2020-12-26

How Collective Messianic Figures Mutated into Jesus — continuing Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

Nanine Charbonnel casts a net back to catch an interesting observation by the nineteenth-century French Jewish scholar Joseph Salvador who wrote that since early Christian writings were in the tradition of Jewish writings they had to be interpreted in the same way as Jewish writings. That sounds mundane enough, but he went on to point out that Jewish literary figures like Adam, Israel, Esau clearly were constructed as personifications of humanity (Adam) and the peoples of Israel and Edom. The same for Abraham, Ishmael, Judah, Joseph, and so forth. (Their very names advertised that they were representations of collectives of people.) In the same way, Jesus was delineated to represent all of humanity, both “Jews and gentiles”. Jewish literary tradition was partial to the idea of a people rising up in vindicated glory after having suffered unjustly and cruelly at the hands of others. Indeed, who would not find such a myth appealing? From this perspective Jesus was read as a figure whom all peoples, in particular anyone or any collective who deeply felt a sense of unjust victimhood, could aspire to relate. The Jesus figure was likewise created as a representative figure, one whom all peoples could relate to in some significant way.

Yet the literary artifice has led generations of readers to think of all of these characters as individual (and historical) persons. Such is the nature and power of their stories.

The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53

We see a very early debate over this same principle in Origen’s third-century writings against the Jewish critic of Christianity, Celsus. Celsus, Origen complains, does indeed claim just what Joseph Salvador wrote, that the Jewish writings cleverly wrote of whole nations through a literary individual. NC quotes the entire chapter 55 of Book 1 of Contra Celsum:

Now I remember that, on one occasion, at a disputation held with certain Jews, who were reckoned wise men, I quoted these prophecies; to which my Jewish opponent replied, that these predictions bore reference to the whole people, regarded as one individual, and as being in a state of dispersion and suffering, in order that many proselytes might be gained, on account of the dispersion of the Jews among numerous heathen nations. And in this way he explained the words, Your form shall be of no reputation among men; and then, They to whom no message was sent respecting him shall see; and the expression, A man under suffering. Many arguments were employed on that occasion during the discussion to prove that these predictions regarding one particular person were not rightly applied by them to the whole nation. And I asked to what character the expression would be appropriate, This man bears our sins, and suffers pain on our behalf; and this, But He was wounded for our sins, and bruised for our iniquities; and to whom the expression properly belonged, By His stripes were we healed. For it is manifest that it is they who had been sinners, and had been healed by the Saviour’s sufferings (whether belonging to the Jewish nation or converts from the Gentiles), who use such language in the writings of the prophet who foresaw these events, and who, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, applied these words to a person. But we seemed to press them hardest with the expression, Because of the iniquities of My people was He led away unto death. For if the people, according to them, are the subject of the prophecy, how is the man said to be led away to death because of the iniquities of the people of God, unless he be a different person from that people of God? And who is this person save Jesus Christ, by whose stripes they who believe in Him are healed, when He had spoiled the principalities and powers (that were over us), and had made a show of them openly on His cross? At another time we may explain the several parts of the prophecy, leaving none of them unexamined. But these matters have been treated at greater length, necessarily as I think, on account of the language of the Jew, as quoted in the work of Celsus.

To which NC replies (translated):

Fascinating discussion, which only forgets that, if “there is no reason to apply to the whole people these prophecies which target a single individual”, it is because we ignore the full range of the text, of the speech, of the make-as-if rhetoric, not to mention the grammatical vagueness of the Hebrew language, which allows one to pass from the plural to the singular as it pleases as soon as one intends to refer to the collective. What may seem like a strong objection (how can the personification of the people be brought to death by the iniquities of the people?) is that the midrash mentality is not appreciated: without concern for contradiction, personifications can be those of different applications and aspects in the people.

We have an example in the Garden of Eden where God tells Adam (singular) that he can eat fruit from every tree in the garden but then switches to a plural form when issuing the command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Daniel Boyarin

The flux between singular and collective and back again has been part of the interpretative apparatus of Jewish exegetes from the earliest days. With respect to the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 NC cites two scholars whose names are known to many of us, Daniel Boyarin and Charles Dodd.

Boyarin on Isaiah 53:

It has been generally assumed by modern folks that Jews have always given the passage a metaphorical reading, understanding the suffering servant to refer to the People of Israel, and that it was the Christians who changed and distorted its meaning to make it refer to Jesus. Quite to the contrary, we now know that many Jewish authorities, maybe even most, until nearly the modern period have read Isaiah 53 as being about the Messiah; until the last few centuries, the allegorical reading was a minority position. (152)

Dodd on the same and with an added note on the same singular-plural confusion with the Son of Man figure in Daniel:

Charles Harold Dodd

In the New Testament there is only one place where the Servant is unambiguously identified with Israel, Lk. i. 54. Elsewhere, even passages in which the original distinctly equates the Servant with Israel are directly applied to Christ (e.g. xlix. 3). Yet there are evidences that the corporate, or representative, character of the Servant-figure is not entirely out of view. Thus xliv. 1-2, which most emphatically declares Israel to be the Servant, is echoed in passages of the New Testament where his attributes, “the beloved,” “the chosen” are given to Christ; yet the promise of water to the thirsty (verse 3) is confirmed not to Christ but to His people, as the Spirit, even in the original, is promised to the “seed” of the Servant, and as in xliii. 1-5, xliv. 21-24 the assurances “I have redeemed thee,” and “I am with thee,” are made to Israel, the Servant, and fulfilled to the Church.

There is a certain parallelism here with the treatment of the “Son of Man” figure, which is in Daniel vii declared to be a personification of “the people of the saints of the Most High,” but in the New Testament is applied as a title of Christ, yet frequently in contexts where the collective or corporate aspects of the figure are clearly in view. We shall be confronted with similar phenomena in our next group of scriptures, taken from the Psalter. (96)

NC does not continue with Dodd’s discussion of this phenomenon in the Psalms (she is discussing the Isaiah 53 verse, after all) but I will quote two sentences. On Psalm 69, a psalm quoted by Paul and all four evangelists, Dodd writes, Continue reading “How Collective Messianic Figures Mutated into Jesus — continuing Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier”


2020-12-25

Once more — Paul’s Letter a Rewritten Scripture?

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by Neil Godfrey

Modern epiphany procession: St Josephs, Singapore, Good Friday 2009

This one is my own “find” (if it is indeed a real find; that’s up to you to decide). I begin with Paul’s reference to the veil of Moses. That’s the easy part. What we are looking for, however, is not scattered references to “Old Testament” passages but indications of lengthy passages that have been rewritten for a “New Covenant” context.

So we begin with Moses veil and Paul’s comparison of that with the blindness of the unsaved as well as the complementary comparison of both Moses and Christians taking on the glory of God.

What precedes Paul’s points about being changed into a glorious image is

  • Paul’s refusal to visit the Corinthians and instead sending them a letter that made them grieve
  • An appeal for mercy to the wrongdoer
  • The image of the church as a procession of a divine epiphany that promised life and death [many translators have described a prisoner in a Roman triumphal procession but we will see that that image is incomplete and misleading]
  • Comparison of letter and spirit: letter kills.
God passes before Moses, Mount Sinai, circa Pentecost, 1400 BC

What precedes Moses having a shining face is

  • God’s refusal to go with his people and their remorse
  • Moses appeals to God for mercy for the wrongdoers
  • God showing himself to Moses and making promises of both mercy and death
  • The ten commandments repeated: the cause of the death of 3000

What follows Paul’s point about being transformed into God’s glory is a discussion of

  • our earthly tabernacle and how we long to have it changed into a heavenly tabernacle, with tabernacle being a metaphor for body, of course.

What follows the description of Moses face shining with divine glory is

  • the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness.

That is:

2 Corinthians 2-5 Exodus 32-40
Paul’s refusal to visit the Corinthians and instead sending them a letter that made them grieve God’s refusal to go with his people and their remorse
An appeal for mercy to the wrongdoer Moses appeals to God for mercy for the wrongdoers
The image of the church as a procession of a divine epiphany that promised life and death God showing himself to Moses and making promises of both mercy and death
Not administering the letter which kills, spirit gives life Ten commandments engraved in stone by Moses
Christians transformed into glorious image of Christ Moses face transformed by and into God’s glory
Our earthly tabernacle and how we long to have it changed into a heavenly tabernacle The construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness

.

The details where the devils are. . . Continue reading “Once more — Paul’s Letter a Rewritten Scripture?”


2020-12-23

Paul’s Letters as Re-written Scripture

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by Neil Godfrey

Recall that a case can be made that the epistle to the Galatians, for all of the “raw emotion” that we read there where Paul accuses his readers of stupidity and orders them to stop and think whether they received Christ by faith or by works of the law, was not at all written in white heat by an indignant apostle but by a calm and methodical author who was imitating a passage in the book of Jeremiah. See

Well, a funny thing happened to me the other day as I was strolling through Jstor articles made available through the State Library of Queensland: I found another article making the same point, only this time in relation to 1 Corinthians 5-6. The author is Sean M. McDonough, professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Massachusetts. The article is “Competent to Judge: The Old Testament Connection Between 1 Corinthians 5 and 6” and was published in The Journal of Theological Studies in 2005.

Before setting out McDonough’s main points I should protect his integrity and warn you that his conclusion is very different from mine. McDonough thinks Paul was so immersed in meditations on the Old Testament writings that he shaped his way of addressing a contingent administrative issue with the Corinthian church by mentally structuring his message as a mirror of a passage in Deuteronomy.

Here is what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 5-6. I think you’ll agree that it certainly looks like a genuine instruction from an offended apostle addressed to a very specific church:

5.1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! 2 And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. 3 For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

6.1 Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. 8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

9 I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. 10 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.

12 For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? 13 But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.” [as per many Bible’s with marginal notes Paul is here quoting Deuteronomy 17:7]

Paul concludes by quoting the “cast out” passage (he uses a form of the same word found in the Septuagint) that we find in Deuteronomy’s instruction on how to respond to “abominations” in Israel’s midst — “which is clearly parallel to Paul’s discussion of removing from the church the man living with his mother-in-law.” The passage in Deuteronomy 17 has God telling his people how to respond to “abominations” in their midst.

McDonough acknowledges in an interesting footnote that the larger passage’s similarity to Deuteronomy 17 is not immediately noticeable:

The relevance of Deut. 17:1-6 is obscured in most treatments of I Corinthians 5, probably due to the fact that commentators feel its contents are adequately summarized in 17:7. My thanks to Professor Morna Hooker for emphasizing its significance here. Brian Rosner does note the significance of Deut. 17:2, 3 in his treatment of 1 Corinthians 5; see Rosner, Paul, Scripture, and Ethics: A Study of 1 Corinthians 5-7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), pp. 65, 69.

Sean McDonough was struck by something when he re-read Deuteronomy following the passage Paul cites (“cast out – exarate, ἐξάρατε -the evil person”), Deuteronomy 17:8 Continue reading “Paul’s Letters as Re-written Scripture”


2020-12-22

Jesus Christ Created as an Epitome of Old Testament Figures (2) — Charbonnel and Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

One more instance of Jesus being a re-construction of the great heroes of the Old Testament that Nanine Charbonnel offers us an antitype of Joshua. There’s a catch this time, though. I think the attempt unnecessarily goes too far. At least there is no explanation to justify the claim that the narrative structure of the gospels follows that found in the Book of Joshua. Yes, Jesus begins his ministry like Joshua coming through the Jordan; yes, Jesus does offer a rest as Joshua brought Israel to the promised land; yes, a Lazarus does die in John’s gospel as Eleazar dies in the Book of Joshua. . . but these details do not make a narrative structure. To compare the delivering of the beatitudes (blessings and curses) in the Sermon on the Mount one must strain to match that up with Joshua’s pronouncements of blessings and curses on Mounts Ebal and Gerizim. And to call upon the possibility of a Hebrew text behind Mark’s account of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law to note a series of puns related to Joshua’s sun standing still won’t persuade many readers. I can understand why this possibility was mentioned, however, since a primary theme of her thesis is that the gospels were created as Jewish midrash.

If we are looking for a structure that is common to at least the three synoptic gospels we do much better to look at Thomas Brodie’s and Adam Winn’s discussions of the Elijah-Elisha cycle.

More to the point for a comparison with the good shepherd Jesus is NC’s notice of Joshua’s appointment as a shepherd of his people. Thus Numbers 27:15-18

15 Then Moses spoke to the Lord, saying: 16 “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, 17 who may go out before them and go in before them, who may lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep which have no shepherd.”

18 And the Lord said to Moses: “Take Joshua the son of Nun with you, a man in whom is the Spirit . . . 

In keeping with the midrashic composition theme NC draws attention to Joshua being one to “go out” (ἐξελεύσεται in the LXX) before his people and to Matthew’s taking up the same verb (ἐξελθὼν) in 13:1

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake

But here the force of NC’s argument is lost when she says that Matthew is symbolically speaking of the end of time when the message goes to the gentiles. The only way I can see that her argument here can be salvaged is is the sea is the signifier of far-off peoples, of gentiles, as it certainly appears to be in the Gospel of Mark (Kelber’s Mark’s Story of Jesu.- link is to online copy of the book.) NC further extends the “going out” or “exodus” motif to the Gospel of John where Jesus can be said to leave his heavenly body and home to go to his physical people in a physical body.

Another possible bond between Joshua and Jesus is that Jesus professes to keep the least “jot” (yod) of the law while Joshua was faithful in transmitting the law of Moses. (There is more to discuss about the name of the saviour that is promised in a future chapter.)

Other Old Testament types can be found where Jesus is seen to transform them into “fulfilments” of higher ideals as the written words of Yahweh were believed to create fulfilments. But the most explicit figure that Jesus is made to embrace is that of the Messiah.

We’ll try to cover how Jesus embodies the Messianic figure in the next post in this series.


Charbonnel, Nanine. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs, 2017.


 


2020-12-20

The Death of John the Baptist — Sources and Less Obvious Contexts

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by Neil Godfrey

Here’s another contribution to our quest for the origins of John the Baptist as found in the synoptic gospels. Recent discussions have centred on the account found in Josephus — see

We have also seen Dennis MacDonald’s suggestion of a Homeric influence in the death of John the Baptist and in his wilderness setting.

So now it’s time to see how other texts, in particular the biblical narratives about Esther and Jezebel, shaped the Gospel accounts.

But first let me interrupt myself with this note: The idea of John the Baptist as an Elijah figure who has to come before the Messiah is not a staple of early Christian beliefs. The Gospels of Luke and John do not present John the Baptist as another Elijah. Rather, they both strongly indicate that they want readers to think of Jesus himself as the newly arrived Elijah. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist is made to explicitly declare he is not the Elijah to come. In that gospel Jesus himself has been interpreted as an Elijah figure, that is, both as the Elijah at his first coming and the conquering messiah when he comes in glory (even if that means from the time of his crucifixion and resurrection). I suspect that this Elijah motif being applied to Jesus in the fourth gospel is the reason the author moved the cleansing of the temple scene to the beginning of his ministry — to make more sense of the prophecy of Malachi that Elijah would come suddenly to the temple. For a detailed discussion of the Gospel of Luke’s Jesus as Elijah see Jesus the New Elijah.

So the Gospels of Mark and Matthew stand alone in the canon with their interpretation of John the Baptist as Elijah.

Gustave Moreau, L’apparition 1876

The Influence of the Book of Esther

The daughter of Herodias pleased (ἤρεσεν) Herod and he said,

Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you, up to half of my kingdom! (Mk 6:23)

Here is a widely acknowledged loan from Esther where the Persian king Ahasuerus promises Esther three times. In Esther 2:9 (LXX) we read that “the young girl pleased (ἤρεσεν)” the king who responded:

Then said the king unto her, What wilt thou, queen Esther? and what is thy request? it shall be even given thee to the half of the kingdom. (Esther 5:3; 5:6; 7:2)

Even the head on a platter is found in later versions of Esther:

It is interesting, moreover, that the late Esther Rabbah, perhaps reflecting earlier traditions, describes the head of the former queen being brought in to the king on a platter (4.9, 11) and is thus parallel to the gory conclusion of our story.

From the sefaria.org site:

“If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you (Esther 1:19)”: He said to him: “My lord king, you bring forth the word from your mouth and I will gather her head on a plate“. . . .

“The proposal was approved by the king and the ministers (Esther 1:21)”: He decreed and he brought her head on a plate. (Esther Rabbah 4:9, 11)

At this point we should ask why the evangelist calls Herod Antipas a king even though historically he was not a king but a tetrarch, “a ruler of a fourth part” of the divided kingdom of Herod the Great.

The title “ king” is technically inaccurate …, but its repeated usage here is probably not just a Markan mistake. It is, rather, an example of the evangelist’s irony, for it is prominent in a passage in which Herod is outwitted and manipulated by two women and hamstrung by his own oath and his fear of losing face before his courtiers (cf. J. Anderson, “Dancing Daughter,” 127). Throughout the passage, moreover, we see that this supposed “king” is not even in control of himself, much less of his subjects; he is, rather, overmastered by his emotions, which swing wildly from superstitious dread (6:14, 16) to awe, fascination, and confusion (6:20), to a sexual arousal that seems to border on insanity (6:22-23), to extreme depression (6:26). In this context his pretensions to royal authority (6:16, 27) appear almost farcical; Herod is one who merely appears to rule (cf. 10:42), whereas actually his strings are pulled by others. This ironic portrait of “King” Herod is Mark’s version of a common antityrannical theme, the germ of which is present in the Old Testament (e.g. Pharaoh, Ahasuerus in Esther, the king in Daniel) but that is more explicitly developed in the Greco-Roman sphere from Plato to the Cynics and Stoics: the tyrant is not a true king but a slave to his own passions (Plato Republic 9.573b-580a, 587b-e), and his claim to sovereignty is belied by his inability ׳ to enforce his will and avoid what he hates (Arrian, Discourses of Epictetus 1.19.2-3; cf. 1.24.15-18 and Schlier, “Eleutheros,” 493). (Marcus, 398 f. My bolded highlighting in all quotations)

(Incidentally, I think the same argument applies to Pilate in the mock “trial of Jesus”. The author is not attempting to exonerate Rome at the expense of the Jews but is deploring the failures of both, making an utter mockery of Roman power. See also: Mark’s and Matthew’s Sub Rosa Message in the Scene of Pilate and the Crowd by Andrew Simmons; or at https://www.jstor.org/stable/23488265)

So Herod and Ahasuerus match each other.

Yet doubts must arise. How can a tale so totally unlike the one we read in the Gospel of Mark come to the author’s mind as source material? How can the virtuous Esther possibly be used for an account of the seductive dancer?

Maurice Mergui offers an answer to that question in Comprendre Les Origines Du Christianisme: De L’eschatologie Juive Au Midrash Chrétien.

A Jezebel-Esther syzygy Continue reading “The Death of John the Baptist — Sources and Less Obvious Contexts”


2020-12-18

Once more on Jesus as a Son of Adam

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by Neil Godfrey

Postscript to The Gospel of Mark’s Jesus as the New Adam . . . .

In Hebrews 2:5-8 we read

5 It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. 6 But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
the son of man that you care for him?
7 You made him a little lower than the angels;
you crowned him with glory and honor
8 and put everything under his feet.”

In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. 9 But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Erich Gräßer (Gräßer was also prominent activist for animal rights … see https://www.stiftung-tierschutzverein.de/religion — a detail that makes me like him rightaway.)

The theme of the opening chapters of Hebrews is that Jesus is like us, like humanity, in every way. One way in which he is like us is his designation as a “son of man”, as we all are.

The author of this book of Hebrews has not taken the Son of Man as a title from Daniel 7 (as the Synoptic gospels do) but from Psalm 8. Jesus is a Son of Man in the same sense that we are all from Adam, but at the same time, Jesus is “the” Son of Man who has come to restore Adam’s originally intended place as ruler of all.

We can see two concepts of Son of Man in the early Christian writings: one, common to the canonical gospels derives from Daniel 7; the other takes the concept of Son of Man not as a title as in Daniel, but as a description of Jesus as a son of Adam.

Recall in the previous post that Adam was believed to be destined to rule all, including the angels. That’s the idea of a son of man in Hebrews where we read the quotation from Psalm 8 that likewise infers Adam (and mankind) has been destined to rule angels.

In Hebrews we read some kind of explanation for why Adam’s sons and daughters have not been restored yet. Jesus, the new Adam, has been crowned in glory and honour. The time is “at the door” for the cosmos to be put at our feet.

Thinking back on that previous post, it appears that in the Gospel of Mark we find the two concepts of Son of Man — the titular one of Daniel 7 and the Adamic one of Hebrews (and Paul) — united in Jesus.

It can be argued that Hebrews emphasizes the “historicity” of Jesus in order to drive home the “fact” that he was a flesh and blood descendant from Adam like us. Be that as it may, I think the point of the emphasis is primarily a theological one. It is necessary theologically for Jesus to have been a “son of man”.

The above thought (except for the last two sentences) derives entirely from


2020-12-17

The Gospel of Mark’s Jesus as the New Adam

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by Neil Godfrey

When we began Nanine Charbonnel’s [NC] discussion of the various Old Testament figures being epitomized in Jesus we had only two references to Adam, both in Paul’s writings (Rom 5:17-19 and 1 Cor 15:45-49). (The same post also introduced NC background discussions on the Adam figure per Paul Ricoeur and Philo of Alexandria.) A commenter rightfully asked if those citations could be used as evidence of a more general idea among early Christians. That was when I recalled discussions about the Gospel of Mark’s portrayal of Jesus as a New Adam in the wilderness “with the wild beasts and angels ministering to him”. Not everyone is convinced that that wilderness image of Jesus in Mark’s gospel was intended as a pointer to Jesus being a New Adam, so in this post I will share more detailed discussion on Adam typology throughout the Gospel of Mark.

But first, here is an interesting (and related) perspective on John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark:

Joseph and Asenath 16:8, 14 The bees of the Paradise of Delight [i.e. the Garden of Eden (cp. the LXX at e.g. Gen iii.23 and Ezek. xxxi.9) have made this honey, and the angels of God eat of it, and no one who eats of it shall ever die. . . . And all the bees flew in circles round Aseneth, from her feet right up to her head; and yet more bees, as big as queens, settled on Aseneth’s lips. 

Even apart from these Elijan connections, the description of John the Baptist has a strongly eschatological flavor. His garment of camel hair, his leather belt, and his food of wild honey lend him a certain primal, back-to-the-earth quality, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden narrative and Jewish elaborations thereof. The hair garment and leather belt, for example, recall Gen 3:21 LXX, in which God clothes Adam and Eve with leather tunics (chitōnas dermatinous), and the honey is reminiscent of Joseph and Asenath 16:14(8), where Aseneth eats a honeycomb made by the bees of the Garden of Eden; several later Jewish legends, moreover, describe a river of honey in Eden (see Ginzberg, 5.29 n. 79). These Edenic features anticipate Mark 1:13, where Jesus is with the wild animals in the wilderness, a scene that also recalls Eden (cf. Drury, “Mark 1.1-15,” 31). In both passages the reminiscence of Eden looks forward to the eschaton, since the end-time will be, in a sense, a return to paradise, when the “natural” world was all that existed. Even some non-Jewish readers might have picked up this hint; Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue 30, for example, mentions miraculous provision of honey as a feature of the coming Golden Age. (Marcus, 1, 157)

Following up the suggestions of Adam intertextuality in the Gospel of Mark has led to an overabundance of resources. Many posts could be written to cover all of the hints and nuances. Instead, I follow primarily key points in the commentary by Joel Marcus and some of his references.

Joel Marcus explains why Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness is based primarily on Adam typology:

NOTE on “were serving”: Gk diëkonoun. On its most concrete level, diakonein describes the waiter’s task of supplying someone with food and drink, though the word then comes to mean “to serve” generally and becomes particularly important in this transferred sense in early Christianity . . . . In our passage, however, the concrete meaning is to be preferred; it makes sense in the context, corresponds to 1:31, and coheres with the Adamic typology that can be observed throughout the narrative, since a Jewish legend depicts “ministering angels” . . . preparing food and drink for Adam in Eden (b. Sanh. 59b). Diakonein can also, like Heb ‘bd, mean “worship” (see e.g. Josephus Ant. 7.365), and this may be a secondary nuance in our passage, in view of the legend in which Adam is worshiped by angels . . .

After being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, Jesus spends forty days there—like Elijah, who was also sustained by an angel’s provision of food (1 Kgs 19:5-8; cf. 1 Kgs 17:5-6). But the primary biblical model for our passage’s portrait of Jesus is not Elijah but Adam (cf. Mahnke, Versuchungsgeschichte, 28-38, and Mell, “Jesu Taufe”). Adam was tested by God’s adversary, the snake, who in later Jewish interpretation became Satan (see e.g. Apoc. Mos. 17:4). Adam, moreover, lived at peace with the wild animals before the Fall (Gen 2:19-20), and according to a Jewish legend, his meals were catered by angels—catering being one of the nuances of diêkonoun (“were serving”) in 1:13 (see the NOTE on “were serving” in 1:13). The motif of forty days also appears in an influential pseudepigraphal account of the Fall (Adam and Eve 6). In this same account, which probably reflects a widespread tradition (see G. Anderson, “Exaltation”), Adam is raised by God to a preeminent position, opposed out of jealousy by Satan, and worshipped by the other angels (Adam and Eve 12-15). Similarly, in Mark 1:9-13 Jesus is proclaimed or even installed as God’s son, combated by Satan, and worshiped by angels, if diêkonoun is given one of its alternate meanings (see the NOTE on “were serving” in 1:13). This interpretation has the advantages of linking our passage with the previous one and of providing a motivation for Satan’s hostility to Jesus, namely jealousy. And it fits in with the Markan prologue’s general emphasis on new creation . . .  (Marcus, 1, 169)

Adam and Eve, 4 (angel food)

Walking about, they searched for many days but did not find anything like they had in paradise. They only found what animals eat. Adam said to Eve: “The Lord gave these things to animals and beasts to eat. Ours, however was the angelic food.

Adam and Eve, 6 (forty days fasting)

Adam said to Eve: “. . . I will do forty days of fasting. You, however, arise and go to the Tigris River and take a stone and stand upon it in the water up to your neck in the depth of the river. Let not a word go forth from your mouth since we are unworthy to ask of the Lord for our lips are unclean from the illicit and forbidden tree. Stand in the water of the river for thirty-seven days. I however, will do forty days in the water of the Jordan. Perhaps the Lord will have mercy on us.”

Adam and Eve, 12-15 (Satan tests; angels worship)

Groaning, the Devil said: “O Adam, all my enmity, jealousy, and resentment is towards you, since on account of you I was expelled and alienated from my glory, which I had in heaven in the midst of the angels. On account of you I was cast out upon the earth.”

Adam answered: “What have I done to you? . . . 

The Devil answered: “Adam what are you saying to me? On account of you I was cast out from heaven. When you were formed, I was cast out from the face of God and was sent forth from the company of the angels. When God blew into you the breath of life and your countenance and likeness were made in the image of God . . . .

Having gone forth Michael called all the angels saying: ‘Worship the image of the Lord God, just as the Lord God has commanded.’ Michael himself worshipped first then he called me and said: ‘Worship the image of God Jehovah.’ I answered: ‘I do not have it within me to worship Adam.’ When Michael compelled me to worship, I said to him: ‘Why do you compel me? I will not worship him who is lower and posterior to me. I am prior to that creature. Before he was made, I had already been made. He ought to worship me.’

Hearing this, other angels who were under me were unwilling to worship him.

Michael said: ‘Worship the image of God. If you do not worship, the Lord God will grow angry with you.’
I said: ‘If he grows angry with me, I will place my seat above the stars of heaven and I will be like the Most High.’

The Dove

Even the dove is an image from the beginning of creation, according to Philo. Philo interpreted the two doves offered as a sacrifice by Abraham (Gen 15) as symbols of wisdom: one was God’s wisdom, the other was the image of God’s wisdom planted in Adam and humanity, so in one sense both representing the one wisdom. Wisdom, we know from the early Jewish writings (Proverbs 8; Wisdom 7), was present at the beginning of creation. The dove may be another sign that the Gospel of Mark opens with the image of Jesus as the beginning of a new creation.

Wild beasts

The Testament of Naphtali 2:26

If ye work that which is good, my children, both men and angels shall bless you; and God shall be glorified among the Gentiles through you, and the devil shall flee from you, and the wild beasts shall fear you, and the Lord shall love you, and the angels shall cleave to you, and the Lord shall love you, and the angels shall cleave to you.

Not forgetting, of course, the creation account where God made the animals and brought them to Adam.

Preaching the Kingdom of God  Continue reading “The Gospel of Mark’s Jesus as the New Adam”


2020-12-11

Jesus Christ Created as an Epitome of Old Testament Figures (1) — Charbonnel and Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

We now continue our exploration of Nanine Charbonnel’s case for Jesus Christ being a literary-theological creation using the techniques of a “midrashic” re-reading and interpretation of Jewish Scriptures. The full series is archived at https://vridar.org/tag/charbonnel-jesus-christ-sublime-figure-de-papier/

Double Personification

The gospel figure of Jesus Christ was created as a “double personification”:

  • he was created as a personification of a people — both the Jewish people and ultimately as a “new people of God”. Nanine Charbonnel [NC] calls this “horizontal personification”. This is why we so readily see in the Jesus character aspects of the ideal King, the Prophet, the Priest, the Suffering Servant, the Son of Man, the Messiah, who as a new Adam creates in himself one new people

at the same time,

  • he was created as a personification of the fundamentals of the Jewish religion and its spiritual and heavenly and eternal focus — he is the embodiment of God and God’s presence with his people. As such, he embodies the Temple, the Tabernacle, the Glory and Presence, Glory (Shekinah) of God, the Word of God, the Law, the Name of God through which he saves.

The authors of the gospels were familiar with the Jewish literary technique of creating individual characters to represent collective ethnic groups. Recall, for example, the creation of the Jacob-Esau story which begins with the explanation that the two boys represent “two nations” (Gen 25:23). Recent posts have set out NC’s illustration of this technique with lesser characters. By creating the gospel Jesus figure they were seeking to create a new person who represented both a new people of God and the God who came to dwell with them. NC details the way Jesus was drawn to embody the divine persons and entities. She calls this “vertical personification”. This post and those immediately succeeding it look at how the authors have created a “horizontal” personification of a “new man”.

The New Adam

Before the gospels were penned Christians thought of Jesus as a “new Adam”. Thus Paul in 1 Cor 15:45-49

The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. . . .

See also Rom 5:17-18.

This second Adam is created in the same way the first Adam was — as a symbol or representative of mankind. Adam is a literary figure, a single character, but one with whom all of humanity are meant to identify. NC quoted from Paul Ricoeur‘s discussion of the Adam myth:

In Adam we are one and all; the mythical figure of the first man provides a focal point at the beginning of history for man’s unity-in-multiplicity. (244)

Jewish elites have addressed the idea of Adam in Genesis. NC mentions Philo as an example. Philo determined that the Adam created in God’s image was the perfect, heavenly Adam; while the Adam of dust was the corruptible Adam who needed laws to control him from his base tendencies. We will see that the heavenly Adam is also the son of God.

It is “Yahweh who saves” (the Hebrew meaning of the name Jesus) who was imagined as the “new Adam”, the embodiment of (redeemed) humanity.

Another instance not mentioned by NC, but one addressed by many scholars commenting on the Gospel of Mark, is the apparent depiction of Jesus as the New Adam cum Messianic figure in the wilderness where he is “with the wild animals”.

and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. (Mark 1:13)

The gospel begins with an echo of the beginning of Genesis (“the beginning of the gospel”) and after the parting of heavens (as per the parting of the waters “at the creation of the cosmos”– Allison, New Moses 200, Thompson, Mythic Past 18 ff, Spong, Liberating the Gospels, 33 ff) and leads to Jesus being tempted by Satan, with the animals and angels, as was Adam in Genesis and Jewish writings of the Second Temple era elaborating on the Adam story. Where Adam failed in his temptation, Jesus succeeded; where Adam once had but then lost his companionship and peace with wild animals Jesus restored harmony with them; where the angels refused to serve Adam they did serve Jesus. Jewish apocrypha also said angels fed Adam for a time. Other scholars prefer to interpret the passage as a proleptic fulfilment of harmony with animals by Isaiah’s messiah; some accept both interpretations together. I will post about this interpretation of Mark 1:13 with reference to Richard Bauckham, Ulrich Mell, Joel Marcus, C.S. Mann, Francis Maloney, John Donahue and Daniel Harrington in a future post.)

We saw in a previous post that the place of Christ’s crucifixion was also associated with the place of Adam’s burial. This likelihood is suggestive of Jesus being understood as the new life-giving Adam.

The New Moses

Since the twelve disciples are symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jesus is the new Moses. The famous transfiguration scene clearly indicates that Jesus is the embodiment of the law represented by Moses and the prophets represented by Elijah. Moses was made radiant as was Jesus; both were covered with the cloud of God’s glory; both were ordained by God to be the shepherds and teachers of the twelve tribes/disciples; both perform miraculous signs; and so forth and so forth. NC copies forty points that some Catholic exegetes have seen that demonstrate Jesus as the new Moses:

NC admits that not all of the 40 points listed there are unquestionable. One that springs to notice for me is the point that Jesus left a higher royal court to join his lowly people — as Moses left Pharaoh’s court to join his people — is taken from Philippians 2:5-7; yet this detail is not found in the context of a Moses comparison. There are, nonetheless, reputable scholarly works that make the case for the Gospel of Matthew in particular deliberately building up Jesus on the Moses template. One of the more notable works is The New Moses: A Matthean Typology by Dale C. Allison Jr. I looked at one of Allison’s discussions in the post Additional Sauces for the Feedings of 5000 and 4000. NC does not mention Allison’s book so this is my addition to her discussion and what I think is a more trenchantly argued replacement than the 40 point list. Allison states in his concluding chapter,S

The Moses typology, especially strong in the infancy narrative and the [Sermon on the Mount], definitely shapes all of Matthew 1-7. It is also definitely present in the great thanksgiving of 11:25-30, in the narrative of the transfiguration (17:1-9), and in the concluding verses, 28:16-20.1 am further inclined, but with less faith, to find the typology in the feeding stories (14:13-22; 15:29-39), the entry into Jerusalem (21:1-17), and the last supper (26:17-25). But proposals concerning the missionary discourse, the requests for a sign (12:38; 16:1), the woes of chapter 23, the eschatological discourse, and the crucifixion (27:45-53) are to be rejected or entertained as nothing more than possibilities.

An interesting observation emerges from the foregoing conclusions: the passages in which Moses’ tacit presence is the strongest display an order which mirrors the Pentateuch:

Matthew The Pentateuch
1-2 Exod. 1:1-2:10 infancy narrative
3:13-17 Exod. 14:10-31 crossing of water
4:1-11 Exod. 16:1-17:7 wilderness temptation
5-7 Exod. 19:1-23:33 mountain of lawgiving
11:25-30 Exod. 33:1-23 reciprocal knowledge of God
17:1-9 Exod. 34:29-35 transfiguration
28:16-20 Deut. 31:7-9
Josh. 1:1-9
commissioning of successor

(Allison, 268)

The Gospel of Matthew is not the only one where Jesus is portrayed as a new Moses. Compare this snippet from another post about a year ago, OT Sources for the Gospel of Mark, chapters 2 and 3

Mark 3:7-10

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. For he had healed many . . . .

Exodus 12:37-38; 15:22-26
The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and childrenMany other people went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds. . . . Then Moses led Israel . . . He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”
Mark 3:13-19

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Exodus 19:1-2, 17

On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt . . . and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain. . . .

Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.

Exodus 24:1, 4, 8-10

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. . . .

He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. . . .

Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel.

Many more Moses imitations are cited throughout Isaiah’s New Exodus by Rikki E. Watts. One of many examples in which Watts is outlining the work of another scholar,

Although at first sight Mark appears to make little use of the OT, M. D. Hooker recognises that this is largely because of his distinctive approach. Not only is the opening quotation significant, ‘his story is good news precisely because it is the fulfilment of Scripture‘, but ‘Jesus’ words and activities constantly echo OT scenes and language, until what is “written” of the Son of Man (9:12; 10:21) is finally fulfilled’ (p. 220). . . . 

In the conflict over the Pharisees’ and scribes’ traditions, Mark 7:1-23 shows that while Jesus upholds the Law (vv. 1-13; cf. Nu 30:2; Dt 23:21-23) his authority is even greater than that of the Law (vv. 14-23). The same is borne out in examinations of 12:18ff and 28-34 (p. 224), and several Pentateuchal allusions (2:1-10; 2:23 – 3:6; cf. 1:44). Three other allusions recalling incidents in Moses’ life serve likewise to demonstrate that Jesus is either Moses’ successor (6:34, cf. Nu 27:17) or his superior (9:2-13; cf. Ex 24:15f; Dt 18:15), while 9:38-40 (cf. Nu 11:26-29) shows Jesus acting as did Moses.

(Watts, 24 f)

Scholarly Resistance to Comparisons

Continue reading “Jesus Christ Created as an Epitome of Old Testament Figures (1) — Charbonnel and Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier”


2020-12-10

Another Pointer Towards a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark?

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by Neil Godfrey

Back in August this year, I introduced a hypothesis that what we read in Josephus’s Antiquities about John “the Baptist” is actually a misplaced episode about the John Hyrcanus II. (See the relevant section linked here in the discussion of the festschrift for Thomas L. Thompson, Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson.) I won’t go into the details of Doudna’s argument yet so check the summary to get the context for this post.

The point here is that if Doudna’s idea is correct then the gospel authors drew their template for John the Baptist from the writings of Josephus in the early 90s. There would be no reason to justify any other source; there was no oral tradition or historical person or event to draw upon — nothing but a literary confusion stands alone as the source.

Now why would the first evangelist to write a gospel (we’ll call him Mark) introduce a story about Jesus with an Elijah-like figure baptizing “all of Judea and Jerusalem” in the Jordan river?

By the way, I stress that Mark does not say “some” of the people of Judea and Jerusalem but he speaks of the whole population being baptized and Matthew follows him here. It is easy to dismiss this phrase as an exaggeration but why would our evangelists exaggerate to such an astonishing extent? Why would they begin the ministry of Jesus with a claim that Judea itself was baptized by John? If we try to imagine the evangelists putting a hyperbolic spin on “historical memories” then we have to wonder why they could not see that they somewhat overdid it and thereby undermined their credibility. Or — there is another explanation…. One of the oldest critics to spell out this alternative was David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century. He wrote:

The baptism of John could scarcely have been derived from the baptism of proselytes, for this rite was unquestionably posterior to the rise of Christianity. It was more analagous to the religious lustrations in practice amongst the Jews, especially the Essenes, and was apparently founded chiefly on certain expressions used by several of the prophets in a figurative sense, but afterwards understood literally.

* By “source”, I mean to exclude the notion that the evangelists used the Jewish Scriptures merely to add a bit of scriptural colouring to what were ultimately historical memories or traditions about Jesus. I mean the narrative described allusively to the Scriptures was itself inspired by the Scriptures. Unlike other historical accounts where historical figures are given mythical overlays, there is nothing left of the figure of Jesus once we remove those scriptural overlays. Alexander the Great and Hadrian may have been compared with Dionysus and Heracles, and Socrates may even have emulated Achilles in one sense, but remove those mythical images and we still have lots of the flesh of the historical persons visible to us. That’s not the case when we remove the myth from Jesus.

Ah yes, we return once more to the Jewish Scriptures being the source* of the gospels. So what are those “certain expressions used by several of the prophets”?

According to these expressions, God requires from the Israelitish people, as a condition of their restoration to his favour, a washing and purification from their iniquity, and he promises that he will himself cleanse them with water (Isaiah i. 16, Ez. xxxvi. 25, comp. Jer. ii. 22).

For those too rushed or lazy to click on the references here they are on a platter:

Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.

Finally,

Add to this the Jewish notion that the Messiah would not appear with his kingdom until the Israelites repented,9 and we have the combination necessary for the belief that an ablution, symbolical of conversion and forgiveness of sins, must precede the advent of the Messiah.

9 Sanhedr. f. xcvii. 2 : R. Elieser dixit : si Israélite pænitentiam agunt, tunc per Croeiem liberantur ; sin vero, non liberantur. Schöttgen, horæ, 2, p. 780 ff.

(Strauss, Life of Jesus, Pt 2, ch2, §45)

So we can imagine our first evangelist thinking:

I need to begin by having Israel repent so the Messiah can come — as we understand from our holy books. The Jordan River seems like a logical place to start. That’s where Joshua renewed the covenant with Israel. But how to get them all assembled there? And we need Elijah to be the herald of the Messiah at the same time, as per Malachi. . . . Hey, what was that in Josephus about John the Immerser? … Ah yes, perfect… I’ll use him. He gets arrested and sent to prison, and that’s something I can work with, too. And being a ritual baptizer, how convenient that that fits right in with the conversion of the nation being a washing or sprinkling in the prophets. Right…. here we go, clothing our John with Elijah’s garb and having him represent the “OT”…

And so we have it: all the Jews repent by going out to a John who is redescribed as Elijah and are baptized in the Jordan.

Once that “little detail” is out of the way, the journey of Jesus begins. Of course, the repentance of his people preceding his coming is soon forgotten as demons come in and Jesus has to contend with unbelievers, enemies, and so forth. But many do accept him even if they don’t fully understand what he’s all about till after the resurrection.

Is it likely, though, that Josephus could have been so “sloppy” as to misplace a story about John Hyrcanus so that later readers interpreted his John through their knowledge of the gospels? Recall certain observations I noted in Once more on Josephus, and questions arising . . . .

It is an uncomfortable fact for the more ambitious varieties of source criticism that Josephus has the authorial habit of repeating and contradicting himself, and of varying his terminology. These oddities call for analysis, but they may result from a variety of causes (e.g., sloppiness, rhetorical artifice, multiple editions, copyist’s interventions, and yes, sources);. . . (112).

and

Many scholars . . . argue that Josephus uses one or more assistants (συνεργοί), or if not assistants then sources, for this section of the Antiquitates.

One can imagine arguments breaking out from time to time in the editorial room.

The Date of Mark?

Continue reading “Another Pointer Towards a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark?”


2020-12-08

Pit Stop in the Nanine Charbonnel Posts on the Literary Construction of Jesus Christ

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by Neil Godfrey

We are now about to enter the part of Nanine Charbonnel’s account of how Jesus was “incarnated” as a “god-man” in the canonical gospels. Let’s recap what we have covered so far.

All of the posts in this series are collated in reverse chronological order at Charbonnel: Jesus Christ sublime figure de papier

The earliest posts covered Jewish practices of writing and interpreting texts that are alien to us today. We saw how numerical values of words could give special meanings to words. We saw how similar sounds, assonance and alliteration, could link quite different words to create a new conceptual relationship between them. We saw how certain narrative sequences or images could take on renewed meanings as they were repeated with adaptations in new stories. And so forth.

Charbonnel then sought to demonstrate that the gospels were written as “midrashic” fulfilments of Jewish Scriptures and other writings and legends or sayings of the Second Temple era. (Midrashic techniques addressed in the first section of the book were frequently shown to be the source of the gospel narrative.) The intention of my recent tables across seven posts was to set out Charbonnel’s evidence demonstrating the reasonableness of the view that the evangelists were constructing narratives to make them “fit” or “work out” the “prophecies” or (I am adding this part) “past situations that called out for redress and were therefore interpreted as implicit prophecies”.

Tables setting out in detail gospel “fulfilments” of Jewish Scripture and other writings: Table 1Table 2; Table 3; Table 4; Table 5; Table 6; Table 7.

“Fulfilled scripture” is most simply explained in John Dominic Crossan words:

What we have now in those detailed passion accounts is not history remembered but prophecy historicized. (Crossan, Jesus, 145. Crossan himself did not dispute the historicity of Jesus. The sentence quoted here was specifically referring the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, death and burial. )

Charbonnel’s tables would persuade us that Crossan’s words apply to the entirety of the gospel narratives and not only the Passion scenes.

In my series of posts I began discussing the symbolic meanings of several of the key characters in the gospels prematurely. To keep in line with Charbonnel’s discussion the seven tables should precede those posts about symbolic characters.

In brief, the sequence so far:

Explanation of the various midrashic techniques of composition and interpretation.

Demonstration that the gospels were written “midrashically” as “fulfilment of Jewish writings.

Demonstration that the gospels were written with characters constructed as symbols, often symbols for collectives of people (e.g. Jews, gentiles). The ultimate character “midrashically” constructed as a symbolic figure was Jesus himself.

In preparation for the detailed discussion of how Jesus was so constructed, Charbonnel opened the chapter by pointing to some of the other figures in the gospels, showing us how they, too, were symbolic and represented various groups of persons.

So in preparation for the next part of this discussion about Jesus you might like to skim over these posts once again:

The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels: Personifications of Jews and Gentiles

Zechariah and Elizabeth

Mary and Martha

The Hemorrhaging Woman and Daughter of Jairus

The Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well

Mary Magdalene

 

The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels #2: John the Baptist and the Twelve Disciples

John the Baptist

“John” and Peter race to the tomb

The Twelve Apostles: the twelve tribes of Israel

In the same post there are discussions of the meanings of names, the multiplicity of the same names, the various kinds of doublets.

 

Symbolic Characters #3: Mary, Personification of the Jewish People, “Re-Virgined”

Mary and the Cana Wedding

Virgin Mothers of Moses and Jesus

Mary, the new Body, the Mystical Body

 

So with all of that now outlined I am ready to post about the “literary incarnation” of the central character of the gospels.

In the meantime, I’ve been catching up on some wider reading of certain French works often referenced by Nanine Charbonnel. They are also most interesting, even challenging, and I still trying to digest much of them. It will take me some time before I know enough and think through enough to take a stance for or against their views, what modifications I would want, etc. Before I reach that stage I am still enjoying a fascinating journey of discoveries. The most recent ones are an elaboration on the “midrashic” construction of the Paul figure, not only the Paul of Acts but also the Paul of the epistles. It is all giving me a slowly deepening understanding of where Charbonnel herself is coming from and a better appreciation for her arguments.


Charbonnel, Nanine. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs, 2017.


 


2020-12-06

“Another Mythicist Discussion” Revisited

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by Neil Godfrey

Responses to some points made in a larger argument for the historicity of Jesus, Another Jesus Mythicism Discussion (I posted then soon deleted much of what follows about three weeks ago. My initial post was couched in a misunderstanding about the background to the original post.) I did return to the original site to continue discussion there but when I saw that commenters there are entitled to use insults on the apparent condition that they somehow “justify” them, I decided to have nothing to do with any discussion there.

Josephus and Tacitus say

So here we go. I link to posts where I have set out more detailed arguments for those interested in following up a particular thread:

Josephus tells us that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed, . . .

Tacitus tells us that Christianity was founded by someone called Christus who started a movement in Judea and was executed by Pilate.

In a very loose way of speaking these statements are true. We do read those statements in our widely published texts of Josephus and Tacitus. However, each one is justified in the scholarly literature of which I am aware only by special pleading. Even though everything we know about ancient copying of texts and manuscript transmission warns us against being too ready to accept their contents at face value, scholars with a particular interest in arguing for the historicity of Jesus sometimes dismiss the serious arguments against the authenticity of key contents relating to Christianity. Often we read among works arguing for the historicity of Jesus that the reason Josephus did not mention “messiahs” of his day was that he did not want to upset his Roman audience who supposedly had sore memories of fighting a war supposedly inspired by Jewish messianism. Yet when it comes to finding the word for “messiah” (“Christ”) in Josephus relating to Jesus, suddenly there is no problem with Josephus breaking his supposed rule about not mentioning the word. That one place the word Christ appears is universally agreed to have been a Christian interpolation, and the second place it is clearly seen to be part of very awkward syntax, does not deter the “believers”. Contrary to what we would expect to find in the record if Josephus had said there was a Jesus known as the Christ “historicists” insist that Josephus must have said something like that anyway. That the second occurrence of the word — that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed — conforms to everything the manuals of textual criticism tell us about scribal glosses makes no difference. Suddenly the instructions in such standard texts are forgotten.

As for the Tacitus reference, see The Myth of Nero’s Persecution of Christians

Contortions to Hide a Birth in Nazareth?

Here is another point commonly used to argue for some historicity behind the gospels:

Every so often, there’s something in the gospels that they seemto be trying hard to gloss over, or that contradicts what they’re trying to tell us.

Example: It was clearly important to both Matthew and Luke to convince us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as both of them go to the trouble of making up complicated and clearly fictitious story explaining why, even though Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he was actually born in Bethlehem. So… why do they put Nazareth in the story at all?

The first sentence is actually a conclusion that arises from circular reasoning. An interpretation is imposed on selected passages in the gospels and those sections that doe not fit are interpreted as a problem for the evangelist, not for the modern interpreter. How does the scholar know “what the evangelist is trying to tell us”? By setting aside a passage that they believe does not fit their theory. That is, by selecting only those details in the gospel that support the scholar’s theory and declaring the left-over bits as problems — not for the scholar — but for the evangelist.

But we know from countless instances in the ancient records, including the gospels, that if an author found something “embarrassing” or that did not fit a theological agenda, then the solution was simple: leave it out — no matter how well known it was. A classic instance of that is in the Gospel of John. That fourth gospel does not admit or hint that John baptized Jesus. Yet two other gospels clearly said he did; and a third hinted at it, omitting only that it was John himself who did the baptizing of Jesus.

The argument is sometimes called an appeal to the “criterion of embarrassment”. Yet the argument here assumes the historicity of Jesus as its premise. Why is a detail in the gospels a supposed embarrassment to the evangelist? Because we assume the evangelist is writing about not only a historical Jesus but about a Jesus who was also born at Nazareth, and that everyone knew this (even though Nazareth was supposedly so insignificant it would not be widely known at all), and so forth.

But if we make no assumptions at all about the gospel’s narrative having derived ultimately from historical events, then we have a perfectly seamless story with the Bethlehem-Nazareth scenarios posing no difficulties — for either the evangelist or modern reader — at all. It is well known that the title given Jesus of “Nazarene” or “Nazorean” does not derive from the place name of Nazareth (that would mean Jesus was known as “Jesus the Nazarethite”) but was related to an early name for a Christian sect. It is also evident that in the Gospel of Matthew we read a very tortured justification for linking this title to the town of Nazareth. The simplest explanation for the first Bethlehem-Nazareth story is that an evangelist was re-writing the history of the name of the sect.

There are other reasons for questioning whether a historical person of any status would ever have been known as “So-and-so of Nazareth”. There would be no point of saying someone was from a place so insignificant few would ever have heard of. Besides, does anyone know of any other case where a religious leader is known by some nondescript suburb or rural town? No, they are known by some label that identifies their teaching or sect. Furthermore, those who have taken the trouble to read either of Rene Salm’s book on the scholarly literature about the archaeology of Nazareth knows that there are good grounds for thinking that Nazareth was not repopulated in Roman times until the latter half of the first century. (Tim O’Neill’s objections are careless misrepresentations).

Even IF Jesus had been known by a reference to a place that most people had never heard of it makes absolutely no sense that his followers would be called by the same epithet. Yet we know that in some quarters early Christians were called “Nazarenes” or “Nazirs”. (I understand the Muslim culture still calls them by such a term.)

Why would anyone….!

Here is a clutch of the more common claims made for the historicity of Jesus — expressed as rhetorical questions:

Why would anyone invent a leader who was a crucified criminal and by all appearances a dismal failure at his mission, when that was so obviously going to be the exact opposite of a selling point? Why, given that the writers clearly wanted to put as much blame as possible on the Jews for Jesus’s death and to gloss over the Romans’ role in it as much as possible, did they not just write the story to portray Jesus as executed by the Jews rather than the Romans? Why, when the writers were painting Jesus as the enemy of the Pharisees, did they cite him as using teachings (such as his teachings on Sabbath healings) that we now know were in fact Pharisee teachings  as since recorded in the Talmud? Why did they include thee mbarrassing detail about Jesus being unable to pull off much in the way of miracles when he visited his hometown?

Some regular Vridar readers will be familiar with the following warning:

I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea p. 178)

Rhetorical questions are too often substitutes for reasoned conclusions. They can convey the message, “My conclusion is surely so obvious that it needs no further justification.”

If one is not familiar with the breadth of scholarly literature on the questions raised then one might well feel that “the conclusions are obvious”. No contrary argument would be reasonable, it would seem. Continue reading ““Another Mythicist Discussion” Revisited”


2020-12-05

Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #7 (conclusion)

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by Neil Godfrey

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With this post I conclude setting out Nanine Charbonnel’s tables associating the gospels with Jewish Scriptures and other Jewish writings. With this section completed I am free to move on to discuss the remainder of her book, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier.

The value of tables like these comes more from preparing them — or returning to them from time to time to take them in point by point — than a quick glance at them. One is compelled to ask about the intellectual world of the evangelists. One is brought into the mysterious world of what the authors read and spoke about, how they thought about what they read, what flashes of insight were sparked by their conversations all before anything was put into writing. Then by what creative process did each evangelist weave anew another variant of a story about a figure who represented a new Israel.

In the table below I have once again made a few edits to Charbonnel’s original. For one thing, not a few of the biblical references in French do not match those in English. All of these have been revised to their English references. A few times I was not sure what a reference or source meant so I have added a question mark to each of those places. (Example, [RG] — is this a reference to Rene Girard? If so, what work of his?) In some cases I have left Charbonnel’s notes entirely and replaced them with translations from the French (or Italian) source that had been cited.

None of the illustrations is in Charbonnel’s original table.

  • Some interesting features this time:
  • The crown of thorns might reasonably be associated with the parable of the thornbush that in the OT parable “would be king”.
  • Pilate’s famous “Here is the man!” statement has several possible sources in the OT, all associated, ironically, with ascension to kingship.
  • Matthew’s mob crying out for Jesus’ blood to be “on their heads” has in modern discussion been said to be an anti-semitic trope but when one notices its possible sources in the Jewish scriptures one sees it as originally not necessarily bearing any particularly anti-semitic connotation.
  • I had always been suspicious of those comments linking the old Hebrew letter tau with the cross of Jesus, but I am willing now to concede that there just might be something to the link. (I’m not suggesting that the original idea of a cross came from the alphabet, not at all.)
  • Another interesting link was the Jewish Scripture associations of the “good” thief’s dispute with his “bad” companion.
  • We all surely know of the Amos association with the sun going down at noon, but I had overlooked till now that this same image in Amos is tied to mourning for an only son.
  • The titulus crucis carries more Jewish Scripture echoes than I had ever suspected.
  • Nor was I aware of the earthquake at the time of Joshua’s death — a sign divinely activated to draw the population’s attention to that grave moment.
  • Again, we have several links to intertestamental literature and later rabbinic writings. And again, it is very reasonable to accept that those rabbinical writings had their origins in the Second Temple era and were known to the evangelists.
  • One related detail is the teaching that when Moses struck the rock twice, the first time blood flowed out, the second time, water. What was on the evangelist’s mind when he wrote of the spear drawing both blood and water from Jesus?
  • Justin Martyr’s quotation of Jeremiah is of special interest.
  • So is a Codex Bezae version of the Gospel of Luke. Again, we meet another piece of evidence that the evangelists knew the writings of Josephus, especially Wars. The east gate that miraculously opened by itself as a warning of Jerusalem’s doom was said by Josephus to have been so large that it took twenty men to open. The same image is found in Codex Bezae’s Luke.
  • I had known of the “I am” statements in the Greek Gospel of John but for some reason till now had overlooked them in the Gospel of Luke.
  • Charbonnel speaks of OT passages where one is said to “pass through walls” by the power of God, but the Hebrew speaks of scaling over. (A French translation does say “pass through” as the resurrected Jesus did.)
  • I would like to track down the Exodus Rabbah statement (in English) that foreshadows the “Do you seek the living among the dead” saying.
  • Oh yes… one more of particular note (for me) — is the “beloved disciple” a figure of the church?

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #7 (conclusion)”


2020-12-02

Who Will See “The Kingdom of God Coming with Power” in Mark 9:1?

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by Neil Godfrey

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” — Mark 9:1

We know what follows so we read on to see “the fulfilment” of that saying six days later with Peter, James and John on the mountain witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus. But look what happens when we ignore the chapter breaks and read that passage in the context of the preceding verses.

8:34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.9:1 And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” 

He said to the crowd along with his disciples, “If any of you are ashamed of me then the Son of Man will be ashamed of you when he comes in glory and with the angels”, and, “some of you who are standing here will see the kingdom coming….”

The promise — or is it a warning? — that some of his audience would be alive to see the coming kingdom is spoken as an immediate follow-on from his warning that he would come in glory and with angels to judge that sinful and adulterous generation standing before him.

If you are one of those who have balked at this saying of Jesus hinting at Peter, James and John you are not alone. The message of “some who are standing here will not taste death before….” becomes a mock saying if it pointed to what was to happen only six days hence.

9:1 And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” 2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.

A better paragraph break would be,

8:34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” 9:1 And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” 

2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.

Daniel 7:13-14 In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

At his point, it is of special interest to observe that the same prophecy of the coming kingdom is repeated twice more, with all three times being a throw-back to Daniel 7:13-14. Moreover, the threefold saying is a distinctive feature of the Gospel of Mark, a tool by which the author held his story together, each repetition and accompanying setting alerting readers to unifying themes moving towards the crescendo of the crucifixion.

The first repetition is in Mark 13:26 where we are informed that those who see the kingdom coming in power and glory are the entire generation alive at the time:

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.

(There is some debate over the identity of whom Jesus says will see his coming in this verse, but one thing is clear, and that is that Jesus is made to avoid directly referencing the disciples at this moment as he does in other selected passages.)

The third time the prophecy is put in Jesus’ mouth, Mark 14:62, it is directed at the high priest:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Thomas Hatina

If one prefers to shy away from Jesus pointing personally to the high priest as the prophesied witness of events then it is less easy to avoid the view that he is addressing the temple establishment whom the high priest represented.

I have posted a similar viewpoint before but here I am expanding on it somewhat by reference to a thesis and a related article by Thomas Hatina. Since much of the above is a very abbreviated paraphrase of Hatina’s viewpoint it is time to hear him in his own words. He expands on the idea that in the above passages Jesus is claiming that it is the sinful generation, his opponents, who would be the ones to witness the coming kingdom:

That the antagonists of the story should “see” the manifestation of God would not have been an unusual anticipation for an early Jewish Christian like Mark. There were certainly enough precedents upon which to draw. For example, in Isa 64,1-2 the prophet says that God reveals himself, through acts of judgment, to the adversaries “that the nations may tremble”. And in Nah 1,5 when the prophet says that the “earth is up heaved by his [God’s] presence”, he is metaphorically describing the experience of judgment by the adversaries. A similar motif also appears in early Jewish and Christian martyrological tradition, in which the adversaries “see” the vindication of their victims (e.g. Wis 5,2; Rev 11,12; ApcEl 35,7). Vindication, once again, presupposes some kind of violent overthrow of the adversaries. A closer parallel to Mark is found in 1 Enoch 62,3-5 which foretells that the unrighteous worldly leaders are the ones who will “see” the son of man:

On the day of judgment, all the kings, the governors, the high officials, and the landlords shall see and recognize him — how he sits on the throne of his glory, and righteousness is judged before him…. They shall be terrified and dejected; and pain shall seize them when they see that son of man sitting on the throne of his glory”.

With respect to the language which conveys the power of God’s rule, Mark’s imagery in 9,1 is not unlike that which is found in the Septuagint where references to divine judgment commonly depict God in terms that assert his complete superiority over the enemies of the righteous — whether the enemies are human or divine, foreign or domestic.

The highlighting above is mine. For the implication that a metaphorical interpretation has for the “apocalyptic passages” of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark see When they saw the Son of Man coming in the clouds. Cosmic collapse is a metaphor for the destruction of Jerusalem just as the same metaphor spoke of the destruction of Babylon.

After a comment on the expression “kingdom of God” Hatina continues,

Assertions of God’s “power” (usually in the LXX as δύναμις, δυναστείο!ς or ισχύς) are often found in contexts of war or destruction. And in most cases, those who are condemned to witness the devastation (i.e. the power of God’s strength), be it in terms of “seeing” or “knowing”, are the enemies of Yahweh. . . . The display of divine power coheres more immediately to judgment than it does to blessing.

The precedent can be extended to other writings in early Judaism where terms like “glory’ and “power” are likewise used of divine acts of judgment.

Hatina cites supporting verses from both the Jewish Scriptures and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Contexts, both within the gospel and external to it, allow a good case for “the promise” of seeing the coming kingdom is being directed as a warning to those who do not follow Jesus.

The question remains, of course: Where does the coming of the kingdom of God fit in? I’ll set out my thoughts on the answer in another post.


Hatina, Thomas R. 2005. “Who Will See ‘The Kingdom of God Coming with Power’ in Mark 9,1 — Protagonists or Antagonists?” Biblica 86 (1): 20–34.



2020-12-01

Why Scholars Came to Think of Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet

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by Neil Godfrey

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)

Johannes Weiss

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.

(Patterson, 33)

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.