2019-01-20

A Pre-Christian Suffering Messiah Idea: Concluding a Case Against

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by Neil Godfrey

For a discussion of the old view of Israelite Kingship and comparison with today’s understanding:

Clines, David. 1975. “The Psalms and the King.” Theological Students’ Fellowship Bulletin 71: 1–6. (Reprinted in On the Way to the Postmodern: Old Testament Essays, 1967–1998, vol. 2 (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 293; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp. 687-700.)

The last part of H. H. Rowley’s argument against the views of Joachim Jeremias and others that at least some Second Temple Judaeans held the notion of a Suffering Messiah relates to views that are no longer extant, as far as I am aware, among biblical scholars today. My understanding is that few today continue to hold to the idea that Israel’s kings participated in annual rituals of humiliation and rebirth as representatives of a dying and rising divinity.

If, as was once widely understood, the king of Israel or Judah regularly enacted such a ritual,

This evidence would seem to justify the inference that the concepts of the Davidic Messiah and of the Suffering Servant alike had their roots in the royal cultic rites, though they developed separate elements of those rites. (87)

That is, the separate concepts of Davidic Messiah and Suffering Servant developed their own pathways after the demise of the kingdom and during the periods of Babylonian captivity and Second Temple era.

Rowley next step (along with other scholars) is to posit that these two separate strands of ideology were united in the teachings of Jesus himself. Why with Jesus? Because

There has been no success in all the endeavours made to find previous or contemporary identification of the Messiah with the suffering servant of Yahweh. (87)

Rowley is citing H. Wheeler Robinson, whose complete statement follows:

It is no exaggeration to say that this is the most original and daring of all the characteristic features of the teaching of Jesus, and it led to the most important element in His work. There has been no success in all the endeavours made to find previous or contemporary identification of the Messiah with the suffering servant of Yahweh. The Targum of Jonathan for Isaiah liii. does give a Messianic application to some parts of the chapter, but, by a most artificial ingenuity, ascribes all the suffering to the people, not to its Messiah. This is very significant for the main line of tradition. There is no evidence of a suffering Messiah in previous or contemporary Judaism to explain the conception in the consciousness of Jesus. (Robinson, 199)

“Most original and daring”? Do I detect a confessional bias leading to the conclusion that Jesus owed nothing to distinctive or innovative to any earlier Jewish belief systems?

It seems so.

One may wonder if Rowley’s arguments against the general views of Jeremias and others are influenced by religious faith so that they become very exacting in demanding unambiguous and explicit statements testifying to a pre-Christian suffering messiah view; but one must also concede that the arguments of Jeremias rest most heavily on inference and one’s own assessments of probability.

Postscript: Another point I have not addressed in these posts is raised by critics other than Rowley against the idea of a pre-Christian suffering messiah. That is, making a clear distinction between “suffering” messiah and a “slain” messiah. In sifting through the evidence some scholars would insist that we be careful not to assume that a messiah who is killed is necessarily one who suffers as in experiencing the sorts of torments apparently suggested in Isaiah 53.

I titled this post, “concluding a case against”, not “the” case. If I begin to see that Morna Hooker has added further significant arguments against the views of Jeremias I will post those here, too.

Previous posts in this series:

  1. A Suffering Messiah Before Christianity? — the other side of the question

  2. Questioning the Claim of a Pre-Christian Suffering Messiah

And the series covering Jeremias’s case for a pre-Christian suffering/dying messiah:

Zimmerli & Jeremias: Servant of God (8 posts)


Robinson, H. Wheeler. 1942. Redemption and Revelation: In the Actuality of History. Library of Constructive Theology. London: Nisbet.

Rowley, H. H. 1952. The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament. London: Lutterworth Press.


 


2015-07-15

Understanding Historical Sources: Primary, Secondary and Questions of Authenticity

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by Neil Godfrey

There is no need, when I have found the source, to follow the streams (John Bolland in Acta Sanctorum 1845: vol. 1, xx). — cited by Henige (2005)

.

In fact, the historiography of historical Jesus scholars is eclectic and often unconscious or uninformed of a specific historiography. (McKnight 2005, p.16)

.

henigeIn my recent post Comparing the sources for Caesar and Jesus I referred to Historical Evidence and Argument (2005) by the historian David Henige. It contains an excellent chapter on the problems historians face with various kinds of source materials. It’s the sort of work not a few theologians who regard themselves as historians yet who have had little formal training in history beyond their field of biblical studies would do well to read. As for the rest of us, it can help clarify our understanding of the sources that lie behind the stories and arguments we read about the origins of Christianity.

Sources are commonly said to fall into two types. (Henige discusses more than two but I focus here on the main ones.)

1. Primary sources

Confusion sometimes arises depending on whether the historian is referring to “absolute” or “relative” primary sources.

The latter approach [i.e. primary in the relative sense] allows considerably more latitude, perhaps too much, in that whichever sources we have that are — apparently — closest to the events we are interested in are duly termed “primary,” even though they might be separated by centuries from these events. By this way of thinking, historians would always have access to something called “primary” because each historian can define the term idiosyncratically. (Henige 2005: 43)

What is meant by primary in the “absolute” sense?

Leopold von Ranke, and before him John Lingard, held a more stringent view; only a source that was at least “contemporary” can justly be considered primary.1 This sounds reasonable and would help provide consistency . . . (pp. 43-44)

The footnote is to the following: Continue reading “Understanding Historical Sources: Primary, Secondary and Questions of Authenticity”


2011-03-26

Finding Jesus Under the Stone: The Gospel of Thomas Guide to the Scholarly Search for the Historical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Sefurieh - Plain of Buttauf, Palestine, 1859
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There is a passage in the Gospel of Thomas that would seem to encapsulate the historical methodology some scholars use to reconstruct the historical Jesus:

77 Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained.

Split a piece of wood; I am there.

Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

Professor Bruce Chilton‘s book Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography is a classic case study of how biblical scholarship can be so consumed by its idée fixe that “the historical Jesus” will be found everywhere the faithful scholar looks:

  1. beneath every stone the archaeologist lifts in Galilee,
  2. behind the fabulous tales of miracles and supernatural characters in the canonical gospels,
  3. wedged within every extra-canonical text one cares to split apart. Continue reading “Finding Jesus Under the Stone: The Gospel of Thomas Guide to the Scholarly Search for the Historical Jesus”

2010-10-13

History for Dummies (and Biblical Scholars)

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by Neil Godfrey

First aid training dummies.
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A biblical scholar earlier this year publicly asked:

Any recommendations on reading about the philosophy and methods of historical research, written by someone with no connection to Biblical studies?

I did provide that professor with a number of suggestions (the post included major figures in the field of twentieth-century historiography and readings that would lead to others not discussed in detail in that post), and no doubt he will read them as soon as opportunity permits.

The same biblical scholar in the same public comment demonstrated his eagerness to learn how “history” as practiced by historical Jesus scholars is viewed by historians in nonbiblical areas when he wrote:

I don’t know – I asked a colleague in the history department about methods and the “criteria” used in historical Jesus research, and he basically said that history, once you get beyond the groundwork of trying to date sources, is “an art.”

Continue reading “History for Dummies (and Biblical Scholars)”


2010-10-06

Bible: Story or History? Art or Real Life?

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by Neil Godfrey

Dionysos mask, found in Myrina (now in Turkey)...

One New Testament scholar has written that Jesus’ real life was lived out just like a real Greek tragedy. Jesus’ travels, works and sayings, all his life, just happened to all follow a sequence and specific eventfulness that had all the appearance, to anyone who was observing, of working out just like a drama on a Greek tragic stage! I will return to this otherwise interesting NT scholar.

Thomas L. Thompson‘s The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham is recognized as having been the wedge that dislodged the dominance of Albright‘s influence on Old Testament studies. Albright had argued that the Bible was basically true history from the Patriarchs through to the Babylonian captivity. Thompson’s critique went beyond the specific archaeological evidence itself, however. He went to the heart of the way (Albrightian) biblical historians gratuitously assumed that the biblical text was essentially a historical record of Israel. The Bible is first and foremost literature, and it is as literature that it must be first understood. A little basic literary analysis is enough to explain many of the details of the Bible stories.

In a recent post discussing a book by Sheffield scholar David Clines I quoted the same core historical principle:

It is indeed usual for practitioners of biblical literary criticism to insist that the literary must precede the historical, that we must understand the nature of our texts as literary works before we attempt to use them for historical reconstruction. . . . But [in the case study of Nehemiah] the literary and historical have been so closely bound up, historical questions being raised — and sometimes answered — in the very process of asking the literary questions. (From David J. A. Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help? 1990. p. 163)

So to the point of this post: Continue reading “Bible: Story or History? Art or Real Life?”


2010-08-30

Brodie (almost) versus McGrath on historical methodology in NT studies

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by Neil Godfrey

Missed it by that much
Missed it by that much

Thomas L. Brodie has a chapter (“Towards Tracing the Gospels’ Literary Indebtedness to the Epistles” in Mimesis and Intertextuality) discussing the possibility of the Gospel authors using the NT epistles among their sources, but what I found of most interest was his discussion on methodology and criteria. The difference between Brodie’s discussion of historical methodology and that espoused by James McGrath comes close to being starkly different as day is from night. But it is not clear that Brodie is fully aware of what I think are the implications of what he writes. Continue reading “Brodie (almost) versus McGrath on historical methodology in NT studies”


2010-08-04

Naivety and laziness in biblical historiography (Nehemiah case study 5)

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by Neil Godfrey

Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation. — Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28.

There has been a very strong tendency to take the Biblical writing at its face value and a disinclination to entertain a hermeneutic of suspicion such as is a prerequisite for serious historical investigation. It is shocking to see how the narrative of the Nehemiah Memoir has in fact been lazily adopted as a historiographical structure in the writing of modern scholars, and how rarely the question of the probability of the statements of the Nehemiah Memoir have been raised. (Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help, p. 164)

This post concludes the series addressing the necessity of literary criticism preceding historical inquiry — and how literary criticism itself can answer questions before the historical investigation even begins. See the Nehemiah or Clines archive for the rest of the series.)

Literary criticism: to be set aside or used as a primary tool?

nehemiahwall
Rebuilding the Wall of Jerusalem under Nehemiah by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917) – Public Domain

One finds this confusion between the functions of literary and historical criticisms epitomized by NT biblical historian, James McGrath, when he writes:

The historian is interested in getting back behind the text as a means of gaining access to events that supposedly happened earlier. A literary approach . . . reads the text at face value, and may tell us what a particular author appears to have been concerned to emphasize. . . . A literary approach enables one to grasp the meaning of the story on the level of the text itself. A historical approach digs through and seeks to get behind the text to see what if anything can be determined about the actual historical events. (McGrath, The Burial of Jesus: History & Faith, pp. 56-57)

David Clines, on the contrary, does not accept that any such neat divide can be made between a literary and historical approach to documents. He argues that historical questions can sometimes be answered by literary criticism itself:

It is indeed usual for practitioners of biblical literary criticism to insist that the literary must precede the historical, that we must understand the nature of our texts as literary works before we attempt to use them for historical reconstruction. . . . But [in the case study of Nehemiah] the literary and historical have been so closely bound up, historical questions being raised — and sometimes answered — in the very process of asking the literary questions. (From David J. A. Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help? 1990. p. 163)

The Romantic Imagination Continue reading “Naivety and laziness in biblical historiography (Nehemiah case study 5)”


How literary artistry has misled biblical historians: Nehemiah case study (4)

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by Neil Godfrey

Head-piece to the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah 1...

[W]e must understand the nature of our texts as literary works before we attempt to use them for historical reconstruction. (From David J. A. Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help? 1990. p. 163, my emphasis)

In the case of the Book of Nehemiah, [biblical historians] have very often overlooked the fact that it is a literary construction and have tried to use it as if it were a chronicle giving first-hand access to historical actuality. The reason why historians’ usual critical abilities seem to fail them in this particular enterprise seems to be that they have attuned themselves to Nehemiah as author, and have forgotten that the Nehemiah we meet with in the book is in the first place a narrator. (Clines, pp. 152-153)

This is the fourth in my series of posts that began with Literary Criticism, a key to historical enquiry. Nehemiah case study. The series can be followed via the pingbacks at the end of each post (in the “comments” area) or via the Archive Categories for Clines and Nehemiah.

This post looks at David Clines’ section in his Nehemiah chapter discussing the way historians have been misled by the literary artistry in handling the sequence and times of events, and in the way the author has elected to compress aspects of the narrative. Clines heads this section:

Time, Sequence, Narrative Compression, and Reticence

a. Sanballat’s conversation with Tobiah and Nehemiah’s prayer

Nehemiah 4:1-5

1‬. But it came to pass that, when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was wroth, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews.

‭2‬. And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, What are these feeble Jews doing? will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, seeing they are burned?

‭3‬. Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, Even that which they are building, if a fox go up, he shall break down their stone wall.

‭4‬. Hear, O our God; for we are despised: and turn back their reproach upon their own head, and give them up for a spoil in a land of captivity;

‭5‬. and cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee; for they have provoked [thee] to anger before the builders.

Here the author is creating the impression that enemies were insulting Nehemiah’s wall builders within ear-shot, with Nehemiah responding at the same time in a prayer to God.

Historians such as Hugh G. M Williamson and Joseph Blenkinsopp explain the passage exactly this way in their commentaries. Continue reading “How literary artistry has misled biblical historians: Nehemiah case study (4)”


2010-07-22

Biblical historical methods and the Book of Nehemiah (3)

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by Neil Godfrey

Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem
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Continuing from the post previous to this one,

Could Nehemiah have had reasonable access to their intentions?

This is the passage being discussed. Sanballat and others repeatedly send messages to Nehemiah to meet them at Ono, but each time Nehemiah, believing that they intend to do him “harm”, declines their invitations with the same reply.

1 Now it happened when Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies heard that I had rebuilt the wall, and that there were no breaks left in it (though at that time I had not hung the doors in the gates), 2 that Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come, let us meet together among the villages in the plain of Ono.” But they thought to do me harm.

3 So I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?

4 But they sent me this message four times, and I answered them in the same manner. 5 Then Sanballat sent his servant to me as before, the fifth time, with an open letter in his hand. 6 In it was written:

It is reported among the nations, and Geshem says, that you and the Jews plan to rebel; therefore, according to these rumors, you are rebuilding the wall, that you may be their king. 7 And you have also appointed prophets to proclaim concerning you at Jerusalem, saying, “There is a king in Judah!” Now these matters will be reported to the king. So come, therefore, and let us consult together.

8 Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say are being done, but you invent them in your own heart.” 
9 For they all were trying to make us afraid, thinking, “Their hands will be weakened in the work, and it will not be done.”
 Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands. (6:1-9)

The obvious question to ask (although Clines whole point – writing around 1994 — is that no biblical historian has asked them, save only one, Fensham, who did at least express some awareness of some issues) is how Nehemiah knew about Sanballat’s intentions.

Did a spy for Nehemiah see and overhear Sanballat say “Let’s do some ‘harm’ (in general) to Nehemiah!”? This is scarcely a convincing explanation.

Is it not in fact rather difficult to plot to do harm in general?

If Nehemiah was really informed about Sanballat’s intentions, then we have to explain why he appears not to have known this. He does, after all, repeatedly send the same invitation as if he has no knowledge of the reasons for Nehemiah’s declining it.

Do the subsequent actions of Sanballat and his allies bear out Nehemiah’s suspicions of them?

Well, nothing actually happens from Sanballat’s side to threaten Nehemiah in person or to sabotage the wall building.

Look at the contents of Sanballat’s letter again. All it says is that: Continue reading “Biblical historical methods and the Book of Nehemiah (3)”


2010-07-21

When Bible authors can read their characters’ minds (Nehemiah case study 2)

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by Neil Godfrey

The Jews who lived near the enemies told Nehemiah 10 times that they would attack us from every direction.
The Jews who lived near the enemies told Nehemiah 10 times that they would attack us from every direction.

This post continues my earlier notes from David Clines’ discussion of traps biblical historians have often fallen into when reading a biblical text that sounds like an eyewitness, biographical record of historical events — with Nehemiah selected as the case study.

Literary criticism must precede historical presumptions

The lesson for historians to learn, argues Clines, is that literary criticism must precede using the text as a source document for historical information. Only by first ascertaining the nature of the source through literary criticism will we know if and how to read it for other types of information.

When the author is an omniscient narrator

In section 2 of his chapter titled Nehemiah: The Perils of Autobiography, Clines begins

It is a sign of omniscient narrators that they have access to the thoughts and feelings of their characters. The narrators of novels do not need to explain to us how they come to know what people are thinking or what they say to one another in private. Nor do the authors of fictions of any kind. But when authors write as the first-person narrators of their work, we are bound to ask how they come to know what they claim to know. (pp.136-135)

In the Book of Nehemiah there are many times the author writes like an omniscient narrator. He also writes as a first-person narrator, and the effect is to persuade readers that what he says about his character’s feelings and thoughts is true.

Only readers on their guard will be alert to distinguishing between what the author could possibly have known, and what he claims to know. And Clines’ observation is that most biblical commentators and historians have been fooled (“taken in”) by the author’s rhetorical technique and accordingly believe whatever Nehemiah says about Sanballat’s intentions, etc.

Sanballat’s reaction to Nehemiah’s arrival

When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about it, it was very displeasing to them that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel. (2.10)

The author does not describe here any observable fact, such as an outwardly hostile reception. Whether or not Sanballat was pleased or not is only something Sanballat could tell us.

But the problem gets murkier.

The author then proceeds to give us the motivation for this particular feeling of Sanballat and Tobiah. This can only be at best speculative.

  • Can we imagine Sanballat using these words, or anything like them?
  • Can Sanballat have been such a racist, or so blind to his own interests as a governor of a Persian province, that the ‘welfare’ of the citizens of a neighbouring province would have been so displeasing to him?
  • Would Sanballat have been thinking that Nehemiah’s work (building the walls of Jerusalem) was “seeking the welfare of the Israelites”?  — or is not this rather the language and thought of Nehemiah?
  • Would not Sanballat have thought of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judea as “Judeans” rather than “Israelites”?

The account is clearly entirely the point of view of Nehemiah about his enemy. It is scarcely “a historical report”.

Now Ezra 4:8-16 does make a claim for some evidence of Samarian hostility against Jerusalem. But the letter is not evidence for Sanballat’s motivations.

Clines asks, even if we grant that Nehemiah is correct in his claim that Sanballat was displeased, what conclusions we are entitled to draw about his motives. He answers: none. There may be many possibilities:

  • he might think he has reason to suspect Jewish loyalty to Persia
  • he might resent having a royal appointee with direct access to the king as his neighbour
  • he might be mistaken about Jewish intentions

As Clines concludes:

Narrators may read minds; but real-life persons, and authors, have to make do with guesswork. Nehemiah as narrator is hardly likely to be a reliable witness to the motives of people he regards as his enemies. But modern historians of the period are so good-natured that they prefer to take Nehemiah’s guesses for truth unless there is evidence to the contrary. Is this a historical method?, I ask. (p.138)

Sanballat’s taunting of the Jews Continue reading “When Bible authors can read their characters’ minds (Nehemiah case study 2)”


2010-07-01

Literary criticism, a key to historical enquiry (Nehemiah case study)

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by Neil Godfrey

It is indeed usual for practitioners of biblical literary criticism to insist that the literary must precede the historical, that we must understand the nature of our texts as literary works before we attempt to use them for historical reconstruction. (From David J. A. Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help? 1990. p. 163, my emphasis)

Clines further remarks that sometimes the very process of asking literary questions can itself lead to the raising — and even the answering — of historical questions. His case study is the Book of Nehemiah.

Clines tests the reliability of Nehemiah on four areas:

  1. narrative about Nehemiah’s own mind, intentions, feelings, motivations
  2. narrative about the minds of other characters, their intentions, feelings, motivations
  3. matters of time, sequence, narrative compression, and reticence
  4. evidence of a romantic imagination at work.

This post looks at Cline’s analysis of the first of these. Continue reading “Literary criticism, a key to historical enquiry (Nehemiah case study)”


2010-06-29

Kafka’s biblical historians outdo Alice in Wonderland’s trial

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by Neil Godfrey

Queen_of_HeartsIn preparing to compose a post on literary criticism and contributions of David Clines, I turned to check a contrasting reference in James McGrath’s The Burial of Jesus and unfortunately got sidetracked with the following blurring of opposing concepts (sorry, Rich — I know, I’ve done this one to death, and I cannot outdo my comprehensive treatment of the methodological issues here, but I’ll hit this button just once more before returning to my literary criticism discussion):

Historical study deals with evidence, with the question of what we can know about the past, and with what degree of certainty. Christians cannot afford to ignore or bypass such historical investigations. And yet many of Christianity’s traditional claims, including (but not limited to) the resurrection of Jesus, may not be able to be proven with certainty, “beyond reasonable doubt”, from our perspective in time and space. (p.13)

It is a pity that logic and clarity of thought are not prerequisites for doctorates in all fields of study. Here we read the language of the courtroom, such as the idea of being unable to prove that something happened “beyond reasonable doubt”. But at the same time he blurs the distinction between the concepts of “evidence” and “claims”. The content of a mere claim is not evidence. Evidence is an indisputable fact that you might make a claim about. The claim itself is distinct from the evidence.

The idea of proving beyond reasonable doubt that a suspect murdered his mother must first start with evidence that is itself without any doubt as to its existence. A fingerprint, a bloodstained knife. There can be no possible doubt about the existence of these. Even more, a cadaver with mortal wounds. Now that is evidence of a murder. Where the “beyond reasonable doubt” bit kicks in is over the guilt of a particular suspect. Now that means that the visible, tangible evidence about which there can be no doubt whatsoever must be interpreted according to certain rules.

Now what each witness says or claims is not a fact or evidence in the same sense that the fingerprint or the cadaver itself is a fact or evidence. But we need to have real evidence that gives us a number of starting points from which to test these claims of witnesses.

Without some tangible indisputable certain evidence to begin with, claims bear no necessary relation to the real world at all. Merely claiming that a mother was murdered without any evidence that there was a murder at all is gossip, rumour, slander, fiction, fantasy, wishful thinking, paranoia, suspicion, but it is not evidence.

And this is what other (nonbiblical) historians generally understand and how they work. They have primary evidence for Julius Caesar, his nephew Augustus, the Roman empire, the Senate. Coins, epigraphical evidence, archaeological remains. From this indisputable set of absolutely certain evidence we have a starting point for interpreting certain texts as making historical claims. Literary criticism can assist us in sifting out narratives that are fictional from those that are historical. Some claims are “factional” — fiction written in the guise of fact (so Clines). But the starting point that always gives historians some basis for knowing when a text is at least addressing genuine historical events is primary evidence that is tangible, real.

McGrath refers to the study of this tangible and real evidence as “sub-disciplines” of history. Continue reading “Kafka’s biblical historians outdo Alice in Wonderland’s trial”


2010-06-28

How theology mocks biblical history

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by Neil Godfrey

Theology of the Court Jester, a theological re...
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It is slightly amusing, also disheartening, to see the way theologically biased biblical scholars make a complete mockery of their attempts to explain Christianity historically.

James G. Dunn did not like implications that could conceivably be drawn from the recent discussions of Bauckham and Hurtado over attempts to explain historically how Jesus came to be given a divine-like status and to be catapulted so early after his death to a position alongside God “at the center of their devotional life, including their worship practices”. Hurtado’s most recent book summarising many of the arguments and attempting an historical answer is provocatively titled: How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?

But throughout his valiant response to ensure that pure Christian doctrine is not compromised in anyone’s minds — and hence his Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? — Dunn apparently remains oblivious to the historical implausibilities and contradictions he is creating for himself, and his orthodox model of Christian origins.

His worry is not primarily historical, but theological. He writes:

[T]here are some problems, even dangers, in Christian worship if it is defined too simply as worship of Jesus. . . . Christian worship can deteriorate into what may be called Jesus-olatry. That is, not simply into worship of Jesus, but into a worship that falls short of the worship due to the one God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I use the term ‘Jesus-olatry’ as in an important sense parallel or even close to ‘idolatry’. . . .

So the danger with a worship of Jesus is that the worship due to God is stopping at Jesus, and the revelation of God through Jesus and the worship of God through Jesus is being stifled and short-circuited. (p.147)

(my emphasis etc)

Here Dunn has cast off his historian’s hat and is batting exclusively for “the pure faith”. He warns of dangers, deterioration, “our” Lord Jesus Christ, and the violation of the second of the ten commandments. Oh dear. No room for history students here. Of course I have no problem with Dunn taking this stance. But if he also claims to be “doing history” he is discrediting his efforts and declaring that on this particular topic he is totally in the service of The Faith.

Dunn then finds relevance to his argument in the late antiquity and early medieval debate within Christianity over the meaning and place of icons. The New Testament says Jesus is an icon (eikon=image), not an idol.

For, as the lengthy debate in Eastern Christianity made clear, the distinction between an idol and an icon is crucial at this point. An idol is a depiction on which the eye fixes, a solid wall at which the worship stops. An icon on the other hand is a window through which the eye passes, through which the beyond can be seen, through which divine reality can be witnessed.

Paul also says a man, any man who does not cover his head while praying, is an icon of God!

For a man indeed ought not to cover [his] head, since he is the image (eikwn) and glory of God (1 Corinthians 11:7)

Christians in particular are also said to be the very images of God himself:

and have put on the new [man] who is renewed in knowledge according to the image (eikona) of Him who created him (Colossians 3:10)

But I should leave that little question for the theologians to resolve.

Back to the historical difficulty that Dunn’s theology creates for the historian. . . . Continue reading “How theology mocks biblical history”