Tag Archives: Gospels

Midrash: A Message from God, though not historically true

Let us now turn to a famous story found in the Babylonian Talmud, b. Taanit 5b. While sitting together at a meal Rav Nahman asked Rabbi Yitzhaq to expound on some subject. After some preliminary diversions, Rabbi Yitzhaq said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, “Our father Jacob never died.”

Rav Nahman was taken aback by this claim and said,  “But he was embalmed and buried.” How is possible to do such things to someone who has not died?

Rabbi Yitzhaq responds and says, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and he then cites Jer 30:10, “Therefore fear not, my servant Jacob, says the LORD; be not dismayed, Israel, for I will save you from afar and your seed from the land of their captivity.” He continues, “Israel is compared to his seed; just as his seed is alive so too is he alive.”

At first sight, it appears that the midrashic statement denying Jacob’s death is being derived from Jer 30:10. However, if we look closer at the passage, we will find a fascinating distinction between the biblical deathbed scenes of Abraham (Gen 25:8) and Isaac (35:29), on the one hand, and that of Jacob (49:33), on the other. In the former scenes, two verbs, . . . “expired,” and . . . “died,” and one phrase, . . . “was gathered to his people,” are used to describe their deaths. Regarding Jacob, however, only two verbs appear: expiring and being gathered to his people. For the midrashist, the absence of any verb from the root . . . “to die”, in the description of Jacob’s death cannot be by chance, but must be understood as communicating to us the Bible’s message that Jacob did not die.

According to the story, Rabbi Yitzhak’s statement to Rav Nahman was made in a completely neutral context — that is, outside of any context whatsoever. Consequently, Rav Nahman understood this claim as being functionally parallel to a claim such as “Elijah did not die.” The characteristic position of rabbinic Judaism is, of course, that Elijah never died but is still alive; indeed, according to the rabbis, he is the heavenly recorder of human deeds. Rav Nahman therefore asked Rabbi Yitzhak: But Jacob was embalmed and buried, so how can you claim he did not die. Rabbi Yitzhak’s response, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and the citation of Jer 30:10, is not given to tell us the source of his previous statement, for as we have just seen, its source is the absence of any mention of death in Jacob’s deathbed scene. What he is doing is saying the following:

“You have misunderstood me; my statement that Jacob did not die is not to be understood as a literal-historical depiction of historical facts, but as midrash.”

Midrash comes to tell us a story placed in the biblical text by God, having no necessary relationship to the actual historical events, but whose purpose is to give us a message from God. That message is being explained to Rav Nahman by Rabbi Yitzhaq’s citation of Jeremiah. God’s exclusion of any mention of Jacob’s death is a promise found midrashically in Genesis and explicitly in Jeremiah: for Rabbi Yitzhaq, Jacob’s nondeath is a promise that his seed shall exist forever.

This midrash and its surrounding narrative are important because they give what we desperately need in reading midrash: a cultural and theoretical context. The original misunderstanding by Rav Nahman and the final exposition by Rabbi Yitzhak show, as clearly as possible, that midrashic narrative is explicitly demarcated from the historical-literal reconstruction of past events. Midrash is the rabbis’ reconstruction of God’s word to the Jewish people and not the rabbis’ reconstruction of what happened in the biblical past.

(Milikowsky, pp. 124 f.)

The Bible’s stories are never questioned. They are always bed-rock “true history”.

But the rabbis added stories to those Bible events that are clearly not factual, but nonetheless meaningful and explantory.

Why should the rabbis develop a mode of discourse that tells the truth by means of fictional events, when the only literature they have in front of them is the Bible, which tells the truth by means of true historical events?

For the answer to that question Milikowsky finds a significant discussion on the importance of “good fiction” in Plato’s Republic. At this point, return to the previous post: Why the rabbis . . .

Now what we see in the Gospel of Mark at one level looks like midrashic narrative. For example, we have quotations from Malachi mixed with quotations from Isaiah and Exodus. In the opening scene we have re-enactments of a “man of god” spending time in the wilderness and returning to call out a certain people and performing miracles. It is all familiar to anyone familiar with the Old Testament narratives.

So what is going on here? The question inevitably arises: Does the author of the earliest gospel expect hearers to believe the story as genuine history or as a “message from God” which the Bible texts assert to be “valid” or “true” without necessarily being “historically true”? If the latter, it is surely easy to see why it would be understood and accepted as true on both levels: as a message from God and as genuine history.


Milikowsky, Chaim. 2005. “Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What Did the Rabbis Mean?” In Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, edited by et al Jo-Ann A. Brant, Charles W. Hedrick, and Chris Shea, 117–27. Symposium Series 32. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.


Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History” — Duplicate Post

Looks like I cleverly managed to publish the same post twice instead of deleting one of the copies. I have deleted the contents of this post and add this redirection:

Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History”

Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History”

Chaim Milikowsky

Chaim Milikowsky gives his answer to the question in the title, or at least he answers the question with respect to rabbinical literature. I have added the connection to our canonical four gospels, and I could with equal justice add Acts of the Apostles.

I read CM’s answer in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, but I see that the author has made the same work freely available online. (Oh, and I posted on CM’s chapter five years ago this month: Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation. I think that first post was less technical than what I intend this time round.)

Let me begin with the conclusion this time. The answer to the question in the title is found in a work once again by one of the most influential Greek thinkers in history: Plato. We have been looking at the influence of Plato on the Old Testament writings through the works of Russell Gmirkin and Philippe Wajdenbaum, but CM sees his influence on rabbinic midrashic story telling. I suggest that the evangelists have carried through the same fundamental type of story telling.

Here are the key passages in Plato’s Republic. After deploring mythical tales of gods that depict them lying, cheating, harming others, Socrates sets out what is a far more noble curriculum for those who would become good citizens. Myths of conniving and adulterous gods had no place. God must always be shown to be pure and good. Stories depicting the gods as immoral were to be removed from society; stories that had an edifying message for their readers were to be shared widely.

For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts. 

There you are right, he replied; but if any one asks where are such models to be found and of what tales are you speaking –how shall we answer him? 

I said to him, You and I, Adeimantus, at this moment are not poets, but founders of a State: now the founders of a State ought to know the general forms in which poets should cast their tales, and the limits which must be observed by them, but to make the tales is not their business. 

Very true, he said; but what are these forms of theology which you mean? 

Something of this kind, I replied: — God is always to be represented as he truly is, whatever be the sort of poetry, epic, lyric or tragic, in which the representation is given. 

Right. 

(Republic, 378e-379a Benjamin Jowett trans.)

God himself will be portrayed as incapable of lying, but there will be a place for story tellers to fabricate stories that teach goodness and lead people to righteous character: read more »

Anonymous Gospels

I would like to thank Larry Hurtado for his recent post Anonymous Gospels. Hurtado draws attention to a feature of our four canonical gospels that he believes is too often overlooked: the fact that they originally were anonymous and even the titles they later acquired are not declarations of authorship but rather statements about whose point of view each gospel represented (e.g. The Gospel according to Matthew / Mark / Luke / John.)

In particular, Hurtado refers readers to a 2008 article written by Armin D. Baum

Baum, A. D. (2008). The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient near Eastern Literature. Novum Testamentum, 50(2), 120–142.

The article is accessible on JSTOR: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25442594. Anyone interested who is unable to access that article or too short on time to read it in full might be interested in previous blog posts here discussing its contents:

The Gospels: Written to Look Like (the final) Jewish Scriptures?

Why the Anonymous Gospels? Failure of Scholarship in Pitre’s The Case for Jesus

The Arguments For and Against the Anonymity of the Canonical Gospels

For and Against the Anonymity of the Gospels — without table format

I’ve addressed the question of gospel anonymity in other posts, too, such as An Explanation for the Gospels being Anonymous.

But in thinking back on the question after perusing Hurtado’s post a related gospel feature suddenly took on a new significance for me. There can be little doubt that many of the gospel stories are kinds of re-writes of narrative episodes in the “Old Testament”. (An adjective widely used to describe this type of adaptation is “midrashic” but I have since come across Roger Aus’s suggestion that a more appropriate term might be “etiological haggada“.)

For example, it seems fairly obvious that John the Baptist in the first two gospels is based on Elijah. It is in 1 and 2 Kings where we find the lone prophet in the wilderness wearing rough animal skin clothing. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan followed by his forty day time of trial in the wilderness is evidently a reminder of the Exodus of Israel and their forty year wandering through the Sinai. The calling of the disciples in the Gospel of Mark reminds readers of Elijah’s calling of Elisha. And so on right through to the final six chapters in which Howard Clark Kee counted 160 allusions to Scripture (and Karel Hanhart knows he missed at least one). See the posts on Mark 13, Mark 11-12, Mark 14-16.

What does this have to do with the anonymity of the gospels? read more »

Historical versus Spiritual Eyewitnesses

Matthew Ferguson has posted an excellent outline of how ancient historians and biographers testified to their sources or eyewitness testimony in ways we scarcely find in any of the New Testament writings: Eyewitness Recollections in Greco-Roman Biography versus the Anonymity of the Gospels. It’s a topic I’ve addressed here before but not for a while now and Matthew goes into much more detail than my earlier posts.

To move from sublime historical methods and understanding into the …. “spiritual”, let’s say …. On the Jesus Blog Rafael Rodríguez discusses some difficulties he has with Arthur Dewey’s chapter, “The Eyewitness of History: Visionary Consciousness in the Fourth Gospel”, in Jesus in Johannine Tradition. RR’s post is “eyewitness” in Johannine tradition.

I am very willing to admit I may have misunderstood key points (it is written in jargon that theologians apparently find meaningful) but it sounds to me as if the arguments is that an eyewitness in the Gospel of John is someone who has not seen the events with his or her own eyes but has been given spiritual understanding of the meaning of a story he or she read or heard about. Or at least if what they have heard or read about is the crucifixion of Jesus.

On the other hand, if someone did see the crucifixion with their own eyes, they would NOT be an eyewitness because the Spirit of God did not give them an understanding of the theological meaning of that event.

Somehow I’m reminded of Edmund Cohen’s The Mind of the Bible Believer and where he discusses the “logicide” of the faithful. To make the Bible “meaningful” and “good” for today’s readers the meanings of words have to be turned inside out. So “love” and “hate” are reversed; so are “death” and “life”, and so forth. Looks like theologians also have the ability to turn an eyewitness into someone who was not an eyewitness. And that this sort of “spiritual insight” comes packaged in an essay with “history” in its title . . .  well, someone else might be able to find the words to express a coherent thought.

 

“Say My Name” — Anonymous Women in the Bible

First half of the 17th century
The Wedding at Cana, Simon de Vos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During my mother’s last few weeks, I read to her from the Bible. Picking around, I looked for the most comforting passages. As she slipped in and out of consciousness, I tried reading from the Sermon on the Mount, but it wasn’t helpful. In the end I read mostly from the Gospel according to John, especially where Jesus speaks directly about hope, life, light, and the resurrection.

“In my father’s house, there are many mansions.”

To me, John seems the most “Christian” of all the gospels. By that I mean, if I were a Christian and had to choose only one gospel to survive after an asteroid hit the Earth, I would probably pick John. Yet it has quite a bit missing when you compare it to the Synoptics.

For one thing, like Mark, there’s no nativity story. But we can live without that. It also lacks the parables and exorcisms that litter the landscape in the other three gospels. However, in return we get the so-called “signs,” and we gain the long discourses in which Jesus explains himself.

And we get these verses that I read to my mother, over and over again, as she lay dying:

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (John 14:2-3, KJV)

You could still make a good case for Matthew. With it, we get a family tree and an exciting birth legend. We also get the name of Jesus’ mother, something John omitted. Yes, as odd as it sounds, John never got around to telling us Mary’s name. We know her only by her relationship to men.

Our Blessed Lady of Whoever

She appears to be a woman of some substance, since she commands the servants at the wedding in Cana to “do whatever he tells you.” But she has no identity outside her relationship to her son. Try to imagine Christianity with an anonymous mother of Christ. It’s no easy task. read more »

For and Against the Anonymity of the Gospels — without table format

Here I have copied the previous post without the table format (which can only be fully seen on certain browser settings).

Ever since my earlier post Why the Anonymous Gospels? Failure of Scholarship in Pitre’s The Case for Jesus I have intended to address Brant Pitre’s grossly misleading suggestion that all our earliest canonical gospel manuscripts come with the titles we know them by today — Gospel According to Matthew or simply According to Matthew…. etc. and that the argument that the gospels were anonymous until the end of the second century is baseless. Time and other things got in the way but then I read Bart Ehrman presenting the argument for the gospels being anonymous until towards 200 CE and thought that should save me the trouble. So below I have posted side by side Pitre’s and Ehrman’s respective arguments. (In places Ehrman appears to claim the argument as his own but in fact one finds it in works of earlier scholars, too.) I have also included material that is from sources other than Ehrman. I don’t claim to have covered all possible responses to Pitre’s assertions and suggestions in this post, but hopefully there is enough to make a sound assessment of his claims. Feel free to add other points.

—o0o—

The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ / Brant Pitre

[I]n the last century or so, a new theory came onto the scene. According to this theory, the traditional Christian ideas about who wrote the Gospels are not in fact true. Instead, scholars began to propose that the four Gospels were originally anonymous.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 13). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

It is especially emphasized by those who wish to cast doubts on the historical reliability of the portrait of Jesus in the four Gospels.  The only problem is that the theory is almost completely baseless.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 16). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

–o–

Jesus before the gospels / Bart Ehrman

In short, the Gospel writers are all anonymous. None of them gives us any concrete information about their identity. So when did they come to be known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? I will argue they were not called by those names until near the end of the second Christian century, a hundred years or so after these books had been in circulation.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (p. 93). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The first thing to emphasize about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is that all four are completely anonymous. The authors never indicate who they are. They never name themselves. They never give any direct, personal identification of any kind whatsoever.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (p. 90). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

—o0o—

read more »

The Arguments For and Against the Anonymity of the Canonical Gospels

Ever since my earlier post Why the Anonymous Gospels? Failure of Scholarship in Pitre’s The Case for Jesus I have intended to address Brant Pitre’s grossly misleading suggestion that all our earliest canonical gospel manuscripts come with the titles we know them by today — Gospel According to Matthew or simply According to Matthew…. etc. and that the argument that the gospels were anonymous until the end of the second century is baseless. Time and other things got in the way but then I read Bart Ehrman presenting the argument for the gospels being anonymous until towards 200 CE and thought that should save me the trouble. So below I have posted side by side Pitre’s and Ehrman’s respective arguments. (In places Ehrman appears to claim the argument as his own but in fact one finds it in works of earlier scholars, too.) I don’t claim to have covered all possible responses to Pitre’s assertions and suggestions in this post, but hopefully there is enough to make a sound assessment of his claims. Feel free to add other points.

 The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ / Brant Pitre  Jesus before the gospels / Bart Ehrman; The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books / Armin Baum; …..
[I]n the last century or so, a new theory came onto the scene. According to this theory, the traditional Christian ideas about who wrote the Gospels are not in fact true. Instead, scholars began to propose that the four Gospels were originally anonymous.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 13). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

It is especially emphasized by those who wish to cast doubts on the historical reliability of the portrait of Jesus in the four Gospels.  The only problem is that the theory is almost completely baseless.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 16). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In short, the Gospel writers are all anonymous. None of them gives us any concrete information about their identity. So when did they come to be known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? I will argue they were not called by those names until near the end of the second Christian century, a hundred years or so after these books had been in circulation.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (p. 93). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The first thing to emphasize about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is that all four are completely anonymous. The authors never indicate who they are. They never name themselves. They never give any direct, personal identification of any kind whatsoever.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (p. 90). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

I think most people would also view the anonymous biography with some level of suspicion. Who wrote this? Where did they get their information? Why should I trust that they know what they’re talking about? And if they want to be believed, why didn’t they put their name on the book?
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 12). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

It has no foundation in the earliest manuscripts of the Gospels, it fails to take seriously how ancient books were copied and circulated, and it suffers from an overall lack of historical plausibility.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 16). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The anonymity of the New Testament historical books should not be regarded as peculiar to early Christian literature nor should it be interpreted in the context of Greco-Roman historiography. The striking fact that the New Testament Gospels and Acts do not mention their authors’ names has its literary counterpart in the anonymity of the Old Testament history books, whereas Old Testament anonymity itself is rooted in the literary conventions of the Ancient Near East.
The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient near Eastern Literature; Author(s): Armin D. Baum; Source: Novum Testamentum, Vol. 50, Fasc. 2 (2008), pp. 120-142; Published by: Brill; Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25442594
The first and perhaps biggest problem for the theory of the anonymous Gospels is this: no anonymous copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John have ever been found. They do not exist. As far as we know, they never have.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 16). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

the ancient manuscripts are unanimous in attributing these books to the apostles and their companions.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 16). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

It needs to be pointed out that we don’t start getting manuscripts with Gospel titles in them until about the year 200 CE. The few fragments of the Gospels that survive from before that time never include the beginning of the texts (e.g., the first verses of Matthew or Mark, etc.), so we don’t know if those earlier fragments had titles on their Gospels. More important, if these Gospels had gone by their now-familiar names from the outset, or even from the beginning of the second century, it is very hard indeed to explain why the church fathers who quoted them never called them by name. They quoted them as if they had no specific author attached to them.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (p. 105). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
No Anonymous Copies Exist?
First, there is a striking absence of any anonymous Gospel manuscripts. That is because they don’t exist. Not even one.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 17). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

When it comes to the titles of the Gospels, not only the earliest and best manuscripts, but all of the ancient manuscripts— without exception, in every language— attribute the four Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 17). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

there is “absolute uniformity” in the authors to whom each of the books is attributed.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 17). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In fact, it is precisely the familiar names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that are found in every single manuscript we possess! According to the basic rules of textual criticism, then, if anything is original in the titles, it is the names of the authors. 18 They are at least as original as any other part of the Gospels for which we have unanimous manuscript evidence.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 17). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In short, the earliest and best copies of the four Gospels are unanimously attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There is absolutely no manuscript evidence— and thus no actual historical evidence— to support the claim that “originally” the Gospels had no titles.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 18). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

mss

Pitre’s table in the left column leads readers to believe that we have Gospels of Matthew with headed by that title as early as the second century. Papyrus 4 in the literature (as reflected in the Wikipedia articles from which the images and captions below are taken) is in fact dated as likely from the third century. It contains a flyleaf of the title of Matthew’s gospel without any gospel text.

Papyrs 4 is an early New Testament papyrus of the Gospel of Luke in Greek. It is dated as being a late 2nd/early 3rd century manuscript. . . . It contains texts of Luke: 1:58-59; 1:62-2:1; 2:6-7; 3:8-4:2; 4:29-32, 34-35; 5:3-8; 5:30-6:16
Papyrus 4 is an early New Testament papyrus of the Gospel of Luke in Greek. It is dated as being a late 2nd/early 3rd century manuscript. . . . It contains texts of Luke: 1:58-59; 1:62-2:1; 2:6-7; 3:8-4:2; 4:29-32, 34-35; 5:3-8; 5:30-6:16
Fragment of a flyleaf with the title of the Gospel of Matthew, ευαγγελιον κ̣ατ̣α μαθ᾽θαιον (euangelion kata Maththaion). Dated to late 2nd or early 3rd century, it is the earliest manuscript title for Matthew
Fragment (associated with Papyrus 4) of a flyleaf with the title of the Gospel of Matthew, ευαγγελιον κ̣ατ̣α μαθ᾽θαιον (euangelion kata Maththaion). Dated to late 2nd or early 3rd century, it is the earliest manuscript title for Matthew — but no gospel text is preserved.

Papyrus 62 in the literature is generally dated to the fourth century.

Papyrus 62
Papyrus 62 (in the Gregory-Aland numbering), . . . known also as ‘‘Papyrus Osloensis’’, is a copy of the New Testament and Septuagint in Greek-Coptic. It is a papyrus manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew and Book of Daniel. The manuscript palaeographically has been assigned to the 4th century.

Extract from Simon Gathercole’s ‘The Titles of the Gospels in the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts’, Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 104.1 (2013), pp. 33-76.

pap6224

Papyrs 4 is an early New Testament papyrus of the Gospel of Luke in Greek. It is dated as being a late 2nd/early 3rd century manuscript. . . . It contains texts of Luke: 1:58-59; 1:62-2:1; 2:6-7; 3:8-4:2; 4:29-32, 34-35; 5:3-8; 5:30-6:16
Papyrs 4 is an early New Testament papyrus of the Gospel of Luke in Greek. It is dated as being a late 2nd/early 3rd century manuscript. . . . It contains texts of Luke: 1:58-59; 1:62-2:1; 2:6-7; 3:8-4:2; 4:29-32, 34-35; 5:3-8; 5:30-6:16

24

and this is important— notice also that the titles are present in the most ancient copies of each Gospel we possess, including the earliest fragments,
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (pp. 17-18). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

For example, the earliest Greek manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew contains the title “The Gospel according to Matthew” (Greek euangelion kata Matthaion) (Papyrus 4).
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 18). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Likewise, the oldest Greek copy of the beginning of the Gospel of Mark starts with the title “The Gospel according to Mark” (Greek euangelion kata Markon). This famous manuscript— which is known as Codex Sinaiticus because it was discovered on Mount Sinai— is widely regarded as one of the most reliable ancient copies of the New Testament ever found.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 18). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The second major problem with the theory of the anonymous Gospels is the utter implausibility that a book circulating around the Roman Empire without a title for almost a hundred years could somehow at some point be attributed to exactly the same author by scribes throughout the world and yet leave no trace of disagreement in any manuscripts. 20 And, by the way, this is supposed to have happened not just once, but with each one of the four Gospels.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (pp. 18-19). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

There is one other reason for thinking that the Gospels did not originally circulate with the titles “According to Matthew,” “According to Mark,” and so on. Anyone who calls a book the Gospel “According to [someone],” is doing so to differentiate it from other Gospels. This one is Matthew’s version. And that one is John’s, etc. It is only when you have a collection of the Gospels that you need to begin to differentiate among them to indicate which is which. That’s what these titles do. Obviously the authors themselves did not give them these titles: no one titles their book “According to . . . Me.” Whoever did give the Gospels these titles was someone who had a collection of them and wanted to identify which was which.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (pp. 105-106). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The Anonymous Scenario Is Incredible?
Now, we know from the Gospel of Luke that “many” accounts of the life of Jesus were already in circulation by the time he wrote (see Luke 1: 1-4). So to suggest that no titles whatsoever were added to the Gospels until the late second century AD completely fails to take into account the fact that multiple Gospels were already circulating before Luke ever set pen to papyrus, and that there would be a practical need to identify these books.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 21). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
In the various Apostolic Fathers there are numerous quotations of the Gospels of the New Testament, especially Matthew and Luke. What is striking about these quotations is that in none of them does any of these authors ascribe a name to the books they are quoting. Isn’t that a bit odd? If they wanted to assign “authority” to the quotation, why wouldn’t they indicate who wrote it?
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (p. 93). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

This is true of all our references to the Gospels prior to the end of the second century. The Gospels are known, read, and cited as authorities. But they are never named or associated with an eyewitness to the life of Jesus.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (p. 95). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

In these books Justin quotes Matthew, Mark, and Luke on numerous occasions, and possibly the Gospel of John twice, but he never calls them by name. Instead he calls them “memoirs of the apostles.” It is not clear what that is supposed to mean— whether they are books written by apostles, or books that contain the memoirs the apostles had passed along to others, or something else. Part of the confusion is that when Justin quotes the Synoptic Gospels, he blends passages from one book with another, so that it is very hard to parse out which Gospel he has in mind. So jumbled are his quotations that many scholars think he is not actually quoting our Gospels at all, but a kind of “harmony” of the Gospels that took the three Synoptics and created one mega-Gospel out of them, possibly with one or more other Gospels. 33 If that’s the case, it would suggest that even in Rome, the most influential church already by this time, the Gospels— as a collection of four and only four books— had not reached any kind of authoritative status.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (pp. 102-103). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

It is not until nearer the end of the second century that anyone of record quotes our four Gospels and calls them Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. That first happens in the writings of Irenaeus, whose five-volume work Against the Heresies, written in about 185 CE,
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (p. 103). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

It is striking that at about the same time another source also indicates that there are four authoritative Gospels. This is the famous Muratorian Fragment,
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (p. 104). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

This is remarkable. Before this time and place, nowhere are the Gospels said to be four in number and nowhere are they named as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (p. 105). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Why Choose Mark and Luke as Authors?
The third major problem with the theory of the anonymous Gospels has to do with the claim that the false attributions were added a century later to give the Gospels “much needed authority.” 26 If this were true, then why are two of the four Gospels attributed to non-eyewitnesses? Why, of all people, would ancient scribes pick Mark and Luke, who (as we will see in chapter 3) never even knew Jesus?
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 22). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
That leaves the Gospel of Mark. One can see why the Gospel of Luke would not have been named after one of Jesus’s own disciples. But what about Mark? Here too there was a compelling logic. For one thing, since the days of Papias, it was thought that Peter’s version of Jesus’s life had been written by one of his companions named Mark. Here was a Gospel that needed an author assigned to it. There was every reason in the world to want to assign it to the authority of Peter. Remember, the edition of the four Gospels in which they were first named, following my hypothesis, originated in Rome. Traditionally, the founders of the Roman church were said to be Peter and Paul. The third Gospel is Paul’s version. The second must be Peter’s. Thus it makes sense that the Gospels were assigned to the authority of Peter and Paul, written by their close companions Mark and Luke. These are the Roman Gospels in particular.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (p. 111). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The main reason there may have been reluctance to assign this book directly to Peter (the “Gospel of Peter”) was because there already was a Gospel of Peter in circulation that was seen by some Christians as heretical
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (pp. 111-112). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Acts is told in the third person, except in four passages dealing with Paul’s travels, where the author moves into a first-person narrative, indicating what “we” were doing (16: 10– 17; 20: 5– 15; 21: 1– 18; and 27: 1– 28: 16). That was taken to suggest that the author of Acts— and therefore of the third Gospel— must have been a traveling companion of Paul. Moreover, this author’s ultimate concern is with the spread of the Christian message among gentiles. That must mean, it was reasoned, that he too was a gentile. So the only question is whether we know of a gentile traveling companion of Paul. Yes we do: Luke, the “beloved physician” named in Colossians 4: 14. Thus Luke was the author of the third Gospel. 37
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (p. 111). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Could Peter and John Even Write?
Acts 4: 13 says [Peter and] John [were] literally “unlettered” (Greek, agrammatos)— that is, [they] did not know [their] alphabet.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (p. 93). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

 

Why the Anonymous Gospels? Failure of Scholarship in Pitre’s The Case for Jesus

It is an abuse of one’s status as a public intellectual to write dogmatic apologetics for lay readers. Professor Brant Pitre cobbles together a grab-bag of rationalisations to promote Catholic dogma and presents it to his lay readers as a work based on superior scholarship. The title of this post might have as well have begun with “Betrayal of lay readers” as “Failure of scholarship”.

Take the second chapter of The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ as but one example. After having earlier stressed the importance of understanding the Gospels in their Jewish context, Pitre in this chapter abandons that Jewish context and flips to a non-Jewish Greco-Roman context, resorts to anachronisms, fallacious rhetorical arguments and some misleading statements about the manuscript evidence to pummel the lay reader into “just knowing” that our canonical gospels were composed as we read them today, complete with their author names, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, heading each one. The book could be ignored as another Catholic tract if it were not for his academic peers — some of whom have been known to react with indignation if one dares suggest they are not objectively engaged in intellectually honest pursuits — publicly complimenting the work.

In seeking to reassure faithful readers that the Gospels were not originally written anonymously Pitre time-warps out of his “spiritually enlightening” Jewish context of the previous chapter and appeals to modern Western reading preferences:

Imagine for a moment that you’re browsing the shelves of your local bookstore, and you come across two biographies of Pope Francis. One of them is written by a longtime friend and contemporary of the pope. The other biography is anonymous. Which one would you buy? Most people, I would venture to guess, would go for the one written by someone who had actually spent time with him, someone who was a friend of Jorge Bergoglio, the man who later became pope. At the same time, I think most people would also view the anonymous biography with some level of suspicion. Who wrote this? Where did they get their information? Why should I trust that they know what they’re talking about? And if they want to be believed, why didn’t they put their name on the book?

Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 12). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Scholars who argue the contrary (which, incidentally, would probably be most critical scholars) do so because of religious prejudice, because they do not want to believe in the Jesus in the Gospels, according to Pitre. The lay believer is led to think of critical scholars as hostile to his or her faith and to be dismissed as some sort of enemy of the truth:

The theory [of the anonymous Gospels] is remarkably widespread among scholars and non-scholars alike. It is especially emphasized by those who wish to cast doubts on the historical reliability of the portrait of Jesus in the four Gospels.

Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 16). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I’ll dwell upon the anachronistic analogy and the convenient abandonment of the Jewish context of Brant’s argument in this post.

Pitre explains:

[T]he Gospels are a form of ancient Greco-Roman biography. As experts in ancient biography have pointed out, “authors of biographies… normally were named.” Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 40. Moreover, one of the standard “opening features” of an ancient Greco-Roman biography was ordinarily some kind of “title.” Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels?, 156– 57. These titles sometimes identify the author in the third person (see, e.g., Josephus, Life of Josephus; Tacitus’s Agricola; Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers). This makes perfect sense, since when it comes to biography, the reader will want to know who is giving the account of the subject’s life, and how they got their information.

Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 207). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Has Pitre read beyond the works of fellow apologists like Craig Keener and Richard Bauckham in his investigations into this question? Nowhere in his bibliography or index does one find reference to the 2008 article in the reputable journal Novum Testamentum 50:2 120-142 by Armin D. BaumThe Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern LiteratureProfessor Baum’s article actually offers Pitre, Bauckham, Keener and others a way to consistently evaluate the Gospels without sacrificing their Jewish context. But that would also mean stepping away from what modern readers might look for in a biography and accepting that the gospels just might have been originally anonymous after all.

Anonymity: A Stylistic Device

Begin with the abstract of Baum’s article:

The anonymity of the NT historical books should not be regarded as peculiar to early Christian literature nor should it be interpreted in the context of Greco-Roman historiography. The striking fact that the NT Gospels and Acts do not mention their authors’ names has its literary counterpart in the anonymity of the OT history books, whereas OT anonymity itself is rooted in the literary conventions of the Ancient Near East. Just as in the OT, where the authors of books that belonged to the genre of wisdom and prophetic literature were usually named while historical works were written anonymously, only the NT letters and the Apocalypse were published under their authors’ names while the narrative literature of the NT remained anonymous. The authorial intent of the Gospels’ anonymity can also be deduced from its ancient Near Eastern and OT background. Unlike the Greek or Roman historian who, among other things, wanted to earn praise and glory for his literary achievements from both his contemporaries and posterity, the history writer in the Ancient Near East sought to disappear as much as possible behind the material he presented and to become its invisible mouthpiece. By adopting the stylistic device of anonymity from OT historiography the Evangelists of the NT implied that they regarded themselves as comparatively insignificant mediators of a subject matter that deserved the full attention of the readers. The anonymity of the Gospels is thus rooted in a deep conviction concerning the ultimate priority of their subject matter.

Three New Testament historical works, Luke, Acts and John, contain prologues, the literary place-marker where one would most expect to find a reference to the author’s identity. But no,

Whenever New Testament narrators address their readers, whether in the first person or in some other way they consistently remain anonymous. (p. 122)

It is in the prologues of Greco-Roman history that we normally find the author’s name.

The absence of a prologue was usually considered as a departure from long established standards. Therefore, Lucian could write disapprovingly:

There are historians who “produce bodies without any heads?works lacking an introduction that begin at once with the narrative.”

Thus, the Jewish historian Josephus prefixed elaborate prologues to his Bellum Judaicum and to his Antiquitates because he did not want his works to appear, in the eyes of his educated Hellenistic audience, like headless bodies. 

The same applied to Greco-Roman biography:

Greco-Roman biographies were published under the names of their authors (Euripides, Isocrates, Lucian, Philo, Plutarch, Suetonius etc.) as well. Only the lives that belong to the genre of popular literature (1st to 4th century A.D.) were an exception: the Vita Aesopi the Vita Alexandri Magni (later ascribed to Callisthenes), the somewhat more sophisticated narrative Lucius seu asinus and the Vita Secundi philosophi. These biographies have not only a rather low and episodic style but also anonymity in common. (pp. 126f.)

After surveying the range of ancient biographies and histories Baum concludes:

On the basis of these observations we may conclude: If a Hellenistic historian did not mention his name in (the prologue of) his work, he deviated from an ancient and widespread literary convention. (p. 127)

Baum then compares Old Testament and other Jewish historiography: read more »

Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”

61klpcnpoql-_sy344_bo1204203200_Several times I’ve referred to comparisons between the ancient tale of Aesop with the gospel accounts of Jesus, referring readers to Lawrence Wills’ book, The quest of the historical gospel : Mark, John, and the origins of the gospel genre, and Whitney Shiner’s chapter “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark” in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative. (See Evidence for Pre-Gospel Oral Traditions and Related Questions and What Mark’s Episodes Do For Readers (and the real historiographical question to ask) where I discuss Wills and Shiner each; other posts make passing references.)

Well for all you readers who really did want to read those books or who were waiting in vain for me to get around posting on them in depth, this is your lucky day. Matthew Ferguson of the Κέλσος blog has given up waiting for both of us and posted the nitty gritty details on these authors and their studies of Aesop vis à vis the gospels:

Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”

Thanks, Matthew!

 

Greek Novels Casting Light On New Testament: Part 2 of “Why NT Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels”

A week ago I posted thoughts from a chapter by Ronald Hock, Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels. This post is based on an earlier article by Hock (“The Greek Novel”, a chapter in Greco-Roman Literature and the New Testament, edited by David E. Aune) and looks at many more ways novels can offer us “real-life” glimpses into the world of the New Testament.

That last post was a slap-dash effort. This post provides more illustrations of the way these novels can throw light on both the Gospels and letters of Paul; it concludes with a special focus on the Philippian Hymn in which Christ was abased in order to be exalted above all creation. Further, this time I’m less rushed and have had time to quote passages from the novels themselves.

Hock first explains the point of comparing popular Greek romances with New Testament literature:

The number and variety of parallels between the Greek novels and early Christian literature are legion. The following sampling of these parallels only hints therefore at what a thorough investigation of this genre might accomplish . . . .

Ronald F. Hock

But first a word of justification: The evidence for earliest Christianity is too fragmentary and culturally alien to be fully understood without recourse to a clarifying and complementary set of roughly contemporary evidence. Typically, however, scholars have sought this evidence largely in Jewish sources; seldom has any scholar looked at the evidence of the novels. But whatever the Jewish roots of Christianity, the earliest Christians lived in a traditional culture and specifically that of the Hellenized oikoumene of the early Roman Empire. The novels, products of this oikoumene, often set their action precisely where Christianity first took root and flourished: Barnabas’ Antioch, Paul’s Tarsus, John’s Ephesus, Mark’s Alexandria, Polycarp’s Smyrna.

But the point of comparison is not mere propinquity, for the novels provide an extensive, concrete, and coherent account of the traditional culture of the New Testament world. It is the novels’ very comprehensiveness — their documenting the habits of thought and action that regulated life in the cities, agricultural areas, and outlying wilderness areas — that justifies their use for interpreting the parallel, but briefer, accounts in the New Testament and other early Christian literature. (p. 139, my emphasis and formatting)

Hock, for space reasons, restricts his parallels to the Gospels and letters of Paul. He compares only novels dated to the first and second centuries.

To depart from Hock for a moment and intrude with my own comments: The examples here are only a smattering of what one recognizes when reading the novels for oneself. The novels are also an especially potent cure for anyone who has the notion that peoples in days before Christianity were somehow especially morally depraved. They are a great invitation to meet our ancestors and to see how like us they were, how humans are not only the same the world over, but the same through the ages. read more »

Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels

The best way to understand just how ‘non-religious’ or ‘non-biblical’ are the books of the New Testament — that is, to understand just how much a product of their own wider Greco-Roman literary culture are those books — is to read the popular novels of that era.

I enjoy both literature and ancient history so I loved reading the Collected Ancient Greek Novels edited by B. P. Reardon. They are called novels here, but they are otherwise labelled ‘novellas’, ‘erotic novels’ (from their theme of love at the behest of the god Eros), or ‘romances’.

So I was pleased to find that New Testament scholars have indeed been studying these and publishing on what they can teach us about the New Testament. (This was some years ago, but I am trying to catch up on years of reading on this blog.) One of these academics is Ronald F. Hock (I referred to him in my previous post) and it is my take on his chapter, “Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels” appearing in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative that I share in this post.

The Shepherds, Daphnis and Chloe
The Shepherds, Daphnis and Chloe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The novels most cited here are

Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton

An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon

Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius

Daphnis and Chloe by Longus

On the value of these novels for New Testament studies, Hock writes the following — and I have rearranged his paragraph-mass into an easy to skim column format:

they . . . provide the reader with a remarkably detailed, comprehensive, and coherent account of the social, economic, and religious institutions of the people and regions that witnessed the spread of Christianity into the Greek East of the early Roman Empire. (123)

The romances are set in Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Ephesus, Miletus, Alexandria, Paphos, Xanthus, and Tarentum, to name just a few of the cities mentioned in the New Testament, and in these cities we observe first-hand all sorts of people in ordinary and extraordinary situations — from the activities of the leading aristocratic families in the πόλις to those of the most marginalized shepherds and brigands in the χώρα and ἤρεμος. (124)

We see householders

  • hosting symposia
  • offering sacrifice
  • visiting rural properties
  • speaking in the theatre
  • taking on public duties
  • arranging marriages
  • and making wills;

we see their wives read more »

What if the Gospels did cite their sources and identify their authors?

English: Herodotus_from_Bodrum Български: Стат...
Herodotus_from_Bodrum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Would the Gospels be any more credible if their authors clearly left their names in them, along with a little biographical information clearly linking them to known historical persons, and if they at every point in their narrative informed readers of their sources for each set of sayings by Jesus and for each incident. Some sources they would explain were oral witnesses, some were official documents, maybe even some inscriptions that could be verified by any person in the region in their day.

Supposed a critic still dismissed them as fabricated tales. Would we be outraged that such a critic was completely biased against the Gospels and that she would never be so sceptical of secular writings with such an abundance of confirming testimony?

The answer ought to be that “it all depends”. It all depends on a critical analysis of all of that information. That would not be being biased against the Gospels. It would be treating the Gospels in exactly the same way scholars worth their salt treat their secular sources.

Take studies of Histories by Herodotus for instance. Herodotus has long been considered an essential source for our knowledge of the ancient world. By his own testimony he traveled widely, examining cultures first hand and gathering information from a wide range of sources, oral and written. Sure some of his tales are clearly fabulous, but why should we doubt that even those have some historical core in many cases?

1989 saw the English translation of Detlev Fehling‘s Herodotus and His ‘Sources’: Citation, Invention and Narrative Art, originally published in German in 1971. I will post from time to time on aspects of this book but for now let me outline his main arguments as summarized by Katherine Stott in Why Did They Write This Way? Reflections on References to Written Documents in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Literature (2008): read more »

Why Gospel Contradictions Really Do Matter

Once more from “my author of the week” secular rationalist historical Jesus scholar Charles Guignebert (1933), this time addressing the logic of those who tolerate the contradictions among the Gospels in their empty tomb and resurrection accounts by claiming they are irrelevant to the question of historicity – – –

First, a recap of some of the contradictions:

  • In Mark the women discover a young man sitting in the tomb;
  • In Matthew as the women arrive at the tomb an earthquake hits and an angel descends, rolls away the stone then sits on it, and Jesus appears to them as they leave;
  • In Luke the women find the tomb empty but while they are trying to make sense of this two angels appear to them;
  • In John Mary arrives before sunrise, sees the open tomb, runs to Peter, Peter and John run to the tomb and see clothes lying there, Mary sees two angels in the tomb then sees Jesus behind her.

And Matthew’s bribing of the guard story (to have them spread the rumour that the disciples stole the body) is clearly added to address a later allegation that this is exactly what Jews were saying had happened.

And of the resurrection contradictions G writes: read more »