Tag Archives: John P. Meier

Extracting the Gospels From the Bible

ClarkeOwensTime to return to one of my favourite books at the moment, Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels by Clarke W. Owens. I have posted on this book five times before but have not yet got to its most interesting ideas. By scholarly training he knows how to read a text. That means he knows how to understand what sort of literature a text is. And that means he can be a most valuable asset for a historian who wants to know what sorts of documents the New Testament Gospels and Acts are. After all, how can a historian know how to interpret a primary source if he does not understand what sort of document it is? How can a historian know what sorts of questions a document is capable of answering if she does not understand its nature?

The trouble with most analysis of the Gospels by those who use them as primary materials for reconstructing Christianity’s origins is that it to a significant extent depends upon interpreting the nature of the Gospels as “Bible books”.

In literary-critical studies, definition of the text is an obvious first step, but critics seldom spend much time on it, because in most cases the text is readily defined.

When we (whether literary critics, students, interested readers, historians) pick up a piece of literature that we wish to learn about and understand more deeply, we may well first ask, “What is this work?”

The answer to that question is nearly always quickly understood. The answer is simply a matter of historical record. We identify and understand a work by both its form and its place in history. If we pick up Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we know we are studying a discrete work, something clearly understood by author and audience alike to be a work distinct from any other work. If we did not know the author of a work we would still be able to define the work according to its form and understand that it has been composed at a particular time and place in history.

The historical context of composition is important for understanding how and why the work came to be composed the way it is.

Owens points out that we (scholars included) all too often bring in addition an entirely different set of perspectives to books in the Bible. He writes:

I can think of no examples [outside the Bible’s books] in which the definition of a text would include works by different authors who were not by their own intention co-authors of a given work.

In the previous post we saw the two ways the Gospels are widely interpreted as literature. Jack Miles and John Meier were representative. read more »

Making of a Mythicist — ch 17 . . . Jesus in Greco-Roman Sources & General Conclusions

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Continuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here.

This post concludes chapter 17 where Brodie is analysing John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best that has been produced by notable scholars on the historical Jesus.

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailBrodie’s discussion of the four Greco-Roman source references to Jesus is brief.

Tacitus (writing c. 115 CE) writes:

Nero . . . punished with . . . cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the common people [the vulgus] styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate (Loeb translation). (p. 167, from Annals, 15.44)

Brodie essentially repeats John Meier’s own discussion found on page 91 of volume 1 of A Marginal Jew, commenting that there is nothing here that would not have been commonplace knowledge at the beginning of the second century. (Brodie relies upon the reader’s knowledge of Meier’s work to recognize this as Meier’s own position.)

Brodie adds that Tacitus regularly used older writings and always adapted their contents to his own style. As pointed out by Charlesworth and Townsend in the article on Tacitus in the 1970 Oxford Classical Dictionary Tacitus “rarely quotes verbatim”. By the time Tacitus wrote, Brodie remarks, some Gospels were decades old and “basic contact with Christians would have yielded such information.” His information could even have been inferred from the work of Josephus.

As for Suetonius (shortly before 120), Pliny the Younger (c. 112) and Lucian of Samosata (c. 115-200), Brodie quotes Meier approvingly:

[They] are often quoted in this regard, but in effect they are simply reporting something about what early Christians say or do; they cannot be said to supply us with independent witness to Jesus himself (Marginal Jew: 1, 91). (p. 167)

I am even more sceptical about the contribution of Tacitus. Recently I posted The Late Invention of Polycarp’s Martyrdom (poorly and ambiguously title, I admit) drawing upon the work of Candida Moss in The Myth of Persecution.

Moss shows us that it was only from the fourth century that the stories of martyrdoms and persecutions that so often dwelt luridly on the gory details of bodily torments became popular. The passage in Tacitus with its blood-curdling details of tortures fits the mold of these later stories. (Moss herself, however, does not make this connection with Tacitus.)

This brings us to the late fourth century monk Sulpicius Severus (discussed by Early Doherty in Jesus Neither God Nor Man, p. 618-621) who supplies us with the first possible indication of any awareness of the passage on Christian persecutions in the work of Tacitus. This topic requires a post of its own. Suffice it to say here that I believe there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that this detailed passage on the cruelties inflicted on the Christians was “borrowed” from the account written by Sulpicius Severus.

Conclusion regarding the five non-Christian authors

Brodie thus concludes that none of the five non-Christian authors provides independent witness to the historical existence of Jesus.

None met Jesus; none claimed to have met anyone who had known him; none claimed to have met someone who knew a friend who knew someone who had known him. None supplies us with any information that is not already found in the Gospels or Acts. (Josephus even lived within walking distance of Christians in Rome.)

General conclusion regarding A Marginal Jew

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Making of a Mythicist — ch 17 . . . Was Jesus a Carpenter?

Continuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here.

In chapter 17 Brodie is analysing John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best that has been produced by notable scholars on the historical Jesus.

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailBrodie subtitles this section with:

Sceptics See Only the Carpenter/Woodcutter

The passage under discussion is Mark 6:1-6

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him.

On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Brodie argues that the common scholarly interpretations of this passage fail to take into account its literary background. Scholars have seen this passage as historical (not addressed by Brodie, but common among the scholarly works, is the view that this scene is “embarrassing” for early Christians because it shows Jesus being rejected by his family, so therefore must be historical) and Brodie singles out the disparaging dismissal of Jesus as a mere tekton (‘carpenter’ or ‘woodcutter’) as seeming to provide solid historical information.

(Of course, other scholars who are more interested in the literary analysis of the Gospels recognize that there is nothing embarrassing at all in this account of how Jesus’ family failed to recognize him. It puts Jesus in the wake of all the other great prophets whose greatness was accentuated by their enduring the rejections of their families — Abel, Joseph, Moses, Jephthah, David . . . . Or maybe Jesus was trying to model himself on these prophets so behaved badly to make his family hate him? (I’m kidding.))

Way back in 1998 I posted a query to a scholarly open discussion group soliciting feedback on my sense that Mark’s tekton reference had a double meaning, a mundane and a higher theological one. So it is encouraging to read Brodie’s view that that’s exactly the game Mark was playing with this word. read more »

Making of a Mythicist — ch 17 . . . Did Jesus Model Himself on Elijah?

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Continuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here.

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Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailBrodie is analysing John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best that has been produced by notable scholars on the historical Jesus.

Having begun by identifying the two key problems of Meier’s work as (1) reliance upon the oral tradition model and (2) misreading the sources as windows to historical events as a result of failing to appreciate the true nature of those sources by means of literary analysis, Brodie next showed how these two problems misled scholars into the daunting task of attempting to sift the genuinely historical elements from the Gospel narratives.

That task of divining the historical from the non-historical has led to the development of criteria. But Brodie argues that all of those criteria are flawed in some way (a point few of Brodie’s peers would disagree with; that is why they believe they are on stronger ground if they use several of them, never just one, and use them “judiciously”) but that several of them in particular are best and most simply and directed answered by a deeper and wider understanding of how ancient literary artists worked. Contradictions and discontinuities are a pervasive feature of the literary makeup of the Biblical texts and function in consciously planned ways.

To add another illustrating example from the one I gave from Brodie himself in my previous post, this one not from Brodie but from my own reading of scholarly works comparing Herodotus’ Histories with the Primary History of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings), a number of scholars have argued that the contradictory accounts of such events as David’s rise to power are set side-by-side just as Herodotus likewise pairs contradictory accounts of certain events in Greek history. The notable difference with the biblical literature is that in the work of Herodotus the author has intruded into the narrative the voice of a narrator to comment on these differences. The Gospels are following the style of the OT “histories” of removing, for most part, the directly intrusive narrator’s voice.

The criterion of multiple attestation also fails since, according to Brodie, the various sources are not at all independent but are re-writings of one another. Re-writing and transforming texts was a singular feature of the literary compositional techniques of the day.

Disastrous consequences

So when some scholars see the clear allusions in the Gospels of Mark and Luke to the stories of Elijah, failing to understand the how ancient authors more generally imitated and emulated other writings, they conclude that Jesus himself was deliberately (historically) modeling himself upon Elijah! John Meier, for one, concludes that Jesus historically saw himself as standing in the line of Elijah and Elisha (Marginal Jew, III, 48-54). But as Brodie points out,

To claim that Jesus modeled his life on Elijah or Elisha may be a very welcome idea, but it goes beyond the evidence. It is not reliable history. (p. 158, my bolding)

meier-brodie

Jesus’ call of his disciples as a case study

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Thomas L. Brodie: Two Core Problems with Historical Jesus Arguments

brodieBeyondNow seems an appropriate time to say something significant about Brodie’s arguments. I quote here sections from his now infamous book that The Irish Times reported as “caused quite a stir and some considerable upset”, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus. (I don’t know. From what I hear from the likes of lots of mythicist critics, Brodie should have attempted to publish his views in a scholarly peer reviewed journal if he thought he could mount a serious argument. He would have been guaranteed a fair hearing then, wouldn’t he?)

I was expelled by my church for going public with critical questioning and giving others materials to help them do the same, so I think I understand a little of what Brodie is experiencing. It is a nice coincidence that we appear to have come to a conjunction of views on Gospel origins despite our divergent scholarly statuses.

In chapter 17 Brodie addresses the four volume work by another Catholic priest, John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew. I select here two core criticisms by Brodie that resonate with me because

  • (1) they address what is fundamentally wrong with most books on the historical Jesus;
  • and (2) they have also been basic to many of my own discussions of the Gospels as historical sources.

Brodie writes, beginning page 156 (my formatting and bolding):

Marginal Jew has two key problems. First, like many other studies, it uses an unreal compass — oral tradition.

By relying unduly on form critics . . . it assumes that the Gospels are something that they are not, namely, that they reflect oral traditions that go back to Jesus, back to about the year 30 C.E. (Marginal Jew, I. 41). read more »