Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science
Category: Biblical Scholars
Prominent and not-so-prominent scholars of the Bible. Should this category be restricted to individuals with discussions of scholars collectively to be included within Biblical Scholarship? Scholars of the Bible should include persons who produce scholarly quality works even if not a member of a biblical studies academy or department (e.g. classicist like John Moles; historian like Richard Carrier). Technically I also think Earl Doherty and Rene Salm should be part of this category but wouild their inclusion raise problems? If so, in what category should such persons be included? What of Acharya S and others of questionable scholarly standards? Perhaps better to keep names like these within a Category related to discussions of the Christ Myth Hypothesis.
It has not always been so. Times change and so does the “conventional wisdom”. Judas, for example, began something of a rehabilitation in response to ecumenism and to the world being confronted with the horrific results of anti-semitism in the early half of the twentieth century. Instead of a malicious villain, he became in some quarters seen as a well-meaning zealot, a victim of misguided aspirations. The idea that Jesus taught a message that focussed on the cataclysmic “end of the world” as the way to establish the righteous kingdom of God may be off-handedly mentioned as if it is an established fact that is not questioned by most scholars, but something changed that brought about this common viewpoint.
One reason often given in support of this view of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet is one that has often troubled me:
[T]he apocalypticism of Jesus is such a potentially embarrassing thing, so scandalous to the post-Enlightenment intellect of the twentieth century that its acceptance has long been considered a test of scholarly objectivity; anyone who would reject this hypothesis is viewed by his or her peers as a hopeless romantic, unable or unwilling to accept the scandalous reality that Jesus did not think like us. (Patterson, 30)
If there is one “certainty” about ancient authors, including biblical ones, that is in other contexts pointed out over and over, it is that if an author found a particular fact embarrassing he or she would be quite capable of simply glossing over it or, less often, re-writing it in a way that totally changed its character and left no room for any alternative interpretation. If the evangelists really believed that the prophetic utterances of Jesus failed to take place as he had promised then why on earth would they have recorded those failures in their gospels? One answer sometimes offered to this question is that, say, the Gospel of Mark was written just prior (by a matter of months) to the fall of the Jerusalem in the full expectation that it was about to be destroyed and that Jesus would then descend on clouds from heaven. Another, even less plausible notion, is that the gospel was written just after the fall of Jerusalem and the author was in daily expectation of the coming of Jesus. Both explanations are surely special pleading. Why even write a gospel if one sincerely believed one all saints were about to be transformed into immortality at any moment and the rest of the world judged? If one did write something that one only months, or even a year or two, later realized was undeniably wrong, then one would surely expect the work to have been re-written to either deny what had been said or to add an explanation for why it was not fulfilled in 70 CE, or scrapped entirely.
As self-evident as such a reading of the sources has seemed in recent years, it was not so self-evident in 1892
But I am changing the theme I began to address in this post. I will post later a more detailed case for a reinterpretation of the apocalyptic prophecies apparently put in the mouth of Jesus. For now, let’s return to the “conventional scholarly wisdom”.
As self-evident as such a reading of the sources (e.g. Mark 13, Matthew 24. Luke 21) has seemed in recent years, it was not so self-evident in 1892. Historical inquiry into the cultural miliew into which Jesus was born and within which he preached was still a relatively young field in the late nineteenth century. It was philosophical analysis, not history, that served as the interpretive key to understanding the Scriptures. Theologians such as Albrecht Ritschl, for example, were at work transforming the ethical idealism of Immanuel Kant into the full flowering of liberal theology. (Patterson, 30)
The first scholar of note to have published an argument that Jesus did preach that the world was coming to a violent end and God’s kingdom was about to enter with cosmically-overturning violence was Johannes Weiss. His 1892 Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (German title, Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes) had little impact. For Stephen Patterson the explanation was “the times” in which it appeared:
The German idealism of the nineteenth century was, above all else, optimistic about the future; the Jesus of Weiss would have been utterly irrelevant to its credo. Weiss would not find popular acceptance until after the year 1906 when another young scholar by the name of Albert Schweitzer published the book that established him as one of his generation’s great biblical scholars: The Quest of the Historical Jesus. (Patterson, 31)
Yet as most of us well know, Schweitzer’s thesis was widely acclaimed and its shadow remains cast over many modern interpretations of Jesus.
But why was Schweitzer able to succeed in 1906 where Weiss had failed in 1892?
The answer is simple. Times changed. The optimism of the nineteenth century had, by 1906, almost completely evaporated with the increasing political instability that characterized Europe in the years leading up to World War I. In its place, there arose a profound sense of dread and uncertainty as an increasingly dark future loomed ever larger on the horizon. The mood is captured most poignantly in the autobiography of Sir Edward Grey, who, on the eve of World War I, recalls having uttered to a close friend words that would be used repeatedly to capture the spirit of times: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” In the midst of the cultural optimism of 1892, Weiss’s apocalyptic Jesus was a scandal; in the atmosphere of cultural pessimism that was just beginning to come to expression in 1906, this apocalyptic Jesus was just what the doctor ordered.
This state of affairs in Western culture has not altered much over the course of this century. This has been true especially in Europe, devastated by two World Wars and the economic instability and collapse that fueled the fires of discontent, and disturbed by the specter of the Holocaust that hangs over the European psyche as a constant reminder of humanity’s potential to social pathology and unfathomable evil. (Patterson 32)
One could add more to the post-World War II situation — as anyone slightly aware of modern history will know.
North America, on the other hand, maintained its “cultural optimism” longer than Europe. World War 2 did not leave Northern America devastated as it had Europe. For the US the war was recollected as a victory.
But by the 1950s, the cultural pessimism that began with the political collapse of Europe and the catastrophe of two World Wars eventually began to wash up onto the victorious, self-confident, can-do shores of North America as well, as we faced the psychologically debilitating realities of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear or environmental disaster, and the social upheaval of the 1960s. We too began to experience the cultural malaise that had held its grip on Europe for the first half of the century. This change in attitude is expressed perhaps most eloquently by Reinhold Niebuhr in his 1952 essay, The Irony ofAmerican History:
Could there be a clearer tragic dilemma than that which faces our civilization? Though confident of its virtue, it must hold atomic bombs ready for use so as to prevent a possible world conflagration. . . . Our dreams of a pure virtue are dissolved in a situation in which it is possible to exercise the virtue of responsibility toward a community of nations only by courting the prospective guilt of the atomic bomb. . . . Our dreams of moving the whole of human history under the control of the human will are ironically refuted by the fact that no group of idealists can easily move the pattern of history toward the desired goal of peace and justice. The recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning.
What Niebuhr, as a member of the generation that created the nuclear age, saw as a tragic and bitter irony has become for the present generation an existential presupposition. The result has been a pessimism about culture and its future, pervasive throughout Western society, that has not gone unnoticed in the annals of philosophical history. The great historian of Western thought W. T. Jones has written about our age:
Students of contemporary culture have characterized this century in various ways — for instance, as the age of anxiety, the aspirin age, the nuclear age, the age of one-dimensional man, the post-industrial age; but nobody, unless a candidate for political office at some political convention, has called this a happy age. . . . The rise of dictatorships, two world wars, genocide, the deterioration of the environment, and the Vietnam war have all had a share in undermining the old beliefs in progress, in rationality, and in people’s capacity to control their own destiny and improve their lot.
There have been a few notable voices arguing for a non-apocalyptic Jesus. Marcus Borg, Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan are relatively well-known. But the Jesus Seminar (with which they were associated) has been surprisingly (to me) dismissed out of hand, even ridiculed, by so much of the academy of biblical scholarship today. Their presentations of a “non-apocalyptic Jesus” appear to be relegated to curious oddities by popular names like those of Bart Ehrman.
My point here is not to argue the case against the apocalyptic Jesus. My point is to draw attention to the realization, at least among one scholarly quarter, that scholarly interpretations change over time and with the times. What is often addressed as “a fact” may “in fact” be an interpretation that is a product of the times and in other times it may well become nothing more than a “curious oddity”.
Patterson, Stephen J. 1995. “The End of Apocalypse: Rethinking the Eschatological Jesus.” Theology Today 52 (1): 29–48. https://doi.org/10.1177/004057369505200104.
This post concludes my overview of the festschrift to Thomas L. Thompson on his 80th birthday. I hope to post soon a link to a single PDF file of all of these posts. Over the coming months, from time to time, I would further like to cover some of the essays in more detail. The book is expensive and I do appreciate all involved in enabling me to receive a review copy. Hopefully, a less expensive paperback or e-version will be available before long, but till then and for those who are not as financial as they would like to be don’t forget your state and local libraries since most of them will be able to assist you with an interlibrary loan service. So with thanks to those who put this volume together and contributed to it, and to Thomas L. Thompson whose scholarship has been so influential in biblical studies (and of course on me among so many others), here is the final post in my overview discussion of Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson.
. . .
Lisbeth Fried’s essay, “Can the Book of Nehemiah Be Used as an Historical Source, and If So, of What?“, builds on Thomas Thompson’s emphasis on “the importance of looking beyond the situation in which the biblical story is set to the situation in which the book may have been written” (p. 210).
Following in that path, we recognize that while the biblical book Ezra-Nehemiah is set in the Persian period, it was written over a long period of time. Much of it is definitely Hellenistic (Fried 2015a: 4-5; Finkelstein 2018); some of it may be Persian, however, and may be used as an historical source if used cautiously and if confirmed by corroborating documents. I test this hypothesis by examining the portrayal of Nehemiah as the Persian governor of Judea during the reign of Artaxerxes I. Is Nehemiah’s portrayal historical, i.e., does his portrayal match what we know in general about provincial governors under Achaemenid rule? (p. 210)
Fried leads readers through a step by step comparison of Nehemiah’s actions with those that Persian inscriptions inform us were typical of the actions and responsibilities of Persian governors: jurisdiction over the temple and its operations, control of temple funds (temples functioned as collection centres for the Persian empire), religious practices of the priests and people, and control over marriages in order to safeguard against the emergence of alliances that might threaten the security of those appointed to administer state power. So though a late composition the book of Nehemiah appears to be consistent practices of Persian governors from Egypt to Asia Minor.
In Ehud Ben Zvi’s “Chronicles’ Reshaping of Memories of Ancestors Populating Genesis” we encounter many instances where the books of Chronicles rewrite events found in Genesis and how we might expect the literati of the day to have been influenced in their perceptions of those events in the more culturally significant book of Genesis.
Reading Chronicles and identifying with the message conveyed by the Chronicler2 led, inter alia, to processes of drawing attention to or away from some events, characters or some of their features, and led to a reshaping and re-signifying of implicit or explicit mnemonic narratives. (p. 225)
Details that on the surface look rather pointless to the lay reader take on fascinating meaning as Zvi takes us through several of those “little details”: Why does Genesis generally speak of “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” while Chronicles of “Abraham, Isaac and Israel”? Why in Genesis do we follow the adventures of Esau and Jacob while in Chronicles it is Esau and Israel? Do we detect here a subtle attempt to snatch from the Samaritans in the north the identity of Israel for the Judeans in the south? Compare also Abraham’s wife Keturah in Genesis; why in Chronicles is she called a concubine-wife? and why in Genesis do we read that she bore “to Abraham” children but in Chronicles she simply “bore children”? Why are the Genesis and Chronicles narratives about Er so different? Is there significance in the different ways “Adam” is introduced at the beginning of each book? Why does Chronicles find it necessary to merely set out a list of unadorned patriarchal names whereas Genesis introduced some anecdote on the significance of some of those names? Why does the Chronicler think it appropriate to make no mention at all of the Garden of Eden or Flood stories while rewriting other episodes in Genesis? And so on and so on. I found it a most interesting journey of discovery.
The penultimate chapter is by another scholar who has appeared before on Vridar, Philippe Wajdenbaum. Some readers of Vridar will be reminded of Russell Gmirkin’s thesis that Greek authors inspired the books of the Bible when they read Wajdenbaum’s “The Book of Proverbs and Hesiod’s Works and Days“. Debt to Thompson is once again acknowledged in this context:
T. L. Thompson (1992, 1999, 2001) and N. P. Lemche (2001 ) have raised the possibility that the Hebrew Bible was produced in the Hellenistic era. There is no physical evidence for the Hebrew Bible before the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the spread of Hellenism in the Levant after Alexander’s conquest provides the best context for its creation. Thompson’s vision has elicited a paradigm shift in biblical studies, inspiring several scholars to posit a direct influence upon the redaction of several Hebrew Bible books of such Greek classical authors as Homer (Brodie 2001: 447-94; Louden 2011: 324; Kupitz 2014), Herodotus (Nielsen 1997; Wesselius 2002) and Plato (Wajdenbaum 2011; Gmirkin 2017). (p. 248)
Some Hesiod passages:
He does mischief to himself who does mischief to another, and evil planned harms the plotter most.
The idle man who waits on empty hope, lacking a livelihood, lays to heart mischief-making.
For a man wins nothing better than a good wife, and, again, nothing worse than a bad one.
There are “similarities of vocabulary between Hesiod and the Septuagint text of Proverbs . . . even though the latter greatly differs from the original Hebrew” so one might well suspect that the translators had been familiar with Hesiod’s Greek poem. Yet Wajdenbaum goes further and argues that “the original Hebrew text itself may have been influenced by Hesiod.” Wajdenbaum lists very many possibilities and acknowledges similar observations other scholars have made concerning Proverbs and Greek moralistic works (including Aesop and Aristotle).
Not only Proverbs but the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are also brought into the discussion as well as other Greek poets such as Theognis.
The final essay is “The Villain ‘Samaritan’: The Sāmirī as the Other Moses in Qur’anic Exegesis” by Joshua Sabi — the second chapter taking a look at the Qur’an. Sabi’s discussion is probably the most technical of all in this volume and not the easiest of reads for those not yet initiated into the highly abstract conceptual terminology. It is worth engaging with, however, in order to see a control instance of how a religious text both challenged and rewrote earlier scriptures. Such a case study potentially deepens any discussion of the changes in Jewish-Christian scriptures that most of us are more familiar with. How does one understand the literary creation of a new figure (in this case the Sāmirī) as a rival counterpart to Moses (at the time of the golden calf apostasy) and ancestor of the Samaritans?
Muslim exegetes have been – and still are – obsessed with the historicity of the figure of the Sāmirī. . . .
The novelty in Islamic Qur’anic exegesis is not how these biographical accounts came about, but how the identities are constructed and construed literarily. In the minds of the exegete the ambiguity of theSāmirī figure’s Qur’anic identity left him with no option but to venture into the realm of mythologized understanding of history according to which the Qur’an is both the eternal word of God and his message of salvation to mankind. The invention of such a figure with all the theological elements of iconoclastic theology‘ and literary anatomy of mythology was construed as history. Exegetes had to invent another Moses whose biography is a mimicry of the biblical and Qur’anic Moses. In their trying to solve the ambiguity of the Sāmirī’s story and his culpability, exegetes failed to see the Qur’an’s restorative approach to Scriptures as well as to humans’ fragile relations to God.(pp. 271-72)
Niesiolowski-Spanò, Lukasz, and Emanuel Pfoh, eds. 2020. Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson. Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies. New York: T&T Clark.
Thomas Thompson . . . is a pioneer in questioning more or less weak historical reconstructions done by Old Testament scholars, reconstructions that were mainly based on biblical texts and only sometimes supported by a few arbitrarily selected extra-biblical data. I still remember how his Tübinger Dissertation on the historicity of the patriarchal narratives struck like a bomb in Heidelberg during the preparation stage of the second volume of Westermann’s commentary on Genesis.
Later on Thompson extended and radicalized his historical scepticism concerning the Hebrew Bible. According to him, all the texts from Genesis to 2 Kings constitute a ‘mythic past’ composed by redactors of the Persian and Hellenistic periods from many traditions. They show no historiographical interest but are intended to construct a Judean or Samarian identity and to enfold a theological and philosophical worldview. — Rainer Albertz
. . .
We come now to the third section of Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity and the one that is of special interest to me . . . .
Part 3. Biblical Narratives
The opening essay is by another scholar also of the University of Copenhagen whose work has been discussedbefore on Vridar, Ingrid Hjelm: “The Food of Life and the Food of Death in Texts from the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East“. Hjelm interprets Genesis 1-3 intertextually with the Mesopotamian myth of Adapa, the book of Proverb’s discourse on Wisdom and Folly, and 1 Samuel’s narrative of Nabal and Abigail, finally extending even to thoughts on the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament.
I have a special interest in the Adapa myth as is surely evident from having postedfifteentimes on it so far. It is about a pre-Flood mortal, Adapa, who is given perfect wisdom by the god Ea but not eternal life. Adapa offends the gods and is called to give account. The god Ea, who gave him wisdom, deceives him so that he unwittingly rejects the gift of eternal life offered by a higher deity, Anu. The details are quite different but the motifs are the same as we read in Genesis: a mortal being deceived by a divine agent, becoming wise but losing eternal life, the “sin” and a curse. There is surely some connection but exactly what that is is not immediately clear. Hjelm explores the questions common to both myths. The temple of the gods in the Adapa myth is replaced by the divinity’s garden in Genesis. Hjelm points out that Thompson himself has noted that the woman already “knows the good” before she eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and that insight changes the way we read the story. Yet God has already planted the tree of life in the same garden, so why is it that God appeared from the outset (before “the fall”) to turn the attention of Adam and Eve from that tree? Asking such questions brings us even closer to the character of the interplay between the gods and Adapa in the Mesopotamian myth.
The second part of the essay is another fascinating examination of Wisdom and Folly in Proverbs vis à vis Abigail and Nabal (meaning “Folly”) in 1 Samuel 25, with once more the motif of eating specially prepared food. A snippet of the discussion:
In a comparative analysis of the goddesses Athirat, Qudshu, Tannit, Anat and Astarte in texts from the ancient Near East, inscriptions mentioning Asherah (and Yahweh) from Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud and Old Testament texts, Broberg finds so much similarity in the symbol of Ashera’s linking of trees, snakes, fertility and woman that it is plausible that McKinlay’s ‘agents of God’ hide an Ashera goddess (Broberg 2014: 50-64).19 The use of the plural forms in Gen. l:26’s and 3:22’s ‘let us’ and ‘like us’ functions as an inclusio around this hidden goddess (Broberg 2014: 64), who is present at the creation as god’s wife, but in the course of the narrative is transformed to become Adam’s wife as the ‘mother of all living’ (Gen. 3:20; Broberg 2014: 59; cf. also Wallace 1985: 158). A similar transformation takes place when Abigail as David’s wife ‘is moved into the ranks of the many wives’ (McKinlay 2014 [sic – 1999?]: 82).
If, as argued by Broberg (2014: 61), Genesis 2-4’s woman/Eve narratives contain a conscious dethronement of Asherah similar to the anti-Asherah bashing the in the books of Kings (e.g. 1 Kgs 18:19; 2 Kgs 21:7; 23:4-7), it is likely that Proverbs 1-9 and 1 Samuel 25 are written as contrasting narratives, aiming at transferring Asherah’s positive traits as mother of all living onto the female figure. As heir of the life-sustaining qualifications of the fertility goddess, the wise woman secures the good life and holds death in check. (pp. 171f. Broberg 2014 = a Masters thesis at University of Copenhagen. My highlighting in all quotations.)
Where does the Lord’s Supper enter this picture?
The study of ancient myths may also add to our understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a radical transformation of drinking from the ṣarṣaru cup of Isthar in Near Eastern covenant ideologies’ confirmation and remembrance of the covenant. (p. 173)
But let’s move on. The next chapter pulls out for attention one of those very odd passages in Biblical narratives that seem to have no real connection with the surrounding text and seem to add nothing at all to the plot and appears to be nothing more than an outlandishly tall tale. It’s one of those “why did the author write that?” scenarios: “A Gate in Gaza: An Essay on the Reception of Tall Tales” by Jack M. Sasson.
Judges 16: 1 One day Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute. He went in to spend the night with her. 2 The people of Gaza were told, “Samson is here!” So they surrounded the place and lay in wait for him all night at the city gate. They made no move during the night, saying, “At dawn we’ll kill him.” 3 But Samson lay there only until the middle of the night. Then he got up and took hold of the doors of the city gate, together with the two posts, and tore them loose, bar and all. He lifted them to his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that faces Hebron.
Sasson asks how such a story was understood by its ancient audience. We have no motif for Samson’s visit to Gaza; the feat defies credibility even for a strong-man (given the size of city gates later rabbis deduced Samson’s shoulders spanned dozens of cubits; add to the weight and size we have a steep climb and journey of tens of kilometres). Why do Bible authors sometimes resort to what surely must have been acknowledged to be obvious fictions?
. . . the exaggerations are themselves the focus of the story, giving them a ‘fictionality’ that encourages transposal into other forms of comprehension, such as a parable or a paradigm. In such accounts, narrators tend to sharpen implausibility by multiplying clues, their main intent being to promote the didactic via the entertaining. In antiquity, any Samson reader acquainted with fortified cities would know that city gates, not least because of their size, bulk and weight, were not transportable on the back of any one individual, however mighty. . . .
Elsewhere in Scripture, narrators also use diverse tactics to alert perceptive readers or audiences on the fictionality of what lies before them by assigning moralistic or whimsical names to characters that no parents would wish on their children. Such a tactic is obvious in Genesis 14 with its series of the named kings of Sodom (Bera, ‘In Evil’), Gomorrah (Birsha,‘In Wickedness’) and one of their allies (Bela, ‘Swallower’, likely king of Zoar). (pp. 184f)
Continuing the section Part 2. History, Historiography and Archaeology . . .
Jesper Høgenhaven’s chapter explores evidence in the Qumran texts for how Second Temple Judeans thought about the Biblical writings. We can be puzzled by the way biblical passages were joined to one another to create new texts (Thomas Thompson, Høgenhaven informs us, spoke of a ‘Copenhagen Lego hypothesis’ with regard to 4Q175). An early quotation in the essay jumped out at me since it addresses the basic method of gospel interpretation by Maurice Mergui and Nanine Charbonnel whose books I have been discussing on this blog. (I will be returning to them both in coming months.)
The late Philip R. Davies made the following pointed remark on scholars striving to collect the elements necessary for writing a ‘sectarian history’ based on Qumran scriptural commentaries (pesharim):
The first direction in exegesis of the pesharim must always be towards their midrashic function, for until we understand how these commentaries work – and that means as midrashim – we have no warrant to plunder them for historical data, especially given that (a) no continuous tradition can be established as lying behind them and (b) where they do contain – as we know that they do (I think in particular of 4QpNah) – some historical information, any kind of plausible analogy we could invoke would warn us that it will be mixed up with invention, will be distorted, garbled and anachronistic. (Davies 1989: 27-8)
(pp. 101f. The Davies 1989 link is to the Open Access book at Project Muse)
Amen. I recall Liverani’s observation about lazy historians running with a narrative that looks like history without too much second thought. Investigating the genre of a source ought to be the first priority of any historical inquiry.
So Høgenhaven surveys the way Israel’s past is utilized in various Qumran texts. He concludes that there is little conceptual difference between myths of ancient times and recent historical experiences. Metaphor and history are blurred in a way that it is not always obvious to modern readers which is which. Stories are rewritten, reinterpreted, rationalized, expanded, and commented upon as their functions vary over time. History is salvation history (“or ‘perdition history’), and along with its dualistic motifs, discerning what texts meant to readers at any particular time can be a challenge. Høgenhaven’s concluding reference to “renewed and repentant ‘Israel’ or the faithful and obedient remnant of Israel” as a stock identifying motif for the creators of the texts and their audiences links up with a dominant theme in Thompson’s The Mythic Past.
Next essay is by Gregory L. Doudna, another scholar some of whose work (especially on Qumran and the DSS) has been addressed here. This time Doudna takes on the passage about John the Baptist in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. After having read a variety of cases for the passage being an interpolation by a Mandean or Christian hand and other suggestions that the passage is definitely Josephan but straining at ways to reconcile Josephus’s chronology with Jesus, I learn now that there is yet another possible explanation for the various curiosities raised by the account. I admit I approached this chapter with some scepticism but by the time I had finished had to concede that I think Doudna makes a very good case that Josephus’s John the Baptist report is “a chronologically dislocated story of the death of Hyrcanus II”:
In the same way [as another apparently dislocated account], Josephus’s John the Baptist story reads as a doublet or different version of Hyrcanus II chronologically dislocated to the time of the wrong Herod. In this case Josephus did not place the two versions of the death of Hyrcanus II close together in the same time setting as in some of the other cases of doublets. If Josephus had done that, the doublet in this case would have been recognized before now. Instead, Josephus mistakenly attached one of the traditions of the death of Hyrcanus II to the wrong Herod, just as he separately mistakenly attached documents to the wrong Hyrcanus. (p. 132)
I hope to discuss Doudna’s chapter in more detail in a future post.
The next chapter by Jim West is a “re-evaluation” of
the book by Thomas Thompson titled The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David and discusses the appropriateness of his methodology, the correctness of his interpretation, and the continuing importance of his contribution on the topic of the historical Jesus. (p. 138)
West laments the lack of more general scholarly interest in The Messiah Myth given that it has, he claims, been taken up by
an army of ‘Jesus Mythicists’ who latched onto Thompson’s work as support for their view that Jesus actually never existed and who were bolstered by Thompson’s book. (p. 139)
Why a volume of essays in honour of Thomas L. Thompson? The opening paragraph of the Introduction explains (with my highlighting):
Thomas L. Thompson has been, for the past five decades, behind some of the – if not all – major changes in Old Testament historiography, if we consider that his criticism of the patriarchal narratives, the exodus and settlement and the United Monarchy were each at their own time forerunners of what later on would become accepted in the field (Thompson 1974, 1987, 1992, 1999).
See below for those four titles. The first, 1974, was met at the time with such opposition that it left him “unemployed and unemployable for ten years”. The 1992 work precipitated his expulsion from Marquette University.
His work from the 1970s through the 1990s was certainly decisive in crafting a critical understanding of that now infamous creature ‘ancient Israel’ – a task he, along with Philip R. Davies, Niels Peter Lemche and Keith W. Whitelam, deconstructed in different ways within the field of Old Testament studies.
All four names have been the subjects of multiple posts on Vridar.
The grouping of these four scholars is not innocent, of course, as already during the 1990s they were thrown together under the tag of ‘biblical minimalists’ by scholarly adversaries (the so-called, by opposition, ‘maximalists’). As has been noted elsewhere (Whitelam 2002), understanding these four scholars under this epithet is not only misinformed but eventually wrong, since they did not agree on every point nor were they addressing the same issues from the same perspective. However, on many issues they agreed, if not on the results, certainly on the methodology and the ways in which to conduct historical research in Old Testament studies. And the arrival at such a situation in the 1990s has a lot to do with Thomas’s career.
They certainly do differ in their conclusions and overall approaches to historical inquiry. But the fundamental point they have in common is their reliance upon the “hard evidence” of archaeology as the starting point of their interpretations and applications of the Hebrew scriptural texts as source documents for historical reconstruction. That is, the first question to ask is, What do we know from the archaeological remains and how does this archaeological information compare with the biblical texts?; the second arises from a failure to find material support for the historical narratives in the Bible: How can we best understand the circumstances that led to the creation of those unhistorical theological narratives? But back to TLT in particular.
Earlier this year I posted an interview with Thomas Thompson that had been conducted by the Greek Mythicists site. The only contact I had personally with TLT prior to this blog was an email I sent asking him if he knew where I might obtain a reasonably priced copy of Early History of the Israelite People and his reply expressing outrage at the publisher’s asking price. So it is reassuring to read in the same Introduction to Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity testimonies to his more general character of sympathy and support for those who face hurdles in academia with having their views acknowledged and respected. He sounds like a good friend to have. How I do wish more scholars who have expressed outrage at some of the views expressed on this blog would show some sign that they could be more like the TLT described here:
Thomas is also an engaging person, a protective friend and a true believer in peaceful resolutions. Even during the harshest moments of the debate between the so-called biblical maximalists and minimalists, Thomas served as an emissary of dialogue. While some of his colleagues were irritated by absurd and sometimes painful accusations, Thomas was able to sit over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee with the adversaries and talk. Thomas always separates – something not common enough – scholarly polemics from personal relationships. (p. xxi)
Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity is divided into three parts: 1. Method; 2. History, Historiography and Archaeology; 3. Biblical Narratives. Each section is a container for mostly bite-size essays which makes for easy reading for someone like me who enjoys breaks from the more lengthy tomes and articles.
Part 1. Method
The first essay (by Margreet L. Steiner) highlights the chaotic state of the archaeological landscape of Jerusalem. The second (by Raz Kletter) presents another chaos, one of an ongoing explosion of scholarly publications about that archaeology and related ancient Near Eastern studies and with which it is impossible for any one person to keep up.
Several posts on Vridar have presented Niels Peter Lemche’s criticism of the “conservative scholarship – critical scholarship” divide found in biblical (notably Old Testament) studies. Lemche’s sober essay here extends these thoughts to a more general tendency of scholars to lead general readers into what are effectively myths, whether national or religious myths.
It was Lemche, it should be noted, who assisted Thompson after his rejection from Marquette University in gaining a chair in Old Testament at the University of Copenhagen.
Emanuel Pfoh (another scholar with a presence in Vridar archives) in his essay offers a way forward for making biblical scholarship “more honest”. His in-depth discussion of specifics concludes,
My point therefore is that the context for the production of knowledge should at least be considered by everybody as a necessary moment of any research, a moment of reflexivity in which we think about our own categories and models and our own social locations to understand and explain our production of knowledge. To gain consciousness of such an epistemological situation would unquestionably make our research processes not only more explicit and scientific but also more honest. (p. 43)
That pulled me up somewhat. Perhaps such awareness comes more easily in one’s early years of exploration. Over time one can fall into a routine that takes one further away from the initial reasons for one’s interests and fresh awareness of the different actors one meets. But the routine should also mean one is in a better position to have a deeper awareness of where hypotheses, agreements and disagreements are ultimately coming from.
I have compiled the three parts into a single file. Make whatever use you want of it. Copy it; share it. I only ask that you acknowledge its source on this blog as per the Creative Commons licence for all works here. Frank Feller was the translator but I refined his work here and there into more fluent English. Find the Download Button beneath the viewing frame.
All the same notes apply re my modifications of some sections of the translation, additional notes and hyperlinks.
3. Tacitus and Josephus
The information we get from Ehrman about Tacitus and the Testimonium Taciteum, which he highly values, on 2 (two!) pages of the book is not enough to keep skin and bones together. We are only briefly informed about the content and the historical background of this testimony, but about the problems with it Ehrman has almost nothing at all to say. Ehrman speaks of the Roman historian Tacitus and his “famous Annals of Imperial Rome in 115 CE” (p. 54) and the passage that reports on the burning of Rome and the subsequent persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero. According to Ehrman, Tacitus is said to have considered Nero the arsonist, but this is not true. If Ehrman had studied the text more thoroughly, he would have noticed that although Tacitus assumes that Nero was interested in the burning of Rome, he leaves the question of guilt in the balance – unlike Suetonius, to which Ehrman presumably refers. In any case, there are mass executions of Christians, here called “Chrestiani“, some of whom are torn apart by wild dogs and others burned alive to illuminate the imperial park at night. In this context, there is now also talk about the author of this name, Christ (the “Chrestus”, as the magnifying glass on the cover of this website shows), who was “put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, while Tiberius was emperor; but the dangerous superstition, though suppressed for the moment, broke out again not only in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.”
Ehrman sees here a testimony to the historicity of Jesus, even though he admits that the text does not speak of Jesus but of Christ and that it is based on Christian sources. Moreover, Ehrman suggests that some mythicists argue that the Testimonium Taciteum was not written by Tacitus but interpolated “by Christians, who copied them [Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius]” (p. 55).
Unfortunately, however, he keeps the arguments they put forward for this viewpoint to himself – if he knows them at all. Ehrman considers these arguments to be a merely a trick to explain everything that doesn’t fit the bill as a later falsification.
Ehrman does not need to be convinced by this argument. But he should at least know it so that he can deal with it.
However, the radical critics who speak of interpolation will certainly have given reasons. What are they?
Since Ehrman remains stubbornly silent, let’s name a few. They arise from a (literary-critical) consideration of the context in which the passage of Tacitus is embedded. The 42-43rd chapter was about Nero’s lively building activity. After the fire in Rome, the emperor first used the situation to create new parks and gardens, and then to build houses and apartments according to a new, more spacious design. Chap. 45 continues this theme after the section on the persecution of Christians with an introductory “interea” (meanwhile). Now it is emphasized that the money for the building projects came primarily from the provinces and that even some temples in Rome were robbed of their gold to finance the emperor’s projects.
The text that has been handed down thus offers an extremely strange train of thought: Nero has the Christians burned, the people have pity on them – “meanwhile” (interea) the Roman Empire is being plundered. It is obvious that such a nonsensical train of thought could by no means have been the intention of the narrator. Between chapters 44 and 45 there is no connecting point to which the “interea” could refer. If it is to establish a meaningful connection, it can, in terms of content, only tie up to Ch. 43 but not to 44: Rome is being rebuilt – in the meantime the empire is being plundered for it! Ehrman does not need to be convinced by this argument. But he should at least know it so that he can deal with it. Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 3: Tacitus and Josephus”
I have modified the translation in a few places to make it flow easier and to iron out some obscurities. The original German review is linked at the end of the post. All hyperlinks and notes in the “*see also” inset box are my additions, as also are the images. Endnotes are Detering’s, of course, and I have relocated these in other inset boxes, too. All additional notes in those boxes are mine as are the quotation boxes within the main text.
2. Pliny the Younger
The mountains are in labor, a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth. (Horace, The Art of Poetry)
Ehrman goes to great lengths to introduce us to the sources which, in his opinion, reliably attest to the existence of a historical Jesus. To quote Horace, “Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.” Before the curtain finally opens and reveals a considerable number of Jesus witnesses to the curious gaze of the reader, a series of preliminaries and fundamental methodological considerations must be made. What we learn in the relevant chapters about the value and worthlessness of historical sources is indeed informative, but will have little new to offer to all those who have attended a historical proseminar once in their lives. Be that as it may, Ehrman advocates good and healthy principles, such as that multiple testimonies please the heart of the historian, or that “disinterested” and independent sources deserve preference over others, etc. (p. 41) – one only wished that he himself would also give them due consideration in the later sections. In a section on sources that we do not have, he also admits that we do not have authentic illustrations of Jesus, nor scriptures written by himself, nor eyewitness accounts (p. 49).
 Hurtado 2007, pp. 2-3: “If correctly dated to about 200, the Aberkio inscription (found in Hierapolis) remains perhaps our oldest identifiable Christian inscription. Although in some older publications one finds certain references to the catacombs and catacomb art of the second century, it is now generally accepted among experts that these too should probably be dated to sometime in the third century”.
 Theißen, Merz 1997, p. 160f. All that can be said about it is that it is possibly the site visited by the Spanish pilgrim Egeria sometime between 381-384 AD, which has been given as the house of Peter since Constantinian times. Everything else is conjecture and belongs at best in a travel guide, but not in a serious scientific work.
This is all well and good but could be further elaborated when applied to specific cases, which Ehrman certainly does not feel is necessary. Ehrman could have taken the trouble to make clear to the reader the full extent of the difficulties in which the defenders of Jesus’ historicity find themselves when they refer to external witnesses. For example, it is correct that no authentic images of Jesus have been handed down. But far more interesting is that the type of Jesus in the portraits we possess almost completely resembles the portraits of other late antique healers, so that archaeologists even today find it difficult to distinguish Jesus from, for example, Attis or Orpheus. With regard to the question of possible models for the Christian Saviour, this should not be an unimportant observation. As I already mentioned in my book Falsche Zeugen: Außerchristliche Jesuszeugnisse auf dem Prüfstand (only in German; False Witnesses. Non-Christian Testimonies Tested, 2011 (Alibri)”, I have already shown that from the 1st to the middle of the 2nd century no archaeological evidence for the existence of Christianity can be found at all. For Graydon F. Snyder, the Christian faith as a cultural-historical phenomenon only dates from around 180 AD according to the archaeologists. Even that reference to Roman catacombs and catacomb art, with which one used to love to argue in former times, is no longer possible. The archaeologists, Larry W. Hurtado points out, who formerly dated the whole of Christian catacomb art with confidence to the 2nd century, now suspect it probably only originated in the third century . Speculations about a supposed “House of Peter” are based on dubious speculations and are only significant in so far as they contribute, not significantly, to the revival and promotion of the tourism industry in the “Holy Land”. 
Moreover, it’s a pity that Ehrman goes far too little into detail when asked about the “sources we don’t have”. For example, there is no reference to the so-called Remsburg List, which can impressively demonstrate to anyone who wants to delve a little deeper into the position of the mythicists how ignorance about the man from Nazareth and the Christian community reaches deep into the second century. Even if it can be objected that the ancient sources also keep silent about many other people, it makes a difference about whom they keep silent. After all, according to the Gospels, the effect that Jesus had during his brief activity in Galilee and Jerusalem was so overwhelming that even non-Christian contemporaries who were religiously open-minded, such as Philo or Plutarch, could hardly overlook it. There is constant talk of the “great crowd” that accompanies Jesus in his ministry and witnesses his miracles and healings, whose fame spread throughout Galilee (Mark 1:28) and beyond (Matthew 4:24). The New Testament scholar Gert Theißen reckons with “miracle stories … outside the followers of Jesus” and with “popular shifting and enrichment” of the miracle stories, thus assuming that a special Jesus tradition had formed in the population. Should nothing at all – apart from the Christian tradition itself – have survived?
But Ehrman now thinks that this is not the right way to approach the question. Before one can ask whether Jesus did miracles, one must “decide” whether he existed at all (p. 43).
But how can this question be “decided”? Based on which criteria? The problem is that Jesus is portrayed in all the ancient testimonies as a divine miracle worker or as a (semi-) divine being. That applies – with one exception (Tacitus) – also to the few non-Christian testimonies.
That’s why the smart professor uses a common scientific trick: He who cannot answer questions declares them methodically illegitimate.
For the rest, it all depends on what is meant by “miracles”. Those “miracles” to which Jesus owes his fame according to Christian sources, and which are said to have led whole nations to seek him out, are first and foremost healing miracles or healings. Even if we do not know how they came about, we need not question the existence of such a phenomenon any more than we do the existence of other ancient miracle healers. But Ehrman does not even do this much; for example, he states on p. 269 that Jesus “developed a reputation for being able to heal the sick and cast out demons.” Shouldn’t we ask then, why the person responsible for such sensational healings was not given any attention by pagan authors? The question is valid but obviously doesn’t give Ehrman any comfort. That’s why the smart professor uses a common scientific trick: He who cannot answer questions declares them methodically illegitimate.
This information seems not unimportant to us. That Ehrman is withholding it from us does seem a little manipulative.
Finally, Ehrman also refers to Justus of Tiberias, although he calls him “Justin of Tiberius” (p. 50), a Jewish historian living and working in the second half of the first century, who, like Josephus, wrote a history of the Jewish people in the first century after Christ. Ehrman mentions that his books “did not survive”. Whether this refers to the work of later Christian censors and book burners, he leaves open. However, he fails to address the crucial point. Although the writings of the historian from the immediate neighbourhood of Jesus’ supposed residence have indeed been lost, we know at least from a paper of the Christian Patriarch Photius from Constantinople (9th century) what was not in it: “He does not mention the coming of Christ, nor his deeds, nor the miracles he performed. This information does seems not unimportant to us. That Ehrman withholds it from his readers does come across as a little manipulative. Indeed, it would not seem easy for advocates of the existence of a historical Jesus to explain why a first-century Jewish historian from Galilee forgot the famous man from the neighboring city in his writings.
The number of non-Christian witnesses who, according to Ehrman, should prove the existence of Jesus is very small. Usually New Testament scholars cite a canon of six texts at this point:
the twofold testimony of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Ant 20,200 and Ant 18,63-64, so-called Testimonium Flavianum),
the testimony of the Roman historian Tacitus on the burning of Rome and the Neronian persecution of Christians (Ann 15:44;),
the report of the Roman governor Pliny the Younger in a letter to the Emperor Trajan and his reply (ep 10,96-97;)
two passages from the work of the Roman historian Sueton (Suet. Claud. 25,4; Suet. Nero 16,2)
a letter of the Syrian Mara bar Serapion to his son Serapion, which was only recently brought into play, and which is said to have been written sometime after 72 AD,
and an ominous passage from the lost historical work of Thallus (after 50 AD), which has only been preserved in excerpts in Julius Africanus and Georgius Synkellos.
In Ehrman’s case, the already very small number is reduced even further to the four witnesses Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius, although only Josephus and Tacitus, and possibly Pliny, are of significance. This decision, which Ehrman does not discuss further, is very wise, since not many can be impressed by the excluded two guarantors anyway because of their questionable dating.
Anyone who thought that Ehrman would enter into a conversation with the radical deniers of a historical Jesus and discuss in detail the handwritten tradition, origin and earliest testimony of his four sources or even shine with new points of view will be disappointed. His statements merely repeat what has been known for decades anyway, and contain nothing that has not long since been considered or refuted by the radical deniers of Jesus since Arthur Drews. The authenticity of the sources is loudly claimed but not proven. What remains is, at least as the testimony of Josephus and Tacitus shows, that Jesus lived and was executed by the Roman governor of Judea. “That, at least, is a start.” (p. 56) Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 2: Pliny’s Letter”
The following translation of Hermann Detering’s review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? has been sent to me and I am thrilled to be able to make it available on this blog. It is over 7000 words, too long, I think, for a blog post, so I am posting here just the first part of the review. The rest to follow. I have modified the translation in a few places to make it flow easier and to iron out some obscurities. I have also replaced the English translation of Detering’s German language quotes of Ehrman’s words with the original English versions. All hyperlinks and notes in the “*see also” inset box are my additions, as also are the images. Endnotes are Detering’s, of course, and I have relocated these in other inset boxes, too.
Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources
1. Bart Ehrman’s book, Did Jesus exist?
The introduction to the book ushers us into the following scene: Bart D. Ehrman, PhD, Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, actually wanted to write a completely different, more important work, namely about how a Jewish end-time prophet named Jesus became a divine being or God. But then he was startled by some emails. He suddenly found himself taken up by a scene that was apparently unknown to him until then: Mythicists who appealed to his authority for their claim that there had been no Jesus! Reason enough for a conscientious “New Testament scholar” to take a closer look at the matter.
Although Ehrman had by then read “thousands of books about Jesus in English and other European languages, the New Testament and early Christianity,” he was “like most colleagues completely unaware of the extent of sceptical literature [on the subject]” (p. 2). For a professor of theology and biblical scholar who should be up to date and in daily conversation with his students, this long phase of ignorance is astonishing enough, especially since the question of the historical existence of the man from Nazareth must have occurred again and again in the mass of Jesus literature he read. For example, in The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer, often quoted by Ehrman, in which this very subject is dealt with on many hundreds of book pages. This book and others should at least have curbed Ehrman’s boundless surprise and shown him that the question “Did Jesus exist?” is not an entirely fanciful one, and that New Testament research has been periodically occupied with it. Moreover, it is not just since yesterday that the question has been on the agenda of those American “humanists” who read his books and with whom, according to his own statement, he has been in contact for a long time.
However, not everything Ehrman writes should be taken quite so literally. The reader of his book, which is written in a casual conversational tone, has to get used to this and other contradictions. The “casual conversational tone” is not meant as hidden criticism: one should be grateful for the good readability, especially since it saves German readers with “mediocre” English skills a lot of reference work in the dictionary. The fact that the casual presentation and simple language always turns into pure superficiality is, of course, the other side of the coin that we still have to get to grips with.
Instead of immediately shining with new perspectives and objective examination of the mythicists’ theses, Ehrman deals with the mythicists and – again and again with pleasure – with himself. Ehrman about Ehrman – a broad field… The professor strives for clear demarcation:
There — the “breed” (Ehrman in an interview*) of mythicists, a shadowy group that shies away from the light, concocting dark conspiracy theories in the worldwide channels of the network. With a few exceptions, neither academic degrees nor titles legitimize them to make a meaningful contribution to the difficult historical and religious-historical problems with which Professor Ehrman and his peers have struggled for decades at the forefront of science. In addition, loud, brash and aggressive in appearance, enemies of religion, atheists, and thrown from cliff to cliff by half-knowledge, stupidity and error. Avanti Dilettanti!
Here — the “New Testament scholar”, in the full splendour of his academic titles, honours and prizes, among his numerous students, whose questions he answers conscientiously and competently, proven author of numerous non-fiction books, who as such receives tons of e-mails (“Like most authors, I receive tons of e-mail”, p. 94) (apropos, how do you actually weigh e-mails?). A textbook example of biblical scholarship and theology as he is – imbued with his subject matter, which includes reading the Bible by him daily in the original Greek or Hebrew; who has been studying and teaching for over 35 years and “I don’t plan to stop any time soon” (p. 36). Yes, why should he? Does anyone want to stop him? The mythicists for instance?!
And yet no apologist! Ehrman wants to be understood as a pure historian, who is only interested in historical evidence. “I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting any Christian cause or agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings and my life and views would be approximately the same whether or not Jesus existed… The answer to the question about the historical existence of Jesus will not make me more or less happy, content, hopeful, likable, rich, famous, or immortal” (p. 5f). Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 1 of Hermann Detering’s review”
I have written often about history, the nature of history, the history of historical writings, and historical methods. Very often the context of those posts has been biblical scholarship that falls short of meeting the basic standards of scholarly historical inquiry as it is typically found in history and classics departments. Occasionally one comes across a biblical scholar (e.g. Scot McKnight) who does bring up the names of historians in “nonbiblical fields” (e.g. Geoffrey Elton, E.H. Carr) but too quickly the main point of difference is bypassed even in those discussions. To find biblical historians who have taken up the methods of other historians — beginning with primary evidence and moving cautiously from there to secondary evidence — one turns to those unfortunately labelled “minimalists” in the studies of ancient Israel.
This post is a response to some specific claims about historical methods by Justin Meggitt, another scholar of religion, in his 2019 article, “More Ingenious than Learned’? Examining the Quest for the Non-Historical Jesus”. Meggitt, I hope to demonstrate, has also misinterpreted the way nonbiblical historians work and misapplied some of their methods to the question of historical Jesus studies — even while attempting to better inform his biblical scholar peers. In so doing I trust a more valid way forward will become clearer.
V. Chaturvedi, ed., Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial (London: Verso, 2012);
S. G. Magnússon and I. M. Szijártó, What is Microhistory?: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 2013);
A. I. Port, ‘History from Below, the History of Everyday Life, and Microhistory’, ed. J. Wright, International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2015) 108–13.
Indeed, the lack of conventional historical training on the part of biblical scholars may well be evident in the failure of any scholar involved in discussing the Christ-myth debate to mention any long-established historiographical approaches associated with the study of the poor in the past, such as History from Below, Microhistory or Subaltern Studies,105approaches that might help us determine what kind of questions can be asked and what kind of answers can reasonably be expected to given, when we scrutinise someone who is depicted as coming from such a non-elite context.
(Meggitt, 22. Bolded highlighting is my own in all quotations)
. . . dramatically reduce the scale of their historical investigation, confining it to a single individual, small community, or seemingly obscure event which is then subject to painstaking microscopic analysis involving an intensive study of the available documentary material.
Port cites some examples:
Such histories usually fall into one of two categories: the ‘episodic’ and the ‘systematic’ (Gregory, 1999: 102). The first type, which tends to take a narrative approach and rely heavily on ‘thick description,’ focuses on a single, spectacular episode or event usually involving one person or a small group of individuals – such as
the investigation of a heretical sixteenth century Italian miller by Inquisition officials (Ginzburg, 1980),
the elaborately staged murder of dozens of cats by disgruntled apprentice printers in Paris in the 1730s (Darnton, 1984),
or an antisemitic riot incited by accusations of blood libel in a small Prussian town in the early twentieth century (Smith, 2002).
The other type assiduously reconstructs the complex web of familial and extrafamilial social relations in a small community. Prominent examples include
Giovanni Levi’s study of social interaction in a village in the Piedmont in the 1690s – “a banal place and an undistinguished story,” in the words of the author (Levi, 1988) –
and David Sabean’s dense studies of property, production, and kinship in the southern German village Neckarhausen from 1700 to 1870 (Sabean, 1990, 1998).
(Port, 108, formatting is my own in all quotations)
Surely, you are probably thinking, the historian must have primary and secondary sources on which to base any research into subjects like those. Indeed, they do. History from Below is not about subjects for whom we lack sources; it is a history that works with sources for “commoners”, everyday people, as opposed to the “great names” and institutions and parties that we normally turn to to “do history”. Another reference cited by Meggitt is What is Microhistory?: Theory and Practice by S. G. Magnússon and I. M. Szijártó, which contains a chapter on “Refashioning a Famous French Peasant”. It addresses method and sources for a historical inquiry into the sixteenth-century story of Martin Guerre and his wife, Bertrande de Rols. (Martin Guerre went missing and an imposter subsequently appeared to take his place. You know the story if you have seen the film Sommersby.) The sources available to historians on this person and his community are
court documents and correspondence penned by Judge Jean de Coras;
Histoire Admirable by Guillaume Le Sueur who based his story on notes by another judge involved in the case.
The poor villagers did not usually leave behind written records themselves but historians do have access to
reports by police and church officials, teachers, physicians, and factory inspectors; personal correspondence and travelogues; parish registers, wills, notarial records, and protocols.
We have nothing comparable for the study of Jesus or any of his presumed disciples.
Meggitt advises biblical scholars that they should be aware of the problems with this sort of “microhistory”. In principle, that is true. The nature of the evidence will always dictate what questions can be asked in the expectation of useful answers. But one does have to note that there is simply no primary source material of the kinds addressed in the three sources Meggitt cites for “microhistory” or “history from below” that is comparable to sources available for Christian origins and Jesus or any of his disciples. So the advice to be “aware of problems” of using primary sources for a person from the lower classes is misplaced in the context of historical Jesus studies.
Knapp, Robert. 2011. Invisible Romans: Prostitutes, Outlaws, Slaves, Gladiators, Ordinary Men and Women… The Romans That History Forgot. London: Profile Books.
Thompson, E. P. 1966. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage.
For example, given that most human beings in antiquity left no sign of their existence, and the poor as individuals are virtually invisible,106 all we can hope to do is try to establish, in a general sense, the lives that they lived. Why would we expect any non-Christian evidence for the specific existence of someone of the socio-economic status of a figure like Jesus at all? To deny his existence based on the absence of such evidence, even if that were the case, has problematic implications; you may as well deny the existence of pretty much everyone in the ancient world. Indeed, the attempt by mythicists to dismiss the Christian sources could be construed, however unintentionally, as exemplifying what E. P. Thompson called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’107 in action, functionally seeking to erase a collection of data, extremely rare in the Roman empire, that depicts the lives and interactions of non-elite actors and seems to have originated from them too.
“For example” — that introduction is misplaced as a follow on from a discussion of “microhistory” or “history from below” by Chaturvedi, Magnússon and Port. Those three authors are addressing not “virtually invisible” persons, but persons of whom we have enough primary sources to write serious history even though they were not elites. The preceding paragraph was referring to a type of history includes the bringing to light those “poor as individuals” for whom we do have “signs of their [individual, personal] existence.” Knapp, whom Meggitt now cites at #106, is writing a quite different kind of history. Knapp is not an example of a historian doing the sort of history just described as “microhistory”. Knapp is doing something very different. He is doing another form of “macrohistory”:
I seek to uncover and understand what life was like for the great mass of people who lived in Rome and its empire. . . .
Ancient evidence comes in two types: the one intentionally provided and the other incidentally. The first is generally irrelevant to our purpose, but the second can be crucial. An elite author setting out, for example, to write on the Roman wars of expansion, will sometimes include contextual details and bits of information which, when combined with other evidence, begin to create a picture of ordinary people. The experience of ordinary people has no direct voice in the histories the Romans have left us. Yet sometimes it is possible to garner insights into the lives of the invisible people even where none was intended and to amplify these by deploying perspectives and evidence from a variety of other sources.
That’s very different from a “people’s history” in the sense discussed in the preceding paragraph. Knapp’s history of “ordinary people” (as he calls his demographic target of study) leaves no room whatever for a study of “a single individual, small community, or seemingly obscure event” (Port). As the article stands it appears that Meggitt has confused two quite distinct types of history. This is not a promising start for advancing historical Jesus studies.
So when Meggitt goes on to rhetorically ask
Why would we expect any non-Christian evidence for the specific existence of someone of the socio-economic status of a figure like Jesus at all?
he has already given us the answer but has turned his back on it because he has confused history of masses with micro or people’s history. To do “history from below” on Jesus a “micro-historian” will expect to find, as he or she does for other low-class persons, contemporary evidence preserved by literate classes about a person who was attracting a lot of attention among “the masses”. Literate classes have servants and contact with markets and will learn of any person making a name for themselves. Josephus notesquite a few of them, often with disgust. So do other Roman elites. We know, for example, interesting details about Cicero’s slave, Tiro.
. . . 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.
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:
I was wrong to equate Sara Parks with Dr Sarah in this post. See Dr Sarah’s comment for this correction.
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.)
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 : 210–236.
“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 Hypotyposeisbeginning in September 2004. Ongoingpublications 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.)
(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)
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. Continue reading “Interview with Thomas L. Thompson #1”