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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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.

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”


2022-07-21

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”


2022-07-06

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”


2022-07-02

K. L. Schmidt’s “Framework” Part 1: Introduction — Duration and Timeline

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by Tim Widowfield

[Read at archive.org]
In his introductory chapter to The Framework of the Story of Jesus, Karl Ludwig Schmidt examined the overall outline and implied duration of Jesus’ ministry. (Note: We’ll be looking at both the German original and the new English translation by Byron McCane.)

The chronological debate

In the case of canonical gospel chronologies, debate on the matter of Synoptic vs. Johannine has continued decade after decade with no apparent end in sight. Apologists, for whom clever harmonization is a virtue, have diligently tried to make all the pieces fit, using every well-known tool. Sadly, the plain meaning of the text will rarely survive the most ingenious attempts at harmonization.

When confronted with two bits of contradictory evidence, X and Y, we have four possibilities:

  1. X and Y are both true. (We simply need to explain away the “apparent” contradictions.)
  2. X is true, and Y is false.
  3. Y is true, and X is false.
  4. Neither X nor Y is true. (Or at least, not entirely true.)

Schmidt surveyed the existing works on the subject, pointing out how champions of either chronology (Johannine or Synoptic) easily saw the discrepancies on the opposite side while blind to their own — mote vs. beam, so to speak. Ultimately, we can’t rely on any of the gospels when it comes to sequence or duration.

Harmonization

Those brave souls who tried to fit both chronologies into a single coherent timeline earned some measure of admiration in Schmidt’s eyes. Heaven knows they put forth a valiant effort. However, at some point, such scholars must argue for an interpolation here or there, or argue that the plain meaning of this or that verse actually meant something else. Or perhaps, as Hans Windisch would insist, some of the chapters must be out of order.

In our own day, we still see scholars arguing that Jesus cleansed the Jerusalem Temple early in his career (John) and then again during his last week on Earth (Synoptics). Maybe he did it several years in a row without ever getting arrested, because — well, why the hell not? If we step back and honestly evaluate the process of apologetic harmonization, we see that it is at least as corrosive as “skeptical” critical analysis. Why, we must finally ask ourselves, do we continually rework the evidence to fit an unchanging (and unchangeable) conclusion? At best, it is harmless busy work. At worst, it’s dishonest mental gymnastics. [I’m expressing my own thoughts here, not Schmidt’s, by the way.] Continue reading “K. L. Schmidt’s “Framework” Part 1: Introduction — Duration and Timeline”


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”


2022-06-22

Revelation 12: The Woman, the Child, the Dragon – Wellhausen’s view

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by Neil Godfrey

In Revelation 12 the character of the narrator-visionary, John, is exposed to two visions in heaven: one of a woman clothed with the sun, moon and the twelve constellations who is about to give birth to a child; the other of a dragon, a war in heaven (against the one clothed in the heavenly bodies of the sun, moon and constellations?) and the fall of that dragon to earth.

Once the dragon has fallen to earth, we learn that the heavenly events were harbingers of events on earth: the woman in heaven is now seen on earth. The moment she gives birth the child is snatched away from the threatening dragon and taken to heaven. (Recall the book of Daniel: there we read that everything that happens on earth is anticipated in heaven; all earthly battles are first fought out in the skies by the heavenly representatives of the earthly powers.) The dragon then chases after the woman who has to flee into the wilderness for safety. The dragon accordingly changes its plans and turns back to attack the other children of the woman. These are said to keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.

Julius Wellhausen demonstrated the parallel visions in Revelation 12 with the following table:

Julius Wellhausen

The following argument is a paraphrase of Wellhausen’s Zur apokalyptischen Literatur.

On earth, the dragon is evidently the Roman empire. (This conclusion derives from a comparison with the information about the beast with seven heads and ten horns in chapters 13 and 17.) The woman appears to be Zion, the twelve-tribes of Israel, who gives birth to the messiah, the one whom Revelation declares will rule the nations with a “rod of iron”. But what kind of Messiah is this? Wellhausen writes,

But it is disputed whether Sion and the Messiah are Christian or Jewish terms here. The question is not already answered by the fact that the Revelation of John as a whole, in its present form, is a Christian book. For the last author used sources and possibly Jewish sources. (Wellhausen, 218 – translation)

The episode of the birth and immediate rapture of the child from earth is unlike any Jewish expectation of a messiah that we know of, but it is also clearly not a part of all we know of Christian views of the messiah, either.

Revelation 12 can hardly be interpreted in any way that allows for a growth of the child to manhood, his life and ministry on earth, nor of his death on earth. Revelation 12 clearly leads readers to understand that the child is snatched up to heaven the moment it is born. Note that in verse 4 the dragon is standing beside the woman waiting for the moment the child is born. There is no scope for the child to grow to adulthood on earth.

Many Christians have interpreted the woman of Revelation 12 as the church. But that view likewise brings insuperable difficulties with it. How can the messiah be the son of the church, one born through the church? The Christian church holds the Christ to be its head, not its child.

If we think of the woman as Israel, however, there is no problem with the idea of the messiah being born from that nation represented as a woman. Jesus was born of his mother Israel or more specifically, Judah.

Another difficulty with reading Revelation 12 as an orthodox Christian text is that it claims the primary enemy of the messiah is the Roman empire. Not the Jews, or any group among the Jews such as the Pharisees or Herodians. In Revelation 12 the only enemy of the messiah is Rome. The Jews are the (loving) mother of the messiah. But Rome is not depicted as the enemy of the messiah from the moment of his birth but even before his birth! How do we make sense of this from a Christian perspective?

Revelation 12 allows no room for a crucifixion of the messiah, certainly not on earth. The Jews are not enemies of the messiah in Revelation 12. Only the Romans are his enemy.

From all of this it follows that the flight of the woman into the wilderness cannot be an allusion to the flight of Christians from Jerusalem to Pella to escape the final destruction of Rome in 70 CE, nor can that flight of the woman in Revelation 12 be a reference to any part of the body of Christianity at any time. The flight to Pella of the Jewish Christians is said to have happened some near 70 years after the birth of the messiah. That time gap is not possible for Revelation 12’s account of the birth of the child and flight of the woman. The two are effectively simultaneous events.

Wellhausen concludes,

The child is not the historical Messiah of the Christians, but an imagined one of the Jews. The vision consists of a Jewish prophecy. (220 – translation)

The author of Revelation 12 is drawing upon the time schedule of the book of Daniel to come to 1260 days. In Daniel we read of a persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes and the visionary of Revelation is expecting a similar time-table with the Roman oppressors.

The woman of Revelation 12 is the portion of the Jewish nation that escaped from the Roman army and continued to maintain their polity elsewhere. These were the Jews who fled from Jerusalem and thus escaped a deadly encounter with Roman forces. These Jews — many Pharisees and scribes opposed by the zealots — became the seed of a future Jewish cultural-religious (rabbinical) revival.

The Romans lost interest in pursuing those Jews and turned against those who remained in Jerusalem.

We know from the later chapters of Revelation that the messiah will come from heaven to crush the forces of evil and rule over all nations.

So why has the author of this chapter described the earthly birth of Jesus at all? What was the point?

Eberhard Vischer

Wellhausen finds the answer to that question given by Eberhard Vischer :

Vischer already answered this aptly. There seems to be a compromise between two equal demands. On the one hand, according to the old conception, the Messiah must come forth from the people of Israel, on the other hand, according to Daniel, from heaven. This is rhymed by the assumption that he was born of the mother Sion shortly before the beginning of the three and a half years, but that he was caught up into heaven immediately after his birth and thus did not stay on earth during the time of need. (Wellhausen, 221 – translation)

An analogy can be found in Isaiah chapters 7 to 9: Immanuel (“God with us”) is born at the beginning of a critical time, then disappears from view for a while, and suddenly appears in full glory at the end. That’s Wellhausen’s comment, but he adds that obviously in Isaiah there is no contrast between heaven and earth as abodes for the Christ but that Isaiah does present the pattern of birth, disappearance and return at maturity at the moment of the final stage of the crisis.

So what does all of this have to do with the new series I have begun about Revelation 11 and the command to measure the temple? Continue reading “Revelation 12: The Woman, the Child, the Dragon – Wellhausen’s view”


2022-06-20

Measuring the Temple in Revelation 11 – the Questions Arising

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by Neil Godfrey

Saint John Takes the Rod to Measure the Temple
From Wikimedia Commons

I have been attempting to share with interested English speaking readers the German language publications of Professor Thomas Witulski’s thesis that the book of Revelation was most probably written in the early 130s, the time of emperor Hadrian.

The first series surveyed the reasons for identifying the two beasts of revelation, the one from the sea and the other from the land, with Hadrian and his propagandist Polemon. We saw the case for interpreting Hadrian as a Nero redivivus and the relevance of the number 666. The same series took an overview of how Hadrian’s program of an intensified focus on emperor worship in Asia Minor along with his own unprecedented identification with Zeus himself, and the requirement of all homes to contain shrines to the emperor, explained the situations facing the seven churches addressed in the opening chapters of Revelation. (I may still add to this series with further discussion of the evidence for Hadrian’s impact on Asia Minor.)

The second series covered the four horsemen of the apocalypse and their relation to events preceding Hadrian: the two-stage conquests of Trajan; the bloodbath that covered much of the eastern Mediterranean as a result of the Jewish (probably messianic) uprisings; the effects of these rebellions on the food supply in Asia Minor; and the merciless suppression of those rebellions by the Romans.

This third series is based on a third book by Witulski, Apk 11 und der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand : eine zeitgeschichtliche Interpretation [= Rev 11 and the Bar Kokhba Uprising: a contemporary interpretation]. Those who read German are excused from reading these coming posts and turning instead to the book made available on archive.org.

One of the darkest parts of Revelation

Ulrich Müller wrote in his commentary:

Das 11. Kapitel gehört zu den dunkelsten Stücken der Offb. = Chapter 11 is one of the darkest parts of Rev. (Müller, 205)

André Feuillet wrote an article for New Testament Studies,

Le chapitre xi de l’Apocalypse est un des passages les plus discutés de ce livre, célèbre entre tous par son obscurité. = Chapter xi of the Apocalypse is one of the most discussed passages of this book, famous among all for its obscurity. (Feuillet, 183)

Pierre Prigent in his commentary:

The majority of commentators start their explanation of Rev 11 by admitting they encounter in this passage (and in chapt. 12) the greatest difficulties in the entire book. (Prigent, 337)

If hitherto the passage has been so dark, Witulski asks:

Can the text of Rev 11:1f, 3-13 . . . possibly be illuminated in a new and hitherto completely unknown way by dating of the writing of Rev to the time of Emperor Hadrian? (Witulski, 1 – translation)

Go and measure the temple

I was given a reed like a measuring rod and was told, “Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, with its worshipers. But exclude the outer court; do not measure it, because it has been given to the Gentiles. They will trample on the holy city for 42 months. — Rev 11:1-2

Since Julius Wellhausen (Analyse der Offenbarung Johannis — how can a 1907 book not be available online!*) many interpreters of Revelation 11 have agreed that the prophecy should be read as set in the last days of the Jewish War that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE. The prophecy was penned by a zealous Jew who had hoped that though the Roman armies were besieging Jerusalem there was still an expectation that God would intervene and protect the inner sanctuary of his temple. (Wellhausen pointed out that the passage has no characteristics of a Christian or Christ-related proclamation.) After all, do we not read in the account of Josephus that many Jewish defenders clung to the belief that divine deliverance was sure and imminent: Continue reading “Measuring the Temple in Revelation 11 – the Questions Arising”


2022-06-16

Simeon The Just: The Forgotten Author Of The Hebrew Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

https://independent.academia.edu/BernardBARC

Another work by a French scholar (I have posted on quite a few* on this blog), and one that I am regretting not having engaged with sooner, is Simeon The Just: The Forgotten Author Of The Hebrew Bible. Author: Bernard Barc. The Preface to the book is online so I am confident in being permitted to repost it here, in translation, with attribution. It may pique your interest in knowing more about Barc’s thesis. I expect to be posting more as I continue to read and translate it. I see Barc passed away only last year. I have had the book since 2019 and am only now catching up with it so I am sorry I left it too late to take the opportunity to correspond with him. 

Preface

Who is the author of the Torah, or at least its final editor? In 2000, Bernard Barc published Les arpenteurs du temps. Essai sur l’histoire religieuse de la Judée à l’époque hellénistique (The Surveyors of Time. Essay on the religious history of Judea in the Hellenistic period), published by the Zebre Press in Lausanne. Biblical research was then marked by the theory of Reichsautorization that had appeared in Germany in the 1980s: several historians, such as Ehrard Blum and Peter Frei, developed the idea that the letter of Artaxerxes I (465-424) quoted in Ezra-Nehemiah 7:11-28 was one of several testimonies to the policy of the Persian Empire to guarantee the recognition and obligation of local rights by the authorities of the empire; such a policy implied the writing down of local laws, which then took their place in Persian law; the final redaction of the Torah, which can be symbolized by the name of Ezra, should be understood in the light of this policy of Persian imperial authorization. Bernard Barc was against this perspective: the final redaction of the Torah is much later; it must be related to the high priest Simon, son of Onias II, whom the author of Sirach praises at length in chapter 50 of his book and whose activity is situated in the years 220-195 approximately. In the eyes of Bernard Barc, this Simon is none other than Simeon the Just … , whose extreme attention to the Torah is recalled at the beginning of the Pirkevot. Bernard Barc’s book has sometimes been criticized as being too much about numerology, whereas it simply takes seriously the rules of gematria in Jewish tradition. It has also been seen as the approach of a specialist in gnostic texts projecting an esoteric way of thinking onto the Bible. It is true that Bernard Barc is the editor of some of the Nag Hammadi treatises and that he has contributed to the training of several of the Quebec copyists. But he is also a first-rate Hebraist, recruited by the French University in 1967 to teach biblical Hebrew; he was of great help to me when I was editing the volume of Numbers for the collection “La Bible d’Alexandrie”, published in 1994.

In the book that he is giving today, Bernard Barc broadens his scope to include the whole of the Hebrew Bible, of which Simeon the Just is, in his eyes, the forgotten author. By this he means that nothing is left to chance in the writing of the Bible, neither the division into books, nor the division into sections, open or closed, nor the use of words, none of which is superfluous, nor their occurrence in the order of the text, nor the spelling itself, whose variations are significant. The letter is therefore fundamental. And literal reading is essential, according to the rules that Bernard Barc sets out, for example when he explains the algorithm of biblical letters. But this literal reading of the Bible of Simeon that Bernard Barc engages in has nothing to do with the literal reading of the Antiochian school of the fourth to fifth centuries or with the historical-literal reading of the Bible that has been imposed in the scholarly world since the Renaissance: it is not a question of reasoning in terms of history and historical context, but of unfolding the meaning of the text as one goes along in its reading. As a result, sometimes the literal meaning that emerges is joined with what we would call the hidden or allegorical meaning. In fact, Simeon has a project, which can be defined in two sentences: first, history unfolds according to a divine plan conceived by the Most High God and implemented by his two hypostases, Elohim and YHWH; second, the design of the Most High is manifested in creation by numbers and letter-numbers organised according to an algorithm, in particular the perfect solar year of 364 + 1 days. As a result, Simeon obeys writing constraints, which Bernard Barc summarises perfectly in §108, and which he clarifies as his work progresses. 65 tables help the reader to visualise Bernard Barc’s deconstruction of Simeon’s project.

To read such a book with profit, one must get rid of our usual ways of approaching the Bible. You have to accept that Simeon functions somewhat like the great rhetoricians of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries or the Oulipo, illustrated by Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews or Jacques Roubaud, among others. Simeon’s Bible is not an ordinary work of history, which investigates the past and recounts it in order to make it understandable. The past corresponds to God’s plan, which unfolds in history and which is accounted for by means of a limited number of rules of writing. Many biblical scholars will not agree to follow Bernard Barc, whose approach is too new to be immediately convincing. But even for these recalcitrant readers, there will be a good use of the book. Thus, for example, Table 15 in §93 on the explicit dates of the Bible will not fail to provoke reflection for a long time to come; why, indeed, these dates and not others? In § 216, Table 55 on a chronology of Universal History will impress even the most sceptical of readers.

I read these fascinating and abundant pages, but sometimes difficult to follow (especially § 134-141), with my questions as a specialist of the Greek Bible of the Septuagint and as a historian of the canon. In § 58, Bernard Barc suggests that the LXX was translated, not in Alexandria, but in Leontopolis, in the city of the Oniades refugees in Egypt. This is an idea that has never been put forward before. Some Septuagint scholars have argued that a rival version of the LXX, but not the LXX itself, originated in Leontopolis. Others have located the making of the Isaiah translation, and that book alone, in that city. But locating the LXX in Leontopolis and dating it to the middle of the second century contradicts all the ancient sources, which are unanimous about Alexandria and which place the translation in relation to Ptolemy Lagos or Ptolemy Philadelphus, at the beginning of the second century BC. Around 220, Demetrios the Chronographer seems to quote the text of the LXX. However, it is easy to understand why Bernard Barc favours a low date for the LXX: it allows us to attribute a central role to Simeon. But can we not imagine that Simeon is the heir of textual traditions prior to him, and of which the LXX is in certain cases the witness? Let us take the example of the five books of the Torah. In § 126-127 and 234, Bernard Barc draws attention to the fact that Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but not Deuteronomy, begin with the letter waw, which means “and”; it is clear that, literally, Exodus is added to Genesis; Leviticus, to Exodus; and Numbers, to Leviticus; and that Deuteronomy is not. However, the LXX offers a notable difference from the Hebrew Massoretic text: Exodus does not begin with ‘and’, kai in Greek. Where the Hebrew text offers two sets, namely the first four books and Deuteronomy, the LXX has three: Genesis, Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers, Deuteronomy. However, the Samaritan Hebrew text and the Syriac Peshitta, normally translated from the Hebrew, offer the same text as the LXX. One must therefore ask whether the LXX, the Samaritan and the Peshitta do not attest the existence of a Hebrew text prior to that of Simeon, in which the story of the creation of the world and the patriarchs was set apart from the story of Moses and the Hebrews in the desert; by adding the waw at the beginning of Exodus, Simeon would have unified these two stories; however, in both cases, Deuteronomy would have constituted a specific whole, probably because the speaker is no longer God, but Moses.

I submitted to Bernard Barc the thoughts I have just outlined. He expressed his disagreement with me, with strong arguments that I summarize in a few sentences. According to him, it is not possible for Simeon to have introduced the complex arithmological architecture of which he is the inventor into a pre-existing Hebrew text. Indeed, if Simeon’s work had consisted in refining a Hebrew text at his disposal, it would have to have already presented, with a few details, the genealogical organisation of the biblical story and the names of the characters. There would thus have existed before Simeon a text that strangely resembled that of Simeon! One can only be sensitive to this argument, while recalling that the question of the historical character of Simeon the Just is delicate, since Flavius Josephus makes him the son of Onias I and thus places him at the beginning of the third century (Jewish Antiquities XII 43). It is true that the consensus of contemporary historians rejects this testimony and that they are practically unanimous in seeing in Simeon the Just the son of Onias II, as does Bernard Barc. But what can be suggested is this: Simeon could be the last link in a line of high priests who would have worked in the same direction for a century.

My remarks on the history of the canon have less impact on the theses put forward by Bernard Barc. He takes the perspective of the tripartite canon, Law, Prophets and Writings, which he nowhere discusses. Yet the oldest canonical reality we reach when reading the Bible itself is either the Law or the Law and Prophets. The latter designation does not refer to two sub-corpuses, on the one hand the Law, on the other the Prophets: in 4 Maccabees 18:10-19, the Law and the Prophets include not only Genesis, Numbers and Deuteronomy, but also Isaiah, Ezekiel, Psalms, Proverbs and Daniel; in the Gospel of John 12:34 and 15:25, under the mention of the Law is actually introduced a quotation from the Psalms. We are therefore dealing, not with a bipartite Bible, but with a bi-defined or bi-referenced Bible. This bi-defined Bible is that of the tannaim, who use the expression “the Law and the Prophets”. The tripartite Bible appears only in the 200s with the amoraim, who speak of the Law and the Prophets and the Writings. The texts that canon historians cite in support of the existence of the tripartite canon from the Maccabean period only prove that the expression “the Law and the Prophets” was felt to be inappropriate to account for books that are neither of the legal nor of the prophetic kind. So what is Simeon’s canon? Is it not the one designated by the Law and the Prophets? One may wonder whether the expression “the height of the double” in Sirach 50:2, which Bernard Barc comments on in § 64-68 and in which he sees the two tablets of the Law, could not designate the bi-referential canon, the Law and the Prophets.

Bernard Barc’s book is sure to raise further questions and discussions. We have not finished remembering this great forgotten man: Simeon the Just. 

Gilles Dorival
Professor Emeritus at the University of Aix-Marseille
Honorary member of the University Institute of France
(chair “Hellenistic Judaism and Ancient Christianity”)

The translation is by DeepL.

The introductory chapter offers a quite new viewpoint on why Genesis, for example, contains side by side, sometimes interwoven, stories that singly appear to be in opposition to each other. The particular focus is on the story of the Flood and Noah: two gods appear, one Yahweh, the other Elohim; different commands are given, two of each kind and seven of each kind, and so forth. I have a few other works to post about first but will return to Bernard Barc before too long.

Here is a snippet from the introductory chapter to prepare you for the sort of fresh thinking that is to come: Continue reading “Simeon The Just: The Forgotten Author Of The Hebrew Bible”