Category Archives: Gospel Origins


2014-04-20

How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 2)

by Tim Widowfield

Part 2: A Markan Sandwich in John’s Gospel

The Denial of St Peter

The Denial of St Peter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scholars have long noted that both the gospel of John and the gospel of Mark interrupt the story of Peter’s denial with Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin (Mark) or interrogation before Annas (John). Both authors begin with Peter in the courtyard of the high priest late at night, pause the story to describe Jesus’ initial questioning before the Jewish authority, then resume the denial narrative. In other words, the author of John’s gospel has apparently used the same literary device found in Mark.

For New Testament scholars who think that John knew the Synoptics, especially Mark, this situation poses no problems. However, scholars who believe John did not know Mark must explain this evidence, which tends to indicate literary dependence. For example, they might argue that John and Mark:

  1. independently chose to use the intercalation (sandwich) technique to tell the two stories,
  2. used a pre-gospel Passion narrative in which this literary device existed,
  3. or knew the same oral tradition, which happened to contain the sandwich.

Comparing sandwiches

For the purposes of discussion, it’s helpful to see the sandwiches side by side.

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2014-01-07

Why the Gospels Blend History with Fiction

by Neil Godfrey
johnson

Sara Johnson

Associate Professor of Classics specializing in Hellenistic Judaism, Sara Johnson, may suggest an answer to the question implicit in this post’s title even though she does not address the Gospels directly. Johnson has a chapter in Ancient Fiction: the Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative (2005) discussing the way 3 Maccabees was composed to help shape Jewish identity in the Hellenistic world. One way it accomplishes its ideological goal is to blend history and fiction. Historical verisimilitude serves to anchor the Jewish reader to the “historical tradition” of the community, while the infusion of fictional elements ensure the correct message and proper identity are inculcated. A reader such as myself with a strong interest in questions of Gospel origins cannot help but wonder if the Jesus narratives were written for a similar purpose in the same literary tradition.

Sara Johnson’s chapter is “Third Maccabees: Historical Fictions and the Shaping of Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Period”. 3 Maccabees, if you have not yet read it, is available on the University of Michigan Digital Library site. It’s not too long. It opens with a scene of one of the “great” battles in the Hellenistic era, the battle of Raphia, in which the forces of Ptolemaic Egypt (King Philopater) routed the Syrian army of Antiochus III, 217 BCE. On the eve of the Battle there is an attempt on Philopater’s life but he is saved by a Jew.

Captive Jews in the hippodrome at Alexandria, engraved by Josiah Wood Whymper by Gustave Dore

Captive Jews in the hippodrome at Alexandria, engraved by Josiah Wood Whymper by Gustave Dore

In the euphoria of victory Philopater invites himself into the most sacred area of the Jewish Temple to offer thanks to the divinity. (It is the custom of victorious kings to enter temples that way.) The Jews protest, we we would expect and Ptolemy is prevented by some divine action to from carrying out his plan. He returns to Egypt, enraged, and orders the Jews of Egypt be rounded up and crushed to death by drunken elephants. God maintains the suspense by holding off his several rescue missions to the very last moment, and finally changes Philopater’s mind altogether so that he even tells the world what wonderful and loyal folk all those Jews are. Jews who had apostasized under his pressure are quite rightly slaughtered instead.

The tale is a rich mix of genuine historical details and fables. Historical persons talk with fictional ones. Accurate details of the battle and the preliminary attempt on Philopater’s life are as detailed and accurate as we find in the works of the historian Polybius. The same accuracy is found in the Egyptian’s tour of the cities of Syria and offering of thanksgiving sacrifices in their temples.

This prepares the reader for a tale firmly rooted in the known facts of the past. (p. 86)

But the historical and fictional sit side by side: read more »


2013-12-10

How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 1)

by Tim Widowfield

Part 1: Turning Mark Inside Out

In a comment to Neil’s post, Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 3 — Criteria, from way back in May of 2012, I introduced a way to explain how the Fourth Evangelist may have used the Gospel of Mark. It might not be a novel approach — there is no new thing under the sun — and I certainly don’t have access to all the commentaries and exegeses on John. However, it’s new to me.

English: John the Evangelist, miniature, Gospe...

English: John the Evangelist, miniature, Gospel Book, Vatopedi monastery, cod. 16 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For simplicity’s sake, here’s my comment, with some minor edits:

In Mark 15:37, Jesus “breathes his last.” In the following verse the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom. And in verse 39, the centurion declares him to be the Son of God.

Key words to notice in verse 15:36 are (1) ἐσχίσθη (eschisthē) — “was torn” and (2) ἄνωθεν (anōthen) — “from [the] top.” A close, literal translation of the verse might be: “And the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom.”

In John, conversely, at the beginning of the crucifixion (19:23) the soldiers take Jesus’ belongings and split them among themselves. They divide his garments into four equal piles, but they notice that Jesus’ tunic is formed of a single piece of woven fabric without seams. John says that the tunic was “seamless from the top (anōthen), woven throughout all.” And in the next verse, they decide not to tear (σχίσωμεν (schisōmen)) the tunic, but cast lots for it instead. It was not torn.

The garment John describes has reminded several commentators of the priestly vestment described by Josephus: “Now this vesture was not composed of two pieces, nor was it sewed together upon the shoulders and the sides, but it was one long vestment so woven as to have an aperture for the neck; not an oblique one, but parted all along the breast and the back.” (http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-3.htm)

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2011-12-16

The Gnostic Gospel of John (1)

by Neil Godfrey

Recently I began a series on the pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism but have recently read a book that I think may throw more direct light on that question — The Secret Book of John: The Gnostic Gospel – Annotated and Explained by Stevan Davies. Several things about this Gnostic gospel particularly attracted my attention:

  1. The Apocryphon of John did not originate as a Christian Gnostic document; apart from a few annotations scattered in the main body itself the main Christian elements (those bits that present the work as a revelation by Jesus to his disciple John) were tagged on to the opening and closing of a much older text.
  2. A clarification explaining that there are two types of religious metaphors: those that compare the divine to social and political models on earth (God as king or father, etc) and those that compare the divine to mental or psychological processes (e.g. Buddhism, Gnosticism).
  3. A partial coherence with Walter Schmithals’ claim that Jewish Gnosticism is not strictly dualist — the material world is not a reality opposed to the higher world but in fact is not a reality at all.
  4. More complete coherence with Walter Schmithals’ that among the saving powers are Christ, Son of Man and Daveithi, a word that “possibly means ‘of David’”
  5. Coherence with Walter Schmithals with respect to the absence of an individual descending redeemer figure. Thus though there are descents they are not on the part of figures truly distinct from the one being saved.
  6. Adam was created in a “heavenly realm” before appearing in a physical and worldly Eden.
  7. Repeated emphasis that in mythology the modern mind should not expect consistent logical coherence.

Though I suspect Stevan Davies would re”coil at the suggestion there is much here that overlaps with Earl Doherty’s arguments for the Christian Christ originating as a heavenly mythical figure. Schmithals himself argues that the false apostles and gospels Paul opposed were probably teaching something like this Gnostic Gospel. Nonetheless this text does help us understand another facet of the thought-world through which Christianity as we know it eventually emerged.

Oh, one more thing. I was not really aware before reading this book that the Apocryphon of John “is the most significant and influential text of the ancient Gnostic religion”. (But then I’m way behind many others in my knowledge of Gnosticism.) So for that reason alone it is worth close attention. 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 »


2011-03-29

Finding a home (provenance) for the Gospels

by Neil Godfrey
Aachen Gospels

Image via Wikipedia

What sort of society, social or church groups would have had an interest in producing the narratives we read today in the canonical gospels, and where and when do we find evidence of such peoples in the historical record?

If we do find such a group, would we not have a reasonable case that the gospels were first composed among them?

I list here a few areas where one might consider whether there is a reasonable match between the gospels and corresponding evidence external to the gospels.

Obviously the immediate objection some will raise is that such questions are overlooking the “fact” that the earliest external evidence has long since gone missing. Of course that is always a possibility to be kept in mind and I do not reject it. The point of this exercise is to see what happens when we do work with the evidence that is available. The next step would be to see if the results of this little experiment are more satisfactory than explanations that rely on the assumption of historicity at the heart of the Gospel narrative.

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