Curious to know where visitors of this blog stand on the question. I get the impression most are fence-sitters. This poll may confirm that, or it may disconfirm it, — either way I will probably always wonder if I can trust this poll.
There is no historical inquiry comparable to: “Did Julius Caesar exist?” That ought to tell us something about the nature of mainstream historical investigations — and also something about the evidence for a historical figure of Jesus as an originator of the Christian religion.
I have posted far more in depth articles and discussions from mainstream scholarly publications on this blog than anything by or about “mythicists”, and I have never posted what aspires to be a comprehensive argument for mythicism. I used to say I rejected the label “mythicist” because such a label implied that I was somehow dedicated to presenting arguments for the idea that Jesus was not a historical person. (How, then, to explain that I have posted very little on mythicism per se or on publications by mythicist authors, opting overwhelmingly for non-mythicist publications? I have actually read very little on mythicism. One can get some idea of my reading range and interests on my librarything page.)
I certainly do think those arguments that claim Christianity originating with a historical person of Jesus and a few followers after his death are implausible, romantic and circular. And I do believe that many mainstream biblical scholars are in denial over the circularity of their methods, and have opted to bypass and denigrate rather than address serious challenges to their culturally sanctioned historicist paradigms.
Let’s keep it simple and consider the Gospel of Mark only. No heavy analysis this post; only a moment to look out the window and think over how the arguments of recent posts would affect our reading of Mark.
Firstly, we open with the prophetic announcement. What we are about to read is a fulfilment of prophecy as framed and announced in the opening of the book. The anonymous implied narrator is addressing an implied audience that reminds the real reader of the apparent audience of the prophets of Isaiah and Malachi. (Woops, that does not sound the least bit light. I will avoid repeating the “implied readers/narrators” and “real readers/authors” for the rest of this post, though I am certainly framing everything within those four points of view, and considering how it is all working out between them all.)
That is the way stories in novels and tragedies and epics are guided. Prophecies from the divinity announce what is to happen, and the audience then is held in suspense till they see how it all happens just as predicted.
Among several threads tying all these three pieces of literature together:
all three are about human affairs being directed by divinities
all three contain strong theological themes and messages
and this message is reinforced with somewhat nebulous endings that contain a mix of optimism and uncertainty as to the future (i.e. Herodotus, 2 Kings, Mark)
all three ostensibly present themselves as “histories”
all three contain a mix of mythical (including nonhuman) characters and historical persons
all three relate miraculous and supernatural events as significant functions in their narratives
all three contain a similar narrative structure in that there is a significant change in tone and types of events and course of action once the setting moves to a traditional homeland or theologically charged centre (e.g. the Greek mainland, the Promised Land, Jerusalem)
all three are predominantly prose narratives, yet at the same time all three contain a mix of genre elements such as epic, tragedy, novella and poetry.
It is a naive mistake to approach every ancient narrative that purports to be about past events on the assumption that we can take it at its word — unless and until proven wrong. Even the famous “father of history”, the Greek “historian” Herodotus, turned fables into history. The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) does the same. If we are to understand how to interpret the New Testament literature we might find it useful to study ancient Hellenistic literature in general. Knowing how ancient authors worked across a wide spectrum of genres in the cultural milieu preceding and surrounding the time of the Gospels might lead to an understanding otherwise lost to us. If nothing else, a broad understanding of how ancient texts “worked” will alert us to possibilities that need to be considered and evaluated when we do read the Gospels.
I focus in this post on Herodotus and draw out lessons from modern critical studies that might profit us in reading the Gospels and Acts, perhaps even the New Testament epistles.
My own interest in dating the gospels late has nothing to do with arguing for a mythical Jesus. I am not interested in arguing for a mythical Jesus as I have said many times in the past. My interest is in explaining the literature and evidence for Christian origins using the same basic methods I learned as a student of ancient, medieval and modern history some years ago now, and as I still see in vogue in history books currently being published. They even apply the same fundamental rules of evidence and inquiry that I imagine crime detectives or court-room judges understand. Generally self-testimony means little unless you can back it up with supporting independent evidence. If the external supporting evidence all points to a late date for the gospels, then why knock it? (External evidence may not always mean an explicit identification or testimonial, and it can take a range of forms, including prevailing ideologies, debates, literary styles and language, etc.)
The results of my approaches to investigating the origins and nature of the gospels, and the evidence for dating the literature, lead me to believe that the best explanation for the narratives of the gospels is that they originated as creative theology. I don’t know when, but suspect from the time of the early second century.
But it would not make any difference if the gospels were all dated conclusively between 70 and 100, or even between 35 and 65. That would not change certain facts about the gospels themselves, such as their literary and theological borrowings from earlier Jewish (and non-Jewish) literature, and their genre when analyzed from the perspective of ideological messages and communications rather than externals such as style or topics and language used.
Such an early date would raise questions in other ways, such as how to explain their stress on persecution at such an early date. But the historicity of their narrative contents stands independent of when they are dated.
Would it not be wonderful if our Gospels were all signed and dated so there could be no debates about who wrote them or when?
The hermeneutic of charity would rule and only the hypersceptical and “minimalists” would entertain any doubts.
Well, there is one gospel that is signed, addressed and dated. It was written by James the step-brother of Jesus in the very year in which Herod died and Jesus was born. At the end of this gospel it is written:
And I James that wrote this history in Jerusalem, a commotion having arisen when Herod died, withdrew myself to the wilderness until the commotion in Jerusalem ceased, glorifying the Lord God, who had given me the gift and the wisdom to write this history. And grace shall be with them that fear our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory to ages of ages. Amen.
What more could any student of the Bible want? Except maybe to have that sort of information tagged on to the Gospels in the Bible. This is from what is known as the Infancy Gospel of James (or the Protevangelium of James).
The problem appears to be that this identification is attached to a gospel that did not make it into the Bible. I am sure no biblical scholar and probably no serious Christian really believes what they read here. But there is more to it than simply not being in the Bible. This Gospel is about Mary and her own miraculous birth as well as her perpetual virginity. Jesus only appears at the very end as a little babe born in a cave. Probably most scholars would place this belief about Mary and her exaltation well into the second century. But Luke’s prologue itself points to much the same idea.
So why not place this Infancy gospel around the same time as Luke in the first century?
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, but doesn’t quite quack like a duck, then maybe it is not a duck. Just because we see one or even a few features in the gospels that we recognize from historical or biographical writings, we cannot assume that the gospels are therefore history or biography. Formal features can be easily copied from one genre and applied to another.
Mere formalities of style — word-choice, content, syntax — that appear to be trademarks of one particular genre can and often are copied and re-used in other genres for special effects.
There can be no such thing as a completely new genre emerging on the scene. No-one would know how to understand any such beast. New genres emerge through borrowing one or two elements at a time from other genres and repackaging them into another genre so they convey new meanings.
To understand the gospels it is a good idea to have a reasonable grasp of the wider literary world of the gospels. How else can we evaluate a study that purports to argue that the gospels are “ancient biographies” by means of drawing attention to certain formal features in common? I suggest the reason Burridge’s Are the Gospels Really Biography has apparently won widespread acceptance among biblical scholars is that relatively few such scholars have given much time to studying ancient literature. What accord hath Christ with Belial?
This post looks at how ancient Greek novels — fictional narratives — borrowed some of the literary formalities of well-known works of history. It is worth keeping such examples in mind whenever one encounters arguments that the gospels themselves are some form of history on account of similar formal resonances with non-fiction literature of the day.
Not long ago I skimmed through an online discussion over whether or not Paul learned about the gospel of Jesus from other apostles like Peter and James, or whether he relied entirely on direct revelation from the spiritual Lord.
One side pointed to the letter to the Galatians where Paul said that he was not impressed with the status of “pillars” in the Jerusalem church like Peter, James and John, and insisted that all he knew about the gospel he knew because he was taught it by (the heavenly) Jesus Christ himself. So Galatians 1:11-12, 15-17
11 And I make known to you, brethren, the good news that were proclaimed by me, that it is not according to man,
12 for neither did I from man receive it, nor was I taught [it], but through a revelation of Jesus Christ, . . .
15 and when God was well pleased — having separated me from the womb of my mother, and having called [me] through His grace —
16 to reveal His Son in me, that I might proclaim him good news among the nations, immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood,
17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem unto those who were apostles before me, but I went away to Arabia
The previous post covered some of the indications that the heroine of Greek novel Chaereas and Callirhoe was modelled on Ariadne of Theseus and the Minotaur fame. This post looks at the way the author Chariton has constructed his hero, Chaereas, from cuts of other mythical and legendary figures, in particular from Achilles.
Once again, of equal significance is that these fictional characters whose creation was inspired by mythical figures interact with real historical characters in the novel. This is similar to what we find in the Gospels: fictional characters and events modelled on Jewish and Greek stories interacting with historical persons such as Pilate, Caiaphas and Herod.
In the first post of this series we saw that the hero Chaereas was based on Achilles, Nireus, Hippolytus and Alcibiades. From Reardon’s translation we read in the opening paragraph of the novel:
There was a young man named Chaereas, surpassingly handsome, like Achilles and Nireus and Hippolytus and Alcibiades as sculptors portray them.
These four men serve to illustrate the multifaceted persona of Chaereas. (p. 24 of Cueva’s Myths of Fiction)
Homer’s Iliad relates how both Achilles and Nireus fought with the Greeks in the Trojan War. Achilles was said to be the most handsome of the Greeks, while Nireus was the second-most handsome.
And Nireus brought three ships from Syme – Nireus, who was the handsomest man that came up under Ilius of all the Danaans after the son of Peleus [Achilles] – but he was a man of no substance, and had but a small following. (Iliad, 2)
This continues the previous post that introduced Edmund Cueva’s study in the way our earliest surviving Greek novel was composed by combining historical persons, events and settings with fictional narrative details and characters that were inspired by popular myths.
Cueva is not comparing these novels with the gospels, but I do think it is important to compare them. There are quite a few studies that do argue that many of the details in the gospels narratives, even some of the characters, were copied from older stories found in both the Old Testament and in popular Greek literature. This would mean that the gospels are not unlike some popular Greek novels to the extent that they are stories that combine both historical and fictional characters and events in their story, with those fictional characters being conjured up by imaginative extrapolations of mythical characters.
In the previous post I focused mostly on the historical characters and events that are major players in Chariton’s novel Chaereas and Callirhoe.
In this post I outline some of the evidence that the heroine of the novel and her adventures were imaginatively inspired by popular Greek myths, especially those about Ariadne and Theseus. (I do so with apologies to Cueva, too, because what I include from his discussion is necessarily a savage simplification of his arguments for mimesis. Cueva includes in his discussion verbal echoes between Chariton’s novel and Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, and discusses more characters than just the heroine, Callirhoe.) Continue reading “Ancient Novels Composed Like Gospels continued (2)”
I have discussed or alluded to this novel in the various posts found on this page as a comparison to the Gospels, and this time I will show that its characters, plot and setting are drawn from a mix of historical and mythical sources.
Not a few scholars today who specialize in literary analysis of the Gospels have argued that this is how the Gospels were also constructed: from a mix of history and myth. Most recently along these lines I have posted a few times on Spong’s arguments that Gospel characters like Judas, even the “Twelve Disciples”, Jairus’s daughter who was raised from the dead, blind Bartimaeus, and Zechariah and Elizabeth (the parents of John the Baptist) are all cut from literary fictions. The character of Jesus himself is based on Moses in the Gospel of Matthew and on Elijah in the Gospel of Luke. At the same time, however, we have obviously real people — e.g. Herod and Pilate — appearing in the Gospel narratives.
Some criticisms of these posts have been along the lines of saying that ancient authors did not write stories with historical characters mixed up with fictional characters whose creation was inspired by mythical tales.
Well, that particular criticism is wrong. Chariton is evidence that ancient authors did indeed make up stories that included a mix of historical persons, events and settings along with character and plot details drafted from popular myths and older fictional literature.