Tag Archives: Gospels

Essential Guide to the Historical Jesus: Introduction (James H. Charlesworth)

This book is an essential guide to the life and thought of Jesus . . .

That’s James H. Charlesworth’s opening line in the preface to The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide, one title in Abingdon Press’s Essential Guide series.

James H. Charlesworth is George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature and Editor and Director of the Princeton Theological Seminary Dead Sea Scrolls Project, an internationally recognized expert in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old and New Testaments, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, Jesus Research, and the Gospel of John.

In the twenties of the first century C.E., this man walked out of the hills of Nazareth and into world culture. (p. xiii)

Scholars say Jesus avoided large and cosmopolitan cities (until the last week of his life) so I look forward to learning what Charlesworth means by Jesus stepping out into “world culture”. At the same time Charlesworth describes Jesus as one who happened to “stand out as one of the most Jewish Jews of the first century”.

Jesus was driven by one desire: to obey God at all times and in all ways. For him, not a word of Torah may be ignored or compromised.

I’m not quite sure how one “stands out” for being “most Jewish” among other Jews. But the message Charlesworth wants to convey is clear.

More accurate historical knowledge

Charlesworth explains that today it is possible to “more accurately retell the story of Jesus” than it was 2000 years ago. read more »

Taking the Gospels seriously, part 2 (What John Baptist supposedly meant to Jesus)

I often find myself wishing some knowledgable scholars who write about “the historical Jesus” would take their Gospel sources more seriously.

To take just one illustration, I don’t know if I have read any scholarly work addressing the baptism of Jesus that fails to make some reference to the “influence of John the Baptist on Jesus”, or to the “calling of Jesus”, or such. The presumption is always that Jesus was some sort of spiritual “seeker” who was profoundly moved in some way by John the Baptist and as a direct consequence was catapulted on his own solo career.

Here is one example of this:

What we do know past doubting is that John had a crucially important impact on Jesus. According to the synoptic tradition, Jesus in some sense received his calling during or just after his baptism. (p. 191 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, by Paula Fredriksen)

And another that is within easy reach on my desk:

We can now see what attracted Jesus to John. John exercised a large-scale and highly successful prophetic ministry of repentance to Israel. . . . He offered salvation and predicted judgement in terms which recreated the Judaism of the prophetic tradition. This explains why Jesus underwent John’s baptism. . . . Jesus thereby joined this vigorous movement of prophetic Judaism. . . . On the occasion of his baptism, Jesus had a visionary experience. . . . (p. 176 of Jesus of Nazareth by Maurice Casey.) read more »

Finding a home (provenance) for the Gospels

Aachen Gospels

Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

read more »

Is it necessary for “mythicists” to date the gospels late?

No, not at all.

My own interest in dating the gospels late has nothing to do with arguing for a mythical Jesus. I am not interested in arguing for a mythical Jesus as I have said many times in the past. My interest is in explaining the literature and evidence for Christian origins using the same basic methods I learned as a student of ancient, medieval and modern history some years ago now, and as I still see in vogue in history books currently being published. They even apply the same fundamental rules of evidence and inquiry that I imagine crime detectives or court-room judges understand. Generally self-testimony means little unless you can back it up with supporting independent evidence. If the external supporting evidence all points to a late date for the gospels, then why knock it? (External evidence may not always mean an explicit identification or testimonial, and it can take a range of forms, including prevailing ideologies, debates, literary styles and language, etc.)

The results of my approaches to investigating the origins and nature of the gospels, and the evidence for dating the literature, lead me to believe that the best explanation for the narratives of the gospels is that they originated as creative theology. I don’t know when, but suspect from the time of the early second century.

But it would not make any difference if the gospels were all dated conclusively between 70 and 100, or even between 35 and 65. That would not change certain facts about the gospels themselves, such as their literary and theological borrowings from earlier Jewish (and non-Jewish) literature, and their genre when analyzed from the perspective of ideological messages and communications rather than externals such as style or topics and language used.

Such an early date would raise questions in other ways, such as how to explain their stress on persecution at such an early date. But the historicity of their narrative contents stands independent of when they are dated.

 

 

Are the Gospels Really Biographies? Outlining and Questioning Burridge

In this post I outline the points of Burridge’s influential argument that the gospels belong to the genre of ancient biography.

Richard A. Burridge has been central to the development of wide scholarly agreement that the Gospels are biographies (or technically βιος) with the publication of his doctoral thesis, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. To analyze their genre he compares the generic features of the gospels with Graeco-Roman biographies.

My own disagreement with Burridge

Before posting the details of Burridge’s case, I sum up my own reasons for disagreement. But you’re allowed to skip this section if you want.

I have thought that despite the extent of Burridge’s analysis, the βιος genre simply does not describe the gospels, in particular the Gospel of Mark which is my primary interest. What we recognize as ancient Greek and Roman biographies are clearly and directly “about” their subject persons.

The Gospel of Mark, unlike Greek and Roman biographies, is not “about” the person or character of it central figure. And I think this applies to the Gospels generally. read more »

Gospels and Kings

Reading James Linville’s Israel in the Book of Kings (introduced in my previous post) I can’t help but notice resonances with the methodologies and assumptions largely taken for granted by New Testament scholars. The same issues of assumptions of historicity and lack of evidence bedevil (or at least did much more so in 1998 when the book was published) the questions of the historical nature of the narratives. read more »

An Explanation for the Gospels being Anonymous

Revised 6 Dec to add more on "denying originality" in Mark

The canonical gospel titles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are not original. They are much later attributions of authorship. But why did the original authors not declare their identities?

A year or more ago “N.T. Wrong” suggested here that I read Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation by Bernard M. Levinson as an example of how a text deliberately revises older traditions. One passage by Levinson hit me as potentially pertinent to the above question.

In a culture with a curriculum of prestigious and authoritative texts, how are legal innovation and religious transformation possible? The solution is to disclaim authorship and to deny originality. . . . They never speak in their own belated, seventh-century B.C.E. scribal voice. Instead, they defer to the voice of authoritative antiquity. . . (p.34)

In other words, they are written to be documents of which it could be said, “It Is Written”. The author(s) of Deuteronomy had the advantage of being able to use Moses as a character mouth-piece.

A personal name attached to the first gospel would loudly advertize its novelty. Antiquity, not novelty, was venerable and authoritative. A common, well-known example is the way Plato chose to write under the name of his highly respected teacher, Socrates.

Denying originality

But was not the first gospel starkly innovative anyway? The author of Deuteronomy could disclaim originality by putting his reformist religion in the mouth of Moses. The gospels of Mark and Matthew likewise wrapped the words and acts of Jesus in the words of the ancient prophets.

Mark embedded his new religious narrative from the outset in the ancient prophecies.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.  The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. (Mark 1:1-3 citing Isaiah and Malachi)

The teachings of Jesus in Mark are not new either, but presented as even older than those of Moses.

They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” And Jesus answered and said to them, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote this precept. But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’; . . .Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:4-9)

Matthew introduces its Jesus through genealogy, a voice of antiquity, and prophecy.

Genealogy: there is a biological link to David and Abraham

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matt.1:1)

Voice of antiquity: there is a birth narrative told in a literary voice that echoes loudly the ancient narratives of the births of patriarchs and history of Moses

Compare angels announcing imminent miraculous births in both Matthew and Genesis; compare the massacres of the innocents by both Herod and Pharaoh . . .

Prophecy: Matthew riddles his narrative with references to fulfilled prophecies

1:23 (a virgin shall conceive); 2:6 (Bethlehem to be the Messiah’s birthplace); 2:18 (Ramah’s people weeping for the massacre of infants; 2:23 (Nazareth chosen as hometown to fulfil a prophecy about being called a Nazarene) . . .

The early chapters in Luke are redolent of the tone and settings of the birth narratives of Samuel and the patriarchs.

John even identifies Jesus with a being existing from the beginning with God.

The canonical gospels either used the voice, tone, structures and character types of the ancient biblical narratives to introduce Jesus, and/or ancient prophecies to validate their innovations. Something new was wrapped in the above ancient trappings.

Disclaiming authorship

Through these techniques the authors were creating documents that directed the reader to the written text, and to imagine links between the new text and the past sacred texts.

To announce the author’s identity would possibly have been counterproductive if in fact it was their purpose to introduce novelty to audiences with a suspicion of novelty and a reverence for the hoary. An author’s name in the introduction would deflect attention from such an aim and direct it in some part to the identity and reliability of the person of the composer. And the composer was undeniably contemporary, and probably identifiable with some position that was controversial.

Much of Deuteronomy is written as the words of Moses or the words spoken by God to Moses. So much so that it is easy to forget that the book speaks of Moses in the third person and to assume Moses wrote the book himself. And such is the tradition that attached itself early to not only Deuteronomy but to the other books of the Pentateuch as well.

Genesis to 2 Kings is known as the Primary History of Israel, and it is a collection of anonymous works. But anonymous works that assume authority arouse curiosity and cannot stay anonymous for long in the popular imagination. Just as Moses was soon assumed to be one author, Joshua and Ezra quickly became the assumed authors of the remainder of the books.

Similarly in the case of the gospels: anonymous authorities inevitably arouse speculations of authorship. It was inevitable that the names of apostles and close faithful associates of apostles were soon fixed on the superscription of each of the gospels.

The facade cracks and masks appear

Luke is arguably later than the other gospels (Matson et al.) and it does name a patron in its introduction. We don’t know if the patron’s name was historical or figurative, but with this later gospel we see a tentative early step away from the anonymity of the earlier gospels. Similarly with John, that hints at authorial identity, however fictional, by claiming to be written by the “beloved disciple”. Once the new had been established, other gospels could no longer attempt to vie with the originals by the same anonymity technique. They had to change tack and deploy the names of Peter, Philip, Thomas, et al, the way Plato masked himself behind the name of Socrates.

So thanks to “N.T.Wrong” for introducing me to Levinson’s book on Deuteronomy. Levinson’s explanation for the anonymity of Deuteronomy may not be the answer to the anonymity of the Gospels, but if it isn’t, I have not been able to think of a better possible explanation.

Masked and Anonymous

Image via Wikipedia

That Villainous Pilate (and Centurion) in the Gospel of Mark

It is easy to read the spare text of the Gospel of Mark through the details elaborated in the subsequent Gospels of Matthew, John and Luke. If we can isolate Mark’s text from these others, however, and try to read it as if for the first time, looking for interpretations that are bound exclusively within its own pages and without any reference to other gospels (after all, if it was the first gospel then we need strong arguments to justify reading it through the eyes of later gospels), a very unorthodox gospel emerges.

One example, I think, is Mark’s treatment of Pilate.

The popular image of Pilate, derived largely from the later gospels and apocryphal works, is that Pilate was pressured against his will and better judgment to authorize the crucifixion of Jesus.

But that’s not what I think I actually read in the Gospel of Mark.

The custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover

The umbrella impression most Christians have re the Passion narrative includes the detail that it was the custom for the Roman governor to release a prisoner at Passover time. This is a reasonable conclusion, but it does not come from Mark’s gospel.

In the gospel of John the reader is informed that it was a Jewish or state custom.

But ye have a custom, that I should release unto you one at the passover: will ye therefore that I release unto you the King of the Jews? (John 18:39)

Luke’s gospel carries on the idea that it was apparently a state custom.

(For of necessity he must release one unto them at the feast.) (Luke 23:17)

Mark’s gospel, however, where the story began, says this “custom” was really a personal custom of Pilate alone. It reminds one of the ability for which many Roman potentates were renowned (and by which means they often climbed the ladder to more power), the ability to please crowds.

Now at that feast he released unto them one prisoner, whomsoever they desired. (Mark 15:6)

Matthew, the first to copy Mark, more or less adhered to Mark’s narrative on this point, although he impersonalized Mark’s personal pronoun reference to Pilate to the generic “governor”.

Now at that feast the governor was wont to release unto the people a prisoner, whom they would. (Matthew 27:15)

Desiring to free Jesus

Then we come to Pilate’s threefold approach to the crowd asking them if he really wants him to crucify Jesus or someone else. In the gospels of Matthew, John and Luke, Pilate’s inner struggle is conveyed clearly enough.

Matthew 27:19-26

Matthew even introduces Pilate’s wife who has a dream she has to convey to her husband in the midst of his judicial hearing of Jesus. We are not told if Pilate cringed in embarrassment or was shaken just a little. The author’s intent is to inform the audience of the mounting pressures on Pilate to release Jesus, and it is clear that Pilate in his heart knows Jesus is innocent, and deep down does not want any responsibility for the death of Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel Pilate washes his hands to publicly declare his innocence and to make clear that the blood of Jesus is entirely the responsibility of the Jews:

When he was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.

But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus.

1. The governor answered and said unto them, Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you? They said, Barabbas.

2. Pilate saith unto them, What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? They all say unto him, Let him be crucified.

3. And the governor said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified.

When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.

Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.

Thus Pilate finally succumbs because the crowd “made a tumult” that he could not resist.

It might be noteworthy, furthermore, that Pilate did not act until after the crowd insisted that they alone took the responsibility of the blood of Jesus upon themselves and their future generations, completely (in their own minds at least) exonerating Pilate.

Matthew’s account might well be interpreted as an early attempt to inject a lethal dose of anti-semitism into the gospel story. Poor Pilate, pressured by his own judgement, his wife’s dream, and the crowd’s “tumult”, finally caved in.

John 18:38-19:16

John’s gospel likewise has Pilate making a threefold appeal to the crowd to release Jesus. The first two times Pilate was attempting to make it clear to the crowd that he judged Jesus to be innocent.

The third time, however, Pilate was in real fearful earnest. On hearing that he might be a Son of God, Pilate’s heart was fully behind his words in seeking Jesus’s release.

But then the Jews “cheated” by blackmailing him with a lie. He would be guilty of treason if he did not crucify Jesus, they threatened.

1. And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all. . . . Will ye therefore that I release unto you the King of the Jews? Then cried they all again, saying, Not this man, but Barabbas. . . .

Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him. . . .

2. Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him. . . . And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man! When the chief priests therefore and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, Crucify him, crucify him.

Pilate saith unto them, Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him.

The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.

When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he was the more afraid; . . . .

And from thenceforth Pilate sought to release him: but the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar.

When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgment seat . . . .

3. and he saith unto the Jews, Behold your King! But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priest answered, We have no king but Caesar.

Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away.

Luke 23:13-24

Luke’s gospel likewise portrays a threefold effort on Pilate’s part to release Jesus, and also explicitly states that Pilate was “willing” (link to online Greek lexicon)/wanting/determined to release Jesus.

1. And Pilate . . . Said unto them, Ye have brought this man unto me, as one that perverteth the people: and, behold, I, having examined him before you, have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him: . . . . And they cried out all at once, saying, Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas:

2. Pilate therefore, willing to release Jesus, spake again to them. But they cried, saying, Crucify him, crucify him.

3. And he said unto them the third time, Why, what evil hath he done? I have found no cause of death in him: . . . . And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that he might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed.

And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required.

Alas, the crowd raised their voices so loudly that Pilate was intimidated and caved in. (One wonders if secular records of a Pilate who was recalled to Rome on account of his vicious treatment of large masses are speaking of another character altogether.)

Or desiring to please the crowd?

With the Gospel of Mark, on the other hand, if we can read it apart from the above, we see something altogether different, I think.

The mere fact of a threefold effort or act is so common throughout literature, biblical, folk, ancient, modern, that it cannot of itself inform us of the intent of a character. Peter’s threefold denial in the gospel is a sign of the totality of Peter’s failure. Why not consider the possibility of the same meaning behind Pilate’s threefold approach to the crowd?

A passage in Mark’s gospel, omitted from subsequent gospels, explains that Pilate knew that the chief priests charged Jesus with a capital crime because they envied him. So in Mark’s gospel Pilate not only judges Jesus to be innocent, but even sees through the motives of those wanting him dead. Pilate acts in the full knowledge of both Jesus’ innocence and the criminal motive of his enemies. This makes Pilate guilty at more than one level. He is not merely pressured against his desire to save an innocent man; he is cynically folding to the whims of evildoers.

What excuse can Pilate have for even taking the case of Jesus to the mob if he knew that the Jewish leaders were toying with both him and the crowd out of sheer envy?

Pilate certainly gives the mob a chance to release Jesus. He calls on them to give him a reason to crucify him. They don’t. No matter, Pilate chooses to “please the mob”. If later gospels said Pilate wanted to release Jesus, the first gospel said Pilate wanted to please the crowd.

Pilate in Mark’s gospel was a typical Roman potentate who knew how to please crowds with bread and circuses. The lives, let alone just deserts, of those who were at stake to entertain Roman crowds meant nothing.

Mark 15:9-15

1. But Pilate answered them, saying, Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?

For he knew that the chief priests had delivered him for envy.

But the chief priests moved the people, that he should rather release Barabbas unto them.

2. And Pilate answered and said again unto them, What will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews? And they cried out again, Crucify him.

3. Then Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done? And they cried out the more exceedingly, Crucify him.

And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified. (the link is to Greek lexicon definition)

There is none of the pressure on Pilate in Mark’s gospel that we are used to reading in the later gospels. No disturbing dreams, no hand-washing, no fear of a riot, no lying blackmail, no loud shouts that hurt his ears. The only places we read of these, along with an explicit desire or willingness to release Jesus, are in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. They are alien to Mark.

Mark’s gospel, in fact, defiantly stands in opposition to those who build on it when it explicitly says that Pilate’s desire was not to release Jesus but to please the mob, and that without any hint of pressure to do so. Is the reader meant to think “bread and circuses”?

The Roman centurion too

Mark Goodacre’s blog had a recent discussion on the origins of the interpretation that the Roman who stands against the cross of Christ does not utter a Christian confession (Truly, this man was a Son of God!) so much as a scoffing taunt (So this was a son of god? Yeah right!).

The details can be read from an article online by Earl Johnson Jr., Mark 15,39 and the So-Called Confession of the Roman Centurion. An earlier article of Johnson’s discussing the technicalities of the grammar is not freely available, but a summary of the main point is included in this online article.

This interpretation of the Roman centurion makes sense. All that he sees as he stands “opposite” Jesus (another significant image that has negative associations elsewhere too), according to Mark’s gospel, is the dying sound of Jesus and his last breath. Pilate is later very surprised to hear that Jesus has died so quickly, and relies on the centurion’s observation to confirm this report.

That one who was supposedly reputed to be a son of a deity should die so quickly was cause for a hardened Roman centurion to scoff at the claim.

Only in Matthew and Luke does the centurion witness the miraculous portents surrounding the death of Jesus, thus enabling him to respond “in faith”. In Mark, he merely witnesses yet one more death, only quicker than most.

Jews and gentiles, all alike in guilt

I am always in two minds about the Gospel of Mark’s links with Paul’s theology, but Mark’s gospel does at this point appear to have another point in common with what one reads in Romans 3:9:

What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin

Mark’s gospel portrays Jews and gentiles as equally culpable at the crucifixion.

Jesus in Mark’s gospel has no friends in his last hours. Jews have turned against him, disciples have betrayed, deserted and denied him, women who once served him now stand afar off, and gentiles too, from the representative of the empire down to the centurion at the cross, toy with him as a “crowd-pleaser” and mock him.

No exceptions.

This picture only changed after subsequent gospel authors opted to single out the Jews for principal blame. This meant, of course, incipient exoneration of gentiles, beginning with a well-meaning but weak-willed Pilate (like Peter?) and a Roman being the first to confess the true identity of Jesus at the critical hour.

Pilates exercise session:

from a teacher of Pilates http://www.pilatespersonaltraining.co.uk/For-Health-Professionals.php

Tim Keller — almost immediately, but a mere hundred years later, everyone knew the 4 gospels were true

The canonical gospels were written at the very most forty to sixty years after Jesus’s death. (p.101 of The Age of Reason)

The four canonical gospels were written much earlier than the so-called Gnostic gospels. The Gospel of Thomas, the best known of the Gnostic documents, is a translation from the Syriac, and scholars have shown that the Syriac traditions in Thomas can be dated to 175 A.D. (sic) at the earliest . . . . (pp.102-103)

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, however, were recognized as authoritative eyewitness accounts almost immediately, and so we have Irenaeus of Lyons in 160 A.D. (sic) declaring that there were four, and only four, gospels. (p.103)

It appears that the very first evidence Keller can find of anyone accepting the canonical gospels as “authoritative eyewitness accounts” was at the very least 90 years after the first gospel was supposedly penned.

Actually Keller’s 160 date for the composition by Irenaeus against heresies is generous in the extreme. We cannot be absolutely sure if Irenaeus was born earlier than 142 c.e., and it was from 161 to 180 that an imperial persecution against Christians was waged. (See Wikipedia Irenaeus.) It was from 180 c.e. that Irenaeus most likely had the time and circumstances to write his many volumes, and 180 c.e. is the date for his writings I usually see referenced.

Justin Martyr around 140 c.e. appears to quote some gospel passages, but he also appears to quote passages from non-canonical gospels, too. So he can hardly have regarded the canonical four as “authoritative” to the exclusion of others.

Ignatius and Polycarp are also highly debatable re how much of their works were late addition or compilations. Keller has no clear evidence of the belief in the canonical gospels as the authoritative “eyewitness accounts” apart from a late second century bishop and apologist for the church headquartered at Rome.

This, in The Age of Reason, is sufficient evidence for him to proclaim:

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, however, were recognized as authoritative eyewitness accounts almost immediately, and so we have Irenaeus of Lyons in 160 A.D. (sic) declaring that there were four, and only four, gospels. (p.103)

How the Gospels are most commonly dated (and why?)

From Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 144-145 (number formatting is mine):

  1. Even though it is very hard to date the Gospels with precision, most scholars agree on the basic range of dates, for a variety of reasons . . . .
  2. I can say with relative certainty — from his own letters and from Acts — that Paul was writing during the fifties of the common era . . . .
  3. [H]e gives in his own writings absolutely no evidence of knowing about or ever having heard of the existence of any Gospels. From this it can be inferred that the Gospels probably were written after Paul’s day.
  4. It also appears that the Gospel writers know about certain later historical events, such as the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 ce . . . That implies that these Gospels were probably written after 70.
  5. There are reasons for thinking Mark was written first, so maybe he wrote around the time of the war with Rome, 70 ce.
  6. If Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source, they must have been composed after Mark’s Gospel circulated for a time outside its own originating community — say, ten or fifteen years later, in 80 to 85 ce.
  7. John seems to be the most theologically developed Gospel, and so it was probably written later still, nearer the end of the first century, around 90 to 95 ce.
  8. These are rough guesses, but most scholars agree on them.

Here we have in a convenient nutshell the basic reasons behind the widely accepted dates for the Gospels. Bart Ehrman explains he is not going into details here, and one can find in the literature more nuanced arguments for relative and other dates assigned to the gospels. But with these dot points we can say we are looking at the trunk of the tree.

Dating Paul

The grounds stated for dating Paul to the 50′s seems reasonable enough. The only problem is that there is no external attestation for Paul’s letters till the second century. Ditto for the book of Acts. It is unknown until Irenaeus cites it in the latter half of the second century. That leaves only the letters of Paul themselves. How certain can we be about a date that relies solely on the self-witness of the documents themselves? Especially when we know that at the time Paul’s letters do appear they are simultaneously embroiled in controversies over forgeries and interpolations. (Marcionites accused “orthodoxy” of interpolating Paul’s letters; the letters themselves warn of forgeries, and many scholars believe the Pastoral letters are forgeries.)

But the point here is that Ehrman does supply the reasons, the evidence, for dating Paul the way most do.

Dating Mark read more »

The “oral tradition” myth of gospel origins

Bart Ehrman (BE) in Jesus, Interrupted, summarizes the standard view of how a long period of “oral tradition” preceded the writing of the first gospels. The Gospels of the New Testament, he writes,

were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus’ death by people who did not know him, did not see anything he did or hear anything he taught, people who spoke a different language from his and lived in a different country from him. (p.144)

So how can they be considered reliable evidence of what Jesus did and said? BE answers:

The first step is to get a better handle on how the Gospel writers got their stories. . . . The short answer is that most Gospel writers received most of their information from the oral tradition, stories that had been in circulation about Jesus by word of mouth from the time he died until the time the Gospel writers wrote them down.

BE then explains that one thing the historian needs to understand is how the oral traditions about Jesus worked. Here is his take:

How did Christians convert people away from their (mainly) pagan religions to believe in only one God, the God of the Jews, and in Jesus, his son, who died to take away the sins of the world? The only way to convert people was to tell them stories about Jesus: what he said and did, and how he died and was raised from the dead. Once someone converted to the religion and became a member of a Christian church, they, too, would tell the stories. And the people they converted would then tell the stories, as would those whom those people converted. And so it went, a religion spread entirely by word of mouth, in a world of no mass media. . . . This is how Christianity spread, year after year, decade after decade, until eventually someone wrote down the stories.

From Jesus, Interrupted (Bart Ehrman), p.146

There is nothing controversial in this outline. The scenario is outlined in many biblical studies texts. But the scenario does not offer readers who are wishing to inform themselves the background to their gospel sources a truly fair or just account. Indeed, as a synopsis of the pre-gospel era it is as ideological as the Acts of the Apostles or the Apostles Creed. First, we have a description of people converting to a single religion with the God of the Jews at its centre, by means of the spread of stories said to be about that God’s son who died to take away the sins of the world.

Problems: read more »

Rival gospel traditions: Herod or Pilate the executioner of Christ?

I listened in on a Good Friday service in St Joseph’s church in Singapore last night, while standing amidst hundreds of others holding magic or holy candles, and during the reading of the Gospel of John’s passion narrative I was struck to suddenly hear echoes of thematic details also found in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter.

Now the Gospel of Peter is generally taken to have been written after the Gospel of John, but some have dated the Gospel of John towards the middle of the second century, and others have dated the Gospel of Peter to around the same period. What is a more tenable scenario, however, is that the “traditions” behind the Gospel of Peter do go back quite early. (See various online sources, including Wikipedia.)

I have compiled a comparative table of the Gospel of Peter with the canonical gospels.

Most of my argument assumes a late (very late – second century) dating of the gospels. I believe I can defend this view, and argue that most (not all) earlier datings rest more on apologetic assumptions and interpretations than hard evidence.

The common explanation for the variant view that Herod crucified Jesus is that it was an outgrowth of rising anti-semitism. That may be true. But there might also be another explanation – that the Herod story was the original one, and a more complex narrative involving Roman involvement was a later evolution. Either model will do — my views of rival narratives do not rely on either one.

One of the most significant differences is that in the Gospel of Peter it is Herod, the King of the Jews, who orders the crucifixion of Jesus, not the Roman Pilate. Pilate is clearly narrated as leaving Herod to carry out this deed. It is Jewish guards, not Roman soldiers, who do the dirty work. The same narrative appears to be in the mind of the Christian author who wrote the vision in The Ascension of Isaiah

And after this the adversary envied him and roused the children of Israel against him, not knowing who he was, and they delivered him to the king [presumably Herod], and crucified him. . . . (Ascension 11:19)

Justin Martyr, a church father who spent much time in the eastern churches (Syria, Samaria. . . ), who wrote about the middle of the second century, also believed it was Herod, not Pilate, who crucified Jesus. See my comparative table of Justin and the canonical and apocryphal gospels for details.

We also have the Slavonic Josephus with a Christian insertion that must be traced back to an eastern tradition that Pilate was bribed by the Jews (with 30 pieces of silver) to hand Jesus over to them for execution.

The teachers of the Law were [therefore] envenomed with envy and gave thirty talents to Pilate, in order that he should put him to death. And he, after he had taken [the money], gave them consent that they should themselves carry out their purpose. And they took him and crucified him according to the ancestral law.

See my earlier blog post Gospel of Peter and the Slavonic Josephus for discussion.

The Acts of Peter, from Asia Minor, may be assuming a similar narrative when we read:

Thou didst harden the heart of Herod . . . . thou didst give boldness unto Caiaphas, that he should deliver our Lord Jesus Christ unto the unrighteous multitude (Acts Peter VIII)

Eastern and Western rival narratives?

Was it an eastern “gospel tradition” that it was “the Jews” under their king Herod who crucified Jesus? Was the gospel tradition that became canonical, that Pilate killed Jesus, of western (Roman?) derivation? Was the eastern tradition expanded by what became the canonical gospel “tradition”, with the gospels of Mark and (canonical) Luke being western, even Roman, in origin? The Gospel of Matthew, I think, also assumed prominent status among western theologians. And was not John’s gospel on the cusp of the two — being traced to Asia Minor centres that were crossroads of dialogue between east and west?

Both the Gospels of John and Peter place heavy emphasis on the culpability of the Jews as Jews for the death of Jesus. “The Jews” are addressed as a race apart from Jesus.

Both the Gospels of John and Peter place extra heavy emphasis on Jesus’ death being the fulfilment of scriptures. (All the gospels do this to lesser and greater extents, but this trope is given particular emphasis in these two gospels, I think.)

But the alarm started ringing when I heard in the reading Pilate twice attempting to pass Jesus back to the Jews for punishment, with each attempt proving to be a narrative foil to explain why it really was Pilate, and not the Jews, who took over the role of crucifying Pilate.

Then Pilate said to them, “You take him and judge him according to your law.” Therefore the Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” (John 18:31)

Therefore, when the chief priests and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “You take him and crucify him, for I find no fault in him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.” Therefore when Pilate heard that saying he was the more afraid, and went again into the Praetorium. . . (John 19:6-9)

Why does “John” introduce these exchanges? Is he attempting to rebut an alternative gospel tradition that it was indeed the Jews who crucified Christ?

Is he attempting to tackle head on what the Gospel of Mark had attempted to dismiss with a sideways glance? GMark told a story that while Herod (or Herodians) had sought to kill Jesus, Jesus eluded them.

Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against [Jesus], how they might destroy him. But Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea. (Mark 3:6-7)

The Gospel of Luke (which in its canonical form I often suspect is later than the other three gospels) addresses the issue with a revised narrative insert that might appear to explain how the confusion arose in the first place:

When Pilate heard of Galilee, he asked whether the man were a Galilaean.  And as soon as he knew that he belonged unto Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who himself also was at Jerusalem at that time.  And when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad: for he was desirous to see him of a long season, because he had heard many things of him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him.  Then he questioned with him in many words; but he answered him nothing.  And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused him.  And Herod with his men of war set him at nought, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent him again to Pilate.  And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves. (Luke 23:6-12)

The advantage of the Pilate narrative?

If this was the case, and there was a rival narrative in which the Jews, led by their King and High Priest, crucified Jesus, how might we account for the eventual takeover by the canonical version?

One answer may be alluded to in another post of mine in which I discussed thoughts arising from two strange bedfellows: John Carroll’s The Existential Jesus and Michael Patella’s The Lord of the Cosmos. See Pilate and the Cosmic Order in Mark.

The canonical narrative with its complex interrelationship of Jewish and Roman court hearings is certainly a more sophisticated structure than the more direct linear tale of Herod killing Jesus. This alone might reasonably suggest it was of later origin. Add to this the apparent references in Mark, Luke and John (cited above) that appear to be in dialogue with another tradition. But we can’t be sure.

I would think that the canonical version involving Rome had the long-term sustainable advantage of bringing into the myth the notion of Jesus’ death being linked to a new cosmic order on earth (not just in heaven), and involved the spiritual overthrow of all earthly powers. Pilate, as the representative of Rome, and the close involvement of the Roman soldiers in his death, alongside Jewish culpability, broadened the message of the gospel into a well, more “catholic” one. It was more than an anti-semitic diatribe. Pilate’s reluctance, the centurion’s recognition of Jesus, the soldier’s role in opening up another “sign” of Jesus by piercing his side, — these introduced somewhat relatively more neutral (merely doing the job, not motivated by envy like the Jews) and “ready to be converted” non-Jews into a central gospel role.

The role of Rome also gave the gospel a clearer focus on “the cosmos”, the world, represented by Rome, and its leading role that emerged through the second century.

Besides, the gospels of Matthew and John preserved enough that was of value for anti-semitic fodder without the need for the blunter Gospel of Peter.

St Josephs on Good Friday, Singapore, where the above thoughts suddenly hit me :-)

St Josephs on Good Friday, Singapore, where the above thoughts suddenly hit me :-)

What Josephus might have said about the Gospels

The Jewish historian Josephus had a bit to say about the nature of historiography, and why he believed his historical writings were more truthful than those of Greek historians. His criticisms of Greek histories have some interest when compared with modern questions about the historical reliability of the Gospels. . . . read more »