All posts reviewing Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture are archived at Vette : Writing With Scripture
I have come to a turning point in my reading and review of Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture. I first learned of the book on the Biblical Criticism & History Forum where a member described it as “amazing. A real game changer” — How could I not read it! What I was expecting was a theoretical analysis of how the author of the Gospel of Mark used Scripture to construct his narrative. It was with that optimism that I approached the book. After my first reading I thought I might have read too quickly and that I would see more with a slower re-reading as I wrote about it for this blog. But after having now arrived at what I think can be described as the beginning of the work’s most critical section, subtitled The Jewish scriptures in the Passion Narrative, and having re-read it several times, marking it, following up the footnotes, and trying to digest it as best I can, I have to conclude several things that fall within four categories:
1. I am not part of the reading audience the author had in mind;
2. The work is written primarily for New Testament scholars and informed lay “liberal” believers in the Bible;
3. The thesis advanced affirms that scripturally allusive passages in the Gospel of Mark “seem to have been triggered by some genuine aspect of Jesus’ career” and similar types of passages in the Passion Narrative likewise have some “traditional or historical sources” behind them – however uncertain we inevitably remain about the exact nature and extent of those sources.
4. The work conforms to the assumptions and methods embedded within mainstream biblical studies, a point I have difficulty with because, as I have demonstrated repeatedly by reference to other historians and philosophers of history, these assumptions and methods are at odds with much of the way historical work outside biblical studies is undertaken. Despite that difference, and when not engaged in apologetics disguised as scholarship, New Testament scholars do often produce works of informative insight and value.
I have also said that Nathanael Vette [NV] raises many issues that invite discussion and debate. And who can complain about that! So let’s continue.
The Passion Narrative is so rich in Scriptural allusion in each of the canonical Gospels and even in the extra-canonical Gospel of Peter, so the question arises: Has it been created from Scripture — is “prophecy historicized”? Or is it history that was retold in Scriptural language – “history remembered”? Or is that dichotomy too simplistic? Is it more useful to work with Mark Goodacre’s concept of “history scripturalized”? That is the question NV takes up — so it would seem — at Mark Goodacre’s invitation when he (Goodacre) wrote:
It is a tribute to Gospel scholarship of recent times that it has so stressed the role played by the Old Testament in the formation of the New. Monograph after monograph appears on the topic, conferences are held which centre on this topic alone, and it is now rightly perceived to be quite impossible to understand the New Testament without intimate knowledge of the Old. And yet in spite of the sheer volume of studies on this all important topic, it is surprising to see how often the function of the Old Testament in the New is simply taken for granted, as if it is self evident to any intelligent reader. But one of the elements that requires an explanation is the variation in the usage of the Scriptures at different points in the Gospel narratives. (Goodacre, Scripturalization, [unpaged: see https://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/handle/10161/3171] Bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations)
NV has answered that call with Writing With Scripture [WWS].
Commenting on all of the examples covered so far in WWS of how Second Temple authors utilized Scripture, NV sets forth the following fundamental point of his argument:
158. The stories of Kenaz and the stones (LAB 25-26) and Zebul (LAB 29) can also be included here.
In the examples surveyed so far, only one appears to have been composed entirely out of scriptural elements, with no recourse to traditional or historical sources: Kenaz’s Gideon-inspired defeat of the Amorites (LAB 27).158 [see part 2] In the other examples, scripturalization takes place in relation to some pre-existing material. This includes
— the scripturalization of a primary scriptural narrative with secondary scriptural material (Gen. 13-15 in IQapGen 11; cf. Gen. 9:1-7) [see part 3],
— scripturalized narratives composed on the basis of an exegetical tradition (Dan. 3 in LAB 6 and 38; cf. Gen. 15:7 and Judg. 10:5) [see part 7],
— scripturalization of an episode in the career of a historical person (Deut. 2:26-36 and 20:10-14 in 1 Macc. 5:45-51) [see part 3]
— and the scripturalization of a legend derived from the scriptural text (LXX Job 1-2 in T. Ab. A 1-15 [see part 4]; cf. Gen. 18:1-15).
— Even the non-historical figure of Judith was not composed entirely out of Jael in Judges 4—5 (or Deborah or Miriam) [see part 4]; rather, the scripturalization occurs within a much larger pseudo-historical narrative.
In each of these examples, something existed prior to scripturalization. The scripturalized narrative of IQapGen 11, for example, preserves much of Gen. 9:1-4, whilst incorporating material from Gen. 13:7, 15:1 and 26:24 [see part 3]. In the two fiery furnace narratives (LAB 6; 38), the episodes have been spun out of a single word in the primary scripture (אור in Gen. 15:7; קמון in Judg. 10:5) [see part 2]. The scripturalized account of Judas’ siege of Ephron (1 Macc. 5:45-51), which is told in the language of Moses’ defeat of Sihon and the laws of ḥērem, may result from little more than a faint knowledge of a military altercation at an obscure village [see part 3]. But there is still something of history to the episode, or at least to the military campaign described in 1 Maccabees 3-5. (NV, 159f – italics belong to the original; formatting is mine)
NV drives the point home in his next paragraph:
159. As Allison, Constructing Jesus, 387—433; pace Crossan, The Birth of Christianity, 521.
Turning to Mark, the scripturalized narratives surveyed thus far seem to have a similarly tenuous connection to historical memory, but nevertheless seem to have been triggered by some genuine aspect of Jesus’ career – his reputation as a teacher with disciples (Mk 1:12-20) or as a miracle-worker(6:35-44; 8:1-9) – as well as the sordid details surrounding John’s death (6:21-28). One might expect a similar interaction between pre-existing tradition and scriptural material in the Passion Narrative of Mark 14—15. . . . Take away the scriptural material from Mark 14-15 and a coherent narrative still remains.159 (NV, 160)
NV then turns to the question of motivation and concludes that Mark, like other Second Temple era authors, had multiple motives according to each part of the narrative being “scripturalized”.
But why should a “coherent narrative” predispose the reader to assume he or she is reading what is essentially historical? I suspect that there are many more ahistorical coherent narratives in the world than historical ones.
When I consulted the pages in Allison’s Constructing Jesus cited by NV above, I read arguments for why we should believe that historical memory is behind the broad outline of the Passion Narrative but unless I overlooked it, I did not see a demonstration of a coherent narrative after removing the “scriptural material”. Allison compares Paul’s letters with the Gospels, even explicitly interpreting Paul’s words through the Gospel narratives, and he does list some details that do not have a scriptural basis:
Goodacre contends that Crossan cannot plausibly explain why so many items in the passion narratives—Golgotha, Simon of Cyrene, and the inscription over the cross, for instance—were not manufactured from the Tanak. (Allison, 388)
Turning to the Goodacre chapter to which Allison is referring,
It is consensus that the Passion Narratives were composed with at least the intention to evoke memories of such scriptures, but what is striking here is the number of important elements that clearly cannot have been derived from the Old Testament: the man who carried Jesus’ cross, Simon of Cyrene; the place of Jesus’ crucifixion, Golgotha; the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, the third hour; the written charge against him, ‘King of the Jews’. This kind of mixture is exactly what we would expect if the earliest Passion Narrative was told with both tradition and the scriptures in mind. Certain events were simply not conducive to getting retold in the light of the Old Testament – there was nothing there about Simon of Cyrene, Golgotha, the third hour or the titulus.
This situation is not what we would expect on the ‘prophecy historicized’ model. It is a key point for Crossan that when we remove ‘prophetic fulfilment’, we are left with ‘nothing but the barest facts, almost as in Josephus or Tacitus’. But Josephus and Tacitus do not tell us about the time and place of Jesus’ crucifixion, the titulus or the man who carried his cross, and this is, of course, only a small section of the Passion Narrative overall. (Goodacre, Prophecy, 46)
Another detail singled out by NV and Goodacre as most plausibly derived from historical memory is the introduction of the names of three women watching the crucifixion of Jesus and the sons of Simon of Cyrene. (I will discuss this point in due course.)
But the point I want to make is that that “kind of mixture is” also “exactly what we would expect if the earliest Passion Narrative was told” by drawing upon multiple literary and ideological sources — and there are many candidates in the post-Jewish war context.
It should go without saying that details that are not derived from Scripture are not thereby necessarily derived from historical memories. Even if a coherent narrative does remain after one removes the scriptural allusions (which has only been asserted or argued from circularity — assuming there was a historical core to begin with — and not demonstrated from what I have seen so far), we have studies that do demonstrate at least to some scholar’s satisfaction that the trial scene of Jesus is based on novelistic features and other literary tropes (Aesop, Socrates, the Maccabean martyrs); that the subsequent mockery and crucifixion, including the place name Golgotha, are built around what we know of other ironic mockery and victory-death processions (Philo’s Carabbas, the Roman Triumph); that the hourly markers in the PN derived from early Christian liturgy; and we have abundant evidence that the author of the Gospel of Mark loved both irony and playing with the sounds, meanings and associations of names. All of these points have been argued in some depth in other posts (or soon will be) and are well-known (or should be) in the scholarly literature.
Vette has asserted up till now that there are historical episodes behind most of the Scripture-augmented stories from the Second Temple era and each time I have paused to explain why I think that those assertions are not grounded in the kind of logic or method that one generally finds in the works of other (non-biblical) historians.
NV opens this new section by noting Dibelius’s role in “starting it all” — “it” being the scholarly debates over how much the Passion Narrative in particular owes to memory and how much to Scripture. An English translation of the foundational work by Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, is available at archive.org. Dibelius believed that the unsophisticated literary character of the canonical gospels raised the question of a “form” of writing that is best explained as meeting the requirements of preaching of the gospel, details of which had been passed down by oral tradition. Early in his discussion he makes his starting line clear:
We may take it for granted that Jesus’ words and the accounts of His life and death were kept alive in the circle of His disciples. (Dibelius, 11)
And that is where most scholars of the Gospels and Jesus that I have read also begin. I don’t mean that cynically. That it is so is an almost inevitable cultural heritage. (A few scholars and lay apologists may descend to unpleasantries when addressing this question but we don’t want to go there.) Even the two sides of the “prophecy historicized – history remembered” debate begin with what Dibelius said “we may take for granted”. As John Dominic Crossan points out, the heart of the question is how to account for what lies behind the Gospel narratives; that is: What are the “origins” of what we read in our sources?
The most fundamental debate about the passion-resurrection story is not about the problem of sources (or how our versions relate to one another) but about the problem of origins (or how that story was first created). The problem is not about the brute facts of Jesus’ crucifixion outside Jerusalem around Passover [like Dibelius he takes that “brute fact” for granted] but about the specific details of that consecutive story, blow by blow and word for word, hour by hour and day by day. There are two major disjunctive options that I summarize as prophecy historicized versus history remembered. (Crossan, 520)
NV concurs with Goodacre who thinks Crossan is being too simplistic, even saying that he is “caricaturing” the position of the “conservative” scholar he is debating, Raymond Brown. Goodacre:
Only the most ardent fundamentalists would go for the view that the Passion Narratives were simply made up of “history remembered”, and the term is in fact not one that is used by Raymond Brown, whose work Crossan is caricaturing.20 (Goodacre, Scripturalization, 39]
In fairness to Crossan here, and pace Goodacre and NV, Brown does permit willing believers who are reading his second volume of Death of the Messiah to accept that there was a literal darkness that came over the land for three hours and that the Temple curtain really was torn and that “vinegary wine” was given to Jesus on the cross — all points that I don’t think NV and Goodacre consider historical. (If I am wrong on that point no doubt someone will better inform me.) Brown writes,
As one reads the startling description of darkness covering the whole earth from noon to 3 P.M. (sixth to ninth hours), several possible interpretations spring to mind. This could be a factual account involving either a natural phenomenon (eclipse, storm, etc.) or a totally unparalleled miracle. Or it could be a purely figurative description, reflecting either OT eschatological language, or Hellenistic imagery associated with the death of famous men, or both. While all these possibilities will have to be discussed, such discussion will be subordinate to our primary concern, namely, the use to which each evangelist puts the darkness motif. (Brown, 1034)
. . . .
18. . . Appealing to Acts 2:20, “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood,” Humphreys and Waddington (“Dating”) suggest that Luke combined a sandstorm with a partial moon eclipse that took place on April 3, AD 33.
19 This is mentioned or favored by distinguished scholars, e.g., Lagrange, Benoit, Fitzmyer. Driver (“‘Two”) argues that since the Temple was open on the eastern side (Mishna, Middot 2.4), the wind that brought the dust could have torn the sanctuary veil!
20 Certainly that is true of Lagrange’s proposal of a sirocco; and already, writing ca. 396, Jerome, who lived there, mentions an unusual darkness that took place around Pentecost (Contra loannem Hierosolymitanum 42 [PL 23.393C]).
If there was no eclipse of the sun at the death of Jesus,18 what other known phenomenon could have caused the darkness or the obscuring of sunlight? Many explanations have been offered: sunspots, solar storms, the ḥamsīn or sirocco winds bringing a dust storm,19 a thunderstorm, the aftermath of a volcanic eruption in Arabia or Syria, etc. The Lucan passage, however, gives no hint of winds or storms (contrast Acts 2:2). Moreover, some of these suggestions emanate from people who have lived in Palestine and know the local weather phenomena,20 but Luke does not betray that type of knowledge. (Brown, 1040)
. . . .
[T]he oxos or vinegary wine is a universally common element in the PN [Passion Narrative] being mentioned in all the canonical Gospels and GPet [Gospel of Peter]. (Brown, 1059 – Brown earlier explained that multiple attestation of purportedly independent sources strengthens the case for historicity.)
. . . .
All the accounts suppose that there was vinegary wine at hand (John 19:29 will make that explicit: “A jar was there laden with vinegary wine”). That is not implausible since oxos is Greek for the posca or red peasant wine drunk by Roman soldiers (MM 452-53). (Brown, 1063)
That is the position that Crossan was challenging and he was hardly “caricaturing” Brown’s position. He also allowed Brown to explain his position in his own words:
It is inconceivable that they [the Twelve] showed no concern about what happened to Jesus after the arrest. True, there is no Christian claim that they were present during the legal proceedings against him, Jewish or Roman; but it is absurd to think that some information was not available to them about why Jesus was hanged on a cross. . . . Thus from the earliest days available historical raw material could have been developed into a PN [passion narrative] extending from the arrest to the burial, no matter what form it might receive in the course of evangelistic use and how it might have been embellished and added to by Christian imagination. Some scholars, however, insist that the evangelistic enterprise means that Christians had no interest in historical raw material whether or not it was available. . . . The first followers of Jesus would have known many things about crucifixion in general and almost surely some of the details about Jesus’ crucifixion, e.g., what kind of cross was employed. Nevertheless, what is preserved in the narrative is mostly what echoes Scripture (division of garments, offering of vinegary wine, final words of Jesus).
— Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, pp. 14-15
The issue of scriptural background becomes more debatable in views like those of Koester and J. D. Crossan, who … dismiss any rooting of the passion in Christian memory. Koester [19803:127] states with assurance that in the beginning there was only belief that Jesus’ passion and resurrection happened according to the Scriptures so that “the very first narratives of Jesus’ suffering and death would not have made any attempt to remember what actually happened.” Crossan [1988:405] goes even further: “It seems to me most likely that those closest to Jesus knew almost nothing about the details of the event. They knew only that Jesus had been crucified, outside Jerusalem, at the time of Passover, and probably through some conjunction of imperial and sacerdotal authority.” He does not explain why he thinks this “most likely,” granted the well-founded tradition that those closest to Jesus had followed him for a long time, day and night. Did they suddenly lose all interest, not even taking the trouble to inquire about what must have been the most traumatic moment of their lives?
— Raymond E. Brown. The Death of the Messiah, pp. 15-16 (Crossan, 477 and 519f)
I can’t help but think that Goodacre’s and NV’s concept of “scripturalized history” is in effect another term for Brown’s position — historical raw materials embellished with scripture. There is a difference, though. Brown does appear to draw the line at accepting as historical Matthew’s “embellishments” of rocks cleaving and the dead coming out of their graves and walking through the streets of Jerusalem. Brown is also most focussed on the theological meaning each evangelist imputes into the events he sets down — but still allowing for the possibility of historical memories behind the three hours of darkness, the tearing of the temple veil and giving “vinegary wine” to Jesus.
It’s all about where one sits on a continuum:
- Crossan: Jesus was crucified, the rest is biblically inspired invention
- NV/Goodacre: Jesus was crucified, two Marys and Salome watched on, Simon of Cyrene carried the cross, Golgotha was where Jesus was crucified; but there was no mid-day darkness, no temple veil was torn, no offering of vinegary wine (those were scriptural elements added on to historical memories)
- Brown: Jesus was crucified, everything in the PN was historically possible even though described in Scriptural motifs that imbued those memories with meaning — except no comment can be made about the historicity of the dead coming out of their graves.
I have quoted Brown’s position at length above, and also tried to set out the core of NV’s and Goodacre’s position. I think it fair to let Crossan explain why he disagrees with the proposition that historical memory lies behind the Passion Narrative:
The first reason is negative, against the position of history remembered, and it reverts to the problem of sources. If there were, from the beginning, a detailed passion-resurrection story or even just a passion narrative, I would expect more evidence of it than is currently extant. It is totally absent from the Life Tradition, and it appears in the Death Tradition as follows. On the one hand, outside the gospels, there are no references to those details of the passion narrative. If all Christians knew them, why do no other Christians mention them? On the other hand, within the gospels, everyone else copies directly or indirectly from Mark. If one story was established early as history remembered, why do all not “copy” from it rather than depend on Mark? Why do Matthew and Luke have to rely so completely on Mark? Why does John, despite his profound theological innovation, depend so completely on synoptic information? The negative argument is not that such a history-remembered narrative could not have happened. Of course it could. The argument is that we lack the evidence for its existence; and, if it existed, we would expect some such evidence to be available.
The second reason is positive, for the position of prophecy historicized. The individual units, general sequences, and overall frames of the passion-resurrection stories are so linked to prophetic fulfillment that the removal of such fulfillment leaves nothing but the barest facts, almost as in Josephus, Tacitus, or the Apostles’ Creed.
— By individual units I mean such items as these: the lots cast and garments divided from Psalm 22:18; the darkness at noon from Amos 8:9; the gall and vinegar drink from Psalm 69:21.
— By general sequences I mean such items as these: the Mount of Olives situation from 2 Samuel 15-17; the trial collaboration from Psalm 2; the abuse description from the Day of Atonement ritual in Leviticus 16.
— By overall frames I mean the narrative genre of innocence vindicated, righteousness redeemed, and virtue rewarded.
In other words, on all three narrative levels—surface, intermediate, and deep—biblical models and scriptural precedents have controlled the story to the point that without them nothing is left but the brutal fact of crucifixion itself. (Crossan, 521 with my formatting — This extract is from the same page reference that NV gives in footnote #159 quoted above: one may therefore add here “pace Allison”.)
Some readers may think I have not given Allison a fair reply. I am prepared to discuss Allison’s case again in more detail and may do so in a future post. Till then, I am confident that Allison’s position is encapsulated in the remarks I have quoted from Goodacre and from pages 14 to 16 of Brown. If you want to do more to keep me honest I have posted an online link to Allison’s book in the bibliography below.
NV prepares us for what is to follow:
This final section proposes that no one model is sufficient for understanding the use of the Jewish scriptures in the Markan Passion Narrative. As before, the focus will be on instances where unmarked scriptural language appears as part of the narrative, or where an episode or scene seems to be modelled extensively on scriptural elements. It will be my contention that the Passion Narrative utilizes scriptural elements in a manner similar to the scripturalized narratives surveyed thus far, often using the same language as other contemporaneous texts to depict the suffering of the righteous. (NV, 162)
(Until the next post, interested readers might like to have a look at a post from 2017: 160 Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16. Also Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #6 and Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #7 (conclusion))
Allison, Dale C. Jr. Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. Reprint edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2013.
Brown, Raymond Edward. The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Crossan, John Dominic. The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper, 1998.
Dibelius, Martin. From Tradition To Gospel. Translated by Bertram Lee Woolf. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935.
Goodacre, Mark. “Prophecy Historicized or Tradition Scripturalized? Reflections on The Origins of The Passion Narrative.” In The New Testament and The Church : Essays in Honour of John Muddiman, edited by John Barton and Peter Groves, 37–51. London & New York: T & T Clark, 2015.
Goodacre, Mark. “Scripturalization in Mark‘s Crucifixion Narrative.” In The Trial and Death of Jesus: Essays on the Passion Narrative in Mark, edited by Geert van Oyen and Tom Shepherd, 33–47. Leuven: Peeters, 2006.
- https://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/handle/10161/3171. (This version appears to be a pre-print; some variation is found in the published volume)
Humphreys, Colin J., and W. G. Waddington. “Dating the Crucifixion.” Nature 306, no. 5945 (December 1983): 743–46.
Vette, Nathanael. Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark. London ; New York: T&T Clark, 2022.
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