The Polarization of Biblical Studies

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by Neil Godfrey

René Salm has been posting some interesting articles on his Mythicistpapers website lately. His most recent is Brodie, McGrath, and the increasing polarization of biblical studies—Pt. 2. James McGrath has prided himself on rarely taking a cutting edge stand but always remaining steadfast in the middle of controversial issues. He calls it The Radical Middle!

I was once asked (in a job interview for a faculty position at a seminary), because I seem to like the ‘middle of the road’ position on many things, what if anything I get excited about. I thought it was a great question, and I would still answer it the same way now as I did then: I am excited about finding and maintaining the middle ground.

The middle ground is anything but where McGrath stands in relation to mythicism. René points out in his article that McGrath “presents such a good example of the polarization in biblical studies.”

Thus, what comes screaming through, more than anything else, is the paranoia of an aging, entitled, and arrogant tradition. It all stands to reason. There’s a paycheck at stake. Reputation. Legacy. Ooh…

The article touches on a number of recent developments among biblical scholars that present challenges to their traditional assumptions. He begins with Dennis MacDonald’s studies in intertextuality and mimesis and the conclusion that the gospel authors were essentially writing fiction. I have been reading not only MacDonald’s work but also studies by a number of more conservative scholars also investigating intertextuality. They fail to draw the logical conclusions that MacDonald does, but their work is still informative and yet another topic I would like to post about one day.

Other names in the article of interest: Thomas Brodie, Tom Dykstra, Markus Vinzent. Salm is of the view that “Paul” belongs firmly in the second century. Vinzent is going so far as to argue that all four canonical gospels postdate the Marcionite heresy.

Some other recent interesting articles of interest at Mythicist Papers


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11 thoughts on “The Polarization of Biblical Studies”

  1. McGrath’s theories are wildly improbable. For instance, It is more parsimonious to suppose the first Christians invented the atoning death of Jesus by extrapolating from scripture rather than the wildly implausible scenario McGrath prefers of the first Christians experiencing a traumatic event and then going back to scripture to find a precursor for it. To take one example, does it make sense to say that Jesus suffered an atoning death, and then the first Christians were just magically able to flesh it out by discovering in Isaiah 53 that “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed..” An allegorical reading of Isaiah 53 is the source of Christ’s atoning death, not that Christ suffered an atoning death and the first Christians luckily found a precursor for that in Isaiah 53. Mythicists are correct when they say every salient detail of the crucifixion narrative is prefigured in the Hebrew scriptures, so that Occam’s Razor demands that we need not posit an historical core for any of it. As to McGrath’s other point that the Hebrew scriptures were not close enough to inspire the New Testament narratives of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection, Paul says very clearly that the death of Jesus, in terms of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, was to be understood in relation to the Hebrew scriptures that (for Paul) prophesized the events of Jesus death and resurrection. We read “3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES, 4and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day ACCORDING TO THJE SCRIPTURES,… (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).” McGrath may not see the clear link between the New Testament narrative and the Hebrew scriptures here, but some of the Jews of Paul’s time, including Paul, certainly did.

    1. McGrath wants to erect a firewall around the New Testament in order to protect it from creative influence from the Old Testament. McGrath, for instance, contends that Jesus’ atoning death is not related to Isaiah 53. The problem for this interpretation is, if not Isaiah 53, what Hebrew scriptures are Paul referring to when he says “Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES (1 Corinthians 15:3)?” Even he is right and the reference Paul is making is not to Isaiah 53, the point still stands that Paul understands Jesus’ atoning death as profoundly related to “some” Hebrew Scriptures.

      1. Though “scriptures” in some usages can be a very general term. Meaning simply “writings.” Perhaps hellenized Jewish writings like the apocrypha, and even Greek writings, were sometimes included.

        Some scholars have argued that the NT at times quoted “scripture” that cannot be found in say, the OT.

        Acknowledging some non-OT influences on the NT can be useful; it points to some instability and infidelities in the ostensibly loyally Jewish NT. And finding specifically Greek and Roman myths there, greatly compliments Mythicism

    2. “Mythicists are correct when they say every salient detail of the crucifixion narrative is prefigured in the Hebrew scriptures”

      I think there is a quote somewhere from John Dominic Crossan along the lines that the OT provides all of the story of the Passion.
      If someone can find it I would be appreciative.

      1. If 1) it’s in Hebrew scripture, great. But if it’s 2) not, that’s even better for mythicism, to my mind. Since it usually suggests an origin for Christianity in the most shockingly flagrant, obviously mythic pagan stories.

        In the past, when we noted Old Testament sources to New Testament themes, fans of Christianity often loved it. Since they themselves were constantly trying to show that indeed, Jesus was the loyal outgrowth and realization of earlier holy writ. And in effect, a true son of the Jewish God.

        Partly to avoid that co-opting, I’ve concentrated on finding pagan sources. Where Christians can’t construe finding earlier sources, as proof of the consistency of their faith. Their notion that Jesus fulfilled and deepened the literature of God. Rather than contradicting and betraying it with paganism. As my more critical model sees it.

        Watch out. Finding exclusively OT origins for NT events, can play right into the hands of the faithful harmonizers. Who always wanted to prove exactly that.

        1. “…I’ve concentrated on finding pagan sources. ”

          Here try this one:

          *g”Mark” 8.22ff
          [22]And they came to Beth-sa’ida. And some people brought to him a blind man, and begged him to touch him.
          [23] And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the village; and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?”
          [24] And he looked up and said, “I see men; but they look like trees, walking.”

          *Inscription recording a cure in the Temple of Asclepios at Epidaurus

          A certain Alcetas of Halice was cured of blindness of the god and “the first things he saw were the trees in the Temple precincts”

            1. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=uhgvLiMh-4oC&pg=PT269&lpg=PT269&dq=Temple++Asclepios++Epidaurus++Alcetas+of+Halice&source=bl&ots=R5QX2WgD7H&sig=G2u7ZWznidQfw0TYwOXrNMralZ4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj0mMCZ0a7LAhWDKZQKHVvEAaoQ6AEIKzAC#v=onepage&q=Temple%20%20Asclepios%20%20Epidaurus%20%20Alcetas%20of%20Halice&f=false

              This link will, hopefully, take you to a book you can use as a reference.
              “Philip’s City: From Bethsaida to Julias” By Fred Strickert

              I can’t reproduce the relevant text but it includes reference to the god Asklepios using touch to heal.

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