Tag Archives: Gospels and Acts (Canonical)

Understanding the Gospels as Ancient Jewish Literature

For readers on the lookout for a gift for a friend or for themselves . . . .

I was attracted by the title. Understanding the Gospels as Ancient Jewish Literature. The author is Jeffrey P. Garcia, who is introduced on the cover thus:

Jeffrey P. Garcia is Assistant Professor in Bible at Nyack College, New York City. His expertise is in Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament. His research interests include examining the Gospels and Acts as sources of ancient Jewish thought and practice, and the manner in which they preserve the traditions of the Sages and the Rabbis. He is co-editor (with R. Steven Notley) of The Gospels in First-Century Judaea (Brill, 2016) and has contributed to the Biblical Archaeology Review, Lexham Bible Dictionary (Lexham Press, 2016), and The Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions (Routledge, 2015).

What I was expecting was a detailed scholarly argument that went some way to addressing the alternative or at least modifying view that the gospels are in part indebted to Hellenism, or Greco-Roman literature. Not so, but something quite different.

Garcia, Jeffrey P. 2018. Understanding the Gospels as Ancient Jewish Literature. Jerusalem: Hendrickson

The book makes for an excellent gift for anyone who is a seriously interested beginner to the field. And the focus is entirely on the Jewish heritage in the gospels. It is only 40 pages but the pages are large and the print is small. Or maybe it appears small because there is so much on such large pages — yet one of the main attractions of the book is its abundant and colourful illustrations, photgraphic, diagrammatic, and maps. If it were a hard cover it could be said to be an excellent coffee table volume.

Yet, the Gospels, as we have them—despite the accretion of traditions (Roman, etc.) that come from early Christianity (2nd-3rd cent. AD) and the Evangelists’ own particular styles — remain, at their core, Jewish texts. They are part of the corpora known as Greco-Roman Jewish literature and are not some radical offshoot. While it must not be ignored that some parts of the Gospels have been influenced by early Christianity’s changing, although not yet separate relationship with the rest of Judaism, understanding how they function as sources of ancient Judaism is attainable. Therefore, the purpose of this work is not to recover the Jewish background of the Gospels, but to shed light on how they function as a source of ancient Jewish practice and culture and how that can help us to clarify some of the teachings attributed to Jesus by the Evangelists. (p. 5)

On the first page of the introduction there are photographs of Albert Schweitzer, Joseph Klausner, David Flusser and Schalom Ben Chorin, but unfortunately no discussion of their respective contributions. Apart from Flusser their names appear elsewhere only in the bibliography. There are handy marginal boxes serving as a ready reference glossary for key terms like Second Temple Judaism, Tannaitic Literature, Amoraic Midrashim, Mishnah, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and so forth. These and other marginal photographs make the book one to be consulted casually as an attractive reference.

The chapters discuss the various Jewish literatures within the gospel world (Second Temple writings, rabbinic literature), the geography of the stories covered by the gospels, Jewish life as evidenced in the gospels (home-life, clothing, religious groups, synagogues, women, the temple, and so forth), Jewish styles of teaching, political and ethical life, and finally “the gospels as the first literary witness to Jewish practice” such as naming on the eighth day, ritual fringes, sabbath synagoge attendance, and more. The text appears to be sound (as one would expect from Jeffrey P. Garcia) and caution comes through where scholars are less than certain about specific customs and events. If my eyes were younger they would certainly be able to handle the very information-crowded pages more easily.

I requested my copy with the offer to review it here, as I am doing now, and will follow up with a few of the lavishly illustrated pages. read more »

In My Cave

I’ve had a break from posting for a couple of days. The reason: I’ve been pulled in to reading the rest of Akenson’s book, Surpassing Wonder. Akenson is known primarily as a historian of Irish history but he has obviously kept abreast of the scholarship in biblical studies, too. What intrigued me most as I read was the striking way he presented certain views of “how the Bible came to be” that I have favoured — but his arguments were more direct and forceful than I have been prepared to acknowledge in posts.

He addresses problems with the “Documentary Hypothesis”, noting that it is not really a hypothesis but a model and should more correctly be called the Documentary Model: that is, the view that the Pentateuch and some other biblical texts are sourced from Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly sources. Now the final product may have been stitched together from such sources, but, Akenson notes, that is irrelevant to the study of the narrative and meaning of the final text as we have it. And what’s more, there was a single authorship of the nine books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. (I’ve posted about that view of the “Primary History” before.) I especially liked Akenson’s tracing of the main stages in biblical scholarship pertaining to the “DH” since it helped me place in context several of the big name scholars I have been studying up till now.

Yes, there are archaisms in the books, and there are repetitions and contradictions, but we have some of the same sort of things in Greek histories, too, and they serve a purpose, in particular the purpose of “authenticity” as a “historical record”. The difference is that the biblical history is anonymous. And that detail, too, has the effect of adding authority to the account. Many readers, especially believers, have liked to comment on the low-key matter-of-fact way many of the more dramatic and miraculous events are described in the bible. That style, believers say (as I have done myself), suggests authenticity, too. It works as narrative history.

Then carry over the style and techniques to the gospels and we have an ongoing account that sounds “genuine”. What is particularly striking in this context, furthermore, is the discussion of how Second Temple era literature managed to continue, build on, “biblical narratives” but at the same time dramatically re-write them, even introducing new characters, even spirit ones, to let God off from being blamed from some horrible decisions, and even claiming to be directly quoting God himself, without a mediator like Moses. It puts the gospels in an interesting context.

Anyway, that’s where I’ve been hiding these last couple of days. More later, I am sure.

Multiple Sources or a Single Source? Two Views

Multiple sources

Matthew and Luke did indeed use Mark, but significant portions of both Gospels are not related in any way to Mark’s accounts. And in these sections of their Gospels Matthew and Luke record extensive, independent traditions about Jesus’s life, teachings, and death. . . .

But that is not all. There are still other independent Gospels. The Gospel of John is sometimes described as the “maverick Gospel” because it is so unlike the synoptic accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Gospels continued to be written after John, however, and some of these later accounts are also independent. Since the discovery in 1945 of the famous Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, scholars have debated its date. . . . [A] good portion of Thomas, if not all of it, does not derive from the canonical texts. To that extent it is a fifth independent witness to the life and teachings of Jesus.

The same can be said of the Gospel of Peter, discovered in 1886. . . .

Another independent account occurs in the highly fragmentary text called Papyrus Egerton 2. . . . Here then, at least in the nonparalleled story, but probably in all four, is a seventh independent account. (Ehrman, 75-77)

Within a couple of decades of the traditional date of his death, we have numerous accounts of his life found in a broad geographical span. In addition to Mark, we have Q, M (which is possibly made of multiple sources), L (also possibly multiple sources), two or more passion narratives, a signs source, two discourse sources, the kernel (or original) Gospel behind the Gospel of Thomas, and possibly others. And these are just the ones we know about, that we can reasonably infer from the scant literary remains that survive from the early years of the Christian church. No one knows how many there actually were. Luke says there were “many” of them, and he may well have been right. (Ehrman, 83)

We have a number of surviving Gospels—I named seven—that are either completely independent of one another or independent in a large number of their traditions. (Ehrman, 92)

Indirectly, then, Tacitus and (possibly) Josephus provide independent attestation to Jesus’s existence from outside the Gospels although, as I stated earlier, in doing so they do not give us information that is unavailable in our other sources. . . . As a result of our investigations so far, it should be clear that historians do not need to rely on only one source (say, the Gospel of Mark) for knowing whether or not the historical Jesus existed. He is attested clearly by Paul, independently of the Gospels, and in many other sources as well: in the speeches in Acts, which contain material that predate Paul’s letters, and later in Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, Revelation, Papias, Ignatius, and 1 Clement. These are ten witnesses that can be added to our seven independent Gospels (either entirely or partially independent), giving us a great variety of sources that broadly corroborate many of the reports about Jesus without evidence of collaboration. (Ehrman, 97, 140f)

. . .

A Single Source

Significantly almost every scholar who pushes for the authenticity, and the early dating, of various extra-canonical items, does so with the argument that these texts were part of the core tradition of early Christianity: in other words, that they are not independent witnesses to the historical Yeshua. (Akenson, 552)

The Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John not alternative independent witnesses, but slightly variant editions of a single source: both are found within the Christian interpretative tradition and, as we have seen (Chapter Nine), this tradition required that for Yeshua of Nazareth to be come Jesus-the-Christ, he had to be identified as a Passover sacrifice. Thus, we have here a single tradition, not a multiply-attested set of historical observations. Emphatically, this does not mean that the single-source tradition is wrong, merely that it is not confirmed by the self-repetition of certain points within the Christian scriptures. (Akenson, 553)

Some scholars have suggested that cella in of the para-biblical books – such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter – intermixed with ”Q” and Mark and the unique portions of Matthew and of Luke in the biblical equivalent of the primal soup from which all life is said to stem. Some few others throw into the stew a “Cross Gospel” which is an hypothetical document, said to underlie the Gospel of Peter. Just how far out of control this is, and unrelated to anything a professional historian would recognize as a testable hypothesis or as having probative value, is illustrated by the following summary of his own theory of the formation of the Gospels, put forward by John Dominic Crossan, one of the best-known of Roman Catholic biblical historian

The process developed. in other words, over these primary steps. First, the historical passion, composed of minimal knowledge, was known only in the general terms recorded by. say, Josephus or Tacitus. Next, the prophetic passion, composed of multiple and discrete biblical allusions and seen most clearly in a work like the Epistle of Barnabas, developed biblical applications over, under, around, and through that open framework. Finally, those multiple and discrete exercises were combined into the narrative passion as a single sequential story. I proposed. furthermore, that the narrative passion is but a single stream of tradition flowing from the Cross Gospel, now embedded within the Gospel of Peter. into Mark, thence together into Matthew and Luke, and thence, all together, into John. Other reconstructions are certainly possible. but that seems to me the most economical one to explain all the data.

– a strange brew indeed. (Akenson, 573)

[E]ven if one finds the heuristic-Gospel “Q” useful in understanding the evolution of the biblical text, it docs not constitute multiple attestation by independent witnesses of the sayings or deeds of the historical Yeshua. All the sayings are derived from a unitary source, the extant canonical scriptures, and just as the canonical scriptures are a single witness, so any hypothetical derivative from the canon is pan of the same single unitary source. To be blunt: one cannot obtain multiple independent attestation of the historical Yeshua simply by chopping up the “New Testament.” (Akenson, 574-5)

Compare Akenson’s point with Schweitzer’s:

Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. (See Schweitzer in context for full quote and variant translations.)

Akenson, Donald Harman. 2001. Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. New edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ehrman, Bart D. 2013. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne.

The Gospels Not the Best Place to Look for the Origins of Christianity

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the NT as we have it, and especially the gospels, is entirely dependent on that branch of Jesus’ disciples, gathered around Peter (and Paul), which is centered on the kerygma of the resurrection. Acts has preserved a few traces of other groups: Apollos and the disciples at Ephesus, who know only the baptism of John, represent at least one other current, which must have lived on with its own teaching; a similar observation could be made on the subject of James, to whom even Peter gives an account of himself. Little is known about the Jewish-Christians, but their biography of Jesus (the “Gospel of the Hebrews”), which was apparently not published, would have presented a rather different picture from the one we know, even if the facts related were more or less the same. Traces there certainly are in the NT, but they have been almost obliterated by a final redaction which has a different orientation. Similar traces are to be found also in the Eastern Churches, which regard themselves as the heirs of Jude, Thomas, etc., although nothing in the NT would lead us to suspect that. . . . .

. . . .

From what has been seen in the previous section, it is clear that the gospels are not the best place to look for the origins of Christianity, that is to say, for what happened immediately after Jesus left the scene.

Nodet, Étienne, and Justin Taylor. 1998. The Origins of Christianity: An Exploration. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. (pp. 38, 39)

Nodet and Taylor cite two reasons for that conclusion: 1, the long delay from the time of Jesus until the “publishing” of the gospels; 2, “the almost total silence regarding rites.”

Now the NT, by and large, gives no information about how to perform any rites, despite numerous allusions to them. Even more: in the gospels Jesus institutes nothing.115 In other words, many things to be observed remained unpublished. (p. 39)

Much More Fully Informed History for Atheists — A Scholarly Introduction to the Two Jesus Parallels

In mid-March this year James McGrath alerted readers to a new post by Tim O’Neill of History for Atheists, Jesus Mythicism 4: Jesus as an Amalgam of Many Figures, commending it for its take down of “amalgam Jesus” theorists for supposedly uncritically and emotionally concocting excuses to disbelieve in a historical Jesus. O’Neill inferred in his post that there was nothing “scholarly and credible” about parallels between a certain Jesus son of Ananias, a mad-man who Cassandra-like proclaimed doom for Jerusalem at the hands of the surrounding Roman armies, and the Jesus we read about in the Gospel of Mark. He also strongly inferred that drawing parallels between the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy provided ample justification for dismissing parallels between two written narratives about different Jesus figures.

In response I have demonstrated that contrary to O’Neill’s attempt to inform readers “what is scholarly and credible and what is not” scholars have indeed engaged in scholarly discussions about what some of them describe as “astonishing” and “striking” parallels. I have also posted (in a post and another in a comment) on two scholarly responses debunking as logically fallacious the attempt to use the Lincoln-Kennedy parallels in the way O’Neill uses them.

Better Informed History for Atheists — Scholars assess the Two Jesus Parallels

Even Better Informed History for Atheists: The Lincoln – Kennedy Parallels Fallacy

Still Better Informed History for Atheists — More Scholars assess the Two Jesus Parallels

Now, in what I expect will be my final post demonstrating the scholarly status of discussion about the relationships between the two Jesus figures, the one in Josephus’s Jewish War and the other in the synoptic gospels, specifically the Gospel of Mark, I will copy the preface by Mahlon Smith to the publication of Ted Weeden’s thesis in Forum, Westar’s academic journal, Fall 2003.

To begin, notice the scholarly status of the persons introducing the thesis in Forum:

Mahlon H. Smith is the new editor of Forum. He recently retired as Associate Professor and former chair of the Religion Department at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. He is co-author with Robert W. Funk of The Gospel of Mark: Red Letter Edition (1990), and served as program chair of the Jesus Seminar (1991-1996). He created and maintains the academic website, Virtual Religion Network.

Theodore J. Weeden, Sr. is author of an influential study of the composition of the first synoptic gospel, Mark—Traditions in Conflict (1971, 1979). From 1969-1981 he served as professor of New Testament at several schools that became partners in the Rochester Center for Theological Studies (Colgate Rochester Divinity School, Crozer Theological and St. Bernard’s Seminaries). He recently retired as senior pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Rochester, NY (1977-1995).

Here is Smith’s preface to Weeden’s thesis on the parallels, from pages 133-134:


This issue of FORUM represents a departure from our usual format in that it is devoted to publication of a single important provocative thesis. Ted Weeden’s carefully argued case that the canonical gospel narratives of Jesus of Nazareth’s confrontations with temple and Roman authorities in Jerusalem are modeled on the story of a later peasant prophet with the same given name, Jesus son of Ananias (Yeshu bar Hanania), has far-reaching ramifications for both the question of the historical Jesus and gospel criticism in general.

Scholars have long proposed that the gospels conflate two originally distinct strands of tradition about Jesus: one stemming from Galilee, the other from Jerusalem. Weeden’s thesis goes further in claiming that they also confuse two distinct Jesuses and that the structure and many details of gospel accounts of Jesus in Jerusalem represent fictive imitation of the description of the later Jesus preserved in Josephus’ account of the Jewish War 6.300-309.

In his original thesis Weeden avoided objection by any who date the gospels earlier than Josephus by assuming that the hypotext imitated by the gospel writers was the oral tradition about Jesus son of Ananias cited by Josephus rather than any written draft of the Jewish War itself. After discussion by the Jesus Seminar, however, Weeden revised his position to conclude that Josephus himself created the story of Jesus son of Ananias and that Mark used his account. If this is the case, Mark could have been composed no earlier than 80 ce. That argument is presented here in an epilogue to the original paper.

As Weeden notes, other scholars have previously called attention to similarities between the gospels’ depiction of Jesus of Nazareth and Josephus report about Jesus son of Ananias. But this is the first detailed case for the evangelists direct dependence on the latter story using the classic Greek rhetorical convention of creative imitation (mimesis).

This thesis has significance for both source and redaction criticism, for it identifies a story independently preserved in an extant text (Josephus Jewish as a source for the gospels of Mark, Luke and John. Widespread acceptance of Markan priority by scholars trained in literary criticism has led to important advances in understanding the composition of the later synoptics. But the lack of demonstrable literary models for the narratives of Mark and John has inevitably made interpretation of these authors’ redactional strategies more speculative and tentative. By tracing structural and thematic parallels between Josephus’ story of Jesus son of Ananias and Jesus of Nazareth’s confrontations with authorities in Jerusalem, not only in Mark but also in aspects of the Lukan and Johannine accounts that differ from Mark, Weeden builds his case for the widespread and enduring influence of the story of the second Jesus upon the early Christian imagination and makes Luke’s and John’s differences from the Markan narrative less arbitrary. For, if Luke and John altered Mark’s account to conform more to another hypotext, their departures from their presumed Markan paradigm cannot be credited to idiosyncratic tendencies of the gospel redactors.

Weeden lays out his case in five sections. In part 1A on Markan dependence, he surveys assessments of parallels between the stories of the two Jesuses noticed by other scholars, adds others, and argues that the cumulative literary Gestalt in the sequence of these parallels suggests intertextuality between these accounts. Then, Weeden points out that tensions in Mark’s own narrative where the author abandons themes he had previously used which parallel the story of Jesus son of Ananias reflect Mark’s own Christological and pastoral interests.

In part IB Weeden explores Mark’s identification of his subject as Jesus of Nazareth, concluding that this is a deliberate attempt to prevent confusion with the more recent prophetic figure named Jesus. Finally, he tests his theory of Markan imitation of the story of Jesus son of Ananias by weighing it against methodological criteria for identifying textual mimesis in Greek literature and citing examples of Mark’s creative reworking of stories of David.

In part 2 Weeden explores Luke’s departures from Mark’s Passion narrative, lays out parallels between Luke’s account of Jesus’ trials and the story of Jesus son of Ananias, on the one hand, and the oracles of both Jesuses against Jerusalem, on the other, and argues that these indicate deliberate mimesis rather than mere coincidence.

In part 3 Weeden examines parallels between distinctive features of the Johannine accounts of Jesus’ hearings by Judean and Roman authorities and the story of Jesus son of Ananias, including John’s emphasis on Jesus’ confrontations during feasts and his uncharacteristic emphasis on Jesus’ silence under cross-examination.

In part IV Weeden summarizes his conclusions and details the implications of his findings. An addendum details his case for the northern Palestinian provenance of Mark’s gospel; and a subsequent epilogue reaches the conclusion that Josephus himself modeled the story of Jesus son on Ananias on the figure of Jeremiah and that Mark depended directly on Josephus’ account.

Weeden’s thesis was the focal point of debate at the Fall 2003 session of the Jesus Seminar. Unfortunately, this issue has been delayed by the untimely death of FORUM’s editor, Daryl Schmidt, who devoted more than a decade to insuring the quality of the contents of this journal.

—Mahlon H. Smith


FORUM new series 6,2 Fall 2003

Perhaps a kind reader might like to leave a comment on History for Atheists advising readers of what scholars deem to be “scholarly and credible“.

And thanks to the very kind reader who sent me a copy of the Forum article.

Still Better Informed History for Atheists — More Scholars assess the Two Jesus Parallels

In my recent response to Tim O’Neill’s attempt to dismiss the significance of the parallels between Jesus son of Ananias in Josephus’s Jewish War and the Jesus of the gospels, in particular the Gospel of Mark, as without any scholarly merit (see Jesus Mythicism 4: Jesus as an Amalgam of Many Figures), I set out the evidence for at least ten reputable biblical scholars who take the parallels and the question of their significance seriously. O’Neill was inferring that Richard Carrier’s discussion was an unscholarly outlier but it clearly was not.

I now have access to another scholarly discussion of those parallels so for the sake of completeness I can now add a couple more names of biblical scholars who have taken note and considered the significance of the parallels.

David R. Catchpole calls the parallels “strikingly similar”:

The scheme of the proceedings against this man is strikingly similar to the case of Jesus.

1. A Jewish arrest followed by examination and beating.

2. Evaluation in religious terms, followed by delivery to the procurator.

3. Silence of the accused.

4. A savage procurator who yet refuses to execute the accused.

5. Jewish pressure, but resisted this time and followed by the man’s release after scourging.

(Catchpole, 62)

And I. H. Marshall and other Institute for Biblical Research Fellows:

Both I. H. Marshall and other IBR Fellows raised the possibility, given the numerous verbal parallels, of some sort of literary relationship between J. W. 6.5.3 and the passion tradition.

(Evans, 361)

Craig Evans added his own argument that the parallels indicate similar judicial processes independently undergone by both Jesuses.

Although this possibility was not vigorously pursued during our time of discussion, perhaps a brief reply would be useful. First, the “parallels” comprise no more than nouns of place and context and verbs that mark the various steps in the judicial and penal process. In other words, the parallels are precisely what one would expect in cases where routine actions are being described. Second, aside from the single parallel cluster where we have a common verbal root, preposition, and Roman governor as object, there are no instances of parallel sentences or phrases. Literary relationships are suspected when there is a high concentration of common vocabulary, especially phrases and whole sentences. In short, I think that the common vocabulary adduced above indicates common judicial and penal process, but not literary relationship. There is no indication that the story of one Jesus influenced the telling of the story of the other Jesus.

For alternative views to those of Evans see the previous post. What is significant in this context is that Evans’ view is one of many found in the scholarly debate. Scholars do indeed consider the possibility of a literary or “oral tradition” relationship between the two Jesuses as worthy of scholarly discussion. Only someone uninformed could declare that attempts to argue for a literary relationship are unscholarly as per the History for Atheists post.

Catchpole, D. R. 1970. “The Problem of the Historicity of the Sanhedrin Trial.” In The Trial of Jesus. Cambridge Studies in Honour of C. F. D. Moule, edited by Ernst Bammel, 47–65. Naperville, Ill., A. R. Allenson. http://archive.org/details/trialofjesuscamb00moul.

Evans, Craig A. 2001. Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies. Boston: Brill.

Even Better Informed History for Atheists: The Lincoln – Kennedy Parallels Fallacy

From https://store.ushistory.org/products/abraham-lincoln-john-f-kennedy-coincidences

Along with his contradictory rationalizations to (1) declare the parallels between Jesus son of Ananias and the gospels’ Jesus to be “hopelessly flimsy”, yet at the same time are real and strong enough to (2) point to real-world parallel historical, socio-political, religious and onomastic events and situations anyway, Tim O’Neill further adds a common sophistical fallacy in a misguided effort to strengthen his argument:

Even if we were to accept that the parallels here are stronger and more numerous than they are, parallels do not mean derivation. A far stronger set of parallels can be found in the notorious urban legend of the supposedly eerie parallels between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln%E2%80%93Kennedy_coincidences_urban_legend), but any future fringe theorist who concluded that, therefore, JFK’s story was derived from that of Lincoln would be laughably wrong. This is why professional scholars are always highly wary of arguments of derivation based on parallels. The danger is that if you go looking for parallels, you will find them. It is always more likely that any parallels that are not artefacts of the process can be better explained as consequences of similar people doing things in similar contexts rather than derivation of one story from the other.

Jesus Mythicism 4: Jesus as an Amalgam of Many Figures

Again O’Neill informs readers of what he seems to assume “professional scholars always” think and write. (Yet we will see that the fallacy of this analogy is the same as comparing apples and aardvarks.) Recall that Tim O’Neill is presumably attempting to inform his readers

of what is scholarly and credible and what is not.

Let’s see, then, how a scholar does respond to that same Lincoln-Kennedy parallel when it is laid on the table in the middle of a discussion about the two Jesuses parallels, son of Ananias in Josephus’s Jewish War and the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus. Brian Trafford posted to the Crosstalk2 discussion on 10th March 2003 the following (my bolding and formatting):

13026   Re: Two Jesuses: the Provocative Parallels

Brian Trafford
Mar 10 12:16 PM


I have a fundamental difficulty with attempts like this to read
meaning into parallels, especially when the possibility of mere
coincidence is dismissed too casually. For example, if one goes to
http://fsmat.at/~bkabelka/titanic/part2/chapter1.htm one can see a
number of parallels between the sinking of the fictitious ship Titan
in a book called _The Wreak of the Titan_ published in 1898, and the
real life sinking of the Titanic in 1912. In another article found
at http://www.worldofthestrange.com/wots/1999/1999-01-25-03.htm we
find a listing of some of the more astonishing parallels between the
assassination of Abraham Lincoln and that of John Kennedy. They

1. Lincoln was elected president in 1860. Exactly one hundred years
later, in 1960, Kennedy was elected president.

2. Both men were deeply involved in civil rights for Negroes.

3. Both me were assassinated on a Friday, in the presence of their


4. Each wife had lost a son while living at the White House.

5. Both men were killed by a bullet that entered the head from behind.

6. Lincoln was killed in Ford’s Theater. Kennedy met his death while

riding in a Lincoln convertible made by the Ford Motor Company.

7. Both men were succeeded by vice-presidents named Johnson who were

southern Democrats and former senators.

8. Andrew Johnson was born in 1808. Lyndon Johnson was born in 1908,

exactly one hundred years later.

9. The First name of Lincoln’s private secretary was John, the last

name of Kennedy’s private secretary was Lincoln.

10. John Wilkes Booth was born in 1839. Lee Harvey Oswald was born in

1939, one hundred years later.

11. Both assassins were Southerners who held extremist views.

12. Both assassins were murdered before they could be brought to


13. Booth shot Lincoln in a theater and fled to a barn. Oswald shot

14. Kennedy from a warehouse and fled to a theater.

15. Lincoln and Kennedy each have seven letters.

16. Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson each has 13 letters.

17. John Wiles Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald each has 15 letters.

18. In addition, the first public proposal that Lincoln be the

Republican candidate for president (in a letter to Cincinnati
Gazette, Nov. 6, 1858) also endorsed a John Kennedy for vice
president (John P. Kennedy, formerly secretary of the Navy.)

Obviously it would be easy, based upon this list, to conclude that
the story of Lincoln’s assassination served as the template used by
later creators of the story of Kennedy’s death.

Very simply, if one takes two events and looks for potential
parallels, one can very often create a list that, on the surface
looks rather impressive, but on closer examination does not really
tell us very much. More importantly, it should make us cautious in
claiming that superficial similarities means that the earlier report
served as a template for creative fictionalizing by the later source
(in whichever direction one wishes to propose). I think that this is
the case with the parallels between the two Jesus’.


read more »

Better Informed History for Atheists — Scholars assess the Two Jesus Parallels

A week ago James McGrath alerted readers to a new post by Tim O’Neill of History for Atheists commending it for its take down of “amalgam Jesus” theorists for supposedly uncritically and emotionally concocting excuses to disbelieve in a historical Jesus. It has taken me a week since that alert but I have finally caught up with O’Neill’s Jesus Mythicism 4: Jesus as an Amalgam of Many Figures. His primary target is one L. Aron Nelson a.k.a “Aron Ra” 9 whom he presents as someone bearing

all the hallmarks of someone who has educated himself on the subject, without much idea of what is scholarly and credible and what is not.

Scholarly discussion at XTalk (Crosstalk) on the parallels between Jesus ben Ananias and Jesus of Nazareth was active in 2003 and again in 2005.

With that introduction we should expect to be informed of some of the scholarly responses to the ensuing arguments he critiques. (To avoid an over lengthy post I will focus on but one point in O’Neill’s essay and that will be his rebuttal of the claim that the Jesus of the gospels was to some extent based on Jesus of Ananias in Josephus’s account of the Jewish War, written some time between 74 and 79 CE. Other points can be addressed separately if warranted.)

Despite O’Neill’s attempt to address one who in his eyes had not “much idea of what is scholarly” and “credible” in the eyes of scholars, O’Neill himself fails to indicate that he has any awareness of the relevant scholarly discussions, let alone that those scholarly discussions essentially undermine almost everything he writes. His own attempts at take-down arguments have gained no traction among scholars engaged with this particular question. In this post I will provide the evidence from scholars that they do find the parallels significant and worthy of serious discussion with some suggesting that one Jesus was indeed in part based on the other.

Here is the Josephus passage with the key areas to be compared in red.

The Whiston translation of Josephus’ War of the Jews (6.300-309)

But, what is still more terrible, there was one Jesus, the son of Ananus, a plebeian and a husbandman, who, four years before the war began, and at a time when the city was in very great peace and prosperity, came to that feast whereon it is our custom for every one to make tabernacles to God in the temple, began on a sudden to cry aloud, “A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the holy house, a voice against the bridegrooms and the brides, and a voice against this whole people!” (Jer.7:34 LXX) This was his cry, as he went about by day and by night, in all the lanes of the city. However, certain of the most eminent among the populace had great indignation at this dire cry of his, and took up the man, and gave him a great number of severe stripes; yet did not he either say any thing for himself, or any thing peculiar to those that chastised him, but still went on with the same words which he cried before. Hereupon our rulers, supposing, as the case proved to be, that this was a sort of divine fury in the man, brought him to the Roman procurator, where he was whipped till his bones were laid bare; yet he did not make any supplication for himself, nor shed any tears, but turning his voice to the most lamentable tone possible, at every stroke of the whip his answer was, “Woe, woe to Jerusalem!” And when Albinus (for he was then our procurator) asked him, Who he was? and whence he came? and why he uttered such words? he made no manner of reply to what he said, but still did not leave off his melancholy ditty, till Albinus took him to be a madman, and dismissed him. Now, during all the time that passed before the war began, this man did not go near any of the citizens, nor was seen by them while he said so; but he every day uttered these lamentable words, as if it were his premeditated vow, “Woe, woe to Jerusalem!” Nor did he give ill words to any of those that beat him every day, nor good words to those that gave him food; but this was his reply to all men, and indeed no other than a melancholy presage of what was to come. This cry of his was the loudest at the festivals; and he continued this ditty for seven years and five months, without growing hoarse, or being tired therewith, until the very time that he saw his presage in earnest fulfilled in our siege, when it ceased; for as he was going round upon the wall, he cried out with his utmost force, “Woe, woe to the city again, and to the people, and to the holy house!” And just as he added at the last, “Woe, woe to myself also!” there came a stone out of one of the engines, and smote him, and killed him immediately; and as he was uttering the very same presages he gave up the ghost.

Tim O’Neill associates the argument with Richard Carrier and appears not to be aware that Carrier was presenting a well-known observation among professional scholars.

Here at least we have someone called Jesus who is obviously not Jesus of Nazareth and his story has at least some parallels with elements in the Jesus stories. The argument that these parallels indicate derivation and that the story of Jesus was in part based on that of ben Ananus is articulated in detail by … Richard Carrier

Carrier actually credits the argument to two other highly renowned scholars, Theodore J. Weeden, Sr. and Craig Evans:

Indeed, even how Mark decides to construct the sequence of the Passover narrative appears to be based on the tale of another Jesus: Jesus ben Ananias, the ‘Jesus of Jerusalem’, an insane prophet active in the 60s ce who is then killed in the siege of Jerusalem (roughly in the year 70). His story is told by Josephus in the Jewish War, and unless Josephus invented him, his narrative must have been famous, famous enough for Josephus to know of it, and thus famous enough for Mark to know of it, too, and make use of it to model the tale of his own Jesus. Or if Josephus invented the tale then Mark evidently used Josephus as a source. Because the parallels are too numerous to be at all probable as a coincidence.86 Some Mark does derive from elsewhere (or matches from elsewhere to a double purpose), but the overall scheme of the story in Josephus matches Mark too closely to believe that Mark just came up with the exact same scheme independently. And since it’s not believable that Josephus invented a new story using Mark, we must conclude Mark invented his story using Josephus—or the same tale known to Josephus. . . . There are at least twenty significant parallels (and one reversal)…

86. Theodore Weeden, ‘Two Jesuses, Jesus of Jerusalem and Jesus of Nazareth: Provocative Parallels and Imaginative Imitation’, Forum N.S. 6.2 (Fall 2003), pp. 137- 341; Craig Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Studying the Historical Jesus (ed. Chilton and Evans), pp. 443-78 (475-77).

(Carrier, 428-29)

Given the tone of Tim O’Neill’s study up to this point a reader will expect to be led to a conclusion that “Carrier’s parallels” (they are in fact the parallels presented by scholars in the peer-reviewed scholarly literature) are going to be proved nonsensical or at best without significance. Will O’Neill’s rebuttals equally apply to two highly notable New Testament scholars, Weeden and Evans?

Carrier’s list of parallels are derived from Weeden so in the interests of presenting as fully as possible what is found among the peer-reviewed scholarly publications I will give here Evans’ list of parallels from another essay of his (I do not yet have access to the one Carrier cited): read more »

Memory Theory and the Historical Jesus

Alan Kirk

Bloomsbury publishers sent me an electronic copy of Memory and the Jesus Tradition, a collection of articles by Alan Kirk, for review and comment in response to my request. My first post on this book was Memory and the Pursuit of the Jesus Tradition. This post, my second, responds to chapter 10, “Memory Theory and Jesus Research”, which was originally published in the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2011). It’s a good opportunity to do an overview of how biblical scholars apply memory theory in historical Jesus studies.

One of Alan Kirk’s main points in this chapter is that memories are not inert blocks waiting to be brought out whenever called upon, but are malleable, and not only open to modification but also actively shape our perceptions of certain changing circumstances in our lives.

A second critical point Kirk emphasizes is that community memories do not work like the game of ‘Telephone’.  Rather, memories in community settings are like more like nets. Multiple witnesses or “rememberers” are there to correct and refine the stories as they are told and retold. The “net” model safeguards against the sorts of losses and changes that the party game or laboratory experiments experience.

Fellow blogger Tim Widowfield is far more on top of Rudolf Bultmann’s work than I am and he may wish to contribute, perhaps even correct, either what I am writing here or what Kirk himself has written.

In Kirk’s view the old form critical approach to historical Jesus studies (originating with Rudolf K. Bultmann) assumed the former “inert block” view of memory. It was Bultmann’s view that by identifying and peeling away accretions building up on a story one could arrive at the initial account. Those accretions were essentially fabrications imposed on the original story that were created to meet the changing needs and interests of the church.

The gospel tradition was thus construed as a bifurcated entity: fabricated tradition coming to overlay diminishing residues of memory, for their part more or less inert with respect to the traditioning process itself. Tradition thus conceived primarily gave expression to the contemporary debates, predicaments and developments of the early communities.

Bultmann’s analysis was in fact characterized by a programmatic disconnect between memory and the growing tradition, his occasional gestures to ‘reminiscence’ notwithstanding. This was the consequence of according little agency to memory and instead locating the decisive generative forces for tradition in contemporary social factors.

Collective memory, Kirk points out through references to numerous studies, organizes and gives meaning to the data that is being recalled. Citing Barry Schwartz he writes

collective memory thus becomes ‘a social fact as it is made and remade to serve changing societal interests and needs’.

read more »

Can the Gospels be “True Fiction”? Did Ancient Historians Have a Different Understanding of “True”?

A few days ago someone thoughtfully sent me a link to a Westar video interviewing Professor Arthur Dewey, author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus Was Remembered. Dewey begins by addressing the prevalent belief that the Passion story of Jesus is essentially true history. He says:

Unfortunately, not just people who are literalists who read the Bible assume this to be the case when we come to the Passion, but also many biblical historians. The reason for that is the assumption that the text is document and is reflecting what actually happened. 

Of course regular readers will know that it is that assumption that we regularly question here. But Dewey, his interviewer and Westar generally are addressing a different audience and I like to think that that is the reason they seem to couch arguments in a way more appealing or acceptable to a certain kind of Christian believer, in something of a “liberal apologetic”, than I like to do.

I have not read his book (there does not seem to be a copy available either commercially or in any library in Australia, not even digitally) so my comments here are entirely my reactions to the interview.

Arthur Dewey begins by pointing out that ancient historians were primarily interested in “truth” as “insight” into the meaning of events for their audiences. He does not say that they were not interested in “facts”, too, but that their main focus lay elsewhere. There is a certain truth to this as (again) we have discussed many times when posting on the methods of ancient historians. What niggles me when I encounter a biblical scholar elaborating on this point (Dewey is far from the only biblical scholar to present this “truth as insight” characteristic of ancient historians) is that I think the other side of what ancient historians were all about is lost. I think they too easily overstate the case in the interests of attempting to keep the gospels relevant at least for the more liberally minded believers. I hope that’s not too harsh or unfair but it is how it comes across to me. read more »

Is “Son of Man” in the Gospels a mere idiom for “I”, the speaker?

Have recent posts here about two “son of man” sayings of Jesus missed their mark (claiming to be references to Daniel 7) if the term “son of man” was simply a common way for a speaker to refer to himself?
Vermes argued that, in addition to being a normal term for “man”, the Aramaic bar nasha, “son of man”, was also a conventional substitute for the first person pronoun, “I”. — Casey, 1991:48

Casey a few years later drew a similar conclusion:

[A]s we try to recover the original force of sayings of Jesus which used this idiom . . . [w]e must go back to the term ‘son of man’ being bar (e)nāsh(ā), an ordinary Aramaic term for ‘man’, used in an idiomatic way in a general statement which refers particularly to the speaker with or without other people. — Casey, 2010:361

With the author’s permission I am posting a few pages (355-358/9) of The Sovereignty of the Son of Man: Reading Mark 2, an article freely available online on Daniel Boyarin’s academia.edu page.

I have bolded key thought changes and background coloured examples to (hopefully) assist with easier reading. I have also kept the original page breaks with in-place footnotes.

A Read Herring: “The Son of Man” as Periphrasis for “I”

In order, however, to proceed into my own inquiry into the evidence of Mark for the “Son of Man” in early Judaism, I must first show why I do not accept the conclusion of Geza Vermes, who argued that it is just a circumlocution for “I.” In a series of articles, culminating in an important essay published as “Appendix E” to the third edition of Matthew Black’s Aramaic Approach,7 Vermes attempted to revive a theory that had been advanced and abandoned a century ago to the effect that “The Son of Man” is merely an ordinary Aramaic locution by which someone refers to themselves in the third person, hence “I.” I think it can be taken as granted that given Vermes’s exhaustive investigation, his study should be considered definitive,8 and if it fails, we can consider that suggestion as rejectable.9 Although an entire array of scholars have already disputed Vermes’s conclusion, none have, I think, shown that the interpretations of rabbinic literature adduced by him, do not stand, and that there is, therefore, no evidence whatsoever for the argument that in Aramaic, “son of man” can mean “I” (that it means a human being is, of course, not in doubt at all).10 I thus accordingly


7 G. Vermes, “Appendix E: The Use of Bar Nash/Bar Nasha in Jewish Aramaic: An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (ed. Μ. Black; 3rd ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, Clarendon, 1967), 310-28; P. Haupt, “The Son of Man = Hic Homo = Ego,” JBL 40 (1921).

8 P. Owen and D. Shepherd, “Speaking up for Qumran, Dalman and the Son ofMan: Was Bar Enasha a Common Term for ‘Man in the Time of Jesus?” JSNT 81 (2001): 84.

9 And it has been rejected by a host of scholars, from Fitzmyer through Jeremiah to Colpe, for all of which references see A. Yarbro Collins, “The Influence of Daniel on the New Testament in Daniel: A Commentary on the Book Daniel (ed. J.J. Collins; Hermeneia; Min-neapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 94, n. 30.

10 It should be noted that Norman Perrin, A Modern Pilgrimage in New Testament Christology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 70, makes major use of this untenable argument to make his case that all Christological use of “The Son of Man” must be post-Easter, an argument that is, in this respect, repeated by Lindars, Jesus, Son Man.

essentially agree with Hans Lietzmann as cited by Vermes to the effect that “His main findings are that the term is a common one, and that it is used as a kind of indefinite pronoun (ברעש = jemand; לית בר נש- niemand; בני נש= Leute). It is, he writes, ‘die farbloseste und unbestimmteste Bezeichnung des menschlichen In-dividuums’ (p. 38). He then goes on to postulate what seems to him to be the only logical corollary: as a designation בר נש is by nature inapplicable to any particular man, let alone to Jesus, the greatest of all men (p. 40).”11 Lietzmann put the question brilliantly; his answer, on the other hand, that the Son of Man must be a Hellenistic terminus technicus is a non-sequitur, for even if semantically and syntactically “Son of Man” in Aramaic means indeed just a person and nothing else, pragmatically (by which I mean in the case of a particular set of syntagms), the “Son of Man” as a citation of Daniel could certainly have come to mean the Christ already in Hebrew/Aramaic. An example, just to make this clear, would be the following: “Rav” simply means “Rabbi,” but for the majority of Orthodox Jews in the U.S., “the Rav” means one and only one Rabbi, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik OBM. Let us, then, have a look at Vermes’s evidence.

In order to make his case, Vermes must demonstrate the alleged use of בר נש as a circumlocution meaning “I.” Although he gives several examples, in every one of these, rather than seeing a circumlocution for “I,” we can see quite a (different idiom. I shall first discuss an example that Vermes seems to consider particularly strong.12 In the first:

Jacob of Kefar Nibburayya gave a ruling in Tyre that fish should be ritually slaughtered. Hearing this, R. Haggai sent him this order: Come and be scourged! He replied, should בר נש be scourged who proclaims the word of Scripture? (Gen. Rabba vii 2)13

Vermes wishes to claim that, “theoretically, of course, bar nash may be rendered here as ‘one’, but the context hardly suggests that at this particular juncture Jacob intends to voice a general principle. Hurt by his opponent’s harsh words, he clearly seems to be referring to himself and the indirect idiom is no doubt due to the implied humiliation.”14 Vermes here simply confuses the semantics and the pragmatics of the sentence. Of course, pragmatically the speaker is referring to himself, but semantically he is using a general expression. An example from English will make this clear. In the famous and brilliant lyric from Guys and Dolls, Adelaide sings plaintively: “In other words, just by waiting around for that


11 Vermes, “The Use,” 311.

12 Vermes, “The Use,” 321-2.

13 Genesis Rabbah (eds. J. Theodor and H. Albeck; Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1965), 51. Ver-mes’s translation.

14 Vermes, “The Use.”

little band of gold […] a person could develop a cold!” Of course, pragmatically she is referring to herself; it is her own situation of which she complains, but semantically “a person” in English is an indefinite pronomial form and not a circumlocution for “I.”15 The same is true for this example and, mutatis mutandis, all the other ones that Vermes cites. But another should be cited, because, at least, of the mutatis mutandis:

When R. Hiyya bar Adda died, son of the sister of Bar Kappara, R. Levi received his valuables. This was because his teacher used to say, The disciple of בר נשא is as dear to him as his son. (Yer Ber. 5b)

There is not the slightest justification to see a circumlocution for “I” here either. Rabbi Hiyya has expressed a general principle that the disciple of a person is as dear to him as his son and the conclusion was drawn on the pragmatic level (in several senses) that he intended his disciple to be his heir.

Another example cited by Vermes turns out to be a counter-example:

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoh said: “If I had been standing on Mt. Sinai at the hour that the Torah was given to Israel I would have demanded of the Merciful One that that human being would have been created with two mouths, one to be busy with Torah and one to do with it all of his daily needs.” Then he changed his mind and said: “If even with only one, the world cannot subsist because of all of the delations, if there were two all the more so!” [Palestinian Talmud Shabbat chapter 1, halakhah, page 3b]

Now it is obvious here, pace Vermes, that the Rabbi is not referring to himself as “that man” here, for then he would be, as well, accusing himself of being an informer, which he hardly was and hardly would do.16 There can be no doubt that here, as well, we must understand “הדין בר נש” here as “One,” German “Mann”, and nothing else. There remains not even one example in which the term Son of Man is a periphrastic usage for “I.”

In all of Vermes’s examples, then, “general principles are stated which are applied in the context of the narrative to an individual, usually the speaker.17 Vermes’s argument fails totally because he does not even once observe the


15 Vermes’s citation of the answer “You […]” as confirmation of his thesis hardly needs refuting. Nathan Detroit, of course, would comfort Adelaide by saying: “Ah baby, you’ll be married soon.” That still doesn’t make “a person” = “I” semantically.

16 This consideration also thoroughly discredits Lindars’s reading according to which bar nesha here means “anyone (…) who was as deeply conscious of the divine generosity as Simeom himself,” Lindars, Jesus, Son of Man, 22. Even more sharply than with respect to the interpretation of Vermes, one would ask: Is this the class of people one would suspect of being informers to the Romans and even more so had they two mouths? I think the conclusion is inescapable that here (with or without haden=this), the meaning is the human being in general.

17 See examples cited Vermes, “The Use,” 323-7. For similar conclusions reached by slightly different methods, see Μ. Casey, “Method in Our Madness, and Madness in Their Methods: Some Approaches to the Son of Man Problem in Recent Scholarship,” JSNT 42 (1991): 18.

difference between semantic (lexical) meaning and pragmatic meaning or between sense and reference. There is, therefore, no evidence, whatsoever for “son of man” being used in Aramaic texts as a circumlocution for “I,” as Lietzmann realized.18

I conclude, therefore, that Vermes has adduced no convincing evidence that “Son of Man” was ever used as a circumlocution for “I” even in the Palestinian Aramaic of Late Antiquity; still less has he witnesses for the Aramaic of the first century. Vermes’s argument thus fails to convince on lexical philological grounds, in spite of its superficial attractiveness for the interpretation of some verses within the Gospels. Given that Vermes’s alleged idiomatic usage of “son of man” as periphrasis for “I” proves to be a ghost, another explanation of this genuinely weird usage must be sought. Lietzmann (and a host of others) have sought the explanation in the positing of a “Heavenly Man” or Anthropos myth underlying Christology. Rejecting (as have, I think, most interpreters by now) such far-fetched and far-flung explanations, to my mind, the only plausible one that remains is that of the great Jewish theologian and scholar of the last century, Leo Baeck, who wrote: “Whenever in later works ‘that Son Man,’ ‘this Son of Man’, or ‘the Son of Man’ is mentioned, it is the quotation from Daniel that is speaking.19 In other words, I fully accept (as I think wë must) Vermes’s hypothesis of an Aramaic origin (in the oral traditions that lie behind the Gospels) for the phrase, “The Son of Man,” but deny his interpretation of that Aramaic


18 For another review of Vermes’s evidence, arriving, however, at different conclusions, see Lindars, Jesus, Son of Man, 19-24. Lindars accepts only one example as fully relevant and builds his entire case on that, the example being y Shevi’it 38d: [Rabbi Shimon] sat at the mouth of the cave [where he was hiding from the Romans] and he saw a hunter catching birds. He spread his net. He heard a voice from heaven [ברה קול], say dimus [Dimissio], and it was freed. He said [to himself], “a bird does not perish without Heaven, so much more so a human being!” Lindars chooses to translate this as “How much less a man in my position,” without any warrant other than the alleged article on bar nesha. Given, however, the philological state of the Palestinian Talmud, as well as the centuries later date in any case, to build an entire interpretation of the Son of Man on this one highly doubtful example, seems almost to constitute scholarly legerdemain. There is no reason to imagine that Rabbi Shimon means a man in his position as opposed to any human whatsoever. Once again, a simple generic is being used and applied by the speaker pragmatically to himself. A bird doesn’t perish except by the will of Heaven, still less a human being, [so why am I hiding here]? What is most important to recognize is that if this idiom is operative, for instance, at Matthew 8:20: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but bar enasha has nowhere to lay his head,” it could only mean that foxes have holes and birds have nests but humans have nowhere to lay their heads, which is palpably false (Lindars, Jesus, Son of Man, 30), so despite the apparent similarity of this one single exemplum from late-ancient Palestinian Aramaic, we must resist the temptation to treat them as the same linguistic form, pace Lindars, Jesus, Son of Man, 29-31. Lindars’s own solution to this problem involves pure philological fantasy, nothing more or less. In another, longer version of this argument, I will provide further argument against Lindars’s position. Insofar as it depends on Vermes’s flawed conclusions, it is, in any case, untenable.

191 L. Baeck, Judaism and Christianity: Essays (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1958), 28-9.

phrase. In what follows in this necessarily brief paper, I shall try to show how the hypothesis of literary allusion to Daniel in this phrase enables stronger readings of a pair of Markan loci.


And that takes us back to yesterday’s post, How the Gospel of Mark Retrofitted Jesus into a Pre-Existing Christ Idea.


Boyarin, Daniel. 2010. “The Sovereignty of the Son of Man: Reading Mark 2.” In The Interface of Orality and Writing: Speaking, Seeing, Writing in the Shaping of New Genres, edited by Annette Weissenrieder and Robert B. Coote, 353–62. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Casey, Maurice. 1991. From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God: The Origins and Development of New Testament Christology. Cambridge, England: JClarke ; Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press.

———. 2010. Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching. London ; New York: T&T Clark.




The Prologue of the Gospel of John as Jewish Midrash

While writing a post relating the Logos, Word, of the Gospel of John’s Prologue to hitherto longstanding Jewish ideas I came across the following explanation of “the formal characteristics of Midrash as a mode of reading Scripture” that requires a separate post or full quotation. It is a portion of an article by Daniel Boyarin that is based on an article by David Stern in The Jewish New Testament, “Midrash and Parables in the New Testament“.

One of the most characteristic forms of Midrash is a homily on a scriptural passage or extract from the Pentateuch that invokes, explicitly or implicitly, texts from either the Prophets or the Hagiographa (Gk “holy writings”: specifically, very frequently Psalms, Song of Songs, or Wisdom literature) as the framework of ideas and language that is used to interpret and expand the Pentateuchal text being preached. This interpretive practice is founded on a theological notion of the oneness of Scripture as a self-interpreting text, especially on the notion that the laer books are a form of interpretation of the Five Books of Moses. Gaps are not filled with philosophical ideas but with allusions to or citations of other texts.

The first five verses of the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel fit this form nearly perfectly. The verses being preached are the opening verses of Genesis, and the text that lies in the background as interpretive framework is Proverbs 8.22–31. The primacy of Genesis as text being interpreted explains why we have here Logos and not “Wisdom.” In an intertextual interpretive practice such as a midrash, imagery and language may be drawn from a text other than the one under interpretation, but the controlling language of the discourse is naturally the text that is being interpreted and preached. The preacher of the Prologue to John had to speak of Logos here, because his homiletical effort is directed at the opening verses of Genesis, with their majestic: “And God said: Let there be light, and there was light.” It is the “saying” of God that produces the light, and indeed through this saying, every thing was made that was made.

Philo, like others, identifies Sophia and the Logos as a single entity. Consequently, nothing could be more natural than for a preacher, such as the composer of John 1, to draw from the book of Proverbs the figure, epithets, and qualities of the second God (second person), the companion of God and agent of God in creation; for the purposes of interpreting Genesis, however, the preacher would need to focus on the linguistic side of the coin, the Logos, which is alone mentioned explicitly in that text. In other words, the text being interpreted is Genesis, therefore the Word; the text from which the interpretive material is drawn is Proverbs, hence the characteristics of Wisdom:

1. In the beginning was the Word,
      And the Word was with God,
2. And the Word was God.
      He was in the beginning with God.
3. All things were made through him,
      and without him was not anything made that
        was made.
4. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness
      did not receive it.

The assertion that the Word was with God is easily related to Proverbs 8.30, “Then I [wisdom] was beside him,” and even to Wisdom of Solomon 9.9, “With thee is wisdom.” As is frequently the case in rabbinic midrash, the gloss on the verse being interpreted is dependent on a later biblical text that is alluded to but not explicitly cited. The Wisdom texts, especially Proverbs 8, had become commonplaces in the Jewish interpretive tradition of Genesis 1. Although, paradoxically, John 1.1–5 is our earliest example of this, the form is so abundant in late antique Jewish writing that it can best be read as the product of a common tradition shared by (some) messianic Jews and (some) non-messianic Jews. Thus the operation of John 1.1 can be compared with the Palestinian Targum to this very verse, which translates “In the beginning” by “With Wisdom God created,” clearly also alluding to the Proverbs passage. “Beginning” is read in the Targumim sometimes as Wisdom, and sometimes as the Logos, Memra: By a Beginning—Wisdom—God created.

In light of this evidence, the Fourth Gospel is not a new departure in the history of Judaism in its use of Logos theology, but only, if even this, in its incarnational Christology. John 1.1–5 is not a hymn, but a midrash, that is, it is not a poem but a homily on Genesis 1.1–5. The very phrase that opens the Gospel, “In the beginning,” shows that creation is the focus of the text. The rest of the Prologue shows that the midrash of the Logos is applied to the appearance of Jesus. Only from John 1.14, which announces that the “Word became flesh,” does the Christian narrative begins to diverge from synagogue teaching. Until v. 14, the Johannine prologue is a piece of perfectly unexceptional non-Christian Jewish thoughtthat has been seamlessly woven into the Christological narrative of the Johannine community.

I need to update my series on the meaning of midrash. There are major implications here for the gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark.

Boyarin, Daniel. 2011. “Logos, a Jewish Word: John’s Prologue as Midrash.” In The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, 546–49. New York: Oxford University Press.


The Gospel of John as a source for Jewish Messianism? (Part 1)

The tendency within New Testament studies is not to consider that the Johannine perspective might possibly reflect a Jewish sectarian perspective, but to see John and the Johannine Jesus, who is Messiah, as anti-Jewish.

A recent publication with a challenging title and edited by Benjamin E. Reynolds and Gabriele Boccaccini is Reading the Gospel of John’s Christology as Jewish Messianism: Royal, Prophetic, and Divine Messiahs. How could that be? The Gospel of John is widely considered the most Christian-theologically advanced of the gospels and even anti-Jewish.

. . . in the Gospel of John, Jesus has descended from heaven, has been sent by the Father, is one with the Father, and is the only begotten of the Father. This Johannine portrayal of Jesus as the divine Son of God is thought to have been possible only in later Christian thought. . . .

. . . scholars do not deem John’s Christology to reflect Jewish messianic expectation, at least directly. Rather, John’s Christology is understood to reflect a Johannine version of the Synoptic Jesus set in the context of late first-century intra-Jewish diaspora dialogue and conflict or less specifically a Christianized or theologized development of Jewish messianic expectation.

. . . For many, John’s high Christology indicates its derivation from the community, which in turn negates its historicity. How much more problematic then is it to read the Gospel of John’s Christology as a form of Jewish Messianism? (16f)

Yet the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has exposed certain similarities between the Gospel of John and some form of early Judaism in Palestine.

The challenge for Johannine scholarship has been where to go and what to do after noting John’s relationship with early Judaism. (18)

Benjamin Reynolds suggests the reason scholars stop short after doing little more than remarking upon certain points in common is that to go further

means traveling into uncharted waters, into places that Johannine scholarship does not go, such as reevaluating the possibility of historical evidence in John’s Gospel, the context in which the Gospel was written, and the height of its Christology.

Reynolds can say that “scholars almost without exception” address the Gospel of John as an instance of “early Christian (and thus not Jewish) belief in the Messiah.”

Attempts at Using John as Evidence for Jewish Messianism

read more »

Memory and the Pursuit of the Jesus Tradition

I have begun to read Alan Kirk’s Memory and the Jesus Tradition, a compilation of twelve of his essays published between 2001 and 2016, and have, as usual, found myself making slower progress than I expected. At so many points in just the first few chapters I have had to detour to endnotes and seek out cited works to get a clearer idea of what lies behind many of Kirk’s points and quotations. The parallel readings have been worth it, though. Reading Kirk and the sources to which he alludes in parallel has opened up my understanding memory theory as applied in very practical ways in the social sciences on the one hand, and its theoretical application in Jesus tradition studies on the other. Kirk would disagree that his discussion of memory theory is entirely theoretical and I will address one of his attempts to present real-world applications of his theoretical discussions.

One pleasant surprise I have already experienced so early in my exploration of memory theory studies (in particular from the section in one of Kirk’s references titled “Literature and Cultural Memory” but which Kirk appears to entirely overlook in this collection of essays) is that I have become convinced that memory studies do have a most significant place in the study of early Christianity. Alan Kirk and other historical Jesus scholars attempt to use memory theories to uncover pre-gospel development of the Jesus tradition while I suspect that their most fruitful contribution can be found in exploring how the various gospels themselves helped establish the emerging identities of the early Christianities.

But first, let’s see what Alan Kirk himself, and no doubt with the agreement of the editor he credits for assisting him with putting this book together, Chris Keith, has to say about memory studies in the context of Christian origins:

. . . what was emerging under the aegis of memory analysis was a comprehensive account of the formation of the Jesus tradition and its history, from its origins and continuing on its arc towards canon-formation. . . . 

Memory-grounded analysis is able to deliver a coherent account, not only of the tradition’s origins, but also of its history through analysis of how the tradition mediates the salient past into contemporary contexts of reception. Here it intersects with source criticism and redaction criticism. In other words, a memory-based account of the tradition neither displaces standard redaction-critical, tradition-history and source-critical approaches nor does it merely supplement them. Rather, it integrates them into a more comprehensive account of cultural formation and history, providing a kind of unified field theory for various lines of enquiry.

(pp. 10, 18 of 375 — all page numbers are taken from an e-book version. My bolding in all quotations.)

How memory works

Holocaust survivors, survivors of more recent genocidal attacks in Africa, persons emerging from collective war-time experiences with individual post-traumatic stress syndrome, — it is by the sharing of personal experiences among such persons that meaning is found for what they have experienced as a new kind of “collective memory” is established. A collective narrative, a story that offers some sort of control or meaning, of their experiences, is created through such sharing of memories. Similarly the populations of entire nations that have experienced traumatic times can find a new sense of self or national identity through a collective communication of those experiences in dialogue, in the arts, in literature, in rousing speeches that inject hope and meaning into the raw memories of their devastating experiences. A close relation to the latter scenario is the nineteenth and early twentieth century

Zionist commemoration of ancient Jewish resistance movements such as the Zealots, . . . aimed at legitimating the Zionist political programme as well as promoting activist countermodels for Jewish identity, while its breathtaking (sic) diminution of the exile to a point of virtually no magnitude signified its repudiation of the stereotypically passive, sighing Jew of the Gulat. Zionist memory, in other words, was a matter of the ‘ideological classification of the past’. 

(p. 34 / 375)

I can to some extent understand how “memory studies” work, how “memory” can create or renew personal and collective identities and meanings, when applied to such situations.

If I understand Alan Kirk’s essays correctly (and I have read so far no more than four of the twelve), I believe he is attempting to apply that sort of memory process, or memory re-creation and meaning through social sharing, to groups he imagines to have been early (pre-gospel) bearers of “memories of Jesus” originating with historical encounters with Jesus.

Finally, this approach has obvious relevance for historical Jesus research. Historical Jesus scholarship, not recognizing the extent to which the tradition is the artefact of commemorative processes, often treats the gospels as garden-variety archival materials, for example, regarding them in their relative brevity as very incomplete records preserving just traces of events rather than being symbolically concentrated mediations of the aggregate of events. The model worked out in this chapter raises the question of what sort of historiography is required to deal with tradition – a media-based artefact with a commemorative and representational relationship to historical realities.

(pp. 89f. / 375)

But what justifies the application of memory theory to historical Jesus studies?

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