2006-12-02

Ancient Epistolary Fictions / Patricia A. Rosenmeyer (2001). Review

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve written this “review” essentially as a commentary on what we can know about the genuineness of the New Testament epistles. The commentary bits are in eyesore bold italics.

I read Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions (Cambridge University Press, 2001) to inform myself of the literary culture behind the New Testament epistles as part of my interest in understanding the nature of the historical evidence for Christian origins. So my review comments here are in that context. Letters, Rosenmeyer informs us, were a popular form of entertainment (and instruction) whether under the real name of their composer or a pseudonym. Letters were a popular composition both within novels and as collections of fictional or didactic correspondence. The most interesting discussion for me was the training authors received in how to add touches of realism in fictional or didactic letter compositions.

I was reminded of how often the strongest arguments for the authenticity of the Pauline epistles rely on seemingly incidental realistic touches such as requests to bring a cloak for winter, remarks on his health, etc. After reading Rosenmeyer personal details like these are ripped away from any case for authenticity: they are the very things authors were trained to throw in, even across collections of letters, not just in singular epistles. It is naive to interpret these personal asides from the main theme as marks of genuineness. As the magic wand of the trained author they are designed to distract the reader’s attention from the otherwise artificiality of the exercise and to draw the reader into the “reality” being artfully created.

Ditto for the argument of “emotional sincerity and passion”. Again, this is the very thing one would expect to be conveyed by trained authors in such didactic compositions. None of this means of course that the Pauline letters are not genuine, but it does mean that arguments for their genuineness need to be based on external controls, not their internal content or style. From this perspective it is not irrelevant that the earliest such external pointers are securely established no earlier than the second century, when the Pauline epistles emerge for the first time as a collection and in the midst of controversy and dialogue over the history and role of Paul in early christianity. Continue reading “Ancient Epistolary Fictions / Patricia A. Rosenmeyer (2001). Review”


2006-12-01

Re-reading Virgil’s Aeneid

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by Neil Godfrey

Initially read Virgil’s Aeneid for my interest in the classics and culture of the Roman world and the literature that inspired many throughout the ages. Re-read it recently to compare with the New Testament literature. In particular, note the sudden ending that is not a satisyfing ending at all for our tastes, and compare sudden “non-endings” of the Book of Acts and Gospel of Mark (assuming 16.9-20 is not original). Even some ancients could not accept that Virgil really intended the Aeneid to end so abruptly and composed their own endings for it, just as many have attempted to deduce possible intended endings for Acts and Mark.

Yet when one notices that the existing ending of the Aeneid is decorated with literary allusions and images used at the beginning (e.g. the literal storm imagery that opens the Aeneid in Book 1 is repeated figuratively in Book 12 to describe Aeneas attacking Turnus), thus bracketing the work like bookends, then one can more easily accept the current conclusion is as the author intended it. Similarly one notices a similar literary allusions bracketing the current opening and endings of Mark — (the most well known examples being the tearing of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism and the tearing of the temple veil at his death; and the disobedience of the healed leper to the command to remain silent against the disobedience of the women to the command to speak (16.8).)

As for the ending of Acts, one cannot avoid the similarities between the constant mythic and literary themes of pioneers struggling through hardships and opposition and dangerous travel to establish “a new and truly God-fearing community” in Rome. In both the conclusion is abrupt once the beginninngs of this are established through one final conflict.

(There is much more to add by way of comparison with NT literature, but I have saved specifics for other posts to come, in particular for the series I am adding to this site on the we-passages in Acts. An interesting read, with its plusses and minuses like like any read, is Marianne Palmer Bonz’s “The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic” (Fortress Press, 2000).)


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The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 3

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by Neil Godfrey

We-passages testify against, not for, genuine eyewitness account

It is commonly asserted (rarely actually argued) that the most natural way of understanding the we-passages is to read them as eyewitness reports, and that as such they testify to the historicity of the events they describe. While the author’s use of “we” inevitably leads a reader to imagine an eyewitness account, at the same time it simply breaks all rules of literary rhetoric and common reading experience to say that it logically follows that the “we” indicates a genuine historical record. Everyone knows that fiction written in the first person “I” or “we” is still fiction. (And this applies to ancient classical literature as much as to modern novels.) No-one believes that a first-person narrative is a criterion for genuine historicity in any other field of literature, so when an exception to this common knowledge is made in the case of Acts one may fairly conclude we are confronting a case of theological apologetics.

Ancient historians were conscious of their need to establish credibility and to this end they identified both themselves and their sources. As Robbins notes of the historian Thucydides, he was strongly conscious of presenting himself as a trustworthy and accurate historian, even using the third person to tell of events in which he was personally involved. The historian Xenophon did the same. To impress readers with his accuracy and objectivity he speaks of himself always in the third person “he”, never as “I” or “we”. The historian Arrian likewise described a sea-voyage, for which he had a personal account, in the third person. The author of Acts avoids both citing any sources and allowing the reader to know his or her identity. Even the we-passages are anonymous. Even by the standards of ancient historians that simply does not rate as history. It is, rather, the rhetoric of fiction. Acts makes no pretence to match the historical tone of the more reputable ancient historians. Its third person narrative lacks any reference to the author’s identity, sources used and alternative accounts of events – characteristics common to Hellenistic histories. Its tone and rhetoric are those of a Hellenistic adventure novel. [Pervo]

Before continuing with the next section of this I will add to the above some extracts from the authors referenced and add full citations to demonstrate the argument.


The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 2

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by Neil Godfrey

We-passages and the sense of community

One reason for sometimes narrating sea voyages with an authorial “we” has been the sense that once on board a ship a tight interdependent community is naturally formed. It is natural and common in ancient literature for an authorial voice to slip from an “I” to a “we” when imagining this change of setting. Both Robbins and his critics have acknowledged this. This essay goes one step further by suggesting that the “we” community includes not only the narrator and his characters but vicariously the audience also as an integral part of the “we” community. The story outline of Acts strongly suggests that it was written for a Roman audience who had a strong interest in Rome’s role as a Christian centre, and I believe that the we-passages are best understood by including that Roman audience vicariously in the sea-voyaging community. For reasons I give below I wonder if the audience originally read the literary “we” as their founding community in Rome. Why such an audience community should be related only to certain, but not all, sea-travel sections of Acts will become quickly apparent in the discussion.


2006-11-29

The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation. Pt 1

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by Neil Godfrey

The “we-passages” in Acts have been understood either as being taken from an eye-witness record or as a non-historical literary device. The former view is generally embraced by default on the grounds that the literary device arguments appear to be burdened with too many qualifications and exceptions to make them compelling. Yet the arguments for reading the we-passages as an historical eye-witness record raise more questions than they answer and I will discuss some of those. I want to suggest another way of reading the we-passages which involves a new way of reading much of Acts itself and that I believe answers many of the questions that have been raised against both the literary device and eye-witness interpretations.

I intend to attempt to argue the possibility of reading the “we” in the we-passages as the author’s way of drawing a Roman audience into a vicarious identification with a new Christianized founding myth of Rome, or more specifically the church at Rome, that drew on both the founding epic of Rome (the Aeneid) and the Primary History of Israel (Genesis – 2 Kings). I believe this interpretation offers coherent answers to such questions as why Paul is always clearly distinguished from the “we”; why the “we” remain anonymous; why the “we” appear and disappear with the odd suddenness they do; why the we-passages portray Paul and his miracles with a low-key modesty and “naturalness” that contrasts with the exaggerated and the dramatically miraculous features found in other Pauline stories; why Paul decides to walk to Assos while “we” sail there to pick him up; and also make more sense of some features of Paul’s approach to Rome and the abrupt ending. While I cannot “prove” that the author intended the we-passages to be read this way I can point to possible clues throughout the text that may make this reading plausible.

VKR on the relationship between the we-passages and Rome

Vernon K. Robbins pictured the author of Acts penning his narrative in Rome and addressing the question of how “we” got “here” in Rome when “we” started out “there” in Jerusalem. In support of this claim he continues:

[The author] says that all of the things about which he writes have been accomplished “among us” (Luke 1:1) . . . As he sits in Rome, he participates in the events of the Christian church, and explains to “Theophilus” how his community of believers got to be where they are (Luke 1:3-4) . . . Thus he can say . . . as Paul voyaged across the sea, “we” got here. (p.241)

Two facts can be presented as undermining this assertion: (1) the we-passages are not used consistently for all of Paul’s overseas voyages, and (2) most we-passages address journeys to places other than Rome. In my argument below I will show that a fresh look at the narrative structure and multiple literary allusions in Acts may well remove these weaknesses from Robbins’ essential idea.

Tannehill on the literary function of the we-passages

Robert Tannehill takes up the psychological import of the narrative first person plural approach as it invites readers to enter in the inclusive “we” with Paul as he journeys to farewell his churches and face his final (Christ-like) passion as it is to be determined in Jerusalem.

By using the first-person plural during the journey to Jerusalem, events are experienced through a focalizing character who accompanies Paul but is distinct both from the seven named companions . . . and from Paul himself . . .. This focalizing character is both anonymous and plural (“we,” not “I”). The anonymity of the group decreases its value as eyewitness guarantor of the report, but an anonymous and plural first-person narrator is well suited to increase imaginative participation in the narrative by readers or hearers of it. The anonymous “we” – a participant narrator – is a special opportunity for us and others to enter the narrative as participants and to see ourselves as companions of Paul as he prepares the churches for his absence and resolutely approaches the danger in Jerusalem. A first-person narrator is a focalizing channel through whom the story is experienced. Our experience of events is limited to the experience of the first-person narrator, and this common perspective creates a bond of identification. The anonymous “we” is a focalizing channel without clear definition, except as companions of Paul, making it easy for many individuals, and even a community, to identify with the narrator. “We” as fellow travellers both share Paul’s experience and receive his legacy as he travels toward his passion. The narrative also heightens our experience of the journey as such, for the “we” narration includes passages that simply present the journey with sufficient detail to make us aware of it as experience of a special type, with its own stages, decisions to be made, and goal . . . (pp.246-247)

The main weakness of this argument is that it is inconsistent with the role of the first we-passage that is not describing a farewell journey to Jerusalem at all but involves the “we” in a narrative where Paul is expanding churches, not farewelling them.

But I will argue below that Tannehill’s main point works much better if one reads Paul’s journey to his passion against the background, in part, of the Roman founding epic, which is, I suggest, exactly the way the author of Acts frequently invites his readers to read it.

 


The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman Audience Interpretation

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by Neil Godfrey

I have had an unfinished draft of an essay on the we-passages in Acts sitting in my computer now for more than a year surely. Several attempts to return to it have led me to baulk at the size of the task I had taken on, with biblical studies not really being easy to justify as my number one priority in life. But now with this new blog thingy I think I have a way to re-work that essay begging for completion, this time in nice easy bite-size installments. I’ll start copying and reworking it bit by bit in a series of posts to this blog. Eventually I trust this nifty piece of technology will enable me to see a series of posts in a folder which can finally come together then as a whole. And who knows, I may even have the added luck of criticism along the way from the odd passer-by to help me identify and remove a few of its warts.

Neil Godfrey
Australia


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Jesus (in Mark), Jesus (in Josephus) and Cassandra

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by Neil Godfrey

As far as I am aware the observations linked here between the Jesus in Mark’s gospel and the Jesus in Josephus were first made by Theodore Weeden (author of ‘Mark: traditions in conflict’) in informal email discussio. I was excited to read a comment from someone somewhere recently (Michael Turton?) that Weeden is soon to publish a book about this. Can anyone tell me when to expect this and what it’s titled?

The only thought I can add is that the Josephan Jesus strikes me as a classic trope in the legendary-mythical Cassandra mold. Literary tradition depicted her as a demon possessed prophetess raving about the foredoomed destruction of Troy, and later of the King who conquered Troy and finally of herself, and whom all dismissed as mad.

Can anyone tell me more about Ted Weeden’s new book that I hear is coming out?


2006-11-28

Romans 1:2-6 – An anti-Marcionite Interpolation?

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by Neil Godfrey

I’m undergoing a long process of bringing myself up to date with blogs and the web 2 world and part of that is trying to bring together one by one bits and pieces I have written notes on over the years. Here is another one, where I present a case for arguing that the whole of Romas 1:2-6 was an interpolation by an anti-Marcionite redactor.

Criteria I’ve used are taken from William O. Walker’s “Interpolation in the Pauline Letters” (2001).

Constructive criticism most welcome of course.

Neil Godfrey


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2006-11-26

Another view of the origin of the Gospel of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

Again about a year or so ago I woke in the middle of the night with “a brilliant revelation” that I had to work out on keyboard asap. I had been exploring the range of views in the scholarship on the date and theology of the Gospel of Peter and it occurred to me that the Gospel of Mark, with so many cryptic unexplained references and incidents, might very well be best explained as a response to the sort of gospel narrative that we find in the Gospel of Peter. I was not arguing that the Gospel of Peter as we have it pre-dates GMark, but if GPeter was setting down in ink a previously known oral gospel then many apparent anomalies in GMark are resolved.

Alas, I have since in my mind revised this idea, but have not yet had time to put down my retractions in any essay yet. I did once begin to do this and on re-reading my GPeter-GMark piece began to wonder again if my retraction would hold water. Anyway, for what it’s worth, I’ve attached a link to my original essay on a GPeter related trajectory of the GMark and other synoptics. It did at least provoke some kind comments and thoughtful responses when first released. I may write something opposite tomorrow, but will leave this idea stand for at least discussion and thought nonetheless.


The Gospel of Mark’s fictional characters

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by Neil Godfrey

A year or so ago I wrote an essay discussing characterization in the gospel of Mark and attempted to show that the author paradoxically shows as little interest in the earthly person of Jesus as we find in Paul’s letters. A little thought about the way Mark depicts his characters demonstrates, I think, that he is working at a level as far removed from any interest in Jesus’ earthly history as was Paul. At the time I titled it a bit clumsily Notes on the fictive and parabolic character of Mark’s gospel.


Gospel of Mark’s bookends

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by Neil Godfrey

Have updated and webbed a table to help me keep track of some of the bracket points found in the Gospel of Mark. The opening and closing scenes contain numerous matching “bookends” that are either intended to guide the interpretation of the gospel and/or to help an original oral storyteller recall how the narrative is meant to go (see Shiner’s ‘Proclaiming the Gospel, 2003).


A Cyrenius-Cyrenian link between Josephus and Mark?

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by Neil Godfrey

It is not hard to see curious shifting reflections between the lead characters in Josephus and the Gospel of Mark. Judas first, then Simon with James and Simon with John are Jewish rebel leaders and Alexander and Rufus are two Romans responsible for their executions (though John is apparently spared). In Mark we have Judas, Simon Peter, James and John as leaders and Alexander and Rufus named as identifiers of the one pressganged into the execution of their leader. (And the one executed in place of that leader was anciently believed by at least one form of Christianity, and by modern deconstructionists, the author of Mark himself being characteristically ambiguous, to be Simon himself.)

But is there another name also shiftingly reflected between Josephus and Mark that has not yet been remarked on?

“The sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain; I mean of that Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Cyrenius (Quirinius in Luke 2:2) came to take account of the estates of the Jews, as we have shown in a foregoing book. The names of those sons were James and Simon, whom Alexander commanded to be crucified.” (Josephus, Ant. 20.5.2, Whiston trans.) Continue reading “A Cyrenius-Cyrenian link between Josephus and Mark?”


2006-11-25

Paul’s reception in Italy and Rome: another Josephus link?

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by Neil Godfrey

While it is commonplace to think of the Book of Acts as an unfinished work, appearing to end without a real narrative resolution (with Paul left a prisoner in Rome for “2 years” — no trial, no death, no release) , I keep wondering if the real problem is that we are missing something critical about the intent of the narrative. As one small facet of this question I have raised before the possibility that the author of Acts was emulating the conclusion of the Primary History of Israel which ends with the king of Judah a prisoner in Babylon (sometimes later used as a cypher for Rome) and the circumstances of his imprisonment.

Now on reading bits of Josephus again I wonder if another piece is falling into place, Continue reading “Paul’s reception in Italy and Rome: another Josephus link?”


2006-11-21

The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? / Early Doherty. (Canadian Humanists, 1999). Review

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by Neil Godfrey

I originally posted this elsewhere in 2000:

A New paradigm:

On page 125 of his book Doherty writes: “When any set of assumptions is firmly in place, the evidence is usually interpreted in accord with those assumptions. Yet it is clear that the New Testament epistles present the Christian reader and scholar with difficulties and anomalies at every turn. These have traditionally been ignored, glossed over, or subjected to unnatural interpretations and questionable reasoning in order to force them into the mold determined by the Gospels.

“What is needed is a new paradigm, a new set of assumptions by which to judge the epistles (as well as the other non-canonical documents…), one capable of resolving all those contradictions and uncertainties. That paradigm should be determined by what we can see in the epistles themselves and how we can relate their content to what we know of the spirit and conditions of the time.” This is how Doherty approaches not only the epistles but the gospels and noncanonical writings as well. Continue reading “The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? / Early Doherty. (Canadian Humanists, 1999). Review”

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