2022-08-05

How (and Why) Jewish Scriptures are used in Mark’s Passion Narrative — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 9

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

All posts reviewing Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture are archived at Vette : Writing With Scripture

With thanks to T&T Clark who forwarded me a review copy.

Having “settled” again (this time Thailand) I can resume my discussion of Nathanael Vette’s [NV] Writing With Scripture. We come now to the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of Mark, the culmination of Mark’s narrative and the part most intertwined with Scriptural references and allusions. The point of NV’s discussion is to demonstrate that here our Markan author uses Scripture in the same way as we find it used in other extra-canonical Second Temple literature, sometimes explicitly but very often as implicit allusions. The former method is generally expositional (containing a commentary on the meaning of the Scripture), the latter compositional (repeating motifs and images to flesh out a story.) And the question that inevitably arises:

  • Are the scenes of the Passion Narrative created from Scripture?

NV zeroes in on five echoes of Scripture in the Passion Narrative:

  1. Mark 14:21 where Jesus cites Scripture to announce that one of the disciples eating with him would betray him;
  2. Mark 14:24 where Jesus speaks of his blood (represented by the wine) being poured out for many;
  3. Mark 14:27 where Jesus quotes Zechariah to predict his disciples would desert him;
  4. Mark 14:34 where we read of Jesus’ sorrow in Gethsemane;
  5. Mark 15:21-41 where the crucifixion reminds readers of Psalm 22.

NV studies each case by comparing how the other evangelists wrote the parallel scenes and how other Jewish texts also treated the Scripture Mark appears to have used. NV is also alert to the possibility that Mark is “scripturalizing” a pre-existing tradition or narrative — as per Mark Goodacre’s attempt to find a mid-way point between “prophecy historicized” and “history remembered” (Crossan). I think Crossan has the upper hand, though, insofar as he bases his analyses on the sources available. If there is no evidence for an existing tradition or source behind Mark then it is undoubtedly unnecessary to speculate on Mark’s adaptation of such a tradition or source.

The following notes focus only on key conclusions NV draws from in-depth discussions of each:

  1. Re Mark 14:21 — When NV notes that Matthew and Luke do not follow the details of Mark’s account of the betrayal with its apparent references to Psalm 41:9 (e.g. Judas eating bread with Jesus) he suggests the possibility that they did not recognize what we take to be Mark’s source in the Psalms. Perhaps. Yet the variants surely demonstrate that the simplest conclusion to draw and one that goes no farther than interpreting the evidence at hand rather than the mind of the author or hypothetical sources, is that the variations of the other Gospels indicate nothing more than that the authors were at liberty to rewrite Mark according to their own theological and literary interests and each felt free to use Scriptures as their source according to their narrative plans.
  2. Re Mark 14:24 — NV is unable to decide if the words “this is my blood of the covenant” (taken from Exodus 24:8) are combined with Isaiah’s suffering servant who is “poured out to death” and concludes with Howard Clark Kee, “There are no sure references to Isa 53.” (No mention is made of Leviticus 9:9 where Aaron’s sin offering involves blood being “poured out” (ἐξέχεεν) at the altar in preparation for making atonement for the people or the possibility that Mark was combining sacrificial terms from Exodus and Leviticus. We know from the opening verses of Mark that the author was quite capable of combining passages from different books to make a new “scripturalized” saying.)
  3. Re Mark 14:27 — While Zech 13:7 is quoted by Jesus to predict what his followers would do when he was handed over, the ensuing scene is not composed with the same words we find in Zechariah. Zechariah’s words for striking, fleeing, and the sword are replaced by effective synonyms in Mark’s description of the action: “It would appear then the words of Zech. 13:7 serve to interpret the flight of the disciples, not to describe the act of desertion itself.” (NV, p. 175) The words may not be the same but the actions described can surely be explained as being inspired by Zechariah as the narrative’s source. 
  4. Re Mark 14:34 — The echo of Psalm 42 is surely real given the regularity with which that Psalm is used in other Jewish literature in connection with the suffering of the righteous one.
  5. Re Mark 15:21-41 — There is little doubt that Psalm 22 was the source for many of the details of the crucifixion, just as the same Psalm is found as a source for narrative details for stories of Esther, in Qumran literature and in the story of Joseph and Aseneth. But it is not the only source since one finds sporadic details from other Scriptures in the mix, too. All this is one with other Jewish literature and its use of Scripture, as earlier posts have indicated.

NV notes the way Mark has woven the Passion Narrative with reminders of the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 (the command to Watch, the supernatural darkness, the prophecy of seeing the Son of Man coming, etc) in order to drive home the cosmic significance of the crucifixion. Mark links both directly and through symbolism the crucifixion to the war of 66-70 which was seen as God’s judgment on his people for their rejection of Jesus.

Something different about Mark

This brings me back to an important difference between Mark’s use of Scripture and how the other evangelists deployed it.

As NV writes, Mark does not

. . . introduce a schema of prophetic-fulfilment for the Passion Narrative as a whole. Elsewhere in the Gospel, there are isolated instances where certain events correspond to, or happen in fulfilment of, the Jewish scriptures. [Mk 1:2-3; 7:6-7; 9:12-13]. But Mark lacks the explicit interpretive schema one finds in the editorial comments of Matthew (1:22; 2:17,23:4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9) and John (12:16, 38; 15:25; 18:9; 19:24, 36). For the most part, the concept of prophetic-fulfilment is undeveloped in Mark. (NV, 165. My bolding in all quotations)

Other aspects (e.g. motivation of actions and words, explanatory background) of Mark’s narrative also appear undeveloped and the best reason I have found to explain such characteristics in Mark is given by Nicole Duran in Power of Disorder: Ritual Elements in Mark’s Passion Narrative. Mark is writing not only a “scripturalized narrative” but, unlike the other evangelists, he is also writing a “ritualized narrative”. Continue reading “How (and Why) Jewish Scriptures are used in Mark’s Passion Narrative — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 9”


2022-07-21

Clarification of the Thesis — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 8

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by Neil Godfrey

All posts reviewing Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture are archived at Vette : Writing With Scripture

With thanks to T&T Clark who forwarded me a review copy.

I have come to a turning point in my reading and review of Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture. I first learned of the book on the Biblical Criticism & History Forum where a member described it as “amazing. A real game changer” — How could I not read it! What I was expecting was a theoretical analysis of how the author of the Gospel of Mark used Scripture to construct his narrative. It was with that optimism that I approached the book. After my first reading I thought I might have read too quickly and that I would see more with a slower re-reading as I wrote about it for this blog. But after having now arrived at what I think can be described as the beginning of the work’s most critical section, subtitled The Jewish scriptures in the Passion Narrative, and having re-read it several times, marking it, following up the footnotes, and trying to digest it as best I can, I have to conclude several things that fall within four categories:

1. I am not part of the reading audience the author had in mind;

2. The work is written primarily for New Testament scholars and informed lay “liberal” believers in the Bible;

3. The thesis advanced affirms that scripturally allusive passages in the Gospel of Mark “seem to have been triggered by some genuine aspect of Jesus’ career” and similar types of passages in the Passion Narrative likewise have some “traditional or historical sources” behind them – however uncertain we inevitably remain about the exact nature and extent of those sources.

4. The work conforms to the assumptions and methods embedded within mainstream biblical studies, a point I have difficulty with because, as I have demonstrated repeatedly by reference to other historians and philosophers of history, these assumptions and methods are at odds with much of the way historical work outside biblical studies is undertaken. Despite that difference, and when not engaged in apologetics disguised as scholarship, New Testament scholars do often produce works of informative insight and value.

I have also said that Nathanael Vette [NV] raises many issues that invite discussion and debate. And who can complain about that! So let’s continue. Continue reading “Clarification of the Thesis — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 8”


2022-07-18

How Queen Esther Influenced the Fate of John the Baptist — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 7

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

All posts reviewing Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture are archived at Vette : Writing With Scripture

With thanks to T&T Clark who forwarded me a review copy.

I was fascinated by Nathanael Vette’s (NV) discussion of the highly probable influence of the story of Esther on the Gospel of Mark‘s account of the death of John the Baptist. It’s not a new theory that the biblical Book of Esther inspired some of the details in Mark’s account but NV takes us back to a version of the story that preceded its Hebrew or common Septuagint rendering.

A closer look at the passage, however, reveals a much greater resemblance to another Greek text of Esther: the so-called Alpha-text. (NV, 149)

A translation of the Alpha text can be read online at https://www.scribd.com/read/439782177/Septuagint-Esther-Alpha-Version. In the “Forward” (sic) of that online text we read of the Alpha text:

There are two versions of the Book of Esther in the various copies of the Septuagint, however, neither originated at the Library of Alexandria. The common version of Esther is found in almost all copies, while the rare version is only found in four known manuscripts, numbered as 19, 93, 108, and 319. This version follows the rare version, also known as the Alpha version, using the oldest surviving copy as a source text, the Septuagint manuscript 319, while also comparing the other surviving manuscripts: 19, 93, and 108. . . . .

The Alpha Texts version only survives in a few copies of the Septuagint, and based on its dialect, it was translated somewhere in the Seleucid Empire. The Alpha version is probably the oldest of the four translations, as it includes several unique elements that appear to have disappeared in later translations.

NV observes the following Alpha text matches in Mark’s scene of the death of John the Baptist:

  • a young girl (κοράσιον)
  • pleases (ἤρεσεν)
  • at a banquet (συμπόσιον)
  • a king vows (ώμοσεν)
  • with an oath (ὅρκος)
  • “up to half of my kingdom” (ως [τοũ] ήμίσους τῆς βασιλείας μου). — although the expression is common, the Alpha text of Esther and the Gospel of Mark alone “omit the genitive article” found in other manuscript lines of Esther)

The author thereby composed a banquet scene in which a king offers half of his kingdom to a young girl who instead requests the death of one man. (NV, 150)

Rabbinic literature of late antiquity refers to other variations of the Esther narrative and since details from these are also found in the Gospel of Mark it is reasonable to believe that Mark knew of and used versions of Esther now lost to us. NV refers to Roger Aus’s “meticulous” study of the parallels between Mark’s scene of the death of the Baptist and details found in the rabbinic and other versions of Esther. (Some of Aus’s study is outlined in another Vridar post, The Death of John the Baptist — Sources and Less Obvious Contexts.) The most significant point in common is that the one whom the young girl requests to be executed is decapitated and his head is brought into the scene of feasting for display “on a platter”. Continue reading “How Queen Esther Influenced the Fate of John the Baptist — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 7”


2022-07-16

The Message of the Feeding Miracles of Jesus — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 6

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by Neil Godfrey

Nathanael Vette (NV) establishes in detail how the miraculous feeding stories of Jesus borrow from the miracle of Elisha’s feeding of 100 men with twenty loaves. Many readers would no doubt assume that Mark’s source in 2 Kings 4 was obvious but NV takes the reader through each detail to leave nothing to assumption. Even though a reader of Mark’s gospel who is familiar with the Jewish Scriptures would inevitably recognize the relationship between the miracles of Elisha and Jesus, NV suggests that it was not Mark’s intention to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus over Elisha because Mark does not mention Elisha’s name. Interestingly, NV notes that,

More generally, scripturalized narratives tend to inflate the numbers of their scriptural source: whilst only a few guards are burnt in Dan. 3:22, Pseudo-Philo has 83,500 (LAB 6:17) and one thousand (LAB 38:4) burnt bystanders; whilst only Achan is uncovered in the lot of sin (Josh. 7:16-26), Kenaz uncovers 6,110 sinners (LAB 25:4). (NV, 141)

NV uses the two different occasions of Jesus’ miracle of feeding large numbers, each distinguished by differences in geographical setting, numbers of persons, loaves and baskets of leftover remains, to make a point that few readers would disagree with:

. . . the narrative setting of Mk 6:35-44 and 8:1-9 takes precedence over the scriptural model. In this way, the distinctive elements of the episodes – the circumstances leading to the miracles (6:35-37; 8:1-3), the geographical setting (6:35; 8:4). the inclusion of fish (6:38, 41; 8:7) and even the number of baskets (6:43; 8:8) – each reflect their respective Markan contexts. (NV, 142)

Marten van Valckenborch – Feeding the Five Thousand. Wikimedia Commons

NV’s main focus is on the particular ways Mark makes use of Scripture so when he refers to the common interpretation that the twin miracles events represent ministries to the Jews (5000 and twelve baskets leftover) and to the gentiles (4000 and seven baskets) he does so to make points about Mark adapting his use of Scripture to fit his narrative aims.

Secondary Scriptures are mingled with details from the primary source of 2 Kings so we find traces of Israel in the wilderness as well (e.g. “sheep without a shepherd”, “groups of hundreds and fifties”, the wilderness setting and the miracle of food being sent at evening time) and subsequent evangelists demonstrate their awareness of Mark’s primary and secondary sources.

One cannot make a consistent point-by-point comparison between Jesus and other figures from a single Scripture narrative, NV clarifies, simply because Jesus is modeled on multiple persons: not only Elisha but also Elijah, for example.

But once again NV speculates a “historical source” behind the scripturalized narrative:

The multiplication of food was a common feature of miracle-working traditions in antiquity and, at least in Jewish tradition, none was better known than the multiplication of loaves by Elisha.”’ In this sense, the author may have been led to the well-known miracle in 2 Kgs 4:42-44 by the reputation of Jesus as a miracle-worker. (NV, 146f)

I would rather think that it is more economical to speculate that the author was led to the Elisha miracle by the theological interest he had in demonstrating a particular role Jesus has in the gospel. NV includes another interesting set of citations and I’ll quote extracts from there that come to similar theological rationales for the presence of these feeding miracles. Again, as in an earlier post, I will go beyond what NV himself discusses and make a detour with a closer look at two of the works he cites and another work cited in one of those two. (And again, I am responsible for the bolded highlighting in all quotations.)

Analogous stories among other peoples

Outside Biblical and Jewish literature, too, we find many stories of food said to have been acquired or displayed in wonderful fashion. Origen quotes a pronouncement by Celsus in which this great opponent of the Christian faith ranks the miracles of Jesus with the works of the magicians: “and with those which are performed by them that have learned them from the Egyptians, who in the midst of the market places, for a few obols, disclose the venerable teachings, expel demons from men, blow away diseases, summon the souls of heroes, and display choice meals and tables and pastries and desserts which do not exist……..”  Gods and saints were credited with the power to produce or increase food. Bultmann points to Indian stories and the food miracles in the Mohammedan Hadith. A Finnish legend tells of a girl who prepared food for a whole army from three barleycorns. A German fairy-tale has for its subject a marvellous bread which filled an army. There is a wide selection of stories about goblets, bottles, baskets and tables that never empty. It is related that King Alexander had a goblet out of which his whole army could drink without the goblet having to be refilled.  A Celtic legend tells of the basket of Gwydnen Garanhir, in which nine men three times found the foods which they desired.  Ethiopia has a Sun Table which, according to the natives, is always supplied with food by the wish of the gods.  In Africa they tell of the wondrous speaking pot, which fills itself with the food desired. Many feeding miracles are attributed to saints: Francis of Assisi provided food for his fellow-passengers; André Corsini saw his bread increase in his bag; the basket full of fine cherries which the venerable Cottolengo, the “Intendant of Providence,” distributed to a large crowd of poor persons in Turin in 1883, did not become empty, and the abbess of Kildare caused cow’s milk to increase copiously. St. Nicholas fed 83 workmen who were building a new church on one loaf, and yet a large number of pieces were left, etc., etc. Saintyves, who collected a large number of stories and relates them with great verve, points to the literary dependence in the legends of the saints. He recalls the horn of plenty, the attribute of many old gods, and sees in it, as in the bottles, tables, etc., which never become empty, the idea of fertility and initiation rites. According to Saintyves we must therefore regard the loaves in the Gospels as “seasonal loaves the Biblical stories must be interpreted in the light of the pagan ones.

With such a wide variety of stories, it may be asked whether the New Testament accounts perhaps form part of this “pattern.” Did nothing happen? Or did something happen, and if so, what? (pp 625-627)

So what does the Markan scholar who wrote the above think is the motivation for the feeding miracles in the Gospel of Mark? Continue reading “The Message of the Feeding Miracles of Jesus — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 6”


2022-07-14

Creating the Gospel of Mark — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 5

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by Neil Godfrey

Don’t look too hard to try to uncover hidden meanings in scriptural allusions in the Gospel of Mark. Those scriptural allusions may be “nothing more than” fillers to flesh out colourful story details. That’s the opening message of Nathanael Vette (NV) in his third and main chapter discussing five episodes in the Gospel of Mark.

The evangelist sometimes introduces Scripture explicitly to give readers a particular interpretation; other times Scripture is woven into the narrative more subtly. There is no consistent method in the use of Scripture.

The introductory message

Take the opening verses of the Gospel. It is not an exact quotation from any passage in the Old Testament.

To the contrary, the prologue shows an author primarily concerned with the immediate demands of their narrative, untroubled by the precise wording of their sources, and creative in their application of them.  Mark is nourished by the language of scripture more than the substance of it. (NV, 111. My bolding in all quotations)

NV guides the reader through both the Greek and Hebrew versions of the Scriptures in order to explore not only how the author may have arrived at the purported Isaianic quotation but also how to identify the one being prophesied: Elijah or the Messiah? In Malachi’s following chapter (4:5) the prophet speaks of Elijah coming before the “Day of the Lord” while elsewhere in the Gospel of Mark we learn that John the Baptist is the “Elijah to come”, yet the “messenger” in the source texts is surely a more exalted figure than a prophet. Some readers will be surprised to see that NV concludes . . .

In the final analysis, the garbled citation of LXX Isa. 40:3 and LXX Exod. 23:20 (and possibly Mal. 3:1), which is misattributed to Isaiah, is, above all, a prophecy concerning the coming of the Lord. Any reference to Elijah, if intended, is secondary to this aim. (NV, 116)

Perhaps so. Yet do we not find other studies pointing out how the Gospel of Mark is rich in ambiguities and ironies? Might not we read here another instance of Markan ambiguity rather than feel obligated to choose one or another option?

By his appearance you will know him

Continue reading “Creating the Gospel of Mark — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 5”


2022-07-06

Creating New Stories from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

This is the second post in my review of Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark. The series is being archived at Vette: Writing With Scripture. For a richer understanding of the creative literary world that gave rise to our Gospel I highly recommend reading these reviews of Vette’s work alongside an earlier series on Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity by Eva Mroczek: those posts are archived at Mroczek: Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity. While Mroczek explores the ways in which authors understood existing “scriptures” and the ways they felt justified in “rewriting” them, Nathanael Vette [NV] takes us into the close-up view of how authors of the era pieced together new stories from elements of existing ones. (Vette twice favourably cites the views of Eva Mroczek.)

Did the author of the Gospel of Mark create events in the life of Jesus by selecting and combining in new ways various passages and motifs from the Jewish Scriptures?

That Mark used the Jewish scriptures in this way depends in large part on whether this practice can be identified in other works from the period. If it can be shown across a diverse group of texts that the Jewish scriptures were regularly used to compose new narrative, then it would be appropriate to speak of scripturalized narrative as a stylistic feature of Second Temple literature. (NV, 29)

And again,

That Mark composed new stories out of scriptural elements will thus appear all the more likely if the practice can be observed elsewhere, and it is to this question the study will now turn. (NV, 31)

Here I will cover just one of the five Second Temple works that NV studies.

It makes sense to begin with having a clear idea on how to identify a “scriptural allusion or echo” in a passage, keeping in mind that the study is about more than explicitly interpreted passages and stories from (Jewish) Scripture. NV relies upon Dale Allison’s list of criteria as set out in The New Moses. Instead of repeating them here, here is the link to where I set them out, with discussion, and in comparison with other criteria for the same purpose: 3 criteria lists for literary borrowing.

NV begins with Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, or rather with three episodes from the LAB (its standard abbreviation). NV does not discuss the date of this work (Biblical Antiquities) but it is widely accepted as belonging to the Second Temple period. If you want to know why the LAB is dated to the first century see D. J. Harrington’s explanation in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume 2 at archive.org, p. 299; further, a more recent discussion appears in the German language thesis of Eckart Reinmuth, Pseudo-Philo und Lukas, also at archive.org, pp 17-26. (Both Harrington and Reinmuth are referenced in NV’s work although Reinmuth has unfortunately been overlooked from the author index.)

We cannot pinpoint precise details of how Scriptures were used in the narrative constructions of LAB since the surviving texts are Latin translations that do no more than leave hints of Hebrew and Greek source texts. Nonetheless, the narratives we have clearly indicate two levels of scriptural sourcing:

  1. a narrative in the LAB can be based primarily on a story we read in, say, the Pentateuch: that is, a retelling of the career of Israel from the time of the twelve spies being sent into Canaan through Korah’s rebellion and Balaam’s prophecies and concluding with the death of Moses;
  2. that same narrative can be supplemented by events and speeches from other, usually comparable, episodes: so sayings and incidents from Genesis, Joshua and 1 Chronicles can be introduced into the main narrative to enrich it with new detail.

Hence, we read in LAB 17:

Then was the lineage of the priests of God declared by the choosing of a tribe, and it was said unto Moses: Take throughout every tribe one rod and put them in the tabernacle, and then shall the rod of him to whomsoever my glory shall speak, flourish, and I will take away the murmuring from my people. 2. And Moses did so and set 12 rods, and the rod of Aaron came out, and put forth blossom and yielded seed of almonds. 3. And this likeness which was born there was like unto the work which Israel wrought while he was in Mesopotamia with Laban the Syrian, when he took rods of almond, and put them at the gathering of waters, and the cattle came to drink and were divided among the peeled rods, and brought forth [kids] white and speckled and parti-coloured.

That’s quite straightforward. But what is of interest to us is when this author (who was once mistaken for Philo) creates new episodes from the raw materials of Scripture.

NV itemizes several examples. One that he does not elaborate on did catch my attention because it stood out from the others as the creation not only of a new event but of a new character.

The figure of Aod the Midianite magician (LAB 34) is based on Moses’ description of the false prophet (Deut. 13:1-4) among other passages. (NV, 37)

I followed up the references and present here a table to demonstrate how this new person is moulded from Scripture.

Deuteronomy 13:1-4 LAB 34
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. And in that time there arose a certain Aod from the sanctuaries of Midian, and this man was a magician, and he said to Israel, “Why do you pay attention to your Law? Come, I will show you something other than your Law.” And the people said, “What will you show us that our Law does not have?” And he said to the people, “Have you ever seen the sun by night?” And they said, “No.” And he said, “Whenever you wish, I will show it to you in order that you may know that our gods have power and do not deceive those who serve them.” And they said, “Show it. “And he went away and worked with his magic tricks and gave orders to the angels who were in charge of magicians, for he had been sacrificing to them for a long time. Because in that time before they were condemned, magic was revealed by angels and they would have destroyed the age without measure; and because they had transgressed, it happened that the angels did not have the power; and when they were judged, then the power was not given over to others. And they do these things by means of those men, the magicians who minister to men, until the age without measure comes. And then by the art of magic he showed to the people the sun by night. And the people were amazed and said, “Behold how much the gods of the Midianites can do, and we did not know it.” And God wished to test if Israel would remain in its wicked deeds, and he let them be, and their work was successful. And the people of Israel were deceived and began to serve the gods of the Midianites. And God said, “I will deliver them into the hands of the Midianites, because they have been deceived by them.” And he delivered them into their hands, and the Midianites began to reduce Israel to slavery.

Okay, maybe Aod doesn’t earn top marks for creative ingenuity but it is a sign of a new individual being “born”, is it not? Perhaps you will be more impressed with an angelic figure named Nathaniel when we come to the discussion of Jair below.

The Rescue of Abram from the Fiery Furnace

Continue reading “Creating New Stories from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 2”


2022-06-28

How and Why the Gospel of Mark Used Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 1

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by Neil Godfrey

When I offered to post a comprehensive review of Writing With Scripture by Nathanael Vette the publisher sent me a copy and now I hope this first in a series of reviews will begin to do justice to all concerned and interested. I write primarily as a layman for interested lay readers.

Who is Nathanael Vette?

Nathanael Vette [NV] appears on the University of Edinburgh’s site as a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the School of Divinity.

In the book’s Acknowledgements NV thanks Helen Bond for supervising the research that led to this book. Other names many readers of this blog will recognize and who are singled out for gratitude are Mark Goodacre (one of NV’s doctoral examiners), James McGrath (for feedback) and Chris Keith (editor of the series accepting Writing With Scripture for publication). There are other names, of course, but I have listed for context those I think to be most widely known among lay readers. NV also gives a special appreciation to the Issachar Fund “for their generous sponsorship”.

My postdoctoral fellowship at the School of Divinity is sponsored by the Issachar Fund for researching the themes of gratitude and loyalty in Christianity and Islam. My primary research is on the Gospel of Mark and how compositional practices in Second Temple Judaism can help explain the emergence of the Gospel form. (From NV’s profile)

Overview

Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark is divided into four chapters:

The Introduction sets out the two different ways in which Jewish Scriptures are found in the Gospel of Mark: some are explicitly quoted and interpreted or merely alluded to in order “to support an argument or interpret an event”; others we sense are somehow “hidden” insofar as they are “woven seamlessly into the narrative” and we are left wondering why the author wrote that way. Was the author attempting to indicate to readers that Jesus fulfilled the “prophecies” of the Jewish Scriptures? Were events fabricated from those Scriptures or were historical events interpreted through them? Or were the Scriptures borrowed for some other reason? The Introduction will be the focus of this post.

The second chapter sets out a literary context for the Gospel of Mark by examining how Jewish Scriptures are used, both explicitly and implicitly, in Second Temple literature: episodes in Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (Book of Biblical Antiquities), the Genesis Apocryphon, 1 Maccabees, Judith and the Testament of Abraham. I found these to be some of the book’s most rewarding passages. Many readers have been made aware of scholarly studies comparing the Gospel of Mark with Greco-Roman literature (e.g. Homeric epics, Greek tragedy, Aesop, and others) so it is refreshing to be reminded of the Jewish literary context of the Gospel.

The third chapter zeroes in on several passages in the Gospel of Mark itself: those comparing Jesus with Elijah and then with Elisha, the resonances between the death of John the Baptist and the narrative of Esther, and of course the use of Scriptures throughout the Passion Narrative. How do the uses of the “Old Testament” compare in these passages with OT usages in the literature discussed in the preceding chapter? What can be reasonably concluded about the purpose of those usages as a result of the comparisons? NV argues that many of those Jewish scriptural allusions are found in the Gospel because they happened to be raw material the author found useful for fleshing out narrative scenes. In other words, we are in danger of reading too much into the Gospel if we seek to find a theological meaning behind many of the Scriptural allusions.

Finally, NV brings together the different ways in which we find Scripture used in the Gospel of Mark and what these can tell us about the influences and purposes of the narrative. The question that naturally arises is how much of what we read in the Gospel has been imaginatively invented by an author from OT passages and how much can qualify as historical reality? And how can we tell the difference? These questions are posed throughout the book in preparation for a final discussion and assessment at its end.

Introduction

Continue reading “How and Why the Gospel of Mark Used Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 1”


2022-05-05

Logic and the Date of the Gospel of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

Back again! I got waylaid again for a couple of weeks by a swathe of new reading I had to get on top of before writing again. This time it was a few works by Markus Vinzent, his most recent one (Christi Thora =”Christ’s Torah”) and some earlier ones I had let slide for too long; the arrival of Andreas Bedenbender’s published thesis (Der Gott der Welt tritt auf den Sinai = “The God of the World Steps on Sinai”) that seemed required reading given the many references to it in his later works; the arrival via an interlibrary loan of a long-standing request I have had for a Festschrift for Martin Hengel; the arrival of another older double-work by Joseph Turmel (aka Delafosse — works on Revelation and the Gospel of John); and finally the acquisition of Hermann Detering’s Paulusbriefe ohne Paulus? (=Paul’s Letters without Paul?). They are all related to questions concerning our canonical Book of Revelation, the Enoch trajectory of thought in Second Temple Judaism, and the origins and dating of both our canonical gospels and letters of Paul. (Oh, and a publisher of another work even agreed to send me a review copy that retails over $A200 — so it feels like I’ve been overwhelmed with Christmas goodies this past fortnight, though many of them have required some “assembly” — that is, translation. Thank god for DeepL and Google Translate.) — Sadly, the only book I have not had is the one I contributed a chapter for:  the editors last year promised me a complimentary copy but it never arrived, not even an electronic version.

After that little bit of bio update, here’s something of more widespread interest for readers here.

How do we know that canonical gospels, or at least those attributed to Mark and Matthew, were written in the first century?

That the Gospel according to Mark was written around 70 CE and in direct response to that war of 66-73 CE is mainstream opinion. The Gospel according to Matthew, it is said, followed within a decade.

How do we know?

The answer usually offered is Mark 13, the “Olivet Prophecy” of Jesus, the climactic verses applying to the armies of Titus stamping through Jerusalem and destroying its temple.

14 “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. 16 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 17 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 18 Pray that this will not take place in winter, 19 because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again.

. . . . 

24 “But in those days, following that distress,

“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’[c]

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

We often read that the Gospel of Matthew was written for a different community up to a decade later, clearly after the “Gospel according to Mark” came to their attention, so compare Matthew’s chapter 24:

15 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.

. . . . 

29 “Immediately after the distress of those days

“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’[b]

30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. 

One can understand a writer opining that Jesus will return “very soon” in the wake of “the abomination of desolation” that he believes is part of the events of around 70 CE, but why does Matthew, up to ten years later, repeat that view? Had he not noticed that Jesus did not return as prophesied in Mark?

But was not Matthew said to be writing for a completely different community half a generation later? So we do have to ask: why does Matthew repeat so much of Mark verbatim? Would we not expect a member of a community removed from that of Mark, and up to quite some years later, to feel compelled to re-write an earlier text for another audience in somewhat different words that reflected the different community of readers at another time?

If so, why, we must ask, does Matthew’s gospel sound so much like it was written in the same workshop where and when Mark’s gospel was written? Where in Matthew’s text are those little indicators that the author was immersed with a quite different group of readers in mind and with a different time perspective?

And where is the independent evidence, the external indicators, that inform us that the Gospel according to Mark was known by anyone before Irenaeus in the late second century?

In response to that question, one can expect to hear a claim that Justin Martyr speaks of Jesus changing the names of Simon (to Peter) and James and John (to sons of Boanerges), and since Justin Martyr was writing in the mid-second century and the Gospel of Mark documents the same name-changes, it follows that Justin was drawing upon his knowledge of the Gospel of Mark. That sort of reasoning is clearly fallacious, however. Justin in the same documents says many other things that are not found in the Gospel of Mark — that Jesus was born in a cave, that fire consumed the Jordan when Jesus was baptized, that Pilate conspired with Herod against Christ — none of which are found in Mark. It follows, surely, that we do not know what Justin’s sources were and that we cannot confirm that he knew the Gospel of Mark on the basis of one limited cluster of overlaps.

In order to sustain a date for the composition of the Gospel of Mark (and Matthew) to the first century, we need to propose hypotheses to explain why that Gospel does not appear in other sources until the late second century with Irenaeus.

By normal viewpoints, one would need to propose that the gospel was composed without any attribution to some kind of authorship in spite of the fact that external witnesses clearly referencing the gospel identify it as “according to Mark”.

One has to propose that (and why) the gospel of Mark was of little relevance or knowledge among Christian communities beyond the immediate community of its author for quite some years — right into the late second century!

One has to propose why the Gospels of Matthew and Luke follow the Gospel of Mark so closely despite their respective readerships having had decades of different inputs and different needs and questions that related to Jesus and the “good news”.

You know where I am leading. There are fewer hypotheses required to justify a second-century provenance of the Gospel of Mark. “Few hypotheses” is a good thing, says Occam.

I’ll cover arguments related to this question of Gospel origins in future posts. The general theme also requires dealing with the Book of Revelation since many leads seem to point to that work being one of the earliest composed by a “Christian”.

Much to write about. Much more to read.

 


2022-04-10

The Crucifixion of Jesus as Implicit History of the Jewish War

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by Neil Godfrey

The letters of Paul that are understood to have been written some twenty to ten years before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE speak about the crucifixion of Jesus as a simple fact. There is never any elaboration of when or where it happened (unless one treats 1 Thess 2:13-16 as genuine). The message of death and resurrection of the son of God by itself is sufficient to lead to conversion. For Mark, though (and for the sake of convenience and convention I’ll call the author of the second gospel Mark), this was not enough. A detailed story involving betrayal, abandonment, a trial, physical abuse and crucifixion with attendant miracles had to be told. I side with those critical scholars who conclude that all of those details are fabrications since the narrative was created out of various passages in the “Old Testament” and none of Jesus’ followers could have witnessed anything that happened once he was in the hands of the Jewish priests and Roman guards. But even if we concede for the sake of argument that the Passion account of Jesus did hold some “historical core” at its base, there can be no denying that the way Mark has shaped the story with its many allusions to OT scriptures is his own creative work.

Why? Why did he write that narrative and why did he write it the way he did?

Some years back I wrote a series about Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, by Clarke Owens. Clarke Owens was analysing the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a literary critic and argued that it was necessary to see the gospel as a product of its time, and that time was in the wake of the Jewish War that condemned untold numbers of Jewish victims to crucifixion around the city of Jerusalem.

In the past few months I have caught up with another work, or two of them, by a German New Testament scholar who makes much the same argument from his perspective:

  • Bedenbender, Andreas. Frohe Botschaft am Abgrund: Das Markusevangelium und der Jüdische Krieg [= Good News at/from the Abyss: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish War]. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2013.
  • Bedenbender, Andreas. Der Gescheiterte Messias [= The Failed Messiah]. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2019.

Andreas Bedenbender’s view is that the author of the earliest gospel was writing from a place of trauma and was struggling to come to terms with the fate of his people that he had just witnessed. Had not the gospel being preached about Jesus promised the soon-to-arrive Kingdom of God? Now this!? By a “failed messiah” he means a messiah who failed in the same sense that the OT prophets had failed when they preached their warnings about Assyrian and Babylonian captivity if the people of the northern and southern kingdoms did not mend their ways. This position of trauma, Bedenbender believes, explains the dark and confronting features and outright contradictions in the gospel: a messiah who now does, now does not, seem to care for his people, such as when he heals them at one moment but deserts them when they are trying to find him; who terrifies rather than comforts others by wielding his power over demons and the elements; who like a ghost is seen walking on water past his disciples instead of rushing to help them in their distress; who condemns his disciples for an unnatural blindness that they cannot help; who orders silence when a crowd has just heard and witnessed all; and whose story closes with the only witnesses to news of his resurrection fleeing dumb with fear (the earliest manuscripts of the gospel conclude at Mark 16:8).

For Bedenbender the crucifixion of Jesus is a kind of allegory of the fate of Jerusalem. The messiah is made to share in the fate of the Jewish people. From the Jewish historian Josephus we learn that those who did not die from starvation or factional violence or the slaughter of the advancing Roman soldiers or who were not enslaved were crucified:

Scourged and subjected before death to every torture, they were finally crucified in view of the wall. . . . The soldiers themselves through rage and bitterness nailed up their victims in various attitudes as a grim joke, till owing to the vast numbers there was no room for the crosses, and no crosses for the bodies. (Josephus, Jewish War, Book 6: 449-451 – G.A. Williamson translation)

We saw a similar argument in the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier. The Gospels created the figure of Jesus in part as a personification of the people of Israel.

Bedenbender goes beyond the events of the crucifixion, though. Right from the beginning of the gospel, we read of “a wilderness place” that is the frequent abode of Jesus. It is easy enough to relate the “wilderness” image to other wilderness scenes in the OT, most especially the “wilderness” through which Moses led the Israelites for 40 years. But Mark repeatedly refers to a “wilderness place” — έρημος τόπος = erēmos topos — and that brings to the minds of readers of the Greek translation (the Septuagint) of Jeremiah, Daniel and the Psalms the desolate ruin of God’s “place”, Zion and where the Temple had once stood. This is one of the ways in which the Jewish War is woven into the Gospel of Mark from its opening chapter.

Place names and names of persons are related to scenes and leaders that became well-known in the Jewish War of 66 to 70/73 CE. In the OT women are very often personifications of nations and cities and Bedenbender identifies the same figurative tradition in the names of Salome, Jairus’ daughter, Mary Magdalene (Magdala is another name for Tarichea, the scene of one of the bloodiest slaughters of Jews described by Josephus) and the others. Simon, of course, is probably the most prominent name in the gospel and here Bedenbender suggests that we see in this figure an encapsulation of the Jewish rebel movement from its beginning with Simon Maccabee through to Simon bar Giora. Simon Maccabee’s son Alexander became famous for his enforced Judaizations and mass crucifixions of his Jewish enemies, and the names of Tiberius Alexander and Rufus are readily associated with the Roman military confronting Jerusalem. (I can’t help wondering — I know this must seem outlandish to many who have more conservative views of Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus, who carried Jesus’ cross — that the Gospel of Mark could have been written as late as the second century in the wake of horrendous Jewish rebellions in Cyrene and when yet another Simon, with the support of a rabbi “James”, defied Rome. The result of that rebellion in the days of Hadrian really was the ultimate end to Jerusalem and any hopes for a rebuilt temple. Would not that timeline place the author far closer to catastrophic events with a greater likelihood of writing in a pall of trauma than if he had been writing a few years after the events of 70?)

Andreas Bedenbender begins with a study of the meaning of allegory and related literary devices and examines why we should think of the entire narrative, and not merely isolated scenes, as containing a reference to the fate of Judea and what that meant for those who believed in Jesus as their messiah. He analyses the narrative to demonstrate, I think successfully, that not only the parable sayings but the miracles themselves are symbolic and take on a special depth of meaning when read in the context of the war. I believe we can go beyond the miracles and understand other narrative features (beginning with the baptism and call of the first disciples) as rich in “allegorical” references. Bedenbender has an interesting interpretation of Jesus’ debating confrontations with the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees and scribes after his entry into Jerusalem that focuses on Jesus’ attempt to disabuse them (and readers) of any notion of a messiah who was destined to wage a physical war against earthly opponents.

I look forward to posting more details about these works. In the meantime, I cannot ignore my resolution to address Witulski’s case for a Hadrian-era date for the Book of Revelation; and someone else has recently reminded me that I have yet to finish a series I was doing back in 2018 on the Parables of Enoch and the Jewish concept of a heavenly messiah.

And as Tim pointed out in his latest post, more needs to be said about “the insidious nature of agnotology” that poses a potential threat to our futures. We have to remain optimistic if we are to take the necessary actions and I think there are many reasons to be optimistic: look at what these ninthgraders can do! — this and this!

 


2022-01-05

After the Transfiguration of Jesus — Some Lesser Known Allusions to Moses

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by Neil Godfrey

We are well enough aware of the way the Transfiguration scene of Jesus alludes to Moses’ change of appearance on the mountain. Less obvious are the allusions to what follows in the Gospel of Mark:

Commentary Mark  Exodus – Numbers
Moses was also transfigured once and when he descended from the mountain of his transfiguration, the children of Israel were afraid to approach him: just as, according to the original account (Mark 9:15), the people were terrified when they saw Jesus again after his return from the mountain (Luke and Matthew did not understand the meaning of this passage and omitted it).

Note, however, the contrast: while the people feared to approach Moses so that he had to wear a veil over his face, the disciples of Jesus do not fear, though greatly astonished, and run immediately to greet him.

9:2 . . . And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiantly white, more so than any launderer in the world could bleach them.

9:15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were greatly amazed [=ἐξεθαμβήθησαν] and ran at once and greeted him

The same word for the reaction of women seeing the young man clothed in white in the tomb in place of Jesus —

16:5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed [=ἐξεθαμβήθησαν].

Ex 34:29 And when Moses went down from the mountain, . . . . Moses knew not that the appearance of the skin of his face was glorified, when God spoke to him. 30 And Aaron and all the elders of Israel saw Moses, and the appearance of the skin of his face was made glorious, and they feared to approach him.
When Moses ascended the mountain on an earlier occasion, he took with him, besides the seventy elders, three of his disciples, so Jesus chose three disciples to witness the miraculous appearance that was to take place on the mountain. 9:2 Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John and led them alone up a high mountain privately. And he was transfigured before them, Ex 24:9 Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, 10 and they saw the God of Israel.
Six days Moses was on the mountain of his transfiguration and on the seventh day the voice from the cloud spoke to him – so Jesus climbs the mountain on the sixth day after Peter’s confession and it was also on the seventh day when the voice from the cloud called out: this is my beloved Son. 9:2 Six days later Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John and led them alone up a high mountain privately . . .

9:7  Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came from the cloud, “This is my one dear Son. . . .”

Ex 24:16 and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud.
Moses had already appointed assistants to judge the people in his name, and he had reserved only the more difficult matters for his decision. When he ascended the mountain of his transfiguration, he left the seventy elders below with Aaron and Hur, so that whoever had a matter might turn to them. So the disciples are also below, while the Lord is on the mountain so that a matter is indeed brought before them, but it is too difficult for them, and after they have tried in vain, it is only settled by the Lord. 9:16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 A member of the crowd said to him, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that makes him mute. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they were not able to do so.” Ex 24:14 And [Moses] said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Indeed, Aaron and Hur are with you. If any man has a difficulty, let him go to them.”
When Moses came down from the mountain, he heard from afar the shouting and tumult in the camp (Ex 32:17) – so Jesus, on his return from the mountain, finds the disciples surrounded by a great crowd of people and scribes and in a lively quarrel with them. 9:14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and experts in the law arguing with them. . . . Ex 32:15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. . . . 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “There is the sound of war in the camp.”
The similarity is also evident in the fact that Jesus, just as Moses had reason to complain about what had happened during his absence, also had to complain about the fact that his constant presence was required. 19 He answered them, “You unbelieving generation! How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I endure you? Num 14:26 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron: 27 “How long must I bear with this evil congregation”

Most of the above are from BB


2022-01-04

What’s a lonely Jesus to do?

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by Neil Godfrey

Commissioning of the Twelve – Wikipedia

Writing a story about Jesus was not always easy. There was very little by way of sources to help out. Imagination was all too often called for. Take the time when Jesus sends out his twelve disciples to preach in the surrounding towns, for example. What were they going to preach, exactly? They did not yet know that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah. So they couldn’t preach that message. Simply trying to say that the “kingdom of God” was “coming soon” must have seemed a bit flat in the absence of new material of immediate relevance to people’s lives to flesh out that message. But miracles. Now they could be said to heal the sick and cast out demons. But that’s not really preaching, is it.

But stop and ask what Jesus was doing while his disciples were out “on preaching tour”. The towns were hosting his disciples. So where did Jesus go now that he was on his own? Did he take a break and go fishing? That would soon lose its appeal to one who had the power to bring fish up by the hundreds at a mere thought.

More to the point, how did the author of the first gospel narrative about Jesus fill in this gap? He had sent Jesus’ companions away after having instructed them in matters of sandals and staves and different household responses and now he was left with Jesus standing on his own. Unless our author could think of different subplot adventures for the various disciples “preaching” some vague message in the towns he had to do something to occupy Jesus for the readers.

But no, since nothing came to mind, our author hit on another solution. The old distraction technique. Now was the ideal time to bring in that delicious little story of how John the Baptist lost his head. He had nowhere else to use it in a story of Jesus but now was the ideal moment. The story of a birthday banquet and a dancing daughter could be colourfully filled out to create a nice interlude for the readers to forget about those preaching disciples and the lost and lonely Jesus for a while.

After that near-chapter length story it was finally appropriate to bring back the disciples from their tour. At least in the readers’ minds time had gone by and they did not have to be faced with a return the very next verse or two after they were sent out.

The introduction and placement of the John the Baptist scenario at that point, between Jesus sending out the twelve and their return, functions as a literary salve. A nice curtain interlude from the main plot to allow time to pass off-stage.

Later, the author of the Gospel we identify with Matthew, added many more lurid details to Jesus’ instructions for the disciples. Beware, he gloomily warned, of wolves. You are going out to face life-threatening dangers. You will be hauled before magistrates and called upon to answer for your faith. (Faith? They did not yet even know Jesus was Christ!) So in addition to the disciples not having any particular message to preach, those in Matthew were to face dangers that not even Jesus had faced up to that point. No, Matthew was writing from a distance long after the events he narrates. He is writing from the perspective of his own time possibly, I think, quite some decades later. He was retroverting experiences of his own day back into the days of Jesus and his twelve disciples.

Such are some of the little glimpses of how the gospels must have been put together that arise from a thoughtful reading. Thanks in particular, though not exclusively, to the works of Bruno Bauer who made such comments around 170 years ago.


2021-11-26

Mark: The First Biography of Jesus? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Reviewing The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel by Helen K. Bond.

The First Biography of Jesus

(In which I finally get around to reading Bond’s The First Biography of Jesus.)

After the initial trickle of “Gospels Are Biographies!” books, we might have expected a flood of works exploring the implications of such a designation. After all, when we approach a text, we usually try to identify (at least provisionally) its genre in order to understand it. If scholars in the past had failed to recognize the true genre of the canonical gospels, then we must have myriad assumptions to sweep away, interpretations to reassess, conclusions to re-evaluate, and new questions to ask.

Missing Books?

Yet here we sit, still waiting for that big splash. In the first chapter, Bond herself recognizes the dog that didn’t bark. As an aside, I would note that the usual suspects, naturally, have added the biographical credo as an ancillary argument — Bauckham for touting eyewitness testimony and Keener for promoting historical reliability. But where are the massive monographs written by grad students, the insightful papers on the cutting edge of gospel research? Where are the 400-page books laden with turgid prose that recycle the same ideas ad nauseam?

All in all, the list of scholarship is not particularly long for an issue that seemed so pressing only a few decades ago, and it is still possible (not to mention largely unremarkable as far as reviewers were concerned) to write a long book on gospel origins without devoting any attention to their genre at all. (Bond 2020, p. 52-53)

You might wonder whether modern scholars had actually been more interested in changing the consensus than building upon it. Maybe. But you should understand that redefining the genre of the gospels represents a small part of a much larger overall project, namely the rewriting of New Testament scholarship’s own history and a redrawing of its self-conception. This process of reconstruction has gradually remapped the terrain and redrawn the borders, so that scholars who once dwelt securely in a fairly broad mainstream now sit in no man’s land, out in the mud which lies beyond the barbed wire. NT scholarship’s Overton Window has slid far to the right, and erstwhile respected scholars are now rebuked for sounding too radical, for going too far, for being too skeptical, for engaging in oldthink.

Nothing demonstrates this recent change better than the now fashionable stance against form criticism. Bond has little good to say about it, and what she does say often misses the mark. For example: Continue reading “Mark: The First Biography of Jesus? (Part 1)”


2021-10-08

Mary, Mary, where did you come from?

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by Neil Godfrey

This is not the second part to the previous post that I had planned but it is related.

While exploring what the rabbinic literature had to say about Miriam I was led to focus on the fact that Miriam “stood far off to watch” what would become of her baby brother in the basket floating down the Nile. My mind immediately left the rabbinic discussion (Miriam was wanting to see how her prophecy of the saviour of Israel would pan out now that he was abandoned) and focussed on the fact that that’s how the two Marys and Salome are introduced in the Gospel of Mark: they stand “watching from far off” the crucifixion of Jesus.

Exodus 2:4

And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be done to him.

Mark 15:40

There were also women watching from afar, among whom were both Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome

Was that little detail meant to be what some scholars call a “flag” to alert readers to the source of the gospel narrative?

Women are the stereotypical mourners in literature and customs of the time none of the women in the gospel of Mark are explicitly said to do any mourning. The Miriam association, however, does alert us to another role of women and that is the life-givers.

Recall the suggestion that Arimathea was derived from the expression for “After Death”. Joseph does the burying — or more correctly, he lays the body in the tomb — but the women are watching the dying and the burying, looking on, “from afar”, but they move in on the third day to witness the evidence of the resurrection.

If Miriam was watching from afar to see what would happen to the hope of Israel after he was “left to his fate” in the river, she was thereby ready to enter the narrative more actively when he was pulled out of the river by the Egyptians.

When Pharaoh’s daughter took the infant, we read a quite amazing scene: Miriam, who is evidently a young girl and of a slave race, confronts the princess with her request for the baby in order to find care for it.

Now that’s an act of boldness on Miriam’s part. When in the Gospel of Mark we read that Joseph of Arimathea “boldly” approached Pilate, we try to force our minds to imagine something more than otherwise appears in the narrative. Joseph is said to be of the ruling class and Pilate was reluctant to crucify Jesus in the first place, so one would think that it would not take much “boldness” on his part to ask Pilate for Jesus’s body. Was the author thinking here of Miriam’s bold approach and request of the Egyptian princess for the rescued infant?

I’m beginning to think that our evangelist was doing more with the women at the end of his gospel than merely toss in some extras as mourners. The women were there to represent the opposite of Joseph “After Death” who buried Jesus.

Like Miriam, it is not unlikely that they were watching the crucifixion “from afar” in order to see (“midrashically”) what would become of Jesus. They represent the life sustainers. One of the Marys is said at that moment to be a mother, and a mother of a Jacob and a Joseph. Not just any “Jacob”, but a “Jacob the Younger”. A new Jacob? A new Israel? Joseph’s rise “from death” we know about.

Thus endeth my thought for the day.


2021-10-04

Reading the Gospel of Mark as Midrash

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by Neil Godfrey

What is midrash? I use here the explanation of the Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin:

Although a whole library could (and has been) written on midrash, for the present purposes it will be sufficient to define it as a mode of biblical reading that brings disparate passages and verses together in the elaboration of new narratives. It is something like the old game of anagrams in which the players look at words or texts and seek to form new words and texts out of the letters that are there. The rabbis who produced the midrashic way of reading considered the Bible one enormous signifying system, any part of which could be taken as commenting on or supplementing any other part. They were thus able to make new stories out of fragments of older ones (from the Bible itself), via a kind of anagrams writ large; the new stories, which build closely on the biblical narratives but expand and modify them as well, were considered the equals of the biblical stories themselves.

Boyarin, Jewish Gospels, 78 – my highlighting in all quotations

Boyarin in the same volume refutes a Christian scholar who spoke of the same kind of interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures as “Christian exegesis” as they wove passages from Daniel, Isaiah and the Psalms to tell the story of the Passion. No, says Boyarin, it was part and parcel of the Jewish way of reading their sacred writings and some of those Jews took that “anagram” game into the direction that we read in the gospels:

C.H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures: The Sub-Structure of New Testament Theology (London: Nisbet, 1952), 116-19 . . . ascribed the transfer of this theme from the People of the Holy Ones of God (a corporate entity) to Jesus (an individual) on the basis of an alleged “Christian exegetical tradition which thinks of Jesus as the inclusive representative of the People of God.The “Christian” exegetical tradition has its point of origin in Daniel 7, which was then naturally joined in the manner of midrash with the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 and to the Psalms of the Righteous Sufferer, for which there was apparently also a tradition of messianic reading. I think, however, that this is not a special Christian exegetical tradition but one that is plausible enough to have been the extant Jewish tradition even aside from Jesus.

Boyarin, Jewish Gospels, 186

When we read the later rabbinical literature we find various rabbis are documented as having interpreted various biblical passages — names mentioned, turns of phrase, situations — in mutually supporting of conflicting ways. I wonder if whoever wrote the gospels expected readers to approach them the same way. When we read, for example, the sudden appearance of characters in the narrative who seem to add nothing to the story, we find ourselves asking, “What was the author thinking?” Why does he unexpectedly name certain women at the cross of Jesus and even their son’s names and tell us nothing more about them? What’s going on?

I am going to try to write a couple of posts in which I let my imagination play with a “what if” scenario. What if the Gospel of Mark were written to be read as midrash with readers meant to ask, Why does the text say this? — and look for answers in the “Old Testament” the way rabbis used to do.

It’s speculative, yes, but it’s a game — of narrative anagrams — to see what is possible.

We start with Mark 15:42-46

It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. (NIV)

Rabbi Benjamin asked, Why does it say that Joseph of Arimathea placed the body of Jesus in the tomb cut out of rock?
Rabbi Maguer  answered, Because Joseph placed the body of his father Israel in a cave (Genesis 50:13). Jesus was like Israel, as it is written, after Jesus was baptized he went into the wilderness for forty days and was tested as Israel went through the Red Sea into the wilderness and was tested forty years. So the last Israel, Jesus, was buried by Joseph in a tomb, like a cave, carved out of rock.

And do not wonder why Joseph should bury Jesus as Joseph buried his father. The answer is in the saying that the first Jesus (Joshua) was from Joseph. So Joseph is in spirit the father of Jesus. (Exodus Rabba 48:4 cites a Jewish truncated genealogy for Joshua “And so you find in Joshua that he came from Joseph” — see translation. cf Joshua 24:29-33; 1 Chron. 7:20-27)

Rabbi Gershom asked, But why does it say Joseph of Arimathea? We know of no town Arimathea.
Rabbi Maguer said, Because Arimathea is in Hebrew “After Death” (’a·ḥar mōṯ). Joseph was as dead when he was cast in the pit by his brethren but he came back, as if after death, to become one of the leaders in Egypt. He appears again after the death of Jesus to bury him in the cave. 
Then Rabbi Benjamin  awoke and said, And that is why the gospel says Joseph was a “prominent member of the Council”. Joseph was a ruler in Egypt. We read that Joseph, as ruler, went to Pharaoh and his counselors to ask for permission to bury Israel his father. So it was fitting that the new Joseph approach Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. (Genesis 50, 4, 6)

They stroked their beards and knew they were wise.

Someone searching for the meaning of the name Maguer I have used will find the answer in

  • Maguer, Sandrick Le. Portrait d’Israël en jeune fille: Genèse de Marie. Gallimard, Paris: 2008.

because Sandrick Le Maguer is the one who published most of the above explanation in that book.

I’m going to venture another one, this time my own. Why does Mark take the trouble to list the names of Jesus’ brothers and then drop them from the narrative? And why does he select the names he does, as if, as Paula Fredriksen said,

It’s a little like naming a string of Olsons Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin: the names themselves convey a close identification with the nation’s foundational past. (Jesus of Nazareth, p.240)

But if the author wanted to identify Jesus’ brothers with Israel’s past, why choose Simon and not Isaac or Reuben? Here is the passage, Mark 6:1-4 Continue reading “Reading the Gospel of Mark as Midrash”