Category Archives: Biblical Studies

The biggie. Much work needs to be done on the children of this category. These need to be greatly reduced in number.

Should this category include the ancient history of Palestine-Judea, including second temple era and Bar Kochba rebellion and rise of rabbinic culture? If so, should Biblical Studies itself be renamed in some way?

Q debate: some sources

For those interested in the Q debate the following is adapted from a footnote in Andrejevs, Olegs. 2019. Apocalypticism in the Synoptic Sayings Source: A Reassessment of Q’s Stratigraphy. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. (p. 1)

For recent arguments against the 2DH, see, e.g.,

For responses to these scholars, see, e.g.,

(for Watson’s rejoinder, see “Seven Theses on the Synoptic Problem, in Disagreement with Christopher Tuckett,” in Idem, 139^47).

For classic comprehensive cases in support of the 2DH, see

For recent investigations demonstrating the viability of the 2DH, see

For additional recent statements by Q scholars, see

While a close discussion of the synoptic problem lies outside the scope of this monograph, it is perhaps worth emphasizing that the solutions of Goodacre and Watson are equally, if not more so, hypothetical than the 2DH.

 

A Succinct Argument for the Historicity of Jesus

I have been asked to address certain arguments on another forum and thought I’d draft out this one here as something of a prep.

. . . I was asked if I am “sure” Jesus existed as a historical figure, and if so why. I tried to give a short answer as follows:

“Sure” is relative. I’m as confident as one can be for a figure in the ancient world who did not mint coins or erect edifices on which he placed inscriptions about himself.

The shortest argument (which, like a short argument for anything, may not seem persuasive unless it is expanded on) is this:

– the anointed one descended from David referred to the king and the restoration of that line to the throne

– being executed by the Romans before establishing one’s throne disqualified one’s claim to be the one to restore the Davidic dynasty to the throne

Therefore

– It is less likely that early Christians invented from scratch a crucified anointed one and went around trying to persuade their fellow Jews to accept him, than that there was a figure that they believed to be this messiah who was then executed, and they managed to maintain that belief despite the cognitive dissonance resulting from this counterevidence.

(From Mythicism and the Bacterial Flagellum, and from the discussion at A Popular Blunder . . . )

McGrath is careful to point out that these few words are only a short form of the argument, but fortunately he had more opportunity in a lengthy discussion to expand on some of the points. To underscore aspects of this argument he elsewhere stated:

Paul was trying to persuade his contemporaries that a crucified man was nonetheless the restorer of the Davidic kingship. . . . 

. . .

The Davidic anointed one was the awaited king that it was hoped would restore his dynasty to the throne and usher in a golden age of one sort or another. Being crucified pretty much disqualified you from being the person in question. Is it probable that a group that was concocting a message about the long-awaited king, which they planned to proclaim to others in order to persuade them to believe, would also invent that this individual was executed and thus at least apparently a failure and a thoroughly implausible candidate for the role? . . . .

. . .

In response to your last question, it is unlikely that if someone is inventing a Davidic Messiah that they plan to ask people to believe in, they will invent a failed one. . . . 

. . .

You hadn’t seemed to yet have grasped my extremely basic point about the unlikelihood of a group having invented a crucified Davidic messiah as the focus of a belief they wanted to convert their fellow Jews to. . . . 

(from the discussion at A Popular Blunder . . . )

Cognitive dissonance indeed! A crucified failure as the conquering Davidic messiah?! It would indeed take a miraculous intervention to get Christianity started from that foundation.

But is not the whole argument based on a misreading or very distorted reading of our evidence?

Let’s start with Paul. I’ll set aside problematic questions of interpolations and authenticity and assume the passages I quote are all genuinely Pauline.

Paul says in Romans 1:3 that Jesus was “having come of the seed of David according to the flesh / γενομένου κ σπέρματος Δαυεδ κατ σάρκα”. Let’s set aside all the known oddities associated with that passage and just accept that Paul was saying that Jesus was born as the principal heir to David.

Now in 1 Corinthians 15 we find Paul making other associations between Jesus and David. Paul applies the Davidic Psalms 110 and 8 to Jesus. In Psalm 110 David sings:

The Lord says to my lord:

“Sit at my right hand
    until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.”

The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying,
    “Rule in the midst of your enemies!”

In Psalm 8 David writes

thou hast put all things under his feet

and Paul applies that passage to the David Messiah’s rule.

Paul makes it clear that Jesus has fulfilled that Davidic hope by multipliers. I Corinthians 15:17-26

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile . . . But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead . . .  when He comes . . . Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 

With 15:25 Paul says, “He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet” (25). The “must” means it is necessary that Jesus reigns. Paul’s wording in verse 25 is a reference to Ps 110:1–2 . . . . 

Paul is interpreting Ps 8:6 both literally and christologically. . . . Corporate personality is in view here. Psalm 8 is addressed to man in a general sense, but since Jesus is the ultimate Man and last Adam, He represents man. As Mark Stephen Kinzer notes, “The psalm is read in both an individual and a corporate sense.” The use of Psalm 8 is further evidence that Paul is thinking of a future earthly reign of Jesus.

Vlach, Michael J. 2015. “The Kingdom of God in Paul’s Epistles.” The Master’s Seminary Journal 26 (1): 59–74.

Paul did not pick up on the “cognitive dissonance” of the first apostles. What was being preached was that Jesus, through death and resurrection, had become the ultimate fulfilment of the all-powerful and cosmos-ruling Davidic Messiah.

When we come to the gospels “fleshing out” a Jesus narrative we find that even the lead up to the crucifixion is thoroughly Davidic.

The evangelists appear to have modelled Jesus on the David who was first and foremost a pious exemplar who suffered. David was renowned as the psalmist who suffered for righteousness. It is in that capacity that Jesus quotes David’s words. David was God’s anointed (messiah) but notice what this meant for him —

In the Psalms attributed to him, he cries out to God as one forsaken and persecuted. (Pss 18, 142). In Psalm 22 he cries out in pious agony, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

David’s career is one of fleeing from persecution. He is the chosen and pious, righteous sufferer. His persecution is a badge of his honour, not shame, in the eyes of all who look to him as a model of piety. He is betrayed by his closest followers and ascends the Mount of Olives to pray in his darkest hour. He prepares for the building of the future temple after his death. If early Christians ever thought to apply the Davidic motifs to Jesus, they surely did so with remarkable precision. David may have ruled a temporal kingdom, but Jesus demonstrated his power over the invisible rulers of the entire world. Even though ruler over the princes of this world, he was still betrayed, deserted and denied by his closest followers. He ascended the Mount of Olives in prayer at his darkest hour. And he suffered the injustice that the righteous have always proverbially suffered, even crying out with David, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? But as in the Psalms God delivered David from the depths and pits of hell to exalt him in vindication before his enemies, so did God deliver and exalt Jesus. What was the suffering of humiliation in the eyes of his enemies has always been the badge of honour in the eyes of God and devotees.

Conclusion

So did the first disciples struggle with cognitive dissonance over attempting to maintain a belief that a failed, dead, crucified man was the Christ of their salvation? Did they somehow manage to convert enough followers to start a new religion by preaching that a dead failure was the Christ?

Is that really an argument to make one “sure” of the historicity of Jesus? That a man had such power that he could persuade his followers to believe in him and convert others to that same belief even though he clearly failed in his mission?

Certainly, “– being executed by the Romans before establishing one’s throne disqualified one’s claim to be the one to restore the Davidic dynasty to the throne” would disqualify a messianic claimant. But that’s not what Paul of the first Christians appear to have believed for a moment. They believed that it was through crucifixion that Jesus conquered the powers of death and would come to finish the task by conquering his human opponents in the final judgement. Rather, crucifixion qualified Jesus and this was proven by his resurrection.

Now, back to the question of historicity.

No one argues that the story was “invented from scratch”. The evidence points to a story coming together as a result of emerging Second Temple era interpretations of Jewish scriptures (e.g. the evolution of a suffering servant and son of man messianic figure from Isaiah to Daniel to Enoch). The first believer we have a record of boasts that his belief came about entirely through visions and from that foundation he made converts. Only decades later does a “fleshed out” story in our gospels, set in a time and place no longer accessible to most readers, emerge.

That does not prove Jesus was not historical. But it sure leaves the door to the question somewhat ajar.

 

Historical Jesus Scholarship and Mythmaking

Excerpts from Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert (related to an earlier post, Biblical Scholars, Symbolic Violence, and the Modern Version of an Ancient Myth) where he draws upon the study of structures of myths by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss:

. . . to give an interpretation of a myth is to create a new variant of it. (p. 21)

As we have seen from Lévi-Strauss … any interpretation of a myth is a new variant of it. (p. 28)

We have seen that many myths come to us with all sorts of variations. Each variant of a myth is another retelling of the same myth. This includes scholarly recreations of myths:

Most faculties dealing with biblical scholarship are theology faculties; therefore they seek a rational version of the divine inspiration of the Bible. (p. 28)

To quote from Lévi-Strauss directly:

[A] myth is made up of all its variants, [therefore] structural analysis should take all of them into account. (p. 435)

On the other hand, it cannot be too strongly emphasized that all available variants [of a myth] should be taken into account. . . . There is no one true version of which all the others are but copies or distortions. Every version belongs to the myth. (p. 436)

That is, Bart Ehrman’s apocalyptic Jesus, Morton Smith’s magician Jesus, Stevan Davies’ shaman healing Jesus, Crossan’s cynic philosopher Jesus, Sara Parks’ feminist Jesus, are all variants of the biblical Jesus myth and stand alongside the Gospel fo John’s divine Jesus, Matthew’s new Moses Jesus, Mark’s mysterious unfathomable Jesus, Thomas’s gnostic Jesus, and so on. There is a Jesus for every ideology, for every whim, for every value: violent warrior, pacifist victim, defender of the oppressed, merciless judge of all who defy him, a presence always with us, a distant being who will be present in the future, etc etc etc.

How is it that the Jesus stories have captured imaginations all through these past two millennia?

Wajdenbaum proposes that the reason for their durability is that “they help maintain the Bible’s sacred character”

Most scholars still view the Bible from a theological perspective. We could even say that as long as modem society, which claims to be secular, has not recognised the Hellenic character of the Bible, that secularisation is not complete. Behind a so-called liberty, the biblical monument remains untouchable. Anything said about it must contribute to its mystique. ‘To uncover its nakedness’ would be the most terrible assault on Judeo-Christian decency. (p. 29)

Wajdenbaum, not unlike Russell Gmirkin and M. David Litwa, identifies Hellenistic or Greco-Roman myths as having spawned much of the biblical characters and narratives.

From the point of view of scientific epistemology we can try to understand why a systematic and we profound comparison of the Bible with classical Greek literature has not been published until today. Again, the answer is simple: the Bible could not resist such an analysis as it demonstrates how almost every biblical narrative finds accurate parallels with Greek myths. If believers of Jewish and Christian faiths were aware of this, then the Bible could lose its credibility. Biblical scholarship has done all it could to maintain the Bible as a sacred text that is still relevanl to modern society, as Hector Avalos argues. In his polemical book he calls for an end to modem biblical studies. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has explained how university scholars use symbolic violence to ensure their authority in their field. By presenting themselves as a legitimate institution, university scholars impose an arbitrary knowledge that is recognised by the masses as legitimate. But this intellectual domination is not completely passive; It comes from the demands of society. As both Avalos and Bourdieu (in their respective works) have put it, the media industry—the press, movies and television—plays an important role in the continuation of either the sacred character of the Bible or symbolic violence. The biblical field created theories that have allowed the Bible to survive only because masses of believers wanted it to.

So is it possible to do historical studies without creating another variant of biblical myth? I’ll address that question in a future post.


Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1955. “The Structural Study of Myth.” The Journal of American Folklore 68 (270): 428–44. https://doi.org/10.2307/536768.

Wajdenbaum, Philippe. 2011. Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. London ; Oakville: Equinox Pub.


Q: Where scepticism is really hip right now; and other thoughts on historical Jesus studies methods

I have recently caught up with Sara Park’s PhD contribution to New Testament studies, Spiritual Equals: Women in the Q Gender Pairs. I understand that Parks has rewritten much of the thesis to make it more palatable for a general readership: Gender in the Rhetoric of Jesus: Women in Q.

James McGrath interviewed Sara Parks about her book:

Parks is a new scholar in the field and I found some of her discussion interesting insofar as it might shed some light on “the making” of a biblical scholar. (I have engaged with Sara Parks going by the blog name of Dr Sarah in comments on this blog but had not known at that time that she was a scholar of religion.)

Foundations

A question that struck me as I began to read the thesis was how one could justify using a hypothetical document as a primary source for reconstructing slithers of a historical Jesus and his earliest followers. James McGrath raised the question that Q sceptics are going to ask: Does her book fall to pieces if there is no Q? Parks answers that question in her thesis and its published book version:

The gendered pairs form part of what Jesus scholars deem to be authentic material that dates back to his Galilean career. With or without Q the parallel parable pairs are sayings that text critics, redaction critics and historical Jesus scholars connect with Jesus. Their importance as deliberately gender-aware and in their way a gender levelling evidence remains.

[My transcript of Sara Parks podcast reading from her book]

Or more technically, from her thesis:

. . . [T]his project is significant whether one goes so far as to stratify Q in the footsteps of Kloppenborg, or doubts its very existence in the footsteps of Goodacre. As Schottroff writes of her work on women in the Q pairs, “the results should be equally useful for those who presume a distinction between Q1 and Q2 and for those who doubt the very existence of Q. They all may read the following discussion as a description of some central elements of the Jesus movement or of the message of Jesus.” 383 The present project is the first book-length work in English to treat the parallel parable pairs of Q with a view to the ways in which these pairs not only uncover some realities of women in the earliest Jesus movements, but also something of Jesus of Nazareth’s attitude toward them. Its findings concur with those of the French monograph to examine the pairs for this purpose, wherein Denis Fricker concludes that a pairing of female figures with male figures is a process undertaken by Jesus himself384 and that the pairs “seem to have been an original and remarkable mode of expression in the discourse of the historical Jesus.” 385 However, my findings diverge from Fricker’s where he finds the pairs “firmly rooted in Semitic poetry” and “their argumentation … in Hellenistic rhetoric. 386 I assert instead that the pairs achieve clear rhetorical uniqueness.

383. L. Schrottoff, “The Sayings Source Q” ; 384, 385, 386. Fricker, Quand Jésus Parle au Masculin-Féminin, pp. 377, 380, 79

(Parks’ thesis, 158f)

To my way of thinking it seems, then, that Q is not necessary for Parks’ exploration of Jesus’ thoughts on women as spiritual and intellectual equals with men. The addition of Q surely is an unnecessary hypothesis if scholars are convinced that the same sayings are authentic to Jesus even without Q. Yet note that even without Q there is said to be a consensus of some certainty about what Jesus actually said. It is what lies at the foundation of that confidence that strikes me as setting biblical studies apart from other historical studies.

As Parks’ thesis entered into a survey of Q sceptics, in particular Mark Goodacre, I began to anticipate a presentation of her reasons Goodacre and any revival of the Farrer thesis was mistaken. But the work has already been done according to Parks and there was no need for her to repeat it. She writes:

Goodacre has been refuted point by point by a number of scholars, including J. Kloppenborg (e.g. “On Dispensing with Q: Goodacre on the Relation of Luke to Matthew” NTS 49 [2003]: 210–236.

(p. 36)

“Refute” is an ambiguous word. It can mean either to prove a statement is wrong or it can mean to argue against a statement. Does Parks mean the former? The “point by point” phrase seems to indicate Goodacre’s case has been demolished brick by brick. If so, one might reasonably respond that Kloppenborg’s refutation has been equally “refuted point by point” by Stephen Carlson in a series of posts on his blog Hypotyposeis beginning in September 2004. Ongoing publications challenging Q in recent years additionally indicates that Kloppenborg has not “refuted” Goodacre in the sense of “disproving” the Farrer thesis.

What interests me here is a scholar’s confidence in academic consensus as if consensus itself is a secure enough foundation for one’s work. No doubt consensus on certain foundations is important when it comes to expecting one’s work to find peer acceptance. Yet many lay outsiders, at least, want the scholars to explain how we know certain things, or what is the logic and evidence that underlies a consensus. Too often too many biblical scholars at this point resort to telling the unwashed of the necessity to learn several ancient languages and undertake years of training in specialist qualifications. But I submit that we don’t get those sorts of answers when it comes to questions about history in nonbiblical areas. We have, for instance, very good reasons (certain kinds of independent and contemporary writings) for believing Socrates existed and taught as some kind of “sophist”. The evidence is not bedrock solid (the surviving manuscripts are late, for example) and a few have at times raised the question of his existence but on balance (especially when we factor in the explanatory power of subsequent literary references on top of the earlier sources) we can say that multiple independent and contemporary sources testify to his historicity. That sort of evidence is strong enough to allow us to overcome scepticism for the moment and accept Socrates’ historicity. Scepticism demands good, clear answers. Scepticism has served us well since the Enlightenment, I think. (I’ll address certain appeals to postmodernist challenges below.)

Where scepticism is really hip right now

So my ears pricked when I heard Sara Parks and James McGrath appearing to belittle the role of scepticism. read more »

Jesus Came (End of Story?)

A little detail in the previous post has kept me awake at night (maybe as long as a minute), wondering. It is Matthew 28:18-19

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations . . .

Why hadn’t I noticed before now the link Jeffrey Peterson makes with Daniel 7:14?

He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

The connection brings me back to a question that keeps coming back to me: Is it possible that the apocalyptic prophecy we read Jesus pronouncing in Mark 13 and Matthew 24 was couched in metaphor that only the “spiritually blind” would mistake for literal meaning. The language was taken from the prophets. Isaiah 13 portrays the fall of Babylon in terms of the darkening of the sun, moon and stars. The cosmic images were metaphors. They were “fulfilled” when the city fell to enemy forces. David speaks of God coming down to earth in clouds to rescue him from certain death at the hands of his enemies. I don’t believe the psalmist expected anyone to read of God’s descent to earth literally any more than we are to imagine literal “cords of death” binding the psalmist or to believe that the psalmist was literally in “deep waters”. Psalm 18 . . .

The cords of death entangled me;
    the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
The cords of the grave coiled around me;
    the snares of death confronted me.

In my distress I called to the Lord;
    I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
    my cry came before him, into his ears.
The earth trembled and quaked,
    and the foundations of the mountains shook;
    they trembled because he was angry.
Smoke rose from his nostrils;
    consuming fire came from his mouth,
    burning coals blazed out of it.
He parted the heavens and came down;
    dark clouds were under his feet.
10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
    he soared on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
    the dark rain clouds of the sky.
12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
    with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
13 The Lord thundered from heaven;
    the voice of the Most High resounded.
14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,
    with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
15 The valleys of the sea were exposed
    and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, Lord,
    at the blast of breath from your nostrils.

In the trial before the priests Jesus declares that the high priest will see the “second coming” or the coming of Jesus as the Danielic Son of Man. Matthew 26:63-64 . . .

The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

I am pretty sure that the priest was dead before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

What were the authors of the gospels of Mark and Matthew thinking? It’s probably worth keeping in mind that not even the author of Daniel thought of his scenario of a heavenly Son of Man coming in clouds before the Ancient of Days was was a literal event. That was a metaphor for the rising up of the Maccabean kingdom on earth.

I think it’s as if they were thinking that the coming of the kingdom of God was ushered in with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Matthew 28 seems to assure us of this interpretation when we read there that Jesus announces, in effect, that he is the Son of Man who has from that point on been given the power and authority to lead his appointed apostles in beginning to bring in more converts to his kingdom.

The Pauline epistles likewise speak of Christ victory over the cross representing the victory over the demon-ruled cosmos. The demons in Mark and Matthew knew their days were numbered the moment they saw Jesus appear in Galilee. Some Church Fathers also spoke of Christ “reigning from the cross”.

Paul’s letters — all of the NT letters — speak of a coming of Christ, never of a “second coming”. The first evangelists to weave together a story of the Son of Man out of the verses of the Jewish Scriptures and other literary and imperial allusions likewise spoke of his coming as the critical event. (I have coloured the passage in Psalm 18 that one might relate directly to classic baptism scene of Jesus in Mark and Matthew.) If his arrival in Galilee marked the “nearness” of the time then the empty tomb was the sign that that time had begun. Is there any room at all for a “second coming” in the original tale?

But this interpretation raises as many questions as it seems to resolve. As I said, it sometimes keeps me awake at night . . . for a moment, sometimes.

How Luke Reworked Matthew’s Conclusion?

Continuing here from the previous post that looked at evidence that Luke was reworking Mark’s conclusion. The following tables distil and simplify key points from Jeffrey Peterson’s chapter in Marcan Priority Without Q: Explorations in the Farrer Hypothesis. 

.

Matthew 28

Luke 24

Comments

16. Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.

9. When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. . . .

33. They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them. . . .

M has related the death of Judas so his change from Twelve to Eleven is explained.

But L has not yet spoken of Judas’s death; follows Matthew with the eleven?

17. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but [also] doubted.

In the absence of an introductory οί μέν, this is a better rendering than nrsvs ‘they worshiped him; but some doubted’ . See Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21-28: A Commentary (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2005), pp. 622-3; P. W. van der Horst, Once More: The Translation o f hoi de in Matthew 28:17’, JSNT21 (1986), pp. 27-30.

(Peterson, p. 153).

37. They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. . . . 41. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement . . . 52. Then they worshipped him . . .

Worship combined with disbelief, though the doubts in L arise from joy.

18. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations . . . 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you . . .

44. He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you . . .

47. and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. . . .

Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45. Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written:

M’s conclusion points to new phase; from Israel to the gentiles.

L’s conclusion points to promises fulfilled in next volume, Acts.

M quotes Daniel 7:14 [= He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him] as fulfilled by Jesus;

L is more explicit, informing readers that prophecy has been fulfilled in Jesus.

In both M and L Jesus commands disciples to convert all nations, with reference to what he has told them while on earth with them.

20. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. 49. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. . . . 51. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. M refers back to 18:20 [= For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them]. Luke avoids possible confusion by depicting Jesus ascending to heaven and having disciples wait for him to be with them through the Holy Spirit.

.

Further on the question of Luke’s knowledge of Matthew, Peterson draws attention to the matching details Luke and Matthew add either side of the core narrative that is based heavily on Mark. Both start at the same point and both conclude at the same critical juncture with comparable sayings. read more »

How Luke Reworked Mark’s Ending

This post looks at the evidence for Luke having reworked Mark’s ending. (The Gospel of Mark appears to have originally ended with verse 8 with the women fleeing from the tomb in fear.) The next post will identify the evidence for Luke having simultaneously used and changed Matthew’s ending. One step at a time.

 

 

What about the famous Emmaus Road encounter in Luke? Recall how Jesus appeared, unrecognized, alongside two disciples on the road, was invited in but disappeared before their eyes as soon as he broke bread.

That brings us to that highlighted section in Mark 16:7 … Jesus is promised to go before his disciples on the way back to Galilee . . . . read more »

Interview with Thomas L. Thompson #2

Thomas L. Thompson

The interview with Thomas L. Thompson on the Greek Mythicists site is not as long as I anticipated when I posted #1. (A weird technical issue made it look to me three times longer than it in fact was!) Here is the last question and answer. Thanks again to Minas Papageorgiou of Greek Mythicists for alerting me to this interview they (he?) conducted and for forwarding me an English text.

 – – o – –

8) What is the future of mythicism views inside the academic community, considering the publication of many related books and papers in previous times? Would you agree that mythicists could follow the steps of biblical minimalists?  

Minimalism is a movement in biblical studies which brings the study of biblical narrative closer to what is normal for historians. As far as I am aware, most mythicists also understand this, though I think they may be too quick to judge the single issue of whether he existed. The proper question is rather a largely literary question than an historical one. Until we have texts, which bear evidence of his historicity, we can not do much more with that issue. We can and must, however, ask what the texts mean—as well as ask what they mean if they are not historical (a minimalist question). My professor Kurt Galling from Tübingen was once asked how one could tell whether an Old Testament text was historical or literary. He answered: If Iron floats on water it isn’t! The reference is found in the Elijah Elisha stories, whose reiteration has dominated the gospels. One might also use the story of the bear who kills the 42 children and certainly Elijah’s flight out into outer space.

Interview with Thomas L. Thompson #1

The Greek Mythicists website has posted a (Greek language) interview with Thomas L. Thompson. The interview page is Συνέντευξη με τον Thomas L. Thompson: Ο Βιβλικός Μινιμαλισμός και ο ιστορικός Ιησούς. The person responsible for the site, Minas Papageorgiou, has kindly sent me an English translation. It is very lengthy so I will only post one part of it for now. More to follow. Thanks to Minas Papageorgiou/Μηνάς Παπαγεωργίου. 

(For background: The Vridar blog is not a “Jesus mythicist” blog even though it is open to a critical discussion of the question of Jesus’ historicity. I do not see secure grounds for believing in the historicity of Jesus but it does not follow that I reject Jesus’ historicity. Clearly, the Jesus of the Gospels and Paul’s letters is a literary and theological construct but it does not follow that there was no “historical Jesus”. Nor do I endorse all views that I have seen associated with Greek Mythicists, though I have been included in one of their publications: see Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction by Minas Papageorgiou and To the Greeks, Vridar in a Greek publication)

 

Thomas L. Thompson

Who is Thomas L. Thompson? If you only have the vaguest idea or none at all see my notes at the end of this post. His works have certainly influenced me greatly.

The English language version of the interview, part 1 . . . .

1) Υοu spent a big part of your life in Tübingen, Germany. Would you agree that you were touched by Bruno Bauer‘s aura?  

Bauer was much more influential in Berlin and Bonn than Tübingen, where in New Testament studies, Ernst Käsemann drew far more in the direction of establishing and defending an historical Jesus, much in the spirit of the “Jesus Seminar” in the States. In Old Testament studies and Palestinian archaeology, which were my primary interests, the tradition rather lay in comparative literature and comparative religions. Kurt Galling, editor of the great 5 volume, German encyclopedia of religion (Religion in History and the Present 1935) was my professor. He was a student of Hugo Gressmann and Hermann Gunkel and held history and archaeology separate from literature and theology and the study of the Bible was, first of all, a literary work rather than history!

2) In Greece, it is rather impossible to see an academic theologian holding a critical stance towards the Bible. Are things different in the rest of the world?

Greek orthodoxy sees the role of theology as explanatory and Greek theology—much like Roman Catholicism is often very defensive of traditional teaching, except that Greek theology tries to idealize the theology of the early church fathers, while Catholicism looks to the theology of Aquinas and the European Middle Ages as the ideal. But they are both rapidly changing today and one finds a few sound, critical scholars in Greece today and an even greater number of them among Roman Catholic scholars. I think the most influential of conservative scholars are the fundamentalists in the US, where the Bible seems to be read as a description of actual events in which God was the primary active figure. Critical scholarship, which starts from the observation that biblical narrative is first of all literature and needs to be treated as such. It is strongest in Europe, where a strong commitment to critical humanism is the norm for most universities: especially in Germany and Denmark. Perhaps it is best to think of individual scholars and universities rather than countries. The university of Rome, Göttingen, Tübingen, Sheffield and Copenhagen insist that biblical studies be critical rather than traditional.

3) Explain to us in a few words what biblical minimalism is, who the scholars that comprised the core of its existence were and what was your part in this.

It is important to point out that “minimalism” is a term which was used by opponents of critical biblical scholarship. It was not a self-description.

Biblical minimalism grows out of the failure of biblical archaeology’s efforts to provide a critical history of Israel. It is important to point out that “minimalism” is a term which was used by opponents of critical biblical scholarship. It was not a self-description. The development in critical biblical studies, which came to reject the use of the Biblical narrative as a historical description of past events was called “minimalism” because these scholars did not share the assumption of, for example, biblical archaeologists, that history could be written by bringing together evidence from biblical narrative and our knowledge of ancient history. Minimalists saw the Bible as allegorical literature and consequently separated their use of archaeology from the Bible to write their history of Palestine. Indeed, understanding history of the South Levant as a regional history of Palestine, rather than as an ethnocentric history of the people of Israel allowed us to understand the Bible’s literary narrative of Israel as a fictional and theological product: what I came to refer to as a “mythic past.” In contrast, our history (of Palestine) is evidence-based in archaeology and contemporary inscriptions rather than biblical narrative, as in biblical archaeology. read more »

Review, conclusion #2: Myth and History in the Gospels (How the Gospels Became History / Litwa)

If the gospels are mythical stories that have been presented as history then what value can they have for anyone today and how can we treat the gospels as a source for studying the historical Jesus? Those are the questions M. David Litwa addresses in the last pages of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths.

In answer to the first question Litwa writes:

Both the scholar and the believer can recognize that gospel stories are transformative, if for different reasons. For the believer, the power often derives from divine inspiration and the salvific function of the myths. For the scholar, the power of gospel myths frequently lies in their versatility and world-making potential. The scholar and the believer can also, of course, be the same person.

(Litwa, p. 212)

I think of Thomas Brodie who does not find any historical core behind the gospel myths, not even a historical Jesus, who nonetheless finds meaning in the myths and has remained a Christian. But Litwa does believe a historical core does lie behind the myths. On what basis does he believe that?

“So let’s assume there actually was a corpse. What happened to it? There are only two possibilities. Either it was revivified, the way the Gospels tell it, or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, it stayed on earth. There isn’t any third possibility. What happened to the body? Did it come alive or didn’t it?” [from The Flight of Peter Fromm]

The horns of this dilemma have gored the faith of some people. The meaning of Jesus’s resurrection—and of Christianity itself—is widely assumed to hang on its historicity. The value of any sort of “spiritual meaning” is discounted if there is no historical and physical basis for it. . . .

. . . [Peter Fromm] identifies the real with the historical (in the sense of “what happened”). Yet in the game of historical writing we never actually know exactly what happened. Historicity is not a cross from which the truth hangs in all its glory. It is at best a social agreement that someehing happened in the past. This assertion is not merely an outgrowth of postmodern philosophy; the ancients suggested something similar. The sophist Nicolaus (late fifth century CE) wrote that historical narratives are about past events acknowledged by consensus (homologoumenos’) to have happened. I emphasize “by consensus.” Historians do not have direct access to a past occurrence, though they might agree that it happened.

(Litwa, p. 213)

Litwa would say I am being too specific and should say that it is the consense of “historians” more generally. My response to the idea that most people take for granted the historicity of Jesus is found in an earlier post: Is it a “fact of history” that Jesus existed? Or is it only “public knowledge”? I prefer to narrow the point to “biblical scholars” because they are the ones who have set about to study Jesus.

Compare Johnston’s point: [A hero’s multiple versions/’plurimdiality’], and the intimate connection to [the hero] that this fostered in individuals, helped to create and sustain for some (perhaps all) the very assumption that he existed, which, in turn, sustained the practice of his cults.

It follows that Litwa knows that Jesus was crucified because that is the consensus of biblical scholars —

The current consensus regarding the “historical Jesus” is that he lived in Palestine, that he was a Jew crucified around 30 CE by Roman authorities.

(Litwa, p. 213)

and a few pages on  —

I do not deny the historical basis for some gospel stories (notably the crucifixion)32

32. Here one might talk of “aspects of historicity,” as in Paul N. Anderson, Felix Just, and Tom Thatcher, eds., John, Jesus, and History, vol. 2, Aspects of Historicity in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: SBL, 2009).

(Litwa, pp. 218, 266)

The irony! The attempts to make a case for “aspects of historicity” in the Gospel of John in the cited volume are often the same tropes that in the earlier discussion were said to make myths believable! All page references in the following section are to the Anderson, Just and Thatcher volume Litwa cited above. (The following section is my response to Litwa’s insistence that there is a historical basis to some of the gospel stories.)

— role of eyewitness testimony

e.g. Culpepper engages the recent work of two scholars (Howard M. Jackson and Richard Bauckham) who argue that John 21:24 is an autobiographical note indicating that the author of the Gospel is the Beloved Disciple. In this view, the Gospel of John is based on the eyewitness testimony of a follower of Jesus and makes that claim explicitly in the narrative. (p. 372)

— context of mundane history and life

e.g. [W]hile the Johannine Prologue opens the Fourth Gospel as a confessional piece used in worship, it also bears witness to first-hand encounter with the object of its confession: the fleshly Jesus grounded in mundane history. (p. 380)

e.g. Miller and others, however, find it historically plausible that Jesus himself had an encounter with a Samaritan woman. Evidence for this includes . . . the Gospel’s familiarity with Samaritan beliefs about the location of worship and the coming of an eschatological prophet, and the fact that some Galileans did travel through Samaria on their way to and from Jerusalem. (p. 100)

e.g. There are several factors of historical realism in this narrative. . . . [T]he narrator’s featuring factors of personal hygiene and comfort contribute to the mundane realism of the presentation. … In conclusion, given the cultural context, it is highly plausible that a Jewish person in first-century Galilee would perform a footwashing. Therefore, it is plausible that Jesus performed a footwashmg as he gathered for a final meal with his disciples in Jerusalem. On the bases of Jewish and Hellenistic literature, religious and societal customs, other presentations of fopMashing in the New Testament literature, and various aspects of historical realism, this scenario in John demands renewed consideration as a historical event . . . (pp. 259, 260)

— detailed knowledge of topography read more »

Review, conclusion #1: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

M. David Litwa’s concluding chapter is “The Myth of Historicity” and with this post I address the first half of that chapter. I have found the book, How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myth, most interesting, even though it has been a mixed journey, one that started more critical of the earlier chapters than of the later ones. Something of the same mix will be found in this final post as I sum up my responses to Litway’s thesis.

Litwa has identified in the previous chapters ten main tropes that serve as signals that the gospels were written to be read as historical narratives. He has noted that each of these ten is found in other Greco-Roman historical writings so it is reasonable to conclude the gospel authors, in deploying these tropes, likewise intended the gospels to be read as history. I list the ten here (from p. 210) with excerpts from the main text as illustrations. I follow with my review and thoughts on the points raised.

1. objectification (describing individually experienced phenomena as if they were fully knowable and observable by others)

A good example of objectification is the description of Jesus’s resurrection appearances. In origin, these appearances were perhaps visions experienced by early Christians either individually or in a group setting. Yet these visions came to be described as palpable events that occurred in space and time. Eventually, Jesus’s luminous body seen in visions became more solid in the act of historiographical retellings. Despite its ability to walk through walls, the body began to be depicted as “flesh and bone” (Luke 24:39), able to be poked and prodded by eyewitnesses—including the famous “doubting Thomas” (John 20:24—28). (p. 10)

2. synchrony (noting well-known persons or occurrences);

There are other historicizing tropes that increase the “reality effect” of the gospels.57 Synchrony, for instance, is the mention of famous persons who lived at the same time as the depicted hero. The third evangelist, for instance, mentioned the governor of Syria, Quirinius, as a contemporary of Jesus (Luke 2:2). This author wrongly dated the rule of Quirinius by about a decade, but the very mention of him as a well-known ruler (along with the then universally known “Caesar Augustus”) increased the realism of his tale. (p. 10)

3. syntopy (mentioning known places on the map);

A similar trope might be called syntopy, the mention of real and familiar places. The evangelists placed Jesus in Galilee under the administration of a historical Jewish king (Herod Antipas). The third evangelist intentionally clarified elements in an earlier evangelist’s topography (Luke 8:26 and Mark 5:1; Luke 4:31 and Mark 1:21) and added a travel narrative showing a discrete move from Galilee to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-19:28). (p. 11)

4. straightforward, matter-of-fact presentation (which often frames the description of fantastical or anomalous events);

Likewise, Jesus’s sea-stilling miracle is stated in the matter-of-fact tone of historiography: “Jesus got up, rebuked the wind and said to the sea: ‘Shut up, be muzzled!’ Then the wind died down and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39).11 In fact, Jesus seems rather grumpy after being awoken— another peculiarly human trait. His sea-stilling is fabulous, to be sure, but within the range of possibility for the “son of God” (Mark 3:11). Wind and sea are rebuked, but they are not personified. The timing is precise: Jesus calms the storm in the evening after a long day of weaving parables. The route can be traced on a map: Jesus sails across the Sea of Galilee to the region of the Gerasenes (Mark 5:1). It does not matter that Gerasa (modern Jerash) is thirty-seven miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee (no one but scholars seem to notice); what is important is that the geographical marker is there. The temporal and chronological markers generate a historical frame, a frame that soothes the turbulence of the miracle and fosters the calm of astounded belief. (p. 144)

5. vivid presentation (which includes the addition of random and circumstantial details) and the rhetoric of accuracy akribeia, which includes . . .

There are other vivid details in John that could easily be thought to go back to historical reminiscence: John the Baptist was baptized at Aenon near Salim (John 3:23); the lame man lay for thirty-eight years at the pool of Beth-zatha (5:3 —5); the slave whose ear was cut off was named Malchus (18:10); Peter stood at a charcoal fire outside Annas’s house during Jesus’s trial (18:18). The biblical scholar Paul N. Anderson claims, ‘John has more archaeological, topographical, sensory-empirical, personal knowledge and first-hand information than all of the other gospels combined.” Such vivid presentation (what the Greeks called enargeia) was a known technique of historiographical discourse. (p. 203)

6. . . . the introduction of literary eyewitnesses (such as the Beloved Disciple);

Despite the unlikelihood of the evangelists being eyewitnesses, at least one of them indicates that he based his material directly on an identifiable eyewitness who appears as a character in his story. Late in the fourth evangelist’s account, he introduces an unnamed figure whom he refers to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This disciple, who appears nowhere else in gospel literature, is portrayed as one of Jesus’s most intimate companions. At the Last Supper, the Beloved Disciple rests his head on Jesus’s breast (John 13:21-25). This posture represents a privileged, intimate relationship mirroring Jesus’s own relationship with his Father, in whose bosom he abides (John 1:18). (p. 196)

7. staged skepticism among the eyewitnesses (as in Matt. 28:17; John 20:25);

The author of Matthew noted that some of Jesus’s eleven disciples doubted the resurrection even when they saw him physically present (Matt. 28:17). (p. 191)

Thomas had declared, “Unless I see the nail wound in his hands, thrust my finger into the nail wound, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later, Thomas was staying in a locked room when Jesus walked through the walls. Admittedly, this was not a good way to prove Jesus’s materiality. Still, the hero approached Thomas and said, “Thomas, place your finger here; observe my hands, then bring your hand and thrust it into my side” (John 20:25-27). Thomas instantly realizes that Jesus is not a ghost but a god (John 20:28). (p. 184)

8. alternative reports (as in Matt. 28:13);

Despite the added story of Jesus’s appearance, reports of fraud arose. The disciples were rumored to have stolen the body (Matt. 28:13). In Matthew, this report is implicitly belittled since the disciples would have needed to subdue the well-trained and heavily armed Roman guard. (p. 174)

9. stated links of causation (as in Matt. 28:15); 

In providing this alternative tradition, the Matthean evangelist used the language of historical causation. The conniving Jewish leaders created the theft story; hence it continues to persist. Although this evangelist preferred to explain the missing body by narrating resurrection appearances, the fact that he offered an alternative report is significant. Providing such a report was a common historiographical technique. Offering the reader a choice between the reports gave the (albeit fleeting) impression of objectivity. (p. 175)

and . . .

10. . . . literary traces of a past event (such as tomb tokens).

Contrary to the suspicion of modern skeptics, they do not go to the wrong tomb. They recognize the right tomb by the presence of Jesus’s personal items, namely, the linen wrappings that formerly covered his body and a neatly folded cloth that covered his face (John 20:5-7). These details undercut the supposition that the body was stolen, since robbers would presumably not have taken the time to carefully fold Jesus’s face cloth. (p. 176)

Not unique to history

As discussed in the earlier posts these techniques are not exclusive to works of ancient history and biography but are also found in mythical-poetic works and even in fictional novellas, both “historical” and “erotic (=love stories)”.

One more — the everyday human setting

An elaboration can be made to some of Litwa’s above ten: e.g. the “objectification”, the “straightforward, matter-of-fact presentation”, as well as the references to “well-known persons” and “places on the map”, are brought to bear in very ordinary, everyday human life contexts, such as inviting guests in for a meal. The “vivid presentation” is not always there (not even the crucifixion of Jesus is described as graphically as it could be) but the “random and circumstantial details” are part and parcel of the miraculous or mythical events taking place as “by the way” events in mundane human settings.

One difference — no room for doubt

So yes, the way the miraculous events of the gospels were told does coincide in many, but not all, respects with the way they were told in ancient histories and biographies. The exception: ancient historians and biographers generally related the miraculous events with some authorial distance, expressing in various ways a concession that readers were free to doubt the truth of miraculous events. Not so the gospels.

“Alternative reports” compared with different biblical narratives read more »

Review, part 15. Eyewitnesses and the Beloved Disciple (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

This is probably my favourite chapter in How the Gospels Became History by M. David Litwa. Is #15, “Eyewitnesses”.

— Who Is the Beloved Disciple? — I like Litwa’s answer to that question better than any argument that it was Paul or Mary or John or . . . .

— And does not striking life-like vividness of detail in a narrative strongly indicate an eyewitness report? It’s refreshing to see a biblical scholar answer that question in the negative.

But first, some opening quotes to give you the main drift:

Through the eyes of the literary eyewitness, a subjective and spiritual event could be represented as real and verifiable. . . . 
Fictive or not, eyewitnesses were greatly valued in ancient Mediterranean culture. . . . 
(Litwa, 194)

Odysseus is weeping at the court of Alcinous as the blind minstrel Demodocus sings about Odysseus and Achilles at Troy while playing the harp. (Wikimedia)

Odysseus is weeping at the court of Alcinous as the blind minstrel Demodocus sings about Odysseus and Achilles at Troy while playing the harp. (Wikimedia)

Vivid detail?

Let Homer answer the question, so often asked rhetorically when apologists insist on the historicity of the gospels.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus praises the singer Demodocus for relating the events of the Trojan War “as if you were present yourself, or heard it from one who was.” Demodocus was definitely not present, a point that Odysseus well knows. Still, by means of his vivid presentation, Demodocus could make it seem as if he were an eyewitness or had heard from one who was. Homer knew that if one was not an eyewitness, skillful literary art could produce an eyewitness effect.

(Litwa, 194 f)

Historians and eyewitness reports — comparing the gospels

Litwa points out that as a rule ancient Greco-Roman historians sought to impress audiences with the credibility and superiority of their accounts by appeals to eyewitness sources. Not that they cited an eyewitness with every event, but they would often boast of their first-hand information in a prologue or whenever a particularly unusual event was being narrated. If we accept this practice as the literary custom at the time the gospels were composed then Litwa’s argument makes sense:

The gospels were probably not written by eyewitnesses. If they were, the authors would have named themselves and explicitly claimed to have seen the events that they narrated. If they based their accounts on eyewitness reports, they would have named those eyewitnesses specifically and related their differing accounts. Real eyewitnesses would not have left firsthand experience open to doubt. They would have boasted, like Josephus, of their eyewitness status and used it to confirm their authority.<
(Litwa, 196)

But is not Luke an exception? Does he not claim to have interviewed eyewitnesses for his gospel?

For a quite different interpretation of Luke’s reference to eyewitnesses, see any of the posts addressing an article by John N. Collins

Again, it is refreshing to read Litwa’s answer to this question:

To be sure, the author of Luke mentions receiving traditions from eyewitnesses (1:2). The fact that none of these witnesses is ever named and none of their reports is ever distinguished in the narrative, however, raises many questions. In fact, the author of Luke seems content to hide the nature of his sources. He clearly used the gospel of Mark, though he never once gives any impression that he did so. The details of his other sources, both oral and written, are never supplied.

(Litwa, 196)

The Beloved Disciple? 

read more »

Review, parts 13, 14. More on Ancient “Resurrection” Stories (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

Chapter Thirteen, “Disappearance and Recognition”, continues with an exploration of the little devices used by the author of the Gospel of Luke to build a sense of realism (or “historicity”) into the narrative of the two travellers on the Emmaus Road after the death of Jesus. These literary devices make the account seem very natural, acceptable as “reportage” of “what happened”. But then we come to the strange failure to recognize Jesus when he walks and talks alongside them and even after entering their home — until he breaks bread when he simply vanishes into thin air. Soon afterwards Jesus appears to his disciples by passing through a solid wall, after which he attempts to prove he is not a ghost but flesh just like them. M. David Litwa shows how such strange happenings were known and believed to have happened to Greek mythical characters. The point is that just as Greek myths could be told in a manner that lent them verisimilitude, placing the supernatural within a narrative of natural psychological reactions and settings, so the gospels do the same with the resurrection accounts of Jesus. One of the myths Litwa uses for comparison have also been discussed on Vridar, though not always in relation to the gospel: Baucis and Philemon. Another, one about hospitality given to an unrecognized Dionysus, you can read on archive.org’s poem by Silius Italicus. The motif of the gods preventing some people from seeing or recognizing them while allowing others to do so at certain times goes back to Homer. Walls did not prevent gods like Dionysus or Hermes from entering rooms, either.

Litwa covers other instances of humans dying only to have their bodies disappear and then reappear alive at some other time and place, as found in histories and biographies by Herodotus, Iamblichus and Philostratus. Sometimes the reappearing person even commands incredulous witnesses to touch him to see that he is real. Playwrights portrayed those returned from the dead as ghosts continued to bear the physical wounds they had suffered in the flesh so that they could be recognized by former acquaintances.

It would be a mistake to think that early Christians could see no comparison between their stories of Jesus and Greek myths. Justin Martyr, a mid-second century “Church Father”, addressed non-Christians thus:

The early Christian Justin Martyr even used these myihoi as a measuring rod of historical plausibility: “When we [Christians] say also that the Logos [i.e., Christ] … was crucified and died and rose again and ascended into heaven [aneleluthenai eis ton ouranon\, we propound nothing new [ou . . . kainon ti] beyond [what you believe] concerning those whom you call sons of Zeus.” Justin’s argument only works if the Greeks and Romans understood their ascent mythoi as records of real events.

(Litwa, 187 – Chapter 14)

In chapter fourteen (Ascent) Litwa addresses in detail the ancient belief in ascent to heaven in a cloud by one who at death is deified. Both the historian Livy and the biographer Plutarch write of what was believed to have been Romulus’s ascent and subsequent appearance on earth to a reputable eyewitness. The authors themselves may have been sceptical, as Litwa points out the Jewish philosopher was sceptical of Moses’ bodily ascent to heaven, but belief in the bodily ascent did persist among many.

And so forth. The gospel stories would not have been believed literally by sophisticated authors such as Cicero and Plutarch but it is evident that comparable stories, told with similar “naturalizing” techniques and contexts, were believed by others. The same techniques to create plausibility (see two earlier posts for the details) have led to millions ever since believing in the historicity of the gospel narratives. Litwa would be appalled, though, to take this point any further. His point is that the events in Jesus’ life were “remembered” through a cultural context that allowed the imagination to shape them in the direction of Greek myths.


Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au

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Guest Post: Further Thoughts on the “We Passages” in Acts

[I have copied the following comment by Greg Doudna to a post here so the thoughts do not get lost in the comments section and are easier to read and engage with. Format slightly changed — Neil]

–o–

The argument that the “we” passages of Acts are an origin story of the church at Rome starting from Troy, sort of like the way (here in the northern hemisphere) the Pilgrims on the Mayflower is a foundation story told each Thanksgiving of how “we” Americans came to North America from Europe . . . is intriguing. Without gainsaying the intriguing positive part of your argument, an objection is that in its present form, Acts does not make a point of starting from Troy. Yet the “we” from Troy to ending up in Rome is sufficiently striking that it seems there must be something to what you suggest, here and in your previous series on this on Vridar (all of which I went back and read). That is, on the one hand, something seems to be there, but on the other hand it seems so subtle it seems questionable that the author of Acts intended it or that ancient first readers would have noticed. Therefore let me make some probings that might address this objection, basically in terms of a source interpretation.

1.

First, that the “we” is the final author of Acts, despite the presentation of Acts that that is the case, cannot be correct on chronological grounds of the dating of Acts. Much literature and argument here with which you and most here are familiar, but here is one that I have not seen cited here or receive much attention anywhere yet, but which appears solidly and independently to argue for, indeed may establish, a mid-second CE dating of Acts: Laura Nasrallah, “The Acts of the Apostles, Greek Cities, and Hadrian’s Panhellenion”, JBL 127 (2008): 533-566. Also and separately arguing for the same mid-2nd CE dating, David Trobisch, “The Book of Acts as a Narrative Commentary on the Letters of the New Testament: A Programmatic Essay”, pp. 119-127 in Gregory and Rowe, eds, Rethinking the Unity and Reception of Luke and Acts. Andrew F. Gregory, C. Kavin Rowe (University of South Carolina Press, 2010).

2.

Second, that the “we” reads as the author or the author’s circle inviting readers’ identification vicariously–an inclusive authorial “we”–is the portrayal, yet that cannot be correct historically, therefore it is deception on the part of the actual author. Third, while earlier comments you have made show well that Acts is not history in the sense of Thucydides or Josephus, and is fiction-like, at the same time I question that it is properly called fiction either. Were not ancient romances and actual ancient fiction understood by readers to be just that–entertaining stories, not to be taken too seriously, not history? (Like Jesus’s parables or Aesop’s fables.) But Acts reads as intended by first authors and readers to be understood as history, tendentious history, but history, analogous to the way colonists’ might answer outsiders if asked “where do you come from? how did you get here?” Acts seems to be analogous to conscious writing of a foundation story, constructed history, not meant to be objective but to establish a shared foundation story understood emically as history . . . “our history”, “history as we have decided it to be” . . . in a text which explains–as a claim of history–why salvation history has come to where it now is, in Rome. (With the harmonization of Peter and Paul founding figures and the golden age of the first generation all part of this.) The “we” device works with this in Acts’ final form literarily.

3.

From here I now move to increasingly tentative conjecture. The starting point is the “we” passages may be from a source reworked. It is generally understood that Acts has worked from and reworked other sources, such that it is not unreasonable to suppose the “we” itinerary may be one more. I am not going to try to prove that, but assume that for purposes of conjecture going forward, in which, if that assumption is correct, some interesting possibilities may or may not emerge.

4.

Fourth, it has been brought out (Hyldahl, Justin Taylor and others) that the “we” passages connect together in what reads as originally a single itinerary, despite reading in present-form Acts as separated in narrative over a period of years. The conclusion seems to be that an original itinerary has somehow been “exploded” with narrative filler in between sections of an original connected “we” source itinerary.

5.

Fifth, though I do not have space to go into this point here, suffice it to say I am convinced the ship voyage from Jerusalem to Rome of Acts, and the ship voyage of Josephus to Rome in Vita, are the same ship and shipwreck. I do not find fully convincing that the similarities in details are explicable in terms of literary tropes; instead, it is two versions of the same ship and voyage. I perceive that the only reason this is not more recognized is because of a perception of a chronological discrepancy of ca. two years. Yet the dating of Paul’s voyage to Rome in Acts depends on the datings of the Felix/Festus and Festus/Albinus accessions which continue to be recognized as problematic, uncertain, and debated as to specific years. The argument for identity of the two ship voyages seems to me to be sufficiently strong as to itself justifiably introduce weight on the still-unresolved issues of the dating of the Felix/Festus accession.

6.

Continuing, sixth, the strong study of William Sanger Campbell, The “We” Passages in the Acts of the Apostles: The Narrator as Narrative Character (Leiden: Brill, 2007) is of interest, in arguing that “we” replaces the role of Barnabas narratively. As Acts has it, Barnabas exits the picture at 15:39 before the “we” narratives begin at 16:10, but Acts has arguably mixed up and rearranged story fragments and doublets in its narrative construction. I suggest (this is not Campbell) that the long-disputed mystery of who “we” is may be resolved as: it is the voice of Barnabas. The voice is that of Barnabas, of the original source where we read “we” in the second part of Acts.

7.

This then raises the question of who was Barnabas? I suggest consideration, seventh, that Barnabas could be none other than Josephus, and that the “we” source, which ends at the point of Paul’s trial in Rome, could be something of an ancient account, in first-person voice, of a legal advocate for Paul, namely Josephus, somehow related to Paul’s trial in Rome.

Begins and ends with Josephus?

read more »