Author Archives: Neil Godfrey

Skeptical of Mythicism, Fine; But Scholarly Carelessness, Not So Fine

Back in June I noticed the following blog post by a certain professor of New Testament studies and “progressive Christian” but being overseas and away from my little library I was unable to check the details and respond at the time…..

Skeptical of Mythicism

The post begins with a quotation of a Facebook post by Ron Huggins directed to James McGrath personally:

The French scholar Charles Guignebert, Professor of Christian History at the Sorbonne in Paris, wrote a very critical book on Jesus in the 1950s. He was far more skeptical of the value of historical data on Jesus than most New Testament scholars liberal or conservative would be today. . . . 

(James McGrath knowing how much you love the mythicists, I thought you might appreciate this quotation)

. . . .[A]s skeptical as Guignebert was of the New Testament evidence, he was even more skeptical of the fanciful reconstructions of the Mythicists (historical Jesus deniers). I don’t think I’ve ever run across a better summing up of why scholars as a whole tend to reject the theories of the Mythicists . . . . 

James McGrath loved the quote and even placed it against another quote by Christ Myth scholar Robert M. Price to make it appear that Price was ignorantly claiming some small support from Guignebert without any justification.

Well, I’ve returned home now and had a chance to check my Guignebert and was both surprised and not surprised to find that the Huggins-McGrath quotation just happened to stop short of a sentence that backfired on what they were claiming the quote said about “mythicism”. Here are the words of Guignebert selected by Huggins and McGrath to make their case:

“It is evident that if the personality and influence of Jesus disappeared from history, the birth of Christianity has still to be explained, and it is to this task that those who deny his historicity have applied themselves, with a confidence only equaled by the variety of their theories and the flimsiness of their arguments. Popular opinion, always susceptible to novelty, and entirely indifferent to the cautious reservations of scientific exegesis, impressed by their air of conclusiveness [64] and originality, has more than once given an enthusiastic reception to such theories, and encourage the amateurs by its admiring applause. For “amateurs” they nearly all are who uphold the negative and mythological point of view; some naïve and superficial, quite unconscious of the pitiful inadequacy of their knowledge, others well documented, that is to say, conversant with the subject, sometimes even learned in it, but equally ignorant or impatient of the humble and patient discipline of exegesis. They are ever ready to thrust aside or mishandle the texts instead of cautiously and respectfully attempting to extract truth from them; to impose upon them whatever conclusions their own convictions demand, instead of keeping within the limits to which a scrupulously critical and historical sense would confine them. Such flimsy and unfounded speculations may perhaps yield interesting works of the imagination, and exhibit a fascinating ingenuity, but they do no service to science.”

That quote finishes mid-sentence. “Science” is not the last word of the sentence. It appears, furthermore, that both Huggins and McGrath were interrupted before they could read the very next sentence which I quote here:

We are not here referring to the position that Jesus had no historical existence, which is in itself a perfectly legitimate theory entitled to serious discussion.

So when the “Religion Prof” (as the author calls himself) set up the Guignebert quotation against Robert M. Price as he did….

Compare that quote with how Robert Price apparently spoke of Guignebert’s perspective:

 

The Religion Prof asks his readers to compare the selected words of Guignebert with those of Robert M. Price, and they do make Price look a bit foolish, dishonest even.

But Guignebert’s very next sentence after the words selected for quotation actually belie the claim by both Huggins and McGrath and substantiate the quote by Price. Price said Guignebert took the hypothesis seriously and we see that Guignebert indeed used the words “entitled to serious discussion”.

Guignebert was critical of what since Sandmel is labelled uncontrolled “parallelomania”, a fault that too often accompanied the “history of religions” school at that time and that some mythicists fall into today.

I know you are getting all of this second hand and you can’t check for yourselves what Guignebert wrote, so I have scanned the relevant pages and attach them below. read more »

Ten Commandments: Where Did they Really Come From?

The Ten Commandments are a strange mix. They proscribe not only stealing and even the craving to have any property belonging to your neighbour. (And neighbour’s property includes his wife.) The command not to kill is certainly not meant to be interpreted literally as a general law since God elsewhere commanded lots of killing of people and animals. Actual laws relating to killing need to cover situations of accidental, impulsive and premeditated killing and the Pentateuch does set out laws covering those variables as we saw in Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Homicide Laws.

I had expected to be posting one of my final posts on Gmirkin’s book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible by now but my study of the final chapter has directed me to a section I covered all too sketchily earlier. So here we are. Back at chapter 4, “Greek and Ancient Near Eastern law collections”.

The Ten Commandments certainly have a distinctive reputation unequalled by any of the other laws in the Hebrew Scriptures. God even commanded for them to be kept in the ark of the covenant, translated as “coffer” in the Everett Fox translation of Deuteronomy 10:1-5, but I have changed “coffer” for the more familiar “ark”:

10:1 At that time YHWH said to me:
Carve yourself two tablets of stone, like the first-ones, and come up to me, on the mountain, and make yourself an ark of wood.

2 I will write on the tablets the words that were on the tablets, the
first-ones, that you smashed, and you are to put them in the ark.

3 So I made a ark of acacia wood,
I carved out two tablets of stone, like the first-ones,
and I went up, on the mountain, the two tablets in my arms.

4 And he wrote on the tablets according to the first writing, the Ten Words
that YHWH spoke to you on the mountain, from the midst of the fire,
on the day of the Assembly, and YHWH gave them to me.

5 And when I faced about and came down the mountain,
I put the tablets in the ark that I had made,
and they have remained there, as YHWH had commanded me.

And they do appear to be as much wisdom saying as law, or even more wisdom saying than law. Not only in content, but even in style since, like proverbs they are addressed to the second person “you”. They even address attitudes or feelings that are not even acted upon, which of course is not the sort of thing a “law” typically addresses. Further, their structure facilitates learning and recitation:

The Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:6–21 are an excellent example of teaching structured for memorization. The rules focus on central values of ancient Israel. As Erhard Gerstenberger observed decades ago, their “apodictic” form most closely resembles that of gnomic instructions inside and outside Israel. In addition, the ordering of the list into ten items—however this is done in various streams of tradition—allows the beginning student to use his or her fingers to count off and see whether he or she has included all of the key elements of this fundamental instruction. This combination of elements—focus on central values, simplicity of form, and memorizability—has contributed to the ongoing use of the Ten Commandments in religious education up to the present, along with the focus on them as an icon of central values in contemporary cultural battles over the biblical tradition. (Carr, David M., Writing on the Tablets of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 137 — referenced by Gmirkin, page 204)

Again with the Everett Fox translation, Deuteronomy 5:6-18:

6 I am YHWH your God
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a house of serfs.
7 You are not to have other gods beside my presence.

8 You are not to make yourself a carved-image of any form
that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth.
9 You are not to prostrate yourselves to them, you are not to serve
them,
for I, YHWH your God, am a jealous God, calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and to the fourth (generation) of those that hate me,
10 but showing loyalty to thousands
of those that love me, of those that keep my commandments.

11 You are not to take up the name of YHWH your God for
emptiness,
for YHWH will not clear him that takes up his name for emptiness!

12 Keep the day of Sabbath, by hallowing it, as YHWH your God has commanded you.
13 For six days you are to serve and to do all your work;
14 but the seventh day
(is) Sabbath for YHWH your God— you are not to do any work:
(not) you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your animals, nor your sojourner that is in your gates— in order that your servant and your maid may rest as one-like- yourself.
15 You are to bear-in-mind that serf were you in the land of Egypt, but YHWH your God took you out from there with a strong hand
and with an outstretched arm; therefore YHWH your God commands you to observe the day of Sabbath.

16 Honor your father and your mother,
as YHWH your God has commanded you, in order that your days may be prolonged, and in order that it may go-well with you on the soil that YHWH your God is giving you.

17 You are not to murder!

And you are not to adulter!

And you are not to steal!

And you are not to testify against your neighbor as a lying witness!

18 And you are not to desire the wife of your neighbor; you are not to crave the house of your neighbor,
his field, or his servant, or his maid, his ox or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor!

Of particular significance for Russell Gmirkin’s thesis is that these Ten Commandments have no known parallel in ancient Near Eastern law codes.

So were the authors of the Decalogue bestowed with a superior gift of spiritual insight?

Or were they influenced by “best ideas” of sacred law and wisdom found in a culture to their west? Should we consider a set of “laws” or “sacred sayings” inscribed in stone at Greece’s principal temple at Delphi? The Delphic sanctuary was the centre for Apollo and city-states would send ambassadors to the site to seek guidance from Apollo’s prophetess there.At that holy site was a world-renowned inscription of wisdom sayings that took on the status of sacred laws. read more »

The Necessity of being Divisive

Prominent bloggers are picking on Sam Harris again.

First there is P.Z. Myers,

There he [Ed Brayton] goes again, picking on the distinguished and august Thought Leaders of Atheism, in this case Sam Harris. It’s easy to do; there are a lot of buzzwords that trigger my rage, and Harris is fond of trotting out indicators of inanity like “identity politics” and “politically correct” and, of course, “divisive”.

I’m not on board with everything I read by PZ so of course I waited till I read Ed Brayton’s post myself:

I am not going to accuse Harris of being a white supremacist, as many have done. I’m going to take his argument at face value and presume, for the sake of argument, that he means well by it. But he’s still utterly, flagrantly, dangerously wrong. A quote from that podcast:

“My tweet was actually fairly carefully written. I mean, it starts with ‘In 2017 all identity politics is detestable.’ And of course I’m thinking about the West, and I’m thinking primarily about America, I was commenting on Charlottesville. And I believe this, you know, I think Black Lives Matter is a dangerous and divisive and retrograde movement, and it is a dishonest movement. I mean, that’s not to say that everyone associated with it is dishonest, but I find very little to recommend in what I’ve seen from Black Lives Matter. I think it is the wrong move for African Americans to be organizing around the variable of race now. It’s *obviously* the wrong move, it’s *obviously* destructive to civil society.”

Ed proceeds to dissect the details of the above but I quote and comment on just one point: read more »

Another Muslim Voice to Listen To

Elham Manea — From her University of Zurich staff homepage.

I concluded a recent post with an acknowledgement of Maryam Namazie as a voice worth listening to in any discussion relating to Islamic and Islamist controversies today. Having just listened to an ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report interview, Muslim scholar says the burka isn’t Islamic, I have to add Elham Manea‘s name alongside Maryam’s.

The interview has been mutated as a “news story” by Siobhan Hegarty, Burkas are political symbols not Islamic ones, Muslim scholar says. You can listen to the full thirteen minute interview here here [link is to mp3]

Key points:

  • community and political speakers targeting violent Islamist movements in public debate miss the core problem; focus needs to be on the Islamist ideology that currently gets a free pass because it professes non-violence, yet it is in fact the extremist ideology that is spawning not only the terrorist violence but also an Islam that promotes segregation and a denial of full human rights.
  • If Islamophobes say all Muslims are essentially alike in a negative sense (potentially violent, in denial of fundamental human rights, etc), so a certain liberal defence of Muslims is just as “dehumanizing” by likewise viewing them as all alike in a “positive” sense, defending their head coverings, sharia institutions, etc.
  • the full burka (total covering, including veiled eyes) and even the “moderate” head covering hijab have become identified as “Islamic” since 1979 and the promotion of Wahhabism ultimately from Saudi Arabia’s petro-dollars.

(On the first point I have posted on Jason Burke’s detailed account of how that happened. I also appreciated Elham’s comment that the 1979 Iranian revolution saw a betrayal of the Iranian middle class and left-wing movement. How that sort of thing happens too often with revolutions!)

And I’ve just bought her new book, too, Women and Shari’a law: the impact of legal pluralism in the UK

(Afterthought — I don’t really “know” that Elham is still a Muslim, but no doubt she has a Muslim background at least, and certainly addresses Muslims with understanding.)

Jesus, a new Dionysus Triumphantly Entering Jerusalem?

The last few days I’ve been distracted from my planned reading and posting as a result of reading something quite unexpected by Andreas Bedenbender in Frohe Botschaft am Abgrund: das Markusevangelium und der Jüdische Krieg. Since I don’t read German (except sort of through machine translators) and since most of Bedenbender’s references are in German, and since I don’t sit in a major library, that has been no easy task. But the gist of the surprising suggestion arises from one particular Greek word behind the passage in the Gospel of Mark about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, 10:8 (RSV):

And many spread their garments upon the way; and others branches (στιβάδας), which they had cut from the fields.

Branches cut from the fields, presumably from trees in the fields. Would not they become an obstacle for any donkey trying to navigate the road? Other evangelists do not use that word, “branches”. Compare:

Matthew 21:8 uses κλάδους, also translated as “branches”, but not the same word as in Mark.

Luke 19:36 scraps that Markan detail completely and says only that the crowd spread their garments on the ground. No branches at all.

John 12:13 uses a different word again, “branches of palm trees” (τὰ βαΐα τῶν φοινίκων), and more sensibly than in Mark implies that they were waving them rather than setting up an obstacle course for the donkey.

Now it appears that Mark’s word for “branch/branches”, (στιβάς / στιβάδας), is unique in the Bible:

For στιβάς is found, for example, in Euripides and Herodotus, but in the New Testament it is nowhere except in Mark 11:8. It is missing in the LXX, in the Greek Pseudepigraphen to the AT, in Philo and Josephus. What, then, did Markus take after “straw-shafts,” when “branches” were within his reach? That κλάδος, which he used in 4:32 and in 13:28, will scarcely have disappeared! (Bedenbender, p. 312, adapted from machine translation.)

So Mark elsewhere used the more common word for “branches” and that makes his use of “stibas” in the triumphal entry scene more odd.

Andreas Bedenbender does not argue “strongly” for Jesus’ triumphal entry in the Gospel of Mark being invested with Dionysiac allusions, but he does point to some details that make the question reasonable. 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 »