2010-10-18

The things Jesus could foresee: history versus story

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by Neil Godfrey

The Last Supper of Jesus Christ
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Understanding how the Gospels came to be written, understanding what they are as literature, is surely a critical part of understanding the origin of Christianity. Surely one of the most central images of Christianity is that of Jesus knowingly traveling voluntarily to his death in Jerusalem. What I find strange is the extent of scholarly argument or assumption over the historicity of this particular image.

One discussion one sometimes encounters among scholars of the “historical Jesus” is the question of whether Jesus really expected to die as he did the last (and/or first?) time he visited Jerusalem. I focus here on the one iconic event that presumably demonstrated this, the Last Supper. I get the impression that many (predominantly American?) scholars reject the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar that the last supper, first mentioned in a letter by Paul (1 Cor 11:23-26), “probably originated in the communities of Asia Minor and Greece where Paul had established churches and not in Jerusalem where Jesus died.”

In addition to the fact that the earliest mention of the meal is provided by Paul of Tarsus, a hellenistic Jew, two cultural norms or practices suggest that the meal had its origins in a pagan context. . . . . The suggestion that those who ate the bread and drank the cup were eating the body of Christ and drinking his blood would have been offensive to Jesus’ Judean followers. The typical reaction of Judeans is indicated by the response Jesus gets when he says in the Gospel of John, that only those who eat his flesh and drink his blood can be saved: the “Jews” and even his followers objected to that language and some dropped out of the movement as a result (John 6:48-66). . . .

The second of the cultural practices that influenced the decision of the Fellows was the custom of having a meal “in memory of” someone who had died. In the hellenistic world societies were formed, in fact, to hold meals in remembrance of those who had died and to drink a cup in honour of some god. Socrates says to the jailer who has just given him the cup of hemlock to drink “What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to some god?” (Phaedo 117). (pp. 139-140 of The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus, by Robert W. Funk and The Jesus Seminar.)

The Jesus Seminar/Funk continues by claiming that the author of Mark’s Gospel modifies “the tradition” known by Paul by relocating the “remembrance” motif from the Last Supper to the meal at which the woman anointed Jesus in preparation for his death: the perpetual memory was to be of her deed, not the last supper.

I would have thought these are good prima facie grounds for at least entertaining some scepticism over the historicity of the Last Supper.

Myths evolve to explain customs

I have not encountered discussions among scholars over Justin Martyr, in the mid second century, indicating that the memorial supper was instituted by Jesus among his disciples after his resurrection and as a memorial, not of his death, but of his having  come in the flesh. I am sure such discussions must exist somewhere, but as a layman my time and opportunities are limited in tracking down such things.

Other noncanonical literature, such as the Didache, speak of a memorial meal solely as a thanksgiving ceremony.

So we have Paul, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of John, the Didache and Justin Martyr all pointing to variations of practice and understanding of this rite in the early church. There are other indicators, but it is not the purpose of this post to go into them all. The point I am wanting to make here is one well known among anthropologists, that myths tend to develop in order to create post factum explanations for established rituals and customs.

Context, context, context

If the three rules of property investors are ‘location, location, location,’ the first three rules of anyone wanting to understand what an author intended a literary passage he or she wrote must be ‘context, context, context.’

If we are to understand whether or not the Last Supper as portrayed in the first Gospel, that of Mark, should be read as an indicator of the historicity of Jesus expecting his death was very imminent, it is sensible to read it in its context.

Ever since the dramatic turning point in the Gospel, which is the scene of Peter acknowledging the identity of Jesus, the introduction of the prophecy that Jesus was to die and be resurrected, and the three leading disciples being shown Jesus in his heavenly glory on the mountain, — ever since this pivotal cluster of scenes, Jesus is in prediction mode.

Three times he announces this prophecy that he is to die and be resurrected again (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34).

Then he enters Jerusalem via the city that Joshua and the Israelites first entered the promised land, Jericho.

On his way, surrounded by a multitude, a not-s0-innocent bystander, one who is blind, calls out proleptically of his royal Davidic status. Jerusalem is where the kings were crowned. Mark’s Gospel themes up to the transfiguration have been overturned. There is no more secrecy. Jesus is willing for any who can recognize him to announce his identity to all.

The next act of Jesus is to again demonstrate his royal-divine powers of “wisdom” before his disciples and the “great multitude” (10:46) who were with him. The author here appears to be letting is imagination play with the scenario found in 1 Samuel 9-10. The sign that Saul was to be king was proclaimed by the prophet or seer Samuel. Samuel demonstrated to Saul and his companion that God communicated with him (Samuel) even to detailing for Saul what people will say to him about the donkeys he had been looking for, and other things on his return home.

2.When you leave me today, you will meet two men near Rachel’s tomb, at Zelzah on the border of Benjamin. They will say to you, ‘The donkeys you set out to look for have been found. And now your father has stopped thinking about them and is worried about you. He is asking, “What shall I do about my son?” ‘

3 “Then you will go on from there until you reach the great tree of Tabor. Three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you there. One will be carrying three young goats, another three loaves of bread, and another a skin of wine. 4 They will greet you and offer you two loaves of bread, which you will accept from them.

5 “After that you will go to Gibeah of God, where there is a Philistine outpost. As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, tambourines, flutes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying. 6 The Spirit of the LORD will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person. 7 Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you. (From 1 Samuel 10)

Here Jesus sends two of his disciples to collect a colt on which to ride into Jerusalem as its king. Just as Samuel told Saul the things he would see on his way, Jesus tells his disciples what to expect to encounter:

1As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’ “

4They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. (Mark 11)

And following this,

13So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. 14Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”

16The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. (Mark 14)

Jesus is shown to be divinely in charge of all that his happening. He knows every detail that his followers will experience in their service of him. So when he pronounces doom on the fig-tree, his detailed Little Apocalypse, that a particular woman would be remembered for all generations, that one of his followers is to betray him, that all are to be offended and desert him, that he is to be taken by the authorities and killed, that after his resurrection he will see all his disciples (including Judas by implication) again in Galilee, he is reiterating his prophetic powers. He is demonstrating that he is in control, that he has the powers of “more than a prophet.”

Rationalization ruins the story

Sometimes one reads serious scholarly suggestions that Jesus had made prior arrangements with someone about the donkey and another set of arrangements about the room rental. I have even seen suggestions that Jesus had prepared coded signals (e.g. jars on heads) as part of his underground tactics to avoid arrest! As if a man publicly ambling in to a city with crowds hailing him as their king was worried about secrecy!

To “naturalize” the narratives in this way, to remove their supernatural air, is to rob them of all their meaning. If Mark really knew that Jesus had made prior arrangements for hiring the donkey and a room, yet told the story as if Jesus were emulating and transvaluing characters and events that led to Saul’s inauguration as king, or at least simply as a seer, then we can hardly look on him as an honest author.

As Thomas L. Thompson has said in (I think) The Mythic Past, trying to remove the supernatural from the biblical stories only destroys the stories. It does not bring us closer to presumed historicity. I have suggested Douglas Adams’ quote hits the spot:

If you try to take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have is a non-working cat.

Mark’s tale of Jesus knowing of his impending death at the Last Supper is of the same supernatural type of his knowing that two disciples would find a colt tied at a particular place, that two others would meet a man carrying a jar of water, that all his disciples will flee, and that he would rise again.

The nature of the story itself, it’s reiterated motifs of Jesus the prophet, its clear reliance on Old Testament passages (and other Second Temple literature) for its ideas — the story of Saul and Samuel above, the prophecy in Zechariah of all disciples fleeing when the shepherd was struck, passages in Isaiah and Hosea and Daniel and Psalms about a death of a messiah or servant of God and his rising again (and the examples of Maccabean martyrs and the literally offered salvific blood of Isaac – see the series on Levenson for the posts about these) — declare as surely as the heavens themselves that the Gospel of Mark is creative fiction, not history.

To ask, within the framework of the Gospels, if a real Jesus truly anticipated his death or not, is to begin to take the working cat apart.

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Neil Godfrey

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60 thoughts on “The things Jesus could foresee: history versus story”

    1. Spin’s argument makes sense. If the passage has been adapted and inserted from Luke’s Gospel, then it would indicate even more strongly that Paul is originally addressing the custom of the church to eat a ritual meal each time they assemble. This even seems to be indicated throughout Acts and, iirc, the Didache. I suppose it’s possible that “the Last/Lord’s supper” could have been observed weekly, but this idea does not sit well with what we know of it from later practices. The weekly meal appears to have been a meal of thanksgiving, not a funerary reminder.

  1. I would agree Mark is not a History. As far as fiction goes, there is always the question of how much fiction vs. how much fact, a question that bedevils most of our “historical” sources from antiquity. As it stands I don’t think one could ever state with any certainty what Jesus was doing on last days than we can know what Nero said before he/his slave ended Nero’s life. Of course everyone will eventually eat a last meal, that this was accompanied by a ritual of eating his flesh and blood is dubious. As far as knowing he was going to die, in a world as violent as his, it wouldn’t be out of line for him to be pessimistic, but again it can’t said with any certainty that he anticipated his death soon much less that Friday. That it makes a good story doesn’t point toward its functionality, or that of Mark in total. I mean that Caesar was murdered by his friend Brutus, is great stuff, right out of Star Wars, but I still think that play has a kernel of truth to it.

    1. What would be similar among ancient historians would be their debating whether Julius Caesar went to the Senate that fateful day knowing that he would be assassinated, or at least seriously debating the question of whether a seer really did attempt to warn him about that fateful day.

      We can see how ludicrous any such suggestion if applied to real history.

      The Gospel of Mark’s portrayal of the Jesus and his foreknowing what was to happen is closer to Shakespeare’s play of “Julius Caesar” where he plays with the prophecy prior to Caesar’s death to enhance the dramatic effect and tragic fate of his hero.

      The prophecy in Mark (or Jesus’ knowledge of his death) MUST be seen within the context of the many other prophecies Jesus was pronouncing at that same time. To single this one out, as some historians do, is a worse fallacy than singling out stories of Jesus’ miracles as having a grain of truth while dismissing a priori any miracle performed by a pagan god or hero.

      The prophecy in Mark’s Gospel is part of a constellation of prophecies. To suggest Jesus “really knew” one of these in advance but to rationalize the others in the narrative as fictional re-writes of something more natural is hardly being consistent in one’s argument.

    2. Mike: “…I don’t think one could ever state with any certainty what Jesus was doing on last days…”

      Do you ever wonder whether Hercules really asked to be burned alive rather than let the centaur-blood-poison mixture kill him? It seems more plausible that he simply died from the poison and his friends burned him on the funeral pyre — with the story being embellished later. I guess we’ll never know for sure.

      Mike: “…but I still think that play has a kernel of truth to it.”

      That’s because it’s based on historical events with real people.

  2. Better. I don’t know what Apollonius thought. I haven’t spent that much time on the book but I should. While the presentation is rather slick, Apollonius is a character held in similar regard as Jesus at about the same time. It strikes me as being sort of like what the Jesus story would look like if you combined all the material from the earliest till around the time of John or the acts of Thomas or Peter. I think might be able to sort out earlier parts of the story, but I haven’t looked into it yet. Still I wouldn’t necessarily say that we could know what was in his mind unless it were a central part of his message. For instance the material relating to Pythagoras is rather legendary, but I think I might know something about his ideas, maybe the location he was associated with. On the other hand a number of stories attributed to him can not be confirmed and some are purely miraculous.

    Apollonius was written is a bit closer to his time. Still quite a bit of legendary material has been added in for many reasons. If I’m not mistaken the writer compiler of the the work may give some critical background to his story. It may have been more intense critical inquiry that kept the Gospels from looking more like Appolonius. Bishops insisting that the old books were preferred or that separate forms be kept separate. at any rate their is a limit how much we can know about a situation given the amount of information we know. We can have an idea about Hitlers ideas in genral and the way his mind worked, but what he thought the day he killed himself, who knows?

    I know that is a long answer to what Apollonius of Tyana knew concerning his death, but it was a good question.

  3. Biblical historians work on the principle first enunciated by Sherlock Holmes.

    If you remove the impossible, then what remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

    Once they remove the supernatural from the stories, then what remains, no matter how improbable, must be historically plausible, and therefore must be history.

  4. The first mention of this ‘Last Supper’ thing is a revelation by the Lord to Paul whereby the cult could conjure up the body of its founder in a ritual cultic meal.

    Just how much does something have to reek of mythicism before people think mythicism is not a totally dead option?

    If a voodoo cult had a ritual whereby the body of its founder is eaten , would historians ever ask each other if this meal could be traced to a real meal, insituted by the founder just hours before he was betrayed against his knowledge to authorities who were unable to arrest him without this betrayal?

    1. Carr: “…insituted by the founder…”

      And supposedly first practiced by Jews, who believed that contact with corpses caused defilement and that ingesting blood was a major taboo. It isn’t that blood simply makes a person unclean; it goes much deeper than that. Blood is the life force, and it belongs to God. You can spill it on the ground or you can pour it on the altar, but if you drink it, you’re breaking a very basic and ancient law.

      To make matters worse, in the gospels the founder seems to be imposing a new meaning on the Passover meal. Forget your bondage in Egypt. Forget how God delivered you out of slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

      Seriously?

  5. Why yes they would Steve. Often times some one will begin a religious practice and they’re followers will continue it. If you want to study the history of the religion it makes sense to ask, was this practice started by the founder?

    1. So why would Jesus start a religious practice when he knew the Romans were coming that very night to eliminate him and his followers?

      Of course, Biblical historians have no idea how to test the idea that Jesus knew that he and he only would be killed and that Jesus knew his followers would continue the movement, and need someway of accessing his body to remember him by. (How else could the disciples remember who Jesus had been? They were only human and would otherwise forget who Jesus was.)

  6. JW:
    “He knows every detail that his followers will experience in their service of him. … that a particular woman would be remembered for all generations, that one of his followers is to betray him,”

    I fear your are missing the irony here:

    http://www.errancywiki.com/index.php?title=Mark_14

    “14:8 She hath done what she could; she hath anointed my body beforehand for the burying.

    14:9 And verily I say unto you, Wheresoever the gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, that also which this woman hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.

    14:10 And Judas Iscariot, he that was one of the twelve, went away unto the chief priests, that he might deliver him unto them.”

    Who is this woman that “Mark’s” Jesus prophesied would always be remembered wherever the Gospel was preached? No one knows, not even “Matthew” and “Luke”. On the other hand, the betrayer, Judas, in the next verse, has been immortalized forever.

    These ironic touches, where the theology and promotion of Jesus is subservient to the Art, make me think that “Mark” is primarily Literature which merely has Christian theology as the subject. The observation of the anonymous famous women is also another clue that “Mark” does in deed intend to portray the original Jesus movement as a failure. No one is memorializing the women because no one is preaching the Gospel.

    Joseph

  7. So why would Jesus start a religious practice when he knew the Romans were coming that very night to eliminate him and his followers?

    Steve, I’m not sure that he did, or knew Romans were coming to get him, our sources for the events are less than stellar. The whole “This is my body…” bit seems out of place, did Jesus think about himself in such a metaphysical way? To be honest I’m still processing information so my opinion on the minutia of Jesus life is fully formed, and keep in mind John doesn’t use any such last dinner but has other ways of describing Jesus as bread.

    And supposedly first practiced by Jews, who believed that contact with corpses caused defilement and that ingesting blood was a major taboo.
    Tim, Paul discusses the Lords Supper a couple of times without mentioning any Jewish opposition due to disgust, and of course it isn’t real blood and flesh, just symbolic so I’m not sure if symbolic blood and flesh would be as taboo. If Paul recommended them actually eat a human or drink animal blood, then that might have gotten a more negative reaction. At this point I don’t think we know how much difference there was between Paul’s practices and the James/Peter practices. As far as the credibility of Jews adopting a new meaning for Passover or eating blood in any form, I submit that Charles Manson got a following of people in America willing to murder whole families, a normally repugnant practice here. At a small scale any thing is possible. The Christians would not be the only heretics in history.

    1. Mike: “At a small scale any thing is possible.”

      Or maybe, just maybe, it is exactly what it looks like: a springtime ritual that celebrated the corn king — a ritual in which the participants ate his body (bread, grain, corn) and drink his blood (wine or beer) and give thanks to the dying and rising god.

  8. It looks like that? The whole Jesus as Osiris thing is a bit of an old discredited theory, kind of a blast from the past to see it “crop” up again. I’m not sure if the Jew’s in Paul’s circle would have been happier drinking blood if they knew it was for the corn king. Where do you get that this meal was only at springtime? It can’t be confirmed or denied that the practice was taken from somebody else’s eating ritual, but the evidence that that this was done because Paul’s people or anyone else’s thought of Jesus as an agrarian god can’t be supported by the known evidence. let us not forget that there was a rather large religion that developed out of these letters from Paul, and they don’t seem to think of this meal in any context like this.

    1. “let us not forget that there was a rather large religion that developed out of these letters from Paul”

      So religious and scholarly orthodoxy has often said. But what is the evidence for this? Paul’s letters are unknown in the wider literature until well into the second century, don ‘t forget.

    2. Mike: “The whole Jesus as Osiris thing is a bit of an old discredited theory…”

      I was thinking more along the lines of the Dionysian Mysteries, but Osiris will do. Discredited how, may I ask?

      Mike: “Where do you get that this meal was only at springtime?”

      The gospels indicate that the Passover (a springtime festival held on 15 Nisan) was imbued with new meaning. But I still have to go with the Jesus Seminar on this one — Paul’s Last Supper (or agape feast) has more to do with the gentile tradition of meals of remembrance for the dead.

      I suspect that the current practice of the Eucharist is a fusion of many traditions. Christianity has always been good at absorbing rituals and symbols, making them their own.

    3. I see people are scoffing at the idea that the Jesus story has any parallels to crops rising in the spring, when the first century document 1 Clement reminds Christians that a resurrection is perfectly possible because their god makes the crops rise every spring.

  9. I would answer it is because they kept Pauls letters. It would seem natural for a lot of works to be perserved of a faith’s founder. we find a lot of works from Paul, so we seems to be the founder. There are more seperate works by “Paul” than Jesus(or accounts of what he said and did) in the orthadox canon, and only Jesus has more works attributed to him in all Christian religions. If they didn’t like him they would have used some other figure, Peter, James, Judas, any one of the champions picked by the other Christianities. The other big Paul guy, Marcion, uses Pauline works not greatly different than the “orthadox”.

    But more to the point, “these letters” are the Pauline letters we are examing, not missing hypothetical ones. Is it not clear that even from the begining, when we have text of Chirstians disucussing the books they use, they are discussing Paul. He isn’t some obscure person tucked away in the Bible, the teachings in those letters are fundamental parts of surviving Christianity. Do you think his ideas may have been derived from the gospels and then falsley expanded in the words of “Paul”? If Paul was not the author of the ideas why attribut them to him and not the actual people who created the idea? is that the usual way we find out about ideas, falsly atributed to someone? And so freaquently, Paul is the single most prolific person in the bible. We seem to have text for most of the Pauline text mentioned by the early Christian writers, is it likely that only in authentic paul would be perserved? Would you instead argue that one or more of the commonly held to be spurious Pauline letters may in fact be genuine?

    I think for Paul to valuable enough to use as psuedo author, his works would have to be popular, why falsely attribute work to someone that no one regards as an authority? You would gain nothing from it. If someone is popularly regarded as an authority, then it follows that there work would be well known. people are famillier with his work, the number #1 movie is #1 because lots of people have seen it. When they make those cheap straite to video rip offs they rip off #1 movies, not obscure independent French films.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0960835/

    To say that all Pauline letters are false we would have to conjecture that eithier he couldn’t write so left no works, bad luck has eliminated the authentic works, early Paul fell out of favor with Christianity but after a time where his popularity eclipsed other christian writers, thus later Psudo-Paul with its modified theology was maintained but early Paul fell into disuse (as in the realtion between Mark and later Matthew/Luke) or some combination. For instance if Paul rarely wrote there might only be one realy popular work but maybe Christianity was wiped out where it began and the peripherials used more psuedo Paul made to meet the demands for more authoritative words from Paul.

    Well I could go on but I have class in the morning, but given the high amount of Psuedographical work in the NT, it is a good question to ask on whether any of Paul is Paul.

  10. MIKE
    Tim, Paul discusses the Lords Supper a couple of times without mentioning any Jewish opposition due to disgust, and of course it isn’t real blood and flesh, just symbolic so I’m not sure if symbolic blood and flesh would be as taboo.

    CARR
    Symbolic flesh?

    I see this flesh in Paul melts quickly whenever it suits people, yet forms just as quickly into all too solid flesh when they want a flesh and blood Jesus walking the Earth.

    Now we learn that Jesus had remarkably lucky timing. He instituted this meal of remembrance just hours before he was betrayed, when he had no knowledge that the Romans were going to arrest him.

    The fact is that Paul has ‘received from the Lord’ the details of a ritual meal whereby the body of its founder is conjured up for the cult members to eat and drink.

    Just how much does something have to stink of mythicism before people see a pile of elephant droppings in the room?

  11. Bill, You are correct about Peter, and thus I do leave open the possibility that all Paul’s letters are forgeries. The consensus however is no, that is not the case, and I would have to look over all the arguments presented to have a more firm position. With time being the valuable commodity that it is I may hold off doing so unless presented with good evidence to doubt the overwhelming majority of experts.

    Steve, 1 Clement also says the resurrection isn’t impossible because the Phoenix resurrects its self, is Jesus then both a corn god and a Phoenix? As to the symbolic flesh, there is no magic to figuring out what a word means, just comprehension of literature. It can’t be known if Paul meant transubstantiation here, the particulars of that dogma were worked out centuries later, and earlier comments don’t help us know if the thought the bread and wine was literally blood and flesh with the illusion of being bread and wine for all physical purposes.

    Lots of religions stink of Mysticism as they concern supernatural things. Just because Luther and Calvin didn’t preach that people should use reason to determine God’s will should we presume they are myths? Was David Koresh a myth because he claimed he talked to God? Of course Christianity reeks of Mythicism, it about an invisible God, union with the divine, heaven, miricles, angels, prophesies, all that mystical stuff. And it can be demonstrated today that it is all practiced and expounded on by real non mythic people.

    1. Mike: “It can’t be known if Paul meant transubstantiation here, the particulars of that dogma were worked out centuries later…”

      Justin Martyr (c. 150 CE): “Not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”

      Just a few decades (or less, if you don’t buy into the early dates for authorship) after the gospels were written, J.M. seems to be saying that he believed they were eating Jesus.

  12. ‘Steve, 1 Clement also says the resurrection isn’t impossible because the Phoenix resurrects its self, is Jesus then both a corn god and a Phoenix?’

    So Christians scoffed at Christian teachers who compared the resurrection to the resurrection of a Phoenix, and the resurrection of nature, telling them to make their mind up, as it can’t be compared to both?

    What is the point of you writing that sentence? Something can’t be analogous to more than one thing? When did that rule come into force?

    As for all religions reeking of mythicism, because all concern the supernatural, not all religons have a cultic meal whereby the body of its founder is conjured up for the faithful to eat.

    If all you can do is change the subject of the cult having a body of Jesus in a meal, to David Koresh talking to god, then there is little point in discussing things reasonably with somebody who thinks Jesus might have instituted a meal for his followers to remember him by, as though they would forget who he had been.

  13. MIKE
    As to the symbolic flesh, there is no magic to figuring out what a word means, just comprehension of literature.

    CARR
    Is that how it works?

    I thought we just took ‘according to the flesh’ to only have one possible meaning.

    Isn’t that how it works?

    NEIL
    Mark’s tale of Jesus knowing of his impending death at the Last Supper is of the same supernatural type of his knowing that two disciples would find a colt tied at a particular place, that two others would meet a man carrying a jar of water, that all his disciples will flee, and that he would rise again.

    CARR
    Yes, but if you eliminate the supernatural from a story, then what remains must be historical fact.

    That his how history works. Ask any Biblical historian who abides by the rule that historians cannot concern themselves with the supernatural.

    They eliminate the supernatural from a story and concern themselves with the residue, teasing out history from the remains.

    After all, the supernatural was a late addition by the Gospellers , pasted on top of the oral tradition of the Last Supper that had been circulating before they wrote. Everybody knows that.

    1. Good point. So if I remove all the impossibles, those bits that speak of knowing the future, I am left with this:

      Jesus and his disciples have outworn their welcome at the house of Simon the Leper so they rent a room just for the purpose of having a cup of tea and piece of toast before retiring for the night. Then Jesus, being their spiritual guide, sets them the example of saying their prayers before going to going off to sleep . . . .

      We know from John that it was not the Passover meal.

  14. “So Christians scoffed at Christian teachers who compared the resurrection to the resurrection of a Phoenix, and the resurrection of nature, telling them to make their mind up, as it can’t be compared to both?”

    Who are these scoffing Christians your talking about? the point is if some one compares the resurrection to seeds sprouting in the spring, phoenixes or what ever is not the same as saying Jesus is those things. If you say someone describing Jesus’ resurrection is like the sprouting of grain is evidence of Jesus being conceived of as a corn god, then wouldn’t that also mean that the comparison to a Phoenix would be evidence of Jesus being conceived of as being a Phoenix? I think in both instance the author is only saying that that the miracle of the resurrection is repeated by the other phenomenon, not that Jesus is any of those phenomenon.

    Next, so is the ritual meal some kind of special form mysticism that shows the mythical origin of Jesus?

    Finally, flesh can mean lots of things, but not whatever we want them to mean. Context. Your translation of flesh to mean not having to do with real bodies, is pretty demonstrably a complete reversal of any intelligent analysis of the the Pauline work. No would have thought of that except to make somebody’s untenable theory work.

  15. Tim, I’m not sure thought that that is enough to pin down how Paul understands it, though it is possible. The whole business has occupied a lot of time with theologians.

    1. There are no Biblical literalists. Should anything found in the Bible prove too unsettling, every literalist is more than willing to pull out the “metaphor card.”

      “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

  16. John is loaded with more pagan allusions (and offences to Jewish sensibilities) than many orthodox don’t want to really admit. 1 Clement was not the only one to speak of the (pagan) grain resurrection analogy. It is put into the mouth of Jesus by “John” himself. The same gospel also has that uncomfortable reminder of Dionysus turning the spring of water into a spring of wine; discomfort levels rise further when the links between Lazarus and Osiris are mentioned. Jesus uses the metaphor of literally eating his flesh and blood. And we don’t want to think too literally what it means for one’s belly being the wellspring of (living) water.

    1. The agricultural allusions are abundant in John. Jesus is the bread of life. He says the fields are ready for the harvest. He multiplies barley loaves to feed the crowd.

      He tells his disciples, “my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.” And what does that mean exactly? Jesus explains, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.”

      He says, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

      However, I’ve recently learned right here the idea that Jesus bears some resemblance to a corn king is preposterous. It is a “discredited theory.”

      1. It’s interesting to see how these sorts of interpretations reflect the shifting values of the wider society. There was once an effort to remove Jesus as far a possible from his oriental matrix (Edward Said’s Orientalism). It is worth noting, I am sure, that the return to stress the Jewishness to the exclusion of the Hellenistic has come with a rightful backlash against the anti-semitism of the pre-war era.

  17. I don’t see evidence Jesus was intended to be seen as a provider of agricultural products, just bread for the soul. If the motif of bread as life could be adopted into any one’s philosophy or theology, it was a common motif. It does not imply evolution from an agrarian god.

    1. Mike: “It does not imply evolution from an agrarian god.”

      At the very least it implies cross-cultural influence. Justin Martyr complained bitterly that the Mithraic cultists had stolen the idea of the Last Supper. It isn’t a question of who stole from whom. The many mystery cults that flourished in those days probably borrowed symbols, rituals, and customs quite freely. None of them developed in a vacuum. Even if Christianity did start from a Jewish kernel, once the gentiles got hold of it, they went wild.

  18. Neil, genes have a lot of trouble jumping between species, to put it mildly. My pet rabbit and dog are not likely to start swapping genes soon, on the other hand memes have no real boundaries, ideas can combine rather freely from culture to culture. For instance after contact with missionaries a number of American Indian myths started incorporating Christian concepts.

  19. Neil doesn’t understand how Biblical historians do history.

    I quote from page 425 of Dale Allison ‘Constructing Jesus’ where he points out that a real historian accepts things as historical if he cannot see from a distance of 2000 years since date of writing why anybody would make them up.

    ‘Some have urged that at least a few of the stories are likely to mirror real events because they cannot be derived from the Jewish Bible and because there is no obvious motivation for Christian invention: conscription of a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, to carry Jesus cross; crucifixion by order of Pontius Pilate; execution at a place known as Golgotha, the prescence of female followers at the cross, burial by a Jewish official, Joseph of Arimathea.

    To my mind the argument is substantive, and since I have not, with regard to the items just listed, run across effective counterarguments, I accept them as likely historical.’

    Gone is the old reliance on finding towns called Arimathea, or finding primary documents or finding first-century Christians who wrote documents naming themselves as having heard of Joseph of Arimathea.

    That was so a last century way of doing history.

  20. So Steve, you feel we should assume writings are made up if they can’t be corroborated by hard evidence? I guess that is one way of doing history. I’m not sure 20th century history worked like that either, but who knows, maybe the Steven Carr historical method will catch on with somebody.

  21. Mike scoffs at people for asking for ‘hard evidence’, deriding people for asking if something is made up if Christians wrote for 30 years before ever mentioning any of these women until an anonymous person wrote stories about them.

    You want evidence? You can’t handle the evidence. That is the attitude of Biblical historians. They just love to deride sceptics for asking for evidence of Biblical claims.

    What happened to ‘innocence of the text’? Why are Biblical historians not allowed to claim that things are historical, without being asked for evidence? Why are sceptics so mean? It is so , well, rude, to ask for evidence. The manners of some people!

  22. What is with all this biblical historians stuff? Do you read history out side of biblical history? Let me tell you, the Steven Carr approach is little used. The use of written sources is endemic in the field.

    1. Mike: “The use of written sources is endemic in the field.”

      Historians may use written sources (including secondary written sources) to construct historical models that seek to explain how and why an event or series of events occurred. The event or events are known to have occurred because of primary evidence. It is unusual to use secondary evidence to assert knowledge that an event occurred or that a historical person existed. It’s even more unusual to use secondary evidence that’s late, anonymous, and contradictory. At best, such an endeavor can lead us to say, “That could have happened.”

      But guess what — the list of things that could have happened is endless. Plausibility is not chief concern of historians. (That’s not to say that speculation isn’t fun and some might engage in it from time to time.) No, the primary concern is probability and this is the problem with NT studies. Without solid primary evidence we’re stuck with speculation and guesses. This is precisely why we have countless portraits (so-called historical reconstructions) of Jesus that are all different.

    2. What? People use written sources? Like the Book of Mormon?

      And if no Christian of the first century wrote a document naming himself as ever having heard of these alleged women or Joseph of Arimathea?

      Mike Lioso produces no evidence that Joseph of Arimathea, or Judas, or Thomas , or Lazarus or any of these women existed.

      All he does is claim that if somebody wrote about women or Joseph of Arimathea (God know who or where),then they must have existed.

      Especially if they appear in religious works where wise men appear and follow stars to Jesus.

      They must have existed as well, because they are in a ‘written source’.

      Where’s the beef?

      Where is the evidence?

      Who met Simon of Cyrene? Name a person who met him. Just one stinking name of one person who claimed to have seen this Simon of Cyrene.

  23. “This is precisely why we have countless portraits (so-called historical reconstructions) of Jesus that are all different.”
    Tim, I would argue that the various Jesus Myths that have been offered are just another portrait that has been offered. That it posits some story rather than person does not allow it to overcome its lack of evidence.

    I won’t bother to address randomly generated Steven Carr response number 15, as I’m not sure that it actually pertains to any thing I’ve discussed.

    1. Mike still scoffs at Allison for thinking things are historical when there is no evidence for them.

      Let us see what a Real Historian says about such a procedure.

      Does a Real Historian back me up or do Real Historians back up Mike?

      On page 240, Dale Allison points out that the story of Barabbas being released is likely not historical because there is no ‘certain evidence’ of such a custom.

      Strange. It appears Allison is just accepting things as historical or rejecting them as not historical based on criteria which vary from chapter to chapter.

      How can that be?

      Surely True Historians have a consistent methodology, just like historians outside anti-myth scholars.

      1. I see Mike won’t bother to address my plea for some evidence.

        This is very telling.

        You can mock, cajole, plead with, threaten, bribe or ridicule people who believe in a historical Jesus and they will still rise above this absurd idea that they should supply evidence for what they claim is historical.

        It is like asking a teenager ‘When are you going to clean up your room?’. You know they can hear you, but they will give every sign of being struck by deafness, no matter how plain you make it that room clearing is important to the maintenance of a relationship between you and them.

      2. Strange. It appears Allison is just accepting things as historical or rejecting them as not historical based on criteria which vary from chapter to chapter.

        I’m reminded of McGrath’s strident insistence that literary studies of a text has nothing to do with how one treats it as a historical source while at the same time being alert enough to remind people the gospels are critically assessed as being of the “bios” genre.

  24. Steve, I haven’t read Alison’s book, I may never read it, speculative works on the life of Jesus are a dime a dozen, so I have no comment on whatever he is up to. I’m not scoffing at it, I haven’t read it. But when I’m looking at ancient writings, if I can’t find a reason to dismiss the report, I think it is usable as evidence. By reason I mean reasonable, not excuse. So I wouldn’t dismiss a report because it has some feature in common with the Iliad and thus conclude the work is a symbolic commentary on the Iliad for example. It is perfectly fair to dismiss stupid reasons to disqualify a report. Even if there is a plausible reason to dismiss a report it still has some value. We all thought Saddam Hussein was lying about those WMD’s, but hey, turns out he was right after all. I’m not sure what evidence Alison was considering, but if he can’t find evidence of its spuriousness, then it is usable evidence for him.

    Your evidence for Jesus being a historical person is the universal acceptance of the historicity of Jesus by the early Christian community and the few non Christian early commentators, of course the farther from the source the less valuable the assertion. Now they may doubt that he had a real flesh and blood body, but they don’t doubt his presence on earth in a historical way. Nor do legends of Jesus supernatural powers disqualify his basic existence; I mean do you think Davy Crocket killed a bear when he was 3? Now since religions being founded by real humans is not an incredible thing, there really isn’t a reason to doubt core of the legend here. If you want to speculate on Jesus being an invention that was mistakenly taken for real (or fraudulently promoted as such) fine, but present evidence. Theories that are simpler and cause fewer problems with the evidence are preferred. Since the Jesus myths theories so far presented pose more problems than they solve, there really isn’t any reason to choose them other than faith. If no Jesus myth theory is better than the historical person theory then there is a good reason to accept the person theory over the myth, our best evidence on early Christianity supports it while speculation on a Jesus myth are only from the last couple of centuries. Now I don’t know what Jesus ate on any given Friday, or who his pals were, but that the Christian movement was based on the actions of a guy named Jesus seems very likely.

  25. Mike, if I may be permitted to interject with my own 2 cents here – – –

    I don’t think I had ever heard of scholars or professionals of any kind using as evidence documents whose origins are unknown until I discovered it is SOP in biblical studies. One sometimes reads a NT scholar comparing his “historical” methods to those of official legal investigations (Bauckham, McGrath) but as far as I am aware no court system will accept evidence of unknown provenence or origins. Not knowing the origin or source of a document renders it worthless as evidence.

    But it’s even worse than that. The unsourced documents biblical scholars use as evidence for history are chock full of tales of the fabulous and they do not attribute the founding of the new religion to human activity at all but to nothing less than supernatural events and miracles.

    There is no evidence that the early Christian community accepted the historicity of Jesus, as you put it. We only have unsourced writings that testify to an early Christian belief in a miracle-working raised-from-the-dead character. That is no more testimony to the “historicity of Jesus” than the historicity of Big Foot or leprechauns. Using the word “historicity” in such cases misses the whole point. Paul’s letters themselves say as much: believing in Jesus is a question of faith in a revealed mystery.

    You use the word “report”, as many NT scholars do. That term is also a prejudgement of the nature of the evidence. Thomas L. Thompson has addressed this head on pointing out that this is language that reflects our biases towards the nature of the evidence.

  26. “I don’t think I had ever heard of scholars or professionals of any kind using as evidence documents whose origins are unknown”
    Neil, I suppose it depends on the definition of origins unknown, but none of the early Christian writings are complete mysteries of time and space. If you mean a variable date, unknown author, and a location that can only be generalized to rather broad area, then those kinds of documents are used a lot, particularly in ancient history.

    “There is no evidence that the early Christian community accepted the historicity of Jesus”
    Obviously there is a severe disconnect between our understandings of this subject, I’m not sure if it is what constitutes early Christians, historicity, or evidence.

    Regarding Thompson, I haven’t read his thoughts on NT literature, but with all due respect to his early work, his ideas on dates for Hebrew scripture are rather fanciful, so I can’t say I’m eager to see his ideas on literature he is less familiar with.

  27. It is the biblical scholars themselves who concede that they do not know who wrote the gospels, and who concede that their provenance is a matter of academic argument or speculation. I would be surprised indeed if you or anyone can point to any other topic of historical inquiry where researchers rely on anything comparable. I believe it is only in the area of biblical studies that we see this.

    As for your second paragraph, the disconnect is in the meaning of “history”. History as we understand it is a very modern concept. One might just as well claim that the ancients believed in the “historicity” of Dionysus but that would be to impute modern concepts into their thinking. They believed there had been such gods, but they did not think of them as “historical” in our sense of the word — as some objectifiable and evidence-supported fact. Okay, they believed Jesus had come to earth, but this was not something they argued as “historical” in terms we discuss. There is no such ancient debate or discussion. Only faith, belief, in the past visitations of gods. Most of these were at the “beginning” of time, Jesus was at the “end of time” or the age. It is all a mythical world conception. The debates were over the nature of Jesus. By the time they appear no-one was in a position to dispute “historicity”. The only disputes were theological. Historicity was never an issue any more than it was ever an issue with Heracles. That does not mean there was a default belief or reason to accept historicity. It means the question of historicity never arose. The only question was the nature of the one in whom God had appeared.

    As for TLT having “fanciful” ideas, I think you mean that they are not accepted by many American biblical scholars? So much the worse for such scholars. His methods are those of mainstream historians of ancient (or any other) historical inquiry. That is what biblical scholars seem so rarely to grasp — that their assumptions and historical methods really are not like mainstream historical research at all. NT “historical” scholarship is stuck just where OT historical scholarship was stuck with Albright years ago. The process is completely circular. It is invalid. The hostile responses of a few biblical scholars who are offended by that statement ought to be an indicator that that is so. Otherwise they could respond and refute that claim with reasonable argument instead of insult.

    1. Neil: “I would be surprised indeed if you or anyone can point to any other topic of historical inquiry where researchers rely on anything comparable.

      If the casual reader surveys only the credulous mainstream he or she might conclude that the text of the New Testament is solid and reliable. Many scholars like to point out the vast number of manuscripts we have. The problem is we’ve lost the autographs, the copies of the autographs, the copies of the copies of the…. etc. Moreover, the people who copied the texts in the first couple of centuries were amateurs, often people who just barely knew how to read and write, but desperately wanted copies. In a relatively short period of time, the text mutated and was riddled with corruption. Great strides have been made toward restoring the text to an early state, but there are many passages that we’ll never know for certain. (See The Text of the New Testaament and anything else by Bruce Metzger.)

      So to the list of textual problems — late, anonymous, and contradictory — you can add “corrupt.”

  28. Dale Allison claims the differences in the accounts of the Last Supper are because the observers could not remember the details.

    http://www.bakeracademic.com/Media/MediaManager/Excerpt_9780801035852.pdf page 16

    Happily, a True Scholar like Dale Allison and James McGrath is entitled to work with fictions.’…fictions may convey facts.’

    ‘The letter may be false, the spirit true.’

    These are the criteria Biblical scholars true, and who can doubt that when they use fictions as their sources, they are doing no more than what historians in other fields do.

  29. The excerpt has to be read to be gawped at in disbelief. Dale Allison thinks that if people write often enough that Jesus was an exorcist, then Jesus must have been an exorcist even if the stories are ‘…hard to think of as historical’

    No wonder the book has received such praise from New Testament scholars.

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