2017-04-27

Did the Search for Meaning in Scriptures Really Lead to the Gospel Narratives?

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by Neil Godfrey

To some extent, the followers of Jesus knew the basic facts: he was crucified by the authority of Pontius Pilate (with the complicity of the Jewish leadership?) outside the city of Jerusalem around the time of the Passover. Yet what was the meaning of those events? As Koester has noted, that question led the followers of Jesus back to the Scriptures, to familiar passages that seemed to describe some comparable situation. For example, according to Nils Dahl, “[E]arly Christians read Psalm 22, Psalm 69, and other psalms of lamentation, probably also Isaiah 53, as accounts of the passion of Jesus before there existed any written passion story.” 21 As Crossan explains, these believers did not read such passages “as referring exclusively and individually to Jesus but rather… to their original referents and to Jesus now as well.” 22 Thus, in addition to the examples cited by Dahl, one passage that helped Jesus’ followers make sense of what had happened was this verse from the Psalms: “The rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed” (2: 2). Another such passage— one that seemed to include what had happened to Jesus’ followers— was a verse from Zechariah: “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered” (13: 7b). And after reports of the resurrection, Jesus’ followers saw new significance in this verse from Hosea: “After two days [the LORD] will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up” (6: 2). According to Crossan, these “passion prophecies” led the first generation of Christians to develop the belief that Jesus’ suffering and subsequent vindication had all been part of God’s plan.

Chumney, David. Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts (Kindle Locations 1608-1621). Kindle Edition.

A new book titled Jesus Eclipsed has been introduced by its author, David Chumney, over three posts on John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity site (part 1, part 2, part 3). I have been reading both the book and David’s introductory blog posts and may discuss the work in more detail later. For now I can comment that Chumney is strongly opposed to mythicism (sometimes to the point of misrepresentation) even though his arguments are in all respects — except for two details — found at length in mythicist works by Robert Price, Richard Carrier and Earl Doherty. The two details on which he differs are that Josephus (his James passage) and Paul (his meeting with James) provide sufficient evidence to establish the historicity of Jesus. Unfortunately I think Chumney unwittingly slips into arguing from the same assumptions and with the same circularity as other New Testament scholars, perhaps not surprisingly given that Chumney has the same background in seminary studies. But here I address primarily a point that occurred to me just now as I read his sixth chapter.

Most readers will be familiar with the standard scholarly explanation for the passion narrative in the gospels being infused with allusions to “Old Testament”. The disciples were so stunned by the unexpected turn of events, it is said, that they turned to the scriptures to find some means of understanding the death of Jesus and their subsequent “Easter experience”. The passage by Chumney above sums up the idea.

The question that occurred to me this time on reflecting on this explanation for the scriptural echoes throughout the passion narrative was,

“But didn’t the scriptures provide a ready set of answers for exactly the sort of demise Jesus had met? Why were those traditional explanations apparently inadequate?”

We know the Bible and extra canonical Second Temple writings were riddled with laments and praise for the righteous one who suffers unjustly. Unjust suffering, persecution, martyrdom — such was the fate of the righteous man ever since Abel and on right through Job, the Psalms and to the Maccabees. Jewish scribes wrote plenty to remind readers of this “fact of life” and to console them, assuring them that God found their blood “precious in his sight”.

So why the need to take from Psalm 22 the line that spoke of dividing garments and casting lots for them? How did that passage add to the meaning of what had happened?

Did that really happen? Chumney’s argument is correct: he turns back to the nineteenth century and David Strauss’s point in The Life of Jesus:

 “[W]hen we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical.”

But the Psalm 22:18,

They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

I suggest, would have added no more meaning to their experience of loss than 22:17, 20-21

All my bones are on display;
. . . . .

Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.

Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

None of those lines has any association with a death by crucifixion and they are ignored by the evangelists who composed the passion narratives. Are we to infer that the disciples of Jesus did find deeper meaning for the death of Jesus in verse 18? If so, how could that be?

The obvious answer, of course, is that the disciples were reminded of that passage in Psalms when they learned from eyewitnesses that the clothes of Jesus were indeed taken by the soldiers.

Do we have a problem here?

But if that is what inspired the disciples to find meaning in Psalm 22:18 we run into a problem.

The entire argument on the significance of the scriptural allusions in the passion narratives from Strauss to Crossan and beyond is that such details are fabricated. They did not really happen. They are “prophecy historizied”.

We could go through the specific details of Jesus’ suffering and death and their scriptural allusions making the same point for each one.

The scholarly explanation for the scriptural allusions within the passion narrative (that the disciples found such scriptures provided meaning for their experience of losing Jesus) only makes sense if they believed beforehand that those little details really did happen to Jesus. He really was silent before Pilate; he really was struck and mocked and spat upon and commanded to prophecy; he really did cry out in hopeless despair at the end just as the first verse of the twenty-second psalm suggested.

The scriptural passages, I suggest, could not have given comfort or provided meaning otherwise.

No, I suspect there that the traditional scholarly explanation is missing something. Such verses were not seized and developed by the disciples of Jesus looking for some sort of meaning to explain the death of Jesus. At least not at first. That was not the origin of their application to the passion narrative.

The reason I think that is because we can see a trajectory of development across the gospels.

“Mark 15:28 Here the verse is derived from Luke 22:37, converting the prediction Jesus made there into a theological comment by recounting its fulfillment.

“The external attestation for omission is clearly superior. The presence of the verse in the Byzantine text explains why it (like the others) is in the text printed by Erasmus and in subsequent editions of the Greek text, and conse­quently in the versions made in the centuries following.”(Aland, K and Aland, B. 1987. The Text of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, p. 302)

In the Gospel of Mark we have no explicit statements saying that such and such happened “in order to fulfill” a prophecy. (The sole exception, Mark 15:28, is an interpolation.) The author of this gospel clearly drew upon the Jewish scriptures and wove his narrative around them, but he did not say why he did this. Only the authors of the later gospels (who find much wrong with Mark and accordingly change it in so many ways) draw attention to the prophetic fulfillments. The first gospel to be written did not point out to readers that the details around the death of Jesus fulfilled scriptures; it simply created a story out of those scriptures.

So there is no prima facie reason for thinking that our author of the Gospel of Mark was trying to tell anyone that detailed historical events associated with Jesus’ crucifixion fufilled prophecy. That effort only came later and it began with the later evangelists, not the disciples of Jesus.

Just one more thing before I sign off.

Notice again Chumney’s words with which I began this post:

To some extent, the followers of Jesus knew the basic facts: he was crucified by the authority of Pontius Pilate (with the complicity of the Jewish leadership?) outside the city of Jerusalem around the time of the Passover.

What strikes me here is the extreme difficulty for anyone long familiar with the gospel narratives to step outside our long-held assumptions about them — as Earl Doherty pointed out many times. Prior to writing those words Chumney had identified just two pieces of evidence that he believed supported the historicity of Jesus:

  • Josephus’s passing remark: “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James”, which assures us that Josephus had written something more about Jesus earlier in the same book;
  • Paul’s words: “But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.

Yet notice what Chumney includes among “the basic facts” about Jesus: that he was crucified outside Jerusalem and that he was crucified at the time of the Passover. Neither of those details are sourced in historical evidence independent of the gospels or a theological claim made by Paul about Jesus being their “passover”. That is, they cannot be confirmed as “basic facts” from the indisputable historical evidence. The Passover link to Jesus’ death clearly has theological meaning given the association of Passover with liberation. Josephus says nothing about Jesus being crucified around Passover. The Passover motif was as much a creative product of the evangelist who wrote Mark as was his portrayal of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and the darkness at noon. The setting could add nothing to the consoling of the bereft disciples unless it really was the Passover season when Jesus died.

Then notice among the last words I quoted from Chumney:

And after reports of the resurrection, Jesus’ followers saw new significance in this verse from Hosea: “After two days [the LORD] will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up” (6: 2).

Again, as can be done with each of the other “prophecies”, let’s ask how such a passage could have attributed significance to the followers of Jesus in mourning after his crucifixion? Who is meant by “us”? What was meant by “two” and “three” days? Remember, we cannot begin with an assumption of any sort of historicity behind the gospel accounts. That’s cheating. At least it’s circular.

But after a narrative was known beforehand (think “Gospel of Mark” here) then it made sense for others to come along and say all the details were prophesied and preserved in the holy books.

Now, what about the scriptural allusions to other events in the narrative of Jesus?

 

 

 

18 Comments

  • 2017-04-27 10:08:22 UTC - 10:08 | Permalink

    Psalm 22 serves a narrative purpose in GMark. It allows the storyteller to show, not tell that Jesus understands his predicament.

    Psalm 22 is an invictus poem: Jesus is screwed (or otherwise fastened) just now, but there will be another day, and he knows it, even if nobody else does – yet. Selected plausible situation-appropriate moments from the Psalm (especially mockery, for which the audience has been well prepared), cue Jesus’ recollection of the Psalm as a whole. It is a level of discourse fault to labor whether soldiers “really” gambled for Jesus’ badly used clothing, just as it would be to wonder at length whether any passerby really did mistake Eloi for Elijah. These are vehicles to make story points. They are not substantial fact claims.

    Historicizing prophecy? What prophecy would that be? Psalm 22 is a lyrical expression of a timeless aspect of the human condition: reversal of fortune. The poem affirms that at least sometimes, fortune improves. Recognizing how (or just imagining that) today’s contingency fits into some “bigger picture” is a typical way of “finding meaning.”

    Jesus finds his meaning while hanging on a pole – “Holy crap, I’m living in Psalm 22… which, come to think of it, turned out surprising well for my many-many-times great grandaddy Dave.” Jesus gets it, and so there is something after all for his later devotees to get, too. One prerequisite for a thriving religion is thus furnished.

  • Darth Ballz
    2017-04-27 18:03:35 UTC - 18:03 | Permalink

    John Shelby Spong has long argued that there were no narrative details about the crucifixion because all the disciples fled when Jesus go arrested.

    Mark writes:

    49Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest Me. But this has happened that the Scriptures would be fulfilled.” 50Then all His disciples deserted Him and fled. 51One young man who had been following Jesus was wearing a linen cloth around his body. They caught hold of him,… (Mark 14:49-51).”

    Spong seems to want to argue the arrest was predicted in scripture, not the abandonment.

  • R Pence
    2017-04-28 07:27:37 UTC - 07:27 | Permalink

    More great work from Neil! Please keep up this good work. Your site provides a real service.

  • Matt Cavanaugh
    2017-04-29 02:09:05 UTC - 02:09 | Permalink

    The disciples were so stunned by the unexpected turn of events, it is said, that they turned to the scriptures to find some means of understanding the death of Jesus and their subsequent “Easter experience”.

    The fatal flaw in this scenario is assuming there were any disciples at all left to do such soul-searching.

    Theudus’ followers were mowed down en masse. The Egyptian’s followers were massacred by the thousands. Menahem’s disciples either were cut down in Jerusalem or perished at Masada. Tens of thousands were slain following the suppression of the revolts of Andreas and Simon bar Kosiba.

    Yet the disciples of Jesus — perceived enemy of both the Romans and the Jewish priesthood — all escaped unscathed. Though they flee in panic (unhindered!) from Gethsemane, though Peter had to desperately deny his affiliation, a short while later they are freely preaching in the temple about the criminal Jesus.

    The scenario is preposterous. Had Jesus’ blasphemy and sedition really been so alarming to the priests and the Romans, respectively, then both would have followed Jesus’ execution by hunting down and killing every one of his followers they could have found.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-04-29 06:08:21 UTC - 06:08 | Permalink

      Paula Fredriksen “solves” this problem by arguing that Pilate well knew that Jesus was not a threat and that his “movement” posed no danger.

      • Matt Cavanaugh
        2017-04-29 15:24:03 UTC - 15:24 | Permalink

        David Irving solved his problem by arguing that Hitler was never told about the Wannsee Conference.

    • 2017-04-29 10:21:33 UTC - 10:21 | Permalink

      Mark’s Jesus pretty much spills his opponents’ strategy. “Strike the shepherd and the sheep scatter.”

      Jesus is no Theudas. He’s got one platoon, and he can’t hold that together, nor even post sentries who stay awake. They could and did mount one visible small-unit operation, briefly disrupting the Temple money changers. Awesome.

      As it is, Pilate’s response is overkill. Half-flay the ringleader and nail up what’s left for all to gawk at. That’s probably SOP, but the people who would most profit from this display don’t have the stones even to take a look, much less do anything about it.

      Mark’s Peter assuming command of whatever might remain of that pathetic platoon is good news for the opposition. Peter is surrounded by Temple guards when he’s identified. The guards couldn’t be bothered to detain him. Good reading of the tactical situation on their part.

      And of the strategic situation, too. In most versions of the story, the reunited remnant never much threatens the peace. Running a soup kitchen might be a suspect political activity, but this group even fails to convert charity into popularity.

      Or so the story is told.

      • Matt Cavanaugh
        2017-04-29 15:39:10 UTC - 15:39 | Permalink

        Citing Mark to prove the veracity of Mark won’t work, of course — except this is biblical History, so circular reasoning is de riguer.

        Jesus didn’t have just a ‘platoon’; he drew crowds of thousands. He then appointed 70 cadres to spread out and form new sleeper cells. (LOL)

        Per Philo and Josephus, Pilate’s SOP was to kill hundreds or thousands of innocent bystanders at the drop of a hat. Why he went all soft on some soup kitchen workers is a mystery. I’m sure Paula Frederiksen, what with her B.S. from MSU, can come up with something.

      • 2017-04-29 19:19:52 UTC - 19:19 | Permalink

        @Matt

        The issue before us isn’t the veracity of Mark. His coherence is relevant, though. That can be assessed, without circularity, by an examination of what he asserts.

        > Jesus didn’t have just a ‘platoon’; he drew crowds of thousands.

        Which has no relevance to Jesus’ tactical situation during his stay in Jerusalem.

        In Mark, Romans didn’t fight in the Garden, but a “crowd” sent by Jewish authorities (14:43), to whom the crowd delivered their prisoner. Sniffles and Company were long gone before Pilate ever heard there’d been an arrest. Reports differ about whether the survivors then spent some time in Galilee; to the extent they did, they weren’t Pilate’s look-out.

        Their soup kitchen, which isn’t from Mark anyway, could easily have opened after Pilate left office, as if he’d have cared.

        And what’s the problem with Professor Fredriksen, so very especially?

        • Matt Cavanaugh
          2017-04-29 21:29:23 UTC - 21:29 | Permalink

          The issue before us isn’t the veracity of Mark. His coherence is relevant, though.

          Keyser Söze’s account was coherent too.

          And what’s the problem with Professor Fredriksen, so very especially?

          Where do I start?

          Her entire thesis is based, as Neil mentions, on the “historical certainty from the earliest evidence” that Jesus was crucified by the Romans but his followers were not. “Paul, the gospels, Josephus, Tacitus: the evidence does not get any better than this. “

          She deems irrefutably historical the disciples’ conviction that they’d seen the resurrected Jesus.

          She considers John the most historical of the gospels. Following John, she surmises that the priesthood for years ignored Jesus as an harmless doomsayer, much like Jesus ben Ananias. He was only crucified because he got caught up in a rebellious crowd that final Passover.

          The gospels’ multiple variations of Jesus predicting the destruction of the temple for her count as “independent attestation” (though she ultimately concludes it likely dates to post-70.)

          She accepts as historical evidence not only the Corinthian Creed, but the entire TF. Interpolation seems an alien concept to her.

        • 2017-04-30 01:03:27 UTC - 01:03 | Permalink

          @Matt

          > Where do I start? … (and I read the rest, with thanks)

          All that was fascinating, but the presenting complaint was Fredriksen’s unsatisfactory estimate of Pontius Pilate.

          Fredriksen’s name first came up in Neil’s post. As you say, her premise is that Gospel narratives are true. We can dissent from that proposition, but we cannot fault her for identifying what follows from a disclosed premise.

          If her premise is accepted arguendo, then an already in-custody and finely tuned-up Jesus is exactly no threat, but sadly for him, finishing the job at that point didn’t cost much. The Merry Men are hardly any threat, either, but they aren’t in custody.

          Because Pilate responded ruthlessly to massed forces who were engaged by his own forces, you seem to expect him to go manhunting for individuals whose whereabouts he doesn’t know.

          You offer no military rationale for such a suggestion. As near as I can make out, that’s because in your view, Pilate didn’t make military decisions based on military considerations. Fine, but if someone should happen to disagree, that needn’t reflect on them personally.

          • Matt Cavanaugh
            2017-04-30 20:46:26 UTC - 20:46 | Permalink

            I’ll give her credit for at least recognizing that some explanation is required for the issue I highlight above. Assuming the gospel narrative is true, then her interpretation is a plausible solution to why Pilate and the High Priest acted out of character.

            Still, it’s an ad hoc rescue. All things being equal, the simpler, more logical conclusions is the gospel accounts are not veracious, thus no need for Pilate or the High Priest to act abnormally.

            Frederiksen’s acceptance of the NT as historical documentation is not unique, but her high estimation of the TF and Tacitus as external evidence is a bit intense even for historicists. My major annoyance is, she’s doing bad history and building edifices on a documentary foundation of sand that would not cut it in any other area of historical inquiry.

            Also, ultimately she’s reading Pilate’s mind, and her read is unfalsifiable.

          • Matt Cavanaugh
            2017-04-30 21:02:37 UTC - 21:02 | Permalink

            As to Pilate’s “military” response, he: massacred a crowd of people peaceably seeking redress; crucified 300 insurrectionists in one day; was recalled for wielding too harsh a hand. I don’t see someone like that letting a seditionist’s chief comrades slip away. Note too, that when Ananus ben Ananus stoned James, he also executed several of James’ close associates. Why Caiaphas would be infinitely more lenient (& cf. Acts 4:21 !) defies explanation.

            As Lena Einhorn observes, John 18:12 mentions an entire Roman cohort sent to capture Jesus. The disciples are packing swords. If, like Frederiksen, we are allowed to freely speculate, then I would envision Jesus had quite a large contingent with him that night. It would thus make tactical sense for the Romans to hit fast and hard, slaying great numbers, arresting the rest. Better safe than sorry.

        • 2017-05-01 00:29:24 UTC - 00:29 | Permalink

          @Matt

          > Assuming the gospel narrative is true, then her interpretation is a plausible solution to why Pilate and the High Priest acted out of character.

          OK, then. I asked because I was concerned that I’d missed something. Thanks for helping clear that up.

  • Darth Ballz
    2017-04-29 17:06:28 UTC - 17:06 | Permalink

    Neil said:

    “The author of this gospel clearly drew upon the Jewish scriptures and wove his narrative around them, but he did not say why he did this. Only the authors of the later gospels (who find much wrong with Mark and accordingly change it in so many ways) draw attention to the prophetic fulfillments.”

    But doesn’t Mark indicate he was going to be working on prophetic fulfillments?

    Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey, the food of the wilderness in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on).

  • Kunigunde Kreuzerin
    2017-04-29 20:36:03 UTC - 20:36 | Permalink

    Neil: “The author of this gospel clearly drew upon the Jewish scriptures and wove his narrative around them, but he did not say why he did this. Only the authors of the later gospels (who find much wrong with Mark and accordingly change it in so many ways) draw attention to the prophetic fulfillments.”

    The allusion to Esther in the story of John’s death could be also a good argument.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-04-29 23:24:18 UTC - 23:24 | Permalink

      A study of Esther is on my “to do” list.

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