Three posts will be enough. The first one responding to Tim O’Neill’s Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet on his History for Atheists site is
The second is
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.
We can vicariously enter the story world of the gospels and try to imagine what the characters we meet were really like in their narrative settings in Galilee and Jerusalem in the days of Pilate. Or we can pick up the gospels and try to imagine the story world ultimately deriving from real events and persons, the way a child likes to imagine a lovely story was true to some extent, and then imagine ourselves to be archaeologists digging beneath the narrative layers to try to identify something real beneath it all. But we have no evidence that allows us to justify either of those ways of reading.
But one thing we do know. We can know the gospels were written some time between around 70 CE and 130 CE. We know they were written for audiences in their own day, and it is reasonable to think they carried meaning for those audiences. The words of Jesus that those authors penned had meaning for their audience of the late first and early second centuries. It turns out that generations of believers have found meaning in those same words ever since. So if we read a passage that we think did not have meaning for its contemporary readers, that it was a failed prophecy that surely must flown against any significance or meaning for the first readers of the gospels, then I suggest we should first question our interpretation of that passage. What is more likely? That the authors wrote about Jesus as a failed prophet or that our interpretation and understanding of what the passage meant for the original audience is mistaken?
O’Neill argued that many well-known passages in the gospels carried a special meaning for a pre-narrative world where peasants were animated with apocalyptic hopes. That may or may not have been the case, but one thing certainly is true: those passages have always held a universal appeal for all time. They certainly lost none of their meaning for the first audiences in late first and early second century worlds. Recollect a few that I copy straight from O’Neill’s essay:
O’Neill places such passages in the context of a message of immediate doom but I think they rather have had a universal appeal to all generations in times of both peace and destruction.
Similarly O’Neill suggests that Jesus’ many healings and exorcisms were performed as “a sign of the imminence of the coming apocalypse” but I don’t recall any of those healings or exorcisms being explicitly said to be a warning that great cosmic and military destruction was about to befall the witnesses. Yes, they certainly were presented as signs of the presence of the Kingdom of God and/or its messenger, but that is not necessarily the same thing. The demons certainly knew that “their time was up” as they found themselves sent packing into herds of pigs or the wilderness, but O’Neill’s attempt to draw in the testimony of Paul to back his view of total chaos and suffering preceding the coming of God’s judgment falls flat with his only citation, that of 1 Thess. 4:14-17:
That is clearly NOT the same message of wars, famines, abomination of desolation, collapsing heavens and continental upheavals. It is a message of sudden appearance without warning signs. The reason for people to be alert is that there will be no warning signs. Paul taught the coming of the Christ without warning, some time in his generation no doubt, but even if not, it would be certain to come, and that message has inspired scores of generations of Christians from then till today.
A common sophistic rhetorical device some cults and other fundamentalist preachers have deployed to win converts is to present a false dichotomy that is meant to confront hearers with a dilemma whose only resolution is joining the arms of the preacher in the middle. So it is somewhat disconcerting to see O’Neill fall back on the same device to claim possession of the only truly informed ground: conservative Christians, he says, find the apocalyptic Jesus uncomfortable so they resort to all sorts of tricks to try to avoid him; liberal Christians, he adds, also find the apocalyptic Jesus uncomfortable and they, too, resort to all sorts of rationalizations to avoid him. Dispense with a few embarrassing “fringe atheists” who deny any historical Jesus at all and who is left standing in the light of the only reasonable conclusion: why, Tim O’Neill and those with whom he agrees, of course.
Obviously, a Jesus who was an apocalyptic prophet who proclaimed the kingship of God as coming in his lifetime or that of his listeners does not fit well with orthodox Christian beliefs, so conservative scholars have to work to explain all the evidence above in a way that somehow maintains the idea that Jesus was “God the Son” and a deity in human form – no small task. Others who want to see Jesus as a wise teacher and preacher of social justice or personal transformation also have a problem with the apocalyptic Jesus, as a message of coming judgement and hellfire does not fit well with their conception of him either. And the current crop of fringe Jesus Mythicists also dislike the idea of Jesus as an eschatological prophet, as this makes him rather too much a man of and in his time and so makes his historicity uncomfortably likely for these contrarians. 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.
So that’s it. Everyone who does not step over to the side of Schweitzer and O’Neill is following his “likes” and things that “fit well with current beliefs”. No intellectual integrity can be afforded to anyone but those who side with Schweitzer and O’Neill. And as we saw in an earlier post, O’Neill uses the language of warfare and violent combat when speaking of those who do not fall in line behind his interpretation.
An Alternative View of Jesus
But even the earliest Gospel, that attributed to Mark’s view, narrates sayings of Jesus that, if read literally, clearly failed to come to pass at the time of his writing. (Recall his account of the high priest being alive at the time of Jesus’ coming on the clouds of heaven.) The Gospel of Mark was written for an audience of the late first century or early second century. All of his sayings attributed to Jesus were directed to that audience, “Mark’s” audience. If we think that that original audience must have responded with, “Oh, Jesus was wrong about that, wasn’t he; that high priest certainly did not live to see Jesus descend in the clouds of heaven”, if we think that is an improbable reaction, then I suggest we need to rethink our understanding of the author, his audience, and his sources and meaning. We need to do that rethinking not with some idiosyncratic interpretation that bears no relationship to similar Jewish literature known at that time, nor by pushing the dates of the gospels back to an unrealistic and even more problematic earlier time, but with an informed understanding of “how such literature worked”.
The authors of the canonical gospels drew upon Jewish Scriptures to create another apocalyptic Jeremiah, another Elijah and another Elisha who raised the dead, another Moses who called and ordained his people, another rejected Joseph, another suffering and persecuted David, another Isaac who shed his blood and gave his life for the salvation of all.
We need to avoid simplistic solutions, and we need to avoid solutions that lazily and crudely toss all alternative arguments into the bin of “wish fulfillment” and intellectual dishonesty simply because we can.
I conclude with a pertinent comment made elsewhere by one of our readers, proudfootz:
I find this distinction between ‘historically true’ and ‘confessionally true’ to be a very succinct statement of the problem I find with the sorts of arguments that are put forward along the lines of the embarrassment criterion or statements against interest. The notion that among communities of faith there exists a devotion to what we might call material facts that endangers dogma flies in the face of everything I have ever encountered.
AFAICT early christian literature is not aimed at people who would have any clue about conditions in Judea at the time the story of Jesus’s ministry on Earth is set. How do people living in Syracuse, Thessalonika, or Ephesus know John baptised Jesus independent of what a christian missionary tells them? These allegedly embarrassing undeniable facts are being spread by the christians themselves. It stands to reason that these story elements serve a purpose in the narrative.
Oh, and merry christmas and/or happy holidays, everyone!
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