I discovered a cache of printouts from way back in the late 90s and early 00’s that I am steadily digitising for my files. But I have run into a problem with one 15 page essay that is without author name, without website, …. nothing to tell me who is its creator. I know Michael Turton was some time ago very interested in Markan chiasms so may it was by you, Michael.
I copy here the first page. Please let me know who was responsible for this composition if you can:
Mark Points a Finger at Paul: The Structure of Chiasms in Mark
One of the most challenging problems of the Gospel of Mark is perceiving the complex organizational structures that underlie the writer’s deceptively simple surface. The writer of the Gospel of Mark is obviously intimately familiar with the Tanakh, citing and alluding to it scores of times, as well as using its stories as models for his own narrative of Jesus. Given the depth of knowledge he displays about the Tanakh, as well as the ubiquity of chiasms in Hellenistic literary traditions, it seems incredible that the writer of Mark was unaware of the way chiastic structures organize even the shorter material in the Tanakh. This essay will argue that, in essence, the writer of Mark organized his shorter passages in complex chiastic structures fundamentally similar to, but far more elaborated than, the chiasms in the Tanakh.
Numerous scholars have grappled with the problem, finding chiastic structures in and between passages (Beavis, 1989; Dart, 2003; Myers, 1988; Tolbert, 1989) [ and ]
In this essay I will (1) propose a general model of chiastic structures in the Gospel of Mark; and (2) explore what this might mean for Markan priority; and (3) use a chiasm in Mark 12 to show that the writer of Mark knew and directly used the letters of Paul in constructing his gospel.
How Markan Chiasms Work
Although it goes under numerous names[ list them], a chiasm is fundamentally a structure of pairs that rolls out, ABC, and then rolls back up, CBA. It often pivots around a central idea or line. Varying in size, chiasms may consist of single words, lines, several parts of a single text, or the entire text itself. For example, a common chiastic form found in both the Old and New Testament is also one of the simplest, ABB’A’. In Mark this form is found as well. For example, Mark 2:27 states: And he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath ” where the ABBA format is a set of paired keywords: Sabbath-Man-Man-Sabbath. In addition to single verses, a structure like this might extend across several verses. For example, the pericope of Mark 7:24-30 has an ABB’A’ keyword sequence at its heart:
A let the children be fed!
B it’s not right to give good food to dogs B’ but even dogs under the table A’ eat the children’s crumbs
This post is a response to a question in the comments section. The indented colour-coded section are Bart Ehrman’s claims; all links are to other Vridar posts where I have discussed topics more fully and presented evidence for the statements made here.
The earliest followers of Jesus were convinced that he was the messiah. How do we know? Because they called him this, repeatedly, constantly, all over the map. As I have explained, the word “messiah” comes from the Hebrew word for “anointed one.” In Greek, “messiah” gets translated as “christ.” So anyone who says Jesus Christ is saying Jesus the Messiah.
We have late gospel stories about Jesus being understood by a handful of followers as the messiah. The authors tell us nothing about their actual sources for any specific detail they narrate; nor do the authors explain why they change certain accounts of other authors writing about the same sorts of things. The stories are told as “tall tales” by our standards. Yes, other Greco-Roman historians also spoke of miracles but as a rule they did not present those miracles as “facts”, but in virtually all cases explained why they were repeating such unnatural events associated with historical figures and explained why readers should or should not believe the tales. A good number of New Testament scholars and Classicists have been able to identify the sources of many of the stories told about Jesus and they are adapted from other literary tales (not handed down via oral tradition).
And what we have are stories written near the end of the first century or early second about a Jesus called Christ. We have no independent corroborating evidence to give us grounds for thinking that the stories are true.
“Christ” was early and universally (by Christians) applied to Jesus. They called him the messiah so much that it became Jesus’ second name. You find this already in the writings of the New Testament – in fact, in our earliest author, Paul, who refers to him as Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus, or just Christ, as a name. For Christians, Jesus was the messiah.
It is old scholarship that still claims Christ was used as a second name for Jesus among the earliest Christians. But that detail aside, yes, of course our earliest sources call Jesus the Christ. It is begging the question to say “you find this already in the writings of the NT” because we have no evidence for anyone calling Jesus the Christ before any of the NT writings.
This claims is what made the Christian message both laughable and infuriating for non-Christian Jews. Most Jews knew full well that Jesus could not be the messiah. Jesus was just the opposite of what the messiah was supposed to be. The messiah was supposed to be the powerful ruler (earthly or heavenly) who destroyed God’s enemies and set up a kingdom on earth. Was that who Jesus was? Is that what Jesus did?
Again, Ehrman’s claims here are based on a conventional view of old scholarship, of undergraduate scholarship at that. There was no single view that the messiah had to be a conquering king in this world. I have attempted to present in many posts the evidence that Jews were not united in their belief of any particular kind of messiah. One of the foremost Jewish historians today, Daniel Boyarim, argues that the raw material for the Christian messiah — the idea that the messiah was to die and be resurrected — was one of the extant pre-Christian Jewish ideas. I have posted further evidence that plausibly points to the same view not so long ago. The Second Temple Psalm of Solomon is sometimes used as evidence of the Jewish belief in a conquering messiah, but those who advance that psalm as evidence appear not to realize that that same psalm is drawn from the canonical Psalm 2 that presents the messiah as suffering rejection by the world.
The notion of Davidic messiah itself expresses the concept of a messiah who suffers, who is persecuted, yet who in the end is raised by God over his enemies. That’s the gospel Jesus, too. That’s the messiah of the psalms.
Jesus was not at all “just the opposite” because the earliest Christian teaching is that Jesus conquered a kingdom far more powerful than the human one and that he now sits beside God in heaven, continuing to scatter the powers of demons, and advancing his kingdom. I think Ehrman did not mean to say what he actually said in the above quote where he appears to admit that among Jews it was believed that the messiah was to be a powerful ruler earthly or heavenly. Heavenly is just what he became as a messiah, and the conquering of the kingdom of demons who ruled this world was nothing to be sniffed at.
We have no evidence for the claim that all Jews believed that the messiah’s kingdom was going to be set up on earth. We have numerous indications of the contrary. The fact that Christianity emerged out of Judaism is one of the pieces of evidence itself.
Precisely the opposite. Jesus was an obscure and virtually unknown rural preacher who was arrested as a criminal, humiliated, and tortured to death by the Roman authorities. It’s no wonder that most Jews found the Christian claims ludicrous.
I have been asked once again to explain concisely why I believe Jesus is a myth.
My initial response to that question is “Who doesn’t believe Jesus was a myth?” There is no dispute among biblical scholars, or at least among critical biblical scholars (let’s leave aside the apologists) that the Jesus of our canonical gospels is mythical. No-one believes Jesus really walked on water or literally raised the dead.
Critical biblical scholars, for various reasons, believe that “the historical Jesus” (the Jesus who is not a myth) lies hidden behind those gospel narratives and that with appropriate tools like criteria of authenticity or some adaptation of memory theory they can catch glimpses of what that historical Jesus may have been like in the eyes of his contemporaries.
As for Paul, there is no question that his Jesus, and especially his crucifixion, is a theological construct. Critical scholars generally tell us that Paul had no interest in the historical Jesus but only in a heavenly one, that is, in a mythical one. Jesus’ death was a theological event with power similar to that of Isaac’s blood to atone for sins. (Simon Gathercole in his article I recently addressed reminded me that Dale Allison said scholars have in recent times come to accept the authenticity of one passage in 1 Thessalonians that is considered evidence of Paul’s belief in a historical man and I am in the process of tracking down and studying those references.)
I believe in the Jesus of the gospels and of Paul’s letters: that is, I believe the Jesus of the gospels and Paul is a literary, mythical or theological figure. I don’t know of any critical scholar who would seriously suggest otherwise.
So the question I am sometimes asked is more meaningfully re-worded: “Why do you believe there was no historical Jesus behind the writings of the gospels and Paul?”
My only reply can be: I don’t “believe there was no historical Jesus behind the writings….” To believe that something is or is not so requires a level of evidence that is generally not found when it comes to many biblical stories or characters, or even many classical narratives of very early history among the ancient Greek and Roman historians. I have posted several times now on the clearly stated methods used by the leading historians of ancient history and shown that none of them uses the tools of biblical scholars to discover some past historical figure behind our histories and biographies. None. Yet it is not hard at all to find even biblical scholars themselves addressing the inability of those tools to provide a valid result.
I think the irrational character at the heart of many peoples’ beliefs in the historical Jesus is discerned when they cast aside calm, rational discussion of the evidence and react with hostility, ad hominem, misrepresentation. We can understand such reactions coming from people who feel threatened in some way. (I should add that there are a good number of Jesus mythicists who are just as guilty of personal insult in preference to well-reasoned and evidence-based argument. Most of those, at least in my experience, belong to the “Type 2” mythicists.)
I have posted many times why historians of ancient history can legitimately believe in a historical Julius Caesar or a historical Socrates (even though they may not be able to tell you with confidence exactly what such ancient persons were really like) and I have also made it clear that our level of evidence for such persons (even for “nobodies” like the historicity of Cicero’s slave Tiro and a stammering rival rhetorician to Seneca) is qualitatively far richer than the evidence we have for a historical Jesus behind our mythical or theological documents.
I don’t think there is much room for argument about that difference in the qualitative character of the evidence. Perhaps that’s why some people are not interested in serious discussion about historical methods that might expose the nakedness of certain biblical scholarship, and why they so often prefer instead to stay and fight or disappear in flight.
Was there a historical Jesus? I don’t know. I can’t say. Can the evidence we have be explained without appealing to a historical Jesus? Yes, I tend to think it can. (Despite the gross misrepresentations of the arguments of those who demonstrate this fact.)
What methods do I apply to our evidence? I try to apply the methods that one very distinguished biblical scholar said should be applied to the study of Jesus. The methods Philip Davies spoke of are no longer relegated to fringe extremism in the studies of “biblical Israel”. (I think it was Thomas L. Thompson, a scholar in the same “school” as Davies, who said that we must first tend to the Jesus we do know about and have before us: that is the literary figure. I believe we need to apply the normative methods of historians (not speaking of New Testament historians) to explain that Jesus.)
[S]urely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past(recte: The Messiah Myth) shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous. This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. — Philip Davies, Did Jesus Exist, 2012
I can see little fundamental difference between the methods of which Philip Davies spoke and the methods of his peers in classical and ancient history departments, or in just about any other history department I know of. I am slowly working on collating my various posts on historical methods that I hope can be a ready reference in future whenever I am asked the question again.
The abstract to Simon Gathercole’s article in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus begins
The present article seeks to show that the case for the mythical Jesus is seriously undermined by the evidence of the undisputed Pauline epistles. By way of a thought experiment, these letters are taken in isolation from other early Christian literature, and are discussed in dialogue with mythicist scholarship. (183, my emphasis)
Unfortunately it has been all too easy for me in the previous posts to demonstrate that Gathercole’s article has failed to engage in dialogue with mythicist scholarship, and that it instead seriously misrepresents the scholarship that it attributes to mythicism. We have seen that two points he claims undermine mythicism are
that “born of a woman” is a common expression as seen in the Book of Job and Sirach, an indisputable reference to the historicity of Jesus, and a phrase that can only be dealt with by a “trigger-happy” resort to interpolation;
that Paul recognized other apostles who had been preaching the faith of Christ before him, a fact that Doherty did not know.
I have demonstrated from the work of Earl Doherty (the same work that Gathercole cited) that both claims are false. On the contrary, Doherty
spoke of Paul’s recognition of other apostles before him preaching the gospel of faith in Christ; and
demonstrates that Paul has not used the common term found in the Book of Job or Sirach and has argued his case for mythicism on the understanding that the expression “born of a woman” is authentic to Paul and not an interpolation (Doherty’s argument that the phrase is an interpolation is a speculative “extra”).
One has to wonder how an article by a highly reputable scholar making such false claims could be accepted in a peer-reviewed journal.
When a reviewer of another’s work informs his readers that the work reviewed argues the very opposite of what it really does, then one has to surely question whether or not the reviewer ever read that work with any serious attention and why the reviewer would even bother spending time on such misleading articles.
We saw how Daniel Gullotta committed many similar errors in his review of Carrier’s work, failing to notice that Carrier did not argue what Gullotta claimed he did, and at other times Carrier did indeed say what Gullotta asserted he had not. We have seen similar falsehoods published in books by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey. (Again, all erroneous claims have been documented in posts on this blog.) If Simon Gathercole really had read Carrier’s book (I don’t mean just skimmed, pausing at selected pages here and there) then he would have known that Gullotta’s review fell a long way short of being
One of the best recent critiques [noting] some crucial weaknesses in Richard Carrier’s volume. (185)
(Anyone who is interested to know where Gullotta repeatedly failed to understand or even failed to read much of Carrier’s book that he reviewed should see my carefully documented critique.)
One of the main reasons I am writing these posts is to endeavour to point out to those scholars who are genuinely interested in engaging with mythicist arguments that so far they are not engaging with them at all, not even when they write criticisms for peer-reviewed journals, that more often than not they are advertising their ignorance of mythicist arguments even though they claim to have read their books in full. If mainstream scholars want to persuade members of the general public then they cannot rely upon ad hominem or careless misrepresentation. By doing so they are continuing to alienate themselves from those who have serious questions about the historicity of Jesus.
A frequent line of argument by scholars and others attempting to “prove” the historicity of a Jesus behind the gospel narratives is to focus on biblical passages pointing to the “humanity” of Jesus, and sometimes his geographical and temporal location. It often appears that such people assume that a figure who is human and said to appear in Palestine in the early first century is clearly historical. Of course only a moment’s thought should dispel a necessary connection between “human” and “genuinely historical.” Would it even be possible for anyone to finish counting the number of fictional “human” characters in stories, ancient and modern, in the world? If we confine ourselves to biblical and ancient Jewish stories that look like history, I suspect the number of fictional “humans” would still outnumber those who we can be sure were historical.
But all of that is just an aside. Let’s continue with Earl Doherty’s discussion of the “born of a woman” expression in Galatians 4:4. So far we have the following:
Recall that the reason we are delving into Doherty’s discussion of the Galatians passage in such detail is to demonstrate the extent of the failure of scholars, in this case Simon Gathercole, to even characterize a mythicist argument correctly, let alone engage with it, and to show just how wrong it is to assume that a mythicist argument must rely on some cheap interpolation card to deny the “natural meaning” of a text. One does have to wonder how many critics (Bart Ehrman included) have actually taken the trouble to read Doherty’s work in full. We will see in the following post how Gathercole has likewise demonstrated his failure to read anything but a few excerpts of the hypothesis he is opposing. Until scholars do really read a book before opposing it I suggest that they will only ever be addressing their own closed circle and supporters while complaining about the unwashed general public being so benighted as to too often sympathize with “mythicism”.
So let’s continue:
As noted by Edward D. Burton in the International Critical Commentary series (1924), the two qualifying phrases, “born of woman, born under the Law” (genomenon ek gunaikos, genomenon hupo nomon) are descriptive of the Son, but not specifically tied to the ‘sending.’ Burton says [Galatians, p.218-19]:
The employment of the aorist [a past tense participle] presents the birth and the subjection to law as in each case a simple fact, and leaves the temporal relation to exapesteilen [“sent”] to be inferred solely from the nature of the facts referred to….But the phrases are best accounted for as intended not so much to express the accompaniments of the sending as directly to characterize the Son, describing the relation to humanity and the law in which he performed his mission.
For those phrases, Burton is not ruling out an understanding of an intended temporal relationship to the verb, but he is saying that it is not grammatically present (such a thing would normally be done by using the present participle). Yet if “born of woman, born under the Law” can be seen as not necessarily qualifying the sending itself, this further frees that ‘sent’ thought in verse 4 from having to be a reference to the arrival in the world of the incarnated Christ in a human body.
At the same time, we might suggest that this absence of a linkage between verb and participles would more likely be the product of an interpolator than Paul himself who, if he intended the phrases to qualify the “sent” idea, would normally have put the participles in the present tense rather than the aorist. An interpolator, on the other hand, would have been focused on the “fact” of these ‘born’ phrases to serve his own purposes, as we shall see. (Doherty, 204)
The lay public interested in these questions are on the whole educated enough to take an interest in such grammatical arguments. They would love nothing more than to see mainstream scholars engage with them for their benefit. When the question of interpolation is raised it is done so with sound contextual and grammatical justification.
In the previous post we concluded with Earl Doherty stressing what he sees as the importance of keeping in mind the distinction between
Christ’s sacrifice (the time and place of this are never specified – a point that is argued elsewhere) that enabled freedom from the law (Galatians 3:13)
the application of that freedom that comes subsequently by the act of God who revealed the gospel and the acts of apostles in preaching and hearers believing.
This is the manner in which the epistles describe the salvation workings of the present time. It is all God’s work, revealing Christ his Son and making available the benefits of his sacrifice. It is why the epistles are so unexpectedly theocentric and scripture oriented, with no role in the present spelled out for Jesus except to have himself “manifested” and enter into Paul and his converts (“Christ in you”). It is why his acts are never introduced as part of the current scene. (Doherty, 200)
4 Then in the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of woman, born under the Law,
5 in order that he might purchase freedom for the subjects of the Law, so that we might attain the status of sons.
6 And because you are sons, God (has) sent into our hearts the Spirit of his Son, crying ‘Father!‘
7 You are therefore no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then also by God’s act an heir.
Notice it is God’s act, God’s work, (not that of Jesus) that does what is required to change believers from bondage to freedom. Galatians 4:7
You are therefore no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then also by God’s act an heir.
It has not been the death and resurrection which are the immediate cause of that freedom, and so the “God sent his Son” in verse 4 should imply no reference to a life which contained such events. (Otherwise, why did Paul not introduce them?) Rather, God is drawing on those acts to put the available freedom into effect by revealing the Son and what he had done. This was a revelation achieved through a new reading of scripture under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (201)
In this way Doherty reasons the two sendings in Galatians 4 are “two aspects of the same process, the second an extension of the first.” By God’s act Jesus’ sacrifice is applied to believers who from the time of revelation and the preaching of the apostles enter into a family relationship with God.
But what of “born of woman, born under the Law”?
You will recall that Earl Doherty’s method was to set aside the problematic verses in order to focus on the thought flow of the passage in which those verses sat. And that is where we are at now, with Paul referencing the acts of God involving revelation, sending his son and son’s spirit, and purchasing from the law those who believed the revelation and preaching of the apostles.
We introduced this series in the previous post. Simon Gathercole begins his case with Galatians 4:4 where we read that God sent his Son, “born of a woman, born under the law”. To Gathercole, the meaning of the verse is obvious:
In Galatians 4, Paul says that God sent his son, ‘born from a woman’ (γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός, 4.4). It is hard to imagine a clearer statement of Jesus’ humanity. This phrase, and others very like it, are commonly used as synonyms for ‘human being’. (186)
To drive the point home he cites “poetic parallels” in the Book of Job and Sirach.
‘But man (ἄνθρωπος) vainly buoys himself up with words; a mortal born of woman (γεννητὸς γυναικός) like an ass in the desert.’ (Job 11.12)
‘Mortal man, born of woman (βροτὸς γὰρ γεννητὸς γυναικός), is of few days and full of trouble.’ (Job 14.1)
‘What is mortal man (βροτός), that he could be pure, or one born of woman (γεννητὸς γυναικός), that he could be righteous?’ (Job 15.14)
‘How then can a mortal (βροτός) be righteous before God? How can one born of woman (γεννητὸς γυναικός) be pure?’ (Job 25.4)
‘Pride was not created for human beings (ἀνθρώποις), or violent anger for those born of women (γεννήμασιν γυναικῶν).’ (Sir. 10.18)
I have highlighted the instances of “born” and the Greek original in each case for reasons that will become clear.
Gathercole cites another instance of the idiom in the apocryphal literature:
A variation on the idiom also appears in the Life of Adam and Eve, or Apocalypse of Moses. Here Eve has a vision of heaven and looks at what is impossible for ‘anyone born from a womb’ (τινα γεννηθέντα ἀπὸ κοιλίας) to see (Ap. Mos. 33.2).
Though we have here a “variation” in the form of the verb gennao we should at the same time note that it is a form of the same verb used, gennao.
And then we have the expression in the gospels of Matthew and Luke:
In the New Testament, the phrase appears in Matthew-Luke parallel material. In Luke’s version, Jesus says: ‘I tell you, among those born of women (ἐν γεννητοῖς γυναικῶν) there is no one greater than John.’ (Lk. 7.28). The same phrase ἐν γεννητοῖς γυναικῶν also appears in Matthew (11.11). The Synoptic formulation here is the same as LXX Job’s except that Job’s are all singular, and Matthew and Luke have the plural.18
Gathercole underscores the relevance and force of this expression “born of a woman” (my bolding):
It can hardly be doubted, however, that Paul makes here an indisputable claim about Jesus’ human birth. The only real solution for the mythicist is to regard ‘born from a woman’ as an interpolation.19
19 Thus, Doherty, Jesus – Neither God nor Man, pp. 795–798 (epub edition).
The “historicist” side of the debate will surely have more chance of persuading non-specialists if its specialist scholars take the time to read and engage with the arguments that seem to be increasingly persuading the public. Simply dismissing arguments with what are clear mischaracterizations can only reassure those who have no interest in informing themselves of the points that are being presented in favour of mythicism. We saw the same flaws in Daniel Gullotta’s review of Carrier’s book. What eventually led me to lean towards the mythicist side of the debate was the failure of the mainstream scholars to engage with the actual arguments that challenge the conventional wisdom.
That reference to Earl Doherty, implying he could only “get around” the clear meaning of this verse was to declare the passage to be an interpolation, was not how I remembered reading Doherty’s argument at all. After re-reading the relevant chapter I have to say that Gathercole has somehow inadvertently misrepresented Doherty’s argument. In fairness to Doherty I think we should take a little time to set out what he does in fact say on pages 197 to 212 (hard copy edition) of Jesus, Neither God Nor Man, chapter 15.
Not only has Doherty’s discussion been misrepresented by such a dismissal but its main pillars have been entirely swept out of sight. Gathercole explains that he is presenting a “thought experiment” by focusing on what we can learn from Paul’s letters alone, but in doing so he has entirely overlooked the most significant parts of Paul’s letters that are addressed by mythicists. Recall Mark Goodacre’s observation of this method the context of another debate:
To state the argument against one hypothesis using the presuppositions and terminology of the competing hypothesis involves a circularity that undermines any hope for a fair assessment of the evidence. — Mark Goodacre, 2002 (82)
I don’t think Gathercole is deliberately suppressing Doherty’s argument; I think, rather, that he can see only those passages in Paul that he finds supportive of his own larger understanding, and that perhaps he finds it difficult to really focus and concentrate when his eyes hit pages presenting a quite different perspective undermining what he and his peers have always accepted. Roger Pearse, for instance, goes even further and without any suggestion that he is aware of Doherty’s arguments says they are “all nonsense, of course.”
I will attempt to present Doherty’s key points in précis or note form interspersed with quotations. I trust readers will realize I am compressing much explanation that needs to be read in the book itself. There is still online an earlier version of the published chapter, Supplementary Article No. 15 – “Born of a Woman”? Reexamining Galatians 4:4 so readers who do not have Doherty’s book and who want to look further into some of my summaries will probably find fuller explanations there. I trust at least the summaries I present will be enough to demonstrate the failure of yet one more reviewer to engage with mythicist arguments, instead dismissing them with misleading comments.
To state the argument against one hypothesis using the presuppositions and terminology of the competing hypothesis involves a circularity that undermines any hope for a fair assessment of the evidence. — Mark Goodacre, 2002 (82)
Simon Gathercole has had an article published behind the paywall of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus opposing the idea that the Jesus figure of the New Testament originated as a theological and literary concept and in favour of the idea that he had a historical existence. Gathercole is addressing the evidence in the Pauline corpus, being titled, “The Historical and Human Existence of Jesus in Paul’s Letters.”
Gathercole opens with a statement that seems to run against certain claims of others (viz Ehrman, Hurtado, McGrath et al) who have argued against mythicism:
“Mythicism”, the view that there never was a Jesus of history, has in recent years attracted increasing interest from scholars. This interest is a positive development, not only because of the increasing attempts by mythicists to engage with scholarship, but even more importantly because of growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public.
There has been an “increasing interest from scholars”? There have been “increasing attempts by mythicists to engage with scholarship”? There has been a “growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public”? Outright denial of the first two statements has at times been used by scholars and their public backers as a reason to dismiss the questions raised by mythicist arguments. Perhaps Gathercole is thinking of critics of mythicism in his first claim such as James McGrath, Maurice Casey, Bart Ehrman, Larry Hurtado, Daniel Gullotta. But it is unusual to hear from a critic that mythicists are making “increasing attempts to engage with scholarship”. In fact, mythicist arguments that have most impressed me are those that have engaged with mainstream historical Jesus scholarship from the outset: e.g. works of Earl Doherty, G. A. Wells, R. M. Price. As for the final point, that “more importantly” there has been a “growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public” one does have to wonder why current scholarly publications addressing such a “problem” are not made freely available to the public.
Simon Gathercole’s abstract to his article contains the following:
Attention to the language of the birth, ancestry and coming of Jesus demonstrates the historicity and human bodily existence of Jesus. There is also information about his ministry, disciples, teaching and character in the epistles which has been neglected. Paul’s letters, even taken alone, also show the Herodian timeframe of Jesus’ ministry.
And that’s where my opening quotation from Mark Goodacre (made in the context of the Q debate) enters the picture. Gathercole unfortunately does not address the core arguments of mythicists (from Drews to Couchoud to Wells to Doherty to Price) that argue for Paul’s view of an ahistorical figure of Jesus. He does partially address one idiosyncratic suggestion by a more recent scholarly mythicist which we will address later. Gathercole’s essay focuses almost exclusively on an expansion of the passages used by scholars to argue against mythicism (let’s for convenience call them “historicists” in this post) but without addressing the primary arguments of mythicists to the contrary, and therefore without anticipating what mythicists might say in reply to his expansions of the historicists’ position.
The interesting characters are all the fruit of two parents, not one
The silent emptiness of this world was filled when Gaia bore two sons all on her own* The first was PONTUS, the sea, and the second was OURANOS, the sky — better known to us as Uranus, the sound of whose name has ever been the cause of great delight to children from nine to ninety.
* This trick of virgin birth, or parthenogenesis, can be found in nature still. In aphids, some lizards and even sharks it is a reasonably common way to have young. There won’t be the variation that two sets of genes allow; this is the same in the genesis of the Greek gods. The interesting ones are all the fruit of two parents, not one.
Fry, Stephen. 2017. Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold. London, England: Penguin. p. 5
In the first post we presented a case that there is no evidence to support the common and longstanding claim among scholars of Christian origins that Jews of the Palestinian region, whether Judaea or Galilee, were agonizing for liberation from the Roman yoke and the promise of God’s rule to punish the oppressors and exalt the oppressed and as a result were a ready audience for any apocalyptic prophet who came along to declare such an event was imminent.
In the second post we attempted to argue that it is unsafe for a historian to place strong confidence in one particular interpretation of a disputed Greek term and to take sides in an ongoing debate among theologians.
In this post I want to zero in on the most fundamental flaw that lies at the heart of all attempts to decipher the historical nature of person Jesus through the canonical gospels. They all work from the assumption that the gospels are indebted to oral reports or memories about the historical Jesus, at least to some extent, for their narrative portrayal of Jesus.
I cannot resist making a contribution to the recent spate of exchanges between scholars about the existence of Jesus — these mostly on the internet and blogosphere, and so confined to a few addicts, but the issue has always been lurking within New Testament scholarship generally. Shortly before his death, Robert Funk had approached me about the possibility of setting up the equivalent of a ‘Jesus Seminar’ for Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, perhaps a ‘Moses Seminar’? I couldn’t see any scope for such an exercise (and still can’t), but have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’, who keeps appearing to New Testament scholars in different guises. . . .
I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability. In the first place, what does it mean to affirm that ‘Jesus existed’, anyway, when so many different Jesuses are displayed for us by the ancient sources and modern NT scholars? Logically, some of these Jesuses cannot have existed. So in asserting historicity, it is necessary to define which ones (rabbi, prophet, sage, shaman, revolutionary leader, etc.) are being affirmed — and thus which ones deemed unhistorical. In fact, as things stand, what is being affirmed as the Jesus of history is a cipher, not a rounded personality (the same is true of the King David of the Hebrew Bible, as a number of recent ‘biographies’ show).
I suggest that another gospel Jesus we can throw on the table for consideration is the only Jesus we have, the literary one created for readers of the very late first century to early and mid second century CE. With that Jesus we can assuredly identify many of the clear literary figures in the Jewish Scriptures as the raw material from which he was shaped. Continue reading “Final (#3) post responding to O’Neill’s Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet“
The first part of my response to Tim O’Neill’s Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet is @ Examining the Evidence for Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet. There we pointed out that there is no support in our historical sources (primarily Josephus) for the common assertion that Judaeans and Galileans in the early first century were pining for an imminent overthrow of Roman rule and the establishment of a liberating Kingdom of God. In other words, the assertion that apocalyptic prophets like our gospel depictions of John the Baptist and Jesus would have been enthusiastically welcomed at that time lacks evidence.
This post addresses one more significant but (as I hope to demonstrate) flawed plank in O’Neill’s argument. I expect to address one more final point in the Apocalyptic Prophet essay in a future post.
Tim O’Neill begins the next step of his argument with the following verse and without identifying the source of his translation:
“Has come near”, as we shall see, is a disputed translation. But O’Neill is confident that his translation is the correct one, and he even asserts without reference to any evidence that Jesus was speaking of a soon-to-be end of human oppression, not just demonic rule:
The writer of gMark does not depict Jesus explaining what he means and expects his audience to understand – here Jesus is proclaiming that the expected end time had come, that the kingship of God was close and that those who believed this and repented would join the righteous when the imminent apocalypse arrived. Far from being a prophet of doom, Jesus is depicted proclaiming this imminent event as “good news” – the relief from oppression, both human and demonic, was almost here.
Towards the end of his post O’Neill does acknowledge that some scholars do dispute the translation but he sidelines their arguments by characterizing them as “a tactic” that was plotted “in reaction” to threats against conservative doctrines, and he accuses the scholars themselves of unscholarly “wish fullfilment (sic)”, and to cap it all off he infers that Schweitzer’s arguments have so stood the test of time that they are the only ones followed by entirely disinterested scholars: Continue reading “Response #2 to History for Atheists’ “JESUS THE APOCALYPTIC PROPHET””
On History for Atheists Tim O’Neill has set out the standard reasons for the view that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. He concludes that this particular portrayal of Jesus stands against what conservative and liberal Christians, and even “fringe Jesus Mythicists”, and “many people” generally “would like Jesus to be.” Put that way, one wonders why anyone in a field clearly dominated by academics of some form of Christian faith would find the idea at all respectable. O’Neill, however, assures us that scholars who hold this view are said to be unswayed by “any wish fullfilment (sic)”. Those who disagree are not doing genuine scholarship but looking for ways to rationalize a Jesus who fits their world view.
So Catholic scholars find a Jesus who establishes institutions, iniates (sic) sacraments and sets up an ongoing hierarchy of authority. Liberal Christian scholars find a Jesus who preaches social justice and personal improvement. And anti-theistic Jesus Mythicists find a Jesus who was never there at all.
O’Neill even uses the language of battle to defeat and lay to rest their arguments:
Now, as in Schweitzer’s time, almost all historical Jesus studies is either an endorsement of or a rear-guard action against the unavoidably powerful idea that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. . . . . But Schweitzer laid out the arguments against this tactic back in 1910 and more modern attempts to prop up this idea do not have any more strength than they had a century ago. . . . The liberal Christians of the “Jesus Seminar” have attempted a large-scale assault on the idea of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. . . . Marcus Borg has been at the forefront of these arguments . . . . Despite the rearguard actions of conservative and many progressive Christians . . . .
We are left with the image of the victorious scholar General, unswayed by any confessional or personal “wish fullfilment (sic)”, standing tall with his boot firmly planted on the defeated “wishes” of conservative and liberal Christians and fringe atheists alike.
We will see in coming posts that address O’Neill’s essay that it posits a rather crude and blunt conception of the nature of scholarly bias. Is finding a Jesus who agrees with our own world-view really the only form of bias to be expected in the pursuit of Christian origins? O’Neill’s language of warfare surely suggests it is.
An attentive reading of the nativity story in the Gospel of Matthew will even demonstrate that the author of that gospel wrote on the assumption that there were no popular messianic hopes in the time of Jesus but that knowledge of such ideas could only be found among the scribal elites.
O’Neill’s post is long and I have no intention of discussing every detail of it but I trust a few responses to some of its core ideas will be enough to alert readers to some of its flaws and weaknesses. In this post I want to point to a theme I have posted about many times before but will do so once more, this time with reference to what a specialist in Josephus studies has recently written about conditions in Palestine around the time of Jesus.
The setting for the popular welcome of an apocalyptic prophet
O’Neill sets out the common view that Galilean peasants at the time of Jesus were seething with longing to be rid of their Roman oppressors and to be ruled once again “in liberty” as per the promises of their Scriptures. Thus an image is established at the outset of a population that was fertile ground for the seeds of the next apocalyptic prophets to appear on the scene, John the Baptist and Jesus. O’Neill even knows what scriptures and verses were subversively preached and emphasized and what was therefore in the minds of a critical mass of devout peasants of the day.
Devout Jews in this period had inherited a theology whereby they were the Chosen People of God who lived in the Promised Land granted to them by him. But by the time Herod Antipas came to rule Galilee, these ideas were difficult to reconcile with the realities of the average Jewish peasant’s existence.
To begin with, life for our peasant was hard. . . . it was difficult enough to scrape a living for them and their family by farming, herding or fishing, but they also had to pay heavy taxes to the Tetrarch Herod, who was the son of the hated King Herod the Great and, like his late father, a puppet ruler for the Roman Empire. This meant our peasant not only had to pay enough tax to keep Herod Antipas in luxury in his newly built capital of Tiberias – which he had named after his Roman patron, the emperor Tiberius – he also had to pay still more tax for Herod to pass on to his Roman masters. . . . . Not surprisingly, these taxes were resented and those who made a living collecting them were despised as corrupt quislings. The burden of heavy taxation meant that an increasing number of peasants had to give up farming their own land . . . .
. . . . Just as under old Herod the Great, these men held their petty kingdoms as clients of the Roman emperor and were hated for it by most of their subjects. . . . Herod the Great’s sons were well aware of their unpopularity and also inherited their father’s talent for repression – spies were active, uprisings were crushed and troublemakers were dealt with swiftly and painfully.
But our peasant would have known that things had not always been this way. The scriptures he and his neighbours heard read and discussed each sabbath emphasised the ideas already mentioned – that as Jews they were God’s chosen and living in the land he promised to their ancestors. But in the period since the Jewish people had been conquered, dominated and often oppressed by a succession of foreign powers.
In 1935 the foreign correspondent of a certain English newspaper, finding himself without much material to report, despatched to England stories which supposedly dealt with the build-up to the Abyssinian war but which were in fact derived from an old colonel’s military reminiscences, published several years previously in a book entitled In the country of the Blue Nile. The correspondent’s newspaper was delighted with the reception given to these stories by its readers, and accordingly sent him a series of congratulatory telegrams – whereupon a colleague remarked to him: ‘Well, now we know, it’s entertainment they want!’41 The colleague had only then come to realize what had been known long ago to Tacitus, to whom the foreign correspondent’s technique would have seemed very familiar.
41 For a full account of this amazing and instructive story see Knightley (1975), 176—7 (whose book should be recommended reading for those who wish to understand how ancient historians worked). The reporter who deceived his newspaper and the public on this occasion assumed (quite rightly) that no one could check his stories on account of the distance involved. The same is even more true of ancient historians (see above, p. 153), who lived in a world where communications were so much more difficult.
Woodman, Tony. 1980. “Self-Imitation and the Substance of History. Tacitus, Annals 1.61-5 and Histories 2.70, 5.14-15.” In Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, edited by David West and Tony Woodman, 155, 235. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
I picked up a copy of Phillip Knightleys’ The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker, and the morning after I read the first chapter the following story on the news confronted me:
German news magazine Der Spiegel has sacked an award-winning staff writer after accusing him of inventing details and quotes in numerous stories.
Claas Relotius “falsified articles on a grand scale and even invented characters”, Der Spiegel said.
Among the articles in question are major features that had been nominated for or won awards, the magazine added.
The Relotius Case Answers to the Most Important Questions In recent years, DER SPIEGEL published just under 60 articles by reporter and editor Claas Relotius. He has now admitted that, in several instances, he either invented stories or distorted facts.Claas Relotius, a reporter and editor, falsified his articles on a grand scale and even invented characters, deceiving both readers and his colleagues. This has been uncovered as a result of tips, internal research and, ultimately, a comprehensive confession by the editor himself.
Just like Tacitus. And just like the war reporters I have been reading about in Knightley’s book. The newspapers are in business to make money. Their hired reporters know they need to provide stories that assist the money-making goals of their news media. Continue reading “Lying Eyewitnesses — Always With Us”