2007-04-07

Pharisees in Galilee?

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

In my “dating the gospels late” post I made a few statements that would appear outrageous to some. Rather than attempt to answer some of the objections raised in the tiny comments box I am opting to make separate posts justifying the points I made.

Pharisee from Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Here I cite reasons for claiming one anachronism in the gospels: Jesus’ disputes with the Pharisees in Galilee. Though there may have been the odd Pharisee in Galilee prior to 70 ce the impression given by the gospels that they were a significant presence there is unlikely historically — for the following reasons:

Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician

Notes from the fuller discussion by Smith, in particular views on the specific gospel passages referencing the Pharisees, are attached at the end of this post. I’ve begun here with his points 7 and 8:

VII.

. . . there is strong evidence that there were practically no Pharisees in Galilee during Jesus’ lifetime. A generation later, when the great Pharisee Yohanan ben Zakkai lived there for eighteen years, only two cases were brought to him for decision; he reportedly cursed the country for hating the Law – it was destined to servitude. Y. Shabbat XVL.8 (15d. end). The story may be a legend – the curse looks like a prophesy ex eventu of the results of the later revolt – but at least the legend shows that the Pharisees remembered Galilee before 70 as a land where they had few followers. More important is the evidence of Josephus; it is clear from his War II. 569-646, and even more from his Vita (28-406 and especially 197f.), that as late as 66 Pharisees might be respected in Galilee for their legal knowledge (through Josephus’ suggestion of this is suspect as part of his pro-Pharisaic propaganda), but there were certainly rare: the only ones Josephus encountered were sent from Jerusalem, and had been chosen to impress the Galileans by their rarity. Thus the synoptics’ picture of a Galilee swarming with Pharisees is a further anachronism. John at least avoided this, his Pharisees all appear in Jerusalem, and Jesus goes to Galilee to get out of their reach (4.1ff.) (p.157)

VIII.

Finally, a further confirmation of our conclusion is to be found in the extreme poverty of the rabbinic tradition about Jesus . . . . The rabbis inherited the traditions of the Pharisees; among these traditions, it seems, there were none about Jesus. The lack can be explained in various ways, but the most natural and easiest explanation (and in view of the above evidence, the likeliest) is that few Pharisees encountered him and those few did not think their encounters memorable. (p.157)

Jesus and the Pharisees website (not mine)

For more details see the Jesus and the Pharisees website. The following Horsley extract is copied from that site:

Richard Horsley, Archaeology, History and Society in Galilee: The Social Context of Jesus and the Rabbis (1998) p. 182

We thus cannot return to the overly simple essentialist categories of ‘Jesus and Judaism’ much less the opposition ‘Jesus versus Judaism’ . . . The regional differences between Galilee and Jerusalem (and Judea) were rooted in many centuries of separate historical development prior to the Hasmonean takeover. Galilee was then under Jerusalem rule, presumably with exposure to the Torah of ‘laws of the Judeans’ and some sort of relations with the Temple, for only one hundred years before the death of Herod and the birth of Jesus. There is no literary or material evidence and little historical likelihood – given the political crises raging in Jerusalem, Palestine and the Roman empire during the first two thirds of the first century BCE – that over such a short period of time traditional Israelite culture and local customs in Galilee had become conformed to what may have been standard in Jerusalem or Judea. It is highly unlikely that the high priesthood or its scribal ‘retainers’ (including the Pharisees) would have been able to mount a program by which the Galileans could have been effectively ‘resocialized’ into habitual loyalty to the Temple and the Torah (or the ‘laws of the Judeans.)

.

.

Morton Smith’s discussion of the references to the Pharisees in the Gospels

I. Most scholars believe the material peculiar to Matthew and Luke is mostly (not entirely) late — from the time of the authors, around the 80’s ce. This material contains many references to Pharisees:

Hostile references in this material: Mt. 5.20; 23.2,15; 27.62; Lk. 11.53; 14.3; 16.14; 18.10f

Friendly references in this material: Lk. 11.37f; 13.31; 14.1; 17.20

Many of the friendly references actually serve as introductions to hostile sayings against the Pharisees.

Smith reasons that the increase in references to Pharisees in these later gospels probably reflects a growing conflict between the Pharisees and Christians at the time of the authors of Matthew and Luke. He cites the Pharisee curse introduced against Christians around 100 ce as further evidence of this time of mounting tensions. (I have never been able to confirm this historicity of this curse or that it was indeed directed at Christians, although it is widely referenced in the literature. What evidence there is for this curse seems to me to point to a general curse on the backsliders or apostates of all kinds. There is, however, clearer evidence of extreme tensions between the Jews and Christians around the time of the Bar Kochba war.)

The genuinely good references to Pharisees, he argues, may have dated back to the time of the leadership of James over the Jerusalem church. (p.151)

II. Smith argues that Matthew and Luke add references to Pharisees in places where they re-write Mark, and all are hostile. Smith observes Mark’s eleven references to Pharisees are all hostile. Yet he also sees the interest of Matthew and Luke in the 80’s as reflecting an actively hostile interest in the Pharisees. (p.151)

III. Matthew also appears to have added references to Pharisees to the Q material. Thus Mark and Q, Smith argues, are further evidence that most of the hostile interest in Pharisees is a later Christian development. (p.154)

IV. Matthew and Luke often replaced Mark’s scribes with Pharisees:

  • Mk.3.22: The scribes . . . said . . . “By the ruler of demons he casts out demons”
  • Mt.9.34: But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the ruler of demons”
  • Mt.12.24: But when the Pharisees heard it they said, “This fellow does not cast out demons except by . . . the ruler of demons”
  • Mk.11.27/12.12: the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him . . . and they sought to lay hold of him, but feared the multitude, for they knew he had spoken the parable against them. So they left him and went away.
  • Mt.21.45-46: Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived he was speaking of them. But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitudes . . .
  • Mk.12.35: How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?
  • Mt.22.41-42: While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about Christ? Whose Son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.”
  • Mt.21.15: But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, . . . they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?”
  • Lk.19.39 And the Pharisees called to him from the crowd, Teacher, rebuke your disciples.

In more cases the Pharisees have been added to Mark’s scribes.

Apparently the scribes declined in influence as the Pharisees increased in prestige. (Second century rabbinic text laments that since the fall of Jerusalem rabbinic scholars have become like mere scribes — M. Sotah IX.15). (p.154)

V. Mark’s eleven references to Pharisees:

2.16 “The scribes of the Pharisees”. This phrase found nowhere else in NT. Compare Mt.9.11 (only has the Pharisees). Mark’s source probably only had “scribes”.

2.18 “The disciples of John (and the Pharisees)”. Mt.9.14 and Lk.5.33 change Mark here. The ensuing story in Mark addresses only the disciples of John, further indicating the earlier reference to Pharisees was not original. Smith adds much more detail to his argument here.

2.24; 3.6 Probably from Mark’s source, according to the argument (but not reproduced here) of Smith re 2.18.

7.1, 3, 5 Both Matthew (15.12-14) and a late editor to Mark have added to the story comments that make the failure to wash particularly offensive to Pharisees.

8.11ff The Pharisees ask for a sign but Jesus’ reply attacks the entire generation, suggesting that Pharisees was a later editorial change (Smith).

8.15 “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod”. Connection between Pharisees and Herod points to persecution under Herod Agrippa 41-44 ce. Forty years later neither Matthew nor Luke understood the reference, eliminated Herod from the saying, but kept the Pharisees.

(10.2 Textual analysis points to this reference in Mark being inserted from Matthew.)

12.13 Again a combination of Pharisees and Herodians. See notes on 8.15.

Thus of these 11 references only 2.24, 3.6, 8.15 and 12.13 appear to be original to Mark’s source. The others added by Mark himself or later editors, and therefore date from after 75 ce. (pp.154-155)

VI. Neither Mark nor Luke (who had a source in addition to Mark) attribute any role for the Pharisees in the Passion story. Matthew’s role for the Pharisees is more extensive, but they are still absent from the arrest, trial and execution. Given the hostility the synoptics demonstrate against the Pharisees it is incredible that they should have failed to have mentioned their role if they did indeed have any at this critical juncture. Therefore, when John 18.3 shows the Pharisees in the middle of the thick of the Passion plot, we can probably regard this as a later invention.

John probably wrote in the 90’s. He is particularly hostile towards the Pharisees, and they populate his gospel like a nest of ants. John also gives them considerable authority and influence in Judea. This portrayal of John’s is the same as Josephus in his Antiquities, also written around the 90’s. Josephus would have been keen to have promoted the role of the Pharisees and their power and influence appears to have waxed greatly after the fall of Jerusalem as they became the new guardians of the Jewish traditions with the fall of the priesthood. It is significant that in Josephus’ work written 20 years earlier, his Jewish War, he does not know anything comparable of Pharisaical prestige in Judea.

It appears thus that John’s picture of the Pharisees in his gospel reflects Jamnian Judaism of the 90’s. (pp. 155-157)

Further, the picture John paints of the character of the Pharisees “is utterly incompatible with what is known of first-century Pharisees before 70 . . . ” (p.156) — see Neusner’s Traditions and his conclusions, esp. III.305f and 312-319.

VII.

. . . there is strong evidence that there were practically no Pharisees in Galilee during Jesus’ lifetime. A generation later, when the great Pharisee Yohanan ben Zakkai lived there for eighteen years, only two cases were brought to him for decision; he reportedly cursed the country for hating the Law – it was destined to servitude. Y. Shabbat XVL.8 (15d. end). The story may be a legend – the curse looks like a prophesy ex eventu of the results of the later revolt – but at least the legend shows that the Pharisees remembers Galilee before 70 as a land where they had few followers. More important is the evidence of Josephus; it is clear from his War II. 569-646, and even more from his Vita (28-406 and especially 197f.), that as late as 66 Pharisees might be respected in Galilee for their legal knowledge (through Josephus’ suggestion of this is suspect as part of his pro-Pharisaic propaganda), but there were certainly rare: the only ones Josephus encountered were sent from Jerusalem, and had been chosen to impress the Galileans by their rarity. Thus the synoptics’ picture of a Galilee swarming with Pharisees is a further anachronism. John at least avoided this, his Pharisees all appear in Jerusalem, and Jesus goes to Galilee to get out of their reach (4.1ff.) (p.157)

VIII.

Finally, a further confirmation of our conclusion is to be found in the extreme poverty of the rabbinic tradition about Jesus . . . . The rabbis inherited the traditions of the Pharisees; among these traditions, it seems, there were none about Jesus. The lack can be explained in various ways, but the most natural and easiest explanation (and in view of the above evidence, the likeliest) is that few Pharisees encountered him and those few did not think their encounters memorable. (p.157)

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

11 Comments

  • 2007-04-08 02:36:37 GMT+0000 - 02:36 | Permalink

    Neil,

    I’m pretty busy today so I’ll have to get back to you on this, but for now let me just say that it seems as if these writers (Smith and Horsley) read too much into the Gospel portrayals of Pharisees, or more particularly they read too many Pharisees into the Gospels! The Gospels do not portray Galilee and Judea as ‘swarming’ with Pharisees. Jesus encounters a few who challenge him, and some of them may have been involved in the plot to kill him. That does not require that they were especially numerous or had great political power, which was probably wielded mostly by Sadducees and Temple priests.

    By the way, I read Detering’s “Falsified Paul”. I can see now where you get your extreme radicalism about Paul and the Gospels. I must say I’m impressed with Detering’s erudition and his passion for this case, and I would agree with him that scholars need to be more rigorous in their discussion of Ignatian and Polycarp authenticity, but his attempts to transplant Paul’s letters to a Second Century setting ultimately fail to convince. He makes too many unwarranted assumptions and makes mountains out of molehills. For example, he makes much of the supposed ‘dualistic’ or Gnostic flavor of Paul’s thought, but this is very much at home in the context of Apocalyptic Judaism (see Ehrman 2004 pp.244-248). He assumes that brief allusions to seemingly improbable events (such as Paul fighting with wild beasts at Ephesus, which most scholars would say is a figure of speech) are actually derived from the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla! It seems more likely to me to have been the other way around, i.e. brief and somewhat enigmatic allusions in Paul’s letters became a locus for legend-mongering. A similar case is observed with the infancy narratives in the Canonical Gospels. They are so brief that people just HAD to fill them in with stories about Jesus bringing clay pidgeons to life, etc.

    Crucial to his case is the idea that Marcion’s version of Paul’s letters is original. There are good reasons to doubt that, because apparently his Pauline letters contain references which could only be described as intensely Jewish (i.e. Romans 1:25, the evildoers “worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever”), and even John Knox, who thinks that Marcion had a more original version of Luke’s Gospel, believes that Marcion knowingly excised the infancy narratives and baptism by John. This seems to fit the standard picture of Marcion, that he found in Paul enough of his own theology to appropriate him to legitimize his own teachings, but also a lot of unwanted ‘Judaizing’ which had to be done away with. Furthermore, Detering is wrong about Paul’s letters being cited for the first time in the context of Tertullian’s debates with Marcion (or thereabouts). Even if one does not include Ignatius, Polycarp and 2 Peter (which some scholars would date to the 80s or 90s), Basilides also quoted from 1 Corinthians.

    This is not meant to be a comprehensive review, though I am thinking of doing that. It is just meant to indicate why I think overall his argument for Pauline inauthenticity is unconvincing. Detering does not seem acquainted with the best scholarship on 1st Century Judaism and its complex interaction with Hellenistic thought. In his references he quotes mostly from fellow Dutch radicals (to be fair, he also admits that this book is only a rough sketch, but from what I have seen of his points he is going to have a hard time transplanting Paul into the 2nd Century, given all the links which have been discovered between Paul’s letters and the wider Helleno-Judaic world). I also don’t like his insinuation, which you also echo, that “most scholars” are driven by some intense wish to have Paul authenticate the early history of Christianity, or the fear that we might not actually have a close link to the historical Jesus. But anyways, his book really helped me to see where you’re coming from from a scholarly point of view. I was greatly intrigued to realize that Robert Price, that arch debunker of Christian origins, is a graduate of Drew University which is also the home of the “Journal for Higher Criticism” and Detering. Birds of a feather flock together.

  • 2007-04-12 08:35:10 GMT+0000 - 08:35 | Permalink

    I do not have time for a complete reply at this stage. But one point needs to be kept in mind: we do not have any external attestation for knowledge of the Pauline epistles or theology until the second century. And when we first hear of these that’s also the same time we see the introduction of the Acts of Paul and the canonical Acts with its emphasis on Paul. Paul is prima facie a second century phenomenon.

  • 2007-04-12 15:23:53 GMT+0000 - 15:23 | Permalink

    Another point needs to be kept in mind at this stage, and that is that of the thousands of Christians who lived in the first and early second centuries we have the writings of only a small fraction. If we had hundreds of Christian documents from many different people and we had a good idea of the Christian writings they refer to, and Paul didn’t show up, I’d say then that there’s something amiss here. But what evidence we do have suggests that by the time our first attestations to Paul show up in the early 2nd Century, whether from Ignatius, Polycarp, or Valentinus, Basilides, Marcion and their opponents, his letters are obviously held in high esteem. There is also the manuscript evidence to consider. Paul’s letters survive in proportionately much greater numbers than these other non-canonical texts, which suggests wider (and earlier) circulation (see Larry Hurtado, “The Earliest Christian Artifacts”, ch.1).

    And Paul’s letters prima facie give the impression of a Jesus movement that is just beginning to spread throughout the world. The word ‘Christian’ is never used (it first appears in the letters of Ignatius). They reflect an initial struggle to articulate what Jesus means for one’s understanding of God. There is already tradition in them, to be sure, but you definitely see Paul ‘playing by ear’ as far as theology and missionary strategy is concerned. Church organization is very informal. The issues which Paul faces in his letters (false teachers, immorality, the very struggle of the churches to stay in existence) do not have to be pinpointed to the first years of the Jesus movement, but they have a very primitive feel compared to the complex, stratified situations faced, for example, by Ignatius and Clement. Prima facie, Paul belongs to the beginning of Christianity, not its second century.

  • 2007-04-12 16:08:56 GMT+0000 - 16:08 | Permalink

    Your denial that the gospels are anachronistic re the Pharisees is special pleading. One might just as easily argue that there was scarcely a blind person in the whole of Galilee and that the only ones that there were just happened to be the ones recorded in the gospels. (We have no evidence either way about the numbers of blind in Galilee but we do have evidence against the presence of the Pharisees.) The historical evidence for the non-prevalence of Pharisees in Galilee prior to 70 ce is strong and persuasive. It is not persuasive or strong to argue that the regular encounters with them depicted in the gospels reflect the tiny trickle who happened to sneak in in such few numbers as not to be noted in the historical record.

    We can only work with the evidence we have, not with what missing evidence might or might not have said. Hence the provisionality of any conclusions in this area. Yes, we have no choice given the nature of the evidence but to work in tentative hypotheses and probabilities — all the while being aware of our methodologies and assumptions. Yes, he was held in high esteem when he first appears — otherwise he would not have appeared so prominently at all. It in no way follows that his letters are to be dated from the 1st century. That may be one possibility but it is one of many, and we cannot fall into the “fallacy of the possible proof”.

    And your comment that there is “tradition” in Paul’s letters needs to be given more weight. How could tradition possibly have been established prior to Paul in your scenario? No one is disputing that Paul’s letters represent an early stage of at least “Pauline” christianity, but the letters also testify to that not being the norm — that another stream stood in some sort of opposition to his brand of christianity. Paul addresses many other christian groups with whom he disagrees strongly. You seem to be assuming some single trajectory from Paul to Ignatius type christianity?

    I don’t understand your last sentence. Christianity seems to me to have had a second century beginning, or at the earliest a late first century one. But this is based on the evidence about the texts, not solely on the self-testimony of the texts themselves. We have many texts claiming to be by first century apostles and witnesses of Jesus that we know are really from second century. Why is it that the canonical texts claiming to be by the same are deemed genuine when there is no more evidence to date them in the first century than there is the noncanonical texts? The only reason to do so is tradition (including traditional interpretations of ambiguous passages like the little apocalypse) and authority, as far as I can see.

  • 2007-04-13 00:33:36 GMT+0000 - 00:33 | Permalink

    Again, I’ll have to get back to you on the Pharisees thing, but see the work of Maurice Casey in reply to Morton Smith on this issue. Our ‘historical record’ in this case is Josephus and some rabbinical traditions, neither of which are what one might call comprehensive resources on population dynamics in this time.

    “How could tradition possibly have been established prior to Paul in your scenario?”

    Paul makes it clear that he himself passed on this tradition in many cases (1 Cor 11:2, etc.). Romans is exceptional in addressing a church which Paul had not founded or at least was not in some sort of contact with prior to the letter. But let’s be clear here. While historically the 20-30 years over which the Mediterranean was populated with little Christian house-churches (due to the activities of Paul and others) is a very short time, it is still 20-30 years. That’s enough time for a baby to become a full-grown man, and it is certainly enough time for liturgy and tradition to be consolidated about Jesus, especially if many of these traditions go back to Jesus himself.

    “No one is disputing that Paul’s letters represent an early stage of at least “Pauline” christianity, but the letters also testify to that not being the norm — that another stream stood in some sort of opposition to his brand of christianity. Paul addresses many other christian groups with whom he disagrees strongly.”

    ‘Pauline Christianity’ is an anachronism. The word ‘Christian’ or ‘Christianity’ does not appear in any of his letters. We only have “those who call on the name of the Lord Jesus”. Paul is mostly in conflict with specific people, not whole other groups of Christians. I’m not sure what you mean by a ‘single trajectory’ from Paul to Ignatius. My point was that if we set the letters of Paul and the letters of Ignatius side-by-side it is clear that Paul’s letters are much earlier (not least because Paul’s letters are alluded to so extensively and authoritatively in the latter, with no evidence of them being ‘misused’ by heretics as we get, say, in 2 Peter).

    “Christianity seems to me to have had a second century beginning, or at the earliest a late first century one. But this is based on the evidence about the texts, not solely on the self-testimony of the texts themselves.”

    Our textual evidence begins in the 2nd Century, and mostly from Egypt, because the climate allowed some manuscripts to be preserved. Like I said in my first reply, we do not have representative cross-sections of quotation and allusion to NT documents in our 2nd-Century literature, and what little we do have suggests that the NT is the foundation on which 2nd-Century literature builds, both ‘heretical’ and proto-Orthodox.

    “We have many texts claiming to be by first century apostles and witnesses of Jesus that we know are really from second century. Why is it that the canonical texts claiming to be by the same are deemed genuine when there is no more evidence to date them in the first century than there is the noncanonical texts?”

    Because the evidence from the texts points overwhelmingly, with very few exceptions, to literary dependence of the apocryphal material on the canonical. Robin Lane Fox shows this clearly in his “Pagans and Christians”, and I also pointed it out earlier with respect to, say, the incident of Paul fighting wild beasts at Ephesus. One can easily see how a mysterious passage like that in Paul’s letters just couldn’t be left alone, there just had to be more story (in terms of a talking lion in an arena who is evangelized) than what Paul gives. One cannot easily imagine such legendary accounts being ‘condensed’ into mundane references in forged Pauline letters. Legends develop around kernels of historical truth, not the other way around.

    “The only reason to do so is tradition (including traditional interpretations of ambiguous passages like the little apocalypse) and authority, as far as I can see.”

    It does not take a microscope to see that the problem of Jerusalem, its importance for Christianity and its destruction looms large in the minds of the writers of the New Testament. That is why most scholars cluster the NT material around 70. Paul’s letters, however, do not have this retrospective consciousness, and his musings on his fellow Israelites and their place in God’s plan presuppose a much greater connection still between the emerging communities of the Jesus movement and Judaism than is evident in Ignatius or Justin and there is no sense that the ‘failure’ of God’s promises toward the Jews has anything to do with the destruction of Jerusalem. There is no better place for Paul’s letters than before 70, from what we can reconstruct about Jewish-Christian (again the latter word is anachronistic) relationships in various periods (see James D.G. Dunn’s “The Partings of the Ways” and Alan F. Segal’s “Rebecca and her children”).

  • 2007-04-13 05:22:16 GMT+0000 - 05:22 | Permalink

    In sum, the difference is between working with evidence the way historians work with evidence in any other field on the one hand, and in interpreting the evidence through the self-testimony of selected canonical texts, mixed with faith that they represent truth, and then filling in the gaps with what the missing evidence could have said in support on the other. The former is standard historical method, its results provisional and ever evolving as further study brings out new insights; the latter is essentially the same story that has been told since the early middle ages and the same methodology since scholasticism — using reason in the service of faith, to rationalize and justify faith.

  • 2007-04-13 13:54:04 GMT+0000 - 13:54 | Permalink

    This will have to be my last post for a while, because I have other things to work on. But I completely reject your characterization of the way many top-notch historians and classicists use their sources. Even if some of them are believers that does not mean that they leave their brains at the door when they conduct their studies. The choice of sources is not arbitrary or faith-based. Gerd Theissen, for example, grants that noncanonical sources should not be excluded a priori, and even grants that canonical materials should not be priviledged over noncanonical sources, but in practice in order to reconstruct the life of Jesus he relies most heavily on the canonical Gospels. They are the only ones which provide a plausible historical context for a person like Jesus. Interestingly, it is Jewish scholars who have been more apt to trust the canonical Gospels as an historical source, because what they read rings true of their knowledge of the 1st Century. This is not the case for the Gospel of Thomas (which really has no context whatsoever), or the Gospel of Mary (again, no tangent points to connect it to any sort of historical setting, whether from geography, customs, external events in history, etc.) or most of the other noncanonical Gospels which usually consist of extended post-resurrection sayings of Jesus and arcane cosmological speculations. You and other skeptics might think that if people would only look hard enough, they would see that at bottom the canonical Gospels really are just pious fictions, but most historians (not NT specialists, but trained historians of classical antiquity) see the Gospels as historical in intent and very often in content, whereas there is no such consensus on the apocryphal Gospels. It is not because they privilege the canonical Gospels with the faith that they record history. It is simply because their historians’ instincts tell them that, even if there are literary reworkings and exaggeration of certain events in the Gospels, on the whole they tell the story of a real person and intended to. The Synoptic Gospels, however one evisages their literary development, show a remarkably conservative tendency in their use of sources, including one another, which suggests that those who handed down to them the sources which they used were equally careful.

    And I really don’t believe that you see no difference between a historiography and travelogue like the canonical Acts of the Apostles (written in the style of many other histories of the time which historians trust for their knowledge of the past), and a thoroughly novelistic and romantic piece like the Acts of Paul and Thecla, with a talking lion whom Paul converts and baptizes in the arena, and a swimming pool full of hungry seals which a naked Thecla enters in order to be cleansed once more before her death, with a divine mist surrounding her so that her nakedness is not apparent. To an agnostic classicist and historian like Robin Lane Fox it is only too obvious which intends to be sober history and which is the derivative fiction (see his “Pagans and Christians”). The same goes for A.N. Sherwin White, Colin Hemer, Michael Grant, Loveday Alexander, W.H.C. Frend and many others.

    No, the preference for canonical sources for most historians is a posteriori, when they realize that there really is a difference in quality and usefulness between those materials and the apocryphal ones (except perhaps for the Gospel of Peter, which some scholars think does contain valuable historical material). There is no conspiracy, no ‘neo-conservatism’ in a very cynical, skeptical, post-modern academy (where people get the idea that biblical studies are driven by ‘confessional’ interests is beyond me when such vocal skeptics like Gerd Ludemann and Burton Mack are so widely respected and cited). There are just a bunch of scholars, each trying as best they can according to their own intellectual integrity to contribute to the ongoing historical discussion about early Christianity. If anything, specialists in NT studies (and even those from divinity schools, for that matter!) are the ones most likely to be skeptical and tendentious about their research. If the same historical methods used to study any other aspect of late antiquity are applied to the examination of the New Testament, the canonical Gospels come out just fine as generally reliable sources for the life of Jesus. The apocryphal Gospels do not (again, with the exception of some New Testament specialists).

    And I know you must have heard this before, but let me show you what would happen if we applied the kind of skepticism you show about the Gospels to the life of Alexander the Great. What are our sources? We basically only have four: Diodorus of Sicily, Quintus Rufus, Plutarch and Arrian. These are all tertiary sources, written about 300 years after Alexander’s death! Our only primary source are the Astronomical Diaries, which mentions the Battle of Gaugamela in only a few sentences (and in a very mythic way, one might add) and the historian must make the choice to trust it over Arrian, who conflicts with it. Diodorus and Quintus Rufus have many errors. We have to trust these documents because they claim to have access to primary sources like Ptolemy, or secondary ones like Cleitarchus.

    Such late, untrustworthy sources! And how mythical is their content! Surely no one would believe that there really lived a “king of the world” who swept through Persia and Egypt in his thirties, bringing the mighty Persian empire to its knees and proclaiming himself Son of God in a temple in faraway, exotic Babylon. You know what I think? I think that Alexander was a fiction, concocted to legitimate the political power of the generals who succeeded him. They were the ones that really conquered Persia and Egypt, and divided those territories among themselves. They were the ones who named towns and cities after their mythical leader and produced all the coins, statues, etc. associated with him. And their descendants were the ones who surreptitiously paid writers like Arrian and Plutarch to concoct a fictional history of their mythic leader.

    But no, in practice historians are confident that they can sift through such late, untrustworthy sources and reconstruct a reasonable framework for his life and career. If the same procedure is applied to the Gospels, we get similar results. We can generally agree on certain things about the life of Jesus, such as his prophetic, charismatic and teaching ministry, his itinerary and election of followers, and his final confrontation with the Jerusalem and Roman authorities, resulting in death by crucifixion. After his death his followers strongly believed that God had raised him from the dead (notice this does not require that one believe that God actually exists or did such a thing, only that the disciples of Jesus did) and they began to spread his teaching throughout the world. This is what proper, critical historical inquiry can yield with reasonable confidence.

  • 2007-04-20 22:06:47 GMT+0000 - 22:06 | Permalink

    You comments imply a misrepresentation of what I am saying. No one is saying anything about scholars of any stripe leaving their brains at the door, nor anything about choices of sources.

    Your comments about historians, Jewish or any other, accepting things as historical because they “ring true” does actually make me think I should also have said some historians do leave their brains at the door. That “ring true” argument is heard over and over in gospel scholarship and it is just baloney as far as establishing ‘historicity’ is concerned — at least with anyone using his brains. Most non NT scholars simply accept the gospels and findings of NT scholars by default, not because they have studied them in the same way they do topics in their own specialist fields.

    Your basic point in the first para is quite circular. You say “instincts” tell a historian that gospels are about a historical person. My point exactly — historicity is based on “instincts” in so much of biblical scholarship.

    As for Acts as “history” being like the style of other histories of the time — I would be interested in hearing the name of just one that it is like.

    Before you compare the Acts of Paul and Thecla over the talking lion episode will you first declare if you believe that other biblical literature is historically accurate when it speaks of talking snakes and donkeys? But I do find it hard to take any document seriously that is so riddled with dead rising up, and someone else flying up into the sky and fire coming down from the sky and sitting on heads of people without burning them, and people being healed by mere shadows and hankies, and angels breaking into jails and breaking chains and rescuing prisoners without the guards seeing a thing, and people getting zapped by visions and other mysterious powers from heaven, and two people who told a lie are dropped dead on the spot when found out …. and this is all supposed to be more serious in tone than the Acts of Paul and Thecla??

    You mention some eminent and very critical scholars who do not come at their studies from a confessional viewpoint. Well, much of what I am writing in this blog stems from the works of quite a number of those, and I know you do not accept any of their findings, so I find your point about them a little mischevious.

    The Atronomical Diaries are not likely to be primary evidence of Alexander at all. The reference is cryptic to say the least and a 1990 publication suggested a much more likely reference was to a battle a couple of decades after Alexander’s time. But coins do tell us that there was a ruler, Alexander, who depicted himself with divine qualities. That’s not much, but it’s a start.

    Your caricature of how those who dispute the historicity of Jesus work is just that — a caricature, and not worthy of serious engagement. If you want a serious study of a comparison of how we know about Alexander vis a vis how we know about Jesus then I will start a new post dedicated to that topic. But I won’t be bothered with silly straw-man caricatures.

  • rey
    2008-12-03 05:34:53 GMT+0000 - 05:34 | Permalink

    Combing the four gospels together on the story of the healing of the man carried by four and let down through Peter’s roof to be healed by Jesus, you will find that at least one of the gospels indicates that the Pharisees had come down from Jerusalem and Judea to Galilee specifically to cause trouble for Jesus.

  • 2008-12-03 15:26:19 GMT+0000 - 15:26 | Permalink

    I understand why you did not specify exactly which book says something like this. 🙂 You can see a “harmony” of gospel accounts of this episode here, and you will note that it is not found in all four gospels, and that only Luke includes Pharisees in the audience, and that he nowhere says their intention was as you claim. I think you are mistaking a common preacher’s interpretation for what your text actually says.

    I would encourage you to read the texts for yourself and rely less on what others tell you they say.

    But that aside, the fact that Luke varied the story does not mean that Luke knew more details about what originally happened. One example to consider: we all know from experience how stories that change over time so often are really moving further away from the original.

  • Pingback: Were there No Pharisees in Galilee to Debate with Jesus? « Vridar

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.