Category Archives: Bible as literature


2012-05-02

Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 1

by Neil Godfrey

Why is it that all the modern commentaries on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (and to some extent John) include discussions of those works’ literary sources but scarcely any raise that question for the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel that supposedly started it all?

Adam Winn (Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative : considering the practice of Greco-Roman imitation in the search for Markan source material) suggests the answer to this question

is directly related to the limited paradigm that New Testament scholarship has inherited from source, form, and redaction criticism. (p. 2)

Source criticism presumes that a source for a gospel has to be another gospel or at least something like another gospel (e.g. Q). So if Mark is the first gospel then the question of literary sources can scarcely arise.

Form criticism has declared that Mark’s sources were oral traditions. With this answer firmly entrenched there has been no incentive to ask if there might also be literary sources behind the gospel.

Redaction criticism established very stringent criteria to determine when a gospel author was dependent upon another work. There must be

  • specific agreement in details/order
  • strong verbal agreement

Winn challenges the assumption that ancient authors limited themselves to using sources so slavishly. He examines ancient instructions and practices to show that authors used their literary sources very often in ways that shunned strong verbal agreement and that freely changed the details and order of material in their sources. Dennis MacDonald made similar points in his earlier work, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.

Winn argues the need for a new set of criteria that is derived from the typical practices of ancient authors.

The way forward

Gospel studies has traditionally given very little notice to the way ancient authors used literary sources.

Gospel interpreters have virtually ignored perhaps the greatest window we have into the way ancient authors used literary texts in their compositions. Certainly by studying the way in which ancient authors imitated and rewrote extant sources, we can gain insights into how the gospel authors might have used each other or even other extant literature to compose gospels. (p. 9, my emphasis) read more »


2012-01-09

Bible: composed as a reaction against Greek domination?

by Neil Godfrey
English: Museum Carnuntinum ( Lower Austria )....

Syncretic Bronze Statue -- Venus and Isis?: Wikipedia image

Why, when different religions meet, does syncretism sometimes follow? What need does it fulfil? This was the question in the minds of Claude Orrieux and Édouard Will in Ioudaïsmos — Hellenismos; essai sur le judaïsme judéen a l’époque hellénistique, 1986, when they sought to understand the religious reactions of Judeans living in Judea when faced with acculturation pressure from Greek colonization in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. I am drawing this discussion from Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, 2011. (These posts are archived here.)

The those peoples conquered by the Greeks and who embraced Greek religion the need met may seem obvious.

For the peoples who submitted to the Greeks, adopting Greek religion was a means of joining the ranks of their masters. (p. 40)

Before continuing, it is important to address another name appearing in this discussion — that of political anthropologist Georges Balandier. Balandier, as I understand from this outline, posits 4 possible reactions of peoples faced with acculturation:

  1. Active acceptance or collaboration with the new powers; the peoples embrace the culture and lifestyles of the new masters.
  2. Passive acceptance by the masses; people allow themselves to be dominated.
  3. Passive opposition, such as fleeing, passive resistance, anxiety, expressed through utopian or messianic hopes and dreams.
  4. Active opposition, which is not simply a rejection of the dominant culture, but often consists of using some aspect of the ruling culture as a weapon against the new masters.

Wajdenbaum believes

that the writings of the Bible matches this fourth concept; Greek culture was used in order to make both a national history and a religion, as well as to resist Hellenisation and gain independence. (p. 41) read more »


2011-09-19

What Mark’s Episodes Do For Readers (and the real historiographical question to ask)

by Neil Godfrey

As with any magic the spell works best when the audience does not know how it is done. On the other hand, understanding the way literary and rhetorical devices play with how we respond to what we read does help remind us that we are reading a creation of the human mind. Even if the words we read are telling a “true story” the words used to convey that information have been chosen to convey a certain meaning or feeling in relation to what we read.

One characteristic of the gospels, particularly the Gospel of Mark, that we sometimes hear is a mark of unsophistication and primitive literary skills, is the episodic nature of the first half of the Gospel — up to the Passion narrative.

Well, this post is an attempt to rescue something of the reputation of that part of the Gospel by pointing out what that episodic structure manages to achieve from a literary perspective. I am not going to argue that episodic writing is a sign of genius. But it did have an honourable history in ancient literature, at least from the time of Homer’s Odyssey (or even the Epic of Gilgamesh), so it must have been doing something right for many readers.

Whitney Shiner has a chapter titled “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark” in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative. The comparison is helpful but I will confine this post to the comments on Mark. read more »


2011-09-04

Gospel Puns on the Name Above All Names

by Neil Godfrey

 

Jason being regurgitated by the snake who keep...

Jason (=Jesus to the Greek) being regurgitated by the snake: Image via Wikipedia

Last year I posted an amateurish discussion about puns in the Gospel of Mark. During my recent break from blogging I stumbled across a classical scholar’s discussion of puns in the Gospels in an online scholarly journal. The subject is far richer than I had ever imagined. There are possibly major implications for our understanding of both the ways in which the Gospels have been composed and also for what the authors and readers thought they were doing when writing and reading/listening to the narratives.

The discussion certainly gives modern readers a whole new insight into the possible significance of the name of Jesus — “the name above every other name” as the Philippian hymn informs us.

The author is classicist Professor John Moles of Newcastle University. The article is Jesus the Healer in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Early Christianity [clicking the link will download the pdf article] in Histos. John Moles is definitely not a mythicist and my interest in the article is primarily the light it sheds on the nature of the Gospels. What sorts of documents are they, what led to their creation and how were they initially understood and received?

Imagine Gospel narratives that hang together through a web of puns on the name of Jesus criss-crossing with specific acts that he was performing and whose dramatic tension and resolution operate primarily through the readers’ awareness of these puns. read more »


2011-07-22

Birth and Death of the Messiah: Two Jewish Midrash Tales

by Neil Godfrey
Galit Hasan Rokem

Galit Hasan Rokem: Image via Wikipedia

A Jewish professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Galit Hasan-Rokem, has argued that the Gospels grew out of a Jewish folklore-midrashic tradition. The Gospels are not written as folklore so there are obvious differences. And midrash has a variety of applications, but in general it is a Jewish approach interpretations of the scriptures that can be applied to a number of different literary genres with different purposes and for different audiences. The intent is to inject new meanings into scriptures, often by applying them to newly created stories or new experiences within the Jewish communities.

So the distinctive feature of midrash is a weaving of passages from scripture into stories or commentaries (or other) to explore new meanings for them. I will discuss the nature of midrash more fully in a future post, and will include one of the best explanations/definitions of it that I can find — a small passage by James L. Kugel in his book, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts. This will show more explicitly the extent to which the Gospels have been  influenced by Jewish midrashic thought and style.

Thomas L. Brodie wrote a small book demonstrating the way the Gospels structured much of their narratives of Jesus around the stories of Elijah and Elisha, but did not like to use the word midrash. The reason was not because midrash was wrong, but because it was too general to be particularly useful. The gospels needed a narrower definition to capture their nature. But clearly the midrashic ways of Jewish writing are found throughout the Gospels.

Rather than discuss midrash as it was known to ancient Jews and the specific similarities with many features in both the Gospels and epistles of Paul, I will just post “on record” two examples of midrashic literature applied to the folklore genre. They are from Galit Hasan-Rokem’s final chapter in Web Of Life: Folklore and Midrash in Rabbinic Literature in which she discusses three midrashic tales about the Messiah.

This way I will have something online that I can refer to when I do discuss the topic in a little more depth. But remember the following are midrash at work in folklore tales. The Gospels are not the same genre as folklore, but we do find the same midrashic features in them, i.e., retelling old scripture  passages and biblical stories in new ways.

Birth of the Messiah read more »


2011-07-04

An even worse worst argument for the historicity of Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

It has been seriously asserted (mainstream biblical scholars should be taken seriously) that it would be “a miracle” if an ancient author, not living in Palestine, ever wrote a nonhistorical narrative about a nonhistorical Jesus that was set in real Palestinian towns and with characters bearing the names common among Palestinians.

Mind you, the same intellectual grants that most of the narrative in the Gospels is a mythologized overlay of whatever was a genuinely historical reminiscence. (Scholars even say the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels is not the historical Jesus but a “Christ of faith” who is, let’s be honest, a myth.) But we are left to understand that no such mythologization could possibly have extended to place or people names! They would have been sacrosanct from the beginning and remained so until the tale was finally set down in writing. Only then did various literate authors feel free to change some of the personal names and places. So disciples’ names vary, as do the locations of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. But a biblical scholar can publicly inform us that the “authenticity” of the personal and place names is itself a reliable indicator that the narrative can only derive from a genuine historical reminiscence.

Of course it is always possible to rationalize such differences. Dr James Crossley has said that he is perfectly happy to use conservative and evangelical arguments because statistically they must have something right and even Bart Erhman shares with James Patrick Holding an appeal to the same lack of imagination to  insist that Jesus was definitely historical.  So we find both scholars and anti-intellectuals using the same types of rationalizations to escape the consequences of their logical fallacies: Jesus cleansed the temple twice, Jesus was anointed twice, Jesus chose replacement disciples as some original choices inconveniently died off during his short ministry, a redactor could not make up his mind about two versions of the miraculous feeding so included them both, and so on.

No need for a miracle to create a symbolic pun read more »


2011-06-02

Aeneas and Jesus: how they were each created from mythical heroes

by Neil Godfrey
Luca Giordano, Enea vince Turno, Olio su tela,...

Image via Wikipedia

There should be nothing controversial in the title of this post. I understand “critical scholars” generally agree that the Gospel narratives of Jesus are largely fictitious, exaggerations, theological metaphors, expressing what Jesus “meant to the authors” rather than what he historically did or said. Many scholars agree that there are a few core events that really do lie behind the Gospel narratives, but except for one or two (the crucifixion and baptism) they do not all agree on what these were.

Classical scholar John Taylor, in Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition, shows us how the creators of both the Gospel narratives about Jesus and the Roman epic about Aeneas used the same technique for creating their respective characters (p. 85). read more »


2011-06-01

Scholars addressing Jesus Myth studies: Richard Carrier’s reviews

by Neil Godfrey

Thanks to Richard Carrier for his review of Sources of the Jesus Tradition, and for his earlier coverage of the conference that preceded this book. Having read most of the book I can concur with many of Carrier’s assessments of its (very mixed) quality. R. Joseph Hoffmann, editor of the book, has written a response, and Carrier has in return replied to this. Ah, the refined art of academic throat slitting and knife twisting!

In the course of his review Carrier discusses conference papers that he deeply regrets were not included and that led me to catch up with his earlier blog post on the conference presentations themselves.

So I copy here excerpts of Carrier’s review highlighting the best of what appears in Sources, and collate additional information from his earlier post on contributions that I personally find the most interesting. The Trobisch and MacDonald reviews at the end of this post are my personal favourites. So the following will be redundant for those already familiar with Carrier’s blog and views.

But there is much I omit. I only include my favourite bits here. Do read the very extensive book review and the details of the conference papers as they were delivered.

Note the overlap between Gerd Lüdemann’s and Earl Doherty’s arguments about Paul’s writings, too. read more »


2011-05-25

Explaining (the Gospel) Myths

by Neil Godfrey

Anthropology and the Bible

There can be little doubt that when we read the Gospels and the books of Revelation and Acts we encounter many stories that sound remarkably like myths. Prison doors opening by themselves to release heroes, dragons descending from heavens to pursue comely women upon earth, finding coins in caught fish, raising the dead and walking on water. Anyone (except fundamentalist apologists) will be prepared to admit that biblical stories like these really have originated from mythical imaginations and wider literary influences.

The question remains open, however, whether such mythical stories originated as attempts to interpret or convey the great significance and meaning of a historical subject (Jesus), or if they are in themselves attempts to create from scratch a mythical narrative persona (Jesus).

I think it is reasonable to argue the latter is the case if, after removing all the layers of the mythical, there is nothing left over to be called historical. (Contrast ancient Macedonian and Roman rulers with whom myths were associated. Peel away the myths and there is still plenty of historical person left there to study.)

But when it comes to Jesus, that argument does not explain the source of the mythical narratives in the first place. Philippe Wajdenbaum wrote a chapter for Anthropology and the Bible, edited by Emanual Pfoh (2010), that argues for a structural analysis of myths according to the research of “the father of modern anthropology”, Claude Lévi-Strauss.

If we embrace Lévi-Strauss’s view of myths, then the myths of early Christianity can only be understood and explained as mutations of similar myths in other cultures, and also in earlier Jewish culture. They are not unique. Their constitutional ties with other myths are integral to understanding them. read more »


2011-05-14

John the Baptist foreshadowed in Homer’s Odyssey?

by Neil Godfrey
http://www.flickr.com/photos/-lucie-/4321533423/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/-lucie-/4321533423/

Another interesting observation in Bruce Louden‘s Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East is his drawing a possible link between John the Baptist and Halitherses in the Odyssey. Louden explains that Halitherses is an aged prophet, close to the hero Odysseus, who warns the nobles in Odysseus’ absence to stop their evil plans or they will suffer the judgment of Odysseus upon his return.

That was enough to send me back to reading the Odyssey and I think the following passage that depicts Halitherses’  “preaching” worth quoting in full. I conclude with another in which Louden shows us that the message of the return of the king to his kingdom in the Odyssey is in a sense called “good news”, a word very similar to “gospel”. read more »


Jesus: a synthesis of five traditional mythical figures in ancient myths

by Neil Godfrey

Bruce Louden is Professor in the Languages and Linguistics Department at the University of Texas at El Paso. He has written several works on Homeric literature and I am sharing here a small extract from his latest, Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East. Louden is a classicist, and what he writes here is similar to other recent studies that are beginning to notice how similar the gospels are to other classical and Near Eastern litearture. Many know of Dennis MacDonald’s work comparing Mark’s gospel to the Homeric epics, but there are several others along the same theme, including Thomas L. Thompsons’ The Messiah Myth, and Derek Murphy’s Jesus Potter Harry Christ.

The following extract is singled out because it is an encapsulation of a broad overview of the role of Christ in the context of mythical heroes. The chapter explores much more detail, but some of that can be addressed in other posts. I have linked to Wikipedia articles most of the names from Greek myth for quick reference. read more »


2011-04-10

Jesus Potter Harry Christ: Reviewing Part One (chapter one)

by Neil Godfrey

Although it is easy to accept that Rowling crafted the literary character of Harry Potter after the figure of Jesus, shouldn’t it pique our interest that Jesus — a monumental figure in modern world religion generally believed to have been historical — has so much in common with the obviously fictional fantasy world and character of Harry Potter? (Preface, p. viii, Jesus Potter Harry Christ)

It’s a good question. It appeals to me personally because I have a particular interest in the gospels as literature. I am convinced that they need to be understood as literature before we can decide if and in what manner we might seek to extract historical information from them.

This post is a first draft of a review I am preparing for the book, and covers so far only the first of the book’s three sections. I am posting this now for the simple reason that I fear too long a time gap before I will be in a position to post a completed review of the entire book. So serialization it is for now. read more »


2011-03-18

Jesus Potter, Harry Christ

by Neil Godfrey

I regularly argue on this blog for an appreciation of the literary nature of the leading characters, episodes and narrative structures in the canonical gospels. So I am looking forward to reading and reviewing Derek Murphy’s Jesus Potter, Harry Christ. My initial response to reading the title was that this was a joke of some sort. But I encourage anyone interested in the gospels and Jesus as literature to read the content below and see that it  does seek to be a serious contribution to an understanding of the literary and mythical character of Jesus.

Neither is this a slur against Christianity. The author  rightly explains that the fictional nature of characters does not detract from the positive influence that character can have on those who love them. The author also answers pertinent questions about his rationale for writing such a book, the status, history and grounds of Jesus-mythicism. I will introduce some of this discussion from the author’s perspective in this post.

I particularly like the main idea of this book: Our question then is not whether Jesus Christ existed, but whether the literary character recorded in the New Testament was primarily inspired by a historical figure or previous literary traditions and characters.

Not having yet read the book I can only present here material from the author. It certainly sounds like a different approach to the question of the origins of the Christ-myth, and though some details sound a bit strange I am certainly interested in reading and evaluating the arguments.

This post offers

  1. an overview of the book,
  2. an author’s identity statement,
  3. an interview with the author,
  4. a press release,
  5. FAQs and links to online answers to FAQs about the book,
  6. the book’s concept, how the book came about and a letter from the author,
  7. and a link to several chapters that can be downloaded gratis.

read more »


2011-03-16

Greek Myths Related to Tales of Abraham, Isaac, Moses and the Promised Land

by Neil Godfrey
Golden Fleece Sochi

Image via Wikipedia

The classical Greek myths related to the founding of the colony of Cyrene in north Africa (Libya) are worth knowing about alongside the biblical narrative of the founding of Israel. This post is a presentation of my understanding of some of the ideas of Philippe Wajdenbaum found in a recent acticle in the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, and that apparently epitomize his thesis, Argonauts of the Desert.

My recent post drew attention to the following mythemes in common to both the Phrixus and Isaac sacrifice stories. I’m not sure if my delineation of them is guilty of slightly blurring the edges of a strict definition of a mytheme, but they are certainly common elements. read more »