What is the significance of the title of this book edited by Thomas L. Thompson and Thomas S. Verenna. The subtitle is “The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus” — “of the Figure of”, not “of Jesus”. Perhaps that helps guard the book from being seen as too bluntly opening up the Christ Myth question. The main title comes from Mark 6:1-6 —
And he went out from thence; and he cometh into his own country; and his disciples follow him.
2 And when the sabbath was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, Whence hath this man these things? and, What is the wisdom that is given unto this man, and what mean such mighty works wrought by his hands?
3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended in him.
4 And Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.
5 And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.
6 And he marvelled because of their unbelief. And he went round about the villages teaching. (ASV)
Now the themes latent in this passage and that are drawn out in this introduction are the same ones that led me to launch one of my very first diffident attempts to explore questions of historicity in an academic forum in 1998: Re: Jesus the Carpenter? in Crosstalk. Fourteen years later I am reading the same question, with the same implications for the historicity of the exchange between Jesus and his neighbours, being raised not by an amateur outsider in an open scholarly forum but by scholars in a book so prohibitively expensive that it is beyond the reach of the general reader — and with a clear warning that I am not to reproduce any of it for wider sharing, without even the usual allowance of short passages for reviews.
Nonetheless, this Introduction chapter has been available online since 2010 at The Bible and Interpretation — even complete with its annoying “itinerate” typo. (And given that it is already online I trust I have a right to quote passages from it here.) So you can go there and read what Thompson and Verenna write for themselves or stay here and read what I say they write, with some of my own commentary. 😉
The significance of the story about Jesus’ encounter with his home-town folk, for the purposes of this volume, is that it encapsulates two themes that are found reiterated throughout all the canonical gospels, and that testify to traditional theological rather than historical motifs:
- Jesus’ hands do wonderful works, though only a few know and experience these;
- The prophet is rejected by his own people who are to be replaced by a new people who will be the true worshipers.
The carpenter/artisan and skilled hands image evokes the idea of a Jewish Hephaestus. Hephaestus the skilled craftsman who made many wonderful artefacts for the gods was, according to Hesiod, born of the (virgin) goddess Hera without sexual union with her husband, Zeus. (Theogony, 927) The Jewish Scriptures have their own hero, Bezalel (Besal’el) who was divinely gifted with great skill to manufacture the wonderful earthly counterparts of heavenly structures (Exodus 31:1-11; 35-39 . . . )
The character of the prophet unrecognized and mistreated by his own people is also a commonplace throughout the biblical literature: the Psalms, Joseph, Jeremiah . . . .
The Gospel of Mark, it is suggested in this Introduction, hints at a reiteration of the Moses figure in Jesus. It was Moses who combined the two motifs of miracle worker and rejected prophet. Moses was forced to flee from his Egyptian homeland but returned to promise deliverance through powerful works performed with “a mighty hand” (Exodus 3:19 et al). (This coheres with other indicators not touched on in this book that Mark’s Jesus was modeled on Moses: for example, after a royal plot against Jesus’ life is announced Jesus departs with a very large mixed multitude towards a sea, after which he will ascend a mountain and announce the beginning of a new collective of twelve as his own people.)
The themes of rejection of the true prophet and the replacement of the “old” family who are blind with a “new” family who truly see and obey is then explored through the Gospel of Matthew. This latter Gospel, he points out, gathers into a sequential unit these themes and presents them in the format of “a living parable” that is structured upon Isaiah 6:9-10 —
He said, “Go and tell this people:
“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
Those familiar with other works by Thompson, such as The Messiah Myth and The Mythic Past (also published as The Bible in History) will recognize that he is finding in the Gospels the same motifs and ideology that he argues are reiterated throughout the literature in the earlier Jewish sacred texts. As in the old works, so in these “new” gospels, we find the literary crowds being blinded by God so they cannot understand and be forgiven, so that the readers of these narratives can see in them the failed and lost generation that they, the readers, are meant to replace as the new and understanding and obedient people of God.
The gospel author draws again on the Jewish scriptures to write his own new version of the old, old story — the overturning of the blindness among the new people of God chosen to replace the old disobedient generation in the story — as found in Psalm 78:1-4
Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old:
Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done.
(I think those who see in the New Testament epistles the message that the Gospel and knowledge of God (through Jesus as his image) is something newly revealed, a mystery that was long hidden from the world, but is now revealed in the likes of Paul and his converts, would find a fruitful exploration of this theme by studying its oft-repeated literary antecedents, as here in the Psalms.)
The message is that the story of Jesus’ rejection by his own people who ironically see in this wonderworker with his hands only a carpenter is itself a parable expressing the age-old message found throughout the Jewish scriptures.
Matthew (I also think Mark) is preoccupied with re-writing Isaiah 6, Psalm 78, and the rest, and as such has no interest in a portrayal of any historical figure.
(I have argued the same point repeatedly in posts on this blog, applying Thompson’s analysis of Old Testament literature to the Gospels, so it is reassuring to see Thompson himself making the connections explicit.)
The Gospel of Luke carries forward the same themes in its own narrative parables. The Introduction makes an interesting observation on Luke’s treatment of Nazareth as a contrast to Matthew’s. Where Matthew had Jesus being brought up in Nazareth “so that he might be called a Nazarene”, Luke has Jesus’ parents leave Nazareth before he was born. He then depicts Jesus as returning there when the time came to begin his ministry. The role of the Samson-like “Nazarene” (presumably one of the Bible’s many puns) is given to his forerunner, John the Baptist (Luke 1:14-15).
But here at the same “home-town” the drama of Jesus turns on the same two motifs: the miracle-working deliverer from God and his rejection and suffering at the hands of his people. The home-town people who should belong to Jesus are to be replaced by a new people — the readers of the gospel. The messenger is once again driven by the spirit of God and speaks of his inevitable suffering at the hands of his own people. In Luke the message of deliverance and incoming kingdom of God is a replay of the ancient and ubiquitous “song of the poor man”. The miracles of Elijah and Elisha are evoked and his people are compare unfavourably to gentiles. This prompts their furious rejection of him to the extent that, much like Mark’s Jesus drove the demon-possessed pigs off a cliff before being rejected by the locals (Mark 5:11-17), the Nazareth crowd take Jesus to the edge of the cliff with intent to cast him down.
The message is the same. God’s people are being replaced by a new people through the deliverance of the miracle-working deliverer who must suffer yet who overturns the old order to bring in the outcast and raise up the lowly as spiritual replacements.
The same message of the lost and the saved is just as characteristic of the fourth gospel. In both Luke and John the Jews, the “rightful” people of God, are compared unfavourably to those they despised, the Samaritans. The people wonder at the amazing powers and news of Jesus at first, but many turn against him soon afterwards. As in Mark, Jesus heals “only a few sick folk” who typify the few who were once outcasts but are now called to take their place as the new Israel of God.
So the title, “Is this not the carpenter?”, evokes the “Jesus as Hephaestus” myth. It is this myth of Jesus — carrying the torch of the myth reiterated throughout the writings of the Jewish scriptures and even the wider Near Eastern literature — which is the subject of the book’s chapters.
Why should any of this be controversial?
One might ask why this question should by such a controversial one. New Testament scholars and no doubt many interested lay people are aware that the Jesus of the gospels is not the historical Jesus. Perhaps the difference is that this Introduction is arguing that the first task of historians is to understand the Jesus we do have — the literary and theological (mythical) one of the gospels — and to seek to understand coherently and comprehensively the nature of the New Testament literature, in particular on a continuum with other Jewish writings and scriptures, in their own right. That is, the question of the historical Jesus is replaced as the main goal of investigation by an more complete contextual understanding of the literature we have and the Jesus it contains.
But why should even that be controversial? If scholars have had a vested professional interest (not to mention a faith-interest for many) in exploring a will-o’-the-wisp (nothing more than a scholarly construct built upon an unfounded assumption) then some no doubt will feel that their own work will be harder to justify.
If the texts they have seen as soil to be dug with an archaeologist’s spade to recover buried artefacts of history are shown to have originated in the more ethereal world of ideas, literature, philosophy-theology, and not from historical narrative traditions, then their past efforts may indeed be threatened. Ideally, however, deeper understanding is surely more usefully seen as a gateway to new insights, new models, new intellectual adventures.
The Quest for the Historical Jesus
So scholars for some time now are said to have “avoided direct questions regarding the historicity of Jesus”. The historicity of Jesus — the assumption of his historicity — has been securely embedded within two other discussions that have been the focus of scholarly inquiry: the sayings of Jesus and the life of Jesus. This inquiry has necessarily proceeded from the assumption of historicity of Jesus.
This double quest for history behind the texts has led scholars to fail to seriously enough take account of the nature of those source texts, even to the extent of ignoring and misunderstanding their functions.
Ah yes, and this, too, is what I have attempted to address many times in posts here and in other venues. James McGrath has even written that literary analysis of the Gospels is not of any interest to “the historian” who is seeking to uncover the historical Jesus behind the texts. On the contrary, it has everything to do — or it should have — with how historians evaluate the function and nature of their texts and the sorts of questions that can be applied validly to them.
My own experience in exchanges with scholars has been that they have often tried to bypass this problem by saying that if the gospel authors write allegory and rewrite Old Testament and other stories to construct their narratives then that merely shows how highly or theologically they regarded the figure of Jesus. They very often say that such narratives have nothing to do with their really being a genuine historical Jesus behind it all. But it does have everything to do with the origins and creation of that gospel Jesus. The two sides of the argument thus become:
- that Jesus in the New Testament literature can be shown to have been crafted entirely from theological ideas and other literary narratives;
- and on the contrary, scholars can merely surmise that this Jesus was also the deposit from oral traditions tied directly to historical events.
The first position implies that the authors had no interest in any historical traditions at all. The second position is either contradicted or rendered irrelevant by the first.
I copy from the online article (not the book, of course):
The dichotomous structure of this debate has typically made alternative explanations for the ubiquitous allegorical interpretations and narrative reiterations and allusions of a wide variety of both ancient Near Eastern and biblical motifs, themes and tropes irrelevant in the eyes of many scholars, in spite of the fact that an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament figures of Jesus, Paul and the disciples as historical can at times be shown to ignore and misunderstand the implicit functions of our texts.
What happened to the radical critics of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Bruno Bauer and others did open up the question of Jesus’ historicity through their searing criticisms of many of the assumptions among biblical scholars but, our Introduction informs us, without “a coherent comprehensive understanding of the New Testament literature”, they also left radical rationalist criticism with an unfortunate stereotypical image.
Ever since then similar radical critiques are dismissed as not belonging to “serious” scholars (Michael Grant) or emanating from “rationalist dogmatists” (Geza Vermes). (I’m not the only one to have expressed curiosity over the negative view of “scepticism” among many New Testament scholars. Many have bluntly frowned upon sceptical approaches to scholarly inquiry and even argued for a Christian ethic that treats texts as fellow neighbours who must be loved and believed until the scholar is forced to doubt their contents — the “hermeneutic of charity”.)
So the question of historicity has been dismissed by scholars without argument. Scholars investigating the historical Jesus are encouraged to “ignore both literary and theological issues central to an understanding of the New Testament narrative.”
Efforts to uncover “the historical Jesus” necessarily begin from the outset with the assumption that there is a historical Jesus to discover. And we know the many different types of Jesus that have been produced ever since, many of them contradictory. Schweitzer’s observation that scholars find a Jesus in their own image has become a truism.
The role genre studies play in investigations of the Jesus of the New Testament rests largely on an analysis of intertextuality, which is well defined in terms of an analysis of the functions of tale-types, stock figures, sayings, motifs, narrative patterns and thematic elements through a process of reiteration, refraction, allusion and emulation.
An historical Jesus is a hypothetical derivative of scholarship. It is no more a fact than is an equally hypothetical historical Moses or David.
To the extent that New Testament literature was written with literary, allegorical and, indeed, theological and mythic purpose, rather than as an account of historical events, there is significant need, not to speak of warrant, to doubt the historicity of its figures to the extent that such figures owe their substance to such literature. . . . Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Sarah, Ruth and Boaz, Jonah and his big fish are but a handful of characters found in the Bible, without the slightest historicity. They are literary creations.
The figures of New Testament discourse must also be critically examined in the same light, for the New Testament is to be defined neither as a history of the early Christian church nor as an account of the life of a man named Jesus and of that of his followers. (my formatting)
Analysing intertextuality and genre studies have been the themes of many of my own posts. More often than not they are based on work scholars themselves have produced. I hope to produce many more. It is a shame that so many other scholars have reacted with such unnecessarily acrimony.
Next post I’ll revisit Jim West’s opening chapter in Is This Not the Carpenter? This has also been available online since 2010 at The Bible and Interpretation. Back then discussed his article on this blog. I will do so again with a few additional thoughts that have come to me since then.
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