Category Archives: Gospel Origins

Memory Theory and the Historical Jesus

Alan Kirk

Bloomsbury publishers sent me an electronic copy of Memory and the Jesus Tradition, a collection of articles by Alan Kirk, for review and comment in response to my request. My first post on this book was Memory and the Pursuit of the Jesus Tradition. This post, my second, responds to chapter 10, “Memory Theory and Jesus Research”, which was originally published in the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2011). It’s a good opportunity to do an overview of how biblical scholars apply memory theory in historical Jesus studies.

One of Alan Kirk’s main points in this chapter is that memories are not inert blocks waiting to be brought out whenever called upon, but are malleable, and not only open to modification but also actively shape our perceptions of certain changing circumstances in our lives.

A second critical point Kirk emphasizes is that community memories do not work like the game of ‘Telephone’.  Rather, memories in community settings are like more like nets. Multiple witnesses or “rememberers” are there to correct and refine the stories as they are told and retold. The “net” model safeguards against the sorts of losses and changes that the party game or laboratory experiments experience.

Fellow blogger Tim Widowfield is far more on top of Rudolf Bultmann’s work than I am and he may wish to contribute, perhaps even correct, either what I am writing here or what Kirk himself has written.

In Kirk’s view the old form critical approach to historical Jesus studies (originating with Rudolf K. Bultmann) assumed the former “inert block” view of memory. It was Bultmann’s view that by identifying and peeling away accretions building up on a story one could arrive at the initial account. Those accretions were essentially fabrications imposed on the original story that were created to meet the changing needs and interests of the church.

The gospel tradition was thus construed as a bifurcated entity: fabricated tradition coming to overlay diminishing residues of memory, for their part more or less inert with respect to the traditioning process itself. Tradition thus conceived primarily gave expression to the contemporary debates, predicaments and developments of the early communities.

Bultmann’s analysis was in fact characterized by a programmatic disconnect between memory and the growing tradition, his occasional gestures to ‘reminiscence’ notwithstanding. This was the consequence of according little agency to memory and instead locating the decisive generative forces for tradition in contemporary social factors.

Collective memory, Kirk points out through references to numerous studies, organizes and gives meaning to the data that is being recalled. Citing Barry Schwartz he writes

collective memory thus becomes ‘a social fact as it is made and remade to serve changing societal interests and needs’.

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Stories of Walking on Water — Looking for Sources

In The History of the Synoptic Tradition by Rudolf Bultmann there is the following passage beginning page 236. But there’s a catch. I have not had the opportunity to track down any of the references I have cast in bold type — removing the bold as we locate them as per the comments. If you happen to be a person with an opportunity to identify any of those bolded references and point to where I can locate/read/translate them you are more than welcome to share that information in the comments section below.

Dio Chrysostom: “Socrates,” said he, “you know perfectly well that of all men under the sun that man is most powerful and in might no whit inferior to the gods themselves who is able to accomplish the seemingly impossible — if it should be his will, to have men walk dryshod over the sea, to sail over the mountains, to drain rivers dry by drinking — or have you not heard that Xerxes, the king of the Persians, made of the dry land a sea by cutting through the loftiest of the mountains and separating Athos from the mainland, and that he led his infantry through the sea, riding upon a chariot just like Poseidon in Homer’s description? And perhaps in the same way the dolphins and the monsters of the deep swam under his raft as the king drove along.”

There must also have been stories of walking on water in Hellenism. Admittedly it is hyperbole when Dio Chrysost. speaks of the power of Xerxes, that when he so wishes he is able πεζεύεσθαι μέν την θάλατταν, πλεϊσθαι δέ τά δρη. But the capacity to do so is often attributed to demons. P. Berol., I, 120 thus describes the power of the δαίμων πάρεδρος: πήξει δέ ποταμούς καί θάλασσα[ν συντ]όμως(?) καί οπως ένδιατρέχης (Reitzenstein, Hellenist. Wundererzaehlungen, p. 125). Also A. Dieterich, Abraxas, p. 190, 13: εγώ είμι ό έν ούρανω σχολήν έχων φοιτώμενός τε έν ύδατι, and on another tablet (Rhein. Mus., 55, 261, cp. 264): qui solus per mare transis. But according to Lucian, Philops., 13 the same things are reported of human wonder workers: είδες . . . τόν Ύπερβόρεον άνδρα πετάμενον ή έπ’ι τοϋ ϋδατος βεβηκότα. Further material may be found in A. Gercke, Jahrb. f . Philol. Suppl. X X II, 1895, pp. 205ff.; A. Abt, ‘Die Apologie des Apuleius von Madaura und die antike Zauberei’, Religionsgesch. Vers, u. Vorarb., IV, 2, 1908, pp. 129, 2. We may add from the Christian tradition: Hist. Aegypti monachorum XI, 18, p. 58; cp. XX, 16, p. 75, Preuschen; Ps. Cypr., Confess., 12.1 Indian parallels also come up for consideration in this regard, and there are stories of walking or flying over the water, which could even have influenced Hellenistic literature: cp. R. Garbe, Indien und das Christentum, 1914, pp. 57f. Most notable is a Buddhist parallel to Matt. 14 28-31 (the text is in J. Aufhauser, Jesus und Buddha, Kl. Texte, no. 157, p. 12). It tells of a disciple ‘who wanted to visit Buddha one evening and on his way found that the ferry boat was missing from the bank of the river Aciravati. In faithful trust in Buddha he stepped on to the water and went as if on dry land to the very middle of the stream. Then he came out of his contented meditation on Buddha in which he had lost himself, and saw the waves and was frightened, and his feet began to sink. But he forced himself to become wrapt in his meditation again and by its power he reached the far bank safely and reached his master.’ (Garbe, pp. 56f. and Buddhist. Maerchen, pp. 46f.) Garbe thinks that the gospel story was borrowed from the Buddhist tradition.2

Jesus Walking on Water
Jesus Walking on Water (Ivan Aivazovsky)

1 In the language of Christian edification this miracle motif may have attained a symbolic significance and the walking on the water become the treading of the mythical waters of death, which Christ and his mystic followers achieve. Cp. Dibelius (Formgeschichte, p. 86) who adduces Od. Sol. 39: ‘He walked and went over them on foot, and his footprints stayed on the water and were not obliterated. . . . And a path was prepared for those who followed him.’ What the relation of Mand. Ginza R., II, 1, pp. 4ggf. Lidzb. is to this (Christ the seducer says, ‘I walk over the water, Come with me; you shall not drown’) can well be left undecided here.

2 Cp. W. Brown, The Indian and Christian Miracles of Walking on the Water, 1928. Saintyves, who again traces these stories to cultic origins (initiation rites) amasses a wealth of material, [P. Saintyves,  Essais de Folklore Biblique, 1923], pp. 307-63. Cp. also Indianermaerchen aus Nordamerika, p. 31; Turkestan. Maerchen, p. 69; Muellenhoff, Sagen, etc., p. 351.

I did locate the reference to Brown, Indian and Christian Miracles… — it is available on archive.org –  http://archive.org/details/MN40274ucmf_2


Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. 1963. The History of the Synoptic Tradition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Dio Chrysostom. n.d. “Discourse 3.” LacusCurtius. Accessed March 13, 2019. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dio_Chrysostom/Discourses/3*.html#ref11.


Can the Gospels be “True Fiction”? Did Ancient Historians Have a Different Understanding of “True”?

A few days ago someone thoughtfully sent me a link to a Westar video interviewing Professor Arthur Dewey, author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus Was Remembered. Dewey begins by addressing the prevalent belief that the Passion story of Jesus is essentially true history. He says:

Unfortunately, not just people who are literalists who read the Bible assume this to be the case when we come to the Passion, but also many biblical historians. The reason for that is the assumption that the text is document and is reflecting what actually happened. 

Of course regular readers will know that it is that assumption that we regularly question here. But Dewey, his interviewer and Westar generally are addressing a different audience and I like to think that that is the reason they seem to couch arguments in a way more appealing or acceptable to a certain kind of Christian believer, in something of a “liberal apologetic”, than I like to do.

I have not read his book (there does not seem to be a copy available either commercially or in any library in Australia, not even digitally) so my comments here are entirely my reactions to the interview.

Arthur Dewey begins by pointing out that ancient historians were primarily interested in “truth” as “insight” into the meaning of events for their audiences. He does not say that they were not interested in “facts”, too, but that their main focus lay elsewhere. There is a certain truth to this as (again) we have discussed many times when posting on the methods of ancient historians. What niggles me when I encounter a biblical scholar elaborating on this point (Dewey is far from the only biblical scholar to present this “truth as insight” characteristic of ancient historians) is that I think the other side of what ancient historians were all about is lost. I think they too easily overstate the case in the interests of attempting to keep the gospels relevant at least for the more liberally minded believers. I hope that’s not too harsh or unfair but it is how it comes across to me. read more »

Memory and the Pursuit of the Jesus Tradition

I have begun to read Alan Kirk’s Memory and the Jesus Tradition, a compilation of twelve of his essays published between 2001 and 2016, and have, as usual, found myself making slower progress than I expected. At so many points in just the first few chapters I have had to detour to endnotes and seek out cited works to get a clearer idea of what lies behind many of Kirk’s points and quotations. The parallel readings have been worth it, though. Reading Kirk and the sources to which he alludes in parallel has opened up my understanding memory theory as applied in very practical ways in the social sciences on the one hand, and its theoretical application in Jesus tradition studies on the other. Kirk would disagree that his discussion of memory theory is entirely theoretical and I will address one of his attempts to present real-world applications of his theoretical discussions.

One pleasant surprise I have already experienced so early in my exploration of memory theory studies (in particular from the section in one of Kirk’s references titled “Literature and Cultural Memory” but which Kirk appears to entirely overlook in this collection of essays) is that I have become convinced that memory studies do have a most significant place in the study of early Christianity. Alan Kirk and other historical Jesus scholars attempt to use memory theories to uncover pre-gospel development of the Jesus tradition while I suspect that their most fruitful contribution can be found in exploring how the various gospels themselves helped establish the emerging identities of the early Christianities.

But first, let’s see what Alan Kirk himself, and no doubt with the agreement of the editor he credits for assisting him with putting this book together, Chris Keith, has to say about memory studies in the context of Christian origins:

. . . what was emerging under the aegis of memory analysis was a comprehensive account of the formation of the Jesus tradition and its history, from its origins and continuing on its arc towards canon-formation. . . . 

Memory-grounded analysis is able to deliver a coherent account, not only of the tradition’s origins, but also of its history through analysis of how the tradition mediates the salient past into contemporary contexts of reception. Here it intersects with source criticism and redaction criticism. In other words, a memory-based account of the tradition neither displaces standard redaction-critical, tradition-history and source-critical approaches nor does it merely supplement them. Rather, it integrates them into a more comprehensive account of cultural formation and history, providing a kind of unified field theory for various lines of enquiry.

(pp. 10, 18 of 375 — all page numbers are taken from an e-book version. My bolding in all quotations.)

How memory works

Holocaust survivors, survivors of more recent genocidal attacks in Africa, persons emerging from collective war-time experiences with individual post-traumatic stress syndrome, — it is by the sharing of personal experiences among such persons that meaning is found for what they have experienced as a new kind of “collective memory” is established. A collective narrative, a story that offers some sort of control or meaning, of their experiences, is created through such sharing of memories. Similarly the populations of entire nations that have experienced traumatic times can find a new sense of self or national identity through a collective communication of those experiences in dialogue, in the arts, in literature, in rousing speeches that inject hope and meaning into the raw memories of their devastating experiences. A close relation to the latter scenario is the nineteenth and early twentieth century

Zionist commemoration of ancient Jewish resistance movements such as the Zealots, . . . aimed at legitimating the Zionist political programme as well as promoting activist countermodels for Jewish identity, while its breathtaking (sic) diminution of the exile to a point of virtually no magnitude signified its repudiation of the stereotypically passive, sighing Jew of the Gulat. Zionist memory, in other words, was a matter of the ‘ideological classification of the past’. 

(p. 34 / 375)

I can to some extent understand how “memory studies” work, how “memory” can create or renew personal and collective identities and meanings, when applied to such situations.

If I understand Alan Kirk’s essays correctly (and I have read so far no more than four of the twelve), I believe he is attempting to apply that sort of memory process, or memory re-creation and meaning through social sharing, to groups he imagines to have been early (pre-gospel) bearers of “memories of Jesus” originating with historical encounters with Jesus.

Finally, this approach has obvious relevance for historical Jesus research. Historical Jesus scholarship, not recognizing the extent to which the tradition is the artefact of commemorative processes, often treats the gospels as garden-variety archival materials, for example, regarding them in their relative brevity as very incomplete records preserving just traces of events rather than being symbolically concentrated mediations of the aggregate of events. The model worked out in this chapter raises the question of what sort of historiography is required to deal with tradition – a media-based artefact with a commemorative and representational relationship to historical realities.

(pp. 89f. / 375)

But what justifies the application of memory theory to historical Jesus studies?

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The Problem of the Reconstruction of the Life, Deeds, Words of Jesus

Spot the problem here:

The problem of the reconstruction of the course of life, deeds, and words of Jesus Christ is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating issues in modem biblical scholarship. In order to cope with this issue, scholars devised various reconstructive methods and procedures, which are usually presented today under the labels of several ‘quests for the historical Jesus’. In this way, notwithstanding all the differences between various scholarly proposals, a more or less coherent image of the historical Jesus as a particular Jewish religious and social ‘activist’, who lived in first-century Galilee, emerged and became more or less widely accepted in mainstream scholarship.

However, all reconstructions of the deeds and words of the historical Jesus, which were presented at various stages of the ‘historical Jesus research’, were formulated on one fundamental assumption, namely that the Gospels more or less directly refer to the life of the historical Jesus. Even if numerous modem scholars regarded various parts of the Gospel material as most probably unhistorical, this basic assumption concerning the referential character of the Gospels was in fact never challenged. Consequently, scholars still generally believe that the Gospels in an at least fundamental way reflect the features of the life and person of the historical Jesus: his early activity in Galilee, his challenging interpretation of the Jewish law, his clashes with the Pharisees, his travel to Jerusalem, his conflict with the chief priests in the Holy City, etc.

The most recent research on the hypertextual features of the Gospels has revealed that this basic scholarly assumption is not necessarily true. In general, it can be argued that the Gospels were not written with the aim of recording the course of life, deeds, and words of the historical, ‘fleshly’ Jesus. The Gospels are results of hypertextual reworking of the letters of Paul the Apostle and of other early Christian writings, which were regarded by the evangelists as the sources for the knowledge of the real, ‘spiritual’ Jesus Christ, who came to be known to the world in the course of life, in the person, and in the writings of his particularly chosen Apostle, and who still lives in his Church. The research on the historical Jesus ought to take this basic feature of the Gospels into serious consideration.

Consequently, in order to deal with the issue of reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus in a truly scholarly way, the hypertextual features of the Gospels should be properly investigated.

(Adamczewski 2013, 11 f.)

What Bartosz Adamczewski says there is all very fine as far as it goes but there is something vital missing. And it is that missing element that has opened up opportunities for some rather savage reviews of his work.

Yes, it is fine to present the “case for” a proposition. But unless one addresses systematically the flaws in the existing or alternative viewpoint, especially if that alternative is the prevailing conventional wisdom, one is not likely to persuade anyone to jump ship, at least not with justifiable reason. Simply declaring the alternative to be resting ultimately upon unfounded assumptions won’t work any magic unless one accompanies that claim with clear demonstrations.

That won’t persuade most to change their minds overnight; it will probably engender unscholarly responses. But it will at least leave material for other, most likely new, scholars to notice and work with into the future.

 


Adamczewski, Bartosz. 2013. Hypertextuality and Historicity in the Gospels. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang GmbH, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften.


 

Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History” — Duplicate Post

Looks like I cleverly managed to publish the same post twice instead of deleting one of the copies. I have deleted the contents of this post and add this redirection:

Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History”

Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History”

Chaim Milikowsky

Chaim Milikowsky gives his answer to the question in the title, or at least he answers the question with respect to rabbinical literature. I have added the connection to our canonical four gospels, and I could with equal justice add Acts of the Apostles.

I read CM’s answer in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, but I see that the author has made the same work freely available online. (Oh, and I posted on CM’s chapter five years ago this month: Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation. I think that first post was less technical than what I intend this time round.)

Let me begin with the conclusion this time. The answer to the question in the title is found in a work once again by one of the most influential Greek thinkers in history: Plato. We have been looking at the influence of Plato on the Old Testament writings through the works of Russell Gmirkin and Philippe Wajdenbaum, but CM sees his influence on rabbinic midrashic story telling. I suggest that the evangelists have carried through the same fundamental type of story telling.

Here are the key passages in Plato’s Republic. After deploring mythical tales of gods that depict them lying, cheating, harming others, Socrates sets out what is a far more noble curriculum for those who would become good citizens. Myths of conniving and adulterous gods had no place. God must always be shown to be pure and good. Stories depicting the gods as immoral were to be removed from society; stories that had an edifying message for their readers were to be shared widely.

For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts. 

There you are right, he replied; but if any one asks where are such models to be found and of what tales are you speaking –how shall we answer him? 

I said to him, You and I, Adeimantus, at this moment are not poets, but founders of a State: now the founders of a State ought to know the general forms in which poets should cast their tales, and the limits which must be observed by them, but to make the tales is not their business. 

Very true, he said; but what are these forms of theology which you mean? 

Something of this kind, I replied: — God is always to be represented as he truly is, whatever be the sort of poetry, epic, lyric or tragic, in which the representation is given. 

Right. 

(Republic, 378e-379a Benjamin Jowett trans.)

God himself will be portrayed as incapable of lying, but there will be a place for story tellers to fabricate stories that teach goodness and lead people to righteous character: read more »

If we are going to move the Gospel of Mark to the second century . . . .

Bronze head of Hadrian found in the River Thames in London. Now in the British Museum. – Wikipedia

When we settle on a date for the composition of the Gospel of Mark soon after 70 CE and the destruction of the Temple by the armies of Vespasian and Titus, then it is only natural that we will want to study the lives and times of Vespasian and Titus. Perhaps the most significant political development that formed the backdrop of the generation that was the first to hear and reflect upon the Gospel of Mark was the dynamic thrust of Vespasian’s propaganda machine to demonstrate to the world that he was the rightful new emperor (burying in the hype the uncomfortable fact of his lowly and foreign origins), and a major plank of his propaganda efforts was the building up of the conquest of Judea into a major victory against a significant eastern threat to the empire.

Against such a backdrop our understanding of the Gospel of Mark as a counterimperial narrative, and our interpretation of the procession of Jesus to the cross as a mock-triumph.

If we prefer to see the Gospel being written at a time of persecutions, or at least fear and threat of persecution, then we may wish to place it in the 90s when and where some see the introduction of the Jewish synagogue curse being directed at Christians and where we may further see Domitian’s revival of the imperial cult.

But if we are toying with placing the Gospel in the second century, what we focus on then will depend how far into the second century we are prepared to go.

If we are working on the suggestions that our evangelist (let’s place him in Rome) was incorporating into his narrative some of what he had heard read in Josephus’s Antiquities, then we can place him anywhere in the mid and late 90s or early 100s. (We may prefer to settle on that date if we are persuaded by a reference found in Justin’s writings — let’s say as early as the 130s — that “memoirs of the apostles” spoke about Jesus nicknaming James and John “Sons of Thunder”, a detail found only in our Gospel of Mark.)

We may prefer to opt for a date closer to the mid century, let’s say later 130s or around 140s, if we think the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 makes best sense as a reference to Hadrian’s efforts to set up a pagan temple complete with statue of Jupiter on the site of the old Jewish temple and to Bar Kochba’s “messianic” war supported by the rabbi Akiba.

If we are going to explore where different threads end up by placing the gospel so “late” then another background worth studying is Hadrian’s rule more generally. Hadrian was renowned for more than crushing the the Bar Kochba rebellion. More generally Hadrian promoted himself as a restorer and even second founder of the Roman empire itself. In the beginning of his reign he promoted himself as the god Mars and then in the later years he presented himself (through coins, for example) as the new Romulus, founder of the original Rome. Romulus was also believed to have been the son of the god Mars. Hadrian loved to travel, but he was doing more than site-seeing. He was presenting himself as a second founder of major cities such as Athens. Temples and monuments and processions and such pomp drove home his message about both himself and what he was doing in his restoring of the Empire and the Pax Romana. The imperial cult became especially important. People were expected to turn up and demonstrate their piety when his image was entering a city. When he entered a city or a temple he did so as a god manifesting himself to his subjects. He even identified himself with Jupiter himself, the head god of the pantheon. As Jupiter ruled Olympus, so the emperor, an embodiment of Jupiter, ruled the “world”.

We can look for the time period where we find the most bits of the puzzle seeming to fit and settle on that for the date of the earliest gospel. But such a method will always remain open to question. We need to do more than simply look for pieces that fit, or more likely look for ways to fit as many pieces as possible. Remember our ever-present bane of confirmation bias.

 

 

Review of R. G. Price’s book on the Christ Myth theory — and a review of Richard Carrier’s to come

I have posted a review of R. G. Price’s book , Deciphering the Gospels — proves Jesus never existed, arguing for the Jesus of the gospels being an entirely literary invention on Amazon. At the time of this post it has not yet appeared but I expect it will be processed and published soon. I have posted a copy of what I wrote below.

Meanwhile, I have been persuaded I should also do my own review of Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus. It’s a big book and the review will be lots of work so it won’t be completed by tomorrow but it is in the “to do” basket.

Here is what I wrote for amazon on Price’s book:

read more »

Reading the Classics and the Gospels Differently

Aesop in Life was portrayed as physically misshapen so that most people despised or mocked him on first seeing him.

Recently we talked about the Life of Aesop, a biographical novella of the fabulist written around the same time as the gospels: Aesop, Guide to a Very Late Date for the Gospels?Aesop / 2, a Guide to a Late Gospel of Mark DateDid Aesop Exist?

This post singles out one more point in Tomas Hãgg’s chapter in The Art of Biography in Antiquity.

Only two of the thirteen stories told by Aesop in the Life are known to have existed before the Roman Imperial period as ‘Aesopic fables’. This, in all likelihood, means that most of the stories were created for use in the particular situations narrated in the novel, or at least adapted for the purpose. . . . [O]ur story is first and foremost a Life, and the fables are narrated not to conserve them or explain them as originating in certain situations, but the other way round: in order to characterize the hero. (pp 116f, my bolding)

Surely the same must be said about the stories told about Jesus in the gospels. It is evident that they are not narrated for conservation purposes. Each evangelist clearly feels free to change many of the sayings and deeds found in, say, the Gospel of Mark.

But there is one detail that is not the same in the stories told about Jesus. That the anecdotes appear for the first time in the gospels is not taken as an indication that they were created for use in the particular situations in the gospels, but that they had an untestable and unverifiable origin as oral traditions. Perhaps classicists should learn from biblical scholars how to generate more scholarly papers about hypothetical origins and traditions.

One classic (I think) illustration of just how neatly tailored a story of Jesus is for the sake of the gospel’s plot was written up in Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical. That episode has an indisputable narrative function. It is how the synoptic gospels account for the arrest of a man who otherwise provides no reason for his arrest given that he is in every way good and perfect. The Gospel of John removes it as the reason for Jesus’ arrest but has to replace it with the story of the raising of Lazarus to make up for the plot function that would otherwise be lacking. Yet most biblical scholars, devout as most of them reportedly are in their own respective ways, treat the “cleansing of the temple” as one of the most certain of historical episodes in the life of Jesus. The story was passed on through oral tradition.

What would Tomas Hãgg think if that sort of argument was published about the stories in the Life of Aesop? But why aren’t classicists more ready to assume new fables appearing in a first century Life of Aesop were taken from otherwise unrecorded oral tradition? Why are so few biblical scholars apparently willing to think that stories appearing for the first time in the gospels serving each author’s narrative — and theological — interests willing to accept that the stories were made up or at least adapted for those specific interests?

 

One Difference Between a “True” Biography and a Fictional (Gospel?) Biography

With the gospels in mind and thinking of them (for sake of argument) as biographical accounts of Jesus, how can we know if an ancient biography is about a genuinely historical person or if it is about a fictional character?

Let’s leave aside for now the claims of postmodernists who argue that there is no essential difference between histories and novels, between autobiography and fictional works. Enough historians and scholars of literature, at least to my satisfaction, have knocked these arguments down.

Many of us are familiar with the analysis of Richard Burridge that concludes that the gospels are of the same genre as ancient “bioi” (I’ll use the familiar term “biography”). The responses to Burridge’s arguments by Tim and me are collated here.

Before we take up the explanation, let’s look at some extracts from ancient biographers.

Biographer #1

Here is a passage about Socrates by Diogenes Laertius:

It was thought that he [Socrates] helped Euripides to make his plays; hence Mnesimachus writes:

This new play of Euripides is The Phrygians; and
Socrates provides the wood for frying.

And again he calls Euripides “an engine riveted by Socrates.” And Callias in The Captives:

a. Pray why so solemn, why this lofty air?
b. I’ve every right; I’m helped by Socrates.

. . . . . 

According to some authors he was a pupil of Anaxagoras, and also of Damon, as Alexander states in his Successions of Philosophers. When Anaxagoras was condemned, he became a pupil of Archelaus the physicist; Aristoxenus asserts that Archelaus was very fond of him. Duris makes him out to have been a slave and to have been employed on stonework, and the draped figures of the Graces on the Acropolis have by some been attributed to him. . . . . 

He was formidable in public speaking, according to Idomeneus; moreover, as Xenophon tells us, the Thirty forbade him to teach the art of words. And Aristophanes attacks him in his plays for making the worse appear the better reason. For Favorinus in his Miscellaneous History says Socrates and his pupil Aeschines were the first to teach rhetoric; and this is confirmed by Idomeneus in his work on the Socratic circle. . . . .

The significance of the highlighted phrases is that they indicate that the author is writing from the perspective of an outsider attempting to interpret and draw conclusions from and piece together pre-existing sources speaking of the past. The author’s narrative is constrained by the information that has already long been in existence.

Notice especially the caution expressed in the first line: we know that the author is not going to bet his life on the information being true because he tells us that the information is “thought” to be true on the basis of inference from the documents.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that such features in writing are a foolproof indicator of the factualness or genuine historicity of the subject. Obviously such phrases can be invented — and sometimes are invented — for the sake of creating verisimilitude for a fictional narrative. And such a presentation alone does not tell us with complete certainty that the person found in the sources was truly historical.

What we can establish from these literary indicators, however, is that on the face of it the author presents his work as an effort to relay to readers what is purported to be historical; furthermore, the author opens up to readers the means by which they can verify what he writes.

As I wrote in another post recently,

In her book Autobiographical Acts, Bruss formulates a number of interrelated “rules” . . . The rule that applies to this communication process on the author’s side reads:

“Whether or not what is reported can be discredited, . . . the autobiographer purports to believe in what he asserts.”

On the reader’s side, the rule-abiding expectation that the report is true implies a freedom to “check up” on its accuracy by way of appropriate verification procedures. 

In this perspective, the truth claim or autobiography in no sense implies the actual truth of an autobiographer’s statement. (Dorrit Cohn, 1999, The Distinction of Fiction, p. 31, italics original, my formatting)

So it is worthwhile asking why we find no comparable expressions in the earliest gospels, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. I should say “any of the canonical gospels” since the prologue to Luke and the eyewitness claims in John create special problems that have been discussed in other posts. Moreover, we will see that all four canonical gospels, on the contrary, are replete with perspectives and expressions that indicate fiction.

Biographer #2

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Did the Search for Meaning in Scriptures Really Lead to the Gospel Narratives?

To some extent, the followers of Jesus knew the basic facts: he was crucified by the authority of Pontius Pilate (with the complicity of the Jewish leadership?) outside the city of Jerusalem around the time of the Passover. Yet what was the meaning of those events? As Koester has noted, that question led the followers of Jesus back to the Scriptures, to familiar passages that seemed to describe some comparable situation. For example, according to Nils Dahl, “[E]arly Christians read Psalm 22, Psalm 69, and other psalms of lamentation, probably also Isaiah 53, as accounts of the passion of Jesus before there existed any written passion story.” 21 As Crossan explains, these believers did not read such passages “as referring exclusively and individually to Jesus but rather… to their original referents and to Jesus now as well.” 22 Thus, in addition to the examples cited by Dahl, one passage that helped Jesus’ followers make sense of what had happened was this verse from the Psalms: “The rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed” (2: 2). Another such passage— one that seemed to include what had happened to Jesus’ followers— was a verse from Zechariah: “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered” (13: 7b). And after reports of the resurrection, Jesus’ followers saw new significance in this verse from Hosea: “After two days [the LORD] will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up” (6: 2). According to Crossan, these “passion prophecies” led the first generation of Christians to develop the belief that Jesus’ suffering and subsequent vindication had all been part of God’s plan.

Chumney, David. Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts (Kindle Locations 1608-1621). Kindle Edition.

A new book titled Jesus Eclipsed has been introduced by its author, David Chumney, over three posts on John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity site (part 1, part 2, part 3). I have been reading both the book and David’s introductory blog posts and may discuss the work in more detail later. For now I can comment that Chumney is strongly opposed to mythicism (sometimes to the point of misrepresentation) even though his arguments are in all respects — except for two details — found at length in mythicist works by Robert Price, Richard Carrier and Earl Doherty. The two details on which he differs are that Josephus (his James passage) and Paul (his meeting with James) provide sufficient evidence to establish the historicity of Jesus. Unfortunately I think Chumney unwittingly slips into arguing from the same assumptions and with the same circularity as other New Testament scholars, perhaps not surprisingly given that Chumney has the same background in seminary studies. But here I address primarily a point that occurred to me just now as I read his sixth chapter.

Most readers will be familiar with the standard scholarly explanation for the passion narrative in the gospels being infused with allusions to “Old Testament”. The disciples were so stunned by the unexpected turn of events, it is said, that they turned to the scriptures to find some means of understanding the death of Jesus and their subsequent “Easter experience”. The passage by Chumney above sums up the idea.

The question that occurred to me this time on reflecting on this explanation for the scriptural echoes throughout the passion narrative was,

“But didn’t the scriptures provide a ready set of answers for exactly the sort of demise Jesus had met? Why were those traditional explanations apparently inadequate?”

We know the Bible and extra canonical Second Temple writings were riddled with laments and praise for the righteous one who suffers unjustly. Unjust suffering, persecution, martyrdom — such was the fate of the righteous man ever since Abel and on right through Job, the Psalms and to the Maccabees. Jewish scribes wrote plenty to remind readers of this “fact of life” and to console them, assuring them that God found their blood “precious in his sight”.

So why the need to take from Psalm 22 the line that spoke of dividing garments and casting lots for them? How did that passage add to the meaning of what had happened?

Did that really happen? Chumney’s argument is correct: he turns back to the nineteenth century and David Strauss’s point in The Life of Jesus:

 “[W]hen we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical.”

But the Psalm 22:18,

They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

I suggest, would have added no more meaning to their experience of loss than 22:17, 20-21

All my bones are on display;
. . . . .

Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.

Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

None of those lines has any association with a death by crucifixion and they are ignored by the evangelists who composed the passion narratives. Are we to infer that the disciples of Jesus did find deeper meaning for the death of Jesus in verse 18? If so, how could that be?

The obvious answer, of course, is that the disciples were reminded of that passage in Psalms when they learned from eyewitnesses that the clothes of Jesus were indeed taken by the soldiers.

Do we have a problem here?

But if that is what inspired the disciples to find meaning in Psalm 22:18 we run into a problem. read more »

The Gospels as Creative Rewriting (like rewritten biblical books)

Back in 2010 the University of Copenhagen published news of a project to “map the development of the four gospels in order to establish that the Gospel of Luke is not, as believed so far, a contemporary of the Gospel of Matthew, and that the shared content of the two is not to be explained by the existence of a lost scripture [i.e. Q], but by the fact that the author of St. Luke’s Gospel used St. Matthew’s Gospel as well as that of St. Mark as basis for his own scripture.” See Scholars will explode the myth of the New Testament.

(For yet another work by Morgens Müller discussed on this blog, see Paul: The Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus.)

A Facebook reader reminded me of this post a few days ago and asked me what the outcome of this project had been. One outcome appears to be Luke’s Literary Creativity – a work edited by Mogens Müller and Jesper Tang Nielsen that I look forward to reading in the coming months. Meanwhile I can discuss another essay by Mogens Müller that appears to be related to the same project,

The New Testament gospels as Biblical rewritings : On the question of referentiality

By “the question of referentiality” Müller means the question of “whether the story told refers to real incidents.” To what, exactly, do the narrative’s episodes refer? How much is historical? How much fiction? Are our attempts to make such black and white distinctions anachronistic? Müller draws upon Ulrich Luz’s Studies in Matthew in which the gospel is compared with Greek literature that intends to reference and describe “historical” or “factual” events. Luz believes that the author of the Gospel of Matthew

must have known that in his writing, to some extent, he reshaped the Jesus-tradition or even invented it. (p.22)

Müller’s article led me to Luz’s study but it soon became obvious I would not be able to merge the two discussions into a single post. Luz’s book requires separate treatment so I will restrict this post to Müller’s article and a few of his references to Luz. The argument that arises is that the Gospel of Matthew is a re-writing of the Gospel of Mark much as

  • 1 and 2 Chronicles are re-writings of the books of Samuel and Kings,
  • or as Deuteronomy is a rewriting (possibly in King Josiah’s time?) of the Covenant narrative found in Exodus-Numbers,
  • or as Jubilees is a rewriting of Genesis-Exodus,
  • or as the Genesis Apocryphon is a rewriting of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis,
  • or as Pseudo-Philo’s Book of Biblical Antiquities and
  • Josephus’s first eleven books of Antiquities are rewritings of biblical narratives.

Some scholars have even seen parts of Genesis 1-11 as a rewriting of the Epic of Gilgamesh. A re-writing can be found in the same book with a single narrative repeated in different ways: the Abraham and Isaac / Sarah and Rebecca narratives contain three narratives that are all duplicates – Gen. 12:10-20; 20; 26:1-11 – changing to gradually conform more and more closely to Mosaic law.

What is going on here? Why do authors feel at liberty to take existing texts and change them here and there, keeping the original outline more or less in tact but feeling free to add details and to omit others, and changing the way some stories are told so that they present readers with a new lesson that contradicts the original one?

What is going through the authors’ minds as they are reading Genesis or the Gospel of Mark and deciding what elements to change or omit and where to inject new material? Can they really be thinking that Genesis or the Gospel is a true account of historical events that must be preserved for posterity in the way a Greek or Roman historian felt a desire to preserve for posterity the best and most authoritative account of a people’s past?

To try to answer these questions it is useful to identify the characteristics of a “rewritten bible” and here Müller uses the nine characteristics singled out by Philip S. Alexander on the basis of Jubilees, Genesis Apocryphon, Pseudo-Philo’s Book of Biblical Antiquities and Josephus’s Antiquities.

  1. “Rewritten Bible” texts are narratives following a sequential chronological order;
  2. On their face, they are free-standing compositions replicating the form of the biblical books on which they are based;
  3. Despite superficial independence of form, these texts are not intended to replace, or to supersede the Bible;
  4. “Rewritten Bible” texts cover a substantial portion of the Bible;
  5. They retain the biblical order of events but can be very selective in what they represent;
  6. The intention is to produce an interpretative reading of Scripture;
  7. The narrative form means, in effect, that they can impose only a single interpretation on the original;
  8. The narrative form also precludes making clear their exegetical reasoning;
  9. “Rewritten Bible” texts draw on non-biblical sources, whether oral or written.

Müller’s conclusion:

This means that rewritten Bible texts, by their very existence, document that the texts they are rewriting have not exclusively been understood as being referential with regard to the events which have really taken place. This would have precluded the freedom of their “rewriters.”

Apparently, they are foremost perceived as theological texts, not so much aiming at information as at preaching.

Put another way: In their rewriting they intend to mirror the heavenly forces that, according to these authors, are active in their readers’ lives. Thus it is this “truth” and not some “historical” fact, they are aiming at describing. (p. 23, my bold and formatting in all quotations)

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So Jesus read Plato?

phaedrusAnother Aussie blogger, Matthew R. Malcolm of Cryptotheology, today posted published an interesting post, Plato and Jesus on inviting the poor. Matthew raises a question that emerges quite often to anyone who knows the Bible and reads widely among the ancient texts, Greek, Roman and Jewish. One regularly stumbles across passages that sound just like something in the Bible. I have posted on some of these “ah ha” moments and have many, many more lined up eventually to post about “one day”. Surely there must be reference books identifying these passages. Does anyone know of one?

I take the liberty of quoting the same edition of the Plato passage cited by Matthew:

If it were true that we ought to give the biggest favour to those who need it most, then we should all be helping out the very poorest people, not the best ones, because people we’ve saved from the worst troubles will give us the most thanks. For instance, the right people to invite to a dinner party would be beggars and people who need to sate their hunger, because they’re the ones who’ll be fond of us, follow us, knock on our doors, take the most pleasure with the deepest gratitude, and pray for our success. (Phaedrus 233d-e, Cooper’s edition)

Recall Luke 14 (NIV). The same ideal ethic (pie in the sky ethic in Plato) is taught as a necessity by Jesus: read more »