Tag Archives: Luke-Acts

How the Author of Acts Rewrote Stories from Luke

As we discussed several months ago, Michael Licona wrote a book about the differences in the gospels in which he tries to explain them away by comparing the evangelists to Plutarch. However, his attempt was stillborn, since his methodology contains a deadly flaw. He proposes that by examining how Plutarch changed stories as he recounted them in different Lives, we can gain some insight as to how the author of Luke, for example, edited Marcan stories.

In the latter case, of course, we can see only how Luke dealt with one of his sources. In the former, we discover how Plutarch rewrote himself. These are two different things. But before we toss Licona’s book aside, let’s consider how we might apply his methodology correctly. Is there any place in the New Testament in which an author created a second work and plainly rewrote one or more stories in a way that might resemble Plutarch’s process?

Resuscitation Redux

Peter: “Tabitha, arise!”

Yes. In the Acts of the Apostles, the author (whom most scholars believe is the same person as the author of Luke) recycled stories told about Jesus and applied them to Peter. You probably already noticed long ago that Jesus raised a young girl (Mark provides the Aramaic talitha) in Luke 8:40-56, while Peter raised a female disciple named Tabitha (Aramaic for antelope or gazelle) in Acts 9:36-42. And no doubt you thought to yourself, “That sounds familiar.”

The author (we’ll call him Luke for the sake of convenience) has left other clues that we’re reading the same story, albeit with different characters set in a different locale. By examining the Greek text, we can discover textual affinities between the two stories.

Acts 9:36  Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. (NASB)

Acts places several important events in Joppa, because historically this town acted as the port city for Jerusalem. Legend has it that the cedars of Lebanon floated via the sea to Joppa, and then were shipped overland to Jerusalem. Joppa is the physical and metaphorical gateway from Judea to the Greco-Roman world.

Luke tells us Peter learned all animals are now clean while visiting Simon the Tanner in Joppa. This fable seeks to explain the change from a faction based in Judaism, with its understanding of what is ritually unclean to God (pork, blood, foreskins, etc.), to something new — a splinter cult on the path to a separate religion that fell back on the so-called Noahide Covenantread more »

Who Were the Hellenists in Acts?

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By Fra Angelico, “Life of Stephen: Ordination and Distributing Alms” — making sure the Hellenist widows get a fair deal.

Larry Hurtado’s Blog is a sincere effort to share biblical scholarship with a wider lay readership. He has most recently pointed to a site that promises to address biblical issues for a general readership and even has an “ask a scholar” section: Bible Odyssey. Hurtado’s interpretations are (in my view) quite conservative. I think one should raise questions when a scholar’s explanations for so many questions coincidentally support traditional Christian dogma. I don’t suggest that all of his views should be suspect for that reason alone: I have found some of his analysis into how soon Jesus was worshiped as an exalted divine figure to be very strong. But I think Biblioblogs fail to fully respect readers when they present just one view of scholarly research as if that one view were “the correct” one.

Vridar was started as an attempt to share “the other side” of so much scholarly research in biblical studies. When I first took up learning so much about scholarly studies into the nature and origins of the Biblical literature I found that it was so difficult to wade through so much that was logically suspect or short on clear evidence. There was so much assumption, specious reasoning, possibilities that were transformed to probabilities and then to facts, circular argument . . . . and most of it was (suspiciously) essentially consistent with conventional religious dogmas.

So when I read The “Hellenists” of Acts: Dubious Assumptions and an Important Publication — a post in which Larry Hurtado argues that the only difference between the Hellenists in Acts and other Jewish members of the first church was that they hailed from the Diaspora and hence spoke Greek — I felt compelled to submit the following comment:  read more »

How and Why Luke Changed Matthew’s Nativity of Jesus Story

One of the earliest known depictions from a th...
One of the earliest known depictions from a third century sarcophagus. Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Gospel of Matthew opens with the story of the Magi following a star to find the baby Jesus,the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the flight into Egypt and Herod ordering the massacre of all infants near Bethlehem to be sure of getting rid of the unidentified newborn king.

The Gospel of Luke could not be any more different, or so it seems. No Magi, no precious gifts, no flight into Egypt, no Herod or mass infanticide. Rather we have shepherds being directed by angels to find Jesus in a manger.

The most common explanation for this narrative gulf between the two is that the author of the Gospel of Luke (let’s take a wild guess and call him Luke) knew nothing of the existence of the Gospel of Matthew and had quite different sources to draw upon to account for Jesus’ birth. It is impossible, the argument goes, to imagine Luke discarding such a dramatic and memorable story as found in Matthew’s Gospel had he known it.

Michael Goulder disagreed and in Luke: A New Paradigm (1989) he published his reasons for believing Luke did know of the Magi and Herod narrative and deliberately changed it.

First, notice the points that Luke has in common with Matthew.

  • Mary ‘bore a son’ (έτεκεν υίόν, Mt. 1.25; Lk. 2.7).
  • It was in Bethlehem of Judaea, as Micah had foretold (Mt. 2.1, 5f), and Matthew turns the citation in line with the prophecy to David, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel’ (v. 6d, 2 Sam. 5.2); Luke says that Joseph went up to Judaea to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, being of Davidic ancestry, and Mary with him (2.4).
  • In Matthew God brings a company of strangers, magi, leading them by a star rising in the sky; in Luke God brings a company of strangersshepherds, summoning them by his angel, and the multitude of the heavenly host.
  • When the magi saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy (έχάρησαν χαράν μεγάλην σφόδρα, 2.10); the angel brought the shepherds good news of χαράν μεγάλην for all the people (2.10).
  • The magi come and see the child (τό παιδίον) with Mary his mother, and fall before him (‘when you have found him’, said Herod). The shepherds came with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the baby laid in the manger; and when they had seen, they made known the saying told them of the child (του παιδιού τούτου, 2.17).
  • Magi and shepherds close the scene by returning whence they had come; and Luke then notes that ‘his name was called Jesus’ at his circumcision, just as Matthew says that Joseph called his name Jesus (1.25).

(From Goulder, Luke: A New Paradigm, p. 247, with my formatting) read more »

Earliest Christians fulfil Plato’s Utopia

The following is not an argument in itself for Luke’s imitation of the utopian community in Plato’s Republic but it does provide the raw materials for such an argument. In another post I plan to elaborate on explanations for the points in common between the earliest Christians in Acts and Plato’s description of the guardians in his ideal state. Hint: they have to do with the relatively recent advances in studies of the way ancient authors imitated master-works and re-wrote them through a process we call “intertextuality”.

Community-early-Christians
Laurent De La Hyre, Community of the first Christians

The table comes from “The Summaries of Acts 2, 4, and 5 and Plato’s Republic” by Rubén Dupertuis, a chapter in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative. After the table I Dupertuis suggests that several inconsistencies in the Acts narrative may be explained most simply if the author was emulating the narrative of the ideal society led by Plato’s philosopher-kings. Traditional explanations for these inconsistencies have suggested the author was switching sources and/or not concerned about consistency. I’ll also cover these explanations in a future post.

First, have another look at those utopian summaries of the first Church. All quotations are from the 21st Century King James Version:

Acts 2:42-47

42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread and in prayers.

43 And fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.

44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common,

45 and they sold their possessions and goods and divided them among all men, as every man had need.

46 And continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,

47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

Acts 4:32-35

32 And the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and of one soul; neither said any one of them that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.

33 And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

34 Neither was there any among them that lacked, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold

35 and laid them down at the apostles’ feet. And distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

Acts 5:12-16

12 And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people, and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch.

13 But of the rest, no man dared join himself to them, but the people magnified them.

14 And more believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women,

15 insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them.

16 There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks and those who were vexed with unclean spirits; and they were healed, every one.

Dupertuis concludes his discussion on context, structure, terminology, density of parallels, with the following summary tables:

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Support of the Guardians / Apostles

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read more »

Theologians’ Miracle: Turning Fallacy into Proof

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David Hackett Fischer

Professor of History, David Hackett Fischer, has long been known for his book, Historians’ Fallacies, in which he amasses copious examples of fallacious historical analysis and argument committed (at least on occasion) even by otherwise highly reputable historians. Unfortunately, critical fallacies that he identifies as periodic blights on the work of his peers are standard practice among works of theologians writing about Christian origins.

The fallacy of the prevalent proof

Here is one that many readers will recognize, and it is one that unfortunately does too often extend beyond the limits of subgroups. On pages 51 and 52 Fischer writes (my bolding in all quotations):

The fallacy of the prevalent proof makes mass opinion into a method of verification.

This practice has been discovered by cultural anthropologists among such tribes as the Kuba, for whom history was whatever the majority declared to be true.* If some fearless fieldworker were to come among the methodological primitives who inhabit the history departments of the United States, he would find that similar customs sometimes prevail. There are at least a few historians who would make a seminar into a senate and resolve a professional problem by resorting to a vote. . . .

If the fallacy of the prevalent proof appeared only in this vulgar form, there would be little to fear from it. But in more subtle shapes, the same sort of error is widespread. Few scholars have failed to bend, to some degree, before the collective conceits of their colleagues. Many have attempted to establish a doubtful question by a phrase such as “most historians agree . . .” or “it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .” or “in the judgment of all serious students of the problem. . . .”

[* Reference: see page 102 of Vansina’s Oral Tradition]

historiansFallacies

Most historians agree . . .

. . . that a genuine historical event lies behind the story of Stephen

I could just as easily have written “most historians agree that genuine historical events like behind the stories in Acts.” But let’s limit the discussion here to Stephen’s martyrdom. (This post is, after all, my follow-up to my Stephen post.)

Shelly Matthews (also a theologian but who seems to be one of the relatively few who happily demonstrates a clear understanding of sound historical-critical method and writes history with a clear understanding of the philosophy undergirding her approach) admits she stands against what has been the traditional consensus of her peers over the historical value of Acts.

Firstly, however, Matthews correctly explains how her peers have traditionally attempted to glean “kernels of history” from the Book of Acts:

Biblical scholars employing methods of historical criticism do recognize that the coherence of various aspects of Acts is ahistorical, imposed by Luke upon his sources because of his theological concerns, his apologetic tendencies, and/or his aim to delight his audience. For more than two hundred years, historians of Christian origins have approached the book of Acts presuming that its author’s intrusive hand can be pulled away, freeing his sources to bear unencumbered witness to the historical events that occurred in the earliest decades of the church.

Applying methods captured by metaphors of winnowing and digging, they have attempted to distinguish Acts’ redactional/theological/fictional elements from the actual history presumed also to reside in the text.

From these “kernels of history,” from this “bedrock,” scholars have then constructed their own versions of a coherent narrative of Christian origins understood to correspond with events that happened in history. (p. 15, my formatting)

Theologians have thus generally assumed that “real history” lies “beneath” the text and that all they have to do is apply tools like redactional criticism to know what parts of the text to pull away (e.g. the theological or literary creations of the author) and thereby expose the original source. And that source material is for some reason often presumed to point to “bedrock history”. read more »

Luke’s Prologue — historical or historical illusion?

I was reminded of Luke’s prologue (again) when I recently read (again) the prologue of Roman historian Livy. Stream of consciousness takes me immediately to Loveday Alexander’s argument that Luke’s prologue is very “unlike” the prologues of ancient historians and to my own pet notion (anathema to most interested classicists, I am sure) that Luke’s second volume, Acts, is structured around the founding myth of Rome: both narrate the voyage of a hero from the east, via Troy, to establish a new (imperial/spiritual) headquarters in Rome. But I do take some courage in that at least one scholar, Marianne Palmer Bonz, has written an exploratory book, The Past As Legacy: Luke-Acts As Ancient Epic, expressing the same theme. (I call it “exploratory” because I am still seeking more specific details to support the argument.)

So I collate the different possible explanations of Luke’s Prolog in this post. read more »

If the first readers of Luke’s Gospel also knew Matthew’s . . . .

. . . . What would they make of the different birth narratives?

The Gospels of All Christians (edited by Richard Bauckham) appeared about twelve years ago challenging the idea that each of our canonical gospels was tailored for a particular community audience: Mark, say, for Romans, Matthew to a church in Syria, etc.

The reasons for this argument, and the reasons for the original paradigm that each of the gospels was the product of a distinct community, are subjects for another post. I have been particularly interested in the subject of intertextuality — the dialogue one can see among both New and Old Testament works. Thomas L. Thompson is one scholar who in particular has addressed evidence for various prophetic works such as Isaiah and Hosea “speaking” to each other — taking up themes that one has raised and presenting an alternative side of the discussion.

I have tended to think of Matthew’s treatment of Mark’s Gospel as an example of the same process continuing into the Christian era. The point is that Matthew was addressing the same audience that knew Mark’s Gospel, and not that Mark wrote for one local audience while Matthew somehow got hold of Mark’s work and re-wrote it for a different community with different views about the role of Peter, the Law, etc. Similarly with Luke’s treatment of Mark. There are limits to this model, however. There clearly were Christian groups who bluntly opposed certain Gospels, and we can think of Marcion accepting none other than a form of the Gospel of Luke. So I am not suggesting that there was one happy universal Christian family open to every revision that came along. Far, far from it. But I have difficulties with the idea that each gospel was written for localized communities. The matters and themes they address are too universal for that to concept to fit well.

But when we take this model — that the gospels were written for (more or less) “all Christians” — then we come back to our old question of Luke’s knowledge of Matthew. read more »

How Joseph was piously invented to be the “father” of Jesus

Georges de La Tour. St. Joseph, the Carpenter
Image via Wikipedia

This post continues from the previous one about John the Baptist’s parents. It’s a sharing of my reading of John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes . . .. I covered in that earlier post the rationale for searching the Old Testament scriptures for an understanding of the Gospel author’s choices of names and narrative episodes.

Spong begins his discussion of Joseph by reminding readers how “shadowy” he is in the Scriptures. Much legend has accrued around him since the Gospels were written, but the New Testament has very little to say about him at all.

The earliest Christian evidence

Neither he nor Mary appears at all in Paul’s writings.

At the very least, we can state that to the degree that Paul represented Christianity in the fifth, sixth, and seventh decades of this common era, there was no interest in Jesus’ origins or his parentage at that stage in the development of the Christian story.

. . . Paul’s writing gives us no indication that he had ever heard of or had any interest in the miraculous birth traditions. (p. 202)

Spong emphasizes the indications in Paul’s letters that Paul thought Jesus’ birth was quite normal. He points to Galatians 4:4 (“born of a woman”) and Romans 1:3 (from David “according to the flesh”). Others have noted, however, that one does not naturally refer to anyone’s birth as being “of a woman” or “according to flesh”! I would expect to get strange looks if in any conversation I managed to explain that I or anyone present was “born of a woman”! That such apparently obvious truisms are made explicit does raise questions about the intent of such phrases in Paul’s letters. But I’ll continue here with Spong’s explanation.

The next Christian evidence read more »

Why Matthew and Luke changed details of Mark’s sabbath dispute

Little details, such as Matthew turning a Pharisee’s statement in Mark into a question, and Luke adding the little word “some” to Mark’s account, on closer inspection turn out not to be haphazard variations, but evidence that the gospel authors were more focused on creative story telling than passing on “traditions”.

The example of this that I noticed most recently is the slightly variant accounts of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees over his disciples’ corn-plucking on the sabbath. (I was thinking through James Crossley’s argument for these different accounts revealing evidence that Mark was written before “the church” experienced any controversy over sabbath observance. In his efforts to uncover “assumptions” being made by Mark, and reliance on a presumed Aramaic source text, he misses much of what actually is there to be seen on the surface.)

Here are some of the differences: read more »

Response 3: that Jesus’ baptism implies historicity

Continued from Response (2): the Bethlehem-Nazareth fallacies

Baptism of Jesus (Bogojavlenie, ortodox icon)
Image via Wikipedia

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(iii) he was baptised by John

This is another of those awkward elements. Mark and Luke tell a story about Jesus going with other people to be cleansed of their sins by being baptised by John. But this story clearly caused problems for early Christians, as it implies that Jesus was a sinner and that he was subordinate to John (who had his own followers long after his death). So Matthew inserts an element in the story where John tries to object to the idea of baptising the Messiah (Matthew 3:13-15), whereas the Gospel of John removes the baptism altogether and simply has John the Baptist see Jesus and hail him as the Messiah.

If this element was awkward enough for Matthew to try to explain it away and John to whitewash it completely, why is it in the story? If Jesus existed, this element makes sense – it’s in the story because it happened. If he didn’t exist, however, why did the people who made him up (whoever they were) insert something so contrary to the expectations of the Messiah? That makes no sense.

This argument fails to address any grounds for the historicity of Jesus, despite its rhetorical questions and appeal to incredulity at the end. (Previous post discussed the fallacies of rhetorical questions and appeal to incredulity.)

As is conceded in the argument itself, not all evangelists demonstrate embarrassment. The argument as written above appears to suggest that Luke is not embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus any more than was Mark. But that Luke was also embarrassed is indicated by his avoidance of any direct claim that Jesus was baptized by John.

But the key question here is, What is it that embarrasses Matthew, Luke and (assuming he knew Mark) John?

What embarrasses them is the story in the Gospel of Mark itself.

The argument concedes this.

Three of the canonical gospels indicate embarrassment over Mark’s story of the baptism.

There is no evidence that Matthew or Luke (or John) were embarrassed by anything other than the narrative they read in the Gospel of Mark. They are responding to Mark’s baptism narrative.

Mark 1

[4] John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
[5] And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
[6] And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;
[7] And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.
[8] I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.
[9] And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.
[10] And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
[11] And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
[12] And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.

It is clear that there is not a whiff of embarrassment in Mark’s gospel over the baptism of Jesus by John. It was the absence of embarrassment in Mark’s story that embarrassed the others.

To make this clear:

  1. Mark was not embarrassed to narrate the baptism of Jesus by John
  2. Other evangelists demonstrate apparent embarrassment over Mark’s story by their variations to it

Matthew, for example, adds to Mark’s narrative an excuse to explain why Jesus would undergo a ritual meant for sinners:

Matthew 3:

[13] Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.
[14] But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?
[
15] And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.

Luke manages to avoid saying that John baptized Jesus altogether:

Luke 3:

[2] Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
[3] And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;

. . . . . . .

[19] But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done,
[20] Added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison.
[21] Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened,
[22] And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.

John does not even admit that Jesus was baptized at all.

John 1:

[32] And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.
[33] And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.

So what biblical scholars sometimes refer to as “the criterion of embarrassment” does not support historicity at all. It only supports their knowledge of Mark’s gospel and their different theological views about what the baptism meant or implied about Jesus.

If Mark was not embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus, and if Mark’s story is the source of the other gospel narratives, then the so-called “awkwardness” of this narrative does not support the historicity of Jesus.

So why was Mark not embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus?

He obviously had a different view of the nature of Jesus. A different christology from what we seen in the other gospels.

Mark’s gospel has either an adoptionist or separationist view of Jesus. Adoptionists believed that Jesus was an ordinary man who was “adopted” by God as his Son when he was baptized by John. Separationists believed that the divine person of the Son of God possessed or inhabited the body of the ordinary man Jesus, so that there were two bodies in Jesus, his physical body/person and the spirit person within him. The Spirit person left the human person at the crucifixion. The evidence for this is well known in the scholarly literature and is a separate discussion.

So it is quite possible that Mark had absolutely no reason to be embarrassed by the baptism story. He may even have actually needed it to add weight to his adoptionist or separationist belief about the nature of Jesus.

That is, the first account of the baptism narrative that we know of could well have been written to explain a particular theological or christological interpretation of the nature of the Son of God and Jesus.

Other evangelists demonstrate a different theological understanding of Jesus that conflicted with Mark’s.

But the only gospel they had was Mark’s. So they set to work to re-write it to suit their own doctrines about Jesus.

This explains:

1. Why the first gospel indicates no embarrassment over the baptism of Jesus
2. Why the later gospels do indicate embarrassment over that first gospel’s lack of embarrassment, and why they attempted to re-write Mark’s version in the ways they did.

They are not evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

The baptism narratives are evidence of theological differences among early Christians.

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(The original context of the summary cited here, by Tim O’Neill, can be found here.)

Resurrection reversal

For the sake of completion to my recent posts on empty tombs and crucifixions being popular stuff of ancient fiction I should add the most well-known one here, the section from the first century Satyricon by Petronius. (Those recent posts are Popular novels and the gospel narratives and Another Empty Tomb Tale.)

The date

Michael Turton in his Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark includes the following comment on Mark 16:8

v8: Carrier (2004c) observes:

“But we have one definite proof that the resurrection motif in fiction predates the 1st century: the Latin satire of that very genre, The Satyricon by Petronius. This is positively dated to around 60 A.D. (Petronius was killed under the reign of Nero, and makes fun of social circumstances created by the early Caesars) and is a full-fledged travel-narrative just like Acts, with a clear religious motif. However, Petronius is making fun of that motif, and also writing in Latin, yet we know the genre began in the Greek language. Thus, in order for Petronius to move the genre into Latin and make fun of it, it must have pre-existed the time of his writing and been popular enough to draw his attention. Indeed, the satire itself may actually have existed in a Greek form before Petronius took it up: P. Parsons, “A Greek Satyricon?” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 18 (1971) pp. 53ff. It should be noted that Petronius pokes fun at the resurrection theme. Similarly, Plutarch relates a spoof of the motif in popular theatre, where a performing dog acts out its death and resurrection on stage to the delight of the emperor Vespasian (“On the Cleverness of Animals,” Moralia 973e-974a). In order to have something to spoof, the motif must predate the year 80.” in section 140.frg2, where the hero compares his restoration from impotence to the “resurrected Protesilaus,” and attributes it to Mercury’s known role in “bringing back the dead.”

The Widow of Ephesus tale

With permission from, and thanks to, the owner of The Above-average Typist site (Kenny), I am copying from his site the portion of “Chapter Thirteen” from: The Satyricon by Petronius. Translated by Alfred R. Allinson. (1930) pp. 193-218.  This site contains the complete text of the Satyricon.

In this instance we have not an empty tomb, but a “resurrection” from a tomb of a body that ended back on the cross!

But Eumolpus, champion of the distressed and author of the existing harmony, fearing that our cheerfulness should flag for lack of amusing anecdotes, commenced a series of gibes at women’s frailty,– how lightly they fell in love, how quickly they forgot even their own sons for a lover’s sake, asserting there was never yet a woman so chaste she might not be wrought to the wildest excesses by a lawless passion. Without alluding to the old plays and world-renowned examples of women’s folly, he need only instance a case that had occurred, he said, within his own memory, which if we pleased he would now relate. This offer concentrated the attention of all on the speaker, who began as follows:

cxi “There was once upon a time at Ephesus a lady of so high repute for chastity that women would actually come to that city from neighboring lands to see and admire. This fair lady, having lost her husband, was not content with the ordinary signs of mourning, such as walking with hair disheveled behind the funeral car and beating her naked bosom in presence of the assembled crowd; she was fain further to accompany her lost one to his final resting-place, watch over his corpse in the vault where it was laid according to the Greek mode of burial, and weep day and night beside it. So deep was her affliction, neither family nor friends could dissuade her from these austerities and the purpose she had formed of perishing of hunger. Even the Magistrates had to retire worsted after a last but fruitless effort. All mourned as virtually dead already a woman of such singular determination, who had already passed five days without food.

“A trusty handmaid sat by her mistress’s side, mingling her tears with those of the unhappy woman, and trimming the lamp which stood in the tomb as often as it burned low. Nothing else was talked of throughout the city but her sublime devotion, and men of every station quoted her as a shining example of virtue and conjugal affection.
“Meantime, as it fell out, the Governor of the Province ordered certain robbers to be crucified in close proximity to the vault where the matron sat bewailing the recent loss of her mate. Next night the soldier who was set to guard the crosses to prevent anyone coming and removing the robbers’ bodies to give them burial, saw a light shining among the tombs and heard the widow’s groans. Yielding to curiosity, a failing common to all mankind, he was eager to discover who it was, and what was afoot.

Accordingly he descended into the tomb, where beholding a lovely woman, he was at first confounded, thinking he saw a ghost or some supernatural vision. But presently the spectacle of the husband’s dead body lying there, and the woman’s tear-stained and nail-torn face, everything went to show him the reality, how it was a disconsolate widow unable to resign herself to the death of her helpmate. He proceeded therefore to carry his humble meal into the tomb, and to urge the fair mourner to cease her indulgence in grief so excessive, and to leave off torturing her bosom with unavailing sobs. Death, he declared, was the common end and last home of all men, enlarging on this and the other commonplaces generally employed to console a wounded spirit. But the lady, only shocked by this offer of sympathy from a stranger’s lips, began to tear her breast with redoubled vehemence, and dragging out handfuls of her hair, she laid them on her husband’s corpse.

“The soldier, however, refusing to be rebuffed, renewed his adjuration to the unhappy lady to eat. Eventually the maid, seduced doubtless by the scent of the wine, found herself unable to resist any longer, and extended her hand for the refreshment offered; then with energies restored by food and drink, she set herself to the task of breaking down her mistress’s resolution. ‘What good will it do you,’ she urged, ‘to die of famine, to bury yourself alive in the tomb, to yield your life to destiny before the Fates demand it?

“‘Think you to pleasure thus the dead and gone?

“‘Nay! rather return to life, and shaking off this womanly weakness, enjoy the good things of this world as long as you may. The very corpse that lies here before your eyes should be a warning to make the most of existence.’

“No one is really loath to consent, when pressed to eat or live. The widow therefore, worn as she was with several days’ fasting, suffered her resolution to be broken, and took her fill of nourishment with no less avidity than her maid had done, who had been the first to give way.

cxii “Now you all know what temptations assail poor human nature after a hearty meal. The soldier resorted to the same cajolements which had already been successful in inducing the lady to eat, in order to overcome her virtue. The modest widow found the young soldier neither ill-looking nor wanting in address, while the maid was strong indeed in his favor and kept repeating:

“Why thus unmindful of your past delight,
Against a pleasing passion will you fight?”

“But why make a long story? The lady showed herself equally complaisant in this respect also, and the victorious soldier gained both his ends. So they lay together not only that first night of their nuptials, but a second likewise, and a third, the door of the vault being of course kept shut, so that anyone, friend or stranger, that might come to the tomb, should suppose this most chaste of wives had expired by now on her husband’s corpse. Meantime the soldier, entranced with the woman’s beauty and the mystery of the thing, purchased day by day the best his means allowed him, and as soon as ever night was come, conveyed the provisions to the tomb.

“Thus it came about that the relatives of one of the malefactors, observing this relaxation of vigilance, removed his body from the cross during the night and gave it proper burial. But what of the unfortunate soldier, whose self-indulgence had thus been taken advantage of, when next morning he saw one of the crosses under his charge without its body! Dreading instant punishment, he acquaints his mistress with what had occurred, assuring her he would not await the judge’s sentence, but with his own sword exact the penalty of his negligence. He must die therefore; would she give him sepulture, and join the friend to the husband in that fatal spot?

“But the lady was no less tender-hearted than virtuous. ‘The Gods forbid,’ she cried, ‘I should at one and the same time look on the corpses of two men, both most dear to me. I had rather hang a dead man on the cross than kill a living.’ So said, so done; she orders her husband’s body to be taken from its coffin and fixed upon the vacant cross. The soldier availed himself of the ready-witted lady’s expedient, and next day all men marveled how in the world a dead man had found his own way to the cross.”

Tactics of Religious Innovation: Deuteronomy and Gospels

Of the authors of Deuteronomy Bernard M. Levinson writes

. . . their concern was to implement their own agenda: to reflect a major transformation of all spheres of Judaean life — cultically, politically, theologically, judicially, ethically, and economically. The authors of Deuteronomy had a radically new vision of the religious and public polity and sought to implement unprecedented changes in religion and society. Precisely for that reason, the guise of continuity with the past became crucial. The authors of Deuteronomy sought to locate their innovative vision in prior textual authority by tendentiously appropriating texts like the Covenant Code [esp in Exodus], while freely going beyond them in programmatic and substantive terms to address matters like public administration, the role of the monarchy, and the laws of warfare.

Deuteronomy’s reuse of its textual patrimony was creative, active, revisionist, and tendentious. It functioned as a means of cultural transformation. (Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, p.16)

The authors of Deuteronomy used the very texts they opposed to introduce a contrary set of rules to displace them. The legal code in Exodus knew nothing about an obligatory single cult centre. Sacrifices could be performed wherever the people were — in every place — just as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sacrificed in every place where they found God’s presence. So Exodus 20:24:

An altar of earth shall you make for me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I record my name I will come to you, and I will bless you.

Twisting your opponent’s words

I cannot repeat here the richness of Levinson’s textual comparison: a broad overview will have to do, so where the detail sounds shallow Levinson is not at fault. The Hebrew for “In every place where” above literally reads: in every [the] place. The Deuteronomist has reused the same words with a slight restructuring in Deuteronomy 12:13-15

Take heed to yourself that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every place that you see; but in the place which the Lord chooses, in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you. However, you may slaughter and eat meat within all your gates, whatever your heart desires, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which he has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, of the gazelle and the deer alike.

The Deuteronomist appears to be explaining more fully the old law in Exodus while in fact he is contradicting its basic assumption and instruction. One of his tools for accomplishing this is to reuse but also restructure the targeted phrase in the Exodus law that he seeks to overturn.

The degree of technical scribal sophistication involved is remarkable. (p.33) read more »

Joseph of Arimathea – recasting a faithless collaborator as a disciple of Jesus

Updated 8th June with postscript


Dr James McGrath has an interesting take on Joseph of Arimathea in that he interprets his first appearance in the gospel record as one of the many Jews who were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus — and his burial. Only in subsequent gospel narratives is his character evolved into that of a disciple of Jesus.

I like this view because it adds some detail to my own understanding of the role of Joseph of Arimathea in Mark, as spelled out in earlier posts:

  1. Jewish Scriptures in Mark
  2. The post-70 c.e. provenance of the tomb metaphor
  3. The mocking of Joseph and Pilate in Mark

James McGrath in The Burial of Jesus: History & Faith is addressing a very different audience from any of my posts. My overall impression is that he is writing for believers who generally have a black and white (fundamentalist) understanding of the Bible and their faith, and is attempting to gently lead them to open their minds to the validity of interpretations of the Bible that (faith-based) scholarship opens up. The “historical methods” he discusses as tools of analyzing the texts of the gospels are, as far as I am aware, methods used almost exclusively among biblical scholars (not among historians per se) and that are expected to carry such heavy weights of “probable proofs” for the occurrence of certain facts. If I am mistaken I would appreciate being better informed.

Those for whom I imagine myself writing, on the other hand, are fellow amateur explorers of the origins and natures of the texts and faith that has been so pivotal in shaping our culture and minds, and to do so with the aid of secular historical and literary tools. And though amateur, I do feel I have advantages that enable me to introduce to general audiences some of the findings found in otherwise hard-to-access scholarly books and journals.

I also see that James McGrath has a new book coming out, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in its Jewish Context. I’m still working through notes on Margaret Barker, Charles Talbert and in particular most recently John Ashton (Understanding the Fourth Gospel) and others that flesh out the complexities of Jewish religious beliefs pre 70 c.e. and that our canonical texts attempt to hide. Looking forward to catching up on The Only True God, too.

So back to this particular discussion of Joseph of Arimathea

Mark 15

[42] And now when the even was come, because it was the preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath,
[43] Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counseller, which also waited for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus.
[44] And Pilate marvelled if he were already dead: and calling unto him the centurion, he asked him whether he had been any while dead.
[45] And when he knew it of the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph.
[46] And he bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock, and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulchre.
[47] And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses beheld where he was laid.

Two points here, especially if read casually with the parallel narratives in the other gospels in mind, can lead to the impression Joseph was doing a Good Thing as a would-be disciple of Jesus. Mark describes him as “an honourable counseller” and one who “also waited for the kingdom of God.”

As McGrath points out, though, all “good Jews”, not only followers of Jesus, “waited for the kingdom of God.”

McGrath may have also been implying that one needs only compare Jesus’s hostile debates with other honourable figures in the Jewish community, one of whom he could say, “You are not far from the kingdom of God”, to recall that being an honourable pillar in Jerusalem, and not being far from the kingdom, left one as far removed from salvation as the rich man who was also loved by Jesus but who departed very sorrowfully to realize he could not enter. So close, yet so far. (See Mark 10-13)

McGrath points to the reason for the introduction of Joseph at this point. It was to ensure the observance of the sabbath. Thus the reason Mark gives for Joseph’s act has nothing to do with devotion to Jesus, but is all about religious scruples. Compare Josephus’ words in his Jewish War 2.5.2 (2.317):

. . . although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun.

(I am increasingly fascinated at how much of the historical background to the earliest gospel is echoed in with as much or as little adornment as found in Josephus. But let’s stick to this topic for now.)

If we read this account within the parameters of the rest of Mark alone (that is, not through the eyepieces of later gospels), then it is a logical exposition to read Joseph acting with the same attention to law-abiding godliness as the Pharisees, the chief priests and other leaders had been diligent throughout the gospel to enforce the strict observance of the sabbath, to avoid a trial and execution during the feast, and the requirement for due process (two or more witnesses). By the time the reader is has followed the narrative up to near the final chapter of this gospel, she is surely expected to know that ritual-law-observance is to be equated with the old wineskins, with blindness, and with enmity against Jesus. This has, after all, been a dominant message from the earliest chapters.

McGrath tellingly notes that Joseph acted apart from the followers of Jesus who were present. He presumably had his servants wrap the body and lay it in the tomb while the women who had followed Jesus stood back as bystanders. Such a scene raises very awkward questions if the reader was meant to think of Joseph as having sympathies with Jesus’ followers. Joseph does not involve them at all. And Joseph does nothing more than the bare minimum to get the body down from the cross and into a tomb before sunset in order to comply with the sabbath law.

I like to add another allusion I suspect Mark was directing at his original readers. McGrath sees Joseph’s waiting for the Kingdom of God as saying little more than he was a typically devout Jew of the time. I think Mark meant more than that here. The narrative surrounding Joseph’s request is strongly focussed on the surprising fact of the unexpected suddenness of Jesus’ death. Pilate marvelled at the news from Joseph, and felt compelled to confirm it through his centurion.

Just as the disciples had been caught out unprepared when Jesus was taken in Gethsemane, so do the Roman Pilate and centurion, and the Jewish counsellor Joseph, find themselves having to address the suddenness of Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus had warned in his famous Olivet Prophecy that all were to be on guard and watch, for they knew not when the day would come. The only ones who were/are aware of the day of the Lord are the readers, the insiders.  No-one in the narrative knows that Jesus made his “exodus” after the earth had been in supernatural darkness for three hours, and from that time on the old order was overthrown (note the tearing of the temple veil). The women, like Joseph, are just as blind and mindful of the things (the flesh) of this world when they return to the tomb to anoint a dead body.

They were all waiting for the kingdom. But they had all missed it when it was ushered in through the mock Roman Triumph (See Schmidt’s Jesus Triumphal March to Crucifixion).

If Mark did take his imagery for the crucifixion scenes from the Jewish Scriptures, in particular from Isaiah, as is widely believed, then we have further reason to think that all the above was indeed in the forefront of his mind, and that he was deliberately introducing a character to fulfil the following:

And they made his grave with the wicked
But with the rich at his death.  . . .
(Isaiah 53:9)

Similarly, the tomb being described as a hewn rock is a metaphor for the destruction of the Temple for the sins of the nation in an earlier passage in Isaiah

. . . you have hewn a sepulchre here,
as he who hews himself a sepulchre on high,
who carves a tomb for himself in a rock . . . .
(Isaiah 22:16 — same Greek words in both Mark and LXX for ‘carved/hewn’ and ‘tomb’ and ‘rock’)

The texts from which Mark’s gospel drew for his scenes of entombment in a carved out rock are laden with motifs of the wickedness of Jerusalem. This is also surely suggestive of how to interpret Mark, here.

Comparing Matthew

Matthew 27

[57] When the even was come, there came a rich man of Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’ disciple:
[58] He went to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered.
[59] And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth,
[60] And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.
[61] And there was Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre.

McGrath here points out the earliest signs of Josephs’ transformation and a deliberate departure from Mark’s account. Matthew has removed Joseph from the council that condemned Jesus, and describes him rather as a rich man who could afford his own tomb. But more than that, of course, Matthew directly calls him a disciple.

Other noteworthy changes McGrath draws attention to are the emphasis on the cleanliness of the cloth and that fact that the tomb was a new one. The tomb was not only a new one, but it was that of Joseph himself. There can thus be no doubt that it had been used for any other corpse.

McGrath sees historical similitude here. Mark’s narrative could be interpreted as Joseph doing a rush job to get Jesus into a tomb as quickly as possible, with the assumption that he used a tomb large enough for several bodies and that was positioned near the crucifixion site for just this purpose — disposing of crucified bodies quickly when required.

He still has not been able to bring the women into the action, however. McGrath sees this as a clue that Matthew really was not a disciple and that this fact is given away by his omitting to include the women in the act of burial. I think a far simpler explanation is that Matthew still needs to have a good reason to get the women to the tomb the next day after the sabbath, so he is reserving them for that moment. Or if Joseph himself did not actually participate in the burial, but his servants only, as McGrath suggests, then why not also allow for the women to refrain from defiling themselves on the sabbath eve? Or Matthew is taking the trouble to re-write those portions that he feels necessary to present a more favourable picture of Joseph of Arimathea. They women’s turn will come next. To assume historicity machinations at work in the mind of the author seems to me to be adding unfounded complexities upon unfounded assumptions.

Comparing Luke

Luke 23

[50] And, behold, there was a man named Joseph, a counseller; and he was a good man, and a just:
[51] (The same had not consented to the counsel and deed of them
😉 he was of Arimathaea, a city of the Jews: who also himself waited for the kingdom of God.
[52] This man went unto Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus.
[53] And he took it down, and wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a sepulchre that was hewn in stone, wherein never man before was laid.
[54] And that day was the preparation, and the sabbath drew on.
[55] And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid.

Luke retains Joseph’s counseller status, but adds the unambiguous “he was a good man and just”, and that he “had not consented to the counsel” to crucify Jesus. Again, like Matthew, however, he stresses the fact that the tomb was not a mass deposit for crucified bodies. It was new, uncorrupted. Like Matthew, Luke was stressing that Jesus was not dumped in a common dug out for crucified criminals.

Comparing John

John 19

[38] And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.
[39] And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.
[40] Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.
[41] Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.
[42] There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews’ preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand.

Now Joseph of Arimathea is not only a disciple, but a secret one. And not only a secret disciple, but a companion of Nicodemus who had also come to Jesus secretly by night.

Not only does John here concede that the tomb was close by the area of crucifixion, and thus otherwise potentially a common grave for criminals, but stresses once again that the sepulchre was both new and that it had never yet contained a body.

And since John is about to rewrite the easter morning narrative by removing the group of women coming to anoint Jesus’ corpse, he has instead both Joseph and Nicodemus wrapping the body of Jesus with a hundred pounds of spices.

So what was wrong with Mark’s narrative?

Why did the subsequent evangelists find so much to change about Mark’s account of Joseph of Arimathea?

McGrath’s explanation is plausible at one level: Mark’s stark account left open the interpretation that the tomb was a common one for crucified criminals, and that Joseph himself was not necessarily any more venerable than any other law-abiding Jewish leader.

Later evangelists might understandably have re-written Mark’s ending in a number of ways to give it a more exultant and joyful finale. This meant adding resurrection appearances to the disciples, and allowing the women to see the resurrected Jesus, too. It also meant reverentially treating the body of Jesus with the hands of a good man and just, those of none other than a secret disciple of Jesus.

The reason they did this was to cover up the embarrassment of Jesus being left to be buried by a non-follower, and possibly even in a common grave for criminals.

McGrath sees at work here the criterion of historical embarrassment, or embarrassment over a fact that could not be denied. The fact that later evangelists attempt to hide the “facts” as suggested by Mark is evidence for the general historicity of Mark’s account.

I have to disagree. First question that the above scenario raises is, Why did the supposed attempts to hide the historical facts only appear to begin with the gospel authors subsequent to Mark?

If the fact was both undeniable and embarrassing, and if there had been decades of oral transmission before the first gospel was penned, surely one would expect the “cover up” or “revisionist versions” to have begun before any of the gospels came to be written.

But what we do find is that with the first evidence of this narrative in Mark’s gospel, we see the possibility of coherently interpreting the details (through the context of earlier narratives and sayings in the same gospel) in such a way as to give the Joseph of Arimathea anecdote a theological function that is consistent with earlier sayings and episodes in that gospel. All the faithless come together at the end: Pilate and the centurion, the Jewish mob and the Jewish leader, the women and reference to the disciples. They have all missed the end of this present age and the ushering in of the new with the paradoxical exaltation of Christ. Only the readers understand the meaning of all these events along with the darkness at noon and the tearing apart of the Temple veil.

What embarrassed later gospel author’s was Mark’s narrative. They were also embarrassed by his Jesus who only became a son of God at his baptism when possessed by the Spirit, and the total failure of his disciples. The embarrassment is not with history, but with the theological messages of the first written gospel.

I thank Dr James McGrath for raising his view of Joseph of Arimathea in an earlier post of mine and giving me the opportunity to read his views. It is nice to read where others have also trodden views that have been similar to mine, and to learn new details, despite differences at other levels of interpretation.


P.S. — added 8th June:

John the Baptist was buried by his disciples. I suspect we have here enough incentive for certain Christian schools or factions to have their leader likewise buried by a devotee, even if necessarily in secret.


When Jesus went out with a loud voice . . . .

Shouts and silences are prominent sound images throughout both the non-canonical and canonical gospels and apocalypses. Sometimes the authors seem to be deliberately pairing them to emphasize their associated contrasting occasions. The most memorable instances of this in the canonical gospels are the silences of Jesus before his accusers and tormenters and the loud shout/s he utters on the cross. In Matthew is a well-known passage drawing on Isaiah to suggest a similar contrast:

He shall not strive, nor cry; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory. (Matthew 12:19-20)

This lends itself to neat bit of eisegesis that Jesus’ shout from the cross was a cry of judgment and/or victory.

Probably the most obvious noncanonical text with this particular paradox to come to mind is “The Thunder, Perfect Mind” where the Saviour proclaims he/she is both silence and manifold voice and one who cries out (thunder?). I can’t help but wonder so many of the narrative paradoxes we find in the Gospel of Mark also being found epigrams in some gnostic-type literature such as The Thunder, Perfect Mind.

A common exercise is to treat the gospels as divinely inspired ciphers that require a reader to find matching patterns between their different texts, and by means of these jig-saw matches mentally constructing an entirely new story not found in any of the texts. This is sometimes called “letting the bible interpret the bible”, or even, “not interpreting the bible, but letting the bible speak for itself”. It is also called “reading the bible with the guidance of the spirit of God.”

One example of this approach is to take two passages from Mark and Luke using them to create a third unlike any found in either Mark or Luke.

Death’s Loud Voice: Mark

And Jesus cried [aphiemi: uttered/let go/departed (“went out”)] with a loud voice [phone-megas] and gave up the ghost. (Mark 15:37)

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