Metonymy, Messianism, and Historicity in the New Testament

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by Tim Widowfield

Jesus uppväcker Lazarus, målning av Karl Isaks...
Jesus Raising Lazarus from the Dead — Karl Isaksson, 1872-1922 Kategori:Målningar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, I happened to notice a post on James McGrath’s site concerning a paper by Tom Thatcher about Jesus as a healer and a “controversialist.” As I take it, that term describes a figure who is no mere contrarian, but rather one who makes controversial statements or engages in controversial actions to stimulate debate or to educate and elucidate.

Thatcher presented his paper, which apparently isn’t yet available to the public, at the Society of Biblical Research’s 2015 Annual Meeting in Atlanta. His session, entitled “Jesus as Controversialist: Media-Critical Perspectives on the Historicity of the Johannine Sabbath Controversies,” bears the following abstract:

Apart from scattered sayings with clear parallels in other texts, it remains the case that the Johannine discourses are almost categorically disregarded as useful sources for the message of Jesus. Consistent with this approach, the dialogues of Jesus in John 5–10, which include some of the most significant Christological statements in the Gospel, are generally discounted whole as reflections of the Johannine imagination. The present paper will utilize insights drawn from media-criticism to propose a more holistic approach that seeks to identify broad patterns in John’s presentation that reflect widely-accepted themes in the message and program of the historical Jesus. Close analysis reveals that the discourses in John 5-10 are prompted by specific acts of protest by Jesus (the two Sabbath healings) that are directed toward the brokers of the Jerusalem great tradition. Against the establishment claim that he is a “sinner,” Jesus contends that his widely-documented activity as a healer would be impossible were it not sanctioned by God: If God objected to healing on Sabbath, then how could Jesus do so? One may reasonably conclude that the more elaborate theological statements in this central section of the Gospel are in fact grounded in three widely accepted conclusions: that the historical Jesus was a healer; that he challenged conventional views of Sabbath; and, that he openly opposed the Judean religious establishment. (Thatcher, 2015, emphasis mine)

As McGrath describes it, Thatcher’s paper pays particular attention to “two questions: did Jesus act on the Sabbath in ways that he intended to generate controversy, and by what method can we tell?” Not having access to the paper myself, I’m reluctant to draw any conclusions. In any event, the discussion of Jesus’ historicity, especially as it relates to his supposed tangling with the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and priests seems to have become a hot topic in NT scholarship.

Are the controversy stories historically reliable?

Chris Keith, as you may recall from a recent Memory Mavens post, believes the controversy stories in the gospels arise out of events that really happened. To be fair, so did Rudolf Bultmann. Specifically, Bultmann thought that Jesus did argue with the religious leaders of his day, which helps explain why early followers formed controversy stories around certain logia. However, he maintained that none of the existing controversy stories in the gospels actually went back to specific historical occasions.

E.P. Sanders said essentially the same thing, at least with respect to controversy stories about Jesus supposedly breaking (or bending) the Sabbath or disregarding kashrut. In Jesus and Judaism, he insisted that Jesus did not oppose the law — otherwise, why did Paul (and others?) have to invent a Torah-free Christianity? Naturally, Keith accuses Sanders of being overly skeptical. Where else but biblical studies will we find practitioners chiding one another for withholding judgment, requiring too much evidence, and not jumping to conclusions?

Keith, by contrast, thinks that Jesus may have acted and spoken differently in different situations. He writes:

In short, Jesus did not have a view of the law or an approach to the law. Perhaps, as the Gospels claim, Jesus’s teachings were more complex than a black-and-white statement on the continuing validity of the law and were context-specific. Perhaps he was sometimes perceived as someone who upheld the law (Matt. 5: 17–18) and sometimes perceived as someone who abrogated or circumvented the law (Mark 10:3–9// Matt. 19:4–9; Matt. 8:22// Luke 9:60; Matt. 12:3–8// Luke 6:3–5).

Keith, Chris (2014-04-15). Jesus against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Kindle Locations 2687-2691). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Here we see a prime example of Keith’s method. He discards social memory theory, and imagines that the gospels are interpretations of actual human recollection. His resulting picture of Jesus is one in which on Monday he says not one jot or tittle of the law will be changed while on Tuesday he declares all food to be clean. Or at least, that’s the way he’s perceived. Essentially, Keith’s harmonized gospel explains away the diversity of the New Testament using the Blessed-Are-the-Cheesemakers defense.

Forget your Sitze im Leben. Ignore the idiosyncratic tendencies of the four evangelists. Disregard the theological imprint each community brought to the four gospels. Yes, chuck it all, because Keith tells us the diversity and supposed contradictions in the gospels arise from eyewitness interpretation of actual events — not even memory, really, but perception.

Why do you think Mark described Jesus as an (apparently) illiterate teacher, while Luke tells us he read from a scroll in the Synagogue? If you answered, “Because Luke had theological reasons for wanting Jesus to be literate,” you’re correct. But that isn’t the answer Keith wants. Instead, he wants us to imagine a Jesus who behaved in such a way that some witnesses thought he was illiterate, while others thought he could read the scriptures just as well, if not better than, the scribes, Pharisees, and so-called doctors of the law.

Are the Sabbath references secondary?

At the risk of being “overly skeptical,” I would direct your attention to Graham Twelftree’s assessment of the historicity of Jesus’ views on the Sabbath. McGrath tells us that in his paper, “Jesus as Healer in the Gospel of John,” which Twelftree delivered at the same conference in Atlanta:

References to the Sabbath are consistently connected with Jesus’ healing activity – and look like insertions by the evangelist into the narrative rather than something that was part of the tradition he inherited. And so far from being a past matter, healing on the Sabbath seems to have been an ongoing concern for the Johannine church and a reason for which they were persecuted.

Here we have an alternative explanation for the continual linking of healing stories to the observation of the Sabbath in the canonical gospels. They look secondary, because they are secondary. The turbulent experience of the Johannine church has brought the subject to the fore. Yet we can’t forget that the Synoptics also relate healing with the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6, Luke 13:10-17) in ways that are integral to the story line.

However, I suggest we’ve been looking in the wrong places. The source for the Sabbath controversies doesn’t lie in the historical life of Jesus or even, for that matter, within the history of the early Christian communities. By that I mean the narratives have nothing to do with the historical observation of the Sabbath or any controversies arising therefrom.

The Sabbath is more than just another item in ritual law; it’s more than just one of the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath is a covenant sign. From Exodus 31:

16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever.

17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed. (ESV)

Signs of the covenant

Traditional Judaism, as you may remember, observes three signs of the covenant: the Sabbath, the rainbow, and male circumcision. As Clark M. Williamson explains in “Reversing the Reversal: Covenant and Election in Jewish and Process Thought”:

The message of the prophets is not that Israel has broken a legal contract, but that Israel has forsaken the gracious God who originally redeemed Israel, and who still remains faithful to the covenant, in spite of Israel’s occasional ignoring and breaking of it.

That is the bare bones of the notion of covenant in the Hebrew scriptures. The main Hebrew term for covenant is berit, most probably used in the sense of binding or a bond. In both the Septuagint and the apostolic writings of the young church, berit is translated by the Greek term diatheke. The Latin term is testamentum, from testare, to bear witness.

Usually the covenant was accompanied by a sign or token to remind the parties of their obligations (e.g., Genesis 21:30; 31:44—45, 52; Joshua 24:27). The “sign of the covenant” is especially characteristic of the Priestly source. The Sabbath, the rainbow, and circumcision are the signs of the three great covenants established by God at the three critical stages of human history: the creation, the renewal of humanity after the deluge, and the beginning of the Hebrew nation. Circumcision came to be regarded as the most distinctive sign of the covenant, and is known as berit milah—”the covenant of circumcision.” (Williamson, 1996, p. 169)

Obviously, humans have no control over the appearance of the rainbow, and, as Williamson correctly points out, circumcision has become the most distinctive sign — so much so, in fact, that it early on became a metonym for Judaism. The New Testament itself contains many such examples. In Galatians 2:8, Paul refers to Peter as the “apostle of the circumcision.” Your English translation may read “apostle to the circumcised,” but the literal Greek is a noun, not a participle: Πέτρῳ εἰς ἀποστολὴν τῆς περιτομῆ (Petrō eis apostolēn tēs peritomēs).

Circumcision became synonymous with the covenant, just as uncircumcision became synonymous for being outside the covenant. When Paul talks about circumcision, then, he usually means more than the procedure itself. For him, it stands for the entirety of law.

Metonyms of the covenant

If the author of Mark’s gospel was substituting the metonym of circumcision with the metonym of the Sabbath, it would explain the sustained emphasis on the Sabbath, combined with miraculous acts of healing.

But note well that references to circumcision in the gospels are quite rare (only two, both in John’s gospel), while references to the Sabbath abound. In the letters of Paul, the opposite is true. The word Sabbath appears once in 1 Corinthians and once in Colossians, while the word circumcision occurs 31 times.

In either case, controversy surrounds the respective signs of the covenant. And so I submit that Sabbath references in the gospels are often, if not almost always, allusions to the entirety of the law. That is to say the two outward, most significant signs of the Hebrew faith (which evolved into Judaism), which are the primary signs of the covenant, are both metonyms for the covenant and for the Jewish people under that covenant.

You may recall that in Isaiah 56, we find instances of “keep my Sabbaths” standing in parallel with “hold fast to my covenant.” So we do have ancient examples of the Sabbath equated with the covenant.

If the author of Mark’s gospel was substituting the metonym of circumcision with the metonym of the Sabbath, it would explain the sustained emphasis on the Sabbath, combined with miraculous acts of healing. With these controversy stories Mark ties together a symbol of the covenant (observance of the Sabbath) with a symbol of Messiahship (miraculous healing), strongly asserting Jesus’ mastery over ritual law.

Tom Dykstra points out in Mark, Canonizer of Paul:

The only way Gentiles would enter the church en masse would be if they were not subject to the dictates of the Jewish law, especially circumcision. Mark could not make such a blatant anachronism as to portray Jesus addressing circumcision directly. Circumcision did not become an issue until after Paul established Gentile communities and Paul’s opponents demanded that members of those communities be circumcised, so it would be obvious to Mark’s audience that a circumcision controversy would not fit in a narrative about Jesus. But one way to reach the same goal of showing that circumcision should not be considered necessary would be to assert that the essence of the law consists in loving God and one’s neighbor, and the rest of it is of relative, not absolute value. (Dykstra, p. 87, emphasis mine)

[Note: See Neil’s review posts here.]

Dykstra rightly notes that Mark emphasized the love of God and one’s neighbor, while de-emphasizing ritualistic aspects of the law, even to the point of apparently abolishing kashrut.

This is clearest in the passage where Jesus openly abrogates all Jewish dietary regulations by saying what matters is not what you eat but how you treat other people by what you say (7:14-19). (Dykstra, p. 88)

The implications of the metonymical use of the Sabbath

Recognizing the Sabbath as a substitute metonym for the Jewish covenant only strengthens Dykstra’s case. Mark’s fiction allowed Pauline Christians to bring Jesus into the debates on the necessity of Jewish ritual law in Gentile communities. So from this perspective, Mark’s bold statement that “the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath” is not some Aramaic idiomatic way of saying “the Sabbath was made for humans.” Rather, Mark’s first readers and the author himself clearly used “Son of Man” as a Messianic title and believed Jesus was the master of the Sabbath — and not just of the day itself, but of the covenant that it represents.

Looking at the gospels with this new perspective, we may consider the symbolic aspects of Jesus’ burial just before sundown on Friday followed by his resurrection just before dawn on the first day of the week. Jesus enters the realm of the dead, symbolized by the Sabbath and the obsolete covenant it represents. He rises with the Sun on the new day of worship, Sunday, which symbolizes the new covenant.


For decades the search for the historical Jesus has dominated New Testament studies. As a result, the broader questions about the historical origins of Christianity and the literary origins of the NT have taken a back seat. The first question must always be, “How does this help us know something about the ‘real’ Jesus?”

The Memory Mavens are no exception, and are perhaps a source of greater disappointment, since Social Memory Theory could help us explain how and why communities create memories that become part of their lore, part of their sacred history. Instead, they treat the text naively as reflected (and refracted) memories of eyewitnesses. They concern themselves with what happened in the past to cause “memories” in the gospels rather than with what the community needed in order to sustain itself.

Are the Sabbath controversy stories historical? Or did they arise out of the struggles between the early church and Judaism? Or is it possible that the author of Mark’s gospel created them out of whole cloth — allegorical stories in which Jesus reinterprets, redefines, dominates, and eventually supersedes the ritual law of Moses? One thing is certain: as long as NT scholars have Jesus-tunnel-vision and as long they keep treating skepticism as a moral defect, the only option they’ll take seriously is historicity.

Dykstra, Tom

Mark Canonizer of Paul: A New Look at Intertextuality in Mark’s Gospel, OCABS Press, 2012

Williamson, Clark M.

“Reversing the Reversal: Covenant and Election in Jewish and Process Thought” in Jewish Theology and Process Thought (Suny Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought), edited by Sandra B. Lubarsky and David Ray Griffin, 1996.


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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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10 thoughts on “Metonymy, Messianism, and Historicity in the New Testament”

  1. Clearly there were growing differences between Judaism and Christianity in general, by 100 AD, and John. One major symbol or metonym of this difference, would be the controversy on the timing of the Sabbath, or day of rest. Which in Judaism is on Saturday, not Sunday.

    Exactly when was the Sabbath – and strict Judaism – forgotten, or changed? Scholars generally assert it took some time for Christianity to safely drift that far away from Judaism.

  2. The preacher depicted in the gospels has a mordant sense of humor and a quick-witted repartee. Maybe the writers made this up for some reason with unusual skill, or purloined jokes from rabbinical or other sources, or both. Or maybe there was just such a person who attracted and entertained audiences; a Donald Soper or an Oswald Mosley of those days.

  3. Most interesting. Healing, too, is closely related to the covenant, and again this is found in the story of the Exodus. Exodus 15:26

    “If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, and wilt do that which is right in His sight, and wilt give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee which I have brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord that healeth thee.”

    — and this message immediately precedes the introduction of the sabbath — Exodus 16.

    Ditto in Isaiah with its theme of the Second Exodus, healing is a sign of the advent of the new messianic covenant.

    As Jack Miles put it, and as Clarke Owens elaborated further, the Bible is not a window we look through to see shapes and movies created by our imaginations.

      1. In the Gospel of Mark we have sabbath controversies related to healing and collecting/eating grain. Perhaps I should be more sceptical and not be too quick to ask if these relate to the blessings of healing for covenant compliance (as per my previous comment) and the first test associated with the introduction of the sabbath in Exodus 16 — which involved faithless ones who went out to collect food on the sabbath and being condemned for it. Recall of course Jesus’ disciples in the corn fields that culminated in Jesus’ declaration that he was the Lord of the Sabbath.

        1. Significantly, when Jesus begins to change the laws of God, allowing some work on the Sabbath, one example of that was not just preparing food, but also Jesus healing on that day.

          Links between the Sabbath and healing might originally, by the way, have come about through natural logic. Since a day of rest allowed the healing of minor farming injuries, and fatigue.

          Still, changing the Sabbath by allowing active medical interventions, would raise the issue of whether Christianity really was loyal to God. The issue of covenant loyalty. Asking for the right to doctor others in the Sabbath attempted to raise a reasoned defense for that otherwise heretical act.

  4. The destruction of the Temple was almost certainly a major factor in the development of Christian “supersession” and the formation of the NT material. I Thessalonians 2.15 presumably reflects some quite early experiences of conflict.

    1. Undoubtedly. Though some Jewish compromises with say, the Roman notion of ethics, and other Roman customs, would have begun, to some degree, a century earlier. In 64 BC. When Pompey and Rome took over Jerusalem.

      By the time Jesus was said to have died, Romans had ruled Israel for 100 years. Jerusalem had a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Herod was essentially a Roman puppet.

      Possibly therefore, some Jewish slaves were encouraged/forced by their Roman masters say, to work on the Jewish Sabbath.

      Roman occupation would have forced many compromises on the Jews. And to rationalize that? Peter for example, suddenly “sees God” say, dropping all the old Jewish food prohibitions.

      And for that matter? Suddenly the figure of Jesus appears. Telling Jews to love their enemies. Including Romans, it seems.

      Many of the teachings of Jesus were finally very convenient for/derived from, the Romans.

  5. I found and read a detailed review of Dykstra here. http://www.mythicistpapers.com/?s=dykstra&x=0&y=0. I will plan to read the book. I am curious if those with deeper insight consider Dykstra’s ideas on mark compatible with the Parvus/Price/Dettering views on Paul/Simon? I got the idea at times that Dykstra needs Simon and Paul to be two different people with opposing viewpoints where Simon is Gnostic emphasizing gnosis while for Paul resurrection comes later and the key think is salvation through believing in sacrifice on the cross.

  6. Interesting thoughts. Note that there are more healings on the Sabbath than mentioned above: also a Man with Dropsy [Luke 14:1-6], Peter’s Mother-in-law [Mark 1:29-31], a demon [Mark 1:21-26] – but in Mark the people don’t seem to mind -. And Jesus also heals after the Sabbath [Mark 1:28], [Mark 2].

    I can’t explain why the Jews in Mark don’t always object to Jesus’ healings on the Sabbath, while in Matthew/Luke and John they do. My guess is that Mark doesn’t tell us because he assumes his readers will realise this transgression anyway?

    I’m not (yet?) convinced that the gospel writers intend to say that Jesus abolished (superseded) a covenant by healing on the Sabbath; that could be stretching the meaning too far.

    It appears to me that it is a strategy to show the wickedness and narrow-mindedness of the Pharisees (in the minds of the gospel writers): they wouldn’t even allow an intrinsically good thing (healing the sick) because of their interpretation of the law. So I don’t think they say Jesus did away with Sabbath and replaced it with Sunday worship: in fact, Christians continued to celebrate Sabbath for many centuries, and many consider Sunday like a sort of Sabbath (no work, sports etc. allowed). In that light, it doesn’t seem likely that the gospels meant to talk about circumcision, since that never caught on in Christianity.

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