Category Archives: New Testament Studies

Midrash and the Gospels, Conclusion

We saw in the previous post through Philip Alexander’s description of midrash that the term really only applies to early rabbinic exegesis of the Scriptures. The purpose of midrash was to tie oral tradition to certain scriptural texts and to make the tie to those texts explicit. Accordingly, the rewriting of biblical stories — whether the Chronicler’s rewriting of the books of Kings or gospel allusions to Old Testament passages — can scarcely be classified as midrash.

So I am not impressed when I see scholars lumping together as ‘midrash’ texts as diverse as Chronicles, the Testaments of the XII Patriarchs, Enoch, Jubilees, Philo, Josephus, the LXX and the Targumim, the Qumran Pesharim, the Genesis Apocryphon, and the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael. The only effect of such total lack of discrimination is to evacuate midrash of any real meaning: midrash becomes simply a fancy word for ‘Bible interpretation’. (Alexander, pp. 11f)

Further, the term is not helpful when applied to the gospels, in Alexander’s view:

If our definition of midrash becomes too attenuated, then in using the term we may not, in fact, be saying anything new: we may simply be telling the reader that what lies before him is a specimen of early Jewish Bible interpretation—which may be crashingly self-evident! If midrash means no more than ‘Bible interpretation’, then it would be advisable to drop the term. And if we insist on using it so broadly then we shall have to consider subdividing the category, and speaking of Rabbinic midrash, Qumranic midrash, Philonic midrash, apocalyptic midrash and so on. The study of the subject can only be advanced through refinement. I certainly perceive important differences between Rabbinic Bible exegesis and that of Philo, or of the Dead Sea Sect. The way forward lies in trying to define these distinctive styles of Bible interpretation, rather than in treating them as an undifferentiated mass. (p. 12)

We began this discussion with Michael Goulder’s influence on John Shelby Spong. Spong for a time described the gospels as midrash and acknowledged Goulder as his mentor in this respect:

I remember my joy when I came to the conclusion that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was a midrashic creation, with his name stemming from the fact that John had been identified with the prophet Malachi, whose immediate predecessor in the Bible was the prophet, Zechariah. So John’s immediate predecessor was called Zechariah. I remember even better Michael [Goulder]’s amusement and his twinkling smile when he showed me that he had not only come to, but written about, this possibility years before it even dawned on me to explore the issue. (Spong, xiii)

We saw that Spong chose to use the term midrashic rather than midrash but that Goulder eschewed the word entirely as a description of the way the evangelists composed their accounts of Jesus. Goulder had even used midrash to account for the way Matthew was a re-write of Mark. Alexander points out how unsupportable is that classification:

  1. Midrash is generally performed on a canonical text and the canonical text is left standing firm and uncompromised. But Matthew frequently changed Mark’s text and changing the source text was not the way of midrash. Midrash was also expected to stand alongside the canonical text, not to replace it. Yet it appears that Matthew was written not to be read alongside Mark but to replace Mark.
  2. Goulder understood Matthew as creatively adding to or modifying Mark’s text. Midrash, on the other hand, hewed closely to exegetical traditions and authorities and dialogue with other masters. It was not a free-for-all creative exercise.
  3. Alexander further alerts readers to other “more obvious parallels” in rabbinic literature to the gospels than midrash.
    • Rabbinic literature has also a synoptic problem. This exists at the level of short, individual aggadot (cf. the four versions of Rabbi Eleazar’s Merkavah sermon), and at the level of extensive ‘literary’ compositions (cf. the problem of the relationship between Mishnah and Tosefta, between the Gemarot of the Bavli and the Yerushalmi, between the various recensions of the Palestinian Targum). Why does Goulder say nothing about the Rabbinic synoptic problem? Since most of Matthew’s ‘alterations’ of Mark can be paralleled just as easily in the synoptic Rabbinic texts as in midrash, it is surely fair to ask him why he talks only about midrash. . . . There is a host of questions regarding the Rabbinic material which Goulder has simply not considered. . . . [T]he Rabbinic texts are bedevilled by exactly the same difficulties as have proved so intractable in the study of the Gospels. (Alexander, 14f)

 


Alexander, Philip S. 1984. “Midrash and the Gospels.” In Synoptic Studies: The Ampleforth Conferences of 1982 and 1983, edited by Christopher M. Tuckett, 1–18. Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT Press.

Spong, John Shelby. 1997. Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne.


Meaning of Midrash (Are the Gospels Midrash?)

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

We know that the gospels contain many stories that are based on Old Testament narratives. Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter is clearly developed on similar miracles by Elijah and Elisha; Jesus stilling the storm has rewoven core elements of the story of Jonah; the miraculous birth of Jesus finds its mirror opposites in the miraculous births of patriarchs and judges. Frequently we find New Testament scholars describing this building of stories upon earlier “biblical” accounts to be a special form of Jewish composition called midrash. The term comes with some controversy, however, and it can be helpful if we understand what it means to different people if our intention is to communicate as smoothly and agreeably as possible.

I first became aware that its meaning and usage was not so straightforward in a discussion forum back in 2000 when Mark Goodacre pointed out to his colleagues the following:

Spong should indeed be expected to observe correct scholarly definitions of the term midrash.

(1) Spong is (explicitly) dependent on the work of Michael Goulder who in 1989 had withdrawn his previous usage of the term “midrash” to describe the creative work of the evangelists (see my previous message for bibliographical information). This was as a direct result of Philip Alexander’s critique.

(2) About eight years ago I went to a paper Spong gave in Oxford at which he repeatedly used the term “midrash” to describe Matthew’s creative work in the birth narrative. It was pointed out to him publicly that his use of the term was inaccurate and that his source for the usage, Michael Goulder, had withdrawn it.

(Goodacre, XTalk, 5207)

So Michael Goulder introduced the term to John Shelby Spong but subsequently stopped using the term as a result of a criticism by Philip Alexander. I will return to his criticism that influenced Goulder.

Spong was not as completely tone-deaf to all voices, however, since he did explain afterwards that he himself had decided to at least change the way he used the word:

I became convinced that I wanted to write my next book on the Jewishness of the Gospels. . . . . My first working title of this new book was The Gospels as Midrash. My editor at HarperCollins, however, discouraged that title for two reasons:

  • First, midrash is not a familiar word  to the general reader, he said,
  • and second, Jewish people use the term midrash in a very strict and limited sense, which was quite different from the way I was using the term.

I had seen that reaction in my closest rabbi friend, Jack Daniel Spiro, the first time I used the term in a public lecture that he attended. I do not ever want to be offensive to my fellow pilgrims within the Jewish tradition, so in this book I have used the word midrash only as the modifying adjective, midrashic, both to indicate the broadness of the way I am employing this concept and also to leave the word midrash to its special Jewish understanding.

(Spong, p. xi)

In Edwin C. Goldberg’s Midrash for Beginners we read at the outset

Suffice it to say that there are two general meanings of the term “midrash”: 

  1. It can refer to a process of interpreting Scripture. According to this definition, any comment which is directly or indirectly related to the Bible is midrashic. (There are even those who claim the term for the general process of commenting on any text.)
  2. The term can also refer to a specific body of classical rabbinic commentary on the Bible, edited from approximately the year 200 of the Common Era (C.E.) to the ninth century. For instance, one can go to a well-stocked Jewish library and find in English translation such works as the Midrash to the Book of Genesis. 

(Goldberg, pp. xif)

Note the first meaning brings us back to Spong’s use of the word form “midrashic”. We might wonder, though, if that first meaning is rather too broad. Why not just speak of “interpretation” or “literary borrowing” instead of “midrash”?

We find a similar question arising with the Encyclopedia of Midrash. In the second volume we find an article New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash by R. M. Price. Price views the gospels as a special form of midrash, haggadic midrash:

The line is thin between extrapolating new meanings from ancient scriptures (borrowing the authority of the old) and actually composing new scripture (or quasi-scripture) by extrapolating from the old. By this process of midrashic expansion grew the Jewish haggadah, new narrative commenting on old (scriptural) narrative by rewriting it. Haggadah is a species of hypertext, and thus it cannot be fully understood without reference to the underlying text on which it forms a kind of commentary. The earliest Christians being Jews, it is no surprise that they similarly practiced haggadic expansion of scripture, resulting in new narratives partaking of the authority of the old. The New Testament gospels and the Acts of the Apostles can be shown to be Christian haggadah upon Jewish scripture, and these narratives can be neither fully understood nor fully appreciated without tracing them to their underlying sources, the object of the present article.

(Encyclopedia, p. 534)

That article follows directly upon another by Gary Porton, Midrash, Definitions of. The opening definition that I quote here clearly excludes the gospels as a form of midrash. With my emphasis… read more »

Final (#3) post responding to O’Neill’s Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

Three posts will be enough. The first one responding to Tim O’Neill’s Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet on his History for Atheists site is

The second is

In the first post we presented a case that there is no evidence to support the common and longstanding claim among scholars of Christian origins that Jews of the Palestinian region, whether Judaea or Galilee, were agonizing for liberation from the Roman yoke and the promise of God’s rule to punish the oppressors and exalt the oppressed and as a result were a ready audience for any apocalyptic prophet who came along to declare such an event was imminent.

In the second post we attempted to argue that it is unsafe for a historian to place strong confidence in one particular interpretation of a disputed Greek term and to take sides in an ongoing debate among theologians.

In this post I want to zero in on the most fundamental flaw that lies at the heart of all attempts to decipher the historical nature of person Jesus through the canonical gospels. They all work from the assumption that the gospels are indebted to oral reports or memories about the historical Jesus, at least to some extent, for their narrative portrayal of Jesus.

At this point we cannot go wrong by turning to the 2012 words in Bible and Interpretation of a renowned “Old Testament” scholar, Philip Davies:

I cannot resist making a contribution to the recent spate of exchanges between scholars about the existence of Jesus — these mostly on the internet and blogosphere, and so confined to a few addicts, but the issue has always been lurking within New Testament scholarship generally. Shortly before his death, Robert Funk had approached me about the possibility of setting up the equivalent of a ‘Jesus Seminar’ for Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, perhaps a ‘Moses Seminar’? I couldn’t see any scope for such an exercise (and still can’t), but have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’, who keeps appearing to New Testament scholars in different guises. . . . 

Philip Davies

I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability. In the first place, what does it mean to affirm that ‘Jesus existed’, anyway, when so many different Jesuses are displayed for us by the ancient sources and modern NT scholars? Logically, some of these Jesuses cannot have existed. So in asserting historicity, it is necessary to define which ones (rabbi, prophet, sage, shaman, revolutionary leader, etc.) are being affirmed — and thus which ones deemed unhistorical. In fact, as things stand, what is being affirmed as the Jesus of history is a cipher, not a rounded personality (the same is true of the King David of the Hebrew Bible, as a number of recent ‘biographies’ show).

I suggest that another gospel Jesus we can throw on the table for consideration is the only Jesus we have, the literary one created for readers of the very late first century to early and mid second century CE. With that Jesus we can assuredly identify many of the clear literary figures in the Jewish Scriptures as the raw material from which he was shaped. read more »

No Public Engagement, Please. We’re Theologians!

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Otto Günther, Disputatious Theologians [Disputierende Theologen] (1876)
Emeritus Professor Larry Hurtado is a well respected scholar who has made significant contributions to his field. I have read four of his books (How on Earth Did Jesus Become God? — which I have discussed favourably on this blog; One God, One Lord; Lord Jesus Christ; and The Earliest Christian Artefacts) and have a fifth (“Who Is This Son of Man?”) on my shelf waiting in line to be read soon. I have learned a lot from Professor Hurtado. I especially love to follow up footnotes and I have learned much from other readings to which Hurtado’s works have led me.

However, I also have some differences with the Professor. That’s only to be expected. Probably none of will ever find anyone with whom we agree on everything. In an exchange some time ago I realized just how deep our differences were when I asked him for what he considered the bare raw data that any historian of Christian origins needs to be able to explain. His reply demonstrated that he is fails to distinguish data from interpretation. (I described this interaction and illustrated Professor Hurtado’s confused reply in Who’s the Scholarly Scoundrel? — Do excuse the editorial choice of heading. I do not believe Larry Hurtado is really a scoundrel. I once almost had the opportunity to visit the university where he resides and had looked forward to shaking his hand had the trip come off.) I found this confusion of data and interpretation/conclusions drawn from data alarming in someone who claims to be a historian. But then long-term readers of this blog will know how I have often pointed out the stark differences between the way historians of other fields when at their best employ methods that are unlike anything found in theology departments. Richard Carrier is not the only historian to point to Bayes’ theorem as a tool that can help historians monitor their biases and lapses in valid analyses of data and prod them towards more reliable results. Historians of the New Testament have a lot of catching up to do.

But there was another exchange with Professor Hurtado that shook me even more. He appeared to declare that one is only qualified to make a sound judgement on whether Jesus existed if one spends years in the studies of ancient languages and textual analysis and more:

Anything is open to question, of course. But to engage the sort of questions involved in this discussion really requires one to commit to the hard work of learning languages, mastering textual analysis, text-critical matters, historical context of the ancient Roman period and the Jewish setting of the time, archaeology, and more. And we know when someone has done this when they prove it in the demands of scholarly disputation and examination, typically advanced studies reflected in graduate degrees in the disciplines, and then publications that have been reviewed and judged by scholarly peers competent to judge. That is how you earn the right to have your views taken as having some basis and some authority. I’m not an expert in virology, or astro-physics, or a number of other fields. So, I’ll have to operate in light of the judgements of those who are. Why should I distrust experts in a given subject? Why should I term it “intellectual bullying” if scholars in a given field asked about a given issue state the generally-held view in a straightforward manner, and ask for justification for rejecting it? (Larry Hurtado’s Wearying Did Jesus Exist? Encore)

Professor James McGrath has said the same:

Carrier suggests that laypeople can and should evaluate the arguments of experts, even with respect to the consensus. That seems to me strikingly odd – if laypeople who do not have the extensive knowledge professional scholars do can normally(and not just in exceptional rare cases) evaluate matters in that domain, then surely that implies that one doesn’t need the extensive knowledge of data experts have in order to draw conclusions. But anyone who has studied a subject even as an undergraduate, and has had what they thought was a brilliant insight, only to discover through grad school that their idea was neither new nor brilliant, will probably protest that Carrier is wrong. (Can a lay person reasonably evaluate a scholarly argument?)

I won’t repeat here what should be the very obvious counter-arguments that I have spelt out in the related posts linked above, especially Can A Lay Person Reasonably Evaluate A Scholarly Argument?

Professor Hurtado’s latest blog post repeats this point:

read more »

Biblical Scholars in a “Neoliberal-Postmodern” World

jesus-in-an-age-of-neoliberalism2This is part 2 of my review of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology by James G. Crossley. (Once again I invite Professor Crossley to alert me to anything he sees in these posts that he believes is a misrepresentation of his views.)

The point of chapter 2, Neoliberalism and Postmodernity, is to

provide the broad contextual basis for analysing some of the ways in which Jesus has been constructed in scholarship and beyond in recent decades. (p. 21)

To explain postmodernism and postmodernity Crossley directs us to Terry Eagleton’s understanding in The Illusions of Postmodernism, p. vii:

The word postmodernism generally refers to a form of contemporary culture, whereas the term postmodernity alludes to a specific historical period. Postmodemity is a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation. Against these Enlightenment norms, it sees the world as contingent, ungrounded, diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set of disunified cultures or interpretations which breed a degree of scepticism about the objectivity of truth, history and norms, the givenness of natures and the coherence of identities. . . . Postmodernism is a style of culture which reflects something of this epochal change, in a depthless, decentred, ungrounded, self-reflexive, playful, derivative, eclectic, pluralistic art which blurs the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, as well as between art and everyday experience.

Crossley explains that he will attempt to link “postmodernity with the political trends in Anglo-American culture”, if not precisely, then by means of a “general case” that itself will be “a strong one”. We’ll see how strong it is as we progress through these reviews.

Crossley did say (see the previous post) that

This book is at least as much about contemporary politics, ideology and culture as it is about Jesus, and in many ways, not least due to unfamiliar approaches in historical Jesus studies, this is almost inevitable. (p. 10)

Now there is much about Crossley’s politics that I like. I share his despair at the political conservatism, the lack of critical political reflection and awareness among his biblical studies peers. I like his idealism and frustration with his peers as well as his respect for their individual decent natures. Unfortunately I sense that too often Crossley loses himself in his efforts to politically educate his peers that he only maintains the most tenuous links with how these political views influence the shape of the historical Jesus produced by these scholars.

The chapter is wide-ranging as we expect when discussions of postmodernity and postmodernism arise. The cultural, economic and political context involves a broad-ranging discussion that consists masses of data: “near hagiographical treatments of the ‘material girl’ Madonna and her MTV stage”,  “Steve Jobs, advertizing his iPoducts as the machinery of the casually clothed”, the politico-cultural symbolism of decaffeinated coffee, television parodies of entrepreneurial culture, 1970s Chile, the recession and oil crisis of 1973, the “sharp rise in personal image consultants in the 1980s”. . . .

Only passing mentions to biblical scholars are found in this chapter (for the reason I mentioned above) and I will focus on those in this post. read more »

What the Context Group (and Casey) Missed

What Is Social-Scientific Criticism?
What Is Social-Scientific Criticism?

Social-Scientific Criticism

In an earlier post — Casey: Taking Context out of Context — we discussed the disturbing habit in NT scholarship of explaining away textual difficulties by playing the high-context card. For example, in What Is Social-Scientific Criticism? John H. Elliott of the Context Group writes:

Further, the New Testament, like the Old Testament and other writings of antiquity, consists of documents written in what anthropologists call a “high context” society where the communicators presume a broadly shared acquaintance with and knowledge of the social context of matters referred to in conversation or writing. Accordingly, it is presumed in such societies that contemporary readers will be able to “fill in the gaps” and “read between the lines.” (John H Elliott. Kindle Locations 125-128)

Similarly, Bruce Malina explains why Paul’s writings are often “misunderstood”:

The New Testament was written in what anthropologists call a “high context” culture. People who communicate with each other in high context societies presume a broadly shared, generally well-understood knowledge of the context of anything referred to in conversation or in writing. (Bruce J. Malina; John J. Pilch. Social-science Commentary on the Letters of Paul (p. 5). Kindle Edition.)

Hoping to explain away the messianic secret, David F. Watson says:

The necessity of protective secrecy was exacerbated in the ancient Mediterranean context by the “high-context” nature of the culture. A high-context culture is one in which people are deeply involved in the everyday activities of those around them and in which information is widely shared. . . . Within the high-context setting, secrecy would be an important and necessary means of protection. (Watson, Honor among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret, p. 25)

Useful but misused

I want to be clear up front. I would never argue that social-scientific criticism is in itself a misguided approach, but I do wish to point out a few observations that indicate a pattern of misuse. We continually read that the people in Jesus’ and Paul’s time lived in a high-context culture, with little in the way of demonstration.

However, a scientific approach demands that scholars provide evidence for their assertions. Besides proving that NT writers lived in high-context cultures, scholars must also prove it follows that their writings will always reflect that high context. Because it is stated flatly as a “known fact,” we miss out on important points of the discussion. For example:

read more »

The Arbitrary Approach to Miracle Stories In “Historical Jesus” Scholarship

* Removing the miraculous from a story does not bring us closer to history; it only destroys the point of the story.

* Two-step miraculous healing of the blind (e.g. spit on the eyes followed by touching them, Mark 8:23-25) are evidently symbolic of the double-efforts to open the (spiritual) eyes of the disciples.

* Jesus’ miracles of exorcisms and healings as portrayed in the canonical gospels are not comparable to the way healers and exorcists really worked. The former are the work of a single divine utterance as befits a creator God or his Son; the latter involve magic formulae and arcane rituals.

I have posted on miracles and what the scholarly literature has to say about them before.* This time I take a different tack.

In my recent post, Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”, we saw that the “type of discourse” and “language categories” of the Gospels group them with fantasy literature and separate them from the sources we rely upon to identify historical persons and events.

This post continues that theme but compares the place of miracles in the Gospels and other ancient literature.

Before we begin let me address common objections.

Yes, we all know the Gospels include many accurate historical and geographical features. (They also contain errors and anachronisms.) But references to real persons and places no more makes ancient narratives “historical” than it makes James Bond movies historical or ancient/modern historical fiction “historical”. See, for example, Ancient Novels Like the Gospels: Mixing History and Myth and History and Verisimilitude: “Real” vs. “Realistic”.

And yes, we all know that miraculous events are found in ancient works that we classify as historical. But there is a clear difference in the way miracles are narrated in works by ancient historians and what we read in various gospels, both uncanonical and canonical. These differences return us to the theme of the previous post, the difference in verbal categories that identify different types of discourse. In historiographical works (at least in all cases I can recall) the discourse conveys an author’s self-conscious apologetic to justify their inclusion in the book. The reason for this is that the historian understands and accepts and writes within the conceptual framework of an “empirically stable reality”. If miracles are introduced the author must explain in some way why he mentions them or how he justifies their appearance in a work that is otherwise about “the real world”. (They were reported by so-and-so; I would not repeat this except that. . . ., etc.) But now we are sequeing into the theme of this post.

Whittling the sources down to the canonical gospels

So how do historical Jesus scholars justify their reliance upon works that are evidently theological tracts riddled with miraculous events? read more »

The Buddha Comparison Fallacy in HJ Studies

English: Christ_and_Buddha_by_Paul_Ranson
English: Christ_and_Buddha_by_Paul_Ranson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only a day after posting the John Meier’s Nixon/Thales fallacy, as if right on cue Larry Hurtado has posted his own version of a similar fallacy, a comparison of the evidence for Buddha with that for Jesus.

Recall the Nixon/Thales comparison fallacy:

When John Meier in his opening chapter of volume one of The Marginal Jew discusses the “basic concept” of “The Real Jesus and the Historical Jesus” he creates the illusion of starting at the beginning but in fact he leaves the entire question of historicity begging.

    • Of course we can’t know “the real Jesus” given the time-gap and state of the records; after all, we can only partially know “the real Nixon” despite his recency and the avalanche of material available on him.
    • Of course it becomes increasingly difficult to assess “the historical” the further back in time we go; it’s hard enough knowing what to make of Thales or Apollonius of Tyana “or anyone else in the ancient world” and the evidence is just as scant for Jesus.

Owens identifies what Meier has done in making such comparisons (my bolding in all quotations):

An implication exists in the double comparison, which is that Jesus is as real as Nixon and as historical as Thales but the explicit point is that there is less ‘reality’ data on Jesus than on Nixon, and as meager ‘historical’ data on Jesus as on Thales.

We note that what we might consider the “first question” of any book purporting to deal with the issue of a ‘historical Jesus’ – the question of whether or not Jesus existed — is being set up to go begging. ‘Reality’ is impossible, and ‘history’ is impossibly difficult, so we are to assume both, as we do with Nixon and Thales.

(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 216-221). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)

See how Larry Hurtado has fallen into the same implicit fallacy with his Buddha comparison: read more »