Well, they don’t believe all of it, of course, but they do believe enough of it (they would deny faith is involved) to use as a skeletal framework in their various reconstructions of Christian origins.
Mainstream biblical scholarship (both Christian and secular) for most part bases its reconstructions of Christian origins on methods that would find no place in any other historical disciplines.
This argument is not about mythicism versus historicism. It is about methodology pure and simple. It is not about being predisposed to reject the historicity of the Gospels. It is about not bringing any presumptions about either historicity or mythicism to the texts, and seeing where standard justifiable approaches to any evidence lead us.
Nor is it about literary criticism versus historical criticism. Everyone reading a text inevitably brings to their understanding of it some “literary critical” views. If I believe a text is valuable as a source of historical information, then I am making a literary-critical judgment about that text. This is unavoidable.
I am sure this is not only my view — I was first made aware of it after reading the works of the likes of Philip R. Davies, Niels Peter Lemche, Keith Whitelam, Mario Liverani, Thomas L. Thompson and others in relation to the ‘Old Testament’ literature. Not that any of these, as far as I know, discuss the historical Jesus. So I have no idea if they themselves would extend some of their discussions on methodology to New Testament studies. (Even Thompson in his book The Messiah Myth does not attempt any historical reconstruction or address “the historical Jesus”. His book “is about the influence of the ancient Near Eastern figure of the king in biblical literature”, and how this “has much to do with how figures such as Jesus are created.” p.16. Thompson does nonetheless make some pointed comments about methodology of historical Jesus scholars, and I do quote him in these instances.)
Two books I have within reach at the moment are Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews by Paula Fredriksen, and The Date of Mark’s Gospel by James Crossley, so I use snippets from each of these to illustrate the flawed method on which so much Christian origin/historical Jesus studies are based. I will conclude by showing that my views are not nihilistic, but open the way to a constructive and justifiable historical enquiry.
A 4000 year year span which terminates at the re-dedication of the Temple in 164 bce has been worked into the chronology of Old Testament literature. 4000 years had significance beyond the biblical texts, too. I will give the ancient sources for that at the end. This data has significance for when the Bible’s books were still subject to editing, or even creation, before settling into the canonical versions we use today.
Year (from creation)
Birth of Abraham
Call of Abraham
Entrance into Egypt
Exodus from Egypt
2666 (two thirds of total span)
Jerusalem besieged / Exile to Babylon
Edict of Cyrus
Rededication of Temple
This covers a neat 10 generations from Adam to the Flood
and another 10 generations from the Flood to the father of Abraham
Abraham was called by God when he was 75 years old (Genesis 12:4)
Call of Abraham to the entry of Israel into Egypt was 215 years
From Abraham’s call to the birth of Isaac was 25 years, Isaac was 60 when Jacob was born, and Jacob 130 years old when he entered Egypt (25 + 60 + 130 = 215 years)
Entry into Egypt to the Exodus and birth of Israel was 430 years
Exodus to the beginning of the building of Solomon’s temple was 480 years
(1 Kings 6:1).
Abraham’s birth to the foundation of the Temple was 1200 years
Or 12 generations of the round 100 years each. (There are several remnants throughout the Bible of the idea of a post-Flood generation being a round 100 years, such as Genesis 15:13-16 where 4 generations are given 400 years.)
Foundation of the Temple to the destruction of Jerusalem was 430 years
Destruction of the Temple to the (legendary) edict of Cyrus to return of Israel was 50 years.
(Jeremiah speaks of a 70 year captivity, but the chronology was constructed at a time when there was no canonical bible and Jeremiah’s book did not figure in the calculation.)
Return of Israel to the rededication of the Temple was 374 years
The odd-number out to complete the “Great Year” of 4000 years.
Prophets serve a literary function throughout the Old Testament. Their role is to demonstrate to readers/hearers of the word the stubborn rebellious hearts of Israel in history, and through that mechanism to show the greatness of the mercy of God who promises to love and restore such wretches in the end.
They are worked into the plot to suffer rejection by their own, persecution, mockery and sometimes martyrdom. Their loyal followers are always the few. And their authors always ensure they perform their assigned roles as foils for Israel to the letter.
One of these, Elijah, was prophesied to come again.
But there is the strangest of twists. When he does “come again”, the people are expected to actually listen to him this time. And the people do listen to him. Nothing like it had happened since the Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah.
Historical reading destroys the story
Mark tells us that the whole of Judea and Jerusalem came out to be baptized (Mark 1:5), so we must presume they were all prepared as per the prophecy. To deny this by suggesting Mark is merely exaggerating is to miss the point of the story and the author’s portrayal of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi. Trying to historicize the tale merely destroys it. Mark is creating an ideal scene here, one as ideal as that of the survival in the wilderness with wild beasts and angels. All the land of Judea and those of Jerusalem went out confessing their sins. Picture an ideal Israel following Moses into the wilderness, or all of Israel repenting at the preaching of Elijah.
Elijah is promised to prepare the way of Israel for God — lest God comes and strikes the earth with a curse (Malachi).
We must presume he succeeded through John the Baptist, because when God came in his Son, it was the Son of God who was cursed, thus sparing the earth (or land of Israel – at least for a generation).
Getting prepared — then waiting
But how did he, in John the Baptist, prepare the way for God? How do we see the preparedness of these people in action?
I used to think it was a narrative failing of Mark that he had the people prepared for Jesus in the opening verses of the Gospel but in the very next encounters with “the people” they fail to recognize him. Someone should have tapped me on the shoulder to wake me up and notice that the people who were prepared, as per the prophecy, were those connected with the Temple, the people of Judea and Jerusalem.
When Jesus came he did not go to those people of Judea and Jerusalem straight away, but went instead to people of Galilee.
Jesus does not come to these people of Judea and Jerusalem just yet. Mark constructs a kind of inclusio setting for his gospel. The scene opens with the people of Judea and Jerusalem, and will close with the same people. In the meantime, however, Jesus bypasses them and works with others in Galilee. His time is not yet. The people of Judea and Jerusalem have been prepared, but Jesus won’t come to them until his grand entrance in Mark 11. When his time does draw near, the reader is privileged with a vision of the transfigured Jesus, and three prophecies herald his personal doom and salvation.
Having been prepared (at least within the narrative’s frame of reference — it is not historical realism), the people of Jerusalem welcome Jesus into their city with hopes of the restoration of the Kingdom of David. When questioned over his authority to do the things he was doing there, Jesus reminds them he is acting on the authority of John the Baptist who prepared them for his entry and “sudden coming to the temple”. A leper opens his house for him and an anonymous woman prepares him for burial (Mark 11:3-8).
Saving the land from a curse
The crowds are a narrative device. The author is attempting to create a narrative that can be seen as a fulfillment of prophecy, and is consequently forced into a few inconsistencies. But the overall intended impact works, nonetheless. So the crowds are also there to call for Jesus’ crucifixion. In so doing, Jesus is the one who is cursed (Mal. 4:5-6), and Elijah is once again invoked by the narrator at that moment (Mark 15:35-36).
The land is saved from the curse, at least for the time being. Later it will be the remnant who are saved (Mark 13:20), as is always the case throughout the Old Testament writings of Israel’s failures and restorations.
Story, not history
There is nothing historical about John the Baptist in Mark’s Gospel. (One is entitled to think of an historical JB elsewhere if one likes, but Mark’s character is entirely literary.) As Paula Fredriksen writes in another context:
Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly.
And John the Baptist and his role in Mark’s Gospel is a paradigmatic fulfillment of the prophecy of the Elijah to come. John, like Elijah, lives in the wilderness and by a river there. Like Elijah, he also wears a hairy prophet’s garment and a leather belt. And like Elijah, he calls for repentance.
He does fit the literary prophet paradigm by having his head chopped off. But he also, unlike the other prophets, has the unique role of being listened to by the people of Israel who repent at his message. This prophet had to fulfill Malachi for the most coherent way to introduce Jesus.
So both in his conformity to type and in his exceptionality of function, he is the literary tool of the Gospel author.
Mark plays with literal and metaphorical meanings of words to show how spiritually blind the disciples of Jesus were. It’s a technique that works at the literary level. But in reality people are by nature attuned to the nature and prevalence of metaphor in everyday speech, so the dialogue narrated for this effect is hardly realistic, and therefore implausible as real history. But setting reality aside for a moment, we can play at historical Jesus scholarship and ask for the origin of the core saying in the following passage of Mark 7:
14Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.‘ “
17After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? 19For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” . . . . .
20He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ 21For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’ “
The Jesus Seminar (1993) declared that:
The Fellows were virtually unanimous in rejecting 7:20-23 as coming from Jesus. The list of sins is similar to others found in early Christian texts, such as the one in Rom 1:28-32. And it appears to have been introduced here to spiritualize and thus soften the previous reference to bodily defecation. (p.70, The Five Gospels)
Ten years later Geza Vermes published the counterpoint:
We are witnessing here the general moralizing tendency which Jesus adopted in continuity with the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. (p. 346, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus).
Little details, such as Matthew turning a Pharisee’s statement in Mark into a question, and Luke adding the little word “some” to Mark’s account, on closer inspection turn out not to be haphazard variations, but evidence that the gospel authors were more focused on creative story telling than passing on “traditions”.
The example of this that I noticed most recently is the slightly variant accounts of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees over his disciples’ corn-plucking on the sabbath. (I was thinking through James Crossley’s argument for these different accounts revealing evidence that Mark was written before “the church” experienced any controversy over sabbath observance. In his efforts to uncover “assumptions” being made by Mark, and reliance on a presumed Aramaic source text, he misses much of what actually is there to be seen on the surface.)
The model makes sense of the Gospels and the Gospels are the evidence for the model.
What century am I living in? My work ID card says I am in Singapore but my iphone map sometimes tells me I’m in Brazil. This is confusing enough, but I sometimes read books and websites by mainstream scholars that actually claim that the Enlightenment took humanity backwards and that it is rational and preferable to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, or at least in “something” that we can’t identify that amounts to the same thing. I’d be happy enough to put this down to just another one of those quirky surveys about the insularity of the U.S., but sometimes I find even UK and European scholars saying the same thing. And most recently, I have learned that a few scholars who pride themselves on their “independent” and “secular” approach to biblical studies have embraced wholesale (and in defiance of secular logical norms for assessing evidence for historical events) the faith-based models and assumptions that have monopolized biblical studies for generations.
Von Ranke and E. H. Carr spinning in their graves
The principle that governs what is historical fact seems to be this: If a name or event is mentioned in the New Testament, then we are entitled (on faith?) to accept that it has some historical core or origin if we can rationalize it within the constraints of what we can assess about Jewish customs, textual comparisons of the story and other literary and linguistic details (form criticism is an optional extra), and if we can find a persuasive role for the detail within the model of how we believe Christianity must have started.
And that model is built (by circularity) upon other details that have gone through the same processes of rationalization.
The Eusebian-Gospels-Acts model is all there ever was and is
Miraculous and supernatural details are to be ignored — or embraced as something “we can’t explain” — even if the stories make very little sense, or are even nonsense, without them. An example of the latter is how biblical historians sometimes try to argue for the rise of Christianity without a literal resurrection. It is said that Jesus came to be worshiped as a result of some “inexplicable” experience of the disciples despite the crucifixion of Jesus as a criminal.
Some historians have attempted a more naturalistic explanation — not of the rise of Christianity per se, but of an explanation of the inherited core Gospel-Acts model of how Christianity is said to have begun. The question of Christian origins is not generally open to a fresh start with a reexamination of what models the evidence might permit. The question of origins is chained to the model of origins that is found at the “core” of the Gospels and Acts.
That is, there was a John the Baptist movement, an ensuing Jesus movement, (the details of this Jesus and the movement are open to as many options as there are imaginations plied to this study, it seems), a crucifixion by Pilate and a belief in a resurrection soon afterwards, followed by a mission to Jews and Gentiles, with various conflicts following until some sort of rough harmony was finally settled (except for all the others who were doomed to oblivion by being rejected from what became the “catholic church”.)
And the Gospels were attempts to record something of this event, with redactions over time, and mixed of course with a lot of theological stuffing.
I gather that that basic model is not open to question by most biblical scholars.
Imagine the whole world was allowed to read only one narrative
Not even the miraculous — and how the narrative relies on the miraculous to make sense of things — can shake confidence in the belief that it has some historical core. In addressing Bauckham’s attempt to argue that the Gospels emulate ancient “historiographical best practice” in his “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”, G. A. Wells writes:
So because, for instance, Thucydides gave a sober account of political and military situations in which he personally was to some extent involved, the authors of miracle-ridden Christian apologetic treatises “must” have written on the same basis. . . . The New Testament is surely more likely to be comparable with other sacred works of antiquity than with ancient accounts of then recent human history. In the opening chapters of Mark Jesus is addressed by the heavenly spirit as “my beloved son”, is then waited on by angels in the wilderness, recognized as “the holy one of God” by the spirits of evil he defeats, cures a leper instantaneously, has the divine power of forgiving sins, and claims to be lord of the sabbath. Such writing is not comparable with Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian Waror with Tacitus’s portrayal of the struggles and intrigues in the empire in the century before he himself wrote.” (p. 320, “Cutting Jesus Down to Size”)
Despite this character of the narrative of Gospels-Acts, the model of Christian origins described above is based entirely on the self-testimony of its narrative. And as the much maligned Earl Doherty has pointed out, the Gospels (and Acts) were very much a small sample of early Christian literature. But their relatively small sampling has not hindered their ability to so totally dominate (“tyrannize”) the way we read all the other early Christian writings.
One often reads a study of some detail in Paul’s epistles, for example, being explained by reference to the much later Gospel narratives. Progressions of thought or theology are traced from Paul to Mark and then on through the other Gospels — all as if they are related in evolutionary development of a single species. Rarely is the possibility entertained that such differences represent warring or simply scarcely connected factions. The Eusebian model of organic harmony (as per Acts?) must more or less prevail.
The problem is that without the Gospels and Acts we have no ready-made narrative outline to explain Christianity. It is the only story we have. To question it too radically would mean we would have to start the whole enterprise of understanding Christian origins from scratch.
It is truly a most remarkable thing that mainstream biblical scholars, including “independent” and secular ones, can assert that this Gospel-Acts model is the only one that makes sense of the evidence. It is the only one they know. Any other is routinely ridiculed or worse.
I wish I could recall where I read it now, but someone somewhere has written that Mark’s baptism scene is indeed his “birth” narrative of the Christ. Matthew and Luke might be seen as supplementing Mark’s gospel with a more “natural” birth, or at least one that had a flesh and blood Jesus come through the waters of the womb rather than the Jordan.
I found the idea interesting because it sits with the other Christological suggestions in this gospel — that Jesus was either adopted by God at baptism (adoptionism), or that the Son of God entered Jesus at baptism and from that moment there were two beings in one (separationism).
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
10And when He came up out of the water, at once he [John] saw the heavens torn open and the [Holy] Spirit like a dove coming down [to enter] into Him.
11And there came a voice out from within heaven, You are My Beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.
12Immediately the [Holy] Spirit [from within] drove Him out into the wilderness (desert),
13And He stayed in the wilderness (desert) forty days, being tempted [all the while] by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to Him [continually].
Jesus has no background. He is just a name. One might almost picture a Brian coming along one day to get baptized like everyone else was doing, and on emerging from the water he looked up to see the Ptolemaic sky being torn apart and a single spirit like dove (not two, as Aeneas was granted from heaven) swooping down and whooshing right into his very body. Thus possessed, Jesus next hears God speaking and pronouncing him to be his Son. Before Brian knows what’s happened he is driven off (like Azazel?) into the wilderness. The focus is on heaven as the active agency and the man baptized is a passive recipient of voice, vision and possession.
Could this be something of a metaphorical “new birth” story? The waters of baptism are a variation on a trope that can be found as far back as the Exodus and Red Sea event, or even (as Thompson suggests) with the parting of the waters by Elijah and Elisha in preparation for a new phase of ministry, the new world order that was ushered in by Noah’s Flood, and the very beginnings of life with the parting of the waters in the Genesis creation.
Was it to displace Mark’s image that suggested such a “birth” that was occasioned only at the moment of baptism that Matthew and Luke added their nativity scenes? (Or was Mark reacting against the nativity scenes and depicting something more to the liking of his own Christology? — just in case one day Markan priority is found not to be so cut and dried as it seems today.)
John does not need a nativity scene either, of course. His Word of God “became” flesh, but really had no birth, since he had been sitting or floating with God from the very beginning of everything.
Just thoughts, here. Sometimes nativity scenes are treated as evidence of the evolution of a Jesus biography. But it’s just as possible, I think, that their exclusion from Mark and John (as much as their inclusion in Matthew and Luke) has more to do with theology than with a simple adding of details to a tale over time.
Just a quick thought. I am still attempting to get a handle on how scholars treat the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 and its counterparts in Matthew and Luke. Most recently I have been reading Theissen’s attempts to link it with the “Caligula crisis” of 40 ce.
I hear often enough that it matters not that the prophecy never “came true” as expected, since religious groups are never put off by their failures but always reinterpret them. They maintain their faith in them, we are told, and set them for another time in the near future.
But that’s not quite true. I know that the Seventh Day Adventists and other groups have a long list of failed prophecies that they have swept under their carpets. They are not reinterpreted. They go out of print and into the black hole of forgotten details that “never happened.”
What is reinterpreted is some classic or canonical prophecy that is an established pillar of their texts or prophetic visions. So today religious groups continue to reinterpret Mark 13 and Revelation in the light of whatever is happening today. But when they get too daring and say something that is proved false, that prophetic interpretation is dropped. The European Common Market was to emerge in 1972 or 1975 as the great Beast power at one point. That is forgotten, but Revelation and Daniel still hold centre stage for these prophecy buffs.
But in the case of Mark 13, this was a new text. If it was created in 40 ce as Theissen and others argue, then why on earth was it not as quietly dropped from view as a prophecy that 1972 or 1975 was to mark the beginning of the Great Tribulation II? It did not have the canonical status to have any staying power.
No doubt there is much I don’t understand about this. But I do not understand the argument usually offered. Why was it kept in the church if it indeed was a predicting an imminent threat to the Temple in Jerusalem in either 40 or 70 ce?
I have other suspicions about the prophecy, but I also want to know if there really is something I’m missing with the standard rationalization.
Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, has analyzed suicide bombings internationally since the 1980s. In Dying to Win he demonstrates that the earliest case of modern suicide terrorism was carried out by mixtures of Islamists, Christians and Socialists without any particular allegiance to religion in Lebanon. In Sri Lanka many were Buddhists. It is not restricted to any particular religion. The cause was in every case political and national. Religion might help some muster a Dutch courage to carry out those missions, but it might just as often restrain many others from surrendering their lives through such an act. Pape’s latest discussion (co-authored) of Chechen suicide bombings in the New York Times adds to this case. An easier-to-read form of this article can be read on InformationClearingHouse.info.
Dr Jim hits the nail on the head whenever he trashes Richard Dawkins’ too-often “pretty pathetic” [Link //drjimsthinkingshop.com/about/ and blog is no longer active… Neil, 23rd Sept, 2015] treatment of religion. I love a lot of how Dawkins handles religion, but as Dr Jim has put it, he can also show himself up as not really understanding “the humanity” (too busy focussed on “the stupidity of it”). Ditto for Sam Harris. Discussed something like this once before.
Simplistic discussions like these do not contribute to the most constructive way to remove this threat.
Sabio Lantz is reviewing in detail The Burial of Jesus, by James McGrath. Because it sets out James’ approach to his historical method I have referred to it a few times (I also addressed its section on Joseph of Arimathea). See The Burial of Jesus: a review.
(I had overlooked that it is self-published. I wonder if McGrath has copped the same flack as Doherty has for “vanity publishing” one of his books.)
Alexa rankings are listed here on the Free Old Testament Audio Website Blog.
Anyone interested can check out traffic and stats on any website at the Alexa site.
According to the demographics page of Alexa (searching by blog url), if you read this blog chances are you are
Either 35-44 or 55-64 years old
Without children at home
Have a graduate education
And just as likely to be reading it at work as at home
But there’s also a chance you are Finnish, and a few with kids at home do get a tiny bit of time to read this.
And the “time on site” stats say you will average 19 and a half minutes on the site, the same time as the Mormons spend on the Joel Watts’ site 🙂
(Given the recent exchanges with James McGrath’s, maybe it is not out of place to note that readers of ExploringOurMatrix are far more likely to be between 45 and 54 years old, much more likely to be American — with a 0.8% likelihood you are from Singapore of all places, have children at home, and be reading his blog at work — but only for a minute with each visit. Well there ya go! We are from different planets 🙂
Not found in the Alexa data, but the one that I have to live with from my own stats, is that the most popular Vridar post of all continues to be my whimsical Venus of Willendorf resurrected 100 years that has attracted an embarrassing 11,612 visits since it appeared in August 2008.
It looks to me very much as if the association of carpentry (or artisan of any kind) being associated with Jesus originated as a clever rhetorical device. Mark is regularly associated with “irony” and maybe that trait was also the origin of Jesus’ first job description.
The word Mark uses is tekton, and BibleStudyTools offers its meanings (bluntly and without discrimination as to the when’s and where’s of such meanings) here as:
a worker in wood, a carpenter, joiner, builder
a ship’s carpenter or builder
any craftsman, or workman
the art of poetry, maker of songs
a planner, contriver, plotter
Mark wrote 6:1-6:
And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples follow hm.
And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands?
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.
But Jesus, said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.
And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.
And he marvelled because of their unbelief. And he went round about the villages, teaching.
The interlinear Greek and English for the critical verses 2-3 can be viewed here.
I can’t help being a little curious about a couple of details here, and one is the way the tekton word is introduced.
Jesus is called a ‘tekton/artisan’ in response to the rhetorical reference to “mighty works wrought by his hands“. (Mark 6:2-3).
Now “handiwork” is exactly what a tekton does.
Doesn’t this come across as another example of Mark’s portrayal of the spiritual blindness of the lesser mortals — similar to sceptics saying: Is this the shepherd/potter of Israel? And the narrator has them trip over themselves by replying: Nah, just a shepherd/potter.
Whether the tekton reference is historical or not, there certainly appears to be literary artifice in the way it is introduced. And perhaps not only literary artifice, but also theological intent. Does not Mark regularly depict spiritual blindness by mundane images taken at face value, and elsewhere lace his stories with details that are really spiritual symbols? (the fruitless fig tree, leaven, temple destruction and rebuilding in 3 days, blind Bartimaeus’s garment, healing the blind, 40 days in the wilderness, Simon-Jairus inverted parallels, etc.)
Does not this literary and theological context of Mark give some cause to pause before assuming the tekton reference is referring to historical reality?
Does it not look as if the tekton/carpenter/artisan job of Jesus is planted there by Mark in “Markan-ironic” response to the charge that he was rumoured to have produced so many “great works by his hands”.
And if there is a literary-theological explanation for such a detail as Jesus’ job description at hand, on what basis can we take a leap into wherever and assert that Jesus really was, historically, a carpenter, or even a son of a carpenter?
Afterthought: I should add to the above the additional irony (if it were intended) that according to both Cicero and Sirach people of the artisan class were incapable of aspiring to any sort of higher “wisdom”. Note the cynical reference to “wisdom” in the Markan passage.
I was recently reading a historian’s discussion of the events of Masada that attempted to unravel the myth from the historical fact. The similarities and differences with the way biblical historians attempt to unravel the myth and history of the Passion of Jesus were unavoidable.
Josephus created the myth of Masada — 960 Jewish defenders mass-suicided when faced with defeat at the hands of the Romans. The historical facts can be uncovered by
archaeological evidence, and
adding a dash of common sense to literary criticism of the narrative of Josephus.
Not that we “need” archaeological evidence for every detail Josephus ever pens. Many details are not all that critical to our understanding of the basic outline of events associated with the Jewish war. But we do have external controls for enough of the narrative of Josephus to give us confidence that when he writes about the Jewish rebellion against Rome from around the mid 60s to early 70s ce, he is indeed tackling a real event — unlike when he paraphrases some of the early mythical biblical “history” such as the creation of Adam, Noah’s Flood and the Exodus. It may be that when Josephus is discussing externally verifiable events, his narrative is not always pristine accurate. But the historian of such ancient sources can attempt to weave her way through the narrative details with a mix of common sense and literary criticism and arrive at a “probability range” statement about what might or might not have occurred, (and still never be absolutely sure).
Archaeological evidence confirms that there was indeed a historical conflict between Jews and Romans at Masada. We have remains of a Roman military camp, Jewish defensive structures, and evidence of violence. Unfortunately for the Josephan account, however, not all this evidence is so supportive. Josephus says the food reserves were not burned, that there was but one grand bonfire to consume all property chosen for destruction, that all agreed to suicide, and to do so in a palace area. The archaeological evidence tells us that:
food reserves were burnt
many disparate areas were burnt
remains of bodies have been uncovered in different locations, including in a hazardous-to-access-cave outside the defended area
the area where the 960 were said to have suicided was too small for such a number
Common sense delivers its contribution to reality. Josephus informs us that at the moment the Romans finally breached the defensive wall, they decided to have a break and go and have a nap for the night. That defies common sense. The Romans were quite used to attacking at night. To retire after the breach only meant they would have to maintain a careful watch to ensure the Jewish rebels did not attack the Roman fortifications or camp.
Meanwhile, Romans were able to continue monitoring the situation within Masada from the heights of their siege engines. Despite all the goings-on with the rebel encampment that Josephus relates, when the Romans did enter through the breach the next morning they were supposedly completely unprepared for what they discovered. Somehow the Roman observation posts had failed to detect anything unusual at all during the night, such as the inhabitants all retreating to a single Tardis-like building (too small for all those Josephus says entered it) and suiciding.
Besides, how could Josephus have had any idea of what transpired in Masada on that final night?
Common sense does not support the historicity of Josephus’s narrative.
Now bring in literary criticism. Meanwhile, the Jewish rebel leader, Eleazar, delivers a long speech in which he lays the total blame for the failure of the Jewish rebellion on his own party, the Sicarii, and in which he declares that the imminent fate of both himself and all his colleagues at the hands of the Romans was justly deserved. He once again delivers another lengthy discourse on the rationale for suicide and the nature of the soul. When we think of these two speeches alongside what we know of Josephus’s negative view of the Sicarii, and alongside Josephus’s own earlier reasonings for avoiding suicide (when it involved his own life), we begin to see authorial motives for the creation of these eloquent speeches.
Literary analysis further enables us to see how Josephus used the delay of a whole night to enhance the dramatic effect of the Roman entry the following morning. The Romans are depicted as entering cautiously and being mystified by the silence and emptiness of what they did encounter. It is all a most dramatic build-up to the discovery of the “facts” that did eventually confront them. Continue reading “The Myth and History of Masada and Jesus’ Passion”