Among biblical scholars today are those who quite rightly are concerned with the ideology and values that are implicitly exprestext the sed in what otherwise seem to be works of objective fact and analysis.
One such problematic theme that has often been expressed in publications about Christian origins is the portrayal of Christianity in terms that suggest that it originated as a superior religion to Judaism. Judaism of the early first century has too often been portrayed an imposition of painful restrictions upon its followers while Jesus is by contrast depicted as a high-minded innovator who offered spiritual and even physical liberation. E. P. Sanders (author of Jesus and Judaism and The Historical Figure of Jesus) is reputed to have been a significant pioneer in breaking down this ideology of Christian superiority:
1. E.P. Sanders contributed significantly to demolishing the explicit anti-Jewish tendencies in New Testament and the over-emphasis on the Law versus Gospel distinction.
2. E.P. Sanders downplayed historicity of the conflicts between Jesus and his opponents as presented in the Gospels.
(James Crossley, Rudolf Bultmann, E.P. Sanders, and Curious Legacies)
I applaud the intention behind such discernment. Many of us have been taught in Sunday schools and churches that Judaism was dominated by a narrow-minded legalism from which Jesus came to deliver us. There is no doubt a good measure of unhelpful stereotyping going on here. The Gospels themselves, especially those of Matthew and John, are largely to blame for this.
Professor Crossley is addressing the positives and negatives of the Bultmann legacy. The particular example he singles out to illustrate his point is coincidentally critical to his own argument — and Maurice Casey’s — for dating the Gospel of Mark to within 5 to 10 years from Jesus’ crucifixion.)
Sanders argued that these have ‘extraordinarily unrealistic’ settings.
Pharisees ‘did not organize themselves into groups to spend their Sabbaths in Galilean cornfields in hope of catching someone transgressing’. Similarly, according to Sanders, it is not credible that scribes and Pharisees journeyed from Jerusalem to Galilee to inspect the disciples’ hands.
‘Surely’, he concludes, ‘stories such as these should not be read as describing actual debates between Jesus and others’ (Sanders,Jesus and Judaism, p. 265; cf. Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 74, 215-16; Sanders, Jewish Law, pp. 19-23, 84-89. Meier would also stand in this scholarly tradition). As might be expected to follow from this position, such stories were deemed to be church creations in response to Jewish criticisms.
(Rudolf Bultmann, E.P. Sanders, and Curious Legacies, my formatting and bolding)
I find myself agreeing with Bultmann and Sanders here. Later in the post Crossley refers to Bultmann’s well-known point that in Mark 2 the Pharisees are not questioning Jesus but his disciples — i.e. the church. This was seen as a pointer to the cornfield-sabbath controversy being an invention by the church to address criticisms it was facing over the sabbath.
Crossley is somewhat ambivalent, however. He opines that there could have been historical settings behind these controversies over plucking corn on the sabbath and eating with unwashed hands. Crossley takes the rhetorical questions of Sanders and turns them back on him. Thus Mark did not actually say that the Pharisees spent their sabbaths in cornfields waiting to catch someone transgressing, or that the Pharisees journeyed from Jerusalem for the express purpose of inspecting the disciple’s hands.
When historians meet “extraordinarily unrealistic” material
The problem with this response, as I see it, is that it leaves Sanders’ (and by extension Bultmann’s) core point untouched. What remains is still the simple fact (one might say “plain reading”) that the scenarios as Mark describes them really are “extraordinarily unrealistic.” Moreover, if we accept them as “unrealistic” then we are accepting them on the same basis as we accept so many other scenarios in Mark’s gospel. When Jesus pulls the leper aside from the crowd to heal him and then commands him not to tell a soul what he has done — despite the narrative indicating the crowd is only a few feet away obediently standing back to allow Mark’s miracle to happen the way he wishes — we are reading an other “extraordinarily unrealistic’ setting. When Jesus raises Jairus’s daughter from apparent death and then instructs everyone to not tell anyone what he has done — again we are reading something that is “extraordinarily unrealistic”. We hardly need to mention the voice coming to Jesus at his baptism or his walking on water or the crudely naive way the disciples are presented as so, so very dumb. See also Mark’s Rent-a-Crowd. The Gospel of Mark is “extraordinarily unrealistic” as a whole.
Mark is a highly symbolic gospel and its author makes this clear: Jesus speaks in parables so as not to be understood (Mark 4:10-12, 33-34) and even his miracles are symbolic of theological messages (Mark 8:13-21). Many have noticed the clear theological and literary structures behind some of Mark’s double miracles such as Jesus healing the blind (sometimes in two stages) to illustrate the recovery of spiritual insight, sometimes by stages.
But where does all of this literature and theology leave the historical Jesus?
That’s the problem facing scholars. Crossley acknowledges that all Mark gives us are the bare bones of the questions and responses relating to a doctrinal disagreement. That, to me, sounds like the author is creating or using scenarios to do nothing more than convey a particular lesson for readers without any thought to presenting an actual historical scene for its own sake. But Crossley falls into the same way of thinking as probably most biblical scholars investigating Christian origins fall into: assumptions of historicity and assumptions that the gospels are historiographical works.
However, while these may or may not be creations of the early church, it certainly does not follow from Jesus being asked a question to justify his disciples’ behaviour that they must. There are other possibilities. . .
So despite the absence of evidence in the Gospel of Mark for the author’s intent to write a historical or biographical work (I refer here to the many posts on Vridar addressing the scholarship on these genre and mimesis questions) the possibility that this gospel was indeed at some level drawing upon historical memory is advanced.
Overlooking the fundamentals & ad hoc patches
This brings us back to the failure of biblical scholars attempting to “do history” to grapple seriously with one of the fundamentals: to first test the sources to analyse their true nature and assess what questions they can reasonably answer. Despite the evidence that the gospels are meant to be viewed like stained glass windows scholars continue to attempt to look through them to study what they imagine (ideologically) must lie behind them. The gospels are excellent primary sources for the world that composed and first read them but not for some imagined real world behind their narrative.
Assumptions that are added without evidence in order to justify an idea are called ad hoc. Crossley resorts ad hoc arguments — and in doing so he is typical of many other biblical scholars addressing Christian origins — when he raises the possibility that the reason the Pharisees did not ask Jesus why he (but only his disciples) were plucking corn on the sabbath was because Jesus was “not poor enough” to qualify for the Levitical permission for “the poor and strangers” to pluck corn from others’ fields. Crossley certainly does provide plenty of evidence that this was a known Levitical law at the time but none of that evidence adds any weight to the argument that the Pharisees singled out Jesus’ disciples for criticism because they were “poorer” than Jesus. (The very suggestion is surely bordering on the ludicrous as I have pointed out in other posts past.) Anthony Le Donne is probably being more accurate than he realizes when he address Crossley with his quip, “Are you harnessing chaos or stirring it up?”
Crossley rightly explains that among the Jewish leaders in the Second Temple era there were many debates over doctrines and interpretation of Scriptures. So yes, it is quite “possible” (leaving aside questions of testing this proposition for now) that Jesus was engaged in such debates with Pharisees and scribes. That would make Jesus very “Jewish”. And this is one of Crossley’s main points of argument. He protests that Bultmann separated Jesus from “his Jewishness” when he interpreted the passage in Mark as a non-historical product of the church.
So here we return to the role of ideology.
Fighting ideology with ideology
Here I depart from Crossley’s immediate message of his blog post. I turn to Crossley’s own published arguments relating to the historical Jesus. Crossley appear to strive to be politically correct by insisting that his Jesus is very much as Jewish as Jewishness can be. Just as apologists and those who attempt to harmonize the many apparent contradictions among the gospels do so by ad hoc rationalizations, so biblical scholars so often attempt to fill the gap left by the rhetoric and theology in the gospels with ad hoc assumptions of historicity.
Perhaps this process is more evident in Crossley’s work because he (rightly) does not cover his tracks with “criteria of authenticity” as so many have done. We know the fallacies inherent in those criteria.
But it does seem that the guiding principle behind Crossley’s historical Jesus is the desire to rebut the problematic contemporary stereotype of Christianity’s supremacy and Judaism’s inferiority.
Such a Jewish Jesus is therefore just as much an ideological construct as the stereotype it is designed to counter.
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