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.
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