The Cost of the Markan Legacy

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by Neil Godfrey

Burton Mack has, for me, some memorable remarks about the nature of the Christianity spawned partly via the medium of the Gospel of Mark. They are found in his conclusion to A Myth of Innocence.

One of several quote-worthy points was this, and it addresses, perhaps without full realization of what Mack himself originally meant,  the circularity at the foundation of historical Jesus scholarship.

The Christian gospel is the lens through which Western culture has viewed the world. This means that a refraction of the symbols of transformation has determined the way in which the world has been imagined. Translated into secular systems of human thought and observation, the imaginative scheme has given rise to notions and categories that appear to be self-evident, yet continue to support the Christian construction of reality from which they are derived.

If you are reading this late at night after a long day, or too early in the morning after not quite enough sleep, these words may appear to be too abstract to convey much immediate concrete sense. He is “simply” saying that we Westerners have come to view the world and life experiences very largely through Christian concepts, or through thoughts (or memes) that only make much sense to those brought up in a culture that has imbibed much from Christianity over the centuries. Before I make it even more complicated, I’ll let Mack get to the point:

Self-evident categories are difficult to expose because they stem from the matrix of fundamental interests and attitudes that govern social identities and the sense to be made of human activity and intercourse both at the intellectual and the practical levels of endeavor. The example used to investigate this phenomenon in the present study  is the notion of origin, a self-evident category that has determined the scholarly quest to understand how Christianity began.

Now we are beginning to see something distinctive about Christian cum Western culture. There is a certain view of origins that has permeated Western culture and that can be traced to Church teaching.

Mack continues by stating that we take this particular view of origins for granted and thus fail to recognize that it derives from the Christian myth that has been at the foundations of our culture.

The scholarly investigation of Christian origins has proceeded in terms of critical methods drawn from the humanistic traditions. The guiding vision, however, has been some imagined event of transformation that might account for the spontaneous generation of the radically new perception, social formation, and religion that Christianity is thought to have introduced to the world. Because this notion of origins has been assumed as self-evident, its derivation from Christian mythology has not been examined. The results of this scholarship, therefore, have been secular apologies for the truth of Christian claims to unique foundations, even though the purpose of the enterprise as a whole has been purportedly self-critical. (p. 368)

Which, coincidentally, is exactly what I have been arguing in part through the past so many posts. Even nonChristian biblical scholars are bound up in the iconic myth of Christianity and fail to recognize they are merely perpetuating this myth, for all their sophisticated socio-economic or psychological and political critiques. They cannot see the circularity of their assumptions. Not even when they think of themselves as “independent” scholars.

Doherty, whether consciously or not, appears to have acknowledged this failing in mainstream explanations for Christian origins, and proposed even more radically than did Burton Mack an origin for Christianity that cannot be traced to a romantic heroic foundational figure, but that was the outcome of a series of evolutionary fits and starts on which today’s myth was later imposed.

Major social and religious movements, like major political and economic ones, rarely do start from a single heroic founding fathers. But we do know that mythical founders have always been created to explain customs and beliefs of a later age.

If historical Jesus proponents insist that the “Jesus myth” was set in times far too recent to be adopted as a plausible lie, they are simply repeating the circularity of arguing from the assumptions of the myth itself.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “The Cost of the Markan Legacy”

  1. I’m currently reading Crossan’s _Who Killed Jesus?_. In the introduction, he strongly and convincingly states the case for the non-historicity of the slapping and spitting scenes in the gospel passion narratives. Even people like me who don’t subscribe to his conclusions can appreciate his use of language and logic. Crossan slices and dices, leaving the slap ‘n’ spit myth dead on the floor. The gospel authors, he concludes, were taking prophecy and using it to invent story. That is, they searched the Hebrew Bible, looking for portents of what “must have happened” at the trials — which neither they nor any of their compatriots had witnessed.

    And yet Crossan cannot seem to apply that same ferocity to the cherished stories and sayings he likes. He burns down the myths and legends that have led to antisemitism. Clearly Matthew’s story of the Jerusalem crowd shouting for his blood to be on their heads and on their children’s heads cannot be true, and it’s responsible for oceans of blood over the centuries. But Crossan cannot bring himself to use the same sharp knives — the logic, the wit, the healthy skepticism — to bear on what he considers to be bedrock.

    To me it seems that each portrait of the historical Jesus is the result of a series of arbitrary choices. I can’t help but think that Crossan’s early dating of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter is driven by his preconceived notion of who Jesus really was. But by the same token, I think that mainstream NT scholars date Mark far too early, simply because they want a source that’s close to the oral tradition, a written document that they can point at and say, “See, it’s historical!”

  2. Neil wrote: “Doherty, whether consciously or not, appears to have acknowledged this failing in mainstream explanations for Christian origins, and proposed even more radically than did Burton Mack an origin for Christianity that cannot be traced to a romantic heroic foundational figure, but that was the outcome of a series of evolutionary fits and starts on which today’s myth was later imposed.”

    So, Doherty’s version of a mythicist position seeks to replace a heroic foundational figure (for early christianity) with a myth that has no connection with historical realities – a myth that just happened to be generated by ? Ideas swirling around from one group to the next – and bang, someone hits the jackpot, someone’s idea re a Jesus myth just happened to satisfy all the competing visions and interpretations that were doing the rounds! This is the weak spot in Doherty’s version of mythicism. Putting all the emphasis upon Paul’s Damascus road vision – or wherever he might have had it. This is simply replacing an earlier, unwanted, heroic foundational figure for a later heroic foundational figure. Not much different in real terms – christianity is still viewed, as is the basic historicist position, that christianity had a heroic foundational figure. All Doherty’s position amounts to is an argument over the name of the heroic foundational figure…

    Wells takes a different tack. For Wells, it is not all mythical. How could it possibly be? Especially because the gospel storyline makes claims to being based upon the OT prophetic interpretations. What on earth would be the point of a prophecy if its fulfillment was entirely spiritual, heavenly or whatever. How would it be possible to demonstrate such a ‘fulfillment’?

    There is nothing inherent within a mythicist position re Jesus of Nazareth that requires that one deny the possibility, the plausibility, that early christianity, or perhaps more correctly, pre-christian groups, found a historical man to be inspirational etc. All a mythicist position upholds is that such a historical man is not Jesus of Nazareth of the gospel storyline.

    Doherty has certainly contributed to the ‘Did Jesus Exist”? debate. But Wells has a position that is far more likely to generate a forward movement in this debate.

    Can we trust the New Testament?: thoughts on the reliability of Early Christian Testimony. (2003)
    By George Albert Wells

    Page 50
    “The summary of the argument of The Jesus Legend (1996) and The Jesus Myth (1999a) given in this section of the present work makes it clear that I no longer maintain this position (although the change is perhaps not as evident from the titles of those two books as it might be). The weakness of my earlier position was pressed upon me buy J.D.G. Dunn, who objected that we really cannot plausibly assume that such a complex of traditions as we have in the gospels and their source could have developed within such a short time from the early epistles without a historical basis (Dunn 1985,p.29). My present standpoint is: this complex is not all post-Pauline (Q, or at any rate parts of it, may well be as early as ca. A.D. 50); and – if I am right, against Doherty and Price – it is not all mythical. The essential point, as I see it, is that the Q material, whether or not it suffices as evidence of Jesus’s historicity, refers to a personage who is not to be identified with the dying and rising Christ of the early epistles.”

    While issues can be made with Wells position – the basic point is that Wells has two strands in the early christian origin story. A historical figure that was not crucified or resurrected (his Galilean preacher) – and the mythological dying and rising figure of the early epistles. Wells maintains that these two strands, the historical and the spiritual or mythological, were later fused. His major contribution here is that his historical figure was not crucified. It is here that a forward path can be cleared – by separating the theological from the historical.

    1. maryhelena, you asked, “What on earth would be the point of a prophecy if its fulfillment was entirely spiritual, heavenly or whatever. How would it be possible to demonstrate such a ‘fulfillment’?”

      Matthew is so intent on making Jesus into the Neo-Moses that he invents the stories of the Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt. Here we can see how a gospel author treats the scripture as his proof text. It isn’t a matter of Matthew saying, “Here’s why this witnessed event occurred.” Rather, he’s asserting legitimacy by pointing at the prophecy.

      Who knows? Perhaps Matthew had convinced himself that these events had to have happened. Maybe he saw the story played out in a dream and took it to be a sign from God. We’ll never know. But in any case, we have absolutely no reason to believe that these particular historical events occurred. Rather, the gospel author is asserting articles of faith and proving them with new interpretations of scripture.

      John even says that the very reason that Jesus said, “I thirst,” while hanging on the cross was to fulfill scripture. Should we take that as evidence that it really happened? Surely not. The author of John’s gospel was using Psalms 22 (as did Mark) to “discover” what must have happened during the crucifixion.

      In short, the demonstration of fulfillment is the assertion of the (non-historical) narrative. The gospellers said that it happened; you’re supposed to accept it on faith; and your proof is in the scripture. This process, which is repeated over an over in the NT, in no way implies any sort of historicity.

    2. Maryhelena,

      I am not quite sure that the use of prophecy fulfillment implies historicity. It could just be an attempt to historicize the myth. However, I do think Wells two strand hypothesis makes sense. I think a lot of it depends on where you come down on Q and when you date the gospels.

      1. Vinny

        Sure, the prophetic ‘fulfilment’ re the gospel storyline re Jesus of Nazareth does not imply historicity. How could it? That figure is mythological, symbolic or figurate. No way whatsoever, as Jesus historicists have found out, to prove or demonstrate the historicity of this story, of this prophetic ‘fulfilment’.

        Think along the lines of the two strand hypothesis of Wells. Think along the lines of two layers to the gospel’s prophetic interpretations. One layer being theological, spiritual, mythological. The second layer the historical layer. In other words; a theological/spiritual reflection, interpretation, of history. Indeed, the prophetic ‘fulfilment’ re the spiritual layer has taken liberties with interpretation – to the point of ‘creating’ the whole Nazareth prophecy from new, spiritual, cloth!

        This new spiritual, theological, take on OT prophecy, would be a very hard sell to a Jewish audience – unless it has a base in historical realities. An add-on sort of thing, not the primary, historical, fulfilment of OT prophecy. A Jewish audience might well disagree re particular historical interpretations of OT prophecy – but not with the need, the requirement, that prophecy, to have any meaning whatsoever, would have to have a historical fulfilment. To deny that basic Jewish take on things is to undercut the gospel story and reduce it to mere fiction – a purely speculative flight of fancy.

        The gospel Jesus storyline has a veneer of historicity and a spiritual, theological, ‘fulfilment’ of OT prophecy. The historical base is underneath that Jesus storyline. A historical baseline that runs, according to Luke, from Lysanias of Abilene, 40 bc, to the 15th year of Tiberius. A timeline of 70 years. Matthew uses Herod the Great – a 70 year timeline running from 37 bc to 33 ce.

        One could almost say that nothing happens re Jewish history without a prophet playing tag-along; without seeking a prophetic interpretation of that history, without seeking for some meaning within that history. Prophecies were being interpreted, re Josephus, during the siege of Jerusalem by Herod the Great. Leading up to the siege of Jerusalem in 70 ce, Josephus writes about Jesus, son of Ananus, who preached ‘wow’ to the city for 7 years. Josephus himself links Vespasian to messianic prophecies – but, as he writes, others were having a different take on things.

        “But now, what did the most elevate them in undertaking this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how,” about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.” The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular,”. (War.ch.5)

        The point being simply that the Jews looked for a historical interpretation of OT prophecies. That the gospel storyline re Jesus of Nazareth is not historical but only a historical veneer, does not negate the possibility that there is an underlying historical core to that storyline. A historical core that has been interpreted according to a Jewish prophetic view of OT prophecies – which subsequently gave rise to the creation of a new, a spiritual, storyline re Jesus of Nazareth. Two strands that have been, as Wells puts it, fused together. Our job, if we want to try and understand early pre-christian history, is to un-fuse those two strands. Take out a history book and try and view that history through a Jewish prophetic perspective.

  3. Yes, the supposedly fulfilled OT prophesies and the apocalyptic “predictions” in the gospels are generally misunderstood to refer to historical events outside the literature. But these are just texts in conversation with each other and with current and recently past events. Apocalyptic discourse like we find Mark 13 was a way of talking about one’s community’s current historical situation, and “fulfillment” of the OT was a midrash-like reevaluation of older literary motifs transposed into that same world. New wineskins for new wine, you might say.

    1. In other words it is precisely because the ‘orthodox’ engaged in midrash that Christianity is falling apart at the seams. Jesus predicted the eventual end of Christianity when he told the parable of the wineskins. The wine is all over the floor and the conservative scholars and fundamentalist ministers are scrambling to sow the busted old skins back together.

    2. From our modern vandage point anything to do with OT prophecy is suspect. Its all intrpretation anyway, all just a means of finding some relevance, some insight re the human condition, in the reality of historical circumstances.

      However, if what we seek is to understand early or pre-christian history, we do have to, unfortunate and as illogical as it may be, to consider the Jewish mindset from which the gospel story has originated. And that mindset – as even a casual reading of Josephus indicates – reflects a very strong interest in such things as OT prophetic interpretation. It is this mindset from which the gospel storyline has its origins. It is the jumping off point, as it were. Indeed, there was a big jump, re Paul, into a purely spiritual interpretation – but all that is is a change in focus. A change in focus that does not deny the historical realities and prophetic interspretations of the OT that enabled that jump to be made.

  4. “New wineskins for new wine, you might say.” Um, no. That would be the exact opposite of new wineskins. To wrap the OT prophecies around the story of Jesus would be to put the new wine in OLD wineskins. And the result is that the skins get busted and the wine spilled, just as Jesus said. Too bad the ‘orthodox’ tradition decided to be stupid and do exactly what he told them not to do.

  5. Regarding “new wineskins,” I don’t think we need to take it that what is being imagined by analogy is a wholly new model of wineskin, like Wineskin Mark II or something, just that it is new, recently made. The new wine is the Way of the Servant. The new receptacle is Mark’s symbolic fiction. The OT references don’t make the “wineskin” itself old, any more than the fact that a new wineskin looks just as the old one did when it was new means that it isn’t new, and elastic, better suited to holding the new wine.

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