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?

Trumpian Style Response to Mythicism

I am catching up on too my long-neglected RSS feeds and came across this post from James McGrath: Jesus, James and Peter Mythicism.

It is worth noting precisely what it is that mythicists do with Paul’s references to Jesus in his letters, and just how easily the same could be done with James, the brother of Jesus, whom most mythicists accept was an actual person, while denying that he was actually Jesus’ brother.

Now there is a sweeping confidence about what “mythicists” — a whole block of persons — believe and “precisely” do, or at least “most of them”. Maybe most do. I don’t know. But there are a lot of crackpot mythicists just as there are even more crackpot “Jesus historicists” (usually called fundamentalists, creationists, biblical literalists). Lumping them all together with blanket assertions about what “they” do does not seem like a useful way to open up a discussion.

They emphasize that he is not called “the brother of Jesus” but “the brother of the Lord” as though the Lord, for Paul, were not clearly Jesus. Some have even tried to claim that he was the brother of Yahweh, showing that mythicists are clutching at straws and have no real understanding of what ancient Jews and early Christians believed. (My emphasis)

Again, notice how we begin with the universal “they” and how that elides to “some” but then returns to that same starting point, “the whole bang lot of them”. No need for citations, of course, because the message is that “they all” think and argue the same way. Would McGrath be content if a “mythicist” lumped together all authors of books about the life of Jesus by believers, apologists and others?

“Some have even tried to claim that he was the brother of Yahweh”, writes McGrath. Regretfully he provides no citation. The ones I can recollect who do argue for this do not merely “claim” it; they present a reasoned argument referencing the sources. But let’s move on. The message is that because “some claim” this point it follows that we can see that “mythicists clutch at straws with no real understanding of what ancient Jews and early Christians believed.” “Some” is evidence of what the entire collective is like. (Two points: is McGrath seriously suggesting that “ancient Jews” did not equate Lord with Yahweh, but with Jesus, and that “mythicists” are showing their ignorance on this point? Second point: never mind that the evidence used by that “some” sometimes includes a comparable letter by Paul, the one to the Romans, in which very often, not always, uses “Lord” alone to refer to God, Yahweh, and as a rule makes it explicitly clear whenever he wants us to think that “Lord” applies to Jesus instead. One might be tempted to turn the tables and ask who is showing their lack of “real understanding” of the evidence of what Jews and early Christians believed”.)

And so why don’t they go further still? Paul went up to Jerusalem. Surely this could refer to a heavenly journey to the heavenly Jerusalem, during which he met Jacob, Yahweh’s brother. Simple! After all, Paul himself says that he was taken up to the third heaven.

Perhaps the answer is that mythicists, like McGrath, take the context as a primary pointer to meanings of particular words. Perhaps also because the word for “went up” ἀνῆλθον (anēlthon) is the normal word used for someone traveling up to a town, or a mountain (as in John 6:3) while a “real understanding of what ancient Jews and Christians believed” would inform us that when visionaries “went up” to the heavens they never “walked up” or “went up” as if on a journey of their own: they were seized, grabbed, swept up by an outside force — a different concept and a different word (ἁρπάζω (harpazó) ) is used by Paul to describe his being taken up to the third heaven.

I like reading the works of biblical scholars because I generally have lots to learn from them. I get disillusioned when I find some of them write as if they can get away with spouting misinformation to the generally less informed public.

My objection to this (in case you are starting to think maybe I’m onto something) is that it is the same approach religious fundamentalists take to the text, deciding what it is allowed to mean in advance, and then accepting any interpretation that provides that desired meaning, without discussion or consideration of whether the text more likely means what they think it should. Mythicists prooftext rather than exegete.

Again, where is a citation to support this statement? My own experience has been that I always began with the assumption that James was a real person and that he was believed to have been the brother of Jesus. It never occurred to me — even as an atheist — that Jesus never existed or that there was any reason to question the face-value of this passage in Galatians. It is only on closer examination that some — not all — some mythicists have raised the alternative question. McGrath claims to have read (presumably completely read) Richard Carrier’s book on mythicism, so he knows that Carrier even concludes that this passage in Galatians does indeed add significant weight to the argument for the historicity of Jesus. (The difference between Carrier and McGrath, though, is that Carrier does not turn to this or any other passage as a proof-text and use that one text, like a fundamentalist, to prove a much larger point. Context, and understanding the totality of the writings and manuscript histories are important in any scholarly — genuinely scholarly — analysis.)

I happen to think that the passage does mean exactly what McGrath says it means. I also happen to agree with another author who, in the process of arguing against — against — Jesus mythicism, had the honesty to admit that the patristic history of that passage really does raise serious questions about its authenticity. But that’s a discussion for serious scholarship. I trust McGrath won’t just pooh-pooh those arguments but seriously engage with the evidence as honestly as possible.

No, I am not saying that Howell Smith’s arguments are a slam dunk. There is room for honest doubt and question. What I am saying is that arguments from “proof-texting” — as it seems McGrath is accusing mythicists and of which I believe he himself is guilty — is not the way to go in any serious and informed exploration of the question.

I titled this post “Trumpian response”. I define a “Trumpian” as an attempt to persuade followers through disinformation not to read critical views of his position on things; to persuade followers that all “other views” are by definition “fake news”, and to be ridiculed and rejected out of hand. Certainly, one should never waste time actually reading both sides of a question for oneself and seriously raising the sorts of questions I have raised here among die-hard supporters.

 

 

The First Edition of John as the Dionysian Gospel

Highlighted citations are my additions to footnotes.

4 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 28-29, 30-32.  — John 1:1-5, 14, 16, 18 Bacchae 1-4 ….

5 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 29.  — John 1:6-8 Bacchae 10-12

6 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 29-30.  — John 1:9-12 Bacchae 26-30

7 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 38-40.  — John 1:19-51 …..

8 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 40-44, 67. — John 2:1-11, 20:30-31  Bacchae 142, 704-7, 712-13

9 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 46-49. — John 5:2-9  Bacchae 180-98, 204-09

10 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 48-49. — John 3.1-24  Bacchae 187-89, 193

11 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 51-55. — John 4:1-42  Bacchae 704-5; 216-223

12 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 64-67. — John 6:53-66  Bacchae 139, 735, 739, 1133-36

13 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 68-71, 89-95. — John 8:12-19; 18:28-19:16 Bacchae 460-506

14 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 71-73. — John 8:32-37, 58-59  Bacchae 498, 641, 432-518

15 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 73-75.  — John 9:1-41  Bacchae 319…

16 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 75-76. — John 10:39-42 Bacchae 636-37

17 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 79-81. — John 11:6-44 Bacchae 498, contra 1374-76

18 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 81-82. — John 11:45-50, 53-57  Bacchae 677-774, 778-80, 784-85, 352-56

19 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 82-83.  — John 12:12-15, 17-19  Bacchae 216-20

20 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 83-85.  — John 13:1, 31-35; 14:4, 6, 31; 15:1-2, 4  ….

21 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 85-87.  — John 18:1-13  Bacchae 434-46

22 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 96-100. — John 19:17-30  Bacchae 1115-21

23 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 102-08. — John 20:1, 11-18  Bacchae 1212, 1298…

24 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 108-09. — John 20:19, 21-23 Bacchae 1340-41, 1354-56; John 20:30-31 Bacchae 1388-92

25 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 79.
26 MacDonald, Dionysian Gospel, 102-08

Numerous and dense parallels rise to the level of highly probable to certain indications of dependence on the Bacchae of Euripides. Such dependence can be seen in a wide range of ways, from identical and unique word choice, to themes and dramatic settings, to character developments and plot twists.

• Like Dionysus, Jesus is a god who comes to earth in mortal disguise.4

• He has a champion heralding him.5

• The people’s leaders reject him.6

• His symbolic names abound.7

• Jesus’s first, stage-setting miracle is clearly a Dionysian one; both bring forth wine miraculously.8

• Yet that is only one of numerous, identity-establishing miracles that the two share in common. Jesus and Dionysus both make old men move as if they are young again.9

• Both prompt devotion from old men in spite of competing family loyalties.10

• The Johannine Jesus provides his own miraculous supply of water and attracts women followers known for their promiscuity, just as Dionysus was famed to do.11

• Both vex their initiates/disciples with the requirement of eating the god’s raw flesh and drinking his blood.12

• Iesus Dionysos is harshly interrogated as to his provenance and paternity.13

• He is the liberator of slaves.14

• He is the one whom his opponents cannot see but the formerly blind clearly can.15

• He is the one who can miraculously escape arrest.16

• He is the one whose initiates travel safely into the underworld and are brought back to life.17

• Jesus and Dionysus are similarly opposed by god-fighters.18

• Yet both are equally acclaimed by many groups of people.19

• Jesus imitates Dionysus even as he rivals him as the true grapevine.20

• Both willingly meet their own arrest.21

• Though the ignominy of the crucifixion and lack of vengeance are uncharacteristic of Dionysus, the Johannine Jesus still plays a Bacchae-inspired role in his imitation of Pentheus, the murdered king.22

• The Johannine resurrection interweaves characteristics of Dionysus and Pentheus in its depiction of the defiled, royal corpse being raised within a garden and women followers who surround him but also do not initially recognize his body.23

• The disembodied apotheosis of the first edition of John is hallmark Dionysus.24

Other adduced parallels run the gamut from uncertain to puzzling. In these occasions, it may simply be that MacDonald knows these texts far better than readers like I do and that he sees connections that have to be explained point by point to the uninitiated. For example, Mary’s anointing of the feet of Jesus is adduced as John’s depiction of Jesus as “a different kind of lover from Dionysus.”25 Yes, Jesus is a murdered king like Pentheus, but why is it that Mary Magdalene rather than Mary the Mother plays the part of the mother of Pentheus, who cannot recognize her son’s body?26 Caveats notwithstanding, these minor quibbles and questions do not impair MacDonald’s Dionysian argument in the least.

(Bilby, 49-51. Formatting is mine)


Bilby, Mark G. 2018. “The First Dionysian Gospel: Imitational and Redactional Layers in Luke and John.” In Classical Greek Models of the Gospels and Acts: Studies in Mimesis Criticism, edited by Mark G. Bilby, Michael Kochenash, and Margaret Froelich, 49–68. Claremont, Calif: Claremont Press.


The Idea of the Resurrection: From Greek Influence?

An interesting chapter from Greek Influence in Jewish Eschatology by T. Francis Glasson (1961). Make of it what you will . . . .

. . . . The system of belief which gathered around his name [Orpheus] included transmigration, regarded the body as the prison or tomb of the soul, and attempted to show how men could find deliverance from bodily life and the circle of re-birth, and so return to their original divinity.

A myth described how Dionysus, the child of Zeus, was slain and devoured by the Titans. In his anger Zeus destroyed them with a thunderbolt; from their ashes sprang the race of men. Mankind thus consists partly of an evil element (Titanic) and partly of a good element (Dionysiac). The problem was how to get rid of the former so that the latter could be restored to its true home in the divine sphere. Man was, in Empedocles’ words, a wanderer and a fugitive from the gods. Orphism by its purificatory rites and its way of life offered the true mode of salvation.

. . . . while the final goal was a purely spiritual life freed from all bodily complications, much was said of the long process, consisting of alternating experiences on earth and in the underworld, which for most people would intervene before they were ready for final emancipation. It is a great mistake to associate Greek eschatology only with the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The Greeks had a lot to say about punishment in the underworld, and it was the Orphics who were their teachers.

Enoch 21: 4 Then I said: “For what sin have they been bound, and why have they been thrown here?” 5 And Uriel, one of the Holy Angels, who was with me and led me, spoke to me and said: “Enoch, about whom do you ask? About whom do you inquire, ask, and care? 6 These are some of the stars which transgressed the command of the Lord Most High, and they have been bound here until ten thousand ages are completed; the number of days of their sin.”

For most people there would be . . . at least ten earthly lives; each one would begin a thousand years later than the preceding, and the intervals would all be taken up by retribution in the beyond. The whole process would thus take 10,000 years. Those who chose the life of a philosopher three times in succession would escape further re-incarnations and would be ready for complete deliverance from earthly life, final release for the soul from its prison. Plato’s Phaedrus puts it in this way:

But among all these, whosoever passes his life justly afterwards obtains a better lot, but who unjustly, a worse one. For to the same place, whence each soul comes, it does not return till the expiration of 10,000 years; for it does not recover its wings for so long a period, except it is the soul of a sincere lover of wisdom, or of one who has made philosophy his favourite. But these in the third period of a thousand years, if they have chosen this life thrice in succession, thereupon depart, with their wings restored in the three thousandth year. Others are tried, sentenced some to places of punishment beneath the earth . . . others to some region in heaven . . . in the thousandth year they choose their next life.

Empedocles in one of his fragments says that the fallen daemon must wander thrice ten thousand seasons from the abodes of the blessed. According to Dieterich three seasons per year were recognized at that time, so that the same period of 10,000 years is meant.

Pindar, Olympian Ode 2: . . . those who gladly kept their oaths enjoy a life without tears, while the others undergo a toil that is unbearable to look at. Those who have persevered three times, on either side, to keep their souls free from all wrongdoing, [70] follow Zeus’ road to the end, to the tower of Cronus, where ocean breezes blow around the island of the blessed, and flowers of gold are blazing, some from splendid trees on land, while water nurtures others.

There are traces of Orphism in Pindar and he too says that those who have thrice led a blameless life will be sent to the islands of the blessed in the kingdom of Cronus (Olympian Odes ii. 68). There are of course numerous other references to the main outline of this scheme in ancient literature. Two of the fullest and best known are the myth of Er in Plato’s Republic (book 10) and Virgil’s Aeneid (book 6). The famous gold plates will be referred to later . . . .

When we consider the possible bearing of all this upon Jewish teaching, we notice that too often recent writers have been inclined to restrict the Greek influence on Jewish eschatology to the immortality of the soul. For other aspects of the future life they have looked elsewhere, especially to Persia. May not the case have been rather as follows? The Jews did not accept the doctrine of repeated re-incarnations and a succession of earthly lives, nor did they regard the body as a prison-house. But some of them accepted the doctrine of punishments and rewards under the ground; while others held to the immortality of the soul. One is as Greek as the other.

The Orphic scheme should be looked at in its entirety. It included:

A. Recompense in the underworld, with different treatment for good and evil, and

B. The final return of the soul to the divine realm.

Now, some Jewish developments reflect more particularly the influence of A—as in Enoch 22 with its conception of different lots for good and evil in the future. We might add for consideration the idea of a return to earthly life, which the Jews called resurrection, though Josephus expresses it as a kind of reincarnation.

Other Jewish developments, particularly in the Diaspora, reflect the influence of B — Philo, Wisdom of Solomon, 4 Maccabees.

We make a mistake in recognizing Greek influence only in the latter case. What happened was virtually a separation of the two parts of Orphic teaching. The Jews already had a doctrine of the Day of the Lord, and this and other beliefs made it impossible for them to accept anything like the entire Greek scheme.

As mentioned in an earlier chapter, life in the Messianic kingdom is not described in Enoch 1-36 as going on for ever. It is patriarchal in its duration, but the clear implication is that it will close with old age.

But for the elect there shall be light and grace and peace, And they shall inherit the earth.
And then there shall be bestowed upon the elect wisdom.
And they shall all live and never again sin . . .
And they shall not again transgress.
Nor shall they sin all the days of their life.
Nor shall they die of (the divine) anger or wrath,
But they shall complete the number of the days of their life.
And their lives shall be increased in peace.
And the years of their joy shall be multiplied,
In eternal gladness and peace,
All the days of their life (5. 7-9).

So also in 25. 6:

And they shall live a long life on earth,
Such as thy fathers lived:
And in their days shall no sorrow or plague
Or torment or calamity touch them.

If this is the life to which the righteous are raised, it is clear that it is not strictly everlasting life; it is more like a reincarnation.

It is sometimes affirmed that nothing could be further from Greek thought than Jewish teaching on resurrection, that the Greeks thought of deliverance from the body as the desirable goal. Yet it should be pointed out that the Platonic-Orphic eschatology, while certainly envisaging deliverance from bodily life as the final goal, nevertheless taught quite definitely that for most people there would be a return to bodily life on the earth. Whether we call this “resurrection” or not is mainly a matter of terms.

5 R. H. Charles, writing on the eschatology of Enoch 1-36, says: “There is no hint as to what becomes of the righteous after the second death” (Hastings’ Dictionary ot the Bible, i. p. 742)

There are admittedly great differences between Jewish eschatology and Greek. It is perfectly true that the Jews did not accept such a doctrine as transmigration (except in later periods, when it was taught in the Kabbala), nor was the resurrection-life presented as a further probation or disciplinary experience. But the question at the moment is: Is there a possibility that Greek teaching suggested to the Jews, or to some of them, that the dead would be raised from Sheol to live again on the earth, which is what resurrection implied at that time ? It is curious that they seem to have left quite open the further and ultimate fate of those who, as in the Greek scheme, lived again on earth for a limited period.5 They did not follow the Greeks in envisaging successive lives on earth alternating with periods in Hades, but they appear to have had nothing at first to substitute.

It is usual to point to Iranian parallels in connection with the resurrection and this may after all prove to be correct. But it is worthy of consideration that the view of a return to bodily life was taught by the Greeks and may possibly have played a part (even if a subsidiary one) in the early stages of the Jewish doctrine of resurrection. In limiting the term of this further earthly experience, as seems to be the case in Enoch 1-36, the Jew appears to stand with the Greek rather than the Persian.

Josephus explains the Pharisaic belief in resurrection in terms of re-incarnation: “the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies”. There is also the phrase in Antiquities xviii. 1. 3; “revive and live again”. I do not press this as Josephus may have been expressing himself in ways intelligible to his Roman readers who of course were familiar with ideas of re-incarnation.

The possibility of a connection between the Jewish doctrine of resurrection and the Greek view of re-incarnation occurred to me independently some time ago, but I have subsequently noticed that I. Levy claims quite confidently that the former found its origin in the latter:

The first of the two stages distinguished by the Pharisaic doctrine, that of punishments and rewards in Hades, is indisputably a borrowing from Hellenism on the part of the Diaspora. The second stage, re-entry of the soul in a body, is also exactly parallel to the re-incarnation which brings the soul of the dead into the world of the living. Thus we meet again . . . the whole round of the doctrine of metempsychosis, the sequence of (1) sojourn in Hades and (2) palingenesis. We thus see the true origin of the idea of resurrection. [p. 255]

For my own part I do not wish to speak with the same degree of definiteness as this but the possibility can certainly not be denied and should be taken into consideration in accounting for the emergence of the resurrection doctrine.

Another important aspect of the question should be mentioned before we pass on. The inquiry into the origin of the Jewish doctrine of resurrection is interlocked with the date of Isaiah 24-7, since these chapters contain the first mention of the subject in Jewish writings:

Thy dead shall live; my dead bodies shall arise (26. 19).

Some authorities date the whole section in the Maccabean period (Duhm, Marti). Bousset-Gressmann say that these four chapters possibly arose at the end of the third century or later. W. Rudolph also places this whole section in the Greek period, and while he thinks that the bulk of it comes from the period 330-300 b.c. soon after the conquests of Alexander, he excepts three small sections including the verses which deal with the resurrection. He inclines to the view that the doctrine did not emerge as early as the fourth century and that the verses which deal with it may be a later insertion. It is therefore most likely that the doctrine of resurrection emerged at a time when Greek thoughts were circulating in Palestine, so that the possibility mentioned above is not to be ruled out on the score of dates.

(Glasson, 26-32)


Glasson, T. Francis. 1961. Greek Influence in Jewish Eschatology: With Special Reference to the Apocalypses and Pseudepigraphs. S. P. C. K.


 

Review, part 4 (Gospel & Pagan Gods in Flesh) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

We now come to the most interesting chapters of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. We are no longer distracted by protests against those who would deny the historicity of Jesus or, at least not directly, protests against scholars who posit that the evangelists directly imitated Homer. The title of chapter 3 is “Incarnation” and here Litwa enlightens readers to the first-century context of how readers might have understood the very idea of a god appearing in the world in flesh as a human being. To be fair, though, Litwa intends to demonstrate more than this ancient world-view. Litwa also attempts to demonstrate how the evangelists presented the idea of god’s incarnation as plausible history.

Litwa begins with the Gospel of John and right from the start pulls me up with notions that may be old-hat to others but that were noteworthy to me: in the Gospel of John Jesus is never shown to be eating but he does tell others to eat him (or eat his flesh) and similar ideas. So what does “incarnation” mean to the fourth evangelist? Interesting question.

Sent into the world

Moving on, Litwa informs/reminds readers that just as biblical Wisdom was driven away when she tried to dwell among men so the Greek goddess of Justice, likewise, was driven from the unjust world of humanity. But the more detailed comparisons come with Hermes (the Roman Mercury) who was also known as the Logos, the interpreter of the high god Zeus, and messenger from Zeus to mortals. Litwa points to several messenger and creative roles of Hermes but focusses on Hermes assumption of a human body in his errands. We saw one of these roles when recently discussing M. David Litwa’s criticisms of Dennis MacDonald’s thesis. The god Hermes swept down from Mount Olympus to meet and escort the Trojan Priam on his dangerous quest to enter the Greek camp and request the return of the body of his slain son Hector. There Hermes took on the form of a young warrior capable of winning the trust of Priam and safely escorting him to the Greek camp.

Augustus Caesar: Mercury in the flesh

But Litwa informs us that Hermes — as the Roman Mercury — was subsequently portrayed by a Roman poet (Horace) as appearing on earth in the body of Augustus Caesar.

Then there is the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Litwa carries us through the biographers who lead readers to understand that the great thinker was also a “god who had come to earth”:

Iamblichus reported a Pythagorean creedal question (akousma) with its correct answer: ‘“Who are you Pythagoras?’ For they confess that he is the Hyperborean Apollo.(Litwa, 69)

Pythagoras: Apollo in the flesh

But from here Litwa becomes more interesting still. Pythagoras revealed his true divine identity (i.e. the god Apollo in the flesh) to one selected follower, Abaris. Pythagoras took Abaris aside to show him, privately, that he had a thigh of pure gold — an unequivocal proof that he was truly a god. Later, at an Olympic Games, Pythagoras was reported by many eyewitnesses as having accidentally revealed the same golden thigh, thus proving to multitudes his divine nature.

Litwa reasonably draws a comparison with Jesus’ private revelation to Peter that he is indeed the Messiah. And this is, of course, reinforced by Jesus demonstrating the fact by the visible transformation of his body in the Transfiguration (as Pythagoras showed his golden thigh) to his select few followers. Litwa’s point, however, is more than mere revelation. Litwa argues that it is the quotidian, the prosaic, the mundane commonplace setting that goes some way to transforming the myth into “plausible history”.

The revelation and transfiguration take place at a well-known urban centre, Caesarea Philippi, and on a nearby mountain. Peter fumbles for words and says something quite silly so readers are clear that he is taken completely by surprise as any mere mortal would be. Litwa compares this circumstantial detail with the ordinariness of details surrounding Pythagoras’s revelation to Abaris. The Gospel of Luke even goes one step further by depicting the disciples as sleeping and needing to be awoken when Jesus’ body is transformed. Sleep, waking up, saying silly things, a well-known city and mountain — all of this context sets the revelation into a “plausible” or “historically sounding” context, according to Litwa.

I am not so sure, however. To return to the scene of Hermes being sent by Zeus to escort Priam, we read in Homer the following. Hermes descends as commanded by Zeus but the details of his meeting with Priam are also very prosaic, as the highlighted words surely indicate:

With this wand in his hand the mighty [Hermes] made his flight and soon reached Troyland and the Hellespont. There he proceeded on foot, looking like a young prince at that most charming age when the beard first starts to grow.

Meanwhile the [Priam and his herald] had driven past the great barrow of Ilus and stopped their mules and horses for a drink at the river. Everything as dark by now, and it was not till Hermes was quite close to them that the herald looked up and saw him. He at once turned round to Priam and said: ‘Look, your majesty; we must beware. I see a man, and I am afraid we may be butchered. Let us make our escape in the chariot, or if not that, fall at his knees and implore his mercy.’ –

The old man [Priam] was dumbfounded and filled with terror; the hairs stood up on his supple limbs; he was rooted to the spot and could not say a word. But the [Hermes] did not wait to be accosted. He went straight up to Priam, took him by the hand . . . . [Iliad 24]

Yet no critic of Homer in later centuries (including the time the gospels were written) thought of Homer as writing more than poetry. Even if the Trojan War were thought to be history and Homer its historian, the universal opinion was that Homer wrote the story in terms of poetic myth. Mundane details may have contextualized the mythical encounters of humans and gods, but they did not demonstrate the “historical truth” of such encounters.

But questioning Litwa’s thesis is a secondary focus of mine. What fascinates me most is the broader cultural context of the ideas or motifs we find in the gospels in the first or second centuries CE. Upcoming — Litwa’s discussions of genealogies and divine conceptions.

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

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.


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


Review, part 3b (The Thesis) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

We arrive now at a point where I am beginning to find more agreement with, and renewed interest in, M. David Litwa’s thesis in How the Gospels Became History.

Having dismissed Dennis MacDonald’s proposal that the gospels (in particular Gospel of Mark) were created intertextually with not only various Jewish books but also Greco-Roman ones (in particular Homer’s epics) Litwa sets forth his view of how non-Jewish ideas found their way into the gospels. The gospel authors (“evangelists”) were necessarily part of a late first-century CE Mediterranean culture that was infused with mythoi (myths). (See the first post of this series for Litwa’s discussion of how these were defined in ancient times.) (Again, all bolded highlighting is mine.)

Greek mythoi were the mass media when the gospels were written in the late first century CE. Mythoi were reflected in virtually all the cultural venues available: sculpture, painting, pantomime, hymn, novels, coins, gems, mosaics, plays, athletic events — even executions. (p. 50)

Litwa expands on this idea,

Even the rigorist Jewish Essenes, who sequestered themselves in the Judean desert, employed astrological, calendrical, organizational, and scribal practices common to the Hellenistic world. (p. 52)

. . . . What united learned peoples in the provinces was a shared educational system and repertoire of stories, poems, and speeches that virtually every person of culture knew. . . . 

Since gospel stories arose when Greek mythoi were the dominant cultural lore, it is not strange to think that this lore shaped the formation of Jesus narratives. . . .

Greek mythology was part of the “pre-understanding” of all those who lived in Hellenistic culture — including Jews and Christians. . . . 

. . . As a result of socialization, human beings come to share assumptions that allow’ them to communicate and experience phenomena in a basically similar way.

In this sense, early Jews and Christians were inevitably influenced by the dominant cultural lore. Greek mythic discourses were part of the mainstream, urban culture to which most early Christians belonged. If Christians were socialized in predominantly Greek cultural environments, it is no surprise that they were shaped by the dominant stories. Some of the influence would have been consciously experienced through the educational system. Other influences would have been absorbed by attending plays, viewing works of art, hearing poetry, and simply conversing on a daily basis with Hellenized peoples in the many marketplaces of ideas. (pp. 51-52)

Litwa from there proceeds to a discussion of “gospel genre”.

. . . there is a rough consensus that the gospels best approximate ancient biographical (or bios) literature. We can define biography as a form of historiography focusing on the life and character of a single person. (p. 53)

That sounds simple enough — until we do a little bit of reading of the literature on ancient historiography. I have posted on this topic often enough and part of the reason is that I keep learning new things as I read more. At this point I have to say that some classicists flatly deny that ancient historiography conforms to any clear rules of a single genre. A fuller discussion (again) will have to wait. Till then I will allow Litwa to speak, read more »

Review, part 3a (Homer and the Gospels) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

In this post, I am presenting MacDonald’s case beside Litwa’s criticisms. One may disagree with MacDonald’s thesis and the significance he sees in certain comparisons but that is another discussion. Here I am interested only in an assessment of Litwa’s criticisms.

M. David Litwa opens chapter 2, “A Theory of Comparisons”, of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths, with the following epigraph:

The issue of difference has been all but forgotten.
Jonathan J. Smith

It is all too easy to overlook differences, agreed. I seem to recall drawing questionable conclusions about the world’s religions from reading, many years ago, certain works by James George Frazer and Joseph Campbell. On the other hand, much of my reading in more recent years has been of scholarly discussions that give renewed insights into the significance and meaning of the differences between the compared works. Indeed, Smith is quoted elsewhere in that same book (A Magic Still Dwells) making that same positive point:

“. . . . The issue of difference has been all but forgotten.” Smith attempts to counter this trend by emphasizing that questions of difference are constitutive of the very process of comparison. [C]omparison is, at base, never identity. Comparison requires the postulation of difference as the grounds of its being interesting (rather than tautological) and a methodical manipulation of difference, a playing across the ‘gap’ in the service of some useful end.” See Smith, “In Comparison a Magic Dwells,” pp. 21, 35; 25-26, 40. Smith reiterates this point in his critique of Eliade in chapter 1 of To Take Place, pp. 13-14.”

(Holdrege, 89. Bolded highlighting in all quotations is mine.)

Unfortunately, Litwa continues to operate with the assumption that “comparativists” who have not embraced his methods of comparison have continued to “forget” the importance of differences. As we saw in my previous post, I think Litwa is mistaken here, and that the mythicist he sought with the most detail to expose as flawed did not at all fall into the “forget the differences trap”. Litwa made assertions without providing evidence, and the evidence that I cited, I believe, demonstrated that Litwa’s criticism was misguided in this particular area. I cover this ground again because Litwa recapitulates it in the opening of his second chapter:

To understand how mythic historiographies work, they must be compared in a way that is both thoughtful and sound. In chapter 1, I presented some instances of unsound comparison in my discussion of Jesus Myth Theory. In short, mythicists tend to genetically connect words and motifs for religious (or antireligious) ends. Often their zeal induces them to ignore or paste over differences in cultural setting and storyline. 

No evidence (or cherry-picked evidence that went contrary to the main arguments) was offered to support that claim.

. . . . Similarities that are isolated and superficial often conceal greater differences. What is worse, superficial similarities are sometimes employed to prove historical causation. Yet individual words, phrases, and ideas that are similar (in some respect) are not necessarily genetically related. Similarities, no matter how precise, never amount to causation. (p. 46)

At this point, I am inclined to direct the reader to the words of Holdrege (citing Smith) above. Most of us are well aware of the dangers of confusing correlation with causation. When we have sound theories or explanations for particular types of similarities (e.g. comparing DNA samples) then comparisons can indeed be strong supports for appropriate arguments ranging from causation to coincidence.

Despite early slight missteps, Litwa does make an important point:

All similarities, furthermore, must be contextualized. If a posited similarity is between mythoi in two different texts, then one must situate the texts in their sociocultural settings. When were the texts written? Where were they written? Who wrote them? For what purposes? Do they belong to the same culture or sphere of cultural codes? And so forth.

Only after this contextual work has been done can one even think about positing a relation between stories. The relation, moreover, is not always that the author of text B knew and copied text A. Sometimes the authors of texts A and B depended on another text, C, or perhaps they saw the same event X or heard a similar oral report Y or belonged to common culture Z. (p. 47)

Precisely. The only flaw I see in Litwa’s discussion is his inconsistency is acknowledging that even Jesus myth theorists, and another “comparativist” he discusses in-depth in this second chapter, do contextualize their comparisons as per above. And sometimes such contextualizing questions do lead to a strong case that the author of text B knew and copied text A. We know Virgil did copy Homer and that the authors of the gospels did indeed know and copy and adapt the Jewish scriptures.

The reason Litwa is attempting to cordon off arguments confusing correlation with causation and to demean suggestions that “genetic relationships” explain similarities is to establish the thesis of his book, “dynamic cultural interaction”:

We need to think of the relations between the gospels and Greek lore more as dynamic cultural interaction: the complex, random, conscious and unconscious events of learning that occur when people interact and engage in practices of socialization. (p. 47)

I don’t know of any Jesus mythicist — and I’m thinking of Wells, Doherty, Price, Brodie, Carrier — who would disagree. Nor does Dennis R. MacDonald disagree with the reality of such a process leading to similar literary motifs appearing in diverse literature. In this second chapter, it happens to be Dennis MacDonald’s turn to come under Litwa’s critical eye.

Overlooking MacDonald’s agreement with the principle of “dynamic cultural interaction”, Litwa misguidedly objects to MacDonald’s argument for “genetic” connections between the Gospel of Mark and Homeric epics and wants to posit, instead, a more “complex, random, conscious and unconscious” series of interactions as an explanation for apparent similarities (or to deny even the reality of many of the similarities on the grounds that differences outnumber points in common). I don’t see the point of this argument. Does this sound like déjà vu back to my discussion of Litwa’s chapter on the Jesus myth theory? There is surely no problem with accepting Litwa’s overall explanation for similar motifs appearing in the gospels and classical literature but that explanation for some similarities does not mean another explanation for a more limited number of similarities must be ruled out. I know MacDonald’s Homeric thesis is of interest to many readers so I’ll take time to address Litwa’s criticism of it in detail.

The criteria MacDonald uses to judge probability of a text’s dependence on other works:

    1. accessibility to the author of the potential borrowed text
    2. analogy with borrowings of the text by other authors (did other authors also borrow and re-write the same stories?)
    3. density of the numbers of similarities between the texts
    4. order or sequence of the parallels
    5. distinctiveness of special features of the stories
    6. interpretability or intelligibility — the capacity of the original text to make sense of some detail in the new work (e.g. why does Jesus want his Messiahship kept secret?)

MacDonald developed a 7th criterion since publishing Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark:

7. Often Greek readers prior to 1000 C.E. seem to have been aware of affinities between New Testament narratives and their putative classical Greek models. Such ancient and Byzantine recognitions often suggest imitations in the original composition of the Gospels and Acts. (MacDonald, Gospels and Homer, 6 f)

Here is what MacDonald wrote about Litwa’s case for a more general cultural influence:

Response to objection 1: Because the Homeric epics were foundational to ancient Greek culture, any similarities between Mark and Homer are more likely to reflect general cultural influence than literary mimesis.To some extent I would agree, but one must not exclude imitation prima facie. Certainly some similarities between Mark and Homer may be due to general cultural influence, but it also is true that many ancient authors consciously imitated the epics; after all, they learned to do so in school. Furthermore, ancient narrative is rife with examples of obvious and subtle imitations of the epics as texts.

The challenge, then, is to test if similarities between two works issue from cultural osmosis or rhetorical mimesis. The last four of my six criteria attempt to do this very thing: (3) density (the number or volume of parallels between the two texts), (4) order (recognizable affinities in the sequence of the parallels), (5) distinctive traits (characteristics found in these two texts and not found widely elsewhere), and (6) interpretability (why the author imitated the target, which may include emulation or transvaluation). To my knowledge, no critic of my work has proposed alternative criteria for establishing literary connections. Although some parallels satisfy these criteria weakly, others do so magnificently and are sufficient to establish mimesis as a dominating strategy in Mark, not merely general cultural affinities. 

(MacDonald, 4f)

It is not an either/or argument.

Dennis R. MacDonald and Mimesis Criticism

Mimesis refers to an author’s conscious imitation of another text. The imitation can have a range of functions: the author shows off a certain intellectual sophistication; the author is striving to write a work comparable to the artistry of the “masters”; the author is using the contrast for humorous effect; the author creates a character or event that both recalls and surpasses its traditional counterpart, and probably more.

One rarely encounters objections to the notion that gospel authors (evangelists) copied or played with Jewish scriptures. Litwa implies that the reason for acceptance in this case is that

[t]he evanglists advertised their connection to previous Jewish texts. (p. 47)

But that is not entirely so. Yes, on occasion the evangelists did so advertise:

Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. — Matthew 26:31

Sometimes they advertised their debt to Jewish scriptures less explicitly but nonetheless quite obviously. We all know that John the Baptist is modelled on the prophet Elijah when he is introduced as follows and subsequently called “Elijah” by Jesus (Mark 9):

. . . in the wilderness . . . John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey. — Mark 1:3-4, 6

But there are many times when there is no advertising at all. 160 scriptural quotations and allusions have been identified in just five chapters of the Gospel of Mark. How many do you think were “advertised” as such? See 160 Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16.

Recognize that the evangelists were quite capable of “mimesis” on Jewish scriptures without advertising and it follows that we have a right to ask if they similarly work with other literature that we have good reason to believe they knew about.

Litwa’s criticisms of MacDonald’s method

Litwa points readers to earlier more detailed criticisms of MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark by Margaret Mitchell and Karl Olav Sandnes (links are to their articles on Jstor) and acknowledges MacDonald’s response to those articles, but adds,

In my judgment, MacDonald’s response does not adequately address the concerns raised by Mitchell and Sandnes. (p. 235)

Okay, so I’ll let you be the judge. I’ll quote each objection of Litwa along with MacDonald’s indirect response. read more »

Review, part 2 (Damnation upon that Christ Myth Theory!) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

M. David Litwa declared at the outset of his book How the Gospels Became History

Whether or not the evangelists did report actual events is a separate question and is not my concern. (p.3)

So I remain mystified by his decision to make his first chapter entirely about the “Jesus Myth Theory”. It adds nothing to his argument about the “How the Gospels Became History” — which was the argument I wanted to read about when I sought out the book.

Litwa does excuse his discussion of the Jesus myth theory by explaining that the three “mythicist” views he will address are

examples of how comparison ought not to be done. (p. 22)

But he further delays this discussion by irrelevantly accusing most “nonscholarly mythicists” of being disgruntled and obsessed former fundamentalists.

[Maurice Casey] successfully showed that most of them were responding to their previous Fundamentalist views of Jesus. (p. 23)

Litwa cites nothing more than Casey’s assertions, magically transforming his baseless claims into a “successful demonstration”. I demonstrated that Casey’s assertions were lacking in any evidentiary foundation, with the abundance of evidence actually contradicting his claim. See Who’s Who: Mythicists and Mythicist Agnostics. Not a single testimony or publication (internet or print publication) of anyone who has left a fundamentalist or cultic church that I have read has “blamed Jesus” or expressed a desire to banish Jesus from history, though I suppose, given the bigness of the world, that there must be some exceptions somewhere. Former fundamentalists are generally either thankful to Jesus for bringing them out of their cultic associations or simply treat Jesus as an “innocent bystander”, the mere object of belief, while the villainy is always placed squarely on manipulative humans. I myself returned to mainstream churches after my cult experience and was very thankful and happy to do so. It was only after ongoing questioning that I eventually left mainstream Christianity after becoming an atheist, and even later still before I took any interest in the question of the historicity of Jesus.

I do have to wonder if M. David Litwa genuinely read Maurice Casey’s book against mythicists (Casey also personally attacks non-mythicists, anyone whom he appears to think has unfairly dared to criticize his work in the past) because the intellectual level of the book is surely an embarrassment to any professional scholar. Raphael Lataster remarked,

I find the posts by Hoffman, Maurice Casey, and Stephanie Fisher to be too mean-spirited, scornful, unconvincing, polemical, and amateurish to be even remotely worthy of consideration here. (Lataster, 133)

and I also posted some responses that are now archived here.

So Litwa informs readers that “nonscholarly mythicists” are

dispelling a phantom from their own tormented past[s] (though the daimon often returns — seven times as strong) 

and that their mythicist belief is

born of seething resentment and (un)spoken rage against Fundamental Christianity (p. 24)

— without explaining what any of this has to do with his thesis that he has already said is not concerned with the question of historicity. Yet he does insist that there are serious Christ Myth scholars who are not former fundamentalists and that their arguments need to be taken more seriously. Why, or how this advances the thesis of his book, he does not explain. But having thoroughly poisoned the well Litwa proceeds to tackle the arguments of Bauer, Brodie and Carrier.

Bruno Bauer

Litwa manages to discuss Bauer’s “mythicist” views without once mentioning Paul or the New Testament epistles even though it was Bauer’s study of Paul that led him to conclude Jesus had not existed.

At the end of his investigation of the Gospels, Bauer is inclined to make the decision on the question whether there ever was a historical Jesus depend on the result of a further investigation which he proposed to make into the Pauline epistles. (Schweitzer, 139, my emphasis)

As long as Bauer studied the gospels he remained open to the possibility of a historical Jesus as the beginning of Christianity. read more »

Review, pt 1e (e for Exceptions!) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

There are other types of Greco-Roman historical works that have received less attention in M. David Litwa’s introductory chapter but that may yet be closer to the gospel narratives. Litwa did refer to these but with less elaboration in his introduction so I’ll address them here. Overall, we will see that these types of historical writings were not held with much respect among educated readers.

Josephus, a Jewish historian and contemporary of the evangelists, also complained that many historians turned to fantastical tales (mytholegein) to win a reputation as successful historians.

(Litwa, 12)

The Roman author Lucian satirized these types of historical works in True History (or True Story). One passage, to give you an idea of the flavour of the whole:

The rich men have garments of glass, very soft and delicate : the poorer sort of brass woven, whereof they have great plenty, which they enseam with water to make it fit for the workman, as we do our wool. If I should write what manner of eyes they have, I doubt I should be taken for a liar in publishing a matter so incredible : yet I cannot choose but tell it : for they have eyes to take in and  out as please themselves : and when a man is so disposed, he may take them out and then put them in and see again : many when they have lost their own eyes, borrow of others, for the rich have many lying by them.

(Lucian, True History, 71)

The same Lucian also wrote a more serious work in which he detailed the faults of many pop historians of his day and explained more seriously how history should be written. The hacks, Lucian pointed out, wrote for personal fame. They did not write anonymously. They sought to out-entertain their rivals. They capitalized on major news stories sweeping through the empire.

. . . from the beginning of the present excitements — the barbarian war, the Armenian disaster, the succession of victories — you cannot find a man but is writing history; nay, every one you meet is a Thucydides, a Herodotus, a Xenophon. . . .

If rumours about Jesus were popular throughout Syria and Jordan at during his lifetime then one can compare Lucian’s observation that popular news created a ready market for relevant histories.

. . . Another is a keen emulator of Thucydides, and by way of close approximation to his model starts with his own name — most graceful of beginnings, redolent of Attic thyme! Look at it: ‘Crepereius Calpurnianus of Pompeiopolis wrote the history of the . . . .

Yet the persons who wrote the gospels did so anonymously. (Compare many of the books of Jewish scriptures and other Second Temple novellas.)

. . . Another thing these gentlemen seem not to know is that poetry and history offer different wares, and have their separate rules. Poetry enjoys unrestricted freedom; it has but one law — the poet’s fancy.

. . . The vulgar may very likely extend their favour to this; but the select (whose judgement you disregard) will get a good deal of entertainment out of your heterogeneous, disjointed, fragmentary stuff.

Are the “poetic fancies” in the gospels presented as sheer entertainment or as something more?

Returning to Josephus. We began with Litwa’s mention of his essay against the views of Apion. Here is what Josephus wrote:

It is, then, the absence of any previously deposited record — which would have both instructed those who wished to learn and refuted those who lied — that accounts for the extent of the disagreement among the writers.

But a second reason must be added to this: those who hastily set about writing did not bother about the truth — although they were always quick to make this their promisebut displayed their literary prowess, and in whatever way they thought they could outshine others they adapted themselves in accordance with this, some turning to recount mythology, others seeking favor by praising cities or kings; others set out to criticise historical actions or the historians, thinking that their reputation would shine in this way.

In short, what they continue to practice is the complete opposite of history. For it is evidence of true history if everyone both says and writes the same things about the same (events). They, on the other hand, think that they will seem the most truthful of all if they describe the same things differently.

(Josephus, Against Apion, 1.23-26)

I wrote more fully of what Josephus might have thought of the gospels as works of history in What Josephus might have said about the Gospels. By Josephus’s ideal standards, at least as he professed them, we might conclude that he would have had a very poor view of our gospels as supposed works of history or biography.

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

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.

There is one more exception, one not explicitly brought out in Litwa’s Introduction, and that is historians’ accounts of omens that precede historical turning points. I discussed this exception to the rule only recently so I will not elaborate again here: see Herodotus and Miracles — Material for a Gospel Comparison. A comparison with gospel material would be limited to the unexpected darkness enveloping the land at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus and the earthquake, the tearing of the temple veil, and perhaps even Matthew’s corpses of saints rising from their graves and wandering the streets of Jerusalem.


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

-o-

Josephus, Flavius. 2007. Against Apion. Edited by Steve Mason. Translated by John M. G. Barclay. Vol. 10. Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary. Brill.

Lucian of Samosata. 2016. “The Way to Write History.” In Works, by Lucian, translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, Web edition. The University of Adelaide: eBooks@Adelaide. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lucian/works/chapter24.html.

Lucian of Samosata. 1894. Lucian’s True History. Translated by Francis Hickes. London : Privately printed. http://archive.org/details/lucianstruehisto00luciiala.

Origen. 1869. “Contra Celsum.” In The Writings of Origen. Vol. 2, translated by Frederick Crombie. Edinburgh : T. & T. Clark. http://archive.org/details/writingsoforigen02origuoft.


 

Review, pt 1d: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa (Gospels as Mythic Historiography)

I have been slow posting with the first few pages of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History but I hope the time I’ve taken with the foundations (see various recent posts on ancient historians) will pay off when I get into the main argument. A reason I have taken a detour with readings of ancient Greco-Roman historians is the difficulty I have had with some of Litwa’s explanations in his introductory chapter. Was I reading contradictions or was I simply not understanding? I’m still not entirely sure so I’ll leave you to think it through.

Litwa will set out a case that educated non-Christians would have read the gospels as a certain type of history:

I propose that educated non-Christian readers in the Greco-Roman world would have viewed the gospels as something like mythical historiographiesrecords of actually occurring events that nonetheless included fantastical elements. . . . There was at the time an independent interest in the literature of paradoxography, or wonder tales.67 Literature that recounted unusual events especially about eastern sages would not have been automatically rejected as unhistorical.

Even as the evangelists recounted the awe-inspiring wonders of their hero, they managed to keep their stories within the flexible bounds of historiography. They were thus able to provide the best of both worlds: an entertaining narrative that, for all its marvels, still appeared to be a record of actual events. In other words, even as the evangelists preserved fantastical elements (to mythödes) in their narratives, they maintained a kind of baseline plausibility to gesture toward the cultured readers of their time.

67 – the citation is to mid-second century records

(Litwa, 12. Bolding and formatting are mine in all quotations)

I interpret this particular comment to mean that the gospel narratives were similar to other historical writings of the time insofar as they sprinkled a tale of “normal” (i.e. plausible) human activities with stories of miracles and wonders. That is, the main (“normal”, “plausible”) narrative (represented by green blocks) flows independently of the sporadic wonder tales (purple with sun disc). The wonder tales add entertainment but the story itself does not depend on them. They can be omitted without any damage to the main narrative.

Examples in Greco-Roman histories: where an author inserts a tale that “they say” but leaves it open to the reader whether to believe it or not. For some examples, see The Relationship between Myth and History among Ancient Authors. Usually the “wonder story” is only loosely integrated into the larger realistic account by rhetorical devices such as “they say” or “there is a story that” or “poets have written” or “a less realistic account that is well known…” etcetera.

Examples in noncanonical gospels: Jesus being “born” by suddenly appearing beside Mary after a two-month pregnancy (Ascension of Isaiah); Jesus causing clay pigeons to come alive (Infancy Gospel of Thomas). . . . Tales of wonder that entertain as interludes rather than drive the plot.

In the canonical gospels, on the other hand, miracles are an essential part of the respective plots. To see how true this is, try reading the Gospel of Mark after first deleting or covering up the episodes of the miraculous, the divine or spirit world, mind-reading, and other supernatural inferences. One is left with a story that makes no sense. Was it because of an argument over unwashed hands that Jesus was crucified, for example? In the canonical gospels, the miracles are essential to the plot development: they are what bring notoriety to Jesus and identify him as the one whom the priests must, through jealousy, get rid of. The gospel narratives simply don’t work as stories without Jesus’ ability to perform miracles and demonstrate (though he is not obviously recognized as such by the human actors) his divine nature. The Greco-Roman histories would lose some entertainment value by omitting certain miracles but their fundamental narratives would still survive.

The tales of wonder in the gospels are (1) rich with theological meaning (e.g. feeding multitudes in the wilderness represents a “greater Moses” or shepherd role of Jesus) and (2) integral to the plot (e.g. the miracles set in train the events that lead to the atoning death of Jesus).

Hence I find Litwa’s thesis difficult to accept in the light of what we know of Greco-Roman histories. In the gospels, the tales of wonder themselves must be understood as the historical events, essential to the historical narrative, not optional entertainment along the way. There are not “two worlds” in the gospels, mundane and wonders, but one world in which the wonders are as essentially historical as the preaching and the debates.

A Better Comparison?

read more »

Three Lessons from Classics for Biblical Studies?

Some interesting points I came across while reading A. J. Woodman’s Rhetoric in Classical Historiography and some of his references:

Initial eyewitness claims not followed up

Earlier in this same chapter Thucydides drew a distinction between events which he experienced himself and those which were reported to him by others (22.2). Although  he never gives us any indication of how many, or indeed which, events fall into each category . . . 

(p. 26)

The implication is that Thucydides’ rhetoric is designed to impress; there is no evidence of any truth to the claim. Indeed, works demonstrating Thucydides’ reliance upon literary sources (e.g. Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristarchus of Syracuse) — sources that Thucydides attempted to deny — are listed. That reminded me that we never read in Luke-Acts which events are derived from the “eyewitnesses” apparently referenced in the prologue.

Poetic devices appearing in prose

Herodotus often echoes the rhythms of poetry, and some passages of his prose can actually be turned into verse without too much difficulty. . . . . [Thucydides] . . . concludes, perhaps significantly, by reproducing the hexameter rhythm of an all but complete line of epic verse.

(pp. 3, 9)

Prose authors periodically break into poetic rhythms. That makes me wonder if there are similar practices in philosophical or epistolary literature from the era of the Pauline letters. Paul is sometimes said to be incorporating earlier hymn verses into his letters; what is the likelihood he authored such passages himself?

Grounds for suspecting interpolation

To be considered for inclusion in the category of ancient interpolations in Aristophanes a word, phrase or passage must satisfy two conditions: first, there must be grounds for thinking that Aristophanes did not write it, or at least not with the intention that it should stand where it now stands in the text; and secondly, there must be grounds for thinking that it was present in at least one copy of the text earlier than the dark age which separates late antiquity from the Photian renaissance.

Sounds reasonable. The criteria would open floodgates of possible interpolations into the NT texts, though.


Dover, Kenneth J. 1977. “Ancient Interpolation in Aristophanes.” Illinois Classical Studies 2: 136–62.

Woodman, A. J. 2004. Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies. London : New York: Routledge.


Once More — Homer, History and the Gospels-Acts

I know some readers find it difficult to accept that our canonical gospels and Acts were seriously influenced by the epics of Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey.

Here is something (two things, actually) to think about.

Thomas Rosenmeyer

We think of “history” as a genre of literature that is meant to convey the idea of facts, truth, “what essentially happened”. But after reading an essay by classicist Thomas Rosenmeyer I suspect that that notion is not applicable to those we think of as historians in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Rather, what ancient authors were attuned to was emulation of a forefather — e.g. Homer — who set the standard.

Finally, there is one factor that I am inclined to think doomed any genre thinking from the start. This is the ancient critical commitment to the operation of zelos, aemulatio. I suspect that if one were to ask an ancient dramatist or a writer of epic why he was working in his medium and not in another, and which model he was following, he would cite his allegiance to the protos heuretes, the founder of the fine in which he was engaged. . . . Instead of genre criticism, the ancients practiced model criticism. Their allegiances and affiliations connect, not with a mode or a kind, but with a father, a personal guide. If they ally themselves with a work, it is identified as the work of a revered author, the precipitation of a literary act, not a fatherless text or a textual segment or a generic idea. Like the Pythian priestess inspired by her god, writers and critics are inspired by the effluences, aporroai, that stream into their souls from the sacred mouths of great models (Longinus, On the Sublime 13. 2). Where genre thinking is scientific, inferred from a sufficient sampling of texts and their properties, model thinking is, as it were, moral, and triggered by predecessors.

(Rosenmeyer, 435-36)

John Marincola

But Homer? What does Homer have to do with history? Here we scan an article by John Marincola in The Homer Encyclopedia

As in other areas of ancient literature, the influence of Homer on the Greek and Roman historians was profound and abiding. . . . 

The Odyssey exerted a strong influence on early investigators into other cultures (Montiglio 2005, 118–146), and the figure of Odysseus himself was important in many foundation myths of Greek colonies (Malkin 1998). . . . 

The other important area of Homeric influence was on the historians themselves. The developed genre of historiography took from the Homeric poems many features of epic: a mimetic, largely third-person narrative of deeds, interspersed with the speeches of historical characters in direct discourse; a concern to articulate the causes of actions and to pinpoint responsibility; an elevated style appropriate to “great” deeds; and a concern to immortalize those deeds for posterity and to draw from them important lessons about life and human action. The historians were also influenced by Homer in their choice of “suitable” subject matter: from the Iliad, the story of great deeds and struggles . . . from the Odyssey, an interest in foreign lands and places, in the guile and cunning of leaders, and in the pleasures of narrative itself. . . . 

The early historians were particularly influenced by and engaged with Homer. Herodotus plays a key role here, and was recognized already in antiquity as “most like Homer” . . . [I]t was Homer who offered him an intelligible model for the presentation of those enquiries: how to construct a large-scale narrative, with (sometimes expansive) shifts in time and space; how to subordinate individual episodes and digressions within a larger, unified narrative structure; and how to present the events of the past with immediacy and clarity. Herodotus unites both epics within his work, since his thematic conception – a great war between East and West – is indebted to the Iliad, while his own travel, enquiry, interest in marvels, and preoccupation with reversals of fortune owe much to the Odyssey. . . . 

Yet even while imitating Homer, Herodotus challenged him . . . “correcting” and “improving” him . . . 

Even Thucydides followed Homer’s trail:

This twin legacy – emulation and challenge – was bequeathed to Thucydides, who maintains the general epic features imported into historiography by Herodotus. . . . Thucydides’ narrative technique follows Homer more closely than Herodotus, especially in the suppression of the ubiquitous “I” of Herodotus work in favor of a more “unintrusive” Homeric narrator (Rengakos 2005, 2006). And ancient critics saw Thucydides too as one who “vied with Homer” (Marcellinus, Vit. Thuc. 35–37): Thucydides’ consistent emphasis on the magnitude of the sufferings in war is thoroughly Homeric (Woodman 1988, 28–34).

Historians thereafter continued to look to Homer for inspiration. . . . .

In the Hellenistic world, Polybius shows great respect for Homer . . . , and argues at length that Homer even cre ated a figure of the ideal historian: Odysseus, who united in his person both the practical skill of a general and leader of men, and the intellectual interest of the explorer and traveler . . . .

Ancient historians, Greek and Roman, consistently looked to Homer to infuse their narratives with an elevated tone and a “heroic” cast. . . . Thucydides’ narrative of the Sicilian Expedition in Books 6–7 is suffused with Homeric motifs and themes . . . . as is Livy’s account of the battle of Lake Regillus, where several incidents are modeled directly on Homer . . . . Likewise, speeches of generals before battle show a long tradition of Homeric influence . . . . Although scholars frequently refer to a “contamination” of history by epic, we cannot forget that the Homeric poems and characters were present to the ancients in an immediate and profound way, often serving as exempla, and it is perhaps just as likely that some, if not many, of the reminiscences of Homer in the Greek and Roman historians reflect the enormous influence that the Iliad and Odyssey actually had in the real world.

(Marincola, 357-59)

All of that would lead one to expect a priori Homeric influence in the Gospels and Acts, yes?


Marincola, John. 2011. “Historians and Homer.” In The Homer Encyclopedia, 2:357–59. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. 2005. “Ancient Literary Genres: A Mirage?” In Oxford Readings in Ancient Literary Criticism, edited by Andrew Laird, 321–439. Oxford Readings In Classical Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

 

Review, pt 1c: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa (Looking like history?)

Continuing from part 1b …

M. David Litwa’s opening chapter of How the Gospels Became History is an overview of ancient history-writing looked like, including its frequent allowance of myth, and how the canonical gospels fit in with this type of literature. So far we have been moving slowly as we take note of what ancient writers themselves said about the connection between history and myth, truth and fiction, with the implication that the gospels are part and parcel of the world of ancient historiography.

Not all scholars have agreed and Litwa takes up the challenge of Richard C. Miller who argues that the gospels are far removed from the genre of Greco-Roman history. I’ll quote a little more of Miller’s argument that does Litwa:

[T]he panoply of early Christian gospel texts appears more or less disinterested in conforming to any particular narrative of Christian origins and instead exhibits an all-but-whimsical freedom, an astonishing prose creativity in depiction and variance in the telling and ordering of scenes. Of the hundreds of Christian works that survive from the first three centuries of the Common Era, no reliable histories exist aside perhaps from fragments of the five books of Papias. Of these hundreds, setting aside the various epistles and apologies, thus focusing on the narratives, we find a single unifying feature: the early Christian narratives were all fictive in modality. Whether one considers the collection of early Christian gospels, the various apostolic acta, the assortment of apocalypses, or the burgeoning stock of hagiographa, until Eusebius’s fourth-century Historia Ecclesiastica, itself a myth of Christian origins, though intended to be read as a history, one encounters nothing deserving of the genus “historiography”; one finds only legends, myths, folktales, and novelistic fictions. Albeit, considering the characteristic gravitas of these texts, one would be mistaken to dismiss them merely as works of aesthetic entertainment. As all of these works exclude the requisite signals distinguishing ancient works of historiography, that is,

  • no visible weighing of sources,
  • no apology for the all-too-common occurrence of the supernatural,
  • no endeavor to distinguish such accounts and conventions from analogous fictive narratives in classical literature (including the frequent mimetic use of Homer, Euripides, and other canonized fictions of classical antiquity),
  • no transparent sense of authorship (or even readership) or origin,

the ecclesiastical distinction endeavored by Irenaeus of Lyons et alii to segregate and signify some such works as canonical, reliable histories appears wholly political and arbitrary.

(Miller, p. 133. Bolded highlighting and dot point formatting is mine in all quotations)

I have reservations about Litwa’s attempt to meld the gospels into the same apparel as ancient historiography. My understanding and recollection are that as a rule, Greco-Roman historians introduced their tales of the miraculous with “apologies” of sorts. They would comment that the tale was “what was reported” by others, or express some sympathy with readers/auditors if they found the tale hard to believe, and so forth. Only in biblical narratives (and satirical put-downs of hack Greco-Roman historians) do we find a prose history-like narrative that declares the miraculous as fact without any hint of self-conscious possibility of doubt by the author. I will present another post with examples to illustrate.

As for the evangelists being careful selectors of their material I suggest that Litwa is relying more upon conventional assumptions and interpretations than clear evidence to that effect. See, for example, various posts discussing other scholarly views of the Luke-Acts prologue.)

Litwa responds with the following objections:

  • Yet simply by writing in sober, nonpoetic forms, the evangelists distinguished their accounts from the dominant mythoi found, for instance, in Homer and Euripides.
  • They did not, moreover, need to apologize for describing miraculous events since these events were a regular feature of ancient historiography.
  • Finally, the evangelists weighed their sources in the sense that they strongly valued eyewitnesses over hearsay (Luke 1:2) and were careful selectors of material to include and exclude from previous texts.43
    • 43 Although the evangelists did not cite sources, they certainly used them and, in the case of Luke, gave the impression that they used eyewitness reports (Luke 1:2).

(Litwa, pp. 7, 228)

Litwa further claims that Miller has misunderstood the character of ancient historiography.

At a deeper level, Miller’s comments reveal a misunderstanding about how most ancient historiographies were written. Ancient historiography did not have a single form with a single set of lofty standards.

(Litwa, p. 7)

For example, Litwa explains, the “father of history”, Herodotus, was well-known for including many tall-tales and myths in his history of the free-ranging background to the Greco-Persian wars. Many later historians likewise felt free to entertain their audiences with mythical tales, too. Then there was Thucydides, known as “the father of scientific history”, who wrote a no-nonsense, straightforward, factual account of the Peloponnesian War — or so he tells us and so many believe. Thucydides certainly shunned all hint of ostensible myth. Yet, and Litwa overlooks this point, though it supports his larger argument, even Thucydides is known to have fabricated scenes of “what would have happened” and to have done so through dramatic genre and sources unrelated to historical specific events as we have seen in previous posts:

But Thucydides was different in his avoidance of the fabulous tales. Litwa is quite correct to point out that

As a genre, historiography was sometimes different from mythography more in its rhetorical conventions than in its content.

(Litwa, p. 8)

Plausibility and entertainment value were high priorities for Greco-Roman historians. At this point, Litwa appears to bring out a point I made in the above insert box that for the sake of plausibility a historian would often need to couch his account of the miraculous with some hint of an apology:

They could pass off a fantastical story as something they heard of and did not subscribe to, or they could give two different versions of a story: one miraculous, the other rationalizing.

(Litwa p. 8)

So those who wrote our first surviving narratives of the life of Jesus used a genre that was associated with genuine — believable — historical or biographical accounts even is spiced up with stories of miracles. (Another detail that Litwa may bring out later in the book is his suggestion that the historical/biographical genre was in part used to appeal to more educated people who were apparently joining the flocks.)

One caveat I have: Litwa is comparing the gospel narratives with Greco-Roman histories and biographies: that the evangelists were modelling their narratives as much on the conventions of other stories in Jewish literature, especially what we classify as their Scriptures, is not mentioned, at least not in this chapter. Yet it is that latter comparison that I find draws attention to a closer match to the rhetoric of how the miraculous events were introduced, as I have attempted to indicate above.

Sources and tropes

read more »

Review, pt 1b: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

In the first post we cited ancient authors on the meaning of myth.  Two more authors that M. David Litwa cites:

A fable (mythos) is a fictitious story giving an image of truth . . .

Aelius Theon, 1st C CE (Kennedy 2003. Progymnasmata)

A myth aims at being a false tale, resembling a true one; therefore it is far removed from actual events, if a tale is but a picture and an image of actuality, and a myth is but a picture and image of a tale. And thus those who write of imaginative exploits lag as far behind historians as persons who tell of deeds come short of those that do them.

Plutarch, On the Fame of the Athenians, 348.4

Let us hope that Fable may, in what shall follow, so submit to the purifying processes of Reason as to take the character of exact history. In any case, however, where it shall be found contumaciously slighting credibility, and refusing to be reduced to anything like probable fact, we shall beg that we may meet with candid readers, and such as will receive with indulgence the stories of antiquity.

Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 1.5

Continuing from part 1a …

M. David Litwa’s interest is exactly what I was hoping for. As he explains (p.3),

Whether or not the evangelists did report actual events is a separate question and is not my concern.

Good. It is the history-like narrative of the gospels themselves that interests me. Why are they written that way? He continues:

Evidently they thought they did. At any rate, my focus is on how the evangelists used historical tropes to convince readers that they spoke of real—and thus “true”—events.

Some readers might quibble over that way of expressing the problem. Can we really know the thoughts of unknown authors? But the task can be reframed as an exploration of what makes the gospels function as history-like narratives.

Since the line between myth and history can often look quite blurry at times Litwa makes the excellent point that the two genres are in reality “ideal types”. As an “idea”, “pure history” only relates actual events, and “pure myth only “mythical/fantastical/impossible/unhistorical” events so are not always found in their pure, or “ideal”, forms:

In actual literature they mixed and blended without apology or sense of contradiction. 

(For a more detailed explanation of the technical term ideal type see the post On (Dying and Rising Gods and) IDEAL TYPES).

Certainly our earliest accounts by Christians make it clear that they did not consider their beliefs to be mythical. Litwa cites Origen’s Contra Celsus (2.58; 3.27) in which Origen declaims that the resurrection is certainly historical and “proves” the point by reminding us that disciples died for that belief, after all. Further, we even have New Testament epistles:

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)

They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:4)

. . . pay no attention to Jewish myths . . . (Titus 1:14)

and so on. Myths stood opposed to Christian truth.

Truth and history

So what of history, or the writing of history, the practice of historiography? read more »

Revised Post: “Review, pt 1a: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa”

To anyone who has read the previous post . . . I have entirely rewritten the last part of that post. My original text was misleading. Now corrected.