Monthly Archives: January 2007

Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 1

This is the first part of a detailed review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham (2006). It is in response to the discussion begun by Chris Tilling on his Chrisendom blog, and remarks I have seen from a variety of quarters indicating that this work is having quite an impact in some quarters. read more »

Questions re John 21 being the original ending of Mark

Despite the obvious symmetrical neatness of the idea that John 21 is a redaction of what was originally the ending of Mark (John 21 appearing as a double ending added to John and Mark appearing to lack a coherent ending) I am stuck on several questions that this raises.

If John 21 were originally the ending of Mark (minus the johnanninisms) then must we reject the fundamental interpretations of Mark treatment of the disciples by Weeden, Kelber, Tolbert, Fowler…? In other words, would not the hypothesis that John 21 is the original ending of Mark determine how we interpret the very meaning of Mark itself? What is the role of analytic literary criticism here in the interpretation of the texts as opposed to a “naive” reading of the texts as face-value “reports”?

Is it possible to hold both to Mark being a Pauline gospel (with its anti-Petrine position) and to John 21 being the original ending (with its pro-Petrine conclusion)?

If John 21 were the ending of Mark then how did it fit, exactly? What do we do with the women who are told to speak to Peter and the disciples about what they had seen at the tomb? Does not John 21 indicate that Peter had NOT heard? If we think the original said something like “but they believed not the women”, then don’t we also have to add another hypothesis that John edited out some reference to this (“and he upbraided them for their lack of belief”). If so, then aren’t we setting out on the road to finding that ‘the John 21 being the ending of Mark hypothesis’ is going to raise more questions than it answers?

Have studies of the endings of John and Mark been made in the broader context of ancient literature? My previous entry here addresses some of the “strange” endings in classical literature discussed in “Classical Closure” edited by Roberts, Dunn and Fowler.

Has anyone raised a possibility of John 21 having in some way some sort of relationship with another missing ending that we read in the noncanonical Gospel of Peter (No, I’m not presuming GPeter preceded GJohn or anything…. completely open re where and to/from what the evidence points) — but the gospel of Peter as we have it ends with an account of the disciples breaking up and going their various ways, with Peter and 2 others taking their nets and going back to the sea. Now that just on the surface of it would seem a most natural lead in to John 21, would it not? If so, why do we default to thinking John 21 might relate to Mark and not some other gospel which we see surviving in GPeter?

Apart from the original words and phrases (markan vs johannine) used in John 21, does it not seem that John 21 is far more rich in the detail and colour of its narration than anything we find in the generally terse style of Mark? If so, has any study been done on these richer details in John to see if there is any “Markan” language in those vs Johannine? Has anyone thought through whether the story in John 21 would coherently hold together without loss of meaning if that (unmarkan) richness of detail were absent?

Has anyone compared John 21 with Mark’s and/or John’s account of the feeding of the 5000? There seems to me to be strong ties between John 21 and John’s Feeding of the 5000 that are not found in a comparison with Mark’s Feeding story. If so, would this change our perspectives on the integrity of John 21 being original to John?

Similarities:

  • Jesus opens the scenes with a question 21:5; 6:5 (unlike Mark’s 5000 story);
  • the stress in the stories is on none of the potential food being lost (21:11; 6:12) (unlike Mark);
  • John has Jesus command that the bread/fish be gathered and brought in (unlike Mark);
  • the number 7 is integral to John’s account more deeply than it is in Mark’s — 21:2 it is done with 7 (5 named and 2 unnamded) disciples matching(?) the 5 loaves and 2 fish in the common story of the 5000;
  • John 6:13 specifies that the miraculous fragments consisted on bread only although the initial handout had been of bread and fish, thus allowing the John 21 fish miracle to form a natural complement of the miracle of the loaves — contrast Mark 6:43 that says the fragments were of both bread and fish;
  • the culmination of the stories in John is the same: recognition of Jesus (21:7, 12; 6:14) (unlike Mark).

Has anyone raised the possibility that John 21 was an early attempt by someone who did not like the Mark 16:8 ending to compose a more happy conclusion for Mark? And that this could explain why it was not accepted widely enough to have survived as a secure ending of that gospel, and also why some did not want to lose it altogether and managed to salvage it with John? (“Classical Closure” reminds us that there were other ancient attempts to write a more satisfying (for many) conclusion to Virgil’s Aeneid, none of which finally “stuck” to the original.)

I’m not “arguing” that John 21 could not have been an original ending of Mark — who knows what redactions have been done to both gospels or what scripts we may uncover in the future. But these are the sorts of questions I’d like discussed before deciding to go too far with thinking John 21 “probably” was the Markan ending.


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gospel, john, mark

Endings of Mark/John/Acts in wider literary context

It is widely assumed that the endings we know of Mark (16:8), John and Acts cannot have been the ones originally intended but after reading “Classical Closure: Reading the End in Greek and Latin Literature” edited by Deborah H. Roberts, Francis M. Dunn, and Don Fowler (1997) I have less confidence in that assumption. Nowhere are Mark, Acts and John discussed in the book and the extrapolations below are entirely my own.

In the book Carolyn Dewald discussion of “Strategies of Meaning at the End of Herodotus’s Histories” struck me as raising the same sorts of questions over Herodotus’s ending as are raised over the present endings of Mark and Acts. Herodotus leaves his work in mid-air too. This could only have been intentional since Herodotus throughout his work manages to consistently draw many satisfying conclusions to his many story sections. The question that arises then is what Herodotus was wanting to achieve by way of response from his audience by not framing a formal final conclusion to his work. ‘Histories’ can be read more accurately as a kind of theological tragedy than as a history in a modern sense. It is about the fate of Athenians and their lot within the common destinies of mankind, and their future is left in doubt. The mid-air ending of Histories inevitably left the questions about how one understood the present and future as uncertain and as issues to be questioned in the light of all that had just been read.

Francis M. Dunn discusses the ending of Euripides’ Heracles is tormentingly ambiguous and incomplete, so much so that there have long been many attempts rearrange the text or re-write the ending. The ending is indecisive and the audience has no way of knowing if it is meant to see Heracles as a failure or a hero let alone what sort of future is in store for him. Again, it appears that the author was by this means seeking to provoke a certain type of response in the audience to the deeper questions raised in the play.

Philip Hardie has much to say about the Virgil’s Aeneid and hellenistic fiction in general that is also reminiscent of issues that arise in the scholarship relating to the endings of Mark, John and Acts. He writes: “Ancient novels use many paratextual devices, usually to give a sense of (historiographic) authenticity to the fiction …” By paratextual devices he means those sorts of intrusive authorial comments we find in John 20:30-31. With this consideration the disputed ending of John can then be read as something like: “I can’t possibly write about everything but I have to add just one more thing before I close…. ”

The Aeneid is another case of an abrupt “improper” ending leaving the reader on the point of lurching in mid-air. Hardie says the more appropriate ending has been already written and is tucked away in Book 8 with its prophecies of the future history of Rome and Augustus. Deaths always need a resolution of some kind, a new treaty or funeral etc. but in the Aeneid we have the treaty of peace being made near the beginning of the story and the death it is meant to follow is at the end. Not only so, but there are many textual allusions in the final scenes that echo those found in the opening scenes thus reassuring the reader/listener that this ending really is as intended however unconventional it is. So Mark was by no means the first to create an unconventional story with suitable endings in the middle and an ending that leaves readers hanging, and wondering, and scrambling back over all they have read before to find its meaning.

The obvious objection is that Mark is alone in ending his work with that conjunction ‘gar’. Maybe so, but “Classical Closures” leaves less assurance that the endings we find problematic in Mark, John and Acts were not originally intended to be just as they are.

My little radio spiel March 2003

I gave the following little spiel on ABC’s Bush Telegraph Country Viewpoint radio segment back at the start of the 2003 Iraq war. It looks much better on the good version — ABC’s online site here.

My son decided to join the army at time of the East Timor troubles when people were coming out into the streets begging our government to send our armed forces over there. My son saw service in the army as something to be proud of, an honourable duty. He now faces the prospect of going as part of a conquering force to Iraq instead of joining the liberation force in East Timor. How will he look back on his experience there? If he dies or is maimed there, what will have been the point of that?

I will support my son and hope for his safe return of course, but I have been doing all in my power, and will continue to do all I can, to oppose this war in Iraq. All the advice of our intelligence and foreign affairs experts is that this war is only going to make us less safe from terrorism. Why do Bush and Howard reject the advice of their experts?

In Toowoomba I have been involved with hundreds of others here in public rallies and last weekend more than a dozen of us stood in the rain as part of a worldwide candlelight vigil for peace. At every one of those rallies two things have been stressed; that Saddam has to be dealt with, and our argument is not with our troops and they must always be supported. So why does Howard continue to misrepresent our case accusing us of being naive about Saddam and betrayers of our troops?

Most of the world can see clearly that this war is not a last resort to justify what will inevitably mean the slaughter of thousands of innocents, and no clear case has been made for Saddam being a threat to us. The inspectors were, even if slowly, making progress. It seemed to me it was Bush who was the one not cooperating with the inspectors since he kept saying he would not tell the inspectors all he knew about where the illegal weapons sites were.

I’d rather pay extra taxes to keep pressure on Saddam than see my son come back in a body bag or to have him live with memories of butchery of conquered civilians and soldiers alike, with Australia’s place in the world being less secure than ever before.

Another Q versus literary competence argument

My copy of George Kennedy’s “New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism” has just arrived today. Can’t recall what footnote originally compelled me to purchase it online however many weeks ago, but already I’m impressed with one little gem.

A doctrinaire insistence on source criticism tends to underestimate Matthew’s abilities as a writer and the perceptual sensitivity of his intended audience; rhetorical criticism can help to redress that estimate. (p.42)

and before that:

He was surely not deliberately leaving his readers clues to unravel his use of sources. (p.42)

That last sentence says heaps. Do we really think that one well enough versed in Greek to compose a gospel that would last 2000 years so limited that they found it too much effort to adjust wording of their sources to fit the thematic contexts of their larger composition?

Kennedy in this section focuses on the apparent contradiction in the Sermon on the Mount that appears to begin with Jesus addressing his inner circle of close disciples only yet concluding as if he had been addressing the larger multitude.

The explanation to Kennedy is really elementary, my dear Watson:

In classical oratory, apostrophe, or the turn from the nominal addressee to someone else, is even more common than in modern public address. What perhaps should be envisioned in Matthew, as in Luke, is that Jesus first looks at the disciples and then begins to refer to the crowd in the third person, shifting abruptly to the second person in 5.11. (p.41)

Kennedy further points to the obvious intended audience throughout the rest of the Sermon — that Matthew clearly intended his Sermon to be read/heard as a speech, and among it audience were “the poor, the grief-stricken, the meek, those contemplating divorce, all Jews who will pray.” (p.40)

There is much, much more to Kennedy’s exposition of Matthew’s rhetoric, but I have chosen to isolate for the purpose of this moment this sole point, which is worth my digesting for before moving on and reading much else.

R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Thallus

I think I might have liked Bruce personally so please don’t take the title as anything but a response to those who should know better and who recommend his works for a purpose for which Bruce himself says they were not intended. (See my last post for the explanation of this.)

First, the comparative context:

Obscure references in obscure historians such as Thallus and Phlegon, to supposed eclipses which may or may not be identified with some tradition about the darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion, have in any case reached us exclusively through the filter of later Christian commentators. Origen and Julius Africanus may well have put their own spin on what historians actually said; Africanus comes to us only second-hand. No case can be made based on references like this, and it is a mark of how thin the evidence really is that they would be considered of any evidentiary value. (p.203 of Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle)

Bruce writes:

[3rd century] Julius Africanus describes the earthquake and the preternatural darkness which accompanied the crucifixion of Christ, and says that Thallus, in his third book, explained this darkness as an eclipse of the sun . . . . We may wish that we had the actual passage from Thallus to compare with Julius Africanus’s account; but it is a reasonable inference that Thallus knew the Christian narrative of the crucifixion of Christ, and made some reference to it in his work. (p.30 of Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament)

Bruce continues by claiming that Suetonius’s description of Jewish riots over Chrestus “meant that some knowledge of Christianity was available in that city around the time when Thallus was writing.”

If anyone is wondering if Thallus can still be used as independent evidence for the historicity of Jesus I invite ‘anyone’ to have a look-see for themselves on what Thallus is said to have written:

The entire quoted line is found here:

A lengthier discussion and the second/third hand context surrounding that one line can be found here:

I think most would agree with Doherty’s concluding remark cited above:

“it is a mark of how thin the evidence really is that they would be considered of any evidentiary value.”


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Thallus, historical_Jesus, Julius_Africanus, Jesus_myth

R.I.P. [anonymous academic] on F.F.Bruce

Bruce writes of his purpose in “Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament” (referring to himself as “he”):

He is certainly not concerned to establish the historicity of Jesus of the trustworthiness of the received account of Christian origins on such data as these: such an exercise would be based on the study of the primary sources, the New Testament writings themselves. (p.203)

It is interesting then that Bruce has been recommended as “sturdy” and “true” by academics who appear to find intolerable the thought that some really do doubt the historicity of Jesus.

As for those who discount that most contentious of all bits of data, the TF, Bruce also writes:

“[M]any students have come to the conclusion that the paragraph was interpolated by some Christian copyist or editor into the record of Josephus between the time of Origen and the time of Eusebius. It is a reasonable conclusion, held by many Christian scholars; and we must not accuse a man of undermining the case for historic Christianity because he cannot accept the authenticity of this paragraph. For, after all, it is not on the authority of Josephus that Christians believe in Christ!” (p.38)

Again, it is interesting that some academics appear to recall far too much back into Bruce when they recommend his work as an antidote to doubting a Josephan core in the TF.

The tone of these two passages by Bruce himself leads me to think there was once a more tolerant time when diametrically opposing views of the basic paradigm could be discussed more openly by representatives of both ends.

Demonocracy?

Hoo boy! Not good. Look what I have just read:

  • “In fact, there are only four occurrences of demos in the New Testament, and they all mean “people” in the sense of an unruly or idolatrous crowd.”

p.154 in Paul Nadim Tarazi’s “The New Testament: an introduction. Volume 3, Johannine Writings

R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on non-Christian sources vis a vis Doherty

I got carried away with my own comments on Bruce’s treatment of the non-christian sources. This morning I have reprimanded myself for straying from my original intent and made amends. I have gone back and revised each of the Bruce posts to include direct comparison’s with Doherty’s treatment of same.

Can’t wait to meet the next academic who is going to tell me or anyone else to “go to Bruce” the “sturdy” and “true” scholarly source on early non-christian sources!

I wonder if some just don’t like to be challenged to rethink their assumptions preferring for peer-pressure reasons as much as any other to lazily fall back on what “the majority of scholars” say.

New Testament allusions in Pliny correspondence with Trajan?

Forgot to include what may possibly be allusions (or may not be) in the Pliny letter to the New Testament narratives:

  1. The Roman governor, like Pilate hearing the charges against Jesus, asked those brought before him “two or three times” of their guilt in order to give them a chance to free themselves. (Matt.27:11-14; Mark 15:1-5; John 18:33, 19:9. C.f. Titus 3:10)
  2. The Roman governor finds no criminal or illegal activity in the accused (Matt.27:23; Mark 15:12; Luke 23:13-15, 22; John 19:6)
  3. The Roman governor asks for advice on how to judge the accused given his apparent innocence of any crime (Matt.27:22; Mark 15:14)
  4. The religion has spread widely beyond expectations (Acts 19:26)
  5. The temple economy in Bithynia was threatened by the astounding numbers of conversions (Acts 19:27).

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Pliny, Trajan,

R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Pliny’s letter about the Christians — revised

I have revised this 18th January to include more direct comparisons with Doherty’s treatment of the Pliny letter.

This one, like the emperor’s clothes, has too long been simply too good, too precious, to dare let anyone admit what they really see and laugh.

But before discussing the problems that Bruce bypasses or simply fails to notice, I should say now that I do conclude on a more positive note: the letter, whatever its provenance, whoever its author, does contain historical information of second century Christianity of genuine value and interest.

First, Doherty’s discussion:

I’ll begin with Doherty’s treatment of this letter of Pliny. I am sure most will find his analysis and commentary far more sober than Bruce’s discussion and my commentary.

After outlining the contents of Pliny’s letter (reason he is writing to Trajan, what he has learned about the Christians, including details of their assembly meetings, prayers, rites, oaths, and so forth, and finding them innocent of criminal activity) Doherty comments:

We might have expected Pliny to refer to the “Christ” as a man crucified in Judea as a rebel, if that were the object of Christian worship, for this would have been unusual and of some interest to the emperor. However, he does not. In any even, any information Pliny is imparting or implying in this letter he has received from Chrsitians. (p.201 of The Jesus Puzzle)

So in a few brief lines Doherty cuts to the core of the deficiency of Pliny’s letter as non-Christian evidence of Jesus. Compare Bruce’s three pages (six pages including the translations of the correspondence) of discussion elaborating on the face value of the text. Bruce is certainly deeply interested in the contents of Pliny’s letter about the Christians and never stops to question whether Trajan himself would be, let alone if it is the sort of content one could reasonably expect from a governor to his emperor regarding criminal cases worthy of death. One wonders if some orthodox scholars dismiss Doherty so quickly for fear of having their own intellectual nakedness exposed.

Compare Bruce:

Bruce typically starts with the passage itself. Had he begun with Pliny’s career background the nonsense that this letter contains would be all too apparent from the first few lines.

Although he gives background about Pliny’s uncle and how many books of letters were included in Pliny’s published collection, he does not appear to see any point in noting that the famous letter in question belongs to a collection (the tenth book) that was not published in Pliny’s lifetime. The significance of this latter point, if any, may be considered in light of both the other unfathomable anomalies in this letter and the relatively recent publication of Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions.

Bruce writes:

Pliny, who had never had any official contact with Christians during the fifty years of his life thus far, found himself obliged to deal with them in Bithynia because of the rapidity with which they were spreading in the province. (p.25)

What was the extent of this rapidity?

[T]hey had grown so numerous that the pagan temples were being neglected and the purveyors of fodder for the sacrificial animals found their livelihood threatened. (p.28)

Now:

  • if Pliny had never had any experience as a courtroom lawyer in Rome,
  • and if he had thus never heard of or enountered a Christian on trial in Rome,
  • and if he was just embarking wet behind the ears on his public career,
  • and if he had just arrived in Bithynia as a newly appointed governor,
  • and if the rapid spread of Christianity was confined uniquely to Bithynia and had been a virtual unknown quantity elsewhere despite being so strong in Bithynia that pagan temples were being neglected,
  • and if Pliny before setting out for his governorship position had been completely unaware of such a major development he was about to face,
  • and if not a single Christian had been implicated in the great fire of Rome of the previous generation,
  • and if Pliny had somehow moved in different circles entirely from his friend Tacitus (who also appears to have written with some knowledge about Christians),

then yes, we would have no difficulty in accepting that one of the very first things Pliny would have to write to Trajan about was “the (uniquely Bithynian?) Christian problem”.

But we have, rather, a Pliny problem:

  • Pliny had been a prominent lawyer in Rome for 28 years — it is therefore incredible to think that he had no knowledge of any precedents re Christians
    • Trajan’s reply failing to address any precedents in Rome or elsewhere in the empire (in particular the fire of Rome a generation earlier?) equally defies explanation.
  • Pliny had been travelling throughout Bithynia as governor for a year and a half before he saw fit to write a letter about the Christian problem — just how seriously can we take the letter’s descriptions of the seriousness of this problem if 18 months could lapse before this first and only letter addressing it?
  • Pliny begins by saying he has never seen a Christian trial so has no idea how to conduct one, and confesses his ignorance on how to deal with Christians and indeed, this is his reason for his letter to Trajan — to seek guidance. Yet in the same letter Pliny goes on to say:
    • that he has been conducting trials of Christians for some time — long enough to notice that the pagan temples are once again being frequented;
    • that he has routinely executed Christians who stubbornly refused to recant;
    • that he has routinely released those who do;
    • that he only decides to write the letter after carrying out these convictions and acquittals for some time when he happened to learn as a consequence of torturing two female slaves that they were guilty of “nothing more than a perverse superstition” (no details provided)

Conveniently for the naive reader the author fails to detail the cities affected, where the victims lived, how many Roman citizens he sent to Rome for trial, etc. Why do not more heads spin when they are hit with this illogical and utterly implausible nonsense? Biblical scholars like to insist that the coherence of the Testamonium Flavianum is evidence that it is built on a genuine original statement by Josephus about Jesus, yet blithely accept without question the incoherence of this letter.

  • Pliny lists point by point detail to demonstrate the good character and innocence of the Christians on the one hand, then reverts to stereotypical persecuter mode by pronouncing that the Christians are nevertheless guilty of the vaguely generalized charge of perverse and unspeakable superstition. How can anyone fail to see through this blatant contradiction the hand of a pro-Christian apologist awkwardly attempting to simultaneously pose as the stereotypical anti-Christian!
  • Trajan is just as confused in his reply. Christians must die: punish them if they are accused of being a Christian. Christians are harmless: do not seek to punish them.

Bruce’s discussion is blind to any of these problems. This strange contradictory letter that did not appear in Pliny’s lifetime and that raises incomprehensible questions within the context of Pliny’s career and conventional history of the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman empire (including Rome) with persecutions and court hearings by Trajan’s time, and what we know of Roman law and custom is seized as one of our earliest non-christian evidences of early Christianity. Pagan Rome’s tolerance of religious practice was well-known; the only people normally required to offer sacrifice to the emperor were those taking official government office; the liberty of Marcion himself and the rise and rise of Marcionism in Asia Minor are difficult to explain if, as Pliny says here, his policies restored pagan practices at the expense of Christianity; Justin Martyr’s apparent ignorance of Pliny’s and Trajan’s situation as a precedent in his letter pleading for tolerance to Antoninus Pius might also be seen as a problem; and the emperor soon after Trajan, Hadrian, who travelled and loved the eastern provinces especially, despite his bureaucratic and legalistic mind is not known for any follow-up ruling on Christians, let alone anything from Trajan or Pliny.

Genuine historical value nonetheless

Pliny’s letter to Trajan concerning the Christians nevertheless is of genuine historical interest in its description of an early Christian service. It matters little if that description was inserted some time after Pliny the Younger.

Bruce’s treatment in summary:

Bruce does not offer a scholarly thought provoking discussion of the Pliny letter but essentially narrates a confessional, “Look, here is more (rare indeed so oh how precious!) evidence of Christianity from a non-Christian source.” The source does contain an interesting description of early Christian practices, although it says nothing whatever about the name of Jesus. It does speak of a worship of Christ and thus could possibly reflect a Pauline (Marcionite?) theology of a spiritual or heavenly Christ deity as opposed to an earthly Jesus figure.



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Pliny-the-Younger, Pliny, Trajan, Christians

R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Tacitus and the Christians – revised

I have revised 18th January to include a comparison with Doherty’s treatment of Tacitus.

By now we’re getting the picture.
Bruce writes:

Pilate’s execution of Christ, and any report that he may have sent to Rome about it, would never have been heard of again, if in fact that execution had put an end to the movement which Christ began. (p.23)

If the aim of Bruce here is to offer independent evidence of the existence of the historical Jesus this logic here is of course entirely circular. He is arguing that because Jesus existed and started the Christian movement that spread like wildfire to Rome then this is evidence that Rome’s “police” would have kept records that they would not normally have kept, and that Tacitus would have used these! No hint that this passage of Tacitus (ca.115-117 c.e.) implicating the Christians in the Fire of Rome in Nero’s reign (64 c.e.) raises more questions and problems, if indeed historical, than one can throw matches at.

But Bruce does belie some sense that he is aware of the circularity and hollowness of his argument since he goes on to cover himself with the most tentative “perhaps”, “possiblies”, “who knows?”, “would have”, “if indeeds”:

[W]here did [Tacitus] go [for his information]? To some official record, perhaps — possibly to Pilate’s report; who knows? Tacitus had an official stnading which would give him access to such archives, if indeed they survived to his day.(p.23)

Pilate, he concedes, is not mentioned in any other pagan document known to us, thus underscoring further the complete unlikeliness that Tacitus would indeed have found such records in Rome in his day. This passage, he admits, is a most unlikely one — one based on “records” that would not normally make their way to Rome. Rather than prompt other questions of historical evidence and alternative explanations this “unlikely” fact (and a fact that assumes the historical existence of Jesus that this passage is meant to be supplying additional evidence for) merely increases the dramatic irony in Bruce’s eyes.

Why does Bruce insist that these admittedly unlikely police records had to have been Tacitus’ source? Because, he explains,

from the contemptuous and hostile tone which he adopts towards the Christians, we may gather that he did not seek his information from them. (p.23)

One would not have thought a historian had to be on friendly terms with Christians to have had some knowledge of their claims and beliefs. Such assertions by Bruce indicate a naivety about methods historical that surely place his book more comfortably among other confessional writings for the choir.

Compare Bruce’s and Doherty’s discussions of Tacitus

While Bruce treats Tacitus as “a source” Doherty seeks for the source that Tacitus himself used.

While Bruce is content to repeat the Eusebian model of Church history (fanning out with spirit-like rapidity throughout the empire from the time of Jesus’ death), Doherty makes note of the fact that modern historians are being forced to limit the initial impact of Jesus given, amongst other factors, the degree of silence about Jesus in the contemporary record. This silence makes it even less likely that Tacitus ever had bureaucratric records of any particular one of countless thousands of crucifixions and executions benighting the empire decades earlier.

While Bruce is content to assume that Tacitus searched police records for his information about Jesus (on the grounds that this is the only alternative given that his unfriendly tone tells him he could not have been informed by Christians themselves), Doherty notes that Tacitus was not in the habit of consulting original documents. In support of this is the fact that Tacitus gets Pilate’s title wrong. This, of course, ought to have informed Bruce that he was being too cavalier in his discussion.

Doherty’s suggestion that Tacitus’s source was most likely picked up directly or more likely indirectly from what Christians themselves were saying in his time is by far more economical than Bruce’s presumptions of what Doherty says would have been an unheard of scale of record-keeping even for the Romans. Doherty leaves it open whether the information derived from Roman Christians or those in the province of Asia where Tacitus had earlier governed.

Conclusion:

Bruce’s conclusion is that this passage from Tacitus presents history with “an irony” — so notable that it places the sole reference of a pagan writer to Pilate in a “hand to hand” moment with “the ancient Christian creed: ‘. . . suffered under Pontius Pilate’.” It does truly appear that Bruce’s interest in dramatic presentation of his confessional interest has caused him to view this passage from but a single — apologetic — view.

Again, there is no discussion of the historical problems involved (except to express the unlikelihood of such records normally existing in Rome). No explanation — not even any mention of — the silence of the early Church Fathers on this record. It does not do to say that an “argument from silence” in this case means anything since the arguments for and against the silence of the Josephan TF among early Church Fathers are admitted as vital in many scholarly discussions. It is unthinkable that there could be no references to this passage of a presumably most salient historical event among those early Christians given their regular cravings for all records, good and bad, of the treatment of early Christians. Doherty discusses this aspect persuasively and in depth.

But in this case it is not only the silence of the early church writers that begs for explanation. It is also the correspondence only 50 years later between emperor Trajan and his governor Pliny — neither Roman official knows of any precedent for how to handle Christians! And they were in ignorance just 50 years after Christians were slaughtered by imperial edict over the fire that destroyed a third of Rome? Yeh, right!

R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Suetonius and Chrestus — revised

I have revised the following 18th January to include a comparison with Doherty’s treatment of Suetonius.

Oh dear, this is embarrassing from the historian’s point of view. I am sure F.F.Bruce represented the brightest lights of his time but, well, 1974 was another generation ago, even if I was part of it, and the series to which this book belongs is by its own account “by theologians” to further advance their belief that it is only religion that can contribute a “deeper understanding of the mystery that surrounds us” (The Editor’s Preface pp.7-8).

So it is little wonder that Bruce’s work reads as a superficial rationalization of ancient evidence while demonstrating precious little of genuine historical method and serious interest in analytical debates over the evidence in which he finds nonbiblical references to the historical Jesus.

In his discussion of the passage in Suetonius that deals with the expulsion of the Jews by Claudius for reportedly rioting “at the instigation of Chrestus” he writes:

Chrestus, a common slave-name, was a popular mis-spelling of the name of Christ.

From that, the rest of the discussion rests on this “evidence” that the Jews indeed did riot in Rome in some connection over Christ and Christianity. It matters not, it seems, that Bruce admits that the name over which they rioted really was “a common slave-name”. Surely this is every reason to take the passage at face value and not try to turn the name into something else.

But perhaps sensing a little weakness in this argument Bruce tosses in for good measure gratuitous claims that Suetonius got this information from “police records”. Of course, this causes more problems so he has to explain that Suetonius would have misunderstood the police records. — The police records would not have said that “Chrestus” was actually “in Rome” at the time of the riots that were “instigated by him”. (p.21) Bruce is silent on the implication that the police records wrote the wrong name for the instigator of these riots. Besides, anyone who knows Suetonius and his style of histories knows he was never one for painstaking research, and that for him good old gossip and rumour were far more titillating than any facts.

Bruce does not inform us in what sources the name Chrestus is found as a “common mis-spelling” of Christ. I would like to follow this up further. I do, however, seem to recall that some sects or Christians appear to have used “Chrestus” not as a mis-spelling of Christ but as an alternative to Christ. Were these expected to be known to Suetonius? That might be worth checking. But there is a more telling reason to question Bruce’s assumptions.

Comparing Doherty’s discussion of Suetonius

Who is “Chrestus”? Is this a misspelling of “Christus”? An unknown Jewish agitator with a very common name? Are these Christians at all, or simply apocalypti-minded Jews anticipating the arrival of the Messiah? Is this figure supposedly on the scene, or is he merely the object of the agitator’s beliefs? There is too much uncertainty here to take this as evidence of anything. (p.203 of The Jesus Puzzle)

I challenge anyone to dismiss this as “fringe” or “extreme” or even merely “radical” scepticism. I suggest they represent some of the questions that go through most reader’s minds on first encountering this passage in Suetonius.

Compared with Doherty Bruce looks like a naive confessionalist rationalizing anything close to his goal. Compare how creative his imagination and how his speculations become fact:

‘Chrestus’, a common slave-name, was a popular mis-spelling of the name of Christ. The situation referred to was probably the result of the recent introduction of Christianity . . . . Police action was called for . . . . [and] police records provided one of his[Suetonius’s] sources of information. . . . (p21 of Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament)

Other reasons to reject the assumption that Suetonius meant “Christ”

But when Acts appears to refer to the same event (18.2) it gives not a hint that the expulsion by Claudius or Aquilla and Priscilla had anything to do with Christianity. Aquilla meets Paul because of his common trade only. Later in the same chapter when another Jew, Apollos, who does bring some (imperfect) knowledge of Jesus with him, arrives in Paul’s area, Acts tells us so. So one must ask if Suetonius meant that Jews were expelled because of “Christ” why both he AND the author of Acts did not say so. One cannot plead that a riot over Christianity would have been embarrassing to relate because Acts is if nothing else a long catalogue of riots instigated by the name of Christ! And if it was Paul in the vanguard of taking this controversial Christianity to the gentiles then who was responsible for these so-called “Christ-instigated riots in Rome” so early? The book of Acts concludes with Jews in Rome declaring their near total ignorance of the Christian faith, hearing only of its reputation in places outside Rome. (28.22)

Further, if Acts was a mid-second century anti-Marcionite work (assuming that its author also extensively redacted Luke) it is not impossible that Suetonius was the source of Acts 18.2. If so, then it appears that the author did not make any link between Chrestus and Christ.

What is certain is that the early Church Fathers are as silent regarding this passage in Suetonius as they are the Testimonium Flavianum in Josephus — both silences begging for explanations if they were both known to refer to Christ and Christians from such an early date.
So there is no historical discussion of the evidence in question. In this case not even an uncritical naive face-value acceptance of the evidence. We have a common riot instigated by a person with a common name turned into “evidence” for another name (Christ) and a related event (riot in Rome) of which the biblical record is inexplicably silent.

Interestingly Bruce himself writes of another biblical scholar who through arbitrary recasting and erudition cleverly made texts say something other than what they clearly did say, so that:

the unwary reader might easily be misled by it; it is important to emphasize that it rests upon his own arbitrary recasting of texts which say the opposite of what he makes them say . . . . (p.46)


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R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on the Testimonium Flavianum

Where would one expect to find the most sound treatment of the textual and historical significance of the Testimonium Flavianum — in a work by a tried a true academic specializing in early Christian studies or in a lay outsider presuming to challenge the core working paradigm of those studies? F.F. Bruce’s “Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament” has been recommended more than once over recent years as an essential read for anyone wanting to come to grips with the Testimonium Flavianum, if only as a sound and sobering antidote to “radical nonsense” touted by “nonacademic upstarts”, with Earl Doherty being the principal one in mind. In fact, I once made a special 4 hour (two-way) trip to a university library just to consult this recommended reference on the strength of the erudition and assurances of an academic who strongly suggested it would put to rest any doubts raised by the nonsense pushed by the likes of Doherty re the TF. This piece is no doubt a smarting reaction against what I would like to think was a practical joke on the part of the academic rather than a true reflection of his knowledge and analysis of what Bruce has to say.

So I have finally prepared a comparison of the treatment of the Testimonium Flavianum by both Bruce (“Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament“) and Doherty (“The Jesus Puzzle“), and share it here with anyone else interested when and if similarly challenged by an academic to go to Bruce as an antidote to Doherty on this particular point. At least let it serve as a warning not to fall for the same practical joke some academics seem to enjoy playing on innocent, trusting laypersons.

Before getting into the detail of Bruce’s discussion of the TF there is another passage by Bruce I would love to share — this time with academics who scoff at views of those “less enlightened” who dismiss the TF in toto:

“[M]any students have come to the conclusion that the paragraph was interpolated by some Christian copyist or editor into the record of Josephus between the time of Origen and the time of Eusebius. It is a reasonable conclusion, held by many Christian scholars; and we must not accuse a man of undermining the case for historic Christianity because he cannot accept the authenticity of this paragraph. For, after all, it is not on the authority of Josephus that Christians believe in Christ!” (p.38 )

So what reasons does Bruce list and discuss to argue that the TF very likely represents core evidence for the historical existence of Jesus Christ?

On page 36 Bruce concludes a brief look (approx 350 words) at the reference to “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, James” by asking if there is any more direct reference in Josephus’ work to Jesus. This leads to his discussion of the TF.

Bruce notes that the TF was known to Eusebius but that, “if we look at it carefully” (sic) (p.37) we will see that it contains wording only a Christian could use. This is underscored in the case of the sentence “He was the Christ” by explaining that Josephus elsewhere expressed his belief that the Christ was Vespasian, and that Origen a century before Eusebius also wrote that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Christ.

So what reason(s) does Bruce give for thinking that Josephus did write at least something here about Jesus? I counted at least 1 (but I did keep counting many times looking for more so here they all are):

1. “The passage contains some characteristic samples of the diction of Josephus . . . ” (p.38 )

2. See 1. above

3. See 1. above

4. See 1. above

But to be fair, though, Bruce does let this single reason spawn a lengthier list of scholarly speculations on what that original Josephan passage might have said:

  • Klausner reconstructs the passage by removing the most obvious christian statements: “if it be lawful to call him a man”, “he was the christ”, and the account of his resurrection.
  • In the time of Domitian it is more likely that Josephus would not have made any favourable comment about Christianity, hence original may have included negative expressions about Christ and Christianity as well such as:

— “a source of further trouble” (Robert Eisler, to connect the passage to what had gone before)

— “strange things” to replace “true things” (H. St. J. Thackeray since to Josephus Christianity was more strange than true)

— “[he was the] so-called [Christ]” (G.C. Richards and R. J. H. Shutt, to match “the so-called Christ” elsewhere in Josephus – and some reference to Christ is necessary here to make sense of the subsequent explanation of how the Christians got their name)

— [did not cease] to cause trouble” (Without some phrase like “to cause trouble” added here it is not known in what sense the Christians “did not cease”)

Conclusion? Hold your breath, now prepare to inhale what you are about to exhale, and study the circularity of hot air:

it seems clear (a) that Josephus’s paragraph about Jesus is not a wholesale interpolation; (b) that Josephus did not write it in the form in which it has been handed down to us.” (p.40)

And that’s it. Bruce has let his list of scholarly speculations of what an original Josephan core might have said (if there was one) cloud the fact that his conclusion rests entirely on the fact that the TF includes Josephan language. There are 2 major flaws here:

  1. Bruce offers no suggestion that there could be any reason to doubt that Josephan language in the TF must suggest that Josephus wrote something here about Jesus after all;
  2. Bruce appears to have let his array of speculations about what Josephus may originally have written persuade him enough to say “it seems clear” that Josephus did write something here about Jesus.

Bruce does conclude with a footnote on the tenth-century Arabic version of the TF, noting that it “may preserve a less thorough-going Christian editing of the original than does the traditional Greek text; at any rate it helps to confirm that Josephus did write about Jesus.” (p.41)

No argument, no details, no presentation of contrary opinions, just a footnote. (Garnering information “on the internet” is sometimes derided by academics who insist true in depth learning can only be found in hard copies of books, but in the case of checking more detailed information and arguments about this Arabic version I did come across a Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus#Arabic_version

On the view Bruce expressed in his footnote this “internet” source says:

However, Pines’ theory has not been widely accepted. The fact that even the title of Josephus’s work is inaccurate suggests that Agapius is quoting from memory, which may explain the discrepancies with the Greek version. In addition, the claim that Pilate condemned Jesus to be crucified and to die has been interpreted as a reaction to the Muslim belief that Jesus did not really die on the cross.

Thank god for the internet to help me fill out footnotes in books I drive 4 hours to pick up!

Bruce’s next chapter is titled “The Slavonic Josephus”. Perhaps, I originally hoped, here I would find the reason for being advised to read this book for a more complete understanding of the debates surrounding the TF and its relevance as evidence for the historical Jesus. But sadly, Bruce writes on the first page of this chapter:

“In fact, it is as certain as anything can be in the realm of literary criticism that they [the Slavonic extracts relating to Jesus et al.] were not part of what Josephus wrote at all, but had been interpolated into the Greek manuscripts from which the Old Russian translation was made.” (p.42)

Compare, now, what I learned about the TF from Doherty’s “Jesus Puzzle”:

1. Josephus could not have written the TF as we have it because he did not subscribe to Christian doctrine (= F.F. Bruce)

2. There are 4 suspect sections in the TF (c.f. F.F.Bruce singling out 3 passages)

Arguments that Josephus wrote an original core on which the TF was built:

3. Vocabulary in the TF is characteristic of Josephus (= F.F.Bruce)

4. A Christian forger would not have limited himself to such short passage

5. A distilled Josephan original has no gospel flavour

6.Meier argues that Church Fathers would have failed to have referred to this passage because it testified to Josephus’s unbelief

7. Origen’s statement that Josephus did not accept Jesus as the Christ is an oblique reference to the TF

To reconstruct the Josephan original core statement we need to consider:

8. That the original was neutral regarding Jesus (= F.F.Bruce)

9. That the original was hostile regarding Jesus (=F.F.Bruce)

10. That Josephus’s information came from official Roman records

11. That Josephus is likely to have made some put-down reference to the belief of Christians that Jesus was resurrected.

So I learned at least twice as much about the debates and discussion surrounding the TF from Earl Doherty’s book than I did from that by F.F. Bruce. An academic might assume that Doherty presents a one-sided discussion. I would say that Bruce has certainly presented a one-sided and narrow discussion about the TF as evidence for the historical Jesus. But Doherty presents arguments for and against on each point, concluding that within the framework of the most thoroughly addressed arguments in scholarship that the debate could go either way. He then looks at the broader context and issues in which the Josephan writings are embedded and presents fresh arguments that weigh far more decisively than Bruce’s default “it contains Josephan language … it seems clear”. Doherty’s strength is that he does not limit his discussion of the TF to the immediate textual issues. He weighs the broader context of what scholarship also informs us about what was known of Christianity in Rome around the time that Josephus wrote. He does this in part by drawing on the letters — and beliefs about Christ — of Paul. He considers the question of non-citation by Church Fathers in the broader context of what they did cite — thus breaking the narrow arguments of Meier (see point 6 above). Doherty also goes beyond the various speculations about what an original Josephan passage might have written by treating each one to an in-depth analysis within the broader context of what was known about Josephus, Christianity, and other cultural and political attitudes at the time.

Doherty’s treatment of the TF does not answer all the questions that have been raised about it. (I understand he has addressed the question in more depth on his website since publication of his book.) But if any academic recommends that you turn from Doherty and go to Bruce to better grasp the sound basics of the TF and its significance as evidence for the historical Jesus, be warned. That academic is only pulling your leg. Tricky buggers, some of them!

Neil


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