Monthly Archives: August 2017

The Enigma of Genre and The Gospel of John

In an earlier post, I wrote:

Seen from the perspective of believers, the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are disconcertingly different. On the other hand, if we clear our minds of the anxiety of historicity, we see that Mark and John resemble one another much more than they do any “other” Greco-Roman biography.

Notice that both gospels don’t begin with the birth of the subject (Jesus) or even vignettes from his childhood. Instead, they start with John the Baptist. In fact, both John and Mark have the Baptist utter the very first words of direct speech.

Charles Harold Dodd

The fact that John’s pattern for writing a gospel — what the Germans refer to as Gattung — seems suspiciously similar to Mark’s pattern did not escape Charles H. Talbert’s notice. In What Is a Gospel? he wrote:

The heritage of the last generation’s research, as enshrined in the commentaries on the Fourth Gospel by C. H. Dodd and Rudolf Bultmann, has supplied us with the working hypothesis that John and the Synoptics are independent of one another. James M. Robinson has seen that this hypothesis poses the problem of explaining how the same Gattung could emerge independently in two different trajectories, the synoptic and the Johannine.

If, as is usually supposed, Mark was the creator of the literary genre gospel and if John was independent of Mark, where did the fourth Evangelist get his pattern? (Talbert 1986, p. 9-10, bold emphasis mine)

Mark’s Pattern

The consensus among NT scholars for over a century has held that sayings of and stories about Jesus floated freely, first as oral history — kept alive through telling and retelling by his disciples — then as oral tradition, and finally as written gospels. But those first “gospels” were, so the reasoning goes, more or less freeform collections. Not until Mark did we at last see the first narrative gospel, which integrated the stories, sayings, and parables, laid out structurally as a journey along the path from Galilee to Jerusalem, with a tacked-on, pre-existing Passion Narrative.

[James M. Robinson] states that “the view that one distinctive Gattung Gospel emerged sui generis from the uniqueness of Christianity seems hardly tenable.” [Robinson (Trajectories) p. 235, 1971] The emergence of Mark and John independently points to the necessity for a reexamination of the question of the genre of the canonical gospels. (Talbert 1986, p. 10)

Wow. Can you believe Bultmann had the nerve to insist that the author of the Fourth Gospel had no knowledge at all of Mark’s gospel and failed to realize that John’s independent invention of a supposedly unique Gattung strains credulity?  read more »

So Language Did Not Originate for Communication?

This video clip of part of a Chomsky talk on language and its origins has to be one of the most fascinating discussions that I have heard. Warning: one must be alert to keep up with the argument; it’s not for drowsy late-time listening.

He is saying that latest research indicates language did not originate as a tool for communication but communication was a by-product of a problem-solving ability. That makes me feel a bit better when I find myself unable to articulate something I think I understand; but then I’m reminded that Chomsky once said (relying upon my faulty memory here) we don’t know what we are really thinking until we express it.

Does anyone know when and where the talk was originally given? The upload date is August 17 but I doubt that’s the date of the talk itself. I was alerted to it because it supposedly had something shocking to say about blacks, but found out there was much, much more to the half-hour segment.

You’ll need to rewind the video back to start….

Two Baffling Conundrums on Modern AntiSemitism

Jerry Coyne and Mano Singham have each posted their respective conundrums about Nazis and modern day antisemitism.

FTB (Freethought blogs) blogger Mano Singham raises his question in Why do neo-Nazis hate Jews?

But the anti-Jewish racism of Nazi Germany had a plausible explanation. Demagogues always face a particular problem. Part of their appeal is to pander to their followers by telling them how great their race is. This message resonates especially when they are not doing so well, as was the case in pre-war Germany. But then you have the problem of explaining why, if they are so great, their country and their lives are not wonderful. . . . 

Mano points out that the Jews in the US do not single themselves out as obviously different by living in ghettos; to most of us they are essentially indistinguishable from anyone.

So back to my question: Why do the current neo-Nazis hate Jews? I am genuinely baffled.

Mano’s blog post prompted me to pick up from my “waiting-to-be-read” pile of books Jacob Katz’s From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933. It had been some time since I read other answers to Mano’s question, such as Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century and Israel Shahak’s s Jewish History, Jewish Religion, (see my 2011 post, Understanding the Reasons for Anti-Semitism) hence I had an added incentive to make Katz my next read.

Mano’s quandary arises from what I think is confusion between a moment of political exploitation of antisemitism and the reasons for antisemitism itself. Antisemitism has long lurked independently of persons in power who have taken opportunities to exploit and fan it.

That was part of my point in my previous post, Islamophobia Really Is a Twin of Anti-Semitism.

Hard on on heels of Mano Singham’s public query, Jerry Coyne posted his own somewhat perverse confusion in A thought about “Nazis”. I posted a short reply on Mano’s blog but Jerry seems to have a habit of banning from his blog views that dissent from his and he has certainly banned me from posting on WEIT (Why Evolution Is True) — though ironically he deplores the “deplatforming of Richard Dawkins by a Berkeley radio station as “a terrible blow to free speech” — so I cannot offer my response to Coyne personally.

Coyne has a conundrum that he posts in A thought about “Nazis” . . . . read more »

Islamophobia Really Is a Twin of Anti-Semitism

In his opening chapter of From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933 Jacob Katz introduces readers to Johann Andreas Eisenmenger, a late seventeenth century intellectual whom he identifies as setting out the blueprint for the survival of antisemitism beyond the Christian era of the Middle Ages. Katz points out that, ironically, just as the European world was beginning to slough off the domination of Church, superstitions and ignorant prejudices and to move at last in the direction of rationalism and secularism, to a time when states were beginning to grant citizenship and basic rights to Jews, antisemitic attitudes among both elites and the public appeared to take a vicious turn for the worse.

The explanation, Katz believes, must include a focus on historical heritage:

A heavy hereditary burden, going back to the Middle Ages and ancient times, has loomed over the relationship between the Jew and the non-Jewish world. This heritage was partly accountable for the enmity that broke out just when one might have expected it to have been eradicated by the change in historic circumstances. . . . .

Fate decreed that a certain Christian writer, Johann Andreas Eisenmenger, should have arisen at just that moment in the history of anti-Semitism and concentrated the tradition of medieval anti- Jewish doctrines in his great work Entdecktes Judenthum. (Katz 1980, p.13 – The title Entdecktes Judenthum translates as “Judaism Uncovered”.)

Johann Eisenmenger, 1654-1704

One would expect the Age of Reason and the ensuing Age of Enlightenment would rid the world of the scourge of racism.

However, rationalism did not bridge the schism, but succeeded only in changing its character, and so the denunciations of Eisenmenger did not drop out of sight for more than a brief period. They kept coming up, and his book nourished the anti-Semitic movement directly and indirectly at all stages of its development. . .  (p. 14, bolding mine in all quotations)

My interest in reading Katz was to further understand the history and nature of modern antisemitism but his discussion of Eisenmenger’s book pulled me right back to so many anti-Islamic writings I have across on the web. The approach, the method and assumptions with which Eisenmenger “identified” the reasons for the “untrustworthy” and even “murderous” nature of the Jews were exactly the same as the way many fearful people today find reasons to fear Muslims as “untrustworthy” and even “murderous” at heart by studying their religious writings. read more »

The Origin of Large Life Forms

Interesting article by Diana Hayward on yesterday’s ABC Science page:

Algae explosion 650 million years ago is why we’re here today, ANU researchers say

The key section:

That climatic catastrophe was a global thawing of what Professor Brocks calls a “Snowball Earth”.

Fifty million years before the algae began to bloom the Earth’s oceans were frozen.

But a global heating event caused the glaciers to melt and as they did they released nutrients into the ocean.

“This increased phosphate fertiliser in the oceans,” Professor Brocks said.

And when the Earth cooled to more hospitable levels it created perfect conditions for algae to spread.

“It appears this huge release of nutrients after the melting of this snowball Earth event triggered the evolution of this larger algae and replaced bacteria.”

“Algae are incredibly large in comparison to bacteria. And you need large and nutritious organisms at the base of the food webs to create the burst of energy towards higher and bigger organisms,” Professor Brocks said.

So it all started with global warming and the subsequent explosion in algae.

 

The changed profile of terrorism

[W]e are increasingly seeing a shift away from networks of individuals linked by shared ethnicity to parts of the world where dangerous groups gather, and towards jihadist ideas acting as beacons which draw in both disenfranchised young Muslims but also estranged individuals who were not born into Islam. The continuing presence of relatively recent converts in disrupted cells suggests that this is no longer a problem which is isolated among established Muslim communities, but rather that jihadist ideas within the United Kingdom are becoming the default anti-establishment movement for an increasingly diverse community of individuals. (Pantucci, Raffaello. 2015. “We Love Death as You Love Life”: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. London: Hurst & Company, 2015., pp. 291f)

I deliberately avoided posting on this topic during the heat of the attacks a few months ago. I didn’t want to attract comments generated more by heat than a serious interest in learning what the qualified researchers are coming to understand. Unfortunately, I seriously wonder if voices like those of Sam Harris or Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins have ever felt the slightest need or interest to inform themselves about what the serious research has to say.

Does anyone who knows the U.S.A. reasonably well think that the alt-right is becoming a “default anti-establishment movement for an increasingly diverse community of individuals” there?

 

 

Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’

“Rages” in the title is a bit of poetic licence. I don’t really think either of the two chapters by classicists discussing the arguments for and against the historicity of an ancient philosopher can be considered “rages”.

My point was to alert potential readers that this post is not a repeat of my post of less than a week ago about the historicity of Demonax : Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? That post addressed the views of Tomas Hagg as published in 2012 in The Art of Biography in Antiquity. I was really playing catch-up with that one since one year and two months ago I posted a more recent (published 2016) discussion of another classicist, Mark Beck, addressing the same thorny question: If Biblical Scholars Were Classicists. I was sharing my reading of “Lucian’s Life of Demonax”, a chapter in Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, edited by Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen.

Would we have to deny the historicity of most other ancient persons if we reject Demonax?

It is interesting to compare the two different discussions of the question of Demonax’s historicity. How do non-biblical scholars, those dedicated to the study of ancient times, address questions of historicity in those cases where we lack the testimony of monuments, public inscriptions, coins, etc.? The question is of some interest, I suspect, to those who follow what biblical scholars might have to say about certain arguments of the historicity of, let’s say at random, Adam, or Abraham, or Moses, or Jesus.

Do independent contemporary sources decide the question?

In both discussions a primary and very weighty consideration is the absence of contemporary notices. If the person really was so influential as the biography claims, then how do we account for the absence of contemporary witnesses? Why do we have to wait for a person claiming to be a student and eyewitness of the famous person writing something long after the teacher was dead?

Does fictional storytelling decide the question?

It is also interesting that in both discussions the above question is of considerable import, while the fact that it is clearly evident that the extant biography of Demonax contains much fiction is not so important. If someone tells tall tales about a famous teacher, so what? That seems to be the approach. It’s to be expected. Fictional details do not mean the subject did not exist.

Does an eyewitness claim decide the question?

But we have a writing by one who clearly says he was an eyewitness and a student of Demonax! No dice, apparently. That does not count as decisive in either discussion. Anyone could say that about the person they were writing about.

Do independent references decide the question?

In both discussions, the one by Hãgg and the one by Beck, the independent testimony of sayings by Demonax is a significant point. The biographer of Demonax did not make use of what we know of an independent collection of sayings by Demonax. Beck considers these independent sayings attributed to Demonax as enough to tilt the scales in favour of the historicity of Demonax. Hägg is not convinced; for Hägg, such a collection only raises more questions than it answers with respect to the historicity question. Those independent sayings are just a little “too” independent and appear to have no real relevance to the person of Lucian’s biography, according to Hägg. So scholarly opinions differ — interestingly without any apparent need for abusive language and all sorts of ad hominem attacks.

Does a namesake at the right time and place decide the question?

But Hägg does concede that there was a historical Demonax in Athens at the right time. He just does not think that Demonax had much in common with Lucian’s portrait. Beck agrees with the problematic nature of Lucian’s portrait by adding that it is evident that a source for that portrait was Lucian’s own life. Lucian was writing about himself!

Does the function of the biography decide the question?

Both classicists acknowledge that the fact that Lucian’s biography had a clear purpose of teaching readers virtuous principles is itself a point against the historicity of any of the biography’s anecdotes. The author, they agree, wrote with the purpose of teaching virtue and creating a moral exemplar for readers, not with any specific intent to preserve genuine historical memories for posterity.

Back to that question about independent contemporary sources

So the bottom line is that the question of historicity stands or falls on the point of testimony independent of the biography and contemporaneous with the person of interest.

Jesus at Thirty: Four Canonical Portraits (Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 3)

Tomas Hägg

Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) rightly notes that the four canonical gospels give us “four distinctive, if overlapping literary representations of Jesus.”

Yet comparatively little seems to have been written from a literary point of view to define by what means of characterization these four portraits emerge, and what the main characteristics are of each of them…. In spite of recent advances in the study of characterization in the New Testament, the general tendency seems to be to shun the figure(s) of Jesus himself and to focus on Paul, Peter, Judas, or lesser characters in the stories. In Bible commentaries one sometimes meets short, tantalizing characterizations, but nowhere (to my knowledge) any sustained comparative analysis. (p. 180)

Tomas Hägg explains that his discussion is intended to offer “just a few hints of possible approaches” to the character study of Jesus across the four gospels, “no full portraits.”

He begins by noting two “rather different” character interpretations of the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark:

To Joel Marcus, the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is

  • dynamic
  • abrasive
  • intensely emotional, “a passionate instrument for the advent of the dominion of God”

To Richard Burridge, on the other hand, the Markan Jesus is

  • enigmatic and secretive
  • rushing around doing things “immediately”
  • a miracle worker, yet one who talks about suffering and dies terribly alone and forsaken

Burridge then discusses Matthew’s Jesus but without mentioning a single “actual character trait”: Jesus is a “new Moses”, but no particular personality or character is addressed. Next, for Burridge, is the Lukan Jesus who cares for the outcasts, the lost, the Gentiles, the women, the poor.

From Mark, then, we get the temperament; from Matthew, the theology; from Luke, the ethics — no contrasting portraits, just different angles. (p. 181)

Where the difficulty evidently lies

The evangelists do not offer any direct characterization of Jesus. This is not what we normally find in other biographies. Biographers are generally only too keen to use adjectives to describe their subject, to tell us the sort of person he (how many ancient biographies are there of women?) was. In the case of the gospels, however, read more »

Reading the Classics and the Gospels Differently

Aesop in Life was portrayed as physically misshapen so that most people despised or mocked him on first seeing him.

Recently we talked about the Life of Aesop, a biographical novella of the fabulist written around the same time as the gospels: Aesop, Guide to a Very Late Date for the Gospels?Aesop / 2, a Guide to a Late Gospel of Mark DateDid Aesop Exist?

This post singles out one more point in Tomas Hãgg’s chapter in The Art of Biography in Antiquity.

Only two of the thirteen stories told by Aesop in the Life are known to have existed before the Roman Imperial period as ‘Aesopic fables’. This, in all likelihood, means that most of the stories were created for use in the particular situations narrated in the novel, or at least adapted for the purpose. . . . [O]ur story is first and foremost a Life, and the fables are narrated not to conserve them or explain them as originating in certain situations, but the other way round: in order to characterize the hero. (pp 116f, my bolding)

Surely the same must be said about the stories told about Jesus in the gospels. It is evident that they are not narrated for conservation purposes. Each evangelist clearly feels free to change many of the sayings and deeds found in, say, the Gospel of Mark.

But there is one detail that is not the same in the stories told about Jesus. That the anecdotes appear for the first time in the gospels is not taken as an indication that they were created for use in the particular situations in the gospels, but that they had an untestable and unverifiable origin as oral traditions. Perhaps classicists should learn from biblical scholars how to generate more scholarly papers about hypothetical origins and traditions.

One classic (I think) illustration of just how neatly tailored a story of Jesus is for the sake of the gospel’s plot was written up in Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical. That episode has an indisputable narrative function. It is how the synoptic gospels account for the arrest of a man who otherwise provides no reason for his arrest given that he is in every way good and perfect. The Gospel of John removes it as the reason for Jesus’ arrest but has to replace it with the story of the raising of Lazarus to make up for the plot function that would otherwise be lacking. Yet most biblical scholars, devout as most of them reportedly are in their own respective ways, treat the “cleansing of the temple” as one of the most certain of historical episodes in the life of Jesus. The story was passed on through oral tradition.

What would Tomas Hãgg think if that sort of argument was published about the stories in the Life of Aesop? But why aren’t classicists more ready to assume new fables appearing in a first century Life of Aesop were taken from otherwise unrecorded oral tradition? Why are so few biblical scholars apparently willing to think that stories appearing for the first time in the gospels serving each author’s narrative — and theological — interests willing to accept that the stories were made up or at least adapted for those specific interests?

 

Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 2

The previous post on this topic ended with the following:

The first genuinely biographical detail of Jesus arrives when Jesus is twelve years old facing the wise men in the Temple. We learn about the parents’ very natural and everyday concerns and the “adolescent arrogance” of Jesus, his separation from this world, his first signs of superior wisdom, and his return to “the expected filial obedience”.

This is the kind of characterizing anecdote that every biographer wishes for, a child demonstrating extraordinary gifts and a behaviour that anticipates his grown-up persona. It is, however, the only one told about the young Jesus in the canonical gospels. (p. 171)

It’s not much, only two childhood episodes to occupy thirty years. But that’s the start.

Hägg turns to examine how two “apocryphal” gospels picked up on Luke’s beginning. . . .

Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) then relates an observation that is worth pausing over:

All four evangelists proceed in continuous narrative from baptism to death and resurrection, each giving his own picture of Jesus’ public life within a common framework . . . . Paradoxically, their alternative accounts of Jesus, composed within the short span of some thirty years, thus came to be offered between the same covers, probably a unique biographical situation. (p. 172, my bolding in all quotations)

It seems we really do need to keep in mind that the gospels really are not like other biographies, that there is indeed something, or a number of things, “unique” about them. read more »

The argument so far: Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

We have covered five of the six chapters in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. The final chapter covers a topic that for me is the most interesting of all, but before going there Gmirkin outlines what he has covered so far. He has presented “substantial new arguments for viewing the Primary History of Genesis-Kings as a Hellenistic Era composition that displays considerable influences from the Greek world” (p. 250).

He summarizes those “considerable influences” of Greek legal and historical literature:

  • its structural form as a nationalistic history, patterned on such works as the Aegyptiaca of Manetho (ca. 285 BCE) and the Babyloniaca of Berossus (278 BCE);
  • its integration of elements from discussions of constitutional history taken from Plato and perhaps Aristotle;
  • its incorporation of the Greek genre of the foundation story in its narratives about the patriarchal promises, the Exodus, wilderness wanderings and conquest of the Promised Land;
  • its characteristically Greek integration of narrative and legal content;
  • its Greek constitutional and legal content;
  • and its Greek conception of law as prescriptive, educational and useful for instilling citizen virtues.

The Influence of Plato’s Laws on Deuteronomy

Greek influences on the biblical text discussed in earlier chapters include the substantial use of Plato’s Laws. It is apparent that this particular philosophical text exerted a profound influence on the political thinking, educational philosophy and literary activities of the biblical authors. This is illustrated most decisively in the book of Deuteronomy, which was written according to directions laid out in Plato’s Laws as a speech to the gathered colonists of the nation about to be founded, recounting their laws suitably framed by hortatory introductions and other educational and rhetorical content.

(Gmirkin, 2017. p. 250)

So Gmirkin challenges the conventional view that Near Eastern literature, political systems and laws were the principal influence in the making of the Primary History, Genesis to Kings. These books were not produced by ancient Jewish scribes living in the centuries of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, nor were they even produced in the Babylonian captivity or in the ensuing Persian era when the colony of Jehud was first established. They were the product of a deliberate study of Greek writings, specifically those relating to laws, constitutions and foundation myths. Local Jewish traditions and laws were also woven into the new literature in the early third century BCE.

From my own readings of the debates between the “minimalists” and “maximalists”, especially the debates between Thompson and Dever, and each side’s analysis of archaeological reports, I am convinced that Gmirkin’s analysis is quite plausible. (See notes on Davies’ book at In Search of Ancient Israel.) Insofar as the conventional explanations of the origins of the Pentateuch have been necessarily embedded in assumptions that the books evolved over many centuries through the periods of the monarchy and Babylonian captivity, those models ought to be reassessed. Similarly for the writings of the historical books from Judges to 2 Kings and the books claiming to be by various prophets.

Gmirkin’s book is, I think, a significant contribution towards opening up new explanations given the material evidence both against such a literature appearing before the Persian era and for its appearance after the establishment of the Jewish colony. His thesis certainly makes sense of the character of the Primary History as literature: as literature, in its structure, genre, style, it is in very large measure unlike the writings of the Near East prior to the Hellenistic era; yet as literature it is very often comparable in themes, genres, styles to much of the Greek Classical and Hellenistic literary outputs.

Other authors have noticed and discussed similarities between Primary History, the Pentateuch in particular, on the one hand, and Herodotus, Greek foundation stories, other myths and Plato’s Laws, on the other. These earlier publications have generally sought to explain the similarities from an assumption that the Hebrew works were much earlier than the Hellenistic era. But if we have good reasons to date the Hebrew literary production no earlier than the Persian era then the observations of those earlier scholars suddenly take on a new life. We have a “simple explanation” for the common points they observed. Along with his own observations, Gmirkin appears to have brought some of those earlier observations into the light of the new context.

Before moving on to the remainder of chapter six, which as I said is for me the most interesting one of all, this may be a good place to collate the various posts relating to Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.

You can also read an extended abstract or chapter by chapter outline by Gmirkin himself on his academia.edu page.

  1. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (2016-10-16)
  2. The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look (2016-10-26)
  3. David, an Ideal Greek Hero — and other Military Matters in Ancient Israel (2016-11-12)
  4. Some preliminaries before resuming Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible  (2016-12-15)
  5. The Tribes of Israel modeled on the Athenian and Ideal Greek Tribes? (2016-12-16)
  6. The Bible’s Assemblies and Offices Based on Greek Institutions? (2017-01-22)
  7. Similarities between Biblical and Greek Judicial Systems (2017-01-28)
  8. The Inspiration for Israel’s Law of the Ideal King (2017-02-09)
  9. Bible’s Priests and Prophets – With Touches of Greek (2017-02-22)
  10. Primitive Democracy in Ancient Israel (2017-04-04)
  11. Mosaic Laws: from Classical Greece or the Ancient Near East? (2017-06-02)
  12. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Homicide Laws (2017-06-05)
  13. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Law-Giving Narratives as Greek-Inspired Literature (2017-07-26)
  14. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Legal Narratives (esp. Panegyrics), continued (2017-07-26)
  15. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Legal Narratives continued . . . Solon and Atlantis (2017-07-27)
  16. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Greek Foundation Stories and the Bible (2017-07-28)
  17. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Political Evolution in Literature (2017-08-05)

“Good ‘Swastika’ to you” — Though not in the West, thank you.

Not a good idea. Some culturally blind persons reportedly attempted to market a t-shirt with the rainbowed word ‘love’ embedding a swastika. The video below is from the designer’s Facebook page — you may have to unmute the sound button:

Much of the mainstream media covered the story:

So you had to be comatose not to notice — unless it was shoved into your face by an rss feed from some obscure online discussion board (which was how I learned about it).

Now I happen to be living in Thailand at the moment, and struggling with attempting to learn the language, and my first thought was, ‘Yeh, well, that’s bloody stupid in the West, but sheesh, here in south and east Asia swastikas are everywhere. No problem. Every Buddhist temple and bit of paraphernalia in various shops selling religious odds and bobs will have swastikas on display. When I was living and working in Singapore a few years ago I was still naive and hence shocked to see a whole school proudly displaying large swastikas on its main gates and naming signs. Google “red swastika school” to get the idea. Some of the pics I took while still in culture-shock….

 

That school and just about every Buddhist temple I saw forced me into a realization of just how “Western” Hitler and Nazism is. The West really is not the “whole world” after all. Sure Asia was involved in the “World War”, but the Asian experience was with Japan, not Germany. Try to understand, Neil, that your history is not everybody’s history.

But as I said, I still happen to be residing in Thailand at the moment and am struggling to learn enough Thai language to get by with some basics. One of the first phrases I learned and one I probably say more than any other is Sawasdee krap. It simply means “good-day” with the krap added by a male speaker as an indicator of politeness. (The second s is scarcely pronounced, so think aurally of “sahwahdee”.)

But one also needs to learn to read some basic signage around the place, and that means learning the Thai alphabet. Now it happens that the Thai letters are a kind of derivative (so I understand) of Indian sanskrit. Once I was reminded of that little detail, the swastika thing hit me right between the eyes. I have not double-checked the Wikipedia article on Swastika but intuitively it sounds right:

The name swastika comes from Sanskrit (Devanagari: स्वस्तिक), and denotes a “conducive to well being or auspicious”.

Every time I say “Good-day” or “Hello” here in Bangkok to someone, “Sawadee krap”, I am saying “Swastika, hey!”

 

Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 1

Before putting aside for a while Tomas Hägg’s The Art of Biography in Antiquity I must address his chapter on the canonical gospels. It’s most interesting to have a set of non-theological eyes from an outside field (classics) examine their literary art as “ancient biographies” while nonetheless engaging with what biblical scholars have learned.

I have said several times that I have a problem thinking of at least the first written canonical gospel, the Gospel of Mark, as being “about Jesus” as a person, which is to say a “biography of Jesus”. My point is that Mark (as I’ll call the gospel’s author) presents us with a Jesus who is little/no more than a theological mouthpiece and actant, teaching, symbolizing and representing theological principles — a theological cipher — rather than as a “genuine person” of interest as a personality and human character. (I suspect that this symbolic nature of Jesus is the reason he can be embraced by such wildly diverse interest groups, even faiths, throughout history and today.)

Hägg on Burridge’s study:

[I]t turns out that there is a great diversity within each of the two groups, the four gospels and the ten ancient biographies; and it is this very diversity … that makes it possible always to find a parallel in one or several of the ten Loves for each feature occurring in one or more of the gospels. What is proven is that the investigated features of the gospels are not unique in ancient biographical literature; but no control group is established to show which features may be regarded as significantly typical of this literature, in contrast to the biographical writings of other times or cultures.” (p. 154)

But as Hägg himself points out, whether or not we define a gospel as a biography really comes down to how we define the term biography.

[M]ost discussions of the generic question are dependent on how one defines ‘biography’. (p. 152)

Works of the type of Burridge and Frickenschmidt are important, not for ‘proving’ that the gospels ‘are’ biographies — that remains a matter of definition, no more and no less — but for studying them as literature in context. (p. 155)

Fair enough. Hägg himself discusses the gospels as ancient biographies. Even so, I find his conclusion striking, and in some ways supportive of my own view: in discussing one scholar’s observation that the Jesus in the Gospel of John may speak about love but actually demonstrates very little of it in his own relationships with those close to him, Hägg writes:

The observation is pertinent, but the apparent coolness may rather be attributed to the ascetic narrative style that dominates all four gospels, as soon as it comes to the description of persons and their character traits, not to speak of their physical appearance, physiognomy as well as facial expressions. That the protagonist himself is no exception in this respect reduces markedly the gospels’ character of biographies, even by ancient standards.105 (p. 185, my bolding in all quotations)

Amen. But what does footnote 105 say?

105 Burridge 2004 passim (seen Index s.v. ‘characterization, methods of’), in his insistence that the gospels are close to Graeco-Roman bioi in all respects, misses the nuances; the gospels are rather extreme in this respect. 

Amen again.

One of the chapter’s epigraphs is interesting:

‘Jesus: A Biography’ is always an oxymoron.

Harold Bloom

Tomas Hägg’s chapter “What were the gospels?” does

not set out to prove anything about their ‘proper’ classification; [his] object is simply to read them as biographies. (p. 155)

His focus is

to trace the gradual ‘biographizing’ of the Christian message. 

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Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist?

If the Life of Aesop is riddled with obvious fiction yet it is concluded that Aesop really existed, what does Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) do with the question of the historicity of Demonax, a figure whose biography contains only sober and believable accounts and is said to have been written by an eyewitness? Ironically, Hägg is far less confident that Demonax is historical than he is about Aesop!

You can read the Life of Demonax by Lucian at the sacred-texts site. (It is fewer than 4000 words.)

To begin Hägg addresses doubts among some scholars that Lucian was the real biographer. Life of Demonax does not have the same cutting, satirical tone as his other biographies, but actually approaches Demonax reverentially and creates an idealized portrait. However, on the strength of the attestation Hägg accepts Lucian as the genuine author.

Lucian states that he has two reasons for writing about Demonax:

This time I am to write of Demonax, with two sufficient ends in view:

  • first, to keep his memory green among good men, as far as in me lies;
  • and secondly, to provide the most earnest of our rising generation, who aspire to philosophy, with a contemporary pattern, that they may not be forced back upon the ancients for worthy models, but imitate this best–if I am any judge–of all philosophers.

Continuing with Hägg:

Demonax’ background is rapidly sketched . . . His ‘urge to noble things and innate love for philosophy from early childhood’ is stated, but there is no actual account of that childhood; nor is his physical appearance described here or elsewhere in the Life. His blameless life and exemplary honesty are lauded, as is his excellent education in literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. As a philosopher, he is a professed eclectic. He has most in common with Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope . . . but is described as an unchangingly polite and social person who lacks both Socrates’ irony and Diogenes’ exhibitionism — in short, we are made to understand, a godlike (isotheos) man. . . . (p. 295)

Certainly an idealized portrait. And short on specifics to demonstrate the idealized qualities.

The first description of a specific event in Demonax’s life comes three pages in, with his trial:

It starts in the same mode: ‘So it was that all the Athenians, from the populace to the magistrates, admired him tremendously and never ceased regarding him as a superior being (tina tōn kreittonōn)’; but then some critical words are unexpectedly heard. Like a second Socrates, Demonax is brought to court because he has caused offence to and incurred hatred from the common people . . . through his Cynic . . . ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘licence’, and his . . . ‘independence’. Men similar to Anytus and Meletus (the accusers in Socrates’ trial) charge him with not taking part in the sacrifices or letting himself be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. He manages, however, to refute the accusations by using his habitual outspokenness and wit . . . and the Athenians, who had first been prepared to stone him, ‘from that time showed him honour, respect, and eventually admiration’. (pp. 295f)

One sees in the above account several features that may well justify our asking questions about the genuineness of the narrative: the evident influence of the trial of Socrates, again the idealizing portrait and the most remarkable turnabout of the Athenians from being ready to execute him to admiring him.

The literary structure of the Life is also addressed: read more »