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.
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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