[This post has been waiting in draft status since 19 February 2015. This year I’m going to try to finish up some of the series we’ve left dangling on Vridar. –taw]
A considerable number of New Testament scholars have recently jumped on the memory bandwagon (see, e.g., Memory, Tradition, and Text, ed. Alan Kirk). Characteristics of this movement include an appeal to social memory and cultural memory as a way to explain ancient literary documents, combined with an often strident rejection of the criteria of authenticity used by many Historical Jesus scholars.
Neil and I generally agree that the criteria approach is useless for uncovering the “real” Jesus. However, besides debunking the criteria on the justifiable grounds that they are circular and do not work, the Memory Mavens also attempt to delegitimize them by tarring them as the misbegotten progeny of the form critics (see Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity). To put it more crudely, they view them as Bultmann’s Bastards.
In this post we’ll demonstrate how the criteria of authenticity actually grew out of the existing criteria of antiquity — i.e., the arguments that source critics employed to address the Synoptic Problem. Further, we’ll note that early historical Jesus scholars used nearly identical criteria in an attempt to prove the authenticity of some parts of the written gospels. We’ll show how the form critics adopted those criteria to try to identify material that came directly from Jesus by way of oral tradition. And we’ll see once again that this new crop of NT scholars is curiously unaware of their own heritage.
What’s in a name?
Recently, while out on my daily walks, I’ve been listening to Bart Ehrman’s course, How Jesus Became God, from The Great Courses (don’t pay full price; use Audible.com), and something he said struck me. While discussing the legendary Joseph of Arimathea, he noted that the apparently older tradition found in Acts 13:29 has a group of unnamed Jewish leaders take Jesus down from the cross an bury him in a tomb.
What appears to be happening here is a phenomenon that occurs throughout the gospel tradition. As people tell stories about things that happened, they start providing names for the nameless. This can be traced throughout our long Christian tradition. There are a number of people in the gospel stories who are left nameless.
So, who were the three wise men that came to Jesus, if there were three of them? Later traditions named three people. Who were the two robbers killed with Jesus? Later traditions named the two robbers.
When people are nameless, later in the traditions people add names to them. The earlier form of Jesus’ burial was the unnamed they — the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin — but as the tradition developed later, the nameless got named. That would suggest that the Joseph of Arimathea story is a later tradition. (“Lecture 9: Jesus’ Death—What Historians Can’t Know,” bold emphasis mine)
This line of thinking reminded me of the discussions surrounding the Synoptic Problem and the methodology for determining which gospel predates the others. In one sense, Ehrman is right: For any story or parable in the New Testament with anonymous characters, Christian tradition (especially post-canonical) will eventually provide names. Besides the names of the “Three” Wise Men and the robbers at Golgotha, Christians eventually supplied names to a host of unnamed people, such as the shepherds in Luke’s Nativity, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the rich man in the parable of Lazarus.
Of course, you’re probably already thinking to yourself, “What about Jairus and Simon of Cyrene?” You’d be right to ask. These names appear in Mark’s gospel, but they’re missing from Matthew. Does that mean Matthew predates Mark? Ehrman clearly thinks not, because he invariably calls Mark “our earliest gospel.” So what’s going on here?
Part 3: John Displaces and Rewrites the Cleansing of the Temple
All four evangelists recount Jesus’ cleansing of the temple at Jerusalem. The Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) place the event during the week before the crucifixion, while John sets it near the very start of Jesus’ ministry. In the ancient church, many, if not most, commentators assumed these accounts of disturbances at the temple described two different events. In fact, you can find apologists today who claim Jesus did it every time he went to Jerusalem, which — if we harmonize John with the other three — suggests that it happened three times or more.
At this point, we’re not going to cover all the detailed reasons that most scholars now believe the pericopae in John and the Synoptics refer to the same event. Nor will we dwell for long on the arguments concerning whether John knew Mark or a pre-Markan oral tradition. As I’ve said many times before, I maintain that John knew the written gospel of Mark. In this case, he used Mark’s account of the cleansing, but he moved it in time and changed it in form and substance for theological reasons.
John agrees with the Synoptics on several basic elements. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem during the time of the Passover, enters the temple’s outer courtyard, and begins to make a scene. We have similar vocabulary in both versions, including the words for “tables” [τράπεζα (trapeza)] and “money changers” [κολλυβιστῶν (kollybistōn)].
In the Johannine and Markan versions, Jesus is wholly successful. John says he drove them “all” [πάντας (pantas)] out, while Mark claims that nobody could carry a vessel through the temple. Both evangelists concur that for a period of time, just before Passover, Jesus single-handedly blocked all temple trade. On the other hand, parts of John’s story diverge from the Markan source. For example, in John’s version we have not just birds and money changers, but large, domesticated animals: sheep and oxen. Did you ever wonder whether they really had livestock pens in the temple courtyard? Andrew Lincoln, in his commentary on the Gospel ofJohn notes:
John’s addition of animals as large as cows has produced some questions about its verisimilitude. Jewish sources fail to mention such animals in the temple precincts and their excrement would have caused problems of pollution of the sacred site. (Lincoln, 2005, p. 137, emphasis mine)
For scholars who think John contains actual eyewitness material, these sorts of puzzles usually elicit a shrug and a “Why not?” However, those of us who are unencumbered by the anxiety of historicity may rightly ask: “Why did John embellish upon the legend? What is the significance behind Jesus’ driving out the sacrificial animals? Is it a portent of the passing of the age of sacrifice (post 70 CE) or is it something else?”
The previous post is here. All posts on this book, both the recent ones from 2014 and those from 2010-11, are archived here.
How is one meant to respond to the words of a secular historian who says it would be “foolish and arrogant” to claim that his approach is “inherently superior” to one used by a Christian apologist? How is it possible for a secular rationalist to engage with a faith-grounded apologist as if both perspectives should be evaluated on an equal footing? Does the virtue of “mutual tolerance” require persons with opposing intellectual agendas to somehow find a way to exchange views constructively and productively? Does the pointlessness of “preaching to the converted” mean one’s efforts to exchange ideas among others with a similar philosophical outlook is also pointless?
Imagine the impact if more and more nonreligious, secular-minded historians were to become NT scholars. But if such a hypothetical collection of scholars were to make its impact felt, there must be mutual tolerance and the avoidance of . . . preaching to the converted. It would be foolish and arrogant to claim that one approach is inherently superior to opposing ones. . . . (p. 32)
How can a nonreligious, secular-minded historian possibly not claim his or her approach is inherently superior to an opposing one that “proves” the bodily resurrection of Jesus?
How can a leopard change its spots? How can the Christian apologists ever agree that their methods and faith-assumptions are not superior to those of the secular-minded nonreligious rationalist? What would be the point of being a secular-rationalist if one did not believe that such an outlook was indeed superior to the methods that are justified by faith?
Crossley confuses particular historical methods and approaches with the philosophical underpinnings most of them have in common: a belief that testable knowledge is more reliably accumulated through secular-rational methods rather than through enquiry guided by and seeking to serve the agenda of religious faith:
Richard Evans has pointed out that the history of history is littered with examples of different hegemonic claims by a given historical theory or practice wanting to dominate the world of historical study but usually ending up as legitimate subspecialities.
Richard Evans was not addressing faith-histories versus secular histories. He was referring to the various approaches within secular history: postmodernists, psychohistorians, Marxists, feminists, social historians. Crossley has badly misunderstood and misapplied Evans’ point. (See Kindle version of Evans’ In Defence of History, locations 2744 and 3688)
This post continues on from The Secular Approach to Christian Origins, #3 (Bias) and addresses the next stage of Professor James Crossley’s discussion on what he believes is necessary to move Christian origins studies out from the domination of religious bias and into the light of secular approaches.
In the previous post we covered Crossley’s dismay that scholarly conferences in this day and age would open with prayer, look for ecumenical harmonizations through all the differences of opinions and tolerate warnings against straying from the basic calling to feed Christ’s flock with spiritual nourishment. Theologians can even seriously publish arguments that would never be found in other fields of history as we see with N.T. Wright’s arguments for the historicity of the bodily resurrection and the widespread acclaim that his scholarship has attracted among his peers.
Crossley argues that the solution to Faith’s domination of Christian origin studies is for more practitioners to take up a solid secular approach. There should be more scholars in Theology or Religion departments doing history the way other historians do. Or more specifically, they should take up social-scientific methods of history.
In fact, however, the social scientific approach to historical inquiry is only one of many types of historical studies open to other historians but Crossley does not address these alternatives in this book. Crossley is concerned with applying only models of economic and social explanations for the rise of Christianity. He wants to avoid the common current approaches that explain Christian origins as the accomplishments of a unique man or the inevitable victory of a superior belief system.
Having addressed the way Christian bias (or more politely, partisanship) has produced “unnatural” historical explanations for Christianity Crossley turns to two examples of how “partisanship” has actually worked to produce positive results and taken historical studies a step closer towards a more “human” or “natural” account.
A Tale of Two Scholars
Two biographies are his primary exhibits.
What I will do here is show how details and biases of a given scholar’s life can affect the discipline — in other words, how partisanship can work in practice. . . . I think the [biographical] details are important because they provide crucial insights into the ways in which the discipline has been shaped and can be shaped. I also feel a bit naked without them. (p. 27)
Historical Jesus scholars cannot deny the archaeological and literary evidence testifying to the grand economic importance of the major city of Sepphoris which was a mere one hour’s walk away from the “nobody-ever-heard-of-it” village of Nazareth. Why does such a major metropolis not once appear in the Gospels? Here is E. P. Sanders‘ answer:
Jesus was not an urbanite. The cities of Galilee — Sepphoris, Tiberias and Scythopolis (Hebrew, Beth-Shean) — do not figure in the accounts of his activities. He doubtless knew Sepphoris, which was only a few miles from Nazareth, but he nevertheless seems to have regarded his mission as being best directed to the Jews in the villages and small towns of Galilee. Nazareth was quite a small village. It was in the hill country, away from the Sea of Galilee, but Jesus taught principally in the villages and towns on the sea. . . . . (p. 12. The Historical Figure of Jesus)
Okay, that’s fine. But it also raises a question. Why do the Gospels so consistently speak of Jesus attracting a massively large following from far and wide — Tyre and Sidon and places beyond the Jordan and “Edom”, for heaven’s sake, many days’ walk from Nazareth — yet fail to mention Sepphoris. Why is Capernaum cursed as if it were a great metropolis whose inhabitants had rejected him, but nary a word of Sepphoris? Continue reading “A little quirk in the “historical” reconstruction of the Jesus story”
What did Paul — or any of the earliest Christians — mean when they called Jesus “Christ”? I mean before the Gospels were written.
If the idea of Christ for earliest Christians and Jews of their day meant a conquering Davidic king, how do we explain why early Christians referred to Jesus as “Christ” and “seed of David” if he was crucified?
Did not Paul apply the term Christ to Jesus as a personal name, not as a title? If so, did Paul have his own idiosyncratic view of what Christ meant, if anything, other than a name?
If Jews at the time of the Jewish revolt (66-70 ce) were expecting a Messiah who would rise up out of Judea and rule the world (as indicated in Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius), did Paul and other early Christians share this same view with application to Jesus?
Did Paul “de-messianize a hitherto-messianic Jesus movement” and turn a Jewish cult into a religion that came to stand in opposition to Judaism?
Novenson sets out the problem in his introduction:
The problem can be stated simply: Scholars of ancient Judaism, finding only a few diverse references to “messiahs” in Hellenistic- and Roman-period Jewish literature, have concluded that the word did not mean anything determinate [that is, it did not convey, for example, the idea of troubles in the last-days, with an Elijah precursor, a coming to overthrow enemies, establish the kingdom of God, etc] in that period [it was merely a word for anyone/thing “anointed”].
Meanwhile, Pauline interpreters, faced with Paul’s several hundred uses of the Greek word for “messiah,” have concluded that Paul said it but did not mean it, that χριστός in Paul does not bear any of its conventional senses.
To summarize the majority view: “Messiah” did not mean anything determinate in the period in question, and Paul, at any rate, cannot have meant whatever it is that “messiah” did not mean. (pp. 1-2, my formatting)
On the Christian side, we have had the astonishing claim that Paul, the earliest Christian writer, did not regard Jesus as the messiah. The ecumenical intentions of such a claim are transparent and honorable, but also misguided since the claim is so plainly false. Jesus is called Christos, anointed, the Greek equivalent of messiah, 270 times in the Pauline corpus. If this is not ample testimony that Paul regarded Jesus as messiah, then words have no meaning. (p. 2)
Novenson’s book argues that for Paul Jesus was the “messiah” in more than just name. But if so, what did the term “messiah” mean to Paul? Novenson will argue that Paul really did understand the word “messiah” in the same sense as other Jews of his day understood the term:
The Casey-Holding Theory of Pauline High-Context Culture
We were treated recently to another dose of apologia run amok in Maurice Casey’s “frightful” diatribe against Earl Doherty. Following in the footsteps of fellow apologist, J.P. Holding, Casey explains away Paul’s silence regarding the earthly Jesus by a misapplication of Edward T. Hall’s cultural context paradigm (ref. Beyond Culture).
According to the Casey-Holding Theory, Paul was silent about Jesus in his epistles because (quoting Casey):
Paul’s epistles were written in a high context culture, which was homogeneous enough for people not to have to repeat everything all the time, whereas American, European and many other scholars belong to a low context culture, which gives them quite unrealistic expectations of what the authors of the epistles ought to have written.
By the time Paul was writing his letters “in a ‘high-context’ realm,” Holding states:
There was no need for Paul to make reference to the life-details of Jesus or recount his teachings, for that had been done long ago.
Both agree on the nature of circularity at the heart of historical Jesus studies. Davies begins with a quotation from E. P. Sanders:
In regard to Jesus research E. P. Sanders correctly observes, “There is, as is usual in dealing with historical questions, no opening which does not involve one in a circle of interpretation, that is, which does not depend on points which in turn require us ot understand other [points],” and he insists that “one must be careful to enter the circle at the right point, that is, to choose the best starting place.” The best starting place, it follows, is one that is historically secure with a meaning that can be known somewhat independently from the rest of the evidence. It further follows, as he rightly says, that one should “found the study on bedrock, and especially to begin at the right point.”
In the field of Jesus research, however, one person’s bedrock is another person’s sand. I cannot honestly think of a single supposed bedrock event or interpretive stance that somebody has not denied. Nor, to my knowledge, are there any two constructions of the “authentic” sayings of Jesus that are identical. One might compile a short set of parables, proverbs, and aphorisms that are universally conceded to be from Jesus, but they will be that set that conveys the least inherent meaning . . . and where one can go from there I am not at all sure. (p. 43, my bolding)
Bill Arnal and Leif E. Vaage are not the only scholars who have published doubts about the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. I mentioned them back in January this year. Another was Burton Mack in Myth of Innocence. (The evidence against historicity is in my view overwhelming. I have shown the weakness of the arguments by E. P. Sanders for its historicity and posted before on how the scenes can be explained entirely in terms of literary function and artifice without any need to resort to assumptions of extraneous events outside the text.) But for sake of completeness here is Burton Mack’s argument for treating it as entirely mythical. I highlight in bold type the reasons he sees evident for the need or wish of early Christians to invent the episode. Far from the scene being an embarrassment to the first Christians to have heard the story, it was surely welcomed. Only later evangelists reading Mark’s gospel felt embarrassment over Mark’s account because they had quite different views of Jesus.
The framework stories of the gospels are the most highly mythologized type of material. They include the narratives of Jesus’ birth, baptism, transfiguration, crucifixion, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances. The transfiguration story is purely mythological, as are the birth narratives, the story of the empty tomb, and the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples. Critical scholars would not say that any of these derive from reminiscences.
The baptism story is also mythic, but in this case may derive from lore about Jesus and John the Baptist. Lore about John and Jesus is present in the sayings tradition, in a pronouncement story, and other legends both in Q and in Mark. John the Baptist was a public figure whose social role was similar to that of Jesus and whose followers were regarded by some followers of Jesus as competitors.
Except for the baptism story, however, there is no indication that Jesus and John crossed paths.
Every scholar engaged in Jesus research is by profession a teacher and so every construction of Jesus the Teacher is formulated by a teacher. These teachers, professors by trade, should wonder if there is not a bit of a Jesus-Like-Us in their constructions. (Stevan L. Davies in Jesus the Healer, 1995)
Most of the Jesus Seminar fellows think that Jesus was not an apocalyptic teacher, so they think that Jesus was a great wisdom teacher, and that helps them to actually preach Jesus, because you can go to the pulpit and say Jesus was a great teacher. (Gerd Ludemann in interview with Rachael Kohn 4th April 2004)
Most scholars, “practically all historical scholars engaged in Jesus research” (says Stevan Davies) “presuppose consciously or unconsciously that Jesus was a teacher.” Davies quotes E. P. Sanders as representative of Jesus research scholars generally and responds with what should be a most fundamental observation:
E. P. Sanders writes, for example, “I do not doubt that those who find the teaching attributed to Jesus in the synoptics to be rich, nuanced, subtle, challenging, and evocative are finding something which is really there. Further, in view of the apparent inability of early Christians to create such material, I do not doubt that the teaching of Jesus contained some or all of these attributes. In short, I do not doubt that he was a great and challenging teacher.” And so, it should follow, we know what Jesus taught. But we don’t. (p. 10, my emphasis) Continue reading “Was Jesus not a teacher after all?”
The stated purpose of Maurice Casey’s book Jesus of Nazareth is “to engage with the historical Jesus from the perspective of an independent historian.” Casey explains what he means by his independence: “I do not belong to any religious group or anti-religious group. I try to . . . establish historically valid conclusions. I depend on the best work done by many other scholars, regardless of their ideological affiliation.” (p. 2)
For Casey, the only correct interpretation of Jesus is one which explains Jesus within a thoroughly Jewish matrix. This means he in fact begins with the assumption that there is an historical Jesus to place within that matrix. He would disagree with that and argue that his book proves the existence of such a figure. On page 43 he writes of “people who deny Jesus’ existence” that
the whole of this book is required to refute them.
This brings to mind the frequent claims of one of another independent scholar who once quite regularly left a similar comment on this blog, saying that a whole book would be required to refute mythicism. Unfortunately, when a scholar says that his book is a refutation of mythicism, one is likely to find that the arguments of mythicists are avoided rather than refuted. I will return to this point.
Casey’s assertion that only a thoroughly Jewish Jesus is a correct Jesus means that for him many publications about the historical Jesus have missed the mark:
The vast majority of scholars have belonged to the Christian faith, and their portrayals of Jesus have consequently not been Jewish enough. Most other writers on Jesus have been concerned to rebel against the Christian faith, rather than to recover the Jewish figure who was central to Christianity in its earliest period. (p. 3, my emphasis) Continue reading “Maurice Casey on the Christ Myth–Historical Jesus Divide”
Following Professor James McGrath’s advice to pay particular attention to E. P. Sanders’ discussion of methodology (pp.3-22 in Jesus and Judaism) I am here have a look at one of the main tests for the sayings material.
Sanders does not discuss any methodology for testing authenticity of biographical events in Jesus’ life. The closest he comes to this is an a priori analysis of the plot narrative: “If Jesus did X then he probably also did or meant or tried to do Y”, or “Since B happened to Jesus then it was probably because he did something like A.”
He does discuss a methodology for the sayings material. It is the criterion of double dissimilarity.
The principle test which scholars have recently used for assessing authenticity is the test of double ‘dissimilarity’ . . .
The test is this: material which can be accounted for neither as traditional Jewish material nor as later church material can be safely attributed to Jesus.(p. 16)
Sanders is well aware of difficulties with this.
There are well-known difficulties in applying the test. We know first-century Judaism very imperfectly, and knowledge about the interests of the church between 70 and 100 CE . . . is slender indeed.
Despite these two deficiencies in our knowledge, Sanders refers to the “Let the dead bury their dead” saying as one example where this test can be successfully applied. (But even this saying has been contextualized within pre-Christian Judaism’s and the early church’s beliefs in the sharp divide between the life of the true community of faith and the spiritual death of those outside. Fletcher-Louis, JSNT 26.1 (2003).) Nonetheless, Sanders continues:
Yet a problem remains. The test rules out too much.
And if the criterion of dissimilarity is valid, then we must follow unafraid wherever it leads. (Price in The Historical Jesus: Five Views, p.59)
Price argues that since every saying attributed to Jesus in the Gospels was written by “church” scribes and for church needs, it follows, by the criterion of dissimilarity, that every saying we have of Jesus is a creation for church needs.
Price appears to be directly responding to Sanders when he remarks that this criterion has been watered down by many scholars on the grounds that, applied consistently, it leaves virtually no sayings left to attribute to Jesus. But of course, we cannot justify a complaint about a method solely on the grounds that it does not yield the results we want.
Back to Sanders.
[T]he remaining material does not interpret itself or necessarily answer historical questions. It must still be placed in a meaningful context . . . .
Since historical reconstruction requires that data be fitted into a context, the establishment of a secure context, or framework of interpretation, becomes crucial. There are basically three kinds of information which provide help in this endeavour: such facts about Jesus as those outlined (. . . nos. 1-6); knowledge about the outcome of his life and teaching (cf. nos. 7 and 8); knowledge of first-century Judaism. (pp.16-17)
The numbers here refer to Sanders list of “facts about Jesus’ career and its aftermath which can be known without doubt. . . . The almost indisputable facts . . . are these” (p.11):
Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist
Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed
Jesus called disciples and spoke of their being twelve
Jesus confined his activity to Israel
Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple
Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities
After his death Jesus’ followers continued as an identifiable movement
At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement (Gal. 1.13, 22; Phil. 3.6), and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul’s career (II Cor. 11:24; Gal. 5.11; 6.12; cf. Matt. 23.3; 10.17)
There is no evidence for any of the above apart from the Gospel narratives themselves. Some are disputed by some scholars (e.g. points 2, 3 and 5). And if such “facts” can only qualify as being “almost indisputable”, that hardly leaves them in the same class of what normally is taken as historical fact, such as Caesar crossing the Rubicon or the existence of itinerant sophists teaching around Athens from the fifth century b.c.e.
That John himself was an eschatological prophet of repentance is clearly implied in Josephus’s account. Further, the depiction of John and his message in the Gospels agrees with Josephus’s view: the preaching in the desert; the dress, which recalled Elijah; the message of repentance in preparation for the coming judgment. These features correctly pass unquestioned in New Testament scholarship. (p. 92)
Associate Professor James McGrath called on anyone sceptical of the historical Jesus to engage a scholar like Sanders point by point (and cited Jesus and Judaism specifically) and see if they can arrive at different conclusions for historicity.
I have already covered the point in Sanders’ own chapter 1, the Temple Action of Jesus. Here I look at just a small detail, but one about which Sanders makes some remarkably strong assertions about historicity and even external controlling evidence for historicity.
Compare what Sanders writes above with the actual account of Josephus that Sanders says supports everything he says. From Josephus.org:
Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and was a very just punishment for what he did against John called the baptist. For Herod had him killed, although he was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having done so join together in washing. For immersion in water, it was clear to him, could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions. And when others massed about him, for they were very greatly moved by his words, Herod, who feared that such strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt — for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise — believed it much better to move now than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would regret.
And so John, out of Herod’s suspiciousness, was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death; but it was the opinion of the Jews that out of retribution for John God willed the destruction of the army so as to afflict Herod.
How much of what Sanders’ says is “correctly unquestioned” really “agrees with Josephus”, as he clearly infers.
The evidence for John being an eschatological prophet?
Read the Antiquities passage again and you will see it is simply not there. There is not a breath of a hint that John was an eschatological prophet. But Sanders knows this, so why does he say “that John himself was an eschatological prophet of repentance is clearly implied in Josephus’s account”?
That John was an eschatological prophet is less clear in Josephus, who here as elsewhere probably downplays eschatalogical features. (p.371)
Sanders seems to miss the axial point here. The reason Josephus downplays eschatological features, if he does indeed do that here, is because he makes it clear elsewhere he is personally viscerally opposed to such rebellious notions. If he suspected as much of John the Baptist how could he possibly have spoken about him favourably, without a hint of censure at any point at all?
But what evidence is there here in Josephus that such expectations are played down at all? There is no hint of any such expectations in John’s teaching according to Josephus. In the Gospels scholars often claim that Matthew and Luke and John downplay the scene of the baptism of Jesus in Mark’s gospel by (a) having Jesus either apologize for it (Matthew) or (b) not linking Jesus’ baptism with John (Luke) or (c) not mentioning the baptism of Jesus (John). But in Josephus we have no evidence to suggest to us that Josephus had any notion of John being an eschatological prophet.
So why does Sanders claim that Josephus implies that he did preach an eschatological message? Answer:
[Josephus] writes that Herod had him executed because he feared that trouble would result. Baptism and piety do not account for that reaction, and a message of national redemption is thus made probable. (p.371)
Look at Sanders’ reasoning here. He rejects the narrative of Josephus as we have it because it is implausible. It reads, just like the gospels, as a fairy tale. The gospel narrative of John’s death is just as plausible as the reason we read in Josephus, and both reasons are quite similar to each other. Herod fears the very popular John denouncing him for his sins, so has him arrested.
Thus in Herod’s motive for arresting John, Josephus and the gospels closely agree. But Sanders does not find this reason plausible in either tale.
Rather than ask the question, then, about the veracity of Josephus’s portrait of John, Sanders seeks to save his historicity by conjuring up an element from the gospels: that John was preaching the end of the present age and a new age of judgment to come.
Sanders then claims, with dizzying circularity, that the Josephus account supports the Gospel narrative!
I intend to demonstrate in a series of posts that there is legitimate room for informed, rational, scholarly debate over the historicity of certain events in the so-called life of Jesus. To disagree with E. P. Sanders and “mainstream scholarly opinion” is by no means to be equated with failing to engage the views and arguments of E. P. Sanders and other scholars sharing a majority viewpoint.
Yet public intellectuals from the field of biblical studies have disgraced themselves by declaring that if so-called “mythicists” disagree with the conclusions of the likes of E.P. Sanders and “the mainstream” they are comparable to “Young Earth Creationists”. (It is Intelligent Design advocates who misrepresent their opponents’ arguments and fail to engage directly with the substantial thrust of the literature they oppose, while “mythicists” do indeed engage seriously and with “mainstream literature”, while “historicists” have tended to remain apparently lazily ignorant and willing to distort and misrepresent mythicist arguments. So if the insulting comparison is to be made at all, it would seem to apply more to the “historicists” than to “mythicists”.) Associate Professor James McGrath inferred that the arguments of E.P. Sanders in chapter 1 of his book, Jesus and Judaism, are of sufficient strength and repute to justify ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with the historicity they supposedly affirm. Hence this post as the first of a series.
Before beginning, for what it’s worth, I do not see myself as a “mythicist”. I cannot see the point of taking such a stand — either mythicist or historicist — in any debate. (I don’t like adversarial debates anyway. I’m more an exploration and testing type of guy.) What surely matters is the examination of the evidence in attempting to understand Christian origins. The point is to be as intellectually honest as we can wherever the evidence and out testing of our hypotheses lead.
E. P. Sanders on the historicity of the Temple Act of Jesus
I will not at this point address all the arguments of E. P. Sanders over what is more widely known as the “cleansing of the temple” scene. Most of his argument is, in effect, an analysis of various proposed reasons or motives for the temple act of Jesus. As such, it assumes the historicity of Jesus. To the extent that his argument does address historicity, Sanders is arguing that Jesus must have done something in relation to the temple, otherwise we are left with no explanation for his subsequent arrest and crucifixion. I see this sort of analysis as an exercise in the exposition of a literary narrative. It is misguided to assume without external supporting evidence that such an exercise necessarily yields up “evidence” of an “historical fact” external to that text. But for now, I will focus on the assumption of historicity per se, and not address each and every one of Sander’s “extremely common” ‘aprioristic’ points (i.e. ‘if Jesus did X, he must have done Y’) (p.9). I will reserve these for a future post when addressing Sander’s discussion of his method and the nature of a “good hypothesis”.
Sanders “establishes” the historicity of the Temple Act before commencing his attempt to explain its specific nature and motive. Indeed, it is its “indisputable” historicity that he claims is his justification for his chapter 1 discussion.
Sanders begins by noting the problems with gospel passages that narrate the temple incident (p. 9, my formatting):
there is neither firm agreement about the unity and integrity of the basic passages concerning the ‘cleansing of the temple’
nor is there absolute certainty of the authenticity of either or both of the sayings about the destruction of the temple.
Despite all this, it is overwhelmingly probable that Jesus did something in the temple and said something about its destruction. (p.9)
To justify his assertion that it is “overwhelmingly probable” that a real historical event lies behind the narratives, Sanders explains:
The accusation that Jesus threatened the temple is reflected in three other passages: the crucifixion scene (Matt. 27.39f.//Mark 15.29f.); Stephen’s speech (Acts 6.13f.); and with post-Easter interpretation, in John 2.18-22. The conflict over the temple seems deeply implanted in the tradition, and that there was such a conflict would seem to be indisputable. (p.9)
This is called in the literature an example of “multiple, independent attestation”. We have three sources (the synoptic gospels, Acts and John), all presumably independent of one another, saying something like the same thing. This, it is argued, strongly suggests that we have three independent witnesses to a tradition that must be traced back to something Jesus really did do or say.
Later, Sanders again writes (p. 73):
. . . the tradition contained in [John 2.19], Mark 14.58, Matt. 26.61, Mark 15.29, Matt. 27.40, and Acts 6.14: Jesus threatened the destruction of the temple (and perhaps predicted its rebuilding after three days).
We seem here to be in touch with a very firm historical tradition, but there is still uncertainty about precisely what it is.
I will unpack the assumption of the “tradition” as the common source below. For now, I will note only that it is by no means certain that the author of Acts who composed the speech of Stephen was unaware of the Gospel of Mark. Many scholars seem to think that this author also wrote Luke, and that he used Mark in composing his gospel. Nor is it certain that the author or redactor of the Gospel of John responsible for the temple incident in that gospel did not know Mark’s gospel. The common literary structure of the trial narrative in the two gospels is the most obvious point in common between the two. Overviews of modern scholarly discussions of the possibility of John’s knowledge of the synoptic gospels generally and Mark in particular can be found in D. Moody Smith’s John Among the Gospels, available in part online. See in particular chapter 6, The Dissolution of a Consensus.
So scarcely before we can begin a discussion of the historicity of the temple act, Sanders’ suggestion that we have three independent witnesses to a “tradition” is shown not to so secure if we let the discussions among “mainstream scholars” be our guiding reference point.
Paula Fredriksen’s on the “scholarly consensus” in relation to the Temple Act
Paula Fredriksen certainly accepts some form of temple act as historical, but also has the honesty to write:
In research on the historical Jesus, however, no single consensus interpretation ever commands 100 percent of the scholarly opinion. . . . Other critics, rightly observing the crucial role played by the Temple incident in Mark’s rendition of Jesus’ story — without it, Mark would have difficulty bringing Jesus to the attention of the priests — question whether it ever happened at all. Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention. (p. 210 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews – my emphasis)
Fredriksen is not ignorant of E. P. Sanders’ views. She cites Jesus and Judaism in her biography and makes frequent use of his ideas throughout her work. I suspect she is thinking in particular of Burton Mack when she writes: “Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention.” Mack’s A Myth of Innocence is also listed in her biography.
Burton Mack’s’ argument for the Temple Act being fiction
The act itself is contrived. Some gesture was required that could symbolize both casting out and taking charge with some level of legitimacy.
Demons would be too much, since Jesus is about to be taken. It would, in any case, have been implausible. But filthy lucre would do just fine. Taxes and the temple treasury had been hot political issues underlying much of the history of conflict between Jerusalem and Rome. The citations from Isaiah and Jeremiah could put Jesus on the safe side of the conflict, motivated by righteous indignation. Jewish authorities (scripture) could be used against Jewish practice. The subtheme of temple robbery, moreover, given with the citation from Jeremiah, was also most convenient. Temple robbery was a stock image of temple degredation in the popular imagination, combining criminal activity with impiety.
The first use of the theme in Mark is Jesus’ application of Jeremiah’s charge to those who brought and sold in the temple (that is, animals for offerings and money at foreign rates of exchange). This subtheme occurs at the arrest where Jesus chides the arresters coming after him as though he, not the money changers, were the temple robber (Mark 14:48). This develops the theme somewhat, playing on the symbolic significance of the temple act and putting the countercharge in his opponent’s mouth. At the trial the question of Jesus’ authority is the more important theme, but the temple act has not been forgotten. Jesus’ authority is related to the kingdom, the substitute for the temple, thus builds (sic) upon the temple act as symbolically having taken charge. The hearsay about destroying the temple pushes the symbolism of the act in the direction of an exorcism (casting out as destroying). And underlying the charge of blasphemy is desecration, also related allusively to the temple act. When Jesus is crucified then, he is positioned between two robbers, that is, as one who desecrated the temple (Mark 15:27). Thus the subtheme is carried through to the end. It is a fictional theme derived from the scriptural citations.
The temple act cannot be historical. If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence. The anti-temple theme is clearly Markan and the reasons for it can be clearly explained. The lack of any evidence for an anti-temple attitude in the Jesus and Christ traditions prior to Mark fits with the incredible lack of incidence in the story itself. Nothing happens. Even the chief priests overhear his “instruction” and do nothing. The conclusion must be that the temple act is a Markan fabrication.(pp. 291-292, my emphasis. I have also broken up the first paragraph into three parts for easier web-reading.)
(Mack’s statement, “If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence”, addresses a point too rarely absent from “historicist” discussions about Jesus. Remove the scriptural embellishments and other plot devices and there is no ‘person’ left for history to see. This is why it is fallacious to claim that, since mythical associations do not discredit the historicity of ancient characters like Alexander or the Caesars, so therefore they should not discredit the historicity of Jesus. This argument misses the point: remove the mythical associations from Alexander and the Caesars and there is still plenty of ‘historical person’ left over to see. This is not the case with Jesus. But I am addressing here the correct logic of Mack’s argument. Mack himself accepts that there was an historical Jesus. One wonders, however, how Fredriksen or other “mainstream scholars” might have reacted if it had been a “mythicist” who expressed the above argument.)
The Origin of the story: Historical Tradition or Textual Tradition?