Vridar

2013/05/15

How Literary Imitation Works: Are Differences More Important than Similarities?

Recently I disappointed the pastor of the Diamond Valley Community Church when I declined to respond to his point by point counter-claims to my comparison of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 as told in Mark 6:30-44 with Elisha’s feeding 100 followers with 20 loaves of bread in 2 Kings 4:38-44. This was a pity because he assures us that his efforts were “such a burden”, but we both know that those are the trials of a self-sacrificing follower of the Lord whose every breath is dedicated to banishing spiritual darkness from a godless world.

I have encountered the sorts of objections our burdened pastor made many times before and confess that by now I have lost all interest in engaging with them. Such objections — “this is not a real parallel because the story-reasons for the food shortage are different or because the prompts that led to groups of people sitting down are different in the two stories” — are a pointlessly puerile game of “spot the difference” where the pictures are quite different to begin with.

The differences in the above images are more striking than their similarities. One can search the net and easily find hundreds more and even more striking variations — different colour schemes, additional figures, different backgrounds, different positions and postures of the central figure . . . But one thing is clear: they are all adaptations of the original Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

We can spot mimesis so easily in a graphic. And this sort of imitation is easily enough recognized in literature. But when it comes to the Bible there are many apologists (and scholars, too) who just can’t or won’t see it. (more…)

2012/11/28

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

Filed under: Bible as literature,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 6:58 am

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. (more…)

2012/11/17

Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels

Filed under: Bible as literature — Neil Godfrey @ 8:09 pm

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 (more…)

2012/11/04

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ reviews continued. Chapter 10

Gospel of Mark’s Use of Literary Tropes and Myths to Create Tales of Jesus

Continuing my series of posts on ‘Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus I look here at Thomas L. Thompson‘s chapter ten, ” “Psalm 72 and Mark 1:12-13: Mythic Evocation in Narratives of the Good King”.

Thompson (TLT) is asking readers to become more savvy to the literary tropes of the ancient world and to understand the biblical literature, including the Gospel narratives of Jesus, within these literary conventions. One might compare the way the unflattering realities of America’s Wild West have been romanticized through the literary visions of Sir Walter Scott’s novels. The white knight, or cowboy in the white hat, is a literary construct that exists as a tool that authors apply either to characters entirely of their own imagination or to historical persons which they recreate as myths.

The point is that once we recognize these literary tools for what they are, we will not read the ancient literature — gospels included — naively. We will learn to recognize the cultural myths or ideologies underlying the words we are reading. (more…)

2012/09/16

Plato’s template for the Bible

Filed under: Bible as literature,OT archaeology & literature — Neil Godfrey @ 8:42 am
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Before continuing with Book Two of Laws, there is a major theme in Book One that I ought to have included in the previous post as a significant point in common with one of the primary biblical themes. Both Plato and God emphatically stress the importance of testing the character of their people. The purpose of this test is to produce citizens worthy of the new state or kingdom. They will demonstrate their purity of character by obedience to the laws, living a holy life and hating everything that is against “nature”, “wisdom” or a “noble spirit”. Plato speaks of several ways people need to be tested for character so they can learn self-control and master their base passions and so become worthy citizens. Worthy citizens must learn to overcome unhealthy fear and the temptations of pleasures.

For you are the only people known to us, whether Greek or barbarian, whom the legislator commanded to eschew all great pleasures and amusements and never to touch them; whereas in the matter of pains or fears which we have just been discussing, he thought that they who from infancy had always avoided pains and fears and sorrows, when they were compelled to face them would run away from those who were hardened in them, and would become their subjects.

Now the legislator ought to have considered that this was equally true of pleasure; he should have said to himself, that if our citizens are from their youth upward unacquainted with the greatest pleasures, and unused to endure amid the temptations of pleasure, and are not disciplined to refrain from all things evil, the sweet feeling of pleasure will overcome them just as fear would overcome the former class; and in another, and even a worse manner, they will be the slaves of those who are able to endure amid pleasures, and have had the opportunity of enjoying them, they being often the worst of mankind. One half of their souls will be a slave, the other half free; and they will not be worthy to be called in the true sense men and freemen. . . .

One is reminded here of Herodotus’s infamously curious line that concludes his Histories:

and [the Persians] chose rather to dwell on poor land and be rulers, than to sow crops in a level plain and be slaves to others.

Recall from the previous post the same theme of healthy and unhealthy fears that Plato spoke of through his characters. Note the last line of the following extract: the ideal legislators must bring their people to face many fears to learn to have the right kind of fear — which is the same dialogue explains is reverence, or fear of God. (more…)

2012/09/14

Plato’s and the Bible’s Laws and Ethics Compared

Filed under: Bible as literature,OT archaeology & literature — Neil Godfrey @ 7:34 pm
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For many months now I have been hoping to post on the remarkable similarities between the ideal laws espoused by Plato and many laws and moral principles we read about in the Bible. I began linking Plato’s laws to their counterparts in Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers-Deuteronomy but in the process ran across so many other passages that resonate with other Biblical precepts elsewhere that I decided to take the easy way out for a post and simply list the significant passages as I find them, beginning with the first of the twelve “books” that comprise Plato’s Laws, with references beside each one to its Biblical echo.

Anyone who is familiar with the Bible and who takes up reading Classical literature can scarcely ignore the many times one bumps into some idea, some turn of phrase or view of life and humankind, some ethical principle, some metaphor, motif, plot or tale that strongly resonates with what one read in the sacred scriptures. It is so easy to think of the Bible as a unique set of writings, but once one starts reading more widely across the non-biblical works that were being written and read at the time the biblical works were being composed, one learns that “it ain’t necessarily so”.

One striking comparison is the ideal sexual morality enjoined by Plato with what is commanded in the Bible. It is commonly thought that the Bible’s ethics are distinctly superior to those of the pagans, yet it is in Plato that we first read that homosexuality as “against nature” and that young people should resist temptations and aspire to remain virgins until married. (more…)

2012/05/06

Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 3 — Criteria

This post concludes the series of notes from Adam Winn’s Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative : considering the practice of Greco-Roman imitation in the search for Markan source material. Winn concludes his first chapter with six criteria he hopes will help us determine literary dependence between two texts. He has derived these criteria from his study of the way we can see Virgil imitated Homer’s epics.

One question that interests me here is whether Winn’s analysis can be usefully applied to the question of whether the Gospel of John was based on the Gospel of Mark, and if so, to what extent. Does our knowledge that an author would sometimes radically restructure his source material offer us a window into observing the fourth gospel’s author moving the Gospel of Mark’s “temple cleansing” episode from the last stages of the narrative to its beginning?

Another question: is it possible the techniques of “imitation” can help us decide whether the Gospel of Luke was the last Gospel that in part drew upon the Gospel of John, or whether the Gospel of John imitated, in part, Luke?

There are several others, but let’s keep our feet on the floor in these early days. (more…)

2012/05/02

Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 1

Why is it that all the modern commentaries on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (and to some extent John) include discussions of those works’ literary sources but scarcely any raise that question for the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel that supposedly started it all?

Adam Winn (Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative : considering the practice of Greco-Roman imitation in the search for Markan source material) suggests the answer to this question

is directly related to the limited paradigm that New Testament scholarship has inherited from source, form, and redaction criticism. (p. 2)

Source criticism presumes that a source for a gospel has to be another gospel or at least something like another gospel (e.g. Q). So if Mark is the first gospel then the question of literary sources can scarcely arise.

Form criticism has declared that Mark’s sources were oral traditions. With this answer firmly entrenched there has been no incentive to ask if there might also be literary sources behind the gospel.

Redaction criticism established very stringent criteria to determine when a gospel author was dependent upon another work. There must be

  • specific agreement in details/order
  • strong verbal agreement

Winn challenges the assumption that ancient authors limited themselves to using sources so slavishly. He examines ancient instructions and practices to show that authors used their literary sources very often in ways that shunned strong verbal agreement and that freely changed the details and order of material in their sources. Dennis MacDonald made similar points in his earlier work, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.

Winn argues the need for a new set of criteria that is derived from the typical practices of ancient authors.

The way forward

Gospel studies has traditionally given very little notice to the way ancient authors used literary sources.

Gospel interpreters have virtually ignored perhaps the greatest window we have into the way ancient authors used literary texts in their compositions. Certainly by studying the way in which ancient authors imitated and rewrote extant sources, we can gain insights into how the gospel authors might have used each other or even other extant literature to compose gospels. (p. 9, my emphasis) (more…)

2012/01/09

Bible: composed as a reaction against Greek domination?

Filed under: Bible as literature,Wajdenb: Argonauts Desert — Neil Godfrey @ 9:54 pm
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English: Museum Carnuntinum ( Lower Austria )....

Syncretic Bronze Statue -- Venus and Isis?: Wikipedia image

Why, when different religions meet, does syncretism sometimes follow? What need does it fulfil? This was the question in the minds of Claude Orrieux and Édouard Will in Ioudaïsmos — Hellenismos; essai sur le judaïsme judéen a l’époque hellénistique, 1986, when they sought to understand the religious reactions of Judeans living in Judea when faced with acculturation pressure from Greek colonization in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. I am drawing this discussion from Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, 2011. (These posts are archived here.)

The those peoples conquered by the Greeks and who embraced Greek religion the need met may seem obvious.

For the peoples who submitted to the Greeks, adopting Greek religion was a means of joining the ranks of their masters. (p. 40)

Before continuing, it is important to address another name appearing in this discussion — that of political anthropologist Georges Balandier. Balandier, as I understand from this outline, posits 4 possible reactions of peoples faced with acculturation:

  1. Active acceptance or collaboration with the new powers; the peoples embrace the culture and lifestyles of the new masters.
  2. Passive acceptance by the masses; people allow themselves to be dominated.
  3. Passive opposition, such as fleeing, passive resistance, anxiety, expressed through utopian or messianic hopes and dreams.
  4. Active opposition, which is not simply a rejection of the dominant culture, but often consists of using some aspect of the ruling culture as a weapon against the new masters.

Wajdenbaum believes

that the writings of the Bible matches this fourth concept; Greek culture was used in order to make both a national history and a religion, as well as to resist Hellenisation and gain independence. (p. 41) (more…)

2011/09/19

What Mark’s Episodes Do For Readers (and the real historiographical question to ask)

Filed under: Bible as literature,Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 11:18 pm
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As with any magic the spell works best when the audience does not know how it is done. On the other hand, understanding the way literary and rhetorical devices play with how we respond to what we read does help remind us that we are reading a creation of the human mind. Even if the words we read are telling a “true story” the words used to convey that information have been chosen to convey a certain meaning or feeling in relation to what we read.

One characteristic of the gospels, particularly the Gospel of Mark, that we sometimes hear is a mark of unsophistication and primitive literary skills, is the episodic nature of the first half of the Gospel — up to the Passion narrative.

Well, this post is an attempt to rescue something of the reputation of that part of the Gospel by pointing out what that episodic structure manages to achieve from a literary perspective. I am not going to argue that episodic writing is a sign of genius. But it did have an honourable history in ancient literature, at least from the time of Homer’s Odyssey (or even the Epic of Gilgamesh), so it must have been doing something right for many readers.

Whitney Shiner has a chapter titled “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark” in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative. The comparison is helpful but I will confine this post to the comments on Mark. (more…)

2011/09/04

Gospel Puns on the Name Above All Names

Filed under: Bible as literature,Jesus,Moles: Jesus the Healer . . .,Philippian hymn — Neil Godfrey @ 10:11 pm
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Jason being regurgitated by the snake who keep...

Jason (=Jesus to the Greek) being regurgitated by the snake: Image via Wikipedia

Last year I posted an amateurish discussion about puns in the Gospel of Mark. During my recent break from blogging I stumbled across a classical scholar’s discussion of puns in the Gospels in an online scholarly journal. The subject is far richer than I had ever imagined. There are possibly major implications for our understanding of both the ways in which the Gospels have been composed and also for what the authors and readers thought they were doing when writing and reading/listening to the narratives.

The discussion certainly gives modern readers a whole new insight into the possible significance of the name of Jesus — “the name above every other name” as the Philippian hymn informs us.

The author is classicist Professor John Moles of Newcastle University. The article is Jesus the Healer in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Early Christianity [clicking the link will download the pdf article] in Histos. John Moles is definitely not a mythicist and my interest in the article is primarily the light it sheds on the nature of the Gospels. What sorts of documents are they, what led to their creation and how were they initially understood and received?

Imagine Gospel narratives that hang together through a web of puns on the name of Jesus criss-crossing with specific acts that he was performing and whose dramatic tension and resolution operate primarily through the readers’ awareness of these puns. (more…)

2011/07/22

Birth and Death of the Messiah: Two Jewish Midrash Tales

Galit Hasan Rokem

Galit Hasan Rokem: Image via Wikipedia

A Jewish professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Galit Hasan-Rokem, has argued that the Gospels grew out of a Jewish folklore-midrashic tradition. The Gospels are not written as folklore so there are obvious differences. And midrash has a variety of applications, but in general it is a Jewish approach interpretations of the scriptures that can be applied to a number of different literary genres with different purposes and for different audiences. The intent is to inject new meanings into scriptures, often by applying them to newly created stories or new experiences within the Jewish communities.

So the distinctive feature of midrash is a weaving of passages from scripture into stories or commentaries (or other) to explore new meanings for them. I will discuss the nature of midrash more fully in a future post, and will include one of the best explanations/definitions of it that I can find — a small passage by James L. Kugel in his book, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts. This will show more explicitly the extent to which the Gospels have been  influenced by Jewish midrashic thought and style.

Thomas L. Brodie wrote a small book demonstrating the way the Gospels structured much of their narratives of Jesus around the stories of Elijah and Elisha, but did not like to use the word midrash. The reason was not because midrash was wrong, but because it was too general to be particularly useful. The gospels needed a narrower definition to capture their nature. But clearly the midrashic ways of Jewish writing are found throughout the Gospels.

Rather than discuss midrash as it was known to ancient Jews and the specific similarities with many features in both the Gospels and epistles of Paul, I will just post “on record” two examples of midrashic literature applied to the folklore genre. They are from Galit Hasan-Rokem’s final chapter in Web Of Life: Folklore and Midrash in Rabbinic Literature in which she discusses three midrashic tales about the Messiah.

This way I will have something online that I can refer to when I do discuss the topic in a little more depth. But remember the following are midrash at work in folklore tales. The Gospels are not the same genre as folklore, but we do find the same midrashic features in them, i.e., retelling old scripture  passages and biblical stories in new ways.

Birth of the Messiah (more…)

2011/07/04

An even worse worst argument for the historicity of Jesus

Filed under: Bible as literature,New Testament — Neil Godfrey @ 11:23 am

It has been seriously asserted (mainstream biblical scholars should be taken seriously) that it would be “a miracle” if an ancient author, not living in Palestine, ever wrote a nonhistorical narrative about a nonhistorical Jesus that was set in real Palestinian towns and with characters bearing the names common among Palestinians.

Mind you, the same intellectual grants that most of the narrative in the Gospels is a mythologized overlay of whatever was a genuinely historical reminiscence. (Scholars even say the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels is not the historical Jesus but a “Christ of faith” who is, let’s be honest, a myth.) But we are left to understand that no such mythologization could possibly have extended to place or people names! They would have been sacrosanct from the beginning and remained so until the tale was finally set down in writing. Only then did various literate authors feel free to change some of the personal names and places. So disciples’ names vary, as do the locations of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. But a biblical scholar can publicly inform us that the “authenticity” of the personal and place names is itself a reliable indicator that the narrative can only derive from a genuine historical reminiscence.

Of course it is always possible to rationalize such differences. Dr James Crossley has said that he is perfectly happy to use conservative and evangelical arguments because statistically they must have something right and even Bart Erhman shares with James Patrick Holding an appeal to the same lack of imagination to  insist that Jesus was definitely historical.  So we find both scholars and anti-intellectuals using the same types of rationalizations to escape the consequences of their logical fallacies: Jesus cleansed the temple twice, Jesus was anointed twice, Jesus chose replacement disciples as some original choices inconveniently died off during his short ministry, a redactor could not make up his mind about two versions of the miraculous feeding so included them both, and so on.

No need for a miracle to create a symbolic pun (more…)

2011/06/02

Aeneas and Jesus: how they were each created from mythical heroes

Filed under: Bible as literature,Jesus,Taylor: Classics and Bible — Neil Godfrey @ 12:31 pm
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Luca Giordano, Enea vince Turno, Olio su tela,...

Image via Wikipedia

There should be nothing controversial in the title of this post. I understand “critical scholars” generally agree that the Gospel narratives of Jesus are largely fictitious, exaggerations, theological metaphors, expressing what Jesus “meant to the authors” rather than what he historically did or said. Many scholars agree that there are a few core events that really do lie behind the Gospel narratives, but except for one or two (the crucifixion and baptism) they do not all agree on what these were.

Classical scholar John Taylor, in Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition, shows us how the creators of both the Gospel narratives about Jesus and the Roman epic about Aeneas used the same technique for creating their respective characters (p. 85). (more…)

2011/06/01

Scholars addressing Jesus Myth studies: Richard Carrier’s reviews

Thanks to Richard Carrier for his review of Sources of the Jesus Tradition, and for his earlier coverage of the conference that preceded this book. Having read most of the book I can concur with many of Carrier’s assessments of its (very mixed) quality. R. Joseph Hoffmann, editor of the book, has written a response, and Carrier has in return replied to this. Ah, the refined art of academic throat slitting and knife twisting!

In the course of his review Carrier discusses conference papers that he deeply regrets were not included and that led me to catch up with his earlier blog post on the conference presentations themselves.

So I copy here excerpts of Carrier’s review highlighting the best of what appears in Sources, and collate additional information from his earlier post on contributions that I personally find the most interesting. The Trobisch and MacDonald reviews at the end of this post are my personal favourites. So the following will be redundant for those already familiar with Carrier’s blog and views.

But there is much I omit. I only include my favourite bits here. Do read the very extensive book review and the details of the conference papers as they were delivered.

Note the overlap between Gerd Lüdemann’s and Earl Doherty’s arguments about Paul’s writings, too. (more…)

2011/05/25

Explaining (the Gospel) Myths

Filed under: Bible as literature — Neil Godfrey @ 12:30 am
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Anthropology and the Bible

There can be little doubt that when we read the Gospels and the books of Revelation and Acts we encounter many stories that sound remarkably like myths. Prison doors opening by themselves to release heroes, dragons descending from heavens to pursue comely women upon earth, finding coins in caught fish, raising the dead and walking on water. Anyone (except fundamentalist apologists) will be prepared to admit that biblical stories like these really have originated from mythical imaginations and wider literary influences.

The question remains open, however, whether such mythical stories originated as attempts to interpret or convey the great significance and meaning of a historical subject (Jesus), or if they are in themselves attempts to create from scratch a mythical narrative persona (Jesus).

I think it is reasonable to argue the latter is the case if, after removing all the layers of the mythical, there is nothing left over to be called historical. (Contrast ancient Macedonian and Roman rulers with whom myths were associated. Peel away the myths and there is still plenty of historical person left there to study.)

But when it comes to Jesus, that argument does not explain the source of the mythical narratives in the first place. Philippe Wajdenbaum wrote a chapter for Anthropology and the Bible, edited by Emanual Pfoh (2010), that argues for a structural analysis of myths according to the research of “the father of modern anthropology”, Claude Lévi-Strauss.

If we embrace Lévi-Strauss’s view of myths, then the myths of early Christianity can only be understood and explained as mutations of similar myths in other cultures, and also in earlier Jewish culture. They are not unique. Their constitutional ties with other myths are integral to understanding them. (more…)

2011/05/14

John the Baptist foreshadowed in Homer’s Odyssey?

Filed under: Bible as literature,John the Baptist — Neil Godfrey @ 7:24 pm
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Another interesting observation in Bruce Louden‘s Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East is his drawing a possible link between John the Baptist and Halitherses in the Odyssey. Louden explains that Halitherses is an aged prophet, close to the hero Odysseus, who warns the nobles in Odysseus’ absence to stop their evil plans or they will suffer the judgment of Odysseus upon his return.

That was enough to send me back to reading the Odyssey and I think the following passage that depicts Halitherses’  “preaching” worth quoting in full. I conclude with another in which Louden shows us that the message of the return of the king to his kingdom in the Odyssey is in a sense called “good news”, a word very similar to “gospel”. (more…)

Jesus: a synthesis of five traditional mythical figures in ancient myths

Filed under: Bible as literature — Neil Godfrey @ 4:34 pm

Bruce Louden is Professor in the Languages and Linguistics Department at the University of Texas at El Paso. He has written several works on Homeric literature and I am sharing here a small extract from his latest, Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East. Louden is a classicist, and what he writes here is similar to other recent studies that are beginning to notice how similar the gospels are to other classical and Near Eastern litearture. Many know of Dennis MacDonald’s work comparing Mark’s gospel to the Homeric epics, but there are several others along the same theme, including Thomas L. Thompsons’ The Messiah Myth, and Derek Murphy’s Jesus Potter Harry Christ.

The following extract is singled out because it is an encapsulation of a broad overview of the role of Christ in the context of mythical heroes. The chapter explores much more detail, but some of that can be addressed in other posts. I have linked to Wikipedia articles most of the names from Greek myth for quick reference. (more…)

2011/04/10

Jesus Potter Harry Christ: Reviewing Part One (chapter one)

Although it is easy to accept that Rowling crafted the literary character of Harry Potter after the figure of Jesus, shouldn’t it pique our interest that Jesus — a monumental figure in modern world religion generally believed to have been historical — has so much in common with the obviously fictional fantasy world and character of Harry Potter? (Preface, p. viii, Jesus Potter Harry Christ)

It’s a good question. It appeals to me personally because I have a particular interest in the gospels as literature. I am convinced that they need to be understood as literature before we can decide if and in what manner we might seek to extract historical information from them.

This post is a first draft of a review I am preparing for the book, and covers so far only the first of the book’s three sections. I am posting this now for the simple reason that I fear too long a time gap before I will be in a position to post a completed review of the entire book. So serialization it is for now. (more…)

2011/03/18

Jesus Potter, Harry Christ

I regularly argue on this blog for an appreciation of the literary nature of the leading characters, episodes and narrative structures in the canonical gospels. So I am looking forward to reading and reviewing Derek Murphy’s Jesus Potter, Harry Christ. My initial response to reading the title was that this was a joke of some sort. But I encourage anyone interested in the gospels and Jesus as literature to read the content below and see that it  does seek to be a serious contribution to an understanding of the literary and mythical character of Jesus.

Neither is this a slur against Christianity. The author  rightly explains that the fictional nature of characters does not detract from the positive influence that character can have on those who love them. The author also answers pertinent questions about his rationale for writing such a book, the status, history and grounds of Jesus-mythicism. I will introduce some of this discussion from the author’s perspective in this post.

I particularly like the main idea of this book: Our question then is not whether Jesus Christ existed, but whether the literary character recorded in the New Testament was primarily inspired by a historical figure or previous literary traditions and characters.

Not having yet read the book I can only present here material from the author. It certainly sounds like a different approach to the question of the origins of the Christ-myth, and though some details sound a bit strange I am certainly interested in reading and evaluating the arguments.

This post offers

  1. an overview of the book,
  2. an author’s identity statement,
  3. an interview with the author,
  4. a press release,
  5. FAQs and links to online answers to FAQs about the book,
  6. the book’s concept, how the book came about and a letter from the author,
  7. and a link to several chapters that can be downloaded gratis.

(more…)

2011/03/16

Greek Myths Related to Tales of Abraham, Isaac, Moses and the Promised Land

Golden Fleece Sochi

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The classical Greek myths related to the founding of the colony of Cyrene in north Africa (Libya) are worth knowing about alongside the biblical narrative of the founding of Israel. This post is a presentation of my understanding of some of the ideas of Philippe Wajdenbaum found in a recent acticle in the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, and that apparently epitomize his thesis, Argonauts of the Desert.

My recent post drew attention to the following mythemes in common to both the Phrixus and Isaac sacrifice stories. I’m not sure if my delineation of them is guilty of slightly blurring the edges of a strict definition of a mytheme, but they are certainly common elements. (more…)

2011/03/14

The Bible’s roots in Greek mythology and classical authors: Isaac and Phrixus

Phrixos and Helle

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When I wrote a series of posts on resonances between the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes and several features of Old Testament narratives, I confessed I did not know how to understand or interpret the data. But someone else does. Philippe Wajdenbaum in 2008 defended his anthropology doctoral thesis, “Argonauts of the Desert — Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible.” He applies the structural analysis of myths as developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss to the Bible, something Lévi-Strauss himself never got around to doing, although he did eventually encourage biblical scholars to do so. This post looks at one detail of a detail-rich article in the 2010 Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament (Vol. 24, No. 1, 129-142), “Is the Bible a Platonic Book?” (After a few more posts on this my next project will be to see if the same type of analysis can be used to suggest origins of the Gospel myths.)

Lévi-Strauss and structural analysis of myths

In Wajdenbaum’s words,

For Lévi-Strauss, a version of a myth is always derived from an existing adaptation, originating most of the time from a different culture and language. A myth must always be analysed in comparison to its variants within the same cultural area where contacts between populations are proven. (p. 131) (more…)

2011/03/08

Taking the Gospels Seriously

Filed under: Bible as literature — Neil Godfrey @ 8:41 pm
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It seems to me that most scholarly studies that treat the Gospels as sources of historical information about Jesus and the early disciples do not always rely on the Gospel narratives to transmit historical information. Being post-Enlightenment minds (leaving aside the disturbing frequency with which I see anti-Enlightenment sentiments expressed among scholars, and not only biblical ones) we tend to rationalize and “naturalize” the claims of the miraculous.

Just as once Old Testament scholars would look for shallow waters or earthquake activity to explain Moses’ miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, or seek out evidence of Mesopotamian flooding to explain the story of Noah’s ark, so we have studies into psychological and mystical proclivities to explain the resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ. (more…)

2011/03/07

When literary analysis trumps historical analysis

Filed under: Bible as literature,Mandell-Fre: Herodotus-Bible — Neil Godfrey @ 8:39 am
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The concluding paragraph of the first chapter of Mandell’s and Freedman’s The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History is worth framing. The principle it addresses would, if applied to New Testament studies, relegate to the scrap heap a good deal of scholarship investigating oral sources behind this or that detail in the Gospels.

Since the entire work is a literary artifice, we cannot use any part of it to confirm the orality of the . . . author’s sources. Consequently, the theory that the errors in History prove that the . . . author’s sources were primarily oral is not verifiable. Other hypotheses based on statements within the narrative . . . such as the commonly accepted belief that the . . . author relied on rumor and report must also be discarded. . . . The real author is after all a literary artist, not an historian . .  . . (p. 80) (more…)

2011/02/26

Lighter literary intellections on the Gospels

Filed under: Bible as literature,Gospel genre — Neil Godfrey @ 9:18 pm
John the Baptist

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Let’s keep it simple and consider the Gospel of Mark only. No heavy analysis this post; only a moment to look out the window and think over how the arguments of recent posts would affect our reading of Mark.

Firstly, we open with the prophetic announcement. What we are about to read is a fulfilment of prophecy as framed and announced in the opening of the book. The anonymous implied narrator is addressing an implied audience that reminds the real reader of the apparent audience of the prophets of Isaiah and Malachi. (Woops, that does not sound the least bit light. I will avoid repeating the “implied readers/narrators” and “real readers/authors” for the rest of this post, though I am certainly framing everything within those four points of view, and considering how it is all working out between them all.)

That is the way stories in novels and tragedies and epics are guided. Prophecies from the divinity announce what is to happen, and the audience then is held in suspense till they see how it all happens just as predicted.

These same genres use the same device to offer course corrections or details along the way in the middle of the plot. And that’s exactly what happens in Mark, too. (more…)

2011/02/25

How to read the Gospels

Sara Mandell and David Noel Freedman give us some valuable tips on how to read

  1. the pagan Greek work of “History” by Herodotus
  2. much of the biblical history of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings)
  3. and the Gospels

in their 1993 volume The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings).

Among several threads tying all these three pieces of literature together:

  1. all three are about human affairs being directed by divinities
  2. all three contain strong theological themes and messages
    • and this message is reinforced with somewhat nebulous endings that contain a mix of optimism and uncertainty as to the future (i.e. Herodotus, 2 Kings, Mark)
  3. all three ostensibly present themselves as “histories”
  4. all three contain a mix of mythical (including nonhuman) characters and historical persons
  5. all three relate miraculous and supernatural events as significant functions in their narratives
  6. all three contain a similar narrative structure in that there is a significant change in tone and types of events and course of action once the setting moves to a traditional homeland or theologically charged centre (e.g. the Greek mainland, the Promised Land, Jerusalem)
  7. all three are predominantly prose narratives, yet at the same time all three contain a mix of genre elements such as epic, tragedy, novella and poetry.

In my previous post (or the one before that) I cited two key points that are fundamental to understanding any literary work. I repeat them here and add one more: (more…)

2011/02/24

Correlations between the “Histories” of Herodotus and the Bible’s History of Israel

Filed under: Bible as literature,Mandell-Fre: Herodotus-Bible — Neil Godfrey @ 6:30 pm
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Both HerodotusHistory and Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings)

  1. are national epics
  2. had been divided into nine books at some time in their history
  3. are both about the same length
  4. begin with a prehistory that includes myths, fables, folk-tales, and legends that are treated as factual
  5. and continue in this vein until well into historical time
  6. consist of a basic format that changes concomitantly and abruptly under similar circumstances:
    • in Herodotus’ History this happens when Persians are about to fight on the Greek mainland
    • in Primary History this happens when the Sons of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land
  7. take on a semblance of historical narrative once the “homeland” becomes the locus of action
  8. — albeit one that includes miracles, marvels, and divinities who act in or at least guide history
  9. think of historic causation as being intimately tied to the will of the divinity

This is from the preface (p. x) to The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History by Sara Mandell and David Noel Freedman, 1993.

There’s much more. But this is just for starters to justify my previous post’s speaking of Herodotus and the Bible’s core historical narrative in the same breath.

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Reading an ancient historical narrative: two fundamental principles

Filed under: Bible as literature,Mandell-Fre: Herodotus-Bible — Neil Godfrey @ 5:33 pm
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It is a naive mistake to approach every ancient narrative that purports to be about past events on the assumption that we can take it at its word — unless and until proven wrong.  Even the famous “father of history”, the Greek “historian” Herodotus, turned fables into history. The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) does the same. If we are to understand how to  interpret the New Testament literature we might find it useful to study ancient Hellenistic literature in general. Knowing how ancient authors worked across a wide spectrum of genres in the cultural milieu preceding and surrounding the time of the Gospels might lead to an understanding otherwise lost to us. If nothing else, a broad understanding of how ancient texts “worked” will alert us to possibilities that need to be considered and evaluated when we do read the Gospels.

I focus in this post on Herodotus and draw out lessons from modern critical studies that might profit us in reading the Gospels and Acts, perhaps even the New Testament epistles.

In school I learned that Herodotus was “a credulous collector of anecdotal data”. That was wrong. That perception was the result of taking his writings at face-value and making modern-reader judgments about that face-value reading. That’s not good enough and leaves the door open to many misreadings of the text. (more…)

2011/02/20

Novels like Gospels (3) : How a Hero is Created from Myths and Meets Historical Persons

The previous post covered some of the indications that the heroine of Greek novel Chaereas and Callirhoe was modelled on Ariadne of Theseus and the Minotaur fame. This post looks at the way the author Chariton has constructed his hero, Chaereas, from cuts of other mythical and legendary figures, in particular from Achilles.

Once again, of equal significance is that these fictional characters whose creation was inspired by mythical figures interact with real historical characters in the novel. This is similar to what we find in the Gospels: fictional characters and events modelled on Jewish and Greek stories interacting with historical persons such as Pilate, Caiaphas and Herod. (more…)

Ancient Novels Composed Like Gospels continued (2)

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This continues the previous post that introduced Edmund Cueva’s study in the way our earliest surviving Greek novel was composed by combining historical persons, events and settings with fictional narrative details and characters that were inspired by popular myths.

Cueva is not comparing these novels with the gospels, but I do think it is important to compare them. There are quite a few studies that do argue that many of the details in the gospels narratives, even some of the characters, were copied from older stories found in both the Old Testament and in popular Greek literature. This would mean that the gospels are not unlike some popular Greek novels to the extent that they are stories that combine both historical and fictional characters and events in their story, with those fictional characters being conjured up by imaginative extrapolations of mythical characters.

In the previous post I focused mostly on the historical characters and events that are major players in Chariton’s novel Chaereas and Callirhoe.

In this post I outline some of the evidence that the heroine of the novel and her adventures were imaginatively inspired by popular Greek myths, especially those about Ariadne and Theseus. (I do so with apologies to Cueva, too, because what I include from his discussion is necessarily a savage simplification of his arguments for mimesis. Cueva includes in his discussion verbal echoes between Chariton’s novel and Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, and discusses more characters than just the heroine, Callirhoe.) (more…)

2011/02/19

Ancient Novels Like the Gospels: Mixing History and Myth

Statue of Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican Museums.

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The earliest ancient novel we have is a tale of two lovers, Chaereas and Callirhoe, by Chariton. A summary of its plot can be found here. It is dated to the early second century.

I have discussed or alluded to this novel in the various posts found on this page as a comparison to the Gospels, and this time I will show that its characters, plot and setting are drawn from a mix of historical and mythical sources.

Not a few scholars today who specialize in literary analysis of the Gospels have argued that this is how the Gospels were also constructed: from a mix of history and myth. Most recently along these lines I have posted a few times on Spong’s arguments that Gospel characters like Judas, even the “Twelve Disciples”, Jairus’s daughter who was raised from the dead, blind Bartimaeus, and Zechariah and Elizabeth (the parents of John the Baptist) are all cut from literary fictions. The character of Jesus himself is based on Moses in the Gospel of Matthew and on Elijah in the Gospel of Luke. At the same time, however, we have obviously real people — e.g. Herod and Pilate — appearing in the Gospel narratives.

Some criticisms of these posts have been along the lines of saying that ancient authors did not write stories with historical characters mixed up with fictional characters whose creation was inspired by mythical tales.

Well, that particular criticism is wrong. Chariton is evidence that ancient authors did indeed make up stories that included a mix of historical persons, events and settings along with character and plot details drafted from popular myths and older fictional literature.

This post draws its details from The Myths of Fiction: Studies in the Canonical Greek Novels by Edmund P. Cueva. (more…)

2011/02/01

How many stories in the gospels are “purely metaphorical”?

Resurrection: Son of God Jesus triumphs over d...

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Dale Allison concludes his book Constructing Jesus with a discussion of the intent of the gospel authors. Did the gospel authors themselves think that they were writing real history or did they think they were writing metaphorical narratives, parables or allegories?

Allison refers to Marcus Borg and others (e.g. Robert Gundry, John Dominic Crossan, Robert J. Miller, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, John Shelby Spong, Roger David Aus) who have gone beyond their scholarly predecessors for whom the question was, “They thought they wrote history but can we believe them?”, to “Did they think they were writing something other than history and have we misunderstood them?”

They are not claiming that we must, because of modern knowledge, reinterpret the old texts in new ways, against their authors’ original intentions. They are instead contending that the texts were not intended to be understood literally in the first place. (p. 438)

I would love to read the books Allison cites but till then will have to rely here on his brief remarks.

Of O’Connor, Allison informs readers that he reasons that Luke’s two accounts of the ascension of Jesus are different because Luke did not think he was writing history (The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (4th ed., 1998)). (more…)

2011/01/29

The First Gospel was a Jewish Novel?

Bakhtin in the twenties.
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Though most scholars of the gospels appear to regard the gospels as a form of ancient biographies of Jesus, there are a number who continue to doubt that “biography” really does describe their genre. One of these is Michael E. Vines, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Lees-McRae College, North Carolina, who wrote The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel.

In order to know how to interpret and understand a literary work it is important to understand its genre and the conventions associated with that genre. A work will expect to be read in a certain way according to its genre, whether it is a biography, history, historical novel, romance novel, epic, tragedy, satire, etc.

I outline here in gossamer thin dot points some of Vines’ reasons for reading the Gospel of Mark as a Jewish novel rather than as another ancient biography. Much of Vines’ book is a discussion of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin‘s analysis of what constitutes a literary genre. That is (for me at least) a fascinating study that I would love to explore in greater depth and one that I will probably post on in future discussions of Gospel (especially the Gospel of Mark’s) genre. So what follows cannot possibly be a communication of a full grasp of Vines’ understanding of the genre of the Gospel of Mark. But I will try to present salient points without denying some justice to both Vines’ and Bakhtin’s analysis.

I have only now completed reading Vines’ book so have not yet had time to digest it and compare its propositions with alternative perspectives. So what I give here is Vines “in the raw”. I expect in relatively short time I will see some details slightly differently.

What indicates a particular genre? (more…)

2011/01/20

Second thoughts on the Gospel of Mark as Biography

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Understanding the nature of a text is a significant factor in knowing how to interpret it and how to use it as historical evidence. Many scholars today, following Burridge, accept that the Gospel of Mark is a biography of the life of Jesus.

The Gospel of Mark is widely considered to be the first written of the canonical gospels and the one that strongly influenced the making of the other synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke. Some scholars also think John’s gospel was built upon a knowledge of Mark.

Some scholars see Mark as the original written composition of the Jesus narrative. But why it was written, by whom and for whom, and where and when, all remain open questions. Understanding even “what” it is remains open to debate. Is is a biography of Jesus? A novel? A history? A parable? A tragic drama? An anti-epic? A definitive answer to this question of its genre has the potential to assist with how we should understand and interpret it.

In a recent post I outlined the main features that Richard Burridge raises to support his view that the Gospels should be understood essentially as Biographies. (There are a few differences between the modern idea of biographies and those of the ancient Graeco-Roman time, but the idea is close enough the same. My post also specifically addressed Burridge’s arguments in relation to the Synoptics – Matthew, Mark and Luke – but he also uses much the same features to argue John is also a Biography.)

This post looks generally at a range of other scholarly viewpoints that are not satisfied with Burridge’s conclusions. These voices are probably a minority today since Burridge’s work has been very influential among scholars.

I take these dissenting voices from The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel by Michael E. Vines. (And thanks to Michael Nordbakke and Gilgamesh for alerting me to this book in various comments.)

Vines addresses Burridge’s argument with specific application to the Gospel of Mark. (more…)

2011/01/06

Delivering the Modern Believer From the Tyranny of Literalism (& Historicism)

Bishop John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Diocese of...

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I have been posting on John Shelby Spong’s (and his late mentor Michael Goulder’s) understanding of how the Gospel narratives were created “midrashically” out of the Old Testament scriptures. I should emphasize that my posts come with my own slant, and that Spong himself has no doubts at all about the historicity of Jesus Christ.

Spong argues that the Gospel authors were creating narratives to express their interpretations of Jesus. What this means is that someone like the original author of the Gospel of John created a Wisdom figure of Jesus to express what Jesus meant to him. That wisdom figure is a literary creation. I would say that any resemblance to a real historical figure is “imaginary,” meaning it is constructed entirely within the imagination of the reader/author and out of the materials found in the Old Testament (and sometimes other literature). A figure or event found in a literary text is surely a literary figure or event. Whether this literary person coincides with another real historical person is a question that must inevitably be decided on grounds other than the mere existence of the literary person in partisan texts. But our techniques for distinguishing who is historical and who is not and who might-be-sort-of when it comes to tales of King John, Robin Hood and Saint George seem to fly out the window when it comes to Bible stories.

(Surely this is all straightforward and not a sign that I am somehow intimate with the Woman Folly as the Christian gentleman Joel Watts charmingly asserts in his post pinged-back to here.)

But a couple of Spong’s books did influence me some years back, so it’s time I caught up with sharing some of his own words in driving home some basic truths about the Bible. They are taken from pages 234 to 245 in Liberating the Gospels, with my own subheadings, formatting and emphasis.

The seductive lure of the Vivid and the isolation of Vivid’s chaperon (more…)

2011/01/05

Liberating Jesus from the letter of the Gospel narrative

Christ's entry into Jerusalem
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John Shelby Spong wrote Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes: Freeing Jesus from 2,00o years of misunderstanding to open the way for educated moderns to understand that the authors of the Gospels did not think they were writing literal history (e.g. Jesus did not literally walk on water, ascend to heaven, etc.), but rather that they were writing symbolic narratives based on Old Testament stories and sayings in order to convey what Jesus Christ meant to them. This form of writing was, Spong explains, a traditional method of Jewish storytelling. Expressing meaning through well-known images and episodes in earlier books was more important than recording literal history. (I explained this method in a little more detail in an earlier post.)

This post looks at Spong’s reasons for rejecting the historical details of most of the Gospel narrative about the last hours, or the Passion, of Jesus. I need to emphasize that Spong is not seeking to undermine faith, but to make faith more accessible to modern audiences who find (quite rightly, he says) a literal interpretation of the Bible to be in many ways offensive to modern knowledge and values.

My own interest has nothing to do with undermining or opening up faith. Such decisions are personal ones that go beyond intellectual exercises. Everyone has their own life to live, and we are all the products of our own genes and experiences. (I will be active if I think I can help minimize abuse or harm that some faiths bring about, but that is another matter again.) My interest is strictly in exploring and understanding Christian origins and sharing insights and information with others with similar interests. That sometimes includes exposing what I see are the fallacies of “knowledge falsely so called” and of its public practitioners.

The Beginning of the End (more…)

2011/01/01

Where Did John the Baptist’s Parents Come From? Reading the Gospels “with Jewish Eyes”

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The names of the parents of both Jesus and John the Baptist were arguably created from the imaginations of the Gospel authors working on Old Testament passages for inspiration. The names were fabricated because of the theological messages they conveyed. There is no evidence to indicate that they were handed down from historical memory.

This is not a “mythicist” or “atheist” argument. It is the result of scholarly research by an Anglican vicar and an Episcopal bishop.

Both have published scholarly reasons for believing that the names Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, and Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, were carefully selected by early Christians on the basis of their ability to convey particular theological meanings. Goulder and Spong describe this process as “midrash”. Spong explains what he means by this:

How to read the Gospels as Jewish books

[T]here are stories in the Gospels that are so deeply reminiscent of stories in the Old Testament that one might inquire as to the reason for their similarity. Was that accidental or coincidental? Or does it point to something we might have missed? . . .

In a deep and significant way, we are now able to see that all of the Gospels are Jewish books, profoundly Jewish books. Recognizing this, we begin to face the realization that we will never understand the Gospels until we learn how to read them as Jewish books. They are written, to a greater or lesser degree, in the midrashic sytle of the Jewish sacred storyteller, a style that most of us do not begin even now to comprehend. This style is not concerned with historical accuracy. It is concerned with meaning and understanding. (more…)

2010/12/23

“Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus

Athena Scorning the Advances of Hephaestus. Pa...

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The introduction of Thomas L. Thompson’s and Thomas Verenna’s edited volume, Is This Not the Carpenter?A Question of Historicity has been published on The Bible and Interpretation.

The first essential step in any historical inquiry

This is a heartening introduction to the essential basics of valid historical methodology that has been very fudgy in the field of historical Jesus studies. The first thing any historian needs to grapple with when undertaking any inquiry is the nature of his or her sources. While probably most biblical scholars have acknowledged that the Gospels are theological narratives that depict a “Christ of faith” rather than a “Jesus of history”, there has at the same time been an assumption that that theological layer has been created to portray what the “historical Jesus” meant to the authors and their readers. Given this assumption, it has been believed that it might be possible to uncover some facts about the historical Jesus nonetheless. Historical Jesus studies have in this way been confused with the question of Christian origins.

The contributions in this book are from a diverse range of scholars. The introduction explains the purpose of the volume:

 

The essays collected in this volume have a modest purpose. Neither establishing the historicity of an historical Jesus nor possessing an adequate warrant for dismissing it, our purpose is to clarify our engagement with critical historical and exegetical methods in the hopes of enabling the central question regarding the function of New Testament literature to resist the endless production of works on the historical Jesus. Our hope is to open a direct discussion of the question of historicity much in the spirit of the more than decade-long discourse and debate by the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History, which has been so profitably engaged in regard to the historicity of figures and narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the related construction of a history of ancient Palestine.

This sounds a little like an approach I have been suggesting on this blog and elsewhere for some time, so I find such a statement personally encouraging.

Historicity is an assumption (more…)

2010/12/15

The Oral/Written Gospel (Finding Meaning in Mark’s “Bad Greek” . . . Pt.2)

Filed under: Bible as literature,Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 1:10 am
Alan Kitty as Mark Twain
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It is not easy to think of Mark as a literary genius when 410 of his Gospel’s 678 Greek verses or 376 of the 583 sentences begin with “and” (kai).

While much has been written about the history-changing impact of Mark being the first to compose a written gospel, there is much in this written gospel to suggest that it was meant to be orally delivered. It was written for an oral performance. (I am repeating here what I have read by a number of scholars, most recently Bilezekian. But I have reservations about this as an explanation for its grammatical roughness. Even polished and over-flowery texts were written for oral delivery. It might be more to the point to argue that Mark’s style indicates an intent to reproduce natural and unsophisticated speech.)

(I am losing my conviction that Mark was the earliest gospel, too. But that discussion can wait. The grammatical “crudities” of Mark can be explained in ways to fit either hypothesis.)

Gilbert G. Bilezekian (The Liberated Gospel) is one scholar who has advanced that the best explanation for the extremely repetitive “and” as the sentence-linker (the scholarly term for this is parataxis) throughout Mark’s Gospel is it reflects the colloquial spoken language of the day. (more…)

2010/12/11

Finding meaning in Mark’s “bad” Greek and distinctive style (Part 1)

Filed under: Bible as literature,Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 5:43 pm
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Early in the third century Hippolytus (“Philosophumena”, VII, xxx) refers to Mark as ho kolobodaktulos, i.e. “stump-fingered” or “mutilated in the finger(s)”, and later authorities allude to the same defect. Various explanations of the epithet have been suggested: that Mark, after he embraced Christianity, cut off his thumb to unfit himself for the Jewish priesthood; that his fingers were naturally stumpy; that some defect in his toes is alluded to; that the epithet is to be regarded as metaphorical, and means “deserted” (cf. Acts 13:13). (From the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia)

Some have suggested that the nickname was used to refer to the crude Greek style of his Gospel. WikiAnswers speaks of Mark’s Gospel being “written clumsily and ungrammatically, in an unpolished Greek style”.

It is sometimes said that Mark’s Gospel was written for oral presentation, even dramatic performance, and that this explains certain features of the Gospel’s style. Maybe, but Greek tragedies were written for oral presentation, too, and their language is polished; Seneca also wrote tragedies that were meant to be read aloud and used some of the most bombastic and flowery language imaginable just for this purpose.

So oral performance alone cannot be the explanation for the oddities of his Greek.

Dennis MacDonald suggests that Mark was writing an “anti-epic”, and deliberately cultivated an “anti-polished/poetic” style of “natural speech” to match his anti-epic theme.

(It might seem odd to some to speak of “deliberately cultivating” a “natural speech style”. But it is not easy to express the way we really talk in writing. For most of us it takes effort. Pick up the pen, sorry, sit at the keyboard to write just what we’ve been talking about and bang, for a few moments at least writer’s block as likely as not hits. And the words we type rarely come out just the way we would say them.)

Gilbert Bilezikian has argued that many of the unusual features of Mark’s style can be explained as a mix of the spoken language of everyday life and literary devices characteristic of dramatic performances (The Liberated Gospel: a Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy). This post looks at Bilezikian’s explanations for a wide range of the unusual features of Mark’s style. (Where technical terms such as “aorist tense” are used I link to off-site explanatory notes; I also link to the Bible Study Tools Lexicon to enable comparison of frequency of use of certain words across the Gospels.)

I also refer to additional insights by Paul Nadim Tarazi.

I begin immediately with two of my favourite Markan so-called infelicities of style:

Began . . . immediately (more…)

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