From the moment his followers believed that Jesus was the Messiah foretold by the Prophets, the transformation of his life into myth began, and proceeded apace. (p. 108 of Jesus by Charles Guignebert, trans by S.H. Hooke)
It is refreshing to read some sound logical sense by a historical Jesus scholar in the swelling tide of apologetic publications. I like the way Guignebert (through his translator) worded the following:
The belief in this illustrious descent [of Jesus] is unquestionably very old, since Paul already knew and accepted it (Rom. i. 3, “of the seed of David according to the flesh”), but that is no reason for believing, without further investigation, that it was correct. There are still critics, even open-minded ones, who accept the possibility of its being so, but we cannot share their opinion. (p. 111, my emphasis)
No doubt more recent scholars have expressed the same critical nous, but there are many other historical Jesus scholars who since have attacked the very values of the Enlightenment, sneered at what they label a “hermeneutic of suspicion” (some even arguing that “charity” is a Christian duty owed to certain subsets of texts) (Bauckham et beaucoup al), and glided on the wind of postmodernism to substitute “even fabricated material . . . however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned” for genuine historical evidence (Allison).
So how does Guignebert investigate the correctness of this claim by Paul that Jesus was “of the seed of David”?
The Davidic descent of Jesus is impugned, to begin with, by the mere fact that it was necessary, and inevitable corollary of the announcement of the Messianic status of the Nazarene. (p. 111)
Just so. This is the same healthy scepticism I have discussed in relation to Burton Mack’s and Paula Fredriksen’s reasons for doubting the historicity of the “cleansing of the temple” episode in the Synoptic gospels:
Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention. (Paula Fredriksen)
The act itself is contrived. . . . It is a fictional theme derived from the scriptural citations.
The temple act cannot be historical. If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence. The anti-temple theme is clearly Markan and the reasons for it can be clearly explained. . . . The conclusion must be that the temple act is a Markan fabrication. (Burton Mack)
If a detail can be adequately explained on narrative or intertextual or theological grounds then there is no need — there is no justification — for additionally declaring it to be derived from historical memory. Of course it does not follow that it might also have been historical, but we need some evidence beyond the narrative or theological motivations to justify this belief.
So, if Jesus were believed to be the Messiah, goes Guignebert’s reasoning, it necessarily follows, it is a theological necessity, that he was “of the seed of David”.
So if what Paul says was a theological necessity then we have no grounds for believing the historical facticity of his claim. We need something more.
But Guignebert finds that there is more — but it is against the historical truth of Paul’s claim:
But there is a more serious argument against it. The Ebionim, the descendants of the ancient Judaeo-Christians, apparently rejected the genealogies [in the Synoptic Gospels], and their opinion appears to be justified by the oldest tradition.
That oldest tradition Guignebert finds referenced in the Gospels:
In the Synoptic narrative Jesus never boasts of his ancestor David, nor do his disciples appear to have regarded him as a descendant of the great king.
But don’t we read of blind Bartimaeus calling Jesus the Son of David and the crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem proclaiming him likewise?
Neither the appeal of the blind man of Jericho: “Son of David, Jesus, have mercy upon me” (Mark x. 47), nor the Messianic acclamation on the entry into Jerusalem: “Blessed by he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Blessed by the kingdom that cometh, of our father David.” (Mark xi. 9-10), can have the least weight against this double silence of Jesus and his companions. The blind man is supposed to divine that the prophet passing by is the Messiah, and it is his name he bestows upon Jesus in calling him “Son of David.” To bless the “kingdom of David,” on the other hand, is simply to hail the dawn of the Messianic day. (pp. 111-112)
The fourth Gospel seals the demise of Paul’s claim according to Guignebert:
Another, even more important objection, is that the author of the fourth Gospel, who could not have been ignorant of the belief in the Davidic descent, does not accept it. In the seventh chapter of John, after one of the Master’s sermons, the listeners exchange admiring exclamations: “This is a prophet,” say some; “This is the Christ,” say others, going further to which the objection is made:
“But can the Christ come out of Galilee ? Hath not the Scripture said that Christ cometh of the race of David, and out of the village of Bethlehem whence David came ?” (vii. 40-2)
The fact that the writer does not refute the objection by declaring that Jesus was born at Bethlehem and descended from David, proves that he did not think either of these things to be true; they were not believed in his circle. In his opinion Christ was much more than the son of David, he was his Lord. The same impression is conveyed by John viii. 12-14 ;
” Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying: ‘I am the light of the world . . . ‘The Pharisees therefore said unto him: ‘Thou bearest witness unto thyself ; thy witness is not true.’ Jesus answered and said unto them:’ Though I bear witness to myself, my witness is true, for I know whence I come and whither I go. But ye do not know whence I come nor whither I go.’ “
This shows that Jesus, or rather, the writer of the Gospel, scorned the answer, which the Pharisees would not have accepted, certainly, without proof, but which would have impressed them at once : “I am the son of David.”
But what would happen if we mix two critical thoughts?
What of other claims by Paul about Jesus that are clearly theological and that are likewise just as much theological necessities in the Gospels, too?
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