Category Archives: Bible as literature


2017-12-01

How Ehrman’s Gospel “Truth” Gives a Pass to Trump’s “Truth” of Fake Videos

by Neil Godfrey

“Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Sanders told reporters. “[Trump’s] goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.” (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

At least one of the videos was later described as “fake” by a Dutch news outlet. Sanders said that didn’t matter. “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Sanders told reporters. “[Trump’s] goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.”Sanders continued, criticizing reporters for pressing her on whether Trump should verify the content of videos before sharing them with his 43 million followers on Twitter.“I’m not talking about the nature of the video. I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing,” she said. “The threat is real, and that’s what the president is talking about.” (Gabby Morrongellio, Sarah Sanders defends Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets: ‘Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real’ in The Washington Examiner, Nov 29, 2017)

I’ve heard something like that before.

Think . . . .

Yes, that’s right, I remember now. That’s the logic used by scholars who attempt to defend the “fake” stories in the gospels as being somehow “true”.

Bart Ehrman earlier this year wrote about True Stories That Did Not Happen and reminded his readers of what he wrote nearly twenty years ago:

There are stories in the Gospels that did not happen historically as narrated, but that are meant to convey a truth. . . . But the notion that the Gospel accounts are not 100 percent accurate, while still important for the religious truths they try to convey, is widely shared in the scholarly guild . . . .

Can there be such a thing as a true story that didn’t happen? We certainly don’t normally talk that way: if we say that something is a “true story,” we mean that it’s something that happened. But actually, that itself is a funny way of putting it. . . . 

In fact, almost all of us realize this when we think about it. Just about everyone I’ve ever known was told at some point during grade school the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. As a young boy, George takes the ax to his father’s tree. When his father comes home, he demands, “Who cut down my cherry tree,” and young George, who is a bit inclined toward mischief but does turn out to be an honest lad, replies, “I cannot tell a lie; I did it.”

As it turns out (to the chagrin of some of my students!), this story never happened. We know this for a fact, because the person who fabricated it — a fellow called Parson Weems — later fessed up to the deed. But if the story didn’t happen, why do we continue to tell it? Because on some level, or possibly on a number of levels, we think it’s true.

On the one hand, the story has always served, though many people possibly never realized it, as a nice piece of national propaganda. . . . The United States is founded on honesty. It cannot tell a lie. . . . 

On the other hand . . . the story functions to convey an important lesson in personal morality. People shouldn’t lie. . . . . And so I myself have told the story and believed it, even though I don’t think it ever happened.

The Gospels of the New Testament contain stories kind of like that, stories that may convey truths, at least in the minds of those who told them, but that are not historically accurate. (Ehrman, B. D. (1999). Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford University Press. pp. 30-31)

More recently, in Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (2016) Erhman goes so far as to describe historical truth in the sense of factual truth as a matter of “dry, banal, and frankly rather uninteresting to anyone except people with rather peculiar antiquarian interests” in “brute facts“. (p. 229)

Same with the ugly stories of Judas. read more »


2017-03-01

The Problem of Forgery in the Bible: 10 Myths to Justify False Authorship

by Neil Godfrey

Is it really a problem if a book in the Bible claims to be written by someone who was clearly not the author? Did ancient authors work by different rules and ideas about copyright from anything we think appropriate today? Might not a lowly scribe in fact be acting in a praiseworthy manner (by ancient standards) if he attached the name of a revered teacher as the author of a work he himself had just composed?

Scholars agree (not counting those “conservatives” or “fundamentalists” who believe every word in the bible, including author attribution, is true) that Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus were not really written by Paul. So why do we read in those letters that Paul was their author? Was an unknown cleric so enamoured of Paul’s teaching, and so convinced that Paul would approve of everything in the letters, that he felt the best way he could honour the great Paul was to remove himself from the limelight and place Paul’s name on them?

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the commandment of God our Saviour, and Lord Jesus Christ, which is our hope; unto Timothy, my own son in the faith (1 Tim 1:1 KJV)

Were the first readers of such letters well aware Paul was not the real author and that no attempt had been made to maliciously deceive anyone. Using names of great teachers was the custom, not a crime as it is today. Is that what they thought back then?

The justifications addressed above are still believed and repeated by many today.

But they are not true. I have posted before on forgery in the ancient world and with respect to the Bible:

Still, one of the books I am reading at the moment is Pseudonymity and Canon: An Investigation into the Relationship of Authorship and Authority in Jewish and Earliest Christian Tradition, an edited doctoral thesis by David G. Meade (1987), and very early in his book he addresses the same questions but from a different perspective. Meade’s interest is in the various ways the false names attached to biblical works have been justified by modern clerics and scholars. I counted ten different excuses moderns have concocted to justify or understand how it is that the Bible came to contain books with false author attributions.

–o0o–

Myth 1: Intellectual property was an alien idea to the ancients

A pre-critical attempt to resolve the tension, still found in isolation today, was to simply regard the writers of antiquity as unburdened with the “copyright” mentality of our modern era. The sheer bulk of pseudonymous writings was cited as proof that correct attribution was of little concern.

Myth 1 busted

This view has been decisively shattered by the work of W. Speyer9. He acknowledges that the vital element of our modern understanding of forgery is a sense of geistiges Eigentum or “intellectual/creative property”. This, he demonstrates, developed in Greek culture as early as the sixth century B.C. The rise of a book trade and the formation of large libraries in the Hellenistic era contributed to this development. By the Christian era, ancient critics had developed iterary tools for exposing forgeries not unsimilar to our techniques today. (p.4)

–o0o–

Myth 2: If intellectual property was of concern to Greeks it was an alien idea to Jews

A related attempt at appealing to a “pre-copyright” mentality is to restrict the phenomenon to oriental, and particularly, Jewish culture. . . . 

Myth 2 busted

However, by the Hellenistic era the concept was well established in Judaism. Even though an “Israelite literary tradition”, mostly characterized by anonymity, can be discerned12, the pervasiveness of Greek culture and the evidence of a consciousness of geistiges Eigentum in Jewish and Christian literature of the hellenistic era (cf.2 Thess 2:2; Rev 22:18-19) make this appeal untenable13

–o0o–

Myth 3: No one was deceived; it was an acceptable literary device

Another uncritical approach to the problem was to assert that pseudonymity was just a transparent literary fiction, not intended to deceive anyone. This idea found wide currency in the English speaking world, particularly through the works of H.H. Rowley (for apocalyptic) and P.N. Harrison (for the NT)14.

Myth 3 busted

read more »


2017-02-23

On Not Reading the Bible Too Seriously — As Its Authors Intended

by Neil Godfrey

My reflections on reading the story of Abraham setting out to sacrifice Isaac as a children’s story brought to mind a more mature understanding of the Bible’s narratives discussed by in The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel by Thomas L. Thompson. (The same book is published under the title The Bible in history : How Writers Create a Past, so don’t be fooled and buy both books like I did!)

Most Christians and Jews do read the story of the “Binding of Isaac” or Akedah as it’s more technically called correctly, though perhaps not always realising it. What I mean is that most readers do not really take it literally with all its psychological horror. Most readers, correctly at the story level and as the narrator evidently intended, admire Abraham for his faithfulness and obedience. The problem, the horror, descends only when we treat it as literal history and a genuine account of a real God, and give our minds over to that same God.

Here are some of Thomas L. Thompson’s more realistic explanation of the story. By realistic I mean reading it the way the narrator presented it and no more.

The first reference comes as a comparison with the story of Saul who fails God’s test by sparing the lives of the cattle after killing the enemy soldiers. read more »


2015-03-28

Homer in the Gospels: Recent Thoughts

by Neil Godfrey

Matthew Ferguson of the Κέλσος blog has posted an interesting discussion on Dennis MacDonald’s defence at the recent Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference of his thesis that a significant influence of the Homeric literature can be found in the New Testament writings, especially the Gospel of Mark and Book of Acts.

For those wondering what the status of his views currently are in the mainstream of biblical studies they will find this an interesting read. Some comments:

Not surprisingly, MacDonald’s thesis has had a number of critics, but has also received a good deal of praise. . .

Overall, the general consensus is that some of the parallels that MacDonald identifies are very strong and interesting, while others are weaker and more speculative. But, one thing that was generally agreed upon at the SBL conference is that mimesis criticism is working its way into mainstream biblical criticism. In fact, MacDonald’s mimesis criticism is likewise going to be discussed at the SBL Annual Meeting in Georgia later this year. . . .

The fact that MacDonald’s arguments will be a central part of this year’s annual SBL conference suggests to me that MacDonald’s new methods are, indeed, making headway into mainstream Biblical Studies. I am not sure whether mimesis criticism will necessarily be central to interpreting the majority of passages in the Gospels and Acts, but I do think that it is very applicable to select examples . . . .

Competing with OT influence? read more »


2015-03-11

The Difference between Story and History in the Bible

by Neil Godfrey
James Barr

James Barr

In 1980 the influential biblical scholar James Barr produced a “seminal essay” that classified “the narrative complex of the Hebrew Bible as story rather than history” and contributed to “[many retreating] into an historiographic scepticism”(Whitelam, 1987, 2010). The focus of Barr’s essay (and Keith Whitelam’s reference to it) is the Old Testament. It is important to understand, however, that “historical nihilism” is not the inevitable destination if we find our sources are more story than history.

Certainty is not a prerequisite to understanding. It is the will to understand rather than simply the will to know for certain that is the driving force for the inquiry to be undertaken here. (Whitelam, p. 20.)

I think that the same principles carry over to the New Testament’s Gospels and Acts, too. That’s too controversial for many today, however. The Gospel narratives must stand firm as grounded in historical memory of some kind. Whitelam in his 2010 edition of his 1987 book lamented the failure of the critical potential to blossom in the field of Old Testament studies:

The rise of the biblical history movement and ‘new biblical archaeology’ means that the project envisaged a quarter of a century ago is even further away from realization today than it was then. (p. xiii)

How much further away we must be from applying the same critical questions to the stories of Jesus!

Following is how Barr explained the differences between history and story. It comes from “Story and History in Biblical Theology: The Third Nuveen Lecture” in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 1-17. Published in Explorations in Theology 7, 1980.

Old Testament narratives cannot be described as “history” but rather as containing “certain of the features that belong to history”. Examples: read more »


2014-11-29

The Rank-Raglan Hero-Type (and Jesus)

by Neil Godfrey

heroHis mother is a virgin and he’s reputed to be the son of a god; he loses favor and is driven from his kingdom to a sorrowful death—sound familiar? In The Hero, Lord Raglan contends that the heroic figures from myth and legend are invested with a common pattern that satisfies the human desire for idealization. Raglan outlines 22 characteristic themes or motifs from the heroic tales and illustrates his theory with events from the lives of characters from Oedipus (21 out a possible 22 points) to Robin Hood (a modest 13). A fascinating study that relates details from world literature with a lively wit and style, it was acclaimed by literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman as “a bold, speculative, and brilliantly convincing demonstration that myths are never historical but are fictional narratives derived from ritual dramas.” This book will appeal to scholars of folklore and mythology, history, literature and general readers as well. (Blurb from online edition of The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama by Lord Raglan) 

The 22 typical incidents in mythical tales

(1) The hero’s mother is a royal virgin;

(2) His father is a king, and

(3) Often a near relative of his mother, but

(4) The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and

(5) He is also reputed to be the son of a god.

(6) At birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or his maternal grandfather, to kill him, but

(7) He is spirited away, and

(8) Reared by foster-parents in a far country.

(9) We are told nothing of his childhood, but

(10) On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom.

(11) After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast,

(12) He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor, and

(13) Becomes king.

(14) For a time he reigns uneventfully, and

(15) Prescribes laws, but

(16) Later he loses favour with the gods and/or his subjects, and

(17) Is driven from the throne and city, after which

(18) He meets with a mysterious death,

(19) Often at the top of a hill.

(20) His children, if any, do not succeed him.

(21) His body is not buried, but nevertheless

(22) He has one or more holy sepulchres.

The first thing that needs to be clear is that Lord Raglan has drawn these parallel motifs from what he terms “genuine mythology” — meaning “mythology connected with ritual”. That excludes mythical tales of the King Arthur sort. Raglan is interested in myths that appear to have been associated with ancient rituals as acted out in dramatic shows (e.g. the Dionysia, May Day rituals, Passion plays) and religious ceremonies. The sorts of myths under examination should be clear from the following words in chapter 13 of The Hero:

The theory that all traditional narratives are myths—that is to say, that they are connected with ritual—may be maintained upon five grounds: 

  1. That there is no other satisfactory way in which they can be explained. . . .
  2. That these narratives are concerned primarily and chiefly with supernatural beings, kings, and heroes. 
  3. That miracles play a large part in them. 
  4. That the same scenes and incidents appear in many parts of the world. 
  5. That many of these scenes and incidents are explicable in terms of known rituals.

The Hero is close to a century old now so much of Raglan’s discussion is dated, but not all. It is still worth reading, I think, especially where he discusses misconceptions that lead moderns into assuming historicity of many ancient persons and arguments for the link between rituals and myths. It is certainly essential reading for anyone who intends to take up a serious discussion on the relevance of the twenty-two motifs identified as parallels across so many myths.

Common errors in using the 22 points

Often discussions of Raglan’s 22 characteristics of the myth-hero falter for the following reasons:

  1. Discussions are often about counting points and deciding the historical or non-historical likelihood of a figure according to a number total.
    • Raglan makes it clear, however, that the numbers alone do not address something else that is far more important for assessing someone’s historicity.
  2. Discussions very often fail to account for the real meaning or significance of the 22 characteristics.
    • They therefore make assessments based on the letter rather than the spirit of mytho-types.
  3. Discussions centre around the truncated list form of the 22 points.
    • As a consequence the full meaning of some of those points is lost and discussions go awry on misunderstandings.

1. When historical persons are on the list

The emphasis many place upon the number count for assessing historicity no doubt derives from Raglan’s own assessment early in his book: read more »


2013-08-16

The Literary Artistry of Genesis

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2013-08-10

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

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

Chapter 9

The Third Revolution Deepens: 1992-1995

.

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

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

Parallelomania: the facts

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

Samuel Sandmel

Samuel Sandmel

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the greatest sins of “parallelomania” is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now back to Beyond the Quest read more »


2013-05-15

How Literary Imitation Works: Are Differences More Important than Similarities?

by Neil Godfrey

Recently I disappointed the pastor of the Diamond Valley Community Church when I declined to respond to his point by point counter-claims to my comparison of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 as told in Mark 6:30-44 with Elisha’s feeding 100 followers with 20 loaves of bread in 2 Kings 4:38-44. This was a pity because he assures us that his efforts were “such a burden”, but we both know that those are the trials of a self-sacrificing follower of the Lord whose every breath is dedicated to banishing spiritual darkness from a godless world.

I have encountered the sorts of objections our burdened pastor made many times before and confess that by now I have lost all interest in engaging with them. Such objections — “this is not a real parallel because the story-reasons for the food shortage are different or because the prompts that led to groups of people sitting down are different in the two stories” — are a pointlessly puerile game of “spot the difference” where the pictures are quite different to begin with.

monlisas

Original images at:
http://alturl.com/uocjz http://alturl.com/57t8y (centre) http://alturl.com/quprv (right)

The differences in the above images are more striking than their similarities. One can search the net and easily find hundreds more and even more striking variations — different colour schemes, additional figures, different backgrounds, different positions and postures of the central figure . . . But one thing is clear: they are all adaptations of the original Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

We can spot mimesis so easily in a graphic. And this sort of imitation is easily enough recognized in literature. But when it comes to the Bible there are many apologists (and scholars, too) who just can’t or won’t see it. read more »


2012-11-28

Greek Novels Casting Light On New Testament: Part 2 of “Why NT Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels”

by Neil Godfrey

A week ago I posted thoughts from a chapter by Ronald Hock, Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels. This post is based on an earlier article by Hock (“The Greek Novel”, a chapter in Greco-Roman Literature and the New Testament, edited by David E. Aune) and looks at many more ways novels can offer us “real-life” glimpses into the world of the New Testament.

That last post was a slap-dash effort. This post provides more illustrations of the way these novels can throw light on both the Gospels and letters of Paul; it concludes with a special focus on the Philippian Hymn in which Christ was abased in order to be exalted above all creation. Further, this time I’m less rushed and have had time to quote passages from the novels themselves.

Hock first explains the point of comparing popular Greek romances with New Testament literature:

The number and variety of parallels between the Greek novels and early Christian literature are legion. The following sampling of these parallels only hints therefore at what a thorough investigation of this genre might accomplish . . . .

Ronald F. Hock

But first a word of justification: The evidence for earliest Christianity is too fragmentary and culturally alien to be fully understood without recourse to a clarifying and complementary set of roughly contemporary evidence. Typically, however, scholars have sought this evidence largely in Jewish sources; seldom has any scholar looked at the evidence of the novels. But whatever the Jewish roots of Christianity, the earliest Christians lived in a traditional culture and specifically that of the Hellenized oikoumene of the early Roman Empire. The novels, products of this oikoumene, often set their action precisely where Christianity first took root and flourished: Barnabas’ Antioch, Paul’s Tarsus, John’s Ephesus, Mark’s Alexandria, Polycarp’s Smyrna.

But the point of comparison is not mere propinquity, for the novels provide an extensive, concrete, and coherent account of the traditional culture of the New Testament world. It is the novels’ very comprehensiveness — their documenting the habits of thought and action that regulated life in the cities, agricultural areas, and outlying wilderness areas — that justifies their use for interpreting the parallel, but briefer, accounts in the New Testament and other early Christian literature. (p. 139, my emphasis and formatting)

Hock, for space reasons, restricts his parallels to the Gospels and letters of Paul. He compares only novels dated to the first and second centuries.

To depart from Hock for a moment and intrude with my own comments: The examples here are only a smattering of what one recognizes when reading the novels for oneself. The novels are also an especially potent cure for anyone who has the notion that peoples in days before Christianity were somehow especially morally depraved. They are a great invitation to meet our ancestors and to see how like us they were, how humans are not only the same the world over, but the same through the ages. read more »


2012-11-17

Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels

by Neil Godfrey

The best way to understand just how ‘non-religious’ or ‘non-biblical’ are the books of the New Testament — that is, to understand just how much a product of their own wider Greco-Roman literary culture are those books — is to read the popular novels of that era.

I enjoy both literature and ancient history so I loved reading the Collected Ancient Greek Novels edited by B. P. Reardon. They are called novels here, but they are otherwise labelled ‘novellas’, ‘erotic novels’ (from their theme of love at the behest of the god Eros), or ‘romances’.

So I was pleased to find that New Testament scholars have indeed been studying these and publishing on what they can teach us about the New Testament. (This was some years ago, but I am trying to catch up on years of reading on this blog.) One of these academics is Ronald F. Hock (I referred to him in my previous post) and it is my take on his chapter, “Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels” appearing in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative that I share in this post.

The Shepherds, Daphnis and Chloe

The Shepherds, Daphnis and Chloe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The novels most cited here are

Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton

An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon

Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius

Daphnis and Chloe by Longus

On the value of these novels for New Testament studies, Hock writes the following — and I have rearranged his paragraph-mass into an easy to skim column format:

they . . . provide the reader with a remarkably detailed, comprehensive, and coherent account of the social, economic, and religious institutions of the people and regions that witnessed the spread of Christianity into the Greek East of the early Roman Empire. (123)

The romances are set in Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Ephesus, Miletus, Alexandria, Paphos, Xanthus, and Tarentum, to name just a few of the cities mentioned in the New Testament, and in these cities we observe first-hand all sorts of people in ordinary and extraordinary situations — from the activities of the leading aristocratic families in the πόλις to those of the most marginalized shepherds and brigands in the χώρα and ἤρεμος. (124)

We see householders

  • hosting symposia
  • offering sacrifice
  • visiting rural properties
  • speaking in the theatre
  • taking on public duties
  • arranging marriages
  • and making wills;

we see their wives read more »


2012-11-04

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ reviews continued. Chapter 10

by Neil Godfrey

Gospel of Mark’s Use of Literary Tropes and Myths to Create Tales of Jesus

Continuing my series of posts on ‘Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus I look here at Thomas L. Thompson‘s chapter ten, ” “Psalm 72 and Mark 1:12-13: Mythic Evocation in Narratives of the Good King”.

Thompson (TLT) is asking readers to become more savvy to the literary tropes of the ancient world and to understand the biblical literature, including the Gospel narratives of Jesus, within these literary conventions. One might compare the way the unflattering realities of America’s Wild West have been romanticized through the literary visions of Sir Walter Scott’s novels. The white knight, or cowboy in the white hat, is a literary construct that exists as a tool that authors apply either to characters entirely of their own imagination or to historical persons which they recreate as myths.

The point is that once we recognize these literary tools for what they are, we will not read the ancient literature — gospels included — naively. We will learn to recognize the cultural myths or ideologies underlying the words we are reading. read more »


2012-09-16

Plato’s template for the Bible

by Neil Godfrey

Before continuing with Book Two of Laws, there is a major theme in Book One that I ought to have included in the previous post as a significant point in common with one of the primary biblical themes. Both Plato and God emphatically stress the importance of testing the character of their people. The purpose of this test is to produce citizens worthy of the new state or kingdom. They will demonstrate their purity of character by obedience to the laws, living a holy life and hating everything that is against “nature”, “wisdom” or a “noble spirit”. Plato speaks of several ways people need to be tested for character so they can learn self-control and master their base passions and so become worthy citizens. Worthy citizens must learn to overcome unhealthy fear and the temptations of pleasures.

For you are the only people known to us, whether Greek or barbarian, whom the legislator commanded to eschew all great pleasures and amusements and never to touch them; whereas in the matter of pains or fears which we have just been discussing, he thought that they who from infancy had always avoided pains and fears and sorrows, when they were compelled to face them would run away from those who were hardened in them, and would become their subjects.

Now the legislator ought to have considered that this was equally true of pleasure; he should have said to himself, that if our citizens are from their youth upward unacquainted with the greatest pleasures, and unused to endure amid the temptations of pleasure, and are not disciplined to refrain from all things evil, the sweet feeling of pleasure will overcome them just as fear would overcome the former class; and in another, and even a worse manner, they will be the slaves of those who are able to endure amid pleasures, and have had the opportunity of enjoying them, they being often the worst of mankind. One half of their souls will be a slave, the other half free; and they will not be worthy to be called in the true sense men and freemen. . . .

One is reminded here of Herodotus’s infamously curious line that concludes his Histories:

and [the Persians] chose rather to dwell on poor land and be rulers, than to sow crops in a level plain and be slaves to others.

Recall from the previous post the same theme of healthy and unhealthy fears that Plato spoke of through his characters. Note the last line of the following extract: the ideal legislators must bring their people to face many fears to learn to have the right kind of fear — which is the same dialogue explains is reverence, or fear of God. read more »


2012-09-14

Plato’s and the Bible’s Laws and Ethics Compared

by Neil Godfrey

For many months now I have been hoping to post on the remarkable similarities between the ideal laws espoused by Plato and many laws and moral principles we read about in the Bible. I began linking Plato’s laws to their counterparts in Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers-Deuteronomy but in the process ran across so many other passages that resonate with other Biblical precepts elsewhere that I decided to take the easy way out for a post and simply list the significant passages as I find them, beginning with the first of the twelve “books” that comprise Plato’s Laws, with references beside each one to its Biblical echo.

Anyone who is familiar with the Bible and who takes up reading Classical literature can scarcely ignore the many times one bumps into some idea, some turn of phrase or view of life and humankind, some ethical principle, some metaphor, motif, plot or tale that strongly resonates with what one read in the sacred scriptures. It is so easy to think of the Bible as a unique set of writings, but once one starts reading more widely across the non-biblical works that were being written and read at the time the biblical works were being composed, one learns that “it ain’t necessarily so”.

One striking comparison is the ideal sexual morality enjoined by Plato with what is commanded in the Bible. It is commonly thought that the Bible’s ethics are distinctly superior to those of the pagans, yet it is in Plato that we first read that homosexuality as “against nature” and that young people should resist temptations and aspire to remain virgins until married. read more »