrupted it. But there are good reasons to doubt their veracity. Their many known forgeries, false attributions, fabrications, plagiarisms, and falsifications are acknowledged even by mainstream scholars (see Bart Ehrman’s Forged for examples). Their one canonical attempt to write an account of primitive Christianity—the Acts of the Apostles—fails miserably to convince. It is widely recognized that its description of Paul and his relationship to the Jerusalem church is a deliberate misrepresentation.

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The proto-orthodox claim to unbroken continuity with the Jerusalem church doesn’t add up. . .

Did the proto-orthodox have no one to stand up to Simon’s successors between 70 and 140 CE?

They concede a continuous line of succession for heresy . . . yet are at a loss to tell us who prior to Justin undertook to refute those heretics.
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And their claim to unbroken continuity with the Jerusalem church doesn’t add up.

If they were in existence earlier than the 130s, why is Justin their first known heresy-hunter? Justin names no predecessor for that function in the generation before him. Nor do Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus. Did the proto-orthodox have no one to stand up to Simon’s successors between 70 and 140 CE? They concede a continuous line of succession for heresy (Simon, Menander, Basilides and Satornilus), yet are at a loss to tell us who prior to Justin undertook to refute those heretics.

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The Question to Investigate

So I think it is entirely justifiable to question whether the proto-orthodox were in fact the first Christians. Basically, what I am doing is taking the few bits of information they let slip about Simon of Samaria, and seeing whether the birth of Christianity makes more sense with him as its founder.

I am investigating whether it makes more sense to see proto-orthodoxy as a second-century reaction to a first-century Simonianism that had grown, developed, and branched out.

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The Hypothesis

In summary form my hypothesis is this: read more »

Scholarly Preaching

How remarkable that some scholars find confirmation of the literal fundamentals of the Christian faith in their erudition. One of these is emeritus professor Larry Hurtado who would appear to have found proof of the resurrection of Jesus. Of course it is difficult for a scholar who insists that his religious faith does not undermine his scholarly integrity to express conviction that an academically rigorous analysis of the evidence demonstrates the near-certainty of the resurrection, so the point is expressed in reverse. One cannot say that the resurrection of Jesus explains the evidence, but one can say that the followers of Jesus had overwhelmingly experienced something that they came to believe was evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Scholars are happy, thereby. The sceptics can supposedly free to attribute psychotic problems to the disciples. But the believers know what is being said. And his recent audience at Perth’s Trinity Theological College who “commissioned” Hurtado to deliver his address certainly believe in the literal and bodily resurrection of Jesus.

So what is the proof?

It lies in they way two Old Testament texts — Psalm 110 Isaiah 45:23-25 — were interpreted by the “earliest believers in their efforts to understand and express their experiences and convictions about Jesus and God.”

First, the mind-conditioning.

We are hit with a series of descriptors to lead us to interpret whatever is coming as “curious”, “strange”, “astonishing”. That is, whatever is about to come has a strong emotive force — not unlike something that the earliest believers themselves supposedly felt when they encountered something strange in need of explanation.

it is a curious fact that neither [OT passage]seems to have been particularly prominent in “pre-Christian” Jewish tradition.  

Of course we are all aware that the passages are found to be of interest in the pre-Christian Jewish tradition, but Hurtado dismisses those inconveniences on the grounds that they are “not necessarily persuasive” and amount to “only a couple” of instances. So we are allowed to dismiss evidence to the contrary of our theories if we only see it “a couple of times” and can dismiss it as “not necessarily persuasive”. True believers are apparently permitted to accord themselves little perks like this in debates.

each of these OT texts receives a remarkable and highly innovative interpretation/usage in the NT texts.

Note that. There is no merely “new” or “deviant” or simply “innovative” interpretation of texts when it comes to the early Christians. No, their new interpretations are “highly” innovative, even “remarkable”.

In an astonishing reading, in vv. 9-11 the OT text is drawn on to portray a universal submission to Jesus as Kyrios, thereby bringing glory to the one God (the Father).  That is, an OT passage that emphatically declares the sole supremacy of the one God is drawn on to declare a dyadic obeisance, to Jesus and to God.  

The earliest Christians “astonish” us — scholars included! Their resurrection experience is being relayed to us all by some form of wave emotion. And of course, the OT is interpreted most dogmatically (or is that word pejorative? should I say “emphatically”) that God is a single entity, period. So let all those radical scholars who disagree be shut outside the door. And yes, Hurtado does have his critics on this point, despite his efforts to inform the public that they are somehow behind the eight-ball. (Recently I spoke to a linguist here at the campus where I work and I asked him about the status of Chomsky’s ideas in the field today. Unlike a good many biblical scholars he did not tell me that what he personally believed as if that were the only story worth listening to. He began with, “It depends on who you talk to!” Yes, he did then give his own view — but made it clear that it was his and his was one among several. How many biblical scholars prominent in the public domain are like that?)

So, what could have prompted these radically innovative readings of these OT texts in earliest Christian circles?

The argument avalanches. It is no longer merely “highly innovative.” It has now become “radically innovative”!

And what is the answer to that question? read more »

Now this is worthwhile (big) history!

bigh-van_gogh_starry_night_over_the_rhoneWe surely need a new narrative to replace the nationalist and socialist narratives that have fueled the histories we have been taught, read and watched on film. And it looks like someone with money and interest has spotted one such narrative to give us a new perspective on where we are and where we’ve been.

The new course

gives students a wide-angle look at the universe and humanity’s presence on the cosmic timeline, by combining the sciences, history and economics into one cohesive story.

Check out the Macquarie University’s description of the course:

Big History is the attempt to understand, in a unified and interdisciplinary way, the history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity. Big History is ambitious – it seeks understanding by bringing together and linking the knowledge available in many different scholarly disciplines.

Further details on how Bill Gates has become involved

http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/history-but-with-a-bang-20120219-1thkq.html

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-09-10/bill-gates-big-history/4946140

 

 

Who’s “Rejecting Critical Inquiry”?

Dr. McGrath has taken me to task for my last post on “Getting to the Root of the Criteria Problem.” Actually, he’s unhappy about several things. You can tell he’s upset, because he calls me a canard-repeatin’ mythicist. That’s like a Tea Party guy calling you an atheist-Muslim or a communist-Nazi. It’s so bad.

I think I’d rather be called a Jesus minimalist or a Jesus agnostic. But in any case, the issue at hand wasn’t the existence of Jesus but the state of the evidence and what you can and cannot justifiably claim based on that evidence.  Look, I’m willing to entertain the idea that Matthew was embarrassed by what Mark wrote. I don’t think he was, but if you want to argue that, go ahead. But you can’t leap from the theory that Matthew was embarrassed by Mark to the “fact” that the early Church was embarrassed by a historical event.

I gather he didn’t like my crack about quote-fishers either. He thinks I’m doing “some dubious things with Jan Vansina’s work in the realm of oral tradition and history.”  McGrath writes:

The last point is somewhat new and so worth commenting on further. Widowfield suggests that Vansina’s adoption of something like the criterion of embarrassment is radically different than its use by historians working with texts, because in recitations of oral traditions, the embarrassment of the reciter might be seen in their speech and behavior. Historians can respond to this by pointing out that texts too can indicate an author’s discomfort with material, indicating that it did not originate with them. Moreover, historians prefer to have texts that allow us to actually hear testimony from the past, to having a live reciter of oral tradition, our inability to see whether an ancient author’s brow creased when writing certain things notwithstanding.

First, for clarification, by “historian” I’m pretty sure he’s talking about the theologians and doctors of divinity who write books on the historical Jesus. Jan Vansina, who earned his doctorate in history back in 1957, did in fact write about something that sounds like the criterion of embarrassment. A quote-fisher like McGrath could easily have mistaken it for just the sort of thing that John Meier was talking about in volume 1 of A Marginal Jew.

Are they radically different? Yes, radically and categorically. Here’s why.

read more »

The Parable of the Ropes — Getting to the Root of the Criteria Problem

Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Right for the wrong reasons

A few years back I was on the phone with an acquaintance who is as far to the right politically as I am to the left. At the time the Democratic-led Senate was trying to push through the Affordable Care Act. So he asked me what I thought about the initiative. It turns out we both disapproved.

I explained that I’m for a single-payer solution and that the ACA (now either derisively or proudly called “Obamacare”) would introduce a system that forces citizens to become customers of insurance companies. And since they had dropped the public option from the legislation, I couldn’t support it.

He said he was against it because it’s “socialized medicine.” It isn’t. Sometimes people can agree on something for entirely different reasons. Sometimes you can be right for the wrong reasons.

As I told my brother when he pleaded with me not to vote for Obama because he’s a Marxist! — “You disapprove of Obama because you think he’s a socialist; I disapprove of him because I know he isn’t.”

I was thinking of those conversations the other day when I looked at my notes for Raphael Rodríquez’s “The Embarrassing Truth about Jesus: The Criterion of Embarrassment and the Failure of Historical Authenticity” (in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity). On the last page I had scribbled in frustration: “Rodríquez: Right for the wrong reasons.

[See Neil’s review of this book, starting here.]

This book, which tantalizes with its title but disappoints with its content, missed a great opportunity to get to the roots of the criteria problem. Instead, the authors were content merely to graze the surface, while taking every opportunity to redirect the blame to the Formgeschichte Frankenstein. Or should we call it the “Bultmann Bogeyman”? When the authors aren’t playing threnodies to the form critics, they’re singing paeans to Morna Hooker.

What do I mean by the “roots” of the criteria problem? Perhaps I can best explain by way of a parable.

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A dichotomy fallacy in historical Jesus studies

Anthony Le Donne has published works arguing for a new type of historical study, one that draws upon memory theory, to be applied to the Gospels. He and a number of scholarly supporters believe this new approach can open up a more valid way of approximating the historical Jesus behind the Gospels.

historiographicalJesusIn the opening pages of his opening chapter of The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (2009) Le Donne zeroes in on what he believes is a prevalent fallacy among scholars addressing historical questions in the Gospels and Acts. This is that a good number of well-known scholars have argued that an event in the Gospels-Acts that is expressed as some “typology” or fulfillment of an Old Testament passage should not be thought of as historical, or that it should at least be relegated to a status of questionable historicity. On the other hand, events written as facts and that contain no striking overlay of such Old Testament framing should, rightly, be considered historical, or at least be acknowledged as historical in the mind of the author.

Anthony Le Donne quotes Michael Goulder’s explicit expression of this principle:

Where . . . we find passages with no apparent root in symbolism, or with unimportant traces of types, we shall be justified in assuming that St. Luke was setting down a factual story. . . . This will be our first criterion: where there are no types, Acts is intended to be factual.

Where an incident can be accounted for wholly, or almost wholly, on typological grounds, we shall have to be very wary indeed of giving it weight as history. This gives us a second criterion: the thicker the types, the less likely is the passage to be factual.

I agree with Anthony Le Donne completely that scholars who argue for or against the historicity of a passage in the Gospels and Acts on such are basis are succumbing to fallacious and invalid reasoning. But I also believe that Le Donne has succumbed to an unsupportable assumption of his own and that what he proposes as the correction to this wrong argument is just as baseless.

Where Anthony Le Donne is right

It is quite reasonable to suggest that an event that has been framed or crafted in terms of Old Testament passages was originally an historical happening that was later reinterpreted by others through Old Testament prophecies.

Gosh, the emperor Hadrian used to present himself as Hercules, and the even more illustrious Alexander the Great was presented as the conquering god Dionysus. Mythical overlay of historical events and persons calls for historical explanation, not denial of historicity. read more »

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (10)

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 10: How Matthew and Luke changed Mark

The Martyrdom of the Apostle St.Matthew

The Martyrdom of the Apostle St.Matthew
(The evangelist prepares for the final cut.)
Jan de Beer (c.1530-1535)

Five months have passed since my previous post on The Messianic Secret. In the interim, I have focused on material related to the genre of the gospels, which has consumed most of my attention.

Recently, however, I’ve been simultaneously reading or re-reading several works on the problem of the Synoptic Gospels, including E.P. Sanders’ The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, William Farmer’s The Synoptic Problem, and Mark Goodacre’s The Case Against Q. I’ve learned much from reading each of these authors, but I would like to point out that we often will not necessarily understand what is important or significant until we read a work the second or third time.

Let me explain further. About a month ago I began reading The Synoptic Problem by William Farmer, and much to my surprise I learned quite a bit about how we arrived at the “Two-Source” (Mark and Q) consensus — things I didn’t pick up from reading Streeter or anyone else, for that matter. Farmer’s perspective gave him free rein to look for inconsistencies, bad logic, and questionable motives. I now feel the need to go back and re-read The Four Gospels with this new information in mind.

Reading Sanders and Goodacre (again) helped change my perspective on the problem. And as luck would have it, reading Schmidt’s The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature as well as the later chapters of The Messianic Secret forced me to re-evaluate those thorny questions.

Synoptic questions

The basic questions we ask ourselves concerning the Synoptic Problem — once we admit that the first three evangelists were somehow copying one another — are:

  1. Who copied whom?
  2. Who changed what?
  3. Why did they change it?

In order to mount a convincing argument as to which gospel came first we need some set of criteria that convincingly explains why an author would change his source material. That is, can we detect any editorial tendencies of an author that caused him to truncate or expand a story? What theological preconceptions might cause a later author to gloss over “difficult” or “uncongenial” passages?

Wrede tackled these sorts of questions in Part Two, “The Later Gospels: Matthew and Luke.”

A primary question will then have to be how the Markan material we have examined is treated in both Gospels.(p. 152)

He’s referring to the passages in Mark that deal with concealment and misunderstanding. If, in Wrede’s view, both Matthew and Luke recapitulate much of Mark, taking over his historical sequence (such as it is), then we should be able to acquire a “direct insight into the history of the approach, which is of interest to us.” (p. 152)

In his examination of Matthew’s use of Mark, Wrede closely examined several pericopae, identified the differences, and tried to develop a coherent reason or set of reasons for the author to change his source material. We will look at two of those stories now.

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