Author Archives: Tim Widowfield

Vridar Maintenance

Greetings, Vridarians.

As your humble custodian and dishwasher, I would like you to know that we’ve implemented some updates here. The biggest change you’ll notice is that we’ve switched over to https/ssl for everything. So, if you noticed some glitches in the past 24 hours, that was most likely us, banging around in the kitchen.

Please let me know if you come across any problems. You can respond here (below), on Facebook, or via email (widowfield at gmail dot com).

Cheers!

–Tim

Dealing with Silence and the Absence of Evidence in an Age of Resurgent Orthodoxy

In the world of biblical studies, scholars and laypeople alike tell us over and over that the absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence — and with good reason. Actually, they have two good reasons. First, it is true, in a technical sense. They are not identical propositions. And second, they have to keep telling us, because we keep not finding evidence.

Scholars of ancient history have long had to deal with the lack of evidence, and to determine what, if anything, it means. They ponder especially over expected evidence that refuses to be found.

What is and what is not

Consider, for a moment, what we mean by “describing” something. Its Latin root scribus, to write, reminds us that we’re writing down (de-) what something is. Yet each time we commit to writing what something is, we imply what it is not.

The act of describing is the act of drawing a circle on a Venn diagram. Things inside the circle are “X”; things outside the circle are not “X.” Recall that the Indo-European root of scribus is the word for “cut, separate, or sift.” To describe something is to scratch mentally a circle in which X resides.

Imagine that objects of type X are red. Therefore, a green object cannot be an X. We may find such statements a bit too dogmatic, and so we soften them — “All known objects of type X are red.” “We do not expect to find green instances of X.”

The Battle of Jericho — History?

You will recognize this immediately as an inductive argument, as we’re trying to build a model that accounts for and describes the properties of objects of type X, via a process of investigating known instances. In the real world, people used to say that all swans are white, which led to the classic “surprise” at finding the first black swan.

What did you expect?

However, I would again draw your attention to a key concept in this discussion: expectation. People expected the next swan they saw would be white, because all previous swans they had encountered were white. European and American archaeologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries expected to find lots of tangible evidence for the United Kingdom of David and Solomon. The books they held to be true history (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles) led them to expect it.

But then the unexpected happened. They kept not finding evidence. What did that mean? Did the evidence disappear? Were we extremely unlucky in our searches? read more »

Saul’s Folly: The King Can’t Be a Jack of All Trades

King Saul

Brooding King Saul, detail from Ernst Josephson’s “David och Saul”

While thumbing through Cristiano Grottanelli’s Kings and Prophets: Monarchic Power, Inspired Leadership, and Sacred Text in Biblical Narrative, I remember now why I snatched it up a couple of years ago. For some time now, I’ve been working on a simple thesis that would explain the silence regarding Jesus’ actual teaching in the epistles (of Paul, pseudo-Paul, and others).

The Threefold Office

Simply put, I suggest that the root of the issue arises from the earliest Christians’ conception of the messiah and to which office or offices he belonged. We see for example, in Paul’s discussion of the lineage of David, the concept of a kingly messiah. On the other hand, we see in the book of Hebrews a detailed conception of the messiah as priest.

However, in the earliest texts we see practically no hint of Jesus as prophet. Not until the gospels, written decades later, do we find concrete evidence — the strongest, of course, coming from Jesus himself. First in Mark:

But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. (6:4, KJV)

Copied in Matthew:

And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house. (13:57, KJV)

Edited in Luke:

And he said, Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country. (4:24, KJV)

And referred to in John:

For Jesus himself testified, that a prophet hath no honour in his own country. (4:44, KJV)

These statements are obviously late and apologetic in character. They seek to explain why Jesus’ own family, village and nation rejected him. But they also point to a seismic shift in the conception of Jesus and which category (or categories) he belongs to. The identity of Jesus is bound up in Christians’ conception of him as king, priest, and (lastly) prophet.

These categories, by the way, would be further crystalized by later church writers such as Eusebius (Church History, Book I, 3:8) —  read more »

What’s the Matter with Biblical Scholarship? Part 2

Underestimating serious problems

While researching background information on a post I’ve been picking away at for several weeks, I came across a problem that bothered me to the point where I had to pull some books out of storage.

As you no doubt recall, the consensus explanation for the Synoptic Problem posits a “Q” source that Matthew and Luke used. But they also copied Mark.

Who touched me?

According to the theory, the authors of those two later gospels used their sources completely independently, and edited their material according to their own tendencies. So when we happen upon a passage in which Matthew and Luke redact Markan source material in exactly the same way, we take notice. We call these passages “minor agreements,” in keeping with NT scholarship’s penchant for underestimating potentially fatal flaws.

Sometimes these agreements span just two or three words, and even in this case it’s only five words, but remarkable nonetheless. As the woman with the issue of blood approaches Jesus through the crowd, she reaches out.

  • Mark 5:27:

ἐλθοῦσα ἐν τῷ ὄχλῳ ὄπισθεν ἥψατο τοῦ ἱματίου αὐτοῦ
(having come in the crowd behind touched the clothing of him)

  • Matthew 9:20b:

προσελθοῦσα ὄπισθεν ἥψατο τοῦ κρασπέδου τοῦ ἱματίου αὐτοῦ
(having approached behind touched the fringe of the clothing of him)

  • Luke 8:44a:

προσελθοῦσα ὄπισθεν ἥψατο τοῦ κρασπέδου τοῦ ἱματίου αὐτοῦ
(having approached behind touched the fringe of the clothing of him)

Interpolations and non-interpolations

Preliminary checks online showed that the reading in the extant manuscripts of Luke can either look like Matthew or like Mark. The Markan reading — without the fringes — is much less common. However, its existence causes us to wonder which is correct, and what are the arguments for preferring one over the other.

I especially wanted to see what Burnett Hillman Streeter and Bruce Manning Metzger had to say about the matter. Streeter’s 1924 book, The Four Gospels, contains an entire chapter dealing with the minor agreements in which he explains them in light of the Two-Source Hypothesis.

Here’s what Streeter had to say on the subject: read more »

What’s the Matter with Biblical Scholarship? Part 1

The king is a what?

We had finally made an end-to-end connection from an automated teller machine (ATM), through our alarm-correlation engine, and into our trouble-ticketing system. Actually, we probably simulated something like a paper jam, but the free text description that went along with that alarm type contained this message: The King Is a Fink!”

Why? We were following an old tradition. At NCR, it signified a successful test. Over at HP, I’m told, they would transmit the sentence, “My hovercraft is full of eels!” So I suppose their chief engineer liked to watch Monty Python, while NCR’s enjoyed the comic strip, The Wizard of Id.

It was the late 1990s, and I was a contractor visiting the development team in Copenhagen, Denmark. They had other traditions there, too. Later that afternoon, we celebrated our success in the break room, where they offered me truly awful champagne (deliberately so) and some bright pink marshmallow peeps. I declined the peeps, having become a vegetarian ten years earlier.

At some point during the celebration, somebody asked to nobody in particular, “What is a fink?” I paused to think about that one. How would you define that word in terms a Dane or, for that matter, any non-English speaker would understand? My mind wandered to “Rat Pfink a Boo Boo” — and how would you ever explain that?

Before I could answer, a Danish woman who had spent her teens in the U.S. said, “It’s a bird. It’s supposed to be a ‘finch.’ The king is a finch.” Some nodded. Others were still perplexed. After all, why would you compare a monarch to a bird? read more »

Reading the Bible Like a Fundamentalist: What Does That Mean?

I had meant to say something about this subject over a month ago as it popped up in my Facebook feed, when Benjamin Corey over on Patheos asked, “Why Do Intelligent Atheists Still Read The Bible Like Fundamentalists?

I was a fundamentalist until my mid-teens, and even though that was quite a long time ago, I still remember what it was like to think and believe like one. Longtime Vridar readers may recall serious scholars like Maurice Casey bemoaning the supposed fundamentalist nature of mythicism. Once a fundie, always a fundie, eh wot? For the sophisticated polyglot like the late Dr. Casey, what could be worse than calling one’s enemy a closed-minded fundamentalist?

My early warning systems start honking whenever I see someone accuse another person of doing anything “like a fundamentalist,” since it often signals a sweeping dismissal. Not only that, but often, at the heart of it, the accusation seeks to terminate rather than continue the debate.

Corey is sort of right, up to a point. Christians have a long history of tolerance or at least ambivalence toward tattoos. Sure, there’s that verse in Leviticus (19:28) but this subject falls within the body of ritual law. Just as Christians have no problem with shaving their beards or eating dead pigs, they probably won’t have an issue with the cutting or marking of the skin. They might not like them personally, but they wouldn’t claim that tattoos will keep you out of paradise.

And that would hold true for fundamentalist Christians as well. They say they read the Bible literally and believe it to be the inerrant Word of God. But what does that mean in practice? Suppose, for example, as a child I had read Leviticus 19:28 and felt troubled about it, what do you think I would have done? read more »

The Enigma of Genre and The Gospel of John

In an earlier post, I wrote:

Seen from the perspective of believers, the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are disconcertingly different. On the other hand, if we clear our minds of the anxiety of historicity, we see that Mark and John resemble one another much more than they do any “other” Greco-Roman biography.

Notice that both gospels don’t begin with the birth of the subject (Jesus) or even vignettes from his childhood. Instead, they start with John the Baptist. In fact, both John and Mark have the Baptist utter the very first words of direct speech.

Charles Harold Dodd

The fact that John’s pattern for writing a gospel — what the Germans refer to as Gattung — seems suspiciously similar to Mark’s pattern did not escape Charles H. Talbert’s notice. In What Is a Gospel? he wrote:

The heritage of the last generation’s research, as enshrined in the commentaries on the Fourth Gospel by C. H. Dodd and Rudolf Bultmann, has supplied us with the working hypothesis that John and the Synoptics are independent of one another. James M. Robinson has seen that this hypothesis poses the problem of explaining how the same Gattung could emerge independently in two different trajectories, the synoptic and the Johannine.

If, as is usually supposed, Mark was the creator of the literary genre gospel and if John was independent of Mark, where did the fourth Evangelist get his pattern? (Talbert 1986, p. 9-10, bold emphasis mine)

Mark’s Pattern

The consensus among NT scholars for over a century has held that sayings of and stories about Jesus floated freely, first as oral history — kept alive through telling and retelling by his disciples — then as oral tradition, and finally as written gospels. But those first “gospels” were, so the reasoning goes, more or less freeform collections. Not until Mark did we at last see the first narrative gospel, which integrated the stories, sayings, and parables, laid out structurally as a journey along the path from Galilee to Jerusalem, with a tacked-on, pre-existing Passion Narrative.

[James M. Robinson] states that “the view that one distinctive Gattung Gospel emerged sui generis from the uniqueness of Christianity seems hardly tenable.” [Robinson (Trajectories) p. 235, 1971] The emergence of Mark and John independently points to the necessity for a reexamination of the question of the genre of the canonical gospels. (Talbert 1986, p. 10)

Wow. Can you believe Bultmann had the nerve to insist that the author of the Fourth Gospel had no knowledge at all of Mark’s gospel and failed to realize that John’s independent invention of a supposedly unique Gattung strains credulity?  read more »

Ancient vs. Modern Biographies: Didn’t Bultmann Know the Difference?

While reading Michael Licona’s recent book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, I came upon this little nugget.

[Richard] Burridge and [Graham] Gould say Bultmann was correct in asserting that the Gospels do not look anything like modern biography. What Bultmann neglected to observe, however, is that neither do any other ancient biographies. Differing from modern biography, which is a product of the nineteenth century, ancient biographical conventions provided authors a license to depart from the degree of precision in reporting that many of us moderns prefer. (Licona 2016, p. 5, emphasis mine)

Is that true? Did Rudolf Bultmann really not know the differences between a modern biography and an ancient biography? Further, did he embarrass himself in public by confusing the two while no one until the late twentieth century dared to speak up? And finally, is it possible that Vizzini was smarter than the classical Greek philosophers?

 

If you’ve read a lot of modern scholarship, you might think that. Still, you may have a lingering, nagging suspicion that Bultmann might have known better. After all, students of his generation would have read Greek and Latin classics while attending the gymnasium. And it seems hard to believe he wouldn’t have had a passing familiarity with the longstanding debates around historiography, and the fact that ancient authors of βίοι had far different goals in mind compared to modern biographers. read more »

How and Why Plutarch Expanded His “Lives”

In his recent book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, Michael Licona struggles to show that we skeptics make far too much of the differences in the canonical gospels. Many of these differences, he argues, result from ordinary compositional devices typically used by authors of Greco-Roman biographies.

This volume will pursue the identification of several techniques employed in the writing of ancient history and biography that can be gleaned from compositional textbooks and inferred from observations of the differences in how Plutarch reported the same events in nine of his Lives. We will also observe how the employment of these techniques by the evangelists would result in precisely the types of differences we often observe in the Gospels. (Licona, 2017, Location 268, Kindle Edition)

Licona’s methodology, such as it is, invites us to concentrate our attention on actions as mere techniques. Imagine, for example, watching a large truck barreling down a multilane highway at great speed, then swerving for some reason. Now imagine a bicyclist riding down a country path, then swerving for some reason. Since NT scholars “know” that a bicycle is really just a truck, can we infer that swerving is just some sort of “driving technique” employed by all truckers?

Motiveless motion?

Perhaps not. Maybe the key is not to focus on the act, but on the motives. When we ask the truck driver, he may tell us that he was trying to avoid a deer, while the bicyclist may explain that she hit a rock lying in the path. Our superficial concentration on the event with the truck tells us nothing of consequence with respect to the adventure of the solitary cyclist. read more »

What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?

Plutarch

Plutarch

Because so many NT scholars desperately want the gospels to be both Greco-Roman biographies and reliable histories, we could almost forget that these two forms of literature are not the same. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what Plutarch said:

It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives.

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.

Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others. (Plutarch’s Alexander [emphasis and reformatting mine])

We could boil these comments down into the following points. A biography: read more »

Happy Anniversary to Vridar!

Seven years ago, Neil registered with WordPress.com and Vridar was born. Thanks, Neil!

Michael Licona Asks, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?”

[Edit: When first published, this post credited Michael Bird instead of Michael Licona for this book. I can’t explain it, other than a total brain-fart, followed by the injudicious use of mass find-and-replace. My apologies to everyone. –Tim]

We have to dig deep to find something nice to say about Michael R. Licona’s new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? Perhaps the best thing I can come up with is that he didn’t insert the word apparent to soften the blow. Other apologists will tell us why we needn’t worry about “apparent differences” or “seeming contradictions.” Not Licona. He acknowledges the differences and says he wants to find out how they got there.

Poor Ancient Historians

In his foreword, Craig Evans notes the variations among the evangelists and asks:

How is this to be explained? Should these discrepancies be regarded as errors? Were the Gospel writers poor historians? Have they told the truth about Jesus?

Such is the strange and mysterious world of NT scholarship. How can we explain these bizarre questions?

According to some of today’s most prolific writers in biblical scholarship, the evangelists — the authors of the canonical gospels — were historians and writers of Greco-Roman biographies. They reach these conclusions via embarrassingly obvious cherry-picking, which leaves them with a pile of incongruous evidence, which they feel compelled to explain away. read more »

Is Jesus’ Itinerancy a Secure Fact or a Narrative Device?

Scholars who study the historical Jesus will sometimes compile lists of minimal “secure facts” — the few things we can be reasonably certain “must be” true about the life of Christ. At the barest minimum, we have: “An itinerant Jewish teacher or preacher from Galilee who was crucified by Pilate.”

In the words of E. P. Sanders:

We have seen that the gospels depict Jesus and his disciples as itinerant. Some or all of them had homes and families, but they spent a lot of time on the road, and there is no mention of their working during Jesus’ active career. In part they were busy proclaim­ing the kingdom; in part the condition of the call of the close disciples was that they give up everything. (Sanders 1993, p. 107)

Bricks and mortar

The overwhelming number of NT scholars today would likely tell us that the reason the gospels portray a traveling Jesus is that such a portrayal reflects reality. But recently, while reading Redactional Style in the Marcan Gospel by E. J. Pryke, it struck me that many of the key redactional elements in Mark, our first narrative gospel, have to do with time and place. In other words, when Mark joined his stories together he needed some brief connecting language to create some sort of flow. Changing the time and place provides an implicit explanation for a change in subject and audience.

Mark, as you know, frequently didn’t care to elaborate on these shifts in place and time. In fact, quite often he barely takes the time to say Jesus and his cohorts “immediately” went from location A to location B.

And immediately after they came out of the synagogue, they came into the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. (Mark 1:29, NASB)

Redaction critics look for linguistic markers (peculiar usage, telltale vocabulary, etc.) that would tend to signify the parts of the gospels that are probably redactional. In other words, they look for indicators that help discriminate between the story-bricks and the redaction-mortar that holds them together.

Each evangelist had his own set of quirks. Pryke notes that Mark, for example, had a habit of using the genitive absolute when introducing a new pericope. In a nutshell, the genitive absolute is a short participial phrase unrelated to the main clause except, in Mark’s case, as a kind of introductory scene-setting device. In Mark 5:2, for example, we have: read more »

Paul and Eschatalogical Morality

In a recent post (What a Bizarre Profession), Neil cited James McGrath over at The Pigeon Trough, discussing Paul’s admonition to the Romans not to resist the powers that be.

13:1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
13:2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.  (NASB)

English: The Apostle Paul

English: The Apostle Paul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Naturally, McGrath mainly wished to take a few fizzling fusillades at mythicists, and that’s no surprise. What did surprise me was the number of respected scholars who actually take the scripture so seriously (if not literally), they feel obliged to tie themselves into rhetorical knots over whether and when to refuse to submit to governing authorities.

As Neil rightly said:

This human universal owes precious little to a few words written from a vaguely understood context and provenance in a civilization far removed from ours.

But even if he had written more clearly, and we fully understood the context of Romans 13, would we have any reason to consider Paul a trustworthy advocate for ethical behavior?

The question intrigues me, so I thought I’d compile a little list of reasons we might not want to trust Paul’s advice.

♦ Imminent Eschatology

Paul was clearly a believer in the imminent eschaton. He seems to have arrived at this belief by analyzing recent events, especially the resurrection, in light of scriptural reinterpretation. We might find his method somewhat odd, since he could have cited the teachings of his Christ instead. However, Paul either chose not to mention Jesus’ predictions concerning the coming of the Son of Man and the destruction of the Temple, or else he was unaware of them. read more »