Mythicist Claim Three: The Gospels Are Interpretive Paraphrases of the OT
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- The Gospels constructed out of scriptural midrash
- Jesus’ passion modelled on a traditional Jewish story
- The Gospel of the Old Testament according to Robert Price
- The Gospel Jesus as a new Moses
- A Jesus miracle modelled on Elijah
- What does the midrashic Gospel Jesus symbolize?
- Fictional episodes vs. the genuine article?
- Thomas L. Thompson and intertextual dependency
- What did Paul mean by “receiving” and “passing on”?
- Putting our trust in Luke and John
* * * * *
Claim 3: The Gospels Are Interpretive Paraphrases of the Old Testament
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 197-207)
Bart Ehrman now tackles perhaps the most momentous development in the entire history of New Testament scholarship, and it is a fairly recent one. While there were murmurs and insights in this direction beforehand, it was only around 1980 that scholars began to realize that the events of the Synoptic Gospels were wholesale reworkings of elements and stories in Hebrew scripture. A seminal work in this area was an article published in the Harvard Theological Review No. 73 (1980) by George Nickelsburg, entitled “The Genre and Function of the Markan Passion Narrative.”
The Gospels under a microscope
Nickelsburg first of all clinched the case that the entire Markan passion story is made up of building blocks extracted from the prophets and the Psalms, in some cases literally ‘chipped out’ of their scriptural settings and set into place in a new composition like a bricks-and-mortar construction.
Cleansing of the Temple
Thus, Hosea 9:15, “Because of their evil deeds I will drive them from my house,” and Zechariah 14:21, “No trader shall be seen in the house of the Lord,” became the literal building blocks of the Cleansing of the Temple scene.
Agony in Gethsemane
Psalm 42:5, “How deep I am cast in misery, groaning in my distress,” supplied Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane.
Beatings of Jesus
Isaiah 50:6-7, “I offered my back to the lash. . . I did not hide my face from spitting and insult,” was inserted literally and graphically into the picture of the ordeals which Jesus underwent.
Gambling for Jesus’ clothes
At the foot of the cross the soldiers gambled for Jesus’ garments because Psalm 22:18 said: “They divided my garments among them and for my raiments they cast lots.”
And so on.
There is scarcely a thread in the entire fabric of the passion story which has not been extracted from the scriptural tapestry. (In The Jesus Puzzle and Jesus: Neither God Nor Man I trace in detail the course of Mark’s passion story through its scriptural and literary sources.)
But it was not only at the nitty-gritty level that Mark used scripture to craft his story. Nickelsburg revealed that the overall shape of it followed a common generic model found in centuries of Jewish writing:
. . . the tale of a righteous individual who is conspired against and falsely accused, who remains obedient to God and puts trust in him, who undergoes trial and suffering, finally to be condemned to death. Usually at the last moment, God intervenes miraculously to rescue the protagonist and he or she is vindicated, shown to have been innocent of the charge. Finally, as a reward for the ordeal, the innocent one is raised or restored to a high position at court or in the community, and the adversaries are discredited. In later versions of the tale, the protagonist actually suffers death, but is exalted in Heaven after death. [Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.450-1]
This generic story is found throughout the Hebrew bible and apocryphal documents, from the story of Joseph in Genesis to the Alexandrian Wisdom of Solomon, and was apparently derived from an archetypal tale in pagan tradition called the Story of Ahiqar. Biblical scholarship now refers to it as “The Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One.” In creating his passion tale, found nowhere else in the preceding Christian record, Mark follows the features of this generic literary plot step by step.
Since the 1990s, owing in great part to the work of Robert M. Price who recognized and catalogued a great number of them, such a use of scriptural building blocks and motifs came to be seen as pervasive even in the ministry portion of Mark’s Gospel, to be carried further in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The story of Jesus’ life and death in the Synoptics is a literal mosaic of shaped and colored pieces of scripture.
The question becomes: is that all it is? Are there any pieces of history to be found imbedded in the mortar, or perhaps buried in the underlying base?
A process of midrash
For mythicism, “midrash” has become the principal key to understanding and evaluating the Gospels. As Ehrman puts it,
A number of mythicists argue that the New Testament Gospels are little more than reworkings and paraphrases of passages of the Old Testament applied to an invented figure Jesus. Within Jewish tradition this approach to interpreting a text by paraphrasing, expanding, and reapplying it is called Midrash; if the text is a narrative rather than a set of laws, the Midrash is called haggadic (as opposed to halakhic). And so Robert Price [The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems] has recently argued that “the whole gospel narrative is the product of haggadic Midrash upon the Old Testament. (DJE? pp. 197-198)
By now we can anticipate the type of counter Ehrman will put forward to this:
The fact that a story about a person has been shaped according to the mold of older stories and traditions does not prove that the core of the story is unhistorical. It simply shows how the story came to take its shape. (DJE? p. 198)
As an illustration of this contention, Ehrman describes how Matthew has shaped his story of Jesus to represent him as a “new Moses.” His nativity story is full of Mosaic motifs; Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness as Moses spent 40 years in exile in Midian; Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments are mirrored in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which he delivers his interpretation of the Law of Moses. And so on. Mark, too, was concerned with creating Mosaic parallels, and his miracle sets, for example, have been shown to have parallels with the miracles in Exodus.
Ehrman claims that Matthew shaping the story in this way has nothing to do with the question of whether or not Jesus existed. And he once again offers analogies which actually work in mythicism’s favor. He points to modern literature which often shapes the stories we tell in typical ways. “We have the rags-to-riches story, the feel-good war story, the downfall-of-the-great-man story.” Such a shape is not related, he claims, to the question of whether the figure in the story actually existed.
Shaping the story of a real person
As an example of the “downfall” genre, Ehrman suggests that the story of the demise of Richard Nixon could be cast as a Shakespearean tragedy. He asks:
Does our ability to shape the story in the way we want mean that Watergate didn’t happen or that Richard Nixon never lived? No, it just means that Nixon’s story is amenable to a certain kind of shape. (DJE? p. 199)
Surely the reader can recognize the flaws in this analogy. First of all, Nixon’s story is amenable to the shape of a ‘downfall of a great man’ tale because Nixon’s actual life itself was the downfall of a great man. We know that. We “want to shape the story” of Nixon as a downfall tale because that is what it was. No one is going to cast Nixon’s biography in the shape of F.D.R.’s presidency in order to portray him as one of the great Presidents, because he was nothing like Roosevelt. (Just as the historical Jesus, in Ehrman’s view, was in reality very little like Moses.)
Ehrman speaks of having facts of Nixon’s life fitting the downfall mold, “and the facts that don’t fit can easily be bypassed or altered to make them fit.” But how much liberty do we really have to portray Nixon in ways and with anecdotes which are not only completely fictional but clearly belong to some former President? Ehrman can hardly be suggesting that a biography of Nixon is going to contain nothing that is recognizably a genuine aspect of Nixon’s life.
Like all of Ehrman’s attempted analogies, this one fails on the “begging the question” flaw, for we know that Nixon existed, and we can identify elements in any biography of him which are historical and enjoy other corroboration. If we did not, and nothing in an alleged biography of him could be verified as authentic, then we might have good reason to question his existence.
Once again, if writings from the period of Nixon’s alleged life did not present him as a human being, did not themselves give us traditions about his administration and actions in an earthly context, if chronicles of the U.S. Presidency failed to make any room for his term of office, or if Watergate and the secret tapes were never mentioned, Nixon mythicists would have every reason to hold their heads high in the face of hostile historical Nixon defenders.
Jesus and Elijah
Ehrman, admitting their close connection as pointed out by Price, compares the account of a miracle by Elijah in 1 Kings 17:17-24 with a miracle by Jesus recounted in Luke 7:11-17, each telling of the raising of a widow’s son. Internal elements, too, are very similar, down to the reaction of the crowd around Jesus resembling the reaction of the widow to Elijah’s miracle. Ehrman points out:
The crowd, in other words, realizes that Jesus has just performed a feat like his predecessor Elijah, and that he too, therefore, is a great prophet of God. (DJE? p. 200)
Yet there is a fly in this ointment. The crowd is fictional, since Luke is not presenting this anecdote as though it really happened as described. Because he has consciously modelled it on the Elijah tradition, he means the anecdote as something symbolic. As Ehrman intimates, the reaction of the crowd represents how Luke wants his readers to react. But if the use of an Old Testament mold has that purpose, the readers must be expected to be familiar with that mold. And if they are, will they not recognize Luke’s anecdote for what it is: a piece of fiction, modelled on an ancient tradition from scripture?
Apparently Luke is not concerned about how his ‘biography’ of Jesus is going to strike his readers. Why is he not worried that, if those readers are given only fictional stuff designed to provoke them into making judgments about his Jesus, they will begin to wonder what the real man in his real life had actually done, and are those judgments justified?
Searching for the real man
Moreover, if Luke is presenting this ‘event’ as a piece of symbolism, how do we know what it symbolizes? A real event and a real man ‘souped up’ in a scriptural direction? Or only a type of event or even a spiritual truth or expectation about the future? If the whole of any Gospel is symbolism, more or less midrash from start to finish, how do we point to the supposed historical man the Gospels are alleged to symbolize? (Does any critical scholar today really think that the Jesus of the Gospel of John is anything but a symbolic cipher for whatever idea the writer wants his figure to represent?)
Where does the real man exist in actual evidence? Certainly not in the epistles! Should we think that anyone familiar with Isaiah and the Psalms would have been taken in by Mark’s crucifixion account and not realize that it was nothing but a pastiche of scriptural passages? (Mark, unlike later evangelists, makes no effort to identify his pastiche as fulfillments of prophecies in scripture.) “Where’s the real beef?” many would have asked.
The late Raymond E. Brown, when the extent of midrash in the crucifixion story was first put forward, voiced the opinion that it was “absurd” to think that early Christians acquired absolutely no details about Jesus’ crucifixion which would have been preserved in tradition and found their way into the Gospel account.
It should be equally absurd to think that the evangelists, no matter how they wanted to ‘shape’ the story of Jesus, would not have had available, or not have wanted to include, traditions about him which did not have a close parallel in scripture, or a direct bearing on that desired shape. Would our Nixon biographer deliberately leave out Nixon’s achievements in regard to China simply because they didn’t fit in with a ‘downfall of Tricky Dick’ theme?
And Ehrman himself is in a quandary. If the Gospels are based on a man who, as Ehrman and others maintain, was really rather ordinary and did not raise people from the dead (the epistles’ silence on any such wonders should rule out the development of even inauthentic traditions of that nature), whatever would lead the early movement, or the evangelists themselves, to attribute such grand miracles to him? Would Luke and the others not hesitate to portray him as the greatest thing since sliced Moses ever to walk the earth?
But if the Jesus of the Gospels is an allegory (hyperbolic, as many allegories are) about the activities and preaching of the movement itself and its immediate expectations, the evangelists are on less risky ground. Considering that the raising of the dead and other remarkable healings were prophesied in Isaiah as destined to be among the signs of the imminence of the kingdom, authors and readers alike could more easily accept such miracles being included in a basically fictional story with a symbolic character, representing the times that were unfolding.
Similarities and differences
While acknowledging that the raising of the widow of Nain’s son has been modelled on Elijah, Ehrman maintains that some of the other stories of Jesus which Price claims are equally midrashic are actually not so close to their alleged scriptural models. Beside some evident similarities stand other elements which are quite different. But is Ehrman suggesting that in these cases the Gospel anecdote thus constitutes history remembered? If there are some similarities, and if the picture created of the Gospel story as a whole is that it is based in scripture, why not assume that the differences are simply a matter of freedom taken by the evangelist who didn’t feel it necessary to reflect his model in every detail? In some cases, a scriptural precedent could have served as an inspirational starting point.
Ehrman asks us to compare two stories. The first is Palm Sunday, Jesus riding a donkey (or two, in Matthew) into Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowd who call him messiah and king. The scriptural sources for this episode are plain, mainly a prophecy in Zechariah (9:9). Ehrman leans toward seeing the whole thing as fiction, since such an entrance to such an acclamation would probably have led to Jesus’ immediate arrest by ever-present Roman soldiers, especially at Passover time when the atmosphere was volatile and their vigilance high.
As a contrast, Ehrman offers the baptismal story. At its heart, the heavens open and a dove descends along with the voice of God declaring Jesus his beloved Son. This is historically implausible, says Ehrman, and was created to represent God adopting Jesus as his son. Its quote of Psalm 2:7 identifies it as created out of scripture. But does this mean that none of it is historical, that no baptism of Jesus took place at all? Ehrman claims it does not—though he says he is leaving his ‘proof’ until later.
I would prefer to point out immediately that neither the epistles nor Q make any mention of Jesus’ baptism. Considering the pertinence it would have had to Paul’s treatment of the ritual of baptism in his own communities, and Q’s focus on the preaching of John the Baptist who prophesies the coming of one who will “baptize with fire” while making no mention of his own baptism of that coming one, these silences on any such event should be the deciding factor in relegating it entirely to Gospel midrash..
Thomas Thompson and intertextual dependency
Thomas L. Thompson is a Hebrew Bible specialist who has closely studied the Gospels and sees them not as based on oral traditions but as literary fictions constructed according to traditions found in the Old Testament. For him, the Gospel Jesus is a literary creation in the same way that Abraham, Moses and others in the Hebrew texts are. To rebut this, Ehrman appeals to two weak contentions: just because the stories of Jesus are made up based on other texts does not “necessarily” mean that they are reflective of no actual historical figure. Taken by itself, this is theoretically true, but it hardly constitutes a counter-argument which addresses Thompson’s case.
His other contention is that he has already provided “solid and virtually incontrovertible evidence that the stories of Jesus were circulated orally before being written down.” Regardless of the dubiousness of this claim, as pointed out in previous instalments, Ehrman has just bypassed the entire mythicist argument he is claiming to discredit. Price and Thompson have been demonstrating that the written-down stories of Jesus are literary creations based on previous texts. This demonstration rules out that those written-down versions were, or could have been, renditions of oral traditions. The literary and intertextual nature they embody could not have been preserved and transmitted through oral channels; they came into being in a literary context.
Thus when Ehrman says that “To say that our Gospel stories were based in many instances on earlier literary texts does not necessarily mean that the stories were invented as written traditions instead of existing first as oral traditions,” he is making a self-contradictory statement. Those written creations “based on earlier literary texts” were, by definition and demonstration, something that could not have “existed first as oral traditions.” Ehrman has in no way even attempted to rebut the case as presented by Thompson and Price; he is simply declaring his own incompatible view.
And Ehrman once again defends that view by begging the question:
For one thing, there is no other way to explain how Christianity spread throughout the Roman world, as followers of Jesus converted other people to believe, not by showing them books (almost all of them were illiterate) but by telling stories about Jesus. (DJE? p. 206)
The reader may remember that I used a similar observation in an opposite direction. Ehrman’s statement is surely true—if they were preaching an historical Jesus. But then those Jesus stories ought to have shown up not only in the epistles, but in the Gospels; whereas the whole point here is that in the latter they do not. Everything looks like a literary creation process based on scriptural texts and not on oral traditions. Ehrman rejects any alternate explanation put forward by mythicists for the spread of Christianity and, begging the question that early Christian apostles were preaching an historical Jesus, uses that to conclude that oral traditions must have existed and that behind the literary creations of the Gospels must lie those oral traditions—Thompson’s and Price’s demonstrations notwithstanding.
Receiving and passing on
To support his stance on oral tradition, Ehrman points to several passages which indicate that oral traditions were being received and passed on. But in one of these examples, 1 Corinthians 11:23-6, Paul tells us directly that he “received from the Lord” those words of Jesus at the Lord’s Supper—which is a pretty obvious reference to personal revelation. Ehrman’s claim of oral tradition requires the text to be forced into saying something which it clearly does not. But that’s standard practice in historicist scholarship.
Another is Paul’s statement of his gospel in 15:3-4. But “kata tas graphas,” “according to the scriptures,” can mean “as we learn from the scriptures,” which would fit Paul’s claim in Galatians 1:11-12 that he got his gospel from no man but through revelation. To claim that it means “in fulfilment of the scriptures” (though a valid translation per se) in order to allow the “received” to mean through oral tradition from others, sets up a contradiction with the Galatians declaration that has to be ignored. Again, standard practice.
Ehrman’s naïvete: Believing the Lukan Prologue and John’s trustworthy witness
Ehrman also naively accepts the declaration by “Luke” in the Prologue to the Gospel that he is drawing up his account of events “following the traditions handed down to us by the original eyewitnesses,” despite the fact that his Gospel is full of stories—including the one about Mary and Elizabeth which begins right after, followed by a nativity story which is as invented as the one in Matthew—that are clearly not based on eyewitness traditions but are his own constructions out of scripture.
Ehrman’s naivete is in evidence as well in his reference to John 19:35, in which the evangelist, after telling that the soldiers did not break the legs of Jesus but instead stabbed him with a lance, declares that “This is vouched for by an eyewitness, whose evidence is to be trusted.” We can put about as much trust in this statement as we can for any of the other inventions found in John which are incompatible with other Gospels. And no other Gospel has apparently heard of this ‘eyewitness’ feature of John’s crucifixion scene. Considering that the writer has introduced the avoidance of breaking Jesus’ legs on the basis of a scriptural prohibition about breaking the bones of a sacrificial offering, just as he has introduced many other features similarly based on scripture, it is not too much to suspect that 19:35 is, to put it simply, a lie. (Might we give the poor guy an out by suggesting that perhaps the line was added later?)
All this is either naivete on Ehrman’s part, or else a desperate inclusion of anything he can put his hand on for support, no matter how weak or problematic. One of those grasped straws is the lost Papias, who Eusebius reports claimed to have received oral traditions from the companions of Jesus’ disciples (and what traditions!—from the explosion of Judas, to a would-be apostle drinking poison and living, to the survival of people raised by Jesus until the reign of Hadrian). Third-hand hearsay ‘evidence’ of this nature three centuries after the ‘fact’ would be tossed out—indeed laughed out—of any court. Except, of course, in the historicist court convened to prove the existence of an historical Jesus by a panel of pre-committed jurors.
Conviction on other grounds
The Gospels contain fictions. Does this render the character about whom those stories are told entirely fictional? Appealing to the genre of historical novels, real historical people placed in some unreal situations, Ehrman answers no. The fictional Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens does not render the French Revolution a myth. But we know from reliable sources that the French Revolution happened, whereas Dickens’ Tale taken in the absence of any other evidence would not tell us that. But perhaps Ehrman has finally caught on. He admits that the question “has to be decided on other grounds.” He is perfectly correct when he says, “One instead needs to look for other evidence.”
The problem is, the other evidence is never allowed to speak for itself. It is consistently forced into the mold created by the preconception of the Gospels as the story of a real man and real events, despite their pervasive nature as Old Testament midrash, and despite the clear voices of the epistle writers who are telling us quite a different story.
. . . to be continued
- The First Gospel was a Jewish Novel?
- Jewish Scriptures in Mark’s Passion and Resurrection Narratives
- Gospel of Mark’s use of Jewish scriptures for Jesus’ Jerusalem entry narrative
- Jesus, constructed from Moses and other OT passages — according to the Gospel of Matthew
- The Elijah-Elisha narrative as a model for the Gospel of Mark
- Vridar Blog Archive on Midrash
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