Monthly Archives: November 2007

The literary genre of Acts. 5: a note on “prophetic history”

Robert Hall in Revealed Histories compares Luke-Acts with the works of Josephus as being similar prophetic histories. This does not affect the literary genre of Acts, however. Prophetic history is one of many thematic types of history. Compare economic history, political history, existentialist history, social history, “black arm band” history, whig history, marxist history, feminist history.

Josephus saw prophets like Joshua as historians since their prophetic gift gave them insights into the past as much as their present or future. This was not an unusual concept in ancient times. Even Homer among others called on divine spirits to inspire him with an accurate knowledge and understanding of history. How else could he know anything about the Trojan war and the acts of Achilles?

Josephus saw in history the working out of God’s will. So also Herodotus saw in the history of the Greeks the working out of the will of Apollo. (I have begun, still to continue it, a comparison from Mandell & Freedman of Herodotus’ Histories and Israel’s Primary History here.)

Comparisons between Acts and Josephus as “prophetic history” are a separate issue from the literary genre of history itself. Robert Hall discusses the content of speeches and interpretations of scripture, but Acts is a narrative in which those things are embedded. Literary genre comparisons look at the whole picture — the speeches as well as the narrative details and plot structure. That’s what I have been doing here and hope to continue in further depth.

The literary genre of Acts. 4: Historian’s Models – comparing Josephus

(revised 1.15 pm)

Continuing notes from Pervo re the genre of Acts.

Pervo compares the genre of Acts with the genre of the works of other ancient historians. Below I’ve summarized Pervo’s comments but have added much more by way of illustration from Price and Feldman. I have also just received a copy of Revealed Histories by Robert Hall which I want to read before concluding this discussion. Till then, hope to discuss comparisons with historians other than Josephus in follow-up posts.

Imitation of the Masters

The Jewish historian Josephus attempted to imitate the “classical” historians, especially Thucydides. Imitation of the masters, even attempting to emulate or surpass them, was a mark of literary skill and good taste among ancient writers of the Hellenistic and early Roman imperial era, historians included. As Pervo writes (p.5), “Style was essential, not peripheral.” To be taken seriously historians would demonstrate in their works that they knew and were attempting to imitate the best in the ancients such as Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon. Thucydides was particularly in fashion in the time of the early Empire.

To illustrate this literary custom in particular among historians, — a few examples from Josephus: read more »

Israel’s purging of Palestinian Christians — article

A January in-depth article by Jonathan Cook — on Electronic Intifada

“The little apocalypse” — its literary function and context

Immediately before the plot in Mark’s gospel reaches the point where Jesus experiences his final dramatic adventure — passing through betrayal, trial and death before entering the heavenly kingdom — Jesus delivers a long prophetic speech to his disciples. This inclusion of a detailed prophecy prior to the the hero launching out into a new and climactic phase of extreme life-threatening trial is a common feature of ancient fiction. Mark has modified the focus of this prophecy by having it target the followers of the hero. More correctly, it targets Mark’s audience. A similar variation had been pioneered by Virgil. The effect of this adaptation upon an ancient audience familiar with this standard literary feature would have been to invite the audience to identify themselves with the hero in the final phase of the story. They would have been looking for points of contact between the details of the prophecy and the final days of Jesus’ life.

Mark 13 was therefore not inserted awkwardly into Mark’s gospel some time after it had been written, but follows a literary convention of the day, is woven into the main plot, and is turned to invite the original audience to identify their own experiences of persecution with those of Jesus.

Other literature with “little apocalypses”

Homer’s Odyssey, Apollonius’s Argonautica, Virgil’s Aeneid, Xenophon’s Ephesian Tale and Heliodorus’s Ethiopian Story also contain these sorts of prophecies where a prophet outlines to the hero and his followers the sequence of adventures that they must undergo in order to reach their final goal.

Odyssey (book 11)

In The Odyssey the goddess Circe told Odysseus that he must visit the place of the dead, Hades, and return, before he could go on to reach his final destination. But she subsequently gave him a much longer prophecy which detailed specific trials he would encounter in this world in order to arrive home after many years of waiting. To deliver this prophecy she took Odysseus aside, away from the rest of his crew, and sat down before speaking. She warned him that he must face the temptation of the Sirens, and explained to him how he could overcome that. But that would be minor compared with what was to follow — the test of passing through Scylla and Charybdis. More advice and warnings followed. Some of his men would certainly be lost. A fig-tree in full leaf would feature in the coming adventures. Throughout this prophecy, indeed its stated purpose, are warnings to take heed and listen carefully if he hoped to survive to the end.

Argonautica (book 2)

In the Argonautica, the old sightless Phineus tells Jason and his crew as much as he is permitted by Zeus. He explained that heaven wills only that the broad outline be revealed, that certain details are ordained to be concealed. First they will encounter the two Cyanean Rocks that will threaten to crash in on them. Phineus stresses that his warnings must be carefully heeded if they are to survive. Again, that is only the beginning of what must happen, Phineus informs them. More instructions and warnings follow. And specific things and peoples that they will see are laid out so that they can know they are drawing closer to their final goal. This prophet tells them what to expect to see when they do finally reach it.

Aeneid (book 6)

Virgil makes some changes to this well-known literary function of the grand prophecy. He extends it to become a message for his audience and only secondarily as an insight into the future for Aeneas.

Aeneas first asked the Sybil about his future and that of his descendants. Her reply began with the threat of arriving at kingdom of Lavinium, but she consoled him by assuring him he had no need to fear. That was just the beginning. There would be many wars to follow. Yet he and his followers would prevail. She warned him not to lose heart but to endure all afflictions that must come. Some of the details raised questions. It was not clear exactly what they meant and their correct interpretation would only become clear at the time of their fulfilment. Aeneas is portrayed as much bolder than Odysseus and he assures the Sybil he is not afraid to endure all trials to the end.

Next Aeneas asked to see his deceased father in Hades. Better than a mere leafy fig tree the Sybil instructs him to look out for a golden bough that will enable him to pass safely through death and return. It is there in Hades that Aeneas’s father, Anchises, gives the long prophecy of what must happen afterwards. This was the history of Rome being narrated to Virgil’s audience. It enabled the audience to imagine all their history had been foretold and was thus under the guidance of a divine plan. It even included a prophecy of Augustus Caesar, the audience’s emperor. There were admonitions included, too, to instruct Romans in the noble virtues they needed to rule their empire.

Mark (chapter 13)

The prophecy in Mark should be seen in the context of the popular features of ancient literature.

The “little apocalypse” in Mark 13 is an integral part of the gospel and its parts are shared by the examples discussed above:

  1. Just as other storybook heroes reach the point where they must face their greatest trial a consoling and warning prophecy is spelled out in detail, but not too much detail.
  2. Some element of it will be couched in mystery that will only be clearly understood when experienced by the followers.
  3. It is delivered, with the prophet sitting, to a handful who are separated out from their peers.
  4. It begins with a trial that sounds bad enough but it is explained that this is only the beginning; much worse is to follow. The specific prophecies are graduated in severity of danger. (e.g. the statement that “these are the beginning of pains”, “the end is not yet”.)
  5. It is replete with warnings to endure and advice on how to avoid succumbing to the struggles to be faced. (e.g. when and how to flee, how to approach arrest and trial, to watch for the signs)
  6. It is foretold that some followers may be lost along the way.
  7. A piece of vegetation features significantly as indicating the means of survival.
  8. The prophecy culminates with the promise of finally arriving at one’s ultimate home.

And just as Virgil turned the prophecy into a message addressed to his audience, so did Mark.

Virgil’s message was one of conquest and power. Mark’s was one of persecution and enduring being the victim of power. Compare the irony of the way he narrated Jesus’ journey to the cross as an anti Roman Triumph. Like and unlike the Roman conqueror in his procession through Rome Jesus was crowned and hailed as king, mocked, marched with another bearing the sacrificial weapon, ended the journey on the capitol hill or place of the head or skull. (For details see this online article by Schmidt and another of my posts on the role of Simon the Cyrenian.)

The prophecy serves to reassure the audience that what they have experienced is all the plan and will of God. Most commonly in literature it assured audiences that what their hero and his followers were to endure was divinely planned. The chaos that Mark’s audience experienced as Christians — competing sects, official persecution, family betrayals and rejections — were given a structure and meaning. His audience could begin to see themselves as not only victims, but as being part of a plan of God. Their experiences could be rationalized as the signs of hope because of that plan.

But the prophecy also maintained its contact with the ensuing experiences of their hero and his followers in the story:

  1. So the commands for the audience to watch were picked up when Jesus commanded his disciples to watch while he prayed;
  2. the prediction that they would be handed over to councils, synagogues and rulers was picked up again when Jesus was on trial before priests and the governor;
  3. the assurance that they did not need to worry about what to say but to let the holy spirit inspire them was picked up by the silence of Jesus before his judges except for moments of climactic pronouncements about his identity and the future of the kingdom;
  4. the instruction to flee and not return for one’s garment was picked up with the detail of the young man who fled naked — only to return again fully clothed at the end;
  5. the prediction that the sun would be darkened before Jesus returned in power resonated when they heard read that there was darkness for 3 hours in the middle of the day when Jesus was at the gates of entering “his glory” through the cross.

There was enough here for the audience to see that Mark was telling them that in their persecutions they were in fact following the way of their Jesus Christ.

Some scholars dogmatically assert (curiously — I’ve never seen them justify the claim) that the one single bedrock fact we know about Jesus is that he was crucified. Mark’s gospel certainly cannot be claimed as evidence for this “bedrock fact”. He was creating his narrative to give meaning to the experiences of his audience, and so to give them a fortifying confidence and assurance. His little apocalypse is evidence for this.

It is a truism that Mark was giving his audience the hope that their sufferings and even deaths were nothing less than the gateway to the resurrection and the kingdom of heaven. But the main tool he found to do this was borrowed from the popular literature of his day. He played with words and images so as to adapted it in a way that enabled his audience to identify themselves and what they were suffering with the human experience of Jesus.

And part of that experience was to suffer the betrayal and denial by the twelve apostles, and their stubborn refusal to understand a “higher” form of Christian teaching. It is quite likely, as Weeden and others have shown, that Mark also knew his readers would understand the false prophets and teachers in the little apocalypse were those “false” Christians claiming descent from the twelve apostles. (The sins of the false teachers in Mark 13, and in Paul’s letters, are acted out by the twelve in Mark’s narrative.)

The little apocalypse was not from some tradition about what Jesus might have said. Nor a later implant into the original gospel. It was a common feature of popular literature. And Mark was not the first to adapt this feature to give his audience a pride in who they were, and an admonition to hold fast to that identity.

Gaza (the reality behind myth of “God’s will” for modern Israel)

5 minute video: Gaza’s Reality: The living conditions of Palestinian refugees living in Gaza. A short clip from the award-winning film ‘Occupation 101: Voices of the Silenced Majority.”

Independent article: UN official discusses impact of the siege of Gaza

Offering up the Bible as a Sacrifice

We know the images of primitive bloodthirsty peoples who thrill as they exalt with the highest honours a hapless child or woman or king they are about to sacrifice to their god.

Their victim is crowned and adorned with all the majestic trappings and their every sensual whim satisfied. Only by idolizing this morsel for God’s palette can these peoples make it fit and worthy for their deity.

The effect of bestowing all this devotion upon their victim is to hide from them the real nature, the simple human nature, of the one they plan to sacrifice. They are transformed from being no different from anyone else to being an object more worthy than anyone else.

Many Christians treat the Bible in the same way. Many cannot, dare not — many really do fear to treat the Bible seriously and study it to find out what its true nature really is. Their religious (narcissistic?) devotion will permit them to see it in no way other than as something sacred in its own right. They even call it “The Holy Bible”. read more »

A “Where the Parties Stand” Chart and 48 hour election toolkit

Chart showing where the parties stand on the following issues:

  • Ratifying Kyoto
  • Strong short term targets to cut greenhouse pollution
  • Repeal of Workchoices
  • Dental cover in Medicare
  • Significant increase in public education
  • Broadband to rural Australia
  • Indigenous life expectancy
  • Troop withdrawal from Iraq

48 hour election toolkit [Link is now dead. If anyone has an image please let me know: Neil Godfrey, 20th July, 2019. ]

“We need a good Judas”

April DeConick’s blog has linked to a Macleans.ca article about The Thirteenth Apostle in which two motives underlying the National Geographic’s publication of the “good Judas” translation of the Gospel of Judas.

In my own comments on DeConick’s book I referenced her discussion of reasons why some people want to find a good motive for Judas

  • She suggests with Professor Louis Painchaud that since World War 2 and the Holocaust, and the widespread anti-Semitism preceding those years, there has been a powerful cultural need to absolve our collective guilt over the treatment of the Jews. And this compulsion has led us to reappraise our portrayals of the bad Jew/Judah/Judas embedded in our foundational Christian myth. So much for Maloney and Archer’s collaboration on their fictional cum theological treatise of their Judas gospel!

This point is underscored in the Macleans.ca article:

When she discussed her findings at a conference, one colleague responded, “I don’t see why Judas can’t be good; we need a good Judas.” DeConick says, “I stopped in my tracks. I realized that people were reading Judas positively because they wanted, however unconsciously, a good Judas. Everything that could be tweaked in that direction was. I think our communal psyche, knowing how Judas the betrayer always functioned as a justification for atrocities against Jews, wants to explain him, wants to take the guilt of Christ’s death from him.” Even if we have to make it up.

There should be nothing surprising about this. Albert Schweitzer long ago famously noted that scholars who write about the historical Jesus are writing about the Jesus they want to see. The evidence is so scant that it is quite possible to construct from it a political revolutionary Jesus, a miracle working magician Jesus, a mystical other-wordly Jesus, a Cynic sage, a Pharisee, . . . See Peter Kirby’s Historical Jesus theories site for a good coverage. This fact alone ought to be a flag to tell us that there is something fundamentally wrong with studies about Jesus. What other historical character can raise such opposing arguments as to his purpose and teachings? Does not such extreme and opposing diversities even slightly hint at many self-important onlookers attempting to describe the clothes of the naked emperor?

But the problem is not simply the paucity of the evidence. It is the cultural matrix in which such studies feed and breathe. Can anyone really imagine a scholarly view of Jesus that came down on the side of a view expressed in some of the noncanonical texts — maybe one that went so far as to suggest that the original Jesus was none of the above but as much a metaphorical construct as Adam, a derivation of Wisdom, or an Illuminator who evolved to take on human and historical trappings? Those who do attempt such a model of Christian origins quickly find themselves on the outside of academia’s circled wagons. There is simply too much at stake, it seems, for anything more than bold claims that the evidence is too strong to doubt the basic orthodox (really Lucan-Eusebian) model despite all its scholarly nuances that and mutations. I have not seen any of those bold claims about thorough examination of the evidence for a historical Jesus at the core of any model of Christian origins justified. Each time I have attempted to follow through and examine them I find nothing but simplistic dot-points of arguments that I know have been either found to be circular or without foundation.

It would be nice to think that the controversy that will hopefully avalanche from the clash of the National Geographic’s and April DeConick’s translations of Judas will prise open a wider debate about not just the role of Judas in our culture and scholarship, but the very origins of Christianity itself.

Till then, maybe we need to find a document and a publisher that gives us a good Goliath. Something to redress the post-war bifurcation of anti-Semitism that has transferred the fundamentally bad Semite to the Arab leaving the Jew the fundamentally good one. Why not? The cause is good. The intellectual honesty is no less than that which sees a “need for a good Judas”.

(I’m joking — about the need for a good Goliath thing. We need human David’s and human Goliath’s or human creator of these characters , not actors in a some biblical pantomine.) It appears to me as an outsider that biblical scholarship has, with rare exceptions, failed to accept responsibility for wider cultural enlightenment.

But I should be philosophical. Isn’t this the way history has always worked? Isn’t that the historical job of intellectuals? To support the status quo? And the myths it finds so useful to support all sorts of behaviours?

More on Luke’s use of Genesis

One of Luke’s changes to the Gethsemane account found in the Gospel of Mark was in the way he chose to describe the kiss of Judas.

Luke changes the wording in Mark in preference for the same wording in the Greek Septuagint uses in Genesis to picture Jacob kissing his father Isaac in deceit. (This is another tidbit I picked up from Jenny Read-Heimerdinger and Josep Rius-Camps article I drew on in my first Ennaus post.)

One can compare the Greek words in the Greek-English interlinear Septuagint available here, but the English translations are suggestive enough in this quick blog context:

And he came hear and kissed him (Genesis 27:27)

And drew near to Jesus to kiss him (Luke 22:47) read more »

Luke’s dialogue with John on the first resurrection appearance?

Imagine for a moment that the author of the Luke knew the gospel of John.

Some scholars have argued on the basis of close textual comparisons that the Gospel of Luke was written after, and used, the Gospel of John. (e.g. Matson, Shellard, et al) A few others also believe our canonical Luke was written very late, some time in the first half of the second century, and this would support the possibility that the author of Luke knew and used the gospel of John.

John’s gospel describes two disciples, one named and the other unnamed, wandering off together (“to their own homes”) after finding the tomb of Jesus empty as they had been told. The named disciple is Simon Peter (20:6). It also claims Mary Magdalene was the first to see the resurrected Jesus.

Luke describes a post resurrection scene where two disciples, one named and the other unnamed, are walking together to a village outside Jerusalem. (We learn in the course of the narrative that their destination village is the home of at least one of them.)

To address the easy difference first: Luke also claims, contra John, that Mary Magdalene did not linger at the empty tomb but returned to the other disciples. Is the author directly and intentionally contradicting the claim found in John? Is he disputing the identity of the first to see the resurrected Jesus as a result of some theological rivalry that involved respective founding figures such as Mary, Thomas, Peter?

But the more interesting contact between the two gospels concerns two disciples wandering off together after seeing the empty tomb.

In both Luke and John there are two disciples, one named and the other anonymous, walking together back to their home(s) after seeing or hearing about the empty tomb. (John 20:3-10 and Luke 24:13:34)

The named disciple in John is Simon Peter. The named disciple in Luke is Cleophas. Cleophas does not sound so far removed from Cephas, an Aramaic name having the same meaning as the Greek Peter, and whom in 1 Cor.15:5 we read was the first to see the resurrected Jesus. (I have discussed in an earlier post the possibility of Cleophas being a deliberate pun by the author of Luke.)

The possibility that Cleophas was a pun used by the author to withhold from his audience the identity of the disciple until the end (I cite a few arguments for this possibility in that earlier post lined in the above paragraph) is rarely considered by readers who approach the gospels for “historical” information and to find out exactly “what happened”.

But if we read Luke through the known good story-telling literary devices of his time, as a story told by an author who knew the tricks of holding and teasing an audience, then a different view of the identity of Cleophas emerges.

When Luke is read as a good story using the tricks of novelists then we strengthen the possibility that the mention of Simon at the end of that Emmaus road narrative is the author’s climactic announcement to his audience (more than to the eleven) that Cleophas is Simon Peter.

There is another strong indication that Luke is in direct dialogue with the gospel of John:

— In Luke, Cleophas gives a summary of what had transpired that morning, but not all the details are found in that gospel. They are only otherwise known from a reading of John. (The visit of the 2 disciples to the tomb is narrated in John, but told second hand by Cleophas in Luke.)

If his is the case, that Luke is addressing the Gospel of John and audiences who knew that gospel, then some of the problems about the Emmaus passage in Luke 24 that modern interpreters attempt to answer begin to fade away. The audience hearing Luke’s gospel will be wondering about the identity of Cleophas from the beginning. When they read or hear the account in Luke that there were 2 disciples traveling together their first recollection would quite likely be the two disciples wandering off to their homes that they knew from John. So the introduction of the name Cleophas (not unlike Cephas) instead of Simon Peter would have had the audience wondering. I have explained this technique used in Luke in my earlier post — especially in relation to his retelling the Markan account of anointing of Jesus in my earlier post.

If indeed some of the questions surrounding the Emmaus episode in Luke are resolved by the hypothesis that Luke was written after John, and in dialogue with John (and the other gospels too, but that’s again another story), then is not the case for this re-dating Luke strengthened?

Which will bring me back to my discussion from Tyson and the anti-Marcionite agenda for the creation of canonical Luke-Acts.

The literary genre of Acts. 3: Speeches

“We cannot name any historian whom . . . Luke has taken as a model” (Dibelius, 1956, 183-185)

Pervo cites Dibelius as one scholar unimpressed with claims that the speeches in Acts are necessarily attributable to historiographical intent. Certainly ancient historians crafted lengthy speeches for historical characters, and certainly the speeches in Acts are not like those in the gospel of Luke. But it does not follow, as is sometimes argued, that therefore the speeches in Acts demonstrate the author’s intent to write real history. Anyone who has read ancient novellas would immediately recognize the speeches in Acts as just one of the many features found in fiction. Lengthy speeches were tools of historians and fiction writers alike. They were used to convey information about characters and situations, both historical and fictional.

Examples are too numerous to mention, so I would simply suggest to anyone who doubts this claim to find a collection of ancient novels (such as Reardon‘s collection) in a library or on the net (some are linked in my Prologue post) and read a couple. They are not very long and quite entertaining as insights into ancient cultures, interests and humour.

For this post I opened my copy of Reardon’s collection at random and the first page opened was 206 in the middle of the story of Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius. There at paragraph 37 begins a lengthy speech on the beauty of women. I flip over to pages 340-1 to fine Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe and on each page are speeches equal to the length of anything in Acts.

But one need only recall the emphasis on rhetoric in ancient education and the popularity of tragic drama to quickly guess the need of scepticism over claims of the relationship between speeches and historicity.

I will in time give more specific discussions here on the different types of speeches in Acts, the legal defences, the exhortations, and their structures and comparisons with their counterparts in other forms of literature.

I often felt some resonance in the fictional literature somewhere when reading the long speech of James at the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. I seemed to hear echoes from somewhere each time I read its stylized account of preliminary short speeches followed by Jame’s lengthy decision-pronouncing finale. I don’t know why it took me so long to notice how similar the structure and pattern of the speeches and speech situation was to the speeches delivered in the grand royal assemblies in Homer’s Iliad. I suppose what we have been trained to associate from very early years with religious truth and fact is not easily recognized when we view it through the perspective of literature with which its author would certainly have been familiar, if only from his education in learning how to write Greek.

A crisis in the war needs to be dealt with. An assembly of the notables is called. Names of renown stand up to express their views while the king listens in silence. After the to and fro debating has finished the king rises to deliver his decision and the course that all must follow. The pattern is a regular one, and the assembly in Acts 15 is only one of its many echoes.


Next: Use of historical models

 


The Emmaus narrative and the techniques of popular story-telling

Below I have summarized the conclusions of the far more detailed discussion of the Emmaus road narrative. It offers an explanation for some of the problems with this narrative by seeing it in the context of the art of popular story telling. Having lost appreciation for this context of the original gospel, subsequent literal and historical approaches have failed to understand the nature and intent of the episode. And it has been this far “too serious” approach that has raised the interpretative and textual problems. Those problems largely disappear when the ending is read as being constructed with the tools of ancient popular fiction. read more »

The origin and meaning of the Emmaus Road narrative in Luke

The Emmaus Road narrative in Luke 24 raises many questions. Why is the hitherto unknown Cleopas one of those who appears to be the first to meet the resurrected Jesus? Who is his unnamed companion? Why does the narrative conclude with a statement that Jesus has appeared to Simon when no such appearance is described? Is this really a reference to Simon Peter or some other Simon? Do the two travellers tell the eleven apostles about the appearance to Simon or is it the eleven apostles who are telling the two travellers that Jesus has appeared to Simon?

The account is found in Luke 24:13-35.

The best explanation I can think of is based principally on the problems faced by an author wanting to introduce relatively late in the life of the church a brand new narrative involving a central character. This leads to an look at the logic of the narrative of the gospel and an attempt to understand its structure through the standards of popular story-telling of the day, as well as in the context of similar well-known Jewish stories. It also considers the possibilities that the text found in an alternative manuscript, the Codex Bezae, contains some elements of the original story. read more »

Zionism and betrayal of the Jews

Fear and self-imposed censorship has prevented the publication in the U.S. of Alan Hart’s book, Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews.

Hart discusses the message of his book on Information Clearing House.

He writes that Peres said there is no Israel lobby in the U.S. There is only the Likud lobby. I might have headed this post: The Likud lobby and betrayal of the U.S.