Tag Archives: Gospel Origins

Further on Origins of Belief in a Dying and Resurrected Messiah

Matthew Ferguson once again has an interesting post that serves as an apt sequel to my previous post on the meaning of martyrdom among pre-Christian era Judaeans: The Rationalization Hypothesis: Is a Vision of Jesus Necessary for the Rise of the Resurrection Belief?. It is a guest post written by Kris Komarnitsky, author of Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection.

Komarnitsky writes from the position of acceptance of the historicity of some form of belief in Jesus’ resurrection arising among his disciples (as distinct from my own view that there is no methodological justification for assuming a “historical core” behind our gospel narratives or a gospel narrative behind 1 Corinthians 15) when he introduces the question:

The origin of the resurrection belief is a captivating historical puzzle and the lack of a satisfying answer motivated my inquiry into this topic. Ironically, the lack of a satisfying answer for the rise of the resurrection belief subjected me to the same basic cognitive process that I will suggest led to the resurrection belief. . . . 

The conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead is found in the earliest evidence of Christian origins and appears to have come about almost immediately after Jesus’ death. How does one account for the rise of this extraordinary belief if the later Gospel accounts of a discovered empty tomb and corporeal post-mortem appearances of Jesus are legends, as many scholars believe is the case?

Subheadings give an idea of what to expect (I have not yet had an opportunity to more than quickly skim the article):

  • Introduction
  • What is Cognitive-Dissonance-Induced Rationalization?
  • Model #1: Leon Festinger’s Cult Group Study
  • Model #2: The Millerites
  • Model #3: Sabbatai Sevi
  • Model #4: The Lubavitchers
  • Conclusion from Models
  • Preconditions to a Rationalization of Jesus’ Death
  • Jesus Died for Our Sins and Will Return Soon
  • The Resurrection Belief
  • From the Resurrection Belief to Visions of Jesus to the Early Creed
  • Summary of the Rationalization Hypothesis
  • A Critique of the Bereavement Vision Hypothesis
  • Conclusion

It looks like a significant contribution to further testing of various hypotheses accounting for Christian origins.

I have been critical of the cognitive dissonance theory to explain a historical turning point leading to Christianity but Komarnitsky obviously explores this psychological explanation in a depth that I have not considered before. Some of his points coincide with the reasons I have dismissed the validity of the theory, but he adds so much more that I have yet to read more carefully and consider. From what I have noticed at this point, some of the data and proposals of Komarnitsky may well have a relevance to alternative modes of Christian origins, that is, even apart from a historical background to the gospel resurrection narratives.

Almost at random, some interesting passages that I have noticed by chance:

The answer to the second question – why did the Messiah have to die – could have been formed from Jewish beliefs about measure-for-measure recompense and vicarious sacrifice when dealing with God. An example of such beliefs can be found in the aqedah story, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac in return for God’s blessing and favor (Gen. 22.1-19). By the first century, this story had become embellished to emphasize that Isaac was a willing sacrifice: “[Isaac] was pleased with this discourse.…So he went immediately to the altar to be sacrificed” (Ant. 1.13.4).

. . . .

These new beliefs were a creative interpretation and reconfiguration of Jewish beliefs about measure-for-measure recompense and vicarious sacrifice when dealing with God, great prophets ascending to heaven, the final immortal body, the state of existence of souls in heaven, and possibly Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings and some minor Hellenistic influences. 

. . . .

However, once one integrates cognitive-dissonance-induced rationalization into the bereavement vision hypothesis, the question posed by this article logically follows: Is a vision of Jesus even necessary for the rise of the resurrection belief? 

I look forward to engaging with the post as soon as opportunity permits.


Why a Saviour Had to Suffer and Die? Martyrdom Beliefs in Pre-Christian Times

The next time I hear someone say that no-one would make up a saviour who suffers and dies I will be able to point them to the table in this post. I think we can conclude that a suffering and dying messiah is exactly what we should expect to emerge from a world where all seemed lost and there was no hope for real deliverance in this life. Note, for example, #13. The table is taken from Ethelbert Stauffer’s New Testament Theology, to which I was directed by Morna Hooker in her book, Jesus and the Servant.

The Principal Elements of the Old Biblical Theology of Martyrdom

(Chief passages and proof texts)

A. The shape of martyrdom

1. The people of God is the martyr nation among the Gentiles. Psa. 73.3 ff.; 78.1 ff.; 79.9 ff.; 82.3 ff.; Jdth. 9.8; Isa. 42.1 LXX; AEn. 85 if.; 89.59 if.; IV Ezra 3.27 ff.; MEx. on 20.23; SB, II, 284
2. Those people of God who are loyal to the Torah are persecuted by the Gentiles and their accomplices DaG, 3; 9; 11 f.; I Mac. 2.27 if.; II Mac. 5.27; 7.2, 30; IV Mac. 5.16 f; PsSol. 17.19; AssMos. 8.6; Martls. 2.8 ff.; PsPhil. 6.9, 16; San. 49a; Cantr. 8.6 f.
3. Those people of God who are loyal to the Torah are persecuted by their apostate fellows Psa. 21; 40.9 f.; 68; II Chron. 24.1; Wisd. 2 f.; 5; PsSol. 4; 12; Dam. 1.20; IV Ezra 7
4. The people of God persecute the messengers of God (III βασ 19.2 ff.; Ex. 17.4; 32.9; Num. 14.10; 17.14; Jer. 6.10; 9.25; 11.19; Isa. 40 if.; II Chron. 36.16; Jub. 1.12; Martls. 3; 5; Paraljer. 9.20 ff.
5. The blood of Abel cries to heaven till the end of time AEn. 22.7; TestAbr. 11
6. Even the picture of Messiah has traces of the martyr in it SB, II, 273 ff.; IV Ezra 7.29; 10.1, 16, etc., in Jeremias, Deutsche Theologie, II, 1929, 106 ff.
7. Even the picture of the Son of Man has traces of the martyr in it Joachim, Jeremias, briefly: Motifs from the Servant Songs in the texts about the Son of Man in AEn. 37 ff; Traditions about the past earthly life, the present heavenly existence and the future return of the Son of Man in AEn. 39.4 ff; 71.14 ff.; 90.31, etc.


B. The fate of martyrdom

8. The confessors live in the desert, far from the wickedness and pursuits of the world I Mac. 1.56; PsSol. 17.16 f.; AssMos. 9; Martls. 5.11 ff; PsPhil. 6.7 ff; Dam. 6.5
9. The persecutors use suspicions and slanders, false accusations and false witnesses against those who are faithful to God Jer. 15.15; Psa. 26.12; 34.11; DaΘ. 6.5 f.; Wisd. 2.22; III Mac. 7.11; Ps. Sol. 12.1ff; Martls. 3.8 f.
10. The martyrs are treated undeservedly like thieves and killed and in this sense suffer innocently Psa. 34.7, 19; 58.4 f; Wisd. 2.19, 22; 3.5; PsSol. 12.4; II Mac. 7.40; IV Mac. 12.14
11. The martyrs frequently suffer and die in the arena, which was a recognized institution also in Palestine in hellenistic times III Mac. 4.11 [IV Mac. 5.1; 15.20]; cf. Jer. 12.5; Eccl. 9.11; I Mac. 1.14; II Mac. 4.12 ff; IV Mac. 4.20; JosAnt. 12.241; 15.268 ff, 341; remains in Jerusalem, Samaria, Rabbath-Ammon, Gerasa, etc.
12. Martyrs are often scourged and crucified, and ‘cross’ therefore appears occasionally as the inclusive term for a martyr’s fate AssMos. 8.1; JosAnt. 12.256; Gnr. on 22.6; further A. Schlatter, Die Märtyrerer den Anfängen der Kirche, 1915, 70 and n. 259 above
13. The martyr’s death is a sign of his coming victory Dan. 3; Wisd. 2.17; Martls. 5.7; Ber. 61b; AZ. 18a
14. Lists of martyrs kept memory fresh about the typical murder of the saints in history IV Mac. 16.20 f; 18.11 ff. L. Zunz, Die gottesdienstl. Vortrage der Juden, 1832, 142; Elbogen, 203; 228 ff.; Kaufmann, REJ, 1887, 250; SB, I, 582
15. History has also seen some miraculous deliverances which God has wrought for his faithful ones Dan. 3.49 f; III Mac. 6.18 ff.; 7.16; PsPhil. 6.9, 17 f; Gnr. on 15.7; 22.19


C. God’s Glory and the shame and glory of martyrdom read more »

“How did traditions of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history reach the writers of the Gospels?”

How did traditions of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history reach the writers of the Gospels?

That is the opening question of Richard Bauckham’s chapter, “Gospel Traditions: Anonymous Community Traditions or Eyewitness Testimony?”, in Jesus Research: New Methodologies and Perceptions — The Second Princeton-Prague Symposium on Jesus Research, Princeton 2007. His is the opening chapter in the section on Sources.

Our questions determine the answers we find and here we see questions arising from several layers of unquestioned assumptions.

Firstly, the section on Sources contains twelve chapters all of which embed the presumption of the gospel narratives having derived from historical events. Not one considers the possibility of the story having been crafted from “midrahic”-type retellings of “Old Testament” characters, stories and sayings despite our awareness of the many works linking almost every section of the various gospels to some “Old Testament” text.

The title of Bauckham’s chapter assumes that the gospel narratives were developed from sources for which we have no evidence — unless we take the conclusions of form criticism as evidence for earlier community traditions. Of course absence of evidence for pre-gospel eyewitness testimony is not proof that it did not exist, but in the absence of that evidence we surely need to have a very strong explanatory argument for the various sections of the gospel narratives to support the hypothesis. Is the “criterion of embarrassment” really a strong explanation for the particular details narrated about the baptism of Jesus?

Then we come down to the opening sentence itself. The question assumes that the gospel narratives were based on “the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history”.

The Kind of Question a Biblical Critic and Historian Asks

But contrast the question the historian Aviezer Tucker says is the one the historian should ask of his/her sources:

But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?” The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

Tucker, Our Knowledge of the Past, p. 99

Fair enough. Tucker is addressing miracles here. But Bauckham does believe that miracles were indeed believed by eyewitnesses to have been performed by Jesus although he may have a more sophisticated modern understanding of what Jesus actually did. But I think we can take Tucker’s statement as a more professional guide to how historical inquiry ought to proceed.

How a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament

If we do so, I believe we will be moving more in the direction that the sadly recently departed Philip R. Davies suggested biblical scholars should move on the question of Christian origins: read more »

Reading the Classics and the Gospels Differently

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Gospels as Creative Rewriting (like rewritten biblical books)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Müller’s conclusion:

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

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

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

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