Category Archives: Gospel of Mark


2014-07-13

Mark, Canonizer of Paul

by Neil Godfrey

dykstra1Until recently I have had little interest in arguments that our apparently earliest written gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was composed as an attempt to teach the ideas of Paul as found in his letters. After reading Mark, Canonizer of Paul by Tom Dykstra I am now more sympathetic to the possibility that the author of this gospel really was writing as a follower of Paul.

Dykstra introduces his argument by pointing out how curiously uninterested the author of the Gospel of Mark is in the contents of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is said to teach with authority and crowds are said to be impressed with his teachings but exactly what he taught in the synagogues or to those who crowded around to hear him in a house is left unsaid. Jesus does teach a lot of parables warning hearers of the consequences of not believing the gospel but the content of that gospel, the detail of what they must believe, is never stated. About the only teaching Mark’s Jesus is said to have delivered is little more than “Keep the commandments”.

Then there is the curious ending: why does Mark virtually leave the resurrection details out of the story altogether?

Dykstra sums up his argument:

The explanation I offer in this book can be summarized as follows. Mark’s primary purpose was to defend the vision of Christianity championed by Paul the Apostle against his “Judaizing” opponents. He undertook this defense because epistles written in the Apostle’s name were no longer deemed adequate, possibly because Paul himself was no longer around to personally defend his authority. Mark didn’t report any new teachings of Jesus because none were available to him: his main sources were the Old Testament, the Homeric epics, and Paul’s epistles, not the disciples or oral tradition. And so he wrote a Gospel that implicitly validated the authority of Paul and his epistles. . . .  My goal in this book is mainly to present the evidence for a literary relationship between Mark and Paul’s epistles. (p. 23, my bolding)

This situation makes sense, Dykstra suggests, if Paul had died and his teachings were in danger of being eclipsed by his opponents.

In chapter two and relying primarily upon Michael Goulder’s argument in St. Paul vs. St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions Dykstra presents a scenario of a sharp divide between two different types of gospels. Goulder was reviving (and responding to criticisms of) an 1831 interpretation by Ferdinand Baur.

Peter’s mission believed that the heavenly kingdom had already arrived and believers were already enjoying the resurrected life, while Paul stressed that the resurrection was yet to come and believers’ present life was more like the crucifixion. . . . Peter’s mission stressed tongues and visions and gifts of the spirit, while Paul’s stressed love and charity; Peter’s mission stressed the need to give away all of one’s possessions since the end had already come, while Paul’s mission advised people to keep working and earning a living. As will be seen, some of these differences are reflected in the text of Mark’ Gospel. (p. 35)

If the evangelist wanted to create a narrative to bolster the embattled teachings and authority of Paul he would need to project a dispute of his own and Paul’s day back into that narrative. The narrative would also need to show that apostles who came prior to Paul, even those claiming to be his brothers and those who were reputed as “pillars” in the church, failed to understand Jesus.

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2014-06-09

Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple: Rationalizing a Miracle

by Tim Widowfield
Christ Cleansing the Temple, c 1655 (J. Paul G...

Christ Cleansing the Temple, c 1655 (J. Paul Getty Museum) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Disorderly Conduct

While researching the similarities and differences between Mark’s and John’s account of the Cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem, I came across some fascinating observations by David Friedrich Strauss in The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. As you no doubt already know, the cleansing of, or what many Historical Jesus (HJ) scholars today often call a disturbance at, the Temple is an event recounted in all four gospels, which imagines a lone Jesus disrupting all business occurring in the outer courtyard.

HJ scholars who claim Jesus was some sort of apocalyptic prophet prefer to believe the event really happened, because it fits in with the eschatological message of their reconstructed Jesus. On the other hand, taking the stories at face value raises many issues. Bart Ehrman, in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, writes:

Most scholars recognize that some aspects of our accounts appear exaggerated, including Mark’s claim that Jesus completely shut down the operation of the Temple (if no one could carry any vessels, it would have been impossible to sacrifice and butcher the animals—which was after all what the Temple was for). As we have seen, the Temple complex was immense, and there would have been armed guards present to prevent any major disturbances. Moreover, if Jesus had actually created an enormous stir in the Temple, it’s nearly impossible to explain why he wasn’t arrested on the spot and taken out of the way before he could stir up the crowds. For these reasons, it looks as if Mark’s account represents an exaggeration of Jesus’ actions. But exaggerations aside, it is almost certain that Jesus did something that caused a disturbance in the Temple — for example, overturned some tables and made at least a bit of a ruckus. (Ehrman, p. 212, emphasis mine)

So for Ehrman, the Temple “disturbance” almost certainly happened, but not the way the gospels tell it. Instead, he would argue, the gospels contain a nugget of truth inside an otherwise unbelievable story.

Meanwhile, other NT scholars don’t buy into the historicity of the event. For example, in A Myth of Innocence Burton Mack called the story a “Markan fabrication.” (See p. 292.) For more on the historical aspects of the cleansing, read Neil’s excellent post: “Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical.”

Identifying the form

Before we go any further, let’s recall an often forgotten rule in biblical studies: To understand what a story means, you must first determine what it is. And so I come back to Strauss’s analysis of the alleged Temple event. With respect to Origen’s take on the Temple tantrum, he wrote:

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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.

read more »


2014-04-19

Jesus’ Crucifixion From the Olivet Prophecy to Gethsemane & the Fall of Jerusalem

by Neil Godfrey

This follows on from my previous post.Three hours of darkness 2There is nothing new about noticing that the prophecy of the “last days” that Jesus delivered to his inner disciples in Mark 13 contains allusions to events in the ensuing narrative Christ’s suffering and crucifixion. I addressed one of these points in the previous post. There are others.

Among them . . . .

Keep in mind that these are answers to the question: Tell us, when shall these things [there shall not be left one stone of the temple upon another] be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled (Mark 13:4)

But take heed to yourselves: for they shall deliver you up [παραδώσουσιν] to councils; and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten. . . . (13:9)

And he that betrayed [παραδιδοὺς] him . . . And all the council sought to put him to death. . . and the servants did strike him . . . and [the soldiers] smote him . . . (14:44, 55, 65; 15:19)

Now the brother shall betray [παραδώσει] the brother to death . . . and shall cause them to be put to death. (13:12)

And as they sat and did eat, Jesus said, Verily I say unto you, One of you which eateth with me shall betray [παραδώσει] me. (14:18)

And let him that is in the field not turn back again for to take up his garment. (13:16)

And they all forsook him, and fled. And there followed him a certain young man . . . and he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked (14:50, 52)

the sun shall be darkened (13:24)

And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. (13:33)

Now learn a parable of the fig tree (13:28)

And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots (11:20)

Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is. (13:32)

Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation (14:38)

Watch ye therefore: for you know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all. Watch. (13:35-37)

And he cometh, and findeth them sleeping, and saith unto Peter, Simon, sleepest thou? couldest not thou watch one hour? . . . And when he returned, he found them asleep again. . . And he cometh the third time, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: it is enough, the hour is come; behold, the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. (14:37-41)

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2014-04-18

Jesus’ Crucifixion As Symbol of Destruction of Temple and Judgment on the Jews

by Neil Godfrey
From http://worryisuseless.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/yeshuaadvent.jpg

From http://worryisuseless.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/yeshuaadvent.jpg

This post advances another reason to think that the author of the Gospel of Mark depicted the final days of Jesus as a metaphor for the fall of Jerusalem. If so, it follows that the resurrection of Jesus symbolized the emergence of a new “body of Christ” and “Temple of God” in the “ekklesia” or assemblies of Christians (what we think of as the “church”). I owe a special debt to Clark W. Owens whose book on a literary-critical analysis of the gospels, Son of Yahweh, I posted about recently. I also owe much to a few insights advanced by Karel Hanhart in The Open Tomb, on which I have also posted a little.

To begin, let’s recapitulate some of the essentials from those earlier posts.

I am persuaded that the Gospel of Mark’s depiction of Jesus’ tomb was based on a reading of the Greek version of Isaiah 22:16 that describes the destruction of the temple. In Isaiah 22:16 the temple is likened to a tomb carved out of a rock:

What hast thou here? and whom has thou here, that thou hast hewed thee out a sepulchre here, as he that heweth him out a sepulchre on high, and that graveth an habitation for himself in a rock.

Compare Mark 15:46 speaking of the tomb Joseph of Arimathea used for the body of Jesus:

. . . and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock . . . .

Recall at this point that we know ancient authors of the era in which the gospels were composed loved to imitate, draw upon, rearrange, allude to, transform, other well-known literature. We have numerous examples of this being done in the Gospel of Mark. The author has regularly taken passages from the Book of Daniel, the Psalms, other prophets, 1 and 2 Kings, Genesis and Exodus, and woven them into a new story so that they take on new meanings. We see this at the beginning with the introduction of Jesus through the announcement of John the Baptist. That opening chapter is replete with allusions to Elijah, the exodus of Israel from Egypt and the forty year wandering in the wilderness. The Passion scene at the end is equally rich with allusions to Daniel and Psalms, such as the cry of desperation from the cross, the mocking of Jesus as he was dying, the dividing of his garments, the promise of a return on the clouds in glory. read more »


2014-03-22

Why is Peter’s Brother, Andrew, Overlooked So Much in the Gospel Narrative?

by Neil Godfrey
The picture is a Greek Catholic icon depicting...

The picture is a Greek Catholic icon depicting apostle Andrew with his typical cross with him. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why does the Gospel of Mark, generally agreed to be our earliest gospel, introduce Andrew as an equal to Simon Peter at the time Jesus calls them both but then drop him from the lime-light for most of the subsequent narrative?

I have always felt a bit sorry for Andrew. He seems to have been elbowed out by the other three, Peter, James and John, whenever Jesus wanted to share something special with his inner-circle. James and John could always be included as brothers, so why was Peter’s brother left out at special events like

  • the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:37);
  • the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2);
  • the time Jesus wanted his closest companions with him in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33).

Even when Jesus ordained his special band of Twelve he gave James and John a collective title, “Sons of Thunder”, but dropped Andrew to fourth place as if he was no longer kin to Peter.

And Simon he surnamed Peter; And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder:  And Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Canaanite . . . (Mark 3:16-18)

So if Andrew was not to play any meaningful role, even as a hanger-on, with Jesus in the Gospel what was the point of him starring in the scene of the very first call?

Now as [Jesus] walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him. (Mark 1:16-18)

Andrew’s response to Jesus’ call was no less admirable than was Peter’s.

There is one exception after this call where the Gospel does give Andrew a place beside Peter, James and John. For the first time since the opening scenes of the Gospel when Jesus called these four do we see them all performing together:

And as [Jesus] sat upon the mount of Olives over against the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled? (Mark 13:3-4)

I have finally come across an explanation that just might make sense of this and give some well-deserved consolation to Andrew. (Regular readers know I’m currently reading Karel Hanhart’s The Open Tomb and will suspect this is my source. They will be correct.)

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2014-03-18

Blind Bartimaeus in the Gospel of Mark: Interpreted by the Gospel of John?

by Neil Godfrey

Here beginneth the lesson. The Gospel of Mark, chapter 10, verses 46 to 52, in the original King James English:

And as [Jesus] went out of Jericho with his disciples and a great number of people, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the highway side begging.

And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out, and say, Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me.

And many charged him that he should hold his peace: but he cried the more a great deal, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me.

And Jesus stood still, and commanded him to be called.

And they call the blind man, saying unto him, Be of good comfort, rise; he calleth thee.

And he, casting away his garment, rose, and came to Jesus.

And Jesus answered and said unto him, What wilt thou that I should do unto thee? The blind man said unto him, Lord, that I might receive my sight. And Jesus said unto him, Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole. And immediately he received his sight, and followed Jesus in the way.

The author of this passage appears to have inserted a couple of clues to alert the observant readers that they will miss the point entirely if they interpret this story literally. It is not about a real blind man who was literally healed by Jesus. But I’ll save those clues for the end of this post. (As Paul would say, “Does God take care for oxen and blind beggars? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written.”)

completely-differentThere are many commentaries on this passage and I have posted about Bartimaeus a few times now. But this time I’ve just read something completely different so here’s another one. (Well at least the bit about why Jesus stood still will be different, yes?)

Seeing

Mark uses different words for “sight” and “seeing”. Of the word used in “receive my sight” and “received his sight” is anablepo — “look up” — which Karel Hanhart says, the the Gospel of Mark (6:41; 7:34; 8:24; 16:4), “means to look at life with new eyes opened by faith”.

Many scholars agree that this usage is related to the two “blind receiving sight” stories (8:22-26; 10:46-52) which offset the central section of the Gospel and highlight the need of conversion if one is to understand Jesus’ “way to the cross” (cf. 8:34). (p. 124, The Open Tomb)

Hanhart, like a few other scholars who also identify Mark’s theme of the Way or Second Exodus in Isaiah, believes Mark is evoking passages such as Isaiah 42:16 read more »


2014-03-15

Was the Empty Tomb Story Originally Meant to be Understood Literally?

by Neil Godfrey

emptytombThis post is about the miracles in what is generally considered the earliest written surviving gospel, the Gospel of Mark.

Dutch pastor and biblical scholar Karel Hanhart in The Open Tomb: A New Approach, Mark’s Passover Haggadah (± 72 C.E.) argues that Mark’s empty tomb story has been sewn together with semantic threads mostly from Isaiah in order to symbolize the fall of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE and the emergence of Christianity as a new force among the gentiles. That is, the story of the burial and resurrection of Jesus was not understood as a literal miracle about a person being buried in a tomb and rising again. The first readers, with memories of the national calamity and Jewish Scriptures fresh in their minds, would have recognized instantly the many allusions in Mark’s closing scene of the empty tomb to the Temple’s fall, the end of the old order as predicted by the Prophets, and the promise of the body of Christ surviving and thriving throughout the nations post 70 CE.

A later or more geographically distant generation for whom the fall of Jerusalem had little personal significance would easily have lost sight of the original meaning of the burial and resurrection miracle and read literally the narrative of Joseph taking Jesus’ corpse from Pilate and placing it in the tomb, his rolling the stone to block the entrance, the women coming to anoint the body, their seeing the young man inside and running off in fear when he tells them to tell Peter where to find Jesus.

I will not in this post engage with Karel Hanhart’s specific arguments identifying the “Old Testament” and historical sources of Mark’s closing scenes. That’s for another time. Here I take a step back and look at the reasons we should read Mark’s miracle stories symbolically rather than literally. Be warned, though. I do not always make it clear where Hanhart’s arguments end and my additions begin. Just take the post as-is. If it’s important to know the difference then just ask.

Form critics long ago categorized the miracle stories into different types: healings, exorcisms, nature miracles. Classification like this has allowed scholars to say some types are historical and others not. We can imagine dramatic healing or exorcism that is largely performed through powerful psychosomatic suggestion. But nature miracles? Walking on water? Nah.

The trouble with this division, as Hanhart points out, is that the Gospel of Mark makes no such distinctions in the way any of the miracles are narrated. The narrative audience response is always the same: fear and astonishment. So let’s ask the question: What was “Mark” doing? Was he expecting his readers to take the miracles — all of them — literally or symbolically?

And if we answer, “Symbolically”, then surely we should include the final miracle — the empty tomb story — in that answer, too.

None of the Synoptic evangelists made such a distinction [healing miracles, nature miracles, . . .]. And Mark placed the open tomb story on the same literal or symbolic plateau, or both, as the stilling of the storm and the transfiguration. The audience response was the same in each case, one of awe and fear (4:41; 16:8). (p. 5)

And if we answer symbolically, we need to explain what message Mark was trying to convey.

Hanhart points to the following reasons Mark gives readers to enable them to understand that he is not writing a literal history. read more »


2014-03-07

Casey’s Hammer: How Monomania Distorts Scholarship (Part 2)

by Tim Widowfield
A screen shot from the introduction to Zero Wi...

A screen shot from the introduction to Zero Wing on the Mega Drive featuring the infamous phrase, “All your base are belong to us” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All your Aramaic are belong to us

In an earlier post, we introduced the subject of Maurice Casey’s Aramaic monomania. His affliction led him not only to claim that he has revealed the original language behind significant parts of the New Testament but to insist that he has discovered the actual words of Jesus.

Casey directs our attention to particular sections of Mark’s gospel and the Matthean-Lukan double tradition (Q) as alleged examples of “interference” at work.

Some features of Mark’s Greek are characteristic of the work of bilinguals. For example, at Mark 9.43, 45, 47 we read καλόν [kalon] where a monoglot Greek-speaker would use a comparative. Aramaic has no comparative, so the use of καλόν [kalon] is due to interference in someone who was used to saying טב [tav]. (Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel, p. 85., emphasis mine)

Other signs of interference include the use of certain words. For example, in the Lord’s prayer we are to ask God to forgive τὰ ὀφειλήματα [ta opheilēmata] (Matt. 6.12), literally our ‘debts’, but a metaphor for our ‘sins’, so a literal translation of the Aramaic חובינא [kobena]. (An Aramaic Approach to Q, p. 55, emphasis mine)

Accordingly, Mark did not mean that Jesus was angry. He was suffering from interference, the influence of one of his languages on another. All bilinguals suffer from interference, especially when they are translating, because the word which causes the interference is in the text which they are translating. (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 63, emphasis mine, incoherence Casey’s)

A correct understanding of interference is essential if we are to understand our Gospel translators, and consequently essential if we are to have any confidence in our Aramaic reconstructions. (An Aramaic Approach to Qp. 55, emphasis mine)

What does Casey mean by “interference”?

Since Casey’s argument depends heavily on the concept of interference, you might think he would have defined the term for his readers. You would probably also expect that if he believes bilinguals have more interference when translating than when composing, he would back that idea up with research.

But as usual, Casey disappoints. He gives examples of interference, but he fails to define the term. That’s a shame, since the literature surrounding this idea is vast and fascinating, with no shortage of scholarly contention. So before we go any further we need to rectify this situation.

The term interference is now somewhat out of favor. In the literature we see several alternatives, including:

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2014-02-12

The Author of Mark: Master of Suspense?

by Tim Widowfield
English: Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitc...

English: Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitchcock. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What Is Suspense?

A.H. [Alfred Hitchcock] In the usual form of suspense it indispensable that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise there is no suspense. (Truffaut: Hitchcock (1983), p. 72, emphasis mine)

Back when I was an undergrad at the University of Maryland at College Park, I took a film class that focused on British director Alfred Hitchcock. Our main text, based largely on interviews that you can listen to at the Internet Archive, was Francois Truffaut’s book, which I still highly recommended for any film buff.

The difference between suspense and surprise

Hitchcock, of course, had a keen interest in suspense, as distinguished from surprise.

A.H. There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it is seen as an absolutely ordinary scene. Now let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen an anarchist place it there.

The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.

The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!” (Truffaut, p. 73, reformatting and bold emphasis mine)

read more »


2014-02-07

Casey: Taking Context out of Context

by Tim Widowfield
English: Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud glowers disapprovingly. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Observant readers will recall that we tackled this subject once before in When Is Paul's Silence Golden?]

Ad hoc soup

The standard historicist response to the question of Paul’s silence on the historical Jesus relies heavily on Freudian Kettle Logic – to wit, “(1) Paul did mention Jesus quite a bit; (2) We shouldn’t be surprised that Paul didn’t mention Jesus very much at all, for the following ad hoc reasons; (3) You’re an idiot for bringing it up.”

The different ad hoc reasons given for Paul’s silence vary over time. And it’s hard to justify spending too much time refuting them, because they’re functionally equivalent to yelling “Squirrel!” in the middle of a sentence. Perhaps it’s because of the honor/shame society Paul and Jesus lived in. Maybe Paul was an egomaniac. Maybe . . . Squirrel!

Say what you will, but at least there’s plenty of variety. If you don’t feel like hopping on the current ad hoc bus, stay put; another one is coming in 15 minutes. Quote miners in the Apologia Mountains are working ’round the clock to serve you. Pardon the mixed metaphors.

A cave-in down in the quote mine

While reading Maurice Casey’s new book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?, I was dismayed (but not surprised) to find that he’s still using that tired old Context Canard to explain Paul’s silence on the historical Jesus. His preferred ad hoc rescue for Paul’s silence has to do with cultural context, as described in Edward Hall’s Beyond Culture. Apologists argue that the people of the Ancient Near East (including, apparently, Asia Minor and the entire Mediterranean basin) lived in a high context culture.

What does that mean? On the high end of the Hall scale people use implicit language to express themselves. Body language, gestures, facial expressions, shared cultural memory and subtexts, along with other nonverbal modes of communication provide the full range of expression that outsiders will often miss. On the low end, people use explicit language to express themselves. They will often repeat themselves, just to be clear. They do not rely as much, if at all, on nonverbal cues or cultural subtext.

Casey argues:

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2014-02-05

Casey’s Hammer: How Monomania Distorts Scholarship (Part 1)

by Tim Widowfield

What’s in a name?

And because of my father, between the ages 7 through 15, I thought my name was “Jesus Christ.” He’d say, “JESUS CHRIST!” And my brother, Russell, thought his name was “Dammit.” “‘Dammit, will you stop all that noise?! And Jesus Christ, SIT DOWN!” So one day I’m out playing in the rain. My father said “Dammit, will you get in here?!” I said, “Dad, I’m Jesus Christ!” 

–Bill Cosby

In his new book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? (which Jim West with no trace of irony calls “excellent”), Maurice Casey makes it abundantly clear that Neil and I should get off his lawn. We should also slow down and, for heaven’s sake, turn out the lights when leaving a room.

Maurice Casey: Old Yeller

Since my chief purpose here is not to make fun of such a charming and erudite scholar as Dr. Casey, I’ll say just one thing about the shameful way a famous scholar lashes out at amateurs on the web. Lest any reader out there get the wrong idea, my first name is not Blogger. Same for Neil.

Old Man Yells at Cloud

Old Man Yells at Cloud

I will instead, at least for now, ignore the embarrassing, yelling-at-cloud parts of this dismal little book and focus on Mo’s evidence for the historical Jesus.

If I had a hammer

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

–Abraham Maslow

Casey, you will recall, has written several books on biblical studies. He’s justly recognized as an expert in the Aramaic language. In fact, he is probably the foremost living expert on Aramaic, especially with respect to its historical roots, its evolution, its variants, and its use in first-century Palestine. I own most of his books on the subject, and although I disagree with many of his dogmatic conclusions, his basic research is thorough and generally reliable.

The problem I have with Casey is that his prodigious knowledge of Aramaic causes him to see everything in the New Testament from that perspective. He frequently reminds me of Catherwood in the Firesign Theatre’s “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger,” who, upon returning from the past in his time machine, shouts:

I’m back! It’s a success! I have proof I’ve been to ancient Greece! Look at this grape!

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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2013-09-28

Why the Gospels are Historical Fiction

by Neil Godfrey

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A recent book by Jacob Licht, Storytelling in the Bible (Jerusalem, 1978), proposes that the “historical aspect” and the “storytelling” aspect of biblical narrative be thought of as entirely discrete functions that can be neatly peeled apart for inspection — apparently, like the different colored strands of electrical wiring.

This facile separation of the inseparable suggests how little some Bible scholars have thought about the role of literary art in biblical literature. (Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 32)

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By “historical fiction” I mean a fictitious tale, whether it is a theological parable or not, set in a real historical time and place. Authors of “historical fiction” must necessarily include real historical places and real historical persons and events in their narrative or it will be nothing more than “fiction”. Ancient authors are known to have written “historical fiction” as broadly defined as this. We have the Alexander Romance by Heliodorus that is a largely fictitious dramatization of the person and exploits of Alexander the Great. Of more interest for our purposes here is Chariton’s tale of Chaereas and Callirhoe. These are entirely fictitious persons whose adventures take place in world of historical characters who make their own appearances in the novel: the Persian emperor, Artaxerxes II; his wife and Persian queen, Statira; the Syracusan statesman and general of the 410s, Hermocrates. There are allusions to other possible historical persons. Sure there are several anachronisms that found their way into Chariton’s novel. (And there are several historical anachronisms in the Gospels, too.) Chariton even imitated some of the style of the classical historians Herodotus and Thucydides.

In this way Chariton imitates the classical historians in technique, not for the purpose of masquerading as a professional historian, but rather, as Hagg (1987, 197) suggests, to create the “effect of openly mixing fictitious characters and events with historical ones.” (Edmund Cueva, The Myths of Fiction, p. 16)

A word to some critics: This post does not argue that Jesus did not exist or that the there is no historical basis to any of the events they portray. It spoils a post to have to say that, since it ought to be obvious that demonstrating a fictitious nature of a narrative does not at the same time demonstrate that there were no analogous historical events from which that narrative was ultimately derived. What the post does do, however, is suggest that those who do believe in a certain historicity of events found in the gospels should remove the gospels themselves as evidence for their hypothesis. But that is all by the by and a discussion for another time. Surely there is value in seeking to understand the nature of one of our culture’s foundational texts for its own sake, and to help understand the nature of the origins of culture’s faiths.

Cover of "The Art Of Biblical Narrative"

Cover of The Art Of Biblical Narrative

This post is inspired by Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter believes that the reason literary studies of the Bible were relatively neglected for so long is because of the cultural status of the Bible as a “holy book”, the source of divine revelation, of our faith. It seems gratuitously intrusive or simply quite irrelevant to examine the literary structure of a sacred book. So the main interest of those who study it has been theology. I would add that, given the Judaic and Christian religions of the Bible claim to be grounded in historical events, the relation of the Bible’s narratives to history has also been of major interest.

But surely the first rule of any historical study is to understand the nature of the source documents at hand. That means, surely, that the first thing we need to do with a literary source is to analyse it see what sort of literary composition it is. And as with any human creation, we know that the way something appears on the surface has the potential to conceal what lies beneath.

Only after we have established the nature of our literary source are we in a position to know what sorts of questions we can reasonably apply to it. Historians interested in historical events cannot turn to Heliodorus to learn more biographical data about Alexander the Great, nor can they turn to Chariton to fill in gaps in their knowledge about Artaxerxes II and Statira, because literary analysis confirms that these are works of (historical) fiction.

Some will ask, “Is it not possible that even a work of clever literary artifice was inspired by oral or other reports of genuine historical events, and that the author has happily found a way to narrate genuine history with literary artistry?”

The answer to that is, logically, Yes. It is possible. But then we need to recall our childhood days when we would so deeply wish a bed-time fairy story, or simply a good children’s novel, to have been true. When we were children we thought as children but now we put away childish things. If we do have at hand, as a result of our literary analysis, an obvious and immediate explanation for every action, for every speech, and for the artistry of the way these are woven into the narrative, do we still want more? Do we want to believe in something beyond the immediate reality of the literary artistry we see before our eyes? Is Occam’s razor not enough?

If we want history, we need to look for the evidence of history in a narrative that is clearly, again as a result of our analysis, capable of yielding historical information. Literary analysis helps us to discern the difference between historical fiction and history that sometimes contains fictional elements. Or maybe we would expect divine history to be told with the literary artifice that otherwise serves the goals and nature of fiction, even ancient fiction.

The beginning of the (hi)story

The great Latin poet, Virgil, holding a volume...

The Latin poet, Virgil, holding a volume on which is written the Aeneid. On either side stand the two muses: “Clio” (history) and “Melpomene” (tragedy). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take the beginning of The Gospel According to St. Mark. Despite the title there is nothing in the text itself to tell us who the author was. This is most unlike most ancient works of history. Usually the historian is keen to introduce himself from the start in order to establish his credibility with his readers. He wants readers to know who he is and why they should believe his ensuing narrative. The ancient historian normally explains from the outset how he comes to know his stuff. What are his sources, even if in a generalized way. The whole point is to give readers a reason to read his work and take it as an authoritative contribution to the topic.

The Gospel of Mark does indeed begin by giving readers a reason to believe in the historicity of what follows, but it is has more in common with an ancient poet’s prayer to the Muses calling for inspiration and divinely revealed knowledge of the past than it does with the ancient historian’s reasons.

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger . . . .

That’s the reason the reader knows what follows is true. It was foretold in the prophets. What need we of further witnesses?

Yes, some ancient historians did from time to time refer to a belief among some peoples in an oracle. But I can’t off hand recall any who claimed the oracle was the source or authority of their narrative. I have read, however, several ancient novels where divine prophecies are an integral part of the narrative and do indeed drive the plot. Events happen because a divine prophecy foretold them. That’s what we are reading in Mark’s Gospel here from the outset, not unlike the ancient novel by Xenophon of Ephesus, The Ephesian Tale, in which the plot begins with and is driven by an oracle of Apollo.

Note, too, how the two lead characters in the opening verses are introduced. read more »