Introducing new students to HJ studies – 2

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from the previous post . . . .

Chris Keith continues with the same authoritative dogmatic lessons for the new student readers when he speaks of

  • Mara Bar Serapion (“Mara does not refer to Jesus by name. Nevertheless, Jesus is certainly the person to whom he is referring”);
  • Pliny the Younger (One of “several Greco-Roman writers [to] refer to Jesus as the founder of Christianity” and who in a letter to Trajan “describes Jesus”);
  • Suetonius (Another one of the “several Greco-Roman writers [to] refer to Jesus as the founder of Christianity” and who also “refers to Jesus”);
  • Tacitus (One more of the “several Greco-Roman writers [to] refer to Jesus as the founder of Christianity” and whose work contains an “account of Jesus”).

Keith informs his readers that though none of the above actually used the name Jesus, Jesus was definitely the one they were writing about. Nowhere is the student informed that “Chrestus” (the name mentioned by Suetonius) was a very common slave name at the time; nor is the reader informed of the existence of any scholarly doubts or debates surrounding any of the passages. One wonders if Chris Keith himself has simply taken the traditional Christian view for granted from the beginning of his student days, too.

Canonical Gospels

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all were likely written before 100 CE. Scholars’ proposed specific dates for the writing of each Gospel differ one from another, sometimes by a few decades. Mark, however, is generally considered to be the first written Gospel and dated around 65-75 CE. Matthew and Luke, whom most scholars agree used Mark in writing their Gospels, are dated after him, around 70-85 CE. John is generally considered to be the last of the canonical Gospels to have been written and dated around 80-100 CE. The canonical Gospels are therefore the earliest extant accounts of Jesus’s life.

That’s it. No clue is yielded to alert readers to the ideological grounds for this dating. The fact that the actual evidence allows for dates extending well into the second century is not mentioned. Perhaps even the author finds the suggestion inconceivable.


Gospel of Mark

In his capacity as authoritative and trustworthy narrator, Mark opens his Gospel by speaking directly to readers a resounding proclamation of Jesus’s identity: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Seemingly insignificant, this short sentence is packed with important information concerning Jesus. It identifies Jesus as the long-awaited Christ (christos, “Messiah”) and Son of God. With both these titles, Mark taps into Jewish expectations of a kingly deliverer who would rid Jews of foreign domination and reestablish Israel by reestablishing God’s reign in Jerusalem. . . . . These messianic expectations were still alive and well in Jesus’s time. . . .

Is Keith saying that Mark’s authorial voice is that of an “authoritative and trustworthy narrator” or is he suggesting that Mark is indeed, as he sounds, an authoritative and trustworthy narrator?

One things is clear, though. The professor prepares readers to find it difficult to accept that the words “the Son of God” are of questionable authenticity when they later learn that facts (as some of them surely will) of the manuscript trail supporting and not supporting them.

Not so clear, not indicated at all, is the fact that a number of scholars question the widely held assumption (fed by the gospel narratives themselves for theological reasons) there was a Jewish expectation for a kingly deliverer soon to come to deliver them from the Romans.


As we have already seen, the idea of a crucified messiah was ludicrous to Greco-Roman culture. The narrative of Mark, however, asserts that, far from disqualifying Jesus as a legitimate Christ/Messiah, his death and resurrection are where his identity as Christ is displayed most clearly. Through the character Peter, however, Mark shows that this identity of Jesus was next to impossible to accept.

There is some confusion here. A “messiah” or “christ” was an entirely Jewish cultural idea so to say the idea of a “crucified messiah was ludicrous to Greco-Roman culture” is nonsensical. Earlier Keith had cited sources expressing contempt for Christians — Tacitus, Lucian of Samosata — but I am sure the only evidence he cited for the idea of a crucified messiah itself being ludicrous was the Alexamenos graffito. Works of scholars, a number of them Jewish, arguing strongly that the idea of a crucified or dying messiah was not at all so alien to Second Temple Jewish culture is far from the author’s consciousness.

The obligatory startling claim

In this light, the canonical gospels make a startling claim about Jesus’s identity implicitly that John 1:18 makes explicitly – God’s identity is revealed through Jesus’s identity. Combined with each Gospel’s emphasis that Jesus’s identity is most accurately apprehended via his crucifixion and resurrection, then, the Gospels make an even more startling claim – God’s identity is revealed through the actions of someone who has power over the grave but nonetheless submits to a torturous death on behalf of God’s people. 

You know you’re reading Christian apologetics when you read how an ancient theological claim is “startling”, “shocking”, “astonishing” — just to remind readers to keep their thrill for the gospel forever pumped, fired up, filled with the tingly spirit.



That was briefer than I had anticipated. Some of the main chapters attempt to demonstrate what Jesus meant in his own day (and of course to believers today) through the narratives of characters I would consider mostly (certainly arguably) fictional — Judas, angels and demons, the Twelve, John the Baptist.

Another day I will probably cover the last chapter in the book in which Chris Keith and Larry Hurtado jointly write about the quest for the historical Jesus and how its methods and ideas have changed over time.



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10 thoughts on “Introducing new students to HJ studies – 2”

  1. I would agree there is definitely a lot of fictional material surrounding John The Baptist.

    As Spong points out, the gospel narrative at this point is scripture fulfillment: Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey,the food of the wilderness in which Elijah lived. Also, as Miller points out, in view of parallels I mentioned above between John and Jesus on the one hand and Elijah and Elisha on the other, the Jordan baptism and the endowment with the spirit is a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior. Further, as Price points out, the heavenly voice at the baptism (bath qol) speaks a conflation of three scriptural passages. “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11) combines bits and pieces of Psalm 2:7, the divine coronation decree, “You are my son. Today I have begotten you;” Isaiah 42:1, the blessing on the returning Exiles, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;” and Genesis 22:12 (LXX), where the heavenly voices bids Abraham to sacrifice his “beloved son.” And as William R. Stegner points out, Mark may have in mind a Targumic tradition whereby Isaac, bound on the altar, looks up into heaven and sees the heavens opened with angels and the Shekinah of God, a voice proclaiming, “Behold, two chosen ones, etc.” There is even the note that the willingness of Isaac to be slain may serve to atone for Israel’s sins. Here is abundant symbolism making Jesus king, servant, and atoning sacrifice.

    1. I was getting lazy or impatient with the book and much that I originally planned to write I decided to drop because of other more interesting topics I want to follow up.

      One point you remind me of is an early chapter by Michael Bird on John the Baptist in which we read that all the Synoptic gospels portray John the Baptist as an Elijah figure. That is flat wrong. Luke, it has been noted (as you will know) deliberately rejects the Elijah association with John the Baptist because he wants to apply it to Jesus instead.

      And of course Bird bluntly declares on the authority of his scholarship that “there remains an authentic historical component to [the Gospels’] overall presentation” of John the Baptist.

      Notice how students are conditioned to read Luke’s portrayal of John the Baptist through the images presented by Mark and Matthew. (Luke in fact avoids any description of JB’s clothing and diet and dissociates him from the Elijah figure entirely.]


      The Canonical Gospels

      The presentation of John the Baptist in the canonical Gospels is to some degree manufactured, insofar as the Baptist is placed in the service of their narratival and christological interests. Yet even given their theological character, and despite the differences between them on John’s message and relationship to Jesus, there remains an authentic historical component to their overall presentation.

      The Synoptic Gospels all provide a condensed narration of John’s activity, apparel, message, and baptism of Jesus (cf. Mark 1: 1– 11; Matt. 3: 1– 6; Luke 3: 1– 6). John is unanimously located in the Judean “wilderness” proclaiming a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and attracting people from all over Judea and Jerusalem who were coming to the Jordan River to be baptized by him (Mark 1: 4– 5). This is followed with a brief description of the Baptizer’s attire and diet, which consists of wearing “camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist,” and eating “locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1: 6). The reference to “camel’s hair” and a “leather belt” is reminiscent of 2 Kings 1: 8, where Elijah was a “hairy man” or perhaps known for wearing hairy garments and having a “leather belt around his waist” (Mark follows the Septuagint— the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible— of 2 Kings 1: 8 very closely in the wording about the belt). In other words, John the Baptist is dressed like Elijah the Tishbite. The significance of John’s diet is difficult to determine,[ 94] though it may indicate no more than his ascetic lifestyle.

      Keith, Chris (2011-11-01). Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels (Kindle Locations 1757-1769). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

      Then there is once more the authoritative assurance of historicity:

      Jesus’s baptism by John (Mark 1: 9– 12) is almost universally recognized as a historically reliable event since it is attested in Mark and Q and is simply assumed in early Christianity (see Gospel of the Ebionites 4– 5; Gospel according to the Hebrews 6). What is more, given that the baptism could imply the subordination of Jesus to John, the event was potentially embarrassing to the Evangelists, which is why the tradition tended to emphasize the Baptizer’s unworthiness to baptize Jesus (Matt. 3: 14– 15) or, in the case of the Gospel of John, omitted the baptismal episode altogether.[ 99]

      Keith, Chris (2011-11-01). Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels (Kindle Locations 1787-1792). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

      I really do need to return to do a proper review of this book compiled by Keith and Hurtado and that Le Donne declares should be required reading for every seminary student.

            1. Dale Allison hints at the reason:

              I have never been without theological motives or interests. Until a few years ago, however, I had not attempted to pursue those interests with much diligence or to examine my motives with much care. Recent circumstances have pushed me out of my historical-critical pose. After accepting a teaching post at a Protestant theological seminary, I soon discovered that future pastors are not interested in undertaking historical labor without the prospect of theological reward. In order, then, to keep my audience, I was compelled to complement my critical inquiries with theological deliberations.

              Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 20-23). Kindle Edition.

      1. Dr. Dennis MacDonald of Claremont also shows how the story of John the Baptist’s martyrdom matches in all essentials the Odyssey’s story of the murder of Agamemnon (3:254-308: 4:512-547; 11:404-434), even to the point that both are told in the form of an analepsis or flashback. Herodias, like Queen Clytemnestra, left her husband, preferring his cousin: Antipas in the one case, Aegisthus in the other. This tryst was threatened, in Clytemnestra’s case, by the return of her husband from the Trojan War, in Herodias’, by the denunciations of John. In both cases, the wicked adulteress plots the death of the nuisance. Aegisthus hosted a banquet to celebrate Agamemnon’s return, just as Herod hosted a feast. During the festivities Agamemnon is slain, sprawling amid the dinner plates, and the Baptizer is beheaded, his head displayed on a serving platter. Homer foreshadows danger awaiting the returning Odysseus with the story of Agamemnon’s murder, while Mark anticipates Jesus’ own martyrdom with that of John. The only outstanding difference, of course, is that in Mark’s version, the role of Agamemnon has been split between Herodias’ rightful husband (Philip according to Mark; another Herod according to Josephus) and John the Baptizer.

      2. Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist is generally considered to be historical fact because it meets the criterion of embarrassment. However, historical minimalists point out that just because Jesus’ baptism was embarrassing for later gospel writers, we have no reason to think it was embarrassing to Mark. In fact, as I said, Miller has argued the Markan baptism pericope may be making a theological point, relating Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and the endowment with the spirit to a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior.

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