How Ideology Creates a Historical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

sanders-bultmannAmong 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.)

We might, in fact, turn Sanders’ suspicions of twentieth-century German scholarship on Sanders’ use of Bultmann, in this case the handling of Mark 2.23-28 and Mark 7.1-23.

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

SONY DSCThe 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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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “How Ideology Creates a Historical Jesus”

  1. Bultmann’s idea that we have, in these passages, a reflection of a later Jewish criticism of ‘the church’ is the real ‘unrealistic’ fantasia in these remarks. Why would any pharasaical or later rabbinical, or indeed any Jewish teacher at any time, give even one moment’s thought to what this or that crowd of gentiles were doing with their Saturdays. Critique of gentiles is restricted to attacks on idolatry, murder, porneia and the like, not to their adherence to fine points of a law that is emphatically distinctive of Jews only. Sanders, may his memory be a blessing, is badly executing his sound plan of getting rid of a Jesus vs. Jews representation of the text.

    But the correct rendering is I thought standard by now, that the disputes about handwashing, healing, the mysterious corban/parents business, etc., etc. are all intra-Jewish sectarian disputes of the sort totally characteristic of the period. The disciples in the cornfield are behaving in accordance with the understanding of the law that they have all been brought up in; the criticism of Jesus is that he isn’t teaching them better; he responds – no doubt having been brought up in exactly the same way – that they are just making stuff up. What could be more ‘realistic’?

    The idea that teachers adhering to the Pharasaical sect were never present in Galilee at the time is more than improbable. It is clear that this sect more than others had a sort proselytizing attitude toward people it considered to be Jews and subject to the law. (The idea that Paul’s first job was as a sort of tutor in pharasaism for dim-witted pilgrims from the Greek-speaking diaspora, has something to recommend it.) That there was a special party sent up inspect behavior in the wheat fields of Galilee is not suggested by the text and not a sensible inference; nothing like that would be necessary. In fact we do have a partly Pharasaical party sent up from the big city to correct Josephus in Galilee see his life e.g. at http://sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/autobiog.htm para 39.

    1. What we identify as Christianity today (including Paul’s churches) was not a distinct religion from Judaism as such until very much later. The border lines (Daniel Boyarin’s expression) were not yet drawn. The churches were not gentile but Jewish with gentiles — most probably at first from “God-fearers” and others initially attracted to Judaism — included. The many OT allusions in the earliest literature would make no sense to the audience you seem to be imagining.

      There is no dispute that the controversies themselves depicted in Mark 2 and 7 are “typically Jewish”. The significant point here is the artificial manner in which they are introduced. The settings have been artfully constructed for the purpose of introducing the debate and are contrary to what we would expect of a depiction of historical memory.

      As for the apparently widespread presence of Pharisees in Galilee in the time of Jesus, this makes no difference at all to the unnatural scenario (not the unnatural debate) painted in Mark.

      1. Of course, yes, that was most of my point — I was taking for granted that there is no particular evidence that e.g. 1st century Jews of the “Jesus=messiah” tendency exhibited any defects in sabbath observance, nor any peculiarities in regard to hand-washing, that were not characteristic of Jews in their region. (Presumably someone like James the Just would have been quite anxious, when in doubt, to adopt whatever was the going practice on such points in Jerusalem.) Moreover, there seems to be little evidence of specifically Pharisaical activity after the Jewish War. Who exactly is complaining, then, about the degree of observance of ‘Jewish Christians’?

        So where do we find a ‘church’ with bad sabbath practices and hygiene that ‘Pharisees’ have any business carping about? The people in question are either Jewish and observant or Gentile and rightly non-observant. The Mark 2 passage seems perfectly ‘plausible’ to me; if it was invented later, it would be natural to say that this was to provide a bit of ‘period color’ — the sort of ‘archaizing’ that Markus Vinzent, for example, supposes must be common, since he holds to a quite late date for all the Gospels.

        In any case, what Sanders claims to find “unnatural” in the quoted passage is Mark’s supposed idea that the Pharisees “organize[d] themselves into groups to spend their Sabbaths in Galilean cornfields in hope of catching someone transgressing”; though in fact the story requires only the presence of such teachers thereabouts. You express tentative agreement with the great Sanders, but this is the only thing to agree with; you can’t agree with him if you think that there were Pharisaical teachers wandering about up there, carping about low Galilean standards of observance, and that Jesus & co. might have bumped into some of them. Bultmann seems clearly wrong, by the way, that the criticism is not of Jesus, but of the disciples, ‘.. i.e. the church’ as you put it; the criticism is clearly that Jesus is a no-good teacher. There seems to be a desire in you as in Bultmann to get something called ‘the church’ in the picture; but it doesn’t seem relevant to the material. But maybe I’m misreading.

        1. Whether I am consistent or not I can’t say but what I try to focus on is the text “as it is writ” — and what we can learn from that within the context of the rest of the text. I don’t see any grounds for looking beyond the text at apparent events outside it.

          Some writings invite us to reflect on what is beyond their literary narrative — as do histories and biographies or their approximate ancient equivalents. I don’t see any evidence that Mark is doing that with his readers. In this particular pericope there is nothing at all to point us in this direction that I can see.

          Mark’s gospel comes across to me as symbolic through and through. Does God care for bread and fish? Even healing the blind is done as a spiritual metaphor as is Isaiah’s prophecy for the same.

          If I am seeing the church in the picture it is because I assume that it was “the church” that produced the Gospel of Mark.

          Not that I’m a postmodernist who does not believe in going any deeper than the literary analysis. (At least I don’t think I am.) I treat literary analysis as the starting point of historical enquiry. What is this piece of evidence we have? What produced it? And then if I can see that its narrative is meant to point readers to something outside that happened in the real world in the past then I will follow that lead, too.

          1. I’m not sure I follow this, but one difficulty is that it seems strange to speak of “the church” until deep into the 2nd century or maybe 3rd century. Indeed, it is probably best to restrict the term to the period beginning with Constantine; then we can be thinking fairly precise thoughts; and by then we certainly have something definite to which we could assign ‘authorship’ rather than selection among a flood of diverse materials. I’m not sure when Mark was written, and presumably there are several hands in its redaction, but why think the was something to be called The Church and even Christianity at the time, sometime between say 70 and 150. To think there was is to accept the Church’s own view of the matter, which is fine from a pious point of view, but should be dropped in a historical enquiry. There illusion of unity and centralization that springs from the fact that almost all extant materials were preserved by the Church, but also from its own ideology of continuity.

            1. You are correct. “Church” entered the post through a quotation by Bultmann. I usually try to refer to “churches” in a specific context to indicate particular congregations (assemblies) — the original meaning of “ecclesia”. We sometimes speak of “Christianities”, “readers”, “audience” etc

  2. Could Mark’s artful constructions have been motivated by his miss-readings of Paul? In critiquing Morton Smith you have shown that Smith thinks the persecution of Paul is a result of Paul’s teaching that the Law has no claim on one who has died. Consequently those identifying with Jesus’ [celestial] death—by baptism—are set free from the Law. This Christ-crucified stumbling block for the Jews is intentionally carried on by Mark. But is Paul’s real offence that he assumes a celestially crucified Christ that can’t be falsified by history? Maybe Mark is purposefully slanting things the wrong way.

      1. Why was Paul’s preaching of Christ crucified a stumbling block to the Jews? Was it because Christ’s crucifixion was not historical and incapable of being proved or was it because it allowed participants in baptism to be free of the Law? With Mark the reason had to be one that offended because of apparent negation of the Law.

        1. I’m a rank amateur too. I happen to have been lucky to have had some opportunities to follow through my interest a bit more extensively than might have been the case.

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