Category Archives: Literary analysis


2014-09-21

Doubting an Oral Tradition behind the Gospels: The Parables

by Neil Godfrey

All posts in this series are archived at Henaut: Oral Tradition and the Gospels

(This post extends well beyond Henaut, however.)

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I have recently posted insights by John Drury and Michael Goulder into the literary character of the parables in the gospels. (The vocabulary and themes are part and parcel of the larger canvass and thematic structure of each gospel.) Drury has further shown that they are not, as widely assumed, to be based on everyday commonplace events but are in fact bizarre and unnatural scenarios. (Sowers did not scatter seed so wastefully as per the parable of the sower, for example.)

kelberoralwrittenShortly before Drury’s book was published (1985) a work by Werner Kelber appeared, Oral and Written Gospel (1983). I recall devouring Kelber’s books, pencil-marking them, thinking about them, applying them to other works I read, when I first began to study study what scholarship had to say about Gospel origins. His Oral and Written Gospel remains one of the most underlined and scribbled-in books on my shelf. Back then Kelber led me to ask so many questions of other works I was reading; now I find myself asking more critical questions of Kelber himself.

Arguments for the parables originating in oral performance

Here is what he wrote about the significance of the parables as evidence for oral tradition lying behind the sayings of Jesus in the gospels.

The oral propriety of parabolic stories requires little argument. “A parable is an urgent endeavour on the part of the speaker towards the listener.” [citing Carlston] Speaking is the ordinary mode of parabolic discourse, and writing in parables seems almost out of place. (p. 57, my own bolding and formatting in all quotations)

There are three distinctive features about parables that Kelber identifies as clear signs that they originated as oral performances. read more »


2014-09-15

How and Why Luke Changed Matthew’s Nativity of Jesus Story

by Neil Godfrey
One of the earliest known depictions from a th...

One of the earliest known depictions from a third century sarcophagus. Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Gospel of Matthew opens with the story of the Magi following a star to find the baby Jesus,the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the flight into Egypt and Herod ordering the massacre of all infants near Bethlehem to be sure of getting rid of the unidentified newborn king.

The Gospel of Luke could not be any more different, or so it seems. No Magi, no precious gifts, no flight into Egypt, no Herod or mass infanticide. Rather we have shepherds being directed by angels to find Jesus in a manger.

The most common explanation for this narrative gulf between the two is that the author of the Gospel of Luke (let’s take a wild guess and call him Luke) knew nothing of the existence of the Gospel of Matthew and had quite different sources to draw upon to account for Jesus’ birth. It is impossible, the argument goes, to imagine Luke discarding such a dramatic and memorable story as found in Matthew’s Gospel had he known it.

Michael Goulder disagreed and in Luke: A New Paradigm (1989) he published his reasons for believing Luke did know of the Magi and Herod narrative and deliberately changed it.

First, notice the points that Luke has in common with Matthew.

  • Mary ‘bore a son’ (έτεκεν υίόν, Mt. 1.25; Lk. 2.7).
  • It was in Bethlehem of Judaea, as Micah had foretold (Mt. 2.1, 5f), and Matthew turns the citation in line with the prophecy to David, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel’ (v. 6d, 2 Sam. 5.2); Luke says that Joseph went up to Judaea to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, being of Davidic ancestry, and Mary with him (2.4).
  • In Matthew God brings a company of strangers, magi, leading them by a star rising in the sky; in Luke God brings a company of strangersshepherds, summoning them by his angel, and the multitude of the heavenly host.
  • When the magi saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy (έχάρησαν χαράν μεγάλην σφόδρα, 2.10); the angel brought the shepherds good news of χαράν μεγάλην for all the people (2.10).
  • The magi come and see the child (τό παιδίον) with Mary his mother, and fall before him (‘when you have found him’, said Herod). The shepherds came with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the baby laid in the manger; and when they had seen, they made known the saying told them of the child (του παιδιού τούτου, 2.17).
  • Magi and shepherds close the scene by returning whence they had come; and Luke then notes that ‘his name was called Jesus’ at his circumcision, just as Matthew says that Joseph called his name Jesus (1.25).

(From Goulder, Luke: A New Paradigm, p. 247, with my formatting) read more »


2014-09-02

Jesus Did Not Speak in Parables — the Evidence

by Neil Godfrey

fivegospelsHenautThe parables of Jesus are among many people’s favourite treasures in the Bible and the focus of much erudite and popular research outputs by some of the most renowned scholars in the field. In The Five Gospels Robert Funk, Roy Hoover and the Jesus Seminar confidently point to the triadic structure (groups of threes) as well as the repetitions and catchwords — all characteristics of oral sayings – in the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4) to assert that this parable most likely originated as the very words of Jesus himself. The same year (1993) saw Barry Henaut’s publication, Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4, that comprehensively demolished the claim that triadic structures, repetitions and mnemonic catchwords are unique to oral communications and demonstrated that the same features were also characteristic of ancient literary compositions that were written to be read aloud to audiences.

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This post follows on from What Is a Parable? My original intent was to post the outline of Michael Goulder’s reasons for concluding that the parables we know so well from the gospels were the literary creations of the evangelist authors of those gospels and did not derive from anything Jesus said.

ParablesBefore I had a chance to continue with that plan one most helpful reader alerted me to John Drury’s book The Parables in the Gospels: History and Allegory.

I’ll keep this post’s main focus on the Gospel of Mark, widely thought to be the earliest gospel written. Matthew, Luke and (a significant number of scholars believe) John knew and adapted Mark’s material to serve their own theological and literary purposes.

I know we remember all this but. . .

From the earlier What Is a Parable? post we saw that the Greek word in the Bible that we translate as “parable” was derived from the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint/LXX) and embraced what in Hebrew was a word (mashal) that embraced a wide range of figurative expressions. It could be a pithy proverbial saying, an extended allegorical tale, a prophetic oracle, a riddle, a song of derision or a byword. It was generally a saying with a hidden meaning that needed to be deciphered. It generally professed to explain God’s will behind some historical condition. It was always an integral part of its surrounding narrative.

That last mentioned trait alone is a significant reason for believing such parables were the creations of the authors of the works in which they appeared. read more »


2014-08-17

What Is a Parable?

by Neil Godfrey
John Drury

John Drury

‘Parable’ is an English version of the Greek word parabolē. According to Aristotle (Rhetoric, 2.20) parables were used by orators in inductive or indirect proof as a generally recognized means of demonstration and illustration. They are, according to him, of two kinds: true events taken from history, and the more easily invented example such as the fable or the parables used by Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. Characteristically, he had a decided preference for the first of these as against the second with its allegorical form. It was a preference which was to appeal strongly and fatefully to modern critics such as Jülicher and Dodd who had had a classical education.

But the education of the New Testament writers was different. The Bible, not Aristotle, was their teacher and they possessed it in a Greek translation, the Septuagint. It was full of parables, and the Septuagint translation was usually careful to translate the Hebrew mashal by the Greek parabolē in spite of the extraordinary range of mashal. Since that range is so wide and contains a number of things which would not be called parables nowadays, it is worth setting it out with examples both for reference and as an historical corrective. (Drury, Parables in the Gospels, p. 8)

So what are sorts of things does Drury set out as instances of “mashal” or “parables” in the Old Testament? This is something worth knowing if the New Testament gospels do in fact mean any sort of OT-type “mashal” when they use the word “parable”. We see here in the literary world of the authors of the gospels what parables looked like and the purposes to which they were put. Drury identifies six types of parables:

  • Sayings
  • Figurative sayings or metaphors
  • Enigmatic allegories
  • Songs of derision
  • Bywords
  • Prophetic oracles

read more »


2014-08-11

The Composition of the Lord’s Prayer

by Neil Godfrey
goulder

Goulder closer to 1963 than much later

As a follow up to my previous post here is more detail of Michael Goulder’s argument that the Lord’s Prayer was originally composed by the author of the Gospel of Matthew. I am referring to Goulder’s “The Composition of the Lord’s Prayer” as published 1963 in The Journal of Theological Studies.

Goulder begins by setting out the five propositions generally accepted as the explanation for how the Lord’s Prayer came to be recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. He finds each of these propositions unsatisfactory. From pages 32-34 (excerpts with my formatting and bolding):

  1. The Prayer was composed by Jesus, incorporating phrases from the synagogue liturgy, but in a unique combination and meaning.
    • If the Prayer was composed by Jesus and taught to his disciples, then it is the only thing of the kind he ever did. . . . [T]here is no very obvious reason why he should so have done [i.e. passed on this one teaching to learn by heart -- which is the same principle as setting down one's teaching in writing].

  2. The Prayer was universally used in the primitive Church, but a number of slightly different versions of it became current, either in the Palestinian churches, in Aramaic, or later when it was translated into Greek.

    • Where are the variant versions to have originated? It is hard to believe that a dominically composed Prayer should have been corrupted anywhere without authority immediately objecting.

  3. St. Mark does not include the Prayer in his gospel for reasons best known to himself; but in general St. Mark felt at liberty to include only a proportion of the teaching of Jesus known to him, seeing the gospel as primarily the acts of Jesus.

    • The theory that St. Mark might have felt at liberty to leave out the Prayer, along with other of Jesus’ teachings, is at variance with (1), which maintains that Jesus thought it to be the most important piece of teaching he ever gave. If Jesus thought this, it is hardly likely that St. Mark thought otherwise; and it is especially difficult to maintain that he did when he records teaching very close to the Lord’s Prayer at xi. 25 f. 

  4. Of the two versions preserved in our gospels St. Luke’s is likely to be nearer the original, as it is shorter, and liturgical forms tend to grow more elaborate in time.

    • [Matthew's and Luke's versions of the LP each show strong traces of their respective styles; Luke's LP wording lapses into the same awkwardness in which he falls when adapting Mark's gospel.] This means . . . that the Lucan version is not likely to be a Greek translation of the original Lord’s Prayer; and we have a highly elaborate hypothesis on our hands in consequence. [That elaborate hypothesis involves attempting to work out the history of the prayer through three unknowns: Q, L (sources or a special version of Q known only to Luke) and an Aramaic original as the root of both.]

  5. St. Matthew’s version shows strong traces of Matthaean vocabulary and style, and is an embroidery upon the Prayer as received by him in the tradition.

    • The most remarkable assumption of all is that two generations after the Prayer had been committed to the Apostles St. Matthew should have been at liberty to expand and improve it at will. . . . A sound argument must run: it is impossible that St. Matthew should have had licence to amend a Prayer composed by Jesus, and it is a fortiori  impossible that his scribes, or the author of the Didache, should have had this licence. Therefore Jesus did not compose the Lord’s Prayer.

The Invention of the Lord’s Prayer

Goulder then moves on to his own argument (italics original), p. 35: read more »


2014-08-06

Luke’s Unwelcome Creativity

by Neil Godfrey
quote_begin I had supposed that scholars were dedicated to the pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead, and that new ideas would always be welcome. — Michael Goulder quote_end

Visitation-1In his memoirs Michael Goulder describes the eureka moments that led him to challenge major planks of the conventional wisdom New Testament scholarship. The first of these challenges was his thesis that the evangelists (especially Matthew and Luke, but in particular Luke) imaginatively created material for their gospel narratives as opposed to being slavishly bound to now lost traditions — oral traditions and Q — and that derived directly from Jesus or his immediate followers.

The early chapters of the Gospel of Luke narrate the miraculous and idyllic circumstances of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. John’s parents, Zechariah and Elisabeth, are very old, way past child-bearing age, yet are very devout. When an angel appears to Zechariah while he is going about his Temple duties and promises him and his wife a child Zechariah finds it too much to believe. Maybe it’s the translator’s fault but it has long sounded to me like the opening scenes of a fairy tale. We must remember, however, that a good many readers, even wise and learned scholars, read it as a true story or at least as closely based on one.

Michael Goulder was not the first to notice that the similarities between these stories and narratives of miraculous childbirths in Genesis — divine promises, at first disbelieved, to devout parents otherwise not able or not ready to have children. No doubt most readers of the Bible have seen that much. What took Goulder a step further was when he noticed that in addition to the similarity of story there is also a similarity in language.

Luke (or whoever the author really was) read the Book of Genesis in Greek (known as the Septuagint, or LXX) and he wrote his gospel in Greek. There were certain distinctive peculiarities of expression in the Septuagint Genesis narrative that were repeated in Luke’s narrative.

[I]t is striking that Luke’s gospel contains phrases identical to those in the LXX, such as ‘they were advanced in days’, where one would naturally say ‘they were old’. So it began to look as if the story was not so much a record of a true experience of Zechariah, but rather one composed by Luke himself on the pattern of the Abraham/Isaac story. (p. 26)

Interesting. Coincidence?  read more »


2014-01-27

Acts 1-7 as Creative Literature, not History — Illustrated

by Neil Godfrey

InPraiseChnOrigns2I’ve been preoccupied with catching up with what certain New Testament scholars have writing about the way ancient Greek and Roman authors wrote history and the relevance this has for how we interpret Acts and the Gospels and what they can tell us about Christian origins. This all started after I began reading and posting on some works from the Acts Seminar. One work has led to another and back again and I think I’m ready to resume.

In an earlier post I quoted something written by Dr Todd Penner that encapsulated a conclusion I have been persuaded to reach not only about one episode in Acts but about the entirety of Acts also about the Gospels:

There is nothing in Acts 7 to suggest that there lies behind them anything but an adept ancient writer, someone extremely well-versed in Jewish traditions and styles of rewriting the biblical story.

The narrative portions of Acts 6:1-8:3 leave one with the same impression.

Could the narrative portions be historically accurate and true? Absolutely. Could they be completely fabricated? Absolutely. Could the truth rest somewhere in between? Absolutely.

The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to prove any of these premises.

Attempts by Hengel and others to intuit their way behind the stories aside, the unit is too tightly knit to allow one to go beyond what is given in the narrative itself. If the dominant view in Acts scholarship is that one can separate out the core historical events from the Lukan redaction, this study argues for the futility of such attempts. (In Praise of Christian Origins, pp. 331-332, my formatting and bolding)

Dr Penner covers a lot of ground, surveying ancient commentaries on what made for good and bad writing of historia/history. I cannot cover any of that in this post. What is particularly significant about his argument, for me, is the assumptions and logic he brings to his reading of Acts. He takes readers back through a time tunnel to show them the origin of modern scholarly assumptions that Acts is fundamentally (beneath all its fantastical tales of miracles and romantic adventures) based on historical sources. If we read “beneath” the text then we will begin to glimpse genuine historical data related to Christian origins.

In so doing he leaves the alert reader with the awareness that the a priori assumption of historicity cannot be justified. At the same time, being able to explain narrative details in terms of literary artifice does not mean that they are not also, at some level, based on genuine historical events. What we are left with, however, is an explanation that does work and that can be justified (the creative literary one), and the question of historicity left hanging. Readers who approach Acts with Christian faith need not be alarmed.

As I read Penner’s arguments I wondered if he would be prepared to apply his same pertinent critical questions to the Gospels. As far as I can see there is no reason to confine his approach to Acts.

Not yet, but scholars like Thomas L. Thompson, Neils Peter Lemche, Philip Davies have demonstrated the literary (non-historical) character of much of the Old Testament, and a few have now published similar arguments about Acts. Surely, eventually, the methods applied in these instances will have to catch up one day with our analysis of the Gospels.

As I was reading Penner’s In Praise of Christian Origins I was imagining illustrative diagrams that would capture some of the multilayered complexity of the author’s literary creativity. I’ve added the result below. read more »


2014-01-13

Earliest Christians fulfil Plato’s Utopia

by Neil Godfrey

The following is not an argument in itself for Luke’s imitation of the utopian community in Plato’s Republic but it does provide the raw materials for such an argument. In another post I plan to elaborate on explanations for the points in common between the earliest Christians in Acts and Plato’s description of the guardians in his ideal state. Hint: they have to do with the relatively recent advances in studies of the way ancient authors imitated master-works and re-wrote them through a process we call “intertextuality”.

Community-early-Christians

Laurent De La Hyre, Community of the first Christians

The table comes from “The Summaries of Acts 2, 4, and 5 and Plato’s Republic” by Rubén Dupertuis, a chapter in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative. After the table I Dupertuis suggests that several inconsistencies in the Acts narrative may be explained most simply if the author was emulating the narrative of the ideal society led by Plato’s philosopher-kings. Traditional explanations for these inconsistencies have suggested the author was switching sources and/or not concerned about consistency. I’ll also cover these explanations in a future post.

First, have another look at those utopian summaries of the first Church. All quotations are from the 21st Century King James Version:

Acts 2:42-47

42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread and in prayers.

43 And fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.

44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common,

45 and they sold their possessions and goods and divided them among all men, as every man had need.

46 And continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,

47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

Acts 4:32-35

32 And the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and of one soul; neither said any one of them that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.

33 And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

34 Neither was there any among them that lacked, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold

35 and laid them down at the apostles’ feet. And distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

Acts 5:12-16

12 And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people, and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch.

13 But of the rest, no man dared join himself to them, but the people magnified them.

14 And more believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women,

15 insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them.

16 There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks and those who were vexed with unclean spirits; and they were healed, every one.

Dupertuis concludes his discussion on context, structure, terminology, density of parallels, with the following summary tables:

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Support of the Guardians / Apostles

PLATO ACTS
Guardians concentrate on philosophy, training and affairs of the state Apostles lead the community in teaching, fellowship breaking of bread, and prayers

they perform signs and wonders
Guardians are supported by the producing class Apostles are supported by other Christians (who lay the proceeds of goods sold at their feet)
in order to concentrate on being guardians (because all classes should do what is suited to their natures) The seven are elected so the apostles do not spend their time serving tables instead of preaching

read more »


2014-01-05

Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything

by Neil Godfrey
Owens1This post is best read in the context of the earlier posts on Clarke Owens’ Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, in particular Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”. This post considers the different genres qualities (verbal categories, discourse types) between Gospels and historical writings and concludes the Gospels are characterized by language typical of make-believe narratives.

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One would expect that it would go without saying that one must first understand what one is reading before one knows how to assess its value as a historical source. But the field of historical Jesus research is graced with many exceptions and methods found in no other field of historical inquiry. One of these is the belief that literary analysis has no relevance to the study of the historical Jesus.

James McGrath even publishes a diagram to show why literary analysis is irrelevant for historical inquiry. It is assumed that the literary approach does nothing more than explain the literary qualities and narrative structure of the work. It appears in The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith:

hislit.
McGrath is not alone in this understanding of the difference between literary and historical studies of the Gospels, which is to say that a good number of Christian history scholars do not really understand the nature of historical source material or the fundamentals of how to undertake historical research. I am not saying all biblical scholars fall into this trap, nor that all other types of historians avoid it, since there are indeed a few biblical scholars more critical than their peers and some sloppy historians in other fields who build upon unexamined assumptions.

miles1Jack Miles (born 1942) is an American author and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the MacArthur Fellowship. His work on religion, politics, and culture has appeared in numerous national publications . . . . Miles treats his biblical subjects neither as transcendent deities or historical figures, but as literary protagonists. His first book, God: A Biography, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1996 . . . . (Wikipedia)

What is wrong with the above model? Jack Miles, another scholar discussed by Clarke Owens in Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, strongly disagrees with the notion that one can validly “see through” the Gospel narratives to history below. He draws the analogy of the text as a stained-glass window: not to be looked through but looked at. According to Clarke Owens this is only “half right”. Owens identifies the flaw in Jack Miles’ analogy: Miles is embracing as a universal what “literary critics would recognize as [only] a theory” of literature — that of “autotelic literature“. That is, the idea that literature can and must be interpreted only within its own boundaries is only one theory among a number of valid ways of reading and understanding literature.

According to Owens, while it is correct that we cannot “look through” a text on the assumption that it is some sort of window to a real world of past persons and events, it must be recognized that there are ways literature can serve as historical sources — only not in the way biblical scholars too often assume.

The message of the stained glass window

Clarke Owens, writing as a literature scholar, reminds us that there are certain types of literature (e.g. allegory) acknowledged as taking their meaning and intended interpretations from reference points outside themselves. (One might call this type heterotelic, referring to something outside itself, as opposed to autotelic.) So Owens disputes the idea of Jack Miles that literature must be read exclusively “as literature” and without reference to history. read more »


2013-12-23

Luke’s “Ahistorical” Widows, Hellenists and Deacons

by Neil Godfrey

The most important thing we need to know when reading any book is what kind of work it is. Is Luke’s Acts history or novel? If it is history, what sort of history? Above all, what did “history” mean to writers/readers in the Roman world of the first and second centuries CE?

InPraiseChnOrigns2Todd Penner, Professor of Religious Studies at Austin University, has written a richly informative study of historiographical writing in antiquity as it is relevant to our appreciation of Acts, in particular to Luke’s account of Stephen and the Hellenists, Acts 6:1-8:3. This is the section most scholars of Christian origins consider historical at some level. Usually they suspect Luke was attempting to cover-up real events of unsavory divisions within the early church. Penner has a different perspective. Those little details that other scholars see as evidence of a cover-up Penner sees as quite coherent contributions toward Luke’s larger literary and theological narrative. But other scholars have generally not read Acts with any significant understanding of its literary character and have accordingly misread literary sails as archaeological trowels. Penner’s book is In Praise of Christian Origins:

There is nothing in Acts 7 to suggest that there lies behind them anything but an adept ancient writer, someone extremely well-versed in Jewish traditions and styles of rewriting the biblical story.

The narrative portions of Acts 6:1-8:3 leave one with the same impression.

Could the narrative portions be historically accurate and true? Absolutely. Could they be completely fabricated? Absolutely. Could the truth rest somewhere in between? Absolutely.

The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to prove any of these premises.

Attempts by Hengel and others to intuit their way behind the stories aside, the unit is too tightly knit to allow one to go beyond what is given in the narrative itself. If the dominant view in Acts scholarship is that one can separate out the core historical events from the Lukan redaction, this study argues for the futility of such attempts. (In Praise of Christian Origins, pp. 331-332, my formatting)

Acts 6 opens with a problem in the church. Some of the widows are being neglected. read more »


2013-12-08

Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”

by Neil Godfrey

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailOne of the gold nuggets in Clarke Owens’ Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels is its simple explanation of how how to distinguish between historical persons (e.g. Socrates, Thales, Alexander, etc) and fictive ones like (as we shall see) Jesus. I say it’s a “simple explanation” but maybe that’s because I am biased towards the idea of studying how literature works and the importance of understanding the nature of a literary source before we can know how to interpret its story.

I can already hear the groans of people thinking, “But we all know the Gospel Jesus is not the historical Jesus; we all know the Christ of the Faith is not the historical person,” and so forth, so what’s the point? Answer: In a future post we shall see that the very idea that the Gospels can even be used as sources through which theologians can dig to find history beneath them — an archaeological image often used by HJ scholars — is a fallacy.

Let’s return again to John P. Meier. (We’ve spotlighted him a lot lately, and not only with these Owens posts. The price of scholarly renown!)

In The Marginal Jew, v. 1, page 12, Owens focuses on Meier’s bald assertion that literary criticism is of no use to scholars who are seeking to discern genuinely historical material behind the Gospels. (I have argued that that is nonsense but in this post I will try to channel Owen’s voice as much as possible.) And what are Meier’s grounds for giving a priori confidence in the Gospels as gateways to historical information lurking behind the texts?

1st-century documents of Christian propaganda . . . advanced truth claims about Jesus of Nazareth, truth claims for which some 1st-century Christians were willing to die. . . .

  • Against these tired claims we do know people die for all sorts of nonsense and delusions;
  • we also know — well many of us do — that the stories of early Christian martyrdoms have been greatly exaggerated into mythical dimensions;
  • and we also know — at least many of us do — that there are more plausible explanations of Christian origins than a handful of devotees coming to feel a new inner-presence of their master who had been killed as a social and political outcast. (This is nothing other than a rationalistic paraphrase of the myth.)

Is not this a scholarly version, a slightly diluted version, of: “The Bible claims to be the Word of God and since the first generations of Christians willingly died for its message it must be true! No-one would die for a lie!” Scholar’s edition: “The Bible claims. . . . and since Christians died. . . . there must be some truth somewhere there if we look with the proper tools.” Both the conservative believer and the critical scholar in the service of increasing the credibility of theology to the modern world rhetorically conclude: How else do we explain the martyrdoms? How else do we explain Christianity?

When John Meier in his opening chapter of volume one discusses the “basic concept” of “The Real Jesus and the Historical Jesus” he creates the illusion of starting at the beginning but in fact he leaves the entire question of historicity begging.

  • Of course we can’t know “the real Jesus” given the time-gap and state of the records; after all, we can only partially know “the real Nixon” despite his recency and the avalanche of material available on him.
  • Of course it becomes increasingly difficult to assess “the historical” the further back in time we go; it’s hard enough knowing what to make of Thales or Apollonius of Tyana “or anyone else in the ancient world” and the evidence is just as scant for Jesus.

Owens identifies what Meier has done in making such comparisons (my bolding in all quotations):

An implication exists in the double comparison, which is that Jesus is as real as Nixon and as historical as Thales but the explicit point is that there is less ‘reality’ data on Jesus than on Nixon, and as meager ‘historical’ data on Jesus as on Thales.

We note that what we might consider the “first question” of any book purporting to deal with the issue of a ‘historical Jesus’ – the question of whether or not Jesus existed — is being set up to go begging. ‘Reality’ is impossible, and ‘history’ is impossibly difficult, so we are to assume both, as we do with Nixon and Thales.

(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 216-221). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)

Is Jesus really as historical as Thales?

No. And the reason the answer is No is because the qualitative difference between the literary evidence for the existence of Thales and the literary evidence for the existence of Jesus. (John Meier introduced the comparison of Thales so Clarke Owens takes this as a case-study to illustrate his argument.) read more »


2013-12-03

Is Luke Among the Lying Historians?

by Neil Godfrey

GillWisemanOne of my earliest posts asked what Josephus might have said about the worth of the Gospels as history had he read them. In preparation for my final post on historical-critical methods with Stephen’s martyrdom as a case study I have come across (as another commenter also did) a chapter in Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World titled “Lying Historians: Seven Types of Mendacity” by T.P. Wiseman.

The reason for this post is to enhance awareness of one aspect of the nature of ancient historical writing whenever we think about Acts of the Apostles (or even the Gospels) as histories of sorts. (All bolding in all quotations is mine.)

Wiseman begins with line from Seneca, of the first century CE, where he dismisses a theory about comets by a certain Ephorus:

It takes no great effort to refute him—he’s a historian. (p. 122 in Lies and Fiction; original in Quaestiones Naturales, 7.16.1f)

Seneca explains why he has such a dim view of historians of his day:

Some historians win approval by telling incredible tales; an everyday narrative would make the reader go and do something else, so they excite him with marvels. Some of them are credulous, and lies take them unawares; others are careless, and lies are what they like; the former don’t avoid them, the latter seek them out.

What the whole tribe have in common is this: they think their work can only achieve approval and popularity if they sprinkle it with lies.

Seneca at another time parodied historical writing as the narrator of Apocolocyntosis (The Pumpkinification of Claudius):

I want to put on record the business transacted in heaven on 13 October . . . No concession will be made to umbrage taken or favour granted. This is the authentic truth. If anyone inquires about the source of my information, first, I shan’t reply if I don’t want to. Who’s going to compel me? . . . If I do choose to reply, I’ll say whatever trips off my tongue. Who ever demanded sworn referees from a historian? But if it is obligatory to produce the originator of the account, let the inquirer ask the man who saw Drusilla on her way to heaven.

Classical historians ought to have learned from the Christians that the criterion of embarrassment would have compelled belief in a resurrection if the eyewitness had been a woman and not a man. Seneca’s jibe would then have fallen flat, no doubt. Meanwhile, anyone in a seminary who has been fed the argument that detailed dates (compare Luke 3:1-2) and claims to be telling the truth (Gal. 1:20; Luke 1:1-4) are all indicators of an honest account might easily become the butt of Seneca’s joke.

Seneca’s historian joke hangs upon the principle that historians were “supposed” to always be telling the truth and nothing but the truth. This is found in what Wiseman describes as “the only theoretical discussion of historiography that survives from antiquity”, Lucian’s How to Write History (mid second century CE):

The historian’s one task is to tell it as it happened . . . the one particular characteristic of history is this, that if you are going to write it you must sacrifice to Truth alone. (p. 122)

The context of this maxim, however, would appear to limit the “Truth” to avoidance of both tall-tales or myths (which are more appropriate to poetry) and obsequious flattery of rulers and other persons of power.

The reputation of historians had not improved by the fourth century CE. We read from that period in the Historia Augusta the following conversation:

Tiberianus maintained that much of [historian] Pollio’s work was brief and careless. I protested that as far as history was concerned there was no author who had not lied about something. I went so far as to cite the places where Livy, Sallust, Cornelius Tacitus and even Trogus were refuted by clear evidence, at which he yielded to my argument and jokingly held up his hand. ‘All right then,’ he said, ‘write what you want. You can safely say whatever you like, and you’ll have those admired masters of historical style as your companions in mendacity.’ (p. 124)

The subtitle of Wiseman’s chapter is “Seven Types of Mendacity”. So what are the seven types of lies historians of the day were prone to tell?

read more »


2013-11-30

Theologians’ Miracle: Turning Fallacy into Proof

by Neil Godfrey
davidhacketfischer

David Hackett Fischer

Professor of History, David Hackett Fischer, has long been known for his book, Historians’ Fallacies, in which he amasses copious examples of fallacious historical analysis and argument committed (at least on occasion) even by otherwise highly reputable historians. Unfortunately, critical fallacies that he identifies as periodic blights on the work of his peers are standard practice among works of theologians writing about Christian origins.

The fallacy of the prevalent proof

Here is one that many readers will recognize, and it is one that unfortunately does too often extend beyond the limits of subgroups. On pages 51 and 52 Fischer writes (my bolding in all quotations):

The fallacy of the prevalent proof makes mass opinion into a method of verification.

This practice has been discovered by cultural anthropologists among such tribes as the Kuba, for whom history was whatever the majority declared to be true.* If some fearless fieldworker were to come among the methodological primitives who inhabit the history departments of the United States, he would find that similar customs sometimes prevail. There are at least a few historians who would make a seminar into a senate and resolve a professional problem by resorting to a vote. . . .

If the fallacy of the prevalent proof appeared only in this vulgar form, there would be little to fear from it. But in more subtle shapes, the same sort of error is widespread. Few scholars have failed to bend, to some degree, before the collective conceits of their colleagues. Many have attempted to establish a doubtful question by a phrase such as “most historians agree . . .” or “it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .” or “in the judgment of all serious students of the problem. . . .”

[* Reference: see page 102 of Vansina's Oral Tradition]

historiansFallacies

Most historians agree . . .

. . . that a genuine historical event lies behind the story of Stephen

I could just as easily have written “most historians agree that genuine historical events like behind the stories in Acts.” But let’s limit the discussion here to Stephen’s martyrdom. (This post is, after all, my follow-up to my Stephen post.)

Shelly Matthews (also a theologian but who seems to be one of the relatively few who happily demonstrates a clear understanding of sound historical-critical method and writes history with a clear understanding of the philosophy undergirding her approach) admits she stands against what has been the traditional consensus of her peers over the historical value of Acts.

Firstly, however, Matthews correctly explains how her peers have traditionally attempted to glean “kernels of history” from the Book of Acts:

Biblical scholars employing methods of historical criticism do recognize that the coherence of various aspects of Acts is ahistorical, imposed by Luke upon his sources because of his theological concerns, his apologetic tendencies, and/or his aim to delight his audience. For more than two hundred years, historians of Christian origins have approached the book of Acts presuming that its author’s intrusive hand can be pulled away, freeing his sources to bear unencumbered witness to the historical events that occurred in the earliest decades of the church.

Applying methods captured by metaphors of winnowing and digging, they have attempted to distinguish Acts’ redactional/theological/fictional elements from the actual history presumed also to reside in the text.

From these “kernels of history,” from this “bedrock,” scholars have then constructed their own versions of a coherent narrative of Christian origins understood to correspond with events that happened in history. (p. 15, my formatting)

Theologians have thus generally assumed that “real history” lies “beneath” the text and that all they have to do is apply tools like redactional criticism to know what parts of the text to pull away (e.g. the theological or literary creations of the author) and thereby expose the original source. And that source material is for some reason often presumed to point to “bedrock history”. read more »


2013-11-26

The Fiction of Stephen the First Martyr

by Neil Godfrey

Screen shot 2013-11-26 at 8.05.04 PMI was introduced to the work of Shelly Matthews through the Acts Seminar Report. She is one of the Seminar Fellows. I have since read — and enjoyed very much — her historical study Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity.

Shelly Matthews is one of the few theologians I have encountered who demonstrably understands the nature of history and how it works and how to apply historical-critical questions to the evidence. She is a postmodernist (and I’m not) but I won’t hold that against her. At least she understands and applies postmodernist principles correctly — unlike some other theologians who miss the point entirely and resort to trying to uncover “approximations” of “what really happened” behind the fictional (and ideological) narratives in the Gospels and Acts.

Matthews is critical of the way scholars have with near unanimity assumed that the story of Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts is based on some form of bedrock historical event:

  • How else to explain the sudden propulsion of Jesus followers beyond the limits of Palestine?
    • (Recall that the Acts story tells us it was the death of Stephen that instigated the wider persecution of the “church”, and persecution led to the scattering of the believers, and that scattering led to the proclamation of the message beyond Judea.)
  • How else to explain the conversion of Paul?
    • (Recall that Paul — originally “Saul” — was one of those persecutors and it was his “Damascus Road” experience that brought him to heel and turned him from persecutor to missionary.)

Those are the twin (prima facie) arguments that have assured scholars that the Stephen event is historical ever since they were made explicit in the nineteenth century by Eduard Zeller (son-in-law of F. Baur).

But let’s save the discussion of method and criteria of historicity till last this time (or maybe a follow up post). To begin with we will set out the grounds for questioning whether the Stephen narrative in Acts owes anything to some historical “core” event. The question of the historicity of Stephen’s martyrdom is not the primary theme or interest of Shelly Matthew’s study (as its title indicates) but she does address it as part of her larger discussion on historical-critical inquiry and the way scholars have culturally fallen under the spell of the fundamental narrative outline and ideology of Acts. (Her discussion could equally well apply to the question of the historicity of Jesus but I think we need to wait for scholars to come to grips more generally with critical and methodological questions about Stephen before taking that step.)

External evidence

Outside of Acts there is not a whisper of awareness of the martyrdom of Stephen until Irenaeus talks about it around 180 CE. And Irenaeus is clearly using Acts itself as his source. (Recall, too, that the Acts Seminar has concluded that Acts itself was written in the second century.) read more »