2017-08-15

Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’

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by Neil Godfrey

“Rages” in the title is a bit of poetic licence. I don’t really think either of the two chapters by classicists discussing the arguments for and against the historicity of an ancient philosopher can be considered “rages”.

My point was to alert potential readers that this post is not a repeat of my post of less than a week ago about the historicity of Demonax : Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? That post addressed the views of Tomas Hagg as published in 2012 in The Art of Biography in Antiquity. I was really playing catch-up with that one since one year and two months ago I posted a more recent (published 2016) discussion of another classicist, Mark Beck, addressing the same thorny question: If Biblical Scholars Were Classicists. I was sharing my reading of “Lucian’s Life of Demonax”, a chapter in Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, edited by Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen.

Would we have to deny the historicity of most other ancient persons if we reject Demonax?

It is interesting to compare the two different discussions of the question of Demonax’s historicity. How do non-biblical scholars, those dedicated to the study of ancient times, address questions of historicity in those cases where we lack the testimony of monuments, public inscriptions, coins, etc.? The question is of some interest, I suspect, to those who follow what biblical scholars might have to say about certain arguments of the historicity of, let’s say at random, Adam, or Abraham, or Moses, or Jesus.

Do independent contemporary sources decide the question?

In both discussions a primary and very weighty consideration is the absence of contemporary notices. If the person really was so influential as the biography claims, then how do we account for the absence of contemporary witnesses? Why do we have to wait for a person claiming to be a student and eyewitness of the famous person writing something long after the teacher was dead?

Does fictional storytelling decide the question?

It is also interesting that in both discussions the above question is of considerable import, while the fact that it is clearly evident that the extant biography of Demonax contains much fiction is not so important. If someone tells tall tales about a famous teacher, so what? That seems to be the approach. It’s to be expected. Fictional details do not mean the subject did not exist.

Does an eyewitness claim decide the question?

But we have a writing by one who clearly says he was an eyewitness and a student of Demonax! No dice, apparently. That does not count as decisive in either discussion. Anyone could say that about the person they were writing about.

Do independent references decide the question?

In both discussions, the one by Hãgg and the one by Beck, the independent testimony of sayings by Demonax is a significant point. The biographer of Demonax did not make use of what we know of an independent collection of sayings by Demonax. Beck considers these independent sayings attributed to Demonax as enough to tilt the scales in favour of the historicity of Demonax. Hägg is not convinced; for Hägg, such a collection only raises more questions than it answers with respect to the historicity question. Those independent sayings are just a little “too” independent and appear to have no real relevance to the person of Lucian’s biography, according to Hägg. So scholarly opinions differ — interestingly without any apparent need for abusive language and all sorts of ad hominem attacks.

Does a namesake at the right time and place decide the question?

But Hägg does concede that there was a historical Demonax in Athens at the right time. He just does not think that Demonax had much in common with Lucian’s portrait. Beck agrees with the problematic nature of Lucian’s portrait by adding that it is evident that a source for that portrait was Lucian’s own life. Lucian was writing about himself!

Does the function of the biography decide the question?

Both classicists acknowledge that the fact that Lucian’s biography had a clear purpose of teaching readers virtuous principles is itself a point against the historicity of any of the biography’s anecdotes. The author, they agree, wrote with the purpose of teaching virtue and creating a moral exemplar for readers, not with any specific intent to preserve genuine historical memories for posterity.

Back to that question about independent contemporary sources

So the bottom line is that the question of historicity stands or falls on the point of testimony independent of the biography and contemporaneous with the person of interest.


2017-08-14

Jesus at Thirty: Four Canonical Portraits (Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 3)

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by Neil Godfrey

Tomas Hägg

Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) rightly notes that the four canonical gospels give us “four distinctive, if overlapping literary representations of Jesus.”

Yet comparatively little seems to have been written from a literary point of view to define by what means of characterization these four portraits emerge, and what the main characteristics are of each of them…. In spite of recent advances in the study of characterization in the New Testament, the general tendency seems to be to shun the figure(s) of Jesus himself and to focus on Paul, Peter, Judas, or lesser characters in the stories. In Bible commentaries one sometimes meets short, tantalizing characterizations, but nowhere (to my knowledge) any sustained comparative analysis. (p. 180)

Tomas Hägg explains that his discussion is intended to offer “just a few hints of possible approaches” to the character study of Jesus across the four gospels, “no full portraits.”

He begins by noting two “rather different” character interpretations of the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark:

To Joel Marcus, the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is

  • dynamic
  • abrasive
  • intensely emotional, “a passionate instrument for the advent of the dominion of God”

To Richard Burridge, on the other hand, the Markan Jesus is

  • enigmatic and secretive
  • rushing around doing things “immediately”
  • a miracle worker, yet one who talks about suffering and dies terribly alone and forsaken

Burridge then discusses Matthew’s Jesus but without mentioning a single “actual character trait”: Jesus is a “new Moses”, but no particular personality or character is addressed. Next, for Burridge, is the Lukan Jesus who cares for the outcasts, the lost, the Gentiles, the women, the poor.

From Mark, then, we get the temperament; from Matthew, the theology; from Luke, the ethics — no contrasting portraits, just different angles. (p. 181)

Where the difficulty evidently lies

The evangelists do not offer any direct characterization of Jesus. This is not what we normally find in other biographies. Biographers are generally only too keen to use adjectives to describe their subject, to tell us the sort of person he (how many ancient biographies are there of women?) was. In the case of the gospels, however, read more »


2017-08-13

Reading the Classics and the Gospels Differently

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by Neil Godfrey

Aesop in Life was portrayed as physically misshapen so that most people despised or mocked him on first seeing him.

Recently we talked about the Life of Aesop, a biographical novella of the fabulist written around the same time as the gospels: Aesop, Guide to a Very Late Date for the Gospels?Aesop / 2, a Guide to a Late Gospel of Mark DateDid Aesop Exist?

This post singles out one more point in Tomas Hãgg’s chapter in The Art of Biography in Antiquity.

Only two of the thirteen stories told by Aesop in the Life are known to have existed before the Roman Imperial period as ‘Aesopic fables’. This, in all likelihood, means that most of the stories were created for use in the particular situations narrated in the novel, or at least adapted for the purpose. . . . [O]ur story is first and foremost a Life, and the fables are narrated not to conserve them or explain them as originating in certain situations, but the other way round: in order to characterize the hero. (pp 116f, my bolding)

Surely the same must be said about the stories told about Jesus in the gospels. It is evident that they are not narrated for conservation purposes. Each evangelist clearly feels free to change many of the sayings and deeds found in, say, the Gospel of Mark.

But there is one detail that is not the same in the stories told about Jesus. That the anecdotes appear for the first time in the gospels is not taken as an indication that they were created for use in the particular situations in the gospels, but that they had an untestable and unverifiable origin as oral traditions. Perhaps classicists should learn from biblical scholars how to generate more scholarly papers about hypothetical origins and traditions.

One classic (I think) illustration of just how neatly tailored a story of Jesus is for the sake of the gospel’s plot was written up in Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical. That episode has an indisputable narrative function. It is how the synoptic gospels account for the arrest of a man who otherwise provides no reason for his arrest given that he is in every way good and perfect. The Gospel of John removes it as the reason for Jesus’ arrest but has to replace it with the story of the raising of Lazarus to make up for the plot function that would otherwise be lacking. Yet most biblical scholars, devout as most of them reportedly are in their own respective ways, treat the “cleansing of the temple” as one of the most certain of historical episodes in the life of Jesus. The story was passed on through oral tradition.

What would Tomas Hãgg think if that sort of argument was published about the stories in the Life of Aesop? But why aren’t classicists more ready to assume new fables appearing in a first century Life of Aesop were taken from otherwise unrecorded oral tradition? Why are so few biblical scholars apparently willing to think that stories appearing for the first time in the gospels serving each author’s narrative — and theological — interests willing to accept that the stories were made up or at least adapted for those specific interests?

 


Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 2

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by Neil Godfrey

The previous post on this topic ended with the following:

The first genuinely biographical detail of Jesus arrives when Jesus is twelve years old facing the wise men in the Temple. We learn about the parents’ very natural and everyday concerns and the “adolescent arrogance” of Jesus, his separation from this world, his first signs of superior wisdom, and his return to “the expected filial obedience”.

This is the kind of characterizing anecdote that every biographer wishes for, a child demonstrating extraordinary gifts and a behaviour that anticipates his grown-up persona. It is, however, the only one told about the young Jesus in the canonical gospels. (p. 171)

It’s not much, only two childhood episodes to occupy thirty years. But that’s the start.

Hägg turns to examine how two “apocryphal” gospels picked up on Luke’s beginning. . . .

Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) then relates an observation that is worth pausing over:

All four evangelists proceed in continuous narrative from baptism to death and resurrection, each giving his own picture of Jesus’ public life within a common framework . . . . Paradoxically, their alternative accounts of Jesus, composed within the short span of some thirty years, thus came to be offered between the same covers, probably a unique biographical situation. (p. 172, my bolding in all quotations)

It seems we really do need to keep in mind that the gospels really are not like other biographies, that there is indeed something, or a number of things, “unique” about them. read more »


2017-08-11

The argument so far: Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

We have covered five of the six chapters in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. The final chapter covers a topic that for me is the most interesting of all, but before going there Gmirkin outlines what he has covered so far. He has presented “substantial new arguments for viewing the Primary History of Genesis-Kings as a Hellenistic Era composition that displays considerable influences from the Greek world” (p. 250).

He summarizes those “considerable influences” of Greek legal and historical literature:

  • its structural form as a nationalistic history, patterned on such works as the Aegyptiaca of Manetho (ca. 285 BCE) and the Babyloniaca of Berossus (278 BCE);
  • its integration of elements from discussions of constitutional history taken from Plato and perhaps Aristotle;
  • its incorporation of the Greek genre of the foundation story in its narratives about the patriarchal promises, the Exodus, wilderness wanderings and conquest of the Promised Land;
  • its characteristically Greek integration of narrative and legal content;
  • its Greek constitutional and legal content;
  • and its Greek conception of law as prescriptive, educational and useful for instilling citizen virtues.

The Influence of Plato’s Laws on Deuteronomy

Greek influences on the biblical text discussed in earlier chapters include the substantial use of Plato’s Laws. It is apparent that this particular philosophical text exerted a profound influence on the political thinking, educational philosophy and literary activities of the biblical authors. This is illustrated most decisively in the book of Deuteronomy, which was written according to directions laid out in Plato’s Laws as a speech to the gathered colonists of the nation about to be founded, recounting their laws suitably framed by hortatory introductions and other educational and rhetorical content.

(Gmirkin, 2017. p. 250)

So Gmirkin challenges the conventional view that Near Eastern literature, political systems and laws were the principal influence in the making of the Primary History, Genesis to Kings. These books were not produced by ancient Jewish scribes living in the centuries of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, nor were they even produced in the Babylonian captivity or in the ensuing Persian era when the colony of Jehud was first established. They were the product of a deliberate study of Greek writings, specifically those relating to laws, constitutions and foundation myths. Local Jewish traditions and laws were also woven into the new literature in the early third century BCE.

From my own readings of the debates between the “minimalists” and “maximalists”, especially the debates between Thompson and Dever, and each side’s analysis of archaeological reports, I am convinced that Gmirkin’s analysis is quite plausible. (See notes on Davies’ book at In Search of Ancient Israel.) Insofar as the conventional explanations of the origins of the Pentateuch have been necessarily embedded in assumptions that the books evolved over many centuries through the periods of the monarchy and Babylonian captivity, those models ought to be reassessed. Similarly for the writings of the historical books from Judges to 2 Kings and the books claiming to be by various prophets.

Gmirkin’s book is, I think, a significant contribution towards opening up new explanations given the material evidence both against such a literature appearing before the Persian era and for its appearance after the establishment of the Jewish colony. His thesis certainly makes sense of the character of the Primary History as literature: as literature, in its structure, genre, style, it is in very large measure unlike the writings of the Near East prior to the Hellenistic era; yet as literature it is very often comparable in themes, genres, styles to much of the Greek Classical and Hellenistic literary outputs.

Other authors have noticed and discussed similarities between Primary History, the Pentateuch in particular, on the one hand, and Herodotus, Greek foundation stories, other myths and Plato’s Laws, on the other. These earlier publications have generally sought to explain the similarities from an assumption that the Hebrew works were much earlier than the Hellenistic era. But if we have good reasons to date the Hebrew literary production no earlier than the Persian era then the observations of those earlier scholars suddenly take on a new life. We have a “simple explanation” for the common points they observed. Along with his own observations, Gmirkin appears to have brought some of those earlier observations into the light of the new context.

Before moving on to the remainder of chapter six, which as I said is for me the most interesting one of all, this may be a good place to collate the various posts relating to Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.

You can also read an extended abstract or chapter by chapter outline by Gmirkin himself on his academia.edu page.

  1. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (2016-10-16)
  2. The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look (2016-10-26)
  3. David, an Ideal Greek Hero — and other Military Matters in Ancient Israel (2016-11-12)
  4. Some preliminaries before resuming Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible  (2016-12-15)
  5. The Tribes of Israel modeled on the Athenian and Ideal Greek Tribes? (2016-12-16)
  6. The Bible’s Assemblies and Offices Based on Greek Institutions? (2017-01-22)
  7. Similarities between Biblical and Greek Judicial Systems (2017-01-28)
  8. The Inspiration for Israel’s Law of the Ideal King (2017-02-09)
  9. Bible’s Priests and Prophets – With Touches of Greek (2017-02-22)
  10. Primitive Democracy in Ancient Israel (2017-04-04)
  11. Mosaic Laws: from Classical Greece or the Ancient Near East? (2017-06-02)
  12. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Homicide Laws (2017-06-05)
  13. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Law-Giving Narratives as Greek-Inspired Literature (2017-07-26)
  14. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Legal Narratives (esp. Panegyrics), continued (2017-07-26)
  15. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Legal Narratives continued . . . Solon and Atlantis (2017-07-27)
  16. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Greek Foundation Stories and the Bible (2017-07-28)
  17. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Political Evolution in Literature (2017-08-05)

2017-08-10

“Good ‘Swastika’ to you” — Though not in the West, thank you.

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by Neil Godfrey

Not a good idea. Some culturally blind persons reportedly attempted to market a t-shirt with the rainbowed word ‘love’ embedding a swastika. The video below is from the designer’s Facebook page — you may have to unmute the sound button:

Much of the mainstream media covered the story:

So you had to be comatose not to notice — unless it was shoved into your face by an rss feed from some obscure online discussion board (which was how I learned about it).

Now I happen to be living in Thailand at the moment, and struggling with attempting to learn the language, and my first thought was, ‘Yeh, well, that’s bloody stupid in the West, but sheesh, here in south and east Asia swastikas are everywhere. No problem. Every Buddhist temple and bit of paraphernalia in various shops selling religious odds and bobs will have swastikas on display. When I was living and working in Singapore a few years ago I was still naive and hence shocked to see a whole school proudly displaying large swastikas on its main gates and naming signs. Google “red swastika school” to get the idea. Some of the pics I took while still in culture-shock….

 

That school and just about every Buddhist temple I saw forced me into a realization of just how “Western” Hitler and Nazism is. The West really is not the “whole world” after all. Sure Asia was involved in the “World War”, but the Asian experience was with Japan, not Germany. Try to understand, Neil, that your history is not everybody’s history.

But as I said, I still happen to be residing in Thailand at the moment and am struggling to learn enough Thai language to get by with some basics. One of the first phrases I learned and one I probably say more than any other is Sawasdee krap. It simply means “good-day” with the krap added by a male speaker as an indicator of politeness. (The second s is scarcely pronounced, so think aurally of “sahwahdee”.)

But one also needs to learn to read some basic signage around the place, and that means learning the Thai alphabet. Now it happens that the Thai letters are a kind of derivative (so I understand) of Indian sanskrit. Once I was reminded of that little detail, the swastika thing hit me right between the eyes. I have not double-checked the Wikipedia article on Swastika but intuitively it sounds right:

The name swastika comes from Sanskrit (Devanagari: स्वस्तिक), and denotes a “conducive to well being or auspicious”.

Every time I say “Good-day” or “Hello” here in Bangkok to someone, “Sawadee krap”, I am saying “Swastika, hey!”

 


Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Before putting aside for a while Tomas Hägg’s The Art of Biography in Antiquity I must address his chapter on the canonical gospels. It’s most interesting to have a set of non-theological eyes from an outside field (classics) examine their literary art as “ancient biographies” while nonetheless engaging with what biblical scholars have learned.

I have said several times that I have a problem thinking of at least the first written canonical gospel, the Gospel of Mark, as being “about Jesus” as a person, which is to say a “biography of Jesus”. My point is that Mark (as I’ll call the gospel’s author) presents us with a Jesus who is little/no more than a theological mouthpiece and actant, teaching, symbolizing and representing theological principles — a theological cipher — rather than as a “genuine person” of interest as a personality and human character. (I suspect that this symbolic nature of Jesus is the reason he can be embraced by such wildly diverse interest groups, even faiths, throughout history and today.)

Hägg on Burridge’s study:

[I]t turns out that there is a great diversity within each of the two groups, the four gospels and the ten ancient biographies; and it is this very diversity … that makes it possible always to find a parallel in one or several of the ten Loves for each feature occurring in one or more of the gospels. What is proven is that the investigated features of the gospels are not unique in ancient biographical literature; but no control group is established to show which features may be regarded as significantly typical of this literature, in contrast to the biographical writings of other times or cultures.” (p. 154)

But as Hägg himself points out, whether or not we define a gospel as a biography really comes down to how we define the term biography.

[M]ost discussions of the generic question are dependent on how one defines ‘biography’. (p. 152)

Works of the type of Burridge and Frickenschmidt are important, not for ‘proving’ that the gospels ‘are’ biographies — that remains a matter of definition, no more and no less — but for studying them as literature in context. (p. 155)

Fair enough. Hägg himself discusses the gospels as ancient biographies. Even so, I find his conclusion striking, and in some ways supportive of my own view: in discussing one scholar’s observation that the Jesus in the Gospel of John may speak about love but actually demonstrates very little of it in his own relationships with those close to him, Hägg writes:

The observation is pertinent, but the apparent coolness may rather be attributed to the ascetic narrative style that dominates all four gospels, as soon as it comes to the description of persons and their character traits, not to speak of their physical appearance, physiognomy as well as facial expressions. That the protagonist himself is no exception in this respect reduces markedly the gospels’ character of biographies, even by ancient standards.105 (p. 185, my bolding in all quotations)

Amen. But what does footnote 105 say?

105 Burridge 2004 passim (seen Index s.v. ‘characterization, methods of’), in his insistence that the gospels are close to Graeco-Roman bioi in all respects, misses the nuances; the gospels are rather extreme in this respect. 

Amen again.

One of the chapter’s epigraphs is interesting:

‘Jesus: A Biography’ is always an oxymoron.

Harold Bloom

Tomas Hägg’s chapter “What were the gospels?” does

not set out to prove anything about their ‘proper’ classification; [his] object is simply to read them as biographies. (p. 155)

His focus is

to trace the gradual ‘biographizing’ of the Christian message. 

read more »


2017-08-09

Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist?

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by Neil Godfrey

If the Life of Aesop is riddled with obvious fiction yet it is concluded that Aesop really existed, what does Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) do with the question of the historicity of Demonax, a figure whose biography contains only sober and believable accounts and is said to have been written by an eyewitness? Ironically, Hägg is far less confident that Demonax is historical than he is about Aesop!

You can read the Life of Demonax by Lucian at the sacred-texts site. (It is fewer than 4000 words.)

To begin Hägg addresses doubts among some scholars that Lucian was the real biographer. Life of Demonax does not have the same cutting, satirical tone as his other biographies, but actually approaches Demonax reverentially and creates an idealized portrait. However, on the strength of the attestation Hägg accepts Lucian as the genuine author.

Lucian states that he has two reasons for writing about Demonax:

This time I am to write of Demonax, with two sufficient ends in view:

  • first, to keep his memory green among good men, as far as in me lies;
  • and secondly, to provide the most earnest of our rising generation, who aspire to philosophy, with a contemporary pattern, that they may not be forced back upon the ancients for worthy models, but imitate this best–if I am any judge–of all philosophers.

Continuing with Hägg:

Demonax’ background is rapidly sketched . . . His ‘urge to noble things and innate love for philosophy from early childhood’ is stated, but there is no actual account of that childhood; nor is his physical appearance described here or elsewhere in the Life. His blameless life and exemplary honesty are lauded, as is his excellent education in literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. As a philosopher, he is a professed eclectic. He has most in common with Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope . . . but is described as an unchangingly polite and social person who lacks both Socrates’ irony and Diogenes’ exhibitionism — in short, we are made to understand, a godlike (isotheos) man. . . . (p. 295)

Certainly an idealized portrait. And short on specifics to demonstrate the idealized qualities.

The first description of a specific event in Demonax’s life comes three pages in, with his trial:

It starts in the same mode: ‘So it was that all the Athenians, from the populace to the magistrates, admired him tremendously and never ceased regarding him as a superior being (tina tōn kreittonōn)’; but then some critical words are unexpectedly heard. Like a second Socrates, Demonax is brought to court because he has caused offence to and incurred hatred from the common people . . . through his Cynic . . . ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘licence’, and his . . . ‘independence’. Men similar to Anytus and Meletus (the accusers in Socrates’ trial) charge him with not taking part in the sacrifices or letting himself be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. He manages, however, to refute the accusations by using his habitual outspokenness and wit . . . and the Athenians, who had first been prepared to stone him, ‘from that time showed him honour, respect, and eventually admiration’. (pp. 295f)

One sees in the above account several features that may well justify our asking questions about the genuineness of the narrative: the evident influence of the trial of Socrates, again the idealizing portrait and the most remarkable turnabout of the Athenians from being ready to execute him to admiring him.

The literary structure of the Life is also addressed: read more »


2017-08-08

Did Aesop Exist?

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by Neil Godfrey

Short answer, the one I would give if I had to bet my house on being right: I don’t know.

Short answer, but one I would offer at no risk of damages to myself if I am wrong: Probably.

In two recent posts I was commenting on thoughts arising as I was reading about the Life of Aesop in Tomas Hägg’s The Art of Biography in Antiquity (2012). I first learned about the Life of Aesop in another work, one exploring the origins of gospel genre, The quest of the historical gospel: Mark, John, and the origins of the gospel genre by Lawrence M. Wills (1997): Wills does not suggest that the Gospels of Mark and John (the two canonical gospels most similar to Life) borrowed from or were influenced by the Life of Aesop, but that the gospel genre was derived from a type of narrative about hero-cults of which Life and the gospels are examples. Both kinds of literature told the tale of a hero founder of a cult who

  • is introduced to the narrative as an adult (no birth or childhood details)
  • undergoes a dramatic change in personal identity or abilities and role (baptism and the Holy Spirit; being miraculously given the gift of speech)
  • tells a long tale of short episodes in which the hero challenges those about him and “turns the world upside down” with his superior wisdom and parables or fables
  • is often described through the literary technique of inclusio or sandwiching one story between two parts of another
  • travels to the site of a major national temple (Jerusalem, Delphi)
  • offends hearers by his “truth telling”
  • utters parables or fables to convey lessons for his audiences, some of them condemning his hearers
  • is condemned for blasphemy and arrogant claims
  • was such a help to others with his wisdom but cannot save himself
  • is condemned to execution, and so dies

After the deaths of both Jesus and Aesop many people are remorseful and a cult was established in honour of the wronged hero. Both Life and the gospels are believed to have been written around the same time — the first century CE or possibly second century CE.

It is little wonder, then, that Wills begins his discussion with

The most important novelistic biography for the comparison with the gospel genre is the anonymous Life of Aesop. (Wills, 1997. p. 23)

If we are doing comparisons one question that will interest many of us will be just how historical the respective narratives are. I won’t attempt to discuss that question in relation to the gospels and Jesus in this post for obvious reasons, so let’s look at Aesop. Wills is looking at origins of gospel genre but Tomas Hägg gives us a more comprehensive survey of Life as an ancient biography so from this point on I rely upon Hägg. read more »


If the Gospel of Mark Condemns Peter, Why Do We Sympathize With Him?

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by Neil Godfrey

Peter’s Denial / Robert Leinweber

Especially since reading Theodore J. Weeden’s Mark — Traditions in Conflict, and several other works influenced by Weeden’s thesis, I have tended to assume that the Gospel of Mark seeks to denigrate Peter and the Twelve. They are nothing but failures, “obtuse and wrongheaded” (John Drury’s phrase) in every way. Was the author of the gospel (let’s call him Mark) firing shrapnel at Peter and his associates as part of some sort of ideological battle involving Paul?

But if Mark wanted to condemn Peter then why is it so easy to read the gospel and feel sympathetic towards him? Are we really unconsciously reading Mark through the later evangelists?

Before continuing, I must admit that I am conscious of the fact that I am relying entirely upon the Gospel of Mark as we have it in its canonical form and that the original composition may well have contained significant differences. Be that as it may, to continue…..

Finn Damgaard raised and answered my question in “Persecution and Denial – Paradigmatic Apostolic Portrayals in Paul and Mark”, a chapter at the end of Mark and Paul, Comparative Essays Part II. For and Against Pauline Influence on Mark (2014).

Mark singles out Peter for special mention throughout his gospel so we naturally take a particular interest in him:

  • Peter is the first disciple to appear in the gospel and the first to be called, the first to confess Jesus is the Christ (in the middle of the gospel) and the last disciple mentioned in the gospel;
  • We learn more about Peter than any other disciple: he has a mother-in-law so is or has been married; he has a house in Capernaum that he shares with his brother Andrew;
  • Peter is the first listed of the apostles and the first to be renamed by Jesus, and his words are used to initiate teachings by Jesus on discipleship;
  • He appears to be more “rounded” as a character than the others in his arguments with Jesus and his three denials and subsequent tears.

Peter’s failings are certainly many:

  • he denies Jesus three times
  • he is forgetful and uncomprehending
  • Jesus calls him Satan

But notice how the author also leads us to sympathize with Peter. Peter may be a foil to Jesus but he is not portrayed as wicked. Mark keeps the readers on Peter’s side by letting the readers see into Peter’s well-meaning nature, his good intentions and genuine bafflement and tearful remorse over his most serious failures. read more »


2017-08-07

Aesop / 2, a Guide to a Late Gospel of Mark Date

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by Neil Godfrey

Sleepy me forgot to include the main thought that led to the argument of the previous post. Reflecting on Hägg’s point about the Life of Aesop being produced at a time when interest in Aesop was the fashion of the day, the question I was asking myself was:

  • When do we see an interest in the pre-crucifixion earthly life-events of Jesus emerge in the record? When does that particular literary vogue begin?

Now that’s less subtle than an argument based on Paul’s influence on the Gospel of Mark.

The second century Pastoral epistle 1 Timothy speaks of Jesus testifying before Pilate.

Ignatius is among the earliest witnesses to an interest in biographical details of Jesus with his specifications of Mary’s pregnancy and Pilate’s role in the crucifixion. Though Ignatius’s martyrdom (and letter writing date) is said by Eusebius to be in the tenth year of Trajan (108 CE), we have reasons to think that the letters may really have been composed considerably later. As Roger Parvus writes:

Eusebius, in the fourth century, was the first to claim that the letters were written in the reign of Trajan (98 – 117 CE). A number of scholars have recognized that his dating is untrustworthy, and that the letters should be dated later. To give some recent examples:

  • Allen Brent says “we can…, if we like, place Ignatius’ work towards the end of Hadrian’s reign (AD 135)” (p. 318 of his 2006 book Ignatius of Antioch and the Second Sophistic.
  • And Paul Foster, in his chapter on Ignatians in The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers (2007), placed their composition “sometime during the second quarter of the second century, i.e. 125 – 50 CE, roughly corresponding to Hadrian’s reign or the earlier part of Antoninus Pius’ period in office” (p. 89).
  • Timothy Barnes, in a 2008 article in The Expository Times (“The Date of Ignatius”), concluded that the letters were written “probably in the 140s” (p. 128).
  • And Richard Pervo, in his The Making of Paul published in 2010 says “A date of c. 130 – 140 is the preferable date for Ignatius” (p. 135).
  • Earl Doherty too, in his Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, does not have a problem with dating the letters to the third decade of the second century. (p. 296).

Justin Martyr of the mid-second century, discussed in the previous post, is also the earliest of the Church Fathers to show a detailed interest in writing about events in the earthly life of Jesus. Most of his discussion is an attempt to prove that the Old Testament writings were prophesying cryptically about Jesus. Again, see the table I have posted on vridar.info.

Interestingly the literary focus on the life of Jesus first appears to gain wider traction around the same time as the interest in and heated controversy over Paul.

Sure we can date the gospels to the last decades of the first century, but by doing so we have to wait some decades (and Justin does not even appear to know any of the gospels in their final canonical form) before we find anyone appearing to take any notice of their contents or sharing their interest in Jesus’ life.

Justin is said to be the first witness to the existence of the gospels but we need to keep in mind that Justin also said that fire (presumably a spiritual fire) engulfed the Jordan when Jesus was baptized, that the infant Jesus was found in a cave, that Pilate conspired with the Jews to crucify Jesus, and indicates that he had no concept of any Judas character or betrayal of Jesus by a disciple.

Is it not interesting that “the church”, or at least the “proto-orthodox” side of Christianity, first appears to take an interest in writings about the earthly life of Jesus at the same time as heated arguments over the teachings of Paul?

The two interests, the teachings of Paul and the earthly life of Jesus, first appear in the wider record around the same time.

Justin, as we saw in the previous post, is certainly one of the more hostile of the “fathers” towards Paul and he it is who is the first to show a strong interest, most unlike Paul, in interpreting the Old Testament as a string of prophecies about the earthly Jesus.

I don’t think the Gospel of Mark was originally written as a literal testimony to the pre-crucifixion life of Jesus, though. The narrative is far too patently (in my view) symbolic to think that it was written with a mind to be read literally. The author does not attempt to proof-text his narrative in the same way the author of the Gospel of Matthew did by saying “Jesus did or said such and such so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” (The only exception in English translations of Mark is in fact a gloss.) The Gospel of Mark was actually first associated with heretics (as was Paul) — with the followers of Basilides — though I suspect that Basilides’ followers knew of a kind of ur-Mark, not the form of the gospel we have today in our orthodox canons.

It is the Gospel of Matthew who is closest to the sort of narrative of Jesus that so engrossed Justin. Another point I find interesting is that the Gospel of Matthew, with its anti-Paul message and its focus on Jesus fulfilling passages in the OT, that was the most influential gospel in the second century while the Gospel of Mark was scarcely noticed among the proto-orthodox.

The point is that the mainstream view holds that the gospels were written between 70 and 90 and then forgotten or largely ignored until the mid second century.

Why not prefer to date them to a time when we find there was a more general interest in the sorts of things they write about?

 


Aesop, Guide to a Very Late Date for the Gospels?

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by Neil Godfrey

Is it possible that our canonical gospels, even the apparently pioneering Gospel of Mark, were really composed well into the second century? The possibility has been argued by a few and I don’t discount it. I often find myself suspecting it is true although very often for the sake of argument I will assume that at least the Gospel of Mark was written relatively soon after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. There are reasonable arguments in favour of a first-century date, after all, but it is also undeniable that an early date for Mark “just happens” to favour orthodox Christian beliefs and traditional models for the sources and general reliability of the Gospels. It does not hurt to keep in mind the fundamentals for dating any text (see Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels) and that we ought always to start first with where we have the most secure evidence for the existence of a work, not from where we have the least.

Although it has become a standing procedure in the study of the [Bible’s books] to begin where we know the least and to end at the point where we have safe information in order to explain what is certain by reasons uncertain and from an unknown past, it is obvious to almost everybody else that this procedure has no claim to be called scientific. We should rather and as a matter of course start where we are best informed. Only from this vantage should we try to penetrate into the unknown past. (Lemche, N. P. (2001) “The Old Testament — A Hellenistic Book?” in Lester L. Grabbe (ed) Did Moses Speak Attic? Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield. p. 294)

The earliest evidence that anyone knew of passages that appear in our canonical gospels are the writings of Justin Martyr from around 140 to 150 CE. I have posted a table cross-referencing Justin’s writings with Gospel content at http://vridar.info/xorigins/justinnarr.htm. (The table needs updating because I’ve since found a few mistakes in it, but overall it is useful for getting a general idea.)

Now it “just so happens” that Justin was writing at a time when there was a strong interest in the life and writings of the apostle Paul although you would not know it if you read only Justin. Paul is conspicuous in Justin’s works by his complete absence. Presumably the reason for Justin’s silence (despite the evidence we have for volcanic debates erupting over Paul all around him) is his refusal to acknowledge the apostle who was reputed to be the pillar of “the heretics”.

This interest in Paul is the point of this post’s argument for dating the gospels as I’ll explain.

But before I do, note the evidence for this strong interest in Paul in the second century. It was at this time that a canonical collection of Paul’s letters first appears. Since it happened to be the “heretical” Marcionites who produced this canon the “proto-orthodox” writers took hold of the same writings and accused their opponents of editing out the bits they did not like. And so the battle raged over what, exactly, the original texts of Paul’s letters looked like. Before the second century we have no record of any interest being shown in Paul’s letters.

It was also in the second century that we find stories being written about Paul and his career as an apostle. One of these is our New Testament book of Acts. There was another “Acts” of Paul that took a very different view of him and his message, “The Acts of Paul and Thecla”, which apparently proved to be very popular despite being condemned by Tertullian.

Moreover, we have Pastoral epistles falsely claiming to be by the apostle Paul — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus — also being produced in this era. And there is 2 Peter with its concluding reference to widespread controversy over Paul’s letters likewise being written (or forged under Peter’s name) in the second century.

Some readers have no doubt jumped ahead and know where I am headed with how this point relates to the date of the gospels.

If the Gospel of Mark was influenced by the letters of Paul, then it is reasonable to date it to a time when there was clearly known to be strong evidence for an interest in Paul’s letters.

And not a few scholars have argued for the Gospel of Mark’s indebtedness to Paul. We have over 300 pages of debate in Mark and Paul, Comparative Essays Part II. For and Against Pauline Influence on Mark. Many of us know about Tom Dykstra’s Mark, Canonizer of Paul. There is also Alan Cadwallader’s The Struggle for Paul in the Context of Empire: Mark as a Deutero-Pauline Text and many more likeminded publications.

I was reminded of all of the above as I completed reading a discussion by Tomas Hägg in The Art of Biography in Antiquity about the Life of Aesop (by Anonymous) composed probably in the first century CE. Addressing the time the Life appeared and the context of its emergence, Hägg writes

The biographical interest, in turn, is no doubt a result of the renewed actuality of the ‘Aesopic’ fables in the first two centuries of the Roman Empire. This is the time when Phaedrus, a slave of Thacian origin who became a freedman of Emperor Augustus, wrote his well-known fables in Latin iambic verse . . . ; when Babrius, . . . ‘a hellenized Italian living in Syria, or somewhere near by in Asia Minor’, published his two books of Mythiambi, versified Aesopic fables in Greek; and when Plutarch, who in his works often refers to Aesopic fables, invites the fabulist himself to take part, as an outsider, in his Banquet of the Seven Sages to debate with Solon and others. The author of the Life [of Aesop] was evidently part of this vogue and set out to answer the question of who the legendary first inventor of the popular prose genre really was. . . . . (Hägg, p. 127. My highlighting)

So can we likewise say that the author of the Gospel of Mark was evidently part of this vogue of interest in Paul, a second century development?

It would surely be more logical to assume that the author was writing at a time when we have strong awareness of Paul’s writings than at a time when we have no other evidence for even knowledge of Paul’s letters. Obviously I cannot prove any of the above. But it is suggestive, is it not? It would be unusual to date the Life of Aesop to a time when there was no other interest in Aesop if it can be safely dated to a time when Aesop was the vogue of the day.

–o0o–

We saw a very similar argument expressed by Lemche concerning the date of the Old Testament writings:

How Does One Date the Old Testament Writings?

–o0o–

 


2017-08-05

Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Political Evolution in Literature

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by Neil Godfrey

This post continues the discussion of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. All posts in the series can be accessed in the archive.

–o0o–

After discussing the popularity of Greek foundation stories and the appearance of the same genre in the Pentateuch, Gmirkin looks at one more type of narrative that is found in common between Greek literature and Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings). The point is that the same type of story is said to be alien to Near Eastern literature so apparently the only known model for the biblical narratives is found in the Greek writings of Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle.

Gmirkin’s double point is that (a) Near Eastern political systems reportedly were restricted to absolutist monarchies and that (b) it is not until the literature of the Greeks from the fifth century on that we read “historical” accounts of evolution from patriarchal and “democratic” types of governments to monarchies along with expressions of views about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different systems.

Gmirkin appeals to the Babyloniaca of Berossus to argue that Mesopotamian traditions knew only of the institution of kingship:

In Mesopotamian traditions, there was no question of an evolution of governmental institutions: kingship was present from the beginning, part of the gifts of civilization revealed by the gods to the first generation of humankind. This is fully illustrated by the Babyloniaca of Berossus, in which unenlightened humanity as originally created was no better than the animals. Then the gods sent Oannes, an apkallu, to teach humankind the arts of civilization, including the establishment of kings and cities (Berossus FGrH 680 Fib). In Berossus and the late Babylonian sources he used, the ten generations before the flood were each ruled by a famous king from a prominent Mesopotamian city (Berossus FGrH 680 F3b, discussed at Gmirkin 2006: 107-8). After the flood destroyed almost all of humankind, the institution of kingship was immediately restored among the survivors (Berossus FGrH 680 FF 3b, 4b, 5a). (Gmirkin, p. 231, my bolding in all quotations)

I think Gmirkin could have been more nuanced here, however, by acknowledging other ancient Near Eastern evidence prior to Berossus. Some studies of ancient Sumerians and early Mesopotamian political systems have indeed at times suggested that nascent forms of democracy were to be found in these settings. I can understand disputes arising over the meaning of the word “democracy” but there are a number of studies that at least point to various regions in the ancient Near East (Mesopotamia, Anatolia including an Assyrian colony, the Levantine people including the Phoenicians, and even Egypt) in which prominence is given to popular or oligarchic assemblies, council elders, as well as kings. See, for example,

Isakhan writes of ancient Mesopotamia (with my bolding):

Overwhelmingly, history tells us of the megalomaniacal kings and their grand menacing empires that rose out of these early developments to conquer and dominate the region by fear and bloodshed.72 However, there is also a growing understanding that the history of modern thought, usually understood to have begun around 400 B.C. in Greece, can be traced further back to early Mesopotamia.73

Evidence for such advanced thinking is found in the early myths and legends of ancient Mesopotamia, where we find the inner functioning of the Ordained Assembly of the Great Gods. . . . Generally, it was called together when the gods needed to make a decision; they would listen and debate until the pros and cons of each issue were clarified and a virtual consensus emerged.75 When the council reached full agreement, the seven senior gods would announce the final verdict, and each of the members would voice approval with a “let it be.”76

You can check the footnotes from that article itself on the linked article page above.

As the city states grew in size and warfare among them became all the more common despotic kings did indeed emerge and were naturally reluctant to give up their powers. Yet, read more »


2017-08-04

More DNA testing: Ancient Greeks are still among Modern Greeks

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by Neil Godfrey

We saw recently that the DNA of ancient Canaanites is found among modern Syrians; we now have further evidence that the DNA of the ancient Mycenaeans is found among modern Greeks, too. It’s in the Nature journal:

Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans

Here we show that Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically similar, having at least three-quarters of their ancestry from the first Neolithic farmers of western Anatolia and the Aegean, and most of the remainder from ancient populations related to those of the Caucasus and Iran. However, the Mycenaeans differed from Minoans in deriving additional ancestry from an ultimate source related to the hunter–gatherers of eastern Europe and Siberia, introduced via a proximal source related to the inhabitants of either the Eurasian steppe or Armenia. Modern Greeks resemble the Mycenaeans, but with some additional dilution of the Early Neolithic ancestry. 

That abstract knocks out what I was taught at school about the Minoans being a distinct race from the Mycenaeans. The research overturns a few alternative theories about the origins of both peoples that have been floated over the decades.

What I find fascinating is just how many people do tend to “stay put and carry on” throughout all the historical migrations and conquerings and resettlements that we read about.

Who has the courage to test and publish the DNA research of Palestinian/West Bank bones throughout the millennia against the various populations in those regions today?