2022-08-09

Imagining an Alternative to Human Rights

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by Neil Godfrey

Human rights — they are so Western! But how can anyone, any culture, frown upon them and want them excluded from their frame of reference? Think China.

Around twenty years ago I visited Tiananmen Square. Soldiers, every few metres it seemed, still guarded the space. One could not just freely wander anywhere there as if it were what we imagine a public space to be. My sobered looks were noticed by my Chinese companions and they clearly looked worried at my change of mood. They (my companions) were good people, they said. After those “very bad” people did something in the square years before, soldiers or police visited their houses and left when they were assured that they were only good people and not the bad ones causing the trouble. Those were their words: good and bad people. They were horrified that I should seem to display any regrets about that time and they tried to extricate me from that area as quickly as possible. No doubt there are Chinese who feel my horror more than I can but they must remain hidden, even now.

Not long afterwards I took in a Chinese student boarder. She expressed shock when she saw on the TV news film of opposition party figures in Parliament verbally attacking those on the government side. To her she was witnessing anarchy, treason even. At one point she tried to educate me by having me analyze the word “government”: it had “govern” in it, and did not that mean that those in government must “govern”? What right, how on earth …. what a display of utter rabble and rebellion to have people attack the government!

I am currently reading three books. One of them is Kevin Rudd‘s The Avoidable War. He knows a thing or two about China. Here are some passages I have found interesting so far. Confucianism is no longer dead in Communist China:

But Xi Jinping made cultivating nationalism an even stronger priority, leveraging an increasingly sophisticated propaganda apparatus that has seamlessly fused the imagery of the modern CCP with the national mythology of a proud and ancient Chinese civilization.

This has included the rehabilitation of Confucianism, once dismissed by the CCP as reactionary and anticommunist, as part of the restoration of the party’s emphasis on the uniqueness of China’s national political philosophy. According to the official line, a long-standing continuity of benign hierarchical governance (as represented by Confucianism) is what differentiates China from the rest of the world. The shorthand form of Xi’s political narrative is simple: China’s historical greatness, across its dynastic histories, always lay in strong, authoritarian, hierarchical Confucian governments. By corollary, China’s historical greatness was never the product of Western liberal democracy or any Chinese variation of it. By extension, China’s future national greatness can lie only in the continued adaptation of its indigenous political legacy, derived from the hierarchical tradition of the Confucian/communist state. (87f)

It’s about Party legitimacy in the eyes of the people. As long as the Party can oversee rising living standards, a cleaner environment, and a consolidation (even restoration!) of China’s national borders, then the Party is safe. Confucianism: “benign hierarchical governance.”

Human rights?

Like most of his colleagues across the CCP leadership, Xi has long seen US support for universal human rights, democracy, and the rule of law as a fundamental challenge to the party’s interests. Lest there be any doubt on this score, China’s indigenous democracy movement has long been condemned by the party as one of the “five poisons” that threaten the Chinese system, together with Uyghur activists, adherents of Falun Gong, Tibetan activists, and the Taiwanese independence movement—all of which the party contends are backed by the United States.

The party’s historical antagonism toward human rights, electoral democracy, and an independent legal system will, therefore, continue because these concepts strike at the very heart of the perceived legitimacy of the Chinese party-state, both at home and abroad. This explains China’s continuing hostility toward any foreign government that dares challenge the moral fundamentals of the Chinese political system. . . . 

That Xi implemented a wide-ranging crackdown against “bourgeois liberalization” in China’s education system during the first six months of his term in 2013 is, therefore, unsurprising. He identified seven sensitive topics that could no longer be the subject of any form of academic discussion or debate. These were “universal values, freedom of speech, civil rights, civil society, the historical errors of the Communist Party, crony capitalism, and judicial independence.” This was followed in 2017 by China’s new foreign NGO law, which placed new security restrictions on the operations of any NGO attracting philanthropic funding from abroad. With the strike of a pen, this law crushed an active civil society that developed over decades, with organizations promoting everything from occupational health and safety to the schooling of migrant workers’ children. Then, more recently, Xi has also moved to ban private schooling and the hiring of foreign teachers as well as the use of international textbooks and curricula. (91f)

One of the other books I am reading now has many references to Plato. I can’t help thinking Plato would have some admiration for Xi Jinping’s policies – except for his nationalist ones that risk war.


Rudd, Kevin. The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China. New York: PublicAffairs, 2022.



2022-08-06

“Some Underlying Tradition” — a review of Writing With Scripture, part 10

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by Neil Godfrey

All posts reviewing Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture are archived at Vette : Writing With Scripture

With thanks to T&T Clark who forwarded me a review copy.

The claim that the scriptural character of early Christian narrative illustrates its non-historical character is one conservative exegetes have been anxious to dismiss and radical exegetes have been eager to embrace. For conservative exegetes, the scriptural language of the Gospel narratives always has its basis in ‘fact’.

. . . .

Radical exegetes, on the other hand, begin by assuming the non-historical character of the Gospels. On this basis, anything and everything can be seen to have a scriptural origin.

. . . .

Both are remarkably confident about the ability of scholarship to uncover the historical details behind the Gospels, in their presence or their absence. Both affirm that the scriptural character of the Gospels has its basis in either ‘fact’ or ‘fabrication’ . . . . . Given the choice between ‘history remembered’ and ‘prophecy historicized’, the exegete will inevitably choose whichever confirms their presuppositions. (NV, 199f)

Those words, extracted from the opening pages of the concluding chapter of Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture, indicate to me, an outsider, that the study of Christian origins through the Gospels is fundamentally about faith, belief, or challenges to faith and belief than about historical research as it is understood and practised in History Departments and Faculties. Note the words “anxious”, “eager”, and “remarkably confident”. Those words describe an emotional commitment. Note the terms “begin by assuming” and “confirms their presuppositions”. Those words point toward a flawed methodology that I will address below.

Mark Goodacre’s mid-way position between conservatives and radicals, as I understand it through NV’s discussion, posits that each “story unit” (or pericope) in the Gospels should be assessed in its own right for whether or not we might reasonably conclude that it derives from a prior source of some kind, whether that source be historical memory or some kind of legendary tale. So when we read an episode in the Gospels that borrows terminology from Scriptures, instead of concluding that we are reading either history that happened to coincide with words of Scripture or fiction composed entirely out of Scripture, we would do better to infer that we are reading “tradition scripturalized”. But this is the same flawed methodology simply working from different assumptions.

NV goes “one step further” than Goodacre:

But this analysis can go one step further: scripturalization can also describe the literary process by which Mark as an author used scriptural elements to compose and model episodes in their life of Jesus, creating scripturalized narrative. That Mark used the Jewish scriptures in this way depends in large part on whether this practice can be identified in other works from the period. If it can be shown across a diverse group of texts that the Jewish scriptures were regularly used to compose new narrative, then it would be appropriate to speak of scripturalized narrative as a stylistic feature of Second Temple literature. (NV, 29)

At the end of his study NV concludes:

We found that scripturalized narratives usually have their basis in some underlying tradition. This is seen most clearly in those episodes which relate to a scriptural figure or episode. At one end, scripturalized narratives can result from a close and profound exegetical engagement with their source: by narrating Gen. 9:1-7 in the language of Genesis 13 and 15, the Genesis Apocryphon ties the Abrahamic covenant to the Noachide covenant (part 3). At the other end, long and complicated narratives can be triggered by a single word – i.e. the two fiery furnaces of Pseudo-Philo or simply reflect the similarity of one figure with another – i.e. Abraham with Job in the Testament of Abraham (part 4)Whilst it is possible for a figure to be pieced together entirely out of scriptural material for no perceptible reason – i.e. Pseudo-Philo’s Kenaz and Zebul (part 2)this is the exception not the norm. In most cases, the compositional use of scriptural elements in scripturalized narratives has been triggered by some aspect of the source text or tradition. (NV, 201)

The Methodological Flaw

Continue reading ““Some Underlying Tradition” — a review of Writing With Scripture, part 10″


2022-08-05

How (and Why) Jewish Scriptures are used in Mark’s Passion Narrative — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 9

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by Neil Godfrey

All posts reviewing Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture are archived at Vette : Writing With Scripture

With thanks to T&T Clark who forwarded me a review copy.

Having “settled” again (this time Thailand) I can resume my discussion of Nathanael Vette’s [NV] Writing With Scripture. We come now to the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of Mark, the culmination of Mark’s narrative and the part most intertwined with Scriptural references and allusions. The point of NV’s discussion is to demonstrate that here our Markan author uses Scripture in the same way as we find it used in other extra-canonical Second Temple literature, sometimes explicitly but very often as implicit allusions. The former method is generally expositional (containing a commentary on the meaning of the Scripture), the latter compositional (repeating motifs and images to flesh out a story.) And the question that inevitably arises:

  • Are the scenes of the Passion Narrative created from Scripture?

NV zeroes in on five echoes of Scripture in the Passion Narrative:

  1. Mark 14:21 where Jesus cites Scripture to announce that one of the disciples eating with him would betray him;
  2. Mark 14:24 where Jesus speaks of his blood (represented by the wine) being poured out for many;
  3. Mark 14:27 where Jesus quotes Zechariah to predict his disciples would desert him;
  4. Mark 14:34 where we read of Jesus’ sorrow in Gethsemane;
  5. Mark 15:21-41 where the crucifixion reminds readers of Psalm 22.

NV studies each case by comparing how the other evangelists wrote the parallel scenes and how other Jewish texts also treated the Scripture Mark appears to have used. NV is also alert to the possibility that Mark is “scripturalizing” a pre-existing tradition or narrative — as per Mark Goodacre’s attempt to find a mid-way point between “prophecy historicized” and “history remembered” (Crossan). I think Crossan has the upper hand, though, insofar as he bases his analyses on the sources available. If there is no evidence for an existing tradition or source behind Mark then it is undoubtedly unnecessary to speculate on Mark’s adaptation of such a tradition or source.

The following notes focus only on key conclusions NV draws from in-depth discussions of each:

  1. Re Mark 14:21 — When NV notes that Matthew and Luke do not follow the details of Mark’s account of the betrayal with its apparent references to Psalm 41:9 (e.g. Judas eating bread with Jesus) he suggests the possibility that they did not recognize what we take to be Mark’s source in the Psalms. Perhaps. Yet the variants surely demonstrate that the simplest conclusion to draw and one that goes no farther than interpreting the evidence at hand rather than the mind of the author or hypothetical sources, is that the variations of the other Gospels indicate nothing more than that the authors were at liberty to rewrite Mark according to their own theological and literary interests and each felt free to use Scriptures as their source according to their narrative plans.
  2. Re Mark 14:24 — NV is unable to decide if the words “this is my blood of the covenant” (taken from Exodus 24:8) are combined with Isaiah’s suffering servant who is “poured out to death” and concludes with Howard Clark Kee, “There are no sure references to Isa 53.” (No mention is made of Leviticus 9:9 where Aaron’s sin offering involves blood being “poured out” (ἐξέχεεν) at the altar in preparation for making atonement for the people or the possibility that Mark was combining sacrificial terms from Exodus and Leviticus. We know from the opening verses of Mark that the author was quite capable of combining passages from different books to make a new “scripturalized” saying.)
  3. Re Mark 14:27 — While Zech 13:7 is quoted by Jesus to predict what his followers would do when he was handed over, the ensuing scene is not composed with the same words we find in Zechariah. Zechariah’s words for striking, fleeing, and the sword are replaced by effective synonyms in Mark’s description of the action: “It would appear then the words of Zech. 13:7 serve to interpret the flight of the disciples, not to describe the act of desertion itself.” (NV, p. 175) The words may not be the same but the actions described can surely be explained as being inspired by Zechariah as the narrative’s source. 
  4. Re Mark 14:34 — The echo of Psalm 42 is surely real given the regularity with which that Psalm is used in other Jewish literature in connection with the suffering of the righteous one.
  5. Re Mark 15:21-41 — There is little doubt that Psalm 22 was the source for many of the details of the crucifixion, just as the same Psalm is found as a source for narrative details for stories of Esther, in Qumran literature and in the story of Joseph and Aseneth. But it is not the only source since one finds sporadic details from other Scriptures in the mix, too. All this is one with other Jewish literature and its use of Scripture, as earlier posts have indicated.

NV notes the way Mark has woven the Passion Narrative with reminders of the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 (the command to Watch, the supernatural darkness, the prophecy of seeing the Son of Man coming, etc) in order to drive home the cosmic significance of the crucifixion. Mark links both directly and through symbolism the crucifixion to the war of 66-70 which was seen as God’s judgment on his people for their rejection of Jesus.

Something different about Mark

This brings me back to an important difference between Mark’s use of Scripture and how the other evangelists deployed it.

As NV writes, Mark does not

. . . introduce a schema of prophetic-fulfilment for the Passion Narrative as a whole. Elsewhere in the Gospel, there are isolated instances where certain events correspond to, or happen in fulfilment of, the Jewish scriptures. [Mk 1:2-3; 7:6-7; 9:12-13]. But Mark lacks the explicit interpretive schema one finds in the editorial comments of Matthew (1:22; 2:17,23:4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9) and John (12:16, 38; 15:25; 18:9; 19:24, 36). For the most part, the concept of prophetic-fulfilment is undeveloped in Mark. (NV, 165. My bolding in all quotations)

Other aspects (e.g. motivation of actions and words, explanatory background) of Mark’s narrative also appear undeveloped and the best reason I have found to explain such characteristics in Mark is given by Nicole Duran in Power of Disorder: Ritual Elements in Mark’s Passion Narrative. Mark is writing not only a “scripturalized narrative” but, unlike the other evangelists, he is also writing a “ritualized narrative”. Continue reading “How (and Why) Jewish Scriptures are used in Mark’s Passion Narrative — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 9”


2022-07-30

Sidetracked though misadventure: Time to reflect

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by Neil Godfrey

The past week I have been met with a series of costly misadventures (I blame it all on Australian dentists charging outrageous prices) that have led me to Indonesia and last night was the first night in a week I have had to truly relax. The restaurant where I ate displayed this thought-provoking picture:


2022-07-21

Clarification of the Thesis — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 8

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by Neil Godfrey

All posts reviewing Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture are archived at Vette : Writing With Scripture

With thanks to T&T Clark who forwarded me a review copy.

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. Continue reading “Clarification of the Thesis — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 8”


2022-07-18

How Queen Esther Influenced the Fate of John the Baptist — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 7

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

All posts reviewing Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture are archived at Vette : Writing With Scripture

With thanks to T&T Clark who forwarded me a review copy.

I was fascinated by Nathanael Vette’s (NV) discussion of the highly probable influence of the story of Esther on the Gospel of Mark‘s account of the death of John the Baptist. It’s not a new theory that the biblical Book of Esther inspired some of the details in Mark’s account but NV takes us back to a version of the story that preceded its Hebrew or common Septuagint rendering.

A closer look at the passage, however, reveals a much greater resemblance to another Greek text of Esther: the so-called Alpha-text. (NV, 149)

A translation of the Alpha text can be read online at https://www.scribd.com/read/439782177/Septuagint-Esther-Alpha-Version. In the “Forward” (sic) of that online text we read of the Alpha text:

There are two versions of the Book of Esther in the various copies of the Septuagint, however, neither originated at the Library of Alexandria. The common version of Esther is found in almost all copies, while the rare version is only found in four known manuscripts, numbered as 19, 93, 108, and 319. This version follows the rare version, also known as the Alpha version, using the oldest surviving copy as a source text, the Septuagint manuscript 319, while also comparing the other surviving manuscripts: 19, 93, and 108. . . . .

The Alpha Texts version only survives in a few copies of the Septuagint, and based on its dialect, it was translated somewhere in the Seleucid Empire. The Alpha version is probably the oldest of the four translations, as it includes several unique elements that appear to have disappeared in later translations.

NV observes the following Alpha text matches in Mark’s scene of the death of John the Baptist:

  • a young girl (κοράσιον)
  • pleases (ἤρεσεν)
  • at a banquet (συμπόσιον)
  • a king vows (ώμοσεν)
  • with an oath (ὅρκος)
  • “up to half of my kingdom” (ως [τοũ] ήμίσους τῆς βασιλείας μου). — although the expression is common, the Alpha text of Esther and the Gospel of Mark alone “omit the genitive article” found in other manuscript lines of Esther)

The author thereby composed a banquet scene in which a king offers half of his kingdom to a young girl who instead requests the death of one man. (NV, 150)

Rabbinic literature of late antiquity refers to other variations of the Esther narrative and since details from these are also found in the Gospel of Mark it is reasonable to believe that Mark knew of and used versions of Esther now lost to us. NV refers to Roger Aus’s “meticulous” study of the parallels between Mark’s scene of the death of the Baptist and details found in the rabbinic and other versions of Esther. (Some of Aus’s study is outlined in another Vridar post, The Death of John the Baptist — Sources and Less Obvious Contexts.) The most significant point in common is that the one whom the young girl requests to be executed is decapitated and his head is brought into the scene of feasting for display “on a platter”. Continue reading “How Queen Esther Influenced the Fate of John the Baptist — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 7”


2022-07-16

The Message of the Feeding Miracles of Jesus — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 6

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by Neil Godfrey

Nathanael Vette (NV) establishes in detail how the miraculous feeding stories of Jesus borrow from the miracle of Elisha’s feeding of 100 men with twenty loaves. Many readers would no doubt assume that Mark’s source in 2 Kings 4 was obvious but NV takes the reader through each detail to leave nothing to assumption. Even though a reader of Mark’s gospel who is familiar with the Jewish Scriptures would inevitably recognize the relationship between the miracles of Elisha and Jesus, NV suggests that it was not Mark’s intention to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus over Elisha because Mark does not mention Elisha’s name. Interestingly, NV notes that,

More generally, scripturalized narratives tend to inflate the numbers of their scriptural source: whilst only a few guards are burnt in Dan. 3:22, Pseudo-Philo has 83,500 (LAB 6:17) and one thousand (LAB 38:4) burnt bystanders; whilst only Achan is uncovered in the lot of sin (Josh. 7:16-26), Kenaz uncovers 6,110 sinners (LAB 25:4). (NV, 141)

NV uses the two different occasions of Jesus’ miracle of feeding large numbers, each distinguished by differences in geographical setting, numbers of persons, loaves and baskets of leftover remains, to make a point that few readers would disagree with:

. . . the narrative setting of Mk 6:35-44 and 8:1-9 takes precedence over the scriptural model. In this way, the distinctive elements of the episodes – the circumstances leading to the miracles (6:35-37; 8:1-3), the geographical setting (6:35; 8:4). the inclusion of fish (6:38, 41; 8:7) and even the number of baskets (6:43; 8:8) – each reflect their respective Markan contexts. (NV, 142)

Marten van Valckenborch – Feeding the Five Thousand. Wikimedia Commons

NV’s main focus is on the particular ways Mark makes use of Scripture so when he refers to the common interpretation that the twin miracles events represent ministries to the Jews (5000 and twelve baskets leftover) and to the gentiles (4000 and seven baskets) he does so to make points about Mark adapting his use of Scripture to fit his narrative aims.

Secondary Scriptures are mingled with details from the primary source of 2 Kings so we find traces of Israel in the wilderness as well (e.g. “sheep without a shepherd”, “groups of hundreds and fifties”, the wilderness setting and the miracle of food being sent at evening time) and subsequent evangelists demonstrate their awareness of Mark’s primary and secondary sources.

One cannot make a consistent point-by-point comparison between Jesus and other figures from a single Scripture narrative, NV clarifies, simply because Jesus is modeled on multiple persons: not only Elisha but also Elijah, for example.

But once again NV speculates a “historical source” behind the scripturalized narrative:

The multiplication of food was a common feature of miracle-working traditions in antiquity and, at least in Jewish tradition, none was better known than the multiplication of loaves by Elisha.”’ In this sense, the author may have been led to the well-known miracle in 2 Kgs 4:42-44 by the reputation of Jesus as a miracle-worker. (NV, 146f)

I would rather think that it is more economical to speculate that the author was led to the Elisha miracle by the theological interest he had in demonstrating a particular role Jesus has in the gospel. NV includes another interesting set of citations and I’ll quote extracts from there that come to similar theological rationales for the presence of these feeding miracles. Again, as in an earlier post, I will go beyond what NV himself discusses and make a detour with a closer look at two of the works he cites and another work cited in one of those two. (And again, I am responsible for the bolded highlighting in all quotations.)

Analogous stories among other peoples

Outside Biblical and Jewish literature, too, we find many stories of food said to have been acquired or displayed in wonderful fashion. Origen quotes a pronouncement by Celsus in which this great opponent of the Christian faith ranks the miracles of Jesus with the works of the magicians: “and with those which are performed by them that have learned them from the Egyptians, who in the midst of the market places, for a few obols, disclose the venerable teachings, expel demons from men, blow away diseases, summon the souls of heroes, and display choice meals and tables and pastries and desserts which do not exist……..”  Gods and saints were credited with the power to produce or increase food. Bultmann points to Indian stories and the food miracles in the Mohammedan Hadith. A Finnish legend tells of a girl who prepared food for a whole army from three barleycorns. A German fairy-tale has for its subject a marvellous bread which filled an army. There is a wide selection of stories about goblets, bottles, baskets and tables that never empty. It is related that King Alexander had a goblet out of which his whole army could drink without the goblet having to be refilled.  A Celtic legend tells of the basket of Gwydnen Garanhir, in which nine men three times found the foods which they desired.  Ethiopia has a Sun Table which, according to the natives, is always supplied with food by the wish of the gods.  In Africa they tell of the wondrous speaking pot, which fills itself with the food desired. Many feeding miracles are attributed to saints: Francis of Assisi provided food for his fellow-passengers; André Corsini saw his bread increase in his bag; the basket full of fine cherries which the venerable Cottolengo, the “Intendant of Providence,” distributed to a large crowd of poor persons in Turin in 1883, did not become empty, and the abbess of Kildare caused cow’s milk to increase copiously. St. Nicholas fed 83 workmen who were building a new church on one loaf, and yet a large number of pieces were left, etc., etc. Saintyves, who collected a large number of stories and relates them with great verve, points to the literary dependence in the legends of the saints. He recalls the horn of plenty, the attribute of many old gods, and sees in it, as in the bottles, tables, etc., which never become empty, the idea of fertility and initiation rites. According to Saintyves we must therefore regard the loaves in the Gospels as “seasonal loaves the Biblical stories must be interpreted in the light of the pagan ones.

With such a wide variety of stories, it may be asked whether the New Testament accounts perhaps form part of this “pattern.” Did nothing happen? Or did something happen, and if so, what? (pp 625-627)

So what does the Markan scholar who wrote the above think is the motivation for the feeding miracles in the Gospel of Mark? Continue reading “The Message of the Feeding Miracles of Jesus — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 6”


2022-07-14

Creating the Gospel of Mark — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 5

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by Neil Godfrey

Don’t look too hard to try to uncover hidden meanings in scriptural allusions in the Gospel of Mark. Those scriptural allusions may be “nothing more than” fillers to flesh out colourful story details. That’s the opening message of Nathanael Vette (NV) in his third and main chapter discussing five episodes in the Gospel of Mark.

The evangelist sometimes introduces Scripture explicitly to give readers a particular interpretation; other times Scripture is woven into the narrative more subtly. There is no consistent method in the use of Scripture.

The introductory message

Take the opening verses of the Gospel. It is not an exact quotation from any passage in the Old Testament.

To the contrary, the prologue shows an author primarily concerned with the immediate demands of their narrative, untroubled by the precise wording of their sources, and creative in their application of them.  Mark is nourished by the language of scripture more than the substance of it. (NV, 111. My bolding in all quotations)

NV guides the reader through both the Greek and Hebrew versions of the Scriptures in order to explore not only how the author may have arrived at the purported Isaianic quotation but also how to identify the one being prophesied: Elijah or the Messiah? In Malachi’s following chapter (4:5) the prophet speaks of Elijah coming before the “Day of the Lord” while elsewhere in the Gospel of Mark we learn that John the Baptist is the “Elijah to come”, yet the “messenger” in the source texts is surely a more exalted figure than a prophet. Some readers will be surprised to see that NV concludes . . .

In the final analysis, the garbled citation of LXX Isa. 40:3 and LXX Exod. 23:20 (and possibly Mal. 3:1), which is misattributed to Isaiah, is, above all, a prophecy concerning the coming of the Lord. Any reference to Elijah, if intended, is secondary to this aim. (NV, 116)

Perhaps so. Yet do we not find other studies pointing out how the Gospel of Mark is rich in ambiguities and ironies? Might not we read here another instance of Markan ambiguity rather than feel obligated to choose one or another option?

By his appearance you will know him

Continue reading “Creating the Gospel of Mark — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 5”


2022-07-10

Creating Pseudo-History (and Comedy) from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 4

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by Neil Godfrey

Nathanael Vette (NV) is demonstrating how authors of the Second Temple era drew upon Jewish Scriptures to create narratives through a wide range of literary genres, and once we are aware of the many ways they went about doing that, we can expect to find that much of the Gospel of Mark is likewise composed from Scripture not only explicitly but even implicitly, subtly, sometimes even barely noticeably.

Judith

Although Judith was most likely written around the turn of the second to first centuries BCE, the surviving evidence leads some scholars to suspect  there was little interest in the work until the late first or early second century CE. (Lawrence Wills: “By the turn of the first to second centuries CE, then, a textual tradition of Judith was already popular enough to be referenced.”) NV notes that Judith‘s “manifold historical blunders” are not necessarily the reason for its scarcity in the earliest records (making it “something of an outlier in the miscellanea of Second Temple literature”) since Daniel and Esther are also replete with “equal historical absurdity”. (You can read the story online at the Early Jewish Writings site.)

Jael and Judith (Wikimedia Commons)

Just as I was beginning to wonder how much relevance this narrative might have for an interpretation of the Gospel of Mark, a footnote by NV ripped my complacency from me the moment I followed up its references:

  1. For some, Judith’s absurdities are a sign the author intended it to be read as a kind of historical fiction; so André-Marie Dubarle, Judith: Formes et sens des diverses traditions. Tome I: Études, Analecta Biblica Investigationes Scientificae in Res Biblicas 24 (Rome: Institut Biblique Pontifical, 1966), 162-4; Enslin, The Book of Judith, 38; Moore, Judith, 76-85; Gera, Judith, 60; Lawrence Μ. Wills, Judith, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2019), 78-95; or as a ‘legend’ in Benedict Otzen, Tobit and Judith, Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (London: Sheffield Academic, 2002), 124-6. The label of historical fiction is also applied to the equally fabulous Daniel, Esther and Letter of Aristeas. There is, however, no evidence that these texts were read as fiction during the Second Temple period. A simpler explanation is that the authors merely suffered from a lack of adequate historical information. This surely lies behind the absurd detail in the Pirḳê de Rabbi Eliezer that ‘Pharaoh, king of Egypt [of Exod. 5-14] went and ruled in Nineveh [in the time of Jonah]’ (PRE 43:9). That this may also explain the historical inaccuracies in Judith is explored in an unjustly overlooked article by Alan Millard, ‘Judith, Tobit Ahiqar and History’, in New Heaven and New Earth: Prophecy and the Millenium [sic]. Essays in Honour of Anthony Gelston, eds. Peter J. Harland and Robert Hayward, VTSup 77 (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 195-203. There is less to commend Ernst Haag’s view (Studien zum Buche Judith: Seine theologische Bedeutung und literarische Eigenart, Trierer Theologische Studien 16 [Trier: Paulinus, 1963]) that Judith’s historical inaccuracies are simply part of its theological agenda. (p 86 — my bolding in all quotations)

If one cauterizes the Gospel of Mark from its historical theological status and reads it as literature alongside other early stories of Jesus, both canonical and extra-canonical, historical absurdities also emerge as they do in Judith: a Pilate cowered by a mob demanding the release of an insurrectionist and the execution of an innocent man, Pharisees touring and synagogues dotting the landscape of Galilee in the early first century, a Sanhedrin trial for a capital offence conducted at night on the eve of a holy day, Pharisees portrayed as vicious martinets, the Jerusalem temple so small a single man was capable of disrupting its traffic and business . Should we think the author of the Gospel of Mark “intended it to be read as a kind of historical or biographical fiction”?

Compare the Enslin reference: Continue reading “Creating Pseudo-History (and Comedy) from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 4”


2022-07-08

To What Shall We Compare the Gospels? — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 3

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by Neil Godfrey

Seven years ago in an online forum I discovered that another person, Ben Smith, had come to a conclusion that I had till then only been toying with. Ben had delved into the question more thoroughly than I had and encapsulated his findings as follows:

What genre do the gospels belong to? I think that they belong to whatever genre the Jewish scriptural narratives belong to. I think that they are conscious continuations of that venerable tradition.

It is not merely that the gospels draw upon and quote the Jewish narrative scriptures; Ozymandias draws upon and paraphrases histories without itself being a history. The issue is that the gospels are, through and through, the same kind of texts as the Jewish narrative scriptures.

Nathanael Vette (NV) in Writing With Scripture likewise speaks of a “biblical style” and what this means for how the reader was expected to respond to the extra-canonical work. Speaking of 1 Maccabees, NV writes,

And as Rappaport and others have observed, the author adopts an evidently ‘biblical’ style of narration. . . .

The scriptural style of 1 Maccabees serves the propagandistic aims of the author. The Hasmonaean dynasty could not easily lay hold of the traditional means of validating their rule, in either Davidic or Zadokite descent. The author thus seeks to legitimize their rule using the Jewish scriptures. (NV, 76 – The link is to the referenced page in Brill.)

The multiple genres across three languages NV selects for discussion:
— Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities (LAB) (Latin: Greek – Hebrew)
Genesis Apocryphon (Aramaic)
1 Maccabees (Greek – Hebrew vorlage)
Judith (Greek – Semitic vorlage?)
Testament of Abraham (Greek)

The second chapter of NV’s Writing With Scripture (WWS) demonstrates how multiple genres across three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) use the Jewish Scriptures in various ways to create new narratives and literary characters. The point of the exercise is to determine whether one can discern a firm foundation on which to claim that the same techniques were used in the composition of the Gospel of Mark. If the Gospel of Mark reads like an extension of Jewish Scripture and is woven with scriptural allusions, then it is reasonable to conclude that its author was following some of the literary practices we find in other literature of the Second Temple era. Don’t misunderstand, though. NV is not suggesting that the Gospel is entirely fabricated. He will explain in a later section his reason for believing that historical events do lie behind the “scripturalized traditions”.

So let’s resume my discussion or review of WWS. The previous installments (with corrections since I first posted them) are at

Continue reading “To What Shall We Compare the Gospels? — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 3”


2022-07-06

Creating New Stories from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

This is the second post in my review of Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark. The series is being archived at Vette: Writing With Scripture. For a richer understanding of the creative literary world that gave rise to our Gospel I highly recommend reading these reviews of Vette’s work alongside an earlier series on Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity by Eva Mroczek: those posts are archived at Mroczek: Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity. While Mroczek explores the ways in which authors understood existing “scriptures” and the ways they felt justified in “rewriting” them, Nathanael Vette [NV] takes us into the close-up view of how authors of the era pieced together new stories from elements of existing ones. (Vette twice favourably cites the views of Eva Mroczek.)

Did the author of the Gospel of Mark create events in the life of Jesus by selecting and combining in new ways various passages and motifs from the Jewish Scriptures?

That Mark used the Jewish scriptures in this way depends in large part on whether this practice can be identified in other works from the period. If it can be shown across a diverse group of texts that the Jewish scriptures were regularly used to compose new narrative, then it would be appropriate to speak of scripturalized narrative as a stylistic feature of Second Temple literature. (NV, 29)

And again,

That Mark composed new stories out of scriptural elements will thus appear all the more likely if the practice can be observed elsewhere, and it is to this question the study will now turn. (NV, 31)

Here I will cover just one of the five Second Temple works that NV studies.

It makes sense to begin with having a clear idea on how to identify a “scriptural allusion or echo” in a passage, keeping in mind that the study is about more than explicitly interpreted passages and stories from (Jewish) Scripture. NV relies upon Dale Allison’s list of criteria as set out in The New Moses. Instead of repeating them here, here is the link to where I set them out, with discussion, and in comparison with other criteria for the same purpose: 3 criteria lists for literary borrowing.

NV begins with Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, or rather with three episodes from the LAB (its standard abbreviation). NV does not discuss the date of this work (Biblical Antiquities) but it is widely accepted as belonging to the Second Temple period. If you want to know why the LAB is dated to the first century see D. J. Harrington’s explanation in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume 2 at archive.org, p. 299; further, a more recent discussion appears in the German language thesis of Eckart Reinmuth, Pseudo-Philo und Lukas, also at archive.org, pp 17-26. (Both Harrington and Reinmuth are referenced in NV’s work although Reinmuth has unfortunately been overlooked from the author index.)

We cannot pinpoint precise details of how Scriptures were used in the narrative constructions of LAB since the surviving texts are Latin translations that do no more than leave hints of Hebrew and Greek source texts. Nonetheless, the narratives we have clearly indicate two levels of scriptural sourcing:

  1. a narrative in the LAB can be based primarily on a story we read in, say, the Pentateuch: that is, a retelling of the career of Israel from the time of the twelve spies being sent into Canaan through Korah’s rebellion and Balaam’s prophecies and concluding with the death of Moses;
  2. that same narrative can be supplemented by events and speeches from other, usually comparable, episodes: so sayings and incidents from Genesis, Joshua and 1 Chronicles can be introduced into the main narrative to enrich it with new detail.

Hence, we read in LAB 17:

Then was the lineage of the priests of God declared by the choosing of a tribe, and it was said unto Moses: Take throughout every tribe one rod and put them in the tabernacle, and then shall the rod of him to whomsoever my glory shall speak, flourish, and I will take away the murmuring from my people. 2. And Moses did so and set 12 rods, and the rod of Aaron came out, and put forth blossom and yielded seed of almonds. 3. And this likeness which was born there was like unto the work which Israel wrought while he was in Mesopotamia with Laban the Syrian, when he took rods of almond, and put them at the gathering of waters, and the cattle came to drink and were divided among the peeled rods, and brought forth [kids] white and speckled and parti-coloured.

That’s quite straightforward. But what is of interest to us is when this author (who was once mistaken for Philo) creates new episodes from the raw materials of Scripture.

NV itemizes several examples. One that he does not elaborate on did catch my attention because it stood out from the others as the creation not only of a new event but of a new character.

The figure of Aod the Midianite magician (LAB 34) is based on Moses’ description of the false prophet (Deut. 13:1-4) among other passages. (NV, 37)

I followed up the references and present here a table to demonstrate how this new person is moulded from Scripture.

Deuteronomy 13:1-4 LAB 34
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. And in that time there arose a certain Aod from the sanctuaries of Midian, and this man was a magician, and he said to Israel, “Why do you pay attention to your Law? Come, I will show you something other than your Law.” And the people said, “What will you show us that our Law does not have?” And he said to the people, “Have you ever seen the sun by night?” And they said, “No.” And he said, “Whenever you wish, I will show it to you in order that you may know that our gods have power and do not deceive those who serve them.” And they said, “Show it. “And he went away and worked with his magic tricks and gave orders to the angels who were in charge of magicians, for he had been sacrificing to them for a long time. Because in that time before they were condemned, magic was revealed by angels and they would have destroyed the age without measure; and because they had transgressed, it happened that the angels did not have the power; and when they were judged, then the power was not given over to others. And they do these things by means of those men, the magicians who minister to men, until the age without measure comes. And then by the art of magic he showed to the people the sun by night. And the people were amazed and said, “Behold how much the gods of the Midianites can do, and we did not know it.” And God wished to test if Israel would remain in its wicked deeds, and he let them be, and their work was successful. And the people of Israel were deceived and began to serve the gods of the Midianites. And God said, “I will deliver them into the hands of the Midianites, because they have been deceived by them.” And he delivered them into their hands, and the Midianites began to reduce Israel to slavery.

Okay, maybe Aod doesn’t earn top marks for creative ingenuity but it is a sign of a new individual being “born”, is it not? Perhaps you will be more impressed with an angelic figure named Nathaniel when we come to the discussion of Jair below.

The Rescue of Abram from the Fiery Furnace

Continue reading “Creating New Stories from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 2”


2022-07-01

A side-note on evidence for “scripturalized tradition” behind the gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

I wrote in the previous post that certain New Testament scholarship comes across as trying to establish the historicity of this or that detail in the Gospels by relying upon a naive reading of the text and concluding that if we cannot trace the event to some other literary influence then, by default, it is “probably historical”. (One could add to that method the default assumption that the same is true of a miracle if one can rationalize a naturalistic origin for the tale and there is no clear literary borrowing.) I won’t discuss all the problems with that sort of default reasoning (I have posted many times on historical methods, both the flawed and the flawless) but want to focus on just one passage in Paul’s writings that has been used as evidence that the authors of the Gospels often drew upon oral traditions that were repeated and mingled with scriptures in the course of their retelling. Here is what I wrote a day or so ago offering my problem with Mark Goodacre’s claim that Paul’s discussion of the eucharist is possible evidence for such pre-gospel (“scripturalized”) oral traditions:

Goodacre attempts, in part, to justify how “scripturalization” worked by reference to Paul’s message to the Corinthians about the “tradition” he received on the institution of the eucharist:

I Cor. 11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread,24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Goodacre comments:

Which came first? Historical event or biblical precedent? Crossan’s answer is clear: ‘In the beginning was passion prophecy, not passion narrative’. But what if Paul gives us the best clue by placing tradition alongside the scriptures, seeing one interacting with the other, uniting event with precedent? If history and scripture were from the first in conversation with one another, perhaps the best answer to the question is to say, with a celebration of its ambiguity and an investment in its dual meaning, In the beginning was the Word. (p. 51 – my bolding)

But “tradition” is not what we see in Paul’s words. Paul speaks of what he received from the Lord, not from others. (Many attempt to find a way to argue that Paul meant that he received the “tradition” from other persons but that’s not what we read in his letter to the Corinthians.) Another item missing from Paul’s discussion is “Scripture”. So the passage does not combine tradition and Scripture and accordingly fails as a support for Goodacre’s explanation of how scripturalization worked as far as I can see.

What I want to add here is that all the other surviving evidence that we have for early Christian thought tells us that the “tradition” supposedly passed on by Paul was unknown to anyone else — at least until (if we rely solely on  hard evidence and not hypothetical models of transmission) late in the second century.

The first letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians does not confirm such a tradition. But we can simply respond that this letter’s silence on the words used by Jesus tells us that there was no disagreement with what Paul wrote long before.

But another document, one dated by some as early as the first century, is the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” or Didache and we should compare what it says about the “tradition” that some assume was passed on by Paul from the other apostles:

9.1 Concerning the thanksgiving give thanks thus: 9.2 First, concerning the cup: “We give thanks to you, our Father, For the holy vine of David your servant which you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant. To you be glory for ever”. 9.3 And concerning the fragment: “We give thanks to you, our Father, For the life and knowledge, which you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant”. But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs”. 10.1 After you have had your fill, give thanks thus: 10.2 We give thanks to you holy Father for your holy Name which you have made to dwell in our hearts and for the knowledge, faith and immortality which you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant. To you be glory for ever. 10.3 You Lord almighty have created everything for the sake of your Name; you have given human beings food and drink to partake with enjoyment so that they might give thanks; but to us you have given the grace of spiritual food and drink and of eternal life through Jesus your servant. 10.4 Above all we give you thanks because you are mighty. To you be glory for ever. 10.5 Remember Lord your Church, to preserve it from all evil and to make it perfect in your love. And, sanctified, gather it from the four winds into your kingdom which you have prepared for it. Because yours is the power and the glory for ever. ..

Clearly that is not what Paul passed on to the Corinthians.

Then we come to Justin Martyr of the mid second century. Surely by now we will see clear evidence of this “tradition” stamped with apostolic authority, but here is what Justin wrote:

And this food is called among us Eukaristia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn. (First Apology 66)

That’s not the “tradition” passed on by Paul. Cassells wrote quite correctly of these words of Justin:

This passage, it will be remembered, occurs in an elaborate apology for Christianity addressed to the Roman emperors, and here Justin is giving an account of the most solemn sacrament of his religion. Here, if ever, we might reasonably expect accuracy and care, and Justin, in fact, carefully indicates the source of the quotation he is going to make. . . . Justin distinctly states that the Apostles in these Memoirs have “thus” (ούτως) transmitted what was enjoined on us by Jesus, and then gives the precise quotation . . . (Cassells, p. 320)

And again in his Dialogue with Trypho we find a thought far removed from anything in Paul’s address to the Corinthians:

“Ye shall see the King with glory, and your eyes shall look far off. Your soul shall pursue diligently the fear of the Lord. Where is the scribe? where are the counsellors? where is he that numbers those who are nourished,–the small and great people? with whom they did not take counsel, nor knew the depth of the voices, so that they heard not. The people who are become depreciated, and there is no understanding in him who hears.’ Now it is evident, that in this prophecy [allusion is made] to the bread which our Christ gave us to eat, in remembrance of His being made flesh for the sake of His believers, for whom also He suffered; and to the cup which He gave us to drink, in remembrance of His own blood, with giving of thanks. And this prophecy proves that we shall behold this very King with glory. (ch 70)

If Justin is truly reporting the tradition passed on by the apostles, then we have a problem if we think Paul meant to say that he passed on the tradition from the apostles. When Paul writes that he received his knowledge “from the Lord”, then perhaps he did not mean “from the apostles” after all. Perhaps he was introducing something new that was not part of the “tradition” circulating, supposedly, among the other apostles.

But from here we can branch out into many questions about the integrity of Paul’s writings as we have them, their date, their influence, when and on whom, and so forth. The point I wish to underscore is that the 1 Cor 11:23-26 is problematic if we try to use it as evidence for pre-gospel authoritative apostolic oral tradition.

 

 

 


2022-06-28

How and Why the Gospel of Mark Used Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 1

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by Neil Godfrey

When I offered to post a comprehensive review of Writing With Scripture by Nathanael Vette the publisher sent me a copy and now I hope this first in a series of reviews will begin to do justice to all concerned and interested. I write primarily as a layman for interested lay readers.

Who is Nathanael Vette?

Nathanael Vette [NV] appears on the University of Edinburgh’s site as a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the School of Divinity.

In the book’s Acknowledgements NV thanks Helen Bond for supervising the research that led to this book. Other names many readers of this blog will recognize and who are singled out for gratitude are Mark Goodacre (one of NV’s doctoral examiners), James McGrath (for feedback) and Chris Keith (editor of the series accepting Writing With Scripture for publication). There are other names, of course, but I have listed for context those I think to be most widely known among lay readers. NV also gives a special appreciation to the Issachar Fund “for their generous sponsorship”.

My postdoctoral fellowship at the School of Divinity is sponsored by the Issachar Fund for researching the themes of gratitude and loyalty in Christianity and Islam. My primary research is on the Gospel of Mark and how compositional practices in Second Temple Judaism can help explain the emergence of the Gospel form. (From NV’s profile)

Overview

Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark is divided into four chapters:

The Introduction sets out the two different ways in which Jewish Scriptures are found in the Gospel of Mark: some are explicitly quoted and interpreted or merely alluded to in order “to support an argument or interpret an event”; others we sense are somehow “hidden” insofar as they are “woven seamlessly into the narrative” and we are left wondering why the author wrote that way. Was the author attempting to indicate to readers that Jesus fulfilled the “prophecies” of the Jewish Scriptures? Were events fabricated from those Scriptures or were historical events interpreted through them? Or were the Scriptures borrowed for some other reason? The Introduction will be the focus of this post.

The second chapter sets out a literary context for the Gospel of Mark by examining how Jewish Scriptures are used, both explicitly and implicitly, in Second Temple literature: episodes in Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (Book of Biblical Antiquities), the Genesis Apocryphon, 1 Maccabees, Judith and the Testament of Abraham. I found these to be some of the book’s most rewarding passages. Many readers have been made aware of scholarly studies comparing the Gospel of Mark with Greco-Roman literature (e.g. Homeric epics, Greek tragedy, Aesop, and others) so it is refreshing to be reminded of the Jewish literary context of the Gospel.

The third chapter zeroes in on several passages in the Gospel of Mark itself: those comparing Jesus with Elijah and then with Elisha, the resonances between the death of John the Baptist and the narrative of Esther, and of course the use of Scriptures throughout the Passion Narrative. How do the uses of the “Old Testament” compare in these passages with OT usages in the literature discussed in the preceding chapter? What can be reasonably concluded about the purpose of those usages as a result of the comparisons? NV argues that many of those Jewish scriptural allusions are found in the Gospel because they happened to be raw material the author found useful for fleshing out narrative scenes. In other words, we are in danger of reading too much into the Gospel if we seek to find a theological meaning behind many of the Scriptural allusions.

Finally, NV brings together the different ways in which we find Scripture used in the Gospel of Mark and what these can tell us about the influences and purposes of the narrative. The question that naturally arises is how much of what we read in the Gospel has been imaginatively invented by an author from OT passages and how much can qualify as historical reality? And how can we tell the difference? These questions are posed throughout the book in preparation for a final discussion and assessment at its end.

Introduction

Continue reading “How and Why the Gospel of Mark Used Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 1”


2022-06-24

The Two Witnesses in Revelation 11: the theories

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by Neil Godfrey

The two witnesses, as depicted in the Bamberg Apocalypse, an 11th-century illuminated manuscript. Wikimedia Commons

This post picks up from Measuring the Temple where we set out various interpretations of the first two verses of Revelation 11 (where John is commanded to measure the temple) as they are discussed by Bielefeld University‘s Professor Thomas Witulski in  Apk 11 und der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand. Here we do the same for the two witnesses in Rev 11:3-13.

There have been two approaches to the scholarly work on the two witnesses: one search has attempted to find the models from Jewish traditions upon which the two witnesses are based; the other has focussed on identifying the figures “in reality”: are they historical persons who embody ancient prophetic characters, or are they two ancient prophets returned at the moment of crisis, or are they meant to be symbols?

The early Jewish templates

Enoch and Elijah come to mind on the basis that both are said to have ascended to heaven without first dying. There was apparently a widespread belief that one or both of them would return one day to complete the work they had begun before being taken to heaven. One has to wonder how such a model fits Rev 11:6 which reads much more like the works of Moses, though:

and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague . . .

Victorinus of Pettau wrote one of the earliest commentaries on Revelation in which he proposed that the models for the two witnesses were Elijah and Jeremiah. Victorinus relied upon a tradition that Jeremiah, like Elijah, had been translated to heaven without seeing death. W. notes, however, that the same kind of problem applies to Jeremiah: the two witnesses perform the works of Elijah (calling fire down from heaven and proclaiming the end to rainfall for an extended period) and Moses (turning waters to blood and striking the earth with plagues) — none of which can be related to anything we know of Jeremiah.

Since Elijah eliminated his enemies by calling down fire from heaven and punishing Israel with a drought, and Moses turned waters to blood and ordered plague after plague, most exegetes have settled on Elijah and Moses being the templates for the two witnesses. They perform the same miracles, after all. Christian tradition, according to the canonical gospels, further links Elijah and Moses at the time they appeared together at Christ’s transfiguration.

Nonetheless, the notion that Moses had ascended to heaven in the past as Elijah had done is “only very rarely attested in Jewish and Christian tradition, if at all.” (Witulski p. 9 – citing Aune)

Witulski concludes that while it cannot be denied that the author of Revelation used traditional material form Jewish and Christian sources, his interest was not to equate the two witnesses with those traditional figures but only to use traditional motifs to shape a particular profile for them.

Who/What are they? 

Are they symbolic figures?

Continue reading “The Two Witnesses in Revelation 11: the theories”