Monthly Archives: February 2019

Is “Son of Man” in the Gospels a mere idiom for “I”, the speaker?

Have recent posts here about two “son of man” sayings of Jesus missed their mark (claiming to be references to Daniel 7) if the term “son of man” was simply a common way for a speaker to refer to himself?
Vermes argued that, in addition to being a normal term for “man”, the Aramaic bar nasha, “son of man”, was also a conventional substitute for the first person pronoun, “I”. — Casey, 1991:48

Casey a few years later drew a similar conclusion:

[A]s we try to recover the original force of sayings of Jesus which used this idiom . . . [w]e must go back to the term ‘son of man’ being bar (e)nāsh(ā), an ordinary Aramaic term for ‘man’, used in an idiomatic way in a general statement which refers particularly to the speaker with or without other people. — Casey, 2010:361

With the author’s permission I am posting a few pages (355-358/9) of The Sovereignty of the Son of Man: Reading Mark 2, an article freely available online on Daniel Boyarin’s academia.edu page.

I have bolded key thought changes and background coloured examples to (hopefully) assist with easier reading. I have also kept the original page breaks with in-place footnotes.

A Read Herring: “The Son of Man” as Periphrasis for “I”

In order, however, to proceed into my own inquiry into the evidence of Mark for the “Son of Man” in early Judaism, I must first show why I do not accept the conclusion of Geza Vermes, who argued that it is just a circumlocution for “I.” In a series of articles, culminating in an important essay published as “Appendix E” to the third edition of Matthew Black’s Aramaic Approach,7 Vermes attempted to revive a theory that had been advanced and abandoned a century ago to the effect that “The Son of Man” is merely an ordinary Aramaic locution by which someone refers to themselves in the third person, hence “I.” I think it can be taken as granted that given Vermes’s exhaustive investigation, his study should be considered definitive,8 and if it fails, we can consider that suggestion as rejectable.9 Although an entire array of scholars have already disputed Vermes’s conclusion, none have, I think, shown that the interpretations of rabbinic literature adduced by him, do not stand, and that there is, therefore, no evidence whatsoever for the argument that in Aramaic, “son of man” can mean “I” (that it means a human being is, of course, not in doubt at all).10 I thus accordingly

———————

7 G. Vermes, “Appendix E: The Use of Bar Nash/Bar Nasha in Jewish Aramaic: An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (ed. Μ. Black; 3rd ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, Clarendon, 1967), 310-28; P. Haupt, “The Son of Man = Hic Homo = Ego,” JBL 40 (1921).

8 P. Owen and D. Shepherd, “Speaking up for Qumran, Dalman and the Son ofMan: Was Bar Enasha a Common Term for ‘Man in the Time of Jesus?” JSNT 81 (2001): 84.

9 And it has been rejected by a host of scholars, from Fitzmyer through Jeremiah to Colpe, for all of which references see A. Yarbro Collins, “The Influence of Daniel on the New Testament in Daniel: A Commentary on the Book Daniel (ed. J.J. Collins; Hermeneia; Min-neapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 94, n. 30.

10 It should be noted that Norman Perrin, A Modern Pilgrimage in New Testament Christology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 70, makes major use of this untenable argument to make his case that all Christological use of “The Son of Man” must be post-Easter, an argument that is, in this respect, repeated by Lindars, Jesus, Son Man.


essentially agree with Hans Lietzmann as cited by Vermes to the effect that “His main findings are that the term is a common one, and that it is used as a kind of indefinite pronoun (ברעש = jemand; לית בר נש- niemand; בני נש= Leute). It is, he writes, ‘die farbloseste und unbestimmteste Bezeichnung des menschlichen In-dividuums’ (p. 38). He then goes on to postulate what seems to him to be the only logical corollary: as a designation בר נש is by nature inapplicable to any particular man, let alone to Jesus, the greatest of all men (p. 40).”11 Lietzmann put the question brilliantly; his answer, on the other hand, that the Son of Man must be a Hellenistic terminus technicus is a non-sequitur, for even if semantically and syntactically “Son of Man” in Aramaic means indeed just a person and nothing else, pragmatically (by which I mean in the case of a particular set of syntagms), the “Son of Man” as a citation of Daniel could certainly have come to mean the Christ already in Hebrew/Aramaic. An example, just to make this clear, would be the following: “Rav” simply means “Rabbi,” but for the majority of Orthodox Jews in the U.S., “the Rav” means one and only one Rabbi, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik OBM. Let us, then, have a look at Vermes’s evidence.

In order to make his case, Vermes must demonstrate the alleged use of בר נש as a circumlocution meaning “I.” Although he gives several examples, in every one of these, rather than seeing a circumlocution for “I,” we can see quite a (different idiom. I shall first discuss an example that Vermes seems to consider particularly strong.12 In the first:

Jacob of Kefar Nibburayya gave a ruling in Tyre that fish should be ritually slaughtered. Hearing this, R. Haggai sent him this order: Come and be scourged! He replied, should בר נש be scourged who proclaims the word of Scripture? (Gen. Rabba vii 2)13

Vermes wishes to claim that, “theoretically, of course, bar nash may be rendered here as ‘one’, but the context hardly suggests that at this particular juncture Jacob intends to voice a general principle. Hurt by his opponent’s harsh words, he clearly seems to be referring to himself and the indirect idiom is no doubt due to the implied humiliation.”14 Vermes here simply confuses the semantics and the pragmatics of the sentence. Of course, pragmatically the speaker is referring to himself, but semantically he is using a general expression. An example from English will make this clear. In the famous and brilliant lyric from Guys and Dolls, Adelaide sings plaintively: “In other words, just by waiting around for that

———————

11 Vermes, “The Use,” 311.

12 Vermes, “The Use,” 321-2.

13 Genesis Rabbah (eds. J. Theodor and H. Albeck; Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1965), 51. Ver-mes’s translation.

14 Vermes, “The Use.”


little band of gold […] a person could develop a cold!” Of course, pragmatically she is referring to herself; it is her own situation of which she complains, but semantically “a person” in English is an indefinite pronomial form and not a circumlocution for “I.”15 The same is true for this example and, mutatis mutandis, all the other ones that Vermes cites. But another should be cited, because, at least, of the mutatis mutandis:

When R. Hiyya bar Adda died, son of the sister of Bar Kappara, R. Levi received his valuables. This was because his teacher used to say, The disciple of בר נשא is as dear to him as his son. (Yer Ber. 5b)

There is not the slightest justification to see a circumlocution for “I” here either. Rabbi Hiyya has expressed a general principle that the disciple of a person is as dear to him as his son and the conclusion was drawn on the pragmatic level (in several senses) that he intended his disciple to be his heir.

Another example cited by Vermes turns out to be a counter-example:

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoh said: “If I had been standing on Mt. Sinai at the hour that the Torah was given to Israel I would have demanded of the Merciful One that that human being would have been created with two mouths, one to be busy with Torah and one to do with it all of his daily needs.” Then he changed his mind and said: “If even with only one, the world cannot subsist because of all of the delations, if there were two all the more so!” [Palestinian Talmud Shabbat chapter 1, halakhah, page 3b]

Now it is obvious here, pace Vermes, that the Rabbi is not referring to himself as “that man” here, for then he would be, as well, accusing himself of being an informer, which he hardly was and hardly would do.16 There can be no doubt that here, as well, we must understand “הדין בר נש” here as “One,” German “Mann”, and nothing else. There remains not even one example in which the term Son of Man is a periphrastic usage for “I.”

In all of Vermes’s examples, then, “general principles are stated which are applied in the context of the narrative to an individual, usually the speaker.17 Vermes’s argument fails totally because he does not even once observe the

———————

15 Vermes’s citation of the answer “You […]” as confirmation of his thesis hardly needs refuting. Nathan Detroit, of course, would comfort Adelaide by saying: “Ah baby, you’ll be married soon.” That still doesn’t make “a person” = “I” semantically.

16 This consideration also thoroughly discredits Lindars’s reading according to which bar nesha here means “anyone (…) who was as deeply conscious of the divine generosity as Simeom himself,” Lindars, Jesus, Son of Man, 22. Even more sharply than with respect to the interpretation of Vermes, one would ask: Is this the class of people one would suspect of being informers to the Romans and even more so had they two mouths? I think the conclusion is inescapable that here (with or without haden=this), the meaning is the human being in general.

17 See examples cited Vermes, “The Use,” 323-7. For similar conclusions reached by slightly different methods, see Μ. Casey, “Method in Our Madness, and Madness in Their Methods: Some Approaches to the Son of Man Problem in Recent Scholarship,” JSNT 42 (1991): 18.


difference between semantic (lexical) meaning and pragmatic meaning or between sense and reference. There is, therefore, no evidence, whatsoever for “son of man” being used in Aramaic texts as a circumlocution for “I,” as Lietzmann realized.18

I conclude, therefore, that Vermes has adduced no convincing evidence that “Son of Man” was ever used as a circumlocution for “I” even in the Palestinian Aramaic of Late Antiquity; still less has he witnesses for the Aramaic of the first century. Vermes’s argument thus fails to convince on lexical philological grounds, in spite of its superficial attractiveness for the interpretation of some verses within the Gospels. Given that Vermes’s alleged idiomatic usage of “son of man” as periphrasis for “I” proves to be a ghost, another explanation of this genuinely weird usage must be sought. Lietzmann (and a host of others) have sought the explanation in the positing of a “Heavenly Man” or Anthropos myth underlying Christology. Rejecting (as have, I think, most interpreters by now) such far-fetched and far-flung explanations, to my mind, the only plausible one that remains is that of the great Jewish theologian and scholar of the last century, Leo Baeck, who wrote: “Whenever in later works ‘that Son Man,’ ‘this Son of Man’, or ‘the Son of Man’ is mentioned, it is the quotation from Daniel that is speaking.19 In other words, I fully accept (as I think wë must) Vermes’s hypothesis of an Aramaic origin (in the oral traditions that lie behind the Gospels) for the phrase, “The Son of Man,” but deny his interpretation of that Aramaic

———————

18 For another review of Vermes’s evidence, arriving, however, at different conclusions, see Lindars, Jesus, Son of Man, 19-24. Lindars accepts only one example as fully relevant and builds his entire case on that, the example being y Shevi’it 38d: [Rabbi Shimon] sat at the mouth of the cave [where he was hiding from the Romans] and he saw a hunter catching birds. He spread his net. He heard a voice from heaven [ברה קול], say dimus [Dimissio], and it was freed. He said [to himself], “a bird does not perish without Heaven, so much more so a human being!” Lindars chooses to translate this as “How much less a man in my position,” without any warrant other than the alleged article on bar nesha. Given, however, the philological state of the Palestinian Talmud, as well as the centuries later date in any case, to build an entire interpretation of the Son of Man on this one highly doubtful example, seems almost to constitute scholarly legerdemain. There is no reason to imagine that Rabbi Shimon means a man in his position as opposed to any human whatsoever. Once again, a simple generic is being used and applied by the speaker pragmatically to himself. A bird doesn’t perish except by the will of Heaven, still less a human being, [so why am I hiding here]? What is most important to recognize is that if this idiom is operative, for instance, at Matthew 8:20: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but bar enasha has nowhere to lay his head,” it could only mean that foxes have holes and birds have nests but humans have nowhere to lay their heads, which is palpably false (Lindars, Jesus, Son of Man, 30), so despite the apparent similarity of this one single exemplum from late-ancient Palestinian Aramaic, we must resist the temptation to treat them as the same linguistic form, pace Lindars, Jesus, Son of Man, 29-31. Lindars’s own solution to this problem involves pure philological fantasy, nothing more or less. In another, longer version of this argument, I will provide further argument against Lindars’s position. Insofar as it depends on Vermes’s flawed conclusions, it is, in any case, untenable.

191 L. Baeck, Judaism and Christianity: Essays (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1958), 28-9.


phrase. In what follows in this necessarily brief paper, I shall try to show how the hypothesis of literary allusion to Daniel in this phrase enables stronger readings of a pair of Markan loci.


 

And that takes us back to yesterday’s post, How the Gospel of Mark Retrofitted Jesus into a Pre-Existing Christ Idea.

.


Boyarin, Daniel. 2010. “The Sovereignty of the Son of Man: Reading Mark 2.” In The Interface of Orality and Writing: Speaking, Seeing, Writing in the Shaping of New Genres, edited by Annette Weissenrieder and Robert B. Coote, 353–62. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Casey, Maurice. 1991. From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God: The Origins and Development of New Testament Christology. Cambridge, England: JClarke ; Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press.

———. 2010. Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching. London ; New York: T&T Clark.


 

 

 

How the Gospel of Mark Retrofitted Jesus into a Pre-Existing Christ Idea

The background to the following post is The Gospel of John as  a form of Jewish Messianism? (Part 2). It presumes some awareness of how in some Jewish quarters Daniel 7’s Son of Man was being interpreted in a way that led to controversial Jewish texts like the Similitudes of Enoch and the Gospel of John.

In my view Jesus was entirely unnecessary for the formation of Mark’s Christology, as he is the fulfillment, not the provocation of that Christology. — Boyarin, 354

Before the Gospel of Mark was written, even possibly before the figure of Jesus was existed in anyone’s mind, there were Jews who interpreted Daniel 7 to claim that the Messiah, the Christ, would be divine human and known as the Son of Man. Again on the basis ultimately of Daniel 7 those Jewish sectarians believed that the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of Man, would be a divine human with the “Father God” (“Ancient of Days”) having granted him total sovereignty on earth. The author of the Gospel of Mark was one of those who embraced this belief about the messianic prophecies. He chose to fit Jesus into that divine Son of Man messiah or christ template in his gospel.

(This notion of Christ was not the same as the one advanced by Paul. Paul never spoke of the messiah as a Danielic Son of Man figure. Perhaps the author of the gospel acquired the Danielic view of the Christ after Paul had done his work.)

Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, is the about the Messiah as a divine human (which is not to deny a Markan contribution to the development of such ideas). This article, in its present form, is intended as an answer to the question of “how the ‘Son of Man’ . . . came to appear on Jesus’ lips in Mark’s Gospel, or for that matter in the tradition as a whole.” My simple answer is that the “Son of Man” was on Jesus’ lips, because he was a first-century, Palestinian Jew, and “Son of Man” was the name that these Jews used for their expected divine-human (Christological!) redeemer. (354)

What evidence for this view can be found in the Gospel of Mark?

Mark 2:5-10

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins“—he said to the paralytic—

Boyarin argues that Mark 2:10 is meant to recall Daniel 7:14.

20 Indeed, even were it possible (which it is not) to entertain Vermes’s suggestion on
philological grounds, it would be excluded here. If Jesus is not identifying himself by a known title, then his claim to be the one (the only one) who has authority to remit sins would be unrelenting personal arrogance and indeed blasphemy. For this point, see Μ. Hooker, The Son of Man in Mark: A Study of the Background of the Terms “Son of Man” and Its Use in St Mark’s Gospel (Montreal: McGill University Press, 1967), 84.—22 See too, “In claiming this divine prerogative Jesus classes himself as the Son of Man into the category of the divine, and his superhuman act of healing is the sign for this claim. So already in 1927 O. Procksch suggested that here ‘the Son of Man’ stands for the Son of God,” S. Kim, “The ‘Son of Man’ as the Son of God” (WUNT 30; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1983), 2.—24 J. Marcus, Mark 1—8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 530. See too Kim, “The ‘’Son of Man’,” 90.

But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” This verse is the crux. Once we have excluded the possibility of “the Son of Man” being simply, another way of saying “I,” then I think it must be conceded that it is a title, here.20 The Son of Man has authority (obviously delegated by God) to do God’s work of the forgiving of sins on earth. From where could such a claim be derived if not from Daniel 7:14, in which we read that the One Like a Son of Man has been given, “authority, glory, kingship;” indeed an “authority that is eternal that will not pass away”? The term that we conventionally translate as “authority” in its New Testament contexts, έξουσία, is, of course, exactly the same term which translates Aramaic שלטן (compare Strong’s #7985) in the Septuagint, so what Jesus is claiming for the Son of Man is exactly that which has been granted to the (One Like a) Son of Man in Daniel. Given the meaning of the Aramaic Vorlage in Daniel, “authority” strikes me as a rather weak rendering; “sovereignty” would be much better. Sovereignty would surely explain why the Son of Man has the power to remit sins on earth. According to this tradition, then, there may be no question; this Jesus claims to be the Son of Man to whom divine authority on earth, “under the heavens” (Daniel 7:27) has been delegated. In contrast to most interpreters, I would argue, moreover, that this One to whom authority has been delegated, as a divine figure, is a redeemer king, as the Daniel passage clearly states, and thus ripe for identification with the Davidic Messiah, if not always clearly so identified.22 I thus here directly disagree with Yarbro Collins’s assumption that the title “Son of Man” conceals as much as it reveals or that we cannot understand that the audience of Mark already understood the epithet. I find much more compelling in this instance the statement of Joel Marcus:

This conclusion [that the “Son of Man” in the Similitudes is pre-Christian] is supported by the way in which Jesus, in the Gospels, generally treats the Son of Man as a known quantity, never bothering to explain the term, and the way in which certain of this figure’s characteristics, such as his identity with the Messiah or his prerogative of judging, are taken for granted. With apologies to Voltaire, we may say that if the Enochic Son of Man had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him to explain the Son of Man sayings in the Gospels.24

I would only shift the terms of the last phrase to indicate that what this means is that the usage of the Son of Man in the Gospels joins with the evidence of such usage from the Similitudes to lead us to consider this term used in this way (and more importantly the concept of a second divinity implied by it) as the common coin — which I emphasize does riot mean universal or uncontested — of Judaism already before Jesus. (359 f)

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“Logos, a Jewish Word”

Philo’s Logos is neither just the Wisdom (Gk sophia; Heb okhmah) of the Bible, nor is it quite the Platonic logos, nor the divine Word (Heb davar), but a new synthesis of all of these.

A response to the post Gospel of John as a Source for Jewish Messianism:

This seems interesting. Though the opening of GJohn insists that Jesus is the “word,” or logos. A very Greek word, concept, from as early as Heraclitus, c. 500 BCE (?).

So if this Logos or “Word” is found in Jewish culture, it was probably borrowed by them from the Greeks. . . .

Hellenized Jews like Philo used this Word especially.

An interesting engagement with this critical perception can be found in a short article by Daniel Boyarin, “Logos, A Jewish Word: John’s Prologue as Midrash”, in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, conveniently available via academia.edu.

In the first centuries of the Christian era, the idea of the Word (Gk Logos) was known in some Greek philosophical circles as a link connecting the Transcendent/the Divine with humanity/the terrestrial. For Jews, the idea of this link between heaven and earth, whether called by the Greek Logos or Sophia (“wisdom”) or by the Aramaic Memra (“word”), permeated first- and second-century thought. Although monotheistic, Jews nevertheless recognized other supernatural beings who communicated the divine will. The use of the Logos in John’s Gospel (“In the Beginning was the Word/Logos, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” [Jn 1.1]) is thus a thoroughly Jewish usage. (546)

As for the “Hellenized” Philo, Boyarin points out that he writes of the Logos “as if it were a commonplace”, demonstrating that at least in some quarters of pre-Christian Judaism “there was nothing strange about a doctrine of a manifestation of God, even as a “second God”; the Logos did not conflict with Philo’s idea of monotheism.”

Philo and his Alexandrian Jewish community would have found the “Word of God” frequently in the Septuagint (LXX), where it creates, reveals, and redeems. For example, speaking of the exodus, Philo writes:

whereas the voice of mortals is judged by hearing, the sacred oracles intimate that the words of God (logoi, the plural) are seen as light is seen, for we are told that all of the people saw the Voice [Ex 20.18], not that they heard it; for what was happening was not an impact of air made by the organs of mouth and tongue, but the radiating splendor of virtue indistinguishable from a fountain of reason. . . . But the voice of God which is not that of verbs and names yet seen by the eye of the soul, he [Moses] rightly introduces as “visible.” (Migr. 47–48)

This text draws a close connection between the Logos and light, as in John 1.4–5:

In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John’s Prologue depicts the Logos as both a part of God and as a being separate from God. Compare Philo: read more »

The Prologue of the Gospel of John as Jewish Midrash

While writing a post relating the Logos, Word, of the Gospel of John’s Prologue to hitherto longstanding Jewish ideas I came across the following explanation of “the formal characteristics of Midrash as a mode of reading Scripture” that requires a separate post or full quotation. It is a portion of an article by Daniel Boyarin that is based on an article by David Stern in The Jewish New Testament, “Midrash and Parables in the New Testament“.

One of the most characteristic forms of Midrash is a homily on a scriptural passage or extract from the Pentateuch that invokes, explicitly or implicitly, texts from either the Prophets or the Hagiographa (Gk “holy writings”: specifically, very frequently Psalms, Song of Songs, or Wisdom literature) as the framework of ideas and language that is used to interpret and expand the Pentateuchal text being preached. This interpretive practice is founded on a theological notion of the oneness of Scripture as a self-interpreting text, especially on the notion that the laer books are a form of interpretation of the Five Books of Moses. Gaps are not filled with philosophical ideas but with allusions to or citations of other texts.

The first five verses of the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel fit this form nearly perfectly. The verses being preached are the opening verses of Genesis, and the text that lies in the background as interpretive framework is Proverbs 8.22–31. The primacy of Genesis as text being interpreted explains why we have here Logos and not “Wisdom.” In an intertextual interpretive practice such as a midrash, imagery and language may be drawn from a text other than the one under interpretation, but the controlling language of the discourse is naturally the text that is being interpreted and preached. The preacher of the Prologue to John had to speak of Logos here, because his homiletical effort is directed at the opening verses of Genesis, with their majestic: “And God said: Let there be light, and there was light.” It is the “saying” of God that produces the light, and indeed through this saying, every thing was made that was made.

Philo, like others, identifies Sophia and the Logos as a single entity. Consequently, nothing could be more natural than for a preacher, such as the composer of John 1, to draw from the book of Proverbs the figure, epithets, and qualities of the second God (second person), the companion of God and agent of God in creation; for the purposes of interpreting Genesis, however, the preacher would need to focus on the linguistic side of the coin, the Logos, which is alone mentioned explicitly in that text. In other words, the text being interpreted is Genesis, therefore the Word; the text from which the interpretive material is drawn is Proverbs, hence the characteristics of Wisdom:

1. In the beginning was the Word,
      And the Word was with God,
2. And the Word was God.
      He was in the beginning with God.
3. All things were made through him,
      and without him was not anything made that
        was made.
4. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness
      did not receive it.

The assertion that the Word was with God is easily related to Proverbs 8.30, “Then I [wisdom] was beside him,” and even to Wisdom of Solomon 9.9, “With thee is wisdom.” As is frequently the case in rabbinic midrash, the gloss on the verse being interpreted is dependent on a later biblical text that is alluded to but not explicitly cited. The Wisdom texts, especially Proverbs 8, had become commonplaces in the Jewish interpretive tradition of Genesis 1. Although, paradoxically, John 1.1–5 is our earliest example of this, the form is so abundant in late antique Jewish writing that it can best be read as the product of a common tradition shared by (some) messianic Jews and (some) non-messianic Jews. Thus the operation of John 1.1 can be compared with the Palestinian Targum to this very verse, which translates “In the beginning” by “With Wisdom God created,” clearly also alluding to the Proverbs passage. “Beginning” is read in the Targumim sometimes as Wisdom, and sometimes as the Logos, Memra: By a Beginning—Wisdom—God created.

In light of this evidence, the Fourth Gospel is not a new departure in the history of Judaism in its use of Logos theology, but only, if even this, in its incarnational Christology. John 1.1–5 is not a hymn, but a midrash, that is, it is not a poem but a homily on Genesis 1.1–5. The very phrase that opens the Gospel, “In the beginning,” shows that creation is the focus of the text. The rest of the Prologue shows that the midrash of the Logos is applied to the appearance of Jesus. Only from John 1.14, which announces that the “Word became flesh,” does the Christian narrative begins to diverge from synagogue teaching. Until v. 14, the Johannine prologue is a piece of perfectly unexceptional non-Christian Jewish thoughtthat has been seamlessly woven into the Christological narrative of the Johannine community.

I need to update my series on the meaning of midrash. There are major implications here for the gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark.


Boyarin, Daniel. 2011. “Logos, a Jewish Word: John’s Prologue as Midrash.” In The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, 546–49. New York: Oxford University Press.

https://www.academia.edu/36254597/Daniel_Boyarin_Logos_a_Jewish_Word_John_s_Prologue_as_Midrash_in_Amy-Jill_Levine_and_Marc_Zvi_Brettler_eds._The_Jewish_Annotated_New_Testament_New_York_Oxford_University_Press_2011_546_549.


The Gospel of John as a form of Jewish Messianism? (Part 2)

To continue from the first part first part of this post:

The Double Bind

For the similar quandary on the question of Jesus as the Messiah in Pauline scholarship Reynolds directs readers to a section of Novenson’s Christ Among the Messiahs; coincidentally the section he cites has been set out in an earlier post here: Christ among the Messiahs — Part 1.

Thus, on the question of Jesus as the Messiah, Johannine scholarship finds itself in an interesting place not unlike that of Pauline scholarship. Johannine scholars, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, have recognized the Palestinian Jewish nature of the Gospel of John, but by and large, they have understood John’s Christology as a corrected, theologized, or Christianized version of Jewish messianology. Meanwhile, scholarship on Jewish messianism has acknowledged the diversity of early Jewish messianic expectation, but at the same time, the Fourth Gospel is almost never referenced as an example of this expectation. This situation appears counterintuitive, but there may be ways to move beyond the apparent impasse.

Jewish “High Christology” Preceded Christianity

The first instance of a move “beyond the apparent impasse” that Benjamin Reynolds discusses is the argument of Daniel Boyarin. For Boyarin, the “high christology” we find in the Gospel of John is all part of the same set of ideas that had been expressed in the Jewish works of the Parables of Enoch, 4 Ezra 13 (and 2 Baruch). In these Jewish texts we read of a messianic figure who

  • is preexistent
  • judges the wicked
  • is the Servant of the Lord
  • is seated on the Lord of Spirit’s throne

But let’s read Boyarin’s own words:

The proposal being advanced in this paper is that at least since Daniel and almost surely earlier, there had been a tradition within Israel that saw God as doubled in the form of an old man and a younger human-like figure, sharing the divine throne (or sharing, rather, two equal thrones). Although not necessary for the present argument, my guess is that this doubling of the godhead within much of Israel’s tradition goes back to the original El/Y’ merger. The vision of Daniel 7 . . . represents this tradition . . . .

After introducing the Similitudes of Enoch and 4 Ezra 13 into the discussion as further evidence of this Jewish concept of a “second anthropomorphic divine figure” who is associated with the Messiah, Boyarin is persuaded that such Jewish literature should be seen as the backdrop for the divinity of Jesus:

It is this view of God, given full rein in Enoch, that explains the development of High Christology as fully explicable within Jewish religious history, with the enormous innovation on the part of the Gospels being only the insistence that the divine man is already here as a historical human being and not as a prophecy for the future. Apocalypse now! This provides, in my view, a much more appropriate historical explanatory model than one that depends on visionary experiences of Jesus on the Throne allegedly ungrounded in prior speculation, as per the view of, e.g. Larry Hurtado and others who advance similar views.

Ouch! I have been one of those who has been prepared to accept those “similar views”.

What Enoch can Teach us About Jesus“*

read more »

The Gospel of John as a source for Jewish Messianism? (Part 1)

The tendency within New Testament studies is not to consider that the Johannine perspective might possibly reflect a Jewish sectarian perspective, but to see John and the Johannine Jesus, who is Messiah, as anti-Jewish.

A recent publication with a challenging title and edited by Benjamin E. Reynolds and Gabriele Boccaccini is Reading the Gospel of John’s Christology as Jewish Messianism: Royal, Prophetic, and Divine Messiahs. How could that be? The Gospel of John is widely considered the most Christian-theologically advanced of the gospels and even anti-Jewish.

. . . in the Gospel of John, Jesus has descended from heaven, has been sent by the Father, is one with the Father, and is the only begotten of the Father. This Johannine portrayal of Jesus as the divine Son of God is thought to have been possible only in later Christian thought. . . .

. . . scholars do not deem John’s Christology to reflect Jewish messianic expectation, at least directly. Rather, John’s Christology is understood to reflect a Johannine version of the Synoptic Jesus set in the context of late first-century intra-Jewish diaspora dialogue and conflict or less specifically a Christianized or theologized development of Jewish messianic expectation.

. . . For many, John’s high Christology indicates its derivation from the community, which in turn negates its historicity. How much more problematic then is it to read the Gospel of John’s Christology as a form of Jewish Messianism? (16f)

Yet the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has exposed certain similarities between the Gospel of John and some form of early Judaism in Palestine.

The challenge for Johannine scholarship has been where to go and what to do after noting John’s relationship with early Judaism. (18)

Benjamin Reynolds suggests the reason scholars stop short after doing little more than remarking upon certain points in common is that to go further

means traveling into uncharted waters, into places that Johannine scholarship does not go, such as reevaluating the possibility of historical evidence in John’s Gospel, the context in which the Gospel was written, and the height of its Christology.

Reynolds can say that “scholars almost without exception” address the Gospel of John as an instance of “early Christian (and thus not Jewish) belief in the Messiah.”

Attempts at Using John as Evidence for Jewish Messianism

read more »

Some Stray Thoughts on Paleography

Rylands P52 (Recto)

Recently on Vridar, Neil posted about the untimely passing of Hermann Detering. A person commented with a link to his own blog, in which he called Detering a crank, and described Vridar as a blog that is “run by a fraternity who hope that Jesus never existed.” While I am a huge fan of unintended irony, we had to block the fellow for being a boor.

In his post, he defended the use of paleography (or as citizens of the Commonwealth spell it, palaeography) as a means for dating ancient documents. Detering, he insisted, didn’t know what he was talking about.

We can’t deny that when all else fails, paleography is sometimes the only way to guess at a date range for a given manuscript or fragment thereof. Unfortunately, it is the worst of all methods available to us. Here are some reasons why: read more »

Memory and the Pursuit of the Jesus Tradition

I have begun to read Alan Kirk’s Memory and the Jesus Tradition, a compilation of twelve of his essays published between 2001 and 2016, and have, as usual, found myself making slower progress than I expected. At so many points in just the first few chapters I have had to detour to endnotes and seek out cited works to get a clearer idea of what lies behind many of Kirk’s points and quotations. The parallel readings have been worth it, though. Reading Kirk and the sources to which he alludes in parallel has opened up my understanding memory theory as applied in very practical ways in the social sciences on the one hand, and its theoretical application in Jesus tradition studies on the other. Kirk would disagree that his discussion of memory theory is entirely theoretical and I will address one of his attempts to present real-world applications of his theoretical discussions.

One pleasant surprise I have already experienced so early in my exploration of memory theory studies (in particular from the section in one of Kirk’s references titled “Literature and Cultural Memory” but which Kirk appears to entirely overlook in this collection of essays) is that I have become convinced that memory studies do have a most significant place in the study of early Christianity. Alan Kirk and other historical Jesus scholars attempt to use memory theories to uncover pre-gospel development of the Jesus tradition while I suspect that their most fruitful contribution can be found in exploring how the various gospels themselves helped establish the emerging identities of the early Christianities.

But first, let’s see what Alan Kirk himself, and no doubt with the agreement of the editor he credits for assisting him with putting this book together, Chris Keith, has to say about memory studies in the context of Christian origins:

. . . what was emerging under the aegis of memory analysis was a comprehensive account of the formation of the Jesus tradition and its history, from its origins and continuing on its arc towards canon-formation. . . . 

Memory-grounded analysis is able to deliver a coherent account, not only of the tradition’s origins, but also of its history through analysis of how the tradition mediates the salient past into contemporary contexts of reception. Here it intersects with source criticism and redaction criticism. In other words, a memory-based account of the tradition neither displaces standard redaction-critical, tradition-history and source-critical approaches nor does it merely supplement them. Rather, it integrates them into a more comprehensive account of cultural formation and history, providing a kind of unified field theory for various lines of enquiry.

(pp. 10, 18 of 375 — all page numbers are taken from an e-book version. My bolding in all quotations.)

How memory works

Holocaust survivors, survivors of more recent genocidal attacks in Africa, persons emerging from collective war-time experiences with individual post-traumatic stress syndrome, — it is by the sharing of personal experiences among such persons that meaning is found for what they have experienced as a new kind of “collective memory” is established. A collective narrative, a story that offers some sort of control or meaning, of their experiences, is created through such sharing of memories. Similarly the populations of entire nations that have experienced traumatic times can find a new sense of self or national identity through a collective communication of those experiences in dialogue, in the arts, in literature, in rousing speeches that inject hope and meaning into the raw memories of their devastating experiences. A close relation to the latter scenario is the nineteenth and early twentieth century

Zionist commemoration of ancient Jewish resistance movements such as the Zealots, . . . aimed at legitimating the Zionist political programme as well as promoting activist countermodels for Jewish identity, while its breathtaking (sic) diminution of the exile to a point of virtually no magnitude signified its repudiation of the stereotypically passive, sighing Jew of the Gulat. Zionist memory, in other words, was a matter of the ‘ideological classification of the past’. 

(p. 34 / 375)

I can to some extent understand how “memory studies” work, how “memory” can create or renew personal and collective identities and meanings, when applied to such situations.

If I understand Alan Kirk’s essays correctly (and I have read so far no more than four of the twelve), I believe he is attempting to apply that sort of memory process, or memory re-creation and meaning through social sharing, to groups he imagines to have been early (pre-gospel) bearers of “memories of Jesus” originating with historical encounters with Jesus.

Finally, this approach has obvious relevance for historical Jesus research. Historical Jesus scholarship, not recognizing the extent to which the tradition is the artefact of commemorative processes, often treats the gospels as garden-variety archival materials, for example, regarding them in their relative brevity as very incomplete records preserving just traces of events rather than being symbolically concentrated mediations of the aggregate of events. The model worked out in this chapter raises the question of what sort of historiography is required to deal with tradition – a media-based artefact with a commemorative and representational relationship to historical realities.

(pp. 89f. / 375)

But what justifies the application of memory theory to historical Jesus studies?

read more »

Ancient Historiography and Historians — Vridar Posts

For the background to this post see Vridar Maintenance.

I am listing here the posts that are categorized or tagged as “Ancient Historiography“. This list is for my own editing purposes but I am making it public because I know it’s a topic that if of particular interest to some readers, so they can share my pain in trying to sort them out.

From this list I will be looking for anything that

  • does not really come under “ancient historiography”,
  • is better tagged or categorized with some other label.

Maybe “ancient historiography” itself is too broad, narrow, or unclear as to precise meaning.

(Other posts not listed here but paralleling the themes and content of posts here will be added and sorted out in good time.)

Interested readers are welcome to make suggestions.

  1. What Josephus might have said about the Gospels — 2008-10-26
  2. How History Was Done in Bible Times: Myths about Herodotus and Thucydides — 2014-02-05
  3. Ancient Historians: Thucydides, historian of realism, not reality  — 2014-02-06
  4. The Best of Ancient Historians Following Homer and the Epic Poets  — 2014-02-07
  5. How Ancient Historians Constructed Dramatic Fiction: Thucydides and the Plague — 2014-02-13
  6. How Ancient Historians Worked — Summary — 2014-02-16
  7. The Difference between Story and History in the Bible — 2015-03-11
  8. The Positive Value of Scepticism — and Building a Negative Case — in Historical Enquiry — 2015-06-17
  9. Ancient Historians Fabricating Sources — 2015-07-24
  10. Are theologians rationalizing myths and miracles as ancients rationalized their myths? — 2017-05-28
  11. What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography? –2017-06-07
  12. How and Why Plutarch Expanded His “Lives” — 2017-06-14
  13. Ancient vs. Modern Biographies: Didn’t Bultmann Know the Difference? — 2017-08-02
  14. An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally — 2017-10-31
  15. The evidence of ancient historians — 2017-12-10
  16. How Historians Study a Figure Like Jesus — 2018-10-21
  17. “Now we know” — how ancient historians worked — 2018-11-30
  18. Ancient History, a “Funny Kind of History” — 2019-01-21
  19. Luke-Acts Explained as a form of “Ideal Jewish History” (Part 1) — 2019-02-02
  20. Luke-Acts as form of history-writing (Luke-Acts Explained . . . Part 2) — 2019-02-03

Then there are additional posts currently attached to a label “Ancient historians“. Some of the above posts also have “ancient historians” as a label but I am avoiding double up here.

  1. Comparing the sources for Alexander and Jesus — 2007-04-22
  2. Ancient historians’ accounts of shipwrecks — 2007-04-27
  3. Ancient historians at work: Polybius, Herodotus (cf Gospels, Acts) — 2007-05-08
  4. The literary genre of Acts. 4: Historian’s Models – comparing Josephus — 2007-11-27
  5. The Bible’s “Historical” Writings: Histories or Historical Novels or . . .? — 2009-09-24
  6. Comparing the evidence for Jesus with other ancient historical persons — 2010-05-01
  7. Reading an ancient historical narrative: two fundamental principles — 2011-02-24
  8. Correlations between the “Histories” of Herodotus and the Bible’s History of Israel — 2011-02-24
  9. What if the Gospels did cite their sources and identify their authors? — 2012-09-18
  10. Is Luke Among the Lying Historians? — 2013-12-03
  11. Signs of Fiction in Ancient Biographies — & the Gospels — 2017-06-06
  12. What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?— 2017-06-07
  13. Distinguishing between “fiction” and “history” in ancient sources — 2017-06-18
  14. Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? — 2017-08-09
  15. It works for Esther. Why not for Jesus? — 2017-12-19
  16. Doing History: How Do We Know Queen Boadicea/Boudicca Existed? — 2018-05-07
  17. How a Fairy Tale King Became Historical — 2018-05-08
  18. Doing History: Did Celts Ritually Kill Their Kings? — 2018-05-09
  19. Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History” — 2019-01-24
  20. Midrash: A Message from God, though not historically true — 2019-01-25

Then other posts, link is “ancient history

  1. Is history a trial? — 2011-10-25
  2. Dealing with Silence and the Absence of Evidence in an Age of Resurgent Orthodoxy — 2017-12-08

Then more under “ancient biographies

  1. Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’ — 2017-08-15
  2. Ad Hoc explanations for all those different biographies of Jesus …. (or Socrates) — 2017-12-03
  3. Why the “Biographies” of Socrates Differ — 2017-12-05

ancient forgeries

  1. Ancient forgeries — by lawful decree — 2007-09-06
  2. Forgery in the ancient world — 2009-07-04
  3. Was forgery treated seriously by the ancients? — 2017-09-19
  4. The Problem of Forgery in the Bible: 10 Myths to Justify False Authorship — 2017-03-01

ancient sources

  1. Miscellaneous point — Mount Vesuvius and the argument from silence — 2018-090-18
  2. A scholarly hankering…. — 2018-09-21
  3. “Under Tiberius All Was Quiet” : Or — No, Jesus was not “one of many” — 2018-10-25
  4. Lying Eyewitnesses — Always With Us  — 2018-12-21

ancient literature

  1. The literary genre of Acts. 1: Ancient Prologues — 2007-11-12
  2. Ancient prologues: Conventions and an oddity of the Acts preface — 2007-11-13
  3. The literary genre of Acts. 10: historical novels – ancient cyrogenics and lost cities — 2008-02-09
  4. Literary criticism, a key to historical enquiry (Nehemiah case study) — 2010-07-01
  5. The Popularity of Resurrection — 2010-07-17
  6. The Classical and Biblical Canons — & the importance of identifying authors — 2017-11-29
  7. Another example of that bookend structure in ancient literature — 2018-10-30
  8. A New Genre for the Gospels? It’s not so unusual. And Imitation and Intertextuality? A necessity! — 2018-12-09

ancient novels

  1. Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels — 2012-11-17
  2. Greek Novels Casting Light On New Testament: Part 2 of “Why NT Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels” — 2012-11-28

Okay, that’s a start. Over 60 posts to be sorted here.

. . . .

But wait, some more: “Greco-Roman Biographies

  1. Michael Licona Asks, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?” — 2017-05-31
  2. One Key Difference between Gospels and an Ancient Biography — 2017-06-08
  3. How and Why Plutarch Expanded His “Lives” — 2017-06-14
  4. Did Aesop Exist? — 2017-08-08
  5. Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 1 — 2017-08-10

And it is at this point where we are beginning to overlap with the Gospel Genre posts.

And still more (to be periodically updated):

Plutarch

  1. Dog resurrection — 2009-12-30
  2. Ancient mythicist-historicist role reversal — 2010-03-10
  3. Scholars undermining scholars on questions fundamental to historicity of Jesus — 2011-01-04
  4. Another Bart Ehrman mis-reading of Earl Doherty’s book — 2012-03-29
  5. One Difference Between a “True” Biography and a Fictional (Gospel?) Biography — 2017/04/30

Suetonius

  1. R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Suetonius and Chrestus — revised — 2007-01-16
  2. Scholars undermining scholars on questions fundamental to historicity of Jesus — 2011-10-04
  3. 5. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: A Roman Trio — 2012-04-23
  4. “Is This Not the Carpenter?” – References to Jesus outside the Christian Sources — 2012-08-21

Pliny the Younger

  1. R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Pliny’s letter about the Christians — revised — 2007-01-17
  2. New Testament allusions in Pliny correspondence with Trajan? — 2007-01-17
  3. Fresh Doubts on Authenticity of Pliny’s Letter about the Christians — 2016-02-17

Tacitus

  1. R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Tacitus and the Christians – revised — 2007-01-16
  2. O’Neill-Fitzgerald: #5, Should We Expect Any Roman Records About Failed Messiahs? — 2014-01-01

Julius Caesar

  1. How Jesus Christ outclassed Julius Caesar  — 2010/08/21
  2. The Gospels Are “Only Parables” ABOUT Jesus: Crossan (Part 2 of 3) — 2013-01-11

The Truth About Islam and Democracy

We’ve posted about Islam, democracy and the different meanings of sharia law before. See, for example,

  • three posts posts based on Muslim Secular Democracy: Voices from Within by Associate Professor Lily Zubaidah Rahim;
  • quite a few posts citing John Esposito but one especially focused on the meaning of sharia based on Who Speaks of Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed. 
  • and glimpses of conflicts within Islamic societies as large scale movements push back against some of the worst conservatism according to Riaz Hasssan in Inside Muslim Minds
Anwar Ibrahim ; Dalia Mogahed

Here are interviews with two prominent Muslims, a liberal opposition leader in Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim and then with Dalia Mogahed (co-author with Esposito). Take your pick between the podcast or transcript. (I read the transcript.)

The Intercept: Deconstructed (14th Feb 2019): THE TRUTH ABOUT ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY (WITH ANWAR IBRAHIM)

Some key points:

  • the anti-democratic states associated with Muslims are in the Arab world, the minority of Muslims. And it’s not hard to see why.
  • Sharia has a range of meanings and applications. It is among less well informed Westerners that it has a singular meaning. Any law that violates human rights is to be condemned. But we need first to know who and what, exactly, we are talking about in each situation.
  • Islam has bloody borders; a clash of civilizations. . . . both catch phrases are grounded in ignorance and selective amnesia.
  • Oh yeh — most Muslims love the fundamental principles of democracy. Most Muslims live in democracies and most of those who don’t live in a democracy want to live in a democracy.

 

Trump Movement as a Cult / 2

Continuing from Towards Understanding . . .

It does feel like something to be wrong. It feels like being right. — Kathryn Schultz per J. Quinton

Fifth point. The sins, the flaws, the character defects in the leader make no difference to the “true believer”. They are forgiven or in some other way excused and overlooked. Recall the David analogy. Religious leaders in particular love to preach it. David was “beloved by God” and a “man after God’s own heart” despite his treachery, adultery and murders. He is God’s instrument and it is not our place to question God. The same principle holds for the nonreligious political “cults”. Followers may wish their leader would be more mature, grow up, or whatever, but the positives in the man will always outweigh and render negligible the negatives.

Sixth. One research finding seeking to understand why some people join cults or extremist groups is that prospective members have fewer social ties than “the norm”. They are feeling less connected, less attached. Their world feels to be “falling apart” in significant ways. One thinks of fears or worries about increasing financial tensions (living standards are in decline; there seems no way to ever approach their parents’ standards of living), health problems (costs put proper care out of reach), shifting social expectations (e.g. how men should treat women), leaving them frustrated especially if they feel they have to face these things essentially alone. We saw where horrendous changes in welfare and security in 1920s Germany led. We have seen what happens to too many rootless second generation young immigrants from very different cultural backgrounds and their propensity to join anti-social gangs or more dangerous extremist groups. It’s not hard to identify among “Trump followers” a sense that everything in society is “broken”, a sense of losing hope and no clear light at the end of it all.

Seventh. And the antidote to #six is finding a “home”, “like-minds” with “like feelings” among one’s companions in the new movement. One finds a new family of like minds who understand and who offer support or at least agree on the solution. There is strong sense, from this moment on, of the world divided into “them”, the outsiders in the lost world of darkness and confusion and wrongs, and “us”. The “thems” may sometimes offer very smart arguments against specific beliefs of the insider or proclamations by their leader, but smart arguments will only come across as threatening and “surely deceptive” if they come from those on the “outside” representing the world that the new “inner group family member” has found problematic and left behind.

Eighth. People are judged according to what they represent, and arguments are assessed on where they appear to be coming from and for what they represent, too. Hence any rationalization or refutation can be found for any facts or arguments that are critical of one’s new “family” or place where one feels a sense of belonging. The force and emotion behind the arguments can be far more persuasive than what outsiders might see as the “cold logic” alone. In fact, the arguments for one’s new family-movement are highly emotional, perhaps clearly logical but logical delivered with heated emotion. Ad hominem attacks are par for the course; scoffing and sneering at the competence or intelligence of key leading “outsiders” is also routine. Fear, anger, outrage, — one’s own logical arguments and handy bags of facts are riding the crests of these waves.

…..

And continuing . . . .

…..

Can Historians Develop a Valid “Feel” for a Reliable Source?

Ruth Morse

While preparing my next post on the Trump movement’s analogues to cult experiences I tripped over a page by another historian, Ruth Morse, addressing what modern readers need to understand whenever reading works of pre-modern historians. Once again anyone aware of the methods of New Testament or early Christianity historians must surely wonder why historians of medieval and ancient times don’t embrace the methods of NT historians (e.g. criteria of authenticity, memory theory) or why NT scholars don’t ditch their own methods and emulate those of their peers in other history departments.

‘Common report’, essentially rumour, has never been thought to be an accurate source or a sceptical witness, and historians have always known this.

But don’t biblical historians, or more specifically, historical Jesus historians, have criteria and tools to enable them to dig down and assess with some measure of reasonable probability how common reports (biblical historians use the term “oral tradition” which perhaps connotes a more stable notion of what is being passed on) have mutated over periods through memory refractions and back to something close to an original saying through various criteria of authenticity? Have other historians not yet caught up with these “advanced techniques’?

Loathe to lose any remnant of evidence, loathe to relinquish a way of inserting non-authorized opinions which could be attributed to anonymous sources, medieval historians themselves argued about ‘common report’ and how it might be used. Even sceptical historians might accept that if oral traditions offered nothing else, they gave important testimony to what people had traditionally believed (which itself presented a topic for discussion, because such beliefs could be weighed and compared, where comparing might offer an opportunity to the rhetorically alert).

Yes. Oral reports do tell us what the people sharing them were saying to one another. Were they telling stories of Robin Hood, or Jesus? What grounds do historians have for concluding that those tales had any decades old historical basis?

Would a historian ever rely upon suspect sources?

An allegiance to truth never precluded the use of suspect material; nor did history exclude certain embellishments of that material. One embellishment might be an ostensible rejection of suspect material which, by its very existence, retained precisely what it pretended to discard. What kind of representation of what understanding for which audience are essential questions to ask when evaluating medieval and renaissance history. How far it is either any more than testimony to current opinion, or whether it can be trusted as a reliable account are questions which raise other issues.

But cannot historians develop some sort of sense or feel for what is a reliable source?

Most modern historians of the Middle Ages develop what they characterize as a ‘feel’ for when medieval historians can be trusted.

But did not early historians, ancient and medieval, know how to apply their learning in rhetoric to draw out sympathy and confidence in readers to that they would feel loathe to question the truth of what was being written?

Since the encouragement of some kind of intuitive sympathy was itself one of the rhetorician’s goals, early warnings about ethos may help readers coming to medieval historians for the first time. The seductive experience of wanting what a favourite medieval historian says to be true sometimes to the detriment of one’s better judgement continues to be part of the experience of many case-hardened researchers.

Or perhaps a careful study of historians of old (and medieval historians did learn and emulate the techniques and aims of ancient historians) will alert modern readers to the possibility that much of what they encounter may indeed by fiction.

By analysing individual topoi and situating them within a system of rhetorically manipulated reference, I hope to demonstrate how pervasive ‘literary’ habits of embellishment were, that ‘realism’ is a constantly shifting style which is constantly remade, not a guarantee of a true depiction, and that however convincing, charming, fresh, or intelligent an account, it may be no more (but no less) than a plausible construction which refers to known patterns of human character, behaviour, and event. The styles chosen by historians involve multiple reference: to the particular past narrated; to earlier models of writing history; to other, early literary models (like epics or fictions, or poems of many kinds); and to over-arching (or perhaps underpinning) eschatological ideas of human history.


Morse, Ruth. 2005. Truth and Convention in the Middle Ages: Rhetoric, Representation and Reality. Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press. 95


 

Towards Understanding the Trump Movement as a Cult

Trump – Armstrong

I was dismayed after leaving a religious cult to discover that fallacious thinking that had led me into the cult was not restricted to cult members but was evident throughout society all around me. How I had been so shut off from “the world” not to have noticed how much we shared with “the world”. We always saw ourselves as “called out of this world” and as no longer a part of “this evil world”. We also thought of ourselves as a body, a gathering of converts, unlike any other in the world, so after I had left and reflected on what our operation was “really like” I was dumbstruck to read about how our cult’s M.O. was likewise characteristic of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, and others. Okay, so religious cults were bad news for this and that reason, but it was a real blow to my expectations of what I would find “in the world” after I began to observe the same thinking-gone-wrong among not only more benign churches but in society at large.

Then there was that TV documentary on the Hitler Youth. I listened most attentively to interviews with those who had been members before the war and was again struck with clear echoes of the experiences I had come to think, from both personal experience and wider learning, were seductive features of religious cults.

We know the jokes and sayings about the devil’s masterstroke being to convince his dupes that he doesn’t exist. The one sure constant among all cults is that cult members do not believe they belong to a “cult” — it’s all those other weirdos who are the cultists; we are not like them.

And one more thing. Too many of my friends in my old cult turned out to be friends only on condition I remained part of the collective. But there were others whom I saw as true friends, sticking with me even after I was “disfellowshipped” or “cast out into the bond of Satan”. But what a disappointment I felt as I watched so many of them merely gravitate to other cults, most often imitation breakaways from the parent church.

I think in some ways this Vridar blog is a result of those “coming out” experiences. If asked what was the biggest lesson I have taken away from my cult years it would have to be, surely: “I know only too, too well how easy it is for me to be so very wrong.” That’s why readers see so many references to the research, the evidence, the analysis of arguments, of specialists on this blog, and to the examination of common arguments and conclusions, even among other specialists, that we find to be without valid foundation. We try to be careful and get to the facts and analyse the intellectual foundations of what we think and everything is, essentially, provisional. If anything of my experience and subsequent learning can be of some use to anyone else at an appropriate point in their life’s journey I would be satisfied.

I have been saving up scores of online articles published by journalists, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, about the Trump phenomenon in the United States and only recently I have begun to return to them and read them one by one. There are a number of people in the United States I would consider good friends even though I have never met them face to face. Unfortunately, despite our friendship, I have never had any desire to visit the United States in the same way I like to visit other countries of the world. Perhaps it’s because I see too much of the U.S. here already: on TV and in movies, and especially in the news. Not that all my information has come through today’s mainstream media. I also took up a year’s course in United States history as an undergraduate, and I have followed up much of what I learned at that time by purchasing new books as they relate to special themes of interest from those student years. In our course we covered everything from the invention of the compass through to the confluence of the Kennedy assassination and Beatles Tour, from the Federalist Papers, to the judgments of John Marshall, “Manifest Destiny”, and the Civil Rights Movement. (I recall at one stage taking a special interest in the details of the history of the Rhode Island settlement, possibly at least partly because an American pastor who introduced me to “my cult” was named William Bradford.) Meanwhile, in our English literature courses, I can never remove from my mind novels and plays by William Faulkner, James Baldwin and Tennessee Williams. Then I taught To Kill a Mockingbird in high schools soon afterwards. And I have had a number of American friends, both face to face here in Australia and, of course, online even today. But I cannot presume to know more about what is happening in the United States than what I read and hear. I am always open to correction and learning.

So when I read articles by people-in-the-know comparing Trump supporters to “a cult” I cannot help but pause a moment and wonder.

The following is in no pre-planned order. It is pretty much stream-of-consciousness stuff. read more »

Searching for Facts Beneath the Propaganda: Syria

James Harkin

It’s taken me a little while but it was worth it. The article is long (about 10,000 words) and after having read it I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any shorter. Anyone who is interested in how news media works, how information is sourced in the age when competing groups and individuals can disseminate their respective viewpoints always backed up with live images of what we are assured is supporting evidence, and how one goes about digging down beneath all these reports and seeks to find out what actually happened and why by visiting the site and talking to witnesses, will find What Happened in Douma? Searching for Facts in the Fog of Syria’s Propaganda War by James Harkin, published in The Intercept, very informative.

I imagine most of us tend to read any news from war zones with a sense of provisionality, of thinking, ‘Well, that’s what we’re hearing now and people are using that news story to justify further involvement in the war, further killing, but who knows how long it will be before the truth ever comes out, if ever.’ James Harkin’s essay certainly reinforces justification for that response to war-time news.

The author’s research was supported by a fellowship at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. Benjamin Decker at the Shorenstein Center’s Information Disorder Lab provided open-source investigative support and Rahaf Safi at Harvard’s Kennedy School contributed research. Other research and translation support was provided by Victor Lutenco of the Kennedy School and Hannah Twomey of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London.