2010-10-06

Bible: Story or History? Art or Real Life?

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

Dionysos mask, found in Myrina (now in Turkey)...

One New Testament scholar has written that Jesus’ real life was lived out just like a real Greek tragedy. Jesus’ travels, works and sayings, all his life, just happened to all follow a sequence and specific eventfulness that had all the appearance, to anyone who was observing, of working out just like a drama on a Greek tragic stage! I will return to this otherwise interesting NT scholar.

Thomas L. Thompson‘s The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham is recognized as having been the wedge that dislodged the dominance of Albright‘s influence on Old Testament studies. Albright had argued that the Bible was basically true history from the Patriarchs through to the Babylonian captivity. Thompson’s critique went beyond the specific archaeological evidence itself, however. He went to the heart of the way (Albrightian) biblical historians gratuitously assumed that the biblical text was essentially a historical record of Israel. The Bible is first and foremost literature, and it is as literature that it must be first understood. A little basic literary analysis is enough to explain many of the details of the Bible stories.

In a recent post discussing a book by Sheffield scholar David Clines I quoted the same core historical principle:

It is indeed usual for practitioners of biblical literary criticism to insist that the literary must precede the historical, that we must understand the nature of our texts as literary works before we attempt to use them for historical reconstruction. . . . But [in the case study of Nehemiah] the literary and historical have been so closely bound up, historical questions being raised — and sometimes answered — in the very process of asking the literary questions. (From David J. A. Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help? 1990. p. 163)

So to the point of this post:

Thompson introduces his detailed examination of the archaeological evidence of the Nuzi tablets with the principle stated somewhat differently:

It is important to realize in the following investigation that the Genesis narratives only indirectly reflect actual practices of individuals in history. Because Genesis is composed of stories, these stories can be expected at times to follow not the actual customs of people but the exigencies of the narrative form which has its own traditions and context. So, for example, we cannot assume on the basis of Gen 38 alone, that the ancestors of the tribe of Judah, or anyone at all, actually used burning as a punishment for adultery. So too, the assumption that patriarchal authority is actually exemplified by Lot’s willingness to sacrifice his daughters to save his guests is not adequately justified. This story is perhaps more influenced by the literary necessities of the ancestral hero offering hospitality to strangers, which hospitality is to result in his being saved. The literary form of the story is not bound to the limitations of actual legal practices, and in several cases in our Genesis stories where the motivations of the patriarchs’ actions has been explained by reference to the Nuzi customs, traditional literary practices appear to offer a more adequate explanation. (pp. 202-3)

Applying this principle to New Testament studies

What happens if we apply this obvious principle to New Testament studies? One of the pillars of the study of Christian origins is the idea that the disciples of Jesus failed to truly understand him during his ministry, and that it was only after his resurrection (or “easter experience”)  that the disciples came to think of him as a divine messianic figure to be worshiped alongside God, or to be the heavenly creator and sustainer of the universe and mediator through whom they must worship God. But what is the basis for this belief that the disciples were a bit dim during Jesus’ lifetime? Surely it is entirely a narrative exigency to make the theological plot of the gospels work.

The narrative plot of the gospels hangs on the very popular literary motif (found in epics, drama and popular novels of the day) of the failure of those who should be worshipers of a divinely sent messenger to recognize his true identity until the very end.

What this means is that the entire edifice of most historical Jesus scholarship is based on the assumption that a popular narrative logic — a necessary literary artifice — is also, coincidentally, what really happened in real life.

One scholar who wrote a book that is in many respects very interesting and rewarding reading, Gilbert G. Bilezikian, actually argues for just this. He really says that Jesus life was indeed like a Greek tragedy and seen by an observer as such, so that this observer was naturally led to use the form of prose Greek tragedy to write the story of Jesus!

Since he was obviously not motivated by pretensions to literary achievement, Mark cannot be accused of having deformed the material just for the sake of writing a story in the manner of Greek drama. It was the very nature of the story itself, with its quintessential concentration of all that is tragic about life, which called for the use of tragedy as a suitable armature for its orderly recording and preservation. (p. 141 of The Liberated Gospel: A Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy.)

This statement is quintessentially naive. No life is lived or ever can be lived like a structured drama. Literary structure is always of necessity imposed on material to make it work. There are long gaps of banality that must be cut out, and too many choice possibilities for mention that must be edited and cut. Art is artifice. It is not real life. Bilezekian was bewitched by the narrator’s art that, like a child, he believed the story told it just how it really was.

Occam’s razor is still a handy rule of thumb. If an immediate hypothesis at hand works to explain X, then why try to fix it by adding more spanners to the works.

Ancient Greek Theater at Siracusa - 3
Image by Josh Clark via Flickr
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.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

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

13 Comments

  • C.J. O'Brien
    2010-10-06 00:49:40 GMT+0000 - 00:49 | Permalink

    This statement is quintessentially naive. No life is lived or ever can be lived like a structured drama.

    Nor are any authors of literary works utterly “[un-]motivated by pretensions to literary acheivement.” The rough immediacy of the narration and un-literary Koine Greek of Mark have been fooling readers into a false complacency since the ink was dry. There is a great deal of literary art there. Recognizing the narrative as an extended parable is a necessary step, though, to see the literary devices for what they are. Not a prose stylist, maybe, the author of Mark, but he certainly was not without literary ambitions of a kind.

    • 2010-10-06 12:31:05 GMT+0000 - 12:31 | Permalink

      I am intrigued by Dennis MacDonald’s suggestion that Mark was writing in the style of colloquial speech for effect similar to, say, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey or The Sentimental Bloke by C.J. Dennis or Huck Finn by Mark Twain.

  • Michael W. N.
    2010-10-06 07:38:13 GMT+0000 - 07:38 | Permalink

    (1) Regarding the first question (“Story or History?”), I often wonder, as a non-scholar, if historians are at all interested in the patriarchal narratives, the beginnings of Christianity, etc. Some time ago I stumbled across a Wikipedia talk page where an editor had written that, “according to virtually all modern historians, only insane people hypothesize that Jesus never existed.” Citing Bultmann and Ehrman, the editor wanted to paste this claim into the main article (whose subject I have forgotten); and perhaps he did so. One possible answer to this insult would be that historians do not occupy themselves with Christian origins. Edward Gibbon, in his landmark magnum opus, avoids the whole area of Christian origins. Christianity is introduced in Chapter 15, which deals with the period after c. 250 CE. Gibbon apparently felt that the history of Christianity prior to 250 CE was not known with any certainty. Has the situation really changed? Are present-day historians open to discussing Christian origins?
    I do realize that historians can be found who have molded the evidence to suit contemporary American tastes. Ben-Hur has become as real as Billy the Kid. Nevertheless, I believe that even today most courses on Christian origins are taught, not in the history departments of the universities, but in divinity schools. Thompson writes: “Neither the Hebrew Bible nor the gospels tell us directly of the origins of Samaritans, Jews, or Christians: not even about Moses, David, and Jesus. If this kind of literature can be useful to modern questions of history, I believe it will be because of the many implicit ways literature reflects its authors and their audience (The Messiah Myth, p. 315).
    (2) “The narrative plot of the gospels hangs on the very popular literary motif … of the failure of those who should be worshipers of a divinely sent messenger to recognize his true identity until the very end.” A naive question: Is Mark’s “messianic secret” a result of his familiarity with Pauline and Gnostic motifs (1 Corinthians 2:6-8; Romans 1:4), or is Mark elaborating on Old Testament motifs?

    • 2010-10-06 12:48:00 GMT+0000 - 12:48 | Permalink

      So many popular literary plots revolved around hidden and mistaken identities that were only gradually revealed at the end, and Mark’s gospel strikes me as being structured so closely to the conventions of epics and tragedies, it strikes me as the most natural way to introduce a story of a hero no-one had heard of before. It adds to the plausibility to have Jesus unrecognized in his own time — he could be said to have been mistaken, like so many others, as just another one of the returned prophets.

      But the gnostic motifs also interest me. Most of the Nag Hammadi collection speaks of a spirit inhabiting a human body, with people failing to recognize the hidden spirit inside, or doing swaps with other bodies at critical moments. How old these ideas were, who knows? I’m always in two minds about Mark knowing Paul. Maybe Gibbon had the right idea. Maybe we simply don’t have enough evidence to ever know.

      • Michael W. N.
        2010-10-06 14:55:00 GMT+0000 - 14:55 | Permalink

        Thanks for helpful response. Undoubtedly, the Nag Hammadi collection provides a wealth of information about Christian diversity and controversy during the formative centuries of Christianity.

  • ZED
    2010-10-06 21:06:11 GMT+0000 - 21:06 | Permalink

    “But 58 complete copies in a span of six centuries, and covering the entre christian world, raises serious questions about the percentage of priests in that era who were privy to a complete edition of the very text they were preaching.”

    so there should be a lot more early COMPLETE copies ,more than 58.the copies which are missing pages and sections , how early can they be dated? i assume later manuscripts are used to help recontruct the missing pages and sections because no early 1st century manuscript is available. is there any proof that the copies which have missing pages and sections were COMPLETE LIKE the 58 complete copies ?

  • ZED
    2010-10-06 21:07:41 GMT+0000 - 21:07 | Permalink

    greetings mrgodfrey

    can you link to an article which deals with my questions
    thank you

  • 2010-10-06 21:49:24 GMT+0000 - 21:49 | Permalink

    Since he was obviously not motivated by pretensions to literary achievement, Mark cannot be accused of having deformed the material just for the sake of writing a story in the manner of Greek drama.

    How can we really determine the motivations of a writer who chose to remain anonymous, didn’t say who he/she was writing to, and didn’t say when he wrote it? According to this scholar, we should consider the depiction of Pilate in this anonymous, undated work to be authentic which contradicts the depiction of Pilate in Philo and Josephus (who obviously aren’t anonymous and undated and we know their motivations for writing).

    Reading Mark, the last thing I would think of Pilate would be someone who was “inflexible… stubborn, of cruel disposition… execut[ing] troublemakers without a trial”. If Mark did not distort things for narrative effect, then Philo and Josephus are less credible than Mark.

    • 2010-10-06 22:46:04 GMT+0000 - 22:46 | Permalink

      It will be a fascinating study one day for another age to look back at how contemporary Christian values are read into the minds and attitudes of unknown authors, and meanings of texts and the life of Jesus. I was skimming a few new books on Jesus in a bookstore this afternoon and one could see at a glance how at least one of them (Rabbi Jesus by Chilton)is reading the author’s own values into the deeds (and of course ‘the mind’) of Jesus and calling it historical reconstruction.

      No doubt a part of this process is to impute modern Christian values into the authors of their texts, too. So they are always honest, modest, and if they veer from historical truth it is only out of their devotion to higher godly truths. I recently read a modern scholar’s (okay, it was McGrath) review of another bible scholar’s book, and the review stressed once or twice how this author always approaches his topic with “characteristic humility”. Then when I read the first few pages of that book being reviewed, I read that very same author stressing how humble he was before the evidence and nature of his inquiry. So I guess the reviewer got it right — from the testimony of the author himself as to his own humility. Christians seem to be a very humble lot when they play warm fuzzies with each other, so no wonder they can impute the deepest humility into the authors of their devoted texts.

      • Michael W. N.
        2010-10-07 03:16:48 GMT+0000 - 03:16 | Permalink

        “It will be a fascinating study one day for another age to look back at how contemporary Christian values are read into the minds and attitudes of unknown authors…”

        The modern fascination with Gnosticism may explain why a Baptist minister (John Killinger, New York) has recently published a book entitled “Hidden Mark: Exploring Christianity’s Heretical Gospel” (Mercer University Press, 2010). The UK title is less provocative than the American one: “Hidden Mark: Probing the Deeper Meanings of Christianity’s Oldest Gospel.”

        Trendy or not, the author may deserve credit for speculating that “Mark was probably a Gnostic gospel that made it into the canon of orthodox Christian Scripture because either early church leaders failed to recognize it as Gnostic or because it was too popular to suppress.” Killinger argues that, in Mark 4-6 and elsewhere in the rest of Mark, there are several stories about dramatic transformation that could in fact be hidden resurrection accounts. To me, these arguments seem similar to Darrell J. Doughty’s idea that Mark should logically be read as having a circular structure, starting with the resurrection. Doughty, however, is not cited in the book.

  • 2010-10-08 00:03:13 GMT+0000 - 00:03 | Permalink

    It’s going to take me a little time to sort out the Greek Tragedy (GT) model. I’m trying to sync it with other literary models (epics, novellas, histories) — easy enough at one level, but problematic contextualizing it, at least for me. Still working on it.

  • 2010-10-07 22:59:27 GMT+0000 - 22:59 | Permalink

    “Since he was obviously not motivated by pretensions to literary achievement, Mark cannot be accused of having deformed the material just for the sake of writing a story in the manner of Greek drama. It was the very nature of the story itself, with its quintessential concentration of all that is tragic about life, which called for the use of tragedy as a suitable armature for its orderly recording and preservation. (p. 141 of The Liberated Gospel: A Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy.)”

    JW:
    As Arnold said in the classic “Predator”, “Vat da hell are you?”. Is “Mark” primarily history presented artistically or art mistaken as history? Different Christian authors have correctly demonstrated pieces of the puzzle:

    Hawkins = “Mark” is the original Gospel narrative.

    Kelber = “Mark” is a discrediting of the (supposed) historical disciples.

    Fowler = “Mark” has Text and Sub-text

    Bilezikian = “Mark” has a form of Greek Tragedy.

    No one, as The Humongous said, “No one”, has put it all together.

    Yes, B (Bilezikian) is guilty of making a conclusion in your quote that is not supported by either the evidence or his evidence.. But that is the nature of the Beast (Christian Bible Scholarship). One of the best parts of B’s book is how he demonstrates that in “Mark’s” time Greek Tragedy was considered the highest form of literary achievement. And B concludes that “Mark’s” selection of Greek Tragedy as a vehicle is not evidence of desire for literary achievement?

    So while B is lost concluding WHY “Mark” choose Greek Tragedy his strength is explaining HOW “Mark” uses GT (Greek Tragedy):

    “Rather this is the same complication scheme of the suffering Messiah refusing to let spectacular miracles be interpreted as the validating proof or end-purpose of His messianic mission. Wishing to be known as playing down the importance of such miracles , Jesus tries to limit their repercussion by enjoining discretion, not secrecy. The nature of His messiahship requires that it be recognized through spiritual perception, not imposed by spectacular manifestations

    The secrecy is only for a time . The passion and resurrection will make all things plain and self-evident. Then even those outside will see and perceive, hear and understand, so that they can turn again and be forgiven. In the meantime the teaching of Jesus directed to the crowd is a revelation in anticipation, a lesson to retain for future reference, a sort of revelational time bomb set to explode into full illumination immediately after the resurrection.”

    What B is saying is that The Plan in “Mark” is so complicated, it could not be experienced, it has to be understood. Anyone in the plan could not understand it as they were a necessary part of it. Only those who get to observe the entire plan will be able to understand it. Where B also loses it is he concludes that after The Plan the historical Disciples did understand it but “Mark” indicates the opposite.

    The only known significant Christian writing before “Mark” is Paul. Paul explains WHAT his beliefs are but not WHY. Paul’s beliefs:

    1) Jesus’ life was unimportant.

    2) Jesus’ death is important.

    3) Paul’s source is not historical witness.

    4) Paul’s source is God.

    “Mark” coordinates well with Paul as “Mark” potentially provides the WHY for Paul’s WHAT:

    1) Jesus’ life was unimportant = The Teaching & Healing was a distraction to the importance of the Passion.

    2) Jesus’ death is important = Only Jesus’ Passion has significance for eternal life.

    3) Paul’s source is not historical witness = Jesus’ historical witness did not understand the importance of the Passion.

    4) Paul’s source is God = Faith is based on God as a source and not historical witness.

    The question remains, to what extent did the Art of GT create the “history” here? Personally, the relationship of Paul to “Mark” here makes sense to me as HJ. The real historical disciples promoted Jesus’ life. Paul competed with this so he had to promote Jesus’ death where he was on equal ground. His argument was that his source was God which trumped the Disciples source of historical witness. As long as historical witness existed Paul was at a disadvantage. Once historical witness started to disappear, historical witness was no match for Paul’s imagination. GT as a form fit Paul perfectly. The characters in the play can not see what the audience can and the audience benefits from the mistakes of the Players. The Revelation is the Play itself or in this case the Gospel.

    Joseph

  • 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.