The concluding paragraph of the first chapter of Mandell’s and Freedman’s The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History is worth framing. The principle it addresses would, if applied to New Testament studies, relegate to the scrap heap a good deal of scholarship investigating oral sources behind this or that detail in the Gospels.
Since the entire work is a literary artifice, we cannot use any part of it to confirm the orality of the . . . author’s sources. Consequently, the theory that the errors in History prove that the . . . author’s sources were primarily oral is not verifiable. Other hypotheses based on statements within the narrative . . . such as the commonly accepted belief that the . . . author relied on rumor and report must also be discarded. . . . The real author is after all a literary artist, not an historian . . . . (p. 80)
Oral sources not verifiable? I have never read this objection among Gospel scholarship, though I am sure it must have been made at least a few times, surely, yes?
I have posted on the geographical errors in the Gospel of Mark, for example, showing how an unrealistic itinerary of Jesus makes perfect sense as an imitation of the geographic coordinates of a prophecy in Isaiah. So there goes out the window any discussion based on this detail about the provenance of Mark itself.
Two of the so-called bed-rock historical facts about the life of Jesus (the temple cleansing or action and the baptism of Jesus) are also entirely explicable as literary artifices. It is scarcely possible to read the Gospel of Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism without being struck by how unhistorical the whole scenario is. The Baptist functions exclusively as a literary introduction to Jesus and disappears from the scene the moment Jesus emerges from the water. He is not even privy to the heavenly pronouncement that Jesus is God’s Son. Both this scene and the “Temple cleansing” are extensively drawn from Old Testament motifs and function seamlessly as literary plot devices.
Dare we even say that the crucifixion and resurrection are also most evidently literary plot and theological motifs? The narratives of Jesus are all aimed at explaining in literary ways the theological significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus, not at recording historical information about his life for its own sake, as is evident from the willingness of each evangelist to change “historical” details for apparent theological agendas and to describe the events exclusively within the framework of a theological literary tradition.
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