2021-01-11

Why was the Gospel Narrative set around 30 CE?

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by Neil Godfrey

I cannot prove that the gospel narratives are deliberately set in the time of Pilate so that the death of Jesus occurs a generation of forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE but I do think there are several reasons for suspecting that this setting was a conscious decision for theological reasons.

The first question that arises is this: How can we think that the gospels set the time of Jesus’ crucifixion forty years before the destruction of the Temple given that there is no explicit claim in the gospels to lead us to this conclusion?

I’ll begin by noting the existence of two implied prophetic timetables that are easily overlooked because the texts do not explicitly draw our attention to them.

  • Adam / Year 1
  • . . . .
  • Exodus from Egypt / Year 2666 (= two thirds point)
  • . . . .
  • Rededication of temple / Year 4000 (164 b.c.e)

One: Nowhere in the Old Testament books do we read that the Temple was to be rededicated after the Maccabean revolt 4000 years after the creation of Adam. Yet scribes appear to have edited the chronologies of the books in order to make the beginning of the new Israel in 164 CE to occur a neat 4000 years after God began his project with the creation of Adam. For some reason those editors did not feel a need to explicitly advertise the presence of this remarkable chronology but there it is. (For an explanation of this chronology which is taken from Thomas Thompson’s The Mythic Past see The Bible’s 4000 years from Creation to the New Israel — or if you are pressed for time there is a shorter earlier version, The Meaning of Biblical Chronology).

Two: Josephus in Antiquities indicates that he believed that the 70 weeks of the prophecy in Daniel 9 ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. (Antiquities X, 11, 7 — Beckwith, 533 ff). However, when we read in his earlier work about the Jewish War about the death of a high priest being responsible for the fall of the city, we find no explicit direction to suspect that either of these events had any connection with Daniel’s prophecy. Josephus writes about the death of a high priest without an explicit link to Daniel, but once we know from the later work what he believed about Daniel’s prophecy, then we are compelled to read the death of the high priest as the fulfilment of the prophecy of the “anointed one” who was “cut off” and whose death led to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem as the culmination of Daniel’s 70 weeks prophecy. Josephus doesn’t spell out the connection for readers. He is so quiet about it that one can say “only those in the know will know” the prophetic significance (the end of Daniel’s 70 weeks) of what he has described.

. . . an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. — Daniel 9:26

“I should not be wrong in saying that the capture of the city [= 70 CE] began with the death of Ananus [= 66 CE]; and that the overthrow of the walls and the downfall of the Jewish state dated from the day on which the Jews beheld their [anointed] high priest, the captain of their salvation, butchered in the heart of Jerusalem. . . . But it was, I suppose, because God had, for its pollutions, condemned the city to destruction and desired to purge the sanctuary by fire, that he thus cut off those who clung to them with such tender affection” (War IV, v, 2, 318. 323 — Beckwith, 535 f).

So there is no rule that requires that a fulfilled prophetic time can only be validly found in a text if an author spells it out directly. Do the gospels contain inferences that their setting in the time of Pilate has been fabricated to make the Jesus event happen forty years prior to the fall of Jerusalem?

The Book of Jubilees pre-dates the gospels. In the view of a good number of scholars (although challenged by Davies and Chilton) Jubilees 17:15-18:19 associates the (“would-be”) sacrifice of Isaac with the Passover. The Jubilees passage speaks of the twelfth day as the day on which the episode of testing Abraham’s loyalty to God begins, and “the third day” after that being the time of his offering of Isaac, that is, the 15th Nisan. The objection of Davies and Chilton appears to have been refuted on the evidence of Qumran texts according to Geza Vermes:

These views [associating the Binding of Isaac with Passover as early as the second century BCE] have found general favour among scholars during the last three decades, with the exception of Philip Davies and Bruce Chilton, who set out in an article published in 1978 to substitute for them ‘a revised tradition history’. I believe that in the light of the evidence from 4Q225 their counter-argument can be finally refuted. (Vermes, 144)

The Gospels do not always draw attention to their allusions to “Old Testament” themes and motifs and for most part rely on the knowledge of readers to make the connections. So the significance of Christ enduring 40 days in the wilderness is only recognized by a reader who is familiar with the story of the generation of Israel wandering 40 years in the wilderness.

The remainder of this post is based heavily on an article that I have had in my collection for quite some years now but unfortunately the name of the author is missing from my copy. The title is Sub Pontio Pilato: The Chronological Analogue of Supercessionism? The last words are only Trondheim, November 2008, M. W. N. If any reader knows who the author is and where the article was published please do get in touch. From the article (p.2):

Compare the many references to “this generation” in Luke: 7.31; 11.29; 30, 31, 32, 50, 51; 17.25; 21.32

And yet there are indications within the NT that the time of Jesus’ entrance into public activity may have been pinpointed only after the destruction of the Second Temple, so as to reaffirm the central doctrines of Christian beliefs. Forty is, after all, a symbolic number that appears several times in the HB and NT. One could hypothesize tentatively that the number forty had symbolic significance in the gospel chronology, too. But this is not what is meant here. In Mark 8.38 the following words are attributed to Jesus: ‘For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation [έν τη γενεά ταύτη τη μοιχαλίδι και άμαρτωλφ], of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’. The designation ‘this generation’ and related phrases allude to Deuteronomy, where Moses relates how God eventually swore that not a man of ‘this evil generation’ would look upon the Promised Land (Deut. 1.35; see also Deut. 32.5, 20; Num. 14.11, 27, 35; Ps. 95.10).6 This language, according to J. N. Rhodes, is ‘an important rhetorical vehicle for evoking the history of Israel as one of disobedience and failure’.7 Since God had condemned the wilderness generation to wander in the desert for forty years, the associations inherent to the phrases, as used in the Synoptics, are strengthened by the chronological claim that Jesus made his appearance forty years before the disastrous events of 70 CE. The underlying premise seems to be that, by rejecting Jesus, the inhabitants of Jerusalem provoked God’s anger in a similar way as the wilderness generation had done in ancient times.

6 See U. Mauser, Christ in the Wilderness: The Wilderness Theme in the Second Gospel and its Basis in the Biblical Tradition (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1963).
7 J. N. Rhodes, The Epistle of Barnabas and the Deuteronomic Tradition (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 162- 163, n. 86.

Parable of the Wicked Tenants. Image from Catholic Exchange

All of that may be suggestive but is there more? Our unknown author makes some interesting observations about Parable of the Wicked Tenants. I highlight what I take to be the key sentence:

In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (123; 135), Christians are said to be ‘the true Israelite race [γένος]’. This commitment to Christian supercessionism is scarcely justified by the vague argument that, in the gospels, the authority of Jesus replaces the guidance of the, Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests (cf. Matthew 5-7). However, the idea that the Church supplants the Jews is expressed more explicitly in the gospels than might be supposed at first sight. This conclusion presupposes the position that Jesus’ harsh words on ‘this generation’ would not have been intelligible in a pre-destruction context.

The parable presupposes that the destruction of Jerusalem was the result of the killing of Jesus. As a direct consequence God slew that generation and replaced them with a new people, a new Israel.

If read allegorically, the parable presupposes that the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE came as a Divine reaction to the crucifixion of Jesus. The parable may therefore be taken as an indication that early Christians adopted and expanded on an already established idea, namely, that the fall of Jerusalem came as a Divine reaction to sin. This idea, variants of which can be found in several contexts outside the NT, has a scriptural foundation in Deuteronomy, which states that disobedience to the commandments will bring war, famine, pestilence, and exile (cf. Deut. 28.15-68). Josephus, for instance, held that the fall of Jerusalem started in 68 CE, when the high priest Ananus was killed by zealots (War 4.5.2).

If the parable alludes to the Fall of Jerusalem as a consequence of rejecting Jesus then “this generation” likewise . . . Continue reading “Why was the Gospel Narrative set around 30 CE?”


2021-01-03

Jesus embodies all the Jewish Messiahs — continuing Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series  . . .

A Messiah to combine the different messianic visions

Nanine Charbonnel [NC] has been exploring various ways the Jesus figure of the gospels was drawn to embody certain groups of people and now proceeds to discuss the way our evangelists (gospel authors) also found ways to encapsulate the different Jewish ideas about the Messiah into him as well. I have posted many times on Second Temple messianic ideas and questioned a common view that there was “a rash of messianic hopes” in first-century Palestine. I post links to some of these posts that illustrate or expand on NC’s points.

Various Messiahs

Vridar posts on Second Temple Messiahs

Here are some tags linking to the posts. (As you can see, there is some overlap here that needs to be tidied up but this is the state of play at the moment):

Dying messiah 5 posts
Jewish Messianism 11 posts
Messiah 17 posts
Messiahs 11 posts
Messianic Judaism 2 posts
Messianism 15 posts
Second Temple messianism 41 posts

And a catch-all category

Messiahs and messianism 95 posts

NC lists different views of the messiah as listed by Armand Abécassis (En vérité je vous le dis):

  • the messiah would be a priest (said to be “the Sadducee” view — though I cannot vouch for all of these associations)
  • the messiah would be a royal heir of David (said to be “the Pharisee” view)
  • the messiah would be a scribe descended from Aaron (said to be an Essene view)
  • the messiah was related to a kind of baptist or purification movement (said to be the Boethussian view)

Among the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are found at least three different types of messiah

1. the royal messiah, the branch or offspring of David, who is accompanied by a prophetic figure who is an interpreter of the law
2. the priestly messiah, an ideal priest from the line of Aaron

In some scrolls these two messiahs appear together. They are perhaps the idealistic corrective to historical kings and priests who were considered corrupt.

3. a “Son of God” figure, “probably a unique celestial figure”, appears to be divine, without a name assigned although in other manuscripts he is given the name Melchisedech, the agent of divine judgment against evil.

André Paul (whom NC is quoting) concludes that these three messianic figures were part of Jewish thinking in the century or century and a half preceding the time of Jesus of Nazareth.

Pre-Christian Jewish thought about these three different messiahs drew upon Scriptures to flesh out what they were to accomplish. The promise Nathan made to David in 2 Samuel 7 that his throne would endure “forever”, and the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1-5 that a “branch will arise from the stump of Jesse”, and that of Isaiah 61:1 that “he will heal the wounded and revive the dead and proclaim the good news and invite the hungry to feast”, and many others, were applied to their respective messiahs.

One striking example outside the biblical texts is found in the Messianic Apocalypse of the Dead Sea Scrolls. To translate Andre Paul’s observation (quoted by NC):

We are struck by the astonishing relationship between this description of future blessings linked to the coming of the Messiah and Jesus ‘answer to John the Baptist’s question in the Gospels:’ “The blind see, the lame walk ” (Matthew 11, 5 and Luke 7, 22). […] A tradition identifiable in other writings of ancient Judaism serves as their common basis. 

The gospel authors were doing what Jewish writers before them had done. They were creating their messiah by pastiching different passages from the Scriptures. The gospels were even copying or incorporating the works of earlier exegetes as we see in the example of the Messianic Apocalypse.

It is these three types of messiah that “Christianity” will unite: Mashiach-Christos, High Priest (in particular in the Epistle to the Hebrews), and Son of Man. It has long been known that in the period of Christianity’s establishment there were struggles over the titles to be given to Jesus Christ. Can we not think that far from depending on different “legends”, the Gospels are midrashim voluntarily composed with a view to celebrating an existing messiah (existing in texts) to unite these divergent expectations? Those who call themselves the disciples of Jesus will make him at the same time the prophet, the priest and the king “thus cumulating all the functions of society and guaranteeing them” (Abécassis p. 290), aided in this by traditions already anchored in the Jewish society of the time.

(Charbonnel, 278, my translation with Google’s help)

We further have texts that have long been known to us, those we label pseudepigrapha. Among these are the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Some of these (the Testaments of Levi and Judah) speak of messianic variants: see TLevi ch2 and TJudah ch4.

NC next turns to biblical scholars questing for the historical Jesus and the significance they attach to the contexts of and emphases on different messianic allusions and sayings in the gospels — all in an effort to attempt to discern what Jesus may have thought about himself vis a vis what others (contemporaries, later generations) thought about him. But the whole exercise collapses when one approaches the gospel Jesus as a literary creation woven from the many messianic threads known to Second Temple Judaism.

From Amazon. Disclaimer: I know nothing about this CD set apart from what is stated on the Amazon site. I chose it entirely for the sake of adding a quick and easy graphic to the post and do not suggest that the contents relate to the principle theme of the post.

Both the Messiah Son of David . . . .

The view that the messiah was to be a son of David is well understood: Isaiah 9:5-6; 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 30:9; etc …; Psalms of Solomon 17:21-43) — even if the details varied somewhat in the different writings. Matthew and Luke make Jesus a genealogical descendant of David; and whereas David was anointed with oil by Samuel Jesus was anointed directly by the Holy Spirit, and so forth. 

NC takes us in for a closer look at what it means to be a “Davidic” figure.

First: the name David means Beloved. At Jesus’ baptism we are to hear a voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be God’s Beloved son (Matthew 3:17). (The name given for the Jesus figure in the Ascension of Isaiah is Beloved; further, see the series on Jon Levenson’s book The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. There we learn that the “Beloved son” is virtually a technical term for an only or firstborn son who is destined for sacrifice. NC does not touch on this work, however.)

That Jesus was resurrected from the dead is another “Davidic” qualification given that a “Psalm of David” was interpreted by early Christians as a prophecy that “David” would not “be abandoned to Hades” — Acts 2:22-23.

(NC does not mention in this context other Davidic features of Jesus such as his ascent to the Mount of Olives in mourning for his life; his suffering of false and cruel persecutions by his former associates and family; his role as a meditative figure. See What might a Davidic Messiah have meant to early Christians?)

What NC does bring out, though, is the link with the nation of Israel itself being named by God as his Beloved. In the Septuagint we find Continue reading “Jesus embodies all the Jewish Messiahs — continuing Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier”


2020-12-22

Jesus Christ Created as an Epitome of Old Testament Figures (2) — Charbonnel and Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

One more instance of Jesus being a re-construction of the great heroes of the Old Testament that Nanine Charbonnel offers us an antitype of Joshua. There’s a catch this time, though. I think the attempt unnecessarily goes too far. At least there is no explanation to justify the claim that the narrative structure of the gospels follows that found in the Book of Joshua. Yes, Jesus begins his ministry like Joshua coming through the Jordan; yes, Jesus does offer a rest as Joshua brought Israel to the promised land; yes, a Lazarus does die in John’s gospel as Eleazar dies in the Book of Joshua. . . but these details do not make a narrative structure. To compare the delivering of the beatitudes (blessings and curses) in the Sermon on the Mount one must strain to match that up with Joshua’s pronouncements of blessings and curses on Mounts Ebal and Gerizim. And to call upon the possibility of a Hebrew text behind Mark’s account of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law to note a series of puns related to Joshua’s sun standing still won’t persuade many readers. I can understand why this possibility was mentioned, however, since a primary theme of her thesis is that the gospels were created as Jewish midrash.

If we are looking for a structure that is common to at least the three synoptic gospels we do much better to look at Thomas Brodie’s and Adam Winn’s discussions of the Elijah-Elisha cycle.

More to the point for a comparison with the good shepherd Jesus is NC’s notice of Joshua’s appointment as a shepherd of his people. Thus Numbers 27:15-18

15 Then Moses spoke to the Lord, saying: 16 “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, 17 who may go out before them and go in before them, who may lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep which have no shepherd.”

18 And the Lord said to Moses: “Take Joshua the son of Nun with you, a man in whom is the Spirit . . . 

In keeping with the midrashic composition theme NC draws attention to Joshua being one to “go out” (ἐξελεύσεται in the LXX) before his people and to Matthew’s taking up the same verb (ἐξελθὼν) in 13:1

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake

But here the force of NC’s argument is lost when she says that Matthew is symbolically speaking of the end of time when the message goes to the gentiles. The only way I can see that her argument here can be salvaged is is the sea is the signifier of far-off peoples, of gentiles, as it certainly appears to be in the Gospel of Mark (Kelber’s Mark’s Story of Jesu.- link is to online copy of the book.) NC further extends the “going out” or “exodus” motif to the Gospel of John where Jesus can be said to leave his heavenly body and home to go to his physical people in a physical body.

Another possible bond between Joshua and Jesus is that Jesus professes to keep the least “jot” (yod) of the law while Joshua was faithful in transmitting the law of Moses. (There is more to discuss about the name of the saviour that is promised in a future chapter.)

Other Old Testament types can be found where Jesus is seen to transform them into “fulfilments” of higher ideals as the written words of Yahweh were believed to create fulfilments. But the most explicit figure that Jesus is made to embrace is that of the Messiah.

We’ll try to cover how Jesus embodies the Messianic figure in the next post in this series.


Charbonnel, Nanine. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs, 2017.


 


2020-12-11

Jesus Christ Created as an Epitome of Old Testament Figures (1) — Charbonnel and Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

We now continue our exploration of Nanine Charbonnel’s case for Jesus Christ being a literary-theological creation using the techniques of a “midrashic” re-reading and interpretation of Jewish Scriptures. The full series is archived at https://vridar.org/tag/charbonnel-jesus-christ-sublime-figure-de-papier/

Double Personification

The gospel figure of Jesus Christ was created as a “double personification”:

  • he was created as a personification of a people — both the Jewish people and ultimately as a “new people of God”. Nanine Charbonnel [NC] calls this “horizontal personification”. This is why we so readily see in the Jesus character aspects of the ideal King, the Prophet, the Priest, the Suffering Servant, the Son of Man, the Messiah, who as a new Adam creates in himself one new people

at the same time,

  • he was created as a personification of the fundamentals of the Jewish religion and its spiritual and heavenly and eternal focus — he is the embodiment of God and God’s presence with his people. As such, he embodies the Temple, the Tabernacle, the Glory and Presence, Glory (Shekinah) of God, the Word of God, the Law, the Name of God through which he saves.

The authors of the gospels were familiar with the Jewish literary technique of creating individual characters to represent collective ethnic groups. Recall, for example, the creation of the Jacob-Esau story which begins with the explanation that the two boys represent “two nations” (Gen 25:23). Recent posts have set out NC’s illustration of this technique with lesser characters. By creating the gospel Jesus figure they were seeking to create a new person who represented both a new people of God and the God who came to dwell with them. NC details the way Jesus was drawn to embody the divine persons and entities. She calls this “vertical personification”. This post and those immediately succeeding it look at how the authors have created a “horizontal” personification of a “new man”.

The New Adam

Before the gospels were penned Christians thought of Jesus as a “new Adam”. Thus Paul in 1 Cor 15:45-49

The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. . . .

See also Rom 5:17-18.

This second Adam is created in the same way the first Adam was — as a symbol or representative of mankind. Adam is a literary figure, a single character, but one with whom all of humanity are meant to identify. NC quoted from Paul Ricoeur‘s discussion of the Adam myth:

In Adam we are one and all; the mythical figure of the first man provides a focal point at the beginning of history for man’s unity-in-multiplicity. (244)

Jewish elites have addressed the idea of Adam in Genesis. NC mentions Philo as an example. Philo determined that the Adam created in God’s image was the perfect, heavenly Adam; while the Adam of dust was the corruptible Adam who needed laws to control him from his base tendencies. We will see that the heavenly Adam is also the son of God.

It is “Yahweh who saves” (the Hebrew meaning of the name Jesus) who was imagined as the “new Adam”, the embodiment of (redeemed) humanity.

Another instance not mentioned by NC, but one addressed by many scholars commenting on the Gospel of Mark, is the apparent depiction of Jesus as the New Adam cum Messianic figure in the wilderness where he is “with the wild animals”.

and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. (Mark 1:13)

The gospel begins with an echo of the beginning of Genesis (“the beginning of the gospel”) and after the parting of heavens (as per the parting of the waters “at the creation of the cosmos”– Allison, New Moses 200, Thompson, Mythic Past 18 ff, Spong, Liberating the Gospels, 33 ff) and leads to Jesus being tempted by Satan, with the animals and angels, as was Adam in Genesis and Jewish writings of the Second Temple era elaborating on the Adam story. Where Adam failed in his temptation, Jesus succeeded; where Adam once had but then lost his companionship and peace with wild animals Jesus restored harmony with them; where the angels refused to serve Adam they did serve Jesus. Jewish apocrypha also said angels fed Adam for a time. Other scholars prefer to interpret the passage as a proleptic fulfilment of harmony with animals by Isaiah’s messiah; some accept both interpretations together. I will post about this interpretation of Mark 1:13 with reference to Richard Bauckham, Ulrich Mell, Joel Marcus, C.S. Mann, Francis Maloney, John Donahue and Daniel Harrington in a future post.)

We saw in a previous post that the place of Christ’s crucifixion was also associated with the place of Adam’s burial. This likelihood is suggestive of Jesus being understood as the new life-giving Adam.

The New Moses

Since the twelve disciples are symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jesus is the new Moses. The famous transfiguration scene clearly indicates that Jesus is the embodiment of the law represented by Moses and the prophets represented by Elijah. Moses was made radiant as was Jesus; both were covered with the cloud of God’s glory; both were ordained by God to be the shepherds and teachers of the twelve tribes/disciples; both perform miraculous signs; and so forth and so forth. NC copies forty points that some Catholic exegetes have seen that demonstrate Jesus as the new Moses:

NC admits that not all of the 40 points listed there are unquestionable. One that springs to notice for me is the point that Jesus left a higher royal court to join his lowly people — as Moses left Pharaoh’s court to join his people — is taken from Philippians 2:5-7; yet this detail is not found in the context of a Moses comparison. There are, nonetheless, reputable scholarly works that make the case for the Gospel of Matthew in particular deliberately building up Jesus on the Moses template. One of the more notable works is The New Moses: A Matthean Typology by Dale C. Allison Jr. I looked at one of Allison’s discussions in the post Additional Sauces for the Feedings of 5000 and 4000. NC does not mention Allison’s book so this is my addition to her discussion and what I think is a more trenchantly argued replacement than the 40 point list. Allison states in his concluding chapter,S

The Moses typology, especially strong in the infancy narrative and the [Sermon on the Mount], definitely shapes all of Matthew 1-7. It is also definitely present in the great thanksgiving of 11:25-30, in the narrative of the transfiguration (17:1-9), and in the concluding verses, 28:16-20.1 am further inclined, but with less faith, to find the typology in the feeding stories (14:13-22; 15:29-39), the entry into Jerusalem (21:1-17), and the last supper (26:17-25). But proposals concerning the missionary discourse, the requests for a sign (12:38; 16:1), the woes of chapter 23, the eschatological discourse, and the crucifixion (27:45-53) are to be rejected or entertained as nothing more than possibilities.

An interesting observation emerges from the foregoing conclusions: the passages in which Moses’ tacit presence is the strongest display an order which mirrors the Pentateuch:

Matthew The Pentateuch
1-2 Exod. 1:1-2:10 infancy narrative
3:13-17 Exod. 14:10-31 crossing of water
4:1-11 Exod. 16:1-17:7 wilderness temptation
5-7 Exod. 19:1-23:33 mountain of lawgiving
11:25-30 Exod. 33:1-23 reciprocal knowledge of God
17:1-9 Exod. 34:29-35 transfiguration
28:16-20 Deut. 31:7-9
Josh. 1:1-9
commissioning of successor

(Allison, 268)

The Gospel of Matthew is not the only one where Jesus is portrayed as a new Moses. Compare this snippet from another post about a year ago, OT Sources for the Gospel of Mark, chapters 2 and 3

Mark 3:7-10

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. For he had healed many . . . .

Exodus 12:37-38; 15:22-26
The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and childrenMany other people went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds. . . . Then Moses led Israel . . . He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”
Mark 3:13-19

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Exodus 19:1-2, 17

On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt . . . and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain. . . .

Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.

Exodus 24:1, 4, 8-10

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. . . .

He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. . . .

Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel.

Many more Moses imitations are cited throughout Isaiah’s New Exodus by Rikki E. Watts. One of many examples in which Watts is outlining the work of another scholar,

Although at first sight Mark appears to make little use of the OT, M. D. Hooker recognises that this is largely because of his distinctive approach. Not only is the opening quotation significant, ‘his story is good news precisely because it is the fulfilment of Scripture‘, but ‘Jesus’ words and activities constantly echo OT scenes and language, until what is “written” of the Son of Man (9:12; 10:21) is finally fulfilled’ (p. 220). . . . 

In the conflict over the Pharisees’ and scribes’ traditions, Mark 7:1-23 shows that while Jesus upholds the Law (vv. 1-13; cf. Nu 30:2; Dt 23:21-23) his authority is even greater than that of the Law (vv. 14-23). The same is borne out in examinations of 12:18ff and 28-34 (p. 224), and several Pentateuchal allusions (2:1-10; 2:23 – 3:6; cf. 1:44). Three other allusions recalling incidents in Moses’ life serve likewise to demonstrate that Jesus is either Moses’ successor (6:34, cf. Nu 27:17) or his superior (9:2-13; cf. Ex 24:15f; Dt 18:15), while 9:38-40 (cf. Nu 11:26-29) shows Jesus acting as did Moses.

(Watts, 24 f)

Scholarly Resistance to Comparisons

Continue reading “Jesus Christ Created as an Epitome of Old Testament Figures (1) — Charbonnel and Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier”


2020-12-05

Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #7 (conclusion)

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by Neil Godfrey

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With this post I conclude setting out Nanine Charbonnel’s tables associating the gospels with Jewish Scriptures and other Jewish writings. With this section completed I am free to move on to discuss the remainder of her book, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier.

The value of tables like these comes more from preparing them — or returning to them from time to time to take them in point by point — than a quick glance at them. One is compelled to ask about the intellectual world of the evangelists. One is brought into the mysterious world of what the authors read and spoke about, how they thought about what they read, what flashes of insight were sparked by their conversations all before anything was put into writing. Then by what creative process did each evangelist weave anew another variant of a story about a figure who represented a new Israel.

In the table below I have once again made a few edits to Charbonnel’s original. For one thing, not a few of the biblical references in French do not match those in English. All of these have been revised to their English references. A few times I was not sure what a reference or source meant so I have added a question mark to each of those places. (Example, [RG] — is this a reference to Rene Girard? If so, what work of his?) In some cases I have left Charbonnel’s notes entirely and replaced them with translations from the French (or Italian) source that had been cited.

None of the illustrations is in Charbonnel’s original table.

  • Some interesting features this time:
  • The crown of thorns might reasonably be associated with the parable of the thornbush that in the OT parable “would be king”.
  • Pilate’s famous “Here is the man!” statement has several possible sources in the OT, all associated, ironically, with ascension to kingship.
  • Matthew’s mob crying out for Jesus’ blood to be “on their heads” has in modern discussion been said to be an anti-semitic trope but when one notices its possible sources in the Jewish scriptures one sees it as originally not necessarily bearing any particularly anti-semitic connotation.
  • I had always been suspicious of those comments linking the old Hebrew letter tau with the cross of Jesus, but I am willing now to concede that there just might be something to the link. (I’m not suggesting that the original idea of a cross came from the alphabet, not at all.)
  • Another interesting link was the Jewish Scripture associations of the “good” thief’s dispute with his “bad” companion.
  • We all surely know of the Amos association with the sun going down at noon, but I had overlooked till now that this same image in Amos is tied to mourning for an only son.
  • The titulus crucis carries more Jewish Scripture echoes than I had ever suspected.
  • Nor was I aware of the earthquake at the time of Joshua’s death — a sign divinely activated to draw the population’s attention to that grave moment.
  • Again, we have several links to intertestamental literature and later rabbinic writings. And again, it is very reasonable to accept that those rabbinical writings had their origins in the Second Temple era and were known to the evangelists.
  • One related detail is the teaching that when Moses struck the rock twice, the first time blood flowed out, the second time, water. What was on the evangelist’s mind when he wrote of the spear drawing both blood and water from Jesus?
  • Justin Martyr’s quotation of Jeremiah is of special interest.
  • So is a Codex Bezae version of the Gospel of Luke. Again, we meet another piece of evidence that the evangelists knew the writings of Josephus, especially Wars. The east gate that miraculously opened by itself as a warning of Jerusalem’s doom was said by Josephus to have been so large that it took twenty men to open. The same image is found in Codex Bezae’s Luke.
  • I had known of the “I am” statements in the Greek Gospel of John but for some reason till now had overlooked them in the Gospel of Luke.
  • Charbonnel speaks of OT passages where one is said to “pass through walls” by the power of God, but the Hebrew speaks of scaling over. (A French translation does say “pass through” as the resurrected Jesus did.)
  • I would like to track down the Exodus Rabbah statement (in English) that foreshadows the “Do you seek the living among the dead” saying.
  • Oh yes… one more of particular note (for me) — is the “beloved disciple” a figure of the church?

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #7 (conclusion)”


2020-08-05

Reading the Gospels through a Roman Philosopher’s Eyes

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by Neil Godfrey

From LivingStyles (labelled for reuse on Google Images)

In the previous post focusing on Heracles (or Zeus-Heracles) as Logos I omitted a quotation that paired Heracles with Hermes (Roman name, Mercury) for the sake of trying to keep the focus on a single point. Here I am catching up: what the Stoic author Cornutus wrote about Hermes brings to mind several core motifs in the gospels, but in particular of the Gospel of Mark. (Don’t jump to wild conclusions, though. I am only exploring the religious/ideological contexts within which the gospels emerged.)

The Jewish philosopher Philo noted that Hermes was the prophet, the divine interpreter, but in particular, the messenger who brought to humanity “good news”:

ἄρα οὐχ ὅτι προσήκει τὸν ἑρμηνέα [=interpreter] καὶ προφήτην [=prophet] τῶν θείων, ἀφ οὗ καὶ
Ἑρμῆς ὠνόμασται, τὰ ἀγαθὰ διαγγέλλοντα [=messenger of good] (Legatio Ad Gaium, 99)

— It’s worth trying to imagine living at the time the gospels were first heard. Jesus, the messenger who brought good news, surely evoked in the minds of some another deity with a comparable role.

Shortly after Philo (in the time of Nero) the Roman philosopher Cornutus wrote Epidrome (or Greek Theology) in which he described Hermes as reason (= logos) itself, “the preeminent possession of the gods” and the one they have sent to us from heaven so that we alone of earthly creatures are rational.

— As per the previous post focussing on Heracles, Jesus was not unique in being identified with the/a logos.

I copy the translation of the key section by Robert Hays from his 1983 thesis, Lucius Annaeus Cornutus’ “Epidrome”. Cornutus has just described in depth those daughters of Zeus known as the gift-giving Graces [Charites].

1. The tradition holds that Hermes is their [i.e. “the Graces”] master, thus signifying that the bestowing of kindness must be reasonable: not random, but to those who deserve it. For the person who has been ungratefully treated [hoacharistētheis] becomes more reluctant to do good. Now Hermes is Reason [ho logos]. which the gods sent to us from heaven, having made man alone of all the living creatures on earth reasonable [logikon], a gift which they themselves considered outstanding beyond all others. He has received his name from his taking counsel to speak [erein mēsasthai], i.e., to engage in rational discourse [legein]. Or, perhaps because he is our bulwark [eryma] and, as it were, our fortress.

— Logos is translated Reason but note its close association with “the word”, in particular the spoken word, a word that brings life-giving benefits as we will see. Continue reading “Reading the Gospels through a Roman Philosopher’s Eyes”


2020-05-23

Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #3

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by Neil Godfrey

Here we look at

a. the visions and rejoicing surrounding the birth of Jesus

b. the shepherds, the magi

c. massacre of the innocents

d. flight to and return from Egypt

e. Jesus twelve years of age in the temple

Future posts will continue this series.

The table is primarily a translation and slight modification of pages 183-226 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper. All posts archived here.

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #3”


2020-05-16

Gospels Cut From Jewish Scriptures, #2

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by Neil Godfrey

Here we look at

a. the announcement to the parents of John the Baptist;

b. the heralding role of John the Baptist.

Future posts will continue this series.

Continue reading “Gospels Cut From Jewish Scriptures, #2”


2020-05-09

How Ignatius Cut Christianity Off From its Jewish Roots

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by Neil Godfrey

(updated 2 hours after first posting)

This post is a distillation of the chapter “Why Ignatius Invented Judaism” by Daniel Boyarin in The Ways That Often Parted: Essays in Honor of Joel Marcus. It covers the same questions addressed by Roger Parvus (see sidebox) but with a different hypothesis.

Roger Parvus posted a series on Vridar arguing that the letters of Ignatius were in fact composed by a follower of a breakaway sect from Marcionism. Roger’s thesis builds upon ideas advanced by earlier scholars that the letters of Ignatius show signs of the teachings of someone closely related to Marcionism, such as Apelles, a former disciple of Marcion. Roger also revisits and develops an idea that first appeared a century ago in scholarly publications that the author of the original letters was in fact that colorful character Peregrinus, the subject of a satire by Lucian.

The essence of Boyarin’s view is that Ignatius

a. used the term that we translate as “Judaism” to refer to any attempt to link gospel details to the Old Testament; and that

b. the gospel of Jesus Christ stood as true without any reference to Old Testament prophecies or scriptures.

This idea throws an interesting perspective on thesis we have at times addressed on this blog that the canonical gospel characters, events and sayings were constructed out “midrashic” or intertextual interpretations of Old Testament books and that their symbolic meanings were subsequently lost by those Christians who became the foundation of the Church we know today. Can the epistles of Ignatius be viewed as an early stage of that misunderstanding and loss of the original meaning of our gospels? (These, of course, are my questions, not those directly raised by Boyarin.)

Boyarin begins by comparing Paul’s and Ignatius’s respective uses of the term “Judaism” (Ioudaismos). For Paul it meant performing certain practices, not an institution. Thus when Paul writes

and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions (Gal. 1:14 NASB)

Daniel Boyarin

he means the “practice of Jewish ways of loyalty to the traditional doings of Jews” that Josephus described as

the ancestral [traditions] of the Ioudaioi (τὰ πάτρια τῶν Ἰουδαίων – A.J. 20.41)

It does not mean an abstract category of “a religion”. It means performing practices, customs, rituals, etc. It is the counterpart of what Thucydides complained that Plataeans were doing when they were “Medizing” — that is, “forsaking their ancestral traditions” (παραβαίνοντες τὰ πάτρια, Thucydides, P.W. 3.61.2), copying the customs of the Medes. (I am only presenting the main idea: Boyarin’s justification for this interpretation is a lengthy discussion of Galatians passages than I have outlined above.)

For Paul, it was the Jewish law that stood against the gospel. For Ignatius, however, gospel stood in opposition to Jewish scriptures.

Old Fables/Myths

At one point Ignatius equates “heterodoxy and old myths” with this Judaizing of his heretics:

Be not deceived by heterodoxiai nor by old fables, which are useless. For if we continue to live until now according to Ioudaismos, we confess that we have not received grace” (Magn. 8.1).

Could such fables possibly be connected with Jewish Scriptures here? Ignatius links them with “Judaizing”. Ignatius continues from the above passage to speak positively of the prophets, but he used the fact that they were persecuted (Magn 8:2) as evidence that they were on his side (Barrett, 237). In the Pastoral epistles we likewise read of the association of Judaism with mythology — Titus 1:14; I Timothy 1:4; 4:7; II Timothy 4:4). Ignatius appears to criticize the “Judaizers” for “mythologizing” the Scriptures: i.e. either reading them literally (Barrett, 237) or midrashically (my suggestion).

Gospel versus Scriptures

The first Christian to make that declaration, as far as we know, was Marcion. (Boyarin doubts that Ignatius took the idea from Marcion but Parvus argues that that was exactly where the idea ultimately derived.) The key passage is in Ignatius’s letter to the Philadelphians: Continue reading “How Ignatius Cut Christianity Off From its Jewish Roots”


2020-04-13

The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels: Personifications of Jews and Gentiles

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing our series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .

–o–

Where did the gospel characters come from?

Nanine Charbonnel [NC] presents a case for the parabolic or symbolic character of the gospels. In the second chapter of the second part of Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier, we see how narrative figures who appear as historical persons are best explained as symbols of collective groups. We have seen how in the Jewish Scriptures individuals in a story represent nations: e.g. In Hosea the person Israel stands for the whole of Israel; Abraham and Sarah being expelled from Egypt prefigure the Exodus, and many other cases can be cited.) Here are NC’s thoughts on some Gospel figures.

.

Zechariah and Elizabeth

This couple represents the Jews of the Temple.

Zechariah (=YHWH remembers). In the Protoevangelium of James (or Infancy Gospel of James) Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, is slain by Herod for refusing to reveal where his son John was hidden. In the Jewish Bible the same name is martyred by the king Joash. Joash had been hidden safe from the murderous Athaliah by the father of Zechariah, the priest Jehoiada, but forgot his kindness and had his son Zechariah stoned (2 Chronicles 24:17-22).

Elizabeth is said to be descended from Aaron in Luke 1:5.

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.

.

Mary and Martha

Vincent Adriaenssen – Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (Wikimedia)

These sisters are drawn from Naomi and Ruth in the Book of Ruth. They represent the Jews and the gentile converts. The gentiles preceded the Jews.

Since the Middle Ages much there has been much discussion about how their roles act out the superiority of the contemplative over the active life. But that meaning was far from the mind their original creator, says NC.

Naomi is called Mara:

“Call me not Naomi [that is, Pleasant]. Call me Mara [that is, Bitter], for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. (Ruth 1:20)

She came from Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1-2).

The fourth evangelist changed Naomi-Mara of Bethlehem to Mary of Bethany (=house of affliction (or figs)).

Martha is Ruth of Bethlehem (Ruth 1:19-22) with the prefix mem (מ) (préfixe qui sert à faire des noms, = prefix used to make names, NC 228) added to RWTH (rūt – ר֖וּת) to make MaRWTH — which becomes Martha in Greek. So Ruth of Bethlehem becomes Martha of Bethany.

Jesus gently chides Martha for her busyness and commend Mary for having chosen the appropriate response to his presence. Martha is eclipsed by Mary just as the Mosaic covenant with its preoccupation with works of the law is eclipsed by the way of “a good heart and prayer”. This is how it was with Naomi and Ruth.

The two women divide their tasks. After years in Moab Naomi-Mara hears that there is bread to be found in Bethlehem (=house of bread) so she rises and returns. Once back home there, she sits in the house while Ruth gleans for bread. Finally, she sits Ruth down to find her a husband. The author of the Gospel of Luke has transferred these attitudes to “anyone who agrees to listen to the story of Israel”. Mary-Mara is sitting down because one day earlier she got up and one day again she will get up. Martha-Ruth is busy with food because one day (a different time) she sat down to listen to the Torah and another day she will be seated to listen to it again. Mary and Martha, like Naomi and Ruth, are living out the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost, the gift of the Torah, the permanent gift of the Word . . . .

(More paraphrase than translation of Marie Vidal, Jesus and Virounèka, 2000, p. 168, quoted in NC 228f. The link is to an Amazon page with a description of the book. Use Google Translate to convert it to English.)

.

The Hemorrhaging Woman and Daughter of Jairus

Continue reading “The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels: Personifications of Jews and Gentiles”


2020-04-11

Gospel Parables and the “Birth” of the Messiah as a Personification of Israel

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series . . .

Nanine Charbonnel’s [NC] last pages of her chapter on the meaning of “fulfilment” in the gospels dovetail with John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable and Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus (links are to Vridar posts discussing these works) – and with any other writing that has argued that the Gospels are parables.

We know that Jesus was famous for speaking in parables but NC (like “Jesus historicist” Crossan and “Jesus mythicist” Brodie) goes further and suggests that the gospel stories about Jesus and all that he did are written as parables.

In what follows I attempt to convey some rough sketch of NC’s thesis. We will see that she delves into deeper technical reasons for reading the gospels as “parables”.

That the character of Jesus himself is a parable is most clearly seen in the Gospel of John where we read, explicitly, that Jesus is “the word”, that his appearance in flesh is a visible form of “the word”. In this gospel it is accordingly easier to grasp that “biographical” episodes of Jesus, such as his encounter with the sisters Martha and Mary, are parables whose meaning is not hidden very far beneath their surfaces. The acts of Jesus are dramatizations of the word.

Explicit and hidden

There are places in the gospels where an implied narrator informs readers that a specific thing happened as a fulfilment of an “Old Testament” prophecy. Matthew 2 contains the most memorable instances:

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

. . . 

 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

NC writes that these explicit pointers are there to highlight for the reader the rule of the game. The fulfilment applies to the whole narrative. Parables in the mouth of Jesus ought not lead the reader to think that the gospel narrative itself is a parable. The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry as told in Luke 4 announces the fulfilment of a text that served as a major inspiration for the author of the gospel’s larger narrative:

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.

Crucifixion by Leon Bonnat (Wikimedia)

The immediate narrative meaning is that Jesus is announcing that his presence before the Nazareth congregation is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. The reader knows, however, that what is being fulfilled is the entire life and death of Jesus as fleshed out through the entire gospel.

If in Luke we read Jesus’ opening words declaring that he is fulfilling the scriptures, in the Gospel of John chapter 19 we read Jesus’ last words declaring that he has fulfilled them all.

28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, It is finished.”

The Greek words are different but the meaning is the same:

Luke 4:21 — πεπλήρωται / peplērōtai (is fulfilled)

John 19:30 — τετέλεσται / tetelestai (it is finished/accomplished)

The Gospels as fulfilment

To take a closer look at those two words: Continue reading “Gospel Parables and the “Birth” of the Messiah as a Personification of Israel”


2020-03-23

How the Gospels Became History

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by Neil Godfrey

We discuss here the second of three parts of the chapter about "scriptural fulfillments" 
in Nanine Charbonnel's Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier . . . 

. . .

The Jewish Scriptures spoke of times that were supposed to be fulfilled in coming days and in the text of the New Testament we read of those events having been fulfilled.

What is going on here? Nanine Charbonnel (NC) picks up from her earlier discussion of “midrash” and other specifically Hebrew techniques [the links below take you to posts where that earlier discussion was presented here] and begins to show how they apply to the creation of Jesus in the gospels.

 

The word of God has the power to create its own fulfilment

Readers of the Jewish Scriptures were confronted with passages such as Isaiah 55:11

. . . my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Healing at Pool of Bethesda. (From Picryl) But here’s the problem. This sort of detail is not what we find in other works that really are historical accounts in the ancient Greco-Roman world.

There is a point of Hebrew grammar here that needs some explanation because it is quite unlike anything in English.

Our verbs have tenses, most simply, past, present and future. Hebrew verbs don’t, well not quite. Instead, they express either completed and incomplete actions, perfect and imperfect. The perfect form or completed action can be translated as the past tense: e.g. I said, I have said, etc.; the imperfect or incomplete action can be translated as either the present or future tense: e.g. I shall say, I am saying, etc.

But there’s a catch. The little consonant, waw = ו (meaning “and”), just to make it interesting, can be added to either of these Hebrew “tenses” and reverse them! So a ו added to a perfect verb (I said) turns it into a present or future tense; and a ו added to an imperfect (future tense) turns it into a past or perfect tense.

Such is my no doubt very simplistic and overly simplistic explanation of the little I have read about Hebrew and what I gleaned from NC’s discussion of that particular point.

The point is that Hebrew expressions can be ambivalent about when, or the time, they are supposed to refer to. Many of us are aware, for example, of how a passage translated in the past tense in the Bible is understood by the reader to refer to a future event.

I better stop here before I get myself in over my head. It’s a long time since I’ve attempted to learn any basic Hebrew. But I am reasonably confident that the above is more or less how Hebrew works and what NC is addressing.

And Jeremiah 1:12

Then the Lord said to me, “You have seen well, for I am ready to perform My word.”

Then Jeremiah 33:

14 ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘that I will perform that good thing which I have promised to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah:

15 ‘In those days and at that time
I will cause to grow up to David
A Branch of righteousness;
He shall execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.
16 In those days Judah will be saved,
And Jerusalem will dwell safely.
And this is the name by which she will be called:
THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.’

That “I will perform” is an instance of that waw at work: וַהֲקִֽמֹתִי֙ — so the past or perfect tense (have performed) is transformed into a present or future tense (will perform).

The Church Fathers were aware of this linguistic aspect of the Hebrew. Irenaeus explains it in his Discourse in Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, para 67:

At this point let us speak of His healings. Isaiah says thus:

He took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses: (Isa. liii. 4)

that is to say, He shall take, and shall bear. For there are passages in which the Spirit of God through the prophets recounts things that are to be as having taken place. For that which with God is essayed and conceived of as determined to take place, is reckoned as having already taken place: and the Spirit, regarding and seeing the time in which the issues of the prophecy are fulfilled, utters the words (accordingly). 

Eschatological expectation

I am not so convinced that “messianic movements” were a feature of Second Temple Judaism as I have discussed in other posts. But I present NC’s thesis here as accurately as I can. On the other hand, I do find her point about prophets at the time very interesting.

NC stresses the importance of “the intensity of eschatological anticipation” in Israel from the time of their Babylonian exile and especially through to the time of Daniel and no doubt at the time of the Roman conquest and plundering of the Jerusalem temple in 63 BCE. The great sociologist Max Weber’s testimony is brought in to emphasize the point.

Peculiar for the Israelite expectation is the increasing intensity with which paradise, or the savior prince, were projected into the future: the first out of the past, the last out of the present. This did not happen in Israel alone, but this expectancy has never become central to religious faith with such obviously ever-increasing momentum. Yahwe’s old berith with Israel, his promise in conjunction with the criticism of the miserable present made this possible. But only the momentum of prophecy made Israel to this unique degree a people of “hope” and “tarrying” (Gen. 49: 18).

(Weber, 233)

This messianic hope in the life of Israel was “messianic”. An ideal figure, an “anointed” one, was “typically Jewish”, we might say. What made the Messiah or Christ figure of Christianity so different was that this figure was to be preached to the entire world, to all nations; he transcended “the Jewish people”. Jesus will be the “anointed” (=”messiah”, “christ”) for all of humanity, not just the Jews. This is the message of “Third Isaiah” — Isaiah 56-66.

For the sake of a refresher here are some passages from those chapters (though not quoted by NC here): Continue reading “How the Gospels Became History”


2020-01-08

Review, part 6bi: On That Exception in Litwa’s Favour. A (Qualified) Correction.

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is a correction to the conclusion of what I wrote in Review, part 6b. Litwa on “Mythistorical” Prophecies, Biblical and Greco-Roman

I concluded my most recent review of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths with the concession that when writing of Augustus Suetonius expresses none of the distancing of his own views from his accounts of miracles that we find typical in other historians. There is no expression of doubt. It is all told as simple matter of fact. Comparable, that is, to the telling of any other poetic myth or even the gospel narratives of Jesus. I wrote:

* The Greek hero Heracles is clearly categorized as mythical—especially by modern people. Yet the mytho­logical template exemplified by Heracles played out in the lives of figures still deemed historical: Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, and Jesus himself. When historiography follows a mythic pattern, however, it is no longer simply a record of past events. It is what we are calling mythic historiography. (Litwa, p. 101)

An Exception in Litwa’s Favour

In the above quotation* mention is made of Caesar Augustus. Earlier Litwa had informed readers of the Roman historian Suetonius’s account of the prophecies relating to Augustus’s birth. In this case the evidence Litwa is claiming for his thesis is more secure. Suetonius did often (not always) write of many bizarre events (including human ones, not only supernatural prodigies) that read more like a scandal rag’s gossip than serious history. Here is Suetonius on the prophecy about Augustus:

On the day Augustus was born, when the conspiracy of Catiline was being discussed in the senate house and Octavius stayed away until late because his wife was in labour, Publius Nigidius, hearing why he was delayed, when informed of the hour of the birth, asserted (as is generally known) that the master of the world was born. When Octavius, who was leading an army through remote regions of Thrace, sought guidance concerning his son at some barbarian rituals in the grove of Father Liber, the same prediction was made by the priests, for so great a flame had leapt up when they poured wine on the altar, that it passed beyond the peak of the temple roof and right up to the sky, a portent which had only previously occurred when Alexander the Great offered sacrifice at that altar. And on the very next night thereafter, he dreamed he saw his son of greater than mortal size with a thunderbolt and sceptre and emblems of Jupiter Best and Greatest and a radiate crown, on a chariot decorated with laurel drawn by twelve horses of astonishing whiteness.

When Augustus was still a baby, as is recorded in the writings of Gaius Drusus, he was placed one evening by his nurse in his cot on level ground but the next morning he had disappeared. He was only found, after a long search, in a tower of great height where he lay facing the rising sun. When he first began to speak, he ordered some frogs to be silent who happened to be croaking in his grandfather’s villa and they say that from that time no frog croaked there. . . .

So Litwa can rightly say that some historians wrote of prophetic pronouncements in the same way as did poets, novelists and the evangelists.

Augustus (the Divine)

I confess I was surprised a little when I re-read Suetonius’s “Life of Augustus” because it did indeed, on this particular point, stand as an exception to the rhetoric of quite a number of other Roman and Greek historians I have read. So I did a little digging to try to see what explanations were out there for this exception.

The Exception that Proves the Rule (contra Litwa)?

The answer I was looking for was found in a 2012 article by D. Wardle, “Suetonius on Augustus as God and Man”, in The Classical Quarterly. Wardle himself points out that Suetonius writes of Augustus in a manner quite different from how he writes of any other Roman emperor. That is, Suetonius’s account of Augustus is not only an apparent exception to the way many other surviving ancient historians wrote, but it is an exception even to how Suetonius himself normally wrote. Suetonius really did accept as “seriously true” the divinity of Augustus Caesar.

Suetonius’ Divus Augustus, by comparison with the other divi, appears to be a deity whom Suetonius is encouraging his reader to take seriously. His deliberate framing of Augustus’ life by passages that place great emphasis on the real divinity of Augustus is unique in the Lives. While this might be put down to a desire for variety, other Lives do share similar structures. And it seems likely that for Suetonius Augustus’ divinity was qualitatively different from those of the other divi. There is not the slightest hint in Suetonius of the equivocation that marks the culmination of Pliny’s discussion of the misfortunes of Augustus: in summa deus ille caelumque nescio adeptus magis an meritus. In the biographer’s presentation of Augustus the material that involves the emperor’s godhead demonstrates a vital element of what the emperor was to the world over which he ruled and had ruled.

Wardle appears to be saying that Suetonius’s presentation of Augustus is different from his biographical accounts of other emperors because he (Suetonius) believed Augustus was a literal god.

Historians of that era sometimes mocked the notion that any mortal was declared to be a god. But Wardle finds significance in the way Suetonius emphatically presents Augusts as a veritable divinity before he embarks on narrating his very mortal and fallible human career. Never does Suetonius at any moment suggest any doubt about the divinity of Augustus. In the cases of other emperors, Suetonius does write like other historians — expressing a certain personal detachment from the “facts” he is narrating. Suetonius

The expression of his face, whether he was speaking or silent, was so calm and serene that one of the leading men of Gaul confessed to his fellows that he was so impressed and won over that he abandoned his plan to throw the emperor over the cliff, when he was admitted to his presence as he was crossing the Alps. His eyes were clear and bright; he liked it to be thought that they revealed a godlike power and was pleased if someone who regarded him closely then lowered their gaze, as though from the sun’s force. . . . 

It is said that his body was mottled with birthmarks spread out over his chest and stomach which in their shape, number, and arrangement resembled the constellation of the bear. 

(Suetonius, Deified Augustus 79-80)

Wardle explains the significance of that bear constellation:

The constellation of Ursa Major was recognized by the ancients as the axis around which the universe rotated . . . . 

(Wardle, p. 318)

Signs abound, and without any intellectual distancing in the telling. Egyptians, Greeks, they all worshipped Augustus as divine while he was with them and were right to do so, just as right as to genuinely believe that he continued as a divinity post mortem.

More Names with Puns

Continue reading “Review, part 6bi: On That Exception in Litwa’s Favour. A (Qualified) Correction.”


2020-01-02

Review, part 6b. Litwa on “Mythistorical” Prophecies, Biblical and Greco-Roman

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing a discussion of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths . . . 

Allow me to round off with a few tidbits from Litwa’s discussion of the appearances of prophecies in history and biography type narratives. We have covered much of the main idea in the previous post on dreams. I’ll begin here with Litwa’s conclusion so we can, I hope, think the argument through with some attention to detail.

Don’t forget that prophecy-driven narratives were probably even more common in ancient fiction. See Prophecy Driven Narratives in Ancient Fiction. Litwa, however, focuses on prophecies found in historical or biographical literature and concludes the ancient reader would have associated prophecy with historical-type literature. He does not discuss (as far as I am aware at this stage) the reasons audiences would have been at least as likely to have associated prophecy with fictional narratives.

By telling the stories of great heroes as mythic historiography, ancient au­thors made their stories recognizable and rhetorically effective in the minds of their audiences. As we have seen, the evangelists were no exception. They used the same mythistorical patterns to highlight the transcendent greatness of their hero, even while he was a tiny baby. Yet their practices best resemble those of ancient historians who wrote historical accounts reporting supposedly real events. (pp. 62 f)

Here is how Litwa compares the “mythistorical patterns” in Greco-Roman historical or biographical literature and in the gospels.

We start with Pythagoras

Mnesarchus, father of Pythagoras, learned from Apollo that his wife “would bring forth a son surpassing all who previously lived in beauty and wisdom and who would be the greatest benefit to the human race.” (Iamblichus, Life) An angel tells Mary, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the son of the Most High” (Luke 1:31-32).

Now that certainly sounds like the story of a divine prophecy of the birth of Pythagoras was told in a manner very similar to that in the gospels about the birth of Jesus.

But I am never satisfied with reading second and third-hand summaries and always crave to check the original as closely as possible, either in the Greek or a reputable translation.

 
IT is said, therefore, that Ancaeus who dwelt in Samos in Cephallenia, was begot by Jupiter, whether he derived the fame of such an honorable descent through virtue, or through a certain greatness of soul. He surpassed, however, the rest of the Cephallenians in wisdom and renown.

[Ancaeus founds a new colony when commanded to do so by a prophet of Apollo.]

Unlike ancient fiction, historical fiction (including Luke-Acts), and certain popular historical works that were ridiculed by satirists and serious historians, notice that Iamblichus, in relating the traditions about descents of famous persons from gods, distances himself from them. He does not write of them as straightforward facts but begins, “it is said that…”. Iamblichus attempts an explanation that might have given rise to the stories.

Of course, we have no comparable distancing or critical assessment of similar narratives in the gospels.

It is said, therefore, that Mnesarchus and Pythais, who were the parents of Pythagoras, descended from the family and alliance of this Ancaeus, who founded the colony. In consequence, however, of this nobility of birth being celebrated by the citizens, a certain Samian poet says, that Pythagoras was the son of Apollo. For thus he sings,

Pythais fairest of the Samian tribe,
Bore from th’ embraces of the God of day
Renown’d Pythagoras, the friend of Jove.

Iamblchus continues to express his distancing from the information he is relaying. He makes it clear that he is writing what ‘is said’ by others.

The direct claim that Pythagoras was born from Apollo comes from a poet who is evidently looking back on the life and reputation of Pythagoras. Again, we have Iamblichus’s personal distancing from the claim itself.

It is worth while, however, to relate how this report became so prevalent. The Pythian oracle [= oracle of Apollo] then had predicted to this Mnesarchus . . . that his wife was now pregnant, and would bring forth a son surpassing in beauty and wisdom all that ever lived, and who would be of the greatest advantage to the human race in every thing pertaining to the life of man. . . . [W]e must not regard the assertions of Epimenides, Eudoxus, and Xenocrates, who suspect that Apollo at that time, becoming connected with Parthenis, and causing her to be pregnant from not being so, had in consequence of this predicted concerning Pythagoras, by the Delphic prophet: for this is by no means to be admitted.* Iamblichus wants to bring readers along with possible explanations for the reputation of Pythagoras being a son of Apollo. Here we encounter the prophecy that Litwa has compared with Luke 1:31-32 but notice the quite different contexts and functions of the two prophecies. One is told as fact; the other is told as a tradition that calls for explanation

Iamblichus rejects outright that such a story can possibly be literally true. Yes, some writers have written of it in a way that sounds like a god had sexual intercourse with a human but “this is by no means to be admitted.”

Indeed, no one can doubt that the soul of Pythagoras was sent to mankind from the empire of Apollo, either being an attendant on the God, or co-arranged with him in some other more familiar way: for this may be inferred both from his birth, and the all-various wisdom of his soul. And thus much concerning the nativity of Pythagoras. * The translator (Thomas Taylor) adds a lengthy explanation of the understanding behind Iamblichus’s words. In brief, the gods themselves were pure (impassive and pure) and as such could have no direct dealings with humans who were the opposite: “passive and impure” (the terms reflect their meanings in the year 1818). But there can be no vacuum so other beings must populate the distance between gods and humans. These other beings also come from the gods: they are “daemons”, “heroes”, “nymphs”, “and the like”. The lowest powers of these beings have compassion for the corporeal world: daemons for humans, nymphs for trees and other forms of nature, and so forth. Through such beings a spirit of the divinity can be imparted to a human, as at birth. In the same way Plutarch and Apuleius explained the “divine origin of Plato”.

After reading the prophecy that Pythagoras would be born a son of Apollo in Iamblichus I find less reason to maintain interest in Litwa’s comparison of it with the angel’s prophecy about Jesus to Mary.

I am not saying that Litwa’s discussion is not worth reading. I think it is given the numbers of detailed citations, sources, comparisons of Greco-Roman literature with the gospels. So many more such comparisons than I was aware of keep emerging page after page. Some of them are closer to the gospels than others, but all are worth following up. Our best education can be in reading carefully and following up the sources for oneself and making one’s own assessments — always being ready to revise them in the light of more reading and more counter-arguments.

My view is that Litwa has failed to qualify his case adequately, overlooking the same tropes in nonhistorical works and also in failing to give enough attention to the different qualities or characteristics of different historians.

Other stories of prophecies (Nigidius Figulus, the father of the one to become Augustus Caesar, Simeon in the temple) we have covered in the previous post. But one we have not examined yet is the prophecy concerning Heracles.

Here’s another: Heracles

Litwa cites two sources for the prophecy associated with the birth of Heracles and the promise of great honour to crown his mother, comparing the prophecy of Jesus’ greatness and the great honour to be bestowed on Mary. Those two sources are the poets Pindar and Theocritus.

They each recreate the story of how the newborn Heracles seized and killed two snakes that had been sent by a jealous goddess, Hera, into his crib to kill him. (Hera was wife of Zeus who had fathered Heracles to a mortal.) When the mother and father of Heracles see what he is done they are, as one would expect, utterly astonished. In Pindar’s version Heracle’s father asks the famous aged prophet Teiresias what this event means for the future of his son. Tieresas answers:

But [Amphitryon] called on his neighbor, the great prophet of Zeus on high,
Teiresias, the strict seer; who told before him and all the company his son’s encounters to be,

all the beasts he must slay by land,
all the beasts of the sea, brutes without right or wrong;
likewise the man walking, crossed
with conceit in hatefulness,
he must give over to death;
and how, when the gods in the plain of Phlegra met the Giants in battle,
under the storm of his shafts these also must drag their bright hair in the dust.

(Pindar, Nemean Ode 1)

Continue reading “Review, part 6b. Litwa on “Mythistorical” Prophecies, Biblical and Greco-Roman”