It has been seriously asserted (mainstream biblical scholars should be taken seriously) that it would be “a miracle” if an ancient author, not living in Palestine, ever wrote a nonhistorical narrative about a nonhistorical Jesus that was set in real Palestinian towns and with characters bearing the names common among Palestinians.
Mind you, the same intellectual grants that most of the narrative in the Gospels is a mythologized overlay of whatever was a genuinely historical reminiscence. (Scholars even say the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels is not the historical Jesus but a “Christ of faith” who is, let’s be honest, a myth.) But we are left to understand that no such mythologization could possibly have extended to place or people names! They would have been sacrosanct from the beginning and remained so until the tale was finally set down in writing. Only then did various literate authors feel free to change some of the personal names and places. So disciples’ names vary, as do the locations of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. But a biblical scholar can publicly inform us that the “authenticity” of the personal and place names is itself a reliable indicator that the narrative can only derive from a genuine historical reminiscence.
Of course it is always possible to rationalize such differences. Dr James Crossley has said that he is perfectly happy to use conservative and evangelical arguments because statistically they must have something right and even Bart Erhman shares with James Patrick Holding an appeal to the same lack of imagination to insist that Jesus was definitely historical. So we find both scholars and anti-intellectuals using the same types of rationalizations to escape the consequences of their logical fallacies: Jesus cleansed the temple twice, Jesus was anointed twice, Jesus chose replacement disciples as some original choices inconveniently died off during his short ministry, a redactor could not make up his mind about two versions of the miraculous feeding so included them both, and so on.
No need for a miracle to create a symbolic pun
But what is most surprising to me is the infrequency with which scholars seem to acknowledge the literary and symbolic puns in both the personal and place names associated with specific actions and themes in the narrative.
But let’s backtrack a moment to what often seems to be the source of the claim that the personal names found in the Gospels are “authentic”. I suspect the reference is to Richard Bauckham’s statistical analysis of the Gospel’s personal names. This seems to have met with some uncritical acceptance among a number of scholars. Yet Bauckham’s analysis assumes that names found in Jerusalem tombs and in Josephus’s history reflect those that would be found (if evidence existed) in the culturally variant Galilee, and that since this is apparently so, we have some sort of verification for a story that uses some of those names. There are other significant omissions and conflations in Bauckham’s statistical analysis (discussed in parts here, here and here) and I have made his tables available online for anyone who wishes to take a little time to think through the grounds for his conclusions.
But quite apart from the statistics, a moment’s attention demonstrates that many of the names in the Gospel narrative, in particular in the Gospel of Mark, have been artfully chosen for their symbolic meanings. Jairus, “awakened”, is no secret. Bartimaeus (son of honour/Timaeus) is not even a real name, but its potential symbolism is evident. Barabbas, son of the father, the substitute for the Son of the Father, is another often remarked upon. There is also Judas, the Jew, and namesake of the one who sought money (20 pieces of silver) for the betrayal of his brother Joseph. Legion, the demonic oppressor sent to suffer in the bodies of pigs, an evident reminder of the occupying Roman legions.
And it is no different for the place names, except it’s worse because some of the sites of the towns mentioned are unknown (but let’s not suspect they were made up): Capernaum, place of comfort, where Jesus performed many of his miracles; Bethphage, place of unripe figs where the fig tree was cursed, whose site is unknown today; Bethsaida, fishermen, also site unknown, where the fishermen disciples were destined; Bethany, another unknown place name, house of mourning, where Jesus was anointed for his death; Galilee itself, the prophetic place where God’s presence shines for both Jews and Gentiles; Mount of Olives, where Jesus, like David, went to pray when about to die.
I have discussed some of this in more detail in an earlier post: /2010/12/12/more-puns-in-the-gospel-of-mark-people-and-places/
Reading the Gospels with this awareness leads one to think of constructing a story out of the Happy Families card game. Mr Baker sells bread; Miss Fish owns a fish and chip shop; Mr Chalk is the teacher; and they all leave London once a year to have a party at Happytown in East Anglia. It’s not quite that bad, since the theological message was meant to be taken seriously.
Would you buy a used car from a bible scholar?
It is strange that the bible scholar making the claim that accuracy of the setting of geographic and personal names is testimony to the accuracy of the historicity underlying the narrative in which they appear only cites place names that are problematic:
Nazareth: this town is unknown in both the literature and archaelogical evidence until long after the time of Jesus. If we rely on evidence it appears to have been introduced as the home of Jesus in order to provide a nonsectarian rationale for the Nazarene epithet by which Jesus and some early Christians were once known. (Most — all? — arguments to the contrary are visceral appeals to authority.)
Sepphoris: the major city of Galilee in the supposed time of Jesus yet one that makes no appearance in the Gospels. Did the name have no symbolic use? It is quite amusing to see this lack of any Gospel reference is turned into a deeply significant biographical datum for the supposed historical Jesus by some scholars: its absence is evidence of a an intentional personal agenda of Jesus to avoid “big cities”. One does not need to dig very far into the gospels to notice all the fresh problems and contradictions that this biographical datum raises.
Is a known town there in the gospels? That’s taken as evidence of historicity. Is the major town of Galilee not in the gospels? That’s taken as evidence of something even more granular — the very mindset of Jesus himself! Surely it is clear that scholars really are working from the presumption of the historicity of Jesus and the core of the Gospel narrative despite their unsupported efforts to deny this.
Cana: it was the thought of Cana that prompted the biblical scholar to opine on the accuracy and authenticity of the Gospel place names. Yet there is no way of knowing for certain which town the Gospel of John was referring to as the locale for the famous wedding. There are about four sites that have been proposed as possible candidates.
Tabgha: said to be the site associated the miracle of the loaves and fishes, though the Gospels make no such identification, and in fact indicate it occurred well distant from any urban area. But that only confirms the hypothesis in the professor’s mind:
This perhaps illustrates the reverse process: when a historical figure is believed to have lived in a certain area, many places will claim some connection to him.
Presumably the professor is consistent and believes also that the traditions that Jesus visited Glastonbury, Eilean Isa in Scotland and India and Tibet are indeed evidence that he really did so. After all, if the silence of the Gospels with respect to Sepphoris provides scholars with such rewarding insights into the historical Jesus, then we may fairly allow their silence on his early years to yield up biographical data, too.
Then there is Capernaum with its “well preserved synagogue”. Unfortunately the evidence for this synagogue indicates it was constructed some generations after Jesus, if I recall correctly. Such types of synagogues were apparently not a feature of Galilee till after the ravaging of Jerusalem in 70 ce.
So the names offered readers in the context of declaring the accuracy and authenticity of geographic settings in the Gospel narrative do not offer a persuasive support for the claim. How many would seriously suggest that the name of Mount Ararat in the story of the Flood stands as evidence for the story of Noah?
There seems to be some sort of implication in the original assertion that the authors who lived well distant from Palestine would not have known the place names unless they had been transmitted by genuine historical reminiscence. Once again we meet the fallacy of arguing from ignorance, or the false dichotomy. It makes more sense to work with the evidence within the text itself, and that points to symbolic meanings in many cases. Mary Ann Tolbert analyses the Gospel of Mark’s narrative in a way that indicates the name Peter was representative of the rocky soil of the parable, so his name referred to his ultimate failure under pressure of persecution. (I am not suggesting Tolbert is a mythicist.) If so, it appears that the Gospel of Matthew’s author was offended by this symbolism of the name Peter and converted it to refer to a solid rock foundation of the Church. Other scholars (Kelber, Weeden, et al) have noticed the symbolism of Galilee vis a vis Jerusalem as theological ciphers.
But even if there were no symbolism in the names, or even if the symbolism was somehow woven into the narrative by a mythologizing process of some sort, it is unreasonable to use historical settings and names as evidence of historicity of a narrative. Of course unhistoricity of these things will obviously cast doubt on the accuracy of any narrative, but the reverse is not true. Accurate setting, even allowing for occasional mistakes, bears no relation to the truth of a narrative. I have posted frequently examples from ancient fiction (e.g. Chariton, Virgil) illustrating this truism.
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