Nothing the Early Church Would Want to Make Up?

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by Neil Godfrey

In his newly published Jesus of Nazareth, one of Emeritus Professor Maurice Casey’s criteria for deciding if a Gospel detail is truly historical is that the passage “contains nothing that the early church would want to make up”.

Though I have read very many works of history, I never heard of this as a rationale for establishing anything as a historical fact till I picked up books by biblical scholars writing about Jesus.

Casey does not exclusively rely on this criterion to declare something in the gospels as historically factual. Another test must also be passed. The event must also have a “perfect setting in the life of Jesus.” I leave aside the obvious circularity of this latter point in this post, and discuss a just one particular critical shortcoming in his use of the first criterion — what is essentially a “can’t see why not” argument from credulity.

Avoiding the literary fact 1: Luke 13:31-33

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

Casey writes of this passage that it contains two or three reasons we should accept it as a genuinely historical exchange between Herod and Jesus.

Once again, a Gospel passage has clear signs of translation from an Aramaic source [he is referring here to the use of the words for “jackal” and “reach my goal” (which is sometimes more literally translated as “be perfected”)] just at the point where the traditions in it must be authentic because they have a perfect setting in the life of Jesus, and contain nothing that the early church would want to make up. (p. 324, my emphasis)

But this latter rationale is invalid for a number of reasons.

The “early church” did not write the Gospel, but a person did. Maybe the canonical version we have the result of a person re-writing an older Gospel.

Casey challenges the form-critical method of Bultmann, but he nonetheless works from a central premise of form-criticism: that the Gospels are products of “churches” at various stages. Certainly “church” doctrines may influence individual authors, but it is individual authors who are doing the work of writing the Gospels.

The Gospels are works of creative literature. Even if they contain verbatum historical reports they are still creative literature. An author has to decide what reports to include, where, and how they are to be edited to supply the narrative with some coherence. All of this is creative effort.

It is imperative that historical enquiry into literary documents begins with some level of literary analysis. Unless we understand the nature of a literary document we have no bearings from which to interpret or understand it. Genre is important. Is our document drama or poetry or prosaic history or biography or a bit of each or something else? What are the ancient conventions for the genre? Herodotus’s Histories and Israel’s Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) both are said to be historical works, but both begin with obviously mythical tales.

So when Casey ignores studies into the literary nature of the Gospel of Luke, and begins by analysing it as if it were a patchwork of collated historical traditions and sources interspersed with “theologically meaningful” flights of the fantastic, he is making a literary-critical judgment (an assumption) about Luke’s Gospel that he does not attempt to justify.

But a number of scholarly studies have explored Luke’s Gospel as literature, and have demonstrated that its (final) author (or redactor) does have a most evident reason or motivation to “make up” details in the passage above. The particular detail in this case is Jesus’ declaration that it is impossible for Herod or anyone to harm him until he arrives in Jerusalem — in the above passage.

The motivation for an author adding this to this gospel can be discerned by comparing how he rewrote sections of one of his sources, the Gospel of Mark.

To take one example, Luke’s conclusion has Jesus appear to his disciples in Jerusalem. Mark concludes by pointing to Galilee as the place where the disciples can see Jesus. Luke goes further, and has Jesus directly instruct his disciples not to leave Jerusalem. This is a clear indicator that Luke is not only changing Mark’s story, but explicitly denying it. Then when we observe that Luke also added scenes of an early life of Jesus and that two of these (his circumcision and dialogue with the priests) are centred in the temple in Jerusalem, we are on fairly strong ground to infer that our author has a strong interest in his readers understanding the importance of Jerusalem in the narrative about Jesus.

If we think that the same author/redactor also wrote Acts (and a number of studies have argued for this link: Talbert, Tannehill, Cadbury, Tyson, Koet) then, given the centrality of Jerusalem and its Temple to the setting and plot of Acts right up to the moment of Paul’s being dragged out of the Temple with its doors being shut and his turning away from Jerusalem to go to Rome, we have a stronger case for Luke wishing to place special emphasis on Jerusalem.

Finally, when we observe that our canonical version of Luke-Acts is unknown in the external record until the mid to later second century, and that it first appears in the context of a theological dispute with Marcionite Christians who rejected the importance of Jerusalem and anything Jewish to the church, we are see the possibility of a specific reason for this emphasis on Jerusalem in both Luke and Acts. By giving prominence to Jerusalem as a setting for the early church Luke is reinforcing Christianity’s ties to the Jewish religion and scriptural heritage.

So when Luke read Mark’s account of Herod threatening to kill Jesus while he was in Galilee, he took the opportunity to repeat one of his major themes: that Jerusalem was to be the scene of the critical event that was to launch Christianity and so “fulfil” the meaning of the Jewish religion.

Compare Luke’s passage above with his source, Mark 3:6

Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

Luke changed this so that the Pharisees came from Herod to warn Jesus so that he, Luke, could introduce a verbal response from Jesus to make his point.

So there is a reason why an author — in this case the author of a Jerusalem-focussed Gospel (and probably Acts, too) — would add to Mark’s account the additional detail about Jesus being untouchable until he arrives in Jerusalem.

Casey’s argument from credulity collapses.

Avoiding the literary fact 2: John the Baptist (again)

Casey repeats biblical scholarship’s mantra that “the early church would not make up the story of Jesus being baptized.”

The story could be interpreted to mean that Jesus was sinful, and inferior to John the Baptist. Whereas Mark simply passes on the historical tradition handed on to him, later Gospels can be seen struggling with these implications. (p. 105, my emphasis)

Again Casey is arguing from naive credulity. Does he really think that the tradition Mark supposedly inherited described John as an Elijah figure, including his specific clothing, diet and wilderness setting? If so, then he must explain why Josephus knew nothing of such ‘traditions’ about John the Baptist, and why even these details were dropped by later Christians. Surely the presentation of John as an Elijah-harbinger of Christ was not an embarrassment to be dropped.

I have dwelt in other posts on the indications in the Gospel of Mark that its Christology was adoptionist or separationist, and that accordingly the baptism of Jesus was a quite appropriate thing to happen — even to be “made up” by an author.

But quite apart from this theological motive for describing a baptism of Jesus, and also apart from all the indicators that the imagery and speeches in the scene are drawn from Old Testament scriptures, one can discern a distinctive literary motivation for the creation of the baptism story.

Many scholars have commented on the opposing contrasts, the paradoxes that characterize Mark’s Gospel. Jesus enters Jerusalem with the inhabitants hailing hims as their Davidic King. Once he enters the city, however, he simply has a look around, looks at his watch and sees how late it is, so walks out again to stay the night in Bethany.

And many spread their garments in the way: and others cut down branches off the trees, and strawed them in the way.

And they that went before, and they that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna; Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest.

And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve. (Mark 11:8-11)

Woops. Bad timing for the entry. Big build up, but then the balloon just pops.

Ditto for the Transfiguration. Three disciples see Jesus transformed into a glorious spirit being and hear the voice of God himself from heaven, and then — foolish gibberish from Peter and nothing changes. The disciples remain as clueless as ever.

Same for the recognition scene. Finally Peter can speak for the Twelve and declare that at last they know who Jesus really is. But the next moment Jesus treats Peter the same way he has been treating the demons who also recognized him: calls him Satan and tells him to be quiet.

Jesus himself delivers a grand prophetic scenario that portrays him in the central role as the one to appear at the end of the age and bring in a new world order. This prophecy is followed by his arrest, trial, beating and crucifixion.

After seeing Jesus perform many miraculous cures and exorcisms the crowds come out looking everywhere for Jesus the next morning. Jesus tells his disciples it is time to get away and leave his ardent followers be.

The teaching is the same. To be first you must be last. To gain life you must lose your life. To be great you must be like a child or servant.

And this is this pattern was established right from the opening of the Gospel. The Gospel begins with quotations from the prophets about the new age to come. This is followed by an Elijah figure pronouncing the advent of the greatest person ever to appear on earth, one far greater than himself, who will change the course of history. All of Jerusalem and Judea go out to hear him and be prepared.

So what follows is as bizarre as all the other reversals and balloon-popping that follows: Jesus comes down from Galilee, gets baptised, and then leaves them all for the wilderness.

In other words, Mark’s consistent theme is about paradoxical reversals of expectations. His gospel is about how unlike the ways of human expectations are the ways of God.

The baptism of Jesus makes as much sense as his crucifixion. It is no coincidence that Jesus even refers to crucifixion as a baptism (Mark 10:37-39).

If Mark was also conscious of the teaching of Jesus being “made sin” on the cross, or of the understanding that Jesus was to “bear the sins of many” (compare Jesus taking on all the metaphors for sin and uncleanness — being blindfolded, bound, spat upon, speechless), then we may suggest that he also found some proleptic meaning in Jesus being baptized in a baptism for the remission of sins.

For Casey to declare that the baptism of Jesus is historical because he can’t think of any reason why “the church” would have made it up, he is, like most of his peers who say the same thing, not trying very hard to understand the literary nature of the literary work he is reading.

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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “Nothing the Early Church Would Want to Make Up?”

  1. If there is a conspiracy among historical Jesus scholars, it is their agreement that they must allow each other to base their arguments on “the early Church would never make this up.” It may be permissible to disagree about whether the early church would make something up, but it is never permissible to point out the absurdity of making that a central pillar of their historical methodology.

  2. Who/what exactly is the early church to which NT scholars appeal to in this type of situation? I would genuinely like to know. Was it the Pauline mission? Acts? Ignatius? Clement? When did the early church begin? Did the early church write the gospels? (probably not, I would think).

    If we don’t know a great deal about these issues, then it doesn’t seem entirely safe to base so much on this woolly ill-defined criterion. In the end, no amount of criteria can overcome the lack of primary sources. And that’s what’s lacking.

    1. Exactly so. Not only are the sources Casey calls “primary” decidedly not primary, but they’re late, anonymous, and contradictory.

      How do we know what we think we know about early Christianity? By reading the New Testament and the patristic writings. The hypothesis that one can use what the early church would or would not have agreed with as a criterion fails, because the documents we’re trying to evaluate are the same documents that define the early church.

      1. Would anyone begin to believe a narrative found in a document that floated out from who knows where or when and from an author unknown? Of course not. But the provenance and authorship of the Gospels are unknown. The Gospels have floated out from who knows where and when and from authors unknown. The difference, of course, is that they come bound in bible-black with gold-leaf edgings and centuries of institutional and cultural reverence.

        It is interesting that biblical scholars seem regularly to speak of “primary sources” but not “primary evidence”. Primary sources are often taken to refer to the earliest known sources, but primary evidence is an altogether different fish. It is, strictly speaking, material that is physically placed in/derived from the time of the subject of inquiry.

        1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primary_source

          A primary source is one that has direct knowledge of the person or event in question. In the case of all four gospels we don’t know when they were written, who wrote them, or even where they were written. We don’t know what sources were used (other than the strong indication that Matthew and Luke used Mark).

          That’s not to say that some secondary sources aren’t pretty good. In many cases the work in question was written by an historian that interviewed witnesses, read court documents, etc. The better ancient historians will warn the reader ahead of time that a given story can’t be corroborated, but sure is juicy.

          But the gospels aren’t even secondary. They’re unprovenanced literary works that attempt to establish theological doctrine.

          The very fact that Casey uses the term “primary source” 36 times (thank you, Amazon!) in his Jesus of Nazareth, usually in reference to the canonical gospels, is a stunning indictment of historical malpractice. He simply does not know what he’s talking about — Ph.D. or not.

          1. I always thought HJ scholars knew what primary evidence was, and that they knew the gospels weren’t primary evidence. I then assumed that they promptly forget this fact when they delved into the gospels and started building their historical Jesuses. Now, with Casey(as your amazon search shows), I genuinely believe he doesn’t know the distinction between primary and secondary evidence. Incedible.

    1. Hi Rich. No I don’t have a blog or website, although I’ve thought about starting one. Recently, I was doing a postgrad study on the historical Jesus but have had to put it on hold due to ill health. Perhaps a blog might be a suitable place for some of my research…

      1. Hey Daryl, Could be. I notice a general problem in internet blogging. It seems that nobody is contactable. For example, almost everyone you click on in this sites comment treads where the idea is to take you to their web page, brings you to a dead end. Ideally, at least, that link should take me to a google doc where you give a small intro of yourself, and provide your email or twitter name.

        Here is one reason this is important. Many blog owners simply delete comments from people they don’t like. So, for example, let’s say Neil happened to hate me. Since I can’t follow a link on this page to your contact info… the only way to communicate with you is via this blog. Now… let’s say, I make a blog comment entry… “hey daryl, i am also interested in that thought you had, contact me”. Now, let’s say, Neil simply does not allow that comment on the blog. Well, in effect, while it APPEARS that blog comments are great for people to meet each other, unless, they actually don’t.

        They key to growing a community, and making open discussion possible, is to easily allow people to talk to each other.

        If you are going to participate in the internet discussion community, I would encourage you, even if you are not going to set up a blog, to link back to your twitter page when you make comments. And if you do not have a twitter page (which anyone that plans to participate on the internet should), then simply sign your comments with your email address so that anyone reading them, since they can’t contact you via links, can simply email you.

        Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

  3. Bonehead criterion. If the original Christianity were indeed along the lines of what Doherty proposes (e.g.), and given the Septuagint version of Isaiah where ‘almah’ is rendered ‘parthenos,’ the Nativity tale would be something the early Church “would want to make up.” And that isn’t the only thing….

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