Monthly Archives: May 2019

Another Empty Tomb Story

Someone asked for examples of the ancient literature that contain motifs echoed in the biblical narratives. I’ll post a few, beginning Chariton’s novella Chaereas and Callirhoe. I do not believe that we have any reason to think that there is any genetic relationship between the following extract and the gospels. The similarities arise entirely from a shared cultural and thought world. It appears to me that the evangelists were drawing upon stock literary tropes when they related their respective empty tomb scenarios.

A mourner comes very early in the morning to the tomb where his beloved was placed the evening before. He finds it open. He is fearful and confused. Others come to see but none dare go inside. When the body is found to be missing the first thought of the mourner is that she has been taken up to heaven as a living goddess — as per otherwise unknown variants of the myths of Ariadne and Semele who were made divine after apparently dying. I have highlighted the passages that remind us of the gospel empty tomb narratives. (One of the more interesting details — I think — is that the first to arrive at the tomb do not enter until someone else arrives later and does so. Compare the Gospel of John’s sequence of Peter and the beloved disciple.)

As for the date of Chariton’s work, B. P. Reardon (whose translation I am copying) thinks it belongs to the mid first century CE.

Chariton’s employer may possibly have been a known figure of the early second century A.D., but Chariton’s style suggests a rather earlier date for his work: he does not “atticize,” that is write in the archaizing Greek fashionable from the late first century A.D. onward, and was an ambitious enough writer to have done so had he lived in that period. But style is an unreliable criterion, and Chariton has been placed as early as the first century B.C. My own guess at his date is about the middle of the first century A.D. The geographical and social background of one of the story’s main locations, the region of Miletus, certainly seems to fit that area of Asia Minor in the early Roman Empire. (pp. 17f)

Here is the passage. It is from Book 3, Section 3 of the work:

The tomb robbers had been careless in closing the tomb — it was at night, and they were in a hurry. At the crack of dawn Chaereas turned up at the tomb, ostensibly to offer wreaths and libations, but in fact with the intention of doing away with himself; he could not bear being separated from Callirhoe and thought that death was the only thing that would cure his grief. When he reached the tomb, he found that the stones had been moved and the entrance was open. He was astonished at the sight and overcome by fearful perplexity at what had happened. Rumor—a swift messenger—told the Syracusans this amazing news. They all quickly crowded round the tomb, but no one dared go inside until Hermocrates gave an order to do so. The man who was sent in reported the whole situation accurately. It seemed incredible that even the corpse was not lying there. Then Chaereas himself determined to go in, in his desire to see Callirhoe again even dead; but though he hunted through the tomb, he could find nothing. Many people could not believe it and went in after him. They were all seized by helplessness. One of those standing there said, “The funeral offerings have been carried off — it is tomb robbers who have done that; but what about the corpse — where is it?” Many different suggestions circulated in the crowd. Chaereas looked towards the heavens, stretched up his arms, and cried: “Which of the gods is it, then, who has become my rival in love and carried off Callirhoe and is now keeping her with him — against her will, constrained by a more powerful destiny? That is why she died suddenly — so that she would not realize what was happening. That is how Dionysus took Ariadne from Theseus, how Zeus took Semele. It looks as if I had a goddess for a wife without knowing it, someone above my station. But she should not have left the world so quickly, even for such a reason. Thetis was a goddess, but she stayed with Peleus, and he had a son by her; I have been abandoned at the very height of my love. What is to happen to me? What is to become of me, poor wretch? Should I do away with myself? And who would share my grave? I did have this much to look forward to, in my misfortune — that if I could not continue to share Callirhoe’s bed, I should come to share her grave. My lady! I offer my justification for living — you force me to live, because I shall look for you on land and sea, and in the very sky if I can reach there! This I beg of you, my dear — do not flee from me!” At this the crowd broke out in lamentation; everyone began to lament for Callirhoe as though she had just died. (pp. 53f)

Chariton. 1989. “Chaereas and Callirhoe.” In Collected Ancient Greek Novels, translated by Bryan P. Reardon, 17–124. Berkeley: University of California Press.

For those curious about the story, Chaereas had kicked his betrothed, the goddess-like Callirhoe to death (or so he and everyone else thought), but the author clearly expects readers to sympathize with him because he did so sincerely believing (although falsely) that he had a good reason to be angry with her. How times and values change! However, Callirhoe had only been winded and recovered in the cool of the tomb. When tomb robbing pirates found her alive when they broke into the tomb they took her to sell her as a slave.

Do Parallels Only Work in One Direction?

Daphnis and Chloe

I found the following slightly amusing:

I was really struck by the article in Bible History Daily about how the story of Daphnis and Chloe echoes the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. Here’s an excerpt:

Written around 200 A.D. by the Greco-Roman author Longus, Daphnis and Chloe is a pagan pastoral romance that echoes the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Daphnis and Chloe are simple country-dwelling teenagers in love. They are the adopted children of pastoralists indentured to a far off Master. In a meadow where the couple often meet, there is an apple tree, completely bare except for one large and sweet apple hanging from the topmost twig. Daphnis climbs the tree and picks it for Chloe, to her dismay. Daphnis justifies himself, saying that if he did not pluck it, the apple would fall to the earth and be trampled by a beast or poisoned by a snake.

In spite of some variations, all the principal elements of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve are included in Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe. There are male and female counterparts, the tree and the fruit in the Edenic setting and even an ominous mention of a snake. It is likely that Longus knew some version of the Genesis story, whether by first or second hand. As Theodore Feder writes, Daphnis and Chloe is an example of how “stories of the Jews and early Christians were becoming part of the general cultural inventory of the time.”

Bringing Ravel . . . (my bolding throughout)

An Edenic setting, of course, for this biblical scholar, not a “pastoral setting” as any classicist would recognize. See previous posts where the Daphnis and Chloe novel has been discussed or referenced. (No-one should be allowed to read the Bible until they first read the ancient Greco-Roman literature, including what are technically called the “erotic novellas” — really just short love stories. Be prepared for lots of preparation for biblical motifs, like discovering baffling empty tombs, apparent resurrections, even heroes surviving crucifixions, and all sorts of other “miraculous” things.)

Read, now, the context of that scene about the apple and the serpent. I quote just one page of an almost 60 page story: read more »

Robert Price and Christopher Hansen Discussion

Thanks to the emailer who brought me up to date with what’s happening elsewhere on the web, in particular a youtube discussion between Robert M. Price and Christopher Hansen about Christian origins, or more specifically the question of Jesus’ historicity.

Some points I particularly liked:

References to works against and for the concept of dying and rising gods in the ancient world, with special focus on Weber’s explanation of an “ideal type” (addressed by Price, as many readers will know) — that’s a concept I have had lined up for a post here so with the prod from this discussion I must make that post soon. I have also often wanted to post on Jonathan Z. Smith’s books. (I don’t recall off-hand if I have yet done so on Trygge Mettinger’s Riddle of Resurrection.)

Another comment worth registering: nothing should be dismissed out of hand by anyone sincerely interested in scholarly inquiry. It is too easy to say Arthur Drews should be dismissed because so many books “debunking” his views have been published; what a scholar should do is always address an argument in his own terms, seriously, not dismissively.

Price cannot hold back from injecting his political views from time to time, but at least he does so with humour and we have to indulge him (hoo boy!). One has to sympathize with his agony when he points out the (one would think) obvious evidence that the pagan concepts of dying and rising gods preceded Christianity yet finding that some scholars seriously contemplate the possibility that Christianity was the influence that these religions copied in late(r) antiquity.

One little detail mentioned in passing by Price was a reference to a scholar (not Charles Guignebert) who said that a historical Jesus would not likely have been named Jesus. If anyone does hear that detail I would welcome a note in the comments on his name. I have posted Guignebert’s argument on the same point and would like to know how the two compare.

That moment was part of a discussion on whether or not we could call a figure a “historical Jesus” if he was so much at variance with our concept of Jesus. (That discussion reminds me of a colleague at the Singapore National Library Board who used to raise the question of the relationship of technology to copyright and identity by pointing out that Cindy Crawford has a beauty mark on her left cheek, but if we reverse her photo it will appear on her right cheek: deep philosophical question coming up — is that reversed image really that of Cindy Crawford given that CC’s mark is on her left, not right, cheek?


Another question that comes up in the discussion: what literature in the “pagan world” is comparable to the gospels insofar as it treats a historical character in mythical terms? An example of Augustus Caesar was given, also Vespasian. I think that that answer left something to be desired. The gospels can arguably be sourced from nonhistorical narratives and are clearly mythical (or some scholars would prefer to say “christological”) in their presentation of Jesus; accounts of Roman emperors are clearly derived from historical events and the mythical additions are generally noted as such, or with some reservation usually being expressed by the historian/biographer.

Christopher Hansen says he is a “historicist”, currently accepts that there was a historical Jesus who was a distinctive personality (how can one “do anything” with a very ordinary person?) who did claim to be god (I hope I have recalled that correctly). Similarly he thinks there was a historical Gilgamesh, and a Trojan War behind the Iliad. I can’t see those arguments, myself. Much good fiction (including ancient novellas) is placed in real settings and includes some introduction of historical persons. (I mean, there may have been a historical Jesus, Gilgamesh, Trojan War between Agamemnon and Priam, — but if so, we can never know.)

Anyway, those are some of the details that came to my mind reflecting back on the discussion.

One thing I appreciated was being alerted to some books I have not yet read and have now put on my wish list.

One piece of good news came up — Acharya S’s book The Christ Conspiracy is apparently being re-written (at her request) with Bob Price’s involvement to be a more scholarly presentation.

I am a little perplexed by Price’s leaning to the possibility that “the Romans” invented Christianity to somehow help pacify messianic Jews. I will have to read the book he mentioned (Creating Christ by Valiant and Fahy) with Brandon’s in mind to see what lies behind his thinking. I can understand Judeans elites “inventing” a form of “Judaism”  under the Persians since Thomas L. Thompson has pointed out that such religious innovations were a practice in those time to persuade people who had been resettled that they were there at a god’s bidding. But we have a very different sort of situation in the wake of the two Jewish wars against Rome. Something I need to read more about before further comment.

Price once again mentioned his personal friendship with Gregory Boyd, co-author of The Jesus Legend. Price has mentioned that relationship before and it pulled me up because some years ago I wrote a very judgmental review of Boyd’s (and Eddy’s) approach to the question of interpolation in 1 Thessalonians 2:16. Price’s comment reminded me that we are addressing our fellow human beings and it pays to treat them with respect and not get carried away with the quasi-anonymity or distance set up by the internet.




Warning to Lone Researchers Challenging Mainstream Scholarship

Many readers by now have surely heard of the embarrassment that has fallen upon Naomi Wolf just prior to the release of her new book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, in which she claimed historians of Victorian Britain have misread or overlooked the evidence of numerous instances of capital punishment being administered for the crime of sodomy.

Wolf based her view that dozens were executed for sodomy on her reading of court records that used the term “death recorded”. She had assumed that the words meant that the death penalty had been carried out. She learned, however, in a radio interview that the term was in fact legalese that indicated that the death penalty was most likely commuted or suspended. According to an article in The Guardian,

The historian Richard Ward agreed, adding that the term was a legal device first introduced in 1823. “It empowered the trial judge to abstain from formally pronouncing a sentence of death upon a capital convict in cases where the judge intended to recommend the offender for a pardon from the death sentence. In the vast majority (almost certainly all) of the cases marked ‘death recorded’, the offender would not have been executed.”

As we read in The American Conservative‘s discussion of this fiasco, it is natural for anyone to assume that “death recorded” means, well, someone’s actual death was recorded. But it is another thing to assume that all other historians who have presumably looked at the evidence have been wrong or negligent in some way. As an outsider it would be far wiser to take up the question, the apparent dissonance between what seems like conclusive evidence in the archival record on the one hand, and historians’ claims about Victorian justice and legal practice on the other, … to take up the question of that dissonance with the historians themselves. Don’t just assume they are all miscreants or incompetent.

Recall another lone historian taking on the professional establishment, , David Irving, who claimed that Holocaust historians got far more wrong than they should have:

Expressing Irving’s opinion, Evans writes

Historians were inveterately lazy. “A lot of us, when we see something in handwriting, well, we hurriedly flip to another folder where its all neatly typed out. … But I’ve trained myself to take the line of most resistance and I go for the handwriting.” Most historians, he averred, only quoted each other when it came to Hitler’s alleged part in the extermination of the Jews. “For thirty years our knowledge of Hitler’s part in the atrocity had rested on inter-historian incest.” Thus Irving contemptuously almost never cited, discussed, or used the work of other historians in his own books. Irving was evidently very proud of his personal collection of thousands of documents and index cards on the history of the Third Reich.

The point to notice that I added was this:

In other words, Irving was not engaging with the scholarship of his peers (as in the sense of fellow-historians). That’s worth placing on a sticky note and keeping it in a prominent place for future reference.

A perusal of the articles about Naomi Wolf suggests to me that she is not at all like David Irving who remained stubborn to the end, but rather that she has been willing to accept the correction pointed out to her.

Posts that I have perused and that you may find of interest:

The point is clear: pause and ask questions when you find something in the sources that appears to undermine the views of mainstream scholarship. They may be wrong, yes, but at least remove the possibility that it is you who is wrong before you point the finger and claim to have discovered “The Truth” that others have supposedly denied.


Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 1. Hermeneutical Impasse

Continuing from New French Mythicist Book . . . We see how the author, a philosopher, begins her journey with the philosophical tradition’s relationship with the Bible.

Recall that Nanine Charbonnel is a philosopher of hermeneutics. Her opening chapter offers us her distinctive contribution to the question implied by the title of the book. It is headed Philosophy and the Old Testament: The Hermeneutical Impasse.

Nanine Charbonnel begins by asking what relevance French philosophy has to the Bible. Her answer in brief: the Bible has been treated as holy writ or it is avoided entirely.

Qu’est-ce que la philosophie française d’aujourd’hui fait de la Bible ? C’est le règne du tout ou rien : elle est Écriture sainte, ou bien à éviter.

Some devout philosophers have applied their analytical skills to the Bible in the service of their faith. The Old Testament has been mined for gems that can be interpreted — that is, rationalized – as base-lines of our moral consciousness. Those verses declaring humanity’s creation in God’s image and God identifying himself as the essence of being (“I am that I am”) have been treated as promising starting points.

Prominent philosophers (Kierkegaard, Hegel . . .)  have regularly alluded to biblical heroes (Abraham, David, Job . . .) as various exemplars of morality.

Charbonnel addresses the contributions of key figures.



Kant, a philosophical pillar to whom modern thought is still indebted, humbly removed himself from any ability to subject Scripture to mere reason. It was, nonetheless, important for Kant to demonstrate that the Bible made sense in the world of what was accepted as truly moral and rational. To achieve this he reversed the traditional interpretative approach that began with the belief in the divine infallibility of the text and then following its dictates literally, and instead applied the following hermeneutic principle:

morality must not be interpreted according to the Bible, but the Bible according to morality. In the example of [Psalm 59, calling for vengeance], Kant proposes two solutions: either to find a figurative moral sense, or to find a specific political meaning, in this case the politics of God. (Charbonnel, p. 20, translation)



The French philosopher Rousseau turned his back on the Bible and promoted Nature itself as the divine scriptures that could teach us all that was good for us. The Bible, like any other book, was for Rousseau a corrupted human creation.

So I closed all the books. There is only one open to all eyes, it is that of nature. It is in this great and sublime book that I learn to serve and worship his divine author. No one is excusable for not reading, because he speaks to all men a language intelligible to all minds. (Translation of Charbonnel’s citation of Rousseau, Émile.)



Spinoza courageously accepted the view that Moses did not write the Pentateuch but that the laws had been composed specifically for a Persian era Judean state. Scripture’s value was to be found in its moral guidance only. Further, as a divine revelation from God insofar as it taught the highest godly morality, for Spinoza it was also evident that anything from God could not violate the basic laws of reason. Joshua’s long day, therefore, was not a literal miracle of the sun standing still, but an illusion caused by some atmospheric disturbance, ice suspensions, or such, causing an unusual refraction of light. (Spinoza was being especially clever in using this particular miracle to rationalize because only thirty years earlier Galileo had been condemned for contradicting the Bible by saying the sun did not move!) Spinoza’s rationalization is summarized in his words

We can therefore conclude that all that Scripture presents as having really happened has necessarily occurred according to the laws of nature, as everything that happens; and if there is any fact of which we can apodictically prove that it contradicts the laws of nature or has not been produced by them, we must fully believe that it is an addition made to sacred books by sacrilegious men. . . (Translation of Charbonnel’s citation of Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise.)

read more »

The Question of Historicity Need Not Be Raised

The question whether Orpheus himself existed or not need not be raised. There was, in general, no doubt of it in the ancient world. Indeed, it makes very little difference in the history of human thought whether the great and influential personalities ever actually lived in human bodies. Personalities like Zeus, Odysseus, and Zoroaster, and even Hamlet and Don Quixote, have been more important in the world than millions of men who have lived and died. Their reality is the reality of an idea, and the best that we can know about them is what men have thought about them. The reality of Orpheus is to be sought in what men thought and said about him. 
Linforth, Ivan M. 1973 (c 1941). The Arts of Orpheus. New York: Arno Press. xiif
Death of Orpheus (1494) by Dürer

Midrash and the Gospels, Conclusion

We saw in the previous post through Philip Alexander’s description of midrash that the term really only applies to early rabbinic exegesis of the Scriptures. The purpose of midrash was to tie oral tradition to certain scriptural texts and to make the tie to those texts explicit. Accordingly, the rewriting of biblical stories — whether the Chronicler’s rewriting of the books of Kings or gospel allusions to Old Testament passages — can scarcely be classified as midrash.

So I am not impressed when I see scholars lumping together as ‘midrash’ texts as diverse as Chronicles, the Testaments of the XII Patriarchs, Enoch, Jubilees, Philo, Josephus, the LXX and the Targumim, the Qumran Pesharim, the Genesis Apocryphon, and the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael. The only effect of such total lack of discrimination is to evacuate midrash of any real meaning: midrash becomes simply a fancy word for ‘Bible interpretation’. (Alexander, pp. 11f)

Further, the term is not helpful when applied to the gospels, in Alexander’s view:

If our definition of midrash becomes too attenuated, then in using the term we may not, in fact, be saying anything new: we may simply be telling the reader that what lies before him is a specimen of early Jewish Bible interpretation—which may be crashingly self-evident! If midrash means no more than ‘Bible interpretation’, then it would be advisable to drop the term. And if we insist on using it so broadly then we shall have to consider subdividing the category, and speaking of Rabbinic midrash, Qumranic midrash, Philonic midrash, apocalyptic midrash and so on. The study of the subject can only be advanced through refinement. I certainly perceive important differences between Rabbinic Bible exegesis and that of Philo, or of the Dead Sea Sect. The way forward lies in trying to define these distinctive styles of Bible interpretation, rather than in treating them as an undifferentiated mass. (p. 12)

We began this discussion with Michael Goulder’s influence on John Shelby Spong. Spong for a time described the gospels as midrash and acknowledged Goulder as his mentor in this respect:

I remember my joy when I came to the conclusion that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was a midrashic creation, with his name stemming from the fact that John had been identified with the prophet Malachi, whose immediate predecessor in the Bible was the prophet, Zechariah. So John’s immediate predecessor was called Zechariah. I remember even better Michael [Goulder]’s amusement and his twinkling smile when he showed me that he had not only come to, but written about, this possibility years before it even dawned on me to explore the issue. (Spong, xiii)

We saw that Spong chose to use the term midrashic rather than midrash but that Goulder eschewed the word entirely as a description of the way the evangelists composed their accounts of Jesus. Goulder had even used midrash to account for the way Matthew was a re-write of Mark. Alexander points out how unsupportable is that classification:

  1. Midrash is generally performed on a canonical text and the canonical text is left standing firm and uncompromised. But Matthew frequently changed Mark’s text and changing the source text was not the way of midrash. Midrash was also expected to stand alongside the canonical text, not to replace it. Yet it appears that Matthew was written not to be read alongside Mark but to replace Mark.
  2. Goulder understood Matthew as creatively adding to or modifying Mark’s text. Midrash, on the other hand, hewed closely to exegetical traditions and authorities and dialogue with other masters. It was not a free-for-all creative exercise.
  3. Alexander further alerts readers to other “more obvious parallels” in rabbinic literature to the gospels than midrash.
    • Rabbinic literature has also a synoptic problem. This exists at the level of short, individual aggadot (cf. the four versions of Rabbi Eleazar’s Merkavah sermon), and at the level of extensive ‘literary’ compositions (cf. the problem of the relationship between Mishnah and Tosefta, between the Gemarot of the Bavli and the Yerushalmi, between the various recensions of the Palestinian Targum). Why does Goulder say nothing about the Rabbinic synoptic problem? Since most of Matthew’s ‘alterations’ of Mark can be paralleled just as easily in the synoptic Rabbinic texts as in midrash, it is surely fair to ask him why he talks only about midrash. . . . There is a host of questions regarding the Rabbinic material which Goulder has simply not considered. . . . [T]he Rabbinic texts are bedevilled by exactly the same difficulties as have proved so intractable in the study of the Gospels. (Alexander, 14f)


Alexander, Philip S. 1984. “Midrash and the Gospels.” In Synoptic Studies: The Ampleforth Conferences of 1982 and 1983, edited by Christopher M. Tuckett, 1–18. Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT Press.

Spong, John Shelby. 1997. Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne.

Missing post content: Do any long-time readers have it?

I have lost images from a number of older posts, including this one, Merry Midrash from 2012:

We had problems with software I once used in connection with uploading images and too many images have simply disappeared altogether, it seems. With the post in above most of them are even missing from the Wayback Machine ( — which only captured the post once, in 2015, presumably after images were lost.

I know some blog readers have copied older posts. If anyone reading this happens to have a copy of I’d very much welcome being sent the images again.

With thanks once again,


Meaning of Midrash (Are the Gospels Midrash?)

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

We know that the gospels contain many stories that are based on Old Testament narratives. Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter is clearly developed on similar miracles by Elijah and Elisha; Jesus stilling the storm has rewoven core elements of the story of Jonah; the miraculous birth of Jesus finds its mirror opposites in the miraculous births of patriarchs and judges. Frequently we find New Testament scholars describing this building of stories upon earlier “biblical” accounts to be a special form of Jewish composition called midrash. The term comes with some controversy, however, and it can be helpful if we understand what it means to different people if our intention is to communicate as smoothly and agreeably as possible.

I first became aware that its meaning and usage was not so straightforward in a discussion forum back in 2000 when Mark Goodacre pointed out to his colleagues the following:

Spong should indeed be expected to observe correct scholarly definitions of the term midrash.

(1) Spong is (explicitly) dependent on the work of Michael Goulder who in 1989 had withdrawn his previous usage of the term “midrash” to describe the creative work of the evangelists (see my previous message for bibliographical information). This was as a direct result of Philip Alexander’s critique.

(2) About eight years ago I went to a paper Spong gave in Oxford at which he repeatedly used the term “midrash” to describe Matthew’s creative work in the birth narrative. It was pointed out to him publicly that his use of the term was inaccurate and that his source for the usage, Michael Goulder, had withdrawn it.

(Goodacre, XTalk, 5207)

So Michael Goulder introduced the term to John Shelby Spong but subsequently stopped using the term as a result of a criticism by Philip Alexander. I will return to his criticism that influenced Goulder.

Spong was not as completely tone-deaf to all voices, however, since he did explain afterwards that he himself had decided to at least change the way he used the word:

I became convinced that I wanted to write my next book on the Jewishness of the Gospels. . . . . My first working title of this new book was The Gospels as Midrash. My editor at HarperCollins, however, discouraged that title for two reasons:

  • First, midrash is not a familiar word  to the general reader, he said,
  • and second, Jewish people use the term midrash in a very strict and limited sense, which was quite different from the way I was using the term.

I had seen that reaction in my closest rabbi friend, Jack Daniel Spiro, the first time I used the term in a public lecture that he attended. I do not ever want to be offensive to my fellow pilgrims within the Jewish tradition, so in this book I have used the word midrash only as the modifying adjective, midrashic, both to indicate the broadness of the way I am employing this concept and also to leave the word midrash to its special Jewish understanding.

(Spong, p. xi)

In Edwin C. Goldberg’s Midrash for Beginners we read at the outset

Suffice it to say that there are two general meanings of the term “midrash”: 

  1. It can refer to a process of interpreting Scripture. According to this definition, any comment which is directly or indirectly related to the Bible is midrashic. (There are even those who claim the term for the general process of commenting on any text.)
  2. The term can also refer to a specific body of classical rabbinic commentary on the Bible, edited from approximately the year 200 of the Common Era (C.E.) to the ninth century. For instance, one can go to a well-stocked Jewish library and find in English translation such works as the Midrash to the Book of Genesis. 

(Goldberg, pp. xif)

Note the first meaning brings us back to Spong’s use of the word form “midrashic”. We might wonder, though, if that first meaning is rather too broad. Why not just speak of “interpretation” or “literary borrowing” instead of “midrash”?

We find a similar question arising with the Encyclopedia of Midrash. In the second volume we find an article New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash by R. M. Price. Price views the gospels as a special form of midrash, haggadic midrash:

The line is thin between extrapolating new meanings from ancient scriptures (borrowing the authority of the old) and actually composing new scripture (or quasi-scripture) by extrapolating from the old. By this process of midrashic expansion grew the Jewish haggadah, new narrative commenting on old (scriptural) narrative by rewriting it. Haggadah is a species of hypertext, and thus it cannot be fully understood without reference to the underlying text on which it forms a kind of commentary. The earliest Christians being Jews, it is no surprise that they similarly practiced haggadic expansion of scripture, resulting in new narratives partaking of the authority of the old. The New Testament gospels and the Acts of the Apostles can be shown to be Christian haggadah upon Jewish scripture, and these narratives can be neither fully understood nor fully appreciated without tracing them to their underlying sources, the object of the present article.

(Encyclopedia, p. 534)

That article follows directly upon another by Gary Porton, Midrash, Definitions of. The opening definition that I quote here clearly excludes the gospels as a form of midrash. With my emphasis… read more »

New French Mythicist Book

My routine was interrupted this week with the arrival of a new book in the mail, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier by Nanine Charbonnel. Nanine Charbonnel is an emeritus professor of philosophy who describes herself as a specialist in hermeneutics. The publisher of her new book has given prominence to the fact that it contains a preface by Thomas Römer.

I once posted on another French philosopher who contributed articles and books presenting a case that Jesus originated as a mythical figure, Paul Louis Couchoud, and would like to do the same for Nanine Charbonnel. Unfortunately, my high school and one year of undergraduate French is very rusty indeed and I rely heavily on machine translation as my first foray into what lies before me. Expect me to appeal to readers more fluent in French to help out from time to time.

I think I can post a machine translation (with minor corrections, added fluencies and clarifications from me) of Römer’s preface without infringing copyright. I have changed the formatting (paragraphing, highlighting) totally, though:

This book which will surprise and undoubtedly also disturb many readers could also have been entitled “The Invention of Jesus”. Its author, Nanine Charbonnel, professor of philosophy breaks a taboo that has existed for more than a century in academic research on Jesus of Nazareth, the origins of Christianity and the New Testament.

From the beginning of the so-called “historico-critical” exegesis arises the question of the “historical Jesus”. His virgin birth, his encounter with the devil at the beginning of his activity, his miracles, even his resurrection of the dead, are understood by the Rationalists as mythical reinterpretations of a human figure.

  • Thus, Ernest Renan, in his inaugural lecture at the College de France, spoke of “the man Jesus” who “reached the highest religious level that ever before man attained” was “deified” after his death (OEuvres Complètes, n, 329-330). In 1862 these words caused a scandal and provoked the temporary dismissal of Renan from his professorship at the College de France.
  • Renan’s statement is part of what is now called “the first quest” of the historical Jesus, which began in the eighteenth century with the posthumous publication of the texts of Hermann Samuel Reimarus by the philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Reimarus highlighted the historical Jesus who never wanted to found a new religion, even the Church, but who was an eschatological preacher. His failure was transformed by his disciples who created the myth of his resurrection and ascension. A distinction was made between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith”, a distinction accepted until today by the totality of university researchers and historians.

At the beginning of the research on the historical Jesus, the question of the proofs of his existence (outside the New Testament texts) was nonetheless posed.

  • In the middle of the nineteenth century, Bruno Bauer argued that Christianity born in the second century was a sort of syncretism combining different religious ideas (Jewish, Greek, Roman). Jesus is not at the origin of this Christianity, but a literary fiction to give this “new religion” a founder.
  • At the beginning of the twentieth century the German philosopher Arthur Drews published a book The Christ Myth, in which he considered the figure of Jesus as the personification of an earlier Christic myth, showing that all the epithets of Jesus were borrowed from mythologies Jewish and Greek.

These theories remained marginal however and, despite the fact that in the 1st and 2nd centuries there are no texts outside the New Testament clearly attesting to the existence of a Jesus of Nazareth, the historicity of such a character is almost no longer questioned.

  • Thus Daniel Marguerat, eminent exegete of the New Testament, says: “the meaning of his deeds and actions, not his existence, is debated today” (p.13, in his Introduction to the edited volume Jesus de Nazareth. Nouvelles approches d’une énigme, Geneva, Labor and Fides, 1998).

According to Nanine Charbonnel, author of this book, this distinction between the historical Jesus and the reinterpretations of his life and death in the Gospels has been detrimental to research. Relying on a “rationalization” of evangelical texts, it has prevented the deep understanding of these texts by questioning them almost exclusively from this idea of ​​a historical core and thus seeking the historical basis of certain pericopes as well as indications of borrowing from Judaism or reinterpretations after the death of Jesus in others. Faced with the affirmation shared by believing scholars and agnostic intellectuals that Jesus is a historical figure of whom we know almost nothing historically, the author of this book proposes to read the New Testament texts from the idea that Jesus Christ would be a “paper figure”. The philosopher’s approach includes a severe critique of hermeneutics, and in particular the current called “hermeneutic phenomenology”.

This book proposes to read the Gospel tales as midrashim, reminding us rightly that it is impossible to read the New Testament texts without locating them in their relation to the Old Testament (in Hebrew and Greek). As a midrash, an exegesis and reinterpretation of earlier texts, evangelical tales set up a theology of fulfillment through narratives, drawing largely on the texts and themes of the Hebrew Bible. Nanine Charbonnel shows it in pedagogical tables indicating the different borrowing and rewriting that can be found behind the tales of the Gospels. She then details the function of the characters appearing in the Gospels, like the twelve apostles, representing the twelve tribes of the new Israel, and Mary, the Jewish people who begets the Messiah. Jesus is the new Adam, the new Moses, the new Elijah and the new Elishah, but also the new Joshua and the incarnation of the “suffering servant”, a messiah who brings together different messianic traits. The Gospels no longer appear as compilations but as creative works repeating and transforming statements in the Hebrew Bible.

To understand the figure of Jesus Christ as a sublime invention of the human mind is the main thesis of this book. It is possible that many readers are reluctant to follow the author in this way. Nevertheless, it is difficult to deny the midrashic character of many pericopes of the Gospels. Everyone will be free to draw conclusions from this midrashic reading which will have the great merit of going beyond the dichotomy between “myth” and “history”.

Charbonnel and Römer

Before I post an outline of Charbonnel’s discussion in her opening chapter I want to address the word “midrash” and how it has been related to the gospels. I don’t believe this will seriously detract from her presentation, or from the theses presented by others who have used the term in similar ways, but I think we should be aware of scholarly differences pertaining to the term whenever we see it.


Bart Ehrman’s Motive

Someone emailed me part of a recent post by Bart Ehrman with a suggestion that I comment. The key paragraph by Ehrman:

I am not saying I have no agendas and no biases. Let me be emphatic. I DO have an agenda and I DO have biases. My agenda is to propagate a scholarly understanding and appreciation of the Bible. And my bias is that a scholarly understanding can NOT be determined by theological dogmas. Scholarship may affect what you choose to believe, theologically. But what you choose to believe, theologically, should not determine the results of your scholarship. That’s my very strong bias. Your historical or literary views should not be pre-determined by your religious beliefs.

I have no doubt that Ehrman’s words are sincere and I believe him. I would suggest, though, that there is something unstated but implied in his words that he also believes and that is part of his professional agenda. His fourth sentence could be rewritten as

My agenda is to propagate a scholarly understanding and appreciation of the Bible — meaning that I wish to propagate a respect for the fundamental methods and assumptions of the mainstream institutional critical scholarly study of the Bible. 

The reason I believe the added words are implied in Ehrman’s statement is that he does not afford the same respect for the declaration of the motives of those who question the most fundamental assumptions from which critical biblical studies operates.

I should add that there is nothing wrong with wishing to propagate respect for one’s standard methods and assumptions, but respect is professionally attained with one allows them to be addressed in open critical inquiry without resort to personal attacks and character denigration. We have a right to expect scholars in fields most clearly associated with ideologies — the arts and humanities, and theology — would be the more humble with the realization of how entrenched ideologies have unwittingly led their fields into unscholarly agendas in the past.

(It would be unfair for anyone opposed to critical scholarship of the Bible to latch on to an extreme or ignorant remark by a fundamentalist critic who was also opposed to some point made by serious scholars in order to add ammunition to his critical case. Yet we find some biblical scholars, including Ehrman, pointing to some of the more nonsensical claims of some few outlier mythicists and painting the entire mythicist enterprise with that brush.)

We return once more the unscholarly treatment of critical scholars  (how much worse are those outside the fold treated) who question the foundations of a project:



Plea for Patience

No doubt readers of Vridar are the most patient in the world but nonetheless I would like to say that I fully realize I am some quite few days behind catching up with comments and emails. Be sure I will do my best to respond before too long.

Understanding that we, the readers, are part of the story

I have a weakness for watching murder mysteries on Sunday night TV. I have long learned to identify the most innocent looking character whom we cannot imagine possibly being involved in the crime being eventually discovered to be the villain of the show, but that’s not being clever. It’s just a matter of knowing how often the stories turn out that way. What I find myself doing, sometimes, is replaying the early part of an episode online to see what it was I missed, or how the creators manipulated me into misinterpreting little details early on. In hindsight I can see how they can be interpreted so differently.

What I am learning by this is that the real story is not happening on the screen, but it is happening between the creator, me, and the screen. The writers or directors are playing with my mind and emotions. The creators are using the screen to perform illusionist tricks like a magician. They are deflecting my attention in ways they control in order to make me marvel at the end how clever they were to pull the rabbit out of the hat or whatever.

I can rarely discover the trick in a TV murder mystery plot any more than I can discover the magician’s trick merely by watching the performance.

And this game between creator and audience is a fact of all writing. (Including what I am doing right now.) Not only writing, but all verbal communication.

Speakers, authors, normally count on their audience to follow the content of their message without, as a rule, being distracted by who is saying it, the techniques they are using, and how it is that they are guiding the audience to respond in a certain way to the content. Usually the speaker or writer will begin by winning the confidence of the audience by appearing to take them into their confidence or declaring their institutional authority of some kind. Once that is done (and understand that that process is also part of the game or play with the audience) the audience becomes immersed in the world of the story or news report.

When we share what we have seen or heard with others we will generally repeat the story we have heard. We are less likely to remind them or even ourselves of how the presenter led us into the story world in the first place.

I was reminded of all of the above the other day when I came across a couple of lines by Martin Dibelius (Studies in the Acts of the Apostles) reminding his readers that New Testament scholars too often have delved straight into examination of the stories in Acts and the gospels as if they are historical, or at least to ask if they could be historical, without first and foremost stepping back and examining the way the author has told the stories. What was the author doing vis a vis the reader by presenting the story itself and by presenting it with the details he selected and in the way he did?

There are more important and significant messages bombarding us than biblical studies, of course, and there those questions are obviously more important.

It took me some years to learn to try to avoid saying, “I heard that such and such happened….” and to say, rather, something like, “I heard from so and so at this or that place  that such and such happened …. ” The latter takes a little more effort, but it is safer ground, as many of us have come to learn.


I Wish I Could Understand Australia Better

I am an Australian but I think that makes it harder for me to understand Australia in some ways, especially the weekend’s depressing election results. Perhaps that’s because what I would like to see obscures my view of the reality.

Scott Morrison, a Pentecostal churchgoer who attributed his election victory to a miracle, is once again Australia’s Prime Minister — after winning an election that broke the standard rules of the game. His Liberal-National coalition was meant to be thrashed at the polls after all sorts of not very secret political power plays that saw ugly challenges and changes of party leadership prior to the election.

The good news:

Tony Abbott, ex-Prime Minister, eater of raw onions with skin, Catholic, anti-abortion, a climate change denier who becomes a climate change believer when he sees his support base waning, and back-stabber and leaker-of-dirt-on-colleagues-to-the-press-in-chief, lost his seat and is finally out of Parliament for good.

The bad news:

Peter Dutton, an alt-right type racist and all-round bigot who was the one Abbott and others in the Liberal National coalition hoped would be the new Prime Minister could not be unseated despite massive campaigns from all sorts of movements and notable persons to target him in his electorate.

Following on from the entrenched support for Dutton we have further alt-right type persons, racists, fear-mongerers, — Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer — giving their preferences votes to Scott Morrison’s party and handing him a secure and unexpected sweeping victory in north Queensland. That is despite Pauline Hansons’s party being caught out in a sting operation by Al Jazeera journalists approaching the U.S.’s National Rifle Association for donations and Clive Palmer being such an obviously dishonest jerk going all out to imitate Donald Trump’s worst attributes. (Palmer cheated workers of wages when one of his mining businesses collapsed and promised to “repay” them just on the eve of the election — surely such an obvious con no-one could possibly take him seriously.

But surely racism and fear of job losses as a result of environmental priorities is not the whole story. Those states of mind are always going to be with us.

On the other side, I find myself despairing of public “debates” and interviews. Political leaders now have the art of evading direct answers to questions down to a fine art. Scott Morrison doesn’t use the term “fake news” but he does regularly speak of the “Canberra bubble” to dismiss any serious questions. Same thing, just an Australian branding.

Yet the “serious” interviewers don’t do seriously informative interviews. They play the game of asking questions from the opposing party’s point of view. They don’t stand back and challenge the respective parties from the perspective of the broader public. Interviewing a Liberal politician they challenge them with Labor Party points; and vice versa and so on. It’s all removed from the real world.

Except for the shock-jocks — who play the anti-immigrant and fear cards.

And the shock-jocks and the mainstream interviewers are earning fortunes to do their work of trying to score political points and win audience ratings. And meanwhile both major parties are dancing and dining comfortably with big business and careful not to upset the media giants.

It’s all out of touch with reality — at least the reality of the root drivers of the forces shaping the worlds of most of us.

Democracy and political debates is primarily about media management and media images. And that gives the victory to the cleverest or luckiest and/or richest manipulator.

There’s something ugly happening here and we’re waiting for something positive to return to the play. That’s how it seems to me. I wish I could understand it more clearly.