Chaim Milikowsky gives his answer to the question in the title, or at least he answers the question with respect to rabbinical literature. I have added the connection to our canonical four gospels, and I could with equal justice add Acts of the Apostles.
I read CM’s answer in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, but I see that the author has made the same work freely available online. (Oh, and I posted on CM’s chapter five years ago this month: Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation. I think that first post was less technical than what I intend this time round.)
Let me begin with the conclusion this time. The answer to the question in the title is found in a work once again by one of the most influential Greek thinkers in history: Plato. We have been looking at the influence of Plato on the Old Testament writings through the works of Russell Gmirkin and Philippe Wajdenbaum, but CM sees his influence on rabbinic midrashic story telling. I suggest that the evangelists have carried through the same fundamental type of story telling.
Here are the key passages in Plato’s Republic. After deploring mythical tales of gods that depict them lying, cheating, harming others, Socrates sets out what is a far more noble curriculum for those who would become good citizens. Myths of conniving and adulterous gods had no place. God must always be shown to be pure and good. Stories depicting the gods as immoral were to be removed from society; stories that had an edifying message for their readers were to be shared widely.
For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.
There you are right, he replied; but if any one asks where are such models to be found and of what tales are you speaking –how shall we answer him?
I said to him, You and I, Adeimantus, at this moment are not poets, but founders of a State: now the founders of a State ought to know the general forms in which poets should cast their tales, and the limits which must be observed by them, but to make the tales is not their business.
Very true, he said; but what are these forms of theology which you mean?
Something of this kind, I replied: — God is always to be represented as he truly is, whatever be the sort of poetry, epic, lyric or tragic, in which the representation is given.
(Republic, 378e-379a Benjamin Jowett trans.)
God himself will be portrayed as incapable of lying, but there will be a place for story tellers to fabricate stories that teach goodness and lead people to righteous character:
Whereas the lie in words is in certain cases useful and not hateful; in dealing with enemies –that would be an instance; or again, when those whom we call our friends in a fit of madness or illusion are going to do some harm, then it is useful and is a sort of medicine or preventive; also in the tales of mythology, of which we were just now speaking –because we do not know the truth about ancient times, we make falsehood as much like truth as we can, and so turn it to account.
Very true, he said.
But can any of these reasons apply to God? Can we suppose that he is ignorant of antiquity, and therefore has recourse to invention?
That would be ridiculous, he said.
Then the lying poet has no place in our idea of God?
I should say not.
(Republic, 382c-d Jowett)
If you are having difficulty with the very notion of rabbinical traditions coming under the sway of Plato, you are not alone. Our author, Chaim Milikowsky, understands that difficulty, but….
As strange as this idea of “creating new myths” seems to us from our modern anthropological perspective, it seems that the rabbis did something very similar to what Plato proposed — and it worked! I am not suggesting that reading Plato was part and parcel of rabbinic culture; the idea is preposterous. Nonetheless, I do want to propose that there is some sort of a relationship between the subject of Plato’s discussion and the beginnings of rabbinic narrative midrash. Plato had a problem: he recognized that a culture needed stories that portray ultimate meaning in various ways. Much of his cultural matter — the myths of Homer and Hesiod — he rejects out of hand, not because they are fictions, but because they are immoral fictions. As is well known, the rejection of traditional myth as a valid mode of depicting the gods spread through larger and larger segments of the population during the late Hellenistic and early Roman period. These tales, having been generally seen throughout Greek history as having ultimate moment for mankind, were now seen by many as fictions, either harmful fictions, as we saw above with Plato, or innocuous fictions, like the romances, which began to develop just about this time, or ultimate fictions, which is of course dependent upon transferring the truth value of the myth from the historical tale to some underlying sublime claim.
These various ways of judging and valuing the traditional stories of myth were widespread and popular and very plausibly penetrated rabbinic culture in Palestine. I would like to suggest, therefore, that the rabbinic presentation of their responses to ultimate issues by means of fictional tales — that is, their creation of midrashic narratives — developed in consequence of the broad identification of large segments of Greek traditional tales as fiction. From the Greek world, the rabbis took the basic idea that fiction is a valid way of projecting and proclaiming one’s beliefs and practices.
Now notice what the rabbinic tales look like. These tales are preserved in writings some centuries after the gospels were written but it is reasonable to accept that some of them, or at least their predecessors, go back to Second Temple (pre 70 CE) times.
What Midrashic Tales Look Like
In the rabbinic literature of late antiquity we find stories (we call them “midrashic” stories) that are based on some special analysis (called “exegesis”) of some curious features in the Hebrew Bible (our “Old Testament”).
Here is an example. In Genesis 4:8 the Hebrew text can be read literally as
And Cain got up onto his brother Abel and killed him.
וַיָּ֥קָם קַ֛יִן אֶל־ הֶ֥בֶל אָחִ֖יו וַיַּהַרְגֵֽהוּ׃
That’s odd. What can it mean, “Cain got up onto his brother”? The only thing that makes sense to “me” (a late antique rabbi) is that Cain must have been “under Abel” before then. That means Abel must have had the better of him in a fight for a while, and Cain managed to somehow turn things around.
If the story had simply meant to say nothing more complicated than “Cain killed Abel” then that’s what it surely would have said. So what is it that God is trying to tell me here?
Light comes on.
Here is what must have happened: There was a fight between Cain and Abel, and Abel was about to kill Cain but Cain somehow managed to extricate himself. He must have cried out to Abel, “Have mercy, Please don’t kill me!” Abel must have moved back, and as soon as he did Cain seized the advantage and pushed his brother to the ground and killed him. (And what were they fighting about in the first place? It must have had something to do with who was going to be the heir to Adam and rule the world.)
And so the rabbi writes down the story. This is what God is telling us, he explains. Yes, the rabbi surely knows it’s just his imagination, but it makes sense, and it does make sense of the words of God in the Sacred Scriptures.
Here’s another example:
Exodus 2:14. Moses intervened to break up a fight between two Israelites. Here in English is the literal way the rabbi read this verse:
Will you kill me, you say, as you killed the Egyptian?
What’s that “you say” doing there? Why does the Hebrew text suddenly introduce something about “saying” or “speaking” at this point? Not very in tune with identifying potential idioms, the rabbi works out an explanation as follows:
The Hebrew passage, read as is, seems to be saying that Moses killed the Egyptian by speaking. How could that be possible? Ah, he must have spoken the Divine Name, the forbidden Name of God. That must have been how Moses killed the Egyptian.
And so a new story is added to the rabbinical corpus: Moses killed the Egyptian by uttering the magical Divine Name.
And that’s how it went. That’s how so many of the curious rabbinic stories developed out of attempts to make sense of a literal reading of ancient Hebrew.
Did they believe their newly invented stories were true? Were they as much a genuine part of history as the “fact” of Adam and Eve themselves? Maybe some rabbis did believe their stories as “true”. Milikowsky reminds us of Paul Veyne’s mischievous comment about Hesiod’s intricately detailed myths of the origins of the gods:
Hesiod knows that we will take him at his word, and he treats himself as he will be treated: he is the first to believe everything that enters his head. (Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?, p. 29)
Wilikowsky surrenders to a theoretical and logical argument:
So, perhaps the rabbis in the same way also believed the “history” they are presenting. Though much of it was original, and not traditional material to be accepted unquestioningly, we can nonetheless sustain the position that, in various contexts, new traditions were accepted as historical facts, even by those who created them. Indeed, in a sense, this point borders on the obvious: all human cultural traditions are at one time new creations. Thus from a theoretical perspective, a good case can be made in favor of the claim that midrashic narrative was accepted as historically true by the rabbis. (p. 120)
Take a step back for a moment.
At one level we can confidently say that nobody in the Judaean world questioned the truth, the historicity, the facticity, of the biblical stories. The Bible was “true” and when Josephus repeated the biblical stories he was believed to be stating “the facts of history”.
If I may interject with my own thoughts for a moment, following the arguments of Wajdenbaum and Gmirkin I would say that the reason for this confidence in the “truth of the Bible stories”, in contrast with widespread Hellenistic scepticism towards the Greek myths, is the result of the Bible narratives having in many cases re-written Greek myths and repackaged them with an ideal and eternally true and moral god. To see some examples of this scroll through the Wajdenbaum archive.
But that’s enough for one sitting. I’ll try to complete this post tomorrow (East coast Australian time).
Milikowsky, Chaim. 2005. “Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What DId the Rabbis Mean?” In Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, edited by et al Jo-Ann A. Brant, Charles W. Hedrick, and Chris Shea, 117–27. Symposium Series 32. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!